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...
«I’m gonna melt,» Hana-chan says.
«Too hot!» Rinko says.
«I liked the museum better,» Emi says. «Air conditioning!»
I agree, but as the senior here, I have to project strong confidence. «If you guys don’t quit complaining, I’m gonna declare an emergency dance rehearsal.»
«Here?» Rinko says.
I spread my feet and point at the marble floor of the temple. «Right here, right now.»
«In front of all these people?» Emi says.
«We were at Budokan last month.» This is the thing I dislike most about Emi. She acts like she doesn’t want any attention, as though a girl would join an idol group otherwise. She thinks acting modest will get her more support from fans, but she doesn’t realize that everyone can see how insincere that modesty is. That’s why she languishes in the lower half of the popularity polls.
«That’s different,» Emi says. «We didn’t have a god watching us at the concert.» She points at the statue that’s towering over us.
«Who is he anyway?» Hana-chan asks. «Thor? Zeus?»
«I could use some juice,» Rinko says.
«No comedy routines!» I do a pretend karate chop upside her head. «And you guys don’t recognize George Washington? The most important American ever?»
«Is that who he is?» Emi says. «I thought he was better looking than that? And didn’t have a beard?»
«All generals have beards,» I say. «You think they have time to shave on the battlefield?»
«Actually, that’s Abraham Lincoln,» a young woman speaks up. She’s an incredibly pale shade of white, with hair the color of flames. I’ve seen red haired actresses in movies before, but I’ve never seen a shade this vivid in person. I can hardly believe it’s real, but I asked her last night and she swore to me it’s her natural color.
«The Washington Monument is down there.» She points towards the marble tower further down the Mall.
«I’ve been meaning to ask,» Hana-chan says, «is that supposed to be a giant dick?»
«Hana!» Emi and Rinko cry out.
«Ah ... I do not know,» the red haired woman says. Her name is Linda, like that old Blue Hearts song. When I’d found that out, I’d asked Akamatsu-san if we could include it in our performance on Saturday. He’d been against it—we were at an anime convention, he said, so we should focus on songs we’d done for soundtracks—but I’d convinced him in the end. After the concert was over, I’d gone to find Linda-san and get her reaction, but it turned out she’d left before we went on stage.
I point towards the monument. «Can we go see it?»
Linda-san checks her watch. «We have time, but ...» She looks at the wide stretch of grass between us and the tower. There are tens of thousands of people out there—hundreds of thousands, maybe. I know Akamatsu-san had told our guides to keep us away from the protests, but I don’t see what’s so dangerous. Everything looks peaceful. The police are watching silently from the sidelines, making no move to interfere.
«Come on,» Hana-chan says, «I wanna say I touched the world’s biggest dick.» Without waiting, she runs down the temple steps.
«Ah-ah-wait!» Linda-san says and runs after her, then stops and looks back at us. «I guess we’re going?»
We follow her out of the marble building, which really does look like a temple to some ancient god. The moment we’re out in the sun, the temperature jumps five degrees, which is amazing considering it was as hot inside as I’ve ever felt before, even that time I’d had a photo shoot in Okinawa in August. Who knew America would be this hot? I’d thought it was mild like England and France.
There’s a vast pool between the Lincoln temple and the Washington Monument, and I wish I could dive into it, even for a few minutes. I’d seen that in a movie once, a woman in a white dress and a soldier wading through the pool as a crowd of protesters cheered. But even with the temperature over thirty-five degrees, nobody is going near the water, so I guess that’s not allowed in real life.
We try to stick close to Linda-san, but there are so many people about that we quickly fall behind. I’ve never seen a protest like this—I doubt Japan’s ever had anything like this, even back in the ‘60s. It’s not simply the number of people that’s amazing. Look at their placards. Many of them are homemade, but people clearly put a lot of work into them. Many of them sport hand-drawn illustrations. The talent is variable, but the effort is evident. I don’t understand most of the illustrations, but I see more than a few anime characters.
