Chapter 1: Akiko, The Girl, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke
As I breathed out, my exhalation chilled white and dissipated into the air. I stood there looking at the sky. Dawn was late in winter, and despite being only 5 in the morning, the sky – brushed thick with darkness – was full of stars trumpeting their glimmering existence.
The shiniest of the lot was Sirius of the Southern Sky.
I didn’t know much about star names, but my friend Tsukasa had taught me a bunch of things. He liked to explain that stuff in full detail. Though, at this moment I only remembered the name Sirius – and all the other stuff was plain moot in my memory.
Walking a bit, I came to the shopping district.
The arcades were damnably quiet.
A sleep like death.
There was not a spark of life in these stores.
It was a mere stretch from the station – but this place was completely barren and desolate. It was all lively in the past but the shops went out of biz. These shutters that were all a host of colours before were now rusted out – never to open to the light of day ever again. The way those silver shutters stood, this place was given the sad moniker of “Shutter Ginza”.
Ginza (銀座) was named such due to the silver-coin mint they set up during the Edo period – not because its inhabitants liked to turn their brain into mush on juniper berry jizz (although, that was one of the reasons you went to Ginza).
Anyway, when I was small, Shutter Ginza wasn’t like this.
Whenever they needed something, the city folk came to these streets. There were tons of happy buyers here, and the shop keepers were always on their toes and moving about. Just walking down the arcade made you feel shivery on the inside.
Even till now, there’s a fresh spot in my memory just for this place. At that time, I was probably about four or five years old. I was holding my mom’s hand, and we walked past the shops in the street. People were all about – many people – and they shuffled on quick feet – and there was fun in the air. That kind of atmosphere made me happy too as I stared around with big eyes at the frantic buzz of buyers and the goods on display. It was as much of a city center as you’d expect it to be.
Now, there wasn’t even a trace of that.
I had only lived for 17 years, but the arcades of the shopping street filled my memories. This shop over here was where I bought my first book – with a 1,000 yen note clutched firm in hand. That over there was where I caught my first movie – one of those SF films with an arrogant as hell space captain as the hero. And that sushi shop was where my lips first touched alcohol – right in the center of the street. I think I wasn’t even in Elementary school at the time.
Thanks to my old man, of course.
“Kiddo – this cup contains all the joys you could ever taste in the world. Wanna take a sip?”
As he said that, being the innocent and young sap that I was – I truly thought he was talking about some heaven-dripped nectar – and I gulped down half a shot of sake. Straight, & dry.
Of course, it toppled me right over.
My vision spun around like cartwheels, and the world trembled all over like drumbeats, and it was woozy & wheezy all around. I remember it till now – strangely clearly. While I was all red-faced and wiped out, my father cackled with a great big cackle. Seriously, he was a shitty old man.
This street really meant a lot to me – thanks to those memories. I felt a lonely wrench in my gut when I saw it all dead out like that. Through the arcades, a cold dry wind blew about, and it brushed against my cheek – and it was as though the same wind was blowing in the dear crevices of my heart.
But, even then, at this time of dawn when not a single human thing was lurking out, and the whole place was sunk into the darkness – that was the period I rather liked. In a world like this where everything just feels haywire, it was as though the darkness was placing it all proper again.
Of course, this was just my own point of view.
The sudden blare caused me to give out a shout.
The source of the sound was my own stupid phone.
I hurriedly jammed my hand into my pocket – cutting off the noise. Right on the dot. It wasn’t that I received a call from someone – but I had set my alarm to 5 o’clock.
A sudden fear welled in my chest.
Shit, if I don’t head back now – Akiko’ll be pissed.
And with that fear in me, I skedaddled.
I left the shopping street – and walked till I hit upon a waist-high gate. Clear over the gate and you’ll come to the hospital parking lot. Cars were parked there, probably belonging to the night-shift nurses. And in that direction – was the tiny three-storey high hospital.
There were some windows that still had light in them.
I felt like I needed to hurry, and so my feet sped up. You couldn’t pass the main gate at this time cuz it was locked – so I had to go round by the right. When I had gone all roundabout to the back entrance, there was a brown door there.
Hand on the knob. Slowly turning.
During the night, of all the places you could enter – this was the only spot.
So, I had to be on my damn toes.
Some time ago, Akiko performed an ambush on me, and when I came in she smacked me on the head with the bottom of a slipper. She was beyond pissed that day, and she sat me down like a monk – and then proceeded to give me a verbal whipping for more than 20 minutes. Like this place is for the sick – you know? – so you better treat it like it’s for the sick OK?
As I opened the door, I felt some stiffness in me.
I looked around for any movement.
Shit – is she here?
I listened closer.
I stuck my head out.
Not a form in sight – except those couches lined up in a clean order. It was the lobby. A place of activity during the day, but totally quiet at this time.
Sigh. Of. Relief.
First barrier – Done.
I entered while making sure the door closed slow – then walked down that dark corridor with my shoes in both hands. Small steps. A few meters later, there was a left fork that went up in a slight slope. That slope was for wheelchairs. The slope was done up in rubber for safety reasons, and it muffled my footsteps.
But – there were more obstacles coming up.
There was a big winding turn in the slope, about halfway, and after that you were at the mercy of the nurse station. You were stuck in open view.
Stopping at the corner, I peeked over. There was a bright light coming from the station. That probably meant the night duty nurse was awake.
From here to there was probably… 10 meters.
10 meters of Terror. That was the name I came up with. No cover in sight. When the nurse saw you – it was all done. I had to evade that line of fire or I’d be shot to death.
I took one nice gulp of air, then ventured out. As much as I could – low posture. As much as I could – kill your steps. Then, move –
My heart drummed like mad. In that hurry, I tripped like a goon as my feet went out of step. But, somehow, I managed to return to balance. Then, I continued just as fast.
And, in one breath I made it. I broke through. I turned ‘round the left. The third door in front was my abode. My heart rose up with accomplishment.
