Probably not continuing. Comment section is going to break me at this rate.
Probably not continuing. Comment section is going to break me at this rate.
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.
I summed up the impression I got after a brief look around.
The dismembered dead bodies of a runaway boy and girl with a promising future ahead of them were supposed to be the proof of my success.
All that lay there was an unconscious murderer.
“But to call himself a murderer and not kill me? Did we develop a bond that crossed friendship or something?”
Crossed beneath, mind you. The murderer’s flashlight lit the depths of the thicket. While the willow trees swayed in the wind, they didn’t give way to any ghosts.
“Looks like the Ikedas got away…”
All that remained were for me and him to be tied up. If the world were its own protagonist, that would be an unparalleled happy ending.
I removed the murderer’s black hood. Most prominent in the student council newsletters, the captain of Kaneko’s club spilled froth, snot, and tears in his fainted state. I put on airs but hadn’t killed him.
“A bit excessive for self-defense.”
No matter how you looked at it, I was on the offense, not the defense this time.
“But you didn’t get a souvenir for me, you’ve only got yourself to blame for this one,
Mii-kun.” I spoke to the unconscious Sugawara Michizane. He must have been quite the popular one on the trip.
In the end, he never once showed any interest towards that petname.
“I guess you’ve forgotten too. About You, Mayu and me.”
I could understand if he forgot meeting me in the past, but he could at least remember the faces of the student in his own grade. After that, at the very least, if he only recalled Mayu… I wonder what would have happened.
A murderer searching for kindred spirits. Mayu wasn’t kindred to a murderer, she was one and the same. It would be more accurate to label her as a fraction of a plural form.
Not what Sugawara was looking for.
Then what would happen? … Perhaps nothing at all. They would pass each other by and end up here regardless.
“The relations between man and woman are difficult indeed.”
That was the most a high school boy who had bluffed and misrepresented his way into living with a girl could imagine. But I had to praise myself, that complete nonsense story I had indoctrinated the Ikeda siblings with had quite the polish.
To say they were blindfolded and leave the place they were confined a mystery. The seams would come out if any specific place was identified. I made the culprit—me—into a bisexual pedophile. When I took them out to play with them, we had a run in with that heart-throb of a murderer, and as I was exchanging blows with him the two of them ran with perfect coordination. Yep, it’s perfect
The two of them looked on quite dubiously as I read my maiden work aloud. While they nodded their heads at my nest of lies, I was worried they might pay too much respect to the original. If they bastardized my work before it got to the press, I would feel a tad empty as a writer.
“It’s fine, they’re obedient, good kids… I guess not.”
The way things were going, Mayu was set for the slammer. The plan was full of holes.
“… I should put in a call already.”
My reluctance was no lie. I was about to take out my phone when I recalled the pen-shaped self-defense item in my hand.
“It’s surprisingly useful.”
I rolled the stun gun around my hand as I paid it my thanks. I had thankfully amassed the right conditions on my first day.
“But this really is a failure.”
I planned to have the police indict and arrest Sugawara after he’d killed the kids.
It would create a possible misapprehension that the runaway siblings were wrapped up in something violent, it would both seal their lips and clear the suspicions surrounding Mayu and myself.
When I told them I’d definitely save them so they had to act as decoys, I do think there was something quite wrong with them for readily accepting, but there was definitely something wrong with me for actually saving them. My body moved on its own the instant I saw Sugawara standing over them. I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find and charged.
My creed was supposed to be intellectual, cool and lazy. I only managed to fit with the last one. This was a failure unbecoming of me.
“… It’s got to be that, my blood boiled when I saw my rival right before my eyes… yeah, let’s make it something like that.”
I tacked on a cheap reason. I’m pretty weak against human dramas and tearjerkers, aren’t I. Though that’s a lie. In the first place, the plan failed the moment I let those kids take a bath.
“… It’s my handiwork, no doubt about it.”
And that had never gone well before.
“Yes, enough of the pity party.”
I tossed the stun gun in the same direction as the knife. I pulled my phone out of my hoodie pocket, selected the newest entry and pressed the call button. The dial tone rang around fifteen seconds.
“… Oh, yes, hello… Don’t go to sleep, Geronimo, it’s time for work. Confess? Alright, when I hid some sweets in the closet, they went rotten and attracted ants… yes, I had a coincidental run-in with the murderer. Yes. Pure. Coincidence. Please come and nab him already. We’re at the shrine by the community center. Eh? Her? Why night’s the time to sleep, isn’t it? Yes, I’m counting on you.”
I didn’t have enough charge on the phone for this, I complained as I cut the call.
I gazed at the call time and fee on the screen as I drew a picture of the individual I’d just hung up on in my head.
“I remember you, Natsuki-san.”
And the fact I called her Onee-chan when we first met.
“I wonder if she remembers me.”
Whether she did or didn’t, if I asked she’d tell me, ‘I haven’t forgotten for a single day. And wait, you’re the one who forgot, Mii-san, I was impatiently waiting for you to remember’. I could definitely see her saying it.
Eight years ago, the police woman who appeared and released us from our imprisonment, that had to be her.
“Now then, I should withdraw.”
I proclaimed to myself, stood, and took my gallant leave. Everything was going swimmingly.
Or it would have, but I couldn’t stand. Oh, but standing was the least of my worries, I realized as I clumsily collapsed. I was smacked down all buddy-buddy next to Sugawara.
“Now what’s this? Am I getting a growth spurt… oww, wait, it’s suddenly hurting…”
The heat was coming back to the open holes in my body. As a side effect, the sense of pain I’d momentarily lost was revived. I could feel blood dripping all over my body.
It happed the moment I tried to leave. Did someone cast white magic on these lands?
“Ah… that sounds nice. So I’m being influenced by the bond with someone’s heart, secreting narcotics into my brain.”
Hooray for endorphins. They’ll lift you up soon enough, just hold on a bit longer.
I did a bit of trial and error. Could I move with only my right arm and left leg? I imitated a zombie that had broken free of the graveyard as I crawled along the gravel.
“Hm, mnn, tyah… kuh, not enough guts.”
My left arm wouldn’t bend. My upper body was convulsing. A red fountain was being constructed on my right leg, and we were on the verge of opening a public park with it as the centerpiece. That alone was enough to restrict the human body. To send people flying, disappear, and create body doubles was a dream within a dream.
I had arbitrarily convinced myself anything apart from the head and torso wasn’t fatal, but I guess having two large holes opened up was pretty dangerous. Perhaps it was that, he had cut open an artery. An amount of blood as unbelievable as a fisherman fishing up buried treasure stole away my body heat. It was too cold. I could no longer grit my teeth.
“I need to stop the bleeding…”
The method to stop bleeding I learned in health class was the first memory to leave me with the blood. I didn’t have the willpower to do it even if I did remember.
“Crap… I must say I was certainly a little thoughtless. Should I request an ambulance?”
But what would I say to my aunt and uncle in that case? Their opinion of me was already at rock bottom from that whole jumping off a building stunt. I’d be beheaded by my aunt at this rate. Was their excessive care of me due to the word that began with the alphabet character that resembled the number 1? If that really was the case, instead of being happy, I’d have to demand to know why. I’d also like to clean out my ears and hear the reason they took me in to begin with.
So I could still yawn at a time like this.
Would I die if I slept? It was supposed to be night, but the edges of my vision were white. That whiteness gradually took on the shape of a naked angel plowing a field of dandelions. If I shouted at this crude affront to all agriculture to “Shove dandelion cotton in your ears and go home”, it probably really would be the end of my life, but unfortunately, that isn’t what I saw. At most, a person with no legs.
Hadn’t I seen this somewhere before? When I grew sleepy from that fatal injury. The wound from back then still remained on my head. There was a time I stopped tending to my hair and grew it out to hide it. But when summer came along, it just became irritating and I lopped it all off. Who do I even have to hide it from, I next convinced myself. The feeling I got that moment was more refreshing than a bath in spring water… huh?
Wait a second, isn’t this my life flashing before my eyes?
“This is bad, this is bad.”
If you say it three times, it gets worse? Should I take that old saying at face value… I got the urge to test it out.
The madman rooted in my asserted it so, and I accepted two of his responses. I decided to sleep.
I slept on family, on Mayu, on Sugawara, on the Doctor, on Natsuki-san, on those kids, on school, on exams, on happiness, on being Mii-kun.
I left it all on the wayside and slept on my own.
Not longing for either life or death.
Good night, good night.
I was an idiot. I must have been dreaming, to think anyone could live so earnestly.
At the end, I had submerged those young children in lies for one last show of trickery.
It was only on a later date that I learned they hadn’t kept their promise.
While my eyes were closed, my brain cells made their pilgrimage of thought more proactively than usual. Within all of that, it occurred to me.
There are those who say humans die all too easily. There are those who lament how obstinately they hold onto life like cockroaches. No matter which view I took in a favorable light, I couldn’t help but believe death was the more noble, righteous, desirable option presented.
Yet, after a filthy life ridden with mistakes, I, the man who didn’t know when to let things go, opened my eyes to yet another day.
My deceased parents were before my eyes, side by side.
… No, I’m not lying here.
“Been a while…”
I hesitated to choose between that and ‘good morning’. Like karate practitioners, my parents messily bent to and fro in their bow. It was at that point that my eyes and my brain finally connected, reaching an understanding.
The newspaper clipping was removed from my line of sight. In its place was Dr. Koubi, a white ceiling as her background. She was wearing silver-rimmed glasses today. The doctor and a newspaper, what an unfitting pairing.
“That was in terrible taste.”
“A joke like that’s not bad enough for an idiot who tried to commit suicide.”
Her cold tone was peppered with anger. I had never dealt with this attitude from her before, and I hesitated on how I should deal with it. Whatever the case, it would be rude to speak with myself lying down, so I tried raising myself.
I must have been lying still a while, my body was stiff, my back somewhat painful, but my torso lifted without any issue. There was no need to look around, the scent of disinfectant told me this was a hospital. The scent that stirred up my nasal cavities wasn’t particularly unpleasant. I had experienced a far more offensive stench the first time I’d been in a hospital’s care.
My eyes burned at the midday sun streaming in through the window as I surveyed my body a short while. I spied neither a blood transfusion nor any bombastically wrapped bandages. No part was terribly hurting, my wrists continued on to fully-formed hands, my toes were all there. If anything, my head felt a little short of blood, but the rest felt no different from rising out of bed normally. Perhaps I had undergone some modification surgery, I considered as I sought an explanation from the doctor. Come to think of it, why was she even here? It was one mystery after another.
“… I’m not dead… am I?”
“Then are you trying to say I’m dead too?”
Her words were wrapped in thorns. Not at all comforting to the ear, yet I couldn’t think of any apt countermeasures so I opted to treat her as I usually would.
“Hey, it’s my world of death here, there’s no need for the people around me to be dead… though I guess I’m not dead yet.”
So I failed to die again.
“Did I really dream up the fall?”
“You undoubtedly did fall not into dream land, but in reality. You jumped down from the roof of the department store, spun in the air until you were falling horizontally, crashed straight through the rain awning, showed the whites of your eyes, foamed at the mouth and flopped down unconscious. You’re in luck the awning ran diagonal, you got out without any physical injuries.”
“… Well I’ll be damned.”
I was beginning to feel sorry I was taking up a hospital bed.
“How are you feeling?”
She rudely scratched her head, asking only as a social courtesy. Once I told her I was in perfect health, if not terribly ashamed, the doctor nodded and then grabbed me up by the collar.
“What were you thinking?”
It didn’t seem like the mood to tell her, ‘ninety percent of my mind is comprised of pointless nonsense’. I searched out words that would be appropriate for the moment.
“Err, how should I put it.”
“Can I hit you?”
Her bloodshot eyes gazed at me. I shook my head to the side.
“The hell’s up with that.”
“Personally speaking, I find it perfectly reasonable that I be hit, but Mayu has already hit me and I don’t want my lip being cut up any further.”
My cheek was smacked while I was still droning on. A slap this time.
It hurt like crazy.
She dragged my collar—still firmly clasped—closer and began violently shaking it until my head was bobbing like a doll’s. And the Doctor cried.
Why? I was the one whose cheek was going numb here. Had I sprouted sharp barbs? A terribly sticky sweat festered about me. How unpleasant, how baffling. She cried but didn’t avert her face. Didn’t wipe her tears. Was she waiting? Was I supposed to ask? The silence was suffering.
“You’re crying… you know?”
That line presumably lacking in humanity was the most I could muster. I braced myself for the slap to make a round trip, but the doctor’s reaction betrayed my expectations. Her features curled close to self-derision, the pressure on my neck loosening.
“Am I crying?”
She ignored my abrupt lie. Her fingers traced the lines of her cheek. She extracted the liquid that symbolized her emotion and licked it, as if to ascertain its authenticity.
She swallowed it down. She was far from smiling.
“Looks like I really am a failure.”
The hand around my collar thrust me right back from where I came. Unable to recover in midair, I touched down at a crude angle and caused the bed to creak out. Even if I fixed my position at that point, that would hardly help me follow these developments, so I tried waiting to see if someone would drag me up again. My forehead was heavy. The blood must have been gathering to it. My cheek itched.
I waited for the doctor’s words to continue. What sort of abuse would come next? This time I would brace my heart to avoid any confusion. The great outdoors delivered an owl-like bird call free of charge, removing any frayed ends from the surface of my consciousness. I was ready.
I grew impatient. Three hundred, six hundred, I continued measuring out the seconds. I scratched my cheek, I touched my forehead, I suspected the doctor had already left the room, but it was too much of a pain to lift up my body and put my eyes to work confirming that fact.
I eventually grew tired of the systematic bird songs and my staring contest with the ceiling. Reluctant as I was, I started the conversation from my side.
“How long was I asleep?”
“Two whole days. There was nothing wrong with your body, so your doctor said it had to be a problem of the heart.”
She immediately replied. Perhaps she’d been waiting for my words.
“Were there any murders when I was out?”
“You know I’m not the right person to ask about recent events.”
“What about the repair cost for the awning?”
“Misono paid. She’s quite the well-to-do lass after all.”
“And what’s Mayu doing now?”
There was a bit of a time lag before she answered what I really wanted to know.
“Probably sleeping.” Her indifferent reply wasn’t too far off from my estimate.
“She’s acting perfectly normal, isn’t she.”
I exercised my eyes to their very limit to confirm the Doctor’s heavy nod. As I thought, was all that occurred to me.
“A large majority of her emotions have rotted away. It’s the envy she’s got left that retains her humanity at the bare minimum level.”
My jump wouldn’t be nearly enough to bring back her sense of guilt. Even if I died.
“And you’re sure she won’t be livid with you?”
“You can’t bargain for what isn’t there.”
If any sorrow remained in Mayu, she’d have committed suicide ages ago. So this was for the best. The very best of the worst.
“She’s already forgotten how to be angry… her heart’s dead, after all.”
Perhaps bringing up her heart with a psychiatrist was a foolish move.
“It’s not dead. Just sleeping.”
She immediately refuted, as was expected of her. That had always been this doctor’s assertion.
‘The heart only dies at a man’s last breath. No matter how warped it may become, we humans are only able to live by virtue of the heart. That’s the very thing that defines us as living beings, or at least that’s what I want to believe.’ I had heard that pet theory a number of times. I had refuted it just as many.
“If there’s no hopes of ever waking, it’s practically the same as dead.”
Whenever these conversations began, the doctor eyes would look oh-so fed up with me. They were far removed from the appraising eyes a presiding doctor should save for their patient, it was as if she personified the irritation of caring for a fool.
“Those are some big words, coming from someone who detested his humanity and voluntarily abandoned it. If there are no hopes, just make them yourself.”
She belligerently stood by a cliché. Both I, and she, were sick and tired of hearing this argument. Lately, we’d reached a tacit agreement to cut it off early, sparing the rest from pointless debate. This time was no exception. It was time to change the topic.
“Is it alright for you to be here, skipping work.”
“No, not in the middle of the day; of course not.”
Where was Japan headed with people like her welcomed as working members of society?
“So I quit.”
She had salvaged my body with words. My spinal cord commanded me to jump up and stare at the doctor. She was sitting crouched in her chair, her knees pressed up against her body as she closely observed her toes.
“Wait… umm, why?”
“Because it wasn’t for me.”
Her attitude was so loose I was convinced even a teen quitting part-time work for no reason at all could be more commendable. Her cheeks had dried off from her tears; they could now fulfill their original purpose to bend into a cynical smirk.
“Did you honestly believe after I got my job, that’s all I’d be doing for the rest of my life? That’s pretty prejudice of you.”
“No, I mean Doctor, if you’re no longer a doctor professionally, I can’t help but still see you as a doctor. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”
“I see, complicated, is it,” the doctor bitterly laughed. She stretched her legs out from the chair, pressing her heels against my bed to form a bridge. “When I was working, I was sure a day was eight hours, but now it feels like I’m properly living twenty-four. It’s the best, I’m glad I quit.”
“… Aren’t you mistaking ‘living’ with ‘wasting’?”
“Hmm, as a member of society, you’re trying to tell me that working is the true and proper form for any human to uphold. You pretend to be removed from the framework, but you’re a pretty good kid.”
The blooming woman more than a whole zodiac cycle older than me pouted her lips, expressing her frustration in a childish fashion. Her meaningless tantrum had her flapping legs strike her heels against the bed and at times she would catch my shins in it. The Mayuification has advanced, I felt the urge to cynically retort.
“I made sure to have someone take over from me, you don’t have to worry about your examinations.”
Her heels had settled on a peculiar rhythm as if she fancied herself the drummer in a band.
“Oh really,” I said back.
“You don’t sound too interested.”
“I doubt I’ll be going anymore… ah.”
I really should have lied. I was already starting to regret it. The malicious former doctor wouldn’t let that remark slip by. Her eyes flashed as she morphed into a mischievous child.
“Oh, what’s this I hear? You liked me thaaat much? Dear, dear, how delightful.”
“I didn’t go there for the diagnosis.”
“Hmm, I see. Looks like I actually accomplished my role as a doctor.”
She laughed a laugh appropriate of her age. Her legs flapped—happily this time—raising a thunderous tremor that dismantled the discipline of the hospital. You’re going to trouble my fellow patients, I was about to warn her only to notice a bit late that the place was deserted.
“Hold on, could this be one of those adolescent dramas? The ones where you find out you’re glad you became a doctor after you resign?”
Was she humiliating me, or being honest? When she said that, it paradoxically gave me the impression that she’d never once been glad she was a doctor during the time she’d served as one.
Was she well aware of that herself? Or perhaps,
My heart leaped in curiosity. I contained my rationality telling me not to pry.
“Why did you become a doctor?”
“Ah, you’re trying to change the subject.”
“You really want to know? It’s neither a drama nor a documentary.”
“I don’t hate historical recaps.”
Suspending the motion of her heels, the Doctor fixed her face on my face. “Hmm,” she left a moment of silence before she began.
“My place has been a house of doctors for generations now, so I chose my career pretty easily. The same theory on how the world expects the son of the hero who defeated the demon lord to be the next hero. A psychiatrist was the one thing we’d never had in the family before, so if I became one it would be like we conquered every field there is. It felt a little cool, you know. You’d naturally think so as a human being.”
Please don’t add more obstacles to me being considered a human being.
“Honestly, anything would have worked. I didn’t feel like entrusting my dream or my future to my occupation. In the first place, see, no matter how hard I work I won’t be leaving anything behind. Forget the world, forget Japan, I’m not going to leave any impact on this tiny little town. The only other thing I can do is leave descendants, and that’s not happening from me.”
You’re not going to marry? I nearly asked but contained myself just in time.
“Meaning there is no meaning to my life. Objectively speaking, of course. Life should be taken as an individual, sure some people think that way, but I don’t like that sort of thing. Rather than recognizing yourself, being recognized holds way more value. People only live within other people, after all… we’re getting off track but going under that immature train of thought, thinking it would be the same no matter what I became, I grew up to be Sakashita the Psychiatrist.”
Is there no happily ever after…? Perhaps not. It wasn’t over yet. The Doctor gazed at the palm of her right hand, the hand that had grabbed me, opening and closing her fingers on repeat.
“On top of that irresponsible ambition and motive, I went and did it. I went and raised a hand against a patient. I might be shameless, but I’m not isolated enough to continue on with that disgrace. So I quit.”
She brought it to a close. In no time, she had bent her body to cast the sum of her weight into the backrest as she looked up at the ceiling. She didn’t seem to be seeking any audience input, nor did I have anything I felt the need to say.
“Hey, what does it mean to treat someone?”
A voice of sparse emotion shook my eardrums.
“… Sorry, I’m getting a sense of déjà vu.”
“I’ve asked you before. You gave a wonderfully hackneyed forty-point answer.”
Huh? My heart’s diary mentioned a hundred somewhere.
She overlapped her hands behind her head, taking a large stretch before the next time she opened her mouth.
“Treating the body, and treating the heart. I don’t know which is more difficult, but it’s obvious which is the more ambiguous. In the first place, what does it even mean to treat a heart? To normalize human emotions? How do you define normal working order? Then is it fine as long as you can return a heart to its prior state? By what criteria? Once you’ve gone through the healing process, you can just leave them to figure it out on their own? When the one in question might not have any such intention?”
The ceiling was smacked with such questions in rapid succession. Surely those weren’t meant for me, or so I remained a spectator only for her heel to drop down on my ankle. What’s more, she continued without affording any time for my opinion.
“There are decent folks among my in-patients. A large majority of them are normal. There are a few who lack motivation, and a few seeking an abnormal level of regulation, but if I’ll have my say, they’re all people you could find anywhere in society. Despite that, I can understand why society sees them as strange. There are people who were alienated, and detested that so much they hospitalized themselves… within all of that, it’s only around ten percent of them, the ones who are completely on a different wavelength, whose minds are set with a delusional world as its base. For example Misono’s Maa-chan world.”
She raised the name specifically to draw my interested. I fell for the bait and looked at the doctor, but she was quite the busy lady with her heated ceiling discussion and our eyes didn’t meet.
“The background of any happiness that girl feels is the color of misfortune. No matter how much misfortune is around you, it’s fortune as long as you keep the focal point on happiness. No matter how brimming with happiness she seems, the background it paints is a uniform disaster. It may be the difference between being subjective and objective, but from my point of view, that living mass of misfortune is happy as can be as long as Mii-kun is by her side. And if being happy’s all you need, then look at that, my job’s done. Plain and simple.”
