Chapter 6: Pain, Pain, Go Away

The cirrus clouds that covered the sky were like the wings of a giant dove.
Crossing an arch bridge over a huge river made dark and muddy by last night's rain, we went down a small path along a paddy field peacefully twinkling a golden yellow.
Only a few minutes after merging back into the main road, a small town came into sight. Familiar chain stores were aligned in a familiar order, as if placed there by a stamp.

We stopped the car in the parking lot of a tiny bakery and got out to take a big stretch. The autumn wind blew in and tickled my nose with a sharp smell.
Getting out of the passenger's seat, the girl's black hair fluttered up, revealing an old scar about five centimeters long from the corner of her left eye down.
It was a deep, straight wound, as if cut with a razor. She casually covered it with her hand to keep me from seeing it.

She didn't offer any explanation, but I had little doubt it was inflicted by the man who would be her third victim.
A wound on her palm, burns on her arm and back, a slice on her thigh, a cut on her face. They're all over her, I thought.
I almost wondered if it was something about her that caused others to be so violent. Even between domestic violence and bullying, the sheer number of injuries seemed odd.

Like a certain shape of rock makes you want to kick it, like a certain shape of icicle makes you want to crack it off from its root, like certain kinds of petals make you want to pluck them off one by one... There exist things in the world that, regardless of how cruel it is, you just feel like destroying.
Maybe it was the same way with this girl, I considered. It could even explain my sudden impulse to attack her last night.

But I shook my head. That's just the selfish reasoning of an aggressor. A notion that put the greatest blame on her. That couldn't have been right.
No matter what properties she had about her, it was no reason to hurt her.

We bought a fresh cheese croissant, an apple pie, a tomato sandwich, and coffee for us both, then ate in silence on the terrace.
A few birds circled around our feet due to the breadcrumbs we were dropping. Across the road, children were playing soccer on the playground. A large tree in the center cast a long shadow on the not-so-green lawn.

A man in his forties wearing a gray cap came out of the store and smiled at us. He had short hair, a chiseled face, and a neatly-trimmed mustache. The badge on his chest said "Owner."
"Want a coffee refill?"
We agreed, and the owner filled our drinks with a coffee server.

"Where'd you come from?", he inquired kindly. I told him the name of the town.
"Why, that's quite a ways, isn't it? ...Then you must be here to see the costume parade, I'll bet? Oh, or are you taking part?"
"Costume parade?", I repeated back at him. "Is there a thing like that here?"
"Ah, so you didn't even know? Lucky you. It's really a sight to see. A must-see, in fact! Hundreds of people dressed in costumes march down the shopping district."
"Oh, so it's a Halloween parade?", I realized, seeing the Atlantic Giant - a giant pumpkin - in the corner of the plaza.

"That's right. The event only started three or four years ago, but it's gotten more popular every year. I'm surprised so many people like costumes, myself. Maybe everybody has a desire to change into something else that they don't show. After long enough, you get fed up with being yourself all the time. Who knows, maybe there's all those people in grotesque costumes 'cause they've got destructive tendencies. ...Honestly, I'd like to take part myself sometime, but I just can't take the plunge."

After those half-philosophical comments, the owner looked at our faces again and asked the girl with great interest, "Say, what's the relation between you two?"
She glanced at me, begging for me to answer for her.
"Our relation? Go ahead and take a guess."
He stroked his mustache in thought. "A young lady and her attendant?"
An interesting comparison, I applauded. Far more accurate than the "siblings" or "lovers" I was expecting, too.

Paying for the coffee, we left the bakery behind.
Following the girl's directions - "Turn right here," "Go straight for a while," "...That was a left turn" - we arrived at the third revenge victim's apartment as the sun was setting.
The 5 PM sunset colored the town like film faded over many long years.

There were no open spaces at the apartment, and nowhere we could park the car nearby, so we reluctantly parked in the lot for an exercise park.
The sound of awkward alto sax practice came from across the river. Probably a band member at a local middle or high school.

"I got this wound on my face in winter of my second year of middle school," the girl told me, finally talking about the injury. "It was during skating lessons given once a year. One of the delinquent students any middle school is sure to have pretended to lose balance and purposefully hit my leg, knocking me over. What's more, he then kicked me in the face with part of the skate. I'll bet he only intended it as one of his usual minor harassments. But skates are easily capable of slicing off even a gloved finger. So the rink turned red with my blood."

She stopped there. I waited for her to continue.

"At first, the boy insisted that I had tripped, fallen, and suffered the injury all my myself. But anyone could tell it wasn't an injury you got from simply falling on ice. Within the day, he admitted to being the culprit, though it was concluded to be an accident. Even though he'd clearly kicked my face intentionally, and many students saw him do it. The boy's parents came to apologize and paid me as consolation, but the boy who inflicted this lifelong wound wasn't so much as kept from attending."

"Wish I'd brought skates," I idly commented. "Would be nice to subject him to two or three "accidents.""
"Indeed. ...Well, the scissors will do fine." I felt I saw her smirk. "I believe he'll be stronger than the others, so I'll have you accompany me from the start."
"Got it."

Confirming that she had her dressmaking scissors hidden in the sleeve of her blouse, we left the car.
Going up the steel-framed stairs of the apartment, rusted reddish-brown after what must have been nearly thirty years, we stood in front of the room of the man who, after middle school graduation, was failing to find a stable job.

The girl pressed the intercom button with her finger.
Within five seconds, we heard footsteps, the knob turned, and the door slowly opened.

I made eye contact with the man who came out.
Hollow eyes. An awfully red face. Overgrown hair. Sunken cheeks. Unkempt whiskers. Bony body.
He reminds me of someone, I thought, then moments later realized I was thinking of myself. And it wasn't just his appearance, but his general lack of vigor.

"Yo, Akazuki," he said to the girl.
It was a hoarse voice. And for the first time, I learned that the girl's surname was Akazuki.

He didn't seem surprised about his sudden visitor. He looked at the girl's face, turned away from the scar, and looked sorrowful.
"So if you're here, Akazuki," he began, "then I guess I'm the one you're killing next?"
She and I looked at each other.
"Don't worry, I'm not gonna resist," he continued. "But I have some things to talk about with you first. Come on up. I won't keep you too long."
He turned his back to us without waiting for a response, and returned to his room leaving us with many questions.

"What now?", I asked, seeking direction.
The girl was concerned about the unprecedented situation, and nervously clutched the scissors in her sleeve.
Ultimately, curiosity won out.
"We shouldn't lay a hand on him yet. We'll hear what he has to say." The girl paused. "It won't be too late to kill him afterward."

But half an hour later, the girl would come to realize how naive her judgement was. Hear what he has to say? Not too late to kill him after?
She had so little sense of impending danger. We should have killed him as soon as possible.

Including her father, the girl had succeeded at three acts of revenge so far. I suppose that track record made her proud, and subsequently careless.
Getting revenge is simple, and if I feel like it, I can make someone die just like that - that's how we'd come to think.

Passing through the kitchen with the smelly drain, we opened the door to the living room. The sun from the west hurt our eyes.
Along the wall of the roughly 100-square-foot room was an electronic piano, and the man sat backwards on the stool in front of it.
Beside the piano was a simple desk with an old transistor radio and a large computer. On the opposite side was a Pignose amp and a peppermint-green Telecaster with the logo etched off.
So he seemed to like music, though I doubted he worked in it. I had no proof, so to speak, but people who fed themselves by music seemed to has this particular air about them. This man didn't have it.

"Sit down wherever," he told us. I chose a desk chair, and the girl sat on a stool.
As if to take our place, the man stood up in front of us. He took a stance like he was going to do something, then took a few steps back and slowly sat with legs crossed on the ground.

"I'm sorry," he said, putting his hands on the floor and bowing his head.
"In a sense, I'm relieved. Hey, Akazuki, I know you might not believe me, but - ever since the day I injured you, I've feared that, you know, someday you'd come to have your revenge. I never forgot that hateful, bloody face you looked up at me with from the rink. Yeah, this girl's definitely gonna come back to get me someday, I thought."

Taking a brief moment to look up at the girl's expression, he brought his forehead back to the floor.
"And now here you are, Akazuki. My bad premonition came true. You're probably gonna kill me now. But then I won't have to be afraid anymore tomorrow. So that's not so bad."

The girl coldly looked down at the back of his head. "Is that all you wanted to say?"
"Yeah, that's it," the man replied, still in his apologetic pose.
"Then you don't mind if I kill you now?"

"...Well, wait, hold on." He looked up and slid back. From his initial reaction, I thought him a brave man, but he didn't know when to give up after all. "To be honest, I'm not really prepared yet. And I'm sure you want to know how I predicted your arrival, Akazuki."
"Because my name came up on the news as a suspect?", the girl immediately supposed.
"Nope. All anyone's reported about is that your sister and Aihachi were stabbed."
So Aihachi was the name of the woman who worked at the restaurant.

