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Your Story
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.

Green Green.

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.
"Sir?"

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."

"You think?"
"Probably."
"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?"

"Me neither."
"Huh."
"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."
"Sorry."
"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.

"When?"
"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."
"Sneaky."
"Sneaky, right?"

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.

Time stopped.

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.



[+]

Chapter 2: Firefly's Light

If someone as empty as me were to have a friend, that friend would have to be someone just as empty; that's what I dimly figured in my youth. If I ever met someone who was the very picture of a "have-not" - no friends or lovers, no excellent qualities or proud experiences, not even a single heartwarming memory - I supposed that would be the first time I could call someone a friend.

Emori was my first - and currently last - friend, but contrary to my predictions, he was a "have." He had tons of friends, frequently changed romantic partners, was fluent in three languages, and was set for employment at a leading corporation at the time I met him. In essence, he was my opposite in every way.

I became close with Emori the summer when I was 16. At the time, we were enrolled at the same university, and lived in the same apartment complex. I was in 201 and he was in 203, two doors down, so I often saw him bringing a girl over. Who exactly it was changed almost by the month, and they were all extraordinarily pretty without exception. I occasionally spotted him on campus as well, always surrounded by many friends and laughing. When there was some school event, he was generally in the center of it. Him just standing up on stage earned him fierce cheering.

Ah, so lives like that exist, I would often remark. He lived in a world my imagination could never dream up.

How must it feel to take being liked for granted?

As for why a guy as popular as Emori felt like befriending an outcast like me, I still don't know. Maybe it was sort of a cultural exchange thing. Maybe he also found in me a world he couldn't imagine, and decided to observe me up close as a social studies exercise.

If not that, it's possible he had me set aside as someone he could talk to who wouldn't be able to spread secrets. He had many people's favor, but that meant there would be at least a few who considered him an enemy. Maybe I was an ideal partner for telling secrets that he didn't want those people to hear.

In any event, we became friends. That was the extent of it. And this was a result of Emori approaching me. He engaged with me feeling there was no chance he'd be refused, and with that kind of attitude, I also felt that it would be wrong for me to refuse him. Aha, I thought: in this way, people who grow up being loved become more loved.

I didn't have any conversation topics I could share with others at all, so he was always the one talking when we were together. I just lent an ear to him, sometimes providing an ill-informed comment if I felt like it. I figured he'd soon be disappointed by my lack of substance and naturally drift away, but as it turns out, we've kept that relationship to this day, even after he graduated college and went far away.


We were meeting for the first time in six months. Emori didn't call and ask my plans or anything so deliberate; he just suddenly showed up at my place. When I opened up the door, he went "Yo" and held up a bag he was carrying. There were two six-packs of beer inside. In every way, things were the same as they were then. In an instant, that six-month blank was filled.

I picked out some snacks at random to go with the drinks, kept my casual wear on, and left in sandals. Emori nodded silently and started walking, so I followed.

He didn't need to tell me a thing. Our destination was the local children's park.

It was a desolate park. It was covered in thick weeds, so from a distance it looked like a downright vacant lot. All the play equipment was rusted over, so it felt like just touching it would catch you some mysterious disease. It was our wont to get drunk in that place where childhood dreams died.

The moon was nice that night. The cramped park surrounded by trees had only a single lamp post in front of the swings, and even that wasn't getting power anymore. But thanks to the moonlight, you could just barely make out the shape of the play equipment.

We pushed aside the bushes to get inside. As if instructed, Emori sat down on a panda, and me on a koala. The benches in the corner were too buried in weeds to be usable, so we were using the animals on springs as chairs. They were horribly unstable and uncomfortable, but it was better than sitting on the ground.

After opening the tabs on our beers, we started drinking without giving a toast or anything. It had probably been some time since he bought it, because the beer was already getting warm. Still, it tasted good drinking it in the open air.

There's a bit of a story behind why we started drinking in the park. The year before I enrolled, someone at our school died of acute alcoholism. The deceased had been a minor, so local stores became way more strict about checking ID. So we established a practice of Emori buying beer, me providing snacks, and the two of us drinking in the park.

Since we lived in the same apartment building, we really could've just drank in either of our rooms, but Emori's belief was that "beer tastes better the further you are from home." This led to us searching for a place within walking distance where we could drink without worrying about onlookers, and that's how we found this park.

"How's it been lately? Anything interesting happen?", Emori asked, clearly not expecting much.

"No. As usual, I'm living like a lonesome old man lives," I replied. "How about you, Emori? Had anything interesting happen?"

He looked up to the night sky, and thought for about 40 seconds.

"A friend of mine got scammed."
"Scammed?"

He nodded. "One of those dating scams, you know. Using romantic feelings to sell off paintings, make you buy apartments, whatever. It's a totally commonplace and boring type of scam, but the testimony my friend gave was kinda interesting."

The victim was a man named Okano, and the scammer was a woman who called herself Ikeda.

Here's how it went. One day, Okano received a message on social media. The sender was a woman named Ikeda, and the message read: "I was your classmate in grade school. I wonder if you remember me?"

He searched his memories, but couldn't recall any girl named Ikeda. Thinking it might be some kind of fraud, he decided to ignore it, and a day later, he got another message. "I'm very sorry for sending a strange message out of the blue. I've been so lonely lately, it's driving me a little nuts. I just got all happy when I found out an old acquaintance lived in the same town, so I went and sent that. There's no need to reply."

That made Okano suddenly uneasy. Maybe he'd just forgotten, and he actually had known a girl named Ikeda. Maybe ignoring her message had hurt her. Maybe he'd pushed a girl grasping at straws out of unbearable loneliness even deeper into the pits.

All this worrying led him to reply to the woman calling herself Ikeda. From there, they started a relationship. Ikeda was a very nice girl, so Okano fell in love before he knew it.

Two months later, he was successfully sold an expensive painting, and the next day, the girl named Ikeda had vanished.

"I should note, this Okano guy isn't brainless," Emori added. "He goes to a pretty good school, and reads lots of books. His mind works fast, and he's more wary than most. And yet, he fell for the oldest trick in the book. Why, do you think?"

"He was too nice, maybe?"

Emori shook his head.

"Because he was lonely."

"Ah." After thinking about it a little, I nodded in agreement.

He went on. "What's really interesting is, even after Ikeda deleted her social media, Okano firmly believed that she really was his classmate in grade school. In his head, he's got actual memories. He's able to recall a past he spent in a classroom with little Ikeda. Regardless of whether such a classmate really existed."

"Do you mean... he might have gotten Mimories implanted without him knowing?"
"Nope. The cost would be too much, which doesn't really fit for a scam."
"Then why?"

"He probably rewrote his own memories subconsciously," Emori said with a laugh. "Memories can get twisted so easily just by how you feel. You don't need nanobots for it - people alter their memories on a daily basis. Amagai, do you know the Fells Acres case?"

I'd never heard of it.

"To put it simply, it's an model example of how unreliable criminal testimony can be. If you get asked over and over "Did this happen to you?", you start to feel like it really did happen to you. So when Ikeda told Okano over and over "you were my classmate," he started to believe it. Maybe he wanted what she said to be true, and that provided a push that altered his memories. Even though he should've been able to just check a yearbook and see there was no classmate named Ikeda, Okano didn't do that. In other words, he got tricked because he wanted to be tricked."

Emori pulled out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, then took a deep, satisfied breath. It was the same brand he'd smoked since we met, and its sweet smell started to make me feel the reality of our reunion, however late it was for that.

"Seems classic scams like that are on the rise these days. And lonely young guys are the easiest targets. You might get targeted soon too, Amagai."

"I think I'll be fine."
"What makes you so sure?"

"I never had a single friend when I was a kid. I don't have a single good memory. So even if I did get contacted by some old classmate, I'd have no reason to hope."

But Emori slowly shook his head.

"You're wrong, Amagai. They don't work their way into memories. They work their way into the absence of 'em."

*

In the end, what we brought to the park wasn't enough for us. So afterward, we headed toward the station and went to the pub. There, we talked about pointless junk, then split up at 9.

As I walked through the shopping district alone, another one of those episodes started.

The trigger this time was the song that marked closing time, Auld Lang Syne. Or rather, Japan's version of the same tune: Firefly's Light.


"Well, you're late."

After returning to the classroom after club time, Touka spoke to me with a sullen look.

"The meeting went long," I explained. "The third-years this year seem really into it."
"Hmph."
"You could've just left without me."

She looked at me with dissatisfaction.

"Wrong, Chihiro. You should say "sorry for making you wait" here."
"...Sorry for making you wait. And thank you for waiting."

"Good." Touka smiled and grabbed her bag. "Well, let's go home."

We were the last ones left in the classroom. We checked the window locks, switched off the lights, and exited to the hallway. The sharp smell of spray-on deodorant used by the exercise club hit my nose. Touka covered her mouth and lightly coughed. She had a weak throat, so even small stimuli like second-hand smoking or cold air conditioning could make her cough.

