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Parasite in Love
by Sugaru Miaki
The colorful extravagance of some birds, the deliberately excessive horns, manes, and tusks of some mammals, the complex courting behavior of many animals, the very existence of sex itself - and by extension the love songs on the radio, and all the love-addled poems ever written - all likely evolved because of parasites, because all organisms must run as fast as they can just to stay in place.
- Moises Velasquez-Manoff
"An Epidemic of Absence"
Kengo Kousaka, who joined a small local systems development company after graduating college, decided to quit a year after coming on for reasons that would make anyone raise an eyebrow. From then on, this would repeat in a similar way almost yearly, and in his rolling about between jobs, he suddenly fell into depression. But he had no awareness of his illness; even at the worst of times, when he was so depressed as to find breathing a chore, even when he suddenly found temptations of death crossing his mind, even when he started weeping at night for no apparent reason, he thought it was all the fault of the winter cold.
It happened in winter when he was age 27. It was a bizarre winter, come to think of it. There were a number of meetings, and a number of farewells. There were happy coincidences and unhappy accidents. There were things that changed vastly, and things that didn't change at all.
That winter, he experienced a rather late first love. It was a girl ten years his younger. An unemployed, depressed young man, and a bug-loving school-skipping girl. It wasn't proper in any sense, but it was undeniably love.
"Lifelong copulation?", Kousaka repeated.
"Yes, lifelong," the girl nodded. "Diplozoon paradoxum spend half their lives fused with their partner."
The girl produced a keychain and held it in front of Kousaka.
"This is D. paradoxum."
Kousaka brought his face close and looked it over. Its design was simplified, but it appeared as if it was modeled after a creature with two pairs of wings. The fore and rear wings differed, the fore pair being about three times the size of the rear pair. At a glance, it just looked like a butterfly.
"And despite how beautiful it looks, it's a bona-fide parasite, belonging to Platyhelminthes Monogenea."
"Looks like a plain old butterfly."
"Look closer. No antennae, right?"
Just as the girl said, the creature had no antennae. One could assume they were simply omitted for convenience of design, but the girl considered it an important distinction.
"This actually depicts two D. paradoxum conjoined in an X shape." The girl formed an X with her fingers.
"So since you say they do lifelong copulation," Kousaka said, trying to find the proper expression, "after they conjoin, they're constantly having sex?"
"In a sense, yes. Each one's male sexual parts connect to the other's female sexual parts."
"Yeah. D. paradoxum have both male and female sexual organs. Which they call hermaphroditism. So you might think they could self-fertilize without a partner, but for some reason, they don't do that. They put in the effort to find a partner, then exchange sperm."
Kousaka grinned bitterly. "Talk about luxurious."
"The fact they dare to do with someone else what they could just do alone is kind of loathsome, huh?", the girl agreed. "But there are things to learn from that. For instance, D. paradoxum aren't fussy about partners. As if treating their love at first sight as destiny, they'll combine with the first of their kind they ever meet without any qualms. Also, D. paradoxum don't abandon their partners to the last. Once D. paradoxum join together, they never let go of each other. If you try to tear them apart, they'll die."
"That's why it's lifelong copulation," Kousaka said, impressed. "Amazing. Like a happily-wedded couple."
"Yes. Like birds of a feather, like entwined roots," the girl said proudly, as if one of her relatives was being complimented. "As a bonus, these parasites inhabit koi.
"Yes - so they're parasites of "love." Isn't that such a perfect coincidence? Even further, D. paradoxum who successfully inhabit a koi discard its eyeballs within 24 hours. So the koi, like love, is blind."
"Love is blind," he repeated out loud. "I never expected to hear such a romantic thing out of your mouth."
Hearing this, the girl's eyes widened like she'd come to her senses, and after a pause, she covered her face.
"...Now that I think about it, maybe sexual organs and copulation and stuff aren't things I should talk about in public so much." The girl's cheeks faintly reddened. "I feel stupid now."
"Nah, it was interesting." Kousaka snorted, finding the girl's flustering funny. "Keep talking. About parasites."
The girl was silent for a while, but slowly began to say more. Kousaka lent her an ear.
Chapter 1: Poisolation
The water from the faucet was piercingly cold. But there was no time to wait around for it to warm up. Kousaka began washing his hands. Immediately, the running water took away all heat in his hands, and they went numb. He stopped the faucet, soaped up his hands and washed thoroughly, then ran the water again. Even after the bubbles were drained away, he kept his hands in the running water. After about two minutes, the water heater finally remembered its duty, and the tap water began to warm up. His frozen hands had a prickling numbness, and couldn't tell hot from cold.
He stopped the faucet and carefully wiped the water with a paper towel. Bringing the numb hands to his face, he closed his eyes and sniffed. Once certain they were odorless, he applied rubbing alcohol from the table all over his hands. Gradually, he started to calm down.
Back in the living room, he threw himself down on the bed. Light weakly shined through a gap in the white curtains; it could have been early morning, or it could have been evening. But either way, time was currently not all that important in this man's life.
He heard a constant stream of children's voices outside. It was the elementary school nearby. Hearing the children playing and having fun would occasionally cause him suffocating sadness. Kousaka turned on the radio by his bed, tuned it to a random frequency, and let music play. An old staticy song covered the shouts of the children.
After quitting his last job, Kousaka made no effort to find a new place of employment, steadily exhausted his savings, and spent his days lying in bed, pretending to think about something. Of course, he wasn't actually thinking about anything. He was just trying to keep up appearances. I'm storing up vitality for the time I'll need it, he told himself. He himself didn't know how to give a "when" to this "time I'll need it."
Once a week, he reluctantly had to go out to do shopping, but the rest of his time was spent in his room. The reason was simple: he had a serious case of germaphobia.
He lived in a small, neat dining-room-plus-kitchen rental apartment within twenty minutes of the nearest train station. It was his one and only holy space. There, he always had two air purifiers running, and there was a faint smell of antiseptic. The floors were so polished as to appear brand new, and his shelves were lined with disposable latex gloves, surgical masks, bacterial spray, wet tissues, etcetera. Most of his clothes and furniture were white or close to it, and his closet was stocked with new shirts still in the bags.
Kousaka washed his hands over a hundred times a day, so they were terribly rough. His nails were neatly cut, with the exception of a long nail on the index finger of his dominant hand. This was his backup measure for when he was driven into situations that called for touching elevator or ATM buttons with his bare hands.
Another part of Kousaka's body that was dubiously "clean" was his hair. He'd let it grow somewhat long. He recognized it was better to have short hair for keeping his room clean, but he really couldn't handle salons and barber shops, so he had a habit of putting off haircuts as much as he could.
While it would be easiest to call him a clean freak, he really had a variety of conditions. If you dig into such people's perceptions of "uncleanliness," you'll discover a number of irrational beliefs. People who call themselves clean freaks in spite of having messy rooms are a superb example.
Kousaka's image of uncleanliness was "other people." More than actual dirtiness, the major issue lied in whether or not another person had some involvement. If it came to having to eat food another person's hand had touched, he'd rather eat something that's been expired for a week.
He saw people other than himself like petri dishes generating bacteria. He felt just the touch of a fingertip would make microorganisms propagate and contaminate his body. Kousaka couldn't hold hands even with someone he was close to - of course, for better or worse, he had no one to hold hands with right now anyway.
Suffice to say, his fastidiousness was a major obstacle in having a social life. Someone who views other people as impurity itself can't form positive relationships. His essential desire not to interact with others manifested in various ways, and irritated those around him. He couldn't put on even an insincere smile, he couldn't remember people's names, he couldn't make eye contact with people... There were too many things to list.
At any rate, dealing with other people was nothing but agony. Back when he was working, everything caused him stress, and all of his desires except sleep vanished.
Above all, company functions like get-togethers and trips were hell itself. After coming home from such events, he would often take four-hour showers, lie in bed, and listen to music to retune his mind. He had to do this to teach himself that there was sound worth hearing in this world, or he'd feel like ripping his ears off. On such nights, he couldn't sleep without music playing.
In short, I'm not suited to be a human, Kousaka thought with some seriousness regarding his fitness for society. As a result, he quickly lost his place regardless of what the job was, and ended up quitting just to get away.
His repeated changing of jobs was essentially a process of eliminating his prospects one by one. In just a few years as a working adult, he felt like he had been thoroughly denied as a human. It was like he was branded with the words "it's no use whatever you do."
It wasn't like he was searching for a bluebird. He knew from the start there was nothing like that out there. It's not as if all people have a calling. In the end, to some extent, everyone has to make a compromise somewhere.
Yet while his head understood this, his heart wouldn't come on board. His mind had been steadily worn down by the day, and his compulsions worsened with it. In correlation to his mind degrading, his surroundings became cleaner, and his room was practically sterilized.
Lying in bed and listening to the music on the radio, Kousaka faintly thought over the events of a few hours ago.
He was at a convenience store. He was wearing disposable latex gloves. These were necessities for him, and especially required in a convenience store or supermarket, riddled with things which he had to touch, yet other people had gotten their sticky hands all over.
He did his shopping with gloves on as usual, but a problem came up midway. As he reached toward a case to grab some mineral water, suddenly, a joint on his right index finger hurt. He looked; the skin had cracked and bled. A common occurrence. He always washed his hands far too much, and this was a dry season, so his hands were as rough as a beautician just starting out.
