Chapter 1:

Day Zero

Emiko Alone

“…if you hadn’t been out all night, you wouldn’t have missed her performance!”

“That’s grand coming from you! I work hard for this family everyday, and this is the thanks that I get? Why do I even try?!”

“Our family should be more important to you than your workplace! You should be making every effort to be there for our children, for your daughter!”

“And how am I supposed to do that, when we keep wasting money on useless things like a ukulele recital, and counselling? Our family doesn’t need that! If you weren’t so careless with our money, we wouldn’t be so—“

A tap on her shoulder brought Emiko away from the verbal firefight of her parents. Quietly looking up, she was surprised with a hug from her older brother, Daiki. She relished in the embrace. The sound of a strike on the countertop made her flinch. Her brothers arms tightened around her, and he crouched down quietly.

“I’m home.” He smiled softly. Emiko bowed her head as she squirmed in place, her cheeks pinking

“I… I don’t need your help,” Emiko whispered. “This isn’t anything new.”

Daiki frowned. “Like I always say, Emiko, this isn’t right.” He moved to the stairs, making sure he didn’t make too much noise. She quietly followed him up the stairs, the light creaking making them both wince. The shouting below them began to escalate in volume, and Emiko closed her eyes as she covered her ears, trying to block them out. A warm pair of hands gently grabs her shoulders, and she could vaguely feel herself being guided upstairs and into a room. The door clicked shut, and she felt hands pry her own away from her head.

“Hey, Emiko,” Daiki says. “We’re in our safe space again. We’re okay.”

She could only nod softly. Folding her sweaters’ long sleeves over each other, she glances up at him. “You… need to stop babying me, big brother,” she said. “I’m fifteen now.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that I’m still your brother, Emiko,” Daiki countered. “I have to be there to protect you.”

“I can handle myself just fine,” she whispered. “You don’t have to worry about me so much.”

“I can’t help worrying,” he said. “I can’t ignore what our parents are doing to us. To you.”

“They’re not doing anything,” Emiko whispered. “They don’t do anything to us.”

“And that’s the problem, Emiko,” Daiki said. “They haven’t done anything since I was born, and they’ve only gotten worse. I can’t sit around all day watching over you, but—“

“You don’t need to, Daiki,” Emiko said with finality. “I don’t want your sympathy.”

“Right, you don’t want it,” he said, sighing as he combed his hair with his fingers. “I’ve gone through this once already. I’ve lived the same life as you, and in some ways I feel you have it worse, Emiko.” He smiled sadly at her. “They have expectations for you that were never there for me. And I’m sorry.”

“Just go away,” Emiko said, and she stood up, pushing gently on Daiki. “You’re always butting in when I don’t want you to. You should just—“

A shriek from downstairs made her lock with fright, and her breath hitched. Daiki moved to comfort her, but she recoiled, staring at him with pleadingly fearful eyes. He could only nod, his eyes showing his concern and anger, before he schooled his features. Emiko watched as he dutifully marched down the stairs, motioning for her to close her door.

She closed it slowly, trying to keep the sound audible. Her mom sounded like she was crying as she screamed at her dad. Her dad’s anger was audible in it’s heavy thickness, and then she heard the firm voice of her brother.

“…to stop… not good for… Emiko is…”

It was a conversation she had heard many, many times, and yet each time had turned out worse than the last. Each time, it was Daiki who was reprimanded, Daiki who was yelled at, Daiki who go in trouble. All because he was trying to protect her. She moved to open the door a little wider, having rested on her knees to lean against the doorframe, when she heard a loud impact and Daiki grunt.

She slammed her door closed and leaned her forehead against the doorframe, her eyes wide. Her breath came in short, and she could feel sweat starting to form everywhere. She shook, unable to think as she thought of the pain Daiki was going through. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She thought bitterly, curling into a ball against the door as tears began pouring down her face.

