Chapter 14 – An Almost Imperceptible Shift

Words: 3,464
Recommended Listening: Fargue – “Au travers de la lumière, l’ombre n’est que poussière”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Yuma Residence

Goro Matsui’s white suit had gotten splattered with the blood of the naked man who lay on the floor below him in the fetal position.  He eyed the lead pipe he held in his right hand; it had blood stains along its far end. 

The man looked pathetic.  One eye was swollen shut.  His face dripped red on the concrete floor of the warehouse and he convulsed at random.  As he sputtered and pleaded for his life, more blood feebly escaped the corner of his mouth, dripping down his cheek to the floor, hugging the loose bits of teeth that had landed there.  Goro had no respect for him.

“You must have known we’d find you, Otsuka,” Goro said.  “How many times have you stood where I am right now?  How many traitorous dogs have we put down together?”

Goro handled the pipe like a baseball bat.  Goro swung the pipe once more into his colleague’s ribs.  This time, one of them snapped so hard it broke through the skin.  The bone protruded from his chest.  Otsuka howled in pain.  Behind Goro, a young voice could be heard trying in vain to prevent vomiting.  Goro squatted in front of Otsuka and nodded towards the sound.

“You see what you did, Otsuka?  You made the kid throw up.  Now there’s more for us to mop up when we’re finished.  You know, you always were a problem for my schedule.  That ends today.”

Goro stood again and drew his pistol from its holster.  He aimed it at Otsuka and cocked the hammer.  Then he reconsidered.  He called to his cousin over his shoulder.

“Daichi.”

“Hm?”

“Would you care to do the honors?”

Daichi scoffed.  “Make the kid do it.  He already stunk up the place.”

Goro laughed.  “That’s true.  Hey kid!”

No response.

“Seiji!”

“Yes, Matsui-san?”

“Kill him.”

There was a pause, but Goro knew the boy was just steeling his nerves.  This was the first time he would be taking a life for the Kodo-Kai.  Goro released the hammer on his pistol and put it back in its holster.  He could yell at Seiji to hurry along, but he couldn’t deny that he liked the boy.

Seiji shuffled up to the bleeding Otsuka.  It was difficult for him to look at the man.

His life is at an end, Seiji thought.  And I’m the one who will end it.  I cannot turn away from this and I cannot come back from this.

Seiji held his hand out, still looking at Otsuka, expecting his boss’s pistol.  Instead, the pipe landed in his hand.  Shocked, Seiji turned to Goro with widened eyes.  Goro knew exactly what he was thinking.

“Is there a problem?”

Seiji gripped the pipe.  When Goro let go of it, he retrieved a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and turned away from the scene.  He nodded to Daichi and gestured towards the nearest door, speaking to Seiji as they walked off.

“We’re going outside,” he said.  “Get the bucket and mop and a plastic tarp from the janitor’s closet when it’s done.  We’ll move the body when the floor’s clean.”

*      *      *

Junpei woke in a daze in the master bedroom of Yuma’s house.  He cursed to himself.

I suppose I lost consciousness in the tunnel, he thought.  I can’t be so worthless.  I have to do better.

He sat up laboriously.  The room spun.  He tried to stand.  The energy refused to come to him.  He felt himself losing his temper at being so helpless.  Akane and the baby shouldn’t have to fend for themselves.  However, some measure of logic took over.  He knew he had to store up what he could so he could make it to the living room, where his consciousness would be seen and he could orient himself.

Junpei closed his eyes and observed his breathing.  I am breathing in.  Now I am breathing out.  I am Junpei Fukuhara.  My wife is Akane Fukuhara.  I am breathing in.  I am breathing out.  We are in a house in Shizen-en-Mae with Daisuke Kinoshita, Seiji Kamiya, Emiko Takahashi, Hitomi Takai and a woman we call Yuma.  I am breathing in.  I am breathing out.  We are safe within these walls.  We will work together and survive this outbreak of disease.

I am breathing in.  I am breathing out.

He heard the bedroom door open.  His eyes opened instinctively.  Akane entered the room slowly, quietly.  When she saw that he was awake, she dropped the pretense.

“How long was I asleep?”

“About 20 hours,” she said.

“I need to keep digging.”

She laughed and held her hand out.  It held a plate of curry.  Steaming white rice took up half the plate; meat and a brown sauce filled the other half.  He took the plate but didn’t eat.

“Where did you find this?” he asked.

“The digging is finished.  We found food in the next house over and in the house across the street.”

