Chapter 1: Rude Awakening

Kouichi Sakakibara didn't know where he was. He didn't know why a fire was consuming the building he was in. He didn't know where Mei was. He only knew that he had to find her and escape before the smoke killed him. Kouichi ran down the endless halls shouting Mei's name as he checked every room. He began coughing from the smoke, so he covered his mouth with his shirt and continued the search. Upon finding yet another hallway, he opened the first door on the right. In the middle of the bedroom stood a figure who covered herself with an open umbrella. "Mei?" asked Kouichi hopefully. The girl closed the umbrella, and Kouichi gasped as he watched blood squirt from her open jugular. "Kouichi, why? Why did you let me die?" Yukari asked.

The boy slammed the door shut, only to hear footsteps behind him. He turned around to see a grown man shuffling towards him. It was none other than Mr. Kubodera, the homeroom teacher. A kitchen knife was still lodged in his throat. The man pulled the knife from his neck, and began shuffling slowly towards Kouichi like a zombie. The boy was terrified, but he refused to flee until he had checked every room for Mei. He sprinted to the next door and flung it open. He was horrified to see another boy his age, convulsing violently on a bed. Then, the other boy stilled, and his head snapped to the side, looking directly into Kouichi's eyes. Kouichi immediately recognized the boy as Ikuo, who died of a heart attack in June. "You just had to ask questions. You couldn't go along with the countermeasures like the rest of us. Are you happy now?"

Before Kouichi could turn away, a loud crash came from the left. He turned around to see that his classmate Takako had fallen through the roof, hanging by the neck from electrical cords. "Your fault," she whispered. Kouichi turned to run further down the hallway only to come face to face with another boy. He was wearing nothing but swim trunks and was dripping wet. His body looked like been through a shredder, with chunks of flesh missing from all over. His left arm was completely torn off, and blood was gushing from the stump. Not giving Junta a chance to speak, Kouichi shoved the corpse to the ground and ran. Moving on to the next room, he flung open the door. Izumi was fixed to the opposite wall by jagged pieces of glass. She looked like a sign nailed to a post, and blood trickled from her wounds onto the floor. Izumi looked up, and tears of blood came from her eyes. "I needed you, and you just forgot me. Couldn't even be bothered to comfort me as I died. Was I nothing to you? Maybe you would have cared if I was Mei."

This time, Kouichi didn't feel fear. This time he felt like he had been punched in the gut. As he backed away, he heard a rumbling come from the end of the hall. He turned and saw that the elevator was coming down fast. It stopped on his floor, and the doors opened with a creak. There he saw a beautiful young nurse, her crushed body lying in a pool of blood. "You killed me. You got me involved in your investigation, and look what happened. You murdered me," Sanae said looking up. Unable to handle it anymore, Kouichi fell to his knees and wept. "I'm sorry," he sobbed, "I didn't want this! I didn't want anyone to get hurt!" Kouichi felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and screamed as he saw that his teacher had finally caught up with him. Mr. Kubodera thrust his blade into Kouichi's chest, and he collapsed. The last thing he heard as darkness took him was his former friends chanting, "your fault."

Kouichi sat up in his bed with a cold sweat. He was panting heavily when he once again felt a hand on his shoulder. Instinctively, Kouichi yelped and swatted the hand away, only to see Mei, not his old teacher, looking back at him with worried eyes. Of course. Kouichi wasn't at that inn, or even in 9th grade anymore. He hadn't lived in Yomiyama City for well over fifteen years. After graduating high school, he had returned to Tokyo and completed culinary school. Now he was living in a comfortable, if small, house with his wife. "I'm sorry, it's just. . ." Kouichi explained, hugging Mei, who finished his sentence.

"You had another nightmare. About those days."

Kouichi only nodded and pulled her closer.

"I still get them too."

"Twenty years. Twenty damn years."

"Love, I don't think this is the sort of thing we'll ever fully get past, no matter how many years go by."

"I know, Mei. But as long as we're together, bad memories are easier to bear."

For a moment, Mei was silent, but then she smiled and said, "Do you remember the first time we really spent time together?"

Kouichi nodded and replied, "It was at your family's doll shop. You showed me the various dolls on display. Wasn't there a pair of conjoined twin dolls?"

"There was. I remember telling you that I couldn't understand how two people so tightly connected could look so calm. How attachment could make one at peace." Mei then rested her head on her husband's chest. "I think I finally understand."

Kouichi smiled and kissed his wife's forehead. Then his smile disappeared as future plans entered his mind. "You know, we don't have to go this year."

"What do you mean? We've gone every other year."

"You weren't expecting then," Kouichi responded, placing his hand gently on Mei's stomach, which had greatly expanded recently.

"Dear, I'm not due for three more weeks, and the pregnancy has gone smoothly so far. Worst case scenario, Yomiyama has a great hospital."

"I know, it's just I don't want anything to happen to you, or the baby."

"We'll be fine. We've made this trip every summer since 9th grade, and we've had no incident."

"I guess you're right. Besides, the others would be mad if we skipped the memorial when it's our turn to bring the flowers this year."

Mei laughed, and the couple went through their morning routine.

Kouichi cooked them both breakfast as the local news played in the background.

"Today the National Museum of Modern Art will be adding new hand drawn pieces to its collection. These drawings, following the romanticist art school, were sold by Sakakibara Mei to the museum. The up and coming artist has gained a small following for her lifelike depictions of dolls, often with added features like angel wings or presented doing normal human activities."

"You hear that Mei? You're finally getting recognized."

Mei was beaming with pride. "I knew my work would catch on eventually, but I never thought it'd get on the tv."

"It's great news. Now if only the news would mention my horror novels," Kouichi said as he placed egg sandwiches at the table.

"Don't worry, by the time we get back from our trip, they'll be calling you the Japanese Stephen King."

"That'd be something. Speaking of the trip, are you all packed?"

"I'm ready. I assume your boss at the restaurant gave you the week off?"

"Yeah, I didn't even have to ask this year. He's familiar with our vacation schedule."

"Well, if everything's taken care of, we should head out. The plane leaves soon."

After breakfast, Kouichi and Mei took their bags and drove to the airport. They had two tickets for Yomiyama City. The 15th annual Yomiyama North Middle School 9th grade class 3 reunion was about to begin.