The spectacle is heartening. I’d been afraid to come to this convention given everything that’s happened in America recently. The people I met at the convention had seemed nice, but the whole time I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them supported that person. Seeing so many people turn out to protest him is a relief. Maybe America isn’t a total waste.
But couldn’t they find a way to get rid of him?
I’d barely had a chance to glance at the news while I was at the convention—I’d tried to watch an American news channel on Friday night, but in addition to only understanding one word in ten, the people on the discussion panels were all incredibly rude and spent their time shouting at each other. I’d had to turn it off after a minute. I’d glanced through the Asahi Shinbun on my phone this morning, but I hadn’t had a chance to do more than read the headlines. What I saw did not look good. The Americans were worried that North Korea had a nuclear missile that could reach their Pacific coast, but if that’s true then all of Japan is in range as well. If anyone does something rash, we’ll be the first to suffer.
Hana-chan had told me over breakfast that she’d had a nightmare where our plane was almost back to Tokyo when the pilot came over the intercom to announce that Japan no longer existed and we didn’t have fuel enough to reach another destination, we’d have to ditch in the ocean and paddle for Guam. I’d laughed and told her she was being ridiculous—that’s my job as her senior, of course—but the dream didn’t sound ridiculous to me. Especially not now, surrounded by all these people who clearly believe something awful is on the verge of happening.
“Excuse me.” A blonde woman stops us. She has a large stack of fliers in a messenger bag. She offers one to me and spouts off a long spiel, though after those first two words I can’t understand a thing she says.
“Ah ...” My mind dredges up half-remembered high school English lessons. I’d joined the group halfway through my second year, and though Akamatsu-san hired tutors for us, we hadn’t had one for English—Akamatsu-san told us we’d be better off learning Chinese or Tagalog since his expansion strategy for the group lay in Taiwan and the Philippines. After a few seconds, the proper words come to mind—“I ... not English speak”—though I’m not sure about the word order. That was the part that had always tripped me up. English does everything backwards.
The woman laughs and says more stuff I don’t understand. She waves another woman over, and the next thing I know, they’re taking pictures with us. I don’t think they recognize us or anything. They just think pictures with Japanese tourists would be cool. I don’t get it. We’re hardly the only Asians present—that was one of our biggest shocks about America, in fact. I’d always thought Americans were almost all white—that’s what you see when you watch Hollywood movies, but the truth is so much more diverse.
We pose with the women for a bit, shooting V signs at the camera and striking poses. It’s like a handshake event with fans, only less creepy.
The women finally let us go, and as they’re waving us goodbye, I notice one has a tattoo on the underside of her arm. She’s so pretty. Why would she mark herself up like a gangster? I’ve seen a lot of tattoos this weekend. People don’t try to hide them—they have them in places where they’ll be visible even in business suits. It’s crazy.
We’re almost to the Washington Monument now. I scan the crowd for Linda-san and Hana-chan, but I don’t see them anywhere. However--
—another Japanese woman comes running over to us.
«Michi!» Emi and I shout in unison. We throw our arms around her.
«Eh? Who’s this?» Rinko says.
Oh, that’s right, Rinko hadn’t been in the group back when we worked with Michi. «This is Ogawa-sensei. She writes anime.» She’d been the head writer for the show we’d done a few years ago. It had been one of Akamatsu-san’s crazy plans to expand our audience, and he’d dictated most aspects of the show. To be honest, his ideas were pretty bad—we were magical girls who flew mecha from a secret base beneath a bakery where we worked, and we were also pop idols on the side. But I thought Michi had done a brilliant job taking those ideas and turning them into something watchable. When you saw the show, the ridiculous premise seemed rational, and our characters ended up being very deep. But Akamatsu-san didn’t like her work. He said she’d made the story too dark and grim, and even though people at the studio told us it had been a success, we had a different writer for the second season. He’d made everything much sillier and inserted a ton of lezzie subtext into the story, not to mention gratuitous fanservice. I couldn’t even let my mother watch the Blu-Rays because they come with uncensored scenes, including one where my character has her clothes ripped off in a battle and has to fight naked, with my breasts bouncing around in ways that would be simultaneously painful and impossible in real life.
