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Chapter 4: Sheer White, Of Course
Because I had no tendency to read, a "library" to me meant "the school library," and "the school library" meant "a place of refuge." From grade school to high school, libraries were a kind of refuge, as well as a kind of detainment center.
Students who had no place in the classroom, unable to fit in with the rest, fled to the library first. Students who had no place in the library either fled to the infirmary. Those who had no place even in the infirmary holed up at home. Like going from a detainment center to a jail, and from a jail to a prison. There were at least a few students who just suddenly stopped attending, but the majority of the incompatible went through this kind of process for their withdrawal from school life. And most of them never again set foot in a classroom.
Most of the "library dropouts" would return to class after a few hours. The small portion who spilled out of the library became "infirmary dropouts," and it was rare for anyone to crawl up out of there. Students who stayed in the library for months were practically non-existent; those were either the now-endangered species of true readers, or weirdos like myself who became too suited for the library.
In middle school and high school, I spent large portions of my long lunch breaks in the library. But I can't recall a single memory of picking up any of the books there. I was doing one of two things: studying, or sleeping.
One part of it was a simple lack of interest in books, but more importantly, I felt like I wanted to always stay aware of the fact I wasn't someone who was using the library as intended. I didn't want to be lumped in with those who fastidiously pored over books with a face that said "I'm here because I want to read, unlike the rest of you who are just escaping the classroom." (Though thinking about it now, what they were doing and what I was doing were fundamentally the same.)
So although that was the only form in which I cared to be in a library, on this day, I had come to the prefecture library with a proper motive. Of course I hadn't come to check out a book. I might ultimately end up doing so, but there was something I wanted to try first.
I showed my card at the front desk and filled out a form for permission to use the database. I could access medical business databases from the library computers. That was why I hadn't gone to the nearby city library, but to the distant prefecture library. Mimory-related research had made its most rapid advancements in the past few years, so I wanted to get the most up-to-date information I could from technical magazines.
The last time I came here, I researched the safety of Lethe. My goal today was to research how Mimory implantation might cause confused memories.
To be more specific, this is what I wanted to know. Can people mistake reality for Mimories? Is it possible for them to become convinced that their actual childhood is the product of Green Green?
It's not as if I believed that girl, of course. But in light of my indecisiveness last night, I couldn't deny there was a part of me still wanting to believe in the "reality theory." If I really do believe she's a scammer, I shouldn't be getting put out of sorts this badly.
I wanted clear evidence telling me why. I needed conviction that Mimories were Mimories no matter what, and had no relation to reality. Otherwise, I would surely be tricked by her sooner or later.
No, if there's anyone tricking me, it's me. My desire for her words to be the truth, my desire for Touka Natsunagi to exist, they're spontaneously causing the confusion in my memories.
I had to cut my naïve hopes at the roots.
I typed some general terms in the search box and printed out every bit of material that looked even a little worth reading. I mindlessly worked for about an hour, and after looking over most of the titles, I grabbed my printed documents and headed to a reading room. And I spent half the day reading through them.
I found a handful of cases for the opposite situation. It did not seem too uncommon to mistakenly believe that events in your Mimories really happened. It told me that in the end, people believe what they want to believe. When they can't bear reality, people will distort their senses. That's easier to do than changing reality.
On the other hand, while I searched for it plenty, I didn't find a single case of people thinking real events were Mimories. I was relieved. I'd managed to nip at least one of my worries in the bud. It's possible I just went about my search in the wrong way, but just knowing there weren't likely any major cases of those symptoms was huge.
I took a big breath and leaned back in the chair. Only then did I notice it was pitch black outside. The library had lost about half of the visitors from during the day. I stuffed the documents in my bag, lightly massaged my eyes, and stood up.
After taking two steps past the automatic entrance door, I suddenly smelled the dense scent of a summer night. I had a brief dizzy spell, probably from my inability to keep up with the quantity of information that smell, by association, brought to mind. 19 years' worth of summer memories were laid out end to end, running alongside me.
The smell of a summer night is the smell of memory. That's the thought I had every time this season came around.
