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[+]

* 37 *

Of course, there would be no third loop. It was a once-in-a-lifetime... uh, I mean, a miracle that would only happen once.
So I woke up the next day, and the day after, to repeated dejection.

It had been five days since my sister fled home. By then, she was starting to become a bother.
While she was around, it was a near-daily back and forth between the library and the apartment, and I had to prepare food for us both.
Not to mention I had the desire for alone time about ten times as frequently as the average person.

No offense to her, but I wanted to be alone already.
That night I worked up the courage to ask “When are you going to get out of here?”, but received a kick and a “You get out, big bro.”
Geez, my bad.

But not long after, I got a call. It was from our mother, and of course, it was about my sister.
She irritatedly asked "Did Honoka come by there?"
I hesitated for a second, but before my sister heard, I told her "She's been here the past five days."
And so I was instructed to take my sister home. She said to lend her some money to get home if she needed it, and I said okay and hung up.

When I put down the receiver, my sister looked away and pretended she hadn't been listening.
But about twenty minutes later, she sluggishly stood up. And she started getting her things together, with a look like "I should be going, shouldn't I?"
I was relieved. She was actually pretty understanding in that respect.

"Do you have enough to get home?", I asked.
She didn't reply. Must have been mad, about me telling our mother where she was.

While she didn't seem to want me around, I went with her as far as the bus terminal.
The snow was really bad, and the road wasn’t well-lit, so I was worried about my sister going alone.

We walked at a very strange distance from each other that I’d be hesitant to call “together.”
As ever, we said nothing to each other as we walked the roads filled with fallen leaves.

My sister seemed very bitter. Well, she'd hated me for so long, it was fine.
Besides, as someone who was planning to kill a man, I couldn’t be worrying about what every single person thought of me.

The bus terminal was wholly decrepit.
The walls and floors were blackening in spots, the lights were yellowed, the cushions were torn open, and drab shutters were pulled down on all the shops.

The few people waiting for the bus were dead silent.
With all the gloom about, it almost felt like everyone here was trudging back home after having run away.

"Dirty place," my sister quietly said. "Like your apartment."
"Hey, it's got feeling," I argued for my apartment.

My sister and I sat on a sofa, about 40 centimeters apart, and drank coffee from a vending machine as we waited.
It was a terrible place. I wondered if a ride on the buses here would take you back decades or what.
I mean, if they really did, I would have gladly gotten on. Any time but now sounded great.

When I was done with my coffee, my sister reached over to grab it, stacked my cup with hers, and went to throw them away.
I watched her briskly walk from behind. She seemed a lot less dependable than my first sister. Like I could just give her a shove and she'd topple over.
She came back and sat beside me again. This time, it was more like 20 centimeters apart.

Suddenly, I felt like I’d done something absolutely terrible to my sister.

Had I even considered that she was a sixteen-year-old girl who ran away from home?
Should I, in fact, have lied to our mother?

She didn’t seem like the kind to run away from home in the first place.
And it might be a huge assumption - but she had come to me, hadn't she?
Perhaps I should have at least sheltered her until she was satisfied?

I stole a glance at her, and we made eye contact, upon which she grumpily looked away.
I hesitated to take her back to the apartment now, after promising our mother.
So I at least wanted to say something before she went.

But I had no idea what to say. "Be happy" would be a laugh coming from me. And I rather die than have it said to me.
And "Don't think too hard" wouldn't mean anything from a fool like me.
I spent the whole time thinking it over.

The time passed in a blink, and my sister stood up to board the bus. I stood up too and followed with her.
There were still bits of snow outside. I was briefly blinded by the headlights of the bus in the dark.
Just as my sister was boarding the bus, I said, loud enough to hear over the engine, “Hey.”
"If you want to run away again, feel free to come over."

Even this took a lot of courage for me to say.
I was a coward even in front of my family the second time around.

My sister turned around, and for once, opened her eyes wide.
She stood still and looked at me for a second. "I’ll do that," she smiled, and got on the bus.

The bus left, and I set on my way home, again warming myself with cocoa.
I was all too relieved just to see my sister smile.



[+]

* 38 *

My sister seemed to count on my word, as three days later, she visited me again.

As for what she did at my place, she studied, read, and, when she felt like it, went through a laundry list of insults concluded with “You’re hopeless, big brother.”
Then she enjoyed my dinner, occupied my bed, and snoozed away.

The next day, our father came and took my sister home.
I didn't know how he treated her, but he didn't show any intent to scold or be nice to her; he just drove her home in silence. Yeah, it looked awkward, alright.
This only made me certain that she’d come right back. As predicted, she was knocking on my door again five days later.

But I didn't really mind. Having my sister around brought more regularity to my life, and seemed to alleviate the loneliness of living alone.
She seemed to be doing independent studies, so rather than force her to go to high school when she didn't want to, why not let her read what she likes for a while?
Misanthropy isn't something easily fixed.

"Big brother, you don't go to college, do you?", she asked one night. And not in a harsh or ridiculing way.
"...Nah," I replied.
"I see," she said with a slight satisfied smile. "Daddy's going to kill you if he finds out."
"That's likely."
"He'll kill you!"
I scratched my head. After taking a sip of cocoa, she put her cup down and said "I'll keep it a secret. But in return, I expect you to be more polite to me."
"...You have my gratitude."

I lowered my head. "He'll kill you" was an exaggeration of my sister's design, but "he'll beat you" was a certainty.
As far as my sister skipping school went, even my thickheaded parents felt they were responsible, so they didn't speak much of it.
But me not going to college, that would put them in a fiery rage. They had lots of pent-up energy from not scolding my sister.

While I pulled the sheets over my sister, who'd fallen asleep on the bed sideways with a half-finished book in hand, I had a thought.
If I were arrested for Tokiwa's murder, how would this girl react?
Or else, what if I failed in murdering him, gave up on it all, and commit suicide?

I didn't have any intention of that at the moment, but I couldn't keep myself from imagining the possibilities.
And objectively speaking, if I were to commit suicide, it could be very persuasive.
At the very least, it seemed easier to think about death than imagine what living would be like from here on.



[+]

* 39 *

My first self's popularity - though granted, it was mine - really was astounding.
Around the end of November, I remembered that there was a girl who persistently followed me around, although we weren't talking stalking here.
No, not just one - depending on the time, there could be several. I can't remember what they were like, naturally.
But as usual, it was unbelievable stuff considering my second life. I wish I could have half of that, sheesh.

