Miyama Shizuka and I became acquainted during our high school festival. A friend who belonged to the literature club asked me to man the reception desk for the exhibit, and she was my partner, a freshman. As her name suggested, she was a quiet girl, and she was so nervous that she couldn’t even speak. The other club members had forced her on the job. I felt sorry for her, so I handled the reception myself.
That’s how it all started.
After asking me for help, my friend just wandered around. When I got tired of waiting, I brought him back, but he only gave a carefree laugh. He was irresponsible, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to dislike him.
“Where the hell have you been?” I snapped.
“Just checking out some stalls. Can’t fight on an empty stomach, right? Here’s the chocolate banana you asked for. You should try it. It’s sooo good.”
“Yeah, right. Also, I asked for something filling, and it’s long past lunch time.”
“Who cares? Chocolate bananas are food. It’ll fill your stomach. Here, Shizuka-chan, have one.”
Shizuka giggled. She had finally relaxed. I still remember thinking how cute she looked when she laughed. The man who was carrying three chocolate bananas took a bite of his own.
He had a fox mask on his head for some reason.
“Asato,” I said.
I didn’t know back then.
That foxes sometimes visited human settlements out of curiosity.
And that they could blend in and live with humans.
Peaceful season. Peaceful days.
A lot of time had passed since then.
So there was no way she would be here. She shouldn’t be here.
Shizuka gently extended a pale hand. Her soft palm touched my cheek. Her skin was still as cold as a corpse’s.
“It’s been a long time, Tsutomu-san,” she said in a hushed tone. “This takes me back to that day.”
I didn’t know what day she was talking about. Was it the school festival? Was it the lunch break we spent together? Was it in the stifling library?
Or perhaps that bloody day.
She let out a small squeal of delight. She knelt down without hesitation and gently pressed her cheek against my belly. I flinched.
“You’ve conceived my child,” she whispered with a laugh.
What did she just say?
A severe chill ran through my entire body. I pushed Shizuka away, and she fell into the pond. There was a loud splash. Maniacal laughter echoed. Something struck me from the inside of my stomach. Something? I knew exactly what it was. The monster inside was striking my insides. It wanted to get out of my tight belly.
This thing in my stomach is yours?!
I charged straight at Shizuka in a fit of rage. Tears fell as I reached for her white neck. Watching my hand getting closer, she laughed even harder.
The dead should stay dead. Don’t come back. Stay in the afterlife. Please.
It was all in the past now. There was nothing I could do to change everything back the way it was.
The moment I wrapped my fingers around her slender neck, Shizuka’s body crumbled. Underneath my arm, she turned into cherry blossoms and disintegrated. White flowers danced in the air. Then I realized they were not cherry blossoms, but white paper. As the scraps stuck to my skin, the thing in my stomach became eeriely quiet. Confetti fluttered in the sky. A hundred, a thousand, torn pieces of paper blanketed the sky like cherry blossoms.
A figure appeared.
“The moon looks wonderful tonight, doesn’t it, Odagiri-san?”
He laughed. Teeth glistened in a face as handsome as a doll’s. He gave a bright, unfitting smile. He had taken off his sunglasses.
Yuusuke was standing there with a bloody steel bat.
“Good evening,” he said, laughing. “Not even a greeting, huh? Shame. Even I get hurt, you know. They say teenagers have hearts of glass,” he joked.
He tapped his shoulder with the bat. Blood dripped with each thump. A chill running down my spine. I looked back at the mansion.
Yuusuke burst into laughter. “Well, aren’t we a nice guy? I think it’s amazing how you can worry about others despite being in a sticky situation yourself. You’re like a saint. But don’t worry. Mayuzumi Azaka is safe. Pity about the people guarding the entrance, though. Either way, shouldn’t you be worrying about your head getting cracked open?”
Despite his disturbing words, I couldn’t feel any hostility from him. There was no malice in his words. He sounded strangely cheerful.
