Short Story: Perpetual Agony
Sapporo, Japan – 2048 A.D
I played a final arpeggios to end the song, before standing up and bowing deeply to the general. General Sato’s guests clapped, and so did the general himself. “What a prodigy! He’s only sixteen, yet he plays the piano so well!” I heard someone saying. Such comments were not made infrequently wherever I had a chance to play, and I smiled at the person who had made the comment. Gratitude is always a good thing to show.
General Sato stood up and patted my shoulder before turning back to look at his visitors. “So, my friends, did you enjoy that show?”
“Indeed, we did!” One of the men stood up to say. “There aren’t any musicians in Okinawa anymore. They seem to have all died during the war, or moved to other places. I’ve spent all my time listening to crap played by people who don’t know a thing about music. It’s terrible down there. This is heavenly compared to what we have. I’m deeply grateful, sir.”
I bowed to the man who gave me the comment. I knew that these men were nothing but some low level diplomats from the islands down South, but protocol dictated that I give them my utmost respect.
“With your permission, I shall return to my own residence.” I said, turning to General Sato.
“That permission is granted. Thanks for today, Yuto.”
As I exited the room, all of the friends and courtiers surrounding the general started to stand up. He gestured for the guests to do the same, and soon enough upbeat music came on. I heard the general yell, “I’ve had enough discussing the reunification of Japan today, so I’m going to throw you the best party you’ve ever seen in your lives! It’s the one you’ll be boasting to al the beggars back home! Bring on the wine!” Even as people were still starving outside, the elites of Hokkaido were not willing to give up any of their wasteful privileges. I shook my head.
I made my way through the general’s huge villa. As I exited from the gates onto the road, I sighed. The contrast between the inside and the outside was always so stark and troubling. It was only 8 PM, but all the shops were already closed and there were hardly people walking around. Almost every window was dark; no one was in the mood to spend more than they needed to, and that included not spending too much on the electricity funds. And no one was out at night. It was too dangerous.
The costs of the great war two years previously, in the year 2046, had vanquished the power of the central Tokyo government in huge swathes of the nation. The former national government was reduced in its territory from the entirety of Japan to barely beyond the capital, and with this fracturing of the country, the different welfare state and security services had crumbled away with Tokyo’s power. In faraway Hokkaido, as an island, even with General Sato as a strongman, lawlessness was still more common in the streets than the rule of law.
It’s a shame that the war had to destroy everything, shattering the prosperity of a nation.
I was too deeply consumed by my own thoughts and noticed almost too late that someone was coming up behind me; she was only a few meters behind. I quickly grabbed the gun I had in my pocket- the general permitted everyone who was an associate, not excluding a sixteen year old, to hold a gun- and swiftly turned backwards. The robbers around here sure are quiet, I thought.
But I didn’t see quite what I was expecting.
I saw a teenage girl- probably only slightly younger than myself- with long black hair, and an innocent-looking pair of eyes. Her clothes looked ragged and worn out, but behind that unkempt appearance was a certain prettiness. She walked closer to me.
“Please support an aspiring musician.” she said.
“An aspiring musician.” I repeated. “Who?”
“Myself.” she said. “I’m going to be a musician, and I need funding.”
I looked back at her coldly, handing her a banknote which she quickly snatched. I’d chosen one of the banknotes issued from Tokyo, which, quite frankly, had become almost worthless in the face of the rampant inflation that the central government faced. “You’re just begging me for money, right? You shouldn’t be outside right now. You should know how dangerous the streets are at night. Go back home; if you have one, that is.”
“I’m not a beggar. I’m a musician.” she replied pointedly.
I turned back and kept walking. I needed to rest, or I’d be too exhausted tomorrow. I have to perform for a top minister from the Fukuoka government tomorrow.There isn’t time to be arguing with a deluded girl, especially not so late in the night. I knew that she was following me, which was pretty bold considering she should’ve seen my gun, but I didn’t care. We walked along silently without saying anything to each other. Soon enough I stood in front of my townhouse- the general granted it to me after he heard my first performance- and I turned back at her. “What do you want?” I snapped. “If you want money, then know that I’m not carrying any more than what I gave to you.”
“You’re a famous pianist. You’re Harada Yuto. I want to ask you about how I can become a musician, too.”
“I’m not going to let you into my house, so you-“
The sky rumbled and it started raining.
I glanced back at her. She stared back at me with her powerful, yet innocent eyes, and I sighed. “Alright, come in. Just for a while though.”
