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Chapter 7: Prayer

Following the rainstorm, the evening wind started to carry the smell of an autumn night. Cicadas halfway to the grave made dull buzzing sounds as they crawled around on the ground, and the sunflowers to the side of the road had their heads drooped like stray dogs, never to lift up again.

Summer was starting to end.

Freed of Touka, I drank gin by myself, I smoked by myself, I got meals by myself, and I drank gin by myself again. The life cycle she had built up for me over 20 days fell apart in just one. You can say it about anything: building it up is hard, but demolishing it is shockingly easy.

That said, my eating habits had gotten a bit better. I bought ingredients from the supermarket every evening, and took the time to cook them. I didn't grow to hate cup ramen or anything. But cooking was just the thing to keep me from boredom. While I was in the kitchen doing work that took concentration, I didn't have to think about extraneous nonsense.

I didn't have any experience cooking for myself, but I naturally picked up the procedures while watching Touka do it. I relied on my memory to replicate each of the dishes she'd made. After my meal, I washed and put away the utensils, then drank gin again. When I had nothing to do, I listened to music on the record player she left behind. The old music that just felt tedious when we listened to it together, to my surprise, wasn't so bad when I listened to it alone. Right now, some simple and slow music was just what I was looking for.

On the fourth day, Emori contacted me. I woke up from a nap and checked the voice mails on my phone.

I played it without even thinking about it.

"I've figured out who Touka Natsunagi is. I'll contact you again later."

I put the phone down by my bed and closed my eyes.

Two hours later, I got a phone call.

I showered for the first time in two days, put on new clothes, and headed for the children's park.

*

"You want the long explanation, or the short explanation?"

That's how Emori broke the ice. I thought for just five seconds, then said "the long one, please." While part of me did want to hear the short explanation first to learn the truth, I would probably be asking for details afterward either way. I would try to get the most amount of information I could, in an attempt to come to my own conclusion that might differ from his. In that case, I thought, I should get the long explanation first.

"Well then, we're going to have to go a ways back." Then Emori had a bit of a hesitant pause. "Why was it not you, an involved party, but me, a third party, who could see through to the truth about Touka Natsunagi? To explain the logic there, I'm gonna have to talk about a time I was seriously considering buying Mimories. And to explain why I was considering buying Mimories, I'm gonna need to go into some of my personal life. It's not the happiest stuff, and not the kind of stuff you want to talk about in public..."

He scratched the back of his neck and breathed out.

"Well, maybe it might not be so bad to open up about it to you, Amagai."

I nodded and urged him to continue.

"Take a look at this."

With that, he showed me something: a dirty school notebook.

"It's a notebook from middle school," he explained. "Turn it over."

On the back of the notebook was a student identification, with a photo of middle-school age Emori.

That said, if I had been shown this photo without any context, I probably wouldn't realize it was Emori.

That's how different he was in this photo compared to him now.

To put it bluntly: he was ugly.

"Awful, right?", Emori said. Not self-derisively, but like he was spitting something out. "I had a miserable childhood. None of the boys or girls wanted to be around me. I was teased by older students all the time, and even younger students made fun of me. Hell, even the teachers were reluctant to deal with me. I was just praying for time to pass quicker in the corner of the classroom, day after day."

I compared the person in the photo with the one before my eyes. Sure, there were faint similarities between them. But said similarities were on the level of "tofu and natto are made from the same base ingredients"; you could find them if you tried, just as much as you could find similarities between any two total strangers.

"I made up my mind to change myself in spring, when I was 18. March 9th, four years ago," he continued. "When I was walking home alone from graduation, this couple walked in front of me. They were wearing the same uniforms as me and holding diplomas, so I knew they were graduates from my school. In fact, then I noticed the girl was one of my classmates. The one person in class who would always say hi to me every day. Secretly, I felt something toward her, though it could barely even be called a crush. I knew I wasn't the kind of guy who could get with her, so I didn't make any moves, but during class or at lunch, I'd sneak peeks at her when I got the chance."

He took the notebook from my hand and put it back in his pocket. I wondered if he periodically looked at that notebook to remind himself of his past self. Like taking a bitter medicine.

"You know why I didn't notice she was one half of that couple right away? 'Cause she wore a totally different expression walking with her boyfriend than anything I saw in the classroom. Ahh, so that's how she smiles when she's actually happy, I thought. She was a pretty girl, so I wasn't really shocked she had a boyfriend. I hadn't gotten my hopes up that she was mine or anything, so I couldn't possibly get jealous now. I'd already estimated myself to be at rock bottom, so nothing could make me more miserable from there. I just thought, "she looks happy.""

He glanced at me, as if to say "you probably know how that feels."

Of course I do, my eyes responded.

"But for some reason... while I was getting ready to live my new life, I was constantly remembering what I saw then, and getting my heart thrown into disarray. While I was packing, while I was going between the dump and my home, while I was buying living supplies, I kept ruminating over the scene I saw on the way home from graduation. After I was done preparing for my move, I lay down in my empty room with arms and legs outstretched, and thought long and hard about what the hell I was doing to myself. And that night, I made a resolution to myself: I'll start over from scratch."

As if waiting for the meaning of those words to soak into me, he paused for a few seconds.

"Luckily, I didn't know a single person at my new school. I bumped up my original moving date and started living on my own. And then, I tried everything I could think of for the sake of my "rebirth." For a while, I hardly showed my face around college, 'cause I was working so hard on my body I nearly coughed up blood. I researched every night about how I should dress and act for people to like me, and put those things into practice in places with no ties to school. And I tampered with my face as much as you can without a scalpel being involved. Once I'd gotten enough confidence, I started to show up to class in earnest. I made tons of friends and attractive partners in no time, but I still didn't work any less on self-improvement. In fact, seeing visible results for my efforts lit the fires of ambition in me. I put tons of effort, like I was possessed, into appearance and everything else. By a year later, I had girls fawning on me without me even sneezing in their direction."

Then he flashed me a smile, as if firing off a test shot. It was a smile that would make any girl who came to college full of dreams instantly fall in love.

"It was like the world revolved around me. After that, I started feeling eager to get back my lost childhood. Wanting to get revenge on both my past self and those who wouldn't give him the time of day, I slept with loads of young, pretty girls. Like some noble from the Middle Ages who bathed in the blood of young girls to keep up their good looks. I thought that would save the other me inside me. I thought I'd be able to give salvation to the kid who could only sit in the corner of the classroom and enviously watch from afar as his classmates had childhoods."

At this point in the story, Emori finally took a sip of beer. It had probably gone warm a while ago, so he scrunched up his face and looked at the label on the can. Then he poured out the contents on the ground and started smoking, using the can as an ashtray. I lit a cigarette to match him.

"In my fourth year of college, in summer, I finally came to my senses. And I had a revelation. I can struggle all I want, but it's impossible to get back a lost childhood. As it turns out, you can only have the experiences a 15-year-old should have at 15, so if I didn't have them at that age, no fulfilling experiences after the fact can save the spirit of 15-year-old me. Took me too long to realize something so obvious. Everything felt futile then, and I gave up my womanizing. I deleted all my lady friends' contact info, no exceptions. I befriended you a little after that, Amagai. I guess at the time, I was looking for somebody who felt a similar emptiness."

Him saying that reminded me. The girls who visited Emori's room near-daily did stop showing up right around the time he and I got to know each other.

I never even stopped to think that those two phenomenons had a cause-and-effect relationship.

"I learned about Green Green at the end of summer - right around this timeframe." He finally spoke those words. Gradually, he was approaching the main topic. "It was the perfect product for a childhood-craving zombie like me. The wonder cure for an unfulfilling childhood, which gives users memories of a beautiful one. I leapt for it right away. I tried to, anyway. I made it as far as making an appointment for counseling. This can save 12-year-old and 15-year-old me, I thought. But just before it came up, I rethought it and canceled."

I got a word in for the first time. "Why was that?"

His mouth warped as if in agony.

"What's more hollow than my most beautiful memories being someone else's fabrication?"

I nodded.

I felt I could now fully understand why this man had befriended me.

"I gave up purchasing Green Green, but my interest in Mimories themselves stuck around. In particular, I was really fascinated by the job of "Mimory engineer" I learned about while researching Mimories. I've had to confront my own memories way more than your average person. I felt like a person like me who has countless cases of "if only it'd been like this" in his past might just be suited to be a Mimory engineer. I gathered as much information as I could on that occupation. I think it was in the process of collecting that information that I learned about her. It took me a while to remember, being an article I just skimmed over nearly a year ago, but that's why I felt like I'd seen that girl you were walking with a few weeks ago, Amagai."

Emori showed me a news article on his phone. At the top was a date from three years ago.


The Genius 17-Year-Old Mimory Engineer


"The preface went a little long, but now for the conclusion," Emori said. "Touka Natsunagi is a Mimory engineer. The Mimories about Touka Natsunagi in your head, Amagai, she probably made them herself."

He scrolled the screen down and zoomed in on the photo below. A familiar face jumped out at me.

It was Touka Natsunagi's smile that I hadn't seen in four days.

*

Back at the apartment, I reread the article over and over. After doing that, I gathered information about her on the web.

Touka Natsunagi wasn't her real name, but there was only the slightest difference between her real name and her alias. One of the consonants in her surname was different, and that was all. She probably thought this minimal disguise would be sufficient for me. Or maybe in the event she said her real name by mistake, she was making sure she could talk her way out of it.