Why was I only reminded of that then? Well, that's kind of a funny story.

I was sitting by the window on the second floor of a hamburger place in the city, reading a book, and periodically looking out below.
Not that I was really a fan of the hamburgers there, but it was a habit of mine to sit in that window seat.
The reason being because nine times out of ten on the weekend, I'd see Tokiwa walking by in the afternoon.
So it was a good spot to watch for him coming through.

I sipped some hot coffee and gazed at the people below.
It was Saturday, and I saw an alarming amount of couples passing by. There was hardly anyone walking alone who didn't also appear to be in the middle of work.
Maybe it was because Christmas was approaching, or maybe it was always that way.

Christmas songs were frequently playing in all the shops now. At that particular moment, it was "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."
It was the same no matter where you went this time of year. Maybe you could even consider it threatening.
With lights decorating the roadside trees, Christmas was invading the town.

Honestly, it made me unhappy. It felt like a provocation directed at me, lonely and unfestive as I was.
It wasn't, of course. It was just innocently making happy people happier.

But let's say you have somebody who's lost their mother, and every time they turn on the TV or go outside or do anything, they're told "Mother's Day is coming up!"
You know that's gonna hurt. Not saying you should go and cancel Mother's Day because of it, just saying that hey, those people exist.

The book I was reading was one I checked out from the library at my sister's suggestion.
Seeing my sister enjoy reading so much got me interested myself, I guess. And since I had so much spare time, I asked "Got any recommendations?"
It's weird, but even though I went to the library all the time in high school, I never had much interest in books then.

And a reader, no matter what they're like, will always have a serious answer to that question. Maybe because they get to demonstrate their experience to others.
She recommended me a number of books prefaced with "for beginners." And one of them - well, you might've guessed it already - was "The Catcher in the Rye."
I struggled with the style of the Japanese translation, and since I was looking around as I read, I found that I wasn't making it through the pages as quickly as I liked.

I'm no good at remembering foreign names, incidentally. Well, now that I think of it, "Holden Caulfield" isn't too bad of one.
But when we're talking "Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova," I'm gonna start foaming at the mouth.

When I was about thirty pages in, I looked outside and saw a familiar face. I sat up and leaned for a closer look.
But no, it wasn't the man I was looking for, nor a man at all.

I thought I was mistaken at first, as she was acting strangely, had dyed her hair chestnut-brown, and wore clothes that didn't match my idea of her at all.
Had it not been for my well-trained eyes, I would have overlooked her. Indeed, my eyes and ears became very attentive through stalking.

Though I had no real reason to pursue her, I put away my tray and hurried out of the restaurant.
I made it outside just as Hiiragi turned the corner. Missed her by a hair.



[+]

* 40 *

I followed behind Hiiragi the same way I usually did Tokiwa.
Not that I intended to talk to her, because what would I say? "Hey there, see we're both still lonely. How's that working out for you?"
What I wanted to learn from tailing her was how she, who was similarly lonely, would be spending the day.
I felt like there could be a hint toward improving my own life in there, somehow. I wanted to know how loners like us were to pass the cold winter.

I guess by making the Tokiwa thing a daily routine, I had no opposition to stalking people anymore.
It seemed normal for me to see a girl I knew and calmly decide that I'd stealthily follow her.
My thought processes were exactly like those of a criminal. Man, that makes me shiver, and not from cold.

By the way, I ought to reveal something that I kept quiet about before. You remember when I talked about Hiiragi, right?
Well, for the sake of suspense or what have you, I talked as if Hiiragi and I never met again after that.
But actually, we went to the same university. And maybe it's because we both knew that that we didn't talk on that last day of high school.
Had that really been the very last time we'd see each other, I might've wanted a handshake at least.

As one would expect, Hiiragi's isolation worsened too when she got to college.
Yep, that was Hiiragi. It relieves me to see how people don't change. I'm one to talk, of course.

There were very few who immediately knew who you were talking about when you said "Hiiragi," even in her department. She was just that forgettable.
Usually lonely people stand out in a bad way. But she was really good at just blending in, from the timing with which she entered classrooms, to how she picked her seat, to how she slipped into the crowd during group activities.
I tried to do the same things, but I knew how much better she was at those techniques.

I didn't know the details, but it appeared Hiiragi lived somewhere not far from my apartment.
A couple times I'd seen her shopping when I went to buy beer from the local convenience store. In fact, it seemed she was buying beer too.

Though she recognized me, she wouldn't come talk to me. But she didn't ignore me, giving me a glance that said "Oh, you too."
I might have been giving Hiiragi a lot of the same glances unconsciously. Those judging yet sympathizing glances.

In high school, I thought gloomy people like me were bound by fate to beer, but I don't think that's quite true.
Rather, people like us are the most likely to indulge in alcohol. When there's a lot you want to forget and a lot of monotony to go through, alcohol makes a good partner.



[+]

* 41 *

The sun had mostly set, so it became easier to tail Hiiragi. Normally it would be harder with less people, but the town was still just the right level of crowded; a good day for stalking.
Hiiragi swiftly moved through the dim town. She was a fast walker.

People accustomed to being alone forget how to walk with others, and they're always displeased with where they are, want to be anywhere but, so they walk really fast - that's my theory, anyway.
And the opposite's true too; happy people who are pleased with the moment and where they are walk slow. Tokiwa and Tsugumi walked verrry slow.
They walked so dreadfully slowly, lightly pushing each other, cuddling with each other, looking at each other, that tailing them was a huge pain.
They were already so happy being together that they were in no hurry to get anywhere.
How fast you walk when there's nothing particularly urgent to attend to is a great indicator of happiness. I mean it.

So I thought about all that as I followed Hiiragi. In addition to walking fast, she had a terrible sense of direction.
She'd be walking straight ahead, then suddenly duck into an alley, then come back out ten seconds later like nothing happened.
She'd come to a stop, suddenly cross the street, then cross back to the side she was on before.

What was she even trying to do? I knew she wasn't good with directions, but I'd never seen it so bad before.
Maybe she was drunk? Maybe she went crazy?
But the real reason was actually quite clear. If you followed Hiiragi's gaze, it was obvious what her target was.
However, it took me about thirty minutes to catch on. I'll admit it, I'm an idiot.

