Yumi | Chapter Five
The nightmares had originally come from the sky.
Painter had heard the accounts. Everyone had. They weren’t quite histories, mind you. They were fragments of stories that were likely exaggerations. They were taught in school regardless. Like a man with diarrhea in a sandpaper factory, sometimes all available options are less than ideal. One account read:
I watched it rain the blood of a dying god. I crawled through tar that took the faces of the people I had loved. It took them. Their blood became black ink.
Those are the words of a poet who, after the event, didn’t speak or even write for thirty years. Years later, another woman wrote:
Grandfather spoke of the nightmares. He doesn’t know why he was spared. He stares at nothing when he tells of those days spent crawling in the darkness, that terror from the sky, until he found another voice. They met and huddled, weeping together, clinging to one another—although they had never met before that day, they were suddenly brothers. Because they were real.
And then this one, which I find most unnerving of them all:
It will take me. It creeps under the barrier. It knows I am here.
That was found roughly a hundred years later, painted on the wall of a cave. No bones were ever located.
The accounts are sparse, fragmentary, and feverish. You’ll need to forgive the people who left them; they were busy surviving an all-out societal collapse. By Painter’s time, it had been seventeen centuries—and as far as they were concerned, the blackness of the shroud was normal.
They’d only survived because of the hion: the lights that drove back the shroud. The energy by which a new society had been forged—or, in the parlance of the locals, painted anew. But this new world required dealing with the nightmares, one way or another.
“Another bamboo?” Foreman Sukishi said, sliding the top canvas from Painter’s bag.
“Bamboo works,” Painter said. “Why change if it works?”
“It’s lazy,” Sukishi replied.
Painter shrugged. The small room where he turned in his paintings after his shift was lit by a hanging chandelier. If you touch opposite lines of hion to either side of a piece of metal, you can make it heat up. From there, you’re barely a little sideways skip away from the incandescent bulb. As I said, not everything in the city was teal or magenta—though the hion overhead outside obviated a need for streetlights of any other color.
Sukishi marked a tally by Painter’s name in the ledger. There wasn’t a strict quota—everyone knew that encountering nightmares was random, and there were more than enough painters. On average, you’d find one nightmare a night—but sometimes you went days without seeing a single one.
They still kept track. Too long without a painting to turn in, and questions would be asked. Now, the more lazy among you might notice a hole in this system. In theory, the rigorous training required to become a painter was supposed to weed out the sort of person who would paint random things without actually encountering any nightmares. But there was a reason Sukishi hesitated and narrowed his eyes at Painter after retrieving the second canvas and revealing a second bamboo painting.
“Bamboo works,” Painter repeated.
“You need to look at the shape of the nightmare,” Sukishi said. “You need to match your drawing to that, changing the natural form of the nightmare into something innocent, nonthreatening. You should only be drawing bamboo if the nightmares you encounter look like bamboo.”
Sukishi glared at him, and the old man had an impressive glare. Some facial expressions, like miso, require aging to hit their potency.
Painter feigned indifference, taking his wages for the day and stepping out onto the street. He slung his bag over his shoulder—with his tools and remaining canvases—and went searching for some dinner.
The Noodle Pupil was the sort of corner restaurant where you could make noise. A place where you weren’t afraid to slurp as you sucked down your dinner, where your table’s laughter wasn’t embarrassing because it mixed like paint with that coming from the next one over. Though less busy on the “night” shift than during the “day,” it was somehow loud even when it was quiet.
Painter hovered outside the place like a mote of dust in the light, seeking somewhere to land. The younger painters from his class congregated here with the sort of frequency that earned them their own unspoken booths and tables. A double line of hion outlined the broad picture window in the front, glowing, making it appear like a futuristic screen. Those same lines rose like vines above the window, spelling out the name in teal and magenta, with a giant bowl of noodles on top.
(Technically, I was a part owner of that noodle shop. What? Renowned interdimensional storytellers can’t invest in a little real estate now and then?)