When my hand was reaching for it…
“Youi – CHI!!”
From my back. Someone shouted.
Panicking, I turned around. Exactly as expected, it was the devil herself – left leg raised, and right hand curled back. In other words, she was winding up to throw that thing. Despite being a girl, she had the gait of a damned good pitcher.
Without anywhere to escape – I waved my arms around in appeal.
“Heeeey Akiko – heeey this is all some kinda mistake…!! I-i-i-iiiii’ve been sleeping… just like you wante…!”
My desperate excuse was cut down.
That wonderful sound – and that brown thing flying at me – was most likely the hospital-issue (bottom of) slipper that proceeded to slam into my face –
I was heating up.
My body was sluggish at times.
I thought it was some kinda flu.
That was 2 months ago.
They say you just need sleep to cure a normal flu, and my mom didn’t like to foot out for med bills – so rather than going to the hospital she just made me sleep. Every single day, I slept for what felt like 20 hours. Some kind of sleeping bug must have stuck into me – because I just felt sleepy all the time. That was probably when I realized that something was weird.
No matter how much I slept, I wasn’t getting better. My temperature was climbing and dropping – but it always remained above 38 degrees Celsius – and my body slugged on without any loosening up. Even trying to raise my arm was a bitch.
After that went on for a week, I knew that it wasn’t just any normal flu. But I still didn’t feel like going in. I really really really hated hospitals and it was only thanks to my mother being all frantic and mad that I just had to go in.
A round of checks later, this is what the doctor said:
“Son, we’re going to have to keep you in.”
And, he quickly followed up with:
“Minimum would be… 2 months.”
Just so happened that my ‘flu’ was popularly known as – acute hepatitis.
It fell under the category of virus, and it was just like a common flu, but it also screwed up my liver. Really though, it wasn’t that serious. You could get better in about 2 or 3 months – and there weren’t many after-effects as well.
But, during that two to three months – I couldn’t exercise.
Stress was bad – so they told me.
So, I lazed around like a bum and took sleep as the bestest medicine in the whole world.
But – there’s always a ‘But’!
After about a month of shut-eye, my body became better off. So I went back to some kind of normalcy where I didn’t really feel like deeply ill. Furthermore, I was a fresh 17yo – a high-school adolescent. There’s no way you could’ve shut off a free spirit like me under some blanket like that.
In the first place, a hospital is this holy hell of boredom. The lights go out at 9pm. You can’t even watch the telly or listen to the radio. The sheer darkness made it hard to dive into a good book. Just – leisure and leisure and bloody leisure.
Eventually I started taking my nightly trips. It was a good thing that I had a friend who lived close by, and that became my beautiful sanctuary. You had television. You had games. You had manga. Compared to withering in the hospital – it was a goddamn paradise.
Of course, there was still the fact that Missus Akiko had a job to do, and so she couldn’t let that slide.
Which meant this.
Akiko & I were locked in some kinda sublime struggle night after night – and when the sun set, the battlefield that emerged from the darkness expanded before our view.
Life does whatever the hell it wants.
My old man took this as his motto – and he muttered it as he tore off those betting slips at the races. Till today, I feel it in my heart. Life’s a total bitch that just can’t keep still.
“Look here – Mister Ezaki.”
She pompfed my head with the slipper as she said that.
“You’re a smart guy aren’t you? I don’t need to repeat myself.”
Akiko was surely pissed, and so her voice went chillingly low.
Incidentally, I was sitting on my knees at the nurse station. My back was jolted straight, and my knees were clung together, and my hands were on my knees… yea, that was the state I was in.
I wish I could show you how ugly it was.
And, to make it worse, in that shitty state there was this old sack of bones granny cackling at me, and there was some sick kid that asked his Mom “what kind of thingy is that big bro up to?” – and the Mom just went “Cover your eyes dear…” in a quick voice while dragging him off – trying not to look at me as she passed by.
This was a goddamn purgatory.
Although I knew that it was useless – I gave my most gracious smile:
“Ha-hahahaha… what a gruesome face Miss Akiko! – I was just getting some nice air out…is all.”
My smile was creaking. It was totally bad.
Those eyes of hers turned into slits.
“And you decided that nice walk just had to be taken after lights-out – is that it Youichi?”
Despite the thick pounding of my heart, I still kept myself calm. That was some kind of leading question all right.
“Why… Miss Akiko – I was tucked under the covers like a little baby.”
Italics for emphasis.
Those slits turned into sharp needles.
“Tucked under the covers all right. Your bag, that is.”
This was Ninja trick No.1 that I used when I crept out into the night. Just a good ol’ execution of some smoke & mirrors. But, since she knew… that meant…
Yep, I was caught.
Guilty as charged. No defences.
The trembling started from my knees – so I held them down with my hands. With all those damn shakes inside me, I looked up at the ghastly grin of Miss Akiko.
Hehehehe – what a face Miss Akiko. Those cheeks all pulled up like that.
“Ha – ha – ha – ha…”
I laughed back at her.
“Ha – ha – ha – ha…”
I was a broken-down record.
The lovely Miss Akiko was a nurse – and her looks were comparatively on the prettier side, especially if you saw her when she was quiet and calm. But this was a horror-show all right. From what I heard here and there – the Miss Akiko back in high school was a demon.
Once, I caught a picture of her. Once.
17 years old. A nice girl with a nice uniform… that happened to have
“Hells Angels – Eat Ya Heart Out!”
“17yo Demon Darling – KILL U VERY MUCH!”
“Hell On Earth. Heaven Can Wait.”
Those kinds of words sewn on the back.
In other words, she was just that kind of chick.
As a nurse, she always had a gentle smile towards sick folks – but when she was mad, that look melted off.
So, I just kept laughing.
“Har – har – har.”
And she laughed too.
“Har – har – har – har – har…”
“HAR – HAR – HAR – HAR – HAR – HAR – HAR…”
We just kept laughing and laughing.
