All original artwork by Louis-Étienne Vallée (Instagram, website — and thanks!)

The Day I First Heard Elliott Smith

I first met Mima while I was poking through a clothing rack at United Arrows, looking for a new coat. I don’t know why it took so long to choose one. Old habits, I suppose.

“How did you get here?” she asked.

I took a coat off the rack and looked at it. Then I looked at the girl, with her black and white sports jacket and her red sneakers, and her hair cut short. Something about her reminded me of Rumi. Perhaps it was the tired eyes, or the pale skin and the sharp features.

Perhaps it was all of the above.

“This coat,” I said, “do you think it suits me?”

The girl tilted her head a moment.

“Uh, I guess it looks alright, yeah.”

I shrugged off my old coat and put on the new one. Then I put on my backpack and headed for the escalators.

“Hey!” she said. “You didn’t answer my question.”

I looked back at the girl, and the items scattered across the floor around her; at the clothes and the hats and the accessories. I thought about how they were all designed to be part of a person’s life, but now never would be.

“I climbed in through the barricades earlier this morning,” I said. “They have those signs outside, and they still send out those automated announcements, but I wondered if there was still anyone here or not.”

“I’m here,” she said.

“Yes, you are,” I said. “You and only you, it would seem.”

We stood in silence for a moment.

“Were you bitten?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“No.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m Mima.”


“What did you do? Before all of this, I mean.”

Mima had followed me up to the fourth floor, and through each empty shop; poking and peeking, and moving with caution. The Hikarie building still smelled vaguely of people, and the air was thick with their sweat, their worry, and their fear.

Their despair.

“I worked at a convenience store,” I said.

“That was your full-time gig? Convenience store clerk?”

I paused for a moment. I thought of Eddie and Trevor, and the last time I saw them. I thought of Trevor clawing at the bathroom door as we pushed our weight against it; of his crying and screaming, and eventually, growling.

“I wanted to be a writer,” I said. “I was writing a novel.”

“Was it good? Your novel?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Nobody would read it.”

I remembered the disappointed eyes of my parents, and wondered where they were now; were they mindlessly wandering the countryside in search of flesh, or were they rotting away in a town hall somewhere, piled under hundreds of others?

I had no way of knowing. Not anymore.

And it struck me as odd that the end of the world had brought with it something like a feeling of relief; a feeling that I didn’t have to worry about my future anymore, because there wasn’t much of a future left to worry about, anyway.

“My dad is a writer,” Mima said.

“I see.”

I poked at the body of an office lady, huddled in the corner by the window. Dead. Abandoned.

“He’ll read your novel,” Mima said. “When he comes back. He’s always been nice like that.”


“You think this place was really a safe house from the infected?”

Mima sat on a stool at a cafe on the first floor. I opened a jar of coffee beans and put my nose to it. Stale. I didn’t know why I was surprised.

“Yes,” I said. “There were sleeping bags rolled up and stored on the eighth floor. Lots of them. The barricades show signs of once being manned. Also, there’s a stockpile of stale convenience store food still in the basement. I think if we go higher up we’ll find signs of organization and planning; maybe a homebase kind of set-up.”

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t. I’m just guessing.”

“Guessing?”

I shrugged.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I look at things and imagine why they ended up where they did. It’s what I do.”

“What about me?” Mima asked, “Did you imagine how I got here?”

I opened another coffee jar and sniffed the contents. I thought of my first date with Rumi; of her parfait sitting across from my black coffee, and how what made them different also made them complementary.

“Did you ever imagine we’d meet again like this?” she’d said.

I put the jar back on the counter.

“The cafe on the second-level basement has better coffee,” I said.

“Isn’t that place a dessert chocolate shop?”

“It’s that, too,” I said.

“You want to go down there instead?”

“Yes.”


We walked up to the eighth floor, picked out a few sleeping bags, and set them by the window, where we watched the sun set over a jagged, collapsed cityscape.

I listened to Mima sleep through ragged, tired breaths, and I looked out to the city below — to the abandoned cars, the crashed trains, the artillery craters, the debris — as it was slowly blanketed in shadow. I had long thought of Shibuya as little more than a playground for the infected, and it was still a surprise to have found another survivor.

