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2. The Beginning of the End
After deeply bowing my head with an "I'm really sorry" for the 19th time that day, I had a dizzy spell, collapsed to the ground, passed out, and fell unconscious.
This happened during my part-time job at a beer garden. The cause was clear; anybody would pass out working on so little food under a simmering sun.
After pushing myself to get back to the apartment, my eyes hurt like they were being dug out from within, so I ended up having to go to the hospital.
Having to take a taxi to an emergency clinic dealt yet another blow to my hurting wallet. On top of that, my boss told me to take some time off.
I knew I had to cut costs, but I had no idea what more I could possibly cut.
I couldn't remember the last time I ate any meat. I hadn't cut my hair in four months, and I hadn't bought any clothing since that coat I got last winter. I'd never even gone to visit anyone since entering college.
I wasn't able to depend on my parents, so I had to make my own money somehow.
Having to part with CDs and books made my heart ache. They were all second-hand purchases made after careful consideration, but they were the only things in my apartment that could get me any money - I didn't even have a computer or a TV.
I decided I'd at least give all the CDs another listen before saying goodbye. I put on headphones, lied down on a mat, and pressed play.
I switched on a blue-bladed fan from a thrift shop and periodically went to the kitchen for a cup of cold water.
It was my first time taking the day off college. But no one would really pay any mind to my absence. They might not even notice I took the day off.
One album after another was transferred from a tower on my right to a tower on my left.
It was summer, and I was twenty. But like Paul Nizan, I won't let anyone say those are the best years of your life.
"Something really good will happen to us in the summer ten years from now, and then we'll finally really feel like we're glad to have lived."
Himeno's premonition was wrong. At least on my end, nothing good was happening, and there was no sign of good things to come.
I wondered what she was up to now. She changed schools in fourth grade, so we hadn't met since.
It shouldn't have been this way. But maybe it was good in a way. By not following me through middle school, high school, and college, she didn't have to see my transformation into a consistently average and boring person.
Though you could also think of it like this: If my childhood friend went to the same schools as me, I might not have ended up like this.
When she was around, it put a good kind of strain on me. If I did something shameful, she'd laugh at me, and if I did something great, she'd curse me.
Perhaps because of that tension she made me feel, I was always striving to be the best I could be.
For the past few years, I'd been constantly having regrets to that effect.
What would ten-year-old me think of me now?
After spending three days listening to most of my CDs, I stuffed all but a few absolutely essential albums into a paper bag. I'd already filled another full of books. I lifted them both up and went into town.
My ears started to ring as I walked under the sun. I might have just been hearing things because of the irregular cries of cicadas. But it felt like it was right there in my ears.
The first time I visited this particular bookstore was last summer, a few months after entering college.
I hadn't yet gotten a good grasp on the geography of the town, so I was lost, and had to keep checking where I was walking.
After going through an alley and up some stairs, I found the bookstore. I tried to go there many times afterward, but I could never remember where it was. Even when I attempted to look it up, I always forgot the store's name.
So the way it usually worked was that whenever I got lost, I'd end up there. Almost like the roads leading to the store changed themselves around on a whim.
It was only this year that I became able to get there without getting lost.
There was a morning-glory blooming in front of the store now. Out of habit, I checked the cheap bookshelves in front to be sure there wasn't anything different on them, then went inside.
It was gloomy inside the building, with an overwhelming scent of old paper wafting about. I heard a radio playing in the back.
Passing through a tight passage by turning myself sideways, I called to the store's owner. The old man poked his wrinkled, tired-looking face out from between piles of books.
The old man who owned this store wouldn't show a smile to absolutely anyone. He usually just kept his head down and quietly rang things up.
But today was different. When I brought in a load of books to sell, he turned his head up and looked me in the eyes.
The man's face appeared to have something of surprise in it. Well, I could understand that.
The books I was selling were the kind of books whose value lay in keeping them to read again and again. Giving them up must have been difficult for a book-lover to understand.
"Are you moving or something?", he asked me. It was a voice that carried surprisingly well.
"No, nothing like that."
"Well then," he said, looking down at the piled books, "why do something so wasteful?"
