The box stood there, every day, on her route to school and on the way home. At first, she didn't even notice it. There was too much else to see—the signs, the tiny cars, and all the people—more than she'd seen in her whole life put together. That's how it felt.
It was a small wooden hut, a single story, hardly bigger than her parents' bathroom back home in Ann Arbor. It was pressed up against the side of a fourteen-story apartment building. Annie passed the box every day. If she'd known what was inside, she probably would have gone a different way.
Her first day at the American International High School in Tokyo, Annie wondered if her happiness at escaping Michigan had been too hasty. She expected it to be a different world, but the building and its classrooms, teachers, sports teams, and even its uniforms could be a private academy in upscale suburbia anywhere in the US. Even the student body wouldn't have looked out of place in Middle America, where the white faces overwhelmed the students of color in any school that charged tuition. A quick survey on her first day told Annie that: most of the kids' parents worked for a big international bank or consumer goods corporation; a few were the children of US Embassy employees; and they were almost all assholes.
She walked home the first day, past the private car service her parents had arranged so she wouldn't get lost in Tokyo's ancient unnamed streets and past the box on the corner, its door still unopened. She tried to get lost, actually—sort of hoped that if she just wandered for a while, she'd find herself somewhere she didn't recognize and then… well, she wasn't sure what then. But at least it would be different than the same school she went to at home, transplanted to the other side of the world. But as it turned out she was unluckily blessed with an excellent sense of direction and before she knew it, she was standing in front of their apartment building and couldn't come up with anything to do but go inside.
She might have overlooked Leo at first, since he was part of the Embassy crowd and they, more than the corporate kids, seemed to travel in a tight pack—like they were the prey and any one of them might get picked off if they strayed too far. Leo was Japanese-American. His father was an academic, like hers. They sat next to each other in chemistry and he invited her to go to lunch with his group of friends. Things progressed slowly—very slowly—usually at her place since her parents were never home. They did their share of fooling around. But Leo never wanted to take it much further than what Annie assumed her parents would have called "heavy petting." It was a stupid phrase, but then she couldn't think of a better one. Leo always said he wasn't ready to do more. Finally he invited her to dinner at his place, which she hoped meant just the two of them. But when she arrived, she found the table set for four and Leo's mother in the kitchen. The food was good. She tried to remember the last time she'd had a sit-down dinner at home, but couldn't come up with one at all.
As Annie was putting on her jacket to leave, Leo's mother pulled aside the curtain and peeked out the window tentatively, as if she was afraid of being seen. "It started raining again," she said, letting the curtain drop. "Do you have an umbrella?"
"I did," Annie replied. A green one, which made her stand out in a Japanese crowd of black umbrellas even more than her height and her blonde hair already did. "I lost it. Yesterday, I think. On the way to school."
"Check the koban," Leo's father called from the kitchen, raising his voice over the running water.
"What's that?" Annie directed the question at Leo's mother rather than yelling back into the kitchen.
"It's a police box," she said, going to an umbrella stand near the door and pulling one out—black, of course—and handing it to Annie. "They're in every neighborhood. You've probably seen them. They're like a little house."
The running water in the kitchen stopped, and Leo's father came to the doorway, drying his hands. "They're a way to keep a local police presence in the neighborhood. For information… to report a crime… and for lost-and-found. Some of them even have living quarters on the second story. But the police budget's been cut since the financial crisis and they're not all staffed anymore."
"Mine always looks empty."
"Look inside anyway. I'll bet you another dinner—" Leo's dad stopped mid-sentence, as if he'd just realized he said something he shouldn't. Annie noticed him glance at Leo, who gave him the slightest nod of his head, and his father continued. "…that you find your umbrella there."
Leo offered to walk her home, but she felt like being alone. She stood with him under the awning of the building, making out for a few minutes before the damp cold chased him inside, but not before he kissed her again—harder—with a tight grip on her arm that surprised her.
She walked, quickening her pace as the wind threatened to destroy the loaned umbrella. Annie turned down her street just as the rain changed from a light shower to a pounding monsoon. She was already soaked through, so she slowed down, savoring the last few minutes outside alone on the dark street. The koban came into view suddenly. Because it wasn't lit, it faded into the nighttime shadows. Annie thought about hurrying past and checking for her umbrella in the morning on her way to school. But she knew she might forget the next day, and didn't quite feel like getting home just yet—something she'd been feeling more and more.
