A Chiasmus Through the Night – A Late, Late, S9.ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, HISAO IS VISITED IN HIS DREAMS BY THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE - EACH A GIRL (OR PAIR/GROUP OF GIRLS) HE KNOWS AT YAMAKU. HOWEVER, ONE GIRL IN PARTICULAR IS NOTICEABLY ABSENT - UNTIL, THAT IS, HE WAKES UP.
Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
The whistle, and then bright explosion of a firework, paints the night sky in colour.
“Woah!” Emi exclaims, pressing her face against the chain link and pointing as another rocket shoots into the air, and again, explodes into those falling crackling colours. She turns to face me and sticks her tongue out.
“I thought you’d never wake up!” she teases. Beside her, Rin is sitting cross-legged, the knotted-off sleeves where arms should be flapping about in the occasional breeze. It should be colder here on the roof of Yamaku, but it feels warm, I think.
I feel peculiar, like I’m made of water. My arms don’t feel like mine when I stretch them out, but when I hold my hands in front of my face, I recognise them as distinctly Hisao. Rin is looking at me quizzically, but she turns away to watch the display.
“I thought he had died again,” she says. Like she’s not saying it to me, or to Emi, like she’s just saying it to the world.
“Rin!” Emi chastises her, but she seems unfazed.
“Again?” I ask. Even my voice feels strange, like I’m hearing myself in a recording, or like I’m talking from inside a glass bottle.
Another firework explodes behind the girls, painting the two briefly as silhouettes. I sit and stretch my legs out in front of me, but the gravel feels strange too, like it’s not as sharp as it should be. It’s a bit uncanny.
“Well, you haven’t been taking your health very seriously, Hisao,” Emi laughs.
I feel a sudden, searing pain in my chest, like someone is hammering a nail into me. I massage it, and the pain briefly subsides, but Emi is now looking at me with a pretty nasty scowl.
“See,” she says, “you’ve just spent your first week here moping around, doing nothing, dying.”
I don’t know why, but that sounds a bit unfair. I mean, I didn’t spend my first week at Yamaku moping… did I?
“I’m just glad you came with us for the festival,” Emi sighs.
That feels wrong too, like I’ve lived in this moment before, or like I’m remembering two different times or things at once. It makes me feel like my head’s going to split in half, so I shake away the thoughts and massage my chest until the pain is completely gone.
“Why don’t you come and see the view,” Rin half asks, half states. I can’t say the thought of standing on the ledge when my legs feel so loose is appealing, especially since that fence looks like it’ll give way in the wind.
Something about all of this is so wrong, it’s like my head is filled with sand. Still, I get up, and find that my legs feel a bit better, a bit stronger.
“Okay,” I reply, and slowly walk over to the edge between the girls. Emi gives me a smile and looks out into the sky as another streak of light explodes across the sky.
Below us, there are stands, trees, crowds… it’s familiar to me somehow. What isn’t, however, is the city skyline ahead of us. It seems strange to me that Yamaku is so close to the city, or that the roof of Yamaku would be so high up that you could jump from one roof to another.
I can’t help but feel like I’m forgetting something. In the distance, beside the blinking red light of a crane, I see a plane disappearing behind the horizon, and I feel something awful in my stomach turning over and over again. Down below, a girl I recognise and young child disappear into a sea of faces.
“Do you feel better now?” Emi asks from beside me. She’s smiling and looking over the crowds that swarm below, darting between stands or sitting to watch the fireworks that occasionally leave their fading lights in the night sky. Something smells amazing, I think it’s the noodle stand where that I went with Lilly… Or at least, that seems somehow familiar, but I can’t find the memory anymore.
“Not really,” I say, “I have a headache.”
Rin shrugs and gets up onto the ledge of the roof. She looks me square in the eyes for a moment, before turning around and walking along the edge like she’s a tight-ropewalker or something equally bizarre.
“You don’t look like Hisao anymore,” she declares, like I’m guilty of something.