Despite that, the second season had bombed and we hadn’t done a third.
«Ah.» Rinko nods with feigned interest. She doesn’t watch any anime besides Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan.
I notice a man standing behind Michi, watching us with a bemused expression on his face.
«I’m sorry.» I bow to him. «I’m Mizuhara Madoka .»
«Yeah, I recognize you,» he says with rude casualness.
«Ha-ha-ha. Don’t mind him. This is Uragawa-sensei,» Michi says. «He writes anime like me.»
«Pleased to meetcha,» he says and bobs his head.
«Pleased to meet you,» we say back. Emi bows low when she does, and Uragawa-sensei takes the opportunity to look down the front of her shirt.
«Uragawa?» she says. «Would that be the Uragawa-sensei who wrote Magical Girl Death God?»
His face brightens. «That would be me, yes.»
I kinda recognize the title—there’d been signs for it around Tokyo earlier this year, and there’d been people at the convention dressed up as characters—but it had looked too gruesome for me. When I watch anime, I like it to be bright and happy, with a good love story.
«That show is soooo good,» Emi says.
«Nah, nah, you’re embarrassing me.» He isn’t the least bit embarrassed.
«But the ending—I really thought you were going to kill everyone.»
«Yes, that was brilliant,» Michi says. «Even I didn’t think you were going to go with a happy ending at the last second.»
Uragawa-sensei smirks. «It’s all about payoff. If you rack up a big enough body count early in the story, you can stay your hand at the end and the audience will be grateful to you.»
«That is exactly why I don’t like that kind of show,» I say. «I don’t think characters should suffer for the sake of shocking the audience. That kind of attitude reduces the story to a clockwork.»
«Really?» he says. «That’s an interesting point of view. I can’t say that I disagree, but I’m not a good enough artist to do otherwise.» Something about his modesty, though, strikes me as fake. He doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. He’s trying to deflate my criticism. «So what are you ladies doing out here alone? I didn’t think your master let you out unsupervised.»
«You’ve been reading too many tabloids,» I say. It’s true that our group works under strict rules of behavior, but Akamatsu-san trusts us to obey without setting chaperons on us. I mean, who’s going to break the rules after what happened to poor Saki?
«Maybe, maybe,» he says.
«We were looking for Hana-chan, though,» Emi says. «You didn’t see her anywhere?» she asks Michi.
«Hmm, no, I don’t think so.»
«Our translator ran after her,» I say. «She’s a woman with flame-colored hair.»
«Oh, her,» Uragawa-sensei says.
«Our translator ran into her right before we saw you guys. They said they were going to get tickets to go in there.» Michi points to the Washington Monument.
«You can go inside?» I’d assumed it was solid stone all the way through.
«Oh yeah,”» Uragawa-sensei says. «C’mon, I’ll show ya.»
He leads us through the crowd of protesters. It’s not easy. The throng is even thicker here than by the Lincoln temple. But at last we reach a low stone building. There’s a good sized crowd inside, all waiting in line, though on the bright side the air conditioning is blowing on full blast.
«Took you guys long enough,» Hana-chan says.
She’s in line with Linda-san and a man we don’t know.
«I finally found her,» Linda-san says.
«I tried to get into the Monument, but they kept pointing me over here,» Hana-chan says.
«I am terribly sorry about all this.» I bow my head to the translators who’ve been inconvenienced by Hana-chan’s behavior.
«It’s no big deal,» Linda-san says.
«Thankfully there’s not much demand for tickets today, otherwise we could be here all day,» the second translator says. «I’m Mike, by the way.» He offers us a hand to shake.
