Recommended Listening: Björk – “Black Lake”
Shelter: Three Residences North Side of Street, One South
“Hitomi freed one of the little worms from where we found Yuma!” Emiko shouted. It was the first thing that popped into her head when she thought of what would distract everyone from Seiji. She just wanted to buy him a minute or two.
Everyone turned and looked at Emiko – Hitomi included. Hitomi felt something change in her body – or was it her brain? It felt foreign. She fixed her gaze on her friend blankly, a dead body with open eyes.
“Cheonsa!” Yuma said happily.
“What?” Junpei asked.
“The day we found Yuma,” Emiko said. “There were two of those little creatures that looked like black pipe cleaners. They were in the little clear bottles, remember? One was in water; the other bottle only contained the creature. The third bottle was empty. We left Hitomi to watch Yuma while we dealt with that man. When Akane and I went back upstairs to check on her, two bottles were empty. Daisuke-chan sent the remaining creature to Watanabe-sensei.”
“She’s also been cutting herself,” Seiji said. “I was trying to tell you when she interrupted me. I accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom and she was…her thigh…I don’t know about that creature, but Hitomi can’t be trusted.”
“Emiko-chan, I’m sorry, but why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Junpei asked.
“There was so much going on,” Emiko said. “That man, his death, Yuma –“
“Yuma!” Yuma said happily.
“– the missing food, the starvation…I completely forgot until just a moment ago.”
“Wait,” Daisuke said. “What happened to the bug?”
Hitomi said nothing. She kept perfect watch of Emiko.
“Hey, girl!” Seiji said. “He asked you what happened to the bug.”
Hitomi continued to stare. She was completely immobile, almost frozen in time. Several seconds passed. At long last, Hitomi closed her eyes and reopened them, slowly turning to Seiji.
“I let him go,” she said. Her voice was calm and nonchalant. “I threw him outside.”
She turned back to the others. “He’s right. I’ve been cutting myself. I know it’s an unhealthy way to cope with this trauma and I need to stop.”
Everyone watched as Hitomi reached into her pocket and produced the small envelope that held her cutting razor. She held it out to Akane. Hitomi’s hand trembled and her arm looked taut. Her eyes watered.
“T-Take it,” she said. “I…I don’t want it…anymore.”
Akane’s eyes were wide. She nodded slowly. “Okay,” she said. Her hand reached for the envelope. “Okay. That’s fine.” She placed her fingers gently on Hitomi’s outstretched palm – on the envelope. She stayed still for a moment. All at once, she quickly slid her hand towards herself and closed her hand, the envelope leaving Hitomi’s fingertips. Akane quickly put the envelope into her pocket. Even as she did so, Hitomi’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell to the floor unconscious.
Emiko, Daisuke and Akane all rushed to her. The teens called her name and tried to jostle her awake while Akane checked her vital signs. Seiji started to approach her, but hesitated when he considered how many people already surrounded her – and the relationship between himself and Hitomi. Junpei didn’t move. He looked briefly at Hitomi but mostly kept his gaze fixed on Seiji. Before he could say anything, Akane whipped her head around and fixed her gaze on her husband.
“I think she could use some fresh air,” Akane said. “We should move her to the terrace at the first house and let her lay down on the couch out there.”
Junpei knew what that meant. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. I should keep an eye on her overnight though.”
Junpei pointed a finger at Seiji. “We aren’t finished,” he said. Then he moved to where the girl lay unconscious. Yuma had vanished, but now she returned with her folding cart, making a beeline for the kitchen.
“I’ll grab her under the arms, you get her feet,” Junpei said to Daisuke.
They hoisted her up and carried her towards the kitchen of Yuma’s house, knowing that the makeshift cart awaited her there. It would, they knew, make the trip just a bit easier. They just had to get there.
A chill wind woke Hitomi on the terrace of the Sugimoto residence the next day. She had never blacked out before. For several seconds, she stared at the sparse wooden framework above her. The pergola offered no protection from the elements and she found herself wondering indignantly why someone would build it without a full cover.
How stupid, she thought.
“How are you feeling?”
A woman’s voice from beside her made her turn her head out of reflex. Akane sat on the couch opposite her, closing a book and resting it on her lap.
“You fainted after you…while we were talking.”
“What time is it?”
“Early afternoon. Everyone else is at Yuma’s house.”
“I don’t like that house. Something’s wrong with it.”
“Do you mean because of…your brother? And that man?”
Hitomi considered this for a long time.
