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Chapter 11: Your Story
A large envelope arrived to me at the end of September. Inside was Touka's personal record, and a short letter from her.
I looked over the letter first, then read the personal record. The letter was simple: a confession that she had New Alzheimer's, and an apology for using Mimories to try and deceive me. In comparison, the volume of the personal record was massive, and it took me four hours to read.
Forgetting about eating or sleeping, I read it over and over. Apparently, when she was a Mimory engineer, she read the personal records of her clients so much as to commit them to memory.
All the answers were in there. This personal record seemed to have been written when Touka was 18, so I could only guess at what circumstances led to her devising the Childhood Friend Plan, but now that I knew all this about her life, it wasn't a hard guess.
Sensing destiny in the fact she received a personal record from the client Chihiro Amagai, she created Mimories based on the theory of "what if we had met at age seven?", planting them in both our brains to save each other in our memory. Not only that, to make that lie a reality, she played the part of the childhood friend for me.
She chose to live the time she had left as "Touka Natsunagi."
That was probably the truth of it.
What a fool, I thought. She could've just handed this personal record to me and told me "we were fated to meet," and that would do. If I'd been shown her personal record from the start, I would be able to let go and love her. We would've been the ultimate pair from the beginning, without having to lean on false memories.
It saddened me to think that she could only believe in the power of falsehood to the very end. I lamented her carelessness, being so set on chasing after a vague happiness blown up like a bubble that she overlooked the certain happiness in front of her.
And more than anything, I cursed myself for being so afraid of being hurt that I didn't notice her distress signal.
I'd done something there was no taking back.
Only I could have saved Touka, I'm sure. I could understand her loneliness 100%. I could understand her despair 100%. I could understand her fear 100%.
Yes, the reason I continued to not take the Lethe was because I'd learned the fear of losing memories after taking the fake Lethe. That bottomless fear of losing who I was, the world falling out from under me.
She was battling that the whole time. No one to rely on, no one understanding her, no one consoling her; while she fought all on her own, as if praying for it, she kept waiting for me to have a change of heart.
I suppose I should have let Touka trick me. Like that man Okano who encountered a scammer and got sold an expensive painting, yet continued to believe in the existenceof his classmate Ikeda, I should have simply interpreted everything in a way that convenienced me. Then I could have danced happily in her palm.
Or if not that, I should have thoroughly looked into Mimories, like Emori. If I'd done that, maybe I'd eventually stumble upon that interview with Touka. Even if I didn't find that particular article, if I'd simply known that teenage Mimory engineers existed, it was possible I could've independently reached the truth that she was the creator of my Green Green. Then, maybe, I could have eased her loneliness, despair, and fear just a little bit.
However, I went with the worst option. I refused to believe her words, and yet didn't actively work to resolve my doubts either, leaving the mystery to be a mystery after only a cursory investigation. Why? Because while I was afraid of being tricked by her, on the other hand, I didn't want to wake up from the dream either. For as long as possible, I wanted to preserve a "perhaps" in the space between trust and distrust. I wanted to feign ignorance and accept Touka's affection from a safe place where it couldn't hurt me.
And then she forgot everything. She became unable to remember anything but the past few days, so even the short summer break we spent together had vanished without a trace. When she looked at my face, she didn't seem to know who I was.
The stare Touka gave me when we reunited in the apartment hallway reminded me of the stare my mother, who erased the memories of her family using Lethe, gave me when I saw her again. When I asked if she remembered me, she apologetically shook her head.
I didn't even ask myself "what's going on here?"
I just thought, ah, I've been forgotten by someone dear to me again.
Touka left her room carrying a big bag. I guessed she had come back to prepare for her hospitalization. I watched her go from the veranda. I wanted to chase after her and talk, but my legs wouldn't move. I wasn't confident I could keep my sanity if she gave me that indifferent stare again.
In less than two months, she would probably forget how to walk. She'd forget how to get meals. She'd forget how to move her body. She'd forget how to use her mouth. She'd forget how to breathe. Beyond that lay an unavoidable death.
As much as I wanted to apologize, the one for me to apologize to was no longer in this world. So I at least wanted to dedicate everything I had left to Touka. I vowed it in my heart. Not only this summer; I would use the rest of my life for her sake. Even after she left this world, forever.
I wanted to go meet Touka as soon as possible, but there were a few things I had to do first. I went to a salon and had my overgrown hair cut, then went into town and bought a few new clothes. I chose quality hair and clothes that would make her think of the "Chihiro Amagai" in her Mimories. Back at the apartment, I took a shower and put on the clothes I just bought, then I was finally ready.
Standing in front of the mirror, I looked over my face. I couldn't remember the last time I seriously looked at myself in a mirror, but I felt there was less stiffness in my expression than before. Of course, Touka was probably to thank.
