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Chapter 10: Boy Meets Girl
I immersed myself in work for about the next six months.
The Mimories I produced in this period were so well-made, even I was cocking my head. Maybe because I'd lost patience with reality (or it lost me), it increased my attachment to fiction? No, not exactly. It also wasn't that I was starting to feel how little time I had left, making me want to leave the world with proof that I lived. The explosive agent was the forgetting caused by New Alzheimer's.
You'd think that when you lose memories, your creative abilities would decrease in turn, but it was actually exactly the opposite. Forgetting had beneficial effects on Mimory creation. Because New Alzheimer's didn't take knowledge, only experiences, it served as a tailwind for a creator of my type. The symptoms would be devastating for a Mimory engineer who referenced their own experiences to make Mimories, but being a Mimory engineer who created Mimories from nothing, forgetting my experiences really wasn't an issue for me. It actually brought many boons: an escape from narrow-mindedness, the destruction of fixed notions, an objective perspective, increased processing speed by freeing up working memory, etcetera.
I wondered if this was why artists tended to like smoking and drinking. Strictly in professions where moments of enlightenment were key, forgetting was a powerful weapon. With it, we could write out line 100 or line 1000 as if it were line 1. We could have both the freedom of an adult and the freedom of a child.
If one of the foundations of identity is a consistent memory, then I was day by day becoming someone who was no one. In early winter, I came to perceive myself as a filtration device placed between clients and their Mimories. It was the closest you could get to the state of perfect "selflessness" some creators consider ideal. What made it different from selflessness obtained through training was that I was literally losing myself as a person, turning into a two-dimensional representation. Within the year, I lost my memories up to age 18. Less than 10 percent of myself remained within me.
Ever since becoming a Mimory engineer at 16, I had consistently done that job at home, but around fall when I was 19, I slowly started to show my face at the office. Because I felt like I was going mad staying at home alone. There wasn't a single coworker I could go up and talk to now because of my feigned aloofness, but just having the sense of being near other people was enough. I wanted to taste just the slightest sense that I was part of something.
I kept my disease a secret. I feared no longer getting work more than anything. If I lost that, I'd lose my reason for being. I would have no place in this world. The symptoms of New Alzheimer's would never be noticed if you kept quiet. Seeing me feverishly back to work after my vacation, my coworkers simply seemed to think "guess she must have gotten some good rest for once."
One time, I was invited to go drinking. It was a few days before Christmas. While silently facing my computer with headphones on, someone tapped my shoulder from behind. I turned around, and one of my coworkers - a woman in her late twenties, I forgot her name - said something modestly. I didn't catch what she said, but based on her mouth movement, I think she asked "Sorry, is now a good time?" I took off my headphones and faced toward her.
Some of us are going out to drink, so do you want to come too?, the coworker asked. I stared at her absentmindedly for a while. I looked around, wondering if she was trying to invite the wrong person. But we were the only two left in the office at the time, and her eyes were clearly looking right at me.
I'd be lying to say I wasn't happy. But I instinctively replied like so.
"Thank you very much. But I still have some work I need to finish up before the year is out."
I put up my best civil smile (or actually, maybe it was a naturally-occurring smile) and turned down her invitation. She smiled with some disappointment, then kindly told me "Be sure to take care of yourself."
When she left the office, she gave me a little wave. While I was hesitating over whether to wave back, she closed the door and left.
I lowered my half-raised arm and put my elbows on my desk. I casually looked toward the window to discover that it was snowing. As far as I knew, the first snow of the season.
The last words she said to me kept reverberating in my ears, comfortably vibrating my eardrums. "Be sure to take care of yourself." I was impossibly happy about those words alone, and impossibly saddened that I had felt so saved by those words alone.
The same way a person about to starve to death has no ability left to digest, maybe I no longer had the energy left to accept people's good will. That invitation of hers might have been the last chance I'd have in my life. But even if it were, I also feel like I wouldn't have made good use of it. So it came to the same thing either way.
My final client requested that we meet and talk in person.
This wasn't anything unusual. There are tons of clients who think the personal record's information alone is insufficient and ask for a direct interview with the Mimory engineer. Most people are convinced they're the ones who know their desires best. So they attach all kinds of comments; yet if an engineer created Mimories by faithfully following those, few would actually be satisfied. They would speak with irritation about how yes, I can see how my comments are reflected here, but there's something crucial missing. That's where they finally realize that it takes skill and experience to precisely grasp your desires. We're too used to suppressing our desires as we live lives that don't go our way, so it takes expert training to salvage them from the bottommost depths of the heart where they sleep. Thus, there isn't much to be gained from a direct interview between the client and the Mimory engineer. It does far more harm than good.
I was opposed to Mimory engineers meeting face to face with their clients, but coming from a completely different perspective. It was the simple reason that it would create impurities in the Mimories. If the client knew of me, the author of their Mimories, as a person, then whenever they recalled those Mimories, they would incidentally remember me. It would surely cast my shadow behind every word and action in the Mimories. And every time this happened, it would surely deepen the sense that Mimories are just artificial in the end.
That was not what I wanted. The role of a Mimory engineer should strictly be akin to a stagehand's. They should show their face and make statements as little as possible, and if they must appear in front of people, they shouldn't deviate from the image people would naturally picture from the Mimories. And they should behave as unrealistically as possible. We provide a certain kind of dream to clients, and the guides of dreamland should not be normal, commonplace humans.
In accordance with that creed, I consistently refused to directly meet with my clients. However, a letter that was sent to me in late April greatly shook my belief. Something about the letter was so captivating, it made me feel like I would like to meet this person and talk face to face. Each and every word was carefully chosen, and those words were arranged in the perfect order. And despite this, it cleverly hid the sense of being "a well-crafted letter," having a simple and breezy feel that someone who didn't write for a living would just call "easy to read." I had received many letters from clients before, but none had left such a favorable impression.
The client was an elderly woman, but she accurately understood the brand new job of Mimory engineering, and held great respect for it. It was her hobby to walk with people who'd bought Mimories and hear their stories (as she wrote in her letter, "I have a deep interest not in "what really happened," but "what should have happened""), and my name apparently came up in the process.
She wrote some thoughts about a few of the Mimories I'd created, which were shockingly to-the-point. She hit the nail on the head to make me go "that's right, I did put my efforts into that." When even the clients themselves had never given me such detailed opinions.
I think I'll meet the sender of this letter. If someone who so intimately knows the way I work wants to meet with me directly, I'm sure it won't be for anything more than that. I sent a reply to the email given in the letter, and made plans to meet five days later.
The client wrote in her letter, "this is a very strange request, so if it's not any bother, I want to meet outside the clinic." She didn't explain what was strange or how, but I assented without thinking too deeply about it. After all, talking about Mimories should be at least a little strange to anyone.
I arrived at the appointed hotel that day and waited for the client in the coffee lounge. I say "hotel," but it had a kind of rustic hospitality, and everything associated with the building was shabby and dirty. The carpet was fully faded, the chairs creaked gratingly when you sat in them, the tablecloths had noticeable stains. However, the coffee tasted awfully good for the price. For some reason, this place reminded me of the hospital I frequently visited as a child. What a calming place, I quietly muttered as I closed my eyes.
The client appeared ten minutes early. I'd heard she was 70, but she looked even older. Her body was bony, her every action was uncertain, and even sitting down seemed laborious, so I was quietly worried we wouldn't be able to hold a decent conversation. But this was a needless fear; once she opened her mouth, she spoke with a clear and youthful voice.
I first politely apologized for making the client walk to see me. Apparently her legs were bad, and she lacked the confidence to walk on unfamiliar roads. "This is a wonderful hotel," I said, and she nodded happily as if I'd complimented a relative. After that, she once more rattled off thoughts on my work thus far. They were even more courteous and passionate than those in the letter, and all I could do was lower my head and thank her. I had no immunization against someone complimenting me to my face.
Once she'd given her thoughts for a while, she readjusted her posture and cleared her throat. Then she got to business.
She took some envelopes out of her bag and placed them on the table. There were two.
"One is mine, and the other is my husband's personal record," the client informed me.
I looked between the two envelopes.
"Do you mean you're requesting Mimories for the two of you?", I questioned hesitatingly, and she slowly shook her head.
"No, that's not it. My husband left this world four years ago."
I hurried to apologize for my rudeness, but she spoke first.
"I'd like you to create Mimories of myself and my husband."
I had to think for a second about what the difference between those two things was. It felt a little like I was working out a puzzle.
The client placed her hand mournfully on one of the envelopes and began to speak.
"My husband and I met in this town six years ago, and fell in love in a blink. Though a common expression, I feel it should be called a fateful encounter. Like with most fateful encounters, our love was an average and boring thing in the eyes of anyone but ourselves, but I feel the two years I spent with my husband were of far more value than the 60 years that preceded our meeting."
She continued after a long pause strolling down memory lane.
"We spoke together about everything. Anything we could remember since the moment we were given life in this world to the present. When we fully exhausted all we could talk about, we reconfirmed that ours was a fateful meeting, and at the same time sunk into an abyss of despair. Why, you ask? Because our meeting had been all too late."
She lowered her eyes and clasped her hands tight as if holding something in.
"It is not because we were old. There was a proper timing for our chance meeting, yet it was but one chance, and we let it go. To be specific, my husband and I should have met when we were seven. By missing that chance, the same was true into our teens and our twenties. There was no coming back from it. Perhaps it was lucky that even though we half gave up, we could finally meet each other after we grew old."
And then finally, she spoke her request.
"What if we had been able to meet when we were seven?
I would like you to replicate that theoretical past. I am well aware that incorporating living people in Mimories breaches the Mimory engineer code of ethics. Even so, I simply must ask if you would take this job."
I could feel the strength of will in her voice. As I sat dumbstruck with a coffee cup in my hand, the client glanced toward the two envelopes on the table.
"I believe a Mimory engineer on your level should be able to understand what I am saying by reading these personal records."
I nodded wordlessly, nervously reached for the envelopes, and put them in my bag.
"I'll ask you pretend you never heard this. If you would like to accept, I will pay five times your standard fee."
After that addendum, she elegantly narrowed her eyes in a smile.
"If you simply do your job as you always do, that will be perfectly sufficient."
After the client left, I took the personal records out of my bag and started to read them on the spot. Normally you wouldn't want to read personal records somewhere people might see you, but this wasn't an official request in the first place, and more importantly, I couldn't hold back my curiosity about what she meant by "if you read these, I think you'll understand what I'm saying."
