Demon Child, Chapter 9.
from Aili's translation of Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
The next morning Hirose woke up before it was even six o'clock.
He had conversed with Takasato about this and that, and didn't get to sleep until after two in the morning. In total, he'd slept less than four hours. Hirose sat up absent-mindedly and saw that Takasato had already gotten out of bed. Not only that, but he'd also put on his uniform already.
"I'm going to the school."
"But..." Hirose began.
"It doesn't look like there are any people outside. I can use this opportunity to go." Takasato smiled faintly and bowed deeply. "Thank you very much for all you've done for me."
That meant that he was intending to leave.
"Takasato," sighed Hirose. Although Takasato's presence had created problems for him, Hirose still didn't want him to return to that home and to that mother. "You can go back, but the situation hasn't changed. I've been marked and if you leave, it would just worry me. Wouldn't you feel this way?"
Takasato lowered his head and didn't answer.
"Or do you miss your home?" Hirose asked. Takasato looked up uncertainly.
"I have no home to return to."
"Even if I went back, there would be no one to welcome me. Concerning my parents and my brother, it would be better for them if I wasn't there. —Isn't it the same for sensei?"
Hirose sighed gently.
"Truthfully, I am a bit irritated, but I don't feel it towards you. I feel it towards those people who were waiting outside, and towards those people at school," said Hirose as he leaned his back against the wall. "But that isn't because of you. It isn't my wish for you to leave here. I actually feel much better when you are where I can see you. This is out of my own individual will. Were it me, I wouldn't want to return to that home either, so it would be hard for me to bear you going back to that home."
Hirose looked at Takasato.
"I don't think you want to go back either, do you? Isn't that why you stay after school?"
After Hirose finished, Takasato slowly shook his head. "The reason I don't want to go home...is different."
"How is it different?"
"My going home only causes problems for them."
Hirose sighed and tried to shake the sleep from his head.
"I don't quite get your train of thought. I mean, of course I don't think it's bad, but it's just hard for me to understand it."
Takasato tilted his head and lowered his eyes. He looked as if he was thinking about how best to choose his words.
"It's better for my parents and my brother if I wasn't there. Since I'm a harmful child who gives people a bad feeling, my being near them will only cause them unhappiness. I know that's what they're thinking, so I feel like it's a little better if I stay away from home."
Hirose sighed. "Why should they feel unhappy? If you know that they think like that, why aren't you angry?"
"Because...it's the truth."
"What do you mean by the 'truth'?"
Takasato was puzzled. "This is what everybody says. Sensei, don't you think I give people a bad feeling?"
Being asked this by Takasato, Hirose was dumbstruck. "I've never thought that."
"Sensei must be a different kind of person."
"Yeah... Maybe," laughed Hirose lightly. "Just stay."
After Hirose said this, Takasato still shook his head. "I think I'm going to leave school."
Hirose fixed his gaze on Takasato's calm face. "Why?"
"I've been thinking, not going to school might be better, because bad things happen when I'm with other people, and everyone is troubled. However, I've never really known what to do, so when my junior high teacher recommended that I take the entrance exams for this school, I just took his suggestion." Takasato said this with a bitter smile. "I think I was scared. Since I've always lived my life without a purpose, I was afraid I'd lose my footing. It was as if I was standing at the middle of a cliff. Since I didn't have anything to hold on to, I was scared to lose my footing. I think I wanted to have the position of a 'high school student.'"
"—And so?" asked Hirose quietly. There was a biting tone somewhere in his voice.
"I want to stop going to school and leave home. Working with people won't be any different than going to school with people, and it'll cause trouble for all the people around me, but I don't think there should be much of a problem if I only do it for a short amount of time. Even though I might have to continuously switch jobs, I believe this kind of life is by no means rare..."
Hirose didn't know how to control his anger. His anger was directed at Takasato, but it wasn't Takasato who had provoked him. He was mad because he couldn't figure out why this person in front of him just couldn't live normally, like most people do. He was even angrier that Takasato just weakly accepted this truth.
"And then? What exactly will you have grabbed onto?" He was trying to undo his own foothold. He knew that if he didn't have anything to hold on to, he would surely fall.
"I want to try and go to Mt. Roraima."
Hirose sat in front of Takasato and looked at him. That's absurd, he thought for an instant. To see the strange crags of a mountain in South America, that's your only desire. Compared to the wishes of so many people who aimlessly cling onto their footholds, how small!
Takasato smiled. "Silly, huh? But this is the first wish I have found in the extension of my reality."
"Then go," said Hirose disparagingly. "Go and see the 'Labyrinth of Rocks' after your years of hardship, and then come back completely dejected when you find out it's not Mt. Hou."
For an instant, Takasato appeared extremely wounded.
"...Forgive me. It was a cruel outburst of anger." Hirose felt embarrassed and couldn't help but look down. Or perhaps it was that he didn't want to look directly at Takasato. "Can you wait for me a second? I need to go out too."
Hirose stood up and Takasato looked up at him.
"If you want to leave, then you should probably go speak with Gotou-san. I'll come with you."
"Were you taken aback?"
"No." Hirose shook his head. "I think I was probably just hoping you would be able to live a peaceful life. I hope you can walk a path of a happy life. But, what a happy life is really up to each individual person to decide."
Hirose forced a sliver of a smile.
"What I find a little regrettable is that you didn't let go of that kind of life by your own initiative, but that you couldn't help but let it go. Though, because of that, you go forward for the sake of your desires," said Hirose as he opened the door to the bathroom. "After a few years, if you've decided to go, please let me know. —I'll send you a red umbrella."
