Excerpt: 'Out' Natsuo Kirino's Out focuses four plucky women who support each other during times of crisis. A formulaic premise? Sure, if these were Manhattanites pining over shoes rather than assembly-line workers dealing with death and dismemberment.

Excerpt: 'Out'

By Natsuo Kirino
Hardcover, 360 pages
Kodansha International
List Price: $22.95

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Kuniko took a deep breath the moment she had escaped Masako's house. The weather was showing signs of improvement, and there were even patches of blue sky here and there. The air was still damp, but it felt clean and fresh and it seemed to revive her a little. What spoiled it all, though, was this black bag she had with her, containing fifteen more bags full of the most horrifying stuff. At the thought, she gagged, her face twisting in a scowl. Even the air in her lungs which had seemed so clean a minute ago now felt warm and sickening.

She set the bag on the ground and fumbled with the lock of the trunk of the Golf. On opening it, she got a whiff of gasoline mixed with dust, and again thought she might vomit. But what she had to put in there was much worse, much more sickening. As she was scraping aside a layer of tools and umbrellas and shoes to make room for the bag, she realized she still couldn't fully believe what she'd just done. The unnerving feel of the pink lumps of flesh through her rubber gloves, the shards of white bone, the slabs of pale skin with tufts of hair--as the details came back to her, Kuniko again swore off meat forever.

She had played along with Masako and promised to be careful disposing of the bags, but now that she was standing here with them, she just wanted to unload them as soon as she could. In fact, she didn't even want to put this creepy stuff in her precious car for even a moment. It was probably already rotting and would start to stink up everything. The smell would get into her soft leather seats, and no amount of air freshener would cover it up. She'd be haunted by it forever. By this point she had worked herself into a state and stood looking around Masako's neighborhood for a place where she could simply dump the whole mess.

A short distance away, she could see a small cluster of houses that had just been built in the corner of one of the fields. Next to it, Kuniko noticed a concrete wall surrounding a trash collection site. Turning first to make sure that Masako wasn't watching, she headed in that direction, lugging the heavy black bag. She knew that if it were found here, it might be traced to Masako, but at this point she didn't care. They'd forced her into it, anyway, hadn't they? She tossed the bag into the neatly swept enclosure. The outer bag tore slightly as it landed, revealing one of the inner bags; but, telling herself she didn't care, Kuniko turned and ran.

"Wait!" a voice called out, and she stopped cold. An elderly man in work clothes stood in front of the place, an angry look on his tanned face. "You don't live around here, do you?"

"No...," Kuniko stammered.

"You can't leave this here," the man said, picking up the bag and shoving it at her. "People like you are always coming around, so I keep an eye out from over there," he said, nodding triumphantly toward the field.

"I'm very sorry," said Kuniko, who tended to wilt under criticism. She took the bag and fled back to her car, where she tossed it in the trunk without a second thought and started the engine. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she could see that the old man was still watching her. "Stupid old coot," she said, putting the car in gear. "Drop dead!" She drove around aimlessly for a while, realizing at last that it was going to be difficult to find a place to drop off the stuff without being noticed. She wondered gloomily why she had ever allowed herself to get mixed up in this. And why fifteen bags? They weighed so much she was likely to be noticed just lugging them around. But still, what she wanted most was just to be shot of them. Her eyes darted from side to side as she clutched the steering wheel, brooding. She was so distracted that several times she failed to notice when the red light had changed, and the car behind her gave a rude honk.

Passing again through a small city-run housing complex that she'd seen earlier in the day, she noticed a group of young mothers watching their children playing in a rundown park. She saw one of them toss the wrapper from a snack cake into a trash can next to a bench, and an idea suddenly popped into Kuniko's head: she would get rid of the bags in a park. There were always trash cans in parks, and not too many people around to notice. That was it! A park, preferably a big one with several unguarded entrances. Delighted with her idea, Kuniko felt almost cheerful. She drove along, humming to herself.

She had once come to Koganei Park with her friends from the factory to see the cherry blossom. Hadn't she heard somewhere that it was the largest park in Tokyo? Surely, if she left this godawful garbage here, no one would find it. She drove around to the back of the park and stopped on the bank of the Shakujii River. No one was about on a weekday afternoon. Remembering the gloves Masako had given her, she put them on before taking the black bag out of the trunk. She entered the park through a back gate and carried the bag into a thick stand of tall trees that had been left to grow wild. The new foliage had a pungent smell. Leaving the path, she walked for a while though the dense, wet weeds. She soon noticed that her shoes were soaked and her hands were beginning to sweat inside the gloves. Panting from the weight of the bag, she looked around for a place to leave things without arousing suspicion, but as far as she could see, there were no trash cans here deep in the woods.

Unexpectedly, the trees thinned and she was standing on the edge of a large, open area. Since it had just stopped raining, there was almost no one in sightÑa different place entirely from the crowded park she remembered from cherry blossom time. She took a quick inventory: two young men playing catch, a man taking a leisurely walk, a couple in bathing suits necking on a plastic tarp, a small cluster of housewives watching their children play, and an older man walking a big black dog. That was it. She wasn't likely to find a better spot, she thought, congratulating herself.

Walking from tree to tree as inconspicuously as she could, she made the rounds of the trash cans in the area. Her first stop was a large, basket-shaped one by the tennis courts. Leaving one bag there, she made her way to another can next to some playground equipment: two more bags. As she passed a group of old people out for a walk, she tried to look as nonchalant as possible, staring off into the woods. In all, she spent nearly an hour wandering the park in search of places where she could leave the bags without anyone noticing.

At last she was done, and along with feeling relieved Kuniko realized she was hungry, not having eaten anything since breakfast, so she went to look for a refreshment stand. When one came into view, she peeled off her gloves, stuffed them and the now empty black bag into her purse, and jogged up to the counter, where she bought herself a hotdog and a Coke. She then sat down on a long bench to enjoy them. Once she'd finished, she walked over to a garbage can to throw away the paper plate and cup; but, glancing inside it, she noticed a mass of flies gathered on a pile of noodles. If the bags ripped where she left them, she thought, the flies would come like this. The bits of flesh would rot, the flies would come, and then maggots. ... Her mouth filled with a sour taste and, not for the first time that day, she felt like throwing up. She needed to get home and rest as soon as possible. Lighting a menthol cigarette, she set off across the wet grass.