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[+]

* 52 *

With all the trees and store fronts lit up, Christmas songs playing everywhere you went, and the huge fir tree at the train station, the town was turning the colors of Christmas.
It had been four days since my talk with Tokiwa on the bridge. I continued to stalk him as usual; I was having coffee at a café at the station, waiting for him to show up.
I could get a good view of the plaza from there, you see. Which Tokiwa and Tsugumi often used as a meeting place.

Many of the people sitting around me were either couples or pairs of women.
Every single one of them was deeply entrenched in conversation. I seemed to be the only loner.
I pulled my mug up to my lips and took a sip. The coffee had gone cold and tasted like detergent.

Just what was I doing?

To be blunt, nearly all my reason for tailing Tokiwa had been annihilated. I'd been completely found out.
It would be fair to say it was impossible for me to act out against him now.
So then why did I let my stalking drag on? "To remember."

My memories of my first life, already so fuzzy, seemed to get even hazier around this time.
It was bad enough that if I wasn't paying attention, I could even forget that this was my second time living these years.
To be honest, tailing Tokiwa and seeing him with Tsugumi was useful for strengthening my memories.

If I hadn't done that, by now I'd have become convinced I was always like this from the start.
Or perhaps I would have been happier that way. When I had a point of reference, it made me keep seeing my second life as so much worse.

If I could look on the bright side, even my life now wasn't bad enough to throw it all away. The college I went to wasn't so bad, and there were lots of books to read and songs to listen to.
And while she could be hard to understand, my sister seemed to care for me as well.
So what if I was a shut-in for a year? I could just think of it as a gap between high school and college.

Alas, it was impossible for me to think that way. If I could just forget my first life, it would be easy.
But on the other hand, even knowing the pain those memories brought me, for whatever reason I couldn't bring myself to forget.
No matter what, I wanted to remember that the world, my life, had had such wonderful things in it.
I honestly felt it would be better to die cradling the memories of my first life than to try and live my second life happily, if the latter meant forgetting.

Tsugumi arrived at the plaza before Tokiwa. She sat on a bench with a green paper bag under her arm, and looked up at the station clock.
Double stalking... I wondered if the "friend" Tokiwa had asked to follow me could have been Tsugumi.
That would have meant the worst - that the day we met at the library, Tsugumi knew that I was stalking Tokiwa.
Even the way she cordially talked to me could have all been to hide her intentions, I considered.

In a few minutes, Tokiwa appeared on the plaza. When Tsugumi saw him, she held up the bag and proudly showed it to him. Tokiwa reacted with exaggerated surprise.
The contents of the present could have been an early Christmas gift, or a birthday present.
If Tokiwa's birthday was the same as mine, December 24th, then it wouldn't be odd if Tsugumi gave him a birthday present a week early to prevent overlap.

After taking the present, Tokiwa looked in some direction as if noticing something. Indeed, it was in my direction - it seemed he'd noticed I was here standing guard.
And then he waved at me, of all things. Such innocence.
I hurriedly lowered my head, hiding in their blind spot. My face was hot all of a sudden, and I clutched my head.

Truly, what on earth was I doing?



[+]

* 53 *

I didn't lift my head up for a while. After about ten minutes, thinking they would have left the plaza by now, I was about to raise it.
Just then, I noticed for the first time that there was a girl sitting to my left.

And this was funny - as she sat four seats away, she was holding her head in much the same way as me.
A man and a woman sitting in a café, quite a distance apart, and yet acting in just the same way. How odd.

It seemed even odder when I realized it was Hiiragi.

Then I remembered, that's right, she was stalking Tokiwa too.
I wondered, then, if Tokiwa knew about Hiiragi as well, and instructed her to keep doing it, even going so far as to politely write out his schedule.
He had told me "My stalker had to be you," but it seemed to me that it could have been Hiiragi, too.
Because in terms of his reasons for "why it had to be me," Hiiragi and I were like twins.

Hiiragi got out of her seat and went to the counter to order a refill of coffee. She didn't seem to have noticed me.
She was wearing an unfashionable white sweater, her outfit yet again completely different from what I last saw her in. Yet it strangely suited her.
Some people just aren't suited for a refined look. Yeah, I'm probably one of them too.

Once Hiiragi got her refill, she went to the condiment bar, took the lid off her paper cup, and began dumping in ridiculous amounts of sugar.
I wish you could've seen it. It was like her objective was to make a thick soup.
She took her sugar-with-some-added-coffee drink back to her seat and savored it, drinking with both hands.

All of a sudden, I felt there was something stunningly nostalgic about it.
It's like the feeling when you listen to a hit song all the time, then don't listen to it for years, and then you hear it on the radio again a decade later.

My eyes were fixed on Hiiragi drinking her coffee for a while. But I really didn't have a clue what my brain was so nostalgic about.
Yet it could certainly not be directed toward anything else, that much was certain. It was definitively coming from Hiiragi.

Of course, Hiiragi had long been a friend of sorts. We were classmates ever since middle school.
But that just made it stranger. Why such a sudden longing over someone who's stayed around me for so long?
She shouldn't have been giving me such a sensation.

Finally, I succeeded at finding a good, proper word for the sensation.
Deja vu.

I had seen this very sight once before.
No, more than once - countless times, I'd seen Hiiragi just like this, at this angle, in this café.
It wasn't a memory from my second life, so by necessity it was a first-life one.

Something overlapped with Hiiragi. Immediately, I was struck with great unease.
Had I? Had I been making such an unbelievable mistake?

Hiiragi looked up, and we finally met eyes.
No, we never spoke up to each other. We'd gotten good at communicating intentions with our eyes alone in our third year of high school.

Hiiragi's eyes spoke volumes. Just two or three seconds of contact told me a great many things.
So... by the time she looked away, I was already convinced.

She had memories of "the first time."



[+]

* 54 *

Why had I been so convinced Tsugumi was my former girlfriend in the first place?
Indeed, it was true she satisfied the characteristics I remembered: "Sleepy eyes, long eyelashes, always thinking."
But was there not a single other girl like that? Had I really been weighing every possibility?

I looked over at Hiiragi again.
It went without saying. Her eyes were always sleepy. Her eyelashes were long. I didn't know if she was thinking behind those sleepy eyes or not, but she got along with me rather well.

I finally understood everything.
That my mistakes had begun much earlier.
That my choices were even more foolish than I thought.

In short - I was not the only one who had my role taken away.
The one I had confessed to in middle school was a mistaken identity; the girl for whom I'd commit murder to get back, the wrong person.

The couple I had been forever watching from the shadows were our doubles.
Not just Tokiwa. Tsugumi, too, was the same kind of doppelganger.

And my real girlfriend had always been right there beside me.
Hiiragi. The only one who hoped to match me in misery. It was her.



