Chapter 2: Parents and the Diagnosis

“I wonder what everyone else is doing.”

“Who’s ‘everyone’?”

“Like Nagase-san and Kawataki-san.”

“School friends?”

“Yep.”

“Then they’re probably going to school like normal.”

“I wonder if they’re worried about us?”

“I’m sure they are.”

Somewhere in my heart, though, I knew they probably weren’t.

“What about my mom and dad?”

“…I’m sure they are too.”

Our conversation stopped there.

Almost as if to forget what we had just talked about, we both fell asleep.

usotsuki_illu1

 

I awoke at seven, when the morning sun was at its brightest. I passed the gates of our school long before school was due to begin, on my way to Mayu’s apartment. Today marked the beginning of our life together. Overcome by excitement, I’d risen bright and early, like an adult on the morn of the release of a game he’d been awaiting for the past twelve years. Actually, that’s a lie.

I simply did not want to face my night owl of an aunt, who was a nurse. The second I’d stepped through the door the night before an intense fight had begun. She’d casually denied my right to live and threatened to suppress my fundamental rights as a human. My compassionate uncle, a doctor, stepped in before the fight turned physical. He gave me permission to take my leave on the condition that I find my way home once a month. Auntie, on the other hand, had been strongly against it from the first. Her overprotectiveness might have been a flaw, but she certainly wasn’t as terrible a person as I.

“I wonder if I’m too early…”

I rode the elevator to the third floor, where I approached her room before pausing at the door. Mayu was a girl accustomed to sleeping a great deal. When it came to school, for example, she generally arrived at least an hour late, whereupon she would promptly rest her head on her desk and continue to sleep.

“I know I promised to come get her, but can she really be up already…?”

I rang the doorbell, even though I wasn’t really expecting an answer. If she doesn’t answer, I can just wait out— The door opened wide, slamming into my face.

“Wha— Ow!”

The impact that had failed to express itself verbally instead manifested itself as a red liquid that poured from my nose.

“Hi! Mii-kun!”

I pinched my nose as Mayu greeted me energetically.

“Hello?”

Mayu observed my face intently, the smile never leaving her face. Suddenly, she began to forcefully wipe the blood flowing through my fingers with the sleeves of her pajamas.

“Don’t worry about it; you’ll dirty your clothes,” I interrupted.

“It’s okay. Mii-kun’s look just fine,” she replied.

The blue and white stripes of her pajamas were joined by a third color. Seeing this, Mayu smiled, entranced.

“…Just how long have you been waiting here?”

As goosebumps ran along my skin and cold sweat peppered my back, I reluctantly sought verification of my suspicions.

“Since yesterday,” she replied calmly.

“…Yesterday?”

“Yesterday.”

“…What time yesterday?”

“I showered right after Mii-kun escaped – just after that.”

It had been seven in the evening when I’d left.

“You’ve been waiting here? By the door?”

“Yep.”

“And what were you doing exactly?”

“Sleeping.”

“…………”

Well then.

I guess our relationship will hinge on whether I tear up at her admirable sense of loyalty or shiver in a corner at her fanatical devotion. Without giving the matter any thought, I decided neither were for me, business as usual for my contrarian self.

“I guess I should’ve come earlier. Sorry,” I said, expressing an insincere apology. Brightly, Mayu told me not to worry and, pouncing, embraced me.

“Mii-kun,” Mayu murmured affectionately as she buried her face in my chest.

…Wait? I had something I wanted to ask this overly affectionate cohabitor of mine…

“Mmn? You smell like soap.”

Mayu smelled sweet as well. Her bewitching fragrance caused the reminder to question her to fade from my mind.

“I like morning baths,” I replied. Truthfully, it had been my first ever. I hadn’t had time to bathe last night.

With Mayu still glued to my person, I walked inside. Mayu didn’t bother to ask whether or not I was moving in; indeed, there wasn’t much point in asking – there wasn’t any need to hear my answer after all.

I walked into the living room I’d idled in the day before and left both my school bag and my gym bag, my change of clothes within, on the floor. Sparing the Japanese-style room a quick glance, I found the fusuma door sealed shut. I marveled that the children had not gone mad despite being trapped inside all day.

“Breakfast?” Mayu inquired, still clinging to my arm.

“I haven’t had anything yet,” I replied.

“No, I was asking if you’d prefer bread or rice?”

That I was to have breakfast with her seemed a foregone conclusion in her mind. If not, I’ll eat you with chopsticks, like I did last night – I imagined her saying. I guess these thoughts of mine make me a crazy person.

“Bread, then. This is a Western-styled room, after all,” I answered, my reasoning fallacious and my words nonsensical. Mayu voiced her understanding, though she remained glued to my arm, unmoving. Given the look of satisfaction on her face, I guess I passed muster as a body pillow. We collapsed on the sofa and turned on the 32” TV.

“This is my first time watching TV in the morning,” Mayu commented.

Neither a rare event nor one that hadn’t occurred for some time, but rather one that had never happened before.

The screen showed a familiar scene – our town. A large-lettered caption appeared on the screen: “Mass Murderer Yet to be Caught” – a title utterly lacking in originality.

“Someone was killed last night too.”

“Yeah. I mean, sure it’s dangerous, but people die all the time. I don’t see why they have to make such a big deal about it,” I responded. I’d known of the latest incident since the day before.

The victim was the president of the Residential Association who’d been out on patrol. Having finished his shift, he’d been murdered in the intervening five-minute period before the next person came to relieve him. The cause of his death had been fairly orthodox: he’d died of his stab wounds. One wound, however, was anything but – a large hole had been found in his temple. The murder had taken place at about eight in the evening, near the elementary school. Once again there had not been any witnesses, leading some to conclude that this was a crime without a criminal, its cause supernatural. This was, after all, a town that had barely any experience with murder. Well, up until half a year ago, anyway.

“It sure is scary though, right— Mayu?”

My flimsy opinion failed to provoke any reaction from Mayu, her gaze intent as she stared at the CRT display, the smile gone from her face and her eyes dull.

“…It’s been a while,” she murmured, drowning in nostalgia, the prospect of which I found more repulsive than the thought of sticking a bare limb into a bucket crawling with maggots.

“Hey.” Mayu suddenly looked up at me. Her dead eyes peered deeply into mine. “Did Mii-kun do that?” she continued.

Talk about out of the blue. A question with neither reason nor rhyme. The question mark at the end of that line had been essentially meaningless.

“No,” I lied. “Maa-chan, you detest murderers more than anything in this world, right?”

“Yep. I hate them.”

Mayu’s mouth formed another smile. She proceeded to position herself on my lap as if protecting my legs from an unknown enemy, and rubbed her cheek against mine.

“And I l××e Mii-kun more than anything in this world.”

“…Yay.”

Naturally, it would take far more than that to do me in.

“Ohhh? Mii-kun’s cheeks are getting hotter. And you have goosebumps.”

“…………”

Okay, I lied.

“L-Let’s eat already. I’m in the mood to ingest some wheat.”

I was flustered beyond belief. Mayu, with a triumphant expression, patted my head with a “Sure, sure.” It was humiliating to be treated like a child by a child. Though I was immune to both the word ‘like’ as well as physical contact, the word ‘love’ was my Achilles’ heel. I forced a scowl to avoid embarrassing myself further.

Mayu parted from me and walked off to the kitchen as if sleepwalking. She looked like she’d settled down considerably compared to yesterday, as she didn’t run. I called out from behind her.

“If… if I was the criminal, what would you do?”

Mayu turned, watching me in puzzlement.

“What do you mean, ‘what would you do?’ ”

I don’t know. Take me to the cops or something? Maybe think “you’re a pervert, and gross to boot” or “go kill yourself, idiot,” or…

The dismal exiguity of my imagination prompted self-pity. I’d failed to come up with anything more than common insults, and ones made by elementary school children at that.

“Ehh, iono…” Mayu muttered in broken Japanese, walking off. “Then what would Mii-kun do if I were to drop dead right now?”

A voice reached me all the way from the kitchen. Despite the soft volume of the uttered words, they resonated loudly in my ears.

“I would never think about such a thing, so I can’t say.”

“Yep! It’s the same for me!”

Oh, now I get it!

