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5. Everything To Come

I turned out the light and kept drinking. Thankfully, today I was able to get drunk in a more peaceful fashion.
At times like these, the quickest way to get back on your feet is to not resist the flow of your emotions, but jump into a pool of your own despair and wallow in self-pity.

My familiar apartment began to feel a bit different than usual.
With the moonlight through the window coloring the room a deep blue, the night summer breeze blowing in, and the presence of Miyagi in the corner staring like a sentinel, it felt like a much more eerie place than before. I didn't know my apartment had this side to it.
I had a sense of being in the wing of a stage. Like as soon as I stepped away from here, it would be time for my performance.

All of a sudden, I felt like I could do anything. It was nothing more than me temporarily forgetting my lack of talent in my drunkenness, but I mistook it for something inside me changing.
I turned to Miyagi and proudly proclaimed:
"In my last three months, with my 300,000 yen, I'm gonna change something!"
With that, I finished off the last of the beer in the can and slammed it down on the table.

Miyagi seemed unimpressed. Raising her gaze a few centimeters at best, she said "Ah," and her eyes dropped back to her notebook.
I paid it no mind and continued. "It's not a helluva lot, but it's my life. I'll make it 300,000 yen that's worth more than 3 billion! I'm gonna work to get back at this world!”
In my intoxicated mind, I thought it sounded pretty cool.

But Miyagi was apathetic. “That is what everyone says.”
Putting her pen aside, she grabbed her knees and rested her chin between them.

"I've heard at least five statements to that effect in my time. Everyone speaks of extremes when death is nearing. Particularly those who can't say they've had a fulfilling life thus far. Under the same logic by which losing gamblers continue to hope for an increasingly unrealistic turnaround, those who keep losing in life come to hope for unrealistic happiness. Many feel reinvigorated when the closeness of death reminds them of the sparkle of life, and they come to believe that they can do this or that - but those people are making a crucial mistake. They have only just arrived at the starting line. They have only just regained their composure after a long losing streak. Mistaking that as a chance to turn things around will do them no good.

"...So please, Mr. Kusunoki. Think of it this way. The reason your remaining thirty years were so lacking in value was because in them, you accomplished not one single thing. You understand that, yes?”, Miyagi bluntly reminded me. "What can a man who would accomplish nothing in thirty years change in a mere three months?"

"...Won't know ‘til we try," I argued, but even I hated how hollowly my words rang.
I didn't have to try anything to know that she was right on the money.

"I would consider it a wiser choice to seek a common, average satisfaction," Miyagi said. "There can be no recovery. Three months is simply too short a time to change anything. That said, it's a bit too long to do nothing. So don't you agree it's more shrewd to accumulate a number of small yet definite joys? You lose because you consider only victory. Being able to find victory in failure results in a minimum of disappointment."

"Okay, I get it already, you're right. But enough logic already," I shook my head. If I weren't drunk, I may have tried to make an opposing argument, but I didn't have the energy for that now.
"I'm sure I'm one of those guys who doesn't really understand just how useless he is. ...So, hey, could you tell me everything that's gonna happen? How'd I spend those lost thirty years? Maybe if I heard that, I could stop having any unreasonable hopes."

Miyagi didn't open her mouth for a while, then spoke in a way that sounded like giving up.
"I suppose. Perhaps it is best for you to know it all now. ...However, just as a reminder, you need not despair at anything I say. The things I know were possibilities - but now, they are things that will never actually happen."
"I know that. Just gonna be hearing my fortune, sorta. ...And I'm never gonna go nuts over you saying one little thing. It'd only come to that if there were nothin' else to come to."
"I hope it won't come at all," Miyagi said.


There was a sound like the earth shaking. Like a giant tower toppling over. It took me some time to realize the sound came from fireworks, since I hadn't really gone to see any in years.
They were always something I watched through a window. Not something I watched while eating food from a stand, nor something I watched holding hands with a girlfriend, looking back and forth between them and her.

As soon as I was able to make my own judgments, I was a social outcast who avoided places with lots of people. Being somewhere like that felt like a mistake, and the thought of meeting someone I knew there gave me cold feet.
In elementary school, as long as no one forced me to, I never went to the park, the pool, the hills behind school, the shopping district, the summer festival, or any fireworks displays.
Even in high school, I still didn't come anywhere near prosperous places, avoiding what main streets I could when I walked through town.

The last time I actually saw fireworks being launched was when I was very young.
I want to say that Himeno was with me then, too.

I'd already forgotten how big fireworks looked up close. I similarly didn't recall how loud they were at that distance.
Does it smell of gunpowder? How much smoke stays in the sky? What kinds of faces do people look at the fireworks with?
Thinking of each individual detail in that way, it was apparent I really knew next to nothing about fireworks.

I was tempted to look out the window, but with Miyagi watching, I didn't feel like doing something so miserable. If I did, she'd probably say something like, "If you want to see fireworks that much, why don't you go out and see them?"
Then how would I respond to that? Would I tell her I'm too timid to handle everyone's eyes on me? Why was I still so concerned about how others saw me when I had so little time left?

As if to sneer at me as I battled my urge, Miyagi crossed in front of me, opened the screen door, and leaning out the window began to watch the fireworks go up.
Rather than being moved by the sight of something beautiful, she seemed to be admiring the sight of something unusual. At any rate, it didn't seem that she had no interest.

"Hey now, should you be looking at that too, miss observer? What'd you do if I suddenly took off?"
Still watching the fireworks, Miyagi sarcastically replied, "Do you want me to watch you?"
"Nuh-uh. I want you to be gone as soon as possible. Havin' you watching makes it hard to do anything."
"Is that right? Perhaps it may make you feel rather guilty. ...Incidentally, if you were to flee, and make it a set distance away from me, I would have to conclude that you were up to trouble and have your life terminated. I would suggest you take care."
"What's a set distance?"
"It's not particularly exact, but I would say roughly a hundred meters."
That's something I wish she'd have said to start with. "I'll be careful," I told her.

A sequence of smaller sounds echoed in the sky. The display seemed to be entering its climax.
I realized things had quieted down next door. Maybe they'd gone to see these fireworks too.
Then finally, Miyagi began to talk. About everything that could have happened.

"Now then, about your lost thirty years... First of all, your life at college ends in a blink," Miyagi said. "You merely pay bills, read books, listen to music, and sleep - often. It gradually becomes impossible to distinguish one hollow day from another. Once that happens, the time flies by. You graduate college having learned nothing in particular, and ironically, you end up in the line of work you scorned most back when you were brimming with hope..

"You know you should have accepted the reality back then - but unable to let go of the feeling that you were special, believing that this wasn't where you belonged, you could never get accustomed to it. You travel back and forth between home and work every day with vacant eyes, working your body into dust, and with no time to think, you come to enjoy drinking the days away. Your conviction that you will someday be famous vanishes, and you become someone quite estranged from your childhood fantasies."

"Can't say that's uncommon," I squeezed in.
"Indeed it isn't. It's a very common kind of disappointment. Of course, the agony felt will vary from person to person. You, of course, were a person who needed to be superior to everyone. Lacking someone to depend on, you had only yourself to prop up your world. When that pillar crumbled, the pain was enough to set you onto destruction."

"Destruction?", I repeated.
"You came to realize you were approaching your late thirties. It became your lonely hobby to ride motorcycles around aimlessly. But, as you yourself knew, it was a dangerous hobby. Particularly for someone who has half given up on life. ...The one small mercy is that when you one day crashed into someone's car, you did not injure any pedestrians, only yourself. But a very severe injury it was - you lost half your face, the ability to walk, and most of your fingers."

