After leaving the city, I thought back to when I escorted Akari back home. I got on a train, disembarked at a particular and hailed a cab. I wasn’t sure I had the complex route memorized, but with my oddly clear mind, I followed the route in my hazy memory. I might have made a few wrong turns, but I eventually made it to a familiar path.
I walked along the darkening road that led to Higasa’s house. As I trudged along the walled street, I felt like I had wandered into another dimension. Two years ago, I never thought that I would come to this place all by myself.
Back then I was terrified of crossing the boundary to the abnormal.
A while ago, I thought that no matter what, I would never change.
But what about now? Could I really say that I wouldn’t change?
I stopped at a familiar place and turned to face the wall. At first glance, it looked like a dead end. But I extended a hand without hesitation. Mayuzumi’s words suddenly replayed in my mind.
“I’m sure you’ll be welcomed.”
I found my hand gripping an iron gate. There was a rusty creak. I pushed the scrollwork gate inward. A cobblestone path stretched on under the dark sky. The house, which looked like a hideout, was tucked away in the trees.
I gulped and walked slowly.
“Lad?” Higasa’s eyes grew wide. “What are you doing here?”
He tried to say something, but when he saw my face, he realized something and went quiet.
He scratched his head. “You’re welcome here, but uhh… How do I put it? You’re so hopeless.” He hung his head with a smile, then tapped me on the shoulder. He shook his head with a sigh. “Honestly, I’m glad you’re here. Thanks.”
Tension left his body, and a smile appeared on his face. Higasa turned and entered the house. I was relieved to know that they were still there. I considered the possibility that they had already left the house.
I made it in time.
Higasa looked over his shoulder. “Come in. Akari will be happy to see you.”
“Huh?” Akari got up from the couch and stared at me dumbly. Her arms and legs were wrapped in fresh bandages. Her honey-colored eyes flickered. “Why?”
“It’s been a while,” I said. “How have you been?”
She shook her head. Her face contorted like she was about to cry, and she looked away from me. She buried her face in the cushion, curling up like a child.
Does she hate me?
“Always worrying about others,” she mumbled.
“I hate it.”
I guess she really didn’t like me.
Higasa laughed dryly, shrugging. He picked up an apron dangling over a chair. Using his mouth and one arm, he quickly tied the strings around his neck. Ingredients lay scattered on the table.
“Uh, just take a seat anywhere you like,” he said. “You haven’t had dinner yet, right? I’ll be making some delicious stew, so just wait there.”
Higasa picked up the knife. I wondered if he could even use it with only one arm. But he moved his hand skillfully and began chopping the vegetables.
“Don’t worry about a thing. I can’t let my princess hold a knife. I’m used to it already. You can do anything if you put my mind into it, and all that.”
But you can’t peel anything with one arm. Higasa chopped the potatoes and carrots into random sizes and carried them to the pot with the onions. I wasn’t sure if they’d cook properly.
“Um, excuse me,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be better to peel the skin off? I can help.”
“Hmm? You don’t normally peel potatoes and carrots.”
Pretty sure you do.
Also, sauté the onion first.
I took the knife from Higasa, peeled the vegetables, and chopped them in similar sizes. My bandaged palm hurt, but not enough to interfere with the cooking. Higasa, who had taken a seat, let out grunts of admiration. I sautéed the vegetables in order and let them simmer.
“What about the potatoes?” Higasa asked.
“You deep-fry them first, then add them later.”
“Oh, hmm. I see.”
Warm steam rose. I added potatoes, grilled meat, and the ready-made roux. It would have tasted better with homemade white sauce, but they didn’t have any milk. I stirred it with a ladle, tasted it, and sprinkled black pepper. The old stove was difficult to use, but it gave a nostalgic vibe. Akari took occasional peeks from behind the couch. When our eyes met, she would quickly hide.
“Let me taste it, lad. I have the right. I can be useful as a taste-tester.”
Higasa was persistent, so I poured some stew onto his plate. I prepared another plate and handed it to Akari. Quickly hiding herself, she extended a hand to take the plate.
