Recommended Listening: Thom Yorke – “Has Ended”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Tunnel A
“My mother was crying,” Seiji said. “I asked what was wrong and she told me that my youchien teacher’s husband had walked out to the middle of the street and shot himself in the head.”
Junpei stopped digging. He rolled onto his side and turned his head as far as he could to see Seiji behind him. Seiji covered his flashlight with his free hand so he wouldn’t blind Junpei.
“That was your earliest memory?” Junpei asked.
Seiji realized he had never told anyone about it before. He hesitated for a moment, weighed down both by the sadness of the event and the years that had passed between then and now.
Why was that so easy to say? he thought.
Then he nodded to Junpei.
“Forgive me, but, how old were you?”
Seiji tried to remember. “I think I was five,” he said.
Junpei tried to remember himself at five. “I’m…sorry,” he said.
The tunnel led west towards the abandoned train cars at Shizen-en-Mae Station. Their first destination was the house next door, which had shown no definite signs of life since the outbreak began.
“What’s yours?” Seiji asked.
Junpei turned back and resumed digging. Seiji uncovered the flashlight for him. “My grandmother was working in the garden at her house and I was sitting with my feet in front of me. I was so still that a butterfly landed on my shoe. My father told me I was only about 18 months old.”
Seiji was impressed. “You were so young to remember that,” he said. “You beat me by more than three years, Fukuhara-san.”
Junpei chuckled. “I suppose you have to buy me a beer.” As he said this, he noticed that the bucket he had been scooping the dirt into was full. He rolled onto his side once more and handed it back to Seiji, who set the flashlight down and took the bucket with both hands.
“How many is that now?” he asked.
“I’ve lost count, but we should be almost there.”
“I mean how many beers?”
“Two beers for you, three for me,” Junpei said.
“Ha! We’ll have quite an evening when we get out of this. I’ll be right back.”
Seiji scooted backwards on his elbows and knees. It was uncomfortable, but he took comfort that the journey grew ever longer. As Junpei said, they were almost there. As he retreated back towards the Sugimoto residence, he counted the bright strips of fabric that were nailed to the left side of the tunnel.
They would need to know how long the tunnel was in order to reach the basement of the next house. Seiji was 175cm tall, so they used his frame as a yardstick to measure how long the tunnel was – and how often they needed to support the tunnel with a wooden brace to keep it from collapsing. The tunnel was hard work and progress was slow – in five days they had only dug about seven meters – but by Junpei’s and Akira’s guesses, they should be under the next-door neighbor’s basement by now. The last hour’s digging was simply insurance against possible underestimation. As the third bright strip of fabric passed Seiji, he slowed.
“Kamiya-san is back!” Ryu said.
Seiji felt his feet touch something hard. They had broken down one of the chairs at the kingwood table and stood its seat against the rear wall of the tunnel just for this reason. Seiji pushed himself up on his hands and crawled backwards on them, curling himself into the smallest position he could at the entrance to the tunnel. Meanwhile, he reached forward and grabbed the bucket by its handle and pulled it back with him. Finally, he bowed his head deeply to avoid hitting it on the tunnel ceiling while he sat up.
Ryu reached downwards for the bucket. Seiji handed it to him. “No rocks this time,” he said. Seiji stood and hoisted himself up by the cellar floor, sitting on it and swinging his legs up and around so he could stand properly and stretch. He rubbed his neck and shoulders, which had cramped during his time in the tunnel, and looked around.
Daisuke and Emiko sat on one side of the cellar making wood braces for the tunnel. Due to his missing finger, Daisuke needed assistance. She held the 2×4’s in place for him as he drove the nails in. Seiji smiled to himself and saw Ryu slinking away from him out of the corner of his eye.
No rocks this time, Ryu thought. His face turned red and he looked downward. It was a secret admonishment from Seiji. Ryu recalled the events two days prior.
