Consent Preferences
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Chapter 1: Waiki Mart

Kei found a spot beneath the line of wilting trees on the side of the road. He studied the dry branches, the thinning wood cracked in some places and nearly black under the glaring sun. Not three feet away from them stood healthy trees with an abundance of leaves, all of them still green and dewy from the mid-afternoon rain.

He dug the sole of his shoe into the ground, the dry grass crunching under the pressure, and noted where brown faded into green.

Life and death.

It was already starting.

From where he stood, he saw two old men ambling out of the convenience store across the road. He had to squint, as the sun was shining so brightly that the wide expanse of asphalt between them seemed to shimmer. The mirage intensified to the point that he had to look away completely.

He heard a car approaching while his eyes adjusted. By the time his vision cleared, it was already gone. He could only assume the car had turned to the road behind the store.

Could it be the professor’s wife returning from town? He doubted the couple would have guests now of all times. Surveillance reports showed the professor had not set foot out of that place in the past month, and neither had accepted visitors in nearly a year.

Kei had circled the hiking trails around the store that morning and observed the professor’s house from afar. At quarter to noon, he saw the wife driving their rickety green sedan to town by herself. It was about time she came home.

He could imagine that poor car coughing black clouds as she parked it in the clearing, as far as it would go on the uneven terrain before their house. He would feel pity, but the company had no hand in the couple’s living arrangements. Their only concern was the professor’s health and the franchise he owned.

Chapter One Waiki Mart Kanagawa

The convenience store’s signage winked, the W of the glistening red Waiki looking like it might jump out at him.

No more signs of the car, only rising smoke from the distance.

A chimney. Were they cooking, or were they using the fireplace in this weather because the professor was already deteriorating?

He pulled up his collar to dab at his neck. Shit. Who could he disturb in the office on a Sunday afternoon? Even Hanzo would ignore him unless he sent a selfie of him bleeding out on the road.

Beside him, Anzu plopped down on the grass with a small whine.

Kei clicked his tongue, and Anzu sprung up again, panting, saliva dripping from her purple tongue. Once the road cleared, he jogged to the convenience store with Anzu trailing at his heel.

SC Chapter One Kei Hiking With Anzu

He stepped on the curb and slowed to a saunter. Glancing inside, he saw the same middle-aged woman working the till—a cousin of the professor’s, unmarried and likely forced to help out on the promise of good pay and a couple of freebies.

Anzu sniffed the glass. She let out a low growl.

Kei petted her head to soothe her. He felt it, too. The professor had not been coming to the store, but the presence was still strong here.

Dropping to one of the benches under the store’s awning, he texted his location and status to his superior. He hesitated, but in the end, he added a request:

Permission to check the client’s home.

He flipped the phone in his hands. A minute later, it dinged. The new message read:

Denied unless u send proof of risk.

The professor hasn’t left his house in weeks.

Too much paperwork if dealt with in private property. Is prof danger to others?

Kei frowned at the text. With all the time his superior spent lounging in his expensive swivel chair in their air-conditioned office, one would think he would have the decency to reply like a professional. The least he could do was stop dropping the articles and substituting ‘u’ for ‘you’.

Kei replied:

I can’t tell. Let me visit his house.

If no danger, return to office and file report. Schedule official visit with Kazuki on Tues. Then I decide.

Kei slipped his phone in his pocket. He grazed his fingers across the push daggers sheathed on his belt.

Something felt wrong about this, but he hoped it was just paranoia.

White Divider Line
Chapter One Suzu Train Station Official

The car rattled for several seconds before the engine cut away completely. Its final groan sounded like a dying breath, followed by a silence rich with relief.

On the driver’s seat, Mrs Kaede clutched the steering wheel as though expecting the car to come alive again and whisk her away. The paleness of her complexion and the horror in her widened eyes did not help Suzu recover from this trip.

Mrs Kaede had always been a bad driver, but their years apart had led Suzu to underestimate her lethality on the road. From the moment they exited the train station, the old woman had steered her faded green sedan like a getaway car.