But time had made me apprehensive, and I realized that I didn’t like questions anymore, because I didn’t like asking them back. I didn’t like how questions invited conversation, or how conversation invited connection.

Connection had come to feel like such a fragile, tenuous thing now; destined to snap, or to break, or to shatter.

To end.


Mima rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. Yawned.

“You’re still here,” she said.

“I am.”

“I thought maybe it was a dream, yesterday.”

She opened a pastry and stared out at the devastation on the other side of the window.

“Sometimes I still think I hear them,” she said. “Gunshots, shouting, helicopters passing by. Explosions. But now it’s mostly silence. It’s so quiet. I don’t know what’s worse.”

I looked out the window, at the slow drift of lazy clouds on blue sky.

“I can’t remember the last time I heard anything like that,” I said.

“Maybe it’s just the two of us now. Maybe that’s all that’s left.”

And in that moment I saw Rumi, sitting on a futon mattress, drinking beer at a ryokan hotel in Hakone. “One day, let’s go somewhere where it’s just the two of us,” she’d said.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.


“Have you always traveled alone?”

I shook my head.

“No. For a time I traveled with a friend. A girl.”

“A girl?”

I nodded.

“Your girlfriend?”

I looked out the window.

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

I thought of hands on a throat, squeezing. I thought of a fist slamming into a face, and a sharp, stinging pain through bloodied knuckles. I thought of the tired thud of a nabe-pot against a skull, and then of shaking hands, and long, heaving breaths.

I thought of tears and heartbreak.

“She didn’t make it,” I said.

“I’m sorry.”

I shook my head.

“It was a long time ago,” I said. “I’ve been alone ever since.”


“What’s your favorite song?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t think so, no.”

We walked down broken escalators towards the food-pile in the basement.

“You don’t listen to music?” Mima asked.

“Not really,” I said.

“Not at all?”

I thought for a moment.

“If it’s on the radio or the television or whatever, I’ll listen to it, I guess.”

“Wow, you’re like an alien. You don’t read manga, you don’t listen to music. It’s like god made you in black and white. I honestly don’t think I could live without music. I don’t think I could survive.”

“I see.”

“You want to know what my favorite songs are?“

“Not really,” I said.

“You want some music recommendations then?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Do you know Elliott Smith?”

I shook my head.

“Well, you should,” Mima said. “If there’s a soundtrack for my soul, it is probably Elliott Smith.”

“I see.”

“I would make you listen to him, but my discman ran out of batteries a week ago, and I couldn’t find any here. Isn’t that weird?”

“It’s weirder that you’re still alive when you said you honestly couldn’t live without music.”

“It’s a figure of speech, you idiot.”

I laughed, and then wondered how long it had been since I’d done that.

I couldn’t seem to recall.


“Do you want to hear how I got here?”

Mima leaned against the counter, watching me grind coffee beans at the cafe in the basement. Somewhere in the distance, I heard the howls of a lonely infected wandering the subway tunnels outside, and told myself it was the wind.

I shook my head.

“You’re not curious about how a young girl got here all by herself?”

“Not really.”

Mima laughed.

“So my dad pushed me through the barricades a few days ago,” she said. “He said to stay safe. That he’d be back with help.”

“Did he say where he was going, or when he’d be back?”

“He just said it might take a while.”

I put the coffee grinds in a paper filter, and thought of the man’s body I had found slumped near the chainlink fence at the barricades, and the infected train station attendent I had found with him, whose head I had caved in to access the small hole cut into the bottom of the fence.

“Let’s hope it is sooner rather than later,” I said.


“You know what your problem is?” Mima said.

“Tell me.”

“You don’t have enough music in your life.”

I looked over at the girl, huddled inside a sleeping bag and leaning against the eighth floor window, as the sun set behind her.

“I don’t think I have any music in my life,” I said.

“That might be a bigger problem.”

“Doesn’t seem that big of a problem compared to what’s out there.”

“You can’t solve that problem,” Mima said, tilting her head to the city outside. “But you could start listening to music in the next couple of hours if you really wanted to.”

