Chapter 2: Two of Us
What I found through the door was someone's room, one I was familiar with. In the corner were two beds of different colors, looking comfy next to one another.
"Oh! Alice! You're up? Good morning!"
A familiar person was smiling innocently at me from the middle of the room. White hair swept in a loose wave, with purplish-red highlights slightly darker than her eyes. It was Letty. Why was she here...?
"Hey, hey hey hey! I'm really bored right now. So let's play! Let's play! Play play play!"
Not waiting for an answer, she grabbed my hands and swung them up and down. The sheer force of it blew away the minor doubts I'd had.
"Play! Play! Play!"
This sort of heavy-handed invitation was Letty, all right... and yet, I felt a discrepancy. Something was off.
"Play? Okay! What should we play? Hm, let's see... Ah!"
Still not giving me a chance to answer either way, she twisted her neck around to an inconceivable angle. I yelped a little.
"Wanna open the closet?", she asked with a higher-pitched voice than normal and an innocent look. She'd stopped swinging my hands, and I felt the pain in them.
I ran to the closet to get away from Letty. It had the same design as the one in my room. ...Was it okay to just open it?
I looked back at Letty warily. Her neck was back in its typical position, and she smiled at me like usual. I recalled her closet had lots of toys in it. What would it be today? Maybe we'd play with dolls, or -
In an instant, my body was sucked into the closet. To be exact, it felt more like just my soul was being sucked in. Sharp, metallic sounds rang in my ears.
And I fell unconscious.
When I woke up, I was in a bed. But not a bed I had any memory of.
The pillow was hard as stone, and the blanket ragged and dusty. Even just adjusting my body slightly caused loud creaking. It was a crude bed which had me doubting if one could get any sleep in it.
I sat up and observed my surroundings. The wooden walls and floors were decayed and blackened in places. Mushrooms I didn't know the names of grew in the corner. Dust flew up with every step, telling me the room probably wasn't cleaned, ever. The air felt a little damp.
Was this the World the White Rabbit spoke of? While it felt much closer to the real world than where I'd been before, it was odd to think that this room I had absolutely no memory of was "an embodiment of my heart." ...Maybe I only felt that way because I'd lost my memories in an accident?
Maybe it would help me remember something, I thought as I opened up a small dresser nearby. Small berries and dry leaves were stored with care inside. I took one of the leaves, and when I turned it over, found something written on it in small letters. But I couldn't comprehend the words; the writing was too messy, I supposed.
I gave the entire room a quick look, but it didn't get me any recalled memories, and I found nothing resembling a key. I sighed, getting a little tired.
I went up to the window to see what it was like outside. Trees surrounded the house, completely blocking out the sky. Was it built in the middle of the forest? I put my hand to the window to try and open it and pushed forward.
My hand alone pushed forward. The glass was shattered. It was only a light push, I thought... Could I not control my strength?
I carefully extracted my hand and found several small shards in my palm and wrist. I carefully plucked them out. Blood came out into little globes and dripped to the floor.
Oddly, I felt no pain. No, I guess that was normal for being in a dream. While it was surely my wrist, I was looking at it like it was someone else's.
I stared absentmindedly for a while, then remembered the key, and went to the door to try another room.
I twisted the doorknob, pushed and pulled, but the door didn't budge. I checked all over, but there was no keyhole or lock. After turning it somewhat roughly, it finally opened with a loud click.
As I went to go through the door, a pain shot through my temple like a surge of electricity and stopped me. Despite not feeling any pain when I was injured by the glass...
"There was a little, run-down house deep in the woods."
"In this little, run-down house lived a mother, a father, and a girl and boy."
"Their lives were very needy. But the mother and father were kind. The girl was always hungry, but she did her best to endure it."
As my ears buzzed, a voice seemingly reciting a storybook echoed through my head.
My forehead also ached during that time. But I couldn't sit around too much while I was making the White Rabbit wait. Ignoring the unpleasant metallic sounds, I pushed the door open and proceeded on.
The next room looked like a combined dining room and bedroom. In the center was a wooden table with three chairs around it. Beside the door I came through was a large dresser, and on the opposite end were two beds. It was a pretty big room.
The room was as dusty as the other one, but had a faint smell of something tasty. I checked the pot on the table and found a small quantity of berry soup. Past the table was another door, which clattered from time to time. It probably led outside, and was being blown by the apparent strong winds. Yet it was warm inside thanks to the fireplace being lit.
