It must have been a demon who dreamed up a life regarded with male presumption. From the prescribed stoicism placed on a first born son, to the stifling collar of the school uniform, every moment was one of irritation. Yet I followed the path of least resistance, for no other reason than to lessen the blow. To conform was to evade conflict until such time as it was necessary.
The large windows of the school building portrayed the illusion of freedom. On the other side of each panel were more squares; nature tamed into cubicles, and earth flattened for human convenience. An artificial order wrapped its tendrils around the world, yet there was chaos also; seething in the corners, and coalescing like droplets waiting to fall.
I was sat by the bookshelves, third row from the front, and staring into my textbook at the gap between words. If I stared hard enough I could lose myself; maybe not completely, but long enough to suppress any discomfort, until Chiyoko was released again.
Our teacher scanned the classroom and perhaps while sensing my disinterest set his eyes on me. “Mr. Yamaguchi,” he said, pulling me back to the land of the living. “Please share your piece with the rest of the class.”
I frowned, stood, and opened my notebook. The task was decidedly complex, or it would have been to most; choose a classical English text and read a passage from it, then elaborate on the meaning. The other students were sweating, but I was not. I stood, straightened my jacket, and enunciated the words, rounding the letters like an actor from a European movie.
“All but mariners plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel, then all afire with me. The king’s son, Ferdinand, with hair up-staring; then, like reeds, not hair, was the first man that leaped, cried, ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.’”
Silence fell on the room.
The teacher blinked, and cleared his throat. “That was an interesting selection, Mr. Yamaguchi. Shakespeare, yes?”
“Yes, sir. The Tempest.”
He nodded and stroked his chin. “That was a very ambitious choice. William Shakespeare boasts the use of over twenty eight thousand words in his literary work. Some believe his personal vocabulary exceeded one hundred thousand. Very impressive, Mr. Yamaguchi.”
My expression remained cold. “Thank you, sir.”
“Now for the second half of the task,” the teacher continued. “Can you discern the meaning of the passage for the rest of the class?”
I nodded firmly. “Yes, sir. The character laments the fear of her fellow passengers, all of whom jumped from a boat. Among them was a prince who declared that demons had ascended from the underworld, and that Hell had come to them.”
“Morbid, but powerful,” he remarked, and ruminated on the thought as though tasting an expensive wine. “Excellent work as always, Mr. Yamaguchi.”
That name, same as my father’s, tasted bitter in my ear, yet I resisted any sign of disagreement. This life was equal parts endurance test and war of attrition; could my psychological resources last until I had the means of an adult. I was determined to succeed, though had little choice to do otherwise.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. It was a woman, likely an administrator. She apologized for the interruption, and handed a note to our teacher.
He unfurled it, read the contents, and looked to me. “Mr. Yamaguchi, your presence is required in the gymnasium. Please go immediately.”
My fists balled in my pockets. From the far reaches of the world chaos had fallen. For what reason I was needed in such a place was a mystery. I steeled myself for the consequences of what I had reaped.
* * * *
The gymnasium was cavernous with only two bodies to fill it, and echoed with the deep thud of a basketball striking the court. To one end a man in a black suit and tie attempted shots from the three point line, while his partner in grey leaned against the wall. They were both slightly younger than middle age, but despite the fact seemed out of place in business attire.
I wandered along the court and into their notice. Both men had a similar swagger; the kind that might have pronounced ‘yakuza’ if not for their unblemished flesh. The man in black missed his shot, and sent the ball bouncing off the corner rim. He turned and smiled, flashing every tooth in his mouth.
His partner lingered, and glared without blinking. No doubt he was to be the ‘objective third party’ to our interaction.
“My name is Detective Sakamoto,” the man in black said. “That over there is Detective Amano. We come from a special task force with nationwide jurisdiction.” The corners of his smile tightened. “Might you have any clue why we’ve come to talk to you, Yamaguchi?”
Flashes of the night before ran before my eyes, though I did not blink. My breathing remained even, and my shoulders relaxed.
“No,” I said.
The detective huffed. “Our job is to track gang activity across Japan. Intel suggests that one of our wanted gang leaders might be attending this school.”
I paused, and remained still. “What does that have to do with me?”
Sakamoto shrugged. “You’re a smart kid, Yamaguchi. You get good grades. I’m sure you can put two and two together.” He removed a phone from his pocket, and summoned an image. “Do you recognize this man?”
The picture was of myself as Chiyoko, complete with blond wig, shredded t-shirt, and fishnet stockings. It had been taken recently, when the dolls and myself pried our way into the side entrance of a nightclub. Evidently we were under watch.
“How would you recognize anyone under all that makeup?” I asked.
He held the picture against my face, and compared the differences. “You’re both tall,” he said, “and you’ve both got the same dour expression. You have to admit that in a certain light there are… similarities.”