* * * *
“Your room isn’t quite as luxurious as what I’d imagined.” the girl commented as she came in and sat at the small table I had in the room without asking. I poured a cup of water and sat down opposite her.
“It’s a miracle that I have one at all.” I replied, passing her the cup. “So what’s your name?”
“Kou.” I repeated. “That’s an ironic name for you.”
“You know, your name means ‘happiness’.”
“Yes. Your point?”
“Never mind. You want to be a musician?”
“But you’re not one right now. No one’s employing you. So how do you make money?”
The girl went silent.
“There’s no shame in admitting to being a beggar right now, if that’s what you are. A lot of people are living just like you.”
Kou’s face started to twist, and she pointed at my face. “Do not call me a beggar! I am not a beggar. I can live by myself. I sell old material for money-“
“You salvage the thrash for things you can sell.” I interjected.
“I also take food that others don’t need-“
“You steal food.” I interjected again.
The electricity went off. I sighed. The electricity and tap water was still so erratic. A few moments later, the lights came on again.
Kou was still glaring at me, and I realized that I was probably going a little too harsh on her. “I’m sorry.” I said, refilling her cup. “Again, there’s no shame in admitting what you actually do. Don’t forget thousands outside are probably living just the way you are. So how did you end up like this?”
She glared back at me furiously, but I pretended not to care. I guess I’m too indifferent person, but cruel wartime memories really do create hearts of steel.
“Well…” she began. “My family lived in Kyushu before the war began. My father died when I was eleven, but otherwise we were really happy. I learned to play music and I began to play the piano. That was until the war began. During that time, my brother was conscripted into the army. I have no idea what happened to him. When the enemy reached Kyushu, however, my mother and I fled up north.”
“Did you know that Tokyo’s still fighting to regain control over Kyushu? They’re still trying to launch amphibious landings, without success.” I said.
“I don’t follow the news. In the end we ended up here, in Hokkaido, but an air strike led to mother’s death. All her money got stolen, and in the end I was kicked out of the apartment we were renting because I couldn’t pay the rent anymore. I’m just always struggling to live, honestly. It’s so…depressing.”
I’d heard many similar stories before. Call me cold-hearted, but after such a brutal war I found it more and more difficult to sympathize with people. The scars that the war gave me still remained and I was reminded of it every day that I woke up to a cold, empty room.
“I see.” I replied. I stood up and walked over to a piano. “Can you play something for me, then?”
“Of course.” she said. I watched as she stood up and walked over to the piano. She played Canon in D, which isn’t such a difficult song, but she played it amateurishly, hitting some wrong notes and often repeating her playing of some parts that she had played incorrectly. It didn’t sound bad, but it also didn’t hint of any great musical destiny.
Once she finished, she turned back to look at me. There was hope in her eyes, I could tell, that I would say something that would change her future. Something like, “I’ll recommend you to the general”.
I gave it a thought. Here was a girl, a homeless girl who lived by selling scraps of thrash and stole food. The only reason she isn’t on drugs yet is probably because there was a severe shortage of all sorts of intoxicants since the war. Yet she was by no means unique; she was only one of the thousands all over the country that no one cared for.
Society had overlooked these people. But what would happen to them, if we continued to overlook them? Wouldn’t homeless kids eventually grow into robbers, and robbers into murderers? It was true that right now anyone, whether it be Central or the warlords, had enough on their plate to deal with than to provide for the needy, but this was like a sleeping epidemic, an unrealized disaster that was waiting to strike.
I sighed. They deserve a chance. We can’t forget them.
After all, I myself had been given a chance…
“Alright. You’re not good enough yet to be a musician.” I said, realizing that my voice until now has showed absolutely no warmth. I could see the hopes being strangled out of her immediately, as her shoulders slumped right away.
“But don’t worry. I’ll tutor you, every day at five in the afternoon. Alright with you?”
Her eyes shined and she quickly nodded.
I forced a smile. “You should go now. It’s getting late. Stay safe.”
As she left, I thought about her. Kou; a girl who was anything but happy. She was a blunt, unhappy orphan, whose dreams had been crushed by a war and was forced to join the homeless mass. She was obviously unhappy, but I sensed a certain feeling of determination and burning spirit from her.
* * * *
I now worked as a part-time pianist at the only hotel that remained in Sapporo. Apart from the patronage that the general provided, rather generously, this was my other constant source of income. I stepped to my seat next to the piano in the lobby, and started to play slow, gentle tunes. Sometimes I wondered how the hotel still remained open- there were so few visitors- but if they kept paying me to play, then I kept playing. The guards outside were also rather idle, and they simply stood chattering about the news.