"And isn't that enough information?", the girl asked. "Someone who was in that class could guess right away that I was the culprit upon seeing those two names. And you thought that if the killer was who you thought it was, she was very likely to come after you next. Isn't that right?"
"...Well, yeah, you're right." The man's gaze drifted.
"Then this conversation is over. You aren't going to resist, you said?"
"Nah, I won't. But... okay, well, under a condition."

"Condition?", I repeated. This could get troublesome. Was it wise to keep going along with this guy?
But the girl didn't try to put a stop to this. She showed interest in what he was saying.

"I have a request for how I want to be killed," the man said, raising his index finger. "I'll tell you all about it. But... let me pour some coffee first. ...I never get any better at playing instruments, but I've gotten really good at pouring coffee. Weird, huh?"
The man stood up and walked to the kitchen. He had a terrible stoop. Although, I might have looked the same way from the side.

I wondered what he could mean about "how he wants to be killed." Was he simply talking about the method of murder? Or had he pictured a slightly more stylish setting for his death?
At any rate, we had no obligation to hear it out. But if granting a minor request meant him not putting up any resistance, it might not be so bad, I thought.

I heard water running. Before long, a sweet aroma came wafting in.
"By the way, guy in the sunglasses, are you Akazuki's bodyguard?", the man asked from the kitchen.
"I'm not here to have idle conversation. Just get to the point," the girl snapped, but the man paid her no mind.

"Well, whatever the relationship is, I'm happy somebody out there would accompany a killer. Makes me jealous. Yeah... When I was a kid, they told me again and again, "a real friend will stop you when you're about to do something wrong." But I don't think so. What am I supposed to trust about somebody who abandons their friend to become an ally of the law or morals instead? I think a better friend is when I'm about to do something bad, and they just join me in being a bad person without a word."

The man brought two cups of coffee and handed one to the girl, one to me. "Careful, they're hot," he warned.
The instant I took the cup with my hands, I felt a strong blow to the side of my head.

The world had turned 90 degrees sideways.
I think it took a few minutes to realize the man had punched me. That was how strong it was. Probably used some implement, not bare-handed.
I listened while I lay on the floor, but couldn't get any meaningful information out of the sounds I was picking up. I had my eyes open, but I couldn't piece together the images I saw.

The first thing I felt upon regaining consciousness wasn't the pain of being punched, but the heat of the coffee spilled on my shin.
At first, the pain didn't register as pain, but as a mysterious feeling of discomfort. With a delay, the side of my head finally felt like it'd been cracked. I put my left hand to the area and felt a lukewarm sensation.

I tried to stand up, but my legs wouldn't listen to me. He'd planned this from the start, I realized. This man was wary after all, watching for the moment we let our guard down.
I was trying to stay on my guard, but let myself be distracted as he handed me the coffee. I cursed my own stupidity.

My sunglasses had come off, probably when I was punched. I gradually was able to focus my eyes and bring together the fuzzy images. Then, I at last understood what was happening at this moment.

The man was hunched over the girl. The scissors she should have stabbed into him had ended up on the floor some distance from them.
The girl, pinned down with both hands, tried to resist, but it was clear who had the upper hand.

The man spoke with bloodshot eyes. "I've always been after you since middle school, Akazuki. Never thought I'd get my chance like this. You come waltzing right to me, and give me an excuse to claim self-defense? Now that is easy pickings, my friend."

He held down her arms against her head with his right hand, and with his left, grabbed her collar and tore away the buttons on her blouse.
She refused to give up and struggled to the best of her ability. "Stop squirming!", he shouted, punching the girl in the eyes. Twice. Three times. Four.

I'm going to kill him, I vowed.

But my legs didn't agree with my will, and I collapsed back to the floor.
My retribution for my shut-in tendencies. Six months ago, I would've been able to move at least a little more than this.

A sound made the man turn around. He picked something up from my blind spot. An extendable baton with a black luster.
So that's what he hit me with. Talk about well-prepared.

As the girl took the opportunity to try and grab the scissors, he brought the baton down on her knee. A dull sound. A short scream. After confirming the girl wasn't moving, he came walking toward me.
He thrust his heel on my right hand with which I was trying to get up. My middle finger, or ring finger, or maybe both, made a moist chopstick-snapping sound.
The two letters "ow" filled my mind hundreds of times, and I couldn't move until I'd proceed them all one at a time. Sweat ran down me, and I wailed like a dog.

"Don't interfere. We're just getting to the good part."
With that as his warning, the man gripped the baton and hit me with it repeatedly. Head, neck, shoulder, arm, back, chest, flank, everywhere.
My bones creaked with every blow, and my will to resist slowly left me.

Gradually, I came to be able to process my pain objectively. I wasn't feeling pain, I was feeling "the pain my body's feeling." By putting that extra cushion, it became distanced from me.
The man folded up the baton, put it on his belt, and squatted down slowly, still standing on my squirming hand. He didn't seem to be tired of hurting me yet.

I felt a sharp sensation around the root of my pinky.
The moment I realized what that meant, I sweat like a waterfall.

"Some real sharp scissors we have here," the man admired.
He seemed lit aflame with excitement. It seemed impossible to put the brakes on his violence.
People in situations like this don't know hesitation. What's more, this man was in a position where his acts of violence could be seen as self-defense. If need be, he could get away with that excuse.

"Is this what you were planning to stab me with?", he asked with quickened breathing.
With that, he put force on the handles. The blades ate into my flesh of my pinky.
I imagined the pain that would come after the surface skin was cut. The image of my pinky falling off my hand like a caterpillar arose behind my eyelids.
My lower body lost strength, as if I'd been dropped off a cliff. I was afraid.

"Nobody'll notice if a killer has a finger or two cut off, will they?"
You might just be right, I thought.
Immediately afterward, he put all his force into the hand gripping the scissors.
They was a horrific sound. Pain ran up to my brain, and my body felt like it was filling with tar.

I screamed. I desperately tried to get away, but the man's foot stayed still as a vice. My vision dimmed, half-filled with blackness. My train of thought stopped.
It's off, I thought. But the pinky was still on my hand. Though bone was visible through the wounds on the side and it bled dark red, the blades of the dressmaking scissors were unable to cut it.

"Aw, I guess bone is too much for scissors," the man remarked with a click of his tongue.
Though the girl diligently sharpened the points, perhaps she hadn't given the edges that kind of care.

He put power in the scissors once more, cutting into the second joint of my pinky. I felt the blades on my bone.
The pain numbed my brain. But at least this wasn't an unknown pain. It didn't stop my thoughts.

Clenching my teeth, I took the car key from my pocket and positioned it so the point stuck out from my fist.
The man thought he had trapped my dominant hand. He didn't know I was left-handed.

I thrust the key forcefully toward the leg that held my right hand down. It was force that even surprised me.
The man howled like a beast and jumped back. Before he could grab the baton from his holster, I lifted up his ankle and threw him off-balance.
In falling, the man suffered a strong hit to the back of his head. He would be defenseless for at least three seconds. Now it was my turn.

I took a deep breath. For now, I had to shut out my imagination; it was key to abandon all hesitation.
Over the next few seconds, I couldn't imagine my foe's pain. I couldn't imagine his suffering. I couldn't imagine his anger.

I sat on top of the man and punched him hard enough to break his front teeth. I kept punching. The clashing of bone separated by skin echoed through the room at a fixed rhythm.
The pain in my head and pinky fueled my anger. My fist was soaked with the man's blood. I gradually lost feeling in the hand I used to punch him. But so what? I kept punching.
The key was not hesitating, the key was not hesitating, the key was not hesitating.

Eventually, the man stopped resisting. I was completely out of breath.
I got off the man and went to pick up the scissors beside him, but my left hand was numb from keeping it clenched so tightly. I slouched down and reluctantly grabbed it with my right, but my fingers were trembling too much to get a good grip.
While I was fumbling around, the man stood up and kicked me in the back, then went to grab the scissors.

I miraculously dodged the baton that came swinging toward me the moment I turned around. But losing balance, I was completely defenseless for the next attack.
The man kicked into my stomach. I lost my wind, saliva drooled out of me, and as I looked up in preparation for the baton strike that would be coming in seconds, time stopped.
So it felt.

After a pause, the man slumped to the ground. The girl holding the bloody scissors looked down on him hollowly.
He desperately crawled at me, either running from the girl or seeking my help. The girl tried to give chase, but stumbled and tripped from her wounded knee. But she looked up, undeterred, and crawled after the man regardless with her arms.

Gripping the scissors with both hands, she plunged them into the man's back with all her might.
Again, and again, and again.

What a clamor there'd been in the drab-walled apartment room. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the police show up.
Yet the girl and I lay unmoving next to the man's corpse.
Our pain and fatigue was no problem. We felt an primal sense of achievement for "winning the battle." Wounds and exhaustion were just steps toward that achievement.

