Chapter 23:

Shells and Bodies VIII (Final)

Backward Steps


That attitude, of facing the rain without protection, did not seem unintentional.Bookmark here

The former Mrs. Kouyama was no longer a stranger in my eyes, I knew her better now. And, watching her get wet, which will probably bring on a cold or worse, I am sure that she doesn't do this just because she "forgot her umbrella". She is not that kind of woman, is she?Bookmark here

Maybe she is just trying to prove something to herself... when I am under the rain, I feel a strange sense of freedom, since my mother did not allow me to get wet for a long time, and I had grown up with a certain "fear" of her. This is probably not the case with her, anyway.Bookmark here

But I think I understand this a little. There are things that we like to do, that we actually know are not good for us, right? Fatty foods that we like to eat, bad health habits that we create over time... I think all people end up clinging to harmful things at some point. And doing these things, even if we are aware that they are not the best options, requires something beyond our instinct. Beyond what we are biologically programmed to do.Bookmark here

Getting out of the curve requires a dose of strength.Bookmark here

And I am sure that this was what this woman needed most in her life. It must not have been easy, bearing all the consequences of her actions, I am sure. I can imagine the hundreds, thousands of biased looks and mean comments that have been directed at this woman in the three years that have passed since the fateful day of separation... I can imagine the weight of such sin... and I can imagine if she regretted what she did.Bookmark here

No, I know she repented.Bookmark here

As I watch her walk down the entire length of the cemetery again, careful not to slip on the damp earth beneath her feet, which mixes with stones and creates a kind of shapeless mud, I can see that she has become an even more bitter person than she was when she felt trapped in her marriage. With many more bad things to deal with, she has many past hurts that can never be resolved, and my father's grave is there to reinforce this.Bookmark here

However, even though the weight of her past has pressed her against the ground and suffocated her for so long, her resilience is noticeable. Her wet hair and clothes stuck to her body, soaked with water, prove the significance of this; it is a clear challenge to herself, a way of observing what is bad for her, and showing that it does not really affect her. After all, what is a cold before an ideal?Bookmark here

Mizuki is a strong woman. And the way she defies her own self reflects the will to fight of her spirit. As much as I cannot look at her face without feeling anger at her attitudes, I respect her for her determination. And I admire that about her.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

As Mizuki walks away, the sound of the rain intensifies. It shouldn't be getting any louder, but I am hearing it better because that sound is my only company right now. I am, once again, alone.Bookmark here

It is no longer as if I am so afraid of being alone, however. Since Hina, I have learned the value of silence a little better. And, even though I have never enjoyed such a benefit, I am having the opportunity to learn how it works by watching my mother, Yui, Ren...Bookmark here

And my father.Bookmark here

Before me lies his grave. The end. The man who, a few moments ago, was climbing a hill with me, telling stories of his life, fighting with a woman, bleeding on the ground... is now dead. In the face of the power of time, our memories are such short and irrelevant things that, when we think about it, it is inevitable to come to the conclusion that we are insignificant beings in the face of the immensity that surrounds us... Bookmark here

Life is something extremely short, after all. But we don't think about it most of the time. At least, that's how I am, and I imagine everyone else is too. What separates life from death is something so tenuous and imperceptible that many times we idealize great things for our future, without the slightest knowledge that these things can all be interrupted during any given day of the immense Tomorrow that awaits each one of us. I had never stopped to face life as it really is, and so I was not afraid to tell the Grim Reaper that "I would rather die" than do what he asked me to do.Bookmark here

But looking at my father's grave, I feel that I was never really ready to receive what I was asking for.Bookmark here

What would become of me if he was no longer alive? From the moment I first looked at the Grim Reaper's face, I already knew that I was not in the real world. And remembering my condition... it is impossible to say if I will ever have another chance to live, right? I may have already reached the end of my time on earth, and I have nothing to be proud of with that...Bookmark here

I am full of regrets.Bookmark here

Two flashes of lightning then descend, clearing the room like a camera flash. The wind intensifies, and the trees sway heavily in the street behind the cemetery. I feel the icy drops on my head, indicating that my mind has stopped paying attention to my condition, and the memory is becoming more vivid; but I no longer intend to ignore this; I want to feel the force of the water on my head, I want to feel that I am alive, at least a little? Like Mizuki, I don't want to feel suffocated with the weight of my own past...Bookmark here

I need to be strong like her, and I want to face my regrets head on. Like she did.Bookmark here

The water makes me feel colder. I'm not thinking of repelling it, so it comes, with all its strength, and soaks my whole body. Even the inside of my shoes makes me feel wet, and it becomes hard to see. But that is exactly what I want; I want to be a part of it. I want to be inside this memory, inside this moment, and I want to be heard.Bookmark here

