Inspired by an Otsuchi Phone booth. Copyright is held by the author.
EIGHT MONTHS after the disaster, a white envelope appeared on her doormat. Ree picked it up and, seeing her name in familiar handwriting, trembled. There was no return address. How could there be? The place the envelope came from had been erased from the face of the Earth, succumbing to powerful forces in minutes.
The envelope bunched and bulged with something ribbed inside. She jammed her index finger under the flap and ripped it open.
A whiff of salt water and lost love rose from within. Inside, dried seagrass and a white clam shell protruded from a handful of black sand. Ree dropped the envelope, suppressing the scream in her throat. The sand sprayed the floor, sending the shell to her feet. She knew the person who sent her this mail — intimately.
The telephone on the corridor wall rang, chilling her blood. It was urgent. Demanding. Loud.
Ree eyed the phone, wanting it to stop ringing — wishing it would stop. It didn’t. It had been the same for the past five days; it rang until she answered. Ree stepped over the mysterious envelope and tiptoed towards the phone, staring at it with unease.
In the afternoon quietness, every new ring sounded louder than the previous one, reverberating on her nerves. Her fingers traced the receiver’s cold and lifeless black plastic. Ree closed her eyes, picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear.
An unsettling static sound poured out of it. Ree held her breath and listened.
Distant voices penetrated the white noise, surfacing and fading as if a radio was being tuned. Static diminished into a hollow sound, the one she always heard when listening to beach shells. In the far land, seagulls wailed and waves crashed on the shore.
“Ree . . . shhhhh . . .”
The first time she heard his voice, she ran out of her apartment. Later, terrified but curious, Ree returned and waited. For five long days, the calls came with frightening regularity. His voice spoke her name. With each passing day, the hope to hear more was diminishing. Now the envelope added to her suffering.
“Ree . . . shhhhh . . . Ree . . .shhhhh . . .”
Ree jammed the receiver tight to her ear and slid down to the cold floor, unable to stay on her feet. She held her breath as if exhaling now would rupture the fragile connection they managed to establish after many months.
“Ree . . . shhhhh . . . env . . . shh . . . Go!” Kiro’s voice commanded — his last word loud and clear.
“Kiro!” she struggled to her feet. Her trembling fingers pressed the receiver to her lips.
“Kiro!” Ree cried and heard a continuous tone in her ear.
The receiver slipped from her hands. She stared at the envelope by the front door. Kiro told her to go. The envelope’s content showed where.
That evening Ree boarded the overnight train, heading towards the remains of her past life.
Someone was nudging her awake. Ree opened her eyes and sat up.
“Miss, did you skip your station?” The train attendant towered over her.
They had come to a complete stop. She pushed the weathered curtain aside and looked outside, then rising, observed the empty car. Ree grabbed her backpack and wordlessly headed towards the exit.
“Miss? Do you know where you are? The next train won’t be arriving till tomorrow night!”
Ree nodded without stopping and stepped out of the train onto a crumbling platform.
The train lingered behind her. She knew the man watched her, wondering why anyone would want to come back here. Ree started to walk.
The train begun to move as well, and speeded away leaving her in a desolate land. The trains ran their course on a strict schedule, despite the calamities. It was what they did.
Ree observed the vast emptiness in front of her. The town was gone, erased for good, remaining only on maps and in the memories of survivors. Those memories were weakening, sinking into oblivion.
A bustling fishing town once nestled between the tall, bare hill and the ever-raging ocean. Eight months ago, a 40-metre wall of water rose and curled over this place, establishing its supremacy. That day, Ree was dragged out of the office, her wrist in someone’s hand. She was forced to run, and run, and run, until they reached the hilltop.
The deranged water pushed through the streets and alleys and flooded the roads, paving its way to where the survivors stood. Horrified, they watched it wreck their world as if everything was made of cardboard. Buildings collapsed, people’s screams choked halfway. Within minutes the entire town was under seething water. Ree’s eyes searched the spot where their house had stood. The impetuous water foamed in its place.
Shrieks pierced the air and fingers jerked towards the ocean. A second colossal wave was gaining momentum to finish what the first one started. She searched for Kiro among the faces on the hill, refusing to accept he wasn’t there. She started down into the whirling waters to find him, to be with him. Someone held her back and Ree froze watching relentless water devour their town and everyone who didn’t or couldn’t escape. She collapsed to her knees powerless to change their fate. Her Kiro was there, under layers of water, pressured by its weight, unable to fight back. She thought of his lungs expanding with water.
In the ensuing chaos, they were evacuated and kept away from the town for several weeks while the water receded. The news broadcasted footage of destruction and rescue attempts while people mourned their lost love ones. Still water, filled with decomposing life, pooled among the unrecognizable ruins. Shattered buildings and smashed vehicles lay on the muddy ground under an indifferent sky. Twenty thousand people had perished. Dead, presumed dead or missing. Kiro’s body was never found.
Now Ree’s steps echoed from the hill as she walked through the partially remaining pavement and occasional debris. Bulldozers and excavators had cleared the rubble, leaving nothing but the barren land behind. Nobody returned to rebuild their lives and start anew. How could they? They continued to live. Their loved ones didn’t.
A peculiar sensation made her stop and scan the area around. After the disaster, she couldn’t force herself to visit the rubble. Yet, somehow, it seemed she’d seen the town in its current state before. Ree dismissed the thought and walked to the shore.
Standing on the black sand, she watched the dark, timid waters sending waves to the beach. Dunes covered in dry yellowing grass clustered the shoreline resembling half-buried animals resting in the sand. Grass and sand reclaimed back the land, defying the waves repeatedly demolishing and deconstructing them. Kiro was never coming back.