When was the last time I felt so satisfied? I went back through my memories, but looking in every nook and cranny, found that no experience had made me feel like this victory did.
The satisfaction I felt about my perfect pitching at the semifinals in my baseball days was dirt compared to this.
I didn't feel a shred of apathy. I felt like I was alive.

"Why didn't you postpone it?", I asked. "I thought for sure you'd postpone as soon as things took a bad turn."
"Because I couldn't quite despair," the girl answered. "If I'd been attacked alone, that probably would have activated it. But since you were here, I couldn't let go of the hope that you might manage something."
"Well, yeah. I did do that."

"...Is your finger okay?", she questioned, barely audible. She might have felt somewhat guilty about the wounds inflicted on my pinky with her scissors.
"It's okay," I smiled. "It's like a scrape compared to all the injuries you've taken."
Though I claimed such, to be honest, I was still about to faint from the agony. Looking at the pinky the man had tried to cut off again nearly made me nauseous. All cut up with the scissors, it was more of a... pinky-like object.

Okay, I thought, whipping my aching body to stand up. We couldn't just stay here forever. We had to get away.
I picked up my sunglasses and put them on, cautious of the pain on the side of my head.

Offering my shoulder to the girl with a wounded knee, we left the apartment.
It was gloomy outside, and rather cold. Compared to the bloody apartment room, the air smelled fresh like a snowy mountain.

Luckily, no one even passed us by on the way to the parking lot. Thinking about how when I got back, I'd take a shower, tend to my wounds, and sleep soundly, I took out the car key from my pocket and put it into the cylinder.
But the key stopped halfway; it wouldn't fit all the way in.

I immediately realized why. When I'd thrust the key into the man's leg, it hit his bone and became warped.
I tried to force it in, then tried putting it on the parking bumper and stepping on it to straighten out the distortion, but to no avail.

The girl and I had bloody clothes, and noticeable bruises and cuts on our faces. My finger was still bleeding, and the girl had runs in her black tights.
The one silver lining was that my wallet and cellphone were in my jacket pocket. But we couldn't call for a taxi dressed like this. And our changes of clothes were in the trunk.

I kicked the car in anger. Shivering from pain and cold, I tried to think. Before anything else, we had to do something about our suspicious appearance.
I couldn't ask for our bruises and wounds to heal right away, but couldn't we at least change our clothes? But two people bloody and covered in bruises going to buy clothes from a store... we'd obviously get arrested.
We couldn't buy clothes because of our clothes. Steal washing from someone's house? No, it was too risky to even come near a residential area looking like -

I heard music in the distance. An eerie, yet cheery and silly song.
I remembered the words of the bakery shop's owner.
"Hundreds of people dressed in costumes march down the shopping district."

Tonight was the Halloween parade.

I reached toward the girl's face, and using the blood from my pinky, drew red curves on her cheeks.
She quickly guessed my intent. She tore up the sleeve of her blouse, and used the scissors to haphazardly cut away the hem on the shoulders and skirt. I too used the scissors to make cuts in my shirt collar and jeans.
We turned ourselves into the living dead.

We took a good look at each other. Exactly what we were shooting for. With the addition of our excessive destruction, the bruises and even blood could only be seen as cheap makeup.
What would be important now was our expressions.

"So if someone comes up to you, make a face that says, "well of course I look weird."" I faked a smile as an example.
"...Like this, then?" She raised the bridge of her mouth to a restrained smile.
My reaction came late, because for a brief moment, I felt the illusion that she was actually smiling at me. "Right, perfect," I told her.

We proceeded down the alley leading to the main street. The music gradually became more audible. The noise piled on endlessly as we approached, eventually getting loud enough to feel in my stomach.
We could hear guides here and there shouting from megaphones. The smell of sweet candy wafted about.

The first thing to catch my eye as we left the alley was a tall, pale-faced man. In contrast to his complexion, his lips were bright red.
His cheeks were torn, his gums extending wide. The eyes lodged in black sockets glared at us from between the gaps of frizzy hair.

What a well-made costume. The wide-mouthed man seemed to think the same looking at us.
He smiled at us and opened his mouth, making it obvious that the teeth and gums were just carefully painted onto his cheeks. I smiled back.

We felt more confident at once, and began to walk proudly down the streets. Many people gave us unreserved looks, but they were all looks of approval for our "costumes."
There were voices of admiration and praise here and there. So realistic, they said. Well, naturally. They were real wounds, real bruises, real blood. The girl dragged her pained leg along, but even that looked like an act to them.

The costume parade reached the road. The sidewalks were flooded with spectators; making it even a few meters was quite an undertaking, and they could only see just a part of the parade.

At this point, I took notice of a group of about twenty people wearing costumes related to horror movies.
Dracula, Jack the Ripper, the Boogeyman, Frankenstein, Jason, Sweeney Todd, Scissorhands, the twins from The Shining... They had the old and the new.
Because of their makeup, I couldn't tell their exact ages, but I'd say they were mostly in their twenties and thirties. While there were some costumes accurate enough to mistake for the real thing, others seemed to simply demean the source material.

Along the sides of the road stretched two endless lines of jack-o'-lanterns, lit out their eyes and mouths by candles inside. Nets like spider webs were hung from between trees, and a few giant spiders hung up there as well.
Half the children on the streets were carrying orange balloons, wearing black tri-corner hats and capes.

Turning around as my shoulder was slapped, I saw a man with his face wrapped in bandages.
The only reason I didn't immediately run was because I felt like it wasn't a voice I'd never heard before.
The man unwrapped his bandages to show us his face. It was the owner of the bakery shop, who'd told us about the Halloween parade.

"Well now, that's not very kind of you. You should've told me if you were going to participate," he teased, giving me a light shove.
"Weren't you the one telling us you weren't going to take part?"
"Well," he laughed with embarrassment. "You leaving the parade already?"
"Yeah. You?"
"Already had my time in the spotlight. I'm amazed at all these people. I got my foot stepped on five times already."

"Were there this many spectators last year?'
"No, this is a real big step up. Even the locals can hardly believe it."
"I always thought Halloween didn't have much of a hold in Japan, but..." I took a look around. "Seeing this, I think that might not be the case at all."
"Our people love communicating anonymously, y'know. It suits that nature real well."

"Er, is there a second-hand clothes store around here?", the girl interrupted. "I accidentally left the bag with my other clothes on the train. I can't go home looking like this, so I just need to buy something else to wear. It'd be awkward touching brand-new clothes with my painted-up hands, even if they're dry, so I'd prefer a second-hand shop..."

"That's quite a misfortune," he remarked, and pondered as he fiddled with his bandages. "An old clothes shop... I think there should be one on the other end of that arcade." He pointed behind us.
The girl bowed her head and pulled my sleeve.
"You in a hurry?"
"Yeah, somebody's waiting for us," I answered.
"I see. Too bad, I wanted to talk a little more..."

The owner held out his bandaged right hand for a handshake. Considering my injuries, I hesitated, but firmly grabbed his hand. Without a moment's delay, he roughly grabbed mine, pinky included.
Blood seeped through the bandages. I endured and faked a smile. The girl casually shook hands with him as well.

The arcade was particularly crowded, and it took nearly ten minutes to reach the clothes shop about a dozen meters away.
It was a small place with a floor that creaked with every step. We quickly picked out clothes, put them in a basket, and went to the register. The girl didn't agonize over it this time.

The clerk donning a white mask seemed used to customers like us, and asked "Do you mind if I take a photo?"
I came up with some excuse to deny him and pulled out my wallet, then was told "Oh, it's half-off for Halloween." A discount for costumed customers, apparently.

We wanted to change right away, but first we had to clean up the blood all over us.
Thinking the best course of action would be to use a multi-function toilet, we searched tenant buildings and small department stores for one, but they were in use everywhere we turned. People were probably using them to change into and out of their costumers.
Tired of walking, I wondered if we should just buy a body sheet and slowly wipe ourselves clean with it. But as I looked up, between buildings, I saw a large clock tower on the roof of a middle school.

Hopping the fence, we intruded onto the campus. An elevated washing area behind the building, surrounded by dead trees and with no lighting, was perfect for secretly getting ourselves clean.
The place was serving as a storage area, with numerous remnants from the culture festival lying around. A stage for a play, cartoon costumes, banners, tents, that kind of thing.

I rolled up my shirt and soaked my hands and feet in the numbingly-cold running water. I took the lemon-scented soap near the faucet, made it bubble up, and scrubbed over the blood.
Dried blood wouldn't come off easily, but I kept patiently scrubbing hard, and it soon reached a certain limit of cleanliness. Soap bubbles seeped into the cuts on my pinky.