I had no clue what her words meant, but affected by Mayu’s overflowing confidence, I decided I understood. It wasn’t like I’d meant anything by the question in the first place, and so it was fine this way.

I grew bored waiting for Mayu to finish preparing breakfast, so I slid open the doors to the Japanese-style room. As anticipated, the dark room was steeped in a foul odor that no one could possibly enjoy. Covering my nose with my hand as I entered the room, I discovered that my nose had stopped bleeding.

Within, the two siblings were asleep side-by-side in a corner of the room. Kouta-kun covered Anzu-chan, as if to protect her, while his sister had curled into a ball like a cat luxuriating in the afternoon sunlight.

“Oh?”

Though it was an adorable sight, the muscles on my face refused to budge. They moved only for certain things. What things? Fun things, of course. Though that’s a lie.

I exited, headed for what I figured had to be Mayu’s room, a room I had yet to see. Crossing the corridor, I pulled the door open; the sight before me made me want to cover my eyes rather than my nose. Textbooks were strewn about willy-nilly, and her bedding had been crumpled into a ball and left in the corner. Gadgets both gaudy and arcane formed a pyramid on the desk, prevented from fulfilling their intended function. Because Mayu did not read, there were neither books nor magazines to be found, let alone a bookshelf.

I hopped over the mound of textbooks and opened her closet; a sigh escaped me as I did so. The clothes within had been roughly thrown one atop another, heedless of the wrinkles that would inevitably form. Digging through Mayu’s clothes, I secured a shabby-looking blanket. I brushed off the layer of dust that had collected on it, and left the room with the blanket in hand.

“I guess the reason the living room’s clean is because she wasn’t using it.”

I returned to the Japanese-style room, musing on the pointlessness of a living room that was never “lived in.” I unfolded the blanket and attempted to lay it over the two, when Anzu-chan’s fox-like eyes suddenly reacted.

“…I don’t need it,” Anzu-chan murmured, her eyes still half-closed. “I don’t need alms from a kidnapper…”

Good for you, knowing a word like “alms.”

In the absence of immediate physical need, her spirit of defiance held strong as it had not with dinner the night before. With that said…

“Unfortunately for you, the only charity you’re going to get any time soon is going to come from kidnappers, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.”

I lay the blanket over the pair. Anzu-chan’s objection was muffled by the blanket. “I told you I don’t need it,” she said.

“If I believe you, your brother might catch a cold. Are you really okay with that?”

Anzu-chan’s mouth snapped shut and her gaze strayed. She obediently crawled under the blanket. I took that as passive agreement and turned to leave.

“Thanks…”

Her voice had been softer than the quiet buzz of an insect; perhaps she had not intended for me to hear. Unfortunately for her, however, in the silent stillness of a countryside morning, it might have been wiser not to have spoken at all.

“…That’s for yesterday. Kouta told me to say it, okay?” she added in explanation.

“My pleasure,” I mumbled as I left the room. I had forgotten just how fulfilling being a hypocrite could be.

 

We spent breakfast playing at being a couple, saying “ahh” for one another and all, and then left. Once again, just as she had the day before, Mayu sealed her childish side away. Neither did utterance leave her mouth nor emotion show on her face as she walked coldly beside me. Idly, I wondered if an adulterous couple leaving a hotel might not act as we now were. I accepted that this was simply Mayu’s defense mechanism for coping with the world, and I, too, worked hard to walk to school in silence. At the stairs of the school, I gave her my hand in place of the handrails as we ascended.

The second we reached the classroom, Mayu bolted straight for her desk and hung her bag on the hook on its side. Bending over her desk as if kissing it, she promptly went to sleep. The other half of this stupid couple mused to himself that her manner of sleeping was a waste of her elegant looks.

No one dared speak to her. Mayu’s sleep was never interrupted until after school had concluded. With our homeroom teacher Kaminuma-sensei at the head of the pack, the entire cohort of teachers pretended not to see her sleeping. Mayu had thus never once been reprimanded for poor classroom behavior.

Should I wake her up at lunch break? Would I be allowed to accompany her on the way out of school? These questions ran through my mind as I rested my head on my elbow, silently watching Mayu sleep as she lay slumped over on her desk. In the end though, I settled on acting as if she didn’t exist, just like the teachers here did.

Mayu slept through the entire day, never moving.

 

The tranquil school day concluded.

Amid the hustle and bustle of students leaving, I checked the pair of handouts we had been given. The first was a message from the student council, while the other was a pamphlet regarding the upcoming school trip.

The student council notice was jam-packed with announcements from the diseased minds that ran our wonderful school. Yes, that means exactly what it sounds like. The handout included a single line of warning concerning the serial murder incident shaking up this country, which read: “If you encounter anyone holding something dangerous, please be careful.” I wanted to object that the only dangers here were their rotted brains. Crowding the rest of this sheet of paper were the opinions, style, and “heroic story” of each respective member of the student council, ordered in accordance with the hierarchy of the body in question. The paper was literally covered with articles crying, “look at me, I’m amazing!” When it came to an organization like that, even were I a mysterious transfer student, I wouldn’t have any desire to fight them. I folded the leaflet into an airplane and sent it soaring toward the trash. Score.

The pamphlet for the school trip, on the other hand, detailed the itinerary, suggestions about how much money to bring, and contact numbers; it was, in short, targeted at parents. After skimming its pages, I folded it once more and put it away.

In three weeks time, we students were to take a field trip to Kyushu. About a month ago, Kaminuma-sensei had carelessly explained that we would journey across the entirety of Kyushu over a period of four days and three nights. When I’d heard the news, I’d thought of the wave of teasing that would soon engulf Sugawara Michizane at Dazaifu Tenmangu[1].

The Mayu that usually revived once school ended showed no signs of returning to life, leading me to hesitate over what to do next. Weighing that thought against the potential retribution I would be victim of should I leave without her, I took the path of least resistance.

I approached Mayu’s desk via the back of the classroom to avoid unwanted attention, and lightly shook her by the shoulders. This was, of course, the first time anyone had done anything of the sort, and so the curious gazes that found me were unavoidable.

Mayu mumbled incomprehensibly as she looked up at me with sleepy eyes. As she slurped up her drool, she slowly recognized me.

“…Mii-kun?”

“That’s right. Let’s head home, alright? Whoa—!”

“Yay!”

With a celebratory cry, Mayu leapt at me. I caught her with my entire body…

…and then Mayu and I kissed.

Now that was a shock. Exclamation mark.

“…………”

A deafening silence filled the classroom, the only sounds coming from within me. The movements of my muscles, the creaking of my bones, and the scraping of my joints. The beating of my heart. And the sound of Mayu’s tongue squirming, as if seeking all the saliva in my mouth. She caressed every inch of my mouth with her tongue, and slurped the saliva she had gathered with a lewd sound before promptly stepping back in a fluster.

“…Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”

Mayu wiped the drool leaking from the side of her mouth with her hand. Now wearing a poker face, she looked up at me.

“…And it’s good morning to the dawn of our new situation, I guess…”

I’m afraid I might have just built walls between my classmates and myself. C’mon people, there’s couples like this everywhere… I wanted to say, before deciding that such an action would have been tantamount to digging my own grave. That’s a lie, though.

Moving swiftly, Mayu grabbed the handouts she’d been given, shoved them into her bag without a second thought, and then rose. This was no longer where we belonged. Even if I had never looked to school for belonging, that was now no longer even an option. Not that I’d ever planned on becoming friends with locals aware of the kidnappings anyway.

I walked out to the corridor together with Mayu. Her mishap in the classroom didn’t seem to have affected her – she merely calmly adjusted her unkempt clothing as if nothing had happened. Her attitude made it apparent that I was the only one to whom she would reveal her childish side – I was the exception. Did that make me happy? Well… let’s just say yes for now.

On a different note, I had noticed something off about Mayu’s bag back in the classroom. Once we had reached the corridor, I asked if I might look within.

“Sure,” she replied, handing me her bag. The bag she placed in my hands was light as a feather. Inside, the bag was filled with discolored handouts; her textbooks and notebooks were conspicuously absent. Actually, they were probably at home, warming the floorboards of her room.