Her life, like her writing, was polite, gentle, and comfortable. Though you could hardly call it the best, you certainly could say she tried her very best. There was beauty in a defeat that came only after being beaten down by the limits of possibility. Her way of life was quiet and self-contained prior to meeting her husband, and struck me as infinitely similar to my ideal way of life before my disease. Her personal record had apparently been created right after the two met, so I unfortunately didn't know what kind of transformation her life underwent afterward.
After finishing up the client's personal record in no time, I ordered a coffee refill and a chocolate cake, quickly consumed both, and got started on the husband's record. And one-third of the way in, I understood what the client had been talking about.
It was as she said. The two should have met when they were seven. Not any earlier or any later. It had to be at exactly seven.
If they had met at seven, they probably could've been the happiest boy and girl in the world. In that very short period, the girl held a key that would fit perfectly into the boy's heart, and the boy held a key that would fit perfectly into the girl's heart. They should have put those keys into each other and achieved perfect harmony.
But in reality, the two hadn't been able to meet at seven. When they ultimately found each other was over half a century later, and by then, both their keys had completely rusted. They had tried them in all the wrong keyholes, taking away their luster. Still, the two knew that the keys would have formerly been able to unlock their old locks.
It could be a happy thing depending on your perspective. There was always the possibility that their lives would end without ever meeting.
Regardless, to me, the pair's much-too-late meeting felt like the world's cruelest tragedy.
I decided to accept the request. Like the client had said, the modeling of Substites after real people goes against the code of ethics used by Mimory engineers. If this breach came to light, my position would be in danger. But I didn't even care. I didn't have long left at any rate. And the chances of a more worthwhile job coming along in my short time left were nigh-zero. Besides, I felt an intimate connection with this old couple. As fellow former "girls without a boy," I wanted to do everything I could to save her.
I was stimulated, having my first request in some time I could get passionate about. For the two who should have met but didn't, I fabricated a past in which they did. In a way, it was a protest about how the world should be. Furthermore, it was revenge. An alternative solution showing how the two really should have been like this. An observation in hindsight that if it were up to me, I could've made better use of these two. In general, I wanted to point out the faults in this world. Through this action, I could indirectly, satisfyingly condemn this world that couldn't save me.
It suddenly occurred to me: maybe that client could be an image of my future self, from a world where I didn't become a Mimory engineer nor contract New Alzheimer's. I then laughed off that idea. The boundary between myself and others had been getting vague lately. My brain might be starting to wear away.
It was a fun job. I came up with a fated meeting, found the best solutions for the two out of possibilities that could have realistically happened, and saved the soul of my client in a parallel universe. Like I was leaping into the past with time travel and rewriting history.
One month later, the Mimories were complete. Even though it was my first attempt at "blending" two personal histories into one set of Mimories - or maybe because of that fact - it was the greatest work of my career as a Mimory engineer. I secretly gave the Mimories the name "Boy Meets Girl."
I had the finished Mimories written to nanobots without the involvement of my editor, mailed them off to the client (at this point, she was dying of a stroke, but I had no way of knowing that), then went to town and showered myself in beer. Though blackout drunk, I somehow made it home without vomiting, and while stumbling toward the bed to lie down, I bumped into my table and fell over. I'd hit my knee hard, so I groaned for a while. I couldn't muster the energy to stand up, so I closed my eyes and laid down on the floor.
It was an unquestionable masterpiece. Even supposing an ordinary person were given the same amount of time left to live, I was sure it would be impossible to create better Mimories. I had used up a once-in-a-lifetime miracle on this. If I had even a little talent, I'd probably used up all of that as well. I was completely rid of any desire to continue working.
I might be fine just dying right now, I thought. Taking my life right after I complete the greatest masterpiece of it. The ideal way for a creator to die is for the curtain to close on their life right at the peak of their career. Even a fast food chef has pride as a fast food chef. Whatever anyone says, I could find pride in this.
But how should I die? I wanted to avoid hanging, drowning, or gas if possible. Though I'd lost the memories of my asthma a while ago, my body still clearly pleaded "I don't want to feel suffocation even when I die." In that case, maybe I would jump off a building. Jumping in front of a train wouldn't be bad either. Did I care about causing people trouble? The jeers of the living can't reach the dead.
As I sat with my eyes closed thinking about it, all of a sudden, I felt this awful sensation like bugs were crawling over my body. I opened my eyes and looked around. The white walls and ceiling hurt my eyes, and swept away that black unease. I was scared of the dark lately. I guess I physiologically feared anything related to death. I told myself I was aware of it, but my body kept resisting. The fear of death would follow me to my last.
When I rolled over to clear my mind, I saw an envelope with a personal record on the floor. It had apparently fallen off the table when I bumped it earlier.
The photo beside the profile strangely caught my eye.
It was a young man. The same age as me, even his birthday was close to mine. It was rare for people this young to purchase Green Green. He went to a decent enough college, and his appearance wasn't bad either, so what could dissatisfy him about reality?
I reached out and picked up the personal record, flipped my body face-up, and read it. And just a few lines in, I felt like I'd been struck by lightning.
I finally found him.
Someone carrying the same despair as me.
Someone tormented by the same emptiness as me.
Someone possessed by the same fantasies as me.
Someone who I should've met at seven.
Chihiro Amagai. To me, he was the ultimate boy.
I decided within the day that I would create Boy Meets Girl for myself.
It didn't feel like creating a story. I was able to write it as if I were recalling the past. My ten fingers tapped on the keyboard like an automated writing machine. Naturally. I had been working on that fiction from a young age. A patchwork quilt of all the pieces I liked from every story and poem and song I'd witnessed. Even if the surface-level thoughts were gone, these things were etched deep in my soul in the form of preferences. I could just look there and transcribe.
The Mimories I created this way were, however, much clumsier than those I'd made before. Not because New Alzheimer's had finally destroyed my abilities as a Mimory engineer. The simple reason was that these were Mimories for none other than myself.
Come to think of it, a crucial element for creating superb Mimories was having a level-headed perspective of the client. Needless to say, it was important to empathize with the client, but on the other hand, the client who was the protagonist of the Mimories had to be someone with no connection to me. Why? Because people can't think calmly about themselves. Should the Mimory engineer become the client, the force of their imagination vanishes in a moment, and the world they create assumes a boring, pre-established harmony. As such, empathy has to come from the other shore. I broke all of those taboos.
Regardless, I completed Boy Meets Girl. Though imperfect in form, they were Mimories containing a pure prayer. If this work were to have a wide release, I'm sure no one would praise it. Too much wish fulfillment, too conceited, too childish, they'd complain. But that, I thought, was fine. I don't care if others don't give it recognition. Because this is a story for me.
I didn't make just one dose of Boy Meets Girl. There was not only the one from Chihiro Amagai's perspective, but one from Touka Natsunagi's (one consonant different from my real surname "Matsunagi" - truly, the allusion to "summer" gave it a heroine-like air), both made in tandem, to be implanted in each of our brains.
Mimories were said to have a degree of resistance against the forgetting caused by New Alzheimer's. So by doing this, even in the final stages of the disease when all my own memories were erased, the Mimories of "Touka Natsunagi" would stick around for a while.
Then, I would become the real Touka Natsunagi.
Toward the beginning, I didn't intend to do anything beyond secretly sprinkle a trace of myself in the Green Green Chihiro Amagai had ordered. Even if we didn't have a real connection, I wanted someone in this world to be thinking of me. I probably could've died peacefully just knowing that much.
However, people's greed knows no end. As I thought about him offering up prayers for me in a distant town, a small flame lit in my dead heart. Just like I was seeking him, maybe he was seeking me? And not only in memories; maybe he was seeking a relationship with me in real life? Those hopes quietly swelled in my chest.
And so at the end of May, on a starry, comfy night, I devised the Childhood Friend Plan.
I would make these lies into truths.
I would meet Chihiro Amagai as Touka Natsunagi, and fulfill years' worth of dreams.
I would dedicate everything I had left to die as a beloved girl.
That's what I set my heart on.
Of course, there would be many difficulties in the execution. Chihiro Amagai knew that the days he spent with Touka Natsunagi were artificial. If I wanted to create the illusion that his Mimories were real, I had to perfectly play the part of the Substite Touka Natsunagi. I had to make him crave the existence of Touka Natsunagi enough to personally rewrite his own memories. My chances of success were extremely low.
Even so, I thought it was worth giving it a shot. I think I have the right to that. So I chose to bet on that miracle.
The one-sided Childhood Friend Plan that swallowed up a total stranger's life began like so. The first thing I decided was to make our meeting be in summer. I wanted to actually create the fateful meeting I'd imagined happening in my hometown. I also considered that establishing a "preparation period" would make Touka Natsunagi have a bigger presence within Chihiro Amagai.
There were still about two months to go until summer. I couldn't waste a single second of the time I had left. I told the clinic about my disease and sent in a resignation, and once I was done with all the paperwork, I resumed my initiative from last summer. More thorough than before, and with clearer intent than before. To get if only a little closer to his ideal. So that he would see me as the "heroine." So that before I died, if only for a little bit, I could have a wonderful love.
Early in planning, I considered a meeting at the end of the rainy season, but I wanted everything to be perfect before I met him, so I pushed the plans back a week, two weeks. I knew it would all be for naught if I died before the main event, but maybe because of my renewed zest, the progression of New Alzheimer's temporarily slowed.
Not long after I quit, I heard that the clinic went bankrupt. Apparently it was some bad luck involving failed capital investments or something. It unintentionally came off as if I had jumped from a sinking ship (but that clinic had always felt like all it had was me, so it wasn't impossible to claim I dealt the finishing blow). This was advantageous to me. Now if Chihiro Amagai had any doubts about his Mimories, the place to turn to for questions would be shut down. Medical records are obligated to be preserved for several years, so it wasn't impossible for him to request to see them, but he would have to go through a troublesome process to do so. It would at least delay him in finding the truth. I did feel a slight worry about the coworker who once kindly invited me to go drinking, though.
By the end of July, my mind and body had achieved the standard I sought. Thinking back, in my teens, I was so focused on work that I neglecting eating, exercise, and sleep, so I looked more aged than I should have. My eyes were bloodshot, my lips dry, my limbs like a skeleton. Those were fun times for what they were, so I didn't care to reject the way I lived then. I did have thoughts about how if I had been born with this sort of appearance from the start, I might have had a happier life. But if things were like that, I probably wouldn't have become a Mimory engineer, and wouldn't be able to find the one and only ultimate boy in this whole wide world.
So I wouldn't curse my fate.
The day after I completed my move while Chihiro Amagai was out at work, I put on a yukata and went out into town. I had never worn a yukata until age 20, so I wanted to get accustomed to it quickly.
