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Chapter 7: Bed Bugs' Bite

Kousaka spent the first two days as usual. "As usual" meaning the usual before he met Sanagi. He lay in bed and read books, and when he tired of that, he messed around on the computer, eating a bare-bones meal when he felt hungry. Rather than thinking and thinking, his priority was to regain a mental state where he could calmly think. He supposed clearing his head and taking things slow was the best way to do that.

Reasonably speaking, there was no way he could refuse the treatment. He certainly didn't want the yet-incomprehensible worm manipulating him and making him kill himself. And most importantly, exterminating the worm could cure the germaphobia that had plagued him for many years.

However, there was resistance. It was a primal fear that everyone experiences before a major change. His life thus far had been centered around his germaphobia and loneliness. For better or worse, he had gotten used to that kind of life. Taking away those two pillars would mean having to rebuild his life from scratch. That might be fine for a teenager, but in his late twenties, was rebuilding from scratch realistically possible?

Other than that concern, he was generally in favor of treating the worm. Logically, he was 90 percent of the way there, and emotionally, he was 60 percent.


On the third day, he was contacted by Izumi. His email said "There's someone I want you to meet." Kousaka went out to the specified coffee shop, and met with a young man. The man's face still looked childish in places, and it didn't seem he could have been long out of college. But he was the first patient infected by the worm mentioned occasionally in Kanroji's emails, Yuuji Hasegawa, AKA "Y."

Kousaka heard from him how the Hasegawas met each other. How the couple over twenty years apart met, how they were drawn to each other, how they were wedded. And how that passion faded.

The way they met sounded exactly like how Kousaka and Sanagi met. The more Kousaka listened, the more shocked he was by the sheer number of commonalities. An unexpected meeting between two people with opposing personalities, gradually being drawn to each other after learning of each other's mental illness. The two misanthropic people learned of the one person in the world they could make an exception for and trust. The two overcame the difference in age and were wedded...

"But it was nothing more than lovesickness," Yuuji Hasegawa said, looking into the distance. "Once I started taking the deworming medicine Urizane provided, my feelings for my wife cooled in a blink. I can't remember what captivated me about her and convinced me to marry her. It seems she's the same way. Divorce is only a matter of time."

Kousaka saw his own future there. With the worm gone, their relationship would cool, and maybe it was most suitable for things to return to their normal state. Because those feelings were only temporarily heated by the worm.

Our love is probably also just a "lovesickness," Kousaka thought. Then he recalled the day he first met Sanagi. Specifically, the street performer he saw outside the train station. He put on a show with his two marionettes. A farcical play. Were the puppets aware they weren't really in love, it was just the puppeteer making them fall in love? I can't know that. But at any rate, our love is no different from those marionettes' love. It's just the minor difference of whether or not you can see the strings.

By the time Yuuji Hasegawa was done talking, Kousaka's mind was made up. I'll take the treatment, he vowed. Even if it ends my love with Sanagi, I won't care. Continuing this relationship with her, knowing the truth that the worm is using me, surely I wouldn't be able to treat her with feelings as pure as before. In a sense, their relationship was over the moment he heard Urizane's story.

Kousaka thanked Yuuji Hasegawa and left. When he got back home and hung up his coat, he noticed the scarf from Sanagi there.

For a moment, the thought of disposing of it crossed his mind. Maybe I'll never be able to let go of my attachment to Sanagi if I keep this thing around.

However, he quickly reconsidered. I shouldn't take any extreme actions. Like with quitting smoking or drinking, forcing yourself to hate something often resulted in its charm becoming stronger. I should slowly forget Sanagi over time. No need to rush.

Kousaka put away the scarf in the closet. He went into the bathroom and took an hour-long shower, changed into clean clothes, and got in bed. When he closed his eyes, the events of the past month arose and vanished behind his eyelids. Each and every one was an irreplaceable memory. Don't be swayed, this is all the worm's doing, Kousaka told himself. It's like the withdrawals of a drug addict. If I just endure them, they'll go away soon.

*

And then the fourth day came.