While changing shoes in the entry hall, the song Firefly's Light played to mark the end of the school day, and Touka sung along with her own lyrics.

The brightly shining firefly
Disappears into the dark
So fleeting and so meaningless,
Just like my yearning heart


They were terribly tragic lyrics.

"Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard the proper lyrics to that."
"Me neither. I only know there's a part about a firefly's light."
"Which is why I question your decision to make it about heartbreak."

"But you learned it with these lyrics, right, Chihiro?"
"Yeah. Even if I learn the real lyrics someday, whenever the song plays, I'll probably remember your lyrics first, Touka."
"And you'll also remember my face with it, right?"
"Yeah, probably."

I'll probably remember our conversation today too, I thought to myself. As a heartwarming memory.

"I think stuff like this is a kind of curse."
"...What do you mean?"

"Yasunari Kawabata put it like this. "When you say goodbye to a man, teach him the name of a flower. Flowers bloom every year without fail.""

Touka spoke proudly, with a raised index finger.

"For the rest of your life, when you hear Firefly's Light, you'll remember the lyrics I made, and me."

"That certainly is a curse," I laughed.

"Well, not that I'll be saying goodbye to you, Chihiro," she laughed back.


I shook my head to cut the memory short.

In the past few days, I was remembering Touka Natsunagi more and more.

The cause was clear. It was that incident at the shrine.

What in the world had that been?

Her yukata, her flowers, her hair, her stance, her face, everything was the same.

The only difference was her age. My Mimories only defined Touka Natsunagi's appearance up to age 15, but the one I'd passed by that day looked a fair bit more mature.

It was like the childhood friend of those Mimories had actually grown up just the same as I had, then appeared before my eyes.

Let's think about this. A basic principle of Mimories is that it's forbidden to model the characters in them after real people. That's to avoid any problems that might result from the mixing of reality and Mimories. So right out of the gate, I could reject the theory that Touka Natsunagi was based on the woman I saw. And nonsense like her being Touka Natsunagi herself wasn't even worth considering.

Dismissing it as an accidental resemblance wasn't impossible, I suppose. A lot of people had come from outside the prefecture that day to visit the festival. It's not a zero percent chance there had been a woman mixed in there who looked just like Touka Natsunagi. Even the yukata and the flowers, if you think about it, weren't uncommon designs.

But then how would I explain her reaction? When we made eye contact, she seemed just as shaken as me, if not moreso. Her look said "this can't possibly be right, it must be some mistake." And she was trying to push through the crowd toward me. Could I dismiss that as a case of mistaken identity? I happened to know someone who looked a lot like her, and she happened to know someone who looked a lot like me. Do coincidences that extreme even happen?

There's a simpler explanation. The woman I passed by was a summer illusion, born of alcohol, loneliness, and the hot festival air. Besides the part where I had to doubt my own sanity, this was a perfect theory.

No, maybe I don't need to think so hard about it in the first place. Whether mistaken identity or a hallucination, there was ultimately only one measure I should take.

To erase the Mimories.

If I did that, I'd no longer mistake someone for her or have hallucinations of her.

And my mind would stop being frequently tormented by recalling memories that didn't even exist.

I arrived at my room. I took out one of the two Lethe packages I'd put away in the closet. Not the one for erasing my childhood memories, but the one for erasing memories of Touka Natsunagi. I filled a glass with water, and put it on a table next to the Lethe.

I was ready. All I had to do now was tear open the package, pour the contents into the water, and drink.

I reached out my hand.

My fingers trembled.

It's not like it's accompanied by pain. It's not as if it's intensely bitter. You don't lose consciousness or anything. What did I need to be afraid of? It was just erasing those mistakenly-inserted memories, bringing me back to normal. Lethe is perfectly well-tested and safe.

Most importantly, even if something went wrong, it's not like you have any memories to worry about losing.

I grabbed the package.

A cold sweat ran down from my armpits.

Maybe it's a mistake to try and overcome a physiological fear with rationality. I should change my thinking. I just have to empty my head for about ten seconds. In that time, everything will end. I don't need to make myself accept it 100%. Jump in irresponsibly without thinking, and leave the cleanup to future you. Become empty. That's what you're best at, right?

But the more I tried to empty my head, thoughts instead filled those gaps. Like trying to clean a lens with a fingerprint on it and making it more smudged, the situation only got worse.

For a long while, I continued to wonder to myself.

Suddenly, I had a thought. This is the wrong place.

This room is still thick with the raw fear I felt that day. The floor, the wallpaper, the ceiling, the bed, the curtains, everything was stained with my fear. Like an old building caked in nicotine.

There's a proper place for everything. I needed to prepare a suitable setting for drinking Lethe. What would be ideal for that?

The answer came quickly.

*

The next day, after my part-time job, I took the bus across from my apartment. In my pocket was the Lethe for erasing my memories of Touka Natsunagi. While the air conditioning blasted a little too coldly, I took the package out and pointlessly inspected it from various angles.

Before long, the bus reached its destination, so I put the Lethe in my pocket and got off. Past the bus stop was the shrine.

I went through the torii, entering into the shrine grounds. In stark contrast to the night of the festival, I didn't see a single person. Evening cicadas mistook the cloudy sky for dusk and were buzzing all over.

I bought mineral water from a vending machine and sat down on the stone steps. After touching my pocket to check for the Lethe, I started by lighting a cigarette to calm myself.

Right as I finished and stomped the cigarette out with my shoe, I heard an ambulance in the distance. By the time I realized that would be bad, it was already too late. Triggered by the sound of the siren, I was sucked into the whirlpool of memory.


I hadn't seen Touka in pajamas for a long time. We used to regularly visit each other's houses and stay the night, so I saw her in pajamas and with messy hair enough to get tired of it. But starting around age 11, we came to refrain from excess interference, so holes began to open up in our knowledge of each other.

That day I saw her in pajamas for the first time in a year, she looked extremely frail. I'm sure the thin white fabric of the plain pajamas didn't help, but her neck and her skinny arms looked like they could be easily broken if you were even a little rough.

I looked at my own limbs to confirm the disparity. Until recently, we'd been about the same height, but at some point I'd grown about 10 centimeters taller than her. As such, whenever we held hands or leaned on each other, we were made aware of the height difference, like it or not. Her thin legs and slim back made me keenly aware that our bodies were headed in very different directions.

That realization made me, at least, uncomfortable. Even if the contents don't change, if you change the shape of a container, that also changes what it means. We're having the same sort of exchange as usual, but I feel some things too much, and other things too little. If we change our behavior to match those sensations, that results in its own kind of awkwardness.

Seeing Touka in her pajamas that day also made me somehow restless. For a while after I entered the hospital room to pay her a visit, I couldn't quite look her in the eye. Until my nerves loosened, I feigned interest in the room interior and the gifts she'd gotten to avoid her gaze.

Of course, I didn't find anything especially interesting there. It was an ordinary hospital room. White wallpaper, faded curtains, light-green linoleum floors, a simple bed. The room could hold four, but there were no patients other than Touka. She was given the bed in the back on the right, which got the best sunlight.

"The doctor thinks it might be changes in air pressure."

She glanced out the window as if to check the weather.

"I mean, that typhoon was approaching, right? Apparently that made the pressure drop fast, so I had that attack."

I remembered the incident from yesterday.

I found Touka collapsed after 4 PM. Normally around that time, she would be bringing her homework up to my room, but she didn't show up that day. I had a bad feeling and went to check the opposite room, where I found her crouched on the floor, unable to move. She had symptoms of cyanosis, and you could tell it was an asthma attack at a glance. There was an inhaler on the floor nearby, but it seemed like the medicine was hardly having any effect. Hearing her gasping more roughly than I'd ever heard before, I immediately ran to the living room to call an ambulance.

They said it was a major attack that put her on the verge of respiratory failure.

"Does it not hurt to breathe anymore?", I asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine now. They just put me in the hospital to look at me in case I have another attack, so I'm not feeling bad or anything."

She was acting cheerful, but her voice was so timid and weak. Was it really okay for her to be talking? Maybe she was pushing herself to do it because I was around. But if I tried to ask her about that, she'd just demand a more believable performance from her body.

At least so she wouldn't strain her voice, I moved the chair as close to the bed as possible and made sure to speak in a quiet voice myself.

"I really thought you might die this time."

"I thought I would too," Touka laughed as if we weren't even talking about her. "But if you had acted any slower then, Chihiro, things would've been much worse. The doctor was complimenting you. Saying how calling an ambulance right away was some decisive judgement."

I put it bluntly. "It's because I'm used to you having attacks, Touka."

"You saved me. Thanks."
"Don't mention it."

There was a short silence.

I resolutely decided to ask something.

"...Can that be cured?"

She pursed her lips, and her head fell to the side.

"I dunno. Lots of people grow out of it, apparently, but some people still have it as grown-ups."
"Huh."

