“Just tell them the principal’s name is Fujiwara Mototsune, the StuCo president is Sugawara Michizane, and the teacher in charge of second year is Tachiba Hitomi.” Said I.
“And who exactly does that fact appeal to?”
Just when I’d finally given my opinion, the class representative Kaneko tilted his head and groaned. Hey, his question made me want to cock my head myself; what exactly are you expecting from me?
The class rep— who was asking everyone in sight about our school’s merits to include them in the pamphlets to be distributed to the students taking our exams next year—had apprehended me right by the classroom door. Unfortunately for him, our school… let me rephrase that, our town itself was out in the sticks without any distinguishing features. Those bygone-era names of our school officials I had to suspect their parents had given as a joke were honestly all I could think of. I was answering with all my might there.
“Well apart from that… the fact that one of our students was butchered the other day…”
“Now that one’s right out,” Kaneko rejected the proposal with a sour face. Perhaps that was a tad imprudent of me.
“In that case, a lax school policy and an open environment; why don’t you just put down something like that.”
I finally settled on a plain response lacking in any intrigue or originality. Kaneko’s bitter smile told me he had heard that one far too many times by now, and he breathed a light sigh.
“Being real here, I’d really like to finish up so I can go to club.”
“Club? Weren’t those prohibited for our own health and safety?”
“The tournament’s coming up, and the captain said to hell with that. We’re training like crazy until midnight– unofficially, of course.”
While Kaneko was bragging like a grade schooler who managed to stay up late, a female student appeared pressed up against his back. Our classmate, Misono Mayu. She pushed him aside to separate him from the doorway and make her exit to the hall.
Kaneko abruptly called out to her back. In contrast to her usual composed aura, Misono-san turned with a glare.
Overpowered by her belligerent attitude, Kaneko made a weak smile and let his eyes wander. While I noticed his sidelong glance pleading for help, I ignored him and stared straight at Misono-san.
“… What?” She asked again. Her expression was filled with doubt.
I must appraise Misono Mayu as considerably cute. No, let me be completely honest, she is beautiful. Wait, let’s do that one more time. I subjectively state she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Point being, she’s terribly desirable. Full marks from me.
Presumably she had dyed her hair once and then got sick and tired of it; there were the poor remnants of brown hair buried in her mid-length black. Her long-sleeves peeking their way out from her blazer boldly challenged the sweltering start of October head-on.
“I’m sorry, I have somewhere I need to be.”
Misono-san always interacted excessively politely with her classmates. She took on a stance that intentionally rejected others. However, that was no wall– it was a safety measure. The impression she gave off was closer to a small animal fearful of human contact.
“I’m sorry for stopping you. If it’s pressing business, go right ahead,” I answered in Kaneko’s stead.
“I see,” Misono-san lightly nodded before making for the stairs with quick yet unsteady steps.
As he gazed at her back, Kaneko released his binding on my shoulder and took a breath.
“Was Misono always that scary?”
“Who knows…? Maybe she’s practicing to give a Halloween fright.”
Truth be told, I was ninety percent convinced I knew the real reason for her attitude. Kaneko tilted his head again. He hadn’t returned it to a vertical position for quite some while now.
“She’s going home strangely early these days…”
He lightly suspected as he turned to the classroom. His detective work lured me into taking a side glance. A large majority of students were still present. There were those putting away their textbooks, those having a friendly chat with their deskmates, various sorts; but considering how Misono-san’s seat was the furthest from the corridor, one might call her speed unnatural.
“Sounds perfectly normal if she’s got pressing matters.”
“Pressing matters every day?”
“Could be. Maybe her mom’s in the hospital or something.”
Though that was a lie.
“And even if you asked her, you’d just get one of those answers you’re tired of hearing.”
Kaneko scratched his head with his index finger to ward off this sudden pang of curiosity. His head finally returned upright.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Though it feels really off to imagine that girl talking about a lax school policy or open environment.”
“No doubt about that.”
Well, that wasn’t completely for certain. There was some room for debate, but I agreed to finish this conversation nice and early.
“Then I’ll be going home.”
“Mn, yeah. See ‘ya tomorrow.”
We parted with a rough wave of the hand and I walked down the corridor. The corridor was bathed in the tepid early afternoon sun, giving way to the formation of stagnated air. My hasty feet sliced through that warm, frozen space. A sidelong glance at the neighboring classroom and then I was darting down the stairs two steps at a time.
I watched Misono-san frantically change out her shoes at the entrance and leave through the gate. I counted to ten before I followed a set distance behind her. It looked like I was going to be playing detective today.
We lived in a wholly unremarkable town in the backwaters, but our name had been broadcast across the country a few times as of late. Albeit, the attention was mostly focused on our police. Two incidents had happened. At least I saw it that way. It was quite possible they were both committed by the same person, so whether one saw them as one incident or two was purely a personal choice.
A murder spree, and a disappearance.
The height of malice that had plagued this city for months. The murders were especially remarkable, as the last time a murder had happened out here was back when the samurai were swinging their swords. Alright, perhaps I exaggerated, but regardless, they happened once every eight years at best.
It all started when a man in his forties was found dead and cut up in the alley by the community center. It was clear he died from a blade tearing out his chest, but to add onto that, his eyes were gouged out, every finger on his left hand cut off, and half of one of his ears was sliced through. This was presumably part of the murderer’s sick entertainment; the media saw this as the work of a mentally deranged person.
Next was a grade school boy about to turn seven. This time, the blade had pierced his face so many times it was unrecognizable. Ever since that incident, the elementary school was having its students commute in groups, and classes now ended at noon for that added precaution. The neighborhood council all got together to patrol in the evenings, and of course, they had the full assistance of the police who knew this demon had to be put to rest. They had so far made little to no progress in preventing these offenses or pinning down the culprit’s identity.
