Chapter 19:

Shells and Bodies IV

Backward Steps

As if it were his usual path, Kazuta Naoki goes in the direction of the right, which is the opposite direction to his house. I had visited my father's house several times during my childhood, before I was thirteen years old and started to hate this man. Apparently, he had already paid his hotel room rate, and was now heading for another location, which was not his home and I had no idea what it could be.

My father was not an employee or servant of any kind of company or business... in fact, my father owned a party house that operated in two cities, closer to the Japanese metropolis, and all his money came from there. Because of this, he had enough money to spend his days traveling, going out with various girls, and even pay for a few kilos of rice and beans for his ex-wife in his spare time.

He was not going to some kind of work, nor was he going home... where was Naoki going? My heart beats hard inside my chest; my father was not as guilty as I always thought he was. Not only had he not given an empty excuse to Ren and me two years before that day (since he had never made the same mistake with Mizuki again), he didn't even have the knowledge of the Kouyama family's situation...

It's not as if I'm trying to totally defend him, though. He could have asked things to my mother, she certainly knew much better about Ren's parents' situation, since she was a family friend and close to Mizuki; he could have simply denied any attempts to seduce Mizuki, since he knew that she, even though she was supposed to be getting divorced soon, was still married. He was, yes, guilty in all this.

But I'm trying to be more fair.

Naoki continues walking down the busy street. Unsteady, the man frowns at mothers and fathers walking down the street with their uniformed small children, who feel unsteady in their movements. But he, even if he is sleepy or has a migraine, keeps walking forward, determined.

We don't say anything, as was already becoming customary. We just follow the owner of the memory, attentive. I don't know what this moment is about, but I am sure that it is something related to everything I have seen, since the man in the top hat and tuxedo doesn't speak up at any moment to try to situate me in what we are observing. Following this reasoning, this memory was certainly connected to the previous one, or at least to one of the ones I have been in.

The mystery behind Mizuki's betrayal was not yet complete.

Naoki seemed to respect traffic laws a great deal, or at least to value his own life: ignoring the fact that he could use his car, he kept walking for long minutes, which after a while seemed like hours. Walking next to the reaper in what I know is only a memory, a movie, I don't feel tired, but surely this distance was causing some kind of pain in Naoki. It was as if we had walked from one end of the city to the opposite end.

After many minutes of following the man, he finally stopped. I imagined that he was stopping to rest, but this was not the case: Naoki was looking carefully at a small hill, which was a bit off from the rest of the city and made the place stand out. There, there was some sort of small building, stretching over three floors, and bearing the name of a television station along with a television company logo, both huge.

He strides up the steep incline. I hear a sound of laughter, and look away, only to see the reaper, ever so stern and harsh, opening his mouth to let out a sort of guttural, low, unobtrusive laugh.

"I'm sorry," he says.

I have no idea what he is laughing at, but I can't look away from my father. I can't imagine what he came here to do, even in his condition. I feel curiosity turn to anxiety, and a weight tightens in my stomach, making me apprehensive.

Naoki knocks on the door of the small television station headquarters in my town. It's not a big place or even protected, maybe just a small branch office after all. There is no immediate response, so he knocks again, harder this time. He seems irritable, and I would feel the same way, if I walked that far under the summer morning sun, in heavy clothes like his.

I take the liberty to approach this man, and look at his face. Languid eyes, unsteady gait, and trembling legs, he doesn't look well at all. Maybe he really wasn't, and it wasn't just because of drinking... I feel like touching him.

If I could touch this man right now, what would I do? From a punch to a hug, there are many things I would like to do to him. To bring him back to reality, to help him escape from his cowardice, or to finish destroying him by completely exposing the hatred I feel... It is not easy to define the feeling I have for Kazuta Naoki, the man who gave me his name, his money, but denied me his love.

He had never said he loved me. And now that he was dead, the taste he had left in my mouth was that of bitter loneliness. Even though I was not the only young person bitter because of a bad father, I felt this way at that time, seeing Hina and Rena's parents taking care of them all the time, seeing them pick them up from school... and seeing my friends being accompanied by their parents at all stages of their growth.