At the time, she was the youngest Mimory engineer in history. She was hired as a Mimory engineer by a major clinic as young as 16, and worked on many Mimories while going through high school.

In just three years, she created over 50 years' worth of Mimories. This was an absurd pace, regardless of her youth. And it wasn't all quantity, but quality as well. Needless to say, she drew attention in the world of Mimory engineering as a rising star, but she sent in a resignation letter just before her 20th birthday and hadn't been heard from since then. It made the local news, at least. People who were anticipating her work were left to despair. The Mimories she drew up were somehow fundamentally different from those of other Mimory engineers; no one was able to imitate her.

She referred to that unparalleled difference as "prayer."

In a short interview on a news site, Touka answered the reporter's questions cautiously with basic and harmless words. The interviewer went through great lengths to try and get a childish reaction or some nefarious statement out of the 17-year-old prodigy, but the further forward he stepped, the deeper she retreated into her shell. So she responded with modest, safe, and boring answers.

There were only two questions at the end that were able to get her to speak her thoughts. The first was: "People say the Mimories you create are entirely different from what other Mimory engineers make. How would you concretely describe what that "difference" is?"


I guess I'd say "prayer."


When the interviewer tried to dig deeper into what she meant by "prayer," Touka gave a simple answer. "Basically, I mean earnestness."

But in truth, it was probably something for which no word except "prayer" would work.

At least that's how I felt.

The interviewer went on to ask her ultimate goal as a Mimory engineer. Touka answered this like so.


I want to make Mimories so powerful, they throw that person's life into chaos.


And was I the test subject?

Had her aim been to throw my life into chaos through Mimories?

Had her smiles, and her tears, all just been an act to shake up my heart?


I guess I should be irritated. I guess I should be indignant about being used to feed her ego. One month ago, I probably would have been.

But that was impossible for me now. Only knowing the truth now was too late. Any attempt to cast negative feelings toward her would be firmly impeded by my memories of this summer break. It wasn't just "I can't hate her." I looked at this photo of 17-year-old Touka over and over, and every time, my heart was filled with yearning.

Strangely enough, 17-year-old Touka looked a bit older than the 20-year-old Touka I knew. In the photo, her eyes were slightly bleary, and the fact she wore a high school uniform felt out of place, even. It might have honestly fit present-day Touka better.

In fact, now that I was thinking about this, 20-year-old her was way too young. In the photo, she was passing as 20, and in the present, she was passing as 17.

What did this strange inversion mean? Had the photo just come out bad because she was nervous? Had quitting her job freed her from stress, making her look younger? Had she tried to get as close as possible to her appearance in the Mimories to help deceive me?

The 17-year-old Touka who gave the camera an awkward smile looked like it could be a vision of herself from the near future.


My thoughts wouldn't stop racing. All I could rely on for sleepless nights was, you guessed it, alcohol. I poured the waters of forgetfulness into a glass, and got lost in an alley of gin with a ruin-like atmosphere.

My dad was also a lover of alcohol. There are drunks who drink to enjoy reality and those who drink to forget reality, and he was decisively the latter. If he didn't end up a Mimory addict, he'd probably have ended up a more dangerous alcohol addict. He seemed to bear subtle pain which no one would soothe, always looking like he was suffocating.

My sole objective in life was to never end up like my dad, yet maybe I did end up rather similar to my dad, just with a change in presentation. A life where I keep averting my eyes from anything inconvenient to me, the situation continues to worsen, and yet I keep looking away.

While gazing absentmindedly at the "one-line diary" hung on the wall, I realized my eyes were losing focus. I closed them, and found myself on a ship rocked by tall waves. I staggered over to the bathroom and emptied out my stomach. It had been a month since I last drank so much I threw up. It was that day I decided to drink the Lethe, couldn't do it, had a case of mistaken identity, drank in desperation, was kicked out of the bar, walked home to the apartment, and met her.

Touka Natsunagi.

There was just one thing that I was stuck on. On the last day, Touka told me this about her reason for acting like my childhood friend.

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

But could you call "throwing that person's life into chaos" a complex objective?

And did "I think you can manage to get the gist of it" imply that it was something the average person would find harder to figure out?

I can't help but feel I'm overlooking something major.

If you just wanted to throw my life into chaos, there should have been countless other ways.

Just leaving the contents of the Green Green as-is, appearing before me as "a girl who resembles the childhood friend in the Mimories," and putting on the act of a fateful encounter would surely have ensnared me, inviting little in the way of unnecessary doubt. It's hard to imagine she lacked the ability to conceive of that.

And yet she appeared before me as the childhood friend in the Mimories herself. She purposefully chose an approach with low odds of success. Does that just go to show how confident she was in the influence of her Mimories?

It can't just be that. She had to become the childhood friend I adored, and no one else. Until I could figure out the reason why that was, I wouldn't be able to say I understood her true intentions.

My thoughts continued to race even more.

*

At some point, the sky had started to brighten. Even with the power of alcohol, I hadn't been able to sleep a wink, and having drank beyond the recommended dosage, my body felt horribly sluggish. My eyes were bleary, my head heavy, my throat hurt, and I was hungry, too.

I crawled out of bed. It was probably my empty stomach that kept sleep away, but the childhood friend who would make me breakfast was gone now. I checked the fridge, and it only had a few shreds of cabbage and some orange juice. When I drank the orange juice to the last drop, it only seemed to make my stomach worse. I gave up on sleeping, put on my sandals, and left the room in my sleepwear.

Just as I opened the door, something moved in the corner of my vision. While in the act of closing my door, I instinctively turned to it.

It was a girl. She looked anywhere from 17 to 20. She was dressed like she'd visited someone's funeral far away, then returned on the earliest train she could. Her limbs, faintly lit, were like a transparent white, and her long, soft black hair was blown up by the wind in the hall,

and time stopped.

An invisible nail fixed us in place, her in the pose of opening her door, and myself closing my door with the back of my hand.

As if we temporarily lost the concept of words, we looked at each other for a long time.

The first thing to resume movement was my mouth.

"...Touka?"

I spoke her name.

"...And who would you be?"

The girl had forgotten mine.



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Chapter 8: Reprise

I have a childhood friend who I've never met. I've never seen his face. I've never heard him speak. I've never even touched him. Despite that, he feels close to me. I think fondly of him. And he's my salvation.

He doesn't exist. To be more precise, he exists only in my fantasy. He's a convenient illusion my oxygen-deprived brain created on long, sleepless nights. Yet this illusion began to steadily take on a more defined shape, and soon became an irreplaceable friend to me.

He has no name. Because if I gave him a name, it would only make it clearer that he doesn't exist. I simply referred to him as "him." "He" was my only childhood friend, someone who understood me, and my hero.

In the fictional world where he existed, I was happy.

In the real world where he didn't exist, I wasn't happy.

The world has been a suffocating place to me since a young age. And I don't mean metaphorically. Yes, it was also a place that made it hard to breathe mentally, but before that, I physically had trouble breathing. I literally couldn't breathe as I liked. The world made my chest ache emotionally, but before that, my chest also physically ached. It literally felt like it might burst open.

Suffocating. Stuffy. Short of breath. Everyone uses these familiar expressions, but how many people have actually experienced their breath almost stopping? Everyone breathes subconsciously. They can do it while they sleep. If you're living a normal life, you're hardly ever going to risk true suffocation.

I had to be serious about my breathing back then. I spent most of the day thinking about breathing. The way a seasoned photographer can read the lighting in a place, I could read the amount of oxygen in the air. No one senses the presence of air, but I could feel it tangibly. And around the time when most people fell asleep, I was focusing all my senses on breathing. Sticking a long tube out past the curtain of night like a snorkel, I desperately took in air.

In our modern age, with technology such as minuscule machines that can write a fictional past into your brain, it's commonly thought that asthma isn't a crushingly serious illness. It's true; unless it's a very severe case, you can generally live much like a healthy person if you possess the right knowledge to cope with it.

The problem was, my parents lacked that right knowledge. They perceived it as "an illness that makes it so you can't stop coughing every once in a while." Those two who had never even gotten hay fever would never understand the feeling of your breathing being restricted by a blocked respiratory tract.

No, maybe that wasn't where the fundamental problem lay. What they lacked wasn't experience with illness, nor knowledge, nor affection, but a rudimentary level of imagination. My parents fundamentally misunderstood "understanding." They could bring someone else closer to their world, but they couldn't bring themselves closer to someone else's world.

They irregularly squeezed themselves inside that tiny frame.

Worse yet, they had a baseless distrust in all things technological. People like this can be found in any time period. People with these crude thought processes that see undue value in the word "natural." They honestly believed in nonsense notions you might see written in dubious books, like "if you go to a hospital, you'll get sick." Medicine hurts your health, treatment shortens your lifespan, all illnesses are just elaborate schemes made by doctors - they were convinced of these things. I guess that was their illness.

In their eyes, only what was there from the start was good, and everything else was evil. Constantly exhausted by this creed of theirs, I adopted an opposing creed out of necessity. In short: despise what's there, and love what's not there.

And that's how "he" was born.


I remember long, dark nights.