To describe it – it was off-putting and slightly…
That off-putting scene was upset after a mere seven seconds – by that single sound.
She smacked me on the head.
The underside of that slipper had come down with full force. The angle was just perfect, and throbbing bongos played inside my skull.
And Miss Akiko finally unleashed her brutal anger upon me.
“When your body’s still broken – don’t walk around like some smartass – Got It?!!! Do you wanna spend your entire life in a stuffy ward!”
“Erm… Miss Akiko –“
“You sound like some kind of Mafia Don right now.”
“What. Was. That?”
That was some kind of death glare. My smile creaked into all kinds of twisted shapes and I just remained stock still. It was like an anaconda staring at some kinda frog.
“Tell me that you’ll never ever ever ever take a single step out of here at night – ever.”
My head bounced up and down like a bobblehead.
“I won’t! I won’t!”
“And – suppose you break that promise…”
“I’ll make you dance a ballet with your balls hanging out.”
“You wouldn’t want that now… would you? It’d make your mom sad if she saw you spinning around with your crotch in full view – wouldn’t it?
This was the smile of Satan.
“Wanna try? I’ll make you dance the Nut-Cracker…”
Only some kind of blockhead would think that this was just an empty threat. Akiko was the kind of girl that’d do as she promised. At that moment – my head was filled with images of what kind of lewd Tchaikovsky I’d be performing.
“I think… I’ll pass.”
With a twitchy smile, I answered.
Akiko nodded twice. Gravely.
“Then, that’s a promise all right. This place has girls too. They’ll make wonderful spectators.”
“I got it…”
I gave an earnest nod, but there was something that kinda stuck out in whatever Akiko said.
Were there any girls here?
The Municipal Hospital in Wakaba was quite small, and the patients numbered about a hundred or so. And probably half of that were geezers over 70. The remaining had to be over 30 years or so.
So… were there any girls?
“The rest is up to you Mister Ezaki. If you dare piss me off – I’ll make sure that by the next day…”
And then, she suddenly screamed a Hieeee!!! – out of nowhere.
Woah, that demoness can scream like a little girl too – as that thought ran through my mind, a certain old geezer called Mr. Tada peeked out from behind her.
He was grinning a stereotypical perverted old man grin.
“You… touched my ass didn’t you!”
As she turned around, she screeched again with a face entirely red.
The 80-year old Tada had no teeth – and so his gums stuck out.
“Hey, sorry about that Aki girlie – I’m just an old man ya know – and this hallway is so cramp. Ya can’t blame me for having ta jerk around & all…”
He said that without a care in the world.
Of course – it was all a great fat lie.
This lecher still had those kinda of plans in him. Old age didn’t keep down his roving hands.
We were just next to one another – our sickrooms that is – and so I knew that he was a plain and unadorned lewd grandpa of the highest order. Under his bed, he kept stacks of porno mags. They say that as you age, you become ‘limp’ or the ‘urge dies down’ – but goddamn this horny bastard showed me how wrong I was!
Of course, Akiko knew about it too.
“God! You pervert geezer – you’re so full of shit!”
“Hey girlie – I’m just an old guy with a heart condition. How could a young missy like you possibly doubt a pathetic old sack o’ bones like me? Is ya heart made o’ ice?!”
“With that kind of face? You’re far from sick!”
“Oh god! My heart… ma aching heart! Don’t ya know a man takes only six minutes ta die after his heart goes out?!”
“You’re so full of shit! If you want to die so bad – just go die already!”
As the two went on with their usual give & take – I kept my gaze on them from the corner of my eye, and slowly stood up.
Let’s get the hell outta here.
Akiko kept me under an iron watch.
As I thought, a delinquent was an expert of coercive tactics. When the lights went out, she dunked a long bench in front of the door. I couldn’t open the door from inside cuz it swung outwards.
That left no room for arguing.
“Miss Akiko! I ain’t a plant! Even mammals have to piss too!”
I tried testing out that kind of argument anyway, but she handed me some kind of weird-shaped transparent thingy.
Yea, a piss pot.
Goddamn – what kind of human rights violation was this?
“You can’t be serious…”
When I asked that…
“I am serious. Good night – and good luck!”
With the piss pot delivered over, she gave a sweet nod.
She was truly using top tier torture tactics.
And it wasn’t just that I was locked in during the night. Even in the day, her strict presence was there. Normally I could stave off hunger whenever I wanted by heading over to the small supermart opposite the hospital – but she revoked those privileges. When I came to the lobby, the lady behind the counter would give me some kind of wicked stare. When I tried to circle round & get out the back – the cleaning granny grabbed me by the arm.
With a mop in hand, she spoke softly and somewhat coldly:
“Sorry boy. Akiko’s orders. Ya understand?”
As I nodded, I fled back to my room. This entire hospital was a gaol made specially for me – and the extent to which my warden had tightened the net around me went beyond anything I had expected.
“Audible deep siggggghhhh.”
With that kind of exhalation – I went down one of the hallways of the hospital.
So, the only place where I had any freedom was within the white walls of this godforsaken hospital. But there was no one else around other than doctors, nurses, and other sick dudes. And a kid like me was a rarity in this kind of decrepit atmosphere – so if I wasn’t careful enough I’d be stuck within the ugly bear-trap of some geezer’s yakkety yakking maw. Those jaws were sharp enough to stick into you for roughly an hour. It was a trap fit for the Saw series.
But, those fuckers that I call my friends always had this strange idea that being warded was something else altogether.
“Hot nurse babes! Yuu – you lucky fuck! Everyday must be a total paradise.”
Say all you want, but you’re just being delusional.
If they wanted to know what these ‘nurse babes’ were like – they’d just have to enjoy dancing a nutsack ballet with Akiko as conductor.
Yea, they’d die of shame – but that’s what you get for wanting a taste of heaven.
“Audible deep sigggggghhhhhhhhhhhh.”
With another exhale, I plodded down the corridor. It was illuminated by the noon sun.
This was the very definition of tedium.