Sticking my hand in, I removed the handouts. Within the pile of papers I had just extracted, I noticed the leaflet that had been distributed during the school entrance ceremony. This had clearly been a pattern of behavior extending back at least to her first year. I crumpled the handout, intending to throw it away.

“Wait.”

A voice called out from the classroom behind me, and I turned around. Kaneko stood there, leaning against the door.

“What do you want, class rep?”

Kaneko gave a vague smile in response to my frigid tone, and approached us. He kept his hands busy by scratching his cheeks and then placing them on his hips. If you’re so busy, then don’t bother us, I complained inwardly.

“Not you; I’m talking to Misono-san.”

“What do you want?” Mayu reacted immediately upon hearing her name. She was not as hostile as she had been yesterday, but the impression left by the cold attitude she’d presented the day before lingered still.

“I’d originally intended to ask you yesterday, but what are some good features of our school?”

Mayu glanced at me for a moment before replying, “There aren’t any.”

“There aren’t… Huh. Yeah, okay.”

Due to this utterly ineffectual communication possessing all the substance of empty air, Kaneko revealed a pitiful expression. His drooping eyes stared hollowly through Mayu directly at me, who was detachedly spectating the situation – a plainful plea for help. It wasn’t just an SOS though; his curiosity regarding the earlier situation was clearly conveyed as well. I pretended not to notice. In a situation where a single “bye” would end it all, I wondered why he couldn’t say as much.

“Uh, well… You’re leaving me in a tight spot if you say there’s nothing. I need an opinion from everyone, you know?” he managed to squeeze out in reply.

“An open atmosphere. Beautiful scenery. Satisfactory architecture. Happy now?”

“…Yeah. Sure.”

Kaneko’s expression did its job, fully conveying his regret in asking. Despite that, he continued, “One last question then… Are you guys, um… dating?”

His face lit up with a sense of accomplishment, as if that had been what he’d wanted to ask all along. Mayu’s answer, however, was just as blunt as her others had been.

“And what good would it do me to answer that?”

“Uh…” Kaneko mumbled, having reached his limit.

“Hey, if you’ve got the time to be hitting on girls, why not go work up a sweat swinging a bamboo sword instead,” a student walked out of the classroom next door and spoke in a joking manner.

He was both the student council president and the kendo club president as well as numerous other such things. This was Sugawara Michizane, a man with a stunning array of titles and a style of speaking to match.

He wore the word “omnipotent” like a badge. It was hard to believe he was human, as I was.

With the arrival of unexpected reinforcements, Kaneko’s face relaxed. However…

“That has nothing to do with what we were talking about. Would you please refrain from such senseless remarks?” Mayu seemed incapable of recognizing a joke for what it was. Not sparing a moment’s thought for those around her, her response had been immediate and hostile. A look of surprise flashed across Sugawara’s face before he brushed off the comment with a quick apology. “Sorry for that,” he said, before casting a sharp glance in Kaneko’s direction and asking what he was doing.

“Collecting ideas for the pamphlet; isn’t that the kind of thing a class president should take the initiative to do?” Kaneko replied.

“Just write that they’ll get to meet me and include a picture. Problem solved,” Sugawara said.

“Haven’t you ever heard of the ‘attraction effect’?”

The dumbfounded look on his face notwithstanding, Kaneko nonetheless began a friendly conversation with Sugawara Michizane. A wall had been placed between us. With a conspicuous display of human relations, he prevented us from trespassing upon his conversation. Without any reason for us to linger further, I looked over to Mayu.

“Let’s go home.”

“Let’s,” she said, taking my hand. Even after we had descended the stairs, our hands were still intertwined as we made our way to the shoe lockers.

 

The second we arrived home, Mayu leapt onto the sofa with an enthusiastic, “Let’s do something naughty,” only to drift off by the time I had finished pulling my change of clothes from my bag. Her sleeping posture was careless; worrying, I carried her to her room and laid her dainty frame on the bed. The thought of doing “something naughty” never crossing my mind, I tucked her in and left the room.

“I wonder how long she’s going to sleep…”

To my shame, I must admit I was completely incapable of cooking. Somehow I had to prepare meals for the children, even if that meant going without any myself. I changed out of my school uniform and slid open the fusuma door.

“Oh, welcome back.”

A voice greeted me. “So you consider this home now?” I wanted to reply, but I choked down my retort. Instead, I merely responded in turn, “Yeah, I’m back.”

The two were nestled together, just as they had been yesterday. The only noticeable difference was the blanket now stretched across their laps, as well as a now-empty plate which had once held their breakfast.

“Um, thank you for this,” Kouta-kun said, his bangs bobbing up and down as he bowed. Shyly, he lifted the blanket with two fingers and smiled. Anzu-chan was faced toward her best friend – the wall.

“Anzu, thank him.”

The older brother pulled on the sleeve of the younger sister, who scowled in discontent.

“Kouta, are you stupid? This guy is a kidnapper. Why should we have to thank him?”

Fair enough. Her rationale might have been simple, but it was also completely logical.

“But Onii-san isn’t the one who kidnapped us,” he replied.

That, too, was true, though it wasn’t a point I could simply let stand without comment.

“Just a sec. I want you two to think of me as the one who kidnapped you.”

The siblings looked confused. That was only natural, though. Common sense would make both Mayu and I guilty parties. Despite my kind façade, my tacit approval of the kidnapping made me an accomplice to her crime.

“She doesn’t need to thank me anyway – she already did so this morning,” I added.

“!”

Anzu-chan’s mouth snapped shut as her eyes gaped wide. What marvelous synchronization.

“Really?”

Anzu-chan, as if hiding from Kouta-kun’s gaze, escaped to the corner of the room. She was, perhaps, disgusted by herself, for her cheeks and ears had turned a bright pink.

“You guys are probably hungry, right?”

Kouta-kun nodded honestly. His fear seemed to have lessened, as his movements had become far less exaggerated.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you two to wait a bit; Onee-san’s asleep right now. If she doesn’t wake soon, I’ll buy you some bentos.”

As I spoke, I was inwardly deliberating between normal bentos – both in price and taste – only to be found at a convenience store some thirty minutes away, or the awful, expensive bentos at the local supermarket.

“Onee-san sure sleeps a lot, doesn’t she?” Kouta-kun asked with a wry smile. “Last weekend, she went to sleep on Saturday and didn’t wake up until Monday morning.”

If you spend more time asleep than awake, are you really alive? I wondered.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but things should be better this week since I’m here.”

“Are you going to live here, Onii-san?”

“Looks like it. I’m new here, but please take care of me.” Jokingly, I extended my hand out for a handshake. Hesitantly, Kouta-kun met my hand with his own; it was slightly grimy.

“Pretty dirty, huh… A bath might be… difficult. I’d like to allow that, but I can’t exactly let you run free…”

If they were to escape because I had removed the chains that bound them, that’d make me the king of fools. Unfortunately, that left me without any options, with neither plans nor inspiration.

“Um…”

Kouta-kun’s timid voice disrupted my train of thought.

“Onii-san, are you Onee-san’s friend?”

“Not eeben crose.”

I pretended to be fluent in English, only to fail miserably. I continued on immediately, pretending that that hadn’t just happened. “Friendship isn’t something I’ve ever felt for Mayu, and I’m sure that holds for her too. She’s just someone important to me.”

“…Those are some embarrassing things you’re saying,” Anzu-chan mumbled. Indeed, from society’s point of view, what I’d just said would likely be seen as embarrassing. If you asked me, though, my English translations were considerably more embarrassing to voice.

“In other words, it’s just like your relationship,” I said.

“We’re not like that!” Anzu-chan snapped, instantly destroying the happy look Kouta-kun had worn from being able to relate to me. Attempting to hide his loneliness, he forced a smile and added a “That’s right” to his sister’s words. Her words having affected him more than she’d expected, she awkwardly averted her gaze and went back to staring at the wall.

“Uh, yeah… That was a lie just now. Right, a lie. Mayu and I are just like a middle-aged couple. We’re different from you guys whose years can be numbered with a single digit. You’re like cicada larvae which have just crawled out of the dirt, while we’re like bell crickets. It’s not even comparable. Although male bell crickets get eaten by females in the end.” Feeling responsible for the downcast mood, I tried my best to patch things up. Naturally, my plan backfired. All I received for my efforts were a polite laugh of pity from Kouta-kun and an angry glare from Anzu-chan. What can I say? I don’t have the talents of a class rep; I’m just on the cleanup committee.