The koban had a handle with a latch that opened easily when she pushed it aside with her thumb. The faint light that leaked in through the doorway barely lit the room. She wasn't sure how she'd find anything in there, even in the daytime. She ran her hand along the wall next to the door and was surprised when a naked lightbulb in the center of the ceiling turned on. She stepped inside.
The door wanted to fall closed behind her. Even though there hadn't been a lock, she laid the umbrella down at the base of the door to prop it open. The structure felt even tinier inside than it looked from the street. If she stretched her arms out, she could almost touch each of the opposite walls. In the corner was an uncomfortable-looking wooden chair and a small table covered in a layer of dust. Whoever used to sit in that chair, dealing with the everyday problems of the residents of this Tokyo neighborhood, hadn't done so for a long time.
Along one wall there was a shelf. A handful of objects waited for their owners. Almost immediately, Annie spotted her umbrella. It lay on the far right at eye level, and was the one object that wasn't neatly positioned just so—equidistant from the other items and oriented at a right angle to the edge of the shelf. It looked like it had been tossed there haphazardly—a casual placement for an American object, almost obscene next to the care and orderliness of the Japanese items. Annie grabbed the umbrella.
There were maybe a dozen other things there: a couple books, a pair of pink child's sunglasses, and two cell phones—expensive ones. Whoever found them had not only resisted keeping them for themselves, but had taken the time to bring them here. And they'd stayed, untouched—who knew how long. She couldn't begin to conceive of such a thing happening in America. Not even in Ann Arbor.
She was about to leave when something on the far left end of the shelf caught her eye. She'd almost missed it, since it was dark and hidden in the shadow. It was a man's wallet, black leather and looked old, or at least well-used, the leather cracked and soft. She couldn't resist reaching her hand out to touch it. She ran her fingers over the leather and picked it up. She held the wallet in one hand and froze, listening for footsteps. Getting caught looking at a wallet that clearly wasn't hers might lead to trouble. But the only sound from outside was the rain.
She cupped the wallet in her palm, its softness warm and comforting, as if it was a small animal that she could protect from the damp chill of the room. Then she opened it. There was no ID, which made sense. If it had been easy to identify the owner, it wouldn't be sitting in the lost and found. It seemed empty. Maybe it had been stolen and stripped of anything of value and then tossed. Annie was about to replace it on the shelf when she took a quick look in the money pocket. If the wallet's owner had been the victim of a theft, there was unlikely to be anything there. But there was. A couple bills. Not much more than you might carry around with you for lunch or a few groceries.
But tucked between the bills was something else—photos. They were casual snapshots taken on the street, in parks, on a subway platform. And they were of girls. High school—about Annie's age, she guessed, wearing the traditional Japanese school uniform of a plaid skirt, white blouse and knee socks. In each one, the girl was looking at the camera. They knew they were being photographed. Some seemed flattered, others more resigned. She could guess what they were thinking—if some man was going to take a photo of them to get off on later, they might as well let him get it over with. Better an ostensibly innocent shot than a surreptitious upskirt photo on a packed train. It was such a stereotype—the middle-aged businessman who got off on schoolgirls in short skirts. In fact, it was one of the stereotypes she'd hoped wouldn't be true when they moved to Tokyo, until the first time she stepped into a convenience store and eyed the magazine rack, at least half of which appeared to be aimed at exactly that demographic.
Annie studied the first few photos carefully, trying to read their expressions, then moving through them faster as she reached the bottom of the stack. She lost track of where she'd started and was about to shove everything back in the wallet and finally go home, until she saw the last one. It was also of a teenage girl, also in a school uniform, and also half-smiling at the photographer. But this girl was her.
She was wearing her school uniform and standing near what appeared to be a noodle shop—one with a counter running along the outside of the building. It could have been any one of a number of similar food stands—the neighborhood around the school was full of them and like many of her classmates, she ate lunch at one nearly every day. She was facing the camera. One hand rested on the counter and the other on her leather messenger book bag, which was slung over her shoulder. Her gaze was fixed on the camera and the corner of her lips were tilted up, but even to herself, her expression was unreadable. She couldn't decide if she was smiling.