Unable to bear the feeling of the blood seeping through the glove, he took the right glove off and discarded it. And not liking the unbalanced nature of wearing only one glove, he also discarded the left glove. And he continued shopping.
The person at the register was a girl he commonly saw working part-time here. She was a courteous girl with hair died coffee-brown, and as Kousaka brought his items up, she received him with a full-faced smile. There were no particular problems up to that point, but as Kousaka took the change, the girl handed it to him by wrapping her hands around his.
This was bad.
Kousaka immediately, reflexively shook her hands away. The coins scattered to the floor, and the customers in the store all looked their way.
He looked at his hand, dumbstruck, ignored the girl at the register hastily apologizing, and fled the store without even trying to pick up the change. And after returning to the apartment as quickly as possible, he took a long shower. But he still felt the unpleasant sensation, and rewashed his hands after leaving the shower.
After recalling the whole sequence of events, Kousaka sighed. Even he thought it was unusual. But he simply couldn't stand his bare skin being touched.
In addition, Kousaka was poor with girls who had a sense of femininity, like the one at the register. It wasn't limited to women; he similarly disliked men who pushed their manliness to the forefront. He felt a similar sense of impurity from both of them. It sounds like something a girl entering puberty would say, but it really felt that way to him.
During childhood, he thought his phobia would naturally be cured as he grew up, but in reality, it only got worse. At this rate I'll never marry, to say nothing of making friends, he muttered to himself.
When Kousaka was nine, he had a mother. Just before he turned ten, she left this world. It was judged an accident, but Kousaka still suspected it to be a suicide.
She was a beautiful woman. Cultured and resourceful, with good taste in music and movies. Apparently she was an Electone instructor before she met Kousaka's father. It was a relatively small class, but reputable, and quite a few students came from far away to take it.
It still baffled Kousaka why a perfect woman like her chose a mediocre man like his father as a partner. His father was not a classy man, to say the least. His face was like a failed montage of parts that didn't fit together, he didn't earn much, he had no hobbies but also no passion for work, and generally, you couldn't find any merits worth calling merits (though to the Kousaka of today, just living normally and keeping a house was worthy of respect).
Kousaka's mother was harsh on herself, and sought similar effort from her son as well. From a time before Kousaka can remember, he was forced to take various lessons, and when at home, followed a minute-to-minute schedule devised by his mother. Being so young, he thought all mothers were like this, so he harbored no doubts and obediently did as told. If he defied her, he might be locked out of the house barefoot or not get any meals all day, so he had no choice.
The fact that he didn't live up to even half of her expectations seemed to make Kousaka's mother more bewildered than upset. Why is this child, my own flesh and blood, not as perfect as me? Perhaps there was a problem in how I raised him?
Strangely, she doubted everything except Kousaka's disposition. Yet that most likely wasn't a result of partiality as a parent, but a manifestation of her warped self-love. She chose to doubt her teaching methods before she'd doubt her own blood, that's all.
Like many perfectionists, Kousaka's mother liked cleanliness. When Kousaka's room was messy or he came home looking dirty, she had a deeply sorrowful look. That was much more harsh on him than shouting or hitting. On the other hand, when Kousaka went and cleaned his room or washed his hands, she always praised him. As someone without any particular scholarly or athletic skill, these were one of few opportunities to make his mother happy. He naturally came to like cleanliness more than other children his age - within reason, however.
Abnormalities began at age 9, at the end of summer. One day, Kousaka's mother started being very kind to him, like a changed person. As if regretting her prior behavior, she discarded all the rules she'd imposed on him, and treated him very affectionately.
Freed from all his limitations and able to experience an unrestricted, childlike life for the first time, Kousaka didn't give any deep thought to the sudden change in his mother's attitude.
Occasionally, she would gently put her hand on Kousaka's head and stroke it, repeating "I'm sorry." He wanted to ask what she was apologizing for, but felt it might upset her if he did, so he stayed silent and let his head be stroked.
He would realize afterward: She wasn't apologizing for something she had done, but something she was about to do.
After just a month of acting as a kind mother, she died. While driving home from a shopping trip, she had a head-on collision with a car going far faster than the speed limit.
Naturally, it was considered an accident. But Kousaka knew something: at certain times of day, that road became an ideal place for committing suicide. And it was none other than his mother who'd told him that.
After the funeral, something in Kousaka changed. That night, he washed his hands for hours. His right hand with which he'd touched his mother's body felt unbearably disgusting.
When Kousaka woke up from a light sleep the next morning, his world had changed. He sprang out of bed and ran into the bathroom. And he took a shower lasting hours. Everything in the world seemed to be dirty. Hair in the drain, mold on the walls, dust on the windowsill - just looking at these things made a chill go down his spine.
And in this way, he became a clean freak.
Kousaka himself saw no direct cause and effect between his mother's death and his fastidiousness. It was nothing more than one impetus. Even if it weren't for that particular incident, surely something else would have awakened this. It's just something that's always been in me.
Chapter 2: Computer Worm
It's difficult to explain the eeriness of an intercom echoing in the dead of night to someone who's never experienced it.
You're relaxing, defenseless, in a completely silent room. Suddenly, the silence is broken by an inorganic sound notifying you of a visitor. For a moment, your thoughts halt. You check the clock, and indeed, it's clearly no time for a person to be visiting. Your head fills with questions and doubts. Who? Why now? For what purpose? Did I lock the door? What about the chain lock?
You hold in your breath, listening for the person beyond the door to enter. How much time has passed? It could be seconds, it could be minutes. You timidly go to the front door and look through the peephole, and a mysterious stranger appears and leaves without leaving any hints. It ends with everything still up the air, and the echo of that ill-omened electronic noise continues for the rest of the night...
It was a visit without any forewarning.
At the time the intercom rang out, Kousaka was cleaning his computer keyboard. The PFU-made keyboard had no markings on the tops of the keys, and not from being rubbed away by repeated cleaning, but because it was designed that way. He'd taken out and washed all the keys just last week, but he just had to do a thorough cleaning after every use.
A table clock showed it as past 11 PM. Before he could even think about who it might be at this hour, Kousaka's smartphone, which had been charging on the desk, vibrated. He intuitively realized that the corresponding timing of the intercom and the email was not a coincidence.
He picked up the smartphone and checked the new email.
Open the door. I have no intention of hurting you.
I want to talk about viruses.
He looked up and glanced in the direction of the front door. His apartment wasn't equipped with orthodox systems, and it was easy for intruders to enter the building without being tenants. The person who sent the text was likely already standing outside the room - at nearly the same time he realized this, there was a knock on the door. It wasn't a rough knock, but a kind of knock that was for letting your presence be known.
Kousaka stared at the phone in his hand, wondering if he should call the police. But the message displayed there gave him pause.
"I want to talk about viruses."
He definitely had some idea about what that message could mean.
Kousaka first acquired an interest in malware three months ago, in the close of summer 2011. One day, he received a text from an unfamiliar address on his phone.
"The world will be ending very soon."
An ominous message. But at the time, as he was feeling uncomfortable with what was now his fourth job and disheartened, the message was somewhat refreshing.
Kousaka closed his eyes, and briefly enjoyed a vision of the world ending. The sky turned red, sirens wailed through town, unhappy news played on the radio. He imagined the scene at length.
It may sound absurd, but Kousaka was saved by that imprudent message. A baseless consolation, effectively a lie, was just what he needed at the time.
When he looked it up later, he found the message was forcibly sent from a device infected with malware called "Smspacem." Malware is a programming term referring to malicious software or programs that cause computers to behave irregularly. Most people refer to all such things as "computer viruses," but technically, a virus is no more than a sub-category of malware.
To describe Smspacem briefly, it's "malware that informs people the world is ending." Infected devices, on the date 5/12/2011, were made to send a message about the world ending to all addresses on their contact list.
According to security reports, Smspacem was malware that targeted users in North America. So the fact that a similar message in Japanese was sent to Japan-dwelling Kousaka in late September meant there was probably some curious sort who made a Japanese-centric variant of Smspacem.
Once, while lazily lying in bed after quitting his job, Kousaka suddenly recalled Smspacem. And he thought: I wonder if I could make something like that myself? I wonder if I could reproduce, in a different form, that sensation of a little seam forming in my ordinary life?
Luckily, he had plenty of time. So Kousaka picked up the knowledge needed to create malware. He had a base of knowledge and experience from working as a programmer, so in just a month after he began studying, he completed some original malware that didn't depend on any toolkits.
I think I'm suited for this field, Kousaka thought. He had a talent for finding the best algorithm for a problem without anyone teaching it to him. A rare example of born punctuality and perfectionism working in a positive way.
Before long, the malware he created began to appear in security reports by major software corporations. This spurred Kousaka to begin the creation of new malware. At some point, creating malware became the one thing he lived for.
An ironic turn of events. A person who on one hand was so scared of viruses and insects in the real world that he found it hard to live, meanwhile found something to live for in creating viruses and worms in the virtual world.
As he faced his computer and typed on his keyboard, Kousaka sometimes thought: Maybe I'm convinced my genes won't be left behind in this world, which is why I'm spreading self-replicating malware across the internet instead.
There are actually various things which are considered malware. Traditionally, malware is divided into three categories: viruses, worms, and trojans. But over the years, malware has gotten more complex, and with the appearance of malware that doesn't fit into the traditional categories comes new definitions like backdoor, root kit, dropper, spyware, adware, and ransomware.
