Chapter 4:

The World Below

REWIND: How To Commit Genocide in 48 Hours

Akabane looked down at her blood-drenched hands.Bookmark here

“You’re thinking about it too, right?”Bookmark here

“Yes."Bookmark here

"It has to be me or you."Bookmark here

We had three minutes left.Bookmark here

I don't think of myself as an indecisive person. In fact I'd argue that I'm the most decisive person I know. I've stood up for myself decisively zero times, whether to Dad or a teacher or a bully, have been noticed by decisively zero girls (and even zero guys), and have held zero jobs, except for one Yuuki tricked me into where we handed out flyers on street corners for a "Gentlemen's Roadshow". I don't know how Yuuki knew those people, but a man who coughed more than he smoked handed us the flyer boxes and sped off on a vespa bike. When he didn't return at the end of the day with the cash, we realized we had been royally screwed into free advertising. Yuuki had taken the flyer boxes and chucked them through the club's front window, and that was how my first ever job prospect ate the dust.Bookmark here

That was when Yuuki formulated his philosophy on the number zero.Bookmark here

"This is our destiny, Kurosawa-kun."Bookmark here

"In what world?"Bookmark here

"We are like that wise guy from Ancient Rome, the man who abandoned all of his earthly possessions and slept in a barrel, where he found wisdom and True Happiness."Bookmark here

"I don't wanna sleep in a barrel. Also, we didn't choose to not be paid."Bookmark here

"It's all in the mindset. If we value ourselves above all else, the number zero will mean exactly what it is: nothing. The most comfortable number to ever exist."Bookmark here

Yuuki failed to adhere to his speech the following day when he threw another box through the club's window. Poorly edited wanted posters went up around town, stapled to street poles by poor teen souls getting scammed just like we'd been. Every time we walked by one Yuuki drew buttcheeks on it and wrote in a comic bubble: Blarp!!!Bookmark here

I wondered what that wise guy from Ancient Rome would think of me now. And I didn't feel too comfortable about the number zero as the timer on our platform counted down.Bookmark here

“You’re not a bad guy, Kurosawa-san.”Bookmark here

Akabane handed me the knife.Bookmark here

“Do it.”Bookmark here

No. I can’t. I won’t.”Bookmark here

“I’m a murderer now. My life is worth less than yours.”Bookmark here

No, no! It was self defense! You saved me!”Bookmark here

Her voice cracked.Bookmark here

“I saved you from what? We were all dead from the start, anyways. I don’t know what these Masked people want, but they got it. See? Look around you.”Bookmark here

Not a single platform was gone yet, populated by one or two people each. I’d been so engrossed in my own survival that I hadn’t noticed the sickening truth. It seems so simple when you think from an outside perspective. What’s the point in killing someone for another ten minutes? I would never.Bookmark here

You would.Bookmark here

A voice in the back of my head told me to take the blade. She was correct, I was the better person now. Right? I would never kill anyone. Right?Bookmark here

“If I kill you, I’m part of the cycle.”Bookmark here

“The what now?”Bookmark here

“Haven’t you noticed. The violence and hate? How cruel humans are?”Bookmark here

She looked at her hands again as if it was the first time she’d noticed the blood.Bookmark here

“I get what you’re saying about a cycle, Kurosawa-san, and I do know how terrible the world can be. But… sometimes that’s necessary.”Bookmark here

“Never.”Bookmark here

“We’re better humans than that businessman ever was. Just because of those last few moments of his life. And now you’re better than me in my last moments. So take the damn knife.”Bookmark here

Do it. Get the extra ten minutes.Bookmark here

“I can’t promise that I’d be able to save myself with those extra ten minutes, Akabane-san.”Bookmark here

“Promises are worthless anyways. That’s another thing I’ve learned. But I really want my death to have meaning. So kill me. Please.”Bookmark here

“There’s never meaning in death. Don’t look for what can’t be found.”Bookmark here

“That’s not true. There’s always meaning.”Bookmark here

“There’s no meaning in life, either, this life that I didn’t even choose to be born into. So it’s my one last screw you to the world: to die with some dignity. Those who comply with death are cowards.”Bookmark here

“I disagree.”Bookmark here

She tossed the knife in front of me, her hair shading her eyes ominously like curtains. Her fists tightened as if she was resisting the urge to attack me.Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-san, there’s nothing wrong with accepting death. There’s nothing wrong with being helpless and having no direction in life. There’s nothing-”Bookmark here

“There is.”Bookmark here

You’re wrong!”Bookmark here

“You’re justifying your own murder!”Bookmark here

“I am. Because some people deserve death, and others don’t.Bookmark here

Her peppery eyes blazed fiercely before extinguishing, and we slumped down and sat in silence, an invisible wall building between us. We contemplated the ends of our lives. Was this it? The culmination of seventeen years of my life? What had I done? My past was a blur - no legendary moments with friends, not cheers after a competition, no kissing, no hand holding, no trophies - nothing. Anger swelled in my chest like an overinflated tire on the verge of popping.Bookmark here

