Questionable Days with Yokai
“And that’s the gist of it,” Mizutani said, wrapping up his story to Risako, who had finished tending to her wound. “I got here last night, found nobody here, and have been trapped inside ever since. I couldn't reach anyone on my phone, which is out of battery now.”
Risako checked her phone to confirm there wasn't any reception here. “Well, let’s look around a bit more for now. Maybe this place was an amusement park attraction — you know, one of those fake ninja trap places?”
“I don't know about that... But maybe you'll notice something I haven't yet.”
“Or hey, why don't we just make our own exit? The walls are old, so you ought to be able to brute force your way out of here.” She swung her arms forward, as if she were holding a sword. “You can put your kendo skills to good use!”
“That's not how kendo works.” Mizutani scratched the back of his neck and gazed upward absently. “And it's not like I'm some kind of an oni...”
The idea of a hulking demon ogre in a place like this wasn’t a pleasant one to have right now of course. But the old walls also made Risako think about the possibility of this building collapsing on top of her outright. It felt a lot more likely now, after Mizutani’s account regarding the old café. Risako had never been in there herself, but she had passed by it plenty of times. And now it was gone...
The two ended up walking through the mansion three times, checking every room and every door. There was no sign that anyone had been living here for many years, nor were there any kind of sturdy tools left behind that they could have used to try smashing or chopping a hole in a wall with. No serial killer's knife or axe, and no giant iron club of an oni.
It also seemed Mizutani was right about there really not being an exit for this building, as impossible as that should have been. Then again, they did somehow manage to get lost a couple times, so maybe they still missed something after all.
In the kitchen (devoid of food and appliances) Risako sat down on her luggage, desperate for a break. Her leg still stung, and she had been walking a long time before arriving here. She was about to drink what was left in her water bottle, but stopped when she thought of how Mizutani had been here over 24 hours, probably without any water the whole time.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked him.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Mizutani sat on his own upright suitcase, which he had left behind and then retrieved from one of the guest rooms. “Out of curiosity though, what brought you to this place?”
Oh, guess I never told him my story, Risako realized.
“I got a letter from my grandma asking me to come spend a couple months with her and help fix this place up as a summer job. I haven't seen her since I was really little, so I decided to accept her offer.”
“Just a letter? You didn't talk to her on the phone or anything?”
“I don't know her number, or if she even has a phone.”
“Are you certain the letter was from her?”
Risako slipped the letter out from her luggage and shined her phone's flashlight on it so Mizutani could look it over. “She mentioned a few things we did together, back when I was five or so. My memory isn't perfect, but I do remember us making sweets, watching cartoons, and playing board games together.”
“I see... I hope you'll find her then, wherever she is.”
Wherever she is, indeed. Risako put the letter away and drank the last of her water, which wasn't really enough to quench her thirst. She suddenly felt really hungry; all she had was a spicy cod roe rice ball from a train station kiosk that morning.
“Let's go to that inner garden you mentioned earlier,” Risako said. “We can probably reach the roof from there.”
“I had the same idea yesterday, but I felt that strong premonition again, even more clearly than I did at the café. Something will definitely happen if we go in there.”
“Is it guaranteed to be a bad thing though? I mean, onmyoji could predict good fortunes as well as bad ones.”
Mizutani folded his arms, apparently mulling this over. “I guess so.”
From what Risako gleaned from various books over the years, onmyoji for the imperial court would predict times of prosperity as well as calamity for the land. They could intuit future weather patterns, the location of a lost item, and the gender of babies yet to be born.
“Let's take a look then. If you sense danger, we can leave.”
“Hmmm...” Mizutani leaned far to the side.
Risako stood up and headed into the hallway, luggage in tow. “While you think about it, I'll go scope the place out and let you know what I find.”
“Hold on, Kitamura.” Mizutani stood up and followed her out. “Splitting up is probably the last thing we should do in a place like this.”
“Great! We'll scope it out together then,” Risako said, and this time Mizutani didn't attempt to protest. He likely had the same train of thought Risako did. She had read more than a few horror stories over the years where the lead characters split up for little to no good reason. Then they’d be easy pickings for the monsters or ghosts or whatever. She wasn’t quite ready to accept such things were real, but there were more plausible predicaments that could still ensue at a place like this.
Risako put on a brave face, hoping it would put both her and Mizutani at ease a little bit. To be honest she did feel pretty scared, but her mind was preoccupied with other things — namely, she was still concerned about her grandmother, and annoyed by the gash in her leg.
And she wasn't yet sure what to make of Mizutani, who still looked shaken up. But maybe that was more just fatigue. He probably hadn’t slept for a day and a half, at least. Of course, there was no guarantee he was telling the truth about everything...
Not wanting to waver from second thoughts, as soon as she reached it Risako swiftly slid open the door to the inner garden's surrounding deck, which was in even more disrepair than the mansion's dreadful halls. The square garden didn't have any trees or grass. Just a small field of hard earth, filled with an assortment of dead plants, scraggly bushes, and long rocks that looked too big for anyone to lift. It seemed feasible for them to get up onto the roof of the 1.5-story mansion though, which was all that mattered. So long as the roof didn't collapse underneath them, they ought to be able to help each other up onto it and then down off the other side. And then... well, they could cross that bridge when they got there. Risako didn't like heights, but she didn't like being stuck here forever even more so.
The way the wall was situated with the overhanging roof on this side of the garden was going to be more difficult to work with than the other side, which had a deck railing they could stand on and beams to hold onto for support.
