Pain, Pain, Go Away
by Sugaru Miaki
by Sugaru Miaki
Chapter 1: A First Goodbye
Kiriko and I became penpals when I was 12 years old, in the fall.
A mere six months from graduation, I had to leave the elementary school I'd been attending because of my father's job.
That change of schools turned out to be the opportunity that made Kiriko and I get together.
My last day of school was at the end of October. I would be leaving town that same night.
It should have been an important day. But I had only two friends that I could really call friends, and one of them was too sick to attend, while the other was out on a family vacation.
So I was left to spend the day alone.
At the send-off party four days earlier, I'd gotten a bouquet of withering flowers with messages that all read the same way. And every time a classmate saw me, they gave me a look as if to say "Huh? You're still here?"
The classroom became an unbearable place to stay. I knew that I already didn't belong here.
Not a soul lamented that I was changing schools. That fact was a lonely one, but it also encouraged me.
I wouldn't be losing anything from this. In fact, it would provide me with new experiences and people to meet.
I'll fare better at my next school, I thought. If I turn out to change schools again, at least two or three people should be torn up about it next time.
My last class came to an end. After putting my papers away in my desk, feeling like a boy left behind in a lonely classroom on Valentine's Day, I went pointlessly rummaging through my backpack.
I wasn't mature enough to not get my hopes up that someone had left me some kind parting remarks.
Just as I was giving up on having any fond memories of this final day, I noticed there was someone standing in front of me.
She wore a blue pleated skirt and had skinny legs. I looked up, trying to conceal my nervousness.
It wasn't Sachi Aoyama, who'd secretly had my fancy since third grade. It wasn't Saya Mochizuki, who tilted her head and smiled at me whenever we met in the library.
Looking altogether too serious, it was Kiriko Hizumi, asking "Do you want to go home together?"
Kiriko was a memorable girl, with hair cut to the exact length to hang above her eyebrows.
She was shy, only ever talking in a whispery voice, wearing an awkward smile she looked ashamed to be having. Her grades were average, too, so she really didn't catch anyone's eye.
It was a total mystery why she, who had almost never held a conversation worth calling a conversation with me, came to talk to me today. I was secretly disappointed that it hadn't been Sachi Aoyama or Saya Mochizuki.
But I had no reason to refuse her, either. "Sure, I guess," I told her, and she smiled. "Thanks," she replied, head still lowered.
Kiriko didn't say a word the entire trip home. She walked at my side looking incredibly nervous, and occasionally shot glances at me as if she had something to say.
I didn't know what we could possibly talk about, either. What's someone who'll be out of here tomorrow supposed to say to someone who's hardly even an acquaintance? Not to mention, I'd never walked home together with a girl my age before.
With much bashfulness between the both of us, we arrived at my house still having not said a single thing to each other.
I shyly waved at Kiriko and turned to grab the doorknob. Then at last, she seemed to muster some resolve and grabbed my hand. "Wait."
Thrown off by the touch of her cold fingers, I asked with excessive bluntness, "What?"
"Um, Mizuho, I have a request. Will you listen?"
I scratched the back of my neck, as I'm wont to do when I'm uneasy. "I mean, I'll listen, but... I'm changing schools tomorrow. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yes. Actually, that's why it's only you who can do it."
Staring bullets at my hand as she gripped it, she went on.
"I'll write you letters, and I want you to reply to them. And then, um, I'll reply back to those replies."
I thought about what she was saying. "You mean, you want us to be penpals?"
"Y-Yeah. That's the word," Kiriko confirmed bashfully.
"Why me, though? It'd probably be more fun to do with someone you're closer to."
"Well, you can't send a letter to someone who lives nearby, right? That's boring. I've always wanted to send letters to someone far away."
"But I've never written a letter in my life."
"Then we're even. Good luck to us both," she said, shaking my hand up and down.
"Hey, hold on, you can't ask me this out of the blue..."
In the end, though, I accepted Kiriko's request. Having never written a letter worth calling a letter outside of New Year's cards, the old-fashioned idea seemed fresh and interesting to me.
And getting such an earnest request from a girl my age got me so excited that I wasn't about to turn her down.
She sighed with satisfaction. "I'm glad. I wasn't sure what I'd do if you refused."
After handing her a note with my new address, she smiled, said "Wait for my first letter," and ran home with a speedy trot.
Didn't even say goodbye. Clearly, her interest was in the letters I'd write, not the flesh-and-blood me.
As soon as I'd transferred to my new school, her letter came right away.
"More than anything, I think we should know more about each other," she wrote. "So first, let's introduce ourselves."
It was a bizarre thing - separated ex-classmates only now introducing themselves. But it wasn't as if there was anything else to write about, so I went along with the suggestion.
After some time being penpals with Kiriko, I made a discovery.
We'd never properly spoken before I changed schools, but going off what she wrote in her letters, Kiriko Hizumi seemed to have strikingly similar values to my own.
"Why do I have to study?" "Why is it wrong to kill people?" "What is "talent"?"
Early in our teaching, we both enjoyed rethinking everything from the basics like that in an attempt to give adults pause.
We also had an embarrassingly serious discussion about "love," which went as follows.
"Mizuho, what do you think about this "love" thing? My friends talk about it from time to time, but I still don't really understand what it means."
"I don't understand either. In Christianity, the single word "love" can mean four different kinds of love, and there are multiple loves in one in other religions as well, so it seems hopeless to even try. For example, what my mom feels for Ry Cooder is definitely love, but what dad feels for Alden cordovans is also love, and there's a kind of love in me sending letters to you, Kiriko. It's a really diverse thing."
"Thank you for that casual remark that made me very happy. What you said made me realize that maybe the love I'm talking about and the love my friends are talking about have different definitions entirely. Maybe I should be wary of those girls talking so lightly of it. What I'm talking about is a more emotional, romantic love. That "thing" often seen in movies and books, but which I've never seen in reality, an entirely different thing from familial or sexual love."
"I'm still dubious about the actual existence of that "thing," myself. But if the "love" you speak of doesn't exist, then someone must have come up with it, which is a stunning thought. For many ages, love has been the cause of many beautiful paintings, songs, and stories. If it's only made-up, "love" may be humanity's greatest invention, or perhaps the world's kindest lie."
In everything we talked about, our opinions were as close as if we were long-lost twins. Kiriko described that miracle as "like a class reunion of souls."
That description really stuck with me. A class reunion of souls.
At the same time my relationship with Kiriko was deepening, I was finding myself unable to get used to my new elementary school.
And when I graduated from there and moved on to middle school, then began a truly lonely existence.
Not a single person to talk to in class, only minimal conversations in clubs, and naturally no one to talk about personal things with. Relatively speaking, I actually had it better before I changed schools.
For Kiriko, though, everything seemed to take a turn for the better once she entered middle school, and her letters proved again and again that she was living very happily.
She told me how she'd made countless wonderful friends. How she'd stay late every day with her club friends talking about something or another. How she was chosen for the culture festival executive committee and could go into normally inaccessible rooms at the school. How she'd sneak onto the roof with her classmates and have lunch, then get scolded by the teachers. Etcetera.
I felt it would be awkward to respond to these letters with plain descriptions of my miserable circumstances. I didn't want to cause her any worry, and I would've hated to be thought of as weak.
Maybe if I had opened up to her with my problems, she would have been kind and listened. But I didn't really want that. I insisted on looking good in front of Kiriko.
So I wrote lies instead. My letters told of a fictional life of mine, so perfect and fulfilling so as not to be bested by hers.
Initially, it was no more than a bluff, but it gradually became my greatest joy. I suppose I had a love of acting that only needed awakening.
Leaving out anything that sounded too implausible, I wrote about the best school life I could muster without it deviating from the reality of being Mizuho Yugami. A second life created only for these letters.
When I was writing letters to Kiriko, that was when I could become my ideal.
