Will Devon ever get out from under the scrutinizing gaze of his Chiron trainers? Will they ever let him stop dancing to their tune?! And what awaits him on the other side? All we know is that it’s called Hotaru.
There’ll be new adventures, mountains to… drive through… and rice fields galore in Chapter 4 of Forever Foreign.
Where and When to Listen to Forever Foreign, the Fictional Japan Podcast
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Episodes from season 1 of Forever Foreign drop every two weeks, and we would LOVE it if you’d subscribe and consider giving us feedback via a review or comment.
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Writing, producing – David Taylor
Sound design, original music – Brock Chrystian
Story Edits – Juan Olivares
Voice of Devon – David Taylor
Voice of Callum – Josh Leach
Coming in a minute!
Chapter 4: Hotaru, Another Home (Transcript)
DEVON: Saturday, August 10th, 2013
Dear… Henrik? Oh man, that just feels right!
It’s been a couple hours of recording now and calling you ‘foreigner’ is… Well, frankly, it feels cruel even if it is probably true. So I guess I’m naming you after my favorite athlete! If you happen to be called something else, congratulations on the new name! It doesn’t get much cooler than Henrik. Unless you go by… Ice Cube? Sorry…
Well, Henrik, I’m finally talking about the present day. It really feels like an accomplishment! Hopefully things won’t be so hard to remember from here on out.
Last night’s sleep was pretty great, the first time I’ve been able to say that for a while without it being the punchline to a joke. But despite being well rested, my tummy did a dance the moment my eyes opened as I remembered what was on the schedule for 8. Who knows, yesterday’s Coco’s Curry could’ve been a factor, too. All I can say to that is if a little agitation in the gut is the price of admission to a party in my mouth I’ll pay it every time.
That said, I’m positive the main reason for my anxiety was the 10-minute demo lesson redo. In times such as those I like to meet things head-on, so I kicked off the sheets and started packing my suitcase in order to get to the training center early.
Because I’d been living out of the thing for the past few days most of the suitcase’s contents were scattered about the room. Other than a bag full of chocolate I’d brought as gifts for teachers, the only thing still inside was an old hand grinder for coffee. It’s nothing intricate, just an unadorned white oak box with an iron grinder and handle on top. Like any coffee mill, there’s a tiny removable drawer with a brass nob where the grounds empty into.
I pulled it out and sat on the edge of my bed, running my fingers over the waves in the woodwork; subtle grooves that weren’t sanded or lacquered away to the point of polish. Rather, there was still the feel of nature in the finish of that wood. Of life. Now that I think of it, I can’t believe I just said it’s not intricate. ‘Not gaudy’ would be closer to the mark.
Turning it over, I saw the initials H.G. carved into the bottom: Harold Glendenning. A reminder of why I was where I was. And also where I needed to go.
So I started folding and putting things away, first my clothes and then things like my laptop and shaving kit. It took me longer than I’d hoped. So long that by the time I checked out of the hotel I found myself needing to jog to the training center in order to get there on time. When I arrived there were dark circles around my armpits and my bangs were sticking to a slick forehead. Not exactly the state I wanted to be in for the re-test.
As I burst into the lobby, panting like a dog on a hot summer’s day, whom should I meet but the very woman who had so thoroughly shat on not only my English teaching ability, but also my improv skills.
Kaori was in her usual black skirt-suit, and when she saw me her lips tightened into a thin line. Without a word, she gestured for me to follow her into a small room on the first floor. Henrik, if the purpose of this morning’s re-test was for me to feel as though my future at Chiron was in jeopardy, they got the atmosphere just right.
Inside the room, there were four other trainees sitting on folding chairs, all of them trying to avoid the gaze of Kevin and Timothy at the front. I recognized them from the last few days, but none were in the group that had performed for Kaori yesterday. I had the honor of being the only one she’d kicked to the curb.
Kaori pointed to the pile of suitcases in the corner, and the two head trainers watched me the entire way as I dropped mine off and took a seat. They kept the stare-down going for a few more seconds before nodding to each other.
“Alright, who wants to go first?” Kevin asked, clapping his hands in anticipation. I used to love his enthusiasm, but this morning it felt a little uncalled for.
All of the trainee’s faces darted to the ground quick enough that I thought there was a rat scurrying around. Meanwhile, Kevin’s eyebrows raised to little peaks as he tried to catch someone stealing a look.
