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I'm seventeen for Christ's sake," Eri was saying. "I'm in the top one percent of academic achievement. I'm highly articulate. I've never put a foot out of line. I'm not a child." She calmed down enough to breathe, still staring out of the car window, probably at the letters R.I.P. sprayed in metre-high black letters on the side of a convenience store. Rain was spraying from the tires in a fine mist and the windscreen wipers were squeaking.

"They're infantilising me. I can't be wrapped in cotton-wool my whole life," Eri continued, as she messed with the ventilation fans on the dashboard.

Miki tried to concentrate on the road. Her irritation was rising. It was bad enough that her parents had sent her to chauffeur Eri back from a party without her harping on about how hard her life was. The road conditions were awful. Heavy drops of rain pelted the windshield faster than the wipers could sweep them away, forcing her to peer through a perpetual blur.

"What am I going to do, move out? I'm on track for University next year and I can't do it without the bank of mum and dad, not with the way tuition fees are now. You're lucky; you've got a sensible job so they treat you like you're an adult even if you're only three years older than me."

"Three and a half years," Miki corrected her. "And it's not a sensible job; it's a boring, stressful one that I've been doing all day already, so I could really do with some peace."

If her tone had been less than deeply affectionate, it was only because her sister seemed determined to alienate her affection through her appalling conceit, self-involvement and relentless flow of valueless conversation.

Eri continued. "Look, I know you've given up on wanting to be an artist, or put it on the back-burner or whatever you want to call it. I can't do that with my music. I have to go to gigs and some of that means being out late. It doesn't mean that I'm being irresponsible. Just because Mum got pregnant when she was seventeen doesn't mean I will."

"Can you stop being such a drama queen," Miki blurted out. "Why do you always have to-?"

The shock of the impact cut her short. It happened without any warning, the accident that changed her life. There was a lesson there; how life tended to blindside you when you thought you knew what your problems were.

There was a shattering noise as a brick lodged in the windshield creating a cobweb of fractures across the glass surface. The steering tugged against her as she slammed on the brakes, and then the feeling of moving through space overtook her. An echoing scream blended into the squeal of the tyres. Eri lifted her knees and covered her face with her arms as Miki struggled to stop. The car flipped, turning itself on its side in the air, and for an eerie moment, it felt like they were hanging weightless. After that came the impact, the tumbling of the car along the road, over and over as if it would never stop. Glass exploded all around her, the metal chassis screeching as it scraped and buckled.

Finally, there was silence.

Lost in the dark mist of her head, she heard running footsteps and yells muffled by the creaking metal of the wreck. Miki struggled to stay conscious, her ears ringing. Blood dripped onto the dashboard. She'd crashed the car. Someone had thrown a brick through the window and she'd crashed the car. The simple facts of what had happened floated on the surface of her mind, like some impossible thought insect on a summer's lake, toes dipped in but never sinking down.

Voices echoed down the tunnel of her perception.

"Get the door open."

"What the hell was she doing?"

"Somebody call an ambulance," an irritated pause, "call a bloody ambulance."

"Stand back."

There was a shattering sound, then the honking of horns, the bustling of a crowd, much closer than before. A ring of unfocused silhouettes faded in and out of her blurred vision. Beneath her legs, she felt the wet ground, the water soaking into her jeans.

Around her, she was dimly aware of life carrying on. The road was full of the tidal thunder of traffic, the vibration of it washed over her skin. Some people had formed a circle around her, while others passed by without a second glance. Legs with carrier bags and cycle wheels flashed in front of her eyes. There was a siren and more voices.

Between the shoulders and leaning faces that surrounded her, she saw somebody holding a handheld video camera. It was a small device, only the size of the person's hands, but she could see the flick out screen and the lens. It was a sad testament of the state of the world when the first response of a passerby at an accident wasn't to try to help the victims, but to stand back and film.

She glared angrily at them, hoping that they'd stop filming her, but there wasn't a face to meet her gaze. The person holding the camera was wearing a kitsune mask; a kind of traditional fox mask that Japanese people used in certain folk traditions but that had been hi-jacked by a younger generation of comic book and cartoon fans. The white face with bold red lines and yellow eyes stared out at her from underneath the hood, and then stepped back into the crowd out of sight.

It was strange that there was so little pain, even as she felt more blood running down the side of her head. The experience was oddly empty; as if it were happening to someone else on a television show she was half-watching. The person in the fox mask had melted away into the crowd before she could manage to say anything.

The blow to her head must have been harder than she thought. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. Without knowing how, she found herself being lifted onto a stretcher. There were little continuity errors. Reality was edited badly, skipping from scene to scene with heavy-handed fades to black.

As she tried to sit up, a firm hand pressed against her shoulder.

"Lie back. We've got you." The woman's voice was maternal and reassuring. Inside the glowing interior of the ambulance, Miki looked up at the paramedic. There was something awful about her face, or perhaps something wrong with Miki's eyes. It was something Miki couldn't understand or put her finger on, and yet she could feel her chest tightening. A pencil thin shaft of light shone in her eyes.

"Try and relax. Can you tell me your name?"

"Miki Tominaga."

Through the backdoors of the ambulance, she saw the crowd looking in at her. Again, she saw the kitsune mask, its yellow eyes staring right at her. It was embarrassing to have all those people staring at her. It made her feel naked and vulnerable. She couldn't even stand up. She was a total mess. And the car; God, her parents would kill her...

"Eri? Where's Eri?" Panic twisted in her gut. She tried to sit up again, but the firm hands were pushing her down, fixing an oxygen mask round her head. "Where's my sister?"

"She's fine. She's in the other ambulance and they're taking good care of her." The paramedic finally managed to secure the oxygen mask in place. "Now try and keep calm. You've suffered a severe trauma to the head. We need to take you to the hospital."

Miki wasn't reassured. The needles and lights were grubby. Her greyed and bloodstained hands were like something out of a Norwegian horror movie.

The face with the kitsune mask had come right to the door of the ambulance now, pushing the camera toward her to get a better shot. The paramedic, who was rifling through a red box full of gauze and bandages, didn't seem to notice the intruder.

Frantically, she tried to call out her sister's name, but the words were trapped inside her head. The drugs kicked in and her world was extinguished like an old television set, first diminishing to a narrow slit of light, and then a point, and then infinite fading grey. It was so much faster than falling asleep, so abrupt that she registered a tiny spark of terror, and then the grey swallowed her up completely. The last things she saw were two yellow eyes.

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