Things make sense now. Maybe not completely, but they are clearer to me. Looking at the reaper accompanying me, now laughing at me, makes me a little happy, in an inexplicable way. We had been through enough of my life, together. He had not given up on me during all this time.
He had said once that he was happy to see my successes, and maybe that was really a sincere statement.
"Don't think that's all," he says, going stiff again and returning to his usual seriousness. I don't look into his face, but I listen intently to what he says. "I still need to show you a few things."
What else would there be to be shown? He wanted me to find out the truth about Naoki and the Kouyama family, and I had already witnessed that, up close. As well as having recovered several memories of the time that I had no recollection of... and getting to know a little better the children who grew up with me.
What is missing from this puzzle?
Without saying anything else, he extends his hand to me once more. I have nothing to question: I hold his hand instantly, squeezing it as if it were a friend, as if that hand were Ren's. I wish it were.
I wish it were...
The place where we are is familiar: in front of Ren's house, across the sidewalk. The street is silent, though the sky is still clear, and I have no idea why we are here. I look at the man next to me, wearing a top hat and warm clothes, but he doesn't look back at me, nor does he look at the house: he seems thoughtful, not paying much attention. There are no movements or sounds from inside Ren's house, or at least I can't see or hear them. Things seem paralyzed in time...
Until the reaper breaks his silence.
"You didn't see Ren again after that day you and Rena visited him," he says, still with his inert eyes; he seems to be staring at something specific, but is really just thinking about other things. "Two weeks after that day, you found out that Kouyama Ren was no longer enrolled at Kitagawara... and at home, you found out the whole thing happened while your mother was yelling at your father."
I affirm. Everything he said is right.
"Ren said goodbye to the city a week before school started again. He left without telling you anything."
I knew this before. I don't understand why the man is telling me... but then I am startled: at the right end of the street, turning the corner, a girl in a pink skirt and white T-shirt appears, with her red hair down to her shoulders and a light tiara on top of her head.
Rena walks towards Ren's house, and stops just before the entrance. Inexpressive, she sits down near the three steps that separate the door from the grass, and lowers her head, showing no intention to call for someone from inside the house.
Before I can question what I am seeing, I hear laughter coming from the left side of the street: Kenji and Ichise, both wearing tank tops and shorts and wearing flip-flops, turn the corner, also approaching Ren's house. When they get there and spot Rena, they approach the girl, speaking something in a low tone that I can't hear, and sit down as well, close to the girl.
"On this day, Ren and Akio were leaving town," the reaper says. "Mr. Kouyama was already settling all the legal issues that divorce with a minor child required, and had already decided to leave town. The broadcaster he worked for had learned of his situation, and he already had a new branch office to transfer to near his new home, which was in Kamakura."
While he is talking, I look carefully at my friends; they are not talking and laughing as usual. Not even Ichise, who was in love with Rena, was making his usual jokes to try to make the serious girl laugh. I walk towards them, crossing the street to do so, while cars pass through the same space as me, without even touching me. Only the wind created by their movements hits my face, messing up my hair.
The reaper does not follow me. His face remains relaxed, his eyes still looking forward, not taking in any information. I approach the children, only to notice how serious they are. The mood is heavy, and it is noticeable. Maybe it was because we were facing the Kouyama family home, which was facing its worst moment, but I don't think it is only this; my friends are bitter about Ren's situation.
Ren was our friend, a true friend. The kind who helped us in our problems, who answered the doubts that arose in our hearts... a real friend. And for Ichise, Kenji and Rena, Ren was being lost. Maybe not forever, as was my case, but still it was a huge loss, a wound opening inside each of them.
I can understand the reason for their silence. They are just children; for them the future is not relevant? if the actual moment, the present, is painful, empty promises of better days will only make them sadder. And I know this well, because during my last travels I was in constant contact with children, not only with all my childhood friends, but also with myself.
And thinking back to my childhood days was helping me to mature as well.
"Be strong," I tell the children, even if none of them can hear me. "We did everything we could."
Had we really done it? That was something impossible to know. And also, somewhat irrelevant. Even if we hadn't acted in the perfect way to help Ren, we had been his friends. We loved our friend. And, surely, that was more than remarkable for him, and enough on our part.
The last missing person appears in front of the house: wearing a plain black T-shirt, jeans shorts, a pair of white sneakers and a blue cap, Mikazuki Yui stands in front of the other three. Because her head is down, Rena doesn't see her, but the other two look at the girl, who has two bags in her hands.