It was easy to understand the meaning of "lost half your face," but harder to imagine.
Perhaps it was something dreadful enough that people would just look at it, and their only thought would be "a place where there was once a face."

"As your appearance was the only thing you could rely upon, you began to consider going through with your last resort. But you couldn't bring yourself to take the final plunge - you couldn't let go of that last sliver of hope. "Even so, maybe something good will still happen." ...Indeed, that is something no one can fully deny, but it is no more than that - it is simply a kind of devil's proof. That unreliable hope carries you to fifty, until ultimately, you die alone, in shambles and with nothing. Loved by no one, remembered by no one. Grieving that it should not have been this way.”

It was a strange thing.
I was able to readily accept everything she told me.

"So, your thoughts?"
"Right, well. First of all, I'm really glad I sold off all thirty years," I replied.
It wasn't crying sour grapes; like Miyagi had said, they were no longer possibilities, but things that would now never happen.

"Heck, I think it might've been better to sell off all but three days instead of three months."
"Well, there is still time for that," said Miyagi. "You're allowed two more lifespan transactions."
"And you'll be gone once it's down to three days, right?"
"Yes. If you truly can't stomach my presence, then that is certainly an option."
"I'll keep it in mind," I said.

Honestly speaking, having no hope for my three months, leaving just three days seemed the more elegant way to do things.
But it was still that devil's proof, the hope that something good might happen, that gave me pause.

The three months to come and the "lost thirty years" Miyagi told me about were entirely different. The future wasn't set in stone.
So something good could happen. There could still be an event that made me glad to have lived.
It wasn't a zero-percent chance. Thinking of it that way, I couldn't go dying yet.


Rain woke me up in the middle of the night. The sound of rain flooding out of the broken drainspout onto the ground was unceasing. I looked at the clock; it was 3 in the morning.
A sweet scent filled the room. I hadn't smelled it in a long time, so it took some doing for me to realize it was woman's shampoo.
By process of elimination, it was unmistakably Miyagi who had the scent. It led me to think that Miyagi took a bath while I was asleep.

However, it was difficult for me to accept that conclusion. I don't mean to brag, but my sleeping was light enough that you could probably just call it napping.
Even the smallest sounds like newspapers being delivered or footsteps from the floor above woke me up. It was unusual to think Miyagi could take a shower while I was asleep without waking me even once. Maybe it blended in with the rain.

I decided to postpone working this out. I felt weird thinking about a girl I'd only just met showering in my apartment, so I stopped thinking about it entirely.
More importantly, I needed sleep for tomorrow. Getting woken up on a rainy night like this, well, it happens.

But it wasn't easy to get back to sleep. So as usual, I borrowed the power of music. I put one of my unsold CDs, "Please Mr. Lostman," in the player and listened to it with headphones.
This is just what I think, but the kind of person who listens to Please Mr. Lostman on sleepless nights can't live a decent life. I used music like this to excuse myself from having to get used to the world.
Maybe I was still paying the price for it now.



[+]

6. One Who Changed, One Who Never Did

The rain continued into morning. It was heavy enough to serve as an excuse for not moving immediately after getting out of bed. Thus, I had time to think about what I should do next.
While I looked at my "Things to Do Before I Die," Miyagi approached and asked, "How do you plan to spend today?"
I was getting accustomed to hearing bad news out of her mouth, so I waited for her next sentence, prepared to not be swayed whatever she said - but that was all she said, just looking over my list afterward. It didn't seem to be a question with any deep meaning behind it.

I took another look at Miyagi.
I'd thought this since I first met her, but her appearance was, in its own way, rather orderly.
Well, let me come out and say it. Speaking strictly of appearance, she was exactly my type. Refreshing eyes, gloomy eyebrows, tight lips, a pretty-shaped head, smooth-looking hair, nervous fingers, slender thighs - well, I could go on.

Because of that fact, ever since her appearance in my apartment, my behavior was thrown for a loop.
I couldn't even carelessly yawn in front of a girl who so perfectly matched my tastes. I wanted to conceal my broken expressions and idiotic breathing.
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.
But having Miyagi here made my overly embarrassed about my warped desires and miserable hopes.

"This is just a personal opinion," Miyagi began, "but do you consider that list to be the things you really want to do, deep down?"
"Well, that's what I was thinking about too."
"If I might say... I feel that you've made a list out of things which you feel someone else would want to do before they died."
"You might be right," I admitted. "Maybe there's nothing I really want to do before I die. But I feel like I can't do nothing, so I'm trying to imitate someone else."
"Still, I feel that there must be a method more suited to you."
Leaving me with that presumably meaningful comment, Miyagi returned to her usual position.

The conclusion I arrived at that morning was as follows.
I need to correct my warped desires and miserable hopes a little bit more. I should think cheaper, more impudent, more vulgar, and spend my last months following my instinct.
What needs repairing at this point? I thought I had nothing to lose.

I looked over the list again, and then, preparing myself, called a friend.
This time, after only a few dialtones, they answered.


I left with an umbrella, but by the time I reached the train station, the rain had stopped - an event which seemed to perfectly define me.
Carrying an umbrella under a sky so clear that the rain prior seemed like a lie felt extremely improper, like carrying around a pair of skates.

The wet roads sparkled. I went into the station as if to escape the heat, but it was just the same inside.
I hadn't taken a train in a long time. I entered the waiting room, bought a soda from a vending machine by the trash can, sat down on a bench, and finished it in three drinks. Miyagi bought mineral water for herself, and chugged it down with eyes closed.

I looked up at the sky through the window. There was a faint rainbow forming. I'd forgotten that such a phenomenon even occurred.
Of course I should have known what a rainbow is like, when a rainbow happens, what people associate rainbows with - but for some reason, I'd at some point forgotten the basic knowledge that "they're actually real."
There was something I noticed, having a new look on it. I could only see a total of five colors in that great arching bow in the sky - I was two short of seven. Red, yellow, green, blue, violet.
Wondering what colors I was missing, I mixed the colors on an imaginary palette, only then realizing the other two were orange and indigo.

"Yes, you should probably get a good look," Miyagi said from the side. "This may be the last rainbow you ever see."
"Yeah," I nodded. "And if we take it further, I might never use another waiting room, or this might be it for drinking soda, or this is the last time I'll throw a can."
I tossed the empty soda can into a blue garbage can. The sound of it colliding with its fellow cans echoed through the waiting room.
"Anything might be the last. But it's always been that way, even before I sold my lifespan."

So I said, but Miyagi's statement had begun to make me feel a little antsy.
Rainbows, waiting rooms, sodas, cans, who cared about that. But... How many more CDs would I listen to between now and when I died? How many books would I read? How many cigarettes would I smoke?
Thinking of it that way, I suddenly began to feel some vague fears. Death means the inability to do anything ever again but be dead.

After getting off the train, I went to a restaurant that was about fifteen minutes away by bus to meet Naruse.
Naruse was a friend of mine from high school. He was average height like me, maybe a little shorter, with an overly-chiseled face.
His head worked fast, and he could speak in a way that captivated people, so he was liked by his peers. It's strange to think now that a social outcast like me was on good terms with him.

