written by A. E. Stover
this version is self-edited

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YU-GI-OH! DUEL MONSTERS [AU] [T] [Mai; Katsuya] [Drama; Tragedy] [Short Story]
After having to leave her apartment, Mai rents a room at an old boarding house. She strikes an unusual friendship with her proprietor’s ten-year-old son, who, with his serious problems with abuse, forces her to face the ghosts of her past. 

WARNING(S): CONTAINS TRIGGERS FOR RAPE, CHILD ABUSE, AND COMPLICATIONS WITH CHILD DELIVERY/BIRTH

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SHE LOOKED AT the address on a newspaper clipping where a snapshot of a modest boarding house was offered above it. Then, she looked up.

Erected before her was a decrepit version of the home in the photo printed in the newspaper. Most of the paint had peeled off, and the cracked, wooden façade was bleached white from the hot sun. The front porch sloped down and had a hole in the center of the stairs where the third stair had collapsed. The windows, clean and unbroken, had what appeared to be bedsheets torn in pieces hung around the glass. They waved limply, like little white hands of ghost children.

She tilted her head back to survey the second story, the part of the boarding house that she had come to check out. The metal staircase leading to it was rusting and had splashes of white as if someone had given up halfway into re-painting it, just as someone had given up on maintaining what was once a handsome boarding house, if the photo in the newspaper had any say in it.

Still, the rent was low and it was the only place she could afford. With her job, she could save up quickly and leave in three months; two, if things went well.

It was June and hot; the temperature shooting to thirty-five degrees Celsius. She had tucked in a sleeveless white cotton-thread blouse into a knee-length red skirt of a velvety fabric that, according to her grandparents, had once belonged to her mother. Standing in her modest attire and sweating under the blazing sun, she tried to find the proprietor’s name on the advertisement. She spotted a name after the address and she squinted to read it, bringing the paper closer to her face. It read: ‘Jounouchi She couldn’t read after that; the paper was blotted with dark ink. A mistake in printing, perhaps?

She started walking to the house, and stopped just in front of the stairs. Was she really going to live here? Would it be worth it? Why not take out a loan for a nice apartment, the apartment in the city she’d been looking at for some time now? She could take out a loan, pay it back little by little, and live in peace. She could do it. Her apartment, her own apartment; living just like before, with nobody but herself in her own apartment. She could stay inside all day, drinking sherry, and then maybe some wine, or brandy and gin. It would be so wonderful, wouldn’t it? So let’s go, go back to the city, go back to the apartment; go, go, go.

No. Not that, not anymore. She gathered all her thoughts and set them aside before she walked to the door, taking care to step around the broken stairs. She found the doorbell on the side of the door frame, the only thing that shone brightly; it was like a little black beetle. She crushed it with her finger and waited for an answer.

Almost immediately, she heard muffled voices came the door. She thought she heard someone shouting about a mess before the heavy sound of latches sliding and clanking drowned out the yelling. The door was yanked open and a large, bearded man with squinty eyes came into view. He gave her a quick one-over before his expression turned sour. “Who’re you?” he asked, a distasteful expression twisting his face. His jowls flapped with every word he said. “You a fed, or something?” he asked warily, inching the door forward more and more, readying himself to slam it shut.

She raised the newspaper clipping. “I’m here about renting a room,” she said.

He squinted hard at the newspaper ad, thrusting his face forward and acting as if he’d never seen it before in his life. Then he grunted. “Just a sec.” He turned and closed the door halfway. She heard him shouting into his home:  “You still haven’t cleaned that up? What’s wrong with you? Hurry up, already!”

There was a ruckus inside the house that sounded to her like metal and glass rolling and scraping a wooden floor. She angled her neck in the hopes of seeing what it was when the noise stopped and the man came back pulling the front door open all the way. The house was no longer dark, and the suspicious look on the man’s face was replaced with an almost charming, crooked grin.

“Sorry about that,” he said as he retreated into his home. The floorboards creaked after him like a timid child. “Come in,” he said to her. To her, it sounded more like a demand; his voice powerful and booming as it bounced off the walls.

She followed him wordlessly, step by step, little by little, in fear of bringing the house down. Her first step inside seemed to make the whole house creak and groan, and the second made the floor squelch and sink under her weight. She wondered if she was doing the right thing, going into such a poor home; there was a cool breeze filtering into the room—a draft? Where is it coming from?— and she realized after a moment that it was air conditioning.

“Close the door. You’re letting the cold air out.”

She complied, but was careful in doing so, feeling that the mere action of shutting the door would be too much for the old house—the very foundations are in danger! The door shut with a soft click. The house was still standing.

“Sit, sit down.”

There was a small wooden table and two chairs in the far end of the room, in front of the kitchen counter. She took the chair across from the man and found it had a short leg. Her body wobbled forward, and she had to put a hand on the table in front of her to steady herself.

An awkward silence came between them, though it appeared that he was oblivious to it. The man in front of her produced a wad of papers; they were old, dog-eared, and stained with coffee… And there was a gun. It was taken apart, so she wasn’t as concerned about it as she was with the wobbling chair; it fell back and forth, back and forth. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see it, but it had already settled down in her thoughts.

“Rent’s eighty-thousand* a month. There’s an extra twenty-thousand for utilities…” He was reading off the paper with his squinty eyes, following his finger as he ran it down the lines. He paused every now and then to give a wheezing cough or scratch the back of his neck.

“Is cash okay?” she asked. Her chair fell forward, wobbling—wobb-wobble, wobb-wobble-wobble.

He stopped and looked at her, brow creased over and eyes roving her face. “Can I ask you a question?”

He was asking her if he could ask a question. Was she supposed to have done that too? “Yes, of course.”

Whatever the question he had for her, it must have gotten lost because he was poking his tongue around in his mouth like he was looking for the words. “You got that kind of money lying around, and you come here of all places? You sure you’re not some kind of fed? Last time I rented out to one of them feds and almost got my kid shot. Hell, even I got shot, right here.” With a flourish, he lifted his shirt and there it was, the place he’d been shot, the scar plain as day over his ribs on his left. It looked like a second bellybutton that had been sewn shut.

He dropped his shirt after showing off his battle wound, looking almost prideful. “I don’t want anything like that happening here again,” he said with a frown. “That sort of thing happens a lot, sometimes, so I had to get a gun. So far, I only had to fire it twice.” He raised his hand. “Now, I haven’t killed anybody, but when you gotta keep your kid safe, you gotta do whatever you can to do it. It’s why I clean it every day. I gotta be prepared, you know?”

