Flying into the plaza with no warning, the old pearl-white four-door sedan had swept over the curb that ringed the fountain, slammed head-on into the bronze statue at its centre, and come to a standstill. Except for the hood, the vehicle seemed to have sustained only minor damage, but there was no sign of the driver. Unconscious, no doubt, or dead.
The spewing water looked as black as tar in the dusk; the flecks of spray shooting out were like sparks, giving off garish mercury flashes as they caught the glow of the street lamps.
Sōma and Tomio gazed at the scene, stunned. They were the only people there to see it. They had been camped out on a bench smoking cigarettes with a new psychotropic herb – maybe legal, maybe not; maybe genuine, maybe not – added to the mix. The accident was like a hallucination.
‘Makes you wanna piss, doesn’t it?’
‘Really, you don’t get that? Hearing that pssss?’
‘You’re too easy to figure out, man.’
‘Not even a little?’
‘Not a fucking bit.’
‘Liar. I wanna go so bad I’m dying.’
‘Piss then, go for it.’
Tomio promptly did what his friend said: just dropped his baggy pants to his knees and let fly. Two different species of white noise, water on water, merging into a harmony that, a second later, was ruined by a wail.
‘Hey, you hear that?’
‘That crying, a baby.’
Sōma didn’t wait for a reply. Already he was heading toward the fountain.
‘Yo, where you going? You’ll get soaked, man!’
Sōma didn’t hesitate; he walked right into the water, wading ahead as if something were drawing him forward, the joint still between his lips. He peered into the driver’s side. The window was open all the way.
The driver’s eyes met Sōma’s, and he moaned, ‘Ambulance . . . please, an ambulance.’ He sounded very weak. He winced, straining – playing for sympathy, perhaps? – then slumped against the airbag. The phone in his right hand was vibrating, the screen was badly cracked.
‘Please . . . an ambulance. Can’t move my legs. Fuckin’ broke something. . .’
‘Sure, I’ll do that,’ Sōma said, and stuck his half-smoked joint between the man’s lips to shut him up. His attention had already shifted to the passenger’s side. There was a basket there, held in place with duct tape; inside it was a baby, wailing and having a fit.
‘Hey, it’s that kid everyone’s been looking for!’ exclaimed Tomio, whose face was in the window on the other side.
Sōma had come to this conclusion, too. All their friends, everyone, had been talking about this kidnapped baby boy for the past few days, and now here he was. There was an argument in the family, then someone stole the six-month-old kid and was hiding him in this seedy port town – that’s all anyone knew. Even the family’s name wasn’t known. Obviously they didn’t want to involve the police, not now anyway.
Ordinarily the teenagers in town wouldn’t pay attention to a fucked-up family feud like this; they only got interested because of a rumour posted on Timeline that whoever found the baby would get a five-million-yen reward.
At first, everyone was skeptical. The whole thing was dubious, sketchy, not the sort of thing you wanted to bother with. But when updates started going up about how some people were taking the reward seriously, how there was this race to see who would get to the kid first, attitudes changed. Half-doubting, half-convinced, these gawkers – and there were plenty of them – got hooked, following each development closely, eager to see how things would turn out. People joined in the fray, not wanting this chance for easy money to pass them by.
So it was that Sōma and Tomio found themselves, late Sunday night, in a deserted park where they had come for a smoke, face to face with the actual, in-the-flesh kidnapped baby – and with, it seemed, one of the players in the hunt. What had been a rumour was now the real thing. The thought of that five million yen threw Sōma into a tizzy: just like that, riches might be falling into their laps.
‘Listen,’ the driver pleaded, ‘I’ll give you half . . . please, call an ambulance.’ He was going through the motions of trying to make a deal, but the supplication in his eyes was a big hint how little he expected that things would go his way.
Sōma smirked, deciding that since he had the cards, he could afford to show some sympathy. ‘Half, my ass. I’ll call an ambulance. That’s all you get.’
