The ant told me that the frog is bad.
The frog told me that the cat is bad.
The cat told me, "No, the rabbit's the worst of all!"
...My ears rang. Yet I could also hear it as a voice, trying to tell me something.
Slumping down in the chair, I looked up. The ceiling began to warp into whiteness. Wanting to check the time, I looked to where the clock should have been, but the numbers were black blots, squirming around like bugs; it wouldn't tell me anything useful.
I knew this scene well. I could still never forget that day.
"...I will end this," I muttered to no one in particular, shutting my eyes.
There was no end in sight to the ringing. The voice seemed to get increasingly louder.
"You want to be XXXXed? Then you just need to XXXX."
"What should I XXXX?"
"Let's see now... You should XXXX bad people. Then you'll be XXXXed, too."
That was what the cat told me. ...No, actually, I couldn't quite remember if it was the cat who said it.
But I always wanted someone to XXXX me. It had been the only thing on my mind for a long time. That's why I was observing the children at the facility and continuing to research - in hopes of finding an answer.
"Ah, my head hurts..."
I tried to lift myself up and head for the bed. But instead, I powerlessly fell onto the desk. I tried several times, but the worsening ringing in my ears and headache sapped my will.
"...Oh well," I mumbled, and lay my head down on the desk.
As I drifted off, amid the clamor of metallic sounds, I felt like I heard her voice.
Chapter 1: Good Night
The long, white hallway went on. Every step echoed for long after I took it.
As this went on unchanging for a while, I felt indescribable anxiety and helplessness. The place I was in earlier, I saw people who looked like workers here and there, but now there were absolutely no signs of life. The total silence only added to my unease.
This town, situated next to a large forest, was a bustling place with lots of people. Fairly large, albeit not enough to be called a city. Compared to the forest, where many families lived modest, meager lives, everyone here lived much more bountifully.
Now I was walking down the hallways of a large hospital built in the center of that town. Last night, my friend who worked here as a doctor gave me a call: "I've got a kid here at the hospital I want you to inspect."
"Hey! Long time no see."
With a lively shout, someone grabbed my shoulder from behind. I turned around to a man in a white coat with a good-natured, freckled face topped with chestnut hair.
"Glad I got the idea to come looking for you. ...So you got lost again, huh?", asked Cliff - my only friend - with a little smile.
"...I guess I'm just not good at remembering places or directions. Ever since I started living there, I've only come to town for... just grocery shopping, I suppose."
"Sure, but you've been living here for way longer, so... Well, yeah, you've gotten lost a lot of places ever since we met in college..." Cliff's forehead wrinkled, and he knit his brows.
"...Anyway, I still can't get over how you decided to buy that place and live there. There's always been weird rumors about it. You know? Like it being a mental hospital, or a place for human experimentation... I heard it all."
"I have you to thank for that. And yes, it's an odd place. No windows, and one of the rooms does lend itself to those kinds of stories. But I have to say I like it, because people's reluctance to come near means it's quiet."
"When you get right down to it, it's my fault, huh. ...So, what of that room, anyway? You mean the one on the second floor, down the left hall?", Cliff asked me, showing a bit of hesitation.
"I didn't even want to so much as clean it up, so I just left it as it was and locked the door."
His forehead seemed to scrunch up even further at my reply. He gave a little sigh, and we were both silent a while.
"...So, the kid I was telling you about. You know that burglary that happened in town? He's that couple's kid. No other siblings, it looks like," Cliff explained with a bit of gloom.
"...And what happened to his parents when they were attacked?"
Cliff just shook his head silently. When I saw the story on the news, all they said was "The two are in serious condition and are being treated at the hospital." But his face told me that in the end, they couldn't save either one.
"First things first, could you try talking with him? I already tried, but... it didn't go too well."
He began leading me in the opposite direction of where I'd been heading. Worried for Cliff, who looked so full of grief, I walked in behind.
There had been frequent incidents in this town as of late. While the specifics varied, the suspects and culprits made statements along the lines of "It felt like something took control of me..." Even newspaper and TV reports had begun to focus more on those statements than the actual details of the incident.
On our way to the boy who he said was in the hospital's care, Cliff told me all he knew.
The burglary had taken place two days ago. The suspect visited a house in a residential district near the library - the Llewellyn residence - and attacked the couple living there, stabbing them repeatedly with a knife. That was the whole story. There was no indication of any money or items being stolen, and no visible motive. All the suspect had to offer was illogical testimony - that he felt like he was possessed, that he heard a voice.
The Llewellyn family had a child, but he was out while the incident was occurring. By the time he returned home and found his mutilated parents, the suspect had already absconded.
Afterward, a neighbor found the boy unconscious outside the front door of the residence. When they ran over in worry, they noticed the tragedy inside and called the police.
"It must've been a huge shock. Other than his name, he says he doesn't remember anything, not even about the incident or his family."
Cliff looked to me and nodded, dropping pace slightly. He seemed to notice that I was out of breath. Though I felt pathetic for it, I also slowed down.
"I haven't told him his parents have passed on yet. It'd confuse him too much as this point. And he doesn't have any other relatives... You give care and counsel to kids when incidents leave them with nowhere to go, right?"
Leaving a slight pause, I quietly confirmed with a nod.
"This is my second such request, but I hope you'll accept it... Will you take him to your place? I'll call if I find any relatives or caretakers for him."
I put my hand to my forehead and thought deeply.
Currently, I had four children in my care at the facility. As far as finances, adding one more wouldn't be a big problem. But another object of study would mean more work. I'd have to make my decision based on his condition...
Before I could come to a conclusion, a boy appeared before me, no doubt the one I'd been hearing about. He was politely sitting alone on a sky-blue bench in the hallway.
Blond with a white shirt. With his head lowered, I couldn't tell his expression. Below that, black pants. His suspenders and long blue-and-white striped socks stood out the most.
His gaze wasn't directed at me, but deep into the pages of a thick book on his lap. His large eyes went left to right, again and again. He seemed engrossed in reading. I watched him for a while, yet he showed no notice of my presence.
