Chapter 2: Two of Us
What I found through the door was someone's room, one I was familiar with. In the corner were two beds of different colors, looking comfy next to one another.
"Oh! Alice! You're up? Good morning!"
A familiar person was smiling innocently at me from the middle of the room. White hair swept in a loose wave, with purplish-red highlights slightly darker than her eyes. It was Letty. Why was she here...?
"Hey, hey hey hey! I'm really bored right now. So let's play! Let's play! Play play play!"
Not waiting for an answer, she grabbed my hands and swung them up and down. The sheer force of it blew away the minor doubts I'd had.
"Play! Play! Play!"
This sort of heavy-handed invitation was Letty, all right... and yet, I felt a discrepancy. Something was off.
"Play? Okay! What should we play? Hm, let's see... Ah!"
Still not giving me a chance to answer either way, she twisted her neck around to an inconceivable angle. I yelped a little.
"Wanna open the closet?", she asked with a higher-pitched voice than normal and an innocent look. She'd stopped swinging my hands, and I felt the pain in them.
I ran to the closet to get away from Letty. It had the same design as the one in my room. ...Was it okay to just open it?
I looked back at Letty warily. Her neck was back in its typical position, and she smiled at me like usual. I recalled her closet had lots of toys in it. What would it be today? Maybe we'd play with dolls, or -
In an instant, my body was sucked into the closet. To be exact, it felt more like just my soul was being sucked in. Sharp, metallic sounds rang in my ears.
And I fell unconscious.
When I woke up, I was in a bed. But not a bed I had any memory of.
The pillow was hard as stone, and the blanket ragged and dusty. Even just adjusting my body slightly caused loud creaking. It was a crude bed which had me doubting if one could get any sleep in it.
I sat up and observed my surroundings. The wooden walls and floors were decayed and blackened in places. Mushrooms I didn't know the names of grew in the corner. Dust flew up with every step, telling me the room probably wasn't cleaned, ever. The air felt a little damp.
Was this the World the White Rabbit spoke of? While it felt much closer to the real world than where I'd been before, it was odd to think that this room I had absolutely no memory of was "an embodiment of my heart." ...Maybe I only felt that way because I'd lost my memories in an accident?
Maybe it would help me remember something, I thought as I opened up a small dresser nearby. Small berries and dry leaves were stored with care inside. I took one of the leaves, and when I turned it over, found something written on it in small letters. But I couldn't comprehend the words; the writing was too messy, I supposed.
I gave the entire room a quick look, but it didn't get me any recalled memories, and I found nothing resembling a key. I sighed, getting a little tired.
I went up to the window to see what it was like outside. Trees surrounded the house, completely blocking out the sky. Was it built in the middle of the forest? I put my hand to the window to try and open it and pushed forward.
My hand alone pushed forward. The glass was shattered. It was only a light push, I thought... Could I not control my strength?
I carefully extracted my hand and found several small shards in my palm and wrist. I carefully plucked them out. Blood came out into little globes and dripped to the floor.
Oddly, I felt no pain. No, I guess that was normal for being in a dream. While it was surely my wrist, I was looking at it like it was someone else's.
I stared absentmindedly for a while, then remembered the key, and went to the door to try another room.
I twisted the doorknob, pushed and pulled, but the door didn't budge. I checked all over, but there was no keyhole or lock. After turning it somewhat roughly, it finally opened with a loud click.
As I went to go through the door, a pain shot through my temple like a surge of electricity and stopped me. Despite not feeling any pain when I was injured by the glass...
"There was a little, run-down house deep in the woods."
"In this little, run-down house lived a mother, a father, and a girl and boy."
"Their lives were very needy. But the mother and father were kind. The girl was always hungry, but she did her best to endure it."
As my ears buzzed, a voice seemingly reciting a storybook echoed through my head.
My forehead also ached during that time. But I couldn't sit around too much while I was making the White Rabbit wait. Ignoring the unpleasant metallic sounds, I pushed the door open and proceeded on.
The next room looked like a combined dining room and bedroom. In the center was a wooden table with three chairs around it. Beside the door I came through was a large dresser, and on the opposite end were two beds. It was a pretty big room.
The room was as dusty as the other one, but had a faint smell of something tasty. I checked the pot on the table and found a small quantity of berry soup. Past the table was another door, which clattered from time to time. It probably led outside, and was being blown by the apparent strong winds. Yet it was warm inside thanks to the fireplace being lit.
...Was someone here recently?
If the owner was here... I wondered what would happen if they caught me.
"Don't peer into people's hearts..." I pondered the advice the Cheshire Cat gave me before coming here.
The Rabbit said that people's hearts became Worlds. So maybe the Cat was actually warning me not to enter any Worlds at all.
...I didn't know. What should I believe?
I let out a breath I didn't realize I needed to get out. I wouldn't come to an answer like this. Deciding I'd focus on finding the key for now, I went to the dresser right next to the door.
Come to think of it, when I found the key, how would I get back to that place? Maybe if I just went back under the covers, I'd...
I reflexively backed away from the voice, whoever it was, and fell on my bottom. Taking another look, I noticed what looked like eyes floating slightly above me.
...This was a dream world. I went in intending to not be surprised if anything unusual spoke, but I just wasn't expecting a dresser to.
It had said "not there," albeit in a sort of broken way. Maybe this dresser knew where the key was. So I asked, still on my rear end, "Hey, do you know anything about a key?"
But the dresser ignored me, its eyes shooting left and right. "Medal, none. None, none..."
It seemed to be looking for a medal... and wasn't in the mood to talk with me. I ignored it too, standing up and reaching for one of the top-most drawers of the dresser. However, as I was about to open it, a shrill scream in my ears denied me.
"Can I open your drawers if I find the medal?"
After a brief silence, its shifting eyes landed straight on me, staring intently.
...Could I take that as a yes?
After searching the room for a while, I noticed a memo underneath the wooden table. Likely from someone living here. I slowly read it aloud.
"...To my family: Do you know where my gold medal is? I had it in my pocket before bed... If you find it, put it in the very top dresser drawer on the left side. - Dad"
I thought. "In his pocket before bed... Maybe one of those beds?"
Two beds sat in the corner of the room. They were just as crude as the one I woke up in, so they creaked and sunk down when I got on top of them.
"Here it is."
Reaching my hand in the gap between the bed and wall, I touched something cold and hard that wasn't the floor. Carefully using my sense of touch, I picked it up. A gold medal with a picture of an unknown building engraved on it. This was what that dresser wanted.
Wiping the dust off my sleeve, I returned to the dresser. Putting it in the top-left drawer as the memo instructed, its floating eyes closed and it shouted happily. Must have been the right medal.
I was allowed to examine all the drawers then, but found nothing that looked to be the key. It had evidently been a fool's errand.
"...Medal, thanks," the dresser suddenly said to me. "Dad, be glad."
I was so busy with looking for the key that I had no time to think about my parents. I was struck with an indefinable emptiness again. Even in this house, for what it was, a mother, father, and child seemed to have eaten together around this table. Judging from the number of beds, it was just those three.
"...A family of three?"
A niggling feeling. Who lived here, exactly...?
"Dad, mom... daughter, Rick."
The dresser responded to my mumbling. Daughter, and... Rick?
"By daughter, you mean... Letty?"
"Letty, Rick, Letty, Rick, Letty..."
The dresser kept repeating itself. As it went on, I recalled what happened before I arrived here. Before I woke up in this house - I met Letty.
The White Rabbit said that "the hidden side of Alice's heart becomes a World," but why was Letty there? And if this was a World based on my heart, I would have liked to see something that felt at least a little familiar. It was strange how I'd never seen any of this before, how it all seemed distant to me. Doubt after doubt surfaced and fell.
Wait. Actually, he said "an" Alice, didn't he?
...What if I wasn't the only Alice?
In that case, maybe this was Letty or Rick's World. Realizing that, I decided I would leave the house to look for the two of them. In any event, I couldn't find the key anywhere in here.
I turned the knob on the other door, but it wasn't opening, just making a low sound. Next, I twisted the knob and pushed forcefully against the door with my weight, but this time I was too forceful, and my body flung to the ground.
I sighed, sat up, and shook off some dirt. Looking around, I saw innumerable trees around the house, echoing eerily every time the wind came through. ...Yes, this seemed to be a forest, all right.
I walked quickly down the sole path through the trees. Oddly, there was only this path going straight ahead, so my fear of possibly being lost soon vanished.
It was like I was being guided somewhere. And I simply followed those directions.
After walking for a while, I found a large sign and a small figure up against it. Could it be...? I ran over and confirmed it was Letty. She was huddled up and staring into space, maybe not noticing me.
"Are you okay, Letty?"
"...I'm thirsty... Rick..."
I grabbed her shoulders and shook her, but she just wasn't going to notice me. She just repeatedly said she was thirsty. If I went back to the house, I might find water. I wasn't especially confident in that, but I didn't want to leave Letty wanting.
"Stay here, Letty. I'll bring some water."
Letty didn't respond. She just trembled like she was terrified, the ribbons on her chest shaking. I patted her head, then hurried back the way I came.
Back at the house I left just ten or twenty minutes ago, I found a well I failed to notice earlier, obscured by thick vegetation. I looked down nervously; there was clear water down at the bottom.