We did have one thing in common. And that was that we could afford to laugh off most things in this world.
In high school, we'd sit in fast food restaurants for a long time, making a mockery of all kinds of daily occurrences to the point of impudence.
I wanted to laugh at everything in that way once more. That was my first objective. But there was a second reason I wanted to meet him.

While waiting for Naruse to arrive, Miyagi sat in the seat beside me, on the aisle side. It was a table for four, but the seats weren't made very wide, so Miyagi and I were naturally brought closer.
Miyagi continued to observe me at close range. Sometimes we'd make eye contact, but she'd keep staring without paying it any mind.

That Naruse would mistake my relationship with Miyagi, who always dangled behind me wherever I went, in a way convenient for me - that was my hope.
I could recognize what an unbearably pathetic hope it was. But if I wanted to do something, I had to do it. It's sad, but that was the first thing after selling my lifespan I clearly thought "I want to do this" about.

"Hey, miss observer," I said to Miyagi.
"What is it?"
Scratching my neck, I said "Well, I have a request -"
I wanted to ask Miyagi to provide appropriate answers to the man who was going to arrive, but I noticed a waitress stood by our table, giving us a full-faced smile. "Excuse me, are you ready to order?"

Giving up for the moment, I ordered coffee. The waitress then started confirming the order, so I turned to Miyagi and asked just in case.
“You okay not ordering anything?”
When I did that, Miyagi made an awkward face.

"...Um, you shouldn't talk to me in front of others."
"What, is there something bad about that?"
"I believe I did explain this to you before, but... Well, you see, the presence of us observers cannot be sensed by anyone except for those we observe. Like so."
Miyagi grabbed the waitress's sleeve and shook it slightly. Indeed, as Miyagi said, there was no response.

"Any and all sensation I give to a person is treated as if it didn't happen," she said, picking up a glass. "So though I may hold up this glass, it is not as if she sees it floating. That said, neither does she see the glass suddenly disappear when I touch it, nor does she think it didn't move at all - it just didn't happen. I cannot be perceived as being "there," but furthermore, I cannot even be perceived as being "gone." ...However, there is one exception. The lone individual who can perceive an observer is the person they observe. Troublingly, while I am essentially "non-existent," I cannot be non-existent to you, as you're already aware of me. ...The point is, Mr. Kusunoki, that you currently appear as if you are talking to air."

I checked the waitress's expression.
She was looking at me as if I was a lunatic.

My coffee arrived a few minutes later, and as I sipped it, I considered leaving once I was done drinking, without meeting Naruse.
If he had arrived just a few dozen seconds later, I'm sure I would have done it. But before I'd firmly decided upon it, I saw Naruse entering the restaurant. I reluctantly went over and greeted him.
After he sat down, he showed exaggerated joy over our reunion. He indeed didn't seem to notice Miyagi beside me at all.

"Long time no see. You been doing good?", Naruse asked.
"Yeah, I guess."
Not the kind of thing for a guy with less than six months left to say, I thought.


By the time we were done telling each other how things were going for us now, we started to speak as if returning to high school days.
I don't concretely remember what we talked about, and the contents of our conversation definitely didn't matter.
We tore into everything, and that was our intent. Naruse and I said trivial things we'd forget immediately and laughed together.

I didn't say a word about the lifespan thing. I wasn't sure if he'd believe me, and I didn't want to spoil what we had going.
If Naruse knew I had months to live, he'd probably at least act differently, try not to be rude to me. He'd cut down on the jokes, and become obsessed with finding comforting things to tell me. I didn't want to think about that nonsense.

Until that came out of his mouth, I'd say I was having fun.

"By the way, Kusunoki," Naruse said in remembrance. "Do you still draw?"
"Nah," I promptly replied, then carefully looked for the right words to follow with. "...I haven't drawn at all since I got to college."
"Thought so," Naruse laughed. "If you were still drawing, I dunno what I would've done."

That put an end to it.
I knew it was bizarre, but that exchange, not even ten seconds long, obliterated all the fondness I'd built up for Naruse over three years. All too quickly.
As he kept running his mouth as if trying to smooth something over, I spoke his name without speaking.

Hey. Naruse.
That's the one thing you can't laugh at.

True, I gave up on it. But that absolutely doesn't mean it's something that's okay to laugh at.
I thought you would have understood that.
The smile I gave Naruse gradually came to have nothing behind it. I lit a cigarette and stopped talking myself, just nodding at Naruse.

Miyagi spoke from beside me.
"...Now then, let's compare answers."
I shook my head slightly, but she went on regardless.

"It seems you've just now come to hate Mr. Naruse a bit. But in truth, Mr. Naruse is not as fond of you as you believe. Originally, you would have met Mr. Naruse two years later in a similar way, and a minor thing would lead to a dispute, ending with the two of you parting. ...You should cut it off soon before it reaches that point. Nothing good will come of placing your hopes in this man."

The irritation I felt toward Miyagi didn't come from the fact she insulted my friend. It also wasn't because I was told something I didn't want to know, and it wasn't because I couldn't stand putting on an expression I didn't actually feel.
Lastly, it also wasn't my anger over Naruse sneering at my former dreams being irrationally misdirected at Miyagi.
Then what was I so irritated at, you ask? I wouldn't be too sure how to answer.

At any rate - Naruse in front of me prattling on thoughtlessly, Miyagi beside me muttering gloomy things, two young girls on the other side of the aisle gabbing in shrill voices in a conversation that was more interjections than words, a troupe behind me talking about their opinions as passionately as if they were drunk, a group of students in the far seats clapping and shouting - suddenly, I just couldn't take it anymore.

Shut UP, I thought.
Why can't you just be quiet?

In the next moment, I threw the glass next to me toward the wall on Miyagi's side.
It made a louder crash than I expected as it shattered, but the restaurant was silent for only a moment before the noise resumed.
Naruse looked at me with wide eyes. I saw an employee running over. Miyagi was sighing.

What the hell am I doing?

I put a couple of thousand-yen bills on the table and all but ran out of the place.

While I took the bus back to the train station, I looked out the window, and an old batting center caught my eye.
I hit the disembark button, got off the bus, and hit about three hundred pitches there. By the time I put the bat down, my hands were bloody and numb, and sweaty to boot.

I bought a Pocari Sweat from a vending machine and sat down on a bench to slowly drink it, watching a group of men bat who I would think were coming home from work.
Maybe it was just the lighting, but everything seemed to be tinged a strange blue.

I didn't regret leaving Naruse like that. I was definitely doubting now how much fondness he really had for me.
Maybe I didn't really care for people like Naruse, but just hoped I could love myself through him, since he approved of how I thought.

And while Naruse had changed, I never did.
Maybe it was Naruse who was in the right.

I left the batting center behind and walked to the station. Once on the platform, the train came right away.
The train was filled with high schoolers coming home from clubs, and all of a sudden I felt old. I closed my eyes and turned my attention to the sounds of the train.

Night had already fallen. I dropped by the convenience store before returning to the apartment.
There were a few big moths in the parking lot, but they showed no sign of moving.
While I took my beer and snacks to the register, I noticed a college couple in jerseys and sandals were shopping there too.
Back home, I had a warm meal of canned yakiniku with added green onion and beer. Thinking how many liters of beer I'd drink before I die, it got a lot tastier.

"Hey, miss observer," I said to Miyagi. "I'm sorry for what I did earlier. I think I was just confused. Sometimes I just flare up and do things, y'know."
"Yes. I know," Miyagi said, her eyes looking at me cautiously. I couldn't blame her. Anyone would be cautious in front of a guy who throws a glass in the middle of a conversation.