“I’ll go,” I said.
There were sighs of relief from the other four trainees as I stood. Kevin and Timothy joined Kaori in the back, allowing me to get set up at the front of the room. Not that there was much to prepare. I’d made a few adjustments to my lesson from the previous day to make it even easier to carry out. It was safe. Clean. No openings for Disney character impressions. If I was to be fired from my job before it even began, it would have to be for something other than a bad plan.
Opening my mouth, I got ready to kick things off with a short warm-up. I was about to ask everyone to get out of their seats when I saw Kaori standing at the back, arms folded across her chest. It’s hard to describe exactly what happened – I mean, I’ve hardly had time to process it myself – but as I watched this person who thought it was okay to submarine my career as an English teacher over a lackluster Mickey Mouse impersonation…
Of all the things that could’ve popped into my head at that juncture, a coffee mill is probably the last you’d expect under normal circumstances. But I guess that’s the way the mind works. Sometimes you don’t know what show’s about to start playing on the stage of consciousness, or why. Anyway, perfect for all its imperfections, I visualized that mill, turned it in my mind, ran my fingers over the grooves.
Something came over me then. An impulse to prove not only to my employers, but to myself that I wasn’t just a man for the job, I was the man for the job. The English teacher to end all English teachers. Once they saw how steadfast I was in my flashcard positioning and the ease and clarity with which I pronounced words like ‘dog’ and ‘monkey’ they’d bow down in veneration. I would prove to all three trainers that Kaori had made a mistake.
So I scrapped the revised lesson plan and went with the original that had led to a failing grade. I went through each stage just as I had the day before, said the animal names in the same way, and when the urge to do a Mickey Mouse impression during the animal guessing game came over me, I paused for a moment of sober thought.
There in the back was Kaori glowering with a heat that could rival that of the sun. Her gravity drew me in, excluding the sight of all else in the room. Her hair even flowed in a smoldering torrent behind her, blown away by sheer power of will. Hmmm I might be misremembering that last bit…
Of course, the sight of Kaori in that state would be enough to scare the pants off of just about anyone. And I should’ve kissed her for warning me away from a Mickey impression that surely would’ve been self-destructive. She was trying to save me from myself. I should’ve thanked her, Henrik. But instead I opened my mouth and said, “Hey everybody, it’s me! Ah-hoo!”
There was a gesture that went with it. An exaggerated wave of my hands before they went up on my head to become fake ears as I pranced from one foot to the other.
I could tell that Kaori wanted to turn away, but I gotta give her credit. She made herself watch every cringe worthy second. The rest of the room… Well, it looked pretty similar to how it had the previous day. People laughed, including Kevin and Timothy. The atmosphere in the room got a little lighter. I would’ve said that I was killing it, but after the ordeal from the day before my yardstick was clearly broken.
Things ended smoothly and I returned to my desk, full of adrenaline, to become a student for the remaining presenters. Forty-five minutes worth of demonstrations later, we were asked to step out of the room. It must’ve been five minutes of waiting before Kaori opened the door and called my name.
She joined Kevin and Timothy at a table in the front of the room while I was forced to stand so that it felt a bit like an episode of American Idol or some other talent searching show. In retrospect it was almost natural, since my passing or failing hinged on how well I had performed the role of cartoon mouse.
Without any preamble, Kevin said, “Devon that was quite the risk you took up there. You were either going to end up looking like a stud or with egg on your face. No in-between, really. And Kaori tells us you tried the same thing yesterday.”
“Yessir,” I said.
“What made you want to try it again?” Timothy asked.
“Well,” I began, glancing at Kaori who wore a neutral expression. “My grandpa always told me to trust my gut, and my gut was screaming ‘Mickey’.”
“I say he’s done enough,” Kevin said. “What about you two?”
“I think he’ll be fine,” Timothy said.
All eyes shifted to the right side of the table, and she knew it. Her face bloomed into a smile as those deep brown eyes fell on mine. Silent for a time, she savored every second of my squirming. The only thing that could’ve made it more dramatic would’ve been an orchestra playing suspenseful music and a crowd on the edge of their seat.
Finally, she spoke. “Redo.”
