The rally began one hour after school and was held in the main courtyard, where the morale brigade had set up a large shrine for the occasion. In the center of it stood a huge print of Hitomi’s smiling face. Shinji did not attend, which was probably for the best. Instead, he watched from an empty classroom on the third floor and ate his snack. The class officers began the ceremony with a group prayer before allowing others to step up and speak.
What a waste of time. Hitomi had been missing for two weeks now and instead of trying to find her the whole school turned into one big grief pageant. Suddenly, everyone was competing to share their fondest memories of Hitomi in an attempt to prove that they were her true best friend. A bunch of liars and fakes. He opened the window filled the room with the soggy echoes of a crying student.
“…she was always kind, and beautiful, with soft skin, and a voice like…”
Gross. Shinji closed the window and the quiet returned. To think, his peers thought he was the creepy one. The other day Shinji overheard two girls whispering about how he must have had something to do with Hitomi’s disappearance because he had no friends and looked creepy. How could somebody ‘look’ creepy? There was nothing strange about Shinji that warranted suspicion against him. Regardless, the girls must have shared this idea with the other students since Shinji had been receiving dirty looks all day. Such ignorance.
Besides, Shinji knew who the real culprits were. They were standing on the stage conducting this whole charade. His older sister Makoto and her tough guy boyfriend Tarou held the mics for each speaker with feigned looks of concern and anguish. Emotions stapled to their faces like paper masks. Phonies. Makoto dabbed her eye every now and then. Tarou shook his head and closed his eyes. Shinji finished his snack and crumpled the wrapper.
Shinji was certain Makoto and Tarou kidnapped Hitomi. He hadn’t seen them do it, nor had he found out where they were keeping her yet, but he had enough justification to support his hunch. The first day Hitomi stopped showing up to school, Makoto and Tarou were extra irritable and extra fidgety. They got their nerves under control soon enough, but not before Shinji took notice. They also began spending deliberate time apart in public settings, despite normally being inseparable. Their attempts to avoid suspicion and resolve their guilt just made them stick out like sore thumbs. An attention to the subtle changes in people’s behaviors was something Shinji had developed by being alone all the time. He kept himself separate from social situations and instead focused on the big picture.
He was also present when Makoto said Hitomi’s name while she and Tarou had sex in the restroom three days ago. Shinji had been in one of the stalls, drawing graffiti when he heard them come in. He propped his feet up on the seat, hushed his breath, and hid in the quiet as they slid into the stall beside him. It wasn’t the first time he listened to them fuck. There was something about listening to real sex that seemed natural, unlike the stuff he watched on his computer. That day, there was more ferocity to Tarou’s grunts and Makoto seemed a lot more into it than usual. Between gasps she said: I want to fuck in front of Hitomi again, ok? Tada!
Shinji debated taking his theory to the authorities. He decided against it, however, since he understood that his ‘proof’ was based on his own perspectival observations. At best, they would simply dismiss his claims. At worst, they would perform a half-assed investigation that risked driving Makoto and Tarou to desperation. Right now they were predictable and Shinji needed to gather more tangible evidence before coming forward.
Then there was the video. A few days after her disappearance, an anonymous user posted a video of Hitomi to the school’s message board showing her naked and chained to a wall in an empty room. The video only lasted a minute and a half and had no audio, but Shinji watched it dozens of times in hopes of finding clues to her whereabouts. Her large breasts made the viewings less tedious, but he could not discern anything useful from the footage aside from the fact that she was alive and in captivity somewhere.
Shinji exited the classroom. There was no point in watching the rally. He didn’t even know Hitomi that well, anyway. On his way home, he stopped at the convenience store for another snack. Shinji liked this particular shop because the owner didn’t care if students oggled the lewd magazines, as he himself was often buried in one at the register. Shinji liked to read them and try and see which of the models resembled his classmates. Today, he had no such luck, not that he would buy any. The only magazine he ever purchased featured a girl that looked like Makoto. Shinji and his sister had never been close but he still found her quite attractive. She gave him a hard time for how he behaved at home and he shamed her with his superior academics, so there wasn’t much to their relationship aside from resentment. She also often mocked him for his lack of a girlfriend. In turn, Shinji teased her for settling for a bonehead like Tarou. She could do better, he thought.
Shinji sighed and paid for his bag of chips at the register. He looked out the door and saw Makoto and Tarou hurry past the store window. Was the rally over so soon? They must have been going to see Hitomi. Where else would they go in such a rush? This was his chance. Shinji stepped outside and followed them.
As paranoid as they were lately, Makoto and Tarou still had no idea they were being followed. From the store, they continued down the road for three blocks then made a sharp right. Shinji turned one block before that and sped up his pace. He kept sight of them through the alleyways, but after another four blocks they turned left. Shinji followed. Six blocks, left. Two blocks, right. Three blocks, left. Homes began to repeat, it seemed. Was that cat the same grey cat? A lady had been folding a pink shirt for five blocks now. Seven blocks, left. A park. A factory? Six blocks, left. Couldn’t they have taken a shorter route? Three blocks, right. He was lost in the geometry. Two blocks, left. Graves. One block, gone.
Shinji reached a dead end. To his left was a patch of overgrowth where an old car sat rotting. To his right was a barred-off sewer tunnel. He had never been to this area before, nor did he imagine ever needing to judging by the state of it. Everything was old and abandoned and perfect for hiding stolen girls. Finding his way out would be a conundrum, but he had come this far already and sun was beginning to set. Now or never. Shinji closed his eyes and listened to the quiet. No breeze. No cars. No birds.
