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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.

"Excuse me."

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."

"Me?"
"Even if you think I'm annoying, don't you dare leave me behind."

"I definitely don't think you're annoying, though."
"Hmm..."

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.

"Chihiro?"

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.

"Get out."

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.

"Wait."

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's terrible."

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.

"Half?"

"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?"
"Touka Natsunagi?"
"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?"
"Right now?"
"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.

"Chihiro."

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.

"A Substite?"

I nodded.

"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.



[+]

Chapter 5: Hero

Ghosts have become remarkably less common since the advent of the digital camera. But some seemingly transferred to the electronic realm over the course of a few decades, as starting at some point, electronic reports of ghosts began to appear around the web. Most of them were just fabricated stories or intricate pranks, but despite them making some big news, there were a few incidents the truth of which was yet unexplained.

One of the most well-known electronic ghost stories is "The Kayano Sisters." A woman reported that a friend who she called near-daily for five years turned out to have passed away two years ago. This story had a proper, twist resolution. As indicated by the "Sisters" in the title, the woman's friend had an identical-looking little sister. The truth of the matter was that the younger sister had taken the place of her deceased older sister.

Contrary to the outgoing older sister, the younger sister had a withdrawn personality, and was friendly with no one but her big sister. The younger Kayano, after losing the only person she could talk to, decided to take the calls from her big sister's friend and pretend to be her. And just like that, she continued to play the role of the deceased. She talked on the phone like her big sister, she met with the woman like her big sister, she kept posting to social media as her big sister. The Kayano sisters not only had exactly the same looks and height, the little sister also knew everything about her big sister, so the woman never remotely noticed the two had switched places. The two-year lie was finally exposed by the most minor of circumstances, but apparently the two formally established a friendship afterward.

If this were all it was, it would be a heartwarming tale. But there's a disturbing followup. There was an article about what appeared to be the last post the elder Kayano made on her account before she died, the contents of which sent out ripples. At a glance, the text seemed incoherent, but it could potentially be interpreted as "someone close to me is after my life." The article had to dig up the post from a third-party archive, so the fact the younger Kayano had deleted the original post caused a big stir. Rumor spread that the younger sister must have killed her elder sister to take her friend from her.

Ultimately, there was no explanation whatsoever given by the younger Kayano, the account was abandoned, and it now serves as a famous web ruin, perfect for daring someone to go visit.

*

It rained for three days, then there was an almost apologetic cloudy day, followed by three more days of rain. The more this bad weather kept up, the more I felt I'd forget the color of a blue sky. The weather forecast said there was a huge typhoon approaching, and once that had passed, we would have clear weather for a while.

Really, it was a strangely rainy summer. It was rare to get major rain, but instead, rain as thin as fog kept falling ceaselessly. As a result, I was traveling back and forth between the coin laundry and my apartment. The coin laundry luckily had good AC, so while my washing was in the dryer, I could leisurely pass the time reading old magazines and newspapers.

In the span of that week, I lost one umbrella, one snapped in the wind, and one folding umbrella got stolen. I threw out my dirty sandals and bought new ones. I tossed dehumidifying agents in the closet. That was about the extent of the rain's effect on my life. From the start, my days were empty save for my part-time job. During inclement weather, the video rental store had even less customers than usual, so it felt like running a souvenir shop deep in the mountains. There was a damp mildewy smell in the store, but the manager seemed not to care in the slightest.

I hadn't gotten any contact from Emori. I had no friends other than him, so I inevitably spent my time alone. As usual. This is life as usual for me.

On days off work, I went to the prefecture library to read through documents related to Mimories. There wasn't anything in particular I wanted to know, but I realized it was a little more fun to read scientific literature I wasn't interested in than magazines I wasn't interested in.

When I got tired of reading, I took a light nap, went to the rest area and got coffee from a vending machine, smoked two cigarettes, then returned to the reading room. When I heard the song "Sunrise, Sunset" announcing 5 PM, I took that cue to leave the library, buy canned beer on the way, and while savoring it, leisurely walk down rural roads from the station to the apartment. And while wondering if I should watch TV or listen to the radio, I'd eat a dinner of just cup ramen, take a shower to rinse off the day's sweat, drink gin until evening, and fall asleep by the time the sky was brightening.

Cigarette butts, empty cans, empty bottles. Through these things, I barely managed to sense the changing of the days. If it weren't for them, I'd surely have no distinction between yesterday and today. That was how unchanging my days were. I could hardly remember what I was doing at this time a year ago.


I had my evidence in order. Dad and Nozomi Kirimoto's testimony. The class page of the yearbook. Sure enough, the childhood friend Touka Natsunagi didn't exist. My memories aren't wrong. She's no more than a Substite, a fictional person created by a Mimory engineer.

Now I just had to show my evidence to that scammer and make her admit defeat. That would end it all. I could drink the Lethe in the back of my closet and put a period on this foolish chain of events.

That was the plan.

Incidentally, since that day she left my room without saying "good night" to me, I'd completely ceased to see any sign of the woman calling herself Touka Natsunagi. I knew she was there because I could see her light was on at night, but she didn't make any movement worth calling movement.

Had she given up on ensnaring me? Or was she planning something intricate? I'd be lying if I said I didn't care, but I had no thoughts of going to talk to her myself. If she intended to let this end hazily, then let it happen. If she was working on a new plan, then I'd get revenge on her next time she came. And once some form of resolution arrived, that would be the ideal time to take the Lethe.


Like any other day, I drank until dawn, slept like I was passed out, and woke up to the sound of wind eight hours later. It was a storm. A whistling sound came through the gap in the window. I turned on the radio just in time to hear a report about the typhoon.

My head and throat ached. I had a hangover, and I'd smoked too much. I poured water into my stomach with a glass that still smelled of last night's gin, warmed up some premade coffee and slowly drank it, then stood under the ventilation fan and smoked. After turning two cigarettes to ash, I collapsed on the bed and listened to the radio and the rain.

I like rain. I like how fair it is, that absolutely everyone seems bothered by it. Whether you enjoy clear weather can really depend on the person, but everyone can only enjoy heavy rain in moderation. It's all you can do to sip on something warm in your room, accepting the abnormal feeling the storm brings from a safe location.

When I got tired of the radio, I put a cushion by the window and sat, then opened the book I'd checked out of the library yesterday. It was the biography of some famous person I'd never heard of in a field I'd never heard of and their achievements I'd never heard of. Personally, a book having nothing to do with me is what I want. It lets me forget that the person I am here and now exists. It was probably meeting Nozomi Kirimoto the other day that influenced me into suddenly wanting to read books.