“Stupid, s-stupid!” she sobbed. “Y-you’re so stupid, Daiki. You’re so stupid, Emiko! If only y-you were s-stronger, you w-wouldn’t need him.”

Gritting her teeth only gave her a worse headache, and she couldn’t handle it anymore. She started clawing at the carpet, trying to get a hold on something, anything. Crawling to her bed, she pulls herself up onto it, and wraps herself tightly in her comforter. Curling in on herself again, she grabbed her pillow, stuffed both the pillow and her blanket into her mouth and screamed.

“Ahhhhhhh!” Her muffled shriek pierced her own eardrums in an attempt to drown out the shouting match still going on below her. She sobbed and cried, and with each wrack of her body, she gasped. “Gaaaaaaaaaah!” she yelled again, shaking as she thought of suffering without her.

I’m useless, I’m useless, I’m useless! She repeated in her mind. She shook her head, she clawed at her bedding, she tried to shrink within herself, but there was no escaping the thoughts that ran around in her mind.

Finally, she clutched her ears and squeezed her eyes shut, rocking in her bed as she shakily hummed her favourite song to herself. It didn’t work very well to tune out the voices coming from beneath her, but it seemed enough to bring some modicum of peace back to her senses. She hummed a little more, clutching her pillow tightly to the point that it might have popped if she wasn’t careful, and found herself calming as the voices died down, until all she heard the sound of feet coming up the stairs. One was light and airy, as if trying not to make any more noise than they should. The other set of steps was erratic, as if someone were doing their best to simply take one step at a time, and she jolted as the steps came to her door and she heard a knock.

Wiping her face with her sleeves, she crawled out of her bed and rested herself against her door, her head falling back in response. “D-Daiki?”

“Emiko,” he said back, a bittersweet noise and pain tinging his voice. “You… alright?”

Emiko nodded, and sighed shakily before sending a light double-knock on the door.

“That’s… that’s good,” he said. Emiko flinched, pulling her legs closer as she could hear him vocalize his pain as he sat down on the other side of the door, his pressure tangible, his shadow peeking through. “I’m glad.”

“W-why?” She asked, her voice cracking. “Th-they’ve never hit us before.”

“I… said some things,” Daiki said vaguely. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but it needed to be said, Emiko. I was tired of holding it in.”

“I’m sorry,” Emiko whispered. “I’m such a burden. If I was just better, I was just—“

“Just you, Emiko,” Daiki said, his voice barely above a whisper. “There’s only one of you in the world, Emiko. That means you are as amazing as you will always ever be. Live up to yourself.”

Emiko’s face twisted into a deep frown, and she began to shake her head as her vision clouded. “No, Daiki, no. I’m useless. I can’t do anything right. I’m just a ghost in a world full of life.”

“And yet you blew everyone out of the water with that song of yours, yesterday.” Daiki chuckled. “Hell, I was impressed.”

“You’re just saying things,” Emiko said, though her lips twitched. “I was only able to make it because… because mom wanted to show me off to her friends.”

“…” She could hear the silence that her brother was trying to fill, and she turned back to staring at the ground, resting her head on her knees.

“It’s okay, Daiki,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else. “I’ll survive. I always do.”

“Just… remember there are people who do love you, okay?” Daiki said softly, before she could feel his body shift away from her door, and his unsteady gait reached his bedroom. Listening more closely, she heard his door click shut, and a very faint impact on soft fabric.

“In the end, I’ll end up alone, anyway,” she whispered to herself, tears in her eyes. “No one understands. No one wants me.” She began to weep again, staring at the blinking clock. It was almost midnight. Her vision blurred as she continued to stare, trying, almost, to see if it were possible to reverse time. A time where she wasn’t so useless. When people actually cared about her. When she wasn’t a fragile, delicate doll.

“ Why can’t everyone just leave me alone?” She chokes on a sob, and she hears her clock chime twelve. “I wish you would all just go away,” she cried quietly. “I wish I could just help myself.” She wiped her face again and stumbled to her bed, pulling the covers over herself and pitching herself in darkness.