The simple three categories of malware - virus, worm, and trojan - are relatively easy to understand the differences between. First of all, viruses and worms both have self-infecting and self-multiplying abilities, but viruses must inhabit other programs to exist, whereas worms can exist independently without a host. Trojans are distinguished from viruses and worms by a lack of self-infecting and self-multiplying.
The Smspacem that got Kousaka interested in malware would be defined as a worm. It collects email addresses from an infected computer, sends out many emails with copies of an illegal program attached, and repeats the process with those infected to spread further - this is known as a mass mailing worm.
This was, naturally, the kind of malware Kousaka developed as well. He gave the mass mailing worm he was working on the codename "SilentNight."
SilentNight was a worm that attacked on a set date. Starting up on 5 PM on December 24th, it disabled transmission functions on infected devices for 2 days. To be more exact, it ended all transmissions as soon as they began. As a result, the owner of the infected device would be temporarily deprived of not only phone calls, but emails, texts, online call services - any means of communication.
The codename SilentNight, then, was a play on how it was both a virus that activated on Christmas Eve, and one that took away communication from friends or loved ones, forcing them to spend a quiet Christmas night alone.
At the end of November, SilentNight was completed at last. Kousaka spread the mobile worm across the network. Depending on how you think of it, this could be called the beginning of everything. It was only a few days later that he realized what a fateful downward current he was stepping into.
The intercom sounded again. Kousaka stood up from his work chair. He felt like he might regret it if he pretended to be out. If he didn't clear up the visitor's identity and purpose here and now, he'd no doubt be tormented by an unfathomable unease in the weeks to come. And at any rate, they already knew his address and email, so it would be futile to hide.
The door camera was broken, so he'd need to look through the peephole to see his visitor's face. He cautiously left the living room and stood at the front door. Peeping through, he saw a man wearing a coat over a dark suit. Seeing the outfit, Kousaka's wariness lessened slightly. Certain suits and uniforms have a power of putting people at ease unconditionally.
After checking that the chain lock was on, he opened the door. As if anticipating that he'd be received from behind the chain lock, the man had moved to a position opposite the crack in the door.
The man was a good few inches taller than Kousaka. Kousaka was 5'8", which meant this man was 6' or more. He also had a solid physique. The Chester coat he wore over his suit may have originally been black, but appeared gray from dirtiness. His eyes had deep bags, and his jaw was covered with an unkempt beard, with white hairs mixed among oily ones. He had a friendly-looking smile, but his eyes seemed hollow.
"Hey," the man said. His voice was low and hoarse, but strong.
"Who would you be?", Kousaka asked over the chain. "What do you want at this hour?"
"Just like the email said. I want to talk about viruses."
Kousaka gulped. "Did you send that email?"
"Right," the man affirmed. "Can I come in? You don't want to be asked about it either, do you?"
Kousaka reached for the chain, then hesitated. True, like he said, he didn't want to be asked about it. But there was no guarantee that it was safe to let him in. From his clothes and vibe, Kousaka instinctively supposed that the man before him, if he was so inclined, could twist his arm with no difficulty. That he was used to such actions, and preferred easily-understood body language to annoying communication. He was ready to respond violently at any moment depending on my actions.
"You seem wary," the man said, seeing Kousaka's unease. "Well, maybe it'll be easier to talk that way rather than trying to relax. I don't intend to act in a rough way, but I guess you won't believe that from my mouth."
Kousaka's focus instantly turned to the room. And once more, the man saw right through him via his minor actions.
"Relax, I know about your cleanliness. I won't come past the entryway."
Kousaka was speechless, and his lip quivered.
"...You know that much?"
"Yeah. Now won't you let me in already? I'm freezing out here."
Kousaka hesitated, but finally gave up and carefully released the chain lock. True to his word, the man didn't set foot beyond the entryway, closed the door behind him, leaned on it, and sighed. He started to take a cigarette out of his pocket, but noticed Kousaka watching and put it away.
"It's not just you, really... Lots of young people these days like to be clean," the man said as if to himself. "I guess it figures since they're selling a product, but if you just look at commercials, it feels like everything is dirty. Sofas and mattresses are full of ticks, cutting boards and sponges are full of bacteria, smartphones and keyboards get dirty with use, your mouth after waking up smells worse than a steaming pile..." As he spoke, he took a lighter from his pocket and flicked it. "But since all that stuff surrounds us, I guess that means we've always been fine with it? Then isn't there nothing to worry about? I guess it's just what companies do. People make up problems that don't even exist."
Kousaka pressed him to get to the point. "...What did you want to talk about?"
"I'm here to threaten you," the man replied just as directly. "Kengo Kousaka, what you're doing is a clear criminal act. If you don't want to be prosecuted, you'll listen to what I say."
Kousaka kept silent. It was so sudden that he couldn't quite keep up, but he supposed this man had determined by some means that he was the author of the malware, and was here to threaten him over it.
If the man knew everything about the situation, there was nothing Kousaka could do. However, Kousaka considered, until it was clear how much he did and didn't know, he couldn't carelessly open his mouth more than necessary. It wasn't impossible that this man actually knew almost nothing about the malware, and was bluffing to try and extract information. There was still room for bargaining, perhaps.
"Your face is saying "how much does this guy know?"", the man said.
Kousaka kept his silence.
"I see." The man's expression changed slightly. Maybe it was a smile, maybe it was showing discontent. "To tell the truth, I don't possess full knowledge of everything. For instance, why the virus's activation date had to be Christmas Eve. Why someone with this much programming expertise hasn't kept a job and is absorbed in making viruses. I could go on and on with points that seem unclear."
In short, the man was saying "I know everything."
"...I thought I'd discreetly covered my tracks to not leave any evidence," Kousaka said with resignation. "I'm just asking out of pure curiosity, but how in the world did you determine the author of malware that hasn't caused any damage yet?"
"No obligation to tell you that."
He's right about that, Kousaka thought. No one would purposefully show their hand in this situation.
"But," the man continued, "I'll tell you just for the sake of your puny pride. It's true, you're a pretty tough customer in the virtual world. I'll admit that much. But on the other hand, you're totally defenseless in the real world. ...You should get what I'm saying from that alone, right?"
Something cold ran down Kousaka's spine. Thinking about it, for the past few months, he left at a set time and weekday every week to go shopping, and during that time, the house was left empty. And when the weather was good, he kept the curtains open all day (he had a powerful belief in the bacteria-killing effect of sunlight). So if someone felt like it, it wasn't impossible to peer into his personal life - to be concrete, someone could sneak into his room, or peek through a telescope.
"And to answer your earlier question," the man appended, "I didn't start my investigation convinced you were a cybercriminal. I was just gathering information to determine whether or not Kengo Kousaka was suitable. Since I found blackmail, I decided to shift to using that, but originally I intended to just hire you for money."
"Suitable? For what?"
"For what I'm here to talk about."
A silence fell between the two. The man seemed to be waiting for Kousaka to speak.
"...So what is it you came to threaten me to do?", Kousaka asked, half in desperation. "I don't think I can do much..."
"I'd appreciate if you made it quick. If you'll keep being honest like that, then I won't have to threaten you any more than necessary."
After a breath-long pause, the man broke the subject.
"Kengo Kousaka, I want you to look after a certain kid."
"Yes, a kid," he repeated.
I don't have too much hope for you, the man said as he left. Can't really blame him, Kousaka thought. Because this job really was a heavy burden for him. He disliked interacting with other people as it was, but he was especially bad with children and old people. The reason, of course, being "they seemed dirty."
But that said, he couldn't just give up from the get-go. If he couldn't fulfill this request, Kousaka wouldn't just be unemployed, he'd be unemployed with a criminal record.
Apparently, the kid's name was Hijiri Sanagi. Kousaka wasn't given any information beyond that.
His blackmailer also gave his own name: Izumi. Izumi's instructions were simple.
"At 5 PM tomorrow, go to Mizushina Park. Near the park, there'll be a kid feeding swans. That's Hijiri Sanagi."
Kousaka didn't quite understand the situation, but nodded for the time being.
"Your first duty is to become Hijiri Sanagi's friend."
Then Izumi appended a brief explanation of what the payment for success would be. The amount he specified was pretty big money to Kousaka at the moment.
Once Izumi left, Kousaka went around his room cleaning like mad. Just thinking about the possibility that someone had been intruding in there while he was out made him feel like he was losing his mind. But as much antiseptic as he used, the thick sense of an "other" wouldn't seem to go away.
The next night, Kousaka wore a coat, donned latex gloves on both hands, put on a disposable face mask, and placed disinfecting sheets and spray in his bag. Carefully checking the lock, he opened the door with a feeling of hopelessness.
It had been a long time since he'd left his holy ground past sunset. The air outside was piercingly cold, and his face and ears stung.
He chose to wear a suit so as not to make Hijiri Sanagi wary. Most people would be, if a stranger talked to them out of the blue. Even moreso at night. At times like these, a suit could give people a sense of relief. Kousaka was given this thought by taking into account his own experience last night.
He came to a stop on a sidewalk outside the train station. A small crowd had formed on the side of the road.
