Chapter 02 – Yggdrasil

Words: 4,765
Recommended Listening: Amon Tobin – Hey Blondie”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence

Daisuke and Ryu traveled north along the riverbank towards Shizen-En-Mae.  They jogged as silently as they could, absorbing the impact of each step in their calves and the balls of their feet.  They passed few houses, most of which were dark besides the lanterns the homeowners had left alight for their ancestors.  Just once they passed a house with its lights on.  Daisuke considered stopping there and asking for help instead of continuing on to Sugimoto’s, but before he could break stride, the owner of the house shouted at the boys in warning and in terror.

“Stay away!  I have a gun!”

They didn’t see him.  They merely heard his voice from somewhere near his house.  Instinctively, they raised their arms and slowed to a brisk walk, taking a wider path away from his house and veering even closer to the river.  If we move any further left, we’ll start tripping over the rocks on the riverbed, Daisuke thought.  After they passed the gun owner’s house, they began jogging again.

They’d been on foot for 10 minutes before Ryu called Daisuke’s name.

“Kinoshita!  Hold on!”

Daisuke stopped.  He and Ryu looked around.  They were about to reach Daiyabuchi Park.  They caught their breaths while they talked.

“We’re only at the halfway point,” Daisuke said.  “We can’t stop.”

“I don’t want to stop, jerk!”

“Why did you ask me to wait?”

“We can’t go this way any longer.  We have to turn.”

“Eh?” Daisuke asked dumbly.

“We have to turn right.  We can’t stay on the river anymore.”

“Why not?”

“The funeral home,” Ryu said.  He spoke as if it were obvious.  Daisuke shrugged.  “The funeral home is on the next block.”

“So?  Are you superstitious?”

“Idiot,” Ryu said.  “Today is Mukae-bon, remember?  All those people…”

“You think they went crazy because of…spirits?”

“I don’t know!  Why else would it happen today?”

“Maybe it’s a coincidence.”

Ryu scoffed and looked around.  “Do you want to go and check?  You’re going alone if you do.  I won’t pass by the funeral home!”

Daisuke looked north.  He could almost see the building.  He didn’t believe spirits were possessing people in Gujō but due to the events, he didn’t want to walk alone past a building associated with death.  The idea made him uneasy.  He cursed to himself but relented.

“Ok, where do we go?”

Ryu’s mood brightened.  “We can go east here, hop the fences on both sides of the railroad tracks and go north on 156.”

“Nagaragawa Railway?” Daisuke asked.  “And 156?  But that would mean…”

“We’ll only pass by a few stores on the right.  After the car dealership, the river is on the left and the hills are on the right, all the way to Shizen-En-Mae.  No one will be there.”

“Why can’t we cut across the river now?  I thought we could take the bridge next to Alice and go north on the other side of the river.”

Ryu looked horrified.  “’Alice’ the baby store?  What if there were customers there?”

Daisuke shrugged again.

“You saw the attackers downtown.  Do you want to see a baby that looks like that?”

Daisuke grew quiet.  It was a horrific image.  Ryu kept talking.

“There’s a shrine there, too.  I won’t pass by –“

“I got it,” Daisuke said.  He remembered the funeral home.  No supernatural buildings.  “Okay, we’ll head east to 156.”

Daisuke and Ryu resumed jogging.  They crossed the railroad tracks, hopping the fences on either side, and got to Route 156.  Along the way, Ryu quietly ridiculed Daisuke about not considering the baby store, Alice, on his original route.

“Rabid babies,” he said.  “I don’t want to see that.”

“I don’t want to see that either!” Daisuke shot back.

“Then passing by a shrine…An animal hospital is there as well,” Ryu said.  “What if this is affecting animals?  Do you want to escape from a dog behaving like those crazy people?  Or a bear?”

“A bear in Gujō?”

“Shut up!”

The rest of their journey was mercifully uneventful.  They reached Route 156 and stopped once more, eyeing the long and well-lit street before counting down from three and sprinting through the commercial area ahead.  Eventually the road narrowed as the river came to meet them on the left.  No buildings stood on the hill to their right.  They walked silently for another 10 minutes and the road curved to the left into Shizen-En-Mae.  Daisuke admitted to himself it had been a quiet, unpopulated route to take.  They agreed that he would take the lead at that point, and when he could see the Sugimoto residence from the road, he hopped the guardrail and ran around to the front door.  Ryu was close behind him.