The other incident, the disappearance took place three weeks ago. Siblings, a fourth-grade boy and a second-year girl disappeared late in the day. A warning not to play outside was spread far and wide throughout the city, but it was evidently ineffective. Unlike the previous incidents, their bodies had yet to be found, and rumor had it they might have actually been kidnapped.
This was quite a source of trouble for the police, who didn’t know whether to link this with the murders or not, and according to their weekly publication, they were proceeding their investigation along both possibilities. That very same magazine emphasized the kidnapping portion in particular, even giving it a special feature page, in an attempt to tie it in to an old case.
More than twenty minutes had gone by since I began tailing Misono-san. Unfortunately, this was my first time tailing anyone and it wasn’t like I had any stalking experience, so I must admit was a green newcomer to the business. I was having quite some difficulty grasping the adequate distance to maintain. I found myself regretting ever-so-slightly that I didn’t buy a book to study beforehand.
The distance I did take had me walking so Misono-san’s back looked to be around the size of a dictionary. An empty country road through the rice fields yielded a regrettable lack of cover to conceal myself. I needed the resolve and preparation to dive into an irrigation ditch on the off-chance she turned around.
To my luck, Misono-san continued on her way without any particular mind to her back. Her pace—which she herself might have considered rather brisk— was horridly indeterminate. She would sway left and right despite not showing any other signs of a fever.
We eventually stepped onto paved roads. The houses in sight gradually increased and it felt like we’d finally set foot into human habitation.
Misono-san wiped her forehead and nape with her handkerchief. We were both clad in a considerable heat that would induce sweat even if she was dressed for summer. This did not slow her pace, though she was now tiredly slouching forward. An old man walking his dog greeted her along the way, but he apparently hadn’t entered her narrow field of vision as she completely ignored him. I felt pity for him and lowered my head twice as her proxy. The old man tilted his head and looked puzzled at his dog as if his four-legged friend had the answer.
“I didn’t think it was this far…”
She should consider biking to school at this distance. But I knew Misono-san was incapable of riding a bike. Her sense of balance was crippled, as was her depth perception. A handrail was indispensable whenever she used the stairs. She could never even touch the ball in volleyball; in basketball, passes to her were often received with her face and– forget the rim– her shots never even hit the backboard.
… Let me make one thing very clear. What I’ve just told you isn’t information gleaned from stalking. You might think I’m a complete stalker by now, but this is what you call convergent evolution.
We finally entered the residential district. This was where our country plots of land were sold off to the highest bidding land developers, its most conspicuous feature being the for-sale signs out on each lot. They had been up there a few years now, and I can’t remember any of those signs ever coming down. The project was a clear failure. They should have tried considering exactly who would want to take up residence in these desolate backwaters before greenlighting the construction.
After surpassing the flock of deserted constructs, Misono-san made for the supermarket across the intersection. In the midst of her crossing the signal-less road, her right leg caught her left, and she almost stumbled right over. I felt an urge to jump out and prop her up, but I clenched my fist to endure it.
She proceeded right through the parking lot—still staggering— and entered the store. Perhaps owing to the timeframe, the outside marketplace for flowers and plants had few customers to speak of. The store was definitely off limits. I pretended like I was hesitating over what to buy at a slightly-distant vending machine as I waited for her to finish up.
The students who went missing were from the elementary school in this area. Now, and back then as well. There had been a kidnapping here eight years ago. A thirty-year-old man abducted a boy and a girl in their third year of elementary school, confined them for close to a year, and subjected them to violent and sexual abuse. This more recent case was said to resemble that one that was only resolved with the culprit’s death: rumor had it there was a copycat somewhere in this town. Meaning everyone took it not as a disappearance, but as a resurgence of the Kidnapper Man.
I myself was rather enraged by this blatant form of discrimination. No one seemed to even consider the possibility the kidnapper could be a woman. A woman is of course just as capable of committing a kidnapping for money, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with one of them picking up murder for sport. Good grief, you’re disrespecting women here. How about some of that gender equality?
I contemplated the greater issues plaguing our society as I sipped the lukewarm tea that popped out when I definitely pressed the ‘cold’ button.
It’s commonly known that only women spend a terribly long time shopping, a bias which consequently creates a stigma against men who happen to take a long time themselves. While this was usually something I’d gladly voice a contrary opinion against, now that I was experiencing it first hand, I was beginning to see some truth to these stereotypes.
“… She’s really taking her sweet time.”
I finished my seventh tea, casting the can in the trash. I was gradually beginning to feel sick. My head was hurting like I’d drowned in the pool. I’d been absorbing tea by the vending machine for forty-five minutes by now. When the young man in the restocking truck returned and parked after finishing his route, he sent a dubious look at the unchanging scenery. More specifically, the unmoving suspicious person.
Perhaps he saw me as a kidnapper. I tried offering him a virtuous nod. Perhaps that got him thinking I was the murderer instead.
Another twenty minutes from that heartwarming meeting, after I’d spent an hour-long tea time, Misono-san finally returned with a bag hanging from her left hand. The time and the goods didn’t add up, or so the futility of the tea swaying in my stomach told me. I walked around the vending machine, making sure I didn’t enter her line of vision. The apple sticking out of her bag would fall again and again by the law of universal gravitation. She repeatedly stopped and bent down to pick it up again and again, a car horn blaring her on as she retraced her steps back across the intersection. I mulled over whether I would have run over, or run the other way if she was actually hit as I briskly crossed.
She took a right. She made for the center of this developing residential area– a district where apartment complex upon complex lined the streets, and where this girl lived alone. She ignored her apple next it fell as she stuck close to the dicey light-blue-painted walls of the building and slid into the entrance. I picked up her abandoned apple, confirming she had hopped on the elevator before crossing the entrance’s automatic doors.
If you crossed the hall right by the entranceway, you’d find a yard with a dazzling lawn. There were various shops on the first floor. A CD shop, a book store, and a manga café, going off my prior investigation. Truly solemn and splendid, far too furnished for this middle-of-nowhere town, let alone a student living alone, but that that wasn’t something I was in any position to debate. The important part was that the door didn’t autolock, one of the only country-side features that made it in. I raced up the emergency stairs to the same third floor the elevator had reached.
