Recommended Listening: MONO – “Death in Reverse”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence
Emiko was making omelette rice for seven people. The familiar scents of steamed rice and sautéed mushrooms wafted into the living room. Busying herself with the familiar task helped her remove herself from the situation. She hoped the others in the Sugimoto residence would attach themselves to the comfort food that they had known since their childhood and find at least momentary solace. While she worked, Seiji looked anxiously through the kitchen cupboards.
Akane sat at the kingwood table. She looked at the quadrotor drone, the applicable medicines, gauze, a suture kit, a wooden spoon and a butcher’s knife. Akira had flown the supplies over on the drone in multiple trips since the drone wasn’t made to carry more than a couple pounds of weight. At the end, the group had taken the drone itself and tied a length of fishing line to it. One end of the fishing line was tied in a knot around a small plastic loop on the back of the drone. The other end of the fishing line waited patiently.
Ryu and Hitomi watched the news, unable to face what was about to happen. Hitomi’s phone charged in the outlet in the corner. Junpei paced anxiously near the front door.
“Are we really going to let him do this?” Junpei asked.
“Yes,” Akane said.
“Please don’t make him any more nervous than he is.”
They glanced to the set of stairs. On the basement floor, Daisuke splashed cold water on his face and washed his hands with soap and water.
The refrigerator door shut and Seiji crossed the living room area to the stairs and walked downstairs to the bathroom where he held a cold bottle of sake out to Daisuke.
“No thank you,” Daisuke said.
Seiji chuckled. “Trust me, kid. You have to calm your nerves.”
Daisuke took the cold ceramic bottle from Seiji and smelled it. It was about the size of a soda bottle. He took a sip and grimaced. After a quick pause, and after picturing the items on the table, he tried again and drank in large sips. Within a minute, much of the bottle was gone.
“Okay, okay; not too much now,” Seiji said, taking the bottle back. The shaking that he alone had noticed in Daisuke’s hands had subsided. “How do you feel?”
Daisuke looked to Seiji and managed to smile and nod. Then Seiji looked behind himself to make sure nobody was coming down the stairs.
“Take one of these too,” Seiji said. He uncapped the bottle of pills he had in his pocket and handed one to Daisuke.
“What are they?”
Seiji sniffed. “They’re for headaches.” He looked around, unable to meet the boy’s eyes.
Daisuke took the pill and swallowed it without a word. Then they went back upstairs where Daisuke sat at the table.
After looking at his hand briefly, Akane flicked Daisuke’s index finger.
“Can you feel anything?”
He shook his head no.
“It’s time,” she said.
Junpei walked around behind Daisuke and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders for support.
Akane spread Daisuke’s left hand out on the table and felt around the base of his index finger for a moment. When she was satisfied, she gently squeezed the knuckle between her own thumb and index finger. With her free hand, she produced a pen from her purse and removed its cap. She drew a line where the bones met. Then she took Seiji’s right hand and guided it so he could feel the bone at the knuckle. She looked at him sharply.
“This is where the finger meets the hand,” she said. “Above this point is the proximal phalanx. Below it is the second metacarpal. Forget what you’ve seen in movies. If you cut him here –” she touched above the knuckle “– you will hit the bone and it will be much more difficult for him.”
Seiji didn’t tell her he knew all this. Even if he hadn’t been hiding his life as a kodo-kai, her tone demanded compliance. He remained standing and picked up the butcher’s knife.
“If you make a mistake, I will never forgive you!”
Before Seiji could respond, she re-fixed her gaze on him. “Are you ready?”
Akane turned to Daisuke.
“Are you ready?”
Junpei tightened his grip on Daisuke’s shoulders. Despite his temper, Daisuke was glad he was there. In the kitchen, Emiko sliced through a stick of butter to coat the heated frying pan for the eggs. Daisuke could picture the eggs, already beaten, waiting in a bowl to go into the hot pan. The butter hit the pan and sizzled, melting and bubbling almost instantly.
A childhood memory came to him. When he got sick, his mother would make pork cutlets – Daisuke’s favorite meal. However, she would refuse to serve him until he took his cold medication. He hated the taste and would procrastinate, refusing to drink it but getting hungrier as the scent reached him.