"FATHER," I bellow, as the bouquet of flowers delivered by Ren's mother sways violently beside the marble. "I didn't come on the day of your funeral either, but I'm here!"Bookmark here

"I'm here today! I shouldn't have run away from home the day they waved you off... I'm sorry!"Bookmark here

As I scream, all that comes to mind are moments I had with my father, moments I didn't even remember existed... Had I been such an understanding son before I decided to hate him? Our trip to the traveling park that was around town, the day we went to the zoo in Ueno, the week we spent in a beach house with Mom... and the day he apologized to Ren and me. They had not been empty apologies after all... and that made me happy. This fills me with a happiness that is inexplicable.Bookmark here

Inexplicable because everyone knew my father's character. A man who ran away from his responsibilities, who didn't want to take anything seriously. And, because of this, it was not difficult to believe that he had been the monster that had seduced Mizuki and destroyed the Kouyama family...Bookmark here

He died carrying a guilt that was not his, and he never, at any time, tried to justify himself for everything. Because he knew it would be in vain? Maybe. But I imagine that he never tried to clarify things because he knew that that was what was expected of him, after all. The way he lived, people would never listen to him, point the finger and judge the man for the other things he did, without hearing what he had to say. And if everyone expects you to do something, what's the point in trying to do it differently? My father probably believed that. And that's why he carried this guilt to his grave.Bookmark here

But I know the truth, Dad. I know everything that happened, and I know how it happened. And I know that you were a much better man than we all thought, that's for sure. You certainly didn't get a chance to try to show your values, how you hated the idea of being used, how you felt sad that you were the pawn in Mrs. Mizuki's game... and even I didn't give you that chance. I denied you the chance to show how you were feeling, and what you wanted to say... and you died, sick, abandoned, and perhaps, sad.Bookmark here

And today, I regret it.Bookmark here

"I see no point in blaming you for what happened anymore," I say, lower now, even though the rain is still powerful and covering other sounds around me. "I really wish I had had the chance to talk to you, Dad. And I accept your apology; I forgive you."Bookmark here

It was hard to see the value of those words for me, but I can now understand what they mean. Just like the strength of the people I have followed in my memories, directed at so many people and motivations, I needed to be strong for this moment as well. Forgiving a person is not an easy thing... for, forgiving is not about just accepting apologies, or learning to endure, but...Bookmark here

...it is about accepting the pain caused by other people.Bookmark here

And this requires a lot of strength. Feeling hurt, and accepting it, is extremely difficult, especially for me. It always has been. I think, after all, that my ability to apologize to my father came about just by my attitudes, not just by accepting his attitudes. Putting my mistakes and his in the balance, I feel that we are on equal footing. For the first time, I don't see him as the uncritical, unreachable man I saw before. We are alike; we are flawed.Bookmark here

And just as I too would like to be forgiven by the people I once hurt, I too feel that need to forgive my father.Bookmark here

And suddenly I am no longer in front of his grave; things seem to spin, my consciousness seems to waver for a brief moment, and I lose my sense of space, feeling the ground above me strongly without warning. Dizzy, I look up: I see a sky with stars before me, which remind me of the day in the square with Hina, and I have a sense of where I am.Bookmark here

I am back at the beginning stage.Bookmark here

"You were in the real world? You're soaked."Bookmark here

I force my arms to stand up, and manage to prop myself up on my knees partially. The sound of the voice beside me is comforting: with his clothes intact, the reaper looks down, sounding amused. He makes me feel back home...and perhaps that is exactly what this once inhospitable environment means; it is my mind, it is me.Bookmark here

And it is becoming something different.Bookmark here

"You're... gone," I say, my voice faltering a bit from the sudden change in environment. The man no longer looks in my direction, staring at the sky in the distance, and seems to have no intention of helping me to my feet.Bookmark here

"It's not very easy to forgive wrong people, is it? I remember the moment when we first saw you and your friends, buying snacks, and I remember your reaction to looking at your father as well."Bookmark here

"Yeah..." Perhaps he is trying to underscore the things I said earlier, with a blind, ignorant certainty that he was being biased and that my father was an intractable monster. "I... um..."Bookmark here

The man respects my time, remaining in an eerie silence. It's hard to accept our own mistakes, but... say them, is even worse.
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"I'm sorry for the things I said to you."Bookmark here

"Oh, you don't have to apologize." His hand, covered by a white glove, rises, trailing close to my hand, helping me to stand even though I still feel dizzy. "As I told you before, I'm here for just that."Bookmark here

I can't help but smile. Feeling this elderly man's hand against mine, I have a strong feeling growing in my chest. I have no idea who he is, anyway, and I don't know what he really intends to do... whether he will take me with him to the end, whether he will save me or kill me... these are all mysteries. But even with all these uncertainties, he has helped me. He has shown me the other side of things, things that happened in my life, but that I did not have the opportunity to experience?Bookmark here