I opened a water-blue door and popped my face into the third floor passage that offered a view of all the lower floors. Misono-san had already arrived at her residence, room 307, and was sticking her key into the keyhole. She was struggling somewhat, she tried twisting her wrist one way then the other, pulling the key out and putting it back in again. She had placed her bag by her feet in distress. I watched and I thought.
Misono-san hadn’t stopped anywhere apart from the supermarket. Her residence was where it was at. In that case, I very much wanted to intrude, but this was a maintained apartment complex and the door would have a chain at the very least. I didn’t have the tools to undo a chain from outside on hand, and even before that, I hadn’t picked up any lockpicking skills. Playing burglar was asking for too much. It was hard to believe she’d undo the chain and invite just anyone into her room.
… Then there was only one way to go about it. I would need her to do it for me.
It looked like she had finally solved the lock problem. She pulled the key out from the keyhole, wiped her sweat and reached for the knob. This was a good time as any, I encouraged myself, and set forth to where there was no return. I closed in with a jog, carrying myself as naturally as possible.
“Oh, let me hold that for you.”
I picked up her plastic bag and passed through the doorway practically pushing her aside.
“… Huh?” In her moment of surprise, I feigned composure and stepped into her parlor. I arbitrarily peeled off my shoes, raising large footsteps as I made for the living room.
“Hey! What is it with you!?”
While Misono-san tried to stop her sudden intruder, she was completely ignored. I entered the orderly living room. After getting eight-tenths of the way in, I turned and bit down on the apple I’d recovered with no warning.
“It’s a vast and tidy room. But the TV’s got dust piled all over it. Does it just look tidy because there’s nothing here?”
I left my belongings on the table and asked with my normal attitude. I glanced to see she was seething with anger, carefully keeping her distance. Her eyes narrowed to conceal the murderous glint in her black eyes; she had readied a nearby flowerless vase as a weapon. This was clearly not the attitude to welcome a classmate.
“What are you?”
“Couldn’t say what, but I know who. I’m your classmate.”
After I jokingly answered, I rolled my half-eaten apple along the table. The corners of my eyes scanned the rest of the room. A western room with reinforced concrete in one corner, a rouge folding screen firmly shut. Going off the construction, was that one a Japanese room?
“Umm… could you leave? You’re a bother.”
Try as she might to play it cool with a poker face, her eyes darted towards the Japanese-style room every few seconds. I’d be applauding her honesty had I been an elementary school teacher.
“I’ll leave if you want me to. But you’re not going to ask why I’m here?”
“… What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
I turned my body towards the screen. Upon hearing one strong step slam against the floor behind me, I immediately leapt to one side. I grabbed the sofa and surmounted it with a belly roll as I watched Misono-san’s arm thrust into the space where I had been before. Her hands clasped the vase, along with a high-voltage weapon for self-defense.
“You sure are extreme. But unfortunately, you failed. That was your last chance. You really should have used that at the entrance.”
As long as I took distance, I didn’t have to fear whatever sort of weapon she took up with whatever malice. She took me aback with a face close to expressionless. Her pen-shaped stun gun poised at her chest, she shuffled into position. It didn’t seem she would fly at me in a rage.
Of course, I didn’t know anything. What Misono-san was asking me. What was right. What society wanted. What was ethical. What Misono-san liked. How to deal with people. The nutritional content of an apple. I had no way of knowing any of them. Alright, just one of those was a lie.
“Give it up. I’m confident you couldn’t kill me right in this circumstance even if you pulled out a machine gun.” Yes, I do adore my bluffs, thank you very much.
She circled around to the front of the Japanese room. Her very existence was honest to the core, unable to tell a lie, and I had to wonder how she even managed to live like that.
“It must be pretty important. Maybe you treasure the room itself. Or maybe that’s where you store what embodies your status, honor, or wealth. Could it be there’s something there that might prove fatal to you?”
I slid over the surface without bringing up any specifics. Misono-san didn’t show any conspicuous reactions. I couldn’t see the boundary of when I’d corner her into madness, so I decided to put an end to these jokes. It wasn’t as if I had come to bully her today. I certainly wasn’t here to bring her crimes to light.
“It’s been a while.”
I left a beat, licked my lips, and wondered if smiling at a time like this would make me seem any more gentle. I spoke the name like a magician revealing his trick.
The stun gun and vase dropped in unison. Misono-san’s shoulders shook unreliably like a small bullied child. The legs of a baby fawn took her one step towards me. Her pupils repeatedly contracted and expanded to their very limits as the tremors in her shoulders grew far more severe.
“Do you remember me?”
I asked in a kind tone I hadn’t consciously forced. Her legs closed in even further.
… It had been eight years since I’d last heard that nostalgic name.
Misono Mayu’s shoulders reacted in excess. I embraced her bony body to quell them. Her scent and the smell of her sweat dug into my nasal cavity.
She blankly called the name, like she couldn’t believe it herself.
I gave her a comforting pat on the back. That was enough for her to break down completely.
Mayu used her entire body to raise her broken cry. The cold tears that spilled out ran from my neck to my shoulder, leaving my body damp as if I’ve walked a mile through the rain.
She called the name again and again through my embrace of her back. She crumbled down in tears at the end, cowering down by my feet.
She wasn’t just a simple classmate.
We were tormented together.
We were broken together.
We went mad together.
Such an undesirable relationship. For both Misono Mayu and I were victims of the kidnapping incident eight years ago.
Thirty minutes in, the broken vase was cleaned up and the situation had cooled down.
“I’m sorry. I thought I’d pull a little prank.” I apologized.
We were sitting on the sofa and I was unraveling her hair. Mayu was still shedding tears, her cheeks were puffed up, but she still seemed rather cozy in my arms.