I introduce the rest of our group.
«Ah, you’re those idols, aren’t you? I saw your concert last night. It was awesome.» He says the last word in English, but he gives it a Japanese pronunciating—ah-sa-mu. It’s kinda cute the way he says it.
The line inches forward. After a few minutes we reach the desk and get tickets for everyone.
«I don’t wanna do this,» Rinko says as we head back outside. «I like the air conditioning.»
«Why is it so hot?» Emi says.
«They say George Washington picked this as the capital because the summer weather is so horrible,» Mike-kun says. «In fact, this whole area used to be a swamp until they drained it.» For some reason that makes him chuckle. «The idea was, with the weather so hot during the summer, Congress would only meet for a few weeks in the spring and fall, and so they would have less chance to make trouble for the country.»
«Unfortunately George Washington didn’t predict air conditioning,» Linda-san says.
«Though even AC can’t make DC livable in August,» Mike-kun says. «Even nowadays, Congress goes on recess for the entire month, and everyone who can afford a vacation leaves town. At least normally.»
Linda-san nods and says something in English that I can’t understand. «Sorry,» she adds. «I said, this isn’t normal.» She waves around her to indicate the vast crowd assembled on the Mall. I should hope this isn’t ordinary.
We reach the Monument again, and right on time for a tour to start. A guide leads us through a stone hall that feel like something from ancient times, though he tells us—through Linda-san and Mike-kun—that the Monument was only finished in 1888. That’s Meiji Era. That’s after the Black Ships arrived in Tokyo Bay—and those were steam-powered. Compared to, say, Himeji Castle, this place is brand new.
The tour guide shows us to an elevator—I’m so glad there’s an elevator; I was afraid we’d have to climb a thousand stairs to reach the top. On the way up, he relays various facts about the Monument’s construction and history. He tells us it’s the tallest building in Washington, and a city ordinance prevents anything taller being built. Ah, so that’s why the city seems so flat. When we were coming into Washington on Thursday evening, I’d seen a cluster of vast towers and thought that must be the city, but Linda-san had told me that was merely a suburb. When we crossed the bridge into Washington, I’d been disappointed. For the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth, it was less imposing than even Sapporo.
The elevator stops and we get off. The room at the top of the Monument is ... underwhelming. It’s a dingy stone room. Because it had been built before electricity became common, the lights in here were added later, and there’d been no effort to cover up the power conduits, nor the vast air ducts that run up from the floor and across the ceiling. I suppose I should be grateful for their presence, but the fact they make the place feel like a warehouse undercuts the grandeur of the location. Shouldn’t a towering monument like this be a sacred place? Shouldn’t there be an atmosphere of holiness?
«Oh, look at that, Madocchi!» Emi exclaims. She’s standing at one of the windows.
I go over and peer out. The entire Mall, from here to the Congress building, is visible, and much beyond that. There are so many people crowded below us, the ground isn’t even visible. Forget hundreds of thousands. There might be a million people down there.
«You know,» Michi says, «if Congress had two domes, they’d look like boobs.»
«But this monument looks like a giant dick, so would that make the city a futanari?» Hana-chan says.
«Hana!» Rinko says.
«Hmm, moé personifications of world capitals ...» Michi says. «I need to remember that. What studio should I pitch it to ...?» I have a feeling Hana-chan’s words have unleashed something unfortunate upon the world.
I move to the next window. Uragawa-sensei and Mike-kun are there, along with a couple Americans who were in our tour group. I can’t get a good view with all of them in the way, but I glimpse the White House. It’s smaller than I expected, only about the size of an apartment building—and not even a large one. Hard to believe that so many of the world’s problems come from that little place.
As though he’s reading my mind, Uragawa-sensei says, «If I had a rocket launcher right now...»
Mike-kun looks around nervously to see if anyone heard that comment, but then he remembers that Uragawa-sensei is speaking Japanese. A good thing, too. I wouldn’t want to be arrested by the American police.