[+]

* 55 *

When I realized my former girlfriend was right there, was in a similar situation, and experienced the same kind of anguish... on the contrary, I wasn't happy.
In fact, it only seemed to deepen my despair.

Why? Well, even if Hiiragi here was my real girlfriend, the one I loved more now was Tsugumi, the “fake" who better resembled her from my first life.
I wasn't concerned as much with “original or copy" as with “who will make me feel the same way as the first time?"
The genuine article had changed, so I had little interest in her anymore. The right answer isn't always right, you could say.
A mistake just doesn't seem worth fixing once the mistaken party goes on with it for ten years.

What's more, I was dejected knowing that Tsugumi who I sought was not my former girlfriend at all; effectively a complete stranger.
There was no longer any foundation for her and I to get together now, was there?
The eternal bond I believed in wasn't with the girl on the plaza, but with the girl with head in hands beside me.

Looking Hiiragi over with the consideration that she was my girlfriend the first time around, I felt like I was looking objectively at my own second-self.
I knew to a dreadful degree how people who knew me in my first life would react to seeing me now.
No, it wasn't a very good feeling.

For these reasons, it was not a fateful reunion.

As my "true first girlfriend" looked lonesomely over the plaza, I felt that she needed someone warm beside her.
And just this one time, I feel like I wasn't mistaken.

But I didn't speak to her, and left the café.
Because just like I didn't need Hiiragi, but rather Tsugumi, she didn't need me. She needed Tokiwa.

It just wasn't going to work out. But that all started with me.
If I had not made my mistake in love at first sight, perhaps Hiiragi and I, though not living a perfect recreation of our first lives, would be happy together.
No, I couldn't deny that we could have been even happier than before.

And if I hadn't messed things up with not just Hiiragi, but with my sister, my parents, Usumizu, all those people, there was no doubt they would have lived ever so slightly happier lives.

That's around where I cut myself off from thinking about it any more.
I give up now, I thought.
It seemed like it was about time to just forget about my first life entirely.



[+]

* 56 *

I lit up a cigarette and prayed the world would end.
A vehement prayer for everyone who knew me and everyone I knew to just vanish.
Then I'd be able to do it all over from the start.

At the time, I was living with absolutely no connections to anyone. I was fed up with the uncertainties of other people.
I knew how difficult it was to live completely and utterly alone. But to live something incredibly close wasn't so difficult in this world.
There are lots of people who die unknown and not knowing anyone themselves.

After I got home, I smoked like a chimney in winter.
My sister fumed amid the fumes. She told me to stop again and again. I just ignored her.
I wanted my apartment and my head to be filled up with smoke. I didn't want to see a thing, I thought.

Me flat-out ignoring my sister's complaints was unprecedented, so she was thrown off. Though a typical braggart, she was a coward at her core.
When she saw how I was acting different than usual, she simply withdrew and said nothing more.

By the time I finished with my twelfth cigarette, my sister asked with hesitation, "Big brother, you always said you hated smoking. Why'd you start?"
After taking a puff from my thirteenth, I answered "Maybe because I lost everyone who cares."

According to my unreliable memories, in my first life I had smoked incessantly up to a certain point.
But then I quit. Because my girlfriend was worried for me.
She didn't mean to blame me, but said something along the lines of "I don't want you to make your life shorter," and that did it for me.
It felt ridiculous to willingly shave away at the time I could spend with her, after all.

And yet now, in my second life, I had no one left who worried about me. Not a single person who cared about my life getting shorter.
In fact, maybe I smoked even more than necessary for that very reason.

My sister didn't seem to understand my statement. Because I made it sound like until recently, I did have someone who noticed and cared about me.
But, well, she didn't press it any further. She seemed to understand that I probably wouldn't answer anyway.
Instead, she slowly approached and gently reached her hand for my mouth.

"...Well, I care. Please stop."
Then she took the cigarette in her fingers and pulled it out.
I took a look at her. She looked at me with her usual sober eyes, but she seemed to be blinking more.

I lit a new cigarette and released a mouthful of smoke.
My sister started hacking and coughing.

I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and gazed at it. It was Tokiwa's schedule.
I put it on the ashtray and held my lighter up to it, but I couldn't bring myself to burn it.
Because though it wasn't much, it did mention things about Tsugumi. Regrettably, even if it was just a scrap of paper, I figured anything to do with her was to be treasured.

I put my cigarette out in the ashtray and took a book from the desk to read. But it wouldn't stay in my head.
Had I really ever thought that I would be able to kill Tokiwa?
And if I had miraculously succeeded, did I honestly believe Tsugumi would come to love me instead?
I really must have been crazy to think that.

Maybe as a defense mechanism to cope with the shock, I soon found myself sound asleep.
As if hoping to induce necrosis in my brain cells, I slept for fourteen hours.

When I woke up the next morning, my sister was gone.
The next day, and the day after, she showed no sign of returning.



[+]

* 57 *

In the end, I gave up on my plans to kill Tokiwa.
But, irritatingly enough, I came to learn that wishes are always granted just when you stop wishing.

A week passed in the blink of an eye, and the tail end of December arrived.
After my sister disappeared, I applied for every part-time day job I saw. I had enough emails about them to fill my entire schedule for December if I felt like it.

Not that I was interested in earning money from them. I just wanted to empty my head.
I wanted to forget a lot of the things that happened. And since I had no reason to tail Tokiwa anymore, I had a lot of time on my hands.

I was asked to do a lot of one-day jobs, like working as a waiter at a packed hotel, helping with stupid holiday events, and doing traffic control - I let these consume my days.
I always hated working with strangers, and as was common with this kind of work, I was irrationally scolded by energetic full-time employees.
There was nothing fun about it, and it didn't even help lift my spirits, yet it was better than doing nothing.

When I got home late at night, I'd drink cheap whiskey on the rocks, skim through books my sister left behind, and when I got sleepy, crawled into bed while listening to music.
The cessation of thought is easy once you get used to it.
In no time at all, the memories of my first life grew hazy.

One day, while walking home through piles of snow after work, I looked at my phone to confirm my plans for tomorrow and noticed an answering machine message.
Thinking it came from my college, I deleted the notification without even checking. No doubt it was something along the lines of "make up your mind, are you dropping out or not?"

The thing was, though, it was an answering machine message. That meant it came from a public phone.

It's another testament to my idiocy, but at first I thought it was from Tokiwa, then immediately afterward got my hopes up thinking "Wait, hold on, could Tsugumi have called?"
Even now, I had that unfounded hope that Tsugumi would come save me when I was in trouble. I doubt anybody could save me from my stupidity.

Of course, Tsugumi had no way of knowing my number or anything in the first place.
The message was from my sister. Her voice was just barely audible.
"Big brother, I want you to come home. ...Um, it's really bad between dad and mom right now. It would be fine if they divorced, but... I don't know if that's how it's going to end. ...I mean, I don't really know if you coming home is going to do anything. But I don't know what else to do."
After a few seconds of silence, she ended with a whisper.
"Hey, big brother... I really don't like to do this."

