10. To My One and Only Childhood Friend

I can scarcely remember anything Himeno and I said to each other after our reunion. In fact, I can't even remember how Himeno looked or acted. I was just so excited that I talked without thinking.
But it didn't matter what the conversation was. For me to say something and Himeno to respond, that was all I needed.

It didn't seem she had come to see the festival. She was here for work-related reasons, and her car happened to be parked near the shrine, so she ended up passing through.
She dodged the question of what kind of work she did. All Himeno would tell me is that it was a "person-to-person" kind of job.

"I'd love to talk a little longer, but I have to get up early," she said, itching to leave, so I invited her to go out drinking or whatnot sometime soon.
Alcohol's no good, but sure, we can have a meal, Himeno agreed.
Promising to meet for dinner two days later, we parted.

I was so brimming with joy as to forget about Miyagi for a while.
"Well, that was nice," Miyagi said. "I didn't expect that to happen myself."
"Me neither. Really seems too good to be true."
"Yes. ...I suppose sometimes it is true."

I would be meeting Himeno again in two days. I needed to consider that the main event, so to speak.
I needed to make some preparations before that.

Back at the apartment, I crossed out the Himeno line on my Things to Do Before I Die, and once I was ready to go to bed, I told Miyagi.
"I've got kind of a strange request for you."
"I don't drink."
"It's not that. It's about tomorrow. I want to be extra sure about meeting Himeno. Luckily, I've got two days, so I can use all tomorrow to prepare. And I want you to help prepare me."

"Prepare you?"
"I know it'd be pointless to keep anything hidden from you, so I’m gonna be honest. In twenty years, I’ve never really interacted with a girl, ever. So if I just went into this Himeno thing, I know I’d probably bore her and mess up a lot. To hopefully cut down on that, I want to go to town tomorrow and rehearse."

Miyagi's face was stuck with a blank look for a few seconds.
"If I'm not mistaken... You want me to play the part of Ms. Himeno?"
"That's right. Will you take it?"

"...Well, I don't much mind, but I imagine there would be numerous problems..."
"Oh, you mean how I'm the only one who can see you?"
"Yes, that," Miyagi confirmed.
"That's no problem. Why should I care what people think? The important thing to focus on is just having Himeno think well of me. Even if everybody else ridicules me, as long as Himeno likes me just a little, I'm satisfied with that."

Miyagi looked stunned. "You change in a blink when it comes to Ms. Himeno, don't you. ...But there's another problem. As you should be aware, I know very little about how women in my generation think. As such, I do not believe you can count on me to be a decent substitute. What may be pleasing to Ms. Himeno could be displeasing to me, what is boring to Ms. Himeno could be exciting to me, what is rude to Ms. Himeno could be polite to me - there could be many such discrepancies. Thus, looking at a sample of women around the age of 20..."

"You get humble in a blink when it comes to yourself, don't you," I interrupted. "It's no problem. Far as I can see, you're not that different from any other girls out there. Except for the part where you're a little cuter."
"...Well, if it's no problem to you, then very well," Miyagi nervously replied.

The next morning, I made a reservation at a salon and went into town to buy clothes and shoes. I couldn't go meeting Himeno wearing my worn blue jeans and stained sneakers.
Finding a select shop that seemed to suit my tastes and following Miyagi's suggestions, I bought a Fred Petty polo shirt, Chino pants, a belt to match, and then at a shoe store, chocolate-colored desert boots.

"I just don't think you have to wear anything too fancy. As long as it comes off as being clean, that should be enough."
"Can I interpret that as "you'd look good in anything"?", I asked.
"You're free to interpret it however you want."
"Got it. I'll do that. Seems to me it's a compliment."
"No need to air your every thought."

Once we were done shopping, we went to the salon quite a bit earlier than my appointment.
As Miyagi advised, I just explained "I'm going to meet someone important tomorrow." The woman gave a complacent smile and passionately cut my hair, giving me a number of practical tips for my big day.

Donned in new clothes and with neatly-cut hair, I was without exaggeration like a different person. The gloomy hair and shabby shirt seemed to have more effect on my appearance than I thought.
Now that those were gone, I was like a fresh young guy out of a pop music video.

“Why, you seem almost like an entirely different person from yesterday prior,” Miyagi told me.
"Yeah, I don't really look like a guy whose life is only worth 10,000 yen a year, huh?"
"Indeed. Almost as if you have the promise of a happy future."
"Thanks. You look like a fairy of the library when you smile yourself."
"...You're rather chipper today, Mr. Kusunoki."
"Seems so."

