Chapter 18:

Shells and Bodies III

Backward Steps

Kouyama Mizuki walks as if she does not want to be seen. With beautiful sunglasses on her eyes, an understated coke in her hairstyle, and a long beige dress that covers her ankles, she walks quickly down the street. Even though it was a bit busy before, it was a bit quieter now, with less traffic and very few passers-by. The reaper and I follow the woman closely, and, even without any certainty or indication of this, I imagine that I know where the woman is going, and I am afraid that I am right.Bookmark here

We walk behind her for a few more minutes until my fear becomes greater: in our town there is only one hotel, Sakechi's, and it's not much; it serves to accommodate the few day visitors who need to come here quickly, and then leave. And Mizuki is heading in his direction.Bookmark here

I freeze the instant I see the woman enter the hotel. My heart speeds up, and I feel a huge sorrow in my heart, even though nothing I will see there was my fault.Bookmark here

The man also stops walking when he sees my shock. And he looks back.Bookmark here

"What are you doing?"Bookmark here

"I can't..." It is becoming difficult to speak. I feel my heart beating hard in my chest, and anxiety consumes my being. "I can't see that."Bookmark here

The man doesn't seem to understand my desperation.Bookmark here

"That what?"Bookmark here

There is no doubt: Mizuki is going to meet with Naoki. She is close to committing another act of adultery, and the old man is intent on showing me that. And I am not strong enough to see this and not be able to do anything about it. That would be extremely destructive to me and to what this whole set of memories was showing me...Bookmark here

"I imagine you're getting something wrong, Kazuta," the man tells me, and I look at his face again. Although he does not look me in the eye, he observes something in me. "You take conclusions for yourself that have no substantiation, and make them absolute truths."Bookmark here

He touches my arm, and without exerting himself one bit, easily pulls me forward, and I am guided like a rag doll.Bookmark here

"Come, keep trusting me."Bookmark here

Maybe he's right... seeing Yui and Ren had had the opposite effect of when I saw Naoki in the forest. A feeling of happiness, that all was not lost, took over me in that room. Even if I hadn't done anything for my friend, someone had, and maybe that had made all the difference in his life.Bookmark here

I need to thank Yui for this, if I still have the chance. And thank the reaper, for showing me this moment from the past, that no one had ever told me, and that I could never live, because of who I was.Bookmark here

Even if Ren decided to talk to me about his woes, what would I have to give my friend? My empty condescension? My false concern? As I had already realized, after all this time traveling through the past and getting to know Kouyama Ren better, he was not the powerful iceberg of emotions that I had always imagined; Ren was a normal child, like me and like Rena, Hina, Yui, Kenji, all of us. And unlike Hina, who could strengthen herself, he felt helpless too... and he needed a person who understood him, who at least listened to what he was worried about and could help him.Bookmark here

And I, who considered him my best friend, could never do that for him. I was not a friend, I never understood the value of a friendship; unlike a friend, I was a parasite. Having what I needed from people, and denying the essence of them all, being satisfied only by seeing their husks. And running away from them and what they really were.Bookmark here

Not all things were Naoki's fault, after all.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

We enter the hotel, and Kouyama Mizuki is already climbing into the elevator. I see a glimpse of her white dress and her hat, which is now in her hands, as the cold elevator doors close and it rises to its destination.Bookmark here

As expected, we are going to float. Pointing upwards, the reaper leaves the floor, passing through the ceiling easily. I follow him.Bookmark here

We go up to what, by my count, is the sixth floor of the hotel, and we are already inside a room. It is very simple, with black and white bedding, huge pillows, and a very large window that overlooks the many mountains in the distance, covered by a mist that is so thick that it looks like a handful of clouds. And maybe they are.Bookmark here

But what is most striking in that room is none of this, but rather... Kazuta Naoki, who is sitting in one of the armchairs in the room, looking restless.Bookmark here

