Based (very, very loosely) on this story, which was a retelling in the first place.
He would never have been on the road at nine o’clock in the evening, normally.
Today, though, Oishi had called him again, for the seventh time that week, fussing and worrying that Tezuka was lonely, staying in that house of his and writing his articles for the athletic journals all the time. There was no use in telling Oishi that Tezuka traveled all the time for his research; that was not the kind of social interaction Oishi felt was acceptable for quelling loneliness.
Oishi had suggested some clubs he and Eiji had been to, clubs made for single adults who were either in a committed relationship or were looking for one; Oishi had also suggested joining the country club and playing tennis there, an old pastime of Tezuka’s. As a last resort, Oishi offered to set Tezuka up on a blind date with one of Eiji’s friends, someone who had also played tennis in school.
Tezuka politely but firmly refused all of Oishi’s suggestions. He could not help agreeing in the end, though, to a late supper at Oishi and Eiji’s house. He had no plausible excuses, nothing he had to do that evening, and he did not like lying to his friends. So now he was in the car, on his way to a supper that would be nothing but more suggestions of social activities, more deft mentions of attractive friends who would be more than willing to meet Tezuka. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
There had been no rain since the morning’s drizzle, but wispy clouds still covered the sky, concealing the moon and stars from view. The lampposts that lined the streets provided some light, but the clouds had come down to cloak them in fog as well.
Tezuka had the radio on quietly, tuned to a classical station whose music and DJs were generally mellow and relaxing. When he had to drive at night, he preferred not to mar the hushed purity of the darkness with loud guitars and howling singers. He wasn’t an artist, and he wasn’t superstitious, but he had an inexplicable respect for the night. There were few cars on the street, and none at all on the side street where he was driving; the sidewalks weren’t crowded with pedestrians; and the only sounds came from the radio, the engine of his car, and the crickets outside.
He thought for a moment about the piece that was currently playing, but its title and composer’s name eluded him. That was a rare occurrence, when Tezuka couldn’t name a piece of classical music. He had never been a music student and had never played an instrument of his own, but he respected classical musicians as he respected the night, without question.
The sharp, sudden loud chord jerked him away from his silent contemplation. Adrenaline raced briefly through him until he realized what he’d been startled by. Haydn’s ninety-fourth symphony, the Surprise Symphony, was intended to startle the audience. Now that he’d remembered the song, he knew that there wouldn’t be any further surprises, though surely the first audience to hear it played had remained on its toes throughout. Tezuka took a deep breath, calming himself.
A woman stepped into the street right in front of his car.
Tezuka slammed on the brakes, his adrenaline flaring back up. He was abruptly grateful to the music for bringing him back to his senses, grateful that he was never careless enough to take his eyes off of the road, yet at the same time, he knew it was too late despite all that. As he braked, Tezuka turned the steering wheel hard to the right, aware that he wouldn’t be able to veer the car in time to avoid the woman.
No, not a woman, he saw, as the world flashed before his eyes like a series of photographs. A delicate, deceptively feminine-looking young man with light skin and hair, made ghostly by the headlights and the fog. Flash. The young man was looking at him through the windshield, his eyes opening and seeming to glow red. Flash. Tezuka was sure, then, that he’d hit the young man, because he was no longer standing in front of the car. But no, flash again, and the front end of Tezuka’s car was off the road and the young man was looking at him through the side window instead of the windshield.
It wasn’t possible. Somehow, Tezuka had missed the young man. Tezuka turned his head, meeting the young man’s eyes, which were blue, not red at all. Then Tezuka’s car smashed into the lamppost on the corner, and time became a real, flowing thing again. He was thrown forward, but the seatbelt caught him. The lamppost’s light flickered and went out. The other lampposts, the one across the street and the ones to either side, should have made up for the absent one, but they didn’t. Tezuka glanced around and saw that he was cocooned in an oasis of darkness, an oasis that the other lights did not touch. The headlights of his car had also gone out in the crash. The radio stayed on, curiously enough, the digital indicator a lone, pale green glow to see by.
“Excuse me.” The voice was soft, almost musical. “Would you like some help?”
Tezuka’s window was open, though he was certain it had been closed before. When he glanced outside, he saw that the young man who’d caused the accident stood there, not five feet from the car. “I should be the one asking you,” said Tezuka, carefully maintaining his neutral expression. “You walked in front of my car.”
“I did,” the man agreed. He did not sound overly remorseful, nor did he apologize or say even something so trivial as my mistake. He didn’t seem at all emotional, which might have explained his actions; Tezuka ordinarily would have assumed that the man had run into the street without thinking, or perhaps had been so distraught that he’d meant to be hit by the car. The nearest train station was miles away, after all, and not everyone cared for the absolute, utter finality of the tracks.
