My best friend, my blood-sister, decided to make the Ultimate Sacrifice to destroy Asami Ogino. We were drinking chuhai on an overpass, and as the world roared beneath us, Yurie showed me the letter she planned to send to the Ministry of Education. It was a four-page, four-year chronicle of the sins Asami had visited upon her. She had, of course, used a PO Box and Anonymity Seal. She wrote: Don’t try to find me. Just make it stop. I almost let the letter fly over the barbed wire toward the smoke-covered sun, because I already knew the Ministry wouldn’t care, just like our teachers didn’t care. That was the difference between me and Yurie: I had accepted that life was shit, not just in school but beyond; Yurie still had this perverse expectation of joy. All that tightly-wound, brightly-colored hope was her downfall.
“If I don’t hear back in a week,” she said, “I’m doing it.”
This is something people often misunderstand: Yurie didn’t want to do the Ultimate Sacrifice. But she already tried everything else. Two dozen Vengeance Charms bought from skeletal bloodhounds in the grimy alleys behind malls, cooked up from the bloody floor planks of haunted houses. A zip file of a black-market video-bomb, Grudge of a Predator: a so-called documentary on our so-called war crimes (she refused to tell me how much she paid for that one). We also took a two-hour bus ride up to Rika Yamazaki’s shrine so Yurie could wish for Asami’s death. Miss Yamazaki had an 80% satisfaction rate, on account of the enormous rage cloud that spawns when you’re shoved off a balcony by a jealous ex-boyfriend—but even then, Asami was fine.
Asami was so fine that she had some of her friends burn Yurie’s arms with cigarettes before school. I hadn’t been there—I was slumped at the foot of my bed, staring at the clock—but I saw Yurie showing off the bleeding black wounds to curious first-years. The math teacher scolded her for upsetting everyone; I wondered if Yurie had lost her mind. Maybe this is where Love of Life takes you, in the end.
“That Yamazaki bitch just sits on people’s wishes,” Yurie complained, but Miss Yamazaki did have a lot of wishes to answer. It wasn’t just junior high students anymore, but sad middle-aged couples and bespectacled professionals and families with little kids in bear hats. I thought it was fucked up to take your kids to the grave of an angry murdered stranger, but who am I to judge. “That’s why we need regulations on shrines. Not that this government can get anything passed.”
Yurie didn’t like the Prime Minister—thought he was a fatalist unable to grab the wheel and stop this car crash we were all in. On my worst days, I worried she secretly thought the same about me. After all my father had been a bureaucrat, servant to the impotent government—very particular about following state recommendations on psychic energy, even though he hadn’t written them. He was in the labor ministry. Research. No research in the world can save you from your destiny, I guess.
“It’s always a gamble, using dead people.”
Yurie’s phone beeped—we didn’t need to look to know the message was some variant of DIE DIE DIE with UGLY and SLUT tossed in for extra color. I said, “None of them are worth anything.”
“Michi, I lost everything. Choir, the girls I used to know, how teachers look at me . . . my stupid bicycle. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“I know what loss is like.”
Her face crumpled with apology. She had been with me three years ago when, halfway through a crosswalk, I looked up at a giant screen and saw something about Riot and Government Worker and a somber photo of my father on top of the tortured remains of a black sedan. My brain had floated out through my eyes, trying to escape this new post-father existence, while my body stayed rooted in the street. It was Yurie’s screaming that brought me back to this shit-covered world.
“But we’ve got weapons now. And I’m going to use them, even if you’re too scared.”
Yurie called psychic energy an arsenal. She was always stocking up. But at a certain point you run out of money, out of options. I’d heard of precisely one dead banker with a 100% satisfaction rate, but his shrine was perched on an island in Matsushima, and who had the money for that? Eventually all you’ve got to spend is your soul. Traditional fortune-tellers call psychic energy “dismal energy,” probably because they’re afraid of losing their customers now that anyone can pluck that power out of the ether, but maybe they were right: maybe nothing but suffering can come out of psychic energy.