Asahi Sugimoto and his family were out of town for a summer vacation.  Daisuke silently begged their forgiveness as he dove into the bushes and retrieved the fake rock and the key inside it.  He unlocked and opened the front door, let Ryu in after him, then slammed and locked it behind them.  Daisuke turned his back to the front door and fell back against it.  He sank to a sitting position in the dark, silent house, closing his eyes.  Ryu did the same just across the entryway.  After they caught their breath, they opened their eyes to face the future.  They spoke in whispers.

“What should we do now?” Ryu asked, removing his shoes.

“I don’t think anyone saw us,” Daisuke said.  He took his shoes off also.  “We have to stay quiet and keep the house dark.”

Ryu nodded.  “However, we need to take a look at our surroundings.”

Daisuke decided that with Sugimoto’s house so dark, he could peek through the blinds that covered the window next to the front door without attracting any attention.  Even still, he was as quiet as could be, parting the blinds at a snail’s pace to see outside.

The street was nearly deserted.  Most of the houses still had lanterns lit on their front porches.  There were three possibilities.  First, maybe the residents hadn’t come home yet from the festival.  Second, they were inside safely and they locked their doors without snuffing out the lanterns first.  Third, maybe they were all…Daisuke shook his head; he didn’t want to consider that possibility yet.

Anyway, the lanterns light up the street and make it easier for us to see, Daisuke thought.  We’re lucky.  As soon as he thought this, however, he remembered what might have happened to Sugimoto’s neighbors.  Shame overcame him.

As his eyes scanned the scene outside, he finally got a glimpse at one of the affected people roaming around the neighborhood.  She was a young woman he didn’t recognize, of average height and a slim build.  Her skin was pale and clammy, her eyes glazed over, and she shambled along the road.  She was dressed neatly, but not too formally, in a peach-colored cardigan over a black floral-print dress.  Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but some wet strands had come loose and fell freely along the right side of her face.  Dried blood ran below her mouth and onto the top of her dress.  It was too much blood to be hers.  It hadn’t originated from her mouth, but fallen from it – fallen from something she had eaten.

Daisuke searched for reason, for words, but ultimately he failed.  He turned to Ryu and beckoned him over with a gesture of his head.  Ryu stood and approached the window.  Daisuke pressed his finger to his lips and pointed at the woman outside.  Then he stepped away from the window and watched Ryu’s facial expressions change.

Searching.  Shock.  Perusal.  Realization and, finally, acceptance.

Ryu’s lips shut tight.  His nostrils flared a bit and he breathed through his nose.  After several seconds, he slowly released the blinds and turned around.

“Do you think she was…?” Ryu asked.

Daisuke nodded.  “Eating…a person.”

“They aren’t attacking them merely to hurt them or kill them,” Ryu said.

Something Ryu said earlier returned to Daisuke.  He dared to speak out loud, though he kept a soft tone.

“’Rabid,’” he said.  “You said the affected people were ‘rabid.’  Like animals.”

Ryu sighed and ran a hand through his spiked hair, which was dyed blonde, and leaned back against the wall next to the window, answering in the same tone.  “Yeah.  Do you have any experience with animals?”

Daisuke shook his head.

“My parents got a dog when I was a baby.  They named him Haru.  I loved him more than anything.  When I was eight years old, he chased a squirrel under the fence in our backyard one morning.  We looked for him for several days.  ‘Haru!  Haru, come back!  Where did you go?’”

Ryu shook his head in dismissal.  For a moment, Daisuke didn’t know if he’d keep talking. 

“My old man and I found him in a neighbor’s backyard.”

“You call your father ‘old man?’”

“It’s okay; he’s done plenty of things I’ll never forgive him for,” Ryu said.  That statement shocked Daisuke.  “Anyway, when Haru saw us, he ran away into the toolshed.  We followed him.  He had gotten rabies from a wild animal.  His mouth foamed and he looked around fast like he was scared and angry.  I said ‘Dad, it’s Haru!  Here boy; come here!’  Stupid.  He said ‘It isn’t Haru anymore; stay back!’ and he held me back from going to pet him.  Then Haru looked at him and started growling.  Haru ran at my old man, but I jumped in front of him.”

