A woman was laughing in my ear.
Night came, and I heard the voice again. The screeching laughter reverberated in the thick darkness. I felt my chest tighten, as though I was having a heart attack. She was cackling. I hid under the covers, plugged my ears shut, but her voice still reached my ears. Unable to bear it any longer, I slammed my head against the wall. Blood dripped from my nose and onto the tatami mat. The red that soaked my wrinkled hands looked like menstrual blood. Or perhaps it was the red that spread across the tatami mat when she gave birth. A child’s shrill laughter echoed like the ringing of a bell. I slammed my head again and again. I could hear family members screaming. Please scream more. Drown out this voice. But the laughter was as clear as ever. I could bang my skull all night long, but the laughter would continue ringing out relentlessly until dawn.
A woman was laughing right by my ear.
A woman and a child, mocking me.
Help me. Help me. Help me. Help me, help me, help me, help me, help me.
Or I’ll go mad.
“And that’s why you asked for my help, you shameless pig.”
Contrary to her words, there was no anger on Mayuzumi’s face, and her tone was monotonous, as if she were reading a script. I was standing behind her, watching the scene in front of me with half-lidded eyes. The sight in the spacious tatami room was as ridiculous as a stage play. An old man was prostrating herself before Mayuzumi, and the girl dressed in gothic lolita fashion was glaring at him like a queen.
I shifted my gaze to the colorless garden. Snow was falling from the leaden sky.
“Did you forget what you said to my grandmother?” Mayuzumi said. “Though the women of the Mayuzumi family are often called witches and demons, you’re the only one who ever called one possessed. The Mayuzumi family will never forget your harsh, abusive remarks.”
The old man didn’t say anything.
Mayuzumi’s fingernails stroke his dandruff-flecked gray hair. “Why don’t you say something?”
“…Please help me.”
“Please help me. I beg of you.”
The old man rubbed his forehead against the tatami mat. Mayuzumi responded by raising her foot and stomping on the old man’s round back. He screamed in pain, but Mayuzumi never looked down. The old man’s spine creaked under her slender legs. Watching them, I sighed for what seemed like the umpteenth time today.
I was cold and just wanted this to be over with quick.
“Why do you think skulls laugh?”
“…Pardon?” I asked, carrying the chocolate cake.
Mayuzumi was lying on the sofa, wearing a lab coat over her dress. I looked at the burnt product of my first attempt at baking. I’m fairly skilled at cooking, but my reluctance unfortunately led to this. Regretfully, I sliced the cake, the result of an experiment with an oven that Mayuzumi had purchased on a whim. While she politely requested for it, it was more like an order. To be honest, I thought she was doing this to annoy me. She was probably trying to destroy my stomach with ulcer.
“It’s done, Mayu-san.”
“Ah, thank you. I’ve been waiting for this… Hmm, it tastes awful.”
I expected the comment. Yet she still gobbled it down.
“He says the dead laugh,” she continued. “Every night, at that. They laugh out loud right in his ear. I don’t think I can take that. Unless I like them, a person’s laughter is as grating as animal cries. If it’s right in my ear, I would want to die too. The hot chocolate’s in that pot. Two sprinkles of sugar, please.”
“Here you go. You need to cut back a bit, or you’ll die of diabetes one day. Also, I know the chocolate cake’s bad, so you don’t have to eat it.”
“Life without chocolate is worse than being in a submarine with engine trouble. Listen, Odagiri-kun. I asked you to make this for me. I wouldn’t let it go to waste simply because it’s awful. I wouldn’t do something so outrageous. If you ordered cake and you’re served poison, it’s the cook’s fault, but if poison was created in an attempt to make a cake, the person who asked for it should eat it. It’s called compassion.”
I doubt it was bad enough to be compared to poison. I think.
I reached out to check, but the last piece disappeared into Mayuzumi’s mouth.
“Thanks for the food. Now then, Odagiri-kun. Like I said, the dead laugh in his ears at night, sometimes even during the day. They’re infuriating, so he wants our help.”
