This is a story I wrote a while ago about unrequited love and a little bit of magic, or is it just wishful thinking?
Masahiro is an artist with secrets. He draws Japanese-style manga comics, full of intricately crafted characters armed with knives, guns, and hi-tech spying equipment. The title of his comic is Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular, a small-run publication featuring the adventures of the heroine, Jazz Firebrand. Very few people know Masahiro is the artist. This is his first secret. He doesn’t talk about it, not even to Yuki, the girl he loves. Perhaps Yuki does not know that Masahiro loves her. This is another secret.
Jazz is a spy, a mercenary for hire, and sometime assassin; a woman for whom life is an endless series of ever-heightening crises. Jazz faces death page after page, urged ever onward by the stroke of Masahiro’s pen.
These days a single scene blooms from the ink again and again. The same scene repeats–unbidden–as if his life depends on it. As if the life of someone he loves depends on it.
A dog-eared sketchbook rests on Masahiro’s knees. He’s been sitting there so long he’s lost all feeling in his buttocks. Usually when Masahiro draws he is relaxed, but today he is wound tight, teeth clenched so firmly the muscles of his jaw creak in protest when he opens his mouth to lick his lips. Each detail must be just right, every patch of shading just so. He presses down so hard with the pencil that the tip breaks off, flitting across the stiff card stock.
The page is broken into panels, some half-erased where Masahiro has changed his mind part-way and tried to start again. The bottom of the page is almost entirely taken up by a close-up of an open female eye.
Masahiro’s hand trembles.
Masahiro breathes in the aroma of coffee and banana cake. He is sitting in a mangakissa–a café stacked to the ceiling with volume after volume of Japanese comics, close-set cubicles reeking of sweat and cigarette smoke. The smells are thick and have seeped deep into the fabric of the chairs and the grain of the pine tables. Above, the tick, tick of a wall clock punctuates the percussive scrape of chairs, and the variable hum of a bevy of PC fans straining against the dense air. The clock face shows a faded decal of Atom–aka Astro Boy–his hands pointing the time. With each tick, Masahiro’s art progresses. His pencil flies across the page, adding a detail here, a line there. The scene begins to take shape.
Jazz Firebrand hangs suspended on a spider web-thin Kevlar line from the bell tower of a chapel somewhere in the mountains of Spain. Below her are the men she’s come to find, inspecting cases of smuggled Russian weaponry. She recognizes them immediately, some from photographs she’s studied, others from having crossed paths with them before.
Domingo Parco, an arms dealer from the Ukraine, better known of late for his deals in Afghanistan, picks his nose, then straightens his tie. He is Jazz’s main target.
Then there are his buyers, all of them somewhere near the top of Interpol’s World’s Most Wanted list.
Letting off some of the slack from her belt-harness, Jazz pushes a button and drops toward the men, weapon fixed on the chest of her mark.
The motor on her harness catches, jerking her to a halt. The men look up. For a brief moment Jazz wonders why there are no looks of surprise on their faces. It was almost as if they were expecting her. Her mouth is dry. A set up.
Domingo Parco applauds.
Masahiro takes a swig from his can of premixed coffee. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. He realizes his hand is shaking and drops the pencil in alarm. This was supposed to be the final scene. Jazz would make an arrest, put the bad guys away and move on to her next adventure. Yet, somehow it had all gone wrong. Domingo Parco and the rest were waiting for her.
He pants, adrenaline coursing through him. How had this happened? When had it all gotten away from him? That was the wrong way to think, of course. There was still time to make it right. He was in control after all. He picks up his pencil, steadies his arm.
Jazz Firebrand lies on the ground, gritting her teeth, one arm wrenched behind her back. Without her winch, she’d been stranded in mid-air, helpless to stop herself from being lowered to the ground. A squad of guards poured out of the vestry and took up positions around her. They seemed poorly trained, little better than boy scouts, but among them–much to her disgust–they did an admirable job of incapacitating her.
“Let her up.” It is a new voice. A female voice.
Jazz tries to turn her head but one of the guards is standing on her jaw. Eventually the order filters through and they back off enough for her to stand.
