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Chapter 8: An Epidemic of Absence

The snow covering the town gradually melted, and beside the lingering snow dirtied by mud, fuki plants showed their faces, signaling the arrival of a new season. The cheerfulness of spring filled the air, and a sweet floral smell drifted through the residential district. People took off their thick coats to wear jackets, savoring a sense of liberation that had been missing for some time.

The cherry trees in this town bloomed at the end of April. Depending on the year, their optimal viewing time could be as late as Golden Week. As a result, cherry blossoms weren't symbols of meetings and farewells to the townspeople. Instead, they were like flowers that, after completing a change of environment and taking a breath, appeared to suggest the future.

It was the first day of a three-day weekend. Kousaka lazily walked the long hilly road through the residential district.

There was construction being done in several places around town. Some buildings were being constructed, whereas other buildings were being dismantled. There were areas with road repair work, and areas with power line work. It's like the whole town is being reborn, Kousaka thought.

"Kousaka, when were you going to move, again?", asked a girl walking beside him.

"Next week," he replied.
"That's sudden. Why at a random time like this?"

"Thinking about it, commuting was pretty inconvenient here. I decided I should move somewhere closer."

It was a girl a coworker had introduced to him, named Matsuo. She was two years younger than Kousaka. Her always-lowered eyebrow-ends gave off a gloomy impression, but if you looked, she had pretty good facial features, and a wholly refreshing smile. She had worked part-time as a student until she was made into official employee, and continued with her job since.

This was Kousaka's third time having an outing with her. It had been less than a month since they got to know each other, but Matsuo showed affection for Kousaka since the first time they met. Kousaka also felt like he could naturally relax around her.

Once they talked, they found they had a surprising amount in common. For instance, germaphobia. Until just two years ago, she had washed her hands a hundred times a day, changed clothes five times a day, and took three-hour showers. Thanks to perseverant treatment, she was now able to live a normal life, but at its worst, she couldn't even leave the house. When Kousaka casually brought up germaphobe-related items like disinfectant and air purifiers, Matsuo's eyes shined and she spoke about them.

Book and music tastes, feeling distanced from work, lacking interest in social problems. In many respects, Kousaka and Matsuo's opinions matched. It was the natural flow of things for them to become friendly.

The two kept walking aimlessly, talking about movies they'd watched recently. As they came to the path along the river, the topic changed to fishing. Matsuo spoke about memories of her father taking along to go ocean fishing.

"Oh, yeah, I got food poisoning from that once," Matsuo recalled.

"It was when I was eight or so. We made sashimi from a greenling we caught at home, and ate it as a family. It was really tasty, but late that night, I suddenly got a really bad stomachache. I really wondered if I was going to die. And I was the only one affected - my dad, my mom, and my little sister were totally fine. It was awful."

"Anisakiasis, I bet?", Kousaka said with a wry smile. "That even makes grown-ups writhe in agony, so it must have been hell for a kid."

"Oh, you're so knowledgeable!" Matsuo clapped her hands in admiration. "Yes, it was the doing of that foul Anisakis. Do you go fishing too, Kousaka?"

"Nah. Never even been to a fishing hole."
"Then do you eat lots of raw fish?"

"I had an acquaintance who knows all about that kind of thing. I'm just repeating it from her."

"Oh, is that it." Matsuo nodded, then asked to dig deeper, "An acquaintance? Is she a friend?"

"No, a little different from a friend."

"Then what? A girlfriend?"

"About five months ago, I had a part-time babysitting job. I heard it from her."

"Babysitting..." Matsuo looked increasingly suspicious. "Kousaka, you don't seem like you'd be great with children."

"Yeah. But there were reasons I had to take the job."

"I... see," Matsuo affirmed ambiguously. "Even so, isn't it rather rare to find a child who'd tell you about Anisakis?"

"I guess so," Kousaka said. "I've only met the one, myself."

*

In less than four months since he started taking the deworming medicine, Kousaka experienced such great changes that you might as well say he was reborn.

First, his germaphobia was cured. The disorder that was so firmly rooted in the person Kengo Kousaka was gone like it never existed a month after treatment started. It really was instant. Like a stomachache or mouth ulcer: you can think of nothing else before it's cured, but once it's gone, you can hardly remember what it was like.

When he paid attention, he realized he was using the same towels for several days, and was fine going from getting home straight into bed. He didn't think anything of being shoulder to shoulder with other people, and could grab onto straps on the train if necessary.

Once the bottleneck of his germaphobia was cured, the rest proceeded steadily. He easily settled upon a new job. Looking through a site geared for people who were trying to get back to work after rehabilitation, as if by coincidence, his eyes went straight to a highly favorable job offer. It was a recruitment for web programmers at a web design company, and the programming languages listed as requirements were all ones he was an expert in. Kousaka took the offer, submitted some of his code, and left the rest to flow. He didn't have any hopes at all, but by next month, he was a full-time employee at the company. Things moved so smoothly as to make him worried someone was stringing him along.

As he noticed once he began working, Kousaka spending his free time making malware really helped develop his programming skills. It wasn't that he learned the specific knowledge, but rather that he established the right thought process for programming. He became valued at his workplace. It certainly wasn't the easiest job, but having found a solid place to be gave him great joy.

Kousaka slowly but surely regained confidence, to a level appropriate for his age. People around Kousaka mistook his calmness that stemmed from resignation as composure from rich life experiences, and were convinced he was a superb person. They saw his frequent job changes as proof of his faith in his own abilities. Every element miraculously worked as a positive. Just a month after joining the company, he'd made friends to have a drink with after work, and himself nearly forgot that until a few months ago, he was completely unfit for society.