However, I only knew about a portion of the people, I knew only what they showed me, husks. I had never imagined Yui's problems with her parents, and never, under any circumstances, imagined that Ren's parents could separate? I had no idea that this separation was the effect of something that had been going on for years, a problem, a jealousy, something that had petrified in time and waited for the right moment to act and destabilize my life and that of my friend.

And today I understand. That my pain is no different from that of so many other people, many of them much closer to me than I could ever suppose. And I understand, too, that people sometimes are not sincere about what they feel, and end up lying and deceiving each other, and themselves as well. Not only Kanzaki Hina, not only Mikazuki Yui, not only Kouyama Mizuki...

...but mostly myself.

The door to the building opens, and a small man in a social shirt and jeans emerges, looking at my father, who is much larger than he is.

"Good morning," he says. "What do you want?"

"Good morning. Is Mr. Kouyama present?"

"Yes, he is." The man looks suspicious, which is to be expected. My father is a long way from what might be considered 'presentable' at this point. "Are you a friend?"

"Yes, I am. Tell him it's something important I need to take up with him now."

The man affirms, closing the door again. So that's it... the plug is falling, and my nervousness from before intensifies, which makes me so uneasy that my leg starts shaking involuntarily. It hadn't been something that came about through rumor and buzz, so...

The door opens again, and this time Mr. Kouyama appears in it, looking at Naoki. As colleagues who talked sometimes, and had even been camping together, they were not exactly strangers. Ren's father shakes his hand.

"What's wrong, Kazuta? Is something wrong, to come talk to me at this hour?"

Naoki lets go of Mr. Kouyama's hand quickly, as if not wanting to touch him.

"Yes, there is a problem. I don't like it one bit to be the one to come and tell you this, but your wife intends to take this to the grave with her, and it is not my intention to carry it alone."

"What..." the man sounds confused "...are you talking about?"

"The truth is that your wife tried to foo-" he begins, cutting his own sentence off halfway through. No, this is not the right way...

Assume your guilt!

Naoki takes a deep breath, and looks away from the man.

"Your wife cheated on you, two years ago. And I was her lover at the time."

In the most anti-climactic way imaginable, a handful of children suddenly appear on the hill, running after each other, laughing and making noise. They pass from right to left, and disappear on the other side of the rise. I am amazed to see that one of the girls has long light hair, very close to red hair, and freckles spread across her face.

How did Hina end up here?, I ask myself, only to see the Grim Reaper's discreet smile, far behind me and Naoki. He seemed to be finding this memory amusing, for some reason.

The two adults didn't move a muscle the entire time.

"That's a joke, right? It's not a funny joke, Kazuta-san..."

"I'm not joking. Your wife already intended to divorce you two years ago, and she spent a night with me."

There is no response. Instead, Ren's father closes his right fist, fitting a punch to the underside of Naoki's cheek. The man does not fall, but backs away, putting his hand on the stricken cheek immediately.

"I hope you're joking, and I hope this has served to make you understand that it's not funny."

Naoki, without waiting for any other words, gets to his knees, ignoring his cheek and the bleeding inside his mouth, which now oozes like a filament to meet the grass on the hill.

"I want to apologize to you, Kouyama-san; I needed to come here to tell you this, and I don't expect to be forgiven. I just wouldn't want you to hear about it from other people..."

A cry of pain is heard: cutting off Naoki's sentence, Mr. Kouyama unleashes a kick with the tip of his leather shoe, which hits the prostrate man's eyebrow. Blood surges as if trying to escape from Naoki's insides, spurting out as droplets and quickly staining his face. He closes his left eye, unable to see with it, and sits down on the ground, while the man approaches him with eyes that reveal all his fury.

"How dare you say that to my face?" Holding Naoki's collar and raising it strongly, the middle-aged man faces my father. "Two years ago... did this happen during camp by any chance?"

"No..." The wound bleeds heavily, making it impossible for Naoki to open his eye, and the swelling in the injured area grows rapidly. "It was before..."

"And you treated me as if nothing happened?!"

The man slams my father's head hard on the ground, more than five times, until the man loses consciousness. His head loses the strength it used to try to resist the attacks, and his eyes roll back. He is clearly unconscious.

"What was that scream...?" the men inside the station appear in the doorway, and run to meet Mr. Kouyama upon seeing the situation. "Stop it, Akio, you'll kill him!"