“Any –“

“Survivors?  No.  There was…one zonbi in the next house, but Emiko…”

“Is she alright?”

Akane nodded.  “No injuries.  She’s shaken up though.  She didn’t want to kill anyone.”

Junpei considered this.  The smell of the food brought him back to the present.

“You should have this,” he said.  “I’ll be alright.”

Akane laughed.  “You’re always so considerate.  I already ate.  We all have.”

“How’s the baby?”

Akane hesitated.  She thought back to the day before, flipping over the couch cushion before Yuma saw the blood, making an excuse to go change clothes, throwing the pants she’d worn to the zonbi below so no one would see them.  “F-Fine.  Everything’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded politely.

He could hold back no longer.  He dove into the plate of food, eating gratefully and savoring each bite.  Akane stood.

“When your strength has returned, come out to the living room,” she said.  “Daisuke’s asked us all to meet and discuss something.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

Despite the burden on his shoulders, Seiji couldn’t distract himself from one simple fact: He had never been so grateful in his entire life to smell food cooking in a kitchen.  His plate was empty, but he didn’t want to eat too much and look selfish.  He traced along a puddle of curry sauce with his finger and brought it to his mouth.  He had been to the top-rated restaurants in Tokyo and paid ¥40,000 for a dinner of the best Wagyu steak and sushi Japan could offer, but this cheap curry made from plain rice and quick-thawed frozen beef must have been the best meal he’d ever eaten.  Everyone knew that eating too fast would cause an upset stomach.  Nobody cared.  They each decided without speaking that they needed the sustenance and they could simply worry about the cramps later.

Daisuke had taken the news well – especially for a teenager.  Kids that age are still so tightly wound when it comes to morals and ethics, Seiji thought.  In their world there are good guys and bad guys and that’s all.  Yet when I told him I was Kodo-kai, he merely took it all in.

“In 24 hours, I’m going to tell the others,” Daisuke had said.  “This isn’t blackmail, or a threat.  They deserve to know.  However, you’ve done your part helping us through this epidemic.  If you want to tell them first, or try to find a way to flee before I tell them, you can.  In 24 hours, they’ll know, and we’ll decide what to do.  Is that fair to you?”

“Mm.”

“Let’s finish these tunnels.”

They hadn’t spoken another word about it since then.  Seiji had considered any number of ways to escape the judgment of this group of innocent people.  Could he find some way to get to Akira’s house – or his roof – and take his chances with him?  Should he see how far he could dig in the opposite direction and head for the auto shop they had considered from the outset?  Should he convince everyone to go to Yuma’s, then barricade the tunnel and stay in the Sugimoto house until help came?  In the end, starvation and exhaustion overcame him.  Seiji was sick of running.  He had run from poverty to the Kodo-kai; he had run from the police; he had met those girls by chance and run from the zonbi on the first night; he had run from his life since then.

I’m tired, he thought.  This is too much to carry.

He acted as though everything were normal and stayed on with his group of friends.  On the few occasions he caught Daisuke’s eye, he had smiled comfortingly and nodded.

It’s alright, he thought when he met the boy’s gaze.  I won’t be angry with you.  Do what you must.  I understand.  He didn’t believe in ESP, but somehow he hoped the young man knew that Seiji bore him no ill will.

It’s alright.

*       *       *

“It’s alright,” Mai said.  “I know my way around down here.”

Mai Ishimaru couldn’t rid her mind of the call with the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Pearson.  She had received several prank calls since she started work at NHK, but something in the voice of the caller rung true.  She was worried by what Director Pearson said on the phone.  Why would anyone at NHK want the public to think the Japanese were looking for Director Pearson if they weren’t?  Who would have anything to gain from that lie?  If they weren’t looking for her, they couldn’t produce a fake Director Pearson and declare their search a success.  Also, since the outbreak, there were larger concerns in Japan than one American medical professional.  The relationship between the Japanese and the Americans hadn’t been particularly turbulent, so it did the government no short-term favors to pretend to search for someone for the Americans, and again, in the long run, even if they pretended to search for her, they would be found out eventually.

It doesn’t add up, she thought to herself.  And yet here I am.

Mai clutched her English to Japanese dictionary like a schoolgirl.  She never liked the archives.  The shelves full of old hard drives and older videocassette tapes reminded her of the kind of place she would assume was haunted when she was a little girl.  The fluorescent lighting buzzed with an exasperation and mindlessness she found unsettling.  Dust blanketed many of the archival tapes on the shelves, except those that had been retrieved, blown on, dusted off and used since their recording, then replace haphazardly.  The result was an uneven and loosely organized vault of bearing witness and absorbing the grief of the citizens of Japan.  Floods, earthquakes, car accidents, bank customers who had been treated unfairly, victims of fraud and molestation, students with perverts for volleyball coaches, reformed yakuza and the plastic surgeons who restored their pinky fingers, bankers who tried to cushion the blow from the Nikkei 225 stock index collapse between 1990 and 2002 – everyone had a story.

