12. A Liar and a Little Prayer

When Miyagi first came to the apartment as my observer, I couldn't help being unnerved by her gaze.
My thought was: "If my observer were the opposite of her - ugly, dirty and middle-aged - I'm sure I'd be able to relax more and think about what the right thing to do was."

The observer who now stood before me instead of Miyagi was a man rather like that.
He was short, he had unsightly bald spots, his face was red like a drunk's though lush with whiskers, and his skin was oily. He blinked unusually often, he snorted as he breathed, and he spoke like he had phlegm caught in his throat.

"Where's the usual girl?" was my first question.
"On break," the man bluntly said. "I'm filling in today an' tomorrow."
I put my hand to my chest in relief. I was grateful observers didn't take shifts. Miyagi would be back in just two days.

"So even observers get days off," I said.
"'Course, gotta. Unlike you, we still gotta lotta livin' to do," he replied sarcastically.
"Huh. Well, that's a relief. And her break'll be over in two days, and it'll be back to normal?"
"Yep, that's the plan," the man said.

I rubbed my sleepy eyes and looked at the man in the corner again, and saw him holding my album. The album of all my vending machine pictures.
"What the hell's this?", he asked.
"Don't you know about vending machines?", I joked.
"Tch. I was tryin' to ask what you'd take pictures like this for."
"Same as people who like the sky taking pictures of the sky. Flower-likers taking pictures of flowers, train-likers taking pictures of trains. You do it because you wanna. And I like vending machines."

The man flipped through a few pages in boredom, then declared "Trash," and tossed the album at me. Then he looked at all the paper cranes strewn around and gave an exaggerated sigh.
"So this is how you're spendin' your life, huh. Stupid as hell. Ain't you got anything better to do?"

His attitude didn't make me that unpleasant. In terms of honestly saying what I thought, he was easier to deal with. It was much preferable to being stared at from the corner like I was an object.
"I might, but if I did anything more enjoyable than this, my body might not be able to take it," I laughed.

He continued to find fault in everything in that same way. This observer's a lot more aggressive, I thought.
I learned why after lunch, while laying down in front of the fan and listening to music.

"Hey, you," the man said. I pretended not to hear him, and he cleared his throat. "You ain't causin' that girl any trouble, are ya?"
There was only one person I could think of to whom "that girl" could refer, but I didn't expect the man to refer to Miyagi that way, so my reply was delayed.
"By that girl, you mean Miyagi?"
"Who else?" The man furrowed his brow as if displeased by me speaking her name.
Seeing that, I felt some fondness for the man. So you're my ally, huh.

"Let me guess, you're friendly with Miyagi?", I asked.
"...Nah. Nothin' like that. I mean, we've never really seen each other." The man's tone suddenly got more docile. "Only talked a couple of times through documents, that's all. But I was the one who bought her time, so I saw her for about ten minutes, long time ago."
"What'd you think?"
"Poor girl," he said plainly. "Really, really pity her."
He seemed to mean it.

"My lifespan was worth the same as hers. Pitiful, huh?"
"Shaddup, you're gonna die soon anyway."
"That's probably the right way to look at things," I agreed.
"But that girl, she sold the thing she absolutely shouldn't've sold. She was only ten then, you couldn't expect her to make a rational choice. And now the poor girl's gotta keep hangin' around desperate guys like you."

"...So takin' it back - you ain't givin' her any trouble, are you? Depending on your answer, your last months might get a helluva lot less comfy."
I was getting increasingly fond of this guy.
"Oh, I think I've troubled her," came my honest reply. "I've said things that've hurt her, and came close to physically harming her... and a little past that, I almost forced her to the ground."
The man's complexion changed, and as he looked like he was about throttle me any second, I held Miyagi's notebook out to him.

"What's this?", he said, taking the notebook.
"You should find the details there. It's the observation log Miyagi had. But you can't have the subject himself reading it, right?"
"Observation log?" He licked his finger and opened the notebook.
"I dunno how your job goes, really, and it doesn't seem to me that rules are too strict. But if it does happen that Miyagi might get punished for leaving this behind, well, I don't want that. You seem like you're on her side, so I'll give it to you."

The man flipped through the pages, skimming through. He reached the last page in about two minutes, and just said "Aha."
I didn't know what was in there. But after that, the man was a lot less aggressive.
Miyagi must have written favorably about me. I was glad to have indirect proof of that.

If I hadn't had the idea to buy a notebook of my own then, I wouldn't be writing this now.
After showing the man Miyagi's notebook, I had an urge to have my own. I went to the stationery shop and bought a Tsubame B5 notebook and a cheap fountain pen, then thought about what to put in it.

