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Ppaka

Ppaka thinks he’s a frog. Every day he puts on a full-body frog kigurumi, the soft green hairs worn thin like an old beach towel, and opens his bar in Shinbashi. He’s got a few regulars, the ones who come for the little song-and-dance he does when he brings over the drinks, but they stay for the conversation. A frog’s a pretty good listener if you give him a chance.

“Rumor has it Tanaka-san’s been runnin’ that flower shop since the 1840s,” Morimoto grinned red-faced, tapping his empty sake glass on the table.

“Like she’s almost two hundred years old, ribbit?” Ppaka asked, refilling his glass.

“Ashina-san got it in her head that the old lady’s a witch,” the balding life insurance salesman snorted, picking peanuts out of a small dish. “That she used to sell curses, love potions, ogre-making elixirs, the whole she-bang ’til that got too taboo. Now it’s all fancy 5000 yen rose boxes to convince someone to love you. Supply and demand, amirite? At least the witch’s got business sense,” Morimoto leaned forward, spilling some of his warm sake onto the table. “But Ashina-san thinks the old hag’s gotten back into the old business. Thinks she sold her a batch of cursed sunflowers, and that’s why her husband got his student pregnant.”

“Oh, how terrible, ribbit,” Ppaka said from behind the counter.

“You better watch out,” Morimoto gestured at the vase of colorful gerberas near the shop entrance with his chin. “Those suckers might be draining your bank account as we speak.”

Ppaka laughed on cue, taking out a Tupperware of washed shishito peppers from the fridge. He admired their bright green color, that lush grass green that covered the marsh after a long summer rain.

“But I love Tanaka-san’s shop,” he said, tossing the peppers into the fry pan. Hot oil sputtered up, the sizzle filling the small bar. Oil splashed onto his hands, but he paid it no attention. A good frog doesn’t mind a little pain. “She always has the best selection, ribbit.”

Ppaka closes his shop at 5AM and takes the first train of the day back to his house in Ofuna. It’s a long commute, but he likes the quietness of the early morning train, the sleepy gauze still hanging over the streets, the announcements echoing over empty train stations. When he gets home, he passes out on the tatami floor still in his frog kigurumi.

He wakes up at 1PM, pulls on a pair of sweatpants and a clean t-shirt as his frog kigurumi spins in the washing machine, and heads out for a jog. The neighborhood kids recognize him because he sometimes hawks free tissues outside the station in his frog costume, plastic-wrapped packs that advertise his bar and feature “frog wisdoms” like ‘jump as far as you can’ and ‘a lily pad is a great place for a nap.’

The neighborhood adults know him because of the nasty fights he used to get into with his ex-wife. The rocks thrown through windows, cellphones smashed through windshields, laptops dropped from the second floor, just a whole lot of broken glass. A neighbor once found the wife, barefoot outside her house with a watermelon.

“Hi, Urui-san. Happy summer,” she said, handing the old woman the fruit before heading home, tiptoeing over the broken glass near the front door. She’d run off after their third year of marriage, taking his sanity with her.

Before Ppaka met his ex-wife, he was Keisuke Mizutani, a twenty-nine-year-old salaryman selling electronics at the Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara. He knew nothing about frogs or their eternally wet backs and protruding eyes. He woke up at 8AM every day, brushed his teeth for exactly two minutes (he loved his electronic toothbrush), put on his uniform, ate natto mixed into steaming rice with a bowl of low-sodium miso soup, and squeezed into the Keihin-Tohoku Line to get to work. He got along with his coworkers and sometimes got lunch with them at a nearby shop. They were always surprised by how slowly he ate, how he’d nibble pieces of stewed potato or sandwich crusts like a well-mannered mouse. His father had died choking on his own vomit in a back-alley bar, and his mother had subsequently instilled a deep fear of improperly chewing his food. After work, he’d pick up a discounted bento box from the supermarket near the station and went straight home. Most nights, he was in bed by 10PM.

Mizutani met his wife at a go-kon mixer with college friends. She was a Waseda University graduate student from China, and they were the only two people who weren’t drinking that night. He liked how she’d brought her laptop to the bar just in case she needed to do work.

“She’s kinda weird,” his friend warned him after the first round of drinks, noticing his puppy-like stare. “Reiko said she’ll bring her laptop even when the girls all go out to watch a movie ‘just in case.’ None of them even know what she’s so busy working on.”

Hardworking people are difficult to find these days, Mizutani thought, falling fast in love with the young woman.

At the karaoke bar after dinner, the woman excused herself to go to the bathroom when one of the men started slurring through Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and then never returned. Mizutani saw her afterwards in the McDonalds near the train station, laptop open, eating an ice cream cone on her own. He was mesmerized by the look on her face, that shameless private joy. Not wanting to disturb her, he begged his friend afterwards for her email address.

All his friends were surprised when the two got married a year later, holding the wedding banquet in Shanghai where her parents lived. On their wedding night, she’d looked up at him from the hotel bed, eyes still smeared in red eye shadow

“Are you happy?” she asked, placing a warm hand on his cheek.