"So what was that about a "fairy of the library"?"
"I just mean a graceful and intelligent woman."
"Please save that line for Ms. Himeno, will you?"
"But her virtues are a different beast. I'm talking about you, Miyagi."
Her expression still intact, she lightly bowed her head. "Well, thanks. You and I are worth next to nothing as humans, at any rate. According to our reports."
"Pretty strange," I said.

We were in an Italian restaurant by the street, and naturally our conversation sounded like me talking to myself.
A middle-aged couple sitting nearby was sneaking glances at me and whispering with each other.

After our meal, we left the main street, went down some stairs on the side of a bridge, and walked along the river.
I was full of alcohol by then, so I held Miyagi's hand all the while and swung it way back and forth as we walked. Miyagi looked concerned, and I continued to pull her along.
Others just saw me doing a weird walk, and I didn't care. I could never be among honest people anyway.
So then I might as well resolve to make myself a weird guy. It'd be a lot easier.

Once Miyagi was getting used to holding my hand, she said with a clear face, "Now, drunk Kusunoki, try to think of me as Himeno and seduce me."
I stopped and looked Miyagi right in the eye. "You appearing before me was the best thing that's ever happened in my life. The worst was when you left my sight. ...And depending on your reply now, I might have a new best or worst."

"That was a pretty smooth delivery of such a roundabout pickup line. I'm impressed."
"So how do you think Himeno would reply?"
"Ah, well, if it were Ms. Himeno," Miyagi thought with her hand to her mouth. "...Perhaps she would say "What's this nonsense all of a sudden?" and try to laugh it off."
"Huh. What if it were Miyagi?"
"...I don't catch your meaning."
"Joking. Don't worry about it," I chuckled to myself.

"Are you really that kind of person, Mr. Kusunoki? The kind to joke."
"Not sure myself. I don't put much trust in words like "personality" or "disposition" or "character." Those things all change depending on the situation. Looking at it in the long run, what differs from person to person is what situations they tend to end up in. People put a lot of faith in consistency, but it might be more superficial than most people think."

"I wouldn't have expected you of all people to say something like that."
"Everyone likes to think they're the exception when there's a depressing statistic."
Miyagi lightly sighed. "I suppose that is true," she agreed.

When we got tired of walking, we hopped on a random bus. There were quite a few passengers, but I kept talking to Miyagi about my memories of Himeno regardless.
We changed buses and got off at a viewing platform, a famous date spot in the town. There were about ten couples holding each other and sneaking kisses, but I kept talking to Miyagi anyway.
Strangely, I didn't feel too many eyes on me. Everyone was too busy with themselves.

"Himeno was there the first time I came here. The railing near the top of that spiral staircase is just the right height for a kid to want to get on top of. So Himeno tried to climb up, but I noticed the sheer gap past the railing just as Himeno was about to fall all the way to the ground. If I hadn't happened to be there to stop her, she just might have. She acts intellectual, but she can be a real goof too. It's like, you just can't leave her alone. I got a scratch in all the hurry reaching for her, but for that one day, she got unusually nice..."

Miyagi was giving me a concerned look as I was getting more talkative, as if brushing off her uneasiness.
She knew more than I did at that point. She had yet to tell me something crucial.
The viewing platform would have been an appropriate place to explain it, but she didn't speak of it.

Maybe she thought she'd let me keep dreaming as long as I could.

The day came at last. It was a rainy afternoon, and the station was filled with people carrying umbrellas. Looking over the plaza from the second floor, umbrellas of all colors moved around as they pleased.
I waited in front of the bookstore until 5 PM, but ten minutes past 5, Himeno hadn't showed up.
No hurry, I told myself. Everything's congested because of the rain, and unlike me, she's probably busy.
Even so, I was checking my watch three times every minute.

Twenty minutes passed that felt like an hour or two. Was I waiting in the wrong place? Was Himeno? She said in front of the bookstore, and this was the only bookstore here, so I didn't see how.
After twenty-seven minutes, just as I was about to leave and look for Himeno, I saw her waving and walking toward me. I'd been starting to think her promise yesterday had just been a polite excuse for her to leave, so I was relieved beyond belief.

Even if Himeno hadn't been someone I'd been waiting to see for a decade, I still would have said she radiated beauty that day.
Every curve that made her up seemed to be created with careful consideration. Nothing was too excessive; it was like every part of her knew its duty.

If I were someone who had no connection to her, I'd probably feel a pain in my chest with just one look. She'd leave a hole in my chest I was dying to fill.
"She'll never be mine, will she. ...So then isn't my life pointless?", I might even think.
So it was a lucky thing that I was the closest one to her out of all these people at the station. I was deeply happy about that.

