By Lynne Hawkinson
4 February 2008
The last time Tokyo was destroyed, the city planners gathered and said, To hell with it, there's no point in rebuilding this shitheap just so it can get leveled again. They used the wreckage for an island in Tokyo Bay and moved the city there. The new city was close enough to the old that skyscrapers in the business district had a view of the impact crater, which rain and ground water had turned into a new lake, but far enough away to keep the curse from striking again. They even changed its name: Tokyo became Bay City.
As Mothra rampaged through Tokyo's downtown area, battering skyscrapers with its wings and quivering antennae, refugees gathered on a bridge, leaning against the rails and muttering into cellphones. It was a warm day. The breeze from Mothra's passage cooled their sweaty faces, but also blew dust and ash from the crumbling towers. People breathed through their shirts; the best-prepared yanked yellow filtration masks over their noses and mouths.
Army helicopters whirled around the giant moth. Their bullets shattered windows, but accomplished little else. Mothra tipped its head; one of its antennae caught a helicopter and sent it spinning into a tower. Its gas tanks bloomed gray and orange, and the tower, overbalanced, silently tilted to the ground.
"There goes my laptop," Kai said to Haku, his voice muffled by cotton. This was Kai's third disaster in Tokyo.
"Never mind your laptop," Haku replied. "I just hope those Army bastards don't blow up my car."
Kai was bored with replacing things destroyed whenever Tokyo got flattened. The first time, it was a set of dishes jolted from the cupboard, shattered on the floor; he waited in line for hours to buy new ones of plastic.
The fifth time hurt him. That was when the giant secret government robots went berserk and bombed the schools during the national examinations. Kai lost his young daughter, and he had not yet found a way to replace her.
The government issued an official apology. They'd thought adding the spirits of dead mothers would make the robots protect their young pilots, but they hadn't really thought the matter through. How many complaints about the exit exams did the school system process per year? The Prime Minister and his chairmen made deep obeisances on television monitors across Japan.
Kai found a small apartment in Bay City and moved in. The apartment was close to the center of the city, where rent was cheap; almost everyone wanted to live on the edges of the island, trusting the levees more than the planners' promise that this city would be safe. Kai lived alone, and though he had no faith that his apartment building would remain standing, he didn't care to wait months for his rent application to process.
He had a good job at a financial company, which, despite having been reduced to its component molecules a dozen times, had a strong enough infrastructure to survive. Kai was a hard worker, imaginative and driven, with no family to distract him from his duties. He was well-paid and lived simply, so he began to put some money away towards moving out of Japan altogether.
Kai had grown used to economy while raising his daughter, and now he did not wish to change. Plastic plates and sporks: his dinners were daily picnics, noodles puddled on flower-patterned dinette sets. He didn't bother decorating his new apartment, except for a portrait of his daughter, which he bolted to the wall between the two shatterproof windows.
Her name had been Hana, and Kai had been fond of tapping her on the nose whenever he called her to him. She hadn't liked that; liked it even less when he wrote the kanji for "nose" instead of "flower" on forms.
"It's because you're always getting into everything," he told her. "Roses and cherry blossoms don't rummage through my desk."
Hana had been a graceless, stumbling girl, the sort to whom stealth and secrecy would have come late in life, if at all. Her attempts to dig information out of Kai's desk, or wallet, or closet, all resulted in crashes and bangs as loud as Godzilla's footsteps.
Kai missed her, thought of her often as the anniversary of her death approached. He hoped her last moments had been peaceful, that her end had come quickly.
The new city featured state-of-the-art defenses and structural reinforcements which sounded good on paper, but resulted in difficulties. There were three checkpoints just to get on the subway, and the pushers whose job it was to cram passengers into the sleek silver trains carried automatic weapons and had braids of ammo across their chests. Ongoing construction slowed the daily commute to a crawl. Kai left his apartment before dawn to reach work on time.
The lightest breeze set the skyscrapers swaying. The workers moved like seamen, rolling with the tilt of the floor.
