Rent Free

Rent Free

I started seeing a new girl this week, after four years of total isolation from the feminine sex. That was good for me—I was living in a cramped apartment in Minato, cooking for myself every night, and I was beginning to think bad things. Really bad things. Suicide, homicide, double-homicide sui-murder. Things like that. Until one day on the train I worked up the courage to ask some pretty-looking girl with blonde, dyed hair out on a date. She smiled, and accepted. At once, my whole universe had changed. One act of courage, and everything is different!

The other side of unhappiness looks beautiful. It is a foreign field of trees, ponds, immaculately-cut hedges with green and blue vistas, split only by open canals and waterways. It’s a place I’ve lived in pictures, in songs and movies and sounds, but never in real life. This time, I was in it, and it was here to stay.

Erika Fukagawa, that was her name, was twenty-four years old, the same age as me. She was thin, tall as my chin, and she wore bright orange stockings and a black miniskirt. It was October. Her ankles had little pumpkins on them. I noticed those, on the train, and admired them. Festive cheer. Why not talk to her? I asked myself. After four years of silence, why not try to engage a woman, personally, just give it a try?

Now, after my burst of courage on the commuter train, Erika Fukagawa sat across from me in the Shinjuku Station Halloween café, on the fourth floor outside the NEWoMan shops, where the New Woman is born—metrosexual Italian gangsters posed fashionably outside of the makeup and perfume departments. They exposed their hairless chests, covered in fishnets, and vogued like the Madonna. I didn’t quite understand what it was for. Some TV show, I guessed.

Erika and I chatted for a bit over coffee, laughed over our last date, and mentioned how we enjoyed our last kiss. By now, we were on date three, floating through the days with the promise of touch at the end of them.

Thank God, I thought, she liked it, too.

I was nervous about sex, I’ll admit. I haven’t had it in four years. Even if I masturbated beforehand, the odds of it lasting very long were low. I would have to finish, explain to her that it had been a long time, wait for it to come back up again, then go again. There’s no way around it. That’s exactly what I would have to do.

Erika and I talked a lot about anime. She liked it, I didn’t know much about it. And these conversations, about bug-kings who conquered North Korea and slaughtered the human species, and about deities called the Proxies who slumbered on the scorched Earth in darkness until sunlight returned after the nuclear winter, mostly went over my head. Only when Erika brought herself into the picture did everything change.

“I have a Stand, you know,” mentioned Erika Fukagawa casually after a sip of coffee.

I furrowed my brow. “A Stand?”

“You know about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure?”


“Well you should know, around here it’s bigger than Star Wars. Anyway, it’s about metrosexual Italian gangsters who can push their souls outside their bodies, and their souls have special powers, and they fight against each other according to the specific abilities that were imprinted in them at birth.”


“Yeah, it’s like what we do in the real world with words, but if our words could become actual people who embodied everything we say and do. So every person has a different type of soul, or inner person, called a “Stand.” The more powerful your soul, the more powerful your Stand. The more truth you give voice to, the more obvious your Stand’s power is. Some Stands are muscular titans who look like the big, blue God Shiva, some are machines who have really intricate and strange powers, and some are like dogs, even.”

“So, what’s your Stand?”

She smiled. “Well, that’s the thing. I’m one of the weird intricate Stand users. I have a rare ability.”

“Try me,” I said.

“It’s called Rent-Free. And what it is, really, is that my soul is a pink little panda bear with cute eyes, and she clings onto your leg, and once she’s there, she never leaves. Basically, you’ll be thinking about me for your entire life, whether you want to or not, I’ll always exist in your memories. Even if we break up tomorrow, and we never see each other again, you’ll always be longing for me, because my soul lives in your head, rent-free.”

I lowered my cup of tea. Nodding slightly, I swallowed my pride. Any man with a modicum of self-worth would have smiled wryly, stood up, backed away slowly, and left the café. But not me. I didn’t have a single friend in Tokyo. I hadn’t had sex in years. I was desperate for human affection. So, I entertained this oddity, and as soon as my pride went down my throat, I summoned up words.

“Can you not use your Stand on me?” I asked.

She giggled. She looked absolutely gorgeous. “Sorry, no way. It’s an automatic Stand. It doesn’t listen to me at all. You see, thoughts live in my head, rent-free, all the time. I’ve had 'Take On Me' by a-ha stuck in my head for like, six weeks straight. I’m not kidding. I have not had any other thoughts, really, for the past six weeks, other than this song eternally on loop. Do you see what I’m saying? This is the character of my soul. This is my Stand.”