In spring and summer and fall and winter, on sunny and cloudy and rainy and snowy days, I would write letters and deposit them in the mailbox on the corner of the street.
When a letter from Kiriko arrived, I would prudently cut open the envelope, bring it close to my face, lie down in bed, and relish the words while sipping coffee.
A terrifying situation came up five years after we became penpals, the autumn when I was 17.
"I want to talk face to face," Kiriko wrote.
"Some things, I just can't bring myself to say in letters. I want us to look each other in the eyes and hear each other talk."
This letter troubled me. Of course, I'd had the same desire to meet in person cross my mind. I would have loved to see how she'd changed in five years.
But it was obvious that if such a thing were to happen, everything I'd written in my letters would be exposed as lies. Gentle Kiriko wouldn't condemn me for it, surely. But I was sure it would disappoint her.
I schemed to somehow become that fictional Mizuho Yugami for just a day, but even if I could briefly solidify all those lies, I knew I wouldn't be able to hide my gloomy eyes and actions affected by years of loneliness, nor my lack of confidence.
I regretted, all too late, not having just lived a decent life all along.
In trying to think of a clever excuse to turn her down, weeks passed, and then a month.
One day, I supposed that it was best to just let our relationship fade away like this. Telling her the truth would forever end the comfortable relationship we had, and it was painful to keep sending letters while fearing my lies would be seen through.
As it happened, it was approaching exam cram season. So I resolved to give up on our relationship of five years, so quickly that it even surprised me.
If she was going to hate me either way, it seemed better to terminate things myself.
The month after the letter asking to meet in person came, another letter from Kiriko arrived. It was the first time I'd broken the tacit agreement that we would reply within five days of receiving a letter. She must have been worried by my lack of response.
But I didn't even open that letter. As expected, another one came a month after that, and I ignored it too. It pained me, certainly, but it was the only thing I could do.
The week after I gave up on our correspondence, I made a friend. Maybe I'd grown too reliant upon Kiriko and it got in the way of forming normal relationships, I thought.
Time passed, and I got out of my habit of checking the mail for her letters.
And that was how my relationship with Kiriko ended.
It was my friend's death that led me to write to Kiriko again.
In the summer of my fourth year, Haruhiko Shindo, who I'd spent most of my time at college with, committed suicide.
I secluded myself in my apartment. I knew I was missing important credits that term and would have to repeat a year, but I didn't care. It didn't even feel like my business.
I felt little sadness for his death itself. There had been many signs.
Ever since I met him, Shindo had longed for death. He smoked three packs a day, took straight swigs of whiskey, and went out on his motorcycle night after night.
He'd watch New Hollywood films and repeatedly play back the all-too-quick deaths of the protagonists, sighing as if in a trance.
So when I was told of his death, I more or less thought "good for him." He was finally where he wanted to be. There wasn't a shred of regret in me to the tune of "I should've been nicer," or "I couldn't see that he was suffering."
Shindo, too, probably never thought of talking with me about his problems. No doubt, all he wanted was to have some ordinary days full of laughs, and then vanish from them just like that.
The problem, then, was that I was still here. Shindo not being there was a serious blow to me.
For better or worse, he was propping me up. He was lazier, more desperate, more pessimistic than me, and similarly lacking in life goals, so having him there was a pretty big relief. I could look at him and go, "If a guy like that can live, I've gotta live too."
His death pulled away an important foundation out from under me. I gained a vague dread for the outside world, becoming only able to go out from 2 to 4 AM.
If I forced myself to leave, my heart would start pounding, and I'd get dizzy and hyperventilate. At its worst, my limbs and face would go numb and cramp up.
Holed up in my room with the curtains closed, I'd drink and watch the movies Shindo adored. When I wasn't doing that, I slept.
I longed for the days when I'd ride tandem with Shindo and we'd drive around. We did all kinds of stupid stuff. Pump coin after coin into games late at night in an arcade smelling of nicotine, go to the beach at night and come back home having done nothing at all, spend all day skipping stones on the river, ride around town blowing bubbles from the motorcycle...
But thinking about it, it was those silly times we spent together that deepened our friendship. Had it been a healthier relationship, his death probably wouldn't have brought me this much loneliness.
If only he'd gotten me involved, I thought. If Shindo'd invited me, I'd gladly dive into a ravine with him, laughing.
Maybe he knew that, and that's why he died without saying a word to me.
The cicadas died off, the trees turned red; autumn came. It was the end of October.
And I suddenly recalled a rather forgettable conversation I'd had with Shindo.
It was a clear July afternoon. We were in a humid room, drinking and rambling to one another.
There was a mountain of cigarette butts in the ashtray that looked like it'd collapse with a single touch, so I placed empty cans beside it, neatly-aligned like bowling pins.
Our ears were hurting from the buzzing of cicadas perched on the telephone pole near the window. Shindo grabbed one of the cans, went out on the veranda, and threw it at the cicadas.
It completely missed its mark and fell onto the road with a clatter. Shindo cursed. As he went back to pick up a second can, the cicadas flew off as if to ridicule him.
"Oh yeah," Shindo said, standing there with the can in hand. "Shouldn't you know if they accepted your application by now?"
"Wish you would've gotten curious before they told me anything," I implied.
"That's a relief," Shindo sighed, having not gotten any job offers either. "Applied anywhere else since then?"
"Nope. I'm not doing anything. My job hunting's gone on summer vacation."
"Vacation? Sounds good. I think mine's taking one too."
There was a high-school baseball game on TV. The players, four or five years younger than us, were being showered in cheers. Bottom of the seventh inning, and still no points for either team.
"This is a weird question," I began, "but when you were a kid, Shindo, what did you want to be?"
"High school teacher. Told you that a bunch of times."
"Oh yeah, I guess you did."
"Now, though? Me shooting to be a teacher seems as implausible as a one-armed guy shooting to be a pianist."
Shindo spoke the truth; he definitely didn't look like someone suited to be a teacher. Don't ask me what kind of occupation he would be suited for, though.
I guess he was already a teacher in the sense that he teaches people how you don't want to end up, but as of now, "bad example" isn't a valid job position.
"There could be a one-armed pianist, though," I supposed.
"Eh, maybe. So what did you wanna be?"
"I didn't want to be anything."
"Liar," he accused, prodding my shoulder. "Grown-ups will make kids think they have dreams, at least."
"It's true, though."
Cheers came from the TV. The game was finally getting somewhere. The ball hit the fence, and the outfielder was desperate to get it. The second base runner had already made it to third, and the shortstop gave up on throwing to home plate.
"We have a point!", a commentator exclaimed.
"Hey, weren't you on the baseball team in middle school? Pretty well-known in the area for your pitching?", Shindo asked. "Heard about it from a middle school friend. A southpaw by the name of Yugami, only a second-year, but he could throw one hell of a precise pitch..."
"Guess that's me. Yeah, I was pretty good at controlling my pitches. But I quit the team fall of that year."
"Got an injury or something?"
"No, it's kind of a weird story... Summer of my second year, the day we won the semifinals at the prefecture prelims, I was basically a hero. I don't mean to brag, but it was like I carried the team to victory all by myself in that game. It was really rare for our school's team to make it that far, so the whole school was cheering us on. Everyone I came across praised me."
"Can't imagine that at all, lookin' at you now," Shindo said doubtfully.
"Yeah." I smiled bitterly. I couldn't blame him for that. Even I was incredulous every time I thought back on it.
"Despite not having many friends at school and hardly standing out, that day made me a hero. It felt incredible. Except... That night, when I lied down in bed and thought about it, I felt this intense shame."
"Yeah. I was ashamed of myself. I was like, what do I think I'm getting so happy about?"
"There's nothin' wrong with that, though. Of course you'd be happy after that."
"I guess." He was right, there wasn't a single reason not to be elated then. I should've just embraced it. But something deep in my mind crawled up and denied it. My mood instantly sank, like a overfilled balloon popping.
