Chapter 6: Recipient of XXXX
Through the door was, again, a place I knew. The same place where that cat lured me to open that first door - my room in the facility. For some reason, all the furniture that should have been there was gone, with only the closet placed in the middle of the room. ...It might as well have said "Open me."
After some indecision, I put my hand on the closet, just like that night.
...And then, I woke up.
I was in my room as it usually was, with not just a closet, but a desk, chair, and bed too. The closet door I thought I'd just opened was firmly shut. ...Was it just a dream?
I crawled out of bed and looked all around. A light blue notebook sat lonesomely on my desk. I walked over there, picked it up, and turned the pages.
|God made the world in six days. People forgot XXXX, and the world was scattered. Then God made the World in two hundred million days.|
I had never written anything in this notebook since receiving it. ...Was this someone's idea of a prank? It left me with doubts, but not finding anything else that gave me pause, I decided to leave the room.
Outside, too, it looked just like the facility we lived in. The halls that had only an absolute minimum of furniture, making them feel extremely spacious. Perhaps all of that had been a dream...?
"Oh? Hey, Allen. Whatcha up to there?"
I turned to the sudden voice nearby and saw Joshua and Letty standing there, smiling.
"Hey, Allen! It's cold, huh?" Letty rubbed her arms. "Do you think it'll snow this year? Last year, we all had a snowball fight! It'd be great to have you join us for another!"
"Man, that brings me back! But I don't like my hands gettin' all numb from the cold, so I'd rather play inside." Joshua kept sticking his hands in his sleeves, doing various movements to keep warm.
"...Do you know where Teacher is?", I suddenly asked as the two reminisced. They looked at each other and blinked.
"...Haven't seen him yet today. Probably went out somewhere, or fell asleep somewhere weird."
"Yeah, I haven't seen him either. Look around the facility, and you'll probably find him!"
"...Alright. Thanks, you two. Bye." I waved, and they returned to their rooms.
Teacher was probably in his room. Considering the Worlds I'd been to before, this must have been Teacher's World. Or if not... then it was mine.
But it struck me that unlike the previous Worlds, everyone in the facility was living normally. So was that a dream, and this reality...? Either way, I went down the hall to look for Teacher.
Outside Teacher's room, I encountered Chelsy and Stella, the latter wearing a dignified expression.
"Hello. Um... The weather's nice, huh? It's really cold, though." Chelsy breathed into her hands and rubbed them. Occasionally, white breaths reflected off her palms. "...Are you cold? Do you want to borrow a jacket?"
"...Wouldn't your jacket be awfully small for Allen?", Stella pointed out, and Chelsy yelped "Ah!" Watching her get flustered, Stella sighed.
"Hey, do you know where Teacher is?", I asked after the conversation ended. Chelsy's eyes widened and she shook her head slightly.
"Um... I wonder if he's in his room here? ...Do you know, Stella?"
Stella shook her head repeatedly as Chelsy looked to her. Neither seemed to know his whereabouts.
"...Alright, thanks. Bye."
Chelsy and Stella said goodbye and passed me by. I knocked on Teacher's door a few times, then opened it.
A figure was sitting in a chair in the corner, holding a cup of coffee. But it wasn't Teacher. It was Mr. Cliff, the one who Teacher called his friend, and occasionally visited the facility.
"Hey, if it isn't Allen." Mr. Cliff smiled at me kindly. His voice was lively. "What's the matter? He's not here, if that's why you're here."
"...The papers are... neat."
Seeing those papers usually messily pushed to the corner of the desk being actually neatly arranged was such a rare sight, those words tumbled out of my mouth. Mr. Cliff was surprised, then laughed heartily.
"Yeah, he doesn't clean up much, does he? He can clean the hallways, clean up meals, but when it comes to himself, you know what happens. Same as when he was in college."
Mr. Cliff put his coffee on the desk, took a breath, and stretched.
"Always been that way. Well, though I only knew him since college. He's so attentive to other people, but he's so slovenly about himself." He seemed really happy to talk about Teacher's past, which I knew nothing about.
"...You and Teacher get along really well, huh?"
"Ohh! You think so? Glad to hear it. I mean, we did fight just one time... He's a strange guy, but a good one."
"You fought?" I was extremely surprised by this past between them. It wasn't like I'd never seen Teacher angry, but I had a hard time picturing Teacher fighting with another person.
"Well, he'd been writing this book for a long time. I thought it was wonderful when he showed it to me. At the time, there was a newspaper publisher looking for stories, so I submitted it without telling him. It got an award, so I hurried to tell him about it, and he got really mad about me going and submitting it. ...I messed up, I know."
Looking a little pained, Mr. Cliff picked up his cup again and took a sip. The bitter smell wafted over to me.
"It actually got published, too. He told me that was fine, just not to use his name, so it's under a random pen name I thought up. Have you heard of it? It's called Nightmare, has a white cover. It's sold a lotta copies."
I did know that book. Sales had gradually risen since its publication, and even though it had been years now, that wasn't stopping - it had even returned to the limelight. I recalled it was a book about a dreaming illness.
"Yeah, there's an illness in the book similar to the Nightmare Syndrome that's come up lately. That's brought attention back to it again. ...Doubt he cares about that part, of course."
Nightmare Syndrome. Yes, I think even the newspaper my father was reading that day had an article on it.
"What kind of illness is it?"
"Hm? Oh yeah, you don't have a TV or newspapers here. Well, alright... One day, you just don't wake up, and instead fall into a deep sleep. There have been past cases, apparently, but there's been more people catching it than ever lately."
"...And not just in old people or anything?"
"No, it's not from old age at all. In fact, it's always been occurring in children. Doctors, researchers, psychologists are doing all they can to figure it out, but they haven't even found the first lead to an answer. ...Not being able to leave a dream sounds pretty happy to me, though."
Mr. Cliff looked into the distance. After staring into his empty coffee cup, he placed it down on the table.
"After we got past our fight over the book, he surprised me with a request to help him with the procedure of buying this building, since it was up for sale. Said he had plenty of money to live on from selling his research findings to companies, and he got royalties from the book too. Supposedly this used to be another kind of institution, but they moved after strange rumors spread around town, so I wondered how that was gonna pan out. Point is, I was really surprised he'd want to live here."
At that point, Mr. Cliff seemed to remember something, and smiled wryly.
"...He's always trying to make do all by himself. ...I mean, sure, there's plenty he's accomplished alone. He's an amazing guy. But sometimes I just wish he'd ask for help more."
"You should just say that to Teacher, then..."
Mr. Cliff smiled with a bit of a lonesome look.
"When you grow up, it gets harder to say how you feel. Especially for his type. So all I can do is try to support him in the shadows. ...Well, you're the ones who spend more time with him now. Won't you help him for me, Allen?"
He made a request of me while flipping through the orderly papers on the desk. After a pause, I replied clearly.
"I'll help. I'll help everyone, including Teacher."
Mr. Cliff looked me in the eyes and suddenly smiled.
"Please. ...He told me he was going to the library," he said, pointing to the ceiling. I thanked him, and left Teacher's room.
I went up to the second floor and opened the library door. Teacher was asleep on the sofa. His jacket covered him like a makeshift blanket. I quietly approached. I could hear him breathing, so he wasn't dead. Given the sickly pale color of the skin around his eyes and his skinny body, I was uneasy when I saw him with closed eyes. After watching him for a while, he seemed to notice me and slowly opened his eyes.
