Memory stirred. Someone uttered something in a white landscape. Like a broken tape, their voice was faint and inaudible. Clear memories became jumbled fragments. I felt terrified that my own memories had somehow gone haywire.
A different image flashed in my mind.
A pale hand gently stroking a small bely.
“A person can tear open very easily.”
I wondered what she was doing now.
As I was about to start running, I heard a scream behind me. I turned around and saw Kotoko lying on the ground. The road was bubbling as if it were boiling, with an arm stretching out from it. The white fingers gripping Kotoko’s feet looked like the dead crawling out of the earth.
I quickly ran over and kicked the arm away. Quietly the arm was sucked into the pavement. Passersby gave us strange looks. No one but us could see the phenomenon. I quickly picked up the trembling Kotoko. Her soft arms wrapped around my neck. The pain in my stomach slowly disappeared, as if I had been given an anesthetic. Kotoko’s big eyes flickered close, and a sweet fragrance filled my lungs, numbing my whole body more gently than cigarette smoke.
Her body was warm and soft.
“Do you like me, Odagiri-san?” Kotoko whispered slowly.
My head ached. It felt numb. Reality became distant, and everything in my vision shook.
“I’m hopeless without you, Odagiri-san.” She smiled gently. I felt myself being sucked into those eyes. “Please stay with me.”
Just as I was about to nod, I heard a whisper in my mind.
“You don’t want to fall in love. Because that’s the ultimate form of embracing someone’s feelings.”
From the window of an apartment, a regal figure in gothic lolita attire turned around, sneering like a cat.
For a child, she was not afraid to get to the heart of things. And I hated that about her.
With a face that seemed to see through everything, she said, “Pull yourself together. I know you don’t like tormented arms clinging on to you.”
I snapped back to my senses, like I was slapped on the face. The sweet scent faded into the distance. I shook off Kotoko’s hands wildly and took a step backwards. My vision tumbled. I felt relieved, as though I just retreated from the edge of a sheer cliff. And deep intoxication.
I shouldn’t be here.
A feeling of fear and foreboding ran down my spine. But I couldn’t tell what exactly the danger was. My belly began to ache again, but this time there was something strange about it.
An ache, as if the anesthetic injected in me was wearing off.
“What’s the matter, Odagiri-san?”
I ran away from Kotoko’s sweet voice. Escaping her gaze, I crouched down in an alley. My stomach convulsed and I threw up. Vomit mixed with blood stained the path. My body felt unusually heavy. A nagging feeling that something was wrong tugged at my mind.
But what exactly was wrong?
Suddenly, I heard the sound of someone’s footsteps. I looked up, and the first thing I saw was blonde hair and sunglasses.
“What on earth are you doing?”
Their handsome face held a dumbfounded expression.
The boy from earlier was looking down at me.
“Long time, no see, Odagiri-san. Though the last time we saw each other was last month, so I guess it hasn’t really been that long.”
The boy brought me to a nearby coffee shop. Aftering ordering his food, he began talking. He said we saw each other, but I couldn’t remember him at all. Then he took off his sunglasses and lifted his mouth into a smile.
His teeth reminded of a skull.
“Did you forget about me?”
A skull’s cackling brushed my ears. Suddenly, his name appeared in my mind, clear as day.
“Bingo. I’m so glad you remember me.”
But the Yuusuke in my memory didn’t match the boy in front of me. There was no resemblance between the gloomy boy with his hair all grown out and his current appearance. He was like a different person altogether, with his dyed hair and superficial looks.
Crossing his legs clothed in ripped jeans, he contined, “Much to my delight, pops hanged himself shortly after that, so I decided to move and transfer to a high school here. Of course, Asako-san and Aki are with me.” He sounded carefree. “I rented a soundproof apartment, and I’m now enjoying my youth. Relishing my school life, and all that. Ayane-san has been generous with her support, on the condition that I don’t go back home. Things are going pretty well.”
I couldn’t react. Even after hearing of the poor old man’s passing, I felt nothing. My mind still throbbed with pain, and no emotion came to me.
“You look pretty beat up.” Yuusuke narrowed his eyes and clasped his hands together. “How’s Mayuzumi Azaka doing?” he asked with concern.
Mayuzumi Azaka. Speaking of which, I wonder how she’s doing now.
“I see. This looks bad. Listen, Odagiri-san. I’m forbidden to make contact with you. I’m like a Shocker1. I can’t move without an order. But I owe you guys a debt of gratitude for not helping my father. Thanks to you, I was able to drive my father to hang himself. The way he grabbed the rope and climbed up the stool was hilarious. You should’ve seen his fat ass slipping down and climbing back up over and over. He looked so stupid, it was such a riot. While I mainly have Asato to thank for that, I also owe you guys.”
The waiter set the plate down with a clink. The perfectly-chilled chocolate mousse bounced. Yuusuke pushed it to me.
“Please eat. It’ll help clear your mind.”
I took a bite, but it tasted like nothing. The softness reminded me of gray matter, and it made my stomach churn. I couldn’t eat it. But when I put the spoon down, Yuusuke glared at me. Reluctantly I continued eating, when suddenly the cheap sweetness of the chocolate filled the tip of my tongue.
“Cheap or expensive, they provide almost the same level of satisfaction.”
At the same time, pain returned to my stomach. My eyes widened at the intense pain, and I dropped the spoon. Something was struggling inside. It was as if another heart had formed in my stomach.
Wearily, I lifted my head. Yuusuke was staring at me with a gentle look in his eyes.
“You’d better go home, Odagiri-san. How many days has it been since Mayuzumi-san got sick? I bet you haven’t visited her in a while. She doesn’t say anything, and you’re taking advantage of her weakened state. Asato-san has cast a deadly curse. You should be getting worried.”
What is he saying? Curse? Who?
I still couldn’t process things well, but my hazy mind was slowly clearing up. The sense of time that I had somehow lost returned.
It had been a week today, I believe, since I stopped visiting Mayuzumi.
“You should snap out of it, too.”
My stomach hurt like hell.
Maybe it was because Mayuzumi wasn’t around.
“Understanding the despair of others will not lessen the despair within you.” Kicking his chair, Yuusuke stood up, and with a disdainful look in his eyes, he said, “Believing there’s a way out of hell is just wishful thinking.”
He didn’t need to remind me. I came to that realization that fateful day. When I collapsed on the cherry blossom-strewn street and looked up at her. Indeed, there was no way out.
“That goes for both me and you.”
When I came to my senses, there was no one there. I stood up, supporting myself with a chair. Drawing questioning looks from the employees, I started away.
I had to go back.
I staggered out of the coffee shop. As I walked down the street, someone bumped into me. Fingers coiled around my arm and dug in sharply. A warm touch, yet it sent a chill through my whole body.
A lovely girl looked up at me with moist eyes. A sweet scent brushed the tip of my nose. For a moment, I almost lost my head over it, but the discomfort and intense pain pushed the vertigo away.
There is no escape from hell. No salvation.
What does not exist, should not exist.
“Please help me, Odagiri-san,” she pleaded tearfully. “Please.”
The pavement behind her was bubbling up. Slowly, dozens of white arms emerged, filling the road completely, undulating gently like seaweed. Their scales glistened under the light. It was a beautiful sight.
Crying and pulling my arm, the girl begged me to help her. It felt odd. Finally, I realized what was bugging me.
Mayuzumi was not here. I didn’t have her help. Others couldn’t see what I was seeing. Why was I the only one who could see it? Everything was wrong.
I can’t help anyone.