Gregg Maxwell Parker
Winner of the 2021 Spring Fiction Contest
Several men bump her as she goes down the steps. Everyone is coming out as she is going in. It is afternoon, people are everywhere. She tries to get to the center where the railing is but she is pushed against the side. She clutches her big plastic bag and walks forward. She thinks about turning around and running home. But she goes down there. It is hot with so many people. Hot and dark down the steps.
She has to do it today. Today is the only day she has off for ten more days, and she must return the futon. When she gets down the steps, there is more room. She stops by the Lawson Station and pulls out her phone. No new posts. She glances up. She had walked while not looking and people are coming at her. She squeezes against the wall. The bag is heavy and the plastic pulls thin.
She doesn’t understand Osaka. There are too many train lines. She stares at the big map. She cannot find Umeda. This is the wrong line. She must go to another line. It is a long walk, and her bag is heavy as she goes up the steps. She finds the right one and there is an open ticket machine. She walks to it. Heels clack on the floor. She gets out her purse but she doesn’t know how much it is. She steps back and looks up at the big map. She cannot find it. She can feel people behind her breathing angry they want her to get out of the way she is stupid she should have looked before she walked up. She takes out 500 yen and puts it in the machine. She guesses and buys 280. She takes her ticket and her coins. The bag bumps as she goes through the turnstile. It is hard to pull through.
On the platform she is hot. She checks her phone. It won’t load. There is bad Internet underground. She doesn’t want to be here. But this is her only day off for ten more days. She wants to buy a drink. She puts in her coins and presses the button. She is 10 yen short it is 130 she had 120. She does not have her other 100 yen coin she must have dropped it. She has only a 10,000 yen note. She counted wrong and lost her coin she is stupid. She leaves and doesn’t get her drink. On the platform she stands there are many people she moves her bag to her other hand and looks at her phone. There is bad Internet underground. She puts the phone away.
Wan-Wan Inu is a cartoon dog that used to be very popular. The show is not on anymore, but she has all the episodes from when she was in high school and watched it every night and it made her happy, sitting in her very own bedroom because her sister was at university then, very happy. She would watch it while at university when she was nervous. If she had to study, she would make bargains with herself, if you study for one hour you can watch the one where the bulldog opens a casino and Wan-Wan Inu loses his money and must get it back, that will be your reward. She has all the episodes on her laptop, and her first night in her new apartment and the bedroom that wasn’t as big as they said it would be, it calmed her down and helped her get to sleep.
Rie likes to make art, and her favorite thing to draw is Wan-Wan Inu. She made a pillow and she’s very proud of it. Wan-Wan Inu is innocent and kind. He is not shy and he always says hello to new people. He gets in trouble because he trusts everyone and does not understand danger. Mean Kitty convinces him to do the wrong thing, but in the end he is not mad, the world never teaches him to be mad at mistakes. She loves Wan-Wan Inu. She thinks her pillow is beautiful and that it looks just like him, his long orange body and brown ears, his big smile and waggy tail, and she worked hard at it and did her best and thought of nothing else while she was doing it, just the sewing and the stuffing and making it the best she could, and it was its own reward, that feeling where there is nothing, only what she is doing, and she wants more of that.
The train comes. The doors open in front of her. Many people spill out. Her bag spins in her hands as they bump it. She turns to the side and holds the futon. People seem angry at her. She steps inside. There are no seats. She must stand. She checks her phone again. No new posts. She puts on her headphones. She tries to listen to Weezer. It is loud on the train. She has to turn up the volume.
The train stops several times. More and more people get on. They hit her bag as they walk past, pulling it with them. She has to yank it back. “Sumimasen!” she shouts. She isn’t sure if she is talking too loud because of her headphones. She feels stupid. They do not want her here. She tries to squeeze the futon to her chest with both hands so she won’t take up so much room but she yanks the headphone cord and it comes out of her phone it is jarring it tugs on her ears she feels dumb it hits a woman she puts it back in but does not turn it on no music just the train going by not quiet not safe Osaka going past she feels afraid.
Her parents did not want her to move here. She was not popular in school, lived at home during university and didn’t have many friends. Her only friends were Lizzy, who moved back to Ireland, and Natsuko, who spent all her time with her boyfriend last year and had to get married because she is pregnant. Rie has never been to a big city like this, only to Hiroshima which is not as big, but she wanted to go to a big place where there are more people so maybe she could find more people like her and make more friends, but it is too big and she keeps getting lost and she has no friends and accounting is hard and the other trainees snicker at her and before she came she put a pink stripe in her hair because she thought it was cool but the pretty girls don’t have pink stripes in their hair they compliment her she sees in their eyes they are writing it down in their minds to laugh at her behind her back.