At first, skipping school was a joy in itself – but this kinda tedium permeating my entire life made me wish that I was back in the mugging stream. It was a weird feeling.
Man… I really wanna sleep in a warm afternoon classroom…
Man… the Udon in the canteen – I miss that…
Soon, I came to some kind of passage.
The Wakaba Hospital had an East wing and a West wing. I was warded in the West side – where the mostly okay chaps were. Between both wings was a courtyard – and you crossed it to get to the East wing. It was the place for those who had it bad – maybe even terminal. The long stayers.
I never thought of crossing over.
You call it a hospital because – obviously enough – it’s a place to treat the sick with hospitality. A domain for the ill folk to come through. You had to be real sick as hell if you were warranted a ward in the East Wing. You had to have it deep. For a guy who suffered from no big deal – that wasn’t my spot.
I stopped – right in the middle of that passage.
I sure as hell didn’t want to go there out of boredom or plain shitty curiosity.
There was a time when I was fresh in here, and so I didn’t really know my way around. I entered the East. As I walked, I heard crying sounds. I didn’t think of anything, but I just headed over for a look-see. Closer, closer to that crying voice. My heart wasn’t ready, but I approached. Then, I saw it – the Boy & Girl. Huddling each other. Crying. Crying their hearts out in the corner of the corridor. She was biting her thin lip – and he was putting up some kind of front. Firm. Trying to be. Talking. Sometimes – though – wiping away the tears.
I didn’t know what – nor how – nor why. I didn’t know at all.
Because I ran. I fled. I scampered away in a hurry.
I saw something that I didn’t need to see.
Tragedies weren’t uncommon. That’s probably it. That was the lesson I learnt at that point in time. Tragedies were rare to touch – to see – to grasp. But they happened. Things around us were always tumbling down and breaking apart.
That was what I learnt – within the East wing.
“I gotta leave…”
As I told myself that, I tried to shift my body around – leave the passage.
The roof was nice. The sun was there. Resting by the side of the water tower – the wind couldn’t come. It was warm. I could get a manga from the lobby to pass the time.
As those thoughts spun around – I saw something.
From the windows of the corridor, I could see a certain part of the wing. The very corner of the East wing. The small window. The girl. There was a girl.
Her palms on the window sill. She stared at the sky.
I was surprised.
After being cooped up for two months, I thought I knew every face in this place. It was a small hospital after all.
I never expected her – a girl of such a tender age – to be here.
“Nah – she must’ve been visiting… probably?”
I told that to myself, but then I saw the rest of her. My thoughts trailed off there. She was dressed in light blue. Familiar light blue pajamas that no visitor ever wore. It was the hospital’s blue.
And, suddenly, Akiko’s words reverberated in my thoughts.
This place has girls too.
Yea. That seemed to be the case.
Of course, Akiko knew about the long-haired girl.
“Hehe. Your eyes are sharp when it counts.”
She laughed like a hyena.
I felt slightly mad at that, but if I made her mad then… I’d never ever see the light of day again – so I held it in. Akiko had this huge IV needle in her hand. Its pointy tip was aimed straight for the vessels of my left arm.
Being set on a drip was normal for a patient like me.
And, Akiko was the nurse that always handled this kind of thing.
If I were to do anything against her like this – it’d just be a simple:
“Oh… my bad. Woops!”
I’d find the needle in all kinds of wrong and painful places. Furthermore, she didn’t just do it once – but thrice. At first I thought that she was just being clumsy, but when the same thing kept happening over and over – I realized that she was a true monster. When the lovely Akiko was matched up with a slender needle – you just had to be careful.
“So… when did she first move in?”
I stared at that slowly approaching needle as I asked her. Although being shot up the vein was an almost daily occurrence – I could never get used to the pain.
“If I remember – 3 days back. She was moved over from some other prefecture. Yea, that was it.”
As she answered, the needle poked into my vein.
You had those nurses who could do it well, and those that couldn’t. The good ones made sure the catheter went in without much pain – but Akiko was the type who didn’t give a shit.
Once again – I suffered through the experience. I made a small cry when the sharp pain hit me.
“Guh – !”
Despite being entirely at fault, Akiko taunted me.
“Take it like a man!”
Taking it… I’m taking it all right.
If I grumbled now – she’d withhold any information she had from me.
“What’s her name?”
“You mean Miss Warded-At-17? Akiba Rika – same age as you.”
“So… same age.”
“Heh – what’re you thinking now?”
She did that hyena laugh again.
“I got nothing in mind!”
She kept on giggling – same as before.
Keeping it in. Asking again.
“She’s an East-er right? So – there’s something up & wrong in her?”
At that moment, Akiko shifted moods. Slightly. She was still laughing – but the joyous glimmer vanished from her eyes.
“Nah… nothing, really.”
A big fat lie.
I knew what that response was. A tactic used by doctors or nurses when they were faced with some seriously bad shit. They weighed their words carefully. They didn’t say anything out of hand. They had a ‘nuthin-much’ kinda look on their face. If you rarely got sick and weren’t around here much – you’d never understand it. You’d think it was some kind of small thing.
But, after being around 2 months.
I knew it was a lie.
That girl was down with something bad.
There was a thick black lump growing inside my stomach. It was close to sorrow or despair – but it had a different feeling altogether.
Hospitals hospitalized the sick. Obvious. Natural.
Students studied in school.
Policemen policed in police stations.
All those things – were bloody obvious. Natural.
And there were other things too – that were obvious. Natural.
Folks who were sick to death – dying away without a single hope to clutch to. They shouted their damnations & their retorts. They had a bone to pick with god. They went to the highest places and shouted all bloody heck out of their system. But, they couldn’t stem the tide. Slowly, and surely – their death was crawling closer.
At that moment in time – I knew where they went. Where they went to lay down.
Where they resigned.
That thing in their chest – that large wallop of air – all slimy and caked over… slowly… slowly – letting it go.
Being unable to do anything else. But that.