“You’re probably just a privileged rich girl, anyways. You don’t know the first thing about justice, and you want to die because now that you know what the real world is like, you hate yourself for being so excited for the future that was laid out for you.”Bookmark here

“Stop it, Kurosawa-san.”Bookmark here

“Well I’m sorry to say, but you’ll never be an actress, miss goody two-shoes. And even if you did make good money, you’d end up like that businessman. See how pathetic we are? So you… get to die like the rest of us.”Bookmark here

“Who’s the rest of us? Since when did you get to choose to have the saddest life ever? You’re projecting, right? So shut up. Leave me alone. Nobody kills anybody, and we die at the same time. So don’t talk to me and let me die in peace.”Bookmark here

And I fulfilled her request. When the time finally came, the only thing that indicated our demise was the cobble melting away and the announcer’s peachy voice:Bookmark here

“Goodbye, our miserable duo! Maybe next time!”Bookmark here

I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my stomach. Like sinking into quicksand, the ground gave way and I became weightless, wind whistling in my ears-Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Kohei Kurosawa was looking at himself as a child, and his child self was looking right back. They both sat in chairs in a school auditorium. Kohei shifted his feet and the squeak over the linoleum echoed through the empty hall. Chairs were piled up in a corner and the doors were chained shut. The only light that was on was the spotlight shining down on the two of them.Bookmark here

“Are we going to die, Kohei?”Bookmark here

He hadn’t expected such a blunt question from his younger self. He averted his gaze.Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

“Will it be better after we do?”Bookmark here

“I think so.”Bookmark here

“How?”Bookmark here

“The pain will stop.”Bookmark here

“Why?”Bookmark here

“Because we’ll be dead.”Bookmark here

“What if I don’t want to die?”Bookmark here

“It doesn’t matter. I’m the real one, the older one, so I get to choose.”Bookmark here

“Oh… okay.”Bookmark here

His younger self crossed his hands over his lap like he needed to pee. Kohei stood up from the chair and examined the curtains that lined both sides of the stage.Bookmark here

“Go get those curtains over there. Grab the gold rope. Help me close them.”Bookmark here

Younger Kohei seemed uncertain.Bookmark here

“What happens if we close them, Big Brother Kohei?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know. I think we’ll disappear forever.”Bookmark here

“But when you draw the curtains and reopen them, isn’t it supposed to be a new scene?”Bookmark here

The smell of summer wafted over Kohei. Even in his mind, the outside world was still going on. Someone’s voice reached them and sent a tingle down his spine. Young Kohei waited.Bookmark here

“Aren’t we going to close the curtains?”Bookmark here

“Eh? Oh - yeah! Yeah… I got distracted for a sec…”Bookmark here

The curtains shivered over the pole above like wind chimes. Right before they met in the middle, Kohei stopped. Young Kohei finished pulling his side and gave him another confused look.Bookmark here

“I finished, Big Brother Kohei…”Bookmark here

Kohei’s hands were shaking, a breeze running through his clammy fingers. Where was that wind coming from? He pushed past his unease and pulled the curtain closer, but this time much slower.Bookmark here

“I know this might sound dumb, Big Brother Kohei, but what did you do when you got older? I don’t have a memory of getting older, but did you do a lot of cool things? Did you move to Tokyo?”Bookmark here

Kohei stopped again, hands clenching the rope like he would fall if he didn’t.Bookmark here

“No. I don’t have the money.”Bookmark here

“Oh. Did Mom and Dad get better?”Bookmark here

“No. They divorced.”Bookmark here

“Oh… why?”Bookmark here

“Because of you.”Bookmark here

“Oh… I’m sorry…”Bookmark here

Someone was rapping their fist on one of the auditorium doors, the chain jingling and bobbing up and down like bait on a lure. A muffled voice.Bookmark here

Open up, Kurosawa-san!”Bookmark here

Younger Kohei didn’t notice, or at least ignored it.Bookmark here

“Did you at least keep talking to Yuki-kun?”Bookmark here

Kohei felt like a blood vessel was about to burst above his eye.Bookmark here

“Look, just shut up and…”Bookmark here

He was going to say ‘shut up and pull the curtain’, but he was the one who hadn’t finished tugging his side. His head was pounding, the kind where it's not even close to the worst pain you've ever felt, but you still swear that you'd sacrifice a finger to make it go away. Like machine gun fire, those same images from what felt like an eternity ago played onstage to an audience of one.Bookmark here

Stupid idiotBookmark here

Smells badBookmark here

Kurosawa is hopelessBookmark here

But there was something else now, too. He didn't know where it came from. Those same noises from outside.Bookmark here

Get real, Kohei. You're just dreaming, the way all dreamers do: of something better. You're putting your hand in a wasp nest over and over and wondering why it hurts. Don't turn back, or you're in for a world of it.Bookmark here