...Was someone here recently?
If the owner was here... I wondered what would happen if they caught me.
"Don't peer into people's hearts..." I pondered the advice the Cheshire Cat gave me before coming here.
The Rabbit said that people's hearts became Worlds. So maybe the Cat was actually warning me not to enter any Worlds at all.
...I didn't know. What should I believe?
I let out a breath I didn't realize I needed to get out. I wouldn't come to an answer like this. Deciding I'd focus on finding the key for now, I went to the dresser right next to the door.
Come to think of it, when I found the key, how would I get back to that place? Maybe if I just went back under the covers, I'd...
I reflexively backed away from the voice, whoever it was, and fell on my bottom. Taking another look, I noticed what looked like eyes floating slightly above me.
...This was a dream world. I went in intending to not be surprised if anything unusual spoke, but I just wasn't expecting a dresser to.
It had said "not there," albeit in a sort of broken way. Maybe this dresser knew where the key was. So I asked, still on my rear end, "Hey, do you know anything about a key?"
But the dresser ignored me, its eyes shooting left and right. "Medal, none. None, none..."
It seemed to be looking for a medal... and wasn't in the mood to talk with me. I ignored it too, standing up and reaching for one of the top-most drawers of the dresser. However, as I was about to open it, a shrill scream in my ears denied me.
"Can I open your drawers if I find the medal?"
After a brief silence, its shifting eyes landed straight on me, staring intently.
...Could I take that as a yes?
After searching the room for a while, I noticed a memo underneath the wooden table. Likely from someone living here. I slowly read it aloud.
"...To my family: Do you know where my gold medal is? I had it in my pocket before bed... If you find it, put it in the very top dresser drawer on the left side. - Dad"
I thought. "In his pocket before bed... Maybe one of those beds?"
Two beds sat in the corner of the room. They were just as crude as the one I woke up in, so they creaked and sunk down when I got on top of them.
"Here it is."
Reaching my hand in the gap between the bed and wall, I touched something cold and hard that wasn't the floor. Carefully using my sense of touch, I picked it up. A gold medal with a picture of an unknown building engraved on it. This was what that dresser wanted.
Wiping the dust off my sleeve, I returned to the dresser. Putting it in the top-left drawer as the memo instructed, its floating eyes closed and it shouted happily. Must have been the right medal.
I was allowed to examine all the drawers then, but found nothing that looked to be the key. It had evidently been a fool's errand.
"...Medal, thanks," the dresser suddenly said to me. "Dad, be glad."
I was so busy with looking for the key that I had no time to think about my parents. I was struck with an indefinable emptiness again. Even in this house, for what it was, a mother, father, and child seemed to have eaten together around this table. Judging from the number of beds, it was just those three.
"...A family of three?"
A niggling feeling. Who lived here, exactly...?
"Dad, mom... daughter, Rick."
The dresser responded to my mumbling. Daughter, and... Rick?
"By daughter, you mean... Letty?"
"Letty, Rick, Letty, Rick, Letty..."
The dresser kept repeating itself. As it went on, I recalled what happened before I arrived here. Before I woke up in this house - I met Letty.
The White Rabbit said that "the hidden side of Alice's heart becomes a World," but why was Letty there? And if this was a World based on my heart, I would have liked to see something that felt at least a little familiar. It was strange how I'd never seen any of this before, how it all seemed distant to me. Doubt after doubt surfaced and fell.
Wait. Actually, he said "an" Alice, didn't he?
...What if I wasn't the only Alice?
In that case, maybe this was Letty or Rick's World. Realizing that, I decided I would leave the house to look for the two of them. In any event, I couldn't find the key anywhere in here.
I turned the knob on the other door, but it wasn't opening, just making a low sound. Next, I twisted the knob and pushed forcefully against the door with my weight, but this time I was too forceful, and my body flung to the ground.
I sighed, sat up, and shook off some dirt. Looking around, I saw innumerable trees around the house, echoing eerily every time the wind came through. ...Yes, this seemed to be a forest, all right.
I walked quickly down the sole path through the trees. Oddly, there was only this path going straight ahead, so my fear of possibly being lost soon vanished.
It was like I was being guided somewhere. And I simply followed those directions.
After walking for a while, I found a large sign and a small figure up against it. Could it be...? I ran over and confirmed it was Letty. She was huddled up and staring into space, maybe not noticing me.