"You're not hurt?"
"I am not. Unfortunately."
"Hey, I really am sorry."
"It's fine. Because it didn't hit."
"Wanna drink when you're done writing that observation log or whatever?"
"...You're saying you want to drink with me?"

I didn't expect that reaction. I guess it's best to speak the truth, I thought. "Yeah, I'm lonely."
"I see. Well, apologies, but I can't. I'm on the job."
"You should've just said that first then."
"Sorry. I just found it odd. Wondering why you would say that."
"I get lonely sometimes, like anybody. Surely the other guys you've watched have wanted companionship before they died, right?"
"I don't recall," said Miyagi.

Once I emptied out the can of beer, took a hot shower, and brushed my teeth, I was able to have a healthy sleep. It must have been my fatigue from the batting center.
I turned off the light and dug into my mattress.

Looks like I need to revise my view of things, I thought. As close as I was to death, the world wouldn't suddenly get nicer.
Maybe the world was only nice when it came to people who were already dead. That should have been clear, but it seemed I couldn't get away from my naive thoughts.
Somewhere deep down, I was still hoping the world would suddenly get nicer.



[+]

7. Time Capsule Raiding

When I decided to write my will, I soon noticed that I couldn't start writing anything at all without an assumption of who was going to be reading it.

Holding a pen over stationery I bought from a nearby shop, I thought about what to write for a long time.
Cicadas were stopped on the power poles outside, and they were noisy enough that it felt like they were inside.
While the cicadas were there, I could blame them for not being able to move my pen - but even after they flew off, I still hadn't written a single word.

Who was I hoping would read this will in the first place? A will is fundamentally a means of communication. I had to write to tell someone something about me that they couldn't see otherwise.
I asked myself, what did I have to tell anyone? Of course, I immediately thought of my childhood friend, Himeno. So should this will contain my thanks toward Himeno, or a confession of my love?

As a test, I took about an hour carefully writing a letter to her. To summarize what it looked like when I was done:

I don't know what you think of me by now, but I've kept loving you since that day ten years ago.
I survived until twenty because of my memories from when I was with you, and I won't survive beyond twenty because I can't stand a world without you.
Now that I'm about to die, I've finally realized that. In a way, I've already been dead for a long time. Ever since the day we went our separate ways.
Goodbye. I'm praying ten-year-old me survives inside you for a little longer.


Reading it again, I thought that I probably wouldn't mail this letter. There was a serious problem somewhere in there.
This wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to be saying with it. And it was impossible for me write down exactly what I wanted to say. I'd sooner die.

I think my desire came down to that last line I wrote. For Himeno to still remember me as I was at ten for a little while.
And if that was the objective of the letter, then it seemed I should maybe not write anything at all.

Any form would do; if it was just addressed to Himeno, and I was the sender, that would be enough. And that would result in the least misunderstanding.
If a blank sheet of paper seemed odd, I could write a single sentence: "I just wanted to send a letter."
Or maybe - another option was to not talk about my death at all, but write about normal, everyday things.
I threw the pen onto the table and crumpled up the letter so Miyagi couldn't read it, then turned up to the ceiling.

...At any rate, when was the last time I wrote a letter? I searched my memory.
Communicating with letters wasn't a common thing, and since elementary school, I had no one to send New Year's cards or anything like that. There must have only been a few letters throughout my whole life.
Aside from that when I was 17, the last letter I wrote was... in the summer of fourth grade.

That summer, when I was ten, our class buried a time capsule behind the gym. It was a suggestion from that same teacher who gave us the morality lesson that first led me to think about the value of life.
The students all wrote letters to put inside the round capsule.

"I want you to write those letters to yourself ten years from now," she said. "Maybe you won't be sure what to write, since I just said that out of the blue... I know, you can write things like "Did your dream come true?", or "Are you happy?", or "Do you remember this?", or "What would you like to tell me?" There's a lot you could ask. You can also write about your own hopes, like "Please make my dream come true," or "Please be happy," or "Please don't forget about this.""

She couldn't have predicted that in a decade, some of those children had given up on their dreams, weren't happy, and had forgotten a lot.
Maybe it wasn't a letter for your future self, but a letter for you at the time when you were writing it.

She also said this.
"Also, at the end of the letter, please write who your best friend right now is. ...Don't worry too much about what they think about you. If it's a case of "They hate me, but I like them!", please just write it. Don't worry, I'll be sure no one else sees it, not even me."

I couldn't remember what I wrote to myself. I couldn't even remember whose name I wrote.
The time capsule was to be dug up ten years later. That was this year, but I'd yet to hear anything about it.
It could have been I was the only one who wasn't contacted, but more than likely, they just forgot.
I thought that I'd like to read that letter again before I died. But not meeting with any of my classmates. Just by myself.

"How do you plan to spend today?", Miyagi asked as I stood up.
"Time capsule raiding," I replied.


It had been a year since I went back to my home town. After leaving the station, which was as shabby as a prefab hut, I was met with some familiar sights.
A town of green hills. The cries of insects and the overpowering smell of vegetation couldn't even be compared to where I lived now. Even straining my ears, all I could hear were bugs and birds.

"Surely you can't sneak into an elementary school and dig holes in the middle of the day?", Miyagi asked, walking behind.
"I'll wait until night, of course."

But while I'd gotten this far on impulse, I hadn't considered how I would kill time until the sun set in a town with no amusements or restaurants to speak of.
There wasn't even a convenience store in walking distance. It would have been time-consuming, but maybe better to take my moped.
As much time as I had to waste, I had no intention of going home to my parents. Meeting friends was also a no-go.

"If you have time on your hands, perhaps you might tour some places from your past?", Miyagi suggested, seeing right through me. "Places you used to visit often as a child but haven't in a few years, say."
"Places from my past, huh... It wasn't a very good past I had here."
"With the exception of Ms. Himeno, I assume?"
"Don't bring up her name so lightly. I really don't want to hear it out of your mouth."
"Is that so. I'll be more cautious henceforth. ...However, while I don't mean to be nosy, I would not advise meeting anyone."
"Wasn't planning to."
"Good, if you say so," Miyagi said, abating.

The sunlight seemed to pierce through my skin. It was going to be another scorcher. I sat on a bench outside the station and considered my options going forth.
Suddenly, I looked to my side and saw Miyagi applying what appeared to be sunscreen. I always thought she was really fair-skinned, and I guess she worked to keep it that way.
She was so overly serious that I expected her to be indifferent about her appearance, so it came as a surprise.

"Aren't you invisible to everyone but me?", I questioned.
"Essentially, yes."
"Always?"
"Yes, I'm only seen by those I observe. However, as you are aware, there are exceptions. ...For example, when you first visited the shop. When I am not on observer duty, I can be seen by those who are intending to sell their lifespan, time, or health. ...Is something the matter?"
"Nah. I was just wondering why you're fussing over your appearance if nobody can see you."

Unexpectedly, Miyagi seemed to take this comment as quite an attack.
"I do it for myself," Miyagi retorted as if hurt. "You would take a shower even if you had no plans to meet anyone, wouldn't you?"
She really did seem offended. If it had been any other girl, I would have been rushing to apologize, but with Miyagi, I was glad I could get back at her. I wanted her to criticize my careless remarks.