Annie stared at the photo, willing herself to remember when and where that was. It could have been anywhere, on any day, and taken by anyone. Maybe it was someone from school—snapped with a cell phone as they all waited for their lunch order. Maybe someone posted it on Facebook. But if so, why was it here, now, in the wallet of some unknown man?
Outside the koban, the rain had stopped and the world seemed completely silent, except for her own breathing. She tucked the photos back where they'd been as quickly as possible and for a moment considered taking the wallet or just the photo itself. But then if she woke up the next morning and it was still there—in the pocket of her jacket or hidden in the drawer of her nightstand—it would be real. Instead, she'd leave it there, in the koban, and the next time she dared to look it would be gone. It would never have happened. She grabbed Leo's umbrella and rushed outside into the suddenly-clear night. At home, her parents must have already been in bed. She slipped into her room and underneath the covers, taking time to shed only her jacket. She didn't sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw her own face looking back at her.
When the alarm went off, she was so exhausted that she slept through it. She had only a few minutes to throw on her clothes and get out the door. She hesitated before grabbing her school uniform. As she put it on, she felt like she was wearing nothing at all.
She didn't see Leo until lunch, when he snuck up behind her in the hall and planted a kiss on her neck. "We're going to the noodle bar on the corner. Want to come?" Annie almost pulled away in revulsion—the vivid image of herself at the counter of what might have been that very same noodle bar sent a chill through her. But then she realized that going back—if indeed it was the same place—might help. Maybe she'd see something that would remind her of when the photo was taken and all the pieces would fall comfortingly into place.
It wasn't the same one. The counter in the photo had been painted a bright, searing red. This counter was yellow. Leo managed to grab one of the few sidewalk tables and slid Annie's bowl of ramen to her as they sat down. He dug in right away, but she swirled her noodles with her chopsticks, as if her missing appetite were somewhere on the bottom of the bowl. "Do you remember ever taking a picture of me in front of a noodle shop?"
"Hmm?" Leo glanced up, his chopsticks deftly grabbing the noodles hanging from his mouth just as he bit through them.
"It was red. I was standing by the counter and you took a picture…?"
"I don't know. I don't think so." Leo lifted another mound of noodles to his mouth.
"You know those magazines in the convenience stores? The ones with… girls? Do you ever look at those?"
"What? No." Leo seemed slightly thrown by her question, but not enough to stop eating his ramen, which was already halfway gone. "Why?"
"I don't know. Never mind." Annie fought back her lack of appetite and forced herself to eat, knowing she'd regret it if her stomach growled the rest of the afternoon.
"You wanna come over after school? Hang out? My parents have to go to a thing tonight." Leo tipped the bowl to his mouth and drained the rest of the broth. Was he trying to tell her something? Maybe the way he'd grabbed her and kissed her last night… Maybe he was ready now. She wasn't sure she was ready either, but was anyone ever? That was the point—you want to do it, you just do it. Maybe this time would be different. But she shook her head.
"Too much to do. I have to go home."
She knew she wouldn't be able to resist looking in the koban again after school. Not that anyone was watching her, but just in case, as she approached she acted like she'd lost something, patting the pockets on her jacket and rooting around in her school bag.
The wallet sat in the same place she'd left it the night before. There were no more cell phones but a watch had been left. She grabbed the wallet, having decided to take out all the photos and throw them into the next public trash can she passed. She paused briefly to make sure she didn't hear anyone coming, then without even looking at the photos took them all and shoved them into her pocket, leaving the money. She replaced the wallet on the shelf.
Annie left the koban, smiling and patting her bag, just in case any curious passersby had been watching to find out if she'd located her missing whatever. She started toward home with her hand shoved into her pocket, curled around the photos. She didn't have to go more than half a block before realizing that her plan to dispose of them hadn't been thought through. There were no public trash cans in Tokyo. She'd asked about it when they first moved there and her father had said it was a safety measure—a way to prevent terrorists from hiding bombs in them. The photos in her pocket felt something like a bomb—heavy, dangerous, and very hard to explain if anyone found them. She'd take them home tonight then throw them away at school tomorrow, in the trash can in the bathroom, buried under discarded paper towels. She expected to spend the whole evening consumed by the thought of those photos hiding in her pocket until she could get them safely out of the house. But in fact, she spent the night in front of the TV with takeout pizza, bought with money her parents had left when they went out to a department reception.
