Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Pup

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Rain came harder now, and whipped his face, stinging his eyes and blinding him. Hiro grabbed a smooth Manzanita trunk, clenching it in the palm of his hand, too afraid of slipping again to move. He was drenched. He had to abandon his old hazmat suit at the bottom of the ravine. It had been torn to tatters by his involuntary roll in the brush along with a few chunks of his own skin. It no longer served any purpose and kept catching in the branches when trying to get up. Only now he was exposed to the full impact of the weather. That was what December in California felt like. One day you might feel like you are in paradise, and the next, you are wading through streams of mud, the wind chilling you down to your very bones. Not the best time to take a stroll through an officially closed area of the wilderness.
He had to face it: he was totally lost. He had been so sure that climbing that last ridge would have brought him in view of the Pacific Ocean and right over the roofs of Avila Beach. Instead he had reached a false summit, and slid down a steep escarpment into a narrow canyon. Now, scratched by the chaparral, he tried to regain his bearings. It wasn’t easy. The sun wasn’t even visible. He could barely keep his eyes open. He looked for a shelter of some sort, some place where he could get out of the stinging rain. Think, he needed to think. He sloppily waded through a stream that he swore was not there five minutes earlier, the water now up to his ankles. He had to figure a way out in a hurry, before a mudslide took him down to the ocean much faster than he wanted to travel. 
His inadequate sneakers made a sucking sound as he sloshed across the flowing water. Careful not to lose his balance, he made his way to an overhang formed by the roots of one of the taller trees on the side of the hill. It gave him, at most, a foot or so of protection, barely enough space to sit. He hugged himself, shivering uncontrollably. 
“I don’t want any silly puppy,” Risa had cried, shaking her head, in a fierce hair and tear storm that only a four-year old can master. The labradoodle pup squealed excitedly and tried to jump up to her face, lost its grip on the tiled floor, and decided to sit down instead, panting happily and looking quite silly indeed. 
“But Risa, he is soooo cute, look how cuddly and soft he is, just waiting to play with you!” Frank, her dad, said. 
It was still mid-December, but the puppy had finally been available, and there was no easy way to hide it until Christmas Day. 
“I don’t wanna him!” She screamed, pushing out her stubby arms, and the puppy backed away in fear, then fell again on his butt and was lost once more in the contemplation of his tail.
“Risa, don’t shout, you are scaring him,” Debbie scolded her. But that made her cry even louder: “I want Bo! I want Bo!”
“Darling, you know Bo can’t be here with us. Bo is back in Avila Beach, watching over our old house. Don’t you want him to stay there, to make sure the house is OK when we go back?”
“I don’t care about that old house. I like it better here. And I want Bo!”
The memory still made him smile. Bo. It had been his father’s dog. Like him, it was silent, enigmatic, imperturbable. But it was Risa’s dog, now. Hiro needed to focus—that was the reason why he was there, wasn’t it?  Why he had searched the deep web, gotten in touch with the Pet Liberation Front crazies. He knew what to look for. Similar groups had sprouted like mushrooms back home, after the Fukushima disaster: recovering pets left behind after the evacuation, returning them to their families of putting them up for adoption when their families could not be found or had joined the long list of the deceased. On their website the PELF had looked like some cross between a group of survivalists and ecoterrorists, but they had looked determined, knowledgeable, and, Hiro thought, organized enough. In person they were something else. Over a long, clandestine Skype session he had convinced the leader to let him join the expedition, then boarded a Greyhound to San Luis Obispo, where the army had set the boundaries of the no-entry zone. 
“Call me Bob,” had said the man at the coffee shop were they met. Like his friends he was an older hippie, a really nice guy, all around. Hiro had held on to a return ticket, just in case. But the surplus hazmat suit they offered him had seen better days, just like the battered van they used to approach the coastal range on an unmarked forest road. And now, where had they all gone? When they heard the military chopper overhead, the loudspeakers screaming words Hiro could not understand, the group scattered in all directions. Hiro had tried to keep up with Bob, the vegetation jumping in front of his path, whipping his face and arms through the suit. He had taken one wrong turn, and what looked like a trail that had been a wash, dug out by water, made even more slippery by the incessant rain. That’s where he slid down into the ravine. And now he had no Bo, and he was completely lost. 
