The unending sound of car horns and rushing traffic accompanied Ichiro Miki as he made his way down the cracked and winding sidewalk that would eventually lead him home. It was a route he’d walked many times, one that he knew like the back of his own hand:
Turn left at the first intersection, right at the second, follow the street to the stairs, cross the Hamacho Footbridge, continue along the highway a kilometer, follow the railroad for 2 kilometers or so, turn right at the crossing, left at the next road, another left past the chemical plant, follow the tracks past dad’s station, then pass the abandoned factory, take another left, round the corner to home…
The journey had become as familiar as anything in the little boy’s life, no more or less so than the blaring car horns and the unsettling taste of something smoky in the air that came with the experience. In fact, Ichiro hardly took notice of the loud cars and thick smog anymore; with such a long journey ahead of him every day, he much preferred to let his mind wonder, or – if he were lucky enough to be traveling with company – to talk as a means of passing the time.
On this day, he was in luck. To his left walked Michiko, one of his few friends and a frequent travel companion. They had known each other for several years, having met when Ichiro and his family had moved to her hometown of Kawasaki. Like him, she had a long walk waiting for her at the conclusion of every school day. Like him, she would return to an empty apartment after that walk, prepare her own dinner, lay out her own clothes, sometimes tuck herself into bed…
Ichiro and Michiko rarely discussed such things, if for no other reason than that there was little to discuss that wasn’t already common knowledge between them. They certainly weren’t the only students at their school who let themselves into their homes and sat, ate, and played alone while their parents were at work. In fact, Ichiro wasn’t sure he knew anyone his age who didn’t do this. It was just the way things were.
At least, it was the way things were now.
Ichiro remembered a time when things were very different. A time when the beautiful face of his mother was the first thing he’d see upon waking up in the morning. A time when he and his dad would watch TV together and play outside. A time when all three of them would eat together. A time when…
A passing car blaring its impossibly loud horn snapped the little boy out of his revere. Without stopping, Ichiro’s head swung to his right, hoping to see the car that had beeped so angrily as it drove away.
But there was no way to tell which car it had been. The angry car had disappeared into a sea of slow-moving vehicles, all grouped together in a tight bunch that seemed to continue onward as one, giant thing.
A monster. A giant, crawling car monster!
Ichiro liked this idea.
The boy turned his head forward again, reaching up to adjust the rim of his yellow ball cap. The footbridge that crossed the busy street was only a few meters away, and that meant he and Michiko were nearly halfway home. After navigating highway 101, the next stop was the railroad, which the duo would follow to Showa station. Maybe his dad was…
Once again, Ichiro heard a sound that distracted him from his thoughts. But this was a different sound, one far worse than an angry car horn…
As Ichiro’s feet hit the first step of the staircase that led to the bridge, the sound of yelling children and the clomping of footsteps on cement began to grow louder, drowning out the echo of rushing traffic that raced down the highway overpass above their heads.
Please, the little boy thought. Don’t let it be him…
Ichiro felt his legs begin to move faster, carrying him up the stairs as the sounds behind him continued to intensify.
Then Ichiro felt a hand shove into his left shoulder, pushing him aside and into the wall of the staircase.
“Get outta my way!”
A blur of red shot past Ichiro and continued up the stairs, quickly followed by several more children as they tailed their leader. Each had seen what the first boy had done, and were laughing as they ran around Ichiro, who hadn’t moved from where he had been pushed a few seconds earlier.
As Ichiro watched, one of the passersby – a grinning boy with a large face and a striped shirt – suddenly stopped and turned around.
Ichiro’s face twisted into a grimace, his cheeks burning with anger and embarrassment as the boy concluded his mocking taunt and turned to continue his way up the stairs.
Ichiro remained where he was until he was sure the final member of Gabara’s gang had passed him. He finally stepped back into the center of the staircase, and could see Michiko next to him out of the corner of his eye. She remained silent as they continued on their way.
