Buy FREEDOM’S MASK as a paperback
Buy FREEDOM’S MASK for Amazon’s Kindle

Chapter One

I could feel the sun blazing down on my face, lighting up my eyelids and threatening to outdo the pain that was throbbing behind them, my right especially banging away. No, not my right eye, the place behind my right eye, just at the root of the socket, where all the gangly wires join the eyeball to the brain. I was keeping those lids firmly closed. More pain was not what I needed.

But the poking continued. And that voice. Was it a voice? It was something patterned, it had to be human. Repetitive. Was it English? No, something similar perhaps. A sing-song pattern, ups and downs, ups and downs. I thought that maybe if I rolled over my eye might hurt less, but it felt like I was lying on some wet and squishy ground so I decided that might not be such a good idea. No telling what I’d roll over onto. But I had to do something. Whoever it was out there – and by that point I knew it had to be a who and not a what – wouldn’t shut up. I moved my right arm to put a hand over that dancing ball planted in my face, to put some pressure on top that might help calm the fires beneath, and as I did so I felt my sleeve cling to me; it was soaking wet. How did that happen? One thing at a time. I squeezed both of my eyelids shut extra tightly to gird myself for the big move and then cracked open the left, blinking immediately and rapidly under that scorching inferno in the sky, letting the focus come slowly as a shape shifted above me.

It was human. He was human. And still poking away, muttering that same string of nonsense. I blinked a few more times and pressed down a little harder on my right eye; the thing would not let up. What was the guy wearing? Some kind of conical hat like the kind you saw fake Asians wearing in movies from the fifties. He didn’t look like a real Asian though, but then he didn’t look black or white either. I couldn’t place him racially speaking, not that it really mattered. He might have been all races at once for all I knew. He did have a thin beard, or maybe well-trimmed stubble; a style choice? His eyes looked kind enough; real concern hovered there amongst the soft browns. Thick black eyebrows, a tall straight nose. Why wouldn’t he stop poking me? I blinked again and tried to speak, my voice coming out like gravel, rocks being dragged on asphalt; speech was evidently a non-starter, all wrong, dead. I was in shocking pain, wet, and my throat was evidently damaged to boot. Giving up on chatter for the time being I cocked my left arm under me to prop myself up, keeping my right where it was to hold down that jack-in-the-box of agony. He, the guy, took a couple of steps back and stood up slightly, looking away and maybe calling to someone. He was dressed in a set of black pyjamas and rubber boots all speckled with what looked like dirt; and he was wearing one of those goofy Asian hats. I didn’t blame him for the apparel though, the sun was intense. Searing almost. And the humidity; was that why I was so wet?

I tried to look around a little; there were green shoots poking up all over the place. I was on the ground all right, stuck in the mud, and in more ways than one, I mused. I soon discovered too why my clothes felt so drenched. They were drenched. I was lying in a few centimeters of murky water, not more than five so there was no need to swim – of course – but the color of the water, and its warmth, with the little plants everywhere and the sun frying every molecule, instantly made me think the place must be swarming with bugs. I forced myself into a proper sitting position.

For the most part that was easier than I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t injured in any way that I could tell and aside from the ice pick jabbing away behind my eyeball I felt no pain whatsoever. I might have felt other pains had my headache not been drowning them out, but anyway nothing seemed broken, cut, scratched, or bruised. If I had fallen here then I did so somewhat remarkably, or maybe just luckily, because I didn’t seem to be any the worse for it. Still, I was the worse for not knowing where I was. And why couldn’t I understand the people around me? There were three of them now, with a fourth approaching, all wearing those same black pyjamas and rubber boots, faces shaded by their umbrella tops. I stared at them. They were staring at me so I couldn’t see the harm in it. Their facial features were mixed, quite varied within the group, and their skin tones were differing shades of a pleasant but mysterious not quite red or yellow, black or white, as that church song about Jesus loving the little children goes. It occurred to me that they really ought to retire that song; it’s racist. The two who were most animated were both men and one had a fantastic moustache of a dark brown, kind of reddish hue, while the third and – having just arrived – fourth were women who might have been quite striking had I been able to get a good look at them. For now they hung back and appeared worried.

I tried speaking again but it was still no dice. My throat was a rock tumbler. They, however, had no trouble speaking, and pointing. Calmly though; I had to give them that. I pushed a little harder against my eye and tried to remember what I had gotten up to the night before. It was easy enough to concentrate as I could tune out the sound of those people’s water-pouring-over-dishes-in-the-sink gibberish without any trouble at all. The trouble came when my memory attempted to stretch beyond about nine p.m. I finished work late-ish, not too bad given my average, and stopped off for a drink on my way home which turned into five. I probably should have eaten something. I vaguely recalled walking (stumbling) to the station, some issue with the stairs – slipping? not falling… – and looking through clouded eyes at blurry and dancing train times. The twenty-one eighteen, that was the one I wanted; did I make it through the gate? Did I collapse on the platform? Did I knock out on a bench? Did I fall onto the tracks? Did I really try walking through a Metro tunnel? It was impossible to tell. I was there then and not now. But where in the hell was I? And why in the hell couldn’t I understand anyone?

I sent my left eye roving upwards again and saw that one of the two women had now stepped forward and appeared to be taking charge, speaking quickly to the two men as she pointed first at me and then at one of them. She seemed to be motioning for the other man, Comrade Moustache, to run off in another direction, though towards where or for what purpose I had no idea. Of course I had no idea. I had no idea about anything. She then approached me directly, bending down to meet my gaze as I sat there like some dumbfounded cretin, and the look she gave me was one of such warmth and genuine concern that I nearly melted. I was putty. She reached out and gently, delicately, pulled my right hand away from the dancing taw in my face. She seemed satisfied by what she saw – and I was sure my eyeball looked fine because all the trauma was located behind it – and then held her hands up, palms outward and with earnestness etched onto her every detail, apparently signaling that she meant no harm by whatever it was that she was about to do or by what she had done. She could have skipped all that because I would have let her touch me all day long, she was gorgeous and there were no two ways about it. Her brown-black hair was pulled back into a bun that remained just within the shade of the cone cap they were all wearing, some loose bits at the front falling over a tanned forehead and accentuating almond-shaped eyes out of which two emerald jewels shone brightly. I let my gaze slide down between them to a little button nose that perfectly offset a full pair of soft and welcoming lips. I was transfixed. I stared at her with my mouth half open while she leaned forward and placed a hand under my hair to lift it out of the way, inspecting the place where my third eye would be if I were more enlightened. She then made the same non-threatening gesture and undid the top two buttons on my shirt, pulling back first the right side and then the left, checking the central areas on both sides of my chest. I thought it a pity that she didn’t take the whole thing off. And my pants. Redoing the buttons she nodded at me, allowed a slight smile across her lips and in her eyes, and then stood and turned to face her group. While she spoke to them in low tones I tried to imagine what kind of figure she had underneath her pyjamas; I could barely make out the set of her hips and the fullness of her derriere but it was a challenge I gladly rose to. It even made me forget about my pain for a few blissful seconds.

