In the beginning God created the screen.
And the screen was without form, and void; and all the pixels were dark.
And God said, “Let there be a dot,” and there was a dot. The dot was light, and the screen was darkness.
And God said, “Let there be a paddle,” and there was a paddle.
When the paddle struck the dot, a beep sounded. The dot ricocheted, and then bounced at the edge of the screen, returning, and the paddle struck it again. And God saw that it was good.
God took one of the paddle’s ribs, and with it, He made another paddle. One paddle struck the dot, and the other returned it. There was evening, and there was morning. The paddles struck the dot without food or rest, and when they needed to urinate, they remained in place and used an empty plastic bottle. And God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the Earth.”
My nose only itches in critical moments.
I was working alone late at night in a beef bowl joint when it all happened. Situated away from the city’s center, the place was like a feeding trough for humans to come shovel down their food in a matter of minutes. But even cows and horses—and chickens only able to stick out their heads from their cages— ate because they liked the taste, and people were no different. For me, the beef bowls I was permitted to eat during my shift were even more; they were my primary diet, my lifeline.
I had finished wiping a table, about to prepare it for the next customer, when he arrived. The robber.
The drowsiness lifted from my mind in an instant, but my very first thought was: This is gonna be a pain in the ass. Naturally, I was irritated that he was going to stroll out of here with the money I’d earned over hours of scooping out beef bowls. But annoyance came to me first, when I pictured all the extra work I’d have to do after he’d gone.
I’ll give you the money in the register, I said to him in my mind, just hurry on out of here. Taking the money might be the end of this for you, but I don’t have it so easy—I ’ll have to call the cops, report to the head office, do the paperwork, and all that. I’m paid by the hour, not by what I do, so don’t add to my duties.
Having only one worker on shift in the middle of the night was an invitation for robberies. Due to changes in our parent company— said by some to be a momentary cause for public concern— a single part-t imer, me, was left to tend the store. This practice was introduced as a product of cold financial calculation: even after accounting for losses due to the occasional robbery, the company made more profit by trimming shifts nationwide from two people down to one.
Beside the sliding glass doors of the entrance, a multicolored strip of tape was marked 160 cm, 170 cm, 180 cm, and 190 cm. The sticker had been put there so that the entryway’s security camera could measure the height of anyone who passed through. These cameras took particularly crisp images; brazen robbers drawn in by desire for a little bit of scratch would eventually leave a clear capture of their likenesses, and their careers would end with an arrest. Japanese police were good enough at that sort of thing.
In that case, I considered, we should put a button beside the door for robbers, so that when they pushed it, a machine would dispense a few ten- thousand- yen bills, take a picture of their face, then automatically report it to the police. Maybe then the criminals would form an orderly queue and await their turn in solemn silence. I could avoid the police interview, and the other customers could go on eating their beef bowls undisturbed. Well, I guess it’s cheaper to give a part- timer like me overtime instead.
Kitchen knife in hand, the robber demanded my money, and I raised my arms high, indicating my lack of resistance as I slowly walked behind the counter to the register.
His eyes were like little marbles glaring at me through the visor of his motorcycle helmet. I suspected that he was devoid of any foresight or planning. For just a tiny amount of money and the short- lived freedom it would provide, he was committing himself to spend a vast stretch of time in prison. Sure, he might believe he could get away with this, but otherwise, he would one day be thrown into jail and forced into labor. Why not just work now, instead? In a way, the robber and I, we were both doing our jobs, all for a little bit of money.
The robber brandished his knife, urging me to hurry. Light reflected from the metal and bounced around the little restaurant.
It’s not my money anyway. So, sure, take it and get out of here.
But this must have been my unlucky day. Just as I had opened the register and was about to take out the money, another customer came in. This one covered the 190 cm mark of the sticker. He was a big man, the type who would order a jumbo beef bowl, extra beef. Steam rose from his bulging T- shirt. As he crossed the doorway, wiping sweat from his brow, he took one look at the scene and shouted, “You, what are you doing?”
