Lit Up
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Lit Up

Bawling Booths

etting go of the mouse, I checked the job posting.

Surveillance Officer.

Job Summary: closely monitoring the users of our venting booths through security cameras (more details will be offered on-site).

Job Requirements: no education or experience is needed, but applicants must be able to endure long hours of visual — and mental — focus.

Working time: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Monday to Friday)

Monthly Salary: 122,000 to 350,000 yen.

I leaned back on my office chair, blinking. What the heck were venting booths? Venting … as in venting air or venting emotions? The fact that this wasn’t explained made the job smell fishy. Also the fact that the only requirement was to have a well-functioning brain.

The pay was good, though. Not because it was high — it was average, in fact — but because you’d just have to look at a security camera. No driving around, no dealing with clients. No stress, no busy schedule.

And I really needed the money; my wallet had already turned into a black hole.

I copied the email address and began writing a job application letter.

To my surprise, I got a reply the next morning. Maybe because most people thought the job was a scam. Maybe because there were a lot of vacancies. Anyway, I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I’d landed an interview.

To my surprise (again), the company looked professional. On the spotless wall, raised letters said, Humantech. On the other side of the glass door, people in shirts and blazers bustled around desks and sofas.

“Oh, you must be Mei Amemiya,” a woman said, pushing open the door. “I’m Naoko Tanaka. Human resources.” She gestured me inside with a gleaming smile. “Please come in.”

As I followed her, I checked her appearance. Dyed blonde bob, blue blazer, purple jeans. This, together with her laid-back locution, made me self-conscious about having come dressed in a traditional interview uniform: black suit jacket and black pencil skirt.

Once we got into a closed cubicle, though, I didn’t feel out of place anymore. In fact, I felt as if I were in a regular workplace. I was in a regular workplace: office chair, computer desk, corded landline.

The only special thing was an extra-large computer screen divided into four miniscreens, all black except for big white characters on each that said, Booth is empty. And small white ones on top with the names of department stores.

“You must be wondering about the venting booths,” Tanaka said, reading my mind. “Well, internally, we call them bawling booths. It’s more visual — or I should say, auditory — and there’s alliteration.” She laughed as if this were the funniest joke in the world. “But, of course, this is serious business.

“The booths are there so people who are angry or sad can scream or cry without being heard or seen by anyone. Especially those who can’t make it to a private place.

“And your job will be to monitor them. It’s not that we think something could go wrong inside the booths. But you can’t be too careful when launching a new product.”

I nodded. Finally, everything was making sense. Except for one small but glaring detail. “But if we monitor them, they will be heard and seen by someone.”

Tanaka grinned. “Not if we don’t tell them.”

“Wouldn’t that be a little … unethical?”

“If it were for our benefit. But it’s for theirs.

Actually, it was also for our benefit. Or rather, Humantech’s; if people found out they were being watched without their consent, it could cause a public hubbub.

I wanted to say this, but I wasn’t here to use my mouth. I was here to use my eyes. So I assented with my head.

Well, I did open my mouth. To say “Thank you for giving me this opportunity” when I was offered the job.

I started work the next afternoon. With my oversized hoodie and loose sweatpants. If I was going to sit idly for hours, why not dress as comfortable as possible? Also, Tanaka had told me that since I’d be alone in my cubicle all the time, I could wear pajamas if I wanted.

She also said I only had to focus on a miniscreen if it woke up.

So, to kill time, I took out my phone and watched Love is Blind: Japan. Until twenty minutes passed.

Until a digital bell chimed.

I raised my head. The miniscreen in the top left displayed a bawling booth. It looked like a white padded cell. Which made sense: the person entering it might be emotionally unstable, so having hard surfaces could be dangerous. This might also be the reason there wasn’t a chair, a table — the only object was a poster on the back wall that showed a sun-dappled forest reflected in a mirror-like lake. Maybe to calm the person after they’d wrung out their repressed anguish.

A few seconds later, the back of a balding head popped in at the bottom of the screen. Then a black suit, dress shoes, and a leather briefcase. A salaryman. He stood motionless as if he were a guinea pig in a new cage. In a sense, he was.

Finally, he took tentative steps to the middle of the booth and sank to his knees. Then he dropped his briefcase and, lowering his head until it almost touched the floor, let out a succession of screams. They were so loud that one of his vocal cords must have snapped. So loud that it must have deafened him. So loud that someone outside — no, the booth must be soundproof.

As I continued watching and hearing, I wondered what could have reduced him to this pitiful state. Maybe he’d been yelled at by his boss. Maybe he’d been fired. Maybe he’d opened the door of his bedroom to find his wife riding another man he didn’t know.

Finally, the salaryman fell silent, his back bobbing up and down. After the movement stopped, he grabbed his suitcase and walked out of the booth as quietly as he’d come in. As soon as he was gone, the screen went black, displaying Booth is empty.

My eyes remained glued to it. When I finally regained my senses, I woke up my phone — I’d been clutching it the whole time without realizing it — and clicked a video of guinea pigs wheeking and squeaking. I needed it after what I’d just experienced.

In the following days, more people came into the bawling booths.

A high school girl dropped her backpack and cried for nearly an hour. She must have failed an important exam. Or broken up with her boyfriend.

A housewife stood in a corner of the booth and wept quietly. She must have fought with her husband. Or been abused by him.

A policeman lay on his back and cursed to the air. He — no idea.

