The worst part was that Yui was right... I would have nothing good to offer in the face of the mixture of sadness and joy that represented the end of one phase, and the beginning of a new one, for all of us.
Ren is no longer with us. The Kouyama family home, now only Mizuki-san's, returns to its former monotony, and the children begin to move away from there. Rena, Kenji and Ichise surround Yui, filling her with questions about a supposed flirtation with Ren, while the girl says nothing, ignoring them, although her face is red. And I don't move, still watching the scene from the past, looking at everything around me as if every detail of that day is precious to me.
A memory that I hadn't even experienced. But that had happened.
Ren... my heart doesn't feel relieved. I had not spoken to Ren, ever again. I wonder how he is. I had to ask my friends if they still talked to him; if I ever had the chance, I would. It is a little strange to think that they had, all this time, kept in touch with Ren, and had never even included me in their midst. Maybe that wasn't the case... right?
"Who are you trying to fool?"
I hear a female voice next to me, and the startle makes me jump back. It is a voice so intense that it causes me a sudden fear, for I would in no way expect anyone other than the reaper to speak to me here.
I look to the side, exasperated, and what I find is a silhouette of Yui, watching me. Unlike the girl I had just seen, blushing and happy to have her love reciprocated, this one does not look happy. She looks at me eagerly, with her previous clothes changed to a long white dress and shallow sandals.
"You heard me; who are you trying to fool?"
I don't know what she is talking about. I look past her back for some help from the man accompanying me, but I don't spot him, anywhere. Apparently, I am inside this memory with only Yui, a Yui who, besides seeing me, seems to be furious with me.
"You know why we didn't call you to talk to Ren," Yui continues, moving closer. I turn away from her face, startled. Besides the girl already having a naturally frowny appearance, her anger injected into her voice and the situation we are in help her presence intimidate me and cause my legs to tremble.
I feel as if I am being attacked, and I have no way to defend myself.
"Look at yourself, Takeda," she tells me, coldly, as she watches me from head to toe. "You have grown up and have only managed to become more pathetic than before."
She reaches out, and her icy fingers touch my left cheek, her nails sinking lightly into my skin.
"I would never bring you close to Ren in that state."
"What are you talking about?!", I manage to say, and my words give me a new dose of strength. I pull away from the girl, who, I don't know how, is present inside my mind.
"Are you going to run away from that too?" she questions me. She no longer walks toward me, but her expressions and intonation sound nothing but hostile. "You've never been a real friend, Takeda. And I realized that a long time ago!"
I look intently at her, listening to what she says. I had already concluded this that she was telling me while looking at my memories... but I wouldn't have imagined that Yui had come to that conclusion as well. A very different person from her shell, that is the Mikazuki Yui before my eyes, who now uncovers the truth behind Kazuta Takeda.
"Your silence was not like mine... I thought we were alike... I thought we were fellow introverts, and just that. But things proved different the day Ren's parents argued."
What is she talking about? The day that Ren's parents quarreled was the day that Rena and I had come to this house to find out about Ren's absence. what would Yui know about this day if she had not come here with us?
But then, to my surprise, the atmosphere begins to change before my eyes. The entrance to the house of the Kouyama family disappears, the street, the tire tracks of Mr. Kouyama's car, everything disappears in the blink of an eye. And the next moment I am back in Ren's room.
The boy is sitting on the floor, facing a small table with books and notebooks, facing another person: Yui. A version more similar to the one in my memories, a girl with loose black hair and the fierce eyes of a typical rebellious teenager. Quite different from the Yui who is now standing next to me, dressed as if she were an angel.
It is night this time, so it can't be the same time as before. My first desire is to question Yui and to know how on earth she is able to relive memories in my mind, but there are so many doubts in my head that it is impossible to try to formulate any question without several others arising at the same time. I look at the children studying, perplexed, while the other Angel Yui, in her dress, stands beside me, inexpressive.
The Yui from memory takes her face out of the book, placing it on the table. She looks quickly at Ren, only to see him focused on what he is reading, his eyes moving quickly over the pages, behind his glasses. As is usual of Yui, she says nothing: she takes a deep breath, looking at the bedroom window, which shows a few stars.
