Recommended Listening: LLNN – “Voyager”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Tunnel A, Crawlspace
Akane Fukuhara didn’t mind breathing through the bandana wrapped around the lower half of her face, which she had tied – with some difficulty – while lying face-up on the ground underneath the new house. During her training as a nurse, she had grown accustomed to wearing a surgical mask. At first, feeling her own hot breath emanating back to her face displeased her, but before long she learned to ignore it.
She was less accustomed to the safety goggles that constricted her face. The elastic band that encircled the back of her head was easy enough to disregard, but the hard plastic clung to her cheekbones and her forehead, pushing against them much like the elbows of a passenger on a crowded subway would push against her ribs. Akane knew that the goggles would leave her with a headache by the time she finished. The gardening gloves they had found for her stirred other memories she wasn’t prepared to think about yet.
Akane had already removed a section of a joist from the underside of the house. She thought she, Emiko and possibly even Daisuke and Ryu could slip their bodies through the space between any two of the dirt-caked joists and into the second house, once she had hacked away the subfloor and whatever flooring awaited inside. However, Seiji, Junpei and Hitomi were unlikely to pass through. She cut through one section of the long wooden i-beam to the subfloor, beginning with the flange. The web gave way far more easily. Once she was through the top flange, she scooted over a meter or so and began again, making quicker work of the second cut. Finally, she wrenched the whole middle section loose, rocking it back and forth before tossing it aside. She took a quick break to catch her breath and admire her work – she now had an exposed section of subfloor larger than a manhole that she could cut out. It would take some time, but she knew that before she volunteered – and Emiko had offered to take a shift if Akane got too tired.
Since they had finally made their way to another house, the group could no longer stop from voicing their concerns about what awaited them when they punched through the floor. The first worry was for Akane’s general safety. Since they arrived at the Sugimoto residence more than a week before, Junpei had shown himself time and time again to be an old-fashioned man with a true romantic love for his wife; he was the first to object to her being the canary in the coal mine. Yet only he and Daisuke knew of her pregnancy, and without telling the rest of the group, they had no leverage to talk anyone out of her doing the woodworking. Two against five – it was futility. But once Junpei vocally expressed his doubts, the floodgates opened.
The second source of concern, both for Akane’s sake and that of the rest of their group, was the condition of the subflooring, which was only somewhat visible even from the crawlspace. Seiji returned to the subject of noise more than once.
“What if the zonbi hear her under there?” he asked.
“I don’t think they would know exactly where she was,” Emiko said. “The source of the sound would be muffled.”
“They would know she was in that house,” he said. “Akira said the curtains are shut but the windows don’t look boarded up from his house.”
“But without an attraction to the windows – that is, without seeing anything inside – they would just go from this house to the windowless side nearest us and bang on the walls like they do here,” Daisuke said.
“That’s the other problem,” Junpei said. “We can’t see inside. Who’s inside the house? How many of them are there? Are they alive? What will they do when they hear their floorboards being torn up? If they own a shotgun they could shoot her through the floor.”
“Who owns a shotgun in Japan?” Ryu asked.
“Maybe yakuza,” Hitomi said flatly. Seiji’s ears burned.
“Yakuza in Shizen-En-Mae?” Ryu asked. “Idiot.”
“That’s enough,” Daisuke said. “There are also the pipes to consider. Gas and water.”
“And power,” Junpei added.
“Rupturing the water line would flood the tunnel no matter where she hits it from,” Daisuke said.
“And if she hit a gas or power line she could – “
“Enough!” Akane said. It was the first time she had spoken. “We won’t know anything unless we try. You’ve looked in the kitchen. We all have. We’re running out of food. September 1st is less than a week away. If the water and electric lines are automated, they could shut off at the beginning of the month for nonpayment of service. How long will we last in the Sugimoto house with no perishable foods and no running water – and no electricity?”
Everyone looked to one another like children being scolded by their mother. Nobody spoke.
“No help is coming,” she said. “Yoshi Agasawara and the rest of the NHK news team have said nothing to make us think otherwise. Isn’t that right Hitomi-chan?”
All eyes fell to Hitomi. She swallowed hard and nodded.
“We have to keep moving and working together,” Akane said. “We built the tunnel. We used it. Now we must take a leap of faith. The only way to know what’s in the next house is to break through the floor and see. I would like to do my part for all of us. So everybody do your best and please, let me go – even if this is the only time.”