“We both have a cock, and that’s where it ends.”
Sakamoto and Amano laughed. I didn’t.
“Do you shave your legs?” the detective asked.
A wave of hate flashed behind my eyes. “Isn’t it considered misconduct for a police officer to ask a school student such perverse questions?”
He was silent, and lowered his gaze. “Hey, Yamaguchi. What happened to your knuckles?”
There was no point in hiding the bruises on my left hand, and the scraped flesh whose wounds had only started to heal. I always managed to ignore the aching between joints; it was less than the other pain that was mine to carry.
“Karate club,” I said. That I had not attended in several weeks was not a detail they needed be concerned by.
Sakamoto beamed. “Ah! Like Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan!”
“No. They practice kung-fu.”
Of course the detective was already aware of the fact. Such was the way of police; catch a perp in a white lie to get a feel for the larger ones. They would not get such an opportunity from myself.
I stood straight. “Am I free to go now?”
Sakamoto and Amino looked to each other, and nodded. They waved me off, and huddled together to discuss their conclusions. Perhaps I should have been concerned, but I was not; the truth of Chiyoko was inevitable, after all.
* * * *
The tension in my neck eased as I stepped into the open air. School was done for the day, and with it my obligation to manhood. Even while keeping a low profile the Hellbound Dolls were set to gather, and without Queen Chiyoko would not be complete.
I barely made it to the building’s front lawn when a classmate stepped into my path. Though I stared at the ground and pretended not to notice she was determined to be an obstacle, and cleared her throat distinctly. She brushed her hair behind an ear and shone with enthusiasm. I suppose that might have passed as cute on any other day.
“Excuse me, Yamaguchi. Can I talk to you?”
I forced a smile and looked up to her. “Hello. Inoue, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but you can call me Reiko.” The offer of her first name brought a familiarity I saved for the dolls. In the confines of my other life, however, it grated on my senses.
“How can I help you, Inoue?”
“I’m not going to waste words, Yamaguchi,” she said. “I like you very much, and have for some time. I think that you and I would enjoy spending time together, and I would like to go on a date with you.”
Her boldness swirled on my tongue and gave me pause. A confession of love; it wasn’t the first I’d received, though it had been a while. She leaned toward me, eager for a response.
“Thank you,” I said, “but I’m not interested.”
Her smile broadened. “Not interested in girls?”
“Only girls who would ask me to be their boyfriend,” I said, and pressed toward the gate. “You should put down the boy-love comics, and focus more on studying. You don’t want to be stuck in a cram school, do you?”
Inoue clutched the strap of her satchel with both hands, and followed in even time. She was like a lost pup, though only half as charming. “I’ve been watching you, Yamaguchi. I know there’s more to you than the smart and cool type.”
I had to get away from her, and from my hideous disguise.
“There’s a rumor that the police came to see you,” she said. “Some of the juniors are saying you’re a drug dealer. Is it true?”
She bounced. “Which part? The police, or the drugs.”
I was barely at the gate, and had reached the end of patience. Through gritted teeth I told her, finally; “what is or isn’t true is exactly none of your business. Now take your gossip to someone who gives a shit, and leave me alone.”
Though she did not follow I remained aware of her smile at my back. Were she to become an additional burden to manhood action would have to be taken. Though in that moment there were more pressing needs to be met.
* * * *
Tucked away in the side streets of Shibuya was a refuge for girls like us; a bar sitting under a large sign reading ‘Ladyfingers’ in cursive Western letters. Behind the double doors was a wide staircase declining into an open floor with booths lining the nearest wall.
It was there I found Yumiko, still presenting in male attire. Without the wig and her clothes she appeared awkward, though most would excuse that as being a geek. She raced to my side the moment she saw me, and from the look at her carried heavy news.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Yumiko inhaled. “The madam is pissed,” she said. “Someone came here looking for us.”
My jaw tightened, but I held my resolve. “Police?”
She shook her head and looked down. “I don’t know, but it’s bad. She threatened to kick us out, and to tell Big Joe.”
I peered across the bar to where an older woman emerged from the corner office. To most Madam Haruko was equal parts witch as she was a wise old crone; a fact that would leave her cackling whenever she heard it. She was a drag queen, newhalf and transgender before the words even existed, and stoked the spirit of the Hellbound Dolls from a time since forgotten.
“Ginny and Akane?” I asked.
Yumiko bowed her head. “Ginny’s not here yet. Akane’s in the back, changing.”
“Go join her,” I said, and kept my gaze rested on our hostess.
Whether in spite of her age or because of it there was no questioning Madam Haruko’s beauty. From head to toe she draped herself in the divine feminine, and splashed herself with colors that hypnotised men and women alike. Her oversized lashes opened like a meat-eating plant, and waited for me to enter.
I stepped into her aura, and through the chill that ran over my flesh. She drew a puff from her cigarello, and frowned as I cast my eyes to the floor. Of the few people for whom I would humble myself, she was the first.
