Chapter 9: Let There Be Love

My sister, with the pretext of having "ignored her" for not making eye contact when we passed in the hallway, dragged me by the hair to my room, opened the door, and shoved me in.
Enduring the pain in my elbow after being severely thrown into the hard floor, I looked up and saw the delinquents my sister brought along, joyfully shouting vulgar things at me.
The room had a sour smell, like a dump full of beer bottles and empty cans. I tried to run, but as I turned my heel, a droopy-eyed man missing front teeth kicked my shin, and I fell flat. They cackled.

Then began the usual festivities. I was to be their toy.
One filled a glass with whiskey to the brim and told me to drink it down straight. Naturally, I had no right to refuse, so I reluctantly reached for the glass.
Then a woman wearing so much perfume as to smell like a bug-infested plant proclaimed that time was up and winked at a man beside her. The man held my arms behind my back and forced my mouth open. The woman poured the whiskey in.

I knew from prior experience that if I stubbornly refused to drink this, a worse punishment would await. So I gave in, and gulped down the whiskey in my mouth.
I desperately tried to keep from howling from the burning sensation in my throat and the peculiar smell like mixing medicine, barrels, and wheat. The crowd jeered.

Somehow, I drank the entirety of the glass. Within ten seconds, I felt severe nausea. Everything from my throat to my stomach burned, and my senses were muddled and spun, as if someone was grabbing hold of my head and shaking.
I was one step from acute alcohol poisoning. I heard an ominous noise nearby. "Okay, time for a second!" The woman pushed the glass in front of my face.

I already lacked the energy to run, and the hands binding me wouldn't be shaken off no matter how much I resisted. The whiskey was poured in, and I began coughing horribly in the midst of it.
"Disgusting," the man holding me said, releasing my arms and pushing me away. Having lost my sense of balance, I felt like I'd fly up to the ceiling and stick to it, but in reality only fell flat on the floor.

I crawled toward the door desperate to somehow escape, but someone grabbed my ankle and pulled me back.
My sister squatted next to me and said, "If you can last an hour without throwing up, I'll let you go." I was about to shake my head, knowing there was no possible way, but before I could, she punched me in the stomach. She hadn't even intended to give me the chance.
I found myself puking up on the spot, and the crowd cheered.

A short and stout woman announced that I would be punished for losing the game, took out a taser, and turned it on.
The firecracker-like sparking sound made me cower. I knew the amount of pain it could induce far better than she did.

Immediately, she put the electrode to my neck, and a shriek that I couldn't imagine was my own came out my throat.
Finding it funny, she applied it in many other places, aiming for areas with thin skin. Again. And again. And again. And again.
As if to fill the gaps between the pains being inflicted upon me, the alcohol brought back more nausea. When I threw up again, the crowd booed, and I suffered a particularly long tasering for it.

And yet I didn't feel any suffering. That kind of thing wasn't enough to "undo."

Familiarity is a scary thing; I had become able to make it through such agony.
I emptied my head to prepare for any kind of attack, and packed it full of music instead. While they berated me, I focused on exactly recreating music in my mind to dull my other senses.

I'll go to the library tomorrow and stuff in lots more music, I decided.
The small, drab library that had been in the area for over three decades had little in the way of books, but was rich with music, and I almost daily listened to their selection in the listening corner.

At first, I enjoyed intense music that tried to blow my gloom away. But I soon found that the most effective thing for dealing with agony wasn't excellent lyrics or a snug melody, but "pure beauty," and so my tastes shifted toward calmer songs.
"Meaning" and "comfort" would eventually leave you behind. "Beauty" wouldn't snuggle with you, but it would stay in the same place. Even if I didn't understand at first, it would wait there patiently until I arrived.

Pain lays waste to positive feelings, but you can't lose the feeling of regarding something beautiful as beautiful. In fact, pain just makes beauty more apparent. Anything for which this doesn't hold true is just an imitation of true beauty.
Merely-fun music, merely-interesting books, merely-deep paintings - they couldn't be relied upon in a pinch, so how valuable could they truly be?

As Pete Townshend said, "Rock and roll won't solve your problems, but it'll let you dance all over them."
Indeed, my problems won't be solved. That was the essence of my salvation. Any thought that had the prerequisite of solving all my problems, I didn't believe. If there was nothing to be done about anything, then nothing would be done about everything.
Forget about such "relief" as the ugly duckling becoming a beautiful swan. As I thought, the ugly duckling would have to become happy remaining ugly.

How long did it take? It could have been minutes, it could have been hours.
Either way, when I came to, my sister and her friends were gone. I'd made it through their torment yet another day. I was victorious.
I stood up and went to the kitchen to gargle two cups of water, then went to the toilet to throw up again. I stood in front of the sink to brush my teeth.

I looked terrible in the mirror. My eyes were congested and red, yet my face was pale, and my shirt had stains of whiskey, puke, and blood.
I wondered when I'd bled and checked myself for injuries, yet found none. But as I started to brush, I realized I'd bitten my cheek while being attacked with the taser. My toothbrush was soaked red.

It was 4 AM. I took aspirin and stomach medicine from the shelves in the living room, changed into bedwear, and lay down on my bed.
No matter how much I was hurt, there was no changing that tomorrow would be an ordinary day of school. I had to get my body at least some rest.

I took the teddy bear from under my pillow and hugged it. Even I questioned such a method of consoling myself. It truly stunned me.
But I supposed it might just continue this way. While I'd long sought a soft embrace, I knew that there was no person who would provide it to me.

The public high school, having an isolated feeling from the thick trees around it, was not one I attended willingly.
I'd hoped to attend a local private school, but my mother insisted that women didn't need extensive schooling, and my stepfather claimed that no high school I went to would change anything, refusing to let me take entrance exams anywhere but the public institution a single bus ride from home.

Whenever the starting bell rang, it was ignored, and voices continued chattering around the classroom. The classes didn't test anything of worth, and by noon, a third of the students had left early.
There were hundreds of cigarette butts behind the gym, and about once a month, someone would get arrested or get pregnant and drop out; that was the sort of school it was.
But I told myself I had to be grateful I was going to high school at all. Some children don't even get a proper middle school education.

Noon classes began. The room was so noisy I couldn't make out anything the teacher was saying, so I started reading the textbook by myself when something hit me on my shoulder from behind.
A paper bag that still had a few things inside. A little bit of coffee flew out and stained my socks. There was laughter, but I didn't even turn around.
During class, they wouldn't do anything worse than this. If throwing a paper bag at me was all they'd do, I could ignore it and continue studying.

I suddenly looked up and made eye contact with the teacher. A young woman, in her late twenties. She must have seen the paper bag too, but she feigned ignorance.
But I didn't blame her for it. I similarly wouldn't do anything for her if she were to become a target of the students. We only looked out for ourselves.

After school, I headed directly for the city library. I wanted to listen to music, yes, but I also wanted to quickly get somewhere quiet and sleep.
It was awkward using the library like a comics cafe, but I wasn't aware of anywhere else I could have a peaceful sleep.

At home, my father or sister could wake me up and beat me at any time, and in the classroom, if I carelessly nodded off on my desk, I could have my chair pulled out from under me or garbage dumped out on my head.
I couldn't sleep in such places, so I slept in the library. Luckily, the sorts of people who wanted to inflict harm on me didn't come near it. Plus, I could read books and even listen to music. A fantastic invention, libraries.

Sleep deprivation fundamentally weakens people. Just halving the amount of sleep would severely lower my resistance to things like physical pain, verbal vilification, and anxiety about the future.
If I yielded even once, it would take considerable time and effort to return to appearing tough as usual. No, if I wasn't careful, maybe I could never return to that.

I had to be strong and resilient. So keeping up with sleep was essential. Any day I couldn't get more than four hours of sleep at home, I slept at the library.
I wouldn't say the hard chair in the private study room was comfortable to sleep in, but it was the one and only place where I could belong. During the open hours of 9 AM to 6 PM.

After listening to some light music, I checked out John Irving's The Cider House Rules and read it. My drowsiness hit a peak after reading just a few pages.
The time passed as quickly as if someone stole it away, and a librarian shook my shoulder to tell me that the library was closing for the night.
The alcohol from yesterday had finally left me, and my pain had settled. I bowed my head to her, put the book back on the shelf, and left the library.

It was completely dark when I went outside. In October, the sun began to set very early.
On my way home, the cold wind made me shiver, and I thought about the same thing I always did:

Will a letter come today?