At the time, I was afraid of night. I still am now, but for a different reason. I wouldn't be able to answer which one was worse, because they're both the worst. There's no "better" with suffering. But if the amount of suffering was the same, I suppose I felt more despair as a child due to my softer heart.

Around the time the day was over and I got into bed, my breathing started to get out of sorts. First, there'd be light coughing. That was the sound of suffering knocking on my door. If this was happening, it was now futile to try and go to sleep. The coughing consistently worsened, reached its peak around 2 AM, then still continued through the night. Like my own body was trying to keep me from falling asleep.

It was hard to breathe lying face-up, so I sat as if hugging my bundled-up blanket. As time went on, my posture steadily leaned forward, ultimately putting me in a cowering pose. Someone might've seen me and thought I was pleading for forgiveness. Or it might look like I want to go back to being a fetus who doesn't know suffering. It was neither. That position was just the most comfortable.

The most noticeable symptom was coughing, but coughs weren't the true essence of the suffering. What truly tormented me were breathing difficulties. The basic actions everyone subconsciously does from birth, breathing in and out, became laborious tasks for me at night. Imagine if your throat became the air plug on a life preserver. Or maybe if your lungs turned into hard plastic. If you can't breathe in easily, you can't breathe out easily either.

The feeling of not being able to breathe directly connects to a fear of death. Will this throat of mine eventually become completely blocked? Will it no longer be able to function, like a vacuum that sucked up a vinyl bag? When that time comes, I probably won't even be able to let out a moan. I'll desperately make a racket to call for help, but nobody will notice, I'll shake, I'll be terrified, I'll tremble, and my numerous shrieks and curses will stay stuck in my throat as I never even draw a final breath. Thinking about that made me cry from terror.

My room was located a decent ways from my parents' room, and that's where my bed was. I slept in the same room as my parents until I was 4, but my bed was relocated a little after I turned 5. My mother blithely reasoned that "the bathroom's closer there, so it should be good for you," but I couldn't see it as anything other than an isolation measure. They probably couldn't stand me keeping them awake with my coughing all night. I can't say I didn't understand.

I was told to call for them right away if something happened, but in the middle of an attack, I couldn't shout loud enough to reach my sleeping parents in the room diagonally across the hall, so that isolation measure was also my death sentence. Besides, suppose I did desperately manage to crawl over to the bedroom. They wouldn't do anything for me. I would never be able to get used to my attacks, but my parents got used to seeing them. Once they learned that provided it wasn't too serious, they could leave me alone and it would get better by morning, any entreaty I made about my suffering would go in one ear and out the other.

Up until about age 7, if I had a major attack at night, they would take me to get emergency aid. When I heard the sound of the car engine out front and knew we would be going to the hospital, my worries quickly departed. Just thinking about things like that hospital smell, IVs, and inhalers calmed me down. (I loved hospitals, as a place.) And likely because of that relief, it was common that in the 30 minutes it took to reach the hospital, I would get better. As that happened again and again, my parents started to suspect I was faking sick. Maybe she's just exaggerating her coughing to get her parents to pay attention to her.

It's a common occurrence for asthmatics' attacks to calm down just from approaching a hospital, but I didn't know that at the time, and didn't yet have the objectivity needed to logically explain my condition. My parents' doubts strengthened by the day. They'd look at me coughing violently, and my dad would unsympathetically say "Your coughing's so overblown." Then my mom, suspectingly: "Does it really hurt that much?" Afterward, even when I had attacks, they would pretend not to notice.

Once, I was left with no choice but to call an ambulance myself. My parents wouldn't talk to me for a while after. They finally spoke to me after about a week, but the first things out of their mouths were abuse. "You embarrassed us." "Do you think we have money to just throw around?" These people would probably be happier if I had died, I thought in my young age. This event struck from me once more the ability to expect anything from anyone.

Anyway, all I could do was wait for time to pass. I would occasionally poke my head out of my burrow, look at the moonlit clock by my bed, and pray for the night to end a second sooner. The greater my suffering, the slower time went, so irritation often gave me the urge to smash through the cover and wind the hands around manually. I liked summer solely because the nights were shorter.

When dawn came, my breathing started to stabilize and I could sleep, and in that momentary sleep, I fantasized about "him." But two hours later, I had to get up and go to school. The worrying thing about my illness was how when I wasn't coughing, I didn't look the slightest bit unwell. I could tell my parents I was sluggish and needed to rest, but of course they wouldn't hear it. They wouldn't believe me without visible evidence like numbers on a thermometer or rashes on my skin.

Thanks to that, I was always sleep-deprived, and spaced out during the day. My head was numb, my vision blurry, and all sounds seemed to come from behind a wall. In a world covered by light fog, only my suffering and my fantasies felt real.


As I grew older, my condition slowly got less severe, and the asthma gradually became more of a psychosomatic illness. While environmental factors started to have less influence on me, I instead became susceptible to worry and stress. If I do something like this, it might cause an attack, and I can't let an attack happen while I'm here; the act of thinking about it in itself became the biggest trigger.

If I'd had someone to give me emotional support at the time, I might have been fully cured of my asthma much sooner (though of course, getting proper treatment at a medical institution would have been better than anything). This person would save me, this person would understand, this person would protect me - if I'd had someone who I could feel that way about, I'm sure it would have at least cut down on the number of anxiety-triggered attacks.

I had no friends. Due to being in the hospital for pleuritis at age 6 from winter to spring, I had a late start at my elementary school. Another part of it was that I was forbidden from going outside, "because I can't be causing other people trouble." And I couldn't be active, so I couldn't play in the same way the other kids did either. And I also couldn't attend most events like hikes or track meets.

But the biggest factor was my personality. My illness made me a servile, self-punishing person. My body was a failure that wouldn't let me live a normal life, and I myself was a troublemaker, in the sense that just me being there caused people major trouble; I was aware of this. That may have been the truth, but a child who hasn't even lived a decade has no obligation to face up to facts. I should've not worried about it and just lived brazenly.

But the two people I was closest to not only reinforced that servile attitude, they openly encouraged it. Without using words, they implied "you're going to bother a lot of people in your life, so at least keep your head down." I was raised to curse myself, a teaching I was constantly putting into practice. There wasn't even a chance of me making friends.

I didn't have a single good memory of school. Especially when I went to my local public elementary school, I was a truly miserable creature.

At that time, I had a habit of walking with a slump. I naturally found myself walking that way because it made breathing easier, but my classmates would often tease me for this habit. When I saw boys imitating how I walked and laughing, I warned myself to be on guard, that I couldn't have an attack in front of them. Because they would just take that as another means to tease me. And I would continue to be a laughingstock for years. I absolutely couldn't show any further weakness. The more tense I made myself, the thinner the air in the classroom felt.

There were a very small number of people who knew about my illness and showed me concern. Those kinds of people would be extremely friendly at first and keep in step with me, but after a certain amount of time, they'd get irritated with my sensitive behavior, become annoyed at how just being with me limited them in many ways, and eventually get tired of me and leave. In worse cases, they'd start to hate me. So ultimately, I would wind up alone.

Just don't let my emotions get high-strung, and if I feel an attack coming, give up whatever I have to and go to the infirmary. Sticking to these two rules allowed me to barely avoid revealing the extent of my sickness to my classmates. In practice, my efforts were worth it, up to a point. But in winter fourth year, I had a severe attack right in the middle of class.

One of the boys saw the inhaler I carried around like a good-luck charm, and said something to tease me. That set it off. I should have just ignored him, but what he said was just too mean, so I snapped back at him. The boy was confused, not expecting a comeback, so he got angry. And to express that anger, he snatched my inhaler from me and tossed it out the window.

I panicked. I started running to grab the inhaler, and right afterward, I showed the world a more intense asthma attack than I'd ever had before.

That day still comes back to me in my dreams.

My classmates' reaction was generally what I'd expected. They saw me having my attack not as a target for pity and compassion, but as something comical and disturbing. Ever since that, I hardly showed my face in class. I spent my remaining two-plus years of elementary school on the bed in the infirmary.

Of course, I didn't have a place in the infirmary either. There exist castes and cliques among dropouts. The infirmary had its own society, and I was ostracized for not fitting into it. Some students enrolled into the infirmary were able to curry favor with the school nurse, and some were not; I was naturally the latter.

Still, even if I couldn't call it a perfectly peaceful land, the infirmary might as well have been heaven compared to the classroom. I read books by myself there, and had long naps to catch up on years of lost sleep. On outdoors school days in fifth grade and field trip days in sixth grade, I was sleeping in the infirmary. I didn't really feel bad about missing them.

Either because I could finally get enough sleep, or because I didn't have to deal with the stress of my class watching me, those two years took me from being the shortest or second-shortest in my grade to being just below the average height. I also picked up knowledge about asthma, and come middle school, I could live a more or less average life. But by that time, solitude had already soaked into my bones, and I couldn't even think about befriending anybody.

It sounds strange, but I felt like if I went and made friends now, it would be unforgivable to my grade-school self. If my present self denied solitude, it would mean denying my past self. I would be admitting that those suffering-laden six years came to nothing but exhaustion.

I wanted to carry on the lonesome discoveries she made in those pitch black days. The suffering you endured was by no means for nothing; it's still breathing within me now, I wanted to reassure her.

