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Chapter 4: Crying Wolf
Just as expected, I again found one of the rooms of the facility through the door. On the desk was homework left completely blank, neatly placed in the corner, and there was a strange poster on the wall beside the bookcase.
"Whoa? Yo, Alice! Nice weather, huh?!", the person in the center of the room cheerily shouted at me, despite it being impossible to tell the weather with no windows. A boy who always wore a black knit cap with a silver chain, and seemed to treat it very carefully.
"Y'know what this calls for? Y'know?! Y-Y'know?!" Joshua always tended to fire his words like a machine gun like this, but here he was spitting out the same word repeatedly like it was caught in his throat.
"Yeahyeah! Yeah yeah yeah! L-L-L-Let's play!" At last, he invited me to play, the same words overlapping each other, like a toy with a dying voicebox. In contrast to his unstable words, Joshua patiently smiled wide, awaiting my answer.
I'd go to the World, find the key, and get back another shard of my memory. And I'd find Teacher and talk to him... Now that I had two objectives, I had to hurry, or it'd only get harder to catch up to Teacher, seemingly a step ahead of me.
"Sure, let's play." Even I'm not sure why, but my reply came at a loud volume, and my voice cracked in the middle. ...Was I just tired?
"W-W-Whoa! Yeah! Sweet! Alright!" Joshua, too, spoke in a voice that overlapped itself, becoming many times louder. "Open up that closet."
I nodded and walked toward Joshua's closet. As I put my hand on the door, I noticed I was shaking. What was wrong with me?
I forced my trembling hand onto the handle. And I opened the door with all my strength.
A soft sensation spread across my body. I felt weightless. Upon making the slightest movement, an unfamiliar friction tickled me. Sitting up, I noticed expensive items and furniture all around the large room.
I slid out of the big bed I'd woken up in and gently stepped on the blue carpet. It was large enough to be a living room, but the fact there was a bed here... it probably was a bedroom. And considering I met Joshua before coming here, maybe this was the house he used to live in before coming to the facility.
A side table next to the bed, a big TV by the window, bookcases... Starting near the bed, I inspected everything in the room. What caught my eye most was a chest packed with clothes. In the bottom drawer were a large number of hats just like the one Joshua always wore. Also... some underwear.
I'm probably done here, I thought, heading for the door. It wasn't locked. It opened easily, and I let out a sigh of relief. I didn't want to have to force anything open anymore if I could help it.
Outside was a long, wide hallway. I walked straight down along it. I found stairs leading to the upper floor, but some kind of invisible wall seemed to prevent me from going up them.
Giving up on that, I continued down the hallway and found a locked door. After carefully twisting the doorknob left and right to no avail, I left it alone for the time being and turned forward again.
Eventually, I came to a white wall. This was a dead end. Looking to my side, I saw one more door. Putting my hand to the knob with some unease, it easily opened with a pleasant sound that disregarded my worry.
A great number of wall clocks hung on the back wall of the room. Each of these clocks had a different design and a different ticking sound, creating an unstable dissonance. With so many clocks, you'd go mad staying here for long...
Though the clocks stole my attention, someone tapped my shoulder, startling me. I looked down slightly to see a boy starting at me curiously.
"Yep, that's me!", he enthusiastically responded to my distant mumble. Good - this was surely the real Joshua.
"I'm glad you were in here. All the other rooms were locked... Have you seen Teacher?"
"Huh? Is anything locked? The other rooms I went to were wide open, and I didn't meet anybody... But like, is Teacher here?"
It sounded like Joshua hadn't met Teacher yet. But considering previous events, he likely planned to come in contact with Joshua too. It was fortunate that I got here first.
"Hey Allen, where is this? I just woke up here, so like..."
"We're... in a dream," I lied. I wasn't sure where we actually
were, but even I knew this wasn't just a dream.
"Hmm, yeah, I thought so. It looks like my house, but it's way smaller!"
"...Your house must be really huge."
"Sure is. I've been having this same dream a bunch lately. But nobody's ever been around, so I just sit here playing dice. Well, more like I just sit here rolling
dice." Joshua proudly picked up a few small dice and jumbled them around in his palm.
"But if you're here, Allen, then forget about that. There's nothin' here, so let's go somewhere else! Who knows, maybe some of the others are here too!"
He spoke cheerfully, but my heart ached. Remembering what I'd seen made me feel a sensation like heartburn deep in my chest. At the same time, my ears buzzed.
"There was a large house in a large city."
"In this large house lived a mother, a father, a boy, the boy's brother and sister, and many other people."
"The boy found fun in sneaking out of his large house to adventure outside, then telling his mother of his escapades."
"Many of the stories were lies, but his mother delighted at them and patted him on the head."
"...? You okay, Allen? Your face is lookin' all sour."
Joshua looked at me worriedly. The competing forces in my body had made me lose balance and fall to the floor.