I went around to his front. After getting down on my knees to be at the same eye level, the boy finally lifted his face. He was slightly pale, and looked at me with concern. I hadn't been able to see before, but it seemed a little bit of life had left his clear blue eyes.
I'd had a hunch, but... He was on the verge of emergence.
I took a breath to conceal my utmost surprise. Then I put my hand to my chest and smiled lightly.
"Hello," I greeted the boy.
There was the sound of running water. In this situation, I couldn't stand the unease of being in silence.
...What were my mother and father's faces like? How old were they? Did they get mad easily? What kind of house did we live in? ...What was I doing then?
Even the smallest thing would have helped. I desperately went looking for something I might remember, but I found nothing. All it got me was emptiness and a sense of loss, like I was trying to catch a cloud in the sky.
I took a deep breath and looked at the person in front of me. He was kind of short, with slightly frizzy hair. Blue eyes. I gave him my right hand, and he gave his left in response. So, apparently, this person in the mirror was me.
At the same time I felt a sense of comfort that I was alive, I felt anxious about my lack of conviction that the person in the mirror was me.
I mumbled my own name. It was the only clear memory I had when I came to.
I woke up in a hospital bed. I couldn't remember what happened before as much as I tried. I asked the policeman and the brown-haired doctor all sorts of things about my family, my mom, my dad, but the only thing I could get an answer about was my name.
I twisted the knob to stop the faucet, and the sound stopped with a squeak. I left the bathroom, and decided to return to where I'd been before.
I went back to the bench I'd been sitting on. The brown-haired doctor had told me to wait there, as there was someone he wanted me to meet, but I saw no sign of him after that.
Even after taking a brief trip to the bathroom since I was getting tired of sitting, there were still no sounds but my own footsteps and breathing as I walked down the hall. Still going to be a little while, I thought.
I plopped down on the bench with some force. It was very comfortable. After repeatedly feeling it with my hands and enjoying its touch, I picked up a book on the end of the seat.
It had a red cover with a blue spiral. Given that my name was on the binding and it was worn in places, I could tell it was something I'd read again and again.
I had a gut feeling that I read books for fun. At any rate, I didn't have to think about myself when I was reading, so I would open a book and read when I was alone.
I turned the pages, full of short poems and cute illustrations. Maybe something will jog my memory, I thought, reading through.
I wonder how long I spent doing that. I noticed a shadow before me and looked up with a start. But probably because my neck was stiff from reading, the action was much slower in actuality.
He stared at me with eyes like marbles, long, black, unkempt hair tied up behind him. At the end of a brown cord hanging from his neck was a glittering gold locket. I hadn't noticed him at all, and I couldn't hide my surprise at his sudden appearance.
With a gentle greeting, the person in front of me proved himself to be a living person - a grown man. I then noticed the brown-haired doctor behind the man, looking this way with concern.
My head spun, not sure of the situation. Noticing this, the man also took on a worried expression.
"...Are you okay? You look rather pale."
"...I'm... fine," I replied quietly enough that I wasn't sure if he would even hear it.
"I see... That's good."
He smiled, relieved I said so. I was relieved too that he heard me. It also occurred to me that this man had a very childish smile.
"He told me you have amnesia. That can't be easy. And it'd be hard to stay here all by yourself too, wouldn't it? There are other children much like you at my place. Would you like to live with us there? Just for as long as you need to."
This sudden invitation surprised me. Someone I'd only just met was asking if I'd live with him. I couldn't figure out how to reply, as I really couldn't decide if it was alright to simply answer yes.
Noticing my concern, the brown-haired doctor gave the man some much-needed assistance. "I don't think it'd be very interesting for you, sticking around here. I asked him to come because I figured you might prefer talking to kids your age more than somebody like me. And don't judge the book by its cover - you can trust him."
The man in front of me gave the doctor a look of "Well, aren't you rude," but once he noticed I was looking, he smiled bitterly with a furrowed brow.
Yes, there wasn't much more I could do here than sit in bed and read. Here I was talking to all these adults I didn't know, but it seemed like it would be a lot easier for me to talk to kids I didn't know.
Though some doubt remained, I decided to go to the man's facility. He seemed to smile a little bit when I told him so.
We left the center of the town and drove through the forest. Occasionally, the car would bump slightly with the sound of branches snapping underneath. It moved at a very leisurely speed.
After twenty or so minutes driving, we came to a stop in front of a musty old building.
"We're here. Sorry that took so long. I don't drive very often...", the man apologized, scratching the back of his head. For whatever reason, there were small beads of sweat on his forehead.
I shook my head to say it was no bother, unbuckled my seatbelt and exited the car. It was the end of summer, but the heat seemed to have no intention of dying down. To get away from the strong rays, he and I entered the brown-walled, black-roofed facility.
It was much cleaner inside than the musty exterior suggested. The floor was brightly-colored, the walls white, and the ceiling high. Even the hallways felt relatively wide.
As I took a look around, he called "this way" and beckoned to me. So I proceeded the way he guided.
"This here is my room. I'll generally always be here, except on special occasions." He opened the door in front of us and guided me into the room.
Right as I entered, I noticed a large quantity of books and stacks of paper. There was a big mess of both piled on a desk in the corner.
The man grabbed a chair near the desk and brought it to me. "Here." I sat down, and it made a shrill creaking.
"Don't worry. It's certainly old, but the legs won't give out or anything," he said with a slightly pained smile. ...He must have noticed my hesitation.
"Oh, I didn't ask your name...", the man remarked, as he sat in another chair which had also seen a lot of wear.
"Um, Allen. ...Allen Llewellyn," I answered, speaking slowly to confirm it for myself.
"I see. Allen. There are some little promises you have to keep to if you're going to be living here. Oh, but nothing complicated, nothing strict. ...Is that okay?"
"Thank you. Number one, we have fixed times for eating, studying, and sleeping here. But of course, the rest of the time is free time. You can go out as far as the garden outside, and there's a library on the second floor that you can use as you like."
"A library..." So I could read whenever I wanted? I wondered how many books they had.
"You can take books to your own room, too. Just be sure to sleep when it's time to sleep."