Taking short breaks every thirty minutes, I carefully read through the book. Occasionally a stronger wind blew, and raindrops beat against the window glass. Time passed surprisingly sluggishly.

It was probably around 3 PM.

Suddenly, I felt an powerful hunger.

It was a violent hunger, the kind that took your humanity from you. Come to think of it, I haven't eaten a single thing since I woke up. As soon as I thought that, my stomach badly ached, as if some anesthesia just wore off.

I put the book down and looked below the sink, but there wasn't a single cup ramen left. Naturally, the refrigerator was also empty. I gave up and decided to smoke, but the cigarette I smoked earlier was the last one too. Apparently I'd been completely neglecting to go shopping.

My umbrella didn't seem like it'd be any good, so I wore a yacht parka with the hood pulled low, put on my sandals, and stepped out into the storm. It was darker than you'd ever expect 3 PM to be, and the path was littered with trash, tree branches, and umbrellas blown by the wind. I couldn't keep my eyes open in the driving rain, and every time there was a sudden gust, my body faltered.

It was unusually quiet inside the supermarket. I bought the cheapest cup ramen and cigarettes they had, tightly tied up the shopping bag, and left the store. The rain had gotten even more intense.

To hide myself from the fierce winds, I walked alongside the walls. Suddenly, I stopped. Something was staring at me from a window facing the road.

It wasn't a human. It was a cat. A tabby cat I remembered seeing many times in the area. I'd always thought of it as a stray, but it seemed it had an owner after all. It was glaring at me with a look of "You're a curious one to be going out in this weather." I approached the window and knit my brows, but the cat didn't move, fixed in place like a decoration as it stared at me.

When I returned to the apartment, I tossed my wet clothes in the washing machine and took a shower. When I went to pour water into the kettle after leaving the bathroom, I realized the hunger that had me at wit's end earlier had calmed down as if it never happened.

I lied down on the mat and savored the taste of the cigarettes I just bought. The room was cool, and the rough texture of the mat was comfortable. Rain fell on the town without pause, stripping all meaning and intention from everything and washing it away. I thought of the cat at the window, and then, I thought about the ghost at the window.

*

The summer when I was 7, I saw a ghost.

What I'm about to tell you is some seriously inconsequential nonsense. First of all, the ghost here is not a real ghost. Secondly, this story is part of my Mimories to begin with. And at that point, it loses any meaning it could possibly have as a ghost story.

The ghost resided in an old local Japanese-style residence, and was always watching people pass by from a bay window on the first floor. It was the ghost of a girl with long hair, slender and pale, always giving off a melancholic air every time you saw her. Every time I passed nearby, she leaned forward, clinging to the window, and followed me with her eyes.

She must have been a child who died in that house a long time ago. I pitied her, and was afraid of her at the same time. For all I knew, she might be jealous of living children around her age, and was thinking of taking me with her. She watched me emotionlessly, but maybe deep in those colorless eyes, there burned a hatred for the living. I was afraid to look the ghost girl in the face, so I came to walk quickly down that road.

I had just happened to watch a summer special on TV about the paranormal. I overheard a rumor about a child who went missing in the area several years ago. Several factors like this overlapped to convince me that the sickly girl who just watched me pass by through the window was a ghost. I didn't have an active imagination so much as a lack of wisdom.

That summer, I was attending swimming classes. Or rather, I was being made to attend them. My mom thought it was lonely for her son to stay at home all day for his summer break, so she signed me up for swimming lessons for a short time to get me out of the house and active. The pool was about 10 minutes from home, and there were only five students other than myself. Those five seemed to have been friends beforehand, so I was the only one left out. Of course, I'd felt that sense of alienation at home since I was born, so it wasn't really a problem. I only paid any interest to the ghost.

The pool was built on some very low land, so there was a single path you couldn't avoid taking to get to it, and the window in the ghost's mansion directly faced that path. My parents didn't escort me there or back, and I had no friends to go and return with, so I always had to walk in front of her alone. It wasn't as bad when going to the pool, while it was still bright, but it was often evening by the time I came back, and I shivered with terror thinking of making eye contact with the girl in the dark. At the same time, I felt like if I looked away, she might take that chance to do something. So even after passing the window, I checked behind myself repeatedly to see if she was there. (I never even considered she might have seen that as a sign of affection.)

Day by day, I saw the ghost more frequently. Not to spoil the fun, but she simply started to learn what times I passed through - yet I took the change as an ill omen. I bet this is progressing to something, I thought.

My expectations were right, in a sense. Before long, the ghost started to smile from behind the window whenever she saw my face. It was an innocent smile, but my mind clouded with fear saw it as the cruel grin of a predator. In addition, that smile seemed to be reserved just for me, as the other kids said her expression didn't change at all when they went by. My worries became convictions.

That was an evil spirit. It was borrowing the form of a sweet girl, but it's really a hungry beast who sizes up humans and and eats their souls. And I - for what reason, I had no idea - had been targeted by this evil spirit.

The fear slowly ate into my life. All I thought about was how I could get that evil spirit to spare me. Asleep or awake, the girl's face occupied my mind. It sounds an awful lot like I was a boy with a crush, except I was terrified to my core. I had nightly nightmares about her coming to get me, or crossing some point of no return when that window opened.

I considered talking with someone about it several times, but I'd come to think just acknowledging her existence itself would invite disaster, so I hesitated. Besides, I didn't have anyone to choose from, not having friends nor parents who cared.

It was a staggeringly long month. And yet eventually, an end arrived.

The last day of the program ended, I said goodbye to my two instructors, and I left the pool behind. My body was exhausted after swimming for a long time, but my steps were light. Now I would finally be free. No longer would I have to pass in front of that window. I wouldn't have to look at her face. My heart bounded at the thought.

The haunted mansion came into view. My heart beat fast. Because of the setting sun, I couldn't really see through the window from a distance. And yet I knew. She had to be there again today. With elbows on the windowsill and her chin in her hands, staring absentmindedly into the distance, leaning forward when she saw me and putting on that smile.

In fact, the ghost was there.

But she was somehow different today. When she saw me, she didn't budge, and didn't smile. Much like the first time I passed by, her eyes just followed me mechanically. I rubbed my eyes to inspect her expression.

When I noticed the ghost was crying, the awareness I had built up over the past month was turned on its head. The reversal was instant. The evil spirit threatening me didn't exist; there was only a living, breathing human girl.

To call her a ghost was absurd. The girl sobbing behind the window was simply an unfortunate prisoner, locked up in her house for some reason and longing for the outside, and that's why she always sat there. Her delicate body felt smaller than ever to me. I felt pathetic for having been afraid of such a timid girl.

At the same time, I crudely wondered why she was crying. With the threat removed, all that was left was shame over being so excessively afraid, and a pure curiosity toward the girl.

