Chapter 13 – Hunger Crisis

Words: 2,924
Recommended Listening: EF – “Delusions of Grandeur”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Inu Yuma Residence

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Akane set the phone down and tried in vain to keep the anger from her face.

“What’s wrong?” Seiji asked.

The world has turned on us, she thought.

“It’s just hunger pains,” she said.

The world has turned on us and it’s brought the racists out.

“I’m going to go check on Fukuhara-san,” Emiko said.  She rose from the couch and headed for the cellar of the Sugimoto residence.

The world has turned on us and we’ve turned on each other.  We eye each other suspiciously and the warmth has left our voices.

Junpei had been digging from Yuma’s house to the third for several hours.  The tunnel to the third house neared completion; Daisuke’s new tunnel across the street still needed two days’ work before breaking ground.  Each tunnel had been slowed considerably by roadblocks.  To the west, Seiji’s shovel had struck a rock formation that proved to be larger around than the tunnel itself.  They had spent a full day carefully digging around one side of it looking for a way forward.  When the rock took a turn back towards them, they decided to tunnel the other way around.  It took just as long, but it was successful.  To the south, Daisuke encountered the deepest part of an old road that had been paved over.  Fearing a cave-in, he retreated several feet and began a new path that branched off southwest while proceeding at a steep downward angle.  He knew that after he had crossed the street from beneath it, he would have to course correct and dig southeast in order to once again aim his path towards the house.  Carving this zigzag into the tunnel meant it would be several feet longer around, while going so deep underground meant it would take longer to get back up to the surface.

Both obstacles meant more digging.  Longer tunnels.  More time.  More energy.  None of them had anticipated it. 

None of them could afford it.

They had allocated all the remaining food and watched it in shifts to prevent further sabotage.  They rationed it as sparsely as they could.  They came to a tense agreement that nobody was to skip meals, lest they become too weak to dig or watch the food supply.  Despite all precautions – including Junpei sneaking small amounts of his own food to his pregnant wife when no one looked – they were on their third day without food.  Emiko’s decision to check on Junpei was as much about eating again as it was about concern for her friend.  Guilt distracted her from her hunger for a few precious moments.

Akane wasn’t as lucky.  Pain riddled her abdomen.  She massaged her side.

At the front door, the strange woman they met sat on the floor with an odd assortment of hand tools and large pieces of scrap metal and wood in front of her.  She had been working on something noisily for the last hour or so, but they hadn’t paid her much attention.  It reminded Seiji of his childhood, when he would sit with his art supplies, building replicas of the costumes on his favorite superhero shows like Super Rescue Solbrain out of construction paper, tape, crayons and glue.  Smiling to himself, he leaned his head back and looked up at the ceiling.

  We could use you now, SolBraver, he thought.  He turned to the woman.

“Hey, Yuma-chan!  What are you making over there?”

The woman turned around to face them, but when she caught Seiji’s and Akane’s gaze, she just grinned and flashed her first two fingers at them, as though she were posing for a picture.

“I’ll never understand her,” Seiji said.

“At least she’s answering to ‘Yuma’ now,” Akane said.

Seiji said nothing.  He was quiet for so long that Akane turned to look at him.  He wore a serious expression on his face.

“I suppose…we should be grateful for every small thing now.”

She nodded and smiled warmly at him.  It wasn’t the first time in the last week that they’d shared a tender moment.  In the wake of the murder of the man who killed Ryu, Seiji seemed to have grown considerably more compassionate and mature.  Akane didn’t approve of what it had taken to spark this growth in him, but she was glad some good had come from it.

He broke her gaze and stared at the floor.  Footsteps came up the stairs from the cellar.  Emiko’s face was pale.

“Kamiya-san, I need your help.”

“Alright; is something wrong?”

“Is Junpei alright?”

Emiko tried to reassure her.  “Junpei…will be fine.”

“What happened to my husband?”

