Title:The Girl in the Red Dress, and the Old Woman by the River
Rating: T because depictions of hell.
Summery: Hiroshi has one last chance to save his friends.
The Girl in the Red Dress, and the Old Woman by the River
Hiroshi had the strange sensation that he was falling again. It was like he was somewhere between waking and sleeping. He was groggy, but the blinding white space was unmistakable. He lifted his head up and moved himself into a standing position. That ghost was probably mad at him. “You failed again, Hiroshi,” a voice said. “I thought you were capable, but I guess I was wrong to put my faith in you.” This time, standing before him was a little girl in a red dress. Her long black hair was flowing behind her as she floated delicately in the empty space. If she was standing, it might have gone down to her lower back.
“Where’s the ghost?” Hiroshi asked.
“Ghost?” the little girl asked, cocking her head to the side. After a moment of thought, she smiled. “Oh, that! I got bored of that guise, so I dropped it this time.”
“Guise?” Hiroshi asked.
The little girl smiled wider. “I thought you’d do what I asked if I looked more like Mado and you did!” she squealed, clapping her hands together. “I was totally right about you! She’ll be so happy when I tell her!”
“Who are you?” Hiroshi asked. He felt himself blushing. Hopefully she didn’t notice.
“Oh right! I don’t want to be rude! My name’s Sachiko Shinozaki!” she said with a bow.
“Shinozaki?” Hiroshi thought for a moment. “Are you related to a girl named Ayumi, by chance?”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Yeah! She’s my cousin! How do you know Ayu?”
“She’s our class rep at school. Anyway, Shinozaki.”
“Sachi is fine,” she cut in. “Mado and Ayu call me Sachi all the time.”
“Sachi,” Hiroshi corrected. “How did… you end up in this place?”
The little girl smiled smugly. “I made it, smarty pants! So I can come and go whenever I want!”
Hiroshi’s mouth hung open. “You made this place?”
“Yeah! Isn’t that cool? My family is spiritually strong. We can manipulate spaces if our emotions are strong enough, and mine are really, really strong!”
“So you’ve been making the monsters? Please stop!”
Sachiko pouted. “No way! Those monsters are your own fault! I just made the space so Mado and Sabi wouldn’t…” she covered her mouth with both her hands.
“Mado and Sabi wouldn’t what?” Hiroshi prompted.
“I’m not telling you!” the little girl said with a stomp of her foot. “It’s a super secret!”
Hiroshi thought for a moment. “So you made this place for them, huh? What about the rest of us?”
Sachiko shrugged. “I guess you guys were all in the surrounding area when I made the space bigger, so you got sucked into the dream too. Though, it is strange that you were all unconscious at the exact same time. What were you all doing, I wonder?”
“I don’t remember.” Hiroshi sighed inwardly. So their physical bodies were still somewhere it seemed. That was good. “Sachi, why did you make this… dream bigger?”
Sachiko smiled. “Because Mado wanted to explore more, of course! Originally, I just made her a little space, but she got bored having the same dream over and over again. So I made it bigger for her!”
“Why would she need you to do that?”
“Because she’s my friend! If I didn’t do something, she would have…” she covered her mouth again.
“She would have what?” Hiroshi asked again.
“I can’t tell you! I pinky promised her I’d never ever tell another soul, not even Ayu!”
Hiroshi bowed his head. “Please, will you give me one more chance to make things right?”
Sachiko sighed. “I can, but since you failed so badly last time, this round is going to be worse. A lot worse.”
Hiroshi grimaced. “I was afraid of that. I have to help everyone.”
Sachiko shook her head. “No, you can’t just help them this time. They have to help themselves first.”
“Sachi, will I be sent back again like last time?”
“Yes, but you’ll be in a different place. You’ll have to face your sin alone.”
Hiroshi drew back. “My sin?”
“You’re a good guy, Hiroshi. I like you, but you still need to own up to your own weakness. Your sin is tied to Mado’s sin, if that helps. If you fail again, I don’t know if I can save you this time. I might not be able to reset the dream at all.”
“What happens then?”
Sachiko shrugged again. “You’ll probably go brain dead, I think. Most people don’t stay in a dream this long, so who knows what will happen if you fail.”
“Thank you, Sachi. I’ll do my best, I promise!” He closed his eyes.
“You’d better! Hiroshi! I hope the next time we meet, it’s not here! Good luck!”
When Hiroshi awoke for the second time, he was in a dark place. He could hear water rushing. He followed the sound to a long and winding river.
“So you’re awake now, are you? It’s about time.”
The voice belonged to a strange old woman. She was small, ugly, with a large nose and wild hair. She walked with a cane that looked to be twice her size.
“Who are you?” Hiroshi asked.
Her eyes narrowed when she looked at him again. “That’s none of your concern. What are you waiting for? Take off your clothes.”
Hiroshi drew back. “What? I-um, is that really…?”
“Yes! It’s part of the judgment process. Hurry up and strip all the way. I don’t have all day, or do I need to hit you with my cane?” By the angry way she looked at him, she probably wasn’t kidding. Hiroshi begrudgingly did as she asked. He was grateful they seemed to be alone. Still, he folded his clothes as he took them off. When he was finished, he tried to cover himself. “What are you being so shy for?” the old woman demanded. “Honestly, It’s not like I haven’t seen a man before.” She looked him over, starting at his back. “Hmm, your skin is free of blemishes. Move your hands, already! I have to check for any kind of sex crime!”
Reluctantly, he moved his hands.
“Hmm, looks like you’re clean,” she picked up his neatly folded clothes and hung them on the branch of a tree. “But your clothes do have a little weight to them. See?”
“Can I have them back now?” Hiroshi asked, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
“Nope! You’ll get them back when your conscious is clean. If you’re really that shy, you’re innocent enough to have a robe. Here. Take this.”
He put the white robe on, feeling much better now that he was covered.
“Looks like you can stay here, though. I’m not going to send you to any of the other judges.”
Hiroshi looked around. Hanging from the low branches of the trees were a hundreds of other sets of clothing. There were some that he recognized, two other boy’s uniforms from his school, a girl’s uniform and four skirts. One brown, one, purple and one grey. The last one was blood red. They hung delicately from the branches and swayed with the wind, yet it looked like the branches would break from the weight.
Please, please be safe, all of you.