Turning back she half-smiled at me again and said something that sounded like, “Yemoremileeytolportomorytolporbofin.” While she said that she pointed at herself, the remaining man, and the other woman, both of whom looked concerned and curious, but I also noticed a flash of worry on the man’s face. It’s very hard to describe the timbre of a person’s voice but if I had to I’d compare hers at the time to a long, low bird song, maybe like a Boreal Owl’s but with a tad more energy, a tad more pitch. I guessed that she was introducing herself and the others and so I tried to tell her that my name was Frank Tollman but my voice still wasn’t coming out right. Rasps and gurgles. She patted her own throat gently and smiled again by way of reply and so I quit my feeble attempt. I had always been good at taking hints to shut up.

The man came over to me, right hand extended and with his left making jabbing motions upwards. I gripped his mitt and he pulled me to my feet, keeping his hold with his right while his left reached out and cautiously supported my lower back. Once I was up and steady he let go and took a step away, though he kept his peepers on me as I winced at the thunderbolt that shot through my brain. It was simply too much. I bent forwards and pushed the base of my palm back against my eye; I didn’t care how it looked, and somehow I wasn’t surprised to feel a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I decided that the guy was all right, despite his hat. The other woman came over as well and kind of rubbed my back while pointing at some high-rises that were barely visible on the horizon, their shapes blurred by what seemed like heat haze, but even so looked to be apartment complexes of some sort. That must have been where we were going because the knock-out started walking and then the woman next to me followed suit with the guy signaling that I should go ahead and he’d take up the rear. Two steps in I realized why we were walking in single file: we were in a field of some kind with tall spiky green shoots coming up in long straight rows, the whole area submerged in that low bath of warm water. Whatever was being grown here wasn’t corn and it sure wasn’t wheat either. What did that leave?

Rice, it hit me. I spent far too much time in the city. They were fields of rice that I was seeing stretching out on all sides, each paddy separated by low dividing walls that no doubt carried some kind of irrigation works but also must have served as footpaths. Somehow I had managed to wind up in the middle of one of them and we were now heading towards a part of the dividing wall that ran along all four sides of the paddy we were in. The middle of a rice paddy! How did that happen? Not a road, not even an access path, but the middle of the darn thing. I thought back to that tunnel at the Metro station but my mind couldn’t get beyond the blackness of its dark before all memory went completely black and dark itself. Whatever happened I couldn’t recall – it was simply gone. Instead I focused on walking, and felt the damp soaking into my shoes as they sank in the mud, socks floating in their sponginess inside. I wished I had a pair of rubber boots. The momentum seemed to help with my head though, maybe it was just the need to get my blood flowing. A friend had always told me that the worst thing to do when you’re hungover is to lie about; getting active gets you over it sooner. That and oily, greasy food, I found. Was it a hangover? It might have been; all the symptoms were there. On the other hand, I hadn’t woken up in my own bed – or someone else’s – so it could’ve been something else as well. I tried taking my hand away from my eye to get a better look at where I was but soon discovered I wasn’t ready for that yet. Fine, I thought, so the cure I needed was activity plus constant pressure; and then later coffee and meds too, I hoped. I had never felt the need to wait a hangover out and spent a few moments trying to think of ways to communicate “headache pills” without talking.

As we arrived at the dividing wall the woman in front of me turned to give me a hand up. She was pretty too, but not quite as striking as the other woman. Her skin was a bit lighter, her eyes a deep black, her lips under a thinly arching nose less full but with a nice pink-red combination. She looked thin, or trim anyway, but then they all did. I recalled that even Moustache had had a svelteness to him as he ran off to wherever the bombshell boss had directed him. They were all tall too. As tall or taller than me, and I was no runt.

It was good to get out of the water, and as I stepped up onto the dividing wall I saw that it served not only as a footpath but also as a storage area for their farming tools, a miscellanea of which were spread out on the dirt in front of us. The guy, the worried but nice one, stepped up behind and then around me, and as I stood there on the narrow walkway the three of them gathered up their tools and put them into what looked like cloth sacks. My dream girl came over and pointed at the buildings in the distance. I still found them hard to make out through the haze, although we now had a slightly better vantage than before. She repeated a phrase a few times, maybe “Almsopopar” or something similar, and then started walking again. We shuffled along behind her – well, I shuffled while the others moved with the vibrancy of accustomed hikers – and as we wound our way through the warren of rice paddies, crossing from the top of one dividing wall to the next, I noted water spigots and drainage pipes sticking out here and there, making up a network feeding all of the fields their life-giving moisture.

I was naturally very curious about such details of the place that I inexplicably found myself in, but even if I weren’t I still would have walked in the head hung, slow and ground-obsessed manner that I was; the sun was so intense that any thought of holding my head upright struck me as completely out of the question. It was easier to keep one hand on my eye that way too. I did wonder why no one had offered me a funny hat, but then they probably didn’t have any extras. Too soon. Just as I thought that, and as if reading my mind, the woman in front of me suddenly stopped, turned around, and plopped her cone top on my head. The abrupt shade was so refreshing that a few sexual innuendos deducible from what she had just done even flashed through my mind. I smiled to myself, which she must have taken as thanks to her, because she smiled back and waved at me a little before carrying on. A gentleman I wasn’t, that was true, but then I was in pain, lost, and desperately perplexed by the entire scene and situation.