You have to be kidding me. “Rent-Free?”


Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaake ooooooon Meeeeeeeeeee ...

I couldn’t stop thinking about Erika’s inner monologue. I sat on YouTube at two a.m. watching the music video for "Take On Me" after I had had the song stuck in my head all day at work. The livewire sketches had now become a part of my soul, as well. She was an imperialist of the spirit. This was really getting to be a problem. Rent-Free? Could she truly be supernaturally gifted?

I decided to phone a prostitute. I can’t defend the action, or explain it in a satisfying way. In hindsight, I know I wanted to block out Erika Fukagawa with the vague body of the interchangeable feminine. I had lost my own virginity to that vague body, the same one, but still vague, nonetheless.

I dialed up an independent escort I had known from a business function four years back, an older woman, named Kimiko. She was in her late thirties, a really sensual girl, talented. By now she was probably in her early forties. I arranged to meet at a love hotel in Kabukicho. For those of you not in the know, Kabukicho is the red-light district of Tokyo. Hustlers stand on the streets promising you blowjob bars and a sex massage. They’re all rip-offs. Prostitution is illegal in Japan, but with one caveat—anal and oral sex are totally allowed. Only vaginal penetration is illegal.

Due to this loophole, I was able to meet with Kimiko whenever I chose, with no legal repercussions. She would charge me around 50,000 yen, and I would consider it a very expensive date with a woman who visited Japan every couple of years. I made up a casual business relationship, nothing more.

Kimiko was surprised to hear my voice on the phone. I could hear disappointment, disgust, apprehension. I knew what she was thinking. She wished that I had gotten into a relationship and left this world behind. And right after I’d met a nice girl, nonetheless. But Erika Fukagawa creeped me out, and I needed a return to the familiar.

Kimiko met me, and we made love. She was really experienced, laugh lines along her mouth, a woman who probably had a family, maybe kids as well. It’s like Boogie Nights. I kept her for two hours, and it was a fantastic time. With one major difficulty—the entire time, I was thinking of Erika Fukagawa.

This might alarm you. Why would a girl I’ve never slept with, who I’ve only known for a week, be dominating my sexual fantasies while I’m in bed with another woman? Really, why on Earth would that happen? My heart ran ragged with thoughts of the pink panda, clinging to my leg, the little plushie that was “Rent-Free.” I imagined it on my ankle, with hands cupped around my heels. After Kimiko left on the 11 o’clock train, I clicked onto YouTube and watched "Take On Me." Something bad was happening.

That night I had a dream that a slip of green had wormed its way into the pink matter of my brain. A calm, little snake, a poised boy, taking over my thoughts and riding along my synapse stains into every idea that mortared, shot and blasted through their dark electric tendrils. The dream was very vivid. The snake wriggled, underneath my skull, underneath my skin, and gave me a big migraine. A pulsing nerve in the right corner of my head felt like a snake when I touched it. I knew, intimately, that something had been planted inside me. And when I woke, I was horrified. I had to call Erika Fukagawa. I had to get her to stop this immediately.

“I don’t like you anymore,” she said, seething through the phone. I could see her lower lip protruding. “Because you think all women are snakes.”

My gut went cold. Something icy struck my stomach deep inside. “No, no, I-I do not!”

“Yes, you do. I know you think it all the time. Every woman you see is Lilith, every female a Medusa. Don’t call me anymore.”

“No!” I screamed. My heart was a molten stone. I didn’t usually bellow at women like this. “You’re insane, you did this to me.”

“I did this to you? I made you a misogynist?”

“Yes, you did, with your Stand, Rent-Free,” I blurted, feeling like an idiot.

She said nothing. I immediately felt exhausted. I couldn’t say anything either. And I sat with the phone in my hands, dead silent, not even breathing, and she didn’t say a word either. Eventually, I think, she hung up. I dropped the phone, laid down on the bed, and saw her face implanted in my imagination like a rubber stamp dipped in ebony oil and pressed on printer paper.

I slept with many women after I met Erika Fukagawa, and every time I slept with every single one of them, I thought of Erika Fukagawa. It became an enormous problem for me. I would be having sex with a woman I loved, often, and all I could see was Erika Fukagawa in my bedsheets, her yellow curls sprawled out on the bed, her fingers on her lips, eyes rolled back in her head.

