The Japanese word for the game of color tag is "iro-oni," literally meaning "color demon." It is just as popular on playgrounds in Japan as anywhere in the Western world.

There is a world I can only see through the windows of an express train. At all other times, a temple is just an old building, a cherry blossom is just a tree. City lights are just another perversion of lightning. You might as well close your eyes. But put it all in motion and you've got something you want to memorize every detail of, precisely because there's no time to. Like how a plastic top is a cheap piece of junk until you watch it spin, the world, through a train window, is always beautiful.

Once I've walked my bike far enough from the school building, I throw my bag into its wire basket and start pedaling hard, sending glances back over my shoulder. The cool in the air and the darkening sky remind me of the typhoon that's supposed to blow in around midnight. I stick to the main road, even though the back way is faster. I don't know who's waiting for me back there.

I park illegally next to the old grocery store and head up into the train station, swiping my IC card to get through the turnstiles quickly. Home is just around the block, and I don't want to get caught.

Stepping down to the platform and then onto the train, I check the time. Not quite enough to make it there and back without notice. I phone-mail a quick lie to my mom:

Hanging out with Jenna. Might go out for dinner. Is that OK?

My parents have yet to catch me in a lie, although they've tried. I don't often chance a fib in the first place. But today, I think it's worth the risk.

I don't know; I'm probably overreacting. I just need to get my head straight. Just need to go somewhere I can breathe.

Osaka is good for that.

I pop in my red earbuds and scroll through my song list. Kimura Kaela always cheers me up when I'm in a bad mood, but nothing of hers stands out to me right now. Guess I don't really want to be cheered up. So I put on a Pillows song and go back to my phone records.

A message pops up on screen interrupting me.

OK. but come home for dinner. mom

Like I wouldn't be able to figure out who it is. I tap her message away and look for the email with only a string of numbers listed as a sender. Written in Japanese, it stands out from the rest.

from: 2307419213801234780
subject: (none)


Die, faggot, it basically says. Even though I've been re-reading that sentence over and over in my head all day, looking at it again still makes me feel ill.

I didn't manage to catch a seat in the train, so I lean my body into the train door and try to blank myself out. I know I'm running away. I just don't know from what.

Whenever I leave my neighborhood wearing my school uniform, I always get some weird looks. People who live near me are pretty used to seeing a lot of foreign kids wearing green plaid pants or skirts below brown jackets. But while Osaka hosts a ton of foreigners, it doesn't have a whole lot of foreign teenagers in distinctive private school clothes. Hence the staring.

Maybe that's why it seems like everyone is watching me now, as I disembark and make my way through Namba station. I'm still looking for anyone who might have followed me this far. I don't know who sent the message, and what I do know doesn't help much:

1. It was probably someone at my school. Great, but there are like 300 students on my campus.

2. Not a lot of people had my email address, but they could have passed it around to anyone, so that didn't rule any kids out.

3. The fact that it was written in Japanese didn't necessarily mean a Japanese wrote it. It could just as easily been a foreigner masquerading as a Japanese. Also, "die, fag" is probably one of the simplest phrases to write in any language.

3b. But why bother? There are a ton of foreigners at my school, so pretending to be Japanese wouldn't help this guy hide his identity any better than pretending to be foreign.

3c. I had a gut feeling it was a dude. I tried to picture a girl sending anonymous cell phone messages about killing faggots and I just couldn't. Girls are sneaky, but in a different way.

And that's just the identity of the sender. The bigger problem: is this just run-of- the-mill bullying or is someone going to be waiting after school for me one day with a baseball bat? How I have to react depends on the answer. Get ruffled by verbal bullying, and it'll get worse. Ignore a death threat, and it'll briefly get very bad and then I suppose it won't be anything at all.

I spent the whole train ride thinking about these things, and not at all about what to do now that I'm here in the city. I think about going to an Internet cafe and just trying to relax and get my head together, and by now, I'm above ground and I haven't had any better ideas. Going to Osaka for me is more about being in Osaka than it is about being at any particular location within the city.

I walk to my usual place, the "Free Space" net cafe. I consider the four flights of stairs leading up to the lobby—then decide just to take the elevator. I get in with a couple of very gross-looking guys. Some people, you just look at and think, "You have sex with pillows." Or at least I think so. Maybe I've got freak-radar.

The elevator reaches 5F. I hurry out, trying to put some distance between me and pillow-sex guys.

And then I promptly smack into somebody. Because on top of possible-harassment-or-possible-death-threat, what I really need in my day is a good old fashioned case of embarrassment.

