* 44 *

Taking a closer look, Usumizu's coat was pretty drab, with pilling all over. His hair was unkempt, his cheeks were thin, and his eyes were sullen.
Now that I could look at him more calmly, he was one step from becoming a vagrant.

"I'm telling this to you because you see it like a confession. ...No, I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean you're not likely to ignore it and pretend you're not unfeeling. I don't want someone to stop me. If someone told me "Don't say that, things will always get better if you keep living, let's do this together," I'd have to bite my tongue and wouldn't want to die anymore. I just wanted someone to hear it. You're great for that. Because you'll listen in earnest, but that's all you'll do. I can tell just looking at you. You'd rather die than say "If something's paining you, we can talk about it." It's talking through a reinforced glass screen. That's why I felt like being serious with you."

"I don't know if I get it," I said, "but I suppose you're not looking for any tactful comments, then?"
"Yeah," he smiled with slight worry. "I really just wanted someone to listen, I think. ...Hey, do you know the feeling? Like, that sense you haven't done a single thing right your whole life."
"I suppose I do," I replied. In fact, I felt I suffered it more than anyone in the world. Because I knew everything I "did right" in my first life.
"I don't want you to understand," he shook his head. "Then my despair'll just seem like some stale, commonplace thing."

Usumizu looked out the window. The lights in the arcade shone blue, white, green, and red.
"It's almost Christmas. Hard time for guys like us to get through, huh."
I looked at him in silence.
"Hey, this just kinda came to mind... Are you carrying a bunch of burdens too? I dunno what exactly it is, but I can see it in your eyes. Face looks like you've totally lost human contact. You drift away from 'em. We'll never escape this vicious cycle of being hated, and that resulting in even more hate. ...Why'd it come to this?"

Usumizu spoke while he watched snow start to fall outside.
"Me and you, we had promising futures as kids. Wouldn't be strange in the slightest to see us both leading pretty girls around. Wouldn't be odd to lead a picturesque youth, neither. ...I don't think it's that we were careless. Somewhere, there was a single cog that got misaligned. And that one cog got all these other ones mucked up, and in the end, all the cogs went awry. And now they're just strewn all over the floor, beyond repair."

"...Ever thought that you were one of the ones who messed up my cogs?", I asked. Reviving that topic didn't seem very productive, but I felt it couldn't go unasked.
"I did," he said. "I did that stuff to you in the first place because you felt like a threat. As a boy, I was brimming with confidence. I believed I'd be twenty times better than the lame adults around me. And I thought everyone else was insignificant. ...But you were something else. I unconsciously thought "This guy has the potential to do even better than me." So of course I wanted to take you out before that."
"I'm flattered," I sarcastically smiled.
"It ain't flattery. In a way, I was scared of you. 'Course now, neither of us's a threat to anybody. ...Anyway, I know I did something awful to you there. As much of an apology as I can offer, I'll give it to you. Say the word and I'll do it."

"No, no point. For all we know there's somebody who mucked up your cogs after you mucked up mine, so that could just go on forever. Same as you just wanted to talk, I just wanted to listen. Plus... I don't want you to apologize. Just let me keep the right to keep loathing you. For whenever I wanna put blame on someone, you know."
"Kinder than I thought," Usumizu grinned.

"...Well, I'm gonna be going now. Not sure if I'm glad we could talk or not, but thanks anyway. Still, talking to you's bringing back stuff I don't want back. Thought I remembered them already, but... when I see you, it comes flooding back more vividly."
"Well, at least by being reminded of the worst time of my life, I can feel a little better about now. Thanks."

With a weak smile, he walked away. Throughout our conversation, I felt absolutely no will to forgive him.
But somehow, I found myself subtly stuffing two 10,000 yen bills in the pocket of his heavy backpack.
That won't make him happy, I told myself, and I didn't really care much for him living a little longer.
I just wanted to do it, so I did.

After he left, I felt something trying to piece itself together in my head. I had no idea what it was at first, but over time, I realized I was trying to recall something.
Perhaps Usumizu had been my best friend in my first life. My memories were fuzzy at ever, but from the way he spoke, his laugh... I felt like I was once close to a guy like that.

I had been convinced that Usumizu was one of the people who messed up my second life, but... If he was indeed a best friend the first time, then it could be I messed him up first.
Yes, it wasn't just that he ruined me - I ruined him, and then he ruined me.

Back at the apartment, I took a shower and had two drinks of whiskey on the rocks.
My sister had long since fallen asleep, so I wouldn't be turning the TV on. So by the light of a desk lamp, I strained my eyes to read.
In less than an hour, my eyes were worn out. I put the book on the desk and drank whiskey in silence, staring into the middle distance.

At times like these, I always daydreamed about Hiiragi. I imagined she was at her own apartment, drinking and reading alone like me.
Now, I don't want any misunderstandings - I didn't daydream about that stuff because I wanted Hiiragi beside me.
I just liked to think that someone else, somewhere else, was doing the same thing. Feeling like I wasn't the only one made the good and bad not matter as much.
And there was no one who I could count on to prove that better than Hiiragi. Because she really was living a very similar life.

Once I was too sleepy to bear, I brushed my teeth and got in the futon.
I think I heard my sister muttering things in her sleep.

Once more, I prayed that I'd wake up to a third round.
I turned off the light and fell sound asleep in seconds.

Chapter 45

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