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Chapter 4: Coward Murderer
The girl was awoken by the smell of coffee. Seeing the thick slices of honey toast, the bisected soft-boiled egg, and the green salad spread out on the table, she sat down drowsily and slowly ate it all.
She didn't look at me whatsoever while doing so.
"What are you going to do now?", I asked.
She indicated the wound on her palm. "I think I'll get payback for this next."
"Sounds like it wasn't your father who gave you that one, then."
"That's right. He was generally careful in his use of violence. He rarely left marks anywhere that couldn't be covered up."
"Other than him, about how many other people do you want revenge on, would you say?"
"I've narrowed it down to five. Five people who have all left permanent scars on me."
So then there were five more wounds she was still postponing? Actually, there could be more than one per person. At least five more wounds was how I should think of it.
This led me to a realization. "Might I be one of your five targets of revenge?"
"Obviously," she replied aloofly. "Once I've enacted revenge on the other four, I'll subject you to a suitable fate too."
"...Well, works for me." Even so, I scratched my face.
"But don't worry. No matter what I do to you, when the postponement of the accident - that is, the postponement of my death - wears off, everything that I've caused after my death will have never happened."
"I don't know if I quite understand that part," I responded, voicing a concern I'd had for a while. "Does that mean you hitting your father with a hammer, once the postponement of my accident wears off, will be undone?"
"Of course. Because before I could enact any revenge, you ran me over and I died."
That was when she told me the story about her first postponement, with the gray cat.
Finding the corpse of a cat she'd adored, going to see it again that night, seeing the corpse and blood gone, being scratched by the cat and getting a fever, then suddenly being cured of the scratch and fever, and gaining contradictory memories.
"So comparing it to the revenge on your father, you'd be the cat, and the hammer would be its claws."
"Yes, I think you have the idea."
So then, no matter how much harm the girl inflicted on others from here on out, all of it would be gone once the effects of her postponement ended.
"Is there a point to a revenge like that?", I wondered aloud, airing some honest doubts. "Absolutely anything you do will just be undone in the end. And "the end" being in ten... uh, nine days."
"Imagine you're dreaming, and realize that you're in a dream," the girl illustrated. "Would you think, "Nothing I do will have an effect on reality, so why bother?", or would you think "Nothing I do will have an effect on reality, so I'll do whatever I want"?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never had any dreams like that," I shrugged. "I'm just thinking about what's best for you. Bringing pain to the people who made you unhappy won't bring back your lost happiness. I'm not trying to trample on your anger and resentment, but really, revenge is just meaningless."
"Thinking about what's best for me?", the girl repeated, emphasizing each word. "Well then, if not revenge, what do you think would be best for me?"
"Well, there's gotta be other stuff to do with this valuable time. Go around meeting your friends and people who helped you out, confess to people you like, or maybe used to like..."
"There isn't," she interrupted sharply. "There was no one kind to me, helpful to me, no boys I like or used to like, no one. What you just said couldn't possibly be any more ironic to me."
Are you sure you're not just blinded by your anger? Just think about it, I'm sure you'll remember someone who was nice...
I wanted to say something like that, but I couldn't deny the possibility that what she was saying was 100% true, so I swallowed my words.
"Sorry," I apologized. "I wasn't thinking."
"Yes, you should be more careful about that."
"...So, who's your next target?"
First her father, then her sister. Would her mother be next?
"Sounds like you didn't live in a very pleasant household."
"Quit while you're ahead," the girl replied.
Until the moment I put my hand on the doorknob, I'd been convinced I was completely cured of my illness. But as I put on my boots and prepared to go out, I felt all the energy leave my body, and I froze up.
If someone who didn't know the situation were to pass by, they might think the doorknob had an electric current running through it.
I stood in place. My pulse quickened, and my chest tightened and hurt. In particular, the pit of my stomach, my arms, and my legs went numb and limp.
I tried just waiting there for a while, but things showed no sign of returning to normal. These were the symptoms. I'd thought my shock from the car accident had quickly cured it, but I still hadn't conquered my fear of the outside.
The girl noticed me stopping like I'd run out of battery and furrowed her brow. "What is this, a joke?"
I guess it would've looked like I was messing around to her. Gradually, nausea welled up in me like my stomach was being filled with rocks. A cold sweat ran down my skin.
"Sorry, can you give me some more time?"
"Don't tell me, you're feeling ill?"
"No, I'm not good with going outside. I've been living a life of only going out in the dead of night for nearly six months."
"But weren't you rather distant from home two days ago?"
"Yeah. And maybe that's the reason I'm scared."
"First that thing after the accident, now this? How horribly weak-minded are you?", the girl remarked in disbelief. "Just cure yourself of that quickly, whatever it takes. If it's been twenty minutes and you're still hopeless, I'm going without you. Nothing's stopping me from carrying out the plan alone."
"I understand. I'll cure it."
I collapsed face-up on the bed. My quickened pulse continued, and the numbness hadn't gone away.
Lying still, I noticed the sheets smelled faintly different, likely because the girl had slept here. I felt like my territory had been invaded.
Wanting to be alone even if it was only by way of a single wall, I hid away in the dim bathroom, lying my face on the toilet seat and covering it with both hands.
I took a big breath of the aromatic air, held it for a few seconds, breathed out, and repeated. Doing this very slightly eased me. But it was going to take quite some time to recover enough to go outside.
I left the bathroom and pulled some flip-up sunglasses out of a closet drawer. Shindo had bought them as a joke and left them with me. Anyone who wore them instantly looked like a foolish hippie.
I wiped off the lenses and put them on, then stood in front of the mirror. I looked even dumber than I could've imagined. I felt my shoulders ease up.
"What are those awful glasses?", the girl asked. "They couldn't fit you any worse."
"That's what I like about them," I laughed. With these sunglasses, I could laugh naturally. I still felt nauseous, but I was sure it'd clear up eventually. "Sorry about the holdup. Let's go."
I swung open the door with excessive force and went down the stairs. Getting in my forever nicotine-smelling car, I turned the key. The girl gave me a map on which she'd written a route and detailed comments in red pen.
"With all this preparation, I guess you've been planning this revenge for quite a while."
She continued to stare at the map. "I lived thinking about nothing else."
The roads were congested in the morning. They were flooded with cars in both directions, and school commuters coming out of the station filled the sidewalks. Everyone carried umbrellas of all colors in preparation for rain.
When the car was stopped at the red light, some of the students walking across the crosswalk glanced at us, and I felt uncomfortable.
How must we have looked to them? I hoped that maybe I looked like someone on his way to college, taking his sister to high school on the way. The girl slid low into her seat to avoid being seen.
Turning toward the driver-side window, I saw a small flower shop surrounded by colorful flowers, and with four jack-o'-lanterns carved from pumpkins out in front.
All of the pumpkins had bright flowers blooming out of the hole on top, so they served as stylish flower pots.
I recalled now, of all times, that Halloween was at the end of October. It was nearly time for the local high school's culture festival, too. An exhilarating season for many, to be sure.
"I just had a thought," I said. "Can you be certain your sister is home? I find it unlikely your father wouldn't have notified her about the beating you gave him. And if she's aware you have a grudge against her, she might have fled elsewhere."
The girl seemed annoyed. "I don't think she's been contacted. That man's disowned her. Even if he wanted to contact her, I doubt he even knows her phone number."
"I see," I nodded. "How far is it to our destination?"
"About three hours."
This was going to be a long drive. All the radio stations were boring, and none of the CDs in the glovebox were something that struck me as suiting the tastes of a high school girl.
"...I know I can't be the only one surprised by the dip in temperature lately," a radio personality said. "What's the deal with the cold this year? This morning I saw someone wearing a winter coat, and I gotta say, it's just the climate for it. I'm no good with the cold, you know, so not only do I wear a scarf and gloves, I simply have to double up the layers. Can you even believe it? But surprisingly enough..."
While we were stuck in traffic, I asked the girl if I could smoke.