It was exactly the time of day when workers coming home from work and students coming home from school mingled together in the train. "Rush hour" may not mean much in rural areas, but being in an enclosed space with passengers whose shirts were soaked with a day's worth of sweat soured my mood.
I held tight to a strap, gazing out through the windows at the town lights rushing past. About every five minutes, a wave of languid sleepiness came in and receded. My overexerted eyes were as bleary as if I'd been up all night. However, there was value in having that kind of fatigue. Tonight, I could probably confront that scammer and not even be fazed.
The train shook severely as it took a curve. A middle-aged man standing beside me lost his balance and bumped into my shoulder. He gave me an accusing stare, but after that one look, became absorbed in what I could tell was some kind of gossip magazine.
I pretended to be pushed by a passenger on the opposite side to sneak a peek at what he was reading.
I had decided from the start that it would be some worthless article.
The outlined title immediately caught my eye.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Substite
My drowsiness was blown away in an instant.
I kept myself from talking to him right that moment, waiting until the man disembarked. He got off one station before mine. I followed after him, and after passing the ticket gate, called to him.
The man turned around. After a few seconds, he seemed to realize I was the passenger who was standing next to him on the train.
"What is it?", the man said timidly, a complete inversion of his arrogant attitude earlier.
"Um, about the magazine you were reading before..."
I was going to ask the name of the magazine, but the man said "Oh, something caught your interest?", and held the magazine tucked under his arm out to me.
"I was going to throw it away anyway, so you can have it."
I thanked him and took the magazine. The man switched his suitcase to his freed-up hand and gracefully departed.
I went back through the ticket gate, sat on a faded bench on the train platform, and opened the magazine. I found the article in no time. It wasn't even half a page long, but the information there was more valuable to me than any of the dozens of documents I'd read at the library today.
It was about a young man who lost his wife.
She died before his very eyes. It was a brutal way to go. A miserable end that denied her any respect as a human, and would make those who witnessed it have difficulty remembering how she'd been in life. Right after his wife lost her life, the man was set on purchasing Lethe. Because his wife probably wouldn't want to remembered this way, either.
It wasn't like they could extract only the sad memory. If it was only her death he couldn't remember, there was no way that wouldn't cause inconsistencies. Before long, he would likely attempt to get that memory back. To forget it, he would have to thoroughly forget. Everything from the day he met her, to the day they parted.
And that's what he did. He used Lethe to erase all memories related to his wife.
But even though the memories were gone, the ever-present sense of loss, like he'd lost half his body, wouldn't leave him. Even so, he didn't feel any desire to remarry (though he thought this would be his first marriage). Just like the sense of loss, the fear of losing his partner was also deeply engraved in his brain.
The choice the man took was to use Honeymoon; that is, to obtain Mimories of a fictional marriage. One month after receiving counseling at the clinic, the Honeymoon created based on his latent desires arrived. It fit perfectly into the hole in his heart. He couldn't even feel the Mimory engineer's hand in it. These are exactly the memories I was seeking. He loved the false memories of his wife, and found peace of mind in them.
But not too long after, he began to have nightmares. He couldn't remember them when he was awake, but he at least remembered he was having the same one over and over. It felt like it contained all the malice in the world, and he cried into his pillow from the time he fell asleep to until he woke.
Two years later, he learned that the memories he thought were Mimories were his actual past. What he had taken that day was not Honeymoon, but Memento. He was mistakenly given not nanobots that implanted Mimories, but nanobots that brought back erased memories. They had gotten him mixed up with another customer who had a similar name. The person he thought was his fictional wife was his departed real wife.
Unfortunately, the article didn't touch on what he did after remembering all this - whether he decided to take Lethe again or not.
After reading over the article three times, I looked up. The train that came ten minutes later was sparsely populated, and all the passengers looked exhausted. I sat down on the side, closed my eyes, and got my thoughts in order.
I had no guarantee the article was a true story. Maybe it was just something a writer fabricated, with no basis whatsoever.
But it made sense that such a thing could conceivably happen. Memento's ability to recover memories isn't perfect. If you're still missing "the memory of erasing your memory" and can only remember the core part, it'd only be natural to assume those are Mimories.