The concrete wall between the bay window and the road was no more than a meter tall, so it was easy to get past. I first threw over my slightly chlorine-scented bag, then hopped over myself. And I was now standing in front of the window I had only viewed from a distance before.

She watched me do this with a flabbergasted look. When I lightly knocked on the window glass, she reared up as if struck by lightning, hurried to unlock the window, and opened it. And then we looked at each other up close for the first time.

It was an August evening full of the echoing cries of cicadas.

The girl smiled with a teary face, and let out a sound between "ehehe" and "ahaha."

My suspicions about her had already been cleared up, yet I couldn't help but ask.

"You aren't a ghost, right?"

She blinked a few times, then softly chuckled. Then she put her left hand to her chest as if checking for a pulse, and slightly tilted her head.

"I'm alive. For now, at least."

That was my first meeting with Touka Natsunagi. Over the next decade, I would be repeatedly teased for the foolishness of that question. And I was ultimately never told the reason she was crying that day.


To my 7-year-old ears, words like "asthma" and "spasms" sounded like words from a distant land. But I was able to faintly grasp the gist of it, that the girl had a chronic illness which made her parents forbid her from leaving the house.

"I don't know when I might have an attack, so whenever possible, I can't leave the house."

Possibly because she'd explained her illness a lot, or because she'd heard these details from her parents and doctors many times, she was unusually eloquent when talking about her asthma, and spoke many words you wouldn't expect to hear from a 7-year-old.

"I can't be causing other people trouble, after all."

No matter how you looked at it, those words weren't coming from her herself. Her parents must have focused on drilling that into her.

"If you go outside, you have an asthma attack?", I asked, trying out the term I'd just learned.

"Sometimes. If I do strenuous exercise, or breathe unclean air, or get anxious, it seems attacks get more likely. It's not like everything's okay if I'm at home, either..." Then the girl said another phrase that felt like it was in quotation marks. "At any rate, if I have an attack outside, it'll be troublesome for other people."

After digesting her explanation, I asked:

"Why were you looking out the window?"

She immediately lowered her face and went silent. And she bit her lip as if desperately holding back tears. It seemed I'd touched on a topic I definitely shouldn't have.

Immediately, I made her a proposal.

"Hey, let's go somewhere together."

She slowly raised her head. She had it cocked to the side, thinking "was this boy even listening to what I said?"

"You won't even have to walk. I'll carry you."

I told her "just hold on" and headed home in a big hurry. After tossing my bag down by the front door, I flew back to the haunted mansion on my bike. She was waiting in the same position as when she saw me leave, and smiled with relief to see me come back.

I stopped the bicycle and pointed to the luggage carrier.

"Get on the back."

She hesitated. "But my mom will be mad if I go out..."

"We'll be back soon, so don't worry. Do you not want to go outside?"

She shook her head.

"I want to."

She got her shoes from the entryway and put them on, hopping down from the window and landing unsteadily. She carefully climbed over the wall, plopped down on the back of the bike, and grabbed my shoulders.

"Well then, if you please."

I nodded. Then suddenly, I realized I hadn't asked her name.

"What's your name?"

"Touka," she said. "Touka Natsunagi. And yours?"

"Chihiro Amagai."

"Chihiro..."

She clearly repeated the name. It sounds strange, but that felt like the first time in my life someone used my name properly.

Until then, I had simply disliked my name. I thought it was a weak name that sounded too girly. But the moment Touka said "Chihiro," I could feel a deep gratitude that my name was Chihiro.

Chihiro. It sounds good.

Thinking about it now, though, any name she called me would have sounded wonderful coming from her.

"I'm ready now," Touka said from behind me.

I nervously started to pedal. The bicycle slowly moved with the two of us on it. Touka raised her voice in neither fully a scream nor a shout and clung to me.

"You gonna be okay?", I asked without looking back.

"Umm, I dunno... I'm having so much fun, I might just have an attack."

I hurriedly hit the brakes, and she gave her usual laugh between "ehehe" and "ahaha."

"Just kidding. I'm totally fine. You can pick up the speed."

That peeved me a little, so I tried to purposefully bike in a serpentine path. She held tight to my shoulders, laughing happily.

*

Mimories are made to go along with the client's latent desires, but just putting in unprocessed desires as-is results in conflicts between the memories and Mimories. If you get Mimories that are clearly a departure from reality, they won't stick as memories. They're treated like another person's story.

That's why Mimories take a somewhat more realistic "best possibility" form, rather than being totally dreamlike. Something that wouldn't be odd if it happened, but also, definitely didn't happen. Something that should have happened. Something you wish had happened.

The Mimories implanted in me had, for the most part, been cleverly woven into my real past. For instance, it was true that I took swimming lessons for a time when I was seven. It was also reality that someone had stared at me as I went by a window every day. The difference was that it wasn't a girl my age watching, but an aged cat.

It was also true that I was chosen as my class's anchor for the track meet relay in middle school third year. The girl who encouraged me and lifted the pressure from me, however, was not present. At the time I was passed the baton, our class was in last, and I didn't pass a single opponent, so we finished in last. There was no support, and no words of gratitude. In fact, our classmates didn't have any expectations for the relay in the first place. I was simply made to take the loss. ...I could go on and on with these examples.

The many episodes were a detailed simulation based on the premise of "what if a childhood friend named Touka Natsunagi existed?" What they depicted wasn't simply nonsense. The lies were kept to a minimum, and the real me felt nothing wrong with my words and actions in the Mimories. I could naturally accept that I would react just like that if I were put in those situations. It was entirely plausible that it happened - if Touka Natsunagi weren't standing next to me.

To put it one way, they were my memories from a blessed parallel world. Or maybe it was a twin brother of mine, who you'd think was in the same exact circumstances, yet lived a more bountiful life than me. That's why the Mimories were realistic - and all the crueler for it. You can easily give up on something you know from the start you won't have. But something you could have had with just a small step will leave you regretful forever. Through my Mimories, I was told that the difference between me being happy and unhappy was paper-thin. Meet her, or don't meet her - that difference was the divide between heaven and hell.

I thought I'd given up on ordinary happiness long ago. But having "it could've been like this" thrust before my eyes clear as day, I knew painfully that I hadn't given up one bit. I thought I had kept things nice and separate, but I was really just covering my desires with a lid to keep them out of sight.

Now I know. I wanted to be showered in unconditional love, but more than that, I think I wanted to be someone's hero.

I'd wanted my memories from age 6 to age 15 erased so as to escape from this kind of emptiness.

I wanted to be overwhelmingly close to zero, so that there was no room to spare for "it could've been like this." By doing that, I hoped to destroy every single fork in the path.