Hiiragi came to a halt and hid in the shadow of a nearby pole. After a while, she timidly peeked out from behind it, then resumed walking quickly.
Even I could figure it out at that point.
She was following someone.

I looked toward where Hiiragi was looking. I spotted him just a few seconds, a few meters ahead.
Yes, you probably guessed it already - it was Tokiwa who Hiiragi was following.

I knew Hiiragi and I were similar, but we didn't have to be that similar, I thought.



[+]

* 42 *

There was a lot I could presume from this. Like I said before, Hiiragi wasn't acting much like herself that day.
I wondered about it the whole time I followed her. She wore a denim coat, a short skirt, and some kind of weird hat, none of which suited her at all. Not even a little.
But it clicked when I realized she wore it to make herself unidentifiable. And indeed, it succeeded in making you think it wasn't Hiiragi.
I was with her all through high school, so I was able to recognize her. But Tokiwa, I doubt he would be able to tell right away.

I didn't ask myself why she was following Tokiwa. Because wasn't it obvious?
Hiiragi was Tokiwa's stalker. Unlike me, she was a real stalker who did it because of her affection for him.
Kind of odd to talk about what makes a "real" stalker, huh...

Without even planning for it, I was succeeding at a double-stalking.
I kept watching for ten or twenty more minutes to confirm that Hiiragi was indeed stalking Tokiwa, then stopped.
I went to the parking lot of the nearby shopping mall, sat on a bench, and started smoking.
Now that I wasn't walking, I suddenly felt chilly, the hand I held my cigarette in trembling.
I stuck my free hand into my jacket pocket and endured the cold.

The people heading for their cars had such unbridled happiness on their faces, it made me feel horribly out of place.
Every time the automatic doors opened, I heard "Sleigh Ride" from inside. Like on the other side of that door was a land of pure happiness.

Thinking about how Hiiragi (who I thought my one ally) was obsessed with Tokiwa (I suppose my greatest enemy) depressed me.
Because it meant that Tsugumi who I longed for, as well as my ally Hiiragi, both loved Tokiwa.

Yes, in the end, even (well, maybe not "even") a girl like Hiiragi, whose face was hardened into an expression of "I just hate humans as a whole," was head over heels for a dashing young guy like Tokiwa - all because he showed her a little kindness.
I'd bet money on it. Because I had that inclination myself in my second life.
When you have such an immense inferiority complex, and someone superior to you is kind, you feel "Oh, how wonderful this person must be to show kindness to someone as worthless as me!" It's pure, it's naiveté.

While we had opposite motives, the fact Hiiragi and I were stalking the same person was pretty interesting, from a certain viewpoint.
Hiiragi's goal was Tokiwa, my goal was Tsugumi. And Tokiwa liked Tsugumi, and Tsugumi liked Tokiwa.
If everyone could just settle for less, the world would be such a peaceful place, I thought.
If I hadn't taken to unattainable Tsugumi, and Hiiragi didn't try to go for Tokiwa when they were worlds apart, then we could settle this with a lot less sorrow.

If I killed Tokiwa, it would make Hiiragi sad, I thought.
But I considered that, shortly afterward, she might be surprisingly happy that he was dead.
Considering what Hiiragi was like, it seemed a likely possibility.

No matter what it came to, Tokiwa was Tsugumi's to the end.
So if Hiiragi couldn't have him, she'd prefer if no one could - it wouldn't be surprising, I thought, if Hiiragi had that kind of twisted affection.



[+]

* 43 *

I realized I'd forgotten my book and returned to the restaurant.
Luckily, the red [translator's note: blue] book was still where I left it. I put it in my bag and left once more.

I met eyes with a man.
At first, I looked away. There was something about his face that drew my gaze, but whoever it was, I knew there was no one I felt like talking to right now.

But something stopped me. I looked at him again. Once we made eye contact once more, my brain had finally told me who this was.
In contrast, he called my name with a smile. Nostalgically, like he was glad to meet me again.

"Hey, hey! It's been too long! You been doing well?", he greeted me, sitting in the seat in front.
I wasn't sure how to respond. I didn't have the acting skill to send back a smile, and I didn't have the courage to flat-out ignore him.
I stopped in my tracks with a vague smirk and clumsily sat down across from him. Looked like I didn't even know how to sit in a chair.

I couldn't understand why he was talking to me with such familiarity.
After all, this man - Usumizu was his name - and I didn't have the most congenial relationship.

"How many years? Not since middle school, so about four?"

I guess I should just say it. In my third year of middle school, I was bullied by Usumizu.
In ways easily understood as such, nowhere near the fine line where it could be considered teasing.
I absolutely didn't want to remember anything about when I was bullied. And I'm sure you don't want to hear that gloominess either, so I won't go into detail.
Point is, Usumizu bullied me, and that's all you need to know.

I struggled to keep myself from being reminded of those times. But those kinds of memories are like a mouth ulcer.
It hurts to touch, and you know it'll make it take longer to heal, but you can't help touching it.
As much as I tried to forget, I always had dreams about it. But oddly, I wasn't dreaming about being bullied.
I dreamt I was reconciling with the one who bullied me. I dreamt we were looking back on it and laughing.
Well, clearly that was a product of my latent desires. If possible, I didn't want to antagonize anyone, no. I wanted to be get along even with those who bullied me.

But thinking of it that way made me sad, so on the surface I just despised him.
It's easier to bear being hated by someone you hate than someone you like.

So now that Usumizu was here in front of me after years, and talked to me so cordially, my reaction was one of concern.
Actually, I wanted to do the same, and say "Hey, it's been a while. I'm fine, how about you?" That was among my hopes.
But on the other hand, I felt like that would be disrespectful to myself when I was bullied all those years ago. Was it right to so easily forgive someone?

"What're you up to now? College student?"
I told him the university I went to, and he said "Whoa, dang! You're smart!"
He seemed to earnestly believe what he said. Something was off, I thought.

From his attitude, I wondered if he'd totally forgotten about bullying me in middle school.
But that's always how it is. The bullies forget, but the bullied remember for life.
And when they forget about their bullying, in some cases they replace it with false memories; they explain their guilt as having been unacting observers of bullying.

"What are you up to, then?", I asked him, and he started talking enthusiastically, as if to say "I'm glad you asked!"
Typical stuff about his spectacular college life. Shouldn't have asked, I regretted as I nodded my way through it.