No further objections were made. Everything came down to a desperate hope.
Akane caught her breath. She had been rotating her body with the circular opening she had carved and was now over halfway done. Her arm was sore. She remembered cartoon characters doing this and she laughed to herself at how much easier it had seemed. She wiped her sweaty forehead with the back of her wrist; the dirt gently scraped across her brow. The cuff of the glove was rough on her forehead. It reminded her of her father, Bokuzen.
She was born Akane Takano. Her family moved to Nagoya from eastern Japan when she was three years old. The size of the city intimidated her in her youth, and so she enjoyed gardening with her father, using her mother’s spare gardening tools with great heft. Bokuzen Takano had lived in small villages his whole life, but had received a promotion to his company’s Nagoya office that he couldn’t pass up. He was the son of farmers and took a simple pleasure in tilling good earth, a trait passed to his daughter.
As Akane grew through adolescence into her teenage years, she became accustomed to the city and gardened with her father less and less. Afternoons with friends and dates with boys took the place of much of Akane’s and Bokuzen’s time together. She failed to realize how badly he needed their timid little backyard to anchor him in the foreboding city until she and Junpei attended her father’s funeral many years ago. Her mother’s tools rusted in the garage.
“Father,” she said to his portrait through wisps of incense smoke, “I’ve brought the man I’m going to marry.”
Tears stung her eyes then and now. Then, a younger and slimmer Junpei stood like a sentinel and she cried into his overcoat. She felt a pang of guilt at admiring his handsomeness in the suit and dress shoes he wore to her father’s funeral as well as the scent of the soap she had bought him. That admiration – and the overwhelming emotional torrent of the event – planted a seed in her. That night in their bed she clung to Junpei tightly, desperately seeking the feeling of life, the feeling of anything. He held her just as tightly, finding meaning in protecting and comforting and expressing his love for her.
Now, merely the safety goggles gripped her face, protecting her from the splinters and chips of rotting wood that fell at her. All at once, the hacked-away circle of subfloor came loose and swung away from the larger piece. It popped off as suddenly as the lid of a tin can. It would have hit Akane in the face had she not mitigated its force with her outstretched hands and turned to her right, away from the approaching object. Her left shoulder bore the brunt of the impact and a sharp pain filled her left side. She forgot herself and cursed loudly, then remembered the zonbi and clasped her filthy, gloved hands over her mouth. Splinters slapped against her tongue and granules of dirt bounced around her teeth and to the back of her throat, making her gag and spit. She closed her eyes and curled up in discomfort to regroup.
“Akane!” her father said, chiding her. “Stop being foolish. We have more work to do. Pick up your trowel and come here.”
She was five years old and a small bug had caught her attention. It had become unearthed in the soil and rolled itself into a ball in defense. Akane asked her father’s permission to move it away from their garden so they wouldn’t hit it with their tools. Bokuzen wanted to tell her that they had likely already struck and killed several bugs or worms and would do so countless more times before the day was through, but he relented and sat with his knees up to rest while she ran the bug to its new home. When she set it down, it remained curled in a ball. Worried she had broken it, she poked it with her index finger, assuming it would unfurl and crawl away or dig into the dirt. When it didn’t, she tried grabbing it by either end with each hand and forcing it to spread itself back out. It resisted. Before long she heard small cracking sounds coming from it. When she realized what she had done, she dropped the bug in horror. It was alive, but it wouldn’t last the afternoon. She looked to her father for guidance and realized his posture rivaled the bug’s.
His back must be in such pain every day, she thought.
At that moment, she decided to become a nurse. She was still staring at him when he called her back over.
“Coming, papa,” she said, a quarter-century later. Akane Fukuhara opened her eyes again and rolled onto her back and spread herself prone on the dirt. It was late afternoon and the sun was low in the sky, clamoring for the horizon. She pulled the circular subfloor segment free and discarded it off to the side without looking. Junpei popped his head up from the tunnel entrance several meters away.
“I heard you yell; are you alright?” he asked. He was breathless with exertion.
She nodded and made a small sound of affirmation. “Do you remember my father’s funeral?”
“Hm? Yes,” he said. “Of course.”
“You went in ahead of me while I greeted the priest. When I found you, my aunt Yukiko kept ordering you around and calling you ‘boy.’ I thought she was being impolite and I became embarrassed and angry. I confronted her about it before we paid our respects to father.”