“If you’re happy, I’m happy,” he said, pressing his face into her neck, as if wishing they could be closer. He fantasized about how people would call her Mizutani-san, his other half.

When they went to the Tokyo ward office to change her family name to Mizutani, the representative was puzzled by their request: “We have no right to change a foreigner’s legal name.” So his wife kept her maiden name. She didn’t want children and he’d never really thought about it either way, so the issue of last names never resurfaced. They had a quiet, peaceful marriage, both going to their respective jobs, taking turns cooking simple dinners, going out to watch movies on the weekend, and occasionally enjoying the warm intimacy of married sex. It was the kind of domestic bliss Mizutani had longed for as a child when his parents fought in the kitchen and he’d wished their vitriolic screams into yellow and blue flower prints on the concrete walls of his bedroom. Everything passes, he thought, losing himself in those colors.

Mizutani never asked what his wife’s job was and she never told him. He only knew that sometimes she’d come home from work without a word and head directly to bed. She’d sleep for fourteen hours straight, barely moving. They’d even bought a separate futon that Mizutani unfurled into the corner after his bath so she could sleep undisturbed on the bed.

Sometimes, Mizutani would open the bedroom door as she slept and stand over their bed, placing a finger under her nose just to make sure she was still breathing.

“Have you ever heard a voice coming from the bedroom closet?” his wife asked one day as they ate from take-out boxes.

Mizutani was a simple man. He’d never read any of the sci-fi or fantasy stories his classmates had clamored about during middle school. No magic wands or secret kingdoms inside a coat-filled closet. But Mizutani was hopelessly in love with his wife which also meant learning to believe in things he once ridiculed.

“No, I haven’t,” he answered. “What did it say?”

His wife simply shook her head and resumed eating.

The next night, Mizutani consulted with Morimoto about what his wife had said.

“Did she say it like a joke?” Morimoto asked.

Mizutani tried to recall his wife’s face as she asked the question, but he couldn’t remember anything but the bright green blouse she’d been wearing, the fly-like earrings dangling from her ears. She’d never been much into make-up, but she’d started wearing a lot more lately, her face perpetually caked in a thick white layer that made it difficult to pay attention to her features.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Have you guys done it recently?” Morimoto asked, forking several strands of pink mentaiko spaghetti into his mouth.

“Done what?”

“Sex,” Morimoto answered, the tiny pink fish eggs clinging to his lips.

“Ah . . . not really. The circumstances aren’t so good for that . . . She’s tired and stressed out most of the time.”

“Do you initiate?”

“I do, kind of. Sometimes,” Mizutani recalled putting a hand on his wife’s hip as she got into bed. The coldness of her skin, the fleshy scar on her arm that she hid behind long-sleeved blouses. She’d turned away from him, apologizing. “I feel bad though.”

“Then that’s it,” Morimoto laughed, slapping the table like he’d just struck genius. “Get some alcohol. Buy some flowers. Make a nice dinner or order something fancy if you don’t want to make it yourself. I promise the second you’re in each other’s pants, you’ll reach an understanding.”

Mizutani’s wife was not interested in sex. She spent most of her time meticulously inputting their bills into a spreadsheet she kept on her laptop and watching mindless celebrity variety shows on TV, their chatter and laughter filling the living room like imaginary house guests. On weekends, she went on long walks and returned with bags of fruits and vegetables that just ended up rotting in the refrigerator. He had no idea where she was getting the produce since she never brought her wallet or phone.

On her birthday, Mizutani bought a fresh mango cake from a French patisserie near the train station, ordered sushi from the Zushi restaurant she liked, and gave her a 8000 yen box of preserved white roses.

They’ll look alive for years, his coworker had gushed to him, showing off the item page from a mail-order flower shop where he’s ordered a box for his wife. There were over six hundred five-star reviews for the Hiroo-based shop.

“I hate flowers,” his wife said without emotion, stroking a glycerin-sprayed rose petal between her fingers. The television rattled with studio laughter in the background.

A few days later, Mizutani came home from work to find his wife on the floor of their bedroom. She was holding a knife, translucent squares of minced onion still clinging to the blade from the chopping she’d left behind on the kitchen counter.

“It keeps asking for my name,” his wife said, looking up at him.

“Who?” Mizutani glanced around the empty room at the ruffled bedsheets and unfolded pajamas.

“That thing living in our closet,” she answered, visibly upset he didn’t already know. “The frog.”

“Frog?”

She lifted the knife and Mizutani took a step back. This wasn’t the first time a woman in his family had held a knife toward him. His mother had made a show of waving one around whenever he’d come home late. I was too nice to your father; I won’t make the same mistake with you.

“He said he wants to go . . . inside me.” His wife started crying. “That he won’t let me go until I give him my name.”

Mizutani fished out a flashlight from the drawer. Then holding his wife’s hand tightly, they ventured into the closet to confront this name-stealing frog.