Seeing him again, I notice some differences compared to my memory of the camp. My father is a little fatter at this time, his face slightly rounder and more tired, with dark circles under his eyes and a rather shabby beard. It is the same appearance that I had seen in Ren's memory, but after seeing how he looked two years earlier, this appearance reveals a weariness that, without the possibility of comparison, is imperceptible.Bookmark here

Maybe it's just age coming on, but it doesn't seem to be the only cause. Not when the man moves his hands every second, shakes his legs and lowers his head, restless and every second less controlled.Bookmark here

There is a small knock on the door, and Mizuki enters the room. As soon as she closes the door and the sound from outside disappears, they both exchange glances, without offering any words, and their features reveal nothing but tiredness.Bookmark here

"What do you want?" asks Naoki, still sitting up, as the woman goes to the other side of the room, taking a seat on the huge bed in the center. "I haven't slept tonight, if I can be brief..."Bookmark here

"Just wait a moment." The woman throws her sunglasses behind her, lying down on the bed and letting a long breath escape her mouth. "I'm relaxing."Bookmark here

The man obeys her, picking up his cell phone, and they exchange no more words.Bookmark here

The man next to me turns away from me, standing next to Naoki, and calls me to come closer. Pointing at his phone, he seems to want to show me something.Bookmark here

I look at my father's cell phone, and see calls from Mizuki on it, several... All the day before this one. So, from what I can deduce, it was she who had called this man to be here today, and he had arrived before her because the woman had lost a little time preparing breakfast for Ren and Yui.Bookmark here

But perhaps she had not told him the reason for their meeting... yes, that's right. Not least because, if he had known, he would not have asked her about it as soon as they met. And considering that he was not sure that she wanted to do that... This is starting to get confusing.Bookmark here

What will they do here?Bookmark here

"Well," Mizuki says, after several minutes without even looking at Naoki, "I don't intend to stay married."Bookmark here

"Oh, really?" My father looks annoyed. But Mizuki doesn't seem bothered by the man's rudeness, and follows her speech:Bookmark here

"I'm getting a divorce in a few weeks. I just need to settle a few issues with my lawyer."Bookmark here

"Got it. And why did you need me here to say that?"Bookmark here

"I didn't want to be seen with you by some acquaintance."Bookmark here

It's not as if this plan of yours was effective, I think, with myself. Coming from the future, I knew that this would be for naught. That soon the whole town would know about this treasonous affair involving my father, and that Mizuki would remain in town after that, as a single woman who lives alone, and is sometimes visited by her son.Bookmark here

But it's not as if I felt any pity for her. That was the weight of her choices.Bookmark here

"If you don't want to be seen with me," my father replies, irritably, "there's not much point in calling me to this hotel and staying in the same room as me."Bookmark here

"I just wanted you to be the first to know of my decision." She stands up. "I had said I was thinking of getting a divorce that night we spent together, remember?"Bookmark here

Opening the fridge, the woman takes out a bottle of wine, and reaches for a glass at the top of one of the shelves to drink the liquid.Bookmark here

"Then I would like to make amends for my lie by having you be the first to know about the official divorce, two years delayed."Bookmark here

She takes a sip of the wine, a long one, which practically empties the cup. Then she extends the bottle to the man.Bookmark here

"No, thank you," he says. "I'm hungover."Bookmark here

"I'm sorry."Bookmark here

According to what Mizuki was saying...Bookmark here

"Yes," the reaper says, and seems to predict what I will conclude as he continues: "Mizuki lied about being separated from her husband two years ago. And for that reason..."Bookmark here

"For that reason my father agreed to sleep with her?"Bookmark here

I look again at the hungover man, who keeps his phone in his pocket. Tired, libertine, that was the man who had given me the gift of life. And the man who had made me feel so much anger, for so long. If he had been deceived about it, he had not done what he did out of malice. In his mind, Mizuki was going to separate from her husband, and this made him feel less guilty.Bookmark here

