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Chapter 5: Poison Apple
After my body was dragged into the fourth door, I slowly lifted it and looked around the room. In the back was a jet-black piano with a majestic presence, and just in front of it stood a girl with an unusual air, not to be bested by the piano's.
"Oh dear, Alice. What is it?"
Long, clean black hair. A white headdress with wine-red ribbons. A black one-piece with a curious design. And last but not least, a piercingly sharp red glint in her eyes. Stella looked down on me, stoic as ever.
"Ah, yes. You'd like to play. Very well. What shall we do?", she asked with a wispy voice I didn't often get to hear. Yet it seemed a little muddier than usual. Was this really what Stella's voice was like?
"...Shall we open the closet?"
Not waiting for an answer, her gaze shot through me. I began to move like her eyes had taken control of my body and mind. Keeping eye contact with Stella, I stepped toward the closet, then bumped my back on one of the handles. Ouch.
Stella quietly looked into my eyes. What feelings was she having? Did she even have feelings? I still had no idea.
My back still to the closet, I fumbled for the handles and grabbed them with both hands. Leaning my body back, I opened the closet.
A cold breeze blew against my skin. Even though I was under a blanket, the chill hit my entire body. Unable to stand it, I hurried out of the bed.
I hadn't expected to see what I saw. It wasn't any kind of bedroom; it was an outdoor area filled with stone-like objects in many shapes. It was closed in by black trees which had lost all their leaves, their thin branches swaying coldly.
I got out of the bed and looked around to determine where this was. The stones dotting the area, upon closer observation, had words carved into them, seemingly names.
Was this a grave? In which case this must have been a graveyard.
Just as I had that thought, the usual voice began to talk in my head, along with a painful dizzy spell.
"There was a little town deep in the woods."
"Many people lived in this little town. They all lived healthy lives without sickness. But it struck suddenly one stormy night."
"A curse was laid on the forest."
Putting force into my legs, I managed to steady my faltering body. I had even gotten used to this pain.
There was suddenly the sound of many birds flapping their wings, and I jumped. As far as I could see, there wasn't a soul but myself in this graveyard. As numb as my emotions were becoming, fear was something I seemed unable to ever forget.
...I wondered what I was afraid of.
I started down the path of stones quietly packed together. Every step I took echoed through the peaceful air. I want to find someone soon. Stella should be in this World somewhere. I found my pace quickening.
The graves were like a maze: on one hand blocking the path, but on the other showing me the way. Though I had to retrace my steps many times, I slowly made forward progress. After a while, I saw an iron-bar door. It was rusty, and felt rough when I touched it.
...I didn't want to open any more doors.
Faced with this iron door, I was at an impasse. But the ends of the bars were so rusted that they'd fallen away, making a large hole. It looked like I could get past if I crawled under. Strangely relieved that I could proceed without actually opening the door, I got down and slipped under the bars.
After brushing off the rocks that pushed into my knee, I got my legs moving again. There were no graves on this side of the door, but instead, dark, thin trees formed a path forward. I followed said path.
I saw two shadows up ahead. Walking quickly toward them, I saw Stella... and Teacher. They were both sitting in chairs, and Teacher was combing Stella's hair with a reddish-brown comb.
Stella noticed me first, her head tilting slightly. Teacher followed, and his hands briefly came to a stop as he looked at me.
"Well, thank you, Teacher. That will be fine. You know, you need to fix up your hair as well."
"No, I'm fine. I just let it grow out since I don't know how to cut it."
"? ...Hm." Giving him a dubious look, Stella turned back to me. "It's boring standing around. Come, let's go somewhere. Allen, I'll follow behind you. Teacher told me he won't be moving from this spot."
"Isn't this fine? Nothing can come of staying in the same place. What will you do, Teacher?"
Teacher looked bitter, then fell into thought. Then, his face tensing up...
"...You kids don't really listen to me, do you... I'll come with you," he said with exasperation, his shoulders sagging.
"So it's settled. Well, Allen. Let's be off."
The two of them stood up from their chairs and got behind me. Was it okay for not only Stella, but Teacher to leave things to me? Teacher seemed to be silently waiting for me to act just like Stella was, but I still couldn't wipe away my distrust of him.
"What's wrong? If we don't move quickly, we'll freeze in this wind."
Stella prodded my back. Come to think of it, this was the first time I'd had seen her have a proper conversation. As I started walking, I talked to her.
"...You're talking quite a bit, Stella."
"Oh? It's not as if I hate talking. I'll speak if I'm spoken to. It's only me starting a conversation that's uncommon."