Tomorrow afternoon, Izumi would come pick him up, and he'd start treatment. Once he did, he'd probably never meet Sanagi again. It seemed they would be allowed to meet again once they were both fully rid of the worm, but by then, they'd have lost interest in each other. They'd be going on with their own lives.

I should meet Sanagi one last time, Kousaka thought. If we just part ways like this, her existence will probably always cast a shadow on my memories. We need to separate with the proper process. I think what "goodbye" means when parting ways is "Please forget me. I'll forget you."

I have to say goodbye to her.

Kousaka took the smartphone on his desk. While puzzling over whether to call her or send an email, the phone vibrated in his hand.

It was an email notification from Sanagi. It seemed she was thinking the same thing at the same time.

It was a simple message. "Can I come over there?"

Kousaka typed three letters, "Yes," and sent it.

A few seconds later, the intercom sounded. Thinking it couldn't be so, Kousaka opened the door, and found Sanagi standing there. She must have already been there the moment she sent the email.

She wore a cotton pea coat over her school uniform. She wasn't wearing her usual unrefined headphones. When dressed so averagely, Sanagi looked like a normal girl with nothing wrong with her. When she met eyes with Kousaka, she reflexively looked away, but slowly brought her gaze back to him and lightly bowed her head. It was modesty unlike Sanagi.

Though it had only been three days, it felt like a long time since they'd seen each other. The moment he saw Sanagi, his resolution quickly wavered. As much as he broke it down, it was hard to resist the charm when faced with the real thing.

He had a strong urge to hug her right away. But he desperately resisted it.

To calm himself, Kousaka imagined the scene of the worm in his head firing out things related to romantic feelings like nerve signals and hormones and such with incredible force. Of course, the reality was surely a little more complex than that, but the important part wasn't having an exact picture, but being conscious of how it was controlling him.

Sanagi didn't head for the bed today. She didn't take off her coat or shoes, and just stood at the front door, not even entering the room. Maybe she thought she didn't have the right to cross the threshold of this room anymore.

Kousaka broke the ice. "You want to talk?"

"Mr. Kousaka, are you going to kill the worm?", Sanagi asked hoarsely.

"I think that's probably what I'll do."

She didn't seem to celebrate nor grieve that response, and just emotionlessly said "I see."

"You will too, right, Sanagi?"

Sanagi didn't answer that question.

Instead, she replied like this.

"There's one last thing I want to show you, Mr. Kousaka."

Then she turned her back to him and left the entryway. Telling him to come along, surely. He hurriedly grabbed his coat and wallet and went after her.


They took several trains in heading to their destination. Kousaka asked where they were going, and Sanagi wouldn't answer, saying it was "secret." After switching from the JR to a private railway, the scenery outside the windows gradually simplified. The train sped along tracks that ran between mountains covered in white snow. The distance between stations increased, and the passengers aboard decreased.

Kousaka looked out the window and thought. Sanagi said "there's one last thing I want to show you." The identity of "what I want to show you" was of course on his mind, but even moreso was the meaning of "last." Was it a temporary "last" since they wouldn't meet for a while once treatment began, or a permanent "last" that indicated Sanagi had no intention of taking the treatment, and they'd never meet again...?

He heard the announcement of the next stop. The train came to a halt in no time, and Sanagi looked up from beside him. The two got off the train and left the deserted station.

Mountains and plains extended as far as the eye could see. There was nothing else to really look at. Kousaka could identify three houses, but they all looked very worse for wear, and it was dubious if people lived in them. Everything in sight was covered in snow, and even the center of the train tracks was unclear. Thick clouds hung over the sky, snow blowing off the ground obscured vision like a fog; a darkness distinct from night filled the area. It looks just like a monochrome photo, Kousaka thought. What did Sanagi intend to show me in this place at land's end?

Fierce winds instantly chilled their bodies which had been warmed in the heated train. Their faces and ears directly exposed to the air stung. No doubt, it was below freezing. Kousaka buttoned his coat up to the neck. When he took out his smartphone to check the time, the signal strength indicator showed him as out of range. That was how remote this place was.

