Mayuzumi flung the sliding door open.
“I found it, old man,” she said. “I found what’s driving you insane.”
Yuusuke and I followed her inside. Yuujiro was lying on the futon, haggard, but when he saw Mayuzumi, he quickly got up.
“Oh. That sounds wonderful.”
His voice was extremely weak. His pleading tone made me feel bitter. I cast a sidelong glance at the box Yuusuke was holding, a plastic container with newspaper inside. Sounds of scuttling, like small animals, came from inside. Yuujirou didn’t notice.
Yuusuke was wearing a twisted smile.
“First of all, your ear did not completely disappear from this world. After being devoured by an animal, someone took it. They preserved your ear and continuously played deranged laughter into it. This is how it works.”
Mayuzumi pointed to the box behind her. Yuusuke nodded. Then, with a thin smile on his face, he opened the lid of the box.
Yuujirou gulped, and I let out a sigh.
A white ear was floating like a fluffy cotton in a bottle filled with formalin solution. There were two skulls around it; one big and one small. Human skulls.
The moment Yuujiro screamed, the skull cackled in a woman’s voice.
I covered my ears, trying to block out Yuujiro’s screams and the laughter.
It was beyond revolting.
“Yes. I chased after the dying dog and ripped its belly open. I flipped it over and cut its stomach while it was still alive. When I opened its still-pulsing stomach, I found my father’s ear among the gastric juice, blood, and puke. I then immediately preserved it in formalin. I buried the dog’s body in the ground. Asako and Aki’s skulls started talking way before that. Although, they couldn’t speak as clearly like in the stories. All they could do was utter single sounds and laugh. I really wanted to show them to my father. But I was worried he’d do something to them. I felt sorry. I mean, they could laugh and all, so it seemed like a waste. While I was wondering what to do, I got a hold of the ear. Seeing my father go crazy was so funny, I almost died laughing. But how did you notice?”
Yuusuke’s eyes widened. His explanation, though long, was simple. Just like his father’s life story.
After Asako and Aki died, he took the bones he wanted from their bodies. He pulled out their innards, because he wanted the ribs and pelvis. He also took the skulls, removing the eyeballs, nose, and as much skin and flesh as possible. It was a tough task, but he bought some time by telling a close servant that he wanted to say goodbye. While the servant left him alone with the bodies, he carefully removed the bones and took them away.
For preservation. As a reminder of his precious family.
After digging up the bones he buried and the human samples were ready, something remarkable happened.
The skulls started talking.
Mayuzumi gave a shrug. “Anyone would’ve realized it if they learned you took their heads. Also, you had a dog’s skull on your shelf. You said the last dog you had had its head smashed in. I figured it was the skull of the second dog whose body was never found. And the most important clue was last night. We heard laughter that only your father should be able to hear.”
I thought back to last night’s uproar. There was a high-pitched cackling mixed with the screams. I turned around and saw Yuusuke standing in the white garden.
What we heard last night came from an outside source.
“The laughter came from the annex,” Mayuzumi continued. “When you came to watch your father suffer, you left the door open.”
“Oh, I see.”
Yuusuke grinned, as if satisfied with the answer. Without showing the slightest hint of panic, he peered inside the case. He caressed the small skull as though admiring his little sister. He watched the clattering skull with heartfelt joy.
“I have one question,” Mayuzumi said gravely.
Yuusuke inclined his head. “What is it?”
“I don’t care about the bones. They held deep-seated grudges that allowed them to talk. But the ear is a different matter. Normally, an ear, once severed, becomes nothing but a piece of flesh. It cannot possibly transmit sound to its body. The only reason it could was because its soul was preserved in it as well. It’s not something that can be done simply by dipping it in formalin. It’s completely different from preserving fish.”
Her black eyes narrowed like a cat’s. There was a striking coldness in her voice.
“How did you do it?
Yuusuke giggled. “I’ll tell you about it later. You want to show this to my father, right? Let’s go.”
“…Are you sure?” I interjected despite myself. My plan was to just watch from the sidelines.
Yuusuke gave a shrug. “I don’t mind. It was starting to get dull. Besides, showing him sounds interesting.”
He flashed a toothy grin. He looked like a smiling skull.
Wishing misfortune on someone you hate.
Mayu-san, is this normal?
I tried to ask, but the girl in front of me had her mouth shut.