Rie closes her eyes. She takes a deep breath as she feels the train speeding on the track under her, around her, rattling, moving. She plants one foot farther apart from the other so she won’t be shaken so much when it stops. For just a moment she tries to imagine all the other people here are gone, that she is not a disappointment. She imagines she is thin and popular, but then she hates that version of herself, she does not want to be thin and like all the other girls, she wants to be happy and confident but she isn’t. Her parents told her she does not belong here, that she will be overwhelmed and call them crying to come home. She might as well stay in her room her whole life, they say, because she doesn’t have what it takes like her older sister who lives in Tokyo but only calls their parents, not her, and never gave Rie advice when she was in school. Hiromi is the favorite because she is confident and always had friends and boyfriends but Rie has never had a boyfriend and never went out for school activities. They would be angry if they saw her now that she made this mistake. Hiromi would never make this mistake. Only Rie is stupid enough to have done this. She has no bed. No one at work is her friend. She worries she will be fired after training. She makes too many mistakes. She is breathing very quickly now and sweating in her coat there is no space to take it off. She is afraid to open her eyes, to go back to the world, because things are going to go badly, she knows it.
The train jerks to a stop and she stumbles. She hits a man. He looks outraged. “Sumimasen,” she says. She pushes past everyone to get off. There are many people trying to get on. She isn’t sure where to go. She goes up the stairs because there are too many people on the escalator. Umeda is too big. She can’t remember which exit she took the last time. There are too many people. Last time she took a different train it didn’t look like this. The sea of people keeps moving. She guesses and moves with the sea. When she puts her ticket in the turnstile, it spits it back and does not let her through. She takes it she must put more money on the ticket. Everyone scowls at her as she swims against the sea. She goes to the machine. She was wrong by 40 yen. She has no change. She didn’t take her change from the machine when she tried to get a drink. She puts in her big note. She takes all the money and the coins and goes back through the turnstile.
Umeda is full of tall buildings that glower like disapproving parents and with the sun piercing the cracks between them she is never sure if she’s going the right way. They are all big and black and many floors, restaurants and department stores. Pretty girls go shopping here. Rie was excited to go here when she came to Osaka, but she got scared and bought the first futon she found. She didn’t know her apartment would be so small and now the futon doesn’t fit. Her room is bigger back home. She belongs back home but she hates back home even more than here. She wants to be strong and confident like city girls but she knows she is not. She doesn’t know where to go. She keeps walking. She goes with the sea up and down stairs around the streets. The sea thins out she can use her phone. No new replies. The map on her phone tells her she has been going the wrong way. She uses it to find the store but has to look down at it a lot and bumps people they look disappointed in her like everyone.
Rie loves the Wan-Wan Inu Message Board. People discuss episodes and upload GIFs and make memes that only they understand because you have to be a real fan to understand the jokes. They talk about how the show might come back for a one-hour special, and how much they love it, and show art they’ve made featuring Wan-Wan Inu. Rie wishes she could make Wan-Wan Inu things and sell them online like the pillow no one would get mad, it’s an old show. Her sister told her they would arrest her if she made products for a show that isn’t her show but it’s art she said and her sister said she should grow up and not use a children’s show “like a crutch” in English she said it but Rie isn’t good at English and didn’t get lots of degrees and doesn’t live in Tokyo so she doesn’t know what that means and her sister knows that. Living in Osaka alone is too hard.
Today was the first time Rie ever posted on the Wan-Wan Inu Message Board. She said too much. She shouldn’t have done it. People will mock her and argue with her and think she is foolish. She should have stayed in the shadows so they wouldn’t know she is there reading it. They will hate her and she’ll be humiliated and she won’t be able to read the message board anymore and then she’ll have nothing.
The store is big and has many floors. She isn’t sure which one it is and goes up the escalator but she can’t see what’s on the floors when she’s on the escalator. She gets off and walks around. It is a big square. Everywhere she walks people call out to her. She looks at her feet to avoid their eyes. White floor. Squares. People coming the other way. She has to get out of their way. She keeps walking because she doesn’t see the futons. There is a clerk up ahead. She will talk to him. She gets there but an older lady is talking to him. She stands behind them to give them space. People keep pushing past. She must step out of the way. She walks closer because the people are walking between and she wants him to see her. He tells her she needs to wait. The lady scowls at her.