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
“’Why don’t you call him Junpei?’ I asked her. ‘Who is Junpei?’ she said. ‘He’s my boyfriend. You’ve been ordering him around all day and you won’t even call him by name. What’s wrong with you?’”
Junpei laughed. He could picture her aunt’s reaction.
“She pulled me aside and held my arm. I was ready for a scolding. Instead, she said ‘I didn’t know his name. He didn’t introduce himself to me.’ I didn’t understand. She said you walked straight over to her and mother and said ‘I’m sorry for your loss. How can I help?’ Before they could ask who you were, you were gathering tear-soaked tissues for the trash and stirring pots of noodles in the kitchen. You never stopped long enough for an introduction, even when my uncle and the older men laughed to see a man in the kitchen helping the women cook and clean. They were old-fashioned like that, and Aunt Yukiko said they even made some comments under their breaths that you heard but you didn’t stop helping.”
Junpei nodded but didn’t speak.
“When I caught up with you, I expected you to tell me what a big help you’d been and what a hero you were. Instead you asked if I was ready to walk in and pay my respects. I nodded and you asked me – “
“– what to do,” Junpei chuckled. “I didn’t know which sect of Buddhism your family practiced; I had no idea where to go next.”
“You’re a good husband,” she said. “You’ll be a good father.”
“Th-Thank you, Akane,” Junpei said.
“Tell the others I’m fine. They’ll worry.”
She groped around herself for the hand saw with the pointed edge. She found it and held it by its handle and looked again to the floor above her.
“Do you want Emiko to take a shift?” Junpei asked.
Akane smiled. Much of the floor had been sawed through when she took out the subfloor. It was hardwood, lacquered together. She could be done in a matter of minutes.
“No. In fact, tell everyone I’m almost done.”
“Are you sure?”
He disappeared back into the tunnel and she got back to work. With each drag of her right arm, she made sure her left supported the floor. This may be our new kitchen, she thought to herself. Emiko would have to hop over this hole every time she cooked.
Akane felt newly re-energized. So much of the floor was gone, what remained reminded her of a water bottle’s plastic twist-off cap. Finally, she brought her knees to her chest and planted her feet on the underside of the floor. She grabbed the circular block of hardwood and twisted it side to side. At last it tore away and she held it in her hands. She laughed and cried at the same time, the wood slipping slowly down between her legs, where she kicked it away.
It’s done, father, she thought. We have hope again. All that digging…
A dark shape filled her sight above. Before she had time to think, it reached down and grabbed her with two hands – its right hand hooking under her right elbow, its left hand grabbing her hair and yanking it hard. She was up through the floor to her shoulders before she thought to scream. Before the air could escape her lungs, a blow to the back of her head stole consciousness from her.
Akane disappeared into the house without another sound.
Akira lowered the binoculars from his eyes and put his left hand over his mouth in one smooth action. He also swiveled in his chair in the office on his second floor and faced the rest of the room, away from the window through which he’d just been peering. He breathed through his nose rapidly and his eyes darted around the carpet as if searching for answers.
Was that the pregnant woman? Or one of the schoolgirls?
For the first time in recent memory, Akira had no clue as to his immediate course of action. He had lived for some time with a mentally-prepared buffer that predicted his next several minutes’, hours’ or even days’ actions and settled him into the task at hand. He lived, after a fashion, on autopilot. Calculate this equation by hand, run this algorithm, type this report at X words long divided by Y words per minute for an approximation of time until ready and so on. The moment he opened his eyes from slumber in the morning he knew he would rise, shower, dress, brush his teeth, cook and eat his own breakfast and get in his car and drive to work. Traffic between his house and his office was his first unknown, and he could calculate everything before it down to the nearest five minutes. He quickly considered his other routines – weekdays, weekends, holidays and so on – and realized they had similar structures. Certainties, near certainties, variables, unknowns.
Why is it all so damn scientific? he wondered. Because that’s how we measure our universe, he answered. And this is certainly something happening in our universe. But you’re stalling. The important thing right now is that we don’t have a direct course of action.
Akira rose from his seat and, automatically, on autopilot and with a near certainty of the seconds it would consume, strode to his hallway mirror to examine his own face.