He smiled. ...Issuing a warning, huh.
"And while books are fine, don't take things from the storeroom or other people's rooms. Oh, and don't break anything. If you do, you have to tell me."
I kept nodding in agreement as he went on.
"Don't try to open up any locked rooms. Don't hit anyone. And if you have any problems or you want me to get something, tell me. ...That's all. Can you do that?"
"Okay," I quietly answered.
"Good. I've put all that in this note in case you forget. Put it up on the wall of your room, okay?"
He handed me a note with everything he'd said written neatly in large letters. Below the final "promise" was a drawing of a strange, round, fuzzy creature with ears awkwardly jutting out of it.
"Ahaha... it's a rabbit. ...Art is hard."
After being told so, I looked at the mysterious creature again. Knowing what it was supposed to be, I had to say it had... some resemblance to a rabbit. Staring hard enough, I could convince myself that it truly was a rabbit.
...Maybe I was more fatigued than I realized after the events of the past few days.
"So that's roughly how life will be for you here. If you're not sure of anything, you can come ask me. In addition... Here."
Interrupting my battle with the enigmatic rabbit-esque creature, the man handed me a small, sky-blue notebook.
"Your own personal notebook. I give one to all the children here. Use it however you like. For sad or for happy times. Just write down any feeling you have and show it to me."
"...It doesn't have to be words?"
"Haha," he chuckled. "Yes, one of the children just likes to draw in it. That's fine by me, too."
"I see..." I flipped through the notebook. Blank page after blank page, each lined with a gray border.
"Uh, there was something I wanted to... Oh, right. What's your name...?"
He seemed slightly disconcerted. "Oh, I didn't introduce myself, did I? Sorry. You can just call me Teacher."
...Was that a name? It seemed like more of a position to me. But if Teacher was the only adult here, then I guess that wouldn't be a problem.
"Was my name all you wanted to ask about?"
"No, um... It's not." I looked toward the door left slightly ajar.
"Teacher... someone's been standing out there staring at us for a while."
Teacher followed my gaze, then got up with some kind of realization. He approached the door and flung it open. There were four children there. They all appeared to be about my age.
The lone boy muttered "yikes" and tried to flee at once, but Teacher quickly caught him. The remaining three were all girls.
"I told you to stay in your rooms until we were done talking, you know," Teacher sighed, like he was appalled.
"Telling us not to come see makes us wanna come see. Right?", the silver-haired boy asked the others, standing up tall.
A girl who had white hair with reddish-purple highlights answered the question. "Yeah! I mean, of course we'll be curious. It's exciting hearing there's a new kid coming!"
Behind her, a brown-haired girl looked our way hesitantly. When I looked back at her, she shook with surprise and hid behind the black-haired girl beside her. The black-haired girl silently stared back at me in her place.
...I wondered if I'd done something to upset her. I was already getting worried about how things would fare.
Teacher clapped his hands together to get our attention.
"Very well. It's almost dinner time, so how about you tell Allen about yourselves here until it's ready?"
"Man, that sounds annoying," the silver-haired boy pouted.
"You're the older ones, you know. You're Allen's big brother, and you three are his big sisters. So I'm leaving him in your care," Teacher told the boy with a smile. The boy looked somewhat satisfied and smirked. ...He must be easy to handle, I thought.
"I'll come call for you when dinner's ready," Teacher said, and left the room.
The remaining children and I sat on the floor in the middle of the room. The four sat around me, scrutinizing my face, pulling the cuffs of my clothes. I let them sate their curiosity without resistance.
"Oh yeah, I didn't introduce myself. Uh, you're Allen, right?"
Startled by the sudden question, I turned to the voice. It was that silver-haired boy who had been standing out the most. He wore a black knit hat with a silver chain on it. Underneath his slightly scruffy silver hair were olive eyes that seemed to be scheming something. He wore dark bluish-green clothes with silver lines.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm Allen."
"Okay! I'm Marcus. Nice to meetcha, Allen!"
"...N-No. Um... Allen. This boy is Joshua."
The brown-haired girl who had been hiding behind the black-haired one interrupted the boy as he reached out for a handshake. Her hair was tied toward the bottom with two circular red hairclips on each side. She wore a red poncho and a puffy balloon skirt, the front of which was covered by a frilly white apron. Her general appearance brought to mind the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
"What the heck! Chelsy, you spoiled it way too soon. You're way too serious sometimes. Uh, what's it called... Yeah, you gotta cool it!"
Joshua pinched the ear of the girl he called Chelsy. She gave a little yelp - maybe she was ticklish - and as her cheeks went red, she retreated behind the black-haired girl again.
"Oh, you didn't introduce yourself to Allen yet. Uh, yeah, the one in red's Chelsy. She's suuuper shy. Always hiding behind people like, y'know, that."
Shy or not, that was definitely Joshua to blame... I checked on Chelsy. As I was wondering if she'd be okay, someone forcefully grabbed both my hands.
"Um, Allen! I'm Allen! Oh, uh, no! Er, Allen!"
"Whoa... H-Hold on... Calm down, now..." But the girl started swinging her arms up and down, as if trying to reflect my words back at me.
She had white hair swept in a loose wave, with purplish-red highlights slightly darker than her eyes. A small black hat with purple artificial flowers was placed atop her head. She was waving her arms around too much to be sure, but the things flailing about them were probably ribbons. What stood out most in my shaking vision was her checkered skirt.
"Oh, sorry! I'm so happy, I just got really excited. Um... My name's Letty! There's also a boy named Rick, but he's saying good night now, so you can't meet him. Once he says good morning, I'll tell him to say hi to you, Allen!"
Once she was done with her rapid-fire speech, Letty's arms came to a stop. While she didn't seem to have broken a sweat, I was struggling to catch my breath after her intense workout. My arms felt numb. ...Did I have that little stamina?
Seeing my lack of vigor, Letty asked "Is everything okay?" with concern. No, that's not what the issue is... But I was so far gone I couldn't even voice that.