Eventually the lady leaves. She asks about the futons. He looks at her strangely because she is holding a futon he can tell. He says she is on the wrong floor. “Gomen nasai,” she says she turns around she walks away. It’s floor three, he tells her. She goes to the elevator she sees it but she doesn’t know if she is supposed to return it there. She should have asked if they have a returns counter. Maybe the people in the futon section will tell her to go there. Her bag hangs strangely from bouncing when so many people knocked it and she worries it might rip. She worries she will collapse like she did once at university. She is sure this will go badly and the dread is unbearable.
There are two women in the elevator. Rie goes to the corner and hides there. Someone has already pushed the third floor’s button it is lit up. She closes her eyes. She hears the doors close and the ding. The women talk but their voices are silenced by her breathing. It is big and full, a big breath in. A big breath out. She breathes as hard as she can and as slow as she can. For a moment that’s all there is.
Training was scary from the start. There were eight of them in the room together and they went over the company policies all day and the accounting protocols the next and did test cases the next and then two days of shadowing, but she is with an old man named Mr. Oshima who does not speak to her other than to tell her what to do. He clearly did not want a girl, and meanwhile the others get to work with younger staff and they laugh and it is fun, but at her desk it is silent and he doesn’t even look at her.
She is very slow and asks a lot of questions, and she doesn’t dress or look like the others, they have clothes that are formal but relaxed and not traditional, and Oshima glares at her pink stripe and her traditional clothes. The other trainees do not talk to her, and whenever she says anything in the group there is a long pause. They don’t invite her to lunch and laugh loudly as they leave and she knows they are laughing at her. She eats her sandwich on the steps outside and no one looks at her as they walk by.
Hideyuki does not talk to her at work. He does not look at her when they go to lunch without her. He smirks when she asks a question and they all know the answer. But he smiled at her when Oshima yelled at her and she was sad and looked across the room and there he was. He sat at the other end of the table at the welcome party when she was by the older staff who talked to each other and not to her and the others were near the supervisors making a good impression. He approached her in the train station and told her to come back to his place, and it felt like if she didn’t, nothing would ever change, that this was what you did when you moved to the city and he was smart and worldly and she should listen to him.
He never texted her and she can’t text him now, because she wouldn’t know what to say and if anyone found out they’d say horrible things about her, and she didn’t even like it, it was painful and sharp and didn’t seem like he cared how she felt and she wishes she could find a girl who would embrace her but she is ashamed to say this to anyone because a girl might reject her too because chubby girls are gay when men don’t want them and her parents would say the same thing because she is a disappointment and always will be.
The elevator dings and she opens her eyes shocked like in the morning after a bad dream it has been a few seconds but possibly longer and she walks out onto the floor but is still thinking about Hideyuki and Oshima and training and she walks around in a circle of the whole store forgetting why she is there. A clerk stops and asks if she can help.
I need to return this futon, she says.
Is something wrong with it?
It is too big for my new apartment, she says.
Do you have the receipt?
Rie does not have the receipt. It is not in the bag. It must have fallen out during the trip. The woman smirks at her like she is not on her side and says she must have the receipt or they will not take it back. Next time go to the customer service desk because they don’t just take things back if you can’t prove you bought it here.
Her eyes water. Obviously she bought it here. It is in their bag with their logo and looks like all the others. But the woman just smiles and walks away and Rie says nothing. She mumbles that she is sorry but no one hears her. She feels stupid. She can feel eyes on her. Everyone can see her. Everyone knows she screwed up again. She is stupid. She feels she may collapse. She will have a futon that doesn’t fit in her apartment and she can’t do a simple thing. The world is getting smaller and smaller it’s closing in she hears her heartbeat. She is sweating. She feels the sweat in her hair and her sides and her neck and she wants to run. She turns and walks quickly away, away, but she didn’t return the futon but she will cry if she doesn’t get outside right now.
She goes out a different door than she came in. She doesn’t know where she is. She knows she has to go down. She takes an escalator but then there is no entrance for the train. She goes in the direction she thinks it is. The street doesn’t go around the building. It goes straight for a long ways. She’s walking and she knows this is wrong. She turns right but there is no train. She thinks she should go back the way she came. She doesn’t want to go back to the store. She keeps walking. Walking. Legs tired. She should have worn different shoes. She goes straight. She pulls out her phone.
This morning she posted on the Wan-Wan Inu Message Board for the first time. A new topic, a picture she took of the pillow she made, her sewing project of Wan-Wan Inu. She said that she made it, and that she is often sad, and Wan-Wan Inu makes her happy because he is like the friend she wishes she had, and that this message board means a lot to her so she would like to make pillows if anyone would like them. It felt good to say it, but she thinks she said too much and they will roll their eyes at her. Two new topics were posted after hers and people posted replies to them and maybe they will just ignore her forever. She should never have told anyone. When you tell people your secrets they use it to laugh at you and look down on you.