“I don't see or hear anything dangerous. Let's go over there and climb onto the roof.” Risako stepped out onto the deck, then turned to check on Mizutani. “Or are you sensing something bad?”
“Nothing really... but it's not like I'm a metal detector.”
“Maybe the threat you sensed earlier isn't here anymore? Which would mean this is our window of opportunity to escape.”
“It's possible.” He sounded neither hopeful nor skeptical, which was kind of annoying in its own way.
Risako walked toward the center of the lifeless garden, and Mizutani followed silently behind her a few paces back. Risako felt like her heart was beating loud enough to awaken any creatures that could have been sleeping beneath the deck floorboards, but fortunately nothing was actually there to leap out at her.
Guess we're in the clear...
Not a moment after Risako thought this, the entire garden was basked in an otherworldly fiery blue light. The silent and phantasmal glow dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, with no hint as to what set it off or what extinguished it.
Risako suddenly found herself standing somewhere else in the garden, back near the raised porch she came from. A wave of dizziness nearly overwhelmed her, but only for a few seconds. She regained her senses, but felt strange in a way she couldn't easily describe — a bit lightheaded, a bit nauseous, a bit woozy — but that all passed soon enough too.
No longer completely in a daze, she looked over to the center of the garden and found...
Risako was standing in front of her, looking about the garden in confusion.
Why was there another Risako?
“What... what happened?” Risako asked. The words came out really weird. It didn't sound like her at all. But as if hypnotized, she took a few steps toward her inexplicable duplicate.
The second Risako turned around and stared up at her, aghast.
This other Risako is a lot smaller than me... so this isn't a doppelganger?
“Who... are you? Why do you look like...” the short twin whispered, pointing up at Risako. As soon as she did so, she glanced over at her arm — and her eyes widened even further. She held both of her hands out in front of her, staring at them intently. She looked at her palms, then the back of her hands, then her palms again, back and forth. As if she was expecting them to change.
“I'm... I'm...” Risako cleared her throat. “I'm Risako. Risako... Kitamura?” Her voice didn't sound like Risako's though. It didn't even sound like a girl's voice.
Risako lifted up her own trembling hands to look at them. They were not her hands — they were too big, too rough. Each calloused finger looked a bit longer and a bit thicker than it was before. Her nails weren't neatly trimmed or polished. Her skin looked more tanned. And she wasn't wearing her oversized white hoodie anymore — she was wearing a short-sleeved white button-up shirt.
Realization finally set in. “You've got to be kidding me...”
She looked back at the other Risako, who lightly tugged on a strand of her long hair, holding it out in front of her and staring at it fixedly. She looked as if she had never seen hair that long before.
“Am I... Kitamura?” this Risako asked.
“I, I think we switched places,” Risako said. “Because I'm, I'm... you now, right? ...Mizutani?”
“Yes... I think so,” this Risako... Mizutani... replied, her (...his?) expression shifting from confusion to wretchedness.
“It, it was that, that light, wasn't it?” Risako said, trying as hard as she could to not focus on her very male voice, or her very male body. “We can just, we can, just switch back? That? That light... We walked on, on the dirt here? So if we, if we...”
Risako stepped up onto the garden's surrounding deck and beckoned for the other Risako — Mizutani — to join her.
“There's no way it's going to be that simple, you idiot!” Mizutani screamed.
It was unsettling to see Mizutani lose his composure like this... But he looked like Risako, so it felt more like Risako was just mad at herself.
“Um, perhaps there's something, um, there's something in the garden?” Risako scanned over it a few times, feeling like she was at the brink of having a panic attack. She was a bit surprised neither she nor Mizutani had fainted yet... Wasn't this supposed to be too much for a person to handle? Mentally? Physically? Emotionally? Everythingly?
Amid this rapid-fire of thoughts, Risako noticed there was something between three of the big rocks in a far corner of the square field. She hurried over to it to take a closer look.
It was a dark wooden statue of a ferret. Or maybe an otter? It looked life-sized, about half a meter tall, standing up on its hind legs like a meerkat. And unlike everything else at this place, it seemed to be in excellent condition, clean and finely polished.
“How... unexpectedly cute!” Risako said, wondering if she had lost her mind entirely at this point.
“Don't touch it.”
picked it up at the same time what she thought was her subconscious
or something told her to not touch it, but it was actually just
Mizutani speaking behind her, and he had Risako's voice now. Whoops.
“It almost feels alive,” Risako said, turning the impressively-detailed wood carving from one side to the other. But beyond its fine craftsmanship, was there actually anything special about it?
Without warning, the wood transformed into dense, velvet-like fur. Before Risako could understand what just happened, the statue jostled free of her grasp.
Risako yelped and stumbled backward. She bumped right into Mizutani — who tripped to the side of Risako, attempted to grab on to her, missed, spun a bit, and fell flat on his back. Silently, eyes unblinking, Mizutani lay against the hard earth, arms and legs sprawled out.
Risako would have helped him back up, but she was distracted by what was going on with the statue. Or what was the statue. The creature was crawling about on all fours now, all on its own. It vigorously shook its body a few times as if it had just crawled out of a river. The statue had become a real, moving, living... otter. Probably not a ferret, Risako decided. It looked lankier and less fluffy than a pet store critter.
The otter twitched its tiny head a few times, then stood up on its hind legs, looking up at Risako intently. She stared down at it in return, not sure if she should back away or give in to the temptation of petting it.
“Good evening,” the otter spoke in a soft voice, in perfect Japanese. It bowed politely. “My name is Akemi. Thank you for freeing me.”
Maybe Risako had lost her mind entirely.