I had a lonely time in middle school and a lonely time in high school. I still don't know if it was the right choice or not. But I think if I had tried to say the past never happened and live a normal life, I would push myself too far eventually and it would all fall apart. And then maybe I'd be more lonely than I am now.

That's what my memories of school were like. On days off, I stayed put in my room. My parents forbade me from going out unnecessarily, but also, I didn't feel any urge to go out, and there was no one I wanted to meet with. I didn't feel motivated to study, either. Just listening in class was sufficient to get me good grades, and even if I studied a ton, I couldn't imagine my parents would permit me to go on to college. So I would either read books I checked out from the library, or listen to music on a record player my dad no longer used.

When I didn't feel like books or music, I would watch people come and go from the bay window. My house was on high ground, so I could see quite a bit from the window. Rows of cherry blossoms in spring, fields of sunflowers in summer, maple trees in autumn, white snowscapes in winter. I never tired of gazing upon these sights, and of thinking about the childhood friend I'd never met.


To tell the truth, I needed family. I needed a friend. I needed a lover.

I dreamt up an entity who satisfied all three. "He" inevitably became a childhood friend. He could be warm like family, entertaining like a friend, dear like a lover, and matching my tastes in every way; I might call him the ultimate boy.

What would've happened if "he" had been there then? I simulated those what-ifs down to minute details. I took each and every memory of my past and wove him into them, to save each and every tearful me in those memories.

If I'd met "him" then.

If "he" had saved me then.

If "he" would've hugged me tight.

What kind of life would I be living by now?

Fantasies like that were my only shelter.

*

A turning point in my life arrived at age 16.

Right now, there's only a single way for someone without any academic credentials or job experience to apply to be a Mimory engineer. Wait for a major clinic to do their periodic public recruitment, then create and submit Mimories according to a personal record the clinic sends you. If you meet their standards, you're hired just like that.

It's probably easiest to imagine it like a Rookie of the Year award for novels. It's about as competitive as it is for novelists, too. Ultimately, supposing all things equal in what you may call "talent," some people might study their butts off and still not make the cut, while others might write some Mimories to kill time and get hired at the world's biggest clinic. If age and experience aren't relevant, you don't need technical know-how. Just like how a novelist doesn't need to be savvy in all the functions of a word processor or the technology of book-making, Mimory engineers don't need be well-acquainted with neuroscience or nanotechnology.

In fact, what Mimory engineers do is practically the same as what novelists do. The biggest difference is that novelists are writing for readers who they anticipate to be in the thousands or more, while Mimory engineers are only anticipating one single reader (not to say there aren't novelists who write just to satisfy a single reader). Novelists write by following requests that come from within, while Mimory engineers write by following external requests (not to say there aren't novelists who write according to external requests). They look over the client's personal record, and spin up an entirely pragmatic story for it. Maybe it sounds a bit better to say it's like a poet writing a sonnet for a patron.

It was a very simple world. Not only because the nature of the work was simple, but because the job of Mimory engineer was brand new. Mimory-related laws would be surely pop up in the future, making things more complex over time. But I quit my job as a Mimory engineer before that could happen, so I only knew the simple side of that world.

I was hired as a Mimory engineer at 16. Even now, four years later, 16-year-old Mimory engineers remained as rare as 16-year-old novelists.

I only learned that Mimory engineers were a thing that existed at age 15. I was staring at a course selection sheet, wondering what to put down under "desired occupation," when it suddenly caught my eye. My father was a dental engineer, so maybe I responded to the word "engineer." I read the job description not expecting much, but then I intuitively knew.

This job was made for me.

My intuition was right on, and next summer, I was working at a decently well-known clinic as the then-youngest Mimory engineer ever. I don't think I ever had to expend any effort worth calling effort. No one had to teach me; from the moment I read through a personal record and put my fingers on the keyboard, I knew exactly what I had to do.

I didn't think I would get my parents' blessing if I said I aspired to be a Mimory engineer, so I waited for the results first and told them I had been accepted after the fact. I emphasized how it was extremely difficult to get a job in the field, and I could keep it up without it impacting my high school studies, and most importantly, it made me money (to go to tuition), so my parents reluctantly approved of my employment.

The procedure went like this. The clinic would send me a client's personal record. The information in the personal record was drawn out of them in a hypnotic state, so there were no lies in it. I would look over the personal record, and use it to create the fictional past I thought the client needed. I would frequently discuss with an editor and make small tweaks, and once the Mimories were in their best condition, I'd submit them to the clinic. I could usually complete this whole process within a month.

The order of creation would vary from person to person, but I always started by reading the personal record thoroughly enough to memorize it. It never gave clear directions like "you should make something like this," so I read it feverishly. Before long, I started to almost have the illusion that the client was someone close to me. Even so, I would absorb myself in reading the personal record. In doing this, I would eventually touch upon the core of the client's soul, or something like that. It was a state beyond just sympathy or empathy - maybe it should be called channeling.

In that moment, I would become that person to a greater degree than they themselves were. I could perceive what the client wanted in the depths of their heart more clearly than the client could. The defects they weren't aware of themselves would rise to the surface, and I could look for and offer them pieces that fit those holes perfectly. In this way, I could give them the feeling that these memories were made for them and no one else.

I, who had kept fantasizing about filling in my own holes, could perform this hard-to-conceptualize job as easily as breathing - actually, much more easily than that. As a person who lacked everything, I could account for every kind of absence. The absence of things was in fact essential for creating a story that satisfied client expectations. I was able to get familiar with anything.

Even if you penned an epic tale, it would only have one reader, and even if you made up a sloppy story, that would only have one reader as well. So there were actually many Mimory engineers who did half-baked work. There were no objective standards for good or bad output, so they could excuse crude work by saying "it seems it didn't suit your sensibilities." When you only have a single reader each, you won't be criticized for repeating ideas from your previous work or self-plagiarizing, so it wasn't uncommon for people to continuously rehash their best works.

That's why there was a big gulf in quality between Mimory engineers with good consciences and those without. And the best Mimory engineers would pick up repeat customers. Customers pleased with their Mimories would usually buy seconds and thirds. They're only uneasy about it the first time, and once they take that step, they're possessed by the satisfaction of reshaping their past.

It thus follows that engineers who mass-produced 50%-quality Mimories made good money in the short term, but in the long term, those who produced 90%-quality Mimories in smaller numbers earned much more. Customers moved away from the mass-producers over time, and in this competitive world, it was impossible to recover that lost trust. Purchasers of Mimories were conservative. No one was curious enough to opt for a Mimory engineer who they knew did sloppy work.

I dedicated myself to careful work. I stuck to deadlines, and I didn't slack off on my studies. It wasn't that I felt a sense of responsibility. It wasn't even that I wanted to live up to the clients' expectations. It's simply that I liked this job.

Reading personal records and coming up with fictional pasts also meant living other people's lives. As someone fed up with my own life, this profession had an ideal overlap between my hobbies and practical benefit. I neglected my school studies to devote myself to work. I always had my head in the clouds in class, and that head was filled with the personal record of my current client. Because I soaked in other people's lives so much, sometimes I would all but forget I was a teenage girl going to the local public high school.

My work gave me a reputation, and soon sums of money like I'd never seen before were being deposited in my bank account. In the first year I started to work, my income far exceeded my dad's. I wasn't interested in making money, but gazing at the sums in my bankbook, I started to feel like I'd been recognized by society. I felt for the first time in my life that it was okay for me to be in this world. My parents didn't seem too fond of how their daughter had arbitrarily chosen her own path in life, but I put half of my earnings toward the house, and that was a big help for the family finances, so they couldn't be too mad about it.

The numbers had a tactile feel. I would open my bankbook at free moments and look at the swelling numbers for encouragement. The same way how when I was little, I would quietly take out the inhaler I kept in my pocket to calm my heart.

When I was 18, I collided with my parents over money matters, and thinking they would exploit me for the rest of my life at this rate, I left home. I convinced my aunt to let me stay at her house for a few months (she was as friendly as I would pay her to be), then got a room at an old apartment run by a friend of hers, and started living alone.

I continued to be lonely as ever, but it was proper "alone-time" loneliness, much preferable to being unfairly shoved out of a group. Not the loneliness of a classroom, but the loneliness of my own room. And as long as I was enjoying work, having to busily move from one fantasy to the next, I didn't have the spare time to feel like I was lonesome.

Through periodic visits to the hospital, I found my asthma had cleared up at some point. With the confidence to live by myself, I was finally free of the chains that bound me hand and foot.

My prospects were bright. My real life can finally begin, I thought.

It was an accurate premonition. But I think it slipped my mind then that "real" isn't always a positive quality, necessarily.

At age 19, I found a new disease.



[+]

Chapter 9: Storyteller

New Alzheimer's disease could be said to have birthed the profession of "Mimory engineer." Comparing New Alzheimer's to the pre-existing form of Alzheimer's, the most remarkable difference is the way you lose memories.

If the memory impairment caused by old Alzheimer's was far-sighted, the new version was near-sighted. With Alzheimer's, damage to recent memories is noticeable from early on, but distant memories only start to be affected after the disease has progressed somewhat. Meanwhile, New Alzheimer's was the exact opposite, with long-term memory loss being the early symptoms, and short-term memory loss appearing in the last stages. Alzheimer's made you unable to see things up close, but New Alzheimer's made you unable to see things far away - of course, this is all an extreme simplification. But it's a commonly-used way to quickly explain the nature of New Alzheimer's.