Peeking over their shoulders, he saw the onlookers were circled around a street performer. The performer was a man in his thirties, with a suitcase in front of him serving as a pedestal, on which marionettes danced. The man was making full use of all his fingers to control two marionettes at once. He's dexterous, Kousaka admired. A nearby cassette player played background music, "The Lonely Goatherd."
Kousaka watched the performance for a while. The marionettes had highly deformed designs, their facial features all different sizes, which took it past comical to grotesque. It seemed the male marionette chased the female marionette, or maybe the female marionette chased the male marionette, and as the two awkwardly kissed at the end, the music ended, and there was a round of applause.
With the audience feeling good, the puppeteer began to skillfully ask for payment. Once the other viewers left, Kousaka put a 1000-yen bill in the suitcase. The performer grinned, and said in a whisper:
May you have the puppets' protection.
Kousaka resumed walking. Luckily, the designated park was only a 30-minute walk from his apartment, so there was no need to use public transportation.
Kousaka had imagined, albeit faintly, that Hijiri Sanagi was a boy around ten years old. Just the look of the name, "Hijiri Sanagi" - and this was purely from Kousaka's assumption of how the name was written in kanji - seemed more masculine than not, and "sanagi" was the word for "chrysalis," which in his mind had more of an association with boys.
So it wasn't unreasonable that when he arrived at Mizushina Park and found the person in question, he was confused.
He first noticed the hair, dyed silver. It was short, platinum-blonde hair that could look ash-gray depending on the lighting, and her eyebrows were also slightly bleached. In addition, her skin was unhealthily pale, and her eyes were a stark black that sucked you in.
His gaze next went to the long legs coming out of her skirt. Despite the temperature being enough for breaths to turn white, she wore a short skirt that left her thighs exposed. She wore no tights or stockings, either. If Kousaka remembered correctly, she was wearing the girls' uniform from a high school in the area. She had a tartan scarf and an off-white cardigan on, but one couldn't imagine that these covered for how cold her legs must have been.
She was wearing thick monitor headphones like would be used in a studio. With their bland design, there was not even a chance of them being meant as a fashion statement. From the sound that seeped out, Kousaka supposed she was listening to old rock music.
Kousaka's gaze finally landed on the cigarette between her thin lips. At first, he couldn't tell whether or not they were frigid white breaths, but closer inspection revealed it was indeed smoke coming out of her mouth.
Hijiri Sanagi was a girl around seventeen years old. And not just any girl, but a type of girl Kousaka really couldn't deal with.
Sheesh, what was that Izumi expecting from me? Kousaka twisted his neck. What could have led him to the conclusion that I'd be suitable for this? He didn't even have a clue.
He just wanted to run, but that wouldn't fly. If he gave up his task already, Izumi might turn him in to the police any moment. While he did feel that wouldn't be entirely undeserved, he could at least try and fail first, and it wouldn't be too late to give up then.
No need to get nervous. It's not like I was told to seduce her and make her my lover. Just being friends will be enough.
He took off his face mask and put it in his pocket. Determined, he approached Sanagi.
Like Izumi said, Sanagi was standing near the lake and feeding swans. She took bread crusts out of a paper bag and threw them into the air, and the swans swarmed them all at once. She watched contentedly. She didn't seem to notice Kousaka beside her.
Not wanting to surprise her, he slowly entered her field of view and spoke.
After a few seconds, Sanagi looked toward him.
Facing her head-on, Kousaka couldn't help but admire Sanagi's appearance. Her figure made him imagine a female android created according to some clear design. Said design, however, wasn't meant to relax or soothe people, but to disturb and tense up anyone nearby.
"...What?", Sanagi asked, taking off her headphones and looking at him suspiciously.
Kousaka inadvertently looked away. It seemed his suit wasn't doing its job of easing her wariness. That figured. A schoolgirl in uniform being approached in the park at night by a young man in a suit was unnatural, no question. To put it lightly, it felt dangerous. Exercise clothes might have seemed more natural, at this rate.
"Can we talk for a second?", Kousaka asked, putting all his energy into a friendly smile. "Do you have time right now?"
"No," Sanagi replied lazily, cigarette in mouth. "I'm busy."
The natural response. Sanagi put her headphones back on and returned to her own world.
At this point, there was nothing Kousaka could do. The problem was something even more fundamental than the age gap or gender difference: he had never once endeavored to be friendly to another person.
Kousaka was at a loss. He couldn't think of his next move, so he followed Sanagi's example and watched the swans chase food from a fair distance away.
He disliked the majority of wild animals, but swans were one of few exceptions. Their bodies were all white, for one, but most importantly, they only appeared in winter. The way they always soaked in chilly water had a clean feeling to it. It was strictly his imagination, however, as this was actually because of pathogens in their bodies.
He took another look around the park. The lamps illuminating the snow-covered park made it seem like the whole place had a faint pale glow. Listening closely, he heard not only swans, but snow falling from branches to the ground. He closed his eyes and focused on such sounds.
He heard a sigh. Sanagi took her headphones off again and looked his way. Kousaka's eyes wandered from the piercingly sharp gaze. For a moment, he saw a blue earring glinting on Sanagi's ear.
"Hey, what do you want with me?"
This was no time to carefully consider words. I have to say something and make her less wary, Kousaka thought, and so he opened his mouth.
"I want to be friends with you."
It struck him as shady once he'd said it. Just the kind of line someone approaching with impure motives would say. Wasn't there some better way of expressing it? He could hardly make a case if she went running to the police to say "a suspicious man called out to me."
Sanagi looked at Kousaka with emotionless eyes. There was a long silence. She sucked on her cigarette and dropped the ash with an experienced motion. Then she kept staring at Kousaka as if appraising him.
Just say something already, anything, Kousaka pleaded silently. The cold sweat under his arms was unpleasant. He wanted to give up on this idiocy, go back to the apartment, and take a shower. He longed for his sacred grounds full of air purifiers and antiseptic.
After a while, Sanagi discarded her now-short cigarette by her feet. The flame went out immediately as it touched the ground wet from the snow.
"I guess Izumi asked you, right?", Sanagi asked listlessly, letting out a final puff of smoke. "You're the seventh one so far."
The smoke Sanagi let out was carried on the wind, and Kousaka covered his mouth at once.
Then a moment later, he guessed the meaning of "the seventh one."
"...You mean there have been others before me he's asked to be friendly with you?", Kousaka asked.
"Huh, Izumi didn't tell you anything?"
Kousaka revealed everything with resignation. "He just told me to "look after a kid." I assumed you were like a ten-year-old boy, so I was confused when I saw you."
"Then we're in the same boat. I never imagined he'd send a guy as old as you over. Wonder what he's thinking?" Sanagi scratched her chin with annoyance. "What's your name?"
"Izumi threatened you into doing what he says too, didn't he? Hey, what weakness is he exploiting from you?"
He hesitated briefly, but decided to answer honestly. Even if he kept his silence here, Sanagi would just get it out of Izumi.
"He's letting some criminal behavior of mine slide."
Sanagi showed great interest in those two words. "Criminal behavior?"
"Cybercrime. I made a computer virus and spread it."
"Why'd you do that?"
"Because I like to. It's a hobby."
"Hmph. A hobby." Sanagi furrowed her brow, finding it hard to understand.
"By the way, what's your relation with that man?"
"I dunno. Parent and child?"
"Parent and child," Kousaka repeated. "I don't mean to stick my nose in someone's family matters, but were you ever taught to show respect to your parents at your house?"
"It might be parent-in-law and child."
"...Well, you don't have to answer if you don't want."
Kousaka turned around, putting his back to a fence, and looked up at the night sky. Just then, he discovered what looked like a bird's nest in the branches up above him. But it was too well-formed for a bird's nest, and a little too big. Maybe it's mistletoe, he concluded. He'd heard there were parasitic organisms that inhabited cherry trees and the like and stole nutrients.
Sanagi seemed to remember something and spoke up.
"Oh yeah, did Izumi say he'd pay you?"
Kousaka nodded. "If this job went well, sure."
Kousaka quietly informed her of the amount.
"That's quite a bit."
"Yeah. It's a small fortune to me right now."
Then Sanagi extended a hand toward Kousaka.
The sight of her throwing bread crumbs barehanded crossed his mind, and he stepped back without thinking.
However, she wasn't seeking a handshake.
"Give me half," Sanagi casually demanded. "Then I'll be your friend."
"...Is that what friends say?"
"A man like you and a girl like me becoming friends needs that kind of value. Common sense, right?"
"Is that how it is...?"
"That it is," Sanagi stated confidently. "If you don't want to, I don't mind. I don't care what you do."
"Got it. I'll pay." Kousaka readily accepted the demands of the girl years younger than him. Then he asked, taking a look around: "...By the way, you won't let Izumi hear about this part, will you?"
"Yeah, it's fine."
"How can you say that for sure?"
"By having years of experience," she answered. "Now, hand over the money quick."
"...Can't it wait until after I get my payment?"
"No. If you can't pay upfront, I can't trust you."
"I don't have much on hand. Can you wait until next time we meet?"
"Sure, but don't try to fool me. If you offend me, I'll go to the police and tell them everything that did and didn't happen."
"I'm not lying. I'll have it ready by next time."
"Then I'll come see you tomorrow. Tell me your address."
Kousaka winced. What a forceful girl. He told Sanagi the apartment address, and she entered it into her smartphone. It seemed she was checking the location with a map application.
"It's in walking distance from here," Sanagi said to herself. "When do you get home?"
