What’s most annoying about having two bodies and living in separate worlds is that almost no one will believe you. So keep this memoir a secret or people will think I'm delusional.
July 22. Nine going on ten years old. Japan.
The book had glistening eyes.
The irises of the characters on the manga’s cover shone with an uncanny realness, like they were ever so slightly moving. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but I doubted it. The eyes had been the same back at the shop, where the midday sun had shone through the windows, like they were now in my room, with the tube light bringing everything into harsh clarity.
I couldn’t stop staring. The air around me became lighter, more windy in a way. A shiver went up my back.
The book was white with red borders and had a large number one on its spine. Blade Fables, the title said in an ornate font. There were four kids; two of them holding strange swords; one reading a book much too big for his slight frame; and a tall boy with a cat-like creature perching on his shoulder.
‘Tahro! It’s time to study,’ my mum called out from the hall.
‘Okay.’ I sighed, prying my reluctant fingers off the still unbroken plastic wrap around the manga.
Studying should be a child’s priority, my mother liked to say. She’d had to claw her way up to get a well-paying job, with American parents, blonde hair and blue eyes that made her stick out like a sore thumb in Japan. Often, she used to lecture me that I’d have to do the same, seeing as I’d favoured her features over my father’s. Honestly, I’d rather I didn’t have any responsibilities yet, but I had to do what I’d been told.
My bookcase was full, some of the volumes packed so tight, I’d have to struggle to get them out again. Standing on my tiptoes, I placed the manga flat over the highest shelf. Read you soon!
Every step felt like I had an anchor weighing me down, but I trudged toward my desk. I have to study. Science had always been my favourite subject, so I lugged out that textbook from my desk drawer. Pencil lines marked the page, a keepsake from the first time I’d gone through the book. Only for a couple of hours.
My eyes skimmed over the material, reading the same sentences several times over. Science was my favourite subject, but however much I tried, the manga behind me crept into my mind.
Should I read it now?
I shook my head at the thought. No, if Mum found out-- well, I didn’t want to know what she’d do. No, I’d just have to power through. After dinner, I could read as much as I wanted before bedtime. Just a couple of hours.
For a few more minutes, I stared at my textbook. When I’d read the word ‘condensation’ for the fifth time, I leaned back with a sigh. A couple of excruciating hours.
Muffled sounds of our TV made way into my room. My mum must’ve been watching it. Heart pounding, I peeked around the doorway. Sure enough, her blond curls struck out from behind the sofa. Hardly daring to breathe, I crept back in, right past my desk to my bookshelf.
I’d never disobeyed my mum before. My skin prickled with fear, but also a dash of exhilaration. Like I was breaking a sacred oath, only to be set free. One look at the cover and the winds returned, this time with whispers I could have sworn weren't from the TV. I had to read it. My trembling fingers prised the book out of the covering. Every crinkle of plastic made me wince. Yet the sounds from the TV remained the same, and no footsteps made their way to my door. I returned to my desk with the book.
I opened the manga a scant thirty degrees, careful so the spine didn't snap.
A fish-eye view of a town filled with sprawling buildings and tangled electricity wires spread across the first two pages. Heikisato, Saishuu Riku, 473 AE, said a little banner on the right-hand corner. One establishment stood out, with its mushroom-shaped dome and its many stories situated in the centre, like a mama hen coddling her chicks.
The panels shifted, getting closer to this building. First, the wooden pillars that supported its dome grew more distinct, then the pipes running across the second floor, and finally a single window was the focus. On the other side of the window, a spiky-haired boy barged into a crowded room full of other teens. Saying something with a grin, he led in a girl, the two swords hanging behind her like a cross shifting as she doubled down in laughter.
In her mirth, she bumped into an older boy who sat closest to the door. His thin frame, made even more so by an equally narrow face and long black shirt, fell against the wall.
‘Oh no, I'm sorry,’ she said, turning around.
‘It's--it's okay,’ said the boy, whose freckled cheeks turned several shades darker as he looked up at her. On his left shoulder was a little cat-like creature, with rabbit ears and a long arrowhead tail.
The girl beamed at him before heading to the reception desk. He swung down his head, and his long framing bangs and glasses masked his shy smile.
I sensed an impending romance and groaned. Why did they have to include it in everything?
‘Names please,’ said the older teen at the desk, which was weighed down by stacks of folders, pens and sticky notes.
‘I'm Kaede Touta and this is Ahio Sora,’ the girl replied.
She shuffled some papers until she found a couple of files, one with a picture of Kaede, and the other of Ahio. Clipped on to each was a small card saying Eleven. She removed these and handed it to them. ‘Please wait for your turn, the Quest Master will call you in. Squad eight is now inside.’
Kaede began to speak but froze. On the receptionist’s once neat ponytail was now a cat-like creature with rabbit ears and an arrowhead tail. It blinked and mewed.
‘Ahhh!’ the receptionist screamed and clutched her head, or rather, what was on top of her head. Before her hands could grasp it, the animal bit her wrist and leapt off onto the table. It tore apart some folders close by and made quick work of the papers inside. People started from their seats, and a few rose to help.
‘I'll catch it!’ cried Ahio. He sprang upon the desk, arms reaching and flinging paper every which way. The little creature bounced away from his fingers and clawed at the wall, its sharp claws leaving marks on the wood.