I didn't have any appetite, but my empty stomach started to hurt again. I put out my cigarette, went to the kitchen, put the kettle on the stove, and aimlessly watched the burner flame while waiting for the water to heat up. After the kettle began to spout hot air, I turned the flame off, and while crouching down to get a cup ramen from under the sink, I discovered something on the floor.

It was a small piece of paper. I thought it was a receipt at first, but I lifted it up and found handwriting on it. A note addressed to me. There was no need to wonder who left it.

I wonder if she was humming to herself as she wrote this. Did she intend to leave me a message and go back to her own room because it seemed I'd be late coming home? But just as she finished writing, I returned. And when she boasted to me about her cooking that night, I forcefully pushed her over and stole back my key (presumably this is when the note fell to the floor), threw her meal in the trash right before her eyes, and ordered her to leave the room right away. That's why the note had been left here.

This is what it said.


"I hope you'll be well, Chihiro."


I stood there unmoving with the paper in my hand.

Suddenly, I imagined the scene of not "her," but "Touka Natsunagi" leaving behind the note.

Immediately, I felt a deep sadness that nearly stopped my breath.

Joy, anger, affection, emptiness, guilt, loss, these feelings came and went all at once. They stormed in my chest and tore it apart, gouged it out, sliced it up, and stepped all over the little chunks. And then only naked sadness remained in the hole drilled in my heart.


Once I was done drinking, it felt anticlimactic.

On the table were two open packages and a glass. The glass was already empty, and I filled it with gin and drank. I couldn't find any warning suggesting not to mix alcohol with nanobot doses, so it was probably fine.

I had none of the regrets I was worried about, nor the sense of achievement I was hoping for. At best, there was a small sense of relief that I'd taken care of a troublesome task.

After drinking the gin, I fell down on the mat and waited for the Lethe to reach my brain. I hadn't necessarily overcome the fear of losing my memories, but my desire to forget this pain as soon as possible won out.

Soon, drowsiness enveloped me, and I lost consciousness with a sensation like sinking.


I heard something hard hit the floor.

After waking up, I had to think if I'd heard that sound in a dream or in reality.

Probably reality, I decided.

Then where did it come from?

The neighboring room.

I listened closely. The typhoon had passed its peak, but there was still a whistling sound of wind coming from the gap in the window. There were no noises from the other room. I put my ear to the thin wall, closed my eyes, and focused on my hearing. Sure enough, all I could hear was the wind.

Gradually, the wind started to sound like a person's breathing. The sound was familiar to me. It was the breathing of someone having an asthma attack. The way Touka breathed when she collapsed. ...It seemed I hadn't forgotten about Touka Natsunagi yet. How much time had passed since I fell asleep? Surely I could expect the Lethe to have taken effect around now. I refused to believe I had been sent the wrong nanobots once again. Maybe it actually was bad that I took alcohol with it.

As a test, I listed the things I remembered about Touka Natsunagi. Long hair, pale skin, friendly smile, delicate body, five kisses, Firefly's Light, the class relay, the study and records, the ghost in the window, her face all blue, her chest contracting strangely as she breathed, her whistling breath, her inhaler lying on the floor,

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

plain white pajamas, neck and skinny arms sticking out,

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

Hadn't she had an attack and collapsed?

Hadn't the low air pressure made her asthma worse?

Hadn't she been crawling on the floor, unable to move?

I'm mixing up memories and Mimories again. I was aware of that. Yes, Touka Natsunagi was afflicted with serious asthma, but the woman in the room over was a different person from Touka Natsunagi. That girl Touka Natsunagi doesn't exist in the first place. Hadn't I confirmed that by meeting Nozomi Kirimoto? Her name wasn't even in the yearbook.

Yet however many logical arguments I offered up, my body wouldn't be satisfied. My heart beat faster, feeling like it might soon burst. My vision shook, my fingers were numb, my muscles twitched. I forgot how to breathe momentarily, so I hurriedly took a deep breath.

That was my limit. I went out barefoot into the hallway wet with rain. Fingers trembling, I rang the doorbell of the neighboring room. No response. I kept ringing every few seconds. No response. I took my phone out of my pocket and called her. No response. I knocked furiously on the door. I kept knocking.

No response.

"Touka!"

Before I knew it, I was shouting her name.

There was no response.

For a while, I hung my head with my hands against the door. The blowing rain had gotten me soaked without me realizing. Soon, the sound of wind stopped, and that calmed me down a bit too. I suddenly began to get embarrassed of my actions.

There being no response meant that she was out. That was all. What sounded like her asthmatic breathing was the wind coming through the window, and the sound like someone collapsing was the wind knocking something over. Maybe she had left with the window still open.

I laughed self-derisively and produced a lighter and cigarette from my pocket. I sat in the rainwater in the hallway and filled my lungs with smoke, breathing it out five seconds later. Then I leaned on the wall and closed my eyes.

I no longer cared about why the Lethe hadn't taken effect. I just wanted to see Touka's face now. Even if I knew how foolish it was, I wanted to feel the relief of knowing she was safe.

Behind my eyelids, I felt sunlight.


She must have disguised her footsteps among the sound of rain dripping from the gutter.

I heard a laugh that split the difference between "ehehe" and "ahaha" very close by.

It wasn't a hallucination or something misheard.

When I opened my eyes, Touka was leaning down and looking at my face.

My understanding couldn't keep up.

"You thought I'd gone away?"

With that, she sat down beside me.

"...Or did you think I'd had an asthma attack and couldn't move?"

I couldn't muster the effort to respond.

I was too busy trying to hide my relief.

"...How long have you been here?"

"Ever since you were knocking on the door, Chihiro."

She scooted close to me, coming within breathing distance.

"You called me Touka again."
"You must've misheard."

"Hmm, so I just misheard..." She purposefully widened her eyes. "Then what did you actually say?"

When I responded with silence, Touka snickered.

"You swapped the Lethe with fakes, didn't you?", I questioned.

"Yeah," she confirmed without fear. "After all, I didn't want to be forgotten, and I didn't want you to forget."

I was too stunned to get a word out.

"Can I ask another question?"
"What?"

"Why did you just hurry to put out your cigarette?'

I looked at my hand. At some point, I started to crumple up the end of my cigarette.

It was a completely unconscious action.

Her eyes narrowed happily.

"You remembered I didn't like cigarettes, didn't you?"
"...It was a coincidence."

A pitiful excuse.

I didn't realize until she pointed it out, but I'd never once smoked in front of her.

Was it just because she was a girl that I spared her?

No way.

I could try to deny it all I wanted, but I had subconsciously accepted this woman as Touka Natsunagi.

