NANG 3: Fiction — online exclusive: A Date with Death by Joni Chng

NANG 3: Fiction — online exclusive: A Date with Death by Joni Chng
The 2008 Japanese film, Shinigami no Seido (Sweet Rain aka Accuracy of Death) is about a grim reaper taking on a human experience. Although it doesn’t attempt to be a deep exploration on the theme of finding one’s purpose in life, the movie does offer an interesting — and to some degree — heartwarming take on the subject. However, whatever thought-provoking questions that are raised are left unaddressed by the plot and characters in the end. A Date with Death takes place between the first and second act of the movie, and tackles the forgone conclusions in the story’s theme.
 Illustration by  Likhain  (© the artist)

Illustration by Likhain (© the artist)

A date with Death

 

Akako was hysterical and inconsolable during the funeral. But who could blame her? Ten-year-old Mitchan was her only child, now taken from her in a playground freak accident. Yukio watched her grieving friend from a distance. She barely knew Mitchan, but she had known the child’s mother since middle school. They were even once co-workers, until Akako’s marriage and career pursuits caused them to grow apart. Today, she joined a small group of mourners to pay their last respects to the little girl. The funeral attendees barely filled half of the church’s benches. Yukio secretly wondered how many of these people — with the exception of Akako — would soon be regarding Mitchan’s existence as nothing more than a distant memory.

Back at the studio apartment she had been living in for the past five years, a pile of papers with pencil sketches sat on her drafting table, as she had left them a few days earlier. Next to them were a few brushes and pen nibs with dried black ink, and a glass of murky water. Still in the black dress she wore to the somber event, Yukio shot a lingering look at her handiwork. On any other day, she would be looking forward to putting on her headphones, allowing her playlist to whisk her off into a universe of her own creation, as her hand worked on translating her vision into an illustrated page on paper. Not today. Although she sympathized with Akako’s loss, she was admittedly indifferent towards Mitchan’s death, and yet somehow the child’s memorial left her own world in a vacuum, devoid of music and imagination. 

Outside the window, a perched crow began to caw.

The heavy downpour just made Yukio’s night shift at the 24-hour convenience store so much easier. Heavy rain meant fewer customers, leaving her free to fill up pages of her sketchbook behind the cashier counter. At the age of 32, she was the oldest in a staff force filled with students and part-timers. However, the job was a way to make ends meet while accommodating her desire to pursue her currently stagnant artistic career.

It was a couple of hours past midnight when she heard the doorbell chime, as it did each time a customer walked in. Yukio looked up from her doodles to see that two men had entered the store. Setting her sketchbook aside, she stood up over the counter and assumed a professional bearing. One of them was a lanky young man, perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties. He was taller than the average Japanese, dressed simply in black trousers and white V-neck T-shirt and khaki jacket. His slightly tousled short hair perfectly framed his strong, clean-cut features. In one hand, he had a transparent umbrella. There was a certain otherworldliness to him that Yukio couldn’t quite put a finger on. Perhaps he reminded her of the impossibly handsome heroes of the romance comic books from her youth: too perfect to be real. She would have been mesmerized had the other customer’s shady behavior not distracted her.

The other fellow was a haggard-looking older man, in a knee-length gray coat and matching hat, clearly drenched from the rain. After pacing along the snack aisle for a while, he came to the counter and placed a tube of chewing gum before Yukio, then immediately folded his arms to his chest like he was feeling cold.

“Is that all?” she asked the routine question as she scanned the item’s barcode on the cash register. The man silently nodded. “That would 150 yen.”

Without saying a word, the man reached into his pocket and produced two coins for Yukio. From her peripheral vision, she noticed the young man inching towards the customer, intently eyeballing him, as if looking for something about the older fellow’s person. As soon as the cash register popped open and Yukio dropped the coins into the right slot, she looked up to see the tip of a knife pointing at her face.

“Em — empty the ca…cash register! N…now!!” the man stammered the order. Yukio froze on the spot.

