Chapter 9: Storyteller

New Alzheimer's disease could be said to have birthed the profession of "Mimory engineer." Comparing New Alzheimer's to the pre-existing form of Alzheimer's, the most remarkable difference is the way you lose memories.

If the memory impairment caused by old Alzheimer's was far-sighted, the new version was near-sighted. With Alzheimer's, damage to recent memories is noticeable from early on, but distant memories only start to be affected after the disease has progressed somewhat. Meanwhile, New Alzheimer's was the exact opposite, with long-term memory loss being the early symptoms, and short-term memory loss appearing in the last stages. Alzheimer's made you unable to see things up close, but New Alzheimer's made you unable to see things far away - of course, this is all an extreme simplification. But it's a commonly-used way to quickly explain the nature of New Alzheimer's.

The same way near-sightedness isn't uncommon among the young, New Alzheimer's can be contracted at an even earlier age than early-onset Alzheimer's. There have been a number of cases reported even in teens (as a matter of fact, I was one of them). Alzheimer's remains a highly mysterious disease, but an even thicker fog hangs over New Alzheimer's. Like regular Alzheimer's, it was surmised to be a multifactorial hereditary disease with various genetic and environmental causes, but some whispered that nanobots gone rogue were the true culprits. Some researchers also theorized a new kind of infectious disease was directly causing it. Many varying opinions, but no definite theories. Simply put, we hardly knew anything. Needless to say, there was no cure.

Compared to old Alzheimer's, memory loss from the new form is much more systematic. Like a log file that can't hold everything, so it automatically deletes data starting from the oldest, your memories are eaten up in order starting from the oldest. You forget your infancy, you forget your childhood, you forget your adolescence, you forget your adulthood, you forget your middle-age. Eventually, you can only remember the events of the past few days.

Of course, the finish line of the new form was the same as the old. When the corruption of memory catches up to the present, the patient acquires Apallic syndrome and dies soon after. The memory loss part gets all the attention, but they're diseases directly linked with death, and once someone contracts it, there's no hope of saving them. The current fatality rate is 100%. The estimated remaining lifespan after you contract Alzheimer's is 7 or 8 years, but with New Alzheimer's, it's not even half that.

Patients with Alzheimer's lose the ability to self-recognize by the end of it and enter a trance-like state, but New Alzheimer's patients don't show any obvious damage other than episodic memory loss up until death. No damage to high-level brain function or impaired orientation, normal thought processes, and no notable effects on personality. (There are findings that claim short-term memory is actually improved, but this is probably just because the loss of long-term memories reduces the number of memories competing with one another.) It won't get in the way of everyday life, and it's not an impediment in most jobs. And no hallucinations or delusions - those around you will be most grateful for it.

But to those suffering from it themselves, it can't be called anything but hell. While your senses remain perfectly clear, you're forced to watch as the person you are disappears. If Alzheimer's is a disease that eats at you from the inside with a dull pain, you could call New Alzheimer's a disease that slowly slices away your limbs without anesthetic. Different qualities of fear, but I think most people would agree the latter is more agonizing.

Because of this, there are a fair number of New Alzheimer's patients who take their own lives before the symptoms fully progress. I want to end it all while I can still be myself, they say.

Medicine can slow the progression of the symptoms to an extent, but New Alzheimer's is discovered late by its nature. You can tell right away when there are problems with your immediate memory or short-term memory, but no one immediately makes the connection that their inability to remember infancy or childhood is because of a disease. Unless you have someone to periodically talk about the distant past with, it's difficult to be aware of early-stage New Alzheimer's. Most frantically run to the hospital by the time they start losing memories of their late teens.

Thus, the majority of patients have no memories of childhood. This might be considered an even greater tragedy than repeatedly forgetting the ones you love most. One patient described their mental state as "constantly being lost in a town I don't know." As it turns out, our most truly important memories are focused in our early life, and among them, perhaps a true sense of security can only be enjoyed in infancy. True security - a perfect, faultless peace of mind, which Charlie Brown called "sleeping in the backseat of a car while your parents drive." Not that I was given such a thing from the start, anyway.

In my case, the discovery of the disease was a complete coincidence. My dominant hand was feeling numb, so I went to the hospital and got a brain CT scan, where they found symptoms of New Alzheimer's. (Incidentally, the cause of the numbness was simply fatigue.)

On the way home after being told about my disease, my mind was the picture of peace. I knew what kind of disease New Alzheimer's was. I also knew, of course, that many people who get it commit suicide. And that this disease would result in death. Regardless, I didn't sink into despair, and I didn't lament my fate. I didn't shed a single tear, and couldn't even afford to feel a hole in my stomach.

That said, I did suspect it would eventually start to sink in and I'd be beside myself with anxiety, so I decided to take a month off work. Because I had worked so feverishly up to then, they readily accepted my request.