Neither did I.



[+]

* 58 *

I didn't feel like going straight home, so I didn't turn at the corners I should have, and did turn at those I shouldn't.
I was sweating from work, and my body felt chilly in an unstable way. It was a truly awful kind of cold.

Without even being aware of it, I was humming Radiohead's "Creep."
Miserably, I knew the feelings of that song all too well in my second life. Because I wasn't someone wonderful who could match with Tsugumi.

While walking down the shopping district to the train station, I saw around ten kids in elementary school uniforms putting on a performance with handbells.
I found myself stopping to listen. Looking closer, there were kids playing other instruments like accordions and sleigh bells too.
It was some fine music. The apparent teacher conducting them looked like he was having a blast.

Past the shopping district, I reached the residential district.
There I found families outside their houses, smearing them with absurd amounts of decorations and lights.
The children were frolicking, and the parents diligently put up the decorations on the walls, trees, and fences. I watched from a distance.
Seeing this from not too far away, I was startled. Why are they so different from me?, I thought. It felt like we weren't even the same species.

After some time, the children said "One, two, three!" Then the colorful lights lit up all together, at once turning the house into what looked like an amusement park.
It was a splendid thing, and it certainly echoed images of Santa Claus and reindeer.

I left the residential district, as if running from it. There were lots of happy houses around, and I wouldn't be able to stand watching the same thing repeatedly happen.
While walking aimlessly, I arrived at a small convenience store I often went to. I considered passing it by, but thought it over and went in.
Fighting the urge to warm my hands with some hot coffee, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and took it to the register.

At the counter was Hashibami, the usual clerk. She was a tall woman, but definitely not the modeling type, and she didn't seem to know what to do with that height herself.
I judged she was about three or four years older than me. Her hair was light brown, her voice low like a heavy drinker, and she gave me a general impression of frankness.

I tended to visit the store around 11 PM, upon which I always bought a long can of low-malt beer and a box of Pall Mall Reds.
I wasn't fussy. In fact, since I wasn't fussy, I just bought the cheapest things I could to satisfy me.

Since I bought the same thing so many times, she came to know my face, and after that, took to immediately preparing a box of Pall Malls as soon as she saw me walk in.
No doubt when Hashibami saw me, she thought "Ah, it's the cheap beer and smokes guy." Kind of embarrassing.

Since she always prepared, I couldn't bring myself to suddenly say "Five boxes of Peace, please." So I'd been smoking the same brand for months.
But that day, when I brought up whiskey and a chocolate bar, no cigarettes, Hashibami seemed a bit confused. She bagged the items a little more awkwardly than usual.

"No Pall Malls today, huh. Did you quit?", Hashibami modestly asked as she handed me the bag.
I liked the way she put it, as well as her genuinely surprised expression. It calmed me down a little.
Of course, I was just happy to have anyone show some interest in anything I did. Even if it was just some shopping.

"No, I just wanted to surprise you," I said. I hadn't joked around with anyone in a while.
"Well, you succeeded," Hashibami laughed. "So it's not that you've quit, then?"
She thought for a little bit, then said "Oh well," and lifted up a little vinyl bag at her feet to give it to me.
"Those are some past-expiration-date cigarettes. Personally, I never knew cigarettes had an expiration date. I mean, it's typically not a concern for those who smoke them. My manager actually told me to throw them all away, but that seemed like a waste, so I'll give them to you."

I looked in the bag. It was an assortment of unpopular brands, about twenty packs in all.
"Is this okay?"
"Well, no, it's not. But I think it's a good thing."
While I puzzled over whether it was right to accept them, Hashibami leaned on the counter and tapped me on the shoulder.

"I'm the anti-Santa Claus. Rather than give good children toys, I give bad adults beer and smokes. Because they're the ones who really need presents, not the good kids. ...So go on, take them and leave."
I smiled bitterly and asked, "You hate Christmas?"
"No, I love Christmas. Always have, since I was a kid. ...The problem is, I'm in no position to take part in what I consider Christmas. When it comes to Christmas in this country, there are some high hurdles for me."
There were other customers lining up, so I thanked Hashibami and left.

I quickly got to smoking one of the cigarettes I'd been given, and wandered the wintery town at night.
I stuck my free left hand into my pocket. Because it was cold, yes, but it was also a habit of mine. I couldn't help putting my free hand in my pocket; if I didn't, I just couldn't keep it calm.
I've thought about why, and I wondered if it was because I was used to having someone's hand to hold when I walked in my first life, but never did in my second.
Like my hand was lonely. There's the theory about people smoking because their mouths miss sucking their mother's breast, so you never know.

I walked around looking for a good spot, then found a great one in the park.
It was a small park under a bridge, surrounded by withered trees, empty cans and paper bags scattered about, holes all over the fence. Just the kind of place I liked.
I sat on a bench and put out my cigarette on a handrail. The red embers scattered, a few of them falling to the ground and quickly vanishing.
I opened up the whiskey and drank it straight. The bottle had chilled considerably by now, but just one sip made my belly warm.

I had only meant it to be a joke. I just wanted to walk around drunk all night and numb myself a little.
But... if I fell asleep drunk like this, I really might freeze to death, I began to think.
My body quickly absorbed the alcohol and I felt my senses get numb. Plus I was feeling pretty sleepy.
Thanks to Hashibami, I was feeling just a little better about myself, like I could maybe actually do it.

And if I had been feeling just a little worse, I don't think I would have been thinking about suicide like this.
The most dangerous times are when you're feeling down in the dumps, and only recover halfway.

I was excited to have been given this sudden chance.
It's strange, but when you get to this stage, regrets are comforting. If it's a strong enough emotion, anything is comforting.
It all starts to seem like someone else's business. When it gets really bad, you can even delight in despair.

That's why I did all I could to think about sad things. I tried to be one of those guys who recalls all his regrets on the brink of death.
I tried to seriously face up to the thoughts I'd been avoiding before.
My head was murky with weariness and alcohol, so I couldn't remember very well. But a few blurry images came to mind when I thought "regrets."

One of them was, naturally, a vision of "what if things had gone better with Tsugumi."
I saw in my mind us talking aimlessly about trivial things, like we had done that day at the library.
But that wasn't all the vision was. I saw one wonderful thing after another that "could have happened."
I won't bore you with every single one.

But I was a little surprised to see such a vision.
I came to understand, as I thought about these happy possibilities, that there had been these fragments of happiness scattered all around.
Yet I was ignorant to them all, or at times even stomped them into bits myself.
And why? Because I was only ever thinking about my first life.



[+]

* 59 *

I think I might have sat on that bench until four in the morning.
I couldn't stop shivering, and I started to cough like I was sick, but I showed no signs of dying; I was just very cold.
So I eventually went home, pulled the blankets over me with shivering hands, and slept.

