Alice in Christmasland – A puzzle story


It started on Christmas Eve, or rather kurisumasu, and now I’m stuck in a time loop. Or maybe I’m just in Tokyo.

My grandmother was happy when I told her about the Teach-English-in-Japan job. Finally, I was visiting the land of our ancestors. My first night in Tokyo, I stood beneath the blinding lights of Shinjuku station, lost in a trance while a surge of people moved by. It looked like a scene out of the Matrix.

Dinner was a hamburger and soggy fries from a hot food vending machine because I didn’t need to speak to anyone to get it. I don’t think this is exactly the land our ancestors lived in, Baba.

Very quickly, I learned to say kudasai and arigatō and spent a lot time pointing to things I’d searched up on my cell phone. Or I just spoke English. I was here to teach English to a bunch of people who already spoke English.

“We want to talk like native English speaker,” my host explained.

A few months went by. Even though I was getting the hang of Tokyo with all of its quirks and routines, I didn’t anticipate how homesick I would be during the holidays. I was told the Tokyo Christmas Market was a big thing, so I went to get hot chocolate and a bratwurst among the glittering trees. Young girls dressed as elves were passing out candy canes while greeting everyone with a cheerful, “Merīkurisumasu!

This is what Christmas looks like to the Japanese based on pictures and movies, and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong.

I had just finished my Christmas bratwurst when I spied movement in front of an alleyway. It looked like one of those plump, lucky cats you see in sushi places, but it was a real white cat. It was actually smiling. And waving.

I went to get a closer look and ended up following the creature into the alleyway and then…time loop. No matter what I do, it’s Christmas Eve and I end up back in the alleyway chasing after that cat. Was it a cat I saw?

Maneki-neko, explained a man selling reindeer ornaments the first time I emerged from the alleyway. The cat isn’t waving, it’s apparently beckoning. Like “come hither”. That might have been useful to know before I ran after it. Every time around I inevitably go through a series of adventures trying to find that cat, but always end up in the alley, back at the beginning.

Just turn around, you say. Head out the same way you’ve came into the alley. Don’t you think I’ve thought of that? Don’t you think THEY’VE thought of that?

Once I’m in the alley, it doesn’t matter which way I go. I end up back in Christmas town. There are weird Santas everywhere. One of them does a Mission Impossible thing cabling down into the crowd.

I want to go home. And I have to find that maneki-neko to do it.

The man at the ornament stand who told me about maneki-neko always points me to a tea room. I’ve tried not going to the tea room. I’ve tried shoving the vendor into his heavily ornamented Christmas tree in a rage. That gets security chasing me until at some point I duck between two buildings to get away and then…You get how this goes, right?

My cell phone doesn’t work either. Well, it works as a cell phone should. I’ve tried calling my host family. My Tokyo friends. I called home to Wisconsin, begging them to send someone from the embassy, the CIA, the United Nations. Nothing anyone does can get to me before everything resets.

I’ve Googled time loops. The results were not helpful.

This time around, I decide to go to the tea house. It’s green tea, which I didn’t used to like because I thought it tasted like drinking grass, but the stuff is growing on me.

The tea house is very traditional and they whip up a bowl of tea until it’s frothy before bringing to you on a lacquer tray. It’s the only place in the village where I can’t hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat.

After I finish my tea, there’s an old man with thick glasses and long crickety arms that challenges me to a game of Go. It’s a strategy game with white and black stones and the only rule is that you place one of your stones on one of the open corners on the grid that’s carved on the board.

At first, I had no idea how to play, and just tried to make interesting patterns, but after a hundred loops or so, I started getting the hang of it. It’s a strategy game where you try to capture territory by surrounding the other players stones with your own. At the end, the old, crickety man always tells me, “Anata wa ushinatta.”

I looked up the meaning after the first couple times. He’s telling me, “You have lost.”

Today our game goes on for longer than usual. At the end, he bows and his words have changed.

“Watashi makemashitawa.” I have lost.

I understand him without using the translation app on my phone. I must have been stuck in here longer than I thought. When I look down, I can almost make out the shape of a feline face in the white stones.

I step outside into the cold, walking through the lane and events that at first seemed so strange to me and finding an odd familiarity in them now. I pass a snack counter where I’ve tried ordering everything on the menu, even the fried octopus balls.

“Don’t take my fish cake!” an irate girl in a green felt hat cries to her companion. A ridiculous argument is about to ensue which will somehow lead to me being chased into an alley if I stick around. As I hurry away, I’m compelled to repeat the girl’s words out loud: “Naruto o toru na.”

Something feels curious about the sound of it, but I’m pulled away from my thoughts by the sudden flash of a snow-white tail.

I break into a run, weaving through the crowd. The maneki-neko is sauntering toward another alleyway.

“Stop!” I cry. And then I try it in Japanese, with extra politeness: “Chotto matte kudasai!”

The cat stops and turns around to face me. He is smiling.

And that is when I remember a drawing from a children’s book Baba gave me. One of another smiling cat. A cat that was all smile. On the same page, there had been a letter puzzle drawn into the shape of a diamond.

