My dad came home with a boy and a girl.
The boy’s hair was short, his eyes were round and wide. The girl was small with a low nose, her eyes bloodshot as she looked at the boy. Their bodies were wrapped round and round with hemp rope with cloth in their mouths.
This was a little strange.
Dad had gone a little strange ever since my brother died. When he barely ever talked before, he would now become incredibly cheerful. He would talk to the radio too, from time to time. He would talk to it more than he would talk to me. I’m a boy, but he said the shape of my face resembles my dead mother, and I don’t know why, but after he said that he would hit me and snap at me.
I watched dad take them in from the stairs, and once I saw he had gone, I told my little sister’s mother all about it. My sister’s mother was like my old dad, always ignoring me, but she didn’t hit me so I liked her more than my current dad.
When I told her about dad, the boy and the girl, she immediately told me to run with a scary look on her face. She told me to hurry to another house and tell them a kidnapper was here. I had no idea what was what. What does kidnap mean? I asked her.
You should watch a little more TV, she said, pulling me up by the hand to my feet. She didn’t go to the door of the room, she approached the window and undid the latch. Outside the window was the backyard, a place where my sister would often hit me. My sister’s mother beckoned for me to climb out. I wanted to ask her what I should do, but she was my sister’s mother, so I didn’t know what to call her. I mulled and I mulled, standing still and thinking.
My dad entered the room with an awfully scary look on his face
My sister’s mother violently tossed me out the window. My elbow hit the ground. It was bleeding, but my dad was way more scary than that, so just like my sister’s mother told me, I ran around to the front and flew out.
There was nothing but rice fields outside, nothing else. I had no idea where I was supposed to go, but stopping was the worst thing I could do so I decided to go to the elementary school. I knew Yokkun’s house and granny Takeda’s houses were on the way.
I ran through the empty rice fields, my dad was chasing right behind me. What happened to my sister’s mom? I wanted to ask, I wanted to know, I was so scared I took a look back.
There was something red sticking to the bat in my dad’s hands.
I knew without asking. I cried in fear.
Bit by bit, an adult’s legs were catching up. I was good at running, but it was my first time running away so I was breathing hard in no time. I didn’t know if my feet were hitting the ground anymore.
My legs were caught by the jump where the field turned to road. I tripped and I fell.
It was so painful, so scary, so scary, so scary, my tears all came out. Even if I wanted to run more, it was painful to breathe now and my body hurt so much it wouldn’t move.
I still have to run, I shouted at myself, even if I can’t.
The shadow covered me.
My leg was stepped on hard. It let out a dull cracking sound. It hurt more than any of the pains before it.
My head was hit with the bat.
That one didn’t hurt at all, but I started feeling really sleepy.
That was the story of the day my dad kidnapped a boy and a girl.
Three days later, the place I learned I was still alive was, as expected, the hospital. I lost half the flesh in my left arm, and something or another was up with the blood vessels in my right leg. Pretty serious, apparently. The abyss of death clearly despised me. Surviving was the one thing I always seemed to pull off.
I spoke on matters that would interest him instead of begging for my own life and attacked the moment his attention was turned towards himself. It was the petty tactic of a third-rate street thug through which I won and survived.
Quite a miserable state to be in. Despite my lament on how far I was from being a protagonist, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the logic of ‘you’ll be promoted to captain if you win’ had pepped up my cowardly soul.
Or so it should have been.
Another two days since I awoke, November fifth, present day.
Forget becoming captain, I was being grilled in the brig.
“You huge doylem.”
“Regional or not, an insult is an insult.”
“You bloody goddamn gobshite doylem.”
“Err, the word means good-for-nothing, right?”
Natsuki-san’s smile was blooming today. When she pulled off a gray suit with her hair down, even if she was introduced to me as a jobhunting college student, I’d have to tell her, ‘We don’t hire minors here’.
The hospital, early afternoon, a single thirty-year-old woman; those three factors stacked like kagami mochi setting off my slap warning. I just hoped it didn’t lead to a warning of something bigger.
“Was that the doctor’s message?”
“Yes. Oh, the third one was me.”
Don’t just hop on the bandwagon to insult me, I endured the urge to say. She had just saved me and I found myself incapable of taking too strong an attitude against her.
I had already built a debt by asking a favor of her; overturning this power balance had become a deep-rooted and troubling matter. I got the feeling I was experiencing the pseudo-relationship between creditor and debtor.
