Chapter 16:

Shells and Bodies I

Backward Steps

It wasn't as if I could go very far on my own.Bookmark here

The reaper hadn't moved even a step from where we were before; still close to the people in my memory, he watches me as I walk away. I don't look at him much, as he expects me to come back close. That's what he wants.Bookmark here

And I have no such intention.Bookmark here

"You haven't seen all of this story yet, Kazuta," he tells me, in a voice that seems very distant.Bookmark here

"I already told you." I have no desire to repeat myself, no desire to say again what I have already said. This man was trying to show me the good side of Naoki, and he had succeeded in that.Bookmark here

With these memories, the moments when Naoki had acted like a father came back to my mind; the skateboard that I had received as a gift years ago and had never used, the remote control cart that had taken my mother's peace away for months because I had played with it tirelessly until it rolled over on a downhill slide in the city and broke, and even my first volleyball... The presents Naoki gave me every year, along with a hug, a kiss, and a smile, were all returning to my memories.Bookmark here

Even the days when I had seen my father come to my house with huge bags of groceries, and the days when he had given my mother some money while they talked in the kitchen... He was not a complete imbecile. The reaper had helped me to remember this, and I really understood what he was getting at: my father was a good man sometimes.Bookmark here

But he wants me to understand him and not feel resentment toward this man, and that's impossible. It's not as if there is a scale, which counts the good and the bad things and takes a final value; there are things that are unforgivable.Bookmark here

And this man has abandoned me. He has destroyed Ren's family. And when he apologized for his sins to me and to my friend, to the greatest sufferers of his actions, he simply went back to acting the same as always; his repentance was empty.Bookmark here

How does he expect me to understand that?Bookmark here

"Come back here, we still have visits to make," he says, as I stop moving and continue with my face turned, to find out what he has to say.Bookmark here

"I'm not going to change my mind, give up."Bookmark here

"Just give me one more chance. Please."Bookmark here

He had never said that to me before. Not just a request, this seemed more like a plea, as if I were crucial to him. And I had never been treated this way by this man, who said he was here for me and wanted my good, but treated me like a stranger and looked at me like a disappointed father.Bookmark here

"You haven't seen the whole story yet," he continues. Far in the distance, I can still hear the voices of Naoki and the children, and I hear a laugh from Ren, who seems to be telling a story as well. His happiness makes me bitter.Bookmark here

"If you want me to cooperate so badly..."Bookmark here

The man remains taciturn, waiting for me to give him my terms.Bookmark here

"...I need you to be more honest with me."Bookmark here

There is no response. I glance back, and am surprised to see that the man is walking towards me, abandoning what we came to see, approaching me. I remain motionless as I feel him coming closer and closer, the only one who can see me and talk to me, fearing what he will do after hearing what I have said.Bookmark here

"And what do you want to know?"Bookmark here

I look back, he is looking me in my eyes, a little less than a meter away. I immediately pull back: looking him in the eye is not easy. But he doesn't intend to look away, and he doesn't even blink as he watches me minutely.Bookmark here

"How am I able to see things I haven't experienced?"Bookmark here

"I am using your memories as a basis to construct the simultaneous events."Bookmark here

"So what we see actually existed?"Bookmark here

He continues to watch me, but doesn't answer me right away. Bookmark here

"Yes, it existed," he finally says. "Maybe not exactly in the way we are seeing, but the past happened just the same. All things proceed to the end in common with what you experienced."Bookmark here

I have many other questions, but I don't know exactly if I will be answered by asking them. And I sense that the man no longer intends to answer me, for he now turns his face back, becoming erect again, and puts his cloth-covered arms behind him as I struggle to look at his face.Bookmark here

"It is not my intention to force you to find something. I am merely showing you facts. And there are still a few more things you need to see to come to a conclusion."Bookmark here

He holds out one of his hands to me once again.Bookmark here

"Will you trust me?"Bookmark here

What he is telling me may still not be true. From the moment we met, he had referred to himself as God, and he does indeed possess power and can know what I am thinking; but was he really God? He didn't strike me as a being on this level... it wasn't as if his word was absolute. Trusting his words was not like an unquestionable thing; this man could still be lying to me.Bookmark here

But he had already shown me good things. He had shown me things that, even if they were painful to watch, were things that left me with lessons, or at least good moments fresh in my memory... And he had said, more than once, that he wanted my good. And even if this proved to be a lie someday, it was not the case today, or now.Bookmark here

So maybe this man was, indeed, someone trustworthy.Bookmark here

"If all you have to show me is moments of my dad being a nice guy," I tell him "I want you to know that you are throwing your time away."Bookmark here

I squeeze his hand, and listen to his comment as things begin to fade:Bookmark here

"Don't underestimate me, kid."Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

It is a warm environment, just like the last one we were in. This time it is a very clear day, as if the sun still has a long way to go before it sets, and there is a lot of movement in the city, with cars moving frantically down the main avenue and people walking both ways. I have no idea what year it is, but it is not hard to tell that it is still early in the day, and that people are going to work now.Bookmark here

We emerge near a small forest, which serves as a path to the creek where my friends and I used to play, and I know we are a little far from my house, but at the same time close to the houses of Yui, Kenji, Ichise...Bookmark here