I saw the tip of the robber’s knife tremble. I went stiff, my hand clutching the money in the cash drawer. With what I’m sure was a fraught expression, I thought to the interloper, Hey, man, keep it cool. A beef bowl restaurant in the night has no need for your clumsy justice. This guy here is a necessary business expense. I’ll give you your beef bowl afterward, so just pretend you didn’t see anything and take your seat. Don’t cause me any more trouble than I’ve already got.
But my hopes went unheard. The large man leaned forward in an aggressive stance. He was going to rush this way, his bulk as his weapon. The robber, on the other hand, was an older guy of average build; even accounting for the knife, the big man looked like he had the advantage.
The robber shouted something. It might have been words, but I couldn’t tell. It was like the cry of a cornered cat. He waved the knife around as the big man began his charge, but even as he did so, the robber shrunk back. Even worse, he tried to hide behind my counter.
What the hell are you doing? I thought to the robber. Damn it. Keep away from me. I’m not your ally.
My body was frozen; my hand in the money tray. The robber turned around. A streak of light drew a line from right to left, left to right. I felt a warm impact run along my neck. A curtain of red fanned out before me, filling my vision
A thing of beauty and art, the red curtain ill suited the dingy mass- produced decor of the beef bowl joint. With no flaws in the fabric, the folds, or the way light reflected from it, the curtain evoked velvet woven with care by an artisan’s hand. Such a thing had no reason to be in a place like this; yet here it was, swaying in the air conditioner breeze.
For a while, I was mesmerized by the movement of the folds, but soon the strength left my knees, and my chin slammed on the register as I dropped. It didn’t hurt. As coins rained down, I kissed the floor, which smelled like an old mop, and I finally realized that blood was spurting from my carotid artery.
Shit, this is going to be hard to clean up, I thought, and I died.
The next instant, I was standing in the restaurant, gripping a knife drenched in my black- red blood. “I” was lying behind the counter, looking as miserable and unattractive as I had always been in the mirror. The blood from “my” neck felt warm on my hands.
The deluge of blood had given a blotchy red-and- white pattern to the big man’s T- shirt. He looked like a murderer as he stood in stunned shock.
Leaving behind the large dumbstruck man and my fallen self, I ran into the washroom. I checked the mirror that I had wiped clean at the beginning of my shift not long before. I was wearing a motorcycle helmet. I took it off. The slickness of the gore made the helmet hard to remove.
Reflected in the mirror was a man I didn’t know, of average build and with eyes like marbles.
When I returned to the lobby, the dead man behind the counter was, as I had thought, me. No sign of the big man. He must have fled. What a jerk. My corpse was still. The thick smell of blood, ill suited to a beef bowl restaurant, filled the room.
Does this mean that I killed me?
I heard a police car siren in the distance.
My new stomach protested with a fierce hunger. Leaving “my” dead body where it was, I made myself a jumbo beef bowl and was eating it when the police arrested me.
They took me to interrogation, where I insisted that I was really me, and I didn’t know anything about my killer. But the investigator wouldn’t listen, his face taking a disapproving expression straight out of a religious painting from some bygone century. My background and record, as told to me, were of no relation to my own, and my parents who visited were strangers. I was grateful for the money they sent in for me, so even though they were the parents of my murderer, I decided to think of them as my mysterious benefactors.
I lost count of how many times I looked at myself in the mirror, but each time my face and my body unmistakably belonged to the man who knifed me. If I knew nothing else, I could be sure that the body I now inhabited had been the one that killed me. I underwent a psychiatric evaluation, but according to the result, I wasn’t insane, but rather in perfect mental health. At this news, my public defender looked distressed, while the investigator seemed happy. I kept on insisting that my inner self had been put into this body, but my lawyer admonished me, saying, “You’re only going to hurt the feelings of the bereaved family.” My parents— that is, the parents of the me that was killed— were apparently seeking a harsh sentence. This was unfortunate for me, yet knowing that my parents felt that way brought me tears of happiness.
