The pullers lifted the thick ropes, and with a great cry of “Heave!” the float rolled slowly forward. Everyone on the platform lurched as the float crunched across the pavement and over the kerb. Adults in festival clothes and holding paper lanterns aloft waved the crowd back, clearing a path for the float. They moved into the crowd like a boat launching into the sea. For the first time, Hayato felt properly nervous. Did he really want to do something risky in front of all these people? If it backfired, he wouldn’t hear the end of it. What would his mother say? She was out there somewhere, watching him.
The leader raised his drumsticks, and the rest of them followed suit. “Ready! Set! GO!”
Bash. Bash. Crash-crash-bash. The drums and cymbals blasted out in earnest, and as he slipped into the over-practised rhythm, Hayato felt his nerves melt away. As he’d been told, he kept his face stern and stared straight ahead, but he fixed his eyes on a man he’d never seen before but knew straight away was Nozomi’s father. Out of the corner of his eye, Hayato saw Nozomi’s cheeks burn red. Hayato allowed himself the tiniest of smiles.
Time dragged by as slowly as the float. As they crawled forward at a snail’s pace towards the Namerikawa Shrine, Hayato felt boredom creeping in. His arms weren’t aching – all that practise had seen to that – but in a way he of kind of wished they were: at least it would give him something to think about. But no, the whole thing was mind-numbing. He was beginning to find the crowd irritating too, they way they just stood there and gawped at him like a herd of absent-minded cows. Okay, Hayato granted, fair enough – the float was a pretty sight. But that was it – a sight. He and his fellow drummers were just a display repeating the same pattern over and over again. What possessed all these people to think that was worth standing in a crushing crowd for? For a whole hour? Of course, he already knew the answer to that: tradition.
He caught the eye of another figure in the crowd: the headmaster, cutting a sharp figure in his dark suit and surrounded by a group of similarly-dressed town governors. He gave Hayato a nod. Hayato nodded back, stood up, and lifted his drum out of its stand.
The crowd gave a collected gasp. Hayato gave a full-on grin this time. They’re surprised. Good. If they came here to watch us, then I’ll give them something worth watching. He swung his drum onto his back, stuffed his drumsticks into his pockets, and stepped out on the edge of the float. More gasps, and even yells now. He couldn’t hear what they were saying: adrenaline surged through his veins and pounded in his ears. He saluted to the crowd. The sound of drums faltered, the other students torn between stopping to drag him back in or keeping the show going. Luckily for Hayato they all opted for the latter.
“What’re you doing?” Nozomi hissed through gritted teeth.
“My big surprise, that’s what!” Hayato winked, and clambered up the side of the float. Hand over foot, he scaled the wooden tower, shuddering as it swayed under his weight, but he was soon scrambling on to the roof. Perched on the very top was the life-size doll, just like the one on his mother’s model. It was bedecked in a fine pink kimono, and it’s face was a an immaculately sculpted porcelain mask.
Hayato looked out over the Town Square. What a view! Only the Town Hall seemed to stand taller than him. Everyone was looking up at him, their faces a mix of shock, delight, fear, disgust and awe. He had them all in the palm of his hand. The float now stood aside the Shrine, and the drumming below was back to its normal self. This was his chance. He set himself under the doll, held the drum between his knees, and held his drumsticks aloft. He listened to the music, counted himself in, and fell back in to the rhythm, playing with more fervour than every before.
He watched many of the faces shift from bewilderment to laughter. Now their shock had faded, they were clapping along, even dancing. The sudden change had jolted the crowd into life, and they were openly loving it. Hayato gave an elated whoop. Why hadn’t he done this earlier? He met the headmaster’s eye again, and he gave Hayato two thumbs up and his best smile. If only he could find his mother in the crowd. It would make it perfect.
“This is so awesome!” Hayato called out.
“It really is rather entertaining.”
“Thanks! I – er…”
He swung around. Who’d said that? But there was no one there. He craned his neck around the back of the doll. Nothing. Had a freak breeze carried a voice up to him?
“However, I think we could step up the madness a bit more.”
Above. The voice came from above him. He looked up. The doll’s had towered over him, and it’s perfect face had changed, twisted into a cruel smile.
“And for that to happen, you, Hayato Takei, you will need to step down.”
A foot planted itself itself in the small of his back, and shoved him forward into thin air. Hayato threw out his hands before he fell, grabbing a hold of the lip of the roof tiles. He hung on for dear life, but his weight was tilting the float sideways: the pullers yelled, and the crowd screamed. Feet pounded on the float as the drummers evacuated, and the onlookers who had pushed and shoved to get as close to the float as possible were now fleeing at fast as they could.
Hayato’s hands were slick with sweat. His grip slipped off the roof, and he fell into a prickly bush inches from the delicate roof of the Shrine. That was close. He scrambled up, and looked up – to see the great bulk of the float toppling right towards him. Oh. He leapt out of the way just as the float crashed behind him. He sprawled on the floor, throwing his arms over his head as shards of wood flung in every direction. Even with his ears covered the noise was immense, shaking the ground like an earthquake. A cloud of dust swallowed him, sticking in his eyes and hair.
Silence fell. He heard footsteps crunching towards him, and a cold shadow fell over where he lay. Blinking the sawdust out of his eyes, Hayato looked up. It was the doll, it’s eyes flashing an evil red…right at him.
“Wh – ahack! – who are you?” Hayato managed to mutter through uncontrollable coughing.
The doll said nothing; it only laughed a low, terrible laugh that chilled Hayato to his heart. It raised a hand, clicked it’s fingers, and the doll collapsed into a pile of empty kimono sashes, the porcelain mask landing on top – back to its placid expression.
There was a crunch and crack of wood behind him, and Hayato rolled around, not trusting his legs to support him. All he could see through the dustcloud was the outline of a great tangle of wood and straw sticking out at odd angles. Where did the float end and the Shrine begin? Hayato felt numb, the full horror of what had happened yet to hit him.
Someone was walking through the wreckage. Hayato squinted. He was about to call for help, when the cloud of thinned slightly to reveal the Headmaster, standing by the mountain of debris, poking through it with his walking stick. It was his turn to fix his eyes on Hayato now, and they were devoid of their usual warmth. They were almost as cold and dreadful as the dolls had been.
“This isn’t what I had in mind, Takei-san,” he said, his voice tight with rage.
A hard wind blew the dustcloud aside in one sweep, revealing the full extent of what had been done. The float and the Shrine hall had been utterly destroyed: the float lay embedded through the roof of the Shrine, which was now sagging inwards on itself. The nearest wall had been completely blown apart. The float lay on its side, barely recognisable as a pile of shattered wood. The crowd saw it too, moving back in on the scene. Some screamed; some wept openly. Hayato’s heart bashed at his rib cage, as though trying to escape and deny responsibility. He knew where this was heading, knew there was nothing he could do to stop it. Some were already turning their attention to the boy who had climbed the float, who had pulled it into the Shrine and caused it to crash. He stood alone under the Torii gate, surrounded, with nowhere to run. Then the shouting started.
“Well boy? Are you happy now?”
“What on earth possessed you –”
“Someone call the police!”
“Hundreds of years of history destroyed, and for what?”
“You disgusting little –”
“I – I’m speechless…”
That was then he finally found his mother. It was a small mercy his eyes were already welling up, so he couldn’t see her face. He fell to the ground once again, wishing it would swallow him whole.
He wanted to give the creaky old traditions of the town a shake-up. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind either.