Chapter 08 – El Árbol del Tule

Words: 3,993
Recommended Listening: The Mars Volta – “Asilos Magdalena”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Second Residence

Junpei’s heart leapt into his chest at the sound of the first gunshot.  Before he and the rest of them could process it, a second sounded.  He dropped the phone and ran; the receiver bounced on the carpeted floor of the Sugimotos’ living room.  He bounded down the steps to the basement two at a time and practically dove into the tunnel.  The others followed, but he didn’t care. 

A third shot rang out.

A struggle, Junpei thought.  There were only two of them but three shots. 

Please. 

Please.

A girl’s voice called out to him from behind as he crawled.  He ignored it.  Every second was an eternity that kept him from his wife – his pregnant wife.  At last he emerged in the crawlspace below the second house.  He hoisted himself up and onto his stomach awkwardly, then rolled over until he was below the hole Akane had finished making in the house’s floor just a few minutes ago. 

Junpei stood up and took in his surroundings.  He was in a kitchen with a hardwood floor.  He placed his hands on the floor and pushed himself up, swinging his legs around to get up and out of the hole.  It was a weird sensation.

“Akane?!”

“Junpei!” she shouted.

Relief and new panic overcame him at once.  He raced to the sound of her voice, rounding a corner through a dining room to a front entranceway.  There he saw Akane kneeling over Ryu, who lay on his back with his feet towards Junpei.  Akane’s hands were on Ryu’s chest, blood surrounding her palms and trailing down Ryu’s left side to the floor.  Blood also ran down her right arm from the shoulder.  Several steps away, a man who Junpei had never seen before scooted across the floor feebly on one side, leaving a smeared trail of blood in his wake.  He moved at a snail’s pace and moaned in agony.

Junpei ran to his wife’s aid.  He tore off his shirt sleeve to make a tourniquet for Akane but she insisted that they both focus on Ryu – who was awake but not speaking – first.  Junpei replaced her hands to compress the wound on Ryu’s chest.  He knew there would be more helping hands emerging from the hole in the kitchen soon enough.

“What happened?!”

“This man held me at gunpoint,” Akane said.  Her voice was strained.  “He demanded our food.  Ryu ran at him to retrieve the gun but got shot in the chest.  I broke free, but…”

Junpei reconstructed the scene in his head.  The man panicked and shot Ryu, aiming for his heart but missing by several inches.  Akane wrestled out of his grip in the chaos and ran further into the house, and when the man realized Ryu was slowed, he fired at Akane, a bullet entering her shoulder from behind.  Did it exit? Junpei thought.  Those were the first two shots.  The final one…

He looked off at the stranger once again.  Ryu whispered something.

“Hm?”

“Have to stop him,” Ryu whispered.

“You got the gun away from him and…?”

Ryu nodded.

“Don’t worry, kid; you’re going to be alright.”

Ryu chuckled, which made him cough.  When he coughed, blood came from his mouth.  Akane decided he had a punctured lung that had already filled partway with blood.  The boy was going to die.  It would happen in a matter of minutes.

A strange thumping noise came from upstairs.  Instinctively, Junpei and Akane looked up.

“Take it,” Ryu said.  His voice came with difficulty now.  He lifted his left hand and placed it on his chest.  Junpei only now noticed that he still held the gun.

A shuffling came from the kitchen, followed by light, quick footsteps.  Hitomi, Emiko and Daisuke caught up to them.  Hitomi called Ryu’s name in a panic and rushed to his side.  Daisuke and Emiko hurried to Akane.

“Where’s Seiji?” Junpei asked.  “We have to move Ryu.”

“He’s right behind us,” Daisuke said.  “Akira said he saw a man…”

Junpei nodded upwards at the man, who was struggling to his feet in the next room, which was an office.  “He wanted our food in exchange for Akane.  He must be stopped.”

Without thinking – without asking Junpei who should stop the man – Daisuke ran towards the stranger and shoved himself into him with his right shoulder as hard as he could.  The man toppled over, stumbled for several steps in a futile effort to regain his balance, then tripped and crashed against a tall, narrow bookshelf.  Books rained down on the man, followed by the bookshelf.  Then he was still.  Daisuke didn’t know if he had killed the man or knocked him unconscious.  He didn’t care.  His concerns were with Ryu and Akane.

