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East Asian Contemporary Fiction

How did it end up like this?

Over and over again, Aki asked herself that same question; over and over again, until everything inside her was torn apart, turned to shreds, carried spiraling upward into the air. It was a hurricane inside her. One that tore away at her sanity, whittling away her core, shaking her from deep within.

For a long time, Aki sat curled up on her bed, her back against the headboard, her face hidden, her arms hugging her knees. From the outside, she looked still, motionless; but inside she was shaking. She felt like her entire body’s quivering on the verge of collapse. If someone touched her, she’d crumble from within. And if she moved another inch, the world will try to obliterate her. To wipe her from the face of the earth. To watch her turn to dust.

How did it end up like this? She wanted to know. But of course, no one can give her an answer…

A week before the summer break, her friends told her about the online classes their professors had set up.

Aki blinked. “Eh? Classes?”

“Yeah!” Mari glowed. “Mister Maruyama and the others professors decided they wanted to have online classes next week!”

“They’re going to be on Zoom,” Akane said. “If I remember correctly.”

Mari looked at Akane. “Zoom? Wasn’t it Google Meet? Or Google Classroom?”

Aki gazed at the two of them, biting her lip.

Just then, Mari turned to her. “Aki! You’re joining, right? Come on! Our finals are coming up this year!”

“Um-…”

Aki stiffened; her breath caught in her throat. Her eyes darted between the two of them.

Right then, she remembered something.

“I don’t think I’m joining,” Aki said, scratching at her ear. “My family’s going on a trip this summer, so I won’t be home.”

“Aw.” Mari’s shoulders fell. “You’re busy?”

“I’m afraid so,” Aki said, averting her eyes. “My mother is sick, so we wanted to go on a trip together. ‘One last trip,’ as my brother described it.”

“I see,” Akane nodded. “I hope the best for you.”

Aki smiled to her. “Thanks.”

That week, Mrs. Yoshimoto and Mrs. Yoshioka had asked Aki if she was joining their online classes this summer. Both times she replied:

“I’m sorry, Professor. I’ve got family business to attend to this summer.”

And both times, her professors answered: “I see. Then please complete the assignments I’ve given you. I pray the best for you and your family.”

And both times, they were during class.

Meaning that everyone heard what she’d said.

And so just like that, her week went by and school ended. Summer break arrived.

What she said was technically true. The week before, her brother had really said that they’d go on vacation.

That this would be their ‘One last trip.’

As insensitive as the phrase sounded, it was in fact their mother who said it first. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous year, and she was to enter the care of the hospital by next month. And so, wanting to bring the family together, her mother had suggested they went on a simple trip to Shikoku for a week.

This had been her reason for skipping the classes.

But as true as it was, the real reason was that she simply didn’t want to.

Sitting at home, she would stiffen up every time a person called her. The ringtone would pierce through her chest, and she would freeze… Everything would turn cold, and somewhere in the darkness she could heard the sound of a ton of brick crashing to the floor; the world crumbling apart. Like a CPU fan, her brain would go into overdrive, and she’d panic. It was as if a fire alarm had gone off in her head, pushing her into high alert. Her thoughts would scurry and scram, her every thought scrambled, stirred—turn white, blank. And she’d be stranded there, staring at her phone, at the name or number onscreen—not knowing what to do. That’s what she feared.

At home, she was safe in her own little sanctuary. She was free from the outside world, protected from it. It was her little garden: a place that’s hers and hers alone. Inside, she tended the flowers and gave them names. She could talk to the trees, and sit under them, and listen to the birds singing overhead. Then, under its shade, she could drift off to sleep in silence.

But whenever a phone call came, whenever some person knocked on her door—she felt attacked.

Someone was trying to invade her, trying to break in. They wanted to destroy her garden…

She hated it; she’d feel vulnerable every time.

The cold would seep in and wake her up. At once, she’d find herself naked, the sky turned dark, the tree shaking in the howling wind. A sudden presence felt in the air, reaching out for her…

And she’d have nowhere to hide.

As much as she didn’t like going out on trips, she would rather go than stay here in the city, waking up to an assault, a violation. A molestation.

It made her skin crawl…

But then, right on the final day of school, the trip was canceled—her mother had passed out on the kitchen floor, and was sent straight to the hospital.

When Aki came home and saw her brother’s text, she’d almost dropped her phone.

Not only was her mother’s condition worsening, this meant that Aki…

Her whole body turned cold.

Aki didn’t have the money to catch the train home to Gifu, where her family was. Her brother had originally intended to give her the money she needed to catch a train back home, so that they could go on their trip together; but her brother hadn’t deposited the money. She tried texting him, but by midnight she had waited ten hours for him: and no reply.

She had already told her boss that she wouldn’t be coming to work next week—but now what?

She was low on money, and she needed to work. But she couldn’t just show up to work like nothing’d happened. What made it worse was that Mari was her coworker there…

She’d be insane to just show up like that…

Her stomach growling, Aki laid there in bed for a long time, holding onto her phone. Her brother never came online, and the longer she waited the deeper her heart sank into the abyss.

She was thirsty, but she just couldn’t take her eyes off her phone. Even as her eyes stung…

And so, holding onto the hope her brother might reply, she waited on into the little hours of the night.

Until she passed out, asleep.

The following afternoon, she got a text from Mr. Ito.

“Why didn’t you join my class? Are you sick?”

It was half past two, and the sun was out, pouring through the window, merciless in its light. She woke up in sweat, her whole bed almost sluggish with heat. It took a moment for the words to register in her mind, but when they did everything came back to her like a speeding truck.

She stared at the notification for the longest time, unwilling to tap on anything, to even make a move.

Her eyes alternated between the text, and the time.

Three o’ clock, three-thirty—why didn’t you join my class? Are you sick?

Three-fifty.

What should she reply? She couldn’t just lie. Mr. Ito was such a nice and kind professor, too—he cared for all of his students, asking whether they’re alright whenever they don’t attend his class, wishing them a quick recovery if that was so.

She couldn’t just straight up lie to him… she couldn’t just lie to anyone!

Then what should she do?

Another half-hour had passed on by when, finally, her brother texted her.

“I’ll deposit the money whenever I can,” he said. “I’ll try tomorrow. If not, I hope by next week.”

Oh…

She couldn’t open his texts, either.

In the end, she couldn’t reply to any of them.

The sun had long since set, and now the clock on the wall pointed to nine p.m.

Whenever Aki swiped to check her notifications, her heart sank—unread messages: half past two, and four-twenty p.m. Both unanswered, both without any answers in mind. She couldn’t think of a thing.

Curled up against the headboard, sitting up in bed, she felt like her body was freezing up.

She felt like every bit of her was turning, little by little, into ice. Her body began to shiver. She couldn’t move, and she was afraid to. Dark shadows stretched across the room, and the world beyond the door laid in silence. Out the window—beyond the glass pane separating her from the outside world—she could see nothing but darkness: She couldn’t see a thing.

Slowly, she felt herself shrink. Was she really an idiot? Was she a horrible human being?

Was she manipulative?

Was she just playing the victim? Acting? Making herself believe she’s right?

Was she a liar?

What if she failed in life, how could see justify her own existence? What if she failed school?

Would it ruin everything?

The future was open to too many possibilities, and it scared her. Would she end up alone? Would people ever trust her again? Was she even as nice or as good a person as she wished herself to be?

Was she simply irredeemable?

Did she even deserve the way people treated her? With how kind they were? How they were willing to help her? Did she even deserve that?

Did she even deserve love? Or was this what she truly deserved; pain, suffering? To be punished to the death by misery? In fact, did she even deserve to eat? What did she do to deserve food? What did she do to gain the right to consume any fish, chicken, and plant when she probably wasn’t any better than any them? Was she even any better than a grain of rice?

Probably not…

She knew what people would say. Lazy, dumb, a liar, worthless, futureless, ungrateful, silly, immature, lost in the clouds, self-centered. Everything.

And maybe they were right…

It was during times like these that she wondered—Was suicide an easier answer? Ending it all?

She didn’t want to believe so. She truly didn’t. But as she sat here, feeling the cold wrap around her skin, as her thoughts piled up in her mind like some thick, black substance, the thought couldn’t help but enter her mind.

She had always thought about it, but she never had the will to actually do it. She was afraid…

She wanted to die, but at the same time didn’t.

No one knew what the world after death was like, besides the dead. Religious leaders? Atheists? People from all around the world? They could speak all they want, but do they even know the truth?

Was it even possible to know the truth…?

Finally, she broke into tears and sank, falling over to her side, as the moonlight fell over her, reminding her of a knife’s cold sheen.

Damn it…

She couldn’t just lie to Mr. Ito, she couldn’t just wait and starve, she couldn’t just show up at work as if nothing happened, she couldn’t wait and stay here forever—then what should she do? If she replied to Mr. Ito, it’ll only prove that she was still in the city. If she came to work, she’ll make everything fall apart. If she lied, would anyone even trust her anymore?

Ultimately, what could she even do? Enter class?

The very thought of it made her shrink. She didn’t want to enter class; yet saying so only made it sound worse… so what could she do?

She felt like she was running around in a circle, as the walls on either side closed in, becoming narrower and narrower the farther she went. She started feeling dizzy, she started feeling sick; her stomach churning, her head spinning, her legs falling apart.

The walls closed in on her, until she couldn’t even walk any further. She tried squeezing through, but it only took her so far. Yet she couldn’t turn back; even if she could, she couldn’t see the way.

She was lost in a world of spiraling walls…

And slowly, the world itself began to shake.

In the cold of the night, she was left to wonder where she was…

As a single question echoed on in her head.

How did it end up like this…?

May 18, 2021 14:25

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