Akane Murakami died for a boy she did not love.
Rain dotted the surface of Miyazu Bay and spattered the leaves of the trees on the shore. The night sky hung low with a gray blanket of clouds, as though at any moment it might tear open and spill down a deluge that would wipe all of Kyoto Province from the map. Akane felt no remorse at the thought. If Monju-no-Chie School vanished in a flood, erased from the earth by the fury of ancient gods or a mistreated planet, it would be better for her. Better, perhaps, for all of them.
She pushed her long, wet hair away from her face, fresh droplets of rain sliding under the collar of her shirt. Akane knew she looked a mess, but this did not trouble her. After all, who would see her out here on the shore of the bay, at night, in the rain?
The storm had soaked through her school uniform and it clung uncomfortably to her. At first she had plucked at it, but now she had become used to the cloth plastered against her body. The weight of her sodden clothes dragged at her, but Akane barely noticed. The rain fell and the wind made her shiver. No doubt this exposure would lead to a bad cold, but she was beyond caring.
Beyond caring about anything.
She had tried to be a friend to Jiro. Only a friend. He had beautiful, almost hypnotic eyes and strong hands from playing baseball. The girls at school fell all over one another trying to get his attention and Akane understood why, but she could not bring herself to fall in love with him. He made her laugh too much. Jiro was such a boy, so full of swagger and attitude. His parents had bought him a motorcycle for his last birthday, and his father had ridden it up to school one weekend so that Jiro could race it around and show off. They weren’t allowed anything but bicycles at school, so that day, Jiro had been everyone’s friend. Yet when he’d sat astride it, basking in the attention of the girls and other guys who envied him, he seemed so foolish.
Akane knew Jiro was no fool. He did well in school and had a talent for art that went far beyond the manga that she liked to read. His paintings took her breath away. But when others were around, he had to lift his chin and behave as though he felt he deserved to be the center of attention.
She teased him mercilessly. On his sleek red motorcycle that day, he had looked small, like a child pretending to be Akira, racing across the streets of some post-apocalyptic city. Jiro took her teasing shyly, smiling, when he would have been angry at anyone else. He spent time with Akane whenever he could, away from school and the other students. They walked along the bay and visited the ancient prayer shrines and wondered, together, about the ancestors who had lived on Miyazu Bay, who had lived and loved and shed blood there. They had talked about baseball and art and about books, for Akane loved to read.
Jiro became her closest friend, but she could never have fallen in love with him. In time, though, she understood why he behaved so differently around her than he did around other girls. Others had suggested it and Akane had always brushed their words away.
But tonight he had kissed her.
Jiro loved her.
Akane felt like a fool. She ought to have seen it, but even if she had, she would never have believed it. The look of hurt in his eyes when she had pushed him away, had gently explained that she did not think of him in that way, still stung her. She might not be in love with Jiro, but she cared for him deeply and hated being responsible for what she could only imagine he must be feeling now.
He had left her there, on the bay shore, as the rain began to fall.
Now she hugged herself and watched the sprinkling of raindrops upon the bay. The quiet of the storm held a beauty that made her hold her breath. The wind rippled across the water and rustled in the leaves of the trees, a gentle hushing sound that lent her comfort.
She did not want to go back to school. Not ever. But she had no choice. Soon, the soaking clothes and chilly wind would be too much for her and would drive her inside. Until then she would stay here, not far from an old prayer shrine where local people sometimes still burnt candles.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the night and the storm.
For several more minutes she watched the rain fall and gazed at the dark, jagged silhouette of the black pines on Ama-no-Hashidate, the spit of land that jutted out into the bay.
At last she turned to make her way back up the long slope that led up to the school and her dormitory beyond. The rain had been falling hard for perhaps an hour and the slope had become soft and muddy underfoot. Akane slipped and fell to one knee, planting a hand to keep herself from sprawling face-first. Her knee squelched in the mud and when her hand struck the ground it squirted up to splatter her jacket.
She felt like crying. Instead, she found herself laughing.
As she climbed to her feet, she slipped again but this time did not fall. Already her shoes were ruined. Pushing her wet, slick hair away from her face, she looked uphill toward the lights of Monju-no-Chie School. Minutes before, she had wished it demolished, but now she felt grateful to see the glow of the windows. It would be warm and dry inside.
Off to her right, something squelched in the mud. Akane glanced in that direction and, at first, saw nothing. But then the darkness moved. Her breath caught in her throat as a patch of night deeper than the gray-black storm resolved itself, and then others began to appear in the storm around her. They reminded her, for just a moment, of the black pines outlined against the night sky on Ama-no-Hashidate.
“Who’s that?” she said. “I was just coming back. I-”
The silhouettes gathered around her. Now she could see the rain trickling down their faces and they were close enough that she saw them, recognized them.
“He says he kissed you.”
The girl who spoke the words had chocolate brown eyes and a round face that might have been lovely had it not been twisted with a cruel sneer. Her hair had been pulled tight in a ponytail, tied with a yellow ribbon.
“He says he can’t ever love me because his heart is full of you.”
Akane shook her head. She held up her hands, trying to explain. The girl slapped her so hard that the sound echoed like a whipcrack along the path. Akane drew a stunned breath and held a hand to her cheek, stepping back. But the girl followed her and this time struck her with a closed fist. The blow connected with the side of her head and Akane stumbled backward, slid in the mud, and fell. The rain-soaked dirt and grass was cold on her bare legs and as she slid, her skirt was dragged up. Akane reached to try to hold it down, hoping the girl would just go away now, satisfied with having humiliated her.
The first kick took her in the lower back. She shouted in pain, and then another girl kicked her in the jaw. Spasms of pain shot through her skull, and then the kicks and punches began to rain down upon her. In the dark and the storm and with her face now smeared with mud, she could not make out their faces anymore. One girl stomped on her right breast and Akane screamed. She felt a rib break. When she raised her hand to try to defend herself, a black shoe came down on her hand, snapping fingers.
Her mind shut down then. The blur of rain and pain, the storm of blows, swept her away on a wave of regret and confusion.
Fists bunched up in her long hair, fingers twining there, and then some of those dark silhouettes-those faceless shadow girls-dragged her down to the water. Hands gripped her, six or eight or ten of them, and hoisted her off the ground. Akane managed one last scream, ragged from where she had been kicked in the throat, and then they hurled her into the shallows just offshore.
Frantic, bleeding, and broken yet desperate, she tried to drag herself from the water. Rising up, she saw the silhouettes of those black pines and knew she faced the wrong direction. When she corrected her course, those other black silhouettes greeted her. A foot came down on her head, pressing her face under the water, into the soft bottom of the bay. Struggling, she gasped, swallowing dirt and detritus from the bottom and breathing in