A troubled girl confronts her personal demons in this time-travel thriller alternating between present day and 19th century Japan.
No one knows how to handle Reiko. She is full of hatred; all she can think about is how to best hurt herself and those people closest to her. After a failed suicide attempt at her home in Seattle, Reiko's parents send her to spend the summer with family in Japan, hoping she will learn to control her emotions. But while visiting Kuramagi, a historic village preserved to reflect the nineteenth-century Edo period, Reiko finds herself slipping backward in time into the nineteenth-century life of Miyu, a young woman even more vengeful than Reiko herself. Reiko loves escaping into Miyu's life . . . until she discovers Kuramagi's dark secret and must face down Miyu's demons as well as her own.
About the Author
Lindsay Smith is the author of Cold War-era espionage novels Sekret and Skandal, as well as the fantasy novelDreamstrider. She writes on foreign affairs and lives in Washington, DC.
Read an Excerpt
A Darkly Beating Heart
By Lindsay Smith
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2016 Lindsay Smith
All rights reserved.
Uncle Satori says mastery is a well-worn path. (At least, that's how my cousin Akiko translated it for me, though I rarely take her at her word.) If he's right, then I am mastering a path of hatred, carving it deeper every day like the scars along my thighs. I wake up with a hatred that gnaws at me like hunger, and I feed that hatred with Akiko's snores from the other side of the room. I feed it with the sight of my megalith suitcase spewed open beside my pallet, still not unpacked. And with the one unread email clogging my phone's notifications that I can't bring myself to read.
If I carve a path deep enough, then it will become a trench. A grave. Carve it deep enough, and I'll never have to climb out.
In the three months since I arrived in Tokyo, I've made a routine that turns me inside out with exhaustion and keeps my thoughts on their well-worn trail. That's what I came here for — a distraction, something to overload my senses and leave me to my self-devouring mind. No time to think about what came before or whatever might come next. Maybe my parents hoped I'd learn mindfulness here, or obedience, or drive, or at least a goddamned Japanese phrase or two beyond sumimasen — excuse me, forgive me, please pardon me for all the evil I've done. But no, all I've accomplished is that I've filtered my raw hate into something potent, clarified, lethal.
I have mastered the path of hatred, and I know now where it ends.
It ends with my revenge.
* * *
I leave Uncle Satori's apartment with my anger burning through me like a grease fire. The sidewalks of Shinjuku are clean as ever: gray asphalt and crisp white lines and slender concrete fingers of apartment buildings thrust toward a crystal blue sky. Nothing like Seattle, where we smear our lives and our insides across every surface — yarn bombs knitted around statues and trees and signs, used chewing gum crusted against the Market Theater wall, ripe with our saliva and germs. I think that's what my parents have never understood about our life in America: that we're not meant to keep everything locked inside, preserving a uniform façade for everyone else's benefit. Hideki and I lived our lives in a kind of purgatory, halfway between our parents' stonewalled world and the wild, free-range one our classmates inhabited, never able to stretch out fully in either one.
I feed two 100-yen coins into a vending machine and crack open a hot can of Suntory Boss coffee (the boss of them all, I say to myself). Black-clad office workers in modest heels and starched white button-downs join me in an eerie, silent parade — our daily mourning processional. Right on cue, I see my favorite couple, husband and wife, walking side by side, not speaking, not making eye contact, and when we reach the corner, her hand darts toward his for a hasty squeeze before he turns the corner without a word.
I want to scream at them — interrupt our vow of silence. So do it, I imagine Chloe would tell me. Disrupt the status quo. Break free and make everyone know your name.
But it's not yet time. When I get the guts to do it, it's her name everyone will know. She'll be the one to take the blame.
In the subway station, the train arrives with a polite ding. I've fantasized before about flinging myself in front of it, too fast for the white-gloved train pushers to catch. Clog up a million salarymen's morning commutes. But it's useless to throw myself in front of a train as it pulls into the station, as I've learned from my extensive research. The train's already decelerating, and a lot of cities use recessed track wells so the average would-be suicide usually survives, albeit with grievous body blows and broken bones. Anyway, I didn't come here with suicide in mind, though if it serves my goal, I won't dismiss it. These fantasies, for now, are part of the dark need for vengeance beating inside of me. My death has to serve a purpose — make someone else suffer even more.
We all shuffle on, sucked inside like the pristine cars are a massive set of lungs. "Please take care that your typing sounds do not disturb other passengers," the signs implore. I know my black metal playlist is seeping out of my cheap earbuds, but I don't care. The other passengers look away, look down, look anywhere but at me.
I close my eyes and sink into the dark forests and ghost-filled castles of the black metal songs as though they're a sludge, pulling me under. This playlist is all Chloe — it keeps my wounds nice and raw. One night in the summer camp art studios, when we'd been painting our canvases and each other, she snatched my phone to get us some music and declared my half-assed collection of '70s soft rock and classical piano sonatas to be an unmatched tragedy. "Let me fix this for you," she said. I think part of me believed she meant my life. She taught me how to kiss to the aching chords of Opeth and the thrashing drums of Cannibal Corpse and Sleater-Kinney's refined rage.