Hitomi turned her head back and looked up at the clouds past the pergola. They were dark gray and moving quickly.
“It’s about to rain,” she said.
* * *
“Yuma and I can go next door,” Daisuke said.
“I’d like to go too,” Emiko said.
“I think two people per house should be fine,” Junpei said. “Besides, someone should stay here.”
“I understand, Fukuhara-san, but…” Emiko paused. “Yuma isn’t…speaking very much yet. Daisuke could use the help, and I’ve already been there once.”
“What’s going on?”
Everyone turned to see Hitomi and Akane dusting themselves off in Yuma’s kitchen.
“We’re going to search the new houses,” Seiji said.
“Who’s going with who?” Akane asked.
“Daisuke, Emiko and Yuma are going next door,” Junpei said. He gestured vaguely towards Seiji. “I’m taking him across the street.”
Seiji feigned satisfaction with this decision. After a moment, the group continued to discuss their plans. Akane watched her husband’s body language. Hitomi leaned into Akane’s ear and spoke softly.
“That looks like trouble for Kamiya-san.”
“Junpei,” Akane said. He turned to her and nodded upwards – an inquisitive gesture she’d seen him do since college.
“Why don’t you stay here with Hitomi and I’ll go with Seiji instead?”
“It’s alright,” Junpei said. “I don’t mind going; you can stay with Hitomi-chan.”
“I could use a change of scenery,” Akane said. “If you wait here, and something goes wrong at either new house, you can get there quickly – we both know you move through the tunnels more quickly than I do.”
It was true. Akane was the slower crawler. Additionally, Junpei heard in her voice that she wanted to go. Hitomi had become rather taxing to everyone the previous day; maybe Akane could use a break from her.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll stay here with Hitomi-chan. You go across the street with Seiji, Daisuke can take Emiko and Yuma next door and we’ll keep watch here.”
“Everyone, please do your best!” Emiko said.
Daisuke, Emiko and Yuma headed for the third house on the north side of the street. Yuma carried her cart under her arm. Seiji and Akane followed them down the hole in Yuma’s kitchen but then took the tunnel south to the house across the street. Hitomi and Junpei stayed behind. Each sat on opposite ends of the living room couch. Minutes passed. The only sound, to which they had all become accustomed, was that of the zonbi sluggishly beating on the walls and moaning.
“Do you worry about them getting in?” Junpei asked.
Hitomi shook her head. “If they do, I think we’ll make it to the train car long before then.”
More time passed.
“Have you been in the tunnel across the street in the last two days?” she asked.
“I don’t think it’s urgent, but one of the braces looked somewhat weak.”
“It was the 2×4 that goes across the brace. It didn’t look that bad –“
Junpei sprang up off the couch.
“Where are you going?”
“If we don’t reinforce that brace, the whole tunnel could collapse. Why didn’t you tell anyone sooner?!”
“It didn’t look like it would…”
Junpei cursed to himself and headed to the kitchen. They had been stacking their tunneling supplies there as they dug to the two new houses. A pile of spare 2x4s, a roll of duct tape, a box cutter and a recently-discovered nail gun sat on the kitchen countertop. Several spare braces leaned against the kitchen wall. Next to them stood several long, narrow sheets of cardboard they had fashioned from packing boxes in the attics of the first two houses. Yuma emptied the boxes, cut along one corner of each and stood them on end. The diggers had taken to laying them along the tunnel floors, duct taping them end-to-end and nailing their edges to the bottom of the legs of the braces. It greatly improved the speed of the cart underground, but since they only had one cart, the cardboard road was mostly fashioned in case of emergency. Yuma was greatly protective of it, making sure anyone going to the tunnels cleaned their shoes on the way down.
Junpei grabbed a 2×4, a flashlight and the nail gun. He stopped at the hole in the floor.
“I need you to show me where the failing brace is,” he said.
Hitomi didn’t move.
“Please. I-I’m sorry I yelled at you. It’s just that it’s very important. I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”
Hitomi stood and walked to him.
“After you,” he said.
She dropped down to the ground in the crawlspace and laid herself down, crawling out of view to the tunnel entrance. Junpei looked up, rolled his eyes, sighed and followed her.
The first drops of rain began to fall in a trickle that soon developed to a steady rain.
They had only gone about 1/4 of the way through the tunnel when Hitomi looked over her shoulder and called back to Junpei. “It’s this one,” she said.
