Keystone Trigger

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Chapter 26

On September 18, a region of low pressure coalesced two-hundred nautical miles south of Taiwan and began crawling northeast at 11 mph, intensifying rapidly enough that all experts fully anticipated a tropical storm to emerge. This occurred just before 6 am, Okinawa time, and all bases moved to TCCOR3 to prepare for the new Typhoon Araya. Destructive winds of 50 knots or greater possible within 48 hours, yet conditions outside appeared fair, cloudless.

Twelve hours later the wind increased, thin cirrus clouds wormed their way into the sky, and the sea swell jumped by ten feet. Twelve hours after that, the sky flattened to a gunmetal gray, and the wind slapped the sides of buildings at forty-five mph. The sea chopped and sprayed foam across itself. Over the next half a day, the clouds hunkered down over Okinawa City and loosed terrible squalls of rain coupled with gale-force winds. Loose bottles and cans flew in front of windows, and random spars of wood, trashcans, folding chairs, umbrellas, and pink toy jeeps ripped along through the streets like drunken celebrants at a parade, denting cars and clanging off the concrete sides of apartments. Six hours later the tide swallowed the docks and rain came horizontally, like buckshot. Unchained bicycles and motor scooters went airborne. Men standing outside had to clutch a pillar to stand on two feet, or risk being swept along by the high, grinding, solid wind.

Around 8 pm, Reid Hollister, applying a squeeze to his wife’s finely muscled shoulder, proposed, “Why not Lord of the Rings, then?” Through the window of his off-base apartment he spied clouds piling up like great blocks of cement and pummeling the asphalt with rain.

“Maybe we should start with The Hobbit. I haven’t read that fable in forever.” Rebecca dug around their bookshelf for the color-illustrated copy. As she bent over, her shirt pulled up to expose the line of freckles along her lower back that Reid had dubbed Orion’s Belt.

“I’ve already got the ice in the cooler. Coleman lamps, all that. I even snared some new batteries.” Reid held up the plastic pack and jiggled the contents like a tambourine.

Rebecca turned to him, laughing for a beat or two, but fatigued behind her turquoise eyes. “How many more months again?”

The two of them loved Okinawa and its teal seas, the droopy ferns and markets and piquant food. But they’d only seen America for a week or so per year for three years. And there were few hurricanes in Colorado Springs.

“A million? Hey, at least we don’t have kids screaming and crying. Remember the Calderons? Five? They brought five kids into the world?”

“Your mom brought in six.”

“And she’s a saint. Well, I guess saints don’t usually give birth.” He looped her hair around her ear to give the pale lobe some light. Gripping one another, they stood with the walls and bookshelves and floor turning eerily gold in the storm's twilight. Outside rain gushed from the restless sky and drowned out all other sound outside except for the occasional shrieking wind, which struck so hard it shocked the eardrums and forced you to blink.“Look at that typhoon.”

“You mean listen, Reid—I don’t mind, as long as no pigeons blow into the window.”

“Think of the dove.”

“Why? He’s got it nice. Up in afterworld, heaven, Undying Lands.”

“Mortals still die in the Undying Lands,” said Reid.

Rebecca mimicked his voice with nonsense sounds and then said, “Heck, I'm an elf.”

They both laughed until the heat made them sleepy. Outside the breeze picked up and a low, two-toned voice tunneled between the houses and shops of the city. Landfall for Araya: five hours.

Yoshio in the suicide forest, Aokigahara. Old growth trees and interlacing branches that crowded out the sun, isolating you beneath an umbrella of solace. He came out here not to contemplate suicide, but to muse on life. The only place he forgot the whir and clack of Tokyo’s downtown, a place that his roommate had suggested as unexpectedly peaceful. It was so. Even when placards advocating mental health over suicide faced you at random turns, the atmosphere covered your worries, tamped them into the rich earth. Here anxiety was a wellspring for flowers. No birds, though. That was what travelers found disturbing. But the lack of the bush warbler’s mating cry did not depress Yoshio; rather, it assured him of a place as protected as his own interior. He made communion with the forest and accepted it as a welcome relative, of which he had none living.

Here he came to think of the Machimotos. They had led him to believe he could be free, could have people and things he wanted, and then they had left.

Mom: Coke-bottle glasses, dark hair in curls, a fine intaglio of wrinkles. Penchant for flower-patterned skirts.