No new replies. If someone had said something mean, at least she would feel bad and stop looking at it. But she will keep checking forever. She will feel anxiety forever worrying what they thought of her pillow and if what she said about being sad was pathetic.
When she looks up there is a bicycle right in front of her she should jump out of the way but she freezes. The man stops quickly and almost falls over the handlebars of his bike. He scowls at her. Look at where you are going, he says. He steers around her and goes on. She can feel all the eyes on her. She is trembling. They see she is weak.
She runs into an alley. There is a big trash bin. She goes to the other side and hides behind it. She cries. No one can see her. She is crying. She can’t do it. It is too hard. Everyone is right. She is incapable. Why can’t she feel okay? Why is she always afraid? When will she feel like everyone else?
The door opens next to her she didn’t see the door. An employee comes out with two bags of trash that look like her futon bag, puffy and full. He stares at her. “Gomen nasai,” she says. She walks back to the street but didn’t have time to clean herself up her eyes are red everyone can see she’s been crying a stupid little girl who should have stayed home.
She looks around there are too many people. She sees the subway entrance not the one she knows. She goes down the steps she can’t hold onto the railing there are too many people. It is rush hour now. She should have gone earlier. She puts all her coins in a machine and buys a ticket she does not try to figure out how much it is. This train does not go to the right place. She will go to Tennoji and find the right one. It will take longer but she does not want everyone to see her being stupid. She runs to make the train. She gets on. There is a small space between two women. She walks over. “Sumimasen,” she says. They do not move for her. She squeezes between them and sits. As she squeezes into the seat the bag catches on a man’s coat. It rips. The futon falls on the dirty floor. She wants to cry. She picks up the futon holds it to her chest. The train rattles. There are people everywhere glaring at her. She wants to be anywhere but here but not home. She does not know where she wants to be. Not here. The world is getting smaller. It will crush her. This will be a disaster too. She is hot and sweaty. She feels her breaths they are fast. She wants to scream and jump up and run out but she can’t the train is moving she trembles.
Inundated, she turns to her phone. A small respite but she is terrified. She is worried about the responses. It takes a long time to load. She puts on Weezer her favorite song is “Beverly Hills.” She closes her eyes and imagines she is not here.
Open eyes there are three replies. She looks at the first. “I want one!” says a girl with a Mean Kitty icon.
The next is from a woman who posts a lot. Rie imagines her to be older since she has mentioned that she has children and uses an icon of Mariko, Wan-Wan Inu’s girl owner. “I understand how you feel. I think this is a great community. Welcome to the board! This may be a silly children’s cartoon, but we can share it, so it is proof that we are not alone. I am a better wife because my husband lets me have fun with my interests even if he does not share them. I hope you will make more art. It will make us all smile!” With it, there is a smiling face emoji. A man who uses an icon of Hiro, Wan-Wan Inu’s adult owner, responds to it. “I agree! Good job! Please make more!” he says.
Rie is not sure if they want her to make pillows for them or if they feel sorry for her, but that does not matter right now. She will think of her responses later. She smiles. They were nice to her. She does not have to worry about this. Maybe these will be her friends. She puts the phone in her pocket and closes her eyes. Now it is not so bad. She can relax. She feels her breathing. In and out, her stomach moves and presses against the futon. A moment of lightness. The rest of the train is there, she can hear it, the train moving and stopping and moving again, outside now, she feels the light on her face. It is warm. The world is there but she is here, breathing. I am here. She feels it. She feels herself. She is here. The light. Breathing
Gregg Maxwell Parker
is the author of the middle grade book Troublemakers as well as the grown-up novels The Real Truth and Murder, She Vaped: The Ironic T-Shirt Caper. He and his wife run the blog As Seen In Japan, where they share photos and stories of unique findings in Japan. You can follow their adventures @SeenJapan on Twitter and Instagram and at asseeninjapan.com, and see more of Gregg’s writing at greggmaxwellparker.com.
Art by Alexey Adonin
“Inside Your Prison”
Black Ecco Pigment Fineliner & Felt-Tip Pens on Paper
As an explorer of the mysterious universe of art, Jerusalem-based abstract-surrealist artist Alexey Adonin has dedicated over one and a half-decades to conveying his vision of hidden otherworldly realms connected with a timeless source of inspiration. Alexey was born in Slutsk, Belarus, in 1973. He graduated in 1993 from the State Art College named after A. K. Glebov, in Minsk, Belarus. In the same year, he immigrated to Israel. Since 2002, Alexey has exhibited locally and internationally. His works have also been acquired by notable private collections worldwide.