Chapter 03 – Rungs; Branches

Words: 4,377
Recommended Listening: Tiny Fingers – “The Fall / Eyes of Gold”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence

Daisuke extended his hand and knocked on the door.

“Ryu?”

“Go away,” Ryu said.  His nose sounded congested.

Daisuke stepped into the room anyway, sitting next to Ryu on the bed.  He didn’t dare look at him.  Instead, Daisuke stared straight out Asahi’s window.  The bedroom was in the back of the upper floor, so the view was limited to the hills and trees of Hachimancho Sedori, against which the house was built.  Daisuke knew they didn’t have time for this.  He knew they should be boarding up the windows, securing the doors, watching the news and browsing their phones for updates and suggestions.  Despite how thinly-spread the police must be, he was even tempted to call them and ask for help.  Daisuke wanted this conversation over and it took all his willpower not to impatiently tap his foot as he looked out the window and tried to console Ryu.

“About your father –“

“Don’t worry about it,” Ryu said.

“I’m sorry, but this is important,” Daisuke said.  He waited a moment but Ryu didn’t protest any further.

“Fukuhara-san asked me to apologize to you.  If he had known that man was your father…”

Ryu said nothing.

“Forgive me, but I had a feeling that you had a complicated relationship,” Daisuke said.  “The story about…”  Daisuke caught himself before he mentioned Haru.  “The story you told me earlier made me think so.  My mother had a difficult relationship with her father too.  He never approved of her marrying my father, and after I was born, he stopped coming over to visit.  He only called on the phone once or twice a year, and he died a few years ago without reconciling.  At his funeral, my parents both acted strangely.  Of course, they were both sad that he passed away, but there was something else too.  Looking back, I realized that my mother also felt guilty for not making amends with him.  They also felt a small amount of relief that the painful relationship had ended, which made them feel even more guilty.

“I think…grief is complicated,” Daisuke said.  “Especially when the death is sudden or unexpected.”

Daisuke stole a glance at Ryu.  Ryu’s eyes were cast down at the floor.

“In any case, if you want to talk, I will listen.”  Ryu grunted in affirmation.

Daisuke stood, refocusing on the trees once more.  As he had spoken, he could feel something in Ryu withdraw and become closed off.  In handling the strange boy so delicately, Daisuke feared he had caused him to retreat within himself.  He didn’t know how long Ryu would stay that way.

“What will you do now?” Ryu asked.

“A tunnel runs through this hill,” Daisuke said with a nod upwards.  “It’s part of the highway E41, which goes south all the way to Nagoya and north all the way to Anamizu, near Noto Airport.  How many people do you think live in Nagoya?”

Ryu shrugged.  “Maybe two million?”

“Two point three,” Daisuke said.

“So what?”

“If you drive on E41, Nagoya is only about 80 km from here.  I was just thinking, this could be happening down there too.  If I lived in Nagoya and this contagion broke out, I’d want to stay away from other people just to be safe.  That’s one reason why I came here from downtown.  Fewer people means less risk, and cities are full of people.  That means if people decide to flee the city, they would choose from four directions.  From Nagoya, Tokyo is east and Osaka and Kyoto are west.  Who knows if other cities are also suffering from the outbreak?  That just leaves north and south.  If some people in Nagoya leave the city and drive south, they would get to the ocean or maybe Mie and Wakayama.  But not everyone would go south.  Maybe the people who were the most fearful would want to leave Japan entirely.  If they fled north to Noto Airport –“

“They’d pass through Gujō,” Ryu said.  “They’d pass through Shizen-En-Mae.”

“Unless traffic were stopped,” Daisuke said.  “Like when there’s a flood and all the cars get backed up on the highway trying to evacuate.  If people on E41 couldn’t evacuate…that would be problematic.”

Ryu pictured the tunnel full of cars.  He imagined the infected people attacking cars, breaking through the windows and pulling drivers and passengers out of their seats.  They would be coming from the south, too – from downtown, where the boys had fled.  If traffic were stopped all along Gujō, then the people on the bridge at the east end of Shizen-En-Mae would have no choice but to jump or fall off to the streets or the shallow river below.  Some would die from the fall.  Others would break their legs and make slow and ineffective escapes ending in agonizing deaths from the infected.

The mouth of the tunnel was less than 150 meters east of the bedroom in which the boys sat.

“I think that would be the worst way to die,” Daisuke said.

“Th-that wouldn’t happen,” Ryu said.  He blurted it out and then cursed to himself for how unconvincing it sounded.  Daisuke said nothing for several moments.

“What happened to your father is unforgivable,” he said at last.  “However, some of the blame must lie with whoever infected him.  Please think of that before passing judgment on Fukuhara-san for your father’s death.”