It had been a long five years since we became penpals. In that time, my surroundings changed greatly.
My father died of a stroke, and several months afterward, my mother married the man who was now my stepfather. My surname changed from "Hizumi" to "Akazuki," and I gained a sister two years my elder.

The moment I saw the man that my mother told me she intended to marry, in the spring of my first year of middle school, I predicted that my life would be thoroughly destroyed, and thought to myself, "I'm doomed."
Every element that made him up gave me a foreboding feeling. While I couldn't quite express in words why I felt such ill omen, after 17 years of life, I didn't need to say "I suppose I'd call him a bad person" or "I suppose I'd call him a good person" - at a glance, he was clearly a bad person. That was what my subconscious accumulated knowledge told me.
Why had my mother chosen this plague-carrier, of all people?

Just as I predicted, my stepfather was an exemplary bringer of ills. He felt inferior about his social standing, and lept at the chance to beat others down in order to cover for it.
In addition, he was a coward, so he would only target those weaker than himself. He'd berate service workers for "hardly providing a service," explicitly asking their names to insult them; or when a car rear-ended him, he'd force the whole family to get down and apologize in the street.

Yet he honestly seemed to believe that such actions were "manly" and that he was doing them a service.
The most terribly worrying part was that my mother, at least, seemed to be taken by his idea of "manliness" driven by his own sense of inferiority. He was truly, truly beyond help.

As someone who thought this way, my stepfather believed that using violence to secure his position as the head of the family was an essential element of manliness.
What were the other elements? Beer, smoking, gambling. He revered them as symbols of masculinity. Perhaps he would have liked to add "women" to the list, but alas, no amount of work on his "manliness" would make any woman - my mother excluded - come near him.

Perhaps aware of this himself, he would occasionally repeat, though no one had asked, something like this: "Loving my one and only wife makes me feel like I have something to live for. So while really, I've had countless opportunities to go after other women, I'm not interested at all."
And of course, before these words were hardly out of his mouth, he'd beat my mother.
I tried to break up the violence many times, but my mother told me, "Kiriko, please don't speak up. Things only get more complicated when you're in the equation."

After she told me that, I came to simply stand aside and watch.
In any event, it was my mother's choice. All I could do was watch it unfold.

One day, when I was alone with her, I asked "Haven't you thought of divorce?"
But she said such things as "I don't want to trouble my parents," and "I'm hopeless without a man," even ending with "We all have our faults."
A complete tour of all the words I didn't want to hear, I thought.

My stepfather's violence gradually came to also target me, his daughter-in-law. Well, it was the natural flow of things.
He'd beat me for the most trivial reasons, like getting home a little bit late or leaving school early. His handiwork slowly escalated, until one day my drunk stepfather pushed me down the stairs.
It wasn't as serious as it could have been, as I wasn't hurt in any particularly bad spots, but that one occasion got my mother furious, and the next day she briefly hinted at the idea of divorce.

Yes, only hinted. Wary of her husband's anger, she was careful not to speak the word "divorce."
She simply said, "If you keep treating Kiriko and I like this, I might have to take some measures of my own."

And she wasn't allowed to say any more. My stepfather picked up a nearby glass and threw it at a window.
At the time, I was in my room reading a reference book. When I heard the sound of the window shattering, my pen stopped, and I hesitantly wondered if I should go check the living room.

Just then, the door slammed open and my stepfather came running in. I nearly shrieked, and I think I should have - I should have screamed as loud as I could.
Maybe then someone in the neighborhood would have heard and come running. ...I'm joking, of course.

My mother came in behind, sobbing "Stop this, she has nothing to do with this," but he beat me regardless. I fell out of my chair and hit the side of my head against the desk.
Yet I couldn't think much more than "Great, so he won't even let me study in peace." Like it or not, seeing domestic violence every day got me used to it.

But as he struck me a second time, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a chilling fear arose from my core. It was my first time experiencing it.
I had a sudden thought. What if this man doesn't know any limits?
I instantly began to cry, and my body trembled. Perhaps they were tears wept because I was already predicting the tragedy in the months to come.

My mother kept trying to grab my stepfather's hand, but with the sheer difference in strength, she was quickly brushed off.
"It's your fault," he said. "I'm not doing this because I want to. But if you're going to make a fool of me, I'm going to have to take it out on her too. It's all your fault..."

I had no idea what he was saying. But somehow I understood his reason for beating me, rather than my mother who his anger was directed at. This was more effective than targeting her directly.

I was beaten for nearly two hours straight. Just as he wanted it, my mother never spoke of divorce again.
As if taking a liking to it, it came to be that when I didn't listen to him, he beat my mother, and when she didn't listen to him, he beat me.

My one salvation was my correspondence with Mizuho. If there was any time in my life that could be praised, it was when I'd roped Mizuho into becoming my penpal.
I waited for my opportunity ever since that autumn day in sixth grade when our homeroom teacher told us he would be changing schools.
But being so cowardly, it was difficult to take that first step, and I ultimately wasn't able to bring up the topic of becoming penpals until his very last day.
If I hadn't squeezed out enough courage then, and hadn't ended up exchanging letters with Mizuho, I'd have nothing to live for and probably would have died at 13 or 14. So I praised my past self.

To be honest, the "correspondence" I speak of is probably slightly different from what most people would think.
In my letters, I didn't write tearfully to Mizuho about how I lived in fear of my stepfather, stepsister, and school to have him comfort me.
I did write things just as they happened for a few months after starting, but once my stepfather arrived and things changed completely, I started to lie about everything instead.

That isn't to say I didn't have any desire to complain and cry, and to have Mizuho console me. But I feared that myself changing would change him as well.
If I had written about my hardship exactly to the letter, Mizuho would come to worry for me and carefully choose inoffensive topics, no longer talking as much about the positive occurrences in his life.
Then our correspondence would be reduced to a written form of counseling.

I didn't want that. So I created a fictional "Kiriko Hizumi." My father being dead, my mother remarrying the worst human alive, being horribly bullied at school, I made not a peep about.
All that was for Kiriko Akazuki to deal with, and had nothing to do with Kiriko Hizumi. Kiriko Hizumi was a girl living a normal yet fulfilling life, who could also reflect upon the happiness she was blessed with.

I enjoyed briefly becoming her to write my letters. By the time I was writing a second sentence, I could fully assume the role of Kiriko Hizumi.
As small details that gave my lies a hint of truth piled up, I came to feel like I was living two lives simultaneously.

Ironically, my fictional life soon overtook my real one. If, for instance, I had written letters from the standpoints of both Kiriko Hizumi and Kiriko Akazuki, and asked strangers to guess which described an actual life, I would expect nine out of ten to pick Kiriko Hizumi.
That was the extent to which I delved into my fiction and out of my reality. Endless days of abuse. If there had been even the slightest change, it might have felt more real.

I loved Mizuho.

I did, though, feel it was strange to "love" someone who I hadn't met in five years simply because he and I got along well. What was I doing falling for the recipient of my letters whose face I could hardly imagine anymore?
The possibility that because no one else would fill such a position, I had no other choices for love but him, was one I lacked enough evidence against to deny.
It could have also been because we really hadn't talked much at all outside of letters, so I was only seeing his good side.

Still, I was oddly convinced of it. Mizuho was the only one in the world I could feel this way about.
There was no basis, but there didn't have to be. I'd never wanted to be forcibly justifying or logically explaining my own feelings.
Falling in love shouldn't require explaining anything to others. If anyone does feel that such a thing is necessary, I suspect they view love as a means rather than an end.

My mind, ever eager to make itself difficult to save, decided to create an imaginary Mizuho based off his letters, handwriting, and stationery.

In my imagination, he had grown very tall after grade school, and now was about a head taller than me. A good height difference for hugging.
Despite the cheerful loquaciousness of his letters, I imagined that if we met in person, he'd be too shy to even look me in the eye and bad at enunciating. Occasionally, it would lead him to say startling things to me without hesitation.
Normally he had a somewhat gloomy expression, and his way of speaking could be called calm at best and indifferent at worst, but his occasional smile was just as it was when he was 12.
It would completely take me by surprise as it appeared, that dizzyingly lovable smile.

That was the Mizuho I imagined. I was shocked to find when we later reunited how many of my predictions were spot-on, but that's for a bit later.

When I returned home, I didn't go to check the mailbox, but underneath an owl statue by the front door. I'd arranged with the friendly postman to have him put any letters sent by Mizuho Yugami there instead.
Of course, it wasn't the same delivery person every time, so some days a letter would end up directly in the mailbox.

