Having enjoyed the benefits of being young and possessing a high metabolism, Saki had never dealt with the consequences of skipping an entire meal. When hunger finally hit while she was getting to know Jun and Tomoe, it wasn't a welcome feeling.
"Everything is on your phone?" Tomoe asked.
Saki smirked. Keeping Tomoe entertained was easy. That was about to end, though. If Saki felt hungry, she assumed the other girls did as well. Their nervous joviality would soon sour and break the fragile optimism sharing stories had created.
"Pretty much," Jun replied.
"That sounds like it would make life so much easier. Everybody must be happier."
Jun and Saki exchanged a look.
"I wouldn't say that," Saki said. "They may be convenient, but they have caused a lot of problems. It's harder for some people to get away from their jobs because of them. Most people our age rarely look up from their screens when they are out and about."
"Our age?" Tomoe asked.
"Eighteen," Saki clarified.
Jun sighed. "Great. Is that another oddly specific detail all of us have in common?"
"I'm not eighteen," Tomoe said.
"Then, you're seventeen?" Jun asked.
"If it's 2023, I'm fifty-six."
Jun snorted in the form of a laugh. "You look so young. Care to tell me your secret?"
A flush came from the stall Eiko had confined herself to, reminding Saki that there were four girls in the room. Eiko hadn't come out since she had snapped at Saki. It wasn't healthy, especially given their current predicament. Saki didn't suspect that Eiko had cooled off, or she would have come to join them.
Eiko would likely remain the hardest girl to get along with in her new clique, but Saki would feel better if she gave it a try. She got to her feet and yawned. It had to be passed her bedtime unless she had woken up in the morning. Time was hard to keep without a clock. Her father liked to complain that time was flying by too quickly for him. He needed to give self-isolation a try.
Uncertain of what to say, Saki stood in front of Eiko's stall. Her fist went up. Knocking seemed comical. Her hand fell to her side. "Eiko. I'm sorry about what I said earlier. You don't have to stay in there. In fact, I'd rather you not. We need to stick together."
There was an uncomfortable pause. "I'm getting tired. I think we should call it a night." Eiko's tone suggested she had spent too much time thinking.
Sleeping on the floor was going to be delightful. If Saki told herself that for long enough, she might begin to believe it. She noticed Tomoe and Jun were watching her from behind the corner.
"Okay," Saki said. "We can stop talking and try to get some sleep."
"Will you turn the lights off?" Eiko asked.
Tomoe came forward in a rush. "No, we can't do that. We have to leave them on. If we turn them off, whatever this is will get much worse."
"Huh. Strange logic. But she might be right," Eiko said. "Let's leave them on. For now."
"Are you going to come out of there?" Saki asked.
"No. I'll sleep in here, sitting down. Like on an airplane. It will probably hurt less than trying to sleep on the floor."
"Then you'll come out of there in the morning, right?"
"I'll think about it."
Saki stood at the stall door, thinking. She needed to keep an eye on Eiko. It seemed like she was coming unglued. Popular girls had it easy. A smile at the right moment and a slight wiggle of her hips no longer gave Eiko what she wanted. The other girls were much better off. Tomoe, while endearing, cried to cope with all her problems. Jun's energetic personality was a front, and Saki believed she could guess why Jun felt like she was being punished if asked. They would be fine. Eiko, not so much.
"Goodnight, Eiko," Saki said. As expected, she received no reply.
It was a short walk back to the hallway where Jun and Tomoe were waiting.
"How should we go about doing this?" Jun asked.
"We'll be uncomfortable no matter what we do," Saki answered.
Jun sat down in the corner. "I saw a picture once of some soldiers on a bench leaning on each other as they slept. Maybe we could try that."
Saki sat next to Jun and leaned into her. "Like this?"
Tomoe joined them by taking up a position to Saki's right. "You're soft."
Saki scoffed. "Thanks, you too."
"Maybe things will be better in the morning," Jun said.
"Maybe," Saki echoed, doing her best to sound like she believed it.
Jun's hand brushed against Saki's, open and hesitant. Saki took Jun's hand into her own, holding it securely. Tomoe saw the gesture as an invitation and grabbed Saki's other free hand. Once they finished getting situated, Saki could feel their pulses through her hands. Perhaps they both would remember this moment when their hunger mounted and made them start acting stupid.
