“Hello there,” Mayuzumi replied as she flipped through a picture book.
She seemed to like the Little Mermaid, as she was reading it all over again. Next to the empty box of chocolates lay an unopened bottle of medicine.
“Mayu-san, we’ve decided on a schedule.”
“I see. Would you like to share it with me?” She didn’t even turn around.
Breathing a sigh, I told her about my plans for tomorrow. She listened in silence, but then suddenly she closed the picture book and turned to me.
“Looks like you’re having fun, Odagiri-kun,” she said in a mellow voice, a sweet, enticing sound unique to her.
I should’ve been used to it by now, but somehow it felt heavy. Maybe it was because I hadn’t talked to another human being in a long time. While Kotoko’s voice was light and easy on the ear, Mayuzumi’s was heartburning like chocolate.
I felt a strange sluggishness in my whole body. Perhaps I caught her cold. Reading my expression, Mayuzumi sneered.
“Why the pained look, Odagiri-kun? You accepted this case. Enjoy it to the fullest. However…” Her nasty grin was reminiscent of a witch from fairy tales. “…don’t forget about me.”
She didn’t have to remind me. As I glared at her, Mayuzumi laughed. Her voice made me dizzy. I should have gotten used to her eccentricity by now, but her image was vivid in my eyes. She knew she was upsetting me, but she kept on laughing anyway. Nevertheless, I had no choice but to quietly continue working for her.
Like a fish that can’t swim out of the sea, I can’t get away from her.
I couldn’t bear to listen to her laughter any longer. Irritated, I stood up and left the apartment. I thought she would poke fun at me, but I heard nothing from her.
A wet cough came from behind.
With a sweet, fruit-like aroma, Kotoko scarfed down the pudding à la mode with glee. After finishing it, she lifted her head as if realizing something. She fumbled to pick up the menu and held it out to me.
“I-I’m sorry, Odagiri-san. I almost forgot about you. Why don’t you order something? It’s my treat! You can have whatever you want. Don’t be shy!”
“I’m good. Please, don’t mind me.”
I drank my coffee. However, Kotoko didn’t pull back her hand. She looked like a puppy with her big, moist eyes. When I took the menu, she gave a broad smile. Flipping through the pages, I saw chocolate parfait and stopped.
I thought I smelled chocolate. But the phantom scent quickly diffused.
I could run to the edge of hell and I still wouldn’t be able to escape this smell.
That’s what I thought once. But there was no smell of chocolate here. The inside of the coffee shop was pleasantly bright, and no matter where I looked, I couldn’t see the red color of parasol. Then it hit me.
I was a long way from Mayuzumi.
It was like a dream.
This place was so bright, it was hard to tell which exactly was the dream.
“Have you decided which one to get?” Kotoko asked. “This place has great croquette sandwiches.”
Kotoko’s face was bright. It had been four days since I accepted the case, and strangely enough, the supernatural phenomenon had subsided. I’d been taking her to and from high school and spending time with her after school. The problem was at nighttime, when Kotoko was alone, but I couldn’t stay in a woman’s house. I could try asking Mayuzumi, but not only was she down with a cold, she didn’t want to help. Her sugary body was not recovering fast enough. Just thinking about it gave me a headache. Eat properly. At least take your medicine.
I even went to all the effort of making porridge, giving her medicine, and preparing a pitcher for her every day.
“Odagiri-san? Are you all right? Are you tired?”
“I’m fine. Sorry, my mind was somewhere else. Compared to taking care of my boss, protecting you is easy.”
“I see. Okay, then…” She looked clearly downcast.
I held out the menu to her and said, “Would you like half of a croquette sandwich?”
A joyful voice rang in my head. Kotoko smiled happily. It felt like I had regained the life I once had, a life I thought was forever gone. The place that I had once lost was here all along.
A place that was supposed to be beyond my grasp.