"It's okay. I'm all better now. I don't really mind the smell of cigarettes, either."

Touka softly leaned on my shoulder. Just like when we sat together and listened to records in the study.

And she whispered into my ear.

"Relax. I won't just suddenly disappear."

*

That night, I tasted Touka's cooking for the first time.

All I could say was that it was delicious.

Touka had her chin in her hands with her elbows on the table, looking at me with upturned eyes awaiting my opinion, and I asked her.

"Why would you do all this for me?"

She responded with an answer that didn't amount to an answer.

"I'm doing all this because I want to do all this."

I sighed.

"Basically, as far as targets for scams go, I can't imagine I'm a very valuable one."

"Hmm," Touka said. "I mean, that was the promise."

"Promise?"
"Yes, promise."

She affirmed it with a self-satisfied smile. And then she spoke with a tone I couldn't place as joking or serious.

"That's why I intend to devote myself to you, Chihiro."

I went over my Mimories, but the word "promise" rang no bells. Precisely because all her statements prior had neatly aligned with my Mimories, that inconsistency left a little bit of stiffness in my heart.



[+]

Chapter 6: Heroine

Nightmares are kind. I often have nightmares. They always follow roughly the same outline.

For instance, there's someone precious to me in the dream. A girl my age. The dream begins with me losing sight of her.

I keep searching for her. She'd just been there a second ago. She was holding my hand, I was sure of it. She was smiling right beside me. The second I looked away, the second I let go, she'd vanished like mist.

Where in the world had she gone?

I ask someone nearby. Do you know []? (Even I'm not able to hear the name.) She's someone important to me. And the person responds. I don't know any []. Who are you talking about? As if you have anyone important to you. How can she disappear or anything if she didn't exist in the first place?

That can't be right, she was definitely right here, I argue back. But immediately after, I realize I can't remember the girl's name. Nor other things. I can no longer remember what her face was like, what her voice was like, how she held my hand, nothing.

I'm left with nothing except the feeling that I'm losing something very precious. Soon, even that feeling becomes hazy and slips through my fingers, and after a blank instant, everything disappears, leaving only a sense of loss.

There's also the opposite type. It might be my parents' house or a school classroom. People are looking at me with suspicion. Who is this guy, why is he here?, they all say. I hastily try to give my name. But the words don't come out right. I can't remember my own name. When I take my time and finally wring something out, it sounds like the name of a total stranger, even to me. The others say they don't know such a person, too.

Then, someone whispers in my ear. [], you're a person who doesn't exist. Just like the three daughters your mother got by using Angel, you're merely a Substite born of memory alteration in someone's brain.

Every kind of foundation starts to disappear. I lose what I'm standing on, and tumble down endlessly.

Though I acted as if it didn't bother me, the truth of my mother abandoning me, memories and all, must have continued to cast a dark shadow on my mind.

When I wake up from a nightmare, reality feels like such a preferable place. Compared to those worlds, this world could still have hope. Nightmares would safely torment me and make my eyes see the virtue in reality (albeit only for a matter of minutes). In that way, nightmares are kind.

What should truly be feared are happy dreams. Those completely tear the value of reality away from you. When dreams are gorgeously colored, it takes just that much paint away from reality. When you wake up, you're reminded of the grayness of your life. You feel the absence of happiness more strongly than ever. Because the happiness in a dream doesn't even give you an illusion, it's just happiness completely unconnected to my real self.

Very rarely, in a happy dream, I'm able to realize I'm in a dream. When that happens, I close my eyes and cover my ears, and pray to return to reality as soon as possible. If I felt like it, I could probably become the king of dreamland and do whatever I pleased, but I don't. Because I know all too well that the better I feel in this world, the more miserable I'll feel in that world.

In the nightmare, the girl I lost sight of is suddenly beside me. She stares at me head-on and says, "Why would you do that?" She cocks her head to the side. "If you just asked for it, I could give you anything you want." Even if I close my eyes and cover my ears, I can still clearly sense her appearance and voice. In a dream, it's possible to see things with your eyes closed and hear things with your ears covered.

It's because I'm a resident of the real world, I reply without speaking. If I want to keep living there, I need to keep as many paints there as I can manage. So I can't be wasting color here for you.

She smiles sadly. Just the mere rendering of her smile consumes a huge amount of resources. And when I wake up, the world is much more faded than before I went to sleep. The voice of the girl in the dream clings to my eardrums. If you just asked for it, I could give you anything you want.


That's why I fear happy dreams. I feared that one happy dream named Touka Natsunagi that came floating down in the summer when I was 20. I hid in a mean and distrustful shell, only thinking of my own protection. I couldn't make any attempt to guess at her circumstances.

Thanks to this, I would come to forever regret the way I spent this summer. Why couldn't I believe what she said? Why couldn't I be honest with my feelings? Why couldn't I have been kinder to her?

She cried by herself every night.

The hand she extended was a hand of salvation, and a hand seeking salvation.

People say it's not worth crying over spilt milk. It's pointless to grieve over what you've lost; just forget it, they say. But I've come to see that attitude as lacking respect toward what's passed and what was lost. I've come to think it's akin to kicking up dirt at that premonition of happiness that once gently smiled at you.

*

"Certainly, you're doing a good job."

When Touka came to my room the next morning and started watching TV as if it was normal, I spoke to her.

She craned her neck with a sleepy look.

"What do you mean?"

After she saw the embarrassment of me desperately crying Touka's name last night, it seemed there was no point in trying to keep up appearances for her. So I spoke honestly.

"I mean you're a really good actor. You're answering my latent desires superbly. Even just knowing the contents of my Mimories and personal record, it takes serious talent to behave with such perfection. I'm on the verge of hallucinating that a girl named Touka Natsunagi actually existed."

"Right, right?"

She cheerfully nodded again and again. Then very casually -

"I mean, I did practice a ton."

She said something outrageous.

It didn't seem like she was just sleepy and let it slip, either.

"You admit you're lying?", I asked.

"Well, no... Like I've said over and over, Chihiro, I'm your childhood friend. But..." She put a hand to her mouth and thought, then raised her index finger. "Okay, you know the story of The North Wind and the Sun, right?"

Of course, even I'd heard of that. "What about it?"

"If I just admitted to you that I've actually been lying, I thought it might make things easier for you too, Chihiro. Basically, I'm a liar, and you have no choice but to go along with me to learn the meaning of my lies. And knowing my lies are being seen through, I still carry out an obvious act to accomplish my plan. If our relationship is clearly stated like that, then you can relax and be with me, right?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Since you're being difficult, Chihiro, I'm giving you an excuse to fawn over me."

I snorted. "Are you stupid?"