Sanagi began walking toward one of the houses with no hesitation in her step. The snow impairing their sense of distance, it was hard to tell at first, but there was a considerable distance to the house. On the way, Sanagi kept turning around repeatedly to confirm that Kousaka was following. But he wouldn't walk alongside her. If Kousaka started falling behind, he would walk quicker, keeping about a 3-meter distance.

After about ten minutes walking, they finally arrived at the house. It couldn't be more perfectly deserted. A two-story wooden building, with faded election posters and metal signs put up without consistency on the outside wall. The windows were shattered to bits, and the roof bended under the weight of the snow, ready to collapse any moment.

Sanagi took Kousaka around to the back of the house. There was a light blue container there. A cargo container about 3.5 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, and 2 meters tall. Maybe the house's owner used it for storage. There was red rest on it in places, but unlike the house, it could still serve its function of storage.

Sanagi headed straight for the container. It appeared that what she had to show Kousaka was inside it.

Even after reaching this point, Kousaka couldn't even imagine what it might be. He hadn't found anything resembling a lead. What could be here, in this remote place, in a storage container behind an abandoned house? Surely she didn't want to show him a tractor or a dynamo.

Sanagi entered the container without a word. Kousaka followed. The interior was fully boarded, but even so, it smelled of rusty metal. Kousaka expected to see trash scattered around, but the container was mostly empty. Just steel shelves attached to both walls, with nothing on top of them.

Kousaka was confused. Was this empty container the thing Sanagi wanted to show him?

He turned around to question her at almost the same time the door closed. In an instant, everything went dark. Just afterward, there was an ominous clicking sound. He ran over and pushed the door, but it was firmly shut.

It seemed it had been locked from the outside.

At first, Kousaka thought Sanagi had gone outside and locked the door. But then he noticed a quiet laugh beside him. She had been locked in the container with him. Which meant there was someone else outside who locked it. Though he hadn't sensed them at all.

"Well." Sanagi cleared her throat. "Now we can't leave."

"...Is this your doing, Sanagi?", Kousaka asked, facing the darkness where he thought Sanagi was. "Were you lying about having something to show me?"

"Sorry. But don't worry. It's not like I'm going to force you into a double suicide here, Mr. Kousaka," Sanagi said, as if sneering at his bewilderment. "I just want to negotiate. If you accept my conditions, I'll let you out of here right away."

"Conditions?"

"It's really simple."

Gradually, Kousaka's eyes got used to the dark. A faint light from a vent around the ceiling dimly lit the container.

Sanagi stated her conditions.

"Don't kill the worm. Promise you'll refuse the treatment."


It was a development that was easy to predict with some thought. Even if her attempt had ended in failure, she had a prior record of attempting to spread the worm to Kousaka. So Sanagi was a girl who didn't entirely hate the worm, and had ideas of using it proactively.

"Hey, Sanagi," Kousaka began cautiously. "Why are you so attached to the worm? Urizane must have told you. If we leave the worm alone, we might lose our lives."

Sanagi shook her head. "That's hardly certain. It could just be coincidences. After all, Yuuji Hasegawa, the first to be infected, is doing just fine, right?"

"But at the very least, it's clear the worm makes hosts misanthropic. At this rate, we'll never fit into the world. Are you just fine with that, Sanagi?"

"I am," Sanagi replied without hesitation. "I was misanthropic before the worm infected me. I had a lot of friends, but deep inside, I was sick to death to them. I couldn't like any one of them. So I couldn't help being anxious about what everyone thought of me. Sooner or later, this would be my fate anyway. Just getting rid of the worm won't solve the fundamental problem."

"You might be right. But even resolving surface problems should make it much easier to live."

"It won't."

Kousaka sighed. "Is the worm that important?"

"It is important. Because I really loved the time I spent with you, Mr. Kousaka."

Sanagi's honest words shook Kousaka's heart violently.

He rebutted, half to convince himself.

"I feel the same. My time with you was irreplaceable and wonderful. But even that's just an illusion caused by the worm. We didn't fall in love of our own will, it's just the worms inside us who did."

"So? So what if it's an illusion?" Sanagi's voice went shrill. "What's wrong with a sham of a love? If I can be happy, I don't care about being a puppet. The worm did things for me that I couldn't do. It taught me how to like people. Why should I kill such a benefactor? I know about the puppet strings, and I'm leaving myself to them. If that isn't my own will, then what is?"