"Anytime... so, what's your job?"
"Then why are you wearing a suit?"
He didn't care to explain, so Kousaka just replied "For show."
Sanagi had an expression of deep shock, but immediately muttered "Well, I guess I can't speak ill of others" and glanced toward her own outfit. Kousaka waited for further words, but she'd already wrapped things up for herself.
"You know, I was wanting somewhere to kill time all day. Loitering around outside on weekdays would get me escorted home."
"You don't go to school?"
Sanagi ignored that question. Kousaka figured it was a pointless question, too. A proper student who attended class wouldn't have hair dyed this color or earrings.
"I'll come visit at whatever time tomorrow. Bye-bye."
With that, Sanagi put her headphones back on, turned her back to Kousaka, and began to walk. He hastily cried "Hold on," but his voice was overpowered by the music.
This has gotten worrying, Kousaka thought.
His holy ground was in danger.
Chapter 3: The Lady Who Loved Insects
Kousaka first got a girlfriend in autumn when he was 19. He was introduced to a girl two years his elder by a not-particularly-friendly high school acquaintance, and by going with the flow, they started dating. Her appearance, personality, hobbies, skills, you name it, were completely average. He couldn't even remember her face very well now. All that was left in his memories was that she had short hair, and her face dimpled when she smiled.
Before they started their acquaintance, Kousaka decided to be frank about his cleaning habits. He explained that it was serious enough to impede regular life, but she just smiled and accepted it.
"That's okay. I'm kind of a clean freak myself, so I'm sure we'll get along."
It wasn't a lie, really. She was rather clean-loving. She always carried around various anti-bacteria products, washed her hands frequently, and took one or two - on days off, three - showers a day.
But compared to Kousaka, she really was nothing more than "clean-loving." It was just a strong attention to hygiene, and decisively different from the compulsions he had.
Her theory was that even the most fastidious person could get over most obstacles as long as they had trust. Kousaka insisted that no matter how much they might trust each other, if he "can't," he can't - but she rebutted that this simply meant there wasn't enough trust. She viewed the fact that as much as time passed, he wouldn't kiss her, much less hold hands, as proof of insufficient love. While it was true there was a lack of love, she wouldn't lend an ear as he tried to make her understand the more fundamental problem.
Their semi-similar personalities made for calamity. She was convinced she understood fastidiousness, and had a kind of pride in her own love of cleanliness. The actions of Kousaka's that went beyond her understanding - washing change after getting home, discarding pens he lent to others, taking a day off class just because of a light drizzle - she decided for herself that these arose not from a fear of the unclean, but a different mental cause.
She wasn't a bad person, but she had a fatal lack of imagination. It was a miracle their relationship even lasted three months. After breaking up with her, he didn't find anyone new. His first and last lover. Well, then again, maybe there wasn't any love there at all.
Hijiri Sanagi visited the room at 2 PM. The intercom sounded, followed by a sound like the door was being kicked down. He unlocked the door and opened it to find Sanagi standing there with her hands in her cardigan's pockets, pursing her lips with displeasure.
"You should leave it unlocked. You want the others to see me come in?"
"My bad," Kousaka apologized.
"I assume you've got the money?"
He handed Sanagi an envelope, and she opened it and checked it on the spot. Once certain the specified amount was inside, she put it back and placed it in her bag.
"As promised, I'll be your friend." Sanagi grinned. "Let's get along."
"Yes, let's," Kousaka politely replied. "That aside, before you come in the room, there's one thing I want to ask..."
He was going to ask her to wait so he could get wet wipes to at least clean her exposed skin with, but it was too late. She threw off her loafers, ignored the slippers Kousaka prepared for her, went into the living room, and sat down on the bed like it was her own. Kousaka nearly shrieked.
"Wait, please, not the bed, okay?", Kousaka begged, pointing to his work chair. "If you're going to sit, use that."
Kousaka's pleas were in vain, and Sanagi lied face-down on the bed, put a pillow under her chin, and began to read a book from her bag. Kousaka cradled his head. This is the worst. He'd have to wash those sheets and the pillow cover once she left.
"Incidentally, how long do you plan on staying here?"
"About two hours," Sanagi answered without looking up from her book.
"Err... and what should I do during that time?"
"Don't ask me. Make a computer virus or something?"
Then Sanagi put on headphones and started listening to music. She had no intent whatsoever of striking up communication with Kousaka.
Kousaka sat in the work chair, turned away from the bed, and opened a book he'd been reading. He wasn't in the mood for reading, but he didn't know what else to do. A few pages in, he heard the sound of a lighter clicking behind him. He turned around to see Sanagi trying to light a cigarette.
"No cigarettes," he warned, standing up in a hurry to speak into her ear. "Please, just endure it while you're in this room."
Sanagi reluctantly shut the lighter and put the cigarette in her mouth back in the case. Kousaka sighed with relief. Still, what a thing to do to put back a cigarette she'd already put in her mouth. Didn't she find that filthy? Well, surely someone with such hygiene attitudes wouldn't smoke in the first place.
After being informed of the no-smoking rules, Sanagi obediently read on the bed. Kousaka wondered what kind of book she was reading and tried to look, but the writing was too small to tell, and a leather cover obscured the front of the book.
Kousaka opened his book again. But he couldn't focus on the words, and staring at the blank space on the page, began to think about things unrelated to the book's contents.
Ultimately, what did that Izumi person hire me for? What kind of role was he expecting me to fill for Sanagi? Izumi was saying he "wanted me to look after a kid." And then said to "be friends with Hijiri Sanagi." And it seemed she didn't diligently attend school much at all. From all of these, maybe it was proper to assume that my intended role was "someone who, as a friend, can help the school-skipping Hijiri Sanagi return to school."
But then, Izumi's use of the word "suitable" made me wonder. I can't imagine I'd be considered "suitable" if what you want is someone who can guide a delinquent student. Though granted, I might be a superb bad example.
Or maybe I should look at it more simply than that. Maybe Hijiri Sanagi's parents indulge her, silently consenting to her skipping school, but are hiring people to be friends so she doesn't get bored. In that case, the "suitability" would mean being friends who are unsuited to society like her. Surprisingly, this felt closest to the truth.
But in any event, putting an underage girl in the care of a 27-year-old man was certainly not proper. Did Izumi or Sanagi's parents understand that she was in my room?, Kousaka wondered. Perhaps Izumi chose me to be a friend because he knew my cleanliness guaranteed he wouldn't even touch a woman? If so, his judgement was extremely apt. I couldn't lay a finger on Hijiri Sanagi even if I was asked to. Maybe that could be considered suitability, too.
After about an hour, Sanagi took off her headphones, and Kousaka asked a question, having waited for her to do so.
"Hey, Hijiri-chan, what role do you think Izumi wants me to fill?"
"Who knows. Maybe he thinks you could help me rehabilitate?", Sanagi said, turning over on the bed. "Also, don't ever say "Hijiri-chan." It's gross."
"I was asked to look after you, but what exactly should I do for that?"
"Don't do anything," Sanagi spat coldly. "It's best to just keep fooling Izumi's eyes like this and wait until he gives up. Don't think I'm seriously going to try and be friends. It's impossible anyway."
"...Understood," Kousaka nodded. That seemed safest, like she said.
"Oh, but," she appended. "I guess I will trade contact info with you. If I don't, Izumi will find it unnatural."
Sanagi held out her smartphone. Kousaka took it, face twitching.
Kousaka followed the instruction and registered his number on her phone. He faintly expected it, but there were only three people in her address book. And those three numbers didn't even have names assigned to them, to boot. She didn't seem like the most sociable sort.
Once done, Kousaka quietly washed his hands with disinfectant. Who knows what's on other people's belongings. Especially things they use daily.
Once two hours had passed, Sanagi closed her book, put it in her bag, and left the room. Kousaka put the the sheets in the washing machine and went around cleaning everything, then showered for about an hour.
Sanagi had said "I'll come around 6 PM tomorrow." This is no joke, Kousaka grieved. At this rate, his holy grounds would be completely dirtied. Wasn't there some way to prevent contamination? His ideal would have been for Sanagi to take a quick shower and change into clean clothes before entering the living room, but it would unquestionably just annoy her to make such a request. Besides, it may have just caused unwanted misunderstandings.
In the end, he came up with no good ideas. The next day, and the day after, Sanagi spread filth around his room. She might have not had any ill intentions, but as a result, Kousaka became neurotic about it and couldn't sleep at night. His room was losing its function as a holy ground. Sanagi always lied in the middle of the bed, so he started sleeping in the corners. He nearly fell to the floor many times while getting accustomed to it, but eventually learned how to properly position himself.
Maybe if he just said the words "I'm a clean freak," Sanagi might have shown a little consideration. However, since breaking up with his girlfriend, Kousaka had never revealed it to anyone. Not only that, he took great efforts to not do anything compulsive where people were watching. His efforts were successful enough that at some of his workplaces, there were people who didn't realize he had any such disorder. They merely thought of him as a person who was often late to work and bad at socializing.
"If my being a clean freak was common knowledge, then maybe I would have some small relief from my difficulties" - such thoughts never crossed his mind. But it wasn't like it was selective obstinacy. People with obsessive-compulsive disorders always try to keep such thoughts and actions hidden from others.