Suzu had to cushion the side of her head with her arm to avoid hitting the window at every hairpin curve. Even the seatbelt was questionable. At one point, she had lurched towards the dashboard, only to be spared from the impact by the tote bag on her lap.

Now that they had stopped and her brain was no longer careening in her skull, nausea hit her with full force. She rolled down the window and threw up.

Mrs Kaede slapped her back. “Don’t be such a wuss.”

Suzu darted her a look and threw up some more. As she rinsed her mouth with water and stretched her legs out of the car, Mrs Kaede busied herself with lugging her bag out of the trunk. Suzu could hardly keep up with the old woman as she zigzagged to the two-story house ahead.

She thought getting indoors would make her feel better, but no. At the first inhale of that musky, cedar scent with hints of mildew and aging paper, she knew she would be sick again. She stumbled out, vomited the remains of her lunch, and went back in.

Mrs Kaede, eyes squinted and nose wrinkled, handed her a pair of furry indoor slippers. “You’re being a drama queen as usual. It wasn’t that bad.”

“Oh, it was horrible,” she scoffed. “I feel complicit to a bank robbery or a museum heist. Are you wanted in this place?”

“Leave your bags down here for the meantime,” she said, ignoring the jibe. “I haven’t sorted out which room you should use, and your father told me to clean extra well since your allergies might kill you. What kind of person can’t breathe because of dust? It’s literally everywhere!”

Suzu parked her luggage against the wall and secured her tote bag on top. Her stomach had settled, but her nose was starting to act up. “In this house, it is. At this rate, what you need is professional cleaning services that offer exorcisms as an add-on.”

“Nonsense!” She swept her arm towards the living room as they walked past it. “It’s neat and orderly. You’re just overly sensitive like your father.”

“When they exorcise this place, I hope they get rid of whatever spirit possessed you to buy cowhide rugs,” she said.

“They’re not bad. You used to like cow patterns when you were young.”

“I liked zebras, not cows. And I’m lactose intolerant.”

“That’s what happens when you’re raised by a man like your father,” she said.

“I would love to see you bend over backwards to write a paper on that.”

Mrs Kaede swiped her hand in the air with a flourish. “The Impact of Single Fatherhood on Milk Sugar Intolerance.”

Suzu laughed through her nose. The sound was uncouth and unlike her, but she couldn’t help herself. The idea would turn her father red with embarrassment. She could already imagine him ringing up Mrs Kaede to debate the matter.

“Careful with these things.” Mrs Kaede gestured to the photo frames that lined the wall of the staircase. “They tend to fall without prompting. Don’t breathe in their direction.”

Suzu slowed down to study the photos, careful to maintain her distance, as they did look susceptible to accidents. Sepia images of the professor abroad filled the small gaps between colored snapshots of his recent life. Most of them were of him and his friends, with only a few containing Mrs Kaede’s likeness.

She spotted her father in many of them. Him in his oversized jackets and dress pants, cinched around the waist by thick leather belts that accentuated the lankiness of his youth. None of these photos were new to her, though. They had plenty of these at home, compiled in neatly labelled albums.

The newer ones included her in their group photos. Eight middle-aged men in varying levels of health stooped low with goofy grins so five-year-old her would smile at the camera, too.

Mrs Kaede rapped on the door at the end of the corridor. When no one responded, she pressed her face close to the wood to announce that Suzu had arrived. “Can we enter?” she asked.

The professor’s voice echoed faintly from inside, hoarse and cracking at the end of each word. “Of course, you can. Come in, come in!”

Suzu stepped in after Mrs Kaede. When she laid eyes on the professor, everything made sense.

The man in the photographs she had passed—burly with thick, black hair even as he reached his senior years—was a far cry from the frail body hunched over his desk, barely able to hold up a pen. Welts tainted his skin, and his hair looked like they had fallen off in clumps. She could make out the white strands on the dark mahogany floor, forming loops and crescents like ancient symbols.

Her father sent her here because he was too busy to travel to this town in Kanagawa. This wasn’t her idea of a vacation, but she understood that her short break between jobs meant she could not say no to these errands. The second he mentioned Mrs Kaede’s phone call requesting assistance, she knew right away that he’d volunteer her.