Should I call them? What should I say? They need me and I need them but if I tell them I was spying on the neighbor and happened to see a woman dragged unconscious through his house on the day they vowed to explore it, they may sever communications and fail to provide me with the information I require to…
Just then, the zonbi chained to the slab in his basement moaned inexorably.
I won’t call them, he thought to himself in the mirror. Maybe I will. I don’t know.
“She should have come back by now,” Junpei said.
The entire group had gathered in the basement near the hole that formed the Sugimoto entrance to their tunnel. Anxiously, they awaited Akane’s return.
“You’re worrying over nothing,” Seiji said in his usual cool tone. However, Junpei felt as though for once, Seiji was trying to convince himself as much as anyone else.
“She said she was almost done.”
“That could mean another 20 minutes,” Ryu said.
“Fukuhara-san, the hours blend together on these couches,” Hitomi added. “We watch the news all day for updates. If you ask NHK, ‘a little while’ could be three hours.”
“I’m not asking NHK!” Junpei shouted. He immediately regretted his tone. “I’m sorry. Forgive me, Hitomi-chan. Akane means so much to me. My wife is my entire world. I know I get hot-headed about her…”
“It’s nothing,” Ryu said, picking up on his sister’s mood. “In any case, I’ll show you.”
Ryu hopped down into the tunnel entrance, using the now-familiar body motions to curl himself up, extend flatly on the tunnel floor and begin crawling to the neighbor’s house. He thought he heard the Sugimotos’ phone ring but it didn’t deter him. He kept his elbows and shoulders in so he wouldn’t knock down any of the braces that Daisuke and Emiko had built. Meanwhile, he pedaled his knees like he was riding a bicycle but kept his ankles together and toes apart like Charlie Chaplin. To the others, his body, then his feet, disappeared down the tunnel in an instant.
What are you doing? Ryu asked himself. No, don’t think about it. Just go. Just go.
In no time, he reached the far end of the tunnel and hoisted himself up by his hands. Soon he laid on his back in the crawl space under the neighbor’s house. It was his first time touching above-ground soil since he and Daisuke had walked to the Sugimoto house together more than a week ago, but the thought barely registered in his mind as he scouted the crudely-carved hole through the neighbor’s house. Ryu’s heart pounded but he lied to himself and said the only reason Akane hadn’t checked in was because she had found some delicacy or rare liquor with which to treat herself.
With his head looking up at the ceiling of the first floor, Ryu’s eyes glazed over with tears.
This could be the last house you ever set foot in, he thought.
Shut up, Ryu. Everything’s fine.
You know it isn’t.
He had no patience for this argument to proceed. He got up on his haunches, then stood erect and hopped up into the new house. It was a kitchen – hardwood floorboards lacquered together, white furnishings, Tiffany blue walls and an angled ceiling. It was very Western, he decided. He rose to his feet and recalibrated his body and mind to consider this raised floor to be the normal first floor of a house.
He stepped forward, an open archway to his left. He peered down it and saw an open living room – more hardwood flooring, a white couch on the other side of a glass table, a staircase beyond, a front door on the right. In front of Ryu, to the right of the archway, he spied another archway to a dining room. Between himself and the dining room, a pantry on the left.
“Akane-sensei?” he called. Near the front door, he heard a scuffle. He froze in his tracks. Panic overtook him. Something was horrendously wrong. He knew he was sweating but he tried to maintain a light tone.
“It’s not polite to hide, you know,” he said playfully. In every second, he denied himself to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Each footstep towards the dining room brought him around to a frontal angle of the front door, which would soon be on his left side. He swung each foot in a wide arc, the rubber of his shoes’ toes bouncing ten times per second on the hardwood floor, trying in vain to convince himself this was all some charade.
“Here I come, Akane-sensei,” he said.
An eternity passed as the pantry stood between Ryu and the front door from which he had heard the noise. He made every step known by sweep and by the pressure of his foot. He had the irrepressible notion he was about to startle a wild animal or an unruly toddler.
“I’m almost there,” Ryu said. He spoke more loudly than before. He was thankful his voice didn’t crack. Just then, he heard a dull thumping from the second floor, almost directly above him. He tried to ignore it. He knew there was a threat no more than three meters ahead of him. He heard the slight scuffle again. The house was all dark blues in the late afternoon, early evening light.
Three more steps to the right and he would have a view of this new problem. His hands shook. Two more steps. To fill the silence, or perhaps to drown out the sound of his heart pounding like a drum in his chest or the sound of the thumping coming from above, Ryu made the first stupid sound he could think of while he walked.