I peered under the owl and saw that there was no letter. Sighing, I opened the front door. I quickly regretted it. I should have checked inside first.
My stepfather had just put down his briefcase, and was in the middle of taking off his shoes.

"I'm home," I meekly voiced. He quickly turned his back to me and stuffed something in his suit pocket.
I found myself strangely caught up on that action. It gave me a bad feeling.

"Hey," he replied. Definitely sounds awkward, I thought to myself. Like how a guilty person would reply. My unease swelled.
I boldly asked, "Um, did you hide something just now?"

His tone darkened instantly. He took an offensive stance, and took a quick breath as if to prepare to shout at any time.
But this told me without a doubt that he felt guilty about something. And it also no doubt had to do with the thing he hid in his pocket. Such a brazen man would have no other reason to hide mere mail.

"It's something addressed to me," he oppressively stated. "You'd better watch your mouth."
Figuring I'd be given the runaround if I asked indirectly, I got straight to the point.
"In that case, can you show it to me? Just for a second."

His face instantly showed a panicked expression. But just as quickly as it appeared, it changed to anger instead.
It was one of his creeds that victory in these situations went to the one who first got the upper hand and shouted out the other. And indeed, that was effective, when the other was someone weaker and with no ground on him.

"Who do you think you are?", he growled, closing in on me. I smelled a greasy smell. He grabbed my collar and lightly smacked my cheek.
However, with this I was able to confirm there was an envelope poking slightly out of his pocket. From the gray, high-quality paper and handwriting of the address, I recognized it as a letter from Mizuho.
He noticed where I was looking, let go of my collar, and thrust me away.
"Don't push your luck," he told me as he went up the stairs. I tried to chase after him, but my legs wouldn't move. My body knew how pointless it was to resist that man.

I collapsed to the floor. He was the one person I didn't want knowing about it.
He'd lock himself up in the study and read through that letter Mizuho wrote for me. And he'd chuckle about learning a new one of my weaknesses.

He was always that way. I don't know if I'd call him a peeping tom, but my stepfather wanted to know all his family's secrets. For being a champion of manliness, he seemed to considerably enjoy things in the realm of gossip.
Whenever my mother got a phone call, he'd have her report on what it was about. He opened up any and all mail that came in for himself. Whenever he had the chance, he'd sneak a peek at cellphones (though I wasn't given one, so that wasn't a danger I went through). And I'd seen him sneak into my room to fish through drawers more than twice.

And now this. I had to settle for him reading the letter. There would be nothing shameful written there.
Other than the fact that I'd been continuously lying, our correspondence was perfectly healthy. There was nothing to worry about it being read.

What I was far more afraid of now was that my stepfather, to conceal the truth of having read a letter addressed to me, would dispose of the evidence somewhere like a train station or a convenience store trash can.
Just imagining it made my pulse pound. Those letters were my treasures. My creed. My life. Losing one was more painful than my body being burned alive.

When my stepfather went to work the next day, I abandoned all shame and honor and dug through the trash cans around the house. Then I took a flashlight and searched all the trash cans along his commute.
In the restroom of a convenience store next to his company, I found the crumpled gray envelope.
But the all-important contents were nowhere to be found.

If this were only a one-time occurrence, then I could accept it being lost. I could just write that I'd put it in my bag to read it elsewhere and lost it along the way.
But I was sure that after this event, my stepfather would be wary of the mailbox and the surrounding area.
And when he found a letter addressed to Kiriko Hizumi, he'd happily stuff it in his pocket, bask in his superiority as he read it in secret, then ball it up and discard it somewhere on his way to work.

Further correspondence may be difficult, I realized.

Why couldn't I "undo" the event of my stepfather finding the letter?
I'm sure it must have had to do with the guilt I felt over continuing to lie to Mizuho.

This relationship is unhealthy, it should be terminated, and perhaps this incident would be a good chance to abandon it.
By feeling that way for even a second, my wish lost its purity and strength, and "postponement" of the event became very difficult.

The feeling that bad things always come at you all at once may be an illusion along the lines of "it always starts raining when I start washing my car."
But the same day I was in the depths of despair after being unable to find the letter, something even worse happened.

When I went to school at lunch and entered the classroom, a few girls grabbed me by the neck and dragged me behind the gym.
I wasn't particularly surprised, as I'd noticed they had their eyes on me for a while. It was akin to seeing a cloudy sky start to rain.

The degree to which my classmates detested me wasn't extremely severe or extremely weak, but just moderately right there in the middle.
I was strong enough to resist it, but not enough to fully defend myself. And not weak enough to completely give in, but enough to give up on bettering the situation.
Whether it's sports, a board game, or bullying, it's most enjoyable to beat someone who's "strong yet weak."

Upon realizing that, while I had no way of making myself any stronger or weaker, just the feeling that I'd figured out the reason significantly lessened my worries.
That must be why people who lead miserable lives become more introspective, I mused.

After all six of the girls had beaten me up, they pushed me to the ground. My mouth was pried open, and a bucket of dirty water was poured in.
I didn't know where they got the water from, but it seemed to have just the same kind of impurity as the water used for end-of-the-day cleanup. People really enjoyed having me drink strange things, it seemed.

I tried holding my breath and refusing to gulp it down, but someone grabbed my neck and squeezed it, causing a considerable amount of the water to go down.
The mixed taste of detergent and dust filled my mouth and ran down from my throat to my stomach. I couldn't bear it and threw up. Gosh, I was throwing up all the time lately.

"Clean that up later," a classmate said with satisfaction, and they left. I went to a washing area and threw up more water, then washed my clothes and body.
My wet uniform dripped water, and enduring the gaze of passersby, I went down the hallway to my locker in front of the classroom. But when I opened it, my jersey wasn't there.
Suddenly, I noticed the faucet running at the sink a few meters away. Sure enough, my jersey was there, getting waterlogged.
Such intricacy. What had driven them to go this far?

I went to the infirmary, borrowed a change of clothes, and put my uniform and jersey in the dryer.
My eyes were starting to lose focus, and something inside me seemed about to break. But I just barely held my ground. By taking repeated deep breaths, I aired out my stagnant body.

They say suffering makes fools of people, but being abused by everyone was just making me empty.
So perhaps this shouldn't be called suffering, but emaciation. I was being worn down day by day.

After school, I stopped by the library, sat in the hard chair, and wrote a letter to Mizuho.
Just writing the sentence "I want to talk face to face" took twenty minutes. "Some things, I just can't bring myself to say in letters. I want us to look each other in the eyes and hear each other talk."

Communicating through letters had gotten difficult. I didn't have a cellphone. Even using the home phone was difficult with my family watching, and I didn't have the money to have satisfyingly long conversations on a public phone.
But I still wanted to keep things going with him. Which meant we'd have to meet in person. I had no other choices. I decided I would meet Mizuho.

That said, it was a long shot. Mizuho would quickly see through the differences between the fictional Kiriko Hizumi and the real Kiriko Akazuki.
Maybe I could fool him if it were only a couple of hours, but if our relationship were going to continue outside of letters, I wouldn't be able to hide the truth forever.

When I reunited with Mizuho, I would have to confess my lies. How would he respond to that?
He was kind, so even if he learned he'd been deceived for five years, he wouldn't show his anger, I was sure. But no doubt he would be disappointed. I couldn't help but be afraid of that.

Or maybe I was being too optimistic. Just because I was indifferent didn't mean I could deem others to be the same way.
After all, I seemed to have some uncommon quality that made everyone everywhere hate me at all times. I needed to take that into account.

Perhaps the worst case scenario was Mizuho would scorn me for my lies, call me tactless, and disappear from my life.
No, maybe he'd never even accept my suggestion in the first place. It was possible he was friendly with me because it was via letters, and wasn't interested enough to care about meeting in person. I could see him pinning me as an impudent girl.

I could "undo" those things. Because after the day I found the run-over corpse of a gray cat I'd adored at eight years old, I was a wizard. I became able to make events such that they never happened, for a fixed time.
However, if Mizuho showed his distaste for me, and I nullified it, I would retain the memory of him rejecting me. Would I be able to continue our correspondence with a straight face, knowing that?

When all hope is lost, what am I to do?
Simple. I would retreat into fantasy, as always. Something easy to imagine: a train. The time doesn't matter, but let's say it's evening.