Ichiro had lost count of the many times Michiko had witnessed the gang humiliate him, and had grown used to her lack of reaction to the occurrences. The little boy never took offense to her silence; she knew full well that nothing she could say would stop the bullying. It would continue, no matter what she or anyone else might say or do.
Ichiro wasn’t sure what he had done to make himself a target of the gang’s ire, nor why the boys – especially Gabara – took such pleasure in tormenting him on a daily basis. It was a question he’d pondered nearly every day for as long as he could remember, but he still had no answer.
In reality, there probably was no answer. Perhaps they were just mean for the sake of being mean. Perhaps they…
Another sound. A screech from the street below.
Ichiro’s ears perked up.
Running farther down the length of the bridge, the boy stopped over the massive intersection that was breaking up the monstrous herd of cars below them. Jumping up onto the railing, Ichiro strained his eyes to find the source of the sound.
As he watched, a small, red car suddenly appeared from under the bridge, quickly turning right as its tires squealed on the dirty pavement.
The sound brought a smile to Ichiro’s face.
“It sounds like Minilla!”
It was the first he’d spoken since leaving school, and the excitement in his voice caught Michiko off guard as she stopped to turn her head towards her friend.
Ichiro was too excited to notice her confusion.
“Yep! Minilla cries just like that! Like…” Ichiro cleared his throat.
“Keee keee keee keeeeee! Like that!”
Ichiro’s smile disappeared. He turned to face Michiko.
“There’s no such thing. You’ve never seen anything like that before,” she continued.
“No, but it’s true.”
It was Michiko’s turn to frown. As she turned and continued her way to the next set of stairs, it became obvious to Ichiro that she had lost interest.
“Damn,” the boy muttered to himself as he dismounted the railing to follow her.
Obviously, Michiko wasn’t a kaiju eiga fan.
But even still, how could she have never even heard of Minilla?
Ichiro shrugged as he began to descend the stairs. At least he knew what Minilla’s cries sounded like.
“Keee keee keee keee KEEEEEE kee kee keee…”
After several years of taking the same route, Ichiro had grown used to navigating the maze of highways and bridges that crisscrossed Kawasaki. It hadn’t taken him long to memorize landmarks, remember specific turns, and even find a few shortcuts that would get him back home faster. With practice, the nine-year-old boy had managed to whittle his previously hour long walk down to a mere 40 minutes or so, depending on the traffic and weather.
And, of course, on Gabara and his gang.
Ichiro could see them up ahead at that very moment, skipping recklessly down the winding walking path that ran parallel to the highway, about 20 meters or so ahead of Michiko and himself.
Don’t turn around, he had been thinking to himself ever since catching sight of them a few minutes earlier. Don’t turn around…
The next kilometer of highway walking passed in a tense silence as Ichiro kept his eyes on the gang, fearful of their reaction should one of them turn to see him so close on their heels. There was no telling what they might do if he was spotted; if one of them were to shove him the wrong direction, Ichiro feared he might end up face-down on the hot pavement of the highway, right in the path of the ever moving stampede of honking cars…
Ichiro tried not to think about such things. One of the side effects of walking this route so frequently was a kind of oddly instinctual desensitization to many of the dangers that existed all around him. Like all his schoolmates, he had, of course, been warned of these dangers, and had been given tips on how to stay safe. Ichiro knew the rules of navigating the busy streets of Kawasaki just as intuitively as he knew the streets themselves. Watching traffic, listening for car horns and voices, turning around regularly to ensure no one was following, keeping his bright yellow cap on at all times to make himself as visible as possible to drivers… Ichiro knew it all. He knew it so well, that such safety measures had long since graduated from being mere memorized tips to simply being habitual afterthoughts, at once a constant part of his daily journey home and a numb, stale series of actions he was no longer conscious of doing.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the end of the highway finally came into sight, and Ichiro was relieved to see Gabara and his gang veer in the opposite direction from where he and Michiko were headed.
As they finally came to their turn, Ichiro felt his spirits lift. The rest of the journey, he thought, should be a cinch.