Looking beside me, I saw the girl taking off her blouse with her back to me. Her thin shoulders with burn marks were left bare. I hurriedly turned my back to her as well and took off my T-shirt.
My teeth chattered from the cold of exposing my wet skin to the night breeze. Struggling to make the hard soap bubble, I cleaned off my neck and chest, and put on a T-shirt from the clothes shop that had a tree-like smell.

The last problem was hair. Blood had congealed in the girl's long hair, and cold water wouldn't get it out. As I considered what we could do, the girl took out the scissors from her bag.
Just as I was thinking she couldn't be thinking it, she cut short her beautiful long hair. It looked like she cut up to 20 centimeters off all at once. She tossed the hair fallen on her hands off into the wind, and it quickly vanished into the darkness.

By the time we were fully done changing, we were chilled to the core. The girl burying her face in the collar of a knit coat, and me shivering in a duck jacket zipped all the way up, we walked to the train station.
On the way, the girl gave in to the pain in her leg, so I walked the rest of the way with her on my back.

While trying to buy tickets amid the crowd, I heard the announcement of the train's arrival. Walking quickly across the overpass stairs, we boarded the train emitting a blinding light.
Disembarking 20 minutes later and buying tickets for seats at that station, we transferred to the bullet train. After sitting for about two hours, we got off and again took the regular train.
By this point, I'd hit the limits of exhaustion. Not thirty seconds after we arrived at our seats, I fell asleep.

I felt a weight on my shoulder. The girl was leaning on me as she slept. I felt the gentle rhythm of her breathing, and a faint sweet smell. Oddly, it felt nostalgic.
It was still a long way to our destination, and there was no point in forcing her awake. I'll keep her from feeling awkward when she wakes up, I decided, closing my eyes and feigning sleep.

While hanging just a step away from dozing off, I started to hear familiar stations being announced.
"We're almost there," I whispered into her ear, and still lying against me with her eyes closed, the girl immediately replied, "I know."
How long had she been awake?
Ultimately, she leaned against me all the way up to the moment I stood up out of my seat to disembark.

We arrived at the apartment after 10 PM. The girl took a shower first, put on the parka that served as her bedwear, swallowed a painkiller, and dove into the bed with the parka's hood over her.
I quickly changed into pajamas too, applied vaseline to my wounds and put bandages over it. I took painkillers with water - one more than was prescribed - and lay down on the sofa.

A sound woke me up in the night.
In the darkness, the girl was holding both her knees on top of the bed.

"You can't sleep?", I asked.
"As you can see, no."
"Your knee still hurt?"
"It does, sure, but that's not a major problem. ...Um... I'm sure you're well-aware by now, but I'm a coward," she mumbled, burying her face in her knees. "When I close my eyes, I see that man behind my eyelids. That blood-covered man kicking and punching me. I'm too afraid to sleep. ...Isn't it ridiculous? I'm a killer."

I searched for the right words. Magic words that would calm the storm of all that anxiety and sadness and let her sleep peacefully. If only there were such a thing.
But I really wasn't used to these kinds of situations. I had no experience whatsoever consoling people.

Time up. Some truly tactless words came out of my mouth.
"How about you have a light drink?"
The girl quietly looked up at me. "...That wouldn't be so bad," she answered, pulling away the hood.

I knew it was best to avoid mixing painkillers and alcoholic beverages, and that alcohol and injuries weren't a good mix either.
But I didn't know any other way to soothe her pain. I could trust the central-nervous-system-depressing properties of alcohol more than the kind of comforting I'd give, what with my lack of life experience and sympathy for others.

I made two cups of a mixture of warm milk, brandy, and honey on the stove. I tended to make it for myself on winter nights when I couldn't get to sleep.
As I went to the living room to hand the girl the mug, I recalled how that man had dropped my guard in this same way.

"It's tasty," she mumbled after a sip. "I don't have very good memories of alcohol, but I like this."
Quickly finishing her own cup, I offered her my own, and she gladly drank it too.
The only light was a headboard reading lamp, so I didn't quite notice the girl's face flushing from drunkenness.

Sitting together on the side of the bed, I was just staring at the bookshelves when the girl spoke with a lisp.
"You don't get it at all."
"Yeah, I think you're probably right," I agreed. It was the truth: I couldn't tell what she was saying at all.
"...I think this is when you should score some points," she told me, staring at her knees. "Since I'm in need of consoling, for once."
"You know, I was just thinking that," I remarked. "But I really don't know how to do it. As the one who killed you, nothing I say would be very convincing. In fact, you'd hear it as disgust or sarcasm."

The girl stood up and put the mug on the table, lightly flicked it with her index finger, and returned to sit on the bed.
"Then I'll forget about the accident temporarily, and in the meantime, you rack up those points."
It was seeming like she actually did seek my comfort.

I decided to take kind of a big risk.
"Is it okay if it's a sort of weird way of going about it?"
"Sure, do what you like."
"Can you swear you won't move until I say I'm done?"
"I swear."
"You won't regret that?"

I sat on my knees in front of the girl and took a close look at the painful bruise on her knee. What had at first been red and swollen ad now turned a violet-ish color.
Touching a fingertip right next to the bruise, her body jolted slightly. I saw her eyes take their wary color. Now, she'd be focusing closely on my hand's every movement.

The tension gradually surmounted. With the carefulness of literally touching a sore subject, I slowly laid each finger one by one on the bruise, ultimately covering it fully with my palm.
It was now a situation where I could, with just a slight application of force, send significant pain through her knee. That choice admittedly had its own charm.

Though the girl feared, she kept her promise not to move. She kept her lips tight and watched things unfold.
For her, it was clearly a vexing moment. I dared to prolong it for a while.
When the tension reached its maximum, I said those words.

"Pain, pain, go away."

I removed my hand from her knee and waved it toward the window.
I did it with as much seriousness as I could muster.
The girl stared at me in disbelief. I thought I'd failed.
But after a brief silence, she began to snicker.

"What was that? That's so absurd," she said, failing to keep a straight face. There was no sneer to her laughter. She laughed honestly, happily, from her heart. "I'm not a little girl."
I laughed along with her. "You're right, it is stupid."
"I was so nervous about what you were going to do. You had all that build-up, and then just that?"
She fell back on the bed and covered her face with her hands, laughing.

Once her laughing fit concluded, she asked, "So where did you send my pain away to?"
"To all the people who weren't kind to you."
"Well, that's fortunate."

She fumbled to sit back up. Her eyes were bleary from laughing so much.
"Um, could you possibly do that again?", she requested. "This time, on my head full of terrible memories."
"Of course. As many times as you want."

She closed her eyes. I put my palm on her head, and again recited the silly soothing spell.
Not satisfied with that, she requested me to perform it on every one of the injuries she had postponed. Her sliced palm, the burns on her arm and back, the cut on her thigh.
Once I finished with the cut under her eye, she looked so peaceful that I could imagine her pain really had been sent away somewhere. I feel like a wizard, I thought.

"Um, I need to apologize about something," the girl mumbled. "I said "there was no one kind to me, helpful to me, no boys I like or used to like, no one." Do you remember that?"
"That was a lie. There was once someone kind to me, helpful to me too. A boy I really loved."
"Once? So, there isn't anymore?"
"In a sense, yes. And in fact, it's my fault."
"...What do you mean?"

But she wouldn't tell me the rest. She just shook her head, as if saying "I've said too much."
As I discarded my desire to draw it out of her, she gently took my wrist, told me "I'll do it for you, too," and softly blew on my bandaged pinky.

Pain, pain, go away.


Chapter 7: A Wise Choice

The sound of crashing thunder woke me up. As I sat up to look at the time, my body ached all over.
I had terrible shakes and a headache. A sense of languidness, like even moving my fingertips took a cheer squad, covered my body.

I couldn't remember it much at all, but I felt like I'd had that dream about the amusement park again. Maybe I was just one to soak in childish nostalgia after severe shock.
In my dream, again, someone was holding my hand. And for whatever reason, as we walked along, lots of the people we passed by glanced our way.
Was there something on our faces? Or was our very presence not suited for this place? Either way, I just shook my head to say "Go ahead; you think I care?", and ostentatiously pulled the other person's hand.

That's where the dream stopped. The sound of the photoplayer lingered in my mind.
Suddenly, I had a thought. Maybe this wasn't the second, or even third time I'd had this dream. The deja vu was just too much. I must have been visiting this place in my dreams again and again, and simply forgetting about it.
Did I have that strong of an inclination toward amusement parks? Or maybe it simply represented an unfulfilled youth, just happening to manifest as an amusement park?

The clock indicated that it was around 2. Thick clouds covered the sky, making it dim enough to make you think it was night, but it was in fact 2 PM, not AM.
"Looks like we slept a pretty long time."
The girl, looking at me with her elbows on the table and chin resting on her hands, nodded in response. Her kindness from last night was all gone, and she was back to her sharp-edged self.

