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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.
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."
"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."
"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."
"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.
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.
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.