This part is a long one, and the second-to-last part of this chapter. Also this is definitely filled with typos snd grammar mistakes.
“I’ll say this once. I know none of you here except for Sasu Mami and I don’t have any grudges against any of you, so I have no reasons for trying to tell shitty jokes. It’ll save y’all a lot of trouble if you don’t get all worked up over my dirty mouth. It’s my nature—I always get like this when I’m pissed off.”
Akashi-san was the one who started things off. I hurriedly served our stock of barley tea for four people. I didn’t think they were customers who I should be serving tea to, but if there were drinks on the table, it might restrain them a little bit somehow. I didn’t think it would be very effective, though.
On the four sofas, Homura-san and Akashi-san were sitting facing each other, next to Akashi-san was Richard, who took off his jacket, and “Sasu” Mami-san was opposite to him. As there were not enough chairs, I stood next to the table. It was a position where I could see everyone’s faces well.
Mami-san’s face and hands were chalk white, and she was staring at her gripped hands on her knees. It was a wonder she could sit down in a chair.
“Mami and I have been together for seven years. We’ve been living together until winter of the year before last.”
“…Why do you have to talk about that now?”
“Pretty sure it’s because you’d just up and disappeared!”
“Quiet down. This is my shop, not a visitation room.”
Unabashed, Akashi-san lightly bowed her head and continued her story.
The winter of the year before last, Sasu Mami, who she had been living together with, suddenly disappeared from their apartment. Her phone was disconnected, her email address was changed, and all of her belongings were disposed of. Even though Akashi-san desperately continued to search for her, she could not find her, and just when she thought that she was no longer in Tokyo, she heard from a work friend that they happened to see a woman with long hair like hers in Ginza, and so she came here, unable to stay still. And since that happened on today of all days, an unlucky coincidence happened.
Akashi-san said they have been “together” for seven years. If they were living together as friends, she wouldn’t have said it to the fiancé in that way. More than anything, the air flowing between the two was not that of friends.
It was probably that sort of thing.
Seemingly beginning to calm down as she was talking, Akashi-san looked at Richard.
“Sorry for getting you dragged into all this back there. I’ve heard two things—that there’s ‘an unbelievably handsome man running a mysterious store’, and ‘I saw Mami going into that store.’ I lost my cool. You’re an unbelievably handsome, and honest merchant I see.”
“Pardon me, but I would like you to speak a few words before grabbing my collar, if possible.”
“Um, you are Akashi-san, yes? What is your relationship to Mami-san?”
Homura-san threw a straight ball. I felt like he didn’t know how to throw curveballs or forkballs.* He looked the calmest, next to Richard. Maintaining his outward appearance to the last.
(TN: A forkball is a type of pitch in baseball where you hold the ball between your first two fingers and snap your wrist.)
Akashi-san stared fixedly at him.
“You, would you ask that same question if I were a man?”
Homura-san, who had his straight ball decisively hit back, turned red like he was ashamed and looked down. Before Akashi-san could pour salt in his wounds, Mami-san muttered something.
“I’d started to like men. That was why I wanted to leave you, Tatsuki.”
The temperature of the room dropped below freezing.
Richard and I wordlessly exchanged glances and paid attention to Akashi-san’s movements and behavior. We didn’t want to cause a commotion and get kicked out of the building.
“…What the hell does that mean. So since you’re with this bastard, I’m kicked to the curb? Don’t fuck around with me!”
“I was thinking about the future realistically.”
“We can’t live like how we did when we were young forever. It was just as well that I found a new job. I don’t care about you anymore. I have no plans to start over with you. Leave us alone.”
“That will be all.”
Richard put a stop to her words. The more Mami-san talked, the paler she got, and she never looked at Akashi-san even once while talking.
Akashi-san, who was listening with her eyes wide and her teeth clenched, muttered, “Oh, really?”
“…’I don’t care about you’, huh, I see. But, Mami, those things weren’t what I really want to say, it’s about human relationships. Understand? Seven years. Just a single word was fine, so why did you not say anything before disappearing? I’ve been looking for you everywhere, thinking that you died since then. Wondering if you got involved in something strange, if you died somewhere, I even went to the police, your old friends were also searching, I couldn’t sleep at night, only imagining horrible things, going crazy wondering what I did wrong.”
“That was all on you, not me.”
“Calm down a little, the two of you, please calm down.”
While interposing in a low tone, in my head I was coldly thinking about something completely different from their words. The event order of Akashi-san’s story was wrong.
Mami-san and Homura-san became acquainted with each other last spring. If they started to date after that, then when she left Akashi-san the year before last, she couldn’t have known about him.
In addition, when she was at the shop, why wasn’t she “Sasu”——.