Kenkichi Miki glanced down at his watch, a smile slowly growing across his face.
Any time now, he thought to himself.
The young man quickly attempted to refocus his attention straight forward. His office was the helm of a massive freight train, currently coasting slowly down the left-most track in the railyard with a duo of empty oil tankers attached to his tender. His destination was a few dozen meters ahead, and his path would soon bring him parallel to a small street separated by a crude wooden fence.
With any luck, he would pass his boy as he was heading home from school.
Kenkichi by no means hated his job. It certainly didn’t pay much, or at least not nearly as much as he wished it did, but he was still grateful to have it. However, grateful or not, he was fully aware of the toll it had taken on his family, particularly his little boy. There wasn’t a day on the job when he didn’t wish things could be different, that he could walk – or even drive – his son to school every day. That he wished he could be…
There he is!
Kenkichi Miki’s face lit up as he spotted Ichiro walking down the street. The little boy quickly began running toward the train, and Kenkichi could see that he was smiling, too.
“Hey, son!” Kenkichi lifted a curved hand to his face to amplify his call. “Are you on your way home?”
Ichiro had only briefly stopped in front of the fence, but now had to run to keep pace with the train as it continued on its way. “Yeah, Dad!”
“I have to work tonight again,” Kenkichi yelled. “Take care of the house until your mom comes home!”
Ichiro came to a slightly winded halt, unable to keep up with the train. Kenkichi watched as the small form of his son, his arm outstretched in a wave goodbye, began to shrink into the distance.
A few minutes later, and Kenkichi’s train came to a halt. Sada-San, a fellow trainman on the site, lowered the red flag he had used to guide the train to its resting place, and quickly rushed to greet Kenkichi as he jumped down onto the brown grass next to the tracks.
“Hey,” he began. “The next train is running a bit late.”
“Oh,” Kenkichi halfheartedly replied.
This meant that he’d be getting home even later than he thought. Depending on how delayed the train was, it was possible he might not even make it home that night at all. Kenkichi sighed as he took a seat in the grass next to Sada.
At least the delay meant he could rest for a bit.
As he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes and lighter, Sada spoke up.
“Is… is there anything wrong with your boy?”
The question caught Kenkichi off guard.
“I know he passes the yard every day,” Sada continued. “You should tell him to be careful. Kids can get asthma, you know. He doesn’t look well to me.”
Kenkichi let loose a laugh, the cigarette between his lips bouncing slightly as he reached to remove it. “No, he not sick.” He paused for a moment. “But sometimes I worry that he’s too shy.”
Kenkichi lit his cigarette, and took a quick puff before he continued.
“He stays in his shell. I know it would be better if someone were at home to care for him, but my wife has to work, too.”
Sada nodded, his eyes now fixed on the newspaper he had just unfolded. “So he’s a latchkey kid?”
Kenkichi lowered his head, his grip on his cigarette growing tighter.
“Yeah,” he responded, taking another puff. “I’m trying to save money to move to a better place, but I don’t know when I’ll…”
Sada, it seemed, was no longer paying attention to Kenkichi. His attention was now completely on the headline of a story in his paper. Realizing the topic had officially shifted, Kenkichi turned his head to read the headline that had so fascinated Sada.
Before he could read it for himself, Sada lifted the paper closer to his face and read it aloud.
“Police Find Getaway Car of Thieves Who Stole ¥50,000,000!”
Sada lowered the paper, a smile creeping across his face. “What’s so great about finding the car? The thieves have already gotten away with another car and the money, right?”
The two men shared a laugh. As Sada continued to read through the story, Kenkichi found his eyes drifting across the vast railyard, the stillness broken up by the hazy forms of trains moving in the distance like tiny insects across a desert. A white smog, belched into the gray sky by the smokestacks of the nearby chemical plant, seemed to descend upon the distant trains, thickening the air as much at ground level as above the horizon line.
“50 million yen,” he said aloud.
What kind of life could I give my family – my boy – with that much money?
Chapter 2 Coming Soon.