“I wish…” she chanted quietly, her requests lost to the air. “I wish… I… wish…”

With tears running down her drooping eyes, she finally allowed oblivion to take her, but not before she heard a strange voice echo in her head:

Your cry has been heard… Take care, little one…

And her dreams were filled with big, green, empty hills, and sparkling night skies.

* * *

Her alarm blared it’s piano concerto. Muffled as it was, it was still enough to wake her from her slumber. Pushing her arm out, she slapped around until she hit her clock, silencing it. She stretched out of more of her sleepy body and sighed. She poked her head out of her bed burrito, and she yelped at the sun that had decided to target her through the blinds. Whining and turning away, she settled in a little longer.

Wait! she thought, gasping out loud. She sat up and turns to her clock, grimacing at the time. I’m late for school!

Throwing her sheets off of her, she ran to her closet and and threw on her school uniform before slipping her comfiest sweater on top. Vaguely, she wondered why her parents or brother hadn’t woken her up, but she frowned at the thought and pushed it away. It doesn’t matter, she thought to herself, though she could feel her heart spike. I can worry about them later.

Throwing her door open, she rushed down the stairs with her bag bouncing with each skipped step. She then slid into the kitchen, grabbed a bagel, and smeared honey and raspberry jam on it before slamming the two halves together. Padding toward the entrance, she turned around.

“I’m going!” she exclaimed softly, and paused at the silence in her house. A strange feeling came over her, as if her heart felt heavy, but she shook the odd sensation and stuffed her bagel into her mouth. She slipped her shoes on, opened the door, and began to run.

Run, run, bite, readjust. Run, run, bite, readjust. The whole time, she was munching on her bagel, trying to be efficient. She knew she shouldn’t, that she might choke, but it hurt more to think of the warnings her mother gave her for not listening to her. No! She cried in her mind, Not right now!

It was oddly quiet. Usually, there were at least a few people out on the street walking, or the occasional person watering their lawn, but she couldn’t see anyone. The dogs she knew would bark at her seemed to be whining instead of shouting, circling over and over outside the doors to their respective houses. With the school looming in the distance, she opted to slow down and sigh.

No helping it… she thought. I really am late.

Emiko continued her journey at a more sedate pace. She felt herself starting to sweat, to start skipping instead of walking, to start looking around her. She was growing restless, and she was fairly certain it wasn’t because of school. No, she thought, Something’s wrong.

A screech from above makes her flinch, and she feels a vague rush of wind as something large flies overhead. The sun makes it hard to see it’s details, but she widens her eyes at it’s size. “That’s not a bird,” she whispers to herself.

Her breath hitched, and she began to run again. She just ran, ran as if nothing else mattered. Her bagel was starting to upset her stomach. Approaching the school gate, she huffed with her hands on her knees in confusion.

The gate was closed.

This isn’t… she began, walking towards the gate and pushing on it. It didn’t budge. Jogging over to the civilian gate on the side, she tried it, but no luck either. Did they shut down school today? She asked herself. They couldn’t have. They would’ve told us.

Biting her lip and looking around, she whined in anxious anguish. She threw her bag over and started to scale the gate. Her footing was shaky at best, and she felt like she would fall a few times, but she was able to make it over just fine, jumping down the last few feet onto her butt. Rubbing her behind, she winced, grabbed her bug, and rushed toward the school.

The entrance opened up, but something stopped Emiko from stepping foot. It was a cold feeling, something devoid of life. As if the school itself was mourning. The lights were off, and no one else was at the lockers. No one else seemed to be anywhere. It appeared that it was just her. Just Emiko.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside, counted to five, and flinched as the door closed behind her. Speeding to her locker, she changed shoes, and started flicking lights on as she ran to her homeroom. Her footsteps echoed eerily against the silent halls. There was no student chatter that she could. No teachers that were orating to them. No lights on in any room.