“Stupid Mii-kun. You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“I almost had one myself.”
My heart nearly stopped. Rather, if we’d clashed my bones would be crushed and I’d be left a bloody mess.
“Anyhow, I’m confiscating this.”
Dangerous objects should be left out of the reach of children. Mayu showed no reaction as I retrieved her stun gun. It became increasingly apparent she no longer cared.
“Stupid. Moron. Mii-kun, you idiot.”
Her lines had regressed to an infantile stage. The formed of the calm and reserved classmate Misono Mayu had completely faded.
“Why haven’t you said anything until now?”
“I didn’t notice until recently. See, I didn’t know your full name.”
I offered a lie, though that didn’t clear her displeasure.
“You liar. We always used to play together, there’s no way you didn’t know.”
“Oh, interesting deduction. You’re pretty sharp.”
I stroked her head to play it off. It wasn’t that I needed to hide it, I just doubted she’d understand if I told her.
“Mayu, you’ve got a pretty small head. Almost like a…”
Her finger closed in on my lips. She jerkily turned until she was face to face.
“It’s not Mayu. It’s Maa-chan.”
My lips were released… okay.
“Don’t you think it’s a little embarrassing? Being called Maa-chan at your age…?”
“No! No! You have to call me Maa-chan!”
She flailed her limbs in a childish rampage. It would be more accurate to say she had regressed to a childlike state.
“And Mii-kun sounds like what a cat says.” I complained.
“Cat’s are nice! What’s wrong with cats!? Do you have a problem with cats!?”
Of course I do, I would have said in a parallel world where I didn’t know where that would get me.
“Mii-kun is Mii-kun and Maa-chan is Maa-chan! It’s decided! It’s a constant!”
How peculiar. When she desperately pleaded with tears in her eyes, her words somehow carried far greater sincerity and weight. The mood grabbed me and forced me to offer a nod.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Mii-chan’s like the helper of that blue robot, and Maa-kun sounds like the mascot of a baseball team.”
“Yes, yes! You’re a genius, Mii-kun!”
Her face a mess from her smiles and tears, this time Mayu stroked my head. From the very depths of my heart, I somewhat understood I was making a fatal and life-altering mistake, yet I proved incapable of thinking up any other concrete means to get myself out of this situation. In the first place, I couldn’t help but think that using my head here was wrong.
“I, you see, I’ve been waiting a long, looong time. For when Mii-kun, you see, Mii-kun would make his grand entrance call me Maa-chan again.”
“… Now that’s…” Not very encouraging. “… come to think of it, can I have a look at that room?”
My eyes indicated the Japanese-style room in the back.
She readily agreed and hopped off. As I stood, she wrapped her arms around my back and suspended herself from them. It made it a little hard to breathe, but I reluctantly shouldered this young lady of the mountain and made my way. All the while praying I didn’t find anything unexpected. I put my hand on the door and despondently slid it open. The room contained nothing unusual apart from two kidnapped children.
I closed the doors and took a U-turn. My bottom returned to the sofa as I flipped on the TV. A young man and woman were exploring a theme-park in broad daylight on a workday. They rode the Ferris wheel and the boyfriend sniffed his girlfriend’s shoes. Mayu bounced her way onto my lap, so I shifted my breathing to compensate.
“I don’t like soppy sweet dramas.”
Oh look who’s talking here, I grumbled as she snatched the remote from my hand and hit ‘8’. The screen changed to a variety show, and I decided I was better off addressing the elephant in the room before I got too comfortable.
I brushed aside the hair on her forehead as I asked in resignation.
“Did you kidnap those children?”
I received an answer brimming with vigor like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was as if she was urging me to praise her more. What would I do if she actually asked? I’d probably pat her on the head, at least.
“Mii-kun. Hey, Mii-kun. Why don’t you stay here too? Let’s all live together.”
“Please don’t mix your requests with your demands.” I ignored the ‘too’ part.
“So? So? What do you say?”
She clearly wasn’t listening to me. Her eyes were fiercely glimmering to boot. Was her personality at school a complete fabrication? Her little-girl attitude came far too naturally.
“Well let’s see… if I live here, that would mean I’d be living with you…”
As students, we would be expected to stay pure. Though that was a hard demand to meet when those involved were already filthy. My uncle was my guardian for what it was worth, so I’d need his permission first.
“We’ll go to school together, eat our meals together, bathe together and sleep together. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”
“Well I don’t really mind. But money is…”
“I’ll pay for everything, don’t worry!”
She enticed me with the temptations of a gigolo life… well, I didn’t really mind. This arrangement wasn’t going to last for long anyway.
“I’ll ask my uncle today. If he says it’s no good, I guess I’ll run away from home.”
I settled at an elementary-school-level conclusion. The matter was already as good as settled to Mayu as a dreamy light filled her eyes.
“Aaah, if only I’d noticed sooner. We could have been in the same group for the field trip—”
She looked strangely enraptured for all the regret spewing from her mouth. I played along with a terribly downcast look of my own. A complete lie at that.
“Now then, let’s put those pink and sepia tones aside for a moment.”
I flamboyantly shook my head, the bones jarring. The contents of that room were exactly what I’d been expecting. As I thought, there were both a murderer and a kidnapper in this town, and one of them was Misono Mayu. I could solve all the mysteries and proclaim she was the culprit, but what would that accomplish?
No matter how much I’d anticipated it, I still received a greater shock than expected after confronting it myself.
“Normally, you know, living with a member of the opposite sex is supposed to be a little sweeter… and there’s nothing but criminal activity on my mind…”
I felt like holding my head. And then like throwing it away and exchanging it for a new one.
“Nya, nya, what’s wrong? Your face is as pale as death.”
Mayu had recovered from her delusions to poke at my cheek. “Nya” and “Mnn ” she peered into my face with infantile gestures and syllables before clapping her hands in sudden understanding.