Ultimately, since I didn’t show any signs of remorse, I was sentenced to thirty years of imprisonment with hard labor. I argued that it was unreasonable for me, who had been killed, to also receive the punishment for that killing, but doing so only lowered the judge’s opinion of me.
I was taken to a prison somewhere in the north called Asahikawa, though the place must have been well heated, because it was considerably warmer there than the detention center in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward. Less favorable was my bed’s location, closest to the toilet stall in a room of six, and that my mattress’s sheets were already torn. In the detention center, being a murderer placed me at the top of the pecking order, but only murderers were in Asahikawa, and a mere single knifing was nothing special. I felt like a piglet wearing a fake mane locked in a cage of lions.
The first night, someone snuck up to me while I was asleep.
He slunk through the darkness, and without a word, he wrapped something ropelike around my neck and pulled tight. I tried to resist, but the strength left my body in a matter of seconds. Wait. I’m no criminal. I was sent here by mistake. What’s the point of killing me? But my thoughts never made it into words. Instead, I slowly began to feel better. So, getting strangled really does make you feel good, I noted, and then I was staring down at my former self with new eyes, my former tongue lolling, body lying dead on the mattress. My former face looked like a hard- boiled egg, only black and red. Upon a closer look, I saw that the thing squeezed around my neck was a piece of torn bedsheet twisted into a rope.
What had been a vague hunch was now proven true: when my body died, my consciousness somehow survived. Where the consciousness of my new body went, I had no idea. I didn’t know why it happened. Whatever. It’s all bullshit.
My cellmates were all quietly asleep. Maybe none had noticed the midnight murder drama, or maybe some had and were only pretending to sleep. Then I realized something: I had been strangled by sheets torn from my own bedding. In other words: the murder had been premeditated. If that was the case, my killer had surely planned on leaving no evidence of his deed. There had to be some way to make my former self’s death appear a suicide.
I surveyed the cell, and the half-o pen door to the toilet caught my eye. I dragged my former self over, tied one end of the sheet to the doorknob, and made it look like I had strangled myself.
The new me returned to my new me’s bed.
When the guards made their rounds, they saw my suicide and made a fuss, but none of this had anything to do with the new me; to my surprise, the very next day was the last day of my sentence, and I was released.
As I set foot outside the prison gate, some hoodlum came to meet me. He was missing a front tooth and looked none too bright. He seemed to know me, but I didn’t even know his name.
“Nice work,” he said, cackling. “Sounds like ya pulled it off. The Aniki’s happy too.
I was deflated. A gold watch glittered on my wrist; I couldn’t believe the gaudy thing was mine. I was wearing a square- shouldered suit like the yakuza used to wear twenty years ago. I hadn’t checked yet, but I was sure I had a dragon or something tattooed across my back. And whoever this gang was, they must have had some connection with my murder.
The punk insisted I get in his car, so I did. At a rest stop along the way, I pretended to use the bathroom and escaped. I didn’t have anywhere to go, and these yakuza held the only clues to my new self, but I wasn’t going to let this guy take me to the kind of people who would order a murder in a prison, no matter what reason they might have had.
I ran as hard as I could.
I was scared. I was scared of what was happening to me, and I was terrified of this body I was now using. If my former self had been marked for death, then the murder of my former-former self may have been planned as well. And if the government knew that someone like me existed, they would certainly work to keep me under control. And if they captured me? They would keep me alive and under wraps. And they would experiment. And experiment. And experiment. That’s what I would do. I knew that’s what I would do. It would be for the good of mankind. I would spare no concern for the rights of one individual.
Here a convenience store worker, there a uniformed delivery driver, a middle- aged man in a suit swinging his umbrella like a golf club—I saw everyone as a pursuer.