I got on the bus and headed for the hospital I suspected she was at. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but the oppressive heat had left some time ago, so it was comfortable inside the bus. The level of green visible from the window gradually increased, the bus went around hilly roads by the dam and through a short tunnel, then stopped in front of a small sunflower field. I paid the fare and got off the bus.
Once the bus left, the area was enveloped in silence. I stood there and looked around at my surroundings. The land was surrounded by a dense thicket, with decrepit homes spotted around. The cool air was mixed with a smell of wet dirt.
The hospital was on the opposite shore from the park we repeatedly visited on our bike rides together. There was no guarantee Touka was here. It's just that if she was, it would explain her excessive curiosity about that hospital.
When I stood outside and casually looked up to the second floor, I saw someone standing at the window.
I focused my eyes on that person's face.
It was my childhood friend.
Let's do good this time, I thought.
The hospital room carried a thick smell of death. Not like the smell of a corpse, or even of incense. There was something there that made you feel there was a smell of death. Maybe you could say it lacked a sensation that should always exist in a place with living humans.
Touka was there. It hadn't even been a week since we last met, but she seemed a little skinnier. Or perhaps the shadow of death in the room just made it look that way.
She stood at the window, watching the scenery outside like always. She wore not her usual plain white pajamas, but a faded blue hospital gown. Maybe because it wasn't the right size, the sleeves were folded back. The blue notebook she held in her arm was probably a means for her to externally store memory. That told me how far the disease had progressed. Nothing was written on the front cover, and a cheap ball pen was held within it.
I stopped at the door to Touka's room and looked at her absentmindedly for a long time. She seemed to be finding peace in her hospital room, enjoying relaxation in that dreary place. It felt like the room itself also naturally accepted the presence of Touka.
That sense of harmony gave me a strong gut feeling that she might never leave this place again. And it was probably true. If there was any opportunity left for her to leave this hospital room, it would be after she had become "something that was once her." I couldn't bear to think about it.
Touka would soon be meeting a second death.
I was unable to speak to her. I didn't have the courage to break the intimate connection between her and the hospital room. Besides, I wanted to watch her from a slight distance like this as long as I could. Because this was the first time I'd seen her when she was alone.
Finally, Touka slowly turned around and noticed the presence of her guest. She tilted her head, brushed the hair from her cheek, and stared at my face. Then she said my name in a hoarse voice.
It's not like she still had the memories. She just found a few common points between me and the "Chihiro Amagai" in her Mimories, and made a natural guess from there. The same way I had reflexively spoken her name the first time we looked at each other up close. The overlap with certain episodes in the Mimories probably also aided her imagination.
I spoke her name very naturally. It was so gentle, I didn't think it came out of my throat. It seemed I didn't need to intentionally act it; I had fully become "Chihiro Amagai."
I'd become Touka Natsunagi's "hero."
Touka looked me over like she was seeing something unbelievable. As if to say "this shouldn't be happening, it must be some kind of mistake." She looked around the room as if looking for a camera crew. But it was just us there.
She asked me, looking terribly confused.
"Who... are you?"
"Chihiro Amagai. Your childhood friend."
I took a stool from a stack in the corner of the room and placed it by the bed, then sat. But Touka didn't move away from the window. With the bed between us, she gave me a wary stare.
"I don't have a childhood friend," she said at length.
"Then how do you know my name? You just called me "Chihiro," right?"
Touka quickly shook her head a few times, put her left hand to her chest, and took a deep breath. Then she spoke as if to convince herself.
"Chihiro Amagai is a Substite. A fictional person who only exists in my head. I've lost my memories down to the roots due to my New Alzheimer's disease. All that's left in me are false memories. It's true that I remember the name Chihiro Amagai, but that in itself signifies that Chihiro Amagai doesn't exist. Because it's forbidden for Substites to be modeled after real people." After saying all this in one go, she threw another question at me. "I'll ask again. Who are you?"
It must have been true that New Alzheimer's only took recollections. She still naturally retained her knowledge about the nature of Mimories - as well as her powers of reasoning.
Of course, I'd anticipated this happening. I briefly considered coming up with some suitable reasoning to fool her. But I reconsidered.
I wanted to try this again from the start, with the same method she used.
I wanted to carry on her Childhood Friend Plan exactly as-is, and prove that her idea wasn't wrong.
"I'm your childhood friend, Chihiro Amagai," I repeated.
She silently glared at me. Like a stray cat judging its distance from someone.
"If you can't believe me, you don't have to. Just remember this." I borrowed her words from before she lost her memory. "I'm on your side, Touka. No matter what."
After thinking it over all night, it appeared Touka reached the same conclusion I once had.
"My theory is that you're a scammer after my inheritance."
That's what she told me as soon as she saw my face the next day.
I dared not to deny it, and asked what thought process brought her to that conclusion.
"I asked my caretaker, and apparently, I'm fairly rich. You intend to lure me into a trap once I've lost my memories and don't know what's going on, don't you?"