Her life had led up to this. Birthdays. Christmases. All the good and all the bad. Right into a senseless cosmic torture chamber. She swallowed a lump in her throat and fought back the urge to sob. It would show weakness, and the two friends she held would join her.
At least she had them.
She didn't want to think about what it would be like without them.
Saki forced herself to focus on the sound of their breathing. It took a while, but eventually, it was enough.
An opportunity to escape into a dream didn't present itself.
Saki stirred and opened her eyes. Somehow, she had managed to fall asleep. She didn't feel refreshed. A stinging sensation lingered in her mouth since her teeth and tongue needed brushing. It couldn't be helped. If her imprisonment continued well into the week, she might have to contend with cavities, and two had been enough for the rest of her life. She wouldn't be eating any sugar. That would hopefully be enough to hold them off.
"Tell me what you want me to do."
That hadn't come from Jun or Tomoe. Eiko was whispering. To herself. Which was always a good sign. Saki hadn't even been awake for five minutes, and she was already struggling to remain positive.
"I would suck a dick right now for half a cucumber roll," Eiko said. "It could be yours."
That was her cue. Saki gently broke away from Jun and Tomoe. Try as she might, she couldn't do it without disturbing them. Joints in places Saki rarely thought about popped as she stood up. Her rear had gone numb, but aside from that, she wasn't in too much pain.
"Do I look like I'm not any good at that sort of thing?" Eiko asked nobody in particular. "Don't kid yourself. Why hesitate? I'm of age. You have my bag, don't you? Check my student ID if you don't believe me."
Saki peeked around the corner. Eiko had her eyes locked on her reflection at the mirror closest to the stall she had claimed for herself.
Pleasantries would fall on deaf ears. Saki chose to be direct and stepped into Eiko's view. "What are you doing?"
Eiko didn't look away from the mirror. "Nothing."
Saki threw caution to the wind. "Eiko, I know you're hungry. I am, too. What we're feeling right now is hardly unique. We're being forced to fast, which is something a lot of people do voluntarily. It will hurt a lot less after we've gotten used to it, which might take another day or two."
Eiko stepped away from the mirror. Saki tensed up. Goosebumps appeared on her skin. There was no room to run, and Eiko's advance carried a threat. Saki made herself keep constant eye contact with Eiko in order to not show any sign of submission, which didn't come naturally for her.
"Who put you in charge?" Eiko asked. "Did we take a vote?" Her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.
"I am not in charge," Saki replied carefully. "I am not giving anyone orders. I am providing suggestions. I am trying to be helpful."
Eiko sneered. "Saki, do you eat by yourself during lunch?"
Saki knew where this was going. "We probably shouldn't be thinking about food right now, but since you asked, I don't eat alone. In fact, I play a game with four of my other classmates. Once a week, usually on a Friday, we compete to see who cooked the best meal. I'm part of the culinary arts club, by the way. Vice president."
Eiko wasn't convinced. "Do you ever stop lying?"
"I'd consider myself more honest than most people."
"Oh? Has anyone ever confessed to you, Saki?"
She had walked right into that. "I fail to see how that's relevant."
Eiko toyed with her hair absently. "Is that a no?"
Saki imagined herself strangling Eiko while Tomoe and Jun cheered her on. "It is."
Eiko chuckled, shook her head, and back into her stall. Under normal circumstances, Saki would feel a stab of pain in her heart. Her lack of romance, a closely guarded secret, had been exposed. Usually, she would be shamed for it. By the popular girl, naturally. But now, it didn't matter.
And it felt oddly exhilarating.
She turned around. Jun and Tomoe had seen the whole thing, their eyes wide with piqued interest.
Jun grabbed Saki's arm and leaned in to whisper. "Don't let her get to you."
Saki's nose wrinkled at the smell of sour breath. "Trust me; I won't."
"There's plenty of guys out there," Tomoe added. Her nostalgic hairstyle was beginning to fade in the absence of a hairdryer, curler, and gel strong enough to double as cement.
"Yes. Precisely. There are." Saki waved her arm at where the door should have been. "Out there. And we're in here. So, who cares?"
Jun nodded. "Good point."
Saki went to the first sink in the row and turned on the water, which she collected in her palms. She drank more than she needed. A stomach full of water would make her feel less hungry. Hopefully, they wouldn't run out of water, just as they had yet to run out of air. Saki scanned the room, trying to see if anything had changed while Tomoe and Jun chatted quietly in their hallway. A slightly offensive odor hung in the air. It would get worse. Like everything else. Especially when the toilet paper ran out.
