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BEFOREHAND PART I:
Mr. Hamada’s Attic
It was a bright day. Among the rustic, mystical landscapes of Tōno, sat Mr. Hamada’s squat, thatched-roof house. Yumiko Hamada was slumped on the couch with her boyfriend, humming a Katy Perry pop tune from her iPod when she first heard the harsh knocking. It came from the front door. Something was not right. She was still in her school uniform, Susumu playing with the hem of her pleated skirt with his balmy hands. Her Hello Kitty knapsack was dropped carelessly on the bamboo floor next to the kotatsu. She pulled her earphones out. Her eyes wondered nervously around, but she didn’t move to get the door. Something was brewing...
Not far in the kitchen was Shinju, the elderly housekeeper. She paused her work of making egg sauce in a battered steel pan to see who was knocking.
The house was so small that everything intersected with the kitchen—the front door, the stairs to Mr. Hamada’s attic flat, the living room where Yumiko and her boyfriend was, and the toilet. When Shinju opened the door, three young men casually stepped inside. Kiyoshi looked like a cadaverous little boy, but he was the eldest and the leader. His eyes were dark and narrow, and his coarse straight hair was dyed a washed-out amber. He held a compact leather bag that carried coins and banknotes. The rest looked to him for direction. Shinju gave them a frosty nod. “Hamada-san!” she yelled grumpily with her thin, shrivelled lips pointed toward the staircase. Mr. Hamada! She had a booming voice that could have waked dragons and conjured spirits.
Seconds later, a miserable-looking man made his way downstairs. His stomach jutted out like a boulder, and the oil coming from the pores of his face was so much that Shinju could have scraped it off and fried fish with it.
The three young men tried to appear warm in nature, but that soon ceased. Not only was Mr. Hamada refusing to smile or greet them kindly, but the odor of the home was one that would take a great deal of getting used to. It was like someone had infused the scent of fish, shit, egg and urine all together and sprayed it like perfume into house. The toilet was right by the kitchen, and the boys thought someone must have just used it or stuffed a dead animal in it. The pong of fish was the most prominent. It took Hachirou, the tallest of the three, back to the time when the rude girls in his neighborhood were harassing him, and one of them forced his face jokingly to the crotch of another. Now this girl, according to the gossip, had not seen a bath in ages, and he teared up that day like he almost did now just remembering it. It was unrighteous!
Yumiko and her boyfriend straightened up and made some decent room between each other from the moment the boss’ name was yelled. Her father glared at them nonetheless. “Dete ike! Kaere, omae!” shouted Mr. Hamada. Out! Go home boy! Susumu obeyed at once, stumbling and nearly bouncing into a visitor in his haste. “Bakayaro!” You idiot boy!
Yumiko quickly occupied herself with homework from the Hello Kitty bag before she became the next target.
Mr. Hamada frowned at the three visitors though he knew what they came for. He seemed like a loopy and mean creature. But because of his head, how it was bald in the middle, an old woman in a neighboring village once said he was a wise man. She exclaimed, “See how Mr. Hamada’s head is bald right down the middle, parted like the Red Sea when Moses stuck his rod into it?! He knows many things!”
There was no railing along the stairs to the loft. You would have to lean on the wall on the other side for some stability, like Shinju always did with her lopsided hip. There was only Mr. Hamada’s room up there anyway, and he hardly allowed anyone to as much as peep inside. Today was a special occasion though. The house was falling apart, and he needed to make some money from the strangers. “Watashi ni shitagatte!” he said roughly. Follow me!
The boys stepped up the stairway after the man, their eyes sliding to Yumiko who was a source of beauty in the little, rough dwelling. They stopped at the top, Yumiko still somewhat in view. Mr. Hamada was fidgeting with some keys before getting one of them to work. Behind his door, there was a hodgepodge of furniture. The only thing that made you think it was Mr. Hamada’s place of rest and not just a chaotic storage room was a set of gray pyjamas on a futon where the sheets were crumpled. The windows were grimy, and the scent of burning incense sticks was absorbed into everything; a much better smell than the one downstairs.