I make my rounds to the other windows. One shows the Lincoln temple, so I pass that by quickly, but the fourth reveals a second temple that we hadn’t seen on our walk. It looks much like Lincoln’s, but smaller, and the roof is domed rather than boxed. It sits on a small island that shelters a placid pool between the city and river.
«That’s the Jefferson Memorial.» Linda-san comes up beside me. «It’s not as popular because it’s so far out of the way. They say he gets lonely out there.»
«Yeah, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, bought the Louisiana Purchase, and invented the dumb-waiter.» Linda-san snickers. This seems to be some sort of joke, but I can’t understand it.
To change the subject, I ask, «Are those cherry blossom trees?» I thought I’d seen some around the Lincoln temple, but I hadn’t had a chance to look closely.
«Yes. Your country gave them to us as a present a hundred years ago. There’s this huge festival every year when they bloom.»
Ah. I could imagine what it’d look like with the entire riverside blooming in pale pink. Why did the convention have to be in August? Why couldn’t it be in April?
Having taken in all the sites, Linda-san and I wander down a flight of stairs to a museum. Compared to what I’d seen in the Smithsonian earlier, it’s a paltry collection, and we’re well bored before the rest of our group is ready to leave.
«Can I ask you something?» Linda-san says.
«Being an idol ... do you like it?»
«Being an idol is wonderful. We bring joy to fans all over Japan, and even around the world. Making so many people happy is a tremendous honor.»
«Is that what you’re told to say?»
«I don’t hate it. I’d never get to see America if I weren’t an idol. I never got good grades, and even if I did, my family wouldn’t’ve been able to afford even a halfway decent university. If I hadn’t lucked into this, I’d probably be stuck as a part-timer at McDonalds or a convenience store or something. Maybe if I got lucky, I’d meet a salaryman and get married. But the area I lived in, an auto-mechanic or a truck driver would be more likely. But now I don’t have to worry about any of that. I travel around Japan performing, make a couple trips overseas each year, and in between I do guest spots on TV dramas, or small roles in movies. It’s a good life.»
«But what about the ... I mean, I’ve seen stories.»
«Yes. And the girl from C-breeze. Midori Aoyama?»
Saki had been one of the founding members of our group. For the first five years, she’d won every single popularity poll we held. She’d been Team I’s leader. When she got offered parts in movies, they were leads. She’d even had a TV series built around her.
Then one day a tabloid reporter got a scoop that Saki was dating the son of an executive at our record company. Officially our group had a ban against romance. Our fans expected us to remain “pure,” and even being seen in public with a guy could cause a scandal—when pictures of Kyouko eating lunch with a young man had appeared online, she’d had to go on TV to explain that he was her brother.
Unofficially, Akamatsu-san and the rest of management understood it was ridiculous to expect us to eschew all romance, especially those of us in our twenties. As long as we kept everything out of sight, we could have boyfriends.
But if any of us got caught, we were on our own. In the eight years I’ve been in the group, we’ve dropped a dozen members who got caught with boyfriends. Most of them had either been understudies or just promoted to full membership, so they didn’t create huge scandals.
But Saki was different.
She was the face of the group.
When fans found out about her boyfriend, they didn’t think she was one bad apple. They felt the entire group had betrayed them. If Saki could have a secret lover, then all of us were probably sluts. Fans started believing the worst conspiracies from the Internet, like the one that we worked as prostitutes on the side, servicing yakuza, politicians and famous actors. A sports paper published an outrageous story claiming that three members of our group—unnamed, but clearly Saki, myself and Hana-chan—had been paid to sleep with a certain (also unnamed) American actor while he was in Japan to promote the latest installment of his spy series.
Akamatsu-san hadn’t had much choice. The only way to save the group was to fire Saki. And not just fire her, but to repudiate her. He’d gone on a morning show to make the announcement. He used polite words, but the statement had been anything but polite. Saki had betrayed the group with her behavior. What she’d done was a slap in the face of every single member. Effective immediately, she was no longer a member, and our latest single, featuring Saki as the lead singer, was being recalled.