Painter stood on the street, absorbing the laughter like a tree soaking up the light of hion. Eventually he lowered his head and ducked inside, looping his large shoulder bag on one of the prongs of the coatrack without looking. Fifteen other painters occupied the place, congregated around three tables. Akane’s place was in the back, where she was adjusting her hair. Tojin knelt low beside a nearby table, solemnly adjudicating a noodle-eating contest between two other young men.
Painter sat at the bar. He was, after all, a solitary defense against the miasma outside the city. A lone warrior. He preferred eating by himself, obviously. He wouldn’t have stopped in, save for his tragic mortality. Even solemn, edgy warriors against darkness needed noodles now and then.
The restaurant’s manager flitted over behind the bar, then folded her arms and kind of hunched as she stood, mimicking his pose. Finally he looked up.
“Hey, Design,” he said. “Um . . . can I have the usual?”
“Your usual is so usual!” she said. “Do you want to know a secret? If you order something new, I’ll write it down and wrap it up, then put it in your noodles. But I’ll also tell you what it is, because the paper will get soggy in the noodles, and you won’t be able to read it.”
“Uh . . .” Painter said. “The usual. Please?”
“Politeness,” she said, pointing at him, “accepted.”
Design . . . did not do a good job acting human. I take no blame, as she repeatedly refused my counsel on the matter. At least her disguise was holding up. People did wonder why the strange noodle-shop woman had long white hair, despite appearing to be in her early twenties. She wore tight dresses, and many of the painters had crushes on her. She insisted, you see, that I make her disguise particularly striking.
Or, well, I should say it in her words: “Make me pretty so they’ll be extra disturbed if my face ever unravels. And give me voluptuous curves, because they remind me of a graphed cosine. And also because boobs look fun.”
It wasn’t an actual body—we all kind of learned our lesson on that—but rather a complicated wireframe Lightweaving with force projections attached directly to her cognitive element as it manifested in the physical realm. But as I was getting pretty good at the technical side of all this, you can pretend it functioned the same as flesh and blood.
I’ll admit to some pride regarding the way Painter’s eyes followed Design as she walked over to begin preparing his meal. Granted, he did overdo it—his eyes lingered on her the entire time she worked. Don’t judge him too harshly. He was nineteen, and I’m a uniquely talented artist.
Design soon returned with his bowl of noodles, which she set into a circular nook carved into the wood. The hion lines—one connected to either end of the bar—ran heat through the element at the bottom of the bowl to keep the broth warm on chill Kilahito nights.
From behind, laughter and chanting picked up as the noodle competition progressed. Painter, in turn, broke his maipon sticks apart and ate slowly, in a dignified way, as befitted one of his imaginary station.
“Design,” he said, trying not to slurp too loud. “Is . . . what I’m doing important?”
“Of course it is,” she said, lounging down across the bar from him. “If you all didn’t eat the noodles, I think I’d run out of places to store them.”
“No,” he said, waving to his bag where it hung from one arm of the restaurant’s curiously shaped coatrack. “I mean being a nightmare painter. It’s an important job, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Design said. “Obviously. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a place with no nightmare painters. Then the people got eaten. It’s a short story.”
“I mean, I know it’s important in general,” Painter said. “But . . . is what I’m doing important?”
Design leaned forward across the bar, and he met her eyes. Which was difficult for him, considering her current posture. That said, you may have heard of her kind. I suggest, if you have the option, that you avoid trying to meet a Cryptic’s gaze. Their features—when undisguised—bend space and time, and have been known to lead to acute bouts of madness in those who try to make sense of them. Then again, who hasn’t wanted to flip off linear continuity now and then, eh?
“I see what you’re saying,” she told him.
“You do?” he asked.
“Yes. Noodles seven percent off tonight. In respect for your brave painting services.”
It . . . wasn’t what he’d been talking about. But he nodded in thanks anyway. Because he was a young person working a vitally important, relatively low-paying job. Seven percent was seven percent.
