Lit Up
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Lit Up

The Zebra with the Red Mark

Background vector created by nadezhda_grapes — www.freepik.com

How could dozens of people, dozens of eyes, walk in his direction — and not look at him? Not even a glance? Instead, they passed by him as if he were invisible. As if he didn’t exist. As if he were a ghost no one believed in.

These thoughts returned to being a feeling. But this time, it was more powerful. More painful.

It hurt enough for Yuuki to turn around and go back to his apartment.

Yuuki inspected himself in the bathroom mirror. He’d be noticed by people if he looked like an actor. Or a member of a freak show. Instead, he was as plain as a piece of toast.

If he were a woman, he could wear makeup.

If he weren’t a man who was balding prematurely, he could get a fancy hairstyle.

There was only one thing he could change — his clothes.

His whole life, he’d dressed in navy blue school uniforms and black suits. Black T-shirts and blue jeans. Like most people. People who wanted to blend in, who believed in the old saying The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

It was time to find new clothes.

At a clothing store? That was where everyone shopped — so Yuuki would come out of it with what everyone wore. He should think differently. Should go a step further.

Should buy his new clothes on the internet. This way the selection would not only be more extensive, more special, but also faster and easier to find. And he wouldn’t even have to step out of his apartment. Also, maybe most important of all, he wouldn’t feel shy about buying clothes he didn’t usually buy.

At his desk, in front of his laptop, he searched for an online shopping platform. Then he browsed for — what should he check first?

Right, shirts. Artistic shirts. Rainbow Pride Shirt. 3D Art Muscle T-Shirt. Zebra Striped Sweatshirts. They were flashy — but they were still only shirts. Just with different graphics on them.

What about choosing bolder clothes? A vest, tuxedo, a motorcycle jacket? No, Yuuki didn’t want to be ostentatious. A peacock.

Maybe a yukata? Forget it. People would think Yuuki thought he was in a bathhouse or a summer festival. Was there a traditional Japanese garment that could be worn casually?

There was. Yuuki typed hanten in the search bar and checked the results. He let out a long sigh. It was less formal than a yukata, but he’d look as if he’d gone back to the Edo period.

Wait, if he chose one of M size, thinner fabric, and narrower sleeves, it would look like a blazer without buttons or lapels. But it would still be a hanten. Be distinctive.

Yuuki clicked the Add to Cart button on two items that fit that description. Black and navy blue.

Now, pants. Yuuki should definitely stay away from jeans, especially ripped ones. Shorts? No, even though it was spring, winter was still lingering in the air. What about white-on-gray plaid trousers? Maybe not; those had been trending lately.

What if Yuuki chose the opposite pattern? Gray on white? He rarely saw those on the streets.

He clicked the Add to Cart button on two items that fit that description. M size and L size.

Then he closed the website, feeling as if a new world was opening up to him.

Yuuki’s new clothes arrived in five days. He couldn’t stop wearing them and checking himself in the bathroom mirror. He looked great.

More importantly, he looked different. Special.

For his debut, he decided to wear the black hanten with one of his blue jeans — keeping his gray-on-white plaid trouser in the closet. Wearing two special garments would be too much. Besides, this way the ordinariness of the jeans would draw out the uniqueness of the hanten.

Yuuki put on his sneakers. Then he pulled open the door and stepped out of his apartment, feeling like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

He was thinking of going to Shibuya Crossing. But only made it to the sidewalk across his apartment. A feeling had stopped him, one that had morphed into panic.

What if his hanten wasn’t subtle at all? What if it was weird? What if people were secretly whispering, He just wants to stand out. Or He looks ridiculous in that. Or He thinks he’s in the Edo period or what?

This reminded Yuuki of an article he’d read on the internet. Some scientists were having a hard time singling out a particular zebra from its herd. No wonder. Its black — or white — stripes were designed for group camouflage.

They finally came up with an idea: painting a red mark on its haunch. And it worked.

Until the lions killed it.

It turned out the red mark also helped the lions to zero in on it and catch it.

Yuuki darted across the street and back into his apartment. Then he tore off his hanten and flung it onto the bed.

He shouldn’t have bought this. Any of this. And what had been his motivation anyway? Egotism? Vanity? Yuuki was ashamed of himself.

He should get rid of his new clothes — no, he couldn’t. They’d cost him half of this month’s part-time money.

Maybe he should wear them as home clothes? That would be a waste; he could wear a rag here.

He fretted over this until the street lights turned on. Staring at them through the window, something else lit up. In his head.

He could go out in his new clothes at night. Since it would be darker, they’d be less noticeable. Since there would be no people — no, there would still be many. He’d better go out at 4 a.m.

While waiting, he hung around his apartment in his new clothes so he’d get more used to them. So they’d become like his skin.

When the time arrived, he put on his sneakers and slipped out of his apartment.

As he ambled down the sidewalk, he glanced around. Gingko trees, department stores, pedestrian crossings, and a paved street that stretched endlessly ahead. No people. Yuuki felt as if he were the only survivor of an apocalypse.

He also felt ecstatic. He was finally wearing his new clothes outside.

But soon panic struck him again. And a late realization. This was Shibuya, the most downtown of downtowns in Tokyo. People could come out from anywhere — a 24-hour McDonald’s, a bar, a karaoke box — at any moment.

Yuuki rushed across the street and back into his apartment. This time, he didn’t take off his hanten. This time, after he calmed down, he was smiling slightly.

The next night, at 4 a.m., Yuuki ventured into the deserted streets again, wearing his black T-shirt and gray-on-white trousers. More confident than before — enough to make it to Shibuya Crossing, which, for the first time in his life, he was seeing empty, crossing alone.

“Look at me.” He lifted a leg forward, stretching out his arms to the sides. “I’m different. Special.”

Immediately, he lowered his arms and head. This was pointless. He’d worn these clothes so people would notice them. Notice him. If there were no people to do it, he could be naked, and there would be no difference.

He continued ahead, still facing down — until the tapping of shoes made him look up.

In front of him, also on Shibuya Crossing, stood a woman around his age. A stunning woman. She had large eyes, plump lips, and silky jet-black hair. This was contrasted by her plain clothes: a black T-shirt and blue jeans.

She was looking at him. No, gazing at him. Like no one ever had before. And he was gazing at her too.

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