“… That really is simple.”
I offered no particular rebuttal to that one. Was I really her favorite? I was starting to think otherwise.
“Let’s say we had Misono hospitalized again, we restore her falsified memories, we restore a mentality far from good health, and all we get back is an unfortunate past. Then what? I speak from on high and tell her to face it, don’t look away, and somehow find happiness again? There are those who commit suicide unable to endure it. Telling someone not to look away from the truth is no more than forceful audacity of an arrogant soul. I won’t accept it.”
Her pointed voice conveyed her will. I was supposed to be on the patients’ side, yet my heart thought of Mayu without denying any of her points. The Doctor slowly lowered her face and this time her eyes had focused on the tips of her toes.
“My clinic has someone who talks with themself in the mirror all day, and a paranoid one who keeps whispering he has latent powers, but I compare them to myself and I have no way of knowing who’s happier. I don’t know any concrete happiness, but perhaps those people know it and perhaps they’ve experienced it. It’s happiness their surroundings won’t accept, but it isn’t something anyone should snatch away from them so easily. I mean, even if they get ‘better’, there’s no telling they’ll ever be happy again, more so, someone who’s reached that state once before will always be scorned by those around them… or at least they were prone to thinking so, for the rest of their lives.”
She expressed a distressed past tense. It didn’t lead to any amicable settlement, apparently.
“I mull and I mull, but if I don’t get an answer I’ll run away. Because I’m a wimp. Honestly, if I keep at it I’m scared my heart will be the diseased one. I’m terrified that the truth I’ve fostered and used as the compass for my actions will be painted over. Maybe saying I’m quitting because it’s not for me is an excuse, in the end it might just be that. Yeah, that’s definitely it.”
When she was finished, she finally looked at my face. Her clear-weather eyes were dazzling. As if to fulfill the opposite role of Natsuki-san, her eyes were brimming with light. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the eyes of those I’d seen admitted to her before.
They resembled the eyes of a schizophreniac.
Where had their and her eyes received their discerning light? Her lips squirmed, tearing apart her dry skin.
She intentionally paused.
“Are you happy, being with Misono?”
A faint haze shrouded my vision as I emitted a chipped voice.
Was that a lie? The doctor didn’t say anything. It was neither BS nor correct. Her face turned away in a blatant show of indifference. Meaning, even if I were frolicking in the midst of true happiness, she wasn’t one to readily accept it.
“Now then. I should get going.”
Her heel lifted, sensing out her will to depart. And using her lowered foot as an axis, she performed a forward summersault, tumbling onto the bed.
My gray cells were occupied with question marks. Before I could spit any of them out, I received a palm strike sending me falling from my resting place. No time to insert a gentle ‘Nooo’ or a ‘Waaah’. The fall just short of one meter hurt way more than jumping off of the roof.
I retrieved the glasses the Doctor had dropped in her roll before standing. The patient bed was now fully occupied by the sprawled out form of a former working adult, the epitome of health.
“… Now look here.”
You should set your sights somewhere further, I would have said had I not lost the motivation to continue. “What does it matter?” The doctor didn’t shy back.
“There’s no need for someone who’s perfectly healthy, uninjured and undiseased to be taking up a hospital bed, is there?”
Why was everyone in this town (me included) so prone to actions that forced reflection? I had not the brave spirit to lament aloud, so with a single sigh as the sign of my acceptance, I sat my aching rear down on the pipe chair she had been using before. A dull pain raced through my eyes as I nonchalantly slipped on the glasses in my right hand.
“It’s not like there’s anything to do if I go back now.”
“The employment office’s doors are always open.”
“What are you trying to say? Netaro slept for three years and worked hard for six. I’ve worked hard six years, so I deserve twelve years of paid vacation, no doubt about it.”
“Your example and your calculations are all wrong.”
I accepted the serious air had vented out, brushing aside the hair hanging over my forehead. I wanted more than anything to knead the doctor’s story and my answer in my head, but I found myself putting it on hold.
My shoulders were stiff, this is what the jester got for playing a part that didn’t suit him. I started circling them to loosen them up, looking over at the doctor only to find she was already one foot in the coffin of dreams. I ended up having my misgivings she really might be turning into a petit-Mayu.
She reacted to my glance with a rub of her eyes, a stretch and a yawn.
“Hoowh right, your uncle and aunt were beside themselves with anger. Good luck.”
“Oh… you’re right, makes sense. Now my head’s hurting.”
“That sounds serious, how about I prescribe you a half dose of happiness, ahahahahahahahah!”
Under the influence of her stupid laugh like she was the happiest soul in the world, my head really was starting to hurt.
“… Doctor, what are you here for?”
“Do you not know what it means or looks like to check up on a friend?”
She made it seem like the most obvious thing. While her to-the-point tone and words did nearly move me, I definitely didn’t know of any checkups that involved lying down and yawning in the patient’s bead.
“Come to think of it, Natsuki said she was coming too.”
“Urp.” I blatantly scowled.
She smiled in such a way one glance was enough to know she was enjoying every last minute of this.
Once the doctor started into a true sleeper’s breath (just leave already), I thought to myself.
If I’m alive,
“Well, how should I put it, I’ve let the chance slip by.”
I did make a promise. Now how about another go?
I was alive.
The next day, after I’d been forced to attend a simple checkup along with a curse-ridden lecture exhibition via my aunt and uncle, I reunited with Mayu who appeared with a limp in her right leg. According to her, the other day, when she was walking down the steps from the roof, she completely mistook a step and sprained it. Her story had imparted me with a muddled mix of feeling sorry and feeling rather indifferent as I left the hospital behind me.
Yellow withered leaves were piling on the path. The sweltering heat from back when I started living with Mayu had been replaced with cold air like the first dip in a pool. I was considerably surprised the moment I noticed the chill of the hospital night.
While the summer heat had lingered far too long this year, it was finally taking its leave. It wasn’t long before I would be tossed in a jail cell, which meant my last summer until adulthood was over. I definitely didn’t long for its return, but I was crossed by a slight regret I hadn’t taken in a deep whiff of it while it was still here.
Now then, that was enough basking in emotion, it was time to return to the usual me.
“Don’t you think it’s terrible?”
I arbitrarily agreed to Mayu’s complaint I had failed to hear a single word of.
“That stupid liar hit me the moment she saw my face and she was on the run before I could get back at her. I’ve always thought it, but there’s something wrong with that liar’s head. Mii-kun, you’d do good not to meet her again.”
“Hmm… Do you remember doing anything that would have made her angry, Maa-chan? Like taking on a cheeky attitude or something?”
“Not at all,” she completely denied it.
“I see. Then it’s definitely not your fault.”
A thoughtless endorsement more thinly-veiled than a fallen leaf. She quietly bobbed her head in delight. While I never had such plans to begin with, I’m better off not having kids. I’d spoil them so much an outrageously selfish idiot will be born into the world. I just knew it.
“Come to think of it, we never ended up going on that field trip.”
I changed the topic, not wanting to discuss the Doctor with Mayu. When everyone in class was probably having fun at a service stop in Kumamoto or Nagasaki, Mayu was right here. I couldn’t tell for whose sake, but if I hadn’t taken part in no-rope bungee jumping and I actually took part as one of the travelers, would Mayu have come along?
“I mean, Mii-kun wasn’t going.”
So isn’t it obvious? Her words seemed to implicitly, firmly declare.
… I was deemed necessary. I guess that worked out for now, though the teacher would definitely be angry.
“That’s why I want to go on a trip, just the two of us.”
“Yeah, one of these days.”
When she was deciding something we’d never have the chance to partake in, I calmly made the promise. A completely uninteresting falsehood. It lacked any sense at all. The whole point of fiction was to paint over an everyday of far too much reality with vibrant, colorful lies.
I walked crunching leaves with each step. I lived on with lies on each breath.
I was back at Mayu’s place. I walked into the living room.
Come to think of it, what ever happened to those kids? They hadn’t gone stale yet, had they?
“Maa-chan, could you whip up some lunch?”
I sent Mayu to the kitchen, jogged to the back and slid open the screen. A stench I had lost my familiarity with in three days away burned my nose and my eyes.
A boy and girl huddled together, four eyes in total filled with an innocent light looking up at me. I nearly faltered at those looks as if they were staring upon salvation. I closed the screen, propped up my body, resisted the urge to look away and raised a cheerful voice.
“Maaan, I thought I’d be back by morning, but got held up all day. The wife’s going to give me hell for this.”
I received a greeting more forceful than my opening of the screen. The two of them stretched their chains to the limit to approach my feet.
“Hey, what happened? You stopped coming to see us.”
As she clasped my ankles, Anzu-chan looked just one push away from sobbing; her tear glands were in danger. S-stop it, I timidly squeaked—in a delusion that didn’t suit me so I left it at a delusion.
“Mnn, it’s not that I stopped coming here, I was completely MIA.”
I pacified them as I crouched down on the spot. Just before my bottom could hit the ground, they pounced. My consciousness flew for an instant. I let my guard down? They’re going to go straight for the neck… the moment I was bracing myself for that, I could no longer elude the vilification of being a failure of a human being.
They just embraced me, nothing more.
Upfront and boldly, the two of them rubbed their grime-covered faces all over my chest.
Though I didn’t want to ruin the mood, so I didn’t bring it up. It was quite an unpleasant scent. A smell of despair, like a sewer channel had been flooded with natto. My goosebumps were the one thing I couldn’t keep hidden.
“W-w-w-what’s with you two, cannibalism isn’t cool and I’m not tasty at all.”
“I-I mean, I thought you weren’t coming back…”
Anzu-chan bashfully murmured. For a moment, I came under the misapprehension I possessed a wholesome little sister. Kouta-kun looked up at me with pleading, upturned eyes.
“Where did you go?”
Don’t ask that like a newlywed wife! I dammed up that statement in my heart.
“That’s a story for another day…”
I took a deep breath of the undesirable air, polluting my lungs even further. Now then,
“Did she give you food?”
“Yes. It was delicious.”
“I don’t want to make Mii-kun angry, she kept muttering.”
Anzu-chan’s impression was on point. Their mental ages were close, so perhaps they were on a similar wavelength. Regardless, had I ever actually been angry at anyone before? While I rarely carried kindness or compassion, my negative emotions were just as frozen over. I could no longer be angry or envious.
If a normal person was a deftly-constructed handicraft, I was a plastic knockoff. I didn’t hate that about myself… though I knew how half-baked that made me.
“Hey, is Mii-kun, umm…”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
I remember how she was mulling over how to stop calling me ‘you’, so I sent a little help. “I see, so it’s Mii,” she came to an agreement with a moderately softened expression.
“Hmm, Mii-kun… Mii-kun.”
I watched her relish rolling the word around her tongue before taking another deep breath.
“That should resolve one of your doubts.”
And that left another one. How to bring this lenient kidnapping to its conclusion. I had to do ‘something’ about these kids, do ‘something’ about the incident, and return Mayu to being just an ordinary high school girl.
I tried considering it seriously for once, as rehabilitation for my half-asleep head.
My head was awash with fragmentary thoughts, I put my head to such laborious work I might begin witnessing hallucinations. My brain cells worked so vigorously heat began gathering to my head with my brow at the center.
In the midst of it all, the resolution I arrived at on the department store roof abruptly came back to me.
A runaway, a murder, and a kidnapping.
I reeled in the flash of inspiration that had left my hands in freefall, I chewed it over and looked over the two of them.
“Umm, Onii-san? You’re making quite a face.”
A large majority might think that using humans as disposable pieces is the worst thing you can do. Was it really that bad to treat another as a tool in the process of saving your special someone? I wanted to prioritize Mayu. For my own sake.
… So I decided I would ‘use’ these kids. I relaxed my shoulders and my brow, exhaling a large, long, tainted breath. All that remained in my empty body was a back-facing resolve.
I’d make them all disappear.
I’d put all my efforts to making them disappear.
The kidnapper, the kidnapped, the murderer, the murdered, and those to be murdered henceforth.
The day after I was discharged, I used my position of paid vacation to head out from the early morning and finish my business. I had to climb up walls and evade security cameras in the process, a game of artificial structure athletics also called playing ninja. It was only after my exhausted body demanded a second sleep that I dragged my body back to the apartment.
There wasn’t a sound in the room. Mayu hardly required explanation, and I’d played with the Ikeda siblings late into the night, so they were still deep in their dreams.
I flipped on the TV, collapsed onto the sofa and my mind had sunk before I knew it. I dreamed a rare dream where I found the meaning of true happiness in the middle of a conversation with some mysterious old hag, but I had forgotten it by the time I woke up.
The rest of that day was spent as an ideal day off– me only active for half of it. Tomorrow was the real show, that was enough for today.
The day after that. I cursed my excess sleep from the day before; the oversleep had caused a headache to torment me from the moment I rose. When this was supposed to be my busiest day of the year, my body felt so sluggish.
“… Well, it doesn’t really matter.”
I just had to make sure the exhaustion didn’t make it to my heart. To act not as a rotten corpse, but a doll made of mud. I carried it out so easily rather than vomit, I thought I might start spewing tears.
And that’s why (though it’s completely unrelated), I skipped the lessons that were supposed to restart today. First thing after rising, I rummaged through the room where Mayu coveted indolence. I searched through the desk drawers and the boxes in the closet one by one. The work was so tedious I felt the urge to entrust it to a certain detective woman.
Another hour of searching and I finally found what I’d been looking for: the keys to the chains. Why exactly they had been in the shoe cupboard at the entrance was impossible for an amateur to deduce so I shelved the question.
I dropped by the siblings to make sure it was the right key. They were already awake, reading through the borrowed manga they had left far too many grubby fingerprints on. As I entered, they lowered their hands to greet me.
“…… I see.”
I didn’t feel any strong feelings when she called me that.
I stooped down in front of them and passed the key through the hole on the handcuff-looking shackles around Kouta-kun’s leg. It fit in perfectly. I twisted one round and felt a resistance. The fetters were undone.
This truly would remove all factors tying the kidnapping victims to this place.
“Eh…? Umm, Onii-san?”
“Not yet. I’ll take them off tonight.”
I redid the lock, pretended I didn’t see the looks on their faces, pretended I didn’t hear their voices and left the room. I made for the bedroom where the curtains were shut, sitting not on the bed but the floor as I waited for Mayu to awake.
Nine at night the same day, Mayu and I were sprawled out over the bed. She was maintaining consciousness for once, the two of us lazing around waiting for sleep to take us. As my hands were free, I parted her hair with my fingers, exposing her ear to the open air and pinching her earlobe. To my amazement, her ear was feebly flapping in response.
She was still in her pajamas from the night before, and the next time she took a bath, she’d probably change into her next set of pajamas. With innocent eyes that could only ring true due to her abnormality, Mayu posed the question to me.
“Mii-kun, do you like older women?”
Did she expect me to smile, stick up my thumb and say ‘of course!’?
“You get along with that liar. If you’re on good terms with someone so crazy in the head, the only conclusion Maa-chan can reach is that you like old women.”
A terrible phrase. Had the doctor heard that, all non-aggression pacts would be off the table.
“I do like pretty older women, but not exclusively…”
“I want to hurry and grow up.”
If the doctor heard that one, she would have graciously invited us to a nice walk behind the shrine at midnight.
“Why did I have to be the same age as Mii-kun? Why do I have to be young? Why do I have to be Mayu? What do I have to be me…? Am I me? Hmm, hmmm?”
Mayu recited those philosophical quandaries like a nursery rhyme when all of a sudden she furrowed her brow. Her eyes darted left, gazing at some distant point as if she was peering deep into herself. Her eyes were narrow and grim. This was not the usual, it wasn’t that the problem was too difficult. The issue seemed to lie elsewhere.
She thrust the side of her face into her pillow, all facets of her apart from her puffed cheeks seemed to give off a rationality she had been previously disconnected to.
“Mmmm… Gnnnn, gaaah!’
She raised cries of earnest thought. Would she start working again with a good whack? What would I do if she bit me? My hips drawing back, I watched over Mayu as these new wavelengths tormented her.
Her bizarre noises of agony flew for around five minutes before she finally stopped moving like a demon had left her, her face planted firmly in the pillow. If I could hazard a guess, this was a sort of ritual unknown to the general public.
Mayu’s head turned sideways, dragging the pillow below it so she could look at me.
“What is it?”
“I, see, I hate myself.”
Her tone carried barely any intonation. Her attitude was as if the classroom’s Misono Mayu and the Maa-chan that lived when we were alone together had mixed, and for some reason, it felt too rough and unpolished.
“… What’s this, all of a sudden?”
Mayu had drafted up a face with no meaning or emotion
“I don’t know, it just occurred to me.”
“… Hmm. I can’t say the same for myself.”
Did that mean I liked myself or liked Mayu? Did I mean both, or was it another lie? The true intent didn’t matter. I just had to throw her off track.
“Why do I hate myself? Do you know why, Mii-kun?”
It proved ineffective. Mayu’s eyes wavered, seeking out her answer.
“Who knows? I don’t hate you, Maa-chan.” I replied with a huge lie.
Hmm, Mayu gave a half-baked response and turned her head to face the opposite direction. Her hair flowed to form a thin veil over her bare shoulder. Unlike her arms, Mayu’s shoulders didn’t have any visible scars. They glimmered like a salt lake, a brilliant white that aroused a cold impression. So transient it might part at the press of a finger.
I held Mayu close. Her small body easily settled into my arms that were by no means large-built themselves.
“Hey,” when I called out, she rolled towards me with a slovenly look on her face.
“What is… mmfh?”
Ah, she was back to normal. Good.
“Maa-chan, do you like me?”
She nodded with a dozing-off, ambiguous grin.
“I really, really like Mii-kun.”
“I see. Yeah, I see.”
I was so moved the soup broth was gonna boil out from my eyes.
“What about Mii-kun?”
She curled up in my chest as she returned the question. I didn’t even have to think about it. Where exactly was there any need to tease her with lines like, “I think Koguchi-san from the other class is charming.”
“I like you.”
“Eeeh, you don’t reeaaally like me?”
“I like you to death.”
“Ah, me too.”
She sent a carefree smile. If I really had to say, it was more that I liked her enough to want to kill her.
“Hey, Mii-kyuun.” She called me by a humiliating title that was hard to determine as a promotion or demotion.
“What is it, Maa-tan.” I stubbornly returned fire. I was so stricken by shame the moment it left my mouth that I began getting my will and testament in order.
Mayu snuggled up close. Was she trying to assimilate? Her body was stuck fast to mine. Her breath tickled my collarbone. I could feel her mouth opening from the sensation on my skin.
In regards to that issue we are well aware of the gravity of the situation; we have conducted repeated consideration and deliberation and the short of the matter is that at present, any discrepancies with the current policy must be brought up at a company-wide meeting and it impossible for me to offer you a split-second decision, it is simply my nature as a Japanese man that makes it difficult to say no and,
“If you’re happy, then smile.”
My throat, brain and chest were strangled all at once. Misono Mayu was asking about happiness. Carrying right on from that person. This had to be karmic levels of harassment.
My eyes had gone so stiff inside they almost fell out of their sockets, burning with impatience. The sights out the window mixed in with what I had seen from the hospital room, smearing into a watercolor blur of another world.
“When I stay like this, I feel so calm. I smell Mii-kun, this is happiness.”
She sluggishly stretched out her words. Her eyes firmly blinked as they shed yawn-induced tears. Mayu’s mind was melting into dream, it was losing the boundary line.
“Mmmm, I’m sleepy…”
What part of my time with her was I remembering?
“Go to sleep. Maa-chan. Sleeping suits you best.”
I had the heart of a NEET. I couldn’t discern any emotions I’d been given or express them.
“But Maa-chan isn’t a kid anymore, she can stay up…”
“Only kids say stuff like that.”
What human emotions did the junk that was piling up, burying my heart correspond with?
“Mmm, you’re treating me like a child…”
Would anyone apart from me be able to identify it?
“Alright, have a nice trip to dreamland.”
… I knew, I could definitely figure it out now. I put off giving an answer. I had enough time ahead of me in the cell.
“… Yeah, okay.”
I didn’t have a mirror in front of me, I had no clue if I succeeded. Mayu’s eyes didn’t open, her consciousness cut right then and there. She made the same old sleeping face, the one the seemed to say neither good or bad fortune existed in the world. She accepted this situation as simply a natural part of her everyday life.
“… Now then.”
That was probably the only opportunity I’d ever have to use sleeping pills on this kid. Drugging her tea carried an unprecedented stimulation, I honestly thought it wouldn’t be strange if someone developed a habit out of it. Presumably, those old-day criminals who poisoned their victims had secretly developed an addiction.
I rolled Mayu up on the sheets. I made a white spring roll out of her, and once that task was finished I stepped down from the bed.
I didn’t move immediately, I gazed at her sleeping face a while. I stared long and hard, burning it deep into my hippocampus. To make sure I remembered.
“… I’m sorry I’m such a liar.”
I imparted the parting words I could put the most heart into.
I left the room and closed the door.
I passed through the dim living room and entered the back room to remove the fetters as I’d previously proclaimed. Contrary to their bodies, their eyes were perfectly clear, pushing passed their eyelids to expose as much of themselves as possible as they smacked questions into my every action. Once the two of them were free, I stood and answered in what was practically a monologue.
“C’mon now, you get to go home.”
And I was going to bring an end to this.
To start with, and while there was no deeper meaning to it, I decided to let them wash off the grime.
“Here you go, a bath towel. I’ll wash your clothes now, so put on this shirt when you’re out of the bath and wait.”
I swiftly handed Kouta-kun a change of clothing and a towel. Perhaps the Ikeda siblings couldn’t accept my conduct, as they both had their heads locked in a firm tilt.
“Umm, Onii-san. Are we, umm…”
“What, you’re too embarrassed to hop in together? Siblings are allowed to bathe together between the ages of six and twelve. Stick out your chest with pride.”
I cut him off with a brisk prattle and sent the two of them into the bathroom. The moment they tried to stop and turn, I shoved them in with a push on the back.
“See you in an hour,” I said and closed the door behind them.
“Hey! Just listen for one second!”
“I refuse. Come back once you’ve cooled your head.”
“This is a hot bath!”
It wasn’t the time to hold a skit.