A whisper! But where? No echo, not the pipe. No rustle, not the trees. Forward, but there was the wall. Shinji moved closer and noticed a secret passage. A set of stairs descended beneath the barrier, hidden by brush and vines. Beneath it was a short underpass that led to the other side where Shinji found himself in an isolated neighborhood. Ancient wooden houses clustered together, lost and forgotten among themselves. He listened again and heard panting coming from the second one to his right. He snuck between backgates and towards the source of the noises and peered through the broken windows.
In a dusty bedroom, Makoto and Tarou lay sprawled on the floor, naked and sweaty. Across from them, a laptop was set up playing the video of Hitomi on repeat. As Tarou thrusted atop his sister, Shinji saw Makoto turn her head to watch the screen. Hitomi was blindfolded, crying, and struggling against her restraints. She kept sliding backwards towards the wall, as if trying to escape from somebody. Wait, could this be a different video? No, it was a live stream! Makoto and Tarou were not Hitomi’s captors, but if they had access to live footage of her, they had to be complicit somehow. Shinji needed to stay and see what happened. Perhaps the perpetrator would reveal themselves on camera, or perhaps a better visual of Hitomi’s location would be shown. Hitomi continued to kick and scream as a cut appeared on her leg. What? Shinji blinked his eyes. It was difficult to see the screen from his position, but he swore the cut was not there a second ago. Her flailing grew more frantic. Another cut appeared, this time on her torso. What the hell? Shinji gasped, startled by the sight.
Tarou and Makoto cursed and scrambled off each other. Tarou called out and rushed from the room to investigate. Makoto crawled over and shut the laptop. Shinji turned around and booked it, running from the house. He ducked under the wall-stairs and turned towards the direction of the overgrowth. Behind the car was a long stretch of grass and shrubbery. Foliage crunched beneath his feet as he pressed on with no regard to his destination. Behind him Tarou yelled profanities, but soon his voice became distant. Shinji kept running.
The sun had fully set by the time he felt safe enough to stop. Shinji was even more lost now than he was before. It was difficult for him to see in the twilight, even with the soft glow of the traditional lanterns that hung from the trees around him. Trees. He was in a forest. He did not recall crossing into the forest from the suburbs. He was not even aware that there was a forest nearby, yet somehow he managed to run straight into the heart of it. Trees stood in every direction and there was no suggestion as to which direction would lead back to civilization. There was no geometry here.
Shinji spun around and set off the way he came. He was fairly certain he had not changed direction while he ran. so if he retraced his steps he would eventually find a way out. Right? That was the logical conclusion, but with each step Shinji’s doubts grew. He walked for a long time and nothing changed. Trees, lanterns, darkness. He could not even see the sky past the thick canopy of branches that loomed above his head. His feet hurt and his stomach rumbled.
Why had he even bothered trying to find Hitomi in the first place? Shinji did not want to be a hero, nor did he imagine being showered with affection after her rescue. Would he have paid as much attention to the disappearance had he not suspected Makoto? Did he want Makoto and Tarou to be the culprits? Did he want Makoto? What about the video they were watching? What was up with those cuts? When did things get so weird? Shinji thought of his sister’s naked body sprawled on the floor with Tarou. He thought of her long legs and the hair between them. He thought of Tarou’s physique and how much he himself lacked in comparison. He thought of Hitomi, chained to a wall somewhere and the cuts that appeared on her delicate skin.
Hours passed. Far off in the distance, Shinji thought he saw a small structure amidst the trees. He sped up his pace, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked, and smaller too. As he approached he saw that the structure was a shrine. Two pillars stood parallel, holding up a decorative mantel. In the center of it stood a small portrait surrounded by candles. A figure kneeled prostrate on the ground before it. He moved closer from the edge of the wood and saw that they were naked. There was something unnerving about the sight. Something felt odd, as though this was a dream. Even so, he was lost and desperate for direction. When he called out, the figure rose. It appeared to be a woman, with long, black hair that fell beneath her rear.
She turned around to face him, slowly. Against the dim glow of the lanterns, her skin resembled the color of rotting bone. Shinji stared at her body, allowing the sight of her nudity to soak in. He gazed at her round breasts and dark nipples, her petite shoulders and long, thin arms, her navel and the bush beneath it. Despite the strangeness of the situation, Shinji felt arousal take hold of him. He was eager to see her face, to see what she looked like. Who she looked like. Without thinking, he took a step towards her.
The woman lurched her head upwards with a crack. Where her face should have been was a decrepit, wooden mask with two black eyeholes and a smiling mouth carved into it. Her arms flung forward and she bounded towards Shinji, screaming an inhuman wail. Shinji screamed too and ran for his life. He dashed through branches, tears in his eyes, unable to see where he was going. Behind him he could feel the woman getting closer. As he ran, carnal images flashed within his mind and he could hear suggestive whispers in his ears. He felt a finger brush across the back of his neck and he sprinted even faster. Suddenly, the pattering of grass was replaced by the clopping of sneakers on pavement. He was back in the suburbs. The streets looked familiar to Shinji and he knew the way home, but he kept running, farther and farther away, unable to look back. The screaming became softer and the voices subsided, until eventually the quiet returned again.