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Tada Banri looked out the window.
It was eight in the morning.
Stopping his cell-phone alarm, which had just started sounding, he slowly raised his body from bed.
One futon was laid out on the floor, with Mitsuo and Two Dimensions peacefully situated there, their heads in opposite directions. Despite their smelling each other's feet and occasionally moaning as if suffocating in a nightmare, the two of them were still sleeping.
Banri stretched out his hand from his bed and poked Mitsuo on the shoulder. "Yana-ssan, shouldn't you be heading home before long?", he said, his voice extremely hoarse, sounding bone dry.
Mitsuo blinked, opened his watery eyes, and confirmed the time against his own cell-phone. And then he flipped it shut. He turned his face away from Two Dimension's feet, and as if he'd managed to escape once more, he buried himself deeply in his towel-blanket. Was it worth it? Probably not. It doesn't matter. Take your time.
To the north side of the room there was a veranda, to the west side a waist-high window had been set. The sunlight shining from the other side of the curtains is weak even when the weather was good, and doesn't reach to my feet as I am seated on the stool, no matter what.
From within the cool dark shadows again this morning, I watched the only person with his eyes open, Banri, giving up on waking Mitsuo.
Banri hadn't slept at all, just about. Even after his exhausted friends stayed over and fell asleep, he'd stayed awake, alone, thinking over the matter of Kaga Kouko, his eyes open.
I am not waiting for anyone, anymore. Facing her, Banri had said so.
This, to me, is somewhat of a marvel. Might some of the remnants of my memories be clinging inside of this Banri's body? Once upon a time, I had decided to not wait for anyone, anymore, I had. At the time I made that decision, it was something characteristic of me.
So it was. I--- Tada Banri, for a second time had decided to not wait for anybody.
That was decided, that day. I existed then, that other day. The Banri existing now shouldn't know about that morning.
Alighting from the stool, I stepped softly over Mitsuo and Two Dimension's bodies and sat down on the corner of the risen Banri's bed. What was originally me leaned in close to Banri's body, and in the warmth the dead me started helplessly reviewing the memories.
He was waiting, but because he felt like running away, he had the volume raised. Any song, any singer would do.
From that bridge he was looking down, vaguely, upon the vast riverbank scenery he was familiar with since childhood.
Looking towards the opposite shore reached by the bridge, he was frightened. He was scared.
He waited and waited, but nobody came. Not coming, and so he decided to not wait any longer.
And then, turning my back on the riverbank, I set out walking over the long bridge and towards the mountains where my own house was... set out walking, and it all ended, going out to meet an instant of whiteness.
---Not having slept, Banri's eyes were red and dry.
Slowly, he laid his body down on the sheets again. So doing, the pale morning sun tinting everything yellow, he quietly looked up at the ceiling.
The room smelled of sake.
On the table, there were plastic drink bottles on top of plastic drink bottles. A tower of Chuuhai cans, piled up for fun. A plastic bag from the convenience store, stuffed full of garbage. Balled-up tissues. A cell-phone charger. Fallen to the floor, the television remote. The remnants of a bag full of candy. PET-bottle caps. An extra strap. Mitsuo's socks. Torn double-leafed pages. Two Dimensions' glasses. A cloth for cleaning glasses. A glasses case.
On such a morning, Banri merely existed.
* * *
After fourth period, Banri was a complete zombie.
He was in an awful, intolerable mood.
With the least movement his head rang like a bell, his head, stomach, throat, back and hips hurt. Everything was sluggish, his feet were heavy. Far from concentrating on the lectures, he couldn't keep from dozing off.
The lecture over, delayed quite a bit by the other students streaming out into the noisy hallway, he finally stood up, dragging his bag along with him. Feeling terribly heavy, pushing open the door with both hands, he dragged himself out into the dark corridor, with its students coming and going. A unpleasant burp escaped him, and he held back a hot sensation from the area of his stomach.
By any chance, was this the state the world called 'being hung over'?
In this condition since the morning, for now he wondered if it would help if he ate something, though he suspected that wolfing down lunch wouldn't be a good idea. But even more than usual, the school cafeteria daily special was a mixture of fried stuff, and eating lunch without anybody to talk to, he cleaned his plate entirely, as fast as he could.
Yesterday, he'd noticed some friends heading towards an afterparty. From what he saw and heard, they seemed to be excited about a dirt-cheap karaoke place. In the end, five places... until seven in the morning, they said they drank. "What do you expect, though we left the fifth party", they'd laughed, their faces ghastly pale.
In second period, he found an unexpectedly energetic-looking Chinami, but then she said, with her cute anime voice, but dry and hoarse, "Talked too much, sang too much." Mitsuo said, "See me in the afternoon after I've gone home and got a shower", cutting him off and getting on a train going in the opposite direction, and Two Dimensions had declared, "I'm skipping today", and making good on his word, didn't show up.
Banri, rubbing around his chin, which was tingling strangely, yawned a bit, went out into the hall and headed for the stairs. Today, as things were, even if he had shopping to do or anywhere else to go, he was heading straight back. Once home he was going to cook himself okayu or something. He was lost in thought, when from behind him,
She was calling his name in musical notes, as if singing, though for a woman her voice was a bit low and cool.
He knew at once who's voice it was, without even turning his head.
"What's with the face?"
"Morning... well... it's a hangover."
Hands still deep in the pockets of her hoodie, she walked around to the front of him. Peeking at Banri's face, it was as he thought: Linda. Her shiny, black, evenly cut hair swaying about her chin, she frowned as if she were concerned. Khaki cargo pants, with flourescent yellow Nikes. White, slender ankles. A friendly look on her face. Apparently worried, her pale lips were pursed.
For some reason, Banri was slowly pulling back.
"What, are you feeling bad? Shall I go to the infirmary? I could bring you something for your stomach."
Shaking his head from side to side, he tried to avoid Linda.
"...No, that's fine. I'm OK, it's no big deal. I was already thinking of going home."
