Leave Every Hope
Through me is the way into the woeful city;
through me is the way into eternal woe;
through me is the way among the lost people.
Justice moved my lofty maker:
the divine Power, the supreme Wisdom
and the primal Love made me.
Before me were no things created, unless eternal, and I eternal last.
Leave every hope, ye who enter!
– Dante, The Divine Comedy Vol 1: The Inferno, Canto III 
It began suddenly. No one would have been able to predict it.
The Holy Celebration Day, 2017.
Front Square, City Hall (also known as The Moondrop)
The wind blew icily and nipped at the skin, but the sun was bright. The sky was clear, and was dyed a brilliant blue, appropriate for the festivities. The hearts of the people were buoyant. They waved flags, and all praised the Holy City.
“Our mighty No. 6.”
The square in front of the city hall where the ceremonies were to be held was bursting with people.
“It’s hot,” complained a woman in the stuffy crowd. She was young and slender. “I feel like I’m going to suffocate, there’s so many people.”
“So true,” her friend agreed beside her. She was short, with black hair. She sighed as she dabbed the sweat off her nose. “Isn’t it horrible, how there’s barely even space to walk? How disgusting to sweat in the winter. I feel all sticky.”
“Really, I don’t believe it. We dressed up for nothing.”
Both had barely any experience of sweating. They had always lived in places where the temperature and humidity were adjusted just so for maximum comfort. They couldn’t stand the sweat that streamed under their arms and down their backs. They found the heat of the jostling crowd exceedingly unpleasant.
The black-haired woman pouted her painted lips.
“My supervisor said I absolutely had to participate in the ceremonies. If I didn’t, I would get my salary cut.”
“Me too. Boss’ orders. He said it’s mandatory that I show up. If it wasn’t, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”
“They’d know from your ID card if you didn’t show up, wouldn’t they? The gates scan your citizenship number when you pass through them… and I heard they notify your workplace afterwards.”
The slender woman nodded gravely, and furrowed her brow. A bead of sweat rolled down her cheek.
Oh, how unpleasant. I wish I could take a shower and freshen up.
The black-haired woman continued loosing her stream of complaints.
“My younger sister is still a student, but she told me all of them have to meet at school, and they get bussed over here.”
“Really? They didn’t have anything like that in our day, did they?”
“No. I heard it’s just started this year. They want to confirm your loyalty level to the city. My sister was complaining that if you don’t participate, you get negative points for your Activities column. You get placed in Rank D. That means you wouldn’t be able to get further schooling, or land a job. I thought it was a bit harsh, don’t you think so?”
“It is. They’re practically forcing us. And speaking of which―it’s a bit much these days, isn’t it? Everywhere you go lately, it’s loyalty-level this, loyalty-level that. I kind of find it weird―”
The slender woman was interrupted suddenly as somebody grabbed her by the arm. White shirt, grey pants. He was a nondescript middle-aged man with a strong build.
“Um, what―?” the woman began.
“What were you talking about just now?”
“What were you two talking about just now?”
The two women looked at each other. Their hearts quickened. “W-We were only talking about… you know, how hot it was… stuff like that…”
“Is that so? It rather sounded to me like you were expressing some dissent, discontent towards the city. Am I wrong?” The man’s narrow eyes glinted. His words were courteous, but the light in his eyes was sharp and fierce. It made the women cower. Fear pierced through their bodies.
The Security Bureau.
“N-No!” they protested. “Discontent―no―never, we would never say that. We would never think of that. Not us, we would never…” The black-haired woman clasped her trembling fingers to her breast. Tears welled up in her eyes. Help me. Mom, Dad. Help me.
“No matter. Will you kindly let me escort you two? We will have plenty of time to hear your story later.”
“How can you… that’s not.. no…” Unable to bear it any longer, the black-haired woman began to cry. The slender woman was also shaking.
“Kindly let us escort you.” Another man in similar clothing materialized and grabbed the woman’s arm. His fingers were shockingly cold.
No―that’s not fair, we were only having a conversation. We were only saying our thoughts out loud.
She was so stunned by the incident, no tears came. She could not cry like her friend. The slender woman only trembled.
“Come, then.” The man’s eyes flashed incisively.
I’m scared. I’m so scared. Help me, Mom, Dad.
