As promised, here is my predictably awful contest entry. I'll be competing for the guidebook, please. There are some warnings involved, so I am putting them behind a spoiler for those who just want to read it without. If you are prone to triggers, please check the first spoiler box for warnings.
This spoiler box has the actual story itself.
The sound of crashing waves comes as a surprise. Mio doesn’t remember this place having a beach. It was near a river, a small stream, but not the ocean. Sand crunches underneath her shoes as she steps forward, and it all feels very real. She waits. She has no inclination as to why she was led here, but Mayu must be nearby. When she turns, Mio is met with a crowd of unfamiliar faces, throngs of shadowy people lurching towards the shoreline with slow, shuffling steps. Her sister is among them, clear and bright amongst all the grey. Mio runs to her, fighting against the crowd and struggling against bumping shoulders and downhill momentum. Her hands clasp Mayu’s shoulders.
“I found you,” she says, breathing a sigh of relief. “I found you.”
“You never lost me,” Mayu replies. She stumbles a little when Mio pulls her forward, crushing their bodies together in a tight hug.
“But I did. You kept getting places I couldn’t, through narrow paths and locked doors, and I… I found you.”
A dam of emotion breaks inside Mio, and she slumps forward into her sister’s arms, sobbing wearily. “It’s over,” she whispers.
“Do you want it to be over?”
The question is so simple, but the way each syllable is punctuated chills Mio down to her core. She feels her body go rigid, and she forces herself upright, still not daring to push Mayu away. “What do you mean?”
“Look at them all. They’re just… fading away into the water.”
Mio turns and watches the shadow people. They don’t seem to be fading away so much as just vanishing into the distance, and none of them seem upset about it. “I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. You got to live.”
The words are like a slap across Mio’s face, and she’s momentarily stricken dumb. It’s not as if she chose to survive, and it’s not as if Mayu didn’t choose to die. She had wanted to perform the ritual, and Mio knows it. They both know it, but neither one will speak to it now.
“They’re all dead,” Mayu explains. “They’re going to leave their loved ones behind and cross to the other side.”
“Are you going?” Mio regrets the question the second it passes her lips. It turns Mayu’s eyes cold and hard.
“Do you think I should?”
A part of Mio wants to scream. Yes. You should go. You should cross to the other side and be at rest and stop torturing me. It’s what’s natural. It’s what’s right. The part of her that is screaming is silenced by the part that remembers her sister’s white throat crushed by her hands. She’s already thought it though, and the guilt gnaws on the core of her being, fueling the tattoo and giving rise to new patches of snaking darkness, blossoming like bruises across her skin.
“You want me to.”
“No. I want you to be happy. That’s all.”
“I’m happy with you,” Mayu says, and Mio nods.
They join hands.
The sound of rushing water fades into little more than a constant drip. Mio can see the light before she even opens her eyes, obscene brightness bouncing off the white of every corner of the room. She tries to move and hears a jubilant voice calling, “She’s awake! She’s awake!” But no, she doesn’t want to be awake. She wants to just fade into the quiet water with Mayu at her side and be at peace for the first time in so long. That doesn’t happen. Instead, her uncle takes her home, after two more days of observation and baffled physicians. At least he’s happy, smiling softly for the duration of the drive, reaching over occasionally to pat her arm affectionately or fix back her unruly dark hair. He keeps promising her things are going to be okay, and against her better judgment, Mio starts to believe him.
Kei never asks her what happened, but she’s certain that he knows. He takes her out to the dam and shows her the flooded village like he expects that to be a comfort. They sit in silence for a long time before he reaches over and takes her hand. He tells her that he understands, and Mio nearly laughs at him. No, he doesn’t. She can’t very well say that, so instead, she simply smiles and whispers a very soft, “Thank you” before turning her gaze back out towards the water.
When they get home, he decides that she should take the rest of the year off from school in order to mentally recover from her endeavor. She agrees and thanks him again because she’s tired and she doesn’t want to see anybody, but Mio knows that there will be no recovering from what she’s done. She’s sinned against her sister twice now: first by murdering her and second by not being strong enough to send her away to a peaceful afterlife. The next morning, when she wakes up, Mio finds Mayu curled up in bed beside her, as if nothing had ever happened.
Days pass, and Mayu follows her everywhere. Kei takes her out to get clothes, perhaps hoping to build a wardrobe that isn’t founded on matching outfits like her old one, but Mayu follows along, passing commentary and making Mio’s choices for her. She picks out lunch too, despite the absurdity of such, given her condition, but Mio doesn’t fight her on it, or anything else for that matter. She wants Mayu to be happy. She needs her to be happy. After all, Mio has seen firsthand how dangerous an unhappy spirit can be. She loves Mayu. She won’t ever let her become that.
Soon enough, Mayu is having to remind her to smile, to eat, to take an interest in something rather than succumbing to the crushing depression that keeps her confined to her bed for days at a time. Mayu warns that Kei is starting to notice the lack of recuperation and soon he’ll be taking her to a doctor or having pills prescribed, things that might make Mayu go away. Mio laughs because Mayu says these things as if she were nothing more than a projection of Mio’s own subconscious, yet another thing that they both know and won’t speak about. Nevertheless, she tries, for Mayu’s sake far more than her own.