Now I was back to square one. No, maybe it was worse than square one. I was entranced by this new, dreamlike theory I was putting together. The Mimories I thought were a product of Green Green were actually real memories repaired by Memento; I'd only temporarily lost them because of Lethe. So those wondrous days were no pipe dream, for my childhood friend Touka Natsunagi really existed - alas, that possibility was making my heart dance.
Just because I had no tendency to read, it didn't mean I had a tendency to listen to music either. On sleepless nights, I might put on a radio station, but that was it. I'd never once spent any money on music. So I don't have a clue what songs are popular or what the classics are.
But I could immediately remember the title of that song.
She was lying in wait in my room again today. While standing in the kitchen putting a meal together, she was humming.
It was an old song. A song Touka Natsunagi often hummed. Her father was a record collector, so she had a fair bit of knowledge about music.
The nostalgic memory stimulated my Mimories.
I smelled old books.
"When I was little, I didn't understand the lyrics at all," Touka said, after lifting the record needle.
"It's a cheery tune, so I expected the lyrics were cheery too. Reading over the lyrics once I could read English better really surprised me. I couldn't believe I'd been humming such a pessimistic song all this time."
We were in Touka's father's study. She would often invite me to sneak in there when we had time on our hands or got tired of studying. Then she would carefully put a record in the player as if it were a precise ritual, and have me listen to it with a haughty look on her face.
I had no interest in music, but I liked the time spent in the study with Touka. It was a very cramped room, with only one chair to boot, so we chose to sit close together on the floor. Once we entered adolescence and started keeping a certain distance between us, this was the one time could make an exception and stick together. She too thought of the music as secondary, and a few times failed to notice she was putting on the same record two days in a row.
In that way, her saying "let's listen to a record" meant more to me than the words themselves. "Let's listen to a record" was a phrase that condensed the innocent affection of "Is it okay for me to be with you more?" and "I want us to have some time together."
Inevitably, I ended up liking everything associated with the study. Old books, LP records, globes, hourglasses, mantle clocks, paperweights, photo stands, bottles of vodka (I remember it was a brand named Hysteria Siberiana). With the study as the intermediary, these things were tied to Touka's warmth and touch.
The song she was humming, I came to hum often as well. When we were together and ran out of things to talk about, one of us would start humming along.
"What were the lyrics like?", I asked. I hadn't really cared about the lyrics, but just wanted to extend the conversation to stay in the study a little longer.
Touka stared at a point in space for a few seconds as if checking a cheat sheet, then answered.
"There's a girl he finds annoying to be around, but as soon as another man takes her, he starts to adore her, wailing "please come back to me," "give me another chance." It's that kind of song."
"Basically, you don't know what you've got until it's gone."
"That's about right," she nodded. Then after a pause, she made an addendum. "That's why you should be careful too, Chihiro."
"Even if you think I'm annoying, don't you dare leave me behind."
"I definitely don't think you're annoying, though."
There was a vague silence. As I searched for another topic, without any forewarning, Touka drooped toward me.
Still leaning her weight on me, she guffawed like a drunk with a screw loose.
"This... might be a little annoying," I said to cover up my embarrassment.
"No complaining," Touka chided. "Or else another man'll take me."
I obediently went along with her.
The humming stopped, and at about the same time, I returned to the present.
"Welcome home," she turned and said. "Hey Chihiro, I'm pretty proud of my cooking today. I want you to try it, at least one bite."
Having trouble focusing my eyes, her figure was blurry.
In my head, I heard the sound of some thick part coming loose.
My outstretched hand grasped her delicate shoulder.
A moment later, I'd pushed her over. Her back hit the ground and she lightly gasped. I got on top of her and quickly carried out my objective.
The key was in the pocket of her shorts. After checking that it was the key to my room and not hers, I released her.
She sat up and went "You startled me..." in a quiet voice. Then without any attempt to straighten her clothes, she looked up at me dumbfounded.
I pointed to the door.
She stumbled to her feet, put on her shoes, and stood in front of the door. She put her hand on the knob, but then turned back to me.
"...No matter what, you don't want to believe me?"
Just the opposite, I thought.
If I let my guard down even a little, I'd end up trusting her - and that's exactly why I have to behave so coldly.
As I stood there without answering, she smiled sadly. She turned her back to me again, and prepared to leave the room.