She didn’t know what to say. She settled for: “I’m not a fed.”

He gave a barking sort of laugh. “Well, then, what do you work as? You look like the secretary type, for those corporate heads or something.”

“I work at a bar,” she said, and her chair wobbled back, forward; no, back. It stayed still.

His eyes darkened with something she couldn’t figure out; distaste, maybe? “As what?” He asked it tentatively, as if he wouldn’t like her answer no matter what she said.

“As a bartender.”

She let her words hang in the air, waiting for a reaction. His expression remained the same; it changed only when he lifted a hand to rub over his face. When he pulled away, there was a look that showed he didn’t want to care when he did. “I don’t want no trouble or anything. Don’t make noise when you get home.”

She would have told him that he didn’t have to worry about it, but he went and read off the paper about the terms of their would-be contract. Sometimes he fumbled over a word, kanji that he should have learned in the fourth grade, but she made no comment; she herself still had trouble reading some characters.

“You wanna take a look at your place, now?” He was done reading and was looking at her again, his eyes forever squinting. He was trying to read her, now, but she knew he couldn’t. Nobody could, not anymore.

“Yes, that would be nice,” she said, politely, complacently, as her chair went wobb-wobble, wobble-wobble.

He stopped squinting at her and frowned instead. Then he craned his thick neck around and hollered over his shoulder, “Katsuya! Get out here!” There was no answer but silence. The man muttered something under his breath that sounded vaguely like, “That no good, lazy son of mine,” and shouted again, louder: “Katsuya!”

She resisted putting her fingers into her ears.

Feet pounding on wood thundered in the house, and in a minute a thin, scraggly-looking boy came into the room. He lingered in the doorway, taking a quick look at her, before calling out; “Yeah, Dad?”

She watched the large, burly man gesture towards her. “This is…” He scratched the back of his neck and turned to her. “Sorry, I never asked for your name,” he said, though she could hear that he wasn’t sorry at all.

“Mai,” she responded after a pause. “Kujaku Mai.”

The man grunted, still bothered—about her? About her job?—and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “This is Katsuya,” he introduced. Then, after a while, he added, waving him over: “My son.”

The boy came forward, with a wary look on his face as he stopped next to his dad. He didn’t look at her, and stared at the floor, looking unsure.

“Stupid,” his father said, bringing a hand down on top of his head. “Whaddya say to someone you meet?”

He scowled, and only mumbled something to the floor.

“Louder,” said his father, roughly elbowing his son in the ribs.

“Ow,” the boy whined, shooting his father a look. But he turned his face up to look at her and gave her a short bow. “It’s nice to meet you,” he greeted politely, loud enough for her to hear. When he straightened up again, there was a faint blush scattered across his face as he peered at her through his unruly bangs.

She thought it was cute, and smiled. The flush on his face darkened and he quickly turned away.

His father continued: “He’s gonna show you around. The room you’re renting is upstairs. You gotta go out and get up those stairs outside. They’re rusting, but they won’t break. I fixed it up and whatever a week ago. I was gonna paint it, along with the house, but my idiot son knocked over the can of paint on the porch. I had to bleach it out’cause it looked like a rainbow puked all over it…”

She didn’t listen, only paid attention to the way his words sometimes slurred together. While he rambled, she took in his thin, white tank and old jeans. The kitchen counter behind him was cluttered with papers and leftover food, and a familiar smell that she hadn’t been aware of before suddenly grabbed her attention. What was that, she wondered, that smelled so familiar? It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant; just familiar.

“…and this place might look like shit, but yours is okay, sort of. I got it fixed up a few weeks ago. Or a month ago. I don’t remember, but I know I got it fixed up and looking nice…”

Her eyes followed the crowded counter and fell when it did, right down to more clutter on the floor. There were shirts and pants and wrappers and plastic bags, all bundled up together on the floor. And bottles. Lots and lots of bottles; dark brown, emerald, and gold, all over the floor, some lined up and some lying sideways. Alcohol; beer. It was the smell of beer. She couldn’t help but frown. Her chair couldn’t help but wobble, as if it tried to apologize to her for the mess in the house as it tilted back and forth—so-rry, so-rry.

The boy suddenly appeared in front of the upturned chaos on the kitchen floor. He met her gaze and returned her frown with one of his own.

“…I know, ain’t that all bullshit? I wanted to sue him, but I couldn’t find a lawyer who coulda helped me so I had to pay them to throw out their own shit. That’s when I decided to so the paint job myself, but,” here, he gave a barking laugh, “you know how that turned out…”

She had lost track of what he was saying, but she was glad he didn’t notice. She’d always been told that it was women who spoke endlessly. So much for that.

“Katsuya!”

She didn’t understand why the man felt the need to shout when his son was standing just behind him. The boy didn’t seem to be bothered, and she guessed that was just how it was.

“Show her the room,” he ordered. “And don’t screw around this time,” he added with a warning look.

“Kay.” The boy quickly crossed the room and was out the door in a heartbeat. She could hear his feet clanging loudly on the metal staircase, shaking it. She was afraid it would break.

As if he sensed her concern, the man said: “Don’t worry, it’ll hold. I’ve gone up and down a few times, and if it can keep me up, you’ll definitely be fine.” Then, he nodded in his son’s presumable direction outside. “He’ll probably be talkin’ about a shit load of nonsense. Hope you don’t mind. He’s got a lot of energy, so he always running his mouth off and hopping all over the place.”

“He’s fast,” was all she could say in return.

He grinned, and it gave her chills. “That’s how he stays alive.”

Her response to that was a halfhearted smile that she gave before getting up and following his son, more than happy to be rid of the crowded counter, the cluttered floor, the wobbling chair, and his grinning face.

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THE ROOM FOR rent up on the second floor looked much better than the rest of the house. The walls were painted a light blue, and there was new carpeting laid out on the ground. An empty bed was pushed against the window to make the room look bigger than it actually was.

“This is your room,” the boy said, zipping from corner to corner with a level of energy she herself once had. “The plumbing is new, and so is the wiring. Everything should work just fine… And look! You can see the city from this window. See? There’s the train.”

He climbed onto the bare mattress and leaned on the window sill to watch the train spiraling through the city. “I took the train once, with my dad. I went with him to work. On the way, we passed this really tall building, taller than everything else, with lots of glass windows. It was so cool!” Then, he added, “But my dad told me the guy who worked there was a no-good, money-grubbing, bas— …Oh, I forgot. I can’t say that word. It’s supposed to be a bad word.”