“Excuse me, sir. I don’t think you should be doing that,” said the young man behind him in an unusually polite manner. The robber turned away from Yukio and held up the knife to him. “Please, kind sir. Put that knife away.”

The young man simply reached out and touched the robber’s knife-wielding hand, causing the aggressor to spontaneously lose consciousness and collapse to the floor.

“Are you alright, miss?” the young man said to a wide-eyed Yukio, who was completely at a loss.

“What … what did you do to him?! Is … is he … alive?” she blurted out as she recovered from the shock.

“Hmm? Oh, he just lacked iron in his blood! He’ll be fine. He doesn’t seem like a really bad person, but what he did is still wrong,” was all her savior said. There was a childlike innocence about him, despite having just put a man into a comatose state with a touch of the hand.

“I should call the police to come and get him.” Still shaken, Yukio reached for the phone and dialed the emergency number, while the young man headed for the exit.

“Hey, wait …!” She wanted to ask him to stay until the cops arrived. Surely they’d need his eyewitness testimony — but he was gone before she even had the chance to properly thank him.

It was minutes before the break of dawn when Yukio arrived home, and the rain showed no sign of stopping. She couldn’t wait to get some sleep and then wake up to enjoy the remainder of her day off. She hung her raincoat up to dry, drew the dark curtains just in case the sun decided to show, and began going about her bedtime ritual. The pages she had been working on, plus all the tools and materials she left on the spot a few days ago, suddenly became an eyesore when she glanced over at her work desk. This passion project of hers, which was supposed to be her ticket out of the rut her life had become, now felt like it was keeping her stuck in it. It had been more than a year since she sent out queries to publisher after publisher and all she had gotten were rejections. She took a long hard look at those incomplete pencil drawings before quickly crumpling and tossing them into the bin, and then allowing herself to end the eventful day with a relaxing hot shower. She would eventually see to the project’s completion, just not today.

As the hot water melted away the tension in her muscles, memories began to play in her mind’s eye. Yukio recalled the last Tanabata festival she attended at her home town of Fukuoka. Clad in her pastel purple yukata, Yukio was watching the fireworks with her then-boyfriend, Hiroki, on the bridge that warm evening. After the pyrotechnics show was over, Hiroki surprised her then and there by popping the question. She was an ambitious 26-year-old, having just paid her dues and resigned from the corporate world, ready to spread her wings and go after her dreams of becoming a cartoonist, but Hiroki had other ideas and plans for them.

With a heavy heart, Yukio ended their seven-year relationship and packed her bags for Tokyo. When she went home to visit family a year later, Hiroki had already settled down and had just become the father of an infant son. Yukio had no regrets, or so she thought all along. All she wanted to do was write and draw stories about a group of teenage girls with magical powers; marriage and a family would get in the way of that. Still, there were moments where she couldn’t help but wonder about what might have been.

It was nearly impossible to do anything productive when most of the daytime had to be spent sleeping. Plus, Yukio had not been able to pull herself out of the creativity block she had been stuck in for almost a week. So, instead of staring at a blank sheet of paper, she might as well check out some new releases at the bookstore. Perhaps that would get her creative juices flowing again.

After scanning the magazine rack and picking up a few copies of the month’s comic-zines for the female demographic, Yukio ventured over to the music section, where she saw a familiar face. There he was, standing under the Come Take a Listen sign, her savior from last night’s robbery, dressed exactly as he was when she last saw him. He seemed to be lost in his own world: headphones on, eyes closed, swaying and bobbing his head to the music from the sample CD. The thought of interrupting him gave Yukio a tinge of guilt, as if she was about to snap a child out of his pretend-play. But she had to at least properly thank him for handling last night’s situation. He turned around just as she reached out to tap him on the shoulder.

“Sorry, miss. I must have been hogging the headphones for too long. I got so carried away by the music that I forgot other people are waiting to have a listen too. Here, go ahead.”