"I brought boxes of wrapped candy," she says. Rena lifts her head to look at her friend. "There's one for each of you."
They approach, in silence, and take the boxes. Each one has a different color wrapping, and they place them on the floor near where they sit. Yui stands next to me, looking at the children. Much smaller than my nineteen-year-old self, Yui is just a little girl; but her strength and willingness to help Ren are both present in her face, remarkable in her gaze.
From what I had seen at Ren's house, perhaps Yui was the person who was suffering the most from this news of his and his father's trip.
"Has Ren seen you guys out here yet?" she asks her friends. No one says anything, but Kenji shakes his head, denying it. "Is this how you intend to say goodbye to him?"
The other children turn their faces to look at Yui. There is anger in their eyes, a mixture of displeasure and disappointment that makes their lips pucker.
"Did you come here just to cry and tell him how his absence will hurt you?"
"You should be smiling, Rena." Yui approaches the girl sitting on the floor, and their faces are palms apart. Rena's eyes widen at the voracity of the older girl's words. "You have a strong mentality, I know you. Don't look at Ren with those weak eyes."
She holds Rena's hand.
I feel as if there is fog around us. Seeing everyone like that was desperate. I didn't even know this meeting had existed... I had never seen my friends like that before. Yui squeezes Rena's hand tighter, waiting for her answer. Rena still looks into her friend's eyes, but no longer opens them in astonishment. She seems to be filling herself with determination, as if she is drinking from Yui's cup.
"You're right," she says. "You didn't call us here to make this situation more complicated." She turns to the boys, in the other corner of the staircase. "Kenji, Ichise."
The two boys already understand what she means. They affirm with their heads.
"You guys are right," says Ichise. "Ren needs our support."
I feel a little more relieved to see how they are handling the situation. Thanks to Yui, the previously heavy atmosphere was now easing, and they looked more like the kids they had always been. This could be a normal day of summer vacation, when everyone was waiting for Ren to get ready to go out with them and play all day long in the city.
The only difference was that I was not there.
There is the sound of the door being unlocked, and everyone gets up quickly, taking their boxes of candy and hiding them in the back. Yui takes her white bag, which still has something in it, and hides it too. And the four children are lined up, all next to me. Creating a kind of barrier between the Kouyama house and the rest of the world.
The door opens, and Kouyama Akio emerges through it. He doesn't seem to be taking good care of himself, as irregular hairs grow haphazardly across his face, and his hair is a little longer than normal. Even without much care for his appearance, however, he seems in good health. Behind the man, we can see the silhouette of a young blond man with thick glasses and cloth sneakers...
The two of them pull their bags out, and stop walking when they see the group waiting for them outside. Ren drops his things on the ground, and brings his hands to his mouth, as his eyes sparkle with sudden excitement.
"Ren!" the children shout, as they run up to the boy, and hug him in a group. The boy's father walks away, with a smile on his face that highlights his wrinkles of expression.
"What do you guys..." Ren begins, but can't finish his sentence:
"Keep in touch with us, Ren!" says Kenji, with a choked voice and tears falling from his eyes like a waterfall.
"You little shorty, be sure to call us all!", adds Ichise, ruffling the boy's hair further.
"Ren! Ren!" Rena can't say anything but the boy's name, squeezing his neck tightly as if he would disappear from her hands at any moment.
And this hug, so tender and sincere, seems to last much longer than it really had. The children don't let Ren say anything, throwing phrases like "try to visit me!" and "send me postcards!" at him all the time, and he can't react in any other way than his tears, which don't show whether they are from sadness or happiness. Maybe they are both.
But one thing is certain: Ren no longer looked the way Rena and I had seen him that day. As if that display of affection was lifting him up, he no longer had that weak countenance and the features of a loser. He was like a student who fails a subject, only to find out that the teacher has got his grades wrong: a kind of relief that cools the soul and makes him calmer.
His eyes expressed fullness.
Yui is the first to separate from him. While all the others hug Ren and slowly begin to separate from him, Yui takes out what she had inside her bag and extends it to the front.
It is a small bouquet of red and white roses. A blush invades the girl's face, who tries to disguise her embarrassment by bowing her head in a curtsy.
"For you," she says, and everyone looks at her gift.
Ren blushes slightly, taking the flowers and thanking the girl. Then all the other young people take the things they had to give (the wrapped candy boxes) and hand them to the crying boy, who accepts them and thanks each one. And I continue to watch the scene.
"I don't know what to say to all of you," Ren comments, struggling to speak because of emotion. "You are the best people I have ever met in my life."