I remembered how when I was in elementary school, when I really didn't want to do something, I bathed in icy water to try and give myself a cold. It never worked out.

I woke up in the dim afternoon, turned on the heater, and forced some cereal and milk into my empty stomach despite having no appetite.
I went outside and smoked the cigarettes Hashibami gave me. I was feeling pretty sluggish, but it wasn't a cold or pneumonia. I was healthy, just without energy.

By the time I went back inside, my plan was settled.

I thought what I'd do was, I'd continue soaking in part-time jobs like this, and once I'd saved up enough money, I'd leave on a journey.
I'd go as far south as I could. And then once I ran out of savings, I'd be a vagrant or something.
Essentially, I thought I'd imitate my former best friend Usumizu.

I know it's crazy, but that's really what I wanted to do. Yeah, I'd just have the occasional meal to look forward to, and for entertainment I could look at the stars and flowers, and listen to the birds and bugs, and the weather would be my biggest worry in life. That's what it'd be like.

And I thought while living the vagrant life, I might just meet Usumizu who was doing the same. And then we might be best friends again, like we had been the first time.
We'd share pieces of bread, have turf wars with other vagrants, work together to gather cans, and compete over silly things like who could get more. Just like that.
Every day, we'd sleep under the stars and wake up with the sun. Then I just wouldn't care about my first life anymore, just bare necessities.
Boy, wouldn't that be real living.

But there was a part of me that looked at that fantasy soberly.
In the end, I'd probably never meet Usumizu, wouldn't be suited for a vagrant's life, and would just die alone kicking and screaming.
Saying "It shouldn't have been this way" to the end.

If I died, though, nobody would care. Well - maybe my sister would shed some tears for me.
Despite appearances, she was a sweet girl who looked out for her brother. Lately I'd come to realize that part of her hadn't changed.
She came to my place because she couldn't stand home, yeah, but I feel the other half of it was to console me.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think I'm free to think what I like.

I wondered what would happen to my family if I were gone.
Maybe it'd just break up, increasingly unable to keep itself together.
Or maybe without me, the three of them would come together for each other to fill the gap.
Either way, it seemed like a much better situation than what it was now.

It wasn't a spirit of self-sacrifice that made me feel ready for death; I just thought, if my passing brought about some good, that would be nice. It was a personal concern.

My thoughts of self-abandonment deepened. Ironically, the moment I discarded all attachment to the world, I could see the world's charms.
While I thought of "the world I lived my life in" as a good-for-nothing place, when I took away my involvement, it was stunningly beautiful.

A while later, I headed for my part-time job of the day. Even the cheap Christmas decorations I saw on the way were enough to move my heart.
The faint snow dyed orange by streetlights was a sight I couldn't tire of, and I even enjoyed taking a close look at the shape of every little icicle hanging from a roof.
I was like a visitor to the town who had never before seen snow.

It became very clear to me. Even things you don't hold much value for - as soon as you lose them, or as soon as you realize you did, you start to see them as irreplaceable.
The moment you think you want to die, life starts to sparkle, and the moment you think you want to live, death starts smelling sweet.

But as much as I understood that, until I had truly lost everything, I couldn't really feel that way.
It's not something people are all that capable of adapting to. Talk about inconvenient.



[+]

* 60 *

It should go without saying that in my second life, I hated Christmas.
But that's not to say I hate the spirit of Christmas, or Christianity as a whole. What I loathed was how every time someone said the word "Christmas," it felt like an excuse.
It's a lot like how you can get disgusted by someone constantly saying "volunteer." Not that there's anything wrong with volunteering.

Of course, my first self had no doubt rather enjoyed going around saying "Christmas" like an excuse.
So I was quite aware my hatred of Christmas might just be a bias there. Plus, of course I'd come to hate a birthday that nobody celebrates.
But whether it was bias or envy, I hated it, I hated it. So when I realized what part-time job I'd signed up for on December 24th, I knew I'd screwed up.

My plan was to just apply for any part-time job I saw, only looking at the hours, never at the actual job description.
So I didn't realize until the day of that I'd be working in a crowded department store, dressed up as Santa all day, to help with a raffle.

I could've very well skipped on it and taken the day off, but thinking about it, spending the whole day holed up at home seemed even more depressing.
I could see that either way I'd be feeling awful. So I concluded that it was better to go with the one that got me money, and left the house.

When I entered the employee entrance of the department store, not feeling in any way festive, there was already a crowd of about twenty idly curious people who similarly applied for a part-time the day before Christmas.
From their faces, most of them certainly did not look like they had Christmas plans, but there were a few who brought their significant others along, which just made things awkward. I had to laugh a little.

Most of the volunteers were college students, and most brought friends. Including me, there were only four who came alone.
One was a man who looked quite accustomed to work, and another was a man with piercings who didn't seem to care about anyone else.
The last was the only girl - see where this is going?

Standing uncomfortably in the corner was that girl I knew so well, Hiiragi.
When she saw me, she bowed her head slightly. I did the same, but as ever, she didn't appear to know who I really was.

Still, to think we'd meet here. We must have had very similar thought processes. I mean, we had been lovers in our first lives.
I wondered if she had decided she'd rather pick this over holing up at home, too.

A few minutes after everyone had assembled, they began explaining the work. Then, for the first time in a while, I heard the magic spell: "get into pairs."
Sure enough, neither Hiiragi nor I had anyone to pair up with, so as the remaining two, we ended up together.
It hadn't happened since high school, so I felt bad in a nostalgic, comforting way.

Dressed in sweltering Santa suits all the way up to the hat, we had to see festive families and couples and tell them things like "Merry Christmas!" and "Happy new year!" with little to no heart in it.
There wasn't a single person on the other side of the table who didn't look happy.

I thought, looking at Hiiragi next to me, that we would have formerly been on the other side.
Hiiragi struggled to be courteous to the guests, and that was heartbreaking to watch.



[+]

* 61 *

When we returned to a dusty meeting room for break time, we were distributed bento boxes.
The outside was all decorated in Christmas colors, but it was just a regular lunch on the inside.
I left about half of it, tossed my garbage into a cardboard box, put my pass in my pocket, and walked around the store.
It wasn't my first time working here, so I knew they were pretty lax. Walking around as I pleased wouldn't get me in too much trouble.

It being Christmas, the store was crowded, yet the instrument shop on the fifth floor had hardly anyone in it.
There wasn't anything I particularly wanted to buy, but I found myself naturally drawn there.
As I gazed at guitars and organs, I recalled the music preparation room I often visited in high school.
That was also where I met Hiiragi the day of the graduation rehearsal, I remembered, which warmed my cheeks slightly.

As I walked from one corner of the store to another, something caught my eye: a Hohner Marine Band.
It was a ten-holes harmonica made of wood, and I actually kind of liked the design. Same way you can admire the functional beauty of a pistol. I even liked the ring of the name, "Marine Band."