After washing my hands and face, I returned to the living room and asked "Who are you taking revenge on today?" But then, the girl quickly stood up and put her hand on my forehead.
"Do you have a fever?"
"Yeah, a little bit. Maybe I caught a cold too."
She shook her head. "Being severely beaten can get you a fever. It's happened to me."

"Huh," I remarked, feeling my forehead for myself. "Well, don't worry, it's not like I'm immobilized. Now, where should I be heading today?"
"To bed."
The girl thrust me backward. With unsteady feet, I easily fell over and landed bottom-first on the bed.

"Please, rest until your fever withdraws. You're not going to be any use like that."
"I can still drive, at least..."
"Drive what, exactly?"
I at last remembered that we'd lost the car yesterday.

"With this temperature, in this downpour, you'll collapse walking around in your condition. And you can't make proper use of public transportation, either. For today, it's best to stay put here."
"Are you okay with that?"
"I can't say I am. But I don't think there's any better choice."

She was right. The best plan at the moment was to rest.
I lay down sideways and let all the energy leave me, and the girl pulled up the neatly-folded sheets at my feet.

"Sorry to make you fuss over me. But thanks, Akazuki," I casually told her.
"You're free to apologize if you want," she began, turning her back to me, "but once I've had revenge on the fourth person, it's your turn next. Don't forget that."
"Yeah, I know."
"And please, don't call me that. I hate my last name."
"Got it." I thought it had a nice sound to it, but did it displease her?

"Good. I'll go buy us breakfast. Is there anything else you need?"
"Big bandages and fever relief. But I think you should wait for the rain to die down a little before you go out."
"There's no reason to expect anything to die down just waiting. With rain or with anything."
Leaving me with that, the girl left the room.

Not a minute later, I heard the door open. I thought she must have forgotten something, yet it wasn't the girl who came in, but the art student from next door.
"Whoa, sure enough, you look terrible," she remarked on my face. She wore warm-looking knit clothes, which contrasted the thin legs coming from her short pants and made them look skinnier than ever.

"At least ring the doorbell," I advised.
"That girl made a request of me," she informed me with a hint of annoyance. "We met in the hall and greeted each other, then she broke down in tears and begged, "He has a fever, and he's in so much pain!""
"That's a lie."
"Yep, it is. But the part about her asking me is true. She came to my room and asked, "Could you look after him while I'm out shopping?""
I thought a bit. "That's a lie too, right?"
"Nope, it's true. I mean, it's not like I'd be the one to start a conversation, right?"

The art student bent down to stare closely at my face. Then, her gaze moving to my right hand sticking out of the covers, she let out a "yikes."
"That's some injury. She had some pretty bad ones too, but that looks worse than all of them. Don't tell me you've got those everywhere?"
"The hand is the worst of it. The rest are no big deal."
"Huh. Even so, that's really bad, there. Hold on a second, I'll bring some first-aid from my room."

She hastily left the room, then walking quickly on her way back in, cut away the blood-soaked bandage with scissors and examined the pinky.
"Did you wash this?"
"Yeah. Very carefully with running water."
"And I'll just ask up front, do you want to go to the hospital?"
"I figured."

She began to treat my wound with clear expertise.
"You're good at this," I remarked, looking at my taped-up wound.
"My little brother was always getting injured as a kid. I'd be reading a book in my room, and he'd come in and proclaim "Sis, I got hurt," proudly showing me his wound. So I took care of them. Not that he ever got a wound this bad. Don't tell him, he'd probably get jealous."

After checking on the condition of my other injuries as well, she shook her head and went, "Well. What on earth happened to you two?"
"We very cordially fell down the stairs together."
"Hmm?" The art student narrowed her eyes with suspicion. "And after hitting yourselves all over, you somehow got two wounds on your pinky like you were cut with something sharp?"

The art student wordlessly hit my pinky. She smiled with satisfaction seeing me wince from the sudden pain.
"So, have any plans to fall down the stairs again sometime soon?"
"Can't say we don't."
"Do you two have some connection to those two women who were stabbed in the past few days?"

I glanced toward the girl's dressmaking scissors on the table - an extremely careless thing for me to do. But the art student didn't seem to notice the unnatural movement of my eyes.
I mentally complimented her for her good intuition.

"Dangerous times, huh? Well, we'll be careful."
"You're really not connected at all?"
"No, unfortunately."
"...Huh. That's boring," she pouted. "If you were killers who'd killed two people, I thought you might kill me too while you were at it."
"What do you mean by that?", I asked.

"Well, basically, if I found out you were a killer, then I'd threaten you. "I don't care what your reasons are, I can't overlook a friend doing evil. I'm telling the police!", I'd say, heading for the station. You'd try to stop me at any cost, but my resolve would be firm, so you'd decide you'd just have to kill me too, and stab me to death the same as when you killed those other women. Happily ever after."

I spoke accusingly. "I wasn't asking about how it would go down. Why would you want to be killed?"
"That's as hard as if you asked me "Why would you want to live?"", she shrugged. "I had you pinned as someone who, between the two, wouldn't want to live. But am I wrong? Is that change in your eyes in the past few days because that girl's given you something to live for?"

I remained silent, then heard a noise at the door. The girl had returned.
Entering the living room with shopping bags, she observed the tense atmosphere filling the room and came to a stop.
The art student looked back and forth between the girl and I, then lept to her feet and took the girl's hand.

"Hey, I can neaten up that hair for you," she told the girl while running her fingers through it. Then she whispered to me, "Don't worry, I won't sneak a bite."
"I trust your barbering skill, but you should check with her first," I advised.
"You'll cut my hair?", the girl asked blankly.
"Yeah. Leave it to me."
"...I see. Thank you. Go right ahead."

I was iffier about the decision than I let on, but decided to leave it up to the girl. I'd thought she didn't care much about her hair, so it was a bit surprising.
I had some uneasiness about what the art student would do to the girl, and what she might say, but on the other hand I was willing to trust her skill, and looked forward to seeing the new haircut.
At any rate, seeing something made more beautiful than before was always good.

The two vanished into the art student's room. I moved the shopping from the bag into the fridge, set Chaos and Creation in the Backyard in the CD player and played it at low volume, then fell back onto the bed again.
I stopped hearing thunder, but the rain seemed to get more intense. The driving rain assaulted the window with raindrops.

I was all alone for the first time in a while.
As a sickly child, I often spent weekday afternoons staring at the ceiling or out the window like this. Rainy afternoons when I took the day off school and slept all day alone gave me a feeling of being cut off from the world.
Sometimes I'd begin to worry that the world had ended outside my house, and unable to bear the silence, I'd go around turning on the TV, radio, alarm clocks, all the machines around the house.

These days, I knew that the world wouldn't so generously end, so I didn't go around making machines sound off.
Instead, I wrote a letter.

I myself had practically forgotten, but the events of the past few days had all started because of my correspondence with Kiriko.
It was because I'd broken off relations with her and then, so much time later, sought a reunion, that I was helping a girl commit murders and lying wounded in bed.

This may not be the proper way to describe it, but... The truth was, even after I stopped communicating with Kiriko, I kept writing letters. And if you asked me who they were directed toward, indeed, they were to Kiriko.
However, I only wrote about twice a year, and obviously never put them in the mailbox.

When I had something happy to report, or when I had something sad to report, or when I felt unbearably lonely, or when everything seemed futile.
To stabilize my mind, I wrote letters with no intent of sending them, even applying a stamp, then put them away in a drawer. I was aware how bizarre it was, but I knew no other means to console myself.

So I thought I'd do that, for the first time in a while. I put stationery on the table and grabbed a ballpoint pen. I hadn't been thinking about what I would write, but as I began to write about the last few days, I found myself unable to stop.

I wrote about driving drunk and running someone over. The girl who should have died standing before me unhurt. Her "postponement" ability. Coming to assist in her revenge.
Her stabbing her victims to death with dressmaking scissors without hesitation. Her having her legs give out, or throwing up, or losing sleep after her murders. Us staying to enjoy bowling and a meal after killing her second victim.
The severely painful counterattack made by her third victim. And I wrote about how, despite being bloody and beaten, we made it back home without anyone stopping us thanks to the Halloween parade.

"And I think none of it would have happened to me if I hadn't felt the urge to go meet you."

After wrapping it up with that, I went on the veranda to smoke. Then I went back to bed and took a nap.
Despite it being stormy outside, it was a peaceful afternoon. It almost had a holy feel to it.

If the girl hadn't postponed the accident, what would I be doing now?
I tried to avoid thinking about it too deeply earlier, but I couldn't help pondering that very real question while sitting around on my ownsome.

If I'd given myself in right after the accident, it would currently be over four days since my arrest.
The detective and prosecutor would have already done their investigation, and I'd either be preparing for questioning in court, or already done with that and staring up at the ceiling of a prison cell.

