The cobwebs looked like lace—extravagant swaths of lace, ruffled in parts, threadbare in others, strewn decadently between the rafters as if in preparation for a party. A few flies struggled within the white mesh. Others only curled into themselves.
Amanda thought of another morning long ago, when she had spent hours hidden under cobwebs, wishing simultaneously to remain concealed and to be found. She’d been eight, counting silently in her head, one alligator two alligator three alligator, trying to still her thudding heart as she crouched in a forgotten armoire in her grandmother’s attic, listening to her cousins search the house below her. As the hours passed she’d wondered at how victory could deaden into solitude, then panic, and then into something altogether peaceful before the others finally burst in upon her.
“Morning, sleepyhead.” Still encased in his sleeping bag, Luke turned toward her. He stretched his long, tanned arms over his head. “We made it.”
Amanda grinned at her husband. “We’re here. Doesn’t mean we made it. We don’t even know if there’s running water. So we have, what, forty-eight hours to figure out if we can survive this place?”
“Plenty of water in our canteens, silly. Look outside. It’s gorgeous. Let’s go explore the town.”
He scooted over. Bright June sun filtered in through the dusty windows. She flinched as Luke brushed a strand of hair off her cheek.
“Hey. How do you feel this morning?”
Her body ached with fatigue, but Amanda made herself smile. She should be grateful. They’d made it this far. She felt stronger than she had in years. And, not least, they were back in Japan again.
“I’m okay. Just a bit tired. Let’s go see what it’s like out there.”
They’d arrived the previous night under a starless sky, following the circuitous route Luke had outlined in blue sharpie on a GoogleMap print-out. The town wasn’t far from their campsite, but the darkness they used as cover slowed them down. Overly cautious, they’d ducked and waited out each car that flashed by on the highway. The respiratory masks Luke insisted they wear made it hard to breathe, and though he carried both their packs, Amanda had asked to rest almost every hour.
Eventually she spotted road signs pointing to Okuma, a small town on Japan’s eastern coast, far enough from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors that they could pretend they were safe from lingering radioactivity, but close enough that it could never be rehabilitated. No chance of bumping into returning evacuees here. Amanda had read somewhere that the government had plans to raze the whole area, though no date had been set. Luke said they’d only stay long enough to finish his project. She had her own ideas, but she knew better than to argue with him.
She had first heard about the nuclear disaster six years ago, soon after they’d moved back to Los Angeles. She’d found a job teaching Japanese at a private elementary school, and Luke was making the rounds with his screenplay. They thought they’d make it big—buy one of those ocean-front perches in Malibu with money from Luke’s movie. They would eat organic vegetables and grain bowls and surf in the Pacific before work. They were so sure they’d make it. They had no idea.
Breast cancer doesn’t often strike thirty-four-year-olds, but—as one doctor joked—she was one of the lucky ones. She had thought cancer meant certain death, hadn’t been prepared for the uncertainty, the radiation, the endless weeks of chemo with her parents hurling platitudes into the empty air. Amanda felt an intense disappointment. It seemed that L.A. could offer only a cycle of hope and defeat. Three days ago she’d stepped off the plane at Narita airport with renewed energy. She was back in the country that hadn’t failed her.
Crossing into the red zone had been almost too easy. No security guards, no patrols, not even a chain-link fence. Nature itself put up more resistance. Thick vegetation bullied the night, choking entire stretches of the road. Creepers strangled abandoned vehicles. Shoulder-high grass formed impenetrable walls. Luke handed her his flashlight and dove through the green tangle as if into a wave, blocking the weeds with his body so she could cross behind him.
It all smelled so fertile, a green sweetness that teetered at the edge of rot. Amanda pictured rogue cells devouring her organs. She leaned over and threw up into the weeds.
Luke turned. “You okay?”
She nodded and pushed him forward. Even though Luke had seen her through two years of chemo, holding her hair back when she vomited, she still felt exposed after being sick. She didn’t like witnesses.
Toward dawn they’d finally broken through the green border that surrounded the town. The buildings glowed in the early light. Amanda leaned against a concrete telephone pole to catch her breath. The morning was still and humid. Soon the rainy season would begin. Large insects buzzed against her shins. Vines encircled telephone poles, cars, and vending machines, their tendrils trailing out of open windows like the tentacles of some aquatic creature. Low buildings and residential houses appeared to float upon a grid of green canals. Amanda wiped the sweat from between her breasts. She’d expected a wasteland, an eastern Chernobyl. Instead, she’d found Eden.
The rich scent she’d detected during the hike had sharpened, clarified: rotten flesh, ripening fruit, and underneath it all, something metallic and familiar.
“Holy shit,” Luke muttered.