The same way near-sightedness isn't uncommon among the young, New Alzheimer's can be contracted at an even earlier age than early-onset Alzheimer's. There have been a number of cases reported even in teens (as a matter of fact, I was one of them). Alzheimer's remains a highly mysterious disease, but an even thicker fog hangs over New Alzheimer's. Like regular Alzheimer's, it was surmised to be a multifactorial hereditary disease with various genetic and environmental causes, but some whispered that nanobots gone rogue were the true culprits. Some researchers also theorized a new kind of infectious disease was directly causing it. Many varying opinions, but no definite theories. Simply put, we hardly knew anything. Needless to say, there was no cure.

Compared to old Alzheimer's, memory loss from the new form is much more systematic. Like a log file that can't hold everything, so it automatically deletes data starting from the oldest, your memories are eaten up in order starting from the oldest. You forget your infancy, you forget your childhood, you forget your adolescence, you forget your adulthood, you forget your middle-age. Eventually, you can only remember the events of the past few days.

Of course, the finish line of the new form was the same as the old. When the corruption of memory catches up to the present, the patient acquires Apallic syndrome and dies soon after. The memory loss part gets all the attention, but they're diseases directly linked with death, and once someone contracts it, there's no hope of saving them. The current fatality rate is 100%. The estimated remaining lifespan after you contract Alzheimer's is 7 or 8 years, but with New Alzheimer's, it's not even half that.

Patients with Alzheimer's lose the ability to self-recognize by the end of it and enter a trance-like state, but New Alzheimer's patients don't show any obvious damage other than episodic memory loss up until death. No damage to high-level brain function or impaired orientation, normal thought processes, and no notable effects on personality. (There are findings that claim short-term memory is actually improved, but this is probably just because the loss of long-term memories reduces the number of memories competing with one another.) It won't get in the way of everyday life, and it's not an impediment in most jobs. And no hallucinations or delusions - those around you will be most grateful for it.

But to those suffering from it themselves, it can't be called anything but hell. While your senses remain perfectly clear, you're forced to watch as the person you are disappears. If Alzheimer's is a disease that eats at you from the inside with a dull pain, you could call New Alzheimer's a disease that slowly slices away your limbs without anesthetic. Different qualities of fear, but I think most people would agree the latter is more agonizing.

Because of this, there are a fair number of New Alzheimer's patients who take their own lives before the symptoms fully progress. I want to end it all while I can still be myself, they say.

Medicine can slow the progression of the symptoms to an extent, but New Alzheimer's is discovered late by its nature. You can tell right away when there are problems with your immediate memory or short-term memory, but no one immediately makes the connection that their inability to remember infancy or childhood is because of a disease. Unless you have someone to periodically talk about the distant past with, it's difficult to be aware of early-stage New Alzheimer's. Most frantically run to the hospital by the time they start losing memories of their late teens.

Thus, the majority of patients have no memories of childhood. This might be considered an even greater tragedy than repeatedly forgetting the ones you love most. One patient described their mental state as "constantly being lost in a town I don't know." As it turns out, our most truly important memories are focused in our early life, and among them, perhaps a true sense of security can only be enjoyed in infancy. True security - a perfect, faultless peace of mind, which Charlie Brown called "sleeping in the backseat of a car while your parents drive." Not that I was given such a thing from the start, anyway.


In my case, the discovery of the disease was a complete coincidence. My dominant hand was feeling numb, so I went to the hospital and got a brain CT scan, where they found symptoms of New Alzheimer's. (Incidentally, the cause of the numbness was simply fatigue.)

On the way home after being told about my disease, my mind was the picture of peace. I knew what kind of disease New Alzheimer's was. I also knew, of course, that many people who get it commit suicide. And that this disease would result in death. Regardless, I didn't sink into despair, and I didn't lament my fate. I didn't shed a single tear, and couldn't even afford to feel a hole in my stomach.

That said, I did suspect it would eventually start to sink in and I'd be beside myself with anxiety, so I decided to take a month off work. Because I had worked so feverishly up to then, they readily accepted my request.

I spent the new ten days or so idly, yet I felt not an atom of fear or regret. The only thing I did have was concern. Why am I being so calm about this? Am I fundamentally misunderstanding something? Or maybe I'm just not ready to accept it as reality yet.

I stayed locked up in my room and aimlessly watched TV shows I didn't even care to watch. Being a workaholic who thought about her job 24/7 - even in my dreams - I had no idea how you were supposed to spend free time. In these few years, I'd spent all my days off giving myself input so as to add more variety to my Mimories. Books, movies, music, and vacations were all no more than Mimory-making research to me. Removing those from the equation instantly had me at a loss for what to do. I really never thought about anything but work, I thought to myself.

Three more days passed, and my concern turned into a nagging feeling. I laid down in bed and thought about things to try and put this feeling into words. And eventually, I realized.

Come to think of it, I was having much fewer flashbacks lately. While taking a bath or waiting to fall asleep in bed, I would often suddenly remember something from the past and become miserable, but that was hardly happening anymore. The reason for this required no thought. It was because my traumatic childhood memories were being erased by the disease. That was the reality of that feeling I kept having. As I lost my memories, I wouldn't feel fear - it would in fact make life easier to live.

A careful look back through my life revealed there wasn't a single thing I didn't want to forget. No people I didn't want to forget, no moments I didn't want to forget, no places I didn't want to forget, nothing.

I was dumbfounded by that fact. After all, if a normal person heard they were going to lose their memories, then before anything else, they would write down everything they didn't want to forget. Then they'd read it over and over to try and carve it into their brains. But I didn't do that. I had no need to. If you removed all those harsh memories I'd want to forget if I could, only memories as worthless as garbage would remain.

Should I be glad I won't have to fear loss for the remainder of my life? Or should I lament that I hadn't been able to acquire anything to lose? I couldn't decide. What I could say was that as the memory loss healed the wounds in my heart, a longing for others was slowly starting to bud. I had been watching TV without caring about the programs themselves simply because I wanted to hear people's voices.

I'm lonely. Right now, I could honestly acknowledge that feeling. Or to flip it around: before knowing about my disease, I had no time to even recognize my loneliness. The removal of my emotional suffering opened up space in my heart, and for the first time I could accept the truth: I hadn't chosen loneliness, loneliness had chosen me. You could say there was no longer a reason to consider the accumulation of my feelings into the future, so there was also no reason to keep acting emotionally frigid.

It felt futile to go against that desire. As recommended by my doctor, I signed up for a meetup organized by a New Alzheimer's care facility in the city. The idea was for fellow patients to share their concerns and anxieties, so you could get to know lots of other people with the disease there.

Suffering is a personal thing no matter how far you try to stretch it, so even people with the same disease won't be able to understand; I had learned this from having asthma. So as far as the disease, I had no expectations that it would make me more positive, take away my worries, or any other change. But I didn't care. I simply wanted to try filling this loneliness I was able to feel for the first time in my life in a healthy way. Not an unhealthy way, like lying in bed and fantasizing.

*

Mimory engineers don't use similes. Unlike novel-readers or movie-watchers, those with Mimories only perceive what's there as what's there. They don't do any puzzle-like interpretations of them, like "is the scenery depicted here some kind of metaphor?" or "is the event that happens here some kind of allegory?" They don't look too hard for additional meaning in the story they're given, accepting Mimories the way they accept life. So we don't have an artistic mindset either, simply stacking up pleasing episodes and nothing more. Because of this, Mimory engineers are considered akin to fast food among those who create stories.

That's fine, I think. I like standing-up soba and conveyor belt sushi myself. I'd be sad if they went away.

That said, I'm obviously not making light of similes themselves. Sometimes, they can dig up the heart of things in a way that goes beyond the storyteller's intent. The words we use are much more clever than we are.

For instance, when I entered that classroom-sized room and saw ten chairs arranged in a circle with nine anxious patients sitting in them, I thought "it feels like we're able to start telling ghost stories." It's not much of a simile, yet it correctly got to the truth without me intending to. The stories they were about to tell me would chill my spine and make me nauseous with fear. And when the tenth person's story approached, it would summon forth something that should not be in this world.

The members were of various ages and genders, and as expected, I was the youngest. I was a little timid, but I took a deep breath and sat down, quickly greeting those around me. And then I took a better look at everyone, one at a time. They all had melancholy expressions. I had no doubt their eyes were the unhappiest in the world. I've seen something like this in a movie, it suddenly occurred to me. I thought for about 20 seconds, then remembered that it was called Fight Club. I was 17 when I saw that movie. Which meant I at least had my memories going back to 17.

Bottled tea was distributed to everyone, but not a single person drank it. The others, frequently exchanging looks with one another, were probably not attending for the first time. Maybe I was the only one without any acquaintances.

Everyone there was neatly dressed, and I only then became aware of my own appearance. I'd bought my clothes and shoes three years ago, and wasn't wearing any sorts of accessories. I had basically no makeup on, my skin was rough from lack of sleep and neglect, and my never-once-dyed black hair was so unkempt, I looked like a ghost. I was not presentable.

I'll go get my hair cut after this is over, I thought.

I heard a throat being cleared.

"Well then, how about we get started." A man in his forties sitting to my left got the ball rolling. "Who wants to begin?"