We weren’t even able to throw a farewell party for her. Me and Kyouko and Hana-chan went to see her the next weekend, but her boyfriend, who was staying with her to give her support, had told us she’d gone home to see her parents. That was the last anyone saw of her. Her mom said she never arrived home, and her bank cards didn’t show the purchase of a train ticket or a withdrawal large enough to pay for one.
Two weeks later, a group of kids doing radio calisthenics at a beach had found her body washed up on the shore. The coroner later concluded she’d drowned herself in the Sumida River and been carried out to Tokyo Bay.
There were a few editorials against the idol industry after that, and we saw a drop off in new member applications for a while, but Saki’s death was gone from the headlines in a few days, replaced by the next scandal du jour—a popular actor busted for drug possession, the daughter of a prominent Tokyo politician being linked to a “compensated dating” service, a talk show host being caught in an affair with a staff member….
As for Midori Aoyama, she was before my time. She’d been in the group C-breeze, which had been popular in the early 2000s, and retired a few years before I entered the industry. Soon after, she announced her marriage to an executive at a major auto company. Six months later, she gave birth to a daughter.
Most fans were supportive and wished the best for her new family, but a small minority felt betrayed when they realized the timing of her pregnancy meant that she’d been having sex while still active in C-breeze. One fan in particular decided to “punish” Midori for her supposed transgression. He broke into her house late one night and murdered her and her husband and her infant daughter, and then set the house on fire with himself still inside.
Afterwards the police searched the man’s apartment. He was a part-time clerk at a convenience store, but his parents provided him an allowance to get by and he had a much larger apartment than someone in his situation normally would’ve. He skimped on food, living mainly off ramen cups, in order to afford C-breeze merchandise. Not only did he own every album, EP and single the group put out, he owned every variant cover—in some cases dozens of them. He had posters, and book marks, and mouse pads. He even owned notebooks and pencil cases that were meant for teenage girls.
The severity of his obsession had been a hot topic on talk shows at the time, and the man was treated as an extreme obsessive, but since joining IKB-45, I’ve found that such people aren’t that far out of the ordinary. Most of them, thankfully, are not killers.
«If living my best life means I can’t have a boyfriend, is that so bad?» I ask.
«No, I suppose not. But it should be your choice. Not something forced upon you by creepy fanboys.»
I don’t know what fanboys are, but the way she says the word, I can imagine.
«Don’t Christian priests have to give up sex?»
«The Catholic ones, yes.»
«Idols are like priests in a way. What I said earlier, about bringing joy to people, it’s not just what Akamatsu-san wants me to say. Many of our fans have miserable lives, and they look to our songs for hope. And to give that to them, they have to see us as pure maidens.»
«You believe that?»
«They believe it. My job is to sell them the illusion.»
«But are you happy with it?»
What a weird question. Was my father happy as a crane operator? Was my mother happy staying home to take care of the house every day? What does happiness have to do with life? It’s something you take when you can get it, but it’s nothing you should expect. «I’m comfortable.»
Just then we hear footsteps coming down the stairs.
«I didn’t fart!» Hana-chan says.
«Liar! I know the smell of your farts!» Emi says.
«Since when are farts individualized? They all smell the same.»
«No, yours are recognizable.»
«She’s right,» Rinko says. «Yours all smell like beef.»
«They do not! I hardly even eat beef.»
The girls are followed down by the rest of our tour group. The guide gives them a quick circle of the museum, then ushers us all into the elevator.
We descend slowly, and the guide points out carvings on the interior walls. Mike-kun and Linda-san translate, but none of it is particularly interesting. Various civic groups and local governments had donated money for constructing the monument, and they got to place commemorative stones in the walls. So boring!