He looked at me, and spoke slowly, in a darker tone than usual. "...Hm? Ahh... Alice. If you want to play, let's do it tomorrow. I'm sure you're tired too, aren't you? ...Good night." Then he closed his eyes and began peacefully breathing again.
Looking around, I soon noticed something amiss. There was a closet in the back where there was normally a bookcase. So this was still only the entrance to a World? I softly touched the door. ...This would be the last one.
"I'll save them... for sure."
I checked my pocket to be sure the key was still there. I still didn't know what I'd do. But I'd decided what I'd do in worst case. I took another deep breath.
And I opened the door to the final World.
There was a somewhat nostalgic, comfortable smell. The warmth on my skin made me sleepy. But this was not the time to oversleep. I got up and stretched. The unfamiliar room, unlike the one I'd just been in at the facility, was dyed in sepia tones. A large number of beds were laid in rows.
I checked the door, and it wasn't locked. Relieved, I opened it. The smooth hallway had stone walls that made my rhythmical footsteps echo. The architecture gave me the impression of being an old, past building, not something from the present.
There were a number of doors along the walls of the hallway, and at the end of it was another door of a different shape. Would there be another hallway through here? I approached it and turned the knob, but this one was locked. ...Now what?
"...Huh? Hey, sister, there's a boy!"
"It's not like boys are a rare... Oh, I haven't seen a blond-haired boy here before."
"Wow, he's tiny! Look, he's a head smaller than me!"
"He looks sleepy. There's plenty of beds, you know. Maybe you should sleep in one?"
While I was stopped by the door, four figures came out of a different room from the one I was in. Figures, as in... they were literally only silhouettes. I could even faintly see through them. From their outlines, I could barely determine characteristics like pigtails and long hair.
"Um... Can this door not open?"
"Hm? Oh yes, it can. Who has the key, the second-oldest sister?"
"That's not right. She did before, but now it's the first-oldest."
The shadows swayed and muttered amongst themselves. I could identify their voices as female, but not being able to determine their expressions made me uneasy.
"We certainly could just give it to you now, but... I'm a little bored. Will you hear my request? If you do, I'll unlock the door to the next hall," a shadow with an outline of long hair told me, her hair swaying. I replied "I'll do what I can," and she pondered, giggling.
"Let's see... How about a ribbon? Yes, bring me a red ribbon, could you? I always leave it on the table, but I seem to have lost it."
"A red ribbon? I have one of those."
The shadow with pigtails rustled around near her waist and pulled out a long ribbon. But it blended together with the shadow, as I couldn't make out any color on it either.
"Ahh! So you took it again, did you? Sheesh. Give that back!"
"Fine, but not just for free. Let's see... Say, you there. I'm freezing right now. Could you get me something to warm myself up?"
Something warm... Of course, I wasn't even wearing a jacket myself, and I had nothing else to give. ...Now what?
"Well then, use my legwarmers. ...But it would be boring to just give these to you, too. How about you decide what I make him do?"
"Huh?! Why do you always push it on me 'cause I'm the youngest sister?! This is why I don't like you guys! Um... Ummm... Okay, uh, make an animal sound! How about a frog?"
The small shadow with pigtails and a cap complained, then made a request of me. I'd never tried imitating an animal before, and to have to do it in front of people...
I did the best frog I could on such short notice. The shadows' swaying came to a halt; they seemed to be staring right at me. ...This was pretty embarrassing.
"...My, well, I'll go with it too. Do a cow next."
"Me too! I'd like a cat!"
"Dog, then. Dog for me."
Once one had broken the ice, the other sisters made additional demands. But I couldn't just stand around here. Putting my shame aside, I responded to all of their requests.
"Ahh, that was fun. You don't seem very good at that. But you did your best, which is what counts. Now give him the key."
My throat kind of hurt after doing all those voices. The shadow sisters exchanged the respective things they needed, and finally, one of them opened the door with a click.
"Now you can go through. ...Come to think of it, where did that boy go? Isn't he always reading in a bedroom during the day?"
"Who knows? He's an elusive one. ...And well, you know what happened just the other day. He has a lot to think about, I'm sure."
Intrigued by the shadowy sisters' conversation, I stopped myself from going through the door.
"...What kind of boy are you talking about?"
The girls whispered to each other for a few seconds. Eventually, the pigtailed shadow began to speak.
"He's a boy with black hair and black eyes. He had a twin sister, but just recently, she fell asleep and wouldn't wake up. He cried a lot when that happened. He's always been a crybaby, but it felt like he cried a year's worth. His sister got taken to the hospital, and she's still sleeping there... But he's been acting kinda odd since then."
"Yes, that's also about the time he started writing that... story, I believe? He's always just writing, writing away at his desk. ...I suppose he has to escape into such things to face it, at his age."
The sisters got steadily quieter as they continued to whisper. Eventually, I couldn't hear them at all anymore, so deciding I couldn't get any more from them, I turned back to the door.
It was pretty cold in the other hallway. Rubbing my arms, I looked out the window next to me. The sky was cloudy, ready to rain at any moment. The trees below had lost all their leaves. It felt the same way as the end of summer. Before I came to the Worlds - that night I first opened my closet in the facility, it was autumn. So the flow of time in this World might have actually matched reality.
I turned away from the window to look down the hallway. Not too far ahead, I saw a figure. I approached, and thankfully, I could make out a clear shape and colors. I only saw his back, but he had black hair, wore a checkered knit vest, and didn't seem very tall. Once I got close enough, he noticed me and turned.
"...What? Are you lost?"
The boy was about my age, and his characteristics seemed to match the boy the sisters had mentioned. He smiled at me, and his smile seemed a little mature, considering.
"No, I'm just looking for something."
"I see. Well, so am I. ...I've searched all over, but I can't find it. Strange, when I've looked so hard for it..."
With a gloomy expression, the boy blinked. He had black eyes which seemed to stare into the distance. ...I felt like this wasn't out first meeting, and I wondered why.
"...Say, do you mind if I come with you?"
"If I search with someone else, maybe I'll find something different. ...So, please," he asked kindly, with a smile.
"Sure. Um... what's your name?"
"Ah..." He made a sour face and fell into thought. Eventually, he looked back at me and blinked.
"...Call me what you like. I hate my name. I won't give my name, so you don't have to give yours. ...Anyway, let's go."
He lightly pushed me on the back to hurry me forward, and it felt cold. I started walking as if to get away from it.
Once I began to walk, the boy got beside me and walked at my pace. On his waist was a keychain with several keys on it, and I noticed something hanging from a string around his neck. But whatever was at the end of it was inside his white shirt, so I couldn't identify it.
"...Curious about the keys? Well, I'm sure they're not the keys you're looking for. ...These are all the keys to my doors."
I looked up at him. "My doors," he said. Did he, unlike the other children, know about this World?
"...Is this your World?"
"That's right. ...This my second time coming to this dream. It's a little different from before. But... none of the important parts are any different," the boy said coldly.
...This was this boy's World. But the White Rabbit said that I was the sixth to come here. I'd thought that the five who came before me were Letty, Chelsy, Joshua, Stella, and Teacher. And I'd never met this boy before.
After walking a while, the boy pointed to a door and said "Let's go in here." I nodded, and he used one of the keys on the keychain to open the door. Inside, there were many bookcases packed with books. I looked toward the boy, but he seemed to be waiting for me to move.
...What a strange boy.