This time he smiled for real. Takasato seemed to sigh in relief as his lips cracked a smile as well.
It was still early, so there were barely any people at the school and the front gate of the school was not yet open. Hirose and Takasato climbed into the grounds of the school through the back gate and sat behind the gym in a place people couldn't see while staring off into space.
They chatted about nothing important while they waited for the school day to begin, and when it did, they came out from their hiding place.
Hirose patted Takasato's shoulder and sent him off towards the classroom building. What will Takasato's classmates think when they see him? What will they say? What will they do? Hirose had originally intended to walk him to his classroom, but Takasato shook his head and refused. His expression was indifferent, like he was a martyr who had come to a resolution.
Hirose followed the path to the special classroom building and purposefully avoided eye contact with others on his way. He had spent two weeks here naturally enough, but once that period of time had passed, the school returned to being a place where Hirose was seen as an outsider. He walked in a less populated hallway as he thought about this.
- - - - -
When Hirose walked into the prep room, he was met with a stunned and sitting Gotou.
"You know that your teacher training period is over, don't you?" asked Gotou. Hirose nodded.
"Didn't you say it was all right for me to come by?"
"I did say that, but I didn't think you'd be coming by this morning."
Hirose laughed gently, and then returned to a serious expression.
"Today, I'm a bodyguard. Takasato's back."
"...Is that so?"
"I told him to stop by here after school. There's something he wanted to discuss with you, Gotou-san."
"Discuss? Takasato, with me?"
"Of course with you, Gotou-san. He wants to talk to you about quitting school, so naturally it's you."
Hearing this, Gotou widened his eyes. "Quitting school? Quit and do what?"
"Probably to find work."
"Did you instigate this?"
"Certainly not. It was something he decided on his own."
"Really?" Gotou lowered his voice. "The number of empty seats in my class keeps growing."
Hirose didn't say anything.
"Did you see it already?"
Not understanding, Hirose looked up. Gotou lifted his brow.
"There was a report in the weekly released this morning about Takasato. Although, they kept his name out of it."
Hirose mulled over this.
- - - - -
The warning bell rang, and Gotou went to attend the morning meeting. When he returned, he held a complicated expression.
"Twenty-six. How can it be? A great attendance ratio, isn't it?"
"Twenty-six people are in attendance?"
"Yes! I wonder if everyone's feeling better after spending a Sunday off. Well, I'm definitely grateful."
"How was the situation in the classroom?"
Gotou's expression looked complicated again. "It was mostly like it was as usual. Takasato was like he used to be, and the rest of the people didn't act much different than before the incidents. In other words, something like 'put something at a safe distance, and it's not my concern.'"
Hirose tilted his head a little in doubt. "It was like it always was?"
"There might have been little differences, I suppose. Because, when I opened the door to the classroom, I saw two or three people coming away from Takasato's desk."
Uneasiness swept by Hirose. "Really?"
Gotou waved his hand. "It didn't look like a quarrel. To me it looked like they were chatting."
Hirose seemed bewildered. "Chatting? With Takasato?"
"Don't ask me. In a moment you can ask him yourself. Anyway, as I saw it, the mood appeared very calm."
Hirose sank into thought. He thought this peculiar. It was like finding laughably easy questions on a test that was considered highly difficult.
"Oh, right. Did you hear anything from Takasato's home?" asked Gotou. Hirose shook his head.
"No. Takasato was planning on getting in touch with them yesterday, but I don't think anyone was there."
"Hm," hummed Gotou softly. "The school that Takasato's brother attends called me at home yesterday. They said that he was absent on Friday and Saturday without giving notice. They wanted to ask me whether or not I knew what was going on."
"I heard his father was absent from work without leave two days in a row as well. Afterwards, I think a coworker of his remembered the school that his younger son was attending and called to inquire, but the answer he ended up getting was that the kid had been missing school too. Someone wanted to contact them, but I don't think there was anyone home, so that's why they called me."
Hirose was suddenly struck by an unpleasant feeling.
He'd originally thought no one answered the phone because they weren't home. That mother had said before, they had to spend their days with the storm doors closed. Hirose had always thought that they must have shut themselves up in their home and purposefully cut off contact with the outside world. However, could it be that even the father would stop going to work?
"I'll go for a look after school's out," said Hirose. Gotou looked a bit surprised.
"Did you plan on spending the entire school day in here?"
"I can't leave the school when classes are still being held, because there are so many reporters waiting by the gates of the school. In any case, I wanted to go with Takasato, so it won't be out of my way."
- - - - -
When Hashigami and the others arrived at the prep room during the lunch break and saw Hirose there, they were dumbfounded.
"Why's Hirose-san here?"
The first one to speak was Hashigami. Hirose could only smile wryly.
"We even went to the trouble of throwing you a farewell party. What an ungrateful guy!"
"Yeah! I was just now feeling sentimental, thinking, 'Ah, I won't see Hirose sensei anymore when I open this door.'"
Hirose lightly jabbed Nozue who was putting on an anxious face.
"I had some errands, so I came to school this morning, but those hyenas outside are keeping me from leaving."
"Ah, I see." Nozue clapped lightly and said, "Every time on my way to and from school, they call out and grab onto me. I think they even made a call to Tsuiki-san's house. They keep saying, 'Tell us about the accident involving Mr. T and his fall!' They called three or more times too."
Hirose smiled dryly. "Do you want me to tell you how many times they called the home of student teacher A, who was injured in a suspicious incident?"
Hashigami looked at Hirose sympathetically. "...How terrible."
Nozue leaned forward. "Are there people keeping watch over your place too?"
"On Saturday and Sunday from morning to night, there have been two or three people waiting around."
