“It’s done, Odagiri-kun. It’s been a while since I closed your stomach.”
Her voice brought me back to my senses. Mayuzumi’s face filled my whole field of vision. Coughing, she pulled herself away from me. The lab coat that she usually only draped over her shoulders was buttoned up. There were traces of blood on it. Lying down on the sofa, I stared at her blankly.
Ah. Come to think of it, she was always by my side.
“You were away from me for far too long,” she said. “I told you not to forget about me. Moreover, you sympathized with her too much. The words on the scraps of paper were more to help that thing inside you grow than to make you hallucinate. Of course your stomach ripped open.”
I lay there, stunned. My belly was completely closed, with no scar in sight. The thing inside had also forgotten the form it had taken. It almost felt like my stomach squirming was just an illusion. Everything was back to normal, and the life I thought I had regained crumbled without a trace.
“The curse was meant to kill you,” Mayuzumi said. “He used the epitome of an ordinary girl—your type—to ensare you. I must say, you fell for it so easily, Odagiri-kun. I am delighted you survived.”
Mayuzumi coughed repeatedly. Her cheeks were still red, but she seemed to have no trouble moving around, completely different from when she was asleep and motionless. She was finally starting to get better. Suddenly, I remembered the moment I handed the scales to Mayuzumi. She held it up to the ceiling to study it.
What did she see back then?
“Mayu-san, when I handed you the scale, you said, ‘a twisted Little Mermaid’.”
Without answering, Mayuzumi took off her lab coat, revealing her gothic lolita outfit.
Watching that same old back, I asked, “Did you know that this was going to happen, by any chance?”
“Ahuh. But you did this of your own free will. You have the right to die trying to go back to a place you can’t return to. It’s not for me to interfere with that.” She turned around and put on a cat-like grin. “Who’s to say that’s not what makes you happy?”
My throat cramped, and an inexplicable feeling filled my chest. But I couldn’t say anything back. I wanted to deny it, but I couldn’t think of a response. As I bit down my lip hard, Mayuzumi picked up her red parasol and shouldered it.
“Now, then. The story of the twisted Little Mermaid is almost over,” she said. “It’s a good thing I happened to read the picture book first. Or perhaps he found out that I was reading the book and set up this silly charade. It’s certainly possible. Ah, how vile. But I think the story will end the way I like it. I wonder what will happen. Please don’t hate me, Odagiri-kun.”
The Twisted Little Mermaid.
What in the world was it a metaphor for?
“What happens next is a result of her actions. I have nothing to do with it.”
“From a different perspective, this is a story about contracts. In order for the potion to have a lasting effect, she must earn the love of the prince. If she failed to fulfill the terms of the contract, the potion she drank will turn into poison.”
Kotoko’s image came to mind.
What would happen if she failed?
I jumped down from the couch and started running. I could feel Mayuzumi following me, but I ignored her and hurried onward. My legs got tangled, perhaps from the loss of blood. Wobbling, I kept on running. Eventually, I arrived at the park where I first met her. A girl was shivering under the cold sky. There was no trace of that brightness on her face, replaced instead by deep fear.
“…Tachibana-san,” I called to her.
She looked up. Her cheeks contorted, and a familiar smile appeared on her face.
Wearing a look of madness, she asked, “Why don’t you like me?”
Her eyes reminded me of a cornered beast. Her whole body was trembling, her teeth clattering.
With a knot in my stomach, I asked, “What kind of deal did you make with Mayuzumi Asato?”
“I told you about my accident. The truth is, it wasn’t a minor one. A truck ran over my leg and crushed it. Blood kept spilling out, and it hurt so much. I was scared. I thought I was going to die. But then, someone came up to me. He said I can’t get my crushed leg back. But if I still wanted to, I could get a new leg in exchange for the crushed one.”
The little mermaid entered into a pact with a witch, giving up her tail to have human legs.
What if she couldn’t hold up her end of the bargain?
Kotoko’s face contorted again. With a demonic look, she screamed, ruffling her hair.
“Why don’t you like me? Why don’t you love me?! I made a promise to Asato-san. He told me to use the scraps of paper and the drug to make you fall in love with me, make you head over heels for me, and drag you around everywhere until you’re dead. But why… Why… Why?!”