"Are you tired?" asks Ren. There is no joy in her voice, nor emotion. "Let's stop, it's getting late."
He stands up, picking up his books and notebooks, to arrange them again on his bookshelf. Yui looks intently at the boy, watching him from behind. Something falls from one of the bookshelves, because of Ren's movements; a folded paper, slowly descending, touches the floor beside Yui. She doesn't pick up the paper, but the contents at the top of the page are visible, with letters so large and stenciled that even I can read them:
The Kouyama Family Treasure Map
(Find it if you can!)
Yui pretends not to see. When Ren returns toward her, with his materials already stored in the bookcase, and sits down facing the girl again, he notices the paper on the floor next to her and picks it up. He is slightly surprised to read the contents of the sheet, crumpling it up and putting it in his pocket.
"It turns out we didn't get to hunt for the treasure," he comments, bowing his head.
"You crumpled it up..." says Yui, her voice hoarse.
"It's not real treasure; I buried some crap in a few places around town, that's all."
The boy tries to smile, but can't.
"Sorry I ruined the joke."
At Yui's lack of response, Ren gets to his feet once more.
"Do you intend to stay for dinner? Let's play something while we don't..."
"Did you see Takeda after that day?"
It seems that the mention of my name causes something in Ren, because he stops moving immediately, as if someone had given him that order.
"Why do you ask that?"
"He was the one who most wanted to hunt for the treasure."
"I see." Moving again, he looks at his friend now. "He came here with Rena. They came at the worst possible time."
"I know. We were waiting for you at the creek."
"After that day, I didn't get in touch with any of our friends anymore."
It is noticeable, once again, how different Ren is. In these two weeks, which separated the time when his parents argued and decided to divorce openly and the day he left for Kamakura, Ren's mood had hit rock bottom. His joy, his cheerfulness, were all being drained, and he was certainly the person suffering the most in that house, even if he had no direct relation to what had happened.
"And you don't intend to talk to any of them anymore?" She tucks her feet under her body, drastically lowering the tone of her voice, "Besides me?"
"I wouldn't be able to avoid you either," Ren replies. "Besides we're well advanced in our studies... my parents can't stand in the way of my performance, right?"
"But the others... I don't want them to know what's going on. Or rather, I don't want to be the person who tells them." Ren looks away before continuing, "I feel embarrassed by the situation we're going through at the moment."
Yui faintly states with her head, looking back down at the table.
"And as for Takeda..." Ren returns to speaking. I pay attention to my ears.
"I couldn't bear to see him," he says. "Kazuta Naoki is to blame for everything we've been through... I'll never be able to look at Takeda without thinking of his father, and what he did to us."
The two Yui remain motionless, along with me. We are all listening to Ren.
"I'm always talking to him, helping him with volleyball, with some advice too... But I feel Takeda is very distant; sometimes he doesn't even seem like a friend."
Ren's words lift me out of my daze. And I feel sad, knowing that the friend I most admired during my childhood had already noticed what I was becoming, and already had in his mind the kind of person I was. It makes me so sad that I don't even feel like remembering that I had once been his friend.
I had never deserved such a good friend.
"When he came here with Rena, it was the first and only time he... seemed to try to really approach me," Ren seems to be getting emotional as he speaks. "He promised me he would come here on Monday, and he did, but I was home alone, and I pretended there was no one here. I can't tell anymore if Takeda really likes me or is just pretending that, but either way, I don't want to see him anymore."
Yui is already on her feet, and neither Ren nor I had noticed this. She looks at the boy now, as he approaches his desk, in search of tissues to wipe away his tears.
"I understand," Yui says. "Let's play a game."
As the children continue in the room, I feel that I am moving away from them. And in an instant, I find myself again in an empty, dark space, with nothing but myself and Yui, who seems to have replaced the grim reaper inside my mind.
"Ren helped me understand what I had already realized about you," the girl says, staring into my eyes without giving it a rest. "Your silence is not a simple introversion or communication difficulty; you just don't want to say anything, do you?"
I try to look away, but it is useless: as if floating, Yui appears exactly in the direction I turn my face, forcing me to look into her eyes, dark and indecipherable.
"From our mouths, overflows what we have to offer. You just didn't want to deliver the rot in your soul."