I'm at a railroad crossing. A small railroad crossing with no one around. Ding, ding, ding. The alarm starts to sound off. I watch for the right time and duck under the gate, then lie down on the track. My neck and my shins are positioned on the tops of the rails. After looking at the stars for a few seconds, I slowly close my eyes. I feel a vibration from the tracks. The sharp light from the headlights peeks under my eyelids. The brakes screech, but it's already too late. My neck comes off in an instant.

That was my fantasy.
What a good world. So many easy and reliable ways to end a life. And that's why I was able to live so intently.
"If you can't stand this game anymore, you can just turn off the power. You have that right."
Until the moment I well and truly couldn't stand it, I would hold tight to the controller to uncover all the details of this sick game.
Incidentally, in seventeen years of playtime, I did come to learn one thing: that it's pointless to hope for any kind of "creator's intent."

After napping until closing time, I mailed the letter in a round postbox installed near the entrance and left the library behind.
As I walked the residential streets filled with warm light, all the families seemed to be living in harmony. But I figured the reality couldn't be so, and they all had their own terrible problems to deal with.
At the very least, I wasn't hearing any shouting or screaming from their houses.

After waiting a week feeling like the girl in Please Mr. Postman, there was still no reply from Mizuho. I began to lose my mind, unable to stop imagining bad possibilities.
What if his reply was delayed because he was thinking about how to refuse me? Or was he simply busy with school and clubs? Maybe a reply had come, but my stepfather snatched it? Was he upset about how I hadn't touched upon anything he wrote in his last letter? What if something happened to him? Did I exhaust his good graces with my impudence? Would he never reply again? Had he long since seen through my lies?

I stared at myself in the mirror of the dim library bathroom. My eyes had heavy bags, and were muddled with black.
No one would be itching to meet such a ghastly girl, I thought.

Ten days passed. I began to consider the possibility of carrying out my railroad crossing fantasy.

Upon returning from the library, I saw the familiar postman arrive at my house and run off.
My heart pounding, I searched underneath the owl statue. But my despair only deepened. Just in case, I checked around the mailbox too, but of course, found nothing there either. I pathetically checked under the owl again. No.

I stood there. My hate for it all became unbearable. As I considered destroying this owl to distract myself at least somewhat, a voice came from behind.
I turned around and greeted the mailman; he had purposefully come back for me. The short man in his early forties kindly returned the greeting.
In his hand was a gray envelope with high-quality paper.

He whispered to me.
"I was here a moment ago and was about to put this under the owl as usual, but your father was just coming home. You want to avoid him seeing it, right?"

I was too grateful to say a word. Thank you, thank you. I deeply bowed to him again and again.
His sun-baked face distorted into a sorrowful smile. He must have been faintly aware of my situation. "I'm sorry I can't do anything for you," said his eyes.
So I replied in the same way. "You don't need to worry about it. Besides, isn't this all too common?"

Not wanting anyone to interrupt the moment, I went to the waiting area of a local bus station and opened the envelope.
My hands trembled. Just to be sure, I checked the address and sender again. Kiriko Hizumi. Mizuho Yugami. No mistaking it. As long as this wasn't a wish-fulfilling illusion, this letter was written from Mizuho to me.

I took out the letter and slowly digested the words written there. A few seconds later, I leaned on the back of the bench and looked up at the stars.
I folded up the letter, put it back in the envelope, and held it over my heart. The sides of my mouth naturally lifted, a smile eking out. My breaths seemed a little warmer than usual.

"Mizuho," I whispered.
The sound of that name was, for the moment, my entire life.

There was an incident in which money was stolen from a student's wallet, and having not been in the classroom at the time, I was the number one suspect.
Two teachers asked me in the staff room what I was doing then. I replied that I was drying my clothes in the infirmary after my classmates dirtied them, and the nurse should know that as well, so could they please confirm these things from the start?
There were less than thirty minutes until my meeting with Mizuho, so I was agitated and spoke harshly.

The teachers had their doubts. They knew the kind of treatment the students usually subjected me to, and began to question if I was getting payback. They deemed the infirmary business to be a blatant creation of an alibi.
"We won't call the police, so just fess up now," a math teacher butted in to say. My holding time kept being prolonged.

Once it was ten minutes past the arranged time, I slipped out of the staff room without warning. "Wait," they shouted and grabbed my arm, but I shook it off and ran.
I ignored them shouting "Do you think you can run?" from behind me. By doing this, they'd obviously only be further convinced of my guilt. But did I care? It was neither here nor there.
As much as I rushed, the promised time of 5 PM had already passed. But maybe Mizuho would wait for me if it were only an hour, say.

I ran without regard for the people watching. Sweat ran down my forehead. My big toe ran up against my cheap loafers, peeling the skin. My heart shrieked in want of oxygen. My vision narrowed. But I just ran.

Mizuho had indicated a small train station, right around the middle of the line connecting our houses, as our rendezvous point.
Luckily, it was within walking distance of school. If I hurried, I could get there within thirty minutes.

More calamity awaited. Right after turning a corner, a bicycle flew out in front of me. We both went the same way to try and avoid each other and collided head-on.
My back hit the asphalt, and the impact left me unable to breathe. Clenching my teeth as I squatted on the ground, I waited for the pain to recede.
The high schooler riding the bike ran up and apologized furiously. I acted like it was nothing, stood up, said "Sorry, I'm in a hurry," pushed him away, and started on my way again.
Suddenly, pain shot up my ankle, and I faltered.

I made an impudent request of the high schooler insistently apologizing to me.
"Um, don't worry about the accident. Could you take me to the train station in exchange?"
He gladly accepted. I sat on the luggage carrier of the bicycle, and the boy wearing a knit blazer took me to the station.
Ultimately, I seemed to get there faster than I would have on foot. Luck hadn't given up on me just yet.

On reaching the roundabout outside the station, I said "This is good enough," got off the bicycle, and hurried to the building while holding my leg.
A clock standing out among shrubs showed it was ten minutes to 7 PM. A departure whistle echoed across the platform. The stopped train began to move.

I had a bad feeling.

I stood alone underneath the flickering fluorescent lights. After watching the second hand of the clock complete three revolutions, I sat in one of the chairs, of which there were only six.
With my sweat dried, my body was cold, and there was a throbbing pain in my head. I took a paperback out of my bag and opened it on my lap.
I mechanically read the words, but caught none of their meaning. Still I continued to flip pages.

I wasn't expecting that if I waited like this, Mizuho would come running up to me out of breath.
I just needed some time to accept the fact that I'd wasted our one chance at reuniting.

"Did you not make the train?"
I turned and saw the boy who brought me here. I couldn't be bothered to explain the situation, so I nodded.
He lowered his head. "I'm really sorry. It's my fault."
I did the same. "No, there was no chance of me making it in the first place. In fact, you taking me on your bicycle got me here much faster than expected. Thank you very much."

The boy was about a head taller than me, and had sort of a melancholy air about him. He bought warm milk tea from a vending machine and offered it to me.
I thanked him and accepted it, used it to warm up my hands, and slowly drank. Calming down caused the pain in my ankle to surmount, but compared to the wounds others inflicted with hostile intent, it was nothing.

I observed the boy again as he sat two seats away from me. I hadn't noticed before with my fixation on the rendezvous, but the uniform he wore seemed familiar. Yet I couldn't remember where I'd seen it.
A knit blazer and a gray necktie. It was different from the numerous uniforms I'd seen coming home from school, and it wasn't a uniform from any of the high schools I'd hoped to attend.

I took my time searching every nook and cranny of my memory. That was it. About two years ago, something had led me to use a computer at the library to research a certain high school.
His uniform the same one I'd seen students wearing on the front page of the school's website.

When I remembered what had led me to do that research, a theory instantaneously came to mind. But I instantly rejected it. "Something that convenient couldn't actually happen."
I felt pathetic for even briefly entertaining such a ridiculous idea.

Noticing me looking at him, the boy blinked with a "What is it?" kind of look. I quickly averted my eyes. He looked at me curiously for a while. The modesty of his gaze just made me more nervous.
I watched the up-train leave. I watched the down-train leave.
We were suddenly alone in the station.

"Are you waiting for someone?", the boy asked.
"No, nothing like that. I just..."
My words came to a halt. He waited for me to continue. But upon realizing that the words that would follow after "I just" were "feel comfortable next to you, so I don't feel like leaving," I had to close my mouth.
What was I about to say to this boy who I'd only just met? I was getting really overconfident about him just being a little nice to me.

After watching yet another train go, I spoke.
"Um... I'm grateful for your concern, but you don't need to accompany me forever. I'm hardly unable to move from my injuries or anything. I'm just staying here because I want to."
"We think alike. I'm just here because I want to be, too."
"...Is that right?"