Daisuke walked around Asahi’s bed towards the door.

“Kinoshita.”

“Mm?”

“…Thanks.”

Daisuke nodded and looked back to Ryu, who was now staring out the window himself.  “Say, Ryu.  We’re going to board up the first-floor windows and doors so the rabid people can’t get in.  Will you help us?”

Ryu cast his head down once more but said nothing else.  Daisuke left him and went downstairs to check on Junpei and Akane.

Downstairs, the couple had gathered several hammers, a box of nails and a small pile of a dozen planks of wood from the garage.  Daisuke remembered Asahi’s father in the backyard replacing the wood siding on the rear of the house after a minor problem with wood rot.  Had they needed it, the bucket of paint was likely still next to the wood Junpei found.

The couple were separating the nails into three piles when Daisuke came down.  Junpei saw him first and stopped what he was doing.

“How’s your friend?”

Daisuke shook his head.  Junpei sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

“It can’t be helped.”

“Will he be coming down to help?” Junpei asked.

Daisuke shook his head again.

“We can all work together,” Akane said.  “The three of us can secure the house.”

“No,”’ Junpei said.  “It’s too dangerous.  If anything happened to you…”

“We can manage,” Daisuke said politely with a quick bow.

Akane regrouped the box of nails and split them evenly into two piles, then put one pile into the plastic box they had come from.

“Is there a second container for these?” she asked.

“There are cups in the kitchen, Fukuhara-san,” Daisuke said.

Akane smiled.  “Please, call me Akane.”

Daisuke smiled and she stood and walked to the kitchen.

“We have another problem,” Junpei said.  “There isn’t enough wood.”

Daisuke’s mind was scrambling for a solution when Junpei produced two screwdrivers.  “Is it alright if we take a couple of the interior doors off their hinges?”

Five minutes later, the doors to the cellar, the basement living area, the laundry room and the entryway closet leaned against the wall near the house’s front door.  Daisuke and the Fukuharas looked at them and the pile of wood next to them.  They had almost gotten accustomed to the thumping sounds coming from the walls.

“We’ll have to be quick,” Daisuke said.  Junpei grunted in unhappy agreement.

“I think the windows are much weaker than the door,” Junpei said.  “We should reinforce them first and save the front door for last.  And we’ll have to draw the blinds so they don’t get in the way of the hammering.”

Daisuke nodded.  Akane held out their supply of nails and gave them an optimistic smile.

“Okay.”

In a flash, Daisuke grabbed several planks of wood to seal the window next to the front door.  Junpei picked up a loosed door for the double window between the TV and the kitchen.  They retrieved their nails from Akane and their hammers from the dining room table and got to work at opposite ends of the house.  As they suspected, the moment they began hammering, the rabid people outside became agitated.  Their horrible moans raised in both volume and pitch and their knocks on the walls became louder.  Daisuke saw part of one of them through the front window.

By the time Daisuke and Junpei had each boarded up their first windows, three more infected prowled dumbly around the front of the house and another two banged against the rear of the house.  Daisuke and Junpei each grabbed a door and started on their second windows – Junpei on the large front window behind the couch and Daisuke next to his previous project.  Junpei asked for light and Akane flipped the switch, illuminating the large room.  The infected became more excited and found the windows.  Junpei finished nailing his second door up and ran to the final window – in the front corner of the house – with three more planks of wood.  He drew the blinds to keep them out of his way and found himself face-to-face with a rabid person.  It was a middle-aged man.  He bled from his jugular, which sported a circular wound with tooth marks around it.  He had lost too much blood to still be alive.

The man screamed loudly at Junpei and reached for him.  It was a long, high-pitched scream, like a bird of prey would make.  When his hands hit the window, leaving bloody fingerprints, he closed his fists and began banging on the glass.  By the time Junpei got the first wood plank nailed in, a crack had appeared in the window.  He was putting the first nail into the second plank when the window shattered and the man grabbed him by the shirt.

Daisuke heard glass shatter and looked to find its source.  His eyes focused on the window in the corner just in time to see Junpei get pulled out of it onto the grass outside.  Junpei’s head hit the plank he had already nailed in and then he was gone.  Akane cried his name.  Daisuke was frozen stiff.

“Please, help him!”

Daisuke looked at her blankly, unable to process what was happening.  He heard a smacking wet sound like a watermelon hitting concrete and exploding.  His legs refused to move.  He looked down at the floor near Akane’s feet and saw the third hammer.  Finally, Daisuke looked back to the window and saw two hands reach up to the windowsill, waving desperately while a man’s voice cried out.  One hand held a bloody hammer.