A few people glanced at each other and vaguely shook their heads.

"All right, then I'll start as usual..."

The man smiled wryly and began to tell his story with a routine tone of voice.

"...I can't remember half of anything about my wife."

My honest impression was that it was a familiar-sounding story. He graduated college and got married right after, took a loan to start up a store, made it through financially unstable times with his wife, soon hit a stride with business, had a kid, and just as he thought things were getting started, his disease was discovered. He feared his death, but more than that, he feared forgetting his wife and kid. He remembered his aunt who couldn't recognize her family's faces due to a cognitive disorder. Thinking about ending up like that himself made him want to end it all before that happened. Etcetera.

Once the man's story was done, there was sparse applause. I quietly clapped as well, but I was honestly thinking "sounds like you lived a pretty happy life." I felt ashamed of myself for feeling envy instead of compassion, so I clapped louder.

After that, everyone went around clockwise talking about their worries. Maybe they thought about me and intentionally made sure I would be last, as the newcomer. Not everyone spoke as unfalteringly as the first man; some talked shakily, having trouble throughout, and I was quietly relieved.

The story of the fourth speaker, a female librarian, had a few parts that struck me. While listening to her story, I noticed myself subconsciously thinking "with a little tweaking, I could use this for Mimories," and I hurried to cast those rude thoughts aside. What was I doing thinking about work at a time like this? Nothing could be ruder than using the frank admissions of strangers as fuel. I tried to make myself close off the Mimory engineer circuits in my brain, and accept their stories the same way people accept their Mimories.

After the sixth person's story, there was a short break. The man to my left asked me about my impressions of the meetup. Wanting to reply with careful word choice, I thought back on the six stories I'd heard so far. And then suddenly, something occurred to me with a shiver.

All of them are only talking about family, friends, and lovers.

The ghost stories resumed. The seventh spoke of family and friends. The eight spoke of a lover and friends. The ninth spoke of family, friends, and a cat. I was convinced. The process alone was what differed, but everyone but me was settling on the same conclusion: "my last line of defense is my bonds with those close to me."

The old woman to my right was finishing up her story. What should I talk about?, I wondered. At first, I'd planned to talk about the emptiness of not even having any fear of losing my memories. But if I, tasked with sending off this meeting, said something like that, wouldn't it just earn me their scorn? Wouldn't it just soil the carefully-assembled atmosphere they'd been building?

Would my despair unintentionally sound like cynicism toward the despair of these nine people?

I reopened the circuits I'd closed. I switched my head over to writing mode, and came up with a new story.

I'll do a story appropriate for this place, I thought.

I closed my eyes and focused. I broke down their nine stories until they were a muddled mess and extracted their essence. Then I added a few of my own personal facts - or maybe desires that were an extension of my personal facts - to make it appear original, and then injected some noise to cover up its falsehoods, and appeal to its reality.

I assigned "him," who I'd developed in my fantasies since I was young, in the role of a prince riding on a white horse.

I completed this whole process in less than 30 seconds. I had time to spare, so I even gave the finished story a nice title.

Since contracting New Alzheimer's, my abilities as a storyteller hadn't weakened, but in fact matured. I don't know why. Maybe it's the same logic behind why drinking and smoking can have positive effects on writing despite being bad for you. As you forget unnecessary things, it feels like excess meat being stripped from your brain.

The woman's story seemed to be over. Once the applause ended, the nine turned their attention to me, all but saying "now it's your turn." I put my left hand to my right lung and took a short, deep breath, and began telling a fictional past I had just made up - but in a sense, had been building since I was very young.

"I have a childhood friend."

*

By the time my story finished, half the people were in tears. Some even took out handkerchiefs to dry their eyes in the middle. My lies sounded more real than anyone else's stories, and had shaken the audience's hearts.

Once the applause came to a stop, one of the members - the woman who talked about her cat - spoke.

"I'm glad you came here today." She took off her reading glasses, rubbed her eyes, then carefully put them back on. "Thank you for telling us your wonderful story. You may be very unhappy, but you're a very happy girl. You're blessed with the perfect partner."

I didn't know how to respond, so I bowed my head. Then all the members gave their thoughts about my story one after another. Every time they sent warm words my way, guilt hid behind my stiff smile.

It seemed I may have gone a bit too far. Come to think of it, this was the first time I'd ever directly seen the response to a story I created. I didn't think it would get this big of a reaction. To think I would be reminded of the magic stories possess here.

"It's such a pity for someone so young." "How about you bring him here sometime? We'll all welcome him." "It's reassuring that you have someone who understands near at hand. If I didn't have my wife, I think I'd be desperate." "Hearing your story made me miss my boyfriend, too."

I nodded to their words with a dry smile on my lips. And the more I nodded, the more miserable I felt. I even wondered: if these people were to find out my story was fake, wouldn't they think I was making fun of them? And then I got fed up with myself for having a persecution complex after deceiving these good-hearted people.

I came up with reasons to decline trading contact information with anyone, then put the place behind me. I was totally absentminded on the subway ride home. My reflection in the window glass looked ugly, like something's cast-off shell. It looked like it had been weathered down through the end of summer, crumbling to pieces.

I'm never going to one of those meetups again, I thought.

*

From the beginning of summer to the end of it, I was alone.

I didn't even turn on the TV or radio anymore. I stopped looking at the bankbook that once gave me mental support. I couldn't find any consolation there now. I was satisfied with just enough money for living expenses and a coin to ferry me to the afterlife, so it was all just excess.

The numbers in my bankbook demonstrated how I could do anything and yet could do nothing. If a normal person had this much time and money to spare, they'd probably hang out with friends, or spend time with family, or go on dates. To make the most of their few remaining years, they'd have extravagant vacations, throw flashy parties, or hold a fantastic wedding.

I had absolutely no outlets for using my money. I thought about moving somewhere that allowed pets and raising a cat, but quickly rethought it as I was browsing catalogs. A person who might not even live three more years shouldn't get a pet. Someone who couldn't even look after themselves couldn't take such an important role.

Besides, it was such a crude motivation to seek healing from a cat because I couldn't get along with humans. I'd feel bad for the cat that had to get along with me. Cats are free creatures that give the sense they should be raised by people who could live without a cat. Having an owner like me who couldn't live without a cat would make the cat unhappy.

When I got lonely, I'd go to my apartment's veranda and watch people pass by. Like going back in time to the days when was stuck in my room and looked out the bay window. As it turns out, I hadn't changed at all since those days.


I spent that summer mainly just thinking about how to fulfill my most basic desires.

I leaned on the wall in the corner of my room listening to old records all day, frequently flipping the records over or swapping them out to kill time. After starting to become aware of my time left alive, I came to like the music I liked before even more. In particular, I saw more charm in old songs I had found tedious before. The simpler the accompaniment and melody, the more firmly I could sense each note, and they soaked deep into my dried-up heart. When I tired of music, I gazed at the record grooves and the jackets, and rested my ears.

In the evenings, I walked to the supermarket near the station, did several loops around the store to carefully pick out ingredients, and went straight home to the apartment. Back in my room, I opened up a recipe book I bought on a whim from a local old bookstore, and took on each of the recipes starting from page one. I was blindly faithful to the measurements and times, making no improvisations or compromises, just cooking exactly according to the recipe. When I completed a dish, I presented it neatly even though I wasn't showing it to anyone, and inspected it from various angles. Then I sat at the table and ate it, savoring the flavor to satisfy my appetite.

After eating, I took a long bath to wash myself thoroughly. Not necessarily to feel clean, but to fall asleep more comfortably. After exiting the bath, I got in bed before night fell; including some sleeping-in in the morning, I got a good ten hours of sleep to satisfy my need for sleep.

There was one more desire I chose to not think about too much. Luckily, living a quiet life by myself, I was able to forget such a desire even existed.

I took my medicine only occasionally when it occurred to me, so the symptoms my New Alzheimer's steadily progressed. Soon, I had totally forgotten the childhood days of asthma that made me suffer so much. I didn't feel any strong feelings about that.

My final day was steadily approaching. Despite this, I was willingly pushing the hands forward. You might call it a passive, sluggish suicide.


When listening to records, when cooking, when taking a bath, when lying in bed. The more I tried to think about nothing, the more active my brain became.

The story about "him" I'd manufactured at the patient meetup was still going around in my head.

Because of a few details I'd added to the story to give it some reality, "his" existence started to feel more real. I think a large part of it was having spoken about "him" to someone else for the first time. I listened to the story that was coming out of my mouth as if it were someone else's story. Maybe a better way to put it was, I heard the story through the ears of those present. This feedback earned "him" a kind of objective and social presence, maturing him into a more tactile entity. He came closer to a living being.

As my loneliness and despair deepened, the story of "him" glittered brighter. I would repeatedly trace the story from beginning to end, making minute changes to the details, revising and revising again, then read it over from the beginning, looking at empty space and smiling.

It was emotional self-harm. Fantasies are a deadly medicine; in exchange for meager joy, a transparent poison accumulated in my body.

One day, a number of things coincided, and I succeeded in cooking a very difficult meal. It turned out so well, it made me want to take a photo, and it tasted fantastic too. I subconsciously thought that "he" would probably be happy to eat this. In that moment, I completely forgot that "he" was a fictional person.

Immediately after, I remembered the truth that "he" didn't exist, and my head went blank.