“Oh, no, no …” Yukio took a quick look at the CD on display, Sunny Day by Kazue Fujiki. “I already have that CD and I’ve listened to it a lot already. Um … Don’t you remember me? You saved me from a robbery last night at the convenience store.”

“Of course I remember you.”

“I just want to thank you for saving my life. I wouldn’t have known what to do had you not been there … and did what you did. So, thank you very much.”

“You don’t have to. I just did what I was supposed to. You like this song too?” He changed the topic.

“I do! Not only that, Kazue Fujiki’s success story is really inspiring. I once read in a magazine that she was a customer service agent at an electronics company. She was at a very low point in her life when she was approached by Ohmachi from Tyrel Records. He was captivated by her voice when he called the customer support line to make a complaint. I would kill for a break like that.”

“You want to be a singer too?”

“No, I’m an aspiring cartoonist. I’m hoping for the day a publisher will take notice of my work and give me a break.” Listening to herself, Yukio couldn’t understand what propelled her to open up to this stranger. “So, um … You are a fan of Kazue Fujiki?”

“I just like music. I think it is humanity’s best invention,” was his response.

“You think so? Well, what about art? The written word or film? I think any artistic medium that allows for some sort of story to be told is a great invention. People love stories. After all, that’s what our lives are made up of, isn’t it? Chapters and chapters of stories that cumulate to an epic.”

A flicker of curiosity lit up in the man’s eyes. “Chapters of stories?” he muttered, almost to himself.

“Anyway, I’m not going to bother you any further. Thanks again for yesterday.” Yukio smiled and turned to go.

“Um … hold on, miss! You have a story to tell?” Yukio stopped in her tracks. “You said you’re a cartoonist, right?” His words made her turn to face him.

“I am, but it’s an unfinished story. I’m still working on it,” Yukio said with a smile, almost ashamed of herself. “Unfortunately, it would be a story no one’s going to be interested in.”

“I’d like to hear it!”

Yukio was stunned. “Oh? Are you a publisher, secretly scouting for talent? Please tell me that’s the case or I’ll be sorely disappointed.” She laughed at the look of confusion on his face. There was something about this wholesome young man that made her not want to part from him yet. “I was just joking. I suppose I owe you one for saving my life. The store’s closing soon, but I know a café nearby that opens until midnight. Let’s go there! I’ll buy you coffee and tell you a story. I could use some feedback,” she said. “By the way, we’ve not been properly introduced, I’m Yukio Takagi.”

“You can call me Chiba.”

“Alright, Mr. Chiba, let’s go!”

“In the end, the protagonist succeeded in becoming a pop idol, while continuing her double life as a mystical warrior of justice. She also got to be with the man of her dreams.” Yukio concluded her story to her sole audience member. “So, what do you think?”

Chiba, who had been listening intently since they sat down, leaned back and looked away from her for the first time, as if pondering the most important of questions. Yukio took a sip of her coffee in anticipation. The contemplative look on his face made her wonder if he thought her story was ridiculous, and he must be finding the right words to say, so as not to offend.

“Please, give me your honest, unfiltered feedback. What do you think? Do you think people will like it or is it all uninteresting?” she urged.

“What do I think? Hmm … is that how people like their stories?” Chiba mused.

“Well, people generally prefer stories of struggle with happy endings. It gives them a sense of hope. We read stories, listen to songs and watch movies because they offer us a moment of escapism, don’t we? Especially when life gets us down and we’re unhappy.” Yukio looked over the terrace at the rain falling on the asphalt as she spoke.

“If it gives people hope, then it must be a good story, I guess.” Chiba’s tone was hesitant.

He must have thought I’m being childish and silly, Yukio thought to herself. “I hope I didn’t bore you with my story,” she said, somewhat indignantly.

“You said it’s a work in progress, but you already know how it will end?” Chiba looked confused.