The system of retaining walls finally came to an end and we ascended a long ramp up onto what appeared to be a roadway, only rather than asphalt it was made of compacted dirt, dust, and gravel. It didn’t look wide enough for more than a single car to use at any one time. Our boss gathered everyone around and took some bottles out of her sack, distributing one to each of us. I must have gotten Moustache’s share because she only had four of them. They were all glass bottles with nice flipper-top stoppers on them, the kind that for me had a strong yesteryear connotation, but which you could still sometimes find on bottles of higher-end beers. I flipped the stopper up, swung it open, and then paused to sneak a peek at what the others were doing. Everyone was just drinking normally and so I quaffed mine down in a series of giant gulps. It was just plain water, but there on the dirt road under the blazing inferno above us it tasted like the purest mead to be had this side of Asgard. I was all ready to sit down and wait for our ride when the boss took the bottles back, nodded, and then said something cheerily and loudly at which the other two started walking again. Were they planning on walking all the way to those buildings? I couldn’t believe it; that must have been a good five kilometers off. I didn’t see anything for it though, and I certainly knew that remaining there by myself wasn’t an option, so I would just have to try and keep up. I trudged on stoically while the guy came up to walk beside me, the two women again taking the lead.

As hot as it was the walk wasn’t that bad. No, that needs some qualifiers; it wasn’t that bad considering the ringing pain in my head, the soggy condition of my shoes and socks, and the fact that I was somehow, by some bizarre twist of the universe, somewhere far from home and with people I had never met, who spoke a language I had never heard, and who looked like no one I had ever seen. Taking all that into account it was brutally tough going, but that one particular part of the day wasn’t that bad. It could have been worse, anyway, and the scenery was certainly nice. Fields of rice stretched out as far as the eye could see on both sides of the little road, straight lines of green sprouts sticking up out of sunken square ponds, each connected to each via a well-organized system of retaining walls and access paths; all very orderly and, by the look of things, very diligently taken care of. As we passed by other fields the two women in our group would call out greetings to those down doing the tending; it was quite comradely and I felt a bit sad to be so out of place, so out of my element, so foreign. And that even through the pain in my head and despite my long acquaintance with being the odd ball out; there was something terribly warm about the whole setting that struck an idyllic note with me.

The series of fields were only broken by the occasional grouping of trees, mostly of the tropical sort with great twisted roots peeking out above the surface and forming grey tubes that scrambled over one another on their journeys into the subterranean world. They reminded me of some pictures I had seen once of how Angkor Wat looked when it was first discovered, the jungle triumphant over massive blocks of stone. Only for us there was no stone – or at least, none that I could see from where I walked. I wondered if I hadn’t ended up somewhere in the far south. Could I have gotten on a night train or ferry somehow? Transferred off the Metro at Tokyo Station where all the subterranean and standard train lines met? If I had, where would that have put me? Takamatsu? Izumo? Those were the only south-bound night line destinations that I could recall, and neither ended up in a place as tropical as where I found myself. For that I would have needed to catch a train to Okinawa or something, and I knew that was impossible. But more than all that, no matter what train I got on I should still certainly have been able to recognize and understand the people around me when I got off. And since that was nowhere near the case I couldn’t help feeling like Alice. Dreadfully like Alice. Wherever I was there weren’t even any signs on the road or anything else that might signal location, nor the name of the place we were heading to. My mind kept going back to that tunnel.

For better or for worse, I didn’t have a lot of leeway to wonder about such things, as important as I knew them to be – as crucial as I knew them to be –, both because my aching skull wouldn’t let me think properly and because my walking companion was making great efforts to engage me. Annoyingly great efforts. He kept gesturing to himself and saying “Yemoretomor” and then just “tomor”, “tomor”. That was enough for me to learn two things: his name was evidently Tomor and Yemore must have been something like “My name is”. From his motioning here and there around us as he rattled on I also learned what I thought might be the terms for the funky jungle trees, palm trees – one of the few tree names that I did know in English –, road, rice, and either the sun or the sky, or possibly “It’s hot today!” I told myself that that wasn’t bad for the condition I was in; I had always been a good listener, and having achieved fluency in two other languages besides my native one I had picked up a few linguistic tricks along the way that had become quite natural coping methods when traveling and when surrounded by new sounds and new sequences. What was a damper on my self-congratulating was the thought that a set of nouns in isolation wasn’t going to help me explain where I needed to get back to very well, nor ask where I currently was, or any of the dozens of other questions that came to mind – requesting headache pills being foremost amongst them. I did not want to complain, exactly; I was happy to be safe and to be taken care of as well as I was, but the sheer disorientation was hitting me to such an extent that I couldn’t even adequately process it. I was operating in shock mode. And on reflection I suppose that’s probably why I handled it as well as I did; there was no option, I simply had to trust Tomor and the others and do what I could do, which right then was sadly little more than pressing my hand against my eye and placing one foot in front of the other.

The buildings gradually closed in on us – or us on the buildings – but there still seemed to be a heat haze hanging in front of them. That could have just been an effect of the horizon, maybe, as the road we were on appeared to go straight towards the town without any curves or bends between. I kept walking. Tomor chatted on but I tuned him out. He was really making a go of it; he must have been deathly curious. My mind turned back to our little group’s boss walking just a few paces ahead of us, the way she had looked at me, the deftness of her fingers as she examined my eye, head, chest. She had taken charge, made decisions, set us on our course, and with an efficiency and confidence that belied the massive question mark I must have represented to them. A stranger, unable to speak, dressed in his workaday costume of navy slacks, white shirt open at the collar, and coal grey sports jacket, lying there in the middle of their rice paddy like some piece of terrestrial flotsam. Women have often surprised me, in both positive and negative ways, and they have also amazed me, but the grace and self-assurance of that particular woman was almost astonishing. Of course I felt that I had to have her. Charging full-bore into that body would not only be a sexual treat, I told myself, it would prove my worth in some indefinable way: the indefinable way that drives men to chase their dicks. I had long since embraced my shallowness on that score. I reasoned too – perhaps trying to justify myself to myself – that it would also open up another side to the mind ticking away behind that picturesque face. Not that I felt a craving for pillow talk or anything, but she did strike me as the type that wouldn’t bore even once all the excitement had run its usual course. In truth I had no real reason for assuming that, or any of it really, considering the conditions under which we had just met and the thick wall of no language between us, but it fit my fantasy and I happily allowed myself to wallow in it. The other woman in our group, the one who had lent me her hat, I also would have happily done – and maybe a few times I mused – but afterwards I would immediately make my excuses and be on my way. The boss though; watch out. She was the kind a man obsessed over. Or so I enjoyed thinking anyway.