Luckily, my new self’s decade- and- change-long stint in prison had earned me a stipend of two hundred thousand yen. I bought new clothes from a home-improvement store and discarded my old ones, and I sold the gaudy gold watch at a pawn shop. By taking a succession of local trains, I returned to the Tokyo where I was born.
For a little while, I lingered around my original self’s parents’ house. But I was no longer that me, nor even the me who had killed me; I was now a total stranger to my earliest self, with no connection to my parents. I had to run away when it looked like the old lady next door was going to report me. My current face was just too villainous.
For a while, I drifted from one business hotel to the next, but when my wallet started getting light, I applied for a part- time job at a beef bowl restaurant. I still remembered how to do the job, but they didn’t hire me, whether due to my forbidding face or the tattoos, faintly visible through my shirt, that betrayed my yakuza past. In the end, I decided to make my home on the banks of the Arakawa River.
It was a place where the homeless gathered, a tiny village hidden behind the tall river reeds. The scattering of simple structures with their blue tarp roofs was visible from the train line that crossed the water, but from the side, the settlement was entirely unnoticeable. This was the best place for me now. I built myself a grand home with scavenged cardboard and blue tarp I’d bought at the hardware store.
In the weeds next door lived a white- haired old man called Lon. I didn’t know if that was his family name, his given name, or a nickname. He claimed it meant “dragon.”
Lon earned his living by collecting magazines from trash cans and selling them to used bookstores. When business was slow, he fished with a handmade pole. He told me the bluegills in the Arakawa tasted muddy, but when he added curry powder, he found that the fish were not inedible. He welcomed me with some one- cup sake and proclaimed that he would bestow me his magazine territory after he kicked the bucket. Every now and then I caught a sign of senility in him, but he was a very kindhearted man.
We often fished together, standing side by side, talking about this or that. Usually the topics were trivial, like tomorrow’s weather, or a lady who shared her bento boxes on the days she didn’t sell out, or a nasty old woman who sicced her dog on my new neighbor.
There were mornings, and there were evenings. I’m not sure whether I had told him what had happened to me or if Lon came up with the notion on his own—but at some point, my neighbor had begun to claim that he would come back to life as another person after he died. Maybe he’d gone full-on senile, or maybe he’d reworked his story to mirror mine. That he could respawn or something like that was of course impossible. I couldn’t prove it, but I was certain.
And then I wondered if I had been coming back to life as myself. Maybe I had some mental illness that made me think I had died multiple times. That would make me a homeless ex- con who falsely believed he had been murdered at his part- time job in a beef bowl joint then taken to prison where he was murdered again. The slippery blood on my palm, the feeling of the rope on my neck, and the pleasure of ascension— maybe it was all some delusion conjured up by a diseased mind during my imprisonment.
In the end, I decided to buy into Lon’s tall tales. It was my way of finding enjoyment in my life on the riverbank teeming with bugs.
“How long ago was it now, I wonder,” Lon said, “that I heard there was a new kind of hot dog in L.A., so I went all the way there to try it. When I came back home, I started selling the same dogs. And they really sold.”
According to him, he was actually an American. He looked entirely Japanese, and he never spoke English, but that was his story. He had laughed and said that becoming Japanese was handy, because a gentle smile could answer any question.
“That went well for a while,” he continued, “until a rival hot dog cart opened up, and then it was all over. Deep in debt, I fled from my wife and children and drove to some uninhabited desert, then put a gun in my mouth and killed myself. And what happened next? I became a wealthy man who was getting himself drunk at the bar nearest where I was.”
“You say nearest,” I said, “but it had to be pretty far away.”
“That’s what’s interesting about it.” He licked his lips, his mouth a black cavern. “After that, I went to where I had died. The car I had driven supposedly the day before was covered in dust, and my body, practically mummified. I hadn’t been revived immediately, but rather had been reborn as someone else many years later.”
Lon was talkative today. It might have been due to the happoshu— the cans of almost-beer he’d bought at a discount store for thirty yen each.