While walking around wondering where to go, my feet led me to a thicket near my old home and Himeno's. We played there often as kids.
I regretted how I was falling right into Miyagi's suggestion. She illuminated just how boring and ordinary my actions were.
I took quite a detour trying to keep away from my parents' house. I visited a candy store I used to frequent, but the shop had folded and the sign was gone.
I started on the path into the thicket, then walked off the trail for about five minutes before I reached my destination.

There was a broken-down bus there which served as a so-called "secret base" for Himeno and I in our youth.
The remaining specks of red paint on the bus looked like rust from a distance, but if you went inside and could ignore all the dust built up on the seats and floors, it looked unexpectedly nice. It seemed like it should have been crawling with bugs, but I barely saw any.

I walked around the bus looking for traces of Himeno and I. But as I went to leave after not finding anything and giving up, I finally noticed something on the driver's seat.
Something was written on the side of the seat in blue permanent marker. I took a close look at it and realized it was an arrow. Looking to where it pointed, I found another arrow.
After being directed around by six arrows, I found, on the back of a seat, what seemed to be an ai-ai-gasa. The silly elementary school thing where you write your name and the person you secretly love under an umbrella.

Naturally, it was my name and Himeno's.
I had no memory of drawing such a thing, and only Himeno and I knew about this place - so it had to have been Himeno.
I didn't think her the kind to do something so traditionally girly. Still, a smile formed on my lips.

I stared at the umbrella for a while. Miyagi watched from behind, but didn't appear to be preparing any sarcastic comments.
Once it was burned into my sight, I left the bus, and like I did as a child, used a fallen tree to climb onto the roof. Brushing away some fallen leaves, I lied down flat.
And so I laid until I heard cicadas ringing in the evening.


After visiting my grandfather's grave, it was night, and I headed for the elementary school.
I borrowed a shovel from the shed, went behind the gym, and started digging with a rough idea of where the thing was. The green light of the emergency exit dimly illuminated my surroundings.

I thought it would be easy to find what I was looking for, but either my memory was wrong, or it had already been dug up. I was digging for an hour, but all I got was a lot of sweat and no time capsule.
My throat was dry. My hands were getting really blistered, also aided by my time at the batting center yesterday. Miyagi sat by and watched me dig holes, writing something in her notebook.

While I smoked to take a break, my memory finally came back to me. That's right, we were going to bury it by a tree behind the gym, but someone mentioned that a new tree might be planted there, so we buried it somewhere else.
After less than ten minutes digging behind the backstop, I hit something hard. I carefully excavated the round object so as not to damage it, then brought it into the light. I thought it might be locked, but it slid right open.

My original plan was to only take my letter and put it back right away. But after all that effort, I wanted to look through all the letters. A guy who's going to die in a few months should be allowed at least that much.
I picked one at random and opened it up. I skimmed through the "message to your future self" and the "best friend" part.
Once I was done reading, I opened up a notebook, wrote the letter-writer's name, and drew an arrow pointing to their best friend.

After repeating this with a few more letters, the number of names and arrows increased, gradually creating a relationship chart. Who likes who, who's liked by who. Which are requited, and which ones aren't.
Just as expected, by the time I'd read all the letters, the lonely name on the chart was me. Not a single person had chosen me as their "best friend."

And... while I searched the time capsule thoroughly for Himeno's letter, I couldn't find it. Maybe it just happened that she wasn't there the day we buried it.
If she had been, surely she'd have written my name, I thought. I mean, she'd secretly drawn an ai-ai-gasa with our names in our secret base. She'd definitely write my name. Maybe added a heart or two.
If only Himeno's letter were there.

Stuffing my own letter, which I'd found earlier, into my jeans pocket, I reburied the time capsule. I returned the shovel to the shed, washed my hands and face with the nearby faucet, and left the elementary school.
I dragged my exhausted body along the road. Miyagi spoke from behind me.

"I should hope you understand now? You ought not cling onto your past relationships. Above all, you've effectively kept none of them. After Ms. Himeno changed schools, did you send her even a single letter? After graduating high school, did you once contact Mr. Naruse? Why did Ms. Wakana abandon you? Did you show up to any class reunions? ...Pardon the remark, but don't you feel that clinging to the past now is asking for too much?"

My face twisted, of course, but I had nothing to say back.
Maybe Miyagi was right. What I was doing was like not normally believing in any gods, but only going to shrines and temples and churches to beg for help when I was having hard times.
But if that was the case - with the past and future locked off from me, what was I supposed to do?

Back at the train station, I looked over the time table. The last train had left a long time ago.
I never really took the train much when I lived in the area, but for such a rural place, I didn't expect the last train to leave so early.

I could have called a taxi, and it wasn't like I couldn't have gone to my parents', but I ultimately chose to spend the night at the station.
Think of it this way, I'd rather have my physical pain exceed my mental pain than the other way around. By hurting myself just enough, I could turn my attention to that.

I lied on a hard bench and closed my eyes. There was the unceasing sound of bugs bumping into the fluorescent lights.
While I didn't think I'd be sleepless because of how utterly exhausted I was, with the strange lighting and the bugs loitering around my feet, I knew I couldn't count on a particularly pleasant rest.

From the bench behind me, I heard Miyagi's pen writing. I was impressed by her endurance. She must have not gotten much sleep at all in the days she'd been watching me.
It seemed like even during the night, she was in a cycle of sleeping one minute and then being awake for five. She must not have had any other option, but observer seemed like too harsh a job for a young girl.
Of course, it wasn't like I was sympathizing. I just wished she'd stop doing that job.



[+]

8. Inappropriate Acts

I woke up a few hours before the first train and bought an energy drink from a vending machine.
My body ached all over. It was still dim around, and I heard morning cicadas, crows, and turtle doves.

Back inside, I saw Miyagi sitting and stretching. That action seemed to show more of a human side to her than anything else I'd seen her do so far.
I looked at her, still holding the bottle. Perhaps because of what a sweltering night it was, she'd taken her summer cardigan off and put it on her lap, revealing her delicate shoulders.

...Maybe I was just confused.
Maybe it was having three months to live, maybe it was meeting one disappointment after another, maybe I was still half-asleep and fatigued and in pain.
Or maybe I really did like how this Miyagi girl looked, moreso than I'd expected.

Well, it didn't matter. At any rate, I had a sudden impulse to do something terrible to Miyagi. More bluntly, I wanted to push Miyagi down. I wanted to use her as an outlet for all my emotions.
What I was thinking of doing were inappropriate acts, ones that would surely get my lifespan terminated if I did them - but so what? I'd just die a few months sooner.
So I'd gladly die doing what I wanted to do. I had written not to go against my desires on my "Things to Do Before I Die" list.

I had previously considered her outside the range of those desires, but once I started looking at her that way, there seemed to be no one more suitable than Miyagi for that kind of desperate act.
I don't know why, but she seemed to stimulate my sadistic nature. Maybe since she was always acting stoic, I wanted to disturb the act and make her show her weakness. To tell her "You act so tough, but you're really this weak."

As I stood in front of her, Miyagi took a slightly defensive posture as if sensing my thoughts.
"I've got a question for you."
"...Yes?"
"Once an observer sees their target doing an "inappropriate act" or whatever, how much of a lag is there before their lifespan's terminated?"
Miyagi's eyes showed caution. "And why would you be asking?"
"Basically, I want to know how long it'd take before I got killed if I were to get violent with you right here."

However, she didn't look so surprised.
She looked at me with colder eyes than ever before, scorning me.
"I can make contact immediately. After that, it wouldn't take twenty minutes. And escape would be completely impossible."
"So, I'd have about ten-some minutes to act freely?", I promptly asked back.
Miyagi looked away and weakly said “Nobody said anything like that.”