In other words, he was trying to avoid looking at Linda. He was tired. Even talking was painful.
"I see. If so, then since you're leaving would you mind coming with me for a bit? There's something I need to post in the lobby. Since it looks like we've set next month's practice schedule, I wanted to post it."
The energy required to turn her down having deserted him already, Banri looked downward ambiguously, not knowing what else to do. Linda acted as if he'd decided "yes".
"Then let's go. Come on."
As if to urge him along, she walked on ahead of him. There being no alternative, Banri followed at once, dragging his heavy feet.
Lightly turning about, Linda pointed a slender finger at Banri's feet.
"That reminds me: you're wearing the shoes I gave you. How are they?"
Yesterday, he had washed his customary Jack Purcells (well seasoned by his own vomit) in the bathroom and set them to dry in the middle of the veranda. Today was the first day he had worn the New Balance shoes that Linda had given him.
"They're great!", Banri replied, somehow smiling like an underclassman.
Their small college department, located right in the middle of a city center office block, had guaranteed ease of access from entry to graduation, but in exchange for this, they didn't build things like cool club buildings. They didn't waste money on club rooms.
Because of that, such people from campus as wanted to get together and chat, had no choice but to line up by the tables in the lobby, in the corners of the cafeteria, or to take up positions in the various gathering places or smoking sections.
In the Omaken's case, it was the edge of the lobby. With a bulletin board for posting news about lecture cancellations and for posting personal notes, and with constant foot traffic going by, you couldn't call it a bad spot. Not for a small, obscure club it wasn't.
As it happened, the most comfortable place was in the back of the cafeteria, hidden from sight by the largest pillar. The people who used that spot the most were from the Law School Tennis Club. Leaving huge bags there, opening meetings and doing whatever they felt like doing, they created an atmosphere such that Banri's group (or other students) couldn't even step foot there.
Banri followed behind Linda, until they got to the table in front of the bulletin board.
A bunch of upperclassmen, all sitting back relaxed on a bench, waved him over.
"Aren't you Tada Banri? You sit over there!"
"Morning, pardon me... I heard there was something on the schedule..."
On the closest bench, Kouko was sitting, shrunken.
She must've noticed Banri's voice, as her white face turned this way.
Their eyes met.
Wearing a chiffon top with little flowers on it, a black miniskirt over black tights. Some things he'd seen before, like the black booties. She wasn't wearing a hairband either, her long, uncurled hair spilling down her back for now. She seemed to hardly have any makeup on, and where normally she took great pains to put herself in order, she was now looking pretty awful. Her swollen eyes were more awful than a bear's. She had drank no less than Banri last night. It appeared she was suffering from a hangover worse than his own.
Not even knowing what kind of expression he showed, their eyes still in contact, Banri had stopped moving, like a broken robot.
Kouko, like that, gave Banri a small, weak smile with parched lips, and raised one hand only so high as her chest.
For now, he acknowledged that with an ambiguous nod, but, beyond that, of course, he couldn't do anything more.
Only able to quietly avert his gaze from Kouko, he sat down at the other end of the bench, with the table between them.
What he should do, he did not know. Banri hung his head and lowered his gaze.
With what kind of face was he to look at her, if there was no love, nor friendship, and he personally wanted the relationship to go away?
He wondered if he ought to behave as if he'd forgotten everything, and show a face of "I don't know you at all." It was as if everything up to now were made null, so, for example,
"Hey, hey, where'd they put the schedule? Somebody took it?"
---He wondered if Linda was manipulating him.
To be precise, as she might have done in the past. Always with 'nothing'. Hello, how are you? Who are you? Like that.
Linda: next to Banri, quietly looking sidelong at how he was doing. Kneeling crudely on top of the bench, tossing snack candies somebody had scattered on the table into her mouth with one hand.
Once again, he thought Linda assertive, ridiculously so. That wouldn't work on him, of course. For the same reason, it wouldn't work on her either. Such were his thoughts.
As for himself, he didn't understand at all how it would be good to continue seeing Kouko. Still confused, his body stiffened. No matter what, for the two of them to arrive at the same time couldn't be 'nothing'. Therefore, the two of them must've arranged a mess like this. And it was a bloody mess: their heads cast down, their eyes averted, seated awkwardly apart, and on top of that, with their unsightly, dreadful, fresh wounds showing. Banri could not be anything but that.
But Linda was wrong about Banri. Pretending not to know him, making it quite clear where she'd heard his name. Inviting him into a club. Treating him as a juniorclassman, not revealing your true colors. The Linda-senpai beside him, eating snacks, laughing lightly.
Fine. I can do such things.
A bit surprised, Banri looked at Linda once more.
Just because he had lost his memories, it doesn't mean he didn't know anything about anyone or from where they came. His identity was always established by his loss of memory, nothing more. If, for example, he found himself in a conversation like "Where was your high school?", it would come up as often as not. That they were classmates was obvious, but to stay like this forever, never revealing the full truth, would be impossible. So long as she didn't lie or misrepresent herself, Linda's act was doomed to fail before too long. In spite of that, she was doing it. Now, even. This instant, even. Calm and composed, she kept on doing it.
If he had done to Kouko the same thing Linda was doing to him--- "How do you do, who are you? What's your name?" if Kouko had heard him, if it would start a relationship from the first, brand new meeting. Would he be able to be clever, like Linda?
Trying to think, Banri thought at once: There was no way he could. The time, so short yet so strangely full, that he'd spent with Kouko, the past he'd had with her, all that they had built up, he could not deny quite so easily. He could not make it as if hadn't happened.
Or rather: he didn't want to.
Because he was that way, was he not too pitiful?
Kouko's past, his own past, was a fact. In which case, it was all the more a pity.