"...Well, I'll put you in charge. Just get up when you're ready and I'll come along."
"It's fine. I think I'm just a little sleepy." I rubbed underneath my eyes. I did that all the time whenever tears came, so it tingled a little. I lowered my head so he wouldn't notice that, at least. Then I told Joshua "let's go," and left the room full of clocks back to the spacious hallway.
"In one of the dressers in the room I woke up in, I found a bunch of the same hats you wear... Don't you ever wear any other hats?", I asked as we came to a wall and turned back around.
"Huh? Well, if there were lots of hats, that'd be my room. See, this hat's got the secret power of the cosmos in it, so it's gotta be this kind or else..."
"What about the underwear that was with them? Do you put that on your head, too?"
"Not on my head!
I tried to move the conversation along as Joshua started getting cocky, but was sharply countered. Still, there were traces on his face indicating he was enjoying it.
"Truth is, this hat's the first present I ever got. People always tell me they'll buy me some others, but I just like these ones best."
"...A present from who?"
"Huh? That'd be, uh... Man, who was it?"
Joshua came to a stop and twisted his neck. After a while, he just shrugged, mumbled "Well, anyway," and resumed walking.
The hallway felt longer than the first time I went down it. I didn't see the doors I'd passed by - it was just long white walls. It gave me the illusion of somehow being lost, even though it was only a straight path.
Tiring of talking, Joshua silently followed behind me. Just as I was about to get anxious, the dazzling stairs, which had been blocked by an invisible wall before, appeared before us.
As I put my foot on the first step, I felt something heavy weighing on me. Getting to the second was something I just couldn't manage to do. Meanwhile, Joshua passed me by, climbing the steps with ease.
"Huh? Allen, are you playin' around or something? What, can you not climb stairs?"
Slightly spurred by his remark, I forced my leg to the second step. The mysterious weight on me had gone away all of a sudden, so this time I climbed too hard and fell face-first.
"You okay? Don't overdo it, man." Joshua held his hand out to me. I took it with some hesitation. Just like with Letty and Chelsy, it was colder than usual.
Upstairs, there was a hallway just like the one below that seemed to go on forever. Having already walked long enough, fatigue swept over me like a wave. I really didn't have much stamina, though I felt like it was considerably better here than in the real world.
"...Hey, you said this was different from your house, but... Do you think you have at least a general idea of where things are?"
"Hm? Well, if that's the most you're asking... Yeah, I think I do."
I'd soon collapse if we kept walking around aimlessly. I tagged out and had Joshua lead. In mere minutes, we found a door. Joshua turned the knob without any hesitation, and the door went without resistance.
The room contained furniture even more expensive-looking than what I'd seen in Joshua's room, rows of super-tough-looking swords and such, and a portrait of someone hanging around the middle of the back wall. It was an aged man whose mustache gave a highly dignified impression.
"Oh, this is my dad. He gets real scary when he's angry," Joshua explained as I stared at the picture curiously. I supposed his sharp, olive-colored eyes did resemble Joshua's.
"He buys lots of stuff, and moves the old stuff to unused rooms. Look, like this sword."
Joshua lifted up one of the swords in the corner in his hands and brought it over. The blade was so polished as to reflect your face, and it glittered from the lights in the room.
Joshua met my earnest comment with a mischievous smile.
"Back... Back, Back, Back."
Suddenly, I heard a muddled voice from behind me. I turned around to see a... person? I couldn't even be sure if it was a creature - like a body turned inside-out and stitched together, muttering the same thing repeatedly.
"What's with this guy?"
"Back... Front... Back Back..." It stared at Joshua's hand.
"This? You want this? Sure, I've got plenty." Joshua handed one of the small dice he was holding to the body. It held the die and stared at it, rolling it in its hand.
"Back of One... Six. Back of Three... Four."
"Yep, when you add up the opposite sides of a die, you always get seven. Neat, huh?"
Joshua seemed to be treating this bizarre body like it was extremely ordinary. The inverted body had blood vessels running along its insides-made-outsides, which I found a little frightening.
"Back... You Back? Back? Back... Back?"
The body suddenly asked Joshua a question. But both he and I tilted our heads, not understanding its meaning. As it went on repeating "Back, Back," I began to feel a bottomless dread and left with Joshua to go somewhere else.
A few minutes of walking later, Joshua found another door. When I was leading, it took me twenty or so minutes to find a room - but I felt like if I said that, Joshua would just give me a strange look.
"...Huh? Isn't that Teacher?" His hand came to a stop with the door half-open.
I looked through the gap; a familiar person was sitting on a chair in the back of the room, faced away from us. We shot a glance at one another. He still didn't notice us as we tiptoed quietly up to him.
The two of us poked his back and messed with his hair for a while, but Joshua soon tired of the utter lack of reaction and punched Teacher in the hip. It sounded like a pretty light one, but Teacher wailed like it was a fatal blow and slumped over on the desk in front of him. Hope he's okay.
