I must admit that I had a wish come true.
Above us, the new sky, starry and distant, partially illuminates what was once only the blinding vacuum of the unknown. I manage to stand up, and really: I was back where I started. I feel as if the last time I found myself in this place had been a long time ago, but that is not the case; I had only been traveling for several years in my memory.
Hina's face is still vivid in my mind: her light hair that waved over her head, her smile with slightly crooked, separated teeth, the tiny freckles on her face... I missed her now. They say it's easier to realize the value of the things you have when they are no longer within your reach...
The old man is still by my side, for sure. Reaper or not, the man does not intend to leave me alone for a while. His very classy clothes and top hat remain impeccable, as if he had just put them on his body. He watches the sky contemplatively above us, perhaps allowing time for me to absorb my situation and surroundings. This man used to act in mysterious ways, but now, after all we have done, I notice that he is actually doing what he does for me. And I feel a little grateful now.
"You're the one who did it," I remark, not paying much attention. He states.
"We are in your head, after all. Consider it a guest courtesy."
The identity of this man remains a mystery. But I don't think he intends to do me any harm, not after what he has caused me to experience.
"I would like to thank you" I say to him. The man remains inexpressive. "Thank you for showing me that. All that."
"It's early to thank me, Kazuta," he replies, skeptical. However, still watching the sky and only it. "We still have some visiting to do."
I start a short walk in circles, observing the high above. It is indeed a beautiful landscape, but it does not give me as much sense of security as it did in the square of my memories. Perhaps because there was a visible ground there, or an important moment in my life. This sky above me now is nothing but an imitation, something false. And the man's recent words reverberate in my mind.
"Do you intend..." I think of Hina's face, of her torn skirt, of her eyes crying out for a help that was never heard "...show me a little more of Hina?"
"You already remember what happened that year. And you have heard what you needed to hear in that period."
A pleasurable loneliness... Even if you said that, the month that had passed was certainly not pleasurable for Hina. She might even have coped well with her own company, being ignored by everyone else, but the bullying, that one would continue to plague her. With her influence and the various friends she had, Takahashi Mana would continue her empire of sovereignty and oppression over Hina, and this would make her hate school more and more. Eating, studying, going away, all would lose their fun for Hina for a while.
And only when Mana left town would she have peace again. Her relationship with her classmates, however, would never be the same. She would not be able to look into their eyes without feeling anger at them, at the disregard with which they treated her. And she would become more and more attached to her boyfriend. Me.
I remember well what happened, from that memory in the square onward.
"But it doesn't mean you won't see Hina anymore" the man continues, snapping me out of my deep introspection. "After all, you grew up together, and played a lot in your childhood."
"Childhood..." I don't understand this man's intent, but he has just made it clear to me where we are going. What would I have to see in my childhood? Come to think of it... It's a hazy time; I don't have as many memories of the time as I would like, nor any property to speak of it.
It wasn't exactly a wonderful period.
"You're a man, Kazuta" the old man finally stops watching the sky, and holds his attention on me. His eyes, small and with dilated pupils, watch every movement of my face. "You can no longer accept your mistakes as a boy; especially the ones that will forever mark your life."
I have no idea what he is trying to tell me. But he extends his hand to me, as if he wants me to shake it. Similar to some invitation, the reaper offers me my past. Unlike the times when I was simply pulled in, now it is as if he is waiting for my willingness to travel with him.
Particularly, I can say that I don't feel like it. What person feels like destroying his own tower? Even if it is your prison, that takes you away from the outside world, and makes you no more than a spectator... It is still yours. The comfort zone of your heart is inside your own tower. And the outside sounds tempting, pleasant... but it is new and unknown, and what's worse, it requires renewal.
And the new things, which replace our old junk, are frightening. We are afraid of what we don't understand, afraid of change. And I am afraid of my past, for it will surely make me confront my own tower. And I will think about destroying it.
And in my case, I have always been my own tower.
But this man will not accept my escape. His outstretched hand makes me think I have options, but that's not quite true. I have no idea what would happen if I decided to no longer cooperate with him in anything, but I feel that it would be a very bad experience. It is like a contract already signed: I have no options but to follow its clauses to the letter.
The grim reaper's hand remains outstretched. He has all the time in the world, and so do I. What is left for a young man in a coma? If I had the option to run, I would certainly run. I would try my best to get away from this man. The feeling of having a new goal, a learning experience like the one I had with Hina, is gratifying, but the path to it is painful and makes me see how weak I am... And can't I decide to run away from it?
Instead of looking at the mysterious features of this old man, I prefer to watch the sky once again. But this time, instead of a relief, a respite from the pressure on me, it has the opposite effect. "Go back to your past," it is as if he is telling me, "this environment is still incomplete." And around me, the darkness reinforces such a sentence. It's all empty.