I could finally make out some details of the place we were slowly approaching. From the point we had reached, and through the remainder of that odd shimmering faux-mirage air, it appeared to be a fairly dense group of mid-sized to high-rise buildings, a good many of them apartment complexes by the look of things, and all of them a stark, sharp white. There were black figures shuffling about here and there, and it seemed that the area around and in front of the buildings was either concreted over or paved by some kind of off-whitish or cream-colored material; certainly the ground there wasn’t the plain old ground we had been treading on our dirt road. Over on my left side I could see a low round building with a cone-shaped roof; I thought of a joke connecting that cone head to the cone on my head, but it wasn’t worth sharing and anyway I could neither speak whatever it was the people with me bizarrely and inexplicably spoke nor even, given the condition of my throat, speak anything at all. So much for establishing my reputation as a funny man. Many of the buildings were connected by two or three elevated hallways at varying heights and each looked to be accessible via the ground floor through a series of alleys and walking paths. In seeing that I was reminded that in the whole time thus far not a single car or truck had passed us on the road. I couldn’t make out any vehicles in the town ahead either. That was very odd, I thought, for any sizeable dwelling at any time of day anywhere in the world. What time was it? I tried to crane my head up to see where the sun stood in the sky but instantly regretted that as the heat slapped my face from the outside and the dancing bayonet behind my right eye stabbed away from the inside. Whatever time it was, it was still hot. And painful. I returned my attention to my feet and was pleased to see that they remained in motion. We’d get there.

And then we had. The dirt road gave way to a grassy field and I looked up to see that we had arrived. The pavement was in fact a light and pleasing peachy-pinkish tone, and stepping onto it after first having gone from the barren road to the mowed grass I realized that each texture had actually gotten softer. What a nice touch. The hard dirt to the resilient earth to that spongy, giving yet firm, type of hardened rubber, or perhaps a similar material. We were then just a few meters from the round building and I could clearly see past it and into what I noticed to be not a town but a full-blown city stretching out into the distance, complete with a set of trolley tracks winding its way from just in front of where we stood deep into the receding sets of buildings beyond. Everything was a clinical white and everyone I saw was wearing black pyjamas and the goofy cone hats.

Only it wasn’t just people that I saw. I also saw robots. Yes, robots. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and it was so startling that I was using both eyes, my pain momentarily fading into oblivion as the steel blue humanoid figures mounted on a pair of wheels buzzed here and there. Were they running errands? Picking up trash? Fixing things? I had no idea but there were at least ten of them in full view right at that random moment. My jaw must have been on the ground because I heard someone burst out laughing and turned to see that the mirth was directed at me. It was our boss, and I noted that she looked even more gorgeous with her face lit up like that. She took me by the shoulder and led me over to a window at the front of the round building behind which sat, or rather stood, one of the robots. It was chirping away about something, I supposed it must have been in the local language, and a little red light was flashing on the side of its round and nondescript head. I looked at it, looked at our boss, and then must have looked lost because she put her hands on either side of my face and held my head steady in front of the robot. Her fingers were thin but calloused; I wouldn’t have called them delicate but their touch excited me. The robot’s light flashed long and then short and then short again, and she let go. I wasn’t sure what had just happened but after that the rest of our group took turns standing in front of the robot while the light blinked a different pattern: just one quick flash for each of them. We moved around the cone-topped building, evidently some kind of checkpoint or gateway – although I didn’t see anything blocking entry into the city if one were inclined to just blow by the robot guard –, and to a low platform that was positioned behind it and protected from the sun by an overhang; what must have been the trolley tracks, but of a type I didn’t recognize, stretched out ahead. That, at least, was familiar. Not the trolley itself as such, although Tokyo did still have two lines for those as I recalled, but the feeling of waiting for the train. We didn’t have to wait long.

A striking light blue trolley car with a green stripe down its side pulled up to our platform and its passengers all disembarked from the rear while we entered at its front. Of course, as that was the end of the line, the front became the rear and vice versa, but trolleys are wonderfully symmetrical in that regards. There was no driver. My companions all boarded and so I assumed it to be safe enough and stepped up into the entrance. Habit is a funny thing; I had only ridden Tokyo’s Arakawa trolley line once but when I did I noticed that it used a similar ticket system to the city buses, something that I was fairly used to from the time when I lived outside of Tokyo – a paper ticket system for those who didn’t have a scannable electronic pass, that is. In those days, before my company had transferred me from the branch I was at into the capital, I would hop on a bus and take a little ticket with a number on it from a machine, and that number would match with a display board above where the driver sat, a board listing the various fares for each number depending on point of pick up. The rate increased as you rode and when you got off you dumped your ticket and the coins required into a little feeding machine next to the driver. It was all very orderly and transparent. Without thinking I assumed the trolley I had just boarded would work like the Arakawa Line, which worked like the city buses, and so I stood there searching and searching for a numbered piece of paper to take. There was no such paper. There wasn’t even a ticket machine or, apparently, a machine for payment. Given that wherever I was it was no longer Tokyo that should not necessarily have surprised me, but like I said, habit is a funny thing. Tomor finally came over and pulled me down onto a bench on the side of the car opposite the platform, between him and the woman who had given me her hat. The object of my fast-developing crush was seated next to Tomor so we were all in a row. The inevitable fatigue brought on by the whole experience of that day washed over me as soon as I was settled and my head knocked back against the trolley windows of its own accord. As the cone hat got pushed down over my face by the impact I remembered that I was wearing it and sheepishly took the thing off to return it to its owner. She smiled her thanks and set it in her lap. I wondered how thoroughly she’d wash it before putting it on again, and what that would say about her opinion of me.

