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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."
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?"
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."
"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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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?"
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.