As she strolled through the archives office, Mai forced herself to hold her hand out to a row of cassettes and discs, her fingers tracing along them – some of them for the first time in 30 years.

Your pain hasn’t been forgotten, she thought.  We are still here.  We are still bearing witness for you.

She knew where to find the latest broadcasts.  When a significantly devastating event occurred in Japan, like the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011, NHK placed a long, tinted plastic separator between tapes in the archives to help differentiate between reports that had been made before it happened and once it had.  The earliest report on any incident began a new section.  At any rate, since the outbreak had been so recent, it could be found in the most recent section of the archives.  Her eyes glided across the dates of recent reports and she looked for tapes made around Mukae-Bon.

アメリカ大使館の声明

American Embassy Statement, she thought.  Perfect.

Mai put the DVD into the player and waited for it to load.  The archives were quiet in a way that disturbed her.  She felt as though someone were peeking over her shoulder.  She checked behind herself several times to make sure that they weren’t.

She donned the over-the-ear headphones to listen.  The cold, black plastic and fake leather was a comfort to her – a known sensation from her career at NHK.  On the large, outdated control board, she pressed the PLAY button and listened to the balding white man in front of the podium speak in English while the subtitles – a mix of kanji and katakana – read out below.  As she had told Director Pearson, her English wasn’t terrific, but she could pit the subtitles against the spoken words enough to pick out most of what was said.  When necessary, she slowed the playback with the controls or rewound with the jog wheel, her middle finger manipulating the thumbprint in the wheel.

*       *       *

“What do you mean ‘yakuza?’”

Seiji looked at the floor.  He didn’t dare speak up now.  He allowed Daisuke to present his case for him.

“He told me himself,” the boy said.  “He’s a member of the Kodo-Kai in Nagoya.  They’re said to be worth over ¥500 billion – 5,000 members strong.”

Seiji didn’t need to look in their eyes to feel their stares.  He could tell Hitomi was furious that her leverage over him had been lost.  Now, for better or worse, she had nothing.  He knew Akane stared on in disappointment while Junpei and Emiko struggled to make sense of the situation.

“Why didn’t he tell us?” Junpei asked.  “Hey, yakuza!  Why didn’t you tell us?”

Seiji resisted the urge to speak up.

“He was frightened,” Daisuke said.  “He knows how unfavorably the public looks upon the yakuza and he didn’t know what we’d do to him.”

“He was frightened of us?” Junpei asked.  “I don’t believe it.”

“You said we should be put down, Fukuhara-san,” Seiji said.  “You said we were just as bad as the zonbi.  I thought if you knew, you’d throw me out to be eaten by them.  Daisuke said we should face consequences as well.”

Although Seiji’s point was heard clearly, Junpei changed the subject.

“Do you…know the men they mentioned on the news?  The men who turned people away at the pharmacy?”

The only way out of this is through it, Seiji thought.  He sighed deeply.

“They sound familiar to me.  I could probably guess who they are.  I do not agree with their actions though; we should all help one another.”

Murmurs spread throughout the room.  Seiji wouldn’t allow himself to take them as a good sign.  Emiko looked from Seiji to Hitomi and back.  She felt on the verge of an epiphany.  She continued to look back and forth between the two of them – slowly at first, then increasing in speed.

“That’s why you made such a clean cut of Daisuke-chan’s finger,” Akane said.  “You’ve…done it before.”

More murmurs and groans.  Seiji’s ears felt warm.

“Listen,” Junpei said.  “You’ve been helpful to us.  I don’t think we should throw you out to the zonbi.  It was wrong to say that.  But I don’t know how comfortable –“

“You knew.”

Everyone turned to Emiko, who stared at Hitomi.

“Emiko-chan?” Akane said.

“You knew,” Emiko said again.  “Somehow you knew Seiji was yakuza.  That’s why he’s been so allied to you.”

Now everyone turned to Hitomi.  Seiji was amazed nobody could hear his heart pounding.  Hitomi was certain they could hear hers.

“You’ve been…blackmailing him,” Akane said.  “How long?”