There was a muffled groan. It had trickled from the man’s mouth. His eyes were bulging, wide open, and his mouth was opening and closing like a fish. No voice came out. Only his lips moved. His hands tore at his neck. His face began to discolour into a dark shade.
“Wh-What’s the matter?”
The man with the cold fingers reached out towards her.
The woman screamed. She felt like her shriek would tear her throat apart. The black-haired woman had started screaming at almost the same time.
The man stopped moving. He stiffened, his eyes and mouth still open. They could see inside his mouth.
Something fell to the cobblestone with a soft sound. Something small and white…
All the man’s teeth were falling out of his mouth, one after another. His hair was also falling out. Clumps of it turned white and scattered all around. The man’s eyes rolled back into his head as he fell face-forward onto the ground. His body convulsed. A black stain spread from his neck. It swelled into a bump, and then―
An incomparably stronger wave of fear came crashing down onto her. She felt like she would go insane. Perhaps she was insane already. Perhaps she had gone mad, and that was why she was seeing something that wasn’t supposed to exist. She had no other choice but to scream. She had to raise her voice, and release her terror somehow. If not, her body would swell and burst. She would shatter.
The woman breathed in.
Before the woman could open her mouth, shrieks and bellows welled up from the rest of the crowd. Here and there, they rose and burst. Voices of men, shrill screams of women, yells of young people, the clamouring of the elderly―everything writhed, mingled and twisted around.
“Nooo!!” The black-haired woman was frantically flapping her hands and feet. She looked like she was doing a disturbing dance. “Someone―someone’s there. Inside me. Help―help me―!” Her teeth fell out as she opened her mouth to scream.
Plunk, plunk, plunk.
A stain was spreading from the black-haired woman’s neck.
“It’s poison!” someone was saying. “Run! We’ve been poisoned.”
She heard another voice. It was saying, “we’re all gonna die.”
It’s poison. Run. We’re all gonna die. It’s poison. Run. We’re all gonna die.
The woman stepped over the fallen man, and tried to break into a run. But before she did, she saw something glitter suddenly before her eyes. A bug? Someone shoved at her back. A fat woman tumbled and fell close by. A mass of bodies stampeded over her ruthlessly.
This is Hell. I have to get out of here―quickly―right away. Unconsciously pressing a hand to her own neck, the woman leapt over the bodies strewn on the ground, and broke into a desperate sprint.
The Holy Celebration Day, 2017.
7:02 am – Lost Town
Karan was baking pastries. Cravats, in fact. She twisted the dough, which had powdered almonds in it, into the shape of a necktie. She fried it, flavoured it with orange curacao, and sprinkled it with icing sugar as a finishing touch.
“It looks delicious,” Lili said as she swallowed hungrily.
“And it is. Let me set aside ones I won’t put out for the shop, and we’ll eat them together with some tea. Or would you prefer some warm milk with that, Lili?”
“I want cold milk. I like cold milk better.”
“Alright, we’ll do that. Some nice iced milk, but not too much, or else it’ll give you a tummy-ache. But remember Lili, before that―”
“I have to help with the store, right?” she finished. “I’m gonna do a really good job. I love being able to help with your store, ma’am. It’s exciting.”
“Today’s the Holy Celebration, so it’ll be very busy.”
“I know. First I say ‘hello and welcome’ right, and then I put the rolls and muffins in the bag.”
“Mm-hmm. And make sure to tell them, ‘please feel free to use the trays on the table by the entrance. You can put your items on them.’ And if the customers are children, or can’t use their hands or legs, ask them, ‘may I get that for you?'”
“‘Hello, and welcome! Please feel free to use the… the…”
“Trays on the table, by the entrance.”
“Trays on the table by the entrance. You can put your items on them. May I get that for you?”
“Brilliant, Lili! That’s the spirit. And don’t forget to smile.”
Lili’s nostrils flared appreciatively. “It’s easy to smile when it smells so good. My cheeks just melt, like this.” As she cupped her own cheeks, a shadow flitted across Lili’s eyes. Her tone dropped slightly too.
“Can I take some of these pastries back to Daddy?”
“Of course. I’ll leave some for both your Mommy and Daddy―why, Lili, what’s wrong? Has something happened to Renka?”