I thought back to the first reports and the first announcements, and the chaos that erupted in the following hours. I thought of the panicked, crazed eyes of looters pushing against the locked glass doors of the convenience store, and later, the deadened, lost eyes of the infected, clawing at the windows from inside the crashed trains along the Inokashira line.

I thought of how helpless I felt. How hopeless.

“I could run out to a convenience store tomorrow,” I said. “I could maybe find you some batteries, and you can make me listen to that band, or whatever.”

Mima glanced at the lonely, unused discman in her backpack and shook her head.

“No,” she said. “Stay. But thank you. I appreciate the gesture.”

We sat in silence for a time, staring out the window.

“You’re still shivering,” I said. “I’ll get you another sleeping bag.”


I looked up at the night sky through the windows, to the thousands of stars at rest upon a curtain of blue-black. It was a beauty that came with the absence of light pollution — and the absence of electricity, and people, and life — as though it only could have happened because the world had ended.

Mima coughed, and shivered, and curled up in her sleeping bag, like she was trying to hide within herself, or make herself so small she might disappear. As I listened to her sleep, I felt like I understood her for who she was behind her inquisitive exterior. I saw that digging into the lives of others — the people they were, and the people they had become — was a way of burying and hiding her own life, and the fears that lived within it.

And I didn’t like the way I had grown accustomed to her banter, or that even with my refusal to return her questions — and perhaps because of it — we had grown a connection. I didn’t like the way I saw that connection as a single flower, pushing stubbornly through a crack in the pavement.

A flower that still had yet to bloom.


“You don’t like getting close to people, do you?” Mima said.

“No, I don’t.”

“Why not?”

I saw a memory of blood running into the bathroom sink from my shaking hands, and a twitching body in my peripheral vision.

I shrugged.

“Everybody dies,” I said. “It’s just… it’s easier if I only have to think about myself. If I just keep moving.”

Mima tilted her head slightly.

“So why are you still here?” she said.

I looked at my hands.

“I want to meet your father,” I said. “I’ve never met another writer, and I figure if I don’t do it now, I might not get another chance.”

Mima thought for a moment, then nodded.

“That’s a good reason,” she said. “Yeah. That’s a pretty good reason.”


“Did you love her?” Mima asked.

“I did.”

“Do you miss her?”

“I think so.”

“You never talk about her. Do you want to talk about her?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t… I don’t like those memories very much,” I said.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, no. It’s fine.”

Mima stared at me for a time.

“Well, if you want to, you know, talk about it or whatever, you can talk to me about it, yeah?” she said.

I nodded.

“Okay,” I said.


“This is our third sunset together,” Mima said. “It’s almost pretty when you’re watching with someone else, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Did you do this with your girlfriend? Watch sunsets together?”

I saw Rumi’s hand in mine on a trip to Nagasaki two years earlier, watching the fireworks from the Inasayama observation deck. Then I saw it a month ago, pale and white and cold, squeezing my own in some abandoned apartment in Shin-Daita, as night crept into the cracks and corners and spread like a blanket of fear and darkness.

“If this is our last sunset…” she’d said.

“It won’t be the last,” I’d said.

But I had lied.

“I killed her,” I said, “and I had to… I had to do it twice.”

“What?”

I looked down at my hands, as though searching for the reason I spoke. I felt the truth like bile in the back of my throat.

“The sun was going down,” I said, “and somehow she knew that was it. She knew it was the end. She asked me to do it. She said when it got bad I should do it. She didn’t want to be one of them. Not one of the infected, she said. But I didn’t know when, so when I thought she was asleep, I did it. And she didn’t make a sound. She just let me. She let me. And when she stopped breathing, I thought it was over. I thought it was over, but it wasn’t.”

My hands blurred in front of me. Tears welled in my eyes. The words flooded from my mouth as if they were a dark, murky poison.

