This is a story a colleague of a friend heard from a junior of theirs. It's the story of T, a man who set out on his final trip as a bachelor not long before he was due to get married.
Although described as a trip, he had no particular destination in mind. His decision to take a trip at all had been an impromptu one. The woman T was to marry had gone on a trip of her own alone, saying that she had cold feet. Part of the reason why T went on his own holiday was out of resistance, to prove that it wasn't only women who came down with cold feet.
Changing trains several times, he felt like he was embarking upon a journey with only the clothes on his back. As the sun began to set, T entered the Tohoku region. He alighted at a random station. There he found a deserted town, almost devoid of human presence. Around the town, he noticed that there were many signs that closely resembled each other. They all depicted children. Their facial expressions varied, but they all shared the same scarlet cheeks, kimono attires and bobbed haircuts. Ah, thought T. This was that prefecture in Tohoku. He remembered that there was a legend that was well-known around those parts.
It was a tale about spirits of dwellings―children who guard prosperity. There were a variety of theories regarding their nature, from yokai to the ghosts of children, or perhaps folklore. They were known widely across the country by the name of "zashiki-warashi", or "tatami room children".
Putting out signs with zashiki-warashi on them was likely some sort of ploy to draw in customers, but now it was the off-season. He saw hardly any residents, let alone tourists. It made the gazes of the children painted on the signs dotted all around feel creepy, somehow. A shudder running through him, T quickened his pace and searched for nearby lodgings. Since it wasn't the holiday season, it was not difficult for him to find a place to stay. It was a small guesthouse. The room he was shown to was a Japanese-style one approximately 22 square metres in size, extremely ordinary and with no remarkable facilities.
Unsure what to do with all of the time on his hands on his first solo trip in years, T hesitated for a while before deciding to set out his futon, turn off the lights and lie down. He might not get the chance to simply lie down like this too often from now on. T's thoughts turned to the married life upon which he would soon embark; the way his children would be born and grow. Although he may be kept busy by work, perhaps it might not be so bad growing old alongside his wife. Picturing his bright future, T closed his eyes.
He began to wonder where he should go tomorrow, struggling to get to sleep. The hands on the clock hanging on the wall ticked apathetically, marking each passing second. They were luminescent, their pale glow rising out from the darkness. He tossed and turned repeatedly, unable to sleep. The light stored within the clock hands dwindled, its face dimming. It was now after 3AM.
The tatami mat near the entrance to the room creaked softly. There is a phenomenon known as "yanari", or "house-creaking", in which humidity and other things cause building materials or tatami mats to make noises. T assumed that this must be the culprit, but immediately afterwards, something bizarre happened: the creaking of the tatami began moving towards him. Creak, creak, the sounds came, with a uniform interval in between. They were just like the footsteps of a person.
Was somebody in the room? T went to raise his head to look, only to find that he couldn't move. It wasn't just his head, either; his arms and legs wrapped inside the futon, too, were stiff. Could it really be sleep paralysis!?
All he could move were his eyes. The footsteps approached gradually. The voice he could hear grew louder at the same time. Hah, hah, came the heavy breathing intermittently.
T remembered the many signs he had seen in town. The bob-haired children. The zashiki-warashi.
Was it a zashiki-warashi that was in his room right now? T moved his eyes, surveying what of the room he was able, but he could see no one, only the sound of their footsteps.
Creak, creak, creak. The zashiki-warashi's gait sounded somewhat lumbering.
Haah. A tepid breeze blew against his face. T felt a belated sense of fear. The presence came to a stop beside his pillow. Was it a zashiki-warashi? But what if it wasn't? In most of your average ghost stories, this was the point where he'd be strangled, or something like that... Wait, don't!
As if ignoring T's terror, the thing at his bedside carried on breathing. Then, he heard a noticeably louder plomp sound... had it sat down?
The next instant, T heard a scratch, scratch, puff. A gust of white smoke blew past his nose. The scent was a familiar one. Could it be tobacco smoke? Was it smoking a cigarette!? The next thing he heard was the crunching of joints, and the tatami flexing.
H-he was lying down? Then he was smoking in bed. Oh, crap, that was really bad news! As if sneering in the face of danger, T's sleep paralysis held firm, leaving him unable to speak or move―he couldn't even put out the cigarette. Zashiki-warashi were supposed to bring luck, but they were said to play pranks, too. If this caused a fire, it would've gone further than a mere prank. He was in danger, and had to get out of there quickly.
His brain was wide awake, but his body ignored him completely. What am I supposed to do? he thought. Help me out, here. Move. Please move!
As T panicked, a new set of footsteps echoed throughout the room―and not just one person's, but two people's footsteps.
Y-you're kidding. Help me! T desperately yelled inside his head. He tried with all of his might to shout the silent words. Before T knew it, his consciousness had been swallowed by the darkness. Inside his confused mind, T could hear the voices of two women. One sounded middle-aged, the other young.
"I hear that XX's husband went and bought her a ring. How lovely," the middle-aged woman said. This time, the young woman spoke up. "Hey! I told you not to wash that with my clothes 'cause it's dirty, didn't I!?" For a moment, T mistook her works as a rebuke directed at him, but the zashiki-warashi remained silent, ignoring the pair's conversation.
"Work, he says, always work. They can't be working him that hard, can they?" said the middle-aged woman. "Even if they're just lazing around, the sea lions at the zoo are just so charming," the younger woman said.
T suddenly understood. They were a zashiki-wife and zashiki-daughter! And the thing lying down at his bedside was not a zashiki-warashi, but a zashiki-dad!
The women's jeers escalated. T could hardly stand to listen to it any longer.
...At that moment, T felt the dazzling morning sun on his face and lifted his eyelids. He seemed to have fallen asleep at some point. The dream was seared deeply into the back of his brain. Had the zashiki-dad been a dream...? Then, he heard the familiar haah sigh he had heard within the dream. The zashiki-dad hadn't been a dream, then...? Did that mean it had all been real?
T was struck with the impulse to leap up and console the father, but his body remained paralysed. The tatami creaked. The zashiki-dad seemed to have stood up. He let out a small, weak chuckle, then began to walk. The zashiki-dad moved from his bedside over to the sliding screen, before his presence vanished entirely. At the same time, T was freed from his sleep paralysis.
T knew where he had gone―yes, the zashiki-dad had gone out to work all alone with no one to see him off. T slowly sat up in his futon. "Take care," he murmured to the invisible man, thinking it was the least he could do.
At the same time, it sounded almost like a message to his future self, too―a message to the man who was about to set off down the path of matrimony.
Maybe he needed some more time to consider this whole marriage thing...
They say that at that moment, T's face was the picture of cold feet.