Once I’d sealed them in the bathroom, I took a seat in the short corridor connecting the front door to the living from. I sat in the darkness, caring not to flip on the lights as I let the black space suck me in. That alone was enough to quell my heightened beat. Was this what smoking tobacco felt like?
I opened and closed my eyes at irregular intervals, enjoying the slight difference between my inner darkness and the one that surrounded me. The black was thicker under my eyelids. Plainly obvious, I’ll admit, but I got the feeling it was quite the convenient way to express myself.
My eyes eventually grew accustomed, greatly altering the quality of the two darks. The game was now only wearisome. I drove my eyes from the outside world like I was spitting out a chewed-through piece of gum.
My sense of touch grew sharper, both inside and out, to compensate for my sealed sense of sight.
The coldness of the floor. The tingling of the air. A sting in my throat.
The replay started on its own.
I was born to a terribly plain household. Our family owned some land in the countryside and the grounds were needlessly vast. While my drunkard father would often let the geezers who drank with him stay over, we always had a room or two to spare. It was a two-story building and it even had a basement. We lived in that house as a family of five. My brother was two years older, he began dying his hair blonde from the moment bleach was within arm’s reach. Despite his gaudy appearance, he was a bookworm who rarely played outside and kept his futon in the room with the library. At the dinner table, he never raised any topic that didn’t pertain to the contents of his books. My little sister was four years younger than me, and her mother wasn’t mine. She had a short fuse, the family was always on edge around her. I was the one who babysat her most of the time and received violence as my reward more often than not. She never smiled at me, not once. The house had two mothers. The first mother died around three years after giving birth to me. I don’t remember why. All I have is a vague memory of her lying there, her back turned. She had an unnaturally large number of joints on her arms and her legs. Two years after that, a woman with a large stomach came to live at our house. The woman married in on paper with no ceremony, and my little sister was born three months later. My brother never said a word to my little sister or her mother. He gradually grew isolated. He killed himself, jumping off the rafters smack dab in the middle of the school assembly to usher in summer break. Father and I were the only ones at the funeral. My sister and her mother no longer felt constrained when living in the house. My sister turned five when my brother died. She would go out to play every day and would return home covered in mud, dirt, and scrapes. My sister had grown fond of the game of killing the mountain’s wildlife. After a certain day she stopped coming home. The service was held with only me and my little sister’s mother. The house was reduced to me, my father and her mother,
And eight years later, I was the only one left.
“Though that’s a lie.”
The same old falsehood. Every sentence in that paragraph was a lie. It was quite clearly removed from any relation to any facet of reality. Don’t take it so seriously.
“… Though that’s a lie.”
Correcting a lie with a lie wasn’t the best feeling. But there were some things even I was incapable of lying about. Even if the one in question had fabricated himself and valued a makeshift truth far higher.
From the point of view of those concerned, it was all just one big lie.
For me and for her.
“I, see, I hate myself.”
I unpleasantly tried mimicking her tone. It really rubbed me the wrong way.
“I’m sure you do, Misono Mayu.”
It made sense. She herself was what she hated most.
Misono Mayu was a murderer. The one who once resolved an old kidnapping incident by murdering the culprit was Mayu.
It started with her own parents.
Why did that kidnapper, the old man let it happen? No, the moment he stepped on the maddened path of kidnapping, he had likely become the only one in the world who could understand himself. There was only one thing I understood when looking at the culprit.
His smile when he was having the time of his life could be summed up in the word vile.
Confine someone for close to a year, and you run through most every game that can be played with pain. Perhaps he was getting bored. And ironically, the culprit got along well with Mayu’s parents. If he wanted to get any more entertainment out of Mayu before her emotions died entirely, perhaps this would be the perfect stimulant.
The kidnapper invited her well-natured parents to his house and captured them. He ordered Mayu to kill them. Otherwise, he threatened, both Mayu and I were dead. Mayu’s emotions peeked out for once in a long, long time; she cried and said she couldn’t do it. The man was terribly delighted by exactly the reaction he was expecting. It took ten seconds for him to grow tired of that and not only did he kick her swollen face with all his might, he used the carving knife he’d readied for her to dig a deep red channel in her thigh. It was her parents’ screams that reached my ear over her own.
Her emotions were restored, she recalled what it meant to feel pain, and now Mayu had no other means to protect herself save for fulfilling the culprit’s commands. It was around that time that my eyes were covered. The kidnapper’s wife had been moved by her conscience. You can’t watch, she said. But she hadn’t covered me completely and I could still catch a thin glimpse through the gaps in her fingers. My lips and teeth were too shaking, too useless to tell her.
The kidnapper called out body parts in his vulgar voice. Each time he did, there would be a brief pause before a dull sound would overlap with a scream. I didn’t know what would become of my heart had my eyes not been covered, witnessing that unworldly use of a knife. The ability to look away, the strength to close my eyes had disappeared from me.
I was driven by such fear I knew it wouldn’t be long before I screamed myself, but I knew I’d be next on the list if I made too much noise and desperately held it in. My front teeth dug in so hard my lower lip was nearly detached, I covered my ears with both hands. Try as I might, I could only dampen the noises, I could never cut them off completely. I feared the taste of the blood flowing from my lips.
A scream, another scream, finally that disgusting throaty voice I had grown accustomed to hearing, and the sounds were gone. The sounds were all gone. When the ineffective blindfold was stripped away, what lay before me: the kidnappers collapsed on the floor, Mayu’s parents who no longer maintained their original shape, and Mayu, back arched, liquid dripping from her body and knife. Five figures in total.
Why had I stumbled upon such a scene? I had seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, and yet my heart obstinately denied the concept of understanding.
Mayu had ended the case through murder.
She refused to remember it, along with the fact she had turned the blade on me.
“… I wonder why I didn’t die.”
I had survived by cheating. Her body had covered me and saved me. The kidnapper’s wife.
The person who served as my replacement for her own sake. Who took on my wounds for her own sake. Who falsified her own identity for her own sake.
“They all died, every last one of them.”
Right in front of my eyes. They all spouted something, be it blood, tears or last words.
And I lived on like nothing had happened at all.
Happily ever after.
I keep getting kept alive. Fearing the ill will of others, covered for and cursed by others, I continued to live. My way of life held no value at all. I was always made to play the fool. Making light of conversation and sneering at philosophy.
Just like that, I had grown desperate trying to convince myself I knew at least just one more piece of reality than everyone else, making sure I could look down on the world from on high.
I cast the self-suggestion so I would always have composure on my side. That was the way I always lived. Ever since the moment I held fatal terror towards another human being.
“… I’m scared.”
I’m scared of people. I’ve brushed up against their dark portions too many times, I’ve grown terrified of my own race. Of course, I hate things that terrify me. That’s why I hate humans, and as long as I’m human myself I’m a target but I can’t live on like that.
If I really did hate myself so, I’d have to kill myself. Then what do I do? I have to learn to like people… but I’m pretty sure I’ll die before that happens.
My only option was to freeze the emotion of hatred. I just had to lay my emotions to eternal rest. I felt no loss at being hurt, and wouldn’t hesitate to hurt others. Both a man of virtue and a hazard to society. It didn’t matter if the wholesome people around me stopped accepting me as human. I just had to make them think to place me in the abnormal. That was the lifeform I tried to become.
I held my shoulders. My shoulders had forgotten how to shake, they had abandoned their professional duties as body parts.
“… Aah, why can’t I just be a shut-in…”
I held my folded knees, leaned my weight back, became a daruma and rolled along the hard floor. Between that, and taking in enough moisture you feel nauseous, which one looks happier? Won’t someone philosophical kindly tell me?
Having them wear freshly-washed shoes, I led the two fresh-out-of-the-bath siblings outside.
It was colder than expected. The long-awaited outsides had the two of them spread ample dissent across their faces as they stood stock still at the door.
“How do you like the great outdoors?”
I sucked in the air that would definitely come out white as I forcefully started a conversation.
“I never realized it had become so wintery.”
Kouta-kun reservedly answered. Sure enough, at least the nights were already beginning to hide away the hints of autumn.
Anzu-chan pulled at my sleeve. She rubbed the nose of her turned-down face before looking up at me.
“Do we really have to leave?”
A feeble question. An inquiry like a clinging plea. Kouta-kun was looking up at me as well, directing some form of expectation. It was honestly quite troubling.
“You don’t want to go home that badly?”
“You want to stay in what’s practically a jail cell?”
She nodded again. I was growing ever more troubled. Precisely because I knew the reason, I hadn’t the words to press further. I could only reject them.
… I piled up thoughts again.
I shook my head.
“You have to go. That room isn’t your home.”
And it wasn’t mine either. I placed a hand on their despondent backs as I directed them towards the elevator. We made it down to the first floor. We crossed the bleak hall and stood on the night road.
Was the atmosphere lively today? The night clouds I looked up to flowed by at a rapid pace. My body and mind trembled at the cold.
It was time to go now. Time to make this the last murder.
I let them slip away. My impatience and delight quarreled over the first blunder I’d made. Almost as if they had measured out my conduct beforehand, the two of them took flight without even looking at me. I found myself pursuing them in shock.
A pleasant game of tag. The pale skin of two children surfacing under the miniscule light. They raced in a straight line never once looking back. They didn’t seem to be leading me on. Was it my mistake to go out today? Or would this make for a valuable experience? I felt like placing a bet.
The two plunged into a shrine. The sound of gravel underfoot and my own breathing annulled the silence. I personally preferred hide and seek over tag, so it was about time I captured those backs and entrusted my body to the subconscious. None the less, running fast while keeping wary of my surroundings in their entirety was a difficult task. Therefore, it was more realistic to wait for their legs to rest.
I pulled the knife from its scabbard and threw it at their hips. The knife flew towards the boy’s feet in his mad dash for the grounds, and only barely grazed before the gravel sent it away. But that was enough. The sense of pain the tip delivered had thrown off his pace. The girl so worried for the boy trailing behind tried to turn only for her right leg to cross her left and force her to fall. The boy had been holding her hand, and dragged down on top of his crumbling posture, he braced himself before hitting the gravel.
Closing the distance in that interval was simple enough. I bent down, pinned the boy’s ankle with one hand and pulled my other knife with the other. I held it up high to confront these two challengers.
While the boy’s eyes did waver, he didn’t look away. He neither moaned nor cried out. He didn’t plead for his life. Was it alright to be so optimistic as to assume his body was frozen in fear? It was possible the slight quiver in his body was simply from the cold. I hesitated a slight moment, regardless of the fact there wasn’t a single restraint placed on me, and shifted my eyes to the girl who hadn’t left the boy’s side.
Why aren’t you running?
The answer wouldn’t come from the girl. Her tightly shut mouth rejected any dialogue with me. Just what could these children be thinking?
I hesitated to lower the knife. It felt so tasteless and uncanny to entrust it to my unconscious and end this with matters unresolved. I needed to ascertain this foreign nature that surrounded them.
You’re going to be killed you know. I ended up spouting such idiotic lines. They didn’t react, they simply peered into my eyes. Bearing a close resemblance to my own appraising eyes, while it was said the eyes spoke just as much as the mouth theirs’ were terribly unsentimental.
Those are some nice eyes, I sincerely felt the urge to compliment. Especially the girl’s. Eyes like steel that knew not how to tremble. They drew a strong impulse for me to manufacture them into an ornate ornament. I now excessively desired the girl. How disappointing, regrettable she had to be handed to the funeral parlor.
I wanted to force those lips open and make her raise her voice.
Perhaps I’d cut out just her neck and take it home with me. Would we be able to establish any communication before those irises lost their sheen? No, no, that was no go. There was no way I could simply look on as these eyes grew muddled.
My curiosity was changing to lust, dimming the foreign feeling my eyes had captured. They were turning into little more than a quiet boy and girl. This was a change in cognizance. The next change would be a more quintessential one, a change to mere flesh. While I had taken a liking to their eyes, I decided I would try thoroughly destroying the boy’s. Culling is fundamental to raise a vegetable garden. With two equal pieces of art, cruelly destroying one to raise the value of the other was an effective strategy.
Now then, it was about t— A sudden chill led me to look to the side. The moment after, I heard the sound of something swinging through the air behind me. I swung my right arm, putting up a check with my knife as I took distance.
I directed my flashlight to confirm what was in front of me. He was there, standing where I had been a moment before, gripping a thirty-centimeter wooden stick he had likely picked up on the fly. A white hoodie and faded blue jeans, a man whose coloration was faint all around.
“Yeah, yeah, get running.”
With a bitter face, he swung the stick like he was directing traffic, directing the two into the thicket. I felt some regret as I let them get away, turned off the light and confronted him.
It was difficult to say his eyes were clear by any measure. But the air he gave off synergized with the construction of his face to conceal any unnatural properties… that wasn’t it, every part of him was unnatural so nothing stood out.
“I know you like them young, but how about some standards, Mii-kun.”
He regained a poker face and spoke both calm and composed. A thorough composure that made me wonder if he even had a guard to let down at all.
Who are you?
“What a cold question; despite everything, I’m so popular in these parts they call me the Drain Ditch.”
I’m sensing just a little bit of bullying with that name.
“How rude. You can only say that because you don’t understand the true value of the drainage ditch. In the first place, can you even explain how they work? Can you withstand the drab scenery that would be left in the absence of drain ditches? Do you know the exquisite dampness of them?”
… Fine, then Drain Ditch it is.
“Hah? Who are you calling a Ditch!?”
He triumphantly declared. I know I’m not one to speak, but I’m pretty sure he’s the sort who could contribute to society just by taking it easy on a hospital bed.
While he readied his stick, he didn’t try to close the distance. He was either waiting for me to make my move, or was simply inexperienced.
“No need to panic yet, right Mii-kun? Don’t glare at me like that.”
You sure talk a lot. Are you the one who called me out?
“… You’re not a genie in a lamp. How exactly would I call out a murderer?”
He seemed quite perplexed as he waved his hand to deny it… then it wasn’t him?
“Still, to think the day would really come where I’d be fighting with a cypress stick.”
His shoulders dropped in lament. At least give me the poison needle, he added on in whisper.
This man was clearly not accustomed to fighting. He didn’t know how to move or take the initiative. I graciously approached for him. While his complexion didn’t change, his body visibly grew tense.
The stick he swung passed right in front of me, I stepped in before he could recover. I thrust the knife into his unprotected torso. I had aimed at the pit of his stomach, but his body lurched violently as if he’d torn a muscle, and I only grazed his flank. He used the same motion to take distance with a cartwheel. Despite the lack of fear on his face, his shoulders were swaying intensely.
I closed the distance again. I wasn’t going to kill, I would chip away at his fighting spirit and his mobility. He took the second move to avoid my attack. His eyes were focused on the knife in my right hand, his stance small and low to knock it aside with the stick. I abruptly raised up my left.
His attention darted to my left arm without suspecting a thing. He took a short backstep, as his gaze turned up face-and-all. I stepped in sharply with my right foot and pierced the blade between his left shoulder and elbow with nothing to stop me. I stabbed it deep to separate flesh from bone. His well-aligned white teeth grit, he didn’t cry out. You’re close enough to attack now, his eyes seemed to say.
He twisted his unsteady body to swing his stick horizontally. I pulled out the knife, bent down to dodge, stuck the knife into his right thigh up to the grip and sliced.
That erased any foolish notion he had.
He clenched his molars so hard foam spilled from the corner of his mouth like a crab, his legs crumbled like his mind had gone distant. He fell with no preparation, hitting the ground face-first. This was no time to play the gentleman. Instead of helping him up, I nimbly retracted the weapon peeking out of his body and took a step back. The pain of a blade pulled out and a blow to the face, the two impacts restored his consciousness and teary-eyed as he was, he lifted his face.
“… You’ve lost the time to panic, Mii-kun.”
Then when exactly was I supposed to panic? He didn’t seem panicked either as he looked up to me, or rather the sky, and sighed.
“You got me… I know how to withstand pain to an extent, but I can’t twist the makeup of my own body. I’m not being a good-for-nothing lay-about here, I’m just in a life-or-death pinch.”
He sat up limply like he was listening to a gym assembly, scratching the back of his head. The false strong front he put up suited him strangely well.
“In the first place, why does someone from a cultural club like me have to conduct combat with a murderer? These rough matters should be left to the string-user in the black mantle…”
He complained. He was mumbling to himself as if I wasn’t even in eyeshot.
“Don’t you think so?”
Or so I thought when he suddenly sought agreement from me. I shrugged and made that my response.
“You don’t know who I’m talking about? This is why you kids these days, shifting away from books…”
If I had a mirror to look at, perhaps I’d be smiling. Talking with this guy caused my hastened murder impulses to decline. Any tension or crisis seemed to be mitigated by his mere presence. I had never imagined someone could not only refrain from pleading for their life, but even make small talk with the person trying to kill them.
An amalgam of interest and curiosity ordered me to speak with him. I tried following along for now.
… So, in the end, why did you appear here and get in my way?
“You want to know?”
I sincerely nodded. I mean, you just might be the same species as me.
When I told him that, he scoffed as if it was obvious.
“Then what is it, between me and you, you want to see who’s more human? Oh, that’s a nice one. You’ve got a reputation as a murderer after all. And I guess that makes me an it? You’ve got to be kidding me, we can’t play tag with two ‘its’.”
His words reached me with their characteristic lightness. They carried a persuasive power that made me inadvertently agree with him.
But there are all sorts of humans out there, aren’t they?
“Of course there are, but I wouldn’t say we’re different enough to divide by species. We don’t have anyone that can lay eggs from their mouth, and no one who bleeds blue. On the contrary, we’ve all got red blood flowing through our veins and nothing but lies spewing from our mouths. Meaning, you’re just trying to be cool using the term species, and what you’re really looking for is someone who shares your tastes.”
I’ll take that as reference, but… you keep dancing around the subject.
“Oh, why I’m here? It’s not for justice or anyone else’s sake. It wouldn’t be cool for me to say it, and in the first place, if that’s the case, I’ll have to tack on a word after that. One fatally pathetic excuse.”
The edges of his mouth curled a little happily as if he was imagining the scene. But he immediately settled at expressionless.
“I like going to the convenience store.”
He abruptly said. So do I, I replied.
“I thought I’d add a nice little night walk onto today’s visit. And I saw you pushing down a tender boy and a girl, so I called out hoping to join in myself.”
That was quite a fishy reason. Rather, definitely a lie.
“Come to think of it, now that you let those two get away, you’re going to get caught,” he said before immediately adding on “not that I care” in an uninterested tone.
“It’s nothing for me to worry about since I’ll be killed here. Right, I’m going to be killed. So there’s something I’d like to ask, but for all those corpses, did you dissect them before or after you killed them?”
If I took my sweet time taking apart living humans, I’d have been caught a long time ago.
“That’s what I thought, but I just wanted to make sure. If you were going to take up the former, I’d have to harden my resolve to kill myself… oh, sorry, I take that back. I don’t need any resolve for that.”
I just need to be desperate, he off-handedly conceded.
“Can you die for someone’s sake?”
“Then can you die for your own sake?”
I can’t do that either.
“As I thought. Humans can’t choose death for any compensation… oh, but I’m different. I’ll die not for anyone, not for myself and not for world peace. I’ll just die for no reason at all. Like if I stumbled upon my girlfriend cheating, I’d kill myself without a word, something like that. Ah, I guess that’s technically for someone else’s sake. No, it’s escapism, so for my own? Doesn’t matter.”
However, he strung his words.
“I encountered something far scarier than death a long time ago.”
There’s no such thing for me. When I told him that, he laughed like it had been an exquisite joke. He carried right on.
“It’s to live while missing a part of the human body. That’s more scary than anything. For example, for your wrists to be cut off. For all the toes on your feet to be severed… I’m scared of being forced to live on with a broken body. It’s scarier than anything else.”
He stared at my face while he monologued.
“I’m terrified of dismemberment. I think I developed a trauma from this book I read as a child. There was this story about a murderer who cut off hands, see, and the thought of having my little child hands cut off seemed so raw and forceful it gave me goosebumps.”
He shook a bitter face, perhaps recalling it. Before I could say anything, he was speaking one-sidedly again.
“And so, whatever you do, don’t cut off my hands. I’ll curse you.”
Putting it like that just makes me want to do it more.
“You’re rotten to the core, how about you take a page out of my books? People can already easily imagine exactly what they tell you not to do; you need to thoroughly carry out precisely why they didn’t tell you, find something far worse. Then listen to them grit their teeth as they complain they’d been barking up the wrong tree.”
… You’re pretty rotten.
“Don’t praise me, it’ll get to my head.”
He triflingly said.
“When I die, it’s that, you know. I want to die in someone’s arms. But being embraced from the front, like this, sorta, being covered by someone, I can’t really take it psychologically.”
You’ve got a lot of traumas.
“They say traumas are the proof of life.”
No one says that.
“Would you like one?”
Not one of yours, no.
He snorted at my commonplace answered and wormed his fingers into his wound. The thick blood that stuck was pulled into sticky strands between his fingers as he played with it like melting chocolate.
When he looked at me after that, his features were suddenly fearless.
“I’m going to be killed by you here. But that will be the end of it. Your role as a murderer is over.”
He handed down a prophecy. It felt even less authentic than the morning horoscope.
“When she knows I died, a talented detective will pin you down as the culprit.”
… A detective?
“A friend of mine, she’ll put her all into the investigation over personal grudges and circumstance. She’ll find you and play lab rat with you. She’s a sadist, you see, she’s essentially the god of verbal abuse. You’d better prepare yourself… ah, I wanted to live some more.”
His expression didn’t change in the slightest, it was difficult to determine if he was serious or not. But, hypothetically, even if he was, I looked forward to what entertainment could be had meeting that detective. More so, I wanted to confront her, and then—
My goosebumps reacted first. Then my fear. A clear change in his will shook my vision.
He had plotted out the moment of my unsightly comedy and used it to counterattack.
In a straight line, no less. The mouth I saw in that instant mouthed this. His lips bent crooked and ghastly. His eyes lit with joy just barely contained.
My fear had my body react at its absolute fastest but even that was too slow. He pounced at my knees, scooping away my footing in a double-leg takedown. The knife I swung as I collapsed only grazed his head and made off with a few hairs.
