Recommended Listening: Gustavo Santaolalla – “Desert Bus Ride”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Inu Residence
Daisuke sat on the balcony of the Sugimoto residence. He tied the clear bottle – with its small, curious passenger – to the drone and tested the knot. When he was certain that it was firmly fixed, he placed the drone on a chair facing across the street. Without looking for Akira, Daisuke raised his left hand and waved in the general direction of the house and went inside. He didn’t wait to watch the drone’s return journey. Not this time.
Daisuke closed the sliding glass door behind him and stopped moving. He gazed off into the distance, just below the vertex of the off-white carpet and the white wall. The usual sounds of nighttime in the house seemed muted. He found himself unable – or unwilling – to face the others. After several minutes, he arrived at the decision to wait them out. He rounded the corner in the upstairs hallway and sat on the floor with his back up against the wall. He drew his feet up so his heels were against his rear end and his knees were near his chest. He crossed his arms and rested them on his knees and waited.
After the execution, Akane and Emiko focused on what to do with the woman from the second house. Now they sat in the living room of the Sugimoto house on a couch. They persuaded her after some time to sit with them on the couch rather than on the floor. She fidgeted and studied them both, trying to figure out which posture to hold while sitting upright. Akane and Emiko exchanged a quick glance while she looked away.
“How about Hina?” Emiko asked. “Is your name Hina?”
“We already tried Hina,” Akane said, sighing.
“Did we?” Emiko asked. She bowed her head slowly. “I’m sorry. You’re right – we should have started a list.”
Emiko put her open hand against her chest. “Emiko…” Next, she rested her hand on Akane’s shoulder. “Akane…” Finally, she pointed at the woman. “Sakura?”
The woman smiled and shook her head “no,” though she seemed delighted with the game. For what must have been the 20th time, she pointed at herself and said “Inu.”
“She seems intent on that one,” Seiji said. He looked out a gap between two boards in the window nearest them. Several minutes earlier, he had banged on the wall next to the window as he walked along it, leading several zonbi away from the window by sound and providing himself with a hint of a view of the street. But now, in his complacency, he forgot himself and spoke too loudly. The zonbi regrouped at the sound of his voice, once again blocking his view. He cursed and gave up, sitting down noisily on the next couch.
“We can’t call her Inu,” Emiko said. As she said “Inu,” the woman sat upright, a light in her eyes.
“Why not?” Seiji asked.
“Because she’s not a dog,” Akane said. “She needs a name. She needs a real name.”
“How about Keiko?” Seiji asked, biting one of his fingernails.
An empty beer can lay on the table. Akane threw it at him and he defended himself with his hands. “Idiot,” she said. The woman looked at Akane, unconcerned.
“She needs a real human name,” Akane said.
Seiji nodded upwards at the woman. “I wonder what secrets she holds? What will she tell us?”
“Kamiya-san, I don’t think she can speak,” Emiko said. As soon as she said “speak,” the woman barked like a dog. Everyone’s hearts sank.
“The only time she talked was when we brought some of the food and supplies back here from her house,” Emiko said. “What did she say? Chi onu sa?”
“Something like that,” Akane said. “She won’t repeat it though; it was like a secret, or like she broke a rule by saying it. Did you see how she covered her mouth as soon as she said it?”
“Have you had any luck, Hitomi?”
Hitomi looked up from her phone. “No,” she said. She had tried several dictionary and thesaurus websites. “Chi onu sa, chi onsa, chion sa – there’s nothing in Japanese that’s close to it.” She continued to search on her phone.
“Hey,” Seiji said to the woman. “Chi onu sa? What does that mean?”
“Hey, Inu-san,” he said. It got her attention, though Akane and Emiko disapproved.
“Inu-san,” he repeated. “What is chi onu sa? Chi onsa? Can you show me?”
She continued to stare, awaiting some command or information.
“Chi? Onsa? Onu sa? Chi onu sa?” Frustrated, he leaned in and clapped his hands near her face.
“Seiji!” Akane said, chiding him. She and Emiko were startled enough by the loud clap that both jumped back reflexively.
However, the woman didn’t shrink back. She didn’t even blink. Finally, she broke out into a wide grin, amused by him. He waved his arms dismissively at her and sat back on the couch.
“We should call her Yuma,” Hitomi said without looking up from her phone.
“’Calm truth,’” Emiko said, turning to Akane, then back to Hitomi. “That’s an excellent idea, Hitomi-chan!”
Akane agreed. She and Emiko began trying to convince the woman that her name was now Yuma. Seiji stood and walked downstairs to get away from it. He had listened to them speaking to her as though she were a toddler for an hour. It made him uncomfortable, though he didn’t know why.
