Each time she gripped my blood-soaked hand tighter, sharp pain shot across.
The rain was growing louder. Higasa returned from the first floor, wearing a frown.
“We can leave,” he said with hesitation. “The door was unlocked. We can take the girl with us, but…”
He looked at a loss. Aya‘s eyes flickered as she clung to my arm. She reminded me of a small critter that was wary and frightened of the outside world.
The wound on my palm hurt, but since Aya wouldn’t let go of my hand, I couldn’t even treat it. The pain was something I would have to deal with in the future.
Because I was the one who agreed to this.
“Are you really… What’s your plan with the girl?” Higasa asked reluctantly.
I knew what he meant. Aya was a murderer. No matter the reason, that fact would never change.
This house was once closed like a coffin. But once opened, reality awaited. Murder was a punishable offense. Her state of mind would be taken into consideration during the trial.
But Aya would never leave my side, I was sure.
She would kill herself if we were forced apart. Then I would have no choice but to take her and run away. Or should I cover up her mother’s death?
I couldn’t think of any specific plan at the moment.
“Let’s just head outside for now,” I replied. “I’ll figure it out later.”
I was too confused to know what was right or even what to do. I just wanted to get out of this house. Putting off a decision was a mistake. Things were only going to get worse, not better. Gripping the small hand in my palm, I bit my lip hard.
Ultimately, I was nothing but a coward.
Right now, I just wanted to sleep without thinking about anything.
“I see. If that’s what you want, I won’t say anything,” Higasa said softly. “But…”
Mayuzumi was staring out the window, twirling her parasol. The rain I glimpsed through the curtains was letting up.
“…Sometimes the choices you think are the only ones available at the time will come to bite you back later.”
I knew. I was fully aware that I would regret it.
The choice I made was like jumping into the water to save a drowning man when you can’t even swim.
It was no different than saying you’d rather drown than abandon them.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t push Aya’s hands away. I couldn’t leave her to drown.
Higasa said nothing more. He turned on his heel, but then stopped.
As he opened his mouth, a shrill scream rose.
Something broke on the first floor. Higasa’s face darkened, and he bolted away, scrambling down the stairs. Mayuzumi closed her parasol and followed him. She didn’t spare me a glance. Black ribbons swayed softly, then vanished.
Aya and I were left behind.
That was Akari’s scream just now. I should go check on her.
As I moved, I felt a tug at my sleeve. Aya was watching me silently. I felt like I was getting sucked into those eyes. I was about to say something, but I swallowed the words.
What were her big eyes saying?
Was she begging me not to leave her alone?
Was she asking for help?
Was she telling me that I wasn’t going anywhere?
Was there a difference? No. They were all the same. I wanted to kill myself for even thinking that. I decided to help her, so why was I scared? I felt sorry for her. I didn’t want her to die. I want to help her. I’d rather die than abandon her. That was what I truly felt. But I couldn’t find the words to say to her.
As I forced my mouth open, another scream sounded. A low, pained howl.
It was Higasa’s voice. I could hear things breaking. I looked out the door.
I spotted shadows of beasts briefly on the wall.
Six beasts ran up to the ceiling, and then back down.
What the hell happened?
As I was about to dash out of the room, my sleeve was pulled hard again. Aya was regarding me without a word. But this time I had to go. The sounds of things breaking went on. There was danger on the first floor. I had to calm Akari down and make sure Higasa and Mayuzumi were safe.
I turned to Aya. “I’ll be right back. So please wait for me here.”
I couldn’t take her with me when beasts were running amok. She didn’t say anything. The fingers holding my hand slowly pulled away. My bloody palm ached. When I went downstairs, I found Akari shivering in the corner. She was holding her head and mumbling something desperately.
“Stand down. Stand down. Stand down. Stand down.”
But the beasts would not listen to her orders. Their mouths snapped open and shut as they swarmed Higasa’s shadow. Higasa quickly backed away. There was blood on his cheek. He seemed to have been bitten, as the sling on his arm had torn off. His twisted arm was exposed, and through the gap in the unraveled bandage, I could see skin and the red color of blood.
Mayuzumi was taking refuge alone in the distance, sitting on the sofa and munching on a piece of chocolate. She was not interested in whatever was happening in front of her.
As soon as Higasa moved toward Akari, the beasts hounded his shadow.
“Higasa-san!” I sprang to my feet.
“I’m fine, lad!” he yelled. “Stay back!”