Karan had heard that Lili’s mother Renka was pregnant with her second child. Perhaps something had happened. Residents of the elite residential area of Chronos would be promised thorough and meticulous aid and treatment from specialized medical staff, from conception to birth. However, a Lost Town resident could only dream of receiving medical care at the level of Chronos residents. The mortality rates of invalids, the elderly, and children were manyfold compared to Chronos.
Karan was not discontented with her life in Lost Town. But numerous times, she found herself forced to face the fact that they were at the very bottom of the rigid hierarchy which the city had created.
She felt her spine freeze.
She felt a chill not from the realization that they were at the bottom, but at the very reality that people were dominating over other people and reigning over them in this way. She also felt a chill at herself, for not realizing this sooner.
Oh, how careless she had been.
Lili shook her head. Her fine, flaxen hair swished.
“It’s not my Mommy. It’s about Daddy.”
“Getsuyaku-san? Has something happened to him?”
“He had to go to work, even though it’s the Holy Celebration Day.”
The Holy Celebration was one of No. 6’s most revered holidays. Education institutions and government organizations were closed as a matter of course, as well as most city shops and offices. The majority of citizens gathered in the square in front of city hall to listen raptly to the mayor’s speech, and to celebrate the birth and proliferation of No. 6. Participation had been moving more toward mandatory since last year. By making citizens pass through gates into the square, the city could tell instantly if they did or did not participate in the ceremonies. Any citizen who did not have a valid reason for not participating that fit the criteria laid out by the authorities were investigated in detail. Rumour said they were more like interrogations.
Karan felt that this city was becoming more suffocating by the day. But still, many citizens participated in the festivities not because they were forced, but because they wanted to. They gathered of their own will, and waved their gold-embroidered flags of white cloth. Of their own will – was this really so?
“Ma’am, the pastry.” Lili was blinking. Karan realized she had been clenching a cravat in her fist.
“Oh, dear, I’ve let one go to waste. So,” she hastily resumed, “Getsuyaku-san couldn’t take the day off?”
The Holy Celebration was a large event, but there were still many people who went to work as usual, or else had no other choice but to go to work. Karan was one of them. She could not live if she didn’t work. Cakes and sweet buns sold exceedingly well on celebratory days. On these days “the cash came rolling in”, to be vulgar about it. Karan had planned to use this reason not to participate in the ceremonies this year. On her Application for Non-Participation, which had to be submitted beforehand, she had to fill in her job description, monthly profits, and the predicted earnings if she opened her shop during the holiday. She was also required to submit it in person to the reception counter of the city. Although it was extra hassle, and although it would have been much easier to just close her shop and participate, Karan chose not to.
I can’t let myself be pushed along down the easier path.
She had always let herself be pushed into making the easier choice. She had gotten out of practice of swimming against the current. She had let her heart go numb, and been swallowed all too easily in the flow. Hadn’t she learned the hard way what the result of that had been?
Her son had been snatched away.
Her son’s best friend had been snatched away.
Her most important things had been snatched from her suddenly and unfairly. She would not let herself be washed away anymore. She had to dig her heels in, or else she would be ashamed to look Shion or Safu in the eye again. She would not be able to throw her arms around them unreservedly when they came home. That was the last thing she wanted to lose.
“Lili, are you lonely because your Daddy’s not here? But I guess we can’t help it if it’s his job, huh.”
“No,” Lili protested. She shook her head again. “Mommy already said we can’t help it. But that’s not it. I’m not lonely because of Daddy. I get to help you with your shop, ma’am, and it’s exciting. All my friends were jealous when I told them I got to work at a bakery―so I’m not lonely, I’m just―I’m… I’m worried.”
“About your father?”
“Why? Has something happened that’s making you worry, Lili?”
“Not really,” she said hesitantly. “Daddy always gives me a kiss on the cheek before going to work. He said it makes him feel all happy inside. He said it’s kind of like a good-luck charm.”
“My, isn’t that nice of him.”
“Yeah. He’s the best. But today, he forgot. He went to work without kissing me. He left by himself, while Mommy and me were talking in the kitchen… he didn’t even say he was leaving. He just left.”
“Maybe he was busy.”
“I dunno. But he didn’t eat much breakfast either. Just half a slice of bread and coffee. He was sighing, too. Like this.” Lili slumped her shoulders, and let out a huff of air.