I looked around for someone to help me, and met eyes with one of the girls. Long, clean black hair. A white headdress with wine-red ribbons. A black one-piece with a curious design. But above all, the sharp red glint in her eyes struck me as a little terrifying.
I didn't know this girl's name yet, I realized. Thus, I wanted to talk to her, but I hesitated slightly. Come to think of it, she hasn't said a word yet. And it kind of looks like she's glaring at me. ...Maybe she doesn't like me.
Noticing my plight, Joshua slapped me on the back.
"Oh, she doesn't talk much. Especially not introductions - even I couldn't get a word out of her. So it's fine! Alright?"
He seemed to be consoling me. Meanwhile, the girl's cold expression didn't change one bit. Maybe she wasn't good at expressing her emotions. I just had to ask Joshua, then.
"...What's her name?"
"Oh, she's S..."
I turned to the voice in surprise. It seemed to have come from the girl... Stella, herself.
"Uh... Stella, did you just talk?", Joshua timidly asked, but she ignored that question, and only said,
And then her mouth closed again.
Joshua rubbed his neck curiously, then folded his arms and looked at me.
"Well, anyway. You don't know anything about, like, where anything is here, right?"
I shook my head.
"Alright. I'll show you what places are okay to go in and what ones aren't. Okay, so first..."
Joshua motioned for me to follow, so I did, and he gave me a simple run-down of the facility. Once he was done showing me around, Teacher returned to get us, and we headed to the dining room for dinner.
A few months passed after I began living with Teacher and the other children. In living with and talking to the others, I came to know all about them.
Letty was a very energetic girl. So, so energetic that she often pushed you around. As for the boy she mentioned on the first day, Rick, I was able to meet him during free time that night while on my way to borrow a book from the library. His white hair with purple-red highlights was much like Letty's, but tied together in the back, and he wore pants with small ribbons on them. He was the spitting image of Letty; I figured they might have been twins.
We didn't talk much that day, but his personality immediately seemed very different from Letty's: he was calm, and gave the impression of never getting too excited about anything. I went looking for Rick the next day to talk to him some more, but I couldn't find him. All Letty had to tell me was that he was "saying good night." I saw Rick many times after that during free time at night and talked to him then, but I was still wondering about what Letty said.
Chelsy was a somewhat cowardly but very kind girl, who always showed concern for those around her. It seemed that Chelsy might have been better at folding laundry and cleaning than Teacher was. She wasn't one for running around outside, so typically I only saw her go outside the facility to water plants in the garden.
She kept an unnerving amount of teddy bears in her room, and my legs almost gave out when I first went in and saw them. But girls like stuffed animals, so that probably explained it for Chelsy too.
Joshua was a prank-loving boy. He would often catch frogs and bugs in the garden and show them to Teacher and the other children, or worse, startle them by quietly placing them on their shoulders. He'd already done it to me many times. Despite his mischievous image, he always washed his clothes if they got dirty, and neatly put away toys when he was done playing with them. Surprisingly, he really had his head on straight in that respect.
He was also very talkative, and it was hard to tell if the things he was saying were true or not. Since Joshua and Rick were the only other boys, and I only saw Rick on occasion, I usually ended up hanging out with Joshua whenever I wasn't reading.
Stella was still a girl riddled with mystery. She would respond if you asked her something, but she'd never talk any more than that, and would absolutely never start a conversation herself.
Although, every time we passed each other, it seemed like she was glaring at me. ...She probably didn't like me. On occasion, I heard her playing piano in her room. One time, I put my ear against her door to hear it more clearly, but she found me and gave me an extra-piercing glare.
Teacher was lacking in some areas, and it was... hard to call him a dependable adult. But he was very polite with us, and I could tell he was always looking out for us. According to Mr. Cliff, who occasionally came to visit, he was supposedly a highly intelligent person, but it was hard to see it that way when he was getting pranked by Joshua or being dragged around by Letty. Then again, the documents and papers in Teacher's room all seemed very complex. ...Was he doing research of some kind?
Once he got deep into thought, it was hard to get him to notice you. Joshua told me "That's when you hit him in the flank!" and demonstrated, and the results were startling. So, weak point: flank.
"...Oops, I wrote that down..."
I was only trying to gather my thoughts, but I'd been unknowingly writing it all in the notebook in front of me. The sky-blue notebook I hadn't shown to Teacher at all since the day I got it. I was told I could write anything, but I was writing nothing.
There had been no progress as far as my memories. But the whole time, I felt like I was missing something. Like I was forgetting something important... But since I couldn't remember what it was, it was just fuzzy. And so another season passed.
"...Time for bed."
It was still a little while until official bed time, but I changed into my pajamas and sunk into bed. The fluffy pillow and blanket smelled nostalgic somehow. Was the blanket at my house like this?, I found myself thinking again. Every time I had such thoughts, my head ached a little, and I felt very empty.
Maybe I'll be empty like this forever...
To run from the slowly-growing headache... I fell into a deep sleep.
"...I know the thing you want to know."
"Yes, but there's someone else who knows it too."
An unknown voice. My vision is black, I can't see anything - but someone is there.
"Who would that be?"
"Well, how many billion lifeforms exist in the world at this moment?"
"...Who are you?"
"That isn't what you want to know, is it?"
A girl's voice. We aren't carrying much of a conversation.
"I'll give you a hint. ...You'll have to remember the answer yourself."
Remember. Can I remember? ...Surely not. I can't remember anything.
"...Oh. Your hands are shaking."
I feel warmth in my hands which I realize were cold before. The girl holds them fully in her own.
"There there, there there, there, there... It's okay."
The girl scoops up that which is pouring out of me. My hands have stopped shaking.
"Don't worry. You'll remember all of it. You don't need to rush. They didn't vanish - they were only taken. ...There's still XXXX left in you."
I repeat the word the girl spoke. But the word becomes fuzzy, like it's covered by static. Yet I know it. I know this word... its existence?
With a dull sound, pain echoed through my body. Looks like I fell out of bed. I sat up rubbing my head, which was still hazy.
Just like in the dream, the word wasn't clear. Just after saying it, I got a terrible headache and collapsed on the bed. I felt like I was in the rift between dream and reality.