“Rin!” Emi laughs, “People change! You can’t expect him to look like he did in school!”
I lift my hands to my face again and feel around, but I can’t feel anything different about me. At least I can feel something now, that’s better than water, that’s better than nothing.
“I wasn’t looking at his face,” Rin answers, before jumping down from the ledge and spreading herself out on the floor.
“What’s going on?” I manage to ask, but Emi just gives me a sympathetic look and hugs me from the side.
I turn to look at Rin but she’s not there anymore.
“Where did she go?” I ask, and Emi shrugs.
“I guess she said everything she had too, I’m just surprised she came at all.”
“Came to what?”
“To this, Hisao. I mean, you must know,” Emi explains.
None of this makes any sense, and my head feels like it’s about to split in two.
“You were so mopey, you know.” Her voice sounds sad, and a bit lonely. She keeps looking off into the distance, through the buildings, where the fireworks explode silently and dissipate.
“Everyone was trying their best, to make you feel welcome, to help you. When you stopped running with me, it was like you’d just given up on a normal life.”
That stings, but it’s not entirely unwarranted. I still remember standing Emi up, more than once. I stick my fingers through the chain link, and unsurprisingly, it feels like it might collapse under my weight. For a moment, I wonder if she’d hate who I eventually ended up with, but I don’t even know who that is.
“I was finding it hard to adjust, anyone in my position would.” It feels wrong to defend myself, and Emi scowls at me. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“I don’t know why you keep coming here, either,” she says quietly. I don’t know how to respond, so we just stand there silently watching the fireworks explode without a sound behind the city. “You come here every year, for the last fifteen.”
After what must be at least ten minutes, Emi steps back off the ledge and offers me her hand.
I tilt my head at her quizzically.
“Let’s take one last look around, for old times’ sake.”
“One last time?” I ask.
“Well, usually you go before we get this far, this time feels different.”
“What do you mean?”
“Does it matter?”
I think on that for a second. Does it matter? All of this feels ethereal, unreal, like I’m living in a sketch. What happens if I say no? If I just stay here watching the fireworks? Will I end up here forever?
I take her hand, and Emi smiles, I think that’s the first real smile I’ve seen her give yet.
“Come on, then,” she tugs me towards the stairs. Bizarrely enough, even though I can’t remember how I got here, I do remember these stairs. We take them quite quickly, down into the second floor and into the hallway. There’s this awful picture hanging there, like some existential nightmare, it always reminded me of Rin’s mural. Which, if this if the right festival, should be displayed now, right?
“Can we see Rin’s mural?” I ask, and Emi laughs.
“Do you remember it?”
“Vaguely,” I laugh a bit too, but Emi sighs.
“Then there’s not much point, you’ll only see the bit you remember.”
We stop in the hall, and she turns to face me.
“I don’t understand.”
“You really don’t, huh? I thought you were supposed to be smart now,” Emi laughs. “Smarter, then.”
“So, all of this, it’s a memory?” I ask. She bounces back and forth on her running blades, which until now I hadn’t even noticed. I guess that’s because I was more used to them than her everyday prosthetics.
“No, it’s more like an informed projection.” She tilts her head to the side and thinks. “I’m not sure how to explain it, I’m not very good at science.”
After a moment of thinking, she laughs.
“Besides, I’m still a teenager here, you expect too much of me!”
I take another look down my body. I’m in my Yamaku uniform but I feel… fatter than I remember.
Emi just watches me looking over myself, with a timid smile on her lips.
“I guess I really should have kept running, huh?” I joke, and she giggles.
“You’re not that out of shape.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“Besides, it wasn’t being unfit that killed you the first time,” she laughs.
“Killed me?” I ask, as we begin walking again down another flight of stairs.
“Oh, Hisao,” Emi whispers sadly, “I think you’d be better asking the next one.” I want to know what that means, but so far, I haven’t exactly learnt much from asking, so I just let it slide.
