(WARNING: COMPLETE SPOILERS FOR CHAOS;CHILD)
Chapter 1: Yamazoe Uki
If someone asked her what she had gained from the last few years, Yamazoe Uki wouldn’t be able to find the words to reply to them. That still holds even now, after she has had some time to calm down and think things over rationally. It was undeniable that she was confined there before, and so in the eyes of the public, she must have led a terrible life in inhumane conditions.
However, Uki had never felt that way before. In that small room underneath the hospital, all she had done was look after the patients who were victims of the experiments. Her everyday life was the same, repeated over and over in that closed-off place. To Uki at that time, that was her everything.
This is the place I belong, she had thought.
There was one patient in particular who left a deep impression on her.
She was an old lady. Uki did not know her exact age, but it wouldn’t be surprising if she had a few grandchildren. She was an elegant lady with beautiful black hair which extended to her bosom. Her hair was her very pride and she would re-dye it in the same shade of black every week. She also could not tolerate any split-ends, and Uki had to help her cut off any split-ends at any time of the day as they were not permitted to hold any sharp objects.
“Want to go to the zoo?”
That was her favorite saying, or rather, that was all she said. Be it when she wanted to dye her hair, cut off a split-end, when she was hungry, when she needed the toilet, or when she still did not want to sleep, that sentence would be all she said. Whenever Uki could not understand what she meant, she would bite the back of her right hand till it bled to indicate her displeasure.
Similar to the rest of the patients kept underground, she became mentally unstable as a result of the experiments. In order to better communicate with her, Uki asked the lone researcher in charge of the underground laboratory about her. She wanted to know what significance the zoo held to her. The researcher was reluctant to share about it with Uki initially, but they were probably concerned if the frequency and severity of her self-injury escalated or something, and eventually told her that the patient apparently went to a zoo in Ueno quite frequently before she was admitted here.
“Let’s go to the zoo in Ueno someday, okay?”
Uki said that to her, even though she did not know when that someday would be. Yet she did not react, but only repeated the words, “Want to go to the zoo?” Uki thought for a while and continued.
“Did you go there with your grandchildren before?”
This time, she reacted. She extended a hand and touched Uki’s soft cheek. Their eyes met. The gaze in her eyes were clearly different than before. Uki unconsciously clasped her hands over hers.
“…I’m sorry, but I am not your grandchild.”
Unthinkingly, she replied as such. Uki looked straight back at her eyes and told her the truth. She had a feeling that she should not lie. Right after that, her hands were shook off. And then, the lady bit the back of her hand and kept repeating the sentence, “Want to, go to the zoo…?” She was biting much harder than usual, and her teeth began to sink into the flesh. Uki had no option but to stop her hastily with all her strength.
The lady died two weeks later. The researcher matter-of-factly mentioned that they had miscalculated the dosage of a drug, speaking in a tone as if they had just broken a cup.
Uki wished to see her body. She wanted to dye her hair one last time on account of the lady who had not allowed a single strand of white hair when she was alive. However, she was denied that. Her body had been disposed of already. They told her not to think of anything unnecessary.
Uki found a single strand of her long hair by the pillow of her now-empty bed. The artificial black color had caught her eye. For a while, Uki deliberated over whether to throw it into the dustbin or to flush it down the toilet. She was thinking about which method would bring it closer to where her body was. The next day, the strand of hair was nowhere to be found anymore, probably blown away by the wind or something. In any case, what she was thinking had been pointless, she thought.
Ever since then, Uki stopped asking the researcher about the patients. She did not think that the lady’s death was due to her. However, she felt that something might have changed when the lady had mistaken her as her grandchild, and that thought stuck to Uki in an instant.
Just what had she felt when she was there in the underground facility? Was what she was doing in that perfectly closed-off world called living? If it was, that must have been the method which Uki was using to protect herself. That must have been what she wanted for herself and she was surely happy that way.
And so, she might have also been the one who had opened a crack in that world, Uki thought.
Uki awoke in the middle of the night at some sound she thought she heard.
She put her hand to her face and found something moist. It appeared that she had cried. That had always happened whenever she had a dream about the past. She breathed out deeply and wiped her face.
In the darkness of her room, she could see a faint light peeking through the door from the corridor. So it happened again, she thought and got up from the bed. The coldness of the room enveloped her instantly. She slipped on her favorite pair of slippers which had a cat’s face on it and soundlessly left the room.
“Oh, did I wake you up?”
When she came down to the second floor, she found Senri in the kitchen as expected. Uki replied with an ambiguous “Mm-mm” and tried to help out with the preparations, but instead was told, “It must be cold, quickly put on the dotera. Just wait there,” and was directed to the kotatsu in the living room.
Uki put on the short winter coat draped over the chair and sat down in the space between the sofa and its original spot. Her highly-efficient big sister had already turned on the switch, and it was warm under the kotatsu.
The roasted tea prepared by Senri was as delicious as always. When Uki realized she could never beat her sister at cooking, she had focused all her attention on preparing tea instead, but it still felt like she could never close the gap between them.
“Is Yuu all right?”
Senri replied to Uki’s question with a gentle smile.
Yuuto, their little brother, suffered from scotophobia. It was a common occurrence for Senri to go to him in order to be by his side whenever he woke up in the middle of the night for some reason until he fell back to sleep. And even after he fell asleep, she would not return to her room, but stay around in the living room for around an hour.
Uki never confirmed it directly with Senri, but it was obviously for Yuuto’s sake. She was worried whether or not he was actually in a deep slumber. As evidence of that, she would keep the lights in the corridor on, even though she was usually fiercely strict about leaving the television running when nobody was watching.
And recently, Uki would also come out of her room and keep her company like this whenever she woke up.
“Oh, right. This is for you.”
Senri took out a book from the homemade cupboard and passed it to Uki. It was a thick workbook for those aiming to go to nursing school. Senri had been reading it over the last few days.
“Are you done using it already?”
“Yup, I only bought it from the second-hand bookstore to use for revision in the first place. However, because of that, there’s some pencil marks.”
Uki flipped through the workbook and found markings next to all of the questions. It was probably done to differentiate between the solved and unsolved questions. She gave the questions a try by glazing over some of them, but she could not understand any of it at all.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to solve it when you enter high school.”
Senri gave a wry smile when she saw Uki fretting over the questions.
“Yup, since most of the nursing school basically uses the same high school level arithmetic. And also some biology and chemistry, I guess?”
“Do you need to be able to write short theses too?”
When Senri nodded repeatedly at her question with a delightful smile somehow, Uki felt even more depressed. She was also aiming to become a nurse just like her sister, but felt herself getting demoralized when she saw Senri. She could not imagine herself being able to someday solve this thick question bank when it was currently all an incomprehensible jumble to her.
“If you had been able to solve all this so easily already, it would’ve been a blow to my self-confidence instead, you know. Now, now, you’ll form wrinkles if you keep furrowing your brows like that.”
Senri gently poked her forehead. Then, she took out a different workbook and reference book and started studying like she always did.
As she had already finished her homework, Uki took out the letter set from a different shelf of the cupboard and began writing a letter to Takuru.