I couldn't help but bitterly chuckle. This must be how Touka felt when she was trying to deceive me.
"What's so funny?" Her cheeks reddened as she glared at me.
"Oh, I just remembered something and got nostalgic."
"Don't try to fool me. Can you prove that you're not a scammer?"
"I can't," I replied honestly. "But if I was after your inheritance like you say, why would I want to act as the Substite Chihiro Amagai himself? I think acting as someone very similar to Chihiro Amagai would be much better at getting into your heart."
She gave some thought to my counter-argument for a while. Then she spoke coldly.
"That's not necessarily true. You might have been under the impression I was already losing the distinction between Mimories and memories. Most people have no idea that Mimories are resistant to being forgotten by New Alzheimer's, after all. Or maybe you thought my mind was so weakened, I didn't even care about the difference between truth and lies."
"Or maybe I was putting too much faith in the influence Mimories held," I appended before she could. "Or else, maybe there was a reason I had to act as your childhood friend himself."
"Don't think you can throw me off track like that. At any rate, the human Chihiro Amagai doesn't exist."
"I'm guessing just showing you my license or insurance card won't convince you?"
"Right. That sort of thing could always be faked. Besides, even if you were Chihiro Amagai himself, that's not proof that you were my childhood friend. These Mimories themselves might have been created to entrap me."
I sighed. I really was being shown my former self.
"Also, that's right, we can't dismiss the theory that you're doing this for the fun of it. There are people in this world who love to play with others' hearts and laugh in the shadows."
"You're just so pessimistic. You can't even consider that the boy you saved long ago is now trying to return the favor?"
She resolutely shook her head. "I can't imagine I have that kind of popularity. I was told how long I have left to live, yet not a single family member, friend, or coworker has come to visit me. I must have lived a lonely and meaningless life. The total lack of any albums or diaries proves that my past isn't worth remembering. Maybe it will be for the best that I lose all my memories before I die."
"True, your past might have been lonely," I acknowledged. "But it certainly wasn't meaningless. That's why I'm here. Because you're my "heroine," and I'm your "hero.""
"...How stupid is that?"
We had several similar exchanges after that.
"I can't imagine you could understand one bit," Touka said, her voice quivering slightly, "but even if they're fiction, my memories of Chihiro Amagai are my only foundation. It's no exaggeration to say they're my entire world. And you're sullying that holy name. You're posing as him to attract my affection, but it's having the opposite effect. I despise you for assuming the identity of Chihiro Amagai."
"Right. Those memories are more important than anything to you." I used her words against her. "You won't consider that's why they miraculously avoided being forgotten?"
"I will not. If only important memories could remain, there would be at least a few cases of that recognized. And there must be people with New Alzheimer's who have more wonderful memories than me."
"But no one's as attached to memories of a single person as you. Am I wrong?"
The few seconds of silence eloquently told me of the trembling in her heart.
Still, she spoke obstinately.
"Whatever you say, these memories must be Mimories. It's too good as a story to be true. Each and every memory is too comfortable. The feeling that they were written just to answer my desires comes through clear as day. These are certainly Mimories written based on my personal record. I must have thought that despite the dark life I'd led, I'd at least find salvation in fiction."
As I was about to speak my next counter-argument, a music box tune began to play to mark the end of the meeting period.
Our conversation halted as we listened to the song.
There was no room for doubt that she and I were thinking the same thing.
"This really is a kind of curse," I laughed.
Touka ignored me, but I didn't overlook the fact that her stiff expression had loosened a little bit.
"I'll be leaving now. Sorry to bother you. See you tomorrow."
As I stood up and turned around, she spoke.
"Goodbye, Mr. Scammer."
She used a blunt tone, but I didn't sense any animosity.
I turned back, told her "I'll come earlier tomorrow," and left the room behind.
For the next few days, Touka continued calling me "Mr. Scammer." Whatever I tried to say, she could only perceive it as a scammer's cajolery, and even ironically quipped "You did a good job again today."
But I soon saw through to the fact it was an act. A far quicker thinker than myself, she realized much earlier on that there was no merit in me behaving like her childhood friend. As well as the fact that I was showing her legitimate affection.
It seemed Touka wasn't afraid of being tricked by me, but of becoming close to me at all. She acted indifferent likely because she drew a line in our relationship. When her guard weakened and she found herself about to act affectionately, she would double down on treating me as a scammer to widen the distance between us and keep self-control.
I could understand how she felt. It was certain that she would soon vacate this world, so she wanted as little luggage as possible. Now, she had the same definition for "things I'm about to gain" and "things I'm about to lose." The higher the value of life, the greater the threat of death. She wanted to keep her value of life at zero, so that when she gave up the ghost, she would also have chosen the right time to give up.
That said, she hadn't seemed to reach such a deep resignation as to completely cast me away, so she was obviously happy when I showed up to her hospital room, and obviously lonely when I left. Even the one time I was so overcome with emotion that I hugged her tight, she showed no resistance at all, and when I moved away from her, she was biting her lip with reluctance. Occasionally she'd slip and call me Chihiro, though was always quick to append "...imitator, Mr. Scammer."