"Bus was late because of the rain," Himeno explained. "Sorry to make you wait. I'll treat you to something."
"No, allow me. I invited you this time, so forget about it for today."
I realized that not only my appearance, but my voice had changed. It sounded about half an octave higher, and it had a surprisingly good sound to it, as if that were its inherent sound.

"Hmm. So you're expecting a "next time"?", she asked with an unconcerned yet scrutinizing look.
"Yeah. And next time, I'll probably be expecting one after that."
"Glad you're being honest," she giggled.
That's definitely something Himeno would say, I whispered to myself. She hadn't changed in ten years. She was still sarcastic, but still spoke with a hint of warmth.

We went through the tunnel, and when we reached the end and I opened my umbrella, Himeno swiftly snatched it from me and held it between us.
"You were always the one who forgot his umbrella, Kusunoki, so I reluctantly had to let you share mine."
"That's right," I said, taking the umbrella back and holding it near Himeno. "So then wouldn't it be good to reverse it from now on?"

We walked together under one umbrella.
By the way, what were you doing there the other day?, Himeno asked.
Looking for you, Himeno, I replied.
Liar, Himeno said, shoving me in the shoulder.
It's true, I said laughing.

I was thinking that things were going great.
I was telling Himeno my affection for her, and she was showing me her affection for me.
That's what I believed, and I didn't doubt it.
I didn't really want to know what Himeno was thinking then, deep in her chest.

Now, how about we compare answers.

While I sat across from Himeno in the restaurant and talked with her, I made an unbelievable mistake.
To be exact, maybe it wasn't really a mistake. If I were given countless chances to redo the scene, I would have made the same choice every time. There was no other choice.
On top of that, the reason why my choice was a "mistake" was not something that originated in that meeting, but something that had gradually taken form since much earlier.

Still. In time, I most definitely made a mistake.
But in any event, the results of that "mistake" came to save me.
And at the same time, I came to learn why Miyagi had tried to stop me from meeting Himeno.

After ordering, I smiled at Himeno, to show her my affection. She responded with the same.
Himeno took a sip of ice water from her glass and said, "I'd like to know what you've been up to all these years, Kusunoki."
"I'd like to hear about you first," I responded, but she insisted, "Let's start with Kusunoki."

I prefaced it with "Well, this isn't going to be all that interesting," then talked about my time in middle and high school. It really wasn't of any interest.
How I gradually started slacking on my studies in the second year of middle school. How my perfect memory at ten years old rapidly worsened with each year.
How I went to the best high school in the area, but stopped studying in the middle, so I now went to a shockingly average college.
How I had to persuade my parents - who thought that there was no point in going to a college if it wasn't famous - to pay to get me in, then had to pay for classes and expenditures myself.
And how I hadn't touched a paintbrush since the winter when I was 17.

I was done in less than five minutes. There was hardly anything worth talking about in my life.

"Huh, so you gave up art. ...That's too bad. I liked your pictures, Kusunoki," Himeno said. Big difference from this guy I know, I thought.
"You were drawing all the time. And you made such beautiful, breathtaking pictures like it was nothing. I was always jealous how I could never live up to that, you know."
"You never told me anything like that then."
"Because I was really antagonistic to you then. All my talents were in studying, so I didn't want to admit your other talents. But... you probably never noticed, but sometimes I took your pictures home and stared at them, Kusunoki," Himeno said, her eyes looking far away.

"Yeah, I was antagonistic too. We were about the same in academics, but the praise from adults always went to pretty Himeno. I thought it was unfair someone could be such a capable student and beautiful."
"Nobody would've expected someone like her to drop out of high school," Himeno casually let out.
"Drop out?", I said with intentional surprise.
"So you didn't know." She lowered her eyebrows and smiled. "I thought rumor might have gotten around at a reunion or something."
"Never showed up to any class reunions. Since I thought you wouldn't either, Himeno."
"Hmm. ...Um, I wouldn't say this is too interesting either, but..."

Himeno then explained everything up to her dropping out. However, she omitted the part about her pregnancy which Miyagi had given in her summary.
All Himeno said was "I married a graduating senior and dropped out, but conflicts came up, and we divorced."

"I think I was childish," Himeno told me with a strained smile. "I just couldn't move on accepting things as they were. I guess I couldn't stand the slightest imperfection and messed everything up from the start. Nothing's changed in my head since that summer ten years ago, when I changed schools and separated from you. ...I'm sure I was a smart girl back then. But that made me think that I didn't need to mature any further. And so I'm still not much different from that ten-year-old dreamer, while everyone else keeps changing."