This was some sort of punishment, a passive-aggressive means of penalizing her for quitting her job at the newspaper to be a government office clerk. He went on a litany about kids her age making poor career decisions and not caring for tenure, all the while running a lint roller on his plaid blazer jacket like a madman.

Even before she left for Kanagawa, he had burnt her toast on purpose to protest her decision. She, in turn, made a show of enjoying each bite to prove her resolve.

He sent her here not only to help out, but also to let the countryside clear her mind. Cure her, would’ve been his choice of words had he had the guts to say them.

If only he knew how poorly Professor Kaede had become, he would’ve come here himself.

Mrs Kaede picked up the empty water bottles on the table and stuffed them in a large trash bag. Suzu set aside her handbag to help out. The water bottles had crowded the small room like little soldiers keeping guard of him, all of them the same brand.

“You told us it’s not that bad,” she scolded, disguising her hurt with anger. “I’m going to have to call Dad and tell him it’s so much worse. Have you even been to the doctor? What did they say?”

The professor cackled. His mouth had caved in, and he only had a few teeth left. “It’s fine! This is just aging, Suzu. I’ll go to the doctor again next week. There’s no need to worry your father. Look at you! All grown up and fancy as ever. You shouldn’t be wearing such expensive clothes in the countryside.”

“They’re not expensive.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Mrs Kaede plucked at her skirt. “You can’t dress like you’re about to buy all the land here. Put on a comfortable shirt and a pair of shorts. My goodness, your mother was exactly the same. She was so beautiful and elegant that all the professors’ wives hated her, me included.”

Professor Kaede tossed a ball of crumpled paper at her. “Oh, shut up about that!”

“Stop creating more mess for me to pick up!”

Suzu found another trash bag. The water bottles did not seem to end. “We should hire more help, at least for the convenience store. I can look after this house, and someone else can work there.”

Mrs Kaede shook her head. “You’re taking over the convenience store’s night shift, and I’ll take care of this house. We have a good part-timer from seven in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s just working overtime today. You can work the rest of the hours.”

Suzu stood beside the professor to clear out his desk.  He had peeled the labels from some of the bottles and used them to make origami. She had no idea how he managed it with the flimsy plastic. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be in a hospital? I can drive you there.”

He shooed her hand from the origami that lined his desk. “Only the bottles! I worked too hard on these.”

Suzu took a deep breath to calm herself. The view outside the window showed the back of the convenience store. A couple of trees obstructed some of the glass, but she could still make out the silhouette of the part-time worker moving inside.

“Look, Suzu!” The professor held up an origami of a tiny sailboat. He puffed his chest out and beamed at her.

As soon as she reached the convenience store, she called her father and cried. She was taking the second shift with so minimal endorsement and training that it made her nervous, but it wasn’t only that. The shock of seeing Professor Kaede had abated, and now she could feel the full impact of his impending death. Maybe she was too pessimistic, and he could recover, but it was hard to imagine.

Suzu’s father excused himself from his lecture to comfort her. She apologized for quitting her job and reminded him to stop eating takeout. Those industrial cleaning agents he loved so much would poison him—stop using them. She read an article about processed food, too, and how they were all engineered to give them cancer. It took rambling in barely comprehensible sentences for ten minutes for her to arrive at her point: he better not turn out like Professor Kaede when he retired.

Her father knew why she wanted to work for the government. If he fell sick and died before she could move them abroad, then it would all be for nothing.

The store chimes sounded, and Suzu wiped her face and popped up from behind the counter to shout: “Welcome to Waiki Mart!”

She had worked part-time at a convenience store in university, less out of need and more out of curiosity. Everybody she knew was taking part-time jobs, and of all the options she considered, the convenience store seemed to be the least demanding.  The job came with a handbook that taught her exactly how the franchise expected her to uphold their brand. Each item had a place to go, each pastry a certain number of minutes for reheating, and each employee assigned a specific task at a specific time.