He turned around, his gaze going to Joshua, then to me. "...Joshua... and Allen? I know I keep telling you, Joshua, but would you stop hitting me on the hip so forcefully?"
Teacher looked slightly surprised when he looked at me. Then he seemed to go into thought, but soon nodded in agreement to himself.
"No hips? What about the flank?"
"It's... not an issue of where
you're hitting me," Teacher responded with a wry smile, then suddenly looked worried and rushed to cover his flanks.
"Teacher, why are you here? Not often you show up in my dreams."
"...It's not quite a dream. You must be cautious about your actions here."
Teacher readily denied that this World was a dream. So he does know a thing or two about these Worlds, doesn't he?
"Then what should we do, Teacher?"
"It would be best if you stay put in this room. ...Don't go opening any more doors."
"Ahh, I need to get going. You'll do what I'm asking, won't you?" Teacher hurried to interrupt me and looked us in the eyes. Joshua turned his head to the side.
"Yeah, don't worry, Teacher, I'm here! Uh... You can take it easy breezy!"
"...It's the times when you speak with such confidence that get me most worried. Well, I hope I can trust you."
Teacher slowly stood up and passed us by to leave the room. Ultimately, I hadn't been able to clear up any of the mysteries about Teacher. My chest felt hazy.
As soon as Teacher was out of sight, Joshua pouted with boredom. "Hmm, not much to play with in this room, though..." He appeared to have a desire to go along with Teacher's order not to leave the room.
"Oh yeah, but there should be a..." Remembering something, he ran over to a bookcase in the corner of the room and fished around in a gap between the shelves and wall. A few seconds later, he pulled out a silver gun.
"Russian roulette! Let's play it!"
"Russian roulette...? Like, where you put a single bullet in a gun and take turns firing at your head?"
Did people in rich families play games of life and death starting from childhood? Having lost my memories, I had no confidence in my knowledge of the past, but perhaps I was a born commoner, as I couldn't comprehend such a game.
"No, no! The real deal would be too dangerous. This is a really well-made toy. You put a paintball in here, and if you lose, a needle pops it out and breaks it. We can play like that, right?"
"...Sure." I finally understood once Joshua gave me the explanation. It was still a mischievous kind of game either way, though. It sounded like your clothes would get paint on them, so I wasn't too keen, but Joshua got increasingly desperate until I gave in. He happily put the paintball in with experienced motions.
"Alright, there's six cylinders! And there's a pink paintball in one of them! Here, Allen, you can start. Say how many shots you're gonna fire first!"
Joshua tossed me the gun. I managed to catch it, though it nearly slipped out of my hand. I stated "three shots," and pulled the trigger - click, click, click.
"Ooh, three shots? Not bad. I'll do one." He pulled the trigger once.
There were two shots left, so if I shot once and it didn't fire the paintball, I'd won. But after doing my three shots, I realized something, and had a premonition that I'd lose. Lowering my head a little to keep my clothes from getting dirty, I said "one" and pulled the trigger.
The magnificent pink blood splatter dyed my hair. The spot the bullet hit stung a little.
"Aw, too bad!" Joshua thrust a hand in his pants pocket and grinned teasingly.
"...Come to think of it, you didn't spin the cylinder after putting the paintball in, Joshua."
"Hm? Oh, right! So I knew exactly where it was, yeah. But Allen, you should've said that while you had the chance!"
He showed more of his white teeth. I was glad to see Joshua enjoying himself, even if it was at the expense of my hair. I found myself cracking a little smile, too.
"Well, we gotta clean up. Here's a towel. It should come off without too much effort."
Joshua handed me a fluffy white towel; I'm unsure when he got it. Then he took out a second towel and began to carefully wipe the paint splatter on the floor.
"...Sometimes my sister and brother play with me too. But usually they're too busy with studying to play anything. So I'm glad to finally get a chance to again. ...Even mom and dad have been kinda restless lately, won't pay attention to what I'm doing at all," Joshua remarked as he cleaned.
"My brother's real great as soccer and stuff! And my sister always gets the best grade in the class on hard tests. ...But I've got nothing."
Joshua spoke cheerfully of his brother and sister, but when he came to him, he bit his lip tight and turned his head down.
"I think you're really interesting, Joshua. You talk about all sorts of things, and play pranks... I mean, sometimes they go a little too far, but you've got a great imagination."
Joshua's face lit up, and he looked toward me.
"Allen... You're saying I do? I've got something?" He shyly turned away again. But he looked less pained than before; somehow, he looked liberated. Good, he got a little more of his cheerfulness back.
"Well, we played Russian roulette, so there's nothing else to do in this room. Aw, well... Telling me to stay put makes me not wanna stay put! Let's go somewhere else!" Joshua folded the dirty towels, put them on a nearby table, and dragged me by the hand.