I took a random book and flipped through it. The cover read "About People."
"Are you interested in that kind of thing?", the boy asked in a slightly artificial voice. Not having a good answer for him, I just twisted my neck.
"It's impossible for anyone to know a person, unless you are them. ...The cat told me that."
"Yes. But when someone besides you first looks at you, a new "self" is born, isn't it? That's what I think."
Did he mean the Cheshire Cat? That did sound like something he'd say. But like the Cheshire Cat, the boy's musings were too complex for me.
"...It's tricky. I can't fully understand it. But I'm not bothered by not knowing. People have a bad habit of trying to know things they shouldn't."
While the boy ruminated, he pulled out another book from the shelf and turned through it. I put back the book I had and took out another one.
It seemed to be a novel. I'd never read it, or even seen it before. Glancing at the colophon, I noticed the publication date was about twenty years ago. Getting curious, I went and checked the other books. All the books were fairly old; the newest one was published eighteen years ago.
"...What year is it?"
The concept of time in the Worlds was an enigma, but I timidly asked the boy anyway.
"Who knows. There's a calendar over there."
The boy pointed to an old calendar on the wall. It showed the date in October, eighteen years ago.
"...How old are you?"
"Hm? ...Ah, I don't know. My teacher might know, having been the one who found us and all."
"Yes, Miss Leavis. A woman who works at this orphanage. We were abandoned near this place right after being born. Then she found us. ...Child neglect, we heard her say."
The boy flipped back through the dates on the calendar as if traveling back through his memories.
"...Maybe we should look for her. She might know something. I have other questions for her, too."
He nodded to himself and showed me the way. The two of us left the room. He stopped in front of the very next door and used a different key to open it. Inside was a person who was only a shadow, similar to the sisters.
"...Huh? Mr. Director, do you know where Miss Leavis is?"
"Ah, good day. She left just a moment ago. Perhaps she went home for the night as usual?"
"...I see. Thank you very much... I guess she isn't here. Hm, this is a little different from before."
The fact that the boy didn't expect this showed on his face, and he put a finger to his mouth and thought. Eventually he came to a conclusion, looked up, and sighed.
"For now, we'll just have to walk around. Let's go somewhere else."
The boy tapped my back, and went to walk down the halls again. Not wanting to be left behind, I went after him.
He used yet another key from his waist to open the room next to the shadowy person he called the "director." Was it okay for him to be opening these doors himself? I started to worry.
"It's fine. ...I'm doing this because I want to."
With that, he opened the door and went inside. I stopped in surprise that he had answered my question without me asking it. Those who I could remember having such a skill were both very untrustworthy sorts.
We looked around the room, which was again packed with various books. The boy repeatedly took out a book, flipped through it, put it back, got another... again and again, then suddenly clapped a book shut, gave up on it, and approached me. It seemed he hadn't found anything of note.
"...Huh? A key?"
I noticed something gleaming in the corner of my vision. A small key laid on the desk in the corner. As I reached for it, the boy grabbed my hand.
"Be careful. That lamp there is broken, and it's hard to see them, but there are shards scattered around it."
I only noticed once the boy warned me of them. Little sand-like grains reflected the light. The boy got a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, picked the key up with it, and after shaking it several times, put it back in his pocket.
"...Sorry. My hand is cold, isn't it? I'm sure it's because I don't know warmth."
He bit his lip sadly. Why was he taking responsibility for everything upon himself?
"...Its okay, it's not that cold. ...If I hold it, it'll get warmer."
I took the boy's hand, and he looked surprised and concerned. He blinked many times, then his eyes narrowed slightly.
"...You're so kind. Now... I realize. Only now. ...Much too late."
With his open hand,, the boy rubbed his eyes.
"Your hands are warm."
Afterward, we decided to go back to where I first met the boy and rest by the windows.
"It rains a lot around here. Everyone says they hate it, but I prefer rain."
"Since it hides my tears. When I was little, I cried in the corner among the sound of raindrops."
"...You cry a lot?"
"...I wanted XXXX. So I XXXXed. ...Because the cat told me to XXXX bad people. So I XXXXed them, a lot. But... it was no use. There were only good people around me. No... That's not it. It was surely no use because I didn't know how to XXXX. ...I wonder if she'd be mad at me, too."
Some of his words were obscured with static, so I couldn't hear them. He had a serious look, and his shoulders shook. Was XXXX that important?
"Who do you mean?"
"My big sister. When I cried, she'd always say a charm for me. But... she wouldn't wake up. Soon, she never woke up again. ...It's my fault. It's... my fault..."
The boy buried his face in his knees and stopped talking. I silently stroked his back. ...Come to think of it, that was what Teacher did for us when he was worried about us.
"...I wonder where Teacher is."
The boy shook with surprise. Then he wiped his eyes with his arm repeatedly, stood up, and silently held his hand to me.
"Let's go. ...We're almost there."
With that seemingly meaningful remark, the boy showed a mature-looking smile. I took his hand and got up, and he went to the solitary door along the wall. Unlocking it with the key he wrapped in the handkerchief, he opened it and invited me in.
Upon entering, a strong smell of medicine struck my nose. Silhouettes of various sizes were hastily running around and talking.
"...I see. So there's this, too," the boy nodded with understanding as he looked around.
"Let's head for the back without bumping into them. The desk I use is back there."
He pulled my hand. We nearly did crash into the shadows several times, but we somehow made it to the desk in the back corner. Lots of papers were strewn across the desk; it was impossible to tell what anything was.
"...It might be too complicated for you. It's mine, all of it. It's in the past now, but I did all kinds of research. I was praised and got awards, even. ...But I've given it up now."
"...You got bored?"
"No... I'm just doing something different. There's the fact I don't like crowded places... But maybe it was because my friend said that white coats don't suit me." The boy smiled as he flipped through and turned over the scattered papers.
"What are you doing now?"
"It's a secret. I decided not to tell people what I really want to do," he answered with a grieving look.
That was when the suspicions I had about this boy became clear. Why I felt like I'd met him before at our first meeting. Not to mention his behavior, tone, and the things he said. ...And his oddly mature smile.
I asked the boy, and he looked at me and faintly smiled. His marble-like black eyes reflected my face like mirrors.
He took me by the hand again, leading me to a door in the back of the room. The door didn't seem to be locked, opening easily.
It was dark and hard to see ahead. This way, the boy repeated, pulling me along. I watched my feet so I didn't trip, and we proceeded ahead.
The boy suddenly stopped. I looked back up toward him. A small door floated in the dark.
"This is where we part. Up ahead is my World. My... present self's World."
The boy took something out, and immediately after, the door clicked open.
"It's open. ...Why did it come to this? You're smart, so perhaps you know."
I couldn't be sure of his expression, but his low voice hurt my heart. ...Was he crying?
"If you know the answer, tell me... Allen."
The boy spoke my name, which hadn't been said once since entering this World.
I briefly spaced out, and once I snapped out of it, the boy had already vanished. ...Where did he go? I looked back at the small door.
"...Teacher," I whispered.
Teacher was up ahead. I had to get back. ...With all of them. Saying it to myself aloud, I was about to twist the doorknob when I felt a slight warmth on my palm.
A voice I'd heard before took away my senses. The energy left my body, and my vision went black.
My body was embraced with warmth. Did I know what this was...?
"...Will you stop spacing out?"
A blunt voice spoke from above. Someone poked me awake. In front of me was... not the boy from earlier, but a long-haired girl who greatly resembled him, looking at me sourly.