And yet sometimes, he suddenly felt a boundless void within himself. Said void was in the shape of a girl. When he dozed off at his desk, when he walked the same roads he had once walked with her, when he saw things he associated with her - headphones, blue earrings, oil lighters. At any such opportunity, Kousaka was made to recall Hijiri Sanagi.

But that was all over. Sanagi had surely long forgotten the days they spent together, and had started on her own true life.

That was probably something to be celebrated, Kousaka thought.


In the last third of March, Kousaka, fully adapted to work and convinced of his cured misanthropy, discovered that even freed of the worm's effects, he as of yet loved Sanagi. That part which he'd expected to be the first to change right after treatment began was the one thing about him that hadn't changed a bit.

Kousaka felt deep confusion. Wasn't the love between Sanagi and I a sham brought about by the worm? Why has my germaphobia and misanthropy been cured, but not my "lovesickness"?

Maybe I've had a terrible misunderstanding? Maybe the consolation I gave Sanagi when we parted to pacify her was right on the mark. It was likely the truth that the worm had the power to make its hosts fall in love. But even without that - that is, without the worm - had Sanagi and I been able to love each other from the start? Maybe I just failed to realize that, and after hearing about Professor Kanroji and the Hasegawas, came to cast doubt on everything and distrusted my own feelings?

His heart beat fiercely, urging him on. Almost unconsciously, Kousaka called Sanagi. The call sound played. He counted. One, two, three, four... at five, the call gave up and ended.

Kousaka put his hand to his chest and took a deep breath, calming his rapid heartbeat. There's no rush. She should call back eventually.

But a whole day passed with no contact from Sanagi. Afterward, Kousaka called five times and sent three emails, but with zero responses.

He considered going to Sanagi's house directly. It had been a month and a half since he last visited Urizane Clinic. He'd been given plenty of medicine, and there was no sign of his symptoms returning, so he had no reason to go. But while he hadn't considered it when visiting before, if he went to the clinic and said "I want you to let me meet Sanagi," would they have a reason to refuse him?

Kousaka examined the pros and cons. But his swelling feelings, after a certain point, began to rapidly shrivel up.

Now that he thought about it, there could only be one reason why Sanagi wasn't responding. One or two, perhaps, but she couldn't have not noticed five or six attempts at contacting her. The fact that trying this again and again didn't get any reply meant that she was intentionally ignoring Kousaka's attempts to contact her.

Sanagi must be trying to forget about me, Kousaka concluded. Maybe her deworming had also succeeded, and she was able to escape the worm's control. And once she regained her normal thoughts, not a shred of affection for Kousaka remained. It was ironic, but that was probably what it was.

It didn't take too long for Kousaka to come to terms with that. Luckily, he had plenty of work he had to do. Instead of worrying about Sanagi, he focused himself on those tasks. In doing so, he got to know Matsuo, and the hole in his heart was slowly filled with things to substitute.

This way of life is the most proper and reasonable, Kousaka told himself. My days with Sanagi were like a dream in fading consciousness, a kind of phantasmagoria. Indeed, they were more beautiful than anything. But in the end, just a dream. If I try to stay there forever, I'll just be dying while I live. What we should be chasing after is happiness with its feet on the ground, happiness for the living.


"Kousaka?"

He was brought back to his senses, and nearly dropped the glass in his right hand. What was I doing again?, Kousaka wondered. Right, I remember. I was drinking with Matsuo. We were walking through town together and decided to go into an Irish pub we spotted. I must have been nodding off from drunkness and fatigue.

"Ahh, sorry. I was spacing out." Kousaka firmly rubbed his brow.

"You were doing that for a pretty long time," Matsuo said with a laugh. "It looks like it's almost closing time. Do you want another drink, or not?"

Kousaka looked at his wristwatch and thought.

"I think I'll call it for today. Or have you not had enough, Matsuo?"

"Oh, no." Matsuo shook her head forcefully. "I'm probably too drunk as it is."

"It does look that way," Kousaka affirmed, seeing the faint red in her face.

"Yes, I'm drunk enough that you look a little cool, Kousaka."

"That's a serious illness. Better get home and rest."
"Right. I'll do that."

With that, Matsuo picked up the glass in front of her and poured it all down her throat. Then she met eyes with Kousaka, bent her head down, and smiled playfully. But Kousaka observed that her eyes, though very faint, had a tinge of disappointment.

Maybe my reply wasn't what she was hoping for, Kousaka thought to himself. Maybe Matsuo wants to take our relationship to the next step. She's showing enough signs that even someone who can't take a hint like me can tell.

If I know that, why won't I respond?

Maybe somewhere in my heart, I'm still holding on to Sanagi?

After leaving Matsuo, Kousaka headed not for the train station, but retraced his steps to another bar to drink some more. He couldn't explain to himself why he did that. Maybe because if he went back to that room, like it or not, he'd remember being with Sanagi. Maybe the reason he was hesitating to advance his relationship with Matsuo, too, was because he couldn't permit outsiders into the room he'd been with Sanagi in.

He felt he finally understood why he was in a hurry to move. How pathetic, Kousaka laughed self-derisively. I want to think I've become a proper human, but deep in my heart, my crush on a 17-year-old girl goes on.

*

He missed the last train, so he took a taxi home. He got the money out of his wallet without really counting, gave it to the driver, and took the change. When he got out of the car in the residential district, the thick smell of spring flowers carried on the night wind tickled his nose.

With an unsteady walk, he climbed up the apartment stairs. After unlocking the door to his room, he fell collapsing onto the bed. These spring nights were warm, the mattress was soft, and the sheets were cool. He let his consciousness drift away.

At first, he thought his ears were ringing. But as it repeated again and again, he realized it was the sound of the intercom. He thought it had turned morning while he nodded off, but when he sat up and looked out the window, it was still night. He looked at the clock, which had just turned 2 AM. Who could it be at this abnormal hour...? Just as he had that question, he remembered something very similar that had happened before.