Teacher's warning not to open any more doors replayed in my head. His voice was gradually overtaken by noise, turning into an unpleasant ringing.
"One day, lightning struck, and father's castle was ruined."
"The castle crumbled, there was no money left. And the last time the boy saw his father, he was floating in midair."
"The boy informed his mother. But his mother said this:"
"What are you saying, at a time like this?! We're all very exhausted right now. Don't tell me such lies again."
"The boy tried to lead his mother to father again and again, but she let go of his hand every time."
"What's up, Allen? ...Sorry, does your hand hurt?"
When I came to, Joshua let go of my hand and looked at me anxiously. I looked toward him to say I was fine, but for some reason, he quickly averted his gaze. Then, with a relieved expression, he put his hand on the doorknob.
...I wondered if Joshua had always had trouble looking people in the eye.
"What'll it be? ...Go? ...Or not?"
"...Let's go," I answered firmly, though after a slight pause. I had to go. I'd resolved to do that before I came to this World.
I had a feeling about what would happen now, and what I'd witness. And yet I couldn't stop moving ahead towards it - maybe I was already starting to break.
As Joshua continued to give me worried glances, he opened the door and went into the hallway. And we resumed walking down the long hall again.
After walking about ten minutes, we hit a white wall. A dead end.
"This is the only door, I guess. Honestly, they should be more... next to each other, y'know?", Joshua illustrated by spreading his hands to his sides, looking a little disappointed. Then without delay, he opened the door.
Instantly, a sweet smell wafted out from the room. Looking inside, I saw two white shortcakes on a table in the center, topped with little strawberries.
"Ooh, these are the cakes dad buys every time he comes home. They're made by some kinda famous... patissy... cake maker person, and they're really good. Awfully sweet, though."
Joshua approached the table. I followed, and the strengthening smell of the cakes stirred my appetite.
"Hey, Allen, don't eat with your hands. Your clothes'll get all sticky..." Joshua went searching underneath the table. "Uh, here, here's a fork."
Why there was a fork there, and how he was able to find it... I had no desire for answers to those questions in the face of this sweet temptation. However, just as I was about to grab the fork from Joshua...
From underneath the table, I heard a weak voice. And I saw the face of a sheep-like creature with lots of fleece and great curly horns.
"What, you want some too? Well, human food isn't good for animals a lot of the time, so I wouldn't suggest it."
"...Fine, I give. The strawberry's probably fine."
I couldn't understand what the animal was saying, but Joshua seemed like he did. He took the precious sole strawberry off his cake and tossed it to me. The sheep-like creature skillfully snatched it up from midair and baa'd pleasantly.
"We should eat too. Walking's tiring, so we can rest here."
Joshua put his fork in the long triangle-shaped shortcake to cut a bite-sized piece. Then he stabbed it with the fork and went to bring it to his mouth.
"...Are you gonna eat? You not like sweets, Allen?"
"Nah, I'm fine. It's nothing."
I cut my shortcake - more crudely than Joshua did - stabbed it with the fork, and brought it to my mouth. The moment I put it in, I was hit with an extreme dizziness.
"...Hey, Allen! Hello? You okay?"
A voice calling me from afar grew gradually closer. When my senses cleared up, I saw Joshua looking at me from above worriedly.
"I'm fine... Huh? This isn't where we were..."
"Hm? Oh, yeah. I got all dizzy and fell asleep, too. When I woke up, we were here," Joshua explained, rubbing the back of his head. Was he hit there and knocked out?
I had a look around, and only one thing caught my eye. Red curtains swaying slightly, giving off an ominous air. Occasionally, pitch darkness stared at us through the gap.
"...Man. Was there a room like this?" Joshua's head tilted. He seemed restless, and very attentive to the gap in the curtains.
"It occurred to me when we were talking about the voices upstairs too, but... Do you not like scary stuff?"
"Huh? No! I'm not scared! It's just, when you've got gaps and stuff... Doesn't it feel like somebody's staring at you through 'em?"
Wasn't that a roundabout way of saying he was scared? I threw the curtains open. There was only darkness behind them, not a sign of any light.
"...You're going in? Wait, does this go somewhere?"
"There doesn't seem to be much of anywhere else... Look, I'll go ahead. That won't be so scary, will it?"
"No way! Wrong idea, Allen! I am not scared! ...But yeah, you do that."
Joshua swiftly got behind me and clung to my clothes. I carefully set foot into the darkness.
As we walked around blindly without saying much, Joshua suddenly came to a stop.
"What is it?"
"Oh, y'know. I've got this strange feeling. Like I'm missing something..."
"I don't know. And my chest feels all fuzzy, 'cause I don't know."
He gripped my sleeve more tightly. He'd been pulling on my clothes in surprise at numerous unseen things, so they were starting to get loose and worn.
"Allen, you have anything you're scared to lose?", Joshua suddenly inquired.