Only one thing struck her as out of the ordinary. Fingerprints covered Eiko's mirror.
Saki returned to the hallway. "Did either of you dream?"
They shook their heads.
Jun fidgeted. "I don't suppose you've thought of a way out, have you? No? Yeah. I guess you would have said something if you had."
"We just have to keep waiting," Saki said. "I know it isn't pleasant. Don't panic. Don't despair. Keep your thoughts healthy."
"You don't think we're stuck in here forever, do you, Saki?" Jun asked, evidently not caring enough to heed Saki's warning.
"As Eiko said before, we're not dead," Saki replied. "This has an end. We. . ." She hesitated, but she already had their full attention. "Never mind."
Tomoe moved more towards where Saki was standing. "No, what were you going to say?"
Saki rubbed evidence that she had slept out of her eyes. "I was going to say we should work together to ensure it isn't an ugly one." She needed to redirect the conversation. "Both of you should be drinking more water. It will make you feel better."
Jun sighed. "I'd feel a whole lot better if I knew for sure why we were picked."
Saki shrugged. "Sometimes, things happen without reason."
"No." Jun rubbed the back of her neck and let her hand follow through the groove of her chin down to her throat. "I can't accept that. Come on. Everything happens for a reason."
"Then it's purely coincidental. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"You sure you haven't ever done anything that might cause you to end up in a place like this?" Jun asked.
"No. I haven't ever murdered anyone. What about you, Tomoe?" Saki asked.
"I've done maybe three or four things I don't want to talk about," Tomoe replied. "Those things I did. I still feel bad that I did them. If they are the reason I'm here, then everyone will eventually wind up here."
Eiko's stall door opened and slammed against the wall. "I'm stuck in here with a bunch of idiotic children."
Saki turned around. Eiko had taken her top off, revealing a padded bra.
"Is this what you want?" Eiko demanded. "Here. I'll show you everything." She kicked off her shoes and removed her skirt. "Just please let me out of here!"
Saki intercepted Eiko before she could take off her bra. Eiko's arm reared back. Saki caught her wrist before she could be hit and shoved it back at Eiko.
"What do you think you're doing?" Saki asked. "You're acting insane. Put your clothes back on. Now."
"This," Eiko gestured at her body. "It's what he wants. We should give it to him."
"I'd rather starve," Saki said.
Eiko chuckled. "Of course, you would say that. You sure are brave, aren't you, fearless leader? No wonder you get all the boys."
Saki knelt, gathered the clothing Eiko had discarded and offered it back to her.
Eiko shook her head. "Don't you get it? We can't see the cameras. They are there. We just can't see them."
"There are no cameras, Eiko. It's just us, and we don't need to see you running around here naked."
Eiko's hands went behind her back. Saki shoved Eiko's clothing into her chest before anything could be revealed and pushed her into her corner. A hawked load of spit struck the bridge of Saki's nose. Rationality vanished. She barred her teeth. Her arm came up. A firecracker went off when her open palm connected with Eiko's cheek. She no longer felt her hand but could tell her arm was shaking. Eiko crumpled into her corner, covered by her uniform.
Saki wiped the spit off her face with the hand she couldn't feel and flicked the discharge into the nearest sink. "I." Anger made it challenging to talk. "I'm. Going to count to ten. If you aren't dressed by then. I will dress you myself. Don't even think about going into that stall. Until you are dressed. Stand up. One."
Purple and silver glitter danced merrily across Saki's vision as Eiko sorted through her clothing for her bra. Saki looked away while Eiko covered her chest. Eiko let a sob lose and took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. A tiny bit of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. She finished dressing with some degree of dignity.
"Apologize for spitting on my face," Saki said.
Eiko didn't hesitate. "I'm sorry."
Reason came back to Saki. She was getting to the point where she could say she hated Eiko, but she couldn't exclude her from the group. If one of them snapped, the others would follow.
"Eiko, you need to get a grip, or you're going to wind up hurting yourself or somebody else," Saki said. "This isn't easy for anyone. I know you're hungry, and it's making you do stupid things. You need to be drinking a lot more water. You also need to stop locking yourself in that stall like a spoiled brat because you can't stand to be around me. If you would like me to remain over here while you are over there with Jun and Tomoe, I'll stay right here for a few hours. We have got to work something out."