Meanwhile Tomio had begun to extract the baby, basket and all, from the car. The water in the fountain came just up to his knees, no problem opening the door. The baby was still crying.
A multi-tenant building at the end of a shuttered shopping arcade, a hallway on the ground floor. Sōma and Tomio stood before an unlit sign that read SNACK BAR BIG DIPPER. They banged on the door with the lion’s-head knocker, four times, quickly. Namie was there, as she had promised on the phone, and opened the door right away. . .
It was just past 12.30, early enough that there might have been customers around usually, but it was Sunday and the place was closed. They would have the bar to themselves all night. That was how much time they had to fork the baby over to the parents, or to the person offering the reward, or to whoever, and get the five million yen.
‘How’d you get here?’
‘Scooter,’ Sōma answered tersely, not meeting Namie’s gaze.
‘Both of you?’
‘I mean, on two scooters?’
‘Yeah, two. How many times do I have to say it?’
‘You didn’t park out front, did you? If my boss finds out we were in here without asking she’ll fire me in a flash, so no one better have seen you, you hear?’
As she was mouthing off, Namie stepped over to the table where Tomio had set the carrier. She lifted the wailing baby up and skillfully cradled it in her arms.
‘What’s his name?’
‘You think we know?’
Sōma and Tomio exchanged glances, then brought cigarettes to their lips at the same time. Alas, they had lost their lighters. They looked around for matches. There were some on the bar, but before they could light up Namie came over to them, kid in her arms, and pulled the cigarettes from their mouths.
‘No smoking around the baby.’
Sōma clicked his tongue, then threw himself down on a nearby sofa. ‘All right, all right. What about a drink, then? I’m dying of thirst. How about you, man?’
‘I’ll go get some beer.’ Tomio was fiddling with his phone, checking Timeline and email for the latest about the kidnapped kid: guys looking for the baby were out combing the area. They hadn’t realized it at the time, but getting from the park to the bar had been a real tightrope walk. Still they couldn’t believe the incredible good fortune that had dropped this baby in their laps – too good to be true. Grinning, they bumped fists.
‘Hey, guys, this baby has a fever,’ Namie said. ‘His body is burning up. He’s crying because it hurts.’
With a temperature this high, it was important to cool the kid down.
Get the fever under control, then try to bring it down to normal.
Give him water to keep him hydrated.
Take care of his poop so there’s no infection.
That means wrapping it up good, disposing of it carefully. If you get any on you, wash really well.
‘Got it? That’s the deal. Do it right. You don’t want the kid to die.’
Sōma touched the back of the baby’s neck. He was stunned. To think a body could get so hot! To think such a tiny thing could generate such energy. The baby lay in his carrier, his breathing pained, either asleep or in a daze – no way to tell.
Namie was sure it was some sort of virus. She had an older sister who had two boys, and they were close, so she often watched them. They were three and five. So she knew a bit about this kind of thing. But when she found out how hot the baby was, she had her phone to her ear immediately. She would ask her sister what she thought.
Her sister, Futaba, was annoyed to be called in the middle of the night, but she rattled off the things you could do for a baby with a high fever and the possible causes. Roseola infantum, hand foot and mouth disease, adenovirus, herpangina, RS-virus, measles, rotavirus or some other kind of food poisoning . . . some conditions were more common in fall and winter, but lately kids were contracting these things irrespective of the season, so you had to assume it could be anything and take special care treating them. The only way to put a name to the sickness was to have a doctor examine him, or else keep a close eye on his symptoms and figure it out on your own. It’d be a good idea, Futaba suggested before hanging up, to call the Emergency Infant Care Hotline, though probably all they’d do is tell you to give the baby lots of water and keep him quiet, and then to take him in as soon as the hospital opened.
The crucial thing was to cool the baby off, bring the fever down. But there was so much else they had to do at the same time, and fast, and with the baby crying the whole time . . . the three conspirators began to feel a little panicked.
‘Where are the diapers? How long has it been since you changed him? What? You don’t have a change of clothes? You don’t have anything!’