"Paper doesn't make for a good meal. Not very nutritious."
The old man seemed to understand my joke. "Short on cash," his mouth uttered, twisting.
I nodded, and he held his arms together as if thinking deeply.
Then like he changed his mind, he breathed, said "It'll take about thirty minutes to evaluate," and carried the books to the back.
I went outside and looked at an old billboard on the end of the road. There were posters on it about the summer festival, firefly-watching, star-watching, and a book club.
From the other side of the fence, I smelled incense and tatami mats, mixed with the smell of trees - a rather nostalgic smell overall. Wind chimes rang from a distant house.
After the evaluation was done and I was paid about two-thirds what I'd expected, the old man spoke.
"Hey. I wanna talk to you about something."
"You're hurting for money, right?"
"It's not like it just started now," I ambiguously replied, and the old man nodded, seeming to understand.
"Well, I don't care to know how poor you are, or how poor you've gotten. I just wanna ask you something."
The old man paused for a beat.
"You wanna sell some of your lifespan?"
My reply came a bit late, thrown off by the unnatural combination of words.
"Lifespan?", I asked back, intending to confirm if heard him right.
"Yeah, lifespan. No, but I'm not buying. I know it sells for a lot, though."
It didn't seem likely that the heat was making my ears play tricks on me.
I thought for a moment.
A fear of old age must have sent this old man off his rocker - that was the first conclusion I came to.
Seeing my face, the old man spoke.
"Can't blame you for thinking I'm joking. Or thinking this old coot's gone senile. But if you want to entertain my nonsense, go take a look, I'll tell you where. You'll see I'm not lying."
I heard out his explanation, all with a grain of salt. In short, this is what he told me.
On the fourth floor of a building not too far from here, there's a shop that'll buy your lifespan.
How much it sells for varies between people; it'll be more if the life that would lie ahead of you is more fulfilling.
"I don't really know you much at all, but you don't look like a bad guy, and I guess you do like books. Must have some value, right?"
I nostalgically recalled the lesson I heard back in elementary school, and thought how familiar it all was.
According to him, besides lifespan, you could also sell your time and your health at this shop.
"What's the difference between lifespan and time?", I asked. "Not sure about the difference between lifespan and health, either."
"Dunno the details. It's not like I've ever sold any of it. But outrageously unhealthy people can live decades, and healthy people can suddenly die - that must be the difference there, right? Can't imagine what the deal is with time, though."
The man drew a map on a notepad and wrote a phone number for me.
I thanked him and put the store behind.
But I was sure this "shop that deals in lifespan" was only a fantasy of the old man's to make himself feel better.
He must have feared that death was approaching and come up with this notion of being able to buy and sell life.
Because, I mean, wouldn't that just be too good to be true?
My expectation was half-right.
It was certainly too good to be true.
But my expectation was half-wrong.
There certainly was a shop that dealt in lifespan.
After selling off my books, my legs carried me to a CD shop.
The reflection of the sun off the asphalt was awful, and beads of sweat ran down my face. I was thirsty, but I didn't even have money to spare on juice from a vending machine. I'd have to endure until I got to my apartment.
Unlike the bookstore, the CD shop had decent air conditioning. When the automatic doors opened and I was bathed in cool air, I found myself wanting to stretch.
I took a deep breath and let the air soak into my body. The store was playing a popular summer song, which I suppose was still just as popular as when I was in middle school.
I went to the counter, called to the usual blond clerk, and pointed at the paper bag in my right hand; he looked at me dubiously.
His face gradually changed to something that seemed to imply I had severely betrayed him. A face that said "How could you let go of all these CDs?" Basically the same reaction as the old man at the bookstore.
"What kinda turn of events is this?", the blond asked me. He was a man in his late twenties with droopy eyes. He wore a rock band T-shirt and faded denim, and his fingers were always moving nervously.
Similarly to the bookstore, I explained how I had to sell my CDs. Then he clapped his hands with a "In that case..."
"I've got somethin' good for you. Maybe I shouldn't really be tellin' you, but I'm real into your taste in music, bud. So just between us, a'ight?"