"I want to be by myself for a little longer," Eiko said.
To nurse her wounded pride, no doubt. Saki nodded. "Fine. Wash your face while you're at it."
Eiko slinked into her stall. She could stay in there for whatever length of time felt like thirty minutes to Saki. The sinks still had hot water. She cleaned what remained of the mess off her face and attempted to wipe it dry with her hands. The soap had a lovely, floral scent to it. She put a blot of it underneath her nostrils to ward off the slight funk in the room while such a measure would still work.
Her cellmates had seen everything. She sat with them in the hallway. Saki wasn't sure how to lighten the mood. They had to agree to ignore what she had done to Eiko, and she couldn't ask them to do that.
"You remind me of my grandpa," Jun said.
Tomoe scooted in closer to whisper. "If I spit at my mother, she would kill me."
Their recovery from the bit of nastiness they had just witnessed wouldn't be as much of a problem as Saki feared.
Saki shrugged. "Discipline is often needed to remind some of us to exercise restraint."
Jun chuckled. "Just like grandpa. He was a police officer. You've got a little bit of that in you."
"Maybe. I don't think I could be one, though," Saki said.
"Speaking of which, all of us are in our third year. What were you planning on doing after you got out, Saki?" Jun asked.
"You mean, what I plan on doing when I get out," Saki replied. It sounded silly, but it had to be said. They needed to remain hopeful. "I don't have an answer for that. I've thought of some things I'd like to do, but I don't know if I'd be able to do them my whole life."
"Everyone is like that. You don't have to do one thing your whole life if you don't want to. How about being a chef for a little while?"
Saki waved a dismissive hand. "I've been told I'm a good cook, but anybody can be one of those. You just have to care enough to master it. What about you two?"
Jun grimaced. "I've got nothing. Maybe I could teach physical education until I get married. Then I'll be a housewife. Will you teach me how to cook, Saki?"
Saki's stomach growled. "Sure. We shouldn't be thinking about food right now, though. Tomoe, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A nurse," Tomoe replied.
"Wow. It sounds like you've got your mind made up about it," Jun said.
"Why nursing?" Saki asked.
Tomoe motioned for them to lean in so she could whisper again, presumably to keep her reason from Eiko. "I know I can be overly emotional. Most people look down on me for it. When I'm a nurse, I'll at least be respected for my job."
"Have you been studying for it to make sure it's the right choice?" Saki asked. "I know I have no room to talk, but I'm curious."
Tomoe nodded. "During the summer at the end of my first year in high school, I asked our family doctor if he knew of any books I could read. He gave me a few. I was even allowed to volunteer at the clinic where he works, which let me know I'm not making a mistake. I spent some of my last summer break with them as well."
Jun groaned. "That sounds exhausting. I wish I had done something like that. It might be too late."
Running water flowed into a sink. Eiko had emerged. Jun peered around the corner to watch her while Tomoe looked uncertain. Hopefully, it wasn't time for round two.
Saki kept her voice low. "Be nice to her. She's having a hard time."
Jun scoffed. "Really? I hadn't noticed."
"We need to give her a chance."
Eiko appeared, haggard and unkempt. Her cheek was bright red and looked worse than Saki expected. She almost felt a sting of guilt.
Saki stood. "I'm glad you decided to join us, Eiko." No response. It was fair. "Excuse me."
She walked past Eiko and headed for the first stall. Saki stepped inside, not bothering to lock the door since using the toilet as a seat didn't require privacy. An uncomfortable silence followed. Saki didn't expect much from Tomoe, but Jun was the type who could get a conversation started. It would help that she and Eiko went to the same school.
Saki wondered if leaving had been the right choice.
Finally, Eiko spoke, "Tomoe. I believe I heard you say you intend to become a nurse, right?"
Tomoe's nerves shook the tone of her voice. "Yes?"
"I have been thinking about something," Eiko said. "What specific type of gas do we expel every time we exhale?"
Jun answered for her to take some of the pressure away. "Carbon monoxide."
"Dioxide," Tomoe corrected.
"Ahh. That's what I thought," Eiko said. "What a relief. I guess that means we'll suffocate long before we have to worry about starving."