“Daisuke,” Junpei said.  “Help me move Ryu –“

Ryu slapped away Junpei’s hands.  They had been maneuvering under Ryu’s shoulders to pick him up.  “Idiot!” Ryu said.  “Don’t move me anywhere.”

Junpei was about to object when he heard a wet sound coming from under Ryu.

Blood, Junpei thought.  It’s pooling under him.  He really is going to die.

“You…you saved Akane,” Junpei said.  “You saved her life.”

“Where’s my sister?” Ryu asked.

Hitomi grabbed his hand, the tears flowing freely from her face.  Ryu coughed again and more blood came out of his mouth.  Seiji finally arrived, but said nothing.

“I’m sorry…fat hippopotamus,” Ryu said with a laugh.  “It’s time to grow up.”

“Stop it!” she shrieked.  “You’re not allowed to die, bastard!”

Ryu shook his head.  “I was a coward,” he said.  “I couldn’t…I couldn’t outlive you.  I didn’t want to outlive any of you.  I was too scared to see any of you die.  This was suicide.”

“I’m sorry, but you’re wrong,” Junpei said.  “My wife is alive because of you.  Who knows who else is?”

A tear fell from Ryu’s face.  His eyes searched the ceiling above him frantically.

Then they stopped.

“Ryu-chan?” Hitomi asked.  “Ryu-chan!” 

She shook him.  He was gone.  Silence fell over the house, except for her sobbing.

Next to her, Hitomi heard that the boy and the girl had stopped dressing the woman’s wound.  The woman, in turn, had stopped instructing them.  During Hitomi’s last moments with Ryu, she had heard but ignored the woman telling them the bullet had passed through her arm.  She was luckier than Ryu, Hitomi thought.  And what right did they have to become so enveloped in her brother’s death, each wondering when and how they would pass from this world and what lay beyond, be it reincarnation or nirvana or one of the other religions’ afterlives?  How much did they care about him?

If mama is dead, I’m the last living Takai, she thought.  Her eyelids fluttered a bit.  She felt something in her shift.  Her lungs shuddered as she inhaled and her sobs became quieter.

Her head still buried in Ryu’s chest, Hitomi felt warm liquid reach her knees from the floor.  Her face was wet with tears and, she realized, blood from the gunshot wound.  She couldn’t lift herself up and look at him.  Not yet.  Looking would make it real.  Looking would be the thing that really killed him.  The next time she looked at him, she would absolutely be laying her eyes on a dead body.  Not her stupid brother, aimless and lost in rebellion, but an empty vessel made inanimate.

The strangers around her fidgeted or gazed at one another uncomfortably, expectedly.  After the days she’d spent in constant close proximity with them, Hitomi could imagine what they thought.  The man who killed her father – but did he really kill him? – wanted Hitomi to become stable enough that he could tend to his wife.  It was always his wife, always her needs, that he put above everything else.  And now Ryu-chan had died protecting that woman.  Hitomi hated him.  The yakuza must be concerned about the nature of the death.  Will Ryu come back?  Would Hitomi let them kill him if he did?  Or, having been to as many funerals as he must have, maybe he lamented the group’s inability to perform a proper cremation.  Kinoshita and Emiko-chan probably didn’t know what to think or do.  Above and behind her resting head, Hitomi could almost feel them looking to the adults for guidance.

From upstairs, Hitomi heard a strange bumping sound that had no rhythm.  It was too prolonged to be some kind of object or stack of objects falling over.  Everyone’s attention except for hers shifted to the thing upstairs.  Hitomi did not care.

“What was that?”

“Is it a second resident, wanting our food?”

“I don’t think so.  That man said our supplies could feed him – he didn’t mention anyone else.”

That man? Hitomi thought.  What man?  Neurons in her brain fired.  She lifted her head from her brother and looked at Akane.

“Who said that?” Hitomi asked.

“The…” Akane looked at Ryu’s body.  “The man who killed your brother.”

