by Ryan Walraven
“He’s definitely a time traveler. No doubt.”
“Jules, you’re being paranoid. Or delusional.”
He shot me a look.
“Or both.” I glanced down the train car at the man in question. “He’s just a normal guy with a strange sense of style.”
Jules raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “How can you be so sure?” Normally I would have shaken this off as another one of his dramatic episodes, but as we rode the rattling Japanese train southward the wall of darkness outside seemed to add weight to his words. We weren’t exactly on one of the central lines, either. This was the old Omi electric, leading through the rural mountain towns of central kansai.
I turned back from the window. “Look, maybe this guy is a little weird, but just because he’s wearing a cape doesn’t mean he’s some sort of Star Trek character.”
“You’re right, that’s preposterous.”
I smiled victoriously, but he raised his index finger and went on.
“Time travel is a rare occurrence in the Star Trek universe.”
He snorted as the relief drained from my face. I had a bad feeling that this was going to lead to another incident.
“This isn’t another one of your conspiracy theories, is it?” I checked my cell phone wearily. Still fifteen minutes until Yokaichi station and the train was rattling around more than ever. I loosened my school-issue necktie and tried to get comfortable. “I’ve heard enough of time travelers, extraterrestrials, and undead samurai for one lifetime. Can’t we enjoy a single commute without pretending we’re in one of your weird stories?”
“Hey!” He frowned and jammed his hands in his pockets, turning away and looking out the window. “You said you liked the samurai story.”
“Well,” I paused, clearing my throat, “that was just a story.”
“Well this isn’t. Look at that guy,” Jules waved a hairy arm in the man’s direction. “He meets all four criteria for time travelers. And…” he paused an raised his index finger for dramatic effect, “I think he’s been stalking me.”
He was trying to get me to bite. “No. Just no, Jules. He is not stalking you,” I chopped my left hand into the palm of my right and indicated the accused man.
“The guy is totally staring at us,” Jules appealed in a furious whisper.
“Or he’s daydreaming.”
“About assassinating one of us to accomplish his mission.”
I laughed. “Look, even if he is a time traveler, why would he be stalking you: a high school junior with no extracurricular activities, poor communication skills, and an after school job selling otaku stuff on ebay? If you weren’t so weird, you’d be the most boring person I know.”
“Wow Wells, thanks man. I have some aspirations other than living in Japan my whole life, you know. Not everybody’s dad can be ambassador or whatever your dad does.”
“Secretary to the trade secretary,” I said, rolling my eyes and undoing the top button of my shirt. “We’ve been through this about ten times, now.”
“I’m going to be a professional writer and political blogger as soon as I get out of samurai land. You’ll see,” he folded his arms across his chest and looked away from me.
“Alright, I’m sorry,” I sighed. I might as well be nice if we were going to be riding the train together all year. “Tell me about these four signs.”
“What signs?” he smirked and raised his bushy eyebrows again.
“God dammit,” I cursed and wound up to punch him in the shoulder, but the train hit a bump and nearly knocked me off my feet. Even my judo-club training couldn’t help me keep my balance on these death traps. The engines were whining like the Millennium Falcon and we were rolling past the dark rice fields and shadowy mountains outside at quite a velocity “Just tell me,” I said, lowering my fist, “about the criteria you mentioned.”
“Number one,” he held up his bony index finger like some sort of professor, “strange, atavistic clothing.”
“Ok, I’ll admit it. He’s a qualifier.” I peered down the car at our Japanese stalker. He was staring blankly into the night now, ignoring us and the rest of the passengers. “But what the hell, he probably works for a Renaissance fair or one of those gothic lolita costume shops or something. Anybody could qualify for number one.”
“That’s why there are three more criteria,” he said, crossing his arms and shaking his head at me.
“Ok, I’ll bite. What’s number two?” I said, reaching up and grabbing an overhead strap to steady myself against the motion of the train. Outside, snow was beginning to settle on the window frames.
