The fox’s smile rippled and disappeared.
The screen in front of me switched to a different scene.
It was raining hard. It was always raining in my memories. It rained all the time that year, regardless of the season. The hazy world looked like an aquarium floating in the air. Maybe that’s where Asato got the idea for the Little Mermaid, I thought, staring at the screen.
On the screen, I had just returned home. Dressed still in my school uniform, I found a letter in the mailbox. I opened it and frowned.
My belly ached. It was the first time I had ever felt my stomach hurt in a dream. The thing inside me was probably going wild. But the pain felt vague and distant. I put my hand on my stomach. Images continued playing.
There was no stop button.
When I closed my eyes, it felt like the darkness was coiling around my body. So I had no choice but to keep watching. After all, there was no way to wake up.
“Well, well, this is awful. Very morbid.”
I thought I heard a voice.
“I know, right?” I mumbled.
Where did ****-san go?
Where in the world was she?
I really wanted to know.
Then, my vision wavered. I heard a clear sound.
In the darkness, I clutched my burning chest.
The girl was staring into the darkness. Beside her, the boy and the man were asleep. Only the girl remained awake, as if waiting for something. The boy, holding one knee, was in a deep slumber from all the crying. In the quiet darkness, the girl continued staring at the void.
Her large eyes glowed as they reflected the moonlight.
Suddenly, she thrust one hand forward. Wrapped in a black silk glove, she moved it like a musical conductor. She then pushed her fingers upward and pulled them. As if controlled by some invisible strings, the parasols lined up in front of the corpses moved.
Seven red parasols spun around silently.
The girl clenched her fists, and the parasols closed, then stood on the floor on their legs. Just before they fell to the floor, the girl opened her palm again.
The parasols sprang open.
Seven red flowers bloomed.
The girl flashed a grin.
The girl’s head plopped, and the next instant, she was asleep.
There was no more sound. The moonlight illuminated the blooming cherry blossoms.
Everything was quiet, as if dead.
She had fallen asleep.
Did she stop searching for me?
My vision became distant, and I was sucked into my past.
A bell rang loudly.
I rang the doorbell and twisted the knob. The door was unlocked. The corridor of the apartment complex was quiet. Feeling suspicious that there was no sign of other occupants, I shook the umbrella dry. I peered inside the room, but there was no sign of anyone.
I walked up the entrance. There was no answer. The entire apartment was as silent as a grave. I went deeper inside, but still no one was there. There was no sign of anyone in the kitchen or living room. I reopened the letter I received today.
“Meet me here tonight at 7.”
There was a map with markings next to it. Asato chuckling flashed through my mind. Regret tugged at my chest for the umpteenth time, but I had made it all the way here now.
“Don’t tell anyone. Or our friendship is over.”
What on earth was Asato planning?
I recalled how he acted that day. After he said he was on Shizuka’s side, he just kept smiling. There was something wrong with him. But I followed his instructions anyway.
I was sure I’d regret it if our friendship ended like this. I had to at least know what was wrong.
What was he up to?
The apartment he led me to was located a long way from our school. Too luxurious for a single person to live in, the unit had no lived-in feel to it. It felt like I was being tricked by a fox.
Time to go home.
As I headed for the front door, the doorbell rang. I wondered if it was Asato, but then I realized: this was Asato’s place. There was no need for him to ring the doorbell.
Who was it, then?
“Tsutomu-san…?” a familiar voice called.
Her bizarre smile and calm visage appeared in my mind at the same time. What was she doing here? Why was she calling my name? Did she know I was here?
Why are you doing this, Asato?
“Um, Tsutomu-san, are you there?”
My instinct told me not to open the door. Shizuka’s voice sounded normal, though. Perhaps Asato told her to come too. While he was vague and elusive, he liked looking after other people. He was probably trying to reconcile us.
I had no idea why she would be here otherwise.
My hand reached out slowly. Ignoring the alarm bells ringing in my brain, I gripped the doorknob.
Don’t open it.
A severe chill ran through my whole body. Something resembling a white slug entered through the crack and stuck to the inside of the door. For a second, I couldn’t tell what it was.
A thin arm as pale as death.
Big eyes peeked through the crack in the door.
“Oh, Tsutomu-san.” She grinned the moment she spotted me. “I knew you’d be here.”
I couldn’t close the door. I thought that if I slammed it hard, her soft arm would be torn off like rice cake. Slowly, the door opened. I saw Shizuka in a unusual outfit. A sheer camisole. Navy blue scarf. A tartan plaid mini-skirt, socks of different lengths, and long boots. A yellow umbrella, like grade school students use. And a huge traveling bag. Once the gap was wide enough for a person to pass through, Shizuka quickly stepped inside.
The door slammed shut.
Shizuka gave a broad smile.
My body began to tremble. I was scared.
Terrified of the thing in front of me.
“It’s been a while, Tsutomu-san. Have you been well? Ah, I’m sorry. There’s no way you’re doing well,” she mumbled. “How can you be fine without me around? You would not be all right without me by your lonesome side. Impossible.”
Shizuka reached out for an embrace. I thought of an octopus lunging at its prey. Repulsed, I pushed her away.
Shizuka looked at me with eyes full of hurt.
“Stop it, Shizuka. Calm down. You’re acting weird. Why are you doing this?!”
“Weird how? Why do I have to stop? Why?!” she screamed. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “You kept me by your side because you liked me, didn’t you?” She began crying like a child, plopping down on the cold entryway. “Why? Why do you hate me?”
She wailed. She cried like an abandoned child. Her small shoulders trembled, and she hugged herself.
Like a little girl, she was crying about how lonely she was.
“No, no. I’m nothing without you, Tsutomu-san. I feel lonely when you’re not around. I feel so lonely and scared. I can’t go on without you. I just get so scared. Please don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me. I’m begging you. Please!”
She bent over. She held her mouth as she convulsed violently. She pulled open her traveling bag, spilling several medicine bottles. She quickly emptied one of the bottles and chewed on the pills like she was eating candy. After emptying the whole bottle, Shizuka groaned and spit out the entire contents.
Crushed pills dripping with saliva fell to the floor.
Big drops of tear cascaded down Shizuka’s eyes.
“No, no, no,” she repeated.
I liked her smile. So I kept her by my side.
I didn’t even consider how she felt.
“There’s a reason,” the fox said in my brain. “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.”
She was hungry. Almost starving to death.
How would she feel if she was offered bread, but then learned that she was not getting it anyway?
She would fall into despair. The well-fed could never imagine the pain.
“She loves you so much that she’s gone mad.”
Was this the result?
There was only one person to blame.