by Sugaru Miaki
by Sugaru Miaki
Oh! We have our pockets full,
We poets, of love-letters, writ to Chloes,
Daphnes - creations of our noddle-heads.
Our lady-loves - phantasms of our brains -
Dream-fancies blown into soap-bubbles! Come!
Take it, and change feigned love-words into true.
- Edmond Rostand, "Cyrano de Bergerac"
Chapter 1: Green Green
I have a childhood friend who I've never met. I've never seen her face. I've never heard her speak. I've never even touched her. Despite that, I know the darling features of her face. I know the softness of her voice. I know the warmth in her palms.
She doesn't exist. To be more precise, she exists only in my memory. It might sound like I'm talking about the deceased, but that's not it. She never existed from the beginning.
She was a girl created just for me, and her name was Touka Natsunagi.
A Substite. A so-called denizen of Mimories. To put it bluntly, a fictional person.
My parents loved fiction more than anything. Or maybe they hated reality more than anything. Rather than take a vacation, they'd buy Mimories of having taken a vacation. Instead of putting on a party, they'd buy Mimories of having a party. They wouldn't plan a wedding, but they'd buy Mimories of a wedding. Those were the sorts of people who raised me.
Ours really was an irregular family.
My dad would often call my mom the wrong name. Even just from what I personally heard, he had at least five different ways of getting it wrong. Though a married man, he'd bought multiple Honeymoons. Ranging from old enough to be his mother to old enough to be his daughter, he apparently had Substite ex-wives with ages spaced about 10 years apart.
My mom never called my dad the wrong name. Instead, it was me she always misnamed. Even though I was an only child, mom seemed to have four children. Me, and three Substite children birthed by Angel. Their names also followed a pattern that mine did not.
Now, if I was always getting my dad's name wrong, then we'd have a perfect loop. But sadly, I never got any Mimories when I was young. My parents never laid a finger on my memory. It's not like they lacked the cash to buy Mimories for their child. As faulty a family as we were, money was one thing we did have. It was just how they chose to raise me.
It was widely known that implanting children with Mimories of unconditional love and success in their formative years had favorable effects on emotional development. In some cases, these could be far more effective than real unconditional love and success. Because false memories crafted to suit the individual worked much more directly than real experiences full of distractions.
I doubt my parents didn't know about those findings. And yet, they chose not to buy me any Mimories.
"Mimories are like an artificial limb or an artificial eye - they're only meant to fill what's not there," my dad often told me. "Once you're older and you know what you're missing, then you can buy all the Mimories you like."
It seemed they bought into the platitudes the manufacturers and clinics gave about changing memory - comforting excuses told to relieve any guilt over fabricating your past with Mimories. I had trouble imagining what kind of "missing thing" necessitated having five ex-wives.
Those two who dwelled in a fictional past avoided real contact with their family. They kept communication to a minimum, got meals separately, left the house early every morning and came back late, and went out on days off without telling the other where they were going. They seemed convinced that their self that existed here wasn't the real self. Or maybe they had to think that way to keep going. And needless to say, while they were doing this, they were completely neglecting me.
If they weren't going to be diligent parents, they should've just let their kid indulge in Mimories like they did. That was what I always thought when I was young.
Growing up not knowing real love nor fictional love, I was raised into a person who had no clue how to love people or receive love. Unable to properly imagine being accepted by another person, I'd forgo communication in the first place. Even if I was lucky enough for someone to take an interest in me, there came a baseless fear that they'd soon be disappointed in me, so I pushed them away before that happened. As a result, I had a terribly lonely youth.
When I turned fifteen, my parents divorced. They explained to me that they'd decided on it long ago, but all I could think was, so what? Did they think giving a lot of thought to the decision softened it? Surely a planned murder is more criminal than a spontaneous one.
After some back and forth, my dad ended up with custody of me. Just once after that, I happened to meet my mom while on a trip, but she passed by me without a glance, as if I didn't even enter her field of view. To my knowledge, my mom's not a good enough actor to fake that. I took it to mean she used Lethe to erase all memories of her family.
Now, I was a total stranger to her.