However, that was the optimistic prediction. It was possible that, in the post-postponement world, I had long since committed suicide. Truly giving up on life at the point I ran the girl over, perhaps I'd found a sturdy tree nearby and hung myself from it.
It was an scene easily imagined. Putting my neck inside the noose, I'd spend a few seconds thinking about the past, and let that hollowness push me off the edge. The tree branch would creak from my weight.

Many people think suicide takes courage. But I feel only those who haven't thought deeply about suicide would think that. It's a misjudgement to say "If you have the courage to kill yourself, you can put it to other uses."
Suicide doesn't require courage, only a bit of despair and a brief fit of confusion. Just a second or two of being at a loss can produce a suicide.
Essentially, people with courage to die don't commit suicide - people without courage to live do.

A prison cell, or hanging from a tree (or maybe at a crematorium). A depressing thought no matter what.
So that I could currently be lying in a comfy bed and listening to my favorite music was truly a miracle.

The CD had begun a second loop. I whistled along to Paul McCartney's Jenny Wren.
The rain ended up pouring all day.

Around 6 PM, I woke up from hunger. It occurred to me I hadn't eaten much of anything today.
I got up to go to the kitchen, one-handedly opened a can of Campbell's chicken soup the girl had bought into a bowl, added water and heated it. Just then, the girl returned.

The long hair that I'd come to strongly associate with her was trimmed to reach the base of her neck. Her formerly nearly eye-covering bangs, while still long enough to keep the wound under her eye not too noticeable, now had a refreshing lightness.
She did a good job, I thought to myself, impressed by the art student's hair-cutting skill.

She noticed what I was doing. "I'll do that, so just get to bed," she told me and shoved me into the living room.
I noticed the bruises on her face were gone. I wondered if she'd postponed them, but that seemed unlikely; the art student probably just covered them with makeup.

"Did she say anything strange to you?", I asked.
"No. She was very friendly. I felt she wasn't a bad person. Although there was a bit of a mess in her room."
I thought to explain that it wasn't a "mess," per se, but decided against it as there was no point convincing her of it.

"Pretty good, isn't she? I had her cut my hair once too, and she was considerably better than a bad hairdresser. She always had an undying hatred of going to hairdressers, or, I guess an undying hatred of hairdressers, so she cut her own hair and eventually ended up being that good."
"Please stop making idle talk. Your fever's never going to go down at that rate."

A few minutes later, the girl came with a cup full of soup. "Thanks," I said as I reached for it, but she brushed my hand away.
"Open your mouth," she sternly instructed.
"No, you don't need to go that far..."
"Just do it. Your hand's injured, isn't it?"

With no time to explain that only my right hand was injured and it wasn't my dominant one, the girl brought the soup up to my mouth. I reluctantly opened wide, and she poured it in.
It wasn't hot enough to cause burns, nor was it disgusting enough to make me throw up. That fact that it actually was just perfectly safe and comforting chicken noodle soup made me uneasy.

"Not too hot?", she asked.
"A little hot," I replied. She scooped it up with a spoon and blew on it before transporting it to my mouth. Perfect temperature. The spoon left my mouth. Slurp. Swallow.
"So, about your next target...", I began to say, but was interrupted by the spoon again being thrust in my mouth. Slurp. Swallow. "Be quiet and eat," the girl said. Slurp. Swallow.

The thought that I was being nursed by a person who I had killed in my own carelessness was more than I could handle.

"...I'm not really suited for this, am I?", the girl asked once I finished my soup.
"No, I think you did great," I replied with slight hesitation, and she tilted her head.
"I think you're misunderstanding. I was talking about revenge."
"Oh, you were? I thought you meant nursing me."

The girl lowered her head and stared into the empty cup. "To be honest, I'm scared about my next act of revenge."
"Anyone would be scared to kill a person. It's not like it's just you," I encouraged. "Besides, you've killed three people now. You can't say you're "not suited" for it, can you?"
She slowly shook her head. "It's killing three people that's made me feel that I've reached my limit."
"You're pretty timid, huh. Well then, do you want to give up on revenge, forget your resentment, and just live the rest of your days in peace?"

I said this meaning to instigate her, but contrary to my intent, she seemed to take it literally.
"...Honestly, that would be a wise choice, wouldn't it."
"After all," she quietly mumbled, "as you say, revenge is just meaningless."

November 1st. It was six days since the accident that killed the girl, putting us past the halfway point of her estimated expiration date of ten days.
In spite of this, she didn't get moving at all in the morning. My fever had gone, and the rain had reduced to a drizzle, but right after breakfast, she got right back to bed and pulled the covers over her head.

"I don't feel well," she said. "I won't be moving for a while."
It was clearly feigned illness, and she made no attempt to hide it, so I just asked directly.
"Are you giving up on revenge?"
"...Not at all. I'm just not feeling at my best. Please, leave me alone."
"I see. Well, tell me if you change your mind."

I sat down on the sofa and picked up a music magazine from the floor, opening up to an interview with an artist I'd never heard of.
I couldn't have cared less about it. I had no reason to be just relaxing and reading in a situation like this.
After finishing the 5-page interview, I flipped back to read it again from the start, this time counting how many times the word "pathetic" was used.
It came out to 21, which was far too many times, and I too felt pathetic for having counted. Didn't I have anything else to do with my time?

The girl poked her head out from the covers. "Um, could you go out walking somewhere for a while? I want to be alone."
"Got it. How long is a while?"
"Five or six hours, at least."
"Call me if anything happens. There's a public phone outside the apartment, but I'm sure the girl next door will gladly let you borrow hers."

I had no umbrella, so I put up the hood of my mod coat, put on my unforgettable sunglasses, and left the apartment.
The mist-like rain slowly seeped into the coat. The people on the road were driving with care with their fog lights on.

Having no destination, I stood at a bus stop and got on a bus that arrived 12 minutes late.
It was crowded inside, and the mix of body odors made a stale smell. The bus shook violently, and with my weak knees, I nearly lost balance many times. Indecent things were written on the foggy windows in childish writing.
I got off at a shopping district, but I'd given very little thought about how I was going to spend five hours here - practically none at all. I went into a cafe and sipped on coffee to think about it, but no good ideas came to mind.

No matter what I did now, it would have no effect on me once the postponement went away. In reality, I was "actually" in a prison cell, or had long since dropped dead.
I could accumulate good deeds or commit evil ones, spend a ton of money, show blatant disregard for my health - and once the girl died, it would all be nullified. I had the ultimate freedom.

I can do whatever I want, I thought. So I asked myself: What do I want to do?
But I had no answer. There was nothing I wanted to do. Nowhere I wanted to be. I wanted nothing.

What had I enjoyed in the past? Movies, music, books... Maybe I had slightly more interest in them than the average person, but not one of those did I feel so passionately about that I couldn't live without it.
Perhaps I came to enjoy their entertainment because, at one time, they filled a vast emptiness in me. I appreciated these works to stave off sleepiness and boredom, like downing bitter medicine.
But in the end, all I got from the effort was knowledge of the vastness and depth of my emptiness.

I'd previously thought that when people spoke of having a hole in them, they meant a space that should have been filled but wasn't.
But my perception had recently changed. It was a bottomless pit which would make anything you threw into it vanish. An infinite nothingness that you couldn't even call "zero." That's what I have inside me, I came to think.
The mere thought of trying to fill it was pointless. There was nothing else I could do but put up walls around it and do my best not to touch it.

Upon realizing that, my hobbies shifted from the "filling" type to "building walls." I came to appreciate works that purely aimed for beauty and pleasantness, rather than introspective ones.
That didn't mean I was able to deeply enjoy beauty or pleasantness, but it was preferable to facing up to my hollow insides.
But now, considering that I could possibly be dead in a few days, I didn't feel like building walls still. I was like a child with a new toy - shouldn't I be getting more honest enjoyment out of it?

I got an early lunch and wandered around the shopping district, looking for something to make my heart dance.
I noticed a group of college students on the opposite sidewalk. They were familiar to me; they were classmates in my department.
Quickly counting them, over 70% of my class seemed to be there. I thought about what kind of get-together it could be, and concluded they had probably finished an interim report on their graduate thesis topic. It was about that time of year.

They were all laughing together, the relief of having finished something on their faces. Not a single person noticed me; they might have forgotten what I looked like entirely.
While I was at a standstill, time went on as usual for them. While I lived interchangeable days, they matured from their day-to-day experiences.

The fact that when faced with such a decidedly loneliness-inducing sight, I was hardly hurt at all, was indicative of a fundamental problem.
I had always been this way. If I could just feel hurt at a time this like a normal person would, my life would have been at least a little bit richer.

I recalled that, in my third year of high school, there was a girl I had a slight interest in. I would describe her as quiet, and she liked taking photos.
She always concealed a retro toy camera in her pocket, and would pull it out to snap a picture with no rhyme or reason that anyone else could understand.
She did have a single-lens reflex camera, but didn't like using it, claiming "I don't like how it seems like I'm threatening people with it."