Why, why why, he murmured rhythmically beating his head against the tree roots above. He closed his eyes. He wondered how much radiation he was absorbing. Would he die? Did it even matter, now, he was stuck, lost, he might fall again, or die of exposure long before feeling any effects of radioactive contamination. The PELF leader had a yellow plastic gadget he called a dosimeter, he had shown them the parameters they had to keep within for the day. He had said that if they made it in and out of the no-entry zone in a day there would be no consequences, that everyone would be safe. 
Hiro needed to move. His train of thought was circling around the station, and he was getting sleepier by the minute. But the water was even higher now, the former trickle now a stream, rushing over the toes of his sneakers. The wind was still bad, but the rain had slowed down just enough for him to take a look around. He would never make it now if he tried to climb back up against the water flow, and he would definitely slide to his death trying to descend. But the tree he had found shelter under looked solid enough; he could try to use it to climb his way back up the wall of the narrow canyon. He attempted grabbing the roots above him but could not get enough of a grip and slid back down. He smacked his hands together to recover some feeling in them. They felt like raw steak. Every single bit of his body hurt, but he tried again, pulling as hard as he could, laying himself up and over the trunk, a rivulet of mud flowing right under his clothes. He coughed. He cursed. He promised himself he would stop smoking once and for all. He no longer felt cold.  He was solidly anchored to the tree with the water now raging under his feet, and the upper edge of the canyon no longer looked impossible to reach, just another hard challenge ahead. So he moved, planting his feet in the mud, searching for rocks and brush with his hands. One muddy inch at a time, sliding back down and trying harder, until the slope decreased, and he could finally walk on his two feet, still careful to grab anything in reach that could hold his weight. 
The landscape changed quickly, and now he was walking through a sparsely vegetated area descending towards a black line of trees. From up on the edge of the canyon, he thought he had seen something on the horizon, just above the tree line. Could that have been a narrow stripe of ocean? The grey was the same as the color of angry clouds that had haunted him in the last hours. But maybe he had been right, after all. There was only one way to find out: by crossing the trees to take a better look, keep walking while he still had some strength. Moving meant heat, and perhaps getting closer to safety. No, he reconsidered, that was not right. If what he had seen was the ocean, he was actually moving in the most unsafe direction possible. Right towards the coast, just around a promontory from where all hell had broken loose just a few weeks earlier. 
He had thought the quake would be the worst part. It had not even been much of a shake by his standards. Frank and Debbie’s house screamed and contorted, plaster rained everywhere, books and dishes leapt from their receptacles crashing to the ground, but overall the structure held. No, it was the memories that the tremor brought back, the holocaust of his land just two years before. Hiro found himself screaming in the middle of the night, running in his undies out of the house, before cooling off and going back in. Dogs barked in the distance. Bo was nowhere to be found: perhaps he had run away, as terrorized as his supposed owner. 
Frank and Debbie instead had kept surprisingly calm. They had blankets, torches, even a geeky crank-powered radio. He expected them at any moment to fire up a butane-powered gizmo to roast marshmallows. Yet the worst had still to come. The fire department swept the area immediately, escorted by sheriff cars with loudspeakers blaring. They ordered an immediate evacuation: the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant, just a few miles around the bluffs of the MontaƱa de Oro had split open like a ripe watermelon. They abandoned their house that very night, with just the clothes on their back. They had to leave everything behind, including Bo, in the contaminated wasteland that had been their home. And now Hiro was heading back there. 
