Left right left up right down body down up
Sou frantically whirled his arms around to keep in time with the drum beat. Memorization is easy, he reminded himself. He was great at memorizing. Catching onto patterns. Listing off number sequences.
Moving? Dancing? Not so much.
But if your kidnapper says, Dance, monkey! You dance.
If he had to do high kicks to survive—if they wanted to watch him fumble and make a fool of himself—if they preserved his pathetic moves on video so they could have a good laugh later—that was fine by him! He’d do it! He’d lost his dignity long before the Death Game, anyway. Getting laid off twice last year had already squashed that useless part of him.
Sou’s unwieldy scarf whipped around his face, blocking his vision. In hindsight, he was stupid to keep wearing it here. He yanked it down while jumping and pumped his other hand in the air. Ahead of him, an audience of robot dolls jeered and sniggered at his efforts. And in the front of the crowd sat Kanna, white as a ghost and biting her nails.
Sou forgot to be scared for a minute and flashed a toothy smile at his partner. “Relax! I’ve got this,” he mouthed. He twirled the ends of his scarf confidently.
Kanna blinked rapidly, wiped her eyes and smiled back at him. He thought he even heard her giggle. Then she pointed urgently and Sou remembered to focus on the next set of dance instructions.
Down body right down up left up right left body
Sou panted and spun around. He whispered the words “right down up left up right—”
His scarf twisted under his foot and he tripped on the “upright.” Kanna shrieked and the dolls roared with laughter. A bright red light blared to mark his mistake. Sou sighed. He had planned on doing the “Memory Dance” Attraction by himself, but now…
“K-Kanna will help! Kanna will dance next!” the girl yelled. The dolls in the audience grabbed her limbs and pushed her forward towards the stage.
Sou staggered to his feet as quick as he could. “What, tired of me already? I can keep going—!” A comically large black cane hooked around his waist and dragged him off stage behind the stage curtains. “Wait wait wait! Stop!”
It was useless of course. He had made too many mistakes. His feeble resistance was no match for the larger dolls carrying him back to the audience, where they sat him in Kanna’s old chair. Sou gave up on arguing with them and turned his focus to the shivering child on stage. Kanna looked like she was about to faint. She squinted in the blinding spotlight and cupped her hands around her eyes, trying to see.
Sou waved his hat in the air and she finally spotted him. He conjured another encouraging smile, and Kanna dutifully smiled back at him. She bounced on her tiny feet and steeled herself for the next set of instructions.
Sou’s insides were squirming painfully. He knew that the other older participants—like the cop, the rock star, and of course Miss Fucking Sara—had done their part to team up with the children in these Death Attractions. They had established themselves as capable protectors, worthy of everyone’s trust. Surely they’d kick the kids under the bus later, but that wasn’t the issue right now.
Now that Sou had manipulated Kanna into betraying the others, the responsibility to protect her fell squarely on his shoulders. So naturally, he failed.
Up down right down up left body left up down
Kanna’s eyes widened. The instructions zipped by too fast. She timidly moved her hands up, down, left—and then a red light blared to show her first mistake. The dolls laughed and the girl gasped and covered her face in shame.
Memorization is only easy, Sou thought, if you have the worthless sort of brain for facts and figures. It’s impossible if you can only think about important things like your dead sister.
“Hey hey!!” Sou shouted. Kanna peeked through her fingers at the man in front. He pointed at himself and mouthed, “Watch me. Watch me. Watch me.”
Kanna screwed her face in determination and nodded. She set her arms by her sides and started bouncing again. She kept her eyes fiercely on Sou.
Right down up right left body down up right left
Sou pointed right and Kanna hopped right. He pointed down and she bowed down. He pointed up and she reached for the ceiling. Sou’s subtle cheat sheet helped Kanna clear the dance round. And the next round. And the final round. She didn’t make a single other mistake.
Confetti blasted from the ceiling. Sou leapt to his feet and applauded his partner. Some sort of victory music was playing and the robot dolls were making loud noises, but Sou did his best to ignore whatever they were saying. Above him, Kanna swayed unsteadily. Sou scrambled forward and climbed back onto the stage, nearly tripping over his scarf again. He grabbed the girl’s shoulders and beamed at her.
“You did it, Kanna!”
Kanna smiled wearily. Then she threw up on his shirt.
“I am so sorry!” Kanna apologized for the third time as they left the dangerous attraction room into the safety of the ruined corridor. Fake silver moonlight shone through fake windows onto the lonely pair. Sometimes Sou could see the windows glitch like computer screens through the corner of his eye, but right now the technology could have fooled even him.