I chose a yukata and hair ornaments exactly like the girl I saw when visiting home. A deep blue texture with a simple fireworks pattern, and small red chrysanthemums. I wasn't actually going out to meet anyone, but I even neatly did up my hair. Because that's what I felt "Touka Natsunagi" would do. Given that she was a girl always accompanied by a boy, whom she allowed to see all of her.
Some time after getting on the train, I realized there were many other women wearing yukatas around me. So evidently there was a festival nearby. I got off the train at their stop and followed after the yukata group. As I struggled to walk in my geta sandals, I remarked how this was like a repeat of that day last year. But there was one crucial difference this year. The person I was hoping to see here wasn't an illusion.
It was a large festival. The whole town was overflowing with energy, carrying a feverish heat. Colorful lanterns and banners gaudied up the street, and the crowds of people wriggled through like a giant lifeform with its own will. Countless taiko drums roared like thunder, blowing out even the buzzing of cicadas. A portable shrine proceeded along the street, shaking in tandem with the shouts of the carriers wearing happi coats and headbands.
The dizzying heat forced me to stop and stand still. This kind of rough activity was a little too stimulating for me now.
Even so, I didn't turn my back to this summer madness. I parted through the congestion and kept moving forward without slowing pace. As if someone was certainly waiting for me beyond it all.
Soon, as if something had led me there, I arrived at the shrine. I knew that I would from the start.
If fated reunions exist, I thought again.
Wouldn't this be the most fitting stage for one?
Much like that prior day, I wandered around the premises. In search of Chihiro Amagai, who would surely be guided by his Mimories to arrive at the shrine like me.
And the two of us who had never met reunited. We passed each other at first, but after walking a few steps, turned around, and clearly acknowledged one another.
That night, the gears of my world finally started to mesh together.
My biggest miscalculation was Chihiro Amagai's overpowering allergy to fiction. Raised by a textbook dysfunctional family, he vehemently despised Mimories for that reason, and as a consequence. That hatred was ever so slightly greater than his desire to seek the ultimate girl that lurked within him. No matter how favorable a situation was presented to him, if it contained even a tiny portion of fiction, he would reject it.
I should have easily been able to determine that from reading his personal record. And yet, I overlooked it. Though I read over Chihiro Amagai's life enough to recite it from memory, I passed right in front of that fundamental thing. I saw only the similarities between his life and mine, and behaved as if the parts that I needed to comprehend most didn't exist.
But maybe I couldn't blame myself for it. With the end approaching second by second, it's absurd to think I could make calm judgements. I didn't have the time to think about any inconvenient facts. And besides, love makes people blind.
If I had known that his order being Green Green was just the counselor's hasty conclusion, and what he'd actually ordered was Lethe, events would have surely unfolded differently. But by the time the clinic obtained that information, I had long since sent in my resignation and left the workplace. And of course I wouldn't consider that the kind of person who wanted Green Green hated fiction. I decided that he must be like me, a childhood-craving zombie who wanted to reclaim those years he'd lost from the start.
Despite this, even if Chihiro Amagai was just
a person who hated lies, maybe there would still be a way to deal with that. What further complicated the issue was that he was also the type to become more suspicious the more ideal the situation was. A normal person will more or less interpret things in a way that's convenient to them, but he was the polar opposite. Whatever you put in front of him, he would immediately assume the worst and refuse to look at it. (This too was a trend I should have figured out from his personal record.)
Chihiro Amagai loved me in my role as "Touka Natsunagi." There's no mistake there. But at the same time, he stubbornly refused to admit those feelings. Or maybe, while he did admit those feelings, he dismissed them as a temporary delusion. To him, hope was just a kind of despair, so he thoroughly eradicated it to preserve a mental equilibrium. Before it was even a question of believing my story or not believing it, he was distrustful of happiness itself. The same way I hadn't even been able to feel loneliness before my disease, he couldn't even have happy dreams.
Thinking it through, I feel like I would have the same response if I were in his shoes. Something so convenient couldn't be happening to me. I shouldn't be able to be this happy. Which must mean there's something behind this. I'm sure this person, after showing me dreams for just a moment, is going to take that opportunity to push me down into hell. I definitely can't let my guard down.
When I returned to my room every night, I held my head in my hands. How can I possibly break through this troublesome, double-layered defense? How can I make him believe in both lies and happiness? I would just have to tediously take the time to build up trust after all, I suppose. But I didn't have that kind of time. Judging from the progression of my disease in the last few months, I would probably lose everything alongside the end of this summer. Not only my memories, but also my life.
Maybe I had gone a little overboard. From the moment I conceived of the plan, maybe I shouldn't have put in all the effort to become a pretty girl and just gone to meet him, looking as shameful as I was. Maybe I should have disappointed him from the outset, with a "Touka Natsunagi" who had changed for the worse in those five years. Then, at least, he surely wouldn't have been this wary. Instead, maybe I'd earn a sense of closeness, and maybe even secure two more months to build trust.
I had the simple conception that by acting as the childhood friend he wanted, he would eventually become the childhood friend I wanted. However... it took me too long to realize that in terms of The North Wind and the Sun, I was referencing the North Wind's strategy.
But I couldn't take it back now. You can't rewind time.
So what should I do?
When he threw away my cooking in front of me, I strangely didn't feel any anger. This must be my punishment, I thought. I wished for a happiness that was beyond me, used my position as a Mimory engineer to stomp around in a stranger's memories, and destroyed his peace, so this was what I deserved.
I had been wrong about everything from the start. I shouldn't have appeared anywhere outside of fiction. I shouldn't have sought a connection with someone else. I should have been content being alone as the ruler of a self-sufficient sandbox. If I'd just done that, I wouldn't trouble or hurt anyone.
I could easily tell from his expression that it wasn't feelings deep in his heart that made Chihiro Amagai do such things. He just had to overcome the idea of "Touka Natsunagi" to protect his world. His voice trembled with a deep unrest as he threw out my meal and thrust the plate in my direction. It seemed the sword he swung down to hurt me bounced back and hurt him as well.
But at any rate, this was the time to pull back. His treatment had dealt unrecoverable damage to my heart. I couldn't muster the will to keep up the act anymore. I didn't feel like I could bear another second of the animosity he felt toward me.
Still, I wrung out the last of my energy to keep behaving as "Touka Natsunagi" until I left his room. And once back in mine, I buried my face in my pillow and cried inaudibly.
In the end, nothing about me can be satisfied, I thought. All I got for my blood, sweat, and tears was the sadness of rejection by the one I loved most. And of course, that's something I'd rather have died not knowing.
I gave up on meeting with him anymore, not taking a step outside my room. I didn't fantasize anymore, and no plans circled my mind. I played records at a low volume, and just watched the rain. After the last drop of hope had been squeezed out of me, I was strangely at peace. I had nothing left to expect from my last days, so nothing more could disturb my heart. With a comfortable fatigue like riding the train home from a long trip, I awaited judgement day.
My journey was going to end soon.
I found a dead cicada on my veranda a week later.
The sound of wind woke me up that day. A typhoon seemed to be passing very close. I stood at the window and watched the town as it was devastated by the storm. The fierce winds shook the roadside trees just up to the point of snapping. Signs outside stores were knocked over, flowerbeds scattered, trash cans next to vending machines flipped over. It almost felt like someone was trying to reshuffle the world with those acts of destruction. I glanced over every inch of the scene from above, then discovered a small dead cicada on the floor of the veranda.
The messenger of summer's end had politely perished right in the middle of my veranda. Had it purposefully jumped down from a thicket and chosen this place to die? Or had it been caught up in the strong winds, lost control, and made an emergency landing here? And while waiting for the wind to settle, had its lifespan run out, its purpose unfulfilled?
Attempting to interpret the message it imparted, I stared at the corpse. August was already half over. This typhoon had probably killed off a number of cicadas. Which would be extinguished first, the crying of the cicadas or my life? I wanted to die while I still heard their annoying buzz, if possible. That would at least distract from my loneliness a little.
That's when I suddenly realized.
There was no need to patiently wait for a death to be handed down to me.
If I couldn't bear to wait, then I could go meet it.
In fact, I had made that same decision once before a few months ago. Resolving to end my life after the completion of my greatest masterwork, but having a sudden change of plans after finding Chihiro Amagai's personal record. If I hadn't found that, one would assume I would've killed myself then and there.
I considered that option once again. Even if I kept living, there was nothing more I could do. Everything I did just backfired on me anyway, so it was futile to try and enjoy the rest of my life. It was better to put a period on it quickly. Before I lost this lull in my heart.
I left my room for the first time in a week. When I opened the door and felt the wind directly, a warning was quietly issued somewhere in my body. The back of my throat faintly ached. Likely remnants of my time with asthma. My body still remembered how I would have attacks whenever a typhoon came along.
I put up an umbrella and walked into the rain. The powerful winds might break it before long, but I didn't care if they did. Because I didn't have to worry about coming home today.
My destination was set from the start. To begin with, there were only so many places nearby you could jump into or jump from. And faced with the choice, I felt it was more suitable for me to jump and fall from a high place rather than jump in front of a train. I'd heard that if you wanted to reliably die from jumping, you needed a height of over 40 meters. So inevitably, the large apartment complex by the highway, about 30 minutes from mine, was the only place that satisfied the conditions.
I headed there.
It was an old apartment complex, so there was just a poor excuse for a fence on the emergency stairs, one which even I could easily clear despite my relatively small size. I didn't see any security cameras, and even if I was found, it wouldn't take me more than five minutes to finish up here. Hardly anyone was walking around because of the typhoon, so no one spotted me hopping over the fence.
I went up the concrete stairs, firmly putting my feet on each step. They must not have been cleaned in a long time, as a light moss was growing on the stairs, which turned slimy from the rain. I would have preferred a sunny day to jump, but my determination might have faltered if I waited for the weather to clear. And if I saw my first blue sky in a week, the quiet resignation brought about by the long rain might've been blown away. So today was most ideal.
After climbing to floor 15, I bent over and caught my breath. Compared to the lower floors, those near the top were clean and free of moss or mildew. When my panting ceased and the burning sensation in my body withdrew, I grabbed the railing on the emergency stairs. As I put force into my arm to try and lift my body up, I caught sight of something at my feet.
I leaned down and picked it up. It was a firework. A single firework you could hold and light, like they sell at convenience stories and supermarkets. A child living in the apartments was probably playing here in secret and left it behind.
I leaned on the wall and brought the firework near my face, smelling the gunpowder like you would smell a flower.