Nah, I’m just playing with you, Henrik. She said I passed! And boy, did relief flood over me. I shook all three of their hands before skipping away from the table with enough spring in my step that I almost forgot my bags.
On the other side of the doors the remaining trainees waited solemnly with shoulders slumped and heads hanging low. As I was saying good luck and goodbye, Kaori called the next one into the room, a woman about my age who seemed on the verge of tears.
“It’s going to be fine,” I told her. “It’s all going to be fine.
Those words probably didn’t help her pass the test, but they at least brought out a nervous smile. More importantly, they eased my survivor’s guilt as I left them all behind.
The package I received the day before told us that a van would collect the crew destined for Hotaru at ten, which left me with less than an hour for one last round of matcha waffles. Hotaru is two hours away from Okayama, and I wasn’t about to bet on the little town having the exact treats that I’d come to hold so dear. So, I bought a dozen.
After that, I went to the rendezvous point on the west side of the station where Callum and Alyssa were waiting. I told them all about the redo lesson and that I’d made it out alive. From there we chatted excitedly about what would be in store for us in our new home, the first time I’d really been able to consider it with an unburdened mind. You know what? I think I’m gonna take another stab at Callum’s accent. Here we go.
“I tried to look up Hotaru online before bed,” he said. “But there wasn’t much on the English part of the web.”
Not bad! Not bad at all.
“What are you hoping you’ll find there?” I asked.
“An arcade would be lovely,” he said. “I canny say no to a few good restaurants, either.”
“All I know is that there better be a gym,” Alyssa said. “One with a decent squat rack.”
Maybe it was a bit of a cop-out since it seems like my identity isn’t as firmly tied to anything as Callum’s and Alyssa’s, but for me the things that excited me the most were the ones that I couldn’t possibly picture. Things that I would be experiencing for the first time. You see, I came into this as a blank canvas, one that I’m ready to let Japan paint all over.
That answer wouldn’t satisfy Callum and Alyssa, though, so I said, “I guess I’ll go with restaurants, too.”
As the clock approached 10 there was still no sign of our mysterious fourth member, Bree. I was starting to wonder if I should run to the hotel’s front desk and have them call her down when she finally arrived.
She was out of her suit today, just like Callum and Alyssa. A chestnut brown skirt billowed around her legs and on top she wore a white t-shirt.
We all introduced ourselves before diving right into the basics of Bree. She told us that she’s from Ohio and that she’s 24 years old… annnnd now that I think about it, I can’t remember if she said anything other than that. I guess there wasn’t much time between her arrival and Erika Yamanaga’s – that’s the name of the woman who picked us up.
Erika, I can say plenty about. She gave herself quite an entrance. The door to the driver’s side of the big white van was hardly open when she jumped out, waving eagerly at the four of us. Her face was sunshine personified as she said, “Welcome to Japan!”
We threw our suitcases into the back before piling in ourselves. I sat at the front next to Erika, Callum and Alyssa were in the middle, and Bree found herself in the back row next to the luggage that wouldn’t fit in the trunk.
“So, how was training?” Erika asked. Her accent was pretty well fluent after spending a year abroad in England.
I didn’t wanna go any further than to say, “It wasn’t bad,” and neither did the others. For all I knew, Erika reported directly to Timothy and Kevin.
I think she could tell we were playing it safe because she burst into laughter. “Don’t be so serious. I’ve heard loads from other English teachers.”
That sent Alyssa and Callum flying into a rant about the last four days. I was a little embarrassed, to be honest, Henrik. No matter how cool Erika is, it seemed like bad form to be talking trash about the company that her city had hired. I noticed that Bree was silent, too.
I would’ve jumped in to break up the negativity, but at some point it was clear that Erika could sling just as much mud as the others. She made it abundantly clear that her job title was not Chiron lackey. Either that, or she was a very good spy.
Callum had just started recounting the story of Kaori flipping the table over when Erika interrupted. “Yeeeah, you don’t talk about Minerva around them.”
“We got that,” Alyssa said, dryly. “Is there any special reason?”
“Ano… you know that Minerva is another English teaching company, right?” She started a lot sentences with ‘ano’, which is basically Japanese for ‘umm’.
“They’re kind of Chiron’s rival,” she continued. “Think of, ano… Slytherin and Gryffindor.”
“But flipping a table?” Alyssa said.