‘Look, it’s not my fault. Anyway, we can buy that shit, right? Hey, Tomio, go buy that stuff, will you?’
Sōma was standing by the ice machine behind the bar when he issued these instructions; Tomio had his hand on the doorknob, about to go out.
‘Huh? What stuff? I don’t know what you’re talking about, man.’
‘The stuff she just said. Diapers and shit.’
‘Just diapers? No cooling gel pads?’
‘Fuck, of course we need cooling pads!’
‘Get the gels. And get a thermometer, too!’ Namie added. ‘And towels, and something he can wear!’
Tomio sighed, not thrilled to have all this dumped on him. Still, he kept on with the questions. ‘How many do you want? A lot?’
Sōma rolled his eyes. ‘Use your fucking head,’ he muttered as he opened the lid to the ice machine. Then: ‘Yo, what’s up with this? The ice is all melted.’
Still cradling the baby, Namie glanced into the machine. Sōma wasn’t lying. A look of bewilderment crossed her face; she was speechless.
‘Actually,’ Tomio piped up, ‘I was thinking – isn’t it, like, really hot in here?’
They had left the lights off so no one would think they were there, but now Sōma hit the switch. He did it a few times. Nothing happened.
The power was out. No ice, no air conditioner.
Tomio peered through the curtains onto the street. ‘The whole area, it’s totally dark, no lights anywhere.’
‘You’re such an idiot. It’s one in the morning, people fucking turn the lights off when they go to sleep. Just go to the store, okay? What are you hanging around for?’
Tomio responded in kind. ‘If you’re in such a hurry, why don’t you go?’
The two teenagers were on the verge of lurching at each other when Namie made an announcement that got their attention: ‘He’s pooping. If he’s got food poisoning or something, we’re really screwed. There’s going to be germs all over. Something happens and the bar will have the health inspectors on its case. Listen, I don’t care who goes to get the stuff, we need those disposable diapers now!’
Sōma washed his hands, lathering himself with soap all the way to his elbows. He had just changed a diaper for the first time in his life, not happily, following Namie’s no-nonsense directions. She told him to take the plastic bag with the dirty diaper outside and leave it on the garbage heap. He obeyed, knowing that without her cooperation they would never get the five million yen.
When he came back into the dark bar, Namie was sitting motionless on the sofa, holding the thermometer in the baby’s armpit. He was swaddled in a brand-new adult-sized T-shirt, changed from his grubby rompers; he should have been more comfortable, but he was still wailing. The screams grated on Sōma’s nerves, but he kept his mouth shut. Tomio was sitting at the bar, eyes glued to his phone, trying to get some more information.
‘Oh my god, he’s got a forty-degree fever! We need to give him another cooling pad.’
Hoping to please Namie by showing some initiative, Sōma lined up the various items purchased from the convenience store in front of her.
Namie didn’t say anything, a helpless look on her face. Holding the baby in one arm, she tried to remove a gel sheet from its wrapper. Sōma stood stiffly beside her, watching, until she flashed him a look that said Are you a fucking idiot?
‘Hey, come here,’ Tomio called out. So now Sōma went over to where Tomio was, his expression no more hopeful than Namie’s.
‘They know we’ve got the kid. They’re like totally hunting all over for us. That punk who crashed the car must have posted about it.’
‘How? He doesn’t know our names. He’s got nothing to do with us.’
‘Maybe he told someone who does, and they figured it out.’ It had never occurred to them that they might become targets in this game.
For the first time in about an hour Sōma took out his phone. Sure enough, he had missed a few calls, and there were messages waiting in both his SMS and SNS accounts. People fishing for info about his whereabouts. If anyone else managed to track them down, there’d be blood on the floor immediately: they’d lose the baby and the reward and they wouldn’t be left standing.
Sōma felt his chest tightening. ‘Nothing from the kid’s parents?’ he asked.
‘Nah. I bet they’re asleep.’
‘Sure you had the right address?’