"Are you okay, Letty?"
"...I'm thirsty... Rick..."
I grabbed her shoulders and shook her, but she just wasn't going to notice me. She just repeatedly said she was thirsty. If I went back to the house, I might find water. I wasn't especially confident in that, but I didn't want to leave Letty wanting.
"Stay here, Letty. I'll bring some water."
Letty didn't respond. She just trembled like she was terrified, the ribbons on her chest shaking. I patted her head, then hurried back the way I came.
Back at the house I left just ten or twenty minutes ago, I found a well I failed to notice earlier, obscured by thick vegetation. I looked down nervously; there was clear water down at the bottom.
I grabbed the bucket next to the well and carefully filled it with water. I was glad to have obtained water so much quicker than I expected, but that relief only lasted a moment.
"...I can't take it like this."
It seemed impossible to detach the bucket firmly attached to the well. Maybe there was something in the house I could use to get the water in this bucket to Letty.
I slipped past the door which I'd forgotten to close earlier. After a short search, I found a small cup with some cracks. There was writing on the bottom, but it was squiggly, like worms; I couldn't comprehend it.
Finding no better methods, I had to take what I could get. I just needed to get some water to Letty quickly... So I transferred only a small amount of the water from the bucket to the cup and carried it back to Letty, careful not to spill any.
Letty looked about the same as before, trembling and staring into space. I gently brought the cup of water to her hands.
"...Water!" Letty suddenly swiped the cup from me and downed it all.
"Ah... Allen! Allen, you brought me water? I was really parched. ...And there was no one else here."
She smiled happily at me, calm after drinking the water, but then suddenly looked uneasy.
"Hey... Allen, do you know where this is and why we're here?"
"Huh? Um... Well, I think this is a dream."
I didn't understand a lot of what was going on myself, but seeing her so distraught, I just went and told her it was a dream. Letty was surprised, but also looked somewhat relieved.
"I see... it's a dream. Well, I was surprised. It looked exactly like where I used to live. This cup is from my house, too. Look, it has my name on it!"
She showed me the bottom of the cup. That was her name? Actually, it occurred to me that the dried leaves I saw carefully stored in the dresser after waking up here might have had the same pattern on them.
"It says Letty Amery. My mom taught me how to write my name, but I still wasn't very good at the time."
She tilted her head with some embarrassment. I sweated a little, worried it might go spinning again, but this Letty I was looking at was the one I knew.
"Okay, let's play! I usually play with Rick in my dreams, so it'll be my first time playing with someone else!" She grabbed my arms cheerfully.
"...Oh, yeah, Rick. We need to look for him too. I bet he's feeling lonely right now. Also... I don't want to be here."
I thought she'd swing my arms around as usual, but sadly, Letty's head just sank down.
"...Don't leave me alone, okay?"
I grabbed Letty's small hands tightly. They were kind of warm.
"We'll look together. I'm kind of looking for something, too," I informed her, also trying to encourage her a little. She looked up and slowly nodded after a bit of hesitation.
Glad to see Letty cheering up slightly, I said "let's go" and took her hand. But the path past the sign wasn't like the straight path I'd been on thus far; it was split like a tree branch, the paths weaving through the forest like snakes.
Just as I stopped to think about how to proceed, I felt a pain in my temple again.
"It happened very suddenly. Her mother, as if a changed person, began treating her daughter coldly."
"As soon as her father went out, her mother dragged the girl out into the woods, and told her this:"
""There's no more food for you. You can't come back home.""
"Are you okay, Allen?"
Letty's concerned voice brought me back to my senses. I heard that voice in my head again. From Letty's dubious look, I could only assume I was the only one who heard it.
"...I'm fine. Let's go. Make sure you don't fall behind."
I'd unconsciously brought my hand to my forehead to curb the pain, so I took it away and grabbed Letty's again. We navigated the twisty paths using instinct alone.
"...My house was deep in the forest. There were lots of animals, and the air was really nice. I was always hungry, but I still loved it."
Letty had suddenly begun to talk about her old home.
"Is that the house next to the well?"
"Yes! That's my house. Mother, father, and me and Rick lived there. ...But my mother wasn't my real mother."
So that was the house Letty lived in, as the dresser said. Then something was definitely strange - but no, I couldn't quite identify what it was.