We exit out into the festival, but there’s nobody here anymore. Just a load of empty and unmanned stalls. It’s eerie, like the world is made of cardboard around us as the city beside us towers above and Yamaku slowly fades into the distance behind.
The whole damn world feels like it’s one strong blow from collapsing.
“Like a festival for ghosts, huh?” Emi nudges me.
“Are we the ghosts?” I jokingly ask her, but her face gets very serious.
“I don’t know what we are,” she explains, and suddenly her energy comes back. “Hey look!”
She points towards another couple walking the path. I recognise them both, well, it’d be hard not to. One of them is me. On my arm is Lilly, we look happy.
They walk towards us, but they don’t slow down, not that they’re going fast.
“Hey, me,” I say, but neither pay any attention to us. We’re talking about something, but it’s like we’re whispering, I can’t hear anything. Lilly brings her hand to her mouth; she always had such a dignified giggle.
They walk past us, and I turn to follow them, but Emi grabs me.
“There’s no point, they can’t see us.”
“Why not?” I ask, I try to grab myself, but end up just reaching through me. “They’re not really here?”
“Something like that, but we’re not either.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, Hisao,” Emi repeats, before tugging me along behind her.
I take another look behind at Lilly and me; we look happy. I wish I were there, instead of with Emi, but it’s like there’s nothing I can do. I want to get off of this ride, but I can’t.
“Do you ever wish you could go back?” I ask Emi.
She bites her thumb for a moment.
“Not really, I mean, I used to want that.” She breathes in for a moment. “I just feel like it’s better looking back at the past than living there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what’s past has already, you know, passed,” she explains. She looks pretty uncomfortable with this line of questioning.
“I guess, but things were easier, in a way.”
Emi laughs, but this time it’s almost bitter. “Hisao, you’re a tourist in the past, be grateful you’re not trapped here.”
Before I can ask her to elaborate, I notice the floodlights over the track. Emi is already there, well, another Emi is already there, running around the asphalt. Emi notices herself and chuckles.
“It’s weird to me that you see me like this, it’s a bit insulting really,” she says, but she seems in better spirits now, “I’m more than just an athlete you know!” She sticks her tongue out at me, and we head over to the bleachers looking over the track. I haven’t seen any fireworks for a while.
The other Emi has that determined look on her face that I remember, she passes us but doesn’t notice, and keeps running. Round, and round, and round.
“I used to be so determined,” Emi points out. “Ha, here you come!”
Sure enough, I see myself again, running a lap slowly. The ghost of Emi passes my own shade, and my other tries to catch up. He can’t really handle it.
“I thought I’d killed you that day, you know.” She laughs again, but it’s a bit hollow-sounding.
This liminal space I’m in, it’s unsettling, but somehow, I feel like I’ve seen it before. Like I’m watching the past through a window that I remember.
On the bleachers beside us, I see another set of ghosts. It’s Lilly and me again, this time sitting, chatting, holding one another in the evening. I remember that night, just talking about our futures.
“What even is the past?” I ask, and Emi strokes her chin thoughtfully.
“I guess you can’t really explain it, but I think we can only understand the world backwards.”
She looks out over the memories repeating, and smiles. “I’ve always wondered why I’m the past, but I think I get it now.”
“You do?” I ask, but Emi has her attention on the shades.
“I’m that nebulous ‘what if,’ that regret, the wanting to take your health seriously but not getting there.”
I don’t say anything, so she continues.
“I’m the ‘I wish I had listened,’ I’m the extra years you won’t ever get.”
I look at her and can’t help but feel angry.
“You’re wrong,” I say, “I took it seriously in the end.” I don’t even know why I believe that. An image of a woman and a young girl flash, and then sizzle out in my mind.
I don’t know what it is about Emi that makes me feel so annoyed, but I carry on, frustrated.