“As soon as you drink it, you can have your pork,” she used to say. “Don’t let it get cold.”
He would procrastinate sometimes for an hour before drinking, almost ruining his meal. The older he got, the less he delayed.
“Daisuke?” Akane asked again. “Are you ready?”
Emiko is making me omelette rice, he said. There’s just one thing to do before I can eat.
The word was barely out of his mouth when Seiji swung.
The butcher’s knife drove through Daisuke’s flesh and into the kingwood table with an unmistakable thud. The side of the blade was a thin metal wall between Daisuke’s hand and his index finger. Emiko jumped from the sound of the amputation and dropped the spatula she was using to cook the eggs. It hit the floor with a loud clang and she was pulled out of her peaceful routine.
My classmate is seriously injured, she thought. Daisuke Kinoshita’s finger is severed. He needs all of our support right now and I practically ran from the room as soon as I voted for him to go through with it. I’m the worst kind of person.
Emiko bent down and picked up the spatula and washed it in the sink. She heard all the commotion of the following moments but couldn’t bring herself to look. She tried desperately to focus on the food, to block out the consequences of all of their actions. The eggs were still raw but would soon congeal in the hot, buttered pan.
The butcher’s knife drove through Daisuke’s flesh and into the kingwood table with an unmistakable thud. Seiji removed it from view, placing it on an adjacent seat. He took the severed digit and the drone off the table and quickly headed for the upstairs balcony. He hated to think about it, but if they were to use the digit as some kind of bait, he imagined they should do so as soon as possible, while it was still lifelike. Also, just as importantly, he believed it was best for Daisuke not to see the finger and dwell on it. Seiji had seen grown men pass out after losing a finger and he didn’t want his young host to do the same. The night was difficult enough on everyone.
Ever since Daisuke had persuaded them to do this, Seiji found himself liking the boy.
He’s braver than he looks, Seiji thought. I hope that girl he likes feels the same way about him that he does about her.
He reached the balcony and sat on a chair, placing the drone on his lap. He pulled the fishing line and found its loose end and began the unpleasant task of tying the finger to it. He felt guilty for lying to Daisuke about the nature of the pills, but based on his past experiences with amputations, Seiji wanted to provide all the relief he could get. He stifled a chuckle imagining how Daisuke would feel in another half hour, then doubled down on the task at hand. He wanted to do his part to make sure the sacrifice hadn’t been in vain.
The butcher’s knife drove through Daisuke’s flesh and into the kingwood table with an unmistakable thud. Ryu and Hitomi whirled around at the sound and looked at the result. Ryu vomited into his hand and, subsequently, onto the couch. He ran to the kitchen, found carpet cleaner, wetted a hand towel and came back to clean his mess. He scrubbed the couch while Hitomi stared at Daisuke reacting to his injury.
He’s only now realizing what he agreed to do, she thought. She nudged Ryu to look at him as well.
The butcher’s knife drove through Daisuke’s flesh and into the kingwood table with an unmistakable thud. Despite the anesthesia Akane had administered, Daisuke’s body sounded alarm bells at the sudden injury. Blood spurted from the joint onto the table as Seiji dug the knife out of the table and hid it from view. Daisuke held his hand up in front of his face and nearly passed out from the sight.
My finger is lost.
A sharp pain in his palm resounded, dulling as it shot through his forearm. Daisuke’s breath quickened and shallowed. Every instinct in his brain told him to run – to where, he didn’t know. There was no hospital to reattach the digit; there was no longer a digit to reattach. A sound of panic swelled into a scream of terror and Daisuke realized it came from his own throat. He didn’t notice Akane ordering Junpei to hold him still until the man was already squeezing him in a one-handed bear hug from behind. Junpei’s left hand grabbed Daisuke’s wrist firmly and held the injured hand out to Akane as she got to work pouring cool water over the hand and trying to wipe it clean.
Junpei spoke to him firmly, but with words of encouragement.
“It’s all over,” he said. “Daisuke! It’s finished. Be still; Akane will help. In a little while, everything will be okay. Everything will be okay.”
“He’s hyperventilating,” Akane said. “Help him please!”
