The snow lay heavy in the village, even thicker than it had been back home in Boston; there was less and less of it every winter, it seemed. Tomo stood and watched the heaven’s fall, wondering how long it would take for the snow to cover him completely if he prostrated himself upon the ground. It was a stupid thought, making Tomo shiver more than the cold. He picked up his pace, well aware that Uncle Hideo would, no doubt, be waiting up for his return. Tomo’s late night walks were frowned upon, for although he knew the village almost as well as his hometown by now there were many things within it and the forest beyond he could never understand.
The path to Uncle Hideo’s house was long and winding, curving up the side of a mountain like a skein of white stone through black marble. Despite the chill Tomo found himself working up a sweat as he made his way along it, and finding an iron bench overlooking the mountain he stopped to catch his breath. Tomo still wasn’t used to the utter silence, nor the complete blackness of the sky in the absence of light pollution. Looking up dizzied him far more than the view of the snowy ravine below; the expanse of space with its forever-depth of stars and planets overwhelmed him, making him feel quite stranded beneath it.
He looked instead towards the trees on either side of the mountain path, hunched shoulder-to-shoulder in conspiring crowds, making the road seem darker still. Gazing into them Tomo got the sense that something within was looking back, which wasn’t altogether surprising, considering how many wild deer and foxes roamed the area. But there seemed something rather more intelligent than an animal in that feeling, and it discomforted him, inspiring him to take up the climb again.
Tomo walked more quickly now, the handle of the bag of groceries he’d picked up in the village biting a red line into his palm. The trees muttered together, and a cloud crossed the moon, casting strange shadows on the path ahead.
Something about the restless night seemed to be having an effect on Tomo’s mood, for as he picked his way up the mountain he found himself dwelling on things he’d intended to leave behind in Boston. His studies this semester hadn’t been going so well as he’d hoped, and the girlfriend Tomo had kept on and off since his first year of university was moving away to a school in another state. Tomo had always thought life after his teens would be simple, dull, even, and it had been, until suddenly it wasn’t, as if the author of his nondescript story had torn out a page halfway through and decided to change the genre entirely.
He’d manage, Tomo supposed, the way he always did. Find a decent tutor, join a dating site, pick up a new hobby to throw himself at and forget about in a month or so when he hadn’t the passion or pleasure to persue it anymore. Nothing had happened that was so terrible he should dread going back, but he did, his chest clenching at the thought of sitting in a lecture hall on an uncomfortable bench, unsure if he even wanted to be there anymore.
A tear squeezed from the corner of Tomo’s eye and tracked its course down his frosty cheek. Apalled, Tomo scrubbed it away and marched faster, breath escaping his lungs in an exhausted wheeze. He’d left his inhaler back at the house, but he wouldn’t need it, Tomo told himself, hadn’t used it properly since he was twelve. There was no way he was having an attack now when his Uncle’s house was just ten minute’s walk up an incline children and old ladies traversed every day- and yet as Tomo staggered onwards the whistle in his chest began to scare him, and he had to lurch off-road to brace himself against a tree.
The forest around him seemed suddenly full of noise where before it had been dead quiet. Leaves and twigs rustled and cracked, birds screamed their ghoulish calls and on the wind Tomo thought he heard a voice, a woman’s voice, although he was breathing so harshly that he wasn’t entirely sure. Tomo leaned his head against the tree trunk, closing his eyes against the sounds, the swirling snow, the watchful dark.
Something touched Tomo’s arm and his eyes flew open again, staring about in a burst of sudden panic.
A girl was standing beside him, so tall and thin that she might have passed for one of the trees if it hadn’t been for her clothes, which were as red as the inside of an animal’s mouth. She wore a long, thin dress and sandals, poor guard against the elements, and the lower half of her face was covered by a cloth mask, which wasn’t so unusual, nowadays. What struck Tomo as strange was the way her black hair hung flat to her body, unmoved by the wind, as if it was painted rather than growing from her.
“Hello,” said Tomo, in Japanese, trying deserately to control his breathing. “I’m alright. I don’t need any help. But… aren’t you cold?”