Junpei.

Daisuke blinked his eyes tightly and everything came back to him.  His legs finally obeyed him, but they moved at a glacial pace.  He reached the corner window, stepping on broken glass.  He looked out and saw Junpei begging to be helped back in, so Daisuke took his hands and pulled as hard as he could.

Junpei yelled in agony as his forearms scraped the bottom of the window frame and became embedded with glass shards.  His feet kicked wildly at the outside of the house, trying in vain to gain traction.  At last he was inside, his body hitting the ground with a thud.  Other infected came to the broken window and both men grabbed the remaining planks Junpei had taken and they boarded the window as quickly as they could, pushing hard to keep grabbing hands and open mouths away.  Once, Daisuke hammered a nail in and blood dripped from the window frame as fingertips protruded in from above the plank.  He realized he had caught one of the attackers’ hands in the nail and had to rip the plank back out and try again.

When they were done, Daisuke sank to the floor.  He had barely sat when Junpei was in his face yelling at him with a large, booming voice.

“Where were you?” Junpei screamed.  “I was counting on you and you almost got me killed, you stupid kid!  What would happen to Akane if…”

Daisuke realized how slowly and ineffectively he had reacted to Junpei’s plight.  His first thought was of Akane losing her husband.  His second thought was of how much Junpei had helped during this nightmare already.  He felt tears well in his eyes and he began crying.

Junpei’s arms stung.  He sucked in air through his teeth.

“And why did you drag me in like that? My arms…”  Junpei trailed off when he noticed that Daisuke was crying.  He cursed.  “Is there a First Aid Kit?”

Daisuke pointed downstairs.  “Bathroom,” he said.  The word came out between sharp gasps of breath.  Junpei walked downstairs and Daisuke heard him searching in the cupboard above the sink.  Akane excused herself and followed him.  Daisuke heard them speaking in hushed tones but couldn’t make out what they said.  Instead, he crossed the room to the final planks of wood and hammered them into the front door.  As he was finishing hammering in the final nail, hurried footsteps approached the stairs from above.

“Open the door!” Ryu screamed.

“What?”

Ryu reached the landing and leaped down the steps to the main floor in one jump.

“Open the door, bastard!”

Ryu ran faster for the front door than his legs would carry him.  He almost fell forwards, crashing against the door and grabbing at a random piece of wood.  He yanked it and it budged just a bit.  Daisuke screamed for him to stop and he pried his hands off the barricade he’d just finished.

“What are you doing?”

“We have to open this door!  Help me!”

Daisuke put himself between Ryu and the door.  He found it difficult to keep Ryu’s anxious hands away.  “Why?”

“She’s outside!  We have to let her in!”

“Who’s outside?”

“My sister!”

Junpei and Akane returned after hearing the commotion.

“What’s this all about?” Junpei asked.  His voice was gruff and only one of his arms had been bandaged.

“He said his sister’s outside,” Daisuke said.

“And two friends are with her!”

Akane spoke up.  “Forgive me, Ryu-san, but…if they’re outside, are you sure they’re…”

“Right now they’re hiding behind a neighbor’s shrubs, just like you were,” Ryu replied.  “She texted me a minute ago and I saw them in the shadows, but they won’t last long out there.”

“We’re not opening that door,” Junpei said.

Ryu made a dismissive gesture at him.  “I didn’t ask you.”

Junpei started to charge forward and say something to Ryu but Akane’s hand on his shoulder discouraged him.  He looked back at her, breathed deeply, and made no further effort to approach the boy.  Instead, he raised his other arm up to show it to Ryu, shards of glass and wet blood shimmering in the light.

“Hey,” Junpei said.  “This happened because Kinoshita and I had to board up the windows alone.  You already jeopardized our safety once.  I won’t allow you to do it again.”

“That’s a different tone of voice than our last conversation, Fukuhara-san.”

At first, Daisuke thought Junpei looked embarrassed, but then he noticed something different in his face.  It resembled pity.  Then Junpei said something quiet that nobody heard.

“Eh?” Ryu asked.  “Spit it out.”

“…He was already dead,” Junpei repeated.

Nobody spoke.

“Since the moment your father attacked Daisuke, I knew something was wrong more than just a sickness.  He shouldn’t have been able to stand, let alone attack Daisuke.”

“Why not?” Ryu asked.  Everyone in the room already knew the answer to the question.  He only asked hoping no one would say it.

“I’m sorry, but the condition of his head…”

“Be quiet!” Ryu shouted.