"Wah! That sucks..."
Just then, a rarely-seen person turned up.
"Eh? What is sensei doing here?"
It was Tsuiki.
Hashigami pulled up a folding chair for him. "Tsuiki, it's been a while. How've you been?"
"Yeah, I'm all right." He sat down in the chair Hashigami unfolded for him. Nozue put a beaker of coffee in front of him.
"You haven't enjoyed service like this in a while."
"Thanks," said Tsuiki, who then looked back at Hirose. "Takasato showed up."
"So it would seem." Hirose nodded vaguely. Nozue leaned forward again.
"So he finally showed up, huh? What was that like?"
"It felt weird," answered Tsuiki disinterestedly.
"Weird? Was it because of Mr. T?"
"Of course it was because of Takasato. The people in the classroom have done a complete 180 in their attitude toward Takasato. That's why it feels weird."
Hirose asked, "This morning, Gotou-san said Takasato was surrounded by a gathering of people, huh?"
"It was as he said. When those people who hadn't originally cared much for Takasato saw him, they gathered around him and apologized for all things that had happened. The whole thing played out like a bad teen drama."
Nozue poked fun at it. "Oh Takasato, we were wrong. It was all a misunderstanding. We're all good classmates, right? —Did it sound like that?"
Tsuiki laughed. "Probably pretty close. I wonder if they're all friendly now and eating lunch together. The number of people have increased since this morning too! I don't know why, but it's eerie to see."
Hirose wrinkled his brow. He really couldn't figure out why there was such a change.
"Is it because they now recognize that Mr. T is a very special person?"
Tsuiki looked at Nozue questioningly.
"That's what Sakata's saying. He keeps putting forward the notion that Mr. T is a very special person, so everyone should always give him the proper respect. He even presented a speech about it the other day," said Nozue.
Tsuiki sighed wearily. "That guy's a weirdo. When the lunch break started, he came to look for Takasato as if he was particularly close to Takasato. I don't think anyone's been influenced by Sakata, but anyway, seeing it just gives me a bad feeling."
After saying this, Tsuiki looked at Nozue. "Although, Nozue's performance just then was actually pretty realistic. It was like they really were respecting him."
Hirose once again sank deep into thought. What was the real meaning behind all this? He couldn't believe that Sakata's influence was that great, and if that was the case, then what would cause them to change their attitudes?
"Oh, right. Sensei." Nozue looked up. "I think there's a report about Takasato in today's weekly."
"Yeah, I heard."
"I also heard that the report in Saturday's sports paper included his full name."
Tsuiki suddenly blurted out, "Do you think it was Sakata that leaked it?"
All those present looked at Tsuiki.
"After school on Thursday, I saw Sakata sitting in a restaurant with a guy that looked like a reporter. He seemed to be really pleased with himself as he talked nonstop. I couldn't hear exactly what they were talking about, but every now and then, I heard him say the name, 'Takasato.'"
Takasato came to the prep room not long after school was out. He first took a bow, and then walked in. Using a plain tone, he said simply, "I would like to leave school."
Gotou's attitude was likewise candid. "What do you plan to do after you drop out?"
"I'm going to work."
"Have you found a place yet?"
"No, not yet."
Gotou looked sincerely at him. "If a little distance doesn't bother you, I'll help you keep an eye out. Now that you've already prepared yourself, why don't you at least finish out to September?"
After Gotou said this, Takasato took a deep bow. "Thank you very much."
The discussion ended in this way.
- - - - -
When it was time to go, they were protected by getting a ride from Totoki. At first, Takasato had politely refused, but he consented when Totoki told him, "Look at the news reporters gathered in front of the school. If you don't let me give you a ride, I'm going to give Gotou a ring."
The door to Takasato's house was shut tightly. Perhaps no one was at home. There didn't seem to be any reporters nearby. Hirose got out of the car and thanked Totoki. He looked at the mailbox installed on the metal gate and saw that it was so full of newspapers, they were sticking out of its narrow opening.
Takasato unbarred the gate from the outside. All the storm doors for the windows facing forward were pulled down. At a glance, it looked like no one was home.
Takasato rang the doorbell, but there was no response from within. He rang it a few more times, but the house remained silent.
"It looks like there really is no one home," said Hirose. Takasato nodded. With an apprehensive expression on his face, he took a key out of his book bag. He unlocked the door and put his hand to the glass door. "I'm back," he said as he opened the door.
The entranceway that Hirose had seen before was absolutely silent and devoid of presence. The flowers on the shoe rack at the back of the room were also completely withered. Then, an offensive smell struck their noses.
"Do you smell something bad?" asked Hirose. Takasato appeared suspicious.
"What do you think it is?"
"Yeah, it smells like something's rotting."
At this, Takasato inhaled a breath of air and cringed with his eyes wide.
"It couldn't be..."
This heartbeat began to sound like the ticking of a clock. Hirose took a step into the entrance hall, and as he did, that thick odor became even more obvious.
After Takasato opened the paper door directly in front of them, that foul air became stronger. The situation was beyond unusual. Hirose tried to stop Takasato who was hurriedly taking his shoes off so he could run inside. "You should stay here."
Takasato shook his head and rushed into the 3-tatami-wide room. Hirose followed him in. After opening the sliding screen on the right side of the room, it revealed the hallway. The atmosphere inside was entirely still and emanated a dense, almost sticky stench.
"Takasato, it's better if you don't go in there." Hirose grabbed onto Takasato's arm to stop him as he tried to dash toward the hallway. "Let's call the police. It'd be better to wait until they got here before we did anything."