Touka. That was my name. A fitting name for me, who was born in July; meaning "lit flower" in Japanese, it was bound to bring to mind fireworks that bloomed in the sky.
However, no one had ever properly called me that name. My parents only ever referred to me as "you," and my classmates and coworkers called me by my last name. Whenever anyone spoke my first name, it always came alongside my family name "Matsunagi." That's why I had "him" in my Mimories frequently use my first name. However, the real Chihiro Amagai had only used that name for me a single time. The first time we exchanged words, he whispered it in a doubting voice. That was all. That hardly even counted.
Maybe that name suggested my fate. Like a firework, my life would just have a brief sparkle, then fleetingly burn out and turn to ash. A launched firework, at the height of its ascent, would burst into a red flower in the night sky; yet just like my name was an inversion of the word for "firework," I would, at the bottom of my fall, burst into a red flower on the ground.
I found myself laughing at the ironic coincidence. It had been an awfully long time since I last laughed outside of an act. So it made me feel a little better.
I noticed the wind was starting to die down. I leaned on the guardrail, snapped the handheld firework, and dropped it. The firework obeyed gravity and fell, and landed soundlessly on the asphalt.
Now it was Touka's turn.
I went barefoot, neatly arranged my shoes, then closed my eyes, put my left hand to my chest, and took a deep breath. Then lastly, I apologized to Chihiro Amagai in my heart. I'm sorry for getting you wrapped up in my self-centered plan.
It couldn't have been any more than ten seconds I spent looking at the firework and thinking. In the long span of a human life, ten seconds is a minuscule margin of error. I'd never heard anyone claim everything would be different if they'd lived just ten seconds longer.
Regardless, this time, those ten seconds greatly changed my fate.
Maybe that firework had fallen from the apartment in my place, buying me those ten seconds. Like a favor between comrades.
That's how I came to think quite some time later.
As I was climbing over the guardrail, there was an electronic noise.
At first, I thought it was some kind of alarm sound. Maybe I just now set off the sensor for an intruder alarm, or someone saw me and called it in. But the sound was coming from my pocket. I took out my phone, and when I saw the name on screen, my head went blank.
I wiped my rain-soaked eyelids and checked again. Chihiro Amagai.
No mistake. It was a call from him.
I fell into a deep confusion. Why was he calling me now? Don't tell me that at this point, he was now willing to believe my lies? Or maybe he'd finally figured out who I was, and had made preparations to condemn me? Both seemed equally inconceivable. Whether he believed my lies or saw through them, he wasn't the kind of person to make a call himself. He was as passive as possible, so as long as I didn't make a move, he would be content with his personal truth. Coming to apologize or coming to question me didn't fit his character.
After a few seconds of stopped thoughts, I came back to my senses. At any rate, I had to answer the call. I tried to press the accept-call button with a quivering finger. Just then, the phone slipped out of my hand wet with rain and sweat, and danced through the air. I nearly grabbed it back, but it bounced out of my palm, and while it momentarily seemed to freeze in midair, it then immediately fell cruelly down a 15-story distance. I put my shoes back on and ran down the stairs as if jumping down, hopped over the fence, and grabbed my phone, panting. The screen had cracked into pieces, and the power button naturally did nothing.
I need to make sure, I thought. Until I know why he tried to call me, I can't die.
I was lucky enough to quickly catch a taxi in this rural town. I told the driver my destination, and he wordlessly drove. The roads were empty, and I arrived at the apartment in just a matter of minutes. I declined taking the change and got out of the car, then raced up the stairs to the second floor.
And there, I witnessed an unbelievable sight.
Chihiro Amagai was standing in front of my room, pounding on the door, calling my name.
He wasn't wearing shoes, and I could tell he had barged out of his room in a hurry.
He must have been there a long time, as he was wet all over with rain.
After a few beats, I understood what was going on.
He had mistakenly thought I had an asthma attack because of the typhoon.
He was convinced I was doubled over in my room, unable to move.
And he was trying to save me.
...What a fool.
A laugh naturally came out.
I sat on the stairs out of his sight, and listened to the sound of him banging on my door behind me.
Then, I reflected upon the sound of that word I'd heard a moment ago.
I soaked my body in the reverberation of a happy illusion.
Something warm welled up from my chest, and sent tears down my cheek before I knew it.
My vision blurred, and the summer scenery became runny.
He called me my first name.
By now, that alone was enough.
The sound of knocking stopped. I quietly poked out my face to check on Chihiro.
He was leaning on the wall by the door, smoking a cigarette with an absentminded expression.
The wind had stopped, and a ray of light shone through the clouds and lit his face.
I sniffed up my snot, wiped my tears, and stood up.
Then I put on a special smile and stealthily approached him.
I'll keep trying for just a little longer, I thought.
Chapter 11: Your Story
A large envelope arrived to me at the end of September. Inside was Touka's personal record, and a short letter from her.
I looked over the letter first, then read the personal record. The letter was simple: a confession that she had New Alzheimer's, and an apology for using Mimories to try and deceive me. In comparison, the volume of the personal record was massive, and it took me four hours to read.
Forgetting about eating or sleeping, I read it over and over. Apparently, when she was a Mimory engineer, she read the personal records of her clients so much as to commit them to memory.
All the answers were in there. This personal record seemed to have been written when Touka was 18, so I could only guess at what circumstances led to her devising the Childhood Friend Plan, but now that I knew all this about her life, it wasn't a hard guess.
Sensing destiny in the fact she received a personal record from the client Chihiro Amagai, she created Mimories based on the theory of "what if we had met at age seven?", planting them in both our brains to save each other in our memory. Not only that, to make that lie a reality, she played the part of the childhood friend for me.
She chose to live the time she had left as "Touka Natsunagi."
That was probably the truth of it.
What a fool, I thought. She could've just handed this personal record to me and told me "we were fated to meet," and that would do. If I'd been shown her personal record from the start, I would be able to let go and love her. We would've been the ultimate pair from the beginning, without having to lean on false memories.
It saddened me to think that she could only believe in the power of falsehood to the very end. I lamented her carelessness, being so set on chasing after a vague happiness blown up like a bubble that she overlooked the certain happiness in front of her.
And more than anything, I cursed myself for being so afraid of being hurt that I didn't notice her distress signal.
I'd done something there was no taking back.
Only I could have saved Touka, I'm sure. I could understand her loneliness 100%. I could understand her despair 100%. I could understand her fear 100%.
Yes, the reason I continued to not take the Lethe was because I'd learned the fear of losing memories after taking the fake Lethe. That bottomless fear of losing who I was, the world falling out from under me.
She was battling that the whole time. No one to rely on, no one understanding her, no one consoling her; while she fought all on her own, as if praying for it, she kept waiting for me to have a change of heart.
I suppose I should have let Touka trick me. Like that man Okano who encountered a scammer and got sold an expensive painting, yet continued to believe in the existenceof his classmate Ikeda, I should have simply interpreted everything in a way that convenienced me. Then I could have danced happily in her palm.
Or if not that, I should have thoroughly looked into Mimories, like Emori. If I'd done that, maybe I'd eventually stumble upon that interview with Touka. Even if I didn't find that particular article, if I'd simply known that teenage Mimory engineers existed, it was possible I could've independently reached the truth that she was the creator of my Green Green. Then, maybe, I could have eased her loneliness, despair, and fear just a little bit.
However, I went with the worst option. I refused to believe her words, and yet didn't actively work to resolve my doubts either, leaving the mystery to be a mystery after only a cursory investigation. Why? Because while I was afraid of being tricked by her, on the other hand, I didn't want to wake up from the dream either. For as long as possible, I wanted to preserve a "perhaps" in the space between trust and distrust. I wanted to feign ignorance and accept Touka's affection from a safe place where it couldn't hurt me.
And then she forgot everything. She became unable to remember anything but the past few days, so even the short summer break we spent together had vanished without a trace. When she looked at my face, she didn't seem to know who I was.
The stare Touka gave me when we reunited in the apartment hallway reminded me of the stare my mother, who erased the memories of her family using Lethe, gave me when I saw her again. When I asked if she remembered me, she apologetically shook her head.
I didn't even ask myself "what's going on here?"
I just thought, ah, I've been forgotten by someone dear to me again.
Touka left her room carrying a big bag. I guessed she had come back to prepare for her hospitalization. I watched her go from the veranda. I wanted to chase after her and talk, but my legs wouldn't move. I wasn't confident I could keep my sanity if she gave me that indifferent stare again.
In less than two months, she would probably forget how to walk. She'd forget how to get meals. She'd forget how to move her body. She'd forget how to use her mouth. She'd forget how to breathe. Beyond that lay an unavoidable death.
As much as I wanted to apologize, the one for me to apologize to was no longer in this world. So I at least wanted to dedicate everything I had left to Touka. I vowed it in my heart. Not only this summer; I would use the rest of my life for her sake. Even after she left this world, forever.
I wanted to go meet Touka as soon as possible, but there were a few things I had to do first. I went to a salon and had my overgrown hair cut, then went into town and bought a few new clothes. I chose quality hair and clothes that would make her think of the "Chihiro Amagai" in her Mimories. Back at the apartment, I took a shower and put on the clothes I just bought, then I was finally ready.
Standing in front of the mirror, I looked over my face. I couldn't remember the last time I seriously looked at myself in a mirror, but I felt there was less stiffness in my expression than before. Of course, Touka was probably to thank.
I got on the bus and headed for the hospital I suspected she was at. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but the oppressive heat had left some time ago, so it was comfortable inside the bus. The level of green visible from the window gradually increased, the bus went around hilly roads by the dam and through a short tunnel, then stopped in front of a small sunflower field. I paid the fare and got off the bus.
Once the bus left, the area was enveloped in silence. I stood there and looked around at my surroundings. The land was surrounded by a dense thicket, with decrepit homes spotted around. The cool air was mixed with a smell of wet dirt.
The hospital was on the opposite shore from the park we repeatedly visited on our bike rides together. There was no guarantee Touka was here. It's just that if she was, it would explain her excessive curiosity about that hospital.
When I stood outside and casually looked up to the second floor, I saw someone standing at the window.
I focused my eyes on that person's face.
It was my childhood friend.
Let's do good this time, I thought.
The hospital room carried a thick smell of death. Not like the smell of a corpse, or even of incense. There was something there that made you feel there was a smell of death. Maybe you could say it lacked a sensation that should always exist in a place with living humans.
Touka was there. It hadn't even been a week since we last met, but she seemed a little skinnier. Or perhaps the shadow of death in the room just made it look that way.