"Something kind of sad happened today," he sighed. "I'm sure me running you over earlier was because I let myself be totally distracted by it. I know it's no reason to moan to you about it, but the moment I leave here and I'm alone, I'm gonna have to face up to my sadness again. I don't want to do that, so I'm not moving from this spot."

He stretched and closed his eyes. The mood lightened, and I felt myself getting sleepy.

It wasn't until some time later that I realized the person sitting next to me was the boy I adored.
Surprisingly, my "much too convenient theory" was almost perfectly accurate to reality. Mizuho had waited thirty minutes, and when I didn't show, decided to head to my school directly on his bicycle, then ran me over on the way.
If we hadn't dodged the same direction and collided, we might have easily passed each other by. I was grateful for that happenstance.

"There's something I need to confess," Mizuho said.
In my foolishness, I misinterpreted him as meaning a confession of love and was thrown into disarray. Having thought so much about how wonderful it would be if he felt the same way, I couldn't get around to considering the other possibilities.

Oh, what do I do? I was conflicted. While I very glad that Mizuho felt that way, there was no way I could respond to that. Because the girl he loved was someone separate from the "Kiriko Akazuki" who stood before him.
In truth, I should have told him right away: "It's not me who you love, but rather Kiriko Hizumi, the fictional person I've made up."

But the words got caught in my throat. As I imagined how, if I kept quiet for now, Mizuho would whisper sweet nothings to me, I immediately put aside my ethics, my conscience, and my common sense.
I could just tell him the truth after he'd confessed to me, my cunning side said. Once I've squeezed that brief happiness enough to crush it, I could reveal that I was Kiriko Akazuki, who had no right to his love, and endure his scorn.
Before the confession or after didn't make a major difference. With a life like this, I had to have at least a moment to dream.

"I've been hiding things from you ever since middle school, Kiriko."
He'd been thinking about me for that long? I grew happier, but also sadder. Probably because I'd been betraying Mizuho for that long, too. For that long, I'd played with him using my illusion of the non-existent Kiriko Hizumi.

My conscience had a second wind. "Um, Mizuho, I...", I bravely interrupted, but Mizuho spoke over me.
"I doubt you can forgive me now, but I still need to apologize to you."

At last, I noticed I was making a major misunderstanding. He wasn't confessing his love for me.
So then, what was he confessing? What was there to apologize for?

"The "Mizuho Yugami" in the letters is entirely fictional," he told me. "He's no more than a person I made up to continue my correspondence with you. The person you see now, the real Mizuho Yugami, is someone completely different from the one in the letters."
"What in the world...?", I uttered, half with relief. "What do you mean?"
"I'll explain things in order."
And then I learned the truth.

Having thought only of myself, when I heard Mizuho's confession, I was so shocked as to lose the chance to admit to my own lies.
I was glad that we had told the same sorts of lies for the same reasons since the same time, glad that his appearance and general air and speaking were just as I imagined them, so very, very, very glad, that it no longer seemed the time to reveal my own secrets.

After regaining some presence of mind, I heard some unthinkable words come out of my mouth.
"Is that right? Mizuho, you've been fooling me all along?"
What was I, the pot calling the kettle black?
"Yeah," he nodded.
"So really, you never had a single friend, did you?"
"Right," he nodded again.
"I see."

I stopped talking there, brought the empty can of milk tea to my lips, and pretended to sip it.
"I don't mind if you hate me," Mizuho stated. "I deserve it for what I did to you. Lying endlessly over five years. I came here today because I wanted to talk with age-seventeen Kiriko at least once. I don't want anything more. I'm satisfied."
He was a liar, but an honest liar, I thought to myself. And I was a dishonest liar.

"Hey, Mizuho," I cooed.
"Please, at least answer this next question without lying. What were you thinking when you met me?"
He sighed. "I wanted you not to hate me."

"In that case," I began without delay, "I'll be your friend."
I, the one generally pleading for such a thing, took advantage of Mizuho's honesty.
His eyes widened a little bit, and with a puff of laughter, he said "Thanks."

Maybe this lie wasn't necessary. If I were honest and revealed that I too had not a single friend, and was abused at home and at school, maybe Mizuho and I could feel a kind of codependency, and sink comfortably in a desperate, unhealthy, festering relationship.

But just once, I wanted to interact with someone as just a normal girl. Not scorned, nor pitied, without consideration of my family or my past, to be seen as me.
And most importantly, I wanted to attempt in reality - unilaterally, at that - the fantasies that had come to mind during our correspondence.

The first thing I did with my position was arrange for us spend more time together.
"Mizuho, you should spend more time with others," I informed him. "Looking at you, your biggest problem seems to be that you're used to your one-person rhythm. So first, you need to start learning the rhythm of two people."
I only intended to make something up at random, but this was actually something that I personally thought about often.

"I get what you're saying," Mizuho affirmed. "But how?"
"You can just meet with me. More frequently."
"But won't that bother you, Kiriko?"
"Are you bothered, Mizuho?"
"No," he shook his head. "I'm glad."
"Well, I'm glad too."
"...I don't understand what you're talking about sometimes, Kiriko."
"That's because I think you don't need to understand."
"I see." He furrowed his brow.

We came to meet three days a week - Monday, Wednesday, and Friday - to spend our time after school together.
Since there was a danger of there being people who knew me at the train station, we changed our meeting place to a gazebo on the side of a walking path in the Western-style residential district a five-minute walk away.

It was a small gazebo with a green-painted hexagonal roof and one long seat. We sat in it with a CD player between us and listened to CDs, using an earbud each, with the person bringing the CDs switching off each time.
We had discussed music extensively in our letters, but given the nature of letters, we could only share in past experiences. Thus, being able to share an experience in the present tense was fresh and exciting.

Occasionally we'd let some thoughts leak out, or explain what we liked best about a song, but we generally just immersed ourselves in it in silence.
The cords on the earbuds connecting us were short, so we naturally leaned close to each other, and sometimes our shoulders would happen to touch.

"Kiriko, doesn't this make things kind of cramped?", Mizuho shyly asked.
"Indeed. But don't you think it's just right for getting you accustomed to people, Mizuho?"
I provided a valid-sounding logic to justify the distance. He just replied "Guess you're right," then fully leaned on my shoulder.
"You're heavy," I complained, but he ignored me, acting like he was too focused on the music.

Sheesh. I was dumbfounded. Not by Mizuho, but by myself. Using my position obtained with lies to make a boy do whatever I said.
It was a lowly act that couldn't be forgiven. Were I struck by lightning, hit by a meteor, or run over by a car, I would have no right to complain.

I need to tell him the truth someday, I told myself.
But every time I saw his humble smile, every time his body touched mine, every time he called me "Kiriko," my honesty was shaken.
Just a little longer. Can't I indulge in this dream for just a little longer? So the lies kept coming.

Yet a month after my reunion with Mizuho, a sudden end came to that relationship. My mask came off, and he saw my true colors.

After the money theft incident, my classmates treated me as a thief. There had long been completely baseless rumors about me being a prostitute, so I didn't think much of being called a thief now.
Unfortunately, this was a school full of sticky-fingered individuals where wallets and other items were pilfered almost daily, so responsibility for all of these events came to be pinned on me.
Even the theft of a student ID, from a third-year classroom which I'd never entered, was made out to be my doing. What benefit would it be to me to steal that?

After school, a group waiting shortly outside the gate caught me and scattered everything in my bag out on the road. They even searched through uniform pockets and my wallet.
I suspected this meant they'd already ransacked my locker and desk as well.

Of course, there was no reason for them to find the stolen student ID, so the search ended after about twenty minutes. But that didn't mean it was the end period.
The group pushed me into an irrigation ditch as revenge. There wasn't water running down it, but there was slimy mud with a rotten odor and nearly 20 centimeters of dead leaves.
As I landed, my foot slipped and I landed in the mud. Then the contents of my bag came raining down on me one by one. The laughter gradually faded into the distance.

I felt a sharp pain in my thigh. In tripping, I'd been cut with a shard of glass or something, making a long wound that bled profusely.
In such a dirty place as this, it could get infected with bacteria. I have to get out of here quickly, I decided.

And yet my legs wouldn't move. It wasn't caused by the pain, nor the shock of seeing my grotesque wound.
I felt like something was tightly gripping my stomach, making it hard to breathe regularly. It seemed I could feel hurt just like anyone else.
This is nothing compared to middle school when you were pushed into the freezing pool in winter, I told myself.