“Hmm, that’s good,” Higasa remarked. “These days, men who can cook are more favored. You’ll make a great son-in-law. But I’m not handing you Akari.”
“Can you please stop saying things that don’t make sense? Also, I didn’t say anything about that. Akari-san is…”
A hand peeked out from behind the couch. She still wasn’t showing her face.
She had finished the sample I gave her.
“Meals are important,” Higasa said with a sigh. He shook his head ruefully. “Remember when I told you that she has to use her abilities to survive? If Akari-sama’s shadow doesn’t eat regularly, it will starve and grow thirsty, then lash out. That’s what happened to my arm. I got bit one rainy day and mishandled the steering wheel.”
The stew simmered loudly. Staring at the empty plate, he spat, “To eat in order to live. Fuck.”
I pictured Akari’s shadow, twisting into the shape of a mangled corpse. The hungry beasts warped Akari’s normal shadow, ignored her orders, and devoured dead bodies.
They had to eat so she could live.
A terribly cruel reality.
“I’m sorry,” Higasa said. “This isn’t something to talk about before dinner. I think it’s almost done, lad. We have French bread, by the way. Wanna toast some? You know, with some garlic butter.”
Higasa smiled and stood up. The fridge was packed with random ingredients, including jams and cheese of all kinds. It looked like foodstuff you’d buy the day before a party.
I looked around the warm room. The furniture and lovely decorated walls reminded me of a child’s room. The space where they went on about their daily activities seemed somewhat unsettling.
Then it hit me.
They were trying their best to live a happy life here.
And the room served as a reminder for that.
“Thanks for the food!” Higasa said. “That was really good. What do you think, Akari?”
“Thanks for the food.”
“It’s not often Akari finishes her food. Darn it. You’re making me jealous, lad!”
Akari dodged Higasa’s hand that was about to pat her head, and ran away from the room with a frown. Higasa gave a weary laugh and stood up. He took out two cups from the cupboard.
“Sorry about that, lad. Akari is not used to this. I hope it doesn’t bother you. It’ll make me sad.”
Higasa took out a jar of instant coffee. He opened the lid with one arm and put a random amount of coffee into the cup. I tried to help him, but he stopped me.
“It’s fine, just sit down. Like I said, I’m used to it. We only have the cheap stuff, though. Sorry. Is black all right? Your face says you prefer black.”
After pouring hot water into the cups, Higasa placed them on the table. Bitter steam rose.
Higasa took a sip and exhaled deeply. “Did you have a fight with Mayuko?” he asked after a pause.
I don’t know if you could call that a fight.
To Mayuzumi, my actions probably didn’t mean anything. It was just me yelling and leaving.
I wouldn’t even call it a fight. I was just doing what I wanted to do.
“No, never mind,” he said. “Sorry. I decided not to pry, yet here I am. It’s a bad habit of mine. I apologize. There’s one thing bothering me, though. If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.” He crossed his fingers. His gaze was straight. “You and Mayuko are a little too incompatible to be called partners. It’s like forcing together pieces of a puzzle that will never fit. Why are you with her? It looks like you don’t even want to be around her.”
My stomach ached as soon as he asked the question. I did my best to calm the child down. Right now, I was far away from Mayuzumi. No one would be able to close my belly if it ripped open.
“I know that Mayuko hired a guy carrying something abominable in his belly as an assistant.” Higasa continued, oblivious to my agitation. “What happened to you? Does it have something to do with this card?”
He waved the pure-white card that contained details of the case. It had a map and an indifferent message.
A gift from the fox.
“You looked like you would kill someone back then.”
Did I really make that kind of face? I was surprised, but I could see it.
He must pay for what he did no matter what.
I calmed the laughing child with a few pats on my belly.
“A certain man is behind this case,” I began. “It might not even have anything to do with you two.”
I told him my story.
About Mayuzumi Asato and Mayuzumi Azaka.
And what happened between me and him.