“I get it, you’re hungry!”
“Right… if I’m already full of problems, might as well fill myself with something else…”
Now wasn’t the time to laugh out in desperation. The clock on top of the TV’s short hand had gone past five, the long hand was hovering over eight. My uncle and aunt would have finished dinner by now.
“You always did have an appetite, Mii-kun.” She said like a close grandmother. Mayu leapt up from my lap, intruded between the TV and I, touched a hand to her hip and proudly declared.
“So how about I make you a meal!”
The halo of the TV backlight elevating her towards deification. I nearly prostrated myself as her newest adherent.
“What do you want to eat? I can make anything.”
“Then I’ll have whatever you hate.”
My inbred cynicism reacted faster than any other nerve in my body. Her tears she had nearly stopped were now brimming in the corners of her eyes again.
“Joke, it’s just a joke, an Esperanto Joke. I’d happily eat whatever you like. Your happiness is my happiness, they say. Honest.”
My words rung more shallow than those guys picking up chicks by the station. Nevertheless, Mayu’s tears receded like the tide as, “Leave it to me!” she made off in a dash without putting on the slippers that were waiting for her.
A heavy metallic sound had me follow along. Her destination, and this went without saying, was a kitchen. Kept tidy at first glance, not anywhere near that on the second. Her placement of goods was all over the place. Who keeps their kitchen knives with their chopsticks?
There was a red bruise on Mayu’s forehead as she produced an apron from the shelf. She equipped the red apron over her uniform and bashfully stood before me.
“How is it? Does it suit me?”
She sought my opinion with upturned eyes. I couldn’t think of any adequate praise so I just embraced her. Surely that was an adequate display of how I felt.
“Mii-kun, I like you soooo much.”
Her cheeks were flushed when I released her, she directed a bewitching smile I was certain I’d never be able to reciprocate in my life.
“When do you want the ceremony?”
We were suddenly engaged.
“I want a girl first.”
We were now having children. What is this, Hand of the Heavenly Bride? I searched out some topic to put a damper on this sudden escalation. There wasn’t anything in the kitchen, but I did recall an issue I’d placed aside and asked.
“What about dinner for those kids? Are you making it too?”
Mayo parted from my arms and produced two rolls of bread from a bag fastened to the fridge. “This one’s for them,” she explained.
“… That’s no good, you need to feed them a little better.”
“Because. You’re a good cook, so make sure they eat a good meal.”
Hmph, her face inflated. The bread was smooshed in her grip.
“It’s fine, that’s all we ever got. No, we got even less. I’m even giving them all the water they want.”
Her standards were far too low.
“You’re the one who took them in. You need to take at least that much responsibility. We were always in pain from the hunger, weren’t we?”
We were always forced to perform ‘tricks’ to get our feed. Right, feed. The reward our actions earned us back then couldn’t be called food, it was animal feed. Appropriate for mere animals.
Displeased as she was, Mayu reluctantly bobbed her head.
“If Mii-kun says so…”
“I’m not going to make any demands. I’m asking you. I want you to let them eat of your own will. Of course, you can decline this request.”
These lines filled with hypocrisy nearly caused even me—the speaker—to wince back. I knew Mayu couldn’t decline when I put it like that. I got chills from the repulsiveness of my own heart.
“Fine, but… then, then Mii-kun. You have to hear out my request too.”
Her smile bloomed, she must have gotten a flash of inspiration. Of course, it was a request so I could decline, but what would I accomplish exactly if I let logic trample my emotions to that extent? I nodded.
“Hooray! Then wait for me!”
She tossed the crushed bread onto the table and forcefully threw open the fridge. After watching over her a little while, I picked the bread up and left the kitchen. I retrieved my cellphone from the bag I had haphazardly discarded on the living room sofa. I fished through the address book for a familiar number and pressed the call button. It took almost no time at all for my aunt to answer.
I told her I was having dinner with friends today. She must have picked up while munching on that dried squid she loved. The squelching chewing noises made their way across the line as she voiced her understanding and told me to get home at a reasonable time.
I returned the phone to my bag and had a seat on the floor. Closing my eyes, I tried reflecting on Misono Mayu’s past. It all flashed before me in just ten long seconds. I gained absolutely nothing save for a bad taste in my mouth.
Since my business was over, I opened the Japanese room screen door. I ignored the eyes following me, walked to the center of the room and flicked on the drawstring light.
“Well, pleasure to meet you, I guess.”
I tried making the smile of the host on an educational program to elevate my first impression, only to promptly give up. A rancid stench lingered in the now-illuminated six-tatami room. It assailed my mucous membranes with such force I wanted to clench my nose. These two hadn’t showered or washed their clothing since they were taken here, though I soon pinned down the main factor to be the simple toilet set up in one corner. I closed the screen so the smell didn’t leak out. It took quite some effort to feign my composure.
The big brother looked up at me with fearful eyes, while the little sister’s harsh-slanted eyes narrowed even further to glare at me. They shared a common point in that their legs were chained to a pillar, restricting their movements. The minor gashes on both their ankles and the pillar indicated previous attempts to escape.
The two swallowed their breaths, their mouths locked tight. Lowering myself down below the children, I sat on my knees and straightened my back. One must observe proper manners when meeting someone for the first time. The brother was somewhat taken aback.
“Ikeda Kouta and Ikeda Anzu, I presume.”
I watched their reactions when I spoke their names. The big brother Kouta-kun took a great effort to nod his head as if he was fighting against a fear he experienced in the form of gravity. Meanwhile, the little sister Anzu-chan averted her eyes to the wall, her attitude clearly rejecting this conversation. Well, I didn’t blame them.
“Please, just call me Onii-san. Onii-chan works too.”
I finally heard a voice from the brother, muffled as it was.
“Ah, my names a secret.” I tried playing the mysterious figure to shore up my plainness. Ignoring their heated looks brimming with suspicion. With a completely nonchalant face, I dangled the bread before their eyes.