Her peripheral vision caught something shining behind her. Shielding her eyes she made out a shape of prolonged box with clear glass walls on the top of the hill. It gleamed under the sun’s rays, beckoning her attention. It wasn’t there before the disaster.
Ree gasped, and hurrying to the hill, climbed as soft ground crumbled under her feet. On the top, she tried to catch her breath, eyeing the structure. It stood in the precise spot where Kiro and she had sat many nights waiting for a sunrise.
She opened the glass door and saw a black, metal phone hanging on the back wall. Its receiver was scratched and its black gloss partially faded from years of tears, sweat, and grease. There were no buttons or rotary dial. Her fingers touched it and withdrew. It felt warm, transmitting heat from unknown source through its artificial shell.
Ree lifted the receiver and listened for the static noise preceding Kiro’s voice. The line was silent. She placed the receiver back in its place and stumbled out of the booth. Ree lowered herself beside it on the warm, soft grass, and waited.
The sky ahead was clear with not a single cloud in sight. Water foamed on the shoreline, pounding the sand where sea birds looked for food. Seagulls floated in the waves, bobbing up and down. They dived and resurfaced, taking off with a fish in their claws. Trapped in the deathly grip, the unfortunate ones reflected sun from their scales.
Ree imagined the desolate land nestling another town one day, more resilient than its predecessor. Perhaps, the new inhabitants would erect sturdier buildings to withstand all forces of the nature. Ree sensed that familiar déjà vu imagining another town from another time. Somehow, she’d been in this situation before, sitting on this spot and waiting for something to happen. Immersed in her thoughts, she flinched when the phone rang. Ree jumped to her feet and picked up the receiver.
The now familiar static burst into her ear. She winced from the loud crackling; holding the receiver so tight, her ear ached.
“Kiro! I’m here!” The wind carried her words out of the booth and down through the barren land, plunging them into the waters.
“Ree . . . shhhhh . . .”
“Kiro . . .” Despair choked the words in her throat.
“Ree . . . shhhhh . . .” he repeated and then the line went dead.
“No! No! Kiro, talk to me!” Ree screamed, battering the switch hook with her fist. All the noises and sounds were gone except her own heavy breathing. She wept, cradling the receiver, and fell to the floor, bitter tears stinging her skin and drenching her clothes. She screamed in pain like a wounded animal scared of not surviving the day. The fraction of hope she carried within her for the past eight months, that perhaps he was injured, but somehow still alive, was dead now. The way those 20,000 people were. The way this place was.
She lay unmoving and watched the day turn into evening; then night extinguished all the lights. The temperature dropped and Ree shivered on the icy floor of the booth. Placing her backpack under her head, she curled into a ball and stared at the starry night sky surrounding her. Ree wondered if a new star was born whenever someone abandoned their lives on Earth.
The horizon was tainted with faint orange when she opened her eyes. A new day was being born. So many nights she had huddled with Kiro under a thick wool blanket, sitting here on the hilltop, waiting for a moment like this. They would stay up talking all night and making life plans. They had waited for the first rays of sun to caress their cold faces with its warmth.
Ree turned her body away from the shore and stretched her stiff legs. She shut her eyes tight, refusing to see the sunrise without Kiro. All she had left were memories. She didn’t want to alter them now. She didn’t want to forget.
Through the closed lids Ree sensed the light brightening and covered her eyes with her arm. She fell back asleep.
Ree jumped and banged her head against the wall when a shrill noise pierced the air. Remembering where she was, her eyes darted to the receiver on the floor next to her. Ree placed it to her ear and listened.
There was the static noise again, intermingling with waves, and seagulls. The breeze carried whispers from the shore, desperate to reach her.
“You are here,” Kiro’s calm voice spoke, sounding impossibly close.
Ree’s rested her forehead on the cool glass. The sun dangled above the shimmering waters, and seagulls patrolled the air for prey. Days were forcing his features out of her memories. She saw his face clearly now, vivid and alive. The thin lips stretched in a smile, carving a dimple on his right cheek. Ree mentally pushed his long black bangs to the side to admire the dark, narrow eyes.
“Kiro,” she whispered.
“I miss you.”
“I mis . . .” His voice broke off by waves rushing to the shore. Water bubbled in her ear.
“I can’t live without you, Kiro.”
Voices whispered of days long gone. His voice spoke, silencing them all.
“Ree, it was bound to happen. It already happened in our previous lives. Tsunami. Flood. Earthquake. Explosions. Wars. Every life we live together, this is how it ends. You, there, among the living. And I, here, among . . .”
“Don’t say that, Kiro!” she begged. “Please don’t!”
“It’s peaceful here. Warm waters rock me day in and out. Sun rays warm my face. I watch seagulls dive for fish. Sea creatures swimming by tickle my bones. It’s where I must stay. Me and all the others. I wanted to bid you farewell before the waves carried me beyond. Return to the mainland . . .”
“I can’t, Kiro. I tried.”
The sounds were quieting, increasing the distance between them. Ree peered out to the water, feeling an emptiness inside her deepen.
“You’re going to live many happy years,” he sounded very far. “Don’t name your children after me. Good bye, Ree. It’s time.” The line went blank.
Ree sat still for a while, then exited the booth and headed to the shore.
She lowered her backpack and took of her shoes on the beach. The heated sand scolded the soles of her feet as she walked toward the cool waters. Ree inhaled a lungful of salty air and filled her palms with sea water. Her throat and stomach protested when she drank it all and reached for more. Her feet carried her deeper into the sea, struggling against the pressure of the water.
Kiro was right. The time had come for her to go.