“It’s fine. So long as Keiji doesn’t see.” Sou grimaced and tried to cover his messy front with his jacket. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll change in our room.”
“Okay…” Kanna swallowed. “Was Kanna…of use?”
Sou’s scowl vanished instantly as he flashed another bright smile her way. “Of course you were! I’d have died without you.”
Kanna laughed at a strangely high pitch. “I’d have died without you!”
It was often hard to tell when Kanna’s laughs were genuine, but then, you could say the same thing about Sou.
He looked once again at his palm to re-count the Clear Chips they had won. One, two, three, four. Sure enough, he hadn’t dropped any of them since he last counted them five steps ago. There were four Clear Chips for the two of them.
“Should we share the Clear Chips then?” Kanna asked. She opened her palms hopefully.
“Suuure…” Sou trailed off and shut his mouth. Then he shut his fingers over his palm. The girl’s eyes widened nervously.
As Sou stared at his trembling ally, he was imagining Miss Sara crying crocodile tears until his little girl handed over all her Clear Chips to the teenager. Miss Sara was Kanna’s weakness, and Miss Sara would take advantage of her. Sou had already seen the horrid proof of that on Kanna’s sister’s phone. If Kanna had read the hateful message that Miss Sara left for her—if Sou hadn’t changed it in time…
Then Sou imagined Keiji slugging her. Q-taro whacking her with a baseball bat. Miss Nao hitting her with a frying pan.
“On second thought, I better hold onto these for safekeeping.”
“What?!” Kanna stopped shaking and pouted.
“You’re far too trusting. Somebody will steal them from you.”
“No they won’t!” Kanna pounced like a cat—
Sou lifted the Chips above his head, far beyond her reach. His lips stretched out in an awful wide grin. “Oh? You think they won’t?”
“Nngh!” Kanna grunted and stood on her toes, reaching as high as she could. “They’re good people, Sou!”
Sou snorted. “They’re gooood people, Sou! Dearie, did you already forget how one of those good folks knocked me out with a block of wood yesterday?”
“Well…” Kanna blushed.
She didn’t need to know that the wood block attack was all an act. This was for her own good, anyway.
“Then you shouldn’t carry them around either!” Kanna countered smartly. “You’re probably in more danger than Kanna!”
“I know that,” Sou drawled. “I’ll put all our combined Chips in a secret spot in our room. You’ll never guess where. And nobody will find them. If anyone interrogates you, you won’t give it away. If anyone interrogates me, I can lie. I’ll keep them safe until the last day, when you actually need them. Capiche?”
Kanna lowered her arm and swayed on her feet again. “You…” She swallowed. “Kanna knows… that you want to help Kanna…”
“I do,” he insisted.
“You returned Sister’s phone to me…”
“Yes,” Sou said gently. “Please let me help you, on—on behalf of Kugie.”
That was all it took. Kanna nodded silently and handed over her wallet to the young man. Sou tucked it and the four new Chips in his jacket pocket triumphantly.
“Excellent. Let’s go! I’m starting to stink.” He began walking.
“Ah! I’m so sorry!” She followed him.
“I’m joking. Come on.”
Kanna seemed to have trouble walking straight, so Sou wrapped his arm behind her back and steered her onward. The only person they met along the way was Q-taro, who froze in his footsteps and hung his head. Sou grinned wickedly and waved. The idiot giant had already learned the hard way not to underestimate him, as Sou had made a proper fool of Q-taro in front of the Dream Team—that was, Miss Sara and her Mister Friendly Policeman.
Q-taro had sold his soul for some measly tokens. Everyone had their price. Well, Sou supposed that he had already sold his soul at the start of this Game for his old friend’s name, so it wasn’t right for him to judge.
And Kanna had sold her soul to him for her sister’s phone. Sou just hoped that he had made the price worth it. He hoped that he could continue to be worthy for something as precious as Kanna’s soul.
Sou locked the door behind him and pushed Kanna to the corner of their bedroom, facing her to the walls. “Shut your eyes,” he ordered. “Don’t open them until I say so. I’m going to get changed and hide the Clear Chips.”
The girl quivered at his harsh tone. “Yes, Sou.” She closed her eyes obediently.
The man waved his hand in front of her face. She didn’t react. Satisfied, he backed off and threw his scarf, hat, and jacket on the floor. It was getting stuffy anyway.