Tezuka surveyed the stranger, noting the clothes that might have been light blue, or green, or lavender, but had been bleached a ghostly white by the darkness. The style of them was normal enough, except that each time he thought he could, with reasonable confidence, describe them as a simple blouse and jeans, they seemed to shift just enough so that they weren’t that anymore.
The young man’s skin was as pale as Tezuka had thought, and his eyes were blue even without light to illuminate them. Tezuka did not know how he’d ever thought that those eyes were red. Red eyes wouldn’t fit this man, if he was a man at all. Tezuka became more and more certain that this wasn’t a human being he was dealing with.
The smile on the man’s face never wavered.
“You don’t need a ride,” Tezuka said to the man, an observation, not a question.
“No, not really,” the man replied. “Do you need one?”
Tezuka considered that, and then shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
The man’s smile widened just a little, and he nodded. “A wise decision, Tezuka. Very wise.” He stepped closer to the car. His walk would have been sensuous if it hadn’t been so ethereal at the same time, as though his feet didn’t actually touch the ground. Tezuka refrained from looking down to see.
“I thought as much,” said Tezuka, managing to be wry despite the situation. “You know my name. Please introduce yourself.” It didn’t surprise him that this man already knew his name. In fact, though the logical side of him rebelled, he’d been expecting as much.
“Hm, a name,” said the man musingly. He leaned down so that he could rest his crossed arms on the window ledge. “What will you give me for it, though?”
“You have my name already. That should be enough.”
“I have your name whether I give you mine or not.” The man’s eyes were full of mischief and amusement, but there was something thoughtful behind them, something that was evaluating Tezuka, weighing him against a set of unknown standards. “Have you anything else to offer?”
“A conversation,” said Tezuka finally, after a few moments of thought. “My time.”
“The most precious thing of all, time,” said the man. “Especially yours, Tezuka Kunimitsu. And you offer it to me.”
“All right then. Stay here and talk with me, and I will give you a name to call me by.”
“The name first, and not a name,” said Tezuka firmly. “Your name.”
The man exhaled slowly, his breath holding the momentary sweetness of an exotic flower. Tezuka couldn’t remember the name of the flower whose scent it was, but he could picture it in his mind: white and shaped like a star, its petals silky smooth, its fragrance sweeter than anything he’d encountered before. “Shusuke,” said the man. “My name is Shusuke.”
Jasmine, Tezuka remembered now. The flower he’d been thinking of was called jasmine. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Shusuke,” said Tezuka gravely.
Shusuke tilted his head to the side, his smile making way for a more wholly considering expression. “I think you mean that.”
The conversation carried on for far longer than any Tezuka could recall having in years. Shusuke knew quite a bit about tennis, surprisingly enough. “I played tennis once, a long time ago,” said Shusuke. Tezuka’s hand was resting on the window ledge and Shusuke was playing with it, fingers running over the backs of Tezuka’s knuckles. Anyone watching would have thought that they were in contact, but the truth was, Shusuke never once touched him. His fingertips hovered in the air less than a centimeter above Tezuka’s skin, just enough to raise the fine hairs there.
“How long ago?” Tezuka asked, repressing the shiver that wanted to go through him at Shusuke’s almost-touch. “We might have played at the same time.”
Shusuke laughed. “No, I doubt that,” an elusive answer. He added, “But neither of us play anymore. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” said Tezuka quietly. “Yes, that’s right.”
Shusuke was contrite, then, as he hadn’t been when he’d wrecked Tezuka’s car. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have brought it up, if it wasn’t important.”
“I know you wouldn’t have,” Tezuka replied, and was startled to find that he honestly did know, though he’d known this man for less than an hour.
Their conversation was simultaneously the most unusual and the most normal Tezuka had experienced in a long time. Never once did Shusuke suggest that Tezuka get out of the car, and Tezuka did not invite Shusuke inside with him. The car door served as a barrier, physical or mental or both, a barrier that neither one of them would cross, though it would have been so easy. It didn’t seem to make a difference in their conversation, in any case. Tezuka began to think of the door as he’d thought of a tennis court’s net, all those years before. Talking with Shusuke was like playing a friendly match, back and forth, smooth and graceful and easy, where the points didn’t really matter except that they did, because for a professional tennis player, even a retired one, the points always mattered.
The radio played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and the clouds drifted away so that the moon was visible once more. If Tezuka had been paying attention, he would have noted that this patch of ground, beneath the broken lamppost at the crossroads, was the only place the moonlight didn’t touch.
“Your friends will be waiting for you,” Shusuke observed eventually.