"Anyway, as soon as that happened, the whole thing started to seem ridiculous to me. And I thought, I don't want to embarrass myself any more. So two days later, the day of the finals, I got on the early morning train and went to a movie theater, of all things. And I watched four movies in a row. I remember the air conditioning made me so cold, I was rubbing my arm the whole time."
Shindo laughed heartily. "Are you a moron or what?"
"A huge moron. But even if I could go back in time and have that chance again, I think I'd do the same thing. Naturally, the team ended up losing by a huge margin. The staff, the supervisor, my classmates, my teachers, my parents, they were all furious. They treated me like I'd murdered somebody. When they asked me why I didn't come to the finals, and I said I'd just gotten the date wrong, that only added fuel to the fire. On the first day of summer vacation, all these people dragged me away and beat me up. Broke my nose, so it's shaped a little different now."
"You reap what you sow," Shindo noted.
"No doubt," I agreed.
The game on TV had wrapped up. It ended with the last batter doing a clumsy grounder to second.
Both teams got together and shook hands, but the losing team - probably instructed to do so by their supervisor - put on fake, creepy smiles the whole time. Talk about abnormal.
"I've always been a kid who didn't want anything," I said. "Never felt like doing that, or wanting this. It's hard for me to get heated up and easy for me to cool down, so I could never keep anything going. My wishes for Tanabata were always just blank strips. We didn't do Christmas presents at my house, but I wasn't dissatisfied with that. In fact, I sort of felt bad for other kids who had to decide what they wanted every year. When I got New Year's money, I had my mom hold onto it, and had her use it to pay for the piano lessons I took. Oh, and I only took those piano lessons so I could spend less time at home."
Shindo turned off the TV, plugged in the CD player, and pressed play. The CD was Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," one of his favorites.
Once the first track had finished, he remarked, "Sounds like you were never a "kid" at all. Gross, man."
"But I felt like that was normal at the time," I explained. "Grown-ups will scold selfish kids, but they won't scold a kid who's not selfish at all, so it took me a while to realize it was weird... Maybe that's the same wall I'm up against now. Even job recruiters can tell, I bet. That I don't really want to work, in fact, I don't even want money, and even being happy isn't a thing I'm too interested in..."
Shindo was silent for a while. Guess I said something stupid, huh.
As I was thinking of something else to say to change the subject, he spoke.
"But you enjoyed writing letters, didn't you?"
"...Letters? Yeah, there was a time I did that." I never for a moment forgot about it, but I spoke as if I'd only just remembered again.
Shindo was the only one who knew not only that I'd been penpals with Kiriko, but also that I'd told nothing but lies in my letters to her. I happened to let it slip at a beer festival last year, while drunk and annoyed by the sunlight.
"Yeah, I guess I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy that."
"What was the name of the girl you were talking with, again?"
"Right, Kiriko Hizumi. The one you totally cut contact with. Poor girl, still bravely sending letters even after you decided to ignore her."
Shindo chewed off a piece of beef jerky and downed some beer. Then he continued.
"Hey, Mizuho. You oughta meet Kiriko Hizumi."
I snorted, thinking he was joking. But his eyes were the definition of serious, convinced he'd come up with the most brilliant idea of his life.
"Go meet Kiriko, huh," I sarcastically repeated. "And then apologize for what I did five years ago? Say "forgive this poor liar"?"
Shindo shook his head. "Not what I'm trying to say. It doesn't matter if what you wrote is lies or not. 'Cause that, uh... "mingling of souls" you mentioned, it's not just anyone you can pull something like that off with. You and this girl could be pretty damn compatible, so have some confidence. I mean, just look at your names, it's like fate. Yugami and Hizumi, they both mean "distortion.""
"Either way, it's way too late."
"I wouldn't say that. What I think, if it's someone who really gets you, a five-year, ten-year blank isn't a problem at all. You can pick things up again like it was only yesterday. I'm just saying, it couldn't hurt to give it a try, if only to see if Kiriko Hizumi's that kind of person for you. Could even help with your not-wanting-anything problem."
I don't remember how I replied to that. But I'm sure it was a vague answer that cut the conversation short.
I'll go meet Kiriko, I decided. I wanted to honor Shindo's suggestion, and I was lonely after losing my best and only friend.
Most importantly, I was pushed forward by the harsh realization that the people you care about won't live forever for you.
Working up all my courage, I went outside and drove to my parents' house. I took out the rectangular cookie tin from the closet in my room, and sorted the letters from Kiriko within on the floor by date.
But as much as I looked for them, I couldn't find those last letters that I'd never opened. I wondered where I could've put them.
Taking in the nostalgic smell of my room, I reread the letters one at a time. There were one hundred and two spanning five years, and I went from the last letter backwards.
By the time I finished reading the very first letter she'd sent, the sun had set.
I bought envelopes and stationery, returned to my apartment, and wrote a letter. My hands could write her address from memory.
There was a lot I wanted to tell her, but feeling it would be best to say it in person, I made the letter brief.
"I'm sorry about breaking contact five years ago. I've been hiding things from you. If you're willing to forgive me, then come to ___ Park on October 26th. It's the children's park on the way to my elementary school. I'll be waiting there all day."
With only those few sentences, I put the letter in the mailbox.
I had no expectations. And I intended to keep it that way.
Chapter 2: A Common Tragedy
Kiriko never showed up at the park.
Checking my watch to confirm that twenty-four hours had indeed gone by, I lifted myself up from the bench.
Waiting here any longer would be pointless. So I left behind the bench with peeling paint, the swings without seats, the rusted jungle gym - the playground that had so completely changed since a decade ago.
My body was chilled to the core. Even having an umbrella up, it was only natural after spending an entire day in this late October rain.
My mod coat was waterlogged and cold, my jeans clung to my legs, and my newly-bought shoes were covered in mud.
At least I'd taken the car, I thought. If I'd gone with my initial plan of taking buses and trains, I'd have to wait until morning for the train.
I quickly escaped into the safety of the car, threw off my wet coat, started the engine and turned on the heater. The ventilator spewed out moldy-smelling hot air, and twenty minutes later, the car was finally warm.
Right about as I stopped shivering, I started craving a drink. A good strong drink with lots of alcohol, perfect for drowning my sorrows.
I stopped by the late-night supermarket and bought a small bottle of whiskey and some mixed nuts.
As I waited in line at the register to pay, a woman in her late twenties with no makeup cut in front of me. Slightly afterward, a man who appeared to be her boyfriend came in.
Both of them looked like they'd just gotten out of bed, kept their pajamas on, and threw on sandals, yet I smelled perfume that seemed recently-applied.
I thought about complaining at them for cutting in line, but nothing came out of my mouth. "Coward," I silently scolded myself.
Sitting in my parked car in the corner of the lot, I leisurely had my whiskey. The hot candy-colored liquid scorched down my throat, putting a gentle fog around my senses.
The crackling golden oldies on the radio comforted me, as did the sound of raindrops beating on the roof. The lights in the parking lot shimmered through the rain.
But the music always ends, the bottle empties, the lights go out. As I turned off the radio and shut my eyes, I was hit with intense loneliness.
I wanted to get back to my apartment and thoughtlessly sleep with my blanket pulled over my head, right now, and not a moment sooner.
The darkness, silence, and solitude which I generally preferred, at this particular moment, ate into me instead.
Though I was determined not to get my hopes up from the start, it seemed I had been more hopeful to have a reunion with Kiriko than I even realized. My intoxicated brain was being more honest about recognizing my true feelings than usual.
Yes, I'd been wounded. I was deeply disappointed that Kiriko hadn't shown up at the park.
She must not have needed me anymore.
I'd have been better off not making this invitation in the first place. There was no changing that both at 17 and at 22, I was a lying loser with countless shortcomings.
In fact, I should have just gone to meet her when she actually wanted us to meet in person. What a waste I'd made of that chance.