All of a sudden, I decided I'd buy it for my sister as a Christmas present. Whether she had any interest in instruments or not, I'd be alright if she just pretended to like it for the day.
It was just a little expensive for a harmonica, but I bought it without hesitation and even had it wrapped.
I only realized after leaving the store, but a harmonica seemed like a perfect fit for my sister.
It was easy to imagine her little hands holding a harmonica and skillfully playing it. In fact, I felt like she must have actually played the harmonica in my first life.

After that, I headed for the smoking area outside.
I hadn't noticed while inside the building, but it was horribly cold. I didn't know when it started to snow, but it there was up to ten centimeters of it in places.
The clouds were so thick, the darkness made it feel more like night despite being afternoon. A ton of cars had their headlights on.

I casually looked out over the parking lot, and saw a familiar blue car parked there - and my head twitched.
It was a car I'd seen often in my stalking days; that is, the car Tokiwa and Tsugumi rode around in. Being a fairly rare model, I knew it immediately.
So maybe I should have given that schedule Tokiwa gave me a closer look after all, I lamented. I definitely wouldn't have taken the job if I'd known those two would be here.

After I finished my second cigarette, I leisurely returned to the break area. I got the schedule out of my bag and looked it over.
According to the schedule, they were planning to get dinner at a fancy restaurant after this. Oh, joy.

You can probably guess what happened next; Tokiwa and Tsugumi came by the little raffle Hiiragi and I were running.
The moment I saw them, my eyes immediately darted around looking for a place to hide. I'd rather have died than meet Tokiwa at a time like that.
I knew, with all certainty, that when he saw me in a place like this on a day like this doing this, he'd wring some happiness for himself out of it. I wasn't going to be his fodder today.

I fled for the first place I saw, behind a Christmas tree up against the wall. It was a big tree, about five meters tall, so perfect for hiding behind.
However, when I went around the back of the tree, there was already someone coming from the other side, and I skidded to a stop. It was almost a head-on collision.

I don't think Hiiragi and I met eyes for more than a second.
Still, we knew. We squatted together behind the tree and waited for Tokiwa and Tsugumi to leave.
Thankfully, we succeeded in them not seeing us, though it gave us a start when a kid came along and saw us, shouting "Mommy, Santa's hiding! Two of them!" Gimme a break, kid.

After Tokiwa and Tsugumi left the raffle, I thought about what they were planning to do next. Perhaps Hiiragi, who sighed beside me, was thinking the same.
Yeesh, it's not often I feel this awful.

Five o' clock came, and the end of the raffle approached; the visitors were petering out, too. Hiiragi and I idled together in the break room.
In the corner of the room was an old radio. It was wooden with two huge knobs, and played music very faintly.
There was nothing else to look at or listen to, so I focused on listening to the radio.

It was playing a song quite familiar to me.
John Lennon's "Starting Over."

I started to casually and quietly hum along.
On this day in my first life, I thought, I'd done this too, hummed this same song.
It took a few seconds to realize I was remembering things I certainly shouldn't be able to.

Immediately, I noticed a flood of memories from my first life coming back.
A huge influx of information filled my brain so quickly that I almost fainted.

And that was when I remembered that Tokiwa and Tsugumi were about to die.



[+]

* 62 *

If you look at a person's fortune in the long run, maybe it all balances out.
That perspective on life is usually adopted by luckless people as consolation.
But in this sole instance, one would look at it the opposite way.

Strangely, I didn't show much reaction to this realization.
"Ah, right. Those two are going to die." That was all.

I suppose it should have been something to rejoice over.
After all, my hate for Tokiwa was unchanging, and Tsugumi couldn't ever be mine anyway.
Indeed, when it comes to the unattainable, it's better that it just stops existing at all.

I didn't feel sorry for them. Who cares? They've lived such a happy life already.
In fact, maybe you could consider it a happy thing that they could die in the peak of their happiness.
No doubt I could only say that as someone who'd lived a useless life for ten years.

Six o' clock came around. If things were playing out how I imagined them, right now Tokiwa and Tsugumi were stopping the car radio and putting a CD in the stereo.
It was Lennon Legend, and they went from the first song, Imagine, down the tracklist in order.

And by the time it reached the twelfth song, Starting Over, they would die.

I stood up, went to the radio in the corner, and raised the volume.
Why had my memories come back just now? I pondered.
Why had I taken a break at this exact time? Why was there a radio in this room?
Wait - how long had there been a radio there? I knew that there hadn't been such a thing there last week, at least.

I came to think that it was all a sign.
By the time the song ended, I had come to one baseless conclusion.

I was being tested again.
To see if I could find the right partner in my second life.
To see if I could make the right choice.



[+]

* 63 *

I wiped my wet face with a sleeve and looked at myself in the mirror. There I was, in that idiotic Santa getup.
"You have a right to know all this," I said.

"Every single thing is all my fault, for falling in love with the wrong person. If I hadn't done that, by all means I should have been living a life nearly unchanged from my first right now. And if I'd been the same, so would my family, and Usumizu, and you. Everything'd be the same, we'd still be living fulfilling lives.

"But I made an awful mistake. I messed up who I fell for. And on top of that, I went on believing she was the girl I was destined to be with, never noticing what I did wrong until this winter. Because I'm an utter moron. That threw all the cogs out of whack. Even a guy who I was really close to in my first life was awful to me the second time around. I'm like a contagious source of bad luck.

"In my second life, I became someone unfit for the position of "the first me." And why should that happen, but the appearance of my double. Someone else was playing the part that had been given to me in my first life. And my girlfriend became someone no longer suited the role of "the first her" either, so that position was taken by her double. So we became friendly losers. I guess it's not impossible that could've been fate, but that's one piece of crap fate.

"I'm not the only one who fell in love with the wrong person. But Hiiragi, I know you couldn't have helped doing it. Anyone who knew me in my first life would have assumed "I" was Tokiwa, not my second-life self. ...Then again, us both falling for the wrong people made things get increasingly out of control. We couldn't have "just passed each other by" any harder.

"So we loved the wrong people. ...But this is what I think. Even if it that love arose from a mistake, ultimately, it's the more real one for our second lives. Because of our initial misconception, we went thinking about Tsugumi and Tokiwa respectively for years. Now, Tsugumi is the "real deal" for me, and Tokiwa for you.

"And, to tell the truth, both of them are going to be gone from this world within an hour. ...I was thinking about it, and I feel like this is an ideal development for us. Because if we just keep waiting around like this, Tsugumi will never be mine, and Tokiwa will never be yours. Plus, whenever we see them, we'll unwillingly remember our first lives, forever trapped in the past. So it's for the best if Tsugumi and Tokiwa just go away. Then we'll be finally able to escape our impossible dreams and unfixable regrets. Yes, the moment they're gone, our second lives can actually begin. It's the most realistic, wisest way. We'll forget all about our first lives, forget all about Tokiwa and Tsugumi..."

