Last time on FCM, we read about a girl made of living flame. This week there’s fire involved, as well, of a different sort. Fire in the form of fiery main character Hiruko Jones who’s having a really bad night watching her kid sister.
THE NINE SINS OF HIRUKO JONES is another one of those books that only has a single chapter in existence. I’ve got a pretty good idea of where this one is going and how it’s all going to end, but at the time I started writing it I’d also started work on SISTERS OF BLOOD AND SHADOW and the ninja girls won my heart. I may revisit this one later, though.
This book is a little bit Labyrinth, a little bit Dante’s Inferno. The titular character goes on a journey through a version of the afterlife that resembles Dante’s Hell mixed with the Japanese land of the dead to find her sister, and face nine of her own terrible sins along the way. Instead of Virgil, she’s escorted by the spirit of her favorite visual kei singer. Think David Bowie in epic makeup, with a wholly sarcastic, smart-ass attitude. See the above photo for a prime example.
Someday I’ll finish Hiruko’s story. It definitely still has its hooks in me, even rereading this sole chapter after a few years. Enjoy this peek into my tortured mind with the first chapter of THE NINE SINS OF HIRUKO JONES.
Midway in our life’s journey
I found myself within a forest dark
For the straightforward path had been lost…
Hiruko Jones closed her eyes and leaned back into to the stack of pillows, letting the harpsichord and haunting vocals streaming into her ears carry her stress away. Mizery Monger had become her life’s soundtrack–earbuds always in place, a playlist for every occasion. For studying, there was the instrumental Black Rose album. For riding to school in the back seat like a little kid despite the fact that she was starting her senior year, there was Intimidation Machine. Tonight, settling down after an endless string of Bee’s awful whining about the food being too hot or her bed being too scary or any number of other dumb things that six year olds whined about, called for Inferno in C Minor. Ten tracks of pure baroque soundscape, detailing a journey through Dante’s hell. Fitting, given what she’d just been through with Bee. It was Mizery Monger’s last album before their lead singer Kei died.
The same year Dad had died.
Her eyes snapped open at the creak of her bedroom door, just as Kei was singing the second verse about entering the gates of hell. Abandon all hope ye who enter. Bee’s round little eyes peeped through the crack.
Hiruko tore off her earbuds and flew across the room.
“Get back to bed, you little twerp!”
“I think I broke the toilet.”
Hiruko growled, pushed Bee out of the way, and flung the door open. “How dumb do you have to be to break a toilet? If you’d stayed in bed this wouldn’t have happened.”
“But if I pee on the bed you’d get even madder!”
“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me around here?” She marched down the hall and flicked the light on in the half-bath she shared with her sister. Bee’s Hello Kitty toothbrush stood upright in a pink cup. The orange bristles glistened with water.
The toilet looked fine.
“Not there,” Bee called from the hallway. Hiruko snapped her head around and glared at her sister. Blonde curly hair, round blue eyes–no trace of Mom in her at all. She looked just like Dad. Hiruko clenched her fists.
“Well where, then?” But Bee didn’t have to answer. Clutched in her tiny fingers was the little sock monkey that always sat upstairs on Dad’s desk. Hiruko had sewn it for him in fifth grade. Dad liked to play with it whenever he was trying to break through bad patches of writer’s block. “Let go of that. Right. Now.” Hiruko leaped at Bee. Her sister dropped the sock monkey and fled down the hall toward the stairs, golden curls bouncing as she went. Hiruko scooped the sock monkey up, brushed the dust off its head, and ran after Bee. “You’re not allowed up there,” she shouted. “Why did you touch this?” She shook the sock monkey for effect.
Bee looked over her shoulder, screamed again, and scrambled up the stairs on all fours. Hiruko raced up them three steps at a time. Bee tried to slam the door behind her at the top but Hiruko plowed into it, sending it crashing into the wall and knocking her sister to the floor. The first thing Hiruko noticed about Dad’s office was that his chair had been moved. The second thing she noticed was that the door to his bathroom stood open and the light was on.
“You’re not supposed to come up here. No one’s supposed to come up here.” Hiruko stepped over Bee and placed the sock monkey down on the large oak desk beside the monitor that hadn’t been powered on in six years. “How dare you touch Dad’s stuff. I ought to lock you in the basement for that one.”