“*Ahem*. Anyway, did you just want to confirm whether or not Mayu and I are friends?”

“Uh, um, well…”

“Do you like Mayu?”

Falling for your kidnapper… Stockholm Syndrome, is it?

“N-No, that’s not it! Not a chance!” Kouta-kun frantically shook his hands and head in denial. Hmm, suspicious. Oh, maybe I’m the one he likes? Ha, as if.

Blushing to the tips of his ears, Kouta-kun looked down. I wonder what he thought about Anzu-chan’s cold glare? “It’s not like that,” he mumbled.

“She’s too scary,” he added, pausing a moment before continuing. “Falling for her is a bit…”

Then what does that say about me!? I considered asking hysterically.

“Plus, her screaming is a bit…”

“Wait, screaming…?”

His offhand comment drew a reaction from me. Nervously, he nodded twice. Anzu-chan also bobbed her head.

“How do I put this? She screams really loudly in the middle of the night. Not, uh, every night, though.”

“…Hmm.” Putting my hand to my chin, I pretended to be troubled. In truth, however, I knew instantly the cause – what society would label an illness of the heart. “It’s probably a type of PTSD…”

I wondered if her doctor knew; Mayu never kept her designated appointments.

“I guess the simplest conclusion is that she’s talking in her sleep…”

Such a thing was, however, impossible. Mayu was not one to wake in the middle of the night. Though she fell asleep easily enough, she was difficult to wake. She didn’t have the energy to speak, let alone scream.

“You didn’t know…?” Kouta-kun asked, surprised. It was only natural, though; I knew nothing about Misono Mayu. All I knew was her name, nickname, and pen name. Obviously one of those is a lie.

“I didn’t want to know,” I replied. I wasn’t sure how much of that was a lie. The two merely made noncommittal sounds of acknowledgment.

Rising, I prepared to check on Mayu, but first decided to give the two another look. Observing the two from head to toe, I came to the decision to put my plan into action.

“This is probably a futile effort, but… Take off your clothes – I’ll give ‘em a wash.”

It would’ve been far simpler to have them bathe, but that was simply out of the question. The pair’s eyes widened and blinked several times in shock before they finally reacted.

“Is that really okay?”

“Is it not okay?”

Is it really that surprising that I’d do something good once in a while, you brat.

“I-I’m okay with it…”

I seemed to have scared him. Reflecting on my actions, I resolved myself to mimic the attendants of an international theme park, a land of dreams and happiness, and act more politely. [1.5]

“Please remove your clothing for me,” I said more gently, extending my hand. Kouta-kun handed me his shirt, pants, and underwear, which he removed with an abashed look. I turned to Anzu-chan. She wriggled uncomfortably under the cover provided by the blanket before passing me a bundle of clothes from under the blanket. I took the pile of clothing and left the room.

With the ball of horrific smells in my arms, I made my way to the bathroom and tossed the clothing into the washing machine. The water turned a deep black the moment it poured in, even before I added any detergent – their clothes were horrifically filthy indeed. Reluctantly, I fished the clothes out and washed them by hand instead. I scrubbed until the surface layer of grime disappeared, rinsed them, and returned them to the washing machine, allowing the detergent and the machine to do their job. I watched for a while as I readied myself for the task ahead. Using the bathroom sink, I cleaned my hands of the filth that had accumulated, then prepared a tub which I filled to the brim with hot water. I soaked a couple of towels in the tub, and carried it back to the room.

“Here, wipe your bodies with this,” I said as I walked in.

My actions must have come as quite the surprise, for their jaws dropped when they saw me. As I thought, good deeds don’t suit me. Though it must be said that I didn’t have any talent for bad deeds either.

“Thank you so, so much.” Kouta-kun thanked me sincerely, as if he had forgotten the nature of our relationship. Hmm.

“I know; pretty gracious of me, right?” I joked.

“Absolutely.”

Wait, you weren’t supposed to agree.

Kouta-kun climbed under the blanket and began to wipe down his sister’s body; his assertive manner seemed to be the norm here. By the time the towel came back out from under the blanket, it had turned a murky ocher. Kouta-kun dipped the towel in the tub of hot water, and began wiping Anzu-chan down once more. I couldn’t tell what effect his efforts were having, but I could tell that he was taking extreme care as he cleaned every inch of her body, as a curator restoring a piece of art might. His selfless devotion made me think of mandarin peels.

I had a younger sister of my own, though it was impossible for us to have a relationship of the kind these two had, and we were only half-siblings. That selfish sister of mine loved mandarins – they were the staple of her diet year-round. She consumed them so excessively that her skin had turned yellow. Peeling those mandarins had been my job. Though I’d never once heard a word of gratitude from her, the memory of it now filled me with nostalgia rather than resentment. It wasn’t like I hated her, after all; I simply wasn’t fond of her.

Kouta-kun crawled back out from under the blanket, indicating that he’d finished his labor of love. Anzu-chan’s head, no longer layered in grime, popped out as well. I asked her, now dressed as a teruteru-bouzu[2], how she felt.

“Feeling better, Ikeda-san?”

Anzu-chan, eyes making her displeasure known, nodded. Quietly, she mumbled her forgiveness.

“…Anzu is fine.”

“Anzu? Oh, you mean what I call you; is that really okay?”

“…………”

Don’t make me say it twice, Anzu-chan’s eyes said.

“Got it. Anzu-chan it is.”

“I don’t need the -chan!”

I shrugged at her remark, so different from Mayu’s. I appeared to have gained enough social link points to rise from negative two to the origin on the Cartesian plane. Next episode: I attempt to become a positive point on this graph.

“Stay tuned.”

“Yes?”

I waved my hand, indicating to Kouta-kun that it was of no consequence. On that note, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Kouta-kun addressed by anything other than his name; I wonder if Anzu-chan does it when they’re alone?

Afterward, Kouta-kun twisted the towel, wringing the dirty water out, and began to wipe himself down. Unlike when he’d helped his sister earlier, his grooming this time was no more than a lick and a promise, and he quickly finished.

“Ahh, that’s much better,” Kouta-kun sighed, a smile lighting up his already cheerful countenance.

“Glad you enjoyed it,” I replied carelessly, as I continued to study his body. His skin was a pale blue hue, but something else had caught my eye, something that had always previously hidden itself beneath his clothes. Bruises dotted his body; discolored, they looked like colonies of bacteria.

“…Once your clothes are dry, I’ll bring them back.”

I grabbed the tub and stood. I ignored the confused look on their faces as I fled the scene. Closing the fusuma door behind me, I quietly snuck my way across the floor, emptied the tub into the sink, rinsed the towel with cold water, and wrung it out.

“Honestly,” I mumbled to myself. You sure brought home some troublesome kids, Maa-chan.

It wasn’t my hobby to stick my nose in others’ business, but I couldn’t deny the mountain of evidence building before me – or the possibility of my involvement. This was dangerous. No matter how I might seem, I’m still human, or, at the very least, there’s still humanity in me. Although those are both lies.

“Those wounds probably aren’t from Mayu…”

Given what had happened last night, I wouldn’t proclaim her innocence simply because of some nauseating reason like “I like her.” No, what I found hard to believe was that Mayu would be capable of such rational violence – to intentionally strike only those areas that were covered by clothing was not something Mayu, with an int. stat of 19, could do. No, were Anzu-chan to show the least sign of resistance, she’d likely simply kick her in the face without a moment’s hesitation.

“…This kidnapping really makes no sense.”

When it came to the kidnapper in question, her only concern seemed to be me. Why had she even kidnapped these children in the first place? Wait… that’s it. I’ll need an exclusive interview with Mayu on the matter when she wakes up. If I remember. It’s not something I necessarily need to know, but better safe than sorry.

Time passed as I listened to the whirl of the washing machine and idly watched the ceiling. There weren’t any marks that at all resembled a face; no, it was an immaculate and unblemished vision, perfect for kick-starting my brain.

Mayu’s sleeping face filled my mind’s eye.

That expressionless, statuesque face.

Asleep.