...Who? I stared at her dimly, and she lightly slapped my cheek.
"...Ow. Who are you?", I asked, stroking my cheek, and the girl seemed even more displeased.
"You don't know, huh? Give me a second." The girl cleared her throat and took a few deep breaths.
"...There was a white house on the corner of a street. In this house lived a mother, a father... and a boy who loved books."
The tone was the same as the voice I had heard repeatedly in the Worlds. A kind voice that warmed my heart. Indeed, it was her voice I'd heard many a time in my dreams.
"You've realized now? Good, good. ...You're such a crybaby, even in your dreams. You smell like tears. ...Exactly like him."
"...Why did you talk to me?"
"Hm? Well... Because you hadn't renounced anything yet. ...You're still trying hard to get it back. That's why I was nosy."
The girl approached and grabbed my hand. Her warmth tickled my palm.
"I'm a bit lost. And I can't see very well anymore. ...Would you guide me? Don't worry, you're able to see the way. Just go down that path."
The girl pointed in a direction with empty eyes. There was a straight brick road of reddish-brown. Holding her hand, I walked along it, careful that she didn't trip.
"The rabbit said that six people had come to this World. Er... Adding you, I guess it's actually seven."
"Fiona. ...I think that was my name. Yes, that sounds right. I have no soul anymore. Now... it's just like little teeny shards he's gathered together."
"...Do you mean our teacher?"
"Yes, the one you call Teacher. He's my brother, my only relative. He lets his hair grow so long, even though I'm sure he learned how to cut it a long time ago. Honestly, it's so wimpy and pathetic of him to not let go. He's not going to get anywhere dragging around all that weight! He's an idiot, he is. Stupid, stupid moron!! UGH!!!"
Fiona started rambling fiercely. In appearance, she resembled the young Teacher I'd seen earlier, but her personality didn't seem very similar at all. I continued forward as she spoke, and finally came to a door. It wasn't locked, so we went through.
As soon as the door was open, I smelled a pleasant aroma. The smell of paper and new books. It was a lot like the library I always went to. Though it was much smaller than any libraries I knew, and had fewer books.
"Ah, it smells like books. Hey, Crybaby. Do you see a stain on the right side of the back wall?"
...Was she calling me Crybaby? Feeling a little uneasy, I checked where she told me. Like Fiona said, there was a large stain on the wall that stood out. I told her about it.
"Then maybe this is that library we used to go to. It was a small one, but we loved it. ...But it was torn down ages ago. To think it would stick around like this."
Fiona let go of my hand and walked around by herself. Her walking was unsteady, so I tried to support her, but she groaned "I'm fine" and pushed me away.
"Please. I've come here a lot, you know. ...Could this be it? The story about dreams he wrote."
She took a white book out of the bookcase in front of her. It said "Nightmare" on the cover, with an unfamiliar name written underneath.
"He told me he'd come here before, to this dream."
"Dream? ...Hah, he would say that, wouldn't he. If it really were a dream, his heart wouldn't hurt so. Well... Maybe this place is more like what'd you call heaven or hell," she muttered, stroking the book's cover adoringly.
"...? But I'm not dead yet."
"Yes, so maybe it's a more in-between place than that. ...There must a simple reason why you've come here. Probably because you've lost XXXX."
...XXXX. The word was obscured with static again.
"The cat said he stole just one thing from me. ...Did he mean XXXX?"
"Cat? You mean the one with the smarmy laugh? ...Did you believe everything that cat said?", she asked rudely. "The words of a demon who treats people's sorrows as his feasts?"
Certainly I wouldn't believe everything out of his mouth. But there was nothing else here to rely on, so I had little choice. I reluctantly nodded.
"Hm. How could you believe something you've never seen or experienced? ...Maybe you can believe because you have no clue. Hah, how strange."
Fiona smiled with pity and put the white book back.
"Those demons don't have faces or names. That means they don't have responsibility, either. You must be awfully honest to trust them. ...Liars are everywhere. The world can hardly contain them all. And gullible people... also everywhere."
With a sad look, Fiona embraced my hands in her warmth again.
"But it's only the gullible ones who get hurt. Maybe God's just a sadist."
Her black eyes looked into the distance. But they weren't like Teacher's glass marbles. She, despite claiming to not have a soul, had much more human-like eyes.
"Just kidding. Ah, I love the smell of books. Never get tired of it."
I let go of Fiona's hand, and she stumbled around the room again. Though keeping my distance, I watched her carefully.
Fiona ran her finger horizontally along the books in another bookcase. She took out the thickest book and showed the cover to me.
"What does the cover say?", she asked, twisting her neck.
"Um... Name Encyclopedia?" I read the title, and she hummed curiously as she analyzed its thickness.
"And it's so thick. There are just that many names, are there...? Heehee. Apparently my name means "bright." My teacher gave it to me.
"Your teacher? Miss Leavis?"
"That's right. Our beautiful teacher, with long brown hair, who's a little scary when she's angry, but very kind. Though, before I fell asleep, she was saying that after she got married, she'd quit in a few years. She seemed to want to have a child, so we all celebrated. She looked very happy, telling us she hoped to have a girl, and how she wanted to name her Chelsy."
So Chelsy's mother was Fiona and Teacher's teacher... Meaning the sender of those letters I found in Chelsy's World was most likely our teacher. I hadn't expected there to be such a connection.
"Miss Leavis always put her all into coming up with names. She told us she really agonized over ours, too."
"...What's Teacher's... your brother's name?"
"...David. It means "recipient of XXXX.""
...XXXX. I tried to echo her words, but I just couldn't do away with the static.
"Yes, XXXX. But he said the name didn't suit him, because he was wasn't someone who was XXXXed. He hated to use that name. But... he knows XXXX. He was certainly XXXXed. By me, our teacher, the director, his new friend. And now, by all of you."
"Yes. But he didn't realize that it was XXXX."
"What... is XXXX?"
"...Oh? Why, XXXX is all around us. Look, there's XXXX here, and XXXX over there. Even talking to you now is a show of my XXXX for you, Crybaby. When you realize that, that's when you can have XXXX for yourself. ...And if you don't notice? Then it's no different from a pebble on the ground. Saying you don't know it is just an excuse."
After kindly explaining, Fiona walked over to another bookshelf and repeated her searching action. I wondered, what was she looking for? When I approached, she jumped, and her finger stopped.
"...Hey, what color is this?", she asked me seriously, taking a small notebook out of the bookcase.
"White. It's completely white."
With a curious look, she flipped the pages to show me. Absolutely nothing was written.
"Blank pages. They're all blank."
"So it's blank. ...It's always been blank ever since then," she remarked with disappointment. Her gloomy look was the spitting image of Teacher. I asked if she was okay.
"No, it's okay. I just wanted to check. There's a door there. It's unlocked, so... Let's go to the other side."
Fiona grabbed my hand and poked me in the shoulder. There was a door between the bookcases. I opened it.
It was eerily silent through the door, and there seemed to be only darkness up ahead. The faint warm wind and sound of gravel below my feet told me that we were outside.
Watching her carefully and making sure not to trip myself, I slowly headed forward. Our footsteps echoed in the quiet area.
After a while, we arrived at a large lake. There was a big swirl in the water, like someone had mixed white paint into it. There seemed to be no going any further.
"...Looks like we're here."