It doesn’t work, and Kei does put her in the car one day and drive her across the city. He doesn’t take her to a doctor or to any medical facility, just to a nice house outside the city where she meets two young women who are only vaguely familiar to her. The three of them spend the afternoon drinking tea and looking at old photographs. One of them talks about a lover she lost in a car accident, voice breaking with guilt and tears before she quietly excuses herself from the room to make more tea. Mio finds the second girl more fascinating anyway. She’s a bit timid and soft-spoken, smiling slightly as she turns over pictures and tells Mio about the brother she left behind.
“Did he cross the water with the others?” Mio asks quietly.
The girl, Miku, looks up at her, lips pulling into a frown as she notes the way Mio fails to meet her eyes. “Of course he did. He needed to. The dead can’t be at peace in this world.”
“But don’t you miss him?”
“Yes, more than anything, but keeping him here for me would have been wrong. He needed to rest.” She smiles tearfully and runs her fingers over the edges of his photograph. “When the time comes, I’ll see him again.”
Mio ponders that while Mayu glares in the corner.
The drive home is long and awkward. Kei asks Mio if she feels better, and she says she does, but now Mayu is whispering constantly in her ear.
“Don’t listen to her. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. They aren’t like us, Mio. They weren’t born together. They didn’t spend their entire lives together. They wouldn’t understand. You can’t send me away. We’re supposed to be together forever. Forever, Mio. We promised.”
Mio stares out the window, watches trees go by, and says nothing at all. That night, when she tries to sleep, she notices the room is unbearably cold. She huddles under the blankets, but the chill joins her there in the form of phantom limbs that twist around her and hold her tight.
It takes weeks of research, sneaking into Kei’s home office while he’s away to look through his folklore books and notes, but Mio begins to think Miku had a point. She’s become increasingly convinced that something went terribly wrong with the ritual. Becoming one wasn’t supposed to be like this at all, but then again, maybe it was. Maybe that’s why so many of the Remaining went mad in the end. Some days, Mio thinks she might be going mad. The cold wraps around her every night while she sleeps, and even worse, when it doesn’t, she finds that she misses it. Kei’s books go missing and reappear with pages torn out and bindings destroyed. He’s as patient as he can be, more than Mio thinks she has any right to expect him to be, but when he finally confronts her, she’s too afraid to tell him the truth. She wishes he would yell at her; at least that would make sense, but he doesn’t. He just sends her to her room and kneels quietly to try to put the pieces back together. As she steps down the hallway, Mio hears him whispering something to Mafuyu and Yuu, and her heart breaks.
“Why would you do that to Uncle Kei?”
Mayu sits on the bed, crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt over her perpetually bandaged knee. “I didn’t want to. You made me.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“Yes you did. You were looking for ways to send me away.” Mayu ducks her head down, eyes hidden behind a curtain of black, but Mio can see the tears trickling down her cheeks. “I was so scared, Mio. I’m so scared that you’re going to send me away and I’ll be in that dark water all by myself.”
“I’m not going to do that,” Mio whispers. “I just want you to be happy.”
“I’m happy with you.”
Mio forces a smile and reaches to wipe the tears from Mayu’s cheeks.
“Of course. I promise.”
The cold persists, but at least things stop vanishing. Mio gets used to the ice slithering over her skin at night. She even comes to welcome it, to need the touch of her lost sister in order to calm herself into sleep. Mayu peppers the back of her neck with kisses, and Mio relaxes, but she knows this isn’t peace. She’s beginning to worry about Mayu’s look, about the pasty whiteness of her skin and the dark purple bruises under her eyes. Her sister doesn’t even have to try anymore. Whenever Mio talks to someone, whenever her eyes linger on another’s face for more than a few moments, Mayu’s anger manifests around them in thin, cold air and flickering lights. Mayu’s fingers dig into her arms when she tries to pull her away, leaving starkly visible bruises that Mio’s clothing will only be able to hide until the end of spring. Still, every night they curl up together and Mayu cries for fear of being sent away, and every night Mio shushes her, lets her entangle warm and cold limbs, and promises that they’ll be together forever.
On the first day of summer, Mio walks down to the dam. Beneath the sparkling water lies her and her sister’s old favorite spot to play, as well as the village that stole Mayu from her. This was, in essence, the last place she ever saw her sister. This thing that follows her now is a stranger. Mio pushes her way past tall grass and warning signs. The water is cold around her ankles, not yet warmed by the sun, but that’s alright. Mio has gotten quite used to the cold now. She steps forward.
“What are you doing?”
Mio smiles. “I’m coming to find you.”
At first, Mayu protests. She screams and cries and begs Mio not to do this, to stay here with her, to live. Mio shakes her head. This isn’t living. It’s surviving, and now she knows that was her mistake. She should have followed Mayu into the water when she had the chance. Ghostly arms pull at her, but Mio is dead weight, lungs already filling from the sharp breath she took the moment her head went underwater. She opens her eyes and reaches up, trying to clasp a body that isn’t real close to her. The truth is, she doesn’t want to be alone either.
It’s over quickly, and then they’re just standing on the bank together. Mio smiles again and reaches for Mayu’s hand.
“It’s okay,” she says, fingers intertwining. “I finally found you.”
Mayu looks up at her, and for that moment, she looks like herself again. “Are we going now?”
“You’re coming, right? Together forever?”
“Yes, of course.”
Mayu’s shoulders slump, and she breathes out a sigh of relief. “I’ve been waiting so long.”
“I know,” Mio says, squeezing her hand. “I’m here now. We can be together. We can be at peace.”
And Mayu is.
They walk across the water and into the light.