“And what are you paying for that weapon? It’s called Ultimate Sacrifice for a reason.”
She snorted. “Life’s not much of a sacrifice. You know that.”
Yeah, I knew. I was the one that pointed out black companies and the cyber-homeless. I was the one that buried my father after his car hit a cyclist and a mob stomped him to death. It wasn’t fair to ask me to argue for a beautiful future, and bam: I was angry. Yurie grabbed my sleeve.
“Don’t hate me,” she hissed. I thought, if I promise never to forgive you, will that keep you breathing? But I couldn’t keep my face stern, not to her tears. “I could never hate you,” I said.
Of course Yurie never heard back from the Ministry of Education. Of course Asami never got pulled out of school. So Yurie bought the script for the Ultimate Sacrifice from a glass case in one of the city’s first psychic shops, a converted pharmacy with a red door. The old woman who unlocked the case asked her if she understood the sanctity of life, had her look at pictures of babies and ducklings.
“What if I don’t want you to go,” I said. We were standing at the intersection where we’d have to part ways. I had used up everything in my own arsenal to dissuade her, and now I was down to the raw, wriggling emotional stuff that I hated handling. “Will that make you stay? Will you stay for me?”
She didn’t answer right away. Instead she hugged me and said, “Girl, I love you,” before tugging the straps of her backpack and walking resolutely up the hill, like a Himalayan mountain climber. Her answer came that night, when Yurie’s mother called to say Yurie had jumped off a building, to her death.
I was calm, all things considered. Ever since my mother put her arms around me and said she had some terrible news, a numbing chill settled on my shoulders like a shawl. During Yurie’s funeral I could only think of how cold I was, how strange everyone was acting. People with faces out of half-remembered dreams kept asking how I was doing since Yurie’s “accident.” I’d never heard “I know you girls were close” so many times. I’d say, “Yurie’s coming back,” and that always made them look away.
I spent a month waiting for Asami to die. I wanted front-row seats for Yurie’s Revenge—I was scared I’d miss it if I looked away for a second. But Asami kept on giggling, pointing, whispering—at me, at the fat sad kid, at the quiet soprano that had become her new whipping girl since Yurie died. Asami picked at the weak like the obsessive compulsive pick at scabs: she just couldn’t seem to stop. When I nearly set everyone on fire in chemistry, Asami mouthed at me, “Kill yourself, worm.”
“You’re not taking your future seriously, Michi,” Miss Tomoe said after class. She was unmarried, childless, tending to her parents, forever trapped in high school. I couldn’t imagine anything worse. “It’s so important that you don’t slip up now.”
I wondered if Yurie had messed up the curse—written the words wrong, done something out of order. Bold, reckless Yurie—it wouldn’t have been the first time.
“I’m sorry about your friend’s accident. You don’t blame yourself for what happened, do you?”
Obviously, I blamed myself—for failing to keep her alive, for being too weak to suffer with her at school. After she walked away on that final evening of her life, I yelled at her to call me, and she waved back without turning her head. In some of my dreams she did turn, but had no face to speak with—just an endless curtain of brittle ombre hair. In other dreams she whispered something different when she hugged me: “Girl, come with me.” But as always, I was too scared.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why do you pop anti-depressants between classes?”
Miss Tomoe’s plate-like façade shattered and she burst into tears right there at the desk, surrounded by all her little beakers. Not long after that, she was fired for forcing a failing student to drink hydrochloric acid. She’d poured herself a beaker too, saying “Here’s to failure!” The student spat his out; Miss Tomoe finished hers.
The sun was setting. I was trudging down the hill under stringy electrical wires when I heard a voice call my name: a deep, deliberate “Michi,” like a summons from a northern volcano. Each syllable kissed my bones, rippled my blood. State recommendations tell you to never seek the mouth that releases a voice like that—it’s going to be an ugly one, or a hungry one. But I knew the human marrow gurgling inside that voice. It had asked to borrow my pencil, laughed at my morbid jokes. “Michi!”