She stood beside me and looked into the lake. Her body was staggering, so I fidgeted with worry that she'd fall in.
"This is a sky of souls. This is where they're reborn. Both souls eaten by demons and souls that lose their power can be reborn. ...But I'm too weighed down to fly. So I can't."
"Yes," she replied, staring into the rippling water. "You know it's impossible to get a crumpled paper back to being creaseless. I'm sure even he's noticed that. But he depends on me, clings to me, and is hurt. And I've lost my soul, lost my sparkle. I can't guide him anymore. Even if I'm his sister."
Fiona closed her eyes with a self-deprecating smile.
"You... You should grow to be people who can break away. ...Renouncing facing oneself. Renouncing acknowledgment. Renouncing improving oneself. Renouncing attachment to life. And he renounced taking notice of anything around him. What you're about to see is the fate of a person who ends up that way."
"You haven't renounced anything yet. You haven't given up. You have to always look at the road ahead. There's no point in looking behind."
She turned to me and held my hand in hers. The warmth spread through my body.
"This is the end. ...My last light."
Warm sunlight. Mom's soft voice. Dad's big hands stroking me gently. Slightly burnt bacon with sunny-side up eggs. Newly-made friends in a new place. Teacher, who was at times unreliable, but always extremely concerned for us. The hands that held mine when I hurt. This... warmth.
A hole inside me was filled at once. My heart which had shrunk so much in this World couldn't hold it all, and it began to pour out my eyes. I stayed still, feeling that which filled me.
"...Oh, you're crying again. Hah, you really are a crybaby. There there, there there, there, there... It's okay."
Fiona held my hand tight and recited a charm. My heart was strangely eased as I listened to it. Her fingers wiped away the liquid pouring from my eyes.
"It's up to you to change the ending of the story. And now that you have it back, I'm sure you'll be fine. ...Good night, Crybaby."
I woke up collapsed in front of the door. I got up and looked around. The thing I'd gotten back seemed to be producing warmth near my heart.
I had to go. My body moved before I could think. I turned the knob and threw the door open. The room looked like a cramped storeroom.
My eyes stopped on a white-covered book stuck between thick books on a bookshelf. Pulling it out, the cover and back were both blank, with no title or anything. Flipping through, I saw dates and diary entries.
|I bought a house. Well, but it was formerly a facility. It's much too big for me; I can see myself getting lost easily. I'm indebted to Cliff once again. I should really thank him later.|
That was the first page. The next few pages were all idle thoughts, but starting at one of the pages, things took a turn.
|Today I met a girl. A few days ago, she was found near a house that burned down, and seems to be the daughter. She insists there's someone other than her. She seems to have another personality. So I gave her double the furniture and such. I wasn't sure what to do, but at any rate, I've finally found a research subject. She's now in my care. No symptoms at the moment.|
No symptoms at the moment, it said at the end. And it mentioned subjects for research.
|I met a second girl. I received a letter three days ago that had all the particulars. Perhaps because of what she's been through, she's much less cheery. She's reluctant to talk with me. She enjoyed talking with the other girl, albeit not for very long. It may be slow, but I'll try to get her talking with me. No symptoms at the moment.|
|The third. I met a boy. I was surprised, but given his mother, I decided to take him in. He talks plenty, but he's... illogical. He was a little awkward with the two girls, but they're playing together a few days later. Today he put about three frogs on my head. He's a bit too mischievous. No symptoms at the moment.|
|I met the fourth, a girl. She walked from the town deep in the woods. I talked with her, and she told me all the townspeople had been wiped out. So surely she did have a resistance to it? I'm a little interested, but it's unrelated to what I'm doing now. She doesn't want to talk about it much, either. It's hard to talk with her. She doesn't talk with the others, just playing piano in her room. No symptoms at the moment.|
It was all written very similarly. Between these pages were also detailed notes about behavior and physical changes in the children. But numerous pages were torn out, so I couldn't get the full picture.
|All the children have the potential to break out, but still no symptoms. But are there even symptoms? How did it go back then? I'm getting a headache. I'll stop for now.|
The letters on that page were squiggly like worms, but I managed to read them. Several pages after that were ripped out too, and the next page was dated nearly a year after the previous entry.
|I met a fifth child. He was outside when the incident happened. They say the shock caused memory loss. At a glance, I was surprised. It's just a hunch, but he must be on the verge. I'll watch him very carefully.|
...Was I the fifth child?
|Two seasons have passed since then. What have I been doing? I feel like my chest is burning. I see the scene in my mind again. This must mean... Yes. Very soon. It must be over soon. My head hurts. I'm sorry, Fiona.|
That was the last page. Half the pages had been crudely torn out. I had guessed it was Teacher's diary from the writing and content, but the "Fiona" at the end solidified it.
"Count your sins!"
Suddenly, laughter echoed behind me. I quickly turned to find the Cheshire Cat.
"Judgement! Guilty! Sentenced to bed! Sweet Dreams for life! Mweeheeheehee!"
As always, he ridiculed me with a grating voice. Once I took notice of him, he spread his jagged smile all the way.
"Thought I'd come talk 'bout that pact business I mentioned before."
"...No thanks. I don't want anything to do with you. Now move it."
"No need to be in such a rush! The flow of time in this World's agonizingly slow, y'know. And hey, just between you and me, this deal might be beneficial for ya."
The Cheshire Cat tried to stop me from simply passing him by. He really didn't want to let me through. I got more and more irritated. Maybe it would be faster to listen to him than stare him down.
"You got it! I can't hate you smart brats. I told you before, yeah? Let's go through the ways to link the World with the world. One of them's to use that key you're holding and make a soul into a door. ...After you talked with 'im, and knew not everybody could go back, you really were thinking of stabbin' yourself for the others, weren'tcha?"
I was startled to hear him see through me and say it out loud. ...I was the one who opened the door to this World, after all. It was surely all my fault, for having created this dream and making it all end up this way. So the most evil person... was me.
"So what if I told you everyone could go back? ...What'd you do?"
...Everyone could go back to our world?
"Yep! There's another way to link the worlds. A pact with a demon. We demons eat souls to live. Even from a dog or a frog - doesn't matter, a soul's a soul. But people taste best, and they're the most filling. ...Especially souls broken by despair and agony."
"So then, me and everyone else..."
"Kids don't know much stuff. If you know what to take, it's easy to break 'em. ...'Course, I didn't lay a finger on the black-haired one. Just happened to come across her. Adults are no good, though. They're too hard 'cause of all that dirty knowledge."
They were tormenting me just so I would be a better meal for them? And the others, too. ...My irritation changed into anger. This guy was a demon, all right.
"That's why we mainly dine by luring kids into this World. Though... this time, it was him who made this Dream, this World. Thought he would've known better since he'd come here before. But I guess he didn't change one bit! Don'tcha think that's hilarious?"
I glared at the Cheshire Cat wondering how to use this anger, but the statement that "he" made the dream caught my attention.
"...Teacher made this Dream? Not me?"
"Yeah, that's right. You guys were on the right track, but not agonized enough to open the door just yet. He's the one who linked to the World this time 'round!"
The Cat put a hand to his mouth and snickered. Watching him dumbfounded, I felt the temperature dropping in my head.
"What? You eat cows and birds' souls to live longer. Couple of differences, but people and demons aren't different at all at their roots. Same as you, we gotta eat or we die. Only thing is, there's a way for us to keep living without having to eat."
Cheshire held a black claw up in front of me.