It sounded like it was word-for-word the kind of thing a swindler would say.
The blond said: "There's a shop that'll buy your lifespan here in town!"
"Lifespan?", I asked back. Of course, I realized this was becoming a rehash of the conversation I had earlier. But I just had to repeat the question.
"Yeah, lifespan," he confirmed with all seriousness.
Was it some kind of fad to make fun of poor people?
While I puzzled over how to respond, he explained, speaking quickly.
It was largely the same story as what the old man at the bookstore told me, but in this man's case, apparently he actually had sold some lifespan. When I asked how much it went for, he dodged with a "Can't really tell you that."
The blond drew a map and wrote a phone number. It should go without saying that they matched what the old man gave me.
I gestured my thanks and left the shop.
The moment I stepped out under the sun, the heavy, hot air clung to my skin.
Just for today, I said to myself, inserting a coin into a nearby vending machine, and after much deliberation choosing cider.
After holding the cold can with both hands for a while, I pulled the tab and took my time drinking it.
The refreshing soft drink sweetness spread through my mouth. I hadn't had anything carbonated in a while, so each sip made my throat tingle.
Once I had finished off the whole thing, I threw the empty can in the trash.
I took the maps the two clerks had drawn out of my pocket and stared at them. It was certainly within walking distance.
It seemed like I was in fact going to go to this building and sell my lifespan, time, or health.
I was being so stupid.
I rolled my eyes, balled up the maps, and threw them away.
But ultimately, I found myself in front of that building.
It was old. The walls were so darkened that it was impossible to imagine the original color. Maybe even the building itself couldn't remember anymore.
It wasn't very wide - I felt like it was being crushed between the buildings on either side.
The elevator didn't work, so I had to take the stairs to my destination of the fourth floor. I sweat with each step I climbed, taking in musty air, lit by yellowed fluorescent lights.
I certainly didn't believe the story about selling your lifespan.
Rather, I considered the possibility that the two clerks were using some kind of metaphor to allude to a lucrative job they couldn't talk about directly - like it was “at the risk of shortening your lifespan."
There was nothing written on the door I found on the fourth floor. But somehow, I was convinced this was the place they had been talking about.
I stared at the doorknob for a good five seconds without breathing, then grabbed it with determination.
Through the door was a room unimaginably clean considering the exterior of the building. I didn't show any surprise.
In the center were rows of empty showcases, and along the walls were empty shelves - but somehow, they felt natural to me.
From a general point of view, though, it was a very bizarre room. Like a jewelry shop with no jewelry, an optometrist's with no glasses, a bookstore with no books.
Those are the kinds of comparisons I would make.
I didn't notice there was someone right next to me until they spoke.
I turned to the voice and saw a woman sitting down, wearing a suit. She looked at me from under thin-framed glasses as if silently evaluating.
I failed to find the time to ask "Just what the heck kind of shop is this?", because she asked before I could open my mouth:
"Your time? Your health? Or your lifespan?"
I was fed up with thinking by then.
If you want to tease me, go ahead and tease.
"Lifespan," I immediately replied.
I'd just let this play out for now, I thought. What did I have to lose at this point?
It was never anything exact, but assuming I had sixty years left, it was my estimate that it would be worth around 600 million yen.
I wasn't as cocky as I was back in elementary school, but I still held onto the belief that I was worth more than the average person. So I thought I could sell for 10 million a year.
Even at twenty, I was unable to escape from the idea that I was "special." That belief certainly wasn't supported by anything. I was just trying to hang onto past glory.
I turned away from reality, which showed no signs of a turnaround, and told myself that someday, surely, I'd be such a big success I could write off these worthless years as never taking place.
With every year I aged, the scale of the success I dreamt about grew. The more cornered you are, the more desperate you are for the tables to suddenly turn.
But this was to be expected. When you're ten points down in the bottom of the ninth, a sacrifice bunt won't do you any good. Even if you know you're more likely to strike, you have no option but to do a full swing and aim for a long hit.
Soon enough, I came to dream of eternity. I thought that unless I achieved such legendary success that my name would be known by all and never forgotten over the ages, I couldn't be saved.
