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10. To My One and Only Childhood Friend
I can scarcely remember anything Himeno and I said to each other after our reunion. In fact, I can't even remember how Himeno looked or acted. I was just so excited that I talked without thinking.
But it didn't matter what the conversation was. For me to say something and Himeno to respond, that was all I needed.
It didn't seem she had come to see the festival. She was here for work-related reasons, and her car happened to be parked near the shrine, so she ended up passing through.
She dodged the question of what kind of work she did. All Himeno would tell me is that it was a "person-to-person" kind of job.
"I'd love to talk a little longer, but I have to get up early," she said, itching to leave, so I invited her to go out drinking or whatnot sometime soon.
Alcohol's no good, but sure, we can have a meal, Himeno agreed.
Promising to meet for dinner two days later, we parted.
I was so brimming with joy as to forget about Miyagi for a while.
"Well, that was nice," Miyagi said. "I didn't expect that to happen myself."
"Me neither. Really seems too good to be true."
"Yes. ...I suppose sometimes it is true."
I would be meeting Himeno again in two days. I needed to consider that the main event, so to speak.
I needed to make some preparations before that.
Back at the apartment, I crossed out the Himeno line on my Things to Do Before I Die, and once I was ready to go to bed, I told Miyagi.
"I've got kind of a strange request for you."
"I don't drink."
"It's not that. It's about tomorrow. I want to be extra sure about meeting Himeno. Luckily, I've got two days, so I can use all tomorrow to prepare. And I want you to help prepare me."
"I know it'd be pointless to keep anything hidden from you, so I’m gonna be honest. In twenty years, I’ve never really interacted with a girl, ever. So if I just went into this Himeno thing, I know I’d probably bore her and mess up a lot. To hopefully cut down on that, I want to go to town tomorrow and rehearse."
Miyagi's face was stuck with a blank look for a few seconds.
"If I'm not mistaken... You want me to play the part of Ms. Himeno?"
"That's right. Will you take it?"
"...Well, I don't much mind, but I imagine there would be numerous problems..."
"Oh, you mean how I'm the only one who can see you?"
"Yes, that," Miyagi confirmed.
"That's no problem. Why should I care what people think? The important thing to focus on is just having Himeno think well of me. Even if everybody else ridicules me, as long as Himeno likes me just a little, I'm satisfied with that."
Miyagi looked stunned. "You change in a blink when it comes to Ms. Himeno, don't you. ...But there's another problem. As you should be aware, I know very little about how women in my generation think. As such, I do not believe you can count on me to be a decent substitute. What may be pleasing to Ms. Himeno could be displeasing to me, what is boring to Ms. Himeno could be exciting to me, what is rude to Ms. Himeno could be polite to me - there could be many such discrepancies. Thus, looking at a sample of women around the age of 20..."
"You get humble in a blink when it comes to yourself, don't you," I interrupted. "It's no problem. Far as I can see, you're not that different from any other girls out there. Except for the part where you're a little cuter."
"...Well, if it's no problem to you, then very well," Miyagi nervously replied.
The next morning, I made a reservation at a salon and went into town to buy clothes and shoes. I couldn't go meeting Himeno wearing my worn blue jeans and stained sneakers.
Finding a select shop that seemed to suit my tastes and following Miyagi's suggestions, I bought a Fred Petty polo shirt, Chino pants, a belt to match, and then at a shoe store, chocolate-colored desert boots.
"I just don't think you have to wear anything too fancy. As long as it comes off as being clean, that should be enough."
"Can I interpret that as "you'd look good in anything"?", I asked.
"You're free to interpret it however you want."
"Got it. I'll do that. Seems to me it's a compliment."
"No need to air your every thought."
Once we were done shopping, we went to the salon quite a bit earlier than my appointment.
As Miyagi advised, I just explained "I'm going to meet someone important tomorrow." The woman gave a complacent smile and passionately cut my hair, giving me a number of practical tips for my big day.
Donned in new clothes and with neatly-cut hair, I was without exaggeration like a different person. The gloomy hair and shabby shirt seemed to have more effect on my appearance than I thought.
Now that those were gone, I was like a fresh young guy out of a pop music video.
“Why, you seem almost like an entirely different person from yesterday prior,” Miyagi told me.
"Yeah, I don't really look like a guy whose life is only worth 10,000 yen a year, huh?"
"Indeed. Almost as if you have the promise of a happy future."
"Thanks. You look like a fairy of the library when you smile yourself."
"...You're rather chipper today, Mr. Kusunoki."
"So what was that about a "fairy of the library"?"
"I just mean a graceful and intelligent woman."
"Please save that line for Ms. Himeno, will you?"
"But her virtues are a different beast. I'm talking about you, Miyagi."
Her expression still intact, she lightly bowed her head. "Well, thanks. You and I are worth next to nothing as humans, at any rate. According to our reports."
"Pretty strange," I said.
We were in an Italian restaurant by the street, and naturally our conversation sounded like me talking to myself.
A middle-aged couple sitting nearby was sneaking glances at me and whispering with each other.
After our meal, we left the main street, went down some stairs on the side of a bridge, and walked along the river.
I was full of alcohol by then, so I held Miyagi's hand all the while and swung it way back and forth as we walked. Miyagi looked concerned, and I continued to pull her along.
Others just saw me doing a weird walk, and I didn't care. I could never be among honest people anyway.
So then I might as well resolve to make myself a weird guy. It'd be a lot easier.
Once Miyagi was getting used to holding my hand, she said with a clear face, "Now, drunk Kusunoki, try to think of me as Himeno and seduce me."
I stopped and looked Miyagi right in the eye. "You appearing before me was the best thing that's ever happened in my life. The worst was when you left my sight. ...And depending on your reply now, I might have a new best or worst."
"That was a pretty smooth delivery of such a roundabout pickup line. I'm impressed."
"So how do you think Himeno would reply?"
"Ah, well, if it were Ms. Himeno," Miyagi thought with her hand to her mouth. "...Perhaps she would say "What's this nonsense all of a sudden?" and try to laugh it off."
"Huh. What if it were Miyagi?"
"...I don't catch your meaning."
"Joking. Don't worry about it," I chuckled to myself.
"Are you really that kind of person, Mr. Kusunoki? The kind to joke."
"Not sure myself. I don't put much trust in words like "personality" or "disposition" or "character." Those things all change depending on the situation. Looking at it in the long run, what differs from person to person is what situations they tend to end up in. People put a lot of faith in consistency, but it might be more superficial than most people think."
"I wouldn't have expected you of all people to say something like that."
"Everyone likes to think they're the exception when there's a depressing statistic."
Miyagi lightly sighed. "I suppose that is true," she agreed.
When we got tired of walking, we hopped on a random bus. There were quite a few passengers, but I kept talking to Miyagi about my memories of Himeno regardless.
We changed buses and got off at a viewing platform, a famous date spot in the town. There were about ten couples holding each other and sneaking kisses, but I kept talking to Miyagi anyway.
Strangely, I didn't feel too many eyes on me. Everyone was too busy with themselves.
"Himeno was there the first time I came here. The railing near the top of that spiral staircase is just the right height for a kid to want to get on top of. So Himeno tried to climb up, but I noticed the sheer gap past the railing just as Himeno was about to fall all the way to the ground. If I hadn't happened to be there to stop her, she just might have. She acts intellectual, but she can be a real goof too. It's like, you just can't leave her alone. I got a scratch in all the hurry reaching for her, but for that one day, she got unusually nice..."
Miyagi was giving me a concerned look as I was getting more talkative, as if brushing off her uneasiness.
She knew more than I did at that point. She had yet to tell me something crucial.
The viewing platform would have been an appropriate place to explain it, but she didn't speak of it.
Maybe she thought she'd let me keep dreaming as long as I could.
The day came at last. It was a rainy afternoon, and the station was filled with people carrying umbrellas. Looking over the plaza from the second floor, umbrellas of all colors moved around as they pleased.
I waited in front of the bookstore until 5 PM, but ten minutes past 5, Himeno hadn't showed up.
No hurry, I told myself. Everything's congested because of the rain, and unlike me, she's probably busy.
Even so, I was checking my watch three times every minute.
Twenty minutes passed that felt like an hour or two. Was I waiting in the wrong place? Was Himeno? She said in front of the bookstore, and this was the only bookstore here, so I didn't see how.
After twenty-seven minutes, just as I was about to leave and look for Himeno, I saw her waving and walking toward me. I'd been starting to think her promise yesterday had just been a polite excuse for her to leave, so I was relieved beyond belief.