She had arrived at the fork in Daisuke’s southbound tunnel. The path split – one route took them the rest of the way to the house across the street while the other dead-ended several feet ahead where Daisuke had encountered the old repaved road. Junpei couldn’t see much. When she realized this, she used the extra space in the fork to turn her body around. When they were both face-to-face, lying on their stomachs, she pointed up at the last brace before the fork. Junpei shined his flashlight at the edge of the brace. It did look like it was sagging.
“This is bad,” he said. “This is probably the shallowest part of the tunnel.”
“Is it because of the weight on top of it?”
Junpei shook his head. “It just looks like a bad piece of wood.”
“Daisuke should have noticed that when he was building the brace.”
“No, it’s alright,” Junpei said. “Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell. Okay, let’s get started.”
Hitomi rolled onto her back and took the flashlight. Junpei held the new 2×4 up under the old one with his left hand and unlocked the nail gun with his right.
“Steady the left end of the brace,” he said. “My left.”
She held the 2×4 in place on one end so it was perfectly lined up with the original. Junpei held the end that was on his right – closest to the path that led to the house. He switched hands to get a better angle, holding the 2×4 with his right hand and the nail gun with his left.
“Could you please get me a little more light?” he asked.
She moved the flashlight closer to where the nail would be driven in. It almost touched Junpei’s left arm.
“Okay, here we go,” he said. He aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger.
Hitomi shoved Junpei’s firing arm with the flashlight, pushing it several inches at the exact moment he pulled the trigger. The nail drove through the back of his right hand into the original brace. As he screamed in pain, he lost his grip on the replacement 2×4 but she held it so it wouldn’t fall on her face. The nail gun landed inches from her head with a deep thud. He tried to pull his hand away but it was stuck fast. An expression as wild as fire flashed across her whole face and Junpei saw some kind of reflective glare of bright purple glinting in her eyes. It was alien.
“Hitomi, What the Hell are you doing?!” he screamed.
She rolled back over onto her stomach. Blood streamed down his hand and the top of his forearm. He realized the nail must’ve gone through one of the veins in the middle of the hand where the cephalic vein met the dorsal venous network. With his free left hand, he tried to pull the nail out, but it was already lost in red. He couldn’t get a grip on the head of the nail. Meanwhile, Hitomi was scrambling to turn her body so she could crawl to the house that Seiji and Akane were inspecting. Several drops of his blood spotted her hair and the back of her shirt.
His hands covered in blood, Seiji made a desperate grab at Hitomi’s right leg as she crawled past him. His right hand throbbed in pain but all he could think of was stopping this girl, forcing her to stay and help or wait for help. He briefly got a hold of it and she shrieked. She rolled over on her back once more, bringing her hands under her, propping herself up on them and scooting her rear end forward. She tried to yank her leg away from Junpei but he held it fast. Instead, she used her left leg to kick him in the face and to kick his hand away from her foot. One powerful kick to the face sent his head reeling, then drooping. When he looked back up at her, screaming obscenities, she saw that she had kicked one of his front teeth out and chipped two others. The pieces were on the tunnel floor, flecked with blood. After another kick, he lost his grip on her and she backed away several inches.
But she didn’t leave.
The fight went out of Junpei. It was just dawning on him that she had planned all this from the beginning. She had likely tampered with the original brace at some point, knowing how proactive he was when it came to the tunnels. But how did she know she’d get him alone?
My God, he thought. She came in with Akane when we were talking about searching the new houses. We were all talking and suddenly Akane wanted to go with Seiji. That would mean…
“Why are you doing this to me?” he asked. She was calmly wiping the blood from her leg with her hand and smearing dirt over the parts of her socks that were stained red from his bloody grip.
“You killed my father,” she said. “My brother was killed saving your wife.”
“Your father was –“
“Shut up! You took my family from me. You made me suffer. Now your wife can suffer for a while. And you can die wondering what I’m going to do to her.”
Hitomi suddenly dropped onto her back and kicked out a brace between herself and Junpei. Then she used both feet to kick just above his brace as hard as she could with both feet. Soil and small rocks rained down on Junpei’s head. She was already rearing up a second kick.
“Are you insane?!” he shouted. “You’ll kill us both!”
He tried to rip his own brace out of its position but he was too weak. Then he grabbed his right wrist with his left hand and started to pull as Hitomi continued to kick the tunnel ceiling. If I can just get free, he thought. Akane can patch me up and –
An odd sound of rumbling and rustling came from above them. It was huge. Junpei and Hitomi made wide-eyed eye contact and she laughed, just once, in surprise, the sinister purple glint flashing across her eyes once more. She rolled back over on her stomach one last time and, as he screamed for the final time, she scrambled off. Down the tunnel. Toward the house. Toward Akane.