She didn't think about the photos again until the walk to school the next morning when she slipped her hand into the pocket of her jacket and felt their sharp edges. Once at school, she went into the girls' bathroom. Two girls were washing their hands and taking their time about it, so Annie slipped into a stall until they left. While she waited, she took out the photos to look at them one more time. But these weren't the same photos.
They may have been the same girls, but the poses were more suggestive. They were standing with one hip cocked to the side or smiling slyly over their shoulder or peering out from under long bangs. And there she was. Again, at the bottom of the stack. She was sitting on a bench outside. There were trees and a walking path, but no buildings or landmarks. She studied the background, avoiding looking at herself until she'd mined all the information she could from her surroundings. Then she studied her pose. She was on the bench alone, her legs crossed, the right over the left, exposing some thigh as her uniform skirt rode up her leg. She was leaning forward, right elbow on her knee, and smiling at the camera. She couldn't tell if she was enjoying herself or not. But she was sure she would have remembered this.
The other girls in the bathroom had left, and Annie was alone as the warning bell for first period sent the students in the hall scrambling for their classrooms. Annie wanted not to have seen the photos at all, and not to be wondering now how there could possibly be a photo of her in a place she didn't remember in a pose she was pretty sure she'd never held.
She burst out of the stall and took two quick steps to the trash can, jamming the photos down as far as she could, underneath damp paper towels and other discarded high-school-girl items. She hadn't used the toilet, but she washed her hands anyway in hot water until they were red and sore and then dried them with a dozen paper towels, using them to bury the image of herself even deeper.
At lunchtime, she told Leo and the others that she had errands to run and left them at a sushi bar. She went back to the koban. Maybe the bright midday sun would show her how silly she'd been. She'd go inside, which she did, and she'd find that the wallet wasn't even there anymore and it would be over.
And indeed, once she'd closed the door behind her, the shelves looked empty. The police must have cleared everything out, she thought. Taken it to a central office and logged it for people who, having let it go this long, would probably now never claim it. They'd moved on, to newer cell phones and nicer sunglasses. The items that yesterday had felt like they were connected to someone—like they still somehow possessed a bit of the life of their owner—were now dead.
Annie felt suddenly lighter. That was the end of that. Even if the wallet was sitting in a police storage room—no matter what it contained—it was gone. It was as if had never existed.
Except it was still there.
She saw it just as she was turning to leave. It was in a back corner of the shelf, hidden in the shadows. She slid it off the shelf and looked inside. She let the wallet fall to the floor and looked at the first photo, then the second. She took her time with each one, studying them. In the first one, the girl's blouse was unbuttoned and her breasts were exposed. She was sitting on a grass lawn, her heels planted into the ground and her legs akimbo, although her short, pleated skirt obscured the view below the waist.
The other pictures were all similar. The girls exposed something, but not everything. Annie couldn't stop looking at their eyes. They didn't look like she'd expected them to. She had always imagined the girls in those photos in magazines or on websites would look really sad. But these girls were either really good actors or… something more. They wanted this. The pictures, at least the taking of them, were for them as much as for whoever would look at them later. She moved slowly through the rest of the photos, and somehow still found herself surprised when she got to hers.
She was sitting in a train. It looked like one of the Shinkansen—the bullet train that she and her parents had taken to Kyoto shortly after they'd arrived—when they were still playing tourist. She was sitting alone on a seat, her torso swiveled toward the window on her left. Her left arm rested on the back of the seat, and her head was tilted back, resting in her hand. She appeared to be watching the blurry countryside pass by. She was wearing her school uniform skirt, with her legs resting together and canted slightly toward the window. Her right hand rested lightly in her lap. And she was topless. She looked at the photo for a long time. She knew it should scare her. Short of being drugged, that wasn't her in the photo. But it was. She looked so at ease, like there was nothing she had to do that was more important than watching the passing scenery. And she could see it in her shoulders—a feeling that was so unfamiliar that she couldn't even force it on herself now. She was at peace in the photo.