In my mind, she lay there unmoving, as if she had stopped breathing, her spirit entrusted to the land of dreams.

That she, filled with silence, would shriek in the middle of the night was…

 

True. I would witness it myself not three days hence.

 

It was a sound indescribable with words. A piercing screech that rent the air itself, so like the howl of a wild beast. Under the effects of Mayu’s scream, the room itself seemed to warp.

“Mayu? Hey, Mayu!”

I raced over to Mayu’s bedroom, a midnight infomercial playing across the television screen behind me, and flipped the light switch. Mayu lay in bed, her eyes dull as she wailed. I rushed over and shook her by the shoulders.

“IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS……”

Endless curses poured forth from her mouth. I sat her up. As if in response, she clutched her head and began to tear at her scalp.

“Hey, stop that!”

“IT HURTS, MY HEAD HURTSSS!”

Of course it does!

Her bloodshot eyes stared blankly into the distance, white foam frothing from between gritted teeth. Thin arms – bones, muscles, and veins clearly defined – tried to force me away, her hair whipping to and fro as she rampaged. Her hand struck me on the cheek; her nails tore my skin, leaving a trail of wet warmth in their wake. Blood trickled down the cracks of the welt that had been left in my skin.

“IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTSSSS!”

“I get it, I get it! So calm down!”

My voice failed to reach her. If anything, my cries drove her further into madness. Somewhere, deep within my mind, I accepted that this was the nature of our relationship.

Mayu reached for her face and gouged the skin around her eyes with her nails. Displaying a frenzied strength that could easily overpower someone her own age, she attempted to tear her own face apart. I seized her wrists with enough force to crush her joints, and tried to pin her arms against her body. Even if I hurt her in the process, in the long run, this was for the best. Thankfully, however, it didn’t have to come to that.

“Uh, ooh, oooooooh.”

Mayu’s body suddenly gave way. Though her body was still stiff, its energy was now directed at holding down that which was driving her mad. She growled, urging her body to perspire.

“Mayu?”

I instinctively released her. With that as a catalyst, Mayu promptly vomited.

As her limbs twitched, and with a horrifying sound, she rained gastric juices onto the bed, the spray catching my legs in the process. The room was enveloped by an acidic tang. Unable even to move, let alone to aid her by rubbing her back, I could only watch as Mayu continued to heave with tears streaming down her face.

Gagging and choking a few times, she vomited once more. Her bodily fluids escaped even through her nose, and her eyes rolled back in her head, as she wheezed and gasped for breath. Her body’s desperation notwithstanding, she continued to vomit.

A moment later, she finally stopped. Without so much as looking up, she collapsed, face first, onto the acid-stained sheets. Finally, I went to her side. I sat her up, wiped her worn-out face, and gripped her in a tight embrace.

“You’re okay now.” As Mayu struggled for air, I spoke hollow words. “It’s just you and me here. The people who were cruel to you aren’t coming. They’ll never come again. It’s okay.”

As I rubbed her back, she threw up a little. The lukewarm liquid that ran down my neck gave me goosebumps, but it didn’t bother me, nor did it make me want to let her go.

Suddenly, she clutched my wrist, her unmanicured nails tearing at my skin, almost reaching the artery within.

“Stop,” Mayu said. When I gave thought to whom she might be speaking, a few people came to mind.

What Mayu saw.

What she felt.

These were things that we shared.

 

We stayed like that for at least an hour. Tormented and shaking, Mayu never loosened her grip on my wrist. Its circulation cut off, that hand had become congested with blood, and it was turning a deep, dark color. I feared that necrosis might have occurred, but if that was what it took to calm Mayu down, then it was a price I was willing to pay.

“Mii-kun, Mii-kun…”

“It’s okay now.”

As I wiped the sweat from her brow, I again voiced those empty words that I’d repeated a hundred times now.

“Your cheek has a scratch. What happened? You’re bleeding. Does it hurt?”

Mayu pointed at my inflamed cheek as she squeezed some words out.

“This? I scratched it on a tree branch,” I replied.

“Oh, I see. Does it hurt?”

She stroked the wound with her fingertips. I decided it was time to change the subject.

“More importantly, Maa-chan: do you have the medicine the doctor gave you?”

I spoke to her like a mother to her child. Lightly, Mayu shook her head.

“Why don’t you go see the doctor?”

“B-But I don’t like her! She’s always lying to me, so I don’t like her.”

I guess that means you hate me too, Maa-chan. That’s beside the point, though. I opted to give her the medicine I always carried with me.

“I’ll go get my medicine, so stay—”

“Nononono. I want to come too,” she pleaded as she clung to my hips. I patted her on the head, and gave in. I got off the bed, carrying Mayu with me. I wrapped her hands with my own, like you would a child’s, and soothed her by constantly repeating “It’s okay.” I should’ve spent more time practicing how to smile, I lamented.

We headed to the living room, where I pulled the paper bag holding my medicine from the back pocket of my bag. Holding the paper bag in my mouth, I walked toward the kitchen. I had Mayu, who looked uneasy, stand on her own before pulling a glass cup from the shelf and filling it with water.

“Here, you’ll feel better after taking this.”

This medicine wasn’t anything dangerous. I counted out two tablets and placed them in her hands. As Mayu watched restlessly, I tried to hand her the glass of water.

“Ah!”

Mayu accidentally jerked the cup from my grasp. It hurtled downward, colliding with a chair along the way before finally crashing into the floor. The glass cylinder made a dull thud its final scream as it shattered.

“I-I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Desperately, Mayu pled for someone’s forgiveness. Frantically, she kneeled, rushing to clean the fragments that littered the floor. I stopped her and, embracing her, rubbed her back.

“It’s fine. You’re okay. No one’s going to get mad at you.”

The spilt water flowed between my toes. I stepped back to avoid stepping on any shards, and patted Mayu’s frail-looking shoulders. I pulled out two more tablets, neglecting the ones that had fallen to the floor, and placed them in her hands. I grabbed a new cup and filled it with water.

“Put the medicine in your mouth,” I told Mayu.

Guiding her hands with my own, I parted her thin lips and placed the medicine on top of her pale-peach colored tongue. Placing her hands over mine this time, I tilted the glass of water into her mouth. Her lips, pushed up against the glass, shook lightly as water poured into her mouth. Confirming her swallow, I pulled the glass away.

“Mmm. Good job,” I told her as I patted her head. Mayu clung to my body, burying her face in my chest. I emptied the remaining water into the sink and set the cup down. I dragged Mayu to the L of the 3LDK[3], and, laying her on the sofa, gently caressed her.

“Do you want to watch some TV? I’ll stay up until you fall asleep, Maa-chan,” I said softly. On the screen, the program had moved on from introducing an onion slicer to advertising a golden pearl.

“Mii-kun, Mii-kun,” Mayu called out. Her voice held not a trace of gaiety, only desperation. I stroked her hair in place of a reply.

“Mii-kun will never bully me right?”

“Never. I’ll always be your ally.”

“That’s right, Mii-kun is an ally. Mii-kun is an ally…” Mayu repeated in a trance, as if to imprint it in her memory. I didn’t interrupt. “Mii-kun always helps me. In kindergarten, he saved me from the bee. In elementary school, he saved me from that mean teacher. He’s always helped me. He will always, always be my ally. That’s why Mii-kun won’t bully me he will stay with me never betray me never lie to me.”

“…There, there,” I said, in an attempt to evade the topic… because, you know, that last one was a bit…

“Let’s go the doctor tomorrow,” I added.

Mayu shook her head like a small animal. She looked like a chihuahua. It’s impressive how attractive people look good no matter the situation.

“It’s fine. I’ll go with you. We can go on a date once we’re done.”

This was like convincing a child who hated shots to go to the doctor. Only one word of what I’d said made it through to Mayu.

“Date.”

“Yes, a date. You don’t want to go out with me?”

Again she chihuahua-ed her head, accepting my invite. The shaking of her head was even more exaggerated this time around.

“I want to go play with Mii-kun.”

“Yep. We’ll go wherever you want to play.” Even if the only thing around here was a park. The downside to living in the country is that there’s not much to do.

“So we’re going to the doctor right?” Since the two things were unrelated, that ‘so’ of mine didn’t make any sense, yet Mayu nodded. She’d taken the bait easier than a goby.