Though that time had certainly happened, though it had being, to erase it entirely for the convenience of the current Banri was something he absolutely did not want to do. The joy in the moment of understanding, the shock of recognizing love, the unforgiveable impatience, the ulterior motives, the misery, the grief, the smiles, the tears, the foolishness too, the hurt feelings as well--- all of those were, clearly, irreplaceable moments. Be they good or bad, as far as he was concerned, they were all important. They were worth caring for. Banri felt that he must not lose them. He could not part with such things.
And yet, how, this person...
Suddenly grabbing a snack with her fingertips, Linda waved it in front of Banri's nose. Banri shook his head side to side. A throbbing pain shot through his head.
"...I'm not feeling well."
"Oh, forgot that."
Sorry sorry, tossing it into her own mouth, and wiping her finger with a tissue, Linda pulled out three schedule sheets from a clear vinyl folder. Keeping one page for herself, she passed one to Banri and another to Kouko.
"Kouko-chan, perhaps, has a hangover too? Though both of you smell a bit of sake."
"Eh, really? ...We shouldn't, not any longer."
Kouko, frowning slightly, covered her own mouth with a handkerchief. Like that, she mumbled in a weak voice. Perhaps the same as Banri, she must be getting a headache from just speaking.
"Yesterday was the freshmen drinking party. Together with Tada-kun, I drank a bit too much..."
"Eh what what!? What happened!? Now they tempted you into a drinking party!?
At the clear voice suddenly reverberating over her head, Kouko groaned, her face in a grimace. Banri put his hands to his temples too.
The former president who the other day had come in a suit, showed up today dressed in an normal polo-shirt and cotton pants style. With a friendly grin, in excessively good humor, with what everybody automatically thought of as a cheerful face,
"Did you, perhaps, get a job offer!?"
"Eh, how? Nothing's come up yet, nothing at all, or rather, not one guy's shown up in my wanderings!"
Al---ways, such as want to be fools have bottomless cheer. Moreover,
"For today, I've only got English. Haha, my third time repeating it!"
...Though he'd now reached his fourth year, it appeared he hadn't gotten his language credit yet.
"Because the road ahead is dark still, I cheer myself up! Is that a problem!? Rather, did somebody say when the next drinking party is? What, what, I wanna go, I wanna drink, sake! Let's do a drinking party! Today, let's everybody go from here! Hey hey, sake sake sake! It'll be fun~!"
Linda, the palms of her hands lifted towards him, lept up to explain to the excited ex-president in simple terms.
"Hosshii-senpai. Calm down, it's not what you think."
Hosshii... that's it: somebody, Hoshino-senpai... was it something like that?
Banri tried to organize in his head the as yet incompletely memorized names and faces of the various upperclassmen. The ex-president Hoshino-senpai... Hosshii. Slightly monkey-like, sinewy body, the first guy to have a good chat with Banri, the nice guy Yoshino-senpai... Yosshii. Other than that, the present president of the third years, who played music, Kago-senpai... another guy called Kosshii... It was making Banri's headache even worse. Memorizing was such a pain. How was he going to be an Omaken!?
"Tada Banri and Kouko-chan have hangovers. That okay with you? We were only talking about that kind of stuff. So, as for specially scheduling a party now,"
"A hangover!? If that's all, don't you just have to drink some more!? Freshmen, you know what? The cure for a hangover is a drink in the morning! That's all! To get to where you can forget how bad you're feeling, drink, drink until you've gotten drunk, then right away have another together! Right!? So let's go drinking, okay!? I want to, I, I want to go drinking, to have fun drinking with all the underclassmen, but I want to escape from reality for a bit, even talking with my fellow job hunters, the sake is awful. I'm still off on my own, but it looks like I'm going home and won't be able to come back, so, how about it!? So please let's go drinking!? Shall we!? That OK!? Is it no good!? Is it bad!? Can't an unqualified human like me go drinking without conditions? As president of the club I tried hard to manage the club, but since it was such a small sales point, wasn't it simply better to say nothing? Hey, wasn't it!? But then, what was I to do!? What will I do if I cannot find a job? If it's real estate agent, I'll take it. If it's notary public, I'll take that too. I'll take the English and Law tests, because I must! I mean, even my senpai's job hunt isn't concluded yet! What are you doing senpai!? What am I doing!? Even with that, before long they're coming, they've come, the third-years have come to the seminar! No way, don't come! I mean, from now on what must I do to exist, I want to live normally, that's all, but in luxury!? Is this living in luxury!? Ah~~~~ but I want to live~~~~~ sorr~~~~~y! Apart from that, I don't wish for anything more, gods help me, I'm scare~~~~~d! I'm afraid I'll be broken by this record-breaking ice age! Aahhh~~~~ let's go have a fes-ti-vallllll~~~~!!"
Everybody in the place exchanged silent glances. Banri too. Kouko too.
...Unable to help him find employment, or even a festival, for the time being, taking that pitiful fourth-year to go drinking was all they could do.
The two freshmen offered up their livers as sacrifice.
* * *
As if they were fully rewinding time, Banri went to the same place as yesterday.
The same tavern, the same all-you-can-drink, even the same room as yesterday, sitting with his back to the partition, even the same spot. Kouko next to him--- it had turned out that way naturally--- all the same.
As he heard the talking of groups of other members and fourth-year students gathering together, he realized that the Omaken had become a rather large family. The drinking party started.
At the sound of "Cheers" from the president, beer mugs came near to mouths,
It was only the smell, but from now on it will seem like vomit. But though he hesitated, and he felt awful, he muttered to himself "Whatever...", and tasted it. Feeling about ready to throw up, he thought he should gulp it down all at once.
Gulping it down, the feel of the cold beer passing down his throat was nevertheless pleasant for now, he drank it all down in one gulp, even the foam head. He peeked quietly, sidelong, at Kouko, who for a while had hardly touched her oolong tea, now, as if resolved to do it, seized her beer mug. She tasted it, tossed her head back, and emptied her mug with gusto no less than Banri's.
"Is she okay!? 'Cause I don't see any problems at all so far..", Banri muttered to himself, but,
"Oh! There's a freshman girl whose drinking style ain't bad! She looks more promising than we've seen in a long time~ Come on over here so we can talk a bit!"