While unwillingly listening to his story, I began to get used to this Usumizu person, and finally got a good look at his face.
I noticed that Usumizu just couldn't seem to calm down. He unconsciously tapped his foot, his gaze went all around, he repositioned his arms frequently.
Despite looking me right in the face, his eyes kept wandering off.

It was as if he was nervous to be sitting in front of me. But at the same time, he was clearly overjoyed he had a chance to see me.
Whichever it was, it was strange. Second-time me was a person who made you relax in a bad way, not a person who was fun to be around.

About ten minutes passed with me unable to identify what was so off. Suddenly, Usumizu stopped talking.
It was seriously abrupt, so I thought he'd remembered something really important.
"What's up?"
After staring at his lap for five seconds, he said "I gave up."
"Gave up what?", I asked back. I was fearful that I'd done something to make him angry.
He said "Forget it. That was all lies," leaned back in the chair, and sighed with his hands put together between his legs.

"Yes, it was all a lie. I don't go to college. And I don't work, either. It's been months since I had a real conversation with someone. I haven't heard myself speak in so long. I'm so nervous I can't stop sweating."
He spoke rapidly and without breaks, as if to fill the prior five-second gap.

"I'll be honest. I can't get my mind off death lately. There's too many reasons to list. So I won't. But I wanted to do it as soon as I thought of it. But I wanted to do something before I died. So I saved up money. Once I had enough, I left home. I haven't been back since. I'm constantly on the move. I'm having fun with it. I'm planning to keep doing it until I run out of money. Once I do... Yeah, I'll probably do it as a hobo for a while. So I'm planning to die once enough time has passed. Simple, right?"

It all came so fast, I was hopelessly lost.
What was this guy trying to tell me all of a sudden?



[+]

* 44 *

Taking a closer look, Usumizu's coat was pretty drab, with pilling all over. His hair was unkempt, his cheeks were thin, and his eyes were sullen.
Now that I could look at him more calmly, he was one step from becoming a vagrant.

"I'm telling this to you because you see it like a confession. ...No, I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean you're not likely to ignore it and pretend you're not unfeeling. I don't want someone to stop me. If someone told me "Don't say that, things will always get better if you keep living, let's do this together," I'd have to bite my tongue and wouldn't want to die anymore. I just wanted someone to hear it. You're great for that. Because you'll listen in earnest, but that's all you'll do. I can tell just looking at you. You'd rather die than say "If something's paining you, we can talk about it." It's talking through a reinforced glass screen. That's why I felt like being serious with you."

"I don't know if I get it," I said, "but I suppose you're not looking for any tactful comments, then?"
"Yeah," he smiled with slight worry. "I really just wanted someone to listen, I think. ...Hey, do you know the feeling? Like, that sense you haven't done a single thing right your whole life."
"I suppose I do," I replied. In fact, I felt I suffered it more than anyone in the world. Because I knew everything I "did right" in my first life.
"I don't want you to understand," he shook his head. "Then my despair'll just seem like some stale, commonplace thing."

Usumizu looked out the window. The lights in the arcade shone blue, white, green, and red.
"It's almost Christmas. Hard time for guys like us to get through, huh."
I looked at him in silence.
"Hey, this just kinda came to mind... Are you carrying a bunch of burdens too? I dunno what exactly it is, but I can see it in your eyes. Face looks like you've totally lost human contact. You drift away from 'em. We'll never escape this vicious cycle of being hated, and that resulting in even more hate. ...Why'd it come to this?"

Usumizu spoke while he watched snow start to fall outside.
"Me and you, we had promising futures as kids. Wouldn't be strange in the slightest to see us both leading pretty girls around. Wouldn't be odd to lead a picturesque youth, neither. ...I don't think it's that we were careless. Somewhere, there was a single cog that got misaligned. And that one cog got all these other ones mucked up, and in the end, all the cogs went awry. And now they're just strewn all over the floor, beyond repair."

"...Ever thought that you were one of the ones who messed up my cogs?", I asked. Reviving that topic didn't seem very productive, but I felt it couldn't go unasked.
"I did," he said. "I did that stuff to you in the first place because you felt like a threat. As a boy, I was brimming with confidence. I believed I'd be twenty times better than the lame adults around me. And I thought everyone else was insignificant. ...But you were something else. I unconsciously thought "This guy has the potential to do even better than me." So of course I wanted to take you out before that."
"I'm flattered," I sarcastically smiled.
"It ain't flattery. In a way, I was scared of you. 'Course now, neither of us's a threat to anybody. ...Anyway, I know I did something awful to you there. As much of an apology as I can offer, I'll give it to you. Say the word and I'll do it."

"No, no point. For all we know there's somebody who mucked up your cogs after you mucked up mine, so that could just go on forever. Same as you just wanted to talk, I just wanted to listen. Plus... I don't want you to apologize. Just let me keep the right to keep loathing you. For whenever I wanna put blame on someone, you know."
"Kinder than I thought," Usumizu grinned.

"...Well, I'm gonna be going now. Not sure if I'm glad we could talk or not, but thanks anyway. Still, talking to you's bringing back stuff I don't want back. Thought I remembered them already, but... when I see you, it comes flooding back more vividly."
"Well, at least by being reminded of the worst time of my life, I can feel a little better about now. Thanks."

With a weak smile, he walked away. Throughout our conversation, I felt absolutely no will to forgive him.
But somehow, I found myself subtly stuffing two 10,000 yen bills in the pocket of his heavy backpack.
That won't make him happy, I told myself, and I didn't really care much for him living a little longer.
I just wanted to do it, so I did.

After he left, I felt something trying to piece itself together in my head. I had no idea what it was at first, but over time, I realized I was trying to recall something.
Perhaps Usumizu had been my best friend in my first life. My memories were fuzzy at ever, but from the way he spoke, his laugh... I felt like I was once close to a guy like that.

I had been convinced that Usumizu was one of the people who messed up my second life, but... If he was indeed a best friend the first time, then it could be I messed him up first.
Yes, it wasn't just that he ruined me - I ruined him, and then he ruined me.

Back at the apartment, I took a shower and had two drinks of whiskey on the rocks.
My sister had long since fallen asleep, so I wouldn't be turning the TV on. So by the light of a desk lamp, I strained my eyes to read.
In less than an hour, my eyes were worn out. I put the book on the desk and drank whiskey in silence, staring into the middle distance.

