Chapter 4: Crying Wolf
Just as expected, I again found one of the rooms of the facility through the door. On the desk was homework left completely blank, neatly placed in the corner, and there was a strange poster on the wall beside the bookcase.
"Whoa? Yo, Alice! Nice weather, huh?!", the person in the center of the room cheerily shouted at me, despite it being impossible to tell the weather with no windows. A boy who always wore a black knit cap with a silver chain, and seemed to treat it very carefully.
"Y'know what this calls for? Y'know?! Y-Y'know?!" Joshua always tended to fire his words like a machine gun like this, but here he was spitting out the same word repeatedly like it was caught in his throat.
"Yeahyeah! Yeah yeah yeah! L-L-L-Let's play!" At last, he invited me to play, the same words overlapping each other, like a toy with a dying voicebox. In contrast to his unstable words, Joshua patiently smiled wide, awaiting my answer.
I'd go to the World, find the key, and get back another shard of my memory. And I'd find Teacher and talk to him... Now that I had two objectives, I had to hurry, or it'd only get harder to catch up to Teacher, seemingly a step ahead of me.
"Sure, let's play." Even I'm not sure why, but my reply came at a loud volume, and my voice cracked in the middle. ...Was I just tired?
"W-W-Whoa! Yeah! Sweet! Alright!" Joshua, too, spoke in a voice that overlapped itself, becoming many times louder. "Open up that closet."
I nodded and walked toward Joshua's closet. As I put my hand on the door, I noticed I was shaking. What was wrong with me?
I forced my trembling hand onto the handle. And I opened the door with all my strength.
A soft sensation spread across my body. I felt weightless. Upon making the slightest movement, an unfamiliar friction tickled me. Sitting up, I noticed expensive items and furniture all around the large room.
I slid out of the big bed I'd woken up in and gently stepped on the blue carpet. It was large enough to be a living room, but the fact there was a bed here... it probably was a bedroom. And considering I met Joshua before coming here, maybe this was the house he used to live in before coming to the facility.
A side table next to the bed, a big TV by the window, bookcases... Starting near the bed, I inspected everything in the room. What caught my eye most was a chest packed with clothes. In the bottom drawer were a large number of hats just like the one Joshua always wore. Also... some underwear.
I'm probably done here, I thought, heading for the door. It wasn't locked. It opened easily, and I let out a sigh of relief. I didn't want to have to force anything open anymore if I could help it.
Outside was a long, wide hallway. I walked straight down along it. I found stairs leading to the upper floor, but some kind of invisible wall seemed to prevent me from going up them.
Giving up on that, I continued down the hallway and found a locked door. After carefully twisting the doorknob left and right to no avail, I left it alone for the time being and turned forward again.
Eventually, I came to a white wall. This was a dead end. Looking to my side, I saw one more door. Putting my hand to the knob with some unease, it easily opened with a pleasant sound that disregarded my worry.
A great number of wall clocks hung on the back wall of the room. Each of these clocks had a different design and a different ticking sound, creating an unstable dissonance. With so many clocks, you'd go mad staying here for long...
Though the clocks stole my attention, someone tapped my shoulder, startling me. I looked down slightly to see a boy starting at me curiously.
"Yep, that's me!", he enthusiastically responded to my distant mumble. Good - this was surely the real Joshua.
"I'm glad you were in here. All the other rooms were locked... Have you seen Teacher?"
"Huh? Is anything locked? The other rooms I went to were wide open, and I didn't meet anybody... But like, is Teacher here?"
It sounded like Joshua hadn't met Teacher yet. But considering previous events, he likely planned to come in contact with Joshua too. It was fortunate that I got here first.
"Hey Allen, where is this? I just woke up here, so like..."
"We're... in a dream," I lied. I wasn't sure where we actually were, but even I knew this wasn't just a dream.
"Hmm, yeah, I thought so. It looks like my house, but it's way smaller!"
"...Your house must be really huge."
"Sure is. I've been having this same dream a bunch lately. But nobody's ever been around, so I just sit here playing dice. Well, more like I just sit here rolling dice." Joshua proudly picked up a few small dice and jumbled them around in his palm.
"But if you're here, Allen, then forget about that. There's nothin' here, so let's go somewhere else! Who knows, maybe some of the others are here too!"
He spoke cheerfully, but my heart ached. Remembering what I'd seen made me feel a sensation like heartburn deep in my chest. At the same time, my ears buzzed.
"There was a large house in a large city."
"In this large house lived a mother, a father, a boy, the boy's brother and sister, and many other people."
"The boy found fun in sneaking out of his large house to adventure outside, then telling his mother of his escapades."
"Many of the stories were lies, but his mother delighted at them and patted him on the head."
"...? You okay, Allen? Your face is lookin' all sour."
Joshua looked at me worriedly. The competing forces in my body had made me lose balance and fall to the floor.
"...Well, I'll put you in charge. Just get up when you're ready and I'll come along."
"It's fine. I think I'm just a little sleepy." I rubbed underneath my eyes. I did that all the time whenever tears came, so it tingled a little. I lowered my head so he wouldn't notice that, at least. Then I told Joshua "let's go," and left the room full of clocks back to the spacious hallway.
"In one of the dressers in the room I woke up in, I found a bunch of the same hats you wear... Don't you ever wear any other hats?", I asked as we came to a wall and turned back around.
"Huh? Well, if there were lots of hats, that'd be my room. See, this hat's got the secret power of the cosmos in it, so it's gotta be this kind or else..."
"What about the underwear that was with them? Do you put that on your head, too?"
"Not on my head!"
I tried to move the conversation along as Joshua started getting cocky, but was sharply countered. Still, there were traces on his face indicating he was enjoying it.
"Truth is, this hat's the first present I ever got. People always tell me they'll buy me some others, but I just like these ones best."
"...A present from who?"
"Huh? That'd be, uh... Man, who was it?"
Joshua came to a stop and twisted his neck. After a while, he just shrugged, mumbled "Well, anyway," and resumed walking.
The hallway felt longer than the first time I went down it. I didn't see the doors I'd passed by - it was just long white walls. It gave me the illusion of somehow being lost, even though it was only a straight path.
Tiring of talking, Joshua silently followed behind me. Just as I was about to get anxious, the dazzling stairs, which had been blocked by an invisible wall before, appeared before us.
As I put my foot on the first step, I felt something heavy weighing on me. Getting to the second was something I just couldn't manage to do. Meanwhile, Joshua passed me by, climbing the steps with ease.
"Huh? Allen, are you playin' around or something? What, can you not climb stairs?"
Slightly spurred by his remark, I forced my leg to the second step. The mysterious weight on me had gone away all of a sudden, so this time I climbed too hard and fell face-first.
"You okay? Don't overdo it, man." Joshua held his hand out to me. I took it with some hesitation. Just like with Letty and Chelsy, it was colder than usual.
Upstairs, there was a hallway just like the one below that seemed to go on forever. Having already walked long enough, fatigue swept over me like a wave. I really didn't have much stamina, though I felt like it was considerably better here than in the real world.
"...Hey, you said this was different from your house, but... Do you think you have at least a general idea of where things are?"
"Hm? Well, if that's the most you're asking... Yeah, I think I do."
I'd soon collapse if we kept walking around aimlessly. I tagged out and had Joshua lead. In mere minutes, we found a door. Joshua turned the knob without any hesitation, and the door went without resistance.
The room contained furniture even more expensive-looking than what I'd seen in Joshua's room, rows of super-tough-looking swords and such, and a portrait of someone hanging around the middle of the back wall. It was an aged man whose mustache gave a highly dignified impression.
"Oh, this is my dad. He gets real scary when he's angry," Joshua explained as I stared at the picture curiously. I supposed his sharp, olive-colored eyes did resemble Joshua's.
"He buys lots of stuff, and moves the old stuff to unused rooms. Look, like this sword."
Joshua lifted up one of the swords in the corner in his hands and brought it over. The blade was so polished as to reflect your face, and it glittered from the lights in the room.
Joshua met my earnest comment with a mischievous smile.
"Back... Back, Back, Back."
Suddenly, I heard a muddled voice from behind me. I turned around to see a... person? I couldn't even be sure if it was a creature - like a body turned inside-out and stitched together, muttering the same thing repeatedly.
"What's with this guy?"
"Back... Front... Back Back..." It stared at Joshua's hand.
"This? You want this? Sure, I've got plenty." Joshua handed one of the small dice he was holding to the body. It held the die and stared at it, rolling it in its hand.
"Back of One... Six. Back of Three... Four."
"Yep, when you add up the opposite sides of a die, you always get seven. Neat, huh?"
Joshua seemed to be treating this bizarre body like it was extremely ordinary. The inverted body had blood vessels running along its insides-made-outsides, which I found a little frightening.
"Back... You Back? Back? Back... Back?"
The body suddenly asked Joshua a question. But both he and I tilted our heads, not understanding its meaning. As it went on repeating "Back, Back," I began to feel a bottomless dread and left with Joshua to go somewhere else.
A few minutes of walking later, Joshua found another door. When I was leading, it took me twenty or so minutes to find a room - but I felt like if I said that, Joshua would just give me a strange look.
"...Huh? Isn't that Teacher?" His hand came to a stop with the door half-open.
I looked through the gap; a familiar person was sitting on a chair in the back of the room, faced away from us. We shot a glance at one another. He still didn't notice us as we tiptoed quietly up to him.
The two of us poked his back and messed with his hair for a while, but Joshua soon tired of the utter lack of reaction and punched Teacher in the hip. It sounded like a pretty light one, but Teacher wailed like it was a fatal blow and slumped over on the desk in front of him. Hope he's okay.
He turned around, his gaze going to Joshua, then to me. "...Joshua... and Allen? I know I keep telling you, Joshua, but would you stop hitting me on the hip so forcefully?"
Teacher looked slightly surprised when he looked at me. Then he seemed to go into thought, but soon nodded in agreement to himself.
"No hips? What about the flank?"
"It's... not an issue of where you're hitting me," Teacher responded with a wry smile, then suddenly looked worried and rushed to cover his flanks.
"Teacher, why are you here? Not often you show up in my dreams."
"...It's not quite a dream. You must be cautious about your actions here."
Teacher readily denied that this World was a dream. So he does know a thing or two about these Worlds, doesn't he?
"Then what should we do, Teacher?"
"It would be best if you stay put in this room. ...Don't go opening any more doors."
"Ahh, I need to get going. You'll do what I'm asking, won't you?" Teacher hurried to interrupt me and looked us in the eyes. Joshua turned his head to the side.
"Yeah, don't worry, Teacher, I'm here! Uh... You can take it easy breezy!"
"...It's the times when you speak with such confidence that get me most worried. Well, I hope I can trust you."
Teacher slowly stood up and passed us by to leave the room. Ultimately, I hadn't been able to clear up any of the mysteries about Teacher. My chest felt hazy.
As soon as Teacher was out of sight, Joshua pouted with boredom. "Hmm, not much to play with in this room, though..." He appeared to have a desire to go along with Teacher's order not to leave the room.
"Oh yeah, but there should be a..." Remembering something, he ran over to a bookcase in the corner of the room and fished around in a gap between the shelves and wall. A few seconds later, he pulled out a silver gun.
"Russian roulette! Let's play it!"
"Russian roulette...? Like, where you put a single bullet in a gun and take turns firing at your head?"
Did people in rich families play games of life and death starting from childhood? Having lost my memories, I had no confidence in my knowledge of the past, but perhaps I was a born commoner, as I couldn't comprehend such a game.
"No, no! The real deal would be too dangerous. This is a really well-made toy. You put a paintball in here, and if you lose, a needle pops it out and breaks it. We can play like that, right?"
"...Sure." I finally understood once Joshua gave me the explanation. It was still a mischievous kind of game either way, though. It sounded like your clothes would get paint on them, so I wasn't too keen, but Joshua got increasingly desperate until I gave in. He happily put the paintball in with experienced motions.
"Alright, there's six cylinders! And there's a pink paintball in one of them! Here, Allen, you can start. Say how many shots you're gonna fire first!"
Joshua tossed me the gun. I managed to catch it, though it nearly slipped out of my hand. I stated "three shots," and pulled the trigger - click, click, click.
"Ooh, three shots? Not bad. I'll do one." He pulled the trigger once.
There were two shots left, so if I shot once and it didn't fire the paintball, I'd won. But after doing my three shots, I realized something, and had a premonition that I'd lose. Lowering my head a little to keep my clothes from getting dirty, I said "one" and pulled the trigger.
The magnificent pink blood splatter dyed my hair. The spot the bullet hit stung a little.
"Aw, too bad!" Joshua thrust a hand in his pants pocket and grinned teasingly.
"...Come to think of it, you didn't spin the cylinder after putting the paintball in, Joshua."
"Hm? Oh, right! So I knew exactly where it was, yeah. But Allen, you should've said that while you had the chance!"
He showed more of his white teeth. I was glad to see Joshua enjoying himself, even if it was at the expense of my hair. I found myself cracking a little smile, too.
"Well, we gotta clean up. Here's a towel. It should come off without too much effort."
Joshua handed me a fluffy white towel; I'm unsure when he got it. Then he took out a second towel and began to carefully wipe the paint splatter on the floor.
"...Sometimes my sister and brother play with me too. But usually they're too busy with studying to play anything. So I'm glad to finally get a chance to again. ...Even mom and dad have been kinda restless lately, won't pay attention to what I'm doing at all," Joshua remarked as he cleaned.
"My brother's real great as soccer and stuff! And my sister always gets the best grade in the class on hard tests. ...But I've got nothing."
Joshua spoke cheerfully of his brother and sister, but when he came to him, he bit his lip tight and turned his head down.
"I think you're really interesting, Joshua. You talk about all sorts of things, and play pranks... I mean, sometimes they go a little too far, but you've got a great imagination."
Joshua's face lit up, and he looked toward me.
"Allen... You're saying I do? I've got something?" He shyly turned away again. But he looked less pained than before; somehow, he looked liberated. Good, he got a little more of his cheerfulness back.
"Well, we played Russian roulette, so there's nothing else to do in this room. Aw, well... Telling me to stay put makes me not wanna stay put! Let's go somewhere else!" Joshua folded the dirty towels, put them on a nearby table, and dragged me by the hand.
Teacher's warning not to open any more doors replayed in my head. His voice was gradually overtaken by noise, turning into an unpleasant ringing.
"One day, lightning struck, and father's castle was ruined."
"The castle crumbled, there was no money left. And the last time the boy saw his father, he was floating in midair."
"The boy informed his mother. But his mother said this:"
"What are you saying, at a time like this?! We're all very exhausted right now. Don't tell me such lies again."
"The boy tried to lead his mother to father again and again, but she let go of his hand every time."
"What's up, Allen? ...Sorry, does your hand hurt?"
When I came to, Joshua let go of my hand and looked at me anxiously. I looked toward him to say I was fine, but for some reason, he quickly averted his gaze. Then, with a relieved expression, he put his hand on the doorknob.
...I wondered if Joshua had always had trouble looking people in the eye.
"What'll it be? ...Go? ...Or not?"
"...Let's go," I answered firmly, though after a slight pause. I had to go. I'd resolved to do that before I came to this World.
I had a feeling about what would happen now, and what I'd witness. And yet I couldn't stop moving ahead towards it - maybe I was already starting to break.
As Joshua continued to give me worried glances, he opened the door and went into the hallway. And we resumed walking down the long hall again.
After walking about ten minutes, we hit a white wall. A dead end.
"This is the only door, I guess. Honestly, they should be more... next to each other, y'know?", Joshua illustrated by spreading his hands to his sides, looking a little disappointed. Then without delay, he opened the door.
Instantly, a sweet smell wafted out from the room. Looking inside, I saw two white shortcakes on a table in the center, topped with little strawberries.
"Ooh, these are the cakes dad buys every time he comes home. They're made by some kinda famous... patissy... cake maker person, and they're really good. Awfully sweet, though."
Joshua approached the table. I followed, and the strengthening smell of the cakes stirred my appetite.
"Hey, Allen, don't eat with your hands. Your clothes'll get all sticky..." Joshua went searching underneath the table. "Uh, here, here's a fork."
Why there was a fork there, and how he was able to find it... I had no desire for answers to those questions in the face of this sweet temptation. However, just as I was about to grab the fork from Joshua...
From underneath the table, I heard a weak voice. And I saw the face of a sheep-like creature with lots of fleece and great curly horns.
"What, you want some too? Well, human food isn't good for animals a lot of the time, so I wouldn't suggest it."
"...Fine, I give. The strawberry's probably fine."
I couldn't understand what the animal was saying, but Joshua seemed like he did. He took the precious sole strawberry off his cake and tossed it to me. The sheep-like creature skillfully snatched it up from midair and baa'd pleasantly.
"We should eat too. Walking's tiring, so we can rest here."
Joshua put his fork in the long triangle-shaped shortcake to cut a bite-sized piece. Then he stabbed it with the fork and went to bring it to his mouth.
"...Are you gonna eat? You not like sweets, Allen?"
"Nah, I'm fine. It's nothing."
I cut my shortcake - more crudely than Joshua did - stabbed it with the fork, and brought it to my mouth. The moment I put it in, I was hit with an extreme dizziness.
"...Hey, Allen! Hello? You okay?"
A voice calling me from afar grew gradually closer. When my senses cleared up, I saw Joshua looking at me from above worriedly.
"I'm fine... Huh? This isn't where we were..."
"Hm? Oh, yeah. I got all dizzy and fell asleep, too. When I woke up, we were here," Joshua explained, rubbing the back of his head. Was he hit there and knocked out?
I had a look around, and only one thing caught my eye. Red curtains swaying slightly, giving off an ominous air. Occasionally, pitch darkness stared at us through the gap.
"...Man. Was there a room like this?" Joshua's head tilted. He seemed restless, and very attentive to the gap in the curtains.
"It occurred to me when we were talking about the voices upstairs too, but... Do you not like scary stuff?"
"Huh? No! I'm not scared! It's just, when you've got gaps and stuff... Doesn't it feel like somebody's staring at you through 'em?"
Wasn't that a roundabout way of saying he was scared? I threw the curtains open. There was only darkness behind them, not a sign of any light.
"...You're going in? Wait, does this go somewhere?"
"There doesn't seem to be much of anywhere else... Look, I'll go ahead. That won't be so scary, will it?"
"No way! Wrong idea, Allen! I am not scared! ...But yeah, you do that."
Joshua swiftly got behind me and clung to my clothes. I carefully set foot into the darkness.
As we walked around blindly without saying much, Joshua suddenly came to a stop.
"What is it?"
"Oh, y'know. I've got this strange feeling. Like I'm missing something..."
"I don't know. And my chest feels all fuzzy, 'cause I don't know."
He gripped my sleeve more tightly. He'd been pulling on my clothes in surprise at numerous unseen things, so they were starting to get loose and worn.
"Allen, you have anything you're scared to lose?", Joshua suddenly inquired.
Having lost my memories once and gotten some back, I figured I'd be scared to lose them again. Yet I was unsure, because I wasn't confident that these really were my memories. Such thoughts made an unknown emotion well up in me, while I sank deeper.
"Oh -" Joshua seemed to remember something. "...Sorry, Allen," he apologized sadly.
"It's fine." I resumed walking with Joshua in behind.
"I used to hate the dark. But now, it's kinda relieving. ...I can't see anything, and nobody has to see me," he mumbled in an uncharacteristically quiet and weak voice.
While I puzzled over how to respond, my hands found something in front of me. Touching it all over, I identified it as a wall. Following it for a while, I came to an obstruction - a doorknob.
"...You gonna open that?"
The sudden voice at my back made me jump. Sweat started to run down me.
"...Why wouldn't I?"
"Just... I dunno, a gut feeling. Not so much that I don't wanna go in, more I don't want to let you in... I don't really know either, but... You're going in?", he asked again.
I had a feeling - no, I knew for certain what was behind this door. Would I still try to open it regardless?
"If you're going in, Allen, that's fine," he said, leaving me the decision. My half-regained emotions proved to be shackles stopping my hand from opening the door.
...Why did I have to feel this way?
"Then I'll help!"
Hearing a voice, someone pushed me. At the same time, the doorknob was twisted open, and we were sucked into the room. We fell forward, Joshua landing on top of me. The room was slightly brighter than where we'd just been.
"Oww... Should've told me when you were going to open it, All..." His objection was cut short.
Feeling something was wrong, I pushed Joshua off of me and sat up. Even though I pushed him fairly forcefully, he continued to stare up, dumbfounded, trembling.
I followed his gaze to a large doll-like object hanging from the ceiling. Though there was no wind, the body slowly swayed back and forth.
I heard another voice, not Joshua's, at my ear. Yes, the voice I heard before being pushed. Nothing but the Cheshire Cat could produce this voice.
"Now, what are you doing here? Weren't you told to stay away, Alice?!", the Cat reminded Joshua with a detestable smile. But he showed no reaction to his words, only staring up and trembling.
"Hey, you sleepin'? ...What, you that curious about the doll hanging there?"
Joshua finally responded as the Cheshire Cat persisted. "Huh? ...No, that's mom. This is mom's room. Wait... No, wrong, wrong, wrong! That's not my mom..." He went pale, his expression warping into one I'd never seen.
...That hanging doll is his mom?
"Hmm? Seems like this Alice sees somethin' different..."
"N-No, no, no... Mom doesn't have those eyes..."
"Ohh? Well then... which eyes? ...Tell me, why don't you!" The Cheshire Cat approached Joshua and threw his arms open.
Instantly, human eyes of various colors opened up all around the room, on the walls, on the furniture, staring at us. I couldn't help but yelp at the sudden attention.
"!!!!! Ahh...! Hey... You gotta be... I mean, the one hanging in the air, it was... Hey, Allen!" Joshua grabbed my arm tight. "This is wrong, yeah? It's not right..."
As Joshua looked at me with desperate eyes, his face started to blacken, falling apart like mud. The mud fell and stained his clothes. I could only shake my head in terror at the scene.
"Why... are you looking at me like that? Why... did eye have to see this..."
"Now what's this about, Alice? You tell all those terrible lies for attention, and this is what you get. And trust me, goin' down the "if-only-I'd" route is just a waste of time."
Seeing Joshua breaking down, the Cheshire Cat's eyes further narrowed with joy. I felt both a vomit-inducing disgust and something close to anger.
"STOP iT!! ...stop."
Just as Joshua said this, his movement came to a sudden halt. I reached out toward him, worried he might have died. Just then, pain pierced through my head.
"After some time, the boy's brother and sister led their mother toward where father was."
"When I say it, you say it's a lie. Why? Is it because they have something, and I have nothing?"
"Did you know they were all lies before? Is it okay if you don't know they're lies?"
"...The boy renounced having to improve himself."
"Aww, thought I could get a bit more fun out of that... But he's already gone."
That voice brought me back. The Cheshire Cat sounded distinctly more bored than before, his smile lowered, letting out a big sigh. He stepped away from Joshua and looked up at the ceiling.
"You only see it as a stupid-huge doll too, don't you? Yeah, you'd be right. Don't worry, you're not nuts or nothin'. I just cast a special spell on that Alice."
The Cheshire Cat spoke like a wizard from a fairy tale, but the facts were far crueler. So Joshua had thought his mother had hung herself from that rope...
"I wonder when you might break down? Or are you the one doing the breaking? 'Cause then much as you hate my guts, maybe we ain't so different! The things you hate about others, you always do yourself without realizing it."
The Cat's remarks stabbed through my chest. For Letty and Chelsy too, I had been the one to open the door. Their ruin was on me for setting foot into their Worlds.
"Oh? Here comes a mousey. That's the end of this story. Good night, Alice! That was a good dream, wasn't it? Here, have a present!"
He threw something to my feet. It was a small key.
I gently picked it up off the ground, seeking its help. And I regained another part of myself.
It was a very pleasant spring day, sunny and warm. Having checked out a book I'd meant to for a while, I was elated. I was almost home - I just needed to turn left at the intersection three blocks ahead, then go straight. My pace quickened with my desire to get home and start reading. I arrived at the front door, put my hand on the knob, and pulled it open...
...Something was constricting my entire body. It was difficult to breathe. I heard my heart beat loud. Even then, it was me who opened the door.
The sudden change in heat was sapping my stamina. The season had switched from spring to summer. Before me was a neatly-laid red-brick road with a large garden to the side, where it seemed every single flower was carefully cared for.
"I expected as much, but... It sure is hot."
It was a blisteringly hot day that I went to meet him, too. So this World was from the time I first met him.
Joshua Bartlett was the son of a couple who headed a large enterprise, one of the most wealthy out there. And this large mansion was the managers' estate. I'd have very likely gotten lost if I'd gone alone.
My reason for coming was a request from my friend Cliff, to take a look at Joshua after a certain incident changed him. Evidently Cliff knew Joshua's older brother, who, when told I did counseling for children scarred by incidents, asked if I could check on his younger sibling.
"Sorry, I know you're busy," Cliff apologized with remorse. "Will the kids be okay?"
"I was concerned about the rowdy one before, but the new girl is very earnest. As long as she's there, you don't need to worry. ...It shouldn't take too long, anyway."
Following Cliff's directions, I walked up the red brick path to the front door. He knocked several times with the door knocker. Shortly afterward, a rather tired, sort of aged woman appeared, being supported by a young man beside her.
"Yo, Cliff. ...And, uh, hello. I'm Blanc Bartlett. I've heard a lot about you... And this is my mother."
After a casual greeting to Cliff and a formal introduction to me, the young man, Blanc, bowed. Helping his mother along, he invited us into the mansion.
The crimson carpet in the hallways gave the place a refined air. Occasionally the suits of armor on the sides of the halls shined in the light. Many reddish-brown doors were lined up in rows against the white walls. We passed by a few servants, who all bowed deeply.
"Perhaps you're already familiar, as it's made the news and the papers... My father passed away the other day. Joshua has been behaving strangely ever since."
"Yes, I've been hearing about it. ...You have my deepest sympathies."
A few days ago, the father of this young man and the boy I was about to meet, the head of that huge enterprise, was found hung in his room. It was all over the papers. According to reports, just before he commit suicide, there was some kind of scandal at the company resulting in a loss of faith with clients. It was clear this would be a huge blow to the company's finances, so that was rumored to be the reason behind the suicide.
"It was all so sudden... Our company tumbled as if something were dragging it down. I intend to succeed the position, but there are many worries... Ah, sorry. Here we are."
Blanc stopped in front of one of the many doors in the hallway and knocked. I heard a boy say "come in" from inside.
Inside the room was a silver-haired boy squatting on a small stool. Half of his beautiful silver hair was obscured by a black knit cap.
"Are you the one my brother mentioned? Nice to meet you." The boy stood up and politely bowed to me. It must have been because of his family, but he seemed very mature for his age. I gave my name and bowed back.
"...Hey, brother, I'd rather be alone with him. It'll be easier for me to talk."
Blanc nodded and took everyone but myself and the boy outside, slowly closing the door behind them.
The instant the door was shut, the boy thrust his hands in his pockets and forcefully sat down on the stool. He crossed his legs and grinned mischievously as I watched in surprise.
"I'm Joshua. It's like suffocating with those guys, huh? Well, you can relax with me."
Joshua's shoulders eased up. Ah, so he did have a side more befitting his age. Perhaps his earlier attitude was only fabricated for visitors. Borrowing another stool, I sat down in front of him.
"They keep telling me to talk, but there's nothing really weird about me. What am I supposed to talk about?"
"Well... I want to know about you, so I'd be happy if you could tell me about yourself."
"...Me? Well, let's see. I'm good at soccer, always score dozens of points a game. Also, I love to study, so I get perfect scores on tests every single day!"
While his eyes wandered away, he spoke in an ambiguous way, both bragging and somehow not.
"And? Is there anything else?"
"Also... I don't have wings, but I can fly real high! I like to sneak out of the house and talk to doves while I'm flying through the sky!"
Whenever he started talking like this, Joshua's eyes wavered. I smiled at his childish stretching of the truth. Then I got onto the main topic.
"...Do you know anything about your father?"
Joshua briefly shook, and his eyes returned to me. After some thought, he looked away again.
"...I dunno. I mean, it was my brother and sister who found him floating."
"Really? Who was it who found him first? I'd really like to know."
He paused and bit his lip. Then he sighed and raised his face up.
"Me. I found him. I was studying here, when I heard a cat meow. I followed it, and heard a creaking sound from dad's room. So I opened the door. And just when I opened it, dad..."
Joshua's mouth was shut. He must have seen the moment his father hung himself. "You don't need to say any more," I said, patting the boy's back. He'd started to tremble slightly.
"It must be hard. You might not be able to forget that feeling for some time. ...It's okay. You can take it slow. Thank you for telling me."
"...Do you believe me, mister? I'm a liar... Even this might be a lie... But do you believe me?"
Joshua looked up at me desperately. I nodded, and his shoulders finally slackened with relief.
"Ah, yes... There are other children who have gone through similar situations. They live with me at my facility, so they can slowly ease their pain."
"...Oh yeah? So it's not just me suffering? ...Could you take me to your place and make my pain go away too, mister?" Joshua seemed interested at just the slightest mention.
"Well, perhaps I could, but your mother and such would have to let me."
"...It's probably fine. Mom doesn't even look at me, and won't talk to me anymore. I'm sure she hates me now."
I took lonely-looking Joshua to his mother, waiting for us outside the room, and told her what he'd said. The young man and Cliff were surprised and hesitated slightly, but his mother quickly consented.
"Then I'll take your son in for a while. I'll call immediately if anything comes up."
I said goodbye to his relatives, and took Joshua back to the facility in the forest.
Joshua hurled a fist directly into my hip. It came so suddenly, I made a strange howl and fell forward.
"Joshua, I tell you again and again, no hitting the hips..."
"But you never notice if I don't do that, Teacher..." He held his hands behind his head, grinning prankishly.
"...I don't suppose I can have you behaving like when we first met."
"Huh? No, no way!" He stuck out his tongue. "'Cause that was all a lie. The kind of lie that'd get me yelled at if I didn't tell it." So this was the real him...
"Oh yeah, here, notebook. I wrote it in like you said!"
Reaching into his pocket, he took out a turquoise notebook. I took it and checked the new pages. The words were written very neatly.
"Thank you. I'll write a reply and give it back. Now, it's time for bed."
"Alright! You do that, Teacher. Good night!", he bowed. "Good night," I bowed back. He made mischief, but he always followed rules.
I moved under the shade of some trees in the garden. I let out a deep breath to be finally free of the heat. And I flipped to the newest page of his notebook.
|My brother's good at soccer. My sister's smart.
But I'm nothing.
I'm nothing, but I said I'm something. I have nothing, but I said I do.
And I got so sad after I said it. Soon enough, I didn't know what I had, or what I was.
No matter what I say, it might just hurt someone. But I still say it.
Teacher, what am I supposed to do?
He had always kept lying to get his mother's attention. So when he came to tell her about his father's death, she wouldn't believe him. If my information was correct, due to the company's troubles, she wasn't emotionally stable at the time. Too many things happening at once had led to that day's outcome.
Cliff told me that, with Joshua's brother now taking charge of the company, it was slowly making its way back up. Their mother seemed to be faring better now, as well. If I kept up my care of Joshua, he'd probably be able to return to his old life. ...I just had to keep it up.
Just as a strong breeze blew, a shrill sound echoed, and the shadow around me grew larger. It became deeper, finally turning into darkness which began to envelop me.
...Strange. I certainly told them not to leave that room - to not open any doors. It was hard to believe they would go against my instructions. Especially when Allen, who often stopped Joshua just in the nick of time, was there.
"Boy, this one's starting to break too! Fragile little things, eh?"
A familiar voice reached my ears alongside the ringing noise. The Cheshire Cat's white teeth and eyes were floating in the darkness before me.
"...Do you know something?"
"Yeah! You asked me to watch, so I've been doin' that. That Alice opened the door. So that Alice broke down. That's the whole story!"
The deepening darkness emphasized the Cat's gleaming eyes and mouth. Whether it was true or not, I couldn't say, but according to him, it was apparently Allen who opened the door.
"I see... So he opened Joshua's door?"
"Well, what'll it be, Alice? There are two Worlds left. Have your plans been thrown out of whack? Or maybe you're starting to go mad?"
The Cheshire Cat tried to agitate me, but I ignored it all and responded quickly.
"I have a request. Seeing as you couldn't humble my request to be the only one to enter the Worlds, that's fine, yes?"
"Sure! I mean, I stopped him. But you know brats, always wanting to do what they're told not to. 'Course, they'll do it if you say to, too... Mweeheehee! Alright, alright, leave it to me."
As my senses began to fade, I explained myself to the Cheshire Cat. And my body became one with the darkness.
"Oh? Your expression is entirely different from last time. ...Ah, no, I believe I understand, so no need to answer. Well done recovering the key," the White Rabbit remarked in a businesslike fashion. I nodded without really thinking much.
"Are you beginning to grow used to the Worlds? ...From your reaction, I would wager not. Well, when I first arrived, I too thought, what am I doing in such a place?! Now, I don't believe it to be so bad."
"...You don't think anything of this World, Mr. White Rabbit?"
"Why, there's not even any need to worry about food. I prefer the World to the world. ...But you don't appear to like it much, Alice. So if you wish to return, I can teach you a way."
"After you've gathered all the keys, that is." The White Rabbit put on an artificial smile. Contrary to his name, he wasn't charming or sweet in the slightest. Why did this guy call himself the White Rabbit?
"...I'm simply using "White Rabbit" at the moment, that's all," he replied disinterestedly to my unvoiced question. "You-know-who generally decides my name for me, and I just go along with that, since it's a hassle to do otherwise."
"Though I would appreciate if he could stop always changing between this and that. Even my appearance changes to match the name, you see. ...Ah, rats, I'm getting annoyed."
The White Rabbit's irritation was starting to build again, so I quietly left for the place where the World doors were.
I was being assaulted by thoughts that felt like my lungs were being gouged out. Was it a reaction to only partially recovering my memories and emotions? Or an effect of opening the World doors? No, maybe it was both. Whose fault was this? It was starting to get annoying just to remember the names of emotions welling up in me.
"You gonna blame it on somebody else?" As usual, the Cheshire Cat was suddenly in my path.
"Always just thinking of themselves, yet when they're unhappy, they're quick to blame somebody. People are leagues nastier than demons, I'd say!"
With a slimy smile, he swung his hands around. I was too tired to even feel irritation and discomfort toward the Cheshire Cat anymore. Taking everything into account... Yes, he was a demon.
"That's right, I'm a demon, so's he. Names are just whatever. We don't need them among ourselves, you see."
So there was no real reason to call us all "Alice," either?
"Yep! I couldn't care less about your name. That's why I call everyone the same. I mean, you don't give names to every ant or frog, do ya?"
To the Cheshire Cat, were we no different from ants or frogs? Surely he was just calling us by a suitable nickname. Whereas I was so desperate not to forget my own name...
"You don't look like you're having much fun. Don't let others drag you down, now. Being trash is the recipe for success here. It's easier to just go mad," he said in a coaxing voice.
I'd started to become unsure what was true or not. Started to stop thinking. My head just ached.
"...'Course, you know anything I say is just a demon's mumblings. Or are you actually gonna take what I just said seriously? Boy, were you that boring a guy?"
Just as soon as he spouts words to stab at my heart, he offers a hand to pull out the thorns. What was this cat after? Why was he doing these things?
"Why am I doing this, eh? Oh, you don't know? ...There's nothing so easy as badmouthing people."
With a reply presented as obvious fact, the Cheshire Cat vanished before my eyes with a strange laugh.
In the empty room, I heard nothing but my breathing and my pulse. An unknown anxiety crawled up my back. To get away from it, I reached for the fourth World door. Already, I no longer felt the sensation pulling at my hair, stopping my feet. What had happened to me?
Just like that, I twisted the knob. I knew what would happen through this door. I just wanted to escape this place, this unease, this everything.
As if being sucked in, my body pushed into the door.
|The moon fell. That great big, round moon fell!|
|When I told mother, she looked surprised, then smiled slightly.|
|The moon hadn't really fallen.|
|It still looked down on us from the sky.|
|But I liked the face mother made, so I told her all sorts of things.|
|I saw a big lizard talk, I saw the old man next door fly, I saw a cat|
|swimming in the lake.|
|Every time I said something, mother would be very surprised,|
|then laugh a lot.|
|But she gradually stopped laughing.|
|After that, mother stopped looking at me.|
|One day, I said that father had gone cold while he slept.|
|Mother was more surprised than she had been in a long time.|
|Then she got very angry. But I didn't stop.|
|Almost daily, I said that father had gone cold.|
|She was surprised every time, and got angry every time.|
|I liked it.|
|Because she'd only talk with me when she was surprised.|
|I was locked in my room. I mean, I had TV. And I had toys.|
|But it was different. Of course it was, right?|
|They'd look at my sister and brother. But not at me.|
|If only spiders and frogs could talk, I wouldn't be so bored.|
|Yeah, I was different. ...Why?|
|Father went cold. He really did.|
|I told mother, but she didn't believe me.|
|She didn't believe anything I said anymore.|
|Quite some time passed before my brother and sister noticed,|
|and she finally realized.|
|She made a face I'd never seen before. A face I didn't want to see.|
|There wasn't surprise, or anger, or smiling or laughter.|
|After that day, mother stopped saying anything.|
|She was just silent, coldly staring somewhere.|
|My brother's good at soccer. My sister's smart.|
|But I'm nothing. I'm nothing, but I said I'm something.|
|I have nothing, but I said I do.|
|And I got so sad after I said it. Soon enough, I didn't know what I had,|
|or what I was.|
|No matter what I say, it might just hurt someone. But I still say it.|
|Teacher, what am I supposed to do?|
Chapter 5: Poison Apple
After my body was dragged into the fourth door, I slowly lifted it and looked around the room. In the back was a jet-black piano with a majestic presence, and just in front of it stood a girl with an unusual air, not to be bested by the piano's.
"Oh dear, Alice. What is it?"
Long, clean black hair. A white headdress with wine-red ribbons. A black one-piece with a curious design. And last but not least, a piercingly sharp red glint in her eyes. Stella looked down on me, stoic as ever.
"Ah, yes. You'd like to play. Very well. What shall we do?", she asked with a wispy voice I didn't often get to hear. Yet it seemed a little muddier than usual. Was this really what Stella's voice was like?
"...Shall we open the closet?"
Not waiting for an answer, her gaze shot through me. I began to move like her eyes had taken control of my body and mind. Keeping eye contact with Stella, I stepped toward the closet, then bumped my back on one of the handles. Ouch.
Stella quietly looked into my eyes. What feelings was she having? Did she even have feelings? I still had no idea.
My back still to the closet, I fumbled for the handles and grabbed them with both hands. Leaning my body back, I opened the closet.
A cold breeze blew against my skin. Even though I was under a blanket, the chill hit my entire body. Unable to stand it, I hurried out of the bed.
I hadn't expected to see what I saw. It wasn't any kind of bedroom; it was an outdoor area filled with stone-like objects in many shapes. It was closed in by black trees which had lost all their leaves, their thin branches swaying coldly.
I got out of the bed and looked around to determine where this was. The stones dotting the area, upon closer observation, had words carved into them, seemingly names.
Was this a grave? In which case this must have been a graveyard.
Just as I had that thought, the usual voice began to talk in my head, along with a painful dizzy spell.
"There was a little town deep in the woods."
"Many people lived in this little town. They all lived healthy lives without sickness. But it struck suddenly one stormy night."
"A curse was laid on the forest."
Putting force into my legs, I managed to steady my faltering body. I had even gotten used to this pain.
There was suddenly the sound of many birds flapping their wings, and I jumped. As far as I could see, there wasn't a soul but myself in this graveyard. As numb as my emotions were becoming, fear was something I seemed unable to ever forget.
...I wondered what I was afraid of.
I started down the path of stones quietly packed together. Every step I took echoed through the peaceful air. I want to find someone soon. Stella should be in this World somewhere. I found my pace quickening.
The graves were like a maze: on one hand blocking the path, but on the other showing me the way. Though I had to retrace my steps many times, I slowly made forward progress. After a while, I saw an iron-bar door. It was rusty, and felt rough when I touched it.
...I didn't want to open any more doors.
Faced with this iron door, I was at an impasse. But the ends of the bars were so rusted that they'd fallen away, making a large hole. It looked like I could get past if I crawled under. Strangely relieved that I could proceed without actually opening the door, I got down and slipped under the bars.
After brushing off the rocks that pushed into my knee, I got my legs moving again. There were no graves on this side of the door, but instead, dark, thin trees formed a path forward. I followed said path.
I saw two shadows up ahead. Walking quickly toward them, I saw Stella... and Teacher. They were both sitting in chairs, and Teacher was combing Stella's hair with a reddish-brown comb.
Stella noticed me first, her head tilting slightly. Teacher followed, and his hands briefly came to a stop as he looked at me.
"Well, thank you, Teacher. That will be fine. You know, you need to fix up your hair as well."
"No, I'm fine. I just let it grow out since I don't know how to cut it."
"? ...Hm." Giving him a dubious look, Stella turned back to me. "It's boring standing around. Come, let's go somewhere. Allen, I'll follow behind you. Teacher told me he won't be moving from this spot."
"Isn't this fine? Nothing can come of staying in the same place. What will you do, Teacher?"
Teacher looked bitter, then fell into thought. Then, his face tensing up...
"...You kids don't really listen to me, do you... I'll come with you," he said with exasperation, his shoulders sagging.
"So it's settled. Well, Allen. Let's be off."
The two of them stood up from their chairs and got behind me. Was it okay for not only Stella, but Teacher to leave things to me? Teacher seemed to be silently waiting for me to act just like Stella was, but I still couldn't wipe away my distrust of him.
"What's wrong? If we don't move quickly, we'll freeze in this wind."
Stella prodded my back. Come to think of it, this was the first time I'd had seen her have a proper conversation. As I started walking, I talked to her.
"...You're talking quite a bit, Stella."
"Oh? It's not as if I hate talking. I'll speak if I'm spoken to. It's only me starting a conversation that's uncommon."
"But Joshua talks to you all the time."
"...He always brings me things I hate. I can't stand him, is all," she explained frankly.
Her voice was closer to me than I was used to. I wanted to hear it more, but the cold winds that came through froze my lips. So ultimately, that was the end of it; we just walked in silence, with Stella occasionally pointing a pale finger to guide me.
"There are holes all around this area... Be careful not to trip and fall, you two."
"You too, Teacher. You seem the most likely to."
The area we came to had holes in the ground in front of the graves. They seemed rather deep, and we couldn't see the bottoms.
"This looks just about big enough for me to fit inside," Stella mumbled, staring at a hole. Her voice felt colder than usual.
"But I can't even see the bottom... Huh?"
While swinging a hand around in the empty hole, it hit upon something. When I grabbed it, it started to move, and I pulled my hand out in surprise.
Stella kept her distance from me, feeling uncomfortable. She seemed to not like bugs.
"Stop it. Keep that away from me. ...You may have a pretty face, Allen, but I suppose you're a boy on the inside after all. Just like him."
Several bug legs squirmed around in my hand. Stella leaned in to look at them, then backed away further still.
"Uh... What makes a pretty face to you, Stella?"
"I believe she once said your face was pretty like a dead person's is pretty," Teacher politely answered, approaching me. "...I'll take those. It would be bad if you tripped carrying these, Allen."
He held out a hand to me. Teacher was behaving the same as always; our kind teacher who always worried about us. Maybe I just found it difficult to doubt people.
I gave the bug legs to Teacher. His face bunched up as he took the wiggling legs, then he stuck them in a pouch on his waist. Bugs probably weren't his strong suit, either.
Stella was back at my side now, standing there nonchalantly. "...I think we're done here. Let's go somewhere else."
She started to walk. Teacher and I hurried after her. When I was alone, I'd hit many dead ends in the maze-like path of graves, but since meeting up with Stella, she'd been guiding us. All the Worlds I'd been to before seemed to come from the memories of the children at the facility, but this World was just graves everywhere we went.
"Do you know where this is?"
"Graves. When people die, they're buried in the ground, their names carved in those stones."
...After receiving an answer a little off from my expectations, my mouth went shut. Indeed, keeping a long conversation going with her proved a difficult task. I silently moved forward in the directions her pale finger pointed.
Heading forward around the winding rows of graves, we saw a shadow. It was like a spider, but many times bigger than a normal one, and it had no legs.
"Oh? Heyyy! C'mere! I'm needin' some help!", it called to us in a deeper voice than expected. I looked to Teacher with hesitation.
"...It's best not to interfere too much with the inhabitants of the Worlds, but this should be fine. I'll protect you if anything happens."
He smiled and pushed me from behind. Vaguely trusting in him, I slowly approached the spider-like creature.
"Ah! Great. Listen, I was dozin' off when somebody took my legs. I'd look for 'em, but I ain't got no legs to stand on! You guys know where they'd be?"
The eight eyes floating on its body stared at us. Spiders' eyes are actually pretty spine-chilling, it occurred to me.
"...Didn't we pick up some legs of some sort earlier? Are those the ones?", Stella muttered.
Teacher pulled the legs out of the pouch on his waist. Instantly, the legs started to squirm gleefully.
"Yeah! Yeahhh! That's them! Put 'em on quick, will ya?"
Glancing at Teacher's face, I noticed he was turning pale, so I said "I'll do it" and took the legs from him. I neatly attached the eight legs to the spider one at a time.
"Ahh, you're lifesavers. As thanks, I'll tell you about a secret place! Close yer eyes!", the spider commanded authoritatively. Stella had watched this unfold without reaction, but now showed some irritation at the spider's remarks.
"...No. I hate the dark. And I hate spiders, too."
"He does seem like a rough sort... It's possible he'd attack us while our eyes are closed." Teacher, too, started to look at the spider warily.
"The hell, man! You didn't even say a word before! Just close 'em! Quick! Close! Close! Clothes!!"
The spider resented our suspicious looks and repeatedly insisted that we close our eyes. The eight legs which we'd just returned to him flailed around like he'd been dropped in water.
"...Let's just do what he says," Teacher told us, closing his eyes. Stella still seemed dissatisfied, but closed her eyes as well. And I slowly closed mine.
My body started to tilt, and I felt space warping. With intense dizziness, my senses were dragged away.
When I came to, there wasn't a single grave around. A cold stone path went straight ahead; dark iron bars ran along the sides.
"...Ah. ...I see."
Stella alone seemed to figure something out. I wanted to ask her where this was, but recalling her earlier vague answer to that question, it stayed at the back of my throat.
A little further ahead, we found a fountain full of water. On both sides of it were statues of goddesses with their heads torn off, giving off a very unapproachable vibe.
"...I'm a bit tired. Can we rest here?"
"Yes... Right. Let's take a break."
Teacher and I both agreed with Stella. We went over to the fountain and sat on the rim. The fountain wasn't spouting any water, so the already-present water just rolled slightly. I looked into it and saw my face. Was this my face? The eyes of that other me seemed much more hollow than I remembered.
"Just what is this place? ...I know these places. And yet, I don't. And they're pointlessly large. I'm so tired of walking."
"Yes, the paths are quite complex. Easy to get lost."
"...You're the one always getting lost, Teacher. Are you really so smart as that doctor who visits says?", Stella goaded.
Teacher smiled painfully and scratched behind his head. "I'm not that smart, no. There are things I'm complimented for, but I really don't think that way myself."
"Hm. And the books in your room all seem very complex, too. Though I still can't understand them, personally."
Stella straightened her skirt while brushing her clean black hair with her hand. Since her pale skin didn't feel at all lively, she reminded me of a doll.
Stella and Teacher's conversation came to a close, so I resolutely aired the question I'd been wondering. "Teacher, what are you researching?"
He looked at me worriedly, then re-faced forward. "...It's a secret," he said, more darkly than usual.
"Why can't you tell?"
"...The things I want to do are always being denied. People who don't know me very well are very harsh, tell me it's too strange."
"And you give up when people say that, Teacher?"
"Yes. Somehow, I found it so persuasive that I gave it all up. And before I knew it, I'd become a very boring person."
Hanging his head and staring at something, Teacher faintly smiled. "So I'm keeping what I'm doing now a secret from you all. ...Because I'm easily swayed. I decided not to tell anyone what I really want."
I couldn't ask Teacher anything more. His face seemed a mix of suffering, sadness, all sorts of gloomy emotions. Seeing it up close got something caught in my throat.
"...Well, I need to go. If you don't want to go further, you two can stay here."
Teacher was about to stand up when Stella grabbed his jacket sleeve.
"...Why are you always like this, Teacher?"
"Why am I what?"
"Why are you so anxious to go off on your own?"
Teacher's body froze at Stella's question. ...I wondered in what way she meant it.
After a brief silence, Teacher spoke quietly, not turning around. "I don't like people to know me. Or to get them involved. I've... always been that way."
Stella muttered "I see" and stood up, turning her head to face me. "What about you, Allen? If you're tired, you can stay here, as Teacher said."
"...I'm going," I replied after a little hesitation. I stood up and wiped some dirt off my clothes, and Teacher and Stella got behind me. Brushed by cold wind again, we headed straight down the path.
We kept walking through the gloomy scenery with Teacher at the head. Then a rotten smell entered my nose, and it made my body ache. I pinched my nose to keep any more from getting in.
"...I know this smell. I've met it many times."
"I see... Then it must be close."
I wasn't sure what Teacher and Stella were talking about. Continuing forward silently, we saw a shadow. The closer we got, the stronger the smell became. When I finally got close enough to tell what it was, I stopped in my tracks.
It had the shape of a human. But parts of its body were rotten and caved in, and white bone showed through. I couldn't imagine them being a living person.
"...What an awful smell. Like a poison apple."
Stella promptly turned and passed beside it. Teacher hurried to follow, but then stopped and turned to me.
"Are you okay, Allen? ...Do you feel sick?" Looking worried, he approached me and stroked my back.
"I'm fine," I quietly said, and he smiled slightly.
"...Don't push yourself too hard," he informed me in his usual kind voice.
We passed by the foul-smelling, formerly-human body to catch up to Stella. She had stopped a little bit ahead, waiting for us.
"...You're so slow," Stella said with dissatisfaction. This place, unlike everywhere else, looked like a room from the facility. It was strangely out of place put next to the stone paths from just a moment ago. Behind Stella, I saw double doors.
Suddenly, I felt an unpleasant chill that froze my spine. I looked to my right and left, but saw no sign of anyone but Stella and Teacher. While Stella's face contorted, Teacher approached the doors, and put his hand on them.
"Allen, Stella. You are not to proceed any further than this," he declared coldly. He cracked the doors open just enough to fit through himself.
"...You've been watching, haven't you? ...Remember our promise."
Without a reply from us, Teacher went through the doors and closed them again. I went after him, but a large shadow appeared before me and laughed loudly.
"Ahh! Good evening, Alice and Alice." The Cheshire Cat bowed to us and grinned as far as he could grin. "Boy, gloomy faces all around again! If it hurts, you wanna have me free you?"
"...Would you help us if we asked you to help, I wonder?"
"Naaah! Too much of a pain," he clownishly replied to Stella, the single eye floating in his hood narrowed. Her feelings of discomfort became more visible.
"...I don't like him. I can't tell if he's dead or alive. And he's disgusting."
"Oh, mean! I died a fine death a looong time ago!" A strange answer given with an uncanny pose. Stella turned her eyes away from the cat, and her mouth widened slightly as she noticed something.
"...The doors are gone."
The Cheshire Cat turned around with a "huh?" to look. Indeed, the doors there were now gone.
"Yep, I'm nothing if not a keeper of promises! And that's what he asked me to do."
"...You mean Teacher, don't you?"
"And if I do? You know, you're a real interesting one, Alice. Didn't steal anything from you, yet you're just like all the other Alices! Guess there was no need to steal, 'cause you didn't have much of it in the first place."
Stella began to ponder the Cheshire Cat's illogical remarks.
"Just talkin' to myself. Well, my job's done here! Sweet dreams!"
As he turned away, the Cheshire Cat vanished from sight. Stella was still tilting her head, having not come to an answer.
"...I don't know anything about Teacher, or about him. ...I wonder... why I have this misty feeling."
"The door is gone. What do we do?", she asked, looking at me. Her fiery red eyes looked to be getting a little sullen.
"...I'll leave this to you." Not caring for my answer, she got behind me.
The doors were gone, but there were still paths to take. Where had Teacher gone? ...We had to proceed. Something unseen hurried me forward. I was still unsure of myself. My incomplete emotions ate into me.
Stella was back there, waiting for me to start walking. I felt her sharp glare on my back. Somehow, I could just sense her aura of displeasure. Not wanting to upset her any more, I took a look at the paths to the left and right, and decided to go left first.
The left path took us out to another graveyard-like place. The big difference from the earlier areas was, in the back past the many rows of graves, the presence of a shining black piano. I stopped and stared at the unusual sight, and Stella passed by me to approach it.
She pressed a key. A clean sound rang out alongside the frigid wind. She cheerfully went playing one note after another. Sitting on the small bench, she pressed keys with both hands, starting to play a song. I approached as if drawn in by the sound.
Stella's hands stopped at once, and she turned to face me. "...You can hear it much better here than from over there." Her hand patted the open spot beside her. Uneasy, I sat down there, leaving some space between us. She wordlessly faced the piano again and started playing a different song.
Her playing sounded completely different from hearing it through a door as I had before. It was a sound clear as water, delicate and soft. But a sort of trailing coldness seeped into my heart, so badly scratched by these Worlds. With a sharp pain, a familiar voice echoed in my head alongside the piano.
"Many victims of the curse died every day. But a single girl did not fall victim to the curse."
"Many people felt pity for the girl, who had lost her family to the curse, and invited her to their homes."
"Yet the curse came once more, and the girl lost another family."
"...Pianos really are nice. They don't make any unnecessary sounds."
Coming to my senses, I turned to her. Stella talked to me as her fingers danced on the keyboard.
"People... are always just shouting nonsense. It's just noise."
I listened to Stella's voice and the piano in silence. Maybe even my voice was just noise. Controlled by that strange thought, I got scared to open my mouth.
"Why do you, and everyone else, go along with my selfish wishes? When I can't do anything for you..."
The sound lost its intensity. Stella lowered her head, staring at her fingers as they kept moving.
"I don't think everyone does things expecting to get something in return."
"...I see." Stella quietly accepted my answer. The sound began to harmonize again, regaining its vigor. I let myself be swept up in its wave again.
"You're all oddballs. Even though you seem dead. You've all experienced loss. So like the dead..."
The sudden cacophony made me jump. Stella had thrown both hands down on the keyboard.
"...I think I get it. ...That's enough. Let's go somewhere else."
Stella got up from the bench and began to walk. I stood up to go after her. ..."I get it"? What did she get? This time, I followed and walked along with her. We returned to the place that looked like a room from the facility.
"...These are my drawings."
Stella observed the picture frames hanging on the wall. I was too wary to notice them earlier, but there were eerie pictures placed in thick frames. A sad-looking girl, a green cat, a blue-skinned person and a big circle, a person holding something and looking this way. I couldn't quite tell what any of them were trying to depict.
"There are all kinds of diseases. Some can make you throw up blood when you die, or turn your skin a strange color, or cause a unique odor. And... some can't be cured by modern medicine."
Stella spoke to me while running her finger along one of the frames. Was she recalling something?
"...There was that terrible smell earlier, right?"
"Yes. It's the smell I've encountered most. ...A smell that feels almost bittersweet. When it's a banana-like smell, it's diabetes. When it's an apple-like smell... I believe that's the plague. But... they're all different."
She turned away from the picture and walked down the path to the right. I caught up to her and walked at her pace.
"Everyone in my town died of an unknown disease. Well... No, some people willingly took their own lives. But I was the only one who wouldn't die no matter what."
"...Are you trying to look into what that disease was?"
"Yes. There are quite a few medical books in the library at the facility. A few of them even have notes written in them in pencil. ...I'm fairly sure it's Teacher's handwriting."
Teacher's writing? Was Teacher looking into some kind of illness?
"Was there anything common between the things he wrote notes on?"
"...Dreams. They were all related to dreams. I'd read most books related to the disease at my town... So it's likely he's looking into a dreaming illness."
A dreaming illness. A current ran through the back of my mind. I felt like I'd seen it in the newspaper, or on TV. Though no cure had been found... I felt like they had discussed the cause of its outbreak. But as much as I racked my brain, I couldn't clearly recall that memory.
Suddenly, Stella stopped, and I nearly ran right into her back. My heart rate quickened a little.
"...The names of everyone in the town."
She ran her finger along a large rock with many words inscribed on it. Looking closer, they were all people's names, covering the whole surface from top to bottom.
"I knew this place. But I said it was different, because every name didn't get its own grave. That would be much too extravagant. ...This grave is the correct one."
Stella's finger stopped below a certain name. The name "Northrop" was inscribed there. That was the name I saw on that first gravestone.
"...It's my family name. Of course, I've long since forgotten anyone else who had that name."
"So your father and mother...?"
"Yes. When I was little, they were cursed and died. Then the next people. And the next, and the next, the next. They all died of the curse."
Looking just a little lonely, Stella took her finger off the headstone and proceeded past it. I followed.
"And you forgot them? ...Could you really just forget?"
"Yes. ...Teacher told me that voices are the first to go. I hardly remember any of their voices, myself. ...Eventually, all the rest will be gone, and I'll completely forget them."
Was that how it worked? If I died, would the people who knew me gradually forget me? ...It was a little scary.
"Do we forget in order to move on from that person's death? ...Or else, do we stop caring once they're dead? I wonder which one it is."
A large tree appeared before us. Its thick roots sank under water, and countless red fruits grew on its wide branches. They appeared to be apples. Stella approached the tree and took two apples from the branches to hold in her palms.
"I don't particularly like my own name. Stella, star. It's perfectly accurate. ...All I could do was watch people die of the curse from high in the sky."
Stella stared at the red apples in her palms with eyes the same color. I felt like she looked much more mysterious than usual.
"I hate living people. ...They all just die and vanish from sight."
"Teacher... said he doesn't like his own name, either. Teacher is still hiding something. But I'm too tired to even walk anymore. Allen, I'm sure you still can."
She turned her red gaze to me. The life had completely left her.
"What we're missing, what we want... I know. I know why none of you feel alive to me."
"...What are we missing?"
"When people lose XXXX, they die." The word was obscured by static. I felt Stella was faintly smiling.
"I should have eaten the poison apple then. ...What about you, Allen? If you want to eat with me, I won't stop you. ...Do you want to go, too?"
Stella asked me a final question. What should I do? ...It seemed like I couldn't stop Stella. I would be alone again... but.
"I still want to live."
I had to go, or else. I wanted to regain all of that XXXX I'd lost.
"...I see. That's good. That's who you are, Allen. ...Good night."
Giving me a girlish smile, she kissed one of the apples. And just like that, she ate it. She slowly collapsed on the spot without a sound. The apple in her other palm rolled toward my feet. Right as it bumped against my foot, a small pain ran through my body.
"After losing a fifth family, she met a person in a church who offered her an apple."
"This apple carries the curse of death. With this, you can go to heaven with the rest of them."
"But the girl refused. And that person, too, died of the curse. The girl deeply regretted not eating that poison apple. Soon, the girl began to harbor a hatred for living."
"...The girl renounced having any attachment to life."
When I came to my senses, there wasn't a poison apple at my feet, but a small key radiating a faint light. I steadied my breath and touched it.
The scene I saw came clearly into my mind. It even took over my vision and my senses.
...I opened the door. First, instantly, a horrible, nauseating smell made my body convulse. I covered my mouth with the hand I wasn't holding a book with, trying to keep down what was rushing up my throat.
What was before me definitely looked like my mother and father.
But they were different.
The mother and father I knew didn't have countless holes in their backs, and red fluids never poured out of them. And they didn't have such hollow eyes. These weren't my mother and father.
No. No, no, wrong, wrong, wrong. I couldn't believe this. This was... wrong...
...Yes, that's right. When I opened the door, I saw my mother and father, horribly disfigured. I finally remembered that.
My body began to heat up. It hurt. Thrown into the water, my senses were collapsing. I couldn't breathe. My heartbeat grew louder. ...And I quietly closed my eyes.
"Did that cat really keep his promise, I wonder..."
Stretching my back muscles, I took a look around. It was my room in the facility. On the desk were a mess of research papers pushed to the side, and two empty teacups.
When she came here, we drank from these cups and had a discussion. Of course, she only spoke a little, then nodded or shook her head to show her reaction.
But the first time I met her, Stella Northrop... it was earlier than this.
I first met her in a little town further into the forest. They seemed to have their own customs and culture there. Not making much of an effort to communicate with outsiders, they were highly self-sufficient; I recall getting many strange looks when I first visited.
It was my friend Cliff who led me to go there. Cliff was looking into an unknown illness that was running rampant there, but telling me he couldn't go there on his own, he entreated me to come with him.
"It's just not easy to go there alone. Everyone else is too unnerved to come with me, but I'm sure you wouldn't be bothered, right? Right? Just for a day!"
"Haven't you been looking into this for a while? Who do you usually go with?"
"...Grandmother Leavis. That is, the... pharmacist who lived in the forest," he answered weakly and awkwardly. Grandmother Leavis, my mentor's mother, had passed away not too long ago in the incident with Chelsy.
"She gave me a lot of good advice. We thought we might be close to finding a cure, but..."
"All right, then, I'll do it. But only for the day. I do have the children to look after."
"...! O-Of course! Thanks, I owe you one," Cliff said, his face a little brighter.
A few days later, I told the children I'd be away and headed with Cliff toward the town in question. There were no roads to drive on, so we walked along a path rife with vegetation to reach the little town.
As we entered the town, all the people doing their respective jobs stopped to look at us. I saw what he meant about it being hard to handle coming alone. There's nothing quite so stifling as having this many merciless gazes on you. Cliff's eyes wandered left and right looking for something.
"That's the place. The one I'm always talking about."
Cliff pointed to a certain building. It looked like a church from the outside, but there was no indication of what kind of worship it was for. Cracked all over, it was a rather unsettling building.
"...It really doesn't look like somewhere people live."
"Yeah, it used to be an abandoned church. They patched it up just enough that people could live in it. And the people here are all sorts of religions, so it doesn't seem to serve as a church now. From what I recall, they gather up children who lost their parents to the illness and take care of them..."
Cliff knocked a few times on the door. Soon, a young woman dressed like a nun appeared.
"Oh, Mr. Cliff. It's been a while. ...Please, come in."
The woman led us inside. The place had many damaged chairs and pedestals, around which many women dressed as nuns and children ran. As they noticed us, everyone kept their distance and watched.
"About those clothes... Are you just making good use of what was already here?"
"...Yes, that's right. We are rather insular in ways, so our lives aren't exactly bountiful, and we just have to use what we can get. ...More than ever, lately."
Sitting in a creaking chair, she told us to sit down too. I took a nearby chair, and it also creaked loudly.
"How's the medicine working? I can see there are fewer people than my last visit... So I can assume it didn't work again."
"Yes... Eight people have died since then. Yet for as much as they suffered in their last moments, they could go more quietly after drinking that medicine. ...Still, of course, a few still looked quite pained."
Cliff bit his lip. This matter wasn't making much good progress.
"I'll need to look into it a little more. Though, it'd make me happiest to have that girl's assistance..."
Cliff turned to the children. Following his gaze, I noticed a girl slightly distant from the others, with clean black hair, pretty white skin, and red eyes.
"She was taken in by another family after her parents died... And when her new caretakers died of the curse, she alone survived. And when she was taken in by another, the same thing happened again... Over and over. All the other children either die with their parents, or are taken from here without catching it at all."
"So, you think she might have antibodies against the disease spreading in this town? Why won't she cooperate?"
"...She doesn't seem to want to talk. The first time I tried to talk to her, she just stared at me and said "You're no good," and that was the end of that."
...I wondered if Cliff had done something unusual. Well, he certainly had a silly side, but he wasn't that cruel. ...Or so I thought.
As I began to ponder, I realized the girl in question was standing next to me. I hadn't sensed her coming closer at all, so I nearly fell out of my chair when I noticed her there. Luckily, Cliff supported me to keep me upright.
"...You're... dead. Not exactly... but you're dead."
She spoke in a clear, fleeting voice, looking into my eyes. I didn't quite understand what she was saying, but from Cliff and the nun's surprised faces, I could surmise she didn't speak up often.
"Um... I'd like to talk to you. Is that okay?"
"...If it's you, then fine," she said, her voice young yet fading. She sat in a nearby chair. Looking at her closer, her facial features looked like a carefully-designed doll's.
"Er... Do you know if the people who died said or did anything in particular before they died?"
"I don't know. They all just did what they liked. Then suddenly, they coughed up red blood and collapsed. That's all there is to it."
"If there's no common thing, then maybe there's not just one cause? Or else... maybe it takes a while to emerge? Do you eat anything besides what's grown here?"
The girl didn't answer Cliff. He sighed with a regretful smile. She really only intended on talking to me. Though I couldn't say I understood why yet.
"...Well? I can ask her instead."
"Right... Well, don't ask that, ask if we can have a sample of her blood. Can you do that?"
"We'd like to have a little bit of your blood. We'll have to use a needle, but... Is that fine?"
"...Do what you like." She held out her thin white arm.
Cliff quickly prepared and began extracting a small blood sample from her. She didn't move a muscle as she watched the process. After that, we talked a little with the women dressed like nuns, then decided to leave for the day.
"Come to think of it, you didn't come with that old woman this time."
"Huh? Oh, err... She's busy today. I had to get my friend here to come on short notice. He runs a facility that takes in children with nowhere to go, much like you."
I was surprised to suddenly be getting introduced. It wasn't exactly favorable for Cliff to say so much about the facility either, but fortunately, it seemed unlikely to spread since these people were so isolated. With that conclusion, I didn't try to stop Cliff, and continued on myself.
"...Strange things have been happening outside this town, too. So I'm taking in children with no parents to care for them."
"Why, all by yourself? You look so young... But that's wonderful. Could you tell me where it is?", the sister asked with a sudden serious look. "...If that's all right with you."
I didn't know why she would be asking, but at any rate, I forgot the way we took to get here, so I had Cliff draw a map. The nun took it gratefully, thanked us, and saw us off.
"We made a huge step there. If I find antibodies, I can save them for sure. But there isn't much time, so I need to hurry. I'll be going. Take care of yourself."
Busily getting his bags in order, Cliff got in his own car parked in front of the facility. I waved until I couldn't see him anymore, then went back inside the facility.
It was a terribly windy day a few weeks later. I heard someone knock on the front door. Cliff hadn't told me he'd be visiting. Maybe it was a youngster who bought into the ghost stories and wanted to prove their courage. I looked outside through the peephole. There I saw, warped in a slightly circular way, that memorable girl with clean black hair and red eyes.
I quickly opened up. She held a scrap of paper in her hand, and while her clothes and body were scratched up, her face was unchanging. I couldn't grasp the situation, but I let her in. Far away, I heard thunder rumbling.
"...What's the matter? Did you come alone?"
She faintly nodded. Then she handed me the paper in her hand. It was the map we'd given that nun the other day. On the back was a new, smudged, hard-to-read note.
"...Take care of Stella for us...? What about the people in town?"
"...They died," she answered feebly. "They all died. Even the living people ate poison apples, and were cursed."
Had all the townspeople died of the illness? And poison apples... Was she saying some took their own lives?
"...I see. That's unfortunate to hear... I still have rooms here. If you want... well, and the sisters seem to have asked me to do this. Will you live here?"
Though distressed by the sudden news, I offered her the invitation. She nodded again.
"All right. ...I'll get you some new clothes. Er... Stella, was it?"
"...Stella Northrop. I'd like to have some tea," she stoicly requested, rubbing her little hands together.
The weather was awful outside, and she must have been cold from the freezing wind. I nodded, got her some tea, and then spoke with her some more.
She wordlessly pulled on my sleeve. She was holding a black notebook. I smiled, said "thanks," and took it from her.
"Oh... How unusual, Stella. You wrote something instead of drawing this time."
With that, she turned around and went back to her room. It still wasn't easy to converse with her. I temporarily put the notebook in my jacket pocket.
The empty teacups still smelled sweet. I seem to recall she got mad about it being too sweet when I first gave it to her.
I thought back on the only words she wrote in her notebook.
|Everyone has the same eyes. I don't know why. But they're dead. All of them.
They've long been searching, but they can't find it.
...But Teacher, you understand, don't you?
...Fitting for her, it wasn't about herself, but a question directed at me. As she said, I knew better than anyone how things had gotten to be this way. But...
The teacups started to clatter. The World was starting to break down.
"...Only one World left," I mumbled to myself.
I'd been to four Worlds, but still hadn't found what I was looking for. If I couldn't find it in the last remaining world either... it was clear what I would have to do. A conclusion with far more hope for salvation than that worst possible outcome.
My vision became dizzy, and darkness swallowed me up. ...Before I knew it, I was reciting that charm to myself.
"Ahh, stupendous! All the keys have been returned. How irritating that his meddling ate up so much time."
The White Rabbit faced me with a mix of joy and irritation. I was unsure how to react, and he sighed loudly, then looked back at me.
"Now, what will you do? I imagine you're quite tired."
"...The dream. You said you'd tell me a way to wake up from this dream."
"Ah, I see. Yes, well, I'll spare us both the long explanation... and make it simple. There are two ways to link this World with that world. One of them, well... we'll say it isn't possible. The other is this."
The White Rabbit produced from his back pocket a key with a sharp point and a large handle. It seemed more like a knife than a key.
"...You must stab this key into the person you feel is most evil in this World. Doing so will turn them into a door leading to your world," he explained with a smile. So it really was for stabbing someone with?
"If you stay here too long, remember the Alices are in an unstable state. Left like that, they may soon turn to foam. I'll open all the doors. So then, sweet dreams. ...Ah, incidentally, I am not a person, so that would be meaningless."
...The denizens of this world must have been able to read minds, huh. I stowed away the key I'd been watching for the opportunity to use into my pants.
And I went to the place with the World doors.
"Yo! Pretty sturdy, this one. You're lookin' like a new record! Most kids fall to pieces the moment they interfere with people's hearts."
The Cheshire Cat appeared, hood fluttering, as if waiting for me. But unlike all the other times, I saw something humanlike inside that hood.
"Told you, didn't I? That I'd show you the goods in the hood. 'Course, I kinda just scrounged up some stuff. Left eye's from a boy harassed by sheep. Hair, a girl who lost the light. Ears, an black cat abandoned by their parents! Pretty sweet, don'tcha think?"
He pulled off the hood, and it did indeed have a human silhouette. But the sewn-on left eye and patched-together skin didn't feel human in the slightest.
"Mweeheeheehee! So, the rabbit tell ya how to connect the World with the world?"
"...To stab this key into whoever I think is most evil. But it has to be a person."
"Yeah, that's right! And we're demons. So y'know, I'm gonna tell you another way."
Cheshire held a black claw right in front of my eye.
"I'm talking a pact with a demon. ...I'll tell you the deets soon as you say the word. So you're wondering what to do next? Maybe I'll give ya some hints? What a guy I am."
He swayed his body, making his finger sway with it.
"One: I told you before I stole something from ya. It was only one thing. Exhausting to steal a bunch of stuff, you know. But I didn't think that alone would make you such a hollow shell! Rare in this day and age."
The Cheshire Cat's eyes narrowed, and he held up another claw in front of me.
"Two: When you stab that key, the target'll become a door. A door linking World and world. So they can't come back. It means leaving their soul behind! But I don't need the outsides, so maybe I'll give that back."
With a slimy voice, he put up yet another claw.
"Three: You said that this was a Dream. Since you said so, so it was. 'Cause what Alice thinks is everything. Yep, a Dream that really tormented you! ...Mweehee! So, if it's a Dream, someone must be Dreaming. Now whose Dream is it?"
I was startled by that statement. There was someone who made this dream...? A possible candidate came to mind. But I couldn't quite have conviction, as usual. There was a lot I still didn't understand.
"Now, what outcome are you gonna choose? I'm reeeally lookin' forward to it."
His creepy laughter echoing, the Cheshire Cat vanished from the spot. The most evil person in this dream. Would that be the one who created it? And also... my memories hadn't fully returned.
Sure, I had managed to remember the day of the incident. But other essential things still hadn't been returned to me. In this World... would I be able to see everything? I approached the final World door and put my hand on the knob.
I want to live. And so, I have to go. I took a deep breath. Hesitation meant nothing to me. We'd quickly return from this dream... all of us.
I turned the knob, and threw myself through the door.
|Everyone has the same eyes.|
|I don't know why.|
|But they're dead. All of them.|
|They've long been searching, but they can't find it.|
|But Teacher, you understand, don't you?|