I spent the last half an hour with my eyes closed.
I ran through all the possible scenarios that I could do now, for them 10 children. I rolled over to my left.
There was nothing I could have done to prevent their death, trying to leap the time again will also lead to the same consequences: 10 deaths, 10 futures lost. So… I could only honor their memory. And, prove that those stories they told me will not be ever forgotten by their parents. I will let them know that their children fought until the end, and how brave, ambitious, kind they are.
It’s… the very least I can do.
“Shin, are you feeling better now?” Chiaki softly brushed my hair.
I continued to rest my head down on her lap. It’s a bit soft like a pillow, but with more tenderness on it. Right… she must have trained hard in order to get her black belt.
I took a small breath to recollect my thoughts. “This is nice.”
She lightly slapped my face. “Are you enjoying my lap?”
“Of course,” I looked at her, waiting for her reaction. “Can’t I?”
She blushed, and immediately stood up. “If you can joke, that means you’re fine already.”
My head knocked on the bench. I slowly patted where it hurted. Then I sat back up on the bench.
I took a deep breath, before looking at them. The boys are now playing swings, and catch; the girls are halfway through building a new castle. Hideki and Yui are by their side, accompanying them.
The spiky-haired boy approached me as he saw me awake, holding his sister on his right.
“Crybaby Shin!” he pointed at me. “This is the first time I’ve seen an adult cry!”
“I was not crying.”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” he said. “Your eyes were red!”
“Big brother,” his sister tugged at his shirt. “Stop teasing Chiaki’s boyfriend.”
“B—Boyfr—Hina, he’s not my boyfriend!” Chiaki said.
“But you two looked so sweet together,” Hina, the little sister replied.
“Yeah!” Hideki shouted at a distance. “You guys should kiss and get it over already! It’s getting annoying!”
“Shut up!” Chiaki yelled back.
Yui chuckled, looking at Chiaki’s embarrassed reaction.
I took another deep breath and stood up. Then, I bowed down to them all.
“I’m sorry for making you guys worried earlier,” I raised my head up. “I’m fine now, thank you.”
“You should be sorry alright,” Hideki said, walking towards me. “You’re acting weirdly emotional these days, like something serious happened to you and you couldn’t talk about it.”
“Your eyes, Shin,” he looked at me. “Those were real pain, you were suffering. What happened in that split second?”
I cannot say anything. I’m not allowed to. It was stated in the contract I signed. And to break it, everything I’d done would have been for nothing. Zero. Na-da.
“It’s… I will tell you, but not now. Not after I’ve settled this.”
“Yes, this.” I put on a determined look, peering into his eyes. I hope he got my message. I don’t want him to interfere any deeper.
He looked like he was about to say something but he decided against it. “That’s not fair, but fine. If you choose to deal with it yourself, I—we will wait for you. So, until then…”
“Shin,” he pointed at my face. “I’ve always got your back. So, don’t worry! Even if it’s against the Grim Reaper himself, I will teach him a lesson for messing with you! For messing with my friend, Shin!”
He raised his head to the sky. “You hear that, Grim Reaper? You’d better stay away from him or I’ll stuff you full with ice cream!”
The children giggled at Hideki’s words. I only looked at him, and smiled. Even against Reaper, huh?
He gave me a thumbs up.
Yui mimicked him.
Chiaki sighed, before reluctantly giving me a thumbs up as well.
The children all stood up and did the same.
“I, Shin,” I said. “Hereby accept all your thumbs up. Let today be marked down in history as a thumbs up day!”
The spiky-haired boy chuckled, before bursting into laughter. Looking at him, his sister, Hina also laughed. Then the rest of the children followed their laugh. A few residents stared at us weirdly as they passed through the playground.
Another embarrassing moment in my university life.
After about 10 minutes or so, we separated into two groups to walk some of them home. It’s already late in the evening, and the sky’s orangeness had slowly darkened into pitch black.
Chiaki and I walked the spiky-haired boy and Hina home.
“Thanks for playing with us today, Shin,” he said. “It was really fun!”
“Thanks, Chiaki,” Hina hugged her.
Chiaki got caught by surprise, and only smiled as she patted her head. “This might be a little early, but…”
Hina looked at her.
“Happy New Year, Hina,” she gently smiled. “May you have a fun year ahead.”
Hina hugged her again.
I pulled out my fist, ready to bump it with a spiky-haired boy. But I stopped.
“What’s your name, Hina’s brother?”
“Haru,” he said, bumping into my fist. “You’d better remember it, Shin. Until we meet again.”
I chuckled. “Haru, and Hina. May you two have nothing but fun, and safe, year ahead.”
They both hugged me.
“You too, Shin!” they said in unison.
Then, after waving ‘goodbyes’ once again, Chiaki and I were already heading back to the train station with a taxi.
It was already 8:30PM after I walked Chiaki home, and reached my home. After I had my breakfast with my father and mother who were already waiting for me, I took a quick bath and went into my room. I sat in front of my laptop.
I searched for the details of the accident. I searched for their name. I looked for their faces. 10 of them were 9 years old coming back from their school trip to the zoo. Only nine bags were found in the bus, this explained why one of them didn’t have any bag. I came across a few videos, interviewing, and recording their parents’ reactions.
But my hand stopped on top of my mouse.
I owed them this.
I took a sharp breath, and clicked on the videos.
There were only three parents featured.
One of them was a mother with a professional business suit. She was the mother of the curly haired girl. The second one is the parents of the twin brothers, who dreamt to inherit their father’s bakery shop. The final one… Emilia’s father. The small police in their neighbourhood.
I watched all the videos with my earphones on. Their devastating cries and shouts resonated in my ears for five full minutes. I forced myself not to look away, or stop, or mute the videos. I need to embrace this, then only I can move on.