“I know what you are Emi, you’re the past glory, that wanting to be something that could never be, that pretence of something inspirational. That’s why you’re in your gym outfit, that’s why we’re here, at Yamaku, you’re the past; and the thing about the past is that you look at it through a window, you never see it clearly.”
I expect her to get angry, but she doesn’t. She smiles at me.
“I guess that could be it,” she says. “It’s been fun, Hisao, living as an echo.”
We sit there in silence after that. Watching the shadows of the past, running, talking, living.
Though part of me wishes I could be there, I smile too. The past belongs in the past.
Our ghosts live on, and I sit back into the bleacher.
“How do I leave this place, Emi?”
“Lean back, look up,” she laughs. “You’ve got cardio to do.”
I look up into the night.
Above me, a plane cuts across the dark sky.
And then another.
And then, another.
And then, the sky is taken over.
And that sky comes crashing down around me.
You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission.
Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
A plane overhead spirals out of control before exploding above me. All of my senses are assaulted, there’s the sounds of screaming, gunfire, and an overwhelming stench of oil, machinery, and grime.
I try to scream but end up coughing violently. My lungs feel heavy, like I’m breathing in smoke, and another series of explosions overhead send wrecks and bits of debris scattering down to the ground.
From behind me, a commanding voice, one I recognise, stirs me to action.
“On your feet Hicchan, I’m not letting you die here.”
A set of strong arms hoist me up, and effectively carry me back to behind what I can only assume is one of our tanks. I try to survey my surroundings, but nothing seems to be right… the soldiers pushing forward on either side, they’re green. They look like they’re made of…. wax? A girl and her mother are running across the field towards me, I recognise them and reach out and -
Misha slaps me hard across the face, and I immediately focus on her. Her pink hair stands out in contrast to her overtly ‘army’ helmet.
I cough up again, but finally manage to speak.
“I always,” I breathe in, damn that feels good to breathe again. “I always knew you’d be a fine commander, Misha,” I laugh.
Misha’s face is dead-serious; she shakes me by the shoulders.
“Get yourself together Hicchan, General Shizune needs us to break the attack and hold out here.” She gets in close and grabs me by the shoulder, “Until the bitter end.”
Just as she finishes speaking another explosion shakes the sky and several planes fall out of the air and crash to the right of us. Misha doesn’t seem fazed and barks some orders to the green wax men that, I presume, are fighting for us.
“Shouldn’t I at least have a weapon?” I ask, and Misha again looks frustrated with me.
“Would you know how to use one If you did?”
A fair point, but how am I supposed to repel the enemy without any weaponry?
I peek around the side of our cover, but I can’t really make out what’s happening. Some of our green men advance, they sort of, waddle, but there are green men on the other sides of the trenches too, and they’re shooting this way. I duck back into cover.
“I can’t even tell who we’re shooting at!”
Finally, Misha laughs, it’s somehow comforting.
“This is war, Hicchan, it isn’t a game.”
“Then why are the enemy…toys?”
Misha looks over her shoulder, before popping round the corner and unleashing a volley of shots from her rifle. She grabs me by the wrist, and beelines for a trench ahead of us.
I’m not sure how my heart is keeping up with this.
Bits of grime and muck spit up at us as we sprint, some of it’s from the running, but some if it looks like, sounds like, smells like, gunfire.
We throw ourselves into the trench, and Misha immediately starts firing at the two green men already here. I just assumed they were on our side, but evidently not.
One of them goes down, but the other charges us.
“Get him Hicchan!”
I give Misha a panicked look, but she… looks like she’s enjoying this?
“How?” I ask, just as the green man gets into range. He grabs onto my arms, and we fall back over into the mud. “Help!”
I give the wax man a strong kick in the stomach and roll over to be on top of him. Misha is laughing, and I feel sick.
“Finish him off!”
“Again, how?” I panic. The man wrestles with me, so I sock him in the jaw, and he stops moving.
Damn, that actually did feel kind of good. It also feels like I didn’t really deserve to win that fight.