“Okay then, I’ll endure it. I’ll go see that liar. Mii-kun’s coming too, right?”

“Of course.” Finally calming down, Mayu’s body slackened onto the sofa like a plant that had been given an excess of water. She watched as the television screen introduced an exercise machine that allegedly burned twice as many calories as a normal one, then finally closed her eyelids. With silent breaths, Mayu’s movements ceased so abruptly it seemed someone had flipped her off switch.

I went ahead and flipped the off switch for the television as well. Leaving Mayu asleep on the sofa, I headed to her bedroom. I pulled the dirty sheets of her bed and bundled them much like how I’d found them originally. I took my blankets – thankfully vomit-free – and giving the room once more to the darkness, I returned to Mayu’s side. I placed my blankets over Mayu, and after watching her sleeping visage for some time, I wished her a good night as I always did. And, as always, there was no reply. I turned off the light.

…This probably doesn’t need to be explained, but Mayu and I shared a bed. All we did in bed, however, was sleep, of course. A healthy relationship. Nothing deserving of an R rating.

The cold air made me shiver a little. The cold floor was like the shadow of winter. I sought escape through sleep, and pondered where I might find such escape.

“Umm…” Kouta-kun’s hesitant voice carried through the fusuma door. I turned, opened the fusuma door, and stepped onto the tatami mats. I pulled the string hanging from the low ceiling, switching on the fluorescent lights.

The siblings sat huddled together under the cover of the blanket with weary expressions as they rubbed their eyes.

“What’s with that stain?” Kouta-kun asked.

“I was on a merry-go-round all night with a hangover. More importantly, though, did I wake you up?”

“Oh, it’s fine. We’re used to it.”

“Used to it?”

It was a strange thing to say, plus it must’ve been a slip of the tongue, for Anzu-chan mumbled, “Kouta, you idiot,” and pinched his belly. Kouta-kun tried to hide the issue with a laugh. Again. Again I was overcome by the feeling that another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. By now, I was ninety percent sure I knew what trauma these two had gone through even if I was a person who preferred not to get involved. I wished they’d stopped dropping so many hints.

I had to change the topic. I needed to throw off the inevitability that awaited me.

“It’s really surprising, though; we don’t get any eviction warnings despite making so much noise…”

Suddenly, I understood. To the extent that I wanted to strap a lightbulb to my head to let the world know I knew.

“Onii-san?”

I had finally grasped the reason for my sense of discomfort. Their situation hadn’t overlapped with mine, and so I’d been unable to see what had been staring me in the face the entire time. This, too, was something we hadn’t had to go through, but only because it’d been an unnecessary measure in our situation.

“Why is that?”

Kouta-kun looked askance at my question, which hadn’t been directed at anyone in particular. Anzu-chan didn’t react at all.

It was so simple, so obvious: I was having a conversation with these children. That meant that their mouths were neither gagged nor obstructed in any manner. That Mayu’s rampage hadn’t been reported might only mean that the walls had decent soundproofing. However, it was also a fact that the children had free use of their limbs. If they pounded on the walls and screamed at the top of their lungs, the sounds would likely reach the room next door. Were this room to be checked even once, the fetters which bound the children would be indisputable proof of our guilt, and the cuffs on their wrists would become ours.

“There are so many holes,” I exclaimed in surprise. This kidnapping had been poorly planned and poorly executed. Just as Mayu had earlier, I felt like tearing out my hair. I didn’t want to come to grips with what was quickly becoming evident was reality.

“So uh, you two…” I started, before stopping mid-sentence. So uh, you two, why are you even here? I felt like asking. Unfortunately, I had the feeling that the moment I voiced that question would be the selfsame moment that my suspicions would be substantiated.

Kouta-kun’s eyes widened at my suspicious behavior. Perhaps he was waiting for me to finish. Anzu-chan, on the other hand, wasn’t frowning as usual; she looked sleepy.

“Hey,” she mumbled lazily. “That woman.”

“It’s not ‘that woman’; call her Onee-chan,” I said menacingly. How dare she refer to her as “that woman.” “That woman” is my woman. Although that’s a lie.

Anzu-chan complied without objection, possibly because I’d intimidated her, though more likely because she was simply sleepy.

“Is that Onee-chan funny in the head?”

A statement shocking for its bluntness and accuracy. I hadn’t the least intention of telling her to watch her mouth.

“Anzu, you can’t just say that,” Kouta-kun scolded.

Though that may be, it was also the most accurate way to describe Mayu.

“It’s okay. To be honest, if you’d asked if that just now was a karaoke competition, then you’d belong in the same category as Mayu, you know? …But to answer your question, I think the screws are all there, if you know what I mean.”

I acknowledged the truth in Anzu-chan’s words. It wasn’t that I had a negative opinion of Mayu, though. It was a fact that I felt a certain amount of attraction to those elements of her. Mayu lacked control over her emotions, but it was precisely for that reason that it was possible for her to give birth to a sensibility that couldn’t be found in others. The line between genius and madness is paper-thin. It was hard to say on which side of that line Mayu lay, though.

If these kids got to know her better, they would probably understand too… But first…

“…All the screws are there, but something went wrong when they were screwed in. Someone interfered, you see.”

It wasn’t a hobby of mine to expose another’s past.

Despite that, for some reason, I couldn’t help but explain.

And so I exposed our past to these outsiders.

“Mayu’s parents were killed before our eyes.” My voice carried no emotion. It wasn’t like I had a choice: I didn’t know which emotion to use.

“I guess that was the moment when the screws in our heads came a bit loose. Mayu’s are loose enough that you can tell at a glance, but, in truth… I’m the same.”

I don’t find any fault in Mayu’s actions, nor do I feel any guilt over it, after all.

I’d put my heart to sleep, that I might stay this way.

I watched the two’s expressions. Kouta-kun looked slightly frightened, while Anzu-chan showed no reaction at all. Since their reactions were pretty casual, I decided to conclude the topic casually as well.

“That’s why if you ever feel the need to speak ill of her, I would rather you abuse me instead. I don’t mean that in a perverted way; it’s just more bearable if I’m the one being bad-mouthed. Yeah.”

I rushed my words at the end there. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed enough to want to dig a hole and hide in it. I couldn’t believe I said “abuse me.”

Now that storytime had drawn to a close, I had no intentions of starting question-time, but Anzu-chan, having woken up a bit, went ahead and asked me a question anyway.

“Why do you protect that Onee-chan to that extent?”

Because I like her sooo much. Because I l××e her. That’s a lie, though. Maybe.

“It’s because she’s important to him, Anzu,” Kouta-kun replied in my stead.

Sensing that the conversation was heading down a direction I’d rather it not, I decided to change the topic.

“Some time ago, someone was asked a similar question.”

“…? Who was that?” he asked.

I answered his question, taking care to name no names.

“A mom. She was killed protecting her child. Despite being so terrified that she couldn’t stop shaking, she made sure to answer.”

I paused for a moment, then – word for word – repeated the words that I had once heard.

“Because I’m a mother.”

The children frowned. Perhaps they thought my story had been made up.

But a lie this was not.

I remembered her mom’s words like she’d said them just yesterday.

That…

…was one of the few memories I had that I would never taint with falsehood…

…and also the primary reason why I protected Mayu.

 

Heavy metal blasting at full volume pierced through the doors and straight into my ears.

The only scowl reserved for this wretched choice of background music – utterly inappropriate for the peaceful daytime scenery outside the waiting room windows – was mine. I was, after all, the sole individual in the immediate vicinity. This building, which stood at the base of an uninhabited mountain, a fair ways off from the barely populated town, did not smell of disinfectant – this was a hospital for the heart.

A door, its white paint fading, opened. Mayu slammed the door behind her, discontent written all over her face. She collapsed into the chair next to mine.

“Hey. How was it?” I asked, raising my voice a little; if I hadn’t, my voice would have been drowned out by something else.

“I’m never coming back. I hate that liar,” Mayu spat angrily, not caring how childish she looked. Today, Mayu was dressed nicely in clothes that I’d washed for her, with a beret sitting atop her head.

“What did she lie about?” I asked.

“I don’t know. A liar’s words aren’t worth remembering,” was her cool reply.