For the first time, Annie decided to leave the photos there. Maybe this was the end of it. Maybe this was what she was meant to see. She stepped outside, letting the door fall closed behind her, but instead of the bright midday light that she expected, the sky was dark. She looked up, waiting for the first raindrops, but instead saw a clear, full moon. Somehow, although she had only been inside the koban for a few minutes, night had fallen.
She stepped back inside and pulled the door tight, leaning against it as if she were being chased. The light was still on. Had she left it? She couldn't remember. She took the wallet again. Maybe she'd missing something in the photos—something she was supposed to see to make everything OK again. But rather than a pile of photos neatly tucked inside, a jumble of torn edges stuck out from the wallet's main pocket. Annie ran her finger along their edges. The paper felt smooth and thin… like the paper magazines were printed on. Magazines like the ones in the shops.
She had a hooded sweatshirt in her bag. It was Leo's. He'd left it at her apartment and she'd meant to return it. And she had a pair of jeans. Most of the girls carried them, for going out after school. It cut down seriously on the harassment. She changed into the jeans, then slipped the hoodie on and zipped it up. It was big on Leo and even more so on her, but when she raised the hood, the effect worked. Well enough, anyway. She could pass for a man. Her height was what did it. She clutched the photo with the torn edges inside the pocket of the hoodie, then went outside into the night.
The brightly-lit 7-11 was only one block away. She paused just inside, less confident in the harsh lighting than she was outside in the dark, but pulled the hood more tightly over her face and went to the rack of magazines at the back of the store, the top two rows with their covers obscured by a long opaque plastic barrier. She grabbed a magazine at random and flipped through it, trying not to get caught up in the images, although they held a certain fascination. She didn't know what she was looking for, exactly, but tried to keep her attention focused on the hair of the models. If she thought she saw anyone blonde, she'd stop. There was nothing in the first magazine, nor the second or the third. She was starting to worry that she'd get chased away for looking without paying. She flipped faster.
Finally in the fourth magazine, she saw a blonde. Two of them, actually. Separate and then, on the lower third of the page, together. Neither one of them were her. It took two more magazines to find it. She could tell as soon as she picked up the unreadable Japanese title that this was the one. It had been handled. The cover was slightly creased, and the edges of the pages no long laid neatly atop one another. The photo from the wallet had been torn from the upper right hand corner of a page in the middle. And it wasn't the only one. The entire spread—both pages—were pictures of her.
She closed the magazine quickly and almost put it back, but, after seeing that the clerk was caught up in a conversation with a customer, she slid it flat inside her sweatshirt. There were half a dozen more copies of the same magazine. She knew it was a losing battle. But this one—this copy with the evidence of being seen, being handled… would be gone.
She crossed her arms over her chest and slipped out of the store, holding her breath until she was halfway down the block and was sure no one was coming after her. She made her way back to the apartment. She could hide the magazine, hoping the whole thing would just go away, or show her parents and tell them everything. She wanted her mother to hug her and tell her that everything would be okay. She let herself into the apartment. When the door swung open, she expected to find her father sitting on the sofa, reading an academic journal or grading papers, or her mother sending an email to her sister back home.
Annie stood in the doorway. Had she gone to the wrong apartment? The layout was the same, but then they all were. And her key had worked. But this seemed to belong to someone else. The furniture was cheap and worn. Three girls, not much older than she, were there, reading magazines and painting their toenails. They were all western, like her—two brunettes and a stunning platinum blonde, who was the first to look up. Annie pushed the hood of her sweatshirt off her head. "Where are they?" was all she could manage. One of the brunettes glanced up, shook her head as if this was all so familiar to her, and went back to her magazine.
The blonde was the only one to respond. "Who?"
The blonde slowly capped her nail polish and set it down. She got up and went to Annie's side, taking her arm and gently pulling her inside, closing the apartment door behind her. "You know they're not here," she said. Annie could hear the accent in her voice—Swedish? Danish? Something Scandinavian.
The blonde led her to a ratty green armchair and sat her down. One of the brunettes spoke. "You have the rent?" She had a British accent. Or maybe Australian.
"I don't… what is this?" Annie stammered.
"She's faking. And I'm not chipping in for her share again."