At times like these, I always daydreamed about Hiiragi. I imagined she was at her own apartment, drinking and reading alone like me.
Now, I don't want any misunderstandings - I didn't daydream about that stuff because I wanted Hiiragi beside me.
I just liked to think that someone else, somewhere else, was doing the same thing. Feeling like I wasn't the only one made the good and bad not matter as much.
And there was no one who I could count on to prove that better than Hiiragi. Because she really was living a very similar life.

Once I was too sleepy to bear, I brushed my teeth and got in the futon.
I think I heard my sister muttering things in her sleep.

Once more, I prayed that I'd wake up to a third round.
I turned off the light and fell sound asleep in seconds.



[+]

* 45 *

I woke up being stepped on by my sister. Maybe less "stepped on" and more hit with her foot. At any rate, it wasn't a great way to be woken up.
"Gotta return library books," she said. "Wake up."
Well, I suppose I was at fault for sleeping in to four in the afternoon.

It was already dim outside, so the streetlights began to turn on.
But it was one of those rare cloudless days, with rather clear skies. Sometimes a strong wind would blow leaves across the asphalt, making rustling sounds.

Once at the library, my sister carried a bundle of books inside.
I locked the car and followed her in, returned a few books I'd checked out, and quietly told her "Alright, let's meet up at the entrance in an hour."
I went back outside to the corner of the parking lot and lit up a cigarette.

It looked to be some sort of storage area, with lots of junk scattered about.
Rusty bicycles, poles, traffic cones, cracked flowerpots, tools, buckets, that kind of stuff.
A lone outdoor unit breathed laboriously amid the garbage.

I sat on a fence and smoked.
For some reason, there was an ashtray right there. Maybe the staff used this place to duck out for a quick smoke.
I looked over the garbage once more. The second me had become much more at ease from coming to these lonely places.
I wonder why. Maybe because I felt like these places couldn't get any worse.

Thinking no one was around to hear, I started to whistle. I wasn't consciously whistling a particular song, just going with whatever melody came out.
But as it turned out, I was whistling Jingle Bell Rock. I quickly stuffed the melody in my mouth once I realized, as I was not enjoying Christmas as that would have indicated.

After that, I left the library area for some ruins across the road. This was another favorite place of mine.
Once a youth hostel, it was ignored for a long time, and the building became dilapidated, vines crawling up it like cracks.
With a closer look, of course, one could see many real cracks as well.
The interior was too dark to see, but when I once peeked inside, I saw a dusty floor filled with holes and toppled stools.
By the window was an old piano, which just seemed like such a waste.

I looped around to the back of the building. The former parking lot had rusty Kei cars and motorcycles with missing tires.
The bars of the bike rack were broken, and the roof had caved in. Right next to that was a pile of concrete blocks, though I'm unsure what they were for.

I could spend forever looking at places like this. Once I started thinking about what went in on this place when it was still a functional youth hostel, I couldn't stop.
I hated to look at ongoing happiness, but I liked to get a whiff of its scent once it was gone. A weak smell of "Perhaps there was happiness here once."

After going around for about ten minutes, I returned to the library's bicycle area.
I stood by the ashtray and took out a second cigarette out of my pocket, then an oil lighter to light it.

Suddenly, I noticed someone coming around the corner.
It was not my sister. And much like me, she was lighting a cigarette.
Her lighter briefly illuminated her face orange in the dim light.

Once I realized it was Tsugumi, I forgot to breathe for a few moments.



[+]

* 46 *

I couldn't take my eyes off her.
She recognized me, looked at me for about two seconds, then looked hesitant for a moment.
It wasn't unreasonable; I was that guy who hadn't showed up to college in months.
Including all the events of middle school, Tsugumi was the one most deserving to look concerned when she saw me.

Still, she was always a very polite girl, so she awkwardly greeted me.
She’d always greet anyone and everyone with a smile.

I greeted her back, but I was bewildered inside.
I had no idea Tsugumi was a smoker.
I didn’t even know she came to this library.

I hadn't seen her up close in a long time, either. Since middle school, I suppose.
For as much as I wanted to be with and talk to Tsugumi, when the time came, I couldn't get anything out.
I was just panicking to myself, “Gotta say something,” but saying nothing.

To be honest, I didn't even let her look me in the eye. Not because I was just that dazzling, of course.
If we did make eye contact, I felt like she'd look right through my miserable head.

"Come to check out some books? Or are you studying?", Tsugumi asked.
It was a trivial question, but her asking anything remotely personal about me already made my chest nearly burst.
"Yeah, to check out books. Well, but really, I'm just escorting my little sister..."
"Huh, your sister..." Tsugumi seemed to question my reply, but didn't press further. "Do you read?"
"A little, yeah... Maybe just because I've been coming to the library lately."
"Ahh, I see. What have you been reading lately?"

I tried to judge Tsugumi's expression. It seemed like she wasn't just making polite conversation; she was genuinely interested.
Perhaps she didn't know many readers. My first self rarely read books at all, after all.
So maybe Tsugumi wanted someone to talk about books with.

"I feel like I'm really late on the bandwagon, but I read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. That and Nine Stories," I replied.
"Catcher?", she nodded. "That one goes on my top shelf. Er, which is to say it's a big favorite of mine. ...What did you think of it?"
I had to think. Because if I could come up with a good reply, there was a chance I could get Tsugumi to take a liking to me.
I couldn't mess this up, or she'd just think I'm boring.

"Generally," I began, "it's a story about the unique animosity young people have toward the world. ...Er, or that's how it's often interpreted."
She nodded at me to go on. I could see the slightest loss of hope in her eyes. She wasn't looking for the common opinion. So I hurried to my next point.

"But - and this is just my own personal opinion as someone who's not an avid reader, with experience and teaching - I feel like people stress it too much as a "novel about youth." Sure, it applies. When you take it as a story about a youth who gives up on high school and goes around badmouthing society, but gradually matures through his relationships with others, then it's easy to read it that way. ...But this is, you know, the same Salinger who wrote Bananafish. I think people need to read it more carefully."

"I really get what you're saying," Tsugumi nodded. "That's pretty much the same way I feel about Catcher. So, what did you come up with after a careful read?"
"That is, um..." I scratched my head. "Well, once I started to feel that the existing interpretations weren't quite right, I kind of wondered how I should be reading it..."
"And? Go on, tell me."
I searched for the words once more. Yeesh, if I'd known this was going to happen, I'd have taken my notebook.