To spend as much time with her as I could, I requested a leave of absence from school, and quit my job. While not at the hospital, I was reading documents about New Alzheimer's, searching for ways to extend her life even though I knew it was meaningless. Of course, those efforts all ended in vain.
Touka's face clouded when I asked her why she didn't listen to music in the hospital room.
"I didn't bring any here. All of the music I had was records. Since I'd only be able to bring some of it anyway, I chose to leave it all behind..."
"Do you regret it now?"
"Just a little bit," she nodded. "It's nice and quiet in this room during the day, but a little too quiet at night."
"I thought as much."
I took a portable music player out of my pocket and handed it to her.
"I put all of the songs you liked on here."
Touka nervously took it from my hand. She touched the screen to figure out how it worked, then put in earbuds and pressed play.
For a while after that, she listened to music. Her expression didn't change, but the slight sway of her body told me she was enjoying it. It seemed like I'd pleased her.
I thought I'd leave my seat for a bit so I didn't bother her. As I quietly got up from the seat, her head snapped up. She swiftly took out the earbuds and went "Um..."
"...Where are you going?"
I told her I was thinking of having a smoke, and she sighed "I see," then put the earbuds back in, returning to the flood of sound.
I went along with my impromptu lie and smoked in a smoking room outside the building. After just three puffs, I put it out, leaned on the wall, closed my eyes, thought back on Touka trying to keep me from leaving, and let my heart quietly shiver.
Whatever the reason for it was, she still wanted me now. That made me incredibly happy.
When I visited the next day, Touka was still deeply engrossed in music. Her hands were on her ears, her eyes happily narrowed like a cat relaxing in sunlight, and she had just the slightest smile on her lips.
When I spoke to her, she took out the earbuds and greeted me with a friendly "Hello, Mr. Scammer."
"I listened to all the music on it."
"All of it?", I repeated. "I thought the total time of all the tracks was over 10 hours..."
"Yes. That's why I haven't slept since yesterday."
She covered her mouth and yawned, then wiped her eyes with her index fingers.
"Every single song was perfect for me. I was just starting my second loop."
I laughed. "I'm glad it made you happy, but you should get some sleep."
But she didn't seem to hear me. She sat up in bed, showed me the music player's display, and spoke with a dizzy face. "I've listened to this one over ten times already..."
She remembered something and clapped her hands, then put one earbud in her ear, and offered the other to me.
"Let's listen to them together, Chihiro."
She'd completely forgotten to call me Mr. Scammer. But it was only reasonable that would happen. Her memories wiped, she got to listen to the playlist she'd built over her entire life for the first time. There could be no greater luxury for people who love music. (And while it's possible New Alzheimer's didn't make you forget music, it probably made you forget your connection with that music.)
I sat on the bed with her and put the other earbud in my right ear. She switched the player to monaural mode and pressed play.
Old songs I'd listened to with her many times during our summer break began to play.
During the third song, Touka's eyelids began to droop. After making a pendular motion like a metronome for a bit, she leaned her weight on me and fell asleep in my lap. I probably should have laid her down on the bed, but I couldn't move from that position. I carefully reached over and lowered the volume on the player, and I gazed tirelessly at her face.
Suddenly, I had the casual thought that I was going to lose this person.
I still couldn't fully grasp what that meant for me. The same way you don't know what the end of the world means for you. The tragedy was just so massive, it was effectively impossible to measure it with my ruler.
In any event, right now I shouldn't be clouded by grief or cursing fate. I should put all that off for now, and just think about how to enrichen the time Touka and I spent together. If I wanted to despair, I could do that after it was all over. Because I would surely have far more time for that than I knew what to do with.
After a nap, Touka finally regained her composure. She apologized for falling asleep in my lap, then stared at my face, and sighed deeply with resignation.
"Mr. Scammer, you really know just how to make me happy. I hate it."
I silently lamented the return of "Mr. Scammer."
"I'm sort of exhausted," she said listlessly, and collapsed face-up on the bed. "Hey, Mr. Scammer. If you tell me the truth right now, I'll give you all my inheritance. I don't have anyone else to leave it to, at any rate."
"Then I'll tell the truth. I'm hopelessly in love with you, Touka."
"I'm not lying. You must be aware of it too, right?"
She rolled over, putting her back to me.
"...What's so appealing about a girl as empty as me?"
"You have bad taste."
I could tell from her tone that she was smiling.
Touka slowly but surely began to smile for me. She came to prepare a seat for me, called "see you tomorrow" when the meeting was over and I left, and made napping in my lap a daily occurrence (though she always called it an accident).
According to her nurse, Touka talked about me constantly when I wasn't there. "She's looking out the window all morning, eagerly waiting for you to show up," the nurse whispered to me.