She wasn't stupid. Skipping to the conclusion, her change in direction was a huge success. By granting me the excuse of "she's not fooling me, I've seen through her lies and am only going along with her act to expose her," I sunk hilariously deep.

What I needed was an indulgence. By dropping the act of a pure and innocent childhood friend and deliberately acting like a scammer, Touka Natsunagi trivially destroyed my mental blockades. As if the shepherd boy who kept lying and lost all trust made use of a self-referential paradox to convince the villagers a wolf was attacking.

Thinking about it, it was the same approach I'd used to lower Nozomi Kirimoto's defenses. To put someone who suspects you're lying at ease, it's better to admit to some harmless lies than to insist you're honest. The same way you would write about insignificant defects on cheap merchandise to convince buyers.

"Look, this outfit is pretty childhood-friend-like, right?"

She'd put on a bright white one piece that showed her shoulders. In my mind's eye, her appearance bore a close resemblance to that of a gasping sunflower girl.

"For someone like yourself with an immature yet defensive mind, I believe such plain and simple clothes and some affable words would remove your wariness."

"Boy, that hurts."

"But you do like it, don't you, Chihiro?'

"Yeah. I do."

I casually admitted it. Bluffing in front of someone who understood my inner workings so intimately was useless.

"Is it cute?"
"It's cute," I carelessly repeated.

"Get your heart throbbing?"
"Heart's throbbing," I mechanically repeated.

"But you won't be honest?"
"That's right."

You don't have to hold back, she told me, and spontaneously smiled.

She misunderstands. I'm not holding back. The Touka Natsunagi in front of me is certainly charming, but I'm seeing the 7-year old Touka Natsunagi and the 9-year old Touka Natsunagi and the 15-year old Touka Natsunagi overlapping with her. Those visions don't perfectly synchronize with 20-year-old Touka Natsunagi, and occasionally there's some kind of lag, making their faces partially peek out from her body. When I see that, it feels entirely inappropriate, or perhaps misdirected, to see her as a target of my desires.

*

It wasn't all bad for me. With Touka Natsunagi's lies having been cast off, our communication became far smoother, and we could cut into the core of things without tedious formalities.

"I've forgotten a part of my past, but I don't seem like I'm ready yet, so you can't tell me the truth." I was paraphrasing her words from half a month ago. "That's what you're going with, right?"

"That's what I'm going with." Touka nodded repeatedly.

"How might I know when I'm ready?"
"Let's see now..."

She put on an unsure appearance, but she probably had the answer ready long ago. By the time she first met me, even.

"You'll have to put me at ease."

She put her left hand to her chest. As if checking her lungs - a descriptor that came to mind no doubt because of my Mimories.

"If you can prove you won't turn to despair and can keep living no matter what you learn, then I can tell you everything you want to know."

She promptly followed it up with a means of providing that proof.

"So, starting today, I'll have you live according to some rules I've devised."
"Rules?"

"Yes. Living regulations," she rephrased. "Chihiro, how long does your summer break last?"

"Until September 20th or so, I think."

"If you can avoid breaking the rules until that day, I'll give you a passing grade."

She produced a memo pad from somewhere and wrote several rules with a felt-tip pen. The first line said "How to Spend Summer Break."

I remembered: in grade school, they handed out printouts just like this before summer break. Indeed, most of the rules she wrote were lifted straight from them, like "live a well-regulated life," "have a balanced diet," "go outside and exercise regularly," "be careful not to get injured or sick," "help out around the house." Among those idyllic rules were two that gave off a strange color: "no drinking alcohol," and "no smoking cigarettes."

"I can't drink a single drop?"
"Nope. No good."

"I can't smoke a single cigarette?"
"Nope. No good."

"That's hard."
"I'll keep watch on you. To make sure you don't get sneaky."

With that, Touka lightly yawned. It was 10 PM, but she was already in pajamas and looked sleepy. She was probably living healthily like a grade-schooler.

After yawning again, she said "I should sleep soon" and stood up.

"I'll come wake you up tomorrow. Good night."

Giving me a wave around shoulder-level, she returned to her room.

"Good night," huh.

Come to think of it, my parents were never the type to say "good morning" or "good night." "I'm heading out," "I'm home," "have a nice day," "welcome home" - all these phrases were fictitious to me. My childhood self found the reality that a normal family exchanged such greetings on a daily basis hard to swallow.

I tried quietly mumbling "good night" to try it out.

It has a tender sound to it, I thought.

And that's how I rang in the beginning of her and my summer break.

*

For a while afterward, the days proceeded more or less as follows.

6:00 AM

Every morning, Touka came to wake me up. Not by shaking my shoulders or slapping me, but by squatting next to me and whispering "I'll prank you if you don't wake up." Replicating a scene from my Mimories, no doubt.

On the fifth day, I tried pretending that I was so sleepy I didn't hear her. Turns out she seemingly didn't have a concrete idea of what her "prank" would be, so she hesitated for a few minutes. Once she finally made up her mind, she timidly snuck under the covers. When I continued to feign sleep, she got out of the bed as if unable to take the tension and sighed. Was she more innocent than I thought, or was that her act? When I sat up behaving like I'd only just woken up, she laughed "Good morning" with a silly smile.

7:00 AM

We ate the breakfast she'd made together. Though she was a skilled cook, many of her breakfast dishes were simple. Even so, they really whet my appetite. Maybe the daily exercise (see below) was part of it. I'd say it was more Japanese-style meals than not, and I noticed a strange fixation on miso soup. She put a stake in my cup ramen habit, telling me to "put it aside for a while." It wasn't like I ate them because I necessarily liked them, so I obeyed.

8:00 AM

While I was washing my face and brushing my teeth, Touka took care of the washing. I didn't have much to do, so I wanted to go back to sleep, but she was always there watching me, and if I looked sleepy, she'd pull my ear. Reluctantly, I'd study or read a book I checked out from the library. The flow of time felt so slow in the morning, and it wasn't uncommon that I'd think "it must be noon by now, right?", look up, and see it was still before 10. Maybe the heat from sunlight causes time to expand. Every time I looked at the clock, I was bowled over by the length of a single day.

10:30 AM

Cleaning and laundry time. When the room was clean and there wasn't any laundry piled up, we listened to music on a music player Touka brought. Sure enough, it was the same type as the one used in my Mimories, and the records were all the same too. Listening to music from a bygone era made me feel sleepy, like sitting in the middle of a quiet field. If I fell asleep in this particular case, Touka wouldn't try to wake me. In fact, she would sometimes nod off too. And she'd lean on my shoulder without a hint of imprudence. Through the rhythm of her breathing, I came to truly feel the presence of another living being.

