Chapter 17:

Shells and Bodies II

Backward Steps

First Memory: 2015

Mikazuki Yui. The little girl who was a swimming prodigy. The girl who played with me and whom I considered a friend, even if not so close, to this day. 

With her hair tied up on top of her head, she was wearing a plain black shirt along with jeans. She wore a black slipper with white straps, and looked up into Ren's face, slightly smiling. Unlike them, I am perplexed.

"Who is it, Ren?" questions his mother, from the kitchen.

"It's Yui, my friend from school." He turns to the girl. "Have you had coffee yet? Come in, eat with us!"

Yui enters the house, wiping her slippers on the doorstep. What the hell is Yui doing in Ren's house? Rena had talked to us about the importance of keeping our minds active and exercising constantly, and we had all agreed to spend some time getting rid of our homework before the end of summer vacation came.

Were Yui and Ren breaking this agreement of ours?

"Forgive me for intruding, Mrs. Kouyama" says Yui, bowing in a curtsy. Yui's voice is a little less childlike than mine and Ren's were at this time; being older, Yui was already a more developed child than us.

"Don't worry, dear. You're practically a member of this family already, from the amount of time you come here..."

"Mom!" it is possible to see Ren's face turning heavily red as he yells at his mother. Yui looks away from the two of them in embarrassment, and his mother laughs.

And I have no idea what I am seeing.

"Don't worry, Yui-chan; you don't bother us at all. In fact, you cheer up our household quite a bit." She turns away from the two, going near the stove. "Just wait in the living room, the rice will be ready soon."

The children affirm, leaving the kitchen. I still don't know, exactly, what I am seeing; it is news to me, knowing that Yui and Ren were much closer than I imagined. From what Mizuki had said, Yui's presence in the house was no longer even a novelty, so she must have been frequent there. And Ren had never mentioned any of that to me.

"Are you jealous of your friend?" the man next to me asks me. If he is debauching me, he should know that he is terrible at it, since he seems to be serious as ever.

It's been years since I've heard from Ren; it's been years since I've known what happened to him, or his mother or father. All I know is that after the day of the visit to the Kouyama family, I had never seen Ren again. That had been my last contact with my best friend.

I remember for months feeling very bad that he had disappeared from my life and I had not been able to help him... and I remember how this sadness was looking for something to blame, how the thirteen-year-old Kazuta didn't feel wrong, just frustrated, and needed someone to throw the weight of the blame on.

And Naoki proved to be the cause of all this pain. Some time later, when we had returned to school and Ren's disappearance (and the Kouyama divorce) had been announced and was known throughout the town, my mother had become extremely angry with my father when he visited us, and I would find out why it had happened: my father and Mizuki had an affair.

Somehow, the news that my father was the cause of the divorce had become common knowledge, and the man, who was already not well liked by people, became even more hated. And I hated him too, and I still can't accept what he did.

Since that time, which was more than five years ago, I had not heard any news from Ren. As much as in my memory he was a great and irreplaceable friend, he no longer means anything to me. And I feel only surprised that he is so close to Yui, who had always been a very reserved girl.

"Come to the table, breakfast is ready!" says Mizuki, and the two children, who were sitting on the same couch that minutes before had a bitter mother hugging her restless son, get to their feet.

There is rice, tofu, bread, and furikake on the table, plus a small pot of margarine and a jar of yogurt. While Mizuki puts a small cup of coffee for herself, the children sit at the table, chatting as they attack the breadsticks and begin their morning meal.

"Ren was your best friend," the old man begins to speak, as everyone there eats, "but you were not his best friend."

I look at the children again. So Ren didn't tell me everything about himself - I would never have guessed that he and Yui were close to that extent. Even Mrs. Kouyama recognized Yui as a frequent visitor, and that had never happened to me, for example. Not that I minded that, but still, to have knowledge of it after so many years, is somewhat shocking to me.

"Yui would come to study with Ren, they would do their assignments together."

"I wonder why they never invited me to join them."

The man doesn't change the expression on his face, but his tone sounds jocular, as if it amused him:

"Maybe they were dating."


After a while of eating, they were finally finishing. Yui was holding a conversation with Mrs. Kouyama, but was obviously struggling to speak. It was not very common to see Yui talking, so it was noticeable her discomfort to remain a good girl in the view of her friend's mother. Mrs. Kouyama seemed to be happier with the girl's presence there, as she asked several questions about the school and the subjects they were studying, and Yui answered with short and clearly evasive answers that were unsuccessful.

"Mom," Ren says at one point. "Yui and I are going upstairs to study."

"Ah..." she gets to her feet, picking up the glasses used by them. "It's okay, dear. I'll be here if you need anything."

He states, turning his face to Yui, who sighs silently, as if thanking him for freeing her from interrogation.

"Shall we go?" he asks, smiling at the girl. And she gets up to follow him.

They go up the stairs to the second floor, and I follow them, along with the old man in the top hat. Passing through the second floor corridor, they enter the last door on the right, and we follow them. All the other doors are closed.

Quite different from my room, Ren's room is a little crowded with things: miniature manga characters, a video game and a small television, a few empty soda bottles and a stack of books next to the computer, which has the screen saver on, and a colored ball dancing across the screen.