“The second criteria,” he said, his eyes gazing outside, “is an unnatural accent. As if he’s trying to speak normally but can’t quite get it right.”
I scoffed. “That’s basically true of everyone in this country,” I said, giving up on standing and squeezing into a seat next to an old Japanese man. The old fellow was staring at me through thick glasses, but my eyes wandered down the car to the man in question – the man in the cape, or was it a hooded cloak? Hadn’t his eyes been gazing in our direction again before he put his hood up? The man crossed his arms and lowered his head but I had the feeling that somewhere beneath his hood his eyes were still peering at me. “So, what’s the third criteria?” I asked, finally dragging my eyes away.
“A strange preoccupation with watches.”
“That’s fallacious reasoning.”
“How do you mean?” he said, sounding hurt as he lunged for an overhead strap to steady himself. The train felt ready to derail; outside the brakes were squealing.
“Time travel. Watches. Ok, I see the connection, but it’s superficial, like something they would put in a movie. No real time traveler would be that obvious.”
“Why not?” he said, nearly falling over as the train came to an unexpected halt. Overhead, the speakers emitted an incomprehensible announcement to explain the problem. Jules straightened himself and dusted off the soy sauce stained front of his blazer. Then, he went on, “Assuming he travels frequently to various points in time, he’ll want to keep several watches to keep track of the local time after he leaves each temporal location.”
“Alright, fair enough. There’s one more criteria, right?”
“Yes, indeed.” He paused and glanced overhead. “The lights are flickering.” I looked up and sure enough he was right. No one else seemed to notice or care. The old man beside me was snoring quietly, his gray beard resting against his chest.
“So what? These old trains are always falling apart.”
Jules glanced down the car at the accused time-traveler, but for all intents and purposes the man looked asleep, hunched over and leaning against the wall.
“The fourth criteria is his smell. Time traveling leaves a physical and chemical imprint on his body – one that’s difficult to conceal.”
“So what?” I leaned my head over and took a brief whiff of my armpit. “After two hours of judo club I smell pretty bad too, but I’m no time traveler.”
He grimaced. “You’re so weird.”
“At least we have something in common,” I said, jabbing him playfully in the shoulder.
“Owww!” he whined. “Look, you’ve got the wrong idea. They don’t smell like BO. There’s still deodorant in the future. The smell is strange, chemical, like new car scent mixed with air-conditioned air.”
“Alright. So who’s going to test him for that criteria?”
He shrugged and adjusted his glasses. “This is all theoretical, of course.”
I threw my hands in the air and let them fall to my sides. “That’s it? You’re just going to leave it at that?”
“Well I’m not going over there. Especially on a night like this.” He indicated the flickering lights and the ice crystals forming on the train windows.
“Are you asking me to go?”
“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I’m just going to keep an eye on him. Maybe I’ll snap a few cell phone photos for good measure.”
“You know Jules, I wouldn’t mind…”
“I’ll do it.” A grin started to spread on my face.
“Seriously. Comon, I know you man. The whole reason you brought this up is so you could get me to go over there and scope this guy out, right?”
He stared at his shoes and adjusted his glasses. “You are a brown belt.”
“Alright.” I stood up and cinched my leather belt, waking the old Japanese man in the process. “I’ve got this.”
“No, Wells,” he persisted, “it’s alright. The guy could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous is my middle name,” I grinned, loosening my necktie further and cracking my neck. “Besides, there’s no way this guy is actually a time traveler. If he is, I’ll sneak over to a vending machine later and buy you a beer.”
He adjusted his glasses and shook his head at me, his shoulders hunched.
I strode down the train car toward the man and he seemed not to notice; as I got closer, I couldn’t help but check for strange smells. There was nothing unusual except the burnt plastic smell coming out of the train’s heating vents. Finally, I came up to him and leaned against the window beside him.
“Strange night, eh?”