"Father said my real mother passed away from an illness. And... she liked to tease me, so I didn't like my new mother."
Letty's face scrunched up like she ate a really sour grapefruit.
"She used to be nice. But she just suddenly got mean. I bet she was cursed and turned into a witch. She'd grab my hand and drag me into the dark forest. The first time she left me there, I couldn't help but get thirsty."
I felt some of the warmth leaving Letty's hand. Perhaps when she was trembling before at the sign, she was remembering those times.
"But whenever I'm sad or lonely, Rick is always with me. He'll always talk to me. From good morning to good night. And if I'm teased, he'll get revenge for me. He's a very, very strong boy."
After saying this, she came to a stop and stared at something. I followed her gaze. A white bird was resting atop a branch low enough to reach.
"It's a birdie!"
Immediately, Letty let go of my hand and ran over. The bird didn't flee, and even let Letty pet it, closing its eyes pleasantly. I approached Letty and the bird.
"Thataway is the same. But that way is different."
...The bird spoke. But there was a lesser element of surprise than with the dresser, so I didn't go flying back or anything this time.
"Hm? Well, yeah, I'm Letty, and he's Allen. So we are different!"
Letty must have understood this was all happening in a dream, as she had no problem going completely with its logic. She was just carrying a conversation with the bird.
"Everyone different, everyone good. But everyone wants to be the same. In the end, though, can't be," the bird stated confusingly. Letty had a curious look.
The bird opened its eyes - black, swirling eyes that seemed more disconcerting the more you looked at them. It spoke to Letty.
"Never two the same human. Looks similar, maybe. But look closer, and it's different. But you, exactly the same. Weird. Why?"
With that, the bird flew out of Letty's palm.
Letty went chasing after the bird. ...Shoot, I let go of her hand. I hurried after her so she wouldn't get out of sight, but Letty was faster than me, and her shadow grew smaller and smaller among the trees.
Following the rustling sounds, I finally saw her shadow stop. I slowed down a little and approached. "Letty?"
It was Rick standing in front of me. Though I was sure I was chasing Letty's shadow... I felt a vague theory I'd had being validated.
"What is it? Why are you here, Allen?"
"Letty's saying good night now. It's very dark around here with all the trees, and Letty hates dark places," Rick responded as coolly as ever.
"I've never seen you and Letty next to each other. Letty said you're always together. But... there were only three beds in that house."
Rick didn't respond. I finally saw the problem here.
...If the parents, Letty, and Rick were living in that house, there would have to be four beds. Sure, two could arguably sleep in one bed, but with beds that size, it would be tough even for two kids.
"Yes, that's right. You're correct. ...Because when I'm here, Letty is in my heart, saying good night. And vice versa."
"Letty has many things she can't handle - pain, dark places, and so on. But none of that is an issue for me. So I take it in her place. ...That's surely the reason I was born."
I bit my lip. This was probably the first time I'd seen Rick express this much emotion. ...So Letty and Rick weren't separate people, but split personalities.
Yet, Letty and Rick's room at the facility had two beds. That contradiction was what was throwing me off.
"It's all the witch's fault. All of it, all of it, all of it... I have to get revenge on that witch who bullies Letty. When I met Teacher earlier, he told me to back off, but... I can't do that."
As Rick went on muttering things, his skin and eyes were turning a sickly purple.
Met Teacher... So he was here, too? I shook Rick's shoulders to try and get him to talk, but he pushed my hands away.
"...Keep it secret from Letty."
His face was swollen enough you could hardly distinguish the parts of it, but the strong, gentle voice, wherever it came from, was definitely Rick's. Then with an uncertain gait, Rick vanished into the forest.
...I had to follow him.
My legs moved before my brain. Even if this was a dream, I felt like even when we woke up, Rick's face would stay all purple like that.
My heartbeat quickened. I gasped for breath, and I grew uneasy. I had to stop Rick before he reached the witch. Hurry, hurry, hurry...
As I recklessly ran down the forest paths, I crashed into someone and heard them scream. I thought for a moment I'd caught up to Rick, but it was Letty who'd fallen to the ground.
"Oh, Allen! Sorry, I went on my own to chase the bird... Are you okay? You look like you're in a really bad way...!"
Letty, still on the ground, patted my head while I had my hands on my knees, out of breath. At that moment, I felt my chest tighten. ...What was this feeling?
