Chapter 8: Reprise

I have a childhood friend who I've never met. I've never seen his face. I've never heard him speak. I've never even touched him. Despite that, he feels close to me. I think fondly of him. And he's my salvation.

He doesn't exist. To be more precise, he exists only in my fantasy. He's a convenient illusion my oxygen-deprived brain created on long, sleepless nights. Yet this illusion began to steadily take on a more defined shape, and soon became an irreplaceable friend to me.

He has no name. Because if I gave him a name, it would only make it clearer that he doesn't exist. I simply referred to him as "him." "He" was my only childhood friend, someone who understood me, and my hero.

In the fictional world where he existed, I was happy.

In the real world where he didn't exist, I wasn't happy.

The world has been a suffocating place to me since a young age. And I don't mean metaphorically. Yes, it was also a place that made it hard to breathe mentally, but before that, I physically had trouble breathing. I literally couldn't breathe as I liked. The world made my chest ache emotionally, but before that, my chest also physically ached. It literally felt like it might burst open.

Suffocating. Stuffy. Short of breath. Everyone uses these familiar expressions, but how many people have actually experienced their breath almost stopping? Everyone breathes subconsciously. They can do it while they sleep. If you're living a normal life, you're hardly ever going to risk true suffocation.

I had to be serious about my breathing back then. I spent most of the day thinking about breathing. The way a seasoned photographer can read the lighting in a place, I could read the amount of oxygen in the air. No one senses the presence of air, but I could feel it tangibly. And around the time when most people fell asleep, I was focusing all my senses on breathing. Sticking a long tube out past the curtain of night like a snorkel, I desperately took in air.

In our modern age, with technology such as minuscule machines that can write a fictional past into your brain, it's commonly thought that asthma isn't a crushingly serious illness. It's true; unless it's a very severe case, you can generally live much like a healthy person if you possess the right knowledge to cope with it.

The problem was, my parents lacked that right knowledge. They perceived it as "an illness that makes it so you can't stop coughing every once in a while." Those two who had never even gotten hay fever would never understand the feeling of your breathing being restricted by a blocked respiratory tract.

No, maybe that wasn't where the fundamental problem lay. What they lacked wasn't experience with illness, nor knowledge, nor affection, but a rudimentary level of imagination. My parents fundamentally misunderstood "understanding." They could bring someone else closer to their world, but they couldn't bring themselves closer to someone else's world.

They irregularly squeezed themselves inside that tiny frame.

Worse yet, they had a baseless distrust in all things technological. People like this can be found in any time period. People with these crude thought processes that see undue value in the word "natural." They honestly believed in nonsense notions you might see written in dubious books, like "if you go to a hospital, you'll get sick." Medicine hurts your health, treatment shortens your lifespan, all illnesses are just elaborate schemes made by doctors - they were convinced of these things. I guess that was their illness.

In their eyes, only what was there from the start was good, and everything else was evil. Constantly exhausted by this creed of theirs, I adopted an opposing creed out of necessity. In short: despise what's there, and love what's not there.

And that's how "he" was born.

I remember long, dark nights.

At the time, I was afraid of night. I still am now, but for a different reason. I wouldn't be able to answer which one was worse, because they're both the worst. There's no "better" with suffering. But if the amount of suffering was the same, I suppose I felt more despair as a child due to my softer heart.

Around the time the day was over and I got into bed, my breathing started to get out of sorts. First, there'd be light coughing. That was the sound of suffering knocking on my door. If this was happening, it was now futile to try and go to sleep. The coughing consistently worsened, reached its peak around 2 AM, then still continued through the night. Like my own body was trying to keep me from falling asleep.

It was hard to breathe lying face-up, so I sat as if hugging my bundled-up blanket. As time went on, my posture steadily leaned forward, ultimately putting me in a cowering pose. Someone might've seen me and thought I was pleading for forgiveness. Or it might look like I want to go back to being a fetus who doesn't know suffering. It was neither. That position was just the most comfortable.

The most noticeable symptom was coughing, but coughs weren't the true essence of the suffering. What truly tormented me were breathing difficulties. The basic actions everyone subconsciously does from birth, breathing in and out, became laborious tasks for me at night. Imagine if your throat became the air plug on a life preserver. Or maybe if your lungs turned into hard plastic. If you can't breathe in easily, you can't breathe out easily either.