In the middle of pulling a new, identical shirt over his head, he heard the familiar sound of quiet sniffles. His heartrate picked up and he nearly flew into a panic—even though Kanna cried all the time. “I’m almost done!” he squeaked into his shirt fabric. He was trying so hard but it was never going to be good enough.
Kanna mumbled incomprehensibly in response. If she was paying any attention to him, she would have heard Sou grunting as he struggled to pull open the wooden floorboards again, like he did on the first day when he staged the attack on himself. It took longer than he would have liked to hide the Chips, but it was so, so easy to imagine his companions targeting him now that his “amnesia act” was slipping. Especially Miss Sara’s lapdog. He could clearly envision Keiji barging into his room and searching his belongings like he was some sort of criminal…
“Oogh! Mmph!” He panted as he slammed the floorboards back in place. Finally, he scurried across the room back to his girl and tapped her shoulder. “Finished! It’s uh—it’s all safe now—and I’m decent—are you—okay?”
Kanna made a strange high-pitched sound that made Sou catch his breath. Then she turned around and he saw that she was smiling.
Sou’s jaw dropped and Kanna laughed in his face.
“Y-you’re funny when you’re being nice!”
“Kanna!” Sou scowled and crossed his arms.
“Ah! I’m sorry…”
Sou rolled his eyes and ruffled the girl’s hair. “Don’t scare me.”
“Kanna scared you…?”
“Don’t read into it.” He turned around quickly, face flushed, and sat down at their desk where Kai’s laptop awaited him. His grumpy reflection stared back at him from the computer’s black screen, and he typed in Kanna’s password to unlock it. Now he could finally work on hacking this damn thing that he’d sacrificed the whole group’s trust to get his hands on.
At least that was his plan.
“You’re a really good dancer.”
That snapped Sou out of his concentration. He snorted a harsh laugh. “Ha, good one. You got me.”
“Kanna was…being serious…” She fiddled with her fingers awkwardly.
“Heh, I gotta teach you how to tease people properly—”
“Kugie was good at dancing too.”
Sou spun around in his chair so he could give the girl his full attention. He looked at her somberly, prepared to listen. Truthfully, Sou didn’t know what to believe about Kugie, since Kanna praised everything about her older sister. When they ate dinner, which Kanna barely touched, she described how Kugie was a great cook who knew how to make Kanna’s favorite meals. When they exchanged tokens with the others, and Kanna had trouble subtracting, she mentioned that her big sister was a math genius who always helped with Kanna’s homework. By Sou’s calculation, Kanna had also praised Kugie’s athleticism, artistic eye, fashion choices, and eloquent way of speaking. And Kanna inevitably contrasted Kugie’s many strengths with her own perceived weaknesses.
Sou needed to work on the laptop—for everyone’s sake, honestly. He wanted to help everyone escape, and it wasn’t like he could trust anyone else to do it—but…
Kanna needed to talk about her sister, and he owed Kanna the price of her soul.
(In addition to the price of his own worthless life.)
“She was probably better than me, but thanks,” Sou said as kindly as he could muster.
“I-I don’t know,” Kanna responded. “Kanna is not a good judge. But Kanna felt happy watching you dance, like she felt happy watching Sister dance.”
That teased a genuine smile out of Sou. He rested his chin on his palm, clearly pleased with himself. “Glad I could entertain you!”
“Even though Kanna… Kanna knows you were unhappy up there. But watching you dance and smile for me…it was like Kanna was watching the real Sou.”
“The real Sou?” He laughed a bit too loudly.
“Because you were so brave and expressive! That was how Sister danced too. When Kanna was sad, Sister would put on music in our room, and she would dance with her, just like you danced. And it was like…Kanna was seeing the real Kugie! If Mom or Dad opened the door, Kugie would turn off the music and pretend to do homework instead!” Kanna laughed, which turned into a sob.
Sou swallowed. That was a lot to process. He wasn’t sure he liked this comparison. As he struggled to come up with a response, Kanna continued.
“If the First Trial was a dance attraction, Kugie would have lived. Like you. We could have worked as a team, like you and Kanna did, but mostly you. Kugie would still be alive—”
“Hey, hey…” Sou’s mind raced to think of anything remotely comforting. “The First Trial was meant to break us. It was deliberately unfair. Impossible to win. They wouldn’t have given us something as easy as the Dance game. You need to stop blaming yourself, okay?”
“But—other people won their First Trial.”
“We’re not other people, Kanna.”
Kanna’s eyes widened in understanding, and she stared at him with the hungriest expression of curiosity he had ever seen in her. She was becoming dangerously more curious each day. But Sou had no intention of telling her about his First Trial, damn whatever he owed her.