“Also, don’t ever let me see you again. End of message.”
“… Is that so.”
“My, my, no need to look so down. Give her a week and she’ll be the one coming over, begging to see you.”
She prophesized in a definitive tone like she was starting her own religion. I prayed to her a smidgen just in case.
Natsuki-san sat back down in her chair and straightened her back.
“Hey, fake Mii-kun, Mii-san.”
“Umm, Mayu’s here, so could you please…”
Like a certain someone, I indicated the wholesome, healthy lunatic lass sleeping beside me.
“Oh dear, what’s she doing here at noon on a weekday?”
“Do you even have to think about it?”
“She must be in it for the money.”
“Think about it.”
I grew weary. This relation was built off of nothing but sighs. Watch others to correct yourself, sure the ancients said some nice things. I now wanted to refrain from any association and make the polar opposite of the resolve to become a good person.
“Now then, Mii-san. There are a few things I need to ask you.”
You’ll answer, won’t you? Her smile laid down the pressure and “Go ahead,” of course I agreed.
“First off… about Sugawara-kun. When did you notice he was the culprit?”
From the very start.
“Oh no, I never even dreamed that might be the case, I’ve rarely been dreaming at all lately. I’ve come down with chronic insomnia.”
“……………………………………………………………………………… I see.”
In the long silence, her smile nearly crumbled twice, but she persisted to the very end, never removing the refined smile of a lady.
“So five days ago, when you were trying to send the Ikeda siblings home after you’d offered them shelter, you coincidentally encountered Sugawara-kun and secured him only narrowly escaping death…”
I answered, my chest held out proudly. She wouldn’t just gloss over this one; there was a twitch in the corner of Natsuki-san’s mouth. Even I could barely conceal my surprise the first time I heard it.
Mayu and I had offered food and shelter to a pair of runaways.
That’s what the kids testified to the police.
I was so confused I was sure I had to be hearing things. It would be written off as a lie if I questioned any single detail, so when the Ikeda family came altogether to pay a visit, I did my best to match their story. Afterwards, they thanked me, saying their parents’ fighting had calmed down, even if it was just temporary.
… That was where a question popped up. In regards to myself.
Could it be that this was actually what I’d been aiming for?
To show a favorable attitude towards the kids, make their consciences throb, and lead them into testifying our innocence? I was still agonizing over the matter with no conclusion.
“By Sugawara-kun’s testimony, the day after he returned from the trip, he looked under his desk to find a letter telling him to come to the designated spot at ten at night. The sender never appeared. Do you have any ideas?”
“They must be quite the irresponsible individual. It’s all thanks to them that both Sugawara and I had to go through such troubles.”
I shook my head, mourning for my bombastically wrapped left arm, and my right leg hanging from a sling.
“… Apparently it said, ‘Mr. Murderer, I am the same species as you’. Any ideas?”
“Meaning the sender is not a primate, but a reptilian.”
“… It also said to bring a souvenir.”
“Why it would have to be boiled sweetfish. It is difficult to talk one’s way out of the repute they have in their land of origin.”
“…… Why did you try to return the Ikeda siblings so late in the night?”
“I was trying to play the premature Santa.”
Natsuki-san seemed to be wincing at a clearly guilty man’s brazen attitude. She gave a rare display, rubbing her temple like she was containing a headache as she lowered her shoulders, acting out a defeated gesture.
“Mii-san, you really are honest.”
It was clear there were a few choice words she wished to bitterly insert in that sentence.
Liars are all honest to themselves.
A splendid line, I’ll use it as my catchphrase when I exterminate evil.
As I was leisurely deciding such a thing, Natsuki-san raised one of her legs high. She stored up power and then lowered it. Her bottom shot the chair back, her slipper she’d just barely been wearing shot off from her toes, passing under the bed and getting a critical hit on the wall. She stood with such flashy production value as she swiftly circled around to the left side of my bed.
I was getting a terribly bad feeling about this.
“It’s narrow, please scooch over.”
She treated me like a nuisance with a smile. An injured man. She grabbed my shoulder and tried pushing me to the right.
“Hey missy, how about you take a good look at my foot here?”
It’s hung up, don’t move it.
“You should really cut your nails.”
With the tone of a compassionate sister, she kicked me in the flank, forced me right up next to Mayu, forced open a space that wasn’t even empty, forcefully occupied it and made herself right at home.