We’re nearing the ground when Linda-san’s phone rings. She talks into it in English for a few moments, then hangs up. «The protest is starting to break up,» she tells us, «so we should be leaving before the rush gets too bad.»
A moment later Mike-kun’s phone rings. Even though I don’t understand his words, I can pretty well figure out he’s saying, “Yes, I already heard.”
When we’d arrived on Thursday, the convention organizers had sent a charter bus to pick us up and take us into the city, and the plan had been for us to leave the same way. The organizers had mentioned something about a protest on Sunday, but they didn’t think it would interfere with our plans. However, when we woke up this morning, we heard that the protest was larger than had been predicted. The organizers said we had two options. We could cut short our sightseeing and take the bus directly to the airport so as to avoid traffic, or we could do our tour as planned, and ride the subway to the end of the line to meet our bus, thus bypassing the worst of the traffic. Akamatsu-san had been in favor of taking the bus the whole way, but none of us in the group thought it’d be fair if we had to leave Washington without seeing the sites. Akamatsu-san pretends he’s a tough manager, but the truth is he gives up if we push against him as a group.
«But we didn’t get to see the White House or Capitol,» Hana-chan says.
«I’m terribly sorry,» Linda-san says.
«Nah, nah, I don’t want to go near that person,» Rinko says.
The rest of us nod, even Michi.
«I’m more interested in the subway,» Uragawa-sensei says. «They say the stations are some of the most impressive in the world.»
«I don’t know about that,» Mike-kun says. «I’ve always thought they look dystopian.»
«Yes. They use brutalist architecture. Kawamori-san asked me to get pictures so he could use them as reference for his next series.»
The elevator reaches the ground floor and we disembark.
«We’re supposed to meet at Smithsonian Station,» Linda-san says.
This, it turns out, means we have to walk further down the Mall. Despite what Linda-san had said, the crowd isn’t any thinner than earlier, though as we near the station, we do see people streaming underground. There’s a huge crowd building up around the entrance, and we’re going to have to wait a while before we can go down.
At the far end of the Mall, there’s a stage set up and somebody’s giving a speech. Loud speakers relay the words to us, and there are giant televisions showing us a woman standing at a podium.
«That’s Elizabeth Warren,» Linda-san says. «Some people think she’ll be our next President.»
«If there is a next President,» Mike-kun says.
«If you still have a country for a President to rule over,» Uragawa-sensei says.
«Yes.» Mike-kun nods sadly.
«Oh, look! There they are!» Up ahead, Yumeko is jumping up and down and waving to us. She’s only an understudy, but her online fanbase is astounding and she’ll probably be promoted to full membership after the next popularity poll. She’d been invited on this trip in case anyone got sick—something that happens almost any time we do a foreign tour, though we’d lucked out this time.
She’s with the other five regular members of our team, Kyouko, Megumin, YamaYuki, TakeYuki and Chiaki, along with Akamatsu-san, his assistant Tada-kun, and our team manager, Misa-san. When it came time to decide which museum to visit this morning, all of them had voted for Air and Space, while the rest of us wanted to see the Natural History. Akamatsu-san had wanted us to stick together, but he quickly realized that would mean listening to Rinko give a non-stop commentary on how much she hates space stuff, so he let us go off with Linda-san.
«Madoka-senpai, they let me fly a jet fighter!» Yumeko runs over to me.
«Computer simulator,» Kyouko says. «And she crashed after two minutes.»
«It was awesome! You should’ve come, Madoka-senpai.» She hugs me. She’s adorable when she gets like this. I can see why fans love her. Once she becomes a regular member of the group, she’s gonna be a force to deal with. I wish I could kiss her, but a hug’s as far as I dare go in public.
Kyouko clicks her tongue. «It wasn’t that great. They had models of certain famous spaceships from movies, but not one single Gundam. What kinda museum is that?»
«When we get back to Tokyo, we’ll go by the Gundam statue, will that make you happy?» Akamatsu-san asks.
