The Empty Map

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Halfway through the grounds of Kasaieki-mae Park, on her way home from school, Yuko Iwata stopped and stared to her left.
She saw a riotous sprawl of color on the ground around one of the garbage bins. That in itself didn’t bother her much; what made her pause was the weird look of the stuff. It was like the scuffed earth had acquired a coat of paint. Last semester there’d been some science homework about lightning striking sand on the beach and turning it into glass; it reminded her of that.
As Yuko approached the trash bins, the mess resolved itself in her vision. It consisted of card or paper, cut into dozens of small squares all roughly the same size, covering an area about one meter square. Yuko crouched down to examine it, her brow wrinkling in puzzlement.
It was a map.
To be more accurate, it had once been a map.
The squares represented Tokyo. There were green areas of parks, gray areas of built-up residences and businesses, bordered by the red and yellow veins of roads. Yuko could make out the kanji lettering of the Showa avenue, Hibiya Park, Ueno railway station, but nothing was where it should have been. Everything had been mixed up; the capital city had been cut into pieces and then rearranged in new, unexpected patterns.
Yuko got to her feet, swinging her satchel back onto her shoulder. Perhaps someone had put the map in the trash, and then someone else had come along and pulled it out. But why had they brought it to the park? Why had it been carefully cut into squares before being dumped?

She kept speculating on what could have happened all the way back to her house, an average wood-and-plaster two-story building set in the tiny streets around Kasai station. To her relief, her parents weren’t home. They hadn’t returned from work yet.
Yuko’s brother, Takenori, was upstairs, going through his collection of B’z and Mr. Children J-Pop CDs. She flopped down on his bed, sucking on a carton of choco-milk. Behind Takenori’s head, and above the textbook-filled desk, hung the scroll given to her mother by Yuko’s calligraphy teacher. Sleep four hours a night and pass, it declared in beautifully lettered kanji. Sleep five hours a night and fail.
“You know what that idiot cram school teacher did today?” Takenori fumed. “You know how he’s always telling us not to be so passive in class, and to pay attention more? Well, he told us last week there was a test for today, and a cover teacher came to supervise it. One of the questions was, ‘Does your regular teacher wear glasses?’. Some of us answered yes, and some answered no. Turned out the correct answer was, ‘I used to, but I switched to contact lenses.’ ”
Yuko and Takenori were both leaving school at the end of the year. It was expected that Takenori would enter a private high school in Aoyama at the end of this year. It was also expected that Yuko, a high school senior, would enter university. Their parents could only afford to send one of them to a cram school, and it had been decided a long time ago that it would be the son.
Takenori and his father weren’t on speaking terms at the moment. Last week, Takenori had returned worn out after attending regular school and cram school, and playing a match with the school basketball club. He’d fallen asleep in his room, and Papa had scolded him for not coming down for dinner at the correct time.
Yuko stared at her brother’s pre-occupied face. How different he’d looked last week, she thought. Eyes screwed up tight, tears pumping down bright red cheeks. He’d picked up a chair and beaten it three times, up and down, on the kitchen floor. And he’d screamed – not words, but just noise – raw, penetrating noise. Papa was still smarting over it. He kept muttering that Takenori “didn’t show enough respect these days”.
“Maybe you should try something to keep Komatsu-sensei happy,” Yuko volunteered. “A friend of mine told me that she had a teacher once who ate a lot of curry-rice. At the end of one test paper, she put down a really tasty recipe she knew for curry-rice. She got full marks.”
“It’ll take more than that to make Komatsu happy. He goes on about the environment a lot … maybe I should write in green ink?”
He turned to his shelf of TV games, pulled Man-Made Death 4 out of its hologram-studded cover, and slipped it into his PlayStation Deluxe. The sleek black console hummed faintly and winked one tiny red light on its control display.
“You know, Yuko, there’s something else I’m nervous about, right, it’s … well, I haven’t got a girlfriend right now. I know you don’t have much time, and your friends are older than me, but I was thinking …”
Here we go again, Yuko thought. “Well, Miyoko’s got a younger sister, about your age. She’s pretty cute. I’ll see what I can do.”
Sucking the carton of Choco-Milk dry, she watched her brother as he started to say something about the girls at school, and failed to finish the sentence, his mouth pursing itself and eyes narrowing as the pre-game graphics flickered into life on the screen.
“Do my homework soon,’ muttered Takenori, as if he were talking to himself. “Just want to see … if …”

The Saturday evening news was full of the murder.
After the family anime shows, while the Iwata family was having dinner sitting on the tatami in front of their giant plasma-TV screen, they found themselves confronted by scenes from their own neighborhood. Streets, houses, schools, and Kasaieki-mae Park in close-up and long-shot, the on-screen image shaking as if the cameraman’s hands were trembling. Subtitles marked the names and the locations of the buildings involved, and the breathless commentary of the reporter underscored it with dates and events. A community cross-examined; a life under the lens.
“She was only sixteen,” Yuko’s mother was saying, “and she came from a school only a couple of blocks from here! Her poor parents …”
“You’ll have to stop walking home through that park,” her father rumbled. “We’ve told you that before, Yuko. There could be all kinds of strange people in that park after school. There are violent kids hanging around, all kinds of unstable folk … ah, this country just isn’t safe any more.”
Yuko remembered that her mother had thrown away the first page of the morning newspaper after breakfast; she’d said that the details they’d printed were “too disturbing”. Excusing herself from the table, she went into the kitchen and quietly picked the front page out of the garbage.
Later, when her parents sent her upstairs to do her homework, she methodically flattened out the soiled page and read it …

The complete story and 14 others can be found here. Read them … if you dare!

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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