I ended the drip in 23 minutes. That technique was what I called – OSXDK (One Shot X Double Kill).
If you’ve been in the ward for some time, well, you pick up a bunch of things.
For example, the second-floor equipment room had a bunch of wheelchairs, and the third wheelchair (nickname – Infinite Spindoctor) allowed you to experience this wonderful feeling of slipping into a drift – Tokyo Style. The right wheel was slightly loose, and that was probably why it made those twisted turns. Another thing – it was very important to get the right nurse. As an easy example – Akiko was the type who’d forget whatever the hell you asked of her in a jiffy. The Head Nurse Yokota would definitely do whatever she promised, but she was also the type to care or worry too much. Checking who was on shift was basic for any patient in the ward. Then – there was the ‘Temperature Monitoring’. You couldn’t forget that. If your temp was too hot unstable, they’d poke you straight away – and so before that happened you had to find a way to warm up the thermometer to just the right kinda heat. That was the best-case scenario.
Speeding up the drip was also one of these secret tricks you picked up, but it was kinda off the norm and hard to execute.
The technique itself was simple – though.
All you had to do was to change the setting for the knob of the drip.
But this simplicity was a kind of curse – cuz if you sucked at managing the speed, your body would feel all queasy in a flash. When I first tried it out, I failed so spectacularly that I blew huge chunks all over the bed.
Today, I had already mastered it.
“Right – I’m done! Time to bugger off!”
When the drip ran out, I stood up.
23 minutes was my bestest record yet.
Akiko’s normal setting was about 1 hour plus – but being tied down to that bed for that long was something that I’d kindly love to avoid.
By the way, I could only use this technique because my sickness wasn’t that bad – so the drip was only for the nutrients. In the case of a medical drip, fucking around with the speed like that could have been seriously bad. For a patient with a weak bod, this was a life-or-death kinda thing.
Unfastening the catheter, I got out of there.
It’s not like I had any particular place to go anyway. I was limited to the hospital after all. But, somehow my feet started heading off towards the East wing.
And – I stood in the passage.
This was what you’d call ‘Crossing the Rubicon’. Roughly 2000 years back, this big shot Roman general broke taboos and forded the Rubicon river with his troops. Because of that, that big shot became the big cheese of some huge country. On the other hand, my ‘Rubicon’ wasn’t that huge – but I still stared at it like eternity.
Shall we venture forth?
Shall we retreat?
Those words spun around in my head – and I felt like a real fool cuz of that. It wasn’t like there was anyone who was gonna die at this moment in time. Moreover, if there was some stranger who was dying at this particular moment – then what could I do about that? It wasn’t my problem.
As I told myself that… I stepped forward.
Slowly. Steadily. I forded the passage.
Compared to the West wing – which always had patients milling and going about – the East wing was quiet. Within that stillness and silence – all you could hear were the small footsteps of a nurse walking down a distant corridor. It was kind of a let-down, actually, but then there was also the slight trepidation that this place held a secret in its silence. And even with that tense electricity coursing through my spine, I held myself in as easy a mood I could carry, and continued to advance.
And, I finally reached her room.
The room of the long-haired girl.
Written on the nameplate in magic marker. This was her room 225.
Yea – this was her name.
Sleeping? Or was she going through some kinda med test? But I couldn’t really hear anything from within.
Ah. At this point in time. I had some thought.
If only I was like – a kind of playboy or something –
Then – all I had to do was to go
“Oh. Hiii –“
And with that kind of greeting, I’d knock on the door, and we’d be able to talk about whatever without any problem. Then, one week later we’d be doing all right, and two weeks later we’d be holding each other’s hands, and three weeks…
I chased away those useless delusions from my stupid head.
I was totally at a loss here.
No. There was no way I’d be able to do something like that. If I could – I’d have one or two GFs no problem already.
In the end – I let out a sigh.
“Audible deep sigggggghhhhh”
With the smell of defeat wafting up from my back, I left the East wing. Even when I went back to the West – there was still that Eastern silence drifting around me.
So – she was Akiba Rika.
I’d only seen her from afar, so I had no idea what her face looked like. Of course, I also didn’t know what sickness she suffered from. I didn’t know why she was in the East. I didn’t know what I could do about it. What I could do was – maybe – teach her a few of those ‘techniques’ I picked up here and there, but I had to talk to her first.
With my head stuck in those kinda thoughts – I found myself back at my room soon enough.
“Ya went out kid?”
Looking over to my side, it was the geezer Tada.
He was small, so sometimes you missed sight of him.
This senile old goon stood up to about my chest level.
“Yea – been strolling here & there.”
“Ya a kid that finds this place dull – right?”
Nyeh-heheh – he cackled as he said that.
That wrinkly face of his became even more wrinkled – so I didn’t know where his leery eyes were pointed at.
“That’s right. I’m dying in here.”
Hehehe. I laughed back.
My headspace was still stuck in a rut about the whole East ward thing, and so I couldn’t think of much else. I also didn’t know whether the rut was just due to the whole matter of the East in general – or due to that girl… Akiba Rika.
Tada did a small nod over to his own room.
“Ya wanna see an old man’s secrets – kid?”
“That sounds slightly wrong – but… can I really?”
And then, everything was forgotten. I took a huge gulp.
The only thing that appeared in my head…
This geezer’s stash.
This stash was the legend. It was the absolute legend.
He didn’t let his decade long stretch over here go to waste. The old man lived a huge chunk of his warded life putting together – perfecting – his huge porno stash.
Room 2X7’s Sakata (73 years Diabetes Mellitus) said something along these lines:
“Try all my life – I just can’t beat Tada.”
Not just him.
Room 215’s Haruna (68 years Right Arm Fracture) – said something like:
“Tada – he’s really somethin’ all right.”
And as he said that – he looked far off into the distance.
“Damnit – 5 years younger s’all I need.”
5 years? For what exactly?
Anyway – Tada was really somethin’ all right.
I looked over at Tada’s ward.