When I returned to the apartment, Mayuzumi was asleep. Without turning on the light, I sat down hugging one knee. Her sleeping reminded me of a fairy tale princess. She was a little emaciated, but she still possessed the same extraordinary features. The smell of chocolate was suffocating, so I loosened my collar. Everything in this room felt unreal somehow. Where should I take Kotoko tomorrow? The moment I thought about that, things suddenly stopped making sense.
What was I doing here? Why did I have to be here?
Suddenly, Mayuzumi, who I thought was asleep, muttered my name. I tried to answer, but I couldn’t get the words out. I wasn’t sure if she was still half-asleep, but her pale fingers squirmed as if searching for something. I thought perhaps I should take her hand, but I did not move.
There was no way this girl would need me. Impossible.
The thin, white hand eventually stopped moving, vaguely standing out against the darkness.
“…Do you want to go back?” Mayuzumi whispered out of nowhere, disturbing the silence.
I felt a stab in my stomach.
The pain that I had forgotten about for the past few days came back rapidly. As if taunting me, the thing inside me gave a kick. I folded from the nausea and intense pain, wheezing like a dog. What I should’ve forgotten reawakened the moment I returned. A feeling akin to hatred swirled deep in my chest.
Mayuzumi opened her eyes slightly. Her eyes, glowing like a cat’s, reflected my figure.
“The cherry blossom was beautiful, wasn’t it?” she mumbled before closing her eyes again.
Cherry blossoms. Petals dancing and drifting in the wind like rain. A red parasol. A black dress, like a mourning attire.
The first time I saw her, she was like an illusion, beautiful yet hideous.
I clenched my fists, and my bones creaked. Memories came crashing like a wave and slowly retreated. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks.
“I’d go back if I could,” I muttered.
There was no answer. Anger flared. There was no way I could ever go back. I knew that. She also knew that. So why would she ask such a thing?
I didn’t want to come to this place. I didn’t want to be like this.
I wanted to just live my life in peace and quiet.
“If I could go back!”
There was no response to my scream. Mayuzumi was sleeping like the dead. I kicked the books beside her. Still, she did not move.
Her cheeks were white and clear, as if her life had run out.
Kotoko and I were wandering through the city on a holiday. Taking a freshly-baked crepe, she turned around merrily. She walked with a spring in her steps. She was wearing a round collar sweater and a long skirt. The way she sometimes stumbled from too much excitement made her look like a child.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but maybe it was a good thing that I got into an accident,” Kotoko said with a smile. “Because I got to meet you.”
She looked downward, her face beet red. I wasn’t sure what to say. Her big eyes were stealing glances at me.
I gave a small smile for now. “Thank you for the kind words. I was worried you might be uncomfortable since we’re together all the time.”
“O-Of course not!” Kotoko shook her head wildly. “Thanks to you, I haven’t had any scary encounter.”
She hung her head down in disappointment. Suddenly, as if making up her mind, she grasped my hand. A sweet scent grazed the tip of my nose. When I breathed in the soft fragrance, I felt a sense of euphoria rising within me. I got the urge to just stay with her.
Stay like this forever. Then I wouldn’t have to suffer.
Why willingly return to hell?
The moment I thought that, my vision tumbled. My legs tangled, and I bumped into a boy walking next to me.
“…Are you sure about this?” the unfamiliar boy whispered.
Through his shoulder-length blond hair and sunglasses, I glimpsed the handsome features of a model. His sharp eyes and doll-like beauty looked familiar. Had we met before somewhere?
My stomach began to ache. I turned around, shifting against the crowd. The boy’s back disappeared in the wave of people, but another figure entered my field of vision.
Someone tall was holding a deep blue parasol. The vivid color filled my vision, and for a moment, the whole street stood still. But the next instant, the bright color disappeared in the crowd.
I knew only two people who carried a parasol around. A red parasol popped into my mind, then a deep-blue one.
The hair on my back bristled. A childlike fear surged from within me.
“Mayu… A… to…”