His drunkenness and drowsiness cooled in an instant. He lept up and went to open the front door.

His prediction was correct. Standing there was Izumi. With one hand in the pocket of his worn suit, he rubbed his unshaven beard with the other. He wasn't wearing his usual drab coat.

"Hey. You been doing well?"

"Izumi?", Kousaka asked, dumbfounded. "What could you be here for?"

"Is it okay if I come in? Or has your germaphobia not cured yet?"
"No, I don't really mind if you come in..."

Izumi took off his leather shoes and entered the room.

"Want some coffee?", Kousaka asked.
"No, I'm fine."

Izumi looked around the room. Since Kousaka was just about to move, it was awfully barren. There was nothing other than a pile of white cardboard boxes in the corner and minimal furnishings. His work chair and desk, an empty bookcase, coat hangers, the bed. Izumi thought for a bit, then gently sat on a cardboard box.

Kousaka sat in the chair and asked:

"If you've come here, then something related to the worm must have come up, more or less."

"Correct," Izumi replied without budging an eyebrow.

"Has there been some problem?"

"I'd actually like to ask you - anything to mention?", Izumi asked back. "Any strange changes happen lately?"

"No, no real outstanding changes. I'm recovering quite well." Kousaka suddenly noticed he still had his wristwatch on, so he took it off and flung it onto the bed. "Thanks to you, my misanthropy has been cured too. It seems all the worms in me have died off."

"That's wrong. Your worms haven't gone yet."

A silence fell between them.

"...What are you talking about?", Kousaka said with a stiff smile. "As you can see, my germaphobia's gone. I successfully got a new job, and my human relationships are going smoothly. There's no trace of the worm's effects left."

Izumi shook his head. "It's just a lull state. I don't know why, but the worms in your body seem to have a resistance to medicine. It's not like I've checked, but I can't think of anything else. They've temporarily weakened for now, but if you stopped taking the medicine for a while, they'd probably come back right away." Then he suddenly grinned. "And that's a very lucky thing."

"Lucky?"

"I'm saying you should be grateful your worms have such powerful survivability."

As if enduring something, Izumi took a deep breath, and slowly let it out.

Then he informed him.

"Except for you, deworming medicine has been extremely effective on those infected with the worm. And when the worms in their bodies died... their hosts, too, chose death."

Kousaka's expression stayed frozen. Not a word came out of his mouth.


Izumi continued.

"Professor Kanroji and Dr. Urizane had the same opinion about the worm causing the infected to commit suicide. They thought that once the number of worms in the host's body passed a certain number, they couldn't bear living in human society anymore and accepted death. Well, it was a reasonable guess. Even if it weren't for those two, you might think so. ...But there was a fatal mistake in that thinking. We were thinking with the assumption of "suicide equals abnormality." That was the trap we fell into.

"As research continued, a number of facts came to the surface. This parasite's final host is humans, sure, but it doesn't seem it can infect just any human. In fact, it can't infect most humans; even if it gets into their body, it's quickly shut down by the immune system. But in rare cases, there's people like you with bodies that not only don't exterminate the worm, but firmly preserve it. Like they're actively accepting infection.

"This is getting into my own subjectivity a little, but... maybe the worm doesn't have any such power to make the hosts kill themselves. Sure, it isolates the host, but maybe that has nothing to do with their death. In fact, there's one new fact Dr. Urizane's research found. That the worm has the ability to suppress the host's negative emotions. Anger, sadness, jealousy, hate... any negative emotions that occur in the host can be weakened by the worm. I don't know the detailed workings, but Dr. Urizane said it might be that the worm can selectively consume the enzymes needed to create nerve signals. If that theory's correct, then we could explain it as the worm feeding on its host's anguish. Thus it probably isolates its host from society to provide it plenty of anguish. Guess the stress of everyday life isn't filling enough.

"So then I came up with this hypothesis. Maybe the infected, before the worm infected them, were always people with souls prone to sickness - to be frank about it, people with a strong desire to die, or suicidal thoughts? What if the ones the worm could make into hosts were people who'd kill themselves if they were left alone?

"With that theory, a lot that hasn't sat right before suddenly makes sense. The majority of people can't provide enough anguish to sustain the worm's life. Even if the worm is ignored, it'll be weak, and die from an immune system attack. On the other hand, the bodies of people who are constantly charmed by death with more anguish than they can handle, they've gotta be better than the worm could ever ask for. Some ticks that infect humans eat excess sebum and keep balance in the skin, so it's kind of like that. They eat excess anguish to keep a mental balance. ...So those bodies don't exterminate the worm, they accept it. They get incorporated like an organ to handle all that anguish that the host can't handle alone. The host and the worm form a mutually-beneficial relationship.

"So, what happens if you try to exterminate a worm like that with medicine? All that anguish it was taking care of has nowhere to go, and the host is hit with it again all at once. They got so naive with the worm protecting them, they don't have the strength left to endure. They lose what was letting them live longer; nothing's left to stop their longing for death.

"We were convinced the deaths of the infected were caused by the presence of the parasites. But the reality was just the opposite. Their death was caused by the absence of parasites. That's my conclusion."


Various things Kousaka heard from Sanagi surfaced in his mind like flashbacks.

"...Thus, making the immunosuppressive system work is linked to bettering immunity-related diseases. But apparently, these regulatory T cells are brought about by the existence of "parasites approved by the host." So in essence, the absence of parasites, an extremely clean situation, results in an increase in modern day allergies and autoimmune diseases."

"Also, D. paradoxum don't abandon their partners to the last. Once D. paradoxum join together, they never let go of each other. If you try to tear them apart, they'll die."

And cysticercosis - a disease that first occurs when bladder worms die in the central nervous system.

The clues had been there all along.