She wrote about the uneventful recent happenings.
Uki was anxious the first time she wrote a letter when she heard that it would be inspected, but now she was completely used to it. Senri had told her to ‘just write naturally, as if you were writing a diary,’ while her own pen ran across the letter smoothly. She knew the letter included things which should not be written. But, the only ones who understood them were her family and their friends who knew the truth.
That also included her brother, who just sent them a reply a few days back.
“…I’m glad that he seems to be fine.”
Uki nodded in reply to Senri’s mutters. She knew that she was talking about their brother.
“Did you write about our new okota?” Senri asked without looking up.
Without stopping what they were doing, Uki and Senri would chat about whatever came to their minds from time to time.
Uki liked when they just talked like this, be it about their brother or about their family and friends. Despite having just woken up, she strangely did not feel sleepy, but instead felt the same comfort like the moment when one fell asleep.
She glanced at her sister without any particular reason.
Her hair was let down from the usual twin-tail. Uki could clearly see her face which was usually hidden behind her bangs. There were times when she thought her sister looked beautiful, and also times when she was cute. According to Hinae, their friend, ‘That look is so unfair. To someone younger, it’d probably looked to them like a reliable older sister, and to someone older, it’d look like a younger sister meant to be protected. Either way, it’s just bewitching. That’s totally cheating.’ Uki couldn’t help but agree.
However, Uki thought that she could never hope to match Senri’s strength.
When the three of them had finished their rehabilitation from the effects of the Chaos Child Syndrome and returned to Aoba dorm three months ago, Yuuto suffered a seizure in the middle of the night. He had tried to tolerate his heart palpitations and hyperventilation by himself, but was discovered by Senri and Uki when he fell off the bed. They then stayed by his side until his symptoms subsided. When Senri asked him why he tried to bear with it by himself, he said this with a look as if he was desperately choking something back: ‘I was thinking that I cannot continue on like this.’
Senri told him off severely for that. She had been so loud that Uki unconsciously shrank back. Then, she chided softly, ‘Who do you think we are,’ and embraced him tightly. She cut him off when he tried to say, ‘but…
Since then, Yuuto would call for Senri himself whenever he noticed an attack before it could worsen.
However, he had never called for Uki. And she knew the reason why.
Uki did not know the specifics behind his scotophobia. She only heard that he was trapped in a dark space for a long period of time during the Shibuya earthquake seven years ago. What was it that triggered his phobia, where and how long he had been trapped and how was he rescued, Uki had no idea.
But, Senri knew about that. There was also the consideration that it would be less embarrassing for him to look to the more senior Senri, rather than Uki who was only two years older than him. Other factors included the amount of the time they spent together as siblings as well as several others.
But in the end, it all came down to her not being as strong as her sister, Uki thought.
Because she did not have the courage to ask him to share with her the reason why he was afraid of the dark. The thought of being rejected by him consumed her mind. What’s more, she feared to bring up his old unhealed mental wounds when he was now trying his best to overcome them.
Just like that time when she overstepped her boundaries.
Uki recalled the artificial blackness of that hair.
“What’s the matter?”
“You seemed to be in a daze just now. Is it still cold under the okota?”
Uki flailed her hands to indicate nothing was wrong to Senri who was staring at her.
Senri was sitting at the side of the kotatsu that was facing the kitchen. In the process of her walking to and from the kitchen during meal preparations, that spot naturally became hers.
Senri was her most beloved sister who supported the house and the family with that unshakable strength.
Senri stopped writing and pressed Uki to speak on. Uki paused for a while before speaking out.
“There’s always something I couldn’t say, but.”
“…What is it?”
Senri looked just a bit nervous as she faced Uki.
“…Big Sis, aren’t the words you use sometimes, a bit old-fashioned?”
“By the okota, you mean the kotatsu, right?”
“That’s right. Huh, people don’t usually say that?”
Senri became slightly flustered and started fanning herself with the futon of the kotatsu for some reason. That wasn’t the first time Uki heard the word okota, but she had never heard anyone around her say that at least.
“And also, you always called this dotera.”
“Eh, you don’t call it that? …Ah, is it a w-wataire? No wait, that’s call a chanchanko, right?”
Uuu, Senri groaned.
“Also, you sometimes refer to the hangers as emonkake too.”
“T-that I admit sounds a little old-fashioned. But, that’s only because old lady Takahashi who taught me how to sew always called them that…”
Senri’s face flushed slightly as she tried to use one of their neighbors as an excuse. She must have received more of a shock than expected as she placed her forehead to the kotatsu and mumbled, “…I wonder if the people at school also feel that way.”
“I think it’s only at home though.”
At Uki’s bitter smile, Senri only groaned with a Uuu. There was also that about her choice of words, but Senri certainly acted like a mother worn out from work when she was at home.
“Somehow, I feel like I might have also written it as okota in the letter.”
“I-I’m sure it’s no big deal…?”
Without them even realizing, they seem to have spent quite a long time in the living room like this. A full two hours had passed since Uki came down.
Before long, Senri said, “…I think it’s about time we go to sleep too.”
Uki nodded with a “Mn”. Yuuto seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep. Senri finished the rest of her tea in one go and got up.
“Now, don’t forget the appointment at 9 in the morning, okay. Sorry for doing this on a weekend morning like this, but make sure you get up early to get dressed.”
Uki inadvertently let out an “Ah”. She had cleanly forgotten about that despite setting her alarm clock.
“…Is that why Yuu…?”
“He seemed to be pretty nervous, but he should be fine now.” Senri replied with a smile.
As Uki followed her to the third floor, she wondered why she didn’t think of that. That might have been the reason why her sister spent a longer time in the living room than usual.
As Uki watched Senri close the door and wished her a good night, she thought that her sister looked a lot more dependable than usual.
“Nice to meet you. I am Komori Ayumi, your new caretaker. I look forward to living together.”
She was a woman in her late twenties dressed in a grey suit, with shoulder-length hair that very much suited her amiable looks. Her height was around that of Senri’s, and even though she was slender, she gave off a firm impression like that of an athlete.
“Please take care of us.”
Both Uki and Yuuto matched Senri as she bowed and replied to her.
The Aoba dormitory which Uki and the others lived in was a kind of orphanage known as a small-scale regional children’s home. The objectives of such homes were to provide a place of self-reliant living, shelter and care for the children who had lost their families or were being mistreated or abused by their family. It was different from the so-called group home orphanages which held more than ten children, and only accommodated a maximum of six members at most. Most of them operated in a family apartment, as did Aoba dorm which was housed in a three-storey detached house.
As a general rule, there was always supposed to be a caretaker assigned to the home permanently, but no such caretaker was officially assigned to Aoba dorm in the three months since Uki and the others resumed living there. In contrast, caretakers and dietitians, and on some days even doctors or police officers would take turns to visit them in order to observe, provide check-ups or question them regarding the case, before they returned for the day. Even Uki, who was not well-informed regarding the system and laws regarding orphanages, knew that the adults were in a bind over what to do with them.