Erika was all too happy to clear things up for us, diving into a little bit of English teaching history in the process. You see, Chiron had been in the business since the early 90s, planting roots in every corner of Japan. But a little more than 10 years after its inception there was a schism among the co-founders. It’s unclear exactly what the problem was, but the result was Minerva.
For years, Chiron had been the clear number one. But with that came complacency. Motivated to reach greater heights, Minerva began snatching up English teaching contracts left and right. Boards of Education across Japan loved their pitches and pretty soon the two companies were splitting the English education market down the middle. Just when Chiron thought things were going well in one area, the contracts would be up for renewal and Minerva would swoop right in like a hungry bird of prey.
I interrupted Erika to ask a question. “Are we the good guys or the bad guys?”
“What?” she said, tilting her head. Alyssa and Callum were looking at me a little funny, too.
“You said they were like Slytherin and Gryffindor,” I said. “Which one are we?”
“I never really thought about it,” Erika said.
That was, and still is, an upsetting thought.
“Anyway,” Erika continued. “That’s pretty much why you don’t talk about Minerva.”
Erika explained things expertly, but the animosity our trainers showed still feels extreme. I mean, Kaori could’ve injured someone when she flipped that table.
Makes me wonder what things are like during Minerva training. Are they ruled with an iron fist, too? Do they have to dodge chairs any time Chiron is mentioned? No way of knowing unless I meet one of their teachers I suppose.
As we drove away from the center of Okayama City, Erika put on a CD, asking us if we like Daft Punk. Callum was quick to nod while I was too shocked to answer. ‘Give Life Back to Music’ was about the last thing I was expecting to hear while venturing deep into Japan’s countryside. On the other hand, with Erika at the wheel it actually did feel natural.
During that drive the change in scenery looked almost the same as what I’d observed on the bus ride from the airport on Monday, only in reverse. The seemingly endless blocks of concrete… Well, they ended. And in their place… rice!
Some fields were large, probably with full-time owners. We’d been driving along a bustling road, and then bam! It opened up to a sea of green with hints of yellow, which I’m sure will become the more prominent color once the stalks are closer to being harvested. Those larger fields were split into a grid with little concrete canal systems running in between.
Some of the plots were much smaller, though; private land belonging to the houses attached to them. I have to say, I found these fascinating. Back home, people might have a little garden to their name where they grow carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers… I’m sure people do that here, too, but some of them also plant rice! Can you imagine having a rice paddy next to your house? Or… I guess in Alberta the equivalent would be, what wheat?
Rice only became more common as we continued our drive, as did those rolling hills that I remembered from my first day. You could tell we were out of Okayama City by the giant, forested walls that surrounded us.
Coming from a city that’s not far from the Rockies, I feel a little weird referring to Japan’s peaks as anything other than hilltops. Maybe I’m just being snooty, but it’s hard for me to call something without a jagged point a mountain. However, adjust I will.
Another thing I found weird was that while there are a whole lot of mountains and rivers, you’ll almost always find a solitary hint of mankind around the corner. I saw dozens of clusters of houses – tiny communities all on their own. Halfway up a mountainside, next to a river… the environment doesn’t seem to really matter.
At some point while watching that scenery unfold Callum and Alyssa stopped venting about training. Or at least they paused to breathe long enough for me to ask about Hotaru.
“What do you wanna know?” Erika said.
“Anything, I guess.”
Callum jumped in. “Are there any good restaurants?”
“Lots,” she said. “There’s everything from good Japanese restaurants to French ones. Depends on what you like.”
Prodded along by our questions, Erika gave us the beginnings of an education on the town of 30,000. She told us there are 17 schools in total between all of the elementaries and junior highs. There’re also two caves that are popular tourist destinations, and a gym, which Alyssa was delighted to hear.
“Is there some place I can learn to play shogi?” I asked.
Erika gave me an amused look. “You want to learn to play shogi?”
“I’d love to learn as well,” Callum said.
“Ano… I’ve never heard of a shogi school, but I’ll ask around.”
If you’re wondering, Henrik, shogi is basically a Japanese version of chess. I can’t really tell you much more than that, though, since I’ve never played it.
What else to say about that ride…? I guess Erika started telling us a little bit about some of the people we would be working with. By the sounds of it, she knew just about everyone in town. Given that, it was easy for me to conclude that she was something like our supervisor. But when I said as much she seemed shocked.
