This is an excerpt of a story from “Dark Lanterns”, a collection of 15 ghost stories set in modern Japan, written by Excalibur author Zoe Drake. Find out more about Zoe Drake here!
Yasuo Ogawa stepped out from the ugly concrete shack housing the stairwell, and the first thing he noticed was the wind, buffeting him, snatching at the fabric of his suit like the hands of angry children.
Everything looked unfamiliar. Around him stood the skyscrapers of Nihonbashi, part of Tokyo’s business district. He had never seen them from this vantage point before; eighteen stories above the ground, on the roof of Nishigaki Securities Co.
Forcing himself to move quickly, Ogawa walked to the railing around the edge of the building. He took off his shoes, and carefully lined them up, pointing them back towards the stairwell. There were large gaps between the struts, and he bent down to squeeze his fifty-four year-old body between the flaking metal poles.
He straightened himself on the other side, and then froze, pressing himself against the railing. He caught a glimpse of the abyss opening up at his feet and a shock of nausea squirted up into his guts, his palms slick with a wrenching fear. His legs trembled violently, until he thought they might refuse to support his weight. The chill of the concrete spread through his thin woolen socks and numbed his feet.
It was not too late to go back. He could climb back over, rest in the stairwell, and mop away the stench of his mortality. He could return to his office, and think of other ways of coping with the hidden company losses that had just come to light. The billions of Yen parceled out in discreet but technically illegal deals. He could endure the methodical humiliation from the media, the police, the government officials…
No, he could not.
The insurance policies that he had transferred into bonds would be already with his solicitor. His family would be well taken care of. The suicide letter was in the top drawer of his cleaned-out desk, where it would soon be located.
Ogawa pushed himself away from the railings. He realized suddenly, that under his breath, all this time, he had been humming an old folk song. He toppled quite slowly, and as his centre of gravity shifted he saw the parking lot beneath him, the small number of cars and limousines this early hour of the morning, the painted lines of official demarcation. Then he was past the point of no return. The emptiness took him by the hands and pulled him forward.
His head swung lower and lower until he began to somersault. The thought sprang into his mind that he would smash into the side of the building, but he had pushed himself away with his toes. He leveled out, and launched into free fall.
Eighteen stories. How long would it take? Five seconds? Less?
The feeling of losing control was terrifying, yet also exhilarating. Things were happening too fast for Ogawa to appreciate his own death. The towers of Nihonbashi leapt into space, bending and swaying as the world spun around him. The parking-lot suddenly unfolded itself like a bird opening its wings, the painted lines stretching into infinity. Ogawa had a piercingly sharp image of a drain cover directly beneath him.
He hit the ground –
And went THROUGH IT –
There was a millisecond’s vision of blackness, a soft, spongy blackness like the scum on the surface of a river –
And Ogawa was through.
Around him, the dance of the skyscrapers continued unabated, the earth and the sky constantly changing partners. Nihonbashi spun like a roulette wheel. His eyes and his mind refused to accept, only his body could recognize the fact – he was still falling; but this time, falling upwards, hurtling back along the arc he had just traveled.
He was falling into the sky.
Ogawa had often wondered what to expect in the afterlife. The mercy of Amida Buddha and the Goddess Kannon. Angels. Demons. Best of all, the numbness of oblivion. But he hadn’t expected this. Where was the pain? Where was the impact, the bursting of bones and brains? Where was the end to it all?
Gravity tossed him higher, like a leaf helpless in the wind, until he felt a subtle change in his direction. Before him, he saw the agitated bulk of the Nishigaki Building. He was returning to the top.
While he was still trying to come to terms with this, he felt his body slowing before he reached the roof, and the square dullness of an office window filled his vision. Ogawa was deposited, as if by the meticulous hand of an unseen Kami, upon the ledge outside the fifteenth floor.
With the swiftness of instinct, his hands snapped out to clutch any form of support on the thin metal framing the window. Despite his fumbling, he preserved his balance, as if an invisible force was pressing him against the glass. He was stuck to the building. He was a cherry blossom that had returned to the branch.
Glancing around him, and over his shoulder, Ogawa tried to understand what had happened. If this was the Buddhist afterlife, it looked exactly like Tokyo on a blustery April day. He risked a look below, into the street. It still gave him a nauseous lurch of vertigo, but he could recognize the crawling shapes of distant pedestrians, although the wide streets were empty of cars. The car park had mysteriously disappeared; he seemed to be on the opposite side of the building.
Ogawa turned and pressed his face to the window, seeking to penetrate the darkness within. He raised his hand, wondering if he should bang on the window, shout, draw attention to himself, when he froze – peering through the glass at the figure that wavered amongst reflections and shadow.
Someone was inside the office. Watching him.
Ogawa stared harder, trying to make out the details. There was a figure sitting at a desk, who at once stood up, as if he had registered Ogawa’s awareness of him. The figure was that of an elderly man; his clothes the dark cut of a senior salaryman, his body short and rotund, his face corpulent, bland, and topped with dyed slicked-back hair.
The figure left the desk and approached the window, his features gaining definition in the strange half-light. Ogawa tensed himself, but there was something in the stranger’s manner that was kindly, almost paternal. Ogawa had the feeling he had seen this man before. As the figure stretched out its arms to open the window, Ogawa’s memory clicked into place.
In recent years, he had seen this man’s face every week, in departmental meetings. In the framed photograph on the office memorial shelf. His name was Tomotoda Fujisawa, he had been Chairman of the Board of Directors for twelve years … and he had died in 2005.
The window slid open, and Ogawa saw his face reflected in the dead man’s spectacles. He looked disheveled, wild; unseemly. Mr. Fujisawa smiled, and frowned with gentle curiosity.
“Good morning,” said Mr. Fujisawa.
“Good morning,” Ogawa replied, bowing with considerable difficulty.
Fujisawa’s gaze shifted past Ogawa, into the distance. “The weather is quite beautiful today.”
“Yes…” Ogawa struggled for words. “It really feels like spring now.”
“Nippon Steel is up five points on the Nikkei Index, I heard.”
“Really? That’s…most impressive.”
Mr. Fujisawa’s gaze snapped back into focus. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Errm … about two or three minutes.”
“Was it an accident?”
“Erm…” Ogawa flushed with shame, but the older man shook his head and smiled. “There’s no need to worry. It comes to us all, one way or the other. I ended my last day on the golf course, myself. A massive stroke. It was all quite amusing, really. I was winning at the time.”
Mr. Fujisawa gave a little shrug. “Oh, well. I can’t stand here gossiping all day. I have some work to finish. I have enjoyed our little chat.” The arms stretched out again, hands settling on the window clasp.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, sir,” Ogawa blurted in panic, “but-but could you help me get inside?”
The ex-chairman’s face clouded. “Have you made an appointment?””
“A … a what?”
“An appointment. There are rules about this sort of thing, you know. Protocol that has to be maintained.”
“Well … I didn’t really have time, you see, it was all a bit of a hurry…” Ogawa’s voice trailed off and fell into empty space.