Seiji had taken a digging shift while Junpei rested. Ryu was his support in the tunnel, shining the flashlight so Seiji could see. He also took it upon himself to run the loads of dirt to the balcony to dump outside. During one trip, Seiji had used an icepick to carve around a rock that obstructed their pathway. It took a long time but he finally plied it loose with his hands and handed it back to Ryu. The rock was big – it took up half the tunnel as it was transported back. Ryu took it up to the balcony to throw it away but he stopped and looked at the zonbi that encircled the house. He was transfixed. Memories of his father returned to him. He raised the rock over his head with both hands and threw it down as hard as he could, striking a zonbi down. For reasons he couldn’t understand, Ryu called his father’s name out when he threw the rock. The dead person’s head exploded like a watermelon under the force of the object, gore splattering on the zonbi around him. Ryu turned around to go back inside only to see Seiji staring at him. Seiji had come outside for some fresh air and reached the balcony just in time to see Ryu smash the zonbi below. Neither of them said a word. Ryu brushed past Seiji and went back inside.
Ryu shook the comment off and returned to the present. He took the bucket of dirt and made for the stairs. Seiji followed him.
Hitomi was on her phone; Akane watched the news. Both looked up at Ryu and Seiji when they saw them coming.
“Any earthworms?” Hitomi asked.
Ryu shook the bucket gently and saw several worms slowly curling around in the bucket.
“Of course,” he replied.
Akane looked at the clock, then at Seiji, who stopped as Ryu continued upstairs with the bucket.
“You’re back so soon?” she asked. “You and my husband are working too hard.”
“Not to worry, Fukuhara-san,” Seiji said with a slight bow. “After the next load, we’ll take a break. Any more news from Akira?”
Akane shook her head. “He called earlier and asked about the American health director.”
“What did you tell him?”
“While you were digging, NHK said the Americans believe she most likely went to Yamato Clinic but no one has heard from her since the crisis began.”
“Did you tell him all that?”
Akane nodded. “I suppose that means we’re not the only ones struggling with communications.”
Seiji went to the kitchen to get himself some water. Akane and Hitomi exchanged a glance.
The second day of the outbreak, everyone in the group found themselves unable to make or receive phone calls on their cell phones. Text messages also failed to send. Email servers blinked out shortly after that. Even social media posts failed to upload. The Sugimoto family’s house phone only worked intermittently and even that only resulted in busy signals or messages from the phone company claiming that the dialed numbers weren’t in service. Akira had the same problem – he said on one phone call that he only reached them every dozenth or so time he called. Nobody wanted to think about how truly alone they were. All they could do was watch and listen.
The phone charger Akira had given them was only compatible with Hitomi’s and Junpei’s phones, so before the others ran out of batteries, they wrote down their immediate families’ names and numbers on paper so Junpei and Hitomi could keep trying to reach them. One by one, everyone else’s phones died out. Their only lifelines to the rest of the world were the news stations and whichever news sites and social media platforms Junpei and Hitomi could pull up on their phones.
Junpei’s phone lay on the table. Akane took it and unlocked it, opening Twitter. She tapped the search button and for the first time in a week she looked up what was trending.
Akane’s heart sank reading the topics. She suddenly felt very insecure about herself. Even still, she tapped one of the illness-related topics and scrolled through the news. Article after article from every news agency in every powerful country, it seemed, appeared to downplay the outbreak as some kind of ordinary disease epidemic. Some articles implied that only Asians were susceptible to the disease, giving rise to the trending xenophobic hashtags.
She decided not to mention it to the others.
Hitomi hadn’t said anything about any of the earlier trending topics and Akane didn’t dare ask if she read them. On the one hand, if Hitomi had read them but she was keeping them to herself, the same as Akane had, Akane didn’t want to break the girl’s quiet streak. On the other hand, if Hitomi hadn’t checked that part of Twitter and Akane asked her, it would doubtlessly spur the girl’s curiosity. Who knows what would happen if she saw? She may run off and tell the others. Akane couldn’t risk severing their single, thin thread of hope by chancing Hitomi telling the others that the world ridiculed their plight.
“I’m going to take a shower!” Ryu declared from upstairs.
“Ok!” Hitomi answered.
“Hey, Hitomi-chan?” Akane asked.
“Why are you interested in worms?”