12:00 PM

We ate the lunch she'd made together. They were always huge meals. When I asked her why they were so large, she said "I want to fatten you up so I can eat you, Chihiro," and laughed to herself. Meanwhile, she herself only ate half as much as I did. After lunch, we drank roasted green tea and spaced out for a while. From the open window, I could hear the voices of children playing in the nearby park.

1:00 PM

When I had work, I left the apartment at this time. Touka also went back to her own room. I didn't have the slightest guess what she was up to, from then until I came back. She might be perfecting her scamming strategy, she might be watering morning glories on her veranda, she might shed the skin of "Touka Natsunagi" and fan herself while letting it dry in the shade. She could be doing anything at all and it wouldn't surprise me.

When I didn't have work, I exercised. To be specific, I pedaled a bike down the streets with Touka sitting on the back, taking us to the neighboring town. (She'd had a cushion installed on the luggage carrier. Well-prepared as always.) Once again, she was trying to recreate part of my Mimories.

Her "How to Spend Summer Break" list did mention "regular exercise," but there was no doubt about it, this exercise was excessive. Because we picked routes without many people so nobody spotted us double-riding, there were many rough roads. I had to keep from picking up speed on downhill slopes, what with Touka sitting on the back. And being extra-careful to not shift my center of balance consumed entirely too much of my stamina. On top of all that, every time we lost balance, Touka clung to me, and I was put beside myself with worry. The feeling of her sticking to my sweat-drenched body shook up my heart every time. Either because she knew my mental fatigue or because she didn't, she giggled every time she clung to me.

By the time we arrived at the park, which is where we turned around and went back home, my legs were totally numb. When I got off the bike, I couldn't walk properly for a while. I drank barley tea from a cold canteen, taking a 20-minute rest on a bench near the river. There was an ancient hospital on the other bank, and sometimes I'd see figures pass by the windows. Possibly interested in what was going on inside, Touka always leaned over the fence to look at the hospital every time we were there.

After resting, we got back on the bike, and I cleared my mind and just pedaled. The sun would be starting to set by the time we neared the apartment. The scenery along the way was monotonous, just power poles and power lines darkened by the westering sun; it felt like the resolution of the world had been downgraded several levels. The evening winds that sometimes blew were comfortable.

6:30 PM

After washing off my sweat in the shower, we went to the nearby supermarket to buy food. Being unilaterally indebted to her annoyed me, so I decided to pay for this part myself. Touka was slightly reluctant, but readily backed down: "If that's what you want to do, Chihiro, then do it." While tossing groceries into the shopping basket I held, she said "Doing this makes us seem like newlyweds," and laughed with feigned naiveté.

By the time we left the market, I was unable to think of anything but dinner thanks to my empty stomach. That was something I couldn't have imagined before. On the little riverside path, where security lights on their way out nervously flickered, I heard the echoing cries of many a summer insect. Touka would whimsically take the shopping bag from my hand, and wrap her arm around my now-free arm. Said arm was shockingly slender, soft, and chilly.

Once, I bumped into Emori in the middle of such a situation. Seeing Touka holding my hand, he was at a loss for words, looked at me with surprise, then brought his attention back to Touka. Then he blinked as if noticing something, drew near Touka, and impudently stared at her face.

Touka faltered and asked "Er, what is it?", but Emori didn't reply. He bored a hole through her face with his gaze, started to say "Hey, you, I swear I've...", but then thought better of it and shut his mouth. Then he went back to his usual aloof self, forcefully slapped my shoulder, and told me "Well, hope you do good" before leaving. Did he mean do good in exposing the identity of the scammer, or do good in getting along with her? I was at a loss. Then Touka lightly hit my shoulder. "You heard him. Let's do good," she whispered in my ear.

7:30 PM

We ate the dinner she'd made together. Many of her dinners were elaborate. Lots of the meals felt like they'd pair well with beer, so sometimes I thought "might as well try" and told her I wanted to drink. When I did this, she let me drink cold amazake. It was pretty tasty, all told.

9:00 PM

This is when I would have previously been in my best condition, yet I was always unbearably sleepy now. At the end of each day, Touka would conduct an evaluation. She'd hung a calendar on the wall with boxes to write the day of the week, the weather, and the events of the day - designed exactly like the "one-line diaries" you're given for summer break in grade school - and she would put a stamp on that day. It meant I'd obeyed the schedule she set out. Sort of like a stamp card.

Then she'd write the events of the day in the "what happened" section. They were utterly trivial things like "Chihiro got suntanned" or "Chihiro asked for seconds, and thirds." I think the stuff grade-schoolers write would be more worth reading.

Then she'd say "good night" and leave the room. I took a quick shower, collapsed into bed, and drifted off in under ten minutes. A healthy lifestyle, like a ten-year-old kid. When twenty-year-olds like us did it, it felt unhealthy instead.

But I would be lying to say it wasn't fun.

*

The "one-line diary" went on for 20 days.


August 23rd, Cloudy. Chihiro was fidgety.

August 24th, Cloudy. Chihiro pretended he wasn't fidgety.

August 25rd, Sunny. Chihiro was about to drink, so I scolded him.

August 26th, Sunny. Chihiro asked for seconds, and thirds.

August 27th, Rainy. Chihiro wouldn't wake up, so I played a prank on him.

August 28th, Cloudy. Some children teased us for riding together.

August 29th, Sunny. Got very tired.

August 30th, Cloudy. Today was a wonderfully nothing-filled day.

August 31st, Sunny. Chihiro, you're silly.

September 1st, Sunny. Chihiro got suntanned.

September 2nd, Cloudy. Apparently even Chihiro has friends.

September 3rd, Sunny. Chihiro got embarrassed. Touka entrapped me.

September 4th, Sunny. Just a little longer.

September 5th, Sunny. Shockingly, Chihiro made a meal.

September 6th, Sunny. The fireworks were pretty.

September 7th, Sunny. Chihiro was being unpleasant.

September 8th, Cloudy. Chihiro apologized to me.

September 9th, Cloudy. Chihiro was kind.

September 10th, Rainy. I was happy.

September 11th, Clear. Touka left.

*

"Hey, you want to kiss?"

September 10th. The forecast predicted rain in the evening, but the festival was held as planned. A little festival, based around the local shrine.

That day, we canceled our usual bike trip and lazed around in the room during the day. And when the sun started to descend, we left the apartment for the shrine. Luckily, it didn't seem it would rain for a while yet.

Touka was wearing a deep-blue yukata. Needless to say, it had the exact same fireworks pattern as the one she wore at age 15 in my Mimories. She naturally also wore the red chrysanthemums in her hair. The one difference from that day was that she had me wear a shijira-ori yukata she'd prepared. It was the first time in my life I'd gone outside wearing a yukata, so I was restless on the way.