He approached Akari, beasts gnawing at him. Akari flailed as she screamed.
“No, no, no! Don’t eat him!”
Higasa extended a hand. Rubbing her back to reassure her, he whispered something into her ear. A peculiar sound, like a flute, drifted softly from his mouth. The shadow beasts regained their human shape and slowly returned to Akari’s feet.
Akari fainted and toppled backward. Tears slowly trickled down her pale cheeks.
“It’s all right now,” Higasa said. He looked exhausted. “Sorry for making you worry.”
He laid Akari down and let out a deep sigh. Mayuzumi stood up and fell in beside him. She pulled out another chocolate from her handbag. She had run out of noblewomen, and this time a different shape emerged.
A little doll.
Spinning it around her fingertips, she said, “Did you leave Aya alone?”
She tossed the doll into her mouth. Wearing a bored look, she munched on the chocolate.
I felt like someone just punched me. I looked up at the kid’s room. It was close, and very little time had passed. Everything should be fine. But the feeling of dread crawling down my spine said otherwise. A question sprang in my mind.
What did I do?
I ran, scrambled up the stairs and grabbed the doorknob. I pulled it toward me, praying. The door opened with a small creak. Relieved, I rushed inside.
She was nowhere to be found.
I couldn’t find her.
But the small cabinet’s door was open.
Bright crimson dripped down through the crack.
The door swung invitingly. I jumped at the cabinet, grabbed the door, and pulled it wide open. Clothes fell to the floor, along with something else.
A bloody knife.
The rusty red glistened with a fresh coat of color.
Streaks of blood dribbled down to my feet, staining the floor and clothes red.
Aya was lying in the cabinet with her eyes closed, her body forced in a fetal position.
I grabbed her unmoving shoulders. My vision turned white. The child chewed on her memory as she laughed. Color filled the white scene. Memories emerged like someone drawing on a piece of paper.
My figure receded into the distance.
She looked at her small hand absently. It was wet with blood from my palm. She sat there for a while.
Suddenly, she rose to her feet. She took a step forward to follow me.
Then there was a small creak. Aya slowly turned around. White fingers peeked out from the cabinet. Animalistic eyes glinted from within.
The door opened. It sounded like a coffin opening. Crimson trickled down, and the next instant, the colors faded as if years had passed.
In the cabinet was Aya, her body bent awkwardly. Twisting her neck, she looked up at Aya. There were dried bloodstains inside. Aya’s flesh was rotting. Darkened flesh peeked out from her gaping wound.
She looked like a corpse inside a coffin.
Her mouth opened. A mutilated arm stretched toward Aya.
It was holding a knife, its broad blade stained with rusty blood.
“You’ll help me, won’t you?” asked a dark voice.
Pleading arms moved toward her.
Aya slowly reached out her hand.
“You made a promise to him, didn’t you?” the dark voice said.
The arms beckoned her.
Aya took the knife. Staring at it with glassy eyes, she nodded.
Aya put the knife to her neck readily.
Her last thought was simple. Too simple for someone who was seconds away from death.
I’ll never get away. I’ll never be forgiven. It’ll be the same no matter where I go. I’m lonely. I’m sad. It hurts.
I want to die.
The image was cut off. The child stopped chewing and swallowed Aya’s thoughts. All that remained was Aya’s body with her eyes closed. She was curled up like a fetus, her face at peace.
But it was no solace.
It could never be.
She was always lonely and in pain. Her only hope was to die, and I stopped her, leaving her standing on a precipice.
I knew that.
I knew fully well that I should never let go of her hand.
But what did I do?
I screamed my lungs out. The child laughed. The sound of innocent laughter rang in my ears. I sensed footsteps behind me. But no one spoke a word. They kept their mouths shut in front of Aya‘s body. Blood spilled from my stomach. It hurt so bad. But it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t kill me.
She was dead.
Mayuzumi chomped on her chocolate like nothing happened. She bent down beside me and touched something in front of the cabinet.
“But it needed the missing ingredient,” Mayuzumi recited the story. “One for the body, one for the soul. The girl tried to gather the materials.”
She studied the red footprints left on the floor. It led from the cabinet to the outside. Mayuzumi followed it, then shifted her gaze.
“She’s gathered all the ingredients,” she muttered.
The curtains were wide open, as though someone had checked the weather.
“Looks like the rain has let up.”
She was right. There was a clear blue sky outside.
Whoever walked underneath it, where did they go?
The sky was so blue.
It was bright outside the coffin.