We were being given life by the parasites - and we never should have let go for a moment.

"Sanagi -" That was the first word out of his mouth. "What happened to Sanagi?"

"She was the first victim," Izumi said. "Hijiri Sanagi was the first to experience the effects from the absence of parasites. One morning, Dr. Urizane got worried that his granddaughter wasn't waking up, so he went to her room and found her lying on the floor, unmoving. There were signs she'd downed a ton of sleeping pills and alcohol. That was about half a month ago."

The world fell out from under him. His vision blurred, and his ears rang loudly.

But Izumi's next words pulled Kousaka up from his fall into hell.

"But don't worry. Hijiri Sanagi's not dead yet. Her attempt failed. She was a little too excessive - her strong desire to die backfired on her. She took so many pills and so much alcohol, so she threw up before either took much effect. Or else maybe she got afraid in the middle and threw it up herself, but either way, she was spared. Although..."

Izumi was stuck on what to say, and looked toward the window to think. Kousaka looked out there too, but there was nothing notable to look at. Just darkness.

Eventually, Izumi opened his mouth.

"After getting minimal treatment at the clinic, she was transferred to a proper hospital. Her life didn't seem in danger for the time being, so Dr. Urizane and I were relieved. But Hijiri Sanagi's suicide attempts had only just begun. She was like a canary in a coal mine."

Kousaka took the initiative to ask: "The other patients - did the Hasegawas behave similarly?"

"They did," Izumi nodded. "A week after the incident with Hijiri Sanagi, we got a call from Yuuji Hasegawa. "Satoko Hasegawa has committed suicide," he said, then hung up. We didn't know what was going on. The next day, we decided to head to his house to ask for details, but we were too late. Yuuji Hasegawa had already followed after his wife. The two had expired huddled up together. And while we were discovering the Hasegawas' suicides, Hijiri Sanagi vanished from her hospital room."

"Vanished?"

"Yeah. She left a note that just said "thank you very much." We put out a search order, and I've been looking around myself for days, but we haven't found Hijiri Sanagi. I thought she might have come to your place, but I guess that was wrong. ...Where could she have gotten to?"

Then Izumi fell silent. His face looked tired. It seemed he'd been beaten down by fatigue, powerlessness, and all sorts of other emotions.

"I'm so exhausted," Izumi said with a sigh.

"In the end, what we were doing was completely off the mark. We didn't save the patients, we actively drove them to death. We just had to meddle with something that was fine left alone. What a comedy show. Dr. Urizane's spirits are in the dumps, like he's been stunned into numbness. He might just kill himself before his granddaughter."

After a laugh, Izumi stood up sluggishly.

"It's selfish, but... as of today, I'm gonna be leaving Dr. Urizane. Doubt I'll see you again."

Izumi turned his back to Kousaka.

Kousaka called to him.

"Izumi."

"What?", Izumi said without turning around.

"Please, don't die."
"...If you're worried about that, I'm really done for."

Izumi's shoulders shook with a chuckle.

"So long. Get on well with that worm. Like it or don't like it, it's an important part of you."

With that parting remark, he left.


A suicide attempt. That was the real reason Sanagi hadn't responded to his calls and emails. By the time Kousaka called, the worms in Sanagi's body had already died off, and she was fighting an encroaching longing for death. Or maybe she was steadily preparing for suicide. Either way, that was what was filling her head, and she couldn't afford to think about anything else.

So Sanagi's lack of response wasn't because she hated me - that was Kousaka's honest first impression, before thoughts of ensuring her safety. It was imprudent, but that was what Kousaka delighted over first.

Ultimately, this happiness I'm feeling now is everything, Kousaka thought. I love Sanagi. There's nothing more definite than that. The worm and our ages don't change that. If this feeling is a lie, then I'll keep being deceived until the day I die.

After relishing that happiness, Kousaka considered the whereabouts of the missing Sanagi. The locations of special interest to her were very limited. Thus, the options were naturally narrowed down.

Perhaps Sanagi intended to kill herself in the same place her parents did. He heard they had jumped off a bridge in the mountains which was infamous for suicides. It wouldn't be strange if she wanted to jump from that same place herself.

I have no real evidence. But right now, I also don't have any clues that sound better. I need to head there, Kousaka thought strongly.

He called a taxi from his phone. He got in the taxi that arrived ten minutes later and told the driver his destination. The aging driver silently started to drive without an affirmation.

But a whole twenty minutes later, Kousaka said he forgot something and had him turn around. Truthfully, it wasn't something he forgot to take. He just suddenly thought: I should wear the red scarf Sanagi gave me on Christmas Eve.

Even though it was a race against time, he couldn't help but feel it was necessary. It was a kind of prayer. He felt that scarf would serve the role of a red thread that pulled them together.

To say it in advance, that premonition was on the mark.

Maybe it was the worm in his head that secretly told him so.

Back at the apartment, Kousaka raced up the stairs and arrived at his apartment door out of breath. As he put his key in, he noticed the door was already unlocked. He must have forgotten to lock it in his hurry to leave.

When he went inside, he saw light seeping in from the living room door. It seemed he also forgot to turn off the lights. But he didn't care about that. Kousaka entered the room without taking off his dirty shoes, went through the kitchen to the living room,

and there, sleeping soundly, he found Sanagi.



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Chapter 9: Parasite in Love

Kousaka woke up to the smell of coffee. Soft morning light came in through the window.

He slowly looked around, still lying in bed. There were two mugs together on the table, with faint vapor visible. From the kitchen came the smell of buttered toast and cooked bacon.

Listening close, mixed in with the morning chirps of birds, he heard Sanagi whistling.

It was that kind of morning.

They put two cardboard boxes together and used them as a table to have breakfast. From a distance, the white cardboard boxes could look a bit like a table painted white.

