We got out of the car and walked down a narrow, deserted street, flanked by concrete walls. It didn’t seem frequently used. The houses were all facing away from it. It felt like this area alone was isolated from the rest of the world.
In front of us was an endless gray wall.
Mayuzumi reached out her hand.
There was a high-pitched clink. The next thing I knew, Mayuzumi’s hand was gripping an iron door. The concrete wall was suddenly cut off, and two brick pillars stood in its place. A door worked with vines stood before them. It wasn’t there a moment ago, I was sure. But there it was, looming before Mayuzumi.
I had seen this exact scene before.
Two years ago, I visited this place with Mayuzumi.
Memories flashed. Flashlight illuminating a suicide victim. Twisted graffiti. To paradise. The lovely sound of a piano rang in my ears. A girl, her hand outstretched, smiled and said something. Blood dripping into the darkness of the night. I closed my eyes tightly, and then opened them.
The sky was a dazzling blue.
That abandoned building was no more.
The short days went by steadily. Everything was changing.
“You didn’t enter last time,” Mayuzumi said. “I told you that you would be welcomed, but you stubbornly refused. What about now?”
In the past, I was terrified of crossing the boundary of normalcy.
I took a deep breath and exhaled. I grabbed the door and pushed it open. A cobblestone path stretched out before me. The garden, covered with dense green foliage, looked like something out of a storybook. At the end of the path was a small building that seemed like a hideout.
This place was definitely removed from the normal.
But coming inside would not change anything for me.
“Let’s go, Mayu-san,” I said without turning around. “I want to finish cleaning the apartment.”
Mayuzumi fell in beside me. In front of us was the house I once ran away from without entering.
The June sky was a bright blue.
Mayuzumi and I strode toward the small house.
My eardrums went numb. Pink, yellow, green. Bright confetti fluttered in front of me, and the smell of gunpowder wafted through the air. Mayuzumi, hidden behind me, giggled in amusement. Brushing off the paper ribbons on my head, I shook my fist.
What the hell is this situation?
“Greetings! Welcome to my home. How are you, Mayuko? Huh? Mayuko’s turned into a gloomy dude. What’s going on here?”
Who are you calling gloomy? A woman can’t turn into a man. How can Mayuzumi turn into me?
Swallowing the words, I studied the man standing in front of me. He was quite tall, with broad shoulders. Beneath his short black hair were refreshing features. Too refreshing, in fact. He gave the impression of a cheerful, nice young man. But his all-black getup did not match his appearance at all.
He seemed to have injured his left arm; it was wrapped in bandages and placed in a sling.
In his right hand was an empty party popper. He had pulled the string with his teeth. He blinked a few times and threw the party popper behind him.
“Hmm? I have a feeling we’ve never met before. May I have your name, lad?”
“My name is Tsutomu Odagiri. It’s nice to meet you.”
“All right, got it! You look like you’ve been to hell and back. Oh, there you are, Mayuko. Long time no see. You’re still as tiny as ever. Are you eating well?”
Listen to me.
The man finally noticed Mayuzumi. He patted her head.
Looking terribly irritated, Mayuzumi swatted his hand away. “I am. I eat chocolate. I see you’re still as loud as ever, Higasa. I’m glad to see you still have the energy to make a racket. I wish you’d broken your neck or something.”
The man laughed. “Come on now, Mayuko. If I break my neck, I’m dead.”
He did not even get the hint of sarcasm. Also, something had been bothering me.
Yeah, that was it.
“Uh, Mayu-san. Are you okay with him calling you that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Odagiri-kun.”
“What’s the matter, lad? You confused or something? Do I need to introduce myself in a bashful manner or what?”
“It’s fine. I’ll pass.”
Honestly, I don’t want to know more about this Rio Carnival kind of guy.
“My name is Higasa,” he said. “Like Mayuko, I live off of taking supernatural cases, but I’ve been getting some real weird ones lately. Then I got into a car accident.” He jerked his chin toward his left arm and shook his head ruefully. “Unfortunately, I can’t really move around. So I turned to my old friend here, Mayuko.”
He sure talked a lot despite not being asked. A very unusual name, though.
“Yeah, weird name, right?” he said with a laugh, sensing the question in my mind. “It’s just a fake name. Reasons. People are after me. I’m a fugitive, so to speak.”