"...When I see Holden, what I think is, it's only natural he'd be so pissed off, because he has proper sensibilities. It's not because he's young and inexperienced that he's mad about nonsense and phonies. In a way, it's like The Emperor's New Clothes. But like the Japanese translator says, Holden isn't necessarily written to be a symbol of innocence. When a child speaks out and says "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"... in Catcher, that just gets him dismissed as a heretic."

I spoke eloquently. Unfortunately, my tongue was sluggish due to not having said anything that long in ages, but I at least established a sort of rhythm in the conversation. Finally, I'd managed to say what I wanted.

Tsugumi seemed pleased. "He isn't wearing anything at all," she repeated. "That's another story I like, actually. It's an amazing text for getting multiple interpretations out of. Hey, do you mind if I change the subject a little?"
"No problem," I said. I was incredibly glad our conversation could go on a little longer.
Tsugumi took time to carefully pick her words.

"...When I look at our society, I feel like there are a great number of people who are made out to be naked emperors. Basically, there's an emperor who actually wears clothes that idiots can't see. But the masses are filled with idiots, so none of them can see the clothes. One extremely foolish child among them speaks up. "But he's not wearing anything!", he says. Suddenly all the idiots around him are relieved, and they start to say "he's not wearing anything" too. The emperor hastily insists, "No, no, that's not true at all. There are people who have seen them!", but even when he tries to show them the clothes as proof, the idiots confidently say "Well, I don't see anything." ...Do you see what I'm trying to say?"
"I think I do," I replied.



[+]

* 47 *

We continued to talk in that way for a while.
The conversation itself was rather trifling. No real significance to it at all.
My first self would have forgotten it even happened in two seconds.

But for me, it made my fingertips shake with joy from beginning to end.
I prayed that it could last just a little longer.

"Oh yeah, Tsugumi... You smoke? I’m surprised," I said, lighting a Pall Mall.
She smiled with a little bit of worry. "I’m keeping it secret, even from my boyfriend. Right now, only you know."

Those words stuck out in my mind.
"Only you know." It had a nice ring to it.

I want to say we talked for about thirty minutes total. We were so engrossed in conversation, we didn't want to move from that spot.
By the time Tsugumi checked her watch and said "I've got to be going," both of us were shivering.
"Sorry for all the weird tangents. I guess I got carried away since I don't have anyone to talk to about that stuff. But... I don't know about you, but I had a great time. Thanks. See you."

After Tsugumi left, I looked to the moon and reflected on our conversation for a little while.
I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or excitement that made me unable to stop shaking.
How economical of me to get such joy from that little conversation.

Not to mention, I still had not noticed the fatal mistake I was making.

My sister was already at the car, and when I arrived, she said “Five minutes late!” and whacked me in the head five times.
Wouldn’t want to see an hour late, I suppose.

A while after we left the library, she said "Big brother, are you friends with that girl?"
"...Nah," I denied. "She was just kind enough to talk to me."
"Hmph. Well then, I must be kind too for talking to you," my self-entitled sister stated.
"It’s different. You and I are merely on good terms."
"Huh? Really?", she asked, perplexed.



[+]

* 48 *

Even a week later, the conversation I had with Tsugumi was still repeating in my head like a favorite record.
I could recreate the thirty minute talk down to the slightest detail. Rather than grow muddled as memories do, it felt like it became clearer every time.
I have to remove Tokiwa, I thought. Much like the day I saw Tsugumi at the bus stop, I was reinvigorated with energy.

Even if Tokiwa was like a saint, made everyone around him happy, had more than ten times the value I did, and killing him would make Tsugumi sad, I didn't care.
I had no need to find justice in my actions. All that mattered was if Tokiwa's existence made me happy or unhappy.
And of course, it made me unhappy. And his non-existence would make me happy.
Thus, I would kill him. That seemed fine to me.

I slapped my cheeks with both hands to liven myself up.
I would kill Tokiwa today if I could.

Seeing me confidently preparing to leave, my sister, fleeing from home for... who knows how many times it was now, drowsily spoke up.
"You look like you're having fun. It's weird."
"In a bad way?"
"Bad way."

She threw aside the book she was holding.
"Hey, those are borrowed books. Treat them carefully," I reprimanded.
"You can treat sucky books rough. Didn't you know?", she replied.
"Never heard that before. What's so sucky about that book, anyway?"
She thought for a moment, then answered.

"The kid in this book thinks answering a question is the same thing as thinking."
I was surprised, having not expected a serious answer.
"I don't get it, but... What, do you mean it's best to leave questions unanswered?"
"That's not what I meant at all. I think it's weird to detach questions from answers in the first place. When a question comes up, it's expected an answer will follow. So answering in itself isn't a big deal. Rather, it's how you go about pulling things from your head to..."
After going that far, she appeared to feel she'd said too much and quickly shut her mouth.

"Well, I'm not trying to look like I'm having fun. So what exactly makes you say that?"
"...You've been dressing better lately, haven't you, big brother?"
"Have I?", I said, playing dumb.

Indeed, since tailing Tokiwa with the same clothes could raise suspicion, I was mixing it up lately.
I tried my best to wear fashionable clothes that let me blend into the crowd as best I could. But she had misinterpreted it as suddenly caring more about my appearance.
After all, before I had no problem wearing the same clothes to college two days in a row. I didn't expect anyone to care how I looked.

"Could you have gotten a girlfriend, maybe? In which case it's awkward for me to be here?"
Though bluntly said, it was a rare occasion for my sister, as she actually demonstrated tact. Granted, she assumed wrong.
However, it was true I was in love. My sister was surprisingly good at seeing through me, it seemed.

"Unfortunately, that's not the case," I answered.
After a little thought, I explained it like this - as usual, I felt it best to lie with a little bit of the truth, to throw off the scent a little.
"I want to become a faceless person. Just blending into the crowd. It's my hope that after people pass me by, they'll have already forgotten my face - that's how little impression I leave. And rather than wear plain clothes in empty places, I've found it's more effective to dress like everyone else and wander where the people are."

"So like an invisible man?"
"Right. In a sense, I want to be an invisible man."
"Weird," she dubiously said. "Alright, so you didn't get a girlfriend. ...Where are you going today?"
"I'm planning to go to a café to study."
"Even though you don't go to school?", my sister said somewhat ironically - likely also scorning herself for her lack of attendance.

