The girl gave an amused grin. “Why is that? What do you find odd about the way he speaks?”
“I mean, he’s aggressive, but he speaks politely.” He cocked his head.
“He’s been through some things,” the girl said in a low voice. Her large eyes were dark and somber.
Staring at her face, the boy asked, “Are you worried?”
The girl snorted. How cruel, I thought.
“Why would I worry about him? I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive. There’s no point.”
“I will simply search for him.”
“Hmm. I see. Man, you’re tough. Nowadays, women are stronger than men.” He snapped his chocolate, then twisted his head around. “Wait, search? Are you doing something?”
“Who knows? You won’t see any difference whether I’m doing something or not anyway. You can rest assured. This is not part of a lookout’s job.”
“Ah, well then. I gues it’s none of my business. Good to know.” He nodded, relieved.
When I heard the word “search,” I almost started laughing. How would she find me? I was sure the bizarre room didn’t exist anywhere in the real world. But the serious look on her face didn’t allow for any ridicule.
I stared at the girl’s face. Would she really find me?
The girl turned her gaze to the boy. He told her to show pity to the dead, but he was also staring at the corpses while eating chocolate.
“Aren’t you worried?” she asked, a grin on her face.
“About Asako-san and Aki-chan. Are you sure you should’ve left them alone?”
I didn’t know what those words meant to him. Eyes widening, the boy dropped his chocolate bar. For an instant, his face contorted, a dark emotion flickering across. But the next moment, it was gone, leaving only an empty smile.
“It’s fine,” he said, letting out a dry chuckle. He looked up at the ceiling. “Actually, they’re no longer around.”
“Why is that? You can all finally laugh together.”
Hesitating, the boy covered his face with his hands. A childlike expression appeared on his face.
“After my dad hanged himself,” he began in a teary voice, “they stopped laughing. They went back to being just normal skulls.” He laughed. “I thought we could finally live happily together. I already rented out a room then. We were going to live in the city, the three of us. Make up for all the time we lost because of my father.”
Softly, the girl muttered, “A skull that had avenged itself does not sing. For it sang solely for vengeance.”
“I was looking forward to it,” the boy said.
“Curses, like chickens, come home to roost.”
For killing someone in their sleep. For burning his own daughter’s arm. For driving his wife and daughter to suicide. For driving his own father to suicide.
The sins committed might be different, but the punishment all weighed the same.
“And yours came home as well, yes?” the girl added.
The boy laughed. “Man, you’re cruel! Absolutely heartless. You already know. Why do you have to ask?” Slapping his knee, he laughed like a madman. His face twisted again. “I…” A tearful voice slipped through his clenched teeth. Tears streamed down from open eyes. “I was really looking forward to it.”
The boy let out a childish sob. He then hugged his knees and began to cry.
The girl nodded quietly. “I know.” There was no reply, but she repeated anyway. “I know.”
The sound of weeping reverberated through the morgue-like chamber. Head hanging low, the boy kept crying.
He looked like an abandoned child.
I heard the bell ringing in the distance. Once again, my vision switched.
Everything was tinted blue.
The first blue sky in quite a while was blinding. Chin propped in my hand, I looked out the window. The classroom in the morning was noisy. Listening to my classmates’ buzzing, I closed my eyes.
I had not seen Shizuka since then. Days went by without us seeing each other. Memories faded as I spent my time studying and going about my daily life while being reprimanded by my parents.
A room trapped inside the rain. Shizuka smiling on top of me.
A broken smile that made me shiver.
Everything felt like an illusion. Like a nightmare, it seemed so unreal. But my body didn’t forget Shizuka’s touch. The heat of her lips. The weight of her as she pressed her body onto mine. It felt like a wet dream. The images were a dissonant chord in the harmony that was Shizuka’s bright smile.
What was that about?
Was it all just a dream?
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw Yamagishi from the literature club standing there. He looked worried.
“Odagiri, you’re dating Miyama, right?” he asked in an uneasy tone.