“No, please!” Bee was on her knees, hands clasped. “Don’t put me in the basement again!” Hiruko had only done it once, a few years ago, and mostly by accident. “I was just sad.”
“Who isn’t?” Hiruko grunted. “Mom doesn’t count. That smile of hers is all Prozac. Now get downstairs and never come back up here. Do you understand?”
“I see you holding him sometimes when you’re sad. I thought holding him might help me too.” Bee pointed at the sock monkey. Hiruko’s heart skipped a beat. “What’s his name?”
“His name is ‘Stop Spying On Hiruko.’”
“That’s a silly name.”
“I’d never tell a dumb kid like you his name.”
“Nee-chan, I just…”
“I told you to stop calling me that.”
“But that’s what I’m supposed to call you. Mom said so.”
“Yes, well, Mom’s stupid.” Hiruko almost bit her lip, but an insatiable desire to make Bee cry, to make her know suffering overcame her. “You two seem to have that in common, at least.”
Bee frowned, trembling, trying her best to hold back the tears.
“Crying’s for babies,” Hiruko added, trying her best to break Bee.
“You’re just afraid to cry because it would mess up your makeup.” Bee sniffled.
“Stop parroting Mom.”
“You look like a ghost with all that white powder.”
“And you’re scary and mean and nobody loves you.”
“Dad loved me.” Hiruko reached out to touch the sock monkey.
“That’s all you ever say.”
“Is that all you can do? Repeat the same crap I get from Mom every day? Kill me now.”
“She said you need to cheer up.”
Hiruko shook her head. The counselor Mom had set her up with after Dad’s death had prescribed her some “happy pills”, as he called them. Chase the blues away, he said. And in a way they did–she’d sold them at school and used the money to buy a Mizery Monger poster signed by Kei himself. It hung from the ceiling over her bed.
“Mom has no idea what I need.” Hiruko marched over to the small bathroom and peeked inside. The hexagon tile floor was spotless, even if there was grout missing in places. A single fluorescent light hummed overhead, casting a cold light. She looked at herself in the mirror, clasping each side of the porcelain sink. She supposed she did look like a ghost, with the white powdered face, one eye ringed with a black Eye of Horus and the other buried in deep purple eyeshadow. Hiruko shook her head.
A wad of paper clogged the toilet drain.
“I suppose you tried to flush an entire roll, didn’t you?”
Bee whisked past her, grabbed the chain, and pulled.
“See? It doesn’t flu—”
“Bee, no! Damn it, why? Jesus, Bee, you’re so stupid!” Hiruko watched helplessly as water filled the tank and rose toward the brim of the toilet. “Don’t just stand there, you idiot, grab some towels. God, I was never this dumb when I was six. Who the hell flushes a clogged toilet? What has Mom been teaching you?”
“I’m… I’m sorry…” Bee ran into the office and came back with a stack of paper that she dumped on the floor before Hiruko could stop her.
“I said towels. What the hell, Bee?” Water spilled over the rim of the toilet. Hiruko kicked at the stack of papers, dropped to her knees and started flinging them out of the room, but she wasn’t fast enough. Water drenched half the pages, soaking into the manuscript that for six years had rested precisely where Dad had left it the day he died.
Hiruko roared, a primal growl that would put the beastly guardians of hell to shame. “God, I hate you.”
“It’s just a stack of paper. We can just buy more.”
“You can’t replace that! That’s Dad’s last book!”
“Just print out another.”
“Nobody knows his password, you twerp! You know that. And you still threw it on the floor? On a scale from one to ten you’re stupid cubed.”
“Nee-chan, I’m sorry, I just…”
“STOP. CALLING. ME. THAT.” Nee-chan. Japanese for “older sister”. There was enough of Mom in the shape of her face. She didn’t need even more Japanese crap in her life. That woman was enough Japanese crap for anybody.
Hiruko shrieked as the water reached the soles of her feet, climbing over her black slippers. “Towels,” she growled.
“Get your own towels, you big meanie!”
“I didn’t make the mess, twerp!”
“When Mom comes home she’ll be mad.”
“Yeah, at you, for flooding the house.”