The girl only looked at him, and Tomo noticed that her dark eyes, too, were very still, unblinking even as the snow blew against them. She stepped towards Tomo with an odd, halting motion, like a waterbird, her head jerking to one side. There was a flat curioisity in her eyes, as if she’d never seen another person before.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked, abruptly.
Tomo was confused by the question. She’d spoken in English, and although the villagers all knew the language it wouldn’t have been their first instinct to respond in it. Furthermore, the query had come from nowhere, as nonsensical as something uttered in a dream.
“I… I don’t know,” said Tomo, still trying to correct his breathing.
His lungs felt like two kilns, burning all his oxygen away. He set the bag of groceries down, cursing as a bottle of wine rolled away into the snow. The girl stared at him intently, leaning so far towards him on her toes that Tomo was distantly shocked that she kept her balance. She smelled off, like old incense and petrichor. Her eyes, now barely a hand’s breadth from his face, were as lightless as the crevasse beneath the mountain.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” the girl asked again.
It was the kind of question Tomo’s ex girlfriend used to ask, over and over again, never seeming to get an answer she was happy with. She even sounded like Alison, cold and breathy and entirely without emphasis. Tomo stepped away from her, feeling suffocated by her closeness.
“You’re wearing a mask,” he said, helplessly. “I don’t know what you look like. Why are you asking me, anyway? I don’t even know you.”
He let out a cough, and began to panic in earnest, wondering deserately why air was suddenly so elusive. The girl followed him, picking her way through the snow, her legs as long and probing as an insect’s feelers. Her head was now tilted so far to the right that it rested on her shoulder. Slowly she raised her hands and tugged at the red mask, her fingers pressed together and as awkward as a doll’s.
Tomo knew, then, that something was wrong, not just with him, with his struggling lungs, but with the girl. Of course there was; where had she come from, in the night, dressed so poorly against the elements and asking only one question, again and again?
Tomo tried to scuttle backwards, towards the path, but he was coughing so hard now that he could barely stand, every lungful of air hauled through the needle-prick of his throat searing his flesh with hot pain. Tomo’s legs buckled and he fell to the ground, amongst the tree roots and the unforgiving snow, watching the girl step delicately towards him, her stiff fingers sliding beneath her mask. It slipped away and was immediately seized by the wind, the red of it like bleeding eye in the shade of the trees. Gently the girl crouched over Tomo, her hands outstretched towards him. The way she held them, thumbs bent outwards, put Tomo in mind of scissor blades.
“Kore demo?” the girl asked. “Am I pretty even now?”
Through eyes blistered with tears Tomo stared up at her pale face in a terrible kind of awe. From the nose up the girl was as attractive as any student he’d known back home, but her mouth was like a cut grapefruit, the corners of her lips gashed and yawning and exposing the brittle shards of teeth and skull within. Something had slashed that face apart, ruining any beauty that it might once have possessed.
The girl reached out to touch Tomo’s neck, and the air in his throat became a swallowed dagger, slitting open a word.
He couldn’t read the girl’s face as she watched him, then, the wet crimson of her open jaw glistening like melted snow.
“Alison,” he said again, softly.
If he had any last word then make it that, the name of the woman he’d loved. It wasn’t the answer this girl was looking for, Tomo sensed. He should have said yes, yes, yes, you’re pretty even as blood slavered from between her lips and pooled in the fragments of her teeth. She had him now, and could do what she would with him; he could hardly fight back against her.
But after a moment the girl stood up, shaking her gaunt head from side to side. Tomo heard a sigh rasp through that broken Jack-o-lantern yawn, and then, slowly, the creature began to back away into the trees again, leaving Tomo alone on his back in the snow.
He waited for her footsteps to fade away before he got to his feet once more, that in itself a slow and arduous task. Slowly, with shuddering hands, Tomo re-packed his grocery bag and straightened up, taking one last look at the sprawl of trees and the clinging dark within them.
If the girl was there then she kept her distance, watching from afar as she had before. Tomo saw nothing but the snow and the waiting black of the treeline, leaving them both behind him as he clambered the steep path again.