The car shook from a sudden blast of wind. Only it wasn’t windy. We rocked from side to side for half a minute. Maybe more. Then it ended.
I looked out the car windows, trying to make sense of what was out there. The only building standing was a four-story concrete box of a school. Only the top two floors were clean of mud. There was muddy water covering everything, so that you couldn’t be sure where the road was supposed to be, or where the land ended and the sea began.
“This is as far as we can go,” Mr. Blackmore said.
I felt small, powerless, and something else I couldn’t put a name to.
“Emi’s not here,” I said, “let’s get out of here. Nothing for us here. Emi can’t be here.”
Mr. Blackmore reached past me and took his hat from the back-seat and put it on his head. “This is the only building still standing, so I’ll start here. Wait here in the car. And it may be best if you locked the doors.”
“Wait,” I said. I rummaged through the glove box and handed Blackmore a white paper mask.
“I’m not planning to operate,” he said.
“It’s for the stink.”
He opened his mouth, but said nothing, just bowed his head a little and took the mask.
“You’re catching on,” I said.
He smiled an unhappy smile. He strode away making waves behind his footsteps. He disappeared into the building. I locked the door. There were no sounds, except the squawks of a seagull.
I sat alone, for I don’t know how long. A clock on the side of the building looked down on me. It had stopped at 2:46. I was alive when everything around me was dead. What right did I have to be here?
But that wasn’t even what was really bothering me. I was alive and doing what? Waiting in a car for Mr. Blackmore to be devastated. Waiting for the dead to come back to life.
There were clothes hanging from the second floor. Mud was splashed against the pretty salmon-pink and sandstone yellow walls. And there was a scum ring around the building. Like a ring around the bath. Only this one was two meters above the ground.
A sign said Minato Junior High School. So this was where Emi went to school. Why was there a school in the middle of a wasteland?
Waiting is for the dead. I couldn’t wait any longer.
I unlocked my door and put one foot onto the ground and put some weight onto it. My geta sandals sank into the gunk. But there was nothing I could do about it. I slogged through, pulling my feet free with every step to the school building where Mr. Blackmore had disappeared.
The mud was cold and water lapped against my ankles. In the 10 meters it took to get to the entrance of the school, my legs were covered in mud and my toes were aching from the cold.
There was another clock in the courtyard, where the children would meet for after-school clubs. It was stopped at 3:54.
I waded through the puddles that were like a pond now to the school entrance hall. Shoe cubbyholes had fallen from the walls and were floating on the water. I stepped into the corridor and sloshed through the ground floor classrooms. No glass in the windows. Holes in the ceiling. No feeling in my toes.
I saw a freezing staircase in a gutted, stinking shell of the junior high school. A handful of mismatched towels covered the width of the first two steps, and two dozen pairs of mud-splattered boots were stacked along the edges.
I tried to kick my mud-smeared sandals off but had to pry them off with my hands. I dry heaved. The stink from the gunk was now on my hands and mixed with the air. I reached for the window to clear my lungs with fresh air, but it was more of the same stench.
I walked barefoot up the stairs, the damp and cold of the concrete floors seeped through to my bones with every step. No lights, no heat, no defence, no life.
Sounded like men’s voices, talking, grunting from far above. I dashed up the steps to tell them: “I’m here! I’m alive!” But I stopped. Men? Talking? Laughing? Focus, Hana, focus.
I held my breath and listened as my eyes ran wild around the room. Two men. Two floors above. Laughing? Crying? Drunk?
“… any girls here?”
Ono’s voice. How could that be? It couldn’t be him. Maybe I was confused. I scanned the room.
A notice board in the corridor was covered with two posters hung the wrong way round, with the pictures facing the wall, the blank backs facing out.
On them were two lists of names. Two whiteboard marker pens hung from pieces of string nailed to the notice-board. On the left, 40 names under the word: “Resident.” On the right, “Searching for” with messages scribbled in red. The poster was bleeding red.
“…nobody’s here, we are the law. We made it, so we can do what we want here, who’s to know?”
I’m looking for my son, Taisuke Sakuta, Grade 3. Contact Yuri… Please, does anyone know of the Ito family?… Yui Kinoshita if you see this, we have left for Aunt Sugiyama’s in Ibaraki… Mio, we are waiting for you, don’t worry about us…
“…did you hear someone downstairs?”