"Fine, but give me one too," she said.
I had no reason to refuse. Trying to preach to the person I'd killed about her health would be a laugh.
"Make sure no one outside sees," I warned, then took a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to her after rubbing the leaf end.
Watching a girl in a high school uniform smoke a cigarette inside a car was unnatural to the extreme. With zero familiarity in her movement, she lit it using the cigarette lighter, took in some smoke, and coughed violently.
"You can just take in about a teaspoon of smoke," I suggested. "That might have a better taste at first."
She switched to my suggested method, but still choked after taking in the smoke.
I considered telling her she might not be made for smoking, but watching her stubbornly try again and again, I decided to let her do as she pleased.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," I prefaced, "but what did your sister do to you?"
"I don't want to answer."
Putting the cigarette butt in the ashtray, she said "It's not something I can explain briefly. At any rate, she's someone who drove me to a point from which I could never recover. Just remember that for now."
"What do you mean you could never recover?"
"There are hopeless faults in my personality. You know that, right?"
"I don't. You seem pretty normal to me."
"Already trying to score points with me? Flattery won't get you anywhere."
"That wasn't the idea." So I claimed, though I'd hoped those words would cheer her up.
"You said you'd consider me normal? Then let me show you proof to the contrary."
She reached into her school bag and took out a teddy bear. It wore a red military uniform and a black cap. It looked like a nice, soft toy.
"Despite my age, I still can't part with this. If I don't touch it from time to time, I'm overcome with anxiety. ...Am I making you shiver yet?", she spat out. She seemed to be considerably troubled by the fact.
"Like Linus and his blanket? It happens all the time, nothing to be embarrassed about," I interjected. "I used to know a guy a long time ago who named a doll and talked to it all the time. Really creepy. Compared to that, just having to touch it..."
"Oh, I'm sorry for creeping you out." She glared at me and put the bear away.
Should've kept quiet, I realized too late. I'd only ridiculed her in the most effective way possible. But really, who could have imagined a girl with such a cold glare naming a teddy bear and talking to it...
An awkward silence prevailed.
"...On that note, the theme for today's write-ins is "moments that make me glad I'm alive!"," the radio host said. "Our first letter is from a self-described mother of two. "My daughters of six and eight get along so well that even I'm astonished. But for Mother's Day this year, they prepared a surprise present...""
The girl reached out to turn down the volume before I could.
It was a subject too dizzying for us right now.
We escaped the traffic, spent two hours speeding down a stunningly autumn-colored road over a mountain pass, and arrived at the town where the girl's older sister lived.
After getting a light meal at a hamburger shop and driving a few more minutes, we arrived at her house.
It was a very tidy house. Behind brick fencing, there was a well-kept garden with roses from all seasons, and in the corner of it was a swing with a roof on top of stone pavement.
The outside walls were a blue that seemed to melt into the sky, and the three windows on the second floor were white with round tops.
Such a happy-looking house. This is where the girl's newlywed sister lived, she told me.
Nothing like my parents' house, I thought.
Not to say that the house I used to live in didn't have any money put into it, but its outer appearance demonstrated the mental ruin of the owners.
The walls were covered in vines, and beneath them were scattered things that had long ago become unusable: a tricycle, rollerskates, a stroller, steel drums.
The front yard was big, but infested with so many weeds as to suggest the house was vacant, becoming a subpar place for stray cats to gather.
Maybe for a brief time after I was born, it was a happy enough house for me. Either way, by the time I gained self-awareness, my parents had come to consider the house not worth it.
Even though I was an only child, they considered me a heavy burden. Why did these people decide to start a family at all?, I always wondered.
When my mother left, it was relieving. It was the more natural way for things to be.
"Nice house," I said.
"You stand by outside the gate. I'd say there's an 80, 90% chance I won't need your help. Just be prepared to drive off right away."
The girl took off her jacket and left it with me, went under the arch to the front door, and rang the bell hanging on the wall. The clear metallic sound rang out.
The wooden door opened slowly. From behind it came a woman around the age of 25.
I observed her from behind a tree. She wore a dark green knit pullover with gray parents. She wore her hair dyed chocolate-colored in a single-curl perm.
Her eyes looked wise, and her movements opening the door were graceful.
So she's the girl's sister, I pondered. They had some facial similarities, with their somewhat-colorless eyes and thin lips.
But I felt like their ages were too far apart for sisters, and I couldn't imagine her being someone who would slash the girl's palm with a knife.
I couldn't hear their conversation, but it didn't seem to be turning into an argument. I leaned back on the gate and dug around in my pocket for a cigarette, but I'd left them in the car.
I wondered, though, in what way did the girl intend to get revenge? Right before arriving, I'd taken a look in her bag and was certain she hadn't hidden away any dangerous weapons.
She'd attacked her father with a hammer, so would she do the same to her sister? Or did she have some other weapon prepared?
I never got to think about it, though. My questions were quickly answered.
Almost exactly when I finished my cigarette and looked toward the front door again, I saw the girl fall on top of her sister.
The sister quickly tried to catch her, but couldn't hold her, and they fell over together. So it appeared.
Yet while the girl got back up, her sister showed no sign of getting up again. And she didn't ever get up.
I ran over to the girl, and the scene made me doubt my eyes.
Large dressmaking scissors had been stabbed into her sister's chest. One blade of the open scissors had been pushed all the way into her.
She'd done a very good job of it. There wasn't even a scream.
Blood filled the entryway, flowing through the gaps in the floor.
She'd achieved her objective with astonishing speed.
That stunned silence reminded me of an incident of my own.
When I was in fourth grade, and we had 30 more minutes left in PE, the teacher said we'd spend the remaining time playing dodgeball, and the children rejoiced.
This had become a semi-common event. I meandered over to the corner of the gym and mixed in with the other students watching the match.
Once about half of each team had been hit by the ball, some of the people who were out started getting bored. Ignoring the outcome of the game, they started playing around in their own ways.
One person did a clean frontflip on a part of the floor without a mat, and not to be bested, five or six other boys attempted to do the same.
This became more interesting to watch than the dodgeball game, so my eyes followed the boys hopping and flipping around.
One boy flubbed his landing and hit his head on the floor. It was loud enough that I could hear it from a few meters away.
Everyone stopped moving. The one who hit his head didn't get up for a while.
After about ten seconds, he held his head and started to wail in pain - but he was only making a lot of noise to distract from his embarrassment, as it didn't seem to be that serious.
Those surrounding him, too, to do away with the brief worry that crossed their minds, pointed at laughed at the fallen boy, hitting and kicking him.
I was the first to notice a boy who wasn't part of that circle, and was lying down in a strange position. Everyone's attention was on the one who hit his head, so no one had had seen the moment when a boy with particularly slow reflexes broke his neck.
One by one, people became eerily aware of the boy not moving a muscle and stopped to look at him. Finally, the PE teacher noticed something was wrong and ran over.
Speaking so calmly as to seem too calm, the teacher told the students not to touch him, not to move him at all, and sped out into the hall.
Someone remarked "Of course the teachers get to run in the halls," but no one responded.
That boy never came back to school. We were told he'd damaged his spinal cord, but as fourth-graders, we could only think "I guess he hit his Achilles heel or something."
But our teacher, to emphasize the severity of the matter, explained that "he'll be wheelchair-bound his whole life" (a softened explanation, now that I think about it - he was already fully paralyzed and hooked up to a ventilator), and some of the girls started crying.
That's so sad. We should have been paying attention. Others dutifully began to cry as well, and people suggested "Let's go visit him," "Let's make him a thousand paper cranes." The classroom was distressed, full of goodwill and selflessness.
The next month, the teacher told us in homeroom that he'd died.
That wounded boy uncomfortably lying on the floor of the gymnasium and the woman collapsed in front of us now overlapped in my mind.
At times, life can be lost so easily, as if swept away in the wind.