There was hardly any conversation between them. A radio on the table played intermittent music. Kousaka didn't know what song it was, but it definitely had piano in it. Occasionally he heard a fragmentally nostalgic melody, but if he tried to listen to the specifics, the melody seemed to get quiet and run away.

After breakfast, the two took showers and prepared to head out. All Sanagi had besides pajamas was her uniform, so she wore that. Kousaka got a zero-personality shirt and chino pants out of the closet, but as he was about to change into them, Sanagi stopped him. "Hold on a sec."

"What?"
"You know how when we first met, you were wearing a suit despite not having a job? I wanna see that again."

"Sure, but why?"
"Because I like you in a suit. Got a problem?"

Kousaka shook his head. "It's no problem. And I am working now, so I won't feel too guilty about it either. I'm a little worried how it looks to others with me wearing a suit and you wearing a school uniform, though."

"It's fine. If anyone asks, we'll just say we're siblings."

I guess you're right, Kousaka readily agreed.

After changing, the two left the apartment for a walk. A peaceful sunlight appropriate for a quiet Sunday shone on the residential district. The cherry blossoms were apparently starting to fall, as pink petals piled up on the road. The sky, as if to complement the color of the cherry trees, was a modest light blue. Little clouds that brought to mind pieces of fluff floated through that sky.

The two held hands, in a way that seemed like neither went first, and walked.

They went into a used bookstore at the end of the shopping district outside the train station, and spent a while there. The store was cramped, and smelled of musty old books.

Kousaka became fond of an unusual encyclopedia he spotted, and after some slight hesitation, he purchased it. It was effectively an "encyclopedia of encyclopedias," listing all the different types of encyclopedias in the world.

Then the two went to a bakery on the corner of the street, got sandwiches, and walked as they ate. They were loaded with ingredients, so with each bite, lettuce and onion would fall out. Seeing Kousaka clean up the sauce around his mouth with his finger, Sanagi giggled.

"I couldn't imagine you doing this before, Mr. Kousaka."

"Guess so. Eating while walking, or touching old books, I'd only ever do it in these past three months," Kousaka said, wiping breadcrumbs off his hands. "But Izumi says once the worms get healthy again, my germaphobia will apparently return. Once that happens, it's dubious if I'll be able to keep a job."

"Huh," Sanagi said with disappointment. "Well, you'd better enjoy a lot of impure things while you can."

Kousaka grinned wryly. And he took back Sanagi's hand.

*

Let's rewind a bit.

When Kousaka found Sanagi sleeping in his bed the night before, he first wondered if it was a hallucination of his. It was just a mistake; the next time he blinked, she would be gone.

So he kept his eyes wide open. He decided to take in that illusion for as long as he could. Soon, his eyes dried and started to tear up, so he unwillingly closed them. When they opened, the illusory Sanagi was still there.

He closed his eyes again, rubbed them for ten seconds, and reopened them.

Yes, Sanagi was there.

"Sanagi," he said out loud.

When he spoke, Sanagi's body twitched. Soon, she slowly sat up and met eyes with Kousaka. Then as if to hide herself from him, she pulled the blanket up to her chest, and lowered her head with embarrassment.

Kousaka's feelings were temporarily numbed by shock, so he couldn't be surprised or happy.

"You aren't a ghost, right?", he asked.

"Who knows," she said with upturned eyes. "Want to test?"

Kousaka timidly approached, and reached out to touch her cheek. There was the feeling of human skin, and warmth. To further push the point, Sanagi put her right hand on his. There was definitely the feel of human skin there, too. She really existed.

Kousaka put his arms around Sanagi's back and hugged her. Sanagi accepted it wordlessly.

"Why..." He was too emotional to properly put any words together. "Why are you here? Is your body okay? Aren't the worms dead?"

"Don't ask me all at once," Sanagi laughed nervously. "Ask one at a time."

Kousaka gently parted from her and asked, "Is your body okay?"

"Hmm. To tell the truth, it's still not too healthy," Sanagi said. "But considering how much medicine I took then, it's a miracle it turned out this well."

She poked around her stomach area.

"My memories got dicey while I was in a coma, so I don't remember much about the part where I decided to kill myself. But I do vaguely remember throwing up the medicine of my own will. I'm sure I must have come back to my senses just in time. The doctor said if I had thrown up a little later, there'd be nothing they could do."

"So that's it..." Kousaka let out a big breath. "Well, next, where have you been and what have you been doing after you ran from your hospital room? And why did you vanish in the first place?"

"There was something I wanted to do, so I hid out in our clinic. I always used to hide when I didn't want to go to school, so there's a hiding place only I know." Then Sanagi shrugged. "But that's not really what I want to talk about. Isn't there something more important to ask?"

"...What happened with the worm? Didn't you kill them off with the medicine?"

"Yeah. It seems like all the worms that were in me are dead."

"Then why -"

Sanagi grinned.

"What's inside me now are the worms that were in your body, Mr. Kousaka."

"My worms?"

"That day, in the container, I forced you to kiss me, right?" Sanagi turned her eyes away shyly. "At that moment, some of the worms from your body transferred to mine, copulated with my worms, and birthed resistant parasites. That's what let me just barely survive. Your worms saved my life, Mr. Kousaka."

Kousaka closed his eyes and thought, then sighed.

"In the end, I guess you were right about everything, and I was wrong."

Sanagi shook her head. "What can you do? It's not like I had any basis to consider the worm important either. In this case, my desires and the reality just happened to match up. Your judgement was definitely proper. And I know the reason you refused me was for my sake."

"You're way overestimating me. I'm not that great of a person."

Kousaka gave her a weak smile, then said formally:

"Thanks for coming back. I'm really happy."

"Same here. Thanks for leaving a place for me to come back to."

Sanagi slightly lowered her head, and her lips formed a smile.