Junpei’s words helped, but not enough. Daisuke felt dizzy. After Akane finished cleaning his wound, she and Junpei raised his hand above his heart to reduce the blood flow and prevent swelling. His eyes darted around as he struggled against his captor. Ryu and Hitomi stared at him wide-eyed.
“Tweezers.” Emiko spoke with such calm determination that Daisuke almost grabbed the tweezers for her himself. Junpei released Daisuke’s wrist and handed his wife the tweezers.
Tweezers? Daisuke thought.
“Bite down on this,” Junpei said. Daisuke was so caught up wondering what the tweezers were for that he didn’t hesitate to open his mouth for the handle of the wooden spoon Junpei held to it.
He bit down just as new torment shot through his bloody stump. Akane was removing a stray bone fragment from the injury. Daisuke howled in pain through the handle of the spoon. It was a feral growl that broke into and out of falsetto rapidly. He felt dizzier and more lightheaded. Each second was an eternity.
“Junpei! Slow his breathing!” Akane said. “He’ll go into shock!”
She set the tweezers on the table with a clatter. Tiny drops of blood hit the table; more blood stayed on the tips of the tweezers. A small white shard of something laid bloody next to them. It took Daisuke a minute to realize it was the stray bone fragment. Despite the shock and pain and immediacy of the moment, he couldn’t look away from the tweezers. Akane picked up the gauze and placed it firmly on the open wound. The dryness of it stung him anew. He saw stars. Consciousness was about to leave him.
And then, without warning, Emiko was holding Daisuke. Her right hand cradled the back of his head and her left arm wrapped around his back.
“Kinoshita!” she said. “Be calm. Please take slow, deep breaths.”
He did as he was told. He was so surprised to be in her arms that he could only obey. Each breath lasted longer than the previous one. By degrees, Daisuke regained control of his breathing.
No one had seen her come in from the kitchen. The moment she heard Akane say he may go into shock, she turned on her heel from the stovetop and stalked to her classmate without thinking. As she hugged him, his ear pressed against her chest near her collarbone. She hoped he could hear her heartbeat.
In the middle of the fear and pain and the horrors of the people outside, for just a moment, the world glowed. Everything melted away. He felt her soft, white cardigan on his cheek, pieces of fluff pressing against his face, and he felt her delicate fingers on his hair and on his shoulder. Her long, straight hair tickled his forehead.
He had stopped struggling. Junpei loosened his grip slowly until he had released him. Daisuke’s injured hand still shook, but far less violently than it had been. His hand and arm throbbed. As if reading his mind, Emiko spoke again.
“I know you’re in pain,” she said. “But it can’t be helped. I think…you are a Buddhist. Is that right, Kinoshita?”
He nodded. He knew what she was implying. He closed his eyes and thought of the lessons of Buddha. He thought of pain acceptance and tolerance of pain. A piece of my hand is gone and it will never return, he thought. I cannot change this. Tomorrow and next week and next year it will be gone. My pain is my own. It’s my body warning me to seek help. Even still, I have help. Akane will tend to my hand. I must let her. I must trust her.
“In a few minutes, the bleeding will stop,” Akane said. “Then I can close the wound.”
Several seconds of silence passed. The only sound was the incessant beating of open hands on the outside walls and windows. Daisuke reopened his eyes. Emiko released him as suddenly as she had grabbed him. Then she knelt in front of him and met his eyes.
“Your dinner is almost ready,” she said. “Omelette rice. Do you take ketchup?”
“Okay,” she said. She smiled the way a babysitter would to a small child, then stood and went to the kitchen.
From the balcony, they heard the whirring of the drone as its blades came to life. Junpei and Hitomi dashed upstairs to see the next event unfold.
We took the boy’s finger, Junpei thought. We really did it. This has to be worth the danger and the trouble.
Seiji stood on the balcony and watched the drone hover up and away from him, Daisuke’s finger tied to the end of the fishing line. It looked as if it were pointing downward and notifying them of the crowd of zonbi below. In a grotesque way, it was almost funny. He would have laughed if he had seen it in a horror-comedy movie. He heard steps bounding up behind him.
“Did it work?” Junpei asked.
“He only just got it flying,” Seiji said.
“Is it tied on tight?”