From time to time, she would choose me as her subject. When I asked her why, she said "You're a subject well-suited to low-chroma film."
"I don't get what that means, but I don't think I'm being complimented."
"Nope, not really a compliment," she nodded. "But it's fun taking photos of you. Like taking photos of a disinterested cat."

As summer ended, a contest approached, and she took me around town.
Most of the places we went were cold, desolate ones - parks covered in weeds, big empty cutover areas, stations that didn't even get ten trains a day, abandoned lots with rows of old buses.
I would sit there, and she would click the shutter again and again.

At first, I found it somewhat awkward to have my image semi-immortalized, but upon realizing she viewed me from a purely artistic standpoint, that went away.
Still, when I watched her take great care in filing photos which contained me, my heart was at least somewhat moved.
When she took a good photo, she showed it to me with a childlike smile that she wouldn't have in the classroom. The thought that I might be the only one who knew that smile made me proud.

One clear autumn Saturday, I heard that the photos she took won a prize in the contest, so I walked out to the place where they were being put on display.
Seeing those photos with me in them displayed in a gallery, I thought, I'll have to treat that girl to a meal next time we meet.

By complete chance, I saw her at a general store on the way home. There was a man beside her - a college student, dressed handsomely and with hair dyed brown.
The girl tried to link arms with him, to which he sort of rolled his eyes but went along with. She had an expression I'd never seen before. So she can look like that too, I thought in wonder.
After seeing the two hide away and kiss, I left the store.

After the contest ended, she stopped talking to me. I didn't care that much for us talking without photography as an intermediary, so I didn't feel like going to talk to her either. So that was the end of our meager relationship.

And I didn't really feel hurt then, either. I thought maybe I just wasn't conscious of it and it would resound with me later, but it didn't.
I wasn't just quick to reconcile. Surprisingly, as soon as I saw her with him, I didn't feel a shred of jealousy or envy. I just thought "I'd better not bother them."
From the beginning, I must not have had any notion that she would be "mine."

People might say that's nothing more than a case of sour grapes. You can't get anything, so you're just pretending like you never wanted anything.
If that were true, then how great would that be? If there were a boiling desire simmering in my chest, ready to erupt at any moment - I'm just not noticing it.
But I'd searched within myself so much for such a thing, and found not a trace. Just a stale gray expanse.

Ultimately, I was a person unable to desire anything. I'd lost that ability so long ago, I didn't have any memory of ever having it. Or maybe I was never equipped with it from the very beginning.
And having so easily done away with the only exception to the rule, my relationship with Kiriko, now I couldn't even find a use for myself.
What was I supposed to do with... with this?

I went into an alley and down some sudden skinny stairs. There I found the arcade Shindo and I used to hang out at all the time.
As one could imagine from the faded sign, it was a place full of cabinets that were probably all older than I was, so it was hard to call it "youth-oriented."
The change machine covered in gum tape, the sooty ashtray, the sunburnt posters, the cabinets worn away at the edges with their fuzzy screens and cheap beeps and boops.
I associated this complete lineup of things that had long outlived their usefulness but were desperately being kept alive anyway with a giant hospital room. Well, morgue is more like it.

"The reason I choose to go such a boring place," Shindo told me, "is because I don't feel anything urging me on here."
I became fond of the arcade for that same reason.

I hadn't been there in months. I stood in front of the automatic doors and waited, but they didn't open.
There was a notice on the wall next to them.

"The arcade will be shutting down as of September 30th. Thank you for your many years of patronage. (Note: Closing time on the 30th will be at 9 PM.)"

I sat down on the stairs and lit a cigarette. I think someone threw out the contents of the ashtray, because there were hundreds of trampled cigarettes scattered around.
The cigarette butts, reduced to their brown filter, looked like empty ammo cartridges when soaked in the rain.

Now I really was out of places to go. I left the shopping district for a random park.
Spotting a bench with no back, I swept away the pile of fallen leaves and lay down on my side, not caring if anyone saw me.
The sky was full of heavy clouds. A red maple leaf slowly danced to the ground, and I grabbed it with my left hand.

Putting the fallen leaf to my chest, I closed my eyes and focused on the sounds in the park. The chilly wind, new leaves falling on top of leaf piles, birds chirping, gloves catching softballs.
A strong breeze blew, dropping many red and yellow leaves on me. I don't want to take another step, I thought. I'll just let myself be buried under these leaves.

This is my life. Seeking nothing, my soul sputtering out without ever being lit aflame, a life that just progressively rots away.
But I still wouldn't allow myself to call it a tragedy.

I finished shopping and returned to the apartment slightly earlier than I was told to. I'd walked for about an hour with a carrying case over 20 kilograms on my back, so I was all sweaty.
I placed it on the living room floor, and the girl looked at it, took off the headphones connected to the CD player, and asked me, "What is that?"

"An electronic piano," I told her, wiping away sweat. "I thought it'd be boring for you to just sit around inside."
"I won't play it. I already gave up on piano."
"Oh, so it was a worthless purchase, huh?" I furrowed my brow. "Have you eaten anything since I left?"
"I haven't."
"You should get something in your stomach. I'll fix something right away."

I went to the kitchen and warmed up the same canned soup the girl had fed to me yesterday.
She sat on the bed staring out the window, then saw me holding out the spoon at her and looked between the two. After about five seconds of confliction, she shyly opened her mouth.
Yesterday, it had seemed like she had no resistance to this kind of thing, but apparently it was a different story when she was the one being nursed.

As I brought the spoon into her mouth, she closed her thin yet soft lips.
"I'm not going to play that piano," she insisted after taking a first gulp. "I'm sick too, after all."
"I know. You won't play it." I held out a second spoonful.

But an hour later, the girl was sitting in front of the piano. Apparently, she couldn't bear listening to me testing all the sounds right next to her.
I set it up in front of the bed, and she gently brought her fingers down on the keyboard. After briefly savoring this moment with her eyes shut, she warmed up her fingers by playing a few of Hanon's most important etudes, so accurately that you couldn't expect much better.
The volume was loud enough to be heard next door, but it was no problem, as I figured the art student would tolerate this kind of quality.

I don't have the best ears, but I could still tell that the girl made some major mistakes with her left hand. And her right hand's playing was wonderful, so it stood out terribly.
Her left hand, paralyzed where it had been cut, must have felt like a leather glove to her. Seemingly conscious of it herself, she'd sometimes loathsomely glare at the hand.

"It's awful, isn't it?", she sighed. "Before the injury, it was my one redeeming feature. But now, this is how it sounds. I feel like I'm using someone else's hand. Now I can only put on performances that make both the player and listener uncomfortable."
After making three mistakes with her left hand, she stopped playing.

"Well, why don't you try actually using someone else's hand?", I suggested.
"...What do you mean?"
I sat down next to her and put my left hand on the keyboard. She looked at me suspiciously, but with a look that said "Oh, very well," began to play the right hand part.

Luckily, it was a famous song even I knew: Chopin's Prelude No. 15.
I joined in at the third measure. I hadn't played piano in a decade, but the electronic piano's keys were lighter than a grand piano, and my fingers moved fairly smoothly on them.
"So you can play piano," the girl remarked.
"Only well enough to fake it. I just had a few lessons when I was a kid."

With my right hand injured, and her left hand paralyzed, we supplied each other the hands we lacked. And our playing meshed together quicker than I expected.
When the tone shifted at the 28th measure, the girl leaned toward me to reach for the low notes.
That sensation reminded me of when she fell asleep on my shoulder on the train two days ago. Though now I wasn't wearing a coat, so I felt her warmth more distinctly.

"Aren't you supposed to be sick?", I asked.
"I got better."
In contrast to her blunt tone, the notes she played had a kind sound and closely interacted with my own.

Playing this and that, three hours passed in a blink. We started to notice each other's fatigue, so we played the Bee Gees' Spicks and Specks as a cooldown, then turned off the piano.
"Have fun?", I asked her.
"It worked to stave off boredom," she replied.

We went on a walk and got dinner at a local restaurant. Back at the apartment, I made brandy and milk which we drank while listening to the radio, then both hit the hay early.
The girl spoke not a word about revenge that day.

Maybe she has given up on revenge. She claimed she would still continue with it, but I was sure she was just being stubborn.
Deep down, she couldn't really feel like killing any more people. What awaited her after the terrifying experience of murder was fear that made her legs give out, sickness bad enough to make her throw up, and guilt-induced insomnia. And there was the possibility of an unprecedented counterattack like two days ago.
By now, she concretely understood the pointlessness of revenge.

Today must have been an extremely peaceful day for her. She got to lie down under the covers wearing headphones and listening to music all day, play piano as she pleased, eat out, drink brandy, and go back to bed.
Such days seemed like they were rather rare in her life.

