Among the stone-faced, singular souls, copied over again and again, stood two young girls, snickering maniacally in the middle of the brightly lit subway car. I watched in awe as they placed themselves in a category opposite of where they belonged, waving to a woman who remained on the station platform, behind the closing doors. Before I had the chance to conclude whose mother she was, we sped off, screeching through the darkened corridors of Tokyo’s sleek underbelly.
Unmasked, they couldn’t be sisters, even though they looked similar, for their apparel indicated they belonged to different academies. Having gained their freedom, with no adult to further supervise their actions, they quickly pulled their fuchsia-colored bags off their backs, unzipping the compartments open. They grasped at crinkly wrappers, which covered pink blobs of taffy and orange sugarcoated concoctions I could have never dreamed up.
If the metro patrol officer on duty came back to our car, both of the girls would be thrown into quarantine.
I was tempted to scold them, to tell them to put their facemasks on before anyone else noticed, but I didn’t know enough Japanese. Instead, I continued to watch them, their very friendship blossoming before my eyes, as they shoved the candy into their petite mouths, sucking down the sweetness as their giggles rumbled through the still car, where every other passenger aboard stared down at the floor, their faces half-obscured in white.
It had been seventeen days since the first case was reported, and while the international news media was acting as if this unexplainable affliction was causing mass pandemonium, the reality of the situation seemed far off from such a description.
No one had died. In fact, no one had even reported to be in any pain as the golden rash spread up from the clavicles to just below the nose, darkening its hue slowly over time, but never slipping to a pigment darker than burgundy. Instead, it was the sheer number of people it had overtaken that was causing the world to take notice. Nearly half of Japan’s population had the marks on their shoulders, necks, and the lower halves of their faces, or so it was said.
It was rather difficult to calculate the real percentage of those afflicted, as the country’s entire civilization had been ordered to wear turtlenecks and facemasks whenever out in public, so not a speck of the rash could be witnessed. Since I flew into Narita three days ago, I hadn’t seen a single mouth besides my own in the hotel’s bathroom mirror. Until now, when the giddy cartoon-like creatures smacked their lips before me, popping bubbles through thick magenta gum, without a care in the world.
The rest of the train was doused in clear, synthetic white, yet these girls before me, they were luminescent, every shade of a thriving magical tree.
For how much I stared at them, they didn’t appear to notice me. Everyone in Los Angeles warned me I’d stick out in Japan like a sore thumb, towering over the homogenous society in shocking ways. Nevertheless, the local people hadn’t deemed to pay me any priorities, having much more serious urgencies to worry about than a tall Caucasian man in their midst.
The train slowed to a halt as we arrived at Meiji-jingumae Station. My stop.
“Sumimasen, sumimasen, sumimasen,” everyone mumbled around me in muffled tones as they aimed to leave the car before I had the chance to escape it myself. I followed after them, passing by the two young girls as I adjusted my facemask slightly so I could breathe more freely.
As the throng of civilians sped past me, I remained on the platform for a moment longer, pulling the map of the city out from my pocket so I could figure out where in Harajuku I was supposed to meet Akemi. Jack, my managing editor, had organized our meeting, so she could serve as my translator, leading me to the man whose account would serve as the basis for my story.
It’d taken three days to find anyone willing to assist with the article I was writing, in a city of nearly fourteen million people. And it’s not like the Los Angeles Times was a small newspaper with limited resources. Since the Japanese government was barely letting anyone into the country, Jack had decided it was best if I came alone.
Regardless of how this affliction was spreading—in whatever number it was actually occurring—people were scared. And how could I blame them? Whenever we thought we’d found a translator, they would immediately back out when we told them what our story was about. This wasn’t meant to be an insignificant piece. After all, we were going to speak to the first man who had been diagnosed with the ailment, the condition they were calling rustamoren.
Leaving the station, I clambered up multiple sets of stairs, their pristine angles repetitive, shining crisply, as if they had just been recently swept. I could smell the scent of fresh berries, even through my facemask, but none were in sight. The Tokyo Metro was an otherworldly place, eons removed from the gritty New York City subway I had grown up using. It was so clean. There wasn’t a single piece of trash to be found along the pathway I followed up to the street, where I emerged into an enormous crowd that was waiting for the crosswalk signal to transform itself into a beacon of another meaning.