I cursed my own folly. My back tumbled onto the stone carpet. The sharp rocks stuck in making me hard of breath. I had not the time to take it easy. The instant I forcefully tried to rip him off by plunging my knife into his brow, his left hand thrust out even faster, pushing something long and slender up against my right arm. Sparks flew the next instant. My eyes were clad in enough light to make me dizzy.
It was followed along by a sharp heat and impact to my right arm that for a moment made me wonder if it had burnt off. He had used that momentarily lapse to cry out as he snatched the knife from my hand and stab it into my right arm. This time it was my turn to cry out, but he wouldn’t even permit that. In my vision burned from the light, he shoved his hand into my mouth. He pressed the tip of what he had used before, presumably a stun gun up against my throat and flicked the switch.
A sharp pain, like a needle had pierced from in and up through the top of my head assailed me. Sudden nausea and loss of willpower. The nerves in my face were paralyzed, I couldn’t contain the tears or snot. He pulled out his hand upon confirming I’d lost the will to resist.
“Of course, it’s a lie. The only thing that can kill me is time or heart, something sickeningly romantic. A sickening murderer should just sleep in the meat drawer of the freezer. I don’t hate living to begin with. I’m a sweetie I am. I don’t know any female detectives in the first place, and if my girlfriend caught me cheating with someone like that, I’d have no choice but to choose death. What am I, a ninja?”
He over-exercised his mouth while he pulled the knife from my arm. I couldn’t even raise a groan at the pain. It was like a steel ball was embedded in my face, the worst sort of oppressive feeling had stolen expression from me.
I was now little more than a corpse capable of slight thought.
“Unfortunately for you, this isn’t my first time facing down a murderer… a shame you can’t remember.”
He said something but I couldn’t pick it up. I was wracking my brain desperately to escape from this unpleasant sensation.
“But you really are an idiot, Mii-kun. I was retorting to myself the whole time. Are you supposed to be a protagonist who swore never to kill again? Are you supposed to be a boy stuck to the display window yearning for a trumpet? I wondered if you belonged to an evil organization that faithfully refrained from attacking during the transformation sequence, and I suspected you might be a hero of justice respectfully hearing out every word of the villain’s tragic backstory. On top of that, I wondered if you’d been stuck on a deserted island alone for half a year and with only animals to talk to, and I wondered if you’d jumped into the future and met someone who actually understood your words for the first time. Was talking to me really that interesting?”
It was precisely as he said. Why had I acted under the premise of not killing him immediately? Why was I enjoying a friendly chat? It was a defeat that made his evaluation of ‘foolish’ an understatement.
I saw him stoop down by my side. Had the cut in his thigh opened up? “Oww, oww,” he jokingly muttered. He took my left arm, pressed the joint against his knee, and folded it without hesitation. While A shrill shriek escaped back of my throat, he showed no reaction. This was probably something of the same nature as when I took apart bodies. The attitude of someone at work.. He dislocated both my legs while he was at it. The pain was numb by that time, the steel ball that had once occupied only my face had unpleasantly reached the rest of my body.
I failed. He must have realized it, I can only kill people subconsciously. I was being broken. No, was I already broken?
While I couldn’t tell whether he was lying or not, the fear he spoke of a moment ago was seeping into my body ever-so-slightly. I wanted to die. I wanted to die and put an end to this unpleasant, impaired self. I tried my best to get it across with my eyes, but he wasn’t looking at me.
My eyes caught sight of the knife, dripping with his blood and mine. I couldn’t distinguish which was which, the liquid was all the same color. I didn’t care whether our meeting had been intentional or fate, but this alone I could accept.
We were the same species.
It was just as you said.
But so what?
It happened, just like I thought it would.
It didn’t end at a talk.
Was that my fault?
Did I mistake the process?
If we had started with a talk, then what?
Could we have been friends?
Did I want to be?
I felt like taking back that wish, yet I also felt like accepting it from the heart.
“Remember me in the revolving lantern.”
Only those words he said to look cool remained at the end.
Aah, I’m going to be killed by a member of my race.
For a long time now. So long in continuum I was losing my awareness of it. It was always a pre-established destiny, something beyond my control would mix itself into my affairs.
These three weeks weren’t bad. A past composed of the sort of peaceful life that can only be recalled in fragmented moments. No moments wonderful enough to be proud of, no tragedies terrible enough to lament.
Mayu called me a liar and forced me to take a whole week off from school for dates under the grand banner of making up for lost time. I would go get my checkups when Mayu was switched off, having lively conversations about manga with the doctor, only to ruin Mayu’s mood when I returned home late. When Mayu wouldn’t get up in the morning no matter what I did, I tried to get her changed and drag her to school, only for her to wake up in only a skirt and misunderstand, the situation became nonsensical and in the end we never went to school that day.
While I tried playing it cool, writing it all off as fragmented, I couldn’t contain my disappointment in myself for remembering every bit of that trivial nonsense in detail. Not much I can do about it, I’m well aware of my own fastidiousness.
I also played with the Ikeda siblings; while that was going on, the Kendo club led by Sugawara achieved a high rank at the tournament, causing the man himself to completely ignore the standard schedule for student council announcements and put out some overblown extra. The ninth victim was found.
At the end of those peaceful days, the sound of a phone called out to me, beckoning me to the room absent of its owner. I picked up the landline in her place and pressed the answer button.
“Hello, this is Misono.”
“Oh why hello there. That voice can’t be Misono Mayu-chan, I see. Mii-san, perhaps? I’ve been waiting for you.”
“… Pardon my manners, but who might you be?”
“The name’s Kamiyashiro Natsuki, but a humble cog of the machine that is the police force. Best friend of your dear Dr. Koubi.”
Oh, so this is that rumored detective… I see.
“So Mii-san, correct?”
“Mii-san the liar it is. Pleasure, you finally picked up.”
“Ey now, y’all gotta be messin’ wit me. Our line ‘ere’s never gone outta service.”
“Oh no, a fine little lady’s been promptly hanging up these past few days.”
“Ah, must be the ol’ wife. Taught her to mercilessly slam down the phone on those pesky conmen.”
“Would your wife’s catchphrase happen to be, ‘please kill yourself’?”
“No, no, it’s ‘Please be already dead’.”
“What a courteous wife you have there, you have my utmost respect. So anyway, would you consider having an affair with me?”
“Got enough of those already.”
“You’re an enemy of humankind I see; complete and utter trash. Let me be your number three, by all means.”
“That number’s been retired. All involved parties agree: never again.”
“You’re pretty unique, I wonder who you take after.”
“Word on the street’s the neighbor’s kid takes after me.”
“A charming soap opera you seem to be involved in. If you don’t admit to being the father soon, I’ll have to take you in for lese majeste.”
“You must be joking, Kamiyashiro-san. No matter what the DNA evidence says, to that child, his daddy’s his one and only daddy.”
“You seem to be intent on getting me angry.”
“And failing badly, going off the chuckles.”
“I’ll steal your girl.”
“Wow, how scary.”
“It will be a surprise blitzkrieg as the deliveryman, to be precise. The success rate of that strategy is in the major leagues.”
“Then I’ll tell my wife to take the walk.”
“How cold, Mii-san. I’ll just have to drop by your place at a later date. I always did want to meet Mayu-chan so it’s two birds with one stone, two rabbits one hunt.”
“… As you wish, then you leave me with no choice but to answer to your passions, Kamiyashiro-san. But we’ll have to keep it a secret from the wife.”
“All affairs come to light someday.”
“Incidentally, Kamiyashiro-san, have I by any chance met you before?”
“Quite a primitive pickup line. I can’t say I’m impressed.”
“Oh no, I’m just sure I’ve indulged in your beautiful voice before.”
“My, I was thinking so too. I fell head over heels the moment I heard your voice!”
“Falling for a voice, eh? You better watch out for scam callers.”
“Where shall we meet, dearest?”
“Understood. Until then.”
The call cut. Only to ring again in two seconds.
“The closest department store to Mayu-chan’s residence, the café on the third floor. Tomorrow at eleven.”
“… The one in front of the station? Very well. If you’ll excuse me.”
I put down the phone.
When our field trip was supposed to be next week, things just wouldn’t go my way. I’ve never been able to steer things in my direction, not once in my life.
Once the call was over, I slid open the screen to the Japanese room. The room itself was greeting the boundary between fall and winter and its internal temperature was following a downward trend.
“Oh, welcome back.”
And in the room, the two of them sat there quite naturally, raising their eyes from their manga to greet me. The large stack of volumes I’d borrowed from the doctor towered right beside them. I returned the greeting, closed the door and took a seat myself.
I snatched the nearest book and opened it to some arbitrary page. In around the time it took me to read a single page, I had concentrated my mind on internal thoughts rather than any outside information. To put it broadly, I was submersed in thought.
Kamiyashiro Natsuki. Police detective. Wanted to be a detective from early childhood. An ambiguous personality on the boundary of lies and truth. The doctor’s classmate. Meaning she would be thirty-one this year. That was all the information I had on her. Apart from that, according to Dr. Koubi, she was a little like me.
Well, if you gazed upon the earth from the moon, you wouldn’t be able to observe humanity, so perhaps it would be hard to judge if we really were similar. However, from that previous exchange, the first impression I got convinced me she was a troublesome individual.
I had a rendezvous with such a charming lady at the café this weekend. Oh, how my heart did race.
“Is that onee-san asleep?”
Kouta-kun’s voice had me change gears. I shut the manga with both hands before answering.
“Nah, she’s protesting our teacher.”
Anzu-chan looked up too, tilting her head. Lately, I was catching glimpses of a more innocent side of her from time to time.
“You know the field trip? She’s demanding to stay in the same room as me at the inn we booked. I told her it wasn’t going to happen, but telling her that’s like talking to a wall, so I just left her and came home.”
Even when I left, she was so entranced in her selfishness going by the name of peaceful discussion she didn’t even stop to take note of my absence.
“Oh… you just left her there?”
Kouta-kun seemed quite surprised.
“Something strange about that?”
“Yeah. You’re always together.”
Anzu-chan answered. Her brother nodded, and personally, “Well you’re right about that,” I could only concede.
“But it’s not good to spoil her too much.”
Mayu was a little too selfish. That side of hers was starting to stand out in our three weeks of living together. She would sulk whenever I didn’t unilaterally accept her opinion, and if she saw me talking with anyone else, she would snap the moment we were alone together.
This goes to show that to Mayu, the most desirable position for me to be in would be in complete subordination.
“… And it’s not like I can be with her forever. The police will get involved eventually.”
I was a criminal, it was certain I’d stand trial someday, so I needed Mayu to relearn how to live on her own. That was neither skill nor wisdom, but a resolve of acceptance.
Was Mayu’s heart capable of that?
Putting all that aside, the word police had Kouta-kun apologetically lower his shoulders. Anzu-chan’s eyes wandered with no destination. It did seem these truly kind children felt some misplaced sense of responsibility.
“There’s nothing for you to worry about. This was originally… yes, it’s probably Mayu’s fault to be honest.”
Come to think of it, what was the point of this kidnapping to begin with? It had become a habit for that question to cast a shroud over my mind, but as of yet, I’ve still forgotten to ask the perpetrator herself. It was far too low on my priority list and did little for my or Mayu’s survival.
“So anyway, you two…”
I swallowed down my words. I scratched the back of my head to restrain myself.
Three weeks. Fifteen days where Mayu and I had attended school, and they were left here alone. They definitely had the opportunity to scream out at their predicament. I did a bit of digging into the construction of this apartment complex and it definitely did have soundproofing measures. However, unlike the bedroom where Mayu screamed out, the location of this Japanese room was just one thin wall away from the neighboring flat. Breaking out of this situation could have been accomplished without raising a finger. The metal fetters binding them to the pillar had practically become a fashion statement that did little to restrict their actual actions, whether that was an upgrade or downgrade.
Even now, they were obediently resigned to their fates. I personally concluded without evidence they wouldn’t take any action, so I haven’t put up any countermeasures myself.
This was a kidnapping that made no sense at all. No, there was little point in making sense of a kidnapper’s inner workings, I guess.
“What about us?”
I dismissively waved my hand to Kouta-kun’s question. “It’s nothing.” I declared.
“A crime must be punished. That is a statement of fact.”
Only if it’s recognized as a crime, that is. I just had to make it so everyone recognized it. If I couldn’t accomplish that, I’d be condemned by public opinion or personal vendetta. Just like what happened eight years ago.
A rough calculation told me more than seventy thousand hours had gone by since that life in confinement, yet I still remembered every minute of that time in perfect detail. I’m sure there are plenty worse situations out there in existence, but I know I’ll never feel so wretched ever again.
Aaah, if only I could leap to the furthest reaches of space to retrieve a trauma removal device.
Anzu-chan called like she was talking to a friend. Upon noticing it would be far more efficient to send the trauma itself across space, I turned to face her.
“Is it alright to leave that Onee-chan alone?”
She pointed at the joint of my middle finger where the hole had already closed.
“I wish I could say yes.”
There was a possibility she would get violent with Kaminuma-sensei when he didn’t take up her proposal. I had my misgivings about that when I pressed the floor button on the elevator. Kaminuma-sensei was a failure of a teacher who took a complete laissez-fair attitude when it came to both bullying and students’ futures, but I could see him threatening court the moment he was on the receiving end of harm. That was the sort of person he was. Well, you’d probably have a valid legal defense if it was only two to three punches. That was just how much he rubbed people the wrong way.
“But it’s alright. To a certain extent.”
If she did resort to violence, her mental insanity would become her strongest weapon. She might have to resolve herself to a mental ward, but worst case scenario, that was an acceptable alternative. If Mayu had people by her side who would stop her, even if she couldn’t live alone, she could manage one way or another.
Anzu-chan stuck up her index finger inquisitively.
“One more question.”
“Oh, acting like a detective, are we.”
She seemed to question my teasing statement by went on regardless.
“Where did you go last night?”
I felt a pressure from the insides of my eyeballs. For an instant, my vision was covered by heavy fog.
“And you went out a few days ago too. Kouta told me.”
Vrrrr, I awkwardly shook my head like a surveillance camera that had deteriorated with age. How peculiar, Kouta-kun’s furrowed brow seemed to say.
“Oh, I was just at the convenience store in the neighborhood.”
The convenience store that kept the fans on at full throttle to ward away bugs, thirty minutes one way.
“At the convenience store, see, I bought a midnight snack bento and ate it. I’m in a growth spurt, I have to eat once every thirty minutes.”
To play it off even further, I blurted out any word that came to me on the fly.
“They say whoever calls someone an idiot is an idiot. Perhaps this is correct. But this is no defense to say the person who was called an idiot wasn’t an idiot either. Meaning an idiot who calls someone an idiot is calling an idiot an idiot and all it makes for is an idiotic grand festival of idiocy.”
I finished that in one breath, the whole time on the verge of biting my tongue. My incoherent ramble on idiocy had managed to narrow their wide acorn eyes into burred chestnuts. Why was I making them even more suspicious?
“… Aaah, I really must prepare for my trip.”
I immediately tried to leave, but Anzu-chan’s body shot up like she was taking a leap as she grasped the sleeve of my uniform.
She said, with a mischievous laugh. This smile that actually suited her age was quite similar to Mayu’s.
“I’m not suspicious in the slightest. Not auspicious either. I, you see, I’m friends with the neighborhood council’s chairman’s grandson’s classmate’s club member, I’m out every night hunting down a murderer, that’s not a lie.”
“… You really suck at lying, Onii-san.”
From beyond his growing fringe, Kouta-kun seemed to stare fondly at the scene of his little sister playing with one of their kidnappers. Did he honestly never suspect for a second I could take any malicious action against her? I was on the verge of losing the miasma settled in my heart at this rate.
Innocent trust tormented the heart like a brush against sunburnt skin.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
Anzu-chan asked, a child-like curiosity being the furthest thing from her sober face.
“Oh… you mean me?”
“Who else do you see here?”
“Well let’s take a look…”
For what it was worth, I did try searching on a faint hope. Perhaps a true gentleman parasite would dig its way out from my body with the words “Very well, let me name myself”.
“I’m just asking for your name, what’s the problem?”
The person with the answer held firm, only prompting Anzu-chan to urge harder. I got the feeling she’d punch me if I told her ‘It’s. A. Secret.’ With a wink, so I tried being honest for once.
“I’m not very fond of my own name. It doesn’t suit me at all, and it’s embarrassing. Both to call myself, and to be called by. That’s why I don’t really want to tell you. I’m sorry.”
I placed my hand on her hair that had lost some of its stickiness through daily bathing. “Anzu,” Kouta-kun called her and, “I know,” she replied sheepishly.
“It’s not like I really wanted to know,” she thankfully fell back with seemingly little lingering attachment.
A breath. I planted my hands behind my back and gazed up at the ceiling.
“… I should pull out my travel bag and start packing.”
Come to think of it, what were we going to do about these kids while we were away? Was it about time to remove the chains? If we just stocked up on food beforehand and warned them not to answer the door, then they could just… no, hold on. Wait a second. Do I already accept that as fact? Is that really alright? That this is already no longer a kidnapping, it’s just your run of the mill homestay?
Every piece was straying from my expectations. Albeit, that was pleasant in its own way.
Around thirty minutes later, the sound effects that signaled the homeowner’s return banged out one after the next. They had come right around the time Anzu-chan and I were pulling at each other’s cheeks, deliberating the profound philosophies of life.
Her footsteps so loud her strong will carried through the air, she appeared behind me.
“Wewcomf dack, Maa-chn.”
I turned to find absolutely no joy on Mayu’s face. Her cheeks were not puffed up like a child. Her features were just as blank and set in stone as when she was turned off, asleep.
Her thoughtless voice not resounding in the room, she grasped the scruff of my neck. And just like that, she dragged me off, Anzu-chan attached to my cheek and all. As I was unable to respond to her abrupt action in time, my head smacked into the floor. Anzu-chan fell into my torso. Her elbow embedded itself right into my solar plexus, forcefully removing the air from my lungs.
“A-a, are you alright?”
Anzu-chan released my cheek and showed genuine concern. When I tried sticking up my thumb to show I was alright, I ended up protruding my index finger instead, proof I wasn’t okay at all. Imprudent as it may be, “I’m fine,” I verbally informed her.
“Guh, I can walk on my own, let go.”
My joke of a protest was ignored as she went on to drag me right out of the room. My bottom smacked into the step out, my knee into the sliding screen. As I vacated, my eyes met with Anzu-chan, who looked strangely reluctant to part, but the words to reach out to her weren’t in my vocabulary.
She released me in the vicinity of the living room table. I corrected my collar as I seated a sour-faced Mayu.
“What are you so angry about?”
The reason was obvious, I tried playing dumb.
“I can’t understand why it’s not allowed.”
The end of her words was accompanied by the lobbing of her bag. That bag collided with the shelf her phone receiver was kept, and the impact compelled the glass sphere beside it to jump off in an act of self-destruction. It came out miraculously half-intact.
“Well yeah, the groups were decided a whole month ago.”
I faced this raging bull head-on.
“Did you end up hitting the homeroom teacher?”
“A month… that’s right, Mii-kun, then you should have come over a month ago!” She ignored the question for some more unreasonable anger.
… I failed to muster the motivation to argue this one out. “I’m sorry,” I lowered my head. Heads are pretty useless; they’re only really good for lowering, thinking, headbutting and eating. You had to make use of them whenever you found the right opportunity, but I knew none of those uses would get Mayu to accept it. Carrying on with this unproductive topic would only get me more depressed, so I changed the subject knowing full well this wouldn’t turn out well for me.
“I have to go out tomorrow.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She was going to follow without asking the reason, place, or intention. I had to wonder what value such an action even held.
“It’s somewhere I have to go alone, I can’t take you.”
A needle of a gaze stabbed into me. But it was impossible to take Mayu. In order to protect our peaceful days, there was no way I could even tell her about the details of this excursion. Telling her I was meeting with the police would just make her anxious, and if she found out I was going to enjoy a little tryst with an older woman, I’d be dead on the spot.
“I need to drop by my uncle’s house. That was the promise I made so I could live with you, Maa-chan. I’ll be back by night.”
One of those was a lie.
“And why can’t I go?”
Hmph, she pouted. A sign her anger had abated somewhat.
“Because a fight will break out. My aunt is already opposed to me living here. My uncle pretends to be understanding on the surface, but he’s actually opposed to it too.”
That was the truth. So set in stone I didn’t need precognition to see. I didn’t want them to meet in my lifetime.
Mayu hugged her knees close. My fingers ran through her hair as she settled passively into my arms. I played around, entwining one of her remaining brown hairs around my finger.
“Hey, we might not be able to stay in the same room, but we can still play together.”
It wasn’t like I had anyone else to go around with. Hahahahah.
… Yeah, can I cry?
“We already live together, can’t you put up with it, just a bit?”
I pat her back lightly like I was pacifying a toddler. Now that it was finally the right season for winter clothing, Mayu was no longer sweating in her long sleeves; her scent could be used as a perfume and no one would be the wiser.
“… Fine. I’ll put up with it.”
The maximum concession this selfish lass could make. She firmly shoved her face into my shoulder and wrapped a hand around my shoulder blade. We silently held one another a while. Ten minutes, just like that.
“… Alright, then let’s get cleaning.”
My awareness as a member of the cleaning committee demanded I take care of the glass. When I placed Mayu on the floor and tried standing,
“I’ll do it.”
“Nah, it’s dangerous. Don’t worry.”
“It’s fine! Mii-kun should just go to sleep!”
A purveyor of cleanliness who detested cleaning and putting stuff in order, her majesty Mayu triumphantly jogged off to the kitchen. I heard a dull sound, she’d either tripped on the way or hit her elbow into the wall, but she was back in a few seconds.
She was carrying long bamboo chopsticks and a plate. She began using those chopsticks to pick up the glass fragments.
Due to her lack of depth perception, it required twice the effort even to pick up the larger pieces.
“Need any help?”
She intimidated me like a cat. I decided to stop at warning her not to pick them up directly. I stretched my body out, right where I was. The wood floor was hard, clad in a certain cool air. It was strangely comfortable.
My thoughts turned as I gazed up at the cheap-looking lights fastened to the ceiling.
I thought over my lies,
I envisioned my upcoming chance encounter with Kamiyashiro Natsuki,
I thought over the murder victims,
I closed my eyes to drive them all away.
The lingering heat of Mayu’s hand on my back was swallowed by the cold of the floor.
Sunday came around. It was a day of heavy rain. A terrible downpour.