Frank and Debbie would never have allowed him to go. Or to come back if he went anyway, especially if he returned empty-handed. But no, they weren’t that bad. Debbie had her moments. Frank was mostly OK. She was overbearing, he was apologetic. Debbie was prone to loud outbursts, and Frank tried too hard to fill the awkward silences in between, always smoothing things out, the exact opposite of Hiro’s dad. And he could not conform to the image of the clean polite boy image they had of him through school and family pictures. He looked quite different from the package a JAL stewardess had delivered them almost two years earlier at LAX.
Hiro remembered them staring at him, their fifteen-year-old cousin from Japan. The corners of Debbie’s mouth had tried to bend into a smile. He was wearing a grungy argyle sweater, a couple of sizes too large, had his beanie pulled down all the way to his eyes, his long hair curling away underneath, and a majorly unsuccessful attempt at a goatee that looked like pubic hair sprouting in the wrong place. And if that wasn’t enough, he had brought a dog with him, they saw, balking at the sight of a long-fanged black-snouted monster. 
Only Risa had taken to him almost immediately. “I love doggies!” she had shouted happily at Bo when she saw the four-year old Akita through the front grill of an impossibly large crate that the JAL attendants managed to drop right in front of her. The gate broke open and Bo bolted out, fidgety from the ten-hour flight. Debbie cried in alarm, Frank jumped forward to get his daughter away from the wildebeest, but way too slowly. Bo, shook off the airplane bay boredom, then jumped towards the little girl and knelt down in front of her, his butt up in the air, wagging his curly tail, in a motion that Hiro had rarely seen. Risa, a little over two at the time, had barely been tall enough to hug him around the neck, and the dog panted, eyes closed, with his long black lips stretched in an unusually silly canine smile. 
Hiro stopped. There were paw prints there, large ones. He shuddered. What creatures roamed the woods in California? Bears for sure. Wolves, maybe? Frank had told him about the coyotes, they had often heard them howling at night. He had never seen one, though. How big were they, really? Could they attack him? He looked over his shoulder, shivered. Something moved in the woods, or maybe it was just his imagination. He started moving again, digging into strength he did not think he had. Solstice was past, and these were the shortest days of the year. Afraid of being tracked, he had left his cell phone home. He had no watch, no view of the sun. But, this stormy day was getting darker by the minute. It would be night soon enough, and he still had a way to go. But he could feel it, the ocean was down there, somewhere in front of him. The ocean, he thought, jumping over a rotting log, that’s where everything started
“Tell me the story again,” ordered Risa, propped up on a Hello Kitty pillow, Bo resting at the feet of her bed. Hiro sat on the carpet, aching for a cigarette. Instead he leaned forward, yawning, resting his chin on his own bent knees. 
“There is this fish. But not any fish. A catfish.”
Bo raised his head. A cat? Where? Then, finding none, assumed the resting position again. 
“How big is the fish?”
“It’s huge, as big as an entire country, its whiskers cross the span between far away islands.
“And what’s its name?”
“You know its name, Risa.”
“I want you to tell me!”
“Wakatta. Ok, its name is Namazu. It lives under a giant rock at the bottom on the sea, guarded by a god named Kashima.”
“But he’s not always there.”
“That’s right: sometimes he has to leave.”
“To go to the bathroom?”
“No, silly, gods don’t go to the bathroom.”
“They don’t? But why?”
“I don’t know why, ijiwaru girl, they just do not. But sometimes Kashima has to leave, or he simply falls asleep.”
“And the namazu wakes up!”
“Right, the namazu wakes up, and shakes free of the rock, and...”
“...And...” Repeats Risa, excited, knowing well what comes next.
“And then the namazu slams its tail on the bottom of the sea, and bang, the big earthquake comes!” says Hiro, shaking the bed frame. Risa shouts and laughs hysterically, holding herself against the bed.
“Hiro, keep her quiet, would you?” shouts Debbie from the living room. 
Hiro puts a finger on his lips, mocking, with an exaggerated severe grimace, and Risa is lost in giggles once more, hiding her head under the pillow. 