I look again at the man, who doesn't look me in the eye, staring severely at the underside of my body, his hand inert in the air.
"I hope I am not disappointed by what we are about to see," I say to him, but I know that these words are more for me than for anyone else. And I also know how they are not a threat, but only a request. Useless and desperate, a request that will not be heard.
I hold his hand, and in the blink of an eye we are no longer in the same place.
I take a deep breath to stabilize my senses. As happens whenever we travel back in time, my senses settle back in, all at the same time. Feeling the strong wind on my face, despite the powerful sun above us, I can tell that we are seeing summer again. And this time things are even busier than the last time: people with shopping bags walking down the street, stalls and more stalls, stretching as far as I can see, selling the most diverse products, and the characteristic noise of a city at rush hour. We are in front of a commercial avenue, which, besides being covered with stores, is also permeated by a fair that seems infinite.
"Your city is small, but quite lively," comments the man next to me. He is right.
"What, exactly, did we come to see here?" I ask him. I see no sign of Hina in my field of vision, nor of myself. Apart from the sun, which gives us away, from its position, that we are close to noon, it is impossible to know what time or date we are. Probably the man next to me knows, but he doesn't intend to tell me. As always, he expects me to find out, either from my memories or from the setting itself.
"There is something in your past that you need to see.... To remember." Two children appear before us, running one after the other, and the one in the back falls to the ground, beginning to cry soon after. She grates her knee, and the boy who was running away from her returns, to help her up. "A healed wound is not yet completely healed."
The little girl gets up with the help of the other child, and her knee is badly grated, with a trickle of blood slowly trickling down. Limping, she walks off with it again. I don't know either of them, at least not by sight...
What the man tells me sounds cryptic, but perhaps I have understood a little of his idea. Apparently he wants me to see something to remember, something that doesn't necessarily involve a lesson I must learn. Faced with these sounds of the city and the children running around, I can only feel the same thing I have felt every time I visit old memories: nostalgia. It is an immutable past that will never repeat itself again, even if I want it to.
The man starts his steps closer to that place, and I follow him. The shopping street is centered between two buildings, which are part of the main street, so it is a rather narrow spot. The man and I enter the general hubbub, passing through the people who are nothing but holograms (or maybe we are the holograms) with the greatest of ease.
I look at the people, and even recognize some of them: the owner of the largest chain of grocery stores in town, Mashida-san; the florist, Kaetawa-san; the fish seller, who claimed to be the owner of the freshest shoals, but whom my mother almost always distrusted, Sazawa-san... As we went on, the familiar faces increased. We are probably in a year quite close to the present, I think.
Until we came to the seller of caramel peanuts, Suta-san. Those peanuts, I remember, were a fever among all the students at Kitagawara, back when I was studying there. They tasted great, and the texture was so crunchy on the outside and smooth on the inside that it created a pleasant sensation when biting into them. It was certainly my favorite snack, and my friends' too.
And to my surprise, I spotted them facing the tent. Ichise, Kenji, Rena and Yui, all teenagers in casual summer clothes, waiting for their beloved peanuts. They were not small children, they were certainly already in puberty, and had well-defined features. Ichise didn't have any hair on his head, as he always shaved it, and was a little stronger than the rest of us at that time; Kenji was a little chubbier, and taller too, but the friendliest looking of my friends, no doubt; Rena, Hina's sister, was quite scrawny for her age, but still had the beautiful face characteristic of Kanzaki girls; and Yui, with her long black hair and scowling appearance, was a girl of few words, but who enjoyed spending time with us whenever she could.
"Let's go to the creek after here!" shouts Kenji, to be heard over the crowd around them. I get goosebumps hearing his voice, as it had been a while since I had seen him. Kenji and I didn't get along so well in the present....
"Maybe, but we have to see if Takeda-kun will want it!" Rena shouts back, grabbing her peanuts with one hand. The other children rush over to grab theirs.
"Do you remember that time?" The questioning from the elderly gentleman comes, as usual. I affirm slightly with my head. "Do you know what happened then?"
"I still don't know what exactly we came to see" I tell him, and it is true. I know more or less the time we're in, but it's tricky to pull out an event that really deserves to be remembered just through that. It's not like we have ways of memorizing specific things in each season of our lives, as if they are the only things necessary to keep.
"They're back!" shouts Kenji to my friends, pointing to two children coming in that direction.
Then my heart speeds up. It never crossed my mind that I would see this child again, and I never even imagined that this was the intention of the man next to me. But as I look at the two children approaching, I suddenly realize that I do know why we have come, and I also know why we have appeared just at this moment.
One of the children is me, carrying a shopping bag. And the other, with thick glasses and a mischievous smile, is my childhood friend, Kouyama Ren.