Junpei had been listening from the basement. He sat on the edge of the tunnel entrance, his feet dangling down into the hole, into which he looked. A liquor bottle sat, opened, within reach of his right hand. He was bothered that he had taken food and drink from the man they had so brutally killed, but not bothered enough to turn his nose up at it. He had never been much of a drinker – his face felt warm and pink from what he had drunk so far tonight – but every time he closed his eyes, behind the lids played out a horrific scene of smoke and fire and melting flesh.
Junpei was a neat, pragmatic person by nature, though his temper flared when people behaved in a way that was both contrary and problematic to that which was logical. He regretted yelling at Daisuke the first night of the outbreak, when they were boarding up the windows. Junpei recalled how slowly the boy had come to his aid and how he himself had yelled at him for it after the fact. At the time, it seemed a massive failure that could have put Akane and the baby at risk. In hindsight, Junpei knew Daisuke was a good kid and undeserving of his ire. He took another drink.
After setting the bottle down, Junpei felt his practical nature kick in – Maybe a defense mechanism, he thought – and he decided to look at the evening’s events and catalog what bothered him in order of concern. Initially he was disturbed by how quickly and easily the girl Hitomi had decided to burn the man alive. Then he realized it was the nature of the killing that was worse. She had merely gone into shock over losing her brother – who, for all she knew, was the sole remaining family she had – and gone to the darkest place her mind knew of to seek retribution.
What was done to her was terrible, he thought. In her mind it was the worst thing to happen. So she wished to respond in kind and she thought of something that horrified her. Thank God she hadn’t studied ancient Greece or she might have first considered the Brazen Bull. The thought of lighting a fire under a metal vessel with the man inside it and letting him cook was even worse than the necklacing. He thought of the time he forgot to melt butter in the pan before cooking pork cutlets in it and how the pork had stuck to the pan. Junpei shuddered and moved on.
The next thing that concerned him about the murder – yes, he thought, murder was the right word – was how everyone permitted it. He was as guilty as anyone. Much like when his temper flared up that first night and he lashed out at Daisuke, all it took to sway Junpei was one thought of Akane’s safety and he was ready to make a grotesque example of the neighbor. Daisuke, he recalled, had been the only one who really protested the execution. It came about so fast, so suddenly – was it really so easy?
Then Junpei remembered Seiji supporting Hitomi’s idea. He was the first. That concerned Junpei, though he’d spent some time considering it and he couldn’t imagine why Seiji had gone along with her. She was a teenager; her reaction was reflexive. He was a grown man; he should know better. Were Seiji’s feelings over Ryu’s death so strong? Or was the camaraderie that had grown between Junpei and Seiji since the beginning just a sham? Seiji had opened up about his earliest memory; he had helped dig the tunnel without complaint. He seemed to be reliable, but this…Junpei couldn’t make sense of it. He set it aside.
Then there was the killing itself. Junpei had seen a dead body before, but he had never seen someone die violently, much less had he seen someone whose violent death was planned and, for lack of a better term, scheduled. He had made himself watch, just as Daisuke had. He told himself at the time it was necessary to necklace the man, but…
The man’s screams echoed in Junpei’s head, along with the whooshing sound of the fire. For two minutes he fought frantically for his life, finding no respite and no salvation. If the Christians were right in their depictions of Hell, Junpei decided, what they had seen must be its closest imitation.
The only thing that rivaled the execution leading up to the pull of the trigger was what immediately followed. Nobody had thought that far ahead. It was as though they believed the ordeal would remove itself from Earth after the bullet flew. Instantly, the man transformed from a struggling, living human into a shell. Still he glowed, still the flames licked at him, but he no longer had a fighting chance. It seemed even crueler. Now it wasn’t retribution or anything resembling justice; now it was just defacing a corpse.
After several more seconds, Seiji threw a bucket of water onto the body, extinguishing the flames. Junpei tried to warn him not to – at least until the teens had gone back inside – but it was too late. As it splashed, the flames vanished. What remained under the fire made Daisuke spin around, drop to his knees and retch over the side of the rooftop. Nobody spoke. Things had been quiet since then. Junpei decided Seiji might have doused the man over the guilt he felt for lighting him in the first place. Why had Seiji done all of it rather than Hitomi?
“Light the tire,” he thought. That’s what she said. Why was she ordering him around? First he agreed to her execution, then convinced the rest of us, and then he –
Junpei looked up from the hole, suddenly aware of the room. Seiji stood in the doorway, eyeing Junpei and the bottle. Seiji nodded upwards at the bottle. Junpei looked back down the hole, grabbing the bottle and extending it out to Seiji, who took it and sat next to him. They drank silently for several minutes. Seiji felt as though he should say something.
“Listen, about that man –“
Junpei stood abruptly and left the room. Seiji cursed to himself.