The feeling of not being able to breathe directly connects to a fear of death. Will this throat of mine eventually become completely blocked? Will it no longer be able to function, like a vacuum that sucked up a vinyl bag? When that time comes, I probably won't even be able to let out a moan. I'll desperately make a racket to call for help, but nobody will notice, I'll shake, I'll be terrified, I'll tremble, and my numerous shrieks and curses will stay stuck in my throat as I never even draw a final breath. Thinking about that made me cry from terror.

My room was located a decent ways from my parents' room, and that's where my bed was. I slept in the same room as my parents until I was 4, but my bed was relocated a little after I turned 5. My mother blithely reasoned that "the bathroom's closer there, so it should be good for you," but I couldn't see it as anything other than an isolation measure. They probably couldn't stand me keeping them awake with my coughing all night. I can't say I didn't understand.

I was told to call for them right away if something happened, but in the middle of an attack, I couldn't shout loud enough to reach my sleeping parents in the room diagonally across the hall, so that isolation measure was also my death sentence. Besides, suppose I did desperately manage to crawl over to the bedroom. They wouldn't do anything for me. I would never be able to get used to my attacks, but my parents got used to seeing them. Once they learned that provided it wasn't too serious, they could leave me alone and it would get better by morning, any entreaty I made about my suffering would go in one ear and out the other.

Up until about age 7, if I had a major attack at night, they would take me to get emergency aid. When I heard the sound of the car engine out front and knew we would be going to the hospital, my worries quickly departed. Just thinking about things like that hospital smell, IVs, and inhalers calmed me down. (I loved hospitals, as a place.) And likely because of that relief, it was common that in the 30 minutes it took to reach the hospital, I would get better. As that happened again and again, my parents started to suspect I was faking sick. Maybe she's just exaggerating her coughing to get her parents to pay attention to her.

It's a common occurrence for asthmatics' attacks to calm down just from approaching a hospital, but I didn't know that at the time, and didn't yet have the objectivity needed to logically explain my condition. My parents' doubts strengthened by the day. They'd look at me coughing violently, and my dad would unsympathetically say "Your coughing's so overblown." Then my mom, suspectingly: "Does it really hurt that much?" Afterward, even when I had attacks, they would pretend not to notice.

Once, I was left with no choice but to call an ambulance myself. My parents wouldn't talk to me for a while after. They finally spoke to me after about a week, but the first things out of their mouths were abuse. "You embarrassed us." "Do you think we have money to just throw around?" These people would probably be happier if I had died, I thought in my young age. This event struck from me once more the ability to expect anything from anyone.

Anyway, all I could do was wait for time to pass. I would occasionally poke my head out of my burrow, look at the moonlit clock by my bed, and pray for the night to end a second sooner. The greater my suffering, the slower time went, so irritation often gave me the urge to smash through the cover and wind the hands around manually. I liked summer solely because the nights were shorter.

When dawn came, my breathing started to stabilize and I could sleep, and in that momentary sleep, I fantasized about "him." But two hours later, I had to get up and go to school. The worrying thing about my illness was how when I wasn't coughing, I didn't look the slightest bit unwell. I could tell my parents I was sluggish and needed to rest, but of course they wouldn't hear it. They wouldn't believe me without visible evidence like numbers on a thermometer or rashes on my skin.

Thanks to that, I was always sleep-deprived, and spaced out during the day. My head was numb, my vision blurry, and all sounds seemed to come from behind a wall. In a world covered by light fog, only my suffering and my fantasies felt real.

As I grew older, my condition slowly got less severe, and the asthma gradually became more of a psychosomatic illness. While environmental factors started to have less influence on me, I instead became susceptible to worry and stress. If I do something like this, it might cause an attack, and I can't let an attack happen while I'm here; the act of thinking about it in itself became the biggest trigger.

If I'd had someone to give me emotional support at the time, I might have been fully cured of my asthma much sooner (though of course, getting proper treatment at a medical institution would have been better than anything). This person would save me, this person would understand, this person would protect me - if I'd had someone who I could feel that way about, I'm sure it would have at least cut down on the number of anxiety-triggered attacks.