"And that's a pact with a demon. In layman's terms, your soul and mine get mixed. Demons can go to worlds and Worlds alike. So that's a good reason to wanna have a body, too. I could possess peeps without any pacting, but my time'd be limited and all that jazz."
...Mix our souls? He was asking me to merge souls with him?
"Exactly right. Since you're empty, I can completely take over your body... You don't get a chance this good every day! You'll get the power to go between Worlds for yourself. Won't even have to start eating souls or nothin'. Up to you whether you wanna believe me. Think about it, alright? Call whenever you wanna pact! I'll smell ya!"
Cheshire turned and became part of the darkness. His eerie laughter reverberated many times off the walls of the small room. I stood there, processing it. How much could I believe?
More importantly, I needed to see Teacher as soon as possible. I shook my head to clear the mess building up in it. Then I approached the last door at the back of the storeroom and turned the knob.
As I opened the door, I smelled the same smell of books as when I was with Fiona. There was a bit of dustiness mixed in, and it was dark inside. I didn't initially notice among the darkness, but there was a figure in the back of the room.
Before approaching it, I tightly grabbed the key to our world hidden in my pocket in my hands. The key touched a metal part on my suspenders, making a small clinking sound.
The shadow turned around and approached, and I backed away. As I expected, it was Teacher.
"If you're here, then... No, the cat can't be trusted. ...You really are proficient at breaking promises. It's quite troubling."
Finally, he got close enough for me to see his face. His skin was more pale than usual, and his eyes were jet black.
"...The dreaming illness. Did you lock us up there to research that illness?"
Teacher looked concerned by my blunt question. But he soon returned to neutral.
"Yes, that's right. Nightmare Syndrome... As an avid reader, I'm sure you've heard of it at least once. The cause is said to be unknown, but I believe it emerges in children who lose something, plunging their hearts into darkness."
Teacher crept toward me as he spoke. He seemed significantly different from our usual kind Teacher.
"On the surface, I took in hurt children with nowhere to go, helped them, and let them live with me. ...But secretly, I observed and studied them as children who might acquire the sickness. That is what I was hiding from you there."
"Teacher, do you... not care about us?"
"...Correct," he answered after a pause. "My goal is to research this illness and destroy this dream. ...You were only..."
He fell silent. His gaze dropped to my waist, and his eyes narrowed.
"...Is that a World key in your hands? Would you give that to me?"
Teacher extended a hand to me, smiling coldly. I brought the World key out from behind my back... and thrust it toward myself.
A few drops of red liquid fell off my hand. But the sharp blade wasn't pierced into my body; it had stopped in midair. Teacher was firmly holding the edge of the key. The drops coming out of his hand ran along the blade toward mine, dripping off it there.
"...You're a liar too, Teacher," I said to him as he looked on with worry. I knew my face was turning pale.
"You should've been able to come here right away. ...My mom and dad are dead. If you'd told me that, maybe it would make a door to the World just like yours. But Teacher... you always said everything was fine. You cared about me, about us. You let us push you around. Isn't that... isn't even what you just did completely contrary to what you say your goal is?"
Everything Teacher had done for us was undoubtedly for us. I just wouldn't believe that was all a lie.
Teacher didn't speak. I went on slowly, sure that he could hear me.
"What that made me feel... was love."
Teacher's eyes widened at the word I spoke. As he seemed to recall something, he scratched his head.
"...No. I mean, I don't know how to love. It was my lack of love that made me open this door back when I was young. ...After I lost someone precious to me here, it became all I could think about. And so, still without love, I linked us to this World once again." Teacher bit his lip.
"...Fiona told me. You do have love. But if you don't notice it's love, it's no more than a pebble."
"Fiona...?" Teacher stared at me childishly, his mouth agape. A completely different expression from the boy I met.
I let go of the blade in my hand, and Teacher gradually let go too, until finally, it slipped away and clattered to the ground.
I held Teacher's bloodstained hand in my hands. Though it was big enough that it wouldn't quite fit.
"This is... definitely my love for you, Mr. David."
I smiled. Teacher's body stiffened, and he blinked repeatedly. His lips quivered, but finally, his usual soft smile came out.
"...How many years has it been since I was called that name? Though it feels so different from how it did then. ...Hahah... I'm really not very smart, am I. It was so close all this time."
Teacher squeezed my hands back. I felt a slight warmth.
"...Your hands are warm."
He quietly lowered his ruffled head. Not letting go of his hand, I kneeled down to get on level with Teacher. Just then, I saw a clear drop fall from his cheek.
"I'll give you this."
Teacher untied the string around his neck. He handed the swaying golden locket to me.
"What you told me you wanted... I couldn't give to you then."
I took the locket in my hands. In that brief instant, Teacher quickly reached in another direction.
...The world key!
I reached out as I realized his intent, but it was too late. He grabbed the world key in one hand and forcefully plunged it into his gut. Deep, deep in. His white shirt was stained red, and the same color poured out of his mouth.
"...I'm the one who made this World. So I have to end it. I hid too much of my weakness. Before I knew it, I was drowning in more than I could manage."
He took his hand off his stomach and leaned on the back wall.
"As you said, I couldn't take the last step. ...Soon enough, my door opened. I intended to come alone. And I asked that cat not to open the doors of anyone but me. But instead, the rest of you were taken in, making a much larger World."
Teacher slouched over and coughed intensely. He scowled at the liquid scattered on his hand.
"Don't worry. I am an adult, allegedly. They won't eat me. ...I researched long, but I guess it was all for naught. I just left you with many bad memories. ...Don't be like me, Allen."
He looked up, and with a small smile, brushed my cheek.
A slight bit of warmth had come back to his hand. His eyes, losing all their light, began to close.
"Don't cry, now. There, there, there, there, there there... It's okay. ...My friend's phone number is in that locket too. Call him once you get back, would you? You shouldn't even have to say a word. And, please... forget about me."
He smiled again at me saying his name.
"Then no one will have to come here again. ...I should have known better. I... just didn't want to forget."
Teacher's eyes shut all the way, and the energy left his body. He fell toward me, and I managed to hold his body.
The darkness around us took the shape of many arms, surrounding Teacher. I tried pulling away the shadowy appendages, but my hands passed through like it was air; I couldn't stop him from going into the darkness.
Soon, even his hand on my cheek was sucked inside.
"Good night, Allen. ...I'm sorry."
Teacher gave me one last smile full of warmth.
...Deep in my ears, there were many metallic sounds overlapping each other. My body felt weightless, like I was thrown into zero-gravity. My eyelids were heavy, and felt sewn shut; I couldn't open them. The same sensation as when my soul was taken to this World.
My soul was being pulled back to my own world.