“Are you hungry?”
“Err? Ah, y-ye, I mean no.”
He answered with a stutter. How truly hard to decipher. Anzu-chan chimed in with her mouth and face still firmly facing the wall.
“Of course we are. We haven’t eaten anything since morning. Hurry up and fork it over.”
What a sharp tone. She stretched out her hand without changing her posture in the slightest. I rested the bread on her small palm, only for it to immediately be torn to pieces as if she planned to feed it to the koi in the pond. She stared long and hard at its contents, but it wasn’t like it contained cream, chocolate or poison.
“You’ll be getting dinner after this.”
Anzu-chan halted her dissecting hands. Her eyes opened wide.
“Umm, what do you mean?” Kouta-kun asked.
The hope on his face was faint, far outweighed by his anxiety.
“The Onee-san who abducted you is now cooking a meal. I don’t know what she’s making.”
“Making? A Meal? Is she going to poison us? Or is she planning on feeding us cockroaches?”
Anzu-chan’s grim face closed in. That confirmed my suspicion; her previous action had been a check for any foreign substance mixed in. Her cautiousness gave me a somewhat favorable impression of her, enough goodwill to want to tease her a bit.
Kouta-kun seemed more worried his little sister’s attitude might ruin my mood as he desperately analyzed my expression.
“Poison and cockroaches, eh… then Anzu-chan.”
“Don’t say my name.”
“Ikeda-san, if it contained either of the two, would you still eat it?”
“Of course I wouldn’t.”
“Then what if I said I’d kill if you didn’t eat?”
“I’d die either way if I ate that filth.”
No, no, I shook my head.
“If you don’t eat, it’s your brother who’ll be killed.”
Kouta-kun’s shoulders sprung back so far I’d call it an overreaction. His eyes were teary; Anzu-chan projected a scornful sidelong glance at her unreliable fellow captive.
“It is quite easy to decide your own fate, but you really must think of what sort of influence that choice will have on your surroundings. And you must take responsibility.”
Take for instance, my responsibility for Misono Mayu.
Anzu-chan was pressured into silence as she hung her scowling face. In her place, Kouta-kun looked between her and me before he eventually opened his mouth.
“Umm, I’ll eat it… so…”
“I’ll eat it so… umm… please don’t say those mean things to Anzu.”
Regardless of his intense stammering, his words carried his will. He spoke straight to me. How should I put it, he really was a good brother.
I was surprised to see Anzu-chan cling to her brother’s arms, her eyes a little bleary.
“Please don’t bully Anzu.”
I was struck hard by the vestiges of consciousness that had been building within me. Haven’t you done enough? They gnawed at me. Children really can be fearsome.
“Now look here, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m the sort of garbage who would toy with a human’s dignity and life with some ridiculous a or b. This is just a hypothetical. Okay? Please don’t get so serious, good grief.”
I prostrated myself in apology.
And Kouta-kun lowered his head too, and Anzu-chan naturally did no such thing.
“It’s your fault for asking.” She muttered in a stifled voice.
It’s my personal belief that saying is fine as long as you don’t actually do it, but that’s just me. I didn’t intend to continue this conversation. I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t get me anywhere, but before I reached anyplace significant, my consciousness would bite me to death.
From there, the two must have been considerably starved as they halved the bread scraps Anzu-chan had inspected (destroyed, I’d say) by eye and silently dug in. Despite the lack of verbal communication, the way the two of them faced one another and ate was a precious scene rarely seen outside of grade school.
I got off my knees to sit cross-legged. I admired them, a hand to my face.
The older brother Ikeda Kouta was in his fourth year of grade school. Filthy skin and a slender build. His bangs grew out just long enough to hang over his eyebrows, giving him a Kitarou-esque appearance. While he was the older one here by two years, he seemed terribly anxious about his sister’s mood. That wasn’t fear, he was exhibiting an excessive level of consideration. He got a pass in my books.
Ikeda Anzu was in her second year. Her skin was quite similarly covered in grime. Perhaps her hair that went to her shoulders had a natural tendency to curl, as it was far more tangled than I would have expected. Her tone was mature and it was clear her personality was one large bundle of pride and stubbornness.
The siblings Mayu abducted were thinner than they had been in the photos on the news and the papers, though I got the feeling the bags under their eyes had faded.
Anzu stuffed her share of bread in her mouth all at once and glared at me with puffed cheeks. That look in her eyes actually raised my good will when I associated her cheeks with that of a small squirrel.
“No, I was just thinking that little sisters are nice.”
Anzu-chan’s bread-stuffed cheeks died scarlet as she averted her eyes. Of course, that didn’t actually happen. She looked at me with eyes as cold as ice.
“Mmm not yrr little sister.”
“Hey that may be true but you know. If you see a cute dog, you don’t get the urge to kill it, do you?”
“Hyah? Wht do yew mean?”
“Hmm, you really are a good kid.”
My smug face must have offended her; after forcefully swallowing down her bread, she smacked me with a harsh evaluation of “Creep”. Kouta-kun choked as he lowered his head to apologize for her. Quite the absurd sight, a carefree kidnapper and an oversensitive victim.
“Now then, it looks like you’re not so hungry anymore, so might I bring up something serious?”
“That just made me hungrier.”
Anzu-chan defiantly stuck in her tongue. “Anzu,” Kouta-kun cautioned her and she finally shut her mouth and got ready to listen. I studied their faces before breaking in.
“I have a request. I want you to make it so I’m the one who kidnapped you two. That Onee-san had absolutely nothing to do with it, please don’t tell anyone she even exists. As long as you do that…”
Then I’ll release you in the near future. I lied. Honestly, there’s something wrong with anyone who would actually honor such a verbal agreement. If someone that trusting really existed, I’d happily introduce them to a swindler with a smile and a pat on the shoulder.