“That’s what he told us, yes. But why is this happening?”
“No idea. We lack information. But apparently he hears the voice of his late wife and child. He was quite terrified. I’m sure he knows something.” Mayuzumi flashed a grin, a nasty one. “But that’s not the interesting part, Odagiri-kun. The dead speaking to the living is an everyday occurrence. We even have a phrase for it: the deceased coming to your dreams. To be honest, I’m tired of getting such cases. However, there are two unusual factors this time.”
Mayuzumi raised a finger. A white butterfly danced on her nail coated in black polish.
“He started hearing the voices roughly a month ago. His wife and child died a year ago.”
“…So there’s a gap?”
“Indeed. What’s more, only his left ear can hear them, not the right. Now here comes the most fascinating part.”
Her canine peeked from the corner of her mouth. A chill crawled up my spine. Most of the things she found amusing involved the macabre.
“A month ago, the client’s left ear was bitten off by a dog. What does this all mean I wonder?” She chuckled.
The laughter of the dead reached a body part that should have been digested in a dog’s stomach.
Mayuzumi had attracted another gruesome case, the kind that was right up her alley. I steeled myself, knowing I’d get involved one way or another. Suddenly, she stopped laughing.
“So, Odagiri-kun. We don’t get a lot of cases, so I want to take it. Unfortunately, there’s one problem.”
“…What is it? Why don’t you just accept it now? No one’s going to stop you.”
Not like anyone can stop you anyway.
Mayuzumi gave a serious frown. “Well, you see. The client and I—to be precise, the client and my family know each other. Accepting the case could cause trouble to my household.”
My eyes widened. She usually didn’t take my opinion into account anyway, so I thought I’d ignore what she said, but a cold sweat ran down my back.
Mayuzumi’s household. Not good.
“Wouldn’t that be tough?” I asked. “Not that I know much about your family affairs. Is there a problem?”
“It’s not really that bad. Oh, right. You can rest assured. He’s still in hiding. There’s nothing paranormal about my household. The only exceptions are him and me.”
Mayuzumi waved her hand to reassure me, but I couldn’t stay relaxed. My stomach began hurting. I felt a kick from inside my belly, and I hit it hard, making sure that Mayuzumi didn’t notice. I could feel the lump of flesh that was about to take shape slowly sinking between my intestines.
Damn this thing.
“He did quite literally cry for help,” Mayuzumi said. “Grandmother has been dead for a long time, and if the First is involved in this, I can’t let it pass. I suppose I can take the case for my grandmother. I’ll treat it as a family matter rather than a personal one.”
Mayuzumi rose to her feet. She held out her hand, and I handed her the phone. It was a deep crimson, almost like the color of brown chocolate. As she dialed the number, she continued.
“Please see this through.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about at the time.
But three days later, I realized what she meant.
“That was too far, Mayu-san. What kind of a foreplay was that?”
“Could you please not use such crass words? It’s not like I wanted to step on that uncomfortable back either.”
So if it was comfortable, you’d step on it?
I didn’t dare voice my question, in case she actually said yes.
Mayuzumi stretched out her bare legs. She had thrown the stockings she had on when she stomped on the old man in the trash. Her classic gothic lolita outfit felt incredibly out-of-place in the tatami room. The guest room that was prepared for us was more than spacious enough two people. It felt like we were staying at a long-established inn. Mayuzumi, however, didn’t want to settle in just yet.
“Anyway, Odagiri-kun. Now that we’ve accepted the case, let’s go say hello.”
“Okay. What happened between him and your grandmother anyway? You mentioned something about being possessed.”
“It’s no big deal. His uncle burned himself to death a long time ago over something trivial. My grandma was involved. One bonbon, please.”
It sounded like a big deal to me. But for Mayuzumi, it was an insignificant matter. She showed not the slightest hint of concern as she crushed the bonbon with her tongue.