I'd intended to sleep until the alcohol was out of my system, but I changed my mind.
I drove out of the parking lot, foot hard against the accelerator, making my old, second-hand car shriek in pain.
I was driving drunk. I knew it was against the law, but the pouring rain numbed me. I felt like in a storm like this, you couldn't hold a few wrongful acts against someone.
The rain gradually let up. To keep away the drowsiness from the alcohol, I upped the speed. 60 kilometers per hour, 70, 80. I would crash into deep puddles with a great sound, then speed up again.
On rural roads, in this awful weather, at this time of night, surely there was no need to worry about other cars or pedestrians.
It was a long straightaway. Tall streetlamps made long chains along both sides.
I took a cigarette from my pocket, lit it with the cigarette lighter, and took three puffs before tossing it out the window.
That was when my drowsiness hit its peak.
I don't think I was out for more than a second or two. But the moment I came back to my senses, it was too late. My car was veering into the opposite lane, and the headlights illuminated a figure mere meters ahead.
In a brief moment, I thought many things. Among them were lots of meaningless memories from my childhood that I'd long forgotten.
The watery-blue paper balloons my kindergarten teacher straight out of junior college made us, a crow I saw on the veranda when I had a cold and took the day off school, a gloomy stationery shop we stopped by on the way home from visiting my mother in the hospital, etcetera.
It was probably something like my life flashing before my eyes. I was searching through twenty-two years of memories trying to find some useful knowledge or experience to help avoid this impending crisis.
The brakes screeched shrilly. But it was unquestionably too little, too late. I gave up on it all and closed my eyes tight.
Except, there was no thump.
A few seconds passed that felt like an eternity. I stopped the car and looked around fearfully, but saw no one fallen to the road, at least not within range of the headlights.
I turned on my hazard lights and got out, first going around to the front of the car. Not a scratch or dent. If I had run someone over, there would definitely be some trace of it.
I looked around again, under the car too, but there wasn't any corpse. My heart was beating like mad.
I stood there in the rain. The beeping telling me that my door was still open echoed through the darkness
"Did I make it in time?", I asked myself aloud.
Had I swerved out of the way just in time? Had they swiftly avoided me? And then, did they just run away?
Maybe it had all been an illusion, from my intoxication and fatigue.
At any rate, did it mean I had made it out of the situation without running someone over?
A voice came from behind me.
I turned around and saw a girl. From her gray blazer and tartan-check skirt, she looked like a student on her way home.
She seemed more or less 17, so she was almost two heads shorter than me. And she had no umbrella, so she was soaked, her hair clinging to her face.
Odd as it may sound, I think I fell for that long-haired girl standing in the rain, lit by the headlights.
She was a beautiful girl. It was a kind of beauty that wasn't marred by rain and mud - rather, such things drew more attention to it.
Before I could ask what she meant by "You didn't," the girl pulled off the school bag hanging from her shoulder, held it in both hands, and hurled it at my face.
The bag landed a direct hit on my nose, and a flash of light filled my vision. I lost balance and tumbled to the ground, landing face-up in a puddle. The water quickly seeped into my coat.
"You were too slow. I died," the girl spat, straddling over me and shaking me by the collar. "What have you done to me? How could this happen?"
As I began to open my mouth, the girl's hand flew out and slapped my cheek, then a second time, and a third. I felt the back of my nose plugging up with blood. But I had no right to complain about what she was doing.
Because I'd killed her.
Granted, my victim was quite heartily beating the stuffing out of me still, but no doubt, I'd run her over going over 80 kilometers an hour.
At that speed? At that distance? No braking, no swerving could have prevented the inevitable.
The girl balled up her fist and struck me repeatedly in the face and chest. I felt little pain while being beaten up, but the impact of bone against bone unsettled me.
She seemed to get exhausted, coughed fiercely and tried to catch her breath, and finally stopped.
The rain continued to pour as always.
"Hey, can you explain what happened here?", I asked. The inside of my mouth had been cut, and it tasted like licking iron. "I ran you over and killed you. That seems pretty undeniable. So, why are you unhurt and moving around? Why isn't there a scratch on the car?"
Rather than answer, the girl stood up and kicked me in the flank. Actually, maybe it would be better to say she stomped me with the weight of her whole body.
That was effective; a pain shot through me like my organs had been stabbed with a stake. I felt all the air leave my lungs.
For a while, I couldn't breathe. If I'd had a little more in my stomach, I'd probably have vomited. Seeing me curl up feebly and hack in anguish, the girl seemed satisfied to an extent and stopped with the violence.
I stayed down on the ground, face-up toward the rain until the pain cleared. When I raised myself to stand up, the girl extended a hand to me. Unsure of her intent, I stared at it blankly.
"Do you want to lie down there forever? Stand up already," she insisted. "I'll have you take me home. You'd better at least do that for me, murderer."
"...Right. Of course." I took her hand.
The rain started pouring hard again. It made a sound like hundreds of birds pecking on the roof.
The girl sat in the passenger's seat and threw her wet blazer onto the back seat, then fumbled to turn on the light.
"Are you listening? Take a look at this." She thrust her palm in front of my face.
Shortly after doing so, a light-purple wound appeared on her pretty palm. It looked like a cut made with something sharp that had healed into a scar over the years. I couldn't see it being something she suffered from the accident earlier.
I must have looked sufficiently dumbfounded, so she explained. "I got this cut five years ago. ...You figure out the rest. You more or less know the explanation now, don't you?"
"No I don't. Actually, I'm just more confused. What's going on here?"
She sighed in annoyance. "In short, I can change events that happen to me so that they never happened."
I tried to give her words some thought, but found I didn't understand anything about it.
"Can you make it a little simpler for me? Is that a metaphor?"
"No. Just interpret it exactly the way it sounds. I can change events that happen to me so that they never happened."
I scratched my neck. Interpreting it exactly as it sounded just made it impossible to understand.
"I can't blame you if you don't believe me. Even I haven't figured out why I can do it yet."
She slowly ran her index finger over the cut on her palm. "To repeat - I got this cut five years ago. But I nullified the fact that I was cut. And now, for the sake of this explanation, I put it back to normal."
She "nullified" the fact it happened?
It was a story much too distanced from reality. I'd never heard of anyone who could undo events that happened to them. It was clearly beyond human ability.
But I found myself faced with a situation that couldn't be explained any other way. Her being here proved it.
Logically, I should have run her over, yet she was spared it. And she made a wound she hadn't had before suddenly appear out of nowhere.
It sounded like magic from a fairy tale, but I had to believe it until some other acceptable explanation presented itself.
For the time being, I accepted the theory. She was a wizard. She could make things that happened to her "not happen."
"So you mean, you also undid the accident I caused?"
"That's right. If you don't believe that, I can show you another example..." She rolled up the sleeve of her blouse.
"No, I believe it," I told her. "It's pretty... pretty unreal, but I'm seeing it before my eyes. But if you undid the accident, why do I seem to remember running you over? Why didn't I just keep driving along?"
Her shoulders sagged. "I don't know. It's not something I do entirely consciously. I want someone to tell me just as much."
"And one more thing. You probably say it that way for convenience, but strictly speaking, you can't really undo everything, right? Otherwise I can't think of an explanation for your anger earlier."
"...Yes, you're right," she confirmed, sounding discouraged. "My ability is only something temporary. After a fixed time, the thing that I undid will go back to happening again. So all I can do, in essence, is "postpone" events that I don't want to happen."
Postponing... That explained it. Her anger made perfect sense now. She hadn't avoided death, she just stored it away, and would eventually have to accept it.
From the other things she said, I supposed she could at least postpone events for five years. She seemed to see through my thoughts and interrupted.
"Just so you know, I could only postpone the cut on my palm by five years because it was a light, non-threatening wound. How long it can be prolonged depends on the strength of my desire and the size of the event. A stronger desire extends the time, and a bigger event shortens it."