“Nee…Hiruko, help me!”
“Wait… Oh no. Oh God, no. Bee, damn it!”
Hiruko ran down the stairs, wet sandals slipping near the bottom. She grabbed onto the rail to break her fall, but cried out as her ass slammed into the fourth stair from the bottom and slid all the way down. Cursing, she stood, grimacing at the throbbing pain in her backside, and looked into her bedroom. The water from Dad’s bathroom overhead had already started making trails in the ceiling. It dripped from a small crack in the plaster behind the poster of Kei onto the poster itself. The gold-ink signature started to warp.
“Beatrice Aika Jones, I hate you! I wish you were dead!”
“Maybe if I died you’d think about me all the time like you think about Dad!” Bee screamed from the bottom of the stairs.
“What could you possibly even know? You weren’t even born yet when Dad died. Don’t you ever speak of him again. You haven’t earned it.”
“I guess I have to dress up like a zombie and whine about how much everything sucks to earn it?”
“It’d be a start.”
“Nee…Hiruko, I’m sorry!”
“Sorry won’t undo any of the crap you’ve screwed up.” Hiruko jumped up on the bed and tore the poster down. It ripped right down the middle, soggy with water. She let it drop to the floor, then she dropped to her knees and clutched a pillow to her face and screamed into it. “GO TO HELL.”
Footsteps. Down the hallway, through the kitchen. The front door of the house creaked open, then slammed shut.
“Goddamnit, Bee. Just… goddamnit.”
She just let her go. Bee couldn’t get far. It was half-past ten and darker than the depths of death much past the reach of the porch light. Nothing but forest for miles. Bee was terrified of the woods ever since they’d heard a coyote one night off toward the mountains. She was probably just sitting on the front porch, face buried into her pajamas, bawling her stupid little eyes out.
Hiruko took four green towels out of the linen closet at the foot of the stairs and mopped up the water. A few seconds with the plunger and the problem was fixed. But the book was ruined, her poster lay in tatters, and God only knew what kind of long-lasting damage that soaked floor would suffer.
A coyote’s distant howl startled her. Hiruko sat down at the top of the stairs, resting her chin on her knees as she listened for the creak of the front door and a frightened Bee’s return to the house. This just meant she wouldn’t get any sleep tonight. At all.
But no creak came.
Hiruko hesitated, held her breath, hearing the rushing of blood through her veins, the thwomp of every heartbeat.
At the second howl she rose to her feet. And then, distant, almost lost amidst the overbearing silence, Hiruko heard someone screaming her own name. She flew down the stairs to the front door and threw it open wide. The covered porch ran all the way around the house. A handful of moths flitted about smacking into the yellow porch light. To the right, Dad’s bicycle, exactly where he’d left it after the last ride of his life. To the left, scattered milk crates filled with flattened aluminum cans well overdue for hauling off to the recycling center.
“Damn it, Bee, where are you? This isn’t funny.” Hiruko tugged the lacy black sleeves of her shirt down, cursing the cold. The late winter chill had settled over the Washington wilderness and showed no signs of letting go. She needed a jacket, but something caught her eye in the distant darkness. A light where there should be no lights, deep within the forest beyond the road.
No time for a jacket.
There were other lights–lights that belonged exactly where they were. Small solar-powered lights illuminated the gravel path out to the road, as they did every night even after days when the grey depression in the sky was complete. And beside the mailbox—a simple metal box painted white that still sent shudders thorugh her body every time she saw it—the amber streetlight flooded the one-and-a-half lane road that ran in front of the house. Mom had called out some people to install the light after Bee was born.
After Dad was struck by a car at night in the rain while checking the mail.
Mom had asked her to get the mail. Nine months pregnant with Bee, she didn’t want to make the trip outside. Hiruko had whined that she didn’t want to get wet. “Don’t worry, Sugarbeet, I’ll go grab it.” The last words he ever spoke to her.
Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she walked toward the road, each step harder to take than the one before it, each movement of her body carrying her closer inch-by-inch to the spot where the SUV slammed into renowned children’s author Greg Jones, tossing his body across the yard and into the cedars.