The forecast said the clouds would clear up in the afternoon, but the meteorologist himself had seemed skeptical of that claim.
“Hey, you don’t have to go today.” Mayu proposed with a glance out the window. She was awake before nine thirty for once in her life.
“… No, I need to get it taken care of before the trip.” I softly declined as I got my appearance in order. Mayu stood still with a meek look on her face.
As the department store took a little over forty minutes to reach on foot, I would need to leave the apartment complex by ten. I borrowed a black folding umbrella from Mayu and made for the front door.
She cast the words, just as was about to slip on my muddy shoes. In no time at all, she had smeared a tube of lipstick over her mouth. Regardless of the tilt in my head, a rouge-painted Mayu adhered herself to my cheek.
She sucked and sucked, I thought my skin might peel away.
“Hey, that hurts.”
Mayu parted her lips. She glanced over her work with a satisfied smile.
“No wiping it off.”
“… Not even the drool?”
She brushed aside my hand and held up a hand mirror. My cheek had been firmly embossed with a kiss-mark just a little thicker than her lips. The mirror additionally reflected a line of saliva trailing down the side of my face to my chin.
“… I’ll be off.”
I left the room obligated to expose my shame to the world at large.
I arrived at the department store by the station at ten forty-five. The road was ridden will puddles of water deep enough to measure the water level, and one step had soaked me to the tips of my socks.
While perhaps it called itself a department store, it was still a structure that was steeped in the stench of the country. So unimpressive and small it would look like a scrunched up bullied child had it had the misfortune of being sandwiched between buildings from the big city.
While it was that sort of department store, I was surprised by the masses of people, men and women of all ages, I could see gathered under their retractable rain awnings.
After shaking the water off my umbrella, I folded it and ducked through the automatic door. Soon, a cheerful tune, a bright light severed from the outside weather and a sweet scent would greet me.
I stuck my umbrella in a vinyl bag so it wouldn’t drip and stood in front of the guide board. I took a look around. It was at that moment that I learned the source of this sweet smell. A store that specialized in the sale of goods formed from wheat or other starches kneaded in water, fermented with yeast then ingenuously baked: shortened to six letters, a bakery. On closer inspection, the first floor was mainly a grocery market.
A certain peculiar individual in that bakery held my attention. She was silently devouring the free samples, a woman whose attire would either force a look or force someone to look away. She wore a long-sleeve blouse with around five horizontal black and white stripes running across it in total. Her skirt shared the same design. The shirt’s size was considerably large, the straps of her undergarments peeking out only at the top of her right shoulder. In addition to that, the back of this woman’s nearly white platinum-blonde hair was fastened with an ornamental hairpin from a bygone era.
The woman had developed a particular fondness for the green spinach bread. By no means would she ever actually place it on her tray, take it to the register and pay for it. Only the bite-sized samples were shamelessly eradicated one by one. She ate with such vigor it was hard to believe anyone would hazard an objection should she mistakenly move on to the actual merchandise.
Despite my sympathy for the store clerk desperately searching out a good Samaritan to step in, I was about to avert my eyes when the woman suddenly turned her whole body towards me. Sending the contents of her bulging cheeks on a one-way trip to her stomach, she collected herself.
She snatched up the yellow umbrella leaning against the wall, her handbag swinging as she approached with light steps. Her blue sneakers showed no signs of moistness from the trip here, nor did they squeak against the floor.
“Ah, why hello there. I’m Kamiyashiro Natsuki.”
She stopped right in front of me and lowered her head with a gentle smile. She had evidently already looked into the appearance of this supposed Mii-san. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming.
“A pleasure. I’m Mii.”
Whatever the case, I returned the greeting of the police officer dressed up like a prisoner all the while brazenly analyzing her appearance.
The person waiting for me was definitely dressed strange, but what put me off more was her face. Not a small nose, or small eyes, or glossy skin, it came before any of those trivial details. She was far too young.
No matter what angle I exercised, I only saw someone my own age. Was this the magic of makeup? Was Dr. Koubi a master of being held back? Were her cells activated by a special breathing technique?
“Is there anything lacking in my face?”
She provocatively asked, sweeping aside the hair over her eye.
“Well let’s see… it’s lacking in artistic value. I was looking for something more avant-garde.”
“Quite the artistic opinion. I’d expect no less from someone who can shamelessly walk the streets with a kiss mark on his face.”
“Oh, this? It’s an occupational disease.”
My fingers stroked my cheek, protecting it from Natsuki-san’s watchful eyes. I was a third-rate human being completely devoid of honor or humanity, but I could never bring myself to wipe it away. Ask for a reason all you want, but I don’t have one. If I had to say, it’s a fashion statement. I lie.
“But I do see you’re quite the paragon yourself, dining and dashing not only with the free samples but even the merchandise on the shelf. Such foolhardiness leads me to believe you’ve mistaken the duties of your public office.”
Natsuki’s smile didn’t waver, though her eyes were sadly cast down in her laugh.
“I was feeling so very, very down this morning worried whether you’d show up or not, I could barely eat anything.”
“So you went to the baker for a rise? How logical.”
“You flatter me.”
Ufufufufu, her chuckle reminded me of a housewife’s laugh from the ending of a certain nationally-acclaimed anime. Perhaps she would break procedure and break into rock-paper-scissors this very instant.
We suspended the conversation; I tagged along with Natsuki-san, ignoring the resentful eyes from the bakery as we headed for the escalator. I am ashamed to confess that was my first time in that department store, and Natsuki-san’s gait overflowing with confidence seemed perfect to entrust the way.
The third floor came before us without any words exchanged, we entered the café set as our meeting point side by side. A store interior that emphasized white, coupled with the dark look of the sky peeking in through the window made for quite the gray-scale world view.
“Oh, I see there really was a café here.”
Natsuki-san off-handedly leaked her lack of foresight. It was difficult to judge whether she was joking, or an idiot.
After leaving our umbrellas at the stand, she made for a seat in the back. I followed behind, pulling back the olive-brown chair and lowering myself down into it.
“These days off aren’t half bad. When my classmate is losing so much salt he could perform an exorcism with an overly hot-blooded captain, I’m out here on a date with a woman as pretty as you.”
I win, Kaneko. Oh wait, when he was recruiting for the club with Sugawara and the others, I remember him hooking along freshmen with the tag line, ‘you can peep at the girl’s changing room’. In addition to that, it was hard to discern any merit in going on a date with this pretty woman of dubious age, so I guess we’re even.
“My, my, you’ll make Koubi angry if you keep hitting on me like that.”
Before Natsuki-san could play catch with my question, the waiter came over with water and wet towels. He took one dubious look at the lipstick occupational hazard stuck fast to my cheek but had his business smile back up by the time he was taking our orders. I had to applaud his professionalism.
“I’ll have a hot chocolate and Kamiyashiro-san…”
“Oh no, please feel free to refer to me with whatever fond name you’re using in your inner monologues.”
“If you insist. What would you like, Geronimo-san?”
Geronimo-san elegantly covered her hand with her mouth.
“One order of katsu curry please.”
Huh? When did this mysterious figure swap out with that woman chowing down at the bakery? The waiter took our orders with an unerring smile before disappearing into the kitchen.
“So what was that about the doctor?”
Natsuki-san formed a reserved smile.
“Oh yes, we were talking about how she’d be jealous. You’ve been her favorite from way back, Mii-san. You know, Koubi’s first crush came around when she was a senior in high school, and the kid was a middle schooler.”
“Well I’m just glad he wasn’t in elementary.”
“But the amazing thing is there was another high schooler attracted to him, there was a whole triangle and everything. Quite an enthralling school life.”
More outrageous than enthralling. Natsuki-san downed her glass in one breath and wiped her mouth with the towel.
“We’re both young here, Mii-san. There’s really only one thing for us to do.”
“You’re right about that.”
I was having a little difficulty understanding this thirty-year-old’s Japanese, but I pretended I knew and tried agreeing.
“So Mii-san, what are your hobbies?”
“I do consider myself somewhat a spy camera of passion.”
“Oh, how modest.”
She elegantly smiled.
“Would you also happen to enjoy strolls at night?”
She calmly declared, her smile standing strong. Eyes were said to say just as much as the mouth, but she had closed them to make sure nothing was revealed.
“I am a country delinquent, after all.”
I arbitrarily answered. At the moment, like she was holding up a commitment, she triumphantly thrust out her index finger.
“Objection, I say. We’re not in court, so I don’t need evidence, do I? You really shouldn’t lie, Mii-san.”
Now was I supposed to take that in a general sense, or was she referring to what I just said?
“You’re a country street thug.”
“… As expected of a detective. I’m surprised you knew.”
You got me, I lightly raised my hands in submission.
“Now as a penalty, how about you tell me your real reason?”
The real reason, eh. I picked up my water glass, touching it to my lips with a glance at the outside scenery. Whether I spoke truth or lie, it wasn’t like this person would believe me. She was the possessor of such brain matter that labeled me with suspicions of murder.
What this person wanted wasn’t testimony of the truth, but conduct born from a falsehood.
“Very well, Natsuki-san. I’ll tell you and only you. Just this once.”
“Was I not Geronimo?”
She said as she produced a pipe from her bag and lit it. Immediately, an unpleasant stench drifted over making my hairs stand on end.
“Ah, I almost forgot. You never did like peppermint, right.”
“Can’t stand it.”
“Then let me put this away.” She politely accepted my objection and withdrew it. Was that her roundabout way of getting across that she knew every little detail about me? The conversation was put on hold until the stench dispersed.
“There is only one reason I walk the streets at night. It is to catch the murderer.”
“My, my, do you fancy yourself a hero of justice, Mii-san?”
“Yes, precisely. In fact, I contribute to society at least five times a week by keeping away from other people.” I carried on with my unproductive counterattacks. I would never be as foolish as to have a serious dialogue with someone of her stripes. “It is a protagonist’s duty to clear the distrust placed on him with his own hands.”
Not that I’m a protagonist.
Matsuki-san’s eyebrow quivered ever so slightly.
“The feelings that you, Natsuki-san… my apologies, Geronimo-san, hold for me.”
A wrinkle graced her brow but she smiled through it. She apparently hadn’t brought any other expressions with her. If every aspect of human emotion could be displayed with a smile, I got the feeling she would be having facial muscle pains all year round.
“I do…? Well I don’t hate you, and distrust carries a negative connotation. How about we go with doubts?”
“Thanks for that. You’ve made me so grateful I just might accept you as my number zero.”
“I’m glad you think so highly of me. Even so, doubts, is it? What could you possibly be talking about…?”
Her words trailed off, her hand crept up to her cheek. She cherubically tilted her head.
Was it distrustful of me to imagine her muttering, ‘It’s not a doubt if it’s already certain’?
“It’s fine. Let’s just leave it at that.”
I shifted in my chair and ended up entrusting all my weight to the backrest. Natsuki-san right across was observing me with closed eyes. We ended up in a staring contest, and I tried putting power into my eyes wondering if she could just turn to stone already.
“… Dear me, you may be a country good-for-nothing, but you can’t just stare at your tryst like that…”
“Mn, ah, sorry. I just became so engrossed observing your hairline…”
She shook her head, “Then I guess it can’t be helped. I’m well aware of your distaste for the police. When were at a standstill eight years ago, in the end, it was pretty much you who singlehandedly resolved the case.”
Something went wild in my stomach. I took the cup and shoved water into my lips to quell this insurgent.
Eight years ago.
I see, thought I. So we’re starting from there.
“That was you, wasn’t it? The one who called the police?”
“Was it now? I can’t recall. The only time I remember ever phoning the police was by mistake.”
Natsuki-san didn’t stop on my words any longer than the sound of the rain.
“You were brave, Mii-san. All those corpses around you, you calmly escaped and made the call. Ah, come to think of it, you did testify your memory from the time was hazy… have you gotten it a little in order?”
“I can organize them all I want, the pages you want are missing. They’re impossible to restore.”
“You really can’t remember who the killer was?”
“Unfortunately not. Are you certain it wasn’t something so beautiful as a suicide driven by a deep-seated sense of self-condemnation?”
Though that was a lie. I understood down to my bones those folks were the furthest you could get from anything so admirable.
“Is that so… you’re right, it’s best not to dredge up bad memories. Just look at Misono Mayu-chan.”
She put on a play, emphasizing the tragedy element all while raising a name that was beyond ironic. Since I didn’t show any particular reaction, Natsuki-san didn’t linger any longer on Mayu than necessary.
“Come to think of it, in regards to this more recent string of murders…”
She quickly returned to her standard smile to declare.
“The culprit is a high school student.”
Not just any student, a high school student?
“What’s your basis for that?”
“Well let’s see… the first thing that hinted they were a student was the timing of the crimes.”
“How very cliché.”
“All nine incidents occurred either late at night on a weekday, or at any time of day on a weekend. They occurred most frequently on a weekend afternoon… quite straightforward.”
“It could just be some unemployed man or woman pretending to be a student.”
Her eyes opened halfway, her shoulders shook a bit. These were the gestures of a doll.
“You’re right, we should take that into consideration. But that begs the question, is the culprit really so prudent? To feign a student’s schedule across numerous incidents, and keep that constant despite the increased security during these timeslots? If they wish to keep their secrecy, then they must surely be attentive to the demerits of continuing this common trend.”
“You do have a point there.”
Even I was unclear on what I was agreeing to.
“Going off the state the corpses are left in, it is clear the culprit has a tendency towards the macabre. But there are also victims that haven’t been dissected at all. The culprit must possess quite the whimsical nature, wouldn’t you say?”
“Who knows? It’s beyond me.”
“No thought or consideration is paid. Our culprit commits murder as if it is but an extension of his everyday life. A criminal who clearly hasn’t put thought into his murderers, naturally pays no thought to the timeslots either. He murders at his own convenience, when he has the free time. It might come on a whim all of a sudden on the way to the convenience store. That is the sort of student I imagine to be our perpetrator.”
This had turned into a solo recital with no space for my input. What’s more, did she really have to bring up the convenience store as an example? She really had looked into every last detail of my life, hadn’t she. But hey, every man has a stalker or two—it’s the true big-shots that accept it with a positive attitude.
“Have you been following the news? The newspaper counts.”
I nodded along to a welcome segue.
“Then you must be aware of the details of the most recent two cases.”
“I don’t know enough to call it detailed, but more or less. The eighth victim was the chairman of the neighborhood council, the latest one was a middle schooler high strung about his exams, I believe.”
Her chin bobbed lightly at my words, after which she left few seconds of empty space. The moment I had my misgivings about the silence, she rudely ran her eyes all over my face.
“… What is it?”
“Does it ever get tiring? Always being so expressionless?”
“It must take far more effort to constantly keep up that smile, surely.”
I can’t remember smiling once these past few years. Let’s return to the main topic.
“The part I want to emphasize about these two victims is, as you might have guessed, the time slot. They both occurred late night on a weekend. All seven cases before them took place either a weekday night, or a weekend morning or noon. Not a single weekend nighttime murder.”
Meijin’s move, Lance to 4-3.
I felt so cornered I could hear the sound of the pieces hit the board.
“Now let’s look at this from the viewpoint that he’s killing in his free time… a change in his available free time might indicate some part of his living situation has changed within the past month he committed these two incidents, correct?”
“You can phrase that statement as a question, but I really don’t have an answer.”
My apologies, the person across from me let a thin smile float over her lips.
“Quite a peculiar one we’re dealing with, this culprit, to welcome such change in their life at this time of year.”
She phrased it almost as if my name was interchangeable with the culprit’s.
Natsuki-san finally rested her conspiratorial mouth. She had apparently taken the waiter bringing the hot chocolate into consideration. Despite the fact that wasn’t her order, she gave a welcoming nod.
I took up the white cup left behind and touched its rim to my lips.
“You like hot chocolate, don’t you.”
She was back up again once the waiter was far enough away.
“Did you hear that from the doctor?”
“No, from your aunt, Mii-san.”
An unexpected bolt from the blue.
“Truth be told, I’m acquainted with both your aunt and your uncle. The connections in a small country town are quite fascinating, wouldn’t you say?”
“They often talk about you. They lament all the night shifts. As you’re always out on weekends, they barely have any chance to interact with you as family.”
“That’s something I should contemplate as well…”
I was forced to go through what it felt to be herded by a sheepdog. Although one corner of me felt the joys of being a skilled snake oil salesman.
“They’re never at home at night, making it difficult to stop any nighttime outings you might feel obliged to.”
Each line of Natsuki-san filled in a slot of the dirt-cheap sixteen-piece puzzle.
The picture it depicted already clear as day, she went at it carefully. She made sure not to rush.
“Oh, but their biggest worry is the fact you’ve taken up a residence with your girlfriend. I’m sure Misono Mayu-chan is stuck to you around the clock. As a single woman myself, you could color me envious.”
The last piece was in her hands.
“I am terribly interested in Mayu-chan’s daily schedule.”
That was check.
This person’s heart was clear. She was always keeping it fully exposed. How truly unpleasant. I ran my tongue along my dry mouth to provide the slightest bit of moisture before it became my turn to speak.
“I’m sure you hardly need to ask.”
My eyes darted outside. You could also say I averted them. The rain was already a light drizzle.
“You’re right, let’s finish this conversation before the curry arrives.”
Natsuki-san’s lusterless eyes seized grasp of my core. And. A topic of lower priority than her midday meal had reached its end.
“A culprit who’s recently had a limit placed on his conduct, with a habit of night strolls…and Mii-san, you’re a high school student.”
“… I see.”
I see. Because I was the culprit, the culprit had to be a high school student. How efficient.
“U kuh kuh kukukukukuh.”
Abruptly, and in unison. No attempt made to cover our voices, Natsuki-san and I shared a pleasant laugh. Mine was long. Hers was short.
We laughed until our cheeks were hurting, only after the customers from the neighboring table had evacuated did Natsuki-san finally bring it all together.
“Quite the intriguing game of cat and mouse.”
“You’re telling me. Searching for motives that don’t exist; I quite nearly confessed to a crime I have no recollection of committing.”
Our shoulders shook grandly, emanating the joy and the thrill that had built in our hearts.
Talking with this person was like playing old maid with two people, under the irrational tantalizing dread that only the opponent’s hand was decreasing. It was depressing, misleading, a learning experience, and ultimately enjoyable.
Amusing enough to warrant a laugh.
Perhaps because I had raised a laughing voice I was in no way accustomed to, my throat cried out in thirst. I moistened it with the hot chocolate, a little too sweet, my heart basking in the afterglow of these empty speculations.
Right, this had been little more than a game. There was no evidence.
If she had any, she wouldn’t be meeting me on personal terms today. We’d be confronting one another professionally at the station. The item on the table would have been not hot cocoa, but a katsudon, undoubtedly.
Natsuki-san’s nose twitched, so I tried working my own nose to herald the drifting scent of an uncooperative curry that completely ignored the theme this store was going for.
“Why don’t we have a walk in the courtyard once we’ve finished up?”
I reverentially accepted her marriage-interview-esque invitation. Is your courtyard surrounded by iron bars? Or so, I kept that boorish retort tucked away in my chest.
After leaving the café, I let the wise (self-proclaimed) and beautiful (I’ll give her that one) Kamiyashiro Natsuki escort me.
“The daifuku here’s delicious.”
“Western sweets are over there. They’ve got a shop with great fruit jelly.”
“Ah, they’ve got akafuku on free samples, off we go.”
Natsuki-san’s courtyard was more precisely a food court.
We did a full round buying up all manner of eastern and western confectionaries. After which.
“You used to live with Dr. Koubi?”
An oobanyaki she’d treated me to in hand, we stood side by side by the fence on the roof.
While I had forgotten the umbrella at the café, the rain had already abated, and it was a pain to go get it.
“Yes, back in college. We were both admitted to a local university, and taking both our living expenses and festering relationship into account, we decided to live together. Ah, I mean fester in the best possible sense.”
Did that word even have a good sense?
From the bag hanging from her hand, Natsuki-san produced the second oobanyaki and shoved it into her mouth.
The corners of her eyes drooped, as if she was biting down on pure happiness extract.
“I’m surprised you agreed to meet me outside. Was that preferable to letting me meet Mayu-chan?”
She posed the slapdash question after she’d finished her oobanyaki in two bites.
“Oh right… yes, it would be quite a hassle if you started fighting over me.”
I could only think up such an unoriginal reason. Going off of Natsuki-san’s personality, I was sure she’d play along and say ‘Thanks for the consideration’, but she simply stared at me without a word. She didn’t demand any further competition between a fox that isn’t red, and a tanuki that didn’t come from the future. In that case, I was better off wielding a sliver of truth to accomplish my objective.
“There was something I wanted to ask you when we were alone.”
“What would that be?”
“It’s about the siblings that went missing. In the end, was it classified as a homicide?”
I probed this policewoman for answers. For some reason I got a sense of déjà vu, a flashback to asking pre-drafted questions at the factory tour our elementary school field trip had taken us to.
“Hard to say,” she tilted her head. It was difficult to believe she would offer information to a suspect, or so I thought.
“Truth be told, there’s a good chance the Ikeda siblings just ran away from home.”
“…………………… Ran away.”
“Their home situation was pretty bad, by the look of it. The parents would be arguing until morning, their anger would turn to the kids, and they’d be beaten as a stress reliever. They’ve run away from home before, and it’s possible this is another one of their escapes. They’ve just been away a bit too long this time around.”
“They’re habitual offenders…”
The information whipped my lazy brain to work.
Runaways. Search radius. A homicidal maniac.
Runaways searching for a maniac… why did I stick those together?
Putting all that aside, there was a more pressing matter. How to pacify this situation. How to use the worst means to derive the best result. The importance of a bower. If you wish to hide a tree and its origin, it was best done in the forest.
The answer was quite straightforward as long as you removed any fixation on morals or ethics.
“It’s already been more than a month, their safety is questionable. Whether it be running away, murder, or kidnapping.”
I mustered a template reply, rolling the method that came to me around in my head. Shifting responsibility, imposing, inhuman, treating people like pieces, failure as a human being. A more multilateral examination would probably just yield more criticism.
But through the pursuit of it, I could earn the trinity of safe, easy and effortless.
“But from your position, Mii-san, you can’t help but wonder?”
In what sense did she mean?
“Exactement, ma chere.”