At the feet of a rotting portable wardrobe sat a wooden bowl filled with dry, brown pig blood. There were two other similar wardrobes. Although they were all in a nasty state, the boys looked at the wardrobes as if they were bags of silver and gold. Kiyoshi walked excitedly to get a closer look at one of the wardrobes, accidentally shifting a nearby barrel with his hip. At this time both of Mr. Hamada’s cloudy, yellowing eyes moved slowly to look at him. It was the way they moved that was most disturbing…
66 seconds later Yumiko and Shinju were yelling loud enough for the whole Prefecture to hear them. A donkey-sized barracuda was sliding and flopping down the attic steps. It shook the entire beam, if not the entire house. Knocking its ugly head into the wall and steps, it drew its own blood. At last it skidded slimily from the final step and shot off, smashing into the front door so hard it flipped over on its other side and ended up dead. Upstairs in Mr. Hamada’s room there was no one, but Kiyoshi’s leather yen bag was on the floor and the ugly wardrobes he and his crew wanted to purchase were wide open and empty. It was as if the men had all disintegrated into nothing.
People miles and miles and seas away learned about this weird story. It became a riddle. Yumiko was sent to live with a relative in a danchi and the barracuda was cut open. Nothing made sense. If the fish couldn’t have swallowed the four men, then what exactly happened that day in Mr. Hamada’s attic? Now and then an english-speaking person on the other side of the world would discover the story, and Japan would become an even greater mystery and the bad rap barracudas had would strengthen.
BEFOREHAND PART II:
Christine King and her eldest son sat across from the very poised Katherine Richmond. Katherine was 30-something with light brown hair that went bone-straight to her shoulders, except for the short, sharply cut front bangs. She picked up the ringing phone. Puckering her chili pepper lips, she spoke as though the person on the other end was deaf. “YES!!! Exchange students don’t have to trade a home with another person.” The blue of her eyes reflected the calculator they briefly shifted to before mirroring the surface of her desk again. “Go to our website and apply if you would like to be a host house.” Her impatience mounting, the fingers not holding the phone wiggled like creepy spider legs. Tick-tick-tick. She looked fearfully at the clock. Time seemed to move painfully slow in the office. She couldn’t wait to get home to her husband. “No, your child doesn’t have to go to Germany…,” she grated, “and Germany isn’t the only place on the program, and I just told you that you don’t have to trade... Just go to the website. It’s all there. Okay. Good. Have a great day yourself.”
Dropping the call, she blew out a huge steamy breath and drank from her extra large Tim Hortons cup. It was sitting there for a while now. The coffee had gone cool and most of the good stuff was settled at the bottom.
Eyeing Katherine, Talan King raked through his blond, fashionably hobo hair that all the girls loved. He would never cut it. He followed Katherine’s every move and she pretended not to notice. She must have seemed so elegant and intelligent to him with her perfectly done hair and that razor-sharp, vanilla dress suit. She put the coffee cup down for a moment. “It’s a thousand per student, no tax reductions,” she informed the Kings.
Christine twitched giddily in her seat, looking at Talan beside her from under her old spectacles. She tried to hide a smile. Talan became embarrassed. He looked uncomfortable. They would get two students. His mom just showed how financially strapped they were as apparently a one-time payment of two grand was enough to make her act like an excited fool winning the lottery. He wanted to tell Katherine that they were not doing this for the money. That it was for the experience, for the cosmopolitan in them. But whatever.
On a Thursday afternoon, Talan left the house alone. It was the fifth of May and so the young man was heading off to the major mall on his side of town. It was the pickup spot for the international students who were going to be temporarily living in the area. He took his mother’s red minivan and drove 80 miles per hour, very excited.
The herd of youngsters at the side of the mall, ages thirteen to eighteen, had just flown into the country from different places around the world. You could see the spark of adventure and the adrenaline of facing the unknown on their little faces. When he parked the car, Talan pinned back his sandy hair behind his ears, looking out into the crowd, wondering which two of the foreigners were destined for his house. He took the sheet of paper that boldly said Christine King, and placed it up high as he walked towards the crowd. Two young ladies who seemed acquainted headed to him after one pointed his way. One of the supervisors, a bouncy, round little Filipino lad, eyed Talan’s paper to make sure it was one the company created. When he saw it was legit, he scratched off two more names from the sheet of paper pinned to his clipboard and forgot about the girls.
Talan tried to restrain a grin. He thought the two girls that were loading themselves into the back seats - while he loaded their luggage into the trunk - were unbelievably beautiful! Well, one—the one with the emerald eyes and rich auburn hair that dropped in waves to her ribs. Her front bangs were blunt but soft at the top of her round face. From head to toe, she was so perfectly crafted to him, he saw her as a true vision of pure femininity.