A mixed group of upperclassmen was beckoning to Kouko. "Com-ing! ...urp...", she covered her mouth with a handkerchief even as she obediently got up and walked over to them.
And then onto the open cushion,
"Hold on. You don't need to overdo it with the sake, you know? That pitcher of oolong, it's for you two to keep. If the seniors say anything, you ought to say it's an oolong highball. Those guys are going to be drunk before you know it. Then you can leave quietly without being noticed."
Linda had come over, her expression a little concerned. Speaking with her voice lowered, she sat down on the cushion.
She peered at Banri's face, checking to see if his cheeks were flushed red. When Banri didn't say anything more,
"Oh well. That's how it is."
Her style a little strange, she continued talking. Moistening her lips from the mug of beer, she laughed in profile.
"Look, new member. You haven't done anything, right? What with one thing after another having happened so quickly, for now, perhaps it was good you had an opportunity like this. Though for you guys it was inconvenient, I think that for the seniors, even getting together will become more difficult from now on."
"What do you mean by 'Haa'... what's wrong? Have you reached your limits? Do you need to lie down?"
Linda quietly gave him space, giving Banri room so he might be able to sleep, but Banri, still seated, didn't move at all.
Even with regards to Linda, he had no idea at all.
Right now, she seemed a really wholesome, even caring woman; a gentle senpai who truly took care of people.
But in reality, this face he didn't know was incredibly clever, cruel to an extent he could hardly believe.
Not noticing that such were Banri's thoughts, Linda tilted her head a little and touched her chin, as if she were busy thinking. Swinging her hair and raising her eyebrows, she brought her face near to Banri's eyes, as if to look into them. Then,
"And on top of that, that raw tension, was that only a hangover? Whew... I mean, what I just saw, why all the gloom... hmm hmm hmm...?"
She pointed towards Kouko with both her fingertips and with her gaze.
Kouko was seated like a doll on her cushion, surrounded by older students. Though she was a little pale (perhaps due to the beer), she blushed a little, for the time being with a smile on her face.
"...I seem to be correct. You've had a fight with her, right?"
The way Linda said "her" wasn't the simple third-person feminine way of speaking, but was rather the "my girl" way of speaking.
Banri didn't say anything more, so Linda, her lips in a playful pout, said to his ear "Whatever you say, you can count on senpai", lowering her voice to a whispering sigh. Entirely as if she wanted to talk about their shared secret.
Banri, setting his beer mug on the table, acting as much as possible as if he were hearing a joke,
"...Linda-senpai, did you think Kaga-san and I were going out?"
He tried to say it. He intended to.
Setting this and that aside, for the time being, he didn't want to deal with the big misunderstanding looming before him right now. That's how he felt.
"Was I thinking that!? Eh, wasn't it so? But didn't you guys have a really good relationship? Though I thought, since from the beginning you came as a couple to the club?"
He forced a smile. Shaking his head firmly from side to side,
"You were wrong."
He said it clearly. So as to not be misunderstood, simply, distinctly. "Are you kidding!?", Linda said, her eyes growing wide. She looked at Kouko from a little apart, and once more returned her gaze to Banri.
"Is that how it is!? Eh, then... what's that? To put it simply, you were 'more than friends, less than lovers'? Huh. Now I see... well, is that so? That's how it is. Still getting to know each other, month by month. ...Ah ah ah, from now on, after this... ou ou ou, that's how it is. Sorry, I've gotten ahead of myself."
And then, both hands covering her mouth, her shoulders shaking, she was laughing merrily from the bottom of her heart.
"What's with you already?", he said, "'It's good, it's good from now on!?' What's that about? You really seem to be having a fun time here, aren't you?"
Realizing that he could not simply look calmly upon that merry face, and wondering why, Banri knocked down all the beer that remained in his mug. Lined up with him, shoulder to shoulder, Linda threw back her head too, lifting the mug that was in her hand. Like old men, they let out huge sighs. And then,
"This is really hot! Well then, as your senpai, I'll be quietly watching over your promising future! Well, love stories are fu-n. Tell me, tell me more!"
"Tell you... what do you mean?"
"Lo-ve st-o-ri-es! All girls are crazy about love stories, and I, for one, am a girl! Lo-ok look look, Tada Banri, will you tell me e-verything, first thing?"
Look! Look! No! No! While listening to that merry voice with one ear, Banri poured sake with ice from the pitcher into his mug. It didn't matter whether it was sour or soda, either was fine. At any rate, he wanted to shove anything into his body but Linda's voice. And cram it into his brain too. Almost against his will, he forced it down his throat.
"...Especially for senpai, please let me know. How's that sound to you?
Because he thought that Linda would probably be silent, trying to bring up a subject like that. But Linda, making as if to punch Banri softly on the shoulder,
"Whatever, it doesn't matter! I was just thinking it was quite something these days!"
Her expression was still playful around the edges.
"You don't have a boyfriend?"
"No..., I wish..."
"That reminds me: earlier, Kaga-san said it looked like there was something between Linda-senpai and Hosshii-senpai."
"Whoa! ...I mean, wow, she said something like that... no, in reality that can be forgiven... no no, impossible."
"I mean, you've really got it, she said."
"Huh!? Me!? Got it!? She said that!? ...Seriously, I'm gonna give that girl an allowance later. And a big kiss too."
Linda laughed, or in other words, he had succeeded. Drinking some sake, she looked at Banri. Her curiosity was piqued, and she wanted to hear what they'd said.
Rather than answering back "Aren't you awfully curious?", Banri said:
"Didn't you have a boyfriend back in high school?"
Not having an answer, he emptied his next mug in one gulp. While he refilled it from the pitcher,
"---Even hearing that, you answer 'there wasn't' anyhow? There was nobody, right? Yes yes, I understand, senpai. There was nobody. Sure. Nobody, nobody. Nobody at all. It was something that never happened. It's like that. He never existed."
