41.5

Brambles and thorns pierced the skin on my hands, legs and neck. My head snapped back. I couldn’t catch my breath. But the stinging from the thorns told me I was still alive. I laughed. And then cried.
The only things I could move without pain were my eyes.
The concrete path ran along the shoreline, under the bridge. A gravel path led up to the bridge and the lights. The onsen hot spring bath house. Hot, clean water, all the green tea I could take. At the bathhouse, no one asks what your father does for a living. No one can sneer at your ¥500 T-shirts from Joyful Honda. I wasn’t so sure how they felt about stinking blood-stained, sweat and mud-covered rags. And no money. That might be a problem.
I was staring at the rear of the bathhouse that was behind a two-meter-high plastic bamboo wall. On another day, I could have climbed it. But I didn’t have another day.
I groaned and pulled myself free of the bushes. Pain shot through my legs when I tried to stand, so I sat with my head on my knees until the shivering was worse than the standing. Where my hands should have been were red-raw chunks of meat, half-frozen and throbbing. I could hear water trickling into the outside bath. It might as well have been halfway across the world as half a meter away behind a plastic bamboo wall.
A stupid plastic wall, a stupid decision to move, to get involved. Why me? Why couldn’t I have a normal life? Just let me in and I’ll sit in the corner, out of sight. I won’t cause anyone to lose face or have to cover for me, just give me a chance. One chance to get it right. I can look after myself if I just have a little help. Just a little. Papa, why’d you kill yourself? You just left me here with nothing. Less than nothing: Half a life.
A ray of light picked out scars on my calf muscles beneath my ripped robes.
The light was coming from a crack in a side door cut into the middle of the bamboo wall.
A woman kicked the spring door stop into place. She was wearing a blue yukata and towel wound around her head.
I held my breath, swallowed my sobs and tried to think of a cover story.
Let’s see. I was out night fishing on a reeking lake all alone and lost my purse and…?
She was wandering toward me when her face lit up orange from her lighter as she fought the breeze to light her cigarette. She turned her back to me and hurried away toward the shelter of the bridge. That was a good enough chance for me. I hobbled through the open door into the light of the bathhouse.
Inside was an empty changing room with rows of baskets in numbered cubbyholes. I pulled the nearest one out, No. 61, and stuffed my sopping rags in as my eyes adjusted to the light. I grabbed a white hand towel and limped to the glass doors at the other end of the room. I glanced over my shoulder. A trail of grime led from the exit to the basket and then to my feet. I couldn’t risk leaving a trail, but I was powerless against the pull of the bath.
I slid two glass doors open.
Steam rose from three sunken baths, each the size of a vacant lot in Ishinomaki. The air was thick and humid. August, not March. Warmth, delicious in my lungs. But I could feel the pain return to my body as I warmed up.
There was no one else in the whole place. All to myself.
To my left was a bath the size of a public swimming pool, I stood on the edge and dipped a toe in. A speck of dried blood spread out, contaminating the pool with a wisp of a cloud.
I bowed to the waters, stood on the tips of my toes and, arms outstretched, jeté, plié and to finish a pirouette to a row of showers set in the wall at knee height. I sat on the nearest moulded plastic bucket with my back to the room and held the shower nozzle in my left hand and sponge in my right. In front of me was a wall mirror and three pump-action plastic bottles: shampoo, conditioner and body rinse.
I hit the hot button and a jet of scalding water blasted out of the shower nozzle smacking me full in the face.
My feet were scratched, bruised and bloody. The crevices between the nails and the skin were scarlet. Three toe nails were not broken. Scratches covered my legs past my knees. There was dried blood on my thighs, mud had seeped through my clothes and dried in rings under my breasts. I peered at my face in the wall mirror. My face was unscarred, but the person looking back at me was not the same as before 2:46 p.m.
But I couldn’t go back.
I pumped all three containers and poured the gunk into my hair and let the water gush over me. The water washed away the dirt, river silt and blood and blended them into an ugly brown puddle on the green tiles. I opened my eyes only to gauge how clear the runoff from my body was.
I was as clean as I was ever going to get.
Women’s voices behind me, from the changing room.