Even if Himeno hadn't been someone I'd been waiting to see for a decade, I still would have said she radiated beauty that day.
Every curve that made her up seemed to be created with careful consideration. Nothing was too excessive; it was like every part of her knew its duty.
If I were someone who had no connection to her, I'd probably feel a pain in my chest with just one look. She'd leave a hole in my chest I was dying to fill.
"She'll never be mine, will she. ...So then isn't my life pointless?", I might even think.
So it was a lucky thing that I was the closest one to her out of all these people at the station. I was deeply happy about that.
"Bus was late because of the rain," Himeno explained. "Sorry to make you wait. I'll treat you to something."
"No, allow me. I invited you this time, so forget about it for today."
I realized that not only my appearance, but my voice had changed. It sounded about half an octave higher, and it had a surprisingly good sound to it, as if that were its inherent sound.
"Hmm. So you're expecting a "next time"?", she asked with an unconcerned yet scrutinizing look.
"Yeah. And next time, I'll probably be expecting one after that."
"Glad you're being honest," she giggled.
That's definitely something Himeno would say, I whispered to myself. She hadn't changed in ten years. She was still sarcastic, but still spoke with a hint of warmth.
We went through the tunnel, and when we reached the end and I opened my umbrella, Himeno swiftly snatched it from me and held it between us.
"You were always the one who forgot his umbrella, Kusunoki, so I reluctantly had to let you share mine."
"That's right," I said, taking the umbrella back and holding it near Himeno. "So then wouldn't it be good to reverse it from now on?"
We walked together under one umbrella.
By the way, what were you doing there the other day?, Himeno asked.
Looking for you, Himeno, I replied.
Liar, Himeno said, shoving me in the shoulder.
It's true, I said laughing.
I was thinking that things were going great.
I was telling Himeno my affection for her, and she was showing me her affection for me.
That's what I believed, and I didn't doubt it.
I didn't really want to know what Himeno was thinking then, deep in her chest.
Now, how about we compare answers.
While I sat across from Himeno in the restaurant and talked with her, I made an unbelievable mistake.
To be exact, maybe it wasn't really a mistake. If I were given countless chances to redo the scene, I would have made the same choice every time. There was no other choice.
On top of that, the reason why my choice was a "mistake" was not something that originated in that meeting, but something that had gradually taken form since much earlier.
Still. In time, I most definitely made a mistake.
But in any event, the results of that "mistake" came to save me.
And at the same time, I came to learn why Miyagi had tried to stop me from meeting Himeno.
After ordering, I smiled at Himeno, to show her my affection. She responded with the same.
Himeno took a sip of ice water from her glass and said, "I'd like to know what you've been up to all these years, Kusunoki."
"I'd like to hear about you first," I responded, but she insisted, "Let's start with Kusunoki."
I prefaced it with "Well, this isn't going to be all that interesting," then talked about my time in middle and high school. It really wasn't of any interest.
How I gradually started slacking on my studies in the second year of middle school. How my perfect memory at ten years old rapidly worsened with each year.
How I went to the best high school in the area, but stopped studying in the middle, so I now went to a shockingly average college.
How I had to persuade my parents - who thought that there was no point in going to a college if it wasn't famous - to pay to get me in, then had to pay for classes and expenditures myself.
And how I hadn't touched a paintbrush since the winter when I was 17.
I was done in less than five minutes. There was hardly anything worth talking about in my life.
"Huh, so you gave up art. ...That's too bad. I liked your pictures, Kusunoki," Himeno said. Big difference from this guy I know, I thought.
"You were drawing all the time. And you made such beautiful, breathtaking pictures like it was nothing. I was always jealous how I could never live up to that, you know."
"You never told me anything like that then."
"Because I was really antagonistic to you then. All my talents were in studying, so I didn't want to admit your other talents. But... you probably never noticed, but sometimes I took your pictures home and stared at them, Kusunoki," Himeno said, her eyes looking far away.
"Yeah, I was antagonistic too. We were about the same in academics, but the praise from adults always went to pretty Himeno. I thought it was unfair someone could be such a capable student and beautiful."
"Nobody would've expected someone like her to drop out of high school," Himeno casually let out.
"Drop out?", I said with intentional surprise.
"So you didn't know." She lowered her eyebrows and smiled. "I thought rumor might have gotten around at a reunion or something."
"Never showed up to any class reunions. Since I thought you wouldn't either, Himeno."
"Hmm. ...Um, I wouldn't say this is too interesting either, but..."
Himeno then explained everything up to her dropping out. However, she omitted the part about her pregnancy which Miyagi had given in her summary.
All Himeno said was "I married a graduating senior and dropped out, but conflicts came up, and we divorced."
"I think I was childish," Himeno told me with a strained smile. "I just couldn't move on accepting things as they were. I guess I couldn't stand the slightest imperfection and messed everything up from the start. Nothing's changed in my head since that summer ten years ago, when I changed schools and separated from you. ...I'm sure I was a smart girl back then. But that made me think that I didn't need to mature any further. And so I'm still not much different from that ten-year-old dreamer, while everyone else keeps changing."
Himeno stared at her hands on the table with the eyes of a wounded little girl.
"So what about you, Kusunoki? I'm sure you've changed in ten years, too?"
Around this point, I began to lose my calm.
"You're not the only one who hasn't changed, Himeno," I said. "I've been the same since the day we separated, too. Years with nothing to live for, passing pointless, lonely days. It felt like the world existed just to disappoint me. Maybe I was already dead, more or less. That's why just a few days ago -"
I knew what I was saying. I predicted how it would sound to Himeno's ears. And I understood how foolish it was to do this.
But that wouldn't stop me.
"...I sold my lifespan. At a mere 10,000 yen for each year."
Himeno face went pale and looked bewildered, but it was impossible to stop the flow of words. I let the mess that had built up inside me all out.
I went from one thing to another. The shop that bought lifespan. Thinking I'd get several million yen a year when it was ten thousand, the minimum price. Despairing over my future and selling off all but three months. And being followed by an invisible observer ever since.
I prattled on in a way that invited sympathy.
"You can't see her, Himeno, but my observer's here right now," I said, pointing at Miyagi. "Here, right here. She's a girl named Miyagi. She's speaks really bluntly, but if you just talk with her she's actually very..."
"Hey, Kusunoki? I don't mean any offense, but... Do you have any idea how completely unreal what you're talking about is?", Himeno apologetically asked.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I know how ridiculous it sounds."
"Yes, it's ridiculous. ...But you know, Kusunoki, despite that, I can't think it's a lie. Not the part about not having much time left, nor that there's a girl beside you observing you. We've known each other long enough that if you tried to lie to me, I'd be able to tell right away. So while it's difficult, I can believe that you're not lying about selling your lifespan."
It would be difficult to explain to anyone just how happy I was at that moment.
"...I'm sorry for putting it off, but I've actually been hiding something too..."
Himeno coughed and put a handkerchief to her mouth, then stood up.
"Excuse me. We'll continue this after dinner," Himeno said, then walked away.
She was headed for the bathroom, so I let it slide.
Our food arrived, and I hoped Himeno would come back soon. I had to hear the rest of what she had to say.
But Himeno never came back.
Since she was taking so long, I was worried Himeno had fainted from anemia or something and made a request of Miyagi.
"Sorry, but could you check the ladies' room? Maybe something happened to Himeno."
Miyagi silently nodded.
Miyagi came back a few minutes later and informed me that Himeno was gone.
I walked around the restaurant, but she was nowhere to be found.
I returned to my seat in defeat and placed myself down in front of a cold meal. I'd lost all energy. I felt something heavy and unpleasant in my gut.
My throat was dry and ached. I tried to grab my glass, but my focus was off and I spilled water on the table.
I ate my cold pasta slowly.
After a while, Miyagi sat across from me and started eating up Himeno's pasta.
"Quite tasty even if it's cold," she said.
I didn't say anything.
Once I finished the meal, still unsure how it had ever tasted, I asked Miyagi.
"Hey, Miyagi. Be honest with me. Why do you think Himeno left?"
Miyagi replied. "Perhaps because she thought you were insane."
Which in a sense was true.
But the truth was a little more complicated, and Miyagi knew that too.
And she hid that, for my sake.
After paying at the register and leaving, I heard someone calling me from behind. I turned to find a waiter running up with something for me.
"The woman you came with asked me to give you this."
It was a letter, which seemed to have been torn out of a notebook.
I took my time reading it.
And when I did, I found that Miyagi had been lying to me all this time.