Most of her friends thought it was demanding; she thought it was ideal. The level of organization required to run these stores comforted her.  She wished she could apply such a formula in her life to guarantee returns on her investment.  After all, hadn’t she devoted so much to her education and career? Yet there were still no guarantees, no promise of anything that might bring her happiness. Nothing to show that she was any closer to her goal.

Suzu finished stacking the third display fridge and carried the cart back to the storeroom.

The chimes sounded. Suzu hurried back to the counter while shouting the greeting, the words and cadence leaving her mouth on reflex after just a few hours on the job. The store had high foot traffic,  but not all at once. The hikers usually came in pairs or small groups, with a new one arriving just as the customers at the counter grabbed their purchase to leave.

A man in black hiking gear went straight to the back of the store with a massive dog in tow. Suzu hesitated, unsure whether the store accepted pets, and had to squint at the signages plastered at the automatic doors to look for anything confirming the place’s pet-friendliness.

The man peered at her above one of the shelves. His cap was pulled low over his head, but that did not dampen the weight of his scrutiny. As quietly as she could, she opened the handbook and skimmed the pages in search of answers.

“She’s a service dog.”

Suzu’s head shot up. The man was now standing on the other side of the counter, dropping two buns, six granola bars, and a small can of wet dog food. She tucked the handbook away and started ringing his goods.

“Sorry, I’m new here, and the owner was not clear on that,” she said.

The man brought out his wallet and showed her a yellow card. “Five.”

Suzu bagged the goods and sorted the keys attached to her belt. She crouched behind the counter and unlocked a safe. Inside was a glass container stuffed with bottles of premium Waiki water.

She studied the label as she stood. It was the same one the professor had been drinking.

Mrs. Kaede gave her few instructions before she started, most of which were about this particular task. Apparently, Waiki Mart offered premium goods to certain members, and this water was one of them. She was only supposed to offer this to yellow card holders.

After locking the two shelves per Mrs. Kaede’s strict instruction, she bagged the five bottles for him. The man paid in cash.

As she was working the till, he uncapped one bottle and took a generous drink. “You’re not from here,”  he said. The dog beside him whimpered and pawed his leg. With a sigh, he uncapped the bottle again and finished it in one go.

Suzu watched in mild astonishment. She figured this was the purpose of this out-of-the-way convenience store. It must be the only one within miles of the hiking trail, and he looked like he’d been hiking for hours. He reeked too, although not of sweat. A strong medicinal smell emanated from him.  It reminded her of cough syrup and chewable vitamins for kids.

“I’m actually just helping out,” she said.

“Why? Is the professor sick?” He shoved his hand on his dog’s nose, which sniffed his skin until it was satisfied.

Suzu handed him his change and receipt. Another one of Mrs. Kaede’s instructions concerned talks about the professor. She claimed he had many friends who wanted to know how he was doing, so if anybody asked, she was to say he was fine.

“No.” She added tissue paper to his plastic bag to avoid eye contact. “He’s fine. He’s just busy.”

“Lots of coughing? Dehydrated? Welts?”

“I’m sorry. Who are you? How do you know the professor?”

“I’m a regular here.” He uncapped a third bottle.

“Last I heard, he’s doing fine. He might be working on a new book.”

“Just him and his wife in the house, I’m guessing.”

Suzu reached for her phone. “I’m calling the cops.”

The man shrugged and gathered his purchase. “Anzu and I will be eating outside. I mean, if you do decide to call the cops. Send my regards to the cheery old couple.”

He made a clicking noise as he walked out, and the black dog trailed at his heels.

Chapter One Suspicious Suzu

Suzu stared at them, her thumbs hovering over her phone screen as she replayed the interaction in her mind. The alarm bells in her head were dwindling, but she couldn’t shake off the strange feeling in her gut. She might call the cops, but it could all be nothing. What if they thought she was overreacting, and the stress worsened the professor’s condition?

Suzu set a timer on her phone for ten minutes. Once it was up, she gathered the trash and went around the store to dump it in the skip. She used it as an excuse to peer around the corner, where she found the man still drinking water while the dog stared up at him, tongue out and tail wagging.

An elderly couple in matching hiking gear approached him to ask for directions. He pointed around the area as they discussed trails. Suzu returned to the store just as the couple entered.