I grabbed the bucket next to the well and carefully filled it with water. I was glad to have obtained water so much quicker than I expected, but that relief only lasted a moment.
"...I can't take it like this."
It seemed impossible to detach the bucket firmly attached to the well. Maybe there was something in the house I could use to get the water in this bucket to Letty.
I slipped past the door which I'd forgotten to close earlier. After a short search, I found a small cup with some cracks. There was writing on the bottom, but it was squiggly, like worms; I couldn't comprehend it.
Finding no better methods, I had to take what I could get. I just needed to get some water to Letty quickly... So I transferred only a small amount of the water from the bucket to the cup and carried it back to Letty, careful not to spill any.
Letty looked about the same as before, trembling and staring into space. I gently brought the cup of water to her hands.
"...Water!" Letty suddenly swiped the cup from me and downed it all.
"Ah... Allen! Allen, you brought me water? I was really parched. ...And there was no one else here."
She smiled happily at me, calm after drinking the water, but then suddenly looked uneasy.
"Hey... Allen, do you know where this is and why we're here?"
"Huh? Um... Well, I think this is a dream."
I didn't understand a lot of what was going on myself, but seeing her so distraught, I just went and told her it was a dream. Letty was surprised, but also looked somewhat relieved.
"I see... it's a dream. Well, I was surprised. It looked exactly like where I used to live. This cup is from my house, too. Look, it has my name on it!"
She showed me the bottom of the cup. That was her name? Actually, it occurred to me that the dried leaves I saw carefully stored in the dresser after waking up here might have had the same pattern on them.
"It says Letty Amery. My mom taught me how to write my name, but I still wasn't very good at the time."
She tilted her head with some embarrassment. I sweated a little, worried it might go spinning again, but this Letty I was looking at was the one I knew.
"Okay, let's play! I usually play with Rick in my dreams, so it'll be my first time playing with someone else!" She grabbed my arms cheerfully.
"...Oh, yeah, Rick. We need to look for him too. I bet he's feeling lonely right now. Also... I don't want to be here."
I thought she'd swing my arms around as usual, but sadly, Letty's head just sank down.
"...Don't leave me alone, okay?"
I grabbed Letty's small hands tightly. They were kind of warm.
"We'll look together. I'm kind of looking for something, too," I informed her, also trying to encourage her a little. She looked up and slowly nodded after a bit of hesitation.
Glad to see Letty cheering up slightly, I said "let's go" and took her hand. But the path past the sign wasn't like the straight path I'd been on thus far; it was split like a tree branch, the paths weaving through the forest like snakes.
Just as I stopped to think about how to proceed, I felt a pain in my temple again.
"It happened very suddenly. Her mother, as if a changed person, began treating her daughter coldly."
"As soon as her father went out, her mother dragged the girl out into the woods, and told her this:"
""There's no more food for you. You can't come back home.""
"Are you okay, Allen?"
Letty's concerned voice brought me back to my senses. I heard that voice in my head again. From Letty's dubious look, I could only assume I was the only one who heard it.
"...I'm fine. Let's go. Make sure you don't fall behind."
I'd unconsciously brought my hand to my forehead to curb the pain, so I took it away and grabbed Letty's again. We navigated the twisty paths using instinct alone.
"...My house was deep in the forest. There were lots of animals, and the air was really nice. I was always hungry, but I still loved it."
Letty had suddenly begun to talk about her old home.
"Is that the house next to the well?"
"Yes! That's my house. Mother, father, and me and Rick lived there. ...But my mother wasn't my real mother."
So that was the house Letty lived in, as the dresser said. Then something was definitely strange - but no, I couldn't quite identify what it was.
"Father said my real mother passed away from an illness. And... she liked to tease me, so I didn't like my new mother."
Letty's face scrunched up like she ate a really sour grapefruit.
"She used to be nice. But she just suddenly got mean. I bet she was cursed and turned into a witch. She'd grab my hand and drag me into the dark forest. The first time she left me there, I couldn't help but get thirsty."
I felt some of the warmth leaving Letty's hand. Perhaps when she was trembling before at the sign, she was remembering those times.
"But whenever I'm sad or lonely, Rick is always with me. He'll always talk to me. From good morning to good night. And if I'm teased, he'll get revenge for me. He's a very, very strong boy."
After saying this, she came to a stop and stared at something. I followed her gaze. A white bird was resting atop a branch low enough to reach.
"It's a birdie!"
Immediately, Letty let go of my hand and ran over. The bird didn't flee, and even let Letty pet it, closing its eyes pleasantly. I approached Letty and the bird.
"Thataway is the same. But that way is different."
...The bird spoke. But there was a lesser element of surprise than with the dresser, so I didn't go flying back or anything this time.
"Hm? Well, yeah, I'm Letty, and he's Allen. So we are different!"
Letty must have understood this was all happening in a dream, as she had no problem going completely with its logic. She was just carrying a conversation with the bird.
"Everyone different, everyone good. But everyone wants to be the same. In the end, though, can't be," the bird stated confusingly. Letty had a curious look.
The bird opened its eyes - black, swirling eyes that seemed more disconcerting the more you looked at them. It spoke to Letty.
"Never two the same human. Looks similar, maybe. But look closer, and it's different. But you, exactly the same. Weird. Why?"
With that, the bird flew out of Letty's palm.
Letty went chasing after the bird. ...Shoot, I let go of her hand. I hurried after her so she wouldn't get out of sight, but Letty was faster than me, and her shadow grew smaller and smaller among the trees.
Following the rustling sounds, I finally saw her shadow stop. I slowed down a little and approached. "Letty?"
It was Rick standing in front of me. Though I was sure I was chasing Letty's shadow... I felt a vague theory I'd had being validated.
"What is it? Why are you here, Allen?"
"Letty's saying good night now. It's very dark around here with all the trees, and Letty hates dark places," Rick responded as coolly as ever.
"I've never seen you and Letty next to each other. Letty said you're always together. But... there were only three beds in that house."
Rick didn't respond. I finally saw the problem here.
...If the parents, Letty, and Rick were living in that house, there would have to be four beds. Sure, two could arguably sleep in one bed, but with beds that size, it would be tough even for two kids.
"Yes, that's right. You're correct. ...Because when I'm here, Letty is in my heart, saying good night. And vice versa."
"Letty has many things she can't handle - pain, dark places, and so on. But none of that is an issue for me. So I take it in her place. ...That's surely the reason I was born."
I bit my lip. This was probably the first time I'd seen Rick express this much emotion. ...So Letty and Rick weren't separate people, but split personalities.
Yet, Letty and Rick's room at the facility had two beds. That contradiction was what was throwing me off.
"It's all the witch's fault. All of it, all of it, all of it... I have to get revenge on that witch who bullies Letty. When I met Teacher earlier, he told me to back off, but... I can't do that."
As Rick went on muttering things, his skin and eyes were turning a sickly purple.
Met Teacher... So he was here, too? I shook Rick's shoulders to try and get him to talk, but he pushed my hands away.
"...Keep it secret from Letty."
His face was swollen enough you could hardly distinguish the parts of it, but the strong, gentle voice, wherever it came from, was definitely Rick's. Then with an uncertain gait, Rick vanished into the forest.
...I had to follow him.
My legs moved before my brain. Even if this was a dream, I felt like even when we woke up, Rick's face would stay all purple like that.
My heartbeat quickened. I gasped for breath, and I grew uneasy. I had to stop Rick before he reached the witch. Hurry, hurry, hurry...
As I recklessly ran down the forest paths, I crashed into someone and heard them scream. I thought for a moment I'd caught up to Rick, but it was Letty who'd fallen to the ground.
"Oh, Allen! Sorry, I went on my own to chase the bird... Are you okay? You look like you're in a really bad way...!"
Letty, still on the ground, patted my head while I had my hands on my knees, out of breath. At that moment, I felt my chest tighten. ...What was this feeling?
"...I haven't found Rick either. He's looked a little sad lately. But he seems to have so much fun when we're talking. ...I wonder why?"
Letty looked down again and brought her hand back from my head to her knees.
"Hey Allen, do you have someone important to you?", she abruptly asked.
I searched my memories for an answer, but since I couldn't find a clear one, I just said nothing.
"Oh, that's right... You lost your memories. ...Sorry for asking you such a sad question..."
She patted me head again apologetically. When I was alone, I just had to put up with my unending emptiness, but now Letty was here consoling me. It was a nostalgic scene somehow, and gave my heart a little peace.
"It's fine. Thanks, Letty. ...We need to go find Rick."
I held out my hand, and she took it with a big nod. Her hand seemed significantly colder than when I first held it.
"Looking for something?", a voice whispered from behind. A chill went down my spine.
"Did you say something, Allen?"
"Nope, that'd be me!"
Suddenly, a bipedal cat in a hood appeared before us.
"Haven't seen you before. Hello, Alice. I'm the Cheshire Cat. How you doin'?"
"...? My name's Letty. I'm not Alice," she denied, tilting her head curiously.
"Nah, you're Alice. You there, too. 'Cause I said so!" The Cat did a creepy laugh.
"Found what you were looking for over there. Looked pretty tasty, so I aaalmost ate 'im up. But it wasn't quite time yet."
"Um, I'm looking for Rick, though? Rick isn't food."