"I was going to ask you not to look at the mess, but..." he smiles at the girl, who follows him closely. "You're used to it."

He picks up his backpack, removing his notebooks, and Yui sits down on the bedroom carpet, looking at the boy as he stands with his back to her.

"I'm sorry for coming here so much..." she says, as the boy approaches, placing his materials on a small table and leaving her in the middle of the two.

Ren sits down, finally, and the two of them face each other.

"You really cheer me up, Yui," he begins, as the girl faces the floor. "Come whenever you can. Studying with you is much more efficient for my performance, plus helping you makes me satisfied too."

There is a brief pause.

"Look at me, Yui."

She lifts her face, and they are facing each other now.

"I don't want you to feel uncomfortable here at home. I know you don't like to stay in your own."

She straightens her arms, as if she feels cold. I don't remember Yui commenting anything about problems with her parents... maybe I really was just an acquaintance to her after all. Anyway, knowing myself, I couldn't help her at all, even if she decided to tell me everything about her life.

As with Hina, I would just listen to her words and fill her with my feigned sympathy.

"I don't feel..." the girl looks away again. Her cheeks are turning a strong shade of red, and she seems to cringe at the younger boy. "I enjoy your company. It's just that... I've been feeling a little heavy atmosphere around here... it seems that you guys have been having problems too..."

Ren's face loses some of its vigor. Yui's words hit him right where it hurts, and the boy shows it on his face. The atmosphere suddenly became heavier between the two children; more important than their grades at that moment were their situations.

I didn't expect Ren to say anything concerning what we would find out in the future, about the betrayal and divorce, but my expectations were shattered:

"My parents are not getting along very well," he begins. Yui, as naturally she had always done, watches him without daring to say anything. "For a few years now they have been quite distant. We no longer go for walks on Dad's days off, we don't eat in different places, sometimes they sleep in separate parts of the house... apparently my parents don't love each other anymore."

Yui says nothing, so they are silent for a while. I don't know if the reaper has anything to add in what we are seeing, but I hope he doesn't: I am immersed in the past we are seeing.

I feel like I will see something important.

"So that's probably what you're starting to notice," he continues, trying to get his initial animation back together. "They've been like this for a long time, but you're only noticing it now... they're good actors, aren't they?", and forces a laugh, which comes out dry and lifeless. Ren is not well, and I hope very much that Yui realizes this.

"My parents have a great relationship," she says. This may be the first time I've seen Yui speak more than five words per sentence, and it's so different from what I'm used to that I can't help the feeling of strangeness I get from hearing her.

"The only thing that annoys me is that they want to impose their wills on me. They want to choose what I wear, how I do my hair, and how much I study... it annoys me."

She is not necessarily angry; it is just her natural tone of voice. Yui always seemed to be angry, perhaps because of the combination of her harsh voice and her appearance, perhaps because of her difficulty in expressing herself...

I'm beginning to understand that maybe I never really knew Yui, and have this whole time only related to her shell.

"It annoys me so much that I want to run away and never come back. But I always end up coming back... because I know they love me. And your parents love you too, Ren."

"I know," he replies, in an icy tone. "But if they don't love each other anymore, what's the point? Wouldn't I just be being like a... hindrance to them breaking up?"

"Of course not..." She doesn't seem to know much she's going to say, but Ren needs help, and she needs to say something. Even if it is complicated to act as a counselor, she is the only person who can do this for him, and I understand how difficult this is for her. If it were me there, in Yui's place, I would go through exactly the same difficulty.

That is if I tried to help.

"Don't think of it as a bad thing... if they break up, they'll be leaving the bad things behind, won't they? Doesn't the end of something old precede something new? A new happiness?"

He doesn't answer her; but Yui is right. I feel her words in my heart too. The end of something old precedes something new... that was, in a way, a summary of what I had been doing all this time, since I had woken up in an empty mind and had the opportunity to look back. Even the things that hurt are for the greater good, and I have been learning this all along.

Yui could not have chosen better words for this helpless boy.

There are two knocks on the bedroom door, and Mizuki pokes her head in, looking at the two children sitting there.

"Son, mommy will need to go out for a while... do you need anything?"

Ren can't smile. Talking about his visibly broken family had drained what little joy he had, and it was stamped on his face.

But he tries hard not to let it show to his mother.

"No, Mom. Thank you for asking."

"I understand." She looks at Yui, and smiles with closed eyes, "You can stay here as long as you want, young lady. Ren's father won't arrive until later this afternoon."

She leaves the room, closing the door. We are all silent for a few minutes, until the moment a sound of a door slamming is heard, and we can see a woman in a hat coming out from inside the house. She had chosen to walk to wherever she was going.

"Shall we study?" asks Ren, already opening his book, and Yui straightens up, so that she can look at what he has written down in his notebook.

I look at the man next to me.

"Is it worth it already, coming back here?" he asks me, and I feel that he is trying to be debauched again, without much success.

But really, I feel like there are things to see. Not only here, not only the discovery that my friends were closer than I imagined, I feel that we still have moments to visit in that period, in the fateful week when the Kouyama family went into decline, and my father had become more and more hideous to me.

And what the man says only confirms my suspicions:

"We have no more to look at around here; let's follow Kouyama Mizuki."

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