Hitomi blinked dumbly several times.  In her panic and grief, she had completely forgotten that the bullet that took her brother’s life must have been fired by someone.

“Where is he?” she asked.

Nobody answered her.  As her eyes cast downward, she saw a trail of blood next to Ryu leading away from him and into the next room.  Without another word, she grabbed the gun, jumped to her feet and ran in the direction it led.

Emiko called her name to stop her.  The men said stupid things since words failed them.

“Hey hey hey hey hey hey hey!”

“Whoa whoa whoa whoa!”

The trail of blood ended in the middle of the next room, an office.  Hitomi stopped in her tracks and looked around, then started off again to her right side towards a pile of books.  Under them, and a bookshelf, was an overweight man.  Hitomi zeroed in on him.  In this moment, she and he were the only people in the house – maybe in the world.  She ran to the man’s side, dropped the gun, and shoved the bookshelf off him with more strength than she knew she possessed.  She removed some of the books with large sweeping motions of her arm.  They hit the floor with a clatter, pages tearing, spines open.

Some books and torn pages were still scattered about his torso and legs, stuck to them with blood, the characters soaking in it.  The man who had been in the house all this time, who had shot Ryu and Akane, who had then been shot in the gut with his own gun, was breathing heavily – he was unconscious but nonetheless alive.  Hitomi reached under one of the books that had just landed near her and pulled the gun out from under it.

Footsteps bounded towards her from behind.  She would have to be quick.  She cocked the hammer of the gun and held it with both hands.  Seiji grabbed her from behind just as she leveled the gun at the unconscious man.  He raised her arms up in an attempt to get the gun from her.  She accidentally squeezed the trigger and it fired.  A bullet lodged itself high in the wall of the office.  Dust from the drywall swirled around the air and slowly descended.

Hitomi cursed at Seiji and yelled at him to let her go; he returned the favor, demanding she drop the gun.  After a brief struggle, Seiji managed to wrench the gun out of Hitomi’s hands. 

“Give it back!” Hitomi shouted, hitting Seiji with her open hands.  “He killed my brother!”

Daisuke put himself between her and Seiji; she tried to get past him.  “Takai!” he shouted.  “Kamiya-san is not your enemy.  Please stop!”

“No!” she shouted.  “This man needs to pay for what he did to Ryu!”

“Is this what Ryu would want?” Daisuke asked.  “Would he want you to become a killer?”

“Yes!” she said.  She knew as she said it that she was wrong.  “I don’t care!  Get out of my way!”

Hitomi could feel that her attacks against Daisuke were slowly causing him to lose his balance.  Soon, he would be forced onto his back, at which point she would gladly step on him to get to Seiji and the gun.  It was all that mattered.  Vengeance for Ryu.

A loud and swift slap swept across Hitomi’s face.  She froze, stunned, as the left side of her face stung.  The blow was so forceful it nearly knocked her over.  Hair fell in front of her face.  Between its strands, she could see Emiko staring at her, breathing heavily through her nose.

“Hitomi-chan!” Emiko said.  “Ryu’s final wish was for you to grow up.  Stop being so selfish and think about what you’re doing.  This man might know something that could help us.  If you killed him, we would never know.  Consider everyone else for a change.”

After a long pause, Hitomi simply looked down, more hair covering her face.  Emiko looked around to gauge the others’ reactions.  She was relieved that nobody looked at her in admonishment.  She and Akane quietly led Hitomi to the couch in the open living room in the middle of the house.  Seiji, Junpei and Daisuke stayed behind in the office.

“We have to do something about this man,” Junpei whispered.

“Ryu, too,” Seiji whispered.

All three looked at Ryu.

The thumping sound came from upstairs again.

“We need to know what that sound is, too,” Daisuke said.  “It hasn’t come downstairs yet; I don’t think it’s as dangerous as that man.”

Junpei and Seiji agreed.

 “I’m sorry, but my wife’s wound also needs care,” Junpei said.

Seiji shook his head nonchalantly.  “Don’t apologize.”

“Seiji is right,” Daisuke said.  “Akane is our friend; let’s all get through this together.”

Akane spoke up from the living room.  “If someone would care to go back to the Sugimoto house, the first aid kit and the leftover items from Daisuke-chan’s surgery would help.”