I went right past shock to feeling a bit of admiration. I could honestly be envious of such commitment to a way of life. I could follow that example, I thought.
It happened about half a year after turning 19.
That moment when I turned out the light in my room, drank cheap beer, and looked back on my life thus far, I realized that in those nineteen years, I didn't have a single memory worth calling a memory.
They were such gray days. Kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, college... No hue, no lighting, no intensity. Just monotone gray stretching out into the horizon. Even the rawness of "a childhood that never went my way" was nowhere to be found.
I then innately understood. "I get it now. Of course people as empty as this would cling to false memories."
Even then, I didn't feel the urge to buy Mimories. Maybe it was rebellion against the lie-living family who raised me, but I'd come to hate Mimories, and fiction of all kinds. Even the most insipid life felt so much better than a life full of false ostentation. Even the greatest of stories seemed to me worthless, simply because it was fabricated.
I didn't need Mimories, but the idea of tampering with memory wasn't bad in itself. From that day forth, I did nothing but work part-time jobs. My dad was sending me a decent allowance, but I wanted to settle this on my own as much as possible.
My goal was to buy some Lethe.
It was such an empty life, I thought, I might as well forget it all.
When there's nothing in a place where there should be something, it makes you feel empty. But if you got rid of that "place" entirely, the emptiness would vanish with it.
"Emptiness" can't exist without a container to be empty.
I wanted to approach absolute zero.
I saved up money for four months. Then I withdrew all the part-time pay from my bank account, walked to the clinic, spent half a day in counseling to create a personal record, and returned home exhausted. And I celebrated with drinks, all by myself. For the first time in my life, I felt like I'd accomplished something.
During counseling, I was put into a hypnotic state with depressants, so I don't remember what I said. But once I'd left the clinic and was by myself, a regret bubbled to the surface: "I talked too much." Most likely, I'd been frank about some embarrassing desires or something. It was vague, but that's the feeling I got. Even if my brain didn't remember, it was remembered somewhere in my body.
The fact that counseling, usually conducted over several days, was over in just half a day, was undeniable proof of how empty my past was.
One month later, I received a package containing Lethe. I'd seen my parents take doses of memory-altering nanobots countless times, so I didn't even need to read the attached instructions. I poured the powder-like nanobots out of the paper package into water, then drank it in one gulp. Then I got down on the floor, and waited for my gray days to turn a blank white.
Now I can forget everything, I thought.
Of course, in reality, it's not like it removes all memories. It's designed to preserve the memories you need to carry on with your day-to-day life, and Lethe only affects episodic memories in the first place. Declarative memory and semantic memory aren't impacted. Nondeclarative memory remains as untouched as possible. This is common to all memory-altering nanobots, so the same restrictions apply to the implanting of memories. That's why the development of Mnemosyne, which provides instant omniscience and omnipotence, is having difficulties. It's not possible to forget knowledge or skills with Lethe. All you can lose is recollections.
I chose to erase all my memories from age 6 to age 15. You generally order memory erasure by specifying "memories related to..."; people like me who want whole periods of time erased are apparently uncommon. I guess that does make sense. They just want to cut out the suffering from their lives, not to eradicate them as a whole.
I looked at the clock sitting on the table. I waited and waited, but no symptoms of memory loss came. Normally, the nanobots would reach the brain after 5 minutes and complete the memory erasure in 30. But an hour later, I observed no changes to the memories of my youth. I could remember almost drowning during swimming lessons when I was six, I could remember being in the hospital with pneumonia for a month when I was eleven, I could remember having that accident when I was fourteen and getting three stitches in my knee. I could even remember all the names of my mom's fictional daughters and my dad's fictional ex-wives. I was getting more and more uneasy. Don't tell me I was given a fake product? Or maybe this is just how memory erasure works. When you completely forget a memory, maybe you can't even realize that memory disappeared.
Just as I was attempting to assuage my fears with that convenient reasoning, I noticed a foreign presence in my past.
I hurriedly raised myself, took the package out of the trash, and read the attached paper.
I prayed that it wasn't so. But it was.
There had been some kind of mistake. I hadn't been sent Lethe. These were different nanobots - mainly used by those who had an unfulfilling youth - that were programmed to provide a fictional childhood.
