I’m standing on the shore. The water’s lapping at my feet. Every wave brings sand with it, and it’s slowly building around me. Then, once the water retreats, it hardens to stone.
Already my legs are encased up to my calves.
The sun is somewhere behind me, low enough in the sky to cast everything in a rosy glow. My shadow stretches far out to sea until it meets the moon, which sits on the horizon like some distant ship.
There’s a strong breeze, but my hair hangs limp like seaweed.
The sand’s rising higher around me. It’s halfway up my thighs now.
I should move, but when I go to lift my leg, I find it doesn’t exist any more. It’s turned to stone and merged with the hardened sand.
«Madocchi,» YamaYuki says.
I’d thought I had the beach to myself, but when I look to my left, there she is. Megumin and Chiaki are next to her, and a hundred others beyond them. They stretch all the way down the beach, as far as I can see. And all of them have hardened into stone.
«There’s so much ...» YamaYuki says.
«So much what?»
«Everything. We’re part of it.»
«I don’t get it.»
«I wish you could be with us.»
«I’m right here.»
«But you’re going.»
«Hmm. That is a question.»
To my right.
What are they saying?
“mn abm waana eem nee baa”
“dt kaa yeel mii trd drrk llim.”
I can’t tell. My hearing’s muffled. I strain my ears but can’t make out a single word. Something about their cadence is off, though—they don’t sound Japanese.
Oh, that’s right. I’m in America. They must be speaking English.
But that doesn’t help me. Their words are still gibberish. I can’t recognize even one.
I’m on a hard floor, not even a futon under me. Why? What had happened?
I can remember the convention, that much is clear. We’d done a concert Saturday night, then me, Kyouko and Hana-chan had snuck away to the hotel bar. Tada-kun hadn’t found us until we’d been there for an hour, and he’d barely stopped Hana-chan from sneaking off with some American who bought her a drink.
After that, though… I kinda remember breakfast the next morning. Pancakes and bacon and sausage—it was more than I had for dinner most nights. And then Akamatsu-san told us we’d have to cut short our plans for touring Washington. We still managed to see some sights, though. I remember looking at fossils in the Natural History Museum and going up in a big stone tower and seeing the whole of of the city.
That’s where everything gets fuzzy. We’d all met up at the train station, I’m pretty sure of that, and we’d gotten on the escalators… but what happened after that?
I can’t remember. I have some hazy recollection of being on a beach with Megumin and YamaYuki, but that can’t be right. Washington has a river, but the ocean is a long ways away. Was I dreaming? Must’ve been.
I go to sit up, but a sharp pain shoots through my body, from my right hip all the way to the shoulder. I cry out.
Movement. One of the people to my right comes over and kneels next to me. Linda-san. The expression on her face is grim.
«You all right?» she asks. Her voice is muffled, as though I have cotton in my ears.
«I hurt.» Huh. There’s something funny about the way my jaw’s moving, like the hinges on either side aren’t lined up right. I can only open my mouth part way. There’s no pain, though, as long as I limit the movement.
«Where?» Linda-san asks.
«Here.» I manage, painfully, to move my arm and indicate my side.
«Mmm, I see.» She reaches into her purse and comes out with a bottle of pills. «I don’t have water, but can you swallow these?»
My mouth is dry, but if it’ll help with the pain, I’ll do it. I nod.
She shakes out two pills.
I sit up. If I use my left side, it doesn’t hurt quite so much. But only not quite.
Linda-san places the pills against my lips and I take them into my mouth. The movement of my jaw is awkward, but I manage. The pills stick to my tongue, but after some effort I move them to the back of my throat. I have to work the muscles a couple times before they go down. It hurts. My throat is raw, like I’ve had a cold and been coughing too much.
«What happened?» I ask.
«There was a disaster,» is all Linda-san will answer. «You rest. I’ll be back in a bit.» She gets up and wanders away.
There was something in the way she’d been looking at me that was strange. The look of somebody watching a gross video. Was my face messed up? Was that why my jaw felt so strange? Maybe I’d fallen on the escalator and broken it? That wouldn’t be good. I wouldn’t be able to sing for a couple months at the least.
Akamatsu-san wouldn’t fire me—he’s always loyal to the girls, as long as we don’t break the rules—but being out of the spotlight for a couple months would lose me votes in the next popularity contest. That would have a roll-on effect since it would mean I wouldn’t be on the next major single or the video, which would mean I’d have to work twice as hard to come back.
I’ve seen it before. YamaYuki had been sidelined for a couple months last year after she had tonsillitis, and her popularity still hasn’t recovered fully. Then there was the girl who’d had the bad luck to break a leg right after making her debut in Team B. She’d placed last in the next poll and been demoted back to understudy.
Having a broken jaw would be trouble, but what if it were worse than that? What if I’d cut my face? My hardcore fans would still vote for me—and since ballots are packed in with CDs and multi-voting is allowed, the hardcores are the most important for keeping my numbers up. But while having an army of hardcores is necessary to place in the top twenty, getting to the top requires support from the casuals. If my face is messed up, some might vote for me out of sympathy, but not enough. And probably only once or twice—by next year, they’ll be voting for someone else. I’ve held Hana-chan and TakaYuki off for the last six polls, but if I have a scar, I’ll be vying for twentieth place with Kyouko, who’s too tough to attract fans beyond her core.