And Ren.Bookmark here

"She's getting closer. Let's follow her car."Bookmark here

I have no idea who the person we are following is, but the reaper leaves the ground, and floats towards a small, white car, which passes through a traffic light and proceeds diligently towards Ren's house. As if it came naturally to me, I get off the ground as well, following him.Bookmark here

It is not possible to see who is driving, at least not while the car is moving. So it is impossible for me to have any clue what, exactly, I am watching.Bookmark here

Although I already have an idea.Bookmark here

When the car enters the busy street of the Kouyama family, my hypothesis comes true: we are seeing something related to Ren. There is no way to guarantee that it is someone close to him, but it is more than obvious that we are heading there. And probably this event that we are going to see is going to be connected to Naoki in some way.Bookmark here

The person inside the car triggers the Kouyama family garage, and stows the car inside when it opens fully. The garage closes again, and there is no further sign of movement in the house; the person was going to enter the house right there.Bookmark here

The old man, without saying anything, proceeds into the house, easily passing through the door and ignoring the laws of physics. I follow him, silently.Bookmark here

The garage was connected to the house's laundry room, and a person enters there: with her hair tied up in a bun and thin clothes because of the hot weather, Kouyama Mizuki enters the house, leaving something on a table and walking toward the living room. She appears to be alone in the house.Bookmark here

Taking a seat on the larger sofa in the living room, she rests her head in her hands in silence. She has said or done nothing more than that, and the silence inside the house is so great that a sort of ringing noise invades my ears, and lingers insistently through my eardrums.Bookmark here

I glance at my companion, but he seems to have no intention of saying anything. He looks in the same direction as I do, at the woman who seems to be going through a bitterness that takes away her will to do anything.Bookmark here

"Mom?"Bookmark here

I look in the direction of the voice, and I am immediately aware of the period we are in: Kouyama Ren looks exactly the same as he did the day Rena and I had come to see him, with his deep glasses and disheveled blond hair. So it is 2015.Bookmark here

"Hello, son," she replies, raising her head. "Mom's home from the dentist already."Bookmark here

"Great."Bookmark here

The boy sits down next to his mother, putting his hands together and watching Mrs. Kouyama's tired countenance.Bookmark here

"Are you feeling any pain?"Bookmark here

She shakes her head, denying it.Bookmark here

"No, I'm just..." Bookmark here

And she says nothing more. Ren seems to be searching for something he can say, his eyes restless and the silence lingering, but he doesn't seem to be having much success. Maybe, for Ren, it was easy to say the right things to us, his friends, but his mother provoked another kind of feeling in him. As if he was unable to help her the same way he helped everyone else.Bookmark here

"At this time, Mizuki was already considering divorcing her husband" says the man next to me. "This is taking place a few days after the day your father had been with your mother, and you had yelled at him and run away to your room."Bookmark here

"So..." Yes. That was between the day we had gone out to buy peanuts and mochi, and the day we would go treasure hunting with Ren. The period Rena had set aside for all of us to do our homework.Bookmark here

"I wish I could help you, Mama," Ren says, breaking the established silence. I hated being silent when there was nothing to think about, and maybe Ren didn't like it either. And maybe that's why we were such good friends.Bookmark here

"Come here, my love," Ren's mother says, and the boy stands up, obediently approaching her. When he gets very close to the woman, she hugs her son, and her head touches the child's chest. She passes her arms around his mother, and they stay hugged like that for a little while.Bookmark here

"Forgive me for not being a good mother." The boy says nothing. "I don't want you to be a bitter kid, just know that nothing that happens is your fault, okay?"Bookmark here

The boy still says nothing. She kisses the boy's forehead, and stands up.Bookmark here

"Would you like something to eat? Or have you had your coffee?"Bookmark here

"I haven't eaten anything yet."Bookmark here

"Good; you'll get to eat along with me while your father is working."Bookmark here

She smiles, and the boy forces a smile back. Ren doesn't look very happy. As much as Mizuki hasn't been clear, there is something bothering her, and that something is perhaps already so frequent and noticeable that it wouldn't be strange if Ren, such an intelligent young man, didn't understand what ails her. And, for me, it is also becoming clearer.Bookmark here

"Mizuki didn't just have a small desire to live like her mother," the man next to me says, "she had that need."Bookmark here

I look again into the eyes of this woman, who has quickly pulled herself together from the silent sadness she showed while sitting on the couch, and now opens the refrigerator. A mother needs to be strong at all times, I think as I watch her. As much as sometimes she can't, they have this mission. For children are fragile people, who change according to what they see, and they don't have enough emotional strength to cope alone with the strong waves of the sea called Life. Bookmark here

And as much as Ren is much stronger than I and my friends were at the time, he was not an adult. And this became clear to me the day I saw his downcast face, his expression of sadness... His defeat.Bookmark here

Unfortunately, this family was over.Bookmark here

As I watch the final moments of a family that I know would come to an end, the doorbell rings: there is someone at the entrance of the house. Mizuki and Ren look in its direction, and Ren walks over to see who it is. I have no idea who it is... It would hardly be Ren's father, since the day was in its early stages, so it could be some newspaper delivery man or something else. That's what I thought.Bookmark here

But the last person I could have expected was standing in the doorway, flashing Ren a smile as soon as he opened the door.Bookmark here

Yui was there.Bookmark here

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