When the opportunity arose, I’d probably have to kill these children someday. Dead men tell no tales, after all. I’d have to act just like the rumored murderer.
Kouta-kun timidly raised his hand. “Yes, Ikeda-kun,” I urged him on like a teacher.
“By release, umm, you mean you’ll let us out of here?”
“Well let’s see. Rather than let you out, I guess I’d give you the chance to run away on your own.”
“Is that so… err, thanks…”
He was quite strangely half-hearted about all this. I could almost take that as if he didn’t want to leave. I tried looking at Anzu-chan, yet her face also turned depressed as she exchanged a glance with her brother. It was almost as if they had purposely gotten themselves kidnapped.
Kidnapping was, in a sense, a crime far more malicious than murder. While murder was over once the victim was dead, kidnapping continued a long while after release. They have no choice but to continue their life of insanity.
It is impossible to recover. You’re more than halfway down the road to death. Yet you have no choice but to live. They continue to keep you alive. You’re forced to live under the normality you’ve long since lost your grasp of.
… Ah, this is hopeless. I really must erase that.
“Incidentally, how were you two kidnapped anyway?”
The words that came from my malice exited my mouth so very light as if in inverse proportion.
“When we were playing outside, the Onee-san came out and brought us here…”
Kouta-kun stumbled over his own answer. He took a glance at his sister. While Anzu-chan looked away, her right hand overlapped with Kouta-kun’s left.
“Hmm,” I pretended like I accepted their coverup all the while thrusting out an index finger with an Objection! in my head.
They were playing outside all carefree when a rampant murderer was on the loose? Now that was pretty far fetched. The news report said they disappeared in the evening, and I had no doubt they were outside at the time. However, going off the situation, for their guardian– their parents– to allow that… yeaaaah.
Something was definitely off here, but I didn’t want to think about it too much. Or so I was thinking when, “What are you doing here?” The sliding door was forcefully slammed open to resonate with a cold voice.
When I turned there stood Mayu, a frying pan in one hand, her atmosphere perfectly calm like whenever she was in the classroom. She had returned to being her own age, seventeen years old, overshadowing her infantile retrogression fifteen minutes ago.
She tried entering the room with a perplexed face only to trip herself on the threshold, where I hurriedly supported her up.
“Thanks,” her dry voice expressed.
“You’re welcome,” I put up some pointless manners as I confirmed the contents of the pan.
She was either proud of how it turned out, or she loved the dish itself; she held it out with a comfortable smile. The fragrance of the sauce mixed in with the stench of the room causing me to lose my appetite.
“Do you have a hot plate to…”
My Japanese didn’t get through, Mayu placed the frying pan right on the tatami. It gave off a sizzling with the scent of burning grass. By this point, you could call the place a grand festival of horrid stench.
“Let’s eat in the kitchen.”
Mayu tugged at my sleeve. I gently declined.
“We’re eating here.”
“Because you made it for these kids to eat, didn’t you?”
Mayu’s mouth opened to return another complaint, but that was thankfully replaced by a small sigh. With an attitude and voice seeped in ample displeasure, “Fine, got it,” she sat down herself.
I received a bamboo set of chopsticks from her. When I urged her with my eyes, she crudely tossed over disposable chopsticks for the two of them as well. They blinked a number of times as they expected those chopsticks, but that lasted only an instant, and once the siblings faithful to their starvation received the okay from my eyes, their chopsticks shot out at the pan.
“It’s hot, be careful…”
Without the leisure to listen to my words, the two plunged their faces into the frying pan, slurping up soba with resolution. Poisoned or not, they ate with no hesitation. There was no space for me to stick in my own chopsticks.
“It really is!”
Even Anzu-chan unveiled a sincere compliment as she greedily crunched down even the cabbage core and voraciously sucked it into her stomach.
While a majority of people would be happy that their cooking skill was up to par, Mayu was abnormal. She looked blatantly displeased as she watched the meal disappear down their mouths. She was grinding her teeth, gripping her arm so hard the nails dug into the skin. I feared she would break into a fit at any second, but that never happened. Mayu wasn’t so contained.
She slowly and gently lifted up her chopsticks, and what she did next rattled me down to my core. The points of her lifted chopsticks were lowered right towards Anzu-chan’s head.
I instinctively cried, my right arm reaching out to interrupt the weapon. Maa-chan’s colorful chopsticks saw little resistance as they stuck in near the joint of my middle finger and pierced through the skin.
“Owww… it looks like an alien’s made it into my hand…”
Mayu tilted her head at the chopsticks diagonally stuck in. The siblings also looked up, albeit without giving rest to their eating hands. These children sure are shameless. What a healthy appetite.
It was only when my red burning blood began pouring that Mayu finally reacted.
“I’ll get you some gauze.”
She lightly stood. Zero sense of guilt, her tone light as could be.
“Nah, no need, I’ll make do with a Band-Aid…”
“No can do. If the bad bacteria gets in, your hand will get all bubbly.”
What was that supposed to mean? Did she mean my flesh or my skin? There was quite a difference in severity between the two.
“And I’ll make a Mii-kun exclusive meal, just you wait.”
The way she added the word exclusive to a meal, it just felt like she was feeding some exotic pet. It didn’t excite me in the slightest. Putting all that aside, I stopped Mayu before she could leave.
“No need for the meal, it’ll just be twice the trouble.”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
Now that was troubling.
“I think I’m done for the day. I’ll just, you know, umm, eat you up later.”
My shame reached critical mass the moment the words escaped my mouth. Had there ever been anything I ever regretted saying more than that? My face was too hot. The looks from the children hurt. This was harder to bear than the injury. In the first place, would anyone actually feel satisfied with that out-of-date euphemism? I thought as I took a peek at Mayu’s expression only to see her making quite a meek face.
She tugged me along by my right hand that still had a sixth and seventh digit sticking out from its palm, outside the Japanese room into the living room. She closed the screen, suddenly breaking into a broad smile with no forewarning.