I knew that while I had this replacement observer around for two days, it was my time to do things that I couldn't do with Miyagi there.
At first I considered doing depraved things, but considered that when I next saw Miyagi, even if it didn't come up, I'd be visibly guilty. So I did things that I wouldn't want Miyagi to see, but in a healthy way.

I wrote a record of everything that had happened since I climbed the stairs of that old building and sold my lifespan on its fourth floor to the present day.
On the first page, I wrote about the morality lesson I'd received in elementary school. Without even thinking, I knew what I should write on the next page.
The first day I thought about the value of life. My belief at the time that I'd be famous someday. The promise I made with Himeno. Being told about the lifespan dealership at the bookstore and CD shop. Meeting Miyagi there.

The words flowed without stopping. As I smoked, using an empty can as an ashtray, I continued to spin the story.
The fountain pen made a comfortable sound on the paper. The room was hot, and sweat fell and blurred the letters.

"What're you writing?", the man asked.
"I'm recording what happened this month."
"And? Who's gonna read it?"
"Dunno. Doesn't really matter. Writing it helps me sort things out. I can move things around to more logical places, like a defrag."

Even late into the night, my hand wouldn't be stilled. It was far from being beautiful prose, but I was surprised how smoothly I could write.
After twenty-two hours, I finally came to a sudden halt. I didn't feel I could write any more today.

I put the fountain pen on the table and went to get some fresh air. The man begrudgingly got up and followed behind me.
Walking around aimlessly outside, I heard a taiko drum from somewhere. Practice for a festival, probably.

"Since you're an observer, you sold your time too?", I turned and asked the man.
"If I said yes, would ya sympathize with me?", the man snorted with laughter.
"Yeah, I would."
The man looked at me with surprise. "...Well, I'd like to tell ya I'm grateful, but truth is I didn't sell no lifespan, no time, no health. I do this job 'cause I want to."
"Bad taste. What's so fun about it?"
"Didn't say it was fun. It's sorta like visiting people's graves. I'm gonna die someday. Might as well experience as much death as I can so I can accept it."
"Sounds like an old man's idea."
"Yeah, 'cause I am old," the man said.

Back at the apartment, I took a bath, had a beer, brushed my teeth, and pulled up the covers to sleep. But it was once again noisy next door. Three or four people were talking with the window open.
I felt like there were always guests there, day or night. Big difference from my room which only had observers.
I wore headphones like earmuffs, turned off the light, and closed my eyes.
Maybe thanks to using a part of my brain I didn't normally, I got eleven straight hours of sleep, not waking up once.

I spent the next day filling my notebook with words too. The radio was going on about baseball. By evening, I had caught up to the present.
My fingers trembled as I released the pen from them. The muscles in my arms and hands were screaming, and I rubbed my sore neck while my head ached.
Still, the feeling of accomplishment from finishing something wasn't bad. Also, re-explaining my memories through words made good memories easier to savor, and bad memories easier to accept.

I laid down on the spot and stared at the ceiling. There was a big black stain which I wasn't sure how it got there, and a bent nail jutting out. There was even a cobweb in the corner.
After watching a middle school baseball game at the local field, and going around a fair taking place at the market, I went to a cafeteria and got a leftover-ish dinner.
Miyagi'll be back tomorrow, I thought.

I decided to go to bed early. I closed the notebook I'd left open, put it on a bookshelf, and got into bed. Then the replacement observer spoke.
"This is somethin' I ask everyone, but... what'd you use your money for?"
"It didn't say in the observation log?"
"...Didn't read it in much detail."
"I walked down the road giving it out bill by bill," I answered. "I used a little bit for living expenses, but the original plan was to give it to someone. But they ran off, so I decided I'd just give it all to strangers."
"Bill by bill?"
"Yep. Just walked along handing out 10,000 yen bills.”

The man burst into uproarious laughter.
"Funny, huh?", I said, but the man replied through chuckles, "No, that's not what I'm laughing at."
It was a bizarre laugh. It didn't seem like he was just laughing because it was funny.

"...Well, huh. So you ended up giving all that good money you got for your lifespan to strangers for free."
"That's what I did," I nodded.
"No hope for a moron like you."
"Agreed. There are countless better ways I could've used it. Could have done a lot with 300,000 yen."
"Nope. That's not even why I'm making fun of you."
Something about the man's wording seemed off.

Then he finally said this.
"Hey, you - don't tell me - did you seriously believe it when they said your lifespan was worth 300,000 yen?"

The question shook me from my core.
"What do you mean?", I asked the man.
"What else, I mean exactly what I said. Were you really told your lifespan was 300,000 yen, and you were all, ah yes, that's exactly right, and took 300,000?”

"Well... yeah, I thought that was pretty low at first."
The man banged the floor in laughter.
"Right, right. Well, I don't want to say anything, but..." He held his stomach, still keeping in laughter.
"Well, next time you see that girl, you ask her. "Was my lifespan really worth 300,000 yen?""