I had no friends. Due to being in the hospital for pleuritis at age 6 from winter to spring, I had a late start at my elementary school. Another part of it was that I was forbidden from going outside, "because I can't be causing other people trouble." And I couldn't be active, so I couldn't play in the same way the other kids did either. And I also couldn't attend most events like hikes or track meets.

But the biggest factor was my personality. My illness made me a servile, self-punishing person. My body was a failure that wouldn't let me live a normal life, and I myself was a troublemaker, in the sense that just me being there caused people major trouble; I was aware of this. That may have been the truth, but a child who hasn't even lived a decade has no obligation to face up to facts. I should've not worried about it and just lived brazenly.

But the two people I was closest to not only reinforced that servile attitude, they openly encouraged it. Without using words, they implied "you're going to bother a lot of people in your life, so at least keep your head down." I was raised to curse myself, a teaching I was constantly putting into practice. There wasn't even a chance of me making friends.

I didn't have a single good memory of school. Especially when I went to my local public elementary school, I was a truly miserable creature.

At that time, I had a habit of walking with a slump. I naturally found myself walking that way because it made breathing easier, but my classmates would often tease me for this habit. When I saw boys imitating how I walked and laughing, I warned myself to be on guard, that I couldn't have an attack in front of them. Because they would just take that as another means to tease me. And I would continue to be a laughingstock for years. I absolutely couldn't show any further weakness. The more tense I made myself, the thinner the air in the classroom felt.

There were a very small number of people who knew about my illness and showed me concern. Those kinds of people would be extremely friendly at first and keep in step with me, but after a certain amount of time, they'd get irritated with my sensitive behavior, become annoyed at how just being with me limited them in many ways, and eventually get tired of me and leave. In worse cases, they'd start to hate me. So ultimately, I would wind up alone.

Just don't let my emotions get high-strung, and if I feel an attack coming, give up whatever I have to and go to the infirmary. Sticking to these two rules allowed me to barely avoid revealing the extent of my sickness to my classmates. In practice, my efforts were worth it, up to a point. But in winter fourth year, I had a severe attack right in the middle of class.

One of the boys saw the inhaler I carried around like a good-luck charm, and said something to tease me. That set it off. I should have just ignored him, but what he said was just too mean, so I snapped back at him. The boy was confused, not expecting a comeback, so he got angry. And to express that anger, he snatched my inhaler from me and tossed it out the window.

I panicked. I started running to grab the inhaler, and right afterward, I showed the world a more intense asthma attack than I'd ever had before.

That day still comes back to me in my dreams.

My classmates' reaction was generally what I'd expected. They saw me having my attack not as a target for pity and compassion, but as something comical and disturbing. Ever since that, I hardly showed my face in class. I spent my remaining two-plus years of elementary school on the bed in the infirmary.

Of course, I didn't have a place in the infirmary either. There exist castes and cliques among dropouts. The infirmary had its own society, and I was ostracized for not fitting into it. Some students enrolled into the infirmary were able to curry favor with the school nurse, and some were not; I was naturally the latter.

Still, even if I couldn't call it a perfectly peaceful land, the infirmary might as well have been heaven compared to the classroom. I read books by myself there, and had long naps to catch up on years of lost sleep. On outdoors school days in fifth grade and field trip days in sixth grade, I was sleeping in the infirmary. I didn't really feel bad about missing them.

Either because I could finally get enough sleep, or because I didn't have to deal with the stress of my class watching me, those two years took me from being the shortest or second-shortest in my grade to being just below the average height. I also picked up knowledge about asthma, and come middle school, I could live a more or less average life. But by that time, solitude had already soaked into my bones, and I couldn't even think about befriending anybody.

It sounds strange, but I felt like if I went and made friends now, it would be unforgivable to my grade-school self. If my present self denied solitude, it would mean denying my past self. I would be admitting that those suffering-laden six years came to nothing but exhaustion.

I wanted to carry on the lonesome discoveries she made in those pitch black days. The suffering you endured was by no means for nothing; it's still breathing within me now, I wanted to reassure her.

I had a lonely time in middle school and a lonely time in high school. I still don't know if it was the right choice or not. But I think if I had tried to say the past never happened and live a normal life, I would push myself too far eventually and it would all fall apart. And then maybe I'd be more lonely than I am now.