"You knew about this and kept it from me?"
Miyagi answered with her head hung.
"I did. I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. You let me have my good dream."
I was the one who needed to apologize. But I didn't have the energy left to acknowledge my own faults.
"And in my original life, Himeno succeeded in her objective. Is that right?"
"Correct," Miyagi said. "Ms. Himeno... did it right in front of your eyes, Mr. Kusunoki."
To show it to me.
To clear up years and years of resentment.
I read through the letter again.
This is what it said.
To my one and only childhood friend.
I had intended to die right in front of you.
At the viewing platform, I had meant to have you wait below and fall right next to you.
Maybe you never quite realized, but I always despised you.
Never responding to my cries for help, then casually appearing before me now, I couldn't hate you more.
So now that I'm useless to you, I thought I'd kill myself.
But it seems like you've gone even more insane than me in these ten years.
It doesn't seem like it'll do any good getting revenge on you now.
So I'm going to just quietly vanish.
I only hope that what you said about having little time to live is true.
What a fool I am.
I'd lived alone all my life to avoid feeling like this.
I should have just trusted in myself to the end.
I went to the bridge by the station, carefully folded Himeno's letter into a paper plane, and threw it toward the river which reflected the light from the buildings. It hovered in the air for some time, but it eventually touched the water and sank.
Then I took out the money-filled envelope I was going to give Himeno, and distributed it bill by bill to passersby.
People's reactions varied. For those who looked at me dubiously, there were also those who thanked me with an obsequious smile and took off.
For those who definitively turned it down and pushed it back at me, there were those who asked for more.
"You should stop this," said indifferent Miyagi, tugging my sleeve.
"I'm not bothering anyone, am I?", I replied, brushing her hand away.
The money was gone in no time. I even took money out of my own wallet. I gave away everything down to the 1000-yen bills.
Once I had nothing left to give out, I stood right in the middle of the street.
People walking by looked at me uncomfortably.
I didn't have money to pay a taxi, so I had to walk home. Miyagi took a blue umbrella out from her bag and opened it.
I realized I'd forgotten my umbrella at the restaurant, but I didn't care if I got wet or caught a cold anymore.
"You'll be drenched," Miyagi said, holding the umbrella high. She was telling me to join her.
“As you can see, I'm in a getting-drenched mood," I told her.
“Is that right," she said, closing the umbrella and stowing it in her bag.
Miyagi walked behind me, both of us soaking wet.
“You don't have to get drenched, you know."
“As you can see, I am in a getting-drenched mood," Miyagi smiled.
Do as you will, I thought, turning my back to her.
I found a bus stop where I could keep out of the rain and took shelter there. There was a bent streetlight right above, that occasionally flickered on as if remembering to turn itself on.
The moment I sat down, I felt incredibly sleepy. My mind wanted rest more than my body did.
I think I only slept for a few minutes. The chill of my drenched body quickly woke me up again.
Miyagi was sleeping beside me. She was holding her knees, desperately trying to warm herself.
I pitied her for having to bear witness to the selfish actions of an idiot like me.
I stood up slowly so I didn't wake Miyagi and wandered around the area, finding an abandoned community center.
I wouldn't say it was very clean, but it still had power, and the front door and rooms weren't locked.
I went back to the bench, lifted up sleeping Miyagi, and moved her inside.
Certainly it would have to wake up a girl whose sleeping was lighter than mine. But Miyagi feigned sleep all the while.
The room smelled of tatami mats. There was a pile of cushions in the corner. After checking for bugs, I put a few of them on the floor and laid Miyagi down. I did the same thing nearby for my own bedding.
There was a mosquito coil near the window that must have been there for decades, so I lit it with my lighter.
The raindrops served as a lullaby.
I began doing what I usually did before I fell asleep.
I imagined the best landscapes I could on the backs of my eyelids.
I thought about every little detail of the world I wanted to live in.
I freely pictured "memories" that I'd never had, a "somewhere" I'd never been, a "someday" that could have been past or future.
That had been my practice every night since I was five years old.
Maybe that childish practice was the reason I could never get accustomed to the world.
But I was sure that was the only way I could compromise with it.
Perhaps what I thought was me waking up in the middle of the night was really a dream founded in hope, common in times of despondency.
If it were a dream, then it was a rather embarrassing dream.
If it were reality - to be frank, there could be nothing that would make me happier.
I heard someone walking on the mats. I knew it was Miyagi squatting down beside my pillow because of her smell. Even in summer, Miyagi smelled like a clear winter morning.
I kept my eyes shut. I'm not sure why, but it felt best to do so.
She touched my head and gently pet it. She probably didn't do it for more than a minute.
Miyagi seemed to whisper something, but I couldn't make it out over the rain.
In my drowsiness, I thought: Just how much has Miyagi helped me? How cornered would I feel now if Miyagi weren't there?
But that's why I shouldn't make her worry any moreso - so I told myself.
She's strictly here for her job. She's kind to me because I'm going to die soon.
It doesn't mean she has any affection for me.
I shouldn't have any more baseless hopes. Those don't just make me unhappy, but her too. I'm burdening her with extra guilt, giving my death a bad aftertaste.
I'll just die quietly. I'll go back to my usual, self-sufficient, modest life where I don't count on anyone. Like a cat, I'll expire silently and in secret.
So I secretly vowed.
The next morning, I was woken up by oppressive heat. I heard grade-school kids doing radio aerobics outside.
Miyagi was already up, whistling Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew" and tidying up the cushions.
I still felt some drowsiness, but we couldn't stay here long.
Let's go home, Miyagi said.
Yeah, I replied.
11. Pushing for a Vending Machine Tour
After walking for four hours from the community center, we finally reached the apartment. The smell of my own room was nostalgic.
My body was drenched in sweat and my feet were blistered. As I opened the door to use the shower, I suddenly wondered if I should let Miyagi use it first. But if I showed too much concern, I might be the one to destroy that sense of distance she'd created between us.
Resisting the urge to keep the water running, I quickly washed myself, changed, and went back to the living room.
From what I'd seen so far, Miyagi could freely shower and eat while I slept. So I lied down and went right to sleep.
While I pretended to sleep, I heard Miyagi quietly head for the shower. When I was about to get back up, I heard her footsteps coming back, so I hastily closed my eyes.
"Mr. Kusunoki," Miyagi said.
I pretended not to notice her.
"Mr. Kusunoki, are you sleeping?", Miyagi whispered by my pillow. "I ask, of course, because you appear to be feigning sleep. And if you are indeed, then I thought it would be nice if it were out of concern for me. ...Good night. I'll be borrowing your shower."
When I heard the door to the shower shut, I got up and looked toward the corner of the room where Miyagi typically was.
She'd be sleeping there again tonight, wouldn't she. In a position that didn't seem like you could get any sleep in, taking a few minutes to watch and a few minutes to nap.
Just as an experiment, I sat there, imitating the way Miyagi sat, and tried to sleep. But sleep just wouldn't come.
Miyagi returned and tapped me on the shoulder. "What are you doing there? You should sleep in bed," she admonished.
"That's my line. You should sleep in bed. It's ridiculous sleeping like this."
"Ridiculous as it may be, I am used to it."
I lied down on the left side of my bed. "I'm sleeping on the left side from now on. No matter what, I won't intrude on the right side, won't even look. It'd be a perfect place for you to observe me up close. It's up to you if you want to use it or not, but I'll sleep on the left at any rate."
I was trying to find a meeting point. I doubted if Miyagi would accept something like me sleeping on the floor and her in a bed. Though even if I told her it was fine to sleep beside me, it didn't mean she'd easily accept it.
"Are you still half-asleep, Mr. Kusunoki?", Miyagi asked as if confirming my intentions.
I ignored her and closed my eyes. After about twenty minutes, I felt Miyagi getting on the other side.
We shared the one bed with our backs to each other. I acknowledged that the suggestion was for my own self-satisfaction. Thus, I was troubling Miyagi again.
Really, she shouldn't have wanted to do this. Responding to my kindness could damage her tenacity as an observer, built up over years.
Furthermore, the kindness of someone nearing death was a fickle, unstable thing. That sort of kindness doesn't help people, it hurts them.
Even so, Miyagi accepted my lackluster show of tenderness with greater tenderness still.
I supposed she was showing me respect. Or maybe she was just deathly tired.
I woke up with a red sunset filling the room. I thought Miyagi would have long been awake, but she seemed like she'd be sleeping a little longer. I got out of bed and squinted at the bright sunlight.
