The neon lights of Electric Town flickered in the dusk as Hal stepped into the alley to follow Linda. Although it was a relief for Hal to escape Chuo-dori Street with its throngs gathered outside of robot stores and gaming centers, he was disappointed to find himself alone. Linda was already gone. Hal shouted her name into the darkness as a grey-coated cat scurried towards a boarded-up building.
After ten days in Tokyo, Hal had finally spotted Linda emerging from a pachinko parlor: dark glasses, pale lips, raven hair. She was originally scheduled to spend a month conducting research on the local gaming culture for her thesis. She had stopped answering Hal’s texts soon after her arrival and missed her flight back to the states six weeks ago.
Hal had no idea if Linda had gotten herself into trouble or had simply blown him off after he had been skittish about her suggestion of moving in together when she returned. For all Hal knew, she was squatting in the dilapidated building at the end of the alley, an old warehouse with shattered windows and a door that had fallen off its hinges.
Hal stepped inside and discovered that the building did have one inhabitant: a man seated on a cinderblock with a computer on his lap. Staring at the gap where a window had been, the man typed on the keyboard as he looked at the haze of neon flickering across the alley, an iridescent mist in the darkness.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude,” Hal said. “I was just trying to find someone.”
“You’re welcome to come in and rest. There’s no use rushing after her.”
Hal was surprised to be greeted in English. He was trying to determine whether the accent was more academic New England or cosmopolitan Great Britain as the grey Siamese cat got settled on a checkered blanket beside the cinder block.
“You look familiar,” Hal said as he stepped forward.
The man’s face remained motionless as he typed—long nose, stubbly chin, baggy eyes under a patch of short greying hair. The kind of earnest exhausted countenance you might find in an author’s photo on a book jacket.
Where had Hal seen it before? As much as Linda was obsessed with gaming culture, Hal was consumed with modern Japanese literature. In fact, Hal and Linda first met at a university symposium on character development in Murakami’s later works.
“Does something concern you?”
Hal was about to reply when it occurred to him that the question had not emanated from the writer’s mouth but from a spot several feet below the motionless head.
“Don’t mind him,” the cat said from the checkered blanket. “He’s quite involved in his new novel. Won’t be done for some time.”
The Siamese licked its paw as Hal leaned forward and squinted.
“Do you feel uncomfortable having a conversation with a cat?”
Hal was not sure what to say as he watched the tiny mouth opening and closing.
“Feeling a tad awkward is quite understandable,” the cat said. “It is much more unusual for a cat to speak to you in the West than in Japan.”
The writer continued typing. Hal had read several novels with talking cats but had never entertained the possibility that these characters were true to life, that the dialogue was the result of mere transcription.
“So talking cats are common here?” Hal finally said.
“Talking cats are found everywhere.” The cat stretched on the blanket. “Japan is one of the few places where it is not unexpected for humans to talk back.”
“I could give the reasons, but that’s not why you’re here, is it?”
Hal scratched his chin. The conversation had already begun to lose its strangeness. Or, to put it more precisely, the strangeness of the conversation had already been subsumed into the greater strangeness of Hal’s jet leg, the fact that he had barely slept since he first boarded the flight to Narita.
“You’ve come for the woman, haven’t you?”
“Are you sure she wants to be found? She seems to be quite at home.”
That much was clear. Linda’s face had acquired the sheen of a visage on a movie poster, a portrait of proud indifference.
“You think you love her, don’t you?” the cat asked.
“That’s why I’m here.”
The cat stretched its neck.
“Curious how humans always go searching for love.”
The writer made a soft coughing sound to clear his throat.
“Maybe cats experience love differently,” Hal said.
The cat yawned, revealing a set of teeth that had not been dulled by a lifetime of processed food.
“Perhaps the difference, if there is a difference, is that cats have come to a clearer understanding of what love really is.”
“And what is that?”
The cat licked its paw.
“A useful distraction when you’re done with napping.”
A distant sound echoed from the alley, a soft tapping that could have been footsteps on shattered glass.
“So what you’re telling me,” Hal said, “is that I’ve come all the way to Japan because I’m looking for a distraction?”
The concept was not new to Hal. Linda regarded her time warring with digital beasts in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as a holy distraction, when she could uncover her true spirit and join the dance of pixels across a high-definition screen.
“Perhaps,” the cat said. “Or perhaps Tokyo has provided the woman you seek with a more satisfying distraction than you offered.”
The sounds continued to echo through the alley. Hal glimpsed a figure moving between the high walls, a flourish of raven hair in the shadows.
Before Hal could call out to Linda, the cat leapt from the blanket onto the keyboard and then bolted into the alley. The writer stared quizzically at the characters typed by stray paws as Hal leaned out of the window frame.
The cat offered a feral cry as it streaked toward flashes of neon light.
Craig Fishbane is the author of the short fiction collection On the Proper Role of Desire. His work has also appeared in New World Writing, Hobart, the MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket, the New York Quarterly and The Nervous Breakdown.