Ah. That must have been Kaiba Corporations that he passed, she mused, a wry smile coming to her face.

“I got to meet him once. I don’t think he’s so bad.”

She withheld her laugh. “Really?” She was skeptical. It was rare to hear that Kaiba was agreeable. She came to sit on the mattress next to him, leaning on the windowsill with her arm to perch her cheek in her hand. He looked at her as she did so, but quickly abandoned her for the sky.

When he did, there was an ugly bruise on the side of his neck that came into view. It was fading, the discolored skin spotted with a sickly pale yellow.

Without thinking, she lifted her hand to the bruise on his neck. “What happened here?” she asked, gently.

He frowned and knocked her hand away. “I got hit.”

She chose her next words carefully. “Was it an accident?”

He looked at her, his brown eyes boring holes into hers. “I get picked on a lot at school because I’m des…diss…” his brow creased with his effort, “…disslect-tict.”

“You mean dyslexic?” she asked him.

“Yeah, that.” He shrugged and turned his face back to the sky. “It’s okay now, though. I learned how to fight.”

“From your father?” she asked.

He gave her a sheepish look. “Nah, not my dad. It was that guy from the cool building. He said he watched me get beat up a lot and told me that if I didn’t do anything back I’d probably stay a loser for the rest of my life.”

What a way with words. She wondered if he was as eloquent when he dealt with corporate matters.

He rubbed the side of his neck. “He didn’t teach me how to fight, but he taught me how to defend myself. He said that was all I had to know, and that if I was smart enough I’d figure out how to fight back.” He turned and grinned at her, a warming look of pride glowing in his eyes.“It took me a while, but I can do it now.”

Looking up at her like that, she could see that the bruise on his neck stretched over his throat and across to the other side. It covered his neck, wrapping around, and looking like a thick band that had tried to squeeze his life away.

She didn’t say anything, and he jumped off the bed and was at a doorway she hadn’t noticed yet before she could blink her eyes. “There’s another room back here, too. It’s kinda small, but it’s like a secret hideout. I forgot what it’s called. It’s like… a walk-in something. Let me show you!”

He pushed past the door and disappeared.

She followed.

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SHE SIGNED THE papers with a black pen, the tip gliding with each stroke she made. Before, a long time ago, she used to sign documents with a stamp. It was a heavy, gold stamp, and it’d been in her family for years. She had to sell it, though, to pay for her dead career in modeling.

She inspected her handwriting. Kujaku Mai, it read proudly, gleaming off the white pages.

Then, it was his turn to sign. He grabbed the pen awkwardly, as if he hadn’t held a pen for ages, and scrawled something across the line. She tried to see his name, but his handwriting was horrendous. Jounouchi… That was all she could read; the other characters were a scribbled mess.

His hands were large and strong. The pen pressed into the paper, making grooves of invisible lines onto the next page. He paused to scratch behind his neck before turning the page and signing again. She watched him carefully; his pen gripped tightly in his fingers, which were thick with blunt nails—they were huge! There was only one other person she knew who had hands so big—he was American, wasn’t he?—Sweet pea, he called her, and then that laugh, that horrible, horrible laugh, like everything was so funny and just a joke; only that was what he was: a joke, a great, big joke.

“Well, that settles that, then,” he said, handing her half of the papers; her copy of the contract. Then, he stuck his hand out and grinned at her.  “Welcome to the family,” he declared, laughing heartily.

Slowly, she took it, and he grasped her hand tightly and gave it a firm shaking. She managed a smile, but it drooped away when she looked at his hand again. Her eyes flicked to the boy and his neck, and the fading bruise. Then back to his hand. Then back to the bruise. Hand. Bruise.

He let go and didn’t notice her face as he walked back inside, and she watched the boy follow closely at his father’s side. At the door, the boy peered over his shoulder a moment with a questioning look. He stopped , the look on his face afraid—of her?—or maybe she imagined that, because now he was shooting her a grin as brilliant as the sun.

She can’t figure them out, she thought to herself as they both disappeared into the house. Then again, she knew she didn’t want to.

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THREE WEEKS AFTER she had settled in, Kisara came to see her at work. She had come to the bar wearing a blazer over a white satin dress. It looked like she herself had some work to do, judging by the cut of her dress and the nude stilettos she had thrown on top of the counter as if she owned the bar.

“So?” she began, cradling a tiny glass of seltzer water between her hands, “were you able to find the apartment of your dreams?” She was in good spirits, as usual, as she asked this. She was smiling a coy kind of smile, all the while looking down at her bubbling drink as she perched on the stool behind the counter.

Mai gave her a wry look, wiping off the counter with a wet cloth. “I found a place, but it’s no dream house or anything.”

“Hey!” a voice called out above the others somewhere in the crowd. “Can I get a beer over here, or what?”

Mai pulled one out and slipped down the length of the counter, trading it for the notes he waved. On the way back up, she tapped someone on the shoulder; he was wasted. He blinked groggily up at her and, when his vision cleared up enough to see that it was a woman, grinned.

“Hey, beautiful.”

“I’m calling you a cab,” she told him firmly.

“Aw, now, don’t be like that…”

She was already dialing a cab. She sent him out with Johnny, who she found messing around out back, and made sure he got on that cab. As soon as she came back inside, someone grabbed her arm and leaned over the counter, her chest spilling out over the top of her camisole.

“I want a Screaming Orgasm,” she slurred, leaning forward again and flashing her thong to the crowd. She tried to pull her in close, and when she couldn’t, leaned in herself and whispered drunkenly, “And I think you can give me one.”

Mai whipped one up one-handedly with lightening speed, having prepared herself after seeing this woman—she was becoming a regular, now—stumble towards the bar, and gently pried the stranger’s hand off her arm. She dropped the drink on the counter, the glass landing with a heavy clunk. “You’ve got one. Now, shoo,” she said, flicking her hand at her.

The woman sulked off and the hole at the bar was closed up with other people shouting out their demands.

It was happy hour at the bar, and this was routine for a Friday night. Everything was the same; the same faces, the same voices, the same drinks. She couldn’t remember how many drinks she made, how many times she poured into glasses the same things: vodka, rum, gin, whiskey, cream, milk, juice, ice, water; shot, after shot, after shot. Even the music was the same; the loud synthesizer rifts, the heavy eurodance beats, the booming bass—it milked their bodies of sweat, salty beads pooling and dripping down faces, down necks, down backs, with every beat, hook, and—

“You sure are busy here. Do you ever take breaks?”