It's been over a year now since she chewed me up and spit me out. A year since I was dumb enough to believe that she (or anyone) could love a fucked-up, forgettable little girl like me. For ten short weeks at the PNW Summer Arts Camp, I was cool. I was hot. I wasn't Saint Isaac's Preparatory Academy's punch line and punching bag. She showed me that all the tangled-up feelings I had for other humans didn't have to stay inside my head. That I could trail love on her skin and smear hate on the canvas in a vicious dance, hot and cold.
The playlist starts over again. The trains get more crowded as we draw closer to the center of Tokyo: schoolgirls in uniform, holding down their pleated skirts to defend against perverts with camera phones, elderly women in quilt coats with bags of groceries, sneer-lipped kids my age punching away at their (respectfully silenced) handheld game consoles.
After Chloe released my carefully maintained feelings, I left camp and returned home to start school, locking them away again. But I didn't forget that summer before my senior year when I was free. And so when we had our first long weekend in the fall, I hopped a bus down to Portland to see her. Her new girlfriend answered the door.
That's when my Chloe problem really began.
I exit the Shibuya station onto the dense neon hub of iconic Tokyo. Maid cafés, hyperactive fashion shops, pachinko parlors, karaoke bars, and all the latest electronics advertised on retina-scorching five-story screens, with the scent of Asahi beer and boiling ramen stock drifting over it all. Shibuya is what Westerners think when they think of modern Japan. It's bright, it's shiny, but still there's a scrim of silence laid over everything (the slot machine parlors blaring J-pop being the sole exception) and order, always order, even in the platform vinyl boots and gaunt ikemen cute boys. I reach the epicenter, the Shibuya scramble crosswalk, where a dozen peninsulas meet, crammed with pedestrians all waiting for traffic to stop so they can cross at once.
I plow my way through the orderly lines of pedestrians the moment the light turns. Maybe someday the streetlights will malfunction, and all the intersecting streets will be green at once and everyone will get crushed in the center of colliding cars.
I reach Satori Graphics, 4F, as the sign reads in front of the narrow concrete building. Nominally, I work in my uncle's design firm. The job was part of my parents' stipulation for allowing me to defer college to go "find myself" or "wait for a spot on Rhode Island School of Design's wait list to open up" or whatever lame excuse I used. None of the explanations mention what happened to Hideki — the real reason they let me come to Japan at all.
It's a small business, fewer than thirty employees, and we mainly design websites, catalogs, fliers, menus, and signs for other small businesses around Tokyo. Mostly, though, it seems to serve as a halfway house for weirdo creative types who couldn't hack it on Japan's notoriously brutal high school and college exams or refused the typical salaryman work-as-life system.
I'm a "layout assistant" since I've refused to do serious artwork after what happened with Chloe. I place all the nontext graphical elements that Kenji, our junior illustrator, designs, then Mariko, the junior copywriter, fills in the Japanese because I've still barely learned a handful of Japanese characters. My cousin Akiko, who merits her own office because she's the owner's daughter, works as our junior team's "project assistant." Apparently that means her job is to nag the rest of us while she browses fashion sites, manages her not-so-budding J-pop lifestyle empire, or sneaks off with her boyfriend.
"Good morning, Reiko." Kenji peers around his monitor as I flop into my desk chair. "Mm, I take it you beat Aki out the door again," he says in English, then drums the butt of a black Sharpie against his lips.
"You know how she needs her beauty rest. Gotta snag her shooting star," I say. But the little wrinkle appears between his eyebrows, underneath a fan of black bangs, that always shows up when he doesn't understand. "Rising star," I say. "Because she wants to be a pop star —"
"Right, right." His face eases back into its usual soft smile before he disappears back behind his monitor. "I thought you meant ... mm ... never mind." He pops the cap off of his Sharpie and resumes drawing on a wooden scrap.
Never mind. Everyone's favorite euphemism for "it's too much effort to try to put it in English for you." Which is everyone's favorite euphemism for "I can't believe you've been here four months and still haven't learned more than a few phrases." I gesture to his piece of wood. "What're you working on?" I ask him. "Some sort of viral marketing campaign?"
Kenji pauses; the slender bones of his hand tighten. "Mm ..." He flips the piece toward him, hesitant, but then he extends it underneath our monitors toward me. "It's an ema. A prayer board. You write your wishes on it and hang it up at a Shinto shrine."
I glance at his precise columns of writing on one side, then flip it over to the other side. The ema is triangular, and Kenji's used the shape to draw an elaborate wolfish head on the back. He's a great artist — quick and precise in his work for Satori Design — but here, he's showing a completely new style. It's not just some cartoon corgi promoting a WiFi subscription or a cartoon bunny shilling a sale on dishwashing detergent. These prayers clearly mean a great deal to him.
Another kindling on the pyre of my hatred: people who are still capable of believing. In anything.
"I didn't know you were religious," I say, too casually, as I hand the ema back.
Kenji slips it into the breast pocket of his gray-and-black plaid shirt. "Shinto isn't really — religion, you know. You don't have to get the thing with the water on the head, any of that."
