Questionable Days with Yokai
Risako dragged her roller luggage downstairs and made straight for her home's front entry. She passed by her mother, who was preparing an omelette in the small kitchen.
“Do you want breakfast, sweetie? You're not going out in that, are you? And just where are you going with a full travel bag?”
Risako slipped on her white wedge sole sandals and fastened its straps. To match, she had on a light and breezy oversized white hoodie, and wine-red summer shorts hidden underneath.
“No thanks, Mom. Yep! And I'm going to Grandma's. Might be away for a while. Bye!”
“Take care, sweetie... Did you say Grandma's?”
Risako shut the door behind her and speed-walked down the apartment-lined street and on to the nearest train station.
A two-hour train ride to a distant city, a three-hour bus ride to a more distant middle-of-nowhere town, and then another hour-long bus ride up a winding mountain road. Risako didn't mind, since she was able to read through a good book starring an angsty and cool-looking swordsman with magic powers. It was fun to imagine herself becoming cool like that and going on a crazy adventure some day. For now though, she could just focus on the angst part of things like a good teenager.
She quickly got a good opportunity for practice, because after the train and bus rides, Risako ended up walking down the wrong forest trail for an hour and a half. Her cell phone didn't get reception this far up in the mountains, so she couldn't check her maps app for her location. She liked the outdoors and didn't mind getting lost from time to time, but it was so humid out, and the constant trill of cicadas was so much louder here than in Tokyo. Her long hair and large sunglasses felt damp and heavy against her skin, and her luggage was starting to get the best of her.
She sat down beneath the shade of a tree to take another water break. This wasn’t exactly how Risako wanted to start off her final summer vacation of high school, but perhaps it would make for an amusing story to tell her friends. Mio, Yumi, and Chihiro were all spending the next couple months overseas, leaving Risako to fend for herself. Mio was in Paris taking a fashion design internship, Yumi was in India doing humanitarian work, and Chihiro was in Hokkaido planting trees for a forest conservation effort.
Risako didn't have nearly enough money saved up for any such excursion. It was just her and her mother at home, so money was always tight for them. The literature club wasn't going to be meeting up while school was out, and Risako didn't have a boyfriend or anything to spend the summer with. So she decided to get a job somewhere, in hopes that would make the sluggish and muggy minutes of the lethargic season go by a little quicker.
Once she found the correct forest trail, it took about another half hour to reach her grandmother’s new home: a centuries-old mansion cut off from modern society. This was the place.
Risako had last seen Grandma when she was just a little kid, so there was only so much she knew about her. Along with the letter invitation she sent Risako, there was a picture of her: a short old lady in a plain burgundy kimono, standing in front of this very building. The residence looked much nicer in the picture than it did now though. It still appeared strong and sturdy, an imposing structure with a surrounding covered veranda and a striking curved roof that formed nearly half its bulk. But it was weathered and worn, the slightly-warped wooden walls covered in dead vines, moss, and dirt. All in all, a gloomy mass much better suited for a moonless night as a backdrop. Though it was already evening, it was still bright out, so the mansion stood out in an abnormal way.
Risako’s mother always insisted Grandma was old-fashioned, reclusive, and difficult to get along with. But the letter Risako had read last night painted a different picture of her:
My dear Risako, how long it has been! Seems only yesterday we were spending Golden Week together, watching all your Hamster Moon shows and making strawberry daifuku. But somehow it's already been twelve years? My, my! You're probably tall as a light pole now!
Anyways I was thinking (hard to believe, I know!), if you are looking for a change of pace this summer, why not spend some time with your old grandma? I’ll admit I have an ulterior motive... My attendants will be away the next few months, and I could really use some help around my new house. (It's something of a fixer-upper!) A couple local children your age have already agreed to assist, so you wouldn’t be alone. What do you say? You’ll have your own eight-tatami-sized room, all the homemade zaru soba you can eat, and easy access to a private hot spring. I’ll be sure you're properly compensated for your assistance too! It’d be plenty more than what the convenience stores would pay you, I reckon.
And isn't it about time we finally had our reversi rematch? I've got to get at least one victory in before I croak!
Risako didn't know why her mother had grown so distant with her mother. But Grandma sounded lots of fun, and getting a letter like that in the mail in this day and age sparked some extra enthusiasm within Risako's heart, really made her want to just get up and go. And hey, she could use the money.