The newcomer looks oddly familiar, but Jazz cannot remember seeing her before. Still, there is something about her.
“Jazz, darling. I’m so pleased you’re predictable. Parco told me you wouldn’t come, but I said you would.” The woman smiles at the weapons dealer then turns back to Jazz. “He really is a dear when you get to know him.” She winks. “And he should have known better than to bet against a Firebrand.”
Masahiro sits on a bench on the single platform of an abandoned railway station. He likes to come here because it reminds him of Yuki. The station is so old and unkempt that even the name has worn off its sign, disappearing beneath strips of curled and faded paint. Buckled tracks lead past a crumbling platform, hedged by overgrown weeds strewn with empty plastic bottles, splintered disposable chopsticks and other rubbish. Smoke drifts lazily from a nearby garden.
Masahiro checks his watch. It is nearly time. Three years since Yuki went away. Three years to the day when he and Yuki had sat together for what felt like hours on that bench, snow drifting through the rusty hole in the sheet iron roof, him oblivious to the fact that it would be the last time he saw her, her sitting quietly beside him, bag in her lap.
The hole in the roof is still there, but it’s not cold enough to snow anymore. It doesn’t snow now the way it used to when he and Yuki had spent their winter holidays together.
Yuki disappeared while he’d been following the rusted tracks with his eyes, wondering how they could have buckled so. Iron was so strong, yet there it lay, twisted and broken.
He’d felt her warmth, and enjoyed the pressure of her leg alongside his. And then when he looked up to see her face, she was gone. At least he thinks that’s what he remembers.
Masahiro knows that memories are a tricky thing. If you don’t clamp down on them they can slip away from you, like a cat wriggling from your grasp when it sees the bathwater closing in. Memories must be curated, caressed. That was how he treated his recollections of Yuki, grooming each of them in turn like long-haired Abyssinians.
Not a day went by that he didn’t think of her. He remembered the way she wore a red comb in her hair every day for a year before she’d lost it in a storm-water drain. They were ten years old. She’d begged him to go in after it, and of course he had. But he couldn’t find it, and ended up in the hospital with a lung infection from swallowing too much water.
When she was fourteen, Yuki asked him to pierce her ears. He remembered the way she gasped as he pushed the needle through her soft earlobe, and the faint metallic scent of blood.
Several times a day he coaxed her image from his memory, teasing it out until it filled the screen of his inner eye.
Masahiro knows he needs to be able to draw Yuki just right, and worries that if he ever forgot the way she looks she really would disappear, this time for good. In his mind, he makes sure that Yuki continues to play the way she did when they were kids: splashing through puddles, muddy water soiling the cherry-blossomed hem of her yukata, stealing sticks of dripping, syrupy dango from the brightly-colored yatai street stalls, and then running off with him in tow through the crowd. That was the way it had been. The way she was before Kei.
“He’s the one.”
Masahiro forced himself to breathe before he answered. Had he imagined that slight hesitation, the catch in her breath? “You always say that,” he said. “How can you be sure this time?” She’d said the same thing about the last one and that didn’t end well.
Yuki smiled, smoothed her skirt and sat down. A finch hopped in closer to have a look, jumping away when Yuki threw a piece of lettuce at it. “It’s just…I know, okay? I know. That’s what my heart tells me.”
Masahiro thought he was going to be sick. He could feel the sushi roll he’d just eaten being forced up into his throat on a jet of bile. Should he tell her how he felt? But if he did, what would she do? What if she rejected him? Wasn’t it better to keep things the way they were? He swallowed the lump in his throat, forcing the bitterness down. “You’re sure?”
For a moment he entertained the thought that perhaps Kei loved Yuki as much as he did, but how could that be? Kei had not been there for Yuki when she called after one of her nights out, barely aware of where she was. He’d never had to see her lying on some love hotel bed awash in the sour stench of salaryman sweat, as disheveled and crumpled as her school uniform. He’d never had to steel himself to carry her to the shower to wash clean her flawless skin. It was always so hard to keep from peeking, but Masahiro managed to keep his eyes glued shut. Most of the time. Kei couldn’t love Yuki the way he did. No one could.