Lon said that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as being reborn, but as having a kind of mental illness or something, transmitted through death. In other words, “I” really was dying each time. Then, some bystander seeing “my” death would begin to wonder, Maybe I’m “me,” and by doing so began taking my place. Only in retrospect would it seem that “my” consciousness continued on. When Lon came back to life in Arizona, he did so only because someone had discovered the mummy inside the car, and the memories of the bar and everything else were nothing more than fabrications after the fact.
As Lon explained it, people like to believe, “I think, and then I act,” but the reality is that the speed of communication of the nervous system is not that fast. There’s just not enough time for the brain to think in response to an event and then to act. The brain is nothing more than a circuit that recognizes the automatic actions of the body, then finds self- satisfaction in the belief, “I thought it, therefore I acted.” Given that, it was entirely believable that a person, having acted as if he or she was someone else, could end up thinking, “I was the other person all along.”
What Lon said had logic. I saw no other explanation for my condition, outside of the paranormal phenomenon of post- death possession, or the existence of another, higher- level me controlling each successive me down here. And neither of those were at all believable.
Lon said, “This me here is me, but I don’t think I’m me. I have a transmissible mental illness that makes me think I’m not me. So can I really say that I’m alive? Meanwhile, the me who now believes this to be my body— he died a long time ago, and is being roasted in the fires of hell. The actions of the me here can do nothing for the me there. The me now is like the living dead, and without intervention, I’ll continue like this for eternity. It’s terrifying.”
“Don’t talk like that— you’re spooking me.”
“Well, there’s still a few things I haven’t tried. For one, what if I die when the closest person near me is another reincarnator? In that case, I think my illness wouldn’t be transmitted. Maybe I’d be able to die in peace.”
“Come on, old man. Do you really want to die?”
“Maybe,” Lon said.
“I’m . . . weary.”
Lon turned his gaze to the water. A chill breeze came downriver from far away in inland Saitama. Huddled down, the old man looked terribly small.
I didn’t know if he was tired of our existences in death and rebirth repeated, or if he was referring to our present homeless lifestyle. Whether his tale of reincarnation was real or fake, our lives were without prospects. There was nothing here but bug bites, trash collecting, fishing, and the stink of grass and dirt and mud mingling together. Lon’s life would soon be at its end, and I could understand his desire for a grander punctuation mark than worsening senility followed by a miserable death. But I had finally found someone I could open up to, and the thought of attending him to his death held no appeal for me.
“Listen, Lon— ”
“It’s okay,” he said softly, facing the river. “Forget I said anything.”
That was when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“Finally, I found ya! I’ve been searchin’ all over. I never would’ve thought you’d be in a place like this.”
I turned to see that mouth with the missing tooth, opened wide, throwing me a brutish cackle.
My current self was apparently a man of few words. When Missing- Tooth took me to the yakuza office, I managed to escape suspicion by simply nodding and pretending that my memory was hazy. I gathered that I was the kind of guy most useful to a violent organization: one willing to get his hands dirty without a single complaint. No wonder they had searched for me with such dedication.
The man Missing- Tooth called Aniki was in his mid- forties. A real show-off, he wore a red shirt under a garishly patterned suit that practically screamed yakuza. Aniki and I were sworn brothers, and while his ascent in the ranks during my decade- and- change in prison had left a considerable gap in our respective ranks, he treated me—on the surface, at least—as a brother.
After happily taking me out on a night of drinks followed by women at more than one soapland, Aniki didn’t wait to ask me the favor. He phrased it as a request, but I sensed no room to refuse.
I was ordered to perform another killing. The murder I committed before becoming me in the prison— that is, the murder of me—had been requested by clients who were now deemed as untrustworthy. Even though they requested the killing, the clients’ guilt seemed likely to drive them to confess to the police. Since we had already received payment in full, all that was left was to keep them from talking before they caused any trouble.