“I believe you have heard of this earlier, but I will be the only one stationed here for good. Actually, there were supposed to be some other night-watchers… that is, caretakers who will be around at night, and there should always be two or three of us around, but.”
They were seated in the kitchen as Komori was explaining things to them.
“It’s all right, we are quite used to it already.”
“Yes, I’ve heard. You are Minamisawa Senri?”
Senri nodded with a “Yes.”
“So, you are everybody’s big sister. I’ll be relying on you for many things to come, so please take care of me.”
“Yes, please do the same.”
“And, you are Yamazoe Uki?”
“Yes, please take care of me,” Uki lowered her head politely.
“Same here. Then, Tachibana Yuuto?”
“…Yes. Please take care of me.”
Yuuto bowed his head nervously, his voice wavering a little. Perhaps she sensed it too, as Komori replied, “Same here,” with a slightly troubled smile.
“Moving on, I’m sure this was also mentioned already, but I cannot be present here physically all the time. Of course, I’ll still come over daily, but it’ll mostly be for breakfast in the morning and dinner at night.”
Just then, Uki could hear Yuuto heave a sigh softly. They had indeed heard about that beforehand, but it must have been a relief to hear it directly.
Internally, Uki felt the same.
“What time do you guys usually have breakfast around here?”
“It’s right after 7am. As for dinner, we don’t have a fixed timing, but it’s usually after 7pm.” Senri answered.
“Are you the one who makes it, Minamisawa?”
“No, the three of us have been preparing it together lately.”
When Senri said that with a beaming smile, Uki and Yuuto could only smile bitterly. While it was true that the three of them prepared meals together, the cooking was mainly done by Senri alone. Uki and Yuuto only helped out with the basics.
“Then, can I trouble you to keep that up?”
Komori lowered her head all of a sudden, putting her hands together.
“Sorry, but to tell you the truth, I suck at cooking… Oh, but I’ll be helping out, of course.”
Uki and the rest were dumbfounded for a moment, and then looked around at each other with smiles.
“It’s all right, we are also quite used to it already.” Senri repeated.
“Oh, but you don’t have to worry about food expenses or pocket money, okay? We may have left you guys hanging around here for some time, but now that I have taken over as the interim head of the home, just leave everything to me.”
“Right, about that.”
Senri interrupted her and placed a thick stack of paper on the table. Rows of numbers and headings lined the papers held together by a large binder clip.
When Komori looked over at her in question, Senri answered, “This is the household account records.”
“Household account records…?”
Komori took the stack and flipped through it dubiously. Following so, her expression turned into one of surprise.
“…Did you do all these alone, Minamisawa?”
“Yes. This is only one portion of the complete records, however. As you can see, our household is currently living off of our father’s savings, who has gone missing. The treatment fees for our illness and school fees have been exempted since we entered Hekihou Academy, so there’s no problems regarding that. However, everything else basically comes from the savings. I am aware that there has been a fund established for former patients of the syndrome, but we have yet to apply for them as the paperwork and finance for them have not been set in stone.”
“…That is correct.”
“Fortunately, we do not need to pay rent as this is our own house and Dad had considerable savings, but I don’t believe we have been living an exuberant lifestyle. Furthermore, I plan to go to nursing school under a scholarship and work part-time at that. According to the law, juveniles above the age of 20 must leave the home, but I heard that there has been strong demand recently to make an exception for former patients of the syndrome. Even if an exception was not made, I have confirmed that it is possible to make a donation to the home of your choosing.”
Komori looked taken aback as she nodded with, “I-is that so.”
“Uki and Yuuto both have their own aspirations as well, and I hope that they would be able to get into the school of their choice with scholarships. Certainly, the future may be unpredictable, but I have already calculated the necessary household expenditure for the next few years at least, even if our only source of income comes from me working. As such, barring any exceptional circumstances, we should be fine financially even without an additional breadwinner.”
Komori became silent upon hearing her explanation, and read over the household account records for a while. When she finished reading it, she covered her face with both hands as if trying to hide from something.
“…Minamisawa. You’re only nineteen, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You’re only nineteen and you can already do all this.”
Komori took a deep breath and continued.
“…I understand. I can’t make an immediate decision right now, but you can take it that I fully comprehend what it is that you wish. Everywhere is the same in that money is tight.”
Senri nodded with a ‘Yes,’ and Komori looked at Uki and Yuuto through her fingers.
“You guys sure have an amazing big sister.”
The two of them grinned reflexively and Komori smiled back. She then placed the stack of papers into her handbag and slowly stood up.
“…Now then. Today’s just a small greeting. Oh, yes, do you mind showing me around everybody’s rooms?”
The three of them showed Komori around Aoba dorm from the first floor to the third along with some basic explanation. She was particularly impressed with how immaticulate the place was. Perhaps she had a particular fixation, as she kept nodding her head while saying, “A clean toilet is proof of a proper home.”
Then, after she was satisfied with being shown around the house, she left with a, “Till tomorrow then,” and walked off with large strides unbefitting her height.
A weird silence hung around the three of them at the entranceway as they saw her off. Yuuto glanced in turn at his sisters as if to gauge their expressions.
“She sure was a cheerful person,” he then said.
When they heard that, Uki and Senri seemed to smile in relief.
Just as they thought, Komori was a lively and proactive caretaker.
She would come at 6.30 am when Uki and the rest were preparing breakfast, and eat together with them before sending them to school. After school, she would pick them up and they would have dinner together before she returned. As she had declared, she was not good at cooking, but perhaps to defend her dignity as a caretaker, she bought a cookbook on the first day as an impetus to practise her cooking.
Occasionally, she would chat with the three of them at Aoba dorm until after 10pm when Yuuto started to get sleepy. She soon got used to calling them by their first names, and would share stories about her time as a student, including her romances and embarrassing episodes, livening up the entire place. She also alleged, “If it’s up to middle school level, I can probably solve them,” and offered to serve as Uki and Yuuto’s tutor, but was stumped by Uki’s homework and they whined to Senri together for help.
The time she remained after dinner increased day by day. When Uki asked her, “Is it all right for you to stay so late all the time?” She had replied with a smile, “That’s just what all the caretakers are supposed to do.”
During the day while Uki and the rest were in school, Komori single-handedly took over the household chores which the three had previously split up to do such as cleaning the place and washing the clothes. At first, Uki rejected her offer, but was half-forced to accept when she said, “If you don’t let me do this, I’ll really be coming over just to eat.” Uki felt somewhat out of place at having her usual job taken away, but since this not only reduced her workload but also Senri and Yuuto’s, she accepted her help thankfully.
It happened around ten days after Komori started coming over to Aoba dorm.
It was in the evening, when Uki and Yuuto went to the supermarket together with Komori to shop for groceries after coming home early. Just when they successfully procured the eggs and milk which were on discount and were glaring at the memo which Senri passed them beforehand, Komori noticed several housewives staring at them from a distance.
Thinking it was the same as always, Uki and Yuuto ignored them. They tried not to meet their glances and to leave as though they did not notice them.
“What’s with them?”