To safeguard my mental stability, I tried to detach myself emotionally from the people I monitored as much as I could. It was hard at first. But after watching dozens of them, I became desensitized to their isolated suffering. I’d become an expert — or a psychopath.

Or at least that was what I thought.

I was nodding off one evening when the too-familiar bell chime made me look at one of the miniscreens. The one in the bottom right.

It showed a man so tall that his head almost touched the ceiling. And with such long hair that he could pass as a woman if he weren’t so broad-shouldered. If he weren’t carrying a backpack that was almost as big as him. He must be a … university student?

Glancing around, he stepped to the middle of the bawling booth. Then he sat on the floor and — stayed like that. Hunched over. Legs crossed.

Was he thinking? Or meditating? Or weeping so silently that not even the high-tech microphones of the booth could capture the sound? Since I couldn’t see his face, there was no way to tell. I could only look at his hair, his back.

I could only wait. For one, two … four minutes. Until the man rose to his feet and left the booth as if he were coming out of a public toilet.

Strange.

I nicknamed the man Dai (written with the kanji for big) so it’d be easier to refer to him in my mind. Which was necessary, since he was using one of the bawling booths every day.

And every time he’d do the same thing: sit on the floor for four minutes, then leave.

I tried to come up with a reason.

Maybe Dai had to deal with people at work and home? So the booth was a haven of solitude? To silence the noise of humanity for a few minutes?

But how come Dai never cried, screamed, or even made a sound? Maybe whatever he was taking a break from wasn’t enough to make him sad, angry, or upset.

I was having intense feelings, though. More specifically, I was worried.

Worried enough grab the landline and call —

“What’s wrong?” Tanaka blurted from the other side of the line.

I blinked at the wall. “I didn’t have to dial any number?”

“When you lift the handset, your landline automatically connects you with mine. It was set that way to save time. To let me know as soon as possible if something is wrong with the people in the bawling booths. Very smart, don’t you think?”

“I see … Sorry, I’m not calling for anything urgent. It’s just that …” I informed Tanaka about Dai.

“Don’t worry, we expected this. Sooner or later people were going to make it a habit to visit the booths. We humans are creatures of routine after all.”

“But don’t you think Dai’s — this person’s behavior is weird?”

“Everyone has their quirks. We humans are weird creatures.”

I apologized for having wasted her time, thanked her, and hung up.

Maybe I was being oversensitive? Maybe I’d grown too attached to Dai?

In the end, my feelings were spot on.

Dai killed himself.

He stepped into the bawling booth like he always did. And sat silently like he always did. For four minutes.

Then, for the first time, his behavior changed. He rummaged inside his backpack, pulled out a couple of things — I couldn’t see what they were because his back obstructed the sight — and began using them in some way. Maybe he was writing or drawing something? Whatever he was doing, it took him another four minutes. I knew he’d finished because he reassumed his still position.

Which he maintained until four, eight … twelve minutes passed.

Until he flopped forward onto the floor like a puppet without a puppeteer.

I called Tanaka. This time, she shared my concern.

Sixteen minutes later, we were standing outside the booth, surrounded by police and paramedics. Two of the latter were rushing Dai out on a stretcher. Since he was under a blanket, I couldn’t tell what was wrong with him. What had happened to him. But his pale face and blue lips told me he was in critical condition.

That night, the police explained to us that Dai had cut his wrists with a box cutter. That he’d used a bath towel so he wouldn’t stain the floor with blood. That the doctors couldn’t save him in the ER.

In the end, Humantech didn’t get in trouble. If someone killed themselves in a public toilet, the company that operated it wouldn’t be blamed.

Despite this, I quit the job. I’d become emotionally crippled after what I’d witnessed. So much so that all I could do was sleep. And check suicide news on the internet. Toyota employee commits suicide because of overwork. Mother and son found dead in apparent murder-suicide. Olympic athlete dies after jumping in front of a train.

Until I finally bumped into one featuring Dai.

A university student, Daisuke Suzuki, committed suicide in a venting booth, which is a soundproof space created by the company Humantech …

Suzuki was in his final year in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He had a loving family, loyal friends, and a stable romantic partner. Because of all that, everyone was shocked about his decision to end his life, and it may remain unknown indefinitely —

I stopped reading and, to keep myself from browsing more news, put on my oversized hoodie and left my apartment.

I didn’t have a destination in mind. But apparently, my feet did — because, to my surprise, a moment later, I was standing in front of a department store.

Since I was already here, since I needed to keep my mind occupied, I strode in.

This was a mistake.

In one of the hallways, I bumped into a bawling booth.

From the outside, it looked like a telephone booth except it was black. And it didn’t have glass; there was no way to see what was inside.

On the door, big white raised characters said Venting Booth. Below hung a vacant sign. And another with instructions:

Step one: Insert 170 yen into the coin slot (change is available) or provide the same amount by placing your smart card on the card reader.

Step two: Enter the booth (the door will open automatically).

Note: When your time has finished, you’ll be notified by the booth, and the door will open.

I followed these directions and ventured into the booth.

Standing in the middle of it, surrounded by dim light and total silence, I had no idea why I was here.

But my body apparently knew because my knees buckled, my head lowered, and my hands brushed the floor, where Dai had probably sat.

Finally, my lips parted, and I let out a piercing scream, which morphed into curses, then into sobs.

Then into laughter. It was so loud that it hurt my ears. So loud that I almost peed myself. So loud that if people could hear it, they would have thought I’d gone mad — maybe I had.

I continued laughing in this dark chamber — unbeknownst to the whole world.

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Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

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