I turned. Yurie was hovering behind me, the untied laces of her shoes barely scraping the sidewalk. She looked different; terrible. She was covered in blood, like a newborn or a crime scene, but her skin was marble-white. Her joints hung crooked as a carelessly-flung ragdoll. Her neck was so twisted that she could barely keep eye contact with me; her jaw smashed so deep it was hard to believe she could speak. My blood-sister. “Asami,” she hissed. For a second I thought that in the trauma of death she had forgotten who I was, and the thought of being ripped apart by Yurie’s hands nearly stopped my heart. “I-I-I can’t.” She kept stopping and starting like a scratched recording. “Reach Asami.”
I forgot that you aren’t supposed to engage ghosts and stammered to ask why not.
“Ah-ah-asami!” she yelled, although I didn’t actually see her mouth widen. Suddenly her hands were reaching toward me as if to give me another hug—I stumbled backward. “Veiled.”
The Ultimate Sacrifice was supposed to be so strong—it was always linked with either a murder or a miracle, like the Brave Boys of Shizuoka who committed suicide to save their school from yet another earthquake—that we never even considered the possibility that it wouldn’t work. “Yurie, I’m sorry.” Yurie wasn’t blinking anymore and her eyes were red spider webs. She used to carry eyedrops—she had to be in pain. “I miss you. I’m sorry.”
“Michi, help me!” I’d heard this so many times from her: after-school cleaning duty, the robotech competition in junior high, every doomed day with Asami’s foot upon her neck. Yurie’s were the hands that dragged me out from under my bed. She’d been dragging me into her battles for years.
This time, I didn’t answer. Yurie’s plea hung between us, suspended across her grave like a very, very long game of telephone. Somewhere a screen door opened and a man shouted, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll call you later!” I became aware of birds chirping on the electrical wires, the sound of traffic, the ache in my shoulder . . . I exhaled, letting out the sweet and sour stench of a broken-down body and breathing in garbage, detergent, fish. Yurie vanished, and my relief criss-crossed almost immediately with sadness.
Yurie didn’t give up. Really, I should have known she wouldn’t; she’d been friends with me for six years. A normal person would have dumped my ass on the curb after my first crying spell, but Yurie was a sucker for lost souls. I used to say she had a Good Nurse complex, but Yurie insisted the love came first, and the care-taking after. And I won’t lie: after my father died, I clung to Yurie.
And now she clung to me. We stared at ourselves in my bathroom mirror. We walked together to school. We sat together in homeroom, Yurie behind me with her bloody arms childishly locked around my waist, hissing “help me help me.” Back before Asami destroyed Yurie’s bicycle, we used to ride around the suburbs like that, except she’d be pedaling in front, veering to scare me, and I’d be sitting rigid and tense in the back, shrieking at her to be careful. I felt suffocated. I could almost taste her blood in the back of my throat. On some subterranean level I was terrified of her—terrified that she was drowned in blood because she’d been out killing strangers, because she couldn’t touch Asami.
At lunchtime I wound up on the roof, gulping what passed for fresh air and trying not to vomit.
“Did you come to kill yourself like Yurie?” I whipped my neck back. Asami was sitting under one of the roaring air vents, smoking a clandestine cigarette. She blew a little nicotine cloud toward me. “Well? I know you were her other half.”
It sounds absurd given the tears we’d shed over this bitch, but I was relieved to hear someone admit that Yurie’s death was no accident—unless her whole life was an accident, and if so then why not mine, why not Asami’s or my father’s or the Prime Minister’s? Asami shifted and something around her neck caught the light—a tiny sun beneath her chin. She budged again and I saw what it was: a glassy choker, nearly invisible beyond the glare, tight as a lattice tattoo across her throat. She saw me staring and slapped her hand over it. I could almost see something human breathing beneath her bone-fine face. “What are you looking at, freak?”