Kousaka had no idea how to respond. Because Sanagi's argument was a clear statement of something hazy in the corner of his mind. When a puppet approves of the fact they're a puppet, can that be called an act of free will? No one can say.

There's a neuroscience experiment that goes like this. Experimenters instruct subjects to "move the fingers of whichever hand you like." When this happens, the motor cortex in either the left or right brain is given a magnetic stimulation. And the subject moves the fingers of the hand opposite the brain hemisphere which received the stimulation. Yet they have no awareness of the magnetic stimulation controlling them, and are convinced they decided which hand to use of their own will.

This experiment shows just how reliable human free will can be. Depending on your perspective, you could even say it partially proves the correctness of determinism. But some scientists will point out: What if the stimulus wasn't causing intent itself, but simple preference and desire, and the subject merely considers these to make their decision? Maybe the magnetic stimulation simply narrows the options, and the final choice is left to the person themselves.

The same could be said of Sanagi's choice. You could say it was a decision influenced by the worm, but you could also say it was a self-made decision "with the worm's influence." That's effectively what she was saying.

It was a stalemate. As much as they argued, they likely wouldn't come to a conclusion. She wouldn't back down a single step, and Kousaka was the same.

If this is how it is, the rest will come down to stubbornness, he thought. Whoever gives in to this cold first. A test of endurance.

He looked around the inside of the container again. There were several air vents on the walls to prevent condensation, and the light from them made for an imperfect darkness inside. Not much risk of suffocation at least, he thought with relief.

Kousaka sat on the ground. The floor was boarded, but cold enough to make him feel like he was sitting directly on ice. The rusty container was an agonizing place for the germaphobe Kousaka, but the chill brought by the snowstorm broke apart that discomfort to an extent. In this cold, even bacteria would calm down, he supposed.

Sensing Kousaka's intent, Sanagi also refrained from any further talk, and sat down next to him.

This won't take too long, Kousaka felt. It was nearly as cold inside the container as it was outside, like a natural refrigerator. A resolution should come to this test of endurance quickly. And generally speaking, women were more susceptible to the cold than men. She would have to give up first.

It was likely Izumi who locked the container from the outside. Kousaka couldn't think of anyone else who would assist with Sanagi's tricks. And Izumi, who surely saw his late daughter in her, would prioritize Sanagi's life over her will. Even on the off chance Sanagi went berserk and changed plans from negotiation to suicide, Izumi would surely come in to stop her.

And so Kousaka was feeling optimistic. What he failed to account for was the fact that it happened to be a record-breakingly cold day. That cold caused them to weaken quickly. And because of a traffic accident caused by the frozen roads, the only road leading to the location of the abandoned house was blocked off, preventing Izumi, who had gone out to get gas, from returning.


The first few hours, he was just constantly thinking about the cold. The chilly air and wet floor together sapped his warmth. Kousaka kept rubbing together his hands and feet and did stretches, trying to slightly slow the cooling of his body.

But past a certain stage, the cold itself stopped being a problem. Gradually, he instead began to feel a more fundamental discomfort resembling pain. A dangerous sign. His body slowly numbed and wouldn't move as he willed it. His heart beat at a strange rhythm, and his arms and legs were so cold, they didn't feel like his own.

Kousaka kept silent for a long time. He considered that in this sort of endurance test, you'd be at a disadvantage if you opened your mouth first. It was like confessing that you were getting weak.

He figured Sanagi was silent for similar reasons. And that had been true for the first few hours. She kept a refreshed face to show she was handling it fine.

Kousaka noticed Sanagi's breathing was strangely faint about four hours after they were locked in the container.

He got worried and called to her.

"Sanagi?"

There was no reply. "Are you okay?" He shook her shoulder, but her hand sluggishly pushed his away.

When her hand touched Kousaka, he shivered. That hand was so cold, it didn't feel like it was a human's.

Kousaka put his hands around hers to warm them. Though not as much as Sanagi's, his hands were cold too, so it was mostly meaningless.