"But I gotta say..." She intentionally changed the subject. "Chihiro, you sure knew a lot about whistling wheezing and retracted breathing. You're like a doctor."

"I just happened to read about it."
"No, you looked it up for my sake, right?"

She tilted her head to look up at me from below.

Her long hair swayed in accordance with that motion.

"Yeah. Since it'd be bad if you died in front of me."
"Ahaha. I guess that's true."

She laughed with a concerned look.

Maybe I worded that a little too coldly, I silently regretted.

"But anyway, it's been a long time since you carried me all baby-like," Touka said jokingly. "You lifted me up just like that. I was surprised."

"I couldn't think of any other way to do it."
"It's fine, it's fine. If you'll do that every time, then maybe asthma attacks aren't so bad."

I lightly prodded Touka as she teased me. She went "ouch!" and overdramatically held her head.

"Don't do that ever again. I was so worried, I thought I might stop breathing too."

There was a strange pause. Touka looked at me with her mouth open, caught off-guard. That expression, though slowly, turned into a ticklish smile.

"Sorry, sorry. I'll rephrase it," she corrected. "I don't like asthma attacks. I was just happy to feel your touch, Chihiro."

"Well, then get better quick."

"Right," she nodded. "Sorry for worrying you."

"It's fine," I curtly replied. Now, I was getting embarrassed about what I said, and could feel my face heating up.


A cold feeling on my neck brought me back to my senses. When I touched it with my fingers, it was slightly wet. Soon after, I noticed small black stains dotting the stone steps. A strong wind was blowing through the area.

It had started to rain.

It felt like I'd been saved. There was no way I'd use the Lethe in the middle of this storm.

I'd gotten an excuse to return home without doing anything.

I put my hands on my knees and stood up, then descended the steps. My gait was light from relief.

I'll return to my apartment for now. I can think about other things later.

Today wasn't a good day for erasing memories.

The rain was still going strong while I waited for the bus. I kept out of the rain under the overhang of a shop near the bus stop, then got on the bus when it arrived five minutes later. The interior was full of a musty air from the AC thanks to the firmly shut windows, and the floor was made wet here and there from the rainwater dripping off passengers' umbrellas.

I took a seat near the back on the right side, and drew a sigh of relief. Then I casually glanced over to the bus stop on the other side of the street. It seems there was also a festival somewhere today. A girl wearing a yukata was gloomily looking up at the clouds. Maybe she was thinking stuff like, how long will this rain go on? And in my brand new yukata... Talk about unlucky... Hope they don't cancel the festival.

The bus started to move.

"Now you've done it," someone said.

You overlooked one hell of a thing, y'know.

I wiped the fog off the glass window and looked at that girl in the yukata again.

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.

My finger was unconsciously pushing the disembark button.

The five minutes until the next stop felt like an eternity.

Once I got off the bus, I ran as fast as I could to the previous bus stop. For the time being, I swallowed down the ceaseless questions that came to mind, and dashed through the heavy rain. People walking by turned to look at me wondering what was up, but I didn't have time to worry about them.

As I ran so fast my lungs felt ready to burst, I was meanwhile thinking at a leisurely pace. When was the last time I ran for my life like this? At the very least since I entered college, there had been no reason to. Maybe I did it for a class in high school. No, I don't think there were foot races in high school, were there? Even for baseball games, even for long-distance runs, even for fitness tests, I didn't give it my all so as to not get too exhausted. Which means I might have to go back as far as middle school. Any memory of running for my life...

Sure enough, the first to come to mind was a false memory. A Mimory from the track meet in my third year of middle school.


I had been depressed for about a week before the event. Not because I wasn't athletic. Rather, the fact I was half-decent caused a catastrophe. By some mistake, I was chosen over a classmate in the track and field club as the anchor for the 800-meter relay. I'd never even imagined I'd be given such an important role in, of all things, my last track meet of middle school. I wanted to escape, but I lacked the courage to refuse the majority vote. That said, I also wasn't able to buckle down and prepare myself, so the day arrived while I was still hesitating.

Normally, I would never moan and groan in front of Touka, but if I was going to do it any day, it was that one. It happened while we were in class. To tell the truth, I want to head back home right now; I'm being crushed by the pressure of potentially ruining my classmates' memories. That's what I told her.

Then Touka playfully hit my shoulder, and innocently told me:

"Who cares about your classmates? If you want to run for someone, just run for me."

What with the serious asthma she'd had all her life, she'd never once run as fast as she could. She always just watched in PE classes, and hardly ever attended any physically-demanding events like hikes or ski lessons. And in this track meet, while she would be attending, it wasn't as a participant. She herself refused to be chosen, not wanting to cause any bother.

When the line "just run for me" came out of her mouth, it felt like it carried a very special meaning. Not only that, it didn't feel pressuring at all.

Yeah. What was I even afraid of? Touka is what's most important to me. And Touka won't be disappointed with me regardless of how my running turns out. In fact, she'll surely praise me no matter what.

A weight was lifted off my shoulders.

In the relay that day, I passed my two opponents and came in first. And then, while heading back to my classmates, I collapsed and was taken to the infirmary. I remember lying in the bed while Touka sat beside me going "that was so cool" over and over. But my senses were fading after the bodily exhaustion and being freed from the intense pressure, so I quickly fell asleep. (This might possibly be when the so-called "third kiss" occurred.)

By the time I woke up, the closing ceremony was long over. It was dark outside, and Touka stood beside the bed, looking down at my face.

"Time to go home?", she said with a smile.


I returned to reality.

Yeesh, you really don't have a life of your own, I thought, throughly disappointed with myself.

At this rate, my life flashing before my eyes could easily be made up of nothing but fictional memories.

I saw a deep blue yukata. At the same time, I saw a bus approaching the bus stop. I wrung out the last of my energy to race toward her. I'd basically never exercised since starting college, and I smoked a pack a day, so my lungs, heart, and legs were pushing their limits. The corners of my vision were hazy from a lack of oxygen, and my throat made a sound hard to imagine as my own breathing.

Ordinarily, I probably would've never made it. But seeing me running up soaking wet without an umbrella, the driver seemed to have waited a little bit to depart.

Thankfully, I managed to get on the bus, but I didn't speak to her right away. I grabbed the handrail, and leaned on it while catching my breath. Rainwater trickled down from my hair to the floor. My heart was pounding like a construction site. Even though my body was soaked, it felt hot, like my blood cells were boiling. My legs trembled and could hardly keep me up, so I nearly fell every time the bus jolted.

Finally, once I caught my breath, I looked up.

Of course, she was still there.

She sat in a seat one before the very back, looking out the window listlessly.

My calmed heart was again thrown into disorder.

I headed straight for her.

Maybe because of the brain chemicals secreted while I ran, I felt like I would be able to fearlessly speak to her now.

I hadn't decided what to talk about. But I was convinced it all would work out. Once I got a word in, the rest would surely follow naturally.

I had that, at least.

Stopping right beside her, I grabbed the railing.

I took a quick deep breath.

"Um."

That word was all it took.

The summer magic was broken in an instant.

The woman looking out the window turned around.

"...What is it?"

She stared at me dubiously.

And she didn't look anything like her.

She was only arguably similar in physique and hair, and in all other areas, she wasn't remotely like Touka Natsunagi. Almost like someone had known I would jump to conclusions and deviously placed her there as a trap.

The more I looked at her, the less she looked like Touka. I didn't feel a shred of the delicacy and grace that woman I saw at the shrine had.

How had I mixed this woman up with her?

"Er, do you need something?"

The false Touka questioned me again with a look of wariness. I realized I'd been rudely looking over her face for quite a while.

Calm down, I told myself. This woman hasn't done anything wrong. Just happening to be dressed like the childhood friend in my Mimories, that's no error at all; it was just me who mistook her.

Yes, I'm the one at fault. I know that. And even so, I felt an intense anger. I couldn't even believe how furious I was. I felt like a black mucus was spreading through my chest. It's possible I'd never been so angry at anyone in my life.

My grip on the handrail tightened. My mind was thinking up one insult after another. How dare you give me false hope; don't dress so misleadingly; a woman like you shouldn't be allowed to dress like that; you don't even measure up to Touka Natsunagi's ankles; etcetera.

Of course, I didn't speak any of them. I politely apologized for having the wrong person, then got off at the next stop to escape. And I mindlessly walked through the rain.

While taking shelter from the storm in a pub and drowning myself in cheap beer, I had a thought.

I'll admit it.

I'm in love with Touka Natsunagi.

And I long to meet her, to the point that I'd see traces of her in a total stranger who was just dressed similarly.

But so what, I ask? A Mimory engineer designed Touka Natsunagi as a person so matched to my tastes, I had no choice but to fall in love with her. That's all it was. It's no different from having a tailored suit fitted for your body. It would be stranger if I didn't love her.

Admitting that made me feel a little better.

Because I felt better, I could down beer more comfortably.

And sure enough, I drank too much.