She wailed, tears in her eyes. She claimed that it was all my fault. At that moment, something crossed my mind. It felt like I’d seen this same scenario in the past.
“It’s your fault.”
A slender arm reached out toward me. With a tearful voice, she clung to me. She was crying, blaming me for what happened. How did I respond to her?
Suddenly, Kotoko’s screaming stopped. Tears welled up in her big eyes. The hatred disappeared, and confusion dawned on her blank face. She looked around like a child who had been thrown into an unfamiliar place. Then she turned to me and whispered.
Her fingertips bulged, the skin expanding like a balloon. It began at the fingertips that swelled to about twice the size of her wrist.
And then it popped.
Burst like an over-inflated balloon.
There was nothing left from her wrist down. Kotoko’s screams echoed. Staring at her missing hand, she shook her head like a mad woman.
“No! No! Nooooooo!”
Turn into bubble. It wasn’t a metaphor at all. She would turn to bubble and vanish. The realization only came to me now. A shock ran through me as if I had been hit on the head. Rage blurred my vision. Words spilled from my tightly-pursed lips.
How could you do such a terrible—cruel—thing to a human being?
Bubbles filled her entire body. Her skin swelled as if air had been pumped into her from the inside. Like an innocent child took a straw and blew air into her. Her face bulged and her eyes dilated, popping out of their sockets. Tears pooled in the corner of her eyes and streamed down her cheeks.
In that instant, she looked at me.
“Don’t… Stop… Noooooo!”
Screaming, I reached out my hand, as I had done the other day. My dry fingertips touched her swollen cheeks.
The bubble burst.
She vanished from my fingertips. Countless droplets of water fell to the ground like tears.
In the back of my mind, Mayuzumi narrated a cruel ending.
The little mermaid turned into bubble and disappeared. And they all lived happily ever after.
Next thing I knew, I was slumped down on the ground. My whole body was wet. I slowly raised my hands; they were stained red with human blood. But it wasn’t Kotoko’s. My stomach had begun to open up. But I didn’t feel any pain. Her smile was burned into my eyes. A different face appeared. Memories locked away slowly flooded in, rising completely to the surface.
Staring at my bloody hands, I muttered, “Shizuka…”
A girl crying. A cluttered room. Cherry blossoms dancing in the wind. A red parasol. Screams. An arm clinging to me, begging for help. Empty eyes and a gaping mouth.
I bent down beside her.
“You never change.”
A queer voice. Lifting my head, I saw a dark-blue parasol in my teary vision. Beneath it stood a tall, well-proportioned man, wearing a simple shirt and jeans, with a fox mask on his head. He was as handsome as Mayuzumi.
“If you ask me, this is what happens when you don’t love someone.”
“…Asato.” I forced my tongue to move. My voice sounded like animal grunts.
He tilted his head with sleepy eyes. Nodding, he twirled his parasol.
“The thing inside you had grown quite a bit. I kinda want it.”
As he twirled his parasol, my stomach started to ache again. My vision spun, filled with the color blue. Suddenly, the color changed.
A bright crimson.
Mayuzumi was standing in front of me.
“Hello, little sister.”
Two look-alikes stood facing each other. It was like looking at a somewhat distorted mirror.
“I suppose you were feeling better than I thought, little sister.”
“Like you thought, it was just a cold, brother. As you can see, I haven’t completely recovered yet.”
Mayuzumi grinned. Asato smiled in response.
Their lips arched in exactly the same manner.
“I see. Well, then. Until next time.”
He turned on his heel. The dark blue parasol became distant. Mayuzumi did not follow him, the red parasol staying still.
You’re not getting away. I won’t let you.
I tried to chase after him, but I couldn’t move. Crawling, I reached out with outstretched fingers, desperately clawing at the ground. Stones dug into my nails and scraped my flesh, but my body would not move forward. Blood spilled from my belly, forming a puddle. A small, squirming arm threatened to reopen my wound. But that barely mattered to me. I was just so sad and frustrated that I couldn’t move.
Like a defeated dog, I howled at him.
He walked away, not once turning around.
I screamed at who I once thought was a friend.