However, Komori would not budge. She clasped Uki’s hand and asked her in a low voice. She must have felt something was amiss, as her tone was severe.
“It’s always like that.”
Uki whispered softly so as not to let the housewives hear.
Being stared at in curiosity by the passers-by were an everyday occurence to Uki and the others. For those of them who suffered from the bizarre Chaos Child Syndrome, which made them look aged despite their youth, they remained as a spectacle to the common populace despite having mostly recovered now.
But, more than that was the fact that they were children from Aoba dorm, where the mastermind behind the succession of bizarre serial killing cases known as the ‘Return of the New Generation Madness’, Miyashiro Takuru, and one of the victims, Tachibana Yui—Yuuto’s blood-related sister—were from. In fact, people from the mass media had even tried to force their way into the hospital while they were still there receiving treatment. It was not a rare occurrence for reporters or unknown people to suddenly take their photograph or ask for a comment on the streets even after they had returned to Aoba dorm.
When Uki sneaked a glance at them, she found their faces familiar after all. She did not know their names, but they were probably people from the neighborhood who frequented the supermarket regularly just like her.
“Let’s go, Ms. Komori”
Uki pulled on her held hand to urge Komori to go. But, she did not move. Instead, she let go of Uki’s hand and moved forward as if to hide them behind her back.
Then, she glared back straight at the group of housewives.
She did not reply to Uki’s entreating voice, but continued scowling at them.
When Komori eventually took one step forward, they averted their gazes awkwardly and hurriedly walked away to the next shop.
They then finished their purchase with a heavy mood in the air and left when Komori turned to Uki and Yuuto and asked.
“Do you guys always have to face this?”
Her expression was grave. The tone in her voice was unimaginable coming from the same person always joking around in Aoba dorm.
“Yes… But, it doesn’t bother us.”
Even when Uki shrugged her shoulders to try to make light of it, Komori’s expression did not change.
“Really? They didn’t try to do anything funny to you, right? Be sure to tell me immediately if you ever feel danger, okay?”
“I-it’s all right, really.”
Uki and Yuuto nodded, slightly overwhelmed.
On the way back, Komori did not speak a word. She only kept a close watch on the surroundings with a tense atmosphere.
When they reached home, they found an old lady standing before the entranceway carrying a shopping bag.
Komori enquired of her cautiously.
The old lady frowned for a second when she saw Komori, but that immediately gave way when she saw Uki and Yuuto.
“Mrs. Takahashi,” Uki called out to her.
“Did you go shopping?”
“Yes. Ah, this is Ms. Komori, our caretaker.”
“Oh, is that right. So you are their caretaker.”
She politely introduced herself as Takahashi to Komori with a bow.
Komori still looked at her suspiciously until Yuuto added, “She’s the one who taught Big Sis Senri all sorts of things.” Her face then slackened and she returned the bow.
“…Forgive my bad manners. My name is Komori. I have just started serving as their caretaker since last week.”
“Oh my, is that so. I have been under the great care of the previous director here. I always used to come by here to chit-chat with friends in the waiting room whenever I was free. Sometimes, I’d play around with the kids too.”
“…By the director, you mean Dr. Sakuma?”
“Yes. Just where could he have gone… Say, Ms. Komori. Please do tell me straight away if you can contact the director. I have been waiting to have a tea party with my friends again.”
The old lady then passed the shopping bag to Uki and left with that. It was a bag of persimmons.
“Is that Mrs. Takahashi really an old acquaintance?”
When they entered the house, Komori asked them before they had even taken off their shoes. The sound of the lock clicking in place sounded especially loud.
“Yes, ever since I came here,” Yuuto replied.
“…Ms. Komori. Mrs. Takahashi is a nice person.”
Yuuto emphasized to Komori who was still thinking about something, causing her to shake her head flusteredly.
“No, it’s not like that. I know that she means no harm.”
Komori placed the grocery bags on the floor and sat on the edge of the entranceway. She placed a hand by her forehead. Her eyes looking up at Uki and Yuuto seemed somewhat nervous.
“Uki, Yuuto. I was thinking that I didn’t need to mention this again because you guys seem so grown-up, but… That is, how do I say this, you guys are in a pretty weird situation, or perhaps I should say a difficult position.”
When she saw Komori faltering with her words, Uki placed the bag of persimmons down. She reflexively swallowed a gulp.
“You see, not only are you guys former sufferers of the Chaos Child Syndrome… but you are also the family of the victims and the perpetrator. More often than not, in these kinds of cases, some unkind rumors about the family of the perpetrator may spread amongst the public… And especially so in a case as outlandish as this.”
Yuuto was the one who interrupted her. He looked straight down at Komori.
“If you are going to say bad things about Big Brother Takuru, then please stop.”
Yuuto’s voice as he repeated was strong. It echoed in the passageway even without him shouting.
Komori froze with a look of bewilderment. The look of surprise on her face further deepened when she turned to look at Uki. She had started glaring at her without even realizing it.
After a long period of silence, Komori stood up with a, “…I understand.”
“But, be sure to keep an eye out. I’m worried that something might happen.”
It was one week later when Yuuto called Uki and Senri to the living room saying he had something to discuss. The time was past 11pm. Komori had already taken her leave, and Uki and Yuuto would have been in their beds by this time usually.
“Is it about Ms. Komori?”
Senri was the one to speak up, sitting at her usual spot in the kotatsu. Seeing Yuuto stuttering with a, “Yeah”, Uki thought that it was just as she expected.
Ever since that incident with Komori at the entryway, Yuuto appeared to be kind of uncomfortable around her. He wasn’t outright ignoring her, but also wasn’t letting her get close. It was the kind of distance between strangers who had just gotten to know each other.
That was the same for Uki. It was all just because of the exchange they had which couldn’t even be called an argument. Neither of them were in the wrong. Komori was still interacting with them in the same unchanging way for now. However, there was still an air of awkwardness which hung between them occasionally.
“Are you still mindful about that?”
Senri, who had already heard about what happened that day, spoke to Yuuto kindly.
“No, it’s not that. …Nah, maybe it is.”
Yuuto brought his body slightly closer as he mumbled.
“Ms. Komori may be investigating the case.”
His voice was a whisper. Uki and Senri frowned.
“What do you mean?” Senri asked.
“She is the one cleaning our rooms, right?”
In many orphanages, the staff would do the cleaning of the children’s rooms. One of the reasons was to keep a clean environment, but it was also to ensure that the children themselves were maintaining the cleanliness of the room. Not that Aoba dorm was ever messy to begin with due to Senri’s regard for cleanliness.
“…Do you also usually do the insides of the drawers?”
“…That’s been cleaned too?” Senri inquired with a frown.
“Are you sure? Since when?”
“I don’t know since when, but… I’m sure that it was cleaned this afternoon. I always felt something seemed weird, and memorized where I put my eraser.”
When they further questioned him, he confirmed that his eraser was out of place by about 1 centimeter.
“Is that so?” Asked Uki, still half-believing.
However, Yuuto was resolute.