"We who should say that to you, Ren," Rena says, and all the others nod, coming closer for another hug.
There, in that moment, I feel something very strong coming from those children; I feel connected to all of them. I didn't know that this meeting had happened, but I perfectly understand the feeling of my friends. And I feel that I am also having the opportunity to say goodbye to Ren now.
I am much taller than him now. When I was a child, I had to lift my neck to look at him. I had to think hard about every word I said, so as not to feel that I was being uninteresting to him. And here, looking at this child, I feel that I have learned a lot from Ren. And nostalgia, once again, hits me hard.
I miss it so much...
"Thank you so much, Ren. You teach me things to this day."
To my surprise, I see the boy smile in my direction. Swift as a figure, he seems to look directly at my face, and my heart races; for a moment, I think I had been heard. But at the same speed that this boy was watching me, he averts his eyes, directing his smile at our friends, and again isolates me from everyone else.
I have the impression that I am going crazy.
"I am very happy about all this farewell to my dear Ren," Mr. Kouyama says, and all the children look at him, "but it is already time for us to go. We're driving to our new home."
"You can come visit me anytime you want!" says Ren, excitedly, as he and his father walk toward the garage. The children follow them, and so do I, eager to hear every word they say.
"I will leave my new address with Hina and Kenji's parents," says Mr. Kouyama. "Come and play with my son whenever you want."
The rest follows very quickly. Hugs, phrases expressing future longing, reminiscing... for about ten minutes, all the children talk about everything with Ren, remembering various things we had done back then. Rena and the abandoned cat that she and Ren had rescued and was living with the Kanzaki; Kenji and the day he had dragged Ren to a kite competition, and they had taken first place; and Ichise and his story of how he and Ren had tried to make a cake, which had had terrible results... They were all connecting through their memories.
When Mr. Kouyama started the car, everyone started crying again. Ren was leaving, this time it was something definite. I had never seen Ren again, but I can't say that my friends shared this fate. Maybe they visited him periodically, maybe they hung out together.
If so, I had been excluded from this completely.
Before getting into the car, Ren tries to console his friends... exactly the opposite of what anyone would expect.
He runs his hand over Rena's head, smoothing her hair.
"I really admire your determination and intelligence, Rena. Please never lose that sparkle of yours."
He gives Ichise's shoulder a friendly pat.
"You can go much further than you believe; just make room for yourself, friend."
He hugs Kenji, who can't stop whining, and says something in his ear, which I am unable to hear. And finally, to my surprise and to everyone else's, he approaches Yui, giving her a kiss on the lips so hard that the girl has to force her foot down to keep from being pushed away. When he pulls away, Yui is red again, like a bell bell pepper, and looks, wide-eyed, at the boy.
"I needed to do that," he says, and jumps into the car.
As he drives away, everyone waves to them, and I feel like I need to do that too. The opportunity I had never had to say goodbye... I would certainly spoil this moment. Knowing me, I would demand explanations from Ren, I would not accept his farewell without knowing what was going on. And I wouldn't be able to fire him the way everyone did, or at least tried to do, with joy and good feelings. That was probably why they had not called me to be with them on this day.
And anyway, I was not a good friend. To any of them. Like the parasite she was, I would only cause hurt and more resentment if I had more opportunities to do so, and only now, several years later, do I see how my behavior had always been this way: destructive. I couldn't hug Ren, look into his eyes, and tell him how much I loved him; it was too far from Kazuta Takeda's reality.
So it was better this way.
As if Rena were listening to me, she questions Yui:
"Why didn't you call Take-kun to come with us?"
Everyone looks at Yui. As I had said, I was not very intimate with Yui, nor did I know anything about the girl at that time. To me, she was just the good swimmer with pretty hair and few words, who was a great choice for the team when we played dodgeball... honestly, I had never felt interested in talking to her much and getting to know her better. I liked people who liked to talk about themselves, like Hina and Rena, or people who knew how to make pleasant conversation, like Ren and Ichise, and Yui did not fit into either of these two types. If she and I tried to talk, we probably wouldn't be able to have even a minute of prose.
But perhaps Yui knew me a little better than I could ever imagine. I had been surprised many times during the memories of 2015, not only with my father and the Kouyama family, but with Yui herself as well... and she was proving to be a more and more different person than the label I had put on her in my memory.
Answering Rena, she says, raising her shoulders:
"Takeda would only bring bad feelings to Ren; and he would have nothing to offer."