In the process of vomiting up everything I'd ate into the toilet, continuing to throw up gastric juices, returning to my seat, taking a drink, falling down on the table, and going back to the bathroom to vomit, closing time came, and I was thrown out of the pub. I squatted outside for a while, but I knew my nausea and headache wouldn't get better anytime soon, so I emptied my head and started to walk. The last train had left a little while ago, and I didn't have cash for a taxi. It was bound to be a long night.

I heard Firefly's Light playing from a nearby store, and I unconsciously hummed Touka's custom lyrics.

The brightly shining firefly
Disappears into the dark
So fleeting and so meaningless,
Just like my yearning heart


Tomorrow, I thought, I'll take the Lethe.

Because it's just empty being in love with a non-existent girl.

*

Of course, being in love with an existing girl is empty in its own way.

In a sense, I'm a person who doesn't exist too. Nearly all the girls I've ever met probably never saw me as a potential romantic partner. Heck, most might not even remember my name.

It was a problem more fundamental than being liked or disliked. I wasn't even a part of their universe. Maybe we existed in the same space and time, but we never crossed. I was no more than a passing shadow to them, and vice versa.

It's empty for an existing person to love a non-existent person, but it's equally empty for a non-existent person to love an existing person. And a non-existent person loving a non-existent person, that's just complete nothingness.

Love is something that can only happen between people who exist.

*

The sky was brightening by the time I reached my apartment.

I vowed to myself I'd never drink again, but at the same time figured I wouldn't learn and would be drinking again in two days' time. The guy happily drinking away and the guy with the hangover are like different people, so lessons learned by one won't apply to the other. One me learns only the joy of drinking, while the other learns its bitterness.

There was no sign of people in the residential area this early in the morning. A stray cat living behind a local snack stand casually crossed my path. Usually it would run off as soon as it saw me, but perhaps recognizing my weakened state, it showed no hints of caution today. A crow somewhere let out a single caw, and as if in response, a turtle dove elsewhere chirped a single measure.

I stumbled my way up the stairs and reached my door. I dug through my pocket for my keys, and found my room key among them. That simple task took considerable concentration. With enough struggle as to make me think I was cracking a safe, I opened the door.

The moment I put my hand on the doorknob, the door to room 202 opened, and its resident peeked out. I looked toward my neighbor in the midst of opening the door. I had no idea who lived next to me, so I thought I'd just see what they looked like.

It was a girl. She looked anywhere from 17 to 20. She was dressed like she'd just recently gone out to buy a soft drink. Her limbs, faintly lit, were like a transparent white, and her long, soft black hair was blown up by the wind in the hall,

and like it did that day, time stopped.

An invisible nail fixed us in place, myself in the pose of opening my door, and her closing her door with the back of her hand.

There was no deep blue yukata, nor red chrysanthemums in her hair.

And yet, I knew it.

As if we temporarily lost the concept of words, we looked at each other for a long time.

The first thing to resume movement was her mouth.

"...Chihiro?"

She spoke my name.

"...Touka?"

I spoke hers.


I had a childhood friend who I'd never met. I'd never seen her face. I'd never heard her speak. I'd never even touched her. Despite that, I knew the darling features of her face. I knew the softness of her voice. I knew the warmth in her palms.


The summer magic was still in effect.



[+]

Chapter 3: Partial Recall

It's said that memory-altering nanotechnology was hastily developed 15 years ago in an attempt to tackle a sudden outbreak of New Alzheimer's cases worldwide. The technology's original intention of repairing and preserving memories has gradually shifted in the direction of creating fictional memories.

It would appear, ultimately, that those who wanted to get their past back were far outnumbered by those who wanted to redo it. Even if the memories would no more than forgeries.

"The past cannot be changed, but the future can be" - with the progression of memory-altering technology, that way of thinking has been dying out.

Who really knows about the future. But the past can be changed.

Early on, the fictional memories written by the nanobots were commonly called things like "Shamories" or "Pseudories." But in recent years, Mimories has become the norm. As far as the name goes, there's still no ambiguity that they're only "mimicking" real memories, but it seems to have been a move away from those negatively-nuanced words like "sham" and "pseudo." In accordance with this, the people who appear within Mimories have come to be called Substites. These terms are meant to reinforce the notion that they serve the same purpose as an artificial arm or tooth: simply filling in for something you lack.

But of course, what qualifies as "missing something" is up for debate. If you twist things enough, you could deem the vast majority of humanity to be patients in dire need of treatment for their imperfect life experiences. Because a person who isn't missing anything at all can't possibly exist.

At any rate, though, there's no denying Mimories have been a beneficial thing for humanity. When people are put in mental distress by experiences of loss, or being victim to a crime, or ill treatment, using fictional memories to guide the patient through a reconstruction or erasing the experiences themselves is, needless to say, an effective cure. One study showed that when Mimories from Great Mother were implanted in children with bad manners or attitude problems, nearly 40% of subjects demonstrated positive changes. In another experiment, Spiritual was given to a drug addict who had repeatedly attempted suicide, and it was as if he was reborn into a pious and abstinent person. (At that point, it seems a little blasphemous.)

At the present time, it's hard to really feel the blessings Mimories have had on society, but that's because users of these memory-altering nanobots dislike publicly talking about that fact. The position it holds is most similar to that of cosmetic surgery. And in fact, there are people who derisively refer to memory alteration as "memory plastic surgery."

People can't choose the life they're born into. That's why they need relief in the form of Mimories, proponents for memory alteration claim. I may have an aversion to Mimories, but I feel what these people say makes sense. It seems to me as if the majority of deniers reject Mimories not due to philosophical concerns, but merely out of physiological uneasiness.

Back to the critical concern, however: they still have yet to discover a way to restore memories lost via New Alzheimer's. There exist memory recovery nanobots called Memento, but these only have the ability to partially restore memories erased with Lethe, having no effectiveness whatsoever on memories New Alzheimer's has taken.

The technique of using Mimories like backups was considered, but that didn't go well either. Even if you write back Mimories with the same contents as the forgotten memories, it seems they won't properly establish themselves in the brain. On the other hand, when you insert Mimories that differ from reality, those stick around for a relatively long time. What we can surmise from this is that New Alzheimer's isn't a disease that destroys memories, it's a disease that unravels the combinations of memory. One would presume that some memories are easy to unravel, while others aren't. Maybe the reason episodic memory is the most commonly lost is because those memories have the most composite nature of them all.

*

For a while after waking up, I wasn't able to remember anything.

I had regularly stolen beer from my father's stash ever since I was 15, and yet today was the first time I ever experienced having a gap in my memory. For a moment, I was flustered, wondering if I really had lost some memories from drinking too much. I had heard about such experiences many times, but I thought it was just an exaggeration or something, or a means of excusing your disgraceful behavior at the bar.

Where is this, is it morning or night, when did I get in bed, why do I have a splitting headache - I didn't have a single idea. I was just barely able to put together that it was alcohol to blame thanks to the smell of it rising from the depths of my stomach.

I closed my eyes. Let's just take it slow, and remember things one at a time. Where is this? It's my room. Is it morning or night? Based on the brightness of the sunlight shining through the curtains, morning. When did I get in bed? There, my thoughts stalled out. Can't rush this. What's my last memory? I remember being kicked out of the pub after getting blackout drunk, missing the train, and walking to my apartment. Why did I feel the need to get blackout drunk? Right, because of that case of mistaken identity. I mistook the woman in a deep blue yukata standing at the bus stop for Touka Natsunagi. I was so miserable, I went to the pub to drown my sorrows.

The points started to come together. After getting kicked out of the pub and walking more than 3 hours, I finally arrived at the apartment. (The moment I become aware of this, the muscles in my legs start to ache.) After struggling to unlock the door and tumbling into my room, I had a strange dream. That mistaken identity incident must have had a resounding effect, because the dream had Touka Natsunagi in it. I dreamt Touka Natsunagi moved into the room next door.

The dream continued on from reality, beginning from when I arrived home. I snapped at her like "why are you here, you're a person who shouldn't exist," and she looked at me quizzically.

"Chihiro, is it possible you're drunk?"

"Just answer my question." I tried to approach her and stumbled. I managed to get my hand on the wall and avoided falling over, but possibly because the blood had gone to my head, or because the smell wafting through my door was making my body slacken, my vision was spinning and I couldn't stand up straight. I had no conception of what way I was standing right now.

Touka Natsunagi spoke with concern.

"Are you okay? Do you need a shoulder?"

I don't remember much past that.

I do feel like she courteously nursed me.

In any event, all of this was unquestionably a dream shown to me by my alcohol-addled brain. My mind and body were too weak to stay in control. I'd never had a dream so directly answer to my desires before.

It's like a fantasy a grade-schooler would have in bed, I thought. The girl I like moves in next door and looks after me when I'm feeling weak.

No doubt about it, it's not the sort of dream a grown man should be having.

I had decided yesterday that I was going to change my pathetic self.

Today, I'm going to drink the Lethe.