I started to read the list of residents, angry at myself I hadn’t done that first. Footsteps, shuffling, tripping. I scanned for any names in katakana, the writing used for foreign words. The footsteps were one floor above. In a moment Ono would come around the corner and be face-to-face with me.
“…couldn’t be. Nobody’s down here…”
I found it. Emi Blackmore with a line through her name. An address scribbled by hand: Ishinomaki 14-124.
I shook. I pressed myself flat against the corridor wall, then hit the floor, face-down to the ground. Plaster fell from the ceiling. I held my breath and closed my eyes. I could hear the men on the stairwell. Ono and his friend were running now, but straight down the stairs.
They were putting on their boots. The building stopped shaking. I breathed. But I couldn’t stay here. Maybe I could beg Ono for help? The only other way out was to climb the stairs, away from him.
I went up. Two more flights. Past the No Admittance to Students sign. A metal door to the outside. I pushed the door open, which put me on the flat roof. No one there. I forced my numb body over to the edge of the roof and looked out over the concrete lip. The school swimming pool was below, filled with water so black I couldn’t see the bottom. But it wasn’t empty. There was a body in the centre of it, floating face down with outstretched arms.
A girl in school uniform.
I rolled back from the edge.
I took a moment to stare up at the sky, then down at the concrete roof under my feet. There in crayon, in kanji characters for the oldest Japanese words:
And in English…
The children’s handwriting was far too small for a helicopter to notice. Twenty little chairs were arranged in a circle at the far end of the roof. An open-air lesson? There was a door beyond the chairs. A way down? I stumbled to it, not caring about the grazes to my bare feet. I couldn’t feel them anyway. I grabbed the door handle with both hands and pushed. It rattled, but the frame was warped. I pushed harder. Voices again, men’s voices coming from behind me. From the stairwell I had taken up to this roof. Ono.
I put my shoulder to the door. Nothing budged. I looked behind me. The stairwell door was swinging open, outwards. Outwards. Of course. I stopped pushing and pulled instead. My door swung open and I threw myself down the stairs. I tripped and skidded down, the only thing that mattered was to put as much distance between me and Ono. On the ground floor were more muddy boots and shoes. I stuck my feet in the first pair of boots I could reach and I was out the school without looking back.
I splashed through yellow water on the road, and strode away into a side street without looking back. I wasn’t walking through a neighbourhood. I was walking through a rubbish dump.
A house painted in pastels, leaning at an impossible angle with a car upside down in the yard. Minnows swimming over a zebra crossing. On another house all the doors were missing. I could see into its kitchen, every pot and pan was on the floor. The front garden was a wreckers’ yard. I saw a bath and a cement-mixing truck in the yard of another house. The truck’s wheels were bent inwards. Disabled. Insect screens hung loose from patio doors like the last tooth in Aunt Tanaka’s mouth. The street I walked was dense with rubbish and stagnant water. I saw another car. It was filled with mud instead of seats. I looked down into brown waters and saw the reflections of fallen telephone poles. There was the body of an electric guitar, face down in the rubble, its neck under piles of wood and cloth in the reeking mud.
I typed in the address I’d seen on the wall. Ishinomaki 14-124. According to the phone, I was standing at the end of a street that would come to the right block in a few hundred meters. But my eyes told me there was no street. Just a more passable route through a jungle of rubbish. A single long kitchen chopstick in the mud. A tree uprooted and on its side, still with leaves but coloured a sickly brown. Weird green chemicals in the pools of water seeped down the street. Houses were shells. Plastic bags, litter and debris on first floor house roofs, in the metal bars that every house-proud owner had on their windows. A front garden turned into a pond of black water, uprooted bushes and dead trees.
Then I was there, No. 14-124.
The fence was bent from the weight of a car hanging over it. A fish in the middle of the entrance steps, its mouth closed. It stared at me with a dead eye. A telephone pole had speared the roof. A Beatles album cover hung upside down from the top of a smashed window frame.
Something was scribbled on a scrap of paper pinned to the front door. I held my breath as I realised I recognised the handwriting.
Hana. Get out of here. Get back to Abiko. Now. Emi’s not here.
Start the novel from Chapter 1 here or use the next/previous arrow keys to flip through the book.
That was a chapter of Half Life: A Hana Walker Mystery. I’m publishing a chapter a day in sequence on this blog to promote the book. You can buy HALF LIFE as a paperback from Create Space here or as a Kindle download from any Amazon site including links to the book here at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.jp.
The sequel, Prime Life, is coming out in the New Year.