The moment we made eye contact, we both looked away. After such a deep sleep, her hair and clothes were messy, and she seemed almost defenseless.
"I was just a little tired today," Miyagi gave as an excuse. "I'll sleep in my usual spot from tomorrow on."
Then she added, "But thank you very much."
I walked with Miyagi in the sunset. The cicadas were buzzing.
Maybe because of the bed incident, Miyagi seemed a little more distant today.
At the convenience store, I withdrew the small amount of money I had left and collected my part-time money for the month.
These would be my last war funds.
I'd have to use it carefully.
After watching the sunset from a pedestrian bridge, I had the special at a beef bowl shop. It used a meal ticket system, so Miyagi bought her own ticket and handed it to me.
"Running out of things to do," I said as I finished my miso soup. "I've done everything on my Things to Do Before I Die list. So now what?"
"Do what you like. Even you must have hobbies of some sort, yes?"
"Yeah, they were listening to music and reading. ...But now that I think about it, those two were just means to keep living. I used music and books as a way to make a compromise with life. Now that there's no need to force myself to keep going, they're not so necessary as before."
"Perhaps you should change the way you appreciate them, then. From now on, you can purely enjoy their beauty."
"Yeah, but there's a problem. No matter how I look at books and listen to music, I feel distant, like it's got nothing to do with me. ...Think about it. Most things in the world are made for people who are going to keep living. Which is only natural, of course. You don't create for people who are going to die soon."
A nearby man around 50 who was working through his beef bowl furrowed his brow at me for talking to myself about death.
"Do you not appreciate anything more on the simple side? ...For example, do you like looking at abandoned places, or walking along tracks and counting railroad ties, or playing arcade cabinets abandoned decades ago?"
"Those are awfully specific. Let me guess, you observed guys like that?"
"Yes. There was even one who spent their last month lying in the back of a pickup truck and looking up at the sky. They gave all the money from selling their lifespan to an old man they didn't know, and asked him to drive a pickup truck around places where people wouldn't stop him."
"Sounds peaceful. That sounds like it might be the smartest way to go, surprisingly enough."
"It is rather interesting. It would be a fresh feeling watching the scenery fly by."
I tried to imagine it. Under a blue sky, down winding rural roads, feeling a comfortable breeze - going anywhere. All the memories and regrets would rise from my head and be left behind on the road. A sense of the further you go, the further away you are - much like a dying person.
"Could I hear more like that? As long as it's nothing you can't tell me for business reasons or secrecy," I requested.
"I can tell you plenty when we return to the apartment," Miyagi said. "But you will appear rather suspicious if you keep talking here."
We took a big detour on the way back, passing through a small sunflower field, a former elementary school building, and a graveyard built on slanted land.
There was some kind of event at the middle school, and we passed by healthy, tanned kids smelling of deodorant and bug spray. It was a vivacious night that felt like pure, condensed summer.
When we got back to the apartment, I got on the Cub with Miyagi and we set out again.
Maybe because we were both dressed lightly, I clearly felt the smoothness of her body and was made restless.
After accidentally ignoring a red light, I quickly grabbed the brake, sticking us even closer to each other, and I hoped she didn't notice my quickened pulse.
We went up the hills and parked on one that seemed to have the best view of town. I bought us two canned coffees from a vending machine, and enjoyed the meager view.
Below us was a residential district which released a simple orange glow, seeming so small in comparison to the light of the city some distance away.
Once we were back, I brushed my teeth, lied down on the bed, and listened to Miyagi talk. She told me the less hurtful anecdotes about her past subjects with the same rhythm one would read a child a storybook.
There was nothing particularly unique about these stories, so to speak, but they soothed me more than most works of literature.
The next day, as I folded more paper cranes with the remaining origami paper, I thought about what I should do. Miyagi sat at the table folding cranes, too.
Wouldn't be bad to die drowning in paper cranes, I said, scooping some up in my hands and tossing them up. Miyagi similarly collected a lot of them in her hands and dropped them over my head.
When I got tired of origami, I went out to get some fresh air. I bought short Hopes from the cigarette shop, lit one on the spot, and after drinking a canned coffee from a vending machine, I realized something.
I didn't even see it right under my nose.
I guess a little mutter must have slipped out, because Miyagi looked at my face and asked "What is it?"
"No, well, it's really stupid... I just remembered something I can really, truly say I like."
"Please, tell me."
"I love vending machines," I said, scratching my head.
"Ah," Miyagi said, seeming to miss a beat. "...What about them do you like?"
"Hmm. I don't know if I can say for sure myself. But as a kid, I really wanted to be a vending machine when I grew up.”
Miyagi slowly tilted her head and looked at my blankly.
"Um. Just checking, but by vending machine, you mean the machines which sell coffee, soda, and the like? Like the one you just used?"
"Yeah. But more than that. Cigarettes, umbrellas, charms, yaki onigiri, udon, ice, ice cream, hamburgers, oden, french fries, corned beef sandwiches, cup noodles, beer, liquor... Vending machines offer all manner of things. Japan is the land of vending machines. Because they're good for keeping order.”
"And you thus have a love for vending machines, then."
"Yeah, I do. I like to use them, I even like to just look at them. Even a plain old vending machine might catch my eye and get me looking closer at it."
"Hmm, well... It's a hobby with some individuality to it." Miyagi tried to follow up, but it was a really stupid hobby. It wasn't productive in the least. The symbol of a stupid, worthless life, I thought.
"But I think I do understand," Miyagi said to cheer me up.
"My burning desire to become a vending machine?", I smiled.
"No, that I don't think I can ever understand. But, you see... vending machines are always there. So long as you provide money, they will always offer warmth. They offer more than the sum of their products. They offer a clear function, with invariance and permanence.”
I was somewhat moved by her mini-speech. "Wow. You said what I wanted to say a lot better than I could."
"Thank you." She bowed her head, not looking particularly pleased. "Vending machines are important to us observers as well. Unlike clerks, they don't ignore us. ...So it's all well and good that you say you like vending machines. But what do you actually want to do, then?"
"Well, let me talk about something else I like. Every time I come to this cigarette shop, I'm reminded of Paul Auster's "Smoke." I really liked the thing about going in front of the cigar shop every morning without fail and repeatedly taking a photo of the same place. Getting invested in a simple thing like that felt really thrilling. ...So. I want to imitate Auggie Wren, and take photos that are meaningless at a glance. Just keep taking crude photos of ordinary vending machines, in a way that anybody could do."
"I'm not sure how to put it," Miyagi said, "but I think I like that too."
And so my vending machine tour began.
I bought a silver halide camera, a strap, and ten rolls of film from the thrift shop. Those were the only preparations I needed to make.
I knew a digital camera would be cheaper and easier to manage photos with, but I opted otherwise to get more of a sense of "taking photos."
I filled up the camera with film, got on the Cub, and went around taking pictures of vending machines that caught my eye in every nook and cranny.
Every time I took a picture, I tried to get as much of the stuff that surrounded the vending machine in the finder as I could.
I wasn't concerned about small differences like what drinks were offered and the layout of the buttons. I just wanted to capture what kind of place the vending machine was in, and in what condition.
I found far, far more vending machines around town than I'd expected once I started looking. I took a few dozen pictures just in the area around the apartment.
There were many vending machines I'd always overlooked despite how many times I'd passed them, and slight discoveries like that made my heart dance.
Sometimes the same vending machine would show a very different face at day and at night. While some vending machines glowed to stand out and had bugs flocking to them, others saved electricity by only lighting their buttons, so they floated in darkness.
I knew that even when it came to a hobby as dumb as this, there were people far more serious about it than me, and I could never compete with them.
But I wholeheartedly did not care. This was, as someone once said it, the method most suited to me.
At the start of each day, I'd head for the photo studio and get breakfast in the thirty minutes waiting for the film to develop. At the end of each day, I'd lay the photos I developed that morning on the table, look at them with Miyagi, and carefully put each one into an album.
Though the common point between all the photos was the focus on a vending machine, that made the differences of everything else stand out.
Kind of like the same person taking photos with them in the middle, always with the same pose and expression. Vending machines served like a measurement tool.
The owner of the photo studio seemed interested in me and how I came every morning just to develop photos of vending machines.
He was about forty, had many gray hairs, was unhealthily thin, and very modest. One day he noticed me casually talking to empty space and asked.
"So there's someone there, is there?"
Miyagi and I looked at each other.
"That's right. A girl named Miyagi. Her job's to observe me," I said. Though she knew it was pointless, Miyagi also bowed her head to him.