What sort of situation was this?
A man in the center, sandwiched with a woman on each side. The description alone was more than I deserved, but considering how I couldn’t move my foot, and I was being scrunched up, this was just plain bullying.
She placed a hand on my shoulder, bringing her face close to mine. Her hair like golden threads was scattered around the area between us, my fingers a little touched by the impulse to scoop it up.
“… Is it my common sense that’s off? Every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes to ‘visit’, just jumps into my bed like an elementary schooler the day the pool opens. Is this the new societal common sense grounded in public order and morality?”
The young lady pressed up against my back grinding her teeth something awful, the unemployed former doctor, and the human bag of laughs detective were all bonifide members of society, and I was the odd one out. Could it be I was caught up in a mistaken concept of society I’d just deluded myself with?
“I don’t know this Tom or Harry fellow, but I’ve been short on sleep lately. Thanks to me apparently subjugating a heinous murderer through my top-notch killer judo technique, I’m being dragged in all sorts of directions, and I’ve had no time to rest my body or soul.”
She nonchalantly spewed cynicism. I puckered my lips to whistle but nothing came out.
Right, this person was now Kamiyashiro Natsuki, the talk of the town. A woman of the era. The great detective who resolved an unprecedented serial murder case… at least, that’s what it was being set up as. My request to Natsuki-san had been for her to become the person who apprehended Sugawara.
No matter how minor its relation to that old case, I didn’t want to leave anything that connected it to me. And yet, if possible I wanted to continue my relations with Mayu and the doctor as long as possible. Quite the contradiction.
It didn’t matter. Living with contradiction was pretty human.
A cave-in, my eardrums shook with a sensation as if sand was flooding into my ear holes She called the name I could only pick up as static noise ever since the incident.
“Now that’s quite the scowl.”
“I hate my name. It doesn’t take into the slightest account that I’m a boy.”
“Is that all there is to it?”
Natsuki-san softly pursued the matter, her smile brimming with certainty. If she really was a close friend of Dr. Koubi, the answer to her question was readily available to her. I would like more than anything to hand her an assessment labeling her the bottom of the barrel.
“What else could it be? The thing is, I’m a boy at the peak of his rebellious phase you know.”
In contrast to my response, Natsuki-san made a smile topped with ample radiance. She placed her palm on my hair and swept over it like a soft breeze.
“Very well. Then I’ll change it up a bit and keep calling you Mii-san from now on.”
Did she already have plans to keep this association going? Ignoring my confusion, she moved on to the main topic.
“Sugawara-kun is Mayu-chan’s childhood friend Mii-kun, isn’t he?”
“And that makes you, Mii-san, the kidnapper’s son and the second Mii-kun.”
“Far from it; I’m just a stand-in. The moment Sugawara’s reinstated, I’ll be promptly dismissed.”
Not that I knew if the day would ever come… a stand-in was a role that could only exist thanks to the gap in Mayu’s memory. Mayu forgot about Sugawara and me, but she remembered Mii-kun.
That field just might be a tad ambiguous.
From Misono Mayu’s viewpoint, the base template for Mii-kun was Sugawara. The groundwork had been laid by her early memories with him before the kidnapping. But in the midst of the incident, Sugawara had changed sides from the tormented to the tormentor. My father forced him to hurt Mayu as a joke and took quite a liking to the show he received. Sugawara’s self-preservation instincts kicked in, and that was where the discrepancy was born. Mayu couldn’t accept reality. Mii-kun would never hurt her. The one who harmed Mayu must have been an ‘unknown boy’, and she began calling the one who shared the same circumstances as her ‘Mii-kun’. It was more precisely a sort of displacement.
In Mayu’s world, someone called Mii-kun was always by her side, Sugawara was a stranger who tortured her, and I no longer existed.
And after the incident, she remembered how this phantasmagorical Mii-kun came and saved her. That convenient false memory she latched onto became the one and only truth to her. Mayu could never explain why or how her parents died.
Though I knew I had no right to offer that criticism.
“Are you insulting yourself?”
“What are you saying to someone as honest as me? I’m so honest to myself that if Lassy started barking for me to come over, I’d snap and shout, ‘No, you get over here you lazy mutt!’. It’s nothing to scoff at.”
Lately, there are times even I don’t know what I’m saying. Perhaps a sign of early onset dementia.
Her hand that had been enjoying my hair moved on to stroke the bandage around my arm. The wound didn’t hurt but it was itchy. Additionally, scratching was prohibited. This was a form of torture.