Haku, who liked to drink, started buying his liquor in stores rather than submit to the strip searches required to enter a bar. Kai, like everyone else, adjusted.
At the company's mandatory weekly safety meeting, Kai sipped thin, scalding coffee from a styrofoam cup and studied the mottoes painted on the walls. "Resilient People for a Resilient Future," one said. Another, in red, said, "Loyalty to Bay City is Loyalty to Us." He wondered who had been responsible for coming up with the mottoes and how well the job paid. They were the sort of cheery, nonsensical slogans he expected from a cynical clerk-typist.
The coffee was hot enough to strip his tongue and squeeze his throat, a feeling like suppressed tears. Kai watched Haku cool his with liquor from a flask.
"Preparation is the key," the speaker shouted. "Always consider the impossible."
The most thorough disaster had been when the satellite defense system set up to prevent World War III got hacked by rebels. Luckily, only one of the satellites actually worked. Still, the laser beam from that one functional satellite had been sufficient to vaporize most of Upper Tokyo and half of the residential district.
Hana had not even been a possibility then.
Kai—younger, agile, and in a fury of panic—managed to fight his way out of his apartment building before the blast hit. He lost everything that time except for the clothes on his back and his suitcase, safe in a subway lock box, which contained two paperback novels, a compact disc, his laptop, some papers from work, and his bank card. He had stopped carrying paper money when he first moved to Tokyo, out of a fear of being mugged, which was fortunate. Disaster insurance didn't cover cash because of the possibility of fraud.
He remembered running in the stampede of people, tripping over those who had stumbled, away from the hot blue light and the debris whipping in the gale. Others, more seasoned, moved at a steady trot; after he had put enough distance between himself and what had once been his apartment building to feel safe, he asked a woman how everyone could remain so calm.
She'd had gray cement dust crusted in the creases from the corners of her eyes to her temples. "You keep living here, you'll learn when it's time to panic," she'd said.
Kai's time came on his lunch break on the day of his fifth disaster, when the television suspended from the ceiling of the noodle restaurant reported the destruction of Hana's school.
Kai did not often speak with Hana's mother. Megumi had been a short-term girlfriend, a youthful error. The day she phoned with the news of her pregnancy, Kai had known what adjustments he would need to make to his life. The woman was incapable of looking after so much as a goldfish without something terrible happening to it; her history of caregiving attempts resembled Tokyo itself in its ceaseless, inevitable trail of destruction.
She spoke of terminating the pregnancy. Kai convinced her not to, with a gift of money and a promise never to bother her with the details of the child's upbringing. He had kept his word; as the third anniversary of Hana's death drew near, he wondered, as he did every year, whether it would be worth it to call Megumi with the news.
He held counsel with a fifth of Scotch and, with its input, decided it would not be. She had never concerned herself with Hana's life—why should she be disturbed with the knowledge of her daughter's death?
"Might do some good," Haku said the next day.
Kai sat over his untouched ramen, chewing aspirin. The bitter flavor flooded his mouth, the pills ground to powder between his molars. "How?" he asked.
"I dunno. Give you someone to bounce it off of. Someone to share it with. She has to care. Hormones and all that, right?"
"This pork has more hormones in it than Megumi," Kai said, lifting a hunk of dripping meat with his chopsticks.
Haku held his Sapporo in the light through the barred window, studying the way the amber fluid changed the color of the light.
"She doesn't deserve to know," Kai said, and borrowed Haku's beer to rinse the taste of aspirin from his mouth.
Kai and Haku were friends purely out of convenience. They worked at the same company, and Haku often needed someone to cover for him. He befriended Kai a few days after Kai started, sensing a go-to personality. Though Haku had been there through the loss of Kai's apartment, Megumi's pregnancy, Hana's early childhood and death, he always seemed able to top these dramas with some colorful, larger-than-life difficulty of his own.
Kai respected Haku's ability to mythologize his own life. No matter how he, Kai, phrased the things that happened to him, they always sounded flat. Haku, however, could turn a parking ticket into a four-act tragedy.