“Look at it,” Seiji said. He was annoyed that Junpei doubted his ability to tie a simple knot, but he let it go. Instead, he crossed his arms.
“He’s an excellent pilot,” Hitomi said. It was true. Akira flew the drone with expert skill. Seiji imagined he must be an enthusiast of radio-controlled planes in his spare time. The drone floated steadily down towards the crowd of zonbi that surrounded the house and hovered several feet above their heads. They failed to notice it.
“He has to fly lower,” Junpei said.
The drone descended further. Still, none of them took the bait. After a brief pause, Akira lowered the drone again until the finger was inches above their heads.
“Look up, damn it!” Seiji hissed.
None of the zonbi noticed. One by one, Junpei’s, Seiji’s and Hitomi’s hearts sank. The lure had failed. Junpei realized one of them would have to tell Daisuke and the others. It was an experience he dreaded.
The drone flew rapidly away from the zonbi.
“Is he giving up…?” Seiji asked.
They followed it with their eyes and watched as it approached a lone, wandering zonbi woman crossing the street next door. It flew so quickly they thought it would hit her in the face. At the last moment, it tilted and stopped directly in front of the zonbi, who made a loud and angry cry and reached for the finger. She was fast, but Akira was faster. Before she could grab her prize, the drone seemed to hop backwards away from her. She stood stunned just long enough for Junpei to worry that she’d lost interest in it. His heart skipped a beat. Then she lurched forward towards the drone again.
“No way,” Hitomi said. Seiji shushed her.
Akira drew the drone back again, and again she followed. He worked her up to a slow walk, slowly flying it towards his own house. She grasped at air time and time again, making a beeline for the side of his house. When she reached the rear corner of his house, the drone flew slowly up just out of her reach. She stared upwards at it with her arms outstretched as it landed on the edge of his rooftop. The moment it touched down, an impossibly large figure emerged from the rear of the house, just to her side. Hitomi, Junpei and Seiji jumped. The person quickly leveled a stick – or what looked like a stick – at the zonbi’s neck. To Hitomi, it looked like an overhead kendo swing that missed. The zonbi lurched again and Hitomi realized what was happening.
“It’s an animal catch pole,” she said. “Animal control has them for…rabid dogs.”
Neither man shushed her this time. Instead, they murmured in awe of Akira. Then it occurred to them why he looked so big.
“Is that…?” Junpei asked.
“…a dog training suit?” Seiji asked.
They looked at each other in bewilderment.
“Look!” Hitomi said.
Akira silently guided the zonbi around, keeping her at the length of the pole. She had noticed him now and tried to reach him, but the pole was longer than her arms.
“He’s so cool!” Hitomi squeaked. Both men looked at her.
Akira guided the zonbi to the back of the house and out of sight.
“The phone…!” Seiji said.
They scrambled back inside and down to the living room. Daisuke had propped his left elbow up on the table and Akane focused on his injured hand with a surgeon’s precision.
“How is he?” Junpei asked.
“The bleeding is slowing,” Akane said. “After he eats, I think I can begin to sew the wound.”
She looked up and locked eyes with Seiji again. “It was a very clean cut, Kamiya-san. You did well.”
Seiji tried to blow the compliment off. However, he felt a sense of pride in making the operation go as smoothly as it could. Emiko emerged from the kitchen with Daisuke’s omelette rice and a metal spoon with which to eat it. She had drawn a cat’s face in ketchup on the omelette to cheer him up. Daisuke blushed and lowered his head quickly, feigning a bow and thanking her. She quickly returned to the kitchen. Seiji hid a smile, then he told them what had happened, making sure to speak loudly enough that Emiko could hear him. Daisuke picked up his spoon and began eating.
“A lone zonbi took the bait,” Seiji said. “Akira emerged from his house like a vengeful ghost and captured her with a dog catcher’s pole. He led her around the back of his house like he was commanding an animal on a leash.”
“He was very cool,” Hitomi added.
“In any case, he should call soon,” Seiji said.
Things got quiet again. With no goal to busy them, their minds returned to the situation on the larger scale. Junpei broke the silence by asking for a pen and paper, to which Daisuke directed him, and he wrote down the prescription orders. Emiko brought omelette rice for everyone one at a time; a hot meal and Akane’s deftness in sewing Daisuke’s wound shut brightened the mood noticeably. While they ate, Akira called to confirm that he was safe and to check up on Daisuke. Junpei took the call.