"Just give her a second," the blonde hissed. "Which one was it this time?" she asked Annie. "Were you on vacation?"
"What? No, I live here. My father works at the University of Tokyo."
The blond nodded. "And you go to high school. And you have a nice boyfriend."
"Yes!" Finally someone understood. "I do."
But suddenly as Annie looked around the apartment, everything clicked into place. It was as if her life had shifted a few frames to the right and what had seemed like an apartment occupied by strangers and strange objects suddenly felt like home. And the version of the apartment she shared with her parents was drifting further and further away, out of her grasp.
The blonde kept talking, telling her things, but Annie stopped listening. Because suddenly she knew them herself. She could recall vivid memories that hadn't been there just minutes before. The house in Ann Arbor. Her parents. The fights.
She and her best friend—what was her name—leaving Michigan on a frigid January morning. Arriving on a mild Tokyo day. Feeling warmed just by the presence of so much light and so many people. The money running out fast in the expensive city. Knowing she was a few days from calling her parents and begging for money for a ticket home and finally meeting the woman who was talking to her now and whose name she still couldn't remember.
The memories of what followed were still only there in bits and pieces, but the connective tissue was growing, knitting together like a dark cloth blotting out what had, until a few minutes ago, been her life.
She could remember entertaining men in a bar. Moving into this apartment, then a man whose face wasn't clear, introducing her to… someone else. And the pictures. The magazine. Those seemed now to be the only thing that had been real.
Annie jumped up. "I have to go back."
"Sit down." The blonde put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.
"I have to get back to the koban." She pushed past the others and headed toward the door. The brunette shook her head.
"You better not leave. Leo was here looking for you. If you're still gone when he gets back…"
"Tell him to wait here!" Annie yelled back as she ran out the door. She took the stairs at a tear. Down nine flights, out of breath at the bottom but still able to manage a sprint to the corner. She planned to run straight into the koban, where - it seemed - everything would finally make sense. But she stopped short on the corner, in the same place she'd been so many times before; the exact location of the koban. Where it should have been.
She spun around, registering any familiar landmark she could see. Maybe in her panic she'd run to the wrong corner. The koban was gone.
A young couple was walking past and Annie ran to them, realizing the likelihood that they would speak English was remote. But she only needed one word—koban. She repeated it over and over, "koban… koban… koban…" She pointed at where the structure should be. Both of the strangers shrugged and walked on, tracing a wide path around her. She repeated it with all the passersby she could catch—the ones who didn't shy away from her bulky sweatshirt and stringy blond hair that had come loose from its band. One after another, they didn't seem to know what she wanted, what she was talking about. Until finally an old woman, too stooped to see Annie coming and too frail to get away nodded. She put a hand on Annie's arm and turned her down the block to the main street.
The woman walked away and Annie ran toward the main road. But when she emerged from the closely-nestled buildings, she saw what the old woman had meant. There, rising out of the wide, tree-lined median, was a koban. Not hers. A new one, constructed out of concrete. It was two stories, with a residential room and solar panels on the roof.
She crossed the street through the oncoming traffic and pounded on the door, suddenly aware of the late hour. There was a light on inside and after a moment, a crisp police officer of no more than twenty-five came to the door. He smiled at Annie, either not noticing or choosing to ignore her disheveled appearance.
"Wallet," Annie managed to gasp, her exertion finally catching up with her. "I'm looking for a wallet."
The police officer smiled when the language clicked. "English!"
But Annie only had eyes for his nodding head. "You have it? It's here?"
"No. No wallet."
"Did you have one? In the last few days?"
"Let me look." Annie tried to push her way past the officer, into the room. He moved to block her path. The wallet had to be in there. It had to have been moved from the other koban, which had to have been torn down in the middle of the night. Annie had several inches on the officer, but before she could even try to muscle her way in, she felt a hand on her arm and heard a man's voice, speaking Japanese.
The officer said something in response and the man holding her laughed a familiar laugh. And he had a familiar face, but older and harder. He was taller and more muscular and he felt strong in a way she'd never felt before.
"Leo?" He and the police officer exchanged a few more pleasant words before the officer went back inside and closed the door and Leo jerked Annie away, his hand tight around her arm. He led her away, keeping her close.