A few seconds after, something inside me broke.

The spoon slipped out of my fingers, hit the floor, and made an unpleasant sound. I leaned down to pick it up, but suddenly my body went limp, and I collapsed to the ground.

I'd reached the critical point of emptiness, and couldn't bear it anymore.

Before I knew it, I was sobbing loudly.

I don't want to die like this, I thought. It's just too cruel for things to end this way. I still haven't obtained anything real.

Before I died, I wanted someone to compliment me just once. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be pitied. Like someone dealing with a little kid, I wanted to be unconditionally accepted and gently embraced. I wanted the 100% perfect boy who 100% understood my loneliness to shower me with 100% love. And after I died, I wanted him to grieve my death and have a wound that would never heal etched into his heart. I wanted him to loathe the disease that killed me, loathe the people who weren't kind to me, and curse the world that was without me.

Of course I couldn't be satisfied by fantasies. The me's within me are still crying like always. The newborn me, the 1-year-old me, the 2-year-old me, the 3-year-old me, the 4-year-old me, the 5-year-old me, the 6-year-old me, the 7-year-old me, the 8-year-old me, the 9-year-old me, the 10-year-old me, the 11-year-old me, the 12-year-old me, the 13-year-old me, the 14-year-old me, the 15-year-old me, the 16-year-old me, the 17-year-old me, the 18-year-old me, all of them were holding their knees and bawling like I was now. Even if my memories of them vanished, their cries still echoed. I needed a realistic salvation for them, but I couldn't find one wherever I looked.

"I'm not scared, I have nothing to lose" had been such a bluff. I was scared of dying with nothing. So much so that I couldn't stop shaking.


But what could I do about it now? I had never made a friend since the day of my birth, so what could I possibly do? Never mind the 100% perfect boy, could I even get a 50% middling friend?

Could I talk with my coworkers? Should I contact someone in my profession and tell them the truth? Even if I did, all I could get out of it was standard sympathy. In fact, if I wasn't lucky, it might just please the person I spoke to. I knew my coworkers and others in my profession were envious of me. I'd heard about their insults here and there. Even if I was lucky enough to pick someone who didn't antagonize me, just me worrying "they might view me as an enemy" made it impossible to establish a true trusting relationship. To be honest, I was terrified of them.

Then should I just talk to some stranger in town? Look for friends on social media? Not a chance. As if I could find people who really understood that way. It would be like looking for a single needle in the desert. And talk about risky; it could easily be a very unpleasant experience.

If 30% sympathy, 40% understanding, and 50% love were enough, I might be able to find that if I try like hell. But that wouldn't do. To save me, to save us, it would absolutely take the 100% perfect boy.

People might call that an unreasonable expectation. They'd scold me, saying a person who's neglected socialization all her life suddenly getting the ultimate love would be too good to be true. They might say "even 50% sympathy would be too good for you." But my intuition as a Mimory engineer was telling me something. Only being held tight by the ultimate boy can save you. There was surely no way other than that to unravel the tightly-woven loneliness in me, formed over such a long time.


I spent the next few days crying, but even so, I didn't try to stop thinking about "him." If I'd come this far, I thought, I might as well keep stripping off the skin until I can see bone.

I completely forgot about taking my medicine, so my symptoms advanced rapidly. I lost my memories up to 15, and forgot the oppressiveness of my time in compulsory education. Three-fourths of my life was shadowed by nothingness, and it truly approached empty.

I continued to think about "him."

I stopped listening to records, and I stopped cooking. It was too much trouble to even cry standing up, so I held my pillow and crawled around the room like a caterpillar, lying in bed, lying on the floor, lying in the kitchen, lying in the entryway, lying in the bathroom, lying on the veranda. Even then, the sluggishness surrounding my body wouldn't leave.

I continued to think about "him."

I felt distaste even toward the Mimory creation I enjoyed so much, and felt a little nauseous even looking at someone's personal record. Whatever I looked at, I could only feel jealousy, and I despised people who lived lives without want, yet still wanted happy Mimories.

I continued to think about "him."

And then one day, an innocent madness came over me.

While ruminating over my memories of "him" like usual, it occurred to me.

Can people imagine someone they've never even met this vividly?

Can people love someone they've never even met this wholeheartedly?

Was there anything wrong with putting this much into a fictional entity?

Am I making a fundamental mistake here?

I wonder.

Perhaps.

Is it possible?


Is "he" not a fictional person, but someone who really exists?


Had the disease merely taken away the important parts of the memories, and I really did have a childhood friend who I became convinced was a fantasy?

It was a truly shameful idea. If someone had told me this before my disease, I would respond with a laugh.

But in that moment, I saw it as a divine revelation. I'd long since lost my sanity. I clung to that theory. Now, my final hope resided in the blanked memories brought about by my disease.

*

I was home again after a year and a half.

Taken hold by the idea that "he" really existed, I was unable to stay put, and got on the early morning train bound for my hometown.

To reunite with "him," of course.

I had my yearbook from middle school in my bag, and I kept re-reading it on the way. The sight of a 19-year-old girl reading through a yearbook by herself on the train was a bizarre one, but the early morning down-train was sparse, and no one stopped to look.

I drilled all the faces and names in the yearbook into my brain. None of my classmates' faces felt familiar, as if I had grabbed a yearbook for an entirely unknown school by mistake.

I looked for boys who most closely matched my impression of "him," but that proved difficult to find among photos where everyone had similar smiling expressions. "He" had no definite shape in my memories, only an impression and an atmosphere. To discern that, I would need continuous information like behavior or changes in expression.

Among the photos of the classrooms and school events, I couldn't find myself. I always hung my head with a fretful look, so I must have had no appeal as a subject for photographs. The middle-schoolers in the yearbook were lively, and I saw something in them which I had already lost. In less than a year, I would turn twenty - provided I even lived that long.


The train arrived at my hometown before noon. It was a dull rural town in the corner of Chiba. When I left at age 18, I was terribly uncertain about going so far away to the city, but returning here now, I realized it wasn't even that big of a distance. I went through the ticket gate and exited the cramped building.

My hometown felt like I was visiting it for the first time. The sky, the greenery, the sea, all of it was unknown to me. So naturally, I felt no nostalgia either. While I did feel some faint déjà vu when I looked at rundown cafés and shuttered stores, the feeling was closer to seeing something in real life which I was acquainted with from TV and books, as I was unable to make any connection to my own past.

After checking my location with a map on my phone and devising a general route to take, I put my left hand on my lung, took a deep breath, and started to walk. I was beside myself with worry wondering what I'd do if I bumped into my parents, but I also felt a sense of elation to have an objective in mind for the first time in a while.

The elementary school, the middle school, the shopping district, the park, the community center, the library, the walking trail, the hospital, the supermarket. I followed the map to walk here and there. Though it was Sunday, I hardly passed by anyone. It was probably that the population was low, rather than people not being out and about. I was used to city life now, so it felt like walking around a town with a curfew. It also struck me as like an artificial town soon to be populated with artificial people.

The sky was a clear blue, and I could see massive cumulonimbus clouds far in the distance. Walking through this nostalgic scene blurred by summer sunlight, I found myself fantasizing about a story set in this town.

If only I didn't have to part from "him," and could've kept living in this town.

I surely wouldn't become a Mimory engineer, and would be enjoying life as a normal college student by now. I'd get a scholarship and do part-time jobs and live close to "him," in a way halfway to us living together, and I'd make him meals and help with chores and play the part of a young wife.

Soon, I started to see shadows of myself from potential worlds all around the town. In those worlds, I was happy. My grade-schooler self was riding on the luggage carrier of "his" bike, clinging to his back and laughing. My middle-school self was wearing a yukata and holding hands with "him," watching the fireworks. My high-school self, on the way home from school, snuck in a quick kiss with "him" in the shadow of the bus stop. My college self was going to the supermarket with "him," carrying half his groceries and walking alongside him like we were a married couple.

Maybe they weren't fantasies, but flashbacks. Like judging the outcome of an experiment, I could imagine that they were plausible. A rather deranged state of mind. It would seem I'd been possessed by a monster of imagination that dwelled in this land.


The town was small, so I could go around to all the notable buildings and facilities in half a day. Needless to say, I made zero findings. I was only spoken to by a single old person. They asked for directions to the police box, and I replied that I wasn't from here, so I didn't know. That was all I could answer.

The sunset had a color that made me think of wilting sunflowers. Sitting on an embankment still warm from the heat of the day, I gazed at the sea. I took off my shoes and put them aside, airing out my feet that were chafed from walking. I drank half a bottle of mineral water I got from a vending machine, then poured the rest on my feet. The cold water seeped into the wound. Once it dried, I applied a bandage from the drug store.

There were hardly any young people in town to start with. I saw a couple of kids in elementary or middle school, but I didn't see a single person around my age. The town was half-dead, and had no real hope of recovering. All that was left was for it to rot. Of course, I probably had even less time left than this town.

My whole body ached, and my head was fogged. But I couldn't sit around here forever. I put on my shoes, put my hands on my knees, and staggered to my feet. I grabbed my bag with the yearbook and hung it over my shoulder.