She stood at the window, watching the scenery outside like always. She wore not her usual plain white pajamas, but a faded blue hospital gown. Maybe because it wasn't the right size, the sleeves were folded back. The blue notebook she held in her arm was probably a means for her to externally store memory. That told me how far the disease had progressed. Nothing was written on the front cover, and a cheap ball pen was held within it.
I stopped at the door to Touka's room and looked at her absentmindedly for a long time. She seemed to be finding peace in her hospital room, enjoying relaxation in that dreary place. It felt like the room itself also naturally accepted the presence of Touka.
That sense of harmony gave me a strong gut feeling that she might never leave this place again. And it was probably true. If there was any opportunity left for her to leave this hospital room, it would be after she had become "something that was once her." I couldn't bear to think about it.
Touka would soon be meeting a second death.
I was unable to speak to her. I didn't have the courage to break the intimate connection between her and the hospital room. Besides, I wanted to watch her from a slight distance like this as long as I could. Because this was the first time I'd seen her when she was alone.
Finally, Touka slowly turned around and noticed the presence of her guest. She tilted her head, brushed the hair from her cheek, and stared at my face. Then she said my name in a hoarse voice.
It's not like she still had the memories. She just found a few common points between me and the "Chihiro Amagai" in her Mimories, and made a natural guess from there. The same way I had reflexively spoken her name the first time we looked at each other up close. The overlap with certain episodes in the Mimories probably also aided her imagination.
I spoke her name very naturally. It was so gentle, I didn't think it came out of my throat. It seemed I didn't need to intentionally act it; I had fully become "Chihiro Amagai."
I'd become Touka Natsunagi's "hero."
Touka looked me over like she was seeing something unbelievable. As if to say "this shouldn't be happening, it must be some kind of mistake." She looked around the room as if looking for a camera crew. But it was just us there.
She asked me, looking terribly confused.
"Who... are you?"
"Chihiro Amagai. Your childhood friend."
I took a stool from a stack in the corner of the room and placed it by the bed, then sat. But Touka didn't move away from the window. With the bed between us, she gave me a wary stare.
"I don't have a childhood friend," she said at length.
"Then how do you know my name? You just called me "Chihiro," right?"
Touka quickly shook her head a few times, put her left hand to her chest, and took a deep breath. Then she spoke as if to convince herself.
"Chihiro Amagai is a Substite. A fictional person who only exists in my head. I've lost my memories down to the roots due to my New Alzheimer's disease. All that's left in me are false memories. It's true that I remember the name Chihiro Amagai, but that in itself signifies that Chihiro Amagai doesn't exist. Because it's forbidden for Substites to be modeled after real people." After saying all this in one go, she threw another question at me. "I'll ask again. Who are you?"
It must have been true that New Alzheimer's only took recollections. She still naturally retained her knowledge about the nature of Mimories - as well as her powers of reasoning.
Of course, I'd anticipated this happening. I briefly considered coming up with some suitable reasoning to fool her. But I reconsidered.
I wanted to try this again from the start, with the same method she used.
I wanted to carry on her Childhood Friend Plan exactly as-is, and prove that her idea wasn't wrong.
"I'm your childhood friend, Chihiro Amagai," I repeated.
She silently glared at me. Like a stray cat judging its distance from someone.
"If you can't believe me, you don't have to. Just remember this." I borrowed her words from before she lost her memory. "I'm on your side, Touka. No matter what."
After thinking it over all night, it appeared Touka reached the same conclusion I once had.
"My theory is that you're a scammer after my inheritance."
That's what she told me as soon as she saw my face the next day.
I dared not to deny it, and asked what thought process brought her to that conclusion.
"I asked my caretaker, and apparently, I'm fairly rich. You intend to lure me into a trap once I've lost my memories and don't know what's going on, don't you?"
I couldn't help but bitterly chuckle. This must be how Touka felt when she was trying to deceive me.
"What's so funny?" Her cheeks reddened as she glared at me.
"Oh, I just remembered something and got nostalgic."
"Don't try to fool me. Can you prove that you're not a scammer?"
"I can't," I replied honestly. "But if I was after your inheritance like you say, why would I want to act as the Substite Chihiro Amagai himself? I think acting as someone very similar to Chihiro Amagai would be much better at getting into your heart."
She gave some thought to my counter-argument for a while. Then she spoke coldly.
"That's not necessarily true. You might have been under the impression I was already losing the distinction between Mimories and memories. Most people have no idea that Mimories are resistant to being forgotten by New Alzheimer's, after all. Or maybe you thought my mind was so weakened, I didn't even care about the difference between truth and lies."
"Or maybe I was putting too much faith in the influence Mimories held," I appended before she could. "Or else, maybe there was a reason I had to act as your childhood friend himself."
"Don't think you can throw me off track like that. At any rate, the human Chihiro Amagai doesn't exist."
"I'm guessing just showing you my license or insurance card won't convince you?"
"Right. That sort of thing could always be faked. Besides, even if you were Chihiro Amagai himself, that's not proof that you were my childhood friend. These Mimories themselves might have been created to entrap me."
I sighed. I really was being shown my former self.
"Also, that's right, we can't dismiss the theory that you're doing this for the fun of it. There are people in this world who love to play with others' hearts and laugh in the shadows."
"You're just so pessimistic. You can't even consider that the boy you saved long ago is now trying to return the favor?"
She resolutely shook her head. "I can't imagine I have that kind of popularity. I was told how long I have left to live, yet not a single family member, friend, or coworker has come to visit me. I must have lived a lonely and meaningless life. The total lack of any albums or diaries proves that my past isn't worth remembering. Maybe it will be for the best that I lose all my memories before I die."
"True, your past might have been lonely," I acknowledged. "But it certainly wasn't meaningless. That's why I'm here. Because you're my "heroine," and I'm your "hero.""
"...How stupid is that?"
We had several similar exchanges after that.
"I can't imagine you could understand one bit," Touka said, her voice quivering slightly, "but even if they're fiction, my memories of Chihiro Amagai are my only foundation. It's no exaggeration to say they're my entire world. And you're sullying that holy name. You're posing as him to attract my affection, but it's having the opposite effect. I despise you for assuming the identity of Chihiro Amagai."
"Right. Those memories are more important than anything to you." I used her words against her. "You won't consider that's why they miraculously avoided being forgotten?"
"I will not. If only important memories could remain, there would be at least a few cases of that recognized. And there must be people with New Alzheimer's who have more wonderful memories than me."
"But no one's as attached to memories of a single person as you. Am I wrong?"
The few seconds of silence eloquently told me of the trembling in her heart.
Still, she spoke obstinately.
"Whatever you say, these memories must be Mimories. It's too good as a story to be true. Each and every memory is too comfortable. The feeling that they were written just to answer my desires comes through clear as day. These are certainly Mimories written based on my personal record. I must have thought that despite the dark life I'd led, I'd at least find salvation in fiction."
As I was about to speak my next counter-argument, a music box tune began to play to mark the end of the meeting period.
Our conversation halted as we listened to the song.
There was no room for doubt that she and I were thinking the same thing.
"This really is a kind of curse," I laughed.
Touka ignored me, but I didn't overlook the fact that her stiff expression had loosened a little bit.
"I'll be leaving now. Sorry to bother you. See you tomorrow."
As I stood up and turned around, she spoke.
"Goodbye, Mr. Scammer."
She used a blunt tone, but I didn't sense any animosity.
I turned back, told her "I'll come earlier tomorrow," and left the room behind.
For the next few days, Touka continued calling me "Mr. Scammer." Whatever I tried to say, she could only perceive it as a scammer's cajolery, and even ironically quipped "You did a good job again today."
But I soon saw through to the fact it was an act. A far quicker thinker than myself, she realized much earlier on that there was no merit in me behaving like her childhood friend. As well as the fact that I was showing her legitimate affection.
It seemed Touka wasn't afraid of being tricked by me, but of becoming close to me at all. She acted indifferent likely because she drew a line in our relationship. When her guard weakened and she found herself about to act affectionately, she would double down on treating me as a scammer to widen the distance between us and keep self-control.
I could understand how she felt. It was certain that she would soon vacate this world, so she wanted as little luggage as possible. Now, she had the same definition for "things I'm about to gain" and "things I'm about to lose." The higher the value of life, the greater the threat of death. She wanted to keep her value of life at zero, so that when she gave up the ghost, she would also have chosen the right time to give up.
That said, she hadn't seemed to reach such a deep resignation as to completely cast me away, so she was obviously happy when I showed up to her hospital room, and obviously lonely when I left. Even the one time I was so overcome with emotion that I hugged her tight, she showed no resistance at all, and when I moved away from her, she was biting her lip with reluctance. Occasionally she'd slip and call me Chihiro, though was always quick to append "...imitator, Mr. Scammer."
To spend as much time with her as I could, I requested a leave of absence from school, and quit my job. While not at the hospital, I was reading documents about New Alzheimer's, searching for ways to extend her life even though I knew it was meaningless. Of course, those efforts all ended in vain.
Touka's face clouded when I asked her why she didn't listen to music in the hospital room.
"I didn't bring any here. All of the music I had was records. Since I'd only be able to bring some of it anyway, I chose to leave it all behind..."
"Do you regret it now?"
"Just a little bit," she nodded. "It's nice and quiet in this room during the day, but a little too quiet at night."
"I thought as much."
I took a portable music player out of my pocket and handed it to her.
"I put all of the songs you liked on here."
Touka nervously took it from my hand. She touched the screen to figure out how it worked, then put in earbuds and pressed play.
For a while after that, she listened to music. Her expression didn't change, but the slight sway of her body told me she was enjoying it. It seemed like I'd pleased her.
I thought I'd leave my seat for a bit so I didn't bother her. As I quietly got up from the seat, her head snapped up. She swiftly took out the earbuds and went "Um..."
"...Where are you going?"
I told her I was thinking of having a smoke, and she sighed "I see," then put the earbuds back in, returning to the flood of sound.
I went along with my impromptu lie and smoked in a smoking room outside the building. After just three puffs, I put it out, leaned on the wall, closed my eyes, thought back on Touka trying to keep me from leaving, and let my heart quietly shiver.
Whatever the reason for it was, she still wanted me now. That made me incredibly happy.
When I visited the next day, Touka was still deeply engrossed in music. Her hands were on her ears, her eyes happily narrowed like a cat relaxing in sunlight, and she had just the slightest smile on her lips.
When I spoke to her, she took out the earbuds and greeted me with a friendly "Hello, Mr. Scammer."
"I listened to all the music on it."
"All of it?", I repeated. "I thought the total time of all the tracks was over 10 hours..."