*

A blue car was parked by the entrance to the park. Many cherry tree petals were stuck to the hood and windshield, greatly interfering with visibility. Looking through the passenger-side window, there was a man sleeping soundly in the driver's seat.

Kousaka looked all around, but didn't see any cherry trees. The wind had probably carried them here from inside the park. It was a windy day, after all. Regardless, walking around aimlessly almost made him forget about the wind. Maybe because there were no changes in the way it blew.

A few minutes after entering Mizushina Park, the two got on a path lined with cherry trees on either side, and after walking a bit, they stopped.

It was a sheer spectacle.

The petals were pouring down like snow.

Blown around by the wind, the treetops swung up and down, making petals fly up into the air one after another, glittering white in the afternoon sun.

The two were overwhelmed by the sight for a while. The cherry trees before them were being blown around so forcefully, likening it to a snowstorm would hardly be an exaggeration. In contrast to the dizzying scene, the park was enveloped by a bizarre silence. The sound of the wind like white noise, and the rustling of the trees. That was all there was. Visitors who came to view the trees were sparse, so there were no blue sheets to impair the view either. There was a bigger park nearby, so everyone was probably going there instead.

Kousaka reminisced. When the two of them first met, this park was covered in snow. Sanagi stood by the lake, feeding swans. At that time, her hair was dyed silver, she wore a short skirt, and she was smoking.

Somehow, it felt like something from the distant past. And yet it hadn't been half a year since then.


Once they were tired of walking, the two sat down on a sloped lawn. And huddling up in the shade of a tree, they watched the cherry tree snowstorm, and listened to the wind.

At the bottom of the slope, they saw the lake. The water was covered with white flower petals, looking almost as if it were frozen over and covered in snow, so you could just walk across.

Then Kousaka noticed a single swan casually swimming in the lake. He looked again and again, but it was no duck, it was a swan. Maybe it had been left behind by the flock? But the swan didn't show any sign of lonesomeness, elegantly swimming among the raft of flowers.

That unrealistic sight reminded Kousaka of a child using toys to make a doll house devoid of order. Like something from an inconsistent dream.

"Hey, Mr. Kousaka," Sanagi said, still leaning her head on his shoulder.

"From the moment I first met you here, I knew it would turn out like this."

"Really?"

"Yeah. ...Do you remember when you first talked to me?"

"I remember it well." Kousaka squinted as if honing his senses. "I thought you were a really unsociable girl."

"I couldn't help that. I'm shy."

Sanagi pouted, then tilted her head a little and looked up.

"When we met, it was under this mistletoe."
"Mistletoe?"

Kousaka turned his gaze up. He saw a clearly-foreign plant mixed in around the ends of the cherry tree's branches. When he saw it in winter, it looked so sorry he couldn't distinguish it from a bird's nest, but this mistletoe was now growing verdant leaves.

"People who meet under mistletoe during the Christmas season have to kiss. Did you know?"

Kousaka shook his head. He figured it was probably a Western custom.

"And I'd decided that my first kiss had to be someone I liked. So it was inevitable I'd come to like you, Mr. Kousaka."

"That's some wild logic." Kousaka grinned bitterly.

"I don't really know what I'm saying either." Sanagi laughed, shoulders shaking. "At any rate, I'm saying our love was supported not just by a parasitic animal, but a parasitic plant. All these parasitic organisms are deeply involved in our lives. I think that's what I'm trying to say."

"...I get it."

"Sheesh, if we can't fall in love without depending on parasitic organisms, who knows which of us are the real parasites." Sanagi laughed again.

Then there was silence for a while. The two of them thought about the happy coincidences parasites had brought about for them.

Eventually, Kousaka broke the silence.

"You said earlier people had to kiss under mistletoe."

"Yeah. But only around Christmas time."

"Just look." Kousaka extended his index finger and faced forward. "There's a swan. There's a snowstorm. The lake's frozen over."

"You're right," Sanagi chuckled. "Well, can't argue with that."

Sanagi faced Kousaka and slowly closed her eyes.

Kousaka put a quick kiss on the edge of her lips.


Soon, Sanagi fell asleep in Kousaka's lap. She must have been tired. Maybe the worm was still recovering in her, and wasn't able to fully process the anguish she had.

Kousaka ran his hand through her soft hair. The blue earring hidden on her ear glinted. Even after her hair went back to black, it seemed she still kept her earring on.

Thinking about it, this was his first time seeing her in a spring-like outfit. He hadn't noticed when she was dressed in winter wear, but looking at her body up close, he identified signs that she'd attempted more than just taking sleeping pills. There were some things that looked ancient, and some things that looked recent. Each one of them saddened Kousaka.

I hope she won't have bad dreams, Kousaka prayed.

Cherry petals continued to fall in the park. As they sat in the tree shade, the petals slowly piled upon them.

Before long, the sun descended slightly, and the two were illuminated by dim light coming through the trees. Careful not to wake Sanagi, Kousaka lied down and closed his eyes, and took a breath of the rich spring air, filled with the smell of grass and cherry trees.

I won't be able to experience nature without worry for long. Before too long, my germaphobia will resurge, and I'll hole up in my room again. That thought depressed me a little. But when I think about how this tender feeling I feel when I'm with Sanagi was brought about by the worm, I can't bring myself to hate that parasite of love.

In the end, it had become hazy whether or not we could have fallen in love without depending on the worm. But at this point, I can feel like that's not such a big issue.

Because the worms are an indispensable part of our bodies. We can't think about anything separating ourselves from them. With the inclusion of the worm, I can call myself "me" for the first time.

People don't just fall in love with their heads. They can love with their eyes, love with their ears, love with their fingertips. So then there's nothing strange about how I loved with the worm.

No one can complain about that.

