The circumstances of Dino Golzine's business trip were as follows:
There were several days of meetings, negotiations, extravagant dinners in private rooms with security guards at the door and ulterior motives up every sleeve. Countless bottles of sake, expensive liquor and authentic champagne were popped and poured one after the other.
Dino was after distribution rights, supply, exclusivity, signatures on the dotted line.
But perhaps that was not enough, not enough to impress, nor to convince of a productive, symbiotic relationship. Perhaps when they squinted and read the fine print, the terms and conditions, or looked behind Golzine's beady-eyed mask, they saw nothing lucrative about this opportunity.
In other words, the deal had been unsuccessful.
Thus, unwilling to dish out another day's worth of travel expenditure, Dino's business trip had come to a bitter and untimely end, and he had arrived back at the mansion late at night, tempestuous and seething.
None of this, of course, was information that Ash was privy to.
So there he sat petrified, cold sweat running down his spine, fight or flight response screaming at his nervous system, as a demon in a cashmere robe, shotgun in hand, made his way down the terrace.
Ash's brain froze, searing like dry ice beneath his scalp. His throat dried like all the saliva had retreated from his mouth, unable to move, unable to speak.
A strangled gasp rang out from next to him and Ash suddenly remembered he wasn't alone, his senses sparked red hot as if hot-wired. This wasn't a punishment he could take onto just himself, something he could just close his eyes and brace himself for. A new, undiscovered terror drenched him in unrelenting waves, fear unlike anything he had ever felt before.
He jerked alive, scrambling to stand up as he pulled Eiji to his feet, frantically pushing the other boy towards the exit.
Hot terror pulsed up through his neck, into his ears; burning needles stabbing at his scalp. His arms were shaking, his feet were paralysed. At the very least Eiji had to get out, Eiji had to make it, he was running already, Eiji would make it, Eiji had to—
A gunshot rang out.
A sharp cry of pain.
Ash screamed. His hoarse cry erupted into the night, tearing through his throat and reverberating in his head.
Eiji, Eiji! EIJI!
What have I done what have I done what have I done—
His ears were ringing, tinny sound waves sending his head into a buffeting frenzy. He could barely make out Eiji's limping figure in the dim moonlight ambience, so he prayed frantically, desperately that Golzine couldn't either.
Dino took a heavy step forward, triggering the porch light sensor and dowsing the terrace in theatrically over-saturated brightness. With the cruel spotlight dragging out long shadows on his face, the old bastard was an image of painted horror before Ash. He was cold in his stark whiteness, and terrifying in the unseeing blackness, dark caverns in the place of the eye sockets, but locked onto Ash nevertheless. The shotgun was raised in his hands; poised to fire another round over Ash's shoulder.
Ash wouldn't let him, he wouldn't, he wouldn't even if it was the last thing he did. Staggering from the bottom step, he launched himself up at Dino, hands outstretched to wrestle the gun out of his meaty hands, or at least skew his aim away from Eiji. The blinding luminosity of the porch light hit him all at once, scalding tears pricked at his eyes and clouded his vision.
Trying to see through the searing whiteness, he clumsily twisted the gun in his hands, yanking at the barrel until it was parallel to the porch handrail— but Dino would not yield. The old bastard pulled back with enough force to send Ash lurching forward. As soon as Ash stumbled, it was all fucking over. Before he could even raise his head, the gun’s midsection was thrust straight into Ash's throat, knocking the breath out of his windpipe and the back of his head against the porch railing with a resounding thwack .
Eiji— Ash managed to think, before everything went dark at once.
It was a nightmare. It was all a fucking nightmare and Ash couldn't wake up. In the span of one night, everything was flipped on its head like an upturned garbage can, spilling shit all over the street, leaving a mess in its wake.
Everything that mattered to Ash was gone.
Dino was furious, riding on the humiliation of an unsuccessful business negotiation, Ash's so-called betrayal had sent him over the edge. The old man had never shied away from violence and sadism, but anger was an emotion that loosened all reins; it had him diving into old habits head first, leaving Ash at his mercy.
"Remember that you belong to me."
Oh but how could he forget? How could he not be reminded at every waking moment of the gaping hole in his chest where his autonomy should have been.
Ash would spare himself from remembering the details of the aftermath of Dino's rage, but there was no escaping recollection when the bruises would not heal for weeks, nor did some scars ever really fade.
The door to Ash's room was now permanently locked, opened only to slide a meagre meal across the floor. He was no longer allowed to carouse throughout the mansion, nevermind the garden.
It was just as well. Ash couldn't bear to look at it anyway, even though it was visible from his second-floor bedroom window.
Without even seeing it, Ash could tell.
That the garden would no longer be characterised by its warm liveliness, its sense of incomplete beauty, the misshapen hole in the fence. Only the tall hedges cut prim and perfect; the iron pole standing menacingly straight; the carvings on the empty chair; Eiji's blood on the grass.
The deal was void and the garden no longer served any purpose, other than becoming a complete eyesore that evoked feelings of bitterness and disgust in Dino every time he looked at it. It was only a matter of time before it was demolished, reduced to rubble; coming full circle back to the barren plot of dirt that took up more space than it was worth to maintain.
Ash couldn’t bear the thought of his only safe haven, his only place of solace being returned to its original, empty state. It would be as if the garden had never existed, as if Eiji, and whatever lost emotion he had managed to stir up from the dregs of Ash’s heart when they were together, was completely null and void. As if none of it were real at all.
The very thought of that chilled Ash to his core, the very idea of his life being an endless cycle of fleeting dreams, cut off abruptly and leaving him to awaken back into a nightmare. He would never wish for romanticism ever again, if it meant that he would never have to experience that cold, feverish sensation of sitting up and feeling an oasis being pried out of his sweaty, clutching hands ever again.
Issai-kaiku. Now that was a Buddhist idiom that made sense, told it to him straight. All existence is suffering.
Life being described as having the quality of ‘dream-like transience’ sounded far too flowery and lyrical, like a fucking Emily Dickinson poem. If hope was the thing with feathers, then the yellow canary trapped behind his ribcage had long since sung its final tune and perished.
It was truly a nightmare.
The worst part of it all was that he had no idea if Eiji was okay or not. He had no way of finding out either and that complete and utter helplessness was so thick in his lungs that every waking moment felt like asphyxiation.
The nights were no better though.
The events of that midnight terror haunted his every thought, replaying eerily in his head like a broken record. Every frame of Eiji's petrified face, his twisted form dragging itself away, filled Ash's mind when he closed his eyes. Every blink contorted the scene with more horror, more gore, until it was no longer just Eiji's wild and pleading eyes, but his whole face dripping with blood, twisted into a sneer.
You did this to me.
He would wake up with tears in his eyes and pleas of forgiveness on his lips. Ash had no business in the realms of religion or spirituality, but when everything from his agency to his pride had been stripped bare, he could only clasp his hands together in a silent prayer.
I can take anything you give me, so please God, don't let him be hurt. Please, hurt me instead.
"Should we kill him?" Eiji had once said, so plainly; unembellished by passion or theatrics. He'd made it sound so simple, easy even. Ash had laughed it off at the time, but now as he lay there, claustrophobic in that sterile room, the fantasy, or the possibility of it, even, plagued him like a thick miasma that hovered around him, solid and suffocating.
The pocket knife was tucked away, along with the other trinkets Eiji had given him, discreetly under the mattress. Ash could feel the presence of it burning a hole into his back as he lay on the bed.
Ash had never killed anyone before, but it wasn't hard to imagine. Flicking the knife open, a swift slice to the jugular. No wasted movements. The ease of it frightened him.
The unsettling thoughts clung to him like leeches on his skin as he fell into fitful sleep.
Blood sprayed everywhere like a fire hydrant knocked loose, it was red, it was all so fucking red. Ash felt the cold steel of a handgun, its weight in his hands. Its barrel was trained on the monstrous figure in front of him. He pulled the trigger. The gun barely vibrated, but the bullets ripped through Dino's body with a grotesque crack, tossing his crumpled form left and right with the impact of each shot.
A beat of complete, dead silence.
Then the old man's face lurched forward, twisting into a grotesquely contorted mass, like a Chinese dragon head, simultaneously gaunt and burgeoning. Ash clamped down on the trigger again and again. Bullet holes opened up like chasms in Dino's face, deep like abysses, endless like the night. But his eyes, stretched wide and bloodshot, were unblinking, fixed on Ash, consuming him whole. Ash was being swallowed alive.
He screamed until his throat felt bloody and raw, but no sound came out, viscous gloop filled his oesophagus, choking him from the inside, filling every open crevice in his body. There was no escape, no—
He shot up in cold sweat, still feeling the thick liquid in his lungs as he retched into the waste basket beside his bed. Nothing came out. He was empty, sucked dry.
He was left with nothing, but the overwhelmingly absolute fact that Dino Golzine was a demon that would chase him through hell and back.
From the window, the stars seemed to glower at him when he looked out at the sky. An inexplicable morose horror gnawed at his throat; something snarling and ruthless was devouring him from the inside. His face was hot with tears that wouldn’t spill, it burnt like acid in his eye sockets, like he would be nothing but bones in the morning. It was just as well. His chest cavity had been hollowed out anyway, he had been gutted and washed out long ago.
In the end, Ash was a coward. There was no one else he wanted to kill, murder in cold blood, more than Dino Golzine, and yet his hands trembled with unmistakable fear .
How was he so broken that he'd lost the innate drive to fight for his life? No— it wasn't just that. If he couldn't even do it for Eiji, couldn't kill the monster who hurt his only friend , it suddenly seemed like there was no force in the world that could shake the terror from his bones. Was he really that beyond salvation? Was he even allowed to miss Eiji?
The questions were all futile. There were no answers to be found in the whitewash, no truths hidden under the window sill.
With the doors locked and the windows bolted shut, the soulless walls felt emptier by the second. Solitude had etched its way into Ash’s bones, lonesomeness was ink in his skin. It was as if he was living in negative space, in the gaps of tangibility, in the difference between what is and what is-not.
Ash knew what he had lost before it was even gone. In a sense, he had been waiting for this day from the beginning. Not that it made any difference. Just because he knew it would happen one day didn’t make it hurt any less.
Abuse feeds mistrust, but loneliness still fuels loneliness.
Ash had read once, that men only get one great, good true thing in their lives. Ash had been given a taste of it, and now he had to let it go.
It was almost a week before Ash was allowed to leave his room. What seemed like a benevolent gift from Dino, was really the conditional freedom of stepping outside his solitary confinement cell to dine with the old bastard and resume his private tutoring sessions. Outside of those two reasons, Ash was left staring at the blank wall of his personal hell for the remaining hours of the day.
The sliding door to the Japanese garden was left tauntingly open in his path from the bedroom to the study. It relieved him slightly to know that the garden was still intact, and that Dino was still too fixated on his restriction of Ash and scavenging for another supplier to look for the gap in the fence, or destroy the garden altogether, but the very sight of the now soulless plot wrenched at his heart.
He couldn't decide on whether to drink in the very image of it while could, to commit it to memory while it lasted, or to close his eyes while he walked past, in hopes of quelling the dull ache in the space behind his ribcage.
One fateful afternoon, though, one glimpse at the scene in the dining room left him wide-eyed and staring. It was a familiar face — Ibe, sat across from Golzine, facing the doorway with a pen in his hand and an anxious expression scrawled all over his face.
The final tutor of the day had his hand on Ash’s back, pushing him on the path from the study, up the stairs that led to his bedroom. Ash craned his neck over the railing, trying to turn and catch Ibe’s eye-line as quickly and inconspicuously as possible.
As if spurred by Ash’s pure, frantic energy alone, Ibe lifted his head just slightly, meeting Ash’s sharp gaze for a split-second. Ash could map the way the recognition, confusion, panic flickered across Ibe’s face in that single glance, but he knew that his own eyes conveyed a single, unmistakable message that his own mind had not yet come to acknowledge.
I need to see Eiji.
The other man immediately dipped his back down before Golzine could notice his wandering gaze. The vice grip on Ash’s back guided him back to his room, pushed him in as a farewell, and locked the door.
I need to see Eiji .
Visceral; almost instinctual, the thought, the desire had dug its way to the surface after days upon days of unconscious burying and flattening. It clawed at Ash’s throat like fingernails on a locked door. Up until that very moment, he had associated the thought of seeing Eiji with shame, futility, helplessness.
But Ash had never been able to stop himself from thinking, never been able to quell the animalistic pulse of his heart, or arrest the neurotic seamstress that threaded and weaved frenetic, winding tapestries inside his mind.
His head, body and heart all moved out of accord, but a rare moment of unity sent thunder thrumming all throughout his nerves, inside his bones, as he stared at the hole in his mattress.
Ash had never been able to stop himself from making a plan.
Ibe was most likely downstairs to terminate the contract with Dino, leaving the garden perpetually unfinished. In other words, this was Ash’s last chance.
He wasted no time in propping up the mattress with one arm and shoving his hand into the ragged hole he had ripped in the underside. His fingers stumbled over the miscellaneous trinkets Eiji had left him with, shiny rocks, paper cranes, lollipops; the cool, smooth handle of the pocket knife. His fingernails nicked on a finicky, metallic wire.
He cast his mind back to the hour hand of the wall clock in the hallway, it was around four when he had walked by. Approximately five minutes had passed since then. From what he remembered, Dino was scheduled to visit Kippard this afternoon, and potentially dine with him at night. Ash would have a few hours at most.
It had to be today.
He picked up one of the pins, wincing as he bent it out of shape. He apologised internally to the cartoon bunny as he yanked it off the end. Looks like Eiji's sister would never be getting her clips back in one piece. He repeated the process with another one and stuck the back of the pin into the lock in his door, bending it downwards and warping its shape.
Ibe would be leaving soon, he had to hurry.
He stuck in the thin end of the other pin and jerked it up and down, his fingers uncannily steady, feeling for a click.
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!
Surely there was no way the lock to a fucking bedroom would be more complicated that the other locks Ash had picked in the past, it hadn't been that long for him to get rusty.
He heard the sound of a car door slamming shut outside his window. He prayed that it was Dino and not Ibe.
In one last act of desperation, he wrenched the pick upwards, hard.
The final pin, freed.
Ash sucked in sharply at the success. He shoved the deformed clips into his back pocket before grabbing his tattered hoodie and tucking it under his arm. He cautiously turned the door handle, pushing it open painstakingly slowly so as to not let out a sound.
He peeked through the meagre gap, eyes darting back and forth across the hallway, before warily sticking his head out further to peer down the stairs.
The tutor was long gone, the staff were likely preparing meals and readying for Dino's departure. His escape path would be empty, for now.
Ash slinked out of the gap in the door, turning the handle as he slowly pulled it shut without making a noise. He kept his footsteps feather-light as he crept down the staircase, arching his back low to avoid being seen from over the railing. The dining room was now empty, he prayed that Ibe was still in his van.
He scampered across the wooden floors, through the open sliding door and into the garden. The fresh air hit him like the fizz of a carbonated drink. He had forgotten how good it tasted.
He took one step off the patio and froze.
His legs begged him to move but his eyes zeroed in on the scene in front of him. He had yet to see the garden properly in the daylight.
In spite of the golden-red hues of the afternoon sun, casting it's languor onto the shrubbery; the hand-picked vegetation, the garden that Ash had come to know and love was irrevocably dull in front of him.
It was all washed with monochrome, void of the vitality that Ibe and Eiji had painstakingly sewn into the fabric of its existence. All except one spot in the grass, stained dark, angry, rust-coloured.
He tried to swallow his guts before they spilled out onto the grass.
The guilt that had been momentarily abated by adrenaline suddenly shot up his throat like mercury in glass. The shadowy silhouette of Eiji's limping figure ghosted the scene; a phantom pain that lingered in the garden, following the trail of blood that coloured the grass.
What was he trying to achieve? How many layers of delusion had he cycled through to believe that he truly deserved to see Eiji again. Because it had been Ash's selfishness that led to his injury, Ash's stupid fucking indulgence.
All Ash's fault.
His field of vision shook like an unsteady camera lens, head teetering dizzyingly as he eyes tracked the dark spots that dyed the bright green grass red. Until his nauseatingly unstable gaze landed on an unfamiliar growth.
Yellow and radiant, it was the sunflower Eiji had planted.
The sunspot sunflower. The dwarf sunflower he had lovingly sketched out onto notepad paper. The flower that had been tucked into the soil as a cheeky little secret.
It was in full bloom.
The single vibrant flower stood out in stark contrast to the muted greens and browns of the rest of the garden. Growing tall and unwavering like a beautiful beacon, just like Eiji had wished, it had pulled through.
"Who are we to defy potential?"
The air Ash was already having trouble catching escaped from his lungs completely. Instead, its place in his chest was replaced with an incandescent warmth, glowing hot like a candle night light, illuminating the rest of the garden that had lost all its saturation.
That's right. Eiji had given him so much. Careless fun, momentary flight, a taste of freedom.
Eiji had given him colour.
And who was he to give nothing back? Who was he to not visit, to not even say goodbye?
He owed Eiji this much.
"Bloom where you are, they won't see it coming." Eiji's words filtered through his head like sunlight through the trees.
Even with his roots planted firmly in unfamiliar soil, he would still turn to face the sun.
That was just nature.
He ripped his feet from where they stood, tore apart the roots, the shackles that bound him to lifeless dirt, and hurtled towards the hole in the hedge.
As he knelt down to crawl through the gap, his shoulder scraped against a hard surface. He looked over to face a stone lantern that seemed to guard the hidden exit.
He remembered the way Eiji had lugged the heavy things around the garden, placing them in a nonsensical pattern; one up by the gate, another beside the bridge, another next to the wooden bench, and finally, one in front of the hedge. Ibe had scolded him for the lack of aesthetic consideration, but had not moved them from their positions. Ash had wondered if it was still considered satisfactory or if it was because the geezer didn't want to throw out his back.
Eiji had told him one time, as he affectionately prodded at the moss forming on the sloping roofs of the shrine-shaped stone structure, "This is oki-dourou , when it's light up, it will shine a path to your home."
Ash had squinted at him, "Then why'd you just chuck 'em all over the place?"
Eiji had tutted smugly, "Yes, yes, normally I would put them leading up back into the house. But that's not the path I want to light up for you, Ash."
That's not home .
The lanterns had yet to be lit, but as Ash peeked at the miniature temple, he imagined warm flickering light emanating through the little stone cut windows, and his heart was set ablaze.
The sound of Ibe's engine sputtering from the other side of the hedge knocked him out of his stupor.
It was now or never.
He took one last look at the garden. Perhaps one day this would all be a memory, of sunny smiles, trickling streams, carved wood; of summer heat, fleece blankets, bamboo shoots. Of sunspots, of night skies.
But not Eiji. No, he wouldn't let Eiji become a faded photocopy of a photocopy, framed tenuously in the blurred expanse of his mind. Not just yet. He had so much more to say, so many apologies to make, so many smiles to drink in. The photo album of Ash's life was still far too thin, he selfishly wanted to fill it up with pictures, ones that were vibrant like the Izumo beaches, the summer night fireworks, glossy with crooked-tooth smiles and candied apples.
He would start small though, he would only wish for one last photo.
He took in a deep breath and ducked out, swiftly sliding through the narrow gap between the wall on the other side and the fence until he rounded the corner and Ibe's van came into view. He crouched down low, sticking to the fence until he was wedged between it and the driver's seat door of the rickety vehicle.
He peered in through the window— Ibe had already turned the key in the ignition. Ash rapped his knuckles against the window as quietly but furiously as he could possibly manage.
The older man almost leaped right out of the driver's seat. Ash thanked his lucky stars that the hand brake was still in place, and that the jumpy man hadn't accidentally slammed the accelerator and crushed every single one of Ash's toes in the process.
Ibe, looking like he'd lost half a life, warily rolled down the window.
"Please, take me to where Eiji is." Ash blurted out pleadingly before the other man could even question him.
Ibe let out a sigh and aged ten years in the process. He glanced hastily at the rearview mirror, turning over his shoulder left and right with jittery paranoia before turning to face Ash and reply with a hushed whisper.
"Look, Mister Ash, right? I really am sorry about your situation but it's just too dangerous I— "
"I get it. I really do, no one knows the dangers more than I do but I promise, I won't let anything happen to him again. I don't care if this is the last time I ever see him, I just need to...I have to…" Desperation stole his eloquence, he could barely choke out his pleas as the overwhelming fear of Ibe’s rejection rose in his throat.
The other man seemed to waver, the pain in Ash’s chest reflected in the twist of his face. He cut Ash off from his spluttering imploration.
"I guess I owe it to Eiji…" He ran a hand over his face wearily, and unlocked the van door.
"Alright, get in."
Legs shaking and voice whispering words of gratitude, Ash pulled the hoodie over his head and bundled into the backseat.
The engine rumbled as Ibe hit the gas and sped off down the street, leaving the cold, imposing mansion as a faint silhouette on the horizon.