“Well,” Masahiro said in a low voice. “No matter what, you still have me.”
Yuki smiled, but it was a sad, weak thing, like a wilted daffodil. “That’s true.”
Masahiro loves Jazz Firebrand too.
Jazz was everything he could ever want in a woman. She was everything he could conceive of ever wanting in a woman. Just like Yuki. Charming, bright, and tender, her mind was able to whirr faster than the blades of one of her opponent’s razor-sharp knives, and yet there was a steel-hardness about her that left him in no doubt that if pressed to the wall, Jazz could fight back and win. He loved that about her. Jazz was infinitely resourceful.
“Why do you read that trash?” Yuki asked him one day at school.
“Hmm?” Masahiro was deep in the story, barely aware that everyone else had left for sports practice. Masahiro always avoided sports practice. Reading Jazz Firebrand was much better than that, even though he already knew how the stories ended.
“I said, ‘Why do you read that–‘”
“It’s not trash.” For all their closeness, Masahiro had never told Yuki his secret. He drew the stories after school, away from prying eyes, using the ideas he scrawled in his notebooks during class and bringing them to life in ink. His friend, the manager of the mangakissa helped him get a publishing deal. It was small circulation, but so far it paid better than a part-time job. He pulled one of the earlier editions from his bag. “Here. Why don’t you take a look and see?”
Yuki took the comic from him. She spent a long time staring at the front cover. Masahiro could understand the attraction given that most of the page was filled with a close-up of Jazz Firebrand’s breasts.
Masahiro did his best to guard his secret closely, but he knew he wasn’t cut out for secrecy. Quite a lot of people knew the truth: Taka, his friend at the mangakissa, the publisher, and a handful of regulars. There could have been a few others. Masahiro’s byline said only “Piero.” He’d chosen it himself. To him it meant “clown”.
Yuki raised an eyebrow and began to read. A little while later Masahiro got tired of watching her and went back to his own issue. It was the latest one, where Jazz meets up with her old enemy, Dr. Nightwing, the serial killer.
It was nearly dark and bitterly cold when they finally walked outside. Most of the other students had already gone home. They stopped at the corner, both having to go in different directions.
“I get it,” Yuki said.
Masahiro knew she was talking about Jazz Firebrand. He’d seen her devouring it, flipping to the next page before she’d barely finished with the one before. His body seemed to swell with elation. “Good,” he said, doing his best not to let his emotion show.
After that, he and Yuki spent a lot of time together. They’d talk a lot, but sometimes they would just read. He loved those times. Yuki would put her head on his shoulder, giving a little nod when she was ready for him to turn the page. Masahiro never got impatient waiting for her to finish. She wasn’t slow, she was thorough. They only ever read Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular together. Masahiro had never seen Yuki read anything else.
At that time Yuki lived with her aunt and so many cats they were almost impossible to count. One day Masahiro tried and got to twenty-five before he gave up. Masahiro loved the scent of Yuki’s room. It smelled better than anything in the world. It smelled just the way he imaged Jazz Firebrand’s room would. Sure, the air would hold just a hint of cordite tang, and there would be a neat rack for all her ninja gear, but the homey smell of wool and the scent of her shampoo would definitely be the same.
Masahiro dreamed that one day he and Yuki would marry and move in together. There were no cats in Masahiro’s dream. And no Kei, either.
They were in their first year of high school when Yuki met Kei. Kei’s father was some minor TV talk show celebrity that Masahiro had barely heard of, but Kei walked around as if he was doing everyone a favor with every breath he took. Masahiro hated him on sight.
When they first bumped into him, Masahiro and Yuki were discussing ways Jazz could get out of her latest predicament. They were both convinced that Jazz would live to fight another day.
One time, just before she’d passed out after drinking most of a bottle of whisky, Yuki had told Masahiro that she shared the same dream as Jazz: to find out what happened to her mother and father. Masahiro could understand her motives but he secretly doubted she would ever know the truth. It was all too long ago.