The other was rather bland in comparison, he thought. Her champagne-colored hair was chopped off at the base of her neck, and it was messy, and her skin was oily. And with her septum piercing, she reminded Talan of just another girl he befriended unromantically back in high school.
As soon as he settled back before the steering wheel, he popped out his cell phone and texted a close buddy: “Dude, I want to bang one of my sisters. You have to see this chick. I’ll talk to you later though. Gotta drive. Almost home with them.”
Passing through the city, Talan glanced in the rear-view mirror at the pretend sisters he’ll have for a month. “So what are your names again? Sorry.” He really couldn’t focus on anything besides the stunning lady. If his mother were there in the car and not at home preparing the ladies’ first dinner in Canada, she would have thought that she had never seen his dull, nonchalant taupe eyes shine brighter. Women loved Talan, but Talan was shallow and very picky.
“Nikolaevna,” answered the one he desired. When her accent rolled off into the air, there was no doubt she was Russian—unless you aren't knowledgeable in those kinds of things. And not to mention: that name.
“Mégane,” answered the unnoticed one in French tongue, her pearl-blue eyes nailed to the passing sceneries outside as if startled, mesmerized. They looked extremely vivid next to the dark makeup that surrounded them. “I’m from France,” she added.
Nikolaevna grinned at Mégane. The two had only just met at the airport when they were told they were going to the same house. “I’m from Omsk, a city in Russia,” said Nikolaevna to Talan although her eyes remained on Mégane. Mégane beamed back at her for a moment but wasn’t thinking nice things.
Talan swallowed as he tried to stamp the first name into his memory. Hmm... Let’s see… So he knew it started with an N... He had to ask her again and then again what it was they called her because Nikolaevna was a big, long, scary word to him. He felt like his head was cracking in half just from the thinking. Then finally he got it and when he did, the circumstances made the name Nikolaevna a much prettier name than the name “Megan” which he had always loved. “So Miss Russia and Miss France, huh?” he remarked and the girls were pleased to see his pretty smile flash in the rear-view mirror. Most of the way home he met Nikolaevna’s eyes in the mirror as much as he could afford without crashing.
Nikolaevna stirred uncomfortably in her seat. She kept on shying away from the mirror, just to look back again in guarded curiosity. The girl beside her noticed the two silently communicating and grew slightly jealous.
Talan turned on the radio. The Russian girl looked at her friend happily. Mégane noticed the gesture but ignored it, turning her head to peer outside some more. When Talan finally chose a station, some sort of country rock swept over the car. Then She Hates Me by Puddle of Mudd. “Do you girls like?” he asked.
“Nice, yes!” cried Nikolaevna through the noise. Placing a hand on his seat, she leaned forward, drawing closer to him just in case he spoke some more. She also wanted to chitchat herself even if her english was not the best. She kind of liked what she saw. “You’re the son of King?”
“Yes,” answered Talan. “Oh, put on your seatbelt, please,” he added. The demanding tone he used was a mistake. It was a result of constantly having to deal with a little brother. He had to be the man of the house for his widowed mother. So he did not mean to offend the foreign girl, but she appeared frightened, pulled back from his seat, and obeyed right away. He smiled in the mirror to make her see he wasn’t upset. “It’s just safer, right?”
Nikolaevna sunk and said a sheepish, “Yeah...” She kept her eyes away from him now.
Other than the music, the ride to Christine King’s detached townhouse was then quiet. Mégane loved it.
The house was warm and smelled of a savory meal. On the formica table in the kitchen, there was hot mutton loaf waiting with a giant bowl of salad, and a tray of baked potatoes that were steaming with their unpeeled skins crisped, cracking and brown. When she heard the people arrive, the single mother of two waltzed keenly to the door. She greeted the girls each with a hug and an air kiss. “Welcome home!”
Scott, Talan’s thirteen-year-old little brother, fell a shy spectator by the stairs. It was usually just the two of them and their mother in the small house.
The King brothers hauled the girls’ belongings up to the guest room they were going to share. There was a bunk bed in it. The girls, both from wealthy families, and dressing in designer jeans and jewellery, saw that there would be some major getting accustomed to do. After privately socializing in their new room, they went down to dine with the strangers.