“Sorry everyone, but it’s too loud in here,” he said. “I’m going to speak with Akira-san upstairs.”
Once he reached the master bedroom, he shut the door and read the list of medicines to Akira. He added prenatal vitamins quietly.
“Are there any updates on the news?” Akira asked.
“I’m sorry, but no,” Junpei said. “Did you get the zonbi secured?”
“Of course. She’s restrained and I gave her a sedative. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Why can’t we call you?”
“I don’t want my phone ringing. I’ll unplug it after we hang up. Good night.”
The click on the receiver thwarted Junpei’s plan to ask Akira more about himself. He grunted in dissatisfaction and returned downstairs.
By the time everyone finished eating, Daisuke felt much better. His last few bites of food seemed to take forever, and now he sat upright on the couch near the boarded-up front window, his elbow propped up on the couch’s backrest. His hand caught his eye and again he held it in front of his face. He stared at the blank spot where his index finger used to be and willed his hand to try to curl the missing digit in anyway. The bandaged stump moved slightly forward.
“Ho-ohhhhhhhh…” he said, in a calm sort of awe. He blinked several times and fought back an inexplicable urge to laugh. Then he tried bending the missing finger again.
He looked around the room and found that everyone was staring at him. With his right hand, he pointed to the missing finger, believing for some reason that that explained his actions.
“Kinoshita, are you alright?” Emiko asked.
He placed his hands in his lap and looked away, trying to act normal so nobody would notice how funny he felt. Then he realized she had asked him a question he had failed to answer. Quickly, he looked back at Emiko and stuck his right hand out and gave her a thumbs-up sign.
“I’m fine!” he said cheerily. Junpei and Akane whispered something to each other.
“Daisuke, are you dizzy or lightheaded?” Akane asked.
He slowly shook his head from side to side. “No, Akane-kun.”
“I-I gave him a bit of sake before,” Seiji said. “I hoped it would soothe his nerves. I’m sorry if I caused trouble.”
Daisuke looked at Seiji and remembered a gesture he’d seen in an American film once and decided it was the perfect moment to try it out. He raised both his hands, pointed his index fingers at Seiji – momentarily forgetting that he was missing one of them – and extended his thumbs to face up. Then he winked and made a clicking sound with the side of his open mouth as though he was calling a horse, flicking his hands a bit downwards and back once.
“…How much sake?” Junpei asked.
It was decided that Junpei and Akane would sleep in the master bedroom while Emiko took Asahi’s bed. Hitomi was assigned to the guest bedroom upstairs. Seiji volunteered to stay up until sunrise to watch and listen to the window reinforcements and to watch the news. Junpei offered to take the next shift. Ryu and Daisuke were left with the couches in the living room. While Junpei and Ryu fetched linens from the bedrooms for the couches, Akane talked to Seiji and detailed the possible signs of complications that could arise from Daisuke’s amputation.
“If any of these occur, wake me immediately,” she said.
Everyone went to bed. Daisuke worried that the sounds of the zonbi would keep him up all night. He closed his eyes and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
* * *
Daisuke opened his eyes. Unlike the previous six days, this was the first morning he failed to leap from the Sugimotos’ couch and ask whoever had been on night shift for news updates. Instead, he stared at the familiar ceiling of the living room and breathed slowly.
Today’s the day, he thought.
He rose and showered. The bar of soap in the shower had thinned considerably since they got to the house. It was obnoxiously analogous to the food supply in the kitchen. He cursed to himself.
Daisuke looked through Asahi’s closet and selected a baseball jersey to wear for the day. When he had dressed, he joined everyone else on the balcony to look at the situation on the street. It had become a routine throughout the week.
Only Emiko and Akane turned to look at Daisuke when they heard him open the door. Akane looked over his left hand. Then she gently pushed at the stump of his index finger.
“Is there any pain or itching?” she asked.
He shook his head no.
“Good. The infection has gone.”