"...But—!" A pale Takasato shook his head. They suddenly heard a faint sound coming from somewhere, like something brushing gently against a tatami mat.
"What's that sound?" asked Takasato as he turned his head to listen. He then walked toward the back of the hallway. "Mother!" he shouted. They suddenly heard a noise that sounded like a heavy object swinging about. Hirose and Takasato looked at each other, and the first to make his way down the hall was Hirose.
"Takasato-san! Are you here?"
The hallway was covered in a thin layer of dust. A sound continued to come from the end of the hall. One step into the hallway and the stink became even more pungent. Even if they breathed through their mouths, the rotting odor still stung into their throats.
Hirose followed the noise into the back of the hall. On one side not far from the front of the hallway was a glass garbage window, and on the other side was a paper door. The storm doors for that window were not pulled down and were covering only a part of the curtains. The sunlight streamed into the hallway between the lightly patterned curtains.
Hirose stood in front and carefully peeked into the nearest room. The very first thing he saw was two linked Japanese-style rooms that looked together like a Western-style living room. The noise came out from the back of the house once again.
Here, the corridor parted to the left and the right. On the right was a washroom, but the sound seemed to be coming from the left.
After taking a left, Hirose put his hand onto the paper sliding door of the first room.
"This is?" Hirose had covered his mouth with a handkerchief, so his voice was muffled.
Takasato answered in a daze, "It's my parents' room."
Hirose opened the door gently. Before he had even had a chance to open it completely, something flew at his face and he staggered back. Something had flown out of the crack between the door and the wall. In an instant Hirose put up his arms in defense, and then realized it was a swarm of bugs.
"...What is that?" asked Takasato. Hirose followed the bugs flying all around him with his eyes.
There was a thick stench inside. Hirose once again put his hand to the sliding door he had opened just a crack, and pushed it wide open. Once it was open, he saw a 4.5-tatami-wide room. The storm doors for the facing window had also not been closed, and though the curtains were shut, a bright light still filled the room. There was a flower vase on top of a shelf, and there was a desk. Another sliding room stood half-open to the adjacent room, which was also filled with light.
Hirose didn't know what that room looked like, but he could see a carpet laid on top of the tatami. An awful color was scattered about the carpet, and a swarm of fleshy flies swirled above it.
Takasato screamed in anguish as he rushed into the room. Hirose wanted to hold him back, but it was too late.
Takasato stood in front of the half-open sliding door, and stared into the room in terror. Hirose stood in shock looking at the carpet, trying to spot any clues in the colors of the festering rot.
- - - - -
In the room, they had seen the bodies of Takasato's parents, and in another room they'd found the body of Takasato's brother. They all looked like they had been attacked as they slept. The posture in which they died looked like they were trying to jump out from under the covers. There was no doubt it was a violent death.
A long string of maggots on the carpet had eaten away at the corpses here and there to reveal white bone. It was latter part of summer and the temperature was warm, so the degree of decomposition was likewise high. And even Hirose could tell, because the bodies weren't in any natural human position, that it could not have been either suicide or an accident.
The police officers called for Hirose. Takasato looked into space as if he was in a catatonic state. The officers were asking for Takasato to identify the bodies, but there was no way for much to be confirmed. The only thing was a gold ring on the hand of one of the bodies that had already decayed beyond recognition. Takasato replied quietly, "I think that's my mother's wedding ring."
They went to the police department to give statements. Because Takasato's house had been closed up for such a long time, the stench of decay was especially strong. There was no way for anyone to stay there for very long.
When they headed back, they were given a ride in a patrol car. The area around the police department was packed with members of the news media, so a nice-looking, plain-clothes police officer took them to the police car at the back entrance. He draped a coat over a silent Takasato's lowered head, and then said to the reporters gathered in front of the gate, "Please consider that he's a minor." It was well-meaning, but Takasato still looked like a criminal being escorted by the police.
There were only two or three reporters in front of the apartment. The rest of them were probably at the police department or Takasato's house. Hirose purposefully let them ensnare him in order to scatter their attention. Takasato used this opportunity to slip inside.
- - - - -
As if he had gone catatonic, Takasato said nothing. Aside from sitting by him to keep him company, Hirose could think of nothing else to do.
Gotou came by to see about him after it had become dark outside. Seeing that Gotou was coming, Takasato bowed deeply. Other than that, he remained silent.
"This has got to be hard for you, Takasato," said Gotou. Takasato didn't say anything. Gotou looked at Takasato with a pained expression, and then turned around and spoke to Hirose. "Did the police tell you when they died?"
"They said it was probably sometime in the middle of the night three days ago."
"Was it an accident?"
Hirose shook his head. "Right now they're calling it murder. The bodies are in terrible shape."
Hirose said nothing further. The bodies that he had seen for himself looked as if someone had through some ill intent, tore the people upuntil they no longer resembled people. When he saw the corpses, it gave him no small shock. Though they were called bodies, they might actually be better described as the wreckage of a confusing clay work made with human flesh.
"There was an investigator who said that the bodies looked like they had been picked over as food by a wild animal or something. A more detailed conclusion will have to wait until the autopsy is finished."
"Is that so?" Gotou murmured to himself as he searched about the area around his waist. There was no towel at his waist because he was wearing a suit that he didn't often put on. Gotou irritatedly wiped his hands on his pants. "Were his only family members his parents and his brother? What about relatives?"
"I think all of his parents' relatives live rather far away. Takasato isn't too sure of it himself since there didn't seem to be a lot of contact between them."
Gotou nodded. "And the funeral?"