"But Joshua talks to you all the time."
"...He always brings me things I hate. I can't stand him, is all," she explained frankly.
Her voice was closer to me than I was used to. I wanted to hear it more, but the cold winds that came through froze my lips. So ultimately, that was the end of it; we just walked in silence, with Stella occasionally pointing a pale finger to guide me.
"There are holes all around this area... Be careful not to trip and fall, you two."
"You too, Teacher. You seem the most likely to."
The area we came to had holes in the ground in front of the graves. They seemed rather deep, and we couldn't see the bottoms.
"This looks just about big enough for me to fit inside," Stella mumbled, staring at a hole. Her voice felt colder than usual.
"But I can't even see the bottom... Huh?"
While swinging a hand around in the empty hole, it hit upon something. When I grabbed it, it started to move, and I pulled my hand out in surprise.
Stella kept her distance from me, feeling uncomfortable. She seemed to not like bugs.
"Stop it. Keep that away from me. ...You may have a pretty face, Allen, but I suppose you're a boy on the inside after all. Just like him."
Several bug legs squirmed around in my hand. Stella leaned in to look at them, then backed away further still.
"Uh... What makes a pretty face to you, Stella?"
"I believe she once said your face was pretty like a dead person's is pretty," Teacher politely answered, approaching me. "...I'll take those. It would be bad if you tripped carrying these, Allen."
He held out a hand to me. Teacher was behaving the same as always; our kind teacher who always worried about us. Maybe I just found it difficult to doubt people.
I gave the bug legs to Teacher. His face bunched up as he took the wiggling legs, then he stuck them in a pouch on his waist. Bugs probably weren't his strong suit, either.
Stella was back at my side now, standing there nonchalantly. "...I think we're done here. Let's go somewhere else."
She started to walk. Teacher and I hurried after her. When I was alone, I'd hit many dead ends in the maze-like path of graves, but since meeting up with Stella, she'd been guiding us. All the Worlds I'd been to before seemed to come from the memories of the children at the facility, but this World was just graves everywhere we went.
"Do you know where this is?"
"Graves. When people die, they're buried in the ground, their names carved in those stones."
...After receiving an answer a little off from my expectations, my mouth went shut. Indeed, keeping a long conversation going with her proved a difficult task. I silently moved forward in the directions her pale finger pointed.
Heading forward around the winding rows of graves, we saw a shadow. It was like a spider, but many times bigger than a normal one, and it had no legs.
"Oh? Heyyy! C'mere! I'm needin' some help!", it called to us in a deeper voice than expected. I looked to Teacher with hesitation.
"...It's best not to interfere too much with the inhabitants of the Worlds, but this should be fine. I'll protect you if anything happens."
He smiled and pushed me from behind. Vaguely trusting in him, I slowly approached the spider-like creature.
"Ah! Great. Listen, I was dozin' off when somebody took my legs. I'd look for 'em, but I ain't got no legs to stand on! You guys know where they'd be?"
The eight eyes floating on its body stared at us. Spiders' eyes are actually pretty spine-chilling, it occurred to me.
"...Didn't we pick up some legs of some sort earlier? Are those the ones?", Stella muttered.
Teacher pulled the legs out of the pouch on his waist. Instantly, the legs started to squirm gleefully.
"Yeah! Yeahhh! That's them! Put 'em on quick, will ya?"
Glancing at Teacher's face, I noticed he was turning pale, so I said "I'll do it" and took the legs from him. I neatly attached the eight legs to the spider one at a time.
"Ahh, you're lifesavers. As thanks, I'll tell you about a secret place! Close yer eyes!", the spider commanded authoritatively. Stella had watched this unfold without reaction, but now showed some irritation at the spider's remarks.
"...No. I hate the dark. And I hate spiders, too."
"He does seem like a rough sort... It's possible he'd attack us while our eyes are closed." Teacher, too, started to look at the spider warily.
"The hell, man! You didn't even say a word before! Just close 'em! Quick! Close! Close! Clothes!!"
The spider resented our suspicious looks and repeatedly insisted that we close our eyes. The eight legs which we'd just returned to him flailed around like he'd been dropped in water.
"...Let's just do what he says," Teacher told us, closing his eyes. Stella still seemed dissatisfied, but closed her eyes as well. And I slowly closed mine.
My body started to tilt, and I felt space warping. With intense dizziness, my senses were dragged away.
When I came to, there wasn't a single grave around. A cold stone path went straight ahead; dark iron bars ran along the sides.
"...Ah. ...I see."