"...I haven't found Rick either. He's looked a little sad lately. But he seems to have so much fun when we're talking. ...I wonder why?"
Letty looked down again and brought her hand back from my head to her knees.
"Hey Allen, do you have someone important to you?", she abruptly asked.
I searched my memories for an answer, but since I couldn't find a clear one, I just said nothing.
"Oh, that's right... You lost your memories. ...Sorry for asking you such a sad question..."
She patted me head again apologetically. When I was alone, I just had to put up with my unending emptiness, but now Letty was here consoling me. It was a nostalgic scene somehow, and gave my heart a little peace.
"It's fine. Thanks, Letty. ...We need to go find Rick."
I held out my hand, and she took it with a big nod. Her hand seemed significantly colder than when I first held it.
"Looking for something?", a voice whispered from behind. A chill went down my spine.
"Did you say something, Allen?"
"Nope, that'd be me!"
Suddenly, a bipedal cat in a hood appeared before us.
"Haven't seen you before. Hello, Alice. I'm the Cheshire Cat. How you doin'?"
"...? My name's Letty. I'm not Alice," she denied, tilting her head curiously.
"Nah, you're Alice. You there, too. 'Cause I said so!" The Cat did a creepy laugh.
"Found what you were looking for over there. Looked pretty tasty, so I aaalmost ate 'im up. But it wasn't quite time yet."
"Um, I'm looking for Rick, though? Rick isn't food."
"From your perspective, maybe! Ooh, and I get two helpings. Whatcha ma call that... one rock two birds?"
This cat was a wizard at making people uncomfortable. I grabbed Letty's hand with some force and walked past the Cheshire Cat.
"Ooh, that's cold. Well, if yer cold, I recommend the fireplace. Mweeheeheehee!"
The Cat's laughter echoed off the trees. I walked quickly down the path with Letty until we couldn't hear it anymore.
"Something smells sweet...", Letty remarked. Focusing on my nose, a faintly sweet smell like candy was wafting around.
She brushed me off as I tried to stop her, and Letty ran off once again. I ran as fast as I could, determined not to lose sight of her this time. I was worried I might not last if I had to run for a long time, but her destination was closer than I was fearing.
"...It's a candy house..."
Letty's eyes sparkled. Before us was a house made entirely of candy, just like the one in Hansel and Gretel. The sweet aroma was strong here, and I found myself drooling a little.
Letty's throat gulped, and she proceeded ahead. I followed as she approached the ominous-feeling house.
The front door was made of chocolate. When she put her hand to it, it started to melt slightly from her warmth. Letty stared at it curiously and licked the chocolate off her finger. I put my hand on the biscuit doorknob and tried to open the door.
"...Huh? It won't open?"
All the doors in the World seemed to be like this, never just opening from a single turn of the knob. I thought I might have to get rough with it again, but a candy house was much more carefully constructed than a normal house, so it was hard for me to get the resolve. In the meantime, Letty turned the knob instead, and with a click, the door opened easily.
"Hey, what? It's not locked! Let's go inside! I wonder if we could have just a few bites..."
Letty headed right into the house, smiling and wondering what she was going to eat. She'd been looking awfully sad, so maybe it would be good for her to take a nice break here...
Oh, but if only the truth could be that sweet.
Letty immediately came to a stop, and her body froze up. I looked to her to see what was the matter. Her big eyes were opened wide, and the ribbons on her chest shook again. Following her gaze, I saw something in front of the fireplace, humanlike, black from head to toe, watching the fire burn.
"...Why did you come back?", the black figure murmured without any movement.
"I always put you far down unknown roads. At this point, I can't care for you. You'll only get hurt more. So then... why even come back?"
"I... I don't... like this. Rick... h-hel... p..."
Letty's face turned pale as she intermittently repeated Rick's name; she seemed terribly afraid of the thing in front of her.
The black figure slowly turned around. I thought it was completely black, but an old woman's face was eerily there among the black mass.
"That name again. Rick, Rick... Who is that you keep talking to? There's no one here but me, my husband, and you."
The old woman narrowed her eyes and glared at me, spitting out a low "...Disgusting."
"! He exists! Rick definitely exists! Why - how can you..."
Letty fell over and began to shake. I reached out to support her, and as I touched her back, Letty stopped shaking at once.
...Letty's skin and eyes were turning purple. My body naturally stepped away from her.