Karan felt an outpouring of love for her.
Lili was concerned about her father, in her own way. ‘Maybe he’s troubled about something, maybe he’s tired’―she noticed these little changes in her stepfather, her mother’s second spouse, with a sharp eye. And she was concerned about him. Lili had the experience of losing her father right before her eyes at a young age. Did this kindness of hers come from this experience?
“Lili…” Karan felt love for this tiny little soul. She crouched down at eye-level to Lili, and stroked her flaxen hair. “Keep smiling. Your smile is my good-luck charm. It makes me sad when I see you with that frown, Lili.”
“Ma’am… Daddy didn’t kiss me today, but that’s okay, right? God will protect Daddy, won’t He?”
“Of course. I know: why don’t you give your Daddy a kiss this time when he comes home, Lili?”
“Sure, I’ll do that.”
“Alright, let’s open the store, shall we? Can you line the cravats on the tray and put them out on the rack?”
Cheep-cheep. She heard squeaking.
“Mr. Mouse! You’re still here?” Lili chirped happily. A brown mouse was twitching its nose from underneath the table. It placed its front paws together, and bobbed its head up and down. Karan realized quickly that it was a farewell gesture.
“You’re going back to your master, then?” And back to my son? Karan broke off a piece from the pastry she had crushed in her fist earlier, and placed it in front of the mouse. The mouse picked it up in its front paws, and began to nibble at it without hesitation.
“Ma’am, look, the pastry and Mr. Mouse are the same colour.”
“Oh. Come to think of it, they are. You have the same colour of fur as a cravat.”
Cheep cheep cheep. The mouse raised its face and fixed its gaze on Karan. It had beady grape-coloured eyes.
“Cravat… is that your name? Cravat?”
Cheep-cheep. The mouse squeaked back as if to say, ‘yes it is’.
“Cravat. What a nice name. Goodbye, then, Cravat. Please tell your master that I’m thankful. That his words give me so much support… I’m very, very thankful. Please tell him that.” And if you can, please tell Shion too. That I’m waiting―that Mom will always be waiting, and she’ll never give up. So tell him to come home alive.
The short letter she had received from Nezumi. How much courage those words had given her.
What a firm and valorous message it was. It had supported her crumbling heart all this time. Nezumi, would I have the chance to embrace you? Would I be able to take you in my arms along with Shion? I could keep waiting, couldn’t I, and believe that I can someday?
Cravat finished his last morsel, touched his front paws together, and bobbed his head. Then he scurried off into a corner of the room, and quickly disappeared out of Karan’s sight.
“There he goes.” Lili frowned. “Is he gone forever?”
“No, we’ll see him again. Certainly some other day. Right, let’s open the shop. It’ll get busy, and I’m counting on you, Lili.”
“Yes, Ms. Shopkeeper! Leave it to me.” Lili swept into a theatrical bow. Karan laughed as she opened the door of her shop. She could see the sky. Its clear blue made her eyes water. The wind was freezing, but it looked like it would be a sunny day. It looks like the weather will be great―
She felt a chill. Goosebumps formed on her skin.
What? What is it?
She clasped her hands together instinctively. It was cold. She felt like her whole body was growing cold from the inside. It was only for a split second, but she felt her face tense, and her hands and feet turn rigid. The hairs on her body stood on end.
She felt her skin bristle. Again, and again. Something was closing in on her, something she couldn’t see.
A crowd of chattering people passed alongside her, city flags in hand. They were participating in the walking rally from the Lost Town gates to city hall. She saw several familiar faces. There were those who nodded at Karan in acknowledgement; those who gazed at Karan curiously; those who paused in their step to smell the aroma of fried pastries which was wafting out onto the street. There was a father holding hands with his child; young couples; an old woman with a hat perched upon her snowy head.
They would walk to city hall, and from there take part in the ceremonies. Midway through the route, all participants were supposedly going to receive boxed lunches from the city bureau. Each and every face bore a relaxed smile, like they were enjoying a picnic on a day off.
Karan could only stand still.
She could feel the goosebumps rise on her skin like fizz. She shivered as she looked up at the sky. It was clear and blue. The winter sky, like a blue pane of glass, stretched out above her head. But there was something there, in that sky. She could feel it.
She couldn’t see it, or hear it. She could only feel.
Something was there.
