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Muse by Mark Howard Jones

Muse by Mark Howard Jones

Fiction, Vol. 2.2, June 2008

Toshio slides the door quietly to one side and peers into the darkness. It drinks his gaze, giving him nothing in return. The silky blackness reminds him of the faded old kimono his mother wore toward the end of her life despite his daily pleading.

He knows the room is not empty. Treading carefully, not wanting to disturb her yet, he edges forward toward the futon. He always feels excited at being there while she is asleep, before the day’s work must begin. But today the muffled whimpers and rustling from beneath the sheets tell him she is already awake, aware of him.

The dizziness comes out of the dark to grip him and he falls to his knees, reaching to switch on the bedside lamp. Toshio is startled that the girl is staring directly at him. Her tears stick her short hair to her face and the pillow is damp beneath her head.

She moans incoherently through her cloth gag. She gives a gasp of relief when he reaches over and loosens it, then begins to sob. “Don’t be afraid. No, Ayame, everything’s alright,” he mutters. She refuses to be silenced by his assurances. Instead he tries to stroke her hair but she pulls away with an unhappy mewling sound.

He lifts away the bedcovers. He is ashamed to see the bruises on her thighs and arms but tries to block out thoughts of his actions the previous night. Bound at wrists and ankles, the girl needs his help and he concentrates on that instead.

Toshio reaches over to pick her up, carefully manoeuvering her, shifting her weight, so that they don’t topple over. “Let me go. Let me go,” she whimpers, close to his ear, like a lover’s endearment.

For a moment Toshio struggles to remain upright, fighting his dizziness. Whenever he is this close to her, holding her, his mind boils, almost ready to burst. Catching sight of himself in the mirror, the fragile girl in his arms, Toshio quickly averts his gaze. He seems to have grown so much older since she’s been with him. Maybe it’s the price he has to pay.

He carries Ayame to the bathroom, sits her on the toilet, gently lowers her torn briefs, then leaves. He watches her slump forward, sobbing, as he slides the door closed. He walks into the kitchen and supports himself against the fridge, sweating, glad to be rid of the swirl of voices and images.

*

The first time he’d seen her had been on the way to his publisher’s offices for what he knew would be a difficult meeting. Even though rush hour was already over, the Metro train was still crowded; dozens of people in that metal box, breathing the same stale air.

She was behind a large man who stood in front of Toshio. He had seen her face, small and contemplative, bob from behind the man’s arm once or twice. When the man had got off the train at the next stop, he and Ayame had been pushed closer as even more people forced their way on.

For a second, she had looked directly into his face. Toshio had felt almost dizzy; thinking it was the strength of her perfume, the heat and the crush, he had looked around for a seat. Everywhere was occupied, but he couldn’t stay upright any longer and slumped against the man behind him, who roughly pushed him upright again while muttering an insult.

Ayame had stared at him, asked him something that he didn’t hear. Toshio saw her through a mist and staggered gratefully off the train at the next station. It was four stops away from his destination at Shinjuku.

When he finally arrived at the meeting everyone was unimpressed with his excuses. His last novel had not sold well and it was clear his publisher wanted to release him from his contract. His agent, a smart, stiff middle-aged woman, was not arguing his case very well.

Toshio still felt in a daze when he began to interject, talking about his new book, telling them how wonderful it would be, why everyone would want to read it, because it was a story that would appeal to everyone, absolutely everyone.

Even Toshio’s agent was astonished at his eloquence. It was something that had been lacking in his work for some years now. He left the meeting with a fresh commitment to his cause by his delighted publisher. His agent had been non-plussed by it all.

Only when he was back at his tiny apartment did Toshio realise that the girl on the train must have had something to do with it.

*

When Toshio woke next morning his head felt as if it had been filled with overcooked ramen. Struggling to shake the feeling off, he rose, dressed and waited to leave the house at the same time he had the previous day. He had to see the girl again.

After boarding the train, Toshio checked his watch. It was exactly the same time as yesterday’s meeting. He couldn’t see the girl. With determination and an uncomfortable degree of rudeness he pushed through the crush until he finally found her, huddled at the far end of the carriage, a romantic manga dangling, unread, between her fingers. His gamble that she was a creature of habit had paid off; same time, same carriage, same spot.

She recognised him immediately. For a moment she seemed frightened but then she smiled and asked him if he was feeling better today. He simply smiled and nodded at her as his head swarmed with words and ideas, fighting against the dizziness.

She got off at the throbbing hive of Shinjuku and was immediately lost in the rush.

*

It was a cold February day, almost exactly one month after he’d first seen her, when Toshio set out to change his fortunes for good.