I spent the new ten days or so idly, yet I felt not an atom of fear or regret. The only thing I did have was concern. Why am I being so calm about this? Am I fundamentally misunderstanding something? Or maybe I'm just not ready to accept it as reality yet.

I stayed locked up in my room and aimlessly watched TV shows I didn't even care to watch. Being a workaholic who thought about her job 24/7 - even in my dreams - I had no idea how you were supposed to spend free time. In these few years, I'd spent all my days off giving myself input so as to add more variety to my Mimories. Books, movies, music, and vacations were all no more than Mimory-making research to me. Removing those from the equation instantly had me at a loss for what to do. I really never thought about anything but work, I thought to myself.

Three more days passed, and my concern turned into a nagging feeling. I laid down in bed and thought about things to try and put this feeling into words. And eventually, I realized.

Come to think of it, I was having much fewer flashbacks lately. While taking a bath or waiting to fall asleep in bed, I would often suddenly remember something from the past and become miserable, but that was hardly happening anymore. The reason for this required no thought. It was because my traumatic childhood memories were being erased by the disease. That was the reality of that feeling I kept having. As I lost my memories, I wouldn't feel fear - it would in fact make life easier to live.

A careful look back through my life revealed there wasn't a single thing I didn't want to forget. No people I didn't want to forget, no moments I didn't want to forget, no places I didn't want to forget, nothing.

I was dumbfounded by that fact. After all, if a normal person heard they were going to lose their memories, then before anything else, they would write down everything they didn't want to forget. Then they'd read it over and over to try and carve it into their brains. But I didn't do that. I had no need to. If you removed all those harsh memories I'd want to forget if I could, only memories as worthless as garbage would remain.

Should I be glad I won't have to fear loss for the remainder of my life? Or should I lament that I hadn't been able to acquire anything to lose? I couldn't decide. What I could say was that as the memory loss healed the wounds in my heart, a longing for others was slowly starting to bud. I had been watching TV without caring about the programs themselves simply because I wanted to hear people's voices.

I'm lonely. Right now, I could honestly acknowledge that feeling. Or to flip it around: before knowing about my disease, I had no time to even recognize my loneliness. The removal of my emotional suffering opened up space in my heart, and for the first time I could accept the truth: I hadn't chosen loneliness, loneliness had chosen me. You could say there was no longer a reason to consider the accumulation of my feelings into the future, so there was also no reason to keep acting emotionally frigid.

It felt futile to go against that desire. As recommended by my doctor, I signed up for a meetup organized by a New Alzheimer's care facility in the city. The idea was for fellow patients to share their concerns and anxieties, so you could get to know lots of other people with the disease there.

Suffering is a personal thing no matter how far you try to stretch it, so even people with the same disease won't be able to understand; I had learned this from having asthma. So as far as the disease, I had no expectations that it would make me more positive, take away my worries, or any other change. But I didn't care. I simply wanted to try filling this loneliness I was able to feel for the first time in my life in a healthy way. Not an unhealthy way, like lying in bed and fantasizing.


Mimory engineers don't use similes. Unlike novel-readers or movie-watchers, those with Mimories only perceive what's there as what's there. They don't do any puzzle-like interpretations of them, like "is the scenery depicted here some kind of metaphor?" or "is the event that happens here some kind of allegory?" They don't look too hard for additional meaning in the story they're given, accepting Mimories the way they accept life. So we don't have an artistic mindset either, simply stacking up pleasing episodes and nothing more. Because of this, Mimory engineers are considered akin to fast food among those who create stories.

That's fine, I think. I like standing-up soba and conveyor belt sushi myself. I'd be sad if they went away.

That said, I'm obviously not making light of similes themselves. Sometimes, they can dig up the heart of things in a way that goes beyond the storyteller's intent. The words we use are much more clever than we are.

For instance, when I entered that classroom-sized room and saw ten chairs arranged in a circle with nine anxious patients sitting in them, I thought "it feels like we're able to start telling ghost stories." It's not much of a simile, yet it correctly got to the truth without me intending to. The stories they were about to tell me would chill my spine and make me nauseous with fear. And when the tenth person's story approached, it would summon forth something that should not be in this world.

The members were of various ages and genders, and as expected, I was the youngest. I was a little timid, but I took a deep breath and sat down, quickly greeting those around me. And then I took a better look at everyone, one at a time. They all had melancholy expressions. I had no doubt their eyes were the unhappiest in the world. I've seen something like this in a movie, it suddenly occurred to me. I thought for about 20 seconds, then remembered that it was called Fight Club. I was 17 when I saw that movie. Which meant I at least had my memories going back to 17.

Bottled tea was distributed to everyone, but not a single person drank it. The others, frequently exchanging looks with one another, were probably not attending for the first time. Maybe I was the only one without any acquaintances.