If she accepted me that much, she should have just gone along with my lies, yet Touka wouldn't back down on that last line. I was strictly just "Mr. Scammer" gunning for her inheritance, and she simply dared to enjoy her time with said scammer; she never broke from this stance. Just like a certain someone had once done.
One evening, Touka sounded melancholy as she leaned on my shoulder.
"I must be quite the prey in your eyes, Mr. Scammer. I'm so weakened that if you showed me a little kindness, I feel I might just give in."
Though I guess I more or less have given in, she quietly appended.
"Then I'd be happy if you fell for it harder and recognized me as your childhood friend."
"I can't do that."
"Am I really that shady?"
After about a three-comma pause, she answered.
"I can somehow tell your affection isn't a lie. But..."
"I mean," she said hoarsely, "all my memories have been erased, but my memories of a single boy are still around. I was abandoned by my family and have no friends, but that boy comes to visit me every day without fail. You say you like me even though I'm worthless and can't even work anymore. Who can could such a contrived story?"
"...Right. I thought the same way."
She jumped up and stared a hole through my face.
"You admit you're lying?"
"Nope." I slowly shook my head. "I think it's inevitable that you can't believe me. I'm painfully acquainted with the feeling of seeing anything too good to be true as a trap. ...But sometimes those things happen in life, by some mistake. Just like a life of only happiness is highly unlikely, a life of only misery is highly unlikely too. Can't you believe a little more in your happiness?"
Those words were also directed at my past self.
I should have believed in the happiness I had then.
Touka fell silent to ponder my words, but soon let out a breath.
"At any rate, having happiness this late is just empty."
She put her left hand to her chest to suppress her heartbeat, and smiled weakly.
"So I'm fine with you being Mr. Scammer."
But that was the last day she was able to keep up that bluff.
The next day, I was greeted in the hospital room by the sight of Touka sitting in bed, holding her knees, and trembling.
When I spoke, she lifted her head and tearfully said my name, "Chihiro." Not Mr. Scammer.
Then she got off the bed, stumbled over to me, and buried her face in my chest.
As I stroked her back, I tried to think about what could've happened to her.
But really, I didn't have to think about it.
The time that had to come, had come. That's all it was.
Seeing that Touka was regaining a little composure, I asked her.
"Have your Mimories started to vanish too?"
She nodded slightly in my chest.
My ears quietly rang.
For an instant, I felt an uncertain sensation, like the world had shifted a few millimeters.
The erasure of Mimories.
That signified that she was finally approaching true zero.
It meant we didn't have have a month left.
The next thing this demon would lay its hands on was her life.
From the moment she learned she had New Alzheimer's, she knew this day would come.
She should've accepted it by now. She should have been ready.
But in the end, I didn't know anything.
That day, I learned the true reason Lethe was developed.
At age 20, I finally understood what it was that people used the power of tiny machines to try and forget.
She kept crying for hours. As if she were trying to wring out all the tears she had absorbed in her life.
By the time the westering sun filled the hospital room with a pale orange, she'd finally stopped crying.
In the corner of my blurred vision, I saw her long shadow sway.
"Hey... tell me about the past."
Touka spoke in a dry voice.
"Talk about me and Chihiro."
I spoke to Touka of false memories.
The day we first met. The time I was convinced she was a ghost. Biking around town with her sitting on the back. Visiting her house every day on summer break and talking through the window. Reuniting in the classroom the next school term. Being appointed as the only friend who would look after her, as she couldn't fit in at school. Coming to pick her up every morning and walking to school together. Being together on weekdays, weekends, at every moment. Her constantly holding my hand. Our classmates teasing us for our relationship in the later grades. A heart with our names in it being drawn on the blackboard. Me trying to erase it, but her saying to leave it. Listening to records over and over in a drab study. Her proudly explaining the meanings of lyrics. Staying over at her house on days off. Watching a movie screening together and feeling awkward when there was a risque scene. Sitting next to each other on the bus for a hike. Her nearly running out of energy in the mountains, and me letting her have my shoulder. Telling friends in a tent at outdoors school who the girl I liked was, and it spreading around class the next day. Her having received similar treatment. Us getting paired up for a folk dance, and her hanging her head the whole time. Her having a serious asthma attack during summer in sixth grade. For some time after that, her being beside herself with worry every time she coughed. Me writing "I hope Touka's asthma gets better" as my Tanabata wish, and her eyes watering when she saw it. Starting clubs in middle school and having less time to be together. Being in separate classes for the first time in second year of middle school. That causing us to start viewing each other as potential romantic partners. Our way of interacting getting slightly awkward. Her always waiting in the classroom for me to finish my club activities. The two of us learning incorrect lyrics to Firefly's Light. Being teased by our classmates in third year, in a different way than elementary school. Deciding to spread all kinds of real and fake rumors about our relationship, and suddenly no longer being teased at all afterward. Her face turning bright red when she heard that. Being chosen as the anchor for the relay at the track meet. Collapsing after running as fast as I could, and