“Tokyo’s forces has been assaulting the rebels on Mount Fuji again”, one of them declared.
“Oh. And the result?” The other asked.
“Nothing’s changed. Rebel position too strong. It was a bloodbath for Central’s troops.”
“Not surprised. I don’t think the Tokyo government is going to win this war of reunification. They’re too busy being corrupt and hoarding money to plan an offensive!”
“I guess I have to agree. General Sato would probably conquer Tokyo before they can come and get us up here…”
“Are you telling me General Sato is any worse at being corrupt? He’s probably even busier than the Tokyo regime at that!” The two guards laughed at the joke and I rolled my eyes. I was close enough to the general to know that he had just doubled the budget for the Hokkaido secret service so that they could more efficiently crack down resistance.
I tried to go back to concrete on playing the piano.
I could not.
Shouts came from behind me and I looked back. I saw a security guard dragging out a girl. “You little rascal,” the guard was saying, “Go starve in the streets.” It was a normal occurrence in the hotel, as the masses outside wanted a taste of what the life of the wealthy minority was like, so I was about to turn back when I saw who he was dragging out.
I got out of my seat and ran after the guard, who seemed a bit shocked that I even bothered to stop playing. “Stop!” I shouted, and the guard immediately took his hands off Kou. (Being the general’s favorite had its perks). “What are you doing?”
“This little bitch stole food from the kitchen.” the guard said, pointing at Kou. She looked untroubled and impassive. “I caught her. She should consider herself lucky that we’re not sending her to the general’s military police, considering the fact that she’s done this many times before.”
I nodded and handed Kou a couple of banknotes. The guard opened his mouth, as if to protest, but I waved him away.
“Don’t steal food here. Even the staff’s food is under rationing.” I told her quietly.
“Their food might be under rationing, but I don’t have any food.” Kou protested. “I’ve been wading through the garbage all day and I’ve even been sucking water out of bottles that people threw away, or finding scraps of moldy bread that the general threw out of his goddamn palace or something. But it’s not enough. I’m hungry as hell.”
“Use the money I gave you.” I said. “Go buy something to eat.”
“I can’t even walk around this damned city anymore.” she muttered. “The general’s soldiers chase after me whenever they see me. I miss my mother…” There were tears in her eyes.
I stared at her back as she walked away.
* * * *
We did eventually become closer over the next few weeks. Kou’s visits to my townhouse was nearly daily. I grew to have an unexpressed admiration of her determination and motivation. She had a dream, and she was ruthless in pursuing it. Her visits, however, were so often that even General Sato told me that people had began telling him that his favorite pianist was getting a homeless girlfriend. I assured him that it was unthinkable, but honestly homelessness is just a state that humans are forced to be placed into- and this was a girl who was striving at every moment to oust out that state.
“Don’t play the left hand so loudly,” I instructed, “And lift the pedal after every bar or so. The way you’re playing right now, it’s echoing so much that I’d be able to hear it from the Tokyo governor’s soundproof office.”
“Your hyperboles.” Kou muttered, and started replaying.
“Much better.” I said. “Hey, you’re pretty good now.”
“I still can’t make any money from this.”
“You should consider finding a real job. You’re not going to start making money from being a musician any time soon.”
“You should know as well as I do that there’s thousands of other people who can’t find a job. Can’t I go busking on the streets or something?”
“Are you kidding me? You can’t busk with a piano.” We both laughed.
“Hey.” she told me. “I’m starting to notice something.”
“You’re not so cold anymore. You actually joke around these days.”
My face flushed. “No! I mean…well…I guess I’m not so cold anymore around people I’m getting to know well…”
Is she winking at me?
“How about you, Kou? Are you still in a state of permanent depression?” When I saw how her face instantly darkened, and she looked away, I realized that I shouldn’t have asked that question.
“How can I not be? Nothing’s changing. Sure, my piano skills are getting a lot better thanks to you, but still, I’m barely getting by. My dreams, my ambitions- they’re still all way beyond me, and it’s like all of society is making sure they continue to push them farther and farther away from my reach. I’m part of the abandoned. No one wants me. That doesn’t change, regardless of how well I play music.” Her voice was bitter.
I did what I told the general was unthinkable.
I sat down next to her and gave her a hug.