"So then how long can you postpone tonight's accident?"
"...Going off intuition, I'm guessing ten days at the most."
Once that time had passed, she would die, and I would be a murderer.
It didn't feel real to me. For one thing, the victim of my crime was here talking to me at this moment, and I couldn't let go of the faint hope that this was all a bad dream.
I'd had tens, hundreds of dreams like this where my mistakes had caused irreparable harm to others, so I wondered if that could be all this was.
For the time being, I apologized.
"I'm sorry. I really don't know how to make it up to you..."
"Fine by me. Apologizing won't bring me back, nor will it absolve your crime," she shot at me. "For now, just take me back home."
"And please drive safely. I won't stand for you running over someone else."
I drove carefully, as she instructed. The sound of the engine, usually ignored, seemed unusually loud in my ears. The taste of blood in my mouth never leaving, I swallowed my spit repeatedly.
She told me she became aware of her strange power when she was eight.
On the way home from piano lessons, she found the corpse of a cat. It was a gray one she knew well, that wandered around the local area.
It was thought to have been someone's pet, as it was unusually friendly and would come circle around your legs if you beckoned to it. It wouldn't run away when pet, and wouldn't hiss. It was something of a friend to the girl.
The cat died in a terrible way. The blood on the asphalt was blackened, but the blood that had seemingly splattered on the guardrail was bright red.
The girl wasn't brave enough to pick it up and bury it; she looked away from the corpse and hurried back home. As she did, she heard a music box, playing "My Wild Irish Rose."
Since then, she started to hear that same song again and again. When her "postponement" succeeded, she would hear it start up in her head. And by the time the mental performance ended, whatever it was that hurt her would have been "undone."
After doing her homework and eating her wrapped dinner, she thought, "I wonder if that cat was really the one I knew?"
Of course, subconsciously, she knew that there was no mistaking it. But her surface consciousness wouldn't accept it.
The girl put on sandals and snuck out of the house. When she arrived at the place she'd seen the corpse in the day, she found no corpse, and not even a bloodstain.
Had someone already come and picked it up? Was someone unable to bear it, so they moved the corpse? But no, something seemed off. It was like there had been no corpse or blood to begin with.
She stood there befuddled. I couldn't be in the wrong place, right?
A few days later, she saw the gray cat. So it was all just a misunderstanding, she told herself, stroking its belly. The cat walked over as always when she beckoned.
As she reached to stroke the cat's head, she felt a burning pain on the back of her hand. She quickly retracted it and found a scratch on it about the length of her pinky.
She felt betrayed.
About a week passed, and the cut didn't heal - rather, it began to swell red. She felt nauseous and had a high fever, having to call in sick to school.
Maybe that cat was diseased, she thought. She forgot the name, but maybe it had that sickness one in ten cats have, and she got infected when it scratched her.
The fever refused to recede. Her body felt heavy, and her joints and lymph nodes hurt badly.
I wish that gray cat being run over and killed hadn't just been me misunderstanding. It didn't take long for her to start thinking that. If only that cat hadn't been alive, I wouldn't have to go through this.
When she next woke up, her fever was completely gone. She didn't hurt or feel nauseous; she was the picture of health.
"I think my fever's gone," she informed her mother, who tilted her head and asked, "Did you have a fever?"
What are you talking about?, the girl thought. She'd been bedridden by it for days. Yesterday, and the day before that...
But as she went back through her memories, she noticed that separate memories existed alongside those days she had been bedridden.
In those memories, she had gone to school yesterday, and the day before, and every day without fail for the past month. And she could remember everything: the lessons she had, the books she read at lunch, and all her meals.
At once, she was filled with deep confusion. Yesterday, I slept in bed all day. Yesterday, I had math class, and Japanese class, and arts and crafts, and PE, and social studies. Her memories contradicted one another.
Thinking to look at her hand, she saw the wound was gone - and she didn't feel as if it had healed. It had completely vanished from where it should have been. No, she thought, it was never there.
The cat that died was the cat I knew. That cat wouldn't scratch people.
The girl became convinced, without any reason, that she was responsible for temporarily keeping alive the cat that should have died.
Because I wished for it, because I desperately didn't want that gray cat to be dead, I temporarily "undid" the event of the cat being run over.
But when that cat scratched me and made me sick, I wished for it to be dead instead. So the first wish lost effect, and the accident went back to "happening," so I was never scratched.
This interpretation the girl made was exceedingly correct. To test her theory, she returned to where she found the cat's corpse the next day.
As predicted, the bloodstains were back; so the accident had happened. It was only temporarily made to not.
Thereafter, whenever bad things happened, the girl would make them not happen, one by one. Her life was absolutely full of things she wanted not to have happened. That's why she figured she was given this ability.
All of this was something she told me some time afterward.
While we waited at a red light, the girl spoke, gazing out the passenger-side window.
"You know, it smells weird in here."
"I didn't notice before because of the rain... But have you been drinking?"
"Oh. Yeah," I carelessly answered.
"Drunk driving?", she asked incredulously and defeatedly. "So, what? You know how many people die from it and you just think you'll be fine?"
I had no reply. I certainly must have known the risks of drunk driving, but the dim idea I had of those risks was getting pulled over for it, or crashing into something and hurting myself.
When it came to things that resulted in people dying, I thought of bank robberies or bus hijackings, things that I felt had nothing to do with me.
"Turn left here," the girl instructed.
We got onto a mountain road with no lights. I looked at the speedometer and saw I wasn't even going 30 kilometers an hour.
As I was about to press hard on the accelerator, my leg stiffened. Though I found it odd, I still increased speed, and found my hands getting abnormally sweaty.
I noticed the lights of a car in the opposite lane. I let off the accelerator. Even after the car had passed by, I kept letting the car slow down until it came to a total stop.
My heart was beating like mad again, just like after the accident. A cold sweat dripped down my sides.
I tried to get the car moving again, but my legs wouldn't move. That sensation I'd felt right before running the girl over was stuck in my brain.
"Could it be," the girl supposed, "that after running me over, you're afraid of driving?"
"I give. Yeah, it seems that way."
"Serves you right."
I challenged myself again and again, but could hardly make it a few meters before coming to a standstill again.
I pulled off to the side of the road and stopped the car. Once the windshield wipers stopped, the window soon became completely covered with water.
"Sorry, but we're taking a break here until I can drive properly again."
With that, I undid my seatbelt, reclined the seat all the way back, and closed my eyes.
A few minutes later, I heard the other seat recline, and the girl turning on her side. She wanted to sleep facing away from me, naturally.
As I lay still in the darkness, waves of regret came upon me. I've done something that can't be undone, I told myself again.
I regretted each and every thing. It was a mistake to drive so fast. It was a mistake to be driving drunk. In fact, it was a mistake to be drinking at a time like that. No, even going to meet Kiriko at all had been a mistake.
People like me should just be miserable and cooped up in their rooms. Then at least they won't bother anyone else.
I'd ruined this girl's life.
To take my mind off it, I asked her, "Hey, what was a student like you doing walking in that desolate place, anyway?"
"That's my business," she coldly spat. "Are you trying to say that even though it was an accident, I did something to deserve it?"
"No, I wasn't implying anything like that, I just..."
"Your lack of caution and bigheadedness took someone's life. You don't get to talk like that, murderer."
I sighed deeply, and focused on the sound of the rain outside. I realized as I turned on my side that my body was completely exhausted. And thanks to the remaining alcohol in me, my senses were going in and out.
I wished that when I woke up, everything would be back to normal.
As I dozed off, I heard the girl sobbing to herself.
I was in an arcade, late at night. It was a dream, of course.
The ceiling was yellowed with nicotine, the floor was covered in burn marks, the fluorescent lights flickered, and two of the three vending machines had notices with "OUT OF ORDER" crudely written on them.
None of the old cabinets all lined up in a row were turned on, and everything was deathly silent.