The girl put her fingers in the scissor handles, took a breath, and further opened the wound. She had clearly intended to kill. With an animalistic groan, the fallen body trembled and convulsed.
Upon cutting what I suppose was the stomach aorta, a spray of blood flew up, reaching to my feet two meters away.
The girl turned around, and her white blouse was soaked red with blood.
"...You didn't say you'd go that far," I said at last. I meant to sound unaffected, but my voice weakly trembled.
"I didn't. But I don't recall saying I wasn't going to kill her."
Wiping some blood off her cheek, she sat down on the floor.
I took off my sunglasses and looked down at the girl's sister. Her face was so contorted in anguish as to look nothing like it did before.
A flute-like sound came from her throat, and she coughed up blood. It was now impossible to tell her pullover's original color.
A putrid smell distinct from the mere smell of blood lingered; like compacted garbage, or a bathtub full of vomit. Whatever it was, it was a powerful smell of death that I'd never forget after just one sniff.
I trembled violently, and tried to breathe calmly to keep myself from throwing up.
My vision widened, and I saw how the entryway had become a sea of blood. If it were a scene in a TV show, it would be enough blood to demand an extremely exaggerated reaction.
People must be sacks of nothing but blood, I figured, for there to be this much. I knew it was only making me feel worse, but my eyes couldn't look away from the torn stomach.
The blood was blacker than I thought blood was, though what had spilled out was an unmistakable bright color. A color remarkably close to a geranium poking out from a vase on top of a shoebox.
It brought to mind the poor roadkill I'd always see while driving down the road in the morning.
Whether they looked beautiful or terrible, were an animal or a human, they were all the same once you tore away a layer of skin.
Yeah, I thought with surprising calm. This is what death is. What I'd done to the girl was fundamentally no different from the tragedy I saw before me now.
Though it had yet to feel or even become real because of her postponement, I had turned the girl into a lifeless lump of flesh. Maybe her corpse would be even more horrible than this one.
After taking a step back to keep the blood off my shoes, I spoke.
"Listen, I'm going along with this to make up for my crime of running you over. ...But helping you kill people totally undermines that. I don't want to be washing blood with blood."
"You don't have to go along with it if you don't want to. I don't recall forcing you into anything," the girl noted. "And once the length of my postponement ends, my actions will all go to nothing. As much as I struggle, I can only give people a temporary death. So whatever I do, isn't it fine in the end?"
So it was. This girl was already dead. No matter what she did after October 27th, the day of the accident, she would come to no longer exist during that time.
A girl who doesn't exist can't kill anyone. She could kill hundreds of people after October 27th, because once the postponement came to an end, it wouldn't count.
Like a player who was still on the court after being disqualified. They could rack up points, but by the end of the game, they'd just lose without regard for any of it.
Thus, like the girl said, she felt she could do whatever she wanted. By the end, it would amount to nothing but harmless self-satisfaction. No significant difference from being a killer purely in your imagination.
So then, wouldn't it be all right to have one chance to do anything you please before death? No, but even if it is only temporary, you're stabbing people, making them bleed and suffer. A killer is a killer. Those acts can never be forgiven, can they?
This wasn't the time to be mulling over it endlessly, though. Our top priority was to get away from the corpse as soon as possible; such a discussion had no place here.
"Let's get away from here for now. It'll be bad if someone sees that blood on you."
The girl nodded. I took off my jacket and put it on her shoulders. Zipping up the stand-up collar nylon jacket, you couldn't tell she was bloodstained underneath from a distance.
It was a nice pricey jacket, but I didn't need to worry, as everything would go back to normal once the postponement ended.
I looked around at the gate to confirm there was no one around and signaled to the girl.
But she was still just sitting there on the floor, unmoving.
"Come on, what's keeping you? Hurry up." I hurried back to her and grabbed her hand to pull her up.
But she collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.
"I see. So this is it's like for your legs to give out," she muttered as if observing a stranger. "I guess I can't laugh at you for this anymore. Pathetic..."
The girl sat up. With no energy in her legs, she crawled along the ground with her arms. She looked like a mermaid struggling to come ashore.
Though she maintained composure, it seemed she was in quite a panic.
"Not gonna be able to stand up anytime soon?"
"No. ...I guess it was a good thing I brought you along after all. Now carry me back to the car."
She thrust both arms at me with haughtiness entirely distanced from the shameful plight she was in. But her hands trembled like a child thrown out into the freezing snow.
I delicately lifted her up. She was heavier than she looked, but light enough that I could run with her on my back if need be. She was covered in a cold sweat.
Reconfirming that there was no one around, I took her to the passenger's seat.
Carefully observing the speed limit, I chose to drive on roads with as few people as possible. My hands were sweaty on the wheel.
Noticing how regularly I was checking the back mirror, the girl told me "You don't need to worry about it. Even if we get arrested for what happened back there, I believe I'll be able to undo it. I can put off any bad things that way."
I remained silent, not even acknowledging her statement.
"Is there something you want to say?", the girl asked.
"...Did you really need to kill her?", I inquired, forgetting about getting in her good books. "I know you said your sister did something terrible to you. But was she evil enough to kill? You couldn't just give her the same kind of wound on her palm? What did she do? I just want a good explanation."
"Let me ask you this. Would you permit murder if there were a suitable reason?", she pressed. "For instance, suppose that in trying to stop a fight between my mother and sister, I was cut with a knife, rendering me unable to play piano, a thing I lived for. Or that the people my sister brought home every week forced me to drink strong alcohol, and whenever I puked it up, they used a taser on me. Or that my drunk father singed my hair with lit cigarettes, telling me I was a waste of space who should kill herself already. Or that at school, I was pushed around and made to drink dirty water, was strangled for fun, had my hair and clothes cut up in the name of "dissection," was pushed into a freezing pool in winter with my legs tied up... If I told you that were the situation, would you have at least the slightest approval for revenge?"
If she had told me this at any other time, it might have been hard to believe. I might have taken it as an empty lie, or at least an extreme exaggeration.
But having not long ago seen her murder her sister, I could easily accept it as truth.
"...I take it back. I'm sorry. I guess I brought back bad memories," I apologized.
"I didn't say I was actually talking about myself."
"Right. Strictly hypothetical."
"I'm not taking revenge out of a desire to punish them. The fear they instilled in me could only go away if they vanished from the world entirely. It's like a curse. I'll never have a peaceful sleep as long as it's there, and I can't deeply enjoy anything. I'm getting revenge to conquer my fear. At least once before I die, I just want to sleep soundly in a world where they're gone."
"I think I get it," I nodded. "By the way, did you kill your father too?"
"I wonder." She shook her head, and as if to clear her mind, she took a cigarette from the pack on the dashboard, lit it, and coughed.
She said she'd used a hammer when taking revenge on her father. Depending on where you hit them, you could easily kill a person with that.
I couldn't remember if it was the back of the head or the hollow in the neck, but if you hit around that area, even a young woman could easily murder a grown man, I'd heard.
"Say, are your legs better now?"
"...I think walking will still be hard," she said with a puff of smoke, knitting her brows. "The plan was to go straight to my next target of revenge, but I'm pretty hopeless right now. It's inconvenient, but let's go back to the apartment."
I had a sudden realization. "Can you not postpone something as minor as that?"
The girl closed her eyes to carefully pick her words. "If this were a significant injury or illness, I could do that. But it's extremely hard to postpone something that will just fix itself. My desire is too weak in that case. My soul needs to be screaming "I can't bear for this to happen.""
I accepted that explanation. A scream of the soul, huh.
It took a while to notice the smell of blood filling the interior of the car. The blood that had sprayed onto the girl.
I opened the window to air it out, but the smell like rusty guitar strings boiled with rotten fish permeated the car and wouldn't leave.
She had torn open her sister's stomach. Maybe it wasn't just the smell of blood, but also a mix of fat and spinal fluid and digestive juices.
A smell of death, at any rate.
"It's cold," the girl said.