Himeno stared at her hands on the table with the eyes of a wounded little girl.
"So what about you, Kusunoki? I'm sure you've changed in ten years, too?"

Around this point, I began to lose my calm.
"You're not the only one who hasn't changed, Himeno," I said. "I've been the same since the day we separated, too. Years with nothing to live for, passing pointless, lonely days. It felt like the world existed just to disappoint me. Maybe I was already dead, more or less. That's why just a few days ago -"

I knew what I was saying. I predicted how it would sound to Himeno's ears. And I understood how foolish it was to do this.
But that wouldn't stop me.

"...I sold my lifespan. At a mere 10,000 yen for each year."

Himeno face went pale and looked bewildered, but it was impossible to stop the flow of words. I let the mess that had built up inside me all out.
I went from one thing to another. The shop that bought lifespan. Thinking I'd get several million yen a year when it was ten thousand, the minimum price. Despairing over my future and selling off all but three months. And being followed by an invisible observer ever since.
I prattled on in a way that invited sympathy.

"You can't see her, Himeno, but my observer's here right now," I said, pointing at Miyagi. "Here, right here. She's a girl named Miyagi. She's speaks really bluntly, but if you just talk with her she's actually very..."
"Hey, Kusunoki? I don't mean any offense, but... Do you have any idea how completely unreal what you're talking about is?", Himeno apologetically asked.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure I know how ridiculous it sounds."
"Yes, it's ridiculous. ...But you know, Kusunoki, despite that, I can't think it's a lie. Not the part about not having much time left, nor that there's a girl beside you observing you. We've known each other long enough that if you tried to lie to me, I'd be able to tell right away. So while it's difficult, I can believe that you're not lying about selling your lifespan."

It would be difficult to explain to anyone just how happy I was at that moment.

"...I'm sorry for putting it off, but I've actually been hiding something too..."
Himeno coughed and put a handkerchief to her mouth, then stood up.
"Excuse me. We'll continue this after dinner," Himeno said, then walked away.

She was headed for the bathroom, so I let it slide.
Our food arrived, and I hoped Himeno would come back soon. I had to hear the rest of what she had to say.

But Himeno never came back.

Since she was taking so long, I was worried Himeno had fainted from anemia or something and made a request of Miyagi.
"Sorry, but could you check the ladies' room? Maybe something happened to Himeno."
Miyagi silently nodded.

Miyagi came back a few minutes later and informed me that Himeno was gone.
I walked around the restaurant, but she was nowhere to be found.

I returned to my seat in defeat and placed myself down in front of a cold meal. I'd lost all energy. I felt something heavy and unpleasant in my gut.
My throat was dry and ached. I tried to grab my glass, but my focus was off and I spilled water on the table.

I ate my cold pasta slowly.
After a while, Miyagi sat across from me and started eating up Himeno's pasta.
"Quite tasty even if it's cold," she said.
I didn't say anything.

Once I finished the meal, still unsure how it had ever tasted, I asked Miyagi.
"Hey, Miyagi. Be honest with me. Why do you think Himeno left?"
Miyagi replied. "Perhaps because she thought you were insane."
Which in a sense was true.

But the truth was a little more complicated, and Miyagi knew that too.
And she hid that, for my sake.

After paying at the register and leaving, I heard someone calling me from behind. I turned to find a waiter running up with something for me.
"The woman you came with asked me to give you this."
It was a letter, which seemed to have been torn out of a notebook.

I took my time reading it.
And when I did, I found that Miyagi had been lying to me all this time.
"You knew about this and kept it from me?"
Miyagi answered with her head hung.
"I did. I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize. You let me have my good dream."
I was the one who needed to apologize. But I didn't have the energy left to acknowledge my own faults.

"And in my original life, Himeno succeeded in her objective. Is that right?"
"Correct," Miyagi said. "Ms. Himeno... did it right in front of your eyes, Mr. Kusunoki."

To show it to me.
To clear up years and years of resentment.

I read through the letter again.
This is what it said.

To my one and only childhood friend.

I had intended to die right in front of you.
At the viewing platform, I had meant to have you wait below and fall right next to you.

Maybe you never quite realized, but I always despised you.
Never responding to my cries for help, then casually appearing before me now, I couldn't hate you more.

So now that I'm useless to you, I thought I'd kill myself.
But it seems like you've gone even more insane than me in these ten years.
It doesn't seem like it'll do any good getting revenge on you now.
So I'm going to just quietly vanish.
I only hope that what you said about having little time to live is true.

What a fool I am.
I'd lived alone all my life to avoid feeling like this.
I should have just trusted in myself to the end.