"Evil witch... Why are you always, always doing these things?! I'm... going to protect Letty!"
The one who stood up looked like Letty, but their voice and tone could be none other than Rick's. ...He'd come to her aid.
"...! Why, you!"
The woman deemed a witch raised a large knife and brought it down toward Rick. I immediately pushed Rick out of the way, and shoved the witch toward the fireplace.
The fire engulfed the witch, and her body swelled red. Her shrill scream nearly blew out my eardrums. I covered my ears, but it felt like it was infiltrating my whole body.
"...Rick? ...M-Moth... er..."
The swollen-purple Letty approached the fireplace as if to chase after the witch. The fire seemed to be growing. I reached out, worried for Letty's safety, and was hit with a massive headache.
"The woods were dark, and she didn't know her way back. The girl closed her eyes and thought."
""Why? Is it because I was weak? That's why there's no food for me?""
"As she mumbled to herself, a lone boy talked to the girl."
"..."I'll be strong, so you can be weak.""
"The girl was terribly surprised. And she said "Yes, that's right," before falling asleep."
"...The girl renounced having to face up to herself."
...When I came to, the witch, Letty, and Rick were all gone.
All that was left were giant, howling flames flying about like fish in water.
Unable to process the situation, I just stared blankly. A small object gleamed at my feet, red in the light of the flames. It had the shape of a key.
And it had been so hard to find when I was looking for it. Something akin to disgust welled up from my heart. The flames had spread from the fireplace to consume the candy house - to bake the whole thing.
If this was a dream, I wanted to wake up. Praying for it, I touched the key at my feet.
"Oh, Allen. Bringing a book to your room again?"
"Yeah, I'm at a really good part right now. I'm not going to be able to sleep if I don't know what happens."
"Heehee... My, my. You'd better go to bed early, or you won't wake up in the morning. ...Good night, Allen."
My senses were gradually sucked up, and my body was flung into darkness again. Was that a memory just now? I knew that woman who said good night to me and kissed me on the cheek.
That's right... She was my ___.
There didn't appear to be any hints toward destroying the dream here either. I smelled a burnt aroma.
"Is this the memory of my first meeting with her?"
The place I had been earlier seemed to be a World further in the past than this. If I wasn't careful, I would have seen that scene again. That incident happened when she was still young. She surely couldn't face up to it.
My meeting with Letty Amery took place in this forest.
I was walking through this forest on the way to the house of my mentor, Mrs. Leavis. Sensing an unusual burning smell, I looked around and saw a huge plume of black smoke up ahead. The typically-calm forest was unusually noisy, I recall. Having a terrible feeling, I ran toward the smoke.
As the smoke thickened and became more visible, I heard crying that got gradually louder. When I found the source of the smoke, that was also when I found her sobbing.
The house in front of her was engulfed in fiercely-burning flames. It transferred to the nearby trees, gradually spreading. Thinking that she might soon be swallowed up as well, I called to her, and decided to bring her to the facility for the time being.
After calling the police and fire department back at the facility, I told Mrs. Leavis I wouldn't be able to visit for a few days.
The police reported several days later than she was the only daughter at that residence. But they also said that no one's remains were found among the wreckage. So then where did the parents vanish to? I tried to ask her about it, but overwhelmed by the situation, she was in no condition to talk.
However, when I went to check on her one night, she seemed very different from the way she was during the day, and claimed to be a different person.
"Letty doesn't like the dark. So I let Letty say good night and take her place."
That was when I first learned her name, as well as Rick's. Rick readily answered all of my questions. From what he told me, Rick seemed to be a split personality Letty had created to protect herself from her mother's abuse.
Yet when I asked Letty to confirm this, she strongly denied it, insisting he was a different person who existed separate from her.
"...Rick protects me when mother bullies me. But while Rick was saying good night, she took me out into the forest. The first time, Rick brought me back home. The second time... he wasn't there. The sun was starting to come up, so I decided to take Rick home instead this time. But when I got home... the house was burning."
She spoke to me slowly, but as she recalled it, her face tensed up and she was overtaken with fear. When I held her shaking body, she blinked with relief, and slowly started talking again.
"When I came back home after the first time, lots of things started going missing from the house. Though my and Rick's things were never taken..."
"Were they big things, or little things?"
"All kinds of things. Food, and rings, and frying pans..."
