PART ONE: DEEP FREEZE
The cicadas shrilled in the scorching sunshine. REEEEE REEEE REEEEE. I hate that sound. It sounds like heat and exhaustion.
It was the hottest day of summer, one of those days when the air hangs heavy and thick and just touching ANYTHING feels like your skin is being seared, and I’d just found a cool, soothing place to hide from the relentless oven heat when Yumi found me.
At the back of the music room there’s a little closet, where they keep stands and extra chairs and stuff for concerts. It’s a long narrow space, with just one window high up at the end opposite the door. I hate music class, so I always sit at the back, which I guess is why Master Hayashi asked me to fetch a stand for her that day.
I got up and went into the closet, and just about fell over. It was like walking into an icebox, it was so cool and lovely in there. The one little window faced north, against the slope of the hill, so almost no sunshine came in, and I guess the door had been closed a long time, so the heat all through the rest of the school hadn’t gotten in yet.
I handed over the music stand, and waited until the lunch bell rang. I just hung around at the back of the room until everyone had left, and slipped back into my new favourite place.
I used some old banners to wide up the dust, and lay down on the floor with my eyes closed, happier than I’d been in weeks.
And right at that moment, Yumi found me. She was licking a fast-melting ice cream cone.
“Hi, Hoshi. I need you to come yell at some rocks for me.”
Yumi Sasori is my best friend, in case you’re new to these stories. She’s a year older than me, and she’s pretty tall, so we look kind of funny together. If you met Yumi in the hall, you’d assume she has lots of friends, because, you know, she’s always smiling and saying hi to everyone, but actually, most people in the school are just plain scared of her.
Scratch that; EVERYONE in the school is just plain scared of her. Being scared of Yumi is just good common sense. See, Yumi talks to ghosts. Which is less special than it might sound, if you don’t live here in the great holy city of Kimurachi Temple with us, where there are way more ghosts than living people, but even around here, Yumi is really creepy. She loves the ghosts. And the spirits, and the demons and all the things that nobody else can see. Even Master Inoue, who teaches Witchcraft and Ancestor Appeasement, is afraid of Yumi.
She’s a scary, ruthless, kind of bloodthirsty teenage sorceress.
But honestly, she’s really nice.
Anyway, I guess it says everything you need to know that it never occurred to me to ask Yumi how she found me, any more than it occurred to her to ask what I was doing, lying on the floor in a dark closet.
In her case, it’s just that the things living people do never really seem to interest her. In my case, I’ve learned that having Yumi answer questions like that only makes it hard for me to sleep at night.
So I didn’t ask, I just jumped to my feet. To tell the truth, the floor had actually been getting colder than was entirely comfortable. Which was awesome. I followed Yumi out of sweet, sweet coolness of the closet and across the music room and into the sweltering crush of the lunchtime halls. Upper Catacombs Academy is one of the smaller schools in Kimurachi Temple, but there’s still hundreds of kids here, so at lunch the hallways were like crowded, locker-lined furnaces.
Still, everyone made way for Yumi. Most people looked away as she neared, avoiding eye contact as though she could turn them to stone with a glance. Not that Yumi seemed to notice. She called out to few folks she recognized, most of whom made non-commital responses. Except for Takufumi, a new kid in Yumi’s class, who gave her a big smile as she passed, which of course she returned, beaming wide and without any idea she had ice cream dripping off her chin. Takufumi stared. New boys always made eyes at Yumi. After somebody told him what happened to the last boy she kissed, Takufumi would be trying to avoid her gaze just like everyone else.
We went up to the second floor where the heat got even worse and Yumi led me across to the science lab. There was nobody else in the room. All the stools were pushed in to the counters where we did our experiments. The big wall full of windows looked down onto the sports field, where kids were hanging about in little groups, clustering together in the few shady spots. Past the field the hillside rose up, terraced with narrow streets and tile roofs, houses and shops and the millions of shrines that fill our city of Kimurachi Temple, all of them glassy and wobbly through the haze of the broiling air.
Yumi munched the last of her ice cream cone.
“Where’d you get that, anyway?”