“I’m not your supervisor,” she said. “Not really.”
“Oh,” I said. “What are you, then?”
She had to think about it. “Ano… A coworker I guess? I work for the city, and a lot of what I do is support you all, but I’m definitely not your supervisor. That’s Okada sensei.”
“Can I ask how old you are?” I said.
Erika looked deeply offended at that. Angry, even.
“How can you ask a woman something like that?”
“Rude, Devon,” Alyssa said.
“I’m kidding,” she laughed. “I’m 26.”
26. I don’t know what age I thought she was before she told me, but once she did it made a lot of sense between the Harry Potter and Daft Punk references.
She continued to tease me as we began our entry into Hotaru. Mountains could still be seen in every direction, but more houses had started popping up. Once the road crossed the narrow river that we’d been driving next to for nearly half an hour, they were everywhere. There was a strip mall with a big parking lot on the right, and several houses and apartments later a factory that might’ve done well as the set for a Mad Max film came into view. I never thought to ask what they make there, but the road leading in was plastered with enough white dust to look like the surface of a powdered doughnut.
“I’m gonna take you for lunch before showing you to the apartments,” Erika said.
A blur of small buildings crowding the narrow two lane road followed all the way to our destination, a restaurant called Yabata. I don’t know why she chose it as the location for our first meal in Hotaru, but I’m glad she did. It had a real ‘ma and ‘pa charm that couldn’t be denied from the red brick lining the walls to the TV in the corner that was half-concealed by a pile of magazines and books.
As the bell attached to the door clanged behind us, a middle-aged woman who was wiping down one of the tables called out, “Irashaimase.” Surely you’ll recall that means welcome.
When we were all seated, the lady looked us over before turning to Erika. Some of the words she said seemed familiar, but it was far too quick for my Japanese level, so I had to rely on her gestures to even grasp the fact that she was asking about us.
After some back and forth the conversation abruptly ended, and the woman stood there, smiling warmly.
“She says ‘welcome to Hotaru’,” Erika translated.
I found myself doing some kind of bizarre mini-bow as I stuttered through, “arigatou gozaimasu.” Thank you.
Once we’d ordered, the woman stepped back behind the red brick counter where the sounds of sizzling meat and utensils scraping on griddles could soon be heard. Not long after, the food arrived, served on black plastic trays with grooves meant to make it look like wood.
On mine was a deep bowl containing a local delicacy called demi katsu with a smaller bowl of miso soup next to it. The main dish consisted of a generous helping of rice with a piece of fried breaded pork, covered in a dark, reddish brown sauce. It was a little tangy, a little sweet, and totally delicious. I can still taste it on my tongue as a matter of fact. Actually if I burp— Well, you don’t want to hear that, do you, Henrik?
While we ate, Erika gave us a little more of the lay of the land. Apparently there’s an izakaya called Pandaya, or Panda House, whose owner is 82 years old and loves hanging out with English teachers. There’s also a karaoke bar pretty close to the station.
“There are too many stories to come out of that place for me to tell,” Erika said. “Actually, you should ask Victor about them. He’ll be able to tell you quite a few.”
My ears perked up. “Victor? That sounds like a western name.”
“That’s because he’s from America,” she said. To the questioning looks on our faces, she added, “Don’t you all know who Victor is?”
We shook our heads.
“He’s another Chiron English teacher working in Hotaru,” she said. “There are six positions here. Didn’t they tell you this at training?”
Callum must’ve done the math in his head, because he asked, “Who’s the sixth one?”
“Mio,” Erika said.
“That doesn’t sound western at all,” I said.
“Yeah.” Erika said, and left it at that. I guess we found the one subject that she wasn’t willing to dish on.
“Ano… since you don’t already know, I guess I’ll tell you. Mio lives in the apartment next to yours, Alyssa. Victor lives next to you, Devon. Neither of them are in town, though. Mio is up in Hokkaido and Victor is in Tokyo for summer vacation.”
“More friends!” I said, earning an eye roll from Bree.
Once we were all finished eating, the woman who was “definitely not our supervisor” paid the tab, telling us it was on the city’s dime. I’ll have to remember to thank the city.
