A few days after Nakamura’s outburst in the store, a conversation carries out of the break room. “Mie-san, do you think he joined the mob because he had no other choice?” Ohno’s soft, bright voice contrasts harshly with their topic.
“Why are you obsessing? You’re smarter than getting involved with the likes of him.”
“I’m not obsessing. It just seems wrong that everyone avoids him if he’s starting over. And there’s a string—”
“You keep asking about him. So, I did my homework. Umeji’s yakuza, no doubt about it. Rumor says he had a lot of charges against him, and that he was a pimp and a drug ringleader.”
“I don’t care how handsome or how lonely you imagine he is. I’m telling you this as a friend. Stay away from him. His type will only take advantage of your kindness.”
I take a stabilizing breath. Zip in and grab dinner. Get out.
“I still want to know if he had no other choice.”
The concern in Ohno’s voice gives me pause. Maybe one of them won’t cut me down?
“Nah, he probably thought it was cool.”
“Maybe it was for the money?”
“Or the girls.” Venom drips from Mie’s voice.
“I just thought there was more to him. Though, I was missing two-thousand yen from my drawer yesterday.”
That makes my teeth grind. She’s out to get me fired? Everyone says Ohno is cute and sweet, but she’s just shown her true colors.
When I barge in with tough-guy mode in full force, Mie dares to glare at me and slips her brand-new phone into her pocket. “Let’s go.” She tugs on her friend’s arm.
Before I can rein in my tongue, the words spew out. “I wasn’t near you or your damned till.”
Ohno gasps and her freckled cheeks flush.
I swagger over to Mie, the more confident of the two. “You two enjoy talkin’ ’bout me? Right now, we set the record straight. It was the mob or go hungry!” To stress the point, I slap the wall by her head. She flinches. “A rich chit like you always showing off what she has wouldn’t know how it feels to miss a single meal!”
Striding past them, I snatch my dinner and out of spite plant myself at the far table. I won’t back down for the likes of them.
The girls leave me to eat in solitude, scurrying away faster than frightened mice.
Then my puffed-up chest deflates. I took pleasure from their fear, didn’t I? A monster like that isn’t who I want to be. Society needs to see remorse for what I’ve done.
Resembling the sweetest little grandma, Nakamura greets all the employees, except me. Every single day. When she sees me, her expression turns to a scowl. Today, she runs over my foot with her full cart, giving no apology and no look back. Since one doesn’t accuse a customer, I suck it up and limp the rest of the shift.
Got my first paycheck and cashed it after work. I couldn’t deposit it, since the law says I can’t have a bank account for five years. That way the government can ensure I severed my yakuza connections.
Payday should be happy, right? But the crap from earlier still gives me heartburn. Be a mercenary. Do the work, get paid, and save up for your own business—in another town.
At home, Satou and I go over the day and my parole report. He doesn’t have to show me the paperwork. However, it fits with his expectation of honesty between us.
“The altercation with the cashiers had to be included. But I mentioned it calmed down. By the way, Ohno-san found the money missing from her till. Anything to add?” Satou asks.
Did she? Or did my boss cover it to stop the rumor mill? “I’ve got an idea of how to handle it better. ‘Cause the incident won’t be a onetime thing.”
“True. Well, let’s clean the outbuilding for a dojo. Then there’ll be somewhere for us both to blow off steam.”
Is he taking more flack for me than I’ve seen?
We get the floor cleared, scrubbed, and polished. Making progress toward a goal helps. But the words from the gossips still swirl in my head, leaving me on the crabby side.
After chores, I grab a flashlight and my grocery bag to sprint over to the shrine. Hitting the first step makes my tightly coiled insides unwind. No one else seems to come, except to tend it. Even the fallen leaves on the path remain undisturbed.
Today, the wind blew the fabric into the face of one of the fox statues. How can it guard the shrine like that? So I flip the bib down on the way by.
Upon reaching the top, my head tips back and my eyes close. I take in the icy breeze blowing through the trees and my heart lifts. This quiet, out of the way location is the one place I look forward to visiting. It’s odd because I feel at ease without the population density of the big city. People can’t judge me here.
Each offering I leave disappears by the next visit. Today’s is a tray of inarizushi—small rice cakes wrapped in fried tofu. A supposed favorite of kitsune and Inari. Is that local fox the recipient?
After ringing the bell, bowing, and clapping, I offer a silent prayer. Kami-sama, thanks for the paycheck. I almost got into a fight again. Help me control my temper because I don’t know if I can keep this up. How did my boss fit in again?
When I step back, there’s no apparent difference. Can I just stay here tonight? Idiot, you’d freeze. But staying for a little while to take in the view won’t hurt.
Looking through the trees, over the night scene with its few house lights in the distance, the moon, and a smattering of honest-to-god stars peeking through the clouds makes me gawk. Is that stripe from the horizon the Milky Way? I saw so few stars in the big city that I can’t be sure. But this would be a great hill for an observatory.
Satou said this western mountainous region contains quite a few valleys where squalls can sneak up from behind the hills. As the wind strengthens, goosebumps form on my skin. Lightning eerily illuminates the shrine and trees.
Better get home. When I book it down the stairs, the first snowflakes hit my face. Since when does it snow in a thunderstorm? This never happened in Tokyo.
Shouting from up the hill reverberates in the valley, kicking my old instincts into gear. When I spin around, a green flash forces me to shield my vision. Then more shouting pierces the air. “…you’ll pay!” is all I can make out. More strange glows and flashes create an unnatural show.