“Then, a few minutes ago, while we were boarding up the windows, I too was attacked by an infected person.  He had a hole in his neck, right here on the jugular.”  Junpei pointed at the artery in his neck.  “Anyone suffering that kind of injury will die in a few minutes – maybe less.  The blood loss is too great.  But this man…He had strength where he should have none.  He was standing and walking and attacking me with both hands, even though he had lost enough blood that he must be –“

“Dead,” Daisuke said.

Ryu looked down and away.

“They aren’t sick, then,” Daisuke said.  “They’re dead people walking around.”  He shuddered.

“I’m sorry about what happened to your father,” Junpei said.  “But I didn’t kill him.  I’ve seen it twice now; any person with this infection is already dead.  However, they can still move.”

“There’s a term for this in the West,” Akane said gently.  “A dead person walking around.  It’s called a zonbi.”

The katakana characters appeared in their minds.  Zo-n-bi.  The boys had seen horror movies, but those types of films had been far enough from their thoughts all night that the idea had escaped them.  Daisuke recalled that the movies usually ended poorly for the survivors, who died one by one, unless they could find shelter and access it in a way the zonbis couldn’t.  Then it came to him.

“L-ladder!” Daisuke said.

Everyone turned and looked at him.

“On the balcony there’s a fire escape ladder.  It’s chain-link.  We can lower it for Ryu’s sister and her friends then pull it back up.”

Junpei shook his head.  “A zonbi could climb it or pull it down.”

“We can lure them to the other side of the house,” Daisuke said.

Junpei began to protest.  Suddenly Akane ran across to the window out of which her husband had been pulled.  She beat her open palms on the drywall and shouted near the cracks between the planks.

“Hey!” she yelled.  “Sick people!  Come over here!  I’m by the window!”

Junpei ran to her to stop her.  Akane looked at Ryu and shouted “Go!”  He obeyed.  Daisuke followed him.  The zonbis migrated over towards her voice, howling into the night as they hunted their quarry.

In seconds, the boys were on the balcony.  Ryu extended both his arms above his head and waved them to someone Daisuke didn’t see yet.  The gesture reminded him of Junpei waving from outside.  A pang of remorse struck his stomach.

Three figures – two girls their age and one man at least in his 20s – emerged from the shadows down the street.  As soon as they did, Ryu pulled a handle on the ladder and it unfurled towards the ground, its chains clattering.  Daisuke couldn’t see their faces.  He didn’t want to let any more strangers into Asahi’s house, but he couldn’t leave them out there either.  He helped pull them up as they reached the balcony.

Daisuke recognized the first girl.  She was one of his classmates – Hitomi Takai.  He was so surprised to see her that he almost let go of her hand as he helped her over the railing.

“Takai?”

She stood straight and put up her hand for a high five.  “Hey Kinoshita!”

Aren’t you surprised at all? he thought.  He raised his hand automatically and she slapped it with vigor, laughing nervously.  Before he could ask how she knew he was there, she spun around and embraced Ryu.

“Brother!”

“Hey sis.”

Are you two really related…? Daisuke thought.  He could hear the melancholy returning to Ryu’s voice.  Daisuke heard the chains of the ladder clinking together as the next girl climbed up.  Then he remembered that Hitomi had been with Emiko and their friends earlier that night at the festival.

“Takai!” he said.  She turned back to him.  “Weren’t you with Emiko earlier?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Is she…alright?”

Hitomi looked past him and nodded.  “Why don’t you ask her?”

Daisuke turned back to the ladder and saw her.  Emiko Takahashi was nearing the top of the ladder and struggling to get onto the balcony.  As if in a dream, he glided over and helped her over effortlessly.  For one brief moment, she was in his arms.

“Takahashi…” he said.  “Are…are you okay?”

She looked downwards.  “I can stand on my own,” she said.

Daisuke realized he was still holding her.  He quickly let go and backed up a step, bowing in apology.  His face went red.  “I-I’m sorry!”

The man came over the top of the ladder and Ryu quickly cranked it back up before any zonbis could approach it.  He shouted to Akane and Junpei that everyone was safe while Daisuke looked at the man.

He appeared to be in his late 20s.  He was tall and thin, with slicked-back black hair and a moustache.  He wore a black suit with an opened collar and a loosened silk necktie.  As he straightened himself up and dusted off his pants, where they had brushed the balcony railing, he looked around himself quickly, taking everything in.  Daisuke saw that the man wore a wristwatch that looked expensive and carried himself as though he were of some importance.

An executive? Daisuke thought.  At his age?  Or just a normal salaryman who takes himself too seriously?