Having lost my memories once and gotten some back, I figured I'd be scared to lose them again. Yet I was unsure, because I wasn't confident that these really were my memories. Such thoughts made an unknown emotion well up in me, while I sank deeper.
"Oh -" Joshua seemed to remember something. "...Sorry, Allen," he apologized sadly.
"It's fine." I resumed walking with Joshua in behind.
"I used to hate the dark. But now, it's kinda relieving. ...I can't see anything, and nobody has to see me," he mumbled in an uncharacteristically quiet and weak voice.
While I puzzled over how to respond, my hands found something in front of me. Touching it all over, I identified it as a wall. Following it for a while, I came to an obstruction - a doorknob.
"...You gonna open that?"
The sudden voice at my back made me jump. Sweat started to run down me.
"...Why wouldn't I?"
"Just... I dunno, a gut feeling. Not so much that I don't wanna go in, more I don't want to let you in... I don't really know either, but... You're going in?", he asked again.
I had a feeling - no, I knew for certain what was behind this door. Would I still try to open it regardless?
"If you're going in, Allen, that's fine," he said, leaving me the decision. My half-regained emotions proved to be shackles stopping my hand from opening the door.
...Why did I have to feel this way?
"Then I'll help!"
Hearing a voice, someone pushed me. At the same time, the doorknob was twisted open, and we were sucked into the room. We fell forward, Joshua landing on top of me. The room was slightly brighter than where we'd just been.
"Oww... Should've told me when you were going to open it, All..." His objection was cut short.
Feeling something was wrong, I pushed Joshua off of me and sat up. Even though I pushed him fairly forcefully, he continued to stare up, dumbfounded, trembling.
I followed his gaze to a large doll-like object hanging from the ceiling. Though there was no wind, the body slowly swayed back and forth.
I heard another voice, not Joshua's, at my ear. Yes, the voice I heard before being pushed. Nothing but the Cheshire Cat could produce this voice.
"Now, what are you doing here? Weren't you told to stay away, Alice?!", the Cat reminded Joshua with a detestable smile. But he showed no reaction to his words, only staring up and trembling.
"Hey, you sleepin'? ...What, you that curious about the doll hanging there?"
Joshua finally responded as the Cheshire Cat persisted. "Huh? ...No, that's mom. This is mom's room. Wait... No, wrong, wrong, wrong! That's not my mom..." He went pale, his expression warping into one I'd never seen.
...That hanging doll is his mom?
"Hmm? Seems like this Alice sees somethin' different..."
"N-No, no, no... Mom doesn't have those eyes..."
"Ohh? Well then... which eyes? ...Tell me, why don't you!" The Cheshire Cat approached Joshua and threw his arms open.
Instantly, human eyes of various colors opened up all around the room, on the walls, on the furniture, staring at us. I couldn't help but yelp at the sudden attention.
"!!!!! Ahh...! Hey... You gotta be... I mean, the one hanging in the air, it was... Hey, Allen!" Joshua grabbed my arm tight. "This is wrong, yeah? It's not right..."
As Joshua looked at me with desperate eyes, his face started to blacken, falling apart like mud. The mud fell and stained his clothes. I could only shake my head in terror at the scene.
"Why... are you looking at me like that? Why... did eye have to see this..."
"Now what's this about, Alice? You tell all those terrible lies for attention, and this is what you get. And trust me, goin' down the "if-only-I'd" route is just a waste of time."
Seeing Joshua breaking down, the Cheshire Cat's eyes further narrowed with joy. I felt both a vomit-inducing disgust and something close to anger.
"STOP iT!! ...stop."
Just as Joshua said this, his movement came to a sudden halt. I reached out toward him, worried he might have died. Just then, pain pierced through my head.
"After some time, the boy's brother and sister led their mother toward where father was."
"When I say it, you say it's a lie. Why? Is it because they have something, and I have nothing?"
"Did you know they were all lies before? Is it okay if you don't know they're lies?"
"...The boy renounced having to improve himself."
"Aww, thought I could get a bit more fun out of that... But he's already gone."
That voice brought me back. The Cheshire Cat sounded distinctly more bored than before, his smile lowered, letting out a big sigh. He stepped away from Joshua and looked up at the ceiling.
"You only see it as a stupid-huge doll too, don't you? Yeah, you'd be right. Don't worry, you're not nuts or nothin'. I just cast a special spell on that Alice."
The Cheshire Cat spoke like a wizard from a fairy tale, but the facts were far crueler. So Joshua had thought his mother had hung herself from that rope...
"I wonder when you might break down? Or are you the one doing the breaking? 'Cause then much as you hate my guts, maybe we ain't so different! The things you hate about others, you always do yourself without realizing it."
The Cat's remarks stabbed through my chest. For Letty and Chelsy too, I had been the one to open the door. Their ruin was on me for setting foot into their Worlds.
"Oh? Here comes a mousey. That's the end of this story. Good night, Alice! That was a good dream, wasn't it? Here, have a present!"