“What might you be talking about?”
For some reason, I responded ever so formally.
“Hey, hey, you’re going to have Maa-chan? Today? Tonight? Yahoo!”
It was more effective than I could have imagined. She was raising both arms in delight. I had to wonder if a maiden’s head flowed with highly concentrated sulfuric acid.
“Well, you see, might we put that matter off to a later date… for now, I’d like a Band-Aid.”
I played it off while showing off the chopsticks towering over my palm. It was hard to determine whether that one was effective, but Mayu nodded all smiles and ran off like she’d been waiting for that moment.
After seeing her off, I turned back to the Japanese room. I lowered myself down exactly where I’d been before, after which I plucked out that which I couldn’t just leave growing forever.
“Oooh, it’s right up against the bone, ow, owowow, it’s sliding, scraping. I’m getting goosebumps here.”
I made a ruckus on my own as I extracted the chopsticks. An orb of red surfaced, a crimson shade began spreading further and further across my palm. As I was licking it to prevent it from staining the tatami, I sensed some eyes so I looked to the side.
Kouta was definitely looking at me, though I was more surprised the yakisoba was almost empty.
“Umm… thank you.”
“For what? That Onee-san was the one who cooked you a meal, please save your gratitude for her.”
Not that, he stammered and shook his head.
“You protected Anzu.”
He lowered his head, a bashful smile on his face. Had he taken to me? By his attitude, he seemed to suspect I might be on his side. Anzu, on the other hand, pretended she didn’t see as she chewed on the remaining soba.
Don’t worry about it, I laughed to get them to write it off as just a funny little story… yes, writing off these little ‘funny’ moments were the nature of my relationship with Mayu. It was quite difficult to find the right words to describe it, good grief.
Once my wound was treated, I frantically left Mayu’s house. It pained my heart to shake off that teary-eyed lass, but I couldn’t quite let my life revolve around her just yet. That was half a lie.
I left the apartment to be surprised by the difference in temperature between night and day. The wind carried a slight chill to my skin.
“… What a day.”
The time had eaten at me like hydrochloric acid. I looked at the extravagantly-wrapped palm of my hand. ‘Out of Band-Aids’ she had cheerfully reported, and ignorant as she was on the proper procedure, the quantity of bandage wrap she used was first-class, if nothing else. And I took it all off. The scent of antiseptic was already sticking to me. I had terrible luck with smells today.
“Who’d have thought I’d be involved in yet another kidnapping…”
And I was the accomplice this time. The only position time should reverse is the standing between childhood rivals. Not to mention those kidnapped siblings. After seeing those kids and talking to them, I got the feeling something was off. There was a contradiction somewhere. They had quite easily accepted their situation, and I sensed this was different from being thick-skinned, yet I didn’t have anything to confirm my suspicions.
There was another trivial thing I forgot to ask. I turned on the spot. The panorama of the complex was dotted with the lights leaking from each individual room. Like a shadow picture, it towered while coexisting with the surrounding darkness.
I guess it could wait. It wasn’t too important and wasn’t enough to motivate me to make the trek back. If I returned now, I could imagine her leading talks towards me staying the night. I’m pretty sure my aunt would hit me with the lantern for that.
Right, maybe I’ll ask tomorrow– if I remember.
Why did you kidnap those kids?
The Eighth: ‘the unconscious murder’
I am quite fond of chicken skin. I like salmon skin too, and I like the cheek meat of sea bream. However, to evaluate those articles individually and use that as an excuse to ignore the whole is somewhat imprudent wouldn’t you say? If I were to equate it to something, it would be like slicing off an ear and proclaiming it superior to the person it came from. That is inevitably a foolish verdict. The remaining human still has an eye, a mouth, and four limbs in perfect health. To discard them without the slightest taste of their true worth would be no exaggeration to denounce as a complete waste of resources. Well, I have no affinity towards cannibalism, and my interest towards arts and crafts utilizing human body parts is faint at best. It is therefore inevitable that I suspend discussion of that point and shift the topic towards constructing within me something that would be more constructive towards my future. Ah, he died. Quite honestly, I firmly believe that a firm foundation is built and solidified off of a multilateral opinion, and in truth I would like to take in the viewpoints of multiple people. A firm foundation is essential to ensure you do not build a multistoried structure over shifting sands. I would especially fancy the opinion of those of the same sort. Yes, humans who share the same hobby as me. I would love to sit across from such a person at a café who shares the same standing yet holds their own unique outlook. This is a sincere plea I’ve come to upon reaching the limits of what questioning myself could achieve. My only worry is if I were to meet such a person, that matters might not end with discussion. I honestly cannot deny that I am on the hot-blooded side, and especially with those I’ve taken a liking to, I have a tendency of coming on too strong and making them uncomfortable. It is not rare in the slightest for a talk to develop into a fight, and thus I hesitate. I’m scared. Scared of looking in a mirror. To swing a fist at a reflection of myself… luckily, or perhaps even greater misfortune, I have as of yet failed to stumble across any other of my ilk. Reflecting on my past, only a single one, and that was nothing more than a crossing lasting a few seconds. Why must my kind conceal themselves like an endangered species on the verge of extinction? There should be many, many more like me. I enjoy going to the convenience store late at night and music sung by pretty women. If on top of that, you have a tendency to kill living things in a nearly unconscious state and you’re good at hide-and-seek, we must be kindred spirits. Hey, I’m only searching for a resemblance, it’s fine if our taste in music differs. I’ll welcome you even if you like a male’s vocals. That is simply how desperate I have become. At this point, no matter how shady the message or blog post may be, as long as it will introduce me to a likeminded soul, my feet will make the journey on their own no matter how my heart may protest. Today, when I went to the convenience store searching for comrades, my enemies were prowling concealed like beasts on the prairie. My dearest wish is to simply coast through life until the moment I become a promising member of society, I am one who wants to live his days among the shadows of the trees. But that’s life for you.