Stella alone seemed to figure something out. I wanted to ask her where this was, but recalling her earlier vague answer to that question, it stayed at the back of my throat.
A little further ahead, we found a fountain full of water. On both sides of it were statues of goddesses with their heads torn off, giving off a very unapproachable vibe.
"...I'm a bit tired. Can we rest here?"
"Yes... Right. Let's take a break."
Teacher and I both agreed with Stella. We went over to the fountain and sat on the rim. The fountain wasn't spouting any water, so the already-present water just rolled slightly. I looked into it and saw my face. Was this my face? The eyes of that other me seemed much more hollow than I remembered.
"Just what is this place? ...I know these places. And yet, I don't. And they're pointlessly large. I'm so tired of walking."
"Yes, the paths are quite complex. Easy to get lost."
"...You're the one always getting lost, Teacher. Are you really so smart as that doctor who visits says?", Stella goaded.
Teacher smiled painfully and scratched behind his head. "I'm not that smart, no. There are things I'm complimented for, but I really don't think that way myself."
"Hm. And the books in your room all seem very complex, too. Though I still can't understand them, personally."
Stella straightened her skirt while brushing her clean black hair with her hand. Since her pale skin didn't feel at all lively, she reminded me of a doll.
Stella and Teacher's conversation came to a close, so I resolutely aired the question I'd been wondering. "Teacher, what are you researching?"
He looked at me worriedly, then re-faced forward. "...It's a secret," he said, more darkly than usual.
"Why can't you tell?"
"...The things I want to do are always being denied. People who don't know me very well are very harsh, tell me it's too strange."
"And you give up when people say that, Teacher?"
"Yes. Somehow, I found it so persuasive that I gave it all up. And before I knew it, I'd become a very boring person."
Hanging his head and staring at something, Teacher faintly smiled. "So I'm keeping what I'm doing now a secret from you all. ...Because I'm easily swayed. I decided not to tell anyone what I really want."
I couldn't ask Teacher anything more. His face seemed a mix of suffering, sadness, all sorts of gloomy emotions. Seeing it up close got something caught in my throat.
"...Well, I need to go. If you don't want to go further, you two can stay here."
Teacher was about to stand up when Stella grabbed his jacket sleeve.
"...Why are you always like this, Teacher?"
"Why am I what?"
"Why are you so anxious to go off on your own?"
Teacher's body froze at Stella's question. ...I wondered in what way she meant it.
After a brief silence, Teacher spoke quietly, not turning around. "I don't like people to know me. Or to get them involved. I've... always been that way."
Stella muttered "I see" and stood up, turning her head to face me. "What about you, Allen? If you're tired, you can stay here, as Teacher said."
"...I'm going," I replied after a little hesitation. I stood up and wiped some dirt off my clothes, and Teacher and Stella got behind me. Brushed by cold wind again, we headed straight down the path.
We kept walking through the gloomy scenery with Teacher at the head. Then a rotten smell entered my nose, and it made my body ache. I pinched my nose to keep any more from getting in.
"...I know this smell. I've met it many times."
"I see... Then it must be close."
I wasn't sure what Teacher and Stella were talking about. Continuing forward silently, we saw a shadow. The closer we got, the stronger the smell became. When I finally got close enough to tell what it was, I stopped in my tracks.
It had the shape of a human. But parts of its body were rotten and caved in, and white bone showed through. I couldn't imagine them being a living person.
"...What an awful smell. Like a poison apple."
Stella promptly turned and passed beside it. Teacher hurried to follow, but then stopped and turned to me.
"Are you okay, Allen? ...Do you feel sick?" Looking worried, he approached me and stroked my back.
"I'm fine," I quietly said, and he smiled slightly.
"...Don't push yourself too hard," he informed me in his usual kind voice.
We passed by the foul-smelling, formerly-human body to catch up to Stella. She had stopped a little bit ahead, waiting for us.
"...You're so slow," Stella said with dissatisfaction. This place, unlike everywhere else, looked like a room from the facility. It was strangely out of place put next to the stone paths from just a moment ago. Behind Stella, I saw double doors.
Suddenly, I felt an unpleasant chill that froze my spine. I looked to my right and left, but saw no sign of anyone but Stella and Teacher. While Stella's face contorted, Teacher approached the doors, and put his hand on them.
"Allen, Stella. You are not to proceed any further than this," he declared coldly. He cracked the doors open just enough to fit through himself.
"...You've been watching, haven't you? ...Remember our promise."
Without a reply from us, Teacher went through the doors and closed them again. I went after him, but a large shadow appeared before me and laughed loudly.