The sidewalk swelled and dipped. Crumpled bikes lay on their sides like creatures felled in the night. Amanda stared at a small pink bike in front of her, wondering about the little girl who’d left it there. Had she ever gotten a new bike? Six years later, did she now understand the enormity of her loss? Fifteen Thousand Dead, a headline had read. Were the little girl’s bones buried somewhere beneath the sea just outside of town? Amanda wanted to lie down, wrap her arms around the chassis, and close her eyes. Instead, she prodded Luke. “Let’s find a place to set up.”
Luke nodded. He wasn’t a thinker. He relished being the doer, the one who said Let’s just get going already. After nineteen years together, Amanda still wondered how two people could draw such different conclusions from the same set of facts. In Luke’s world, things always worked out. For him at least.
After college they’d spent two years backpacking through Asia with nothing but a tattered Lonely Planet—borrowed forever from the college library—to guide them. They’d strolled down crowded sidewalks in Hong Kong, hiked through Malaysian jungles, befriended college kids speaking broken English at beachside bars in Goa. At dusk they’d knock on doors and ask for a spare room or bed, or even just a corner in which to roll out their mats. They were always welcomed. Food was shared. If there was hot water, they were invited to bathe first. This was Luke’s magic. Amanda was alternately scared and astounded by his ability to conjure safe havens from thin air, the tightrope he walked between risk and reward. Once she understood the constancy of his luck, she hitched herself to his star.
Nevertheless, she furtively prepared for the worst by scribbling the numbers of American embassies in her journal and sewing dollars into the bottom of her pack. She was the just in case of their pair, but she kept this from him. She wanted to live up to the impression he’d somehow formed of her as a carefree girl, as golden as he was. And she worried, superstitiously, that his magic would disappear if she interfered. She didn’t want to ruin his childish trust, or the way the world opened for him like a flower just because he expected it to.
“Earth to Mandy! Check this out.”
Amanda snapped out of her reverie. Luke had dropped their packs next to a low wall. The curved wooden eaves of a Japanese-style house peeked out above the wall’s blue ceramic tiles. They pushed through the front gate and stepped into a mossy garden.
Amanda had always wanted to live in a traditional Japanese house: tatami mats, sliding shoji screens, dwarf maples—stereotypes, sure, but it was fun to dream. So she had been disappointed when they’d finally decided to settle down in Tokyo and found a cramped apartment indistinguishable from any other cheap rental they could have found in L.A., except for the bathroom, which was molded from a single piece of white plastic that seemed to be designed more for its own eventual recycling than for anyone, let alone huge gaijin like them, to use. Biking to work each morning, she would glance beyond the intricate fretwork of old mansions and imagine the graceful lives within. This could be her chance to fulfill that dream.
“What do you think? Not bad, eh?” Luke’s boyish grin flashed at her from an upstairs window. “Wasn’t even locked. Whoever lived here left in a hurry. There’s dust everywhere, but I don’t care. I need a nap.” He mimed falling, swinging his arms as he disappeared from sight. “Man. Am. I. Exhausted!”
Amanda smiled. They were home.
Luke’s luck extended to his sleep. He began snoring soon after he had unrolled his sleeping bag on the tatami in an upstairs bedroom and crawled in, not even bothering to take off his hiking boots.
Amanda’s own shoes were carefully stowed in an alcove. She stared up at the rafters and chewed her last stick of gum, wishing she’d insisted on unpacking and brushing her teeth first. She hated sleeping with dirty teeth. But after three nights of camping in dark fields to avoid being found, a roof and tatami felt downright luxurious. Her body pleaded for sleep. Her mind refused.
Numbers ran through her head as she stared up at the cobwebs: Two years of cancer with no health insurance. Three maxed-out credit cards. Fifteen missed calls from the collections agency. A doctor’s appointment next week that she would not attend, at which she would hear that the chemo had failed, and that tumors had invaded her lymph nodes. She didn’t need a doctor to tell her that. She could feel them inside her neck now, pulsing to the beat of her heart.
Shadows rolled through the room as morning turned to afternoon, Luke insensate beside her. The house shuddered periodically in the summer breeze, as if it too were contemplating her fate. A translucent spider dropped toward her on its thin filament. It dangled just above her nose, staring down. Amanda stared back. This spider looked off—different somehow. She squinted. Instead of the usual eight legs, this creature had a cluster of appendages growing out of its abdomen, an orb with a mass of articulated legs like the spines of a sea urchin. A child’s idea of a monster, the size of a bead. Amanda pursed her lips and blew, making the critter swing on its thread like a miniature trapeze artist. When it righted itself and continued dropping toward her, she reached up and crushed it between her fingers.