A foot above the rest, I noticed how the people around me seemed to be silent, unmoving, still. I wasn’t sure if this was how people in Japan always acted, or if they were limiting their social interactions due to the abundance of barriers currently in place, those both physical and unknown.
Along the streets of Harajuku, where high-end shops dripped with glitz and glamour, I walked through the horde, regularly checking my map to make sure I was still heading toward where Akemi was supposed to be waiting. Girls in fluffed-up furry ponchos with light shades of rouge smeared underneath their eyes skittered past me as young men in sleek black trench coats and flat-rimmed hats trudged along the sidewalks as if they were on their way to war. The only continuous thread between those around me was the unrelenting addition of facemasks and turtlenecks to every outfit, its regularity still startling to me.
I was wearing the required ensemble myself, even though it felt so alien. We all looked like doctors about to perform surgery, in a chilly operation room where scrubs weren’t required.
Anxious about my meeting with Akemi and the interview that would shortly follow, I quickened my pace, finally arriving in front of the tea shop where she told me she’d be waiting, a woman in an orange cowboy hat waving at me frantically as I approached.
“You must be Akemi?” I asked her nervously, as my lips brushed up against the cloth blocking my mouth from the world.
“Yes, of course!” She muttered, her mask unable to hide the glee that had ignited in her eyes. “I hope you found me without any trouble?”
“It was no problem at all, your metro makes it very easy to get around,” I admitted to her, my thoughts drifting back to the rule-breaking girls I’d witnessed on the train, wondering where they were headed, and if they would end up being taken into custody.
“Shall we?” She asked, wasting no time as she brought my thoughts back to the present, motioning I follow after her. She knew exactly how to get to Mr. Okita.
We weaved through those gathered on the sidewalks, a great number of them milling about in congregations, staring into the unknown as if they had nowhere to go. Following a shifting swath of citizens who were hurriedly moving forward, we made our way to the outskirts of Harajuku, where Mr. Okita and his wife resided. Although we got separated a few times along our route, I was always able to find Akemi again, her orange cowboy hat sticking out like a floating tangerine.
When we arrived before the modest townhouse where the man who the media had dubbed as Patient Zero lived, I breathed a deep sigh of relief, the mask suctioning up against my lips, causing me to gag.
This was really happening.
“They know we’re coming,” Akemi said, reassuring me, as if she could clearly notice the panic written all over my face, even though she could only see it from the eyes up.
“You explained everything, right? The story, who I am, what we’re trying to achieve?”
“Yes, they know all of the details.”
“Did they seem worried?” I asked.
“We only had one phone conversation, but they did not express any major concerns.”
“It’s just...” I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves. I had never gotten so worked up before an interview. Then again, I’d never been tasked with covering such a massive story, of going right to the source, the beginning of where the colors had started to spread. “This is the first interview he’s granted to anyone. It makes no sense.”
“Mrs. Okita told me their phone was broken for a while. I think your paper just happened to be the first to get through to them.”
“What?” I asked incredulously.
Akemi didn’t respond to my inquiry, instead moving forward to ring the buzzer beside the pale, opaque door.
Behind that clouded glass, waited the very man I’d traveled thousands of miles to see.
Could he explain anything? Better yet, did he even want to?
The door slid open, revealing an attractive Japanese woman in her seventies, a crisp kimono covered in vibrant floral patterns wrapped delicately around her flesh.
She was not wearing a facemask. And as it could clearly be seen, she did not appear to have caught the affliction. I was shocked, as she was sure to be in constant contact with her husband, whose rustamoren was highly contagious. I knew I was putting myself at risk by coming here, but I had long ago decided the story was too good to pass up, regardless of the consequences.
Akemi and Mrs. Okita began conversing in Japanese, and after a few seconds, we were welcomed inside.
Burning sticks of incense were littered about the entryway, the aromatic perfume swimming up my nostrils, permeating the white cloth that passed over the mountains of my face, where it eventually ended on either side, clinging to my earlobes.
We quickly took off our shoes and followed Mrs. Okita into the living room, Akemi murmuring to me that the man we had come to speak with was waiting for us there.
Mr. Okita was sitting on the floor, with his legs crossed in front of him, his eyes closed, his hands lying limply in his lap. He wore a simple white tunic, his frail physique putting off an air of stability, as he remained unmoving, seemingly at peace.