“If they had come ten minutes later, your chance of death by blood-loss would have been up fifty percent . The doctor told me.”
“I-I don’t have any money.”
I placed a check before she could squeeze anything out of that favor. She continued on, not particularly perturbed.
“Koubi was complaining: she said you’re like shonen manga nowadays. Whenever it looks like you’re going to be killed, for some stupid reason, you just don’t die.”
“Well, it is one of my detestable traits… is that really a complaint?”
Don’t give me that.
While I wanted to hold my head, my right arm was serving its function as Mayu’s pillow. There was little to be done, I settled with a CO2-filled sigh.
“… I really just don’t die.”
This was the third time I’d survived when I was sure I was dead. When daddy got little old me with the metal bat, when the strokes of puberty had me trouble everyone in earshot by jumping off the roof of a department store, and when I fought and got cut up by a murderer in my growth period.
It was the second time I lived by being covered for by another. When those tender siblings lied to help me, and once more.
Eight years ago, when a frenzied Maa-chan attacked and my little sister’s mother saved me. She wrapped around and embraced my body as if protecting a fetus. The knife plunged into her back again and again. The touch of her body conveyed the sensation each time the meat was pierced through.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t react. I didn’t see anything.
I simply shook.
My sister’s mother drew my back close, she pat it to soothe me.
Because I’m your mother.
The words spilled with her dripping tears.
I’m sorry it’s not XXXX, I’m so sorry.
It took a month before I understood that was the reason she had saved me.
My mother kept me in her embrace even after Mayu had collapsed out of strength. She was dead. I understood that, and yet I couldn’t move. I stayed in her arms. The person who became my mother just once at the end.
“The greatest villains always survive to the end.”
I let out a cheerful voice contrary to my inner thoughts. Would that mean I was lying to myself as well?
“Is that so,” was all Natsuki-san said, letting her black-bean eyes finally show their faces. If I changed my point of view, they were clear eyes with nothing to hide. Both a doll and a human’s face are shaped by their creator’s will. Smiles are the same.
“According to Koubi,”
“You’re making her sound like one of the greats.”
My disruption was ignored.
“Mii-san is a moth.”
“You mean self-harming and suicidal?”
A moth. A butterfly could be both a madame and a masked man-eating homunculus, but what could a moth be?
“I don’t know what she meant. Maybe your spirit animal?”
“Oh, so that’s it.”
I could accept that. In that case, there should be plenty of moth people. I should start a club.
“What is it this time? Fall webworms?”
Like a lover at a promised reunion, Natsuki-san’s beautiful smile exuded a halo of light.
“I always believed in you.”
You lying harlot.
“I have records of how just the other day, you were treating me as heinously as if I’d poked a sword at a running chicken.”
“Oh you; when I was talking about how Sugawara-kun might be the culprit, you were so convinced it was about yourself. You really are far too sensitive.”
She pat my shoulders with such force I imagined her tacking on, ‘You little scamp’. This is why sore losers are…
If I really turned out to be the culprit, the line would definitely be, ‘I always believed it was you’. But whatever. Mayu and I were acquitted of our sins.
“You’re a cute one, Mii-san.”
“Well thanks for that.”
“It’s like you’re a kid my age.”
“Nowhere near it!”
No matter how young she looked, I wouldn’t want to be placed in the same age group. The youngster’s assertion was ignored.
“We’re practically twins.”
“Quit deluding yourself!”
The boy’s scream died with a hell thrust to the Adam’s apple.
“I’m sure Koubi sees you the same way.”
“And I’m telling you… geh.”
I heard a familiar rustling sound behind me. I could tell my pores were getting ready to ooze sweat. Slower than an old electric fan, I turned around.
She rubbed her eyes and confirmed my face. Why? She usually slept far longer than three hours, yet it just had to be today. Was it because of all the exclamation marks in our conversation?
How can you have freedom of speech without freedom of punctuation? But now wasn’t the time to protest. I needed to hand Natsuki-san the red card and get her off the field this instant.
Too late. I understood I wouldn’t make it in time. I lamented, I bit my lip.
Mayu was awake.
She sucked in the drool she had leaked onto the arm pillow
Ah, she made a serious face. She was looking, she could definitely see. Her eyes were fixed on the gasket woman on my back. A vein would pop up on her forehead any minute now, she’d shout ‘Uppercut’ as her fist smashed through my jaw. I might actually die this time. And it would be on false charges no less.