Hitomi smiled as they heard the shower turn on upstairs. “In school I did a report on them,” she said. “They’re very resilient; they adapt and survive. It’s believed that worms are 500 million years old and survived the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs.”
“I didn’t know that,” Akane said.
Hitomi beamed. “I hope we have the same luck,” she said.
Hitomi returned to her phone. She had no inclination to tell Akane or the others about the racist trending topics on Twitter or other social media. She continued to try to respond to them; her phone continued to fail her.
Ryu scrubbed himself from the head down. The seven people taking shelter in the Sugimoto residence had all promised to ration their shower frequency and the use of the soap and shampoo. Nobody knew how long they would have to depend on the toiletries in the house, so everyone showered just three times a week, unless they took a tunneling shift. Everyone agreed they were allowed a shower every day they dug. Ryu was washing himself for the first time since the rock incident.
As he rinsed his torso, he felt a tiny hard spot on his chest. He looked down and saw a grey dot that protruded just a millimeter or so from the center of his ribcage. It was near his heart.
He scratched at it but it remained.
Is this…a pimple? he thought.
He puffed his chest out to stretch his skin to its utmost, then put an index finger on either side of the blemish, the tip of each fingernail just barely touching the skin. He had had zits before and got a subtle sense of accomplishment from ridding himself of them. It was, he believed, a tiny problem he could solve – a way to microscopically better himself with the pinch of two fingers. Plus, he realized, he was in the shower, so the unpleasant cleanup after the excision would be minimal.
Ryu dug in and pushed his fingers together. In an eyeblink, a familiar-looking, needle-thin filament emerged from the clogged pore and stood on end, then stopped. It was translucent – clear and white at the same time. Ryu turned up his nose at it.
So, it’s one of those, he thought.
For good measure, just as his mother had taught him years before, he pinched again to ensure he had fully cleared the pore. However, the threadlike protrusion got longer instead. It was now three centimeters in length.
A third pinch agitated the neighboring pores enough to turn red and sting, and finally the contents of the blemish stopped. Embarrassed to have such a filthy thing on him, Ryu pinched it between the thumb and index finger of his right hand and pulled it out gently. The immediate area inside his chest tickled unpleasantly and whatever he had begun forcing from his skin showed no signs of stopping. It grew by centimeters and resembled a glass noodle, which his grandmother had always called cellophane noodles. By the time its other end fell out from his chest and dangled limply from his grasp, it was as long as the distance from his wrist to the tip of his middle finger.
In shock, Ryu failed to notice that the pore from which it had come slowly filled with blood. It would have been the only natural-seeming part of the event, had he seen it happen. Instead, his nostrils flared and he breathed through them, his eyes wide and his breath coming quickly. He held the string-like thing up to the light and took it in, noticing the faint rings that encircled it every few millimeters.
Just as Ryu tried rolling the thing between his index finger and thumb to feel for its texture and firmness, it coiled up from the bottom towards his face. Involuntarily he jerked his head backward and shouted in shock. The thing made some kind of screeching sound, quickly coiling further upwards and wrapping itself around his thumb. He panicked, trying to release it and shake it off, but it had a hold of him. It was squeezing him tighter, like a boa constrictor, and his thumb felt sharp pressure on it like it was caught in a fishing line. He screamed a second time.
No, Ryu realized. It isn’t just squeezing my thumb. It’s stinging me!
He stopped trying to shake it off just long enough to look at it closely again. Somehow the thing had grown barbs along its body that dug into Ryu’s thumb. He sucked air in through his teeth and looked for something sharp to pry or cut it off of him.
My switchblade, he thought.
He tossed the shower curtain aside with his left hand. Naked and dripping wet, he scrambled to his pants and dug through the pockets with both hands. His thumb bled profusely; it already dripped onto his jeans. He found his switchblade in his rear right pocket and removed it, flipping it open as quickly as he had in his life.
Ryu didn’t even want to take the time to stand back up. He whipped his body around and placed his right hand palm down on the shower floor. Reddened water washed towards the drain from his thumb. He gently slid the blade of the knife along his right thumb and under the abomination that choked it. Then he tightened his grip with his left hand and pulled upwards.