“There’s also one more thing. Mrs. Takahashi came over again today. She mentioned that Ms. Komori had asked her some questions. …It was about that person.”
Uki saw Senri’s expression turn sharp in an instant. There was only one person who Yuuto would call by ‘that person’.
It was Sakuma Wataru. He was the former head of the Aoba dorm, and the director of the now-closed Aoba clinic below. Also, he had been like a foster father to Senri and Yuuto. In the short time they spent together, Uki was under his care as well and adored him as a father.
The three of them heard the truth about him half a year ago while they were still undergoing rehabilitation at the hospital. They could not believe what they were hearing then and did not want to believe it. However, they had no choice but to accept the bitter truth when they looked into Takuru’s eyes as he told them. Along with Takuru, Arimura and the rest who knew the truth hesitated till the very end over whether to tell them the truth or not. If not for Senri saying, “Tell us the truth,” and Uki and Yuuto nodding in affirmation, who knew if Takuru would have told them.
According to the official announcement from the police, Sakuma had gone missing after the cases. That was because they couldn’t even find his body after that. However, Uki and the rest knew the truth behind what happened to him, including who could have been the one to erase his body so as to suppress information.
“What did she ask Mrs. Takahashi about?”
Senri’s voice slightly lowered in tone as she continued.
“She asked about what that person was like when he was here, and whether or not she had any idea about where he is currently. Also, she asked about Big Brother Takuru.”
“…I see. Yuuto, you said your drawer has been searched through? Did anything go missing?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Just in case, go check through your room one more time. Uki, we should also check ours too.”
They returned to their rooms and went through their belongings, but did not find anything out of the ordinary. Uki and Senri in particular, who did not memorize the position of their belongings on purpose, had no idea even if something was moved by just a few centimeters. There were also no missing items to the best of their ability to remember.
“There’s nothing missing as I thought.”
After hearing Yuuto’s reply when he came out of his room, Senri gave him a nod and entered the room next to hers.
It was Takuru’s room, right opposite to Yuuto’s. It was currently unoccupied, but the three of them had taken turns to clean it before Komori came.
“…Nothing was taken from it. However, the lining of the files are slightly different.”
Senri said so under her breath after taking an overall glance through the bookshelves. Aside from individual volumes of books, the shelves also held files and magazines.
“You remembered their positions, Big Sis?” Uki uttered in surprise.
“Yeah, since I was the one to rearrange them on the bookshelf after the police returned them after taking them for inspection. The two of you have not touched the shelves either, right?”
“…So, it was Ms. Komori?”
When Uki asked in an uneasy voice, Senri replied with a, “Most likely,” without removing her gaze from the bookshelf.
“There was no change in our rooms. But, like Yuuto mentioned, if everything had been returned to their original positions, that would mean she was trying to hide it from us. If she didn’t need to hide it, then there should have been more obvious movements of our items besides Yuuto’s eraser. But, she did not do that for Takuru’s room… probably because she thought there was usually no one using this room.”
Said Uki out loud for some reason. In contrast to Senri’s matter-of-factly attitude, she felt a sense of foreboding,
“…Could she be someone from the media?” Suggested Yuuto somewhat keenly.
“I was thinking… perhaps she is trying to investigate the cases and report about it. The way she actively tries to keep others away from us could also be to prevent them from investigating so that she would have an exclusive story.”
That can’t be, Uki thought to herself with a dry laugh.
“…Big Sis?” When Uki called out, Senri shook her head.
“I don’t think Ms. Komori is a reporter, since she was officially dispatched here. Also, if they wanted to earn a quick buck by sticking into our business, anyone could have done it. In fact, haven’t we already seen so many of them?”
Seeing Yuuto nod in reply, Uki thought back to all the glances directed at them this past half a year. Those looks of curiosity for the sake of killing time at the expense of others. It was a gaze that took their personal lives hostage while the ones behind them averted their eyes from the hurt they were giving others.
“Apart from that, there are also several other suspicious factors. You remember how Ms. Komori took the printouts about our household account records back? Even if her purpose was to show them to her superiors, she could have just asked me to send her the data digitally. Yet, why did she have to physically take back the huge stack of papers.”
“Y-you think she wants to take it somewhere else?” Asked Yuuto, starting to anger.
“Who knows. …It looks like the decoy did not work.”
Uki asked, “What do you mean,” to Senri who took a file from the bookshelf with a sigh.
“I wanted to show clearly that we have a grasp over our finances. So that it’s obvious that we are completely fine by ourselves. If not for that, I wouldn’t have wasted that many paper. Because of that, even our ink is running out.”
Hearing that, Uki couldn’t help but chuckle lightly. Her sister was the type who wouldn’t mind dashing out from school and getting her hair dishevelled if it meant catching the time-limited sales. Our household purse strings sure are abnormally tight, she thought.
Yuuto must have been thinking the same as a wry smile formed on his face.
“Big Sis Senri always thinks about the same things.”
“What do you mean by that, huh… Indeed, the contents of the file haven’t been taken away.”
Senri rifled through the file before closing it and returning it to the bookshelf.
“Being the case that nothing is missing, we can’t really press Ms. Komori for answers. That goes for searching through our belongings as well. I don’t think we should just leave this be, but there’s nothing we can do if she just feigns ignorance and we have no proof.”
Yuuto nodded with some dissatisfaction and Senri placed a hand on his head gently. Uki naturally followed and lightly stroked his head.
Yuuto was a clever child. Surely, he knew that doing this was the right choice.
“You guys don’t have to press her regarding the household account records either. Of course, the case would be different if it leaks outside. Let’s just live as we always did. In any case, our rooms can’t be locked from the outside. If she wants to look through them, just let her. …Uki, Yuuto.”
Senri stopped her words and placed her other hand on top of Uki’s head, and she looked them in the eye.
“We must live proud and open. We haven’t done anything wrong and we won’t in the future either. If not… we won’t be able to face him, will we?”
Uki and Yuuto replied to her with smiles. There was no need to mention who she was referring to.
From that day onwards, Komori began to talk less and less.
She still exchanged greetings and chatted idly with the three of them, but it felt more business-like, and after one week, she almost never joked anymore. It was also rare to hear her laugh nowadays. The times when she did not stay long after dinner and left right after cleaning up also became more frequent.
The three of them tried their best to behave normally too. However, even when they tried to help it, they would unconsciously begin reading into the underlying meaning behind her words and actions. Even a simple everyday comment like, “Welcome back. You were slightly late today, is everything all right?”, which may be one of her obligations as a caretaker to take note of, would cause them to start having suspicions about her.
She may have sensed their change in attitude with her. The atmosphere while they were together felt heavier than before.
Senri seemed to have realized that as well. One day, when Komori left and Uki breathed a sigh of relief, Senri pointed that out. “…I’m sorry. This isn’t right, isn’t it,” Uki apologized and Senri patted her head with a smile.
In fact, Komori has never asked them about the cases even once. It didn’t appear that she had leaked the household account records either.
It would be great if it was just a needless worry on their part, thought Uki, until one day, she dived straight into the topic during dinner time.
“I have been wondering about this for some time, but… Who are you reserving that seat for?”