*

By the time the sky was turning gray, the two left Mizushina Park. They bought food at the supermarket, returned to the apartment, and Kousaka made them a basic meal. After their rather late lunch and post-meal coffee, it was 4 PM.

They were sweating, so they took showers one after the other. Changing into inside wear, they sat together on the bed and looked through the encyclopedia they bought at the bookstore. The shortwave radio on the table placed a foreign news program, but the volume was low, so they couldn't make anything out.

Pale light came through a crack in the curtains. The lights weren't on, so the room was dim like being deep in the forest. Listening close, children could be heard playing in the distance.

After looking through the encyclopedia and closing it, Sanagi spoke.

"I felt like something was missing. But now I know what it was."
"What do you mean?"
"There's no disinfectant smell."

Kousaka blinked.

"Oh, I guess so. Because I haven't been nervously cleaning lately."
"To me, it was that smell that really defined your room."
"You adore the smell of disinfectant?"

Sanagi nodded.

So Kousaka took some disinfectant spray out of a cardboard box, and like he had done daily until a few months ago, he disinfected everything in the room. Sanagi sat on the bed and enjoyed the scene unfolding before her like it were someone putting up Christmas decorations.

Soon, the room was filled with a thick ethanol smell, and Sanagi lied on the bed with a look of satisfaction.

"Yep, it's your room."
"Now that I'm smelling it again, it's an awful smell."

"Really? I like it, it's like an infirmary."
"I think most people would say "I hate it, it's like a hospital.""
"But I like it."

Sanagi put the pillow under her chin, closed her eyes, and sighed.

"I think I could fall asleep like this."

"Hey, didn't you just take a nap earlier?"
"I guess so. But I think I'm exhausted."

Less than five minutes later, she fell asleep.

Kousaka pulled the blanket over Sanagi, and after some hesitation, got in beside her. And he watched her sleep, never tiring of it. At this distance, he could identify each one of her long eyelashes.

It was a fleeting look she had on her face. A look like she'd never once felt her nervousness go away her entire life. Sleeping in the dim afternoon, she seemed unusually brittle and easily-hurt.

First thing in the morning, I'll contact work to cancel my move, Kousaka thought.

I'll unpack these boxes, and with Sanagi, get this room back to how it was.

I'll stay in this town.

And I'll live with her.

While the 5 PM announcement echoed through town, Kousaka slowly closed his eyes.

*

When Sanagi woke up, Kousaka's face was in front of her. She reflexively jumped back in surprise, eventually realized the situation, took two or three breaths, and lied down again. Her pulse didn't settle down for a while.

The sun had mostly set. She couldn't hear children outside anymore. A warm wind blew through the window, rustling the curtains. Mixing with the disinfectant smell, for a brief moment, it made for a chest-tightening nostalgic smell. She pondered that nostalgia for a while, but before she could identify it, she forgot the smell.

Oh well, Sanagi quietly mumbled. Knowing wouldn't do anything for me.

Then she gently extended her hand and put her fingers between Kousaka's.

I'll always remember this sensation, Sanagi thought.

Considering how much time she had left, that wouldn't be difficult.


Gazing at the faint sunset sky, Sanagi thought.

My life was saved by a kiss with the person I loved.

...How nice would that be if it were true?

When we kissed, some of the worms did move from Kousaka's body to mine, and reproduced with the worms in my body. The same thing had happened in his body. There was no doubt about that.

But the newly-born worms that resulted from that were not the same. The resistant parasites had only been born in Kousaka.

Maybe the worms in Kousaka's body didn't have their resistance to medicine from the start. When my worms and his worms mixed their genes, miraculously, a variation of medical resistance was introduced, and that variation saved his life.

But the same miracle hadn't happened in my body. The worms in my body with no resistance were defenseless, and wiped out by the medicine. And so I lost the organ that processed my anguish.

Now, I'm a husk. I'm already half dead. Like a chicken running around with its head cut off. I have two feet in death, and I'm just waiting to sink.

I survived this long because of my tenacity to meet Kousaka one last time. And now that my wish has been granted, I probably don't have long left. I won't be able to resist the urge to die at the peak of happiness, and I'll take my life.

If I got Kousaka to share some of his worms, there's a chance I could recover, but unfortunately, I don't have any will to do that. I've already written my note.

I intend to carry this to the end.


It was always this way. I was so scared to live, I couldn't bear it. If I didn't take something, I became afraid I would never get it my entire life. If I did take something, I became afraid I would lose it someday.

The scariest thing was that I would never love anyone, and no one would ever love me. If I was going to live a life like that, I thought it would be better to just die as soon as possible. But now that I have learned about love, now I'm more scared than anything to lose it. If I'll have to continue on with this fear, I think it's best to die as soon as possible.

A trend toward death. A self-destructive program. In the end, however things fell, my destination was the same. Happiness and unhappiness are two sides of the same coin, and especially to a coward like me, they have almost the same meaning. Everything serves as an argument to entrust myself to death. That's the person I am.

So I at least want to end it all while the coin is facing up. There's nothing to win from dying at the proper time. I'm already exhausted from getting sad and getting happy.

So I'm sure I'll put a period on my life soon. Then the curtain will fall on the history of my life. It'll never be written to again. There could be no better time to quit while I'm ahead.

Sanagi remembered. The day they first met. The day he first let her touch him. The day they first kissed. The day he let her hug him.

Leaving Kousaka is my only regret. I really feel bad for him. What I'm about to do will mean betraying him. I couldn't ever apologize enough. I won't try to ask his forgiveness. If he hates me for it, I guess I'll just have to accept his anger. That's my natural reward.

...But if it's possible, I want Kousaka to think this.

The two of us should have been dead before we even met. Guided by our sick souls, we should have long since taken our lives. By the power of the worm, that was temporarily postponed, we were given a chance to fall in love, and one of us will even miraculously survive.