That was what I'd swallowed.
The gray horizon had turned not to white, but to green.
I could understand why the clinic would have mixed up the two. Maybe my counselor heard "I don't have any good memories of youth, so I want to forget everything," only got the first part, and jumped to a hasty conclusion.
Certainly, it's what you'd normally do. It's the natural conclusion: if you don't have good memories, get some. It was partially my fault for not emphasizing. Most importantly, it was my crucial mistake to not look carefully at the documents I was signing.
Because of this mistake, I'd unintentionally become one of those people I so despised.
I couldn't help but feel it was somehow fateful.
I told the clinic I'd received something other than what I'd ordered, and immediately got an apology call. About two weeks later, I was sent two packages of Lethe. One was for erasing the memories of my youth, and the other was for erasing my false experiences with the fictional person Touka Natsunagi.
But I didn't feel like taking either of them, so I stuck them in a closet without even unsealing them. I hesitated to even just leave them within sight.
I was afraid.
I didn't want to have that feeling again.
To tell the truth, when I realized I'd ingested Green Green instead of Lethe, I was secretly relieved.
I think I finally understood, then, why there are so few repeat users of Lethe compared to other nanobots.
And thus, I had been implanted with memories of a fictional childhood. But they were a tad biased. Normally, the Mimories provided by Green Green are supposed to be spread even, from memories of fun times with friends to overcoming difficulties with them. But for some reason, my Mimories were focused on episodes with a single childhood friend.
Mimories are created based on a document - the "personal record" - systematically generated by having a program analyze the data obtained in counseling. In other words, the Mimory engineer who created these Mimories looked over my personal record and decided "this is the kind of past this guy needs."
I had a gut feeling about why there was only the one childhood friend. The engineer must have thought, since I had a lonely youth where I received no affection from my family, and lacked any friends or girlfriends, giving me someone who could feel like family, a friend, and a girlfriend would just be efficient. Combining those duties into one person would save time versus making multiple people, and with that spare energy, you could dig deeper with the single character.
In truth, Touka Natsunagi was the ideal person for me. She matched my tastes in every way; I might call her the ultimate girl. Every time I thought about her, I couldn't help but think "Ahh, if I really had a childhood friend like this, how wonderful those days would have been."
And that's exactly why I wasn't pleased with these Mimories.
What's more hollow than the fact that the most beautiful memories in my mind were someone else's fabrication?
"You should probably wake up soon," she said.
"I'm still fine," I replied with eyes closed.
"I'll prank you if you don't wake up," she whispered in my ear.
"Go ahead," I muttered, and turned over in bed.
"Wonder what I should do?" She snickered.
"Whatever it is, I'll get even later," I laughed.
"Sir," she said modestly.
"You should just sleep here too, Touka," I invited.
I woke up.
"Are you all right?"
I looked toward the voice, and saw a female employee in a yukata-like uniform leaning down to look at my face. I sat up and looked around as my eyes came into focus, and after a pause, remembered I was in a pub. I must have fallen asleep while drinking.
"Are you all right?", she asked me again. She seemed a little embarrassed to have listened in on my dream. "Could you get me some water?", I requested calmly. She smiled and nodded, then went to get a pitcher.
I looked at my watch. I believe it was 3 PM when I started drinking, and now it was already 6.
I gulped down the water the waitress brought, paid the bill, and left. As soon as I exited, a sticky heat surrounded my body. When I thought of my unair-conditioned room, I started to get depressed. It was probably like a sauna by now.
The shopping district was packed with people. Girls in real yukata, not an imitation like the waitress wore, passed in front of me cheerfully. White smoke carrying smells of burnt sauce and grilled meat wafted in and tickled my nose. People talking, carts calling in customers, the sound of crosswalk signals, the low engine hum of a dynamo, and distant sounds of flutes and booming taiko drums - all of them mixed together and covered the town.
August 1st. Today was the summer festival.
I considered it an event that had no relevance to me at all.
Going against the crowd that was headed towards the festival, I started walking to my apartment. As the sun got lower, the crowd densified; if I wasn't careful, I could get swept away. The sweaty faces of passersby were lit by the westering sun, glowing a light orange.