Goddamn. This was like some kinda sacred spot.
But, there were also these sorts of rumours. Tada liked to dangle a carrot in front you, again and again, but he’d never let you see his holy motherload. Or not – but it ain’t like I needed to see it anyway. I just wanted a bit… yea – just a bit never hurt anyone.
He bowed like some butler – then opened the door.
“Take a look-see kid. Ya won’t regret.”
“Then I won’t hold back…”
And the door slammed in my face.
With a loud BANG.
“Hey. I’m a senile old goon ya know – I just forgot that I hadda check-up.”
“Sorry ‘bout that kid. Ya know that Aki girlie & all. She’s scary stuff a’ight.”
With a Catch ya later – he disappeared from my sight.
Leaving me standing there like a statue.
Damn you old man!
What kinda sick lie was that? Check-up? After building up all that kinda anticipation? Yea – you knew about it all right. Damn old man.
You’re so full of shit! That was what she had said. I concur, Miss Akiko. I deeply concur.
The Wakaba Hospital was situated high over the town, so you could see much of it from the roof. The small town that I lived in was found in Ise, Mie Prefecture. Population – 100k rough. And over the last decade it had been dropping.
In other words, the place was in decline.
In truth, the stores in front of the station were closing one by one, and the next year – the sole department store might have as well. It was a rumour going about. A few years back there was some talk about plans for redevelopment. But, it was stalled. Afterwards, decline was the only path left. Slowly, slowly – disappearing away. What else could you do?
This town was only well-known for that famous Ise shrine.
That Ise Shrine was only worth any salt today because it housed the Emperor’s ancestors, and so some bigwig like the Prime Minister would come over every New Year to offer up his respects. Ise wasn’t down yet thanks to the grace of this shrine. If it was taken away somehow – this small town would easily disappear off the map.
A long yawn escaped from my lips.
Currently, I was on the roof leaning on the railing, and that town was spread out far & wide in front of my eyes. I gazed dreamily at the sight. In the center was a large forest. That was the Ise Shrine. You could say that Ise grew around that shrine. It flourished from that.
You didn’t see many high rises about either.
Flat. Clinging with all its worth to the ground. Swelling outwards.
My eyes turned to the right, and there… right there – was the great outgrowth of a mountain. It was called Dragon’s Head Mount, but the people here called it Turret Mountain. In the past, when we were still fighting with America, they placed the great big turrets and cannons over on this mount. Now, there was only the stand left.
Back then – we bloodied our knuckles trying to take on that kinda huge power.
If I was there – I would have scampered quicker than anyone else.
All the geezers that fought for this land must have done it with Pride and the Will for battle, but Pride & Will were the most goddamn worthless words that ever existed out there. Could you compare that to life itself?
And, thinking on that – I stared out into my hometown.
“What are you up to?”
A voice came from my back.
Akiko was there.
“Just lolling around.”
That was what I really felt, so I replied as dreamily.
She gave a bored hmm – and from her uniform’s pocket she took out a pack of cigs. With one stick in her mouth, she lit it up quickly – from deeply ingrained habit – and she took-in a deep puff, letting out a long trail of smoke in her exhale. The tobacco smoke rose into the winter wind. It rolled up, and vanished.
“Good pollution in your lungs – is the absolute best.”
What. The. Hell.
What kind of nurse was this?
“Isn’t that kinda bad? Aren’t you a health pro.”
“There’s tons of us about. Smoking nurses. This job is shit full of stress after all. Most of them do it secretly in the toilets.”
“I’m a patient by the way…”
“What the heck are you going on about?”
She goggled at me with googly eyes.
I stayed silent for the time being. Somehow, I couldn’t raise my head in front of her.
Even then, she broke out a sudden smile.
As she said that, she held the pack out.
“A high school kid like you can probably take it. A scumbag like myself started out younger. In middle school, year 3, I had to use special toothpaste to clean out the tar smell.”
I’d never smoked before.
It wasn’t that I never had an interest, but I wasn’t gonna jump into it either. But, if some kind of opportunity like this came about – then maybe I’d give it a shot…
I reached my hand out.
“Then, I’ll gladly – GODDAMN!”
She burnt me!
I had no idea what the hell just happened, but it was clear soon enough. It happened in about 3 seconds. Akiko had suddenly stubbed her own cig into the back of my hand. Nah, that was kinda hyperbolic – but the main fact was that she burnt the hell out of me.
With that scream, I held my right hand to my chest.
“What. The. FUCK?!”
I said that with tears of pain.
She laughed like a little imp.
“Id-iot. What kinda shit are you trying to get into when you’re sick? Smoking is bad you know? How’re gonna get better if you fall to such easy temptations like that?”
Absolute. No defences.
That was the vow I held inside me.
And if you don’t die – then I’ll make you wish for it.
But she was having fun anyway, and she looked at my face while giggly giggling. As I hid my killing intent deeper inside me, I remembered that she was scary as hell, and I felt myself pussying out.
And then, we kept silent, and stared out into the town together.
“Hell… this town’s been so small since forever.”
Suddenly, she said that.
With the killing intent still hidden inside me, I nodded.
“Hey – you ever thought what kinda shit you wanted to do after you graduate? You’re out in a year right?”
“Nagoya… or Tokyo? Who the hell knows?”
“You’re getting out of here?”
“Seems like it.”
Actually, that what I really wanted most of all. No matter what school, no matter what class – sciences of arts – I didn’t care about that at all. I just wanted to get out of this town. I wanted to see the huge world out there.
It was like living in this town, and dying without knowing anything but this town – just wasn’t right for a man.”
Somehow, those kinds of feelings stirred inside me.
If you just think of setting out, you’ll go far.
That kinda line – I remember – from some TV show or magazine or something.
But, was that really true?
A schoolkid couldn’t go anywhere. With a few thousand yen in his pocket, he could only travel about within the prefecture. Even if he got out, he’d have to go back to school soon enough. Of course, there was always the option of dropping out – but my parents would give me hell if I wanted to do that.