"...Hey, Sanagi, won't you give up soon?"

"No," Sanagi replied, just barely audible.

Kousaka sighed deeply.

"All right. I admit defeat. I won't take the treatment. I won't kill the worm. So let's get out of here. At this rate, it'll soon be too late for us."

Then Sanagi let out a giggle. It had a desperate feel to it.

"That took surprisingly long. I didn't think you'd hold out so long."

"Now let's get out already. How do we open the door?"

Sanagi was silent for a while.

Then she spoke.

"...Um, well, in my initial plan, Izumi should have come back here to let us out an hour ago."

Kousaka blinked. "What do you mean?"

"I guess something happened to him. Maybe he got caught up in an accident. And if Izumi isn't here, that means the door won't open. Well, well."

"So, you mean... if we're not lucky, we might never be able to leave?"

Sanagi didn't confirm or deny it. Which was to say, it wasn't implausible.

Kousaka put his hands on his knees, stood up, and with a running start from the other wall, kicked the door. He tried it dozens of times, but the container door didn't budge. He slumped against the wall, exhausted, and fell apart onto the floor. Counting on a sliver of hope, he took out his smartphone, but it was indeed still out of range.

Then there was a thud. A moment later, he realized it was Sanagi falling to the floor. Kousaka fumbled through the darkness and lifted up Sanagi's body. Then he called to her to confirm she was still conscious. "Sanagi. Hey, Sanagi."

"I'm fine. I just kind of stumbled."

She must have been fading fast. Her shivering had calmed down, but that only signified that things were getting worse. Her body was starting to give up on creating heat. If she fell asleep, she'd definitely die of hypothermia.

Kousaka embraced Sanagi, and she whispered "I'm sorry" into his ear. He could still feel a faint warmth in her breath.

Then there was the sound of something hitting the floor. It caught the moonlight coming in through the air vents and dimly shined. It was an oil lighter. Sanagi'd had the lighter she used to light her cigarettes in her coat pocket.

Kousaka considered burning an article of clothing to get warm, but as the walls and floors were wood planks and it was uncertain how effective the air vents actually were, they couldn't make too big of a fire. Kousaka lit the lighter and put it in the middle of the floor. An orange light illuminated the container, and large shadows of Sanagi and Kousaka appeared on the wall. It was a small flame, but an unbelievable difference.

Then Kousaka held Sanagi tightly again. There didn't seem to be any other options besides trying to slow the loss of temperature as they waited for Izumi.

Sanagi continued her faint, irregular breathing close to Kousaka's face. As he listened to her breathing, Kousaka nearly forgot he was trying to lose his affection for her. The worm in his body seemed to delight in the situation of the two hosts hugging. Their joy got to Kousaka as well, and temporarily made him forget the cold.

Indeed, it would be regettable to lose this happiness. Kousaka, too, had to admit that. But that was the worm's strategy. If I succumb to its temptation now, I'll be doing just what it wants. I have to stand my ground here.

While Kousaka dealt with his internal discord, Sanagi whispered from within his arms. "Hey, Mr. Kousaka."

"What?"

"Can I believe what you said? Is it true you won't kill the worm?"

"No, I lied," Kousaka replied honestly. There was no reason to deceive her now. "I just did it to fool you and get us out."

"...I knew it. You're such a liar."
"Sorry."
"You can't apologize. I won't forgive you."

Immediately afterward, Sanagi's body, which had been limp as a puppet with cut strings, swelled with energy. She grabbed Kousaka's shoulders and pushed him to the floor. Completely caught off-guard, Kousaka didn't know what was happening at first. Before he could understand, Sanagi's lips pushed against his.

One of their bodies hit the lighter and knocked it over, and the flame went out as it touched the wet floor. So Kousaka didn't know what kind of expression she had after their lips parted.

After separating himself from Sanagi at length, and relighting the lighter while catching his breath, he glared at her.

"Maybe now our worms have moved to the sexual reproduction stage," Sanagi said with a look of triumph. "And maybe they'll spread more and more, and be able to control you more strongly." Then she put on a smile as a bluff.

"...It's futile. I'll take the medicine before that happens."