I tried to question the man further, but he seemed unwilling to tell me any more.
In my pitch black room, I kept staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep.
I kept thinking about what his words meant.

"Good morning, Mr. Kusunoki."
Miyagi spoke as I woke up from the sun coming through the window.
This girl, who gave me a friendly smile from the corner of the room, was telling me a lie.

"How do you plan to spend today?"
I swallowed the words which had been moments away from leaving my throat.
I'll keep pretending I don't know anything, I decided. I didn't want to know the truth badly enough as to trouble Miyagi.
"The usual way," I answered.
"Touring vending machines, then," Miyagi happily said.

We drove everywhere - under blue skies, along paddy fields, down twisty rural roads.
We ate salt-broiled char and soft-serve ice cream at a roadside station, then took pictures along a strange street with no sign of people and lots of shuttered buildings, but plenty of vending machines.
Night came in the blink of an eye.

We got off the Cub at a small dam and went down the stairs to a walking path.
"Where are you headed?"
I didn't turn around. "What would you do if I deceived you and went somewhere outrageous?"
"So you're headed somewhere where one can see a beautiful sight?", Miyagi said with understanding.
"You misunderstand," I said, but it was as she said.

Once we crossed a small bridge that led to a thicket along the river, she seemed to understand my objective.
She seemed entranced by the sight.
"Um, this impression may sound like it's missing the point, but... Fireflies really do glow, don't they."
"Duh, they're fireflies," I laughed, but I knew what she was trying to say. Miyagi was probably feeling the same way I felt seeing those stars at the lake.
You know that such a thing exists. But as much as you know about what it's like, the beauty a few steps higher is something that you might as well know nothing about until you see it for yourself.

We walked along the little path slowly while the lights of the countless green fireflies floating around flickered.
Staring right at them would make you lose focus and feel a little dizzy.

"If I'm to guess, this may be the first time I've seen fireflies," Miyagi said.
"There's been a lot less of them lately. They're hard to find if you don't go to the right place at the right time. I probably won't see them again here for days."
"You come here often, Mr. Kusunoki?"
"Nah. I only came here once, around this time last year. Just remembered that yesterday."

The luminescence of the fireflies hit its peak, and we went back the way we came.
"...May I interpret this as thanks for the night at the lake?", Miyagi asked.
"I just went to see it 'cause I wanted to. But you're free to interpret it however you want."
"Understood. I will interpret it freely. Very much so."
"Don't need to tell me every little thing."

I went back to the apartment, sorted out the pictures for the day, got ready for bed, responded to Miyagi's "good night" with the same, and just as I went to turn off the light, I called her name.
"Yes? What is it?"
"Why'd you lie?"

Miyagi looked up at my face and blinked.
"I'm not entirely sure what you mean."
"Let me make it a little simpler, then. ...Was my lifespan really 300,000 yen?"

In the moonlight that night, I could sense a change in the color of Miyagi's eyes.
"Of course it is," she answered. "I'm sorry to say, but your worth simply isn't very much. I would have thought you'd accepted this some time ago."
"Well, I did. Until last night," I said.

Miyagi seemed to guess what my belief was.
"Did my substitute tell you something?", she asked mixed with a sigh.
"He just told me to check that with you, that's all. Didn't tell me anything more concrete than that."
"Yes, well, 300,000 yen is 300,000 yen." She continued to feign ignorance.

"...When I heard you'd lied to me, at first I simply thought you were taking a cut of the money I was supposed to get for yourself."
Miyagi looked at me with upturned eyes.

"I thought maybe it was 30 million or 3 billion, and you were embezzling me, telling me a fake value. That was my first thought. ...But I just couldn't believe that. I didn't want to think that was it. That you'd been fooling me from the start. That you were hiding a lie like that behind your smile. I wondered if I was just making a fundamental mistake. I pondered that all night, until I realized. ...I was mistaken from the very beginning."

That teacher had already told me, ten years ago.
I want you to get away from that line of thinking.

"Why did I believe that 10,000 yen for a year was the lowest possible price? Why did I believe that normal lifespans should sell for tens and hundreds of millions? Maybe I was basing too much on my prior opinions. Maybe everyone deeply wants to believe the nonsense about life being more valuable than anything. At any rate, I applied too much of my own common sense to the situation. I should have been more flexible in my thinking.”

I took a breath, and said:

"What made you want to give a whole 300,000 yen to someone you'd never even seen before?"

Miyagi said “I don't have the faintest idea what you're saying” and turned away.
I sat in the opposite corner of the room in the same knees-up position as her. It made Miyagi smile a little.