She had forgotten that Kisara was here. Gone was the girl’s smile, and now Kisara was raising an inquisitive eyebrow at her.

“I’m sorry,” she said looking away and wiping the counter again.

“Don’t be. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

A man pushed in and saddled up besides Kisara. He flashed her a charming smile, looking her over, and said, “Can I buy some of your time, babe?”

Kisara didn’t even spare the man a look as she responded: “You can’t afford me.” Then, Kisara turned her attention back to her. “I’m pregnant,” she declared, thrusting three fingers out in front of her. “It’s been three weeks.” Kisara was grinning, proudly; the proud look of a mother.

She stopped wiping off the counter to stare at her. “Have you told him yet?” she asked, hiding the cloth away. She watched the man who had been next to Kisara catch sight of another woman quickly sashaying her way through the bar and run off after her.

“Of course. Sorry you weren’t the first to know. I found out two days ago. I didn’t know how to reach you. You wouldn’t answer your phone.”

A weary looking worker brought a tray of empty glasses to the counter. “This is just like my life,” she said to her, shaking her head bitterly. “A tray of empty glasses. All lined up in a row. Ain’t that something?” Without even waiting for a reply, the woman left to line more empty glasses on another tray.

She stared at them quietly; they were organized according to size on the tray, each one placed with a gentle touch.

Kisara clucked her tongue. “Poor girl. I’ve never seen her smile in all the days I’ve come here.” She sighed and finished off the rest of her seltzer.

She took Kisara’s glass and added it to the full tray. She took them down and piled them up behind the counter.  Johnny would be back soon from whatever break he’s taking; he’d take care of them.

“Aren’t you going to ask what he said?”

“What who said?” she asked her, looking up from her small collection of empty glasses.

Kisara frowned. “Kaiba. About me being pregnant.”

Mai laid the glass she’d picked up with a heavy thunk. “Are you sure you want to go through this?”

“It’s been almost a year, Mai.”

“But you’re an escort.”

Kisara narrowed her eyes. “Does that matter?”

“How do you know he doesn’t have other plans?”

“Because he doesn’t.” Her tone was firm and final, and now Kisara was frowning. Her friend sighed. “I thought you’d be happy about this.”

Her hands were starting to shake. This was bad. “I am. I’m sorry. I really am. It’s just—” I’ve done this too, she wanted to shout, and look at me now! Watching the same people, making the same drinks, hearing the same music, stacking the same empty glasses; all behind a counter, this blasted counter; this wall! “—I don’t want you to get hurt,” she said instead, taking the glass back in her hands; her small hands; her shaking hands.

Kisara wasn’t worried. “You were the one who set us together in the first place. Don’t you remember? It was when you were—”

She dropped the glass. It shattered on the floor at her feet.

Now, Kisara was worried. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Kisara got off her stool and leaned forward, grasping her hand. “Mai, you’re so cold!”

“What’s goin’ on here?” a voice called out as man with thick, dark dreads sauntered in.

“I’m going home,” she said, half-muttering to herself. “I’m coming down with something.”

“Mai, did something happen?” Kisara asked, raising her voice above the crowds beside them.

“Something happened?” the man echoed. He seemed to remember something and turned to her as she grabbed her jacket. “Hey, that’s right! Did ya find a place to stay? That apartment you were saving for, did ya find it?”

“Yes, I found it,” she snapped, pulling on the red windbreaker. She was yelling at them: “I found it, okay? I found it!”

She left the bar without turning back.

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IT WAS DARK when she got out of station, and close to three in the morning when she reached the old boarding house. Carefully, she took the rickety stairs. Halfway up and the front door opened with a loud racket, banging against the façade. Her proprietor appeared, eyes squinting meanly up at her from the sunken front porch. “Where’re you goin’, missy? Didn’t I tell ya not t’ come back?”

Clearly, he was mistaking her for someone else. She couldn’t even say a word before he cut in, raising a bottle accusingly at her. Her heart began to hammer in her chest, and her grip on the banister tightened.

“I know what yer tryna do here,” he slurred, managing to pry a finger off the bottle to point at her. He took a wobbling step forward and looked meanly at her. “You. You tryna kill me? You tryna set the house on fire again? Huh? Did my wife send ya here? Where is she, that little cock-sucking coward…” He took staggering steps around the porch, not seeing anything but his mind, not hearing anything but his voice. “Get out here, you little bitch! Y’ don’t scare me!” Then he hobbled his way back to the stairs. He grabbed the rusting banister and started shaking it and shouted: “I know she’s here! Where is she? You hidin’ her up in yer whore room, are ya? Are ya?”

Something shattered inside the house, and footsteps thundered loudly inside.

Her proprietor let go. “Why that no good brat… I’m gonna kill you! I bet you knocked over my bottle o’ beer, didn’ you!” He shouted, his hand clenching tightly over the neck of his beer bottle. He stumbled into the house, voice raising and shouting and making beastly noises.

She was rooted to the ground until she heard a door slam with terrible force. She was jolted back, and she hurriedly climbed up the stairs. She fumbled with the key and shut the door behind her. She wasn’t afraid, not a bit. She locked the door, and kept the lights off.

She went into the bathroom, locking that door too, and turned on the dim lights. Quickly, she peeled everything off without a sound—a white tank, blue shorts, her windbreaker, her bra, her panties; everything had to go—and stepped into the shower; she wasn’t afraid, not in the least.

She could hear them; angry shouting, furious voices, and hitting, hitting, hitting. Someone was hitting the wall. Or maybe he was the wall. She wasn’t afraid.

She turned on the water, and let the sound fill her ears and no, she wasn’t afraid; she just didn’t know what to do. What should she do? Should she do anything, anything at all? Where would she go?

The sound of water filled her ears and filled her head, until she could think no more. At night, when she tried to sleep, the sound of running water was so loud, it kept her up until the sky turned pink and red with shame.

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THE CICADAS WERE starting to cry. In the June heat, they cried for mercy, emitting long wails and yelps that filled the air with sorrowful music. Some of them cried like mothers, going OOO OOO OOO OOO; and some of them were saying WAAANG WAAANG WAANG WAANG, voices going up and down, up and down. There were those that cried like children, WAA WAA WAA WAA; some didn’t cry, and hummed, like they were deep in thought, HUUUM HUUUM HUUUM HUUUM.