Soon, my senses were completely swallowed up.
|Bad people should be XXXXed. Then everyone will be happy.|
|That's what the cat said. Why would XXXXing them do that?|
|And did the cat really say it? I don't even know that for sure.|
|Just XXXX them. Ah, I'm sleepy. Good night.|
|Bugs flew all around me. I walked along the ground.|
|A chair talked. I was surprised. A cat watched and laughed like a fool.|
|But I don't know which of us is strange.|
|Is it me? Or is it this World?|
|Oh, I just don't know. ...I don't know anything.|
|The ant told me that the frog is bad.|
|The frog told me that the cat is bad.|
|The cat told me, no, the rabbit is the worst of them all.|
|So I XXXXed them.|
|When I came to, it was my usual world.|
|She's... still sleeping today.|
|I XXXXed lots of people. But I was never XXXXed.|
|Why is that? Ah, do I have to XXXX more?|
|But there's no bad people left. There's only good people around me.|
|The cat says to only XXXX bad people.|
|Which is right? I don't know. I don't know a thing.|
|I just keep trying to XXXX people so I can be XXXXed.|
|Why wasn't I XXXXed?|
|I thought I could XXXX then, but I simply wasn't able to do it.|
|Because I didn't know how to XXXX.|
|What will I do now? I've lost everything.|
|I have nothing. Oh, I'm so sleepy.|
|Someone, please... XXXX me.|
Final Chapter: Good Morning
When I woke up, I was in my room in the facility, completely unchanged from the norm.
My pajamas were soaked with sweat and clung to my skin. I felt like I'd had a very long nightmare. I lifted my hazy head and touched my forehead. I thought I felt something sticky like blood, but when I took my hand away in surprise, I saw nothing there.
...Was it really a dream?
I timidly approached the closet and swung the door open. But my soul was not sucked in; I just saw my clothes hanging inside. I heard no rabbit or cat. It was a normal, unremarkable dresser.
Relieved, I changed out of my pajamas. I checked the clock. It was past twelve. Was it afternoon, or midnight?
The hallway outside was very bright. The air felt a little warm. It looked like noon to me.
...What about the other children?
Suddenly worried, I knocked on Letty's door beside mine and opened up. Letty was sleepily sitting on bed in frilly pajamas.
"Oh... Allen? I had a really, really scary dream. ...It was really sad, and painful. Are you okay, Allen? You look sad..."
Surprised, I touched my cheeks. Indeed, it did ache a little around my eyes. Even though I thought I'd only cried in a dream...
"...Yeah, I'm fine. You don't look so good, so maybe you should rest some more. It's only noon."
After expressing some concern for Letty, I left the room. I checked on Chelsy, Joshua, and Stella, but they were similarly sleepy and dazed. Then... Teacher.
I went to Teacher's room and knocked. I didn't hear the voice I always did. I knocked harder to the same result. As I twisted the knob, my heartbeat got louder. A prickling pain strangled my chest.
I forced my heavy body to open the door. Teacher was asleep in bed. It felt like a rare occasion to see him asleep in his own bed. Maybe that was the first thought to come to mind because I didn't want to face the reality.
"...Teacher?", I called as I approached. But he showed no reaction. His face was pale, and he gave a more sickly impression than usual. Getting uneasy, I put my hand on his chest. It slowly moved up and down.
...He was alive.
I called for him again, but he didn't respond. I held his hand sticking out of the sheets in my little hands.
"...Good night, Teacher."
I let go. I found myself searching my pocket, and noticed something hard and thin in my usually-empty pockets. I pulled it out - the golden locket Teacher always wore. Teacher had given it to me in that World. So those were real occurrences, not a dream.
Holding the locket, I suppressed my welling feelings. Remembering everything, my chest tightened, and I had trouble breathing. Pushing through it, I opened the locket to find a photo and a note.
The photo showed a boy and a girl with similar faces. ...The young Teacher I met in that World, and his sister Fiona. The note had a phone number and the name "Cliff," as Teacher had said.
I rubbed my eyes with my worn-out arms and steadied my breathing. There there, there there, there, there... I repeated in my mind.
...I had to call him. Teacher told me to.
I remembered there was a phone in the entrance hall. I left Teacher's side to leave the room.
Finding the phone, I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. An artificial sound echoed. Good, it was connected.
I carefully dialed the number while looking at the note so I wouldn't get it wrong. After a few dial tones, a familiar voice came through.
"...Yes? Hello? Huh, it's not often you're the one calling me. If you're calling to ask for help cleaning or something, that's gonna be a no."
Mr. Cliff responded in his usual cheerful voice. He seemed to think Teacher was calling.
"...Is that Allen I hear?" Once I spoke, his bright tone lowered drastically.
"Ah, I see..." Mr. Cliff understood the situation. "You don't need to say anything. He's told me what would happen for it to come to this."
After a short pause, he continued in a pained voice I'd never heard from Mr. Cliff before. "Get your things packed. And tell the other children to. ...I'd appreciate if you could do his, too. It'll take me a while to get there, so please. ...Give me some time to think, okay?"
I said nothing more except "Okay," then gently hung up.
Once the receiver was placed back, I lost all energy and collapsed on the spot. An abnormal powerlessness ate at my body.
What should we do now? What would happen?
I had decided what I wanted to do. But...
"...Keep what you really want a secret."
I put my hand on the wall and stood up. I had to pack. So I walked back to my room.
Warm sunlight came in through the windows. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and peaceful chirping tickled my ears.
A long time had passed. Joshua and Chelsy had recuperated and returned home to their families. They seemed to be on good terms with their parents again.
Letty, Stella, and I were staying at Mr. Cliff's house. He was at times at a loss with our peculiarities, but he was helping us go to school. I was working hard to repay him as soon as I could. I'd recently gotten a part-time job.
"Hey, Allen, what're you doing?"
While I was deep in thought, a young man with long silver hair lept up onto my shoulders. It caught me off-guard; there was no way I could hold him.
"Stop it, Joshua. You've gotten stronger lately, so that really hurts."
"Yeah? I bet you'd get a little stronger if you played basketball, Allen! You're always either reading or folding paper planes, that's why you're so scrawny."
Joshua grabbed my arm and swung it. Shaking his hand off, I sighed.
"Oh, Allen, Joshua. I haven't seen you for a while."
A woman with brown braids in a distinctive red and white outfit came running from the end of the white hallway. But she nearly tripped on the way, and a friendly-faced woman with white hair and reddish-purple highlights managed to stop her.
"No need to rush, Chelsy, they're not going anywhere! Oh, Allen, Joshua, good morning! ...Huh? I mean, it's already noon, so... Good day?"
Letty pondered as she lifted Chelsy up. Behind them, an eye-catching woman with long black hair approached with a dumbfounded look.
"...This is a hospital. You should be quiet," Stella scolded. The two looked at each other wryly.
"Well, let's go," I said to the others, then slid open the nearby door.
Teacher was taken to this hospital where he and I first met. He was still sleeping, still breathing. His peaceful expression hadn't changed all this time.
"Teacher, I brought one again today."
Joshua took a little paper plane out of the dark red backpack he was wearing, and put it on Teacher's blanket. Letty, Chelsy, and Stella all took out their own and did the same, piling them higher.
"In a practice game the other day, I nailed a throw in a real bad situation, and everybody went wild! It was super embarrassing when I tripped and twisted my ankle after that, though."
"...You used to be the one who made us fall over. Surprising us with frogs, and worms..."
"Oh, er... s-sorry about that, Chelsy. Heck, that squishy feeling's so weird, even I don't wanna touch 'em anymore!"
Joshua shivered with disgust, but had his usual mischievous smile. Chelsy next to him had a gentle smile, too.
"Teacher, mom's... gotten a lot better," she said, grabbing and letting go of the sleeves on her one-piece. Her faintly red cheeks hadn't changed since she was young. "Maybe it's because dad started taking more days off to help look after her. She says when she's fully recovered, she wants to be a teacher again. ...I want to be a teacher myself someday, like you and mom."
"Letty, Stella, you got anything?", Joshua asked, putting his hands behind his head. "Better say it soon, who knows when you'll get to visit again."