Then Aniki handed me a photograph—a surveillance shot, an elderly couple in profile, their expressions troubled. I recognized them immediately. My birth parents.
Now I understood. The assassin who killed my second self had been hired by my real parents. Having seen my thirty-year sentence as poor recompense for their son’s death, they had risked the danger that came from associating with a violent organization so that they could bring about the ultimate act of vengeance. What they did was wrong, uncivilized, and was to be despised, but through that act I saw that as pitiful as I had been, I was still loved by my parents. The back of my nose—though it wasn’t my nose— began to tingle.
This yakuza was telling me to kill that dear old couple. You bastard, I thought. You human garbage. Go to hell.
I wanted to go berserk on him then and there, but I stifled the impulse. This killing had to be stopped, whatever it took. And the only one who could stop it was me. Pressed into a van outside the office with Missing- Tooth, I desperately tried to think of how I could prevent the killing.
The neon lights of the city passed by the tinted windows. It was nearing midnight. The pop music blaring from the stereo irritated me more than it should have.
I asked, “How should I do it?”
Missing- Tooth’s answer was as concise as the directions on a cup of instant ramen. “Wait’ll they’re asleep. Pick the lock. Give ’em a good zap with the stun gun. Kill ’em with a hammer to the head. Wrap ’em up in a futon and haul ’em out. Don’t forget to lock the door. Take ’em to the disposers. The end.”
“What, no knife or sword?”
“The disposers yell at us when we get too much blood in the futon. These days, we mostly use disposable hammers from the hundred- yen store.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“Well, we do keep a blade on hand, just in case. It’s hidden under your seat so the cops don’t find it.”
Including me, four men occupied the van’s dim interior. Myself and one other were in the back, and Missing-Tooth had taken the front passenger seat. These guys saw murder as something trivial. They were rotten to the core, and society would be no worse off without them. But did that make it all right for me to kill them? I felt like that would be a wrong. But while I was debating it, the van was heading for my parents’ house. I began to recognize the view from the windows. My parents’ executions were drawing nigh.
“What’s wrong?” Missing-Tooth asked.
I made up my mind.
I reached under my seat and pulled out a knife with a thirty-centimeter blade. Still hunched over, I swung my arm in a fluid motion, building momentum as I thrust the blade into the stomach of the man next to me.
He groaned an “Oof.” I stabbed him twice. Three times. He died.
“Wh— what are ya doing?” Missing-Tooth said with disappointed dismay.
I didn’t answer. The blood and gore was warm on my hand, but the sensation came as no surprise. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt the blood of another spraying upon me. I renewed my grip on the knife and thrust it between the front seats, aiming for Missing- Tooth’s neck.
He twisted away and pulled out a knife of his own. Despite the way he looked and talked, he was apparently the real deal. We grappled across the seat back, and his knife pierced between my ribs, penetrating my heart. My blade sliced open his carotid artery. In the end, it was a draw. My consciousness began to fade. I wondered, Did I save my parents? and in the next moment I was the man in the driver’s seat.
Apparently, “I” truly was immortal. I died again and again, but “I” never died. All right, then. No time to ponder it now. I have something I need to do.
With three corpses along for the ride, I pulled a U- turn and drove back the way we came. Our starting point was still stored in the GPS. The music on the radio sounded more pleasing than maybe it should have. When the song reached its bridge, I realized it was still the same tune that had been playing before.
I arrived at the yakuza office, where a man was standing guard outside. I ran him over and drove headlong into the front door. The van struck the concrete car stop, and my body shattered the windshield, sailing through, hitting a wall. I died instantly.
I came back as an underling inside the office. Directly in front of me was the back of a garish suit. I’d seen it before: Aniki. All around me, the men were beginning to react to the intrusion.
I looked around and saw a katana decorating the wall. I grabbed it and thrust it through Aniki’s back.
“What the fuck!” he shouted. “Are you fucking crazy?”