As tired as I was, the city slowly unfolding around me as the trolley clacked its way down the broad tree-lined avenue it dominated was too remarkable to let myself drift off to sleep. Not really “clacked”, that is, it would be better to describe the sound the motion of the carriage made as fizzed or fuzzed or foozed, or something along those lines. It was nearly silent and the ride felt very smooth. I wished I had gotten a better look at the type of tracks we rode on but there were far too many other details demanding my attention. Through the window opposite us I could see a pattern developing in the ground floors of the buildings that lined the street. The first in the series would have an open marketplace where otherwise rooms or apartments would be, permanently in the shade of course, nestled amongst the upper floors’ supporting beams and with a cool and inviting look. That would be followed by the next building housing an indoor sports or recreation facility behind floor to ceiling windows with the word “Stathor” written above, and additionally labeled with a smaller word afterwards that was preceded by a dash. Judging by the differing activities I saw inside I assumed that smaller word indicated the specialty, such as a type of tennis-like sport, or swimming, or running, or weight lifting, or a throwing game of some manner. The third building would then have either what looked like a board game, reading, or otherwise sit-down-and-do-something-mental area, or a café, while the fourth always had what must have been a restaurant. All of those were similarly labeled with simple signs above their windows, and after a sequence of these there would be six buildings that didn’t seem to have anything other than private residences on their bottom floors, making the overall pattern one of units of tens. What was also striking was the complete lack of advertisements anywhere on the street, or indeed even within the trolley car. That took me aback and I realized just how utterly bombarded with ads Tokyo, and every other city I had ever been in, really was. Rising above all of the marketplaces, gyms, cafés, and restaurants, were buildings of roughly equal size though varying in height and containing what were surely apartments. I arrived at that conclusion mainly by the laundry hanging outside in the balcony areas, but I still felt pleased by my own astuteness. I then realized that I had not yet seen an area of stand-alone houses, or even a single stand-alone house. Did everyone live in an apartment? And where were the offices? I had seen a few buildings that clearly weren’t apartment complexes but whose first floors still held to the regular pattern; I wondered if they were places of business. It was hard to tell.

The trolley fizzed on and we began curving outwards, away from a large round building with another cone-shaped roof that was coming into view, similar to the gateway building at the city’s entrance only much larger. I elbowed Tomor and pointed at it with what I hoped would be perceived as a quizzical look on my face, and he duly responded with a long string of words, the meaning of which were all lost on me. Perhaps sensing that he then made two beaks with his hands and squawked them at each other before pointing to me, himself, and then our boss and walking two fingers across a palm. He appeared to find that, or maybe doing that, very amusing. I blinked at him; I felt a little like the butt of a joke.

The tracks curved sharply again and after another trolley went past us going the other way I saw an identical cone-topped building come into view, which we skirted in a similar fashion as we had the first, although this time the trolley wound round the opposite side of the building before the tracks straightened out once more. About a block later I was pulled to my feet and we all alighted from the carriage onto a platform – without any of us paying anything, I noted. As the others walked ahead I stopped to look at a map posted next to what must have been a timetable for the train services. It seemed the city we were in – possibly called “Sheenda” based on the label – was oval in shape, with the point of the egg evidently the area where we had entered. The two large round buildings I had noticed were roughly in the center, and in addition to the one main avenue going through the town that we had just been traversing on the trolley, there was another running east-west, which also looked to have a tram line on it. Very many side roads and alleyways also spread between the buildings, of course, and all were laid out in a grid save for the primary north-south boulevard. That street for the most part ran straight down the middle of the city from the narrow point to the wide, except for when it got to the two big buildings in the center, at which point it wrapped around one side of the first building, cut back the reverse direction to travel in between the two, and then around the other side of the second building before resuming its regular top-to-bottom route. It was an intriguing way to lay out a city and the design of it was clearly pre-planned in great detail; the whole effect lent a good deal of weight to the two main buildings as well – whatever they were for –, especially when considered that way from a bird’s eye point of view.

I heard an “Ohoto!” and turned to see that Tomor was beckoning to me to hurry up. I joined them at the edge of the platform where to my surprise we waved goodbye to the woman who had lent me her hat and watched her cross the street and head down a side alleyway into a hive of clinically white buildings. The sun was beginning to set and the extreme heat had waned considerably. I was feeling much better although my headache remained and I wondered what was to happen next. We started walking again. Naturally. It made sense to me at once why everyone was in such good shape: all they did was walk. We hiked for about twenty minutes down narrow side roads and passages between buildings, with all sorts of different services and shops sprinkled here and there on the ground floors of apartment complexes, before finally stepping into the entranceway of one of them. Were we going to Tomor and our boss’ place? Were they a couple? The thought depressed me somewhat but I remembered that wherever I was I would need to be quickly making my way back to where I should be, and so the marital status or otherwise of the two wasn’t really an issue. Besides, even if the boss were married to the guy I knew that I’d still make every effort to set anchor in her in the time available. I considered it a duty to myself, a tribute to my manhood, an acknowledgement and recognition of the value that was imparted on me by what I did with my penis. I was a straight-shooter in that way, and not afraid to call things as I saw them. I even took some measure of pride in my callowness.

We walked across the clean and empty foyer and stopped in front of what had to be an elevator. Thank goodness we apparently wouldn’t be taking the stairs. The doors opened and we stepped inside, Tomor and the boss chatting away amiably. On the floor selection plate I noticed that the numbered buttons were displayed in the familiar Arabic numerals I had always used. The Latin script on the buildings outside had been unexpected, but those numbers weren’t; yet again the question pushed itself on me: where was I? Once I realized that we were surrounded by rice paddies I had assumed I was somewhere in Asia, but then nowhere in Asia that I knew of was like the place I was in now. The people around me also clearly weren’t Asian, but then they weren’t clearly anything that could be nicely and squarely fit into a racial background box to be ticked on a customer survey form. I left work, I went to my Metro line, blackness, I woke up. The universe was toying with me. I knew that I belonged in Tokyo, but that I couldn’t get back to Tokyo until I could find out where I was, and I couldn’t find out where I was until I could speak again and tell these nice people that I had no idea what language they were using and to please speak to me in something else – preferably but not necessarily English. I fought the doubts that something far deeper than a geographic shift was afoot, despite all the clues pointing in that direction. I could only handle so much, after all.

We exited on the thirteenth floor and I followed them down a hallway to room number seven on the left. Unfortunately Tomor didn’t stop to let himself into any of the other rooms; it appeared that the two did in fact belong together. No matter, I told myself. The boss ran her thumbprint over a pad next to the apartment’s front door and it slid open with a satisfying shooshing noise. We all stepped inside and as the door automatically closed behind us Tomor and the boss started taking their clothes off. I was shocked. Excited of course, but shocked. They slid off their rubber boots in the little sunken entrance as I expected them to, but they didn’t stop there. Up came the pyjama tops, down went the pyjama bottoms. The boss had an even more exquisite body than I was prepared for. Slender shoulders that trickled down into lithe limbs, a smooth taut belly with just about two fingers of fat at its edges that flowed into slightly rounding hips. Silky thighs that betrayed the tension of the muscles beneath as they slid down into shapely calves, tapering at just the right degree. She was sadly wearing panties and what must have been a sports bra of some kind, but both were bare enough to give my imagination plenty to go on.