Before anyone could move, it let go of the wall, hopping onto one person's leg, another's head, then back onto the desk. The kids yelled at the nearest ones to catch it and screamed in bravado as they tried. But despite how well they all sneaked up on it nor how exuberant they sprang, the little beast leapt away in time. Only two of the kids remained seated.
One of them, a short boy with large eyes and wispy wavy hair, sighed and snapped his heavy book shut. He glared at the pandemonium in front of him. Turning to his companion, the same boy Kaede had bumped into before, he poked his arm.
‘Excuse me, I believe that's your pet,’ he said.
The other boy, who till now had been fiddling with his number card with one hand and his collar with the other, turned to face the younger kid. ‘Huh?’
‘Your pet is disrupting my reading.’
The older boy started, his face losing the deep blush that had remained from before, and stared at the commotion with wide eyes. He sprang up and clapped his hands. ‘Tayo! Come back here.’
As though a switch had been flipped, the animal stopped ripping another boy's backpack, hopped to the teen's side and clambered onto his shoulder. It nuzzled his neck. The boy giggled and stroked Tayo’s muzzle.
‘Ahem,’ said the receptionist.
He gulped and ran his eyes over the ruins his pet had left behind. The walls were indented with claw marks on various spots, some chairs had what little cushioning they held ripped out, several people’s clothes were torn and everyone was scratched in some way or another.
‘I'm--I'm sorry, katus c--can be a little...excited in new p--places,’ he tugged at his collar and looked down, a blush forming once again.
The girl rolled her eyes. ‘Well, next time, make sure you contain that excitement. Now help me clean up before it’s your turn in.’
They hustled a few minutes to bring things back to a semblance of normalcy with the help of a few other kids. Now and then, a squad marched out of the adjacent room, and another group of kids walked in. Soon, only a handful of people remained in the waiting room. The door creaked open, and squad ten walked out.
Ahio, Kaede, the older boy with the pet and the little one with the book filed in.
‘Tahro, dinner's ready!’
My heart jumped to my throat, as my mum's voice pulled me out of the pages. Clinking silverware had replaced the chatter from the TV. Dinner? So early? She’d have passed my room on the way to the kitchen. My hands shook, almost crumpling the pages they held. I thanked my stars she hadn’t noticed what I’d been up to.
‘Coming mum, Five minutes!’ My voice was shakier than I liked.
Hearing no reply, I turned back to the manga, ears alert for creaking floorboards and swishing skirts. Just this chapter.
Inside, a plump woman lounged behind a desk, holding a cigar to her lips. She scrutinized a file in front of her. The kids stood at attention, some more than others. While the rest waited as stiff as could be, Ahio bounced up and down on his toes, trying to peek into the file from afar. The woman glared at him.
‘Get outta here if you wanna hop around, brat.’ She took a puff of her cigar, eyes still on the boy.
He fell back in line, smothering a frown. Kaede gave him a small smile and crossed her fingers behind her back.
‘Good,’ said the woman, waving her file. ‘Kaede Touta, you’re squad leader. Here ya go, take this.’
Kaede took it, beaming.
‘Yes yes, congratulations.’ The woman rolled her eyes. ‘You gotta escort a runaway kid back home from Ohoro.’
‘What? Escort a kid back home?’ Ahio burst out. Kaede elbowed him, but he brushed her away. ‘I thought quests were supposed to be exciting! Aren’t we going to fight anyone?’
‘Excitin’? I’ll give you excitin’,’ the woman snapped, spit flying on her desk. ‘Rumour has it, kids are goin’ missin’. An’ this one might too if ya’ll don’t hurry up. That excitin’ enough for ya?’
‘Tahro, dinner's getting cold!’
‘I'm coming. I'm coming!’
I breezed through the pages, fingers flicking them rougher than I'd like. My brain did it's best to cram in the details of their quest. I really needed to finish this chapter before dinner for…for some reason.
I'm sure you understand, Youka.
A few moments later, not hearing my mum call, I slowed down to savour each page as before.
Their meeting with the Quest Master done, the kids scurried out of her room. The last squad waiting outside rushed in and shut the door behind them. Ahio and Kaede ran downstairs, chattering about their quest while the other two followed.
The boy with the katu pulled at his collar. ‘T-thanks for e-earlier. I-I don't know what I'd been thinking.’
‘I-I'm Tsubasa Date.’
‘Daisuke Kaho,’ the younger boy said and flipped his book open.
Both of them strode out of focus. The panels grew larger and darker and darker. Soon, one panel covered the whole page, showing a dim-lit room spilling with tomes and cracked parchment.
In the midst of this loomed a cloaked figure. Their spindly fingers caressed a crystal ball. The pages were grayscale, just like before, but the ball glowed a faint blue.
A tingle coursed across my back.
They whispered, ‘It's almost done.’
‘I thought you were studying!’ My mum’s hand snapped the manga shut.
Heart hammering loud, I looked up to meet her glare. She ripped into me, about what a naughty child I was, and how disappointing my actions were. I don't remember her exact words. But they struck me like lashes. Yet despite the hurt, despite the fear that kept shaking my body, despite it all, I was sure of one thing.
I regretted nothing.
It was gradual, going to another world, like grains of sand slowly sucked into the bottom of an hourglass. And today was when the first grain fell.