It got to the point where I also thought about Erika Fukagawa every time I masturbated. Every sexual experience I had since the day I met her has revolved around her. I haven’t seen her in six years. I don’t even like her. I want nothing to do with her. But the more I try not to visualize her, the more she keeps roaring back like an incoming tide shoveled into the sea.

Erika Fukagawa has become my sole gateway to the feminine body. Every touch I have is filtered through Erika Fukagawa. Eventually, a three-year relationship came to an end because I just couldn’t handle my own thoughts. I was a split person. I was truly in love with this girl, Shusaku Kurogiri, and I wanted to marry her, but the guilt of thinking of Erika Fukagawa every time I penetrated her wracked me red with guilt, then fury. I thought, a few times, of tracking down Erika Fukagawa and killing her.

Alone, desperate and suicidal, I decided to post on a weird relationships subreddit about my experience. I titled the post “Rent-Free.” Within five days, three other men had commented on my post, saying that they too had dated Erika Fukagawa, and that they too had been unable to think of any other woman while having sex. They had all had longtime relationships destroyed by the guilt of being a split-person, imagining Erika Fukagawa while making love to the mothers of their children.

We decided to organize a support group, in Shinjuku, where we had all met and dated Erika Fukagawa. The four of us gathered around on fold-up chairs in my cramped apartment, and before long, four grown men were in tears. We were beside ourselves. But what could we do? We had simply been cursed, and that’s all there was to it. Erika Fukagawa was in full control of our mental substance, our memories, our minds. We had a parasite living in our brains. A serpent running amok in our souls.

We decided, as hard as we could try, that we would track down Erika Fukagawa and make her undo her Stand’s power. And if she couldn’t do it, then we would have to kill her. This part took a lot of talking to resolve. But we concluded that we’d all commit suicide within the year if we had to live the rest of our lives fantasizing about Erika Fukagawa. None of us could have families, raise children, with that kind of guilt. We were permanent cheaters. So, it was all our lives, or hers. A trolley problem. We’d pull the switch and run her down.

We dispatched into the Shinjuku night life and started asking around. For weeks we asked strangers about her, searched for her on social media, Googled her name. Nobody had a clue. She had lived here for upwards of ten years. There was no way that no record of her existence here existed. But her old apartment was vacant, and her landlord didn’t know where she went either. At last, we managed to discover from an immigration officer that she had had her citizenship terminated and was now living in the Unites States. Erika Fukagawa had fled the country, leaving nothing but memories behind. Evil, twisted memories, serpents nested inside pristine apples of shining former bliss.

Every relationship I had broke. Everything I tried to build shattered on the sea wall of cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t keep anything straight anymore. Now I was dreaming about Erika Fukagawa, having sex with her in my dreams. I tried asking her, in my dreams, why she did this to me. I asked her if she could undo her spell. And she said nothing. She just smiled. I shook her shoulders. She just smiled. And then, we made love. I woke up always with semen in my boxers. It was Erika Fukagawa’s semen. She owned my children. She owned everything about me. She had purchased my soul and there were no refunds.

One night, I decided I would hang myself from the ceiling fan. But I couldn’t go through with it. Living rent-free in my head were also images of my father, and my mother, back in Hokkaido. It would start a horrific chain reaction. I knew my father would shoot himself in the mouth if I were to die. I knew, from a very young age, that I was the only thing keeping him alive. Then my mother would probably die of grief, too.

It was either my entire family or her pitiful evil existence. So, I decided I’d test fate and make a trip to the United States. Four days. I’d fly to New York, then to Los Angeles, and then to Austin, Texas. I’d ask around. I’d search the web. And if I couldn’t find her, then I’d kill myself. In America, where my parents would never find out. I’d send them a letter explaining that I’d left Japan and gotten hitched to a beautiful young woman who lived in Utah. I’d apologize profusely, say that I could probably never see them again, but let them know that I was seriously, deliriously, happy. They’d accept that. I was thirty-nine years old. It was time to grow up.

So, I filed for a long weekend at the Mazda showroom where I gave the last twelve years of my life, packed my bags, slung my jacket over my shoulder, and took Japan Airways Flight 667 to JFK International Airport, in a last-ditch effort to save my life.