Yet you remember mine. Though I can’t understand why.

After adjusting Mayu’s hat, which had slipped when she sat down, I rose from my seat.

“Could you wait for a bit? It’s my turn next.”

“Absolutely not!”

Mayu flailed like a child throwing a tantrum. In that instant, her skirt shifted, and I saw the distinct outline of a long, thin scar on the inside of her thighs. I see you’ve been well. It’s good to see you again… not.

“You said we’re going to go on a date. There’s no point in staying here,” Mayu complained.

Her brown boots repeatedly stomped on the floor, the sound echoing through the corridors of the hospital. That, too, was drowned out by the blaring music, making it difficult to pick out the sound.

“My appointment’s today too. Please be patient,” I pleaded, my hands clasped together like I was praying. Straightaway, my prayer was answered. Mayu gave a reluctant nod, her discontent obvious on her face.

“Then a date tomorrow too.”

“Okay.”

“And the day after as well.”

“If you’re fine with it being in the school labs or the gymnasium.”

And just like that, I received permission to enter from a girl who had no claim over the room in question.

I opened the creaky doors. In the room before me, a ponytailed woman arrayed in a spotless white coat and a blue miniskirt sat by the window, turning her gaze to me as I walked in. Her slippers lay sloppily on the floor, her legs atop the desk.

“She hasn’t changed one bit, that girl,” were the first words to leave her mouth. “She hasn’t changed one bit since she was a child. Well, I guess ‘Where’s Mii-kun?’ has since become ‘Mii-kun’s here.’ That’s hardly a change for the better, though,” she continued.

She yawned as she carelessly threw Mayu’s medical records onto her desk. I wondered why this no-good doctor loosened up each time I came to see her. Was she confusing me for some drinking buddy of hers?

“Just what are you planning on bringing that selfish girl – someone who forcefully discharged herself from this hospital, I might add – back here, ‘Mii-kun’?”

“Only Mayu gets to call me that.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, you stupid couple,” she replied, rubbing her eyes as she swung her creaky chair around to finally face me.

Dr. Sakashita Koibi. A psychiatrist who was still single despite having turned thirty a short time ago. The kind of adult who only ever read manga.

“So what came over you? Revealing yourself to Misono.”

She crossed her arms and studied me from head to toe, as if appraising a piece of art. Her movements, as well as her intelligent and beautiful appearance left quite the impression. Too bad it was ruined by her bare feet.

“Is it alright if I only answer your first question?”

“Whatever. You always just lie anyway.”

She could see right through me. Since our relationship dated back to my days in elementary school, she knew me through and through.

“In the middle of the night, Mayu’s head suddenly started to hurt. I was worried, so I came here to see if you could diagnose it. That’s all.”

“In the middle of the night… Are you two living together?”

Dr. Koibi’s eyes narrowed as she interrogated me. You’re a psychiatrist, aren’t you? Shouldn’t the part about her “head” be what draws your attention?

“We just eat and sleep under the same roof—”

“—which is what ‘living together’ means,” Dr. Koibi finished.

“Given the limited space we have on this planet, and further, as a citizen of this small island we call Japan, in the spirit of efficient use of resources, we decided to share the same living space—”

“—and that’s why you’re living together. I get it.”

“…You seem somewhat angry?”

“Very much so.”

She tapped her temple with her fingertips in time with the music, while rhythmically tapping the floor with her toes.

“Not~” she finished, mimicking my usual line. From the anger I heard in her voice, though, it was likely that the latter statement, and not the former, had been the lie. She closed her eyes for a few moments, before putting an end to her internal discord with a shake of her head.

“I figured this might have happened when you two came in here side-by-side.”

“Did we look like the perfect couple?”

“Are you stupid?” she retorted. Sighing, she pressed her fingers to her forehead. “I feel like I just had my pet dog stolen by a stray cat,” she explained.

“How dramatic.”

“You were so adorable when we first met. Back then, instead of ‘Dr. Koibi,’ you’d call out ‘Doooctor’ as you followed me around like a puppy… I wonder if this is what it feels like to have a teenage kid,” she lamented. “Well, it’s your life, so far be it from me to say anything… even if you were to fester and rot. I do question whether such an environment is beneficial for Mayu, though,” she added, finally making a doctor-like comment at long last. “To be honest, the fact that you’re there for her isn’t an unequivocal positive. No, if anything, it’s the opposite. Give a plant too much water or sunlight and it’ll die, you know?”

“But our relationship is brimming with l××e, and isn’t l××e what matters most?”

“You’re lying.”

“I am.” Not for a moment did I believe what I’d just said. Dr. Koibi made an expression that looked one part disgust, one part mockery.

“You’ve made a habit of lying. One almost beyond repair. At least try to restrain yourself a little.”

“But Dr. Koibi, asking a person not to lie is like asking a soccer player not to kick something or telling a mountaineer not to climb mountains because it’s dangerous.”

“You’re perfectly right; I’ll agree with that. But that doesn’t apply to you. Both the examples you cited have something that makes them fundamentally different from your case. A soccer player chooses what they kick. It’s usually a soccer ball, but perhaps people or vending machines on occasion. That’s all, though. Even a mountaineer wouldn’t try to tackle a mountain of food. What I’m trying to say is that the outlets for their compulsions are controlled. That’s what makes them different from you. That theory only applies to normal humans, and thus cannot be applied to you, whose very existence is a lie.”

She just casually declared that I’m not human. Was that an insult? I was having trouble deciding.

Deciding to leave that discussion for another time, I attempted to turn the topic of conversation back to the main issue at hand.

“So, about Mayu.”

“Her hips were injured. Try and keep the rough play to a minimum.”

“Quit making things up. The most we’ve done is kissing in public.”

“That’s even more of a nuisance to the public at large than what I said,” she teased with a smug look.

Consequently, I injected yet more sternness and formality into my tone in an attempt to get her back on topic. “I want to talk about Mayu’s mental condition, Dr. Sakashita Koibi.”

She glared at me through scornful eyes, then spoke coldly.

“People are all liars. Especially me. Mii-kun is the only truth.” Giving voice to the feeling of resignation within her, she spat out that sequence of words which hadn’t changed in the least since long ago. “It’s impossible for me to treat that girl, though I’ll still prescribe her some medicine. Make sure she takes it every day without fail. Also, when you put her to bed, be sure to leave the lights on. That will hopefully put an end to those compulsive episodes of hers.”

From what she’d said, I’d learned one thing: Mayu’s outbreaks were out of her control. Since they didn’t happen during the day, when she was at school, but only at night, they were likely the product of a trauma concerning the dark.

I see. I can relate.

“Misono isn’t conscious of the scars she bears. That’s why she goes to bed with the light off. Furthermore, I’ve only prescribed medicine for her twice in the past. I wonder how long she’s been suffering.”

Her tone suggested that she didn’t really care. Though considering how Mayu consistently called her a liar and told her to shut her mouth, I guess it’s only natural that she wasn’t particularly fond of her.

Still.

“Even if you say it’s impossible for you… That doesn’t necessarily mean that other doctors would be similarly helpless, right?”

The corners of Dr. Koibi’s mouth lifted in a smirk. That was, however, in no way a smile.

“Just how low is your opinion of me as a doctor, I wonder? I should really force it out of you one of these days. Putting that aside for the moment, though, on the matter of Misono’s treatment, hmm… You know, I wonder what it means to ‘treat’ someone.” Dr. Koibi met my question with another question. However, it didn’t sound like a question a teacher might ask, but rather one that had suddenly occurred to her.

“Doesn’t it just mean to heal a wound with medical care?”

“One hundred points.”

Her response notwithstanding, she sighed. Then again, she definitely did not say “full” points, so perhaps it had been out of two hundred points.

“Am I to take your answer to mean that to ‘treat’ someone, all that need be done is heal the wound?”

“I guess.”

“Then if the treatment which healed the wound also killed the patient in the process, would the patient still be ‘treated’ if the wound was nevertheless successfully treated?”

“…No.”

Without reacting to my words, she shifted in her chair and fell deep into thought. The fingers of one hand tapped incessantly on her crossed knees, the elbow of her other supporting her chin. She had a habit of tapping on things with her fingers and feet.