Saki could feel Eiko checking to see if she would come to the rescue. She remained on the seat, trying to will Jun and Tomoe to brush her off.
"I don't know about you two," Eiko said, "but I've had a headache that started in the middle of the night. Could it be related to what remains of our air? I wonder. Since nobody is watching us, the divine being you three mice are hoping for had better swoop in to rescue us in the next two days, or we're done."
"Oxygen has to be traveling through the pipes," Jun said. "And through the faucets, as well."
Eiko chuckled. "Are you saying that to convince yourself or me?"
"We don't need to be talking about this," Tomoe said, her voice wavering.
"Of course not," Eiko said. "I suppose you and Saki will be chittering about what type of boys you like as you're gasping for air long after Jun passes out."
"Maybe we won't run out of air," Jun said. "Maybe this space doesn't obey any natural laws. How else would you like to explain our time travelers?"
"They're liars," Eiko replied. "And are you saying you would rather starve than suffocate? I can't say I agree. The quicker all this is over with, the better."
"I would rather believe that we're going to make it out of here because that's better than sitting around and waiting to die!"
"That's kind of ironic, coming from you," Eiko said.
There was a pause. Something had changed. The tension in the room had risen. Saki stood.
Jun's voice trembled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Figure it out," Eiko replied.
Saki heard movement. She stepped out of the stall just as Jun came around the corner. Her eyes were struggling to hold tears back. Jun kept shaking her head and bumped into the hand dryer, setting it off. Tomoe also appeared, joining Jun and leaving Eiko in the hallway by herself. Jun could no longer take the pressure and wept openly. Tomoe tried to hold her, but Jun broke away, preferring to cry on her own.
"You're all so boring," Eiko said. She retreated into her stall, more exhausted than before.
For Eiko, there was no hope. It had been a bad idea to believe she would handle herself better if given a chance. Saki wrote her off. She could remain in the stall unless some miracle greater than the one needed to get everyone out of the room alive caused her to change her tune. Ignoring her didn't seem wise. Saki would do so anyway, at least until Eiko's temper flared again since she wasn't the type to remain despondent.
Jun hadn't stopped crying.
"Tomoe and I are here for you, Jun," Saki said.
Jun wouldn't accept it. "This is my fault."
"I find that very hard to believe," Saki said.
"How could any of this possibly be your fault?" Tomoe asked.
"That's not what I meant. I don't know what you three are doing here, but I brought all this on myself," Jun replied.
"That's nonsense," Saki said.
Eiko cackled at Saki's sudden declaration of nonsense from her stall but said nothing.
Jun hesitated, unsure if she should confess. "I tried to kill myself." The admission took the strength out of her legs, making her slump onto the ground.
"You don't have to say anything else," Tomoe said.
"Everything is just so trivial," Jun said. "Everything just stopped being interesting. Even athletics and I used to be proud of myself for being in such good shape. None of it mattered anymore. It made me feel nothing. Don't you know you're not supposed to think like that? Yeah, but I do." Jun paused for a moment. She had gotten this far. She would finish. "Three months ago, I went out and bought some medicine they sell without requiring a prescription that makes you not throw up. Then I went a whole day without eating."
"You did your research," Saki said.
"Yes. I did. My mother has chronic insomnia, and my father had recently broken his leg. I took their pills. I figured what they had would be more than I needed since I only weighed a hundred and five pounds. For whatever reason, my dad got up in the middle of the night, noticed his medicine was gone, and quickly figured out why. They told me I was dead for a few minutes." Jun took another moment to compose herself. She had all the time she needed. "There was nothing. Not a thing. That was honestly the worst part. Somehow, it made me feel better. If this is all there is, that makes it precious. I felt that way for a little while. Then it went away. I take my medicine. I do the stupid exercises my therapist gives to me. None of it helps."
Tomoe had teared up over Jun's story. "That's not why you're here."
"It has to be. And you know what?" Jun took a deep breath. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry I put my parents through that! I'm sorry we no longer get along the same way we did! I'm sorry I can't be normal like everyone else! There. I said it. Now, let me out of here! Please! I don't deserve this! None of us do!" Jun launched into another fit of despair.
Tomoe embraced her. Saki hugged her other side.
Jun struggled, but quickly gave up and continued to cry. "I don't deserve your sympathy."
"I'm glad you're here, Jun," Saki said.