I'd been having similar dreams lately. Dreams of someone coming to talk to me and console me. Who was the girl appearing in them? She seemed to have held my hands. I touched them; the heat still remained on them. ...No, not just my hands. My whole body seemed warm and languid.
My head was more dazed than before. I tried to lift my body again, but I couldn't get the energy, and collapsed back on the bed.
While worrying about what to do, I fell back asleep.
"...A slight fever. Maybe it's because of the changing season? I think it'll be fine if you just rest."
I wasn't sure how much time had passed, but Teacher shook me awake. After that, he brought me hot milk, and I took a sip. It was a little too hot.
"It's not a particularly high fever, but since you can't move, I'll make some soup and bring it to you. Is there anything else you want?", Teacher asked with a smile.
If I said I wanted to read a book, he'd probably be upset... But before I could even think about how to reply, there was already a word out of my mouth.
It took me a few seconds to realize what I'd said. I looked to Teacher, and he looked at me like he'd been splashed with cold water.
Oh no. It just sounded like static to me, so I wasn't thinking about it, but maybe that word had some strange meaning. I quickly lowered my head with embarrassment.
"...Oh dear. That, I can't give you. And it's not something you can buy. ...Sorry. I'll keep it in mind."
When I looked up, I saw Teacher smiling with a bit of sadness on his face. I had the same thought when I first met him, but he really had very childlike expressions.
"Well... Maybe I'll just buy some new books again, then. I was planning to go shopping in town this afternoon."
The words "new books" made my heart quiver a little. I had faint recollections of all the books in the library, and there were no others that suited my tastes. So having more books I could read made me very happy.
"You like to read, don't you, Allen? I'm really impressed by how many difficult words you know already," Teacher praised with admiration.
"...You read difficult books too, Teacher. There's a lot of them in your room."
"Ahaha... Well, Teacher's not so smart. So I have to read that many just to understand anything."
He lowered his head slightly with a lonesome look. Then he put a hand to his mouth, and fell silent.
He didn't respond. I waved a hand in front of his eyes, but no change in the situation. ...Deep in thought again, I supposed. It'd be a while until he came back to us.
Teacher would suddenly go quiet like this not only when he was alone, but even in the middle of conversations with us. He was up late every night researching things, but I always wondered what. He was a very kind person... but I really didn't know anything more than that.
"Allen, if I told you there was a World unlike our world... Would you believe me?"
Teacher was again looking into my eyes.
"Huh? ...What do you mean?", I asked back, confused by the offbeat question. What did he mean by "World"?
"...No, it's just a fairy tale. Sorry to bring it up," he hurriedly replied.
"But... should you be invited to that door, I'd advise against opening it."
With that, he checked my temperature again, then left the room. As Teacher closed the door, I thought I heard him say, "Just a little more."
When I next woke up, I was feeling much better. Maybe it was thanks to Teacher's frequent attending to me. I had the chicken soup and sandwich left on my desk and drank the cold remedy beside them. After that, I changed out of my pajamas.
As I opened the door to leave the room, I heard a small yelp and an impact on my body. A girl was lying on her bottom in front of me, her eyes dazed.
"Are you okay, Chelsy?"
I held out my hand, and her face burned up at once. But she timidly grabbed it and slowly got up.
"Th, thank you. Um, I-I'm sorry...", Chelsy said with her face lowered in embarrassment, her voice half-vanishing. Even though we'd known each other a while now, she still kept her distance when we talked.
Wondering if maybe she was scared of my face, I tried smiling at Chelsy. That made her eyes bulge, and she twisted her neck in confusion. ...Maybe I'd forgotten how to put on expressions properly.
"U-Umm. Teacher said you seemed to be doing much better, and it was okay to talk with you. And, uh, I was kind of anxious about..."
Her voice got quieter and increasingly more mumbly. I couldn't really make out what she said toward the end, but it seemed like she'd been worried about me, at any rate.
"...Thanks. I'm fine now," I said to Chelsy, looking her right in the eye. She hurried to do the same and nodded a tiny bit. Considering that she wouldn't make eye contact at all at first, maybe we were gradually getting more friendly. ...Still keeping a pretty big distance, though.
Just then, I heard a creaking of some kind from the ceiling. Chelsy shrieked a little, and I fell on my behind with surprise at her scream. She promptly reached out to grab my hand, but tripped and fell in the process.
"...What are you doing?"
The door of the room next to mine cracked open, and Rick stared at us through the gap dubiously. I explained the situation, and he wordlessly grabbed our hands and lifted Chelsy and I up.
"Letty told me I should stay away from Allen because he has a cold, but you look okay now to me," Rick said, and stroked my head.
"Why were you startled by a sound, anyway? The floor here squeaks all the time... It should be a common occurrence."
Rick put his weight on one leg, and the wood floor made a strained sound like it might crumble at any moment. Getting uneasy, I quickly told him "that's enough" and grabbed his arm.
"Um... Joshua said something. He said there's been voices, coming from the second floor lately. So... maybe... I thought it might be... a ghost, or..." Chelsy's face rapidly paled.
"...Joshua tells lies like that all the time. You're too honest, Chelsy. It's not like you've seen it for yourself, so..."
Rick sighed and put a hand on Chelsy's shoulder. Another one of Joshua's tall tales, I thought - but this one had my interest.
"...What kind of voices, I wonder? Girls' voices? Old guys' voices?"
"What, you too, Allen?" Rick seemed appalled. "...If you're honestly curious, ask Joshua. He should be in his room."
Chelsy yawned, and the two of them said good night to me and returned to their rooms. I went to Joshua's to ask him about the voices on the second floor.
"Huh, didn't you have a cold? You better already?"
As I was about to knock on the door, Joshua came out just on cue. Perfect. I decided to ask him about the voices Chelsy mentioned.
"Oh, that! Yeah, voices are coming from the storeroom lately. All like, "heeelp." Which definitely means ghosts!"
For added flair, he raised both hands threateningly like he was about to attack me. But I guess my reaction was pretty meager, as he looked a little embarrassed and slowly put his hands down.