This is terrible. My career is going to be over.
No, wait. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t know how bad the damage is. I need a mirror. But where?
I look around. My surroundings come into focus for the first time. I’m in the train station, sitting next to a ticket machine. I grab it and pull myself up. Pain shoots through my side when I move my leg, and by the time I get myself upright, I’m panting and sweating. But I manage.
Where’s the bathroom? There has to be one somewhere, right? There’s a corridor nearby. I hobble towards it.
An American man appears. He says something I can’t understand, then shouts, “Hey, Linda!”
«Madoka-san, you have to stay put.»
«I need a mirror.»
«Please, sit down.»
—We can’t let her can’t see herself.
Where did that come from?
—Honey, you don’t want a mirror.
People are speaking, but their voices aren’t muffled like Linda-san’s and the man’s.
«I’ll get you a mirror in a bit, I promise,» Linda-san says. But she’s lying. I can—how can I know that? «Sit down please.»
She leads me into a corner and I sit down. What’s going on? Where is everyone? I don’t see Hana-chan or Emi or anyone around here. There are a few people, but they’re all Americans. From what I remember, the station should be a lot more crowded than this. There’d been hundreds of people around the entrance when—yes, I remember now.
(the back of my neck’s wet)
We’d been going down the escalator when an earthquake
(what’s wrong with YamaYuki’s face?)
No, more than an earthquake. Something really bad had happened.
«Where’s Akamatsu-san?» I ask.
«You stay here and I’ll get him.»
Linda-san speaks to the other man. I can’t hear their words—and they’d be in English anyway—but I can tell she’s asking him to watch me. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. He nods, but he’s not enthusiastic about it.
Linda-san disappears into the corridor. Is that the entrance, maybe?
As soon as Linda-san’s gone, the guy she asked to watch me wanders away and begins chatting with some other people. None of them are happy to be here, but they’re scared to leave—there’s something wrong outside. And… they’re scared of something down here, too. Like there’s a plague and they might catch it.
And I’m the one who’s sick.
How do I know all that? I can barely hear the murmur of their voices, but I can… feel? That’s not the right word, but it’s the only one I have that’s even close to right. Yes, I can feel their fear and where it’s directed. It’s like when you walk into a room and everyone goes quiet, and you know they’d been talking about you a moment before. Only this is more intense.
Is that crazy? Maybe I’m being paranoid. Maybe I’m so afraid of what’s happened to my face that I’m projecting my fear onto them.
What was that?
—Please. I’m alone. It’s dark. I’m scared.
It’s one of those clear voices again. But it’s too clear, like the voice in my own head. I can’t tell what direction it’s coming from.
“Verere.” There’s a voice coming from the far side of the room. Somebody’s lying against the wall, just like me when I woke up. “Bweeese.”
The guy who’s supposed to be looking after me glances across the room. He’s revulsed. His stomach turns. The others he’s chatting with feel the same. Most of them wish they could get further away from the person over there, though one of them—yes, the woman with dark blonde hair—thinks they should kill the person. There’s no malice in her mind; she thinks it’d be a mercy.
“Halb may,” the person moans.
—There’s somebody out there, isn’t there? Please.
I stand up. I totter across the room. I get halfway before the guy who’s supposed to be watching me—his name’s Malcolm; I don’t know how I know that—notices me. He rushes over and puts himself in my way. He says something in English, speaking slowly as though I’ll understand him better that way.
—I don’t wanna touch her. I don’t wanna touch her. Please don’t make me touch her.
Those… those are his thoughts. That’s what I’m hearing. How?
Well, if he doesn’t want to touch me, then—I reach my hand towards Malcolm-san. He flinches and steps backwards. I can see why. I haven’t looked at my hands since waking up, but now that I do, I see something’s wrong with them. They’re no longer smooth and soft. They look like an old lady’s hands, with veins and bones bulging through my skin. Somehow the last two fingers of my right hand are joined together, as though they’ve been dipped in glue and let to dry. What happened? What happened to my hand?
Malcolm-san steps aside. I lurch forward—that’s the only way to describe it. The way I’m walking, it’s like I have my pants down. Not around my ankles. No, if that were the case, my legs could move like normal, just not very far. This is more like there’s something around my knees. My lower legs can move like normal, but my thighs are barely mobile. The result is that I stumble forward, always in danger of toppling over.
But slowly I make my way across the room to where the man’s lying, facing towards the wall.
Those are his thoughts. Yes.
I wonder. Can he hear me?
—I’m here, I think.
The fear evaporates from his mind.
—You can hear me? he asks.
—Thank you. Oh thank you. I thought I was alone in the darkness.
I kneel down. Or try to. My legs don’t cooperate, and I fall onto my butt.
I put my hand on his shoulder. He rolls onto his back.