"It's being left up to the police. I heard that there's some communication between some funeral home and the police, so through an introduction by the police, the funeral home will take care of it all. Anyway, the autopsy itself will take up at least most of tomorrow. The wake and the funeral won't happen until the day after tomorrow at the earliest."
"I see," Gotou nodded.
"And it's likewise quiet outside."
They didn't know that Takasato was here.
Gotou looked back at Takasato. "Takasato, are you going to take time off school starting tomorrow?"
Takasato didn't look up. He simply nodded his head silently.
"I offer my condolences from the bottom of my heart. Keep a level head."
Takasato responded to Gotou by nodding expressionlessly.
- - - - -
After Gotou left, Takasato finally opened his mouth. It wasn't until then that Hirose suddenly understood that Takasato had not been in a daze because he had lost his family all at once. Takasato asked Hirose, "Was it all because of me?"
Hirose wasn't able to reply at that instant.
To speak of those who harmed Takasato, there were none that did so more than his own family, and as for retribution, Takasato's mother ought to have been the first victim. They could never have overlooked her. The only reason they had waited until now was because of some extenuating circumstances. Though Takasato's family were his enemies, Takasato had needed them. They were able to protect him and guarantee his very basic living necessities. Now, however, they were no longer essential—and that was because of Hirose.
Hirose thought about it. It was three nights ago, on the day that the students jumped off the roof of the school. That night Hirose had heard a voice.
—Are you an enemy of the king?
He remembered saying something back, but he hadn't been able to recall what it was exactly. It came to him now. No, Hirose'd responded.
—I'm not an enemy.
Takasato's family died that night. Was there some meaning to this happenstance? Did they accept the fact that Hirose was not an enemy, making the existence of Takasato's family no longer a requirement, and so proceeded to purge them? Could it be explained thusly?
Then... Hirose looked at Takasato who was looking back at him.
—Then, the king?
Looking at Takasato's helpless eyes, Hirose shook his head.
"At the very least, it's not your fault, no matter who did it." No matter if the attackers were those creatures. "Because you're a victim."
Hirose nodded decisively. "Takasato, it didn't happen because of you."
Takasato lowered his head. He had been dumbfounded for a while, but now he finally began to cry.
The next morning, Hirose was woken up by the sound of knocking on his door. Half-asleep still, he undid the door chain and opened the door. A microphone was shoved in his face.
The walkway outside of his apartment was full of people.
"We hear that Takasato-kun's here."
Hirose shut the door at once. On the other side he could hear their voices like a whirling storm, "Let us talk to Takasato!" A similarly awakened Takasato was looking over through the opened glass door. Hirose thought, He's been discovered. Did the police leak it? Or was it someone else? Will this commotion continue for a long time?
Once the telephone started ringing, it pretty much didn't stop. According to the determined plan, the police were going to call them, so Hirose couldn't disconnect the phone. He covered his head, not knowing what to do. To cover up the noise from outside, he turned on the television. Almost all of the morning talk shows were talking about the same thing.
"Having been left alone, he is now residing at the home of a senpai, a student teacher." Behind the female reporter giving these details with a stern expression was Hirose's apartment building. Hirose impatiently changed the channel, but the result was that he saw his name again.
In between the endless requests by phone for information, he started receiving a smattering of different calls. There were ones from college friends, acquaintances, people from the high school, including Gotou, and Hirose's mother.
Hirose's mother blamed his being caught up in all of this on his refusal of his parents' supervision and his living by himself.
"You were broadcast on TV opening the door. At any rate, you should come home immediately."
"I can't right now," said Hirose, and his mother responded.
"At the very least, throw that child out. He's not your responsibility. He's pulled you into his mess, and you've even gotten your name reported."
Hirose hung up on her.
The landlord and some of the neighbors called as well. Most of them did so to complain. They said, "How are we supposed to live like this? Find a way to get rid of those reporters!" He even received phone calls from complete strangers: a woman who wouldn't blame him if he threw Takasato out of his home, a man who threatened him saying that hiding Takasato would incur a divine punishment, and furthermore people who expressed sympathy, encouragement, suspicion, criticism and blame toward Takasato.
Some of the students from class 2-6 called too. All of them gave words of condolence and encouragement.
"Since he was little, he has been continuously followed by a series of accidents and deaths. Some say that he's cursed, and it was because of this that things deteriorated between parent and child." This is what the reporter said on a noontime talk show. Hirose turned the television off. However, after he did so, Hirose was seized with an uneasiness that something unexpected would happen because he didn't know what was going on outside. He put up with it for a little while, but it got to such a point that he couldn't stand it anymore, so he turned the television on again. He repeated this several times.
When evening came, people from the neighborhood started to stop by. Most of them came to ask Hirose to think of a way to do away with the members of the media, but there was one woman who went on and on about how an accident had happened to her child at school and might it have had something to do with Takasato?
The police called to say that the autopsy had not gone smoothly and that they would probably have to wait until tomorrow afternoon before the remains could be returned. Hirose called the funeral home and explained the situation to them. Afterwards, he turned off the ringer and pulled out the cord for the bell so that it wouldn't ring anymore.
During this time, Takasato was sitting with his head lowered. From time to time he would look at Hirose as if he wanted to speak up but stopped himself, and so he didn't say anything.
That night, when it was finally quiet around the building, he took a deep bow towards Hirose. "I'm really very sorry for causing you so much trouble."
Hirose thought, Takasato is always apologizing.
"It's not your fault," said Hirose. Takasato silently shook his head.
"You're not causing me any trouble."
Takasato laughed gently, and then sighed with a stern expression. "I know my existence is nothing but a nuisance, but I'm afraid of death."