When she turned back to face me, I grabbed the plate of her cooking. It was a stew of colorful summer vegetables, prepared so neatly, you could call it nervous.
"Ah..." She let out a quiet voice.
I tilted the plate, and her home cooking was sucked up by the trash can.
I stuck out the empty plate and said:
"You take this back."
She stared at the trash, not moving an eyebrow. Then she wordlessly took the plate, left the room, and quietly shut the door.
My first victory, I thought. I'd shaken off her allures and proven that I had already dominated the illusion of Touka Natsunagi.
But despite having finally gotten a blow in, I didn't feel satisfied. In fact, the more time passed, the more my mood sank. I took gin out of the freezer, poured a glass, and took two drinks. Lying on the mat, I gazed up at the ceiling and waited for alcohol to wash away my hard-to-place unhappiness.
While untying complicated and knotted thoughts, I suddenly thought of something. I sat up forcefully and booted up the laptop on the table.
Why had I overlooked something so basic?
It must have completely slipped my mind because of my un-worldly lifestyle, but there's a little thing called social media, and it lets you find people by their name and area even if you don't have a phone number or email address.
Using this, it should be easy to get in contact with a classmate from middle school. Not only could I talk with them about that time, I might be able to ask to see their yearbook as well. It made me nervous thinking about reaching out to classmates who I barely ever communicated with, but if it could get me proof that Touka Natsunagi didn't exist, I couldn't not do it.
I made an account on a major social network and searched for my alma mater. After narrowing down the generation, familiar-sounding names came up one after another.
Reflexively, I felt a sense of suffocation. It was like the air that was in my middle school classrooms was wafting out into my room through the display. But it was just a momentary illusion, so the stormy feeling quickly subsided. I'm not a middle schooler anymore, and I'll never have to deal with those people ever again in my life - with the exception of the one I was going to contact now.
I found eight classmates. Six were girls, two were boys. I looked through their posts one by one. I peeked into their lives. I knew there was no good reason to do so, but I couldn't help it.
They were varied lives. One who was studying abroad. One already employed and working hard. One going to a famous college on a scholarship. One working at a non-profit organization to support orphans. One who was in a student marriage with a classmate.
There were various photos. A photo of a large group of friends having a barbecue. A photo of lovers sitting shoulder to shoulder in yukatas. A photo of club members playing on the beach. A photo of someone holding a baby who'd only just been born. A group photo of the class reunion I didn't go to.
Once more, I felt like I'd been pierced by the emptiness of my life. But no jealous feelings welled up. A person crawling along on the earth has no reason to care what people above the clouds are doing. When things are this disparate, you even lose the will to make a comparison.
I clicked on the final person's account. Among the flowers high up on cliffs, there was one roadside flower mixed in. The photos she uploaded were shabby, not a single one containing a person. Her status updates were also horribly indifferent; just the feeling of "I made an account because everyone else did, but I don't really have anything to write" came through loud and clear. And scrolling back through her posts revealed that she lived in a nearby town.
I checked the account name again. Nozomi Kirimoto. Ahh, that Nozomi Kirimoto, I realized. I couldn't really recall her face or her voice, but I remembered her name a fair bit more clearly than my other classmates'. Because we were in the same class for three years straight, sure, but that wasn't the only thing. Nozomi Kirimoto was one of the few people I've ever met who I could feel a sense of fellowship with.
She was a resident of the library. Not a "library dropout" intruder like me, but a pure reader. From the spring of first year to the winter of third year, she always visited the library. She read greedily, at such a speed that she might've read every book there. And lunch break wasn't enough to tide her over, so she also found time between classes and after school to crack open a book.
I remembered her for her extra-strength glasses that seemed to warp the outline of her head, and an unfashionable hairtie that bundled all her hair up. Her scholastic ability was nothing to write home about, and her face was decent. At a glance, you might think she'd be the overly-serious class chairwoman, but she was much too unsociable to apply for such a position. She was always alone. Always keeping her gaze low, choosing to walk in the shade and in the corners.
Three or four times in our three years of middle school, we paired up for a class or something else. A music class, an art class, and some kind of school event, I think. As fellow left-behinds, we were put together by process of elimination. That's when I learned that, while normally a shy girl, she could talk as much as a regular person once she got going.