He threw something to my feet. It was a small key.
I gently picked it up off the ground, seeking its help. And I regained another part of myself.
It was a very pleasant spring day, sunny and warm. Having checked out a book I'd meant to for a while, I was elated. I was almost home - I just needed to turn left at the intersection three blocks ahead, then go straight. My pace quickened with my desire to get home and start reading. I arrived at the front door, put my hand on the knob, and pulled it open...
...Something was constricting my entire body. It was difficult to breathe. I heard my heart beat loud. Even then, it was me who opened the door.
The sudden change in heat was sapping my stamina. The season had switched from spring to summer. Before me was a neatly-laid red-brick road with a large garden to the side, where it seemed every single flower was carefully cared for.
"I expected as much, but... It sure is hot."
It was a blisteringly hot day that I went to meet him, too. So this World was from the time I first met him.
Joshua Bartlett was the son of a couple who headed a large enterprise, one of the most wealthy out there. And this large mansion was the managers' estate. I'd have very likely gotten lost if I'd gone alone.
My reason for coming was a request from my friend Cliff, to take a look at Joshua after a certain incident changed him. Evidently Cliff knew Joshua's older brother, who, when told I did counseling for children scarred by incidents, asked if I could check on his younger sibling.
"Sorry, I know you're busy," Cliff apologized with remorse. "Will the kids be okay?"
"I was concerned about the rowdy one before, but the new girl is very earnest. As long as she's there, you don't need to worry. ...It shouldn't take too long, anyway."
Following Cliff's directions, I walked up the red brick path to the front door. He knocked several times with the door knocker. Shortly afterward, a rather tired, sort of aged woman appeared, being supported by a young man beside her.
"Yo, Cliff. ...And, uh, hello. I'm Blanc Bartlett. I've heard a lot about you... And this is my mother."
After a casual greeting to Cliff and a formal introduction to me, the young man, Blanc, bowed. Helping his mother along, he invited us into the mansion.
The crimson carpet in the hallways gave the place a refined air. Occasionally the suits of armor on the sides of the halls shined in the light. Many reddish-brown doors were lined up in rows against the white walls. We passed by a few servants, who all bowed deeply.
"Perhaps you're already familiar, as it's made the news and the papers... My father passed away the other day. Joshua has been behaving strangely ever since."
"Yes, I've been hearing about it. ...You have my deepest sympathies."
A few days ago, the father of this young man and the boy I was about to meet, the head of that huge enterprise, was found hung in his room. It was all over the papers. According to reports, just before he commit suicide, there was some kind of scandal at the company resulting in a loss of faith with clients. It was clear this would be a huge blow to the company's finances, so that was rumored to be the reason behind the suicide.
"It was all so sudden... Our company tumbled as if something were dragging it down. I intend to succeed the position, but there are many worries... Ah, sorry. Here we are."
Blanc stopped in front of one of the many doors in the hallway and knocked. I heard a boy say "come in" from inside.
Inside the room was a silver-haired boy squatting on a small stool. Half of his beautiful silver hair was obscured by a black knit cap.
"Are you the one my brother mentioned? Nice to meet you." The boy stood up and politely bowed to me. It must have been because of his family, but he seemed very mature for his age. I gave my name and bowed back.
"...Hey, brother, I'd rather be alone with him. It'll be easier for me to talk."
Blanc nodded and took everyone but myself and the boy outside, slowly closing the door behind them.
The instant the door was shut, the boy thrust his hands in his pockets and forcefully sat down on the stool. He crossed his legs and grinned mischievously as I watched in surprise.
"I'm Joshua. It's like suffocating with those guys, huh? Well, you can relax with me."
Joshua's shoulders eased up. Ah, so he did have a side more befitting his age. Perhaps his earlier attitude was only fabricated for visitors. Borrowing another stool, I sat down in front of him.
"They keep telling me to talk, but there's nothing really weird about me. What am I supposed to talk about?"
"Well... I want to know about you, so I'd be happy if you could tell me about yourself."
"...Me? Well, let's see. I'm good at soccer, always score dozens of points a game. Also, I love to study, so I get perfect scores on tests every single day!"
While his eyes wandered away, he spoke in an ambiguous way, both bragging and somehow not.
"And? Is there anything else?"
"Also... I don't have wings, but I can fly real high! I like to sneak out of the house and talk to doves while I'm flying through the sky!"
Whenever he started talking like this, Joshua's eyes wavered. I smiled at his childish stretching of the truth. Then I got onto the main topic.
"...Do you know anything about your father?"
Joshua briefly shook, and his eyes returned to me. After some thought, he looked away again.
"...I dunno. I mean, it was my brother and sister who found him floating."
"Really? Who was it who found him first? I'd really like to know."
He paused and bit his lip. Then he sighed and raised his face up.