“Uuuuuuuuuuupupupupupupupupupupupu,” he said. His tone matched that of a babysitter who was about to burst in on a toddler hiding in a shoe closet.
The front door came into view around the archway between it and the dining room. One step remained. If he didn’t take it, surely his heart would leap out of his chest or he would faint on the floor. The wife of the man who killed my father, he thought. Ryu shut his mouth and breathed through his nose once.
Forget it, he thought. He leapt to the side.
“I got you.”
A middle-aged man stood by the front door of the house. His thick glasses dripped with sweat, as did his forehead. He rocked back and forth on his heels rapidly. With his left hand he both supported and restrained Akane Fukuhara, pulling her to his chest but ensuring she stood upright. In his right hand, a pistol trembled like the last leaf on a tree in late autumn. It was aimed at her temple. Her hands held the man’s arm, palms away from Ryu like she was doing a chin-up in gym class and the man’s hairy arm was the horizontal metal pole.
Okay, Ryu thought.
The man wore a deep red button-down shirt with short sleeves. Black lines crossed vertically and horizontally at regular intervals along his shirt, making a million tiny red squares. He wore khakis and sneakers. His hair was neatly combed and parted on one side – his left side, Ryu’s right. Above them, the thumping sound continued.
“What do you want?” the man asked. Before Ryu could answer, he repeated his question in a furious shout.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Ryu said calmly. Instinctively, he slowly raised his hands above his head. “We’ve been staying in the house next door. We’re running low on food. We just thought that if nobody lived here…”
“You thought you could steal from me?” the man asked. His voice was angry with a sense of persecution. “Don’t look at me!” Ryu lowered his gaze to their feet and tread softly.
“No,” Ryu said. “I’m sorry. I thought if nobody was here – if they had already…then maybe it was okay to eat the food. Otherwise it would just go to waste. We aren’t thieves. We aren’t bad people.”
With that last sentence, the man stopped shaking. A switch in him seemed to flip and he readied his gun on Ryu. I’ve made a mistake, Ryu thought.
“Worms,” the man said. “Have you seen the worms?”
Ryu thought of his shower but shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re lying,” the man said.
Ryu was silent for several seconds.
“She told me how many of you there are,” the man said. “Tell me. How many are next door? If you lie, she dies.”
Ryu stole a glance at Akane. She nodded at him.
“Don’t look at her!” the man shouted. Ryu looked at the floor again.
“Seven,” Ryu said. “This woman, me and five others.”
Silence reclaimed the room for no fewer than five full seconds.
“BOOM!” the man shouted. Ryu and Akane jumped. The man emitted a high-pitched, wheezing cackle. “I’m just kidding, kid. Good job. Of course, I don’t stand a chance against seven. If you all ran at me, I could only shoot two or three of you before you overpowered me.”
Ryu said nothing.
“If there are seven of you, and one of me, the same amount of food you eat in a day could feed me for a week,” he said. “The police will come get us in a couple weeks, right? So why don’t you give me two or three days of your food and I’ll let you have this pretty lady? She and I can hide somewhere safe until you bring me my food so you don’t try anything funny. Then we trade and after you leave my house I’ll kick in your tunnel. I bet if you cut down on what you eat, you could dig a hole in the other direction in another week. That’s how you got here, right?”
We’ve already rationed so much, Ryu thought. Another full week without food and a couple of us would…
“What other choice do you have?”
Maybe he’s right, Ryu thought. If I try to overpower him – if I try to rush him and take his gun – he will shoot one of us. Maybe both of us. Akane or I could die, but not both of us. If I agree to his terms, maybe I can buy some time. The others and I can work together.
Another thump came from the second floor.
But work together to do what?
A sharp headache originated far behind Ryu’s left ear and revved up like a motorcycle. It came up and around his ear, rushing forward to his left temple. His eyelids shook. Dread overcame him. He raised his eyes and glared at the man once more.
Voting Time!!! Should Ryu rush the stranger to save two or three of the survivors from starvation, but endanger his and/or Akane’s life in the process? Or should he comply with the stranger’s demands, save the two of them and hope for another solution but risk starving two or three survivors if nothing comes? Core Crisis #2: Either result of this poll will cost at least one life.
Polls have now closed. Ryu will rush the stranger.