They were all gathered around the kotatsu with hotpot for dinner. Komori’s one sentence caused all three of them to freeze.
Uki was sitting in her usual spot in the kotatsu. Senri and Yuuto sat side-by-side on her right side next to the kitchen, and Komori opposite her near the sofa. That was the previous spot Yuuto sat at.
Komori was referring to the spot on Uki’s left, the side facing Senri where no one sat.
There was an implicit understanding between them which came to be naturally. Even Hinae and Hana who often came around to hang out never sat at the spot. Of course, neither did Komori.
“…It’s not like we are particularly reserving that spot for anybody. After all, we had only bought this recently.”
Senri’s voice was bright as she answered and resumed her meal. There was even a smile on her face. However, on the underside where Komori couldn’t see, her expression was clouded.
Uki and Yuuto also resumed eating, but they did not speak a word. The clatter of the utensils sounded awfully loud.
“…Is it for Yui? I noticed that there’s always an empty seat at the dining table as well.”
Uki did not stop moving her hands. She was desperately trying her best to obscure the furious beating of her heart.
“No, there’s no particular reason for it.”
Yuuto was the one who denied it. He was trying his best to sound strong.
Komori placed down her chopstick and looked around at them.
“…Or could it be, for Takuru?”
“As I said, that is not the case.”
Senri’s tone as she replied was getting more agitated. That must be because this was the first time Komori mentioned the names of Yui and Takuru.
“Then, why is it left empty?”
“That’s…” Senri was about to speak when she became lost for words. Uki understood her feelings just by looking at her.
After a moment, Senri continued as though she was a child being admonished by an adult.
“…That has nothing to do with you, Ms. Komori.”
“I’m sorry about this, but I really want to know no matter what. There’s also the case of Yui, but I want to know what kind of person Takuru is to you guys. To tell you the truth, I don’t really have a good impression of him, when he has hurt you children like this.”
When she heard that, an uncontrollable emotion oozed up from within Uki. Unable to hold herself back, she slammed her bowl onto the table without even realizing it herself.
“That is none of your business.”
After that, the meal continued without anyone speaking. When they finished, Komori said, “I’ll clean up the rest,” and Uki and the rest acquiesced. They were not in the mood to talk.
When Uki returned to her room on the third floor, she tried to focus on her studies somehow and took out her homework, but could not concentrate at all. For some reason, she could not bear the silence of being alone in her room. She then thought of going to sleep and lay on the bed for a while, but all traces of sleepiness completely eluded her.
She gave up and headed down. There was still light coming from the living room on the second floor. It appeared that Komori was still around. Feeling reluctant to enter the room, she continued down to the first floor instead.
When she entered the examination room of the now-unused Aoba clinic, she found Senri looking at the computer without even switching on the lights. She looked like she was entering data into the household account records. She should have noticed Uki when she entered, but continued on her work silently. Uki sat down on the examination bed and just stared at Senri’s back which was illuminated by the screen.
“How is Yuuto?”
After a while, Senri spoke.
“He’s probably in his room.”
“I see. …Sorry about that.”
“No. I should be the one to apologize.”
Just then, they heard the voice of Komori coming from the direction of the staircase. It seemed that she was speaking to somebody on the phone. They could tell she was coming down as her voice grew louder.
Senri swiftly turned off the monitor screen. Paying no attention to Uki’s shock over the room being suddenly plunged into darkness, she caught her hand and led her to the X-ray room next door.
Uki nodded in response to her whisper. In the deep darkness, they could hear Komori’s voice as she entered the examination room.
“Yes. …Yes. I understand that, but they are on guard. To be honest, I have no idea what they are thinking at all.”
Her tone of voice was different from usual. It was similar to the time when she was questioning Uki about the housewives at the supermarket.
“I don’t think I can get closer just by spending more time with them. As I was saying, there is nothing new regarding Miyashiro Takuru.”
Uki could feel from her hand that Senri was trembling slightly. She held her breath as deep as she could so as not to miss a single word coming from beyond the door.
Komori was going on about something with the other party on the phone. They could not hear the conversation clearly, but it was obvious that her voice was getting agitated.
“As I mentioned, they are not those kinds of children. No matter what I try, I just can’t get them to… Yes. …Yes, I understand. I apologize, please give me some more time.”
With that, she ended the phone call. After a pause, she heaved a deep sigh.
Komori stayed in the examination room for a while longer, before she left the examination room and went towards the entranceway instead of the stairs. It appeared that she was heading straight for home.
Even after the door closed and they heard the lock click, Senri still did not move. She just stayed in that position wordlessly, holding on to Uki’s hand. Only after a full minute and more passed did she slowly leave the X-ray room.
Perhaps her eyes had gotten used to the darkness, as Uki could see the expression on Senri’s face with just the faint light coming from the lone window of the examination room.
To put it plainly, it was a look of loneliness.
“…Looks like I still have some ways to go.”
“Uki. Whose seat do you think that belongs to?”
In response to her question, Uki faced down mutely.
Then, as though she could tell what Uki was thinking, Senri flashed a forlorn smile.
“I’m the same. I can’t answer that. No, maybe it would be more correct to say that I don’t want to answer that. …That’s why, I still have a long way to go.”
Uki did not know what to say to her.
Perhaps it was sentimentality, or even regret. Or else, it may have been the fondness of her memories that prevented her from sitting in that spot.
“…Big Sis. What she was saying about Big Brother.”
“I know. …Yuuto’s hunch may be right on the money.”
The loneliness was gone from Senri’s face as she nodded strongly. “Let’s continue to act as normal for now,” she urged again.
It happened the next day.
In the evening, when Uki and Senri had just returned home from school, they heard Komori shouting from below, ‘Senri! Uki!’
They rushed down the stairs at her urgent voice and found Yuuto and Komori by the entranceway. Yuuto was bleeding from a bruise on his head.
Uki ran towards Yuuto with a shout. His lips were twisted in pain and he was holding a handkerchief to the wound.
Senri directed the question at Komori who was huddling on to Yuuto.
“He was hit by a stone. Some elementary school kid threw it at him.”
“Uki, bring him to the examination room, next to the standing light.”
Uki immediately did as she was told and brought Yuuto to the examination room. Yuuto’s footsteps were normal, but he groaned occasionally due to the pain.
Once he sat down on the chair gingerly, Senri looked at him straight in the eye.
“Yuuto, are you injured anywhere else?”
“Do you feel like vomiting? Is your vision clouded?”
When he replied to the questions with a “No”, Senri removed the handkerchief to look at the injury.
“…It was quite a clean cut. Do you know how big the stone was?”
“I think it wasn’t that big…”
“…It must have grazed you quite strongly. Uki, pass me some water and a towel. And then, some gauze and tape.”
“I-is he going to be fine, since it hit his head?”
Senri nodded to the anxiously fidgeting Komori with a, “He’ll be fine.”
“But, shouldn’t we disinfect the wound first…”
“It’s fine, since it’s just a shallow wound and the bleeding has mostly stopped. There’s also no obvious foreign objects. It would be better to clean the wound and apply pressure.”