Was it a cat I saw?

I think I have it then, like a pattern of white stones falling into place.

“The world is a warm place,” I tell the maneki-neko, but in his language, the language of my ancestors, and one that is becoming mine too. I speak each syllable carefully.

“Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo.”

The cat grins, eyes closed and content, and beckons me forward.

How does Alice get out of the time loop? (SPOILERS)

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Excerpt Monday: Shinjuku Part 4

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March Madness time! It’s time for Excerpt Monday. For those of you who are new to it, check out the details on the blog: Excerpt Monday. All are welcome, published and unpublished.

Of course I also double booked myself. I’m over at Unusual Historicals blogging about The Art of Chinese Calligraphy. I should have consulted Cindy Pon whose the brush painting artist — but instead I did some research and found some really intriguing information about it that’s actually quite useful for my manuscripts. Come see if you have time (it goes live after 5am) :  Arts and Music: Chinese Calligraphy

This month is part four of my chance encounter story in Tokyo

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Read Part Three

Part Four:

By the time we reached Akasaka station, Scott popped the question. “So when are you leaving?”

“I go back to Seoul tomorrow night.”

We had slowed our steps and pedestrians flowed by on either side of us, all dark-haired and golden skinned. I could blend in and look exactly like one of them. Then again, I couldn’t.

“Any plans?” he asked.

“Well there was the tea ceremony.”

We both chuckled at that.

“Nothing big. I just like to look around.” I shrugged. “I heard the Tokyo fish market is a must see.”

I had a once in a lifetime chance to visit Tokyo and my big plans were to sleep in a capsule and visit the fish market. Thankfully, Scott didn’t laugh at me. He shifted the backpack over his shoulder and looked thoughtful. His short brown hair fell carelessly over his forehead. I liked that. I still do.

“If you want, we can meet here tomorrow morning and take the train,” he offered.

Then he paused. That pause told me things. There was a slight catch in his breath as he waited for my answer. My heart started pounding.

It wasn’t a date. It was too easy to be a date. We both played it out that way. We agreed to meet at nine and then he disappeared up the escalators into the station. Casual. Friendly.

I wasn’t expecting to meet up with Kent and Mari-san for another several hours and it was too early to check in, so I wandered around looking inside shop windows. With Scott gone, I was enclosed in a bubble of silence. I knew about ten phrases in Korean. In Japanese, that number was more like three. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the chit-chat until small talk became impossible.

That was the hardest thing about this consulting job. The people in the office spoke enough English, but every single exchange was hard work. After hours and on weekends, I was left on my own. I had to translate prices in my head, carefully work out each question and listen carefully for answers where only every third word made sense.

Most of the time I didn’t mind being lost and wandering. It made me appreciate what my family must have gone through when they had first come to the U.S. My grandmother was a tiny little bird who only knew about five words in English, but she’d go anywhere and do anything. She was fearless. I decided to take the train to Shibuya Crossing. I could be fearless too.

shibuya_crossingI emerged from the station beneath the glow of three massive digital screens. There is a phrase my mother uses: As bright as the day. The neon glare of Shibuya was as bright as the day. I became nothing but an anonymous speck, caught in an onslaught of people coming from all directions. If I didn’t move, I’d be trampled underfoot. So the tide  dragged me forward while the lights flashed overhead. This was Times Square multipled by ten.

I had this nagging feeling that I should be doing something to make the most of this experience, but I had no idea of where to go or what to do. In the end, I didn’t go into a single store on Shibuya Avenue. I let the crowd carry me while I absorbed its energy, taking in every sign, storefront and restaurant. There were so many images and everything was in startling colors; red, yellow, electric blue. Billboards and icons and moving lights shouted at me. Maybe this was what advertisers had to do to get anyone’s attention in such a densely packed metropolis.

I floated along feeling cosmopolitan for being here and, at the same time, completely clueless. The details fail me. All I remember was the crowd and the lights. I remember feeling as if I had somehow been transported into Blade Runner. I stood there, with the heart of Tokyo beating around me, and it was like nothing else in the world.


March EM links:

So, to kick it off, your hosts:

Bria Quinlan, Rom Com (PG13)
Alexia Reed, Urban Fantasy (R)

Joining us this week:

Leslie Dicken, Historical (PG 13)
Victoria Dixon, Fantasy (PG 13)
Jeannie Lin, Contemporary romantic elements (PG 13)
Shawntelle Madison, Paranormal Romance (PG 13)
Debbie Mumford, SFF (PG 13)

KB Alan, Erotic Paranormal Romance (R)
Stephanie Draven, Fantasy with romantic elements (R)
Cate Hart, Paranormal YA (R)
Jeanne St. James, Interracial Menage (R)
Ali Katz, Historical (R)
Danielle Yockman, Steampunk (R)

Sara Brookes, Contemporary Romance (NC 17)
Christa Paige, ContemporaryRomance (NC 17)
Mary Quast, Contemporary Romance (NC 17)