His face—what happened to his face? He looks like the candle that Kyouko had given me for my birthday a couple years ago, the one shaped like a fairy. When I’d burnt it, the wax had run over its face, turning her into a lumpy mess. The guy’s face is the same way. The skin on his cheeks and chin have melted and run and resolidified into a gobby mass. It’s bright pink and glistens. There are thick pads of flesh over his eyes, as though somebody has cut the soles from his feet and sewn them onto his face. In places, the skin has melted so much that bone pokes through.
—What’s wrong? he asks.
—You’re lying. What happened to me? Where am I?
I put my hand to my face. I’d expected something to be wrong with it, but I hadn’t imagined anything worse than a broken jaw and some cuts. A problem, yes, but… my whole face is warped. There are ridges and runnels all across my cheeks and forehead. I’m as wrinkled as some old granny, except the flesh isn’t loose and soft. It’s calloused.
How can I ever go on stage like this? There’s no way Akamatsu-san will ever let me. My career’s over.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!
This cannot be happening.
I have money saved, but nowhere near enough for retirement. I’ve been spending money almost as fast as it comes in. Not just on myself, of course—I bought a house in the country for my parents, and I gave my best friend from high school a luxury sports car when she got into her top choice of college. True, there are some things I can sell for money—the woodcut paintings I collect, my vacation house in Okinawa—but nowhere near enough to support myself for the rest of my life. I always figured I’d end up married to someone with enough money that I needn’t worry about taking care of my future. But now, if I look anything like the guy on the floor, I have no hope. Nobody will ever marry me.
—What’s wrong with me? the guy on the floor wants to know. His fear feels like the heat of an oven with the door wide open. No, this goes beyond fear. He’s falling into panic. He can feel my fear, and it’s making him worse.
How is this possible? I’m not psychic. I’ve been certified as not psychic. Last year we’d taken a test as part of our variety show. This psychic researcher had come to the studio and had us guess the images hidden on cards. I’d scored so badly that he said I did worse than random chance. I literally have negative psychic powers. And there was the time Akamatsu-san had made us go into a haunted house as part of the show. Kyouko and Hana-chan both said they felt a ghostly presence, but I hadn’t felt a thing.
I have to be dreaming this. I’m still at the hotel asleep. That’s the only explanation. I’m going to wake up soon and tell Kyouko all about it—she’ll get a laugh.
—Am I going to be all right? Am I even alive? Is this Hell?
There’s no way I can hear this guy’s voice in my head. And even if I could, it’d be in English. How could I understand him?
But… no matter how much I tell myself that, I don’t believe it. There’s a realness to his thoughts that I’ve never felt in a dream. I don’t think I’ve felt it awake, either. It’s the realness of my own thoughts and feelings.
—You’re alive, I touch his shoulder and squeeze it. —I’m right here.
He struggles to sit up. I help him. He looks at me with his eyeless face.
—Yes. That’s me. You’re… My mind searches. Jacob. The name comes to me as though I’ve dredged it from my own memory. He’s my age, a college student at the University of Maryland. He…
“Look at that crowd,” Kelly said.
I blink and turn around. Akamatsu-san is here, and Linda-san, too.
«You shouldn’t be up,» Akamatsu-san says. «You need to rest.» He reaches a hand for my shoulder, but hesitates before touching me. «Come on, let’s sit you down somewhere.»
He smiles, but he’s faking it. My face makes him want to vomit. Only Linda-san doesn’t feel revulsion towards me. She pities me instead. She’s thinking, —The poor girl, she pinned her life on her looks, and what’s she going to do now?
«What happened?» I ask.
«As to that, we don’t know,» Akamatsu-san says. «The city is wrecked, but that’s all I can say.»
«Where’re Kyouko and Hana-chan and the others?»
«They went to find help,» Akamatsu-san says.
He’s lying. There’s no help. There’s nobody left on the surface. They’re all dead up there. Only people who were underground when the quake struck are still alive. Those of us who’d been on the escalator…
Akamatsu stepped off the escalator and moved to the side.
Akamatsu had come up with the idea for IKB-45 when he was in business school. He’d been researching entertainment management for a paper, and he’d come to the realization that musical groups were highly inefficient. They could only do one thing at a time. If they were on tour, they couldn’t be recording new material. If they were recording new material, they couldn’t be making TV appearances.
So that’s what happened.
I’m glad the others are safe, though I’m sorry Akamatsu-san had to stay behind because of me.
«Come on. Sit down,» Akamatsu-san urges me.
I let him lead me away from Jacob. It doesn’t matter. Even on the far side of the room, I can still hear Jacob’s thoughts as clear as if he were sitting next to me—or even better than that, considering his voice appears in my head clearer than Akamatsu-san’s.
—I’m right over here, I tell Jacob.
—I can ... I don’t know how it is, but I can feel your presence, he thinks.
—Yes. It’s the same for me.
—But how is that possible?
—I don’t know. But it is. Do you know who I am?
He doesn’t answer for a moment. And then images flash through my mind. My audition for the group. The callbacks. The training. My debut concert.
—You’re a singer. From Japan, is it?
—This is so weird. Your memories feel like my own right now.
He’s silent for a moment, then —Hey. Do you think ... if there are two of us like this, are there any others?
To Be Continued...