No, there was nothing "normal" about it. Nozomi Kirimoto could speak Japanese more fluently than any child her age, beyond worthwhile comparison. So used to swimming in a sea of printed word, she knew a thing or two about using language effectively. She was brimming with that ability, and when a rare occasion for conversation came, she would happily test her sharpness. And after going on for a while, she'd sink into deep self-disgust and enter a deeper layer of reticence.
That's the kind of girl Nozomi Kirimoto was. Unable to get used to the ways of this world, she tries to get used to her own way, and becomes further distanced from the world; that clumsy way of life was the only one she could manage.
It'll be her, I decided.
I opted to send a harmless message first, not touching on the real topic. Suddenly contacting an classmate who I hardly ever talked with to request to see a yearbook would end with me being suspected as a trader fishing for personal information.
The message I spent 20 minutes writing was incredibly awkward. To put it lightly, it read like a spam email written by a foreigner who only somewhat knows the language. Well, it's my first time ever sending an acquaintance a personal message, so not surprising. In truth, I sort of am a foreigner. Wherever I go, whoever I'm with.
I was dissatisfied with the message, but I knew my resolve was wavering with the passage of time, so I just sent it without any rewrites before I could sober up. Then I closed the laptop and lied on the floor.
I woke up that night from one of my usual nightmares. I crawled out of bed, went to the kitchen, poured some water, and drank three glasses in a row. I always did that when I had a nightmare. I could tell that drinking the cold water returned a sense of reality to my body, giving the nightmare no place to stay and driving it away somewhere. And in a few minutes, I'd be able to forget what kind of dream it even was. At times when the lingering fear wouldn't go away, I drank a little gin. That generally made me forget everything. Clear liquids have that kind of power. The waters of forgetfulness that Lethe is named for must have been clear and beautiful indeed, I imagined.
Even after a whole day, I received no reply from Nozomi Kirimoto. Did she suspect I was a canvasser or a trader, or did she know I was her classmate and just decide to ignore me? If it was the former, there was still hope, but I couldn't be sure either way while there was still absolutely no response. Actually, maybe she just doesn't regularly check social media.
I wondered if I should try sending another message. Right now, I would put everything else aside toward the goal of exposing Touka Natsunagi's true identity. So I couldn't be picky about my methods. Besides, Nozomi Kirimoto held no real importance to me. Even if using her led to disdain and scorn down the road, it wouldn't bother me one bit.
The problem was what to put in a second message. What words could I use to make her trust me? Could I get her interested in me? Like a young boy writing his first ever love letter, I rewrote it over and over. By the time even I didn't really understand the words I was writing, I suddenly thought of the worst idea.
And I went with that idea. I won't go into the details. Let's just say I was thinking of the scammer in Emori's story.
The effect was profound. Just an hour later, I got a message back from Nozomi Kirimoto. My heart didn't necessarily ache or anything from taking advantage of her conscience, but it was a strange feeling having to become a scammer myself to expose a scammer's lies. We promised to meet tomorrow afternoon by the train station, and I closed our communication there.
I looked at the clock: it was 9 PM. Going off the past few days, it was about the time the woman calling herself Touka Natsunagi would usually come to my room. I subconsciously looked toward the wall on the side where her room was, then toward my door. But somehow, I couldn't picture that door opening tonight.
In the end, she didn't come to try anything that night. Maybe she'd realized I wouldn't respond like she wanted and was reworking her strategy. Maybe she was pretending to be hurt by what I did to her cooking, and wanted to watch my reaction. Or maybe not doing anything tonight in itself was part of the plan. If that's the case, then her plan had regrettably succeeded. I listened for noises from the neighboring room all night, wondering what her reasons were for not coming over. By the time sleep finally arrived, faint morning sunlight was coming through the curtains.
It was our first time meeting in five years.