Maybe for my course to be corrected, I'd need someone, just once, to completely deny me. With nowhere to run and no way to protect myself, I needed to be beaten until I wept.
Thinking of it that way, selling my lifespan must have been the answer.
Then not only my past life, but even my life to come would be completely denied.
Taking a closer look at her, the woman was pretty young. Just from her appearance, I would've expected somewhere between 18 to 24.
"Your evaluation will take about three hours," she said, her hands already beginning to type on a keyboard.
I thought there would have been some kind of tedious process, but it seemed like I didn't even have to give my name. Not to mention the value of something as irreplaceable as a human life could be known in just three hours.
Of course, that value was strictly something decided upon by them, not necessarily universal. But it was one standard.
I left the building and puttered around aimlessly. The sky was starting to dim. My legs were getting tired. And I was hungry. I wanted to take a break in a restaurant, but I didn't have the funds to spare.
Conveniently, I found a pack of Seven Stars and a hundred-yen lighter on a bench in the shopping district. I looked around, but didn't see anyone who might have been their owner.
I sat down, casually slid them into my pocket, then went into an alley. I stood by a pile of scrap wood, lit a cigarette, and took a deep breath of smoke. It had been all too long since my last smoke, so it hurt my throat.
I stamped out the cigarette and headed for the train station. My throat began to feel dry again.
I sat on a bench in the plaza and watched the pigeons. A middle-aged woman sitting across from me was feeding them.
Her fashions seemed too young for her age, and the way she threw the food seemed restless; watching her filled me with a feeling I can't say for sure what it was.
Plus, watching the birds pecking the bread, I came to hate it for inciting my hunger. I wasn't quite that hungry, but I was this close to pecking at the ground along with the pigeons.
...I hope my lifespan sells for a lot, I thought.
Like most people do when selling things, I tried to low-ball my estimate of how much it was going to be until I saw the actual evaluation.
I'd initially thought in the realm of 600 million, but as if to avoid having to haggle for more, I tried to imagine the worst case scenario.
Considering that, I was thinking maybe 300 million. When I was a child, I thought I was worth about 3 billion - so compared to that, you could say it was a rather modest estimate.
But I was yet overestimating the value of my life. I remembered Himeno's suggestion of the average salaryman's expenditures, 200 to 300 million.
Though, when I first considered the value of life back in elementary school, and I heard that from a classmate with such gloomy prospects ahead of her, I thought "You couldn't put a price on the chance to live your life - I'd ask for a disposal fee!" That, I had forgotten.
I returned to the shop early and dozed off on a sofa, then was woken by a woman calling my name. It seemed my evaluation was complete.
"Mr. Kusunoki," the woman said - she definitely said that. I had no memory of giving my name to them, nor any form of identification. But they knew it, some way or another.
Indeed, this place must operate on something beyond common sense after all.
Strangely, by the time I returned to the building, I was willing to believe this highly shady story about selling your lifespan.
I could give all number of complex reasons for why that came to happen, but the one that stood out most was that woman.
Maybe it's strange to have such an impression of someone from the very first time you meet them. But... I felt like anything she was involved in couldn't be a lie.
With nothing to do with their sense of justice or logic, not even their quality, some people just hate wrongness. And that's the kind of impression I got from her.
But looking back on it, I came to realize maybe my intuition wasn't quite right.
...Let's get back to the evaluation.
As soon as I started to hear the word "three" out of her mouth, clinging onto a hope deep in my heart, I think for an instant my face lit up with expectation. I instinctively thought that my childhood estimate of 3 billion was right on.
The woman, seeing my face, made an awkward look and scratched her cheek with her index finger. Seemingly feeling that she couldn't tell me directly, she looked to the computer screen, rapidly tapped some keys, and placed a printout on the counter.
"These are the results of your evaluation. What would you like to do?"
At first, I thought the number "300,000" on the form was the value of one year.
With eighty years of lifespan, that would be 24 million in all.
"24 million" repeated itself again and again in my head.
I felt like all the energy left my body. Surely that's too cheap by any means?