I stood up and looked for a way out, my toes feeling the seams between every tile. I pulled open a sliding door to the outside bath. The cold air slapped me in the face. In front of me steam rose from a spa bath cut into the ground. Beyond that was the plastic bamboo wall. But this time, I was on the right side of it.
“Nice moves.”
I instinctively unrolled my towel to hide my chest.
Someone my age was sitting in the water. Sitting at the edge of the pool with her back to me. Delicate shoulders. Heavy tan. Dyed brown hair tied in a top-knot. Dainty towel folded on her head. Eyes closed. I slipped into the bath as far from her as I could.
“I like to dance, yes,” I said.
“Are you reading ballet at university?”
“Reading ballet?”
“Yes, as a subject.”
“No, I just liked it as a kid. Haven’t studied it since…”
“I expect you’ve heard of Kaisei High school? That’s where I study. Next year I’m going to university, then the partying begins. But until then, this provincial bathhouse is the most pleasure my father will allow. He is the president, don’t you know, of the largest textile manufacturers in the Kanto region. He’s very big in pyjamas. I expect you will be studying abroad? Is it your father who is a foreigner or your mother? I can tell from your legs you know, not weak like Japanese legs. You are so lucky to be able to speak a foreign language without even trying. You can study anywhere in the world. I’m stuck with Todai.”
“I’m not studying anywhere, I…”
“God I’m so jealous. Well, I suppose it’s to be expected. Will your family be leaving Japan for home now? Since the earthquake, I mean. I would if I didn’t have to stay here. Of course, we will be spending the next month in Kyoto. I mean, you just can’t live here with the aftershocks. But it would be a shame to leave. Japan is such a safe country.”
“It doesn’t feel so…”
“We don’t do crime, well not the petty stuff. I mean, my bicycle was stolen once, but it was a Peugeot, you could understand why some thief would want it. And my mother’s Prius was stolen. The police said it was the work of a gang because there was no smashed glass. There was nothing. They had just driven in with a tow-truck, and hauled it away.”
“I don’t…”
“Probably it was the Chinese, that’s what they said. There are gangs of them you know and they steal things in order to sell to the Africans. Africans prize Japanese cars above all others, because they are the most reliable in the world, the best engineering in the world…”
She kept talking. The sound of her Tokyo accent washed over me. It gave me time to think. What was I going to do?
I had to find Emi. Grandpa O was after me. Ono was after me. And now the police were after me. And I was running out of time.
A stainless steel clock with a red digital readout:
4.15 a.m.
That couldn’t be right. It was late at night, but surely not so late. I looked again:
41.5
The heat of the bath.
“…you can’t trust anyone in America either. It’s such a violent country. When I was shopping on Fifth Avenue at Macy’s—do you know it?—a black man chased after me with a hammer. Can you imagine something like that happening here? No, of course not…”
But I had an idea. I stepped out of the bath in slow motion, retracing my steps. The girl still had her eyes closed. I rolled the door open enough for me to slip through…
“…it’s not as cool as London. But, English food is just horrible. England has nothing. It’s just a floating museum. Have you ever been to London? I was shopping on Bond Street…”
…and scamper to the changing rooms.
I had a matter of a minute at most to make this work. I dashed through the changing room looking for baskets with clothes in. There were three, but No. 19 was my prize. Neatly folded in it was a high-school uniform and mobile phone with recharger. These had to belong to the girl. I pulled her panties, socks and bra over my damp skin and threw on the blouse, skirt and sweater. Everything was tight, the bra straps cut into my shoulders. But it would do. I tossed the phone into a waste bin by the sinks. But I stuffed the recharger into her Louis Vuitton bag.
Her purse was at the bottom of the basket. I grabbed it and flipped it open. I read her commuter pass: Mayumi Okami, aged 17. I headed for the side door exit then caught sight of a high school girl staring at me. Only it wasn’t. It was me in the mirror.
Convincing if you didn’t look closely.
That gave me another idea.

***

Start the novel from Chapter 1 here or use the next/previous arrow keys to flip through the book.

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That was a chapter of Half Life: A Hana Walker Mystery. I’m publishing a chapter a day in sequence on this blog to promote the book. You can buy HALF LIFE as a paperback from Create Space here or as a Kindle download from any Amazon site including links to the book here at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.jp.

The sequel, Prime Life, is coming out in the New Year.

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