"Have you gone to check what it is, Joshua?"
"Huh? Ugh, no way. I don't wanna do that myself. Hey, not 'cause I'm scared! Just because I think that stuff's stupid!"
So Joshua said, but his legs were shaking a little. Maybe this time he was telling the truth. I just said "Got it," and headed toward the stairs to the second floor.
"Hey, Allen, it's bed time! Make sure Teacher doesn't catch you! And if he does, don't tell him I said anything!", Joshua shouted from behind. But I only heard him faintly, more interested in the voices upstairs.
As I left the hallway to go up the stairs, I heard someone coming down them. Not good - was it Teacher? I stepped back and took a peek. It wasn't Teacher coming downstairs, but Stella. There were a few books in her hands.
...The silence was heavy. Stella stared intensely at me. I found myself backing away. And she stepped closer to me as if refusing to let the distance between us widen.
"...Yes, you're very strange. Because... you can speak."
A soft, transient voice grazed my ears. I felt like I hadn't heard her voice in forever.
"Probably because you don't really feel like you're alive. It's the case with everyone here, but you most of all."
...Was that a compliment? I puzzled over how to respond to that.
"No... Actually, you're slightly different." Ignoring me, she nodded with some kind of understanding. "...If you're looking for Teacher, he's not on the second floor. But you should finish any business you have quickly."
Hearing her talk like she could see right through me made my heart pound a little. ...She might have been scarier than any ghost. Once she'd passed by me and I was sure she was out of sight, I went upstairs, careful not to make a sound.
It was already very dark on the second floor, and very silent. I felt around to find the storeroom door and nervously turned the knob. It wasn't locked.
The door opened with a creak. The room was dark and a little dusty.
I took a few steps forward and strained my ears. Other than what seemed to be a draft, I didn't hear anything. Maybe it was just a tall tale after all. A little let down, I impulsively sighed. Just as I turned to go back to my room...
"Huh?" ...Did I hear something?
Something was there. But I could only hear the voice, and couldn't be sure what it was. I fumbled around to get closer to the voice. My heartbeat got steadily louder.
I finally got right up to the source of the voice. I couldn't see it clearly in the dim lighting, but I seemed to be right next to a model of a butterfly.
Before I could even think, I tried to touch the butterfly. It was placed high up, so I stretched to reach it. Still too far away, I got on my tiptoes, and my legs trembled. Just as I finally grabbed it, it slipped out of my hand.
The butterfly model fell to my feet and shattered with a loud sound. Startled, I lept backward. ...Bad. Really bad. I was turning pale, I knew. My heartbeat got louder still. And on top of that, I thought I heard laughter behind me.
...I had a terrible headache. Maybe I'd caught Allen's cold. No, I knew better than anyone that wasn't the reason. I was just approaching my limits again. I felt a familiar dizziness.
"...Yes, I need to check that all the doors are locked again. I know the library's isn't since Stella was there..."
I slowly lifted myself. Things hadn't worsened enough yet that I couldn't walk.
I heard something breaking upstairs. It was past bed time, but was someone still upstairs? It sounded like it came from the storeroom, but that was almost always locked...
...No, never mind that. I just need to see who it is. I hurried up and opened the storeroom door.
I turned on the lights to reveal a pale-faced Allen. Glass shards and a butterfly model were scattered at his feet.
Allen's body shook as he stared my way. Seeing the situation, I approached cautiously to avoid making him any more scared.
I kneeled down to his level and spoke softly. "...I heard a loud crash. What were you doing up here? I told you not to leave your room during bed time, didn't I?"
Looking very ashamed, he mumbled, very quietly,
"...The butterfly... said "help me.""
...The butterfly spoke?
"...I see. Well, while that butterfly may be pretty enough to look alive, it's long since died. Something without a soul can't speak, can it?"
My chest tightened from what I said. I was still tied down by the regret of that day.
"The model is all busted...", Allen said, about to sob, and turned his eyes away and down.
I took Allen's hand, and confirming that he didn't have a scratch on him, felt relieved. His hand was still shaking. ...Maybe I spoke too harshly.
"...You don't seem hurt. That's good. These glass shards are dangerous. I'll clean them up, so go to your room and sleep."
"I'm sorry...", he quietly repeated again and again. Oh, this wasn't good. This was dangerous.
"No need to apologize, really. Just don't do it again. There there, there there, there, there... It's okay."
I gently held Allen's hands and recited my charm. He looked back at me with wide eyes. Did I say something unusual?
...At any rate, I stood up to get him out of the room, when suddenly there was a shrill sound in my ears.
"Is it reeeally okay?"
I heard a voice from somewhere. An unpleasant voice I knew well.
"Are you okay, Teacher?"
I looked up in surprise. Allen was looking at me worriedly. "I'm fine," I insisted, and led him out.
Once I'd seen him go down the stairs, I responded to the voice without turning around. "...You were watching?"
"Boy, you look like you swallowed somethin' sour! Was hopin' for a bit of a better reception after all this time."
I felt something coiling on my back. I was more and more discomforted.
"You've known for ages, haven'tcha? Now, what's it gonna be?"
A distinctive laugh made my skin crawl. I turned around and spoke to the source of the voice.
"...I have a favor to ask you."
All the lights were out on the first floor, giving it an ominous air. I followed the walls back to my room.
Why did Teacher say the same charm the girl did in my dream? And what was that voice calling for help, anyway? Lots of questions floated around in my head unanswered.
Even thought I'd slept soundly all day, I felt intensely drowsy. I went to the closet to change into my pajamas and put a hand on the door.
Something black was by my feet. I couldn't see it clearly in the darkness.
"Meooow," it said with a cat-like voice. But something about it seemed unlike a cat. What was that about? It rubbed its face against my leg and put a paw on the closet door.
"You want to go inside?", I asked, knowing it wouldn't actually be able to talk back.
"...Won't you open it, Alice?"
I jumped and looked around for who said that. I checked again and again, but there was no one around the room but me and the cat at my feet. Did the cat speak...?
