As he walked, Hikaru’s mind had been playing the same footage in an infinite loop. The green bag in the front closet. That’s where he had last seen his wristwatch.
The moon dripped a sad, silky fluorescence onto the pavement, but Hikaru’s attention was diverted to his ears. He could hear the crunching of someone’s footsteps somewhere in the distance again. He stopped moving and slowed his breath. As the crunching came closer, Hikaru slipped onto a nearby stoop and quit breathing altogether. He fixed his eyes down the street, waiting, until the tweet of his own pulse overwhelmed his ears.
“They’ve gone down another road,” he told himself. But Hikaru stayed in place. He imagined that the crunching stranger might have seen him, that they were standing somewhere in the darkness watching him, and he couldn’t move on until he satisfied the cautioning voice in his head. He stood staring into the dark, scanning it for a human shape.
Things were different while the sun was up. Earlier this afternoon he had crossed paths with several other travelers and their overstuffed bags. Nobody had spoken or smiled, but they had all locked eyes long enough to communicate their intentions. Once the sun started to dim, people instinctively began to avoid each other. Hikaru had seen a bouncing backpack silhouetted on the dusty horizon, and he had slowly altered his course accordingly. As he looked back, he saw that the backpack had turned in another direction as well.
Once he was satisfied that he was alone, Hikaru started walking again. He did not know precisely where he was, but he recognized the streets. He had gazed out of the bus window along the route to his grandparents’ house so many times that the streets were burned into his memory. Hikaru punched his thighs to the rhythm of his steps and remembered how he used to dread the length of that bus ride. He knew he would need to sleep soon, but couldn’t let himself select a spot too hastily. A good nook needed a delicate balance of vantage and stealth, and he wouldn’t settle for a less than ideal place just because his legs were wobbling.
The closet, the bag, the watch. His cellphone had run out of batteries sometime after 6pm. The closet, the bag, the watch. Another impractical gift from his father, whose horological pursuits had never interested Hikaru before. Now that he was stranded in a world without time, he could finally understand the simple beauty in measuring it.
Hikaru’s throat tightened. The voice was right by him, but he didn’t know in exactly which direction. He didn’t want to be seen desperately flinging his head around, trying to locate the speaker, but he couldn’t pretend that he hadn’t heard it either.
“Hello,” answered Haikaru coolly, stopping to unhook the water bottle from his messenger bag.
“Here,” said the voice. Hikaru saw a disheveled, fat, old salaryman waving from a doorway.
“Do you know what time it is?” Hikaru asked him, lazily unscrewing the bottle cap.
“It’s 11:36,” recited the man. Hikaru had thought he’d feel a bit better if he knew the time, but was still only a little surprised to that find that he didn’t. “Where are you headed?”
Hikaru struggled to keep his lips from pursing. He felt it was an intrusive type of question given the circumstances. Instead of answering, Hikaru drank steadily from the metal container, a little longer than necessary. “My grandparents’,” he replied as he screwed the lid onto the bottle and hooked it back to his bag.
The man nodded patiently. “Whereabout do they live?” he asked. Hikaru was uncomfortable, but felt that any display of resistance to what used to be such an innocent question could be misinterpreted. Besides, he didn’t know of too many salarymen that were interested in dominance displays.
“A few hours away,” said Hikaru vaguely.
“You must need a rest,” began the man, “I need a rest, too, before I try to reach my parents’. If we stay together, we can rest easy. I’m Oyama.”
“Yamada,” Hikaru replied, as he tried to picture Mr. Oyama smothering someone to death as they slept. “It’s fine. I always rest easy, this is mostly clothes.” lied Hikaru, gesturing to the bag on his back. In reality, he struggled to choose whether to sleep curled up behind his bags, or to protect his supplies with his body.
Mr. Oyama stood frozen with his head tilted to the side. He frantically waved his hands at Hikaru as he slunk backwards into the darkness. It was then that Hikaru could hear the faintest crunching sound coming from somewhere behind him. Hikaru hastily joined Mr. Oyama under the awning, placing his backpack on the ground so that he could duck behind it. Quickly and silently, Mr. Oyama squatted down and sidled beside Hikaru. As the crunching came closer, an irate Hikaru was surprised to find that he could barely hear Mr. Oyama breathing at all.
There were about eight of them this time, rambling in the dark, knocking over sandwich boards and garbage cans as they went. Hikaru thought of this type of behavior as an intimidation tactic, but he also wondered if people like them deserved the credit. Steadily, they moved forward, eventually walking right past Hikaru’s and Mr. Oyama’s hide.
After the last foot step had faded into the night, the pair carefully eased themselves out of their crouches and onto the ground. Wordlessly, the men leaned against Hikaru’s knotty backpack and went to sleep.