Emiko didn’t want to speak, but Seiji knew that keeping Akane in the dark would only worry her.

“I’m sorry Emiko-chan, but I think it will be best if you can tell us what’s wrong.”

“It appears Junpei…lost consciousness in the tunnel.”

“Lost consciousness?” Akane asked.

“He seems to be fine,” Emiko said.  “He’s awake now but not moving much.  I think he needs air.  I tried to pull him out, but…”

“Idiot,” Seiji said.  “It must be because of the hunger.  He has no strength left.”

“I can come with you,” Akane said.

“Please stay here,” Seiji said.  “Keep an eye on our new friend.  I can pull Junpei out, but I may need help lifting him into the house next door.  Is Daisuke-chan still digging?”

“I’ll ask him for help,” Emiko said.  She headed back downstairs and Seiji followed.

“Seiji!” Akane called.

He turned back to her.

“Thank you.”

He paused, then nodded.

“Sei…j-ji!” Yuma said.

It was the first time she had spoken.  Akane and Seiji jumped, then stared at her. 

She stood and proudly held something out to him with both hands.  It was the thing she had been working on in the corner.  It looked like a palette of wood from a hardware store, but only about 15 inches by 24 – and it looked like it had a pair of wheels and trucks from a longboard on either side.

Akane and Seiji looked at each other, then back at her.

“That’s nice, Yuma,” Seiji said.  “I have to go now.”

Yuma stared blankly at him.  Then she held her creation by its top and flicked her wrist.  It opened like a briefcase, held together by door hinges, and snapped into place.  She placed it wheels side down on the floor and got on top of it on her stomach.  Then she put her hands palms down on the floor and pushed, propelling herself forward on the floor.  Finally, in one quick motion, she rolled off the device, picked it up, folded it shut and pushed it towards Seiji.  Reflexively, he took it in his hands.  She snapped a finger and pointed towards the cellar and nodded.

Seiji inspected it, turned it over in his hands, and inspected it again.

“Yuma, you’re a genius!” he said.  He disappeared down the stairs, leaving the two women alone in the living room.  Yuma returned to the small pile of detritus in front of her.

“Yuma, did you make that for all of us?” Akane asked.

Yuma pointed at Akane.

“Just for me?  Why?”

Yuma pointed at Akane’s stomach.

Before Akane could say anything, Yuma held up a thick, closed handle of metal.  Akane recognized it at once; it came from a drawer in the room where they had found her.  The woman set it down on the floor on its side and gently pulled it along the floor with her finger.  Then she looked at Akane for approval.

“That goes on your cart,” Akane said.  “So someone can pull the cart?  With a rope?”

Yuma beamed.  Then she sat and resumed work on the handle.

Akane’s neck began to ache from turning it, so she turned back around and looked at the television.  When she leaned over to reach for the remote, she felt something warm and wet between her legs.  She looked down and put her hand near her crotch to feel for what she imagined was urine.

When she lifted her hand up to look at it again, she saw that it was stained bright red.

Prions are proteins that can cause other proteins in the brain to misfold and are believed to be the causative agents of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines TSEs as “a family of rare progressive neurodegenerative disorders that affect both humans and animals.”  In animals, perhaps the best-known manifestation of TSEs came in the form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, more popularly known as “Mad Cow Disease.”  Mad Cow Disease began in Great Britain in the 1980s when cattle were fed the remains of sheep infected with a similar TSE called scrapie.  In humans, TSEs are incredibly rare, with the CDC approximating cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease at one case per million people and just four known cases of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in the history of the United States, Dr. Pearson’s home country – a nation of over 330 million people.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is fatal, generally within a year of onset.  vCJD is distinguishable from “classic” Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease in that vCJD has a separate set of clinical and pathologic features.  vCJD’s incubation period is several years long; its symptoms include painful distortion of the senses and psychological and behavioral problems.  Examination of the brain tissue is often used to diagnose vCJD, with two confirmatory features verifying the presence of the illness.  From the CDC website (pre-Odon outbreak):

a.  Numerous widespread kuru-type amyloid plaques surrounded by vacuoles in both the cerebellum and cerebrum – florid plaques.
b.  Spongiform change and extensive prion protein deposition shown by immunohistochemistry throughout the cerebellum and cerebrum.