"Nope. I won't let you drink any medicine. I'll get in your way."

Then Sanagi tried to pin down Kousaka again. But her stamina had already hit its limits from the earlier struggle. She collapsed in front of him, and didn't move. Kousaka hurriedly lifted her up, but her eyes were hollow, and every breath seemed like it could be her last. When he embraced her, he didn't feel any warmth, like he was holding a doll.

What a foolish girl. Kousaka bit his lip.

He prayed for Izumi to come any moment now. But Izumi appeared there nearly two hours later. By that time, Kousaka and Sanagi had both lost consciousness. When Izumi opened the container door, he saw them huddled up together, lying on the floor.

*

The two were taken to Urizane's clinic and hospitalized for a few days. Kousaka recovered enough to walk on his own by the next day, but Sanagi needed five days to recover that much.

The second day of hospitalization, Izumi visited Kousaka's hospital room and apologized for putting their lives in danger. The snowstorm had caused a three-car pileup that included a bus and blocked off the road, which is why he was so late getting back to them. Due to a miscommunication, Izumi was under the impression Sanagi had some means of escaping the container by herself. If I'd known that wasn't the case, I would have called the police or fire department to send help, Izumi said with much regret. Don't worry about it, Kousaka said. Sanagi and I are still alive in the end, so there's no point in blaming anyone.

"You wanted to make Sanagi give up completely, didn't you?", Kousaka asked.

"Yeah, more or less," Izumi quietly affirmed. "If I pulled her away by force, that'd just give her more attachment, right? So I thought I'd let her resist until she was satisfied."

"What did you intend to do if Sanagi persuaded me?"

"Don't ask me. Hadn't imagined that possibility. I trusted you a whole lot," Izumi said jestingly.

The next day, Kousaka told Urizane about what happened in the container. And he went silent for a while with a scowl.

"Do I take that to mean treatment has gotten harder?", Kousaka asked.

"No, that's no concern. It's just..." Urizane closed his eyes tight, then slowly opened them over a few seconds. "To think she was brooding over it to such an extent."

Then Urizane explained the process of treating the worm. After about a month of taking deworming medicine, there was a half-month rest period - this cycle was to be repeated again and again. He said it would probably be about three to six months before the worms were completely gone. Sanagi would be taking the same treatment.


The day to leave the hospital came. Before leaving the clinic, Kousaka was given the chance to say some parting words to Sanagi.

He knocked on Sanagi's door, waited five seconds, and entered. She wore a pale blue hospital gown and was reading a thick book in bed. On her head were the headphones Kousaka had once given her.

When she noticed Kousaka there, Sanagi closed the book, took off the headphones, and looked at him lonesomely. She seemed to suspect he was here to say goodbye.

"I'll be getting dismissed from the hospital today," Kousaka reported, his eyes turned away from Sanagi. "I don't think I'll see you again for a while."

Of course, I probably won't see you after the treatment is complete either, Kousaka thought. So this might be our last goodbye.

Sanagi seemed deeply aware of that as well.

She didn't reply, only hanging her head in silence.

Soon, Sanagi started to sob.

It was a very regulated sob, like a drizzle wetting her skin.

Kousaka put his hand on Sanagi's head and gently stroked it.

"After the treatment, I'll come see you again." Kousaka permitted himself a consoling lie. "If the worms in our bodies die, and we can still like each other - then we'll formally be lovers."

Sanagi wiped her face with her palm and looked up. "...Really?"

"Yeah, I promise." Kousaka smiled.

Sanagi extended her arms toward him, leaning off the bed. Kousaka held her skinny frame and said:

"It's okay. I'm sure we can get along without the worm."

"...You promise, right?", Sanagi asked through tears.

And like that, the two parted. Leaving the hospital room and clinic behind, Kousaka saw his first blue sky in some time. The bright sunlight reflecting off the piles of snow stung his eyes, and he squinted. The air was chilly; he felt like he was waking up.

My days in the infirmary are over, Kousaka thought. It's a good time for me to wake up from my dream. I can take it slow. Just a little bit at a time, I'll have to get myself used to this worm-eaten world.



Chapter 8
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