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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."
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."
"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."
"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?"
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."
"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.
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.
She spoke my name.
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.