"I ran over a girl," I said. "I was going way faster than you'd need to, to kill someone. The brakes barely worked in the rain. I guess I've become a killer."
"Aha. So, how do you feel now?", Shindo asked with great interest, sitting on a stool with a torn cushion, smoking a cigarette, and leaning on the cabinet with his elbow.
His brusqueness was strikingly nostalgic. Shindo was just that kind of guy. What was good news for others was bad news for him, and vice versa.
"Whaddya think? I feel terrible. Just imagining what kind of punishment I'll get for this makes me want to die."
"Nothin' to worry about. You've got no "life" to lose in the first place, right? You're already living like you're dead. Nothing to live for, no goals, no fun..."
"And that's why I just want it to be over! ...I should've just followed after you, Shindo. I could've killed myself easy, after the death of my best friend."
"Stop it, you're grossing me out. You make it sound like a lovers' suicide."
"Guess it is."
Our laughter filled the silent arcade. We put coins into a beaten-up old cabinet and went head-to-head in an ancient game. He won, 3 to 2. Considering our relative skill levels, I think I put up a good fight.
Whatever you had him do, Shindo was always better than average. He was quick to grasp just about everything. But on the other hand, up to the last, he was never the best in anything.
I think maybe he was scared. Deathly afraid of a moment when he'd devote himself to something, then blank out and think "What was I doing?"
So he could never give all of himself to just one thing. I wished I could be like that.
And that must be why Shindo always liked things which were clearly pointless. Games from generations past, useless music, his unreasonably huge vacuum tube radio. I loved that sense of unproductiveness.
Shindo sat up from the stool and brought two canned coffees from the single working vending machine.
As he handed me one, he said, "Hey, Mizuho, I wanna ask something."
"Was that accident really something that was totally avoidable?"
I didn't understand his question. "What do you mean?"
"What I mean is, well... Maybe you called this tragic situation you're in upon yourself, somehow."
"Hey, now, you trying to say I had that accident on purpose?"
Shindo didn't reply. With an intriguing smile, he tossed his cigarette, now mostly filter, into the empty coffee can and lit a new one. As if to say, "think about it some."
I pondered his words. But as much as I scoured my brain, I couldn't come to a conclusion worth calling a conclusion. If he was just pointing out my destructive tendencies, there was no need to ask it like that.
He was trying to get me to notice something.
With that dreamlike lack of consistency, I was no longer in an arcade. I stood at the entrance to an amusement park.
Behind the stands and ticket booths, a merry-go-round, and a revolving swing, I could see such attractions as a giant Ferris wheel, a pendulum ride, and a roller coaster.
There was noise from the attractions all around me, and shrill voices yelling. Large speakers around the park played infinitely cheery big band music, and I heard the sound of an old photoplayer among the attractions.
It didn't seem I had come there alone. Someone was there holding my left hand.
Even in my dreamy state, I found it odd. I'd never once gone to an amusement park with someone.
I sensed a light beneath my eyelids. When I opened them, I found the rain had stopped, and the deep blue of night and the orange of morning were mixing near the horizon.
"Good morning, murderer," the girl chirped, having woken up before me. "Do you think you can drive now?"
Illuminated by the sunrise, her eyes showed traces of having been cried out.
"Maybe," I answered.
My fear of driving seemed only temporary after all. My hands on the wheel and my feet on the accelerator had no problems. Even so, I drove carefully down the wet roads glimmering in the morning light at around 40 kilometers an hour.
There was something I wanted to tell the girl. But I didn't know how to break the subject. I arrived at the destination while my early-morning brain was still thinking things over.
"That bus stop is fine," she pointed. "Let me off here."
I stopped the car, but also stopped the girl as she tried to open the passenger door and leave.
"Listen, is there anything I can do? I'll hear out anything. Let me try and make up for my crime."
She didn't reply. She got onto the sidewalk and started walking away. I left the car and ran after her, grabbing her shoulder.
"I really know I've done something terrible. I want to make up for it."
"Please, get out of my sight," she insisted. "Right now."
I hung on. "I'm not expecting your forgiveness. I just want to make you feel the tiniest bit better."
"Why should I have to go along with your self-serving idea of scoring points with me? "Make you feel better?" You just want to feel better, don't you?"
That was a bad way of putting it, I realized too late. Anyone would be insulted to hear that from the person who killed them.
I felt like anything more I said would make her angrier. I could only back off for now.
"Okay. You seem to want to be alone, so I'll go poof for now."
I took out a notebook and wrote down my phone number, tore out the page, and gave it to the girl.
"If there's anything you want me to do, call that number and I'll come running."
She tore the page to pieces before me. The strips of paper were blown away, mingling with the yellow leaves that had fallen to the road after last night's rainstorm.
I wrote my phone number in the notebook again and put it in the pocket of her bag. She tore that page apart too, throwing confetti to the wind.
But I refused to learn and kept writing my number down and giving it to the girl.
After eight tries, she finally gave in.
"All right, I get it. Now just leave. You being here just saps my energy."
"Thank you. Whether it's late or night or early in the morning, call me about the most trivial things if you want."
Adjusting her uniform skirt, the girl walked off quickly as if running. I, too, decided to return to my apartment for now.
I went back to the car, stopped at the first restaurant I saw for breakfast, and drove safely home.
Thinking about it, it had been a long time since I'd been out while the sun was. Crimson cosmos grew on the roadside, blowing in the wind.
The blue sky under which the madder reds danced seemed much bluer than it was in my memory.
Chapter 3: Scoring Points
I thought that people in situations like these couldn't get any sleep. But after a hot shower, a change of clothes, and lying down in bed, my eyelids quickly got heavy, and I slept like the dead for six hours.
When I woke up, I felt surprisingly not bad. In fact, that oppressiveness I'd felt upon waking up for the past few months was gone.
I sat up to check my phone and found no messages. The girl still didn't need me, I guess. I lied down again and stared at the ceiling.
Why did I feel so good despite having run someone over last night? A total turnaround from yesterday's heavy regrets, my mind was clearer than ever.
Thinking about it while listening to the drips of rainwater from the gutter, I came to a conclusion.
Perhaps I was freed from my fear of falling lower and lower. Amid my miserable existence, I had felt myself rotting away. So I was full of anxiety over how much I'd fall, how bad I'd get.
However, the accident last night dropped me straight to the bottom. Upon falling as low as I could go, there was a kind of extreme comfort in that darkness.
After all, I couldn't go any lower. Compared to the dread of a limitless fall, the pain of hitting the ground was much more concrete and bearable.
There was nothing more I could lose. I had no hopes to betray, so I could have no despair.
So I felt at ease. There's nothing more dependable than resignation.
I went out on the veranda to take a smoke. A few dozen crows were perched on the power lines some distance away, and some flew around the area cawing hoarsely.
By the time I'd reduced about a centimeter of the cigarette to ash, I heard a woman's voice from the neighboring veranda.
"Good evening, mister shut-in."
I looked to my left and saw a girl meekly waving at me. She wore glasses, had a bob cut, and was dressed in nightwear.
She was the girl who lived next door, an art student in college. I didn't remember her name. But not because I didn't care about her or anything. I'm just bad at remembering names, just as it always is with introverts of my sort.
"Good evening, miss shut-in," I replied. "You're up early today."
"Give me that," requested the art student. "The thing in your mouth."
"This?", I asked, pointing at the cigarette.
I reached out and handed her the partly-smoked cigarette. As always, her veranda was packed with decorative plants, like a miniature forest.
She had a small stepladder laid on top of the left and right edges serving as a flower stand, and a red garden chair was situated in the center. The plants were very carefully tended to and looked vibrant and lively, unlike their owner.
"So you went out yesterday," she observed, taking smoke into her lungs. "Not what I've come to expect from you."
"Aren't I great?", I replied. "Oh yeah... I was just about to call for you. You get the newspaper every day, right?"
"Yeah, but I only ever read the front page. What about it?"