Her aunt once told him that Yuki’s mother died when Yuki was a baby and that her father had lost his job, driven to the forest and hanged himself from a tree.
“But don’t you tell her any of that,” she’d said. “Hope is a gift. Don’t you take it away.”
Masahiro didn’t know why Yuki’s aunt told him. It made him uncomfortable and he often toyed with telling Yuki just in case that was what her aunt had intended, but it wasn’t really his story to tell, so he didn’t. Still, why couldn’t Yuki just let the past go and move on with life? Why did she always have to be searching for something?
As they collided in the hall, Kei and Yuki shared a look that Masahiro recognized. It was the look he longed to share with her himself, a look that said, “I know who you are and I know that you get me, too.” Even after Kei was gone off down the hall, Masahiro somehow knew that what had passed between the two was still there, twisting, tapering and stretching out between them.
“I’ve got to go,” Masahiro said after he recognized the look. He walked off before Yuki could say anything back to him. Part of him knew that she was never going to look at him the way she’d just looked at Kei. He despised that part of himself more than anything in the world.
Masahiro suspects he knows what happened to Yuki all those years before. Deep down he’s pretty sure that he’s to blame. He’s seen a subtle change come over Jazz Firebrand since Yuki disappeared. There is a saucy arch to Jazz’s brow that he is sure was not there previously, and at times Jazz seems to get away from him, rebelling against the direction both he and his pen intended to take her, acting in ways he recalls fondly when thinking of Yuki. This is his biggest secret–that Yuki really did disappear, that she’s stuck forever in the pages of Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular, because that’s what he wanted. His pen always follows his heart, and somewhere inside he knows that what he really wants is Yuki. This is his secret. It is also his life’s mission. Because as far as he knows, it may be only him and his pen that stands between Jazz and the countless agents of evil who would like nothing more than to see her dead. Only he stands between Yuki and oblivion.
Yuki found him on his way back from the library. He was thinking about Jazz Firebrand and her latest adventure, so when Yuki tapped him on the shoulder he almost called out in fright.
Yuki looked different. Since she’d been going out with Kei, she and Masahiro had barely seen each other. He didn’t like what she was becoming. There was a paleness to her, a translucence. She’d faded around the edges like a wilting cherry blossom. For an instant before he blinked, Masahiro thought he could see right through her.
Yuki still wore her school uniform but it was only barely recognizable as having anything to do with education. She’d turned it into a uniform of a different sort. Her blouse was untucked, the top two buttons undone, revealing cleavage. She’d cut her skirt so high that Masahiro found himself holding his breath every time she bent over. She was rude to everyone now, just the way Kei was, affecting the same attitude, ignoring her friends. Even so, Masahiro was happy to see her. He only wished she could once again be the way she was before.
This time there was something else in her expression. Her eyes were puffy and black. Masahiro’s heart seemed to freeze mid-beat. She looked lost.
“I need to talk,” she said.
They walked together to a local shrine where they used to play as kids, and sat down on some worn, stone steps. Masahiro ran his hand across the timber railing. Its paint was scarred and chipped, but it was no less solid for all its age. The air was heavy with the scent of cedar and when the wind blew, it brought with it the smell of damp earth. Cars drove by the shrine, taking the corner slowly. The road was narrow and cars were parked all along one side of it. Masahiro watched the vehicles making way for each other as he waited for Yuki to speak.
“Kei has asked me to go away with him,” Yuki said after a while.
Away? Masahiro felt his throat tighten in terror. He couldn’t imagine living without knowing Yuki was close by. “Where?”
She shook her head. “It’s not like that.”
Yuki didn’t reply. They sat there a long time in silence. When Masahiro got tired of waiting he said, “I don’t want you to go. I’d miss you.”
Yuki blinked and looked up at him, and he realized she’d been crying. She said nothing, watching him.
He shook his head. “You’ve been spending so much time with Kei. I thought you didn’t want to see me.”