"You can feign ignorance, that works," I said. "But I just want to say thanks."
Miyagi shook her head. "It's all right. If I kept this job up, I'd surely die before I paid the debt, just like my mother. Even if I were to pay it and was free, I'm not promised a good life afterward. So I decided it would be better to use the money this way.”

"So how much am I worth, really?", I asked.
There was a pause.
"...Thirty yen," Miyagi whispered.

"A three-minute phone call," I laughed. "Sorry for using your 300,000 yen like that."
"Indeed. I do wish you would have used it more for yourself."
Miyagi's wording felt angry, but her voice was gentle.

"...But I certainly understand how you feel, Mr. Kusunoki. Perhaps the reason I gave you that 300,000 yen and the reason you distributed it out to strangers are the same, at their core. I felt lonely, sad, hollow, and desperate. So I went and did something unreasonably altruistic. ...Though, thinking about it, if I hadn't lied about it being worth 300,000 yen and told the truth, perhaps you wouldn't have sold it. Then at least you would have been able to life a longer life. I'm sorry for what I did.”

Miyagi spoke bending down and burying her chin among her knees, looking at her fingernails.
"Perhaps just once, I wanted to be the one giving someone something. I wanted it given to me, but... perhaps I tried to save myself by giving to someone in similarly pitiable circumstances what no one would give me. In any event, the action was a product of my warped good will. I'm sorry."

"That's not true," I denied. "If you told me "You're worth 30 yen" from the start, I'd get really nuts and sell off everything - maybe not even leave three days, much less three months. If you hadn't lied, I couldn't have gone touring vending machines, folding cranes, seeing the stars, or seeing fireflies."

"There was never any reason for you to despair. Thirty yen is merely a value decided by some higher-ups," Miyagi insisted. "At least to me, Mr. Kusunoki, you are someone who is worth 30 million, or 3 billion yen."
"Stop it, that's such a weird consolation," I smiled.
"It's true!"
"If you're too kind to me, I'll just get miserable. I know that you're a nice girl already, so you don't need to go any further.”
"You're quite annoying. Just be quiet and let me cheer you up."
"...Never been told that before."
"Besides, this isn't consolation or kindness. I'm just telling you what I've been wanting to say. I do not care what you think of it,” Miyagi said slightly embarrassed, her head low.

Then she told me this.
"Indeed, at first, I thought you were someone who deserved only thirty yen. When I gave you the 300,000, it was purely for my own satisfaction, so it didn't matter that it happened to be you, Mr. Kusunoki. ...But gradually, my opinion changed. After the incident at the train station, you took my story to heart, didn't you? You sympathized with my situation of having to sell my time. Starting then, Mr. Kusunoki, you were no longer just my subject for observation. This alone is a significant problem, but afterward, there were many more.

"...I know it must be trifling to you, but I was glad that you were willing to talk to me. Because I've always been invisible. Being ignored was part of my job. Even little things like eating and talking with me at restaurants, going out shopping, just walking around town, holding hands and strolling down the river - they felt like a dream. You were the first person to always treat me like I was “there,” no matter the time or the situation.”

I wasn't sure what to respond with.
I never even thought that someone would be so grateful to me.
"...I can keep doing that if you like," I joked, and Miyagi nodded.
"I would love that. Since... I do love you."

Though it's no use loving someone who's soon to go away.
She smiled sadly.

My chest tightened, and my mouth didn't work for a while.
Like I was experiencing a delay, I said nothing, not even able to blink.

"You know, Mr. Kusunoki. There are many other lies I've told you," Miyagi said in a slightly clouded voice. "Besides the value of your lifespan, and besides Himeno. For example, how your lifespan would be terminated if you caused others trouble. It was a lie. And how you would die if you went more than a hundred meters from me. Also a lie. They were all no more than ways to protect myself. Nothing but lies."

"...Is that right."
"If you are offended, you may do anything you wish to me."
"Anything?", I repeated.
"Yes, as terrible as you may desire."
"Then gladly."

I took Miyagi's hand to have her stand up, then hugged her tight.

I'm not sure how long we stayed like that.
I tried to remember them. Her soft hair. Her well-shaped ears. Her thin neck. Her unreliable shoulders and back. Her modest chest. Her smoothly-curved hips.
I used my senses to their utmost to commit it all to memory.
So I'd remember no matter what. So I'd never forget again.

"That was quite terrible," Miyagi said, sniffling. "After doing that, now I know that I'll never forget you."
"Yeah. Mourn lots for me when I'm dead," I said.
"...If you're all right with it, then I'll do so until I die."
Then Miyagi smiled.

It was then when I finally found an objective for my meaningless last months.
Miyagi's words brought about an incredible change within me.

With not even two remaining months, I decided, no matter what it took, I would pay Miyagi's debt in full.

Me, whose whole life couldn't even buy a juice box.
I guess I could only say it because I just didn't know my place.

Chapter 13

Novel List