The tunnel fell on Junpei with the weight of a bulldozer. The brace to which he had been nailed finally gave way and snapped, but he would never again move. He shut his eyes reflexively to avoid getting dirt in them and his face was shoved into the tunnel floor so hard his nose broke. He tried to breathe but the soil and cardboard under him offered no quarter.
The collapsing tunnel followed Hitomi halfway to the house across the street before settling enough to stop falling. Even still, she raced to the new house – to fresh air and proper shelter – as quickly as she could.
Daisuke, Emiko and Yuma heard a terrible sound outside the house they searched. They raced to the second floor and out a sliding glass door to a small, street-facing balcony and looked down. Along a straight line from Yuma’s house to the house across the street, a confused group of zonbi had fallen and were using one another as leverage to attempt to stand. After a moment, the three survivors realized the street had sunken in. Daisuke looked to the house across the street. Through the rain, he could barely discern Seiji’s and Akane’s faces peering out. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled as loudly as he could.
They looked at him, but he had no idea if they had heard him.
Emiko cursed and ran to the small laundry room on the first floor, where they had broken ground in the third house. She heard Daisuke calling after her but she had no time to explain. She jumped straight down the hole and down through the tunnel entrance, which was directly under it, landing on either side of Yuma’s cart. She laid down on it on her back and kicked off as hard as she could, using both her hands to push herself along the tunnel walls – and kicking her feet alternately under her along the cardboard floor – back to Yuma’s. When she got to the entrance, Emiko turned over onto her stomach and turned right, again using all four limbs to push along the tunnel.
She didn’t get far. Before long, she came to a wall of soil that interrupted her path. She stopped the cart and froze. Emiko shut her mouth and breathed through her nose for a long time, inhaling the musty air and the implications of the cave-in.
Seiji and Akane heard a large, low, intimidating sound from the streets. Akane wondered if an earthquake had rocked the neighborhood; Seiji feared that a gas main under the street had burst. Like the others, they ran to the nearest second-floor window and peered out. Then they heard Daisuke calling them and announcing a cave-in. They looked to him just in time to see Emiko turn around quickly and run from the balcony on which they stood.
“Where’s she going in such a hurry?” Seiji asked.
Akane continued to look at the street. Then she looked at Seiji.
“How are we going to get back?”
His face fell.
Hitomi’s voice shrieked in horror from the first floor. They leaned over the balcony but didn’t see her.
“Hitomi-chan?!” Akane said. “We’re upstairs! What are you doing here?”
Hitomi appeared, dirty and disheveled. She climbed up the stairs slowly, her body convulsing as she sobbed heavily.
“O-one of the braces in the t-tunnel was starting to give. I…I told Fukuhara-san about it…”
“Junpei?” Akane asked. “Where is he?”
“We…We went down to fix it t-together…”
Akane thought of her wedding day.
Before another thought entered her head, she was already at the bottom of the stairs and sprinting for the hole in the floor that would lead her back to the tunnel. She couldn’t stop herself from calling her husband’s name. She heard Seiji yelling to her to stop. “It’s not safe!” he said.
She didn’t care.
Hitomi fell into Seiji’s arms. Despite everything, he held her in reassurance and helped hold her up. There was no doubt the girl had, moments ago, come through a terrifying ordeal – and considering the hundreds of reanimated corpses roaming around outside, nearly being buried alive was the kind of component that could send anyone over the edge. And, as they all knew, when Hitomi felt backed into a corner, she lashed out viciously. He wanted to chase Akane down and stop her from putting herself in harm’s way but he felt too guilty to leave Hitomi – not to mention that doing so would mean dropping her to the floor. Seiji told himself she would be fine. She was a grown woman, and practical.
Hitomi sobbed into his chest.
“It’s alright,” he said. “You’re safe now. There are no zonbi in the house and we boarded up the windows the other day. You’re lucky that you escaped the tunnel.”
Seiji thought of Junpei. He didn’t want Junpei dead, but at this point he was almost certain he must have been caught in the tunnel collapse – and the way the street looked from the window, Seiji knew the chances were minimal that Junpei was safely tucked into some still-standing pocket under a brace.