Even if there were no such things as your parents, or your school – even if those restrictions were gone – it was still a hard thing to pull off.
People were always tied to all sorts of things.
And it wasn’t just things that could be seen – but things you couldn’t see.
And, perhaps, if you placed both things on a scale – wouldn’t the unseen things would win out?
Whenever those thoughts creeped in during the dead of the night, I felt as though I couldn’t hold it all in. This small town, with me living in it – forever – forever. Those kinds of images rose up and filled my mind with gloom. It really gave you the urge to dump it all and take off. But, that was out of the question.
In the end, I was tied down to all sorts of stuff.
I knew that. I knew it well.
And because I knew, it was unbearable.
Just putting it out there folks – I don’t hate the town I was born.
In my own way, I love it. I adore it.
But, I also didn’t wanna stay. This place was like the very End of the World to me. It was where I was born, and so that was why I felt like that.
I wanna get out.
I earnestly thought.
Either now, or soon – I had to do it.
“I see. That’s nice.”
“I’m totally jealous. Of you – that is.”
Her voice had some kind of earnest pitch to it.
“I’ve been here forever, and ever.”
“Then you’re okay with going anywhere else too?”
Without a single thought, with an innocent smile – I asked her.
Her eyes. Those weren’t her normal eyes. They lightly glimmered. They shined.
“Yea, probably. But it’s surprisingly tough to get out.”
“It’s always like that. You know a place like this forever, and you just feel scared to step beyond the line. Lemme tell you ‘bout my cat. She’s always been cooped in my house, so whenever she wanders out – sometimes – it’s like she’s so scared she can’t move an inch. And since she’s this tough girl, she’s got an amazing Will you know… god knows how many times I’ve been scarred thanks to her. Even then – she’s still scared. She still can’t move – no matter what.”
I’d never thought I’d hear the word ‘scared’ leak out from Akiko’s lips. It was so surprising that I turned over and stared straight at her. The Akiko that couldn’t be beat – the invincible Akiko – was also tied down to all these unseen things.
She was kind of embarrassed, and she lightly laughed.
“I’ve always been that kind of girl – totally different from a guy like you. By the way, you still feel shitty about that bench?”
The bench, in this case, was that blockade she used to stop me from getting out at night.
I nodded as hard as I could.
“Shitty as hell.”
That sharp bout of laughter.
“Sure – get rid of it.”
“Yea. But, I have a condition.”
“Would you go chat around with Rika or something?”
For some reason, those words didn’t enter my head properly.
I spent a while trying to connect the dots.
“By Rika you mean Miss East Wing? You want me to chat tea & cupcakes with her?”
“Yep. She’s from out of here after all. Suddenly coming to a whoknowswhat kinda town like this, stepping on the soil without a single friend – that’s kind of lonely. So when you have any free time – go have a chat won’t you? If you can do it – I’ll throw out the chair.”
“So, that’s the only condition?”
I should have realized.
I should have known it then.
There was no such thing as an easy deal in this world.
“Yeah, I don’t mind.”
But, a guy like me who didn’t have a clue about anything – easily gave in and nodded my head.
And the corners of Akiko’s lips turned upwards – and she smiled.
“Then, it’s all up to you. Itsa bit of trouble – but she’s a good girl.”
This was the second time I was facing the door of room 225. I cleared my throat. I did it to calm my nerves. Behind this door – was Akiba Rika.
The school I went to was mixed, so it wasn’t like girls were a rare thing to me. In fact, I even grappled with a chick in my class.
Incidentally, I lost that fight.
In the middle of that mess, I had grabbed her chest by accident. The surprising softness caught me off guard, and I recoiled with an oh shit passing through my head. I blanked out. Thanks to that opening, she beat the hell out of me in her rage. I remember that I still felt the hot sting on my left cheek 3 hours later.
Anyway, girls weren’t rare to me.
But calling on this girl that you had never met in your life still filled me with tension. I looked at the book in my hand. It was a paperback Akutagawa collection. I’d only read Akutagawa in my textbook before – but never the work itself. But, it seemed like she was a huge fan.
This was the plan from General Akiko.
“So – just tell her that you love the hell out of Akutagawa too – and that’s how you start out together. Easy… no?”
It was a work in progress.
No matter how described it – she was totally winging it.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt like it would all go to shit. After all, I wasn’t even a goddamn Akugatawa fan in the first place. All I knew was the name, but I hadn’t really read him.
And if that girl started going on about Akutagawa’s stuff – how the hell was I gonna reply?
In the first place, this book was bought by Akiko. And she proposed something like – if you read this, you’ll do a lot better – and she handed it over with this sudden one day deadline. So it was pretty much impossible as heck for me to complete it.
I turned away from the door.
Can I reload my save?
At least, let me read the book first!
…and, while I was thinking that – I moved my feet –
And there was that sound.
In the midst of my thoughts, my hand slipped past the doorknob. I screwed up my balance and slammed into the door.
And – a sound louder than the last one.
Immediately, from behind the door.
“Who is it?”
A girl’s voice.
The tension flooded through my whole body.
I couldn’t move at all. And again:
“Who’s there? Is anyone there?”
That voice again.
I was stiff as a board, but I took a large gulp. This meant that there was no take-backs. If I tried to escape, and then I was seen – it would be all over. There would be no second chances. The long bench would return with a lock attached.
Yeah. It was time to show off my manly side!
Deep breath. Opening the door.
As I said that, I entered.
It was a private ward. Roughly six tatami mats in size, with a washbasin and a mirror to the side of the door. Someone had left a bouquet of flowers – probably as a get well soon gift – submerged in the waters of the washbasin. The single bed stood directly opposite the door – with a window lined next to it. The bed was the hospital standard – iron-wrought & long use – and so the white paint had peeled off here and there after going through so many patients.
It was what you’d expect of old hospitals anywhere. The curtain and the sheets were white. The wall and the bed and the ceiling was white. And within that space that easily skewed your sense of perspective in all sorts of ways – was the girl. Alone.