“How can you tell they were enemies?” I ask, trying to catch my breath.
“I couldn’t,” she laughs. “I just went straight for the bunker, that’s what we do every time.”
“What we do?” I try to ignore the quite psychotic implications of Misha’s rampant bloodlust, or the fact that I might have just assaulted a soldier on my side. God, war is hell.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, Hicchan, this makes 15.” She’s remarkably cheery now, compared to her serious tone before. “Though usually we get gunned down by now…”
“Well, maybe today we win, provided we don’t attack any of our own men again,” I tease, and another bullet ricochets overhead. I feel remarkably calm, despite everything. It’s like none of this really matters, like, this isn’t about me.
“It doesn’t matter really, Hicchan!” She laughs and leans back against the bunker wall.
I sit down against the wall on my side, the sounds of gunfire and explosions continue around us, but they seem more subdued now, like they’re happening further away.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we won’t ever win! That isn’t what happens,” she explains, and begins to twiddle with the parts of her hair that poke out beneath her helmet.
A platoon of our soldiers advances beside/above us. They salute Misha, and then me, before continuing onward.
Overhead, a plane, much larger than the fighters from before, careens across the sky. Two doors on the underside open up and pieces of…paper? Yeah, paper, fall softly down to the ground.
Misha looks up and plucks a piece from the sky as it comes into the trench. That plane seems to have brought the night along with it, and it suddenly feels a lot colder, and darker.
Another piece of paper lands in front of me and I pick it up. On the front, in bold, it says: General Hakamichi Finds Pressure Too Much , but the photo isn’t of Shizune in military garb, but rather, a business-like pant suit. She’s being photographed leaving a press conference of some kind. The image seems really familiar to me, but I can’t place it. She looks ashamed.
“Hey Misha, what’s this about?” I point at the picture, but she shrugs.
“You don’t remember Hicchan? Did you not follow Shizune’s career after school ended? You’re a bad friend, Wahahah~,” her trademark laugh throws me off guard for a minute, but that doesn’t seem fair. After all, this picture is familiar.
All of this seems so familiar in fact, so much so that I’m surprised I didn’t recognise it before.
“We’re playing RISK, aren’t we?” I ask.
“Hicchan, this is war not a ga – okay yes, we’re in RISK, and I still don’t get the rules,” she laughs again, and crumples up the photo in her hand.
“Of course, we’re here, and of course, I’m losing to Shizune.”
“Not quite Hicchan, we’re actually all on the same side.”
“Then who are we even fighting?” I ask. The horizon briefly lights up as something explodes in the distance.
Misha closes the distance between us and waves her hands about, “Complacency!”
I laugh and crumple up the photo in my own hands. “Really, who?”
“I’m not sure it is a who, it’s more like an idea, I think,” Misha laughs loudly.
“Okay, but where’s Shizune?”
In the filth of the trench, another photo with a remarkably different frame stands out. I reach for it, and see myself, and two others, that same young girl and what looks like her mother. But they’re just faces, nameless…
Another large plane soars above us, and again, the underside opens up and a flurry of paper comes cascading down. Except this time, the paper doesn’t fall softly like before – it falls hard, overwhelmingly hard. Misha squeals as papers pile up around us and over the bunkers, a few hit me with a pretty painful feeling, but it isn’t the pain that scares me as the mound builds up around us.
I start clawing up, but it doesn’t matter, the papers tower above and around and over me. I can’t see Misha anymore, but the paper continues to fall. I feel like I’m climbing on sand, as stacks of paper slip from beneath me and my hands find purchase on nothing but air.
The papers fall faster and harder, and I feel myself sinking below them. I close my eyes, and can just about breathe as wave after wave of paper crashes over me…
When I finally open them again, the beating has stopped. I feel light, like I’m suspended in jelly. The sounds of gunfire and explosions have long gone, but instead there’s this viscous sound, like I’m inside some kind of chamber filled with water. Above me, the stars shine dutifully, but they sway.