A shrill 8-bit rendition of a song that was popular five years ago chimed out, completely overriding my display of fluent French. From the pocket of her striped skirt that resembled a terribly popular design in prison, Natsuki-san pulled out a blue flip phone and opened to the standby screen.
“Would you look at the time.”
She made it seem like a bit of a big deal, so I took out my own phone and checked the digital clock on the LCD. Around an hour had gone by since we left the café, it was just passed twelve-thirty.
“I’m sorry, I need to get to work.”
She sounded apologetic. Where exactly was she allowed to work, dressed like that?
“Is that so? Truly a shame, but there’s little to be done about it.”
“Seeing how happy that made you, I’m glad I shared that information.”
“Please watch out for police cars, you might get arrested by mistake.”
My warning was sincere. She accepted it with a smile. What a good atmosphere we were building up here.
“Would you mind sharing your cellphone number, Mii-san?”
I obliged and quickly listed out ten digits.
“Thank you, have my number too… well then, if you feel like turning yourself in, just call me and confess. I’ll be waiting.”
An elegant bow and she was off.
But, just as suddenly, she turned back like a swivel chair, returning right to the same spot with the same steps.
“I’m doing this on my own time.”
She entered my bosom in an instant and tightly embraced my head. My knees reflexively buckled. The surface of my face was buried in a chest I would hardly call abundant.
It had come with no warning, her body movements with no tempo or telegraph prevented me from moving a muscle.
“Hmm, you smell nice…”
“… Should you really be doing this with a murderer?”
“I’m apprehending my suspect.”
I could tell from her voice she was thoroughly enjoying this. I was going to get goosebumps. In complete defiance of my body’s rejection reaction, my hands stretched out to her back. Carefully making sure my half-eaten oobanyaki didn’t sully her clothing.
“Ah, well you know, I wouldn’t want you getting stabbed in the back…”
I tacked on a reason, quite confused myself.
“Why thank you,” she replied.
Her back in my loose embrace was largely defined by the texture of bone. It was hard to correlate this with the body of someone who had polished off bread, a katsu curry, fruit jelly, akafuku, shrimp crackers, silky fowl egg pudding, Matsumae pickles and oobanyaki within the span of one hour.
Her fingers entered my hair. As she combed her way through, her nails lightly scratched against my scalp, only worsening my goosebumps.
“… Umm, how long are you going to keep me in custody?”
“You’re still under investigation. And Mii-san, you’re not letting go of me either.”
“This is, well it’s…”
She broke into a laugh.
Her hand left my head. She smoothly slipped out of my arms and left a step between us.
One back glance at my failure to cover my unrest, Natsuki-san covered her mouth, her shoulders shaking mischievously.
“You’re the type women like.”
She left those words as a parting gift. With light steps, this time she left the roof behind her.
I groaned as I corrected my posture, turned to the fence, and looked out over the majority-green scenery a while. Once about a minute had passed, I finally got flustered, a bit too late. I scratched my neck with my index finger.
What was that? Did she plant a listening device on me? Perhaps a tracker? Was that some sort of physical examination? Whatever it was, once I got home, I was going to throw my clothes in the washer and take a bath.
Yep, sounded like a plan.
I was finished with hiding my embarrassment. After shoving what was left of my oobanyaki in my mouth, I turned.
To find Mayu standing there.
Ever fiber of my being came to a complete halt.
Black umbrella, black sweater, black skirt, black platform shoes, black hat, black hair.
A get-up so muted it had become a black hole sucking in attention, all fashioned atop her pale white skin.
Misono Mayu stood.
Either Mayu or I took a step towards the other, the distance between us now closed to thirty centimeters.
Between me and Mayu, one of us opened their mouth and spoke.
Liar, someone said.
Right, I am a liar.
The switch was flipped. In the opposite direction, forcefully.
“You were tailing me?”
Something came back. This one was my voice.
Mayu silently lifted up her arm. Not a slap, but a clenched fist. Her movement so slow and dull I could see it coming a mile away. Did she honestly think I couldn’t dodge? I swallowed everything in my mouth without chewing.
“Maa-chan is a liar.”
I was hit. Her clenched fist landed on my cheek and ran across my front teeth, tearing her skin. Yet another cut on the hand of Misono Mayu.
“Was it fun playing detective?”
I was hit again. Her eyes beyond the cap she wore low over her brow were cold and stagnant like stone. Her fist was painted with blood red and crimson rouge. That which should never be erased was deleted by the very person who had painted it.
“What. Was. That.”
“Don’t call her a that, she’s older than you.”
She smacked my temple with her umbrella.
You’re wrong, Maa-chan, that was someone who was trying to expose your sins.
This isn’t about cheating or anything so silly.
“Why can you smile?”
Was that the right question to ask a human being?
“You never smile when you’re with me.”
Oh, I see.
She was… Jealous.
Right, jealousy. An emotion I detested.
I tried laughing.
I was hit.
I held her close.
Mayu thrust my two arms away and took distance.
“You smell like that woman.”
Had she ever taken in the scent of Kamiyashiro Natsuki?
Yes, it was possible she had.
“You’re not Mii-kun.”
So that’s all it took for me to no longer be Mii-kun.
If I’m not kind, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I’m not always paying attention to Maa-chan, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I show good will to anyone else, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I’m not Mii-kun, I’m not myself.
I took a look around.
Wire mesh, huh?
It’s pretty low.
I’m sure they had no precedent, so they hadn’t even thought of placing countermeasures.
I snapped my neck around to look at Mayu.
“I did it for you. It’s because I XXXX you, I had no other option.”
Though that’s a lae…?
That’s A ly THAT’sa lieTHAT’s A LIEALLYALYE that’s a lhy. XXXX exexexexLIE It’s a ligh lye laye kiemieliedelete
Delete. Delete. Delete.
Space, correct. CORRECT, CORRECT, CORRECT, CORRECT.
That’s a luy. That’s a lai. That’s a li. That’s a lie.
There we go, that’s it. That’s the one.
That’s a lie.
I planted one foot into the metal mesh and used it as a springboard to leap up. I grasped the top portion to pull my body up. Once my feet stood on top, I had abandoned all sense of stability in the world.
I turned to her, my hands not supporting me up.
My XXXXly Maa-chan opened wide her incomprehensive eyes. What do you think is going to happen? You’ll see soon enough, you don’t have to think anything, Maa-chan. You just have to bear witness.
Bear witness, and please live a happy life. I’ll be praying from the next world for your health and longevity.
Before anyone could say anything, I had jumped over the boundary.
So began the most unfettered time in my life.
I fell head first. The blood drained from my head.
I heard the sound of the sky.
Ah, I forgot a bungee cord.
This murder has been postponed due to the state the culprit is in. We apologize for any inconvenience.
Seven o’clock when the morning sun was at its brightest. I passed in front of the school far too early to attend, walking on and on until I had arrived at Mayu’s apartment. We’d be living together starting today. I ended up waking up early with the thrilling expectations of an adult on the release date of the sequel to a game that had been part of his childhood, one he’d been awaiting for twelve years. A lie, mind you.
I simply didn’t want to meet my aunt who was practically nocturnal, working the night shift as a nurse. We had gotten into quite a large fight when I got home yesterday. Before illicit relations even came to question, we were shouting at one another, denying each other basic human rights as we questioned whether the other had any right to live. Before the fight could turn physical, my uncle—a doctor who was a little more understanding— stepped in and permitted it under the condition I came by to see them at least once a month. My aunt was opposed to the very end. She was a little overprotective. But at the very least, she wasn’t as much of a villain as me.
“Perhaps a little too early…”
I rode the elevator to the third floor and muttered as I stopped in front of Mayu’s door. Mayu did sleep quite a bit. At school, I remember often seeing her sleeping over her desk, sometimes sleeping in and only arriving for second period.
“I did promise to come get her, but is she awake…”
I pushed the doorbell knowing it was hopeless. If she wasn’t coming out, I’d just have to waThe door shot open and slammed me in the face.
My overflowing emotion and feelings I couldn’t put into words flowed out as a red liquid from my nose.
While I was pinching my nose, Mayu greeted me with merry innocence.
Mayu tilted her head with her smile. She was wearing her pajamas, and she used their sleeves to carefully do away with the blood pouring out of the gaps in my fingers.
“No need, you’ll get dirty.”
“It’s fine, totally fine. Mii-kun’s is clean.”
The blue and white striped pajama acquired its third shade of speckling, restricted to one portion. Upon witnessing that, Mayu laughed innocently, her eyes clouded with ecstasy. I asked just in case, my face freezing up with the sort of goosebumps and cold sweat as if a reptile had walked along my spine.
“… How long have you been waiting here?”
“… And from when yesterday?”
“Right after I took a bath after you ran away.”
I left this room before seven.
“You were waiting in front of the door?”
Ummmm. Should I break into tears of gratitude at this girl’s devotion, or tremble in the corner of the hall in fear? I couldn’t quite decide. And I didn’t decide, that choice wasn’t meant for someone as twisted as me.
“I should have come sooner, I’m sorry.”
I picked the safe option to test the waters. Don’t worry about it, her light attitude seemed to say as she pounced and embraced me.
She sweetly said, burying her soft face into my chest.
… Hm? Wait, wasn’t there something I wanted to ask this girl who acted like a spoiled child…
“Hmm? You kinda smell like soap.” She noted, letting off quite a sweet scent herself. It was all thanks to that scent that I completely forgot what I was supposed to ask.
“I like morning baths.” I replied, though today was the first time I’d ever taken one. I hadn’t found the time to bathe yesterday.
I entered with Mayu still firmly joined to me. She didn’t even ask if I was going to live with her or not. There wasn’t much point in asking. Or more accurately, not much point in my answer.
The living room was the same as it had been when I last saw it, and I left my school bag and sports bag with a change of clothing on the floor. When I took a glance at the Japanese room, I saw the screen was firmly shut. I’m surprised they didn’t go insane spending all day in there, I noted down as someone else’s business.
“What about breakfast?” Mayu asked as she clung to my arm.
“I haven’t had it yet.”
“I meant bread or rice, which would you prefer?”
Oh, so she already concluded I was eating. If you don’t eat, I’ll have you with chopsticks like yesterday, I vividly imagined her saying. My, my, looks like I really am insane, end quote.
“Then bread. This is a western room and all.”
My answer lacked any coherency whatsoever but, “Understood,” Mayu seemed to have received some sort of understanding. Regardless, she didn’t demonstrate any actual action. I must have received a passing grade as a body pillow, at least judging by the satisfied look on her face. We threw ourselves down on the sofa together and powered on the thirty-two-inch TV.
“This is the first time I’ve watched TV in the morning, Mii-kun.”
So it wasn’t rare, it hadn’t been a while, it was actually a first? The screen showed a familiar scene. A part of the town we lived in. Serial Killer on the Loose, the same old captions burst out in an exaggerated manner.
“I hear someone died last night.”
“Sure sounds dangerous, but people do die every day, they don’t have to make such a big deal about it.”
I lightly feigned ignorance. I already knew about it yesterday. The one who was murdered was the chairman of the neighborhood committee, who had been on patrol. It had happened once his rounds were over, in the meager five-minute window when he’d been alone waiting for someone to swap out. The cause of death rather orthodox, stabbed to death with a blade. Apparently quite the astounding hole was opened up in the side of his head. The incident took place at eight in the evening, close to the elementary school. There were no witnesses. It was about time for some residents to begin suspecting if there really was a human murderer at all. Perhaps this was some occult or supernatural phenomenon. That was simply how foreign murder had been in these parts. Up to half a year ago, at least.
“How scary… Mayu?” She showed no reaction to my thinly veiled impression. She had discarded her prior smile, eyes with no light or impurities gazing at the scenery projected on the cathode ray tube.
“… It’s been a while.” She muttered to herself. At the same time, she basked in remembrance. I found the thought of her remembering far more disgusting, repulsive than shoving a limb into a bucket of maggots.
“Hey.” Mayu suddenly looked at me. Her inorganic eyes gazed right into mine.
“Did Mii-kun do that?” She casually asked. When she had no basis or evidence, her tone barely made it sound like a question at all.
“Nope,” I lied. “Maa-chan, you detest murderers, don’t you?”
“Yep. I hate them more than anything in the world.”
Her face formed a smile once more. She took a seat on my lap as if to hide me away. She pushed our cheeks together and nuzzled me.
“And I XXXX Mii-kun more than anything in the world.”
“… Well thanks.”
Naturally, that wasn’t enough to fluster me.
“Oh what’s this? Mii-kun, your cheek’s heating up. Your skin is getting all bumpy.”
Alright, that was a lie.
“L-let’s have breakfast. I need to get my daily wheat intake.”
My dismay deserved the descriptor of wimp. “Yeah, yeah,” Mayu soothed me with a triumphant, composed smile. How humiliating, for a child to treat me like a child. She could say she liked me and rub up against me all she wanted, but I just couldn’t deal with that one XXXX word. I forced a sour look and warded off my layer of shame.
Mayu parted, walking off towards the kitchen. She seemed to be calmer today, she wasn’t going to sprint off in a rush. Back and forth she swayed like she was pacing through a dream and I called out to her back.
“Just hypothetically… what would you do if I really was the culprit?”
She turned to me and tilted her head like she was trying to twist it off.
“Do about what?”
“No, you know, would you turn me in to the police or call me scary, creepy, pervert, say go die, you idiot…”
I was amazed by the lack of depth in my own imagination. Those were just plain playground insults, lower than elementary school level at that.
“Yeaaah… ah dunno.”
She broke into the local dialect as her head tilted forward. After that, she started walking right back on her way.
“Then Mii-kun, what would you do if I died right now?”
Said her voice from the kitchen. She wasn’t speaking particularly loudly, yet it vividly struck my eardrums.
“I never ever want to think about it, so I don’t know.”
“Yep! Now you get it!”
I see, I get it now! I didn’t get exactly what she was saying, but her surging confidence encouraged me bringing me to some sort of understanding. It wasn’t like I asked with malice, so this was fine for now.
Before I got bored, I carefully opened the Japanese room screen. As expected, the dark room exuded a vile odor that could turn a thousand ships. I covered my nose—only now noticing my nose bleed had stopped— and stepped in.
The two of them were lying down asleep in one corner of the room. Kouta-kun embracing Anzu-chan as if protecting her, while Anzu-chan was curled into a ball like a sunbathing cat.
I did find it heartwarming. But my face muscles wouldn’t budge. It does seem they won’t relax for me without a very specific set of stimulus. What could that be? Why I only smile at fun things of course. Though that was a lie.
I left for now and made for what I presumed to be Mayu’s room, a place I had yet to enter. When I crossed the corridor and opened the door, this time it wasn’t my nose but my eyes I got the strong urge to seal up. There were textbooks strewn over the floor, the bed’s sheets were left crumpled up in a corner. There was a mountain of fancy and funky little gadgets piled over her desk, none managing to carry out its intended function. As Mayu never really actually read, there weren’t any magazines or normal books, nor was there a bookshelf.
I sighed as I stepped over the textbooks to open the closet. The clothing inside was violently stuffed away with no care paid to wrinkling. After digging through Mayu’s clothing, I produced a crude blanket and brushed off a thin layer of dust. I promptly made my escape with it under my arm.
“So the living room isn’t messy because she never uses it…”
An un-lived in living room, I mused at the sheer pointlessness while making my way back. I unfurled it and was just about to drape it over the two when Anzu-chan’s fox eyes reacted.
“… I don’t need it.”
Her pupils half between dream and reality focused up on me.
“Don’t need the dole of a kidnapper…”
Why dole, she knows some hard words there. Unlike with yesterday’s meal, the lack of any immediate physiological demands caused her to demonstrate rejection. However.
“Unfortunately, a kidnapper’s dole is all you’re going to get. Just take it.”
I spread the cover over them. Hiding half her face, her voice muffled by the new layer languidly protested, “I said I didn’t need it.”
“If you forcefully get your way, your brother might catch a cold. Are you sure.?”
Anzu-chan shut up. Her eyes wandered here and there, and finally she burrowed under the cover. I took that as a half-hearted acceptance and decided to leave before she could change her mind.
A fleeting voice like the hum of a mosquito’s wing. Perhaps she had intended I didn’t hear her at all. But in the stillness produced on an early country morning, she would have been better off not speaking at all.
“… Kouta said I had to say it for yesterday…”
She added on as an excuse.
“You’re welcome,” I muttered in my mouth and left. Only now was I recalling how fulfilling it felt to be a complete hypocrite.
Breakfast was spent playing at being a couple: saying “Aaah”, feeding one another, the whole shebang. The moment we left the room, Mayu covered up her childishness. Silent and expressionless, she passed identically as she had up to yesterday as she walked coldly beside me. Was this how an adulterous couple felt leaving a hotel room, I thought, as I accepted this as Mayu’s stance in regards to the world and commuted without a word myself. Though I did lend her a hand in place of the railing when climbing the stairs.
When we arrived at the classroom, Mayu made a straight shot for her seat and hung her bag from the hook at the corner. Her upper body flopped right over the desktop. That was a kiss to the surface head-on. This way of sleeping was a waste of Mayu’s good looks, the other half of this fake couple thought.
Not a single one called out to her. Her sleep wouldn’t be interrupted until after school. Starting with our homeroom teacher Kaminuma-sensei, the teachers at our school operated under a doctrine of live and let live, pretend not to see, and idolized the concept of sitting on the fence. Each lesson began with no one bothering to point out her attitude in regards to class.
Should I have woken her up at lunch break? Would I be better off returning with her? I rested a hand on my cheek at my seat distant to hers, gazing at her sleeping body curled in a C shape, and in the end, decided to take a page out of the teachers’ books and ignore her entirely.
Mayu slept the day away without moving a muscle.
School ended without anything of note. I checked over the headings of the two printouts being passed around in the clamor. One of them came from the student council, the other was about the field trip.
The student council flier was filled with platitudes from the diseased minds that stood at the top of our dear school. Quite literally. Only a single line was an advisory about the murder case that was shaking the nation as of late. ‘Be careful if you meet anyone carrying anything dangerous,’ a statement that made me wonder what dangerous substances occupied the brain matter of whoever wrote it. The remaining blank space was covered up by the student council executive committee’s various ideals, fashions and exploits (with a hierarchy of importance, of course), meaning it was literally a ‘look at me’ self-aggrandizing paper. With a group like that in charge, I wouldn’t pick a fight even if I were some mysterious transfer student. I folded a paper airplane and flew it into the trash. Score.
The other flier, on the other hand, detailed the itinerary, recommended budget and contact information for our school field trip; it was more geared towards parents and guardians. After a broad glance over it, I folded it and tucked it away.
We were scheduled to go on a field trip around three weeks from now. A month ago, Kaminuma-sensei had off-handedly explained that it would be a three-night, four-day trip, touring all around Northern Kyuushuu. When I heard that, I couldn’t help but imagine just how much our student council president Sugawara Michizane would be teased one we got to Daizaifu Tenmangu.
Now then, while Mayu usually revived herself once school was over, she didn’t look like she was resurrecting today. I felt a little hesitant but putting it on the scales with the retribution that likely awaited me should I return alone, I picked the lighter option.
I inconspicuously traced the back of the classroom to her seat. I gently shook her shoulders. This was the first time anyone had ever attempted to do so and I garnered just a bit of attention.
Despite some incomprehensible murmurs, she raised her face with sleepy eyes, slurping in her drool as she rationalized my existence.
“Yeah, let’s go ho- me?”
Mayu pounced on me with a cry for joy. I had to catch her with my entire body. And she kissed me. It was quite surprising indeed. Exclamation point.
Sound receded from the classroom. Sound echoed within me and nowhere else. The contraction of my muscles, the grating of bones, the rubbing in my joints. The beat of my heart. Mayu’s tongue crept its way in, squirming as if it were collecting up my spit. She licked all the way from the bottom of my tongue to the back of my teeth, slurping up the fluids she’d amassed with an indecent noise. That was evidently where she finally awoke. She rapidly jumped back.
“… Bad idea?”
Her finger scooped up the saliva dangling from the edge of her mouth. She expressionlessly looked up at me.
“… It felt like saying good morning to our new life together……”
I got the feeling an impenetrably strong wall was suddenly constructed between me and my classmates. Oh come on, you see these sorts of stupid couples all the time around the station. I thought I would proclaim it so in a loud voice, but I felt that would be digging my own grave, so I kept it to myself. A lie, mind you.
Mayu briskly and carelessly folded the printouts down the middle, shoving them into her bag without so much as a first glance. She immediately stood from her seat. I never looked for belonging here to begin with, and now I’d be rejected entirely. Of course, in a high school full of local students who knew all about our kidnapping case, I couldn’t hope for anything as extravagant as friendship.
I followed Mayu to the corridor. She didn’t seem affected by her failure in the classroom. She was calm, as if nothing had happened, correcting her crooked clothing. Her display right now confirmed I was the only one she ever wanted to see her infantile side. I was the exception. Does that make me happy you ask? Let’s just say yes for now.
Putting all that aside, there was Mayu’s bag to worry about. I associated her treatment of it with the disastrous state of her room and decided to have her show it to me once we were out in the corridor. “Go ahead?” the bag she handed over was featherweight class. I opened it for now. A prismatic display of printouts had formed a mountain at the bottom. I could see her textbooks and notes had mysteriously vanished. Rather, they were still just laying around her room, weren’t they.
I stuck my hand down to the bottom to collect all the printouts. Had she been hoarding them from first year? I noted the flier distributed at our commencement ceremony. Regardless, I opted to throw them out altogether.
I turned to a voice from the classroom. Kaneko was there, standing against the door.
“What’s up, class rep?”
He approached with an ambiguous laugh to my spiteful tone. A finger scratching his forehead, a hand to his hip, what a busy man he was. Then don’t waste time on us, I thought to myself.
“No, not you, I’m asking Misono-san.”
“What do you want?”
She immediately reacted to her name. Not as hostile as yesterday, but her cold impression still the most conspicuous part of her.
“No, remember, I was thinking about asking you yesterday. What do you think this school’s good points are?”
Mayu took a short sidelong glance at me before, “It has none,” she curtly replied.
“Aaah… none, huh. Yep, got it.”
At the end of his empty words that couldn’t even be considered one end of a conversation, Kaneko’s face miserably fell apart. The look of his drooping eyes passed through Mayu, reaching the man silently watching over these developments—me. He was clearly phoning in an emergency. I could also see him concealing his interest in asking for the juicy details of ‘what exactly was that back there?’. Therefore, I quite blatantly pretended not to notice. A simple ‘alright, thanks’ would end this exchange already. Why couldn’t he just say it?