"Takasato," said Hirose comfortingly. Takasato smiled wanly, and then immediately looked down.
"I know it would have been best if I'd never come back at all, but it would be great if I could go back." Saying this, Takasato bowed deeply again. "Please forgive me. I don't know how to get back."
Hirose sighed. He knew all too well what Takasato was thinking. This isn't his world. He should be living in another world, so it was hard for him to fit in this one.
"You don't have to apologize. The ones who are causing trouble are the media and the rubberneckers, not you."
Though this is what Hirose said, he knew that it wasn't incredibly persuasive. Had he not had anything to do with Takasato, then he wouldn't have been caught up in all of this. This was an idea that had yet to be resolved. Hirose thought, Takasato's blaming himself, but he couldn't very well abandon him like that.
The air conditioner was on, but the atmosphere in the room was still humid and heavy. Hirose said, "Why don't we open the window a little?" and Takasato stood up. He pulled back the curtain a bit and opened the window. Voices came in from outside.
"Are you Takasato?"
Hirose jumped up and ran to the window. There was a man with a camera standing on the weir across from the window. Hirose took Takasato's arm and pulled him from the window. He heard camera shutters sounding out successively as he closed the window, and when he closed the curtain, another voice rang out.
"I can't believe you cursed your own parents to death!"
Takasato's face became pale. Hirose patted his shoulder. He earnestly patted the shoulder of a Takasato who had covered his face. He scolded himself for not being able to do anything more for Takasato.
The next afternoon, the bodies were returned to them after the autopsy. When the police understood what had happened, they sent out a police car to pick them up.
"Did you determine the cause of death?"
The one who asked this was Takasato. The police officer who was with them cocked his head and said, "About that... I think they came to the conclusion that it was an animal attack. I believe they'll give you a more detailed explanation in a bit, but I think they said that they were killed by a dog or another such animal."
He seemed to puzzle over it.
"However, no animal tracks were left inside the house, and all the doors and windows were locked from the inside. We couldn't find any holes or openings big enough for that big an animal to go through."
They were taken to a university where they listened to the man in charge of the autopsy give them the specific details.
"From the teeth marks we can determine the size of the jaw... And from the size of the jaw, we can deduce that this animal is much larger than a dog, perhaps a tiger or a lion or an animal like that."
The forensics professor tilted his head in doubt.
"I asked a specialist to come take a look, but he found that the teeth marks are not that a feline. In a certain way, they looked more like those of a canine. The results are inconclusive. Now it's up to the police investigation to resolve this issue."
The professor revealed a sliver of bewilderment.
- - - - -
The remains were sent to the crematorium to be cremated. There was no point in preserving the bodies since they no longer resembled their original shape. It was in this way that Takasato carried the ashes of three people back home.
The funeral home had arranged for both the wake and the funeral to take place at a temple near where he lived. In order to accommodate the investigation, Takasato couldn't stay in his house for the time being. Riding to the temple in a car that belonged to the funeral home, he saw the press corps in front of the temple gate and a number of mourners waiting inside the main hall of the temple.
The mourners were mostly relatives that had hurried here from afar. Since there hadn't been much contact with them, Takasato had to ask each of them for their name and their relation.
There really was nothing else Hirose could do at this point, so he sat in the corner of the main hall and waited. A group of officials from the school arrived, including Gotou, and the place began slowly to have more activity.
Not long after Gotou and the others had arrived, some friction arose among the guests. The question was in who would adopt Takasato. At first, everyone distanced themselves from this idea and were against adopting him, but then they thought of the fact that because the land around this area was under heavy development the past few years, the price of property was currently in the midst of rising very quickly. Takasato's family had been a farming family up until his grandparents' generation and more or less had possessed a lot of arable land. After his grandparents passed away, all of it was either sold or leased. The land that was sold was probably converted to liquid assets, while the leased land could likewise be turned to money. This is the one thing they were all thinking about. "I suppose I could adopt him." They began to squabble unreservedly. Takasato watched this carry on in front of him with nary an expression on his face.
Hirose could stand it no longer and walked out to the courtyard. The night breeze was cool and refreshing. Gotou followed him out.
"I mean, really—how intolerable."
Gotou sat next to the bell tower. "At first they were all shunning him and now they're fighting over him. Watch, when they start thinking about the rumors, they'll just go back to shunning him."
Gotou said this with a joking tone, but Hirose found it hard to laugh. "Perhaps."
"...What's wrong? It looks as if you're the one most hurt by this."
Hirose didn't respond.
People aren't wild animals, and it's because of this that they are so impure, so ugly.
"What's going on with you? Hm?"
"...I went with Takasato to the crematorium."
Gotou looked at Hirose.
"We waited there until the remains had been burnt into ash. Takasato mourned the departed and I worried over the bereaved. —Why do they all act like that?"
"Hirose," sighed Gotou.
"It's the same with the people outside. Are there people happy over the rumors of a curse? Why don't they get it? If they're scared, they should stay away. They have more than an excuse to ignore this person's existence or cut off contact. Why do they purposefully get themselves involved? Why can't they leave us alone?"
Gotou didn't respond. Once the words had come out, Hirose couldn't hold it in any longer.
"We're living because we were born. We can't abandon our existences, so we work hard to live on. It's not as if we like it this way. We can't understand the reasoning of others. The world that people have created for themselves is uncomfortable. But, it's not as if we could leave if we wanted to—"
"Hirose," said Gotou comfortingly, but Hirose ignored him.
"Really, it would have been good if we'd never returned, but we did. How great would it be if we were able to go back? But we don't know how. This world doesn't make sense and is full of cruelty. There's no way for us to blend in."