Everyone there was neatly dressed, and I only then became aware of my own appearance. I'd bought my clothes and shoes three years ago, and wasn't wearing any sorts of accessories. I had basically no makeup on, my skin was rough from lack of sleep and neglect, and my never-once-dyed black hair was so unkempt, I looked like a ghost. I was not presentable.

I'll go get my hair cut after this is over, I thought.

I heard a throat being cleared.

"Well then, how about we get started." A man in his forties sitting to my left got the ball rolling. "Who wants to begin?"

A few people glanced at each other and vaguely shook their heads.

"All right, then I'll start as usual..."

The man smiled wryly and began to tell his story with a routine tone of voice.

"...I can't remember half of anything about my wife."

My honest impression was that it was a familiar-sounding story. He graduated college and got married right after, took a loan to start up a store, made it through financially unstable times with his wife, soon hit a stride with business, had a kid, and just as he thought things were getting started, his disease was discovered. He feared his death, but more than that, he feared forgetting his wife and kid. He remembered his aunt who couldn't recognize her family's faces due to a cognitive disorder. Thinking about ending up like that himself made him want to end it all before that happened. Etcetera.

Once the man's story was done, there was sparse applause. I quietly clapped as well, but I was honestly thinking "sounds like you lived a pretty happy life." I felt ashamed of myself for feeling envy instead of compassion, so I clapped louder.

After that, everyone went around clockwise talking about their worries. Maybe they thought about me and intentionally made sure I would be last, as the newcomer. Not everyone spoke as unfalteringly as the first man; some talked shakily, having trouble throughout, and I was quietly relieved.

The story of the fourth speaker, a female librarian, had a few parts that struck me. While listening to her story, I noticed myself subconsciously thinking "with a little tweaking, I could use this for Mimories," and I hurried to cast those rude thoughts aside. What was I doing thinking about work at a time like this? Nothing could be ruder than using the frank admissions of strangers as fuel. I tried to make myself close off the Mimory engineer circuits in my brain, and accept their stories the same way people accept their Mimories.

After the sixth person's story, there was a short break. The man to my left asked me about my impressions of the meetup. Wanting to reply with careful word choice, I thought back on the six stories I'd heard so far. And then suddenly, something occurred to me with a shiver.

All of them are only talking about family, friends, and lovers.

The ghost stories resumed. The seventh spoke of family and friends. The eight spoke of a lover and friends. The ninth spoke of family, friends, and a cat. I was convinced. The process alone was what differed, but everyone but me was settling on the same conclusion: "my last line of defense is my bonds with those close to me."

The old woman to my right was finishing up her story. What should I talk about?, I wondered. At first, I'd planned to talk about the emptiness of not even having any fear of losing my memories. But if I, tasked with sending off this meeting, said something like that, wouldn't it just earn me their scorn? Wouldn't it just soil the carefully-assembled atmosphere they'd been building?

Would my despair unintentionally sound like cynicism toward the despair of these nine people?

I reopened the circuits I'd closed. I switched my head over to writing mode, and came up with a new story.

I'll do a story appropriate for this place, I thought.

I closed my eyes and focused. I broke down their nine stories until they were a muddled mess and extracted their essence. Then I added a few of my own personal facts - or maybe desires that were an extension of my personal facts - to make it appear original, and then injected some noise to cover up its falsehoods, and appeal to its reality.

I assigned "him," who I'd developed in my fantasies since I was young, in the role of a prince riding on a white horse.

I completed this whole process in less than 30 seconds. I had time to spare, so I even gave the finished story a nice title.

Since contracting New Alzheimer's, my abilities as a storyteller hadn't weakened, but in fact matured. I don't know why. Maybe it's the same logic behind why drinking and smoking can have positive effects on writing despite being bad for you. As you forget unnecessary things, it feels like excess meat being stripped from your brain.

The woman's story seemed to be over. Once the applause ended, the nine turned their attention to me, all but saying "now it's your turn." I put my left hand to my right lung and took a short, deep breath, and began telling a fictional past I had just made up - but in a sense, had been building since I was very young.

"I have a childhood friend."


By the time my story finished, half the people were in tears. Some even took out handkerchiefs to dry their eyes in the middle. My lies sounded more real than anyone else's stories, and had shaken the audience's hearts.

Once the applause came to a stop, one of the members - the woman who talked about her cat - spoke.

"I'm glad you came here today." She took off her reading glasses, rubbed her eyes, then carefully put them back on. "Thank you for telling us your wonderful story. You may be very unhappy, but you're a very happy girl. You're blessed with the perfect partner."

I didn't know how to respond, so I bowed my head. Then all the members gave their thoughts about my story one after another. Every time they sent warm words my way, guilt hid behind my stiff smile.