"I want to read this morning's paper."
"Hm. Okay then, come over," the art student told me. "I was about to call for you too, for tonight's walk."
I went out into the hall and into her room. This made the second time she'd let me inside. The first time had been a request for some company to drink her sorrows away with, and I tell you, I'd never seen someone living in such a messy place in my life.
I mean, I wouldn't call it dirty. It was orderly enough. The size of the room and how much she owned just didn't agree. She must have been the type to never throw anything away - totally opposite from me, who only had basic furniture and the like.
The art student's room wasn't any cleaner this time. Indeed, there'd been even more things crammed into it.
Her living room served as her atelier, so there were huge shelves along the walls with art collections and photo albums galore, as well as a huge collection of records that tightly filled all available space.
On top of the shelves, cardboard boxes were piled to the ceiling, and I could only imagine the disaster a good-sized earthquake would cause.
One of the walls had a French movie poster and a calendar from three years ago. One of the corners had a corkboard slotted in, with artistic photos thumb-tacked on haphazardly covering the entire surface.
One of the two tables had a massive computer on top, with worn-out pens and pencils scattered in front. The other table was clean and neat, with only a record player in a wooden cabinet.
Sitting in the veranda chair, I looked over every line of the morning paper in the light of the setting sun. As expected, there was nothing about the accident I caused.
The art student took a look at the paper from beside me. "Haven't read the paper in a while... But I'm not really missing much, huh," she thought aloud.
"Thank you," I told her, handing it back.
"Don't mention it. Find the article you were looking for?"
"No, I didn't."
"Huh, that's too bad."
"No, the opposite. I'm relieved it's not there. Um, can you let me watch your TV, too?"
"You don't even have a TV at your place?", the art student asked, astonished. "I guess I hardly watch mine, so it's honestly not something I need, but..."
She went fishing under her bed, pulled out the remote, and turned it on.
"When does the local news start, anyway?"
"Pretty soon, I think. Weird to hear a shut-in interested in the news. Getting curious about the outside world?"
"No, I killed someone," I told her. "I just can't help but wonder if it made the news."
She blinked, still looking right at me. "Wait. What?"
"I ran a girl over last night. I was going fast enough to kill her, for sure."
"Umm... This isn't just some kind of joke, is it?"
"It isn't," I nodded. Since she was the same kind of person as me, I felt at ease telling her anything. "And when I ran her over, I was totally drunk on whiskey. I don't have even a shred of an excuse."
She looked at the newspaper in her hand. "If that's the truth, then it is weird that it didn't make the news. You think they haven't found the corpse yet?"
"Well, there were some circumstances, and I should be able to get away with it for nine days. In that time, I'm sure my crime will never be noticed. I'm convinced after reading the paper."
"Yeah, I don't get it." She crossed her arms. "Do you have the time to be talking to me? Shouldn't you be erasing evidence, running away somewhere, that kind of thing?"
"You're right, there are things I need to do. But I can't do them alone. I need to wait for a call."
"...Right. Well, I'm still having a lot of doubts, but what I'm getting is that you're a serious criminal."
"Yes, any way you slice it."
At once, the art student's expression brightened. She grabbed my shoulders and shook me, her face beaming more than simply "joyous" could describe.
"Listen, I'm like, extremely happy right now," she said. "I feel so much better."
"Schadenfreude?", I asked through a bitter smile.
"Yeah. I'm happy to know you're such a loser beyond all help."
It would be inaccurate to call her inconsiderate, as the art student smiled wide because of her consideration of my woes. Which made me feel a little bit better.
A reaction like this was more comfortable to me than awkward sympathy and worry. And at any rate, she was getting positive feelings thanks to me.
"So you've graduated from shut-in to killer."
"Isn't that a step down?"
"It's a step up in my book. ...Hey, let's go walking tonight. We'll waste that meager postponement of yours. Sound good? It's so comforting having you around."
"Great. How about a toast?" She indicated a bottle of beer in front of the shelves. "Isn't there lots you want to forget, want to not think about?"
"I'll hold off on drinking. I want to be able to drive right away when that call comes."
"I see. Well, it'll be water for you then, mister killer. Because, uh, beer and water is all I've got."
Watching her drop ice into her glass and pour the whiskey, I felt a pang of nostalgia. It was an odd sensation; I felt like we were in a picture book or a painting.
"Sorry, can I have a glass of that after all?"
"That's what I was planning to give you." She quickly filled the other glass with whiskey.
"So then, cheers."
The rims of our glasses touched and made a lonely clink.
"I've never had a drink with a killer before," she remarked while squeezing lemon juice into her glass.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Be sure to savor it."
"I will," she grinned, slyly narrowing her eyes.
My shut-in art student neighbor and I got acquainted some time after I became a shut-in myself.
One day, I was lying down in bed and listening to music. Playing it at a loud volume without regard for anyone else, there was soon a loud knock on the door.
Was it a door-to-door evangelist? A newspaper salesman? I decided to ignore it, but they kept knocking. Annoyed, I cranked the volume up higher, and then the door slammed open. I'd forgotten to lock it.
The bespectacled intruder had a somehow familiar face. I supposed she was my neighbor, come to complain about the noise.
I prepared myself for her insults, but she just went to the CD player by my bed, took out the CD, switched it for another, and went back to her room without a word.
Her qualms weren't with the volume, but with my taste in music.
I pressed play without checking what she'd put in and was met with guitar pop as sweet as orange juice, which was a little disappointing. I'd be hoping she might have recommended me something really good, but alas.
So that was my first meeting with the art student. Though I didn't learn she was an art student until a while later.
She and I both hated to go outside, but did go onto our verandas frequently. The difference being that she went to water her plants and I went to smoke, but still, we found ourselves getting closer each time we saw each other.
There was nothing obstructing the view between us, so when I saw her, I bowed my head without too much familiarity. I'd greet her, and with a watchful eye on me, she'd return the greeting.
Then, one day toward the end of summer, she was out watering her plants, and I leaned on the left railing and spoke to her.
"That's pretty impressive, raising all those plants by yourself."
"Not really," she mumbled in a barely audible voice. "It's not hard."
"Can I ask a question?"
Still observing the plants, she replied, "Sure, but I might not answer."
"I don't mean to dig too deep, but have you not left your room at all in the past week?"
"...And what if I haven't?"
"Dunno. I guess I'd just be happy."
"Because neither have I."
I picked up a cigarette butt from the ground, lit it, and took a puff. The art student opened her eyes and turned to me.
"Huh, I see. So you know I haven't left my room because you haven't left yours either."
"Right. It's scary outside. Must be the summer."
"What do you mean?"
"Walking around under the sun makes me feel so miserable that it takes two, three days to recover. No, maybe guilty, or pitiful..."
"Hmm," the art student replied, pushing up the bridge of her glasses. "I haven't seen your friend lately. What happened to him? The one who looks like a drug addict. He was coming by almost every day."
She must have meant Shindo. True, on some days his eyes would look out of focus, and he constantly had these creepy vague smiles, and generally did come off as a drug addict, but it was amusing to hear her say it so bluntly.
I held back my smile. "You mean Shindo. Well, he died. Just two months ago."
"It was suicide, most likely. He fell off a cliff on his motorcycle."
"...Huh. I'm sorry I brought it up," she apologized in a hollow voice.
"Not a problem. It's a happy story, you see. The guy's dream has finally come true."
"...I see. I guess there might be people like that," she meekly supposed. "So then, you can't leave home out of sorrow for your friend's death?"
"I'd like to say it's not that simple, but..." I scratched my forehead. "Maybe it really is just that. I don't really know, though."
"Poor thing," she whimpered, like a 7-year-old sister consoling her 5-year-old brother. "Is that why you've gotten so thin in the past month, too?"
"Have I gotten that skinny?"
"Yeah. Not even exaggerating, you look totally different. Your hair's so long, and your whiskers are really something, and you're skinny as a pole, and your eyes are sullen."