“I don’t understand,” I whispered aloud, and while only Akemi turned to look at me, I knew Mr. And Mrs. Okita had heard my uttered proclamation of confusion as well.
I moved closer to where Mr. Okita rested, wanting to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. The rash that should have covered him from his shoulders to just beneath his nose had inexplicably disappeared. There appeared to be nothing wrong with him whatsoever.
I swiftly turned back toward Akemi and Mrs. Okita, and watched in stunned silence as they conversed. Akemi translated as the conversation suddenly opened up and converged between the three of us, twisting in the space around where we existed, as the entirety of Japan convulsed in some kind of lackadaisical chaos in the shadow realm beyond.
I drowned in disbelief.
As the incense continued to burn, I ripped the mask from my face and let the air enter my nostrils, my mouth, and my lungs.
It all permeated my face.
The smell wasn’t any stronger than it’d been previously, but I felt as if for the first time since landing at the airport, I could finally breathe.
I pulled the audio recorder out of my pocket and switched it on. “Ask him what happened. Ask him when the rash disappeared, how he’s feeling, if his wife ever developed it, if he’s told his doctors–”
“I can only ask so many questions at a time,” Akemi told me, earnestly.
I nodded, taking a seat before Mr. Okita, awkwardly crossing my legs in a similar fashion as I allowed myself to merge with the cold stone floor. His eyes were still closed, and he had yet to utter a single word. The man had barely moved since we entered the room, but as Akemi spoke to him in Japanese, his ears perked up, his responses coming in balanced tones as his succinct phrases were delivered, and then translated so I could comprehend what was being said.
“He says when he woke up this morning the rash had left a residue on his sheets, it had started to brush off, so he took a wash cloth to it and it all crumbled off, like rust being sanded off a steel pipe.”
“That’s what he says it looked like. The burgundy color of the rash had turned an orange shade overnight apparently,” Akemi explained.
Mr. Okita opened his eyes for the first time, finally taking in the scene before him, immediately pointing to her hat and muttering something further, taking no real notice of me sitting three feet before him.
Akemi laughed. “He says it was a like a dark shade of my hat, mixed with browns.”
“And how is he feeling?”
I waited as Akemi asked him my query.
“He says he feels absolutely fine.”
“Better than fine, I feel marvelous,” Mr. Okita suddenly said in perfect English.
“Wha–” I choked on the air, the taste of jasmine incense reaching down my throat.
“I can’t explain it, but somehow I can understand everything you’re saying,” he admitted, the uncertainty in his eyes wavering as he looked at me for the first time, taking me in.
“I thought both you and your wife only spoke Japanese?” I asked him, turning around to look at Mrs. Okita, who appeared just as confused as I did.
“I’ve never spoken more than a few simple words of English. But since the moment the two of you came into my home, I’ve been able to understand every word you’ve said. I wasn’t sure if my mind was playing tricks on me, so I waited until the conversation progressed a bit. I’m assuming if you can understand me, I really am speaking a language I’ve never learned.”
“You’re speaking English as if you’ve been speaking it your entire life,” I said to him. “You don’t even have an accent.”
“Well then, that explains the rust,” Mr. Okita said quietly.
“The rust?” I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Rustamoren, that’s what they’re calling it right? It appears the English name has an even more direct correlation to the affliction than I’m sure those who named it back in the States could have ever realized. Besides the rash itself, its shifting colors, there were no other symptoms, right? No pain reported by anyone else who acquired it?”
“Yes, apparently, but–” I continued, Akemi had begun to slowly move away from where the two of us sat conversing. Her services were no longer needed.
“I suppose your story just got all the more important, Mr. Los Angeles. You can add this to your interview with me, reporting on the first real symptom, the first side effect, a major revelation about the disease, if that’s what you want to call it.”
“You’re saying that rustamoren caused this, that the rash leads to–”
“Acquiring a new language? Becoming bilingual? Who knows, maybe I can communicate in every language on Earth now. I’m sure we will find out more as the others who’ve caught it begin to rust, and are born anew.”
“You think this is going to happen to everyone? That anyone who has the rash will be able to understand a new language when they reach this stage?”
“I suppose we will find out in due time,” Mr. Okita said, unexpectedly closing his eyes again without warning.
Before I could ask another question, the buzzer sounded. Mrs. Okita said something under her breath and hurriedly shuffled to the front door to answer it.
“What the hell is going on?” I turned to ask Akemi, unable to censor my language even though I knew Mr. Okita could understand me.