I replied, "I'm studying because I don't go. It sounds contradictory, but I don't want to be a dropout. I don't go to school because I don't want to go, but it doesn't mean I don't want to do something with myself. Things like job qualifications and English, I can study by myself."
I could tell lies like this all day. I hadn't done any studying to get a job at all.
"See you," she said to cut off the conversation. It was a "see you" with the nuance of "get out already."



[+]

* 49 *

I would never be able to know now, but I wonder. If I had been given a fourth perfect chance to kill Tokiwa, would I have done it? Could I have?
I tried to avoid facing the idea of "killing someone" head-on when possible. Rationally speaking, I could never approve of murder.
It was too high-risk, after all. If only I were more charming, I would be better off not murdering anyone.

The biggest problem for me was that even if my crime managed to go undetected, my own guilt would soon give myself away.
So I wanted a method that felt detached from reality; rather than stabbing him with a knife or strangling him, I'd patiently wait for a moment to softly push him from behind to his death.
...Of course, like I said before, three of those chances had shown themselves and I let them all pass.

The fourth time would be different, though.
After meeting Tsugumi at the library, I had my confidence back. I believed then that things could go well with Tsugumi.
Before, I'd felt that perhaps Tsugumi was too unattainable for my second-life self. So even if I had killed Tokiwa, she would never take solace in me.
Thus, I let those three chances go to waste.

But once I talked to her again after years apart, I was sure. I was even convinced I was a better partner for Tsugumi than my first self.
In my first life, I'd been an extrovert and her an introvert, but the second time, we would both be introverts and get along better than ever. I was sure that would be the case.

Yet even with those feelings, the question of whether I'd really kill Tokiwa when given a fourth chance to... I couldn't give an unconditional answer.
I didn't have the guts to even punch someone; killing a guy like that may have been impossible from the start.
On the other hand, sometimes I had made decisions confidently enough to surprise myself, so it was possible I might kill Tokiwa without skipping a beat.

At any rate, I can't know now. A fourth chance never came.



[+]

* 50 *

At a glance, everything seemed to be coming together. Almost too well, even.

Tokiwa went to a bar with Tsugumi and stayed there for an hour. After taking her to at the bus stop, he started walking for the train station. That part was his usual routine.
But that day, he took a strange route to the station. He purposefully walked places with few people, went down pitch black residential areas, shopping districts, and alleys.
It was like he was following a self-imposed rule that he had to turn at every corner he felt like turning. Unable to guess his destination, tailing him took a lot of effort.
Maybe he feels like walking alone, I thought. We all have those nights, don't we?

The air was cold as metal, and the stars shone piercingly.
The lights leaking out of houses seemed unusually lovely that winter night. It was even better with a bit of alcohol.

Finally, the time arrived. Tokiwa was headed for a bridge.

I had done a scrupulous investigation of the town, and I knew there were no places more suited for pushing someone to their death than that bridge.
The railing barely went higher than knee-level. It was easily high enough off the ground for the fall to kill him, but even if it miraculously didn't, being dropped into the river in frigid December would give him hypothermia and kill him with a heart attack.
By coming to such a place drunk, he was practically telling me to kill him.

I suddenly thought that if I let this chance pass, there would be none to follow. I don't know why, but I felt like this fourth one would absolutely be the last.
Yes, there would be times when not everything was in order, but if I couldn't do anything even in this ideal situation, there was no chance I'd be able to in a less ideal one.
I have to finish this here, I told myself.

Tokiwa slowly walked to around the middle of the bridge. I closed the distance between us, keeping my footsteps quiet.
With all this thin snow piled up, it could even be that people would think he slipped, I considered.
Yes, I was oddly calm. Even now, I was able to think about these things as if it wasn't even real.
My body still didn't particularly recognize that I was about to kill a man.

It was when I was only a couple meters away, and thought I could just run up and push him.
Tokiwa suddenly stopped - I had no time to guess why - and sat on the railing, as if to peer down at the river.
Then he turned around and offered me his hand.
Like he had known I was there all along.
"Hey, you sit down too," he said, directing next to him.

Many thoughts ran through my head.
How long ago had he noticed me? How far?
Did he know my intent? If he did, why was he making himself so defenseless?
Did he want to talk to me? If he did, why did it need to be here?
If he knew I was tailing him from the start, then did he take those empty paths to reliably guide me along? But what was the point of that?
Maybe he had only noticed me in the past few minutes - if that were so, did it disrupt my plans?
Did he mean to confuse me and take the chance to run away? No, that hardly seemed effective - he should have just run in that case.

I thought all this in a matter of seconds, and unsure of what to do now, I sat next to him like he told me to.
Even then I could have easily pushed Tokiwa to his death. Perhaps I didn't because I was just too surprised by, or rather curious about, his actions.
In that sense, I played right into his strategy.



[+]

* 51 *

"I want you to listen to what I'm about to say in silence, for the time being. But tell me if anything seems to be wrong."

Homes lined both sides of the bridge, the warm light from their windows reflecting off the river.
The iron railings were so cold it felt like my hands would get stuck. But I had to hold onto them, of course; I could easily fall.

"I know you've been following me, more or less. And I've gathered enough proof that it wouldn't be easy for you to get away. Forgive me, but I asked a friend to tail you. Yes, it was a double-stalking, so to speak. ...Boy, I never thought I'd get to say that one day."
Tokiwa laughed to himself.

"I don't understand why you've been following me around. After all, while I honestly hate to brag, I'm kind of a saint. I've never done anything guilty. I've done many things to be thanked for, but never to be loathed for. And it appears the only real link between us is that we're in the same department at school. Still, I can't discard the possibility that you may want to inflict harm on me for some unjustified resentment... So I wanted to give this a try."

I looked straight down. At night, the river was completely black, like there'd been an ink spill.
And I realized that I could use it not only for pushing Tokiwa for his death, but for jumping to mine. That would be one way to resolve things. Never mind if I had the guts to do it.

"I gave you three chances before this. I intentionally fabricated three occasions while you were following me where you could easily inflict harm upon me. ...But of course, as you've now seen, I allowed just enough time for me to save myself if you did threaten any violence."

I took my hands off the railing, reached into my pocket, and timidly lit a cigarette.
The wind on the bridge was so strong, it took some effort to get it lit.