«It would,» Kyouko says.
«For now, we should be going,» an American man says. He’s the translator who went with Akamatsu-san’s group, an older man with graying hair who’s some big-wig in the convention organization. «Otherwise you guys are going to get stuck in the US.»
«Let’s go!» Kyouko shouts and points towards the station. She raises a foot, then stops. She turns back to the big-wig and says something in English. Her dad worked for the foreign service, and she spent most of her childhood in New Zealand and Britain, so she speaks fluent English.
Whatever she says, the big-wig laughs it off.
Akamatsu-san gets on the escalator, followed by Hana-chan and Michi, then Uragawa-sensei and Emi.
I step towards the escalator, but Yumeko taps me on the shoulder. «Hey, hey, what’s that up there?»
She’s pointing at the sky. High up, the color has drained away, going from a deep indigo, to a pale haze. There are few clouds today, but is it my imagination or are they being blown away? Not in a straight line, the way clouds normally blow, but outwards from that hazy patch. Yeah, that’s weird. They’re forming into a ring, like the clouds around the eye of a typhoon, except they aren’t being whipped around by the wind.
«I don’t know,» I say.
«It’s a gate to another world, of course,» Kyouko says, «and if you don’t wanna get attacked when a dragon comes through, you better get into the subway right now.»
«Yeah, yeah,» I say.
Kyouko and Yumeko get on the escalator ahead of me. As I step onto the treads, my neck prickles with that creepy sensation you get when your hair stands on end with static electricity. I swipe my hand across the back of my head to smooth it down, but it barely makes a difference. Yumeko’s hair is too short for the effect to be noticeable, but Kyouko’s is standing up too.
«Madocchi, what’s wrong with your neck?» Megumin asks from behind me.
She puts a hand on my nape and I feel something sticky smear across it.
«Ew!» Megumin says.
I turn. Her hand’s covered in a purplish jelly. Did that come from my neck? I wipe my hand back there again, this time running it across my skin. It comes away covered in blood and pus. What’s this?
Before I can react, though, a tremor runs through the escalator. My first thought is of some kind of fault in the motor, but this isn’t a mechanical issue. The whole span of the escalator is trembling—the entire shaft.
Earthquake! I didn’t think they had them in Washington.
People on the upbound escalator are murmuring to each other as they pass. But it’s not simply the earthquake they’re worried about. Some of them are pointing over at me and the other girls.
I look up.
Their faces are—what’s wrong with their faces? Megumin’s is all puffed up with blisters, and in places they’re cracking open and pouring blood and pus down her cheeks. Chiaki’s in an even worse state. The skin on her face is drooping, like there’s nothing holding it to her skull underneath. She must sense something’s wrong, because she lifts her hands up. When they touch her cheeks, the flesh falls apart like peeling paint. YamaYuki ... I can’t even tell what’s going on with her, but her body’s slumping like an inflatable figure that’s sprung a leak.
Whatever’s wrong with me is spreading. A burning sensation spreads across my neck and onto my face. My right eye twitches—something inside my cheek is pushing the lower lid up. My vision’s half-obscured.
Over on the other escalator, people are screaming. The ones who are closest to the top are falling apart, melting like wax figures on a hot stove. People turn around and try to run, but with the upward motion of the stairs, they’re barely able to stay put.
Megumin opens her mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a mist of blood. Her hands clasp her throat. Is she choking? My instinct is to move to help her, but something holds me back. The people highest on the escalators are suffering worst. The people on the other track have the right idea—we need to get down. Kyouko and Yumeko are already fleeing.
I’m about to do the same when the stairs lurch to a halt and the lights go dead. The escalator shaft isn’t pitch dark, though—there’s enough sunlight coming from above ground that I can still make out outlines around me. I move my feet to run, but my knees give out from under me and I tumble down the stairs face first. The last thing I feel is the ridged edge of a stair smashing into my chin.
To Be Continued...