So she was glad when Luke finally stirred, and tried on a smile to prepare herself for his optimism. She knew he’d be in a great mood—the first three hours after he woke were always Luke’s best. He would not ask how well she slept, and he would be impatient to go outside and explore. Years of waking up together meant she could predict, almost to the word, how their conversation would go. Sometimes she was glad for the familiarity; other times she wanted to tear up the script—but she always lost the nerve.
Luke reached around her waist and nuzzled her neck as she rolled up her sleeping bag and placed it in the alcove. “You smell good.”
“Really. Neither of us has showered since L.A.”
“So? I like it.” He tucked his finger under her waistband. “Maybe exploration can wait.”
Amanda relaxed into Luke. His body felt safe, warm. But then, under the pressure of his hand, a pain. She stiffened. Was it another tumor? Which organ was it? She turned away. “I feel gross. Let me just find my toothbrush.”
“You’re fine. C’mon. Plenty of time to play house later. Let’s go check out the town.”
Amanda shook her head, letting her dark hair fall across her face. The nurses had told her countless times how lucky she was that the chemo hadn’t taken her hair. She’d wanted to say: Who are you to tell me about luck? Why should I appreciate my bad luck only because it’s not the worst you’ve seen?
“I’m coming. I just want to get cleaned up first.”
“You look great. Besides, there’s no one out there to see you.”
“It’s not about how I look, Luke. I just feel dirty. I want to wash my face, brush my teeth.”
He threw up his arms. “We’re probably the first civilians to make it into the nuclear exclusion zone, and you want to brush your teeth?”
“We have lots of time. Just let me unpack. Maybe get changed.”
Luke walked over to the window, wiped it with a corner of his shirt, and stared out through the milky swirl. “Town’s bigger than I expected. No sign of anyone else. Doesn’t look like there’s been any looting.”
“People are scared of radiation.”
“Uh, duh. Reminds me, though, we need the gear.”
Kneeling down, Luke rifled through his pack, tossing clothes helter-skelter onto the floor. Amanda picked them up as he threw them and folded everything into a neat stack. She placed the stack into the alcove on top of her rolled-up sleeping bag.
“Found it.” He held up a pocket Geiger counter the size of his palm, then grabbed his camera. “Let’s go.”
“Shouldn’t we wear the masks?”
“Right. Yeah, we’d better.” He picked up the masks he’d dropped near the doorway. “C’mon already. Burning daylight here.”
Amanda hesitated. Three weeks ago she’d come up with the idea of Fukushima. It had seemed like the perfect solution. Luke loved a good adventure. Being the first to write about the evacuated zone, then selling the manuscript and rescuing them from their creditors, appealed to the hero in him. Plus, he owed her. Nonetheless, she’d done all the work—researching ways to minimize radiation exposure, digging out their camping gear from the basement of their rental, and booking the cheapest flight from L.A., a red-eye on an Eastern European airline connecting through Kamchatka, during which Slavic stewardesses had served herring on rye with cheerful red jelly for breakfast. But now that they were here, she didn’t want to go outside.
Amanda swiped the dust on a ledge, cornering it into a small neat pile. She wanted to hide within these papered walls, climb back into her sleeping bag, and do nothing but breathe in, out, in, on repeat until today ended and tomorrow began. Maybe then she could face reality.
Luke stared at her. “You feeling okay? Want to stay back and rest?”
“Seriously. Why don’t you lie down, and I’ll go and find us some food.”
The thought of staying behind by herself was even more unbearable than the thought of going outside. “No. I’m fine. Where are our canteens? I’ll bring my toothpaste.”
“You and your teeth.” Luke laughed. “I’ll find us some water, okay?” He stepped over and took her face in his hands. “Hey. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
Amanda didn’t believe him, but she smiled. “Okay.”
“Now let’s get going.” He held up his camera. “I want to get some shots in while the light is still good. Get started on the project. That’s why we’re here, right?”
Right. Amanda followed Luke out of the room. When they first started dating, she’d been startled by the ease with which Luke could disregard the bits of the world he didn’t like, his knack for seeing only what he chose to see. Luke’s self-assurance had seemed heroic back then. Amanda still wished she had his confidence, though lately she’d begun wondering about the line between certainty and delusion. They were in Fukushima so he could write about the disaster, yes, but they were also here because she’d forced his hand.
They filed silently into the hallway and down the stairs. Amanda felt shy. She thought about the previous residents, their possessions still neatly stowed in the cabinets and closets of the house. She could feel their presence. Their dust hung in the still air.
The abandoned house was remarkably tidy, with the exception of the kitchen. Here moldy plates littered the counters, as if someone with bad aim had been playing frisbee with the dishes. The air smelled thick. Amanda gagged and walked faster, knowing she would spend the night cleaning.
A back door led to the rear garden, where stunted maples sprouted acid-green leaves. A miniature stream wound through mossed paving stones. Amanda bent and peered into its black water. Where was the source? They followed the stream to the side garden, where it fed into a small koi pond. This side of the house appeared to be protected from the wind; pyramids of yellow dust bedecked each window ledge, bright against the dark trim.