He didn't look at Linda's face as he argued. There was no answer.
At that moment, his field of vision shook strongly, what was close at hand becoming dangerous. Sake overflowing hugely from the top of his mug, he returned some to the pitcher and laughed. I'm useless. Completely drunk. Laughing, he drank some more.
"...Hey, hold on. You're too quick with the pitcher, stop that."
Linda had grabbed and stopped his hand.
Banri's face went white.
Just where he found the strength to shake her off, even he didn't know. From then on, whether he tried to say anything to Linda or not, he didn't know. Really, he didn't know.
"Hey, can't you stop already?"
Dazzled, he couldn't see anything at all.
"Hey, how? How can you do such a thing?"
He couldn't even see Linda's face.
"Isn't such a thing... horrible? Didn't you think of me--- of 'the Tada Banri of that time' as pathetic? Didn't you think it mattered?"
Next to him, the sound of her catching her breath was all that could be heard.
All that came to his mind was his own face. The Tada Banri captured in the picture, with it's thoughtless smile.
That happy-looking guy cheek to cheek with Linda didn't know what the future had in store for him. If he stayed with Linda, it would all be fun. He had laughed making faces like that.
Though he would have told him if he could. From his heart he felt so. He didn't trust that person next to him. He'd had an accident, and was gravely injured, and once he woke up that person gave him this face like 'I never knew you!' Apart from that, saying 'Tell me love stories about you and other girls!' and such, that's the kind of person she was. He wanted to tell her that.
But, what he noticed at the same time, what he was doing to Linda was exactly that, in a manner of speaking.
It was only the difference between accident and intention. The end result was the same.
He had just told Linda that he didn't know anything about her.
And not just to Linda. He'd been doing it to everyone he had met up to that time, to his parents, to everybody. Giving this face of 'I don't now anything about you!' He was doing it even now.
His face felt cold.
He was bathed in an awful sweat. Down his wet back, his sweat walked unpleasantly. His breathing was painful. He felt dizzy.
"...We may be the same in that way..."
Groaning, he laid his head on the table.
It's hard. It hurts. I cannot breathe. It was difficult and painful, and he couldn't do anything about it.
Forgive me for saying things selfishly.
I am the lowest of the low.
Forgive me for having become like this.
I am truly sorry...
Echoing in his ears, as if it were a scream, that little syllable was like a shriek.
Slowly, gradually, Banri lifted his face; lifted it up like a puppet. Unnoticed by those around, Banri and Linda's exchange heard by nobody, everybody continued talking merrily as they had been not long ago. Face flushed, he laughed like an idiot.
Linda was looking at Banri.
Flushed red all the way to the temples, as if she were angry, as if she were shocked, as if she were crying, as if she were glaring at him, as if relying on him, she stared straight at Banri with an incredible expression.
Her face was swaying, her beautiful silhouette shaking.
But not as much as you might expect. He had been destroyed. He had been broken with a single blow. Practically out of spite, he had casually destroyed the whole fragile world that Linda, for some reason, had been trying to make.
Apart from this, he wondered if there was meaning here. Nothing, he realized. He wanted to go somewhere. Somewhere else. But, that place, where would it be?
Suddenly Banri stood up and stepped over the cushions. "Where're you going? Will you be okay by yourself; you're wobbling", some senpai's voice asked him. He answered automatically that he was going to the bathroom, not feeling well.
Fitting words to action, he strode from the wood-floored room and headed towards the men's bathroom. Sitting on the toilet seat, he locked the door.
His face, covered by both hands, was much much colder than before.
Entirely as if he had died.
He couldn't think about living. Feeling clammy and uncomfortable from a smear of sweat, he had become like a melting ice sculpture.
The bathroom's tiled floor was doing the giant slalom. The designs on the partition walls were spinning. Brushing up his sticky hair, Banri simply opened his eyes wide.
He wondered what would become of him now. He wondered what he should do. He wondered what he wanted to do. Still not understanding anything, as it was, he felt he was quite a mess.
Bam! That moment, from the other side of the door a loud noise rang, making him flinch. Somebody was banging on the door. With all his might, he clasped his hands together.
He heard a voice on the verge of crying asking his forgiveness.
"...Who is it...?"
I was scared! Shouting like that, her voice broke, pausing.
"...I don't understand... Who is it...?"
You were like a bomb, completely. If I were to touch you the wrong way, then I would maybe lose you again. And perhaps you would disappear again. Thinking like that, I didn't know what I should do. I still don't know. I'm still scared, scared, I cannot help but be scared. It may have been my fault, and if it were my fault what should I do, if again... thinking like that, I was afraid, and helpless.
"...I, forgot... altogether..."
That day, I did go to give you an answer.
"...Everything became nothing..."
Though I was delayed, I wanted to answer you. I wanted you to hear my answer. Banri. But I didn't get there in time.
Hey, was I to blame?
Was it my fault?
Because I didn't get there on time, then, what of it? Was I like that... to you? Show me Banri, answer me. Was it my fault?
But you didn't tell me that if I showed up late, I would lose you and you would disappear completely!
"If it ended there, like that, wasn't it nothing!?"
* * *
The wind blowing through him, Banri was at a loss.
He had promised to be waiting right at the middle of the long, long wooden bridge. But, so early in the morning, any other place would have been better. Though it was a bit late to be thinking about that now.
Both his hands stuffed into his pockets, at first he watched steadily off in the direction from which Linda ought to be coming. But though he waited and waited, her form not appearing, the emptiness in his chest becoming gradually worse, Banri turned his gaze towards the surface of the water.
Though he gazed all the way down to the other end of the bridge, it was a truly empty time, waiting for her to show up.
It was long past the promised time.
He wondered if her not coming was her answer.
Hearing music he pulled his cell-phone from his pocket and checked it once more to see if there weren't any texts or other confirmations. Anyway, since nobody else was around, he realized that sound leaking from his headphones didn't matter. Raising the volume, he looked out over the familiar scenery.