Haku, in his turn, seemed to appreciate Kai's talent for compression of emotion and incident, which gave Haku more time to speak about himself.
That day, Kai left work early, which he hardly ever did, and walked to the bay front, where small waves licked concrete shores. Minnows teemed in the thin line of shadow beneath the false island's lip, flashing silver and black.
Hana would have been fourteen. At the time of her death, she had been a skinny, gangling thing, all sharp elbows, frail ribcage, and pointy knees, the sort of joints that wore through jeans within a month. She hadn't resembled Kai, but then, she hadn't looked much like her mother, either. Megumi was soft and short-limbed with blue-black hair down to her hips. Hana's hair had been short all her life, and two months before her death, she had cut it almost to the scalp with a pair of blunt scissors, so it grew in crazy tufts and ruffles.
Because of that, her oversized eyes and tattered clothes, Hana was sometimes approached by strangers with offers of food and shelter. She used to love gravely turning these offers down, saying that though her life was hard, she had no complaints. The first time she told Kai this, giggling, he lost sleep for three nights in a row praying for her safety. He'd been so concerned about the possible that he had neglected the impossible. How could he have protected Hana any better than he had?
Kai watched the flickering fish with his hands in his pockets. He wished he could deceive himself into believing Hana had survived the robot attack, that she had simply been knocked amnesiac and now lived her life somewhere else with a different family, one that could teach her to walk slowly and not drop the things she carried. But he had traveled to the morgue and identified her body.
She had not been badly burned. Death had been caused by concussive shock, the doctor said. Kai wished he knew what that sort of death felt like.
Though the seventh destruction Kai saw, Tokyo's last, had not resulted in as much damage as the hijacked satellite disaster, the fact that the meteor fell directly on the financial district had been the last straw for the city planners. Fortunately, it happened on a weekend; the only casualties had been a handful of overzealous office workers.
Kai had been on his way to work when the meteor landed. He left his apartment as soon as the news announced the fragment's approach. But the subway had been clogged with evacuees, as it always was when devastation was imminent, and he missed the impact.
After that, he went to Haku's apartment and drank until he passed out on the futon. The next morning Haku taught him the aspirin trick: chewing the pills made them take effect faster.
When the wind blowing off the water raised goosebumps on his arms, Kai left the bay front and walked towards the center of the city, in the general direction of his apartment. It would be faster to take the metro, but he drifted with the wind breathing cold on the back of his neck.
No matter how many times he saw the city rise, the speed of its recovery amazed him. He walked by an arcade and pizza parlor filled with teenagers, their faces painted red and blue and pink by neon, bands of color reflected in their eyes. Their voices rose and fell, too loud, excited, sharp as acetone. Two old women in knit scarves passed him, gabbling in Cantonese, tourists, swinging bulging department store bags. It was too fast for Kai. Airports existed, and malls, and office buildings, and arcades, all within a year.
Children seemed to be everywhere: small ones, wrapped tight against the cold; older ones, smelling of sake and gin, out for the night, their return home a thousand years away. Kai thought of their parents, the people who trusted that the knock would come, the child would return.
Years passed between the fourth disaster and the fifth, long enough that some people said the curse was over. Godzilla had been poisoned, Mothra burned; the rebels were content with rallies and fliers. The national defense budget was increased to maintain the peace. Taxes were higher, and that was all.
If Kai had known that ten percent of his paycheck went towards the development of the robots which would eventually murder his daughter, he would have gone to prison, or perhaps killed himself, before paying them: but he had not known.
In the doldrums between one catastrophe and the next, Haku began to drag him out to the corner bar. In Haku's opinion, Kai led too quiet a life, one that would result in premature gray hairs, wrinkles, and impotence. Kai had no objection, but no real joy in it either.
Those nights, Haku would order three shots and take them one after another before settling down to a steady two Sapporos an hour. Kai limited himself to four an evening and, when Haku struck out with a woman, often wound up fireman-carrying him to the subway.