This makes me conclude that my father was not a bad man. Not only with me and my mother, whom he still supported to this day, but also with other people. His nature was not that of a bad person. Not bad, just... what I always knew Kazuta Naoki was.Bookmark here

A coward.Bookmark here

"Exactly," the reaper says, confirming my assumptions. "That obviously doesn't clear up your father's guilt... But it also clears up certain things."Bookmark here

I understand the point he's getting at; but it doesn't rid him of his sins. Even if things happened because of Ren's mother's manipulation, Naoki could have prevented it... He didn't have to have the dirty role of a lover in this story!Bookmark here

"You certainly didn't come here just for that, right?" my father questions the woman, who is already drinking another glass of wine, sitting down on the bed again. "What else do you want?"Bookmark here

A mischievous smile runs across the woman's thin lips, even if it disappears at the same speed it had appeared.Bookmark here

"Don't you want to have some with me? Just to distract you? I thought it would be a good idea..."Bookmark here

"I'm sorry, but like I said, I'm hungover. And I don't feel like I'm going to be distracted by your company." My father gets to his feet, grabbing his things and heading for the door.Bookmark here

As he approaches the doorknob, however, Mizuki grabs his wrist, pulling him back.Bookmark here

"Why don't you want to be with me? Don't you want to be with an older woman again?" She squeezes his wrist tighter. "I'm going to separate from my idiot husband, I want to celebrate that with you... You're not going to tell me you've been angry with me all these years because of a little lie?"Bookmark here

He turns to his wife. Much taller than her, he needs to look down to face Mrs. Kouyama, who at this moment is acting like a young woman in love, although she is bitter and has no intention of loving Naoki.Bookmark here

She just wants to feel free.Bookmark here

"You were just using me" he says, "the night we spend together, you lied to me." Bookmark here

Even in the face of the accusation, the woman doesn't back down even an inch, still squeezing his wrist.Bookmark here

"And what did you think you were doing when you agreed to come here with me? Don't be a hypocrite, everyone in this town knows your reputation. The one who specializes in using people here is you."Bookmark here

"Let me go, please," the man asks, and the woman lets go of his wrist, without taking her eyes off him.Bookmark here

Opening the door, he turns away from her, once again.Bookmark here

"Thank you."Bookmark here

And closes the door. Mizuki sits back down on the bed, refilling his wine glass. After pouring it down her throat at once, she lies back down on the bed, this time with her arms spread, moving her legs in the air.Bookmark here

And she starts to laugh.Bookmark here

"Now I imagine you have a better idea of what happened," says the man traveling with me. We both look at the woman, who laughs at her situation, who finds her web of lies amusing... Or who just laughs at my father and his reactions. Anyway, this is irrelevant, after all.Bookmark here

"She said something about anger... 'all those years,' she said."Bookmark here

"Yes."Bookmark here

Then... It wasn't something that had become a habit. It had been a one-time thing, certainly before the camp...Bookmark here

"It was a few days before the camp, certainly," the man confirms. So the scenario is beginning to take shape. Things are becoming clearer.Bookmark here

Naoki had not continued with his mistake. His apology that day was not empty, for the mistake was never repeated. And if the anger had lasted for years, this anger at having been deceived, at having been only a lover...Bookmark here

It meant that Naoki really had regretted what he had done.Bookmark here

"You can call it whatever you want. But I wanted, from the beginning, for you to see how things really are, Kazuta."Bookmark here

The woman's laughter didn't stop. Perhaps she was getting drunk, for her face was becoming increasingly red, and drops of sweat were beginning to appear on the top of her forehead. She didn't seem the least bit unhappy about her destroyed family.Bookmark here

Although that, too, was nothing but a shell.Bookmark here

"And it's not over yet," he complements. Muffling the high-pitched laughter of the drunken woman, he sinks a little to the ground, indicating that it is time to go.Bookmark here

"Let's go see the man you call a coward."Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.