"Ahh! Good evening, Alice and Alice." The Cheshire Cat bowed to us and grinned as far as he could grin. "Boy, gloomy faces all around again! If it hurts, you wanna have me free you?"
"...Would you help us if we asked you to help, I wonder?"
"Naaah! Too much of a pain," he clownishly replied to Stella, the single eye floating in his hood narrowed. Her feelings of discomfort became more visible.
"...I don't like him. I can't tell if he's dead or alive. And he's disgusting."
"Oh, mean! I died a fine death a looong time ago!" A strange answer given with an uncanny pose. Stella turned her eyes away from the cat, and her mouth widened slightly as she noticed something.
"...The doors are gone."
The Cheshire Cat turned around with a "huh?" to look. Indeed, the doors there were now gone.
"Yep, I'm nothing if not a keeper of promises! And that's what he asked me to do."
"...You mean Teacher, don't you?"
"And if I do? You know, you're a real interesting one, Alice. Didn't steal anything from you, yet you're just like all the other Alices! Guess there was no need to steal, 'cause you didn't have much of it in the first place."
Stella began to ponder the Cheshire Cat's illogical remarks.
"Just talkin' to myself. Well, my job's done here! Sweet dreams!"
As he turned away, the Cheshire Cat vanished from sight. Stella was still tilting her head, having not come to an answer.
"...I don't know anything about Teacher, or about him. ...I wonder... why I have this misty feeling."
"The door is gone. What do we do?", she asked, looking at me. Her fiery red eyes looked to be getting a little sullen.
"...I'll leave this to you." Not caring for my answer, she got behind me.
The doors were gone, but there were still paths to take. Where had Teacher gone? ...We had to proceed. Something unseen hurried me forward. I was still unsure of myself. My incomplete emotions ate into me.
Stella was back there, waiting for me to start walking. I felt her sharp glare on my back. Somehow, I could just sense her aura of displeasure. Not wanting to upset her any more, I took a look at the paths to the left and right, and decided to go left first.
The left path took us out to another graveyard-like place. The big difference from the earlier areas was, in the back past the many rows of graves, the presence of a shining black piano. I stopped and stared at the unusual sight, and Stella passed by me to approach it.
She pressed a key. A clean sound rang out alongside the frigid wind. She cheerfully went playing one note after another. Sitting on the small bench, she pressed keys with both hands, starting to play a song. I approached as if drawn in by the sound.
Stella's hands stopped at once, and she turned to face me. "...You can hear it much better here than from over there." Her hand patted the open spot beside her. Uneasy, I sat down there, leaving some space between us. She wordlessly faced the piano again and started playing a different song.
Her playing sounded completely different from hearing it through a door as I had before. It was a sound clear as water, delicate and soft. But a sort of trailing coldness seeped into my heart, so badly scratched by these Worlds. With a sharp pain, a familiar voice echoed in my head alongside the piano.
"Many victims of the curse died every day. But a single girl did not fall victim to the curse."
"Many people felt pity for the girl, who had lost her family to the curse, and invited her to their homes."
"Yet the curse came once more, and the girl lost another family."
"...Pianos really are nice. They don't make any unnecessary sounds."
Coming to my senses, I turned to her. Stella talked to me as her fingers danced on the keyboard.
"People... are always just shouting nonsense. It's just noise."
I listened to Stella's voice and the piano in silence. Maybe even my voice was just noise. Controlled by that strange thought, I got scared to open my mouth.
"Why do you, and everyone else, go along with my selfish wishes? When I can't do anything for you..."
The sound lost its intensity. Stella lowered her head, staring at her fingers as they kept moving.
"I don't think everyone does things expecting to get something in return."
"...I see." Stella quietly accepted my answer. The sound began to harmonize again, regaining its vigor. I let myself be swept up in its wave again.
"You're all oddballs. Even though you seem dead. You've all experienced loss. So like the dead..."
The sudden cacophony made me jump. Stella had thrown both hands down on the keyboard.
"...I think I get it. ...That's enough. Let's go somewhere else."
Stella got up from the bench and began to walk. I stood up to go after her. ..."I get it"? What did she get? This time, I followed and walked along with her. We returned to the place that looked like a room from the facility.
"...These are my drawings."
Stella observed the picture frames hanging on the wall. I was too wary to notice them earlier, but there were eerie pictures placed in thick frames. A sad-looking girl, a green cat, a blue-skinned person and a big circle, a person holding something and looking this way. I couldn't quite tell what any of them were trying to depict.
"There are all kinds of diseases. Some can make you throw up blood when you die, or turn your skin a strange color, or cause a unique odor. And... some can't be cured by modern medicine."