Nozomi Kirimoto was standing dutifully at the appointed spot in front of a stone statue, glaring sullenly at the rain with a blue umbrella over her shoulder. Her hair once tied with an unfashionable hairtie had been let down, her thick glasses had changed to contacts, and her outfit was more refined, but she fundamentally gave off the same impression as back then. Just like always, her eyes peeked out from under her bangs with a diluted color, like if you mixed every possible negative emotion in some water. It was as if the core concept of Nozomi Kirimoto had been retained while everything else was replaced with fresh new parts.
When she noticed me, she gave me a little bow. Then she wordlessly pointed to a café across the street, and started walking without waiting for my reply. "Let's get out of the rain first," I suppose.
There were some guests who came in to get out of the rain, but not to the point that we couldn't sit down. We sat at a table for two by the window, and after wetting her lips with ice water brought by the waiter, Nozomi Kirimoto slowly opened her mouth.
"What's your aim?"
"My aim?", I repeated.
"You had some intention in mind contacting me, didn't you?", she said with a low, gloomy gaze toward the corner of the table. "Evangelizing? Multi-level marketing? A referral sales program? If it's anything like that, then I apologize, but I'll have to be leaving at once. I don't think I need saving, and I'm not hurting for money."
I stared at her, taken aback.
She snuck a glimpse at me, then her eyes wandered.
"I'm sorry if I've misunderstood. But I couldn't think of any other reason you would contact someone like me, so..."
Her voice got so hoarse by the last part, I hardly heard it.
I dragged the cup in the middle of the table toward me, and after some hesitation, took a sip.
What should I do? I wanted to say "It's nothing like that, I simply contacted you because I wanted to meet you," but her guess was pretty spot-on. I wasn't a preacher or a multi-level marketer or anything, but it was true I hadn't come here for the express purpose of meeting her. My true intentions were elsewhere.
It would be simple to feign ignorance now. But I didn't think I could keep up that act for a long time. If I were the kind of person who could convincingly feign affection for someone, I wouldn't be so alone right now.
I called for a waiter to order coffee for us. And without confirming or denying Nozomi Kirimoto's doubts, I instead asked this.
"Could I assume you've actually had an experience like that?"
It was a meaningless question meant to fill a gap.
But it turned out to be the best answer.
Her eyes opened wide, her body shook, her eyebrows lowered, and she fell as silent as a rock. Even an onlooker could see how out of sorts she was, and I felt guilty, like maybe I'd done something wrong.
She kept her silence for a long while after that. Was she wondering what to say, or waiting for me to say something, or so upset she didn't want to talk with me ever again? I couldn't tell from her expression.
As I was about to apologize with "I didn't mean anything by it, please don't worry about it," Nozomi Kirimoto quietly muttered something.
I leaned on the table to hear her better.
"Right after I entered high school, I made a friend," she said in a parched voice. "I was shy and solitary, and that friend came to talk cordially with me every day. The first friend I'd ever had in my life. She had a good disposition, so unlike me, she was liked by the class. She could've gotten along with anyone, but she always gave me priority, and I felt honored."
A warm smile then came to her lips, but it didn't last two seconds.
"But just a month after we became friends, she took me somewhere strange. It was a meeting of some shady new religious group I'd never heard of. The next week, and the week after that, she took me to that same place. Since I had no friends, she probably thought I'd be easily swayed. After I defiantly told her I didn't feel like joining and to stop inviting me, she stopped talking to me. Not only that, she spread malicious rumors around school, and for three years, I was given cold glares and assaulted with heartless words."
Our coffee was brought to us. The waiter seemed to recognize the tense silence between us, lightly bowed with a half-smile, and left.
That was all I could say.
"Yes. It was," she nodded. "That's why I hate liars."
I didn't have the guts to tell her any lies after hearing that. I just have to tell her the truth; I steeled myself.
To take a different perspective, Nozomi Kirimoto thought it was highly likely I was a scammer, yet she still came to meet me. I guess she couldn't turn down a request. Which meant it would speed things up to honestly tell her my true intentions.
I sipped my coffee, then put my cup back in the saucer.
"You're half right, Miss Kirimoto."
Her face snapped upward, but then quickly drooped back down.
"I did have something of an ulterior motive contacting you. That's the truth."
"...What's the other half?"
"The person I contacted could've been anyone. There were a number of other candidates, but I felt like I would've hated to meet with any of the others. But I did feel I'd be fine contacting you. In that sense, I think you could say I had the intent to meet you, Miss Kirimoto."