The next stop was Hotaru station, which I wasn’t too surprised by when Erika pointed it out. For a town of 30,000, the modest 1-story building was about what I had expected. Alyssa, though… wellll, she must’ve had something different in mind.
“I don’t see it,” she said.
“You’re looking right at it,” Erika said.
“This can’t be Hotaru station. It’s tiny.”
“Hotaru is kind of tiny,” Erika said.
“Yeah, but… this could be a convenience store.”
There was no time to console Alyssa because we arrived at her and Bree’s apartment complex a minute later.
Gentlemen that we are, Callum and I offered to carry the suitcases up, and it turned out that was all Alyssa needed to lift her spirits. She laughed, measuring mine and Callum’s arms with her eyes before grabbing her 22 kilogram suitcase by the handle and starting up the stairs. Bree was gracious enough to merely look offended as she dragged hers off with both hands, banging it on every step along the way.
While Callum and I waited outside for Erika to return I walked around the ground floor. It was a cheerful banana yellow building with a path feeding into each of the first-floor porches. The same vinyl paneling ran along the walls of the stairwell, and each apartment had at least one square window, reminding me more of Europe than Japan.
The apartments were lovelier than I could’ve imagined, and it made me excited to see my own. A hot ten minutes later, Erika returned to help with that. Down two members, she took us just up the road.
Now, I’m not really sure what to say next. I mean, I don’t wanna sound like I’m complaining. I really don’t… It’s just… Well, let’s say our apartment building was… underwhelming.
“This is it!” Erika said as we pulled up to a grey rectangular block.
When I say grey, I’m not talking about a nice ash or porpoise grey. I’m not talking about the kind of grey a painter would use in a color palette. I’m talking about the kind of gray that doesn’t even deserve an accompanying adjective. The kind of gray that makes you wonder how it hasn’t been mistaken for trash and taken away to the dump yet.
The first thing that came to mind when I saw the building was Joseph Stalin. Obviously not any of his residences. Not even the communal housing units made for his citizens – I know a little bit about those, and they sound lovely by comparison. No, my apartment building looks more like something in the Gulag that Stalin’s KGB might’ve sent a repeat-offending potato thief to. That’s all the complaining you’ll hear from me, though. I swear.
As we stepped out of the van, I looked at Callum and could tell the same thoughts were going through his mind. We bit our tongues, took our luggage out of the van, and were shown to a rickety sliding glass door along the side of the building. It banged loudly against its track as Erika opened it, and she told us we would have to be careful.
Up the stairs and on the second floor is my apartment, number 202. For all of the ugliness on the outside of this building, the inside is quite lovely by comparison. I’ll paint a picture for you, Henrik. Although I guess if you’re listening to this you must already be in the apartment… Well, I’m gonna tell you about it anyway! Who knows, this complex might be declared condemned by the time the next teacher comes along.
My room is basically one long hall with real wooden flooring stained reddish-brown. The whole thing is… Let’s see… I guess it’s somewhere around 25 feet long and 10 feet wide? I’m currently sitting on my bed which is tucked into the corner of one end of the room. At the foot of my bed is a set of drawers, and next to the head is a little white bookshelf that I suppose is meant to duel as a nightstand.
There are a couple of deep dressers on this side of the room that are taller than me. There’s also a flat screen TV on a stand. At the center of this area, which I guess I’ll call the bedroom-living room, is a table. Erika tells me it’s a special kind of Japanese table called a kotatsu. There’s a heater on the underside and the top is separated into two sections, one of which detaches so that you can fit a blanket between. The ends of the blanket then drape over the sides, trapping in the heat. It should be a nice place to get cozy in the winter.
On the other end of the hall, the right side is dedicated to the bathroom with the entrance next to it. On the left is the kitchen, complete with stove, fridge, microwave… And washing machine. I’ll pretty much never have to leave!
That mostly sums up the place. There’s also a curtain that can be drawn to divide the room, and I have… 1, 2, 3, 4 windows. If I look outside the one facing the south, there’re buildings taking up most of the view, but there’s enough space between them that the mountains are visible. To the east, I can see a road stretching down all the way to a set of train tracks.
Erika explained some apartment basics like turning on the gas for the stove using appliances like the microwave and air conditioner. She did the same for Callum in room 203, and when it was time for her to leave we walked her out.