I gave up on airing out the smell, closed the windows, and turned on the heater.
For a night on which I'd witnessed a murder up close, the stars were entirely too pretty.
Luckily, we made it back to the apartment without anyone stopping us. Hurrying up the dusty staircase, I tried to open the door to my room, but had a hard time getting the key to fit. Right on cue, I heard someone coming upstairs.
Looking down at the key, I realized I was trying to jam my car key into the lock. I clicked my tongue, switched the keys to unlock the door, and pushed the girl inside.
The one coming up the stairs was my neighbor, the art student. When she saw me, she weakly raised her hand in greeting.
"Went out on your own? That's unusual," I casually remarked.
"Who was that girl?", she asked.
Even if a lie could have gotten me out of the situation, it was a case where that would only make things worse later. Answering honestly was the right choice here.
"A girl whose name I don't know." After saying that, it occurred to me that this also described the girl in front of me. Well, I know I'd heard it once or twice, but it just completely slipped my mind.
I'd always been terrible at remembering names. Since I rarely had the chance to use them.
"Hmph," the art student grunted scornfully. "I see. So mister shut-in brought a minor to his room?"
"You've got me. Um, how should I explain this..."
"Thirsting for the blood of young girls?", she guessed with a small smile.
"Just... listen to my explanation."
"It's kind of complicated. She needs help right now, and I'm the only one she can rely on."
After a few seconds of silence, she spoke quietly. "Could this possibly be related to the "accident"?"
"Yes. Helping her will make up for things. ...Maybe."
"Huh," she nodded. She was generally an understanding sort. "Then I won't interfere any more. But tell me if you have any trouble. I doubt I can provide much help, though."
"By the way, what's with that stain?"
The art student was looking down at my feet. There was about a four-centimeter patch of dark red on the knee of my faded jeans. I hadn't noticed it until she pointed it out.
"What kind of stain is that? When did you get it?"
My surprise was evident, but I tried to pretend I had no idea how it got there. Even so, I knew my reaction probably told the whole story.
"Well, whatever stain it is, you should wash it off quickly. See you."
With that, the art student returned to her room.
I stroked my chest in relief and opened the door to my own room. The lights were already on.
The girl called from the laundry room. "Where do you keep the detergent?"
She was washing her blood-stained blouse, it seemed; I heard the basin filling with water.
"It should be by your feet," I said just loud enough for her to hear. "Do you have a change of clothes?"
"No. Lend me something."
"Just take anything that's dried. Which should be almost everything."
I heard the sound of the washing machine door, then the shower door opening.
While she was taking a shower, I lied down on the sofa thinking back on what had happened just hours ago.
The moment the girl stabbed her sister with scissors, the weak coughing of the woman stabbed in the gut, the blouse stained by bloodspray, the smell from her internal organs, the pool of dark red blood spreading across the floor, and the eerily quiet night.
It was all burned into the back of my mind. "Sent chills down my spine" wasn't quite right; maybe that was appropriate, maybe not. Either way, my mind was shaken to the core witnessing, for the first time in my life, a stranger's personal affairs.
The strange thing was, it wasn't necessarily an unpleasant sensation. I respected Peckinpah and Tarantino and Takeshi Kitano, but I thought if I were really faced with a bloody scene like in one of their films, I'd get nauseous and faint.
But what was the reality? I wasn't really feeling much uneasiness, fear, or self-blame; instead, I felt the same kind of catharsis I'd get from watching a carnivore eat its prey, or a massive disaster scene.
I recognized that it was something to be ashamed of, though.
I didn't know any way to calm myself other than with alcohol. I poured half a glass of whiskey, added the same amount of water, and drank. I didn't do anything afterward, just listened to the clock tick.
The girl came back after drying her hair wearing some of my pajamas and an overly-long gray parka. It was too big even for me, but it went down to her thighs, serving as a one-piece for her.
"Make sure to dry my clothes," she told me. "I'm going to bed."
She practically collapsed onto the bed, but then sat up with a realization, got something from her bag, and dove back under the covers with it.
It was no doubt the teddy bear. Holding it tight underneath her chin, she closed her eyes.
I took the blouse out of the washer and dried it with a hair dryer. I could've used the dryer at a laundromat, but walking around outside with a single article of clothing from which the blood hadn't completely come out of seemed... awkward.
It'd be wise to buy her some clothes tomorrow, I thought. She'd probably be getting more things bloody yet.
Revenge. I absolutely couldn't understand how the girl felt. I'd never felt anger strong enough to want to kill anyone. My life had long been ruined, but not by others. The one who ruined me was none other than me.
On top of that, I'd been extremely poor at expressing the feeling of "anger" since an early age. And I wouldn't say it indicated powerful self-restraint; I just didn't trust the manifestation of my anger to have any effect on others.
Whenever I got pissed, I'd preemptively give up and convince myself lashing out would do no good, many times stopping myself in situations when I should have clearly been angry.
Though that habit was useful for avoiding trouble, in the long run, I think it contributed to my lack of zest for life.
I was envious of people who could display their anger without a moment's hesitation. In that sense, though only partial, I felt some envy toward the girl.
Though of course, I also sympathized with her plight, and felt lucky I didn't have to live such a life myself.
Once I was done drying the girl's blouse, I folded it up and put it next to the bed.
Back in the laundry room, I changed into my pajamas, but felt too awake to sleep. Shivering in the cold, I waited on the veranda for the art student to show up.
But on days like these, she wouldn't come out. Not too far away, I heard ambulance sirens.
Right as I decided to head back inside, the cellphone in my pocket vibrated with a dull sound.
The girl was inside sleeping, and Shindo was dead, so it didn't seem like there could be a single person who would willingly call me now.
"Hello?", I answered.
"Where are you now?", the art student said.
"Didn't you just see me in the hall? I'm at my apartment. You?"
"I'm at my apartment too, of course."
So we were talking over the phone despite being in rooms right next to each other.
"Then come out on the veranda. I was just coming out for a smoke."
"No thanks. It's cold."
"Don't you think this is a waste of your phone bill?"
"I like talking with people over the phone. It's relaxing. You can close your eyes and just listen to their voice. I also like how your voice sounds over the phone."
"Just my voice you like, huh."
The art student laughed.
"Things going well with that girl you brought home?"
"I think you're under a misunderstanding here, so let me just say...", I began emphatically. "I definitely don't carry any affection for this girl. Just so we're clear."
"I was just teasing. Of course I can tell you don't have that kind of thing going."
I furrowed my brow at her, even though she wasn't there.
"So you called me just to tease me?"
"There's that. But I'm also in a troublesome state of mind."
"What would that be?"
"I don't want to see anyone, but I want to talk to someone."
"That is troublesome."
"Only when it comes to that would I bother you, though. I can see you're busy."
"So sorry." I bowed my head toward the wall. "I mean, I'm usually deathly bored."
"Yeah, well, my fault for getting lonely at just the wrong time. Still... I don't like it."
"Don't like what?"
"How should I put it... I guess, well, you don't seem like yourself today." There were a few seconds of thoughtful silence. "Yeah, that's it, normally you have these eyes like you don't want to go anywhere. Eyes that aren't really focused on anything, that are both looking at everything and not looking at anything, careless eyes. That's the reason I can relax around you. But... when we met in the hall, that's not how your eyes looked."
"Then what were they like?"
"I can't tell you," she hurriedly said. "That girl's already asleep, isn't she? If you're too loud, you might wake her up. So let's call it here. Though I'll call again if I change my mind. Good night."
Then she hung up.
I stayed out on the veranda for about an hour. But when I came back into the room, the girl still hadn't fallen asleep.
She wasn't crying tonight. Instead, she was shivering. Curled up on the bed, tightly holding the pillow and her bear, breathing irregularly. And it was clear it wasn't the cold to blame.
If she was going to get scared, she shouldn't have been killing people to begin with, I thought. But that wasn't going to fly. As she said, she lived thinking about nothing else.