"Yet you didn't act. Maybe you had no intention of hurting me from the start, maybe you got cold feet, I don't know. At any rate, I knew that you were harmless. Even if you had the intent to kill me, it seemed impossible for you to carry out.

"Naturally, it was always possible you would later get serious about killing me. But getting to look at you in person now, I think I know the truth. You can't hurt me. Just call it a hunch. Or maybe a subconscious feeling."

I spoke for the first time. "When did you first notice?"
"The week after the college festival day," he replied. "That was fairly early on, I'd expect? I would think it wasn't long after you began."
Exactly right, I confirmed in my head.

"It's not that I'm lucky, or that I have eyes in the back of my head. I'm not particularly sharp, nor do I have experience being followed. So why did I notice so early? ...Simple. Despite how I might look, I'm a highly self-conscious person - unusually so, you could say. I notice when people's eyes are on me frequently. I read everyone's actions, any messages directed at me. I'm the kind of person who, if I see the same person three times in a day, will think they're trying to ambush me."

"Huh... I didn't really see you looking around restlessly or anything...", I said.
He replied unconcerned. "Really self-conscious people don't let themselves be seen looking around nervously. Rather, they make it look natural. You'd know if you tailed someone else that normal people do baffling things like stop and look behind them more frequently. I actually provided an easier environment for you to stalk me."

In essence, he'd seen through everything. I let out a deep sigh with the smoke.
Yet I didn't feel much in the way of regret or embarrassment. I didn't know how I'd felt so calm just a moment ago. Perhaps I'd already gotten accustomed to Tokiwa knocking me down.

"So what are you going to do with me?", I asked. "Turn me in to the police?"
"Certainly not," he shook his head. "You might think that surprising, but... I can't see what you've done to me in the past month as ill-natured. In fact, I think I'd like to thank you. Not that I liked being watched from the shadows, no. What I mean to say is, by you watching me all this time, I've come to acquire your point of view. And such a wondrous thing it is; it can't be found in abundance in this world."

I didn't particularly grasp his meaning, but he went on innocently explaining.

"I've been rather blessed, but if I had to say I was unhappy about anything in my life, it's that I've been too happy since I was very young. And it's by speaking as the person I am that what I'm about to say has meaning - happiness gets wearisome when you get too used to it. It's like eating sugar for all three meals every day. It numbs your tongue, and you can't taste the flavor anymore. I'm not lying. Almost every day, all kinds of people praise me, innumerable women show their affection for me, and I have the best girlfriend I could ask for... But one day, I realized that I didn't feel a thing.

"After that, I was putting on a smile, but deep down it was like I was chewing sand. Worryingly, while happy things couldn't really make me happy, I was easily able to get gloomy and angry over sad and annoying things. I was disturbingly dulled to the positive, but well-attuned to the negative. ...Can I have a cigarette?"

I silently passed Tokiwa a Pall Mall and a lighter. He lit it with experienced hands, looked briefly at the Morrissey pictured on the lighter, and handed it back.
I suddenly wondered if Tokiwa knew Tsugumi was a smoker. If he didn't, I came out just barely ahead in terms of knowing her.
So I clung to that memory, and replayed it in my head. Remembered her pretty fingers holding the slender cigarette.

"But," he continued after a smoky breath, "when you showed up, it brought about a bit of a change in me. Essentially, by having you following me, I got your viewpoint. The whole time, I was wondering... Not "Why would he want to follow me?", but "How does he view someone like me?" That was what intrigued me. Before I went to bed, I always thought back on what had happened that day, and imagined how it would look through your eyes. I couldn't help myself. I guess people like me get very reflective when they're alone. Wondering how my words and actions were seen by others, and what meaning the things said to me had - there are people out there who stay up all night thinking about it, you see."

You didn't have to tell me that, I said without speaking. I knew it was true of none other than myself.

Tokiwa skillfully spun the cigarette between his fingers, and said "Well."
"I suppose it was about two weeks after you started following me. I suddenly realized there was a big change going on inside me. It was an unbelievable thing. My numbed senses were coming back to me."
He said that without irony, as if he was speaking of a truly beautiful memory.

"When I woke up in the morning, I was filled with hope for the coming days. When I looked in the mirror, I was glad to be born this way. Walking through town, I adored each and every person I saw. When I saw my girlfriend's face, I was filled with gratitude for being able to meet her. Flowers were flower-like, rocks were rock-like - their individual qualities jumped out at me. Everything was perfectly normal and as it should be. Too normal, even. And perhaps I'd never before been able to look at the world in such a normal way since I was born. I was going to faint with joy. I was finally able to accept that all-too-common happiness as appreciable happiness.

"At first, I thought it was only temporary. And indeed, as time passed, that joyful feeling lessened. By the time lunch with my friends at school came around, it seemed gone without a trace, like it had never been. But just as I was despairing and looked up... though quite far away, there you were. Suddenly, my joy was as clear as before. I wanted to stand up and celebrate, no kidding.

"Finally, then, I realized. That happiness was something you gave me. By borrowing your viewpoint to look at myself, I could see the happiness that had become commonplace to me in a new light."

There, he temporarily stopped.
I had listened in silence, and I understood what he was saying. After all, it was similar to the way I always grieved about my situation more than I needed to, thanks to my memories.

"There's one thing which you should be aware of. My stalker had to be you. If someone else were to have followed me around like this, I don't think I would be able to so passionately consider their feelings. So in that sense, I'm very grateful to you. It may sound sarcastic, but... You really resemble me in a way. I don't mean to displease you, but what I honestly think when I see you is, "With just a single misstep, I could have ended up like him."

"...I'm convinced we're the same at our foundation. Alarmingly similar in our initial conditions. I believe it's possible that coming from the same place, the slightest difference in environment or twist of fate could result in such a difference. So I know how you feel. I can even imagine what you must think of me."

Once finished, he took a deep-blue notebook from his bag. "Give me a moment, I'll be quick," he said, beginning to write something.
Three minutes later, he ripped out the page and handed it to me.
When I saw the paper, I was moved rather than offended.

He explained what he'd written. "I still don't know why you're following me. However, if you would continue to harmlessly do so, then please refer to this. I've written everything I currently know about my schedule for the near future. It must be difficult work to follow me.

"...Christmas is coming up soon. When it does, my life will be more fulfilling than ever. And if you could see that it is... nothing would make me happier."



Part 4
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