I went to the bridge by the station, carefully folded Himeno's letter into a paper plane, and threw it toward the river which reflected the light from the buildings. It hovered in the air for some time, but it eventually touched the water and sank.
Then I took out the money-filled envelope I was going to give Himeno, and distributed it bill by bill to passersby.

People's reactions varied. For those who looked at me dubiously, there were also those who thanked me with an obsequious smile and took off.
For those who definitively turned it down and pushed it back at me, there were those who asked for more.

"You should stop this," said indifferent Miyagi, tugging my sleeve.
"I'm not bothering anyone, am I?", I replied, brushing her hand away.

The money was gone in no time. I even took money out of my own wallet. I gave away everything down to the 1000-yen bills.
Once I had nothing left to give out, I stood right in the middle of the street.
People walking by looked at me uncomfortably.

I didn't have money to pay a taxi, so I had to walk home. Miyagi took a blue umbrella out from her bag and opened it.
I realized I'd forgotten my umbrella at the restaurant, but I didn't care if I got wet or caught a cold anymore.

"You'll be drenched," Miyagi said, holding the umbrella high. She was telling me to join her.
“As you can see, I'm in a getting-drenched mood," I told her.
“Is that right," she said, closing the umbrella and stowing it in her bag.
Miyagi walked behind me, both of us soaking wet.
“You don't have to get drenched, you know."
“As you can see, I am in a getting-drenched mood," Miyagi smiled.
Do as you will, I thought, turning my back to her.

I found a bus stop where I could keep out of the rain and took shelter there. There was a bent streetlight right above, that occasionally flickered on as if remembering to turn itself on.
The moment I sat down, I felt incredibly sleepy. My mind wanted rest more than my body did.

I think I only slept for a few minutes. The chill of my drenched body quickly woke me up again.
Miyagi was sleeping beside me. She was holding her knees, desperately trying to warm herself.
I pitied her for having to bear witness to the selfish actions of an idiot like me.

I stood up slowly so I didn't wake Miyagi and wandered around the area, finding an abandoned community center.
I wouldn't say it was very clean, but it still had power, and the front door and rooms weren't locked.
I went back to the bench, lifted up sleeping Miyagi, and moved her inside.
Certainly it would have to wake up a girl whose sleeping was lighter than mine. But Miyagi feigned sleep all the while.

The room smelled of tatami mats. There was a pile of cushions in the corner. After checking for bugs, I put a few of them on the floor and laid Miyagi down. I did the same thing nearby for my own bedding.
There was a mosquito coil near the window that must have been there for decades, so I lit it with my lighter.

The raindrops served as a lullaby.

I began doing what I usually did before I fell asleep.
I imagined the best landscapes I could on the backs of my eyelids.
I thought about every little detail of the world I wanted to live in.
I freely pictured "memories" that I'd never had, a "somewhere" I'd never been, a "someday" that could have been past or future.

That had been my practice every night since I was five years old.
Maybe that childish practice was the reason I could never get accustomed to the world.
But I was sure that was the only way I could compromise with it.

Perhaps what I thought was me waking up in the middle of the night was really a dream founded in hope, common in times of despondency.
If it were a dream, then it was a rather embarrassing dream.
If it were reality - to be frank, there could be nothing that would make me happier.

I heard someone walking on the mats. I knew it was Miyagi squatting down beside my pillow because of her smell. Even in summer, Miyagi smelled like a clear winter morning.
I kept my eyes shut. I'm not sure why, but it felt best to do so.
She touched my head and gently pet it. She probably didn't do it for more than a minute.
Miyagi seemed to whisper something, but I couldn't make it out over the rain.

In my drowsiness, I thought: Just how much has Miyagi helped me? How cornered would I feel now if Miyagi weren't there?
But that's why I shouldn't make her worry any moreso - so I told myself.
She's strictly here for her job. She's kind to me because I'm going to die soon.
It doesn't mean she has any affection for me.

I shouldn't have any more baseless hopes. Those don't just make me unhappy, but her too. I'm burdening her with extra guilt, giving my death a bad aftertaste.
I'll just die quietly. I'll go back to my usual, self-sufficient, modest life where I don't count on anyone. Like a cat, I'll expire silently and in secret.
So I secretly vowed.

The next morning, I was woken up by oppressive heat. I heard grade-school kids doing radio aerobics outside.
Miyagi was already up, whistling Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew" and tidying up the cushions.
I still felt some drowsiness, but we couldn't stay here long.

Let's go home, Miyagi said.
Yeah, I replied.

Chapter 11

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