"Don't act so surprised. You read stories with talkin' worms and mice, don't you?"
One of its golden eyes gleamed in the dark. Its jagged white teeth raised high enough to nearly reach where its ears would be.
"...Stories are different from reality."
"Oho! Then what if you're in a dream?"
In a dream? Then sure, I could see the kind of things I'd see in stories, and have strange experiences. But did that explain what was happening now? Maybe I was already dreaming, hence talking to a cat?
"Not to worry. You always wake up from dreams. And whether somethin' wakes you up, or you tear it apart yourself, that's all down to what happens in the dream! So what'll it be, Alice?"
Was this cat I'd been talking to referring to me when he said "Alice"? Didn't the real "Alice" chase after a white rabbit and fall down its rabbit hole? But my invitation to Wonderland was coming from a cat with one eye creepily floating in the darkness, and this was a closet, not a rabbit hole. ...I couldn't make sense of it, and it spun around in my head.
The cat started clawing at the closet to hurry me up. There was a door to a World of dreams in front of me.
After a slight hesitation, I opened the door with both hands.
"The front cover is open! Welcome, Alice. Time for a fun dream to begin!"
...Deep in my ears, there were many metallic sounds overlapping each other. My body felt weightless, like I was thrown into zero-gravity. My eyelids were heavy, and felt sewn shut; I couldn't open them.
...Where was this? I tried to move my limbs, but it was futile.
I thought I heard someone speak. But it was drowned out by an unpleasant buzzing.
Something warm touched my chest. And the warmth dragged me along...
When I woke up, I was lying in bed. ...Did I fall asleep after that? I crawled out of the covers and put my feet on the floor. I was still wearing my shoes.
I stood up and looked around. This wasn't my room. ...So where was it? My head was hazy, and I couldn't think for too long.
The drab wooden floor had fallen through in places, and if there was anything below, it was enshrouded in thick darkness. There weren't any walls or anything, only a path.
I proceeded along it, careful of the holes. It all looked the same, so I became worried whether I was actually getting anywhere.
After walking a while, I saw a human figure. ...No, upon closer inspection, his lower half was decidedly not human. He wore something like a cape with a hood, and down below, a long tail flitted around. I nervously approached, and the figure's eyes darted toward me.
"Jesus! What the hey?! Now if this isn't a strange little human I've never seen before!"
He peered at me with a repulsive grin. His body, like a human body with cat parts stuck on, staggered around in front of me. The shape of his head was obscured by the hood.
"What's up? Anything's on your mind, I can answer, Alice!"
Upon him saying "Alice," I retraced my memory. Come to think of it, he resembled that cat who had tempted me to open the closet door. The single eye floating in his hood was one with the cat's singular eye in my mind. So was I in a dream like the cat had said?
"Yes indeedy!", the cat-like creature responded clownishly to my unspoken question. "If you say you're dreaming, Alice, then this is a dream. Because here, everything depends on what Alice says and does!"
"I'm not Alice. I have a name, it's Allen," I retorted, keeping in my irritation. Maybe I felt some fear of even that one thing I had left being changed into something else.
"Not your name, huh? Oh, no no, Alice is Alice. And that's because I say so!"
My head reeled.
"That contradicts what I just said? Maybe you're onto something, kid. This place is chock full of weirdos, so I'm just one of 'em. Mweeheeheehee!"
He went on egotistically answering questions I wasn't asking. I judged at this point that I wouldn't be getting along with this denizen of my dream.
"Oh, don't say that. You don't wanna stop in the middle of a good meal, do ya? Same for dreams. This World's only just been made. You gotta savor the taste."
His gold eye narrowed, and he smirked. ...Disgusting.
"Oop! Well, I'm busier than I look. Alright, I'll smell ya!
The cat-like creature decided it was time to part ways, and vanished just as he turned his body. What was that all about? I started back on the path in front of me to get away from my surmounting unease.
After traveling a little ways, I reached a large plaza-like area. It was surrounded with iron bars, and the floor was paved with cracked stones. Numerous objects that looked like graves were placed around.
In the center was a figure different from the cat. It had strange hair that parted oddly into tree branches. Rabbit-like ears grew out of its head, but one of them was torn up, like a monster had bitten it off.
The rabbit-like creature beckoned to me to come closer once it noticed my presence. The whites of its eyes were stained black, and pupils like red moons floated in the center. They frightened me, and I pondered whether I should go over there.
"...Would you hurry it up?", he said, annoyed. So he can talk, too. He was only getting more impatient as I thought, so I hurried over.
"Sigh... You're the sixth one, and my fifth explanation. What a pain. And after all my insisting that they come in groups..."
He murmured complaints seemingly not to anyone but himself. His skin was extremely white, and didn't feel alive. While he did have a rabbit-like tail, I feared he would probably kill me if I tried to touch it right now.
"Ah... Sorry. You caught me at a bad time." The deadly anger quickly vanishing from his face, he shuffled his posture and cleared his throat.
"Good evening, Alice, and welcome. You've done well. I'm the White Rabbit, a guide of this World. It's a rather big place, so call me if you need anything." The White Rabbit seemed quite familiar with this spiel.
"...Though I should note, I won't move from this spot. It's just a pain, really. So to enter the Worlds, you'll have to... Hm? Those numbers don't add up. Why is that...?"
Was there a problem? The White Rabbit began to worry. But a short time later, he found even that action to be too much trouble and took a breath.
"...Well, all right. You see, rather troublingly, I've lost the keys to the World doors. Of the five, four have been stolen by a certain individual. ...And I think I can hazard a guess as to who."
His forehead wrinkled like he'd suddenly acquired a pounding headache. His earlier gentle expression once again changed to one full of bloodlust.
"As previously stated, I don't want to move an inch. So, Alice, I'd like to ask you to recover them. ...How does that sound?"
He glared at me, unwilling to take no for an answer. This was an entirely different beast from the White Rabbit I knew.
"...Well, I'll make you do it whether you like it or not. Luckily, I do have one of the World keys on hand, so you can already go in one. Knowing who we're dealing with, I'm sure he's scattered them all across the Worlds. You're likely to find them just wandering around."