“Ahem, ahem. Well, nothing would be a bit troubling here. I’m taking statistics, see.”
“A lax school policy. A scenic location. It has all the necessary facilities. Is that enough?”
“… Yeah, that works.”
I never should have asked, was the message conveyed by his bitter expression. But, “Oh, one more thing,” he started up with.
“Were, umm, you two dating?”
Looks like that was what he really wanted to know, I could see a dubious sense of accomplishment on his face the moment he said it. Mayu, in contrast, was thoroughly indifferent.
“And what good would it do me to answer that question?”
Just as Kaneko was about to greet his limit,
“Now look here, if you’ve got time to hit on a girl, then get to swinging that bamboo sword until sweat erupts from your arm guards,” A student who exited the neighboring classroom called over in a teasing tone. Student council president and captain of the kendo club, among other things. A high school student boasting various titles. Yes, there were all sorts of things he was associated with, but who cares. He was just Sugawara Michizune-kun, who loved talking about himself.
The word omnipotent fit him like a glove; it was hard to think he was the same species as me.
With his relief appearing from an unforeseen direction, the strain in Kaneko’s face slackened. Yes. But still.
“That wasn’t what we were talking about, please don’t link it to such idiotic notions.”
Mayu seemingly lacked the ability to recognize a joke. Instead of reading the mood, she took it quite seriously. The president was taken aback but, “Yeah, sorry about that,” he immediately brushed it aside. He sent Kaneko a sharp side glance, urging him to explain, ‘then what exactly were you talking about?’.
“I was just collecting data for the pamphlet. Hold up, isn’t this something you should be taking care of, captain?”
“Just say they’ll be able to meet me and include a picture. That’s all you need.”
“Hey now, you ever heard of the attraction effect?”
Fed-up as he seemed, Kaneko took on a friendly attitude as he started up a conversation with our student council president. He had put up a thin wall. A clear demonstration of human relations prevented any further entry from our side. We had put up a mosquito ned ourselves, and there was no need for us to loiter outside it at all.
“Yeah,” Mayu replied and gripped my hand.
Our hands were joined down the stairs, and all the way to her shoe cubby.
The moment we returned to her room, “Let’s do something naughty,” Mayu energetically declared as she leaped onto the sofa, only to have taken off to the land of dreams by the time I had gotten a change of clothes from my bag. She was lying face down and it looked like her neck would hurt if I left her there, so I carried her to her room. Cradling her small body, I set her to sleep on the bed. I didn’t feel any strong urge to actually do anything naughty to her. I draped the cover and left.
“I wonder when she’ll be up.”
Deplorable as it may be, I do not possess the skill required to cook rice. Even if I could endure the hunger, I had to do something about the meals for the other two. After changing into casual clothes, I slid open the screen to the Japanese room.
“Oh, welcome back.”
I received a courteous greeting. Is this supposed to be your house? I thought, but giving such a boorish response felt idiotic. “Yeah, I’m back,” I grounded myself in good manners.
The two were sitting huddled close to one another, not much different from yesterday. The only real differences were the blanket on their laps, and the plate their breakfast had been on.
“Umm, thanks, for this.”
Kouta-kun lowered his head, wildly throwing his bangs about. His fingers pinched the cover in bashful delight. Anzu-chan firmly faced her best friend: the wall.
“Anzu, say thanks.”
The brother tugged at his little sister’s sleeve. The sister’s eyes narrowed in displeasure.
“You’re being stupid, Kouta. This guy’s a kidnapper. Why do I gotta say thanks?”
I wholeheartedly agreed. While her argument was terribly simple, it also made perfect sense.
“But this Onii-san wasn’t the one who kidnapped us.”
He was also making sense, but that wasn’t something I could just let slide.
“Oh no, I would quite like if you started thinking I kidnapped you.”
They both turned unpleasant faces at those words. Perhaps naturally, as common sense dictated both Mayu and I were equally criminal. Despite my hypocritic treatment of them, by the point I remained silent that these children were being held captive, I was your average everyday accomplice.
“And she doesn’t have to thank me. Ikeda-san properly said thank you this morning.”
Anzu-chan’s eyelids and mouth flitted open and closed. To operate them concurrently, perhaps that was a high-level ability that could only be carried out unconsciously.
Anzu-chan fled to a corner of the room to avoid Kouta-kun’s face peering into her own. Had she fallen into self-loathing? Her cheeks and ears were slightly touched by red.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you?”
Kouta-kun honestly nodded. Perhaps his fear had reduced, as the movements of his head were getting smoother.
“Could you wait a bit? That onee-san is asleep right now, but if she doesn’t wake up soon, I’ll go out and buy us bento.”
Either the convenience store half an hour away with average price and taste, or the high-priced, terrible tasting supermarket right in the neighborhood, I’d been considering it a while now.
“That onee-san sleeps a lot, doesn’t she.”
Kouta-kun bitterly smiled.
“Last weekend she fell asleep on Saturday and only got up on Monday.”
… If your sleep time exceeds your waking hours, can you really say you’re living life?
“Now that sounds rough. Well, I think you’ll be fine this weekend; I’ll be here.”
“Onii-san, you live here?”
“Looks like it. I’m a newcomer here, but I hope we get along.”
I held out my hand as a joke. Kouta-kun timidly reached out his own and rubbed his palm against mine. It was strangely slippery, a sensation I couldn’t process psychologically.
“Grime… a bath is, a bit much. I’d like to give you one, but I can’t just let you run free.”
It would be plain idiotic if I took off the chains and they used that opportunity to run. But honestly, what was I supposed to do with these children? I didn’t have any plans or flashes of inspiration. What course of action would bring in peace for everyone?
Kouta-kun’s reserved voice interrupted my train of thought.
“Onii-san, are you that Onee-san’s friend?”
“Good heavens no, why perish the thought.”
I tried putting on a posh accent only to fail at it completely. Yeah, not a good idea. I continued on like nothing had happened.
“I’ve never felt any form of friendship towards Mayu, and most likely neither has she. She’s just someone important to me.”
“… I’m surprised you can say something so embarrassing.”
Anzu-chan muttered. Did the world’s common sense classify those as words overflowing with shame? I was far more bothered by that shady accent I put on.
“So our relationship is probably closer to what you two have.”
“We’re not like that!”
Anzu-chan intruded to destroy the moment Kouta-kun accepted it with a, “Oh, so that’s it”. He laughed a strained laugh seeped in a sense of loneliness and “you’re right,” agreed with Anzu-chan instead. As Kouta-kun looked far more down that expected, Anzu-chan awkwardly turned away to face the wall again.
“Ah, well… a lie, mind you. Right, just a lie. Mayu and I are already like a middle-aged couple. Your ages are still in the single digits; to put it in bug terms, we’re bell crickets, and you two are cicadas that have just come up from underground. But bell cricket males get eaten by the females you know.”
A sense of responsibility pushed me to smooth over the situation. And naturally it had the opposite effect. I received only the slightest smile of pity from Kouta-kun, while Anzu-chan projected a look of pure wrath. I don’t have what it takes to be class rep. I’m just part of the cleanup committee.
“Wow, everyone’s a critic. So, you wanted to know if me and Mayu are friends?”
“Ah, ye, umm, well…”
“Do you like Mayu?”
Falling in love with a kidnapper eh? That good old Stockholm syndrome?
“W-wrong! It’s not that at all!”
His hands and head wildly flailed back and forth, looking like they might snap off as he desperately denied it. Suspicious. Wait, then am I the one he likes? Not happening.
Kouta-kun hung his head down, pink to his ears. I wonder what he thought of that cold look from Anzu-chan. “That’s really not it…” he explained away.
“She’s too scary.” He paused for a moment. “So liking her is a bit…”
Eh? Then what does that say about me? I considered reacting hysterically.
“And I’m not sure about all the noise…”
“Mn? … Noise?”
I latched on to that nonchalant word from Kouta-kun. While slightly hesitant, he nodded once. Anzu-chan’s chin bobbed as well.
“How should I put it, she starts screaming really loudly in the middle of the night… ah, not every day though.”
I touched a hand to my chin to mull over it. It didn’t require much thought at all, this was what the world called a sickness of the heart.
“Her PTSD’s acting up…”
Did the doctor know about this? Mayu never did attend her periodic checkups.
“Sleep talk would be the simplest conclusion…”
But that was impossible. Mayu didn’t possess the ability to wake herself only half-way in the middle of the night. She fell asleep easy enough, but she slept like a log, with no energy to scream.
“… You didn’t know?”
Kouta-kun didn’t seem to expect that at all. It wasn’t anything particularly unusual. I didn’t know anything about Misono Mayu. Only her name, her nickname, and pen name. It goes without saying, just one of those was a lie.
“I don’t really want to know.”
Even I couldn’t determine how much of that one was a lie. “I see,” and “Hmm,” the two halfheartedly replied.
I lifted myself up to go to Mayu. But. I took a glance at them before that.
I looked from the whorls of their hair to the tips of their toenails and decided to carry it out.
“It may be drops in the bucket, or rather a one drip of wine in a casket of bilge water, but… take off your clothes. I’ll wash them.”
Perhaps it would be less effort to throw them in a bath with their clothes on, but I couldn’t quite do that. The siblings opened their eyes wide and blinked them a few times before finally reacting to my proposal.
“Is that alright?”
“Is it not alright?”
Is it really that dubious for me to do a good deed, you little scamp?
“I-I think it’s fine.”
Looks like I scared him a bit. Time to reflect. I put a strict decree on myself to treat guests as courteously as a certain international theme park.
“Then could you take off those clothes for me?”
I held out my right hand with a gentle tone. I received a shirt, trousers, and bashfully removed undergarments from Kouta-kun. When I looked at Anzu-chan, she hid herself under the blankets, wriggling around in that narrow space. A hand clasping a ball of clothing thrust out from underneath it. I left once I had it in hand.
I arrived in the laundry room with the source of the smell and chucked them into the washer. As the water filled up, they the liquid turned a bizarre pale black even before the detergent hit. This was a filth I had to wince back to. There was little to be done, I pulled the clothes out and washed them by hand, getting out all the dirt on the surface. After that, I drained the washer and shoved them in again, letting the machine do its work. After watching it a while, I went on to the next step.
I made for the bathroom. First, I washed my hands covered with some slippery substance. I prepared a wash basin, turning the shower faucet to fill it to the brim with hot water, then submerged a towel in it and returned to the room with the basin in both hands.
“Alright, use these to wipe down.”
That must have been quite unexpected, their mouths were hung open. It looks like good deeds really aren’t for me. That being the case, I’m not capable enough for villainy.
“Thank you very much,” Kouta-kun seemed so grateful he nearly forgot his position. I see.
“You’re pretty gracious.”
No, don’t just say yes to that.
Kouta-kun crawled under the blankets and began wiping down Anzu-chan’s body. It did seem both sides had accepted his overprotective handling as a fact of nature. When the towel was out of the blanket, it was an ochre color like it had been used to wipe down a window covered in tar. Kouta-kun immediately submerged the towel and wrung it out before getting back to work. While I couldn’t see the actual process, I got the impression of a big brother carefully and cautiously cleaning, leaving no spot untouched like he was polishing a piece of art. His faithful attitude that ran close to blind devotion cause me to think back to mikan peels.
I had a little sister once. It was impossible for us to form a favorable relation like these two, and we were only half related by blood. My selfish little sister liked mikans, she would be eating them all year round, breakfast lunch and dinner. She untiringly devoured those fruits so much her skin had turned yellow. Peeling those mikans and removing the white veins had been my job. She never thanked me for it– not a single time– and yet now I thought back to it fondly. I felt no loathing towards her. I think it’s probably because I had no reason to hate her. It was simply that I wasn’t too fond of her.
Kouta-kun exited the blanket, one job over. Anzu-chan also showed herself, only up to her neck as she exposed a face that had lost its yellow tint. I decided to take the opinion of the girl now dressed like a teru-teru bouzu.
“Ikeda-san, are you feeling any better?”
While her lips curved sharply into a frown as discontent as could be, she did display a small nod. And a whisper on the wind, she gave me the pardon.
“… Anzu is fine.”
“Anzu… oh, about referring to you. You sure?”
Don’t make me say it again, her eyes barked.
“Got it, Anzu-chan.”
“I don’t need a chan!”
The exact opposite line from what I’d gotten from Mayu made me shrug. It did seem my favorability rating has climbed up from negative two to the origin point on the x-y axis. Was there still any room left for a positive incline?
“Tune in next time to find out.”
Never mind, I waved my hand dismissively at the big brother. Come to think of it, I never heard her address Kouta-kun by any conjugation of the word brother. Does she do it when they’re alone?
After turning the towel inside out and squeezing out all the water, Kouta-kun wiped his own body. Quite clearly different from his treatment of Anzu-chan, his rough hand movements removed the general dirt around his body, finishing him up faster than it took a crow to bathe itself.
“I feel refreshed.”
He said, his gentle features smiling wider.
“I’m glad you enjoyed our services…”
I arbitrarily replied as I continued observation on Kouta-kun’s body.
His skin was just as pale, there was only one difference that stuck out. The traces of internal bleeding on his armpits and inner thighs, the places that would usually be hidden by clothing.
There were bruises engraved here and there. The odd discoloration made it seem almost as if he was growing moldy.
“… I’ll get you your clothes once they’re dry.”
I practically snatched the basin away and stood. While the two of them tilted their heads in confusion, I ignored them and immediately left the room. I closed the screen behind me. Keeping mindful of my feet on the floor, I dumped the basin in the shower, washed the towel under cold water and wrung it out before I finally opened my mouth.
“How should I put it…”
You really brought home some troublesome little kids, Maa-chan.
It wasn’t a habit of mine to pry into other peoples’ business, but so many trivial bits of information had piled their way up I could no longer deny them. This was dangerous. Despite everything, I’m on the benevolent side. Truth be told, more on the malevolent side. Both lies, by the way.
“Those wounds weren’t Mayu’s work…”
Going off last night, it’s pretty hard for me to proclaim her innocence out of some nauseating reason like affection. But still. It’s hard to think Mayu was capable of calculated violence. Blows specifically aimed at places where they wouldn’t be seen could hardly be carried out by Mayu with her int stat of nineteen. In her case, if for example, Anzu-chan showed thorough defiance, I wouldn’t put it past her to kick her right in the face.
“… This really is a nonsensical kidnapping.”
And the kidnapper herself had already shifted her interest towards me. In the first place, why did Mayu even kidnap those kids… oh right, that was the question I was looking for. I should ask her if I still remember when she wakes up. Though it’s not something I necessarily had to know, just in case.
I inclined my ear to the sound of the washing machine, my eyes trained on the ceiling a short while. There weren’t any stains that looked like human faces. Clean and pure and wearisome scenery, but convenient if I wanted to work my head.
I thought back to Misono Mayu’s sleeping face.
That sculpted look that lost all trace of emotion.
I thought back to Misono Mayu’s sleeping form.
Yielding itself to delirium, as if even her breath had ceased.
To think a girl seeped in such stillness would start screaming,
I would never believe it had it not happened only three days later.
It came at a volume I couldn’t describe in words. Different from the cry of a beast, a sharp and rending exclamation. It shook me enough I began to feel the room’s contours warping around me.
“Mayu? Hey, Mayu!”
I abandoned the late-night shopping channel, raced from the living room to her bedroom and flicked on the lights. She was still lying down as she raised her screams, her eyes murky and unfocused. I shook her by the shoulder.
“IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS……”
Endlessly, endlessly, she chanted the spell. When I sat her up, as if in response, she held her head and began clawing at her scalp.
“Oy, stop it!”
“It hurts, my head huuuuurrrts!”
It’s going to start hurting more the way you’re going! Her bloodshot eyes glared into empty space, a white foam seeping out from the gaps in her grit teeth.
Her slender arms over which I could see the bone, muscle and blood vessels tried to remove my hands. Her hair thrown out of order, she thrashed with frenzied limbs. Mayu’s hand hit my cheek, her nails forcefully tearing through. I felt the fissure of heat race through it. This wasn’t just a weal, she had drawn blood.
“It hurts it hurts it huuuurts!”
“I get it, I get it already! Calm down!”
My voice wouldn’t reach her. My very existence only irked her. Some part of me understood that was the true nature of our relationship.
This time her nails dug in around her eyes in an attempt of self-mutilation. She was trying to rip her face apart with enough force to overpower anyone her age, and in my attempt to stop her, I grasped her wrists and gripped them with enough strength to crush the joints. I thought it wouldn’t matter if I broke them in this instance, but thankfully it never reached that point.
Mayu’s body suddenly folded. It was as stiff as ever, but now directed towards suppressing whatever that something was welling from her depth. She groaned, sweat erupting from every pore on her body.
I let go of her half unconsciously. Like I’d pulled some sort of trigger, she threw up on the spot. Her limbs frozen, she scattered her gastric juices and stomach contents all over the bed with a vile sound. It fell on my legs and my laps, its sour stench spreading all through the room. I did not stroke her back as she spat out with tears in her eyes. I simply watched what happened in a daze.
She sobbed a few times, only to vomit again after that momentary pause. The juices flowed from her nose plugging up every path to breathe, her eyes rolled back as even now, her forward bent posture was dead set on spewing out every last thing inside of her.
Mayu didn’t raise her face, she kept it down in the sheets soaked in stomach acid. It was there that I finally lifted her body and lightly wiped off her debilitated face before holding her close.
“It will be alright.” I cast meaningless words to her as her shoulders rose and fell with each breath. “We’re the only ones here, Maa-chan. No one’s going to come bully you. They’re never, ever going to come again. So it’s alright.”
She threw up a bit more when I rubbed her back. The body-temperature liquid flowing down my neck gave me goosebumps. But I didn’t feel unpleasant, nor did I get the urge to release her. This time Mayu grabbed my wrists.
Her unmaintained nails stuck into my blood vessels, I thought she’d tear right through the artery.
Mayu said to someone. I had a few ideas on who it might be.
What Mayu saw.
What Mayu felt.
I’m sure I had shared the experience.
She maintained that state for around an hour. Mayu shook as she refused to let go of my hand. The blood flow had already stopped, it had turned from its depths a shade so dark I was sure I was on the verge of necrosis. If that was what it took to return Mayu’s normality, it was hardly worth consideration.
“It’s gonna be alright.”
I wiped the sweat from her forehead and mouthed the same shallow phrase for the hundredth time.
“Your cheek is hurt. What happened? You’re bleeding. Does it hurt?”
She indicated my cheek—stinging in pain—with broken sentences.
“Oh, this. I just scraped it against a tree branch on the way here.”
“A-ah, I see, so that’s it. Does it hurt?”
She traced my wound with her fingertip. For the time being, I would kill that topic and move on to the next one.
“This is important, Maa-chan. Do you have any of that medicine the doctor gave you?”
I purposely phrased it like I was soothing a child. She shook her head bit by bit.
“Why won’t you go to the doctor?”
“I-I mean, I mean, I hate her. She always lies to me, I hate her.”
Meaning you hate me too, Maa-chan. Well, that doesn’t matter. All I could really do was have her take the medicine I had.
“I’ll get you something to make you feel better, wait here…”
“D-don’t want to, don’t want to, don’t want to. I’ll go too, Mii-kun is going, we’re going together.”
She obstinately clung to my hips. I pat her head one to accept her request. So I carried Maa-chan with me as I got down from the bed. I held her hand as I would a child’s, telling her it would be alright again and again. I really should have practiced how to smile, I regretted just a bit.
We headed to the living room, where I pulled the paper bag containing my medicine from the side pocket of my backpack. I swiftly made for the kitchen holding the paper bag in my mouth. I stood an unsteady Mayu on her own feet, snatched a glass cup from the shelf and filled it with water.
“Okay, you’ll feel better if you take this.”
It wasn’t dangerous medicine or anything. I took two pills from the bag and set them on her unreliable palm. Her eyes were moving restlessly and when I tried handing her the cup,
Mayu’s shoulders reacted violently, her fingers snapping it away. It loitered through the air, bouncing off a chair before smacking the ground. A dull crash as its death throes, the glass cylinder burst into large fragments.
“A-aah-ah, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
Mayu desperately pleaded to someone for forgiveness. She had already bent down in an attempt to recover the fragments, so I interrupted her, lightly embraced her and rubbed her on the back.
“Don’t worry about it. No one’s angry at you, Maa-chan.”
The spilled water soaked between my toes. I took care not to step on any fragments as I took some distance, and lightly pat her fragile shoulders. I abandoned the pills on the floor, taking out an entirely new dose, which I made sure was firmly in her hand. Once again, I took a new cup with new water.
“Put the medicine in your mouth.”
I guided her hand, opened her thin lips and placed the pills on her pale red tongue. And next, I put my hands over hers, slowly tilting the cup. Her lightly quivering lips planted a kiss on its rim, letting the water flow into her mouth. She swallowed with a sound, and once I’d seen that through, I gently pulled the cup away from her
“Yep, good job, good girl.”
I lightly pat her head. She clung to my body, burying her head in my chest. I discarded the remaining water in the sink, leaving the cup behind. From there, I dragged Mayu along to comfort her on the sofa.
“Let’s watch some TV. I’ll be awake until you get sleepy.”
When I glanced at the CRT, that infomercial on the onion slicer was long gone, and this time there was an overblown sale of gold pearls going on.
She desperately cried without a shred of optimism. While silent, I stroked her hair to answer.
“Mii-kun isn’t going to bully me, right?”
“Never. I’m your ally, Maa-chan.”
“That’s right, Mii-kun is an ally. Mii-kun is an ally…”
She repeated in a trance. As if she was imprinting that information in her mind. I didn’t interrupt her.
“Mii-kun will save me. He saved me from the bee in kindergarten, in elementary school, he saved me from the teacher I hated. He’s always with me, he’ll always save me. He’ll always, always be my ally. That’s why Mii-kun won’t bully me he’ll stay with me he’ll always be with me he won’t betray me he won’t lie to me.”
“… There, there.”
I took on an evasive attitude. I mean, that last one. You know.
“Let’s go to the doctor tomorrow.”