He tried to switch the topic back to Kugie. “Did she, uh, belong to a dance club?” he asked stupidly.
“No. But I know she wanted to go to more dances! Kanna knows…one of Kugie’s dreams was to fall in love with a beautiful woman someday and go out dancing with her!” Kanna sighed romantically.
Sou smiled in relief at the new topic, which had nothing to do with him. And he couldn’t help but feel a warm smugness filling his chest, that Kanna would confess something so personal to him. Surely Kanna hadn’t mentioned anything like this to Miss Sara? “That’s a wonderful dream,” he replied.
“Do you have any dreams?” she asked eagerly.
Sou groaned. “No, I don’t,” he said bitterly. “I want to pay the bills lying on my table. I want to keep my retail job even though I’ve missed three shifts in a row. I want to not get evicted from my apartment even though I already asked for an extension on the rent. But none of these things are going to happen, you see?”
Kanna turned pale. “I’m sorry—”
“Mostly, I just want to survive the Death Game. Think you can help me do that? Hm? Think you can possibly be useful to me?”
“Yes! I’ll do anything!!”
“Good. You can start by shutting up and letting me work.” He spun his chair back around to face his desk.
Sou tried to focus on hacking Kai’s laptop. This was something he was supposed to be good at. This was how he could help everyone, including Kanna. But he still perked up his ears and distracted himself with listening. He was waiting for the sound of Kanna crying.
It didn’t come. He closed his eyes. He still couldn’t hear her.
That didn’t make any sense. Why wasn’t she crying? He had just cruelly shut her down. By all rights, she should be devastated right now. Had he somehow broken her?
The sound of silence disturbed him more than he thought possible. Almost instinctively, he abandoned the important-looking folders and typed “Music” into the search bar. He wasn’t sure if the eccentric homemaker would have kept any songs on his laptop, but…
About two thousand songs loaded in response. Songs from the forties. Songs from the nineties. Classical music. Jazz music. Songs in Japanese, Korean, English, Russian, and other languages Sou didn’t immediately recognize. It was an eclectic batch of songs, befitting the tastes of an oddball assassin-turned-housekeeper.
Was it unethical for Sou to be looking through the private files of a man he had voted to kill? It wasn’t like Kai’s weird music collection would help them escape. Sou gritted his teeth and pushed that thought away.
Sou finally clicked on a cheerful English song he recognized from his days waiting tables, back when his manager randomly decided that he liked ELO. The familiar steady piano chords of “Mr. Blue Sky” started playing, breaking the room’s dreadful silence.
Sou stepped out of his seat and walked straight to Kanna. She was sitting curled up in the corner of the room, hiding her face in her knees, with her arms wrapped tightly around her legs. But she looked up when she heard music, and she discovered Sou standing in front of her with his hand outstretched.
“Kanna, would you dance with me?”
Kanna just stared at him, eyes wide as saucers, mouth hanging ajar. Sou bit his lip, immediately regretting this.
Then she nodded and raised a trembling hand, seemingly at a loss for words.
Sou instantly snatched onto Kanna’s fingers and pulled her to her feet, smiling brightly for her once again. He grabbed both her hands tightly and shook their arms together in time with the heavy beat.
“Sun is shinin’ in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped rainin’
Everybody’s in the play
And don’t you know
It's a beautiful new day, hey hey!”
The song was bouncy and infectious. Whether or not she understood the lyrics, Kanna looked enchanted. She started hopping in time with the drums and Sou hopped right along with her, bobbing his head up and down. Kanna burst into giggles.
Hearing Kanna’s laughter felt like rainbows popping in his ears. Hoping to hear more, Sou sang along with the chorus. His English was bad and he knew it, but if he amused Kanna then that was all that mattered.
“Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong?”
Kanna squealed in delight. Then she let go of his hands and covered her mouth in embarrassment. So Sou grabbed her arms again and danced backwards, pulling her with him.
“Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why
You had to hide away for so long—”
“So long!” Kanna joined in, catching Sou off guard. He spun her around three times as a reward. Then he let her go and slid backwards in his socks. Kanna swayed dizzily and saw the man pointing at her with finger guns for the next verse, which he sang louder than ever.
“Hey you with the pretty face
Welcome to the human race
A celebration, Mr. Blue Sky’s up there waitin’
And today is the day we’ve waited for”
Apparently Kanna understood enough English to blush at the compliment. But she didn’t like being separated, so she ran forward and grabbed Sou’s hands again, shaking their arms together like before. She tried to match his footwork, which amounted to some simple skipping forward and backwards. Through some lucky miracle, they never stepped on each other’s toes.
“Hey there Mr. Blue
We’re so pleased to be with you
Look around see what you do
Everybody smiles at you”
Sou couldn’t remember the last time he felt this happy, like there were bubbles filling up every corner in his brain, making him light-headed. He hadn’t even been drinking. Kanna kept giggling and it was the nicest sound he’d ever heard. He spun her around some more to produce higher, louder giggle fits. Then he suddenly gripped her shoulders from behind, his hands like pincers, making her gasp.
“Mr. Blue, you did it right
But soon comes Mr. Night creepin’ over
Now his hand is on your shoulder
Never mind I'll remember you this
I’ll remember you this way”
Kanna squirmed out of his grasp and danced beyond his reach. Then she grabbed both his hands again, forcing him to face her and shake arms together again. Sou responded by running in circles with her, which was delightfully easy and dizzying.
At the end of the song they both collapsed on the bed.
“Ah…” Sou buried his face in his hands, breathing heavily. He couldn’t believe he just did that. That was far too much physical exertion for the day. He still needed to work and now he was exhausted. He was wasting time being ridiculous. He cursed all the happy butterflies in his stomach.
“Thank you, Sou,” Kanna said timidly. It sounded like she was returning to normal too.
“Don’t mention it,” he murmured. “Seriously don’t.”
Sou sat up, ready to forget this had happened. Kanna was okay now and he didn’t have to let his feelings for her distract him from working.
“Wait!” Kanna sat up next to him.
Sou sighed. But he was willing to indulge her one more time. “What is it?”
“K-Kanna just wanted to say…” She pointed to his neck. “That’s a pretty necklace.”
Sou did a doubletake. Of all the things she could have said after dancing, he wasn’t expecting that. But then…he wasn’t covering his key necklace with his scarf like usual. She must have seized the opportunity to comment on it. “Er, thanks.” He smiled weakly.
“Does it open anything?” she asked.
“No,” he lied.
“Kanna noticed… The kidnappers gave us identical copies of all our clothes to wear. They even gave you extra copies of your scarf, and they gave Kanna extra copies of her bucket. Although you always wear the same scarf, and Kanna always wear the same bucket. But… The kidnappers didn’t give you any copies of that necklace.”
Sou furrowed his brow. On top of being dangerously curious, his girl was wicked smart too. A lot smarter than anyone was giving her credit for. His lips twitched imperceptibly. He was equal parts annoyed and brimming with pride. “My, my, my! Aren’t we fond of personal invasive questions today?”
Kanna seemed to realize that she was pushing her luck. She looked down at her lap in shame. “I’m sorry… You were being so kind to Kanna, and Kanna… She thought maybe she could finally learn more about the kind Sou, but… Kanna ruins everything…”
“No you don’t. Don’t be silly.” Sou hesitated for another moment, but he knew what he had to do. “Kanna… Let me show you where I hid the Clear Chips.”
Kanna looked up sharply. It was her turn to look annoyed. “But Kanna thought that you couldn’t trust her.”
“Yeah, well! …I changed my mind. We’re a team. And if somebody knocks me out with another frying pan, you need to know how to survive on your own.”
Kanna almost looked like she would laugh again. (She didn’t, to Sou’s disappointment.) “But what if somebody interrogates Kanna?” she asked.
“I won’t let that happen to you,” he answered.
The girl looked deeply moved. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Sou hopped off the bed and started pulling up the floorboards again. “They’re under here! Come over and make sure you can open it yourself.”
Kanna followed him obediently. She grunted a little but still managed to open the hiding spot. Sou patted her head proudly.
“Now get some sleep,” he said.
“What about you?”
“I have work to do.” He sat back at the desk again.
Kanna nodded solemnly. Then she spoke quickly—there was one more burden hanging over her heart, and the words tumbled out of her mouth so she could free herself. “Sou, if you do get evicted, you can stay in Kanna’s house! Mom and Dad will want to thank you! You’ll be safe! I promise!”
Sou held his fingers over the keyboard, frozen. He felt something watery prick his eye. He could have said any number of things in response to that, but all he could spit out was, “I said, go to sleep.”
“Okay! Good night! Thank you!!”
Sou heard the rustling of Kanna climbing into bed. Then he finally devoted his full brain space to the laptop in front of him. He was good at coding. Finding patterns. Solving sequences. He could do this. He could save Kanna. He wouldn’t fail.