“Look at this,” he said. “I actually wanted a knife. I don’t like the idea of having the same thing as that guy, so I bought a new one. It’s brand new. Also, I thought about it when my father hanged himself. I won’t be able to sleep at night if he’s simply dead. You never know when he’s going to start singing.”
He raised his bat, then swung it down over my head.
“I have to smash the skull too.”
The bat stopped right in front of my nose. Viscuous blood trickled down like threads.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
“Hmm? Is that really what you’re gonna ask me? Are you sure? Is that your final answer? Well, the security here is top-notch, but they’re all just normal humans. So, there’s a way.”
Yuusuke put his hand in the pocket of his jeans and took out a torn piece of paper. The scraps danced in the moonlight.
“You can be on the lookout for people, but you can’t stop paper from getting in. It’s okay. Most of them are just asleep. I only killed two.”
He gave a peace sign and smiled. I still couldn’t feel any fear.
“…Where’s Mayuzumi Asato?” I asked.
“I’ve been in touch with him. I’m actually doing errands for him right now. I owe him, you see. I’m a working youth now.”
He readily admitted that he lied before.
Yuusuke sighed. “Uh, did you actually believe me? That’s just crazy. This is me we’re talking about. You know I have no conscience, don’t you? I killed my own father with a smile on my face.”
He cocked his head. That’s when I realized something. Yuusuke was a little like Mayuzumi. There was no good intentions in his actions, but no malice either. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel any fear.
“Are the serial killings your doing too?” I asked.
Yuusuke frowned, much to my surprise. “That has nothing to do with me,” he mumbled, gnashing his teeth. “Asato-san has nothing to do with it, either. But we’re taking advantage of it. They said they wanted to kill Mayuzumi Azaka-san, so we set the stage for them. That’s all. Both me and Asato-san are gladly lending a hand, but please don’t lump us in together with that freak.”
Yuusuke didn’t even try to hide his disgust. Who was the culprit? Before I could ask, he gave a shrug.
“I’m looking forward to seeing if she can still smile in this situation. I don’t know about Asato-san, though. This is like a game to him, too.”
I thought his tone changed slightly. For a moment, he turned his eyes away, toward the room where Mayuzumi was sleeping.
“If she can laugh while having her own belly ripped open, then she’s insane. Me? I wouldn’t be laughing if my neck was broken. I want to know if she’s crazier than I am.”
The hair on my neck bristled. My eyes caught a shadowy figure behind Yuusuke moving quickly. A man with a crooked back was running. He looked like a bug.
“Can you stop him, Odagiri-san?” Yuusuke whispered.
I started running. Kicking up water, I took a leap. The bat swung down to where I was standing, hurling koi on the ground where they flailed about. I kept running, not glancing back. Forget about any attacks from behind. Mayuzumi was the first priority right now. She was inhuman, but I would never want to see her stomach ripped open.
Pitching forward, I slammed into the bug-like figure. He tumbled easily, to my surprise. While thrashing about, he shoved something at me. I felt a burning sensation on my cheek, but I ignored it and grabbed his hand. A silver knife gleamed under the moonlight. I put more pressue into his hand, and the knife fell from his wrinkled fingers. It was then that I first laid eyes on the face of the man.
I met his glare. He was an ugly man. His face was squashed like a frog’s, bones bulging. For some reason, there was a huge hole in his cheek. Ragged breath escaped from between uneven teeth. I heard the sound of casual applause coming from behind me.
“You’re as good as I thought.” Yuusuke drew nearer. “I’ve always thought you were pretty quick-witted. A keen sixth sense perhaps? Though your movement’s a mess.”
Looking behind me, I wondered what to do. The tapping of the bat on his shoulder was growing louder. Just when I was about to stand up and dislocate the man’s shoulder, I heard a muffled voice. It was a low murmur, like a Buddhist chant.
“You can’t stop me. What right does trash like you have? Die, die, die. For Azaka-sama. I kill only for Azaka-sama. I kill Mayuzumi Azaka for Azaka-sama.”
I felt as if a thick tongue was licking my spine. The man’s voice was filled with a deranged form of love. A different voice came to mind.