"Yes. That's why I haven't slept since yesterday."
She covered her mouth and yawned, then wiped her eyes with her index fingers.
"Every single song was perfect for me. I was just starting my second loop."
I laughed. "I'm glad it made you happy, but you should get some sleep."
But she didn't seem to hear me. She sat up in bed, showed me the music player's display, and spoke with a dizzy face. "I've listened to this one over ten times already..."
She remembered something and clapped her hands, then put one earbud in her ear, and offered the other to me.
"Let's listen to them together, Chihiro."
She'd completely forgotten to call me Mr. Scammer. But it was only reasonable that would happen. Her memories wiped, she got to listen to the playlist she'd built over her entire life for the first time. There could be no greater luxury for people who love music. (And while it's possible New Alzheimer's didn't make you forget music, it probably made you forget your connection with that music.)
I sat on the bed with her and put the other earbud in my right ear. She switched the player to monaural mode and pressed play.
Old songs I'd listened to with her many times during our summer break began to play.
During the third song, Touka's eyelids began to droop. After making a pendular motion like a metronome for a bit, she leaned her weight on me and fell asleep in my lap. I probably should have laid her down on the bed, but I couldn't move from that position. I carefully reached over and lowered the volume on the player, and I gazed tirelessly at her face.
Suddenly, I had the casual thought that I was going to lose this person.
I still couldn't fully grasp what that meant for me. The same way you don't know what the end of the world means for you. The tragedy was just so massive, it was effectively impossible to measure it with my ruler.
In any event, right now I shouldn't be clouded by grief or cursing fate. I should put all that off for now, and just think about how to enrichen the time Touka and I spent together. If I wanted to despair, I could do that after it was all over. Because I would surely have far more time for that than I knew what to do with.
After a nap, Touka finally regained her composure. She apologized for falling asleep in my lap, then stared at my face, and sighed deeply with resignation.
"Mr. Scammer, you really know just how to make me happy. I hate it."
I silently lamented the return of "Mr. Scammer."
"I'm sort of exhausted," she said listlessly, and collapsed face-up on the bed. "Hey, Mr. Scammer. If you tell me the truth right now, I'll give you all my inheritance. I don't have anyone else to leave it to, at any rate."
"Then I'll tell the truth. I'm hopelessly in love with you, Touka."
"I'm not lying. You must be aware of it too, right?"
She rolled over, putting her back to me.
"...What's so appealing about a girl as empty as me?"
"You have bad taste."
I could tell from her tone that she was smiling.
Touka slowly but surely began to smile for me. She came to prepare a seat for me, called "see you tomorrow" when the meeting was over and I left, and made napping in my lap a daily occurrence (though she always called it an accident).
According to her nurse, Touka talked about me constantly when I wasn't there. "She's looking out the window all morning, eagerly waiting for you to show up," the nurse whispered to me.
If she accepted me that much, she should have just gone along with my lies, yet Touka wouldn't back down on that last line. I was strictly just "Mr. Scammer" gunning for her inheritance, and she simply dared to enjoy her time with said scammer; she never broke from this stance. Just like a certain someone had once done.
One evening, Touka sounded melancholy as she leaned on my shoulder.
"I must be quite the prey in your eyes, Mr. Scammer. I'm so weakened that if you showed me a little kindness, I feel I might just give in."
Though I guess I more or less have given in, she quietly appended.
"Then I'd be happy if you fell for it harder and recognized me as your childhood friend."
"I can't do that."
"Am I really that shady?"
After about a three-comma pause, she answered.
"I can somehow tell your affection isn't a lie. But..."
"I mean," she said hoarsely, "all my memories have been erased, but my memories of a single boy are still around. I was abandoned by my family and have no friends, but that boy comes to visit me every day without fail. You say you like me even though I'm worthless and can't even work anymore. Who can could such a contrived story?"
"...Right. I thought the same way."
She jumped up and stared a hole through my face.
"You admit you're lying?"
"Nope." I slowly shook my head. "I think it's inevitable that you can't believe me. I'm painfully acquainted with the feeling of seeing anything too good to be true as a trap. ...But sometimes those things happen in life, by some mistake. Just like a life of only happiness is highly unlikely, a life of only misery is highly unlikely too. Can't you believe a little more in your happiness?"
Those words were also directed at my past self.
I should have believed in the happiness I had then.
Touka fell silent to ponder my words, but soon let out a breath.
"At any rate, having happiness this late is just empty."
She put her left hand to her chest to suppress her heartbeat, and smiled weakly.
"So I'm fine with you being Mr. Scammer."
But that was the last day she was able to keep up that bluff.
The next day, I was greeted in the hospital room by the sight of Touka sitting in bed, holding her knees, and trembling.
When I spoke, she lifted her head and tearfully said my name, "Chihiro." Not Mr. Scammer.
Then she got off the bed, stumbled over to me, and buried her face in my chest.
As I stroked her back, I tried to think about what could've happened to her.
But really, I didn't have to think about it.
The time that had to come, had come. That's all it was.
Seeing that Touka was regaining a little composure, I asked her.
"Have your Mimories started to vanish too?"
She nodded slightly in my chest.
My ears quietly rang.
For an instant, I felt an uncertain sensation, like the world had shifted a few millimeters.
The erasure of Mimories.
That signified that she was finally approaching true zero.
It meant we didn't have have a month left.
The next thing this demon would lay its hands on was her life.
From the moment she learned she had New Alzheimer's, she knew this day would come.
She should've accepted it by now. She should have been ready.
But in the end, I didn't know anything.
That day, I learned the true reason Lethe was developed.
At age 20, I finally understood what it was that people used the power of tiny machines to try and forget.
She kept crying for hours. As if she were trying to wring out all the tears she had absorbed in her life.
By the time the westering sun filled the hospital room with a pale orange, she'd finally stopped crying.
In the corner of my blurred vision, I saw her long shadow sway.
"Hey... tell me about the past."
Touka spoke in a dry voice.
"Talk about me and Chihiro."
I spoke to Touka of false memories.
The day we first met. The time I was convinced she was a ghost. Biking around town with her sitting on the back. Visiting her house every day on summer break and talking through the window. Reuniting in the classroom the next school term. Being appointed as the only friend who would look after her, as she couldn't fit in at school. Coming to pick her up every morning and walking to school together. Being together on weekdays, weekends, at every moment. Her constantly holding my hand. Our classmates teasing us for our relationship in the later grades. A heart with our names in it being drawn on the blackboard. Me trying to erase it, but her saying to leave it. Listening to records over and over in a drab study. Her proudly explaining the meanings of lyrics. Staying over at her house on days off. Watching a movie screening together and feeling awkward when there was a risque scene. Sitting next to each other on the bus for a hike. Her nearly running out of energy in the mountains, and me letting her have my shoulder. Telling friends in a tent at outdoors school who the girl I liked was, and it spreading around class the next day. Her having received similar treatment. Us getting paired up for a folk dance, and her hanging her head the whole time. Her having a serious asthma attack during summer in sixth grade. For some time after that, her being beside herself with worry every time she coughed. Me writing "I hope Touka's asthma gets better" as my Tanabata wish, and her eyes watering when she saw it. Starting clubs in middle school and having less time to be together. Being in separate classes for the first time in second year of middle school. That causing us to start viewing each other as potential romantic partners. Our way of interacting getting slightly awkward. Her always waiting in the classroom for me to finish my club activities. The two of us learning incorrect lyrics to Firefly's Light. Being teased by our classmates in third year, in a different way than elementary school. Deciding to spread all kinds of real and fake rumors about our relationship, and suddenly no longer being teased at all afterward. Her face turning bright red when she heard that. Being chosen as the anchor for the relay at the track meet. Collapsing after running as fast as I could, and being nursed by her in the infirmary. The summer festival at age 15 being somehow special. How wonderful she looked in her yukata. Putting up our defenses and exchanging a sly kiss. That kiss being not the third or the fourth, but the fifth. Both of us acting like we didn't feel anything to preserve the status quo. Withdrawing from our clubs, having more time together, and being glad for it. Me bringing alcohol from home to help console her family troubles, and drinking it together. Then us cutting loose a little too much. Not being able to make eye contact the next day out of awkwardness. People catching on during preparations for the culture festival, and putting us together. Talking in a pitch black classroom about things we usually wouldn't. The pretty moon we saw from the veranda. Having a secret rendezvous on the night of a field trip. Acting together when groups were allowed free time, and the others tacitly consenting. Going to the library together and studying so we could go to the same high school. The first snow of the season falling on the way home from the library. Catching her frolicking under the snow and streetlights. Purposefully not bringing gloves because I wanted to hold her hand as we walked home. Us talking strangely little after New Year's. Her move date already being decided by that time. Getting more elaborate chocolate than usual for Valentine's. Her finding out that I kept the empty boxes of her Valentine's chocolates every year and laughing. Suddenly finding out about the move and being harsh to her. Making her cry for the first time. Coming to her house at a later date to apologize and reconcile. Promising to meet each other even after we went our separate ways. Her being more prone to tears as graduation approached. Her laughing while crying, and crying while laughing. Going around town together after graduation and talking about our memories. Meeting in the empty study the day before her move and talking about heroes and heroines. Things that might have happened between the two of us. Things we wanted to happen. Things that should have happened.
I kept talking about everything I could recall. Touka listened with a peaceful expression on her face, like listening to a lullaby. When she heard an episode she remembered, she smiled and said "There was that," and when she heard an episode she forgot, she smiled and said "So there was that." And she made short notes in the blue notebook she held.
When I told her of memories from age 7, she became a 7-year-old girl, and when I told her of memories from age 10, she became a 10-year-old girl. Of course, the same thing happened to me. In that way, we relived the span from age 7 to age 15.
I realized I was talking about episodes that weren't contained in the Mimories only when I was nearing the end of the story.
The Green Green Touka had created left plenty of blank space. Maybe she didn't have enough time to work on it, or maybe she thought it was sufficient to include a minimum number of effective moments. Either way, there was room there for free interpretation. Unknowingly, I filled in the gaps with my own imagination.
By adding essential episodes based on an essential idea, I provided complementary details to the Mimories. Those anecdotes blended into Touka's story very naturally, and resonated with it, making the Green Green more colorful by the day. While I was away from the hospital, I kept revising our story. I could beautify the past as much as I wanted through my interpretation - as long as I stayed true to my imagination.
But even trying to fill in every nook and cranny of the blank space, there was a lack of memories. In five days, I had told everything contained within the Mimories, leaving nothing out. When I finished talking about the day we promised to reunite and Touka moved away, there was nothing left after.