My existence vanished from her consciousness as she continued to be absorbed in her thoughts. Well, I wasn’t here as a patient today, so I guess I didn’t have the right to complain.

“…Uhh, I think I’ll leave for today,” I said as I prepared to stand up. Suddenly, Dr. Koibi spoke.

“I have something to tell you.”

It was a strange way to start a conversation. Her posture unchanged, she directed her melancholic eyes at me. Half-standing, I sat back down.

Her tone light, she continued.

“The two of you are suspected of murder.”

I nearly spurted something out in my shock, but I managed to suppress both it and the trembling of my fingers.

“It seems that there’s been a recent string of murders in the area,” Dr. Koibi, an uncivilized member of society for whom the television served only as a mirror and the newspaper as a weapon of mass insect destruction, proudly declared as if leaking classified information. Was I supposed to point out that she’d apparently been living under a rock? “If you encounter anyone holding something dangerous, please be careful.”

“…You wouldn’t happen to have been on the student council, would you?”

“I was never a part of anything other than the clean up committee.”

Huh. —But back on topic.

“And who would suspect anyone as clearly innocent as myself?”

“A detective or police officer, of course. Only someone that deranged could possibly enjoy a delightful chat with someone while simultaneously suspecting them of murder.”

“Indeed. So? Who is spreading such lies?”

“The armchair police.”

That sure sounds like neglecting one’s duty to me.

“Were you that friendly with the police?” I asked. I was pretty sure I remembered her abusing them to no end when she had been caught speeding before.

“Hmph. I wish you wouldn’t ask this psychometric mind assassin such foolish questions.” [3.5]

What was this liar going on about now? Heedless of my reaction, she continued to speak without a care in the world.

“One of my friends from high school is a female cop – not a sukeban[4] though; she’s asked me quite a bit about you guys. She’s always been a strange one. Even way back in elementary school, she wrote that she wanted to be a detective.”

Her words were blunt, without a hint of nostalgia. Perhaps for her, disregarding her actual age, memories of high school were as fresh as if they had happened just yesterday.

“She did say that she was the only one that suspected you, though. You’re only suspect candidates for the moment.”

Suspect candidates, huh. That sounded a little redundant.

“Oh dear,” I remarked, doing my best to keep the tension from my voice. “They must really be having trouble with their investigation if they’ve turned to suspecting such unassuming, law-abiding citizens as us.”

“There’s actually a lot of reasons to suspect you, you know? People who’ve been victims of a crime in the past are much more likely to become criminals themselves. You’re close to a psychiatrist. You have no social life. You’re the animal caretaker at school. One of those is a lie, though.”

Just one? And how are you mimicking me so perfectly?

“If you ask me, it’s not all that surprising that Misono’s suspected.”

“How could anyone suspect someone who’s that innocent, childish, and slow at running away?”

“You’re not doing a very good job of protecting her, and what’s with that low opinion of her? Anyway, she said she’d like to talk to you guys about it.”

“Not in an interrogation room, I hope.”

“Would a jail cell work instead?”

A joke that isn’t funny can’t be called a joke. Instead, you call it the truth.

“As a potential victim, I would prefer not to meet her, regardless of whether it be for private or professional matters.” A subtle lie.

“That’s entirely up to you, so feel free to turn her down if you like. She’s quite an interesting person, though; she’s a little like you,” she said, a smile touching her lips as she spoke.

A little like me, huh.

…She must be a pretty twisted person then.

“The difference is that you only lie, but she weaves both truth and falsehood into her words.”

“Great.”

I’d bet on it. She’s definitely twisted.

As the song blaring out over the speakers reached its climax, I rose from my chair. As I did so, I was struck by a thought, to which I gave voice.

“Doesn’t anyone ever complain?” I asked, pointing to the audio system.

“Nope,” was her lazy reply. “It’s popular with the death metal granny,” she added.

It’s great to hear that it’s popular with her, but try to make sure her fascination with it stops at the music.

“What I play is by patient request, so the music’s generally welcome. Admittedly, when there aren’t any requests, I’ll just play whatever I want, if anything at all.”

“Really. That strikes me as odd, as I can’t recall a single instance where I was consulted. Not once. In any event, I had better go – I’ve got a date.”

“Lucky you. How about we trade weekends?”

“No thanks.” I turned her down without a second thought. I had no desire to sit in a manga cafe all day. I bowed deeper than I usually did, and quickly raised my head. Turning around, I nearly tripped on my own foot, but I nevertheless hurriedly headed for the exit. I placed my hand on the doorknob and paused.

“Dr. Koibi.”

“Hmm?”

“I’ve killed a person before.”

She didn’t respond. Maybe she hadn’t heard me? That was fine too. I twisted the doorknob and pushed the door open, stepping out into the corridor. Suddenly, a voice spoke from behind me.

“You lie.”

Never affirming her declaration, I left the room. On a seat in the corridor sat the death metal granny, humming along with the music despite turning blue from a lack of oxygen. If she were to introduce herself as a ghost, it wouldn’t have surprised me. Mayu, too, was there; asleep in her seat, undisturbed by the clamor.

“…………”

I first picked up the medicine that had been prescribed, and then piggybacked her back to her apartment.

There, I kept watch as she slept, pondering the lies I’d speak once she awoke.

 

The Ninth Incident [the pensive murder]

A murder is a bit like an excursion. Or travelling even. By that, I’m referring to the planning stage when the heart is all aflutter. That’s why I make sure to account for every little detail before I actually burst into action. When I finally make my plan a reality, all I have to do is entrust my body to my subconscious and let it do the rest. It’s just more stable that way. Yes, stable. As people execute their behavioral patterns on a daily basis, it’s only natural that they would yearn for stability. When it comes to the repetition of actions bearing considerable risk, stability is extremely important. For example, the buying of illegal goods, stealing, or murder. I am no exception. I desire stability in my life. Because of that, I thirst for a partner. I hunger for a partner. To find a soulmate in whom I’d find mutual acceptance – in whom the urge to kill would be almost as natural as breathing or blinking – was my priority in life. For years, I searched this country town. The inability to identify a suitable partner in this cramped world of common sense made the search difficult. Naturally, such a person failed to appear before me. I was not interested in someone who only killed out of malice, or who would only take life under the condition that they would not be found guilty. A person who would never regret a murder even if they were to be executed for it, or a person who killed when the mood suited them – those were the types of people I sought. People who adhered to a personal code. People who either lacked emotions entirely or possessed an unnatural number them. I desperately wanted to meet someone of that nature. We’d chat, and maybe even kill each other over something trivial. Thus I decided to change tactics upon my arrival here. I decided to commit murder. I’d hoped to draw like-minded fellows to my side like moths to a flame. The results had been disastrous. I had become the primary source of content for the media, no different from a dog that could walk on two feet or a whale stranded on a beach. Were someone to mock me and call me a dumb animal, I would gladly accept. I would perform on two feet and lie on a bed of sand. Alas, this neighborhood does not have any beaches. There is, however, a glut of rivers. But let’s return to the main topic. The man beside me is smiling to himself as he reads a porn magazine and is being terribly creepy. Seriously, though, back to the topic at hand. I wonder how long I have left. From what I had observed of the police, if this were likened to a three-minute match, then I would have more than two minutes remaining yet. Perhaps a fateful meeting may yet befall me before my time is up. I return the magazine I’d been reading to its place on the shelf beside the newly placed bentos.

 

Translator notes and references

[1] Dazaifu Tenmangu: a Shinto shrine in Fukuoka. The joke here is that it’s built over the grave of Sugawara no Michizane, the namesake of the student council president.

[1.5] Disney land.

[2] Teruteru-bouzu: a traditional, handmade doll that is hung outside a window to invite good weather and/or stave off rainy weather. The comparison here is made due to the appearance of a teruteru-bouzu, which is rather like the Western image of a ghost.

[3] 3LDK: a home with three rooms and an “LDK” – a living room, dining room, and kitchen (usually not separate rooms).

[3.5] This references two Japanese works called Saiko Metoraa EIJI and MIND ASSASSIN.

[4] Sukeban: the leader of a girl gang. This is a reference to Sukeban Deka (スケバン刑事), an old shoujo manga about a sukeban forced to fight crime.