The majestic, even wild Mt. Fuji.
In the distance, snow remained yet on the many, hazy mountain peaks. After that, city. Hazy with profusely blooming cherry trees, a wide flood plain. Thread after thread flowing in parallel, the river below his eyes a little cloudy, blue tinged with gray. Sturdy old concrete bridges. Paper mills. Thick smoke-stacks. More and more like that on the other side, the river's current continued flowing.
He was chilled to the soles of his feet, but for quite a while he couldn't bring himself to leave.
As it was, wasn't it going to get awkward, waiting here for an eternity? Vainly waiting for the figure of the person who wasn't coming, stood up like a fool, who in spite of having obtained the position of cheerful rounin student without even having studied. He wondered if he was going to suddenly turn into an idiot.
"...Waiting like this, I can't say it's good..."
"Jeez, you idiot", he muttered to himself.
His wish might come true, eventually, if he kept on waiting, but for his heart to have granted such an extension would be a mistake. 'No' in this way was clearly a slap-down, it would have been better to have a clean break. At the very least, he wouldn't have to keep on standing right in the middle of the bridge, by himself, alone.
As it was, he had become like the bronze statue on the headlands overlooking the tea plantations covering the slopes. It was there. A splendid bronze statue of one of the great local men. Looking down upon the river from a cheerful spot, nice people looking at him kindly, silently standing there still. Quite like my present self.
Casting his eyes downward, he took a breath, and started walking.
It was in that moment.
It was perhaps from the earphones blocking his hearing, but that was one strange echo he heard.
The cord pulled back, his eyes to the bridge, it came flying at him: a white light...
* * *
The voice had stopped.
Still barricaded in the bathroom stall, Banri raised his head.
The person outside the door was no longer there. Impatient with the Banri who just would not get up, she had left.
Banri took the hard handle and opened the door. There was no longer anybody there in the narrow space he saw. It was too late. The person trying to open her heart to him wasn't there.
Stepping carefully on wobbly feet, he walked out. As if he were holding onto the pillar, he peeked into the party room. The scene there was unchanged from before, nothing different.
Drunken students, second-hand jokes of uncertain meaning, laughter loud enough to leave you deaf. Somebody was clapping, the sound echoing loudly.
And then, Linda was there amongst the people. Looking a little tired, she leaned against the screen, mug in one hand, joining in the conversation. Laughing, she brushed up her hair, sitting at ease.
That she wasn't going to return to him at all, she knew from the start. Now he knew. Entirely, now.
Banri staggered over to the shoe racks. A voice called out, "Tada-kun?", but he pretended not to hear as he pulled out his shoes. The grey New Balance shoes. Sticking them on his feet, he left the place as if nothing could prevent him.
He was bitter, in pain, unable to breathe, and on top of all that his head and stomach hurt. He might even throw up shortly.
Still, as he walked, the cool night breeze on his face felt good. He didn't want to think about hard things, and proceeded straight down the main street. Like a machine, his feet continued to move, dispassionately.
He was unbearably sad.
If he were to be asked why, specifically, his current self would not be able to answer entirely.
His living self was sad because he had been cut off from his past.
He'd tried carefully not to look so far, but being made to confront "what was missing" as if he hadn't noticed was sad.
Banri's past must have been pitiful.
Suddenly he lost his life, his family, his friends, the girl he liked, everything; his very existence was erased. His current self was rewriting the life that had existed under the name of Tada Banri, making it as if it had never been.
Forgive me! Forgive me! Tada Banri. He had a feeling it wouldn't matter how many times he repeated it. Forgive me! What's more, the new world that was prepared, that Linda was trying to maintain somehow, keeping up appearances, hiding her tears and protecting it for him, I, with this hand, have already shattered it. I am truly sorry.
Already, there may be nothing he could do.
There was no technique for living without sadness. It would last forever. As long as he lived.
Suddenly he was wiping away tears with the back of his hand, dripping shamefully from his nose.
This sadness was always here. He had known it. Yet, he did not want to look straight at it, only avoid it. Simply to live and pretend to have forgotten.
Even in the past, it had been right there following him. And then "what was missing" --- that guy, always with precise timing, would tap him on the shoulder from behind. Tap tap. Hey, Tada Banri.
'Did you forget I wasn’t there?'
So he would say.
Turning around, Banri would look.
At the nobody there.
At the nothing there.
At only "what was missing".
That guy has no body. In truth, he doesn't have words either. Still, he's there, a menace to his current self's existence. He wondered what would satisfy him, when he was pushed to the edge of a cliff. He wondered if he would forgive him for not falling head over heels.
Clinging behind him any way it could, not leaving him, that guy's other name could be said to be 'his past'. With all due respect.
Right, left, right, left. Anyway, Banri kept moving his feet, not resting. Looking back at the emptiness behind him terrifying, he could not stop.
Please, leave me alone just this once. Banri pleaded as he walked. I know you're right behind me. I haven't forgotten. But, for just now, he wanted to keep walking. If he could, he wanted to set aside his sadness.
Since I really do understand, why don't you leave me alone--=
In reality grabbed by the shoulder from behind, Banri's whole body shook as if he'd leapt into the air. He was scared. He'd been shocked. Really, really,
"So, sorry! You surprised me, and I didn't think..."
He really was surprised. He thought he'd died.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
Standing behind Banri was Kouko, out of breath.
Her hair was mussed up, as if she were having a hard time, and in her hand were her own and Banri's bags. As she passed Banri's over to him she spoke.
"All of a sudden, your bag, you'd gone and left it... I was surprised, 'eh, eh'... anyway I've got it, I brought it for you... haa, enough already... oh that hurts!"
Combing her bangs across her face as if they bothered her, Kouko continued. Taking another breath, her eyes sparkled, probably from the headlights of some car going down the main street.