* * *
Daisuke awoke with a jerk. It was nighttime and he was still in the upstairs hallway. However, his head lay on a pillow and he was under a heavy blanket. He sat up and looked around him. In the bedroom next to him, Akane slept on the bed and Junpei sat up looking out the window.
“Relax,” Junpei whispered. “You just fell asleep.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s after midnight.”
“Did you bring me this blanket? And the pillow?”
He saw Junpei’s silhouette against the moonlight. Junpei nodded.
“Where’s that woman?” Daisuke asked.
“She wouldn’t sleep in a bed,” Junpei whispered. “We made up some bedding for her on the living room floor. She…has a long road ahead of her.”
Daisuke considered Junpei’s words for several moments.
“I can’t forget the smell,” Daisuke finally said.
Silence. Daisuke thought Junpei didn’t hear him. He was about to repeat himself when Junpei spoke up.
Daisuke felt pressure in his bladder. He made his way downstairs to the basement bathroom so he wouldn’t wake anyone. On his way, he brought his blanket and pillow and set them on the empty couch on the living room. Just as Junpei had said, the woman from the other house had curled up on the floor near the television and slept soundly on a loose pile of pillows and blankets.
Daisuke relieved himself and washed up. He turned the bathroom light off and opened the door. Emiko stood in the doorway. Daisuke’s heart skipped a beat when he saw her and he gasped. She apologized profusely, then the two of them laughed quietly in the dark.
“Emiko-chan, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Well…” she said. She gestured subtly towards the bathroom.
“O-Of course!” he said. He stepped aside. “Well, goodnight!”
“Daisuke-chan, will you wait for me for a minute?” she asked. “I want to talk to you.”
He stammered out an agreement and waited for her to return.
The house was never entirely silent. Even at night, when everyone was in bed – either asleep or staring at the ceiling and thinking about the atrocities they had seen or imagined the last several weeks, convincing themselves that everyone else was asleep, lest they have to discuss and deal with everything on their minds – even then, there was the dull and persistent beating on the walls that drowned out the yearning moans of the reanimated dead eager to get in where it was safe and warm. The sounds of the zonbi outside at first were terrifying, then increasingly easy to ignore; then they became dependable, even protective – a blanket or a shield to place between the survivors and their fears about their missing family and friends. Focusing on the ever-present dead gave them an excuse – something to keep their minds off the isolation, the parents and siblings not heard from, the cryptic tone of the news and social media. During the day, they occupied themselves with digging, cooking, scavenging, keeping a lookout, stockpiling, rationing, eating, preparing, making braces for the tunnel. When the sun went down and when they ran out of places to find things and they had no more wood to hammer together to support the tunnel, the biggest threat became running out of things to occupy their bodies and minds. Everyone was eager for something to do. The idea that someone else in the house would suggest they all sit down and come to terms with what may or may not await them outside – personally or in terms of the future – was anathema.
And now, should it ever arise, it would undoubtedly be worse.
However, Daisuke’s mind and heart were now racing with an even more frightening situation that was about to become realized: having a private conversation with the classmate he liked.
Emiko came out of the bathroom and leaned her back against its door frame, folding her arms.
“How does your hand feel?”
“It’s alright,” he said. Reflexively he produced his left hand. He had gotten used to its appearance and reduced dexterity. Emiko gently took it in her hands, examining it. Daisuke flushed.
“Does it still hurt?”
They heard someone shift in the next room – the couch in the finished room.
“Hey, knock it off already!” Hitomi called from under several blankets. She sounded irritated.
“Maybe…we should go somewhere else,” Emiko whispered.
When they were both out on the balcony, Daisuke quietly shut the sliding glass door behind them. Emiko walked to the edge of the balcony and looked up. Daisuke caught her stargazing, a weary expression on her face.
“Are you feeling guilty?” he asked.
She whipped around and looked at him, startled, as if she’d forgotten he was there.
“How did you know that?”
“It’s the same for me. After the first few nights, I realized how clear the sky was. I stared until I understood. There was no traffic, nobody was working at the factories, the fires had died out. Also, stores don’t have their lights on.”
“I didn’t want this to be the cause,” Emiko said.
“But even still…”
“You can’t stop looking.”
He walked over and stood next to her and looked upward. “I can never find Jupiter.”
“It’s over the train station,” Emiko said. She pointed southwest. Daisuke didn’t see it but he pretended he could anyway.
“There it is!” he said. She beamed.
“Excuse me, but…what did you want to talk about?” he asked.
Her expression changed.
“Have you heard from your parents?” she asked.
He shook his head but tried to look optimistic.
She looked away for long enough that he knew the answer.
“What if they’re…”
“I’m sure it’s just a problem with communications,” Daisuke said. “Akira-sensei said it takes many attempts to contact us each time. Hitomi-chan said she can’t post anything on Twitter either.”