If he can take it like that, then while this may not be the ideal result, surely he won't think it's the worst.

If it weren't for the worm, we wouldn't have even met.

And it's not all sad. Because there's one fact that my death will prove. One fact that only my death could prove.

The death of the host is brought about by being released from the worm's influence. And the love between the two, formed by the Cupid-like assistance of the worms, should fall apart just by one of the hosts losing that influence. Thus, because I'm thinking about Kousaka just before I die, and Kousaka is thinking about me, that means our love could exist even taking the worms out of it.

We were able to love each other without depending on the worms.

That was something that could never have been proven if I hadn't lost them.


Sanagi let go of Kousaka's hand and gently stroked his cheek.

After a few seconds, he slowly opened his eyes.

"Sorry, did I wake you?"

"No," Kousaka shook his head. And then noticing something, his eyes widened. "...Sanagi, were you crying?"

She noticed it only after having it pointed out. She hurried to wipe it with her palm, but the tears kept pouring, showing no sign of stopping.

"That's weird." Choking up slightly, Sanagi forced herself to smile. "I didn't mean to cry..."

"Are you sad?"
"No, it's not that. In fact, I can't help but be happy."

"Huh. I'm relieved." Kousaka narrowed his eyes. "Those must be the right kind of tears, then."

He always he such a weird way of consolation, Sanagi thought and laughed.

"...Hey, Mr. Kousaka. Should I tell you something nice?"

"Nice?" Kousaka's eyes widened a little.

"Yes, nice," Sanagi nodded. Then she put on a special smile. "Um, I love you, Mr. Kousaka."

"Yeah. I know that."

"Not like that, I really do love you."

"Hmm." Kousaka thought about it, then sighed. "I don't really get it, but I'm happy."

"Right?"

The two laughed together. Before long, Kousaka should realize what I really meant by that, Sanagi thought. Though by then, it would all be too late.

Suddenly, she noticed her tears were making a stain on the pillow, and had a look like she'd done something wrong.

"Sorry. I'm going to make the pillow dirty at this rate."

Sanagi was about to get up, but Kousaka's arm blocked her.

"Well, we can just do this."

With that, Kousaka held Sanagi against his chest.

His shirt absorbed Sanagi's tears.

"You can cry as much as you want. I think you haven't cried for yourself enough before now."

"...Yeah. I'll do that."

Sanagi kept crying in his arms. For all that came before, and all that would follow.


Eventually, Sanagi stopped crying and fell asleep in Kousaka's arms.

It was an incredibly deep sleep.

It was the first time in her life she'd had such a peaceful sleep.

In her dream, she was a swan. A swan swimming lonesomely in a lake glittering in the sun during the spring. Her wing was injured, so she'd been left behind by the others. What am I going to do now? The swan couldn't bear the unease. She felt bitter toward the others who had left her behind, and at the same time thought nostalgically of them. And she cursed her lack of caution that caused her precious wings to be injured.

But as she swam in the lake upon which cherry petals fell, things gradually stopped mattering. Well, in the end, at least I'm able to have this beautiful sight all to myself, thought the swan.




Afterword

Objectively speaking, even commonplace events can be world-changing incidents to the involved parties. For example, long ago, a woman told me this. The best memory of her life was in elementary school, when she was chosen to provide piano accompaniment for a chorus competition. When you've only heard that part, it might sound rather foolish. In fact, some people might think it's foolish even after listening to the whole story. It's all up to individuals to decide how they feel about things.

At the time, she was very reclusive and had no friends, and had no heavy burdens other than her role of providing accompaniment. Truthfully, she wanted to back out, but there was no one else in her class who could play piano, and she didn't have a personality that would let her refuse people's requests, so she ended up accepting. Days of being crushed by the worry of "what if I make a mistake during the show and drag everyone down?" went on, and she evidently cried to herself many times.

But once the chorus practice actually began, it soon caused her suffering no longer. In fact, she started looking forward to the practice sessions.

The conductor was a boy she secretly had affections for. When the performance began, he would always look directly at her. She knew, of course, that it was only eye contact for the sake of timing the performance. However, it made her happy. So much so that everything else stopped mattering.

Some people might laugh: "How lonely a life must that be if your greatest memory was just a boy you like looking at you?" But I understand her feelings very well. Even if the rest of her life afterward were filled with bliss, I believe her number one memory would remain "just a boy she liked looking at her."

People's standards of evaluation are rather haphazard. That full-course meal from an expensive restaurant you had when you were rich may not taste as good as a school lunch worth a couple hundred yen you had when impoverished, and you may not feel as much affection toward the girl who you spent most of your fulfilling college days with as you do the girl in middle school who held your hand once when you were down in the dumps. In terms of this book, I don't suppose Kousaka will ever forget the time Sanagi kissed him through a face mask. I suppose you could call it "happiness by subtraction." I consider this inversion of values to be one of humankind's most beautiful glitches.


If my previous books, The Place You Called From and The Place I Called From, were a story of physical defects, then Parasite in Love is a story of mental defects. In that sense, perhaps you could say the two stories have opposing structures. I had the idea of "the sickness of absence" in early spring 2014, but I had practically zero knowledge of parasites at the time. Miraculously, around that same time, the Japanese translation of Moises Velasquez-Manoff's An Epidemic of Absence was released by Bungeishunju, though I didn't learn of this until 2016. It was a deeply interesting book that I got very engrossed in, forgetting I was reading it for reference, so if reading this book gave you any interest in parasites, perhaps you might want to give it a try?

Also, the title of this book, Parasite in Love, was taken directly from Dr. Koichiro Fujita's book Parasite in Love (Kodansha). I'd like to deeply thank Dr. Fujita for generously allowing me to copy his title.

- Sugaru Miaki





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