A world of what?Bookmark here

Young Kohei spoke. "A world of promise."Bookmark here

Something burst deep inside, as if there was an orb in his heart that cracked or maybe grew a little. But it was a somber burst, the sun bursting over the mountains, an assurance that today was today and tomorrow would come in whatever form it chose to take. Was the excitement in that form? Who the hell knew?Bookmark here

Kurosawa/smells/lostcause/stupid/creepy/no children...Bookmark here

Kohei Kurosawa had a bad habit of saving animals. A few weeks ago it'd been a bird being stoned. When he'd met Yuuki it'd been a bird, too. What a coincidence. Or maybe birds were attacked by humans just because they could fly.Bookmark here

After saving him in a ruckus that involved a knife, Yuuki had said, "There's not many people who'd take a russling like that for a bird. You a pro boxer or something? Used to it?"Bookmark here

He'd nodded. "Yeah. I'm used to it."Bookmark here

Yuuki had paused then, as if he was truly enjoying life, tasting the possibilities of this stranger he'd stumbled upon. The possibilties of meeting someone new, who might leave a permanent mark that could change your life forever. Maybe it would be a scar, or maybe it would be a kiss. The only way to test the waters was to jump. So Yuuki did.Bookmark here

"Well, I respect a person who respects animals. I love animals. Wanna grab some grub? I'll pay."Bookmark here

"Yeah... sure."Bookmark here

In his own way, Kohei had tested the waters. He was still learning to swim, but he'd braved the shallow end and dipped his toes. Thanks to Yuuki, that son of a gun who'd found him-Bookmark here

(annoying)Bookmark here

-worth saving.Bookmark here

At this point he was sure the noises from outside were pure hallucinations. A popcorny aroma filled his lungs and he could taste the butter. A ball was bouncing down an empty hallway, going who knows where, and flip-flops chased after it, laughing the whole way. Giggles and whispers, of possibilities and futures that could be.Bookmark here

They were hallucinations, but they had all, at some point, been real.Bookmark here

He looked at his smaller self, still only vaguely aware of the shape of the world and still hopeful of it.Bookmark here

"Live large, kid."Bookmark here

Kohei ran and launched off the stage, darting for the door. He yanked on the chain and it shattered, because now he was glowing. Strength flowed through his body. He yanked the door open and it flew off its hinges, skirting along the floor and slapping into the front of the stage. Young Kohei disappeared behind the curtain.Bookmark here

“What do you want - oh.”Bookmark here

The pepper-eyed girl grabbed Kohei and shook him.Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-san! You’re glowing! You’re glowing! Fly! Float! Save us!”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

OR ELSE WE’LL-Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

“-DIE!”Bookmark here

Pure white energy burst out from under my feet, slowing us to a stop mere meters from the jungle growth. Akabane clung to my neck so hard she was choking me, and we burst through the treeline and crashed into the vines below. I opened my eyes. I was alive, and in a jungle bursting with colors and smell. Birds of paradise glided above, and a marching troupe of boars scurried off into the tallgrass. A lemony scent filled my nostrils. Akabane untangled herself from the vines and looked down at me.Bookmark here

“Get up. The ground’s muddy.”Bookmark here

“I… I like it here.”Bookmark here

She examined me, trying to figure out what had changed in our sixty-second descent.Bookmark here

“How did you do that, Kurosawa-san?”Bookmark here

“Near-death experiences are known to exhume drastic changes in character.”Bookmark here

“Not what I meant.”Bookmark here

“Oh... then I don’t know.”Bookmark here

I got up and brushed myself down, taking off my jacket. It was too warm and humid to wear it so I wrapped it around my waist. It might come in handy later.Bookmark here

“I had this weird fever dream. When I woke up, the energy came out.”Bookmark here

“All thanks to me, apparently. I kept slapping your face and you started glowing.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, whatever.”Bookmark here

We broke out in laughter, and for the first time in hours, I felt alright. Tears went freely down my face, and when Akabane saw them she started to cry, too. Every pent-up feeling from the day burst from us like a dam.Bookmark here

We wiped our faces and examined the world around us.Bookmark here

“Are we in a jungle, whizz kid Kurosawa-san?”Bookmark here

“Very funny, haha.”Bookmark here

“Heh…”Bookmark here

“Shut up.”Bookmark here

A firework went off in the sky. Festival? No - it was a blue flare.Bookmark here

“Looks like that’s the direction we’re heading in.”Bookmark here

She pointed at something a few meters away.Bookmark here

“Kurosawa-san, it’s a body…”Bookmark here

It was. And in the same way you start to see something everywhere once it gets pointed out, I noticed the bodies strewn along the jungle floor. Not everyone had been as lucky as us. The reality of the situation set back in, and my smile faded.Bookmark here

“That was just the first test. This one will probably be a lot harder. But we can do it. We have to live, and if there’s nothing and no one left to live for, then we’ll live for ourselves. Because we owe it to us-"Bookmark here

"Kuro...sawa...kun?"Bookmark here

I turned. Yuuki stood atop a giant dead tree, hands hanging loosely by his sides. Tears welled in his eyes.Bookmark here

"Kurosawa-kun, I could kiss you right about now!"Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.