“That’s another thing,” Emiko said. “Isn’t it strange that we can read what’s online but not post anything?”
“Maybe…social media is overloaded and people can’t upload content right now.”
“Then why are other people still posting?”
Daisuke didn’t have an answer. He could tell Emiko that Japan’s servers might be down, but it would be a lie. If Japan’s Internet servers were down, it wouldn’t just block their ability to post online – they wouldn’t be able to see anything others posted. He didn’t want to bet whether or not Emiko would know that. She probably would, and lying to her would only upset her further.
“That’s why I worry about our families,” she said. “My parents are still capable, but my Jiji and Baba – I mean, my grandparents…”
Daisuke bit the inside of his cheek while Emiko spoke. Despite everything, he thought it was adorable that Emiko still used the nicknames for her grandfather and grandmother that most children grew out of when they were several years younger, and he found it difficult not to smile upon hearing it. It became easier when he realized she might not always use it – it may be the trauma and stress of their situation triggering a random regression into childhood. His resolve strengthened and his brain arrived at a practical response.
“Ah, but that may be a good sign,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“You said everyone can still communicate except for us. I’m sorry, but maybe you didn’t think in a large enough perspective. Where do your grandparents live?”
“Chiba,” she said. “They have a house deep in the peninsula.”
“What if Gifu isn’t the only prefecture having problems communicating? Tomorrow we can ask Hitomi to keep browsing online and see if anyone in Japan is posting. If all the content is from people outside the country, then that means everyone in Japan is shut off.”
“My grandparents are all alone?” she asked. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
He struggled. “I just mean…There’s no reason to assume the worst. It’s only fair to assume they’re locked in their house safely and –“
He was about to say “and wondering why they haven’t heard from you” to show how reciprocal the situation was, but he didn’t want Emiko to focus on how much her family must be worrying about her. It would upset her to know she was causing her grandparents such concern.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
A long time passed.
“Do you think the train will work?”
He nodded without hesitation. “Mm.”
“Maybe it won’t.”
“We can’t think like that,” Daisuke said.
“I’m not being morbid,” Emiko said. “If the train doesn’t work, we need to have another idea or else we’ll be in trouble.”
“Tomorrow, before we start digging again, I want to have a meeting,” Emiko said. “I think we can make the train run, but I want to discuss other ideas. I would like to present a solid alternative to the train.”
“I’m sure the train will work.”
“If it doesn’t? Do you want to be prepared? Or do you think we should come up with an idea outside at the train station?”
Daisuke was silent.
“The train station is to the southwest. Just past it, there are open fields and the Nagara River. I think very few zonbi would be there since there are no houses.”
Daisuke followed her train of thought geographically. “Across the river is the Gujō Hachiman Nature Park,” Daisuke said. “They have cabins and rafting trips down Nagara. We took my cousin rafting when she came to visit.”
Emiko nodded. “Just to the south of the park is a fairground with hot air balloon rides. My father used to take me.”
Daisuke nodded in agreement. He waited for more.
“So, which do you think?”
“There are seven of us. We have you, me, Hitomi, Junpei, Akane, Seiji and that woman. As we dig to the remaining two houses, we may encounter more people. They may want to join us or not. Either way, we’d need at least two of whichever transport we use.”
“Rafts or hot air balloons.”
Daisuke laughed. His laugh was already out of his mouth when he realized she was serious. Her expression turned cold.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He had to stall for time to think more about what she said. He began speaking without direction. “I guess we would attract attention leaving the last house near the station. We wouldn’t want to go back the way we came. We can see the zonbi on the road from here, so we also wouldn’t want to run east to the car repair shop.”
“Exactly,” she said. “We don’t want to take our chances in the tunnel to the north either.”
He agreed, remembering his conversation with Ryu. He looked to the bedroom where the boys had spoken. It felt like a long time ago.
“The city is to the south,” he said. “That night it was…pretty bad.”
“The streets were bad.”
“But the river wouldn’t be.”
“It gets wide enough that we could ride it all the way down to Nagoya – even out to sea if we had to,” Emiko said.
“Or if we took the hot air balloon we could go in any direction at all, but its fuel wouldn’t take us as far,” he said.
She nodded. She had thought of this too. “I believe we can make the train work,” she said again. “I just want to have an idea of what to do in case the train doesn’t run. Which do you think I should suggest to the others? The raft or the hot air balloon?”
Voting Time!!! What should Daisuke tell Emiko to suggest to the group as a backup plan? Should they keep the rafts in mind or the hot air balloons? This is absolutely not an indication whether or not the train will run! However, this choice will affect the plot in a different manner later.
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Polls close Tuesday, April 14.