Frank and Debbie hardly spoke any Japanese, just the few words here and there they remembered hearing from their grandparents. But they were still his cousins, second cousins to be exact. Hiro’s late grandpa’s older brother had moved to California in the sixties with his wife. They had kept in touch, yearly exchanging nengajo, New Year’s cards, and formal family photos where everyone stood up like they had draped their corpses in traditional kimonos after impaling them on broomsticks. Hiro often daydreamed about moving to California when he grew up: learn to surf, joining a band and becoming totally famous. Sadly, things had moved faster than he expected. He still couldn’t surf, barely managed an F-chord, and most of the time felt like the guy in the back of the class who desperately tries to catch up.
He still had that grungy argyle sweater, though he did not wear it much anymore. Aside from Bo, it was all he had left of his father's. What he had left of nothing at all: he did not remember ever having a conversation of more than three words with the old man. His father would be reading the Mainichi Shinbun, talking to him and his mother mostly through nods and grunts. Going to work, coming back at some ungodly hour, reeking of cigarette smoke. He had come back early his last day. When the wave came, the last thing Hiro had seen was his silently pleading hand, his submerged body drawn away by the current, not a foot beyond his reach. His mother had been out grocery shopping, and her body had never been found. So perhaps, the reason he was here was not the dog. It was that hand. His father’s hand. He thought about that hand, and the wetness on his cheeks got just a little warmer. Just ahead, the trees became sparser, then cleared, and Avila’s first houses appeared with the stormy grey ocean just behind. Home was no more than a hundred yards away. 
That’s when they got him. One on each side, twisting his arms behind his back so hard that he felt them popping out of their sockets. A third man, a big one, appearing in front of him, pushing his head down by the hair towards his knee. Hiro felt weightless, tasted metal and mucus, then hit the ground, hard.
“It’s a kid, it’s just a kid!”
“And what’s a kid doing here, eh? There must be others.”
Hiro covered his face with his hands, his split upper lip bleeding profusely, he felt his front teeth with his tongue: they were still there, barely. The men were covered in plastic bags, cinched at the ankles and waist with duct tape, making them look like walking shadows in hoodies. They wore yellow rubber gloves, and under their hoods they sported cheap plastic protective glasses and painting masks. The poor man’s hazmat suit. 
“Kill him.”
“I’m not killing no little boys.”
“Tie him up at least.”
There were bags laying around, heavy duffels filled to the brim with stuff, whose odd shapes he could see protruding through the nylon. Scavengers, Hiro shivered, thinking about their house. Frank and Debbie’s house, really, he still owned little more than when he arrived two years earlier. 
“Just drag him to that porch and tie him up to the post. By the time they find him, we’ll be long gone.”
Hiro crawled back, slowly, dragging himself on his elbows, the three men approaching menacingly. Rain started again in earnest, washing blood and snot away from his face. He wondered if they had hurt his eyes too, because his vision was blurry, or perhaps it was the uncertain light of dusk through the droplets of water. But the black stripe quickly expanding across the visible strip of ocean looked like nothing he had ever seen.
The namazu’s tail splashed down with a sound of thunder, a white foam explosion, launching waves that crested in impossible directions. The ground beneath them responded, shaking with a fierce crack, followed by a disorienting rolling motion. 
“Shit!” the bigger of the men shouted, fighting to maintain his balance. Another one cried in fear. Somewhere, dogs howled. 
“It’s just an aftershock, you idiots!” Screamed the one who behaved like the chief. 
Now, Hiro thought, and away he ran, past the men, down the street among the shaking houses. And this time he felt no fear. 
He could hear the heavy footsteps of the men coming down the street, chasing him, and he almost gave up, his lungs at the point of exploding. Suddenly, though, he found himself in the middle of a barking, growling mass. Dogs of all shapes and sizes, with matted hair, sparkling eyes in the low, preternatural light that had started to peek through the clouds at the horizon. Yorkshires and Chihuahuas, Beagles and Labs, Pitbulls and a number of indefinable mutts. There was even a huge white fluffy thing he remembered from an old anime. The little ones with their bared yellow fangs, teeth snapping like snares inches from his pant legs. But he was not afraid, no, he was no longer afraid. 