Being aware of your own abnormality is a feature of this disorder. Those who have it don't try to "make others understand." Because they acknowledge they won't be able to have people's understanding. But despite having that level of objectivity toward themselves, that doesn't mean they can stop their compulsions. Rational arguments are all but meaningless. Pharmacotherapy using SSRIs and exposure response prevention therapy are said to be effective treatments, but Kousaka tried them during college, and it only seemed to make things worse.
It was questionable whether Sanagi noticed his disorder or not. Sometimes she would smell the antiseptic scent and complain "Smells like an infirmary," but that was all.
Belying her appearance of silver hair and earrings, Hijiri Sanagi was a bookworm. She might not have had any interest in novels and poems, though, as she read nothing but technical books and science magazines. Once, she fell asleep with her book open, so Kousaka was able to sneak a peek inside. The book she was reading then was about parasitic diseases.
He later had more chances to peek at what she was reading, and found that 90% of the books Sanagi read were about parasites. It appeared she had an unparalleled interest in them.
Kousaka recalled a story from the Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari he'd studied in high school, The Lady Who Loved Insects. It was about a strange noble girl who was blessed with beauty, yet did not use cosmetics nor blacken her teeth, but just stared at caterpillars. It seemed a fitting nickname for this girl who was treated by Izumi overbearingly like a princess, and read nothing but books about parasites.
Silver hair, pierced ears, short skirts, cigarettes, and parasites. To Kousaka, they were all symbols of impurity, and he would consider Hijiri Sanagi a manifestation of all of them put together. Meanwhile, Sanagi had no interest in Kousaka from the start, and didn't expect anything from him beyond providing her a room to kill time in. Even though they were close together, a tall, thick wall stood between them.
A week passed after he met Sanagi.
Usually, the intercom would sound, and Sanagi would open the door to come in immediately after, but today was different. Even once the intercom's echo faded, the door hadn't budged. Kousaka concluded that this visitor was not Sanagi.
He went to open the door, and found it was indeed Izumi. Once again, he wore a drab Chester coat over a worn suit. As usual, his hair was oily, and he had a beard resulting from neglecting shaving for two days or so.
Kousaka silently let Izumi inside and closed the door. Then he carefully passed by so as not to touch him, and turned away from the living room to face him.
"Seems you really hit it off with Hijiri Sanagi," Izumi commended with folded arms. "I didn't have any hope for you at all, but you've done pretty good, huh?"
"Thanks," Kousaka said bluntly. He figured it was wise to stay quiet about bribing her.
"I'd like to know for reference, just how did you approach her? I figure just making her feel comfortable must have been an ordeal."
"I just asked her to be my friend," Kousaka said, yawning. Due to days without sleep, his eyes were fogged over and his head was numb.
He furrowed his brow. "Hey now, you're kidding, right? Just that got Hijiri Sanagi to keep coming to your house?"
"What reason would I have to lie?" Kousaka feigned ignorance, and Izumi snorted.
"I dunno what trick you pulled, but it's a big deal. You may be a jobless criminal good-for-nothing, but you've got a knack for kidnapping young girls." He clapped mockingly for Kousaka.
"Well then, let's move on to your next mission."
Kousaka stared blankly, at a loss for words. Next mission? Was becoming friends with Sanagi not the end? Don't tell me that after this was done, there'd be another mission, and once that was done... on and on like that?
Izumi informed him.
"Find out Hijiri Sanagi's worries. Of course, I don't want you to force it out of her, but naturally get her to tell you."
"Worries?", Kousaka repeated to confirm. "Does she have such a thing?"
"Sure she does. Nobody's without worry. All the more true for a girl around her age. Worrying's like your job then."
"That may be true in a general sense, but..."
"That said, I don't want you to find out if her skin's been bad lately, or her lunulae are a little bigger than normal people's, or the creases on her left and right eyes are in different places - any trivial worries like that, there's no point. What you need to find out is the reason for her lack of attendance."
Kousaka thought for a moment, then asked. "Is it not simply that she finds school annoying, for instance?"
Izumi grinned, but it was a somehow aggressive-feeling grin.
"As I thought. You're so sensitive to your own pain, but have such dull senses for the pain of others. That's the kind of guy you are," he said with a cynical look at Kousaka. "So I'm gonna emphasize for you here, Hijiri Sanagi's more of a normal girl than you think. And if a normal girl's dressing in a way that's not normal and doing things that aren't normal, that means something non-normal is happening to her."
Izumi took a step toward Kousaka and spoke overbearingly.
"And I'll give you one more warning. If you try to fool me, or you hurt Hijiri Sanagi, it won't end at telling people about the virus. You might be driven into a situation more stressful than you've ever dealt with before. Beat that into your head."
Kousaka nodded meekly.
But just a few hours later, he would unintentionally hurt Hijiri Sanagi.
Once Izumi left, Sanagi appeared as if taking his place. She didn't even glance at Kousaka, the room's owner, lied down on the bed which had become her personal seat, bundled up the pillow to put under her chin, and opened a book. I feel like a ghost bound to this place, Kousaka thought. Maybe I'm the spirit of a man who killed himself in this room, and hasn't realized he's dead yet. Ownership had already changed over to Hijiri Sanagi, but she was mistaking me as a visitor. That was a rather pleasing idea.
However, he couldn't indulge in considering himself a ghost forever. Now, Kousaka had a mission to find out the reason why Sanagi wasn't attending school. He would have to somehow initiate a dialogue with her, skillfully get to the subject of school, and have her naturally reveal the reason.
While he thought about how he could break the subject, his gaze was unconsciously focused on Sanagi. She took off her headphones, looked up, and belligerently said "What? Is there something you want to say?"
"Nothing like that." Kousaka hurriedly averted his eyes, and gave an on-the-spot excuse. "Um, I noticed you're wearing that earring again today."
"When I saw it before, I thought it was pretty. That's all, nothing else."
Sanagi blinked with suspicion. Then as if having forgotten about the earring's existence until just now, she gently touched her ear and felt it.
"Want to get a closer look?"
"...No, that's fine."
"I see." Sanagi put her headphones back on and returned to reading.
Her suggestion came as a surprise. Based on her usual attitude, the natural response would have been being ignored or disparaged.
Kousaka imagined. Maybe that blue flower-shaped earring has some special meaning to Sanagi. If someone complimented it, no matter who, it must have made her happy.
Truthfully, Kousaka didn't like earrings. Opening up holes in your body seemed unbelievable, and sticking something artificial in there seemed all too prone to bacteria. Did she take it out daily and disinfect it?
It wasn't only earrings; he had similar thoughts about wristwatches, smartphones, bags, glasses, and headphones. Even if you took daily showers, wouldn't it be pointless if the things you wore were dirty?
Kousaka turned his chair away from Sanagi, pulled himself together, and began to think how to ask about her worries. If he asked too directly, she might see through it and notice Izumi had put him up to it. How could I bring the conversation there naturally? I mean, I've never even had a regular chat with her.
Then Kousaka rethought it. There's no reason to do everything the way Izumi says. Moving from one lie to two was no big difference. I could be honest and tell Sanagi "Izumi gave me this instruction," discuss it with her, and pay to have her cooperation. Wasn't it that simple?
Kousaka stood up and said close to Sanagi's ear, "Sanagi, I wanted to talk about something."
"What is this this time?" She slid down her headphones and looked up at him.
"Izumi gave me a new instruction today. He told me to ask you the reason you aren't going to school in a natural way."
"Won't you help me out? You don't even have to tell me the truth. You can just fabricate a reason that'll convince Izumi."
Sanagi's response came after a significant delay. There was an irritating silence, like when trying to talk to a virtual assistant in a place with bad reception.
"He told you to ask in a natural way, right?" Sanagi turned her cheek away from Kousaka. "So why not ask me naturally?"
"I don't think I'll be able to do that, which is why I'm just asking. I'll give you suitable payment."
"I don't want to answer," Sanagi stated plainly.
"You can lie."
"I don't want to lie."
In other words, she didn't want to cooperate. Kousaka considered other things he could offer, but soon gave up and sat in his chair. There was no rush. Maybe she'd just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed today. Probing deeply now would just upset her. I'll ask another day, he thought.
It must have been the sleep deprivation; at some point, he fell asleep in his chair.
He felt something off about his shoulder. At first, he thought it was just an itch. But the feeling gradually became more solid. Something was poking Kousaka's shoulder. Soon, he realized it was someone's finger.
His hair stood up on end.
Kousaka acted reflexively. He batted away the hand poking his shoulder. When he did, he felt his overly-long index finger nail scratch the person's skin somewhere. He heard a small groan, which woke him up at once.
Sanagi's face was scrunched in pain, and she held a hand over her right cheek, scratched by Kousaka. When she removed her hand, he saw a wound about a centimeter long bleeding dark red blood. She slowly looked at the blood on her palm, then slowly looked toward Kousaka.
I did it again,
"...I was just going to say I was leaving," Sanagi said without inflection. "Did you hate me touching you that much?"
Kousaka hastily apologized, but Sanagi wouldn't hear it. With a scornful glare, she took her bag and left the room, slamming the door shut.
Kousaka just stood there for a while. The slamming sound of the door kept echoing deep within his ears. Then he remembered something, took off the bed sheets and pillow cover, went to the bathroom, and took off his clothes. He tossed them all in the washing machine, hit the switch, and took a shower.
She'll probably never come here again.
So he thought.