"Hey, really... what the heck, what've you done? Did something happen between you and Linda-senpai?"
He seized his strangely leaping heart tightly from over his clothing.
Suddenly, he breathed in, filling his body.
From his left heel, to his right toe, the oxygen was being squeezed out by the pressure in his stomach.
"...The answer was yeeeeeeeeeeesss!"
All at once he exploded. Shouting, he dashed off with all his might.
"Eh!? Eh, eh eh!? Tada-kun!?"
The answer 'yes'. It was from his past with Linda.
"What!? Your bag!? Hold on!"
The answer ‘no'. I will not wait. I want to get out of here. I was to go somewhere else. And now, I want to shake off that guy clinging behind me, I want to leave him behind and I want to leave anybody else following behind, escaping by sheer speed.
Swinging both arms at the shoulders, both feet recklessly refusing the ground.
Taking a strong grip on the asphalt, each of his feet in turn sent the weight of his body flying vigorously forward.
He felt that the speed he gained from the next kick was like an explosion.
They were light. His feet--- no, his shoes were light.
Was this speed given to him by Linda?
Could this body move like this? It was the first time he'd been this fast. In the shoulders, arms, back, chest, hips, thighs, knees, ankles and toes. Where had such flexibility, such power been hidden? Banri ran through the night streets like a wild animal. Wanting to leave everything behind, he ran, his whole body desperate.
From behind, this instant's frame, one frame, all of the current Banri is stretching out. He wanted to tear apart all the competition. With all his speed, he wanted to win the race by a wide margin.
"Why are you running away!? Is it something I did!? Am I that awful!?"
Awfully fast, from behind, Kouko's voice like a shout reached him.
It's no, no no! The answer is 'no', these feet didn't want to stop. They didn't want to stop until he had gotten away. Banri wanted to leave this instant, this very 'now', behind. For that reason, he was running through this night.
At the fork in the road, choosing on a hunch, he went left. Another fork. This time, to the right. At the next, right again. Next, at a three-way junction, he headed down a familiar route. He had no idea where this street he had just chosen went on to, and it seemed he already didn't know which streets he'd chosen to get to this point.
It was as if since he'd plainly been granted a life up to now, his days would continue coming.
On the whole, 'yes' and 'no' were successive decisions. As if 'yes' and 'no' were the mesh of an infinite net he was entering, he did not know the correct path. He did not know the paths he had taken in his past. But if he could come to know them, then if he could come to undo all of his mistakes up to now...
Thinking on it, he surprised himself.
'Maybe I can return', he thought.
If he could return once more down the same street, if the right way home, the one and only route could be found, then for sure, ...Linda would be there. Linda was always there, waiting for Banri's return.
"...But! Noo! What the...!"
He could not. Because Banri's memories were lost. Already, he could not follow the way back. He did not know the right way home. No matter how many times he looked back, he could not find there the figure of his own past.
Therefore, all he could do was move forward. It was a much better choice than to stand there, frozen in place, stuck in sadness over what he was missing, still not knowing the way back and crying about it.
Run away, escape, run like crazy.
Shaking lose, he ran so fast nobody could catch him. Banri, now, chose his way and flew down it. And then again, he made his next choice. Living, to the very end, is a sequence of choices.
The street before his eyes continued on to an overpass. Under the crossing, there was a huge flow of vehicles. The swarm of headlights shone like madness. Running as he was, his sadness, even his speed was great enough to turn it all to nothing. No, never--- he tried to laugh by himself at his own thoughts, but his feet kept moving.
It would be easy. For sure.
Must he take another painful, agonizing breath? Must he say sorry over and over again? Is there any other way than to be sorrowful? If he wanted that to stop, he needed only to keep running, as he was. Throw himself into it completely. Headlong.
Look, right there, in front of you.
The pure white, intense light is a mouth gaping wide to receive you at any time in the future.
In that moment, he stumbled. His head was jerked back when it didn't keep up with the rest of his body.
Something slammed into him from behind with great force, knocking him off to the front and side. Banri shouted as he tumbled hugely, doing a somersault.
Running his back into the overpass barrier after one turn around, he groaned and started to pass out. A white hand extended, limply, to grasp his ankle. It was already a horror, completely so.
"I, caught, you...!"
A shriek came from his throat. Shoved from behind--- in short, hit, probably by that fallen bicycle. And then, the one who rode it,
"I mean... I haven't knocked you over...!"
It could only be her. Only she could be doing such absurd things in this world.
Charging Banri from behind with the bicycle, she must've crashed altogether. Her whole body was in an awful state. Her proud hair shoved all over her face, she was even bleeding from her cheeks. Holding on to Banri's ankle hard, there was even blood beneath her fingernails.
He must've shouted that. Anybody would ask, if they’d had such a thing done to them.
"Why!? Why were you chasing me so stubbornly!?"
"Because you were running away!"
Speaking sharply, as if stabbing him, Kouko, already grabbing Banri's ankle with one hand, now grabbing his knee as if clawing her way up, then grabbing onto his thighs, and then, oof, she was clinging to the still fallen Banri's body.
"What the heck... what are you trying to do!?"
Then, Banri fallen to the ground, Kouko on top of him, she cried.
Her shoulders shaking, with awful strength she wrapped both her arms around Banri's body.
"Where did you try to go!? Don't do that ever again, don't go anywhere, don't go running away! Don't go somewhere my hand, my voice cannot reach! Don't go anywhere, stay where I am all the time! I mean, prepare yourself, because I'm not letting go!"
Her mouth still pushed up against his chest, she spoke in a distinctly teary voice, as if she had shouted herself hoarse. That warm breath burnt Banri's heart to ashes.
"...That... what? What do you mean...?"
"Weren't you chasing after me!? Well, this time it was me chasing you! ...I mean, look! I'm doing the catching! Tada-kun is already caught! From now on I am not letting you go!"
"But... you don't love me..."
Turning serious, Kouko lifted her face and looked into Banri's eyes.