Richard should have also noticed it, but he was polite and held his tongue. If I was going to cover for my disgrace at university, now was my only shot.
“Mami-san, why did you introduce yourself as ‘Akashi’ when you were here before?”
Homura-san went ahead of me.
Mami-san looked desperate. Her complexion had gone beyond white and into a deathly pale. She looked at Richard, then looked at me. The identity of the one who told him was definitely exposed. She probably wouldn’t forgive me no matter what I did. Akashi-san was stunned.
“…Hah? ‘Akashi’? What’s that about, Mami?”
The spring photo. Mami-san, who didn’t look happy by any standard. The photo Akashi-san carried around. There, her complexion was healthy, she looked happy, and was like a completely different person.
Without my prayer of “nobody say anything anymore, I’m begging you” reaching anyone, Homura-san wove together a refined web of words. He was smiling, as though he was keeping up appearances.
“This talk seems to have become complicated, so please allow me to supplement it. She and I have been engaged for a year, and we are set to hold the ceremony in August. And so, I have a proposal.”
“Shut up! How dare you just get married or do anything else!”
“Mami-san, I do not mind even if you cheat on me.”
For a moment, I thought Homura-san had gone off the deep end. Akashi-san also seemed to have felt that way, since we were both gaping at him.
When Mami-san raised her expressionless face, Homura-san smiled. It was like a young father trying to reassure a small child. His eyes were not smiling at all.
“I felt a little lonely that you didn’t tell me about your past, but I understood that you have your own circumstances. I make my proposal based on that. Don’t you think marriage and love are two separate things? I love you, and that will not change no matter what. Might it not be better to marry me and consort with Akashi-san? If so, then it is as planned.”
Something a bit chilly ran down my spine. A proposal to let your fiancée date another person?
Who was Sasu Mami, and what was marriage to her for this man? What exactly did he love about her?
The silence was broken with Akashi-san’s clicking tongue.
“What’s with this little rich boy? Even idiots should think before they speak. You really proposing that sort of thing?”
“I believe I am. If two women are consorting together, it would not be seen as romantic love, but ‘good friends.’ I do not mind.”
“I’m saying that I mind!”
“But, Mami-san said she doesn’t care about you anymore.”
Akashi-san snapped. Richard intervened after Homura-san, who had been bending forward, got his chin punched. Homura-san also got fired up next, so it all got out of hand. Even when I pinned his arms behind his back as he stood, he was still raging and struggling.
When I noticed, Mami-san had grabbed her bag and stood up.
“Mami-san, please wait!”
Seconds after I called out, she glared at me and rushed down the stairs.
While the cat and mouse were fighting, the cheese disappeared off to somewhere. I felt like there was a scene like this in an old kid’s show.
Richard’s store had the atmosphere of a criminal investigation headquarters in an emergency. The ones who were on call were only Richard, Akashi-san and I.
Taking a hasty leave of the fight, Homura-san had run after Mami-san but could not catch up to her, and returned to the store with a bitter face. With time only passing by without calls being able to connect, he grew impatient and went out to check her apartment next.
Richard got a text. It was probably from Homura-san. It couldn’t be helped since he and Akashi-san didn’t exchange numbers, but the drawback was that Richard got completely dragged into it.
“…It appears that she has not returned to her apartment.”
“She has always done this as soon as she gets pissed off. In any case, she’d be at a park or the sea or somewhere like that.”
“Might you have an idea as to where she would be?”
“I don’t not have a clue, at least. I’ll definitely find her, though.”
“Please, assist us.”
Seigi, Richard chided me in a low voice. Perhaps our sole consolation was that there were no other customers scheduled to come to the store today.
It was way too late for it, but I confessed that Homura-san had come to my university, and that I had told him about her name. I thought that I might get beaten up by Akashi-san, but she was just stunned.
“Richard, I’m sorry. You expressly trusted me. You can deduct today’s wages, or even fire me. I must apologize to Mami-san no matter what.”
Richard’s phone received a follow-up report. I thought it was a text, but it continued to vibrate. It was a call. After he said “Hello?” in English, he switched to Japanese. I could hear Homura-san’s shrill-sounding and agitated voice coming from the terminal.
After a few words, Richard hung up. He turned to Akashi-san.
“Sasu-san seems to have gone missing. Homura-san is continuing to search in the neighbourhood around the apartment.”
“…What is this. What does this mean?”
Richard first told her to calm down and listen. I noticed that his expressions were even more erased than usual from handsome, almost artificial-looking features.
“Homura-san explained the situation to the landlord, who is familiar with him, and they unlocked her room for him. She did not appear to have returned there for at least a few days, it was completely tidied up, and in the wardrobe, there was three months’ worth of rent and a letter that read, ‘Thank you for all your help.'”