I stopped.
That was enough.

I exited the bathroom, back into the break room.
I would just have to face Hiiragi and tell her the long speech I'd been practicing.

That was all there was to it.



[+]

* 64 *

And yet I had no idea whatsoever why I did what I did when I returned to the break room.
I looked at Hiiragi (who was listening to the radio with her chin in her hands), took her hand, and flew out of the room.

But I had no other choice, really. I didn't know if I would be able to do what I was about to do on my own.
And if there was anyone who would believe and help me, it was her.

Children's eyes lit up when they saw the two Santas dashing through the store.
Well, it wasn't something you saw every day.

One kid I passed by on the escalator desperately tried to run against the escalator to follow me, but didn't make much headway.
It was honestly a pretty adorable sight.



[+]

* 65 *

Hiiragi didn't say anything and just followed along. Perhaps she found something nostalgic about the hand that grabbed her.
And I think I was right to assume so; after all, I felt much the same way.

Going outside, we were met with a fierce snowstorm. I got Hiiragi in the passenger seat, myself in the driver's, and started the engine.
Visibility was so bad, you couldn't even make out the lines on the road or any signs. Couldn't even distinguish sidewalk from the road.

I got Tokiwa's schedule out of my wallet and tried to figure out the route they'd be taking.
Luckily, I knew the restaurant they were planning to go to. By taking the shortest route from there to Tokiwa's home, I should have been able to find the intersection that would have the accident.
From the first song Imagine, to the twelfth song Starting Over... Estimating each song at about four minutes, that would be fifty minutes.
Definitely cutting it close; I wasn't sure if we could make it in time.

And there was more for us to do than just get there. We also needed to make some preparations.
I listed the things we needed - things that would stand out.
Strobe lights. Traffic control sticks. Lamps. Flashlights. The brighter, the better.

A strong wind sent snow flying up in front of the car, temporarily blocking my vision.
I reflexively let off the gas pedal, then noticed that I was crossing the divider and quickly swerved the wheel the other way.
Come on, get a grip, I told myself. What'll we have to show if we get in an accident first?

It was a tense situation, yet on the other hand, I couldn't help finding it funny. A strange smile welled up to my lips.
Finding yourself doing things you wouldn't expect yourself to do is perhaps one of the best things in life.
This mainly afflicted me in my second life, but it feels good when you're able to do “unexpected" things that you can't yourself explain.

Caught by a red light, I reluctantly stopped the car. I probably could have blown through it, but I took the unlikely into account.
Looking at the clock, we weren't that pressed for time.

I looked over at the passenger seat and saw Hiiragi looking at me like she wanted an explanation.
I thought for a little bit, then broke the ice.
"Originally, we were the ones who were supposed to die."
Maybe that wasn't an appropriate way to phrase it.



[+]

* 66 *

"That Christmas when we were twenty. That's today. It snowed terribly in our first lives, too. ...Do you remember? The same way Tokiwa and Tsugumi just did, we left the department store with plans to get dinner at a slightly fancier restaurant than usual, then go home and relax.

"But on the way back from the restaurant, that fierce blizzard not only made it hard to see, but caused a power outage for quite a ways around. Romantic, if you want to look at it that way. A Christmas blackout... who knows, maybe Santa tripped on a power wire. But the problem was, the roads we were driving along didn't even have working stoplights. It was a really large-scale outage.

"We were listening to the Lennon Legend CD in the car when it happened. You'd heard Starting Over on the radio earlier, so you told me you wanted to listen to the very best of John Lennon. It was a pretty Christmasy idea, I'd say. We heard the first song Imagine, the second Instant Karma, Mother, Jealous Guy, Power to the People, Cold Turkey, Love, Mind Games, Whatever Gets You thru the Night, #9 Dream. When Stand By Me ended, and the twelfth song Starting Over began... That's when it happened.

"With the blackout and the blizzard, we could hardly see anything but snow. I was trying to drive as carefully as I could. But all of a sudden - it was really instantaneous - I felt a huge impact like my body was being blown to pieces. At the same time, I felt like there was this blinding light. Maybe a truck or something collided with us. Maybe it was an intersection, but I thought it was a straight road. With no time to prepare, no time to regret, our lives immediately ended.

"...And yet the next time I woke up, I found time had been rewound ten years. No, to be exact, time had been rewound for both of us. ...Maybe we can call it a Christmas miracle. At any rate, we were given a second chance.

"But why was there any need to send us back a decade? Just a minute would have been enough for us to avoid the accident. And yet we went back ten years, with parts of our memories damaged on the trip. You could also consider that damaged memories are just what you get when you rewind that far.

"...Let's say there is a God, or a Santa Claus, or whatever you want to call it, some absolute entity like that, who decided to give us another chance. Why did they rewind us ten years? Well, this is the conclusion I came to. Maybe they can't just directly save people in trouble, like poof, you're saved. Maybe they can only give them a fair second shot at it. They can avert an irrational death, but that's about all they can do.

"So I don't know the specifics of how it happened. But looking at the situation, maybe our role is a supporting one. To support of our doubles. To give the seats we sat in during our first lives to other people in our second. To give it up to that picturesque happy young couple, and resign ourselves to second lives the polar opposite of our first. And naturally, we succeeded. We handed the parts of getting in the accident to Tokiwa and Tsugumi.

"...I honestly don't know if that's for the best. Because if we died that day, then it meant our lives were perfect from beginning to end. I feel like that's the far better choice than living an empty ten years.

"If we ignore them, the same accident will happen, and their lives will be lost. If I'm right, then in theory, that would be exactly what we'd want."

Hiiragi listened intently, not saying anything.
I again felt nostalgic seeing her nod in the corner of my vision.

"However," I said. "Today is too joyous a day to overlook such a tragedy. After all, it's Christmas Eve, and we're even dressed as Santa Claus. What would Santa Claus be if he didn't spread joy? ...Plus, just as I loved my first life, in way I have to love the couple that's reliving it. Much as I hate to admit it, Tokiwa is a dear other-self. And as mistaken as it may be, second-life me loves Tsugumi. I'm sure you feel the same way about those things.

"So I'd like us to show that we can take advantage of having a second try. With all the lessons and reflection of the first go, we'll make the second go much better."



[+]

* 67 *

Once we found the to-be scene of the accident and made our preparations, we appeared to be about five minutes from the power outage.
I think we were able to prepare with so much time to spare thanks to Hiiragi immediately knowing what I was trying to tell her.

We stood together under a streetlight and waited for the power outage.
Hiiragi timidly tapped my shoulder and asked: "Have you ever saved someone like this before?"
"No. This is my first time," I said. "So I wouldn't say I'm doing such a good thing here. I should have been someone who could save innumerable people's lives, but I'm only now choosing to save two people I wanted saved. But isn't everyone like that, more or less? I don't think I should feel especially guilty."