Madam Haruko sneered into the mirror above the bar. “I don’t mind you and your girls getting into trouble, Chiyoko. I only ask that it never comes back on me. You know this, and yet you failed to honor our agreement.”
My head bowed as far as it would go. “I am sorry. Please forgive me, Madam Haruko!”
“I don’t want apologies,” she said. “I want you to clean your mess. You’re not the only girls I’m fighting to protect. The last thing I need is gang thugs chasing you into our haven.”
Gang thugs; not police? My breath caught in my throat, and I froze. Pressure was mounting on all fronts. Laying low would not be enough.
Madam Haruko tilted her head. “You didn’t know,” she huffed. “That convenience store brat you put a beating on was an initiate of the Black Soul Angels, and cousin of their second in command, Yoshino Genta.”
The reputation of the Black Soul Angels was one that echoed through the Tokyo underworld. Once they were an ordinary motorcycle club, then turned couriers for the yakuza, before claiming a territory of their own and defending it with maximum prejudice. Not only was violence their first language, but the punctuation at the end of each sentence.
A glossy red talon drew my chin so that my pupils locked with hers. They sharpened like pikes and drove into me. “He came to visit,” she said. “He asked for you particularly. It seems he does not appreciate family being brought down by ‘artificial women.’ You are of course aware that I do not tolerate such remarks.”
“No, Madam Haruko.”
“Perhaps that is why I’m permitting you to stay... for now,” she said. “I’m offering you one opportunity to resolve this matter, Chiyoko. Do what you must, and make sure it doesn’t follow back to my doorstep.”
Since our coming together Madam Haruko had been like a mother to the Hellbound Dolls, and ran hot or cold as needed. As in any other family responsibility fell on me as the eldest to pull my sisters in line, and to make sure that we saw things through.
She returned to her office, and left me with this new burden. The things that would follow were destined to be bitter indeed.
* * * *
Akane was sitting on a dressing room counter when I entered, whispering as Yumiko applied powder to her cheeks. The elder doll had come a long way since our first meeting, when the make-up brush in her hand trembled with shame.
I threw my satchel and jacket into a corner. Through layers of fabric and synthetic hair Chiyoko would be reborn, and I could not wait. The world may not ever bow to my control, but at least I had myself. What face the world saw was mine alone to choose.
Both girls looked back from the mirror with concern. It was then I noticed my pale reflection, and an expression more vacant than usual. For them I forced a smile, and unbuttoned my shirt.
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “There’s nothing you need to worry about.”
If the Hellbound Dolls were a sisterhood then Yumiko and Akane were the children. The wrath of the Black Soul Angels was not for them to face, regardless of their inevitable protest. Our role was to protect each other, which I could not do if they fought my battles.
Yumiko furrowed her brow and returned to the mirror. Her eyes started to shine from the painted shadows around them. Though it might have been natural for us to doubt our own girlhood, from the other dolls it seemed anything but.
“I’ve been texting Ginny for an hour but she won’t reply,” Akane whined. She kicked the air. “When’s she getting here? She’s supposed to bring jelly donuts!”
The hour was growing late, and though she struggled with keeping time it wasn’t like Ginny to be so quiet. Ill ease churned in my gut with thoughts of what kept her. At best her devices ran out of charge; worse, there may have been complications with family. However, there was another possibility I dared not entertain.
I scrolled through my phone contacts, and found her name. Each ring wound my nerves tighter. I prayed for her safety while hope waned. Finally, someone answered; it was not Ginny.
“Who the fuck is this?”
“Who the fuck is this!” I roared back.
Akane and Yumiko jumped. There was to be no hiding the situation from them.
The deep voice on the other end laughed. “Are you Queen Chiyoko? God damn, dude. You don’t sound like a chick at all. Are you even trying? I heard they’ve got these vocal classes that you can-”
I could hear his smile over the receiver. “So we did get the right guy! I was worried we grabbed a random, but then how can you miss a fat fuck like this?” There was more laughter, but there were also gasps; another voice in the background.
Akane and Yumiko pulled to either side, and held my arms as I trembled. Rage bubbled like lava moving to burst. It raced past my tongue and into my knuckles, twisting them into the instruments of pain they were trained to be.
“If you hurt her, I swear-”
“We’ve already hurt her,” he said. “Perhaps if we can arrange a meeting with Queen Chiyoko we’ll be inclined to set her free.”
Again, they laughed.
“Who is this?” I seethed.
“You already know my name,” he said, “and you know what I’ll do. Ask the old drag queen where you can find us and he’ll tell you where. I expect I’ll see you soon.”
The call ended with a click, and even with the dolls at my side I was alone. They asked what was happening, but I was silent. My thoughts were already across town, waging war for the sake of our own.
To be continued...
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