He’d travelled on the same train at the same time every weekday since. Sometimes he approached the girl, but often, he simply followed her to the office building where she worked. On the few occasions when he’d actually spoken to her he made sure that she thought he was a fellow office worker, on his way to another humdrum job in another office.

Toshio followed her to work, then idled the day away in bookshops and noodle bars before ensuring he was at the right place to follow her onto the homeward bound train. He couldn’t afford to be too far behind her in the intolerable crush or he would lose her. Despite his best efforts he was almost elbowed off the train when it finally came.

He was only two people away from her. Over the course of the next few stops he managed to get to a position next to her. He smiled and nodded, as if it was a happy coincidence and she responded cordially to his trivial chit-chat. All the time he fought the dizzy nausea he inevitably felt whenever she was was near to him.

After talking with her for a short while, Toshio checked his watch. The next station was only a few minutes away; it was his stop. She had to get off with him. As the train went around a bend he quickly jabbed the girl in the stomach. She gasped and doubled forward towards him. He quickly grabbed the back of her neck and applied pressure at the right spot, just at the base of her skull. After a few seconds, the girl slumped limply into his arms. Pressed against the door as they were, nobody had noticed what had happened.

Toshio supported her for a few seconds before pulling her limp body forward toward the doors opposite as the train pulled into the station. He began to yell. “Please, my daughter is ill. My daughter is ill! Make room, please.”

People muttered and moved as much as they could, some stepping off the train to let them through. This was the most dangerous part, Toshio knew.

The guard came to their assistance but Toshio insisted the girl would be OK. He dragged her to a bench and sat her down. “She sometimes has these turns. Her medicine is at home. She’ll be fine once I get her home,” he told the concerned official. The guard stayed a few minutes but then had to attend to his duties.

The train finally pulled out, along with all its nosy passengers. The girl hung limply in Toshio’s arms as they sat on the hard bench. A few concerned passers-by gave them a glance or two.

Toshio was sweating heavily. He hoped she did not wake up before they reached his apartment. Standing in front of her to obscure her from view, he pulled a lighter wig from his coat pocket and pulled it over her head.  Then he dragged his old overcoat from his bag and put that on over her street clothes. Finally he reached into his bag and took out a small flask of sake, which he sprinkled over their clothes.

He lifted her up and dragged her toward the escalator, swaying and singing at the same time. Once he’d managed to get her up to ground level he even managed to get the station staff to help him. He waved in fake drunkenness and thanked them profusely as they staggered out into the neon-flared dusk.

Toshio made sure to take a different route home, resting regularly; even though the girl was light, it was a difficult journey. When he finally reached his apartment Toshio had never been so grateful for his elderly neighbour’s deafness, which was usually a problem rather than a blessing.

Once inside, he removed the disguise and her street clothes and bound her hands and feet with strong nylon cords. Then he placed her on the futon of the room that would now be hers. She showed no sign of regaining consciousness and her face seemed very peaceful. “I need you. Your place is here with me,” he whispered to her.

*

Toshio studied the newspapers and scanned the TV news programmes for the next few days. There was a brief flurry of interest in the disappearance of the girl, who he now knew was a secretary called Ayame Oguchi. The police had no leads, so either they had avoided being caught on CCTV, which was unlikely, or his disguises had worked. Or maybe the authorities just didn’t care enough about one more missing girl. Surrounded by people on all sides, she was still lost to them.

The news coverage subsided before the week was out. Ayame had been in Toshio’s flat ever since—nearly six months. He washed her, clothed her and fed her. From time to time, he raped her.

*

Toshio ignores the sobbing coming from the bedroom; he must remember to fix her gag later. He sits straight down at his computer, still naked, and begins to type furiously, afraid that he might lose the words, the phrases, the images that thundered through his mind as he reached orgasm.

In the second week after he’d brought the girl home he discovered quite by accident, after his lust had got the better of him, that sex created an avalanche of creativity in him. He’d written an entire volume of short stories within a fortnight—for which July’s Akutagawa Prize might be his—and was now nearly halfway through a long novel.

The story was all there—the mother killed when the bomb drops, the two children struggling to survive in the ruins, the eventual return of the soldier father, crippled but alive, to care for them—and all the tiny incidents and events surrounding it came so easily from his typing fingers.

He now glances ruefully at the shelves to his left, at the six novels written over 10 years; the ones that were so hard won, the ones that nobody wanted to buy or to read.

Turning his attention back to the keyboard, Toshio knows exactly what should come next. It has to be the right word, the perfect word. When he hits the keys, the perfect word appears. He writes in elegant simple language, owing every word to his muse.

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