Stella spoke to me while running her finger along one of the frames. Was she recalling something?
"...There was that terrible smell earlier, right?"
"Yes. It's the smell I've encountered most. ...A smell that feels almost bittersweet. When it's a banana-like smell, it's diabetes. When it's an apple-like smell... I believe that's the plague. But... they're all different."
She turned away from the picture and walked down the path to the right. I caught up to her and walked at her pace.
"Everyone in my town died of an unknown disease. Well... No, some people willingly took their own lives. But I was the only one who wouldn't die no matter what."
"...Are you trying to look into what that disease was?"
"Yes. There are quite a few medical books in the library at the facility. A few of them even have notes written in them in pencil. ...I'm fairly sure it's Teacher's handwriting."
Teacher's writing? Was Teacher looking into some kind of illness?
"Was there anything common between the things he wrote notes on?"
"...Dreams. They were all related to dreams. I'd read most books related to the disease at my town... So it's likely he's looking into a dreaming illness."
A dreaming illness. A current ran through the back of my mind. I felt like I'd seen it in the newspaper, or on TV. Though no cure had been found... I felt like they had discussed the cause of its outbreak. But as much as I racked my brain, I couldn't clearly recall that memory.
Suddenly, Stella stopped, and I nearly ran right into her back. My heart rate quickened a little.
"...The names of everyone in the town."
She ran her finger along a large rock with many words inscribed on it. Looking closer, they were all people's names, covering the whole surface from top to bottom.
"I knew this place. But I said it was different, because every name didn't get its own grave. That would be much too extravagant. ...This grave is the correct one."
Stella's finger stopped below a certain name. The name "Northrop" was inscribed there. That was the name I saw on that first gravestone.
"...It's my family name. Of course, I've long since forgotten anyone else who had that name."
"So your father and mother...?"
"Yes. When I was little, they were cursed and died. Then the next people. And the next, and the next, the next. They all died of the curse."
Looking just a little lonely, Stella took her finger off the headstone and proceeded past it. I followed.
"And you forgot them? ...Could you really just forget?"
"Yes. ...Teacher told me that voices are the first to go. I hardly remember any of their voices, myself. ...Eventually, all the rest will be gone, and I'll completely forget them."
Was that how it worked? If I died, would the people who knew me gradually forget me? ...It was a little scary.
"Do we forget in order to move on from that person's death? ...Or else, do we stop caring once they're dead? I wonder which one it is."
A large tree appeared before us. Its thick roots sank under water, and countless red fruits grew on its wide branches. They appeared to be apples. Stella approached the tree and took two apples from the branches to hold in her palms.
"I don't particularly like my own name. Stella, star. It's perfectly accurate. ...All I could do was watch people die of the curse from high in the sky."
Stella stared at the red apples in her palms with eyes the same color. I felt like she looked much more mysterious than usual.
"I hate living people. ...They all just die and vanish from sight."
"Teacher... said he doesn't like his own name, either. Teacher is still hiding something. But I'm too tired to even walk anymore. Allen, I'm sure you still can."
She turned her red gaze to me. The life had completely left her.
"What we're missing, what we want... I know. I know why none of you feel alive to me."
"...What are we missing?"
"When people lose XXXX, they die." The word was obscured by static. I felt Stella was faintly smiling.
"I should have eaten the poison apple then. ...What about you, Allen? If you want to eat with me, I won't stop you. ...Do you want to go, too?"
Stella asked me a final question. What should I do? ...It seemed like I couldn't stop Stella. I would be alone again... but.
"I still want to live."
I had to go, or else. I wanted to regain all of that XXXX I'd lost.
"...I see. That's good. That's who you are, Allen. ...Good night."
Giving me a girlish smile, she kissed one of the apples. And just like that, she ate it. She slowly collapsed on the spot without a sound. The apple in her other palm rolled toward my feet. Right as it bumped against my foot, a small pain ran through my body.
"After losing a fifth family, she met a person in a church who offered her an apple."
"This apple carries the curse of death. With this, you can go to heaven with the rest of them."
"But the girl refused. And that person, too, died of the curse. The girl deeply regretted not eating that poison apple. Soon, the girl began to harbor a hatred for living."
"...The girl renounced having any attachment to life."
When I came to my senses, there wasn't a poison apple at my feet, but a small key radiating a faint light. I steadied my breath and touched it.
The scene I saw came clearly into my mind. It even took over my vision and my senses.
...I opened the door. First, instantly, a horrible, nauseating smell made my body convulse. I covered my mouth with the hand I wasn't holding a book with, trying to keep down what was rushing up my throat.