I didn't expect him to believe me, but he nodded "I see," quickly accepting Miyagi's existence. Apparently there was the occasional strange person.
"So these strange photos, then - you're actually taking photos of her?", he asked.
"No, that's not it. They're just photos of vending machines. I'm going around with Miyagi's help and doing a vending machine tour."
"And will that do something good for her?"
"No, this is simply my hobby. Miyagi just comes along with me. For her job."
The owner's face told how little he understood. "Well, keep at it," he said.
We left the shop, and I took a picture of Miyagi standing next to the tandem seat on the Cub.
"What are you doing?", Miyagi said with head tilted.
"Just figured I'd take one, after what the owner said."
"It will only appear as a meaningless photo of a bike to others."
"All my pictures are meaningless to others," I said.
Of course, people like the photo studio owner - and I'd be concerned if they weren't - were the minority.
One morning when we were leaving the apartment to visit a dump, and I held the door waiting for Miyagi to put on her shoes, my neighbor came downstairs. He was a tall man with coercive eyes.
When Miyagi stepped out and said "Sorry to make you wait," and I closed the door behind her with an "Alright, let's go," he gave me a disturbed look.
It was an utterly clear, not very windy day. I was lost in an area I'd never seen nor heard of, wandering for two hours, and when I finally found places I knew, I was again in my - and Himeno's - hometown.
Maybe that was the fundamental direction I went in when I was lost. Maybe it was a sort of homecoming instinct.
Of course, it didn't change the fact that it was a place with vending machines. I ran the Cub down the roads taking pictures.
I found a retro ice cream vending machine at the candy store I'd often gone to as a boy. My particular favorites were the chocolate barley puffs, kinako sticks, dice caramel, orange gum, Botan Rice Candy - come to think of it, I ate nothing but sweets.
The candy store had closed shop a long time ago, but the red-rusted, busted vending machine that was there the first time I visited was the same as ever.
The phone booth on the other side of the street, which looked like a public bathroom on the outside, had been there about as long, but the machine still seemed just barely functional.
Miyagi and I sat on a bench in the weed-ridden park, illuminated by sunlight coming through the trees, and ate onigiri we'd made in the morning.
There was no sign of any people around, but there was a black cat and a brown-speckled one. The cats looked from afar, and as if sensing no danger, gradually came closer.
I wished I had some food to give them, but unfortunately I didn't carry around things which cats would like with me.
"Come to think of it, Miyagi, can cats see you?"
Miyagi stood up and walked over to the cats. The black cat ran away, and the brown-speckled cat kept its distance, then followed a few seconds later.
"Indeed, dogs and cats can see me," Miyagi said, turning around. "That said, it's not as if they like me."
We took a short rest after eating, and Miyagi started drawing in her notebook with a pencil.
I followed her gaze to find the cats. They'd moved up to the top of a slide, and Miyagi seemed to like the scene.
I was surprised she had that kind of hobby. Maybe all this time she looked like she was writing an observation log, she was immersing herself in her own pastime.
"So you do this for a hobby," I remarked.
"Yes. Are you surprised?"
"Yeah. You're not so great, though."
"Which is why I'm practicing. And isn't that great," Miyagi said, proudly for some reason.
"Could you show me what you've drawn?"
She suddenly closed her notebook and put it in her bag.
"We should be moving on now," she said, hurrying me along.
It was after spending half the day searching my hometown, as we headed for the next town, when I passed in front of the candy store again.
There was someone sitting on the Snow Brand bench in front of the store. And it was someone I knew well.
I parked the Cub on the roadside, stopped the engine, and approached the old woman on the bench.
Her response came slowly. But my voice seemed to get through to her, and she turned her eyes to me.
She must have been over 90. Her face and her hands folded on her lap had what I felt were thousands of wrinkles. Her sheer white hair hung down lifelessly, and her dejected look was at once tragic.
I squatted down in front of the bench and again greeted her.
"Hello. You probably don't remember me, do you?"
It seemed I could take her silence as a confirmation.
"It's understandable. It was about ten years ago I last came here."
As expected, she didn't reply. The old woman's gaze remained fixed several meters ahead of her. I carried the conversation myself.
"But I remember you very well. It's not necessarily true that you'll have a good memory just because you're young. I'm still only 20, but I've forgotten a lot about the past. However happy or sad something is, you'll soon forget it if you don't get a chance to recall it. What people don't realize is that they've forgotten about forgetting. If everyone really preserved the happiest memory from their past perfectly, they'd only be sadder living in their relatively hollow present. And if everyone preserved the worst memory from their past perfectly, well, they'd still be sad. Everyone just remembers what it's inconvenient not to remember."
There was no argument nor agreement. The old woman was as still as a scarecrow.
"And though memory is so unstable like that, you still haven't faded in my mind because of how much you helped me back then. It was a very uncommon thing. Of course, ten years ago, I was rarely grateful to people. Even when adults were nice to me, I was convinced they were just in a position where they had to be, so it wasn't a pure act of good will. ...Yes, I was a charmless child. A kid like that would even consider running away from home. When I was 8, or when I was 9, I forget exactly when, I got in a fight with my mother and left home. I've completely forgotten what we fought about. It must have been something stupidly trivial."
I sat beside the old woman, leaned on the back of the bench, and gazed up at distant pylons and the clouds in the blue sky.
"I hadn't thought ahead much, so I went to kill time at the candy store. It clearly wasn't the time of day that a kid my age would be out walking alone, so you asked me. "Don't you need to go home?" Having just had a heated argument with a parent, I blubbered something back. When you heard that, you opened a door behind the register, led me over, and took out some teas and candies from inside. A few hours later, a call came from my parents, and when they asked if I was over there, you replied "He is, but let's say he isn't for another hour" and hung up. ...Maybe it didn't mean anything at all to you. But I think thanks to that experience, I can still put my deepest hopes in someone else - or at least, so I've convinced myself."
Will you put up with my chatter for a little longer?, I asked.
The old woman closed her eyes, seeming to get increasingly stiff.
"If you've forgotten about me, then I'm sure you've forgotten about Himeno too. I always came along to the shop with her. ...Like her name implies, she was like a princess out of a fairy tale. I don't mean any offense, but her unique beauty was something that seemed entirely unfitting for this town. Both Himeno and I were black sheep at school. I was probably just hated because I was a snot-nosed kid. But I think Himeno was hated because she was just so different. ...I know it's rude of me, but I can't help but feel gratitude for that. Because by being driven away from the group, Himeno and I ended up together. Just having Himeno by my side, I could handle all the bullying from everyone else. I could think that, at any rate, they treated Himeno and I the same way."
Every time I said "Himeno," the old woman seemed to show just the slightest reaction. Pleased by this, I continued.
"In the summer of fourth grade, Himeno had to change schools because of her parents changing jobs. That served as a trigger for my image of her being increasingly deified. I used her remark about "being together if we hadn't found anyone by 20" as a prop for ten whole years. But just the other day, I learned that Himeno's fondness for me, once a certain point had passed, turned into a vicious hate. She'd even planned to commit suicide before my eyes. ...Then later, I suddenly remembered. Just before I reunited with Himeno, I went by myself to dig up a time capsule that our class had filled with letters and buried back in elementary school. I knew that I really shouldn't have, but I was going to die very soon due to some circumstances, so I thought I should be allowed at least that."
How about we compare answers.
"Now the strange thing was, Himeno's letter wasn't in the time capsule. I reasoned it was because Himeno happened to be absent that day, but once I thought about it, I realized that couldn't be. Those letters were something our teacher took plenty of time to have us prepare. She wasn't the kind of person to bury a time capsule without someone's letter just because they happened to be absent. It's conceivable that someone dug up the time capsule before me and took Himeno's letter. And if that was what happened - I can't think of anyone else who would do so than Himeno herself."
I had not actually realized this in advance.
But right then, everything started to come together in my mind.
"When I was 17, I received a single letter from Himeno. There was nothing particularly important about what was written in the letter itself. It was just enough that I was the recipient, and Himeno was the sender. She was never the sort of person to write letters to others or call them, no matter how friendly she was with them. So the moment a letter from her arrived... I should have realized."
I should have realized much, much sooner.
"That letter was Himeno's form of an SOS. She must have been asking for my help with that letter. Much like me, when she was cornered, she clung to her past, dug up the time capsule, remembered her one and only childhood friend, and sent me a letter. Not noticing her intent, I was no longer qualified for that position - and so I lost Himeno. She became hollow, and the moment I realized it, so did I. Himeno's going to commit suicide soon, and I'm going to run out of life soon. ...A bad place to stop, but that's the end of this gloomy story. I'm terribly sorry for making you sit through all that."
As I stood up to leave, the old woman said "Goodbye," in a voice fading as soon as it left her lips.
That parting word was the only thing she said to me.
"Thank you very much. Goodbye," I replied, leaving the candy store behind.
Being forgotten by a past benefactor didn't hurt me that much. I was beginning to get used to being betrayed by my memories.
But at the time, I completely overlooked a certain possibility.
The girl who was always beside me, providing support as I experienced every form of disappointment.
The girl who felt despair like mine, but still chose to sell her time over her lifespan, leaving her with no future.
The girl who made up for what she lacked in courtesy with incredibly sweet concern.
I overlooked the possibility that she, Miyagi, could betray me.
"Mr. Kusunoki? Mr. Kusunoki."
Miyagi, who had stopping hesitating about embracing me if only while we rode in tandem, poked me in the flank while I drove.
I slowed down and asked "What?", and she said, as if in an attempt to impress me, "I'll tell you something good."
"I just remembered. I've been on this road a long time ago. Long before I became an observer. ...If you follow the road a bit more, then make a right turn somewhere and go straight, you'll arrive at Starry Lake."
"The lake I told you I would want to visit again before I died. I don't know what it's officially called."
"Oh yeah, you did tell me about that."
"Now wasn't that something good?"
"Yeah it was," I agreed, also trying to lighten the mood. "We should go for sure."
"Do you think you have enough gas?"
"I'll fill it up somewhere."
After filling the tank as full as it could go at the nearest gas station, I drove on following Miyagi's directions.
It was already past midnight. We went up a mountain trail, resting the engine where necessary, and arrived at what she called Starry Lake after about half an hour.
After buying cup ramen from the nearby convenience store and eating it on the bench outside, I stopped the Cub in the parking area ahead and walked down a mostly unlit road.
While Miyagi looked around at all the buildings fondly, she repeatedly warned me "You cannot look up yet." At the edge of my vision, I could indeed see part of an amazing starry sky, but I walked with my head down as Miyagi told me.
"Now, listen carefully to what I say," Miyagi said. "I will guide you, so I want you to keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them."
"You don't want to show me until the very end, huh?"
"Yes. After all the effort, do you not want to see the stars in the best of conditions as well, Mr. Kusunoki? ...Now close your eyes."
I closed my eyes and Miyagi took my hand, slowly guiding me with "this way"s. Walking with my eyes closed allowed me to hear sounds I hadn't before.
I'd thought the noises of the summer bugs were all one sound, but I was able to make out four different types. Lowly-buzzing bugs, shrilly high-pitched bugs, bugs with bird-like voices standing out at once, and ear-hurting frog-sounding bugs.
I heard the sounds of slight breezes and distant waves, and could even tell my footsteps apart from hers.
"Tell me, Mr. Kusunoki. What would you do if I were to deceive you, and lead you somewhere outrageous?"
"Hmm... Like a cliff, or a bridge. Somewhere where you would be in danger of falling."
"I didn't consider it, and I'm not gonna."
"Can't see any reason why you'd do something like that."
"Is that right," Miyagi said, sounding bored.
I felt my feet no longer on asphalt, but on sand, and then soon it became wood. I guessed we'd arrived at a pier.
"Stop, keeping your eyes closed," Miyagi said as she let go of my hand. "Watch your step, but lie down flat. And then you may open your eyes."
I lowered myself, carefully laid my back on the ground, took a big breath, and opened my eyes.
That which filled my vision was not the "starry sky" I knew.
Maybe I should put it this way - that day, I learned what the stars looked like for the first time.
I had "seen" the stars via books and television. I knew of a sky which contained the Summer Triangle, through which the Milky Way ran, which looked like a sputtering of ink.
But with those points of reference, even knowing the color and shape, I couldn't really imagine the size of the thing.
The sight before my eyes was something much, much bigger than what I'd imagined. It was like a falling snow whose flakes radiated a powerful light.
I said to Miyagi beside me, "I feel like I understand why you'd want to see this again before you died."
"Don't you?", she said smugly.
We laid on the pier looking up at the stars for a long time.
We saw three shooting stars. I wondered what I'd wish for when I saw the next one.
I didn't have any thoughts of getting my lifespan back at this point. I didn't want to meet Himeno, and I didn't want to turn back time. I didn't have the energy in me to start things over.
I just wanted to die here peacefully, like falling asleep - that was my wish. Asking for any more than that would be not knowing my place.
I didn't even need to think about what Miyagi would wish for. Her wish was to quit her observer job - so she would be an invisible woman no longer.
Her existence ignored by everyone, with only her subjects to acknowledge her... I could see her dying within a year. As much endurance as Miyagi had, it in no way meant she could survive thirty years of that life.
"Miyagi," I voiced. "You've lied for my sake, haven't you? Lies like how Himeno barely remembered me."
Miyagi turned to me, still lying down, and instead of answering said, "I had a childhood friend as well."
I spoke while trying to remember. "That being, the "person who was important to you" you mentioned once?"
I waited in silence, and Miyagi slowly began.
"I once had someone in my life who was to me as Ms. Himeno was to you. We could never feel accustomed to living in this world, so we relied on each other, and lived in our own world of mutual dependency. ...After becoming an observer, the first thing I did on my first day off was to go check on him. I thought that he would have been terribly sad about my disappearance. He would have retreated into his shell, waiting for me to return - I did not question it wouldn't be so. ...However, in a few weeks without me, he had quickly adapted to a world without me. No, not that; a mere month after I vanished, he had assimilated into this world in the same way as those who'd rejected us as "different.""
Miyagi looked at the sky again, and a warm smile came to her lips.
"That was when I realized. To him, I was merely a shackle. ...To speak truly, I wanted to make him unhappy. I wanted him to be sorrowful, and despair, and retreat into his shell, and wait for my never-to-come return, but to still somehow barely breathe. I didn't want to know that he could make it on his own. ...I have not gone to see him since. Whether he is happy or sad, it would only depress me."
"But before you died, you'd still wanna meet him after all?"
"Yes. Because I don't know anything else. In the end of it all, that's the only thing I can cling to."
Miyagi raised herself and sat with her knees up. "So I can very much understand how you feel. Though perhaps you don't want me to."
"Nah," I said. "Thanks for understanding."
"Don't mention it," Miyagi said with a reserved smile.
We took photos of the nearby vending machines, then went back to the apartment.
Miyagi dove into my bed, claiming "only because today was so tiring." When I tried to sneak a look at Miyagi, she appeared to be doing the same, so we both hastily looked away, and slept facing opposite to each other.
I should have wished on a shooting star that things could go on like this.
When I next woke, Miyagi was gone. Only her notebook remained by the bed.
12. A Liar and a Little Prayer
When Miyagi first came to the apartment as my observer, I couldn't help being unnerved by her gaze.
My thought was: "If my observer were the opposite of her - ugly, dirty and middle-aged - I'm sure I'd be able to relax more and think about what the right thing to do was."
The observer who now stood before me instead of Miyagi was a man rather like that.
He was short, he had unsightly bald spots, his face was red like a drunk's though lush with whiskers, and his skin was oily. He blinked unusually often, he snorted as he breathed, and he spoke like he had phlegm caught in his throat.
"Where's the usual girl?" was my first question.
"On break," the man bluntly said. "I'm filling in today an' tomorrow."
I put my hand to my chest in relief. I was grateful observers didn't take shifts. Miyagi would be back in just two days.
"So even observers get days off," I said.
"'Course, gotta. Unlike you, we still gotta lotta livin' to do," he replied sarcastically.
"Huh. Well, that's a relief. And her break'll be over in two days, and it'll be back to normal?"
"Yep, that's the plan," the man said.
I rubbed my sleepy eyes and looked at the man in the corner again, and saw him holding my album. The album of all my vending machine pictures.
"What the hell's this?", he asked.
"Don't you know about vending machines?", I joked.
"Tch. I was tryin' to ask what you'd take pictures like this for."
"Same as people who like the sky taking pictures of the sky. Flower-likers taking pictures of flowers, train-likers taking pictures of trains. You do it because you wanna. And I like vending machines."
The man flipped through a few pages in boredom, then declared "Trash," and tossed the album at me. Then he looked at all the paper cranes strewn around and gave an exaggerated sigh.
"So this is how you're spendin' your life, huh. Stupid as hell. Ain't you got anything better to do?"