“It’s going to sound strange, but … ah, how do I put it? I know how I want the story to end, but I don’t know exactly how to get it there. I’m basically having writer’s block. Or artist’s block, however you want to call it. Does it make sense to you?”

The look of confusion on Chiba’s face became more apparent, and Yukio found herself struggling for the rights words.

“It’s like … it’s like having constipation of the brain! I know it sounds crude, but it’s the best way I can describe it. Almost all creative people go through periods of mental blocks where the ideas just won’t flow. And it’s such a frustrating state to be in, because you feel an urgency to finish a work you started, but then you can’t seem to get there. You feel like … time is running out for you, that there is a nonexistent deadline looming ahead, and yet the story you so want to tell stubbornly refuses to unfold itself.”

“You’re pressed for time to finish the story?”

“Not really. That story you’ve just heard, I’ve actually been working on turning it into a comic series for years, and I have been rejected over twenty times by publishers. I guess that’s why I’ve been feeling a sense of urgency lately. We’ve all got a deadline, some sooner than others.” Yukio looked at Chiba to see that attentiveness he shown earlier had returned. “Ah, forgive me for being so morbid. Last week, I attended the funeral of my good friend’s daughter. She was only ten. So young, and yet her time on this earth is up. I’m not too close to that girl, but her sudden death weighs on me, more than I care to admit, I suppose. Got me thinking about time and mortality a lot.”

“No one can escape death. Age is nothing when one has fulfilled their purpose,” Chiba said matter-of-factly as he took a sip of his frothy coffee.

“Her purpose? What sort of purpose could a ten-year-old have fulfilled? Her life had barely started and now she leaves behind a grieving mother. My friend’s husband died in a car accident when he was on a business trip overseas. Her daughter was all she had, and now the child was taken away from her. Life can be so unfair at times.” A moment of silence punctuated their conversation.

“What do you think of death?” Chiba broke the silence.

“Death comes to all of us eventually, doesn’t it? It’s not like we get to choose when.” Yukio looked Chiba in the eye. “Perhaps the question should be what do you think of life?”

“Life …” Chiba looked at a loss for words. “What of it? What is so special about life?”

“You tell me.” Yukio smiled. “I’ve always believed that each one of us is born with some sort of purpose — whether it is to save wildlife, create profound works of art or make a scientific discovery, something that contributes to the greater good of humanity — and it is our job to find out what that is and fulfill it. A sense of purpose is what keeps us going, it’s what gives meaning to everyday life, and we get to leave behind a legacy, so future generations know we once lived.”

“Everyone has a purpose to fulfill, but we are in no place to judge how and when that is accomplished.”

“But what about the elements of free will and choice?” Yukio felt compelled to debate Chiba on this. Something about his statement did not sit well with her. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t live with the notion that my life has been predestined. If I were to die in the next few days, I would carry a lot of regrets!”

Chiba was silent again, before leaning in to ask another peculiar question. “What would make you leave this world in peace?”

Yukio regarded Chiba and his question. “Are you a grim reaper, sent here to judge me?” Chiba’s eyes went wide with surprise, causing a laugh to burst from Yukio. “I was just kidding. You ask such weird questions! But to answer it, well, I would have no regrets once I accomplished what I set out to do.”

“When the world gets to read the story you have to tell?”

Yukio looked Chiba in the eye again. For the first time in a long while, she felt understood. He’s so different. “Mr. Chiba, I know that you, like many adults, may not think much of picture books with imaginary people. But to me, the stories they contain are capable of changing lives. When I was twelve, my brother, who was two years older than me, came home from school one day, and locked himself up in his room. He never spoke to us again. My parents refused to do anything, but Mom always left food for him on the kitchen top, and he would come out and eat at night, when everyone was sound asleep. Our family was never the same again, though we tried our best to carry on as if everything was normal. As if my brother never existed. At that time, I was too young to understand, so I hated my brother for what he had done to us. Then, one night, my brother took his own life in his room.”

Yukio took a deep breath and looked beyond the terrace again.