It seemed I may have gone a bit too far. Come to think of it, this was the first time I'd ever directly seen the response to a story I created. I didn't think it would get this big of a reaction. To think I would be reminded of the magic stories possess here.

"It's such a pity for someone so young." "How about you bring him here sometime? We'll all welcome him." "It's reassuring that you have someone who understands near at hand. If I didn't have my wife, I think I'd be desperate." "Hearing your story made me miss my boyfriend, too."

I nodded to their words with a dry smile on my lips. And the more I nodded, the more miserable I felt. I even wondered: if these people were to find out my story was fake, wouldn't they think I was making fun of them? And then I got fed up with myself for having a persecution complex after deceiving these good-hearted people.

I came up with reasons to decline trading contact information with anyone, then put the place behind me. I was totally absentminded on the subway ride home. My reflection in the window glass looked ugly, like something's cast-off shell. It looked like it had been weathered down through the end of summer, crumbling to pieces.

I'm never going to one of those meetups again, I thought.


From the beginning of summer to the end of it, I was alone.

I didn't even turn on the TV or radio anymore. I stopped looking at the bankbook that once gave me mental support. I couldn't find any consolation there now. I was satisfied with just enough money for living expenses and a coin to ferry me to the afterlife, so it was all just excess.

The numbers in my bankbook demonstrated how I could do anything and yet could do nothing. If a normal person had this much time and money to spare, they'd probably hang out with friends, or spend time with family, or go on dates. To make the most of their few remaining years, they'd have extravagant vacations, throw flashy parties, or hold a fantastic wedding.

I had absolutely no outlets for using my money. I thought about moving somewhere that allowed pets and raising a cat, but quickly rethought it as I was browsing catalogs. A person who might not even live three more years shouldn't get a pet. Someone who couldn't even look after themselves couldn't take such an important role.

Besides, it was such a crude motivation to seek healing from a cat because I couldn't get along with humans. I'd feel bad for the cat that had to get along with me. Cats are free creatures that give the sense they should be raised by people who could live without a cat. Having an owner like me who couldn't live without a cat would make the cat unhappy.

When I got lonely, I'd go to my apartment's veranda and watch people pass by. Like going back in time to the days when was stuck in my room and looked out the bay window. As it turns out, I hadn't changed at all since those days.

I spent that summer mainly just thinking about how to fulfill my most basic desires.

I leaned on the wall in the corner of my room listening to old records all day, frequently flipping the records over or swapping them out to kill time. After starting to become aware of my time left alive, I came to like the music I liked before even more. In particular, I saw more charm in old songs I had found tedious before. The simpler the accompaniment and melody, the more firmly I could sense each note, and they soaked deep into my dried-up heart. When I tired of music, I gazed at the record grooves and the jackets, and rested my ears.

In the evenings, I walked to the supermarket near the station, did several loops around the store to carefully pick out ingredients, and went straight home to the apartment. Back in my room, I opened up a recipe book I bought on a whim from a local old bookstore, and took on each of the recipes starting from page one. I was blindly faithful to the measurements and times, making no improvisations or compromises, just cooking exactly according to the recipe. When I completed a dish, I presented it neatly even though I wasn't showing it to anyone, and inspected it from various angles. Then I sat at the table and ate it, savoring the flavor to satisfy my appetite.

After eating, I took a long bath to wash myself thoroughly. Not necessarily to feel clean, but to fall asleep more comfortably. After exiting the bath, I got in bed before night fell; including some sleeping-in in the morning, I got a good ten hours of sleep to satisfy my need for sleep.

There was one more desire I chose to not think about too much. Luckily, living a quiet life by myself, I was able to forget such a desire even existed.

I took my medicine only occasionally when it occurred to me, so the symptoms my New Alzheimer's steadily progressed. Soon, I had totally forgotten the childhood days of asthma that made me suffer so much. I didn't feel any strong feelings about that.

My final day was steadily approaching. Despite this, I was willingly pushing the hands forward. You might call it a passive, sluggish suicide.

When listening to records, when cooking, when taking a bath, when lying in bed. The more I tried to think about nothing, the more active my brain became.

The story about "him" I'd manufactured at the patient meetup was still going around in my head.

Because of a few details I'd added to the story to give it some reality, "his" existence started to feel more real. I think a large part of it was having spoken about "him" to someone else for the first time. I listened to the story that was coming out of my mouth as if it were someone else's story. Maybe a better way to put it was, I heard the story through the ears of those present. This feedback earned "him" a kind of objective and social presence, maturing him into a more tactile entity. He came closer to a living being.

As my loneliness and despair deepened, the story of "him" glittered brighter. I would repeatedly trace the story from beginning to end, making minute changes to the details, revising and revising again, then read it over from the beginning, looking at empty space and smiling.

It was emotional self-harm. Fantasies are a deadly medicine; in exchange for meager joy, a transparent poison accumulated in my body.