vCJD patients also display a signal change of the pulvinar nucleus on an MRI, offering a non-invasive diagnostic test for the illness.  The World Health Organization defined this pulvinar sign as “a characteristic distribution of symmetrical hyperintensity (relative to the cortical and other deep grey matter nuclei signal intensity) of the pulvinar nucleus (posterior nucleus) of the thalamus seen on axial images.”  A study archived on The Lancet, originally published April 22, 2000, examined the accuracy of using an MRI to diagnose vCJD.  The study was headed by Dr. Martin Zeidler of the National Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh and several neuroradiology experts.  Dr. Zeidler and his colleagues successfully diagnosed 32 of 36 cases on their first assessment and 31 of 36 on the second assessment of bilateral pulvinar high signals.  By contrast, zero of 57 patients in a control group showed pulvinar high signals on their MRI examinations.

Other human TSEs include Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker Syndrome, Fatal Familial Syndrome and Kuru.  Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker Syndrome is almost always inherited; TSEs have not been found to be transmissible from human to human in casual contact.

Akane Fukuhara does not suffer from any transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

Seiji found the process of putting Junpei onto Yuma’s rolling cart cumbersome and awkward.  The tunnels were small enough that he had to set the cart down at the tunnel entrance under the west side of Yuma’s house, lay on top of it and push himself along towards Junpei.  When he found the man, semi-conscious and too weak to move, Seiji had to pull Junpei by the ankles onto the cart while scooting himself backward off of it.

“What a pain,” Seiji grunted.

“Kamiya…san?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Seiji said.  “You owe me another beer, you bastard.”

Seiji’s shirt rode up his stomach and he felt the rough wood on his skin.

If I’m getting splinters from this…

Junpei’s legs were on the cart now; Seiji was almost fully off it.

“Hey, lift your ass up!”

“Hm?”

“Watch your dick!”

Junpei feebly lifted his pelvic area off the dirt while Seiji shoved the cart under him.  The unruly process continued, and Seiji began to feel light-headed.

Not yet, he thought.  Just let me get this guy out of here.  Those kids can’t pull two bodies up from this tunnel.  Let me get this guy out of here.

Seiji’s chest heaved and he saw stars.

Not yet.

Daisuke backed out of his southerly tunnel, turned his body and dove into the main tunnel, moving as quickly as possible.  At his request, Emiko had gone up into Yuma’s house to get water for Junpei.  Daisuke found Seiji and Junpei near the end of the main tunnel.  Neither man moved.

“Kamiya-san?”

An eternity of silence seemed to pass.  Then Seiji’s legs moved.

“Just taking a break, kid.”

“Can you lift Junpei?”

“He’s on a cart.  Yuma made one so we could move more quickly down here.”

Daisuke took a moment to process this.  Additionally, Seiji’s breath was shallow and his body moved slowly.  Daisuke knew neither man would make it out of the tunnel on their own.

“Can you get on the cart with him?”

“Not a chance.  The cart is too small.  Why?”

“You sound…tired.”

Seiji laughed, accidentally inhaling dirt.  He coughed several times.

“I’m fine; I can pull him out.  Wait for us outside the tunnel.”

“I’m sorry, Kamiya-san, but I won’t leave you down here.”

More silence.  Daisuke expected a rebuke from Seiji, but none came.

“What do we do?”

“Hold Junpei’s legs.”

Seiji did as he was told.  As soon as he did, he felt his own ankles being gripped tightly.  Before he could object, Daisuke began pulling.