Silence prevailed.
Oddly, Miyagi didn't try to run away. She just stared down at her lap.
I reached my hand for her.

I'd planned to insult her and hurt her, but as soon as I touched her bare shoulder, her sorrowful face made my body stiffen.
Was I really going to push Miyagi down on the floor and use her to realize my desires?

If I did, she would surely be hurt. Maybe I would be adding another wound like the big one on her knee. Maybe I would take even more light from her nearly pitch-black eyes.
Maybe once it was all over, she'd just make a sarcastic remark as if totally unfazed. "...Were you satisfied?"

And would I really be satisfied?
What was I trying to do here?

My high-strung nerves were quelled in an instant. Instead, I was filled with an intense emptiness.
When I saw Miyagi's resigned eyes, it went so far as to make me sad too.
I took my hand off her shoulder and sat next to her, leaving a seat's worth of room in the middle. I was embarrassed at how quickly my attitude flipped.

"Must be a nasty job," I said. "Having to deal with garbage like me all the time."
She continued to look away. "So long as you understand."
Now I see why I was worth 300,000 yen, I thought. I was a step away from doing something there was no taking back.

"Dangerous job. There's no shortage of guys like me, I bet? Guys who go nuts when they're about to die, and take their anger out on their observer."
Miyagi gently shook her head. "As a matter of fact, you are an easy case. There are many who go to much further extremes,” she said, trying to preserve my calm.

I wanted to ask about the wound on her knee I'd been curious about since we met, but I kept quiet. It'd be like a slap in the face for me to try and show concern now, and only result in depression.
Instead, I asked "Why would you take such a job?"

"To put it simply, because I had to."
"Tell me the not-simple version."
Miyagi looked surprised. "I would have thought you had no interest in anyone but Ms. Himeno."
"That's not true at all. If I didn't feel some charm in you, I wouldn't have tried to do what I just did."
"...Is that right. Thanks, I suppose."

"You don't have to talk if you don't want to."
"Well, I have nothing particularly to hide in my past... Um, I already told you that other than lifespan, one can sell their health and time, yes?"
I nodded.
"Well, I sold my time. Roughly thirty years of it."

...That's right. I'd been wondering about that from the beginning.
What it meant to sell your time.
"I see... And if you sold your time, that means..."
"Indeed. Most of the observers are people who came to the shop like you and sold their time. Though by doing so, they effectively sold their safety and relationships as well..."
"So you were a normal human until then?"
"Yes. A normal human just like you, Mr. Kusunoki."

I'd naturally assumed that Miyagi had been born indifferent, born sarcastic, born sturdy.
But from what she was telling me... maybe she was forced to acquire those traits to survive.

"You still age, right? So if you sold thirty years... once you're free from the job, you'll be about forty?"
"Indeed I will. Of course, that's only if I survive to see it," she said with a self-deprecating smile.
That meant she'd keep being invisible for decades to come.

"...Why would you need money that bad?"
"Lots of questions today, hm."
"I mean, you don't have to answer, of course."
"What if I told you it's not very interesting?"
"I'm sure it'd be more interesting than why I sold my lifespan."
Miyagi looked up at the time table. "Well, there's still time until the first train, I suppose."
Then she began telling me the answer bit by bit.


"I still don't understand why my mother sold decades of her time to buy more lifespan. As I recall her, my mother was always dissatisfied with the reality she lived in. My father evidently left just before I was born. She cursed him for every little thing, but deep in her heart I believe she wanted him to come back. Perhaps that was the only reason she wanted to extend her lifespan - to continue waiting for him. Of course, that would do nothing for my father's lifespan, and my mother would become invisible to all. And most importantly, I can't understand her reasoning for awaiting the return of a man who left so many wounds on her, never to go away. And yet if she wished to extend her life to wait for father - maybe it really didn't matter who it was. She just didn't have anyone else to rely upon. She didn't know anyone who loved her but him.

"...I hated my miserable mother. She hated me in turn, constantly reminding me how she wished "this" had never been born. When she sold her time and became an observer, vanishing from my sight, I recall that I was only six. I was taken into the care of my aunt for the following few years, but there, too, was I treated as a nuisance."

Miyagi then stopped, her mouth closed in thought.
She didn't seem to be overcome with emotion or anything. Maybe she'd realized her words were unintentionally sounding like a reach for sympathy.
As she continued, she sounded more disinterested than before, as if she were talking about someone else.

"My mother died when I was ten. It's unclear what exactly caused her death. However, it was clear she was killed by one of the people she observed. As much as you may extend your lifespan, injury and illness are another issue entirely. When I first heard it, I wondered if I wasn't being swindled.

"...The man who informed me of her death told me something else of importance. "You have a debt," he said. "An enormous debt your mother left. There are only three ways for you to pay it back - sell your lifespan, sell your time, or sell your health." My mother had sold nearly her entire life's worth of time to extend her lifespan, but died before she could work off the time she sold. The debt thus passed to her nearest relative, her daughter. And if I could not pay it back on the spot, I would be forced to choose one of the three."

"And you picked time," I said.
"Indeed. I had to sell a bit more than thirty years of my time to pay back the debt. ...And so I now work as an observer. It's a lonely line of work with many dangers, but for what it's worth, it has given me deep insight into people's lifestyles and the value of life. Once I do finish paying the debt, I feel I would be able to live a more "proper" life than anyone. Thinking of it in those terms, it's not such a bad job."

She talked about it like it was her salvation.
But no matter how I looked at it, Miyagi's life was sheer tragedy.

"I don't get it," I said. "I think I'd just sell off a life like that. 'Cause there's no guarantee you'll survive to pay off the debt, is there? And your mother's dead. Even if you do make it to the end, the best times of your life will be over. I don't mean to be ironic or anything, but I'm gonna borrow your words - you've only just hit the starting line. Having to deal with all this pain and then starting your life at forty... I just call that a tragedy. So it'd be better to sell it."

"If my lifespan were worth anything, I would."
"What's it worth?"
"The same as yours," Miyagi said, like it was funny. "10,000 yen a year. ...If I've been overly harsh with you, I believe it's because I can't accept having such little value. In some ways, we are similar. So I apologize for taking it out on you."

"...Well, I don't wanna be rude, but wouldn't it be better to just die already?", I asked. "There's less and less to look forward to."
"Yes, you're right. You're absolutely right. And yet I suppose I can't do so because I take after my mother. I'm a hopeless fool. There's no point in living, yet I'm compelled to live longer. Perhaps we may be the same even down to the way we die. But... You see, it's not that simple. Perhaps something good will happen someday.”

"I know a guy who died at fifty saying that to himself but getting nothing out of it," I joked.
"So do I," Miyagi smirked.

Smiling with her, I lit a cigarette. Then Miyagi stood up, took another cigarette from my hand, and put it in her mouth.
She held a lighter up to light it, but it seemed to have just run out of oil, the flint never sparking on repeated attempts.
Miyagi pointed to my cigarette and brought her face close. I followed her signal and did the same. The ends touched, and the flame was slowly transferred to Miyagi's.

Seeing Miyagi relaxing for the first time, I thought:
I'll at least make her remember me as the easiest subject to be around.

I looked across the tracks. The sun was starting to rise.



[+]

9. Too Good to Be True

For the few days to follow, I was obedient. I didn't go out except to eat, and keeping myself to a small area, I just kept folding paper cranes with a ton of origami paper I bought from the stationery store.