Ryu lifted his t-shirt and showed Daisuke a large semi-circular scar on his side.  Daisuke was about to comment that the dog must have been huge but then he realized Ryu would have been much smaller when it happened and the scar likely grew with him.  Ryu let his shirt fall back down his torso.

“My mom cleaned up the wound.  Then we went to the doctor.  I had to get shots afterward.  I’ll never forget what a rabid dog looks like.  These people look like rabid animals.  They have no reason.  They only have anger and hunger.”  Ryu pushed himself off the wall with his shoulders and stepped further into the Sugimotos’ living room, his back to the front door and the window they had used.

“What happened to Haru?” Daisuke asked.

Without looking back, Ryu said “My father beat him to death with a shovel.”

The implication stunned Daisuke.  According to his history teacher, nearly half the nation was Buddhist and just as many belonged to Shinto, although there was overlap; it was a safe bet that Ryu’s family was one of the two.  Even though Daisuke knew rabid animals died after biting someone anyway, and even though Haru was a danger to Ryu, killing a family dog would be a difficult action to justify to oneself – and one’s neighbors.  Judging by the tone in Ryu’s voice when he said it, his father had likely earned the ire of their peers.  He imagined the man praying and seeking peace while his son recovered in a nearby room.  Was that why Ryu refused to walk by the shrine earlier?  Did he bear a grudge against the religious monuments?  Also, for a boy to say he’d never forgive his father, he must have been abusive somehow.  He might have hit Ryu and his mother, or worse.  Daisuke was still thinking when Ryu spoke up abruptly.

“This is a nice house.  Hey, Kinoshita – give me a tour.”

Will he always be this rude? Daisuke thought.  He caught up to Ryu, who was already several steps ahead of him, and turned on the flashlight on his cell phone so they could see without alerting the neighborhood to their presence.

Upon entering the Sugimoto residence, visitors stepped directly into the right side of an open area shaped like a wide rectangle.  Most of the area was a combination living room and dining room, with the dining room nearest them on the left.  The dining room area featured a long table surrounded by chairs.  It ran from the front wall to the rear. 

It’ll only be a matter of time before he asks about the table, Daisuke thought.  Everyone does.

Beyond the table, further to the left of the open area, there were two couches – one with its back to the dining room table and another against the front wall.  The couches framed a heated kotatsu; a flat-screen television hung from the leftmost wall.  Furthest from the boys – on the leftmost end of the rear wall – was an open entrance to the kitchen.  A bathroom door stood modestly in the center of the rear wall, next to the kitchen.  Opposite the front entrance, staircases led up and down to the second floor and the basement.

“What’s up with this table?”

Daisuke smiled to himself.  It was a dark, heavy wooden table.  It was long and high like any dining room table, but it looked almost like a picnic table without benches – it featured a top made of several wide planks secured to a sturdy frame underneath.  The legs were straight and four-sided.

“Kingwood,” Daisuke said.  “It stands out, doesn’t it?”

“It looks like it’s from Pier 1 Imports.”

Daisuke chuckled.  “You’re not far off.  Asahi-kun has an uncle who likes to give funny gifts.  This was his wedding present to Asahi’s parents.”

Ryu tested its weight by trying to lift one corner with his left hand as he walked past it.

“Hoo!  It’s heavy.”

Daisuke walked over to him.  “Like I said, kingwood.  You should’ve seen Asahi’s father’s face when I asked him how they moved it in here.”

“Asahi,” Ryu repeated.  “Whose house is this again?”

“My friend from school.”

“But what did you say their last name was?”

“Sugimoto,” Daisuke said.

“Mm,” Ryu said.  They continued past the dining room table to the living room.  Ryu looked at the couches and kotatsu, then back at the dining room table.  “I bet the mother hates this.  It doesn’t go together at all.”  Eventually they made their way back towards the front door.