"...I see. When you put it that way, you might be right. It's my first time using my memories to save anyone too," she said. "Ever since the second time started, I never once thought to use my memories to do anything. You can see how it turned out, but really, I just wished I could copy my past life -"
"So did I," I guiltily said. "Never had any other intention."
"...I see," Hiiragi smiled, her head low.

Her smile was with lips tightly shut, and the corners of her mouth only slightly raised, but it was oddly reminiscent of my own.
It was a smile of precaution. An expression commonly worn by cowards who feared even happiness.

My heart was filled with guilt to see her like that.
"I'm really sorry for getting you involved in this," I said. "I know I have no right to ask you to help. After all - it's all my fault in the first place. If I'd driven more carefully in my first life, this wouldn't have happened. If I hadn't made such a stupid blunder, all the people around me would just be able to live happily."

Hiiragi raised an index finger. "Hey, can you tell me one thing?"
"What?", I asked.
Hiiragi spoke faintly. "Maybe what we're about to do, might not be a very good thing to do. Maybe we made an awful mistake competing for the ones we treasured most. Maybe it was your blunder that sent people's lives in a worse direction the second time. Maybe there's no going back from everything that's changed in the past decade. ...But still, there's no reason I can't be happy, is there?"
I faltered slightly with surprise. "Err... Um, maybe not, I suppose."

"I'm glad I could talk to you like this again," Hiiragi said, then narrowed her eyes. "Hey, do you think we should be rejoicing right now? Sure, we've been together all this time, but isn't this the first time we've really recognized each other? Can we call this a reunion in our second lives?"
I knew my mouth was loosening. "You're right, you're right. Okay, well, let's celebrate our reunion."
This was really the kind of conversation that suited us, I thought.

Hiiragi awkwardly put out her hands. I gently embraced her, but of course, that was just as awkward. "Oh no, I'm getting nervous," Hiiragi laughed in self-derision.
But it was our first time embracing or being embraced in ten years. It was to be expected.

"...I hope you don't get too mad," Hiiragi said, burying her face in my chest. "In high school, I looked down on you as someone in a similar situation, to keep some stability in my mind. When times were tough, I'd promptly look over at you and think "I've still got it better than him," comforting me. ...That's awful, isn't it?"
"I thought you did," I awkwardly smiled. "Because I did that too."

Hiiragi was silent for a while.
"In that case," she said, looking up, "I think we can look at it this way. By you looking down upon me, and me looking down upon you, we were able to weather those years. Even when you weren't around, when I was feeling lonely or empty, I imagined you beside me. And if you were doing the same thing... In a sense, even when we lost sight of each other, we always supported each other. I think we can look at it that way. In a very contrary way."
"...It certainly is contrary," I chuckled, nodding.

I met eyes with her. Perhaps because of the years of bad times that had piled up, we instinctively looked away.
But a line like this, I had to say looking her in the eye. Again, I looked firmly at her.

"Well, we have less than a minute left until the outage. It's almost time for us to save the people we mistakenly loved - but did indeed love."
Hiiragi replied with a decisive "Right."

"But, um, can you wait for a second? Before the lights go out and everything goes dark, I want to check one last thing. ...I know I have no right to do this to you, either. Because I went chasing the wrong person from the start, too. But you and I aren't people with much integrity, so never mind who has what right."
"Check what?"
Before I could finish saying it, she stretched up to kiss me on the cheek.
"I'm sorry," Hiiragi said. "That's it."

Indeed, that was all the checking that needed to be done.
In just a moment, I actually understood many things.

I had always been rather focused on superficial things. It was a fault that affected my memory in my second life and even my way of thinking.
It led me to ignore feelings that I couldn't put into words. Even the fact that I'd done this was hard for me to express.

I realized that I didn't remember anything about things I'd wanted to remember forever. I lost sight of what was important and what wasn't.
I shouldn't have cared about memories from my first life that didn't even feel real. I should have considered them no more than "one set of possibilities that could happen."

"So this is how close we were," she said, her eyes downcast.
Almost the same moment Hiiragi stepped away and turned around to face me, the lights all went out.

True darkness, to which we were utterly indifferent, covered the town.
Just like that day ten years ago.



[+]

* 68 *

It really was a ridiculous scene, I'd say.
Two Santa Clauses at night, after a power outage, wielding traffic control sticks to indeed control traffic. Not even your friends would believe that one.

The colorful strobe lights placed all around, from a certain point of view, looked undeniably like Christmas lights.
Red, blue, yellow, green. Even though we had no time, we bothered to arrange them in a pretty way.

I was so caught up in the bizarrely fantastical atmosphere that, when couples stopped their cars for us, I said “Merry Christmas!" to them countless times.
I shouldn't have wanted to say it one bit, but the freezing cold and the outfit must have done something to my head.

It really was an awful snowstorm, and just keeping our eyes open was difficult. I was unconsciously grinding my back teeth from the cold, and my jaw hurt.
Nearly my whole body was freezing, such that I couldn't even feel how clothed I was.

Plus, we occasionally had to wipe off snow that covered the strobe lights, so we were moving hither and thither.
It certainly wouldn't have been surprising if we got run over. But we managed to survive, perhaps thanks to our distinctive outfits.
For one day, I was thankful to Santa Claus. If I were Jack Lantern, I'd have died for sure.
It would have been great to be a little warmer, though; it's not as good at protection from the cold as it looks. I was chilled to the core.

While we did our traffic conducting, I was thinking about Hiiragi the whole time.
And I don't mean in our first lives. I naturally recalled all the common points we shared in our second.

When we rode the bus to the international school soccer meet, or an art appreciation event, or whatever, we had no one to sit with, so we always sat in silence in the frontmost seats.
We waited together outside the infirmary, waiting for the school nurse who would never come.
During the baseball tournament, I hid in an empty classroom, and she did the same thing, and we both failed to attend the opening ceremony.
On the roll sheet for the launching of the culture festival, we were the only two marked as not attending.

The day of graduation rehearsal, we met in the music preparation room and formed a relationship of complicity.
The day of graduation, we were the only ones who immediately left after our homeroom teacher's long speech.
Even in college, we were friendless as ever, always sitting in the back corner of the lecture room and looking sour.

I didn't know if they were good memories or bad, but those memories comforted me the same way music did.

And then - about twelve minutes after the blackout.
That blue car slowly drove by, and we saw them off.
We saw off the former us.

From beginning to end, they didn't know about any of it.
Tokiwa and Tsugumi didn't know they were my and Hiiragi's doubles, and as long as we never told them, they would never know we saved their lives.

But perhaps that's for the best.
Personally, I found it thrilling to have saved their lives without them even noticing.

With them safe, our objective was completed. But after having come that far, we decided we wanted to see it through to the end.
So we continued conducting traffic until the power was back.



