By Robert Feeney
Monday is his time for listening. The black buds fit into his ears, first right, then left. He has recently decided that purchasing cheap headphones is a false economy, and so the ones he uses now are branded and chrome golden. The difference is noticeable. The syllables of the vocabulary he is studying are clearer than before. He hears where the vees become bees, where the words run into and separate away from each other. The quality of sound is almost too good. In the middle of an example conversation regarding Japanese myths and legends, he thinks he hears a knock at the door. Haruka, his girlfriend, left to catch her train half an hour ago. Perhaps she left something behind, and only realised her mistake fifteen minutes from the apartment. But when he twists the magnetic key lock, unlatches and opens the door, no-one is there. He tells himself that the phantom knock is a result of the headphones picking up inconsistences in the recording and amplifying them. The quality is too good. What a purchase, a victory for sensible spending. He returns to his chair and repeats after the speakers. Naka. Inside. Soto. Outside. Soh. Toh.
He wakes during the night. Something is outside. The time is three fourteen am and something is outside. This is wrong. It is too early for post, or meter checkings, or Haruka. This has never happened before. He is a heavy sleeper. He has slept through minor earthquakes. But now something in the parking lot outside has woken him from a dreamless sleep. He starts to concentrate, to bring his surroundings into focus. Whatever is there, it is not even making much noise. It is only the unexpected presence which has disturbed him. Sounds eventually appear. Footsteps, bipedal and heavy, slow then fast, bounding up the stairs to his floor. His heart beats with them. They stop outside his door, which is beneath the alcove where he sleeps. So close now, he can almost feel it in the bed with him. He needs to throw back the covers, descend the ladder, and double check that he has locked the door. But he cannot move. He cannot make any noise, or it will know he is here. There is breathing now. Long and deep. It sounds like an animal. But there is a word underneath it all, a word is being repeated. A dark mantra. He can't make it out. It must be Japanese. He has to believe the door is locked. Words can't open it. He is safe, in his alcove bed.
He tells Haruka about the incident on Sunday, how the words and footsteps eventually went away and he stumbled back into sleep. She continues to pinch gyoza shells as if nothing has changed in the world. Either she is not listening, or he has not graded his English low enough. He decides it is the former, and takes revenge by not adequately stirring the meat and vegetables in the pot. He brings it up again when they are eating.
"It was saying something. One word, over and over."
His head droops in frustration, and his fork clatters onto the plate, unnaturally loud.
"Maybe it was a dream," says Haruka.
He knows the difference between dreams and reality. He used to keep a dream journal, in order to promote lucidity when asleep. But a friend told him it was dangerous, that it imposed patterns upon the brain. Recording things only made it more likely that the thing would happen again. He stabs the salad, stuffs a large leaf into his mouth and chews it twenty four times. Haruka offers no more insights. She eats with a fork between her thumb and forefinger, and her unusual technique frustrates him, even though he knows that she is using it for his sake. She usually says more, tries to practice her English. Perhaps the story of the thing outside has unnerved her. That night, while they are having sex, he surprises himself with the force of his desire. He pushes further and further until she slaps her hand against his chest. When they separate, he turns around on his side, so that she won't see his face. And when she leaves the next morning, he makes sure to lock the door.