"Right, that," Kenji says. "Visiting shrines and all, it's a tradition. I do it every week."
Like Saint Isaac's, with their weekly assemblies in the smaller chapel of Saint Isaac's Prep. I remember one assembly in particular. Me standing in the front, tears blurring my sight as I read the court-ordered apology. I have come before you all today to beseech you for your forgiveness. I've sinned not only against God, but against each and every one of you ...
"Shinto's just how I grew up. If something's bothering me, or I'm hoping for something, then I go to the shrine and let go of those fears or hopes, whatever emotion it is, give it over to the spirits." He smiles that self-effacing grin that folds shyly back on itself. "Then I can get on with whatever I need to do."
What he needs to do. I've been carving my routine deeper every day, but I'm not making any progress on what I need to do. I need payback against Chloe, against Hideki, against my parents, even against Akiko. Hideki showed me I have to be sure I go far enough. I want a trail of scorched earth in my wake.
"Sounds great," I tell him. But I have my own work to prepare. It's like an itch, burning beneath my skin. I duck my head behind the monitor and carve the path of vengeance a little deeper into my mind.
Akiko staggers in twenty minutes before lunch, comically large sunglasses concealing her hangover eyes. Kenji hurriedly chucks the manga he'd been reading into his bag, and I let my boots slip off the edge of the desk. As usual, she's dressed up for the red carpet, not for another day at the office: fur-trimmed jacket, embroidered skinny jeans, platform boots that ensure she'll tower over the rest of us, and her lightened brown hair set in ringlets that bounce in time with her steps. We're not her intended audience, though — that honor goes to Tadashi, her helicopter boyfriend, and whatever entertainment industry suit he's bribing to invest in the aki * LIFE * rhythm brand.
She says something in Japanese, nothing I understand, but Kenji, Mariko, and Kazuo, a junior sales rep, bob their heads with varying levels of enthusiasm and mutter a few hais of compliance. Then Akiko turns to me and smiles, a vulpine look. "Reiko, I know you are not clever enough to have learned Japanese still, but I was just telling the others that we're going to lunch together today." She pauses to take a sip of coffee. "I have a big announcement to make."
A big announcement. Just what I want to hear. I yank my long black hair into a sloppy ponytail and follow my co-workers back out to Shibuya. Mariko whines that we haven't gone to the pancake café recently, but we find ourselves at the usual ramen-ya. We order at a vending machine at the front of the restaurant: just insert your money and punch the button with the photograph of the soup you want.
We scoot past the row of salarymen in matching suits, all facing the wall like naughty schoolchildren while they slurp their ramen. Mariko slides first into the booth, then Aki heaps her jacket and purse on Mariko, who scrambles to fold them and stack them neatly beside her. I slide onto the bench opposite Mariko. Kazuo slides in next to me, eyes never once lifting from his PlayStation Vita handheld console. I catch a glimpse of a busty sorceress charging a skeletal dragonlord on the Vita's screen. Kenji squeezes in on Kazuo's other side.
"I've landed a job," Aki says, then says it again, louder, when no one responds. "I've landed a job performing at the Kuramagi Cultural Festival. And you're all going to go with me."
Kuramagi. Where's Kuramagi? The others are offering half-hearted congratulations in Japanese, but my pounding pulse fills my ears. I don't want to leave Tokyo. This is where I've mastered my path.
The waitress arrives and drops bowls of ramen down the length of the table, then passes a tray of gyoza, fried pork potstickers, toward Mariko. Aki arches one brow. "Oh," Aki says, "I didn't know you were eating things like that again."
Mariko's teeth catch the collar of her jacket and her head shrinks back, her pudgy cheeks shining with red.
"Anyway, this is a huge opportunity for the aki * LIFE * rhythm empire. I will need everyone's help to make the festival a success. Kazuo?"
Huge opportunity. No. I can't leave. I can't break out of my routine. I squeeze my chopsticks so hard they break.
But they're paying me no mind. Kazuo snaps at Akiko in Japanese, and Mariko giggles, once, into her jacket collar. I start to grin, drawn to their discord like it's blood in the water. If I can get them fighting with each other, then maybe we won't have to leave.
But Akiko's hand shoots across the table in a flurry of lacquered nails and seizes his handheld game. She dangles it right over her deep bowl of ramen. Kazuo cries out, and the sorceress bounces up and down on the screen, her tinny moans thick as the rising steam in the dead silence of our table.
"I need you all to understand that this is a team effort. When we are in my father's office, we are a team focused on the task of creating excellent graphics for his clients. But when you are with me, we are focused on the sole task of building my fan base. We are launching my career. Our careers. Even simple Reiko's. Do not forget that I'm doing this for all of us."
All of us. Another lie. We're playing her media team for extra spending money. She's playing pop star, vlogger, and dispenser of advice on fashion, love, and other topics for which she has zero qualification. Not only do I hate people who believe in things and care about things, but I especially hate people who have a high regard for themselves. And dare to think that others should care about them, too.
Excerpted from A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith. Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Smith. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.