Pop: trim suit and tie, but a forward demeanor; quick to laugh, and quick to treat him for studying well. Missing a tooth from a football match in his youth, which little Yoshio had probed with a vacant interest in missing parts.

“Why do they call me Yoshio?”

“Because you are good, my son. You are a good boy, and you will be a good man. I love you.” His mother would kiss the top of his head.

“I love you,” his pop would say. “No matter what happens. You don’t need to enter a university to earn my affection. You don’t need a top-notch job. That’s not what makes a happy individual.”

“Other people say it is.”

“Other people say many things. They may not love you like we do, but that is all right. We will take care of you, and then you will grow up, and then one day, you will take care of us.”

“Why did I not live here before?”

“Because we had to find you, my son. We were worried we would not find you. But your father and I knew we would. Because we would do anything to keep you safe.”

Yoshio lets fall a handful of dark soil; a mulch no human has touched. He picks off the flecks from his hand. Smells a clod, tastes it. Here is where things grow. Even out of ashes and corpses, things grow.

He remembers the gray slush on the ruined floorboards of his house, the scalded fireplace, which looked somewhat guilty—as though feeling it should have contained the blaze. Men in white, men in blue, an ambulance with looping siren. Where had he been before? Go to the zoo, they had said, with your friend and his parents. Enjoy the summer, you have earned it. Doing decently in school now, showing all signs of an improving, growing son. He had always liked animals. In the dark days, they had comforted him: a cat, a pigeon, a mealy rat. Even spiders were kind, in their scurrying, prickly way.

And at the end of the day, the knowledge that he was meant for human remains. This has not escaped him.

It would have been better for them not to have adopted him, he thinks.

The wind screamed in its effort to tear the tiles from Tsugunai roofs.

Along the streets, bougainvillea and plumeria and scarlet hibiscus. Ficus trees, gnarled and knotty—ancient objects of worship, now platonic friends. Tankan oranges you can pick right from the branches, when they are shun—at the peak of the season. Rich mangrove swamps farther down the coast, sticking their spindly legs into the coral-heavy sand.

In the clear seas, stonefish and lionfish and polished box jellyfish that will all poison you in self-defense. Sea snakes, cone snails, crown of thorns starfish, sea urchins, eels, blue-ringed octopus. Coconut crabs that scale trees and suck out the milky fruit; mudskippers lounging in the silt between the mangroves; rare, fat dugongs that live secretive lives.

“All this rain is telling me something,” said Yoshio. Discreetly he picked his teeth, while Tatsuo did the same across the table.

“What is that, Mr. Mugen?”

“You know when you wait for a situation to improve, but then by waiting you only make things worse?”

The old man nodded once, with happy enthusiasm. “Of course. Action is the name of the game.”

“I couldn’t agree more. The weather here isn’t improving; it won’t for at least another day or two. I’m afraid Dana and I must be moving along.”

“So soon? But the wind, and the road conditions! You’re sure you’ll be careful?”

“One hundred percent. We’re careful pilots, Dr. Tamashi and I.”

Tatsuo wrinkled his eyes into specks. He seemed hesitant to speak, yet when his granddaughter caught his eye, he uncovered the impulse to vent his feelings, even if he could not understand what she wanted to convey. “You know, I used to be a pilot back in the day. In the war, of course. Curious how a storm makes one reflective…calls up other loud times, I suppose. Now I don’t tell many people this, because I like to put it behind me, but I ran away from Tsugunai when I was fifteen and caught a boat to the mainland. Stowed away, really. I joined the Air Force. Lied about my age. Thinking on it now, it’s strange that an Okinawan left to help the Imperial Forces, but back then they taught us the Emperor was our primary concern. Protect the Japanese people. And I wanted to do this so badly! It’s funny, isn’t it? I couldn’t predict all the violence I was getting myself into. When we’re young, decisions seem like such noble things.

“I flew a lot of missions. Hundreds, at least. I shot down ninety-one enemy planes in my term of service. Terrifying, right? I wasn’t an officer, no special treatment—just a noncom. I lived in camp with the other soldiers. Our bento boxes were much worse than the lieutenants’—we used to be so mad! But that was long ago. We’d bring bentos up in the air for lunch; you had to, up there for hours. Just rice and vegetables. And I was never shot down, a feat I am very proud of. Though I’m even prouder of the fact I never lost a wingman. Not once. I fought in the Battle of Saipan—I’ll bet I never told you that, Aomi, did I?”