Her family seemed rather poor. Perhaps they were selling off things they didn't need to make ends meet?
Summing up the story from her and Rick, the conclusion that the parents had abandoned their child and fled in the night seemed plausible.
Letty, though, claimed her mother had always been kind to her, even if she wasn't her biological daughter - and then suddenly became cold, a changed woman. Could someone's attitude truly change like that with no impetus?
...Or maybe she had always been dissatisfied with her?
"Oh yeah... I feel like I heard this strange laughter. Something like "weeheehee.""
"Was it a slightly hoarse voice that burned into your brain?"
"Sort of like that. I remember it pretty clearly," she replied blankly. Then she yawned, so I let her borrow my bed to take a nap.
This timing was almost too good to be true. But I still had a small bit of hesitation. What should I do...?
"Teacher! I wrote in my notebook!"
One day, she lept on me from behind. It was a forceful leap, so I yelled a little.
"...How about Rick's?"
"Oh! Um... Here! It's in my pocket!"
She handed me the two burgundy notebooks with a wide smile.
"Thanks. It's almost time to sleep, so don't get too overexcited."
"Okay! Don't stay up too late either, Teacher!"
I watched Letty as she dashed out of my room. Her parents were never found, and no other relatives ever came for her, so I ended up taking Letty in at the facility indefinitely. Letty was slowly regaining her cheer. However, judging from the notebooks, Rick seemed the more brooding one.
I know why. I know why mother, and father, and our home burned. But I won't say it. Because it'd only make Rick more sad.
That was written on the first new page of Letty's notebook. The paper was warped in places, the letters blurred. I hadn't yet told her that rather than burning down with the house, her parents had gone missing.
...I still had no reason to do so.
Letty told me that Rick had taken revenge in her place, burning down the witch and her home for her. But when I heard Rick's side of the story, I realized there were some misunderstandings between them.
The second time Letty was deserted, he woke up during the night and returned home, and by that time, there was no one left at the house. If Letty woke up then, like it or not, she would realize her parents had abandoned her. As that would make her sadder than anything, he decided to set it all aflame and obscure the truth.
When he told me this, I became convinced of my theory that her parents had left her and fled somewhere far away. And the one who had set it all up, it had to be...
I walked carefully on the unpaved, uneven road. There seemed to be nothing more I could do. I sat down on a particularly good-looking stump.
Rick was born to protect her from her mother's abuse. But her mother wasn't around anymore. The reason his heart was starting to fall apart had to lie there.
I recalled the first page of his notebook.
If I take everything on myself, she can smile all the time. I like her, I really do. But why was I born?
Teacher, you prepared two beds, and clothes for me too. But is this right? Is it wrong for me to exist?
Teacher, she may be her, but then who am I?
"...How should I have answered?"
He must have feared that his existence would mean she wouldn't have to face herself. I clutched my hair. If we got back safely, I would have to give him a proper answer. Yes, if...
As my thoughts turned, I suddenly heard a beast-like howling.
"...Hm? Is the World starting to break apart?"
Strange. The World starting to break indicated that its creator had broken. Before coming here, I met Rick and told him, "Don't move from this spot. It'd be dangerous for you and her to move around too much." He didn't seem the type to break a promise. So had something caused him to switch to her, and see that scene once more?
The ground split, and a black haze came from it and wound around my feet. I leaned my body toward it. I couldn't stop his... and her, ruin.
I sunk into the darkness. There, my whole body was swallowed up.
"Ah, you made it back. ...Why are you crying?"
I didn't even know the answer to that. I felt like I'd even forgotten the name these emotions had.
"You appear to have recovered a key. Well done. Hm...? Is it only the one?"
"...Che... Er, that guy said he put one key in each World."
Just as I was about to speak the Cheshire Cat's name, the White Rabbit glared daggers at me, so I quickly stopped myself.
"One World at a time, is it... What a bother. Why such stalling...?" His eyes narrowed with gloom.
"Well, fair enough. You recovered one of them. That's something. I'll use this to open the door to the next World."
I heard a door unlocking in the distance. He wanted me to go to another one of those places, huh. I stood there for a little bit, and he started to tap his foot impatiently.
"Don't worry. It's just a dream. It'll all be back to normal when you wake. Those emotions and the scene you witnessed were all illusions. That was your first instinct too, was it not?"