In those damp eyes, everything was reflected, glittering brightly. They twinkled and shook so strongly he thought, "Is there anything in the world not reflected there?" Banri's eyes were that dazzled looking back.
Quietly, Kouko breathed in. Her lips trembling, he realized she was searching for words.
"Speaking like that, I cannot just say 'yes'. Really, ...I wanted to answer. But in that moment... no, a little before then. Hey, please, listen. I wanted to talk with Tada-kun. That Mitsuo confessing to Supersonic didn't hurt me. What hurt me, was me."
Tears were still falling from her two eyes.
"Everything came easily to Supersonic's hand. That's what it looked like to me. A fun life, new friends, and then Mitsuo too came easily to her hand, ...even you, you saw Supersonic. Even you, perhaps, would have come easily to her hand. I thought, I, I... what was the difference between me and that girl? How different am I from her, who was discarding the gift that would not come to my hand, but came easily to hers? How much more worthy am I? ...If I was thinking like that, hurting, I couldn't be but miserable."
"'I saw'... Oka-chan? 'Came to her hand?' Me to Oka-chan's? Eh, but,"
"If you saw! I didn't see! ...Being seen! ...You saw her, she was seen by me too. ...It was awful. Incredibly. It was incredibly awful. It was scary. ...But me thinking such things... was the worst."
She wiped once around her eyes with the back of her hand, her lips quivered a few times and then,
"Admitting to myself that I was being attracted more and more by you, was for me very hard."
Kouko spoke as if she were in pain.
"I don't like a woman who can be completely OK with smashing many years of unrequited love and staying with that particular person. I don't think it's right. It is not something I can trust. Is that really love? It isn't just choosing somebody nice because I've been hurt? Am I not just wishing for a scapegoat, one taking away the feelings I could not communicate? Told, '...You're wrong, absolutely wrong, I've said it many times,' I am at a disadvantage. Saying, 'Really?' I've come to distrust myself, even."
Constantly wiping off on to Banri's shirt, Kouko's tears were darkening it.
"In my vision of the future, you see, saying 'no' was the right thing to do. You told me you liked me. My answer, no. 'We cannot go out together.' And then, you gave me a second chance. Even so, no. 'We cannot go out together.' That way, becoming perfectly alone, being forced to grow up, becoming trustworthy, no longer needing to doubt myself, everything from that point... that would be right. If I could do it according to my 'scenario'."
Somehow putting some strength into her trembling lips, Kouko smiled.
Another tear fell when she smiled, but those eyes didn’t lose their sparkle.
Despite clinging to somebody like Banri, falling to the dirty ground and crying, Kouko seemed to be happy.
"...For that reason, I wanted to wait. My heart always wanted to shout 'yes'. I thought that if I shouted, the world would change. To the point of forgiving myself my own behavior, even as I came to like you I drifted along, thinking it 'bad' or 'incorrect', living unworthily but not thinking about it. Until the time came, I wanted to keep waiting. But... I could not follow my 'scenario'. You said, 'I will not wait.' You said, 'I'm not chasing you anymore.' In that moment I thought, 'Well, as things are now, we are separated.' To which I said, '...Forget the 'scenario'!' Whether it was bad, or whatever, even being wrong is fine! Not being correct is fine! For me, there is something I cannot lose! My heart shouted that. Therefore, as for me, towards you,"
Even more, both of Kouko's arms tightened.
"...As for me, I like Tada-kun."
What would happen tomorrow he did not know. There was no point in dwelling on yesterday. There was only now. It wouldn't do to be cautious now, absolutely not. Kouko said it like that, as if she were telling all, in one long, long breath.
Ah, surrender--- lifting both hands high in relief, Banri too, then and there, put his arms around Kouko.
After something like that, what in the world could he say?
Able to do so, they simply embraced, gave to each other their body warmth, and simply confirmed their feelings were the same, the one to the other.
"...Would it be OK if you didn't dump me? It would be a favor!"
Saying something like that in a nasal voice, he pushed his nose firmly against Kouko's disheveled face. His lips too. Kouko was crying again after all. He bent down to her forehead, and then,
Suddenly, Kouko's arms let go.
Surprisingly quickly, faster than he could have said, "Don't let go!" Kouko separated herself from Banri.
"Oh, oh, oh," Kouko herself looked back strangely, behind her the shadow of a person. Beyond that, several more. He gasped, startled. Before his eyes, the still sniffling Kouko was drawn back and made to stand,
"This person stole my bicycle!"
She was forced to sit before the boy who was pointing at her.
Before she knew it, in the area of the overpass patrol cars had stopped, their red lights illuminating the scene of the crime. Made to stand, uniformed police surrounded her like a wall.
"Ho, hold on! What are you saying! Didn't I say I was bo, borrowing it... I was just about to bring it back..."
With strict faces, they communicated something back their fellow officers via their radio. The boy, once more pointing at Kouko with both hands,
"Absolutely, it's no mistake! Right after I got off my bike in front of the convenience store, it was stolen by this person!"
Finally grasping the situation, Banri stood up too, "No, no no no!" He tried to apologize for the confused situation and to get closer to Kouko's side, but the solid backs of all the uniformed men stopped him completely. He could only hear Kouko's desperate voice.
"Wrong, he's wrong! No matter what, there was an emergency... wait a minute! Just wait! Please let me explain! If I explain, you'll surely understand, there was a perfectly good reason, ah, hold on, kyaa!"
Before Banri's eyes, Kouko spun around and thump, she was shut up in the patrol car. Wow... witnessing an arrest at first hand... what's more, of his freshly minted girlfriend... though he didn't say things like that,
"Ka, Kaga-saan! Seriously, please wait, please listen to the story! Kaga-saan!"
"Tada-kun! Call me at home! Call our house phone!"
"But you haven't told me your home number! Excuse me, really, please wait a bit!"
While waving her finger from left to right, one lone police-woman stood in front of Banri, blocking his way. And then one simple phrase:
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