A hollow silence endured.
Touka asked innocently:
"What happened next?"
Nothing happened next, I said in my mind. You only made Mimories from age 7 to age 15. The story neatly tied up here, and the only girl who would know the rest was no longer in this world.
Even so, I couldn't just put a period on the story here. This story was the last thread tying her to life. I felt that the moment she lost that thread, her empty body would be blown away by the first breeze, taking her far away in the blink of an eye.
So I decided to take the baton of Touka's fantasizing.
If her story had ended, my story had to begin here.
Taking the same approach I used to fill in the blanks of the Green Green, I ran a detailed simulation of our lives from age 15 to age 20. I produced a proper "continuation," in which we who were put far apart overcame that distance and obtained an even stronger love.
So I told it. Touka seemed to accept my story naturally, the same as before.
Day after day, I kept weaving lies. As if I were Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, I prayed that perhaps the longer I kept the story going, the longer Touka would live.
For those two weeks, it felt like Touka and I were the only people in the world. We huddled together like the last survivors of humanity, sitting and talking about old memories on a sunny porch as we watched the end of the world.
And very soon, I would be the only survivor.
Just once, I had a dream. A cure to New Alzheimer's had been perfected, Touka was chosen as a test subject, and once she was cured, all her memories revived. I came to pick her up when she left the hospital, we hugged and shared our joy under a clear blue sky, and as we held pinkies promising to make some real memories together, I woke up.
A cheap happy ending, I thought. Sudden, forceful, and all too harmonious. It might be allowed in Mimories, but it would absolutely be derided in any other medium. Miracles are only allowed to exist somewhere away from the main thread.
But I didn't care. It could be cheap, sudden, forceful, unrealistically harmonious. I didn't care how poorly-made a story it was. I prayed for that dream to become reality.
I mean, it hasn't even started yet. Our relationship was only just beginning. A real love budded from the commonality deep in our souls, and with that, our long loneliness should have been rewarded.
But in reality, it was over before it even began. The end credits were already starting by the time she truly understood me, and the audience was starting to leave their seats by the time I truly understood her. Our love was like a cicada in October, having nowhere to go and simply perishing. It was all just too late.
What if we could be given only a month's postponement? It would just add on a month's worth of happiness and a month's worth of unhappiness, I concluded while thinking late into the night. The efforts I expended looking for possibilities would probably make it that much harder to part.
A love that ended the moment it began, or a love that ended just before it began - which is more tragic? Maybe it's a meaningless question, though. Those two tragedies are both the worst, so you can't give an order to them.
A story is something you can continue to write for as long as you feel like. The reason stories always come to an end in spite of this is not because the writer demands it, but the story itself does. Once you hear that voice calling, no matter how much you feel there's not enough story, you have to come to a suitable compromise and leave the story. Like the shoppers who hear Firefly's Light.
One afternoon in October, just after the clock passed 3, I heard that voice calling. I knew that the story I was telling had ended.
I still had some blank space I could squeeze anecdotes into. However, it wasn't space that was the issue. Nothing more existed that I felt could be added to my story.
That meant the story had been finished.
Any further additions would be superfluous. I knew that from my senses as a storyteller.
It felt like Touka, sitting beside me, intuitively understood that too as a former Mimory engineer. She didn't ask "What happened next?" anymore. She closed her eyes and soaked in the echo for a few minutes, but soon she got off the bed, stood by the window, and did a stretch. Then she let out a little breath and turned around.
I knew she was about to say something. But I felt like I couldn't let her say it. If I let her say it, there'd be no going back.
I desperately looked for words to follow up my last sentence. But I couldn't think of a single one that I should add on.
Then, she broke the silence.
I didn't respond. It took all I had to resist it.
She kept going anyway.
"Before you came today, I was rereading my notebook and wondering. Why are you doing all this for me? Why do you know the contents of my Mimories? Why do you keep acting like my childhood friend?"
After a short silence, she smiled ephemerally.
She used my name again.
"Thank you for going along with my stupid lies."
Lies are something that are always exposed.
She sat back down next to me, and looked up at my hung head from below.
"I was the one who started lying first, wasn't I?"
I kept my silence for a long time, but realized it was futile, and replied "Yeah." Touka just said "I see" and smiled with her eyes.
We didn't need any further explanations. She had seen through to the truth with her astonishing imagination and the fragmented information recorded in her blue notebook. That was it.
She didn't appear disappointed. That said, she also didn't appear pleased that everything was a lie. She just appeared to be thinking about the complex story that had been put on between the two of us.
Outside the window, an airplane drew a thin line in the blue sky, which then vanished. The massive cumulonimbus clouds that occupied the August skies were gone without a trace, and only tiny clouds like scrapes on a car remained.
Far in the distance, there was the sound of a railroad crossing. The train blew its horn, the sound of it racing down the track grew distant, and a few seconds later, the crossing sound stopped.
Touka muttered something.
"It'd be nice if it were all true."
I shook my head.
"That's not right. It's because this story is a lie that it's much kinder than the truth."
She linked her hands together in front of her chest, as if holding something, and nodded.
"It's kind because it's a lie."
I have a last request, Touka said. It was her final lie.
She took a white medicine packet out of a cabinet drawer and handed it to me.
"What's this?", I asked.
"The Lethe that was in your room, Chihiro. The one that should have come to you in the first place: the Lethe to erase the memories of your childhood."
I gazed at the package in my hand. Then I guessed her intention.
If she was returning the Lethe to me at this point... then it would be like that, would it?
"I want you to drink it here."
She spoke what I expected her to, word for word.
"I want your childhood to only belong to me."
If she wanted it, then I had no reason to refuse. I nodded without a word, left the room to buy mineral water from a vending machine, then returned. I poured the water in the glass Touka had prepared, tore open the package, and dissolved it.
Then I drank it in one gulp.
It didn't taste bitter, or like it had any foreign substance at all. It was really just like regular water.
But before long, the effects of the Lethe started to show. I casually reached into my pocket, but something that should have been there wasn't, but I couldn't remember what that was - vague yet urgent anxieties like that hit me one after another. But those evil hands all turned to ash before they could touch me and scattered to the wind. That's what the fear of forgetting was like.
"It's started?", Touka asked.
"Yeah," I said, pushing my fingers against my forehead. "Seems like it has."
She stroked her chest with relief,
"That was a lie, earlier."
and then told me a spoiler.
I slowly looked up.
Touka was there smiling sadly.
"What you just drank, Chihiro, was the Lethe to erase your memories of me."
With that, she took out another package of Lethe from the cabinet drawer and showed it to me.
"This is the real one."
My vision warped. The Lethe seemed to really be getting to work now. I had the illusion of my body being torn apart, and without thinking, I opened up my hands to make sure I still had ten fingers.
"Sorry for always lying. But this is my real deal final lie," she said in a sing-song voice. "Before I lost my memories, apparently I was always worried about bothering you until the very end, Chihiro. Still, I wanted to stay with you for as long as I could, so I entrusted the role of wiping the slate clean to my post-memory-loss self."
Touka stood up from bed and tore the other Lethe package, then scattered the contents out the open window. The nanobots were carried away on the wind and vanished like smoke.
She spun around and smiled healthily.
"We'll have the fact we even met end as a lie."
I looked toward the clock by the bed. Six minutes had already passed since I drank the Lethe. If my memories would be erased in thirty minutes, I had twenty-four left. No matter how much I struggled, there was no resisting Lethe once you drank it. Even if I threw up the entire contents of my stomach, the nanobots had already reached my brain.
I gave up on resistance and asked her.
"Can I hug you until I forget?"
"Sure," she said happily. "But you might be a little confused when you forget everything."
"I'll say it's something I asked for. Like I wanted to feel someone's warmth before I died."
"But that's the truth, isn't it?"
She laughed. With a sound between "ehehe" and "ahaha."
Every minute, Touka asked me.
I replied each time.
Good, she said, and nestled her face against my chest.
"But we're getting there."
An hour elapsed.
Touka gently parted from me and stared at my face, dumbfounded.
"...Why do you still remember?"
The laugh I'd been holding in burst out.
"At least it's both of us being liars."
She didn't seem to understand what I meant.
So I also spoiled it for her.
"What I drank was the Lethe to erase the memories of my childhood."
"But you never even had a chance to switch..."
She gasped, and shut her mouth closed.
That's right. There were plenty of chances.
If you went further than two months back.
"Could it be..." She gulped. "You switched them from the start?
"I knew you would probably play this kind of trick, Touka. So I believed in you and drank it."
That first night I threw Touka's home cooking into the trash, I prepared a little trick that could help me get the jump on her. Namely, I switched the two packages of Lethe.
My thoughts went like so. For the time being, all she had stolen was my spare key, and she hadn't touched the Lethe. But if she was a scammer, then the moment she saw it, she would definitely try to use it for nefarious purposes. If she erased my childhood memories, the market share of "Touka Natsunagi" in my memories would shoot up. There would be no one for me but her.
Of course, if all I wanted was to avoid such an outcome, I just had to hide the Lethe out of her sight. I could throw it in a locker at school or work and lock it up. But I went and kept the Lethe in an easy-to-find place. That was a trap to force her into action. I thought I'd set out some good bait to advance the situation.
And to really play a trick on her, I swapped the two Lethe packages. By doing this, if she did something like slip the Lethe into my drink, I would only lose the memories of Touka Natsunagi.
But later on, unexpectedly, Touka switched out the Lethe. Both of the packages were replaced with fake powder. The stolen Lethe stayed in Touka's hands, and before she completely lost her memories, she got the idea of using it to erase all my memories of her. She didn't even consider that I had swapped which was which.
Touka sent a message to her future self. (Presumably, she timed it to arrive just before her life ran out.) But reading the letter from her past self, Touka probably thought this: Even if I say "please forget about me," I know Chihiro Amagai isn't the kind of person who'll just listen and obey. So she made the plan of lying "I want your childhood to only belong to me," and having me drink the switched Lethe.
Her miscalculation was that I too saw through that tendency of hers. The moment she told me "I want your childhood to only belong to me," I knew that was a lie. True, she was a self-centered and selfish person, but she wasn't the type to take something from me at the very, very end. That clearly went against her behavior.
After all, she was a girl trying to be a "heroine."
I believed in her lie and drank down the Lethe without hesitation. If the Lethe was still switched, that would defy her expectations and actually erase the memories of my childhood.
I won that bet. Now, my childhood had only Touka.
"...I'm no match for you, Chihiro."
She lost her strength and collapsed back on the bed. Then she spoke with stunned amazement.
"I'm sure you'll become a much greater liar than I ever was."
