Excerpt: “Zero Sum Game” by Cody L. Martin


In a convenience store, Hina flipped through the fashion magazines. She still wore her gym clothes and her school backpack: blue with gray trim and straps, and the kanji character for “middle” stamped on the front flap. Ami and her other friends were not with her; only the clerk and two housewives were in the store.

She wanted to buy the magazines but knew she wouldn’t. It would be wasteful to buy them when her father was paying twice as much money for her school uniform: first the stolen money then tomorrow’s shopping trip. But the magazines were so interesting, and she loved fashion. She dreamed of being a fashion designer for young girls. She hoped to work for some of the popular companies like Roni, Sister Jenni, or Banana Chips. She didn’t agree with every fashion ensemble the magazines featured; some went too far in layers and accessories, but she had to admit they were so cute and colorful and stylish. She wanted to add to that, to design her own styles and see young girls wearing them on the streets. She imagined what a thrill that would be, seeing a girl walk by dressed in the latest fashion, and say to herself, “I designed that!”

She put the magazine back on the rack, took a final stroll through the store, looking at the snacks and drinks but deciding not to buy anything, and walked towards the door. She heard a distant pop, like a firecracker going off, and the lights stuttered. The constant hum of the refrigerators sputtered like an interrupted radio signal, then died at the same time the lights went dark. She looked around in surprise. Behind her, the two housewives started chattering to each other and asked the helpless clerk what had happened. Hina was glad the doors were manual and not the automatic ones where you pressed the little button to open them. She walked outside. It wasn’t only the convenience store, the whole neighborhood had lost power. Hina decided she better head straight home.

She decided to take the shortest route home. The road skirted the forest, and Hina saw the nearby power station on fire, black smoke streaming skyward and sparks making soft popping sounds. There were no homes nearby, but she wondered if the forest would catch on fire. She hoped no one had been hurt.

She hurried, wondering if the power had gone out at her apartment also. She thought she lived too far away from the station for that. Still, it would be a little scary if it was, although it would be a while before it became dark.

On her right, she passed a small wooded area, a few square meters in size. Set in the back stood an abandoned shrine, the wood gray with age and pitted with holes. The shrine itself was little more than four walls and a pitched roof, not even two people could stand together inside it. It had a small sliding door, the top half had four square holes cut into it, two on top of each other. As she passed it she heard a man coughing; long, rough sounds that went on for several seconds.

“Help me,” she heard.

The hoarse voice sounded like two rocks rubbing together. She stopped and peered in the direction of the abandoned shrine. She didn’t see anyone and was about to keep on walking when she heard it again.

“Help me. Please.”

The voice sounded strained and tired, with more than a hint of desperation tinting it. It spoke again, then broke into another long coughing spell. The voice came from inside the shrine.

Hina approached, her hands grabbing the straps of her school bag. Trees and thick bushes surrounded the shrine on three sides. She heard a shuffle, like a shoe rubbing against wood, and almost ran. But she held her ground. If a person was in trouble, she wanted to help. A part of her mind wondered what kind of person would be hiding inside a shrine. It could be an attacker, some sick freak that preyed on young girls. The thought sent goosebumps across her arms and legs but she tried to push it away. It could be an injured man, someone who had been attacked and was hiding here. That caused her to look around, waiting for her own attacker to come jumping out of the bushes, but she had not seen anybody on this street as she had walked home.

She took a few tentative steps towards the shrine. “Hello?” I couldn’t think of a better greeting? she thought. Wasn’t “Hello?” the standard phrase in horror movies before the heroine’s best friend was killed? The thoughts of killers and scary movies almost sent her running again, so she called out, “Can you still hear me?”

A cough came from inside the tiny shrine. She put both hands on the wooden door and peered in through the hollow squares. She saw a man’s head, twisted away from her. He coughed and clutched something she couldn’t identify. She stepped back in shock. What was a man doing inside the shrine?

She pulled open the door. Inside, the man lay on the floor turned away from her, his lower abdomen pushed against the small stone pillar set into the middle of the shrine. The remains of candles that were long ago burned out topped the pillar. His legs were bent up and he was naked. He clutched a jacket or suit in his hands, Hina couldn’t be sure what it was; it was rubber-looking but had sleeves and pant legs. Maybe it was a costume of some kind or maybe a type of work uniform.

He turned his head towards her, his eyes held hers, and she could see the desperation that had been hinted at in his voice. He appeared to be around thirty, with a solid build as if he spent a lot of time exercising. Hina’s stomach dropped to her feet when the impossible happened: a hole appeared on his arm, its edges ringed in gold. The hole undulated, like a puddle of water had been disturbed. Within the hole she saw organic plating, like armadillo armor. The hole moved up his forearm then disappeared at the elbow, and the man was whole once again.

He opened his mouth to speak …



About J P Catton

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