"From your perspective, maybe! Ooh, and I get two helpings. Whatcha ma call that... one rock two birds?"
This cat was a wizard at making people uncomfortable. I grabbed Letty's hand with some force and walked past the Cheshire Cat.
"Ooh, that's cold. Well, if yer cold, I recommend the fireplace. Mweeheeheehee!"
The Cat's laughter echoed off the trees. I walked quickly down the path with Letty until we couldn't hear it anymore.
"Something smells sweet...", Letty remarked. Focusing on my nose, a faintly sweet smell like candy was wafting around.
She brushed me off as I tried to stop her, and Letty ran off once again. I ran as fast as I could, determined not to lose sight of her this time. I was worried I might not last if I had to run for a long time, but her destination was closer than I was fearing.
"...It's a candy house..."
Letty's eyes sparkled. Before us was a house made entirely of candy, just like the one in Hansel and Gretel. The sweet aroma was strong here, and I found myself drooling a little.
Letty's throat gulped, and she proceeded ahead. I followed as she approached the ominous-feeling house.
The front door was made of chocolate. When she put her hand to it, it started to melt slightly from her warmth. Letty stared at it curiously and licked the chocolate off her finger. I put my hand on the biscuit doorknob and tried to open the door.
"...Huh? It won't open?"
All the doors in the World seemed to be like this, never just opening from a single turn of the knob. I thought I might have to get rough with it again, but a candy house was much more carefully constructed than a normal house, so it was hard for me to get the resolve. In the meantime, Letty turned the knob instead, and with a click, the door opened easily.
"Hey, what? It's not locked! Let's go inside! I wonder if we could have just a few bites..."
Letty headed right into the house, smiling and wondering what she was going to eat. She'd been looking awfully sad, so maybe it would be good for her to take a nice break here...
Oh, but if only the truth could be that sweet.
Letty immediately came to a stop, and her body froze up. I looked to her to see what was the matter. Her big eyes were opened wide, and the ribbons on her chest shook again. Following her gaze, I saw something in front of the fireplace, humanlike, black from head to toe, watching the fire burn.
"...Why did you come back?", the black figure murmured without any movement.
"I always put you far down unknown roads. At this point, I can't care for you. You'll only get hurt more. So then... why even come back?"
"I... I don't... like this. Rick... h-hel... p..."
Letty's face turned pale as she intermittently repeated Rick's name; she seemed terribly afraid of the thing in front of her.
The black figure slowly turned around. I thought it was completely black, but an old woman's face was eerily there among the black mass.
"That name again. Rick, Rick... Who is that you keep talking to? There's no one here but me, my husband, and you."
The old woman narrowed her eyes and glared at me, spitting out a low "...Disgusting."
"! He exists! Rick definitely exists! Why - how can you..."
Letty fell over and began to shake. I reached out to support her, and as I touched her back, Letty stopped shaking at once.
...Letty's skin and eyes were turning purple. My body naturally stepped away from her.
"Evil witch... Why are you always, always doing these things?! I'm... going to protect Letty!"
The one who stood up looked like Letty, but their voice and tone could be none other than Rick's. ...He'd come to her aid.
"...! Why, you!"
The woman deemed a witch raised a large knife and brought it down toward Rick. I immediately pushed Rick out of the way, and shoved the witch toward the fireplace.
The fire engulfed the witch, and her body swelled red. Her shrill scream nearly blew out my eardrums. I covered my ears, but it felt like it was infiltrating my whole body.
"...Rick? ...M-Moth... er..."
The swollen-purple Letty approached the fireplace as if to chase after the witch. The fire seemed to be growing. I reached out, worried for Letty's safety, and was hit with a massive headache.
"The woods were dark, and she didn't know her way back. The girl closed her eyes and thought."
""Why? Is it because I was weak? That's why there's no food for me?""
"As she mumbled to herself, a lone boy talked to the girl."
"..."I'll be strong, so you can be weak.""
"The girl was terribly surprised. And she said "Yes, that's right," before falling asleep."
"...The girl renounced having to face up to herself."
...When I came to, the witch, Letty, and Rick were all gone.
All that was left were giant, howling flames flying about like fish in water.
Unable to process the situation, I just stared blankly. A small object gleamed at my feet, red in the light of the flames. It had the shape of a key.
And it had been so hard to find when I was looking for it. Something akin to disgust welled up from my heart. The flames had spread from the fireplace to consume the candy house - to bake the whole thing.
If this was a dream, I wanted to wake up. Praying for it, I touched the key at my feet.
"Oh, Allen. Bringing a book to your room again?"
"Yeah, I'm at a really good part right now. I'm not going to be able to sleep if I don't know what happens."
"Heehee... My, my. You'd better go to bed early, or you won't wake up in the morning. ...Good night, Allen."
My senses were gradually sucked up, and my body was flung into darkness again. Was that a memory just now? I knew that woman who said good night to me and kissed me on the cheek.
That's right... She was my ___.
There didn't appear to be any hints toward destroying the dream here either. I smelled a burnt aroma.
"Is this the memory of my first meeting with her?"
The place I had been earlier seemed to be a World further in the past than this. If I wasn't careful, I would have seen that scene again. That incident happened when she was still young. She surely couldn't face up to it.
My meeting with Letty Amery took place in this forest.
I was walking through this forest on the way to the house of my mentor, Mrs. Leavis. Sensing an unusual burning smell, I looked around and saw a huge plume of black smoke up ahead. The typically-calm forest was unusually noisy, I recall. Having a terrible feeling, I ran toward the smoke.
As the smoke thickened and became more visible, I heard crying that got gradually louder. When I found the source of the smoke, that was also when I found her sobbing.
The house in front of her was engulfed in fiercely-burning flames. It transferred to the nearby trees, gradually spreading. Thinking that she might soon be swallowed up as well, I called to her, and decided to bring her to the facility for the time being.
After calling the police and fire department back at the facility, I told Mrs. Leavis I wouldn't be able to visit for a few days.
The police reported several days later than she was the only daughter at that residence. But they also said that no one's remains were found among the wreckage. So then where did the parents vanish to? I tried to ask her about it, but overwhelmed by the situation, she was in no condition to talk.
However, when I went to check on her one night, she seemed very different from the way she was during the day, and claimed to be a different person.
"Letty doesn't like the dark. So I let Letty say good night and take her place."
That was when I first learned her name, as well as Rick's. Rick readily answered all of my questions. From what he told me, Rick seemed to be a split personality Letty had created to protect herself from her mother's abuse.
Yet when I asked Letty to confirm this, she strongly denied it, insisting he was a different person who existed separate from her.
"...Rick protects me when mother bullies me. But while Rick was saying good night, she took me out into the forest. The first time, Rick brought me back home. The second time... he wasn't there. The sun was starting to come up, so I decided to take Rick home instead this time. But when I got home... the house was burning."
She spoke to me slowly, but as she recalled it, her face tensed up and she was overtaken with fear. When I held her shaking body, she blinked with relief, and slowly started talking again.
"When I came back home after the first time, lots of things started going missing from the house. Though my and Rick's things were never taken..."
"Were they big things, or little things?"
"All kinds of things. Food, and rings, and frying pans..."
Her family seemed rather poor. Perhaps they were selling off things they didn't need to make ends meet?
Summing up the story from her and Rick, the conclusion that the parents had abandoned their child and fled in the night seemed plausible.
Letty, though, claimed her mother had always been kind to her, even if she wasn't her biological daughter - and then suddenly became cold, a changed woman. Could someone's attitude truly change like that with no impetus?
...Or maybe she had always been dissatisfied with her?
"Oh yeah... I feel like I heard this strange laughter. Something like "weeheehee.""
"Was it a slightly hoarse voice that burned into your brain?"
"Sort of like that. I remember it pretty clearly," she replied blankly. Then she yawned, so I let her borrow my bed to take a nap.
This timing was almost too good to be true. But I still had a small bit of hesitation. What should I do...?
"Teacher! I wrote in my notebook!"
One day, she lept on me from behind. It was a forceful leap, so I yelled a little.
"...How about Rick's?"
"Oh! Um... Here! It's in my pocket!"
She handed me the two burgundy notebooks with a wide smile.
"Thanks. It's almost time to sleep, so don't get too overexcited."
"Okay! Don't stay up too late either, Teacher!"
I watched Letty as she dashed out of my room. Her parents were never found, and no other relatives ever came for her, so I ended up taking Letty in at the facility indefinitely. Letty was slowly regaining her cheer. However, judging from the notebooks, Rick seemed the more brooding one.
|I know why. I know why mother, and father, and our home burned. But I won't say it. Because it'd only make Rick more sad.|
That was written on the first new page of Letty's notebook. The paper was warped in places, the letters blurred. I hadn't yet told her that rather than burning down with the house, her parents had gone missing.
...I still had no reason to do so.
Letty told me that Rick had taken revenge in her place, burning down the witch and her home for her. But when I heard Rick's side of the story, I realized there were some misunderstandings between them.
The second time Letty was deserted, he woke up during the night and returned home, and by that time, there was no one left at the house. If Letty woke up then, like it or not, she would realize her parents had abandoned her. As that would make her sadder than anything, he decided to set it all aflame and obscure the truth.
When he told me this, I became convinced of my theory that her parents had left her and fled somewhere far away. And the one who had set it all up, it had to be...
I walked carefully on the unpaved, uneven road. There seemed to be nothing more I could do. I sat down on a particularly good-looking stump.
Rick was born to protect her from her mother's abuse. But her mother wasn't around anymore. The reason his heart was starting to fall apart had to lie there.
I recalled the first page of his notebook.
|If I take everything on myself, she can smile all the time. I like her, I really do. But why was I born?
Teacher, you prepared two beds, and clothes for me too. But is this right? Is it wrong for me to exist?
Teacher, she may be her, but then who am I?
"...How should I have answered?"
He must have feared that his existence would mean she wouldn't have to face herself. I clutched my hair. If we got back safely, I would have to give him a proper answer. Yes, if...
As my thoughts turned, I suddenly heard a beast-like howling.
"...Hm? Is the World starting to break apart?"
Strange. The World starting to break indicated that its creator had broken. Before coming here, I met Rick and told him, "Don't move from this spot. It'd be dangerous for you and her to move around too much." He didn't seem the type to break a promise. So had something caused him to switch to her, and see that scene once more?
The ground split, and a black haze came from it and wound around my feet. I leaned my body toward it. I couldn't stop his... and her, ruin.
I sunk into the darkness. There, my whole body was swallowed up.
"Ah, you made it back. ...Why are you crying?"
I didn't even know the answer to that. I felt like I'd even forgotten the name these emotions had.
"You appear to have recovered a key. Well done. Hm...? Is it only the one?"
"...Che... Er, that guy said he put one key in each World."
Just as I was about to speak the Cheshire Cat's name, the White Rabbit glared daggers at me, so I quickly stopped myself.
"One World at a time, is it... What a bother. Why such stalling...?" His eyes narrowed with gloom.
"Well, fair enough. You recovered one of them. That's something. I'll use this to open the door to the next World."
I heard a door unlocking in the distance. He wanted me to go to another one of those places, huh. I stood there for a little bit, and he started to tap his foot impatiently.
"Don't worry. It's just a dream. It'll all be back to normal when you wake. Those emotions and the scene you witnessed were all illusions. That was your first instinct too, was it not?"
Not coming any closer, the White Rabbit spoke with the most gentle voice I'd ever heard out of him. I had thought of it as a dream, but those feelings, that spectacle of flames, were burned in my mind in a very real-feeling way. Could dreams be like this?
Still, the moment I touched that key, I regained a small memory of my past. The one who said good night to me and kissed me on the cheek - it was surely my mother.
If I found another key, maybe I could see a slightly later memory. That hope invited me toward the next World door.
"Come to think of it, White Rabbit, what do you do here?"
"...I don't do anything here. That's my normal. Because isn't it too much bother? Time and events are predecided, and I just live in that flow. It's much too much of a pain to go against the grain. Hardly necessary."
So he was just standing here for hours on end. I thought to myself that that seemed like much more of a pain and bother, but the denizens here were all very strange, I recalled.
"Well, I'm counting on you once more."
I nodded, and headed for the next door.
"He came up with all the rules of these Worlds, y'know. If the one who made the World goes under, so does their World."
As I was about to open the second door, the Cheshire Cat appeared before me and started talking. I nearly crashed into him, which gave me a chill. Crashing into that bizarre body of his... just thinking about it made me shudder.
"I wouldn't make nothin' like that. But just give it time, he says! Makes all these dumb rules, he does! Bah! But we just gotta follow 'em..."
The Cheshire Cat whined and covered his face with his paws. But his grin was so wide, nearly reaching his ears, that it appeared to jut out from behind his hands.
"'Cause if we don't, we get punished."
"...Do you want anything, or?"
I figured he might keep talking forever if I didn't stop him. Trying to hide my disgust for him, I tried to speak mildly.
"What! Can't a guy talk about what he likes? Cats die when they get too lonely, y'know. ...Wait a sec, or was that people?"
As he joked, I considered my next move. If I said anything serious, he would dodge it and find a way to tease me again. It would definitely only exhaust me.
"Boy, you look like a wreck. Don't need to get so worked up about somebody you just met. Or, hold on... Did you forget all your emotions and such, too?"
I had no response. I still didn't fully understand myself.
"Oh, and how would I know about that? Well, that's 'cause I stole 'em."
I was speechless in the face of the Cheshire Cat's sudden, outrageous confession.
"I know everything that happened that day, and before it too. Not planning on giving it back, 'course... but you can have bits and pieces as cherries on top of finding the keys. You know the rest, right?"
As the Cat became more and more cocky, I sunk deeper. He must have delighted in seeing this happen to people.
"Tell me, is it really empty inside ya? ...Well, prayin' on high you don't crack too quick. Sweet dreams!"
Before I knew it, he was gone. I began to sweat. But I had to get to the next World. Now I could feel like it wasn't the White Rabbit, wasn't the Cheshire Cat who was hurrying me along most - it was me.
What happened that day? What did I see, and what did I lose? I just wanted to know the truth. I wanted it back. I'd pushed my doubts about whether this was a dream or not out of mind.
I steadied my breathing. And I opened the door to the second World.
|My house is deep in the forest.|
|There are lots of animals, and the air is really nice. It's a wonderful place.|
|My family is mother, father, and one more.|
|He's always with me. Always there for me. From good morning to good night.|
|But it's too bad he can't play tag or anything with me.|
|My mother isn't my real mother.|
|I heard my real mother passed away from an illness.|
|The mother I have now often teases that girl.|
|So I take the brunt of it for her. I'm responsible for all the hurtful things.|
|But when she's beaten, I can't protect her.|
|One day, mother said we'd go for a walk.|
|I didn't want to, but she dragged me by the hand into the forest.|
|Like usual, after walking a long way, mother said we'd take a break.|
|You stay here, she told me, and I sat there the whole time.|
|It got dark. I was scared. It was pitch black.|
|I was so, so scared. So I closed my eyes and talked to him.|
|What's your name? What's your favorite food? What don't you like?|
|I was surprised. He wasn't like me at all.|
|Is this the deep forest?|
|I should go back. I'm fine, but she doesn't like dark places.|
|Will she say she disgusts her again?|
|Why does that witch have to tease her so?|
|I have to do away with that evil witch.|
|I'm so hungry. If only my house and my clothes could be tasty sweets.|
|Then everyone in my family could have a good meal.|
|...Oh, but I guess chocolate melts really quick. That won't work.|
|It all burned up.|
|If I take everything on myself, she can smile all the time.|
|I like her, I really do. But why was I born?|
|Teacher, you prepared two beds, and clothes for me too.|
|But is this right? Is it wrong for me to exist?|
|Teacher, she may be her, but then who am I?|
Chapter 3: The Color Red
Once again, when I opened the second door, I found a familiar room. These World doors appeared to lead to rooms modeled after rooms in the facility. A large number of teddy bears were watching me, giving me déjà vu.
The absurd quantity of teddy bears grabbed my attention, but someone standing in the center of them spoke up, looking toward me. A red poncho and a puffy balloon skirt, the front of which was covered by a frilly white apron, light brown hair tied with circular red hairclips... It was Chelsy.
She seemed to want to say something, but couldn't form a solid sentence. She seemed even more shy than usual.
"Want to play together?", I invited, as she seemed at a loss. Chelsy was startled by my voice and yelped more pathetically and shrilly than usual.
"...Eh? Eh, uhhhmmm... ...okay."
"What should we do?"
"...Can you open the closet?"
The same answer I got from Letty. "Okay," I replied, then stared closely at her. Her eyes were spinning around abnormally fast. I hurriedly turned away to look at the closet. An aroma of flowers was seeping through the gap. It calmed me a little.
When I put my hand to the door, I was sucked into the closet, heart and all.
The blankets were very warm and comfortable, and the light coming in the window made them warmer still. I briefly considered falling asleep here, then shook it out of my head and forced myself up. It must have been evening, as the room was turned a pretty orange color.
They weren't as numerous as Chelsy's room in the facility, but I saw many teddy bears sitting in neat rows. I picked one up and found it fluffy and very light. It appeared to be hand-sewn.
After carefully putting the teddy back in its place, I looked around the room. Nothing caught my eye. Judging from the teddy bears, I suspected this was Chelsy's World, but saw no sign of her.
I approached the door and tried the knob. I prepared myself slightly, keeping in mind Letty's World, but it clicked open with only a light turn, which left me a little disappointed.
I entered what looked like the dining room. It had a nice smell that brought to mind trees and flowers. To my side, I saw a door to a room neighboring the one I'd come out of. Deciding to explore that one later, I looked around this one and saw hunting implements in the corner. The bows and guns had an unusual, impressive presence. They sure looked strong...
In the opposite corner was a dresser. Before opening any drawers, I poked and prodded it to no particular reaction. It didn't seem like this one would speak.
Inside one drawer was a number of letters. I hesitated a little as I went to pick one up, but then again, it was just a dream. What would be the harm? Looking at it that way, I opened up the envelope, and took out the stationery inside.
"Thank you for the letter. Is your mother all right? You shouldn't push yourself too hard, either. If there's anything you need, please get an adult to help."
"I owe so much to your mother. If you don't mind, I'd really like to see you again. Give my best regards to her."
The message had a very kind tone, the letters drawn carefully and large. Below this was a strange object that I could swear I'd seen before, and some kind of riddle.
All the other letters looked like further correspondence with the same person. The newest of them promised that the writer would be coming to the house soon to meet "your mother." If this was Chelsy's house, that must have meant Chelsy's mother. ...Deciding this had little to do with finding the key, I put the letters back in their envelopes and into the drawer.
I went to open the room next to the one I was first in. And again, the door opened for me without any problems. In Letty's World, I'd had to force them open... What would explain that difference?
As soon as the door was open, a powerful scent raced into my nostrils. I had no memory of such a scent. Reflexively, I reached to hold my nose. It was so overpowering as to make me forget what I'd been thinking about.
At the back of the room, a girl was facing a table. I couldn't see past her well enough to tell what she was doing. Slowly, I approached the table, the smell getting stronger with each step.
"Ch-Chelsy... Agh... What're you doing?"
When I opened my mouth to speak, the smell infiltrated my body through it, and I coughed. The girl at the table, Chelsy, didn't seem to notice me at all until I spoke, so she quickly turned around toward me and fell out of her chair.
She hastily tried to get back up, but seemed very disoriented and swatted at air. I extended my hand to her; her face went red and she timidly took it, finally getting up. She muttered something so quietly that I couldn't hear. I think it might have been "thanks."
I heard a little voice from somewhere. It turned out to be a mouse lying on the table, weakly crying. Beside it were a few bottles with some kind of medicine.
"Ah, n-no, Allen. Apparently its stomach hurts, so I was mixing things to make medicine for it... It isn't going well..."
The source of the bizarre smell in the room seemed to be the medicines Chelsy had mixed. The contents of the containers were a hard-to-describe color and produced a lot of worrying bubbles.
"You're going to make it drink this?"
Chelsy swung her arms in a panic. "N-No, that's one of the mistakes! It'll explode if it drinks that!" Of course, she didn't need to deny me that strongly to make me have reservations about offering this to the mouse... I had much more than a few already. Though I didn't know how much humans and mice had in common.
"I-I'll throw this away. It made the room smell really weird leaving it there, anyway..." Chelsy took the mysterious substance from my hands and left the room with it.
It had occurred to me that Chelsy didn't seem to mind the smell. ...Maybe she was accustomed to it?
Even with the source of it gone, the smell still filled the room and pierced my sinuses. I went to the window to try and air it out, and noticed the sky was a spine-chilling red. I pushed the window carefully to keep from breaking it. Lukewarm winds came into the room and brushed my cheek.
Finally, the strong odor came to be replaced with a pleasant floral smell. As I stood in the breeze, I heard Chelsy trotting back in.
"Whew... Huh? Allen? Were you getting hot with the window shut?"
I was sort of embarrassed that she saw me spacing out. I turned around and tried to play it off. "Oh, uh... Never mind that. You have to make that medicine, right?"
"Oh, right... for the mouse. The stomach medicine is made from mixing three of these colored medicines into the clear one... But I can't read grandma's memo..."
Chelsy handed me the note. It had the steps for making the medicine in somewhat unusual handwriting.
"I'm not sure if this is right, but... Is the order green, yellow, red?", I told her, managing to interpret the note. Her face lit up, and she thanked me and turned back to the desk. Then, like she said, she poured the colored liquids into a clear one.
"Can you not read your grandma's writing?"
"Um... Well, she usually shows me how to do it herself... I'm still not very good at reading her writing, and she tells me not to mess with medicine when I'm alone."
"...But now is fine?"
"Not... really... But I need to, for this poor mouse..."
With a somewhat stressed look, Chelsy carefully mixed the medicine. Earlier, she said that drinking the other medicine would make you explode, so maybe now, too, a small slip-up could blow us to smithereens. With that in mind, just watching Chelsy's hands work made my heart pound.
"It's done! Oh, good... Mousey, drink this in three gulps."
The mouse quickly nodded its blue head and took the small container. What would happen to the mouse if it were to drink it all at once...? My mind was dominated by all kinds of ridiculous worries.
"Ahh, thanks. I feel much better. Your grandma's medicine's really something!"
The mouse acted like it was nothing and thanked us. I wasn't surprised, but Chelsy's eyes popped, and she hid behind me.
"I'll be going back home, now. Bye-bye." The mouse lept off the table and vanished who knows where.
"W-What was that...? A talking mouse is like something from a storybook, or a dream..."
"This is a dream, isn't it?"
"Huh?" Chelsy stared at me, surprised.
"It's a dream. It's fine," I remarked, telling it to myself as well. I wasn't sure how true it was. But the question was no longer a major one for me. She seemed to understand, and her tenseness melted away.
Perhaps getting embarrassed, she spoke quietly as she let go of my back. "I see... Well, this is my house. There are some differences, but the dressers had the same things in them, and my bed was just as warm, so I thought I'd come back for some reason..."
Actually, Letty had said something similar in the previous World... While I thought, a soft breeze blew in from the window.
"...This wind is really warm and refreshing," I idly remarked. Chelsy's face beamed.
"Oh, yeah, at this hour, it's warm since the sun is coming through. And the room's all orange and pretty."
"Yeah, it is. ...Is that sweet smell flowers?"
"Yes! There's a garden near the house, with lots of different types! Um... Do you want to go see?"
Chelsy shyly invited me outside. I hadn't really investigated yet whether this room had the key in it or not, but I decided to go along with it for now. It sounded like it was close, and we could return here later if we needed to.
I went with Chelsy through the dining room to the front door. When I turned the knob, it just made a hoarse sound and didn't open. Repeated attempts all had similar results. All the doors in Letty's World had been like this, but this was the first such in this one.
"Huh? ...It won't open?"
While I pondered whether I should use force, Chelsy took my place and twisted the knob. Then it opened easily, as if it had been waiting for her. Through the gap came a warm wind, carrying a stronger smell of flowers than before.
I looked at her hand with surprise, and she spoke sheepishly. "Um? It's not locked... Maybe it's kind of broken. I think my house has been here for a long time, so..."
Yet I could open all the other doors without issue, so I felt like it wasn't a structural problem. Were there requirements of some kind...?
While I baffled, Chelsy tugged my sleeve. I stopped thinking and just decided to go with it.
Taking a step outside, I looked to the sky. The sun shone redder than I thought, seeming to turn the whole sky that color.
"The sun seems a little more radiant than usual today...", Chelsy murmured, putting her hand over her eyes and looking up. Her childlike face was colored red by it, as well as her white apron, and her skirt was redder than ever.
"...I don't think I like this sky," Chelsy said with a frown, and dropped her gaze. "Let's keep going," she insisted, tugging my sleeve again.
"...Hm? Are these vegetables?" Curious about the fields I saw, I stopped Chelsy's hand.
"Huh? Oh... Yeah, we can't go to other towns for shopping, and the town's far away, so we try to grow as much ourselves as we can. I think now... Eek!"
Just as Chelsy, with a hint of bewilderment, pointed to the vegetables in the field to explain, a worm wrapped around her finger.
With a little scream, she immediately collapsed toward me, and we both fell on our bottoms.
"Ahh... S-Sorry, Allen! I-I grabbed your h, h, han..."
Just as we landed, Chelsy's little hand ended up on top of mine. It was slightly cold, and she promptly pulled it away. Her surprise was making her have trouble with articulation.
I gently escorted the worm, wriggling on the ground after Chelsy tossed it, back to the field, and extended my hand to Chelsy to pull her up. Her flailing limbs came to a stop, and she peered at me. I wasn't sure why, but she seemed afraid and nervous.
"We're going to the garden, right? If we don't hurry, it might turn night."
I personally doubted that would actually happen, but making sure to state a suitable reasoning, I grabbed her hand. Though she hesitated, she stood up with my help and neatly dusted off the dirt from her clothes.
"...You just have to go straight ahead here to reach the garden."
Chelsy circled around to the back of me and grabbed my sleeve. I think maybe she had a habit of grabbing sleeves. Just as I was about to take the path she indicated...
I felt the same pain as before, but it echoed more strongly.
"There was a white house near a flower garden."
"In this white house lived a mother, a father, and a girl. The father rarely came home to the house."
"The mother was old and frail, so the girl did various tasks in her stead."
"...en? Allen, are you okay?"
"Um? Oh, sorry... I'm fine."
When I came to, Chelsy was stroking my back. I had crouched to the ground from the pain, it seemed.
"If you're not feeling well, we don't have to go..."
I stood up. "No, I'm really fine. Let's go," I told Chelsy, and took a few steps. She didn't seem to understand what was going on, but after calling to her again, she hesitantly grabbed hold of my sleeve.
And we walked down the path to the garden.
"Oh, Allen, there it is!", Chelsy happily shouted after walking a while.
I looked where she pointed. It was a garden packed with flowers of all colors, like a carpet on the ground. When the wind blew, a variety of aromas went through my body.
"Huh? These flowers shouldn't be growing in this season, or these ones either... Well, it's a dream, so I guess that can happen."
Chelsy was carefully weaving some small flowers together into a ring shape. I watched her work for a while, and before I knew it, she had a wreath in her hands.
"Here, Allen. It's kind of luxurious having all these flowers that bloom from spring to winter in one place, huh...?"
"Huh? For me...?" I was at a loss when she handed me the wreath with a sweet smile. "...I think it'd look better on you, Chelsy."
I took the flower crown, but only to put it on Chelsy's head. It stopped right above her forehead.
"Um... er... d-does it look good?", she asked with concern. It definitely seemed like it suited her better than me, at least. She smiled in a significantly different way from usual. I nodded my head without question.
"I-I see. Thanks. ...To tell the truth, I'm not supposed to stop in this garden along the way."
Chelsy awkwardly removed the crown from her head and dropped her gaze to her hands.
"But... You know, sometimes I think it would make her happy to pick some of these flowers for her... I was told not to, but I just think that would be better. ...What would you do in that situation, Allen?" She timidly looked up at me.
"...If it was just a quick detour, maybe I'd pick a few flowers, sure."
Chelsy sighed with relief. "...Huh. You too, Allen... Okay, thanks. Sorry to ask..."
Standing up quickly as she said it, Chelsy put the wreath back on her head, then held her hand out to me. As far as I could remember, no girl had offered to hold hands with me before.
I only hesitated for a second, but her face clouded with worry about me not taking it, so I hurried to grab it. She promptly pulled me up, but seemingly pulled too hard and nearly fell backwards, so I helped her keep balance.
"Are you okay? ...Where should we go next? Back to the house?", I inquired of red-faced Chelsy.
The sky was starting to turn a darker red. It would be dark soon. That would make finding the key more troublesome. I wanted to finish with the outside quickly, but there was still a room in the house I hadn't checked. I started to feel the slightest impatience.
"Umm... Oh... That's right. Before you came, Allen, I saw Teacher. He said not to leave the house. But... I broke my promise. ...Should we look for him? My grandma's house is past here. Though it's kind of a walk..."
...Teacher? Rick also mentioned meeting Teacher in Letty's World. What was he up to in these Worlds? And if we found him, would he even tell us?
After some indecision, I nodded, and headed in the direction Chelsy indicated. The forest was colored a deep red, almost making it look like it was on fire. The color felt ominous, even, instilling some dread in me.
...At this rate, it was possible something akin to what happened with Letty would happen again. But if I couldn't find the key, I would be empty forever. That was harder to bear than anything else. ...Had I been such a selfish person even when I had my memories?
"It was kind of a walk even just to the garden... Are you tired? Should we rest?"
I'd come to a stop, so Chelsy started to worry about me. I said I was fine, but she stared at me with unbelieving eyes.
"One day, on an errand, the girl broke a promise with her mother and picked flowers in the garden."
"The girl went to her grandmother's house with a kind person she met there."
The moment I looked at Chelsy's eyes, that voice and pain came into my head again. But I toughed through it and kept it from showing on my face.
"...You shouldn't overexert yourself."
Chelsy went behind me again and put her hand out in the next direction to go in. So that I would have nothing else to think about, I focused on her pointing and moved my feet again.
After some walking, Chelsy's feet came to an immediate stop. In front of us was a big river with lots of fast-moving water. The water reflected the dark red of the sunset. The depth of the river was uncertain, but this fierce current would no doubt sweep our little bodies away.
"Huh? T-That's weird. There was a bridge here, and when you crossed it, you'd be almost at grandma's house... Now we can't get there... W-What now, Allen?"
Chelsy looked to me with worry. I wanted to do something for her, but alas, I had no idea what I could do. We could only stare at the red stream in our path.
"In a jam?"
All of a sudden, I heard a familiar cattish voice against my back. You again..., I sighed.
"Hellooo, Alice and... Oh! Also Alice!"
"Uh... Me? Um...?"
Chelsy turned around, and I reluctantly followed suit. The Cheshire Cat was looking at us in a cheerful pose.
"...Don't stare too hard. It's deadly, y'know?", the Cheshire Cat warned in a hard-to-read tone. He seemed either displeased or amused by the wary look Chelsy was giving him. She shuddered and shrunk behind my back.
"Juuust kiddin'! Don't freak. So you wanna cross the river? 'Cause I could take you over... What'll it be?"
"R-Really?", Chelsy asked, peering from behind me.
"But you won't do for free, will you?"
"Yep... You just gotta play a little game!", he readily replied.
What horrible and dangerous, or illogical and impossible, things could a "game" with him possibly entail? Whatever it was, I was sure it wouldn't be simple.
"Hey, now! I wouldn't be that malicious. Cut me some slack!", the Cheshire Cat whined, seeming to see through my thoughts again.
"It ain't even nothin'. Just some fun riddles. Alice there's great at 'em, aren'tcha?" He grinned toward Chelsy.
"If I can... answer your riddles, you'll take us to the other side?"
"Yep! That's a bona-fide promise. And I don't break promises, on principle."
"...Okay. I'll do it."
Trembling slightly behind me, Chelsy accepted the Cheshire Cat's conditions. Hearing it, his mouth and eyes happily distorted further.
"Three questions in all. Don't worry, ain't no time limits or nothin'. ...So here's the first one. This guy's always got a smile whenever I take it. What's the thing I'm takin'?"
After a few seconds, Chelsy answered. "Um... a photo? Because people smile when you take photos."
The Cheshire Cat laughed repulsively, which I guess meant she was right. I was surprised how quickly she got it. Thinking about it, I remembered there were riddles in the letters I found in Chelsy's house. So did Chelsy like that kind of thing?
"Okay, next one. What would you find in a kitchen that you'd never wanna see on a boat?"
"......A sink. Because... you wouldn't want the boat to "sink.""
There was a longer pause that time, but the Cheshire Cat's joyous laugh told me she'd got it in one again. I remained a silent wall keeping the Cat and Chelsy separate, watching over the proceedings.
"Right you are. Gotta say, don't hate you clever kids. Then here's the last one."
Seeing Cheshire with his biggest grin yet gave me a bad feeling.
"What color do you hate the most?"
Was that really a riddle? Either way, once Chelsy answered it, the Cheshire Cat would take us across the river, I mused. But Chelsy didn't answer as promptly as before.
When I turned around, Chelsy was trembling much more. Even I faintly felt her shaking as she clutched to my sleeve. She was pale, and trying to voice something, but only a low groaning came from her lips.
I figured there was no way she could answer like this. That must have been exactly what the Cheshire Cat expected. What a jerk he was.
"Red. Chelsy hates the color red."
She had mentioned not liking the red sky earlier. I was taking a gamble on whether it was her most hated color, but no other likely possibilities came to mind, so I answered for her in half-desperation.
"Correct! Alright, off on your way. Close your eyes. If ya don't, this time you really will die!"
I turned toward Chelsy. She already had her eyes tightly shut, still shaking slightly. I faced back forward and closed mine.
I was consumed by a feeling of my senses growing distant, and for a few minutes experienced an unpleasant sensation of floating in darkness.
When I opened my eyes, we were on the other side of the river. The Cheshire Cat was nowhere in sight, but it seemed like he really had taken us across.
"...Oh, we can get to grandma's house from here. ...I wonder if Teacher's there?"
Chelsy's eyes were open too. Her shaking seemed to have calmed down, giving me some relief. How could she hate red so much if she wore red clothes? I'd be lying to say I wasn't curious, but it clearly wasn't something she wanted to touch upon, so I stilled my tongue.
"...I wonder if mother's okay. I don't know how she's been doing since I started living at the facility, so I'm worried for her. Grandma says that she'll get better, but the thought that someday... there might be some day she won't wake up... No, I always did think that, didn't I...?"
Chelsy lowered her head and mumbled, still holding my sleeve, and began questioning herself toward the end. Were her memories jumbled?
"Allen, is there someone you want to protect?", she abruptly asked.
I'd been able to recover some shards of memory by going around the Worlds, but it was all still covered in fog. It was still difficult for me to remember anyone who I might have hoped to protect. I meekly shook my head.
"Oh... You lost your memories, huh, Allen. I didn't mean to... ...I'm sorry." Her eyes clouded up as she looked down.
I said it was fine, and stroked her back, knowing she had a kind heart. She looked up a little and stared at me. I gave a little smile, and finally she appeared relieved.
...Good. I must have done a better job of smiling that time.
Following the path straight ahead, a blue brick house came into sight. There was a large field in front of it, where many plants with names unknown to me grew.
Chelsy gazed at the field and explained. "These are the medicinal plants grandma grows. She told me she had a job making and selling medicine. She says she can make all kinds with these."
"What kind of medicine does she make?"
"Um... Lots of kinds. Recently, she made a medicine for a disease spreading in a village somewhere, and... She also mentioned something about a, dreaming disease, I think...?"
Dreaming disease? Those words sparked something in my memory. I felt like I'd seen mention of such a disease in a newspaper somewhere.
The facility didn't get newspapers or have a TV, so all we knew about what was happening in the world came from Teacher. Of course, even that was never anything particularly important, and always restricted to peaceful stories.
"Well, let's go... We might find Teacher."
Chelsy tugged me along to the front door. However, when she tried to open it, it just made a thunk and wouldn't open.
"Huh? That's weird... And after we came so far..." She turned the knob repeatedly with a disappointed look.
"My, you strange little girl. You do realize you're only wasting your time with that."
Hearing a high-pitched voice from by my feet, I looked down to find it. A white mouse was looking up at us.
"Huh? Another talking mouse...?"
"Hrmm? Do you think it strange that I can speak? How rude!"
"Um, miss mousey, do you know how to open this door?"
"Why yes, I do. But it will come at a price." She snorted her nose at us with a haughty, squeaky laugh.
"Er... What do we need to do?"
"Hm! Yes. Would you part with that crown upon your head?"
Chelsy was wearing the wreath she made in the garden earlier. It seemed to have wilted just a little since making it.
"This? That's all...? Here you go."
Chelsy carefully took the crown off her head and placed it on the mouse's. She snorted with cheer, then unbelievably, stuffed it into her mouth.
"Ahh! Thank you. I was rather starving. And not a single one of those thorned flowers I hate so - I feel magnificent!" She shrilly laughed. It echoed in my brain.
"You hate flowers with thorns? ...I think there a lot of pretty ones like that, though."
"True, pretty flowers may well have thorns. Everyone will choose pretty flowers to decorate themselves with, even at the expense of a few wounds. And once it hurts them terribly, they blame the flowers and discard them," the mouse said bafflingly in her shrill voice.
"Yet they knew of its thorns from the very beginning. ...And didn't you, too?"
It seemed like the mouse was talking to Chelsy. She became flustered, not sure what to say in response.
"Well, here you are, as promised. You can open the door with this. It's heavy, so handle it with care."
The mouse snorted off to her side. Looking in that direction, I saw a sturdy axe sticking out of a stump.
I turned to Chelsy. "...Huh?" She swung her hands in denial. "I-I can't carry anything too heavy... Can you do it?"
I picked up the axe, carried it to the door, and gave it a big downward swing. With a painful sound, it made a small gap in the door.
"Allen... You're pretty gutsy, huh."
Was that a compliment? I said thanks for the time being, and pushed the door further forward to enter the house.
As soon as I entered, a raw smell came through my nose. The smell made something acidic come up from my stomach and try to escape. I turned down and tried to keep it in.
"Allen, what's wrong... Ahh...!"
Chelsy suddenly shrieked. Holding my sick stomach with both hands, I looked up.
A mix of shattered medicines and thick red fluids was scattered across the room. A human-like figure was laying on its side on the bed in the corner, and what was surely a monster... a creature covered with scruffy hair was staring at the bed, making a low growl.
"A, Al, Allen, r-r-run..."
Chelsy stepped backward toward the door outside. Yet the door which I'd cut open with the axe was somehow back to normal. Chelsy roughly banged the doorknob, but it wouldn't budge.
Taking notice of the noise, the beast's stocky body came our way. Its foul smell and moans further upset my stomach. But it was glaring solely at Chelsy, not me.
"Ahh...! No, no, no! That's not grandma! Stop, I don't want to see this! Never again! I won't do it again... I'll be good, so please... Forgive me... Let me wake up...!"
Speaking through sobs, Chelsy fell to the ground and covered her face. As if waiting for this opportunity, the beast nimbly ran past me and prepared to attack Chelsy.
Immediately, just like I'd brought down the door, I swung the axe down on the beast. A wild howl came out of its mouth.
At the same time, an unspeakable smell filled the room, and the thick red fluids around the room were added to with more.
After the beast finished howling, it fell to the ground unmoving. I held my hand to Chelsy, but she just held her hands over her face and trembled.
"Stop... it... I hate... the color red... Father..."
She kept repeating herself. I kneeled down and looked into her eyes.
"...I'll close my eyes... So I can't see. Please... hold my hand."
Still not looking at me, she offered me a shaky hand. I gently took it with both of mine. Instantly, I felt the coldness of it, and that voice echoed in my mind.
"After the girl fetched some medicine, she returned to her grandmother's room to find that she'd been eaten by a wolf. The girl was terribly scared and could not move from the spot. Then the wolf drew near her."
"The moment the wolf reached for the girl, it was cut in twain. Behind the wolf stood her father, wielding an axe. The girl trembled at the sight of the slaughtered wolf and her red-stained father."
"Afterward, the girl ran all the way back home and locked herself in her room. There was the voice of her father. There was the voice of the girl, too."
""Father killed a person. But isn't it me who's most to blame? Was that father? Was it a person?""
"The more she thought about it, the more the scene was jumbled in her head. So she decided not to think about it."
"...The girl renounced having to acknowledge anything."
...When I opened my eyes, Chelsy was lying on her side. Something was shining in a pool of blood next to her. I gently took my hand away from Chelsy's... and touched the key.
And again, a nostalgic voice filled my mind.
"What, Allen? You're going out to the library again?"
"Yeah, I already finished this book, and I really want to read a new one."
"Hmm. I hear children are catching a disease that makes them never wake up... But you're always bounding with excitement to read, so I'll bet you're safe, Allen. Hahaha!"
"Why, Allen's been up all night plenty lately, hasn't he? Please tell him off, dear."
"When you've got something you like, it's great to get absorbed in it. Off you go, son!"
In the darkness, the scene came back more clearly. This was another one of my memories. I knew the man who smiled and stroked my head.
...That day, I...
Proceeding down the path through the woods, I could see the sky more clearly. Yet the sunlight also relentlessly shone down on me.
"So this is also a memory of before she started living at the facility..."
This was exactly the path to Mrs. Leavis's house, with not the slightest difference.
I received a letter from Mrs. Leavis a few weeks after taking Letty into my care at the facility. Following a certain incident, her daughter was holing up in her room and wouldn't talk much at all. She'd heard that I gave children counsel at my facility and asked in the letter if I could come take a look.
I had been in correspondence with Mrs. Leavis's daughter Chelsy. My mentor was sick, and I was worried for Chelsy, who looked after her mother with much devotion. I recall her being delighted to receive my letters full of riddles. In the last letter I sent, I stated my intent to visit Mrs. Leavis, but the Letty incident came up that day, so I couldn't make good on that promise.
Cliff had planned to drop by the facility three days after I received my teacher's letter, so I left Letty to him and visited the house. When I knocked on the front door on which a wreath hung, a woman appeared, much weaker than the last time I saw her.
"Ah... It's been a long time. You've gotten bigger again. Or maybe I've just shrunk," she joked. Her smile was the same as ever; she certainly was Mrs. Leavis. But her voice seemed less active, and more strained.
"I believe we last met when I entered college, didn't we? I'm so indebted to you."
"...You've become a fine man. Even if you used to be quite the crybaby at the orphanage."
"Ahaha... You're embarrassing me, miss."
Long ago, my sister and I lived at an orphanage where Mrs. Leavis worked. That was where she gave us our names and taught us. When I was about ten, she left the orphanage to raise her newborn daughter, but we still occasionally contacted one another, and she still assisted me at times.
"So then, about your daughter..."
"Right... She's in her room. The door's not locked, but she won't look us in the eye or talk with us. Especially... not my husband."
"Well, first of all... What exactly happened?"
My teacher's face clouded when I asked that. After a short pause, she began to explain.
Mrs. Leavis often asked her daughter to retrieve medicine from her pharmacist mother - from the daughter's perspective, her grandmother. A few days ago, she made the same request as ever, but her daughter didn't return. Just then, her husband came back home, so she asked him to go check on her.
When he arrived at the house, he found it in disarray. At the back of the pharmacist's room, messy with bottles and medicinal plants, was an unfamiliar man who looked ready to attack his daughter at any moment. To protect her, he picked up a nearby axe and swung it down on the man.
...Luckily, the girl was unhurt, but she ran home in fear, and hadn't left her room since.
"The man had a big bag stuffed with medicine. Many of my mother's medicines are rare, so he might have been a thief. Of course, we can no longer ask him... nor my mother."
"...I read that in the letter, yes. I'm grateful to her as well, of course, so... You have my condolences."
I lowered my head. She'd told me in her letter that it was too late not only for the intruder, but her mother. She politely bowed in response.
"It must have been terrifying to be threatened by an unfamiliar man... But for her own father to swing an axe down on someone before her eyes, whatever the reason... It may have been much too shocking for a young girl."
"...Indeed. Could you try talking to her? She strongly refuses my husband, so he's given up on trying."
My mentor showed me to her daughter's room. I knocked and opened the door to find a girl donned in red trembling in the corner of the room.
"So... you're Chelsy. We've talked a lot through letters, haven't we? Yes, I'm the one who wrote those. Sorry that something came up, and I couldn't come when I promised. This isn't actually the first time we've met... but it was years and years ago, so you probably don't remember."
I spoke slowly with a smile so as not to scare her. She didn't seem ready to bolt, so I approached to a reasonable distance. Even kneeling wouldn't put me on level with her, so I sat on my knees.
"Will you tell me why you're staying over there and not talking to your parents?"
She hesitated for a few minutes, but finally looked to me and started to speak.
What she told me largely matched with what Mrs. Leavis said. So she was in shock from her father murdering a person in front of her.
"...That man was very kind. But all of a sudden, he was like a wolf... He attacked grandma, and messed up her medicines..."
She tried to tell me everything that happened that day one at a time. But she stopped like something was caught in her throat.
"You don't have to strain yourself. ...Can you not talk with your father?"
"...I, can't. Father only comes home sometimes, anyway... I'm sure he doesn't care about me that much... so, it's fine."