“You didn’t,” she said, but she was fixed on the purple ridge of her sock; too nervous for real disclosure. “Hey, maybe we should clean everything up before they leave. Grandpa, you and I can bring the plates into the kitchen. Maybe Dr. Tamashi can help, if she wants to. I know it might be rude, but there’s a lot of stuff. Plus, my stomach hurts.”

“Aomi, we can easily clean up when these nice people leave. Let’s not talk about this now. We must be respectful.”

“Oh, but my stomach.” She rocked back and forth, grimacing, her tongue stuck out to its full extent. “Maybe I have a contagious disease.”

“Aomi, don’t be ridiculous. You’re in perfect health.”

“It’s this rain…maybe it’s unlocking some genetic defect. I heard ebola virus was on the rise.”

“Is she okay?” Dana asked. “Should we call the doctor? Or an ambulance?”

“Grandpa, she says I should go to the hospital. She works in one, she knows.”

Tatsuo motioned for Dana to sit and drink. He turned to Aomi and relaxed his face, as if seeing something inside her that returned him to his own childhood. “Aomi, we don’t need to call an ambulance, I assure you. Everything is okay. Take an antacid if you need to.”

“I think I’m going into total organ system failure.”

“Perhaps it was that sip of beer?” said Yoshio, not without a hint of grin.

“That’s true, Aomi. You know you shouldn’t be drinking at your age. You have to learn respect for it.”

“Grandpa, could you help me to the guest room? Maybe Dr. Tamashi could come, too. She’s a doctor, you know.”

“Psychologist,” said Yoshio.

“Whatever. She knows a lot, she can help.”

The Orion beer colored Tatsuo’s cheeks, made his eyes swim with dull, flowering mist. He wobbled ever so gently in his chair. “Mr. Mugen here has hurt his leg quite badly, and he is not complaining, you know. If you are in severe pain, you should lie down, but let’s not trouble our guests anymore, please.” To Yoshio: “Really, I am very sorry. Aomi is a wonderful girl, but at this age…you remember…”

“Say no more, Mr. Koja. I was seventeen once, too. And perhaps she is in great pain. What would she stand to gain by pretending?”

Beads of sweat broke out on Aomi’s forehead. She doubled over on the seat and began to amplify her moans. “Ebola…”

Dana rose and hurried to the girl’s side. Emphatically Tatsuo waved her down. He poured more beer into her glass and blocked her way, deferent but insistent, when she tried to take Aomi’s pulse.

“Please do not worry about me, Mr. Koja. You have not offended us in any way. Your granddaughter appears to have a legitimate concern.” Yoshio winked broadly, for Dana’s benefit.

“Yes, yes,” said Tatsuo, bobbing his head. “I will fetch the antacids.”

Aomi pretended to unbend herself with great effort and reached a hand toward her grandfather. “I put them in a weird place, I forgot. I’ll remember where they are if I see the bathroom, I’ll show you.”

“No. Aomi, you do not feel well, you stay right there. I’ll give you some of these, and then you can lay down. I hope your mother doesn’t find out I gave you beer.” He shuffled off, champing softly and arching his spine with both hands pressed hard against his lumbar.

Yoshio scrutinized the girl. His smile roleplayed teeth with only a slight touch of yellow at the incisors.

“Maybe I should call an ambulance?” Dana said again.

“Oh, I wouldn’t trouble them in this weather. I’m sure Aomi just needs to get rid of something she’s keeping inside. Then she’ll be fine.”

“Gross,” said Aomi. “Hey Dr. Tamashi, maybe you can help me over to the bathroom now? Save my grandpa some time.”

“Sure, I’ll give—”

“Here we are.” Tatsuo came back, rattling the bottle. He stood watching while his granddaughter chewed a few tablets. “Do you still want to lay down, Aomi?”

“I’ll wait here. But don’t be surprised if I infect everybody.”

“How I’ve missed conversations with Tokyoites,” said Yoshio.

The old man settled back in his seat and clapped his rugged, papery hands together. “So, Saipan! You know, a lot of people forget this battle, because of Iwo Jima, but in my opinion it was just as intense. We flew Zeroes then, standard attack plane. 50mm guns. Messy dogfighting for hours, losses on both sides, but the situation ended badly for the Imperials. So, the lieutenant ordered us to ram our planes into an American ship. My men and me—I was a squad leader. We headed for the USS New Jersey, obedient as could be. But you know I got lost on the way! There was such a damned fog. Think about that—ordered to turn your plane into a human bomb, and you get lost on the way to your target! I felt foolish, I don’t mind telling you. My men kept asking me for the order—in Zeroes, we flew in groups of three—and I kept saying, ‘Steady now, steady, we must aim for the cruiser.’ We were scared of those American ships, no doubt about it. Sure, we had Yamato, the most powerful craft ever made, but she wasn’t at that fight! She got taken down en route to Okinawa, as I’m sure you know. Well, Aomi, maybe you’re a little fuzzier on those details. I don’t expect kids these days are as pleased about their military history.”