His attitude didn't make me that unpleasant. In terms of honestly saying what I thought, he was easier to deal with. It was much preferable to being stared at from the corner like I was an object.
"I might, but if I did anything more enjoyable than this, my body might not be able to take it," I laughed.
He continued to find fault in everything in that same way. This observer's a lot more aggressive, I thought.
I learned why after lunch, when I lied in front of the fan listening to music.
"Hey, you," the man said. I pretended not to hear him, and he cleared his throat. "You ain't causin' that girl any trouble, are ya?"
There was only one person I could think of to whom "that girl" could refer, but I didn't expect the man to refer to Miyagi that way, so my reply was delayed.
"By that girl, you mean Miyagi?"
"Who else?" The man furrowed his brow as if displeased by me speaking her name.
Seeing that, I felt some fondness for the man. So you're my ally, huh.
"Let me guess, you're friendly with Miyagi?", I asked.
"...Nah. Nothin' like that. I mean, we've never really seen each other." The man's tone suddenly got more docile. "Only talked a couple of times through documents, that's all. But I was the one who bought her time, so I saw her for about ten minutes, long time ago."
"What'd you think?"
"Poor girl," he said plainly. "Really, really pity her."
He seemed to mean it.
"My lifespan was worth the same as hers. Pitiful, huh?"
"Shaddup, you're gonna die soon anyway."
"That's probably the right way to look at things," I agreed.
"But that girl, she sold the thing she absolutely shouldn't've sold. She was only ten then, you couldn't expect her to make a rational choice. And now the poor girl's gotta keep hangin' around desperate guys like you."
"...So takin' it back - you ain't givin' her any trouble, are you? Depending on your answer, your last months might get a helluva lot less comfy."
I was getting increasingly fond of this guy.
"Oh, I think I've troubled her," came my honest reply. "I've said things that've hurt her, and came close to physically harming her... and a little past that, I almost forced her to the ground."
The man's complexion changed, and as he looked like he was about throttle me any second, I held Miyagi's notebook out to him.
"What's this?", he said, taking the notebook.
"You should find the details there. It's the observation log Miyagi had. But you can't have the subject himself reading it, right?"
"Observation log?" He licked his finger and opened the notebook.
"I dunno how your job goes, really, and it doesn't seem to me that rules are too strict. But if it does happen that Miyagi might get punished for leaving this behind, well, I don't want that. You seem like you're on her side, so I'll give it to you."
The man flipped through the pages, skimming through. He reached the last page in about two minutes, and just said "Aha."
I didn't know what was in there. But after that, the man was a lot less aggressive.
Miyagi must have written favorably about me. I was glad to have indirect proof of that.
If I hadn't had the idea to buy a notebook of my own then, I wouldn't be writing this now.
After showing the man Miyagi's notebook, I had an urge to have my own. I went to the stationery shop and bought a Tsubame B5 notebook and a cheap fountain pen, then thought about what to put in it.
I knew that while I had this replacement observer around for two days, it was my time to do things that I couldn't do with Miyagi there.
At first I considered doing depraved things, but considered that when I next saw Miyagi, even if it didn't come up, I'd be visibly guilty. So I did things that I wouldn't want Miyagi to see, but in a healthy way.
I wrote a record of everything that had happened since I climbed the stairs of that old building and sold my lifespan on its fourth floor to the present day.
On the first page, I wrote about the morality lesson I'd received in elementary school. Without even thinking, I knew what I should write on the next page.
The first day I thought about the value of life. My belief at the time that I'd be famous someday. The promise I made with Himeno. Being told about the lifespan dealership at the bookstore and CD shop. Meeting Miyagi there.
The words flowed without stopping. As I smoked, using an empty can as an ashtray, I continued to spin the story.
The fountain pen made a comfortable sound on the paper. The room was hot, and sweat fell and blurred the letters.
"What're you writing?", the man asked.
"I'm recording what happened this month."
"And? Who's gonna read it?"
"Dunno. Doesn't really matter. Writing it helps me sort things out. I can move things around to more logical places, like a defrag."
Even late into the night, my hand wouldn't be stilled. It was far from being beautiful prose, but I was surprised how smoothly I could write.
After twenty-two hours, I finally came to a sudden halt. I didn't feel I could write any more today.
I put the fountain pen on the table and went to get some fresh air. The man begrudgingly got up and followed behind me.
Walking around aimlessly outside, I heard a taiko drum from somewhere. Practice for a festival, probably.
"Since you're an observer, you sold your time too?", I turned and asked the man.
"If I said yes, would ya sympathize with me?", the man snorted with laughter.
"Yeah, I would."
The man looked at me with surprise. "...Well, I'd like to tell ya I'm grateful, but truth is I didn't sell no lifespan, no time, no health. I do this job 'cause I want to."
"Bad taste. What's so fun about it?"
"Didn't say it was fun. It's sorta like visiting people's graves. I'm gonna die someday. Might as well experience as much death as I can so I can accept it."
"Sounds like an old man's idea."
"Yeah, 'cause I am old," the man said.
Back at the apartment, I took a bath, had a beer, brushed my teeth, and pulled up the covers to sleep. But it was once again noisy next door. Three or four people were talking with the window open.
I felt like there were always guests there, day or night. Big difference from my room which only had observers.
I wore headphones like earmuffs, turned off the light, and closed my eyes.
Maybe thanks to using a part of my brain I didn't normally, I got eleven straight hours of sleep, not waking up once.
I spent the next day filling my notebook with words too. The radio was going on about baseball. By evening, I had caught up to the present.
My fingers trembled as I released the pen from them. The muscles in my arms and hands were screaming, and I rubbed my sore neck while my head ached.
Still, the feeling of accomplishment from finishing something wasn't bad. Also, re-explaining my memories through words made good memories easier to savor, and bad memories easier to accept.
I laid down on the spot and stared at the ceiling. There was a big black stain which I wasn't sure how it got there, and a bent nail jutting out. There was even a cobweb in the corner.
After watching a middle school baseball game at the local field, and going around a fair taking place at the market, I went to a cafeteria and got a leftover-ish dinner.
Miyagi'll be back tomorrow, I thought.
I decided to go to bed early. I closed the notebook I'd left open, put it on a bookshelf, and got into bed. Then the replacement observer spoke.
"This is somethin' I ask everyone, but... what'd you use your money for?"
"It didn't say in the observation log?"
"...Didn't read it in much detail."
"I walked down the road giving it out bill by bill," I answered. "I used a little bit for living expenses, but the original plan was to give it to someone. But they ran off, so I decided I'd just give it all to strangers."
"Bill by bill?"
"Yep. Just walked along handing out 10,000 yen bills.”
The man burst into uproarious laughter.
"Funny, huh?", I said, but the man replied through chuckles, "No, that's not what I'm laughing at."
It was a bizarre laugh. It didn't seem like he was just laughing because it was funny.
"...Well, huh. So you ended up giving all that good money you got for your lifespan to strangers for free."
"That's what I did," I nodded.
"No hope for a moron like you."
"Agreed. There are countless better ways I could've used it. Could have done a lot with 300,000 yen."
"Nope. That's not even why I'm making fun of you."
Something about the man's wording seemed off.
Then he finally said this.
"Hey, you - don't tell me - did you seriously believe it when they said your lifespan was worth 300,000 yen?"
The question shook me from my core.
"What do you mean?", I asked the man.
"What else, I mean exactly what I said. Were you really told your lifespan was 300,000 yen, and you were all, ah yes, that's exactly right, and took 300,000?”
"Well... yeah, I thought that was pretty low at first."
The man banged the floor in laughter.
"Right, right. Well, I don't want to say anything, but..." He held his stomach, still keeping in laughter.
"Well, next time you see that girl, you ask her. "Was my lifespan really worth 300,000 yen?""
I tried to question the man further, but he seemed unwilling to tell me any more.
In my pitch black room, I kept staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep.
I kept thinking about what his words meant.
"Good morning, Mr. Kusunoki."
Miyagi spoke as I woke up from the sun coming through the window.
This girl, who gave me a friendly smile from the corner of the room, was telling me a lie.
"How do you plan to spend today?"
I swallowed the words which had been moments away from leaving my throat.
I'll keep pretending I don't know anything, I decided. I didn't want to know the truth badly enough as to trouble Miyagi.
"The usual way," I answered.
"Touring vending machines, then," Miyagi happily said.
We drove everywhere - under blue skies, along paddy fields, down twisty rural roads.