These last cicadas were special to her, because they sounded like philosophers humming and hawing over their humdrum life, asking themselves what their life really meant if they stayed in burrows underground for seven years feeding from tree roots before they could crack their shells open and wriggle out. And when they finally wriggled out, they stayed attached to trees just as they had as babies.

But what if you didn’t wriggle out? She’d wanted to ask them this for the longest time. What if you couldn’t climb back to the surface? What would you become? And what about the birds, who swooped down on you once you finally breached the surface? What was the meaning of your life then, if you’ve wasted it underground, in the dark, if you’ve barely begun to live and died just after your first breath—AAAH-HAAA, AAAH-HAAA—what then? What comes after that?

What would you do next?

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SHE WAS LYING in bed, eyes open, with no sunlight streaming through the blinds. She’d gotten two hours of fitful sleep before something jolted her awake. It was horrible, the morning heat; it woke her up sweating and  got her thinking about iced everythings: coffees, teas, cream, cubes.

Her stomach growled. She couldn’t feel it, she didn’t want to; Stop it, she told it, what are you doing? It’s useless, can’t you see?

It was quiet in the house. There was no sound—the cicadas, where did they go?—and she could hear her own heart beating—dokkun dokkun dokkun dokkun—and the sound of her steady breathing—aaah-haaa, aaah-haaa.

It was her third night in a row that she hadn’t been able to sleep, her third night in a row of being harassed, and this morning would be the third in a row where he, her proprietor, would sport a guilt-ridden expression. It was all genuine, she believed it to be, but it was tiring to go through it day after day after day. She didn’t want to see that, not anymore.

The boy. She should have helped him. She should have done something, anything. These were the thoughts that stayed in her head. She knew that he would be sleeping outside again, and she dreaded having to go down the stairs to see him, like she always did when this happened. What should she do, what should she do…?

She looked at the clock on the floor of her bed. It was five-thirty, and it blinked at her in red as if it asked her what she was going to do with her day, with her life. She turned it over before she climbed off the bed. She washed her face and brushed her teeth, changing into a purple checked blouse and white shorts before she forced herself to sit in front of a small mirror and draw on her face with black and red. Her hair was a mess, she realized, and twisted it into a bun.

There, she told herself, You look beautiful.

Then she leaned her face into her hands and cried.

.

.

.

HE WAS SLEEPING on the front porch, sitting on the top step of the broken stairs and leaning his head against the wooden support. He looked dead.

She clanged her way down the stairs, and his eyes fluttered open.

He was startled, alarmed, and looked around him wildly. As quickly as he had risen to panic, he settled down and sighed. He turned to her, then, and grinned sheepishly. “I thought it was a weekday.” He said this casually to her, even though he was sleeping outside on the front porch, looking horrible and disgusting.

She wrinkled her nose at him, at his stench. “You,” she said, forgetting his name. She was always bad with names. She held her hand over her nose. “When’s the last time you took a shower?”

He scowled at her, face twisting childishly as he muttered something under his breath.

“You know, if you don’t bathe regularly, you’ll smell like a dog,” she said to him matter of factly.

He looked at her, as if he was asking her if she thought he even cared.

There was a defiant look in his eyes that reminded her of someone. She crouched down beside him, and asked; “Why were you sleeping outside?”

The defiant look disappeared and it was replaced with a look that seemed to question her intelligence. “It’s hot inside.”

“Don’t you have air-conditioning?”

He shrugged indifferently. “My dad said it’s not hot enough for it, so he didn’t turn it on last night.”

Was he even able to? She wanted to ask, but didn’t. Instead, she rose to her feet and crossed her arms. “Go wash up,” she told him sternly.

He scrunched his face up. “Why? It’s a weekend.”

The logic of his reasoning didn’t make itself known to her, and she didn’t even want to try understanding that one. To encourage him, she made him an offer: “I’ll take you out for breakfast if you do.”

His eyes widened and his face lit up. “Really?”

She tried a smile. It came to her more easily than she’d thought. She smiled a bit more. “Really,” she said, and before she could tell him to scrub hard, he was gone in a flash.

.

.

.

THE SKYLIGHT DINER was just opening when she showed up, one clean, blond boy in tow.

“Mai, it’s been a while! How’ve you been? Have you found a place to stay yet? Oh—? Who’s this?”

The boy held onto her hand and tried to back away from the exuberant brunette.

“I didn’t know you had a younger brother. What’s his name? How old is he?”

He was frowned at her energy, and she laughed. So, she mused, it’s true that two positives negate. She ruffled the boy’s hair and gave her friend a cheeky grin.

“Jounouchi Katsuya. He’s ten year old,” she said, proudly—like a mother? She dropped her hand to her side.

“Jounouchi?” Her friend made a thoughtful noise. “Oh, so he isn’t your brother. That’s what I thought. I would’ve known if you did…” She paused and looked at her with a sheepish look. “You don’t have a brother, right?”

She only laughed, turning to the boy next to her. “This is Anzu. She’s a good friend of mine.”

The boy mumbled his greetings, staying close to her side, and gave the brunette a wary look.

“Come on,” she told him, leading him by the hand, “let’s go sit down.”

They chose the booth closest to the kitchen door, and she sat the boy across from her. Anzu came and dropped off glasses of water, napkins, and silverware, then perched two menu books on the table.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

As soon as she was gone, the boy reached over and tapped her hand to get her attention. He wrinkled his nose and said, “Why’s she so loud? It’s the morning!”

She chuckled; it sounded foreign to her. “You’re pretty loud yourself,” she countered, and brought her glass of water to her mouth.

He looked like he was about to protest, when he suddenly stopped and looked behind her. Then, he lifted his finger and stretched his arm out in front of him. “He’s got three different hair colors!” he exclaimed.

She nearly sprayed the table with water.

Behind her, a familiar voice made a disheartened sigh. “Why is that always the first thing kids point out?”

“Maybe you should just dye your hair one color,” another voice suggested helpfully. “Then you’d just get comments about the way you style it.” He swung over to their table, and sat next to the boy with a  grin. “Been a while since we’ve last seen you. It felt like ten years passed by, or something.” Then, he jerked his head to the side, at the boy, and winked at her. “I see you got busy.”

She tried kicking him in the shin, but he moved out of the way with a laugh. “Shut up, Honda,” she told him.

“What’s wrong with the way I style my hair?” the other asked, taking a seat next to her at the booth. “It’s just fine.”

Honda gave a barking laugh. “Yeah, if you like having the Great Pyramids of Egypt on top of your head.” He grinned at the boy he was sitting next to again. “Right, kid?”