Tuesday is his time for reading. He tries a children's book, a tale of a foolish king and his wise queen. He should be using the pictures and context to predict the meaning of the words, but he finds himself going to the dictionary again and again. Perhaps his choice has been a poor one. The old words are irrelevant now. He should be reading magazines and tech journals. When he comes across a sentence that has over three unfamiliar verb conjugations, he admits defeat and turns to the final picture. It shows the king happily devouring a leg of chicken. Bits of flesh fly off in exaggerated arcs. He rises from the chair to get a pro-biotic yoghurt drink from the fridge. It is three fourteen pm, so he has allowed himself a break. He looks at the ingredients, written in Japanese symbols, to see if his brain can see any familiar patterns. But he only understands the numbers, and he does not really understand them either. As he drinks the bottle, he decides he has had enough of reading for today. He reaches for his writing materials. On an A4 pad, he writes down the events of the last few weeks. He loses enthusiasm for this too, after he has tried to record last week’s incident. He turns to his phone and sends his daily text to Haruka. She asked him to do this when they first started dating, and he took it on as an obligation which would also help improve his Japanese. He asks about her parents' wellbeing. They have been having difficulties recently, and Haruka is afraid they will divorce. She usually replies promptly, but this time the phone lays inert on the desk top. After a few minutes, he picks it up to check that he actually sent the message. It is a still summer afternoon. The window is open to allow for a breeze, but nothing enters. The children who would usually play outside are away on family holidays. The air conditioner’s automatic timer has caused it to switch off. Even the mating calls of the cicadas have disappeared. He drums his fingers against the cover of the children's book, his nail driving into the crown of the king. He wants to hear something apart from his breathing.
That night, he wakes suddenly to the sounds of madness. Whatever is outside is screaming and raving, running in and out of the parking lot, left to right, back and forth, then up. Up the stairs to his floor. It becomes silent. The footsteps take over. His heart hammers at the summer blanket covering his frozen body. It is at the door again. He can hear the breathing. It repeats a word. Three syllables. It tries the handle to his door. But it is locked, he knows it is locked, ever since last week he has twisted and latched, made it part of his routine. His phone is a metre away. He could call the police, he should do so, but what would he say, how would he say it? Surely a neighbour has heard this. They will call, and the sirens will come soon and chase this all away. The breathing is moving away. No, just around. The bushes around the back of the apartments cry out with rustled leaves and torn branches. The drainpipe rattles. It is climbing. The window, God, did he lock it? When he closed it, did he turn the lever upwards? He forces himself to open his eyes, turn his face, and look for a shadow behind the curtain. It has finished climbing. He cannot make out any shapes in the dark. He cannot hear anything. He picks up the heavy book he uses to detach his brain before sleep. He will throw it at whatever comes through the window. A first line of defence. He shifts to get more power behind the throw. But the window is not being tested and, as his eyes adjust to the dark, he can see no shadows behind the fabric and glass. There is nothing there. He is sure there is nothing there.
He speaks to Haruka at the weekend. He is stretched out on the carpet. The humidity, combined with the spice of her pancakes, has sprawled him out with a heat flush. He turns the air conditioner to its highest setting to cool down, and to fill in the quiet space. As Haruka lays down beside him, he tells her about the latest incident. It is something to talk about.
“There are many strange people in Japan. You must be careful,” she says.
“What should I do if it happens again?”
“You should call the police.”
“I don’t know if my Japanese is good enough to explain it to them. What if I call you first and then you call the police for me?”
Her face scrunches up, lines showing through the make-up. She is about to say something, when her own phone rings, and she turns around to answer it. The informality of the opening exchanges let him know she is talking to her parents, but then something is said, and her body shrinks, curling up into itself. When she hangs up, and turns back to face him, mascara is flowing onto the pillow.
“My dog is dead.”
He embraces her automatically. He is not sure if his English clichés of sympathy will be interpreted in the same way by a Japanese listener, so he says nothing. Silent and strong, he thinks to himself. But he does not feel strong. He feels very little at all. It is if his heart has been exhausted by the events of the last two weeks, and cannot pump emotion to his brain. His shoulder becomes damp with her tears, and the air conditioning chills it. It is uncomfortable, amidst the drone of air and sobbing. An hour later, he walks her back to the train station. She will return home to make plans for the dog's funeral. He thinks about offering to attend, but it will interfere with his study schedule. Besides, he did not really know the dog. On his way back, he stops in the parking lot. It is bare, the cars away at work, weeds poking through the asphalt of the empty spaces. He gathers enough courage to look around the back of the apartments. But there are no traces, no signs. He passes someone he thinks is his neighbour on the steps up to the second floor. He smiles, and her quick glance tells him she knows. She heard it too. So why didn't you call the police, you stupid woman? He knows the Japanese do not like to intrude into the lives of others, but he could be in danger. They could be in danger. He closes the door, turns the magnetic key lock and latch. Behind its weight, he is safe for now.