On the wall to the right of the front door, a small closet held coats, shoes and slippers.  Ryu opened the closet and spotted Asahi’s baseball bat, which he took without asking permission.  He rested it on his shoulder as they continued their tour.  Another door next to the closet led outside to a covered driveway that was enclosed on its rear and right sides by low rock walls.  A staircase was directly opposite the front door, on the rear wall.  The right side of the staircase led up to a landing, then pivoted 180 degrees counterclockwise and continued to the second floor of the house.  The left side of the staircase led down to the basement level, which held a laundry room, another living space, a half-bathroom and a cellar.

Daisuke showed Ryu the lower floor first, then they crept up to the second floor, which featured a master bedroom, Asahi’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.  It was almost entirely devoid of interest.  The only place relevant to the situation was the balcony directly above the driveway, for which Ryu beelined while retrieving his cigarettes from his pocket.  He and Daisuke sat on the floor of the balcony, hunched over so as to remain out of sight of neighbors and the crazed attackers.  Ryu smoked as he took in the surroundings outside. 

The balcony was furnished with a couch made of weather-resistant materials and several metal-frame chairs, all of which surrounded a glass “fire pit” table.  Two outdoor space heaters were sentinels standing proudly at opposite ends of the balcony.  It was roofless and even featured an uncoiling, chain-link fire escape ladder that would lead directly to the driveway below if lowered.

“Fancy,” Ryu whispered.

Several minutes of silence passed.  Daisuke broke it with a dry whisper.

“When a rabid animal bites another animal, the second animal gets rabies.”

Ryu said nothing.  Daisuke looked off in the distance, south of Shizen-En-Mae and towards downtown Gujō, towards the chaos.

“That would mean…”

Ryu flicked his lit cigarette butt off the balcony towards the street and sighed.  He scratched an itch on his scalp and was about to reply when the butt came flying back up over the edge of the balcony and landed at their feet.  Ryu cursed in surprise and recoiled away from it.  Daisuke did too.

“Psst!”

They looked at each other for answers.  “Did you hear that?” Ryu whispered.

“Psst!  Hey!”

Forgetting the dangers of the outside, Daisuke scrambled to his feet and peered over the side of the balcony.  Below them, hiding behind the bushes near the street, a grown man and woman crouched close together.  The man held a golf club whose head was dark and glistening wet.  He and the woman looked around themselves quickly and nervously, doubtlessly keeping an eye out for the rabid people.  Then they looked back up and saw Daisuke.

“Hey!  Kid!” the man hissed.  “Please, can my wife and I come inside your house?”

Daisuke looked around. The house blocked his view down one side of the street, but to his left, he saw the rabid woman in the cardigan from earlier, idly roaming around down the street.  Nobody else was in view.  He looked back to the couple and found his eyes drawn to the bloody golf club.

“What are you doing hiding in the bushes?”

“We’ve been moving through backyards and avoiding streets,” the man said quietly.  “We were on our way to the school up north.  I work there and I have keys to the building.  We heard whispers; I was about to call to you when I saw your cigarette…”

Ryu had come to see them as well.  “Have you been bitten?” he asked.

The couple shook their heads.

“Prove it,” he said.

“Idiot,” Daisuke said.  He turned to the couple.  “Please wait.  I’ll come down to the front door.”

He raced through his best friend’s house, bounding down the steps two at a time, flicking on a light switch on the first floor so their new guests could see.  He unlocked the front door and threw it open – it opened inward towards him.  On the front porch, no more than three feet from him, a rabid person stood facing Daisuke’s left – facing the couple.

It was an old man with a shaved head and glasses.  He had a wide mouth and wore a suit and tie that shone wet with blood.  Reacting to the sight and sound of the door opening, the man turned slowly towards Daisuke.  As he did, moonlight appeared to shine through the right side of his head.  Daisuke’s eyes were drawn to it immediately.  He realized almost calmly that the suit on the man’s blood must be his own because a significant portion of his skull and brain were missing.  A steady trickle of blood came down the side of his head, past his temple and ear, dripping onto his shoulder.  His eyes were glazed over.  The whites were a pale gray; the color in the irises and pupils seemed to have dissipated throughout the eyes and were now barely darker than the whites.  In that moment, they reminded Daisuke of a faint bruise or an eggshell with thin patches on its inside.  The man’s teeth had flecks of brown in them, but before Daisuke could consider why, he must have registered as an uninfected person in the old man’s eyes.  The old man screamed loudly at him in some kind of wordless, two-tone sound of alarm and raised his arms out to Daisuke, lunging for him impulsively.