It wasn't just that she wanted revenge. She also had nothing else to do.
Chapter 5: The Girl and the Dressmaking Scissors
My first meal in twenty hours was at a family restaurant. Until then, I'd forgotten I was even hungry, but my appetite came back at once when I smelled the food.
I ordered a morning pancake set for both of us, then asked her while sipping coffee:
"We've had your father and your sister, so is your next target your mother?"
The girl slowly shook her head. She was yawning frequently, not having slept very well. Like yesterday, she was wearing my nylon jacket to hide the blood on her blouse.
"No. My mother, at least, didn't bring me that much pain. Not that she was very kind, either. I'll let her off for now."
This early in the morning, customers were sparse. Most of them were office workers in suits, but at the table next to us, a college-age boy and girl were sleeping in their seats, probably having been here since late last night. The ashtray between them was loaded with cigarette butts.
What a nostalgic sight. Until a few months ago, I'd wasted precious time with Shindo at restaurants in much the same way.
What did we even talk about in all that time? I couldn't remember anymore.
"Next, I think I'll get payback on a former classmate," the girl stated. "It shouldn't require as much travel as yesterday."
"Ex-classmate? Mind if I ask their gender?"
"And I guess she left some kind of scar on you too?"
She swiftly stood up and sat down in the seat next to me. Pulling up her uniform skirt, she showed me her left thigh. A moment later, a seven-centimeter long, one-centimeter wide scar appeared there.
Taking off my sunglasses to look, the mere contrast of her white skin and the wound felt painful.
"Enough. Hide that already," I told her, concerned about those around us. I'm sure she didn't mean it, but it absolutely looked like she was just showing me her thighs.
"She inflicted it with a shard of glass after pushing me into the mud," she explained matter-of-factly. "Naturally, it's not the physical wound she dealt that's a problem to me, but the emotional one. She was a clever one. She knew very well that shame was the number one way to make people give in."
"I see," I remarked with admiration. Much of the bullying that happened during compulsory education could be viewed as "how much shame can I induce?" Bullies knew that it was a very effective way of making people break.
When people come to loathe themselves - that's the moment when they're at their most fragile. People who are shamed are told they don't have anything worth protecting, and lose the will to resist.
"...When I first entered middle school, the school's delinquents were afraid of me," the girl said. "At the time, my sister knew a lot of malevolent adults. My classmates thought that if they laid a hand on me, my sister would get back at them. But that misunderstanding didn't last long. One classmate who lived nearby spread a rumor: "Her sister hates her. I've seen her drag her around and beat her again and again." That turned the tables. The delinquents who once feared me, as if to take out their pent-up anger, made me their punching bag."
She spoke as if all this were a decade or two ago. I felt like I was being told about a past she had long since overcome.
"I put up with it thinking that the situation would change once I advanced to high school. But I was only able to go to a public high school, where many of my middle school classmates went, so nothing changed one bit. No, if anything, it got worse."
"So," I interrupted to cut the story there. I didn't really want to hear her talk too long about such things, and it didn't seem like the kind of history where talking about it would make her feel better. "You're killing again today?"
"...Yes, naturally." With that, she returned to her former seat and resumed eating.
"By the way," she began again, "what happened yesterday was just a little surprising, that's all."
I assumed she was talking about her legs giving out. Well, there was no need to bluff in front of a irrecoverably hopeless guy like me.
"It's not like I'm scared of killing people," she insisted, almost pouting. Maybe the bluff was directed at herself, I realized. Anxious about where her revenge would lead, she told herself that what happened yesterday was just an isolated incident.
"Actually, after yesterday's experience, I was thinking," I told her. "If there's a chance of blood splatter next time too, you should probably prepare some spare clothes."
"I'll be fine."
"Don't be shy. I'll pay for whatever clothes you want to buy. The blood isn't coming out of that uniform, is it?"
"I said, I don't need it," she grumbled with irritation, shaking her head.
"Blood isn't the only problem. After taking revenge on both your father and sister, you should consider that there might already be witnesses. And just wearing a uniform in broad daylight will make you stand out enough as it is. Even your postponement isn't almighty; it's hard to handle minor incidents with it, isn't it? I want to do as much as possible to prevent any trouble."
"...Those are valid points," she finally admitted. "Would you buy two or three outfits for me, then?"
"Well, I'm not gonna do it alone, I don't know much about fashion. Sorry, but I'm gonna have to bring you along."
"Yes, I suppose so."
She put her fork on her plate and sighed wearily.
Puddles formed in the dents of the pavement, reflecting the dull blue sky and black silhouettes of trees.
Fallen maple leaves clung to the sidewalk, and from directly above, they looked like exaggerated stars drawn in crayon by a kindergartener.
Leaves filled the gutters in the plaza as well, rustling with the ripples made by the water.
I went to the nearest department store to let the girl buy whatever clothes she liked. She wandered around reluctantly in front of the various tenants.
After much deliberation, she set foot into a youth-oriented shop with determination, but that was still far from the end of things.
Following a whole five trips around the store, she held up a calm blue jacket and a caramel-brown skirt and asked, "These aren't weird, are they?"
"Well, I think they suit you," I answered honestly.
She glared right at me. "Don't lie. You'll just agree with anything I say, won't you?"
"I wasn't lying. Really, I think people should just wear what they like, as long as it doesn't cause others any trouble."
"Well, aren't you mister useless," she muttered. Another entry on my growing list of nicknames.
After trying the clothes on in front of a mirror, the girl put them back where they were and began another loop around the store.
A woman clerk, dressed very provocatively and with long legs, approached and asked with a shallow smile, "Is she your sister?" She'd seen the stormy situation and mistaken us for siblings.
I felt no obligation to respond honestly, so I just answered "Yeah."
"What a kind brother she has to take her out shopping."
"I don't think she feels that way."
"It's alright. It might take some years, but she'll notice her gratitude for her brother eventually. I was the same way."
"Sure, let's hope," I said, faking a pained smile. "That aside, could you help her pick something out? I think she's really having trouble deciding."
"Leave it to me."
Alas, the girl sensed the clerk approaching and quickly fled the store.
After hurrying to catch up to her, she told me with exhaustion "Forget the clothes. I don't need them."
"I see." I didn't ask the reason. Well, I could more or less guess.
It was about her family. She'd probably rarely been given the chance to buy whatever clothes she liked.
So she shrunk away when faced with the experience of doing it for the first time.
"I'm going to buy a few odd things. Please don't come with me."
"Got it. How much money will you need?"
"I have enough to pay for it myself. Just wait in the car. I shouldn't take that long."
After the girl left, I returned to the shop.
"Can you choose some clothes that would fit that girl from earlier?", I asked the clerk, who skillfully picked out some outfits. Since I figured she might need them right away, I had the clerk take off the price tags too.
And just in case, I went to another shop and bought a blouse similar in design to the now-stained one. I considered the possibility she might be more comfortable in her uniform than casual clothes.
I returned to the car in the underground parking structure, tossed the shopping bags to the back seat, and sprawled out on the seat, whistling as I waited for the girl.
It made me seem no different from anyone else, just a regular shopper - not someone who'd come here to make preparations for murder.
I thought about what would happen when the effects of the postponement ran out. The girl would die, her acts of revenge would all return to nothingness, and instead, the reality of me running her over would return.
Naturally, I would be charged with dangerous driving causing death or injury and arrested. I didn't know in much detail what would happen after that, but I'd probably go to a prison for traffic offenders. My term could be a couple years to a decade, maybe.
Even if I went to prison, that father of mine wouldn't show any particular reaction, I thought to myself.
That man was like a shed skin which, by some terrible mistake, just kept moving. Not even causing death by way of drunk driving would be enough to surprise him.
I figured that unless I did something like what the girl was doing, purposefully taking someone's life with clear intent, I'd never be able to draw a reaction out of him.