After several nights of this, Kai noticed an attractive woman staring at him. She usually left the bar as an early drunk, but she always made eye contact with him first. Kai grew to like watching her out of the corner of his eye as she flirted drinks out of men. He found her artifice amusing and somehow intriguing. In retrospect, he realized he liked her for the same reason he liked Haku: she had a way of imposing her will that Kai himself lacked, and therefore envied.
One night she leaned over him until he could see down the top of her shirt, and smiled. That was how Kai met Megumi.
It took Kai a long time to love Hana, to get used to her addition to his life. Many nights he stood over her cradle, watching her sleep, marveling at her extravagant ugliness. Her face was red and chapped with eczema, a spit bubble curdled at the corner of her mouth; her fists, also red, gripped the blanket. When her eyes were closed, they looked swollen because of the pale, lashless lids; when they were open, all he could see were flat, black irises, like oil puddles.
Those nights he watched his daughter sleep, he often thought of gently turning her onto her stomach and pressing her face into the pillow, leaving her that way and stepping back. Some nights he thought he'd watch her try to turn herself over, like a turtle on its back; others, he imagined how she'd struggle alone as he slept, unable to cry without breath, and how it would be to wake the next day with the knowledge of what he'd done.
She had been a good baby: she slept well, rarely spit up, and was quiet about her illnesses. But Kai had nightmares about her dying, and the nightmares kept him awake. He wished her over and done with; he thought then the nightmares would stop. He'd been wrong.
Kai was nearly home when a group of girls in short kilts and leather coats engulfed him like a strong wind, none of them older than fourteen. For a moment his world was all expensive haircuts and high-heeled boots, the smell of vinyl and perfume, high-pitched voices speaking Japanese as though it were a learned tongue, loud and staccato. One of the girls bumped him with her shoulder; he neither moved aside nor looked back.
Every one of them was someone's daughter, Kai thought. His throat ached, too tight for breath, and because he missed Hana so much, he thought he was hallucinating when he heard her rapid voice, when her hand closed around his arm.
"Dad? Dad? Where have you been? Do you have any idea how big this city is when you don't know where you're going?"
He turned and saw her. The girls continued down the sidewalk, not noticing that one of their number had fallen behind. Kai forgot them. They were only a backdrop to Hana, the fact of Hana.
She had aged. She had grown. Her hair was still short, but layered and spiked and streaked with brassy blonde. She wore a hip-length red vinyl coat whose sharp creases reflected neon like chrome, slices of green and blue and violet and white. Kai was so dazzled by the colors, he didn't notice at first that his daughter's hand on his arm was ice-cold, that it glowed like the autumn moon.
Back in his apartment, Kai strained lemongrass tea leaves. "Do you still take it plain?" he asked her.
"Nothing's changed, Dad," she said.
"You're taller," he said. "Your hair's different. You talk different."
"Yup," she said.
The silence between them was not as uncomfortable as it could have been. When he handed her the cup of tea, the pale shimmer from her hand gilded the plain white plastic. She placed the palm of her hand on the bottom and guided the cup to her mouth, but tea leaked from the sides and streamed down her chin.
"Ouch! Hot! Hot!" she cried, and set the cup down so sharply that the rest of the tea jumped out and puddled on the table.
Kai smiled. "You still haven't learned the proper way to do that."
Hana laughed and Kai held his breath until she stopped. He had forgotten her laugh in three years, a high-pitched rattle, like a wail. "Like I said, nothing's changed. Except, oh, that's warm. It's been so long since anything's been warm."
"It's cold where you are?" Kai sat down at the little card table with his own tea cradled in the palm of his hand. He sipped from it and then set it aside.
"Not really," Hana said. "I mean, it's not bad. The last thing I felt was that heat, you know. Hot, so everything that isn't like that, isn't like anything."
"Was it bad when you . . . ?" He reached out and slowly wiped the tea from Hana's face with a napkin, half-expecting his hand to go through her skin. But she was solid, and the glow made her flesh seem warm. "I've always worried."