I crawled out of bed, and with my face scrunching up from a dull headache, drank three cups of water. It spilled out the sides of my mouth and dripped down my neck. I tore off my bad-smelling clothes and took a lengthy shower. I dried my hair, brushed my teeth, drank another two cups of water, then lied down in bed. While doing all that, I started to feel considerably better. My head was still pounding and I felt nauseous, but the sense that I'd already cleared the peak put me at ease. Then I fell into a light sleep.

I woke up after about an hour. Likely out of hunger, my stomach felt like it was being strangled. Come to think of it, I had thrown up everything I ate last night. I didn't like it, but I was going to have to eat something soon.

I slowly got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and peered under the sink. There wasn't even a single one of those cup ramens I thought I'd bought on sale at the local supermarket. I twisted my neck. I seemed to remember having at least five or so left. I must've been extremely forgetful lately, no thanks to my drinking.

I checked the freezer to see if there was even any bread, but there were only two things inside: gin and ice packs. I even looked under the ice maker, but found nothing besides ice fragments.

I didn't have any hopes in the refrigerator to begin with. Since about six months ago, it had been repurposed into nothing more than a beer cooler. I couldn't be bothered to cook for myself, so I'd stopped buying anything but cup ramen, bento boxes, and frozen food.

Even so, maybe it could have a snack or something.

Counting on a single ray of hope, I opened the door.

There was a foreign presence there.

A lettuce and tomato salad on a plate, neatly wrapped up, and accompanied by a handwritten note:

"You should really be eating better."

*

The first part-time job I took in my pursuit of buying Lethe was at a gas station. I was fired in a month, so after that I worked at a restaurant. I was fired in a month there, too. Both cases were due to a lack of sociability. If I had to say, it was my interactions with co-workers that was the issue, not customers. They didn't seem to care for my attitude of "as long as I'm doing my job, what's the problem?"

I learned that I wasn't suited for jobs where I kept meeting with the same people, so for a while I took day jobs introduced to me by university cooperatives. But this had its own problems, as it was annoying having to build a relationship with a new person from scratch every time. What one might lump together as "communication ability" can be separately considered the ability to construct human relationships and the ability to preserve them, but I didn't seem to have these in equal measure.

I pondered if there was any work where I could avoid the troubles of human interaction, and just then happened to spot a help-wanted poster for a local video rental store. I tried applying, and was accepted without an interview. I guess there were no other applicants.

Uncommon for video rental stores these days, it was a small independent business. It looked worn-out on the inside and the outside, as if it might crumble any second. But thanks to a fair number of curious regulars, it was apparently getting on okay. Or maybe it was being run by a decently well-off person just as a hobby, so profits were irrelevant. The manager was a quiet and short man over 70, always with a cigarette in his mouth.

Customers rarely came. That was to be expected. These days, video rental stores were only used by the elderly or certain types of nerd. And how many people even still owned those relics known as VCRs? A young person might come to visit once or twice a month, and even most of those were just window shopping.

All the customers were docile, so it was a really easy job. You might say my most important job was keeping myself awake. It didn't pay much, but for someone who wasn't hoping for companionship or worthwhileness or improving my skills, it was more or less the ideal occupation.

I saved up enough money to buy Lethe after two months there, but I knew that leaving myself free time would just make it into more time spent drinking, so I continued to work there. It was simply comfortable, for one thing. That shabby place left behind by the times was strangely relaxing for my mind. I can't express it very well, but it felt almost harmonious, like this was a place that accepted my existence. Questionable as it is that I found a place for myself there, of all things.


There had been no customers today, as usual. I stood at the register and bit down a yawn as I thought about what I'd found in my refrigerator this morning.

A homemade salad, accompanied by a handwritten note.

If we considered the occurrence last night to be a dream, that would make the food and the note my doing, while blackout drunk. In other words, while drunk to the point of having no recollection of my actions, I threw up until my stomach was empty, spent 3 hours and change walking home to my apartment, then produced lettuce, tomato, and onion from somewhere to put together a salad, neatly wrapped it up and put it in the fridge, washed and cleaned up the cookware I used, left behind a note to my future self with cute girly handwriting, fell asleep, and then forgot all of this.

And if it wasn't a dream, that would mean the food and the note were put there by Touka Natsunagi. Which is to say, the memories I thought were Mimories were real, I really had a childhood friend named Touka Natsunagi, she happened to move into the room next to mine, and when I drunkenly collapsed, she gallantly nursed me and even made some breakfast for me.

Both theories were equally ridiculous.

Isn't there a more realistic explanation here?

After some thought, I arrived at a third possibility.

I remembered what Emori had told me two days ago, about the scammer who pretended to be an old acquaintance to achieve her objective.

"Seems classic scams like that are on the rise these days. And lonely young guys are the easiest targets. You might get targeted soon too, Amagai."

What if somehow, the details of my Mimories leaked out from the clinic in some form?

What if that information got into the hands of a third party with malicious intentions?

Compared to the dream theory and the reality theory, this one had a slight ring of truth. The scam theory. The woman I met last night who's the spitting image of Touka Natsunagi is just a fake prepared by some fraudulent organization, nothing more than a stranger playing the part of the Substite named Touka Natsunagi.

Of course, this theory has its own holes. Many, in fact, and big ones. If a character from your Mimories appeared to you in reality, you wouldn't just be happy about it - anyone would find it suspicious first. You'd be wary, knowing that can't possibly happen, so maybe someone's trying to ensnare you. The other party would have to realize that much. It's one thing to disguise yourself as a real acquaintance, but I can't think of any merit to disguising yourself as a character from their Mimories. It's like telling me to suspect you.

No, maybe I'm underestimating the power of people's latent desires. Didn't Emori say that Okano, the man who fell for the scam, was told "you were my classmate" again and again, so he started to believe it?

Emori supposed that his desire for what she said to be the truth resulted in his memories themselves being altered. If that sort of mental inclination is common, then yes, maybe a Substite is even more suitable for this kind of scam than a real acquaintance. Substites are carefully designed by Mimory engineers to fill in all the mental gaps revealed by the program's deep analysis, so you could consider them big lumps of that person's inner desires. How many people could be calm and look at themselves objectively when faced with the partner of their dreams?

In that sense, there's no easier target for a scammer than someone who has Mimories. Hadn't Emori said that, too? "They don't work their way into memories. They work their way into the absence of 'em."

Even so, many doubts remained. Supposing the woman I met yesterday was a scammer presenting herself as Touka Natsunagi, would she really go so far as to move in next door just to trap a mere student like myself? Not only that, was it that easy to find someone who was an exact match for a Substite? That she would've gotten plastic surgery just to trick me was inconceivable.

My thoughts hit a dead end there. There's too little to go on right now. It'd be hasty to come to a conclusion right this second. When I go back to the apartment, before anything else, I'll visit the room next door. And I'll ask her to her face. Who in the world are you? I doubt she'll answer honestly, but it should give me at least a clue. I might grasp a lead that lets me guess at her strategy.

And if it comes to light that she really is some kind of scammer...

I don't think I'll be satisfied unless I can make her pay for it a little.

*

After work, I visited the supermarket near the train station and bought a bunch of cup ramen. I wanted to get back to the apartment ASAP, so I didn't even glance at any other food. Looking at the bag full of junk food, I had a tinge of worry that if I kept up these eating habits, my body would fall apart eventually. But thinking in terms of "what good would healthy living actually do for a person like me?", it all ceased to matter.

There was another reason for my unhealthy diet. Once I passed 18 or so, I stopped finding anything tasty. It's not like my taste buds were numbed. I think it's most accurate to say that the taste information and the reward system were split apart. Now, two years later, I can no longer remember what sort of feeling "delicious" was. If it was food that was salty and heated, the rest didn't matter.

I haven't had a doctor check me, so I don't know what the cause is. It could be psychosomatic, it could be a lack of nutrition. Or maybe there's a blood clot or a tumor somewhere in my brain. For the time being, it wasn't a major inconvenience, so I was ignoring it.

I was never especially picky with food to begin with. My mother had no interest in food, and as far as I knew, never cooked a single meal in the kitchen. With some exceptions like cooking practice and outdoors school, I might as well have never eaten something I made myself. Since I was a kid, I always got meals in the form of premade bentos or fast food.

Possibly in response to that past of mine, my Mimories contained a number of episodes where I was fed homemade cuisine my childhood friend made. Mimories where Touka observed that all the things I ate were bad for me, worried that "you should really be eating better," and invited me to her house to treat me to her cooking.

I suddenly realized a certain coincidence. Come to think of it, the note left in the fridge had used the exact same phrase: "You should really be eating better." Letter for letter.

Sure enough, that woman knows the contents of my Mimories. I braced myself once more, remembering that I had to be cautious. She knew exactly what kind of strategy would effectively deceive me. She has all the resources she needs to captivate me.

However - I repeated it to myself again and again - the woman named Touka Natsunagi doesn't exist.

I can't let myself be fooled.


I arrived at the apartment.