"Hirose," said Gotou firmly and smiled bitterly at Hirose, who was looking back at him. "I'm telling you, Hirose, I think it's better if you don't use the word, 'we'."
"From how I see it, you and Takasato are not too similar. That's why."
Hirose creased his brow. "I don't get what you mean."
"I don't think you and Takasato can be put in the same category. For me, the empathy you feel for Takasato isn't too good."
"Right after you got involved with Takasato, you've become more and more pessimistic. That's how I feel."
"That's because of all the things that have been happening."
"Yes, maybe. Or perhaps it's all in my head. But, I'm quite sure that in the past you would never have so easily said that you couldn't blend in. It used to be hard for you to talk about this."
Hirose asserted, "It has nothing to do with Takasato. In reality, I've always felt this way."
Gotou heaved a deep sigh.
"It started about when I was in junior high."
After a moment, Gotou suddenly said, "There was a girl who told her classmates that she was an abandoned baby."
Hirose didn't understand what Gotou was getting at. Gotou laughed.
"She insisted she was an abandoned baby and that her parents weren't her real parents. But she actually looked a lot like her parents. Despite this, she maintained what she said through graduation." Hirose listened, not understanding. Gotou looked at him and said, "Listen, everyone feels like this isn't the place that they really belong sometimes. I feel like everyone's said before: I want to go home. People also say that there's no place that they can return to. This is because everyone wants to escape from this world."
Gotou stared at his hands clasped together on his knees.
"This isn't truly my world. This isn't truly my family. These aren't truly my parents..."
He paused for a moment.
"You suppose that if you could only flee from this world, you'd find one where you would feel comfortable in. You think there's a happy world out there that's prepared especially for you, that suits just your needs, that you can enjoy like a picture. ...There's no such thing. Nothing like that exists, Hirose."
"That's a fairy tale, Hirose. Sometimes there's hardship in life, and everyone wants to escape from it at some point. I understand this. I know what it feels like to want to escape to a fairy tale. That way you won't be a bother to other people, and I can't say that it's bad to think that way. But, people have to live in reality. People have to face reality and find a point of compromise somewhere. Even if the fairy tale seems harmless, you have to throw it away someday."
To Hirose, this was a frightening proposition. "...But I know it's not a dream."
"And that girl really believed that she had been an abandoned baby." Gotou looked down. "You said before that you don't feel bitter toward other people, right? You said you've never wanted anyone to just disappear."
"...I have said that."
"I think that's a lie. You dream about returning to that world to make yourself feel better, so that you don't feel bitterness toward others. That's just two sides of the same coin, Hirose."
"...Two sides?" Hirose creased his brow. He remembered Gotou saying something similar before. Gotou nodded.
"The front side and the back. There's another implication in your thinking. I want to go back because I don't belong in this world? If you think about it another way, it means that you want everything to disappear."
Hirose widened his eyes.
"Make this world and all the people in this world disappear. Make everything that isn't a part of my dream world go away. —Isn't that what it means?" Gotou looked at Hirose. "What's the difference in wanting someone you don't like to vanish and dreaming about a world in which they don't exist? They're just two ways of saying the same thing. You understand what I'm saying, don't you?"
I don't want to understand, thought Hirose. I don't want to understand your reasoning.
Hirose shook his head. "It's not a dream. I'm absolutely sure I've seen that place."
"It is a dream," affirmed Gotou. Hirose frowned at him.
"Then what about Takasato? If it's just dream, then where did he go for a year? What was he doing for a year? What did he eat to stay alive? When he came back, he was taller; how did that happen?"
Gotou nodded. "I don't believe in that world nor do I believe in the immortal soul. Likewise, I don't believe in spiriting away or anything like it. It's undeniable that Takasato disappeared when he was little, but it wasn't a spiriting away. In reality, strange things seemingly happen all the time. I think Takasato was simply kidnapped and spent a year wherever he was taken. He just doesn't remember it anymore."
Hirose thought he found a hole in Gotou's argument. "Then what are those things? What are those things that stay by Takasato's side? Is it by chance that all these people around Takasato keep dying?"
Hirose said this partly triumphantly, and Gotou nodded quietly. "That's just it, Hirose. That's where Takasato is difficult to understand. No matter how I try to deny it with my logic, there are still parts of him that I can't. That's why I say that Takasato is a different kind of person."
"In regards to your dream, I can deny it to the end. I can't prove to you that it's purely a dream, but then neither can you prove to be that it isn't a dream, right? This is where you and Takasato differ. Don't let Takasato lead you astray. You can sympathize, but don't have the pleasant dream that you are compatriots."
"I can't completely deny Takasato's dream. The way I see it, you've been chasing that dream nonstop. You're letting Takasato carry the burden of your own dream and asking Takasato to prove for you the existence of that world. This doesn't do you any good, Hirose."
Hirose stared at Gotou, speechless.
"People are dirty and base creatures. That's our destiny as humans. Once we are born human, there's no escape from this fate. There's no one without an ego, and no one without selfishness."
Hirose hung his head and thought, He never understood me either. He's not the friend I thought he was. This man is just another person from this world after all.
Gotou couldn't understand Hirose, and Hirose couldn't understand Gotou.
It's so far, Hirose thought. Why is that world so far away? If only I could get back there. I want to go back so badly, back to that paradise full of blossoming white flowers—
They're two sides of the same coin, rang out Gotou's voice.
—Why do I want to go back?
Because in the end, there's no one in this world who could understand Hirose. Thus, he wanted to vanish from this world.
—Does that mean I want to die?
He didn't want to die; he just wanted to return.
—If I went back, will the people there be able to understand me?
