Chapter 1:

The Pleasure in Solitude I

Backward Steps

"But do you, at least, remember who you are?"

The older man continues to confront me with his eyes. Since he had appeared beside me, his face had not softened one bit. It's not as if he was forcing his scowling appearance, but it still inflicted me with discomfort. It's as if standing next to me made him disgusted.

After taking an invigorating dose of air, the words manage to come out of my mouth:

"My name is Kazuta Takeda. I am nineteen years old."

"Is that all?" the man asks me.

"Please, I'm not exactly the talkative type."

"Well, you don't have to talk to me; I'm just trying to understand how your memories are going, and if they are fine."

"Don't worry; in fact, I think I still know everything about myself."

He studies me from head to toe. There were no bloodstains on my shirt or my shoes, which reinforced the idea that I was not in my fleshly body at all. So where am I?

"That's certainly not true. You are hiding something from me," he says. Fixing his top hat with his fingertips, he concludes, "and maybe from yourself. There is no guilt in your eyes."

And why should I feel guilty? I am having a very hard time trying to understand what this man is saying to me, but his voice does not change at any point, even if the voraciousness of his eyes makes me uncomfortable. He doesn't sound angry, just... disappointed.

A small silence breaks out, and I don't want that.

"If I am in a coma, and not dead, why are you here?", I ask him, putting all my efforts to keep talking against my will. "Am I supposed to meet God while I'm still alive? Isn't that something more to be achieved at the end of the journey?"

"I have not given you any assurance that I am God, nor have I even convinced you of that." His gaze expresses a bit of malice as he turns it to me again, "Do you intend to blindly believe me?"

"I don't have many options at the moment..."

"If that's what you think..." There is a brief pause between his sentences: "Would you like to talk about something?"

Well, I don't know if this man is aware of this, but I do not like to talk; especially about myself. I have always preferred to interact with people who tend to say a lot of things, because then I can be distracted by their feelings, wants, experiences, and then I can stop living a little with my silence. Strangely enough, when I am alone with myself, and there is nothing to think about but Takeda itself, only silence takes over my interior.

I am probably the last person I would want to meet.

"Interesting that you think so," the man comments, and I am amazed by this, even though perhaps I should have expected by now that he might know my thoughts. "If you want chatty company that badly, I can try to help you."

I feel a little embarrassed that I've been found out. It's a good way to pass the time, to listen to the things people blurt out only to forget all about it a little while later, but I definitely don't want them to be aware of it. I imagine that all human interactions are done for their own benefit, and maybe people really do have me as a supposedly exemplary counselor and listener.

The man starts to walk ahead suddenly, and my eyes diligently follow him.

"What do you think you are doing here?"

I have no idea, particularly. I think this is the first time I've regained my consciousness after suffering the accident... the collision with the car is my last memory. Before that, I was... Coming back from her house...

The old man stops walking at the same time as my sudden thought occurs. Maybe I really do have a reason or two to feel guilt, I think.

"I understand. Now I understand."

"What do you understand?"

"I understand your situation a little better. And I understand a little better what you and I need to do."

He walks back toward me, and I instinctively pull back a little.

"I don't understand what you mean by that.... What are you going to do?"

"Calm down, Kazuta. I am beginning to understand how you find your mind, and I know how we should proceed from here..."

The man touches my shoulder, and at that moment all my senses return to working order at the same time, and suddenly we are no longer in a dark place. The powerful sun makes my retina, used to the previous darkness, burn, and I close my eyes with shock. I feel the gentleman's icy hand on me, and now there is indeed a ground beneath my feet.

Totally stunned, I try to run away from the gentleman next to me, but he squeezes my shoulder harder, and says coldly in my ear:

"Calm down."

I open an inch of my eyes to look around me. I know this place. Small trees huddled in one corner, a dirt path, benches, and most of all, several children's toys: seesaws, swings, and a huge dark blue climber surrounded by a sandy ground. This is my town square. 

"I see you recognize this place, that's great," the man next to me says, with his usual voice and his usual skeptical look.

"You're the one who brought me here, right? How did I get here?"

"You are not in the actual square. You are not separated from your body, not dead yet."

And how were we there? Thinking about it for a moment, it shouldn't be hard for a God to create illusions like that. But... I have no idea why we are in that place, so suddenly. The old man was charging me with a guilt I didn't feel, hadn't told me the reason, and seemed to despise me deeply. And now he is making me hallucinate inside my mind. What is this man's intention?

"I want to show you a few things," he tells me.

The gentleman points with his head to the giant sandbox in the children's playground. There are two children there, playing with buckets and collecting sand in them. One of the children is a plump little girl, with a face covered in dirt and two huge cavities in the center of her mouth, where her teeth would grow. The other, a little smaller, is a boy, who gathers handfuls of sand with his hands and then throw them on the ground, only to think it is very funny.

I don't really know what the man wanted me to see there, but he doesn't say anything else either. Without much choice, I just obey him, watching the children play for a few minutes. When I think about questioning him about what he is doing....

"Hina, let's go!" a woman shouts, coming from the other end of the children's space, with bags of fruits and vegetables in her hands. Beside her is another woman. "Hold out your hand to help Shin-chan come with you, he's still too young!"

"Okay, Mama!" the child shouts, getting up.

The elderly gentleman sighs beside me.

"I guess you already know who these people are, don't you?"

I certainly do. The woman with the vegetables in her hands, the one who had shouted for the children, is slender and her hair is a very light brown, which in the bright sunlight looked even red. And the little girl who had been called, HIna, has the same hair color. And I would recognize those two anywhere, at any time, even if their hair was dyed the darkest shade of black.

My voice refused to come out, so the elderly gentleman took the liberty to help me:

"Aren't you going to tell me who those two are, who flutter their hair?"

Hina holds hands with the one I knew was her mother. They both say goodbye to the other family, and start walking in the opposite direction to where I am. They will turn left, I make my guess, and I am right. I know where they are going because I know both of them, I know where their house is, and I know them since I can remember. 

Tears start to fall from my face.

"That's Kanzaki Hina, my girlfriend."