That's what my memories of school were like. On days off, I stayed put in my room. My parents forbade me from going out unnecessarily, but also, I didn't feel any urge to go out, and there was no one I wanted to meet with. I didn't feel motivated to study, either. Just listening in class was sufficient to get me good grades, and even if I studied a ton, I couldn't imagine my parents would permit me to go on to college. So I would either read books I checked out from the library, or listen to music on a record player my dad no longer used.

When I didn't feel like books or music, I would watch people come and go from the bay window. My house was on high ground, so I could see quite a bit from the window. Rows of cherry blossoms in spring, fields of sunflowers in summer, maple trees in autumn, white snowscapes in winter. I never tired of gazing upon these sights, and of thinking about the childhood friend I'd never met.

To tell the truth, I needed family. I needed a friend. I needed a lover.

I dreamt up an entity who satisfied all three. "He" inevitably became a childhood friend. He could be warm like family, entertaining like a friend, dear like a lover, and matching my tastes in every way; I might call him the ultimate boy.

What would've happened if "he" had been there then? I simulated those what-ifs down to minute details. I took each and every memory of my past and wove him into them, to save each and every tearful me in those memories.

If I'd met "him" then.

If "he" had saved me then.

If "he" would've hugged me tight.

What kind of life would I be living by now?

Fantasies like that were my only shelter.


A turning point in my life arrived at age 16.

Right now, there's only a single way for someone without any academic credentials or job experience to apply to be a Mimory engineer. Wait for a major clinic to do their periodic public recruitment, then create and submit Mimories according to a personal record the clinic sends you. If you meet their standards, you're hired just like that.

It's probably easiest to imagine it like a Rookie of the Year award for novels. It's about as competitive as it is for novelists, too. Ultimately, supposing all things equal in what you may call "talent," some people might study their butts off and still not make the cut, while others might write some Mimories to kill time and get hired at the world's biggest clinic. If age and experience aren't relevant, you don't need technical know-how. Just like how a novelist doesn't need to be savvy in all the functions of a word processor or the technology of book-making, Mimory engineers don't need be well-acquainted with neuroscience or nanotechnology.

In fact, what Mimory engineers do is practically the same as what novelists do. The biggest difference is that novelists are writing for readers who they anticipate to be in the thousands or more, while Mimory engineers are only anticipating one single reader (not to say there aren't novelists who write just to satisfy a single reader). Novelists write by following requests that come from within, while Mimory engineers write by following external requests (not to say there aren't novelists who write according to external requests). They look over the client's personal record, and spin up an entirely pragmatic story for it. Maybe it sounds a bit better to say it's like a poet writing a sonnet for a patron.

It was a very simple world. Not only because the nature of the work was simple, but because the job of Mimory engineer was brand new. Mimory-related laws would be surely pop up in the future, making things more complex over time. But I quit my job as a Mimory engineer before that could happen, so I only knew the simple side of that world.

I was hired as a Mimory engineer at 16. Even now, four years later, 16-year-old Mimory engineers remained as rare as 16-year-old novelists.

I only learned that Mimory engineers were a thing that existed at age 15. I was staring at a course selection sheet, wondering what to put down under "desired occupation," when it suddenly caught my eye. My father was a dental engineer, so maybe I responded to the word "engineer." I read the job description not expecting much, but then I intuitively knew.

This job was made for me.

My intuition was right on, and next summer, I was working at a decently well-known clinic as the then-youngest Mimory engineer ever. I don't think I ever had to expend any effort worth calling effort. No one had to teach me; from the moment I read through a personal record and put my fingers on the keyboard, I knew exactly what I had to do.

I didn't think I would get my parents' blessing if I said I aspired to be a Mimory engineer, so I waited for the results first and told them I had been accepted after the fact. I emphasized how it was extremely difficult to get a job in the field, and I could keep it up without it impacting my high school studies, and most importantly, it made me money (to go to tuition), so my parents reluctantly approved of my employment.

The procedure went like this. The clinic would send me a client's personal record. The information in the personal record was drawn out of them in a hypnotic state, so there were no lies in it. I would look over the personal record, and use it to create the fictional past I thought the client needed. I would frequently discuss with an editor and make small tweaks, and once the Mimories were in their best condition, I'd submit them to the clinic. I could usually complete this whole process within a month.