Yes, he thought.
—The front side and the back.
He had always thought if he just left this place, that he would find a world where he felt comfortable, that he would be able to live in a world where people understood him and everything would feel like it fit.
I want to go back. This isn't my world. Because, no one understands me. —Disappear. Everything would be solved if only this world vanished. Those who comprehend me are in other world.
—Where's the difference? How are they different at all?
Hirose hung his head.
He shed tears of failure.
"Hirose. Please don't reject us," said Gotou gravely.
Hirose couldn't reply.
"People as people are just this base."
Hirose held his head for a long time murmuring to himself, when he suddenly started sensing some doubt. It was a very small doubt, so small that he couldn't put it into words. It felt almost like discomfort. Toward what do I feel discomfort? He pressed his hand on his forehead and began to think.
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
She woke up in the dead of night. She laid in the futon as she patiently gathered her senses and pondered over why she had awaken.
She blinked her eyes slowly and felt as if she had heard a noise. What was strange was that she wasn't drowsy at all. She looked at the alarm clock next to her pillow and saw that she hadn't slept even two hours yet. Beside her, she saw her husband sleeping on his back in the futon.
She sighed softly. For a while, she couldn't fall back asleep. She just couldn't get rid of her uneasiness. What will happen to them now? It's because of that child...
When he was first born, he was so cute. He was the eldest son everyone was hoping for. The mother-in-law was an extremely strict woman and didn't treat children especially well. For some reason, she was especially cold to this child. Despite this, the boy grew up not to be especially stubborn and quite gentle instead. He was intelligent, but also obedient and unassuming. Though he was still small, he'd already sensed that her relationship with his grandmother wasn't terribly good. Whenever his mother hid somewhere to cry, he would run to her side and comfort her with his small hands.
—It was because of the spiriting away.
She was left only with her second son, who was a year younger than her first. Just how much sorrow did she feel then? Because of his grandmother's rearing methods, he had slowly developed in a bad direction. He was a bit deceitful and very good at reading people's expressions. More seriously, he had a violent nature. Although, as a parent she could never withhold love from him because of this, since she had given birth to him. Despite this, when she found out that her first had disappeared, she knew in her heart that she would rather it had been the other one.
The child did come back, but he didn't remember what had happened to him. She exhausted all methods in trying to help him recover the lost memory of that year, but the child's memory persisted in resisting her. The discord between the two of them began here. At first her second son was injured, and then an accident happened to the kid next door. A half year after he was back, she began to think this strange, and not only her, but almost all the neighbors felt the same way. After a year had passed, this was already well-known. Everyone in the neighborhood turned a cold shoulder to them, and gradually their interaction with their neighbors became difficult.
It was then that she heard about the rumor of the curse. Others kept that child at a distance and bullied her second son instead. At the time they were in the same year in school, but only her second son suffered from severe harassment. In junior high, her second son was beaten up by classmates, and it resulted in a torn eardrum. When she met with the bully's parents, before she could even tell them off, they said, "It's because of his brother hurting so many of the kids." She swallowed her anger. She had to. The bully didn't die, but if there really was a curse, it would have better had he fallen victim to it—she swallowed these words.
However, her eldest was definitely a smart kid. His grades and his behavior were both better than those of his younger brother. Her second received an endless amount of supervision. In their third year of junior high when they were advised on which high school to attend, the teacher suggested that he choose the high school with the lowest scores, while her eldest was encouraged to attend a prestigious school in the suburbs.
—It'll happen again, she thought to herself.
Another one will die because of that child. How many will this make it?
As she was laying on her side with her face covered, she heard a quiet sound next to her pillow. It sounded like breathing. She lifted her head to look beside her pillow, but all she could make out in the darkness was the white paper of the sliding door. She saw nothing else. When she looked away, she heard the sound of breathing again. It seemed a lot like the sound of a dog's coarse breathing.
She sat up and turned toward the area next to her pillow. She could now clearly hear long, rough breaths. She looked around attentively, but didn't see anything. Wanting to turn the light on, she stood up. When she raised a hand to feel around for the light switch, she as if something suddenly grabbed her foot and tugged at it. She screamed as she fell to the floor. The foot that was being held was hurting as if in the artery.
"What's happening?" asked her husband, half-asleep. She was completely preoccupied with her own problem that she wasn't able to respond to her husband.
She wanted to confirm that she had been wounded but saw that she was already missing her ankle. It was then that she knew that the amount of pain was not proportional to the severity of an injury.
She looked for her ankle, but as she swept her line of sight forward, she came across only pitch darkness. She tried to shriek but all that came out were spastic gasps.
"What is it?" Her husband had finally stirred and opened his eyes. Just then something squirmed in the darkness and rushed at her husband's collar which had come out from under the covers. Her husband screamed as well and rolled out of the futon and onto the tatami. After a thick and heavy crunch, an arm fell onto the tatami, and the sound of water droplets on an umbrella followed. It was probably the sound of blood splashing upon some surface.
The shade black creature chased after her husband. She look on in shock. Something enveloped her husband causing him to scream several times, each one weaker than the last as it joined a disgusting cracking sound.
When the dark shadow got up, she finally saw the shape of her husband. His abdomen had been chewed through; the potbelly that he had frequently worried about had become a big hollow. Even so, his body kept on convulsing.
The darkness turned toward her again.
—I knew it.
She mumbled to herself.
She knew it, that one day she would be killed by that child. She felt that that had been a matter of course.
—Because I had always wanted to kill that child.
The dark shadow approached her. She slowly closed her eyes, and her vision turned pitch black.
Or perhaps it was that the darkness had covered her.