Tomor’s body I barely glanced at; it looked like a hairless muscular but thin thing, the kind of body a male model would likely have, but in Tomor’s case it was probably a lot more functional since his physique no doubt came from his farm work and not from avoiding carbs while “working out” with tiny one kilogram dumbbells. While I stood and stared at the boss both of them signaled that I ought to disrobe as well. I wasn’t ready for such an eventuality. Taking off my shoes was not a problem, it was evidently their home after all, and I would be happy to get my soggy socks off too, but I was unaccustomed to getting naked in strangers’ entryways. Then again, when in Rome; also I apparently had no choice. I took my sports jacket off, folded it, and placed it on the floor next to where they had put their pyjamas. My shirt and undershirt followed and I took my time with them; they were my work clothes. Then my pants. I was glad to be wearing briefs that day as the tightness of the material was helping to hold down the Eiffel Tower that the sight of the boss’ body had breathed my lifeblood into. The random erections of my early teenage years were enough of an embarrassment to last for a lifetime; I did not need another episode well into adulthood. And also the boss needn’t and shouldn’t, I thought, get acquainted with the Tollman’s tollgate until after we had first got rid of Tomor. Such was not to be though, at least not then, as the boss gathered up all our clothes and headed into a different room while Tomor mumbled something and waved for me to follow him.

Their apartment was lovely. Everything looked so modern, hypermodern really. That shouldn’t have surprised me given the robots I had seen tooling around outside, but being disoriented, lost, and deeply confused sets your mind in strange and unpredictable ways. I had thought that Japan had the most advanced robots in the world but where I currently found myself seemed to be ahead in the game. Wherever it was. I was reminded by that thought that I would eventually have to get back to my real life, but at that moment everything was far too new and interesting to worry about such. My inner explorer had been activated and I had always been a nomad, always on the lookout for the unknown and the intriguing. Besides, it wasn’t the first time that I’d failed to show up at work and I hadn’t been fired yet. As long as I met deadlines my boss didn’t seem to care too much about daily attendance; when she bothered to step out of her office and notice, that is.

Like the outside of the building the interior walls and ceilings of the apartment were all a sharp white that was accentuated by either a wood flooring or a really good facsimile of a wood flooring. Whichever was the case it was also glossed over and felt cool and soothing on my feet, especially after the heat of the day. To my right must have been the living room, a couple of deep upholstered chairs sat on one side and one end of a low table, opposed by a three-seater sofa of the same material. Some oil paintings by an artist that I didn’t recognize hung on the wall under a large round clock. Abstract, I guessed, all lines and shapes and bold colors that jumped right out at the viewer. Ahead of us I could see the kitchen, a typical island countertop design with the sink, oven, and burners against the back wall surrounded by cabinets above and below. I didn’t see a microwave. Next to that was a small living room table. Tomor led me through to a hallway off of which appeared to be two bedrooms and a nice bath unit.

The apartment was a good size; knowing that there was at least another room next to the entrance where the boss had disappeared, I estimated the whole thing to be around eighty to ninety square meters. A space that big would cost a pretty penny in Tokyo, and the effect was impressive. I felt somehow at ease, despite my being a total stranger; the whiteness and the layout and the coolness of the air all combined to yield a real sense of elbow room. I grew up taking that for granted but years of being an expat in the world’s most populated metropolitan area had warped all perceptions of normality in that regard. It had also warped my English and made it a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from all over the Anglophone world, but that was another story.

It seemed that I was being introduced to the shower. Tomor explained – he must have been explaining – at great length, and in a noticeably slower manner of speaking, as he demonstrated how to turn the water on and off, which of the tubes along one wall to use for washing my body and which one for washing my hair. I was a bit offended by the manner and depth of his presumed explanation, and I got a sneaking sense of being mocked again, but I decided to make allowances for cultural differences. He then led me back towards the entrance and I saw that the other room our boss had gone into was a washing and storage room. She was still in there, and still in her underwear heaven be praised, rubbing the excess dirt off of their farming tools and lining them up neatly. It hadn’t clicked earlier but it struck me how low-tech and crappy, really, those tools were when compared to the breath-taking cleanliness and efficiency of the city and of their apartment. When I first saw their farming equipment I guessed that I was in some remote and backwards hamlet, and the entire long walk on the dirt road to get to the city did nothing to dispel that image. Nor did the uniform and entirely uninventive clothing everyone wore. The sheer oddity of what I was experiencing totaled up on me, startled me, pounced on me, and I was at once mystified afresh; just where in the wide world had I ended up? And how?

Tomor took a towel from off a shelf and said something to the boss to which she replied with something else. A lesson that I had learned every time I moved to a new country was that not knowing the language of a place can be quite liberating in some ways; I hadn’t a care in the world what their exchange had been about; I just wished it would have gone on longer so that I could have stared at the boss’ body a bit more. Instead I was taken back to the bath and ushered inside. A shower was in fact what I badly needed, but I still remembered to point to my head and make a grimacing face. Tomor smiled a little as he made what might have been a joke and pulled a bottle out of a sunken area behind the mirror, tapping out one small pill and handing it over with a nearby glass that he filled from the tap. He didn’t seem to mind sharing with me the glass they evidently used for rinsing their mouths and whatnot, and as I didn’t either I proceeded to shoot the thing down. By the time he had left the room and I had started to fiddle with the waterworks my pain had subsided considerably. Whatever was in that pill was pretty good. That and the warm water splashing over me soon had me feeling right as rain. Thoughts of our boss bubbled up as I held my face under the showerhead and all the blood that had been pulsing behind my right eyeball made its way to another eye, of sorts, and pulsed with a lot more spirit. What else could I do? I wanked the thoughts right out, or at least wanked the urgency out of them. I saw no point in holding back and no need for decorum. I tried to take it slow and enjoy the ride but in my imagination the boss was just too much; not even half a dozen strokes and I was already pollocking the wall in front of me. Being a guest I knew that I’d have to clean it up but few things are easier when you’re already in the shower. That accomplished, I leisurely turned to wash my body, getting all the sweat and dirt off, enjoying every moment of what was a good long soak. And then when I got out I found a set of house clothes already waiting for me to put on, resting on a low rack next to the sink. How very considerate.

