* 58 *

I didn't feel like going straight home, so I didn't turn at the corners I should have, and did turn at those I shouldn't.
I was sweating from work, and my body felt chilly in an unstable way. It was a truly awful kind of cold.

Without even being aware of it, I was humming Radiohead's "Creep."
Miserably, I knew the feelings of that song all too well in my second life. Because I wasn't someone wonderful who could match with Tsugumi.

While walking down the shopping district to the train station, I saw around ten kids in elementary school uniforms putting on a performance with handbells.
I found myself stopping to listen. Looking closer, there were kids playing other instruments like accordions and sleigh bells too.
It was some fine music. The apparent teacher conducting them looked like he was having a blast.

Past the shopping district, I reached the residential district.
There I found families outside their houses, smearing them with absurd amounts of decorations and lights.
The children were frolicking, and the parents diligently put up the decorations on the walls, trees, and fences. I watched from a distance.
Seeing this from not too far away, I was startled. Why are they so different from me?, I thought. It felt like we weren't even the same species.

After some time, the children said "One, two, three!" Then the colorful lights lit up all together, at once turning the house into what looked like an amusement park.
It was a splendid thing, and it certainly echoed images of Santa Claus and reindeer.

I left the residential district, as if running from it. There were lots of happy houses around, and I wouldn't be able to stand watching the same thing repeatedly happen.
While walking aimlessly, I arrived at a small convenience store I often went to. I considered passing it by, but thought it over and went in.
Fighting the urge to warm my hands with some hot coffee, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and took it to the register.

At the counter was Hashibami, the usual clerk. She was a tall woman, but definitely not the modeling type, and she didn't seem to know what to do with that height herself.
I judged she was about three or four years older than me. Her hair was light brown, her voice low like a heavy drinker, and she gave me a general impression of frankness.

I tended to visit the store around 11 PM, upon which I always bought a long can of low-malt beer and a box of Pall Mall Reds.
I wasn't fussy. In fact, since I wasn't fussy, I just bought the cheapest things I could to satisfy me.

Since I bought the same thing so many times, she came to know my face, and after that, took to immediately preparing a box of Pall Malls as soon as she saw me walk in.
No doubt when Hashibami saw me, she thought "Ah, it's the cheap beer and smokes guy." Kind of embarrassing.

Since she always prepared, I couldn't bring myself to suddenly say "Five boxes of Peace, please." So I'd been smoking the same brand for months.
But that day, when I brought up whiskey and a chocolate bar, no cigarettes, Hashibami seemed a bit confused. She bagged the items a little more awkwardly than usual.

"No Pall Malls today, huh. Did you quit?", Hashibami modestly asked as she handed me the bag.
I liked the way she put it, as well as her genuinely surprised expression. It calmed me down a little.
Of course, I was just happy to have anyone show some interest in anything I did. Even if it was just some shopping.

"No, I just wanted to surprise you," I said. I hadn't joked around with anyone in a while.
"Well, you succeeded," Hashibami laughed. "So it's not that you've quit, then?"
She thought for a little bit, then said "Oh well," and lifted up a little vinyl bag at her feet to give it to me.
"Those are some past-expiration-date cigarettes. Personally, I never knew cigarettes had an expiration date. I mean, it's typically not a concern for those who smoke them. My manager actually told me to throw them all away, but that seemed like a waste, so I'll give them to you."

I looked in the bag. It was an assortment of unpopular brands, about twenty packs in all.
"Is this okay?"
"Well, no, it's not. But I think it's a good thing."
While I puzzled over whether it was right to accept them, Hashibami leaned on the counter and tapped me on the shoulder.

"I'm the anti-Santa Claus. Rather than give good children toys, I give bad adults beer and smokes. Because they're the ones who really need presents, not the good kids. ...So go on, take them and leave."
I smiled bitterly and asked, "You hate Christmas?"
"No, I love Christmas. Always have, since I was a kid. ...The problem is, I'm in no position to take part in what I consider Christmas. When it comes to Christmas in this country, there are some high hurdles for me."
There were other customers lining up, so I thanked Hashibami and left.

I quickly got to smoking one of the cigarettes I'd been given, and wandered the wintery town at night.
I stuck my free left hand into my pocket. Because it was cold, yes, but it was also a habit of mine. I couldn't help putting my free hand in my pocket; if I didn't, I just couldn't keep it calm.
I've thought about why, and I wondered if it was because I was used to having someone's hand to hold when I walked in my first life, but never did in my second.
Like my hand was lonely. There's the theory about people smoking because their mouths miss sucking their mother's breast, so you never know.

I walked around looking for a good spot, then found a great one in the park.
It was a small park under a bridge, surrounded by withered trees, empty cans and paper bags scattered about, holes all over the fence. Just the kind of place I liked.
I sat on a bench and put out my cigarette on a handrail. The red embers scattered, a few of them falling to the ground and quickly vanishing.
I opened up the whiskey and drank it straight. The bottle had chilled considerably by now, but just one sip made my belly warm.

I had only meant it to be a joke. I just wanted to walk around drunk all night and numb myself a little.
But... if I fell asleep drunk like this, I really might freeze to death, I began to think.
My body quickly absorbed the alcohol and I felt my senses get numb. Plus I was feeling pretty sleepy.
Thanks to Hashibami, I was feeling just a little better about myself, like I could maybe actually do it.

And if I had been feeling just a little worse, I don't think I would have been thinking about suicide like this.
The most dangerous times are when you're feeling down in the dumps, and only recover halfway.

I was excited to have been given this sudden chance.
It's strange, but when you get to this stage, regrets are comforting. If it's a strong enough emotion, anything is comforting.
It all starts to seem like someone else's business. When it gets really bad, you can even delight in despair.

That's why I did all I could to think about sad things. I tried to be one of those guys who recalls all his regrets on the brink of death.
I tried to seriously face up to the thoughts I'd been avoiding before.
My head was murky with weariness and alcohol, so I couldn't remember very well. But a few blurry images came to mind when I thought "regrets."

One of them was, naturally, a vision of "what if things had gone better with Tsugumi."
I saw in my mind us talking aimlessly about trivial things, like we had done that day at the library.
But that wasn't all the vision was. I saw one wonderful thing after another that "could have happened."
I won't bore you with every single one.

But I was a little surprised to see such a vision.
I came to understand, as I thought about these happy possibilities, that there had been these fragments of happiness scattered all around.
Yet I was ignorant to them all, or at times even stomped them into bits myself.
And why? Because I was only ever thinking about my first life.

Chapter 59

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