"No. It was just really—surprising. I thought I was gasping with surprise the whole time."
"Hana. Are you here?" Kai asked. "Have I gone crazy?"
Hana stared at the spilled tea, her lambent face reflected in the puddle. "I think I'm here, but, you know? That doesn't prove anything." She fiddled with the cup, turning it between her fingertips. Her fingers slipped and the cup fell to the floor. "Damn! Well, you always said you bought plastic so I wouldn't cut myself to death on a broken plate."
"I have to call in to work," Kai said, rising from the chair. "I can be sick. I might be sick. I have sick leave."
"Don't bother," Hana said. "I have to go back soon."
Kai sat back down. "What does that mean?"
Hana shrugged, just one shoulder rising and falling in the red vinyl coat. She kept her eyes on the spilled tea, even when he tilted his head, trying to make eye contact with her. "There are. You know. Rules. I have to go back. It took me a long time just to get here for one night, and then I couldn't find you."
"I'm sorry. I went to the water," Kai said.
"Yeah, I did that once, you know, in Tokyo, before. I caught minnows with a net," Hana said. "I only caught ten, but some died before I could put them back." She trailed her fingers in the puddle of tea. "That's what this is like. I can't be here too long."
"But you can come back again," Kai said.
"I don't know if I'll be able to," she said.
Kai took a sip of tea. "I don't accept that," he said.
She frowned. "Well, there's a—but wait, there's something I want to ask. Do you ever talk to Mother?"
"Sorry, Hana. Not for a long time."
"She doesn't know?" Hana looked out the window. Kai had not turned on a light; it was easy to see the brightening of the eastern horizon. Hana seemed to watch the sun climb from the other side of the world.
After a long time, she said, "That figures." She looked away from the dawn, back to the puddle of tea. "We know when the people we left are thinking of us. We don't know what they're thinking, we just know when they are. You think about me a lot sometimes. Mother doesn't, though. Every once in awhile, and kind of vaguely, like you'd think about a shopping list."
"I'm sorry," Kai said. "I'll tell her if you want."
Hana shook her head hard. "No. I guess it doesn't matter. If she wanted to know how I was doing, she'd ask." She ran the back of her hand across her eyes and under her nose. "I've been missing you, Dad."
"I've missed you, too. I guess you know that," Kai said.
"So, anything new?" She looked around the small, plain apartment, her eyes lingering on the photograph bolted to the wall. "No. I guess not. Sorry. Dumb question." She put her elbows on the table and leaned in. "Listen. I didn't just come back to see how you were doing and ask about Mom and trade apologies about all the dumb ways we both messed up when I was alive. There's a thing I want."
"What?" Kai asked. "Anything."
She glanced out at the dawn. The sky had turned teal, heading towards daybreak. She spoke quickly, her words blurring together. "I want more time. I'm not like a lot of the people where I'm at. They've done things, they have things to talk about, they have a lot of people remembering them, and that keeps them going. I did at first, but now I don't. I don't, and that's why I want this. I need you to say yes."
Kai leaned towards her and grabbed one of her hands. They glimmered like pale fish in dark water. "What?"
"Time. Time, like I said. I can be back, just like you want, no stupid aura, no cold skin, just me, Hana and a heartbeat, but the problem is, it's got a price. And the price is pretty high."
"So? What is it?"
She told him.
The city planners stood on the mainland shore and stared at the whirlpool through binoculars. The beach was crowded with Bay City refugees clambering from every kind of boat—dinghies, canoes, kayaks, barrels, and rafts. Their voices almost drowned out the sound of rushing water.
The first whistled. "The city's gone down the drain."
"This is ridiculous," another said. "How could they expect us to know the bay was over a fault line?"
"What was that earthquake again?"
"Something obscene," the first said. "We'll have to redraw the map."
"Well, gentlemen, where will we rebuild now?"
"Back on Old Tokyo, I suppose. There's not much point in moving the whole operation again."
Two figures walked away from the crowded shore. One carried a suitcase. The other wore a red vinyl coat.