The White Rabbit continued explaining without breaking for a reply. What was with these people? They all acted like the world revolved around them.
"...Don't be shy about asking any other questions you may have," he added like an afterthought, seeing my concern. "But I'll only answer up to three."
...Would he actually answer them? There was a lot I still hadn't put together, but for now I asked a question.
"What's a "World"?"
"...Generally speaking, a World is a place that embodies the hidden side of an Alice's heart. Because their surface heart is soon to vanish, you see. They may be locked or unlocked, but primarily are locked. People don't like others trampling on their hearts, after all. I manage the keys, so just ask, and you can go in and out."
The White Rabbit took a short pause and smiled disagreeably. "Of course, that is assuming you can recover them, Alice."
A haziness that was sitting in the corner of my heart welled up again. I tried to keep it aside and asked another question.
"What was that cat creature I met before coming here? Is he a guide like you?"
"...The Cheshire Cat, you mean. As you say, he is another guide. If you met him already, then I shouldn't need to say a word. The sight of him makes me sick. Fills me with repugnance."
I nodded slightly to show my agreement. I didn't speak, though, because I felt that the White Rabbit's obvious anger was starting to warp reality. Though if you ask me, I don't think either answer would change much.
"I have him to thank for this ear, too, and this off-color skin. Our tastes don't match at all, and frankly I hate everything about him. ...Next time we meet, I'd like to give him a piece of my mind."
He went on muttering curses and ill wishes. I took a few steps back. I worried that saying something even a little upsetting might cause him to give me a piece of his mind.
After watching from a distance for a while, the White Rabbit yawned loudly, either refreshed or bored. I was unsure whether he might just fall asleep on the spot, but he beckoned me to come back, and I complied.
"I can answer one more question for you. How about it?" ...I still sensed a little bit of irritation.
"Um... What do you like, Mr. White Rabbit?"
I was looking for a safe question to get away from the other stuff, but as soon as I said it, I felt like I'd messed up. There's nothing more boring than having to answer a question about yourself.
I felt the blood drain from my face, but looking at the White Rabbit's, he didn't seem especially displeased.
"Me? Other than being a guide... ...I like children, I suppose."
I opened the door indicated by the White Rabbit with care. It was dark on the other side, and I couldn't see a thing.
"...The lights will come on eventually. Just watch out for you-know-who." The White Rabbit still hadn't moved an inch, and waved me off to say "get going already." It kind of annoyed me, but knowing it wouldn't do any good to stay here, I proceeded through the door.
In the darkness, I found some stairs. I carefully went up the steps one at a time, holding onto the handrail. Just as I reached the top step, my vision went white and I reflexively shut my eyes.
"Yo! You doing well for yourself? I'm feelin' fiiine."
A voice came at my back, and my spine shivered. I didn't need to turn around to know who it was.
My vision was still fuzzy, but I ignored him and tried to go forward. Instantly, the Cheshire Cat behind my back was grinning in front of me.
"Goin' for a walk? Or you lookin' for something?" He spun a key around one of his claws.
"Keys? Wouldn't know, no sir. That's the truth and nothin' but. Sure, I did steal 'em. But only 'cause somebody else asked me to. It's true, I tell ya!"
What a talkative cat. But it caught my attention: did someone really ask him to do it? If so, who could that be? I wondered if the Mad Hatter or March Hare would show up too. And if they did, I hoped they'd be more proper than these jokers.
"Can't tell you who, nope. I may be a liar, but I wouldn't lie to a friend, friend. Besides, I'm only a guide... So I'll just give you a hint."
He spun in place, and the key in his paw suddenly vanished.
"Here's your hint! There's one to be found in each world," the Cheshire Cat explained with a raised claw. "See, I'm only as much of a pain as you-know-who is."
"...Is there no other way to open the doors?"
"No, no, 'course not. Maybe if you told me your mom's maiden name, or the name of your pet. ...Whoops! Don't remember, huh!"
So there isn't, I thought, and at the same time figured that by "you-know-who," he meant the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit had called the Cat that as well, similarly loath to speak his name.
"Ding ding ding! You're a clever squirt. Ugh, but just sayin' his name ruffles my fur. He messed me up just as bad, underneath this here hood."
He thrust his paw into the hood, and disgusting squishy sounds came from within; I couldn't help but turn away. Judging from the sounds, I couldn't even picture how what was in that hood could have a coherent outline.
"...Wanna take a look? May be a tad grotesque for a li'l'un like you."
I silently shook my head. There wasn't any particular reason, other than I didn't want to talk with the Cheshire Cat any longer.
"Alright, time's up! Hey, good luck! Oh, and last things last... Don't peer too hard into people's hearts. Careful now!"
With a sneer, the Cheshire Cat turned around and was gone.
I kind of felt a loss of motivation. But I was also scared of making the White Rabbit wait.
I forced my heavy legs forward. There were five doors before me, equally-spaced. These were the doors to the Worlds mentioned by the White Rabbit.
I approached one door and put my hand on the knob. ...What could be behind this door? I suddenly hesitated to open it.
Something melancholy crawled up from my toes, coiling around my leg. An unknown dread went up my spine. My hand was trembling on the doorknob.
I shook my head and regained composure. It's fine - this is a dream. Whether it's a good one or a bad one, it'll be over when I wake up. It's all just happening in a dream.
This is just a dream, so it's okay...
I took a big breath to calm myself. And I slowly turned the knob to open the door to the World.
"...You're coming along too?"
With my hand on the doorknob, I spoke to the shadow behind me without turning to it.
"Is there a problem?", the shadow replied with a hint of a sneer.
"No, I didn't make you promise not to. ...As long as you keep to what you did promise."
"Sure! No worries. I've never lied, not once."
I heard excited footsteps behind me. What did he find so amusing...? But you couldn't get along with the denizens here thinking normally. So I quickly renounced that train of thought.
I looked again at the doorknob my hand was on. How many years had it been since I turned it last?
I needed to end this as soon as possible. Strengthening my resolve, I twisted the knob and forcefully opened the door.