Just then, I heard young people's voices from the trail, and I reflexively turned to them. A boy and a girl around age 14 were walking together. The boy was dressed casually for a stroll, but the girl wore a pretty yukata. It was a deep blue texture with a simple fireworks pattern on it, and she wore little red chrysanthemums in her hair. I watched the girl for a while. I was somewhat jealous; I wanted to wear a yukata like that and walk with my lover.

There was probably a festival going on somewhere in town. I decided to follow after the two of them. They went past the shopping district and turned right, went straight along the narrow path by the rice paddies, crossed the railroad tracks, and finally, a shrine that wasn't too big or too small came into sight. I heard the sounds of a festival and smelled the smells.

If fated reunions exist, I thought.

Wouldn't this be the most fitting stage for one?

I wandered around the area like a sleepwalker, searching for any sign of "him." Of course, I didn't know his face. I didn't know his voice. Still, I was convinced I would know with just a glance. I was convinced he would know me with just a glance, too. Maybe he wouldn't immediately believe in a coincidental reunion at first and keep walking past. But after walking a few steps, I'm sure he would turn back around.

I moved through the crowd and kept walking, seeking my fantasy lover who I had blown up like a soap bubble.


By the time the stands started to close down, my heart was starting to give in. The festival sounds ceased as if exhausted, the smells were carried off on the wind, and the lights were swallowed by the darkness, leaving a silence that hurt my ears. I sat up from the stone steps and left the shrine behind.

Even though I'd loitered around in front of those stands for so long, I hadn't eaten anything. I walked around looking for a restaurant, and found just one place still open by the station. Lured by the aroma of grilled fish, I entered the restaurant.

Once I sat at my table, the day's fatigue came down on me all at once. I felt like I couldn't walk another step. I didn't really look at the menu and ordered a grilled fish special, then stared in the direction of the baseball game on TV while guzzling ice water brought by the waiter.

I heard a customer sitting at the counter order sake, so I thought about having some alcohol myself. I'd always sort of avoided it because I had the impression it was something you drank with a large group, but if I could forget the bad things for even a moment, maybe it wouldn't be bad to try it. Surely I didn't need to be worried for my health at this point.

I twisted my body toward the counter and called for a waiter. I ordered the same sake the girl had ordered earlier, then the waiter mechanically repeated my order and left. I felt a little relief that they didn't confirm my age, and a little sadness at the same time. Did I clearly look the age where there was no problem letting me drink?

I left my seat and went to check my face in the bathroom mirror. Possibly because of how many years I'd gone with barely any need to change expression, I sensed no liveliness or vitality in it at all. Like an exhausted single mother in her late twenties. Even though my mind was stopped around 14.

When I got back to my seat, some sake and a sake cup had been haphazardly placed on the table. I timidly sipped it; it had a bad taste I couldn't describe further. I grabbed the glass of ice water and rinsed out the aftertaste. It was so bitter and smelly and sweet, it made me suspect it was trying to be as hard to drink as possible. I couldn't imagine why people would drink this by choice.

Even so, I forced myself to drink about half, and my body started to warm up. I guess this is what being drunk feels like, I thought as I watched it whirl around in the bottom of the sake cup.

Something was caught in the corner of my mind, but I had no idea what was causing it. I turned to the counter once again to order some warm tea. I cupped my left hand by my mouth to call for the waiter, but froze in that position.

The girl sitting at the counter had a familiar face.

I immediately compared her face with the photos in the yearbook I'd looked back through on the train. Excepting the effects of four years of aging, it neatly matched one of my classmates in third year. Her hairstyle and appearance had changed a fair bit, but there was no doubt. This girl had been the class chairwoman.

Finally, I was able to meet someone I knew.

My body moved before I could think. I approached her and spoke.

"Um... Do you remember me?"

The ex-chairwoman blinked, sake cup still in hand. Her face seemed to be evaluating which of us was drunk. I was briefly worried I had the wrong person, but I didn't think so. It was just that I had left a very weak impression in middle school.

She laughed awkwardly.

"Err, sorry. Any hints for me?"

"We were in the same class in middle school, third year."

She briefly entered a thinking pose, then slapped her knee. But the actual name didn't come to her, so she paused after "Er, the asthmatic..."

I smiled wryly and gave my name. "I'm the asthmatic Touka Matsunagi."

"Right, right, Miss Matsunagi," she nodded, seeming to now remember.

"May I sit with you?", I asked. It would be hard to imagine myself doing this normally, but I was desperate then.

"Huh? Right, sure."

I had the waiter change my seat, then sat down next to her. The sake was now starting to kick in. I tried to overexaggerate my joy at reuniting with a classmate I only knew from yearbook photos, and she surely did the same for her reunion with a classmate who left so little impression she forgot my name. We proved terrible at holding a conversation with each other, but I was happy to meet someone who remembered me, however vaguely.

"Miss Matsunagi, what are you up to now? College student?"

I told her she was right. My second lie since coming to town. She probably wouldn't believe that I was a Mimory engineer, and I didn't want to give too weird an impression to the first classmate I was able to finally meet. Saying I was a college student visiting home on summer break seemed like the safest option.

"A college in Tokyo, huh. I'm jealous," she said, not sounding particularly jealous.

"And what are you doing?"
"Me? I'm..."

Then she talked for a while about how things were for her lately. (I know it's rude to say, but as stories told by people who pointlessly stay behind in rural towns often are, it was horrifyingly average and boring.) Once I'd heard the details up to her getting her current job, Firefly's Light began to play through the restaurant, signifying closing time. "Hmm, that time already," the ex-chairwoman said, looking at her watch.

While waiting behind her as she took care of the bill, I was for no particular reason trying to remember the proper lyrics to Firefly's Light. But absolutely nothing came to mind other than the title. Maybe I had never learned it, or maybe it was a result of New Alzheimer's.

The clearly-mistaken lyrics "So fleeting and so meaningless, just like my yearning heart" wouldn't leave my mind, like a catchy song from a commercial.

As we parted, the ex-chairwoman seemed to remember something.

"Since about a year ago, we classmates who are still in the area have been meeting up for drinks. Sort of like a mini class reunion. Would you like to join us, Miss Matsunagi?"

I felt bad to leave her like this, so I was beyond grateful, having just been thinking about how I could keep her from leaving. It was such an ideal segue, my face briefly reverted to a serious expression. I hurried to recreate my smile and told her I'd be glad to take part.

She told me the time and place, I thanked her, and we parted. (She apparently had business and would be absent from the next class reunion.) I took the last train back to the apartment, had a shower, and put a fresh bandage on my foot. Then I stood at the bathroom mirror and looked at my face.

I was now painfully aware of how much I'd neglected looking my age.

I had hardly ever concerned myself with my appearance. I hadn't thought of a human's appearance as anything more than the shape of a container. Like the cover of a book or a record jacket, I considered it irrelevant to the actual nature of the thing.

But as my insides approached empty, I became more concerned about the shape of the container. True, it might not be the essence of a person. But I can't say I've never purchased a book based on the cover. I can't say I've never bought a record because of the jacket. If you want people to know about what's inside, you have to put care into the visual element too - that's an undeniable fact. My insides weren't something I could brag about to others in the first place. And most importantly, appearance was a very important factor for love.

I'll get myself in order, I thought. Just under twenty years late, but I need to make up for it at least a little.

The class reunion was in two weeks. In those two weeks, I focused on revising my looks.

The next day, I had a basic breakfast, then looked up beauty parlors, makeup classes, and makeover salons online, making reservations at every one. Then I went to the bookstore and, yes, bought tons of fashion and beauty magazines too, which I read thoroughly for the next two days like a student cramming before an exam. Once I had a decent sense of how to style my hair and face, I next visited a boutique and spoke with a clerk to buy new clothes and shoes.

All of this totaled up to a pretty outrageous cost, but it just relieved me to finally have a reason to spend my money. I couldn't take my money to the next life, anyhow.

I basically tried anything I could think of. I didn't worry about money, tossed shame and reputation aside, and endeavored to become pretty. So that I could earn the affection of someone who just possibly might remember me. So that I wouldn't disappoint "him" who just possibly might exist.

I must have lost it.

I pulled off a dramatic transformation in those two weeks. Part of it was that I looked awful to start with, but at the very least, I would no longer be offended if I suddenly spotted myself in a mirror while walking around town. Perhaps not fully "pretty," but I certainly looked more my age.

I had always been a good studier, and proficient at finding the best solution out of the conditions I was given. So once I got the hang of them, even makeup and outfit-picking posed me little trouble. I interpreted makeup to be oil painting with my face as a canvas, and interpreted choosing clothes as an activity akin to evoking the seasons in a haiku. Once I'd done this, it caused the reservations I'd held about them to disappear. And once I'd cleared away those dented feelings, refining my looks became simply fun. I could finally understand why people would pour most of their income into beauty.

I stood in front of a mirror and practiced smiling. I'd always hated my smile. I had the baseless worry that my smile made other people feel unpleasant.

That unease had finally vanished. I was able to give myself a carefree smile in the mirror.

Now I can meet "him" without fear, I felt.

*

And then, the day arrived.

I'll spare you the details and just skip to the conclusion.

There wasn't a single classmate I remembered there.

From the beginning of the meetup to the end, I sat in the corner, sipping on beer I wasn't used to drinking.

On the way home, I felt sick and threw up on the side of the road.

That brought back some of my sanity.


I'll devote myself to work, I thought.

Because that's the only thing I have left.



Part 4
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