I met the girl on the highway, near Hachioji on the way from Tokyo to Nagano. She was hitch-hiking and I picked her up. I was starting to fall asleep at the wheel when I saw her, and I thought the company might make the ride easier.
“Where are you headed?” I said.
“Where are you going?”
The girl shrugged.
“Your Japanese is pretty good,” the girl said.
“I studied before I moved here.”
“Oh, okay. That makes sense.”
The car rattled gently down the highway. The girl ruffled through the CDs in the glovebox. I thought of the girlfriend who had given me most of them, and how I was supposed to give them back.
“You listen to Gen Hoshino?” the girl said.
“Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I’m here,” I said.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“What if I told you I killed someone and took something very valuable from them, and now I’m on the run?”
“I’d probably say, ‘I see,’” I said.
“You don’t believe me?”
I paused, looking for the words to give my thoughts shape.
“Well, if you did kill someone, it’s probably better I don’t know the details, right? And if you didn’t, then it’s just a story. I don’t know if it matters either way.”
Music filled the car in place of the girl’s silence. It felt out of place.
“You’re different from the others,” the girl said.
“You really don’t want to know if it’s true? You don’t want to know why I’m hitch-hiking?”
“Well, you want to go somewhere, that much is clear,” I said. “The rest of it is whatever.”
The girl laughed again. There was something like relief at the edges of it.
The girl reminded me of Rieko, who had left me last winter with a snowstorm of emotions and memories, piling up against the door of the small hut that was home to my psyche.
From inside, the storm wasn’t so bad to look at. It was like a sea of white noise, swirling outside the window.
Viewed like this, it was almost beautiful.
The girl made me think of a small crack in the window, letting in a hint of the biting cold of the past, and with it the quiet, ceaseless howl of an emotional storm, pushing in through fractured glass.
I thought of regret, loss, and heartbreak.
The car rattled along the highway. The girl slept. The music played.
And the memories refused to stop.
We parked at the Futaba Service Area, and headed towards a collection of vending machines, souvenir shops, restaurants, and convenience stores.
We sat at a small table by the corner, slurping at bowls of ramen. I watched the interweaving travelers — couples, families, and tourists — as they stretched, yawned, and killed time. I thought about buying some apple-flavored kit-kats.
“Why are you going to Nagano?” the girl said.
“I have a friend there.”
“I thought so. You just visiting?”
“No. I have some things I have to do.”
I thought of the CDs in the glove box, and the layers of guilt and regret that stained each and every one of them.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” I said. “But this is one I can still fix.”
We walked to the small park by the service area building, sipping at cans of coffee. We looked at Mount Fuji far off in the distance, and for a time, said nothing.
“Have you heard of the ship riddle?” The girl asked.
“I have not,” I said.
“So the captain of a Japanese ship leaves his watch on his desk and takes a shower, but when he comes back the watch is gone. He turns the room upside down, but he can’t find it. The ship is in the middle of the ocean so there’s only one possible reason it’s missing.”
“Right. He knows someone stole his watch, he just doesn’t know who. Fortunately, it’s a small crew, so he gathers them all up: a British guy, an Australian, and an Indian, and he asks each of them, ‘What were you doing for the last fifteen minutes?’”
“What do they say?”
“The British guy, the cook, says he was selecting meat for lunch. The Australian says he was fixing the flag because someone had put it upside down. The Indian says he was in the engine room doing maintenance.”
“Then what happens?”
“Well, because the captain knows who did it, he slaps the guy silly until he gets his watch back.”
“So who took it? Who took the watch?”
The girl smiled.
“That’s the riddle, silly.”
“I don’t get it, though.”
“Well, I’m going to the bathroom,” the girl said, “so why don’t you think about it, and if you don’t have an answer by the time I come back, I’ll tell you.”
While the girl was in the bathroom, I wandered back to my car and fished an old pack of cigarettes from under the driver’s seat. I placed one in my mouth and reached for my lighter. I told myself this would be the last.
I do not remember much about the man who slammed my head into the window of my car. I remember he smelled like sweat and menthol cigarettes. I remember his grip on my shirt, and the way his voice made me think of someone pushing a boulder over gravel.
“Where is she?” he said.
The man punched me.
“What did she tell you?”
Again. I heard my nose break.
“What did she tell you!?”
The car rattled as my back slammed against it. I wondered if any CDs had fallen from the glovebox.
“Nothing,” I said.
The man punched me again.
“Where is she!?” he said.
I thought of a broken nose. A swollen right eye. A mouth filling with blood.
I thought of confusion. Fear.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t… I don’t know.”
The man dropped me when he heard the scream. It came from somewhere distant.
I felt myself dumped against the side of the car, where I slumped to the floor. Footsteps pounded against the road, chasing after the blurry figure of a girl I hoped was fading into the distance.
I sat against the car door, watching blood drip from my nose onto the road below. Each drop like a little Japanese flag in an ever growing collection; some of them big and some of them small, fading in and out of focus, and spinning as my vision tried to right itself.
“Ah,” I said. “Now I get it. It was the flag.”
And though I would never know if the girl had killed someone and taken something valuable, or who she was running from and where she was going, at least now I had the answer to her riddle.
(Gen Hoshino — Kudaranai no naka ni)
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