“I have no idea,” she said, appearing just as confused as I’m sure I looked.
I heard a commotion at the front door, the chattering of high-pitched voices speaking excitedly in Japanese. Deciding to figure out who it was for myself, I stood up from the ground, heading toward the entryway. Just before I was about to turn the corner to see whoever had interrupted my interview, Mrs. Okita burst back into the living room, with two young girls in her company.
It was the girls from the metro.
The unmasked adolescents, the sugarcoated maniacs I thought I’d never see again. Somehow, they’d followed me.
“Akemi, ask these girls what they’re doing here.” I wanted answers, and I wanted them quickly.
She did as I requested, moving from the other side of the room to where I stood across from Mrs. Okita and the girls. The taller girl, who was dressed in a deep shade of purple, responded to her, the other remaining silent, her eyes rolling around in their sockets as if she were drunk.
“She says they’re just here to visit. She claims Mr. And Mrs. Okita are her grandparents, and that Mr. Okita asked for her and her friend here to come see them this afternoon.”
Somehow, I almost found this claim harder to believe than the absurd pronouncement Mr. Okita had made about his newly found speech only minutes earlier. In the biggest city in the world, a single family was all that seemed to matter.
“Ask Mrs. Okita if it’s true.”
After changing my words from their harsh English origins into fluid Japanese, Akemi turned back to me.
“Apparently it’s true. She is their granddaughter.”
I immediately sped back over to Mr. Okita, the old man still sitting on the floor, his eyes open again, his gaze drifting over to the face of his granddaughter who remained where she was.
“Why did you ask your granddaughter and her friend to come here? Didn’t you know we would be in the middle of this interview?” I questioned him, unable to hide how distressed I was. This was quickly becoming the messiest interview I’d ever held, and the repercussions of what it could all lead to if what Mr. Okita was claiming turned out to be true seemed like some new unfathomable reality.
“Help me up,” he said, not answering my questions, but instead extending out his arm so that he could use me as a balancing point to pull him off the floor.
Once he was upright, standing beside me, he motioned for his granddaughter to come over to where we were in the middle of the room. She followed his beckoning, her friend and grandmother remaining rooted to the spot next to Akemi.
At our side, Mr. Okita positioned his granddaughter before him, so they stood as one entity, his hands moving to rest on her shoulders as he began his explanation.
“When I woke up this morning, and the events of what I’d explained to you earlier occurred, I called my daughter and told her to send over Kimiko here for a visit. I told her to bring a friend. And most importantly, I ordered her to take away their facemasks. I made her promise me they would come the entire way from their neighborhood to this house, without anything covering their faces.”
“But why would you do that? They could have been thrown into quarantine for weeks,” I persisted, wondering if this man had simply lost his mind.
“It’s important to be unafraid in times of such madness. My rash was gone, I felt fine, and although I didn’t discover it until you arrived, I knew I was about to be blessed with something wonderful because of all this.”
“You think rustamoren has blessed you?”
“But of course,” Mr. Okita went on. “My daughter didn’t want to send her child out into the city without any protection, but I told her how my rash had disappeared, that I was convinced everything would be okay. And she trusted me. She’s always trusted me.” Kimiko looked up at him then, extending her neck so that her head tilted back, her eyes reaching toward the ceiling, aiming to catch a glimpse of her grandfather behind her.
It was rather obvious she had no idea what he was saying.
As Kimiko turned to look at me, a golden burst of pigmentation bloomed over her face, appearing as a startling concentration of color in the center of her chin before spreading out toward her nose and unseen collarbones.
Her grandfather’s actions had caused her to catch it.
Unabashedly, I sighed.
Would she be okay?
Noticing my reaction to what was happening, Mr. Okita twisted Kimiko around by her shoulders, so she faced him. Seeing her newly acquired hue, he cried out, not in shock, but with glee.
In that moment, I tried to convince myself he was insane.
I wanted to leave, to run away, to get the hell out of Tokyo, to never come back to Japan.
But I stayed, I finished the interview. None of it more singular than those first few minutes that changed my perspective on everything I thought I knew.
We were wrong.
And in the days that followed, when everything Mr. Okita predicted came true, I realized something I thought I’d never believe.
Not every disease has to be a curse.
Even when its symptoms are misunderstood, unknown, unidentified.
Some afflictions can set you free.