The boy laughed, then covered his mouth and looked curiously from stranger to stranger, wondering if it was alright to laugh.

“Yugi! I didn’t know you were going to be here,” Anzu exclaimed once she emerged from the kitchen. If possible, she was filled with even more pep and cheer. Then, turning to the other; “Hey, Honda.”

Honda looked affronted. “What, that’s all I get? C’mon, Anzu…”

“I see you everyday. You’re my brother.”

Honda scratched his head. “Yeah, but what if I drop dead tomorrow? What if today’s the last day you’ll ever get to see me?”

“That would be delightful,” Anzu deadpanned.

Yugi turned to Anzu. “What do you think of my hair?”

Anzu creased her brow. “Well… it looks the way it always does… Why?”

“Do you think it looks… weird?” he asked her hesitantly.

Anzu gave him a surprised look. “Not at all!” she exclaimed, waving her hand in front of her. “It’s unique! It’s what makes you, you!”

“And it’s what makes the Great Pyramids themselves too,” Honda added.

Anzu hit her step-brother’s forehead with her notepad. “You’re one to talk. Your hair looks like you can receive radio signals with the way you spiked it.”

The boy beside him laughed again, and quickly schooled his face to look innocently at his open menu when Honda looked over his shoulder in mock affrontation.

“Ready to order?” Anzu asked with a smile, twirling her pen in her hands. “My parents and I had three cups of coffee and we’re ready to fire it up!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Honda his pinky in his ear. “Save your fire for cheerleading and stuff.”

“Shut it, tower head.”

“Oh, no, tower head. That really hurt my feelings.”

Anzu rolled her eyes and looked at Mai. “The usual?”

She handed the menu back to Anzu without looking at it. “And a pot of coffee,” she confirmed.

“Sure thing.” Anzu turned to the boy sitting next to Honda and studying his menu intently. “And what will you be having?”

“Mm…” He studied the open menu diligently, eyes roving over all the items. Finally, he looked up and took in a deep breath. “I want eggs and bacon and sausage and toast and pancakes and waffles and butter and cereal and omlettes and this chocolate thing!” Then as an afterthought, he added; “And milk!” He grinned widely and declared: “This is the best day ever!”

Anzu laughed at him; he was brimming with energy. “Hold on, there. Don’t you think that’s too much food?”

“How about you start with one or two things,” Anzu suggested cheerfully, “and if you want more, you can order again.”

His face blanched. “But I don’t know what to choose!”

“How about everything?” Honda chimed in. “I’ll help you eat it all,” he said, then leaned in as he eyed around him in a suspicious manner. “But on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Honda straightened up and slug an arm around Yugi’s shoulders, bringing the startled man forward. “You gotta tell us who’s got the coolest hair.”

The boy gave them another look of indecision and made a face. “That’s hard,” he said at last.

Honda let go, then, and nodded sagely. “This is true,” he said thoughtfully. “Then there is only one way to settle this…”

“Oh, here we go again,” Anzu said, rolling her eyes and giving Mai an apologetic look.

She only gave her an understanding smile and watched the boy’s face light up with curiosity.

Honda pulled out a deck of cards with a grand flourish and slammed it on the table. “Bam, baby! It’s duel time!”

A gleam appeared in Yugi’s eyes, and he gave his friend a challenging look. “Are you sure you want to challenge me to a duel?”

Honda grinned. “Yeah, I am. And! I’m gonna win today. You know why?” He pulled the boy sitting next to him close. “Because I’ve got this brilliant kid on my side. He’s my lucky charm.”

The boy looked wide-eyed at Honda and pointed to himself. “Me?”

“You bet! What’s your name?”

“Katsuya!” he replied energetically.

Honda grinned at that, and turned to Yugi. “Ya hear that, Yugi? Katsuya. That means victorious!”

“You guys are being so ridiculous,” Anzu muttered.

“Just because you can’t duel doesn’t mean you should be a wet blanket about it,” Honda retorted childishly.

Anzu sighed and crossed her arms. “Well, then at least move to another table. Mai’s order is coming up soon, and with you guys splaying your cards all over she won’t have room to eat.”

“Oops.” Honda chuckled. “Sorry Mai,” he said.

She just chuckled. “Run along and go play your card games, now. Shoo,” she said teasingly, watching the three boys relocate to the booth in front. She watched the boy—Katsuya, his name is Katsuya—jump out and follow Honda along like a puppy, eyes bright and shining as he watched Honda and Yugi set up for their duel. He leaned in and whispered something in Honda’s ear, and, after the brunet agreed, he pulled something out from underneath his shirt.

A black wire, with a photo frame hanging at the end of it. She watched him as he struggled to open it and, when he finally did, pulled out a card and handed it to Honda.

“Oh, yeah, baby! We are definitely gonna win with this card,” Honda declared with a grin.**

A plate of food was brought in front of her, and Anzu’s face blocked her from watching the duel.

“Mai,” she began, her cheer replaced with a seriousness that was unlike her, “how do you know him?” She pointed a finger at Katsuya.

She looked down at her omlette. “He’s my landlord’s kid.”

“Well, what’s he doing with that photo locket?”

She cut into her omlette with her knife. “I don’t know,” she replied wearily. “Maybe he bought it somewhere.”

A long silence passed between them, and she spent it listening to Katsuya’s loud voice. She had a loud voice too, when she was younger. She used to wake up early in the morning, no matter when she went to sleep, and she’d never had any problems with sleeping before, until—

“You know… I saw him with Kaiba before. With Noah, too. They were eating at a cafe together.”

—until she wasted her life chasing after her dreams, those embarrassing failures. She wasted all her money doing that; how did she ever get out of college—

“He’s the same age as Mokuba, isn’t he? I remember… that Kaiba gave his brothers a locket two years ago. That’s Mokuba’s locket that Katsuya has, isn’t it?”

—how did she ever get out of college like that? She didn’t even remember what she’d done those four years; those four, wasteful years. Oh, she remembered being an escort, but even that seemed like such a long time ago—

“How do you suppose they came to know each other? For Kaiba to give him Mokuba’s locket… I’d say they’re pretty close. Do you think, maybe… it’s because of all the bruises Katsuya has? How did that happen, Mai?”

—the longest time ever, because it hasn’t ended yet; it’ll never end, because every day she still remembers how he used to touch her and she still wakes up at night, wondering if it was all worth it in the end, and oh, her baby—

“Who is he, Mai? Who hurt him like that?”