I made a mistake in going to the shrine, thinking I could get around that way. The area was jam-packed with people there for the carts stationed along the path, as well as people taking a break. As I bumped up against the crowd, the cigarettes in my chest pocket were crushed, I got sauce stains on my shirt, and my toes were stomped on by geta sandals. It no longer seemed possible to willfully decide my own direction, so I gave myself up to the flow, waiting until I naturally arrived outside.
At last, I made it out of the shrine area, and as I started down the stairs to the exit...
Suddenly, I heard a voice.
"Hey, you want to kiss?"
I know this. This is the work of Green Green. It's no more than a hallucination caused by association with the summer festival. Maybe there were still traces of the dream I was having in the pub.
I tried to think about something else to distract myself. But once an association starts, it picks up the more you try to stop it; the Mimories rising from the back of your mind become more vivid as you try to avoid remembering them. Before I knew it, my consciousness had traveled back to my fictional youth.
"Apparently people think we're dating."
Touka and I were visiting the local shrine. After going around and visiting all the carts, we sat together on the corner of the back steps, casually gazing at the crowds below.
I was in my usual attire, but Touka was wearing a yukata. A fireworks-patterned deep blue yukata, and red chrysanthemums in her hair. Both were a more subdued color than what she'd worn last year, which might be why she felt a little more mature.
"Even though we're just childhood friends, you know?"
With that, Touka took a swig of a soft drink with an unhealthy-looking color, then lightly coughed. Then she glanced at me to see my reaction.
"If someone sees us together like this, it might add to the misunderstandings," I replied with careful wording.
"Good point." Touka giggled. Then as if suddenly remembering something, she put her hand on mine. "If they saw something like this, it might make things even worse."
"Cut it out."
That's why my mouth said, but my hand didn't push away Touka's. Instead, I casually looked over our surroundings. I was torn between the worry of someone I knew seeing and teasing us, and the hope that someone would come and do exactly that.
Well, maybe the latter was winning a little.
I was fifteen, and it was around then that I started to see Touka in a romantic light. In my second year of middle school, we went into different classes, sharply decreasing the amount of time we spent together - and this was what set it off. It was in that year I had the painful realization that my childhood friend, who until then I considered to be like family, was in fact a regular girl like any of the other girls in class.
And at the same time, I became conscious of my romantic attraction to her. Once I could take a step away from preconceptions to look at it, I saw that Touka Natsunagi was a very beautiful girl. From that point on, I'd find myself lost in her face which should have been very familiar to me, and I often felt restless just seeing her talking with other boys.
Maybe the reason I'd gone without any interest in girls until then is because my ideal partner was with me from the start.
Because of our long acquaintance, I quickly noticed that Touka was going through a similar mental change. From the summer of our second year of middle school, she started treating me in a more awkward way. Though she acted the same as ever on the surface, through careful observation, I could see she was just trying to imitate her past behavior. She must've been doing her best to preserve our casual relationship.
When third year came and we were back to being in the same class, we started sticking together constantly, like a recoil from the year before. We didn't directly ask each other's feelings, but occasionally we'd nonchalantly send out a probe. With methods like saying "we got mistaken for a couple again" and watching the other's expression - as she just did - or half-jokingly holding hands and waiting for a reaction.
Through trial and error, we were deepening our conviction that we felt the same way.
And that day, Touka entered the final stage of confirmation.
"Hey, you want to kiss?"
She spoke to me as I sat beside her, with her gaze still fixed on the view below.
She said it like it just occurred to her suddenly, but I knew she had been sitting on those words for a long time.
After all, for a long time, I'd had something very similar prepared.
"Come on, let's test if we're really just friends or not," Touka explained with a flippant air. "Maybe we'll be surprised to find our hearts racing."
"Who knows," I replied just as casually. "I'd bet we won't feel anything, though."
"Well, let's try it."
Touka faced me and closed her eyes.
This is strictly just messing around. An experiment for curiosity's sake. And I mean, a kiss isn't that big a deal. After putting up all those defenses, we swiftly locked lips.