We ate salt-broiled char and soft-serve ice cream at a roadside station, then took pictures along a strange street with no sign of people and lots of shuttered buildings, but plenty of vending machines.
Night came in the blink of an eye.
We got off the Cub at a small dam and went down the stairs to a walking path.
"Where are you headed?"
I didn't turn around. "What would you do if I deceived you and went somewhere outrageous?"
"So you're headed somewhere where one can see a beautiful sight?", Miyagi said with understanding.
"You misunderstand," I said, but it was as she said.
Once we crossed a small bridge that led to a thicket along the river, she seemed to understand my objective.
She seemed entranced by the sight.
"Um, this impression may sound like it's missing the point, but... Fireflies really do glow, don't they."
"Duh, they're fireflies," I laughed, but I knew what she was trying to say. Miyagi was probably feeling the same way I felt seeing those stars at the lake.
You know that such a thing exists. But as much as you know about what it's like, the beauty a few steps higher is something that you might as well know nothing about until you see it for yourself.
We walked along the little path slowly while the lights of the countless green fireflies floating around flickered.
Staring right at them would make you lose focus and feel a little dizzy.
"If I'm to guess, this may be the first time I've seen fireflies," Miyagi said.
"There's been a lot less of them lately. They're hard to find if you don't go to the right place at the right time. I probably won't see them again here for days."
"You come here often, Mr. Kusunoki?"
"Nah. I only came here once, around this time last year. Just remembered that yesterday."
The luminescence of the fireflies hit its peak, and we went back the way we came.
"...May I interpret this as thanks for the night at the lake?", Miyagi asked.
"I just went to see it 'cause I wanted to. But you're free to interpret it however you want."
"Understood. I will interpret it freely. Very much so."
"Don't need to tell me every little thing."
I went back to the apartment, sorted out the pictures for the day, got ready for bed, responded to Miyagi's "good night" with the same, and just as I went to turn off the light, I called her name.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Why'd you lie?"
Miyagi looked up at my face and blinked.
"I'm not entirely sure what you mean."
"Let me make it a little simpler, then. ...Was my lifespan really 300,000 yen?"
In the moonlight that night, I could sense a change in the color of Miyagi's eyes.
"Of course it is," she answered. "I'm sorry to say, but your worth simply isn't very much. I would have thought you'd accepted this some time ago."
"Well, I did. Until last night," I said.
Miyagi seemed to guess what my belief was.
"Did my substitute tell you something?", she asked mixed with a sigh.
"He just told me to check that with you, that's all. Didn't tell me anything more concrete than that."
"Yes, well, 300,000 yen is 300,000 yen." She continued to feign ignorance.
"...When I heard you'd lied to me, at first I simply thought you were taking a cut of the money I was supposed to get for yourself."
Miyagi looked at me with upturned eyes.
"I thought maybe it was 30 million or 3 billion, and you were embezzling me, telling me a fake value. That was my first thought. ...But I just couldn't believe that. I didn't want to think that was it. That you'd been fooling me from the start. That you were hiding a lie like that behind your smile. I wondered if I was just making a fundamental mistake. I pondered that all night, until I realized. ...I was mistaken from the very beginning."
That teacher had already told me, ten years ago.
I want you to get away from that line of thinking.
"Why did I believe that 10,000 yen for a year was the lowest possible price? Why did I believe that normal lifespans should sell for tens and hundreds of millions? Maybe I was basing too much on my prior opinions. Maybe everyone deeply wants to believe the nonsense about life being more valuable than anything. At any rate, I applied too much of my own common sense to the situation. I should have been more flexible in my thinking.”
I took a breath, and said:
"What made you want to give a whole 300,000 yen to someone you'd never even seen before?"
Miyagi said “I don't have the faintest idea what you're saying” and turned away.
I sat in the opposite corner of the room in the same knees-up position as her. It made Miyagi smile a little.
"You can feign ignorance, that works," I said. "But I just want to say thanks."
Miyagi shook her head. "It's all right. If I kept this job up, I'd surely die before I paid the debt, just like my mother. Even if I were to pay it and was free, I'm not promised a good life afterward. So I decided it would be better to use the money this way.”
"So how much am I worth, really?", I asked.
There was a pause.
"...Thirty yen," Miyagi whispered.
"A three-minute phone call," I laughed. "Sorry for using your 300,000 yen like that."
"Indeed. I do wish you would have used it more for yourself."
Miyagi's wording felt angry, but her voice was gentle.
"...But I certainly understand how you feel, Mr. Kusunoki. Perhaps the reason I gave you that 300,000 yen and the reason you distributed it out to strangers are the same, at their core. I felt lonely, sad, hollow, and desperate. So I went and did something unreasonably altruistic. ...Though, thinking about it, if I hadn't lied about it being worth 300,000 yen and told the truth, perhaps you wouldn't have sold it. Then at least you would have been able to life a longer life. I'm sorry for what I did.”
Miyagi spoke bending down and burying her chin among her knees, looking at her fingernails.
"Perhaps just once, I wanted to be the one giving someone something. I wanted it given to me, but... perhaps I tried to save myself by giving to someone in similarly pitiable circumstances what no one would give me. In any event, the action was a product of my warped good will. I'm sorry."
"That's not true," I denied. "If you told me "You're worth 30 yen" from the start, I'd get really nuts and sell off everything - maybe not even leave three days, much less three months. If you hadn't lied, I couldn't have gone touring vending machines, folding cranes, seeing the stars, or seeing fireflies."
"There was never any reason for you to despair. Thirty yen is merely a value decided by some higher-ups," Miyagi insisted. "At least to me, Mr. Kusunoki, you are someone who is worth 30 million, or 3 billion yen."
"Stop it, that's such a weird consolation," I smiled.
"If you're too kind to me, I'll just get miserable. I know that you're a nice girl already, so you don't need to go any further.”
"You're quite annoying. Just be quiet and let me cheer you up."
"...Never been told that before."
"Besides, this isn't consolation or kindness. I'm just telling you what I've been wanting to say. I do not care what you think of it,” Miyagi said slightly embarrassed, her head low.
Then she told me this.
"Indeed, at first, I thought you were someone who deserved only thirty yen. When I gave you the 300,000, it was purely for my own satisfaction, so it didn't matter that it happened to be you, Mr. Kusunoki. ...But gradually, my opinion changed. After the incident at the train station, you took my story to heart, didn't you? You sympathized with my situation of having to sell my time. Starting then, Mr. Kusunoki, you were no longer just my subject for observation. This alone is a significant problem, but afterward, there were many more.
"...I know it must be trifling to you, but I was glad that you were willing to talk to me. Because I've always been invisible. Being ignored was part of my job. Even little things like eating and talking with me at restaurants, going out shopping, just walking around town, holding hands and strolling down the river - they felt like a dream. You were the first person to always treat me like I was “there,” no matter the time or the situation.”
I wasn't sure what to respond with.
I never even thought that someone would be so grateful to me.
"...I can keep doing that if you like," I joked, and Miyagi nodded.
"I would love that. Since... I do love you."
Though it's no use loving someone who's soon to go away.
She smiled sadly.
My chest tightened, and my mouth didn't work for a while.
Like I was experiencing a delay, I said nothing, not even able to blink.
"You know, Mr. Kusunoki. There are many other lies I've told you," Miyagi said in a slightly clouded voice. "Besides the value of your lifespan, and besides Himeno. For example, how your lifespan would be terminated if you caused others trouble. It was a lie. And how you would die if you went more than a hundred meters from me. Also a lie. They were all no more than ways to protect myself. Nothing but lies."
"...Is that right."
"If you are offended, you may do anything you wish to me."
"Anything?", I repeated.
"Yes, as terrible as you may desire."
I took Miyagi's hand to have her stand up, then hugged her tight.
I'm not sure how long we stayed like that.
I tried to remember them. Her soft hair. Her well-shaped ears. Her thin neck. Her unreliable shoulders and back. Her modest chest. Her smoothly-curved hips.
I used my senses to their utmost to commit it all to memory.
So I'd remember no matter what. So I'd never forget again.
"That was quite terrible," Miyagi said, sniffling. "After doing that, now I know that I'll never forget you."
"Yeah. Mourn lots for me when I'm dead," I said.
"...If you're all right with it, then I'll do so until I die."
Then Miyagi smiled.
It was then when I finally found an objective for my meaningless last months.
Miyagi's words brought about an incredible change within me.
With not even two remaining months, I decided, no matter what it took, I would pay Miyagi's debt in full.
Me, whose whole life couldn't even buy a juice box.
I guess I could only say it because I just didn't know my place.