One day, a number of things coincided, and I succeeded in cooking a very difficult meal. It turned out so well, it made me want to take a photo, and it tasted fantastic too. I subconsciously thought that "he" would probably be happy to eat this. In that moment, I completely forgot that "he" was a fictional person.

Immediately after, I remembered the truth that "he" didn't exist, and my head went blank.

A few seconds after, something inside me broke.

The spoon slipped out of my fingers, hit the floor, and made an unpleasant sound. I leaned down to pick it up, but suddenly my body went limp, and I collapsed to the ground.

I'd reached the critical point of emptiness, and couldn't bear it anymore.

Before I knew it, I was sobbing loudly.

I don't want to die like this, I thought. It's just too cruel for things to end this way. I still haven't obtained anything real.

Before I died, I wanted someone to compliment me just once. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be pitied. Like someone dealing with a little kid, I wanted to be unconditionally accepted and gently embraced. I wanted the 100% perfect boy who 100% understood my loneliness to shower me with 100% love. And after I died, I wanted him to grieve my death and have a wound that would never heal etched into his heart. I wanted him to loathe the disease that killed me, loathe the people who weren't kind to me, and curse the world that was without me.

Of course I couldn't be satisfied by fantasies. The me's within me are still crying like always. The newborn me, the 1-year-old me, the 2-year-old me, the 3-year-old me, the 4-year-old me, the 5-year-old me, the 6-year-old me, the 7-year-old me, the 8-year-old me, the 9-year-old me, the 10-year-old me, the 11-year-old me, the 12-year-old me, the 13-year-old me, the 14-year-old me, the 15-year-old me, the 16-year-old me, the 17-year-old me, the 18-year-old me, all of them were holding their knees and bawling like I was now. Even if my memories of them vanished, their cries still echoed. I needed a realistic salvation for them, but I couldn't find one wherever I looked.

"I'm not scared, I have nothing to lose" had been such a bluff. I was scared of dying with nothing. So much so that I couldn't stop shaking.

But what could I do about it now? I had never made a friend since the day of my birth, so what could I possibly do? Never mind the 100% perfect boy, could I even get a 50% middling friend?

Could I talk with my coworkers? Should I contact someone in my profession and tell them the truth? Even if I did, all I could get out of it was standard sympathy. In fact, if I wasn't lucky, it might just please the person I spoke to. I knew my coworkers and others in my profession were envious of me. I'd heard about their insults here and there. Even if I was lucky enough to pick someone who didn't antagonize me, just me worrying "they might view me as an enemy" made it impossible to establish a true trusting relationship. To be honest, I was terrified of them.

Then should I just talk to some stranger in town? Look for friends on social media? Not a chance. As if I could find people who really understood that way. It would be like looking for a single needle in the desert. And talk about risky; it could easily be a very unpleasant experience.

If 30% sympathy, 40% understanding, and 50% love were enough, I might be able to find that if I try like hell. But that wouldn't do. To save me, to save us, it would absolutely take the 100% perfect boy.

People might call that an unreasonable expectation. They'd scold me, saying a person who's neglected socialization all her life suddenly getting the ultimate love would be too good to be true. They might say "even 50% sympathy would be too good for you." But my intuition as a Mimory engineer was telling me something. Only being held tight by the ultimate boy can save you. There was surely no way other than that to unravel the tightly-woven loneliness in me, formed over such a long time.

I spent the next few days crying, but even so, I didn't try to stop thinking about "him." If I'd come this far, I thought, I might as well keep stripping off the skin until I can see bone.

I completely forgot about taking my medicine, so my symptoms advanced rapidly. I lost my memories up to 15, and forgot the oppressiveness of my time in compulsory education. Three-fourths of my life was shadowed by nothingness, and it truly approached empty.

I continued to think about "him."

I stopped listening to records, and I stopped cooking. It was too much trouble to even cry standing up, so I held my pillow and crawled around the room like a caterpillar, lying in bed, lying on the floor, lying in the kitchen, lying in the entryway, lying in the bathroom, lying on the veranda. Even then, the sluggishness surrounding my body wouldn't leave.

I continued to think about "him."

I felt distaste even toward the Mimory creation I enjoyed so much, and felt a little nauseous even looking at someone's personal record. Whatever I looked at, I could only feel jealousy, and I despised people who lived lives without want, yet still wanted happy Mimories.

I continued to think about "him."

And then one day, an innocent madness came over me.

While ruminating over my memories of "him" like usual, it occurred to me.

Can people imagine someone they've never even met this vividly?

Can people love someone they've never even met this wholeheartedly?

Was there anything wrong with putting this much into a fictional entity?

Am I making a fundamental mistake here?

I wonder.


Is it possible?

Is "he" not a fictional person, but someone who really exists?