He stands up, without anyone needing to hold him down or force him to. He looks at the unconscious man, without any trace of remorse. After all, this man had just said that his wife had cheated on him with him.

"There is something I need to take care of at home. Please tell the boss that I am having personal problems."

Kouyama Akio, without waiting for an answer, returns inside the building, in search of his things. The other men look at my father, lying, bloodied on the grass, and consider calling the ambulance.

"Your father was a fit and healthy man," says the grim reaper next to me, as the men in front of the building pick up their phones. "Even tired and in pain, Naoki would have no problem subduing a man ten years older... much less a man who did not exercise and had a diet lacking in various nutrients."

And yet, Kazuta Naoki is stretched out on the floor... Wounded, lying on the ground, it is as if he is no longer the man I had always idealized as my father. Strong, tall, handsome, unbelievable. My father was invincible, in anything. But as it turned out, he didn't intend to settle for what he had to offer people; he didn't seem to be content with his handsome, presentable shell.

The event that I had just witnessed... was the way that Naoki showed how he was growing inside. Not only his outer adornments, but his nature was also being enhanced.

And he was showing me, in that moment, that the moment we have the most opportunity to stand up is when we are down with our face to the ground; that it is on our knees that we learn how to stand up.

That sometimes losing also does some good.


After about twenty minutes, in which we witness the men caring for an unconscious Naoki and an angry Mr. Kouyama leaving the scene in a small black car, the ambulance arrives. Naoki is taken to the hospital, and I can see that his nose and jaw seem out of place, maybe even broken. And I feel that he is paying the price for his mistakes and dealing with them.

"Naoki was learning to be a better man," says the man next to me, as we watch my father being taken away. "Besides an adult just for the duration of his life... I don't know if you understand."

When he tells me this, another moment comes back to my mind; when I had decided to confront my grim reaper, furious that he had shown me the scene that traumatized my childhood... At the time, he had said that I might not understand any of it, not even at the end of it all. He said that these things were necessary, and that it was for my own good.

And maybe I understand it now.

I don't know what to say to the man, but I feel like thanking him, especially for not giving up on me the many times I tried to run away. Words are not my strong suit, and it is difficult to express myself the way I want to. 

But, lucky for me, I don't have to say anything to this mysterious being. Nodding his head, he makes his message clear: you're welcome. And, in this way, we are settled.

"Akio went home earlier this day, but he didn't comment on anything he heard here with his wife," he tells me. "It was still three days before the Sunday you and Rena saw Ren and heard the screams."

"I see." It wouldn't be very wise of Mr. Kouyama to accuse his wife of something without having any evidence, or at least more credible suspicions than just the word of a shabby, sweat-covered drunk. And besides, Ren was in the room with Yui, and he would not start an argument with his wife in the presence of guests.

Or maybe Mrs. Kouyama hadn't even gotten home yet; after going out, drinking, and getting a night's stay at a hotel, maybe she intended to enjoy her brief feeling of false freedom more... One way or another, Akio would not start a discussion with Mizuki this day. They would initiate that subject only on Sunday.

The children, who had previously run to the opposite side of the hill while my father was talking (and getting beaten) with Mr. Kouyama, return, this time screaming even louder as they run. Hina is among the children, with two holes in the corners of her mouth, awaiting the birth of new teeth, and dark, dirt-soiled cheeks.

The longing and affection I had nurtured for Hina while seeing her in my memories intensifies, and I cannot take my eyes off the child. I am so eager to see her again that my chest aches... Perhaps this is, in fact, my greatest regret.

I notice that we are not so far from Hina's house and my own. We had only used an unfamiliar route for me, but Ren's house and the Hotel were actually in the opposite direction from my house. So it made sense that Hina was there; maybe her parents were nearby, doing something.

I hear the man's laughter again, and I look at him again. He has been laughing the whole time, so I decide to question why he is laughing. What's so funny, anyway?

"Oh, don't worry, it's no big deal," he answers me, but still day amused. "It's just that, since we approached here, you seem to be nervous... Or maybe excited..."

His laughter now cannot be contained, and he laughs briefly, a harsh laugh coming from deep in his throat.

"Watching your father get beaten, watching Hina run... Oh, Kazuta, you should see your face!"

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