This all ain’t fair, I thought, but I got the feeling it suited me.
To be killed for a sin that was all a lie fit me too well.
Amen, I stood on the fields of resignation, only for the hand of salvation to come in a harmonious chorus.
“It’s been a while, Maa-chan.”
Came the soft greeting. Those simple words brought me to the realization this person already knew everything.
Mayu’s eyes narrowed as she compared Natsuki-san and me.
Her brain matter as beautifully smooth as white sesame was working full throttle as she calculated out the answer to her shock.
“There are two Mii-kuns!”
“… Oh come on.”
I could barely offer a rebuttal. I did value my own life and all. But this was interesting.
There was a certain key that was required for Mayu to see me, to see anyone as Mii-kun.
It was something anyone could use, but only I readily exercised.
The fact that Natsuki-san had called her ‘Maa-chan’.
Mii-kun and Maa-chan came as a pair, like the keys to the nuclear detonation switch.
Meaning, as long as they called her Maa-chan, it seemed that anyone would become Mii-kun, regardless of gender.
“One Mii-kun, two Mii-kuns, three Mii-kuns… nononono…”
It was like she was viewing a portrait of hell. I knew if I’d seen three Natsuki-sans, I’d punch at least two of them to the ground. I understood the sentiment.
“This is a dream, it has to be a dream.”
Mayu fled from a dream to a dream, she went back to sleep.
The danger had passed. My cold sweat receded.
“Your existence is pretty cheap.”
I received a biting review in the same gentle tone. My response came out without turning to her.
“You only noticed that now?”
“I could only notice now.”
Quite the cool-sounding misdirection.
“Are you going to keep living as Mii-kun?”
She brought it up as lightly as if she was asking what my plans were after lunch.
“… I’m considering it.”
A solemn response like a Meijin-class player challenging a defensive battle for the title.
“… You’re fortunate to be able to consider it.”
With that as the final address, a sleeper’s breath rose up behind me as well. Was a hard hospital bed really that eager to provide sleep?
I had only ever laid down on them as an in-patient with nothing better to occupy my time; I couldn’t understand the mentality of these ‘visitors’ of mine.
I lay face up. Both now and back then, the ceiling was needlessly white.
I’ll do what I can, I thought.
The fall of my second year of high school was over. It was a little early, but I’d sort out my course in life.
I had once dethroned my heart, but I now wanted to become a lifeform with a will. I believed that would bring me happiness. But it was impossible. If I became anything of the sort, I would never think to save Mayu in the first place.
… I was half-baked.
I had kept digging down until I reached a point where I couldn’t see the sky. But I had reached a standstill. The next layer down was decisively different, I couldn’t possibly thrust my shovel through it. Was that the boundary between being and Being, or was it possibly a portion I had never anticipated before?
I had dug without planning and lost the footholds to get back, I wouldn’t be able to return to where I’d be a normal person. The time I spend down was too long. I’d become a foreign substance fearful of the light.
Now, what would I do? Which way would I go? Would I return to be ‘me’, or continue being me? Would I step back, or bury myself?
I had Mayu to consider. If I wanted to stay me, I’d need to retain my heart in its current state. A healthy mind wasn’t suited for dealing with Mayu.
But if I wanted to be ‘me’, I’d need to stir my heart awake already. It was rude to greet people while still asleep. That applied to Mayu as well.
When the time came to choose between two extremes, I had drawn the time limit as far as it would go, and that’s where I stood at an impasse. The moment I abandoned the notion of even considering it further, I found myself in the hospital.
A hospital environment flowed with such an abundance of time and boredom I might drown to death in it. It would allow me to think, think through, and think to the end.
It was a slight consolation.
“… Consolation, eh.”
In an incident where I ran around and cheated only to be saved, I managed to protect Mayu. If I could think as simple-mindedly as ‘I’m going to build up a happy family from here!’ that alone could bring good fortune.
Was I happy as I was now? Then what need was there to hesitate?
But what if I myself didn’t see it that way? Was there new happiness to find? On a background of misfortune, was there just one single bright speck?
“… One can only hope.”
Even if I couldn’t feel it, I was better off placing myself in its midst.
Regardless of whether I was me the fake or ‘me’ the failure, I wouldn’t lose my value. There was no truth or lie to happiness, after all.