Had the disease merely taken away the important parts of the memories, and I really did have a childhood friend who I became convinced was a fantasy?

It was a truly shameful idea. If someone had told me this before my disease, I would respond with a laugh.

But in that moment, I saw it as a divine revelation. I'd long since lost my sanity. I clung to that theory. Now, my final hope resided in the blanked memories brought about by my disease.


I was home again after a year and a half.

Taken hold by the idea that "he" really existed, I was unable to stay put, and got on the early morning train bound for my hometown.

To reunite with "him," of course.

I had my yearbook from middle school in my bag, and I kept re-reading it on the way. The sight of a 19-year-old girl reading through a yearbook by herself on the train was a bizarre one, but the early morning down-train was sparse, and no one stopped to look.

I drilled all the faces and names in the yearbook into my brain. None of my classmates' faces felt familiar, as if I had grabbed a yearbook for an entirely unknown school by mistake.

I looked for boys who most closely matched my impression of "him," but that proved difficult to find among photos where everyone had similar smiling expressions. "He" had no definite shape in my memories, only an impression and an atmosphere. To discern that, I would need continuous information like behavior or changes in expression.

Among the photos of the classrooms and school events, I couldn't find myself. I always hung my head with a fretful look, so I must have had no appeal as a subject for photographs. The middle-schoolers in the yearbook were lively, and I saw something in them which I had already lost. In less than a year, I would turn twenty - provided I even lived that long.

The train arrived at my hometown before noon. It was a dull rural town in the corner of Chiba. When I left at age 18, I was terribly uncertain about going so far away to the city, but returning here now, I realized it wasn't even that big of a distance. I went through the ticket gate and exited the cramped building.

My hometown felt like I was visiting it for the first time. The sky, the greenery, the sea, all of it was unknown to me. So naturally, I felt no nostalgia either. While I did feel some faint déjà vu when I looked at rundown cafés and shuttered stores, the feeling was closer to seeing something in real life which I was acquainted with from TV and books, as I was unable to make any connection to my own past.

After checking my location with a map on my phone and devising a general route to take, I put my left hand on my lung, took a deep breath, and started to walk. I was beside myself with worry wondering what I'd do if I bumped into my parents, but I also felt a sense of elation to have an objective in mind for the first time in a while.

The elementary school, the middle school, the shopping district, the park, the community center, the library, the walking trail, the hospital, the supermarket. I followed the map to walk here and there. Though it was Sunday, I hardly passed by anyone. It was probably that the population was low, rather than people not being out and about. I was used to city life now, so it felt like walking around a town with a curfew. It also struck me as like an artificial town soon to be populated with artificial people.

The sky was a clear blue, and I could see massive cumulonimbus clouds far in the distance. Walking through this nostalgic scene blurred by summer sunlight, I found myself fantasizing about a story set in this town.

If only I didn't have to part from "him," and could've kept living in this town.

I surely wouldn't become a Mimory engineer, and would be enjoying life as a normal college student by now. I'd get a scholarship and do part-time jobs and live close to "him," in a way halfway to us living together, and I'd make him meals and help with chores and play the part of a young wife.

Soon, I started to see shadows of myself from potential worlds all around the town. In those worlds, I was happy. My grade-schooler self was riding on the luggage carrier of "his" bike, clinging to his back and laughing. My middle-school self was wearing a yukata and holding hands with "him," watching the fireworks. My high-school self, on the way home from school, snuck in a quick kiss with "him" in the shadow of the bus stop. My college self was going to the supermarket with "him," carrying half his groceries and walking alongside him like we were a married couple.

Maybe they weren't fantasies, but flashbacks. Like judging the outcome of an experiment, I could imagine that they were plausible. A rather deranged state of mind. It would seem I'd been possessed by a monster of imagination that dwelled in this land.

The town was small, so I could go around to all the notable buildings and facilities in half a day. Needless to say, I made zero findings. I was only spoken to by a single old person. They asked for directions to the police box, and I replied that I wasn't from here, so I didn't know. That was all I could answer.

The sunset had a color that made me think of wilting sunflowers. Sitting on an embankment still warm from the heat of the day, I gazed at the sea. I took off my shoes and put them aside, airing out my feet that were chafed from walking. I drank half a bottle of mineral water I got from a vending machine, then poured the rest on my feet. The cold water seeped into the wound. Once it dried, I applied a bandage from the drug store.

There were hardly any young people in town to start with. I saw a couple of kids in elementary or middle school, but I didn't see a single person around my age. The town was half-dead, and had no real hope of recovering. All that was left was for it to rot. Of course, I probably had even less time left than this town.

My whole body ached, and my head was fogged. But I couldn't sit around here forever. I put on my shoes, put my hands on my knees, and staggered to my feet. I grabbed my bag with the yearbook and hung it over my shoulder.