She stiffened suddenly but I didn’t pull my arms off. “It’s fine. It’s fine. Don’t worry. Things will change.”
* * * *
She was late. Where was Kou? It was already an hour past the usual lesson time, and soon it’d be dark. I grabbed my gun and walked outside. I’ve never had a chance to actually use my gun yet, but I still don’t trust the people in this post-war atmosphere.
Opening the door, all I could see was white. I cursed softly. Sapporo’s snowstorms, always intensely heavy, were bad enough back in the days when the electricity always worked and everyone had shelter. Now I knew that many of the thousands of homeless outside would be freezing to death.
I started to run on the streets. There was no one else outside; they were probably all inside or trying to find refuge from the deadly cold. The next moment, however, I found that I was laying on the ground. I’d tripped over something. I looked back and found the body of a boy. His eyes were still open and I could tell that he was still alive, but in some sort of delirium. He was wearing ragged, torn clothing- barely enough to keep him comfortable in spring, let alone the below-zero temperatures of winter. I sighed. There was nothing I could do to help him. He was too far gone. I kept running until I reached the hotel.
Surely enough, the guard was there and he saluted to me. “Harada! What are you doing here now?”
“Have you seen Kou?”
“You mean your criminal girlfriend?”
“Uh- yes.” I considered raising a middle finger but this wasn’t the time to pick out a fight.
“Yes. She was hiding inside here from the cold. We dragged her out.”
“She was hiding around in the dining room. The rules indicate that anyone who was not a guest or hotel personnel were to be taken out. We dragged her out of the hotel. It wasn’t easy; she kept trying wriggle out…”
“You dragged her out. Even with the snowstorm outside.”
“Yes. The rules said so. We can’t disobey what the general laid out, can we? Anyway, she’s just a despicable wretch who steals…”
I didn’t wait to listen to him finish his disgusting sentence. I immediately walked out and closed the hotel doors in his face. I tried to think. I knew that Kou did not have enough clothes to withstand the cold of this snowstorm. She could’ve tried to make it to my apartment, but that was too far away and she was probably smart enough to know she’d never make it.
The tunnel. There was a tunnel in the other direction; not close, but not farther than a walking distance. It was used as a shelter by many homeless during the past snowstorms. I took off at my best speed.
* * * *
I had to stop to pant. The winter cold bit my skin, and I felt like I was trying to fight my way against the direction of the wind. The tunnel was simply so far away. Everything was getting dark, but the snow kept coming down and I could not see the moon.
I closed my eyes. I had to keep going. I took one step forward, and then tripped.
I looked back.
A girl was lying in the snow.
“Kou!” I cried out, running back to the body. I shook her and brushed the snow off her clothes. Her eyes were closed and her forehead felt like fire.
“Kou. Wake up, Kou!” I shouted. I saw her slowly lift open her eyes.
“Y-Yuto?” She said, almost dreamily.
“Kou.” I said. “It’s okay. I’ll bring you back to my apartment, in a heated room. You’ll be fine. It’s all fine.”
“No. It’s not. It’s not.” She gasped. “This is just never-ending pain. Please, just liberate me from this perpetual agony…”
I lifted her up, and looked at my surroundings. I knew that on this day, many would be freezing to death as they had no shelter and no clothes. In this postwar world, everyone was too occupied with their own problems and their own quest for comfort to offer help to anyone else.
I began to walk through the dark, back to my apartment.
In this world where even the brightest find it hard to shine, what chance do small fireflies have?
* * * *
The train moved along slowly through the countryside. To be honest I’d thought they wouldn’t be operating anymore. Apparently Tokyo still managed to keep some of the railway tracks running, in cooperation with the Hokkaido regime.
Kou sat next to me, and she seemed stuck in her thoughts. I glanced at a map. “Right now we’re near Osaka. We’ll be in Kyushu soon. You might be able to try and find your brother. There’s a good chance that he survived the war.”
“But how can I find my brother? I don’t know his address. I don’t even know if he’s dead or not.”
“I’ll help you find one. We’ll rent a hotel room until I find you a place to live, either with or without your brother.”
She fell silent, before looking up again.
“Hey, I have a question.” she said. “Why do you care about me so much?”
“I was too cold to you at first, I guess.”
“Why the change of heart?”
“We shouldn’t let anyone live in harsh agony forever and crush their dreams under our lack of sympathy. Everyone deserves a chance.”
She nodded slowly.
“I know that because I was given that chance by the general. I was once homeless, too.”