Something was coming.
The Holy Celebration Day, 2017.
A room in the ruins, West Block.
Inukashi awoke. He had fallen asleep without realizing it. How rare. I wonder when I last slept like this. It might even be when he was still a baby, suckling on his mother dog’s teat.
Death was always close by in the West Block, and violence and armed robbery were daily occurrences. Thieves could come sneaking into the ruins with weapons at any time. Even with his dogs there, he couldn’t relax. Inukashi had a good sense of the horrid environment in which he lived, and the terror that lurked in it. That was why he never slept deeply. His nerves were always honed to pick up any approaching danger immediately, whether it be midnight or dawn. He was like a small wild animal.
But he had fallen into a deep sleep just now. He couldn’t believe himself, that he of all people had nodded off unawares, if even for a short time.
Am I just tired? He raked his bangs up. I’m just worn out from what’s about to happen―what I’m about to do. That’s gotta be it. Even my stomach started to hurt from nerves.
I’m exhausted because of you guys, you know that? You good-for-nothings. More unwanted than the plague.
He tried hurling complaints at illusions of Shion and Nezumi. Nezumi remained expressionless, but Shion hunched his shoulders apologetically. Inukashi raked his bangs up again. He gave a great stretch, and swung his neck around.
His body felt lighter than he expected. He was famished, but not painfully. He had slept well, and he felt like energy was coursing through his body. So my body wanted sleep not because it was dead tired, but because it wanted to store energy.
Geez, self, you’re serious about this, aren’t you? He clicked his tongue unconsciously. The more he associated with Nezumi and Shion, the more confused he became about where his honest opinions lay. Feelings that he had kept at the very, very bottom of his heart simply slipped out. It made him annoyed enough to click his tongue. Yet he welcomed it at the same time.
So I’m pretty serious about this, then. He tried whistling. The black dog at his feet gave a twitch of its ear.
I’ve made the decision to fight the battle with them. And that meant believing. I guess it means… somewhere inside, I’m trying to believe in them, in the future, and more than anything, in myself.
An irritating guttural noise wrenched Inukashi away from his thoughts. Rikiga was curled up in a blanket, snoring loudly. Several empty liquor bottles were littered around him. It felt like every time he breathed out, he released liquor-smelling fumes. It made him feel ill.
“Jesus. He’s like the prime example of the adult you’d never want to be.” Inukashi sniffed disdainfully. He glanced at a corner of the room. A purple blanket peeped out from between the sprawled dogs. Rikiga had given it to him for the baby. Rikiga had proudly said he had picked it to match Shionn’s eyes, but Inukashi thought it was a garish, vulgar shade of purple. Not even close to the colour of Shionn’s eyes. He had taken it gladly though, of course, since baby blankets were luxury items that you couldn’t exactly just “come across” in the West Block.
“Shionn?” The baby was silent. There wasn’t even any sound of breathing. Inukashi’s heart began to palpitate.
Oy, come on…
It was unusual for babies or toddlers to survive in a harsh environment like the West Block. Starvation, hypothermia, disease, accident, and infanticide. Sudden death, too. Death always wandered in search of prey, changing form and shape each time. Powerless babies were prey to the cuckoo bird of death.
“You’re not dead, are ya? You gotta be kidding me.” He scooped up the blanket whole. Dark purple eyes, much like Shion’s, sparkled at him. Inukashi felt like he had glimpsed a deep darkness. It was a colour of darkness that flashed momentarily from within the layers and layers of black. Shionn blinked. His plump lips puckered as if he were demanding milk. Inukashi eased his racing heart.
“Shionn, you’re alive. Don’t scare me like that.”
The set of purple eyes shifted its gaze aside. Shionn twisted in Inukashi’s arms. Inukashi hastily readjusted his arms to avoid dropping him. The baby neither laughed, nor cried―it only looked straight ahead at something. Inukashi felt like he was holding a strange creature in his arms.
“What’s wrong? What’re you looking at?”
Shionn’s gaze was not directed this way; it was somewhere else, somewhere far off. Inukashi didn’t know where his gaze led.
“Shionn…” What’s gotten into you? Why are you making eyes like that? What can you see out there, Shionn?
Fraught with uncertainties, Inukashi embraced the baby fiercely.
The wind made noises as it whistled past the ruins above.