In a moment, he was on him.  Daisuke fell flat on his back, the wind knocked from him, and instinctively held his hands up to the old man’s chest.  The old man was heavy; Daisuke couldn’t roll him off of himself.  Daisuke held the old man as far away from himself as he could, evading clawing hands gnashing teeth.  Daisuke screamed in fear for his life as the old man’s mouth opened and shut rapidly in vain attempts to bite, to feed.  The old man smelled terrible, like rotted meat.  Saliva dripped freely from his mouth onto Daisuke’s chest.

Daisuke heard Ryu running down the stairs and jump down to the landing.  The moment Ryu’s feet hit, Daisuke heard a man shout a warning from the front door.

Keep your head down!

Above him, Daisuke saw the bloody golf club head get raised in an arc to the left, high into the air, stopping at an 11 o’clock position.  He realized it was a backswing just in time to turn his head to the left and push his left cheek against the carpeted floor.  Daisuke shut his eyes, gritted his teeth, growled and renewed his push against the old man, who looked up and saw Ryu coming down the stairs.

Wait!” Ryu screamed frantically.

The golf club was already on its way, and nothing could stop it.  The iron face of the club struck the infected old man directly in the open wound on his head.  The remaining half of his skull flopped over and hung limply by his left ear; most of his brain flew over the dining room table and the couches and struck the TV.  The old man fell dead on Daisuke’s right side, his chin resting on the boy’s shoulder.  Daisuke and the man with the golf club lifted the attacker off of Daisuke.  Then Daisuke scrambled backwards to free himself from the weight of the dead man.  The golf club hit the floor.  The man grabbed the dead attacker by the feet and nodded at his arms.  Daisuke was in shock.

“He…He…was…”

The man nodded at the attacker’s arms.  “Come on!  Help me move him!”

Daisuke looked dumbly across the room.  The television was spattered with blood and brain tissue.

“You…”

The man sighed and turned to his wife.  “Watch him.”

Without another word, the man pulled backwards on the corpse and yanked it back out the front door and off to the side.  His wife crouched next to Daisuke and saw him watching the body being removed.

“There,” she said.  Her voice was gentle.  “Now it’s better, right?”  She smiled softly at Daisuke and rested a hand on his shoulder.  He flinched and she retracted her hand.  “I’m sorry,” she said, bowing her head.

“I-it’s okay,” Daisuke said.  “I’m Kinoshita.  Daisuke Kinoshita.  This is Ryu.”

They both turned to Ryu only to realize he had sunk to his knees and was staring out the front door.  Daisuke realized the last thing Ryu had done was scream for the married man to stop before killing the rabid man.

“Ryu?” Daisuke asked.  He wondered why Ryu would’ve stopped the husband from killing Daisuke’s attacker.  “What’s wrong?”

Ryu continued to stare at the thin blood trail the old man’s body left.  He opened his mouth slowly.  “F-father…”

The moment the word left his mouth, the married man who had saved Daisuke came jogging back in and shut and locked the door behind himself.

“You’re okay now, kid,” the husband said to Daisuke.  “I moved him next door.  A couple of infected people noticed me so I had to run back.  We should shut these lights off.”  He had made it halfway back over to the switch before he noticed everyone was staring at him.

“What’s wrong?  What happened?”

“Junpei,” his wife said to him.  “That man…The boy on the stairs is his son.”

“His name is Ryu,” Daisuke said dryly.  And you’re Junpei, he thought.

“’Ryu’ what?” Junpei asked.  He spoke softly – not to avoid attracting the attention of other rabid people, but so as not to set Ryu off.  Daisuke indicated he didn’t know Ryu’s surname.

Suddenly, Junpei closed his hands into fists, put them firmly on the front of his legs and bowed deeply.  He apologized formally but didn’t move.  Although Ryu was just a boy compared to Junpei, Daisuke knew that Junpei was handling the situation as delicately and politely as possible.  Daisuke didn’t know how long he would keep his head down.  He just killed his father, Daisuke thought.  He may wait for Ryu’s permission.