The room spins before the pain in my head actually registers, and now I'm on the floor and it hurts worse. I stare up at the ceiling for a long time, forgetting all sense of spatial relation, until I vaguely notice pillow-sex guys stepping over my body.

Then somebody grabs me and pull me up, and when I meet his eyes, I forget about the floor and ceiling all over again.

Let me start with the face. Long chin. Big, dark eyes. Hair bleached just to tea-brown. Nice size to his hands, nice width to his shoulders, not too large, not too small, just right. All very pleasing. But it's when he speaks, with his sweet, sexy Japanese accent layered over pitch-perfect American English, that makes my heart pound: "Hey, are you all right?"

Oh, crap. He's probably the one I bumped into, isn't he?

I try to say something, but it's just syllables falling useless from my tongue. He ushers me through the automatic doors to the cafe lobby, where he sits me down. All movement is confusing. Somebody brings me a drink of water.

Just how hard did I fall back there? I'm usually dizzy at this time of day, because I don't often eat before dinner—is it just that, or do I have a concussion?

I finish off the paper cup of water and the room stops spinning. I convince myself that I'm OK. The guy (and now I'm certain he's the guy I stumbled into) says, "How do you feel now?"

"I'm fine," I say by reflex. Then, "I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it. You're the one who fell. It's my fault."

I'm pretty sure it wasn't his fault, but I'm relieved to know I hadn't knocked him over. I look him over once again. I hadn't been imagining things: totally cute. He's dressed in a narrow-cut business jacket and a pink tie. A young salaryman? But what about that hair?

I don't know what to say. I hope he can't see me flush up. He asks, "Do you go to Doshisa?"

Ah, the uniform. It's obvious.

"Yeah, I do. You've heard of it."

He nods, points to his nose. "I'm an alum."

I blink. "No way. That's too weird of a coincidence."

It's a weird coincidence for several reasons: Doshisa is not a large school, and it is nearer Osaka than any other major city but not technically in Osaka, so meeting an alum on the street is a remarkable coincidence. Smacking face-first into one in an internet cafe is an even more remarkable coincidence. And on a day when I'm wearing my school uniform and thinking obsessively about an email that was probably sent by someone at school, well, it's an act of God, not that I believe much.

The guy holds out his hand to me. "I'm Chiaki. You?"

Shaking hands is kind of a weird thing. Japanese people don't offer each other handshakes, but they offer handshakes to me all the time, thinking it a Western courtesy. I don't remember any country besides Japan; this handshake business does nothing for me.

But I take his hand and say, "I'm Axis. Nice meeting you."

We shake once and let go. His hand iss warm on my cold one, and I don''t really want him to drop mine. But of course, he does.

"Axis?" He looks surprised. "Axis? or Access?"

"Axis, as in, the earth spins on its axis. I know. It's weird."

"No, it's unique. You must have cool parents."

Nothing could be further from the truth, but I don't argue. Better to change the subject. "Your English is really good," I say.

"No, it's crap. I've just studied it for a long time, that's all."

"The fact that you can say 'it's crap' means it's not crap," I insist.

He grins and laughed a little. It's an easy, free laugh. When I laugh, it sounds like I'm strung out on too many uppers, but his laugh seems to have eased the tension out of the room. I don't feel so embarrassed anymore.

"Hey, is he alright?" calls the guy working the cafe register, in Japanese.

"It looks like he's fine," replies Chiaki.

"Uhh, I'm alright, really," I say, also in Japanese.

"You speak Japanese!"

"Yes," is all I say. I'm an idiot.

Now there is an awkward silence. Clearly I do not possess any gifts for smoothing over social situations. I'd like to say, you know what, forget this Internet cafe thing, you are a sexy and interesting person. Let's go find a Starbucks or a Doutor or Tully's or something and we can sit down and discuss all of the things we have in common while I imagine what it would be like if you fucked me. How does that sound?

Of course, I do not say that, and I am pretty sure men in their twenties (probably?) just leaving Internet cafes have better things to do than invite high school students out for coffee. As he stands to go, he just says, "Well, it was cool meeting you, Axis. I hope things at Doshisa are going well for you."

I shrug.


I sigh. "School is... school." I look at the floor.

I can't see his reaction, but when I look up, he's writing something in a notebook. Then he tears it out.

"If you ever need advice," he says, putting the paper in my hand. Then he leaves.

On the paper is an email address.

Thank you for reading Chapter One of Color Tag! This story is very dear to my heart and I am currently working on a top-to-bottom rewrite, so any feedback would be monumentally wonderful to have. I do reciprocal reviews!