Grinning, Christine took a jug of fruit punch out of the fridge and added it to the table. The chairs they were sitting on had some questionable stains before Talan refurbished them yesterday with a bright peach cloth by hand. Christine thought they now added the vibrancy the stuffy kitchen needed. But she had to spray them down with Febreze in her attempt to hide the scent of tobacco. Talan was an on-and-off chain smoker and did not listen to her sometimes when she told him to keep the “unhealthy activity” outside—not like she didn’t smoke herself.
The girls ate very little, slicing off a really thin piece of the foods before they hesitantly ingested them. They shredded down even the pieces of lettuce in their salads, cutting them apart with their knives and forks as if they were servings of sturdy steak. Nikolaevna was more the one without the appetite. Christine, with her cropped, hard-working-mommy hair and puffy eyelids, noticed that Mégane only started her picking around once she saw Nikolaevna doing it.
Throughout the girls’ month-long stay with the Kings they attended a public secondary school and made friends quickly, most people just awfully curious about foreigners. A lot of boys took Nikolaevna out and pleaded to be her boyfriend, but she was adamant about being faithful to the young man she left back in the city of Omsk.
Though he was also taken aback by the Russian beauty, Talan’s little brother, Scott, got more attached to Mégane who was very playful towards him. Unlike Nikolaevna, Mégane Boutin was not afraid to act silly. She was eighteen like Nikolaevna, five years Scott’s senior but she screamed, chortled, and played tickling games with him, the two rolling around like little pigs on the tobacco scented cream carpet in Christine’s living room. She accompanied him out for ice-cream, laughing when the chilly treat smudged around her mouth and dripped down her chin. Most afternoons while Nikolaevna got dolled up and went out with friends from the school or Talan, Boutin would stay at the house and watch bootleg movies online with Scott and his best friend Dallas. The three would goof around, eat pizza, drink soda, and play violent online games. Dallas sometimes brought his game station over.
Meanwhile, Nikolaevna Alexandrov was always busy turning down boys, including Talan, though something about Talan made her lean toward him more. Was it the fact that she was living with him, and he made her butter pancakes in the mornings and gave her fun, free English lessons? It could as well be that he showed her around the city, gleaming as a knowledgeable and protective young man. She also admired his passion to be a big-time movie producer one day and flirted with the idea of him giving her the starring role in one of his films. She came from wealth. But money couldn’t buy fame and ambition.
One day, while Talan filmed her in the hallway, she stuck out her tongue brashly at the camera. Talan was amazed. He brought the equipment down, filming the floor unintentionally, and looked at her with his mouth hanging open. That was just about the raciest thing he had ever seen Ms. Alexandrov do. She covered her face with her hands, turned rosy and giggled. Later that day, while Boutin showered, he opened the door to the guest room without knocking. He drank Woodforde’s Wherry right out of the bottle as he watched Nikolaevna. She pretended he wasn’t there. She had just been in the shower, right before Mégane, and was only dressed in a pink, lacy g-string. But her long hair fell over her nipples as she sat bent over on the bottom bed, rubbing her legs down with Johnson’s baby oil. Talan was disappointed and cleared his throat, gesturing for her to pull the auburn tresses away so he could see her better. She continued to ignore him and added more oil to her already smooth and shining legs—way more oil than necessary. Her limbs became soaked with oil. Talan opened his mouth to speak. “I think you’ve got them cov—”
Someone was coming. The footsteps sounded too light to be the sturdy ones of his mother. It was definitely Scott. It didn’t matter who it was anyway. No one was going to catch him in his wrongful, perverted act! He should be ashamed of himself! He reclosed the door quickly, and headed to his room in a flash, spilling some Woodforde’s Wherry on the way. The carpet soaked it up.
Returning the favor, Nikolaevna caught him naked in the shower the following day. She just opened the bathroom door, went right in, and pulled the curtains away. Talan gasped in utter shock. She saw his little pink buttocks but at least he was proud of his healthy loaf of bread. He sprayed her with the hosed shower head. She screamed and ran out dripping wet, slamming the bathroom door behind her. Scott met her right then—just as soon as she closed the door she came face-to-face with him. His face turned bright in color. They were both embarrassed. Brushing wet strands of hair from her eyes, she strolled as indifferently as she possibly could into her room. Dinner that night with the Kings was a hushed occasion except for the rambling of Boutin and Mrs. King. The two talkers occasionally fell silent however, wondering why on earth everyone else was so quiet.