—her baby! She lost him so quickly, and then the wretched man who soiled her, what a good riddance his leaving was! But she had to watch her baby—that was her baby!—dying and be placed in a little black box and watched him being sent six feet under; its eyes, they were wide open! Oh, what was she thinking? What was she doing? How could she let that happen to her baby, her baby boy?

“…Mai?”

She put a hand over her eyes and sighed.

“I don’t know, Anzu. I really don’t know.”

.

.

.

ON THEIR WAY home, Katsuya suddenly stopped walking.

She turned around and look at him. “What’s wrong?”

He was rifling through his clothes. “Uh…” His hand found something in his pocket. “Oh. Here,” he said, pulling it out and handing it to her. “Yugi let me have one of the cards in his deck for helping Honda beat him.”

“That’s really nice of him,” she said with a smile, bending down to stay eye-level with him. She was pretty sure Yugi had let him win; she doubted he’d ever lose on purpose, and Honda’s deck severely lacked a good balance, which was usually why he never won.

“I want you to have it.”

She was startled by his words and his earnest expression. “Thank you,” she said, genuinely, “but I’m not really a duelist, so I—”

“But I want you to have it,” he pressed, pushing the card out for her.

She looked down at it. It was the Harpie Lady, crouching and spreading its arms and wings to bare its bosom with a wicked smile on its elfish face. She took it from him, and watched him smile. It was contagious. Then, she placed her hands on his shoulders and looked him right in the eye. “Katsuya,” she began, and watched his face change from the seriousness in her tone, “why were you sleeping outside?”

Maybe it was the cry of the cicadas wailing in the air, or maybe it was the emptiness of the country road; whatever it was, he looked back at her, straight in the eye, and said; “My dad hits me sometimes, because I got my mom’s face.”

Her hands on his shoulders tightened. It didn’t seem to hurt him at all, even though her own hands did after a while. She let go with one hand, and placed it gently on a new bruise that peeked out of his shirt. “Did your dad do this to you last night?”

He looked uncomfortable, looking down again and shuffling from one foot to the other. “He only does it when he drinks. He doesn’t remember anything, and he’s different when he’s back to normal. He knows he does bad things, but he can’t remember them, and he always feels real bad.” He looked up again, his eyes meeting her’s. “He’s a great dad! He just does bad stuff when he drinks! But it’s not all the time!”

The cicadas cried louder; they mourned for his bruises, his pain, and his life. They cried and they cried and they cried; WAA WAA WAA WAA — OOO OOO OOO OOO.

“Katsuya,” she started carefully, “you need to tell someone about—”

He wretched away from her, then, surprising her. His eyes were blazing, boring into her skull. “You can’t tell anyone!” he shouted angrily, shaking. “It’s a secret! You’re my friend, aren’t you? And friends keep secrets!”

She fingered the card she held in her hand. Was that what this was? A friendship ticket?

There were tears in his eyes and his shoulders started shaking, shaking, shaking. “You can’t tell anybody! They’ll take my dad away! I don’t want them to take him away! He’s not a bad person!” He shot forward and grabbed her hand tightly. “You can’t tell anybody! Promise you won’t tell anybody!”

She looked into his eyes—they were her baby’s eyes—desperate, blazing—dull, lifeless—full of hope; alive. She pulled him into her and held him tight. “I promise I won’t tell anybody. I swear to you that I won’t.”

The cicadas wailed—YOU’RE A LIAR, A LIAR, A LIAR, A LIAR—WAA WAA WAA WAA—

He buried his face in the crook of her neck and cried.

.

.

.

SHE WAS SURPRISED to see him here. This was TAZUN, a rowdy bar that fed on, as he himself would put it, low-class fools. She couldn’t imagine why he would ever step foot in here.

He was sporting a pair of dark glasses and wearing a dark green sweater with jeans. He looked completely different dressed down like that, but there was no mistaking his walk, that particular walk of his that only he had; and the thick aura that hung around him that told everyone he thought they were well beneath him. As soon as he caught sight of her, he cut through the crowd and found a place at the counter.

“Kisara says you don’t trust me.”

Blunt as always, aren’t you, she thought. “Why does she think that?” she asked, pouring Kahlùa and Tequila in two glasses. She followed this with a splash of milk and orange juice, respectively, and added grenadine to the second drink while she stirred the other in her hand. She passed these along to Johnny, who served them up with a wink and a charming grin.

“You tell me.”

“I didn’t think you cared what people thought of you.”

“I don’t,” came the immediate response. “But she does.”

She gave him a long, hard look. And she sighed, giving up. “I don’t know.” Before she could walk away to mix more drinks, his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. Down the counter, she could see Johnny look in their direction.

“Then don’t go filling her head with things you don’t know.” He withdrew his hand then, and she let go of the breath she wasn’t aware she’d been holding in. “Kisara thinks highly of you. She’s grateful to you for helping her with… with what she’s gone through in the past.” A pause, and then; “As am I.” He continued, keeping his tone business-like and unchanging; “I don’t want her having any doubts about our… relationship.”

She studied him carefully, crossing her arms. He sounded uncomfortable, unsure, to her ears, and it was a strange thing. In her time as an escort during her last two years of college, she had never seen Kaiba show any sort of uncertainty. She wanted to see if she could see it, too, in his eyes, but she couldn’t see his eyes; they were hidden behind tinted plates of glass, but she doubted it would have made a difference if she could see them anyway. He was always good at keeping his face neutral. It was a good quality for dealing with people, she supposed.

“Is everything okay over here?”

It was Johnny, who’d come down to check if she was having any trouble. Mai waved her hand dismissively. “He’s an old friend. He’s just not good at socializing outside of a conference room.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow and just shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever you say,” he said, walking away to take care of the slowly diminishing crowd.

She had noticed that; that there were fewer and fewer people crowding around the counter than usual. Her friend had that affect, she noted wryly. Once Johnny was out of range, he spoke again:

“I won’t hurt her, if that what you’re worried about.”

She wordlessly pulled out a wet cloth to wipe down the counter. “I hope not.”

“I won’t.”

It was as close to a sworn confession as she would ever get out of him, and she knew it. Satisfied, she put the wet cloth away and pulled an empty glass out. “Drink?”

He shook his head. “Can’t.”***

Ah. She’d forgotten about that. “I’m sorry. I forgot.” She put the glass away, wondering if he ever felt as if he didn’t know what to do next, if he ever questioned himself. Then she realized that he would never; not him. He would only push harder, get stronger. That was how he was.

“His birthday is coming up soon, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer, proving to her that staying silent was indeed his forté.