Touka visited a photo studio in the shopping district and bought a disposable film camera, then took photos of me from every distance and angle, her geta sandals clopping restlessly. I asked her why she wasn't using the digital camera on her phone, and she gave me the inexplicable answer of "They're evidence photos." There was probably no deep meaning beyond her just wanting to say that, I supposed.

My eyes had adjusted to the dark evening, so the strobe light dazed my eyes.

After arriving at the plaza, we first did a tour of the stands. Then each of us bought what we wanted to from them, and looked for a place to plop down. Contrary to the small scale of the festival, there were many people there, so we went around to the back of the main shrine building, and sat together in the middle of the stairs connecting the shrine to the elementary school. The only lighting was a security lamp at the top of the stairs, and its light hardly reached us.

Touka's face in the dim light was, as if by some mistake, beautiful. It really probably was some kind of mistake. Her looks were above-average, sure, but it was a beauty totally unlike the elegant kind that made passersby turn their heads. Maybe I'd describe it as a kind of beauty that has no real use, like a harmonica secretly sleeping in the back of a pantry. The only reason it struck my heart so hard was because of the many filters the Mimories put over my eyes.

And then, like it or not, I remembered. There was no question, Touka had intentionally chosen this place. So I knew perfectly well what line would come from her lips the next time they opened.

After waiting for the right moment, Touka spoke.

"Hey, you want to kiss?"

15-year-old Touka and 20-year-old Touka overlapped.

"Come on, let's test if I'm really just a scammer or not," Touka said in the same flippant tone as back then. "Maybe you'll be surprised to find lost memories reviving."

"If that were enough to revive them, they would've revived ages ago," I replied in the same tone.

"Come on, come on. If you don't pretend to be fooled, things can't move forward."

Touka faced me and closed her eyes.

This is strictly just an act. A necessary price to reveal the truth. And I mean, a kiss isn't that big a deal. After putting up all those defenses, I humbly locked lips with her.

After our lips parted, we faced each other again, but didn't try to act as if it were nothing.

"How was it?" - she asked this time. "Feel anything?"

"Sure did," I said, and left it at that.

"Ohh." Touka put her hands together and her eyes sparkled. "So you're honest now, Chihiro."

"Figured there's no point in lying."

"I really felt my heart pounding too. It's my first kiss in five years, after all."

"Is that what you're going with?"

"That is what I'm going with. I've been living alone since we parted five years ago, haven't I?"

"A model example of a childhood friend."

"Aren't I just?"

Then there was a long pause. We ate the food we bought at the stands in silence.

When I stood up to throw away my trash, she suddenly broke the silence.

"Hey, Chihiro."
"What?"

"Relax. When this summer ends, I'll vanish from your sight."

It was an unexpected proclamation.

I thought it was one those Touka-style roundabout jokes.

But her expression and tone told me she was dead serious.

"All we have left now is this summer. So I'd be happy if you kept going along with this lie until then."

Then, with a level of modesty rare for her, she leaned on my shoulder.

"What was your objective, anyway?"

I figured she'd dodge the question.

But her answer was unusually sincere.

"You'll know eventually. It's a pretty complex objective, but I think you can manage to get the gist of it."


It rained two hours later than the forecast. When it did come, it was a definitively large storm. Not wishing to run home in our yukatas, we decided to take shelter at a nearby bus stop. It was the sort of situation that seemed planned somehow, but not even she could manipulate the weather. There was a discarded umbrella at the bus stop, but it was only the remnants of one ruined by the typhoon last month.

Unlike the rain in August, the rain in September carried clear malice. Completely soaked before we could make it under a roof, the rainwater slowly sapped our body heat.

Touka was holding her thin body, trying to endure the cold. One "Chihiro Amagai" inside me wanted to hold her tight and warm her up.

But I stuffed down that feeling. If I obeyed his voice here, I felt the real me and the me in my Mimories would switch places and never be able to go back.

Instead, I asked:

"Are you cold?"

She looked at me for a few seconds, then down again.

"Yeah. But I feel like you'll warm me up, Chihiro."

She had a sweet, inviting voice.

If the rain hadn't cooled my head, I probably wouldn't be able to resist it.

"...Sorry, but I can't take it that far."

Then she laughed cynically.

Her laugh was the only dry thing in the rain-soaked bus stop.

She spoke provocatively.

"Why? Are you afraid to get serious?"
"Yeah. I'm scared."

Silence fell.

I counted ten rain drips from the ceiling.

She drew in a faint breath.

Then she showed me the slightest peek at the face under her mask.

"If only you'd give in and be fooled."

So she said.

"If you just asked for it, I could give you anything you want."

Her voice trembled slightly.

"I know everything you want," she said.

Right you are, I thought.

I wanted to be fooled by her lies, if I could. I wanted to soak in the gentle story told by her and the Mimories. Whether a dream or a Mimory or an illusion, I wanted to love her blindly, and her blindly love me.

She could give me anything I desired.

And yet.

That's why, right there.

I swallowed the words threatening to overflow, and put it all into just three.

"I hate lies."

I told her this, looking at her straight on.

Her expression wasn't shaken one bit.

Her eyes seemed to be looking at me, at yet at nothing.

She started to laugh innocently like always,

and then something inside her broke down.

The line going down her cheek was most likely not a raindrop.

"I love lies."

Then she turned her back to me to hide her tears.

The rain continued for nearly an hour after. For that time, we sat back to back, sharing a faint warmth.

That was the limit for me, reality's Chihiro Amagai.

When the rain stopped, we went back to the apartment without a word. And we waited in our respective rooms for our respective mornings.

The next day, she had vanished. The spare key was beside my bed. She must've returned it while I was asleep.

In the "one-line diary," she had left her own kind of farewell message for September 10th.


September 10th, Rainy. I was happy.


In the day next to it, I wrote this.


September 11th, Clear. Touka left.


And that's how we signaled the end of her and my short summer break.

*

"Even now, Chihiro, you're my hero."

Touka spoke this to me frankly the day before she moved away.

The study was now an empty room, but we were still huddled up in the corner.

"Chihiro, you led me out from a dark place," she continued. "I didn't have friends, but you were always there with me, and you saved me again and again when I had attacks. If you weren't there, I might have just despaired and died a long time ago."

How overdramatic, I laughed.

It's the truth, she laughed back.

"That's why, if anything happens to you someday, I'm going to be your hero, Chihiro."

"Shouldn't it be "heroine" for a girl?"
"Oh, right."

She thought for a bit, then smiled softly.

"Okay, then I'm going to be your heroine, Chihiro."

When she put it like that, the meaning sounded a little different.



Part 3
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