Uki brought over what was requested and Senri began treating the wound.
“Uki, please tend to Komori-san.”
When Uki uttered an, “Eh?”, Senri directed her eyes at Komori’s leg without stopping her work.
“Ms. Komori, you injured your leg, didn’t you, even though it can’t be seen under your jeans.”
To which she replied sheepishly, “It was just a light fall.”
Yuuto was apparently on his way home from the library when it happened.
Right after saying goodbye to his friends, a voice called out to him suddenly. It was a group of three upper grade elementary school children who were wearing stylish clothes. They asked if he was from Aoba dorm, and Yuuto ignored them since he thought they were just going to be troublesome. Then, he suddenly felt an impact on his head. When he realized he was hit by a filled-bottle, a stone had come flying.
When the group held up something to throw again, Komori who was passing by ran over to hug him in defence. The incoming stones missed them. But, when she ran over to cover Yuuto, she had done so with so much momentum that she fell and scraped her knee. She shouted at the kids angrily and the three of them escaped.
When Komori finished retelling what had happened at the kitchen table, which they used for dinner instead of the kotatsu due to her knee, Senri bowed her head in thanks, “Thank you very much, Ms. Komori.”
“Come on, it’s nothing much. You even helped dress my wound.”
Komori purposely directed her gaze at her knee under the table and tapped it with a pen.
“More importantly, are you really feeling okay, Yuuto?”
“We’ll monitor the situation for one night, and if the pain gets worse or if he feels something abnormal apart from the pain, we’ll bring him to the doctor straight away.”
Along with the speedy reply from Senri, Yuuto also touched the gauze on his head lightly and said with a smile, “It’ll be fine.”
“Does this happen often?”
At her question, Yuuto’s expression turned into one that implied a deeper pain on the inside than physically.
“…It’s common for others to stare or even call names, but this is the first time this kind of thing ever happened,” answered Senri in lieu.
“Do you know those kids?”
Yuuto shook his head at Uki’s question.
“No, but since they look around the same age, I think they live nearby. …Big Sis Senri, I wasn’t able to get back at them.”
“When they were running away, they said bad things about Big Brother Takuru. However, I wasn’t able to get back at them.”
Yuuto looked at Senri and repeated. His eyes were slightly moist.
Senri held him close and gently stroked his head, careful not to touch the wound. Seeing Yuuto just rub his eyes and accept it, Uki nodded slowly. More than the mortification, she was so proud of Yuuto.
“How are you kids able to handle this so maturely?”
After a while, Komori said that. She looked at the three of them in turn.
“How can you respond to this so calmly without even a single word of complaint when they did this to you? People at your age… no, even adults would raise a fuss over something like that. What drives you so far?”
Lastly, her eyes darted over to the empty seat on the table.
“Is he really worth putting up with so much and crying over for?”
Komori’s enquiry continued to swirl around in Uki’s mind. She was thinking of refuting her again by telling her that it was none of her business, but she could feel Komori’s genuine concern for them in her doubts. However, she could not think of an answer that would stop her from pressing further.
The one who took up her relentless inquisition was Senri.
“…Shall I try to break it down for you then. Though, it’s not like me to do so originally.”
Komori stared at Senri dubiously as she said so with a bitter smile as if she was left with no choice. Uki and Yuuto looked at their sister in slight surprise.
“…Ms. Komori, what do you think it means to become an adult?”
“As you know, the three of us and Takuru… along with Yui, are former patients of Chaos Child Syndrome. I do not know who first called it that, but I agree with their naming of it with the inclusion of the word ‘Child’. During the advent of the syndrome, all the patients were children without exception. Be it in body, or here.”
Senri pointed to her heart.
“This has also been announced to the world at large as you probably know, but Takuru was the very first one to recover from the syndrome. The reason for that is yet unknown. However, I think that was because Takuru has matured into an adult. He gave up on staying as a child in the most literal sense. …And one step ahead of us too.”
“…In my opinion, you guys already make pretty fine adults though.”
“But what do you mean by adult? People above the age of 20? People who are independent financially? People whose growth has stopped? People who are mentally mature? In that case, it would be weird that no one has recovered faster than Takuru did. After all, Takuru is such a conceited and egoistic child, and on top of that, he is such a logical monster that he just makes me worry all the time unilaterally.”
Uki could not tell what was Senri was thinking as her eyes were cast downwards. However, what she knew was that she could not look away from her.
“However, he always tries his best to do something about the situation at hand faster than anyone else. You may have heard some strange rumors about him, but the one who suffered the most is surely Takuru. And even with all that, still he is kind. Even if it’s just self-centered kindness, that child is able to stick with that kindness all the way. That’s why…”
She lifted her face and looked at Komori with a lonesome smile.
“That’s why, to me, becoming an adult means being able to remain kind even when you are struggling. In this context, Takuru is more of an adult than anyone else. That’s why for us children, we must become adults no matter what happens absolutely.”
Komori was dumbfounded.
She did not question again if he was worth crying over for.
“I’m sorry for leaving at a time like this. Be sure to call me if anything happens, my phone will always be on.”
Leaving those words with Uki, Senri headed to the hospital with Komori accompanying her.
She was going for a regular checkup with regards to the syndrome. The former patients of the syndrome were required to check in to the hospital for regular checkups even after they were discharged. In addition to that, Uki and the others were also cooperating with the research into the syndrome, and spent one night each month sleeping in the hospital for them to record their brain waves.
Senri had wanted to postpone her appointment with the hospital out of concern for Yuuto, but the boy in question, Yuuto said he was fine and sent her off to the hospital.
He must still be tired as he retired to his room right after seeing Senri and Komori off.
After that, Uki also returned to her own room. Since she had already finished her homework, she thought about the techniques she used just now to treat Komori’s abrasion before going to sleep.
Just when she felt sleepy and was about to put away the book she was reading, she thought she heard a faint groaning sound.
She quickly brushed aside the blanket and went to Yuuto’s room. There was no reply when she knocked on the door. She opened the door and found Yuuto crouching on the bed hugging his knees in the darkness.
“Yuu, take a deep breath.”
It was an early symptom of a seizure. Uki immediately switched on the lights and sat down on the bed and held him by his shoulder.
“It’s all right. You’ll be fine.”
She thought of calling Senri for a moment, but decided not to, seeing as there were no signs of hyperventilation or convulsions. His seizure shouldn’t worsen if the room was brighter and his family was nearby. In the unfortunate event that it did worsen, Uki also knew what steps to take.
“You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine…”
Uki repeated that to soothe him as she gently patted Yuuto’s back rhythmically. Then, she looked at his hands. In Yuuto’s case, he would continue holding his elbows tightly and move his head down as if to cover his ears should the condition worsen, or his grip would relax if he was feeling better.
“You’ll be fine…”
When she saw that his hands had relaxed sufficiently, Uki heaved a sigh of relief. She looked at his face and saw that strength had returned to his eyes.
She asked him clearly once more if he was alright, and Yuuto nodded weakly.
“Sorry, but I’m alright already.”