(Design, it should be noted, only gave discounts in prime number increments. Because, and I quote, “I have standards.” Still not sure what she meant.)
She turned to see to another customer, so Painter continued slurping down the long noodles in the warm, savory broth. The dish was quite good. Best in the city, according to some people, which isn’t that surprising. If there’s one thing you can count on a Cryptic to do, it’s follow a list of instructions with strict precision. Design had little vials of seasoning she added to the broth, each one counted to the exact number of grains of salt.
Halfway through the meal, Akane stepped up to the bar, and Painter glanced away. She was gone a moment later, carrying festive drinks to the others.
He ate the rest of the noodles in silence. “Rice?” Design asked when she noticed he was almost done.
She added a scoop to soak up the rest of the broth, and he scarfed it down.
“You could go talk to them,” Design said softly, wiping the counter with a rag.
“I tried befriending them in school. It didn’t go well.”
“People grow up. It’s one of the things that makes them different from rocks. You should—”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m a loner, Design. You think I care what others think of me?”
She cocked her head, squinting with one eye. “Is that a trick question? Because you obviously—”
“How much?” he said. “With the discount?”
She sighed. “Six.”
“Six? A bowl normally costs two hundred kon.”
“Ninety-seven percent off,” she said. “Because you need it, Painter. You sure about this? I could go talk to them, tell them that you’re lonely. Why don’t I go do it right now?”
He laid a ten-kon coin on the counter, with a quick bow of thanks. Before she could push him further to do something that was probably good for him, he grabbed his bag from among the others hanging on the rack. He’d always found the statue coatrack a strange addition to the restaurant. But it was a quirky place. So why not have a coatrack in the shape of a man with hawkish features and a sly smile?
(Unfortunately, I had been quite aware of my surroundings when my ailment first struck. I had screamed inside when Design—thinking me too creepy otherwise—spray-painted me copper. Then, ever practical, she’d added a crown with spikes on it for holding hats, and several large bandoliers with poles on them for holding bags or coats.
As I said, I owned the restaurant. Part owner at least. Design ransacked my pockets for the money to build the place. I didn’t run it though. You can’t do that when you’ve been frozen in time. For your information, I have it on good authority that I made an excellent coatrack. I prefer not to think of it as an undignified disposal of my person, but rather as pulling off an incredible disguise.)
Painter stepped outside, heart thumping. A passing shower of rain had left puddles and given the street a reflective sheen—lines of light hanging above, their reflections ghosts beneath the ground.
Painter breathed in, and out, and in again. Having fled from Design’s offers, he found it difficult to maintain the pretense. He knew he wasn’t a loner. He wasn’t some proud knight fighting the darkness for honor’s sake. He wasn’t important, interesting, or even personable. He was just one of likely thousands of unremarkable boys without the courage to do anything notable—and worse, without the skill to go underappreciated.
It was an unfair assessment of himself. But he thought it anyway, and found it difficult to stomach. Difficult enough that he wanted to retreat toward his easy lies of self-imposed solitude and noble sacrifice. But a part of him was beginning to find those attitudes silly. Cringeworthy. That left him afraid. Without the illusion, how would he keep going?
With a sigh, he started off toward his apartment, his large painter’s bag across his shoulder and resting against his back. At the first intersection though, he spotted a telltale sign: wisps of darkness curling off a brick at the corner. A nightmare had passed this way recently.
That wasn’t too surprising. This was the poorer section of town near the perimeter. Nightmares came through here with some regularity. Another painter would find this one eventually; he was off shift. Hands in pockets, absorbed by his personal discontent, Painter walked on past the corner. If he hurried home, he could catch the opening of his favorite drama on the hion viewer.
Another light rain blew through the city, playing soft percussion on the street, making the reflected lines dance to the beat. Those dark wisps began to fade from the corner brick, the trail going cold.
Two minutes later, Painter reappeared, stepping through a puddle and following after the nightmare instead of returning home—all the while muttering to himself that the first part of the drama was always a recap anyway.