She fell silent again. But this silence wasn't so long.
She spoke with a blank expression.
"So then, what is your ulterior motive?"
It seemed she was getting straight to the point.
I silently thanked her, then got into the main topic.
"Is the name Touka Natsunagi familiar to you?"
"Do you remember a girl in our middle school with that name?"
She folded her hands together on the table and thought it over.
"You probably know this, but I hardly interacted with my classmates in middle school as well. So I can't say anything too definite. However..."
She peered at me through her long bangs, then spoke.
"At least as far as I can remember, I don't think there was any student in class with a name like that."
Then, Nozomi Kirimoto began naming classmates one at a time. It proved her forewarning of "I can't say anything too definite" absurd. She was able to recite from memory the names of every classmate from each year's class.
"I believe that's all of them," she said after she finished counting on her fingers. "It was quite a few years ago, so I'm not too confident."
"No, I think you're exactly right. That's some amazing memory."
"Though I can't remember their faces at all. Strangely, it's just their names I can't forget."
I folded my arms and thought about it. Most likely, Nozomi Kirimoto's memory was the real deal. It was inconceivable that someone with memories this distinct would think the name of a classmate who did exist sounded unfamiliar. So as I thought, a student named Touka Natsunagi did not exist.
Yet even so, I was hesitant to resolve a problem based in memory with a solution based in memory. This whole chain of doubts has come from the fact that "memory can't be trusted." Part of me felt that settling the issue with someone's memory would just be a reiteration.
"I think your memories are correct, Miss Kirimoto," I told her, picking my words carefully. "But I would like at least one more clear piece of evidence to satisfy me. Do you still have the yearbook from graduation?"
"Err, yes. I think it's somewhere in my apartment."
"Would you be okay with showing it to me?"
"Sure. I'd appreciate it sooner rather than later, but if it's inconvenient..."
"Then let's be going."
Before I could finish talking, she grabbed the receipt and stood up.
"After all, my apartment isn't too far from here."
We silently walked through the rainy town. There was no conversation between us, so you would never guess we were classmates reuniting after five years.
At times like this, I guess you'd normally talk about what's been happening lately. Slide in some gossip about a common friend, gradually move the topic back into the past, bring up funny stories and memorable events from back then, and have a beautiful chat about old times.
But we had no good memories at all. We had no friends we'd kept up with to the present day, and trying to talk about recent events in our lives would just be miserable. We knew the both of us had quietly lived in the corners of the classroom, breathing stale air, getting only a brief respite in the library - we'd lived through gray days. We didn't feel any desire to dig pasts like that back up.
From the train station, we rode the bus for about 20 minutes, then walked for just 5 to reach Nozomi Kirimoto's apartment building. It looked considerably tidier than the old apartment complex I lived in; there weren't any stains on the outside, and the parking lot was full of light motor vehicles with bright colors that I guessed young women might like.
I felt like waiting outside the door, but she beckoned me into the room.
"You're in a hurry, right? I don't mind if you look at it here."
I felt a little awkward entering a girl's room when I wasn't even friendly with her, but she was right that I wanted to look inside that yearbook immediately. I'll just accept her kindness here. I leaned my wet umbrella against the wall in the hallway, and stepped into Nozomi Kirimoto's room.
The expression "messy" might not be fair. "A whole lot of books" is probably more suitable. There were three large bookcases, and all three were packed with books, with those that didn't fit within forming towers around the floor and table. Looking closely, their positions seemed to follow some system of hers, so while it sounds strange, the impression I got was "a messy kind of orderly."
"Sorry about my messy room," she said bashfully, guessing at what I was thinking.
"No, you just have a lot of things. I don't think it's messy."
While I didn't have a good standard for what a regular girl's room looked like, it was clear that Nozomi Kirimoto's was quite a departure from the norm. It certainly had personality, but on the other hand, if you merely removed the mountains of books that gave you that impression, you'd suddenly find it to be a place of sheer anonymity. The table, the bed, the sofa, they all had symbolic designs that went beyond generic. As if you just wrote "table," "bed," "sofa," and they were pasted in there.