Asami shed friends so fast, I bet she’d never had a blood-sister—someone her heart had twinned to, for better or for worse. Maybe she envied me and Yurie. “Why did you hate Yurie so much?”
“She was the one that hated us,” said Asami, voice dripping steel. “She rejected us. You know how she was. Always had to be different. Always a loudmouth. How do you think that made us feel?”
I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. “She’s dead because of you.”
Asami lifted the pink-banded Pianissimo to her lips and shrugged. “So she was weak, like all the rest.” I wondered if anyone else had ever turned into a mess on a sidewalk because of Asami. “The strong survive, that’s the rule.”
And that’s when I knew I had to do it—because Asami was wrong about that. The real rule, the one my father taught me, was this: anyone can bite you, so be good to other people. “Everyone has to pay their due,” he’d say while we watched news segments on terrorists and corrupt politicians and faraway blindfolded hostages. He believed so much in cosmic justice that when he died I wondered if he’d once done something heinous. But maybe it wasn’t that simple. Maybe justice had more arms, a longer reach, than we ants could comprehend.
“Everyone has to pay their due,” I said. Asami’s plastic laughter followed me into the stairwell and I thought, she doesn’t have a soul to lose anyway.
Asami and her devotees were waiting for me after school. I was on bathroom cleaning duty, so they nearly drowned me in the toilet. Here’s something else people need to understand: kids buy curses like arcade tokens—some of them counterfeit, sure, but others real. Asami did the sort of stuff you wouldn’t do to anyone unless you knew they couldn’t stick you with a visit from Hanako-san. But I held it together in the toilet bowl; Yurie would have been proud of me. I told myself this was nothing, nothing in comparison to what she’d been put through. My feet slipped on the tiles as Asami rifled through my purse, looking for “spending money” that she didn’t need, and I didn’t have.
“You’re paying your due right now, freak,” Asami said. “For talking back to me.”
At Rika Yamazaki’s grave, I had wished for my father to find eternal rest in that great vinyl office chair in the sky. I didn’t want him returned, even though I heard my mother cry at night. With the earth being shaken and stabbed and poisoned at every turn—mad cow, mad bird, mad people—he was better off making his peace with the other side. His suffering had ended. Good.
The beauty of psychic energy—the reason my father worshipped the state recommendations—is that protection is nearly impossible. A psychic attack, the public service announcements explained, is like a natural disaster. There’s no kicking it back. That’s why the cheerful cartoon ghost on the PSAs chirps that “The best way to protect yourself is to be a good person!” And some preliminary studies have hinted that the rate of infidelity is decreasing, because cheating hearts are afraid of waking up fused to their lovers. We’re not turning into better people, but our retribution is getting closer.
Of course real life isn’t that simple, because some people will always be able to pay for the impossible, and if there’s one thing talent’s drawn to, it’s artillery and armory. We’re doing well. We’re killing ourselves off at record speed. And a very few of us—a lucky, golden few—have the means to hurt without repercussion, to escape the judgment of peers, to skate above this shitty, brutal world. Internet chatter says the Prime Minister has a talisman, or else he never could have dissolved Parliament twice, and common sense says the Emperor surely has one too. And so did Asami Ogino, third-year high school girl in western Tokyo. I wondered how her parents decided to buy her one—had she bitten other babies? Or did they just want give their little princess every advantage?
This is what I thought about while I sat in the auditorium waiting for the choral concert to start. This is what I thought about so I wouldn’t think about the fact that I was going to kill the star soloist.
I had already promised Yurie. I’d been sitting in the library, searching yearbooks for pictures of Asami and checking for the necklace—the tiny sun cloaked in clouds—when Yurie’s pale bloody hand snaked over my shoulder. I remembered painting those nails sky-blue, when blood still ran under the skin instead of on top of it. And now I couldn’t even look her in the eye, because I knew she’d seen hell.