Thoroughly refreshed I made my way back to the kitchen where I saw Tomor, now in house clothes exactly like mine, stirring something in a frying pan over one of the burners. He gave me a look that could have killed. Glowering is too soft a word for it, glared isn’t even quite there. His were the eyes of rage. I was dumbfounded. I looked over to the boss, who was sadly clothed as well and seated at the dining table, but there was no support to be found from those quarters. If possible she looked even madder. Right after I had finished masturbating to her she was getting annoyingly three-dimensional on me, ruining the fantasy I had built up. People and their feelings, I thought, purposely leaving the thinker out of that category. Tomor turned the burner off and motioned for me to sit down, barking out a word that must have meant the same. I duly took my place at the table and avoided looking at the boss, much as I wanted to. She said something in a low voice that didn’t really come off as aggressive but it was clearly serious. And a little ominous. When Tomor sat down across from me he was holding a small device that was about the same shape but a bit bigger than a smartphone. He managed to control whatever was eating away at him and spoke very slowly, very clearly.

I naturally had no idea what he was saying, but seeing his little gadget reminded me that I had left my smartphone in my briefcase which was who knows where by that point. That had a depressing effect on me as I had recently gotten a high score on “Dance-a-panda-monium”, one of those free puzzle games with little baby pandas that danced to a frenetic club beat. What a shame it was to lose that record. With luck I thought that someone might have found my satchel and dropped it off at the station’s lost and found. One thing that I had always appreciated about Japan was that people rarely stole goods they came across; you could even get your wallet back with your cash still in it. That was an entirely remarkable feature of the country and didn’t get noted often enough.

When Tomor finished whatever he was going on about I sat and stared at him blankly, but with an effort to appear polite nonetheless. His anger seemed to redouble and he began once more in that same steady – but at times quivering – slow and clear voice. When he again finished I again stared at him blankly. Once more: slower and clearer, and just barely contained. I felt bad for him; he was making such an effort and I had no means with which to reciprocate. If my throat had been functional I would of course have stated my case in English since I knew by then that whatever language they were using wasn’t Japanese and English was the closest thing we had to a universal tongue. But my throat, and hence my voice, were for whatever reason as lost as I was. Very visibly frustrated, he finally gave up speaking and started drawing something on the mini-tablet he held. When he finished he put his fingers over the screen and made a pulling motion with his hand which lifted the image out and displayed it in the air as a hologram. I was transfixed. He then flipped the flat image upwards so that it hung there suspended like a whiteboard. This is what I saw:

Surprise doodle here!

For being such a fancy-looking device I was a little disappointed by his finger art, but I thought I more or less understood what he was getting at. As if to emphasize his message he then pointed a menacing finger at me, the seventy-five liter mark, the boss and himself, and finally the no shower mark. They must have had a meter for tracking water output; I had used up too much and they wouldn’t be able to shower that day. I was sorry, but I could hardly have known that the area was under water rationing. After all, I had just washed up on their shores that afternoon. I was Gulliver on unintended travels. Surely they could pardon me for that?

I tried to apologize but my throat was still not having it. I’m sure I looked very embarrassed though, and I certainly felt every bit of it. The atmosphere was heavy, incredibly uncomfortable, and not helping matters any the boss silently got up and headed towards the bathroom. Tomor looked at me for another long moment, sighed, and then stood himself. He came back to the table a moment later and set an opened bottle down in front of me that looked a lot like a beer. Was it a peace offering? Had my nonverbal apology been accepted? I glanced up at him and saw that he was already back at the stove finishing whatever he had been preparing earlier. For the moment it appeared that the storm had passed.

The sound of water being run wafted over to me from down the hallway and I deduced that meant that the boss was at least able to wash to some degree; she must have been using the sink to make do. Not as good as a shower, true, but certainly better than not washing at all after a hot day spent in the great outdoors. Everything had worked out fine, I thought; kind of. I would have to be careful the next day, if I were even still here to shower at all. It was both freeing and frightening to be so powerless to make any decisions about my own person.

I timidly started my drink and found that it was in fact a beer, a very nice pale ale that seemed to perfectly suit an evening at home. Immediately I began to feel better, more relaxed and much more at peace. I watched Tomor as he cooked; he was just stirring whatever he had in the frying pan and glancing at a couple of pots on the other burners, it didn’t look too demanding. He was chatting away again, possibly to himself, but turning his head in my direction every now and then. He really must have thought I spoke their language. He motioned a few times to the bathroom and repeated the word “milee” in a compassionate tone. Was he talking about the boss? Was that her name? I recalled that she had introduced herself and the others when she first spoke to me but I couldn’t remember what she had said at the time. As soon as my voice was back I thought that I’d have to try out my new “Yemore Frank Tollman” line on her and see if that prompted a reciprocal re-naming on her part. Whatever was wrong with my vocal chords the medicine that Tomor had given me for my head didn’t seem to be helping. I assumed that if they had had something for my throat they would have already given it to me; they knew it wasn’t working, after all. I saw little choice but to just stick it out. It would have been nice to be able to communicate, but anyway I couldn’t speak their language and they evidently couldn’t speak anything other than their own so it was probably just as well, all things considered. I was surprised that they hadn’t at least tried out a little English, but then there was an awful lot that puzzled me about the place. I was nearly ready for another beer.

The boss came back with her hair down. It was shorter than I had thought it would be but suited the way her face formed a soft angle at the chin, more or less following that line and bobbing under slightly just above the shoulders. She still looked a bit irritated; I sat up straighter and tried to hide the fact that the beer was sitting in me so well. I had always found appearances to be paramount. Noticing her hair made me realize I hadn’t bothered to notice much about Tomor’s. His was tied up in a bun as hers had been, I saw. Jet black though, a couple of shades darker than the boss’. Somehow that made me think that despite everything else I was still in Asia; I found that comforting. All roads on the continent lead to Tokyo, I told myself. Or that was at least how Tokyoites saw it, and for all intents and purposes that is what I was. The locals would never admit to that; me being first, foremost, and always just a foreigner to them, but after a decade in the city that was how I saw it and nuts to them if they tried to tell me otherwise.