“So I had to do it again,” I said. “I had to hold her down and hit her. Our weapons were in the kitchen. It was a stupid mistake. I didn’t have a choice. So I hit her, but she wouldn’t go back to sleep. She wouldn’t listen. I kept pleading but she wouldn’t listen. She just wouldn’t listen. It was like she was another person. I told myself she was. So I hit her, and I hit her, and I kept hitting her until my knuckles broke, and then I found a pot and I went back and, and I… and I…”

But I couldn’t find the words. They were lost, replaced by a wailing sadness.

I crumpled to my knees, where I stayed with Mima’s hand on my shoulder, until the tears had run completely dry.


In the middle of the night, covered in a small mountain of sleeping bags, Mima spoke.

“My father’s not actually a writer,” she said.

“I know.”

“And he’s not coming back. He won’t be back.”

“I know,” I said.

“How?”

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I look at things and imagine why they ended up where they did. It’s what I do.”

“So you did imagine it,” Mima said. “You did imagine how I got here.”

I heard the hint of a smile in her voice, and felt it fade into silence as we watched the night sky.

“I was bitten,” Mima said finally. “On my way here. On the way through the barricades. I’m… I’m infected. It’s why I always look tired. Why I’m always cold. Why I keep shivering even though you keep giving me sleeping bags. It’s why I can’t keep food down.”

I nodded.

“I know,” I said.

“You do?”

“I do,” I said. “It’s why I’m still here.”

And I understood then why Mima reminded me of Rumi. It was the tired eyes, and the pale skin and the sharp features, but it was also the way she was changing; the way the life was seeping from her, little by little, day by day.

“Thank you,” she said.


“Can I ask you a favor?”

Mima was sat by the window watching the sunrise, her head peeking out from the patchwork mountain of sleeping bags wrapped around her small frame.

“A favor?“ I said.

“Can you put me in a story, some day? Like, if you get out of here, and if you have the time to write again, could you put me in a story?”

“What kind of story?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You don’t have to make me famous or a hero or anything like that. Maybe I’m just some girl that pops up along the way. Some bit player that says her part and then she’s gone.“

“That’s it?”

Mima stared out the window, at some vague point on the horizon.

“Just make me happy,” she said. “Make me hopeful. Give me a future.”


“What was it like for her? Your girlfriend, I mean. Was it like this?”

I chewed on a piece of stale bread and stared out the window.

“It was similar,” I said.

“Was it bad?”

“It wasn’t so bad,” I said, “except for the end. That part was bad.”

“Was it like, she wanted to cry but she was too tired? Like she wanted to scream but she didn’t have the energy?”

“Yes. It was very much like that,” I said.

Mima nodded.

“Did she tell you she loved you, before it happened?”

I thought of Rumi’s eyes as she looked at me. I thought of the pleading that leaked from them with her tears, and the way her hands grasped desperately at my shirt. I thought of the way she’d said, “Promise me you’ll do it. Swear to me. Tell me you won’t let me become like the rest of them. Promise.”

“She did,” I lied.

“I’m sure she appreciated it. Even if things ended the way they did. I’m sure it must have been nice, having someone there at the end.”

“Mima,” I said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here.”

“I know,” she said. “I know, it’s just…”

Her voice trailed off into silence.

“It’s just what?”

Mima shook her head.

“Nobody should have to do what you did, twice,” she said.


I spent the night mostly sleepless, lost in the soundtrack of Mima’s quiet, lonely weeping.

It was the sound of a girl trapped in a world that didn’t want her; the sound of a girl who had wanted to hope, and wanted to live, but was faced with the reality that both were now impossible.

It was the sad sound of a girl wrapped in sleeping bags that wouldn’t do their job; sleeping bags that let in the cold, the fear, and the anguish.

And I listened as the sobs echoed through the empty shopping complex, until they haunted my dreams in the early hours of the morning.


“When I was young,” Mima said, “we had to write a letter to our future selves. It was an elementary school project. Did you ever do that?”

I shook my head.

“No,” I said.

“You want to know what I wrote?”

I thought for a moment.

“What’d you write?”

“It was all questions,” she said. “I had all these questions for myself. Was I rich? Was I married? Had I started a band? Was I still playing guitar? Did I still love Fukuyama Masaharu? Did I have any pets? Was I happy? Was I surprised at the way things turned out?”