“Higasa-kun defected from a certain clan,” Mayuzumi said. “And Mayuzumi Azaka is shunned even by fellow espers. That’s how we got to know each other. A curious story, wouldn’t you say?”
Mayuzumi’s lips quirked up, and Higasa nodded. So it wasn’t just the Minase clan that hated Mayuzumi. Even among espers, the Mayuzumi clan was considered a heretic.
But I couldn’t bring myself to ask why.
Higasa set his chin down on Mayuzumi’s head. “Yup. We’re both being persecuted. The world sure is a tough place to live in.”
“You’re the only ones being chased with rocks, though. I’m enjoying my life of solitude.”
“Oh, so you’re a big girl, and big girls don’t cry. I get it. I just want some peace and quiet. Come inside. We even have a mysterious young lad this time. I’m sure Akari will be happy.” Higasa nodded and turned.
Mayuzumi shoved her feet into her dog-shaped slippers without hesitation. Its mouth opened with her every step. Picking up a normal, navy-blue colored slipper, I went after her.
The living room was filled with warm light that was pouring in through the large windows. I looked around. The tiled cooktop was fascinating, reminding me of a fireplace. The floral wallpaper and cream-colored carpet gave the impression of a child’s room. It seemed out of a fairy tale, and as its outward appearance might suggest, it was quite adorable inside as well. In the center of the living room was a huge sofa. I took a closer look and saw someone on it.
A girl was curled up in a ball like a cat. Her long, light brown hair reached her ankles. She was wearing a lavender cardigan over a cherry-colored camisole dress. Her bare, thin arms and legs caught my eye.
Her fair skin was covered in layers of bandages.
“Akari,” Higasa called, stroking her cheeks. “Wake up now. It’s already noon. It’s lunchtime.”
The girl opened her eyes. She stretched and lifted her body up. Honey-colored eyes regarded Higasa.
Blinking several times, she said, “What is it?” She sounded grumpy.
“This is Akari,” Higasa said. “My precious princess. Come on, introduce yourself.”
“Oh, that’s her real name by the way.” Higasa patted her head and placed his chin on it, just as he had done with Mayuzumi. “Isn’t her name cute? And she’s cute herself! I’m warning you, lad. Don’t you fall in love with her. I hope you get along with her!”
“No,” Akari said coldly, glaring up at me. “I don’t want to get along,” she declared.
There was hostility in her gaze. She closed her eyes tight and turned her face away from me.
Higasa scratched his cheek uneasily. “Sorry about that. She’s not a bad kid. In fact, she’s good. She’s like, the cutest girl in the whole world.”
“I get it. You don’t have to say any more,” I replied. It seemed like he was going to go on forever.
He puffed out his cheeks.
Please don’t do that. You’re a dude.
Annoyed, Mayuzumi kicked him in the back.
“Stop it, Mayuko. My back is surprisingly fragile, you know?”
“I don’t care about that,” Mayuzumi said coldly. “Let’s just get down to business. I’m not here to listen to you brag. If you don’t start talking in the next five seconds, I’m leaving.”
Higasa puffed out his cheeks again. Then he turned serious. His flippant attitude was gone, and his dark eyes glinted sharply.
“My bad,” he said in a low voice. “Jokes aside, this case is a first for us. We have no idea how to deal with it. I’m sorry, but could you please help us?”
Higasa lowered his head. The sudden change in his tone left me shocked. Mayuzumi, however, was unperturbed; she seemed used to it already.
Her lips twisted into a smile. “If you keep taking cases that make use of your special abilities, you’re bound to run into a few awful ones. Awful for you, but good for me. Oddities are born from human emotions. Sometimes they kill people. Other times they impregnate them with demons.”
“I don’t know what kind of emotion created this thing,” she continued. “I just hope it will be entertaining for me.”
And that would be the worst thing for me.
Mayuzumi’s amusement was nasty, to say the least.
“It should be,” Higasa replied. “It’s just like what I said on the phone.”
His face was extremely grim. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional.
He bit his lip. “A mermaid attacks as the sea rises.”
I heard the same thing from Mayuzumi.
“But it’s not actually a mermaid,” he went on. “It’s a monster.”