‘Positive. I just copied and pasted, so it can’t be wrong.’
‘And this dude is really offering five million?’
‘Yeah, I think so.’
‘What the fuck? What do you mean you think so?’ Sōma yelled, pressing in on Tomio. ‘Figure this shit out properly, man! Keep diddling around and all this ends up being a fucking waste of energy, right?’ He was so mad he might have been spitting sparks.
‘Calm down, man, don’t shout in my ear. This stuff about the five million is just getting recycled on Timeline, okay? All I can do is write to the original address. That’s our only option, so what the hell else do you want me to do?’
Unsure himself, Sōma tried to save face by folding his arms and looking thoughtful, like he was trying to come up with a plan.
‘So how should we respond?’ Tomio said.
‘Respond to what?’
‘Looks like Kawachi and his guys are looking for us. There’s no way we can make it out of here. Don’t you think we should just forget the five million and hand the kid over to them? I bet they’d let us have fifty thousand each.’
‘Why do we need to make it out of here? We just stay put and there’s no problem. We’ll get a reply in the morning, I’m telling you. Then we just exchange the baby for the cash right here. Don’t get all jittery on me, man.’
Tomio was silent for a few seconds. He cocked his head. ‘Tell me something, Sōma. Why are you so fixated on this money? This whole thing with the baby and the reward wasn’t even on your radar until we saw that car hit the fountain. You were just puffing away, getting high – it wasn’t in your mind. We weren’t going to bother looking, and then the second we find the baby something comes over you and you’re like a different person. I don’t get it, man, seriously.’
Sōma gritted his teeth. Anyone in his right mind would get crazed like this when there was a fortune for the taking right in front of them, and the fact is, he didn’t see how Tomio could not be interested. There’s a treasure dangling there, how can you not want to reach out and grab it? Before he could speak, Namie stepped in, breaking up the argument before it could get going again.
‘Listen, if you two want to fight, take it outside. If you’re gonna screw around in here, I’m leaving, okay, because this is bullshit. And anyway, where’s the eye-dropper? Didn’t they have one? Do you even realize what a total disaster this is? I can give him like a little dribble of water and that’s it with this stupid straw. I need help, okay? If we don’t do something, he’s gonna get dehydrated.’
Sōma gave Tomio a look, then went over and sat down beside Namie. ‘Gimme,’ he said brusquely, reaching for the bottle of mineral water. He tried to pour some into the squirming baby’s mouth, but he wasn’t so successful – maybe because his hand was shaking with anger. To make matters worse, he tipped the bottle too far forward, and the T-shirt the baby was swaddled in was soaked.
‘Oh fuck, what are you doing, you asshole. Oh, this sucks,’ Namie said.
Sōma got to his feet, leaving the baby to Namie. Ignoring Tomio’s warning that he’d be in deep shit if anyone saw him, he headed outside for a smoke. He needed to cool off, and that was the only way.
He was taking the first drag on his cigarette, perched on his scooter in the parking lot of what used to be a pachinko parlour, when he recognized a group of bikers outside the convenience store. He beat a quick retreat into the bar.
‘Hey, maybe his fever’s gone down?’ Sōma asked the moment he was inside. ‘Check it again, will you?’
Namie gave him a steely look. ‘He isn’t any better. He feels like a baked potato.’
‘Maybe you just think he’s hot. You can’t be sure until you actually take a measurement.’
Namie was irritated, but she must have decided it couldn’t hurt to check the baby’s temperature.
‘You know what, Sōma? I’m bailing. So just give me back my money,’ Tomio said breezily, suddenly. ‘I bought all the stuff at the store, so pay up.’
Sōma was furious, but Tomio didn’t look away – he was making it clear, without saying a word, that his mind was made up.
‘If they reply to my email, I’ll forward it, okay? I’m sure you can work things out on your own; you don’t need me. I won’t tell Kawachi or anybody where you are, so just give me the money.’
Sōma glared at Tomio until he thought he would faint, but Tomio refused to back down. Finally, Sōma handed him the full amount.