[+]

* 69 *

Once the power came back on, we were cold as corpses, our hair and skin frozen over, and had probably gotten colds or pneumonia or something.

We wanted to warm up somewhere, but all the stores were already closed.
On top of that, the car tires were stuck in the snow and it wouldn't get going, and I'd left most of my stuff at the department store, so I didn't even know where to start.

We decided first of all to turn up the heater all the way and warm up in the car.
We had no energy left for even the smallest conversation; we just shivered like idiots.

Just then, I heard the sound of a bell. The clock struck midnight.
Yes, that moment signified the end of the repeat.

Ahead of us lay a world we knew absolutely nothing about.
There was no sign of an impending third loop.

My real girlfriend, teeth chattering, very faintly smiled at me. “Sure is cold...", she said. It must have been quite an effort just to say that.
"Yeah, it is," I replied, but just as I said it, I felt something warm inside me.

Thinking about it, I hadn't had anyone to share in the cold with those whole ten years.

I wonder why I felt so happy then all of a sudden?
Our stand-ins would continue to take our spots, there was no making up all the classes I'd missed, my parents were going to get divorced any moment now, my sister was depressed, my best friend was going to kill himself, and right now I was about to freeze to death - but I was happy.

Whatever happened from here on out, I felt like I could handle it.
I felt that together with Hiiragi, we could make it well enough through anything.
It was a groundless belief, but beliefs don't always need ground to be powerful.

Maybe I was just thrown off by the chaos of the day, but I supposed I might have been happier then than I was on my first twentieth Christmas.
And that is a very, very impressive accomplishment.

It was a happy Christmas ten years in the making.

With hands still trembling, I took Hiiragi's. "Hey, Hiiragi," I said. I hadn't quite gotten my thoughts in order, but I had to say something.
"We've lost a lot in these ten years. Maybe we've gained some things along the way, but compared to what we lost, it seems like next to nothing. I can't approve of these ten years, not at all. I feel we've lived ten almost entirely pointless years."
Hiiragi stared intently at her hand.

"But," I said, "when I see you, I feel I can do it again from the start. There's no need to rewind time or anything. I just realized it, just now. Something outrageous. I think I've fallen in love with you again. And not even because you were my girlfriend in my first life. I've just fallen in love with the girl before my eyes. ...So what do we call our lost ten years? What a barren decade. Hiiragi, I'm going to do everything I can in hopes you'll love me again. It'll be like when we first met."

"...That might be kind of hard," Hiiragi smiled. "Because I love you too much already."

Well, I'll be. She knew exactly what I wanted to hear.

I brought my face close and kissed Hiiragi.
It was awkward like always, but it made me so happy.

It was just like starting over.



[+]

* 70 *

I arrived home at dawn, not sleepy at all. In fact, I felt reborn.
My body felt lighter than usual, and looking in the mirror, I noticed my face had changed overnight.
The preparations for my rebirth had long been in order. But had it not been today, I probably wouldn't have been able to notice.

In the middle of the room, I shook a present my girlfriend had given me, and I heard mumbling from my bed.
I looked and saw my sister starting to get herself up. It seemed she'd run away from home again.
I quietly placed a paper bag near the pillow, careful that she didn't notice.

She drowsily looked at me and said, "Big brother?", then buried her face in the pillow again.
But just afterward, she noticed the present by the pillow and went “Ooh..." with a slight delay, and not seeming entirely there. Then she sat up.

She took the present out of the bag, carefully tore the wrapping, and opened the case to find a harmonica.
She put it to her mouth and lightly blew. She pulled it away and went "Ooh..." again.
My sleepy sister felt like she temporarily lost her thorns, and a few traces of her first self showed through.

I sat down on the bed and said to her “Hey."

She had waited here for me. That wasn't just chance.
So there was one thing I had to say.

"Your brother came back from ten years in the future."

Still sleepy, she - naturally - laughed “Welcome back!"
I'd always kinda liked that response and said “It's good to be back," patting her head.
She looked at me disapprovingly, but inside, I figure she appreciated it, given her lack of resistance.

"Your brother came back from ten years in the future," I said. "And so he got another shot at his life from age ten to twenty. ...When that second life started, I knew the mistakes I was going to make, and I knew what I should really have done. Starting right then, I could have been a prodigy, or gotten super rich, or been a prophet, or a messiah. It might have even been possible to be happier than I was in my first life. But I didn't want to change a thing. It would've been fine by me if I could just live the same life as before."

My sister looked at me, blinking.

"However, I messed up in reliving my first life. Even though I knew what was going to happen, it was impossible to live my life all as I remembered it - and I only realized that when it was much too late. Before I knew it, my second self was miserable compared to the first time, and it didn't end there. Most of the people I was close to in my first life lived good-for-nothing lives the second time. It was a chain of negativity. I've come to see in these ten years how my carelessness made a mess of everything. I feel like a plague upon the earth.

"...But because of that, now I know. I know that we should have been better off. And I know that the most subtle differences can change people. You can't know where people are going to end up - but that's why there's no reason we can't be happy someday. We can stop thinking that, because things have always been this way in the past, it means anything for our future."

I closed my eyes, opened them again, and said,
"And so I want to start it all over again. I think it's time we start fighting back."

“I don't get it," my sister of course replied.

"I think you will," I said.




* Afterword *

I recognize that this is an unbelievably inappropriate start to the afterword of my first book, but when I was a child, I really didn't care much for novels.
That alone is nothing to write home about, but even as an adult, I haven't found that's changed much.

I don't mean to imply the very medium of the novel lacks any charm. When it comes to the creation of stories, I sense the most potential in novels, rather than movies or comics.
But most of the novels going around the world simply don't measure up to my artistic standards - no, just kidding, it's not that either.
There are countless writers whom I know I could never hope to live up to in my entire lifetime.

"So then why do you not like novels?" Actually, I wrote these sentences so as to make you ask me that question yourself.
Well, if you the reader fell for my scheme and have that question for me, I suppose I could answer it like this.
"There was someone who wrote about what I wanted. But they didn't write it in the way I wanted. There was someone who wrote in the way I wanted. But they didn't write about what I wanted."

I believe that I'm in the wrong. Honestly speaking, it's that my hobbies have been warped. Perhaps in my infancy.
Anyhow, my reason is that, while I won't outright say there are hardly any books in this world that "stick" for me, it's a situation remarkably identical to it.
So that's why I came to think: "Rather than dig through a sea of books where only one out of every hundred is a warped one that I like, it would be a lot faster to just write my own."

After finishing my first book and looking back on it, I'm honestly suspect whether the story I wrote is a warped one that satisfies me or not. But given the time I put into it, I believe I did all that I could.
I would appreciate if you took notice of any trace of that effort. And meanwhile, if you simply enjoyed the story without thinking anything, well.
I think there could be no greater honor for an author.

- Sugaru Miaki



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