I flew out of the store at the same time as Akashi-san. At the bottom of the stairs, she threw me some kind of card. It had the bass clef symbol on it, as well as a mail address and phone number.
“I’ll search in Shibuya. Search any placethat a young woman could be alone and not look suspicious, doesn’t matter where! If Mami-san dies, I’ll fucking kill you, Homura, and that store owner!”
She ran to the back parking lot, got on her bike and returned, then flew down the road in front of the store.
I looked up at Richard’s jewelry store, pressed my hands together and lowered my head, and then ran to the subway station.
Station roundabouts. Meeting spaces. Coffee shops. Fast food restaurants. Shinjuku Gyoen.* Yoyogi Park. Toyama Park. That much was the limit even after two hours.
(TN: Shinjuku Gyoen is a large park and garden in Shinjuku.)
Akashi-san and Homura-san relayed messages with Richard and I as the go-betweens. It seemed that the two of them were searching near Shibuya Station and the company for the most part, respectively. Akashi-san said she was searching Sangenjaya Station, and while Homura-san said that we had nothing to lose so try it, he also said that he was going to try contacting and talking to the people who was in the section as Mami-san at the company. He told us that he had already took her picture to the police, but that they didn’t take it seriously enough. If he didn’t get any clues, he would be heading for the ticket gates at Tokyo Station next, apparently.
There was no point in searching in the same directions as those two, and walking around at random was also a fool’s errand. Of course, even if I did use my feet like that, I knew that there was no point if she had gone far away by taxi or train.
I knew that, but I was the same as those two. We had to do something.
I needed assistance from above. If that was no good, then the help of an angel or a skilled sniper.
I contacted Tanimoto-san. I didn’t want to make her too worried, so I purposely gave it a light and easy feeling.
“Asking for advice. Doing adult hide and seek. Unlimited range. I’m it. When you want to be alone, where would you go? Can’t think of anything”
I got a response when I had plugged the charger I bought from a convenience store into my phone that was rapidly losing charge, and was searching among the crowd in front of the central entrance of Ueno Station.
“Hide and seek? How nice! Is it a club thing? Maybe a park or a temple? Do your best!”
Thank you, Tanimoto-san, I will do my best. When you thought about the person you liked, the hidden reserve of strength that humans possess would surge out.
If I hadn’t said anything to Homura-san when he came to my university, the situation wouldn’t have gotten so bad. I knew that it was no use even if I regretted it. But I wanted to be given even just one chance to recover.
I tried to get information by asking around if anyone had seen a woman with long black hair who looked unwell, but ended up without getting any clues, and as I was worrying over what to do next, I got a text. It was from Akashi-san.
“Asakusa Shrine. We go there for every new year.* Anyone close please go there. Road closure at Sangenjaya bc accident. Can’t leave for a while.”
(TN: The first shrine visit of the year is called Hatsumode.)
Asakusa. I could go there by the Ginza Line. Homura-san was at Tokyo Station and didn’t seem to be free. I replied with, “I will hurry there from Ueno”, then went underground again.
Asakusa on a Saturday afternoon was crowded with Skytree* tourists. The nakamise shopping street, which you entered by passing under large paper lantern, was bustling like a theme park. Kimono shops, doll cake shops,* anzu-ame stalls.* Asakusa Shrine was to the immediate right hand side after walking to the Kannon temple.
(TN: The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting tower that is one of the tallest towers in the world. A doll cake is a small cake with filled with sweet bean paste and made in a mold. Anzu-ame is a candy-coated fruit, usually a plum, on a stick.)
In the precincts of the shrine, the hustle and bustle of the nakamise was incredibly quiet. The a-un guardian lion-dog statues* were relaxing on the white sands. And there was also….
(TN: Many shrines have guardian lion-dog statues at their entrance, with one of them having its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. They are called “a”-shaped and “un”-shaped respectively, and together they are called a-un.)
A woman with long black hair was sitting on a bench inside the grounds.
She was holding something that looked like a milk carton and was carefreely stretching out her legs. When she noticed me, she waved her hand a little. A strange sound came out.
As I ran through the grounds, my crunching feet sank into the white sand. It was a cruel joke. When I sat next to her, Mami-san placed her drink carton at her feet. Alcohol was written on the label. It looked almost empty.
“Did Tatsuki tell you? I wonder what you guys think a person’s privacy is.”
“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I’m the one in the wrong. Richard has nothing to do with this.”
“I know that.”
I don‘t care anymore, Mami-san said with a laugh. It was a face of desperation. It was a sight she really didn’t want to show Akashi-san and Homura-san, who were running around Tokyo in early summer.