“You like me, don’t you, Tsutomu-san?”
Shizuka’s voice brushed my ear. Did it look like Shizuka and I were dating?
Before I could ask, Yamagishi continued with a frown, “Miyama said you two were gonna get married. I think she’s told everyone in school about it.”
When did we talk about getting married?
My mouth hung open. I was too confused to speak.
“I know,” Yamagishi said, nodding. “No one’s stupid enough to believe that. But you might get in trouble if the teachers hear about it. Between you and me, this had happened before with Miyama. It’s pretty well-known among the students.”
Yamagishi looked around, then dropped his voice to above a whisper. “She was all over a different guy before. Though he didn’t pay her any attention ’cause she creeped him out. Apparently, when Miyama sets her eyes on someone, she follows him around. According to a guy I went to junior high with, she entered a home uninvited and attempted a murder-suicide. She seemed normal when she was with you. But I think it’s getting weird now.”
Shizuka’s image sprang in my mind. Her eyes, pregnant with wild ecstasy, blinked up close. Cards scattered at her feet gleamed, reflecting fluorescent light.
“Doesn’t sound normal, does it?”
I thought of her like a sister. That was all.
What did I do wrong?
“…I don’t know,” I replied absently.
Yamagishi waited a few seconds for a reply, and then nodded in resignation. “Just be careful,” he said, giving me a pat on the shoulder before returning to his group of friends.
The bell rang, and the teacher took attendance. His voice sounded distant to my ears. I stood up and told them I wanted to leave early.
As I walked past the classroom door, I saw someone squatting in the hallway. A fox looked at me.
“I met Shizuka-chan earlier,” he said. “She looked hysterical. She said she likes you so, so much. Ah, makes me jelly.”
Shizuka’s voice replayed in my ear.
“You love me, don’t you?”
Fervent love and clingy affection brushed the back of my neck.
“What’s wrong with Shizuka? Why is she acting like that?”
Asato let out a chuckle. “Now, that’s just cruel. I guess a person like you won’t understand. But I think what she feels is also love.”
He removed his mask. His mouth had the same smile as the fox.
“She loves you so much that she’s gone mad.”
His mouth twisted even more. It looked like he was resisting the urge to laugh out loud.
Something was wrong. I couldn’t understand why he was smiling.
“Gone mad…? Why? She wasn’t that kind of girl. What happened?”
“Perhaps there’s a reason,” he said in a singsong voice.
“A reason?” I parroted, not knowing what he meant.
“Yes, a reason. For example, let’s say there was a girl who wasn’t loved or needed by her parents. She was simply kept alive. No one cared for her, and no one loved her. Nevertheless, the strong can survive. But she grew up to be a little weird. She doesn’t know how to maintain a proper distance from others, and she’s starving for love.”
She was on the verge of starving to death.
She wanted bread desperately.
“I’ve been very interested in that girl from the beginning. So I did some digging, and introduced you to each other.”
Asato put the fox mask back on. I couldn’t see his expression, but I was sure he was wearing the same smile as the fox underneath. I felt an inexplicable shiver pass through me. The meaning of his words gradually seeped into my brain. I remembered Asato talking to students all over the school.
“I’ve been very interested in that girl from the beginning.”
“So I did some digging, and introduced you to each other.”
“Asato… What the hell are you up to?!”
“Whoa, whoa. Why are you mad at me? Everyone has the right to go crazy. Likewise, everyone has the right to stay sane. She made her choice. I have nothing to do with it.”
He stood up. Lifting his mask a little, he said in an amused tone, “After that, it’s just a matter of what the observer thinks.”
The mouth peeking out from under the mask was still curved into a smile. Did he always make this face? His expression was different from anything I’d seen from him. It wasn’t the face of an affable classmate.
“If you’re scared, then run away. And if you decide to look the other way, then don’t ever come close.”
The fox smiled. The beast sneered.
“At the end of the day, I’m on her side.”
His was the smile of a beast that had finally found his entertainment.