Shrieking, Yuujiro retreated and fell on his back. Yuusuke presented the box with a smile. The discolored ear jiggled. The skull laughed out loud, the clattering of its teeth echoing endlessly.
A shrill laughter, and an innocent voice.
“Come on, pops. Why so scared?”
A young boy’s voice blended in.
“Wh-What is that?!”
“What are you talking about? It’s Asako-san and Aki. Look closely. See? It’s your fault that they look like this.”
Clatter. Clatter. Clatter.
The skull laughed, as if in affirmation. Eyes widening, Yuujirou retreated further back. Yuusuke followed him, slowly lifting the skull from the box and holding it before the old man. He screamed and covered his face, but Yuusuke didn’t stop there. He rubbed the skeleton relentlessly against the old man’s face.
Having lost interest, Mayuzumi looked away from the twisted scene.
“You have your answer. We’re leaving,” she said coldly, then whirled around. Surprised by her behavior, I followed her.
“M-Mayuzumi-sama!” Yuujirou called.
Mayuzumi turned. “You asked me to look into the laughter. The cause is right in front of you. They won’t bite. I’m sure you can deal with it yourself. You have arms, after all. Skeletons can’t move.”
Yuujirou’s cheek quivered. He stared at the skull, then suddenly, as if shaking off his fear, he grabbed Yuusuke’s arm.
“Y-Yuusuke. G-Give me that. I-I-I’ll smash it to pieces!”
Yuusuke looked a little surprised. He was silent for a few seconds.
“Sure, but you’re gonna die,” the boy said in an indifferent tone.
The air crackled.
Malice slowly seeped in, smothering me. I loosened my collar. Cold sweat ran down my back.
Yuujirou’s eyes bulged. “What did you say?” he asked in a strained voice.
Yuusuke tilted his head innocently. “You can smash their skulls if you want. If you do, I’ll smash your head in as well.”
“Y-You think you can g-get away with that?”
“Nope. I’ll get arrested for sure. But so what? You can run and hide wherever you want, but I’ll spend the rest of my life finding you so I can smash your head in. If you kill Asako-san and Aki again, I’ll kill you. I stayed so I could avenge them. I contented myself with just letting you hear their laughter. If I was arrested, no one would take care of their bones. But if you don’t want to put up with it, I’ll kill you. I swear. No matter what.”
His tone was matter-of-fact. Yuusuke wasn’t threatening him. He was just stating a fact. A few seconds later, Yuujiro’s whole body began to tremble. His wrinkled cheeks were wet with tears.
He understood then, that feeling of hopelessness of having nowhere to run, a feeling that would make you want to hang yourself.
Smiling, Yuusuke tapped the old man on the shoulder. “At least put up with the laughter, okay?”
Cocking his head, Yuusuke burst into laughter.
The skulls joined him. A woman, a child, and a boy, all laughing ceaselessly.
It was as if the family of three were having a blast.
Mayuzumi and I walked through the snow. From the distant mansion, the sound of laughter and wailing continued. As if to shut the voices out, I followed the parasol in front of me. Sunlight reflected off the red parasol, dazzling my vision. Unlike the white garden, the sky, which had begun to clear up, was a clear, bright blue. A faint warmth touched my frozen skin.
The snow had stopped.
The air was still cold and heavy.
I heard footsteps coming from behind. I turned around to see Yuusuke out of breath.
“Ah, I’m glad I made it,” he said. “I’m sorry my dad can’t even see you off.”
“I don’t really mind,” Mayuzumi replied.
How could he possibly see us off in that situation? Nonetheless, Yuusuke bowed once more and apologized.
“I had one last thing I wanted to say,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you about it earlier. It’s about my dad’s ear.”
Ears that continued to pick up sound despite being severed. A dead flesh connected to the main body.
Mayuzumi narrowed her eyes.
“A guy I know told me how to do it over the phone. He also said to take special care of the skulls. When I told him that I took their skulls, he said that if they have a strong grudge, they’ll start singing one day. He told me to wait until they started singing to take revenge. He said that the three of us would be able to laugh together again. Then a while later, I got my dad’s ear.”
“…Who is this person?” Mayuzumi asked, her voice oddly low.
Yuusuke dropped his voice to a whisper as well. “Mayuzumi Asato.”
My eyes grew wide. My vision tumbled as if I’d been punched, and I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. A dull ache spread slowly from the center. Suppressing the pain, I regarded the back in front of me.
The girl hidden behind the red parasol said nothing.
I thought I heard snow crumbling.