It didn’t take much – at least, not as much as Ryu had thought. He heard a tiny pop as one segment of the creature severed. Relief found him immediately as it loosened its grip and fell from his thumb, writhing in agony as it drifted towards the shower drain. Its severed end followed lifelessly behind it. Even as Ryu reached to grasp his right thumb with his left hand, it was down the drain and gone for good.
A loud knock on the door made him jump.
It was Hitomi.
“Ryu-chan, are you ok?”
“F-Fine!” he said.
“You screamed; what’s wrong?”
She tried the door, which was locked. “Let me in, Ryu-chan!”
“I said I’m fine, Hitomi!”
He looked around, still unable to believe it all.
“Centipede!” he said. “A centipede was on the ceiling and it landed on me. That’s all!”
He heard her hesitate for a minute, but then she gave up. He told her he’d be down in a few minutes and she left.
He tried to make sense of what had happened. He washed his injury with soap and water, then held his hand above his heart to keep it from throbbing while he finished his shower. He examined his chest; there were no more infected pores nor did the excision site appear abnormal. After Ryu dried himself, he cleaned the blood from his pants and dressed himself. Feigning aloofness, he made his way to the downstairs basement and wrapped his wound in gauze. He knew Hitomi would notice and he practiced his response. Oh, the centipede stung me; didn’t I tell you? Nothing to worry about. He repeated the lie to himself over and over until it sounded natural.
In the cellar, Daisuke and Emiko continued making their braces and keeping an ear out for Junpei. When their hands accidentally touched, he jerked his back involuntarily.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Are you planning on going to college?”
He nodded. “Mm.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Originally I was going to be a pianist,” he said.
She froze. “Kinoshita…”
He laughed. “I’m kidding!” he said.
Tears came to her eyes. “You shouldn’t joke about that!”
He softened immediately and reached for her, but withdrew his hand when he saw its deformity. A long moment passed. “I’m sorry, Takahashi,” he said. “I just wanted you to laugh.”
She brushed the tears away and found herself laughing despite everything. “Idiot,” she said playfully.
“I think I would like to be a business manager,” he said.
She nodded and they resumed working. “That’s a good career,” she said.
“Have you thought about it yet?” he asked.
She nodded but didn’t say anything. He waited.
“Promise me you won’t laugh,” she said.
He nodded with conviction.
“I was thinking…I want to be a chef.”
Daisuke looked away shyly.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “Do you think I shouldn’t do that?”
“I think…your cooking is very good,” he said. “You should definitely become a chef.”
Now it was her turn to blush. “Th-thank you. I think you should become a business manager.”
He locked eyes with her. “It’s decided then,” he said. “You become a chef and open a restaurant and I’ll manage it with you!”
Emiko didn’t know if he was joking or not but she grinned.
Daisuke heard Junpei scrambling up the tunnel entrance to the cellar. Daisuke scurried over to him and helped him to his feet, another bucket of dirt coming up with him.
Daisuke told him Seiji was upstairs and Junpei went off to find him. Daisuke turned back to Emiko, who was standing and dusting herself off.
“I think we’ve done enough for now,” she said. “Let’s take a break.”
When Daisuke and Emiko returned to the living room, Seiji and Junpei were having an excited discussion. Akane and Hitomi had stopped what they were doing so they could listen. Daisuke and Emiko walked up to the stairs just ahead of Ryu, who – without anyone noticing – had gone to the downstairs bathroom. His right thumb was wrapped in gauze.
“Big brother,” Hitomi said. “What happened to your thumb?”
“The centipede from the shower stung me,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you?”
Before she could ask more, he asked what was going on. Nobody knew. Junpei and Seiji came out from the kitchen, each with a glass of water, and told them the news.
“We’re there,” Seiji said.
“Where?” Hitomi asked.
“Under the neighbor’s house,” Seiji said. “Junpei, tell them what you told me.”
“Just now, I did some digging – upwards,” Junpei said. “By our measurements, we should have been at least a meter into the neighbor’s foundation.”
“You dug upwards without someone spotting you?” Akane asked. “That was dangerous – you could’ve been caught in a cave-in.”