Not coming any closer, the White Rabbit spoke with the most gentle voice I'd ever heard out of him. I had thought of it as a dream, but those feelings, that spectacle of flames, were burned in my mind in a very real-feeling way. Could dreams be like this?
Still, the moment I touched that key, I regained a small memory of my past. The one who said good night to me and kissed me on the cheek - it was surely my mother.
If I found another key, maybe I could see a slightly later memory. That hope invited me toward the next World door.
"Come to think of it, White Rabbit, what do you do here?"
"...I don't do anything here. That's my normal. Because isn't it too much bother? Time and events are predecided, and I just live in that flow. It's much too much of a pain to go against the grain. Hardly necessary."
So he was just standing here for hours on end. I thought to myself that that seemed like much more of a pain and bother, but the denizens here were all very strange, I recalled.
"Well, I'm counting on you once more."
I nodded, and headed for the next door.
"He came up with all the rules of these Worlds, y'know. If the one who made the World goes under, so does their World."
As I was about to open the second door, the Cheshire Cat appeared before me and started talking. I nearly crashed into him, which gave me a chill. Crashing into that bizarre body of his... just thinking about it made me shudder.
"I wouldn't make nothin' like that. But just give it time, he says! Makes all these dumb rules, he does! Bah! But we just gotta follow 'em..."
The Cheshire Cat whined and covered his face with his paws. But his grin was so wide, nearly reaching his ears, that it appeared to jut out from behind his hands.
"'Cause if we don't, we get punished."
"...Do you want anything, or?"
I figured he might keep talking forever if I didn't stop him. Trying to hide my disgust for him, I tried to speak mildly.
"What! Can't a guy talk about what he likes? Cats die when they get too lonely, y'know. ...Wait a sec, or was that people?"
As he joked, I considered my next move. If I said anything serious, he would dodge it and find a way to tease me again. It would definitely only exhaust me.
"Boy, you look like a wreck. Don't need to get so worked up about somebody you just met. Or, hold on... Did you forget all your emotions and such, too?"
I had no response. I still didn't fully understand myself.
"Oh, and how would I know about that? Well, that's 'cause I stole 'em."
I was speechless in the face of the Cheshire Cat's sudden, outrageous confession.
"I know everything that happened that day, and before it too. Not planning on giving it back, 'course... but you can have bits and pieces as cherries on top of finding the keys. You know the rest, right?"
As the Cat became more and more cocky, I sunk deeper. He must have delighted in seeing this happen to people.
"Tell me, is it really empty inside ya? ...Well, prayin' on high you don't crack too quick. Sweet dreams!"
Before I knew it, he was gone. I began to sweat. But I had to get to the next World. Now I could feel like it wasn't the White Rabbit, wasn't the Cheshire Cat who was hurrying me along most - it was me.
What happened that day? What did I see, and what did I lose? I just wanted to know the truth. I wanted it back. I'd pushed my doubts about whether this was a dream or not out of mind.
I steadied my breathing. And I opened the door to the second World.
My house is deep in the forest.
There are lots of animals, and the air is really nice. It's a wonderful place.
My family is mother, father, and one more.
He's always with me. Always there for me. From good morning to good night.
But it's too bad he can't play tag or anything with me.
My mother isn't my real mother.
I heard my real mother passed away from an illness.
The mother I have now often teases that girl.
So I take the brunt of it for her. I'm responsible for all the hurtful things.
But when she's beaten, I can't protect her.
One day, mother said we'd go for a walk.
I didn't want to, but she dragged me by the hand into the forest.
Like usual, after walking a long way, mother said we'd take a break.
You stay here, she told me, and I sat there the whole time.
It got dark. I was scared. It was pitch black.
I was so, so scared. So I closed my eyes and talked to him.
What's your name? What's your favorite food? What don't you like?
I was surprised. He wasn't like me at all.
Is this the deep forest?
I should go back. I'm fine, but she doesn't like dark places.
Will she say she disgusts her again?
Why does that witch have to tease her so?
I have to do away with that evil witch.
I'm so hungry. If only my house and my clothes could be tasty sweets.
Then everyone in my family could have a good meal.
...Oh, but I guess chocolate melts really quick. That won't work.
It all burned up.
If I take everything on myself, she can smile all the time.
I like her, I really do. But why was I born?
Teacher, you prepared two beds, and clothes for me too.
But is this right? Is it wrong for me to exist?
Teacher, she may be her, but then who am I?