I began to doubt the shop a second time. Maybe this was a setup for a TV show, or a psychological experiment. No, maybe it was just a nasty prank...
But as much as I tried to make excuses, it was futile. The only thing having a hard time was my common sense. Every other of my senses told me "She's right." And it's my belief that when faced with something irrational, those are the ones you trust.
At any rate, I had to accept this number of 24 million. That alone took quite a bit of courage.
But the woman faced me and told me the crueler truth.
"As it turns out, your per-year value is 10,000 yen, the bare minimum one can fetch for lifespan. Since you have thirty years and three months remaining, you will be able to leave here with up to 300,000 yen."
I laughed then not because I took her words as a joke, but because I couldn't help but laugh at myself when faced with such an awful reality.
And there on the form were my results, an order of magnitude below my expectations.
"Of course, this in no way indicates a universal value. This is strictly the result that is in accordance with our standards," the woman said, as if justifying herself.
"I want to know more about those standards," I said, and she gave an annoyed sigh. She must have gotten the question hundreds, thousands of times.
"The exact evaluation is done by a separate consulting body, so I don't know the specifics myself. But I'm told that factors like degree of happiness, actualization, and contribution can greatly affect the value. ...In short, the value is decided based upon how happy your remaining life will be, how it will make others happy, how many dreams are achieved in it, how much it contributes to society, and so on."
The sheer impartiality knocked me down yet again.
If I just wouldn't be happy, or just wouldn't make anyone happy, or just wouldn't achieve any dreams, or just wouldn't contribute to society - if I would just be worthless in one of their categories, I'd be fine with that.
But if I wouldn't be happy and wouldn't make anyone happy and wouldn't achieve any dreams and wouldn't contribute to society... I didn't know where I could look to for salvation.
On top of that, thirty years to go was much too little going on from twenty. I must come down with some major illness, right? Or get in an accident?
"Why's my lifespan so short?", I asked, thinking I'd at least try.
"I'm terribly sorry, but," the woman said, lowering her head slightly, "I may not divulge any further information except to customers who have sold their time, health, or lifespan."
I thought deeply, my brow furrowed.
"Let me think for a little."
"Take your time," she replied, but from her tone seemed to want me to make up my mind already.
Ultimately, I sold off all thirty years, keeping only three months.
My life of jumping between part-time jobs and the events at the bookstore and CD shop had built up a tolerance in me for getting raw deals.
While the woman had me confirm every detail of the contract, I mostly just kept nodding to everything without thinking. Even when she asked if I had any questions, I said not really.
I just wanted to end this and get out of here. Out of this shop. Out of this life.
"You can perform a transaction up to three times," the woman said. "Which is to say, you can sell your lifespan, health, or time twice more."
I left the shop with an envelope containing 300,000 yen.
Though I had no visual indication or any idea of how it was done, I definitely felt like I'd lost my lifespan. I felt like upwards of 90 percent of something in the core of my body had left me.
They say a chicken can run around for a while with its head cut off - and I imagine it must be a similar feeling. Maybe you could have already called me a corpse.
I felt more impatient in a body that was all but guaranteed to die without seeing 21 than one I expected to survive to 80. The weight of a single second was greater than ever.
I had also unconsciously thought that "Hey, I've still got sixty years left" back then. But with three months left, now I was attacked with impatience - like I had to do something.
And yet for today, I wanted to go home and sleep. I was dead tired from walking around all over. I wanted to think about what was next after I was comfortably rested and could wake up feeling good.
On the way home, I passed by a bizarre man. He seemed to be in his early twenties, and walked alone with a smile that seemed to span his entire face, like he couldn't help enjoying himself.
It extremely aggravated me.
I stopped by a liquor store on the shopping district and bought four cans of beer, then five pieces of grilled chicken from a shop I stumbled on, and worked through both of them as I walked home.
Three months left. No point in worrying so much about money.
It had been a long time since I'd had alcohol. It calmed me down, but maybe it wasn't such a good idea.
I was feeling sick in no time, and spent thirty minutes puking once I got home.
This was how I started my last three months.
In almost the worst possible way.