“Please, not a dead end!”
I gasped for air, still running as fast as I could, my chest aching from inhaling the cold winter wind.
I forced myself to hold my breath for a second, in spite of my lungs protesting, as I listened intently. No sound of footsteps behind me anymore, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. I continued as quickly as my skinny legs allowed me, as a battle was raging inside my mind. Should I just toss the plastic bag over the fence? Then I could at least try to pretend I was innocent if they caught me.
But the security cameras! There were cameras everywhere these days and definitely inside convenience stores. And throwing it away now would mean it would have all been for nothing.
I clutched the bag closer to my stomach with my left arm and continued, my heart pounding even harder from equal shares of exhaustion and fear.
A few more steps and then, “Yes!” I exclaimed, triumphantly clenching my fist, as my doubts disappeared. It was just a sharp bend!
I slowed down just enough to smoothly turn the corner, like a road racer tilting his bike in the last curve before speeding towards the goal.
But instead of reaching safety on the other side, I bumped right into the solid chest of a man wearing a dark blue uniform.
“Hey!” he shouted and immediately grabbed me with gorilla hands, wrestled me down and pressed my face against the cold pavement. He then placed his knee on my back and bent my arm upwards. Trying to move would have dislocated my shoulder. Knowing it was all over, I didn’t even resist.
“I got him,” the policeman said on his intercom, and a few moments later, the two officers who had been chasing me appeared, panting heavily.
The three of them stood me up against the wall and formed a half-circle in front of me, their faces just a meter away. I knew there was no way past them as I peered through my light blond hair hanging down over my face, a hair bleaching kit being one of the few things I had allowed myself to spend money on recently.
“What’s in the plastic bag?” the officer who had wrestled me down said, apparently the most senior of them, now in a surprisingly soft voice.
I handed it to him in silence.
“Two tuna rice balls, a chocolate bar…and a small bottle of deodorant spray,” he said out loud as if to officially document the content, and then looked searchingly straight at me.
“That’s all you stole?”
His deep-set eyes, thick, black eyebrows, and square-shaped, bony face would have scared me hadn’t it been for his mild, almost soothing voice.
“How old are you, lad?” he asked. I imagined he would have had the same look on his face if I had been a cornered and frightened stray dog that he was trying to comfort. There was something about him that reminded me of my music teacher in junior high school who had saved me when my bullies attacked me for wanting to become a stage actor, something they believed was only for girls. Real men worked in the forest or at construction sites!
“Sixteen,” I said.
“Where are you staying?” he continued with the same warm tone, his face breaking into a curious smile. I assumed he had already guessed from my dialect that I wasn’t originally from Tokyo.
“Different places. It depends…” I said, still trying to catch my breath.
“Friends’ places. Sometimes manga-cafés. Pretty much anywhere…” I said, nodding towards the bushes at the side of the alley.
The man fell silent and looked inside the bag again, before turning his eyes back at me.
“What do you usually eat?”
I shrugged my shoulders and looked away.
“Where are your parents?” he continued, as the other officers quietly looked on.
“Not around…” I replied, hardly audibly, continuing to avoid his gaze.
“Do you work?”
This time I thought I detected real concern in his voice, as if he had put all the pieces of the puzzle together and now fully understood the predicament I was in.
“I used to work at a café, but it’s closed now. You know…Covid,” I said.
Almost half-a-year had passed since I left my home in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, against the will of my father. Taking over his small forestry business had never been my thing. I had a different calling, but he wouldn’t even listen. He was a man of few words, but he had other, much worse ways of letting me know he didn’t approve. I was now on my own, out of money and apparently also luck.
Working at the café had provided me just enough money to make ends meet and pay for the train fare to auditions. But after it shut down, it had been impossible to find a new job, and I was mostly living on the streets. Things were in fact even worse than I wanted to let on to the officer. “Staying at friends’ places,” had been a lie. I had only made a few friends in Tokyo, also young aspiring stage actors like myself, and they were in dire straits just like me and had already gone back to their hometowns. I was on my own in my desperate situation, but I was by no means willing to give up on my dream.
“We need to take you down to the station,” the man said, looking over at the youngest officer who immediately rushed off.
After a minute, a police car pulled up and I sat down in the back seat. When the red lights came on, that was when the shame came washing over me relentlessly, and I was defenseless against my own feelings. What have I done? Sixteen years old, escorted away in broad daylight in a police car like some bank robber or crazy serial killer!
After a few skillful turns on the narrow back streets, we made it out on the main street packed with people out doing their weekend shopping. Or was it weekend? I realized that I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. Hunger doesn’t care which day of the week it is.
As we stopped at the traffic lights in front of Shibuya 109 Department Store, this mecca for fashionistas, youngsters looking much like myself were trying to get a peek inside the car with phones ready in their hands, enjoying the spectacle and laughing with their friends. I bent my head down until my neck hurt and buried my face in my hands, imagining I would be all over the news the next day. What if my mother saw me now, wherever she was with that new man of hers? Would she even care? I pushed the thought out of my mind and pulled my hood over my head.
When we turned into the garage inside Shibuya Police Station, I gathered courage and made an effort to steady my voice, “What will happen to me?”
“Well, you’ll get something to eat to start with,” the officer with the thick eyebrows said from the front seat, turning towards me.
“Don’t worry, lad. We’ll sort you out,” he added with a warm smile and patted me on the knee before he stepped out of the car.
“Just don’t send me back home…please!” I begged, my voice breaking up, but the door had already closed, and I realized it was all over for me.
“Call the Shibuya Youth Shelter!” I heard the officer say to someone outside.
I sighed in relief, and large tear drops started rolling down my face.
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