His chin slowly lifted and he blinked at me from beneath his hood. “Hmm?”
“Strange stuff,” I said in Japanese this time, “first the snow storm and now the train stopped out here in the middle of nowhere. Probably only four minutes away from Yokaichi, too.”
He nodded and licked his lips, as if tasting the words before he spoke.
“Uncanny,” he answered in almost perfect English. There was only the slightest hint of an accent.
The answer jolted me for a second. I had expected something in Japanese. I blinked at him and he folded his arms across his chest, yawning.
I pried on. “You wouldn’t happen to know the time would you?”
He raised an eyebrow at me as if to ask ‘are you kidding?’ but then pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and glanced at the time. “Eight fifty. Our journey has run very late.”
“Thanks,” I went on, shooting an ‘I told you so’ look at Jules. No watches. “You have somewhere to be? Work?”
I coughed into my fist and glanced out the window. The snow was really coming down now. Presumably the conductor was outside, shoveling off the tracks with his hat or something. “So, uh, that’s an interesting outfit you have on. You work at a clothing store?”
He cocked his head back. His lips were curling into a slight smile. “No,” he shook his head.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “I simply find these garments comfortable.”
I leaned in closer to the man and glanced about conspiratorially. “Look, I’m sorry for bothering you. I know this is ridiculous, but my friend down there,” I said, turning and jacking my thumb in Jules’ direction, “he thinks you’re a time traveler.”
“Hah hah hah.” The man laughed, each syllable oddly disparate, like the cars of the train. He didn’t seem to get the joke. “Your friend must be very strange,” he said, stretching out the last words.
“Yeah, he is.” I shrugged. “Sorry for bothering you and thanks for clearing that up.”
I strode back down the car to Jules, jamming my hands in my pockets with the thumbs hanging out. He rubbed his temple with his hand, mortified.
“Nothing,” I said, holding my hands out in appeal. “No smell, a pretty normal accent – solid English, actually – and a cell phone to tell the time. Sorry Jules.”
He sighed and leaned himself against the window. “Why do you always do this?”
“Embarrass me in front of people.”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about? It’s not me buddy, this was your idea.”
“You didn’t have to act like I’m some sort of kook in front of the whole train,” he waved his hands at the other passengers, his cheeks red.
I narrowed my eyes and glared at him. “Look, nobody cares. That guy could have been a psycho just waiting for some white gaijin to kidnap. I put myself on the line there and this is how you thank me?”
He sat down next to the old man and crossed his arms without saying a word. As if in response, the train started up again and began rolling down the tracks.
“Don’t look now,” he said, “but that guy is coming back to kidnap you, Mr. Dangerous.”
I bit my tongue and turned. Sure enough the man was heading in our direction, his cloak trailing behind him. He had his arms crossed in an X shape, like a gunslinger reaching inside his cloak for his six-shooters.
I shrunk back defensively, but all he removed from inside the cloak was his cell phone.
“I apologize,” he said, bowing slightly. Long hair spilled out of the hood, “but my cell phone is in a state of malfunction. The time,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an arm covered in watches, “is nine fifteen.” He dragged out the last word again, then smiled, bowed and walked away back down the train.
My jaw dropped. “Wow. Jules, man. Do you think…?”
He silenced me with a wave of his hand and rose from his seat, staring after the man. “Don’t worry about it,” he straightened his necktie and lifted his head, “we’ll discuss it after you buy me that beer.”
I cleared my throat. “If we ever get off this train, I’ll buy you two.”
Outside, the dark landscape was rolling by again, but now it was the inside of the train that seemed foreign to me. We had only three minutes left to Yokaichi, so I didn’t take a seat. Instead, I joined Jules and surveyed the other passenger with a weary eye.
“You know, that woman in the back is awfully pale,” he said, a grin spreading on his face.
I shook my head. “Zombie or vampire?”
© Ryan Walraven 2015