“Since the first night,” Seiji said.  “She saw my tattoos when I came up the ladder.  She confronted me after she attacked Fukuhara-san.  I…accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom.  She had a piece of glass and –“

“Liar!” Hitomi hissed.  “He’s lying!  Don’t listen to him! He…He’s got a gun!”

Reflexively, Daisuke spun around to look at Seiji, expecting to see him aiming a firearm at them.  He had heard the line in so many movies that he couldn’t help himself.  He was annoyed at himself for falling for it.

“Hitomi-chan, Seiji doesn’t have a gun,” Daisuke said.

“Yes he does!” she said.

“He has the gun that belonged to the man in this house,” Junpei said.  “Is that what you mean?  I almost forgot about that.”

“I’m sorry, Fukuhara-san, but that’s not what she means,” Seiji said.  “That man’s firearm is back in the first house.  She’s saying that I have my own gun.”

“Do you?”

Seiji sighed, then nodded.  “I have two.”

“You don’t carry guns, do you Seiji?” Akane asked.

“But I’m not lying about her,” Seiji said, motioning towards Hitomi.  “I understand if you don’t trust me now – but I’m telling you, she’s been blackmailing me.  If nothing else, keep an eye on her.”

“Are you wearing your guns right now?” Junpei asked.

The tone of his question caught Seiji’s attention.  He froze and stared at Junpei.

You stupid bastard, Seiji thought.  In a flash, in his imagination, he could see how the rest of the discussion would play out.

“Why do you want to know?” he would ask, already knowing the answer.

“I think you should give them up,” Junpei would say.  “For the safety of the group.”

He would probably throw in something about his wife and the vileness of the yakuza to convince the others – something he heard on an NHK special or from a colleague.  And how would everyone else react?  Hitomi hated Seiji and she hated Junpei, but she would likely be more amused by Seiji’s disarmament than if he kept his guns.  She’d egg Junpei on just to stir up trouble.  Junpei would see through this, but it would still embolden him.  Akane would resist Junpei’s demands enough for him to believe she was choosing Seiji over him, which would also anger him.  Emiko would say something in Seiji’s favor – she was innocent, but not yet old enough to develop the scorn or the fear to which Seiji had become accustomed.  On the other hand, Daisuke would waver but Seiji believed the boy’s prejudices would win out and he’d ultimately side with Junpei, only to regret it later.  Yuma would act as though nothing were happening.  Seiji would refuse to hand his guns to Junpei, the situation would escalate and Junpei would do something stupid.

He’ll rush me, Seiji thought.  That’s what he’ll do.  As soon as he realizes I won’t give them up, he’ll run at me and try to wrestle my guns from me.  Both of us will be injured.  One of us will probably be shot.  Either outcome would cause trouble for the rest of us.

The entire scene unfolded in Seiji’s mind like one sudden feeling.  He saw everyone’s actions at once – saw the tension, the attack coming, the short struggle for the guns, the pull of a trigger.  Seiji wondered, idly, if he were special somehow – if this speed and complexity of thought finally made him exceptional in some way, for the first time in his life.  Or maybe everyone did that.  Did everyone think ahead so quickly and cautiously?  Did everyone use their knowledge of everyone else in a room to plan ahead?  Was this just another way in which Seiji Kamiya was ordinary – just another low-rent thug, replaceable when a job finally went wrong?

Why am I thinking about that now?  This guy is about to get one of us killed.

Emiko couldn’t be certain, but in the first few seconds that passed since Junpei had asked Seiji if he were armed, Seiji’s entire face seemed to change subtly, but completely.  Strangely, it reminded her of an incident the previous summer when her grandfather had eaten chicken katsu too quickly and suffered a terribly painful bout of indigestion.  He napped on the couch, sweating and fussing.  Then suddenly his face slackened and he released a slow, deep breath.  An expression of calm overcame him.  His shoulders slowly dropped and she noticed that his color had improved and she knew that wherever the food had been stuck, it had just become unstuck.  Everything in her grandfather’s face was almost the exact same but it was somehow completely different.  In the same span of time, Seiji changed, imperceptibly but drastically.

“Kamiya-san?” she asked.

Their eyes met and he blinked several times.

Exhaustion, she thought.  Her mind raced.  And an overwhelming sadness.  It’s so sudden.  Why?  Just a minute ago he was…It’s Junpei’s question.  It’s something in this conversation.  What is it?  Why does Junpei want to know if he’s armed?  Why does it upset him so much?  If he’s armed, Junpei will –

Voting Time!!! Should Emiko try to intervene before the conversation turns ugly or let it proceed?

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