“The Prime Minister’s trying to build up an Army again, who knows,” said Aomi. She passed a look to Dana, who was only able to warn her away with her eyes.

“So I’ve heard. Well, I must say I disagree with that. I had a rough time of it in the Imperial forces. Ordered to become a kamikaze! But we never found the ships. We just wandered around in the fog, and our radios were useless, totally useless. Reliable communication was not one of the Zero’s advantages.

“Anyhow, we got intercepted by Grummans. Fearsome planes. We had to skim the bottom of the ocean close enough to catch the spray on our windshields to outmaneuver them. Which we did! We destroyed every one of them.

“Although by this time, we’d used up most of our fuel, so I called off the mission to head home to our station on Iwo Jima. We flew in pitch darkness. No radar, no landmarks to orient by, and the threat of running into Americans at any time. We only made it back because some kid in one of our camps had started a grease fire, and I spotted it from a thousand feet up. Even then, I wasn’t sure we’d found the right side! Imagine evading death only to land in the middle of your enemy’s campfire. That’s how dark it was, and how exhausted we were—I couldn’t even be sure the land we’d found was Iwo Jima.

“Our friends were so shocked when we returned, one of them even wept. The lieutenant couldn’t speak for a whole minute; he’d taken us for goners. He didn’t even reprimand us for not killing ourselves. I’ve never felt such relief in my life—though I wasn’t eager to get back up in a plane the next day, I can tell you that.”

“I had no idea,” said Aomi. “Mom never mentioned that stuff at all.”

“Well, it’s not so important. I’m rather proud of being a farmer, and I’d rather be known for that. Although it was tough being a pilot, make no mistake. And I’m sorry about every casualty. Ninety-one, at the final count.” Tatsuo’s throat clucked in his attempt to swallow. He licked his lips, as if desperate for water, his eyes glazed and faraway.

“Ninety-one,” said Aomi. She stared at the plum polish on her fingers like it could show her Tatsuo’s teenage self, streaking through the sky in a battered attack plane.

Tired Dana shrank from the fragrant room, the loving sparseness of it. She felt the gravity in the others’ voices and wished to ask what had happened, but her body locked up under panic to leave her flushed and paralyzed, a witness yet again. Should have run to the Gulf, dumbass. Just as humid and less bewildering, by far.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mugen, I seem to have taken even more of your time than I intended. I apologize for forcing you to wait. You must be in quite a hurry to depart, after all.”

“Don’t sweat it. I appreciate your story, Mr. Koja. I’ve never flown a fighter plane, but it sounds a damn difficult business.”

Tatsuo nodded sagely, over and over. “That it was. You had to calculate the g-forces yourself in those contraptions.”

“It does remind me of a joke, though. The waiting.” He paused for effect. “What did the monk say to the old sock?”

Tatsuo smiled, scratched his majestic head. “I must say I’m stumped. Aomi, do you know?”

His granddaughter shivered as though sick with cold. She coughed imaginary phlegm into a handkerchief emblazoned with the face of a Welsh Corgi pup. “I don’t like your coat,” she said in English. Glancing at Dana she received only a fearful tide of warning in the woman’s expression. Wait for the police.

“Well, what’s the answer?” said the farmer.

Yoshio leaned back from the dirty plates and beer bottles to allow his belly some room. He sighed in contentment and stared out the rain-fogged window at the descending haze. The ocean hurled itself without rest against the shore.

“Looks like I lost the thread of this conversation.”

“Oh ho, I—well I think I get it. Like thread, right? Very clever, Mr. Mugen. You are not a comic, are you? Well that reminds me—I haven’t asked your occupation. Forgive my rudeness. It is my mind in my old age, you know. Constantly forgetting things, worrying that I have forgotten something important.”