“I told you I’d never let you down,” I said, although this was the first time I was sure about that. “But once I do this, you’ll be gone forever.” She would never hurtle us down another hill on a bicycle death-ride. She would never curse me out again, just like she would never forgive me any more of my weaknesses. She would never ask me to do anything else to win a war, or live my life.
Yurie squeezed—not hard, but all softness was gone from her—and whispered, static from a pirate radio, “Come with me to the beautiful land.”
The weight of the world, of Yurie and my crying mother and my years upon years of unhappiness, tumbled onto my shoulders and for a second my spine caved, heaving, toward my dead blood-sister. I was so furious at her for doing this terrible thing, for forcing me to help, for abandoning me to struggle on alone in a world that no one would admit was a post-apocalypse. “Not yet,” I said. I couldn’t say I was afraid of hell. Knowing Yurie, she’d just try to convince me.
It turns out that it’s true what they say about being on stage: the audience disappears into a void. You feel them watching, but really it’s just you and your demons, doing battle. Asami was a million-dollar angel up there, with the stage-light halo and the talismanic necklace blazing like an open wound, but I like to think that when she saw me step out of the dark and into the hot bath of incandescent light she realized that retribution was on its way.
I knocked her down—her head hit the floor with an ugly clunk—and dug my fingers under the necklace, scraping the mortal flesh of her soft perfumed neck. Asami was spitting in my eyes, yanking my hair, but I won. I wasn’t stronger. I wasn’t tougher. But I took bigger risks, because I had nothing else to lose. Yurie—Yurie had been the last thing. The necklace unclasped in my hands and instantly, the fire left Asami’s face—her eyes softened, her teeth vanished. The little deer had seen death. I rolled away just before the roof of the world opened up and hell rained down upon her.
I looked for Yurie in the torrent of red and black liquid lightning gushing in and out of Asami’s ribs, but there were no faces in the storm. No faces at the end of the world. Not even Asami, by the end, had much of a face. But if I strained, if I blocked out the yelps and sobs, I could pick Yurie’s mezzo-soprano voice out of the demon chorus. She was the only one singing in the blood.
“Girl, I love you, too,” I whispered.
I’m holding Asami’s choker over a trashcan fire. I’ve been wearing it for the past two months; it might be the only thing keeping me alive. Asami’s family has connections—that’s how they got the talisman. So a demon-horde might be hanging over my head right now, waiting for my shield to lift.
Now I can see why Asami was so impassive, so callous: the necklace submerges you in a viscous superfluid, and everything else becomes virtual, dreamy, distant. The world’s your doll house; nothing matters and nothing moves you. Once I tossed a cigarette over my shoulder at a park and an old man on litter duty cursed me with an enchanted megaphone—but nothing happened, so I lit another. Maybe burning other people’s raw nerves was Asami’s only access to the live wire of emotion. I know I’ve caught myself forgetting that this fishbowl is not reality, and the true world is spinning on without me.
I drop the necklace in the fire and soon amber flames are skating across black metal. Each flame is its own nuclear devil—an undead spirit, an undying wheel—racing alone down a freshly-tarred highway. I’ve been dreaming about hell and the beautiful land, even without Yurie’s guidance—I still miss her, but I know she’s waiting for me on the burning plain. Sometimes I hope I’ll see Asami beside her, finally holding her hand—blood-sisters of a different kind. Other times, I hope it’ll be years before I see either of them. The necklace starts to smoke, and I start to count. I’ve vowed to stand in the open for three minutes before going back to my mother’s dinner table. With Asami, it had only taken ten seconds. I pass that mark. I pass it three times. Four times.
Then I hear a noise, like a flock of gulls diving into a sea. I turn.
Originally published in Phantasm Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington.