After school, Airi decided to go out with Nao and Ikumi, her friends from middle school, for the first time in ages. Nao and Ikumi, who went to a metropolitan high school, wore their own clothes, making them look a little more grown up than Airi in her uniform. They chatted a bit at a fast food place, then decided to go to a karaoke box. The one Airi always used near the station was being remodelled, however, forcing them to switch to a different place that Ikumi's former boyfriend had recommended.
The karaoke box, in a downtown back alley, lay inconspicuous on the fourth floor of a multi tenant building. There was no sign outside the building, and they took an antique-looking elevator to a deserted, slightly dirty floor. A narrow passage extended beyond the counter near the entrance, and she could see several karaoke rooms. It was strangely quiet, as if there were no other customers.
"...Is this place okay?" Airi said to Ikumi anxiously, looking around the room.
"Maybe we really should just leave?" Nao, standing beside Airi, frowned.
"It's fine!" Ikumi soothed, looking at the pair with a carefree smile.
A sound came from the kitchen beyond the counter, and a plump, middle-aged man who seemed to be the owner appeared. He wore a dirty blue apron over a worn white shirt and grey trousers. The owner looked at the three with nervous eyes, then stood behind the counter with his face turned down slightly.
"Um, a room for three..." Ikumi said from the other side of the counter.
In complete silence, the man held out a piece of paper and tag with the room number "7" written on it. On the piece of paper was written the price list, along with the drink and food menus. The trio looked at it in shock. It was less than half the price of the place by the station that they normally used. It was just as cheap as the rumours said.
The owner's face was slightly downturned, and he stood there wordlessly, as if to say if that's all, you can go straight to the room.
"This is okay, right?" Ikumi confirmed, and Airi and Nao nodded casually.
The three entered the number seven room that matched the number on the tag, the furthest room down the passage. It was a large room for three people, and so long as they put up with its age and the smell of mildew, they had no complaints.
"Quite the boyfriend you had for him to know about a well-kept secret like this place. Why'd you break up with him?" Airi asked. Ikumi smiled wryly.
"We didn't actually break up. I stopped being able to get hold of him, and it just sort of ended itself."
Ikumi picked up a songbook from the pile on the table as she spoke, while Nao ordered copious amounts of food and drink from the menu using the extension phone by the door.
"Ugh. This place only has old songs," Ikumi said in surprise, staring at the cover of the songbook. All of the books piled on the table were about a decade old. "No wonder it's so cheap..."
"What should we do? Leave?"
"Well, we're here now..."
Despite the bewilderment, the three searched for old songs they knew and used the remote to type them in. As they went through the songs that had been popular when they were in elementary school one by one, they began to find that it surprisingly hit the spot, and had a great time. Eventually there came a knock on the door, and the owner brought in their drinks. There didn't seem to be any other employees. The owner left and Airi, her throat dry after them having sung about three songs, gulped down a soft drink. She leaned back against the sofa, letting out a sigh. Meeting up with Nao and Ikumi for the first time in so long and singing all of these old songs made her feel strangely liberated.
Maybe she should order a cocktail...? But there was no way she would get away with it in her uniform. Things like this made her jealous of the other two in their plain clothes. Airi regretted being the only one to move on to the high level Kirizuka High. The school had plenty of serious, honours student types, and even in her second year she still didn't feel like she fitted in. The uniform, with its reddish brown mini skirt and large ribbon, was too cute for Airi, who preferred fashion that was a bit above her age. Come to think of it, a transfer student had joined the second year, and her wearing the uniform of her old school until the uniform change in the autumn made her oddly conspicuous. The subdued blue shirt and navy skirt looked kind of cool.
As Ikumi, who sat in the middle of the sofa, finished singing a common anime theme song, Nao, who sat on the right side of the sofa near the door, took the mic and began to give an impassioned rendition of a medley of a popular band's songs. Ikumi searched through the songbooks for another enjoyable song without even taking so much as a break. Maybe she would've had a more stress-free high school life if she'd gone to the same school as the two of them...
"Hey, Ikumi?" Airi called, and Ikumi looked up from her songbook. "...You got a smoke?"
If she couldn't drink, then she could at least smoke... She had tried it a few times out of curiosity in middle school, but had hardly smoked since entering high school.
"Yeah, here," Ikumi replied, opening the zip on her pouch with her right hand and taking out a lighter and a box of menthol cigarettes.
Airi took a cigarette from the box and held it in her mouth. Suddenly, the dirty wall behind the monitor caught her eye. "NO SMOKING" had been handwritten using a thick marker pen on a piece of paper affixed to the wall. So this was a no-smoking area...?
She looked around the room, seeing handwritten "NO SMOKING" papers stuck to the ceiling, floor, and even the corner of the table. What should she do...?
Nao finished singing, and Ikumi, reacting to a new intro, took the mic. Nao brought a drink to her lips, then began lightly clapping along. Being told that she wasn't allowed to smoke just made her want to do it even more. It didn't matter if she just ignored the signs and smoked there, but... Airi looked at Nao and Ikumi. They were both really into it, and she hadn't put in a song, so it would be fine if she just went for a quick smoke.
"I'm just borrowing your lighter," Airi said, taking the cigarette and lighter and standing up, then left the room.
She had been so focused on the age and filth of the place when she first entered that she hadn't really noticed, but there were an obstinate number of "NO SMOKING" signs posted on the walls and ceiling of the empty passage, too. Jeez. Why does such a shabby old place care if you smoke or not?
Her eyes fell upon the emergency door in the passage's dead end. It was a small building, so the exterior stairs must be on the other side of the door. Maybe she would be able to sneak a cigarette there?
Large, translucent rubbish bags were piled up in front of the door. Approaching and taking a closer look, she could see meat-like food scraps through the bag, a reddish brown juice pooling at the bottom, giving off a nasty stench. She couldn't bring herself to push aside the bags and open the door. And anyway, even if they were the only ones there, she was hesitant to smoke in the passage while still wearing her uniform. What if someone reported her to the school?
Airi turned her back to the emergency exit and went inside the bathroom near the entrance. The same pieces of paper were plastered next to the mirror over the sink and on the tiled walls. She found the same thing upon peeking inside the stall, and there was one on the wall facing the door - the first thing you would catch sight of upon opening the door - as well. Well, if she just smoked a little, here might do...
Airi went inside the stall and locked the door behind her. Leaning back against the sign-plastered wall, she put the cigarette to her lips and slowly brought the lighter's flame closer. ...Why couldn't she relax? Airi extinguished the flame and looked around her. It felt like she was being watched by someone. Was she just imagining things? Unable to settle, Airi took the cigarette from her mouth and left the bathroom, her head tilted to one side.
In the end, Airi decided to go back to room number seven without smoking at all, where the other two were. As she opened the door and went inside, she realised that there was no singing to be heard, and the room was completely silent. That was odd. Were they waiting for her?
Ikumi sat right in the middle of the sofa, head down and swaying restlessly from side to side as she ate something. Taking a closer look, she saw that it was roast chicken. The table was piled high with nuggets, salad, chocolate, side dishes and more. Had they really ordered this much? They'd never be able to finish it all. Then, Airi realised that Nao wasn't in the room. Had she gone to the bathroom? But they hadn't passed by each other...
The monitor was still blue, no one having entered any songs. Airi sat down on the right side of the sofa where Nao had been. Her eyes fell upon a cigarette butt that lay on a small dish that had been left upon the table alongside some chicken bones. There was a lighter on the table, too. Had Nao been smoking as well?
Airi looked at the "NO SMOKING" sign stuck up behind the monitor. Nao must have casually ignored it and smoked here. It had been Nao who'd first coaxed her into trying a cigarette in middle school, too. She might have a cute face that made her popular with the guys, but on the inside she could be bold and plucky as well.
I guess the no smoking rule's been broken now... With a wry smile, Airi put the cigarette to her lips and lit it with her lighter, then ostentatiously breathed a puff of smoke towards the wall. Ahh, that felt good. She should at least be allowed to be free at a karaoke box, right?
Collecting herself, Airi took some fried food from the table and flicked through a songbook. Now it was time for her to catch up and do some singing of her own. Then, Airi noticed a strange, burnt smell. She looked at Ikumi next to her, but she was still eating the chicken with her head down. What was that smell...?
Airi looked around her. She glanced up at the ceiling and gasped. It was enshrouded in white smoke. What was the smoke? Where was it coming from? She looked over at the door, and instead of seeing the hallway through the window saw pure white smoke. No way... was there really a fire!?
She suddenly realised that the room's walls were mottled as if they had been horribly burned, with black stains that seemed to be in the shapes of people appearing here and there. The "NO SMOKING" signs on the walls fell silently to the floor. Looking over at Ikumi sat next to her, she saw that she had tossed aside the chicken that had been held in her right hand and picked up the mic.
"Ikumi... Hey, Ikumi! This is bad!"
The strange burning smell continued to spread, smoke beginning to waft around the sofa and monitor.
"The karaoke box..."
Ikumi stared straight ahead at the monitor, her eyes vacant. Airi looked at the monitor, too. Noise occasionally shot across the white screen, the picture wavering, with "lyrics" displayed in red letters in the centre.
"Behind the station... The owner... had an unusual hatred... of cigarettes..."
"Ikumi... What're you talking about...?"
"...One day, a customer he had warned for smoking... took his revenge... and set the piles of rubbish inside the place on fire... before running away. ...The fire... took hold in the blink of an eye... and more than thirty people... who were trapped inside... diiiiiied..."
Airi was horrified. She'd seen a news report on TV about ten years ago about loads of people dying in a fire at a downtown karaoke box. She had been in elementary school back then, though, and hardly remembered it. Upon hearing the words, the black stains on the walls began to look to her like people's anguished faces and palms banging against the walls. It seemed as though the final moments of those who tried to flee from the flames had been burned into them. Could this place really be the one...?
"Ahhhhhh!" Ikumi screamed suddenly, her eyes rolling back as she began to convulse. The microphone made her voice echo throughout the entire room.
Airi was stunned. She watched as the shrieking Ikumi's trembling face burned before her very eyes.
"Hot! Hot! Hoooooot!"
Airi screwed her face up as the room filled with the odour of burning flesh. Ikumi grabbed onto Airi, convulsing, and wrapped her burnt hands around her neck.
"I... Ikumi, stop!"
Airi resisted desperately, but Ikumi squeezed with all of her strength, her whole body shaking violently. At this rate...
On the spur of the moment, Airi grabbed a glass from the table and poured the drink it contained over Ikumi's face. Ikumi let out a scream and released Airi. Airi backed away and tumbled onto the sofa. Ikumi clutched at her own face with both hands, moaning in pain and vanishing into the smoke as if fleeing.
"Ikumi!" Airi called, but she couldn't see her through the smoke.
She had to get help... Airi took her phone from the bag she had left lying on the sofa, but it was out of range.
Airi glanced at the floor in a panic, and saw Ikumi's discarded half-eaten roast chicken chicken lying there. Something felt wrong. Taking a closer look, she saw that it wasn't roast chicken at all, but the torn-off, roasted hand of a person. Airi let out a scream. An acrid odour assaulted her nose, making her feel dizzy. The smoke had begun to cover the entire room. ...It's no good, I have to get out of here, quickly...
Airi crawled across the floor towards the door, fleeing from the smoke. She reached out for the doorknob and exited into the passage. It, too, was filled with smoke, and she could only see a few metres ahead.
She crawled along the passage, and finally saw the faint outline of the emergency door. The rubbish bags piled in front of it were aflame, smoke rising from them. Were they the origin of the fire?
What to do? What should she do? Airi looked around her. Then, she realised that there was a fire extinguisher beside the bathroom door. Airi took it, fixated, and crawled over to the emergency door, then sprayed its white foam at the flames a metre in front of her. Her surroundings were enveloped in a white fog, the rubbish bags scattering across the ground as they collapsed. The area being filled with extinguisher and smoke made it hard to breathe. At this rate, she was going to suffocate...
Airi looked at the emergency door. She brushed aside the collapsed piles of rubbish bags and grabbed onto the doorknob, pushing her way forcefully through the door. Sloping beams of sunlight flooded the dim passage. She could see the sun setting in the sky between here and the neighbouring building. The smoke and extinguisher were sucked out through the door. Airi breathed in the outside air, finally allowing herself a smile.
Then, she heard moaning near her ear. Airi looked back at the passage with a start, seeing translucent white figures coming towards her. Wait, what? Oh no. Airi could do nothing but stand there helplessly as the white shadows passed through her one by one. She watched as the white figures flooded through the emergency door, rising up through the chasm between the buildings and vanishing into the red sky.
What... is that...? Airi watched the ghosts ascending into the sunset in surprise. The figures... they looked like the black stains on the walls of room number seven... Could they be the ghosts of the people who died in the fire...? Ghosts would sometimes create spiritual phenomena in order to borrow the power of humans so they could return to heaven, a classmate called Reika who knew a lot about the occult had once told her.
Airi looked back at the passage. The vivid scorch marks on the walls, the horrendous smell and smoke had all completely vanished. Was it all an illusion...? Thank God... Does this mean that by extinguishing the "phantom fire" and opening the emergency door, I gave the ghosts a chance to return to heaven...? Did I save those ghosts? Now that she thought about it, she hadn't really felt fear from the figures as they exited through the emergency door - it had been happiness and human warmth that she had sensed.
But for there still to be so many ghosts who had died a whole decade earlier... The more resentment a ghost held, the harder it was for them to be at peace - Reika had said that, too. The ghosts must have been angered at having burned to death here and repeated the same ghostly phenomenon as if re-enacting the fire, trapped inside the shop.
I... did a good thing for the ghosts, right? Airi said to herself with a smile, looking down at the ground, covered with white extinguisher. What should she do about that? She really used an extinguisher on a "phantom fire", and now filthy, reddish black water had seeped out of the scattered rubbish bags and made it all the way to her feet.
Airi walked backwards, avoiding the water. Something knocked against her right calf. Turning around, she looked down. One of the bags had rolled over. Taking a closer look, she realised that apparently the elastic band holding it shut had come off, as it sat gaping up at the ceiling and she could see inside. Something reddish brown... and a familiar face. A cute face, that made her popular with the guys... Inside the rubbish bag, she could see Nao's bloody face. Her eyes and mouth were still wide open, and she didn't move a muscle. Nao...? What happened to Nao...? Her head swam.
Airi peered timidly into the bag. It suddenly fell over, and Nao's head rolled out onto the floor. There was nothing below the neck. The freshly-severed head rolled to a stop at Airi's feet, and she collapsed onto her backside in terror. On the verge of tears and still seated on the floor, Airi desperately tried to scramble away.
Something else struck Airi. She turned around, and saw that another bag had rolled behind her. Something covered in blood had been stuffed inside. A man's face lay there, eyes and mouth wide and unmoving, staring up at the ceiling as if with his head thrown back.
Airi didn't even have the strength left to scream, simply staring at the face in astonishment. She'd seen him somewhere before... Right, Ikumi's ex-boyfriend... She'd seen him before, in Ikumi's Print Club book... He was the one who'd told Ikumi about this place. Now that she thought about it, Ikumi had said that rather than breaking up with him, the relationship had ended spontaneously when she hadn't been able to get hold of him...
Hadn't been able to get hold of him!? Airi looked at each of the scattered rubbish bags that surrounded her. Straining her eyes at them close by, she could see that mixed in with the reddish brown meat scraps were human body parts such as arms and legs. Her entire body trembled. What if the thing Ikumi had been eating right before running out of the number seven room... hadn't been roast chicken!?
Airi heard the emergency door shut behind her. Turning around, she saw that the walls and ceiling around the closed door were suddenly burned black, with the vivid forms of people appearing here and there. No...
A tepid breeze brushed against her cheek, and on it she could smell the stench of rotten flesh burning. She looked back ahead, and saw the owner standing before her. As he brought his face closer to Airi's she could see that it was grotesquely burned into keloids. The walls and ceiling in the passage behind him were horribly burned, as if a fire had only just occurred, and the floor was blanketed with tens of corpses burnt black and turned to ash.
The owner looked at Airi and smirked, then opened his pus-covered lips. "...I kept... telling you... not to smooooke..."
His voice was oppressive, almost like a moan from the depths of the earth, and seemed to tremble with some kind of rage and madness. The stronger their grudge, the harder it was for ghosts to be at peace...
Large tears spilled from Airi's eyes, and she shook her head violently from side to side as if in rejection of everything that she saw.
Airi turned her back to the owner and rushed desperately at the half-open emergency door.
"Somebody! Help me!"
She pounded fiercely on the door and turned the knob, but it refused to budge, as if rusted. Smoke began to fill the air around her. Her face contorted at the inescapable suffocation. As Airi let out her dying scream, all of the lights in the passage went out as one, enveloping the area in darkness.