Standing in front of the door to room 202, I pushed the doorbell.

After ten seconds, there was still no response.

I pushed it again to be sure, but the result was the same.

If she was a scammer, she should've been anticipating my visit.

Since that implies she wouldn't be away, why else would she not answer?

Does she hope to lower my decision-making faculties by making me get antsy? Or maybe there's some sort of preparation needed for the scam.

I couldn't just stand there forever, so I decided to go back to my room for now.

When I noticed the door wasn't locked, I wasn't surprised. Me forgetting to lock my room was a common occurrence.

Even when I noticed the lights were on, I still wasn't surprised. Me leaving the lights on was also a common occurrence.

Even when I realized there was a girl in an apron standing in the kitchen, I still wasn't surprised. A girl wearing an apron working in the kitchen for me was a common occurrence...

In my Mimories, that is.

The shopping bag slipped out of my hand, and the cup ramen spilled out in the entryway.

Hearing the sound, the girl turned to face me.

"Oh, welcome home, Chihiro." Her face widened into a smile. "How are you feeling?"


When I confronted this suspicious woman who had entered into my room without permission and was using my kitchen like she owned the place, my first thought wasn't "I'll call the police" nor "I'll hold her down" nor "I'll call for someone," but "did I leave anything lying around that I don't want a girl to see?"

I know, even I thought I was being absurd.

But standing in front of me was a girl being even more absurd than that.

Even though the room's owner had appeared, she didn't attempt to run away or even explain herself, and just cheerfully sampled the contents of a pot. Ingredients that she appeared to have brought were laid out on the counter.

From the smell, it seemed she was making some meat and potato stew.

Just the sort of meal a fictional childhood friend would make, I suppose.

"...What are you doing?"

At length, I was able to ask that. Then it occurred to me, that was a meaningless question. She's trespassing and making food. Just what it looked like.

"I was making meat and potato stew," she replied, keeping an eye on the pot. "You like meat and potato stew, right, Chihiro?"

"How did you get in my room?"

This was also a question with an obvious answer. She probably stole the spare key while she was nursing me last night. Being that the things in my room were kept to a minimum, she should've found it easily with some searching.

She didn't answer my second question.

"Your laundry was piling up, so I washed it all. Also, you need to air out your futon more regularly."

I looked out toward the veranda to see a week's worth of laundry blowing in the breeze.

I felt dizzy.

"Who... are you?"

She stared at me.

"It's not like you're drunk this time, are you?"

"Answer me," I said, taking a harsher tone. "Who are you?"

"Who...? I'm Touka. Did you forget your childhood friend's face?"

"I don't have a childhood friend."

"Then why do you know my name?" She wore a smile mixed with concern. "You called me Touka last night, didn't you?"

I shook my head. If I let her carry me away like this, it would be all over.

I took a deep breath, and spoke resolutely.

"Touka Natsunagi is a Substite. A fictional person who only exists in my head. I can at least distinguish between reality and fiction. I don't know if you're some kind of scammer or what, but trying to mislead me is futile. If you don't want me to call the police on you, then get out."

A sigh came out of her slightly-opened mouth.

"...Huh."

She turned off the flame on the gas stove and walked toward me.

I unconsciously stepped back, and she stepped forward and spoke.

"So you're still like that, huh?"

I wasn't able to ask what she meant by that.

My chest was full to bursting, so I wasn't able to get out words.

As much as I tried to fight for what intentions appeared on the surface, my brain was, on a more fundamental level, seeing the illusion of "a reunion with a beloved childhood friend who I was separated from five years ago," and trembling with joy.

She was lovely, so lovely, that if I let my guard down, I'd hug her in a heartbeat.

I wasn't even able to avert my eyes, so she and I looked at each other head-on.

Seeing her face up close, it felt somehow unrealistic. Her skin was almost artificially white, but was faintly red around her eyes, giving me a sickly impression.

It's like she's a ghost, I thought.

Seeing me frozen up, she smiled softly.

"It's okay, you don't have to push yourself to remember. Just remember this."

She took my hand and gently put hers around it.

They were cold.

"I'm on your side, Chihiro. No matter what."

*

After I wrapped up work the next day, I called Emori. I asked if we could meet tonight so I could discuss something with him, and he told me he was free after 10. After deciding to meet up at the park, I hung up. And then I noticed, in the list of contacts on my phone, the name "Touka Natsunagi" had gotten there at some point. She must've went and added herself after she nursed me. I thought of deleting it, but figured it could prove useful for something or another, so I kept it there.

I went to school and studied at a table in the corner of the cafeteria, waiting for the appointed time. Once every hour, I walked outside the campus and had a relaxing smoke. The air was horribly humid, so the cigarettes had a cruder taste than usual. Once the cafeteria closed, I moved to the lounge, where I sank into a sofa and killed time reading magazines that had been scattered around. The lounge wasn't well air-conditioned, so between that and the sunlight coming in through the windows, it felt as hot as being outside. Even just sitting still, I started to sweat.

I decided I would only return to the apartment once I'd gotten Emori's opinion. I wanted to firmly establish my stance before I met with that girl again. To do that, I felt I had to explain the situation to someone trustworthy and get an objective perspective on it.

Thinking about it, this was the first time I'd ever wanted to discuss something with someone. I guess that goes to show just how much that girl threw my mind into disarray.

Unusually enough, Emori showed up right on time that day. Maybe he was worried for me, since getting a call from me was such a rare occurrence.

Once I was done with my garbled explanation of events, he spoke.

"So to sum the story up, you tried to erase your memories with Lethe, but Green Green arrived by mistake, and you used it, giving you Mimories of a fictional childhood friend named Touka Natsunagi. Two months later, the girl who shouldn't exist moved in next door to you, and came to you being all friendly. ...That's basically it, right?"

"Stupid, isn't it?", I sighed. "But you're right, that's it."

"Well, I can't imagine you're lying, Amagai, so it must be true that's what really happened." With that, Emori grinned. "Was she cute?"

"I'm sure you know what the characters in Mimories are like," I replied in a roundabout way.
"So she was cute."
"Well, yes."

"So, did you get her down on the floor?"
"No way. It might be a honey trap, right?"

"Right. I think so too," he agreed. "But you're pretty mean for that to be the first possibility you think about. Normally you'd get all elated, and wouldn't get around to thinking that far."

In reality, I was just in such a panic that I couldn't move, but I didn't say that.

"I'm just thinking it could be a variation on that dating scam you told me about the other day, Emori. I wondered if client information might have leaked from the clinic, and some people with bad intentions got their hands on it to use it for scams."

"Feels a little roundabout of a way to run a scam... but it's not impossible," Emori nodded. "Come to think of it, isn't your family rich, Amagai?"

"That's in the past. We're not much different from an average family now."

"So would a scammer pull off such an intricate scheme for a college student without much cash?"

"I got caught on that as well. What do you think, Emori? Can you think of any possible aims other than a scam?"

After two swigs of beer, Emori spoke modestly.

"Just to make sure, Amagai, but you've never once taken Lethe in your life, have you?"

"That's right," I affirmed. "Of course, even if you take Lethe, it also erases the memory of "having taken Lethe," so I can't be certain. ...What of it?"

"Oh, I'm just wondering if that girl's not actually lying at all. Maybe you two actually were childhood friends, but you alone got those memories erased. So what you think are Mimories might turn out to be the revival of your actual past."

"I can't imagine."

I let out a wry laugh. I thought it was a joke.

"Or maybe you've simply forgotten on your own. You always were forgetful, Amagai."

"Even if I had forgotten, I'd surely remember when I saw her face or heard her voice."

"...But if by any chance. By the slimmest chance something like that's happened..."

The tone of Emori's voice dropped.

"I'd feel real sorry for that girl."

I laughed again.

He wasn't laughing.

My sole, lonely laughter echoed through the park, and was swallowed up by the night.

For a while, we drank in silence.

There was a strange air.

"At any rate," Emori remarked to switch gears, "don't let your feelings sway you into signing any strange documents."

"I won't."

"Don't even think about pretending to be fooled so you can see how it goes. Could end up that soon enough, you'll lose the distinction between the act and how you really feel. Can't risk that."

"Yeah. I'll be careful."

After finishing off all the cans we brought, I thanked Emori and left.

As I was leaving, Emori muttered something to himself.

"...I see. Green Green, huh..."

It sounded like he was saying something like that.


I arrived at the apartment after 1 AM, when the residential district had gotten quiet and sleepy. A few mosquitoes flew soundlessly around the corridor lights.

My door wasn't unlocked, and the lights weren't on. I quietly opened the door and went inside, and found no girl in sight. I sighed in relief and opened the window to let out the stuffy heat. Then I put a cigarette in my mouth and lit it.

The pot the girl had brought was gone. After expelling her from my room, I had left the cooking be without touching it. Afterward, she probably used the spare key for another unauthorized entry to get her pot back.