Lying down face-up in the cold mud, I thought. This ditch is much deeper than I am tall. Even if I could leap up and grab the edge, it would be difficult to crawl out. There must be a ladder somewhere.
But before I find that, I have to gather up the contents of my bag. My notebooks and such are probably now useless, so I'll only take the minimum of what I need.
I'll give up on going to our rendezvous point today. I'll just say I was sick or something. As soon as I can get out, I'll head straight home, hand-wash my clothes, then throw them in the washing machine... Then I'll think about what to do next.

The CD I had brought to listen to with Mizuho landed close to me. I went to pick it up, and saw it had cracked.
I took a look around. Not only was it pitch black, there were fences on both sides of the ditch, so no one could even see me.

So for the first time in a while, I cried. I held my knees and huddled up, and let out sobs.
Once I'd started, the tears flooded out without resistance, and I forgot when to stop.

The people who had pushed me into the irrigation ditch didn't necessarily throw all of my belongings into the mud. A few printouts and notebooks were left on the road to be scattered by the wind.
One of them indirectly came to be picked up by Mizuho on his way home. His good hearing didn't overlook my crying mixed in with the wind.

I heard someone climbing over the fence and dropping down on my side. I quickly stopped crying and held my breath.
Whoever it was, I didn't want them to see me crying in the mud.

"Kiriko?", a familiar voice called, and my heart nearly froze over. I immediately laid my face down to hide myself.
Why? I was flustered. Why was Mizuho here? Why did he know it was me squatting down in a ditch?
"Is that you, Kiriko?", he asked again. I kept silent. But when he called my name again, I made up my mind to reveal myself.

Coming clean was something I would have to do someday. Trying to prolong it as I had only led to my lies being exposed in this terrible way.
This was my retribution.

I raised my face and asked, "How did you know I was here?"
He didn't answer my question. "Ah, so it is you, Kiriko."

Saying nothing else, Mizuho threw something up into the air, hopped down, and landed on his bottom in the mud. There was a splash, and a few drops of mud hit my face.
Then shortly afterward, a lot more came down. What he had thrown was his open school bag, so textbooks, notebooks, pencil boxes, etcetera all fell into the mud one by one.
He lay down face-up just as I had been doing. Not a care about his clothes and hair getting muddy.
We were both silent for a while.

"Hey, Kiriko."
"Look at that." Mizuho pointed directly upward.

That's right, I thought. It's the winter solstice today.
We lay down together in the mud, looking up at the full moon.

I didn't tell him about the wound on my thigh. I didn't want to worry him any further.

As we walked through the dark ditch, making squishing sounds with our footsteps, I confessed all of my lies.
How I'd been lying in my letters since middle school. My family situation becoming tumultuous with the arrival of my stepfather and stepsister. Starting around the same time, being bullied at school as well, leaving me with nowhere to be. And all the details of the treatment I'd received.

Seemingly on purpose, he didn't make any sounds of affirmation or say apologetic things; he simply listened to me in silence.
I had once tried going to the school counselor who came once a week and telling him all my troubles, but the 24-year-old college graduate would only give annoyingly exaggerated and formal responses whenever I said anything.
This came off to me as an extreme appeal to the fact that they were listening, and I distinctly remember how uncomfortable that forced "sincerity" made me.
So Mizuho lending me an ear and shutting up during it made me happy.

I just wanted him to know how I really was; I didn't seek pity. So even when it came to the subject of domestic violence and abuse, I made an effort to explain it as indifferently as possible.
It still didn't change the fact that I was worrying him. Anyone hearing such a serious opening of my heart would surely feel some kind of a sense of duty. "I need to tell her something comforting."

But no such magic words existed. My problems were too involved, and no practical solutions could be seen. And acknowledgments like "That sounds rough" or "You're amazing for putting up with that" were long past the point of being helpful.
Unless they had been in the same situation as me, and were in fact able to overcome it, all consoling words rang hollow.

Indeed, is it really possible for one person to comfort another? If you take things to their logical conclusions, all people but yourself are just outsiders.
People are capable of including wishes for others' sakes inside wishes for their own sake. But perhaps it's impossible for them to purely wish for another. Perhaps in a broad sense, there always has to be something in it for them.

Maybe he was thinking similar thoughts. He wordlessly grabbed my hand as I talked on about the pain that had been inflicted upon me. It was my first time holding hands with a boy.
I only meant to hide my embarrassment, but I said something that sounded like I was thrusting him away.
"But I suppose telling you about this won't accomplish anything, Mizuho."

His grip weakened momentarily. Mizuho was sharp enough to see the intent behind my statement.
Yes, I was implicitly asking: Can you save me?

The silence lasted for about thirty seconds.
He spoke to me. "Hey, Kiriko."
"What is it?"

Suddenly, Mizuho grabbed my shoulders and pushed me against the wall behind me. He did these actions gently, so I didn't hit my head or back on the wall, but they seemed so unlike Mizuho, I was too flustered to joke.
He brought his mouth to my ear and whispered.

"If you ever really do come to hate it all, just tell me. Then I can kill you."

I thought it was a rather well-thought-through reply for him.
"...You're a cold person, Mizuho."
I said something I didn't mean, because if I'd said anything like "Thank you," I would have started to cry.
"Yeah. Maybe I am a cold person," he smiled lonesomely.

I put my hand around his back and slowly pulled him close.
He responded with a similar action.

I knew. That statement that seemed deranged at a glance was proof that he was, with total seriousness, thinking of a way to save me.
His conclusion was that that was the only way to do something about things which nothing could be done about.

The most essential thing was not that I would be killed, but that Mizuho would kill me. The boy I trusted most promised to, should the time come, put the final period on all of my pain.
I'd never heard a more comforting promise. Not before then, and perhaps I never would again.

I showered and got a change of clothes at Mizuho's house. Apparently, his parents always came home after midnight.
While my uniform was being washed, we found ourselves briefly at a loss, and just for a bit, interacted in ways normal for an adolescent boy and girl.
To others, it would probably seem like insignificant playing around, but for someone living a life like mine, it was a major milestone that gave me peace of mind for days.

Us getting together was as unhealthy and exitless a relationship as could be.
But upon further consideration, there had been no exit to begin with, so I could feel relief as I plunged into the bottomless swamp.

While the distance between our hearts grew closer, on the surface, our usual relationship continued.
The only changes to speak of were that we met twice as often after school, and when we listened to music together, Mizuho would now wrap the dark red scarf he wore around my neck as well.

The color left the scenery, and it started to snow instead of rain - a rat-gray winter arrived.
One day, we huddled up in coats as usual and listened to music in the gazebo. I yawned endlessly, having gotten almost no sleep yesterday and the day before.

Mizuho smiled bitterly. "Bored?"
"No, no that at all," I replied, rubbing my eyes. "Recently, they started reconstruction work at the library I usually go to."
That alone didn't make much sense, so I added on an explanation about how I slept in the library study room whenever I needed sleep.

"So you can't sleep at home, huh?"
"No, especially not lately. My stepsister's friends have been coming and going as they please. My stepfather can sleep through any noise, so he isn't bothered by it. Last night, they woke me up at 2:30 AM and conducted an ear-piercing experiment."
I moved my hair over my ear and showed the two small holes in it. Mizuho brought his face close and stared.

"I think they'll heal up soon if I leave it, but I haven't used any disinfectant or ointment, so I'm a little worried."
"Didn't it hurt?"
"Not especially. The piercing only lasted for a moment."

Mizuho ran his fingers along the fresh wounds. "I'm ticklish," I warned, which he found amusing. He touched my ear all over with all his fingers as if trying to determine its shape in complete darkness.
Having the back of my ear and earlobe touched sent shivers to my brain, and I felt somehow guilty about it.

"Lately, even when my stepfather and stepsister don't bother me, I've come to be opposed to sleeping at home. The library is where I can sleep the most. I can't lie down, and the chair is hard, but there are CDs and books, it's very quiet, and last but not least, I don't have to see anyone I don't want to."

"And now that library's under renovations?"
"It seems I won't be able to use it for twenty more days, at least. I just wish there were somewhere else like that."

Mizuho stopped fiddling with my ear and pondered. He put his hand to his chin and closed his eyes.
Then had had a realization.

"I know one place that fulfills almost all your requirements, Kiriko."
"...Hm? I want to know. Urgently."
I leaned forward, and Mizuho unnaturally averted his gaze.