Her head trembled as she shook it like a small animal. She reminded me of a chihuahua. The imprudent notion struck me that a beautiful woman could play a part beautifully no matter the situation.
“It will be fine. I’ll go with you. And we’ll go on a date after that.”
Like persuading a child who didn’t want a shot. Mayu extracted and reflected over only a single word.
“Yes, a date. You don’t want to play with me?”
She reverted to a small animal again to deny that. She was shaking even more than before.
“I want to play with Mii-kun.”
“Got it. Then we’ll go wherever you want to and play, Maa-chan.”
Though a park was all we really had in these parts. Whether we liked it or not, the lack of options was one detestable characteristic of the countryside.
“And that’s why we’ll go to the doctor, alright?”
And that’s why what? Those points were completely unrelated, but Mayu’s head was shaking up and down. She was hooked as easily as a goby.
“Okay, I’ll put up with it. I’ll see the liar. Mii-kun will come with me, won’t he?”
“Of course,” I strongly asserted. Had that done the trick? Mayu slumped down like a plant that had been given too much water and lay down over the sofa. She silently admired the exercise machine that could burn an hours-worth of calories in thirty minutes as her eyes slowly drooped. And without ever leaking a sleeper’s breath, her activity ceased like her power had been cut.
I turned off the TV along with her. I let her lay on the sofa and headed to her room. I pulled away her sullied sheets and bundled them up as they had been when I first saw this room. Taking up the cover I used, that hadn’t been covered in vomit, I entrusted the room to darkness before returning to Mayu. After covering her, I gazed at her sleeping face just a short while before offering her the usual words.
She showed no response as per usual. I turned off the lights.
… It might go without saying at this point, but Mayu and I shared the bed. Naturally, it was only used for sleeping, nothing more. How wholesome, our relationship was the farthest from an R-rating as could be.
The room’s air made me tremble. The coldness of the floor indicated the encroaching shadow of winter. I decided to call it a day early as I thought over where I’d sleep.
Kouta-kun’s reserved voice made it across the screen. I turned, slid it open and set foot on the tatami. I pulled the string dangling from the low ceiling to wake up the fluorescent lamp.
The two sat with the blanket wrapped around them. Their expressions sleepy, their hands rubbing their eyes.
“What happened to your clothes?” Kouta-kun asked.
“I rode a merry-go-round all night with a bad hangover. More importantly, did I wake you up?”
“Oh, it’s fine. We’re used to it.”
“Used to it?”
What a dubious statement. Perhaps it was a slip up to both of them, “Kouta you idiot,” Anzu-chan lazily muttered and pinched his side. Again. I was taken up by a delusion yet another piece had fallen into place. Rather, I was already beginning to see the calamity, disaster that had befallen these children, and I was eighty percent sure I was right. No matter how reluctant I was to get involved, they were dropping way too many hints.
I had to change the topic. I had to produce a discrepancy from the slightest change in direction.
“But it’s strange, you know. I’m surprised she hasn’t gotten an eviction notice yet with all the noise…”
It hit me. I felt an urge to strap a lightbulb to my head to show the world.
I finally noticed what was off. It was so removed from what I’d experienced myself, I couldn’t see it even when it was on full display right before my eyes. It hadn’t been done to us only because our situation had been different.
Kouta-kun made a dubious face at my question with no subject. Anzu-chan didn’t react.
It was simple. These kids were conversing with me. Their mouths weren’t gagged. If Mayu’s mania wasn’t getting any complaints, perhaps the apartment complex was well-soundproofed. But on top of that, these kids’ legs were free and their hands as well. If they hit at the wall and screamed out, continued making a ruckus with body and soul, it would most definitely make it to the neighboring room. If an investigation was conducted here, the cuffs on their legs would ironically be the unmovable evidence to place cuffs on our arms.
“By God, it’s full of holes.”
This crime was too crude in both planning and execution. I felt like tearing out my hair as Mayu had done. I don’t wanna look at reality.
“So anyway, you two…”
I cut off my words again. So anyway, you two, why are you even here? The moment I asked, I got the feeling something far too undesirable would begin faster than the rush of nagashi soumen. Kouta-kun’s eyes were wide open at my suspicious conduct. Perhaps he was faithfully waiting for me to continue. On the other hand, Anzu-chan had lost her usual edge, her expression nodding off.
“Hey,” her mouth listlessly wriggled out its words. “That lady.”
“It’s not ‘lady’, it’s onee-chan.”
I corrected her somewhat strongly. What do you mean lady, where are your manners? That’s my lady you’re talking about there. Though I lie. Anzu-chan was either overpowered or just sleepy. She corrected herself without argument.
“Is that Onee-chan funny in the head?”
A sincere evaluation, no beating around the bush. I had no intention of telling her that wasn’t true.
“Anzu, you’re not supposed to put it like that.”
Meaning he had a problem with her phrasing, not her destination.
“Nah, it’s fine. If you thought that back there was a Karaoke competition, you’d be just as bad off as her… to be honest, I’m pretty sure all the screws are there.”
I had to acknowledge those words. It wasn’t like I held a negative viewpoint of Mayu. I felt no shortage of charm in those aspects of her. Her soul was too prone to sudden changes in emotion, but that was precisely why she could hold a sensibility not found in any other. Whether that was genius or madness was difficult to say.
I’m pretty sure these kids would understand if they got to know her a bit… no, more importantly.
“… The screws are all there, but something went wrong when they were put together. Someone got in the way, see.”
I wasn’t one to talk about someone else’s past without permission, but for some reason, I didn’t feel like just leaving it at that. I exposed just a bit of the past to a stranger.
“Mayu’s parents were killed, right before our eyes.”
I stated without emotion. I couldn’t put any in. I didn’t know which ones to use.
“I think that’s when my and Mayu’s screws went loose. It’s more noticeable when they’re as loose as Mayu’s… but I’m sure I’ve got it a little too.”
The reason being, I don’t find fault in her actions. I don’t feel guilty about them either.
My hearts sleep to make sure it stays that way.
I observed the two faces. Kouta-kun somewhat startled, no reaction from Anzu-chan. The same old reactions, so I decided to tie it up in the same old way.
“And that’s just how it works. If you want to insult Mayu, please abuse me first. No, no, I don’t mean that in any perverse way. It’s just, we’re all better off if I’m the one insulted. Yep, that’s it.”
I was speaking rapidly by the end. I wanted to twist my body in shame. To hell with please abuse me. The conversation was over, I didn’t feel like holding a question corner, but Anzu-chan who was waking up smacked me with a frank question.
“Why are you going so far to cover for her?”
Because I like, like, super like her, it’s totally that. I lie. Maybe.
“Because she’s precious to him, Anzu.”
Kouta-kun answered first. I sensed the sparks flying in a troublesome direction, so I subtly shifted the topic.
“Once upon a time, someone was asked a similar question.”
“…? Who was it?”
Asked Kouta-kun. I answered without using any proper nouns.
“Someone’s mother. Someone who was killed in place of a child. That person trembled and shook but still answered this with no hesitation.”
I paused for a moment before repeating what I had once heard, word for word.
“Because I’m your mother, she said.”
The children furrowed their brows. Did they think it was a sham? But that wasn’t a lie. I definitely remember her mother saying that. It was one of the few memories I couldn’t falsify even if I wanted to.
It was also the greatest reason I cover for Mayu.
The full volume heavy metal pierced my ears through the door.
I was the only one grimacing at the BGM so badly matched with the tranquil morning scenery I gazed out at through the window of the first-floor waiting room. I was the only one around, after all. Even further removed from the town that was barely populated to begin with, this building at the base of a mountain did not reek of disinfectant. It didn’t have to: this was a hospital for the heart.
The door that’s white paint was peeling away from it swung open. Out came Mayu, slamming the door behind her with clear displeasure on her face. She practically collapsed into the seat next to mine.
“Good work. How was it?”
I spoke louder than usual. Unless I made a conscious effort, my voice would be eaten up by another sound.
“I’m not coming again. She’s a liar, I hate her.”
She spat her frustrations, not caring to hide her childish side. Today, she was dressed nice in clothes I’d washed for her, with a beret pulled down deep over her head.
“What did she lie to you about?”
“No clue. There’s no worth in remembering what a liar says.”
But then why do you remember my words? That’s what I don’t get.
Mayu fixed the position of her hat that went off when she crashed down as she stood from her seat.
“Then wait here a bit. It’s my turn next.”
Her raised foot slammed into the ground like a spoiled brat. Her skirt flipped up for a moment in the process, letting the conspicuous long and narrow scar on her outer thigh peek its way out. To think it was still living strong; how very nostalgic.
“We’re going on a date, aren’t we? There no point in staying here.”
Her brown boots stamped at the floor in succession letting the sound echo out to the corridor. Yet even that was assimilated by the background noise making it difficult for even me to pick up.
“My checkup is today. Just hold out a little longer, please.”
I pleaded like I was making a request to a higher power. Had my prayers reached? She reluctantly nodded despite all the dissatisfaction she could muster plastered over her face.
“Another date tomorrow.”
“And the day after that.”
“If you’re fine with the chemistry lab and gym.”
With this and that, this girl who had no stake in the matter finally gave me permission to enter. I opened the creaking door. Beyond the entrance, the woman in a ponytail sitting by the window noted my existence with nothing more than a slight shift in her eyes.
A clean lab-coat, a blue miniskirt. Her slippers had been carelessly stripped aside, her legs unreservedly stretched out.
“That girl never changes.” Was the first thing she said. “She hasn’t changed one bit since she was a kid. Oh, but I guess, ‘where’s Mii-kun’ has turned in to ‘Mii-kun is here’. Not what I’d call a change for the better.”
She threw the clinical records on the table and yawned. Why does this doctor just start lounging around when I enter? Does she perhaps mistake me for a drinking buddy?
“So, what were you hoping to accomplish by bringing back that impertinent lass who forcefully got herself discharged from our hospital, ‘Mii-kun’.”
“Only Mayu gets to call me that.”
“Yeah, yeah, look at you lovebirds.”
She rubbed her eyes, letting her chair’s backrest creak as she finally turned to me.
Dr. Sakashita Koubi. A psychiatrist in her thirties, single. An adult whose reading list consisted solely of manga.
“And what brought about this change of heart? I never thought you’d reveal yourself to Misono.”
She folded her arms, looking over me with an appraiser’s eyes. This was a posture well suited to an intellectual beauty, if only she hadn’t been barefoot.
“Would it be alright if I just answered the first question?”
“Sure, why not. You only ever lie anyway.”
She saw right through me. We’d known one another since elementary school, and she did seem to have a perfect grasp on my personality.
“Mayu’s head suddenly started hurting in the middle of the night. I was worried, so I thought I’d have a professional look at her. That’s all.”
“Middle of the night eh… are you living with Misono now?”
The doctor narrowed her eyes, her cross-examination wouldn’t let that one be glossed over. If you’re a psychiatrist, I’d like it if you paid more attention to the head hurting part.
“We’re just sharing a place to eat and sleep.”
“Which means you’re living together.”
“In this limited living environment we call the earth, as a citizen of this narrow island region known as Japan, in the righteous spirit of economizing what limited resourced we have, we’re putting the available space to its most efficient usage through joint operation.”
“By living together. Got it.”
“… You seem kinda angry?”
She tapped her forehead to the beat of the song, the top of her foot jauntily hitting the ground.
“Though that’s a lie.”
She imitated my style; however, the indignation in her voice made her lie itself reek of falsehood. The doctor silently closed her eyes a while before she finally shook her head, her inner conflict over.
“I saw it coming. When I saw you and Misono come in side by side.”
“Did we look like a nice couple?”
“Are you stupid?” She sent me a scornful look. Suppressing her brow with one finger, she sighed. “It feels like my pet dog was made off with by a cat burglar.”
“How very dramatic.”
“Back when we first met, instead of Dr. Koubi, you were calling me ‘Doctoor’, restlessly holding onto me…” she lamented. “This must be what it feels like to have a kid going through puberty,” she snuck in a complaint. “Well, it’s your life, not mine. That’s outside of my jurisdiction. Even if you fester and rot off. But I have to tilt my head at whether that situation would be beneficial to Misono’s mental state.’
She was back to normal with no rhyme or reason. She really did tilt her head. Crick, crick, it let out a nice sound.
“You being there for her isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I’d even say it’s detrimental. Too much fertilizer is poison to the plant.”
“But we’re so full of affection. Isn’t friendship the greatest treasure of all?”
I wasn’t even considering something like that. Drumming at the table with her fingertips, Dr. Koubi made an expression tinged with bitterness and enervation.
“Lying’s become a habit for you, a bad one. Try and restrain yourself.”
“Doc, don’t you think telling a human not to lie is like telling a soccer player not to kick, and telling a mountaineer that the mountains are too dangerous to climb?”
“Alright, I’ll concede that point, but I’ll argue it is impossible to apply that to you. There’s a small difference between a player, a mountain nerd and you. A soccer player chooses what he kicks. It’s generally a ball, with the occasional person and vending machine. A mountaineer wouldn’t try reaching the summit of a mountain of food. Meaning, it’s moderation. That’s what you’re lacking. It is impossible to apply the logic of a standard human to someone who persists in making their entire life a lie.”
She casually implied I wasn’t human. Isn’t this slander? There’s a delicate line there. I’d leave that to ponder in my free time and return the conversation on track.
“So about Mayu.”
“She’s thrown out her hips. Don’t put her in too many crazy positions.”
“What nonsense are you spewing? We’ve barely even kissed in public, we have.”
“Now that’s a far greater harm to the general public.” She smugly teased.
I corrected the course of the conversation, strengthening my tone.
“I’m asking about Mayu’s psyche, psychiatrist Dr. Sakashita.”
She stuck her glare on me and coldly opened her mouth.
“Humans are all liars. Especially me. Only Mii-kun tells the truth.”
She spat out those words that hadn’t changed in the slightest. She said them with resignation.
“It’s impossible for me to treat her. I’ll give you her medication, make sure she takes it every day. Also, keep the lights on when she sleeps. That was probably the cause of her sudden outburst.”
There was one thing I learned from her diagnosis: Mayu’s outbursts were involuntary, but they didn’t occur during the day, or at least not at school. They were limited to night time, most likely due to her trauma regarding the dark.
I see, I can relate.
“The kid’s not aware of her own scars, this is happening because she’s routinely turning the lights off before sleeping. She’s only ever come to get her medication from me twice, I don’t know how many years she’s been suffering.”
She spoke like it was someone else’s business. Well, it was probably impossible for her to maintain a good impression of someone who shouted, ‘shut up liar’, whenever she opened her mouth.
“But if it’s impossible for you… that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible for another doctor, perhaps?”
The doctor lifted the corners of her mouth into an expression similar to a smile. This was definitely not a display of happiness.
“Well I don’t know what low opinion you might have of me. I should really drag it out of you one of these days. But putting that aside, Misono’s treatment… hey, what do you think it means to treat someone.”
She returned a question with a question. What’s more, it wasn’t a teacher’s leading question. More like what a friend at school might suddenly think up and ask on the fly.
“What? Doesn’t it just mean to use medical care to heal a wound?”
“You’re right, one hundred points.”
Yet she still sighed. Since she didn’t say full marks, perhaps the punchline was that it was a two-hundred-point test.
“So you just have to heal the wound?”
“If the patient couldn’t survive what was required to treat it, but the wound was still healed, would you still call that treatment?”
“… No, probably not.”
She entered a thinking posture without reacting to my words. Her fingertips drummed against the knee of her folded leg, her other hand propping up her head. Tapping on things with her fingers and feet was this doctor’s habit.
She excluded my existence from her mind, indulging herself in thought. Well, there was no need to treat me as a patient today, I had no complaints.
“… Umm, then I’ll just be leaving.”
I nodded and stood. She called me to a stop.
“Let me share a bit of gossip.”
That was a peculiar preface. Keeping her same stance, she sent me a melancholic look. I sank my bottom back down. She didn’t seem eager to talk about it.
“The two of you are suspected of murder.”
While I felt like doing a spit take, I maintained my composure, even suppressing the quiver in the corner of my eyes.
“I hear there have been some murders in these parts as of late.”
This uncultured working adult who saw the TV as a mirror and the newspaper as strictly a tool to exterminate cockroaches spoke proudly like she was leaking some top-secret information. Should I tell her she’s late to the party?
“You should be careful if someone carrying anything dangerous talks to you.”
“… Doc, did you ever happen to be a Student Council President?”
“I was a life-long cleanup committee.”
Oh? … Getting back on topic.
“So who’s suspecting us?”
“Why it would have to be either a detective or the police, right? Those are the only psychos who could suspect someone of murder while having a friendly little chat with them.”
“You have a point. So? Who’s going around spreading these lies?”
“The armchair cop.”
Isn’t that just derelection of duties?
“Since when did you get along with the police?”
I remember her verbally abusing the hell out of them last time she got a speeding ticket.
“Don’t throw this psychometric mind assassin such foolish questions. How should I explain…”
What was this liar talking about, I wonder. She spoke right on without a care in the world.
“One of my classmates in high school went into law enforcement—not a sukeban, mind you. And she asked me this and that. She was always a strange one, even as far back as elementary school, she wrote she wanted to be a detective.”
She stated indifferently with no nostalgia. Perhaps to her, these high school days were as fresh in her mind as what she ate for dinner yesterday. I will refrain from commenting on the age factor.
“She said she only suspected you personally. She has you two down as possible suspects.”
Possible suspects, is it. That sounded a little redundant. Weren’t we suspects if she suspected us?
Good grief, I acted calmly.
“To suspect such virtuous and harmless lower-middle-classes, the investigation must be at quite the standstill.”
“There are plenty of reasons you’d be suspected. Those who’ve had crime committed against them are more likely to become criminals themselves. You get along with a psychiatrist. You have no social life. You look after the animals at school. One of those is a lie.”
Was it really only one? Rather, how could she imitate me so well?
“Well, personally, I think it’s inevitable that Misono is suspected.”
“How can you possibly suspect someone so innocent, thoughtless, infantile and slow at running?”
“You’re not really defending her there. What’s with your low opinion of her? Anyway, she said she wanted to speak with you two personally.”
“You better not mean in the interrogation room.”
“Would you prefer a cell?”
A joke you can’t laugh at is usually just the truth.
“I would rather not meet her, not personally nor professionally.”
A subtle lie.
“Well that’s up to you, decline if you want to. But she’s pretty interesting, she’s just a little like you.” She said with a gentle smile.
A person who resembled me, if only a little… she must be a terrible person.
“But while you only lie, she can weave in lies and truth.”
I’ll even put money on it, she’s horrible.
I rose as the music reached its climax. And there, a question occurred to me, so I pointed at the audio player and fired away.
“Don’t you ever get any complaints about that?”
“Not really,” the doctor lightly refuted. “It’s a hit with the death metal granny.”
Hit or miss, I got the feeling there was a problem with attaching the word ‘death’ to granny.
“I play songs by patient request, it’s surprisingly popular. When I don’t get a request, I either turn it off or put on my own tastes.”
“Oh really. You never consulted me, not once. It’s about time I leave, I’ve got a date.”
“Hmmm, good on you. Wanna trade weekends?”
I firmly declined. A life of sitting in a manga café all day wasn’t for me.
I lowered my head lower than usual and quickly retracted it. I turned, thinking I might trip myself up as I swiftly made my way to the exit. Only when my hand was on the knob did I give my feet a rest.
“I’ve killed someone before.”
The reply didn’t come for a while. Perhaps my voice hadn’t reached her. That was perfectly fine in and of itself. I turned the knob, I pushed the door.
When I was halfway into the corridor,
“BS, I’ll call it.”
Correct, I didn’t say as I left.
Despite her face turning pale from lack of oxygen, she was there, enshrined in the waiting chair in the corridor. The death metal granny humming along to the tunes flowing out of the examination room. I would believe it if she introduced herself as a ghost.
Mayu was there too, skillfully curled up in her chair, asleep, unbothered.
After receiving our medication, I shouldered Mayu and returned to the apartment.
I sat by her side, thinking over what lies I would tell her once she woke up.
To make a wholesome comparison, murder is similar to an excursion. You could even call it a trip. Whatever the case, it is the preparation and planning that troubles the heart far more than the execution. For better or for worse. That’s precisely why before I do anything, I make sure to dream; I take every possibility into account while I grapple with a fictional existence. That way, when it comes time to do it, I can entrust my body to my subconscious. It’s far more stable that way. Right, stable. A human’s behavioral pattern relies heavily on repetition, and it is therefore inevitable that they seek out stability. Repetition is especially important for actions that carry the greatest risk. For example, to purchase illegal substances. For example, to shoplift. For example, to murder. I am no exception. I desire stability. I long to gain comrades towards that goal. I thirst for comrades. Comrades who accept murderous actions to come as naturally as to breathe and to blink. I’ve searched for many years. So many years in this country town. Unable to raise my voice to proclaim it, in this human lifetime I have little control over. And naturally, such a person never appeared before me. I’m not looking for the sort who would kill someone they hated if they were given a gun and knew they wouldn’t be charged for it. A person who would not hesitate to murder even as they saw the gallows towering before their eyes, or perhaps someone who might let their foe off on a whim no matter how they detested them—I’m searching for humans who adhered steadfast to a personal code. Humans burdened with excess emotion. To meet, speak and maybe kill one another over something trivial, whatever happens, I yearn for any interaction. That was why I came here, I changed my search policy. I decided to murder. As moths gather to a flame, I hoped it would draw my kind to me. All this has done is lower me to the lowly role of one offering scoops to the media agency. I was no different from a dog who could walk on two legs, or a whale stuck on a beach. Very well, if you deride me as a lowly beast, let me entertain you all the same. I’ll walk on two legs and put on a show, I’ll lie on a bed of sand for you. I am sad to report there are no beaches in this area. An excess of rivers though. Now let’s return to the main topic. The man next to me reading a porn mag in-store keeps laughing to himself, he’s creeping me out. Right, back to topic, what was it again? Oh yes. The point is, my success in producing human connections over this dreary backdrop hinges on my unproductive actions. I wonder how long it will last. Judging by the standstill of the police investigations, if I were to liken this to a three-minute match, the first had yet to transpire. I had a ways to go. Now then, what wonderful fate would come around to me before the grand finale? I considered various things in the convenience store I had teetered to after the murder, returned the magazine I’d been reading to the shelf, and set my feet for the bento rack that had just been restocked.