What was before me definitely looked like
my mother and father.
But they were different.
The mother and father I knew didn't have countless holes in their backs, and red fluids never poured out of them. And they didn't have such hollow eyes. These weren't my mother and father.
No. No, no, wrong, wrong, wrong. I couldn't believe this. This was... wrong...
...Yes, that's right. When I opened the door, I saw my mother and father, horribly disfigured. I finally remembered that.
My body began to heat up. It hurt. Thrown into the water, my senses were collapsing. I couldn't breathe. My heartbeat grew louder. ...And I quietly closed my eyes.
"Did that cat really keep his promise, I wonder..."
Stretching my back muscles, I took a look around. It was my room in the facility. On the desk were a mess of research papers pushed to the side, and two empty teacups.
When she came here, we drank from these cups and had a discussion. Of course, she only spoke a little, then nodded or shook her head to show her reaction.
But the first time I met her, Stella Northrop... it was earlier than this.
I first met her in a little town further into the forest. They seemed to have their own customs and culture there. Not making much of an effort to communicate with outsiders, they were highly self-sufficient; I recall getting many strange looks when I first visited.
It was my friend Cliff who led me to go there. Cliff was looking into an unknown illness that was running rampant there, but telling me he couldn't go there on his own, he entreated me to come with him.
"It's just not easy to go there alone. Everyone else is too unnerved to come with me, but I'm sure you wouldn't be bothered, right? Right? Just for a day!"
"Haven't you been looking into this for a while? Who do you usually go with?"
"...Grandmother Leavis. That is, the... pharmacist who lived in the forest," he answered weakly and awkwardly. Grandmother Leavis, my mentor's mother, had passed away not too long ago in the incident with Chelsy.
"She gave me a lot of good advice. We thought we might be close to finding a cure, but..."
"All right, then, I'll do it. But only for the day. I do have the children to look after."
"...! O-Of course! Thanks, I owe you one," Cliff said, his face a little brighter.
A few days later, I told the children I'd be away and headed with Cliff toward the town in question. There were no roads to drive on, so we walked along a path rife with vegetation to reach the little town.
As we entered the town, all the people doing their respective jobs stopped to look at us. I saw what he meant about it being hard to handle coming alone. There's nothing quite so stifling as having this many merciless gazes on you. Cliff's eyes wandered left and right looking for something.
"That's the place. The one I'm always talking about."
Cliff pointed to a certain building. It looked like a church from the outside, but there was no indication of what kind of worship it was for. Cracked all over, it was a rather unsettling building.
"...It really doesn't look like somewhere people live."
"Yeah, it used to be an abandoned church. They patched it up just enough that people could live in it. And the people here are all sorts of religions, so it doesn't seem to serve as a church now. From what I recall, they gather up children who lost their parents to the illness and take care of them..."
Cliff knocked a few times on the door. Soon, a young woman dressed like a nun appeared.
"Oh, Mr. Cliff. It's been a while. ...Please, come in."
The woman led us inside. The place had many damaged chairs and pedestals, around which many women dressed as nuns and children ran. As they noticed us, everyone kept their distance and watched.
"About those clothes... Are you just making good use of what was already here?"
"...Yes, that's right. We are rather insular in ways, so our lives aren't exactly bountiful, and we just have to use what we can get. ...More than ever, lately."
Sitting in a creaking chair, she told us to sit down too. I took a nearby chair, and it also creaked loudly.
"How's the medicine working? I can see there are fewer people than my last visit... So I can assume it didn't work again."
"Yes... Eight people have died since then. Yet for as much as they suffered in their last moments, they could go more quietly after drinking that medicine. ...Still, of course, a few still looked quite pained."
Cliff bit his lip. This matter wasn't making much good progress.
"I'll need to look into it a little more. Though, it'd make me happiest to have that girl's assistance..."
Cliff turned to the children. Following his gaze, I noticed a girl slightly distant from the others, with clean black hair, pretty white skin, and red eyes.
"She was taken in by another family after her parents died... And when her new caretakers died of the curse, she alone survived. And when she was taken in by another, the same thing happened again... Over and over. All the other children either die with their parents, or are taken from here without catching it at all."
"So, you think she might have antibodies against the disease spreading in this town? Why won't she cooperate?"
"...She doesn't seem to want to talk. The first time I tried to talk to her, she just stared at me and said "You're no good," and that was the end of that."
...I wondered if Cliff had done something unusual. Well, he certainly had a silly side, but he wasn't that cruel. ...Or so I thought.