My mom, meanwhile... I could easily imagine her using the news to boost her own confidence, saying "See, look at that! I was right to leave that man." She was that kind of person.
Give me a break, I sighed. Just what had I been born for? In twenty-two years of life, I'd never once felt a proper feeling of being "alive."
With no particular goals, nothing to live for, no happiness, I lived just because I didn't want to die. And this is what came of it.
"...I should've given up early and cut my life short like Shindo, shouldn't I."
The words that had crossed my mind countless times, I now let out and voiced aloud.
No, I didn't think that the world wasn't a place worth living in.
But my life, at least, didn't seem worth living.
We arrived at our destination, an amusement center, at around 2 PM.
It was a composite facility with bowling, billiards, darts, a batting center, arcade games, token games, and a number of food and drink shops all in one place.
My head was dazed by the noise, like five hundred alarm clocks going off at once. Just a few months of seclusion had completely erased my tolerance for this kind of chaos.
According to the girl, her next target had dropped out of high school and now worked at an Italian restaurant here.
But I had to wonder, how did she obtain that information? I didn't scrutinize her methods, but no doubt she had spent a lot of time looking into things.
The restaurant had glass walls, so you could easily see what was going on inside. Sitting at a perfectly-positioned bench, I tried to guess which of the workers was the girl's target.
The girl came up to me after she was done changing. I'd told her to do so, because wandering around in a uniform in a crowded place like this could get her taken away by the police.
"That shop clerk made some good choices," I remarked at her outfit. A pin dot one-piece and a moss-green cardigan with boots. "You look really mature in that outfit. Like you could go to college."
Ignoring my praise, the girl requested, "Let me borrow those sunglasses."
"These?", I asked, pointing at them. "Sure, but I think they'll draw more attention."
"I don't care. As long as she doesn't know who I really am, that's enough."
The girl put on the round, shady-looking shades and sat next to me, staring fiercely into the restaurant.
"There she is. That's her."
The person she pointed at - well, just like yesterday - didn't strike me at a glance as someone who'd harm others. She was a relatively pretty girl you could find anywhere.
The distance between her eyes seemed just a tiny bit too small, but when they were closed, you could very well say they were perfectly-spaced.
Her dark-brown dyed hair was cut short, which gave her character when put alongside her more feminine thick lips and small nose.
She was lively in her speaking and movements. A cheerful girl who young and old alike could adore. That was my first impression of her.
But certainly, not all bad people had obviously bad appearances.
"So she'll be the next victim of your revenge."
"Yes. I'm going to kill her today," the girl carelessly remarked.
"Another scissors-to-the-gut while saying hi?"
She folded her arms and thought. "No, those methods would stand out too much here. We'll wait until her shift is over. There's a worker's entrance in the back, so as soon as we see her getting ready to get off work, we'll head back there to meet her."
"No objections. And I'm just waiting in the shadows again?"
"Indeed. If she tries to run, please catch her at any cost."
We didn't know when the woman's shift ended, so we stayed on the bench and kept a lookout.
The girl got two scoops of ice cream, and I stuffed my cheeks with fish and chips, listening to the sound of pins falling at the not-too-distant bowling alley. Young boys and girls were having a blast all around us.
The fish fry tasted like it had been fried in waste oil, and the potatoes weren't heated very well, so I didn't eat much of either, washing it down with soda.
At some point, the girl had begun to focus not on the restaurant, but on a claw machine on the side of the path.
Behind the glass was a pile of stuffed toys - all the same creature, one which resembled the child of a bear and a monkey. Just as I turned back toward the girl, we met eyes.
"...Go get me one of those," she requested. "It seems it's still going to be a while."
"I'll keep watch, so you can go get it," I replied, handing her my wallet. "I'll call for you if I see her do anything."
"I wouldn't be able to get it if you gave me a year. You have to do it."
"Nah, I'm really bad at crane games too. Never won a prize from one since the day I was born."
She shoved the wallet at me and hit me on the back.
I broke up a thousand-yen bill at a change machine and stood before the claw. After identifying a stuffed bear-monkey that was close to the opening and seemed relatively easy to push in, I concealed my embarrassment and inserted a coin.
If only she'd come with me so I could at least look kind of cool, I sighed. A gloomy college boy trying his darnedest to win a teddy bear in the middle of a weekday was just tragic.
After blowing 1,500 yen, I asked a passing clerk to adjust the positions for me, and then spent 800 more yen to finally get the toy in the hole.
It was the first prize I'd ever won from a crane game in my life.
Returning to the bench, I handed the bag to the girl, who brusquely accepted it, and afterward, occasionally stuck her hand in the bag to ascertain the bear's fuzziness.
The woman's shift ended after about 6 PM.
The girl stood up, told me "Let's hurry," and left the area. I followed right behind.
It was a moonless night, ideal for revenge. The parking lot by the back entrance wasn't well-lit, either, so there was little need to even hide behind anything.
After being in a bustling place for so long, my ears were still trying to recover, and I felt dizzy on my feet. The cold autumn wind blew at my neck. Feeling chilly, I put on the jacket I was carrying under my arm.
The girl pulled out a leather case from her bag and took out the dressmaking scissors she had used the other day.
With their dark black handles, uneven to make it a better fit for a person's hand, and their silver blades glinting in the darkness, my knowledge of yesterday's incident made me unable to see them as anything other than an implement for hurting people.
Getting another look at them, I felt they had an eerie shape. The holes of the two handles looked like eyes warped with anger.
The woman wasn't showing up. As I began to wonder if we were a step too late, the back entrance opened.
Having taken off her work uniform and put on a trenchcoat and a wine-red skirt, she looked instantly older than she had while working.
Since she'd bullied the girl at school, I supposed she must have been about seventeen or eighteen as well, but she looked about my age, or a little younger.
She looked at the shivering girl standing before her dubiously.
"Do you remember who I am?", the girl asked.
The woman carefully studied her face.
"Hm, sorry, it's on the tip of my tongue..." She put her finger on her lips in thought.
The girl's expression sharpened. It seemed to jog the woman's memory.
"Ahh, wow. If it isn't you..."
Her cheeks slackened to make a smile.
I knew several people who smiled like that. People who considered beating others down their greatest joy.
They were inordinately good at telling if someone would counter their attacks or not, and thoroughly tormented targets they decided they could easily beat up.
This was the smile of a person who did such things to boost their own confidence.
The woman studied the girl from head to toe. There would be differences between the girl she remembered and the girl now, and she was trying to determine them so she could use them to her advantage.
She'd already made up her mind on how she felt like treating her.
"So you're still alive?", the woman said.
I considered what that meant. Was it "You'll never have a single good thing worth living for, but you're still alive?", or "I put you through all that hell, and you're still alive?"
"No. I'm already dead," said the girl, shaking her head. "And I'm taking you with me."
She didn't give the woman time to respond. A moment later, she'd stabbed the scissors into her thigh.
The woman gave a metallic scream and collapsed to the ground. The girl looked down on her scornfully as she writhed in pain. The sleeves of her caramel-colored trenchcoat turned red.
But I didn't move a muscle as I watched. Today, I was mentally prepared for it.
The woman took a deep breath to try and call for help, but before she could get a word out, the girl kicked her loafers into her nose.
As she held her face and made a muffled scream, the girl took out a tool shaped like a nail file and began rubbing it along the blades. She was sharpening them.
After five passes on each blade, she discarded the file and lifted the woman up by her hair. The woman watched in horror, and the girl thrust the blades of the open scissors right in front of both eyes.
The moving blade for her left, the still blade for her right. The woman stopped completely.
It was a chilling night. It wasn't yet winter, but my breaths came out white.
"Do you have something to say to me?", the girl inquired.
The woman, face covered in blood from her nose, repeatedly tried to call for help, but could hardly form proper words.
The girl treated her like a child whose words she didn't quite catch. "What was that? "I'm so sorry?""
She pulled the scissors back, and just as the woman felt relieved to have the blades away from her eyes, stabbed the scissors hard into her neck.