If Mom hadn’t been pregnant with Bee…
Hiruko stood in the middle of the road, bathed in the amber light. Oftentimes she would come out at night and stand here, eyes closed, waiting for a car to come and take her to see Dad once more. But no car ever came. They rarely did this far out in the woods.
She rubbed her arms to brush away the cold and squinted into the darkness of the forest beyond. The light-that-should-not-be flickered in the distance still, orange, like flames. Her bedroom window overlooked the front yard–she had seen this view every night of her life. There were no houses out there, and no trails where hikers may be setting up camp. Nothing but untamed forest for miles, and beyond that forest rose the mountains, and while they’d seen the occasional bear and coyote neither of those creatures were capable of building fires.
“Bee?” Hiruko shouted at the forest. The dark trees seemed to swallow her voice. “Bee, is that you?”
Rustling deep in the forest, like an animal running—away from her. A howl rose so loud and sudden that Hiruko’s breath caught in her throat. And then she chased it into the forest. “Bee! Come to my voice!”
Twigs and vines snapped at her face as she ran through the dark woods. A spiderweb caught in her mouth and she wiped at her head and tugged trying to get it all off, slapping herself all over hoping to crush whatever had been clinging to the web. Something growled off to her left and she skidded to a stop. She’d come to the end of the amber streetlight’s reach. Beyond was only utter darkness, and the flickering flame.
Then something snarled to her right.
“Run to the light, Bee!” Coyotes were afraid of fire. It would be the safest place to run. Barks and howls all around her now wove a horrifying dissonance. Adrenaline took over. Hiruko ran. “Help!” she screamed, hoping whoever had set the fire would hear her.
An unseen rock or stump caught her right foot and down she went as the ground dropped out from under her. Hiruko fell to her hands and knees, and when she looked up, gasping for breath, she sensed something else close, staring back at her. She felt warm breath on her face. A guttural growl came from behind her.
Two pinpoints of green light flared up close enough to bathe her stubby nose in their cold glow.
Eyes. Oh God, they’re eyes.
Hiruko jumped to her feet and ran, expecting the creatures to grab her and tear her apart. Getting eaten alive must be one of the worst ways to go. She would have to find some way to kill herself or knock herself unconscious if a coyote–or whatever that was–took her down. But she wasn’t down yet.
You’re just seeing shit, Hiruko. Those weren’t eyes. Nothing has eyes like that.
On she ran, wondering at first why the creatures hadn’t pounced. They boxed her in, at least three of them, herding her toward the light, snarling and yipping louder every time she set one foot accidentally too far off the direct path toward the flames ahead. Bee called out to her over and over, screaming her name more than the little girl had ever said it in her entire six years of life up to now. She had to find her, to save her, but to what end she did not know—they couldn’t fight.
The forest opened into a clearing. The coyote-creatures did not follow, but paced around the darkness, each step rustling leaves and undergrowth, making their presence known. In the middle of the clearing stood a Shinto shrine. Had it always been here and she’d just never known? She’d seen them on her trips to Japan with her family, but had never seen one here—something was wrong. Terribly wrong. The squat wooden structure with its thatched roof glowed from within with the light of two braziers flanking a polished round mirror. A red-lacquered torii gate stood before the shrine, marking the entry onto sacred grounds. A well-worn footpath led beneath it.
The voice, Bee’s voice, but a whisper—if even that. Hiruko stepped toward the torii.
“Bee? Is that you? Bee, are you in the shrine? We can hide in there until the coyotes go. Bee?”
Hiruko looked up. The brazier light illuminated the lacquer on the torii, and she saw words written across the top of the archway.
Abandon all hope you who enter.
“Uh uh. I’ve got to be dreaming. A nightmare.”
All the creatures howled in unison and charged out of the forest. Eyes glowed green, dark ichor flew in massive drops from their open jaws, lined with rows of razor-sharp teeth that shimmered in the firelight. These were no coyotes.
Hiruko ran through the torii, intending to get into the shrine and bar the wooden doors shut.
Instead, as soon as she stepped underneath that archway, everything changed. Darkness enveloped her. The chill vanished from the air. All sound ceased, even the beating of her own heart. She felt nothing, saw nothing, every sense robbed from her.
Am I dead?
“Only in a manner of speaking.” A voice—a female voice—answered her thoughts from the void.