After our lips parted, we faced each other again as if it were nothing.
"How was it?", I asked. It came out weirdly dry, almost like it wasn't my own voice.
"Hmm..." Touka lowered her head slightly. "No big heart-pounding here. You?"
"Hey, I told you, right? Won't feel anything."
"Yeah. Sure enough, I guess we're just childhood friends."
It was a conversation of barefaced lies. I wanted to kiss Touka again right away, and I wanted to confirm all sorts of things beyond that, too. Her same feelings came through in the movement of her eyes and her shaky voice, and I knew the slight pause before her first reply was because she had to decide against saying "I wasn't really sure, so let's try it again."
Really, it was probably the plan to keep things up this way until a confession. And in fact, I had constructed a very similar plan. And yet in those few brief seconds our lips touched, my thoughts changed greatly. "You can't advance any further," the cells in my body warned.
If you go any further, everything will change.
In exchange for momentary stimulation and excitement, this comfortable thing between us would be gone for good.
And then there'd be no going back to a relationship like we have now.
Touka must have noticed that too. She hurriedly changed the plan, it seems, to play it all off as a joke.
I was grateful for her prudent decision. Because if she had gone and opened her heart to me, I'd never be able to refuse.
On the way home, Touka remembered something and spoke up.
"By the way, that was my first time."
I feigned ignorance. "First time what?"
"Kissing. Was it yours, Chihiro?"
"It's my third."
"Huh?" Touka's eyes widened, and she stopped. "When? Who?"
"You don't remember?"
"...Were the other two with me?"
"In the closet at my house when I was 7, in the study at your house when I was 10."
After a few seconds of silence: "Oh, you're right," Touka mumbled.
"Wow, good memory."
"You're just forgetful, Touka."
"I bet you'll forget about today in a few years too."
"Huh, so that was the third time..."
Touka fell silent for a moment, then flashed a grin.
"Well, then it's actually the fourth."
This time, I was the one surprised.
"Not telling," she said with a composed look. "But it was pretty recent."
"Don't remember it."
"Well, you were asleep, Chihiro."
"...I didn't notice."
"Ahaha. That was the idea."
Touka puffed out her chest and laughed.
Then it's really the fifth, I mumbled under my breath.
At least it's both of us being sneaky.
Countless sugary-sweet false memories like that existed in my brain. And every little detail popped up in the back of my mind so much more vividly than any real memory, violently shaking my heart.
Worryingly, unlike normal memories, you can't count on Mimories to be forgotten over time. They're like tattoos; they won't disappear naturally. According to a clinical study, patients with New Alzheimer's disease who have Mimories implanted, even after all their memories are lost, will still have their Mimories for a while longer. That's just how powerful the memory-altering nanobots are. The only way to forget Mimories from Green Green is to take Lethe designed specifically to erase them.
Face my fear and take the Lethe, or make a compromise with the Mimories. I wavered between my two options for a long time.
As long as I didn't erase those Mimories, I would forever be trapped by memories with a childhood friend who didn't exist.
I hung my head and sighed. I was fed up with my own indecisiveness.
I looked up to find the torii in front of me. It seemed I'd reached the entrance while lost in thought. I was relieved: now I could finally escape the festival. So long as I was here, I'd keep thinking about that past that didn't exist.
Then, I heard an explosive sound. I looked up on reflex, and saw a firework launched into the night sky. The next town over must have been doing a fireworks show. I looked down,
and thought I heard someone say "turn around right now."
I unconsciously slowed my pace.
I looked over my shoulder.
Among the crowd, I instantly spotted her.
And she, too, was looking back at me.
Yes, there was a girl there.
Black hair ran down to her shoulder blades.
She wore a deep blue, fireworks-patterned yukata.
With attention-grabbing pale skin.
And red chrysanthemums in her hair.
Our eyes met.
I knew it intuitively.
She had the same memories.
The noise of the festival grew distant.
Everything but her lost its color.
I need to go after her, I thought.
I need to talk to her, I thought.
I decided to head toward her.
She decided to head toward me.
But the crowd mercilessly dragged us away, and pulled us apart.
In the blink of an eye, I lost sight of her.