Involuntarily, Daisuke looked at Junpei. His arms had been free of their bandages for several days but it was increasingly obvious that some of the lacerations would leave scars. He felt a pang of guilt for that as well as some unresolved anger towards Ryu for failing to help them board up the windows.
If you had been there, we would have secured the first floor before the zonbi grabbed Junpei, Daisuke thought. He tried to forget about it.
“Are there any more?” he asked, approaching the balcony’s edge.
“See for yourself,” Ryu said. His tone was sullen and dismissive.
Daisuke looked down at the street. He estimated 150 zonbi surrounded the Sugimoto residence.
“It looks about the same,” he said.
Hitomi pointed to the edge of the crowd. “I don’t recognize those ones,” she said.
She was right. There were even more than there had been the night before.
Down the street, dozens of other zonbi crowded around a couple of other houses. Akira had remained anonymous, but their neighbors weren’t so lucky. Two houses down from Akira, Daisuke spotted the yellow house with the broken windows. He tried not to remember the moment they heard the gunfire and the screams coming from that house on the second day of the outbreak. He tried not to remember rushing to the balcony to see what had happened. He tried not to remember seeing the married couple flee from their home only to be overtaken by a swarm of zonbi.
And yet that couple was now a part of the fray dumbly pushing against one another to get to Daisuke and his group of friends. He looked and saw them and the sea of other faces and he knew that none of his companions would ever walk out the front door of the Sugimoto residence alive. This train of thought brought him to the shovels, the sledgehammer, the empty buckets and the 2x4s they had gathered in the cellar.
“Have we made a decision yet?”
“We’ve narrowed it down to two options,” Junpei said. He pointed to his right, past the opposite side of the house. “If we go west, we’d reach the house that’s visible from the master bedroom window. In that direction is Shizen-En-Mae Station. There are fewer houses there, and more fields. There don’t appear to be any zonbi there either. If we go from house to house, we could reach the…” Junpei checked the road map they had found in the closet. “…Koseko Hall Community Center, which is just across the street from the train station. We’d be clear of this group of zonbi and run across the street at night to the station.”
“The news said that utilities are still running all over Gifu,” Emiko said. “That means the trains should still be operable if we can figure out how to run them. The news also said the Yamato Clinic has been fortified by the military, and it’s only a block away from Tokunaga Station.”
“Did Akira confirm there’s a train at Shizen-En-Mae?” Daisuke asked.
Junpei nodded. “You slept through Seiji attaching Hitomi’s phone to the drone this morning. Akira flew it west and her phone caught it on camera.”
Hitomi produced her phone from her pocket and showed Daisuke the video she had taken.
“Or we could go east instead,” Seiji said. He turned to Daisuke. “The auto parts shop you mentioned has several cars parked in its service area – if you keep watching Hitomi-chan’s video you’ll see them. They appear to be left with the mechanics, so the keys are either in the cars or the shop. We can drive south on 156 until Nagara River and Yoshida River meet –“
“You said the bridge was out,” Daisuke said.
Seiji nodded. “Instead of crossing the Yoshida River, we can head east to Gujō Hachiman Castle. The roads will be clear enough since the bridge collapsed; no traffic came up from downtown.”
Daisuke remembered that the news had reported that the castle was also fortified and people should head there if they were nearby.
“What if we can’t find car keys?”
“I…can start a car without the keys,” Seiji said. He quickly added, “When I was your age, I was friends with some delinquents.”
“Was that before you worked in the butcher’s shop?” Hitomi asked. Seiji’s ears burned.
“The train station and the auto shop are about the same distance from us,” Daisuke said. “We just need to decide where to go – west to Shizen-En-Mae Station or east to the auto shop. Did either road look clearer than the other?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Emiko said. “We couldn’t see that far.”
Junpei ran a hand through his hair. “First, we pick a destination.”
“And then?” Akane asked.
Voting Time!!! The group needs to decide which direction to dig their first tunnel. If they head west, they’ll begin a journey to secure a parked train and ride the rails north. If they head east, they’ll begin a journey to acquire a car and drive south and east. Both modes of transport are equidistant from the Sugimoto house and both paths seem to share about the same risks and rewards. This decision will majorly affect the last several chapters of the novel. Should they head west or east?
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Polls close Sunday, November 10.