His words sound like pins, hitting and hurting me, fulfilling their intent. The aggressiveness in his tone chokes me, making the endless dark environment seem like a small claustrophobic box in a matter of moments.
"So I'll ask you one more time. Who are you trying to fool, Takeda? Of course, it's not strange that we excluded you from the conversation when the subject was Ren."
"You would only hurt him."
In the same nonchalant way Yui had spoken of me to the children when they questioned my absence at Ren's farewell, she says these words. I have no way to retort, there is nothing I can say in my defense; she is right.
And the fact that she is right makes me hate myself that much more.
"I told everyone the day Mr. Kouyama and Ren were leaving," she continues, following my movements like a mirror, keeping me facing her. "He told us to meet at the door of their house at eight o'clock; we agreed to give him some chocolates, and I was in charge of buying them.
She makes a point of speaking slowly as she concludes her reasoning:
"And at no time did I cogitate your presence."
In front of the Yui of my mind, who I don't even understand how she came to exist, I have nothing to say: she is right in all her conclusions. Even if I loved Ren and wanted him around, my feeling was not something healthy for the boy...it was only for my own benefit. And my impatience, my anger at seeing that Ren was not the perfect boy I had always idealized, showed how I didn't see Ren as a child, as someone just like me, but as something that could bring me closer to my goals, and say things I would like to hear.
Exactly what I would do with Hina, years later.
"I understand, Yui," I manage to say, as the girl watches me, perhaps looking for some sign of weakness in my face. "You're absolutely right. I have always been destructive, that is true."
She states, quietly. I feel my feet tingle with my nervousness.
"But you are wrong about one thing."
"Am I? And what is it?"
Mikazuki Yui is a very intelligent person. I had not paid attention to her during my life and our time together, but I certainly will if I can someday. Yui had always been the quiet girl in class, the one who doesn't stand out, the one who no one knows but her shell. And I was content with that; like Kenji and Ichise, she was part of my childhood, and we exchanged conversations whenever we could, even when we went to different classes at school.
She had paid much more attention to me than I had paid to her, all this time... Not that it was difficult. Even Ren and Hina, who were the most remarkable people in certain periods of my life, I hadn't paid enough attention to. And in front of these two chatterboxes, Yui was nowhere near as charismatic, or as fun, or as lively.
And yet here I was, realizing what a much more useful person she had been to my friends' problems than I had ever been. That's why she has so much property to point to my mistakes and rub them all in my face; to say that I've been a terrible friend; to claim that I've been untrue.
But I am not here for nothing, Yui.
Like in a relay race, I feel I have several chances to tell myself that I have a chance. Even if the first Kazuta Takeda of the team performed badly, the weight is no longer on their backs; the baton has been passed. And now, it is with a new runner, a new me, and I have one more chance to do differently this time. To take advantage of the space that I have.
And maybe even make up for lost time.
"I'm not pathetic like I used to be. I'm a better person now."
What I say seems to surprise the girl who stares at me. If she was looking for reasons to belittle me, I imagine she didn't get them. She stands for a few seconds without saying anything. Then, lowering her head, she gives in:
"All right. If that's what you have to say."
And she says nothing more. She is not touching the same ground as me. Not like there is any ground under me, there is just impalpable darkness... But she's not on the same level as me; she seems to be floating, an angel, or maybe a ghost. And her clothes, white and clear, suddenly become fluttery, as if there is a wind coming up, from somewhere and at the same time from nowhere.
And it seems that there is, in fact, a wind rising. An atmosphere seems to arise, like an oasis in the middle of the desert. While things seem to slowly take shape, like the sky, trees and grass, my companion's body becomes more transparent, reinforcing its ghostly and unreal impression. I feel something hard in my hands, and notice that there are now cobblestones underneath them.
And Yui is gone.
Much like a slide show, it was as if I had gone from plane one to plane two, and the scene in the second plane required many transition changes. I look around my surroundings, and there are very few people around, walking up and down long ramps that create spaces between the things that fill the environment I am in.
I see a woman with a black shawl and funeral clothes, and I recognize her immediately: this is Kouyama Mizuki. And I understand exactly where I am.
In the city cemetery.