“How old would he be turning this year? Ten? Eleven?”

He surprised her by responding. “Ten. He’d be ten.” He sighed. “Noah asks when he can see him, everyday. He doesn’t understand why he can’t see Mokuba anymore.” ****

“Can I get a beer, please?” 

“Another shot, whiskey!” 

“I’ve been asking for a margarita for five minutes! Where’s my margarita?”

Selfish, she thinks, we’re all so selfish. Or is it that we don’t understand? As she’s pulling beers and mixing drinks, a thought came to her. “I heard you taught a kid how to fight.”

He gave a strange laugh—a chuckle?—and said; “So you do live there. Your brunette friend was very concerned about that, and felt the need to inform me.”

She held out a drink. “Who asked for the whiskey?” she asked, and slid it down to whomever was shouting at her; Me! Me! Me!

“How long have you been living there?”

“About a month, now.”

“His father ever give you any trouble?”

Yes! she’d wanted to say, but couldn’t. She watched a tray float to the counter, and watched a worker—this one was a new one; where had the other one gone?—walk away with a pep in her step. She began stacking glasses to get them washed, when he laid a hand on her’s.

“You helped Kisara get back on her feet by yourself.” He took his hand off her’s; his next words sounded strange and foreign to her ears; “You aren’t on your own with Katsuya.”

She began stacking glasses, quickly, rapidly. Then she piled them sky-high on the same tray and took them to the sink. When she came back he was gone, and the crowd had come back.

.

.

.

IT WAS THE end of July when it happened.

She had gotten off the station and was walking back home. It was almost three in the morning. She walked barefoot on the dirt path, holding her heels, one in each hand. When she reached home, the front door was slightly ajar, and it was silent.

Oh, no, she had thought, did something happen? She quickly got onto the sinking front porch and opened the door. He was there, slumped over the small wooden table she had sat at when she came in. It was so quiet inside, so, so quiet, like death, and she tried going in to see if anything was wrong—Where are you, Katsuya?—when she stepped on a floorboard that creaked loudly.

She didn’t remember how she got on the floor, but there she was, with him on top of her, and her heels went sailing across the room to a dark corner where they would be forgotten. Where is she, he kept asking her, You whore, I know you have her! But she doesn’t know where she is, and she doesn’t have her, but she can’t say anything because he’s got his hands around her throat and he’s strangling her, hands tighter and tighter—oh, this is what my baby felt!—she couldn’t breathe and then she felt his hand on her, touching her—was she raped that night, too? Did that wretched man rape her?—You smell nice, he said, and he laughed at her—he always laughed when he touched her; a horrible, horrible laugh that made it sound like everything was a joke; but he was the joke!—Have you got a whore pussy, or did you get that fixed up like those new whores in the city? His hand went up and up and up her thigh—he did this too, pushing her down and touching her, his hand everywhere, and laughing; stop laughing, Keith! Stop laughing!—and she wished he would hurry up and do something; she wished he would just do it and then it would be over soon and she could get up and go home and laugh and laugh and laugh because it was all just a funny joke—

—Katsuya.

He was standing in the doorway, looking terrified. He was watching her—no, don’t look!—being violated by this man, by his father! What kind of a father are you? What kind of a man are you? You, you aren’t a man, you’re a horrible, disgusting—

WHACK WHACK WHACK

She couldn’t feel her face and she couldn’t feel her arm and she couldn’t feel—

“Stop it! Stop it, Dad, you’re hurting her!”

—her leg, and an ugly monster was still on top of her and Katsuya was crying; You see what you’ve done, now? Your son is crying! Your son—

“Why d’ya gotta drink, Dad? Why?”

—Your son; where is your son? He was just here, he was standing right here—

“Dad, please—Stop! Stop, or I’ll—I’ll—!”

BANG CRACK

Oh, God, what was that horrible noise? It shook her from the inside, and she felt like she was choking and she couldn’t breathe—

“YOU LITTLE SHIT!”

—Now he was off, thank God. No more monsters, no more…

“YOU GIVE ME THAT GUN!”

Gun? What gun? What is he talking about? Her thoughts raced past her mind; Gun? What gun? Gun? What gun?

“GIVE ME THE GUN!”

BANG BANG, Thud, BANG BANG BANG, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink

.

.

.

WHEN SHE COULD move again, she turned her neck to see what had happened.

There was the gun the horrible monster had been roaring about, in his little boy’s hands. In Katsuya’s hands. His face, terror-stricken, was wet, and teeth were clenched. He slid down the wall he had been leaning against, and fell to the ground with an anguished cry that tore at her heart.

He dropped the gun, and it clattered to the wooden floor; the noise was enough to make him cry out again.

“I… I didn’t mean to!”

She was slow to register the full meaning of his words. On the floor, a distance away from her, was the body of his father, lying perfectly still. Something dark was spreading out on the floor rapidly, like he had emptied his bladder.

“I didn’t mean… I didn’t…!”

His eyes, his eyes were so wide. And his face; oh, she wished she didn’t see that face; he looked horrified, he was staring right in front of him, at his father, who was lying still and leaking a dark, dark liquid all over his old wooden floor.

He was dead.

“I didn’t mean to! It just went off, and I…!”

He was dead.

“Dad! I…!”

She pulled herself up from the floor, and dragged her body across the room with the last of her strength. She pulled him to her, tightly, stroking his head.

“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!” he wailed, his cries filling the room and echoing off the walls.

Her child, her baby, was dead. And this one too?

“I killed my dad, I killed my dad,” he moaned, his cries escalating; he was hysteric. “I killed my dad,” he cried, and he suddenly felt weightless in her arms; lifeless, and still.

She held him tightly, squeezing, as if she were trying to keep his life inside; you have to live, do you hear me? You have to live! “Don’t cry, please don’t cry,” she whispered to him as loud as she could, and her whispers turned into cries. “Don’t cry; everything’s gonna be alright. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, my poor baby…”

Outside, the cicadas cried with them all night long, their incessant wailing loud and mournful—WAANG WAANG WAANG WAANG—OOO OOO OOO OOO—WAA WAA WAA WAA WAA.

.

.

.

.

.

.

* Eighty-thousand yen is approximately a thousand US dollars.
** The card Katsuya let Honda borrow was the Red Eyes Black Dragon; he received the card from a seven-card pack someone (Kaiba) had bought for him.
*** Mokuba, then nine years old, died in a hit-and-run roughly a year before this story happened.
**** Noah is five years old.

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