The order of creation would vary from person to person, but I always started by reading the personal record thoroughly enough to memorize it. It never gave clear directions like "you should make something like this," so I read it feverishly. Before long, I started to almost have the illusion that the client was someone close to me. Even so, I would absorb myself in reading the personal record. In doing this, I would eventually touch upon the core of the client's soul, or something like that. It was a state beyond just sympathy or empathy - maybe it should be called channeling.

In that moment, I would become that person to a greater degree than they themselves were. I could perceive what the client wanted in the depths of their heart more clearly than the client could. The defects they weren't aware of themselves would rise to the surface, and I could look for and offer them pieces that fit those holes perfectly. In this way, I could give them the feeling that these memories were made for them and no one else.

I, who had kept fantasizing about filling in my own holes, could perform this hard-to-conceptualize job as easily as breathing - actually, much more easily than that. As a person who lacked everything, I could account for every kind of absence. The absence of things was in fact essential for creating a story that satisfied client expectations. I was able to get familiar with anything.

Even if you penned an epic tale, it would only have one reader, and even if you made up a sloppy story, that would only have one reader as well. So there were actually many Mimory engineers who did half-baked work. There were no objective standards for good or bad output, so they could excuse crude work by saying "it seems it didn't suit your sensibilities." When you only have a single reader each, you won't be criticized for repeating ideas from your previous work or self-plagiarizing, so it wasn't uncommon for people to continuously rehash their best works.

That's why there was a big gulf in quality between Mimory engineers with good consciences and those without. And the best Mimory engineers would pick up repeat customers. Customers pleased with their Mimories would usually buy seconds and thirds. They're only uneasy about it the first time, and once they take that step, they're possessed by the satisfaction of reshaping their past.

It thus follows that engineers who mass-produced 50%-quality Mimories made good money in the short term, but in the long term, those who produced 90%-quality Mimories in smaller numbers earned much more. Customers moved away from the mass-producers over time, and in this competitive world, it was impossible to recover that lost trust. Purchasers of Mimories were conservative. No one was curious enough to opt for a Mimory engineer who they knew did sloppy work.

I dedicated myself to careful work. I stuck to deadlines, and I didn't slack off on my studies. It wasn't that I felt a sense of responsibility. It wasn't even that I wanted to live up to the clients' expectations. It's simply that I liked this job.

Reading personal records and coming up with fictional pasts also meant living other people's lives. As someone fed up with my own life, this profession had an ideal overlap between my hobbies and practical benefit. I neglected my school studies to devote myself to work. I always had my head in the clouds in class, and that head was filled with the personal record of my current client. Because I soaked in other people's lives so much, sometimes I would all but forget I was a teenage girl going to the local public high school.

My work gave me a reputation, and soon sums of money like I'd never seen before were being deposited in my bank account. In the first year I started to work, my income far exceeded my dad's. I wasn't interested in making money, but gazing at the sums in my bankbook, I started to feel like I'd been recognized by society. I felt for the first time in my life that it was okay for me to be in this world. My parents didn't seem too fond of how their daughter had arbitrarily chosen her own path in life, but I put half of my earnings toward the house, and that was a big help for the family finances, so they couldn't be too mad about it.

The numbers had a tactile feel. I would open my bankbook at free moments and look at the swelling numbers for encouragement. The same way how when I was little, I would quietly take out the inhaler I kept in my pocket to calm my heart.

When I was 18, I collided with my parents over money matters, and thinking they would exploit me for the rest of my life at this rate, I left home. I convinced my aunt to let me stay at her house for a few months (she was as friendly as I would pay her to be), then got a room at an old apartment run by a friend of hers, and started living alone.

I continued to be lonely as ever, but it was proper "alone-time" loneliness, much preferable to being unfairly shoved out of a group. Not the loneliness of a classroom, but the loneliness of my own room. And as long as I was enjoying work, having to busily move from one fantasy to the next, I didn't have the spare time to feel like I was lonesome.

Through periodic visits to the hospital, I found my asthma had cleared up at some point. With the confidence to live by myself, I was finally free of the chains that bound me hand and foot.

My prospects were bright. My real life can finally begin, I thought.

It was an accurate premonition. But I think it slipped my mind then that "real" isn't always a positive quality, necessarily.

At age 19, I found a new disease.

Chapter 9

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