She stared out the window, a pale princess in a sleeping bag castle, and she sighed.

“It’s kind of silly, don’t you think? You can’t even begin to predict it, you know? The future. I don’t know why we bother.”

I shrugged.

“Where’d you go last night?” I said.

“What?”

“I woke up around three and you weren’t here. Where’d you go?”

“Just upstairs,” Mima said. “I was looking for some paper. Pens and stuff.”

“What for?”

She stared up at the sky for a time before speaking.

“I wanted to write a letter,” she said finally. “I wanted to write myself a letter.”

And though I knew she was lying, I let it go.


“Could you do it again, if you had to?”

Mima’s head was poked out from her mountain of sleeping bags, and turned towards the window, where she stared out aimlessly.

“Do what?” I said.

Mima looked down for a moment, then shook her head.

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

I sipped at a mug of cold, stale coffee.

“Yes,” I said finally. “I could. And I will. If it comes to that.”

Mima nodded.

“You could run away, you know,” she said. “I wouldn’t hate you if you did.”

I shook my head.

“No,” I said. “I’ll stay.”

“Why?”

I didn’t quite have words for it; the feeling that Mima was like a chance to right an impossible, unforgivable wrong, but also a kind of karmic punishment. It was a feeling that going through it all again was a penance of some kind.

And perhaps, I hoped, atonement.

“You deserve better than that,” I said. “Better than… them.”


“It’s getting bad, isn’t it?”

I thought of Rumi, staring blankly at the ceiling in her last hours. I thought of her pale skin and her quiet eyes, and how unfair it was that she was still so beautiful even moments before I knew I would kill her.

I thought of the look now on Mima’s face, and the quiet in her eyes, and when my thoughts wandered too far into murky waters, I shook my head.

“It’s not… it’s not getting bad,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “It is, isn’t it?”

I said nothing. We looked out towards the sun, staining the clouds orange as it sunk beneath the horizon, soon to be gone completely.

“If this is our last sunset together…” Mima said.

“It won’t be the last,” I said.

But I knew I had lied.

“Can you watch over me tonight?”

I nodded.

“I’ll be here,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here.”

But I wasn’t. Because at some point in the evening, when Mima’s stories of Elliott Smith and her other favorite artists faded into the quiet darkness, I faded along with it, into sleep.


When I woke the next morning, Mima was gone. I looked under the mountain of sleeping bags, but found nothing. No notes or messages, no letters, and no sign of her on any floor of the shopping complex.

All that remained was a discman on the eighth floor — propped up neatly by the window where she slept — and inside of it a CD covered in curves of red, white, and blue.


I crawled back through the barricades, and up towards the street. The midday sun shone upon overturned cars and abandoned tanks, and collected rubble and faded corpses, and a single, black and white sports jacket attached to a pair of red sneakers that I told myself had been there when I first arrived.

And then, much like the morning I had left Rumi in that abandoned apartment in Shin-Daita, I took a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and kept on moving.

And I tried my very best to think nothing at all.


Later, in the corner of an abandoned, mostly empty convenience store, I placed batteries in a discman, and earphones in my ears, and then I pressed play.

I pictured a girl plodding upwards, stair after stair, floor after floor, humming her favorite song until she finally arrived at the door to the roof on the 43rd floor, where the lock was broken by those who had prayed for helicopters that never came.

I pictured that girl standing at the edge and staring down at a world that had abandoned her — a world of the infected — and I wondered what she had thought about in those moments before she made her choice.

And I pictured a boy who made a promise, asleep against the window as a body sailed past him into the pavement below, and the silent impact that marked his promise as one that would never be kept.

As music flooded my ears, the melodies colored a collection of old and recent memories. I thought of chance encounters and letters to the future, and sleeping bag castles and unbloomed flowers. I thought of the lives I couldn’t save, and the girls who had deserved them, and a lonely boy stuck at the end of the world.

A boy who had finally discovered his favorite song, but now had nobody to share it with.

— -

Music
(Elliott Smith — I Better Be Quiet Now)

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All original artwork by Louis-Étienne Vallée (Instagram, website — and thanks!)

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Thanks for reading!
 — Hengtee