"Me. I found him. I was studying here, when I heard a cat meow. I followed it, and heard a creaking sound from dad's room. So I opened the door. And just when I opened it, dad..."
Joshua's mouth was shut. He must have seen the moment his father hung himself. "You don't need to say any more," I said, patting the boy's back. He'd started to tremble slightly.
"It must be hard. You might not be able to forget that feeling for some time. ...It's okay. You can take it slow. Thank you for telling me."
"...Do you believe me, mister? I'm a liar... Even this might be a lie... But do you believe me?"
Joshua looked up at me desperately. I nodded, and his shoulders finally slackened with relief.
"Ah, yes... There are other children who have gone through similar situations. They live with me at my facility, so they can slowly ease their pain."
"...Oh yeah? So it's not just me suffering? ...Could you take me to your place and make my pain go away too, mister?" Joshua seemed interested at just the slightest mention.
"Well, perhaps I could, but your mother and such would have to let me."
"...It's probably fine. Mom doesn't even look at me, and won't talk to me anymore. I'm sure she hates me now."
I took lonely-looking Joshua to his mother, waiting for us outside the room, and told her what he'd said. The young man and Cliff were surprised and hesitated slightly, but his mother quickly consented.
"Then I'll take your son in for a while. I'll call immediately if anything comes up."
I said goodbye to his relatives, and took Joshua back to the facility in the forest.
Joshua hurled a fist directly into my hip. It came so suddenly, I made a strange howl and fell forward.
"Joshua, I tell you again and again, no hitting the hips..."
"But you never notice if I don't do that, Teacher..." He held his hands behind his head, grinning prankishly.
"...I don't suppose I can have you behaving like when we first met."
"Huh? No, no way!" He stuck out his tongue. "'Cause that was all a lie. The kind of lie that'd get me yelled at if I didn't tell it." So this was the real him...
"Oh yeah, here, notebook. I wrote it in like you said!"
Reaching into his pocket, he took out a turquoise notebook. I took it and checked the new pages. The words were written very neatly.
"Thank you. I'll write a reply and give it back. Now, it's time for bed."
"Alright! You do that, Teacher. Good night!", he bowed. "Good night," I bowed back. He made mischief, but he always followed rules.
I moved under the shade of some trees in the garden. I let out a deep breath to be finally free of the heat. And I flipped to the newest page of his notebook.
|My brother's good at soccer. My sister's smart.
But I'm nothing.
I'm nothing, but I said I'm something. I have nothing, but I said I do.
And I got so sad after I said it. Soon enough, I didn't know what I had, or what I was.
No matter what I say, it might just hurt someone. But I still say it.
Teacher, what am I supposed to do?
He had always kept lying to get his mother's attention. So when he came to tell her about his father's death, she wouldn't believe him. If my information was correct, due to the company's troubles, she wasn't emotionally stable at the time. Too many things happening at once had led to that day's outcome.
Cliff told me that, with Joshua's brother now taking charge of the company, it was slowly making its way back up. Their mother seemed to be faring better now, as well. If I kept up my care of Joshua, he'd probably be able to return to his old life. ...I just had to keep it up.
Just as a strong breeze blew, a shrill sound echoed, and the shadow around me grew larger. It became deeper, finally turning into darkness which began to envelop me.
...Strange. I certainly told them not to leave that room - to not open any doors. It was hard to believe they would go against my instructions. Especially when Allen, who often stopped Joshua just in the nick of time, was there.
"Boy, this one's starting to break too! Fragile little things, eh?"
A familiar voice reached my ears alongside the ringing noise. The Cheshire Cat's white teeth and eyes were floating in the darkness before me.
"...Do you know something?"
"Yeah! You asked me to watch, so I've been doin' that. That Alice opened the door. So that
Alice broke down. That's the whole story!"
The deepening darkness emphasized the Cat's gleaming eyes and mouth. Whether it was true or not, I couldn't say, but according to him, it was apparently Allen who opened the door.
"I see... So he opened Joshua's door?"
"Well, what'll it be, Alice? There are two Worlds left. Have your plans been thrown out of whack? Or maybe you're
starting to go mad?"
The Cheshire Cat tried to agitate me, but I ignored it all and responded quickly.
"I have a request. Seeing as you couldn't humble my request to be the only one to enter the Worlds, that's fine, yes?"
"Sure! I mean, I stopped him. But you know brats, always wanting to do what they're told not to. 'Course, they'll do it if you say to, too... Mweeheehee! Alright, alright, leave it to me."
As my senses began to fade, I explained myself to the Cheshire Cat. And my body became one with the darkness.
"Oh? Your expression is entirely different from last time. ...Ah, no, I believe I understand, so no need to answer. Well done recovering the key," the White Rabbit remarked in a businesslike fashion. I nodded without really thinking much.
"Are you beginning to grow used to the Worlds? ...From your reaction, I would wager not. Well, when I first arrived, I too thought, what am I doing in such a place?! Now, I don't believe it to be so bad."