For safe measure, she called Mrs Kaede to ask if they knew a man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, who went around with a black service dog. Getting no response, she detailed her concern in a text message. It would be two hours before Mrs. Kaede responded to her in person, sweating from her trek to the store.

“I’ve been cooking.” She scanned the store and seemed satisfied with what she saw. “How is everything? The weekends are the worst. The man you mentioned—didn’t say he was from the franchise, right? Not the big guy with the beard and the fedora hat?”

“No, no,” she said. “Didn’t look corporate at all. Just your average hiker.”

“Good, good. Those franchise guys are very strict. They visit often and nitpick how the store is run. If one of them does drop by on your shift, don’t tell them we’ve only got two employees right now. I’m helping out anyway, so officially, there are three, but they’ll throw a fuss about it. Inefficiency and overworking and all that. You get it, right?”

“Right.”

“And your—” Mrs. Kaede motioned for her to roll down her sleeves. “Just don’t let the customers see. I swear, you should’ve gotten those removed a long time ago.”

Suzu buttoned her sleeves’ cuffs and hurried to reapply makeup on her hands. The strip of blank ink with tiny characters disappeared again beneath the layers of concealer and foundation.

Mrs Kaede rummaged through the drawers and fished out a pair of nitrile gloves. “In case you can’t fix the makeup.”

“Thanks.” Suzu shrugged on her oversized jacket for good measure.

Customers came and went. Sweaty, sun-kissed faces and muted discussions flitted past her. Candy bars, rice bowls, the sound of the microwave oven and the heat of the Styrofoam coffee cups in her hands. The store’s chimes, the sigh of the display fridge door, and the abrasive sound of velcro on bags and shoes.

Is this discounted? Do you have the other flavor?

The high-pitched noises of the till.  Cash and cards being exchanged.

Welcome to Waiki Mart!

The next time she glanced up, the sky outside was black, the trees across the road mere outlines. It was now two in the morning. She didn’t see why this store had to be open twenty-four hours given its location. It was unlikely that hikers were still making their way down the trails, right? Mrs Kaede had dismissed this concern earlier as another one of the franchise’s policies.

Each store had to be open at all times, ready to serve its customers.

The steady humming of the electricity grew louder in the silence. The display fridges groaned occasionally, and she could almost feel the gust of cold air inside. The AC at the far end of the store competed with it, crackling every few minutes like it was having trouble with its engine.

Suzu sat on an upturned stack of crates behind the counter and scrolled on her phone. It was aimless, and she hated that had nothing better to do, but at least she was entertained. The clever tabbies always made her smile.

A thud from the storage room made her jump to her feet. Already, her mind was racing to rationalize the sound. Could there have been a rat? Did the rat knock a product off a shelf?

Suzu perked her ears, but nothing followed. She was lowering herself back on the stacked crates when the professor emerged from the backroom, upright and covered in red.

He strolled in, his shoes squelching and leaving bloody imprints on the tiles.

Suzu pressed herself against the coffee machine as he walked past her. She hardly registered the machine’s heat through her jacket.

The professor crouched in front of the safe and held out his hand. Suzu scrambled for the keys in her belt loop. Her fingers trembled so badly that the entire set fell, and she nearly toppled over as she scooped it from the ground.

The professor’s bony hand grazed hers in the exchange. As he fumbled with the lock, Suzu studied the sticky red liquid on her skin. A sharp metallic odor wafted to her nose, and she gagged. The realization crashed on her all at once, so sudden and overwhelming that she froze, hunched forward with her mouth wide open.

Quick, shallow breaths kept her conscious but hazed. She did not notice anyone enter the convenience store until there was another pair of eyes on her, taking in her bloodied hand.

The hiker with the dog had returned, his pupils darting from one thing to another as he took stock of the situation.

“D-do you need an ambulance?” Suzu offered meekly. The mental calculations beneath her conscious mind screamed no, but she had to ask.

The professor dropped the keys, cussed under his breath, and began elbowing the glass. She felt the dull thud of the impact in her skull, the vibrations coursing down her body and making her weak.

