One windy August morning, Kioko Sashihara walked onto the empty, artificial tourist beach with an overdriven desire to die.
Where the paved road merged with the grainy off-white sand, she knelt down and removed both of her sandals. Then, carrying the pair in her left hand, she stepped almost ceremoniously onto the beach proper. Her bare feet buried themselves without warning in that ridiculous pile of eroded shells, corals, driftwood, reeds, and plastic. Kioko looked down and frowned.
A few moments later, her distaste dissolved into the fantasies of her willful imagination. She likened the plastic-sand mixture all around her to the deadly quicksand she had seen in movies, and she wished it would hurry up and drag her to her doom.
The dream didn’t last long. Nothing happened, after all. No sinking, no slow, agonizing death. Kioko pulled her feet up, sighed, and kept walking on towards the shoreline.
As the sun slowly rose along with her and the wind danced through her silvery-blue shoulder-length hair, Kioko revelled in the unusual emptiness of the beach. Not because she particularly enjoyed being alone, or because she dreamed of becoming a hermit living a secluded life somewhere out in nature, but because the lack of tourists, the lack of people on such a beautifully hot and windy day, was a sign that she wasn’t supposed to be there. She could have easily picked a different sign – the actual physical metal signs posted every twenty feet along the edge of the sand, or the martial law shelter-in-place order nailed to the front door of her house – but these did not bring her nearly so much excitement as the empty vacuum she had dared to use her body to fill. Kioko wasn’t a rebel. She took no delight in carelessly breaking rules. She just very easily, very simply, wanted to die, and if breaking martial law meant she was perhaps one step closer to death… well, it gave her some warped kind of happiness, and she was content with that.
Reaching the shoreline with these happy feelings in mind, Kioko dropped her sandals into the damp sand and ran daringly into an approaching wave. The force of the chilling seawater as it wreathed around her legs and knocked her backwards was disappointing. This was not a beach that produced those great waves that surfers like to ride.
Kioko regained her balance and stood ankle-deep in the murmuring water that couldn’t seem to decide whether to advance or retreat. Another small bubbly wave came and left. Firm-footed, she gazed out at the marine horizon, remarkably empty of all the fishing vessels this town used to be known for, and nodded to herself for no apparent reason.
It was not a bad day to die.
At precisely 8:30 on a fateful Monday morning, Rin broke out of home quarantine and snuck through familiar back alleys until she had successfully made her way down to the cove. The adventurous escape took her twenty minutes. She paused to rest four times.
When she reached that spot where the walking path met the soft beach sand, she quickly tore off her shoes and stepped into that strange grainy warmth that characterized the only beach she had ever known. She savored it for a moment, eyes closed, feeling incredibly glad to be alive.
As she left her shoes behind and ventured forth toward the beautifully calm ocean, Rin glanced over her shoulder a few times, observing her deathly-silent town. She hoped that the soldiers wouldn’t spot her – and that if they did, they wouldn’t shoot her. But she knew it didn’t matter in the long run. She was going to die anyway. Today, tomorrow, what’s the difference?
She kicked her feet a little as she walked along, enjoying the hot sand and the muted wind that filled her nostrils with the scent of the salty sea. This is incredible, she thought to herself. Now, if only there were people…
It was pointless to dream about that. Had there been other people, she wouldn’t have been able to come. Her immune system was too weak; she was forbidden to interact with the general public, especially in large crowds such as those often found on tourist beaches. Even so, she couldn’t help but wish for companions. Home quarantine was too dry, her only ‘friends’ being masked nurses and the occasional soldier visiting at her window with flowers that had to be left outside or children’s toys that had to be disinfected before she could play with them. And she wasn’t even a child. She was seventeen. The toy guns and dolls and single-player board games they brought bored her to death – but they were trying their best, she knew, so she always pretended to be delighted. What she really wished for was a book, a real book with covers and a spine and hundreds of pages in which she could bury her face to breathe in the smell of print and paper, but books had been outlawed long ago. Here in this coastal town, all the books had been taken and piled on the old fishing boats and dumped somewhere at sea. That same day, those boats had later been hauled in, tied in a long ridiculous line, and set aflame. She remembered seeing this event from her window quite vividly; now, walking across the wide, empty beach, she thought about it again with a sense of longing and a deep, bitter disappointment.
She had always wanted to be a sailor – and if not a sailor, a naval engineer. But it looked like she would never get her chance.
Rin stopped well behind the waterline marked by the edge of the wet, dark sand. She wanted nothing more than to jump into the water, to feel what the sea feels like, to taste what the sea tastes like, but she knew that she shouldn’t. For the time being, she contented herself with just standing there and watching the waves busy at their gentle play. Now, that’s freedom, she thought. You don’t realize it, but you’re lucky. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.
But it was alright. Rin never let herself dwell on these kinds of thoughts for too long. She had to be happy with what little she had – and right in this moment, standing barefooted on the hot sand and closer to the ocean than she’d ever been, she was happy enough to be alive.
After an appropriate amount of time had passed, Kioko turned and began walking westward, parallel to the sea. It did not seem likely that standing in the water would fulfill her death wish. Medusa would not leap out from the sea and turn her to stone – and if the soldiers on watch had not noticed her yet, they might never. An animal in motion is more likely to catch the hunter’s eye.
It is important to note that nothing was particularly wrong with Kioko. There was no illness, no injury, no genetic defect or problem in the brain that made her want to die. She just did. Knowingly. Rationally. And she did not care for other people to know her reasons. But even if there was nothing medically ‘wrong’ with her, even Kioko had to admit that she was somehow, in some strange way, quite special. She had wanted to die for some time, but even in the life-loving years she’d experienced prior, she had more or less known that the gods were calling, that death was coming. It was like she had been born with an expiration date tattooed on the inside of her left wrist, and once that date passed, she expected with perfect certainty that she would just stop living. But, unfortunately, death was not that simple.
Kioko had come close to death many times. As a child, and now as an adult, she had always walked that thin tightrope between one world and the next, now falling this way, now falling that way. Sometimes the event that taunted death had been what others would label an accident; other times it had been of her own doing. But no matter what happened, no matter what she did, Kioko would always end up living.
At first she had hung on to the belief that the gods were toying with her. They had given her this expiration date, and now they were taunting her with it. They were chaining her to that heavy rock called life and they simple refused to let her go. But over time, as events piled on top of each other and patterns began to emerge, Kioko came to believe that it was actually quite the opposite. The gods were doing their best to deliver on their promise; they were trying with all their might to claim her. But it was the human race that refused to let her die. Once Kioko understood this, she gave up on the idea of suicide. It would never work – at least not here, in a human-ruled world, in a time and place where men could defy the wills of gods. She stopped putting so much active energy into her efforts at death, and for the past few years she had simply floated along from one near-death experience to the next, hoping that one day, someday, the gods would become strong enough to take her away. That, or humanity would become strong enough to let her go.
Kioko began jogging gently down the beach – still heading westward, still parallel to the sea. She thought that just maybe the figure of a person running would be enough to crack the nerves of some anxious soldier on guard duty on the waterfront. But a few minutes passed, and nothing happened. It seemed like no one had seen her. Kioko looked toward the town in slight dismay and began wondering if she was already dead. Perhaps the soldiers couldn’t see her because she was a ghost. Or maybe there were actually no soldiers at all, and she had somehow slipped without warning into some kind of spirit world, some parallel universe where dead people existed in calm isolation. The thought burned her. After all this time, she had really been looking forward to the momentous experience of true, complete death, and now it had passed her by unnoticed. What a shame.
Kioko slowed to a steady walk and gazed up at the clear sky above her, wondering what it must feel like to live.
With the edge of her bare foot, Rin began to trace the roman letters of her name into the sand. She worked slowly, determined to take on this meaningless task, and made the letters as large as she reasonably could. First the R took shape, in a clunky block font; then the simple form of the I. Time passed meaninglessly. After she completed the I, she sat down at its base to rest.
Watching the waves as they shyly retreated farther and farther into the peak of low tide, Rin wondered why the gods had chosen her, of all people, to die. From birth she had been sick. The doctors had told her parents that she was not going to live to adulthood – she had not even been supposed to reach her teenage years. Her parents had done their best to love her, to raise her, but to raise a child with a terminal illness is not that easy. Now, she lived out her days in a quarantine that felt like prison, and she couldn’t help but wonder why. Why she had been marked for death – and why the nurses still hoped, still tried, to make her live.
Once her fatigue abated, Rin climbed to her feet and set about tracing the N. For some reason, this letter gave her the most difficulty, even though one would think that the greater challenge would have been the R. She did her best to make the lines straight and keep the overall size in proportion with the rest of her short name.
The sun climbed slowly and steadily and at last the name was completed. Rin underlined it twice, stepped back, and smiled. She imagined a military plane soaring high above, ready to set out on some reconnaissance mission, and its pilot or scout puzzling over these three letters that were to everyone else completely irrelevant. The thought of it made her laugh.
As she enjoyed this surprising, unusual moment of mirth, Rin looked over her shoulder at her silent town. There was no one to be seen, not even the usual soldiers on patrol. She imagined that the entire town had suddenly been evacuated without her noticing – an impending airstrike, perhaps, or enemy warships on the horizon – and the nurses had left her behind. For some reason this idea just made her laugh harder. Overtaken with strange amusement, Rin collapsed into the sand next to the name she had spent so long tracing, and she closed her eyes as she drank in the warm, life-giving rays of the sun and the warm, life-giving burst of laughter that came from within.
This is okay, she decided.
I’m going to be alright.
An hour later, she met Kioko, and the two of them returned to town side-by-side.
This short story is paired with the A-side serial Synchronicity: Read Here