I then opened my email.
But before I could type anything, the dreadful whistle came.
I looked at the time display in my laptop.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, without turning back to face him.
He didn’t reply to me but I sensed his presence behind me, holding his scythe as usual.
“Shin… I didn’t mean to—”
“Are you happy now? You already showed me how powerful you are, how undeniable fate was. Are you happy now?”
“I was merely following orders, Shin. You know this better than anyone. Just because I led them to the afterlife doesn’t mean it was I who decided their death.”
“Did you even know—their name, their life? What was I even there for?”
“The children, they have regrets, Shin. Their regrets… were too strong, too poisonous that it’d evolve into intense hatred if I took them to the afterlife straight away, Shin. They wouldn’t be able to rest in peace. They couldn’t. You are human, the only human I know. You are the only human I trust, Shin.”
He paused. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to do. Orders were that I bring them to the afterlife as soon as they all arrived. But you and your reckless actions, I bet if it’s you, then there’s something you would have been able to do. You’re like a hero, after all.”
“Hero? I wasn’t able to do anything. I didn’t do a single thing for them. NONE!”
“Shin, shin, shut up. You saved them, alright? You saved every single one of them when they decided to share their stories. Emilia, especially, didn't even open up to many people in her previous life. But you made her talk. In those few minutes. She had the most intense regrets among them. You saved her. No use denying it.”
I slammed my study table as I stood up to him.
“Trust me, Shin,” he raised his hood for the first time, and looked at me straight into my eyes. “If I could let you hit me, I would have done so ages ago.”
He looked young, almost the same as me, but both his eyeballs are white. Blind.
“You saved those children,” he said again. “I did not regret sending you there back then. And, I would have done the same thing again if I needed to.”
“Did you even remember their name?” I asked.
“Every single person that I’d lead. I remembered them.”
I took a deep breath to calm myself down.
Then, I sat back in front of my laptop. “If that’s all you wanted to say, you can leave now.”
“As you wish, Sh—”
“You’re welcome, Shin.”
I heard a soft wind whooshing sound and in the next second, he was gone.
I stared at my keyboard, then began typing.
“To Studio ABC,
My name is Shin, I’m a freelance journalist. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet the 10 children who were involved in the tragic accident that happened in the afternoon. They were afraid of me at first, with some of them looked like they were about to cry.
But I did some magic shows with a rubber band and slowly, they started to open up to me. They shared with me their ambitions, their hopes, and their dreams when we chatted. Therefore, I hope to use this chance to convey their thoughts, and if appropriate, provide comforts to their parents, to help them, and everyone who is grieving on the lost of 10 precious, innocent lives.
The class representative, his name was Kubota Yoshi. He wanted to be a teacher; teachers were the coolest person to him. They taught, guided, praised, and high-fived with him in many circumstances which made me feel appreciated. And when they honestly talked about his problem to his parents, he felt overjoyed because they were speaking for him, when he couldn't.
Then, there was a boy with a plastic bracelet named Seki Takehiko. He wanted to be a hero, just like his name implied. He wanted to save many people, and be a courageous, powerful ally that people can rely on.
Okino Masaki, she wore a cap. She wanted to be a pilot. So that, she could spend more time with her mother, and bring her around the world for free.
Seo Atsushi, he was a shy kid, but he wanted to be a doctor. He aimed to cure his mother’s diseases, to lessen his father’s financial burden. He cared about them deeply, and promised he’d study hard to make his dream come true.
Kubo Shuichi, he was bald, and he wanted to be a spy. He can shoot bad guys, drive stylish cars, wear stylish suits, and have all the freedom he had. He was the most energetic, and most passionate among them. The only thing he hated was when he had to go to sleep earlier.
Tanigawa Shuji, Tanigawa Kei, the twin brothers, wanted to inherit their bakery shop from their father and mother. To bring small happiness to their neighbors that came to their shop day and night, and to be able to learn from their parents, was the greatest happiness in their life.
Tada Yori, she wanted to be a lawyer like her single father who is a public prosecutor. She wanted to help innocent people, like her father, and bring comfort to the victim’s families. She adored her father’s job, and her eyes were sparkling when she talked about her father.
Hayashi Tomoko, she had curly hair. She wanted to be a businesswoman just like her mother, and wear a business suit. She said that even though her mother was already tired when she returned from home, her mother would always help her with her homework. And that, her mother, was her role model.
And, Emilia. Takashi Emilia. Half-Japanese, half-British. She looked up to her father who was a local policeman that patrolled her neighborhood for lost, missing items, or suspicious persons. She wanted to be like him—kind to both her and her mom, reliable to the residents of all ages. She was the shyest girl in the group, but she had a strong will, and more than anything, she just wanted to have the power to protect her mother and father.
All ten of them were the bravest, mostly lively children I’ve ever seen in my life. They had hopes, and dreams that they were not afraid to say, not afraid to chase. They were inspiring. And I’ll never forget those few minutes that they spent sharing their stories with me. I hope that this will, in one day, reach out to those who need it.
I want people to know that they were strong until the very last second. They were small, but unbelievably strong.
And to their parents, my sincere, deepest condolences.”
I read through my email again.
“And to their parents,
my sincere, deepest condolences thank you. Thank you for giving them the very best life they could’ve had. Thank you for being there with them. Thank you for everything that you’ve ever done. And all that you will, for them, in the future.
Thank you, for making their future possible. Thank you.”
I read through it again.
Then, after a few minutes of walking in a circle, I clicked ‘send’.
I looked at the time.
Then, I realized something.
I forgot my gift at Hideki’s place. I grabbed my phone out.
“Hideki, my gift. REMEMBER to bring it here tomorrow.”
He texted me back after a minute. “OK.”
I looked at the time again.