There were no cars parked near the mansion, so perhaps Grandma’s helpers had already departed. From what Risako recalled from past conversations with her mother, these helpers were a married couple who had long been friends of Grandma. It made sense this big remote mansion had fallen by the wayside, if they were all getting on in years. As if on cue, one of its black clay roof tiles slid out of place — click-clack-click-clack-click-clack... ploomp. Good thing Risako wasn’t standing there.
She knocked on the front door. No answer. She knocked again. Still no answer. Was it possible Grandma was out? Risako found the door was unlocked, so she slid it open a little and called out.
“Hello, Grandma? I’m here! It’s me, Risako...” Her voice trailed off when she saw how things looked inside. Dark and drab, in disarray, in disrepair. The entry’s floor was covered in soil, rocks, and cobwebs. And no shoes, save for what looked to be a single wooden geta sandal, but missing its strap.
“Uh... pardon the intrusion.” Risako slid the door all the way open to let in more sunlight, because there didn’t appear to be a light switch anywhere nearby. And since there weren’t any indoor slippers available, it looked like she was going to have to just keep her shoes on for now. The hall looked too dangerous to walk across barefoot... Some of the long wooden boards were bent and broken, split and splintered, and jutting out precariously. Others were missing entirely. At first glance, it seemed as if this place had been hit by a big earthquake, a harsh typhoon, and perhaps a kaiju or two. Wooden posts were fractured, paper shoji doors were torn, chunks of the ceiling were fallen, and straw tatami mats were eviscerated.
Risako lifted her wheeled suitcase up onto the hallway and cautiously made her way into the nearest room, what turned out to be a central atrium. There wasn't much in the way of scattered junk. A fallen folding screen here, a lifeless oil lamp box there. She slid open a door leading to another hallway and continued calling out for her grandmother. Nobody responded... but perhaps that was a good thing. Risako was getting a bad feeling about this place. Not that she believed they were true, but she had read more than a few ghost stories over the years. She looked back down the hall to the entry room. The door was still open. Outside, the cicadas were still screaming with all their might, their cries muted in the hazy distance.
It felt foolish to run away when nothing bad had actually happened. And besides, where would Risako go? The last bus had probably already departed for the village, which was an hour’s drive from the bus stop. Risako wasn’t sure she had enough money for a night’s stay at an inn either.
Grandma probably just can’t hear me, Risako thought. Her grandmother had mailed her a letter just a couple days ago — surely she was still fine, and was simply understating this place’s need for repairs a little bit. Or a lot. Maybe Grandma’s eyesight was going bad too.
She called her grandmother's name. “Miss Sakaguchi? Where are you? It's me, your granddaughter!”
There was no sign of life in the next room over, or in the hall leading to the kitchen and dining room. Risako checked what appeared to be the master bedroom, but there were no grandmothers to be found there either.
A muffled voice cried out from another hall over. “Hello? Is someone there?” It sounded like a man.
Risako bit her lip. The voice sounded too young to be one of Grandma’s helpers. She suddenly wondered if she had gone to the wrong mansion in the middle of nowhere and had actually trespassed into some serial killer's hideout. But there was no way... This was definitely the place in her grandmother’s photograph, and the address on the letter’s envelope matched this location on her phone’s maps app.
“Don’t close the door out of here!” A young man leaped out of what was probably a guest room or storage, and turned to face Risako. He didn’t stop to catch his breath, but continued to sprint toward her. The pale stranger wore a dusty school uniform and a bit of a delirious expression. It was as if he had seen a ghost — or was a ghost.
Risako opened her mouth in confusion and quickly stumbled back a couple steps. The sharp tip of a broken wooden board she had forgotten about jabbed straight into the back of her right thigh, and she shrieked.
The stranger stopped a few paces from her, his mouth also open in confusion. Risako stepped forward and immediately bent down so she could grip her wound with both hands. As blood trickled down the back of her leg, she tried to process who the possible assailant was. And she... recognized him? Maybe? But at the same moment she was thinking this, she forced herself to stagger away in retreat, three-fourths in fear and one-fourth in shame. She abandoned her suitcase and ran as best she could toward the hall leading back to the house’s entrance.
“Wait, I didn’t mean to scare you,” the young man called out behind her. “I’m just looking for the way out of here! Do you know where the front door is?”