“I understand,” said Yoshio. He shot Aomi first, through the right eye. Her head snapped back and slung blood onto the table and sprayed drops onto the ceiling. Tatsuo only dimly registered the movement, and was just beginning to raise his hands in supplication as Yoshio split open his forehead with a second round. When this was done the hitman growled in disappointment and yanked Dana roughly by the arm.

“This has become quite a messy situation.”

The wind flared, hammered the windows. Tatsuo’s blood-spattered head, which had slammed into the table, slid off the rugged edge as his body pulled sideways. When he hit the wooden floorboards with a thump, the remainder of Dana’s hope evaporated.

“The one good thing about the typhoon is the noise.”

“That’s enough. Enough, for Christ’s fucking sake. These people did nothing to you, and you executed them, and I know what you’re going to do to me anyway, so I’m not helping you with your disturbed little game. Shoot me. Fuck you and shoot me. I hope you never find that poor woman and I hope you go to prison, where you belong. You need to spend the rest of your goddamn life undoing this.”

Yoshio shrugged, and toyed with the fringe of his beard, for all the world unperturbed by this outburst. Perhaps he was well-informed about his mental condition.

“You’re right, of course. I can’t make you do anything. But if you really want to know—” he fired at Dana’s arm “—that’s what it feels like to get shot.”

A scarlet razor opened on her tricep. Primarily a warning, little muscular damage. Dana keened, and staggered back, and sprinted.

“Move and I’ll shoot you in the back of your soggy head.”

The walls blurred in her vision. She did not stop.

With a grumbling sigh, as though all this commotion were roundly unfair, Yoshio hobbled round the table, past the paired corpses, to the rear door. He looked back at Aomi; took in the crumpled form. Seventeen. A Tokyo girl flies down to Tsugunai to die at the hand of a Tokyo gunman. Need to make a joke about that. Half his mouth tilted into a good-natured smirk; the rest was expressionless, flat.

Outside the rain descended in torrents. The shoreline extended into the gloom as a strip of sickly gray, a metal ribbon or decaying street. Dana screamed at the top of her lungs, soaked and frantic, losing a house slipper as she tripped over packed sand. She thought not of Haruki, nor her buried children, nor her own life, but only a shapeless horror rising up to engulf what remained of this planet. To her the land itself seemed to break away beneath her feet, plunging her into freefall. Behind her Yoshio gave chase, game and grim. When Dana plowed face-first into the surf, the hitman cackled and gained a spurt of energy, even as the pain flowed freely up his leg.

He fell down on her chest, his hair dripping in hanks, sunglasses skewed to show one roiling eye. Without hope Dana flailed against the lightless smile, that handsome form of torture who offered no peace or comfort.

“Kill me, for God’s sake, just fucking kill me.”

The aroma of sweet potato tart hung in his breath. Tea and beer, the lingering freshness of Tatsuo’s home. Outside there was no one to see, just milky haze and a smoldering, black canvas of sky. Yoshio strained the veins in his wrists, expecting the flesh to dissolve, the planes to loose their payloads upon the beach. His heart thumped against the wetly translucent shirt and blood oozed into callused fingers, seeking a warmer host. He choked the woman in full view of the East China Sea.

“You are fucking coming with me, and we are going to find Ms. Wasayama. Understood?”

Dana kicked with both heels and moaned the raw babel of nightmares, salt water splashing into the grooves around her eyes and occupying mucus membrane and throat. Her skull pushed a depression into the sand.

Yoshio leveraged the pressure on her neck until she stopped kicking. He laid himself flat on top of her, spitting his words, emptied to the silt of whatever well he used for control.

“What did the mermaid tell the fisherman when he caught her in his net?”

Dana’s eyes rolled and popped in their sockets. Weakly her hand clasped themselves over Yoshio’s; her palms were wider.

“Don’t know?”

Her tongue stuck out between her open jaws, wagging saliva.

“I think it’s time to tip the scales, buddy.”

Every tooth in his head exposed, he laughed with saliva piling up in his mouth, shaking, overcome with the joy of sepulchers after a lively war. He might have known it was overkill, but it was rare he could abandon himself so fully en plein air. So he took advantage.

In front of Tatsuo’s house, Yoshio whistled to the neighborhood cat as it slunk past him across the lawn.

“Pretty color. Maybe we should leave him some food.”

Dana kept her mouth closed. Purple and green bruises swelled on her neck. They went back inside and pulled some fish out of the fridge and left it near the bushes between Tatsuo’s and Hidari’s houses.

“Now let’s ransack Ms. Wasayama’s fine home before those cops show up.”

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