being nursed by her in the infirmary. The summer festival at age 15 being somehow special. How wonderful she looked in her yukata. Putting up our defenses and exchanging a sly kiss. That kiss being not the third or the fourth, but the fifth. Both of us acting like we didn't feel anything to preserve the status quo. Withdrawing from our clubs, having more time together, and being glad for it. Me bringing alcohol from home to help console her family troubles, and drinking it together. Then us cutting loose a little too much. Not being able to make eye contact the next day out of awkwardness. People catching on during preparations for the culture festival, and putting us together. Talking in a pitch black classroom about things we usually wouldn't. The pretty moon we saw from the veranda. Having a secret rendezvous on the night of a field trip. Acting together when groups were allowed free time, and the others tacitly consenting. Going to the library together and studying so we could go to the same high school. The first snow of the season falling on the way home from the library. Catching her frolicking under the snow and streetlights. Purposefully not bringing gloves because I wanted to hold her hand as we walked home. Us talking strangely little after New Year's. Her move date already being decided by that time. Getting more elaborate chocolate than usual for Valentine's. Her finding out that I kept the empty boxes of her Valentine's chocolates every year and laughing. Suddenly finding out about the move and being harsh to her. Making her cry for the first time. Coming to her house at a later date to apologize and reconcile. Promising to meet each other even after we went our separate ways. Her being more prone to tears as graduation approached. Her laughing while crying, and crying while laughing. Going around town together after graduation and talking about our memories. Meeting in the empty study the day before her move and talking about heroes and heroines. Things that might have happened between the two of us. Things we wanted to happen. Things that should have happened.
I kept talking about everything I could recall. Touka listened with a peaceful expression on her face, like listening to a lullaby. When she heard an episode she remembered, she smiled and said "There was that," and when she heard an episode she forgot, she smiled and said "So there was that." And she made short notes in the blue notebook she held.
When I told her of memories from age 7, she became a 7-year-old girl, and when I told her of memories from age 10, she became a 10-year-old girl. Of course, the same thing happened to me. In that way, we relived the span from age 7 to age 15.
I realized I was talking about episodes that weren't contained in the Mimories only when I was nearing the end of the story.
The Green Green Touka had created left plenty of blank space. Maybe she didn't have enough time to work on it, or maybe she thought it was sufficient to include a minimum number of effective moments. Either way, there was room there for free interpretation. Unknowingly, I filled in the gaps with my own imagination.
By adding essential episodes based on an essential idea, I provided complementary details to the Mimories. Those anecdotes blended into Touka's story very naturally, and resonated with it, making the Green Green more colorful by the day. While I was away from the hospital, I kept revising our story. I could beautify the past as much as I wanted through my interpretation - as long as I stayed true to my imagination.
But even trying to fill in every nook and cranny of the blank space, there was a lack of memories. In five days, I had told everything contained within the Mimories, leaving nothing out. When I finished talking about the day we promised to reunite and Touka moved away, there was nothing left after.
A hollow silence endured.
Touka asked innocently:
"What happened next?"
Nothing happened next, I said in my mind. You only made Mimories from age 7 to age 15. The story neatly tied up here, and the only girl who would know the rest was no longer in this world.
Even so, I couldn't just put a period on the story here. This story was the last thread tying her to life. I felt that the moment she lost that thread, her empty body would be blown away by the first breeze, taking her far away in the blink of an eye.
So I decided to take the baton of Touka's fantasizing.
If her story had ended, my story had to begin here.
Taking the same approach I used to fill in the blanks of the Green Green, I ran a detailed simulation of our lives from age 15 to age 20. I produced a proper "continuation," in which we who were put far apart overcame that distance and obtained an even stronger love.
So I told it. Touka seemed to accept my story naturally, the same as before.
Day after day, I kept weaving lies. As if I were Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, I prayed that perhaps the longer I kept the story going, the longer Touka would live.
For those two weeks, it felt like Touka and I were the only people in the world. We huddled together like the last survivors of humanity, sitting and talking about old memories on a sunny porch as we watched the end of the world.
And very soon, I would be the only survivor.
Just once, I had a dream. A cure to New Alzheimer's had been perfected, Touka was chosen as a test subject, and once she was cured, all her memories revived. I came to pick her up when she left the hospital, we hugged and shared our joy under a clear blue sky, and as we held pinkies promising to make some real memories together, I woke up.
A cheap happy ending, I thought. Sudden, forceful, and all too harmonious. It might be allowed in Mimories, but it would absolutely be derided in any other medium. Miracles are only allowed to exist somewhere away from the main thread.
But I didn't care. It could be cheap, sudden, forceful, unrealistically harmonious. I didn't care how poorly-made a story it was. I prayed for that dream to become reality.