Just then, I heard young people's voices from the trail, and I reflexively turned to them. A boy and a girl around age 14 were walking together. The boy was dressed casually for a stroll, but the girl wore a pretty yukata. It was a deep blue texture with a simple fireworks pattern on it, and she wore little red chrysanthemums in her hair. I watched the girl for a while. I was somewhat jealous; I wanted to wear a yukata like that and walk with my lover.

There was probably a festival going on somewhere in town. I decided to follow after the two of them. They went past the shopping district and turned right, went straight along the narrow path by the rice paddies, crossed the railroad tracks, and finally, a shrine that wasn't too big or too small came into sight. I heard the sounds of a festival and smelled the smells.

If fated reunions exist, I thought.

Wouldn't this be the most fitting stage for one?

I wandered around the area like a sleepwalker, searching for any sign of "him." Of course, I didn't know his face. I didn't know his voice. Still, I was convinced I would know with just a glance. I was convinced he would know me with just a glance, too. Maybe he wouldn't immediately believe in a coincidental reunion at first and keep walking past. But after walking a few steps, I'm sure he would turn back around.

I moved through the crowd and kept walking, seeking my fantasy lover who I had blown up like a soap bubble.

By the time the stands started to close down, my heart was starting to give in. The festival sounds ceased as if exhausted, the smells were carried off on the wind, and the lights were swallowed by the darkness, leaving a silence that hurt my ears. I sat up from the stone steps and left the shrine behind.

Even though I'd loitered around in front of those stands for so long, I hadn't eaten anything. I walked around looking for a restaurant, and found just one place still open by the station. Lured by the aroma of grilled fish, I entered the restaurant.

Once I sat at my table, the day's fatigue came down on me all at once. I felt like I couldn't walk another step. I didn't really look at the menu and ordered a grilled fish special, then stared in the direction of the baseball game on TV while guzzling ice water brought by the waiter.

I heard a customer sitting at the counter order sake, so I thought about having some alcohol myself. I'd always sort of avoided it because I had the impression it was something you drank with a large group, but if I could forget the bad things for even a moment, maybe it wouldn't be bad to try it. Surely I didn't need to be worried for my health at this point.

I twisted my body toward the counter and called for a waiter. I ordered the same sake the girl had ordered earlier, then the waiter mechanically repeated my order and left. I felt a little relief that they didn't confirm my age, and a little sadness at the same time. Did I clearly look the age where there was no problem letting me drink?

I left my seat and went to check my face in the bathroom mirror. Possibly because of how many years I'd gone with barely any need to change expression, I sensed no liveliness or vitality in it at all. Like an exhausted single mother in her late twenties. Even though my mind was stopped around 14.

When I got back to my seat, some sake and a sake cup had been haphazardly placed on the table. I timidly sipped it; it had a bad taste I couldn't describe further. I grabbed the glass of ice water and rinsed out the aftertaste. It was so bitter and smelly and sweet, it made me suspect it was trying to be as hard to drink as possible. I couldn't imagine why people would drink this by choice.

Even so, I forced myself to drink about half, and my body started to warm up. I guess this is what being drunk feels like, I thought as I watched it whirl around in the bottom of the sake cup.

Something was caught in the corner of my mind, but I had no idea what was causing it. I turned to the counter once again to order some warm tea. I cupped my left hand by my mouth to call for the waiter, but froze in that position.

The girl sitting at the counter had a familiar face.

I immediately compared her face with the photos in the yearbook I'd looked back through on the train. Excepting the effects of four years of aging, it neatly matched one of my classmates in third year. Her hairstyle and appearance had changed a fair bit, but there was no doubt. This girl had been the class chairwoman.

Finally, I was able to meet someone I knew.

My body moved before I could think. I approached her and spoke.

"Um... Do you remember me?"

The ex-chairwoman blinked, sake cup still in hand. Her face seemed to be evaluating which of us was drunk. I was briefly worried I had the wrong person, but I didn't think so. It was just that I had left a very weak impression in middle school.

She laughed awkwardly.

"Err, sorry. Any hints for me?"

"We were in the same class in middle school, third year."

She briefly entered a thinking pose, then slapped her knee. But the actual name didn't come to her, so she paused after "Er, the asthmatic..."

I smiled wryly and gave my name. "I'm the asthmatic Touka Matsunagi."

"Right, right, Miss Matsunagi," she nodded, seeming to now remember.

"May I sit with you?", I asked. It would be hard to imagine myself doing this normally, but I was desperate then.

"Huh? Right, sure."

I had the waiter change my seat, then sat down next to her. The sake was now starting to kick in. I tried to overexaggerate my joy at reuniting with a classmate I only knew from yearbook photos, and she surely did the same for her reunion with a classmate who left so little impression she forgot my name. We proved terrible at holding a conversation with each other, but I was happy to meet someone who remembered me, however vaguely.