“Get up,” Ryu said.  “Get up!

Junpei looked up in surprise, then straightened up when he realized how harshly the boy had rebuked his apology.  He wanted to make things right, but clearly Ryu had no interest.  Ryu started to speak, pointing a finger at the man, but he stopped before any words came out.  Instead, he turned and headed back up the stairs to be alone.  “It’s fine,” he said on his way out.

They hadn’t even formally met yet but a rift was already growing between them.  This is bad, Daisuke thought.  I need to do something.  But first, he turned to the couple.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “His temper…”

Junpei shook his head.  “It’s alright,” he said.  “My name is Junpei Fukuhara.  This is my wife, Akane.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said.  Daisuke introduced himself.

“This isn’t my house,” he said.  “My best friend from school lives here.  His family is on vacation.  I just met Ryu tonight; we ran here.”

There was a thud at the door.  It was far from a knock.  Without thinking, Daisuke ran to the light switch and shut the light off.  He flicked it off just as a second thud sounded.  Daisuke and the Fukuharas remained motionless for several seconds.  When they heard another thud, they reconvened and spoke in whispers.

“Usually they scream,” Akane said.

“I noticed that too,” Daisuke said.  “Maybe he doesn’t see us.”

Just then, another thud came from the wall where the living room met the kitchen.  Junpei cursed quietly.

“I fear we’ll have to make a decision soon,” he said.

“What decision?” Daisuke asked.

Junpei nodded towards the windows near the front door.  “You said you ran here.  Do you want to stay inside or try to run somewhere else?”

It occurred to Daisuke that he hadn’t thought about that yet.  Finding shelter from the chaos downtown was as far as he had considered.  The soft banging sounds from the two rooms continued.

“I think…staying inside is best,” he said.  Junpei and Akane agreed.

“In that case, we might have to reinforce the windows.”

“Reinforce?” Daisuke asked.

Junpei kept his eyes on the window by the front door.  “If more of them come and they start to hit the windows…”

Daisuke realized what he was implying.

“I know it’s your friend’s house, Kinoshita, but I think –“

“No,” Daisuke said.  “You’re right.  We’ll need to board up the windows.  But it will have to wait a minute.”

“Eh?”

“I have to sort things out with Ryu.  If we’re all going to stay here together until help comes, he needs to get along with everyone.”

“I didn’t know it was his father.”

Daisuke smiled.  “How could you know?  I’ll be back in a little while.”

“I don’t know that there’s time –“

“Let him go,” Akane said.  “He’s right.  We all need to work together.  You, me, Daisuke…and Ryu.”

Junpei sighed through his nose.  “Alright,” he said.  “Does your friend’s father have tools?”

“There’s a cellar downstairs,” Daisuke said.  “Once we start hammering, the infected people will probably be very excited.”

“I won’t start until you get back,” Junpei said.  Daisuke silently walked upstairs.  He could barely see in the dark, but he saw Ryu sitting on the bed in Asahi’s room.  Daisuke heard Ryu breathing heavily through his nose.  He was still angry.

I need to speak to him about his father – and about Junpei, Daisuke thought.  But what do I really know about him?  He’s the same age as me and his father just died.  That can’t be easy.  But he also said his father had done things he couldn’t forgive.  In addition to sadness and shock, Ryu could be feeling some guilt, some relief, some closure.

His father sounds like he was a brute.  Ryu is a rough guy too.  I could conform to how they act and speak to him with toughness – tell him to toughen up for now and grab a hammer and take his emotions out on whatever we find to nail up the windows.  Or I could comfort him – when he told me about his dog Haru and his relationship with his father, he seemed ready to open up.  This whole crisis is like a catalyst for us all; he may just need to know we’re here for him.

What do I say?

Voting Time!!! Daisuke needs to speak to Ryu about the death of Ryu’s estranged father. Should Daisuke appeal to his rough-around-the-edges nature or be more empathetic/compassionate? Follow these links to the polls, which close August 11, and vote! Your decision will affect Ryu’s relationship with the rest of the group, starting in chapter 3!

Anyone can vote on Facebook by clicking here.

Patrons can vote on Patreon by clicking here.

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