Can’t afford to be in a fight! So, I book it in the opposite direction. Another voice echoes, “…won’t harm anyone ever again!”
As I pass the torii, something whooshes overhead with a paper-like rustle then banks back up the hill. I can’t make the thing out before it’s beyond my flashlight’s range. It’s not a glider—the wings move.
What the hell kind of bird could be big enough to carry a canine? That poor dog will probably be a meal. Please, don’t be the fox I saw last time.
Staring into the oncoming snow, I glance at where the shrine should be. Lightning hits a cypress which falls next to the building.
Then an unearthly shriek pierces the air, followed by a desperate, whimpering howl. In this storm, that animal might not survive without shelter, and the fight seems to have stopped. Maybe I can help.
Even a flashlight can be a weapon. So I grip mine tight and dash back up the stairs. The beam defines the scraped side of the shrine.
Another yelp brings my attention to a silver fox struggling to bite a glowing orb in the grass and accumulating flakes. As my breath catches, “K-kitsune,” escapes my mouth.
I stumble backward before my heel catches. Flailing, I fight to keep a hold of my flashlight as I land hard on my rear. Am I dreaming? Nope. The sharp pain in my backside means I’m gonna have a bruise or two.
Pathetic cries continue as the beast stretches for a glowing blue sphere just out of reach. The mythical creature needs its hoshi no tama—the ball that holds its magic. Upon seeing me, it tries hard to wriggle out from under the log. But its cries pitch higher and more pathetic.
My heart twinges. It doesn’t matter how dangerous the creature is, I’m its best hope. Keeping the beam of light out of the fox’s face, I crouch, holding out my shaking hands in a placating gesture.
“Let me push your tama closer, then I’ll attempt to free you. Understand?”
I’d forgotten to give it a signal—like one yip for yes, two for no. But it utters a labored, scratchy, “I understand. Though, why should I trust you, yakuza? You’ll take my tama and force me to promise you a favor.”
That’s how it often went in the legends. Not this time. “I-I have a lot to atone for. This is a start.”
Crouching, I use my light to push the sphere toward the fox’s mouth. The patterned surface of the ball gives way, kind of like a sticky rice dessert cake. With a snap, the kitsune clenches the tama in its jaws.
Now that the creature can’t bite me, my task is the fallen tree. Though I’m not a weakling by any means, an attempt to lift it shows my city boy ignorance. A muffled, “Idiot,” comes from the animal.
What the… While I don’t need thanks, the kitsune sure is being a jerk. I shoot back, “More than griping at the person helping you?”
Another lightning strike gives me a glimpse of a broken branch. Now we need a fulcrum. The cement bricks!
“Kami-sama, I’ll repair the damage as soon as I can!” While I prepare the lever, I direct, “When this lifts, you crawl out.”
Wary eyes watch me as the magical being nods.
I grunt, “Yoisho!” as the bark cuts into my chilled palms.
The tree raises enough for the kitsune to paw its way forward. With its injured hip, the pathetic thing can’t run away.
Damn. I slip off my jacket. “I’ll carry you to the house, so we can shelter in warmth.” The cold penetrates my thin shirt, biting my skin with every gust of wind.
Laying my coat on the snowy ground, I slide the nine-tailed fox onto it, making a sling from the snaps and sleeves. The creature’s musk assaults my nose. But I know better than to say anything.
“When we’re safe, maybe you’ll tell me how you gained your tails. There should be a story behind each—some deed or miracle.”
No answer. Though, the move doesn’t seem to cause more damage. Cradling the kitsune in my arms, I zip home. Furious white sheets fly horizontally, only to blind us as we flee. Snow accumulates, then melts on my side facing into the wind. Cold exposure on top of everything else tonight? I can’t feel my toes.
Unable to make out any lights across the fields, I tread with care to avoid falling into the rice paddy’s frigid water. The animal growls whenever my body gives a big shiver.
Looking down into the salt and pepper furred face and yellow-orange eyes, I see it wince. “Sorry! I know it hurts.” The distraction makes me trip and I get a sharp nip on the shoulder. “Don’t be stupid Kitsune-san, I might drop you!”
By the time we arrive at the house, my shaking is violent and my steps clumsy. Under normal circumstances, I’d take care to remove my only pair of shoes. Tonight? They’re sloughed off before I hobble to the squat kotatsu warming table to set down my guest.
The heater’s not on. Satou must not be back yet. Trembling hands numbly fumble with the switch before it starts.
Gotta get these icy clothes off! I tromp upstairs for dry ones. My room is colder than the main area. So, back downstairs I go.
“Giving an old lady a show, boy?” she taunts.
Even after years of seeing the worst of humanity, her comment stops me mid-way through removing my shirt. Why is the creature watching me? Creepy.
“Who was tucked into my coat, while I froze?” My wet button-up and undershirt get tossed to the floor. Hearing a gasp behind me, I rush to slip on a dry tee. It ends up backward. So, I duck around the corner to finish changing.
When I return with blankets, the silver fox faces away. “Why did it have to be you?”
“Everyone else had sense enough to stay home tonight. Why were you there?”
No answer. So, I try a different tactic as I scoot under the warm kotatsu. “Kitsune-sama, do you have a name?”
Still silence. She’s in pain. “I don’t think I should give you human medication. We’ll get you to a vet in the morning.”
Extracting the poor animal from my muddy coat without hurting her takes time. Then, I drag her next to me under the blankets. Despite the kitsune’s occasional whimper, the warmth calms our shaking and lulls us both.
The light above flicks to life. “Umeji! Why the hell are you sleeping with my aunt?” Satou’s thunderous voice booms.