Her target wasn't the throat, but the artery. As she extracted the blade, blood flooded out. Not just pouring, but overflowing.
The woman frantically brought her hands to the wound as if she could try and stop the blood from leaving her, but some seconds later, she closed her eyes and ceased breathing in that same position.
"...I got my clothes dirty again," said the girl stained with fresh blood, turning to face me. "I was getting fond of these ones."
"We can just buy new ones again," I told her.
I figured as much from how pale she was, but after changing into her usual uniform and returning to the building, she sped off toward the bathroom beside the restaurant and didn't come out for a while.
I heard retching from inside. Sure enough, she was throwing up.
Considering her lack of hesitation in killing people, her reactions afterward were phenomenally normal.
Unlike a cold-blooded serial killer, she had an innate disgust for violence. It must have been so, or else she wouldn't be throwing up and having her legs go weak after her murders.
It must have taken some extreme resentment to turn someone like that to murder.
And then there was me. How could I remain so calm after witnessing a murder? Was I the more deranged one for feeling nothing about being with a murderer?
Well, even if it were so, what did it matter now.
I waited for the girl on a torn-up sofa in the dim hall. She finally returned after three cigarettes' worth of time. Her gait was heavy, and her eyes were bloodshot.
She must have barfed up everything she ate today. Especially thanks to her white clothes, she really looked like she'd lost all color, like a ghost.
"You look terrible," I told her jokingly.
She replied with lifeless eyes, "I always have."
"Not so," I denied.
Strictly speaking, we should have gotten out of there immediately. We'd hid it in some bushes, but it was only a matter of time before the woman's corpse was found, and the girl's bag contained the murder weapon and her bloody clothes.
My clothes had some hard-to-see blood stains on them too, so we'd be finished if any kind of inspection was done on us.
Despite this, these words came out of my mouth.
"Hey, why don't we call it for the revenge today, do something else instead? You seem really exhausted."
The girl swept the long hair out of her eyes and stared me in the eye.
I'd expected her to immediately reject the idea, but that reply sounded surprisingly on-board with it. She was just that worn out.
This should score some good points with her, I thought.
"Let's go bowling," I suggested.
"Bowling?" Her gaze turned toward the bowling lanes opposite us, and her eyes widened. "You don't mean, here, right this moment?"
"Right. We'll keep the murder weapon and stay at the crime scene to bowl. Everyone expects a murderer to return to the scene of the crime, but no one expects them to stay at the scene of the crime and go bowling."
Are you being serious right now?, she asked with her eyes. Very serious, I responded in turn.
"Not a bad suggestion, right?"
"...No. Not bad at all."
It was a moment in which our poor tastes coincided. Stay at the crime scene and have some fun. No better way to desecrate the dead.
After doing the formalities at the reception desk, we received bowling shoes that couldn't have a more ugly design and went to our lane.
As I thought, the girl seemed to have no experience with the game of bowling, and even trembled at the weight of the eight-pound ball.
I went first, intending to show her how it was done. I aimed to knock down no more than seven pins, and sure enough, hit exactly seven. I wanted to keep the first strike for her.
Turning around, I told her "It's your turn."
Carefully inserting her fingers into the ball and glaring at the pins, she threw with impressive form and knocked down eight pins. She had a pretty good arm, and good focus.
By the fourth frame, she was picking up spares, and by the seventh, she got a strike.
It was a nostalgic feeling. For a brief time, inspired by The Big Lebowski, Shindo had frequented a bowling alley absurdly often. Ultimately, the best score he managed was around a 220.
I sat on the sidelines and watched, sometimes playing a game with him. Whenever I did, his precise advice helped me play well enough to get up to 180 sometimes. As someone who never got fired up about any one thing for long, I thought that was pretty good.
To stimulate her competitive spirit, I aimed for a score that just barely beat out the girl. For someone hard to please like her, I thought that would be more effective than losing on purpose.
Sure enough, once the game was over, she was dissatisfied in a good way.
"One more," she requested. "Let's play one more game."
After finishing three games, her pale face had regained a much healthier color.
It seemed the corpse never got found while we were there. Or maybe without my knowing it, the girl had postponed its discovery.
Either way, we were able to pass the time peacefully. After bowling, we had a somewhat fancy meal at the restaurant where the woman she'd murdered worked.
We didn't go back to the apartment that day.
The girl told me her next revenge target was a six-hour drive away. I suggested just taking the bullet train in that case, but she instantly denied it, expressing her hatred for crowds.
If it meant not having to take public transportation, she'd rather sit in the hard seat of a busted-up car for half a day with the man who'd killed her.
She didn't seem to have fully recovered from the shock from killing her classmate. No thanks to her lack of sleep last night either, she was unsteady on her feet as we left the amusement center.
Myself, I'd lived doing nothing but sleep for months now, so I was running on empty, and couldn't keep my eyelids more than half-open after just 20 minutes of driving.
A honking car horn made me realize I'd passed out - I carelessly fell asleep while waiting at a light.
I hurried to hit the accelerator and heard the engine racing. Irritated, I put the car in drive and hit the pedal again.
As I shot the girl a glance to blame her for not waking me up, I realized she'd nodded off in just the same way.
Maybe all her exhaustion was catching up to her at once, as she was still sleeping soundly through the horn and the following speed-up.
It's dangerous to keep driving like this, I thought. I considered stopping the car somewhere to take a rest, but sleeping in the car like two nights ago wouldn't help our exhaustion much.
It would be better to find a hotel somewhere and get some proper rest there.
I imagined the girl bemoaning this, saying "There's no time. Do you think we can afford to rest?", but it was better than causing a boring accident by nodding off while driving.
It seemed like the girl couldn't use her postponement willy-nilly. For instance, if while she were sleeping soundly, I veered out of my lane and had a head-on collision with a large truck, would she be able to postpone that?
If our death was instant, with no time for her life to flash before her eyes, or for her soul to scream "I can't bear for this to happen," would that make it impossible to postpone?
In fact, maybe she couldn't answer that herself. From the explanations she gave me, she didn't seem to fully grasp everything about her ability.
I decided we were better safe than sorry. I drove to a business hotel along the highway, and leaving the girl in the car, asked the front desk if there were any rooms available. I was told there was just one room open, with twin beds.
That was perfect. If it had been a double-size bed, I would have had to sleep on the floor.
As I was filling out information on the form, it occurred to me I didn't know the girl's name or where she lived. I couldn't exactly go ask her now, so I used a fake name.
"Chizuru Yugami." Making her out to be my sister who lived in the same apartment seemed like it might be beneficial later. The clerk at the clothes store had mistaken us for siblings too, so it wasn't the most implausible lie.
I returned to the car. Shaking the girl awake, I told her "We'll take a rest here before your next act of revenge," and she came along without complaint.
Though she wouldn't say it, she must have preferred to sleep on a soft bed than the hard car seat.
In front of the automatic doors, I turned back and asked, "It's a single room for two. Is that okay? There were no other rooms available."
She didn't reply, but I decided to take that as meaning "I don't really mind."
The interior was plain, so it was a business hotel, all right. In the ivory-colored room, there was a square table between the beds with a phone on it, above which hung a cheap-looking oil painting.
In front of the side-by-side beds was a writing desk, with objects like a pot and TV placed on it as if there was no other suitable place for them.
After making sure the door was locked, the girl took the dressmaking scissors covered in dried blood out of her bag and started to wash them in the bathroom sink.
Diligently getting all the stains off, she removed the water droplets with a towel. Then she sat down on the side of one of the beds and lovingly sharpened the blades with a file. Her tool to ensure the success of her objective.
Why scissors? Moving the ceramic ashtray from the writing desk to the bedside table, I lit up a cigarette and pondered. I felt there were far more dangerous weapons one could use.
Did she not have money to buy a knife? Was it because they didn't look dangerous? Or because they were easy to carry? Were they just lying around at home? Were they the easiest thing for her to use? Were these scissors significant to her?