He wasn’t dead. This one was persistent. He knocked me down with a single punch. The other men swarmed me and kicked me backward. Still clutching the katana, I swung the sword at their legs. Take that! Then one of them stabbed me. It hurt. Whatever. I don’t care. This body’s not done yet. I got back to my feet and stabbed and killed the man who had stabbed me. Bullets pummeled my back and the underling- me died.
In a stroke of fortune, I came back as the man with the gun. On my command, my new body put the weapon’s sights on the heads of the moving targets and squeezed the trigger.
The gun was plastic, toylike, but the explosive flashes of its muzzle and the power of its bullets were the real thing. Until that point, I’d always thought that bullets came out like arrows. But inside this tiny room, firing a pistol for myself felt quite a bit different. When I squeezed the trigger, the recoil jolted up my arm to my shoulder. Almost simultaneously, an object flew out the other side of the gunsight. A small dot, the object seemed to move at the speed of light, and I couldn’t follow it with my eyes. Inside this room, my targets had nowhere to escape.
Well, this is surprisingly easy, I thought. However my opponents moved about, all I had to do was have my sights on them the moment I squeezed the trigger. Trigger. Bang. Exploding head. One more down.
Another shooter had already fired six rounds at me without making a scratch. I wasn’t sure if my body knew how to expertly handle the weapon through muscle memory or if the other shooter was too nervous to hit me—i f he took a steady aim, he might have. Instead, his bullets flew off into nowhere, gouging at a wall, shattering an ashtray on a tabletop.
You’ll never hit me like that. I was starting to feel bad for my opponent. If you didn’t care about your body, as I don’t about mine, you could take your time to aim, and bang! See, like I just hit you now. He died. I kept on firing, and with each shot, my enemies were fewer.
Soon, nothing moved.
From behind a sofa where he was hiding, Aniki shouted, “What do you want?”
To wipe you all out. Without a word, I held my gun at the ready and slowly advanced. The floor was slippery with blood. Smoke hung in the air. I wondered, Is this what gunpowder smells like?
By the time I reached his side, Aniki was near death. He clutched at his side, soaked bright red, and breathed weakly. I looked down at this man called Aniki.
“What is all this?” he said. I didn’t reply. But he was the kind of man who could command a criminal organization, and he seemed to notice something about me. He peered into my eyes and asked, “You. Who the hell are you?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t have any other answer for him.
I pulled the trigger. I had blown apart nine heads with twelve bullets. No one moved in the office now. I checked the magazine and saw two rounds remained. This was an incredible gun. Two bullets had been spent before I became me, meaning that the weapon had held nearly twenty.
I fired one more shot into Aniki’s corpse. I didn’t relish doing so, but I didn’t want to risk being transferred to a half- dead man.
Surveying the now- quiet room, I was reminded of an arcade crane game. The bodies, scattered everywhere, looked like dolls. But what had opened their eyes so wide wasn’t some artful appreciation for the painting on the ceiling drawn with their own blood. What had opened their eyes was the giant arm that had come from above to take them to some other place.
I set fires all around the room, and when the tongues of flame grew too large to be stopped, I put the gun to the top of my head, and bang!
The next moment, I was a man in a suit, recording the yakuza office with my cell phone.
“It’s so scary,” someone said.
A woman was clinging to my left arm. I didn’t know her. Of course I didn’t— I didn’t even know my own face.
I had fulfilled my mission. The office would burn and leave no evidence. The yakuza were all dead, and my parents lived. Right now, my parents were probably sound asleep. For some reason, when I thought of them, I remembered the face of the woman who was my mysterious benefactor in the detention center— not my mother, but the mother of the robber who had killed me. But maybe it was all the same for me now.
“Come on, let’s go,” the woman at my arm said. She felt warm beside me.
I was struck by the temptation to steal this man’s life. If I did, I wouldn’t have to live on the run. That’s right. I have the power now to steal someone else’s life and become them. Are there others with this same ability? Are some of them living these lives of comfort?