Like a child lost in the snow.
She was surprised.
She covered half her body in haste.
Hiding her body – or was it protecting? The way she held that sheet against her chest like that. The movements themselves were infused with a strange charm.
“Perhaps, you might be the person that Miss Tanizaki mentioned?”
Her voice was a slender ribbon.
At first I had no idea who was this ‘Tanizaki’ she was talking about – but then I remembered that it was Akiko’s family name. I always called her Akiko, so I took some time to remember it.
Flustered, and nodding.
“T-that’s me all right!”
And then I remembered the Akutagawa book in my hands. I showed it to her.
There was a happy beam on her face.
“I’ve read that before.”
“Have you read it?”
I couldn’t say I didn’t.
“Somewhat. Here & there & stuff.”
A shallow sort of smile floated up on my face.
This was going in the worst direction…
“How was it?”
There was no way.
I hadn’t even read it. She continued:
“I think, out of all the stories in there – I like ‘The Tangerines’ the most. It’s short, and it’s simple – and that makes it the sweetest.”
“Ah. So I see.”
I was out of the loop.
She began to go on in detail about the story.
The details of the work itself – like the ending or whatever – was totally out of my domain. I couldn’t reply with anything except halfshit responses. After doing that for a while, I knew that I couldn’t keep up this kind of façade.
Her face clouded over with each response.
So – I thought about trying to change the topic to something else entirely – I really tried – but for some stupid reason it felt as though a huge block was laid on my well of conversation topics. I was worried about this & that and in the end my mind became whiter than white, and as that went on the whole chat started to turn sour.
“Hey. Did you really read it?”
And, she finally dropped it on me.
And then I shut up. I was bad at telling fibs, so I went silent. If I were a better bullshitter, this wouldn’t have happened. And she shut up too. And she just looked at me with eyes like drills.
Any expression on her face – gone. Any emotion in her eyes – gone. I, on the other hand, felt like total shit. The way she looked at me felt like needles in my soul, and so I couldn’t think of anything else.
And her gaze – needles – slowly began their violent unweaving on my heart. Everything that wasn’t conveyed was shredded out of me. At that moment, I realized a single thing – I had destroyed something very precious, and very important.
I’m such a bloody idiot. I destroyed the only chance I had.
I couldn’t get it back. In this world, the moment you fucked up once – it was set in stone. When you smashed a plate, those shards stayed shards. When you accidentally overwrote your save, your progress was gone. And when you hurt a person, there was hate. You couldn’t go back. You could never go back.
Yea, Akiko played a role in this with her weird plan, but the failure was on me. A stupid child like me. A dunce like me that had no mind to play my cards well. If I had the mind to whip out a joke or something, turn it all into a prank, then I might have been able to pull of some kind of reversal. Maybe, things would have been better.
But this was too late.
And she turned away from me.
She stared at the window.
For some reason, I followed her gaze. There was that small mountain. The Dragon Head mountain. To those who were born on this soil, like me, the name Turret Mountain rang better in my mind. She stared at that mountain.
For a long while, she just stared at it.
With my hands dangling by my sides, in that still pose, it just felt totally uncomfortable. I wanted to apologize, but couldn’t get at it for some reason. But, I couldn’t keep it like this forever. Maybe, she was just waiting for me to get the hell out of her sight.
The moment I found the courage to talk. That moment.
“Do you know that mountain?”
Still facing towards its towering mass, she asked.
“That… mound o’ dirt?”
“That’s what I’m talking about. That – mountain.”
“You mean Turret Mountain?”
When I said that, it was sudden. She turned over to me, slightly hurried or something – maybe even frantic.
“What – did you just say?”
“Just now. That thing… just now.”
“The… Turret Mountain?”
“Would this ‘Turret Mountain’ be – that mountain over there?”
An excitable question.
Sharp, serious eyes.
With those eyes pinning me down – their slight intimidation – I explained it to her.
“I think it was way back – when they set up some kinda fort or turrets over there. So, this is the moniker that we give to that mount. The people here named it that way.”
“Is that really true?”
She turned her gaze back to the mountain.
Returning back to silence.
But, this was different. There wasn’t any awkwardness in the silence. She wasn’t doing it to ignore me, but she had some kind of different fixation – she continued to stare at that mountain.
While she was turned away from me, I raised my voice.
“I’m sorry – ‘bout just now.”
She turned over to me.
That face was a ‘what’re you talking about?’ kind of face.
“Akiko… Miss Tanizaki told me that you liked Akutagawa or something – so it was like to smooth it out or something… like that.”
Showing the book.
“So I brought this – but was totally full of shit just now. I didn’t mean it – though. So… like, sorry.”
It was the end.
She’d never talk to me again.
She’d think of me as some idiot who was full of shit, forever and ever.
A surprise. A light smile.
“Something to look for… you gave me that. So, you’re forgiven.”
I had no idea what she was on about.
And then she had this wispy look on her, and had that light smile again.
“But, I have a kind of condition for you. In that case.”
Come to think of it, Akiko also had her own kind of ‘condition’. Was it a girl-thing to set up all sorts of ‘conditions’?
“Maybe, I should put it like this. Whenever I have something that I really want – you’re going to have to get it for me. And whenever I want to be amused, or happy, or something like that – then you’re going to have to try and make me laugh – no matter what. And, if you can do all that – then I’ll forgive you.”
And she broke out in a grin.
But, it was totally evil.
Within that grin was a sadistic impish glee. That was who she was.
Somehow, even though I had no idea what I was getting into, I nodded anyway.
Just being forgiven was enough to send my head spinning off into excitement.
At that moment, I didn’t know what I had done. I didn’t know I had performed a splendid dive into a massive bog – with all the mud and gunk swirling together into a terrifying vortex that I couldn’t easily get out of. I totally didn’t understand at all.
But, for the time being.
That’s how I became a slave to my little princess. That’s how it all began.