My head was getting numb the longer this unforeseen situation went on, but when I thought about it, this was perfect grounds for police intervention. My spare key had been stolen, and I kept getting intruded upon by a total stranger.

However, I didn't want to rely on the police just yet. There was no guarantee that their resolution of the situation would make the truth clear. If the situation were terminated before I could learn the true identity of the girl, I would be left wondering and never getting an answer for the rest of my life. What her objective was, why she knew the contents of my Mimories, why she was such a perfect replica of Touka Natsunagi -

"It's okay, you don't have to push yourself to remember."

...What if maybe she really had been someone I knew?

However foolish it may be, if even a tiny fraction of doubt remains there, it'd be my loss.

Soon, she's bound to try something again. When that happens, I'm going to guide the conversation from beginning to end to extract information and expose her goal.

Just as I settled on my objective and went to pour water into a kettle, I heard the door click open.

She's here early. I readied myself.

I put the kettle down and thrust my cigarette into the ashtray.

Surely, by the third time, I'll be able to handle this calmly. I underestimated.

When I turned to the front door and spotted her, I froze over.

"Ah, you're about to eat something bad for you again," she said with disappointment, seeing the cup ramen on the counter.

Plain white pajamas. There was nothing odd about those in and of themselves. Maybe a little too "defenseless" for visiting a stranger's room in the middle of the night, but it wasn't that unusual for the part she was playing. So pajamas themselves didn't warrant surprise.

The problem was, the pajamas had the exact same design as the pajamas Touka Natsunagi wore in the hospital.

The girl in front of me overlapped with Touka Natsunagi in my Mimories. More vividly than a real memory, the air of the hospital room that day was resurrected, as was that frail voice.

My chest throbbed deeply, and every cell in my body rustled.

Oh yes, this girl knows. She knows exactly how to effectively shake my heart.

She took off her sandals and entered the room, standing next to me. Her chilly, thin upper arm touched my elbow, and I drew it back as if I'd gotten an electric shock.

"Ah, oh well. I was getting a little hungry myself. Hey, make some for me too."

I temporarily quarantined every emotion I had and faced her. And I tried to remember my initial objective.

Right, to extract information.

"To continue from yesterday," I began.

"What is it?"

She looked at me with upturned eyes. I managed to keep myself from reflexively looking away and questioned her.

""You don't have to push yourself to remember." What did you mean?"

She smiled, as if to say "oh, just that?"

And she spoke like she was explaining it to a small child.

"When I say you don't have to push yourself to remember, I mean you don't have to push yourself to remember."

It really was a Touka Natsunagi-esque manner of speaking. The girl in my Mimories was fond of those phrases like Zen dialogues. Why do I like being with you, Chihiro? Because I like being with you, Chihiro.

Desperately trying to keep myself from smiling over nostalgia toward a past that didn't even exist, I made my distrust clear.

"It's all just a bluff, isn't it? Do you think if you say words that sound right enough, I'll make a mistake that's convenient for you?"

It was an intentional provocation. With this, maybe I could force her to show her next card to make me trust her. The more she speaks, the more she lies. And the more she lies, the greater the chance of holes in her story. That was my approach.

However, she didn't go along with my provocation.

She just smiled lonesomely and said:

"I don't mind if you think that for now. If you can't believe we were childhood friends, you don't have to. If you just remember that I'm on your side, that's enough."

With that, she added another person's worth of water to the kettle and turned on the stove.

It seemed this wasn't going to be simple. Like any good scammer, she knew when to step forward and when to step back.

I couldn't expect much in the way of results fighting on this front. I decided to cut her down from another angle.

"You probably wouldn't know, but I didn't get Mimories of my own volition. I was trying to forget my past with Lethe, but I was just sent Green Green by mistake."

"Yeah, I know that's how you're interpreting it," she nodded, looking like a know-it-all. "And?"

"Unlike your typical Mimory user, I don't have any attachment to my Mimories. So I have no interest in the character Touka Natsunagi within. If you thought you could wave around her name and get in my good graces, you were dead wrong."

She snorted at that.

"What a liar. How much you were fawning on me when you came home drunk two nights ago?"

Fawning on her?

At once, I retraced my memories. But no matter what, I couldn't remember the part after I entered my room. After our most unexpected meeting and exchanging a few words with her, I was completely missing any memory of the process by which I then ended up in bed.

But fawning on a stranger - and a girl around my age, too - was an act too bold to imagine myself doing. However drunk I got, my fundamental personality wouldn't change. Short of having a split personality, that was simply impossible.

This was probably a bluff, too. Or rather, more of a joke in bad taste.

"I don't remember anything like that," I stated clearly. But my voice was tinged with deep unrest.

"Hmph. You've even forgotten things two nights ago?" She didn't attempt to strike my weak point, stopping at only a thin smile. "Well, at any rate, you should show some restraint with alcohol."

The kettle was emitting steam. She turned off the burner and poured the hot water into two cup ramens. And without me having to drive her out, she took her cup ramen over to the room next door. Leaving me with a "Good night, Chihiro."

Way to dodge the question.

*

The moment I stepped off at the station nearest my parents' house, I felt like turning back right away. I want to hop on the up-train back to my apartment right now; my whole body quivered in resistance, hoping to leave this town at once. But after coming this far, I couldn't leave empty-handed. Deciding to think of this like a mental trial, I forced myself to cheer up.

I didn't dislike the town itself. Looking back on it, it was a very comfortable place to live. A relatively new town built among hills, with a population under 20,000. It had good access to the central city, and both public facilities and flourishing businesses. Most of the population was middle-class and didn't like trouble, so it was quiet. It had nice green scenery, and while it might be a little boring for youngsters seeking stimulation, it was an ideal town for living out a healthy childhood.

I didn't have any bad memories there. Sure, I was a lonely child, but that fact didn't cause me any unpleasant experiences (at least as far as I can be sure). Whether it was an inclination of my generation or I just happened to be surrounded by those kinds of people, I don't know, but there were no big cliques at the school I went to, just three or four groups scattered around like islands. So even if they had individual tastes, there was no opportunity for anything like peer pressure.

Actually, taking a look at that situation, I feel it was simply that there were nothing but "good kids." I only know this now that I've left the town, but there were an almost bizarre number of well-developed kids there. I don't know why. Maybe the local color just drew in people like that.

I wasn't displeased with the town. The target of my displeasure was me who lived there. Regardless of having such a blessed stage to grow up on, it hurt to confront my own worthlessness in being unable to make a single beautiful memory there.

The town was perfect, and only I wasn't.

I saw shadows of my past self in various places along the way to my parents'. 6-year-old me, 10-year-old me, 12-year-old me, and 15-year-old me were there, just like they had looked at the time. All of them looked up at the sky emotionlessly, patiently waiting for something to come change them.

But in the end, nothing happened. 20-year-old me knew that.

I should finish my business and leave quickly, I thought. Before I'm crushed by this eighteen-year void.


Emori's question had led me here.

"Just to make sure, Amagai, but you've never once taken Lethe in your life, have you?"

That should be correct, I thought.

But when I thought about it, I had no proof.

Among the options for Lethe is whether or not you forget the fact you took Lethe, and it's strongly recommended you do that. Because if you don't, you'll forever be followed by the question of what you took Lethe to forget.

As a result, just because I didn't have any memory of it didn't mean I had never taken Lethe. My parents were of the opinion that their son didn't need Mimories, but it occurred to me now that I had never heard their views on memory erasure. There was a non-zero possibility that their approach to child-rearing allowed an exception for the use of Lethe.

I arrived home. Sitting in the corner of the residential district, this generically-built twenty-year-old household was my parents' house where I was born and raised. I tried the intercom just in case, but got no reply. My mom had left long ago, and my dad was at work, so this was natural.

When I unlocked the door and went inside, I met a nostalgic smell. That said, I didn't feel any sentimental-esque sentimentality welling up. It just added to my desire to go back to the apartment. For me, the place I "went home" to was no longer my parents' house, but my cheap apartment room.

I went up the creaky stairs to the second floor, and entered my former room. Sure enough, the room had been left exactly as it was when I left. It seemed extremely dusty, so I opened up the curtains and windows before getting to work.

...Suppose there's a slim chance an acquaintance named Touka Natsunagi existed.

If there's some clue to her existence, where else would it be if not in my old room?

That's what got me to come here, but I did have one major worry. If I remember correctly, when I left this house, I went through and tossed most of my belongings. The period from high school graduation to my move was so busy, I don't remember what I threw out and what I kept. It's possible that I threw out anything that could tell me about my past relationships.

I did a quick search of the room, and as expected, my graduation yearbooks had been wiped out. I couldn't locate the one for grade school, nor middle school, nor high school. Well, yeah. There's nothing more unsightly for a person who wants to forget the past. Naturally, I also discarded things like graduate essays or group photos. All that seemed to be left was an English-Japanese dictionary, a desk light, and a pen holder.

Not only any clues about Touka Natsunagi, but any clues about myself had disappeared from this room. With this level of thoroughness, I'd be surprised if even a single strand of hair remained.