Stepping back into the van, Erika told us that she would return on Monday morning at 9 to bring us to city hall. I guess we’ll be meeting the board of education staff and signing a few documents then. She’d already closed the door and started the engine – and even started driving away – when she slammed on the breaks and rolled down her window.
“One last thing,” she called. “Try not to annoy the guy in apartment 205. There’s been a few… ano… Just try not to be annoying.”
She sped off before we could ask any other questions, leaving Callum and I to exchange quizzical looks.
The glass sliding door rattled open, and the two of us walked up the dingy stairwell. Callum took off to his room, saying he would talk to me later, and I hardly saw the inside of his apartment before the door was closing behind him.
With time on my hands I set about taking inventory of everything in the place. The kitchen seemed to have all the necessities. The only thing that I can think of needing right now is a percolator for coffee. The bathroom was completely empty, so I added soap and shampoo to the list as well.
In those big dressers I found futon mattresses, extra blankets, and pillows. I also found all sorts of mementos from previous English teachers; CDs with English songs on them, old polo shirts with school names and logos fixed to the breast, a box of stationary. Of course, that’s also where I found the stack of diaries from previous tenants, eight in total from what I can tell.
Maybe the coolest item that was bequeathed to me was an old Super Famicom gaming console, complete with two controllers and several games. I can’t claim to be a big gamer, but I did recognize a few of the titles, like Donkey Kong Country and Mario Kart. The rest I’ll have to ask Callum about.
After changing into shorts and a t-shirt, I hung my suit in the dresser and started unpacking. I was about halfway done when there was a knock at the door. It was Callum, and he was a little flustered.
“Come see me place,” he said. “It’s in absolute shambles.”
Callum’s apartment was a mirror image of my own. Where my bed and TV were on the left upon entering, his were on the right. Where my bathroom, kitchen and laundry were on the right, his were on the left. Callum didn’t wanna discuss that, though. He took me straight to his kitchen, instead.
Plugging his nose, he opened the refrigerator door. I wish he would’ve told me to plug mine as well, because the smell that came from inside was worse than death. It was putrid and sour. The kind of smell that forces your sinuses shut by reflex. And the visual was no better.
In the bottom tray was a cesspool of rotten fruits and vegetables, none of which could be identified because they were moldy and brown. On the middle shelf was a pack of chicken breast that, if prodded, looked like it would explode. Just above was a bag of bread with an awful lot of green that I’m assuming wasn’t avocado. Topping it off was a carton of expired milk on a shelf along the door.
“How nice of my predecessor to leave me a square meal,” he said.
“Mine left me a super Nintendo,” I said without thinking as I inspected what might’ve been a banana. Turning to Callum, I saw his eyes widen, first with envy, then anger.
“I probably could’ve waited to mention that, though,” I said. “Sorry. Have you checked the freezer?”
He nodded. “It’s empty. The idiot remembered that, at least.”
“They must cut the power between tenants. Otherwise I doubt this would spoil so quick.”
“Did ya figure that one out on your own, Sherlock?”
“Do you want help cleaning this or not?” I said.
Callum sighed. “I’m sorry, this is just unexpected. I’d love your help.”
There were some garbage bags in one of the kitchen drawers and some cleaning supplies under the sink. Slipping on rubber gloves, I went about dumping the refrigerator sludge into the garbage bag as Callum attacked it with a sponge and a cleaning product that smelled like bleach.
When it was all said and done I thought I should give my neighbor some time to cool down. So I left his room, stepping into the hall where I had a look around… Hey, I know! Why don’t I just take you there right now! No sense describing it from memory when I can do it real time. Come on, Henrik.
(foot steps followed by door opening and closing)
Alright. My back is to the door of my apartment right now and straight in front of me is the set of stairs leading down to the first floor entrance. There’s another set going to a third floor, but we’ll leave that for another time. To my right is the door to apartment 201 which must be Victor’s.
I’m now turning to the left where I can see down the hall. It’s a dim, depressing tunnel that probably hasn’t seen natural light since the day it was constructed. Currently, I’m standing on a 6-feet-long stretch of thin gray carpet – Gray like everything else about this building that isn’t inside the rooms. If I take a few steps we’ll be on a polished concrete surface full of cracks. Well, let’s take those steps.