Tezuka glanced at the clock and saw that an hour had passed. He would have sworn, before looking at the clock, that it had been longer. “They’ll worry if I stay here much longer,” he said, and then, with a slight smile, “They’ve been telling me to go out and meet people.”
“Somehow I doubt they meant like this,” said Shusuke, chuckling.
No, they probably hadn’t meant like this. But this way suited Tezuka far better than meeting with strangers in clubs, or playing tennis with strangers who would be awed by his reputation.
“I should go,” said Tezuka.
Shusuke gave a regretful sigh, filling the car with the scent of jasmine. “You should.” He lifted a hand as though he was about to touch Tezuka’s cheek, but he stopped just short of laying a finger on the skin. “I’m sorry, Tezuka,” he said, apropos of nothing.
Tezuka forgave him without quite knowing what he was forgiving.
Once he was driving again, and he was far enough away that he could no longer see the dark space, and Shusuke within it, in his rear view mirror, Tezuka began to understand that theirs had been no ordinary encounter. He’d let himself forget that during their conversation, because Shusuke had made it so easy for him to forget, but now, with the road solid before him and the fog thinning, he remembered again. He remembered the flash of red he’d seen in Shusuke’s eyes, not once but twice. He remembered Shusuke’s way of walking, Shusuke’s voice, Shusuke’s strangely shifting clothing.
It might have been that same unquestioning respect that had developed naturally in Tezuka, or it might have been the lessons learned from his grandfather, the idea that there were some things men could not understand in the world, that everything had a spirit of its own, and that spirits, demons, gods, whatever they were called, were real, true things, not just a myth that humans could not touch or see. His grandfather had been the most eminently sensible man Tezuka had ever known, and so Tezuka believed that what his grandfather had spoken of was true.
Tezuka knew that Shusuke was what his grandfather had meant.
He glanced at his rear view mirror as he was pulling into Oishi and Eiji’s driveway, and thought he saw blue eyes there. When he looked again, they were gone.
“Tezuka, you’re so late!” Oishi, clearly upset, ushered Tezuka into the house. He took Tezuka’s coat and looked around, bewildered, as though he’d forgotten where to put it. “Are you all right? Was there an accident?”
“No,” said Tezuka. There had been, of course, but his car showed none of the damage it should have received. Tezuka thought that if he drove to that corner again, the lamppost would show no damage either. “I’m fine, Oishi. I was… detained.” He couldn’t explain to Oishi what had happened, so he was vague. Let him think that it was something to do with work, or something to do with family that shouldn’t be told to anyone unrelated.
Eiji bustled into the room then, a vortex of energy that somehow calmed everything in its wake instead of wrecking them. “Oishi, you’re still holding Tezuka’s coat.” He snagged it from Oishi’s hands and draped it over the coatrack. “Tezuka, you’re all right?” he asked, putting an arm around Oishi’s waist. Oishi visibly relaxed, putting a hand on Eiji’s. “We tried calling your cell phone, but you didn’t answer. I told Oishi that something probably came up, but he worries.” Eiji smiled affectionately at Oishi, who smiled back.
“You know I do,” said Oishi, using his free hand to flick Eiji’s unruly hair out of his eyes. “I worry enough for both of us…”
“…so I don’t have to,” said Eiji, sounding pleased. “When he kept worrying, I told him you were probably eaten by the ghost,” Eiji added in a stage whisper, winking at Tezuka. “She likes handsome men, they say.”
“The ghost,” Tezuka repeated.
“Eiji,” Oishi reproached. “Don’t tell him ghost stories, you’ll-” He cut himself off and chuckled. “Well, it’s Tezuka. You probably won’t scare him. But at least wait until we’re all out of the doorway.”
“I would’ve had him inside awhile ago, if you weren’t standing here forgetting where the coatrack was,” Eiji teased.
It didn’t take long after that for all of them to settle on chairs in the kitchen with the tea Oishi had prepared for them. “You’re sure you want to hear about this?” Oishi asked, sipping at his tea. “Ah, hot. Eiji, pass the cream, please?”
“Here you go.” Eiji handed over the cream, and Oishi poured some into his cup. “Anyway, Tezuka,” Oishi went on. “It’s just an old folk story. It’s not even from around here, but it’s gotten popular in this area, for some reason.”
“Because she lives here, that’s why,” said Eiji with a grin.
“Yes,” said Tezuka, his tone betraying none of the intensity he felt. Something within him was urging him on, urging him to hear what Eiji had to say, because it would be important. “I would like to hear more about it.”