"The selection is definitely inferior to the library, but there are some books that aren't bad. And you can listen to music too, of course. It's surrounded by trees, so it's eerily quiet, and there's no kind of closing time. And not only does it not cost a thing, you can lie down there."

Then he looked into my eyes. "But there's one serious flaw."
I asked, holding in my laughter, "Is it that it's where you usually sleep, Mizuho?"
"Exactly," he nodded. "So I can't really call it a good suggestion."
"I'll be honest with you and say that to me, that's a major positive. If it's not a problem with you, I'd like to intrude right away."
"...Then let's stop here with music for today."
Mizuho stopped the CD player and took the earbud out of my ear.

I'd never gone into any boy's room but Mizuho's. So the fact that his room was almost otherworldly in its lack of liveliness and its lack of things could be indicative of his personality, or just how boys' rooms generally are - I wouldn't be able to tell.
But I could tell that a giant bookshelf almost touching the ceiling with every shelf packed to the brim wasn't something to expect in every 17-year-old high school boy's room. As I approached, I faintly smelled old paper.

Changing into the bedwear Mizuho loaned me and rolling back the sleeves three times, I called outside the door, "You can come in."
Mizuho looked at me, now in his middle school jersey, curiously. His gaze tickled me, so I pointed to the bookshelf to redirect it there.

"I'm surprised. That's an impressive amount of books."
"Well, it's not like I've read them all," he explained self-derisively. "It's not like I even like books. It's more of a collection habit, if I had to say. I just like going around bookstores and buying any books I see mentioned all the time in magazines - the ones worth "giving my trust," I guess."

"So you're studious."
He shook his head. "I'm quick to cool off, so I get tired of things as soon as I start them. So I figured I might as well make the thing that seemed most boring to me my hobby. Why do you think that is?"
"Because there was a low risk of disappointment, right?"
"Right. And while I was patiently searching around for something, even if I didn't come to like reading, I came to understand the feelings of people who like reading. A big step forward." He straightened the creases in the bedsheets, pulled up the blanket, and adjusted the position of the pillow. "But let's not talk anymore for now. It's ready. Sleep as much as you like."

I sat down on the cool sheets, slid under the covers, and rested my head on the pillow.
Even I knew my movements were awkward. But telling me not to be nervous was futile. If ever there was a girl who didn't get nervous sleeping in the bed of a boy she loved, she'd probably already lost something that makes her human.

I was enveloped in Mizuho's scent. It was hard to describe, but the essential element was that it was someone else's scent. One that would never come from me.
The only time he hugged me was when we were in an irrigation ditch, so I had no idea, but I supposed it would smell like this if I buried my face in his chest.
And inside me, that smell was inextricably tied to a sense of security, enjoyment, and dearness. I briefly considered taking the blanket home with me in secret.

"I'll come back to wake you up at a good time. Well, good night."
Mizuho closed the curtains, turned off the light, and went to leave, but I stopped him.
"Um, can you stay here until I fall asleep?"

He replied somewhat nervously. "I don't mind at all, personally, but... What do you intend to do if I get any funny ideas?"
His face heated up a little, but I didn't have to know that since the lights were out.

I see. So Mizuho did see me that way.
The thing I'd wanted to know all along - if his goodwill toward me was purely friendly, or if there were romantic elements to it as well - was now resolved. A warm feeling filled my chest.

"If that happens, I'll pretend to be opposed," I answered.
"That's not good enough," he laughed with embarrassment. "If I try to do anything to you, you can give me a good punch between the eyes. That'll bring a coward like me back to my senses right away."
"Understood. I'll remember that."
I committed it to memory: I'll be sure to never punch him between the eyes.

Mizuho turned on a reading light and started on a book. I watched him with half-open eyes.
This sight might be one I'll never forget for the rest of my life, I thought as I drifted to sleep.

Afterward, I borrowed the bed in his room frequently. Once I changed into bedwear and got under the covers, Mizuho would put on music at a barely-audible volume, and slowly lower it as my senses dimmed.
Once I woke up from my sound sleep, he'd pour me warm tea. Then I'd get on the back of his bicycle and he'd take me home.

After the first time I noticed while dozing off that Mizuho would neatly realign the blanket if it got askew, I taught myself how to naturally turn over in my sleep to shift it enough to warrant realignment.
The hard part was keeping myself from grinning right after he gently grabbed and pulled up the covers. Keeping it from showing as a smile meant keeping that warmth inside, and my feelings of yearning for him grew a size.

One time, he looked at my face up close. I had my eyes closed, but I could hear his breathing and tell he was squatting next to the bed.
Ultimately, though, Mizuho didn't do anything. If he had, I probably would have eagerly accepted it. No, I was waiting for it, really. I would have been happy if he got any "funny ideas."
After all, he was seventeen, and I was seventeen. 17-year-olds were creatures bursting with this and that which they can't control.

But still, I suppose I didn't desire anything more than him there reading, and soundly sleeping while everything remained ambiguous.
Until we both just couldn't bear it anymore, I decided I'd like to soak in this perfection made from imperfection.

Mizuho sat on the bed, and I put my head on his lap.
Sing me a lullaby, I selfishly asked. He quietly hummed Blackbird.

As we relaxed in this way, the end steadily approached. I was vaguely aware of this, but it crept up at an unbelievably faster pace than I'd thought.

If we'd known we had less than a month left, no doubt we would have quickly conveyed every inch of our feelings for each other, and tried out all sorts of things which lovers do.
But that wasn't to be.

A gloomy Saturday at the end of December, I took Mizuho out to a distant town. Riding the train for about an hour, we arrived at a station so small it might be mistaken for a dump.
Spider webs which had lost their owners hung around the waiting room, and a single wool glove was left on the platform.

We arrived, after thirty minutes of walking, at a public graveyard on a hill. Gravestones dotted the cleared field. Among them was my father's grave.
I didn't bring flowers or incense. I just touched my hand to the grave, sat down in front, and told Mizuho about my father.

They weren't significant memories worth calling memories, but I liked my father. When I was little, and I was feeling down because my mother scolded me or things didn't go well with my friends, he would invite me to go on a drive with him.
Driving around the empty country roads and playing antique music on the car stereo, he would explain the good qualities of the songs such that even a child like me could understand. He was also the one who told me Pete Townshend's quote.
Perhaps the reason I came to listen to music in such an indulgent way was because I sensed his presence in it. A symbol of the time when my house was peaceful, and I didn't have to worry about anything.

As I finished up talking about my father, I suddenly broached a different subject.
"My stepfather has been building up a loan. I thought it would happen someday with his frenzied gambling, but it's gotten far larger than I could have imagined. It can't possibly be paid back through normal means now. Plus, the people he's borrowing from don't seem like the honest sort, and since it was caused by gambling, it would be hard to claim personal bankruptcy."

The conflict between my parents was unending. Perhaps feeling a little guilty about it this single time, my stepfather hadn't turned to violence over it yet, but it was only a matter of time.
I had the feeling that the next time he had the chance, he would do something - I didn't know what - which there was no recovering from.

I wouldn't be able to postpone my stepfather's actions. The massive debt he accumulated would no doubt ruin my life.
But that sort of slow, bit-by-bit unhappiness wouldn't activate my magic. What it took to have the necessary scream of my soul was sudden, focused, simply-understood pain.
In addition, even if I could "undo" the debt, there was no guarantee he wouldn't repeat the same mistake. Ultimately, my magic was hardly any use at all.

I stood up and wiped some dirt off my clothes.
"All right, Mizuho. I'm beginning to get tired."
"I see."
"In what way are you going to kill me?"

He glared at me without answering. Something seemed to be bothering him. He'd never shown such an expression to me before, so I faltered.
Immediately after, Mizuho rather forcefully kissed me. Having our first kiss in a graveyard seemed so appropriate for us that I adored the hopelessness of it all.

Four days later, the time came at last.

Upon returning home, the first thing my eyes met was my mother's corpse.
No, by that time, maybe she wasn't a corpse just yet. Maybe she was in a condition from which, if she got immediate aid, she could have been saved.
But either way, by the time I checked her pulse hours later, she was dead.

My mother laid on the floor in a different outfit than usual, so I couldn't quite tell if it was truly my mother. That was how thoroughly her face had been beaten in.
Her head was a blank white.

My stepfather was sitting in a chair, pouring a drink into a glass. As I ran up to my mother, he sharply commanded, "Forget it."
I squatted next to her regardless, held my breath as I looked into her swollen, bloody face, and a moment later, felt the pain of a powerful blow to my temple.