I pictured a scene. After being abused by her father and sister one wintery night, she's locked up in a distant shed, shivering and crying.
But after a few minutes, she gets up and wipes her tears, then searches through the darkness for a tool to open the outside lock. She's familiar with how to turn sadness into anger, giving her some lonely courage.
Crying about it won't do anything. No one is going to help her.
Pulling open the drawer of a toolbox by one of the edges, a pain suddenly shoots up her finger. She pulls her hand back reflexively, but then fearfully reaches to grab the thing that cut her, and looks at it in the moonlight pouring through an opening.
Rusty dressmaking scissors.
Why would there be scissors here? Wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, she could understand. Was anything that looked remotely similar just lumped together?
She puts her fingers in the rings. With some effort, she finally pulls the blades apart.
Paying no mind to the blood running from her finger to her wrist, she falls in love with the scissors. Looking at their sharp points, she feels courage welling up from within her.
Her eyes growing accustomed to the dark, she becomes able to vaguely tell the contents of the drawer. She resumes searching the toolbox from top to bottom, despite the drawers' resistance to opening.
Quickly, she finds what she's after. Taking the file, she skillfully begins to do away with the rust on the scissors.
She has all the time in the world.
An ill-omened scratching sound echoes through the shed in the dead of night.
Someday, she vows. Someday I'll use these to put an end to them.
It was all no more than my own conjecture. But those scissors made me naturally curious.
The girl came back from the shower wearing clean nightwear. The plain white one-piece-style gown didn't seem like pajamas to me, more like a nurse's gown or something.
She finished sharpening the scissors, and as she held them up to her eyes to examine them closely, I asked her, "Can I take a look at those?"
Good question. If I just said I was curious, I knew she'd immediately turn me down. I searched for more effective words.
Right as she was about to put them back in their leather case, I had it.
"I just thought they were pretty."
Apparently that was an acceptable response. She warily handed them to me. Maybe she was pleased about her favorite tool being complimented.
Sitting down across from her, I held them up to my eyes the same way she'd been doing. I thought the blades were polished so clean as to be mirrors, but surprisingly, it wasn't so.
The important thing was that the points could pierce through flesh; diverting attention to any other areas would just diminish the force of the blades.
Only the minimum amount of rust had been removed - of course, I then remembered it was only in my theoretical story that they'd been rusty.
"Very sharp," I remarked to myself.
When you hold a tool, you can't keep yourself from picturing yourself using it. Staring at these scissors specialized for murder, I was suddenly hit with the urge to stab someone with them.
These sharp blades could easily cut into flesh just as easily as a ripe piece of fruit.
I imagined it. I wanted to stab a person with these scissors; so, who should I stab?
The candidate that immediately came to mind was, of course, the girl sitting restlessly on the bed across from me, staring at the scissors now out of her hands.
Like the teddy bear, the scissors seemed to help give her a sense of security. She might not have realized it until just now when she was relieved of them, and though shaken by her helplessness, was trying to act like she was fine. That's how it seemed.
Without her weapon, the girl was now almost powerless. I thought about what would happen if I stabbed her right here.
If I stabbed her right in the chest, showing nicely through the unbuttoned parts of the gown she was wearing.
Or if I stabbed her throat, that made a comfortable voice like a glass harp.
Or if I stabbed her soft belly with hardly any fat and shook it around inside.
It seemed the girl's scissors had given me the same urge to kill.
I put my index finger in one of the holes and spun the scissors around.
She hurriedly reached out and said "Please give them back," but I didn't stop spinning. I enjoyed my sadistic fantasies.
If she says the same thing two more times, I'll hand them back, I decided - by which time the girl's eyes had already changed color. Clouded, I should say.
It was a familiar expression. The one she wore while confronting her revenge targets.
I felt a hard impact. My vision flashed, and I fell back onto the bed. I felt pain like my forehead had split.
From the smell of ash on my head, I realized she'd hit me with the ashtray.
I sensed her taking the scissors from my left hand. I was worried their blades would be pointed at me in a moment, but luckily, that wasn't the case.
I lied down in pain for a while, then got up and wiped the ash off my shirt.
I touched my forehead to check its condition and found a bit of blood on my fingers, but thought nothing of it, having seen enough blood to bore me in the past two days.
I was more unhappy about getting it on my hands. Sniffing them, they smelled like rusted iron.
I picked up the ashtray from the floor and put it back on the table. The girl sat on her bed, facing away from me.
I'd awakened from a kind of intoxication. I couldn't believe myself. I tried to remain calm, but with all the events of the past few days, I felt like I was steadily losing my mind.
I figured I'd made her angry. But when I touched the girl's shoulder to apologize for my horseplay, her body tightened in fear.
As she turned around, tears ran down her cheeks.
She was more fragile than I'd been thinking. Me holding the scissors with that creepy smile must have reminded her of her bullies.
Once she could tell I wasn't going to attack her back, the girl lowered her head and mumbled.
"...Please don't do anything like that again."
"I'm sorry," I said.
As I took a hot shower, my ashtray-whacked forehead throbbed in pain. Washing my hair, the shampoo seeped into my wound.
It had been a long time since I'd gotten a wound worth calling a wound. When was the last time I got an injury at all? Turning the shower off, I searched my memories.
Right, three years ago - I walked around all day wearing unfitting shoes, and my big toenail came off; I think that was the last time.
But I was surprised by what happened back there. What if she hadn't hit me with the ashtray? For whatever reason, the idea "I'll kill her" came very naturally to my mind. It felt like my duty, even.
I believed myself to be gentle and entirely non-violent, but maybe I was concealing more violent tendencies than the average person, and they simply never had much opportunity to surface.
As I changed into pajamas and dried my hair, my phone vibrated in the pocket of my removed jeans. I didn't need to check who it was. Sitting on the bathtub, I answered it.
"I was thinking you might be wanting a call from me sooner or later," the art student explained.
"Hate to admit it, but you're right," I confessed. "I was really suffering."
"Listen, I'm calling you from a public phone right now," she said dubiously. "It's a phone booth on the street corner. But there are lots of spider webs above my head, and it's really grossing me out."
"You'll call me from your cellphone when we're right next to each other, but you'll call me from a public phone when I'm far away?"
"I went walking on my own and it started to rain. This booth was the first thing I noticed when I went looking for shelter. You don't get many chances to use a public phone these days, right? But I didn't have a ten-yen coin, so I put in a hundred. So let's talk for a while, okay? ...Hey, did you just say you were "far away"?"
"Yeah." I thought I probably didn't need to explain myself, but I went on. "I'm staying at a hotel, about a five-hour drive from home."
"Hmm. I can't really call you mister shut-in anymore, can I?", she said with concern. "How about the girl? Going well?"
"Nope, I made her cry. She hit me with an ashtray. I'm bleeding from the forehead."
The art student cackled. "Did you try to do something lewd?"
"Even if I were that kind of person, you'd sooner be my victim than her."
"Oh, I dunno. You seem to like those gloomy girls."
We continued chatting idly for the duration of the 100-yen call. Once it cut off, I finished drying my hair and left the bathroom.
The crying killer was sleeping with her back to my bed. Her long and damp black hair splayed out across the pillow and sheets. Her shoulders calmly rose and fell.
I wish she'd have a nightmare and jump awake, I thought. Then as she trembled, I could make some tactful remark like "Should I buy you a drink?", or "Maybe the air conditioning is too cold. I'll turn it up a little," earning me some points with her.
Then my crime would be atoned for by a tiny bit.
I thought about how if I turned on the TV, I might hear about today's murder, but I saw no point in checking.
I pulled the ceramic ashtray with my blood on it closer, took a cigarette from the desk, and lit it with an oil lighter. Taking in a lot of smoke, I held it for about ten seconds before releasing.
Touching the wound on my forehead triggered a burning pain, but it comforted me how it served as proof of my existence.