‘You know, Sōma,’ said Tomio as he pocketed the money, ‘I don’t want to argue, so maybe I shouldn’t say this, but it’s a waste of time watching over some sick baby like this. It’s just gonna wear you out, and seriously, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. It’d be a hell of a lot easier to let Kawachi have him. You won’t get the five million, but Kawachi is no cheapskate, like I said. He’ll let you have fifty thousand. And if you don’t let him have it, I’m telling you, it’s just gonna stir up all kinds of shit. You really would be better off—’
‘Yeah, thanks. I got it, okay?’
Sōma placed two hands on Tomio’s back and shoved him out the door. ‘Good riddance,’ he mumbled, then spun around and said to Namie, ‘So how’s his fever? What’s the number?’
‘Try and guess.’
‘I don’t want to guess, just tell me!’
‘It’s worse than before. 41.5. C’mon, we gotta cool him off more.’
Sōma was frozen by the news, shoulders slumped, mind blank.
‘Is standing there gonna help? You brought him here, right? Try taking responsibility for a change. Help the poor thing.’
‘Fucking shit!’ Sōma shouted at the floor. Then, exaggerating every movement, he snatched up the box of gel sheets and started sticking them here and there on the baby’s body – under his arms, at the top of his thighs. The baby had finally quieted down, but Sōma was being so rough that he started shrieking again.
‘Are you an idiot? Obviously he’s going to cry if you rough him up like that. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you?’
Angry, Sōma tried to get up, but Namie wouldn’t let him.
‘No! You give him some water now. Hold him until he stops crying, and rock him, okay, nice and gentle. This is your duty, understand?’
Sōma did what he was told. In fact, he held the baby for an hour straight. Every so often Namie would change the cooling pads or give him some water, but in all that time the baby never left Sōma’s arms.
Even after an hour, the temperature was still over forty-one, so Namie called the Emergency Infant Care Hotline. Futaba was right about what they would say.
‘If he’s not vomiting repeatedly or having constant seizures, just wait until morning and then take him to the nearest hospital. Meanwhile keep cooling him off and giving him water. Be especially careful about clean-up and the dirty diapers. You don’t want a secondary infection.’
Sōma had long since passed the limit of what his arm muscles could endure, but he forced himself to keep holding the baby. He was so tired he almost fell asleep; and then, just as he realized he was really reaching the limit, the baby finally nodded off.
Eager not to repeat his earlier mistake, Sōma now handled the baby with the greatest care, setting him down as gently as possible on a towel in the carrier. After making sure the little guy was still asleep – and he was, breathing easily now – he sighed in relief and, feeling the strength drain from his body, collapsed to the floor.
Just then, with timing that was either very good or very bad, his phone started vibrating on the table. Tomio was the only person it could be at this hour, and the anticipation of some news erased all trace of exhaustion from his body. He leapt up and began sliding his thumb around on the screen. Once he had arranged the swap, baby for prize money, he’d be able to go on smiling no matter how much the baby cried.
Sure enough, it was Tomio. The parents or whoever had sent a reply. There was a phone number, the mother’s cell-phone. All Sōma had to do was call her up and he could turn that feverish baby into five million yen. There was more to the email, but Sōma couldn’t wait. He dialled the mother’s number. If the woman had replied to Tomio’s email at this hour, she would answer the phone, too. And he was right: after three rings, the mother’s hoarse voice came over the line.
‘Oh, so you actually called.’
The moment he heard those words, Sōma felt it in his gut; not just foreboding, but despair. She started to tell the story – an account of fakery, a set-up, bullshit. The upshot was there was no five million yen awaiting him, because no one wanted the baby.
‘I’m really sorry to have tricked you. I thought people wouldn’t really look for the baby unless there was a reward, you know? And if we didn’t have lots of people looking, then it would be obvious he wasn’t really kidnapped . . .’
As the woman talked, Sōma read the rest of Tomio’s email, which filled in the stupid details.