The crawl back to Yuma’s house was slow and arduous.  Seiji kept a firm grip on one of Junpei’s legs while he used his other hand to push against the tunnel floor.  When they needed to rest, they rested.  Junpei came around a bit and helped them push themselves backwards with his hands when he was able.  At long last, Daisuke emerged in the tunnel entrance.  He used the last of his strength to pull himself up to the crawlspace.  He rolled onto his back and caught his breath while Seiji followed.

Seiji had propped Junpei up into a sitting position in the tunnel entrance.  When everyone had composed themselves, Seiji and Daisuke pulled Junpei up by his arms to join them in the crawlspace, where he promptly passed out again.

“He needs food,” Daisuke said.

“We all need food.”

“How far is the tunnel?”

“He was digging upward.  We’re there.”

Daisuke did the math in his head.  “Tomorrow.  Tomorrow evening.”

Seiji shook his head.  “We need to finish today.”

“We’ve been working double shifts on no food; we need to rest.”

“It’s time Hitomi did some digging,” Seiji said bitterly.  “I don’t think I’ve seen her in the tunnels yet besides her first visit to Yuma’s and back.”

“That’s not true; she…”

Daisuke thought.

“See?”

“Kamiya-san, forgive me for asking, but about you and Hitomi-chan…”

Seiji rolled over onto his stomach and glared at Daisuke.

“What?  Go on, ask.”

“…Never mind.”

“No, what do you have to say?”

Daisuke fidgeted uncomfortably.  “It’s just that…You two seem very close.  If you have feelings for each other, I don’t want your judgment to be clouded about all of us working together.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Seiji said.  “You think I’m in love with that little brat?  How stupid can you be?”

“I’m sorry – “

“And stop apologizing!  You need to stand up for yourself, Daisuke.  A man has convictions and speaks with confidence.  Say something and mean it.”

“Are you and Hitomi sleeping together?”

“No!  Why would you care, anyway?”

Daisuke felt something welling up inside him.  He didn’t know what, or why, but his hands began to shake.  He squared up more strongly against Seiji as best he could in the crawlspace.

“We all need to do our best to survive – together.  Something about Hitomi is compromising your judgment and it could get someone killed.  Ryu’s poor judgment cost him his own life and it almost cost Akane her life too.  I don’t want anyone else to die.  Also, we’re your friends, Kamiya-san; we care about you.”

Mentioning Akane had a far greater impact than Daisuke knew.  Seiji had begun to think that if they lived through this crisis, he’d like to settle down with a woman like Akane.  He had just begun to process the idea of losing her – or someone like her – when Daisuke said that everyone else cared about him as well.

How long have I been alone? Seiji thought.  How many years has it been?  I have acquaintances – I party at bars with the other guys from work, maybe take a woman home afterwards – but I used to have friends.  I used to have a steady girlfriend.

“It’s so quiet,” Seiji said out loud.  “In my apartment.”

“Hm?”

“I used to want a place with a rooftop terrace, like your friend’s house here.  I imagined I’d use it like a – what do they call it in the West – a biergarten.  I’d invite my friends over and we’d drink expensive imported beer and sake; my wife and I would cook for everyone and we’d all sit out on the rooftop, eating and joking and relaxing, a summer breeze blowing in.  Maybe I’d even have a baby and bounce him on my knee and make him laugh.  

“Man, I haven’t thought about that in years.”

“Why not?”

Seiji came back out of his reverie and looked at Daisuke again.

Why not?  Seiji repeated the question to himself.  Maybe it’s time to tell him – to tell all of them.  That girl would lose her hold on me.  But will the rest of them accept having a yakuza in their midst?

Voting Time!!! Should Seiji tell Daisuke that he’s yakuza or keep his secret? Choose carefully; both decisions will impact the future of the story and the characters’ relationships.

Anyone can vote on Facebook by clicking here.

Patrons can vote on Patreon by clicking here.

Polls close August 10.

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