"Miss Matsunagi, what are you up to now? College student?"

I told her she was right. My second lie since coming to town. She probably wouldn't believe that I was a Mimory engineer, and I didn't want to give too weird an impression to the first classmate I was able to finally meet. Saying I was a college student visiting home on summer break seemed like the safest option.

"A college in Tokyo, huh. I'm jealous," she said, not sounding particularly jealous.

"And what are you doing?"
"Me? I'm..."

Then she talked for a while about how things were for her lately. (I know it's rude to say, but as stories told by people who pointlessly stay behind in rural towns often are, it was horrifyingly average and boring.) Once I'd heard the details up to her getting her current job, Firefly's Light began to play through the restaurant, signifying closing time. "Hmm, that time already," the ex-chairwoman said, looking at her watch.

While waiting behind her as she took care of the bill, I was for no particular reason trying to remember the proper lyrics to Firefly's Light. But absolutely nothing came to mind other than the title. Maybe I had never learned it, or maybe it was a result of New Alzheimer's.

The clearly-mistaken lyrics "So fleeting and so meaningless, just like my yearning heart" wouldn't leave my mind, like a catchy song from a commercial.

As we parted, the ex-chairwoman seemed to remember something.

"Since about a year ago, we classmates who are still in the area have been meeting up for drinks. Sort of like a mini class reunion. Would you like to join us, Miss Matsunagi?"

I felt bad to leave her like this, so I was beyond grateful, having just been thinking about how I could keep her from leaving. It was such an ideal segue, my face briefly reverted to a serious expression. I hurried to recreate my smile and told her I'd be glad to take part.

She told me the time and place, I thanked her, and we parted. (She apparently had business and would be absent from the next class reunion.) I took the last train back to the apartment, had a shower, and put a fresh bandage on my foot. Then I stood at the bathroom mirror and looked at my face.

I was now painfully aware of how much I'd neglected looking my age.

I had hardly ever concerned myself with my appearance. I hadn't thought of a human's appearance as anything more than the shape of a container. Like the cover of a book or a record jacket, I considered it irrelevant to the actual nature of the thing.

But as my insides approached empty, I became more concerned about the shape of the container. True, it might not be the essence of a person. But I can't say I've never purchased a book based on the cover. I can't say I've never bought a record because of the jacket. If you want people to know about what's inside, you have to put care into the visual element too - that's an undeniable fact. My insides weren't something I could brag about to others in the first place. And most importantly, appearance was a very important factor for love.

I'll get myself in order, I thought. Just under twenty years late, but I need to make up for it at least a little.

The class reunion was in two weeks. In those two weeks, I focused on revising my looks.

The next day, I had a basic breakfast, then looked up beauty parlors, makeup classes, and makeover salons online, making reservations at every one. Then I went to the bookstore and, yes, bought tons of fashion and beauty magazines too, which I read thoroughly for the next two days like a student cramming before an exam. Once I had a decent sense of how to style my hair and face, I next visited a boutique and spoke with a clerk to buy new clothes and shoes.

All of this totaled up to a pretty outrageous cost, but it just relieved me to finally have a reason to spend my money. I couldn't take my money to the next life, anyhow.

I basically tried anything I could think of. I didn't worry about money, tossed shame and reputation aside, and endeavored to become pretty. So that I could earn the affection of someone who just possibly might remember me. So that I wouldn't disappoint "him" who just possibly might exist.

I must have lost it.

I pulled off a dramatic transformation in those two weeks. Part of it was that I looked awful to start with, but at the very least, I would no longer be offended if I suddenly spotted myself in a mirror while walking around town. Perhaps not fully "pretty," but I certainly looked more my age.

I had always been a good studier, and proficient at finding the best solution out of the conditions I was given. So once I got the hang of them, even makeup and outfit-picking posed me little trouble. I interpreted makeup to be oil painting with my face as a canvas, and interpreted choosing clothes as an activity akin to evoking the seasons in a haiku. Once I'd done this, it caused the reservations I'd held about them to disappear. And once I'd cleared away those dented feelings, refining my looks became simply fun. I could finally understand why people would pour most of their income into beauty.

I stood in front of a mirror and practiced smiling. I'd always hated my smile. I had the baseless worry that my smile made other people feel unpleasant.

That unease had finally vanished. I was able to give myself a carefree smile in the mirror.

Now I can meet "him" without fear, I felt.


And then, the day arrived.

I'll spare you the details and just skip to the conclusion.

There wasn't a single classmate I remembered there.

From the beginning of the meetup to the end, I sat in the corner, sipping on beer I wasn't used to drinking.

On the way home, I felt sick and threw up on the side of the road.

That brought back some of my sanity.

I'll devote myself to work, I thought.

Because that's the only thing I have left.

Chapter 10

Novel List