Bo curved his head toward his left, shaking his tail, offering his neck for him to scratch. He had never seen him doing it with anyone, except his father of course. He looked so skinny, he thought, leaning on his knees, hugging the dog around the neck like Risa always did. He felt its scrawny, almost frail body in his arms: stinky, nothing but matted fur hung across pointy bones. Hiro wondered if it was the radiation exposure, of perhaps just hunger. But he was there now, alive and so close that he could feel his heart beating under his fingertips. Then the barking started again, a fierce choir. Bo left his embrace quick as a shadow, like he had never been there: he saw him jumping on his hind legs, flashing his fangs at the intruders. 
The men stopped in their tracks. “Come on, they are just a bunch of mutts.”
“Dude, I’m outta here.”
“He’s right, leave the damn boy alone. Let’s move out of here before it all starts shaking again.” 
They backed away slowly, the dogs’ incessant barking blotting out their fading argument. Hiro picked himself up, and some of the dogs followed him, almost expectantly. 
The house had been ransacked, but he soon found what he was looking for. Frank’s hiking boots, a size or two too large, but they would have to do. An old flashlight that still worked-- one good thing about his cousins, they were compulsively organized. In the garage he found the carton of dog food that Debbie bought in bulk, then searched through the kitchen drawers for an opener. He systematically cut through the cans, dumping the content on the floor, one mound after the other, well spaced to minimize conflict. The voracious pooches practically inhaled it, licking the carpet clean to the very last drop.
Through the kitchen window, Hiro looked at the last red rays of the sun, finally breaking through the clouds before dying in the ocean. The men had been right about one thing. It was time to go. 
“Here,” said the old man, still holding the shotgun in his left hand. 
Hiro nodded a thank you, and wrapped himself in the blanket he offered. It was a tattered old thing, but it felt like snuggling up in a heavenly cloud. He was sitting on a truck bench, propped up like garden furniture in what had been an apple orchard. The dogs were busy sniffing around the farmyard, lining up to pee on any prominent feature. There were no apples left on the naked trees. Wrong season, perhaps, or maybe they were still too close to the contaminated area. Hiro wrapped himself up in the blanket more tightly, still shivering. He felt tired, so incredibly tired. The old man had kept him standing on the wrong side of the shotgun for quite a while, studying him, a scrawny youth covered in mud, leading a motley crew of mutts like a runaway pied piper. And this was after Hiro crossed the coastal range for the second time in less than twenty-four hours and could barely feel his legs. Eventually he had been able to convince him that he was not a scavenger, just some crazy kid who wanted to save the Avila dogs. 
“I have coffee on,” said the old man, “and I called the number you gave me.” It was the last thing that Hiro heard for quite a while. 
Barking woke him up, or maybe it was the cars braking all around the farmyard. He opened his eyes to see Risa, and he rubbed his eyes just to make sure, but there was Frank’s ridiculous Corolla, decorated with plushy deer antlers on each side window, his personal contribution to this year's somber Christmas mood. Paramedics were there too, and a sheriff car with a deputy talking on his radio. But Risa was already running toward him, shouting “Onichan,” just like he had taught her. He tried to smile, tried really hard. And, even more surprisingly, Debbie was there, crying, Frank holding her steady. Hiro wanted to move towards those proffered arms, as scary as they looked, the depth of that embrace strangely matching the bottomless well dug in his chest. He wanted to move and could not, Risa grappling with his legs, Bo efficiently licking away her tears. So he bowed instead. “Tadaima,” he said, leaning to lift Risa up to the sky, until her weeping fragmented in hysterical giggling, “tadaima, I’m home.”

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