The man motioned for her to cross over to his side.

“I just need more water!” The professor grabbed the nearby bread knife and stabbed the glass.

Suzu threw herself over the counter. The man dragged her across by the back of her jacket. She fell to the floor, her impact softened only by the man’s grip on her. Raising her head, she saw the black dog snarling at the counter.

“Professor,” the man said.

On cue, the professor shot up from behind the counter. Under the glare of the fluorescent light, the purples under his eyes and the blood drying on his face looked unnaturally bright. His eyes had turned pink, and his posture contorted like he had broken a few bones.

“Everything’s fine,” he croaked. He turned to Suzu. “What are you doing there? Come back here and help me. I just need more water.”

The man dragged her up to her feet. He pulled her behind him without taking his gaze off the professor.  “The water won’t help anymore. We’ll have to settle this tonight. But first, the young lady needs to step out of the store.”

“I should call the ambulance or the cops,” Suzu said. Her fingers and toes were tingling and numb. She clung to him, trying to be persuasive, but she couldn’t feel the ground anymore. “I should—he’s not okay. I dropped my phone but—professor, you have to go to the hospital. Where’s Mrs Kaede?”

The professor shrugged.

Suzu stared at his drenched shirt and pyjama bottoms. The fabric clung to his body like a second skin, drenched to the point of hugging even the outline of his rib bones.

That could not be his.

The man inched his feet sideways, dragging her along as he angled their bodies towards the door. “Ma’am, kindly step out.”

The lights flickered.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

The AC whined to a halt and roared back to life.

“He’s not himself, and he has a knife,” he hissed. “Step out now.”

Suzu took cautious steps back. Her sneakers squeaked against the tiles, the sound so sharp it made her hair rise.

The professor flinched so hard that his neck popped. Blood sputtered from his mouth as his head snapped right and left. His crooked fingers held the bread knife by the blade. Tighter. Tighter.

Halfway to the door, she paused. She inhaled through her mouth, held it for two seconds, and bolted out.

She staggered to a halt on the curb, and she looked back in time to see the professor leaping from the counter towards the man. The fluorescent lights flashed to full brightness before the entire store descended into darkness.

Suzu held her breath, her hands in midair, grasping at nothing. Although trembling, she forced herself to her feet and began to back away from the store.

Crashing noises reverberated from inside, punctuated by the dog barking and the clangor of items tumbling to the floor.

Suzu had just reached the edge of the store when the automatic doors burst, giving way to the body that shot across the road. A scream escaped her, long and feral, all the fear she had been bottling up leaving her in one long sound that meant nothing in this deserted place.

The crumpled silhouette on the ground reached for her. “Suzu!”

A gunshot threw her to the ground. She wrapped her arms around her head. A second gunshot. Then a third. Suzu fell sideways. Her body refused to move, but her mind would not back down. She had to run. She had to get away.

Putting her palm on the rough asphalt, she pushed herself up, but her elbows gave in. Her ankles had turned gelatinous, and she could feel the blood receding from her face. No, no, no. This was not the time to faint. What happened to adrenaline? In her mind, she was sprinting up the road, arms pumping and legs pounding on the ground. Not this. Her forehead landed on the back of her hand. She was going to die. This was not the way she was supposed to die.

A pair of shoes appeared in front of her. Hands gripped her shoulders and rolled her on her back. The world spun and refocused. He uncapped a bottle of water and finished it with a relish as he studied her prone figure. The dog panted somewhere above her.

He brought out something from his pack and returned to her field of vision carrying a cloth. She tried to block his hands. He pressed the cloth over her nose and mouth. One sniff was all it took, and the world slipped away.

Or she did.

Suzu was slipping. She was spiralling in a fog that undid her will and diminished her senses like silk bows coming loose. In her final moments of consciousness, she fixed her eyes on him to remember his face. She would not go under before witnessing three silhouettes emerge behind him, all of them childlike figures gazing down at her with hollow eyes.

Chapter One Simple Ghosts

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Emmyy
Emmyy
7 days ago

omg did he shoot her??? what the hell did the professor turn into :((((( more importantly is the dog okay

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