“You see, Oishi?” said Eiji. “Anyway, she’s supposed to be a ghost who haunts crossroads, waiting for some unwary traveler to come along and see her. Then, when you see her, it means that someone you love is going to die that night.” His voice took on a low and ominous tone; he was a good storyteller, or a dramatic one anyway. “Some people say she lost her lover at a crossroads once, and that she causes the deaths to take vengeance for that. But some people,” he said, more cheerfully, “just think she likes her job. She’s supposed to haunt that intersection right outside of our neighborhood. That’s what the kids say, anyway.”
Eiji was a first grade teacher, and Tezuka remembered having heard children’s tales and gossip from him numerous times before. If ever there was someone suited to their job, it was Eiji, because he seemed to delight in everything his students told him, and everything he overheard.
“That’s how the story goes, I suppose,” said Oishi. “But Tezuka, you’ve probably heard enough of superstiti-”
Tezuka nodded slowly, and then stood and bowed to his hosts before Oishi could finish. “Yes, I have. Please excuse me, I have to go.”
“But you just got here!” Oishi trailed after him into the living room, looking perplexed and anxious. “Tezuka, something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Tezuka put on his coat, reaching into the pocket for his car keys. “Yes, something’s wrong. I’ll be fine.” With those seemingly contradictory words, he opened the door and stepped into the night. Tezuka trusted that Eiji would calm Oishi enough to stop him from following, and that Oishi would, perhaps, believe in Tezuka enough that he would not fear for too long that Tezuka had gone mad.
If he hadn’t been there just half an hour or so before, Tezuka would never have been able to tell which lamppost he’d hit. All of the lights around that corner were working, illuminating the small, quiet intersection. Tezuka drove unerringly to the one where he’d met Shusuke and parked the car by the curb. Then he turned his car off, left the keys in the ignition and the radio on, and stepped outside.
Immediately he was engulfed by darkness. He could see the other lights, but again, this patch of ground was not affected by them. Tezuka almost smiled. He’d been right.
“You came back.” Shusuke’s voice came out of the dark, and Shusuke himself appeared a moment later. “You’re the first one who’s ever come back, Tezuka.”
“I know,” said Tezuka.
“You heard about me,” said Shusuke. He stayed two feet or so away, as though there was still a barrier between them. “You know what I am.”
Shusuke cocked his head to the side inquisitively. “And?”
Because Shusuke would not come closer, Tezuka closed the distance between them himself. He heard Shusuke’s sharp intake of breath. Tezuka was near enough that he could see the color of Shusuke’s hair, light brown, almost honey-colored. He thought that he could see the colors of Shusuke’s clothing, but those flickered and vanished when he focused on them, so he focused on Shusuke’s eyes instead. “One life,” said Tezuka steadily. “That’s what is given when you’re seen.”
“I foretell the lives given. I don’t cause them,” Shusuke returned.
“But there only needs to be one given, once you've foretold it.”
“Yes,” said Shusuke. “That’s true.”
“Then take the only one that belongs to me.” Tezuka leaned down swiftly and kissed Shusuke, kissed death, and found death to be surprisingly warm and welcoming. Somewhere close, much closer than it should have been, Oishi’s eyes widened, Eiji cried out, and Oishi braked hard enough and fast enough to save them from the semitrailer that would probably have crushed one or both of them along with the car. They’d both been more concerned than Tezuka would have thought, and they’d gone out, combing the streets to find him. They sat there for a long time, breathless and afraid, holding hands tightly in the space between the front streets.
Eiji thought of the ghost stories his students had told him and stared into the darkness outside of the car. Oishi glanced in the rear view mirror time and again, because he was almost certain that he’d seen something in them just before their narrow miss. Red eyes, or perhaps blue, he couldn’t say, which was ridiculous, because the two were the farthest things from each other. Eiji didn’t laugh later when Oishi told him, when they were curled up in bed together hoping that the phone would ring and it would be Tezuka, telling them why he’d left so abruptly.
Tezuka drew back, still cradling Shusuke’s face gently in his hands. “Will you accept?”
“Mm.” Shusuke reached up to touch Tezuka’s lips delicately with a finger, his touch so soft that it felt like a butterfly landing. The scent of jasmine was in the air again. Shusuke smiled slowly, sweetly. “How could I possibly refuse?”
Colors flared around them, bright and unbleached by the dark night. Tezuka didn’t notice them. He was too busy covering Shusuke’s mouth with his own again, feeling Shusuke warm and solid in his arms, embracing death as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue played on the radio, the sound of it clear and pure.
No one ever did find Tezuka, though they found his car, abandoned and out of fuel, without a scratch on it. There was nothing to suggest foul play, or even to suggest that he might have been hurt. There were footprints leading away from the car, but they stopped abruptly five feet away, and there were none leading back.
And the children never spoke of seeing the ghost of the crossroads again.