The four of them made their way inside and everyone introduced themselves when they reached the main floor.  Soon, all seven of them found themselves in the living room sitting on the couches.  They made an odd group.  There was Daisuke, the only one familiar with the house; Ryu, the strange punk student; Junpei, who had since cleaned and bandaged his other arm; Akane, his wife; Hitomi, Ryu’s sister; Emiko, the class representative; and the salaryman Seiji Kamiya.  Seiji and Ryu stood between the couches and the kitchen.  Daisuke held the remote control for the television, which Akane had happened to clean before the new group arrived.  Junpei explained his theory of the zonbis to the new group and they accepted it reluctantly.  Nobody wanted to hear any more bad news, which they were sure would come from anything on the television.  Daisuke tried to stall.

“Takai,” Daisuke said.  “How did you know I was here?”

“Emiko-chan’s ears are better than yours,” Hitomi replied.

“Eh?”

“You called Asahi on your cell phone,” Emiko said.  “You said you were going to his house.  Hitomi-chan and I were hiding behind a low wall behind a kiosk owned by the tourism board and I heard you, but by the time I called to you, you were already running away.”

Emiko was right behind me, Daisuke thought.  I could have brought her and Hitomi here.  For the second time that night, he wondered if his urge to do the right thing were driven by real altruism or merely to be accepted and praised.  What dangers did she face before she got here?  How many could have been avoided?

Again, Daisuke lowered his head and stammered out an apology.  Emiko told him not to worry.

“We ran into Kamiya-san on the way here,” Hitomi said.  “He was leaving the electronics store on the west side of Nagara River on Route 61.  We crossed the river near Alice and continued north.  I didn’t want to pass by any more shrines than we had to, and there was the animal hospital…”

They really are related, Daisuke thought.  He noticed they performed some of the same body actions simultaneously – scratching their heads, sniffling, thumbing their noses.

“We were here more than an hour before you,” Ryu said.  “What took you so long?”

Hitomi and Emiko exchanged glances.

“We don’t owe you an explanation,” Hitomi said.  She was as dismissive as Ryu had been to Junpei.

“Ah, come on…” Ryu pleaded.

“The area where the rivers meet…” Hitomi said.

“That’s where I ran into Kinoshita,” Ryu said.

“He was hiding under the bridge,” Daisuke said.

“Quiet, stupid!”

Hitomi laughed at her brother, but then her visage dimmed.  “A gasoline truck went off the east-west bridge and crashed onto Route 156.  The bridge over Yoshida River is…”

Daisuke’s eyes widened.  The bridge was out.  He thought of his conversation with Ryu in Asahi’s bedroom.  His fears over what might happen to travelers near the tunnel on E41 were happening at that moment to anyone headed north on Route 156.  Furthermore, that meant no help was coming from the south.  Any minute now, if it weren’t already, northbound traffic on 156 would be backed up past the roads in southern Gujō that led east and crossed Yoshida River.  Hitomi was telling them how they had to cross Nagara River and make their way north on the west side of the river.  Then they reached a long silence.

Daisuke thumbed the soft buttons on the remote.

“By the way, Ryu?” Hitomi asked.

“Hm?”

“Have you heard from mom or dad since all this happened?”

Junpei, Akane and Daisuke slowly turned to look at Ryu, who stared blankly at Hitomi.

“Are they okay?”

Ryu stole a quick glance at Daisuke before looking back to Hitomi.  Daisuke didn’t know if he was pleading for an intervention or looking for support in telling her about their father.  In that moment, several thoughts came to Daisuke.

They’re fraternal twins.  Ryu’s life had taken a different enough path from his sister that they rarely mentioned each other, but they were twins nonetheless.

If Ryu told Hitomi about their father, she would either react with the trouble that he had or the closure he didn’t, given the new information about the infected already being dead.  That also meant she could have a negative attitude towards Junpei like Ryu had or react much more fairly and even-headedly.

If Ryu were able to avoid answering the question, the opposite held true.  Hitomi would let it go for now if more pressing matters arose.  She would have no reason to distrust Junpei, but she also couldn’t help Junpei and Ryu make amends.

The rubber buttons on the remote seemed to prod Daisuke’s thumb.  He could turn the television on and tune to NHK to distract them all or he could wait a minute and let Ryu tell Hitomi what happened to their father first.  The longer he thought about both, the harder it was to decide.

Voting Time!!! Daisuke should either let Ryu tell Hitomi what happened to their father or he should intervene by turning the television on to the news. They’ll watch the news in a few minutes regardless, but should Daisuke turn it on right now or let Ryu tell Hitomi what has happened first?

Polls have now closed with the vote count standing at 11 to eight in favor of letting Ryu tell Hitomi what happened to their father. This is a Core Crisis decision and will either save or cost a main character his or her life later in the book.

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