As I began to ponder, I realized the girl in question was standing next to me. I hadn't sensed her coming closer at all, so I nearly fell out of my chair when I noticed her there. Luckily, Cliff supported me to keep me upright.
"...You're... dead. Not exactly... but you're dead."
She spoke in a clear, fleeting voice, looking into my eyes. I didn't quite understand what she was saying, but from Cliff and the nun's surprised faces, I could surmise she didn't speak up often.
"Um... I'd like to talk to you. Is that okay?"
"...If it's you, then fine," she said, her voice young yet fading. She sat in a nearby chair. Looking at her closer, her facial features looked like a carefully-designed doll's.
"Er... Do you know if the people who died said or did anything in particular before they died?"
"I don't know. They all just did what they liked. Then suddenly, they coughed up red blood and collapsed. That's all there is to it."
"If there's no common thing, then maybe there's not just one cause? Or else... maybe it takes a while to emerge? Do you eat anything besides what's grown here?"
The girl didn't answer Cliff. He sighed with a regretful smile. She really only intended on talking to me. Though I couldn't say I understood why yet.
"...Well? I can ask her instead."
"Right... Well, don't ask that, ask if we can have a sample of her blood. Can you do that?"
"We'd like to have a little bit of your blood. We'll have to use a needle, but... Is that fine?"
"...Do what you like." She held out her thin white arm.
Cliff quickly prepared and began extracting a small blood sample from her. She didn't move a muscle as she watched the process. After that, we talked a little with the women dressed like nuns, then decided to leave for the day.
"Come to think of it, you didn't come with that old woman this time."
"Huh? Oh, err... She's busy today. I had to get my friend here to come on short notice. He runs a facility that takes in children with nowhere to go, much like you."
I was surprised to suddenly be getting introduced. It wasn't exactly favorable for Cliff to say so much about the facility either, but fortunately, it seemed unlikely to spread since these people were so isolated. With that conclusion, I didn't try to stop Cliff, and continued on myself.
"...Strange things have been happening outside this town, too. So I'm taking in children with no parents to care for them."
"Why, all by yourself? You look so young... But that's wonderful. Could you tell me where it is?", the sister asked with a sudden serious look. "...If that's all right with you."
I didn't know why she would be asking, but at any rate, I forgot the way we took to get here, so I had Cliff draw a map. The nun took it gratefully, thanked us, and saw us off.
"We made a huge step there. If I find antibodies, I can save them for sure. But there isn't much time, so I need to hurry. I'll be going. Take care of yourself."
Busily getting his bags in order, Cliff got in his own car parked in front of the facility. I waved until I couldn't see him anymore, then went back inside the facility.
It was a terribly windy day a few weeks later. I heard someone knock on the front door. Cliff hadn't told me he'd be visiting. Maybe it was a youngster who bought into the ghost stories and wanted to prove their courage. I looked outside through the peephole. There I saw, warped in a slightly circular way, that memorable girl with clean black hair and red eyes.
I quickly opened up. She held a scrap of paper in her hand, and while her clothes and body were scratched up, her face was unchanging. I couldn't grasp the situation, but I let her in. Far away, I heard thunder rumbling.
"...What's the matter? Did you come alone?"
She faintly nodded. Then she handed me the paper in her hand. It was the map we'd given that nun the other day. On the back was a new, smudged, hard-to-read note.
"...Take care of Stella for us...? What about the people in town?"
"...They died," she answered feebly. "They all died. Even the living people ate poison apples, and were cursed."
Had all the townspeople died of the illness? And poison apples... Was she saying some took their own lives?
"...I see. That's unfortunate to hear... I still have rooms here. If you want... well, and the sisters seem to have asked me to do this. Will you live here?"
Though distressed by the sudden news, I offered her the invitation. She nodded again.
"All right. ...I'll get you some new clothes. Er... Stella, was it?"
"...Stella Northrop. I'd like to have some tea," she stoicly requested, rubbing her little hands together.
The weather was awful outside, and she must have been cold from the freezing wind. I nodded, got her some tea, and then spoke with her some more.
She wordlessly pulled on my sleeve. She was holding a black notebook. I smiled, said "thanks," and took it from her.
"Oh... How unusual, Stella. You wrote something instead of drawing this time."
With that, she turned around and went back to her room. It still wasn't easy to converse with her. I temporarily put the notebook in my jacket pocket.
The empty teacups still smelled sweet. I seem to recall she got mad about it being too sweet when I first gave it to her.
I thought back on the only words she wrote in her notebook.
|Everyone has the same eyes. I don't know why. But they're dead. All of them.