Luke knelt by the pond with his gadget. Circling behind him, Amanda removed her mask, dipped her finger into a pile of dust, and put it on her tongue. Bitter acridity, followed by a sweet-sour note. Almost tropical. She dipped and tasted again.
“What are you doing?”
Luke’s eyes, popped wide with accusation, irritated her. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Why, were you watching me?”
“I saw you eat that dust. That’s disgusting, Mandy. Probably toxic too.”
“Do you know how much toxicity is in my body?” Amanda asked. A rush of anger shot into her chest. She shook her arms.
“No? Let’s talk about this.” A tic began jumping at the base of her throat. Amanda covered it with one hand. “What do you think they’ve been putting into me for the past two years?”
“That was to make you better.”
“And? Did it work?”
“Don’t be crazy,” Luke said. “We did everything the doctors recommended.”
“But it didn’t work.”
“We don’t know for sure. C’mon. Let’s not do this. Anyway, this is what you wanted, right? Fresh start? Let’s just get out there and get moving.” He shook the gadget in his hand. “Oh, and if you’re wondering, the water’s safe. Needs to be boiled before we drink it, but you can brush with it all you want.”
Giving her a smile, he flicked some drops at her, but Amanda shook her head. She didn’t feel like playing. Why had she thought this would be a good idea? Three weeks ago, all she could think of was running away. No more hospitals, no more doctors, no more chemo—it had played on a loop inside her head, and, pushing reason aside, she’d single-mindedly carried out their plans. Now that they were here, she was dazed by the recklessness of the decision. Luke was Luke, but she should have known better. Amanda sank onto the damp ground. “Luke—”
“Fuck!” Luke jumped backward. Then, his eyes still fixed on something in front of him, he grabbed a rock. “Get back in the house,” he whispered.
“What?” Amanda peered over his shoulder.
A small black creature stood frozen at the gate, its citron eyes glowing. Emitting a hoarse meow, it took a small step toward them.
The tiny thing surprised her. Amanda laughed. “What the heck, Luke. It’s just a cat. Here, kitty—”
Luke’s rock hit the frame of the gate, narrowly missing the cat, then bounced back and came to a rest just short of its front paw. The creature froze again.
“Can’t you see?” he hissed. “The tails. It has two tails.”
Amanda squinted. The cat meowed softly and resumed walking toward them, its tail perfectly upright. To the right of it was a shorter, thicker appendage, covered with long, rough fur. It curved down, swishing as if batting a fly.
Backing up with his eyes still trained on the animal, Luke put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t get too close. Whatever it is, might be dangerous. Don’t know what else is wrong with it. Go around to the back.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll take care of it. Make sure it never shows up here again.”
Luke had always been more of dog person, but his reaction to this cat seemed extreme. Then she got it. Luke hated defects. He could never look straight at anyone in a wheelchair; he seemed almost to fear them. The cat’s two tails, almost imperceptible at first glance, really frightened him.
The creature meowed again. Luke raised his arm.
“You go,” she said. She shook him off and stepped around him. “Here, kitty. I think we’ll be friends.”
I began writing this novel after a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. She’d been a model, journalist, author—whip-smart and gorgeous. One of those people it would be hard to be friends with if she wasn’t also goofy, kind, and generous. She was forty-two years old when they found the tumor, with children who were too young to understand death. She understood mortality, of course, but made herself unlearn it so she could fight her diagnosis. Over the next two years, I witnessed my friend journey through denial, resistance, and, finally, acceptance.
My novel is about a woman’s journey toward surrender after her seemingly perfect life is torn from her, and about the choices she makes as she struggles to accept her fate. Through these choices, my protagonist, Amanda, explores her desires and ultimately finds her agency. I set her story in the devastated setting of the Fukushima post-nuclear exclusion zone not only because I’ve always been curious about the lives impacted by this man-made disaster, but also because the setting itself provides an exploration of fate. What remains after massive devastation? How does life go on? In my novel, the setting is desolate but also imbued with a magical realism that highlights the vitality of the world we all live in.
In Fukushima Amanda will set up camp in an abandoned house, make friends with other misfits and outcasts drawn to this abandoned land, find love, and, finally, learn to stand on her own. There is cynicism and desperation, but also levity and laughter. Despite the heaviness of the themes, I believe the final message is one of strength and hope.
Jenny Fan lives in San Francisco, California. Her writing has been published in print and online, in Obra/Artifact, The Columbia East Asian Review, Bottlecap Press, 1888/Center, The New Engagement, and The Laurel Review, among others. Her short story “The Dry Cleaner’s Wife” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find out more about her at jennyfanwrites.com.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019