Looking at all the cranes lined up on the table, Miyagi asked, "Are you making a thousand-crane chain?"
"Yep. As you can see."
Miyagi picked up a blue one from among the dozens, pinching it by both wings, and looked at it with interest. "You intend to do so all by yourself? For what?"
"To wish for a happy life before I die," I answered.

I enjoyed the pointless work. I filled the apartment with colorful paper cranes. Pink cranes, red cranes, orange cranes, yellow cranes, yellow-green cranes, green cranes, light blue cranes, sky blue cranes, violet cranes.
The cranes flooded off the table, and would be blown all over the floor by the slowly-turning fan, coloring the dull room.
I felt a slight sense of satisfaction looking at them. Is there a more pure wish than to do something pointless yet beautiful?

While folding cranes, I had the urge to talk to Miyagi many times, but I tried to start as few conversations with her as possible. I felt that I didn't want to rely on her. That didn't seem like the right way to give her relief.
But meanwhile, Miyagi's attitude toward me softened. When we met eyes, she actually looked at me. Rather than looking at me like an object, I'd say she was much more warm than before.
Maybe she'd opened her heart to me in our conversation at the station. Or maybe observers are simply instructed to be nicer as their subjects' lifespans dwindle.
In any event, she was with me for the purposes of her job. If I were to forget that, it would surely come back to bite me.

After five days, the task was finally done. While I went through recounting them, I found many cranes that were too good to believe I made them.
These ones must have been folded by a certain nosy individual while I slept.
I ran a string through the thousand cranes, and hung my completed creation from the ceiling.


Now, let's talk about the letter.

The night I finished folding the cranes, I checked the pockets of my jeans before washing them and found a crumpled letter.
It was the letter to myself ten years in the future. I'd left it in my pocket since the day I dug up the time capsule.
I turned the jeans inside-out and put them in the washing machine, then re-read the letter which I'd only skimmed before.
This is what it said.

To me ten years from now:

You're the only one I can count on to do this.
If I'm still on the shelf in ten years, I want you to meet Himeno.
Because Himeno's hopeless without me,
and I'm hopeless without Himeno.


I dared to show the letter to Miyagi.
"You were surprisingly honest and kind ten years ago," she remarked after reading, impressed. "So then, what do you intend to do?"

"Go meet Himeno," I replied. "I'm starting to realize how foolish and pointless that is. I can definitely acknowledge how stupid it is to still be attached to a childhood friend I haven't seen in a decade. But this is a request from myself. I made it ten years ago to me right now, and I want to respect it. Sure, it might bring me more pain. I might be even more disappointed. But until I see it with my own eyes, I can't give up.

"...I want to talk with her just one more time. And as thanks for giving me my life, I want to give her the 300,000 yen from selling it. Even if I've already spent some of it. You might be opposed, but I don't care. It's my lifespan, and my money.”
"I won't stop you," Miyagi said. "I can't say I don't understand the feeling myself."

I hadn't expected Miyagi to agree so easily, so I stumbled briefly. I also didn't think on the significance of her words.
But later I would think back on them, and realize their true meaning.
Miyagi didn't just "understand" the feeling. She knew it. Long before I did.

"I'm thinking of going to Himeno's house, tomorrow, even. You know if she's at her parents'?"
"Indeed. It seems she's been depending on them ever since her husband left."
After saying that, Miyagi turned her eyes up as observing my face. She was hesitant to talk about Himeno in front of me. Worrying I'd get irrationally irritated.
I uncharacteristically told her "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Miyagi said with relief.


To explain how I knew where Himeno lived after changing schools, first I'd have to talk about the single letter I received from Himeno in the summer, when I was 17.
I felt an indescribable feeling of wrongness after reading it. This doesn't seem like something she'd write, I thought.

It was filled with frivolous things. About how she was too busy with studies to even have time to read, about how she'd had to find numerous gaps between homework to even write this letter, about the college she hoped to go to, about how she might come visit on winter break.
It really seemed like the kind of things a 10-year-old girl would write, but in the handwriting of a 17-year-old girl.
And that was what was so strange. If this were your ordinary 17-year-old girl, then no problem. But this was Himeno. The girl who was, unlike me, supposed to remain far away from "average."

Yet I couldn't find a hint of sarcasm or an insulting word. What did it mean? Where did the distorted Himeno I knew go? Would a person change that much after turning 17?
Or was it simply that, despite how she talked, she always wrote like she was an ordinary girl?

Unable to find a satisfactory answer to my doubts, two weeks later, I sent a reply rather similar in content to the letter I'd received.
About how I had been too busy studying for exams to write a reply myself, about the college I was hoping to go to, and about how I would be glad if Himeno did visit.
I patiently waited for a reply, but after a week, after a month, there were no further letters from Himeno.
Himeno didn't come visit over winter break, either.

Had I made some kind of mistake? At the time, I'd simply written my honest feelings about wanting to meet Himeno.
Maybe I didn't write it very well, was my thought then. But... by then, Himeno was already carrying the child of someone I didn't even know. The child of someone she married at 18, then divorced a year later.

Looking back on it like this, I can't say it was a good memory. But the letter she sent did tell me where she was. I was glad for that now.


Though I'd intended to never go to school again, I needed to borrow a computer at the university library to know Himeno's exact location.
As I put the key in my moped and put my foot on the kick pedal, I remembered something Miyagi said.

"Oh yeah, I can't go more than 100 meters from you, huh."
"Indeed," Miyagi confirmed. "Apologies, but I can't let you go too far on your own. ...Though this bike does seat two, does it not?"
"I guess it can," I said. The second-hand Cub 110 I bought for commuting to school had a tandem seat instead of a rear carrier. I didn't have a spare helmet, but nobody could see Miyagi, so it wasn't like anyone would stop us.
"Then it will be possible to use this. As long as you aren't vehemently opposed to me riding."
"No way. Don't worry about it."
I started the engine and pointed behind me. Miyagi said "Pardon me" and sat in the tandem seat, wrapping her arms around my stomach.

I took the usual roads at a slower speed than usual. It was a pleasant, nostalgic morning.
While going down a long straight road, I noticed a tall tower of clouds in the sky.
I felt like I could see the outlines of things more clearly, but they also looked more hollow.

The campus, which I hadn't visited in many days now, felt unusually cold and distant. The students walking around seemed like happy creatures living in a totally different world.
Even the rare unhappy person I passed by seemed to be relishing their unhappiness.
After printing out a map and putting it in my bag, I left the library. The shops weren't open yet, so I bought anpan and drip coffee from the vending machines, and had breakfast in the lounge. Miyagi bought donuts and chewed on those.

"Hey, this isn't really a meaningful question, but if you were in my situation, how would you spend your last few months?", I asked Miyagi.
"Hmm... I don't think I'd know until I was in that position," she replied, then looked around her. "Um, I know I told you before, but you shouldn't talk to me in places like this. They'll think you're a strange guy who talks to himself."
"Let 'em. I am a strange guy."

Indeed, the people in the lounge were looking at me warily as I talked to empty space.
But I didn't mind. In fact, I wanted to be actively weird. Better to remembered as a weirdo than not remembered at all, I suppose I thought.