She put her face in her hands. He could hear her weeping. He reached out an uncertain hand and put it on her back between her shoulder blades. She felt cool to the touch, but soft, the way she was supposed to feel.
He mustered his courage. “Wherever he wants you to go, tell him you can’t. Besides, if you went, who would I read the next issue of Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular with?”
Yuki sniffed. “Okay. I’ll tell him,” she said, but he heard the taint of resignation in her voice, as if she knew that no matter what she said to him, her path was preordained.
Two weeks later Kei was dead. He’d sealed himself in his brother’s car along with some lit BBQ briquettes. They said he’d left a note about Yuki, that he’d loved her, but if that was true, why would he ever leave?
Masahiro crumpled the pages he’d drawn. He hadn’t quite gotten Kei’s face right, but it hadn’t seemed to matter.
They were squatting on a narrow stretch of concrete outside a Lotteria burger shop watching people streaming from the exit of the railway station. The crowd was mixed. High school boys with their shirts untucked, soccer bags slung from their shoulders, and office ladies, designer bags swinging daintily from their elbows, walked side by side with high school girls and salarymen. A pungent odor like rotten eggs intermittently wafted through the breezeway from a manhole. Yuki played with her hair, occasionally snapping open an old flip-style mobile phone to check her mail.
“I found my mother,” she said.
Masahiro nearly choked on his mango smoothie. “What?” Yuki’s mother was dead, wasn’t she? Yuki’s eyes held a hint of engagement–of life–that Masahiro had not seen there for a long time.
“She sent a letter to my aunt,” Yuki said. “Turns out she knew where I was all along. She married again to some guy who races cars for a living at Suzuka Circuit.”
Masahiro didn’t quite know what to say. He opted to play with his shoelaces instead. After a long moment of silence Yuki said, “I went to see her.”
Masahiro swallowed and he was almost certain Yuki would have heard the sound of it despite the calls of the part-time workers handing out recycled, eco-friendly shopping bags and the dull groaning of buses pulling into the nearby bus stop. “What did she say?”
“She told me everything. About my father and what happened. She said she was too young to look after a child alone. So she left me with my aunt. Said she was proud of me.” Yuki laughed, a caw-like sound that raised the hair on the back of Masahiro’s neck.
“What will you do now?”
Yuki pursed her lips and looked up at the awning over their heads. “No idea,” she said. “She doesn’t want to see me again. Said her new man wouldn’t like it.”
After a while Masahiro said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Yuki flipped her phone closed and rose to her feet.
Afternoon sunlight filters through a stained-glass window from high in the nave. Jazz Firebrand is surrounded by a circle of guards, keeping her attention firmly on the strangely familiar woman. Dust orbits the face of the woman like a halo.
“I knew you couldn’t stay away,” the woman says to Jazz. Her eyes flick towards the neat rows of weaponry. “You always were a stubborn girl.”
Domingo Parco frowns and makes a noise deep in his throat. “Kill her already.” He turns to Kim Sejong and Dao Lon, “I’m sorry gentlemen. This interruption is over.”
“Quiet, Parco,” the woman says. “My daughter and I are talking. You’ll have plenty of time for you and your friends to play when we’re done.”
Jazz tenses, eyes widening as she hears the woman’s words. Her mother?
Parco smirks. “Very amusing.” He pulls a pistol from his belt and gestures toward the woman, “Take her down.”
None of the goons move.
The woman laughs, shaking her head. “That’s quite enough from you.” The woman’s pistol barks twice and Parco falls to the floor groaning, blood leaking from the punctures in his chest. The woman turns to Kim Sejong and Dao Lon. “I’ll be right with you. I have some family business to take care of.” She smiles. “I’m sure you understand.” Her pistol bobs in the air, punctuating her words.
“What is this?” says Dao Lon. “Some attempt to push up the price?” He sneers. “To steal the merchandise?” Tendons stick out at the base of his neck like the buttress roots of a strangling jungle tree.