It seemed obvious, and I guess it was. Not leaving the apartment meant I hadn't eaten nearly anything but snacks to go with my beer. Some days I didn't even eat anything solid.
Looking at my legs, I noticed that thanks to my lack of walking anywhere, they were as thin as a bedridden patient's. And having not spoken to anyone in so long, I didn't realize all my drinking had made my voice so hoarse; it didn't sound like my voice at all.
"You're really pale, too. Like a vampire who hasn't sucked any blood in a month."
"I'll check the mirror later," I remarked while feeling around my eyes.
"You might not see anyone in it."
"If I'm a vampire, yeah."
"That was the idea," she smiled, grateful for me playing along with her joke.
"So anyway, what about you? Why won't you leave your room?"
The art student put her watering can down at her feet and leaned on the right side of her veranda toward me.
"I'll save that for later. For now, I just thought of something really good," she told me with a friendly smile.
"That's good," I agreed.
That night, as part of her really good idea, we left the apartment dressed in the fanciest clothes we could dig up.
I wore a jacket and one-wash denim jeans. The art student wore a navy cocoon one piece with a necklace and mule shoes, also switching her glasses for contacts and neatly doing up her hair. Clearly inappropriate attire for wandering around at night.
Prior to this, there'd been occasions where I was forced to go out, such as for shopping or going to the bank. And every time I was dragged out like this, my dread for the outside worsened.
The art student reasoned that this happened because I was only ever going out reluctantly and passively, and started to hate going outside in general.
"First we need to actively go outside and teach ourselves that the outside is a fun place," she said. "All maladjustment is a result of mistaken teaching, thus adjustment can be achieved by erasing and amending that teaching."
"Who'd you rip that quote from?"
"I think Hans Eysenck said something like that. Pretty incredible thought, isn't it?"
"Well, a clear-cut idea like that sticks better than being told nonsense about broken hearts or contact or whatever. But what's the reason for the fancy clothes? It's not like anyone will see them."
The art student grabbed the sleeve of her one-piece and adjusted it. "We feel tense, don't we? That's pretty much the only reason, but I think it's something very important for us right now."
We walked aimlessly around town dressed like we were headed for a party.
Lately, the heat in the day had been intense, but the wind started blowing at night, making it feel cool and autumn-like. Fewer bugs swarmed around the streetlights, dead ones taking their place underneath.
Stepping around the bug corpses, the art student stood under a light. A huge moth flew about her head.
She tilted her head and asked me a question. "Am I pretty?"
Getting some fresh air again seemed to have her excited. She reminded me of a child on her birthday.
"You are," I answered. I honestly did think she was pretty. Faced with a picturesque sight like this, I could really understand that feeling of "beauty." So I told her she was pretty.
"Good." She gave a wide and innocent smile.
A half-dead brown cicada beat its wings against the asphalt.
Our destination that night was an empty train station in the area. The station, hidden amongst residences, connected out to all places like a spider web.
Sitting down, I lit a cigarette and watched the art student walk unsteadily on the tracks. There was a big cat up on the fence by the tracks, perched there as if watching over us.
That was how we began having our night walks. Every Wednesday, we'd dress up and go out.
Gradually, we recovered to the point where we could go out alone as long as the sun was down. Her idea, strange as it had seemed, was surprisingly effective.
I'd nodded off, and a notification on my phone woke me up.
I hurried to collect my thoughts. I remembered as far as drinking with the art student, having our usual walk, going home and taking a shower. Maybe I fell asleep immediately after.
It was 11 PM. I picked up my phone and listened. The call was from a public phone, but I had no doubt that it was the girl I'd run over.
"So you didn't tear up that last page," I said into the receiver.
There was silence for many seconds, the girl's way of showing her pride. She didn't want it to seem like she was depending on me.
"You called this number because you want me to do something, right?", I asked.
Finally, the girl spoke. "I'll give you a chance to score some points. ...Come to the bus stop from yesterday."
"Roger that," I affirmed. "I'll head there right away. Anything else?"
"I don't have much time to explain. Just come here."
I grabbed a motorcycle jacket and my wallet, and left without even locking the door.
There were about ten lights on the way, but they all turned green for me right as I approached. I arrived at the destination much sooner than anticipated.
At the same bus stop where my first day's duty had concluded, I found the girl in her uniform alone, burying her face in a dark-red scarf and sipping on a can of milk tea as she watched the stars.
I decided to look up too, and saw the moon poking out from between the clouds. The clearly visible shape of its shadow reminded me less of the man in the moon, and more the blotted skin of an old man who'd spent too much time in the sun in his youth.
"Sorry to make you wait."
I got out of the car and went around to the other side to open the passenger door. But the girl ignored me, instead sitting in the back seat, throwing her school bag off, and exasperatedly closing the door.
"Where should we go?", I asked.
"To where you live." The girl took off her blazer and tightened her necktie.
"Sure, that's fine. But can I ask why?"
"It's not a big deal. I attacked my father, so I can't stay at home anymore."
"Did you have a fight?"
"No, I just decided to hurt him. ...Look at this."
The girl rolled up the sleeve of her blouse.
There were many black bruises on her thin arm. Even if they were just burns, I supposed they must have been at least a year old.
With eight of them neatly lined up along her arm, I suspected they had been made in an unnatural way.
I recalled how after the accident, the girl called off her "postponement" of the wound on her palm for the sake of explanation, then pulled up her sleeve and said "If you don't believe that, I can show you another example."
This couldn't have been the same arm I saw then. So she must have still been postponing these burns at the time. And in the time between then and now, something had happened to call it off.
"These are marks my father made by pushing a cigarette into my arm," she explained. "They're on my back, too. Want to see?"
"No, that's fine," I said, waving my hand. "So... You attacked your father as payback for that, and ran away from home?"
"Yes. I tied up his arms and legs with bands and hit him about fifty times with a hammer."
"A hammer?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard her right.
"I have it here."
The girl took a double-ended sledgehammer out of her bag. It was a small one, like you'd use to pound nails in elementary school arts and crafts. It seemed old; the head was rusted, and the handle was blackened.
Seeing how disturbed I was by this, she smiled proudly. Ironically, that was the first age-appropriate, honest smile she ever showed me.
I guess she'd dropped one of the numerous bags burdening her.
"Revenge is a great thing. It's so relieving. I wonder who should be next? Because I don't have anything to lose anymore. ...Oh, yes. Naturally, you'll be helping me too, mister murderer."
With that, she laid down across the back seats and swiftly fell asleep. She must have hit the limits of exhaustion. After getting revenge on her father, no doubt she just grabbed everything she could and ran away.
I slowed down and drove carefully so that I didn't wake her up.
She probably purposefully let the burns "happen" to justify her retribution, I realized.
By no longer averting her eyes from her father's violence toward her, and accepting those wounds and the cause of them, she also earned the right to take revenge.
I wonder who should be next?, she'd said. If she had such a decision to make, there had to be at least two others worth taking revenge on, maybe more.
She must have lived a truly harsh life, I thought.
Back at the apartment, I opened the door, then returned to the car to carry the girl to my room.
I took off her loafers and socks, laid her down on the bed, and pulled the covers over her. Then she restlessly reached up and pulled the covers up to her mouth.
Afterward, I heard about two or three bouts of sniffling. She was crying.
This girl's really busy between smiling and crying all the time, I thought.
What was making her sad? Surely the shortness of the time she had left? Or did she regret hurting her father? Was she remembering an abusive past? A lot of possibilities came to mind.
Maybe she didn't even know the reason for her tears. There were likely a lot of emotions going on in her; feeling lonely when she should be happy, feeling happy when she should be sad.
I laid down on the sofa and absentmindedly stared at the ceiling, waiting for morning. What should I say to the girl when she wakes up? What should I do? I thought it over at length.
And so began the days of revenge.