He has an interview in the city the next morning. It is conducted in English, but he tries a few Japanese phrases in order to impress his potential employers. The job is for a math tutor in a small university, where all the classes are taught via foreign languages. They tell him they will be in touch. He eats lunch and does a little shopping. He does not spend too much. On the train home he looks at the school girls who, he is told, pull their skirts up and their ties down as soon as the four pm school bell rings. He wonders if Haruka did the same when she was younger. If he gets this job, he won't have to rely on her so much. She won't have to cook meals at the weekend. They can eat in restaurants where they can talk about the quality of the food, instead of dead dogs. Of course, the dog. He sees it now. It was the last thing keeping her parents together, their shared ownership. That is why she was so upset. It was simple really. He should have realised at the time. But what could he have said? He thinks about sending her a text, but becomes distracted by a poster for a 3-D television. A television he could buy if he got this job. They said they would be in touch. But everyone says that. All the idiots who do not recognise a model employee when they see one. He imagines the email he will receive in a week's time. Dear blank. Thank you for coming in. Unfortunately. The email will be overly formal and full of mistakes. He reads it in his mind for the next few hours, and forgets about his daily text. She will understand.
Wednesday is grammar. Before opening his books, he goes for a walk. He wears an azure t-shirt, three quarter length shorts, and a new pair of sandals that grate against his ankle. He is trying to acclimatize to the summer heat. He follows his usual route, past a rice paddy that will resound with croaking frogs when the sun goes down. Past a half tennis court, where an old man hits shots to himself off a concrete wall with a net line painted across it. Past the pachinko parlour, which screams when its automatic front doors open to the outside. He sends his daily text to Haruka. Her reply arrives when he is a further half an hour down the road, walking past a chilled convenience store. He stops to read it. He stands there, under the sun, feeling his whiteness redden. When he returns to the apartment, the clock tells him that the walk has taken fourteen minutes longer than usual. The grammar books are on the desk. Needing a distraction, he sits down to do a short quiz. Eight questions, sentence gaps. Four options given for each one. He tries to complete it in ten minutes, but his mind is distracted. The pencil sways about in his grip. He finishes, and turns to the back to check the answers. All of his guesses are wrong. Every single one. He calculates that even a monkey would have gotten two correct answers on average. Even a fucking monkey would have gotten more right than him. After all this study, after all this time. He slams the table with his fist. A fucking monkey. He slams it with the stupid bastard book, again and again and
This time, he wakes almost in anticipation. It is there. In the parking lot again. This time there is no shouting. His ears have become used to this night time invader. He can pick out a low wailing. It moves slowly, as if injured, up the stairs. The doorframe shakes a little as it stops outside, below the alcove. He thinks about what it wants, about what it could possibly want with him, an unemployed, lazy, stupid outsider. It is sobbing now, a pitiful sound. His fear begins to dry on his skin. In a daze, he leaves the protective cover of the summer blanket, descends the ladder from the alcove, and walks slowly to the front door. He will open it. He turns the magnetic lock, and raises his hand to the latch. He can hear the thing more clearly now. It is repeating a word, in-between sobs.
"Haruka," it says, "Haruka. Haruka."
He stands behind the closed slab of a door. He rests his hand on the metal interior. It is so cold.
Robert Feeney taught English for six years in Japan before returning home to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Cork. He is the author of several short stories, articles, plays, and a sitcom script that was kindly rejected by the BBC. His favourite colour is either blue or grey.
Tianyi (Josephine) Zhou, 18, is a Shanghai based artist who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London. @perdupre