As she spoke, big tears began to fall from her eyes. I took a handkerchief from my coat pocket and handed it to her, and she took it shakily.
"If you like... You could come to my place until things settle down. There's another child there, about your age, who's had a similar experience. ...And she's a girl, so you won't have to worry about it just being me."
"...Really? But, my mother's sick..."
"It's fine, Chelsy." Mrs. Leavis opened the door and entered. She'd been listening to us from outside.
"I may be sick... but it's really nothing major. You want to study, and be free to have fun too, don't you? Your father said he'll take time off work, so you don't need to worry about me."
"Mother..." The anxiety on Chelsy's face cleared, and she looked between her mother and myself.
"Take care of Chelsy for a while." My mentor walked over to Chelsy, held out a hand to lift her off the ground, and lightly pushed her toward me.
"I'll still contact you periodically."
"Right. Leaving my daughter to a former student... It feels a bit strange," she remarked with her usual smile. Briefly, I felt a stabbing pain in my heart.
"Um... It's nice to meet you."
Chelsy politely bowed, then grabbed onto my sleeve. "You too," I smiled, and saying farewell to Mrs. Leavis, I returned with Chelsy to the facility.
"Teacher... You're sleeping there again? I told you before, you'll catch a cold..."
Chelsy shook me with her cheeks puffed up. I sat up, looked around, and searched my memory. ...I'd fallen asleep on the sofa in the library.
"Ahaha... Sorry. I was being wary, but I nodded off anyway."
"Geez... You have to be careful! There's a big temperature difference between night and day this time of year... Oh, here, Teacher, um..."
Just remembering something, she dug through her pockets and handed me a vermilion notebook.
"Bye, Teacher. It's time to sleep... Make sure you sleep in your room!", she warned, rubbing her heavy eyelids. Even as she went to leave the library, she kept looking back at me, repeating that I sleep in my room.
"I know, I know, I will. Good night, Chelsy."
She finally looked satisfied, and replied "Good night." With a leisurely gait, she returned to her room.
I took a breath, and ran through what I knew about her in my mind. She'd periodically gone to get medicine from her grandmother's house, and her mother warmed her not to take any detours.
Yet that day, she had gone to pick flowers from a garden. When she did, a stranger came up and talked to her. She was wary at first, but as they talked and he held her hand, she felt he wasn't a bad person. Maybe the loneliness brought about by her father rarely coming home made her feel that way.
Afterward, the man said he'd come to visit her grandmother's house to buy some medicine. However, he lived in town and had never been in the forest before, so he got lost. Chelsy thus decided to escort him to grandma's house.
The story after that, I heard the same way from Mrs. Leavis and Chelsy. I was hung up on the fact that the man seemed to abruptly change, attacking her grandmother and trying to steal her medicine. There had been many similar incidents lately. Though in this case, we heard nothing from the culprit...
"...I'll need to gather more information."
I stretched, and once again returned to my desk.
While recalling the events of taking Chelsy to the facility, I walked through the forest, and soon found a place similar to the garden I had passed through on the way. However, unlike that garden, this one didn't have any out-of-place flowers blooming without regard for the season. I sat carefully to not crush any flowers and calmed my breathing. And I recalled the first page of the notebook she gave me.
|Teacher, I... still can't forgive father. Those eyes... that color... I'm scared. ...Help me.|
If she could recover from the shock of that incident, would she be able to live there with her family again? It wasn't inconceivable. But there was no reason for her to move back yet.
I heard the same rumbling as in Letty's World, and the ground began to shake. The surrounding plants quickly grew like a fast-forwarded video, encircling me.
Was this... the World collapsing? Ah, not again...
I had a feeling this might have happened. Yet, I hadn't thought in the slightest she would break her promise. Before I could solve that, green vines and oddly-shaped leaves began to coil around me, and I was swallowed up.
"Welcome back. ...I say with a smile, but I'm made quite uncomfortable by that face you're making," the White Rabbit said with irritation. "Ah, well, at least you seem to have safely recovered the key. I can't complain about that."
"...Is there no way to save the people in those Worlds?", I nervously asked the increasingly irritated Rabbit.
"Ah... Well, you do that by not entering their Worlds. No matter how much care taken, a person's heart will inevitably be hurt by any other, won't it."
The White Rabbit folded his arms and began to tap his elbow with a white finger.
"Just think about it. Having the locks to hidden parts of yourself forced open. ...The doors in the Worlds are there to keep those places locked up. And having sticky hands upon what you never wanted touched... Unpleasant even for you, yes?"
I silently listened to the Rabbit. ...So the moment I entered a World, even if it was entirely unconscious, I was hurting them.
"...Oh, it's quite all right. I'll handle the rest. Never mind the Alices. Focus on the keys, please." He grinned eerily. It might have been the first smile I'd seen that didn't feel kind. I left the White Rabbit and headed for the third door.
The memory I got when I touched the key... It was breakfast that day. My father, reading the newspaper and munching on bread as he talked to me. My mother, warning me not to stay up so late. Me, smiling at both of them. It was surely the memory of that day I'd lost.
Seeming to regain a few emotions as I regained memories, I hesitated to go to the next World. Even moreso after what the White Rabbit told me. I didn't want to hurt anyone any more.
"Sure that's not "don't wanna be hurt"?"
The Cheshire Cat was suddenly standing behind me. This cat was everywhere, I tell you.
"All people're like that. They say just say what you want, but when you say anything bad, you got a knife at your throat. Yeesh, so what am I supposed to say!"
Doing a droll dance, he tilted his head at me. My discomfort began to clearly surmount.
"Ah, that's it. Sayin' nothin' must be best, like you do. But if you don't know a thing, you wouldn't even have the thought, wouldja?"
...Was he putting me down for trying to get back my memories?
"Pesky knowledge just dirties the heart. Trying's the first step toward exhaustion."
"...There might be a way to help them."
I was starting to grow a sense of rebellion. If I let myself keep getting rejected like this, I might just break eventually. I was scared to forget, or otherwise lose, myself again.
"Mweeheehee! I know Rabbit told you the cold, hard truth. But you still gonna keep going? Boy, you're just like him. He ever teach you that one?"
He? Teach me?
There was only one person I could think of he would be referring to. Someone very close, who Rick and Chelsy had claimed to see in the Worlds.
"...You mean Teacher? Do you know him?"
"Sure do! I got some promises goin' with him, hence what I'm doin'... Whoops, it's time! We'll talk later."
I hope later is never, I thought - but the Cheshire Cat's last comments bewildered me.
...The Cheshire Cat made promises with Teacher, and was working with him? What objective did Teacher have in going into the Worlds?
I didn't know what Teacher was thinking, but from Cheshire's remarks, I could bet that he was already in the next World. I'd have to open the door to confirm that.
My earlier hesitation was suddenly gone. Bad as it felt, I had no choice but to take that cat's claims as truth.
I put my hand on the third door's knob. Without delay, I forcefully twisted it open.
"Is that true?"
"Yep! There's definitely somebody else in the Worlds 'sides you," the Cheshire Cat replied with a full smile.
As I thought, there was. It would be extremely bad to let them keep walking around, destroying the Worlds freely.
"...I'm going ahead."
Passing by the laughing Cheshire Cat, I opened up the closet door.
|My mother has a very weak body.|
|So I do the cooking, washing, and other chores instead of her.|
|My father isn't home much.|
|Sometimes he brings home a wolf or a deer.|
|I want to go to school, but I love mother, so I always stay at home with her.|
|Mother always lies in bed, saying, sorry, I'm sorry... And her voice always|
|sounds like it's about to fade away.|
|My grandma in the woods had a job making medicine.|
|When my mother ran out of medicine, I'd go to grandma's house.|
|One day, mother told me to go there like always.|
|"Today, I have something for you to deliver too, since I'm so indebted to her."|
|"It's full of bread and wine, but you're not to eat it along the way."|
|"Like I always tell you, don't stray from the path."|
|"Because there are scary wolves."|
|I said I'd do what she said and left the house.|
|While walking through the forest, I found a pretty flower garden.|
|Don't stray from the path, I warned myself.|
|But I was sure grandma would be glad if I could bring her some flowers too.|
|So I picked a flower or two.|
|Then a man came by and asked if I knew a medicine-maker.|
|He must have meant grandma.|
|I told him I was going there too, so he should come with me.|
|The man smiled, and helped me pick flowers.|
|Then we held hands and walked to grandma's house.|
|I don't hold hands with father much, so it was sort of a new sensation.|
|We reached grandma's house, and grandma waved to welcome me.|
|The man bowed slightly, too.|
|"The medicine is in the usual place."|
|I went to get mother's medicine from the back room.|
|Just then, I heard a loud sound. There... there I saw...|
|...I saw a wolf eat grandma.|
|Then he stuffed a lot of medicine in a bag.|
|Then he noticed me, and started walking toward me.|
|I can't... look people in the eye. I'm scared to... hold their hand.|
|It makes me... remember it.|
|If only... I hadn't picked those flowers. And hadn't met him.|
|And hadn't... held his hand.|
|Lots... of blood came out. It smelled... really bad.|
|Teacher, I'm... still a little scared. But I'm... sort of okay.|
|Teacher, I... still can't forgive father. Those eyes... that color... I'm scared.|