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you who are no longer you

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and you children
do not know
already what form you’ve become
how far from the human you’ve been taken

- s. toge

+

In February of 1988, with terrifying swiftness, Japan once again declares war.

It rages through cities and farms, through homes and harbors, desiccating all that it touches, leaving blackened earth and horrors in its wake. It seizes upon all life with unrelenting hunger and devastation, and awakens terrible, unfathomable memories.

And so, as with the rest of the nation, hell descends upon the people of Ishikari.

+

Sachiko Fujinuma shivers as she walks back quickly from the supply station, where she grabbed her allotted food ration for the day. It’s less than what it used to be, and she carefully hides the packet of rice beneath her jacket, winding through back alleys to avoid potential thieves on the main roads.

She hopes that Satoru is able to get enough to eat at school. But she decides to set aside half of her portion, just in case.

After looking around furtively to ensure no one followed her, Sachiko stamps her boots free of slush and lets herself in the house, triple-locking the door behind her. She blinks rapidly to adjust her vision to the darkness inside, sunlight barely peeking through the wooden slats boarded across her windows. Faded newspaper sheets droop from the walls, and Sachiko sighs as she tapes them back up again. They serve as poor insulation, but it’s better than nothing ever since the central heater died. And with oil in such short supply, she won’t touch the portable one until absolutely necessary. Fire is a luxury nowadays.

Wrapping a scarf around her head and rolling up her sleeves, she sets to hiding the rice beneath the bedroom floorboards, ignoring the grumbling of her stomach. She peers down in dismay as she notices there are only two jars of pickled radish left. She clenches her hands, trying to resist the onset of panic, and thinks not for the first time of quitting her job at the news station and signing up to work at the munitions factory in the next town over. Supposedly, their food rations are a little better since they’re directly supporting the war effort.

But the thought of building bombs and missiles - those terrible screaming weapons that tear flesh from bone and drench the earth in blood - is still a vile, abhorrent notion to her. She shakes, her body aching to produce tears, but they already dried up some time ago. She knows that in the end it’s not principles that feed empty bellies.

Gazing at a framed photo of her and Satoru at the park in springtime, she allows herself a brief dream — one in which she could take him somewhere far away. Somewhere safe and warm and free of pain.

+

“Mom, I’m home!”

The exuberant shout causes Sachiko to jump, and she hisses as she burns a finger on the boiling pot of water. She immediately sticks her finger in her mouth, turning off the gas stove with her other hand, and rushes over to the front door.

It takes everything she has to put on the biggest, most cheerful smile for her son. Everything is okay, she wants to tell him, over and over until it comes true. She lets her hair down these days, to hide her pale skin and jutting cheekbones.

“Welcome back! How was school?” she says brightly. Did you get enough to eat?

“Good,” Satoru replies with a shrug. He drops his backpack onto the floor and bends over to rustle through it.

“Here, mom,” he says, handing over a sheet of paper. “We practiced this at school today. Sensei said to tell you.”

Sachiko takes it half-heartedly, expecting it to be another nationalistic poem or patriotic song lyrics. But the words and diagrams sink into her chest, and she clutches the paper, her knuckles whitening.

She doesn’t move and her voice is soft. “Very good, Satoru.”

It’s a detailed, government-issued set of instructions titled ‘Air Raid Safety Procedure.’

Will it truly come to this, here in Ishikari?

She looks down at her hands, trembling, and fears they will not be enough to protect her child.

+

School is different than before, but the students take it in stride, their minds and hearts too young to fully comprehend the magnitude of the changing world around them.

They eschew nice clothes and fine objects, in the spirit of national sacrifice. They draw red rising suns and write letters to the soldiers at the front, praising their bravery. They sing songs about the glory of Japan, and dream of becoming heroes.

They take down the old calligraphy papers on the wall that read hope, and replace them with the bold and rigid lines of victory.

They watch their young and healthy teachers leave one by one, swept up by the draft and replaced by wizened, fearful seniors whose smiles don’t reach their eyes.

The day Yashiro sensei is conscripted, he bids his class a fond farewell and tells them to be on their best behavior until he returns. He leaves them with a wink and a promise to read all of their letters.

His students wait for months, but the return letter never comes.

+

Satoru bites his lip as he tries to hold back his tears. He was hoping the army wouldn’t need Yuuki’s help, but they seem to be taking everyone away from him.

“I have to go, Satoru,” Yuuki says, smiling awkwardly.

“But why?” Satoru asks angrily, as he rubs the corners of his eyes. “Don’t they have enough people?”

“I have to f- fight the bad guys,” Yuuki stutters, then takes a deep breath. “It’s the right thing to do. I’m a m- man now.”

Satoru looks down at the floor, his arms stiffening at his sides. It isn’t fair. Yuuki already has a job as a truck driver. He doesn’t need to go fight the bad guys.

He remains stubbornly silent, and Yuuki looks around desperately for something to cheer him up.

“You know, no one knows more about p- planes than I do.” He points to his shelves filled with model planes. “So they want me to fly one, you see?”

Satoru peers up at him. “So, you’ll be high up?”

Yuuki nods. “That’s right.” He holds his hand above his head. “So the b- bad guys won’t get me.”

Satoru breathes a sigh of relief. “That’s great! So you’ll be able to come back soon, right?”

“I’ll do my b- best.”

“No, you have to promise!” Satoru says, clenching his small fists.

Yuuki straightens his shoulders and smiles brightly, saluting with all the courage he has. “I promise.”

+

The streets sometimes flood with stern-faced soldiers, marching in rigid lines, and supply trucks belching grey exhaust.

They sometimes flood with injured soldiers on stretchers and harried nurses following them, their uniforms dingy and streaked with blood.

Mostly though, they remain empty, as silent as the waiting periods between air raids.

+

Almost a year later, Yashiro sensei comes back, but he is no longer the same person. He’s in a wheelchair now, and his face is gaunt and scarred. He doesn’t have the same smile anymore.

He stares a lot out the window and doesn’t assign any homework.

On one day, when Satoru is feeling brave, he walks up to Yashiro. (It still feels weird, not having to crane his head up to look at him.) “Sensei, can I ask you something?”

Yashiro moves slowly these days, as if he’s always in pain. “Yes, Satoru?”

“I was just wondering…” he says, rocking back and forth on his sneakers, “did you happen to see Yuuki? While you were away, fighting the bad guys?”

“Yuuki…?”

“Oh, sorry, I mean Jun Shiratori.”

Yashiro looks down at the floor, forehead wrinkling in concentration. “Shiratori’s son? No...I didn’t see him.” His expression is haggard. “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Disappointment tastes bitter, Satoru finds, but he swallows it dutifully. “Oh, okay. Thanks, anyway, sensei.”

If Yuuki promised he’s coming back soon, then Satoru will keep waiting.

+

(Yashiro stares into the darkness, trying not to remember the remains of Jun Shiratori’s face, which was blown off by a mortar shell.)

+

Osamu and Kazu run along the edge of the playground, the grass brown and wilted beneath their feet. They laugh and spread their arms, making airplane engine noises, their voices swooping loudly through the air.

Tat tat tat tat tat tat, Osamu says, zooming over to the bushes and pretending to shoot down hidden enemies.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Kazu soars over the sandbox, stamping his feet like bombshells, spraying sand everywhere.

Hiromi giggles and cheers them on (“Go, go!”), while Satoru claps in time with the noises that they make and thinks that maybe they’re helping in some small way. They’re shooting down enemies, too. The faster they shoot, the sooner the war will be over, and everything will go back to the way it was.

Pow! Pow! Osamu squints through an imaginary gun sight, crouching behind a bush and targeting at random. He pauses when Kenya comes into his field of vision, and he lowers his shoulders in confusion.

“Kenya’s being weird,” he says, frowning at the rest of them. They all pause their game to look over at Kenya, only to see that he’s wearing a horrified expression.

“Maybe he forgot to eat breakfast,” Hiromi offers, concerned. “He doesn’t look so good.”

Osamu and Kazu look at each other and shrug, resuming their antics.

Satoru watches silently as Kenya backs away, stunned, and runs off. He thinks that although Kenya acts strangely sometimes, he will eventually come back. They’re best friends, after all.

+

When the students come back into the building for lunch, they find that there is less rice and fewer vegetables than normal. And that there is no meat at all.

“Maybe tomorrow,” says the lunch server with a strained smile.

The children eat without complaint, their manners picture-perfect.

+

The bombs keep falling with deafening booms, white flashes like lightning, searing the air with the smell of fire and terror. In between, wailing sirens and muffled screams and black bulbous smoke disgorged into the sky, thick and heaving with ash. It seems dark and wide and endless.

The children clasp their hands over their ears, squeezing their eyes shut, and think of nothing at all except breathing.

+

School barely resumes, and Satoru’s class is mostly gone now. He sits idly on his desk, legs swinging listlessly. Yashiro sensei still hasn’t started lessons yet, his stare blank and fixed outside the taped-up window.

When he does start, his voice is low and unsteady. “Class, you—may have noticed. That most of your classmates have—moved away.” He clears his throat. “Their families have decided to take them to a different city. Please—wish them well.”

The few students left look around at the empty desks, then down at their own, remaining silent. Their absence is sharp and hollow, and they feel very small inside the suddenly large classroom.

“You can—write to them, if you wish…” Yashiro tries to say.

But Kenya’s pencil snaps in two, and he lurches out of his chair, shoving his books angrily to the floor.

Why? Why are you saying that?” he screams. “Stop it!

“Kenya…” Satoru says, eyes widening with shock. “What…?”

Yashiro pales, his mouth thinning into a taut, brittle line. He makes no move to stop Kenya as he knocks over his desk and storms out of the classroom.

Satoru glances at Yashiro and - seeing that he’s lapsed back into silence - decides to run out after Kenya, worried. He finds Kenya huddled into a small black mass on the stairs, head tucked into his knees, his back heaving with muffled sobs. His hands are clenched over his ears, as if he’s preparing for an air raid. Satoru sits down quietly next to him, bending his head to peer at Kenya.

“Kenya…” he starts hesitantly, then realizes he has no idea what to say.

“Go away,” Kenya hiccups, burrowing his head deeper.

“No,” Satoru says, frowning. “You’re my friend. What’s wrong?”

Immediately, Kenya rears up, eyes puffy and red-rimmed with anger. “Sensei is lying!” he hisses, shaking, before curling up again. His voice dips into a dull flat tone. “They’re all lying.”

“I don’t understand…” Satoru blinks.

Kenya turns his head toward Satoru tiredly, face streaked with tears. “They all died, Satoru. They didn’t move away. They didn’t go anywhere. They’re just—gone.”

Satoru stares at the wall in front of them. “Oh.” He trembles, his chest tightening until it hurts. “So they can’t come back?”

“No—” Kenya says, voice breaking. “They can’t.”

Later, they sit on the brown, wilted grass and carefully place sticks in the dirt, one for each classmate who’s gone. They say a prayer, clasping their hands together, and look at the sticks for a long time.

A faint and faraway whistle streaks high above them, and they raise their heads to see it. A bright light with a red tail, shimmering before it disappears quickly behind the clouds.

“Oh, is that—a shooting star?” Satoru asks wonderingly.

Kenya’s jaw tightens. “I don’t think so.”