“I remember New Year’s. There were huge crowds around here. Tatsuki’s family home was a kimono fabric shop, and each year the two of us would visit the shrine in kimono. Every time we heard people complimenting us and asking if we were sisters, Tatsuki would say, “No, we’re not!” and we’d laugh… Do you know the otakiage event? In the past, the amulets and talismans that protected a home for a year would be burned here, and a memorial service for the dead would be held with the flames. The amulets and talismans for burning would be piled high, as tall as a mountain…”
“I’ll call the other two. Homura-san and Akashi-san are really worried about you.”
“Listen to me for just a little more. You can call afterwards.”
“That’s not okay! Those two are really frantically—”
“Every time I look at that, I wish someone would burn me.”
Mami-san coughed. When I tried to contact someone, she reached her hand to my phone, telling me to stop. I understood at least that it wasn’t that she wanted to talk to me in particular. There were just people she didn’t want to talk to.
“…Do you plan on keep on drinking like this forever here?”
“I didn’t. I meant to properly make a decision.”
She continued to talk, looking like she was dreaming. She wasn’t looking at me.
“I thought it would all go well, but it was hopeless. I know with my head what I was trying to do, but I wasn’t paying attention to what my body was saying at all. I couldn’t sleep, even when I ate, I just threw it all up, and I lost so much weight that I felt sick. Even though Homura-san is such a good person…it was surely impossible for me to marry a man. I was truly, from the bottom of my heart, disgusted and fed up with myself.”
“Would it really be that bad if you don’t force yourself to get married!? My boss said that human relationships with a purpose are the farthest thing away from love as well.”
“I know that. But no matter what anyone says, I don’t like me, and I don’t think ‘it’s all fine.’ I admired those ordinary women who married the man they love and felt happiness, and I hated myself for not being like them.”
After almost shouting, Mami-san squeezed out laughter from her throat, as though laughing away herself. It was a sound that made your chest hurt just by hearing it.
At the end of last April, I saw people holding a parade on a main street of Shinjuku. They were flying rainbow flags and wearing costumes, joining shoulders with their same-sex partners. Someone told me that it was a gay pride parade. That women who could only love women and men who could only love men existed normally, and trying to get rid of discrimination and prejudice.
But I felt that Mami-san’s troubles were not the same as the stories of just those people.
Because this was a feeling that I was also familiar with.
“Feeling like they were different from what’s ‘normal’…I wonder if there are people who had never felt that way even once until they died…After all, your birth, parents, and tastes are all things you can’t do anything about, right? Even so, humans are all one-of-a-kind items. Even so, there are things that can be changed and things that can’t.”
“What about being a counselor?”
“Please get a hold of yourself! Aren’t there people who love you, Mami-san?”
“Doesn’t matter. The one who was with me was Tatsuki …”
In the middle of her sentence, Mami-san coughed strangely again. Her head was a little unsteady.
“…I’m sorry for causing all this trouble. You had nothing to do with this. There was only this way.”
When I asked that back, Mami-san suddenly collapsed onto the white sand. The empty paper carton fell soundlessly. A number of pill packages that were in a plastic bag fell out of the open light brown shoulder bag. They were all empty. Alcohol and pills. From the start, she was…
I shouted and slapped her cheeks, but she did not regain consciousness. What should I do? Make her vomit? What should I do? I have no clue. Hospital. That’s right, I had to take her to the hospital. Ambulance.
While calling an ambulance, I ran. There was no shrine office or sign of people nearby. When I ran to the nearest store and asked for help, I was told that there was a hospital out back. Back? Where was this ‘back’? The Kaminarimon*, the traditional-style gardens, the five-storied pagoda, the Kannon temple, the shrine—there was a heap of facilities gathered around here for the purpose of politely mourning a dead person. This wasn’t a joke. Where was the hospital?
(TN: The kaminarimon is the outer large entrance gate of the Sensoji, the famous Buddhist temple near the Asakusa Shrine.)
I ran back to the shrine. Even though someone had collapsed there all alone, the small shrine was unbelievably quiet. We were not necessarily confined to the ambulance coming soon. When I carried Mami-san on my back and resolved myself, I heard a loud car horn. Behind the Kannon temple, in the large parking lot for buses, a metallic dark green sports car had stopped there. What was that silver animal symbol on the hood? A tiger? No, it was a jaguar.
With the engine rumbling, the window on the driver’s side rolled down.
A blond man called my name. It couldn’t be.
I shouted to him about Mami-san and the sleeping pills, and Richard opened the door to the back seat. The grey leather seats shone glossily. What was with this car that was like the incarnation of its owner?
As though waiting for me to fasten my seatbelt, Richard checked the windshield, switched gears, and spoke to himself.
“I am a foreigner, so I am not very familiar with Japanese traffic signs.”
Rear wheels blowing up white sand, the metal horse powerfully changed directions.