"...You don't think anything of this World, Mr. White Rabbit?"
"Why, there's not even any need to worry about food. I prefer the World to the world. ...But you don't appear to like it much, Alice. So if you wish to return, I can teach you a way."
"After you've gathered all the keys, that is." The White Rabbit put on an artificial smile. Contrary to his name, he wasn't charming or sweet in the slightest. Why did this guy call himself the White Rabbit?
"...I'm simply using "White Rabbit" at the moment, that's all," he replied disinterestedly to my unvoiced question. "You-know-who generally decides my name for me, and I just go along with that, since it's a hassle to do otherwise."
"Though I would appreciate if he could stop always changing between this and that. Even my appearance changes to match the name, you see. ...Ah, rats, I'm getting annoyed."
The White Rabbit's irritation was starting to build again, so I quietly left for the place where the World doors were.
I was being assaulted by thoughts that felt like my lungs were being gouged out. Was it a reaction to only partially recovering my memories and emotions? Or an effect of opening the World doors? No, maybe it was both. Whose fault was this? It was starting to get annoying just to remember the names of emotions welling up in me.
"You gonna blame it on somebody else?" As usual, the Cheshire Cat was suddenly in my path.
"Always just thinking of themselves, yet when they're unhappy, they're quick to blame somebody. People are leagues nastier than demons, I'd say!"
With a slimy smile, he swung his hands around. I was too tired to even feel irritation and discomfort toward the Cheshire Cat anymore. Taking everything into account... Yes, he was a demon.
"That's right, I'm a demon, so's he. Names are just whatever. We don't need them among ourselves, you see."
So there was no real reason to call us all "Alice," either?
"Yep! I couldn't care less about your name. That's why I call everyone the same. I mean, you don't give names to every ant or frog, do ya?"
To the Cheshire Cat, were we no different from ants or frogs? Surely he was just calling us by a suitable nickname. Whereas I was so desperate not to forget my own name...
"You don't look like you're having much fun. Don't let others drag you down, now. Being trash is the recipe for success here. It's easier to just go mad," he said in a coaxing voice.
I'd started to become unsure what was true or not. Started to stop thinking. My head just ached.
"...'Course, you know anything I say is just a demon's mumblings. Or are you actually gonna take what I just said seriously? Boy, were you that boring a guy?"
Just as soon as he spouts words to stab at my heart, he offers a hand to pull out the thorns. What was this cat after? Why was he doing these things?
"Why am I doing this, eh? Oh, you don't know? ...There's nothing so easy as badmouthing people."
With a reply presented as obvious fact, the Cheshire Cat vanished before my eyes with a strange laugh.
In the empty room, I heard nothing but my breathing and my pulse. An unknown anxiety crawled up my back. To get away from it, I reached for the fourth World door. Already, I no longer felt the sensation pulling at my hair, stopping my feet. What had happened to me?
Just like that, I twisted the knob. I knew what would happen through this door. I just wanted to escape this place, this unease, this everything.
As if being sucked in, my body pushed into the door.
|The moon fell. That great big, round moon fell!|
|When I told mother, she looked surprised, then smiled slightly.|
|The moon hadn't really fallen.|
|It still looked down on us from the sky.|
|But I liked the face mother made, so I told her all sorts of things.|
|I saw a big lizard talk, I saw the old man next door fly, I saw a cat|
|swimming in the lake.|
|Every time I said something, mother would be very surprised,|
|then laugh a lot.|
|But she gradually stopped laughing.|
|After that, mother stopped looking at me.|
|One day, I said that father had gone cold while he slept.|
|Mother was more surprised than she had been in a long time.|
|Then she got very angry. But I didn't stop.|
|Almost daily, I said that father had gone cold.|
|She was surprised every time, and got angry every time.|
|I liked it.|
|Because she'd only talk with me when she was surprised.|
|I was locked in my room. I mean, I had TV. And I had toys.|
|But it was different. Of course it was, right?|
|They'd look at my sister and brother. But not at me.|
|If only spiders and frogs could talk, I wouldn't be so bored.|
|Yeah, I was different. ...Why?|
|Father went cold. He really did.|
|I told mother, but she didn't believe me.|
|She didn't believe anything I said anymore.|
|Quite some time passed before my brother and sister noticed,|
|and she finally realized.|
|She made a face I'd never seen before. A face I didn't want to see.|
|There wasn't surprise, or anger, or smiling or laughter.|
|After that day, mother stopped saying anything.|
|She was just silent, coldly staring somewhere.|
|My brother's good at soccer. My sister's smart.|
|But I'm nothing. I'm nothing, but I said I'm something.|
|I have nothing, but I said I do.|
|And I got so sad after I said it. Soon enough, I didn't know what I had,|
|or what I was.|
|No matter what I say, it might just hurt someone. But I still say it.|
|Teacher, what am I supposed to do?|