(sound of ominous, slow steps being taken in the background. Sound of light flickering on and off slowly fades in as Devon walks further up the hall)
The florescent tube above me is functioning, as is the one past it. But at the very end of the hall, the light is flickering on and off. It doesn’t stay lit for more than two seconds at a time.
We’re halfway through now, and on my left is Callum’s apartment, number 203. If I look to the end I can see a single door with the numbers 2-0-5. For some reason, 204 doesn’t exist at all.
Erika told me not to annoy whoever lives there, but… Ahh what the heck. Who’s it gonna hurt if I stand outside the door?
(footsteps start again. 5-6 steps. Light flickering intensifies)
(whispering) I’m a few feet from the door now. When the light flickers it feels like the hallway goes completely pitch black. There’s an ominous feeling here, Henrik. It’s… almost cold. I say almost because, let’s be real, we’re in Japan in the middle of summer. It’s not actually cold. Only way I could get cold right now would be if I had an icicle, whipped off my pants, and—
(feet slowly stamping toward the door)
(frantic footsteps running away ON TOP OF the stomping feet until Devon gets inside Callum’s apartment)
CALLUM: (said frantically) Get in here!
(door slamming shut, being locked)
DEVON: (heavy breathing)
CALLUM: (incredulous) Why the hell did you walk up to his door?? Did you forget what Erika said?
CALLUM: Then what were you doing??
DEVON: Honestly? It’s like something was pulling me in. Some supernatural force. Do you think the man in 205 could be a wizard?
CALLUM: A what?
DEVON: You know, like Harry Potter. A wizard.
CALLUM: I’m not answering that question. Are you almost finished recording?
DEVON: Recor— Oh yeah, I completely forgot about Henrik.
CALLUM: It’s Henrik now, is it?
DEVON: I decided to give my diary a name. Can’t just keep calling it ‘foreigner’, can I? That’d be a little rude.
CALLUM: Would it?
DEVON: Wouldn’t it?
CALLUM: Has anyone ever told you that you’re strange, Devon?
DEVON: I’m the strange one? At least I know what a wizard is.
CALLUM: I know what a wiz— (exasperated sigh) just go on home and tell me when you’re ready to game… Looks like it’s clear outside.
CALLUM: Oh, by the way, were you doing a Scottish accent in your room earlier?
DEVON: No, I was doing an Adelaide accent. Thhat was my Callum Rashford… (sigh) I was doing a Scottish accent, wasn’t I?
CALLUM: Yeah. You were.
DEVON: You’re gonna have to teach me how to do it right, then. I thought I was killing it.
CALLUM: Anything would be better than that. I thought you were about to break out the bagpipes for a minute there. Your normal Canadian voice might be closer to the mark to be honest.
DEVON: Alright, alright, I get it.
CALLUM: Keep it up and you can play William Wallace in the Braveheart remake.
DEVON: Now you’re just being mean. I’ll talk to you later.
(a couple of steps)
DEVON: Hold on. Are they really doing a Braveheart remake?
CALLUM: Talk to you later, Devon.
DEVON: If they stuck a little more to the actual history it might not be a bad idea. Just saying…
(quicker footsteps than the slow ones up the hall. Door opening and closing. A few more footsteps and then sitting down sound)
(cicada sounds fade in as background sound)
That was an exciting little excursion, hey Henrik? I guess there’s not much else to say, after that. Currently I’m sitting on one of these weird legless floor chairs that were left by the guy that came before me. They’re not that bad, really. Perfect for the kotatsu in the winter, I’ll bet. Still, I think I need a couch for the place eventually.
Hmmm am I forgetting anything? I must be. It’s crazy to think that I’ve only been in Japan since Monday. After going through all that’s happened since leaving Edmonton, it feels like I’ve been here closer to a month. But while I’ve been busy, the truth is that I don’t think I’ve really done much. Not yet anyway.
Speaking of which, I still need to put my suitcase away. Hmm, there’s something still inside. Ahh right, I forgot to put away the coffee grinder. Last but not least. Never least, Gramps.
Guess I’ll sign off on that note and head to the grocery store before my neighbor comes over to game. Now that I think about it, Callum never did say where it was. He just told me it was down the street… You know what? I’m not even gonna ask. That wouldn’t be very bold of me on my first night in Hotaru, would it? Okay, signing off. Catch ya later, Henrik!