Risako didn’t stop her hobble-dash, but looked back with a pained wince. This guy really did seem familiar... and he could’ve grabbed her by now if he really wanted to. She slowed to a stop and took a couple deep breaths.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the young man said. Or rather, the classmate said. This boy was a fellow third-year student from Risako’s school. They weren’t in the same homeroom class, but Risako still knew him. Mizutani, from the kendo club, she was rather sure. Not the captain, but still a pretty popular guy among many of the girls in school. He and Risako had probably exchanged greetings or briefly chatted only a handful of times over the years, if that.
“It’s me, Yasuo Mizutani, from class 3-C. And you’re Kitamura, aren’t you?”
Risako nodded, a bit surprised he remembered her name. It was relieving to see a somewhat familiar face here, but also very bizarre and unexpected. “Yes, from 3-A.”
“I’m sorry about frightening you and getting you hurt. But we’ve got to get out of this place quick! Where’s the door you entered in?”
“Just the front door... what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain as soon as we’re out.”
Risako struggled to regain her bearings, so Mizutani leaned down to offer her some support. It was awkward to get this close to a guy she barely knew, but she understood she probably ought to just accept his help if this place really was as dangerous as she earlier feared. She grabbed Mizutani’s right shoulder as best she could and let him steady her with a firm grip on her left side. It might’ve been more effort than it was worth, honestly... Mizutani was a lot taller than her, and had really broad shoulders.
“Just down this hallway,” she said, pointing ahead. But as they approached the end of it, she could see clearly that there was just a shabby wall — no entry room, and no doorway. “Er, to the... ah!... left I mean.” Her cut must have been pretty bad, because it really stung. They turned down the next squeaky hall and hurried to the living room Risako had first entered. “Just out here.”
The hallway out the other side only led to other rooms within the house, however. There were no doors along the outer wall leading to the outdoors. No windows either, Risako realized. She could have sworn that from outside, she saw some of those old wooden slatted windows high up, most of them covered with bamboo screens. But she couldn't find any from inside.
“The entry had to be here,” she said. “I’m sure it was here!” She recognized the particular ways certain floorboards in this area were broken apart or missing.
“The door must have closed and then disappeared,” Mizutani said. Which was the craziest thing Risako had ever heard, but it was hard to argue against it. Was it possible it was just some kind of trick door though? Risako reached for the wall and patted around for any kind of a hidden lever or switch, but of course it couldn’t be that easy.
There didn't appear to be any kind of ghost or monster chasing them, at least.
Risako sighed. “Well, if we’re not in any immediate danger, let’s go back to my luggage.” She doubted there would be a first aid kit lying around here, so she needed to make do with whatever she brought from home. She could use a top she didn’t care much about for a makeshift bandage at least. And she still had some water left, so she could clean the wound and take some pain medicine.
As Mizutani helped her back to where they first ran into each other, Risako asked, “So is this place haunted?”
“I’m not sure exactly. I arrived here yesterday, but didn’t find anyone. So I tried to leave... but there’s no way out. I don’t know what it is, but it’s like the rooms of this mansion keep rearranging themselves. I can go down the same hallway ten times, and end up in ten different rooms. I tried to draw a map, but the building's layout never made any sense. None of the doors I've tried lead out of here, and I can’t find any windows. Light seeps in through holes in the roof and ceiling, and through the paper doors of the hallways from an inner courtyard, but...”
“It’s hard to explain. I get this strong sense that I shouldn’t go out there. Maybe this place is just driving me crazy.”
Once at her suitcase, Risako gently knelt down on the floor so she could search through her stuff.
“Ah, there’s a pretty big sliver of wood in your... in your wound.” Mizutani was glancing off to the side when Risako looked back at him. There wasn't much light in the hallway, so she couldn't make out his expression.
“I’ll get it.” She hoped she didn’t sound too annoyed. She was mainly just frustrated by the magically disappearing door, and the fact Grandma didn’t seem to be here at all. “Tell me what you were doing... GAH!” Risako pulled out the oversized splinter from her thigh. She held it up in front of her face so she could scowl at it, as it dripped blood down her fingers. “...Doing here in the first place.”
Mizutani did not look bothered by Risako's makeshift operation, but he also didn't seem that concerned. “Okay.” He knelt down in front of Risako so he could face her better. “It all started when my girlfriend broke up with me.”