A hand breaks the surface of the sky and reaches down to me. It grabs me by the shirt and yanks me up until the surface fractures and I can finally breathe clearly.
I pull myself up, with a little help, and lie flat out on the… raft? It feels light, and the water around it is perfectly still.
To my surprise, the hand isn’t Misha’s, but Shizune’s. She shoots me a concerned look as I cough up water, but she regains her composure as I shake my hands and head in confirmation that I’m not quite dead.
With my breath back, and my clothes cold and soaked through, I sit up properly and wave to Shizune. She returns the gesture but pulls her legs up to her chest and looks out across the water.
There isn’t anything there that I can see, just the end where the stars meet the horizon. There’s nothing on any side, just the expanse of water stretching out into infinity.
“Where are we?” I ask, but obviously it’s useless. Shizune looks up to me for a moment but shakes her head and returns her gaze to the horizon. Without Misha here, or a means of writing, we’re not going to have much of a conversation.
I pull up beside her and fold my legs to my chest. It definitely feels as though we’re moving, but there’s just nothing out there. Shizune looks as though she’s been crying; it’s not a side of her I remember from High School.
Just as I’m about to move again, something appears atop the water. A cloud dances, and I can just make out shapes.
Shizune holds her legs tighter, and the clouds take on unmistakeable shapes; people arguing, with one higher than the others.
I fish around my pockets for that photo of Shizune earlier, but I guess I don’t have it. The scene seems so familiar to me, but I just can’t place it.
The ghosts are debating something, it looks like some kind of conference. Shizune sinks her head into her arms beside me, and it all comes rushing back. Her time in local government, how short it really was… I remember someone telling me about the disgraced Hakamichi… someone close revelling in it.
I suddenly feel guilty. I try to get her attention, but Shizune is looking over to our right now, where another set of ghosts are waltzing over the lake. These ones look younger, there are three of them, in fact… one of them is distinctly Hisao, uh, me. Which makes the others, by the look of it, Shizune and Misha.
Did the three of us really hang out much in high school? It feels so long ago now, but even so I don’t remember much.
And then again, behind us, more cloud-like… memories. Shizune and I playing RISK in the student council room. And behind that, Misha… cutting her hair? I’m not sure what that has to do with anything…
All of this, it makes me wonder about the real Shizune. The one I went to school with, not this sad, hollow girl beside me. I look to the left and see myself at a desk, looking tired and… drunk.
That’s a far more familiar sight, sadly. I look about 15 years younger, and something knags at me, a memory of being at the bottom…
Shizune leans over to watch me, eh, the ghostly me. Suddenly, she seems less sad.
She points at the ghost, and then at me, and shakes her head.
I nod in a kind of resignation, but she shakes her head again, this time harder.
She points to the ghosts of us together and shakes her head again. Then at us playing RISK, and then at the scene of her humiliation. She pauses for a moment on that one, bit bites her lip and shakes her head aggressively.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper, and Shizune looks like she’s trying to read my lips.
She shakes her head again, and points back at my ghost.
A strong wind blows past us, and the ghosts go flying beside and behind us. They keep going further and further back, as they recede into that infinite sea.
Shizune taps me, well, more like punches me honestly, and points ahead of the raft, where the first ghosts were. Now, if I squint, I can just make out another two spectres. One of them is clearly me, and the other… Shizune.
We look different somehow… older, older than I am now. The ghosts walk away from us, they walk ahead.
Shizune points behind the raft and shakes her head again.
Then, to my surprise, she speaks.
“No,” she practically yells.
“No,” she repeats.
The ghosts ahead disappear with another gust, and this time, nothing replaces them.
I look up to see the blinking red and green lights of another plane.
“No,” I repeat.
I lie back against the mast and hear the faint chirp of crickets.
I close my eyes, and the raft drifts silently past the past, present, and future.
We drift away on a ‘no.’