Some of the excitement left Junpei’s face. “Y-You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry. However, there’s more. I found something.”
“Concrete?” Daisuke asked.
Junpei shook his head. A smile appeared on his face.
“Fresh air,” Seiji said.
“The zonbi –“
“We didn’t dig far enough?!”
“Did they see you?”
“Is the tunnel…?”
Junpei put his hands up. “It’s fine,” he said. “We’ve reached a crawlspace under the neighbor’s house.”
“A crawlspace?” Ryu asked.
Junpei nodded. “A handful of dirt fell to my face. I barely avoided getting it in my eyes. Grass came with it. When I saw the grass, I panicked and remained motionless. Then I looked up and saw that my view of the sky was blocked by insulation and wooden beams. Look, you can see the crawlspace from the kitchen window.”
“The kitchen window is boarded up,” Hitomi said.
“Just look,” Junpei replied.
They all went to the kitchen window and peered between the cracks in the boards. It was the closest any of them had been to the zonbi since they boarded up the house. One by one they carefully eyed the rear of the neighbor’s house to verify Junpei’s claims.
“Do you see the siding?” Junpei asked. “The siding we thought was part of a sunken floor? It’s actually the side of the crawlspace; it’s hollow on the inside. There must be a door on the far side of the crawlspace for normal entry. I think it’s shut and the zonbi haven’t discovered it.”
“You ‘think?’” Ryu echoed. “I’m not going over there and poking my head up because you ‘think’ it might be safe.”
“Ryu…” Hitomi said.
“You don’t have to,” Seiji said. “The next time we talk to Akira we can ask him to fly his drone over with Hitomi’s phone and look for the door. The house isn’t too far for him to see. If it isn’t safe, we won’t go.”
No one had a successful argument against it.
“There’s one problem though,” Junpei said.
“Of course there is,” Ryu said.
“Sorry Emiko,” Hitomi said. She held the end of the cloth measuring tape between her left thumb and index finger. It wrapped around Emiko’s shoulders and met itself on Emiko’s chest. Emiko blushed but told Hitomi it was alright.
“81,” Hitomi said.
Akane wrote the number down. Hitomi loosened the tape then retightened it around Emiko’s waist. “60.”
“That’s enough,” Akane said.
The three women left the master bedroom and came back downstairs to the living room.
“How did everyone measure up?” Junpei asked.
Everyone looked at him. His eyes widened.
“I-I’m sorry!” he said. “I didn’t mean it like that. Please forgive me. I just meant…Who has the best chance?”
Akane looked at the sheet of paper with everyone’s measurements. “Hitomi-chan may not be the best choice,” she said. “It may be more difficult for her to swing the hand axe up into the neighbor’s floor.”
“Good job, fat hippopotamus,” Ryu said to Hitomi.
“Shut up, idiot!” Hitomi said.
“It must be Akane or myself,” Emiko said.
“Why can’t we just widen the hole that goes upwards and have one of the men swing at it from the hole?” Seiji asked.
“If the subfloor or the regular floor collapses when it gets broken through, it would be harder to escape from it that way,” Junpei said. “Also, if it collapsed right over the tunnel like that, it could fill up the tunnel or cause a cave-in at the mouth. The safest way is for the smallest person to punch up far away from the hole. That way she can roll away if the floor starts to give.”
“And it won’t disturb the tunnel,” Ryu said. The cynicism in his voice was thin, but unmistakable.
“Right, but I think keeping the axe wielder safe is the most important,” Junpei said.
“Should someone else go with them?” Daisuke asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Emiko said. “If there’s trouble, I doubt anyone could do much for us lying down in the dirt.”
“In any case, Akane and I are the smallest,” Emiko said. “That means one of us would have the most room to swing. It also means she and I should decide which one of us goes.”
“I don’t mind going,” Akane said.
Emiko smiled out of one side of her mouth. “Neither do I.”
Voting Time!!! Akane and Emiko must decide which of them will take the hand axe and punch up into the second house. Both women are similar in size and strength. As always, this decision will have unforeseen consequences. Who will go – Akane or Emiko?
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Polls close Sunday, December 8.