“Hello. Welcome back,” Mayuzumi said as she bit into a piece of chocolate. “That didn’t take long.”
An unopened bottle of medicine lay on the desk. I wanted to yell at her. Take the medicine. Stop eating candy. Keep warm and stay in bed. But I swallowed the words. Right now, reporting my findings was more important than giving her an earful.
“I was surprised,” I began. “They sounded like a carefree client, so I didn’t think it was that serious a situation, but I’ve never seen a case like this before.”
“Hmm. What’s it like?” Despite her words, Mayuzumi didn’t seem interested, as she went under her blanket. I decided to talk to the rabbit at the tip of her nightcap instead.
“An apparition is causing harm to a person who has nothing to do with it at all.”
“That’s actually common. It’s just that those kinds of cases don’t come to me. Sometimes the dead haunt indiscriminately, and grudges with no target will try to latch onto anyone. I’ve received cases in the past where an unrelated person gets involved. But I had never met a client who was completely innocent.”
When apparitions were attracted to someone, there was always a reason. Whether they were aware of it or not, there was always something about them. Mayuzumi had never encountered a completely innocent client among the cases she had handled.
“And there probably never will be,” she added, grinning.
Her nasty smile implied ‘there’s something about that girl too.’
But I was not convinced. Maybe I just hadn’t noticed it, but I couldn’t glimpse even a shred of madness from Kotoko. Doubting her sent stabs of guilt through my heart.
“I want to ask you about the apparition,” I said.
“Sure, I don’t mind. But do note that I have a fever. I might respond vaguely, but I am not making light of the situation. I hope you understand.”
“Noted. Since a few weeks ago, the client, Tachibana Kotoko, has been encountering an apparition—an arm covered in scales—that grabs her. I also saw it myself, so I will give you more details later if you need it. She asked a shrine for an exorcism, but it didn’t work, so she searched for similar stories on the Internet. An occult forum led her to our office.”
Mayuzumi peeked out from under the blanket. Her cat-like eyes twisted quizzically.
“Yes, I checked the URL, but it seems that the post was only up for a short time and had already been removed. The post contained a fax number and a statement that said if you contacted it, they would solve your paranormal problem. The client said she would never have contacted us if she wasn’t desperate.”
“…I can’t think of anyone who would make that post.”
“So, I have a question.”
I could feel the tip of my tongue drying up. Opening my sticky mouth, I forced the words out.
“Is he involved in this?”
Mayumi’s face turned expressionless for a moment. I thought it did. Then the usual smile bloomed on her face.
“I can’t tell. There’s not much to go on.”
Really? I regarded her speculatively, but I couldn’t grasp anything from her smile. If Mayuzumi doesn’t want to answer, it’s a waste of time to ask her anything. Feeling both frustrated and relieved at having dodged the worst possible answer, I continued on.
“The client looks enfeebled, which is understandable. There’s the eeriness of the apparition, of course, but the bigger problem is the direct physical contact. If it gets worse, her life might be in danger. Here’s a scale I took when I encountered the apparition.”
I handed her the scale wrapped in a napkin. Mayuzumi picked it up without hesitation and held it up to the light.
The light shimmered like oil on water. Mayuzumi smiled profoundly, as if she saw something in the glittering scale.
“…A twisted Little Mermaid.”
I thought back about the arm. Fish scales growing on soft white flesh. It reminded me of a mermaid princess who had been given defective legs. A perfectly fitting, yet unsettling example.
“So about protecting her…”
“Oh, that’s unusual, Odagiri-kun. I haven’t told you that I’m accepting the case yet.”
“…What?” My voice was strained.
Mayuzumi coughed and continued. “I’m infirm, as you can see. And I’m afraid there’s nothing about this case that interests me. You seem to forget sometimes that I’m just a fourteen-year-old girl. Your spending all your time protecting someone would be unfavorable for me.”
Mayuzumi’s cheeks were indeed red from fever.
“And this isn’t like you,” she continued, wearing a wan smile. “I thought you didn’t want to get too involved with others.”
She was right. I’m afraid of other people’s extreme emotions, like despair or pain. I don’t want to know how they feel. I don’t want to have anything to do with anyone. Be it a lover or a friend. Because only hell awaits me in that path.
But I want to help Kotoko. If she was innocent, I want to help her return to a normal life, one that doesn’t involve the supernatural. I couldn’t ignore her plea for help. I still have hope in me—I want to save whatever I can.
I want to believe that I can still save someone.
“…If I do nothing, I won’t be able to sleep at night.”
“Well, that’s fine. If that’s what you want, I have no problem with it.” To my surprise, she gave in easily. “But keep in mind, Odagiri-kun.” Her tone was grim. She gently stroked her belly. “A person can tear open very easily.”
“I’m so glad. Thank you so, so much.”
When I met her again at the park and told her that we would take her case, Kotoko was happy, tears in her eyes. A smile appeared on her once-dark and tense face. She couldn’t talk to anyone about her problem. She said she’d been worried that people might think she was crazy. A stressed mind would eventually explode. I had to solve the problem before it got any worse. I didn’t know what I could really do without Mayuzumi’s help, but I hoped I could be of some support.
“I’d like to discuss the schedule,” I said.
“Ah, right. Um, can we go somewhere else?”
She said there was an establishment she wanted to show me. She trotted down to the highway, and suddenly stopped. Her face scrunched up when she saw the truck parked at a distance. Upon closer look, her legs were trembling slightly.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“I’m sorry. It’s just, I’ve been in an accident before. Oh, it wasn’t anything serious. But I’m a little scared still.”
She lowered her gaze. Did that arm had anything to do with the accident as well? I thought about asking her, but her legs wouldn’t stop shaking, so I gave up on the idea. Memory of the accident seemed to be traumatic for her. Painful memories are not easy to get rid of.
Just like I how get nauseous when I ruminate on the past.
Mutely, I moved beside her to protect her from oncoming traffic. As we started walking, Kotoko’s eyes widened, and she smiled softly.
“You’re a kind person, Odagiri-san.”
“You’re a good person, Tsutomu-san.”
A voice from the past overlapped with hers. Whose voice was it? Before I could remember, the auditory hallucination faded away, and all that remained were the emotions I had felt then. That moment when I felt affection and my heart warmed up reemerged in my mind. It was a nostalgic feeling that I would never be able to experience again.
Yet at the same time, for some reason, a chill ran down my spine. It felt like there was something behind that nostalgia.
But I had no idea what it was.
While I was torn between the two emotions, Kotoko smiled and whispered, “It’s true. You’re very kind.”
It smelled fragrant. In that instant, the fear I felt vanished. I was filled with nostalgia and the joy of being able to have a normal conversation with someone. Kotoko took my arm and whispered again.
“Very, very kind.”