I hope she can accept this kind of life, I thought. She could forget all about her revenge, and until the day her postponement's effect runs out, enjoy meager yet definite happiness like today.
Buying clothes, listening to music, playing piano, going out and having fun, eating tasty food. She wouldn't have to have her legs go out, or throw up, or get beaten by anyone.
I, too, wouldn't have to serve as an accomplice to murder anymore, and might avoid being "subjected to a suitable fate" as her fifth victim.

Was there any way I could guide her toward abandoning revenge? The piano, I felt, was a pretty good idea. I wondered if there were anything else she might like. Maybe I could talk with the art student about it?
As I stared at the ceiling dimly thinking it over, the brandy took effect, and my eyes drifted shut.

Even while I slept, my brain kept thinking.
I was overlooking some things.

For instance, there was a feeling of wrongness over the past few days that I couldn't identify.
It hit its peak yesterday, when the girl said: "After all, as you say, revenge is just meaningless."
I should have been longing to hear those words. The girl becoming passive about her revenge should have been a very happy occurrence to me.

Should have been, yes.
So then why did I feel such an intense disappointment?

The answer came relatively quickly. Maybe I didn't want to hear her being so timid. I didn't want her to so quickly reject what she'd been doing up until then. I didn't want her to so easily discard that passion, that intensity.
In a way, I looked up to the girl as she acted as an embodiment of anger.

But is that really all?, I heard a voice ask.
Yeah, it is, I replied. I wanted to always feel that powerful passion I felt from her, because it was something that would never, ever come out of me.
Wrong, the voice said. That's just an after-the-fact interpretation. You were disappointed for a simpler reason. Don't confuse yourself.

I heard a sigh directed at me as I puzzled.
All right, I'll give you a hint. First and only. If you don't get it after this, I'll be wasting my time saying anything else.
I'll only say this once.

"Is that "passion" you feel really coming from her?"

That's all.

I closed my eyes and thought about it again.
I smelled a nostalgic aroma of flowers.
I thanked Shindo.
I'd realized what was wrong.

I lept awake in the middle of the night. My heart was racing. Something welled up my throat - not nausea, but an urge to shout.
My head was clear, like I'd woken up for a decades-long sleep. As I stood up, I stepped on a CD case and heard it crack, but I didn't care about that right now.
I filled a glass with water from the sink and drank it down, turned on the lights in the living room, and shook awake the girl, sleeping with the covers pulled over her face.

"What do you want at this hour?" She checked the clock beside her, then pulled up the covers to escape from the light.
"We're going to do your next act of revenge," I explained, pulling away the covers. "There's no time. Wake up and get ready."
She pulled the covers back over her and held them with her arms. "Can't it wait until morning?"
"It can't," I insisted. "It has to be right now. I feel like by tomorrow, you won't be a revenger anymore. I don't want that."

The girl turned over to put her back to me.
"...I don't understand why you would be so enthused," she mumbled. "Wouldn't it be more convenient for you if I did quit revenge?"
"I thought that, too. But I've changed my mind after having two days to sit and think about it. Or I guess maybe I just noticed how I really felt. The point is, I want you to be a merciless revenger. I don't want you to take the "wise" choice."

"That sounds like exactly the opposite of what you've been saying. Weren't you the one who said revenge was pointless?"
"That was so long ago, I forgot it."

"Not to mention," she yawned, curling up and hugging the sheets tighter, "after killing my next target, you do realize you'd be next?"
"Yeah. But so what?"
"Are you that desperate to get my good graces?"
"No, this has nothing to do with "scoring points.""
"Okay, so you've just gone mad," she muttered. "I'm going to sleep. You sleep too, and cool your head. Once it's morning and you've calmed down, we can talk about this again. ...Now turn off the lights."

I pondered. How could I explain this so that she would understand?
I sat down on the sofa and waited for the right words to come to mind.

"Come to think of it, there were signs since your first murder." I chose my words carefully. "When you killed her, your legs gave out, right? Honestly, I found myself thinking "What a cowardly murderer." ...But it wasn't you acting strangely, it was me. Your reaction was normal, and mine wasn't. How could I remain so calm witnessing the death of a person? It didn't have to be as extreme as your reaction; even just being sleepless with anxiety would be enough."

The girl said nothing, but seemed to be listening closely.
"After your second murder, too, I was perfectly indifferent, feeling no disgust or guilt. Instead, I noticed a separate, unknown emotion that I'd never experienced before. It must have overshadowed the usual negative impression I'd get from murder. By the time you committed your third murder, I think I'd almost realized what it was. But I didn't fully open my eyes to it until just this moment."

The girl sat up like she was shaking off numbness and looked at me with confusion.
"Er, what on earth are you talking about?"

What was I talking about?
I was talking about love.

"I think I'm in love with you."

Those words were enough to freeze the world over.
All the air fled out through cracks in the room, leaving the silence of a vacuum.

"...Um?", she finally spoke after a long silence.
"I know I have no right to such a thing. And I know I'm the person least suited to be feeling this way in the whole world. It's impudent, even. After all, I'm the one who took your life. But I'm saying this with all that in mind: It seems that I'm in love with you."

"I don't get it." She lowered and shook her head repeatedly. "Are you sleepwalking?"
"You have it backwards. I've been sleepwalking for 22 years. And I just now woke up. A little late, I know."
"I don't understand a single thing about this. Why would you feel compelled to love me?"

"When you first killed someone in front of me," I began, "when your blouse was stained with blood splatter, and you looked down on the corpse, gripping your deadly scissors, I looked at you and thought, "She's beautiful." ...At first, I didn't even pay any attention to the fact I had that feeling. But now I realize it may have been one of the greatest moments of my entire life. It was my first ever experience falling for someone, actually. I, who'd seemingly given up on praying and hoping for anything so long ago, thought, "I want to experience that moment again." That was how impressively beautiful the sight of you taking revenge was."

"Please don't just make things up." The girl threw a pillow at me, but I blocked it and dropped it on the floor.
"You're trying to get in my good books like this? I won't be fooled," she said with a glare. "I don't like it. This method of yours is my least favorite of all."
"I'm not lying. I know you won't believe it. I'm probably the most bewildered one here."
"I don't want to hear it."

The girl covered her ears and closed her eyes. I grabbed her wrists and pulled them away.
We met eyes at close range. A beat later, she averted her gaze downward.

"Listen, I'll say it again," I sighed. "You're beautiful when you're taking revenge. So please, don't say that it's meaningless. Don't settle for that common, ready-made conclusion. At least to me, it's meaningful. In terms of beauty, it's more valuable than anything. So I'm praying you can get revenge on at least one more person. Even if I might be included in it."

Her hand brushed me away, and she forcefully pushed me in the chest. I fell onto the ground.
Of course she'd react this way, I thought, staring at the ceiling. What person could just accept being told "I've fallen for you" from the person who killed them?

In fact, I hadn't intended to say so much. I just wanted to leave it at "I sympathized with your revenge, and I was right to do so, so I don't want you to stop here."
What the hell was I saying, "it seems that I'm in love with you"? I'd never properly felt such feelings in my life - and directing them at a cowardly killer five or six years my younger? Was I just experiencing Stockholm syndrome?

My sigh touched the girl's hand, outstretched toward me.
I timidly reached for it, and she grabbed it firmly and pulled me up.
Something like this had happened before, I recalled. It was raining terribly then.

There was a long silence, with her still holding my hand. Her expression said "What am I doing?" Staring at our hands, she seemed to be deep in thought about the significance of her subconscious action.
Suddenly, her fingers stopped holding on, and she quickly pulled her hand away.

"Hurry up and get ready," she told me. "We might be able to make the last train if we're quick."
I was stunned, and she looked at me smugly.
"What's wrong? You like me when I'm taking beautiful revenge, don't you?"
"...Yeah, that's it," I replied at length.

"That's hard for me to understand," she said with a sneer. "Being liked by you of all people doesn't give me any joy."
"I don't care. You don't have anyone but me to rely on, so I know I'll be able to accompany you no matter how much you don't like it."
"Exactly. I'm very displeased."
She stepped on my foot. But not forcefully enough to be painful, and as we were both barefoot, the smooth touching sensation was pleasant; it almost resembled something an animal would do as a display of affection toward others.

It was freezing outside, so we left wearing winter coats. Under the apartment overhang was parked a rusty bicycle that probably belonged to some tenant. I borrowed it without permission, had the girl sit on the luggage carrier, and rode out of the saddle to the station.
My hands on the handlebars were quickly chilled, my eyes hurt in the dry wind, and the wounds on my pinky ached in the cold air.

After climbing a long hill, there was a thin downward slope leading to the station. The screeching sound of brakes echoed through the sleepy residential street.
Probably feeling a sense of peril from the increased speed, the girl clung to my back. If only for that reason, I wished that slope could go on forever.

Part 4

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