When I stood up after finishing breakfast, Miyagi came up beside me.
"Um, I've been thinking. About the answer to that question you asked. It... may be too serious a response, but if I were in the situation of having a few months left to live, there are three things I would absolutely want to do."
"Ooh, I'd love to hear them."
"Though I doubt they will be of use to you," Miyagi clarified. "...First, to go to a certain lake. Second, to make a grave for myself. And third, to go see the person who was important to me, as you're doing."

"I don't know if I get it. How about a little more info?"
"The lake is... just a lake. However, I do remember looking at an incredible starry sky there. It may be one of the most beautiful sights I've seen among my shabby life experiences. There are no doubt more beautiful sights in the world, but as far as those I "know," that starry lake is the most."

"I see. ...And the grave, you wanna make sure you buy a piece of land?"
"No. Strictly speaking, it would be fine if I just randomly found a large rock and decided "This is my grave." What's important is that whatever I decide to be my grave remains for at least a couple decades. ...And about the "person who was important to me"..." Miyagi looked down. "Well, I'd rather not tell you, Mr. Kusunoki."
"Huh. Suppose it's a guy?"
"Well, you would suppose right."
She evidently didn't want to go any deeper.

I thought. A person who was important to Miyagi. Well, she became an observer at ten. And by someone who "was once" important to her, she was probably talking about someone from before that.
"I think, as much as it might hurt me, as much as I might be disappointed, I would still ultimately go to meet them. Which of course means I have no right to deny what you're doing, Mr. Kusunoki."
"That doesn't seem like you. A lot more timid when it's you, huh?", I laughed.
"Well, I don't know anything about my own future," Miyagi said.


I found Himeno's house so easily, I did a double-take.
At first, I simply couldn't believe it was her house. I initially suspected it was for some other family with the same last name, but there were no other "Himeno" houses in the area. That was no doubt where Himeno lived.

Before she changed schools, Himeno lived in a fabulous Japanese-style house which to my childlike mind seemed perfectly fitting for a girl with "princess" in her name.
But the place I found with the map was a seedy-looking dwelling with so little personality, you'd forget it if you looked away for five seconds.

I didn't hesitate as I pushed the doorbell because I still had the faint impression that she wasn't there. I rang the doorbell three times three minutes apart, but no one came to the door.
I thought that if I waited until night, someone might come home, so I decided to waste some time in the area. I looked at the map I printed out at school to look for places to spend time until night fell.
"Public library" caught my eye. Ever since I visited the school library this morning, a faint desire to read had been bubbling up in me.

It looked like a neat little library on the outside, but one step inside told me it was a horribly old place.
It had a strong smell, and was dirty like an abandoned school building. But the books were arranged all right.

I'd been thinking about what sorts of books I'd like to read before I died. Or put otherwise, "what kind of book could possibly be useful right before death?"
I figured I would only read those books. I didn't want to read one that had essentially lost its value at this point and regretfully think, "What was so enjoyable about reading this?"

Maybe it would have been different a month later. But then, my choices were Paul Auster, Kenji Miyazawa, O. Henry, and Hemingway. Not particularly interesting picks.
All the books I took were short ones, probably not because I necessarily liked those better, but because I just didn't want to read any long stories. I was unsure if I had the energy to tackle a story longer than a certain length.

While I sat reading O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, Miyagi moved from sitting in front of me and watching to beside me, and looked at the page I was on.
"Wanting to try observing and reading at the same time?", I asked in a whisper.
"Something like that," Miyagi said, coming closer.
She sure does have a calming smell to her, I thought.

I read until the library closed at 6 PM. Sometimes I'd go outside to rest my eyes and smoke in the smoking area.
It was my first experience reading a book with someone else. It seemed like more enriching reading that way, since I wasn't just thinking about how I felt, but how Miyagi felt reading the same part.

We headed back for Himeno's house, but still no one came when I rang the doorbell. Fully aware of what the neighbors must have thought, I waited in front of Himeno's house for someone to come for about an hour.
The sun set, and the safety lights on the power poles came on. Cigarette butts piled up by my feet. Miyagi looked at them disapprovingly, so I took a portable ashtray out of my bag and collected them.

It seemed best to call it a day and try again some other time.
I couldn't deny that I was partly relieved that Himeno didn't show up.

We apparently took a wrong turn on the way back, and ended up in a shopping district lined with paper lanterns. It took a while for me to realize it was right near my parents' house, since I'd never come down this way before.
There seemed to be a summer festival going on at the shrine up ahead. I was just starting to feel hungry, so I stopped the Cub in a parking lot and went walking through the sauce-scented stands, looking for something good to eat.

I hadn't seen such a festival in ten years. I'd stopped going to the local one since Himeno left.
It was a small festival, with only ten to fifteen stands. But it had its own kind of liveliness. The fewer amusements in an area, the more excited people get.

Everything went to plan up to me buying sukiyaki and a frankfurter, but after that, stricken by some madness, I decided to buy something from every stand.
I bought octopus dumplings, shaved ice, broiled sweet corn, usuyaki, deep-fried chicken, a candy apple, a chocolate banana, grilled chicken, grilled squid, and tropical juice, and took them all to the stone steps.

"What are you doing buying all that?", Miyagi asked, shocked.
"Fulfilling a boyish dream. There's no way I can eat this all myself, so you'll have to help."
I started working through them. Miyagi hesitantly reached into my bag and began eating the usuyaki.

By the time we'd partaken in all twelve items, Miyagi and I were deeply fed up with the smell of food. We both had pretty small stomachs, after all; it was like trying to fit a volleyball in there.
Overly full, we didn't feel like standing up for a while. Miyagi licked the candy apple with a standoffish look.

From where we sat, we could look down at the festival grounds. The narrow road leading up to the shrine was packed with carts, and two rows of paper lanterns ran straight like runway lights, illuminating their dim surroundings red.
Everyone passing through looked cheery... in short, it was no different from that day ten years ago.

That day, too, I - Himeno and I - had sat on the steps like this, looking at the people walking down below. We conceded we had no right to mingle among them.
We were waiting for "something" that would acknowledge our existence and understand us fully.

And then Himeno made her premonition. "Something really good" would happen, and one day we'd be "glad we lived," in the summer ten years later.
Furthermore, she said that if we both hadn't found someone to marry in ten years, being that we were both "on the shelf," we should be together.

Well, I was in that summer now. And the girl who made that promise wasn't on the shelf, but was second-hand goods - and my life was going to end with me being not only unsold, but unfit to sell.
But ultimately, we were both without owners. We were once again left alone.

I wonder where Himeno is now, and what she's doing?
Once more I prayed at that shrine surrounded by the buzzing of cicadas.

I noticed quite a lot of time had passed. I heard Miyagi's pencil against her notebook. The festival was drawing to a close, the shadows of people growing sparse.
I raised my head, gathered up the trash, and gently stood up.

There was a figure coming up the steps.

It was too dark to see their face, but the instant I saw her outline, time stopped for me.
Some things are too good to be true. So people say.
And yet, though people may not notice it, things do come together, in this sort of perverse, prankstery way.

I felt the cells of my body trembling with joy.
With each step she took, everything from the day we first met at 4 years old, to the summer day she went away and moved schools, ran through my mind.
Though she looked different from ten years ago - well, no matter how much she changed, it wouldn't mean I wouldn't be able to recognize her.

By the time we were close enough to see each other's faces, I called to her in a hoarse voice.
"Himeno."

The girl stopped and looked at me with hollow eyes.
Her expression gradually became one taken completely aback.

"...Kusunoki?"
Himeno said my name in the same transparent-esque voice that only she had.



Part 3
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