But then came the doubt. If what’s inside this shell is only me, then I’ll never be able to be “him.” The social status, the routine, the pleasures that this body had grasped—t hose things belonged to him. All I can capture are their vestiges. Only this body’s former owner could look at these fleeting traces and find happiness. Not me. I’ll only be happy with a life of my own making. Maybe it didn’t look that way, but before all this—and even now—ladling out beef bowls for some hourly pay gave me all the satisfaction I needed. I liked beef bowls.
I glanced up and saw, in front of the flaming van, a man desperately pushing at the chest of a dead body. He was big. Steam rose from his bulging T-shirt. The big man looked on the verge of tears as he kept on pressing with his thick arms the center of the corpse’s chest. The dead body was mine, from when I rammed the van into the building. You’re wasting your time. I’m already dead— that’s how I’m standing here. But the big man didn’t know that.
I recognized his face. He was that hero of the night—t he man who had caused the death of my original, irreplaceable self.
I approached the man and said, “Thank you.”
“Never mind. It’s nothing.”
Tears ran down my cheeks. I had simply wanted to express my gratitude to the man who was doing all he could for what once had been my body, and now in death was just a thing. His attempt to rescue me in the beef bowl restaurant may have ended with my death, but he had risked his one—and only—life for me. Out there in the world were people like him, far too good. He was my opposite: a human being of a different kind, one that deserved deep admiration.
The woman asked me, “What’s wrong?”
I shook off her hand and brushed aside her attempts to stop me as I walked away on my own. After a while, my cell phone started to buzz persistently, so I threw it on the ground and crushed it with my shoe.
All I wanted was to return to being me, a man whose face was already becoming hazy in my memory. I didn’t want to be anyone else. My job at the beef bowl joint may have been monotonous, but at least I had done it myself, and not under the command of some other me. But that body—my body—was long since cremated and put into a grave. I would have to force myself to let go of the past. I wanted to be without a past. Death would never smile upon me, and so I could have nothing of substance, nothing to tie me down, nothing at all.
Then a realization came to me. I’m powerless. I’m not anyone. I’m just a lousy dog crawling through the dirt to my death. No, not even a dog. I’m a bone or a broken stick for the wandering dog to find. I’m a stick that hits any dot that comes toward me just because I feel like it. In the Old Testament, didn’t man evolve from a stick? Or do I have that wrong? Whatever. It doesn’t matter right now. Because this world is occupied almost entirely by my kind. Ninety percent—no, maybe even 99 percent—are the same as me, with nothing of their own, no past, no ties, no hopes for the future. Despite this—or because of it—they and I are invincible.
I found myself standing in front of a beef bowl joint in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the place where I had worked, but like my store, it was bright and warm and clean, if only a feeding trough with dingy, mass- produced decor.
Adjacent was a vacant lot. On the other side of a wire fence, a single stick stood in the earth. In the past, the stick had provided support for a sign of some sort, but the plywood sign had fallen to rot in the dirt.
For some reason, I couldn’t help but feel excited. The time had come to begin my next worthless life. At least that’s how I felt. The feeling came as no surprise—I’ve been the same all along. The me who served up beef bowls, the me who was a robber, the me who was a convict and a killer, they were all me.
I roared at the night sky and pulled up the stick.
Inside the beef bowl joint, a lone charmless man interchangeable with my former self was serving up beef bowls.
Resting the stick on my shoulder, I strode inside.
My nose only itches in critical moments.
“Give me your money,” I said.
Taking aim at this good-for-nothing world, I swung my stick as hard as I could.
• Hiroshi Sakurazaka is author, of the novels, All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Characters and Slum Online.
*This story appears in ‘Press start to play;’ a collection of stories (http://www.amazon.com/Press-Start-Play-Vintage-original/dp/1101873302?ie=UTF8&psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=ox_sc_act_title_1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER)