Friday, November 6, 2009

Short Story: Closer To Heaven

My friend Cortney requested a story to help her sleep. This is one I wrote a few years ago and liked back then. I have no opinion of it now except that it is pretentious. Oh, well.

Formatting needs work. I'm not going to bother. Enjoy.

"Closer To Heaven"

Shinobu-san and I each carried a backpack. In mine, our tent, stove, and charcoal; in hers, our food and water, along with some plastic and some duct tape. We traveled light up the mountain, of course; it was to be a one-way trip.

"This climb is murder," I said, almost gasping.

"Ha ha," Shinobu-san said without turning around. "Do you always talk this much?"

"Am I bothering you?" I asked, watching her legs. I hoped she would agree to a pre-dawn lay when we reached the top.

She stopped and took two deep breaths. "I haven't talked to anyone but my parents for two years."

I, too, had to catch my breath before replying, "Well, then, aren't you ready for some conversation?" I fixed my face with a wry smile.

Shinobu-san looked back at me, cheeks pale, lips trembling. "I'm trying not to scream." She turned to her left and looked down the mountain. We were making our way along an ancient path that that might once have been stairs of some sort. It was relatively easy going, but the ground dropped violently only a few feet off the path.

"Don't you even think about it," I said, pointing at her. "Don't you dare."

"I'd be dead before I reached the bottom." The tension in her face eased with the thought.

"Yes, but it would hurt like Hell before you got there. Besides, I don't want to die alone, and you promised to go with me."

She smiled, still looking down the mountain into the mist. "How would you hold me to that promise?" I'd been bent over, searching her downcast eyes. Their dark brown irises blended so completely with the black of her pupils that it was as if her eyes were chasms. I straightened up and put on the sternest face I had.

"I wouldn't go with you," I said.

That dreamy peace drained out of her face, and the emptiness looked like fear. I couldn't blame her for being afraid. Who wants to die in pain? To die alone? After all, wasn't that why we were here together in the mountains of Japan?

"Let's go," she said, and started walking again. She really did have nice legs, I decided.

For the last year, Shinobu-san had suffered as what the Japanese call a hikikomori--a person who has chosen to live in extended withdrawal from society. From what she'd told me online, the phenomenon was not uncommon. Nearly a million Japanese youth had experienced this state of isolation.

"It's not really me withdrawing," one of her emails read. "Society has already withdrawn from me, and I from it. For me to go to school, see my so-called friends, or any of that crap, is just a lie. The hikikomori is the truth. I want truth forever."

I knew how she felt, of course; why else would I have come here? I'd lived in a type of hikikomori for over three years now. Who was I going to talk to since the death of my mother? My father had not taken her death well, and his junkyard business had suffered. I couldn't talk to him even if I wanted to. How can you respect a man who can't even compete in the junk business? Screw him. My airhead sister dealt with Mom's death by joining a sorority, getting drunk, and getting laid every weekend and every other Tuesday.

Me, I just stopped talking. I'd never had any real friends, anyway. There were some guys at school that I'd hang out with at lunch, just so I didn't have to sit by myself like some total loser. Still, everyday, the truth became clearer: even among all those people, all those sheep, I was alone. So, when I graduated from high school last year, I got a job at a local paper factory. Not a paper mill, mind you; the fumes in those places'll kill you.

That's a joke.

Seriously, this place took already-made paper and made it into a notebook or a folder or something. The job was unfulfilling and damned painful. I came home every day with hands that looked like I'd died of paper cuts in the desert. When you can't shower, type, play videogames, or otherwise have fun with your own hands, I decided, it's time to call it a life and get out of Dodge.

It was about six months ago, once I'd really decided that I was going to do it, that tomorrow or maybe the next day, I was going to kill myself, that I realized I didn't have the guts to do it by myself. So there I was, wincing through yet another night of anime-porn or video game reviews, when I found a link to a suicide-pact website. Oh, it took some finding, of course. You can't leave that kind of thing on one server for long. The thought police come and close it down for "the good of the people," and it sets up shop somewhere else. It was my second night looking when I finally found a decent one of these sites, met Shinobu-san, and really got serious about ending this pathetic farce the system calls "a life." Shinobu-san understood everything about me at once. It was less than a month later that I asked her to join me for the end.

The image of Shinobu-san's one word reply ("Yes.") vanished from my mind when I saw that we had nearly reached the end of the path. Now it became steep and it was clear that the stairs had been constructed. We hurried up the final six or seven, taking them in single steps.

"Holy…" I said upon reaching the top.

"It is very beautiful," she said, her voice hushed with respect.

Japan is a country of islands, of course, and the islands are covered with life. But when we reached the top of those stairs and stood there looking out at all that emptiness between the mountains, something in my heart ached with the simple truth of it all. I knew we had come to do the right thing. Despite the vegetation turning colors with the oncoming autumn, the increasing desolation one saw as the eye traveled up the mountain made it clear: the part of the world closest to heaven is dead.

I turned from the view and the setting sun to catch my breath and looked around. We were still below the tree-line enough that it looked like a line. We stood on a wide platform of relatively flat ground. I'd wanted to make it farther up the mountain, but we didn't have enough food for another day, and we wanted to end it at dawn. It was a good place. The small tent we'd brought would fit right in-between two ash trees, and we could finally be free. The path we'd followed dropped off at the edge of our patch of ground, then stretched out behind us.

"It's perfect," I whispered. I touched Shinobu-san's shoulder; she jumped. "Sorry." I licked my lips. "We're really going to do this. Aren't we."

She nodded. "We are."

I thought about her legs again. "Listen, Shinobu-san… If what I'm about to say offends you, please tell me, but--”

"Yes," she said, understanding perfectly. "Yes. That would be nice." This time she did smile a little. "Let's set up the tent."

We finished the tent by eight o'clock, and just in time, too. The air was much colder up here, and with the coming autumn, we damned near froze our butts off, even in the heat of the moment. Shinobu-san was younger than me by a year or two, and it was her first time. I wanted it to be good for her, but I'd only done it once or twice myself. I don't think it hurt her that much.

"If they notice, my family will be soooo mad at me," I said, dozing. "They don't understand suicide the way your people do, Shinobu-san." I didn't realize then, lying with her, that I had actually ruined the entire trip.

"You do not understand us," she said.

"No? Explain it to me."

She did not speak. She lay next to me, my arm around her and her strange black hair on my shoulder. I could feel her body all the way down the side of mine. She shivered. I meant to ask her if she wanted to put a shirt on, or something. I meant to tell her that I loved her, that I'd never met anyone who understood me like she did. We didn't know each other, not all the details and little idiosyncrasies. Come on, we met on the Internet. But we understood each other, we understood that this was our chance to show everyone that we controlled our lives and deaths, the world did not. We would decide what to do with our lives. It would not.

Sometime later, I awoke alone. I raised my head and smacked my tongue in my mouth. Mmm, clearly I'd forgotten to brush my teeth before going to sleep. "Shinobu?" I asked, forgetting the "-san" suffix in my stupor. "Hello?" I was just about freezing to death. "Not cool," I said, bunching the sleeping bag up around me even as I reached for some clothes.

A couple minutes later, I crawled out of the hunter-orange tent. A black silhouette against the huge rising sun, Shinobu-san sat seiza near the drop-off, her now-clothed back to me. My heart fluttered, but there was no backing out now. I figured Shinobu-san wouldn't. She was crazy-Japanese, all about the seppuku, the ritual suicide. For me to back out now would betray everything that she was, everything that she stood for. It would betray our trust, as well.

"Hey," I said, sitting next to her. She smiled lightly. "Um, I hate to interrupt you, but we said we'd do it at dawn, and… here it is."

"Yes," she said. "Here it is. The beginning of our last day ever."

"Well, of this life, anyway," I said, smiling. “Do you believe in reincarnation? That we'll come back as a house-cat or a cow or something?”

"It's not really like that," Shinobu-san said.

"No? What's it like?"

"See that tree down there?" she asked, nodding down the steepness of the mountain.

"The fallen one?"

"It fell some time ago; you can see that the earth has already started to reclaim it."

"Recycling at its best," I said.

"That tree's death feeds and houses many smaller bugs and microbes. In time, they will die, and they will become part of the soil that another seed will use to become a newer, stronger tree."

I shrugged. "Whatever. Let's start, okay?"

"Okay. But Alan-san?" I raised my eyebrows. "The tree…"


"It may rejoin the earth, and the earth may create another tree, but never that tree again."

"Shinobu-san, I don't…" I thought about how to ask her when she'd decided to stay up all night and start trying to back out of our agreement? "Look, if that tree fell, then it wasn't worthy of staying up. I look at my life and find it wanting. If it won't fall down on its own, then by God, I'll chop it down. Now, are you still with me? Will you stand by your word of honor and go with me?"

She took a breath and looked out on the desolation of the world for the last time. "Yes."

We covered the tent with a large sheet of plastic that we duct taped to the sheet of plastic we'd placed on the ground under the tent. The grill I started inside the tent; Shinobu-san had suggested burning the charcoal without the grill (to lighten the load we had to carry) but hadn't thought about how it might burn the tent down too soon. We let the grill burn for five minutes or so, then went inside. Once inside the tent, we duct taped the rest of the plastic shut and sat down, looking at the grill and holding hands. The smoke stung our eyes, but after only three or four breaths, I felt myself getting sleepy again. I slouched down into the cold dampness of the nylon and stretched my feet out carefully, making sure I would not accidentally kick the grill and burn myself.


"What?" I asked, only half awake. I could actually feel the darkness drawing me in, holding me. Like a mother. Oh, to sleep.

"No more," Shinobu-san moaned.

"Shin… Shinobbbuhhh…" I lay back and closed my eyes. I heard the zipper. I heard Shinobu-san whining as she tried to rip open the plastic. "Nuh… nuh… noooo…" I whispered. There was no air. There was only death, the guest we had come here to see, and Shinobu-san was being very rude.

I heard Shinobu-san finally tear the plastic (I think she used her teeth, at the end) and drag herself out of the tent, gasping for air. Something crunched like gravel. She cried out in surprise. I rolled away from the sound, meaning to fall back asleep and get up an hour later (I'd forgotten why I was there). But a strong gust of cold, fresh mountain air blasted me in the face.

"Damn it," I muttered, meaning to yell, but not having the strength. I suppose I could have died if I'd stayed, that I might have been far gone enough that the plastic might have shut enough to finish the job. I'll never know. I craned my neck to look out the open tent flaps, to look at Shinobu-san, and saw only the remains of the top step. A large chunk of it had crumbled away. Oh, no… I thought. Even if she had been willing to leave me, if she had fallen… I wasn't willing to leave her.

I heaved myself out of the tent and lay there, half in, half out. The fresh air took much longer to revive me than the fumes had to subdue me, but eventually I could crawl. I staggered on hands and knees over near the edge. A chunk of rock on the first step had disintegrated, leaving only a gap where our feet had been hours before. I wormed my way forward a little further and saw a splash of dark red on the fourth or fifth step down.

"Oh, no," I said, starting to cry. I collapsed to the ground, still not sure of my balance. I turned myself around so that my feet faced down the stairs, and I descended them like a crab. In a couple of spots, I slipped in something fresh and wet. "Damn it, Shinobu," I growled through my tears.

I was still crying when I found her. She'd fallen to a landing maybe three by five meters in area. Her arms bent the wrong way. Her face… The first time I saw her picture, I thought she had sent me a fake, a sub. She wasn't super model pretty; never think it. But she had straight teeth and a small nose. She was sad, but she smiled. She called it her "American" picture, because she smiled in it.

All that was gone.

"Oh, Shinobu-san!" I wailed, scrambling down the last couple longer steps and almost falling myself. "Oh, no! Oh, oh, oh, oh no! Why? Why did you leave me?" I collapsed into a kneeling position near her head and kissed her brow. Shinobu-san's bloody lips kissed my forehead. My trembling hands framed her face, wanting to touch her, but I didn't dare. I didn't worry about making it worse. It wouldn't get any worse. I just didn't want to cause any more pain.

"It doesn't hurt," she said clearly. Her words came in hitching breaths, since her broken ribcage and damaged spine made it hard to breathe regularly, but the words were strong, if not entirely free of the sound of blood. Yes, that's right: the sound of blood. It's not something I ever want to hear again.


"It doesn't--hurt, Alan-chan," she said, using the "-chan" suffix the way Americans call each other by pet names. "Heh. Bad on--the way down, but now--not so bad."

"I don't--I don't--don't," I blubbered. My forehead was sticky with her blood. It made me want to vomit, but I refused. "I don't know what to do!"

"Live," she said. "There is no--honor, no--nobility in suicide." This last word, a gasp. "Life--is meant to--be painful." The last two words there, her voice went higher. Squeaky.

"Wh--what? Shinobu--Shinobu-chan, I don't--under--"

"We are fools, Alan--Alan-chan. Life can--cannot be made--better by--not living it." She breathed in, and it caught in her chest six times. Six stuttering, hitching times. When her ghost chases me in nightmares, that is the sound it makes. "I meant--to die this morning. So--why did I--stay up--all night, just--just to have a final night?"

"I kinda wondered about that," I said, laughing and crying at the same time. She laughed a little, too. Her laughter was laced with blood.

"hikikomori… is death… Alan-chan. We were… both of us… already dead. Suicide… wouldn't change… that. Would not… release us."

"Shinobu, I'm sorry," I said. "This is all my fault. I don't--"

"Shh--shh," she said. Her left hand twitched on the ground. I think she meant to place it on my lips to quiet me. Her last words were so quiet, I am not sure how I heard them, but I did. "The only… release from death… is life. You think you want seppuku… an honorable death... but for you... seppuku… is not death. You must…"

But that was all she said.

There is an end to my part of this story, an end where I eventually make it back down the mountain, call the police, and tell her parents that Shinobu-san is dead. There is a lot of pain and guilt inside me, but I hadn't technically committed any crimes. She was old enough to make her own decisions. They let me go. I called my father. He and my sister met me at the airport.

I do not delude myself into thinking she is in a better place. She is dead. But I am not, and everyday of my life I look out at the desolation I see and I try to see whatever she saw on that mountaintop that made her change her mind, that made her break her promise and leave me. Everyday, I kill that first promise I made to her, and each time I do, I see a little more of what she saw when the sun was rising and feeding all the life that fights to raise the tree-line a little closer to heaven.