…a single bead of sweat falls onto the page, narrowly avoiding blurring Masahiro’s artwork. Masahiro mops at his forehead with the back of his hand. He’d just finished drawing the next frame, a pulled-back view from a corner of the nave’s ceiling showing all the figures on the ground. Jazz Firebrand is ringed on all sides by drawn pistols. Blood pools beneath Parco’s prone corpse.
Masahiro knows who the woman is supposed to be. She’s the real villain of this story–the Tarantula–the true brains behind the arms smuggling ring and the person Jazz Firebrand is supposed to finally take into custody. But nothing in his plans called for her to be Jazz’s mother. His hands shake and he barely avoids dropping his can of vending machine coffee. This was all wrong, but he could still fix it. Jazz could still prevail. She’d made it out of much worse situations. He takes another sip of his drink and a few deep breaths, thinking it through. Jazz, who now looks incredibly similar to Yuki, would somehow fight her way free and arrest the Tarantula, leaving her trussed up for the authorities. The buyers would escape, leaving the way open for a sequel. Masahiro begins to draw once more.
Now to get Yuki out of this without her getting hurt…
Jazz Firebrand senses the moment is right. She thinks quickly. “That’s right,” she says to Dao Lon. “You’re dealing with us now.” She laughs. “There are too many players. Thinning out the competition,” she jerks her head towards Parco’s body, “is just good sense. If you don’t like it, perhaps we can thin out the buyers as well.”
The woman claps her hands in excitement. “So you really are a Firebrand. I wasn’t sure. Here’s the deal: you work for me and do what I tell you. I let you live. I’ve been watching your career. You and I could make a great team.”
Jazz smiles, but the smile doesn’t quite make it to her eyes. “Is that the deal you gave my father when you married him?”
“I gave him what he deserved. Was it my fault he had no backbone and took the easy way out?”
“Go to hell.”
The woman’s grip tightens on her pistol.
…Masahiro gasps. Jazz wasn’t supposed to be talking about her father. Masahiro knows to the core of his being what the next page will hold. There is a terrible feeling of inevitability to it, as if his pencil was no longer his to control. The scene would show the Tarantula ordering Jazz’s death, pistols discharging and Jazz falling to the ground beside Parco.
Determined not to give in, he erases the offending words from the text box, tries to make Jazz’s face less severe and starts over…
Jazz smiles. Her lips curve upward like the mouth of a model in a toothpaste advertisement. Still surrounded by aimed pistols, the expression comes across as incongruous and disingenuous. “Sure, that sounds great. And I’ll go home with you as well, since I make it a habit to go home with every middle-aged hag that hits on me. You’re no mother of mine.”
“Jazz, darling. This is meant to be a family reunion. And that is no way to speak to family.”
“Go to hell.”
…Masahiro erases the text again and some of the images as well. Jazz was not herself and things were escalating way out of control. But he couldn’t leave her mid-scene, surrounded by all those guns. He decides to give it one more try…
Jazz smiles, a cold smirk. “How about you take this for an answer?” She spins, the pistol being held on her from behind so close that it presses against her cheek for an instant, mid-turn. A shot rings out, so near that she nearly blacks out from the sheer, ear-bursting volume of it. She drops the goon with the pistol, snapping his neck on his way to the ground, then stands straight once more, hands by her sides. “You lost the right to call yourself family long ago,” she says to the woman. “You may as well have killed my father, the way you treated him. You never wanted me; wanted me gone. Why not finish what you started?”
The woman raises her pistol, arm not trembling, even a fraction. Her lips are pursed and bone-white.
…Masahiro knows now for sure. Jazz is no longer his to control. Maybe she never was. He lets his tears stain the page and finishes the rest of the frames.
…a close-up on Jazz Firebrand’s open, unseeing eye. The reflection of a woman holding a pistol, still aiming toward Jazz, shone through Jazz’s thick lashes. Masahiro sobs. He picks up the eraser, then stops, feeling stretched and empty like a punctured balloon.
A. J. Savage was born in Australia where they trained him as a lawyer and put him to work. After escaping the sand and the sea, he now lives in Japan with his wife and two children. If you look at him silhouetted against a bright light, you might see the hole in his heart where he says his dog should be.