“I was in a dark place myself back then. My only solace was a comic series called Supernova Girls Squadron. It’s a monthly serial about a group of teenage girls with superpowers from space. Just looking forward to a new issue every month, to see how my heroes’ story would play out, gave me a sense of hope. I wished there was a group of magical warriors like that who would stop those bullies that drove my brother into self-isolation! It was then that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to tell stories that would give people hope in the darkest times. I then began teaching myself how to draw. I would create characters and write about them in secret journals.” Yukio turned back to face Chiba, who had assumed the same intense concentration he showed earlier. He took the last gulp of coffee and set his cup down, then looked warmly at Yukio.

“Do you believe you can fulfill this purpose of yours?” he asked.

“I’d like to think so. Although everyone who knew me, from my parents to my closest friends, think I need to wake up and face reality. Lately, I’m starting to think they may be somewhat right, what with all the rejection letters I’ve been getting. Do you think I can make it someday?” Yukio asked her companion.

Chiba tilted his head, his eyes narrowing inquisitively. Yukio couldn’t help a grin and light giggle.

“Maybe it’s time I stop living in the world of my childhood fancy and grow up,” she said. “Ah, you’ve been such a good listener, Mr. Chiba. I can’t thank you enough for sitting through my silly, somewhat delusional ruminations.”

“Eh, no … don’t mention it. I find your stories quite entertaining,” he quickly responded.

“Are you really not a publisher or an undercover literary talent scout?” Yukio quipped. “I shouldn’t be getting my hopes up. How silly of me! Alright, let’s change the subject. Let’s talk about music, Mr. Chiba. You love the song Sunny Day, right? Do you know Kazue Fujiki’s album is my personal soundtrack for rainy days? It makes me look forward to clear blue skies, when the rain stops.”

“I’ve never seen a blue sky before. It always rains whenever I work,” Chiba said longingly. Yukio couldn’t help another giggle.

“So, does that mean you’re a rain man, the one whom rain follows whenever he goes? You’re funny! But, you know, with the heavy rain we’ve been having these days, I can’t help but feel like we’ll never see another sunny day.” Another moment of comfortable silence followed as they watched the rain slow to a drizzle.

“How’s the coffee?” Yukio asked.

“It’s very rich. I like it!”

“I think we should make a move, now that the rain has slowed down.”

They stepped out into the drizzling sky, each opening up their own umbrella.

“I’m going to be on my way now. Thank you for the coffee and stories,” Chiba said.

“I should be the one to thank you for being my savior and listener!” Yukio responded.

“Well, good night and take care, Miss Yukio!” With a smile and bow, he turned and went in the opposite direction. Yukio stood there for a moment, watching Chiba’s departing figure. She wanted to call out to him and ask if she would see him again, maybe gave him her number, but a strange gut feeling stopped her.

Outside Yukio’s apartment building, Chiba stood under his transparent umbrella in the rain, with a big black dog for company.

“Your last job ended with ‘suspend’. Is that going to be the case for this one too?” the mutt asked. “What’s with your newfound sentimentality? Don’t tell me you’re really falling in love with your subject this time?”

“Not this nonsense again, and I’m not being sentimental,” he retorted.

“So, ‘proceed’ or ‘suspend’?”

“We shall see.”

Yukio wanted to squeal and jump for joy from the moment she opened the envelope. A comic-zine publisher she had queried replied, asking for the full manuscript of the first part in her series. Without a moment to waste, she headed to the post office with an envelope containing a copy of the manuscript she had prepared in anticipation of this moment, and sent it out by overnight courier. Two days later, a phone call came from the publisher; her manuscript had been accepted and they wanted to meet her to discuss the serialization of her work.

On her way to work, she thought of Chiba and how she would love to have shared the news with him. She arrived at the convenience store, just in time for her afternoon shift. There he was by the magazine rack, flipping through a monthly comics-zine.