She squatted in front of a bookcase. It seemed large books and albums were kept on the bottom shelf.
While looking for the yearbook, Nozomi Kirimoto asked me.
"I have to wonder, though, why don't you have your yearbook? Did you not buy one?"
"I threw it away. I wanted to lighten my load when I left home."
"Sounds like you," she quietly snickered. "I thought of throwing it out myself, but as you can see, I'm not one to throw out anything shaped like a book."
"Seems that way. But I'm glad for it."
"Oh, don't mention it."
She found the yearbook on the second bookcase. She pulled it out and wiped off the dust, and handed it to me saying "here you go."
First, I opened to the page of individual graduate photos. After looking through my own class, I checked the other classes to just to be sure.
"Not there," Nozomi Kirimoto remarked, looking at it from beside me.
I checked three times, but she was right; I couldn't find a student named Touka Natsunagi.
After that, we checked one photo after another: group photos of the student council and club members, photos of classrooms and school events. Nozomi Kirimoto was able to correctly guess the names of each and every person.
I was surprised to suddenly hear her say my name, but it seemed she just meant "that's you in this photo, Chihiro." In the photo she pointed to, I was writing on a blackboard.
In this photo, I looked as if I could be a model student who was earnestly taking part in class. But I knew that wasn't the case. I was constantly looking at the clock then. Glaring at the wall clock above the blackboard, just waiting for class to be over. I wanted to leave school and be alone if only a second sooner. And the more I wished for that, the slower the second hand seemed to move.
The next photo to catch my eye pictured the first girl I'd found when I searched for my classmates online. It was a scene from a performance at the culture festival; truly an ideal photo for a yearbook. She was a graceful girl. Beautiful and not disagreeable, treating everyone equally well, so everyone liked her.
Suddenly, I recalled the photo of the class reunion that was uploaded to the girl's account.
"By the way, Miss Kirimoto, did you go to the class reunion?", I casually asked.
"No." She shook her head slightly. "I suppose you didn't either, Chihiro?"
"Right. There wasn't anyone I really wanted to meet, and I doubt there was anyone hoping to meet me."
"I felt the same way. Whoever I met, it would just make me sad. Besides -"
At that point, she froze. Because she had suddenly noticed a completely blank two-fold spread.
I didn't know what that meant. At first I thought it a printing error. But immediately after, I remembered it was the place where you were supposed to have your friends write messages for you.
I nonchalantly turned the page, but she went "Sheer white, of course," and smiled self-derisively.
I started to say "mine was the same," but stopped. I think she already understood as much.
Before long, I'd checked all the pages. The yearbook had proven that no girl named Touka Natsunagi existed among my classmates.
Just before I left the room, Nozomi Kirimoto modestly went "um..." and asked me something.
"Who is this Touka Natsunagi person, ultimately? Why are you looking for her, Chihiro?"
"Sorry. I don't want to talk too much about it," I answered without turning around.
I wasn't sure why, but I didn't want to stay in this room a second longer. I wanted to quickly be back in my apartment and drinking gin by myself.
"Is that right?"
She withdrew easily.
I sighed, turned, and spoke.
"She's a fictional person."
With that one sentence, Nozomi Kirimoto seemed to know everything.
"Because of a slight accident, memories and Mimories have gotten mixed together in my brain. I'm being tormented with illusions of a girl who liked me in my head. Stupid, isn't it?"
She gently smiled.
"I understand. Because I had a similar experience."
Then she started to say something. She was probably going to go into her "similar experience." But just before the words could escape into the air, she swallowed them back in her throat. Instead, she wrapped up the conversation with some different, inoffensive words.
"I hope you can wake up soon."
I smiled a little. Then I said "Thanks for today."
"No, I was happy to reunite with an old acquaintance too. Well then."
Just before the door closed, I saw her waving slightly.
That was the last I saw of Nozomi Kirimoto.
It was still raining outside. A number of puddles had formed in indentations in the asphalt, and the pouring raindrops drew geometric designs. Someone once said that rain washes memories from the sidewalk of life. I wanted to quickly forget the series of memories that had been dug up today, so I stopped in the middle of opening my umbrella, closed it, and let myself be soaked for a while.