Kousaka couldn't speak about his obsessive cleanliness this late on. It had been a reaction he would demonstrate to anyone, not a special dislike of being touched by Sanagi. If he did honestly confess it to her, she might just take it as a poor excuse... but it would still be far better than not explaining anything. It was even possible that she would later see how it shed light on Kousaka's actions and behavior, and in time understand.
However, he had already let that chance slip by. It's all over now, Kousaka thought deeply. Izumi won't forgive me for hurting Sanagi both physically and emotionally.
After showering and returning to the living room, Kousaka came to a stop. He was too distraught to notice earlier, but there were a few bloodstains on the floor. They must have dripped off the wound on Sanagi's face. He squatted down and looked closely.
Since he considered other people a symbol of impurity, blood was a very detestable thing. Normally, he would have wiped it up without a second thought. However, for some reason, he felt as if these bloodstains should be left there. It wasn't quite as "punishment." He didn't quite understand it himself, but maybe the more appropriate term would be "commemoration," he thought.
He sat in his chair, staring endlessly at the stains. Then he thought, I shouldn't be doing this; I'll think about something more fun.
...Yes, like SilentNight, for instance. That worm has already scattered to all corners of the mobile network. Whatever happens to me now, likely no one will be able to stop the force of SilentNight. Even if Izumi goes running to a security firm right now, it's probably too late. On December 24th, the worm should definitely activate and render a large number of smartphones useless. The streets should be filled with people who can't meet up with their friends. He felt so comfortable picturing it.
Of course, it wouldn't just be a simple prank. While SilentNight was designed to make an exception that restored communications when an emergency number was called, there could be people whose lives were ruined by the effects of this worm. Even fatalities wouldn't be surprising. If his criminal acts were discovered, he would bear a heavy sin.
But do I care?, Kousaka harshly thought. There's hardly anything left for me to lose. He couldn't even find meager memories to cling onto.
For a few days afterward, Kousaka led an even more decadent life than before. He didn't even touch his computer anymore, sleeping in the corner of his bed and quietly waiting for judgement to be passed down on him. The only things he did were clean and do a series of washing rituals. He found eating a chore, not putting anything in his mouth but water and functional nutritional food. After four days, he ran out of food, so he only lived on water. And he left the blood that fell from Sanagi's cheek in its conspicuous location.
It wasn't the first time his disorder had caused injury to someone. He had made mistakes similar to this one many a time. There were too many minor incidents to count. He naturally came to be disliked by most people, but what was more painful was when he did things of the utmost rudeness to the occasional person who extended their hand cordially.
Their expressions when he wounded them had all burned themselves into Kousaka's mind, without exception. If it had just been a misunderstanding that angered them or made them hate him, he could cover his ears and hang his head. But the guilt of denying a simple gesture of kindness couldn't be rid of, not even by that superb doctor known as time.
Usually, Sanagi had left the room without a word when going home, so her trying to wake Kousaka up to say goodbye might have been a sign that she'd opened her heart to him after he complimented her earring. If that was the case, then he really had stomped all over her good will.
Just how long will I keep repeating this?, Kousaka wondered. "Someone might as well kill me off while I sleep," he tried saying aloud. That idea he voiced on a whim resounded in his mind, feeling perfectly right. No doubt this is what I really want, he felt.
In that case, what have I been living these 27 years for?
Maybe they were 27 years of looking for a way to die. I can't find a way to live, so I at least want to settle on how I'll die. If that theory is correct, then as long as I find a suitable way, I can move to carrying it out at any moment.
Kousaka had a crystal-clear image. He wakes up in a bed at a school infirmary. The room is dark, and totally silent. There are cloudy skies outside, and looking closely, he can see it's snowing. It doesn't look as if there's anyone but him here, but he can feel a sort of disturbance in the air from someone leaving a moment ago. Listening close, he hears doors opening and closing, and footsteps. All of them sound so far away. ...Was I sleeping for a while? He gets uneasy, and looks up at the clock. Perhaps the whole day went by while I slept? But he's worrying over nothing, as it's only 4 PM. It's still fine to sleep. Relieved, he lies back down, wraps himself in the blanket, and softly closes his eyes. And he never wakes up again.
It'd be nice to die like that, he thought.
The call came the afternoon of December 10th, four days after Sanagi stopped coming to the room. When Kousaka heard the sound, he almost unconsciously grabbed the smartphone, and seeing the words "Hijiri Sanagi" on screen, immediately pressed the call button.
"Hello," he said into the phone.
There was a long blank. As he was starting to question if Sanagi's phone was malfunctioning, she finally spoke.
"I'm under Sagae Bridge."
Kousaka searched his memories. He felt like one of the bridges over the river which separated the residential area his apartment was in and the central part of town was named that.
"And?", he asked.
"Come meet me."
Maybe it was just because it was over the phone, but her voice seemed weak, without the usual thorniness.
"...Sorry, but I can't deal with the outside."
"I know. But I want you to come."
"Please," Sanagi appended. Kousaka wondered if this was actually Hijiri Sanagi he was talking with. He couldn't believe that girl would be this modest.
"Got it," he casually affirmed. He didn't get the situation, but he could tell it was pressing. "I'll head right there. I think I'll be there in thirty minutes."
"...Thank you," Sanagi said in a wispy voice.
After hanging up, Kousaka donned a face mask and latex gloves, checked that he had his anti-bacterial goods in his bag, and left the apartment fully prepared.
Likely as a result of having the curtains closed all the time he'd been indoors, his eyes just couldn't adjust to the brightness, despite the sunlight not being particularly strong. The sun reflected off the snow piled on the ground, continually pricking him in the eyes. He should have only lost weight in these past few days of unhealthy living, but his body felt heavy. His muscles must have weakened.
Though the trip would have been ten minutes by bus, he spent many times longer walking that distance. Finally, Sagae Bridge came into sight. He went down the embankment stairs and along the sidewalk. By the pier of the bridge, he saw someone crouching and hiding their face.
Kousaka spoke from beside her, and Sanagi slowly looked up. It was dark from the shadow of the bridge, but he could plainly see how unhealthy her face looked. Though it was the middle of winter, her neck was wet with sweat.
"Are you feeling sick?"
Sanagi shook her head. It seemed to indicate "no, but it's hard to explain."
"Can you stand?"
She stayed silent. Rather than not wanting to answer, it seemed she wasn't sure of the answer herself.
"There's no rush," Kousaka said with concern for her. "I'll wait until you're better."
Kousaka nervously sat down about 50 centimeters away from Sanagi. Truthfully, he wanted to leave this damp and stagnant place as soon as possible, but he thought it would be too cruel to rush her right now.
A good hour passed, and Sanagi finally got up. Kousaka stood up after her, and she modestly grabbed the sleeve of his coat. He was able to bear that level of indirect contact.
The two began to walk. Suddenly, Kousaka realized the headphones Sanagi always wore were nowhere to be found. Maybe that was what made her look so defenseless today.
For a while after arriving at the apartment, Sanagi held her knees on the bed. Kousaka tried asking if she wanted something warm to drink, but she didn't respond. Soon the sun started to set, so he went to turn on the lights, but Sanagi said "Don't turn on the lights." He withdrew his arm.
Nearly an hour passed after that. The sun fully set, so the room was pitch black except for the unpleasantly bright computer and router lights.
Sanagi stood up with no previous notice and flipped the lightswitch. The pale artificial light lit every corner of the room, and everything's shape became clear. Then she went back to bed and lied down with the pillow under her chin as usual. But she didn't open a book.
"What happened?", Kousaka asked.
Sanagi started to turn, then gave up part-way and sunk her chin back into the pillow.
"There's some reason you can't go back home alone, right?"
After a long pause, Sanagi acknowledged it. "Yeah."
"...Um," she spoke. "I'm scared of making eye contact with people."
"What do you mean?"
Then Sanagi explained, in a halting manner.
"I'm totally aware it's overly self-conscious. But it's just no good. Every person I meet, it feels like they're staring right at me. But I mean, it's not their gaze itself that's the problem... See, when you think "I'm being looked at," you look their way too, right? And when you do, even if they were actually looking someplace else, they feel your eyes on them and look at you. When I make eye contact like that... it feels so bad, I can't describe it in words. Like someone stomping around your house in dirty shoes, rummaging through your closets and drawers - that kind of unpleasant feeling hits me."
Kousaka was taken aback. Now that she mentioned it, from the time they met until now, he'd hardly made eye contact with Sanagi. Their eyes had crossed paths for an instant numerous times, but maybe there was no moment that could really be called "eye contact."
Sanagi went on. "But that doesn't mean I can just never go outside, or walk around with my eyes closed, right? I tried to see if there was anything I could do, and found out that relying on certain objects can lessen your symptoms. I tried a bunch of things, but... for some reason, the most effective thing wasn't glasses or a face mask or a hat, but headphones."
"Ah..." Kousaka nodded with understanding. "So that's why you always wore such big headphones?"
"Yeah. Doesn't make much sense to cover my ears because I'm scared of eye contact, huh." Sanagi laughed self-derisively.
"Nah." Kousaka shook his head. "I think I get it."
He wasn't lying. He knew all too well from his own experience just how illogical compulsions could be, and it wasn't Kousaka's first time hearing about scopophobia. In the process of reading through books about mysophobia, he acquired knowledge of other compulsive disorders whether he wanted to or not. He had read somewhere about people who couldn't walk through crowds without headphones. And about people who were scared of people looking at them, yet purposefully dressed strangely and dyed their hair conspicuous colors.
