Chapter 1:


North by Southwest

I’m dying to jump over the railing, but something’s holding me back. Must be exhaustion; I’m trembling like a flame in the wind. The journey to Yakushima was five hours on the shinkansen, Tokyo to Fukuoka, then five more inside a coughing coach that bumped us all the way down to Kagoshima. Now, we’re boarding a Showa-era ferry for the last leg of our trip. My boyfriend splurged on tickets; he’d bought them from a small man with beady, badger eyes and a carcinogenic tan.

The floor squeaked as soon as I set foot on it.

“No,” I said.


“This rickety thing won’t make it through a storm.”

He chuckled, “A little rain won’t kill us,” and planted a kiss on my cheek. I rolled my eyes, letting his arms begrudgingly secure me to the upper deck.

The sky is lithium when we step off the boat, the breeze sharp and moody. Yakushima’s been trapped in a hurricane for more than a century now, but you couldn’t tell if you didn’t know. The warm, summer sludge doesn’t dissolve their grins. Walking down the street, there’s no shutters on the windows and the yards swim with grills, plastic slides and dangling parasols. No one looks up with fear or worry in their eyes.

Strange. It’s like they forgot how to be –


I freeze, one sandal hovering off the sidewalk. My boyfriend yanks me by the collar of my shirt and the one pickup truck driving down the road passes safely, two inches from my face.


“It’s okay.”

“No, I should’ve –“

“It’s fine.” His teeth clench, then break into a hardened smile. “That’s the last car we’ll see in a while.”

“Right. Sorry,” I mutter. He slips his shaky hand into mine, and we steadily start towards our lodging.

We’re staying for three nights at an inn built on the lip of a dormant volcano. To get there, we have to hike five kilometres up a damp, mossy trail that no wheels could grip. If they could even fit here – the path is barely wide enough for the two of us to walk side by side. A bedrock cliff crowds us from the left, while the soundproof veil of the forest stretches on to our right. It’s claustrophobic and quiet, save for the gentle sizzling of leaves.

My knees start hurting – it’ll rain soon. I read that apart from uprooting trees, storms also cause landslides. If that were to happen to us here and now, would we make it? Would anyone hear our cries for help? Would anyone find our bodies, decomposing in the flood?

“Hey,” my boyfriend says softly, “have you been to an onsen before?”

“No, mum could never afford it. Have you?”

“My parents know an old woman who runs one in Fukushima. It’s pretty comfy. We go there about twice a year when my father’s rheumatism flares up.”

“That sounds nice.”

“More than it is. When I was little, the heat would make me pass out. Nowadays, I’m more concerned with people staring at my chest…”

“Well, that won’t be a problem now, will it?”

I don’t get him sometimes. All I’ve done is remind him of the inn’s private pools, and yet he’s looking at me like – that. Like I’m his fair-haired Galatea, not just some knock-kneed girl with pointy shoulders and scowl lines at 22.

And he? He with his roman nose and sharp jawline; with his boyish swagger and honeyed words that make blood coagulate in an instant. How many times have I sunk my tears into his sleeves and how many times had he wiped them off, combed through my hair and soothed me with his calm? How many of those times do I have left?

The forest flares up. The world goes white, then bursts at the seams with a crack. It’s a drop, then a deluge. We dash for cover, jackets over our heads like that doesn’t just make our gait more awkward and lumbered.

The cliff spits out shelter for us – a dilapidated cabin, two walls and half a roof. My boyfriend checks that the half a roof won’t cave under the weather – I huddle in the corner and watch him. Watch him pull at the loose planks, only for a loose plank to give way underneath him.

He falls. For all but one second, before he lands flat on his ass on the mouldy floor. With a disbelieving laugh, he retrieves his foot from the hole that ate it, then turns to me. He doesn’t look at the pink of my bra, showing through my soaked top – instead, he stares at the water streaming down my face.

“Are you crying?”

I nod. It’s dumb and he knows it. Yet, his arms open wide and I hesitate to go in for the hug. But I can’t help it – hearing his pulse is so soothing.

“You thought of it again, didn’t you?”

When I don’t respond, his hold gently tightens. It’s not a new, drug-resistant breakdown, it’s just the same stupid spiel that started forever ago.

We were both sixteen and had been dating for three months, when he first said he loves me. First thing I did was ask if he’ll always feel the same.

“Don’t think so.”

“Will you grow to hate me?”

“No. I’d die if it meant you’d smile.”


“Because I’m sure you’d do the same.”

I hated that then and hate it even more now. I never told him, though. Never will.

I imagine he’d glance at the barcodes etched unto my arms, shake his head in a paternal scold, then remind me of how we met. How I used to slam the door to my house, then run up the train tracks until I’d reach a stop. How I said to myself I’d get off if a train ever came. How I grinned when the rails shook.

I wonder if he’ll believe I’m scared of dying. And that it’s all his fault and that I love him for that.

The rain doesn’t show signs of stopping. Before long, we’ll get hungry and we’ll have to figure out our next move. Do we go back down, or do we carry on up towards the inn? Probably the latter. It’s a more difficult journey uphill, but a hot bath will be waiting us at the top. Plus, we’ll be less likely to catch a cold.

But, until we need to go, I’ll just warm my hands on his cheeks. Maybe peek at him every once and again. Maybe bump the top of my head against his chin. That should make him smile.

North by Southwest