“I’ll go,” Daisuke said.  “Kamiya-san, you have the gun.  Can you keep an eye on that man and the stairs for a few minutes?”

Seiji nodded.  “I think so.”

“Please wrap the first aid materials in a garbage bag to protect them from the dirt,” Junpei said.  “Thank you, Daisuke.”

Daisuke nodded, then leaned in close to Junpei and Seiji.  “Keep an eye on Ryu, just in case…”

Seiji gave Daisuke a firm, reassuring pat on the shoulder and the boy headed off towards the kitchen.

“Smart kid,” Seiji said.

“He’s a born leader,” Junpei said.

“It’s too bad he doesn’t know it yet,” Seiji said.  Both of them smiled despite the circumstances.

Junpei began looking around the first floor for some way to restrain the man.  In the pantry he found a vacuum cleaner.  He took a chef’s knife from the kitchen, severed the cord and returned to Seiji.  Tense minutes passed as they picked the man up with some difficulty and placed him in his own office chair, tying him to it with the lengthy vacuum cable.  Their senses of survival kept them aware of his impending return to consciousness but also of the possibility of Ryu coming back and of the ceaseless movement upstairs.  Even worse, the gunshots had attracted some of the zonbi, who beat their open hands dumbly about the first floor of the house.  Before the night was over, the first-floor windows would need to be boarded up.

“We’re not doing very well, are we?” Junpei asked.  His voice was quiet; Seiji knew he didn’t want the others to hear.

“Hm?”

“We started off with seven people, but now…We have one dead, another wounded, the kid’s missing a finger, that girl is almost catatonic.  How long did we spend digging that tunnel here and then this man was waiting for us?”

“It’ll be alright,” Seiji said.  “Your wife will receive treatment.  Daisuke-chan is adjusting to his injury.”

“And Ryu?”

Seiji shook his head.  “He made the choice to disarm this man.  We can mourn him as soon as things settle down here.”  He paused.  “Look, about Hitomi-chan…”

The sound came from upstairs again.  Junpei lost his train of thought.

“I’m sorry, Kamiya-san; I was wrong to worry.  This man is tied up tightly for now.  We should investigate what’s upstairs.”

“I’ll go.  You should stay here in case your wife needs you or this man wakes up.  Do you want the gun?”

Junpei shook his head.  “You should keep it for now.”

Seiji nodded.  Secretly, he was grateful that Junpei didn’t ask him for the gun.  He was walking into a situation with no information about what awaited him.  He didn’t want to do so unarmed.  Slowly, quietly, he headed up the stairs to the second floor and into the unknown.

Akane and Emiko still sat on either side of a motionless Hitomi.  They had seen Seiji ascend the stairs behind them due to the open layout of the house.  In the distance, Junpei heard Daisuke return through the hole in the kitchen.  He trusted the boy to look after Akane for now.  He had to, he realized, because Junpei was the biggest person out of the five of them who remained on the first floor of this new house.  If the stranger woke up and caused trouble, Junpei was the most capable of restraining him.  He gripped his kitchen knife tightly as Daisuke and Emiko began once again to work on Akane’s injury.

Anger came over him by degrees as he looked at the stranger.  Nobody in the group of people at the Sugimoto house had any reason to believe someone still occupied this residence.  He had been so quiet the zonbi hadn’t come.  On the other hand, so many zonbi surrounded the Sugimoto residence that this man must have realized there were survivors within.  When they – when Akane – had broken through the man’s floor into his house, he must’ve been scared.  He had no way of knowing Akane and the others wouldn’t just kill him outright and take his things, given how sparse the news had been rolling in this week.

And yet, Akane was clearly a small, kind, unarmed and very pretty woman.  She was also polite, level-headed and well-spoken.  He was bigger and heavier than she was and he had a gun.  After their initial fears of each other, Junpei had no doubt Akane could have convinced the man they were merely trying to find a way out of the neighborhood and would be fine leaving him alone or adopting him into their group to survive together.  The stranger had no obligation to turn over any of his own resources to the seven of them – Junpei would have understood if he would’ve simply sent them on their way – but to hold her at gunpoint and demand their food?  Only the worst kind of person threatens others and steals from them in such times of desperation and need.  Then, in his cowardice, he shot a teenage boy to death and put a bullet straight through Akane’s shoulder.  And to what end?  What had he hoped to achieve?  If fear had overcome him, he may have shot Ryu without thinking, but Akane was clearly running from him; the bullet traveled through the back of her shoulder to the front.