The baby’s parents were underage, and they never intended to marry, so they asked the father’s family to take him. But the day before this was to happen, the mother decided she couldn’t bear to lose her baby, so she asked some friends to fake a kidnapping. As a result, the baby had been shuttled from person to person for the past few days. The father’s family had never really wanted to take the child, and they were so flabbergasted by the dumb stunt the mother pulled – which they saw through immediately – that they cancelled the deal. But just as everything seemed to have fallen into place for the mother and child, the mother’s new boyfriend said he couldn’t stand the thought of taking care of another man’s child. So the kid had nowhere to go.
‘So like, I’ll pay you back for this later, but I’d be so grateful if you could just take him to the prefectural orphanage. It’s gotta be some kind of karma, you know, that he ended up in your hands. Thanks so much for helping out!’
Sōma was so dumbfounded by the turn things had taken that he didn’t immediately realize the woman had hung up. It was unbelievable. He read through Tomio’s email again. Tomio had run into Kawachi and his boys at the convenience store, and Kawachi had said he’d figured the whole thing out, that it was all bullshit, and the game was over, end of story. Then Tomio said they were going off to smoke some good Californian weed, why didn’t he come along?
Sōma’s mind was so fried he needed something to bring him back to his senses. The baby provided that something by bursting out crying. Glancing toward the sofa, Sōma saw Namie sitting with the baby on her lap, peering at the thermometer.
‘At last it’s gone down two degrees. 39.5.’
Still, the baby was howling like a hurricane. Faced with this extraordinary outpouring of energy from a baby who had taken in no nutrition, had nothing but drops of water, Sōma felt himself being sucked into a bottomless whirlpool. Words like ‘wasted effort’ and ‘pointless’ caught in his mind; he felt hollowed out, unable to endure a second more. He snatched the baby from Namie and stomped over to the door.
‘What are you doing? Wait, where are you going?’
‘I’m taking the kid to his mother.’
Sōma started walking along the street of shuttered stores, lost in his blankness. The rocking must have soothed the baby, because he settled down right away, his breathing easier than it had been all night. The phone in Sōma’s back pocket started vibrating as the crying died down, but he paid no attention. The blackness was slowly being drained from the sky; dawn was approaching.
Sōma headed toward the large, run-down general hospital. Everything in this seedy town was run-down, so you had to be glad there was a hospital at all. He was in luck: he didn’t see any guard, or any of the night-duty nurses. He hurried toward the main entrance.
He looked around for a Baby Box where parents could leave unwanted babies for adoption, but he couldn’t find it. He clicked his tongue, then sat on the ground and lay the baby on his thighs. He unwrapped the T-shirt and folded it in half. Then he spread the shirt in a visible spot outside the entrance and placed the baby onto it. The baby went right on sleeping, quiet as ever.
Sōma didn’t look back as he hurried along the shuttered street. His body inclined forward as he walked; his lips formed a thin line; he kept his gaze trained straight ahead. The air was neither hot nor cold; the baby could sleep until sunrise without too much discomfort. One of the night-duty nurses would come along soon, and once she did, everything would be all right; the baby would be well cared for.
He heard no crying behind him, no startled exclamations. He was putting more distance between himself and the hospital, so of course he didn’t hear anything happening back there, but still it bothered him. Suddenly the thought crossed his mind: what if a stray dog or cat, or a rat, or a crow came upon the sleeping baby before the night-duty nurse found him? In the next instant, Sōma made an about-face and broke into a run. He was sprinting with all his might back to the hospital.
The baby was still fast asleep. ‘What, you like sleeping outside?’ For the first time since he had found the little guy, Sōma addressed him directly. He lifted him from the concrete, wrapping him in the T-shirt, and then headed back down the street. No nurse came out behind him.
He kept going, cradling the baby in one arm as he dialled his phone with the other. Namie answered on the first ring. She began shouting at him, furious, but he cut her off. Were there any gel sheets left? he asked.
Photograph © Andrew Huff