“Find anything of interest there?” Yukio was grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh, hi! I was kind of intrigued by what you told me a few nights ago, so I thought I should perhaps start reading some comics,” he said. “You look unusually happy today.”

“I have every reason to be! You may be seeing my work in the pages of a magazine similar to the one you’re holding now!”

“You’ve gotten your lucky break?”

“Pretty much! My manuscript got accepted and I am meeting the publisher tomorrow to sign the contract. Ah, I waited all my life for this day! Feels like all my hard work is finally paying off.” Yukio could barely contain her excitement. “But I must thank you, for hearing me out a few nights ago at the café. I rarely tell anyone about my passion project, maybe out of fear I would get ridiculed. Having someone hear me out without laughing at my ideas felt very validating.”

“It was a really good story, this comic series you came up with,” Chiba said. There was a sincerity to his words that Yukio found very endearing.

“I should do something to celebrate this milestone after I sign the contract tomorrow, but I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do yet. Would you, um … be coming around here tomorrow?”

“Probably.” Chiba’s simple reply made Yukio feel somewhat rejected.

“Alright, let’s see about that. Anyway, I have to work now. I hope to see you here tomorrow, after I sign the papers with the publisher,” she said wistfully.

“We’ll see.” With a smile and wave, he turned to go, leaving Yukio to once again watch his retreating figure. Why do I get a feeling this is truly the last time I’ll ever see him?

Great! A thunderstorm on what should be the most momentous day of my life! Just my luck, Yukio thought as she approached the entrance of the train station. Fortunately, the publisher’s office was just across the street. She stepped out onto the wet and slippery sidewalk with her umbrella opened, looked to both sides of the road and made a dash for the opposite curb. In the strong wind, an umbrella wasn’t much help in shielding her from the rain, and the bottom of her dress was already drenched. But no bad weather was going to stand in her way of publishing success.

Just as she was about to hop over a puddle and onto the sidewalk before her destination, something struck her down and left her whole body in severe pain. The last things Yukio noticed before total darkness took over: a siren, blood, black smoke rising to the gray sky, chaos.

First it was a white ceiling, and then a sunny window overlooking a lush yard with tall trees against a clear blue sky that greeted Yukio when she opened her eyes. She tried to sit up, but pain shot through her entire body, causing her to let out a groan.

“Miss Takagi, you’re awake! Take it easy there, and try not to move so much,” a woman in white uniform said to her.

A nurse? I’m in a hospital?

“You must have a guardian angel watching over you! You were hit by a car while crossing the street yesterday morning. No broken bones, besides some fractures and concussion,” the nurse explained. “You know, as soon as the ambulance picked you up, the building across the train station caught fire. It’s a publishing firm, and some employee was smoking indoors. What on earth was that person thinking, smoking inside an office full of flammable material? The fire spread very quickly from the inside, and three people almost died from smoke inhalation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get the doctor to come and have a look at you.”

Yukio looked out the window, letting everything sink in. At first she mourned the lost opportunity of finally getting her life’s work published. Then, she thought of her workplace. I wonder if Chiba showed up there to see me.

Yukio took one last look at the pile of seven envelopes, as if wishing each one good luck on their journey, before dropping them into the mail box. Now all she had to do was wait and hope, like she had been for the past year. There must be at least one out of the seven who would respond to me.

It was sunny and breezy, with no sign of rain. Yukio took a leisurely stroll on her way to work. She thought of Chiba — the rain man — and wondered if he was enjoying the fine weather somewhere. It had been almost a month since she last saw him. He had not shown up at the convenience store. She even checked the music section of the bookstore a few times; no sign of him there either. Maybe he was a guardian angel who came to her aid and now his duty was done.

 

Joni Chng writes and takes photos for a living. In her free time, she reads and draws. But in between writing scripts for choose-your-own-adventure online games, doing photo shoots, urbansketching and interviewing healthcare professionals for magazine articles, she continues building and expanding her own imaginary universe — one story at a time.