You’re a terrible person, Junpei thought while looking at the man.  He realized that after they questioned the man, they would have to decide what to do with him.  He didn’t look forward to that, and yet he wanted it over with.  He wanted the man to wake up.  His eyes drifted down to the spreading bloodstain on the man’s shirt.  With very little emotion, Junpei considered that a bullet resided in the man’s gut and none of them were qualified to do that kind of surgery.  It would stay there for the rest of the man’s life, which would end in the next 24 hours at best.  With even less emotion, Junpei considered turning his knife around and using its butt end to poke the wound, which would wake the man up.

After all, why shouldn’t I? he thought.  The longer he sleeps, the more likely he is to slip into a coma or die outright.  The longer he sleeps, the fewer answers we may get.  He killed Ryu and tried to kill Akane.  Both were unarmed.  What kindness do we owe him?

With every passing second, the idea seemed more reasonable.

“Junpei?”

Seiji’s voice woke him from his trance.  The man stood near him, on the third step from the bottom of the staircase, one hand on the banister and the other on the opposite wall.

“You need to see this.  All of you do.”

*     *     *

Every inch of all four walls of the guest bedroom was covered in anatomical diagrams and torn-out pages from medical textbooks and peer-reviewed medical journals.  None of the six people from the Sugimoto house could tell whether the walls underneath had been wallpapered or painted, nor which color.  Some of the papers looked old, their typefaces and page layouts fallen out of fashion long ago in favor of better, cleaner alternatives. 

All of them concerned dogs.

There was no bed in the guest bedroom.  Long stainless steel countertops, waist-high, lined two adjacent walls.  They had been drilled into place and had no legs and no cabinets or drawers beneath them.  One of the countertops had a sink in it with a faucet and a retractable hose.  The sink, which was near the doorway to the room and close to the six survivors, was empty.  The countertops reminded Emiko of the countertops in a science classroom; she remembered running her fingers across the impossibly smooth cold metal in school and enjoying how little friction there was.

The entire stretch of countertop was spotless save for two small areas.  In one, a stack of medical textbooks concerning dermatology and parasitology sat unassumingly.  Not far from them, by the sink, a white terrycloth washcloth dotted with just a couple drops of blood lay under several sets of forceps and tweezers, which in turn had been bloodied near their tips.  Upon seeing them, it occurred to Daisuke that whatever had happened here had happened recently.

Three small sample jars stood behind the array of tweezers.  One of them was filled most of the way with a clear liquid.  The next was filled with the same liquid, but suspended in it was a small, black strand of something that looked to Daisuke like a single barb from a crow’s feather.  In the third jar, another barb or thread without liquid.  Daisuke looked at the thing in the third jar intently.

Then it looked back.

Without eyes, he thought, it seemed to just turn and look at me.

Then the one in the liquid seemed to come to life, perhaps because of the first one, and it turned so one end of it also seemed to be pointed at Daisuke.  Both things acted excitedly at their awareness of the six of them crowded at the entrance to the guest bedroom.  The things writhed and twisted around and seemed alarmed, not happy, to see them.  If they were birds, Seiji thought, they would be squawking and fluttering about their cages. 

Despite all this, they didn’t hold anyone’s attention for long.  Instead, all six of them mostly stared at a dog cage under the countertop.  The large cage was lined with newspaper and it boasted a name plate near the top.  Junpei read it to himself.

Inu? he thought.

Inside the cage, cowering with uncertainty bordering on fear, staring at them with large, innocent eyes, a naked woman scrunched herself up and gripped two walls of the wire cage from the inside.  The door to the cage was latched.  Occasionally she hopped a bit without her feet leaving the ground, the way an excited infant would in its high chair.  When she did so, the cage moved with her.

Thump thump.

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