It would be a horrific death, he thought. Trapped immobile under rubble, bones crushed by pavement. My God, if the zonbi got to him before he died…
Seiji couldn’t think of a worse fate. He found solace in the hope that Junpei at least passed quickly and he ignored the idea of the zonbi reaching him – and of Akane digging her way to Junpei. He thought involuntarily of his relationship to Junpei and realized that with Junpei gone, the efforts to throw Seiji out or keep him as some kind of prisoner went with him. There was a relief in that development, but guilt struck him immediately for thinking so.
A quiet sound from downstairs renewed Seiji’s urgency to get to Akane. He brought his hand up and held the back of Hitomi’s head with one hand and patted her shoulder with the other.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s been a couple minutes; I think I should go check on Akane. Is that alright?”
Hitomi nodded meekly and he felt her shift and stand on her own. He softened his grip on her and something on his palm caught his eye. At the same time, more shuffling sounds from downstairs – this time, just below them.
Akane walked slowly into view and made her way up the stairs. Hitomi turned around sharply, her back against the window they had looked out of just a few minutes ago.
“My husband is dead.”
Akane’s voice was flat. Emotionless. Seiji knew that tone. She was in shock.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No you’re not.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. The last thing Akane needed was additional stress.
“How can I help?” he asked, holding his hands out. Again, something on his hands caught his eye. This time, he brought his palms up and inspected them. Smeared red spots adorned his palms and fingers.
“What’s wrong?” Akane asked.
Seiji wiped a spot on his right hand with his left thumb and looked again. He had no injuries.
I was holding the girl, he thought. This isn’t my blood.
“Hitomi, did any of the rocks hit you when you were escaping the tunnel?”
“No,” she said. “Why?”
“Does your head feel alright?”
She nodded. “Why?”
“I got blood on my hands when I was holding you up earlier,” he said. He raised his hands, palms out to her. “Are you sure you weren’t injured?”
“Oh!” Hitomi said. “Right. I was crawling so fast I must have banged my head on one of the braces or something. I just forgot.”
“Let me see,” Akane said. “If you forgot, it could be serious.”
“No, thank you,” Hitomi said. “It really doesn’t hurt.”
“Then you could be in shock,” Seiji said. “Please, Hitomi; let Akane look.”
After a moment, Hitomi reluctantly turned around. Akane approached her from behind.
“I can see the blood,” she said. “Streaks of it are on your shoulder and in your hair. Some of your hair is stuck together.”
Akane raised her hands and gently began parting Hitomi’s hair in search of the injury. After a full minute, Seiji began to get impatient. He sighed through his nose and walked around them, giving the women some space.
Akane stopped. Then she resumed her search more quickly.
“Did you find it?” Hitomi asked.
Akane didn’t answer. After a few more seconds, she began pressing her fingers into Hitomi’s hair and kneading inch-long imprints, then checking her fingertips. All at once her hands froze.
“…You have no injuries.”
Daisuke turned to Yuma. “Is that…Hitomi in the window?” he asked.
Yuma nodded enthusiastically. “Yes!”
“I thought she was at your house with Junpei.”
Daisuke sighed and shook his head, then looked back out the window at Hitomi.
She looks terrified, he thought. Why did she leave Yuma’s house? Was she caught in the cave-in?
He continued squinting and trying to see through the rain, which now fell heavily. He made a visor of his hand to shield his eyes.
“Eh?” Seiji asked.
“She isn’t hurt,” Akane said. “This isn’t her blood.”
Hitomi turned back around to face them, her back to the window, and made eye contact with Akane.
Daisuke and Yuma watched Hitomi fly backward through the window. The glass shattered and Hitomi’s legs swung up to the sky. She fell and made contact with the roof that overhung the first floor, several shards of glass – including one large one – embedding themselves into her back and arms. Momentum and the angle of the roof carried her legs the rest of the way over her head and she completed a backwards somersault. For a moment it looked like she might have slowed to a stop and sat on the edge of the roof, but she was still traveling just fast enough to miss it. She fell onto the ground outside at an awkward angle in the middle of a crowd of zonbi. In his shock, Daisuke couldn’t make himself look away.
He saw a gap where she had landed on several zonbi, taking them down to the floor with her. After a moment, she stood up, her arms shaking, her hair covered in grass and leaves.
The zonbi that surrounded her backed away. None of them touched her. Even the ones on which she had landed scurried away. Hitomi looked at Daisuke. Her eyes glowed a bright purple.
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke.
Yuma pointed a finger at her and spoke one word, her voice as joyous as ever.
There is no vote this month.