We laughed together. Very affectionately. Like real childhood friends.
"Now, since that was your last lie back there, I'll have you answer my next question honestly."
Touka slowly sat up. "What?"
"Were you disappointed that I didn't forget you?"
"Not at all," she immediately replied. "I'm as happy as could be that I can keep talking with you, Chihiro."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"You want to kiss?"
"...Shoot, you said it first."
We gently brought our faces together. And not to confirm anything, but just to kiss, we kissed.
The next day, Touka's condition took a sudden turn. At least, those are the words the doctor used. But I didn't feel a shred of the tension that the words "sudden turn" brought to mind. Just as a firefly's light soundlessly disappears into darkness, her final moments were quiet and peaceful.
On a clear, pleasant October morning, the curtain fell on Touka's short lifetime.
It rang in the end of the short summer that felt like an eternity.
Chapter 12: My Story
On a Saturday afternoon in August, I had a coincidental reunion on a back street in Harajuku with Emori, who I thought I'd never see again. I'd hit a good stopping point in my work and was out stretching my wings, and he was sightseeing on a business trip. We thought it was someone else at first and kept walking, but after taking a few steps, we both turned around and said each other's names. We last saw each other in summer at age 20, so it had been a full 10 years.
When he heard I was working at a clinic in the area, he asked if there were any stores I recommended. I replied that I didn't really have any recommendations. "Well then," Emori said, then bought a case of beer from a store he had his eye on. He looked up where the nearest park was, and we went there.
We sat on a bench by the fountain and drank our beer. The park was filled with a smell like you were breathing green, and the smell of cooked asphalt. The morning radio said this would be a record-breakingly hot summer, and the heat certainly was outrageous. Many of the people in the park were cooling off in the shade of the trees. I was fine, having just a T-shirt on, but Emori in his suit had his sleeves rolled up to the elbow and frequently wiped his face with a handkerchief.
We didn't bring up a single topic like "how's work doing?", "are you married?", or "do you have kids?"; we just had a rambling chat, like we were friends who met up every week.
After laughing together for a while, Emori clapped his hands with a "come to think of it..."
"Half a year ago, I went and bought some Mimories."
"Huh," I said, feigning disinterest. "Was it Green Green?"
"Nope, not that one." He wagged his finger. "I went with this new one developed recently, called Heroine."
"Heroine," I repeated.
"Yeah. Green Green and Boy Meets Girl looked pretty attractive too, but I landed on Heroine. Anyhow, they're the perfect Mimories for me. They aren't simple fakes like common Mimories. There's this nested structure where there are fake memories inside the fake memories..."
I listened to his explanation in silence.
I decided not to tell him that I was the creator of Heroine.
Touka's death could be equated to the end of the world, yet it didn't bring even the slightest change upon the world. It was how it was. In accordance with her will, there was no wake or funeral of any kind, she wasn't cremated, and she naturally didn't have a grave made either. When I went to greet Touka's parents later, neither remembered their daughter. They'd probably made the same choice as my mother. With this, all traces of her existence were wiped away. As if a human named Touka Matsunagi had never existed in this world to start with.
My life went back to normal, and the simple days before I met her returned. Occasionally, I would get a suspicion that the events of that summer were all a dream. Touka's traces barely remained only in the memories of myself and a very small number of acquaintances. An entity in memory only. Thinking of it that way, Touka Matsunagi was hardly any different from a Substite. About the only decisive difference was that her name was recorded on a census.
Since realizing that, I could no longer discard fiction just because it was artificial. If you really think about it, there's not a big difference between things that happened in reality and things that might have happened in reality. No, maybe I should say there is no difference. What distinguished them was akin to whether or not identical products had a brand logo or a guarantee card; they were fundamentally equal.
With my renewed acknowledgment of fiction, a year after Touka's death, I dropped out of college to become a Mimory engineer. It didn't take any special effort. During that month in the hospital room with Touka, I acquired all the skills a Mimory engineer needed. I tried applying for a public recruitment, and got accepted in one shot.
Even if I wasn't as good as Touka in her lifetime, I worked on the front lines as a decently famous Mimory engineer. I wasn't picky about what requests I accepted, but my areas of expertise were naturally Green Green, Boy Meets Girl (as originated by Touka), and my own creation, Heroine.
My coworkers all found it bizarre. Namely, because I had never had a single romance worth calling romance in these ten years. I would get asked, how are you able to so vividly depict happiness you've never experienced yourself? I told them "because I've never experienced it," though maybe it's a stretch to call that answer accurate. But I had no obligation to explain all the details, so I didn't say any more.
Just the other day, I was interviewed by a certain magazine. The interviewer's name sounded familiar, so I decided to check, and it was in fact the same writer who interviewed Touka at age 17. The strangest coincidences do happen.
"I'd like to ask you one last thing," the reporter said. "Mr. Amagai, how would you briefly describe the job of a Mimory engineer?"
I thought about it briefly, then answered like so.
"It's the job of creating the world's kindest lies."
That's what Touka had taught me.
I'd turned 30 this year. I wasn't married, and had no one in mind either. I also had no real friends excepting Emori. I'd hadn't even seen Nozomi Kirimoto, the one person who thought of me in middle school, since that last meeting. I took up residence in a quiet town about an hour by train from the city, and lived there peacefully. I woke up early every morning, poured some coffee, grappled with work in the morning light, kept my room clean, got regular exercise, cut down on smoking and drinking, read books, occasionally went to see movies, bought ingredients from the supermarket in the evening, made elaborate meals, and spent the night listening to records. A life so healthy, maybe it was too healthy. The only difference from that summer was that Touka wasn't with me.
I still hadn't gotten over her death. Maybe I should say I didn't feel the desire to. At least for the next ten years, I probably wouldn't make any friends or lovers.
It's not like I was doing it as a duty for the departed Touka. I'm sure she wouldn't have wanted it. If she saw me now, no doubt she'd say "what a fool" in amazement. "You could just forget about the dead and be happy already," she'd laugh. Apologetically. Mournfully. Just a little happily.
So I couldn't love any person but Touka. I wanted her to always be laughing "what a fool" in my memories, so I wouldn't fix my foolishness.
The Mimories I made quietly employed a little trick. It's a bit like a computer virus. The virus would activate only in people who were on the same wavelength as me. Every time the virus activated, the infected would be possessed by the illusion that there was a "heroine" (or perhaps a "hero") somewhere in this world. They would always carry a feeling that everything they'd obtained up to now was a sham, and they would never be happy unless they could obtain the real thing.
I didn't make "you" have that experience because I wanted more companions, nor was it to make you taste the same suffering. My fated partner exists somewhere in this world - I believe that as truth from the bottom of my heart. And I'm praying that at least one more person in the world will believe that truth.
Fated partners exist. It might be a person meant to be your lover, it might be someone meant to be your best friend. It might be someone meant to be a buddy, it might be someone meant to be a good rival. At any rate, the world divvies up "people who you should meet," one per person, but the majority of people never meet that other person, and their lives end having settled for imperfect relationships.
That other person might be the clerk with the wonderful smile at the convenience store you always use. It might be the salaryman with an exhausted face you always see on the commuter train, or the sulking student who's always skipping class at the arcade you pass by. It might be the traveler at the train station with heavy bags who nervously asks you for directions, it might be the poor drunk vomiting in the business district early in the morning. It might be the man with an annoying snore sitting next to you on the night bus, it might be the awkward girl you pass by only once on the street.
No matter what it is, when you meet that person, you'll feel something you can't put into words. Like smelling a nostalgic smell, or coincidentally passing through a town you visited when you were a kid but don't know the name of, you're hit with a painful homesickness. But you're unable to trust your intuition. Because humans with common sense understand that fated partners only exist on TV, in movies, and in romance novels.
And so you pass your fated partner by. You'll never meet them again in your life. Some years or decades later, you'll suddenly remember that day. And you'll realize that not only has your impression of that person not faded, that moment that should've meant nothing shines brighter than any of your memories. No, that can't be; you laugh it off. Something like that's straight out of a movie, it wouldn't happen. That's what you tell yourself, and you seal that sparkle deep in your memories.
But if you're the kind of person who's able to believe in a "heroine," it might be a different story. After passing that person by, you might be able to let your intuition guide you and turn around. And at that moment, if your partner is also able to believe in a "hero," they might just turn around too. You might look at each other for a brief moment, and find something important deep in each other's eyes. There's still a considerable possibility you'll then turn and walk away, of course. But even so, perhaps you'll be able to call to each other, as if neither spoke first. And for the first time, maybe you might learn the reason you were born into this world.
I'd like to open up the space in people's hearts to allow even one more of those miracles to occur. That blank space, in most cases, will just get in the way of living. No matter how fulfilled a life you lead, that sense of absence will continue to cast a small shadow on your life. Yes, this is also a kind of curse.
You might resent me for that fact. I'm content with accepting that resentment. Because in the end, this experiment is just for my own self-satisfaction.
At the end of that summer, I received a request to give an address at my alma mater, and visited home for the first time in ten years. After the address, I had a basic meal with the people involved, said goodbye, and wandered the town aimlessly. I didn't observe any notable changes, but it sufficed as an hour-long stroll.
I sat on a bench and drank a canned coffee as I watched the sunset. As I decided it was about time to go home and sat up, some little girls dressed in yukatas passed in front of me, laughing amongst each other. I stood there and watched the girls from behind.
I'm being called for, I thought.
I walked in the direction the girls left. There was a festival taking place nearby. I was getting hungry around that time, so I bought beer and yakitori from the stands, and sat on the stone steps to eat by myself. I hadn't had alcohol in a long time, so I quickly got drunk.
I had a short dream. It was so vague, I almost couldn't remember what it was like, but I think it was a happy dream. Because it made me feel very sorrowful.
When I woke up from my nap, the area was covered in darkness. The cries of summer night bugs were already starting to mix with those of autumn bugs.
After I threw away my trash and was about to leave, I heard an explosive sound from somewhere. I looked up on reflex, and saw a firework launched into the night sky. The next town over must have been doing a fireworks show. I looked down,
and I smelled the same wind as I did that day.
I unconsciously slowed my pace.
I looked over my shoulder.
Among the crowd, I instantly spotted her.
And she, too, was looking back at me.
Yes, there was a girl there.
Black hair ran down to her shoulder blades.
She wore a deep blue, fireworks-patterned yukata.
With attention-grabbing pale skin.
And red chrysanthemums in her hair.
I smiled slightly. I faced front again, and resumed walking.
Goodbye, I thought I heard from behind.
It was only for three months, but I had a childhood friend.