Or that I did, but let the things I learned get lost inside my ego.Bookmark here

This Grim Reaper, however mysterious and filling me with an icy fear that makes me insecure, reaches out his hand to me, and does not let me fall. I feel small before him, for he knows what to do; he is a friend, one like Ren, whom I always missed after he was gone from my life.Bookmark here

"I am flattered by what you are thinking about me," he says. When I manage to stabilize my feet, he releases my hand. "I wish I could support you better, but you are totally soaked, and quite chilly."Bookmark here

It seems that the water I have allowed to touch me is not going to come off that easily. It drips from my clothes as if I had really been in 2018, on that rainy day.Bookmark here

"I see." Even if it bothers me a little, I don't feel the slightest urge to do anything about it. That's proof of everything I've been through. "I guess I needed that."Bookmark here

"Oh, yes, you did," the man replies, pleased. "I'm proud of you, Kazuta. Know that."Bookmark here

Thank you very much, I feel like saying, but there is no need to. Besides being able to hear my thoughts, I imagine that this man knows that I am very grateful to him, once again. As a friend, as a father, he knows how much more I owe him than I can ever repay.Bookmark here

But there are still things I would like to know.Bookmark here

"We agreed that you would be more honest with me from now on," I say. As much as we made an agreement, I feel like I'm going beyond my own rights, even if I'm not actually, which makes my head turn to the void beneath my feet involuntarily.Bookmark here

"Yes, we agreed on that."Bookmark here

"And..."Bookmark here

"Yes?"Bookmark here

"Where have you been? This wasn't the first time you suddenly disappeared... the moment I watched Hina and my self in the square, and this last one... why do you disappear?"Bookmark here

The man starts walking through the empty space, without taking his eyes off the sky. Looking at it more closely, I see that it no longer has as many stars as before.Bookmark here

"I figured you would ask that at some point..." His tone, usually quite serious, has now been switched to the tone of amusement again, and it's amazing how this tone now manages to match his profile quite well, unlike the other times. "I don't follow some sort of rule about that."Bookmark here

"What do you mean?"Bookmark here

"Ah... the first time, in Hina's recollection, I just didn't want to be on her side anyway. And that last one... I was busy."Bookmark here

"Busy..."Bookmark here

"Yes."Bookmark here

He takes off his top hat, revealing his gray, thinning hair over his head, revealing a bit of baldness on top of his scalp. And, to my surprise, he starts swinging the top hat in his hands.Bookmark here

And it, before my eyes, turns into a big round hat, which is the color of wheat, handmade for summer vacations. Identical to the hat Yui was wearing when she spoke to me inside an empty space.Bookmark here

Before I can conclude anything, the traditional reaper's hat is already back on. He smiles as he looks at his own top hat, and puts it back on his head.Bookmark here

"Sometimes it's interesting that we give people opportunities to justify themselves, don't you think?" he asks me, sounding mischievous. And I have no words to answer him. "I'm sure you miss your friends, Kazuta."Bookmark here

Rena... Kenji... Ichise... Yui... those were my real friends. The ones who gave me the best moments, the best memories... perhaps the greatest purpose of all this remembrance was to make me rethink about those people who made up my childhood and adolescence. Remembering the sight of them saying goodbye to Ren generates a genuine feeling, a kind of longing for something never experienced; that was my place. And I shouldn't have left it.Bookmark here

Perhaps, it was all for the sake of nostalgia after all.Bookmark here

"Of course I feel it. I should have... made better use of things."Bookmark here

"Don't blame yourself, the past exists as a reference, not a burden. Remember the old things so you can get the coming ones right."Bookmark here

I affirm with my head. He is absolutely right.Bookmark here

"I hope you are not feeling tired yet; our trip is not finished yet, is it?"Bookmark here

Before I can question him about what he means, I feel something change in the atmosphere. I was no longer paying attention to the sky, but looking at it more closely, I see that it no longer has the dark color it had before. It seems lighter, and I don't know what this means until the moment he appears.Bookmark here

Without warning, a strong light source immediately makes my eyes dart away, fleeing from the heat that threatens to burn my retinas. The environment is no longer dark around me, as an insistent orange glow takes over the surroundings, so abnormally fast that it becomes difficult to get used to the sudden change in atmosphere.Bookmark here

I keep my eyes closed for a while, until I slowly open them. Still beside me, the Reaper watches the sky intently, and his eyes don't even blink; he seems fascinated. The sun, imposing, powerful, takes over the whole place, even so far away, and makes the whole environment vivid, even if it has nothing but a sky.Bookmark here

A beautiful sky.Bookmark here

"It will not be the end until this ambiance is complete."Bookmark here


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Shells and BodiesBookmark here

- The EndBookmark here

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