Dinner was then served. A bowl of mixed vegetables over a bed of rice with a side dish of fried tofu and another of most likely seaweed soup. A fresh beer as well, for each of us I noted. My impression was that it didn’t look bad – it looked good, actually – but that it was a little on the light side; maybe it was just starters, I told myself. It wasn’t.

We all ate with spoons, and for me that didn’t take long. Had I been able to join in their conversation I might have eaten a bit more slowly but there really wasn’t much to get through. Based on all that I had seen thus far the couple didn’t appear to need to cut corners – aside from their farm tools, that is. Was I being served some kind of Buddhist diet? If I was then we definitely weren’t anywhere in north Asia as I didn’t know of anyone in the region who took the whole no meat precept seriously, but then I already knew that it hadn’t been north Asian flora I was seeing. The food did taste nice, and I did feel mostly full afterwards, but where was the fun? It occurred to me that if everyone here ate like this then it would be yet another reason why all the people I had seen looked so thin. Had I somehow got caught up in a weird healthy cult?

Whatever its demerits, dinner – and the beer – at least had the effect of relaxing the boss and that lifted the mood of the whole table. It had been a long time since I had a dinner at home without the TV and/or my smartphone for company and it felt nice. I would have offered to wash the dishes afterwards but I was worried about water use, and anyway Tomor motioned for me to sit down while he saw to the cleaning up. The guy impressed me. As he began on that the boss disappeared for a couple of minutes and then came back carrying a load of wet clothes in a big wicker basket. She pulled open a sliding door behind the dining room table and started to hang them to dry on a rack on their balcony. I immediately jumped up and began handing clothes to her from out of the basket while Tomor saw to the kitchen. She nodded her thanks to me as she continued working; step one of ingratiating myself and the beginning of my charm offensive had clicked into gear. I had no idea how long I’d be staying here but I had to do something to get on their good sides, and the boss especially I was eager to please.

With the chores done I was more than ready to just relax and happily followed the boss into the living room while Tomor wandered off for what I guessed was his turn to wash himself. The boss pointed at the couch and said something over her shoulder to me as she headed towards where I knew the bedrooms to be. I wasn’t sure what to do and didn’t see a computer or TV anywhere so I sat down and just kind of looked at the surface of the coffee table. After that trick Tomor had pulled with his smartphone doohickey I thought that maybe there was a projector or screen hidden somewhere in there that we could all watch things on. I had already seen so much that was new, and become so completely disoriented by my circumstances, that I felt like nothing would have surprised me. When the boss did come back with a twelve-string guitar in hand, she took one look at me sitting there on the couch and stifled a laugh. I will admit that I probably appeared a bit ridiculous if you were to take the time to pay attention to me. I was wearing what must have been Tomor’s clothes, and as he was taller and thinner than me the combined effect of those factors meant that my sleeves and legs were hanging loosely off their ends while absolutely everything else was too tight. She set the guitar down on one of the upholstered chairs and went away again, returning quickly with what looked like a tape measure. She then had me stand up, took my height, shoulders, waist – that part greatly excited me – and also measured my feet, chatting away in a friendly banter the whole time. After she had finished that, she next retrieved and punched away at the little tablet gizmo, re-measured my feet and then typed a bit more, before finally smiling and saying something along the lines of, “Douforkentetalaborsinth. Temsikurlteyendogo. Sotou!” What I heard was two sentences and an exclamatory word on the end, but I understood well enough that for the time being I would be wearing what I was wearing. She plopped down into one of the big, deep chairs and started tuning her guitar. I returned to my place on the couch opposite her and settled in. If we weren’t going to be watching any movies at least I could stare at the boss.

I must have nodded off. A hand on my shoulder startled me and I lifted my chin off my chest to see the boss standing there, Tomor now seated in the other chair at the end of the table reading a book. An actual paper book. What a legend the man was. The boss said something and smiled a little before taking a step towards the hallway. Was she leading me away? She must have been. Finally. We were going to their bedroom for wet, sloppy, and intense sex while Tomor sat there and read. At least in the flicker of my fantasy we were; what actually happened was that she led me to their spare room and pointed at a padded mat that had been very generously laid out on the floor.

That, though, was another odd detail. I was used to sleeping on futons from my days before I moved into the city and spent the money to get a real bed, but I hadn’t seen them anywhere outside of Japan. Other places had things they called “futons” of course, but usually they either involved a folding couch in some respect or were single mats. A proper futon, I knew, has both a firmer lower mattress and a softer upper mat, the sheets and blankets then go on top of that layer but the whole ensemble can still be folded up into thirds. My bed was just like that; and all set up in the manner of good hospitality, ready for me to crawl inside.

I kind of bowed my thanks to her – old habits, I guessed, as I still had no proper bead on where we were, but then again I supposed that we still might have been in a bowing culture – and as the boss shut the door behind her I took a moment to look around before returning to dreamland. It was a simple and small room, carpeted in a shade of white that was a touch darker than the walls and mostly empty save for a few books that had babies on their covers and some mixed newborn toys and clothes inside a wooden chest that sat in the corner. Was the boss pregnant? Were they trying? That would be perfect – a side fling with me could then easily be disguised by the boss. The thought of that as it formed made little sense even to me, but I was still half asleep and given what I had been through that day my brain was clearly at low tide. I then allowed myself to wallow in anticipation. If I did in fact find myself stuck for some days wherever it was that I was then pursuing the boss would have to be my goal. It was decided. Moving into the soft folds of the futon the next incoherent thought to take root was that I might somehow bed down for the night and wake up back in my own apartment, or at least on one of the platforms in my home Metro station; that both comforted and disappointed me. I felt that if I did then it would mean having missed out on a singular adventure. An adventure that perhaps had not been real after all, but it had seemed real enough as I lived through it – and wouldn’t that make it real? Waking up like that would also, though, mean safety, security, and the pleasing continuation of the known. All that I was used to. As appealing as those features usually are for people, to me they were only partially reassuring. I had a life to get back to sure, but it wasn’t one that I couldn’t let go of.

Buy FREEDOM’S MASK as a paperback
Buy FREEDOM’S MASK for Amazon’s Kindle
Back to The Book Rack

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)
  • Follow DSB on Twitter

  • Our Books

  • Blog Post Categories

  • Sign up!

    Jot down your email address to get our Drugstore Books soda service plopped right into your inbox.

  • Meta