I mean, it hasn't even started yet. Our relationship was only just beginning. A real love budded from the commonality deep in our souls, and with that, our long loneliness should have been rewarded.
But in reality, it was over before it even began. The end credits were already starting by the time she truly understood me, and the audience was starting to leave their seats by the time I truly understood her. Our love was like a cicada in October, having nowhere to go and simply perishing. It was all just too late.
What if we could be given only a month's postponement? It would just add on a month's worth of happiness and a month's worth of unhappiness, I concluded while thinking late into the night. The efforts I expended looking for possibilities would probably make it that much harder to part.
A love that ended the moment it began, or a love that ended just before it began - which is more tragic? Maybe it's a meaningless question, though. Those two tragedies are both the worst, so you can't give an order to them.
A story is something you can continue to write for as long as you feel like. The reason stories always come to an end in spite of this is not because the writer demands it, but the story itself does. Once you hear that voice calling, no matter how much you feel there's not enough story, you have to come to a suitable compromise and leave the story. Like the shoppers who hear Firefly's Light.
One afternoon in October, just after the clock passed 3, I heard that voice calling. I knew that the story I was telling had ended.
I still had some blank space I could squeeze anecdotes into. However, it wasn't space that was the issue. Nothing more existed that I felt could be added to my story.
That meant the story had been finished.
Any further additions would be superfluous. I knew that from my senses as a storyteller.
It felt like Touka, sitting beside me, intuitively understood that too as a former Mimory engineer. She didn't ask "What happened next?" anymore. She closed her eyes and soaked in the echo for a few minutes, but soon she got off the bed, stood by the window, and did a stretch. Then she let out a little breath and turned around.
I knew she was about to say something. But I felt like I couldn't let her say it. If I let her say it, there'd be no going back.
I desperately looked for words to follow up my last sentence. But I couldn't think of a single one that I should add on.
Then, she broke the silence.
I didn't respond. It took all I had to resist it.
She kept going anyway.
"Before you came today, I was rereading my notebook and wondering. Why are you doing all this for me? Why do you know the contents of my Mimories? Why do you keep acting like my childhood friend?"
After a short silence, she smiled ephemerally.
She used my name again.
"Thank you for going along with my stupid lies."
Lies are something that are always exposed.
She sat back down next to me, and looked up at my hung head from below.
"I was the one who started lying first, wasn't I?"
I kept my silence for a long time, but realized it was futile, and replied "Yeah." Touka just said "I see" and smiled with her eyes.
We didn't need any further explanations. She had seen through to the truth with her astonishing imagination and the fragmented information recorded in her blue notebook. That was it.
She didn't appear disappointed. That said, she also didn't appear pleased that everything was a lie. She just appeared to be thinking about the complex story that had been put on between the two of us.
Outside the window, an airplane drew a thin line in the blue sky, which then vanished. The massive cumulonimbus clouds that occupied the August skies were gone without a trace, and only tiny clouds like scrapes on a car remained.
Far in the distance, there was the sound of a railroad crossing. The train blew its horn, the sound of it racing down the track grew distant, and a few seconds later, the crossing sound stopped.
Touka muttered something.
"It'd be nice if it were all true."
I shook my head.
"That's not right. It's because this story is a lie that it's much kinder than the truth."
She linked her hands together in front of her chest, as if holding something, and nodded.
"It's kind because it's a lie."
I have a last request, Touka said. It was her final lie.
She took a white medicine packet out of a cabinet drawer and handed it to me.
"What's this?", I asked.
"The Lethe that was in your room, Chihiro. The one that should have come to you in the first place: the Lethe to erase the memories of your childhood."
I gazed at the package in my hand. Then I guessed her intention.
If she was returning the Lethe to me at this point... then it would be like that, would it?
"I want you to drink it here."
She spoke what I expected her to, word for word.
"I want your childhood to only belong to me."
If she wanted it, then I had no reason to refuse. I nodded without a word, left the room to buy mineral water from a vending machine, then returned. I poured the water in the glass Touka had prepared, tore open the package, and dissolved it.
Then I drank it in one gulp.
It didn't taste bitter, or like it had any foreign substance at all. It was really just like regular water.
But before long, the effects of the Lethe started to show. I casually reached into my pocket, but something that should have been there wasn't, but I couldn't remember what that was - vague yet urgent anxieties like that hit me one after another. But those evil hands all turned to ash before they could touch me and scattered to the wind. That's what the fear of forgetting was like.
"It's started?", Touka asked.
"Yeah," I said, pushing my fingers against my forehead. "Seems like it has."
She stroked her chest with relief,
"That was a lie, earlier."
and then told me a spoiler.
I slowly looked up.
Touka was there smiling sadly.
"What you just drank, Chihiro, was the Lethe to erase your memories of me."
With that, she took out another package of Lethe from the cabinet drawer and showed it to me.
"This is the real one."