If I contacted my middle school, I wonder if they would show me a yearbook from the year I graduated or a roster? They'd probably refuse me, wanting to keep personal information secure. If I could ask a former classmate to lend me their yearbook, that would work just fine, but this was also not an option for someone with no friends in middle school. I didn't even remember any names, much less contact information.

The search was over in no time at all. There was nothing more I could do. I lied down on the faintly dusty floor and spread out my arms and legs, listening to the cicadas. The sun shone in through the windows from the west, drawing a misshapen orange rectangle on the opposite wall. The sharp smell of bug repellent wafted out of the open closet, and I mentally related it to the changing of seasons.

But in reality, it was right in the middle of summer. August 12th. The rainy season had long since cleared up, yet this ambiguous weather just kept going.


"Chihiro, are you home?"

My name was called from the hallway. It was my dad's voice.

It seemed I'd fallen asleep. Because I was lying on the floor, my muscles ached.

As I sat up and wiped the sweat off my forehead, the door opened, and my dad's face appeared.

"What're you doing there?"

On seeing his son's face for the first time in a year and a half, he spoke bluntly.

"I just came to get something. I'll leave soon."
"Doesn't seem to me like this room has anything to come get."
"You're right. There wasn't."

He shrugged his shoulders and started to turn, looking as if he couldn't bear to entertain me, but I called to him.

"I just want to make sure of something..."

Dad slowly turned to me. "What?"

"Have you ever used Lethe on me?"

There were a few seconds of silence.

"Never," he declared. "That's the way we raised you, right?"

In other words, he considered memory implanting and memory erasure to be in the same category.

"Then does the name Touka Natsunagi sound familiar to you?"

"Touka Natsunagi?", my father repeated, as if reading off the name of a rare flower. "No idea. Someone you know?"

"Don't worry, it's fine if it doesn't sound familiar."

"Hey now, I answered your questions, so you better at least explain what's going on here."

"I got a letter from a person by that name. She's calling herself an old classmate of mine. I figured it might be some kind of scam, but I don't trust my memory too well, so I wanted to check with you just in case."

I had prepared that lie in advance, by adding a bit to the story Emori had told me.

"Just in case, huh." Dad scratched his scruffy chin. "Were you always the diligent type?"

"Of course. Like my parents."

He laughed, and went out to the hallway. He was probably about to start drinking. Drinking whiskey and reminiscing about Mimories was the only thing he looked forward to in life.

When dad was indulging in fictional memories, he had a very gentle expression. An expression full of affection that he never once directed at his wife or son. If only reality had satisfied him, my father could've been a really good person. That's what I guessed.


As I put my shoes on by the front door, I realized my dad had been standing behind me. In one hand he held a glass with whiskey and ice, and in the other was a piece of paper folded four times.

"You mentioning a letter reminded me," he said. He already seemed to be getting drunk, as his whole face was turning red. "There was a letter addressed to you."

"To me?"
"Yeah. That said, it's from pretty long ago by now."

Dad tossed it to me. I picked up the paper from the floor and opened it.

And I was thrust into a whirlpool of confusion.

I was right to come here after all, I thought.

"Last winter, I stained my coat and borrowed yours temporarily, and that was in the inside pocket. I figured you'd say you didn't want it, but I'd feel bad for whoever wrote it if I threw it out, so I held onto it."

"No," I said, folding the letter up. "You really helped. Thank you for doing that."

My dad took a drink of whiskey and returned to the living room without a parting word.

After leaving the house, I again opened the letter with no sender.

This is what it said.

"I was happy to have met you, Chihiro. Goodbye."

*

On the train ride back home, I looked up the clinic I'd purchased my Mimories from on my phone.

When I typed in the name, the website for the clinic that was surely there when I checked three months ago had vanished from the search results. Thinking I got the name wrong, I took the clinic card out of my wallet, but I didn't notice any typo.

There was a phone number on the card. The reception hours would be over soon, so I got off the train at the nearest station to make a call. I sat on a bench on the platform and dialed the number, making sure it was correct.

The ringback tone didn't play.

"The number you have dialed is not in service. Please check the number and try your call again."

After attempting various other search terms, I learned that the clinic had shut down two months ago. But as much as I tried to dig deeper, I couldn't find any information beyond "it shut down." There was only one post to that effect on the town's community board.

I gave up, got on the next train, and returned to my apartment.

*

She was sleeping in bed. Of course, I mean my bed, not hers. She was curled up in those usual white pajamas, letting out light breaths.

I called to her, but she didn't show any sign of waking, so I timidly shook her shoulder. Why do I, the owner of this room, have to show concern for an intruder? Hesitating like this is only prolonging things further, I thought. But I didn't have the guts to slap her awake or anything.

After three shakes, she opened her eyes. Seeing my face, she happily said "Ah, welcome home." Then she sat up and did a little stretch.

"Sure enough, a freshly aired-out futon feels good."

I looked down at her wordlessly for a while.

...Who had written that letter, I wonder?

I had left only one coat at my parents' house, the duffle coat I wore in middle school. The last time I put my arms through that coat was in third year at graduation, so I could assume the letter was put in the inside pocket during the winter when I was 15.

But in middle school, there was no one so friendly with me as to write such a letter. Was it someone's idea of a prank? But the text was too self-contained for that. A prank would surely be trying to get some reaction out of me. They'd call me behind the school, or write a sender name.

I mentally compared the handwriting of the letter with the note left in the fridge. I could say it was similar if I wanted, and I could say it wasn't if I wanted. Besides, handwriting's bound to change at least a little from age 15 to age 20.

"What's wrong?"

Looking at me as I thought in silence, she cocked her head to the side.

Even that gesture was exactly like the Touka Natsunagi in my Mimories.

"...You're going to keep insisting you're my childhood friend, are you?"

"Yeah. Because that's what I am."

"My father told me he's never heard the name Touka Natsunagi. How do you explain that?"

"Doesn't that just mean one of us, me or your father, is lying?", she answered promptly. "Is your father an honest person?"

That shut my mouth.

Now that she mentioned it, there was no proof that dad had answered my questions honestly. My father who liked to collect fictions was, at the same time, someone who liked to spread fictions. If there were times he told lies for no reason, surely there were also times he told lies for a reason. If he'd lied to justify himself, surely he'd also lied to deny others.

That family was a pack of lies. How much could I trust my father who sat at the head?

"You've forgotten a lot of things."

The girl calling herself a childhood friend slowly stood up and shortened her distance from me.

"But that might be because you needed to forget."

Standing face to face like this, the gap between our heights at 15 had only grown. I knew that from the strangely different angle at which her face looked up at me. Her physique had become much more feminine, yet still, she had hardly any excess meat as usual, so imagining how I could now lift her up more easily than back then -

No. That's not my past.

"Just say it. What have I forgotten?"

Her expression clouded slightly. "I can't really tell you right now, Chihiro. It doesn't look like you're ready yet."

"That's how you intend to dodge the question, huh? If I'm forgetting something, give me at least a single piece of proof -"

I wasn't able to continue past that.

"Chihiro," she whispered, putting her face in my chest.

Her thin fingers stroked my back lovingly.

"You can take it slow. Just remember a little bit at a time."

My head shuddered, like hot liquid was being poured in through my ears.

I reflexively brushed her away. She lost balance and landed on the bed on her behind, then looked up at me, a bit surprised.

More than anything, I was relieved the bed was there for her to tumble onto.

After swallowing down a "Sorry, are you okay?" that made it up as far as my throat, I spoke.

"...Please leave."

Maybe because I felt guilty, what came out was a very timid phrase.

"Right. I get it."

She nodded obediently and innocently smiled, as if not minding at all that I'd violently pushed her.

"I'll come again. Good night."

When she returned to the room next door, a deep silence fell.

I put a cigarette in my mouth, hoping to erase the traces of her presence she left behind. I couldn't find my lighter, so I went to the kitchen to light it with the stove burner, and there I noticed a wrapped plate on the counter. Inside was omelette rice covered in demi-glace sauce, still warm.

After some hesitation, I threw the food in the trash. It's not like I was wary that it might be poisoned or anything.

That was just one way of expressing my intentions.

Once I finished my cigarette, I dug around in the back of a drawer, and prepared a little trick that could help me get the jump on the scammer. Then I poured half a glass of cold gin and drank it down straight. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, turned off the lights, and lied down in bed. When I closed my eyes, I faintly smelled her, so I got up, flipped the pillow, and lied down again. Of course, that was far from enough to do away with her scent, so that night, I dreamt I was napping with Touka Natsunagi.

In her well-cooled room, our young selves were sleeping together up close like friendly twins. The curtains were closed, so the room was dark, with a different kind of silence from night. Being a weekday, the residential district was totally quiet; I couldn't hear a thing other than wind chimes rustling in the hall. It was such a peaceful, quiet summer afternoon, you could imagine that all humanity except for us had died off.



Part 2
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