They've long been searching, but they can't find it.
...But Teacher, you understand, don't you?
...Fitting for her, it wasn't about herself, but a question directed at me. As she said, I knew better than anyone how things had gotten to be this way. But...
The teacups started to clatter. The World was starting to break down.
"...Only one World left," I mumbled to myself.
I'd been to four Worlds, but still hadn't found what I was looking for. If I couldn't find it in the last remaining world either... it was clear what I would have to do. A conclusion with far more hope for salvation than that worst possible outcome.
My vision became dizzy, and darkness swallowed me up. ...Before I knew it, I was reciting that charm to myself.
"Ahh, stupendous! All the keys have been returned. How irritating that his meddling ate up so much time."
The White Rabbit faced me with a mix of joy and irritation. I was unsure how to react, and he sighed loudly, then looked back at me.
"Now, what will you do? I imagine you're quite tired."
"...The dream. You said you'd tell me a way to wake up from this dream."
"Ah, I see. Yes, well, I'll spare us both the long explanation... and make it simple. There are two ways to link this World with that world. One of them, well... we'll say it isn't possible. The other is this."
The White Rabbit produced from his back pocket a key with a sharp point and a large handle. It seemed more like a knife than a key.
"...You must stab this key into the person you feel is most evil in this World. Doing so will turn them into a door leading to your world," he explained with a smile. So it really was for stabbing someone with?
"If you stay here too long, remember the Alices are in an unstable state. Left like that, they may soon turn to foam. I'll open all the doors. So then, sweet dreams. ...Ah, incidentally, I am not a person, so that would be meaningless."
...The denizens of this world must have been able to read minds, huh. I stowed away the key I'd been watching for the opportunity to use into my pants.
And I went to the place with the World doors.
"Yo! Pretty sturdy, this one. You're lookin' like a new record! Most kids fall to pieces the moment they interfere with people's hearts."
The Cheshire Cat appeared, hood fluttering, as if waiting for me. But unlike all the other times, I saw something humanlike inside that hood.
"Told you, didn't I? That I'd show you the goods in the hood. 'Course, I kinda just scrounged up some stuff. Left eye's from a boy harassed by sheep. Hair, a girl who lost the light. Ears, an black cat abandoned by their parents! Pretty sweet, don'tcha think?"
He pulled off the hood, and it did indeed have a human silhouette. But the sewn-on left eye and patched-together skin didn't feel human in the slightest.
"Mweeheeheehee! So, the rabbit tell ya how to connect the World with the world?"
"...To stab this key into whoever I think is most evil. But it has to be a person."
"Yeah, that's right! And we're demons. So y'know, I'm gonna tell you another way."
Cheshire held a black claw right in front of my eye.
"I'm talking a pact with a demon. ...I'll tell you the deets soon as you say the word. So you're wondering what to do next? Maybe I'll give ya some hints? What a guy I am."
He swayed his body, making his finger sway with it.
"One: I told you before I stole something from ya. It was only one thing. Exhausting to steal a bunch of stuff, you know. But I didn't think that alone would make you such a hollow shell! Rare in this day and age."
The Cheshire Cat's eyes narrowed, and he held up another claw in front of me.
"Two: When you stab that key, the target'll become a door. A door linking World and world. So they can't come back. It means leaving their soul behind! But I don't need the outsides, so maybe I'll give that back."
With a slimy voice, he put up yet another claw.
"Three: You said that this was a Dream. Since you said so, so it was. 'Cause what Alice thinks is everything. Yep, a Dream that really tormented you! ...Mweehee! So, if it's a Dream, someone must be Dreaming. Now whose Dream is it?"
I was startled by that statement. There was someone who made this dream...? A possible candidate came to mind. But I couldn't quite have conviction, as usual. There was a lot I still didn't understand.
"Now, what outcome are you gonna choose? I'm reeeally lookin' forward to it."
His creepy laughter echoing, the Cheshire Cat vanished from the spot. The most evil person in this dream. Would that be the one who created it? And also... my memories hadn't fully returned.
Sure, I had managed to remember the day of the incident. But other essential things still hadn't been returned to me. In this World... would I be able to see everything? I approached the final World door and put my hand on the knob.
I want to live. And so, I have to go. I took a deep breath. Hesitation meant nothing to me. We'd quickly return from this dream... all of us.
I turned the knob, and threw myself through the door.
|Everyone has the same eyes.|
|I don't know why.|
|But they're dead. All of them.|
|They've long been searching, but they can't find it.|
|But Teacher, you understand, don't you?|