Kousaka could understand their feelings to an extent. The reason headphones proved more effective at surpressing Sanagi's scopophobia than sunglasses or face masks was probably that occupying her sense of hearing diluted the feeling of "being there." And she might have purposefully dyed her hair a flashy color and dressed in an attention-grabbing way to protect her fragile heart, or perhaps as a feint of sorts for those around her. Like an insect that mimics the dangerous coloration of a wasp to avoid predators, if she acted like a delinquent at least in appearance - while it might get more eyes on her - it would reduce the instances of actual eye contact.
"I see... Scopophobia...", Kousaka affirmed once more. "I didn't notice at all until you told me. You hid it well."
"...Maybe in front of you. But it doesn't go like that with others." Sanagi snuck a look at Kousaka, then turned back. "You don't try to look people in the eye when you talk, do you?"
She was exactly right. While it didn't go as far as scopophobia, Kousaka was also poor at looking people in the eye (though naturally, the reason wasn't finding other people's gaze scary, but not wanting to look directly at their dirtiness).
At this point, he finally realized what Izumi meant by "suitability." In short, this girl would only get along with cowards who couldn't look her in the eye.
Sanagi slowly began to tell the circumstances leading up to her calling Kousaka.
This afternoon, she headed for the library like usual. While returning a book she'd checked out and looking for a new one to borrow, all of a sudden, she noticed her scopophobia symptoms were less severe than usual. Maybe going to visit Kousaka daily was now starting to show its effect.
She stopped and thought. While I'm rehabilitating, how about I read here in the library? It being a day off, the library was rather crowded, but maybe it would be more effective training to have this stimuli.
Sanagi sat in an empty seat and opened her book. At first, she wasn't able to focus due to glances she was only imagining, but she gradually narrowed her vision and could focus only on the words.
After reading about halfway, she decided to take a break. She stood up to loosen her stiff body, and wandered around between the bookcases. She liked walking around the library like this for no particular reason. She enjoyed taking books she had no interest in the contents of and just checking their binding, shape, weight, smell, and feel.
It couldn't have been three minutes since she left her seat. But when she came back, something important was missing. The headphones she'd hung on the chair were nowhere to be found.
Sanagi immediately looked around. The book she was reading was there on the seat, and her other belongings were still there, so it seemed unlikely that the headphones were considered a lost item and taken away. They'd been stolen.
She cursed her carelessness for getting out of her seat and leaving her headphones behind. Without those, she couldn't walk through crowds or ride the train - how could she have neglected them?
She put the book in her bag and left the library with an uncertain gait. Should I take an hour walking home, or endure and take the train? Both felt equally difficult. I'll take this optimistically, she told herself. You could think of this like my chance. Once I overcome this trial, I'll know for sure my disorder has gotten much better than before.
But not five minutes after leaving the library, her heart was torn to shreds. She couldn't remember how she'd walked around outside before. What expression she had, where she placed her gaze, how fast she walked, how she swung her hands. The more she thought about it, the more awkward it felt, and her scopophobia intensified. To get away, she went off the road and down stairs, hid under Sagae Bridge, and grasping at straws, called Kousaka.
That was the end of the story.
"...I thought I was getting better," Sanagi mumbled at the end.
For a while, Kousaka listened to her sob.
He knew painfully well how it felt to lose confidence and become timid after a fit like this. And he knew that consolation with words had almost no effect at these times. So Kousaka was silent. He'd let her keep crying.
But contrary to his expectations, Sanagi quickly stopped crying. She wiped her tears, took a deep breath, sat up and turned over, and sat on the edge of the bed. And for a moment, she gave Kousaka a meaningful glance.
Maybe Sanagi's expecting something from me. Or maybe I want to do something for her, so I'm projecting it onto her glance. Either way, the conclusion was the same. I should
do something for Sanagi, Kousaka thought firmly. Unlike me, she's at an age where she still has a lot to sort out, where you're fragile and easily-hurt. Now is the time she needs support the most.
Kousaka sat down next to Sanagi. And he timidly offered his hand. His bare hand, since he'd taken off his gloves on returning to the room. And he touched Sanagi's head.
Instantly, numerous disgusting words like "pores," "oily skin," "keratin," "staphylococcus epidermidis," and "Demodex folliculorum" ran through his head. But Kousaka temporarily put them off with a shudder. If he was going to scream, he would do so as much as he liked after she left. But now wasn't the time.
Sanagi lifted her face in surprise. But she didn't show any dislike.
Kousaka awkwardly moved the hand placed on her head.
He was intending to stroke it.
"...You don't have to push yourself," Sanagi said with a sigh.
"I'm not pushing myself," Kousaka said with a smile. But she could feel his body trembling through where his hand was touching.
He obstinately stroked Sanagi's head. Maybe he figured that he'd probably never do this again once it was over, so it was better to get plenty of it in now.
"That's enough," Sanagi refused, but Kousaka wouldn't listen, saying "No it isn't."
"All right, all right. I'm feeling better. You can stop consoling me."
Hearing that, Kousaka finally removed his hand from her head.
"Did that distract you?"
"Are you stupid?", Sanagi said with a look of shock, but seemingly wouldn't deny it did. Her voice had regained some of its cheerfulness.
"I'm really sorry about injuring your cheek," Kousaka apologized. "Does it still hurt?"
"Nah. This is nothing." Sanagi ran a finger over the scabbed wound. "...Going to wash your hands?"
"No, this is fine."
Kousaka stared at his right hand, used to touch Sanagi. It was still trembling slightly, but he managed to resist the urge to go take a shower right away.
"I'll tell you something funny," Kousaka said.
"To tell the truth, I'm a clean freak."
"...Yeah. I know."
"Of course." Kousaka smiled wryly. "I feel like people other than myself are horribly dirty. Just being touched by them, just touching something they touched, just breathing the same air, makes me feel like I'll be sick. I know better than anyone it's just an issue of feelings and nothing more. But there's nothing I can do. I tried various treatments, but they just made it worse."
Kousaka glanced to check Sanagi's expression.
"Go on," she said.
"Even when I first got a girlfriend, I couldn't kiss her, or even hold hands for that matter. One day, she treated me to her own cooking. She was good at that kind of familial stuff. And her cooking was well-done. But even though she'd put in all that effort to make it for me - or maybe that was exactly why - I was incredibly hesitant to eat it. As much as I tried to consider it as food, I couldn't bear it just thinking that she'd touched the ingredients. Honestly, I didn't want to take a single bite. And yet, I knew it would be rude to just refuse the meal she'd made, so I emptied my head and just forced it down. What do you think happened?"
Sanagi silently shook her head. Like saying she didn't even want to think about it.
"After eating about half, I threw it all up right in front of her. I can't forget the look on her face. We broke up not ten days after that. I still have dreams about it sometimes. The meals get more elaborate every time. And since breaking up with her, I've never had anything like a girlfriend again."
Sanagi slowly shook her head. "...That wasn't very funny."
"Really? Isn't it at least a little funny that I haven't ever kissed anyone at age 27?"
After Kousaka's funny story bombed, Sanagi got off the bed and did a big stretch. Then, thinking of something, she reached for a dispenser on a shelf and covered her hands in disinfectant. Then she carefully put disposable latex gloves on them and even put on a face mask, and turned toward Kousaka once she was ready.
She gave him no time to ask what she was doing.
Sanagi grabbed Kousaka's shoulders with both hands and, through a face mask, put her lips on his.
Though a thin cloth separated them, he did faintly feel her soft lips.
By the time Kousaka understood the intent of her actions, she had pulled away.
"You'll have to endure with that," Sanagi said, taking off the mask.
Kousaka had no words, halted like a toy out of batteries. He might have even forgotten to breathe.
"What are you trying to do?", he asked at length.
"I felt sorry for you, so I gave you a kiss. Thank me."
"...That's very polite of you."
Following Kousaka's confused thank-you, Sanagi made an addition.
"Besides, I've never had one myself, so I guess it was just right."
He didn't know what exactly she meant by "just right," but from her expression, it didn't seem to be a bad thing.
"...Well then. It's time I say farewell."
Sanagi stood up and grabbed her bag.
"Can you get home alone?", Kousaka asked with concern.
"Yeah. It's not too far, and it's less crowded by now."
Kousaka judged from her tone that she would probably be fine.
Then he had a sudden thought, opened the bottom drawer of his desk, took out headphones, and put them around Sanagi's neck.
"You're sure? You realize I'll get them dirty?", Sanagi asked with a slightly nervous look.
"I won't use them again, so you can take them."
Sanagi put her hands on the headphones and spoke happily. "...I see. You're a lifesaver. Thanks."
"Right. Good night, Sanagi."
"Good night, Mr. Kousaka."
She smiled, looking right into Kousaka's eyes.
After Sanagi left, Kousaka sat in his chair and closed his eyes, just thinking aimlessly about the events that had just transpired. He repeatedly thought pointless things like "come to think of it, that was probably the first time she called me Mr. Kousaka."
After about thirty minutes, he was suddenly struck by the fact that he still hadn't started cleaning or taken a shower. It had been a long time since he'd gotten away from his cleaning tendencies for that long.
Something inside me is starting to change. So he felt.