“The cold room downstairs had a couple left. Yum!”
She led us to the back of the room and yanked open a drawer. She pointed angrily at the various mineral samples rattling around inside.
“What’s wrong with these rocks, Hoshi? Make them talk to me!”
I looked at Yumi. I looked at the rocks. There were lots of them. Some just ordinary rocks, some weird crystals and fossils and stuff. Master Kinotsuka was always coming into class with a new mineral curiousity he’d acquired from somewhere. He loved showing off new rocks to us.
Still, it was a drawer full of rocks.
I considered my approach. Chose my tactics carefully. Working with Yumi always takes a little patience. She’s never quite understood that the rest of us don’t experience the world the way she does.
“Yumi, what makes you think these rocks will listen to me?”
“Remember how you got those boulders to move when we had to get out of that burning crypt?”*
“Yumi, that’s because I was possessed by the earthquake god you accidentally summouned.”
“Oh. I forgot about that. Maybe I should summoun the earthquake god again.”
“Maybe not. Before we try that, can you tell me WHY you want to talk to these rocks?”
“Well, I want to know what happened to Master Kinotsuka.”
“Why, what happened to Master Kinotsuka?”
“I don’t know.”
I told you, dealing with Yumi takes some patience.
“Yumi, why do you think something happened to Master Kinotsuka?”
“Well, he never showed up for class this morning. So I asked the rocks, and these dumb rocks won’t talk to me!”
“Did you ask one of the grown-ups what happened to him?”
“Grown-ups never know anything.”
I had to concede the point.
Before our conversation could go any farther, a grown-up came in. Master Hayashi, the music teacher.
“Now, now, little ones. Children aren’t supposed to be in the science lab without a grown-up to watch over them.”
“The rocks aren’t talking.”
Master Hayashi just smiled.
“Isn’t that interesting? What a precious child you are. Go on outside now.”
Grown-ups. They never know anything, right?
Yumi and I left the science lab and went downstairs, where it was at least a little cooler. The halls were still crowded, kids yelling and pushing. I saw the service door that led down to the basement was a little bit ajar and wondered if the basement wouldn’t be even cooler than that closet had been, but Yumi marched straight out the front doors of the school.
And if it was warm inside, wow it was hot outside. That sort of heat where you’re instantly exhausted and everything you wear is immediately damp. Yuck. I would have sat down except the pavement radiated like a hot stove.
“You know, “ I said as Yumi and I plunked down the steps to the street in front of the school, “Master Kinotsuka lives just around the corner. Why don’t we go knock on his door and see if he’s okay?”
Yumi agreed so we crossed the street to walk in the shade of the big magnolias along the sidewalk. Cicadas still chirred overhead, REEEEE REEEEE REEEE. Master Kinotsuka’s house was just a little bungalow with a cheerful sort of bright red door. I knocked. Yumi crossed her arms and scowled.
“What’s with everyone today?”
I didn’t explore that any further. Nobody came to the door, so I pushed it open a little to call out.
Cool air came wafting out, beautiful and lovely. I practically moaned as sweat cooled on my face.
“Master Kinotsuka? Are you in there?”
Yumi pushed past me and stormed into the house.
“What’s going on? Why won’t anyone talk to me?”
Then she stopped. I stepped inside, past a pile of shoes and letters and paper. The house was just a couple of rooms, a front parlour with carefully arranged bookshelves, and an archway through to a kitchen in the back. A door led to what I assumed was a bedroom, but Yumi was staring through the archway into the kitchen.
“Well, now we know why Master Kinotsuka didn’t come to class today.”
I thought I knew what I was going to see. I mean, I assumed Master Kinotsuka was dead. That’s what Yumi and I usually find when we go looking for someone.
But I didn’t expect to find a teacher sitting at his kitchen table with his breakfast in front of him, both him and the breakfast frozen completely solid in a single huge block of ice. On the hottest day of the year.
Outside, the cicadas were still going REEEE REEEE REEEEE.
*Read “Yumi Sasori and the Case of the Burning Crypt: A Yumi Sasori Mystery”