My stepfather took me off the floor and dragged me up to my room. I huddled holding my knees, and he forcibly pulled my hair and punched the base of my nose.
My vision went red, and warm blood spilled out of my nose. Afraid of his violence being made public, he usually never aimed for the face, but this time the gloves came off.

"You wanna drive me out too, do you?", he asked. "Just try it. Whatever you do, I'll follow you all your life. You can't run from me. 'Cause we're family."

He punched me in the solar plexus, and I had trouble breathing. I anticipated a long storm. I put up my hands to desperately defend my face, at least, for when I saw Mizuho.
Completely separating my mind from my body, I filled my empty head with music. I played through the track list of Janis Joplin's "Pearl" in order.
By the time A Woman Left Lonely ended, his assault briefly stopped. But it was simply because his fist was worn out from beating my mother for so long, so he switched to using a leather belt instead.

Swinging the belt like a whip, my stepfather struck me again and again. Each lash brought pain that made just living feel bothersome.
Even after the last song - Mercedes Benz, a song that had been released only as an a cappella track, because Janis died from heroin overdose after going to buy Malboros with $5.50 in loose change - his stubborn violence showed no sign of ending.
I stopped thinking. I stopped looking. I stopped hearing. I stopped feeling.

I came to after fainting for the nth time
The storm had ended. I heard a beer can opening. The sound of munching nuts echoed through the room. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

I didn't even have the energy to get up. I managed to move my neck to look up at the clock on the wall. Four hours had passed since I got home.
I tried to stand, but my hands were tied up. With those bands usually used for keeping cables together, I supposed. They were tied behind my back so I couldn't resist.

My body was covered in welts. My bloody blouse had half the buttons torn off, and the exposed skin from my neck down my back hurt like it had been burned.
No - it probably had been burned. That was the sort of pain it felt like, and there was an iron stand still plugged into the nearby outlet.

I felt something hard rolling around in my mouth. I didn't need to spit it out and check to know it was a molar.
I thought something tasted bitter, so it must have been the bleeding from where my tooth was broken. I could have gargled the blood.

Waiting until my father went to the bathroom, I crawled over to my unmoving mother and touched her wrist.
No pulse.

Before anything else, I thought, "If I stay here, I'll be killed too." I could grieve my mother's death after escaping to a safe place.
I just had to get away from that man. I crawled out of the living room, down the hall, and made it to the front door. Then with the last of my strength, I stood up and opened the door with my tied hands and got outside. Then I went back to desperately crawling.

My briefly-separated body and mind were hard to bring back together. I understood what had happened to me, but I couldn't yet feel the reality of it.
Now was when I should have "undone" everything, yet I saw it as being someone else's business. Maybe I had already been broken long ago. How could I remain so calm after my mother was killed?

Someone grabbed my shoulder.
My spine froze up. I couldn't even scream. Paralyzed with fear, all my strength left me.

Once I realized it was Mizuho's hand, I was so relieved I could have fainted. And at last, the tears came. Drip, drip, drip, drip, they fell.
I didn't understand anything. Why was he here? I didn't want him to see me like this.

As soon as he removed the bands around my hands, I immediately covered my bloody and beaten face.
Mizuho took off his coat, put it on me, and hugged me. I clung to him and cried my eyes out.

"What happened?", he asked. He spoke extremely gently to try and calm me, but the shakiness of his breath told me of the murky emotions swirling in him.
I explained in a fragmented way that overlooked the point. My mother having collapsed when I got home. Being beaten when I ran over to her. Suffering through all kinds of violence for four hours afterward. My mother being dead by the time it was over.
He listened patiently, and quickly understood. He hardly needed any time to arrive at the decision.

"Just hold on. I should be able to end it quick."

With that, he went into my house. The question of what he was thinking of doing didn't even arise in my frazzled mind.
I should have "undone" everything my stepfather did sooner. But my gratitude for Mizuho showing up got in the way, and my soul wouldn't scream.

Snow began to fall.

Mizuho came back in less than five minutes.
Seeing his face and shirt bloodstained, bizarrely, gave me the thought that he was beautiful, rather than that it was lamentable.
The knife in his hands told the story of what exactly he had "ended."

"Liar," I accused. "You chose the wrong person to kill. Didn't you say you would kill me?"
Mizuho laughed. "Didn't you know I was a liar from the start?"
"...That is true, now that you mention it."

He'd made a mistake. It was the worst outcome I could conceive of.
But I couldn't postpone that, either. It was impossible to undo the effort he had put forth for me.

"Hey, Mizuho."
"Let's run away. Somewhere at least a little far."

He walked with me on his back. He stole an unchained bicycle from the train station, put me on the back, and pedaled.

We both understood that our elopement would lead nowhere. We had no intention of truly running away.
We just wanted time to say goodbye.

Once we're out of high school, let's live together, Mizuho said.
Though knowing it was impossible, I agreed.

He kept pedaling all night. The deep blue sky turned violet, then split into two layers of dull red and blue. Then the sun rose, and the bicycle pedaled on through morning rays.
Our cold bodies began to warm up, and the thin layer of snow on the road melted.

We stopped at a convenience store and bought chicken and cake. The clerk was an apathetic college student, so he rang our things up without a word about our faces. We sat on a bench and ate.

"Chicken and cake makes it feel like a birthday," I remarked.
"Well, it's a day to commemorate in a sense," he joked.

Grade schoolers looked curiously at the bloody and bruised high school couple eating party-like food early in the morning.
We looked dirty enough that one of them wondered, "Huh, is it Halloween? Are they Halloween costumes?" We looked at each other and guffawed.

We started moving again. On the way, we passed a group of students from my high school. Seeing them enjoying themselves reminded me that today was the day of their culture festival. It seemed like an event in some other distant world entirely.
There were quite a few of those who bullied me among the group. They were stunned seeing me, covered in bruises, riding on the back of a bike and being pedaled away from the school by a boy covered in blood.

I buried my face in Mizuho's back and sobbed as I laughed, laughed as I sobbed. I felt like a poison that had infested my body for so long was finally being washed away.

Lastly, we went to an amusement park. That was my wish. I wanted to go to an amusement park with Mizuho just once. The same one I'd spent happy times at with my father and mother.

His bloody shirt and my bloody blouse were hidden under coats, but the bruises on my face and the smell of blood on him couldn't be concealed.
Passersby stared at us, sensing an air of violence about us unfitting for the park. But Mizuho and I paid it no mind, walking around holding hands.

He said he wanted to ride the Ferris wheel, and I said I wanted to ride the roller coaster. After a brief, innocent quarrel, he gave in, and we rode the roller coaster first.
And around that point, my memories got unclear.

All I could faintly remember was this: the accident happened right after getting on the roller coaster.

Maybe it was divine punishment. Not toward Mizuho, but toward me.
A sound. Shaking. A feeling of floating. Metal. Screams. Confusion. Another sound from beside me. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Blood splatter. Screams. Confusion. Blood splatter. Meat. Screams. Puking. Crying.

When I came to, Mizuho was gone, and in his place was something that was formerly Mizuho.

This is what I thought.
Because he met me, Mizuho became a murderer.
Because he met me, Mizuho died a horrible death.
Everything was my fault.

If I weren't there, then this wouldn't have happened.
Mizuho shouldn't have met me.
All this time, I'd thought my stepfather was the bringer of misfortune.
But I was wrong. That was me.

I called my stepfather and stepsister to me, I killed my mother, and I killed Mizuho.
To the bitter end, I only brought trouble to him.

I heard the sound of a music box that I hadn't heard in a long time.
I performed a postponement on a larger scale than ever before. I went all the way back to that day months ago, and "undid" the reunion of Mizuho and I. I had no right to meet him.

But "Kiriko Hizumi" had done no wrong. I didn't need to erase her existence as well, the girl who gave him support.
So I only undid the reunion. I erased him coming to see me, and returned him to his regular high school life.

This should be best. Without me, Mizuho should be able to make friends, fall in love, and live normally.
And I forgot everything. Everything he said to me. Everything he did for me. The warmth of his hands. The memories he gave me.
Because merely thinking of him might infect him with my contagious unhappiness.

After undoing our reunion, I stopped aging. A year passed, and I remained 17, just the way I was in my second year of high school.
In essence, I was apparently postponing growing old, but I didn't remember doing such a thing.

Maybe somewhere in my heart, I had a reluctant thought. "I at least want to stay how I was when he loved me."
And so I unconsciously awaited the day of our reunion.

Chapter 10

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