The closet was filled with her shoes and their winter clothes, neatly packed into mesh bags. Clear plastic boxes lined the shelves, stocked with old stationery and souvenir keychains from weekend trips to beach towns and ancient temples, memories stowed away, dust-free.

Mizutani beamed the flashlight over an old green sleeping bag rolled up in the corner, the remnants of a disastrous camping trip with his wife’s graduate school classmates.

“Is the frog from REI Co-op?” he teased.

A sneaker went flying into the wall, startling Mizutani.

“He’s in here,” his wife said quietly, holding the other sneaker. Her heavy breathing echoed in the narrow dark space. “It’ll just make him angrier if you don’t believe he exists.”

Mizutani researched his wife’s symptoms and looked for doctors. He offered to go with her to a specialist. So now you think I’m crazy? she accused. Their fights escalated like storms feeding into each other until both lost control. She claimed the creature sometimes came out at night and stood over their bed, watching them sleep, holding a webbed hand to its wet lips when she woke up and saw it. She began sleeping in the living room with a knife nearby at all times. She disappeared for days, claiming she was too scared to go home. She’d break windows and mirrors during their fights, claiming to see the creature’s green face in the glass.

One cool fall morning, as Mizutani folded the laundry, he heard the front door open.

“I made some extra sandwiches if you’re hungry,” he called out, relieved his wife had finally come home.

There was no answer.

When he went out to the living room, his wife’s bag was on the couch, her keys in the porcelain dish by the door. He heard footsteps creaking upstairs, so he climbed the stairs to the second floor. The bedroom door was open. His wife’s brown coat was sprawled on the bed. Her cashmere sweater was on the floor and a few feet away her wool skirt and black stockings. The preserved white roses had been scattered on the floor like bone shavings, the gift box discarded in the trash.

“I’m hungry.”

He swiveled toward the voice, toward the open closet door. Inside, a flashlight beamed over an unfamiliar face.

“Who are you?” Mizutani asked.

“I can be anything you want,” the deep silky voice answered, even though the mouth on the face had not moved. Mizutani could see the vague outline of a body in the dim light, the rail-thin shoulders and bare legs, the dark valley between them. A long slimy tongue snaked out from its mouth. “What do you want me to be? the voice asked. “I’ll be anything you want. If you give me your name. Tell me, what do you want me to be?”

Behind the creature, his wife’s underwear and bra lay in a crumpled pile.

“Where is my wife?” Mizutani asked, taking a nervous step forward.

“Your wife? I am your wife.”

Mizutani took several more steps forward until he was at the entrance of the closet. He studied the creature in the dark, the curves above its ribs, the fleshy scar on its arm. How could he be sure this creature wasn’t his wife? He dipped a hand into his pocket, his fingers brushing the metal center of a boxcutter knife.

Before he could move, the creature reached out, touching his cheek with an icy hand.

“Give me your name,” the voice said, the words seemed to be coming out of his own throat. “I’ll make you happy.”

At that moment, a thought occurred to Mizutani. If he gave this creature his name, would it release his wife? Would that return everything to how it had been? That simple, peaceful life they’d shared before? Would he finally be able to see that look on his wife’s face again like that night all those years ago? Or was joy, like love, something we lose in our desperation to keep it from changing?

He opened his mouth. A breeze blew from the open window, the name snatched from his tongue before he had even spoken it.

At that moment, the man felt something like relief, a warmth encasing his bones. Why had his wife been so afraid? A name, like an incantation, could bind as much as free.

“Thank you for the meal.”

Wind chimes clinked as Ppaka entered the flower shop. The old woman was snipping the stems on a bouquet of purple roses.

“Good morning, Tanaka-san, ribbit,” he said, admiring several vases of sunflowers, their seed-filled discs like the large yellow-lashed eyes of a beast.

“Good morning,” the old woman smiled, putting down her scissors. “Would you like your usual?”

“If you don’t mind.”

Ppaka’s eyes widened with anticipation as she reached behind the counter, the sound of tissue paper crinkling and boxes shifting before she pulled out a small amber ball with a fat fly buried inside. It glittered under the flower shop’s spotlights like an ancient jewel.

Ppaka licked his lips.

“Vintage. Fifth-century Indonesia. I’ve been keeping this one for a while,” the old woman said, ringing up the cost on the register.

“I’ll have to get a good wine for the meal,” Ppaka said, taking out his wallet and passing her his credit card.

The old woman took off her glasses as they waited for his card to process.

“I could also help with that other hunger again. If you’re looking for another . . . ” she said. The door chimed as a middle-aged man came into the shop, looking at the boxed roses behind the glass display case. They were the bestselling item this season.

“No, these names are still good,” Ppaka grinned, licking his lips. “Still so much love left in them, ribbit.”

About the Author

Angela Liu is a Chinese-American writer based in NYC and Tokyo. Her work is published/forthcoming in Strange Horizons, The Dark, Nightmare Magazine, among others. When not writing, she’s taming a feral toddler and navigating the demonic world of IT consulting. She can be found on Twitter at @liu_angela. This is her first fiction publication.