Letty twisted her neck and thought, then her face lit up and she spoke with glittering eyes. "...Oh! The other day, I went with Chelsy and Stella to a newly-opened sweets shop and had cake! It had fluffy cream, and bittersweet strawberries, and it was really good!"
Lately, the girls had been going out periodically to eat or go shopping.
"Huh? You went there? Nice! It's not easy for a guy to go there alone. Next time, can you take me along? ...I wanna have some recommendations for when Teacher wakes up."
Stella acknowledged Joshua's request. Just like that, the room was silent. Joshua suddenly looked back at me with realization.
"Allen, what've you been up to? Report in!"
"Um... I like that TV series they show on Thursday nights, so the other day, I bought the book it's based on. And then the book next to it had a really pretty cover, so I bought that one too. Then I also bought a book I'd wanted before, but was sold out at the time, and..."
"Agh, enough! Enough! No more about anything printed! It's seriously always books with you, Allen! You're gonna turn into a real live bookworm someday!"
"...And you've been talking about nothing but that basketball club of yours, Joshua. Maybe someday you'll turn into a ball?", I joked. We looked at each other and laughed.
We met at Teacher's hospital room occasionally when our schedules aligned, bringing letters to Teacher in the form of paper planes.
We knew they wouldn't be delivered to him there or anything, that it was just for consolation. But just getting those who lived in that facility to meet face to face blew away plenty of my hesitation and pain.
"...Oh yeah, the desk is getting full of paper planes now. We can't throw them away... So what should we do?"
"I'll sort them out. I don't have any real plans today, and sometimes they get put in roughly..."
"Really? ...Thanks, Allen. I'm worried about mom and dad, too..."
Chelsy smiled at me, her cheeks getting a little redder. For some reason, Joshua was fidgeting behind her. Everyone said some parting words to Teacher, got their bags, and left the room. Stella, who left last, suddenly stopped on her way out and turned to me.
"Allen. ...You've really come to resemble Teacher."
"...You think so? What's this all of a sudden?"
"...No. I won't say anything. You decided it, after all."
Stella's clean black hair swayed as she left the room. Her all-knowing remarks would always give me chills.
Once everyone was gone, I sat on a nearby stool.
"...Spring has come again. I like it. It's nice and warm."
I naturally wasn't expecting a reply, but I spoke to Teacher regardless.
"Letty's the same as ever. Always eager to play. I've stopped seeing Rick anymore. It's a little sad, but... I'm sure it's for the best. Chelsy seems to have reconciled with her dad. She's very good at cooking. And she's slowly starting to talk to people, even people she doesn't know. ...Oh yeah, Joshua told me he found someone he likes. That surprised me. He joined a basketball club, and I feel like he's gotten even more mischievous since. Studying's still not his forte, like always. Stella's always looking weary of our antics, but she seems to enjoy this life well enough. ...Mr. Cliff and the others are all very nice people."
After that, I took a breath, and steadied my wavering determination. It had been eight years. I kept it secret from the others, even consulting the research Teacher left. But surely, it seemed, an ordinary person couldn't do anything when it came to the Worlds. As such, this was the answer I'd come to.
"...There's no way we could forget. Mr. David, you're the only one we could call our Teacher. If it weren't you... There'd be no point."
...There was a lot I still wanted him to teach me. And I hadn't given him back what he gave me. I cast my eyes down and bit my lip.
"We'll save you. We absolutely will. There's honestly a very low chance of success. Everything may not go well. But I'm sure this is best."
I slowly stood up, and spoke without turning around.
"...You've been watching, haven't you?"
There was the sound of running water. My heartbeat felt faster than usual.
The emptiness and sense of loss, like trying to catch a cloud - I no longer felt it. I had regained everything. Thus, only one means remained to connect back to that World.
...I wouldn't regret it. A normal person wouldn't be able to do anything. So then...
I took a deep breath and looked at the person in front of me.
Taller than I was then, slightly longer blond hair. And... gold eyes.
Certainly, this person in the mirror was me. I twisted the knob to stop the faucet, and the sound stopped with a squeak.
There there, there there, there, there... It's okay.
I recited that charm to myself. I left the bathroom and hurried back to Teacher's hospital room.
When I opened the door, Teacher, who had lied sleeping for eight years, now had his eyes open wide, staring at his palms, feeling his body.
Seeing Teacher moving after so long brought me all kinds of emotions. But these temporarily stopped deep in my chest, and I just smiled as I spoke.
Teacher looked startled, and turned his pale face to me.
"...Good morning, Teacher."
Why did his eyes look so sad?
People sure are funny, huh.
Tell 'em not to do something, and they do it without hesitation. Doin' whatever it takes to do what they think is "right." Regardless of how much you can't believe anything another guy says, they got no problem clinging to the fuzziest little thing. They think their selfish acts'll make people happy.
"I'll give you my soul, as long as you return Teacher's soul here once the door is open."
For somebody who said he had nothin', you've got a student with a lotta respect for his Teach.
I wonder what kind of story you'll be showin' me now?
I'll even lend you a hand. You better not bore me, now.
I'm △ (mi) ○ (wa) □ (shi) × (ba) - Miwashiba. I'm writing that out here so that no mysteries remain. In this novelization, I struggled with the publisher to clear up all of the game's mysteries, but whether I actually cleared them all up? That is the mystery, even for me.
When I was in middle school, I saw Let's Plays of free games on a certain video site and thought, I want to make one of these too!, which was the birth of the original Alice mare. But I was unfamiliar with the software at the time and gave up.
A few years later, however, I wanted to tackle game creation again, so I went fishing through my old files, adding things until it was completed. It was played by far more people than I expected, and I'm seriously surprised it got to the point of this novelization.
My dream for the future is to be an artist!, I've boasted since childhood, but I couldn't have had the faintest inkling that I'd be writing a novel someday. To be honest, it isn't my first time producing a novel, but that's a past I'd rather not discuss, so let's just put that aside. Instead, I think I'll discuss an influence in the creation of the original game.
I think it was when I was ten. My beloved great-grandmother passed away, and for the first time I felt the great loneliness and fear that comes with someone close to you dying. That night, I sobbed and folded countless paper cranes, when my grandfather came along and kindly asked, "Why are you folding cranes?"
I replied, "I'm folding lots of them so they can carry great-grandma back home!" Grandpa stroked my face and told me, "You don't fold cranes to carry great-grandma home, you fold them to carry her up to heaven."
After my grandfather said those words to me, as well as "See 'em off with a smile, or they won't go to heaven," I became able to see the people dear to me off with a smile. My grandfather has also passed away now, and my grandma sometimes speaks of him with sad looks.
How old they'd be if they were still alive, how you wish you'd been more like this to them... In Japanese, we have the proverb "counting the years of dead children" to mean "crying over spilt milk." Because indeed, we can't interfere with the dead or the past.
Regret for the dead just weighs both parties down, someone told me years later: the living can't move forward, and the dead can't go to the afterlife. That's been burned into my brain ever since. My grandmother counts grandfather's age on her fingers ever year, and it worries me every time.
This is a story of people trapped by regret too, so to speak. But I'm certain I'll never make another story so dark. Most importantly, I can't even get myself excited. I like a happy ending.
Lastly, to the publisher, the designer, the people who played the game, and the people whose first experience with it is this book, you have my thanks. I'm indebted to so many of you for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you very much!
- △○□× (Miwashiba)