She could suddenly feel her vision blurring as her breath turned ragged and she threw the door to her homeroom open, fully expecting a surprised and exasperated response from her teacher and classmates, but the illusion was instantly shattered by the cold dark of the room.

No one? She thought, her knees wobbling. No one’s here?

Another thought crossed her mind. One that scared her more than anything. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and scrolled to the one contact she saved in her favourites: Daiki.

She knew he had to be at school right now. She knew it. But despite that, he always responded. He never failed to do so once. She could hear her phone creaking as she gripped it harder with each ring. She was grabbing her sweater so tightly she knew it was going to wrinkle, but she didn’t care. The fourth ring came and went, and she gasped—

It went to voicemail.

Her phone clattered to the ground. She stared into space as her world seemed to start swirling in on her. She dropped to her knees. She clutched the hem of her skirt, gritting her teeth as she stared at the ground. “Something i-is… is wrong!” she growled out, her hand shaking as she picker her phone back up. With enormous effort, she took to her feet and shakily began to run. Run hard. Run fast. Faster than she ever had before.

She blazed through the school halls and past the lockers, not bothering to put on her outside shoes. She tossed her bag over and climbed desperately over the wall, falling into a roll that hurt her hands and knees. She kept running, and all the while, she kept pressing call on the one person that mattered in her life. Pick up, she thought viciously. Pick up, stupid!

“Pick up, Daiki!” she yelled aloud, tears rushing down her face. “I’m scared!”

“This is Daiki Kenbo! Sorry I’m not at the phone right now, but I’ll get back as soon as I—“

“This is Daiki Kenbo! Sorry I’m not—“

“This is Daiki Ken—“

“This is—!”

She slammed her gate open and barged through her front door. She threw her bag carelessly to the ground and run up the stairs two, no, three steps at a time and stopped at Daiki’s door. With tear streaks and her phone in hand, she pressed call once more, and heard a soft ringing. She froze.

“D-Daiki?” She called, hoping he was just sleeping. That’s right, she thought. He’s just sleeping in! Even though he had never slept in since she had started school. Not once. “P-please open the door?”

No response. Closing her eyes in fright, she reached out to the door handle, grabbed it, and twisted. Pushing it open slowly, she cracked open her eyes… and saw no one. On Daiki’s desk, his study lamp still glowed, homework splayed as if one were still working on it. Beside it all was the buzzing screen of Daiki’s phone. Walking over to it with a sinking feeling in her heart, she stopped the call and saw the five other missed calls she had sent him.

“Daiki…?” she whispered, holding his phone in her hand. “Daiki?” she said a little louder, looking around. “Daiki?!” She asked, rushing out of the room and yelling into the house. “Daiki! DAIKI!? BROTHER!?” She ran back to her room, maybe he was there? She saw nothing. She ran downstairs and checked the study; there was no one. No one in the kitchen. No one in the living room. No one anywhere.

She held her phone with both hands, the device seeming to burn her as she swiped to the two contacts she never called, only answered. She hit call on ‘Dad’ and reluctantly put the phone to her ear—

She heard a distant ringing upstairs. Gulping, she felt her last few feelings of hope die. Her father would never miss work to sleep in. If he did, the whole family would know. She climbed the stairs like a ghost this time, and, with all the steel she could muster, opened the door to her parents room.

There was nothing but the buzz and tone of her dad’s phone. She didn’t need to call her mom, because her phone was there too, still charging.

Stumbling away from the room as if it were cursed, she tripped backward into the wall and squeaked in pain. She slid down, and felt a giggle escape her despite the liquid running down her cheeks. she held her and Daiki’s phones in hand, and stared at the picture they both saved on their home screens: Them at the beach, making faces last summer.

Her laughs soon grew into sorrow, and she held the phones to her chest, wailing out loud. They were gone. Her brother was gone. Everyone was gone. And she didn’t know why…

Why? She asked herself, shaking with each cry. Why? WHY?!

She was finally alone, and Emiko cried.