I knew, as soon as the plane touched American runway, that I wouldn’t be returning to Japan until I had killed Erika Fukagawa. I phoned my boss and quit my job. I cancelled my return ticket. I had about eight-hundred thousand yen, or less than ten-thousand American dollars, in my bank account. I figured I would either die of starvation after I spent all my money, or I would find Erika Fukagawa. Both were acceptable outcomes to me.

I wandered the landscapes of America to little avail. I walked the dark halls of Manhattan, the sprawling blazing cracked lands of L.A., and even saw the Grand Canyon on my way into Utah. I rented a car, after taking the bus from L.A. to Utah, and I drove north, up into the sparsest lands imaginable, the plentiful pool of untrammeled nature, the land of elk and fish and stone. I loved it.

Soon, after I was down to my last thousand dollars, I began to forget about Erika Fukagawa. Really, I stopped seeing her in my head. Maybe because I had lost all my lovers. That was a possibility. The sex I wasn’t having was also the Erika I wasn’t seeing. And I descended, into total asceticism, no sex, no drinking, not even masturbating, until I approached something of a realization.

It occurred to me, in a great pale field of daisies, that the “me” which conjures voice and images inside my head, the source of all my anguish, the origin point of thought leaking into this world, was not the same thing as my body, as the “me” that was sitting in this field right now. In fact, I was always a split person. I always had a snake in my brain. I was always a serpent, weaving through memories, I was always thinking.

Do you know what it’s like to always be thinking? I’m thinking about friends I stopped seeing ten years ago. I’m thinking about girls I slept with in high school. I’m grasping at every loose thread in my life and trying to turn it over into something I can hold. But it always runs away from me, the voice I think with is always a two-faced bastard.

One day, sitting beside a freshwater lake in Montana, that voice revealed itself, finally, as an outsider. There was no pink panda at all on my foot. The Rent-Free spoke to me, and it was always my own soul.

Look, kid, I know you think you and I are the same, but we’re not. The voice reading this story right now is not exactly “you.” It’s a part of you, maybe, but it isn’t really “you.” It can tell you shit you don’t wanna hear. You know it’s true. If I were really you, wouldn’t I just feed you what you wanna hear?

“You’re right,” I blurted, to no one in particular.

I am the wellspring, the mana, the source of thoughts and images. But I was bound to you at birth. All human beings are born without an inner voice, without this neurotic spirit. We are bound to your brains by a Demiurge, and as you grow older, slowly, as the animal purity of infancy retreats, like a subtle tide, we sweep in with wisdom and age. Now you have neurosis.

“Who are you?”

Fairies, demons, whisperers, it makes no difference.

“But without you, w-wouldn’t I be an animal? I’d go back to being a stupid baby?”

Babies aren’t stupid. “Be as a little child.” Isn’t that basically what The Bible says?

“You’re right.”

You may think it’s undignified, living like a herd animal who chews cud, a cow or a horse, but really, what happiness has thought ever brought you?

“You’re right …”

So, give me the word, buddy, and I’ll leave you now. My little friend, I’ll go my own way, and you go yours, and we’ll never meet again. Maybe this way you can start a family. Maybe this way you can start to live.

“I’d like that a lot.”

So, I’m going.

“Wait!” I yelled.


“W-will I still be able to talk? To read?”

Of course not, silly. You’ll talk and read, sure, but it won’t go anywhere. It’ll all just hover around in a big sphere of orange and red colors, blue and green, somewhere inside your skull. You’ll still feel, but you won’t be like me. It won’t turn itself into theories and regrets and resentments and memories and worries and words.

“I am worried all the time.”

I know you are.

“I’m thinking all the goddamned time!”

So, let me go.

And I did. I sat down, and for once, every word I had, every image in my soul, leaked out of me. And at once, Erika Fukagawa was spirited away by the fairies who were bound to me at birth, and I was left, alone, in the fields of Montana, before a great lake, and the shadow of a mountain range.

And as time passed, these words, too, left me. This story, for those of you who are still thinking, is the artifact I left behind. For I speak, and think, in words and images no longer.

*Feature image created for Pipeline Artists by Graham Sisk

Alexander Blum was a First Look Project Runner-Up, and has published fiction in Soft Cartel, Eclectica Magazine, and New Pop Lit. He also worked at Santa Monica Studio on God of War: Ragnarök.
More posts by Alexander Blum.
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