My vision warped. The Lethe seemed to really be getting to work now. I had the illusion of my body being torn apart, and without thinking, I opened up my hands to make sure I still had ten fingers.
"Sorry for always lying. But this is my real deal final lie," she said in a sing-song voice. "Before I lost my memories, apparently I was always worried about bothering you until the very end, Chihiro. Still, I wanted to stay with you for as long as I could, so I entrusted the role of wiping the slate clean to my post-memory-loss self."
Touka stood up from bed and tore the other Lethe package, then scattered the contents out the open window. The nanobots were carried away on the wind and vanished like smoke.
She spun around and smiled healthily.
"We'll have the fact we even met end as a lie."
I looked toward the clock by the bed. Six minutes had already passed since I drank the Lethe. If my memories would be erased in thirty minutes, I had twenty-four left. No matter how much I struggled, there was no resisting Lethe once you drank it. Even if I threw up the entire contents of my stomach, the nanobots had already reached my brain.
I gave up on resistance and asked her.
"Can I hug you until I forget?"
"Sure," she said happily. "But you might be a little confused when you forget everything."
"I'll say it's something I asked for. Like I wanted to feel someone's warmth before I died."
"But that's the truth, isn't it?"
She laughed. With a sound between "ehehe" and "ahaha."
Every minute, Touka asked me.
I replied each time.
Good, she said, and nestled her face against my chest.
"But we're getting there."
An hour elapsed.
Touka gently parted from me and stared at my face, dumbfounded.
"...Why do you still remember?"
The laugh I'd been holding in burst out.
"At least it's both of us being liars."
She didn't seem to understand what I meant.
So I also spoiled it for her.
"What I drank was the Lethe to erase the memories of my childhood."
"But you never even had a chance to switch..."
She gasped, and shut her mouth closed.
That's right. There were plenty of chances.
If you went further than two months back.
"Could it be..." She gulped. "You switched them from the start?
"I knew you would probably play this kind of trick, Touka. So I believed in you and drank it."
That first night I threw Touka's home cooking into the trash, I prepared a little trick that could help me get the jump on her. Namely, I switched the two packages of Lethe.
My thoughts went like so. For the time being, all she had stolen was my spare key, and she hadn't touched the Lethe. But if she was a scammer, then the moment she saw it, she would definitely try to use it for nefarious purposes. If she erased my childhood memories, the market share of "Touka Natsunagi" in my memories would shoot up. There would be no one for me but her.
Of course, if all I wanted was to avoid such an outcome, I just had to hide the Lethe out of her sight. I could throw it in a locker at school or work and lock it up. But I went and kept the Lethe in an easy-to-find place. That was a trap to force her into action. I thought I'd set out some good bait to advance the situation.
And to really play a trick on her, I swapped the two Lethe packages. By doing this, if she did something like slip the Lethe into my drink, I would only lose the memories of Touka Natsunagi.
But later on, unexpectedly, Touka switched out the Lethe. Both of the packages were replaced with fake powder. The stolen Lethe stayed in Touka's hands, and before she completely lost her memories, she got the idea of using it to erase all my memories of her. She didn't even consider that I had swapped which was which.
Touka sent a message to her future self. (Presumably, she timed it to arrive just before her life ran out.) But reading the letter from her past self, Touka probably thought this: Even if I say "please forget about me," I know Chihiro Amagai isn't the kind of person who'll just listen and obey. So she made the plan of lying "I want your childhood to only belong to me," and having me drink the switched Lethe.
Her miscalculation was that I too saw through that tendency of hers. The moment she told me "I want your childhood to only belong to me," I knew that was a lie. True, she was a self-centered and selfish person, but she wasn't the type to take something from me at the very, very end. That clearly went against her behavior.
After all, she was a girl trying to be a "heroine."
I believed in her lie and drank down the Lethe without hesitation. If the Lethe was still switched, that would defy her expectations and actually erase the memories of my childhood.
I won that bet. Now, my childhood had only Touka.
"...I'm no match for you, Chihiro."
She lost her strength and collapsed back on the bed. Then she spoke with stunned amazement.
"I'm sure you'll become a much greater liar than I ever was."
We laughed together. Very affectionately. Like real childhood friends.
"Now, since that was your last lie back there, I'll have you answer my next question honestly."
Touka slowly sat up. "What?"
"Were you disappointed that I didn't forget you?"
"Not at all," she immediately replied. "I'm as happy as could be that I can keep talking with you, Chihiro."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"You want to kiss?"
"...Shoot, you said it first."
We gently brought our faces together. And not to confirm anything, but just to kiss, we kissed.
The next day, Touka's condition took a sudden turn. At least, those are the words the doctor used. But I didn't feel a shred of the tension that the words "sudden turn" brought to mind. Just as a firefly's light soundlessly disappears into darkness, her final moments were quiet and peaceful.
On a clear, pleasant October morning, the curtain fell on Touka's short lifetime.
It rang in the end of the short summer that felt like an eternity.