Uki nodded in acknowledgement and got off the bed.
Just as she was about to leave the room, the bed next to Yuuto’s caught her eye. It was the bed which Yui used to sleep in.
There was no blanket and the white mattress was revealed plainly. The inorganic whiteness of it reminded Uki of the underground room in the hospital.
Before she even realized, she was searching for any strands of long hair on the bed.
“Big Sis Uki…?”
She somehow heard Senri’s previous words behind Yuuto’s voice.
What do you think it means to become an adult?
Unconsciously, she was clenching her fists so tightly that her nails dug into her flesh. The pain felt like they were propelling her determination onwards and she opened her palms, Senri’s words reverberating inside her.
Take a step forward, struggle, screamed Uki at herself.
“I’m sorry if this is painful, but… Will you please tell me about your scotophobia?”
Uki sat down on Yuuto’s bed again.
“About what happened… during the earthquake.”
Yuuto seemed astonished at the sudden topic. But, seeing Uki wait for an answer wordlessly, he eventually nodded. His expression was one like he was facing an undefeatable opponent.
“I’m so sorry. If it’s too painful, then…”
“No, it’s fine. …That reminds me, I haven’t told Big Sis Uki about this, right.”
Uki nodded without saying a word. It was something she never heard of before. And most likely, what the both of them had tried to avoid.
Yuuto slowly began to recount.
“…I don’t really remember what happened right before the earthquake. Just that we were in Shibuya, and Mom and Dad and Big Sis and I were holding hands. I was feeling very sleepy at that time. And then, the earthquake struck. I tumbled down and awoke right away. People were shouting this and that and running here and there. I tried to stand up, but could not.”
That was probably the chaos right after the earthquake. When the earthquake struck at 10.28 pm, the area around Shibuya station, the epicenter, was very crowded.
“There was the sound of glass shattering and a low drum-like sound coming from all directions, and buildings were collapsing. I don’t know at what point I was only holding onto Big Sis’ hand and not Dad’s anymore while on the ground. So many people stepped over us, but Big Sis kept shouting not to let go. We finally stood up after the shaking ended. …But, by then, Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found.”
“We shouted and shouted to try to find them, but with everyone shouting, everything was a mess. The mass of adults was like a wall to us. Just when I thought we needed to get away from there, Big Sis pulled my hand. ‘For now, we need to get somewhere without anyone,’ she said and continued to pull me along.”
“She’s amazing,” Uki murmured and Yuuto nodded.
At the time of the disaster, Yui was only in her second year of elementary school, while Yuuto was due to start elementary school the next year.
“I just kept crying, but Big Sis did not. She just kept saying, ‘Don’t look, don’t look,’ and covered me as we walked. …I’m sure she had to see a lot of nasty things so that I would not. All because she needed to drag me along. I couldn’t do anything but sob.”
“…Are you all right?”
Yuuto began to hug his knees as he spoke. Uki naturally leaned over to hug his shoulders. He did not budge.
“When our throats were parched and our legs hurt so much it felt like we couldn’t move a step more, someone began to chase after us. They were a group of adult men. We ran and ran desperately. We entered a building which seemed like it was about to collapse, and Big Sis let go of my hand for the first time. I screamed at her not to let go of my hand, but my throat only hurt and made some weird noises. Big Sis kept on repeating to me to hide here, and pushed me into a room through a broken door. It was… so dark there.”
Uki could tell that Yuuto was clenching his hands. She tried to stop him in a panic, but he only gripped her hand that was hugging his shoulder.
“Big Sis ran away and those guys chased after her… I was scared I couldn’t move a muscle. I couldn’t do anything. After some time, I could hear the voice of Big Sis, and those guys.”
“Sorry, Yuu, this is enough already.”
“I couldn’t move. Even though they were right next to me. In that dark, dark room, I just kept listening to Big Sis’s cries.”
Uki turned Yuuto towards her and embraced him tightly. She could hear him sobbing, but there was still a strength to his voice.
“In that dark place, I felt like I heard the voice of Big Sis occasionally. Even after all she did for me. I-I couldn’t do a thing.”
As she hugged Yuuto who was crying as he spoke, tears started falling from Uki’s eyes too. They did not move except to wipe their tears on each other’s pajamas.
Feeling the chill of the room, Uki lay both herself and Yuuto down on the bed and covered themselves with the blanket.
His head on her chest, Yuuto would sometimes whisper, “…Big Sis,” as he continued to cry. Uki replied with a, ‘Yes,’ once before realizing he was referring to Yui. But, Yuuto did not say a word.
Yuuto would keep whispering over and over again, and Uki would answer him without fail.
The two of them held each other tightly until they tired from crying and fell asleep.
Even then, they still hugged each other closely.
When Senri returned home early next morning, the first words that left her mouth upon seeing Uki and Yuuto were, “What’s with the faces?”
The area around their eyes were completely puffed up. Yuuto said, “It’s nothing,” and showed a faint smile to Uki, and she returned a nod at him.
Senri then retorted with, “What’s this, are you guys keeping a secret from your Big Sister?”, but there was a wide smile on her face and she did not question any further.
When Uki returned home from school, Senri said she had something to discuss with everyone over dinner including Komori, when a visitor came.
“Please don’t mind me. Are you free?”
Uki instantly recalled who it was when she saw her face at the door. She was one of the housewives she saw occasionally at the supermarket, one of those who were chased away by Komori’s glare that day.
Uki stood there in shock as the woman went on, “Do you mind if I come in?”, and entered the entranceway without even waiting for an answer. She also brought along an elementary school kid.
“P-please wait a moment.”
Uki brought the two of them to a stop there and went to the second floor to get Senri. When she came down, Senri slightly knotted her brows. She must have known her.
“What’s the matter…?”
“Ah, you must be their elder sister. Oh, it’s nothing much, just something about this child here, you see.”
The woman pulled the young boy wearing stylish clothes who was hiding behind her to the front and smiled. The boy had an obvious annoyed look on his face as he turned to face the other way.
“You see, I heard that my child here accidentally threw a stone which hit a kid from here.”
Ah, Uki reflexively uttered. She then noted that the kid was dressed gaudily.
“…Yuuto said they were clearly aiming at him however.”
Senri closed the distance between them with a step. Her tone was level, but Uki saw that her hands were clenched.
“That’s why I said, it was accidental. Isn’t that right?”
The boy nodded with a barely apologetic attitude. His hands were still in his pockets.
“Well, since they’re just kids, there shouldn’t be a need for adults to intervene, right? It’s no big deal, don’t you say?”
“What do you mean by that.”
“As I said, there’s no need to make a big deal out of this, wouldn’t you agree?”
“…Why don’t you just come out and make yourself clear.”
Following which, the smile disappeared from the woman’s face and she glared at Senri. Her gaze clearly held a light of disdain in them.
Just who do you think you people are, or so her eyes seemed to say.
“Oh, right. Then, just let me say this. I’d be thankful if you don’t raise a fuss about this.”
“Yes. I hope you will not do something like… prattle about this to the hospital or anything.”
“So, in short, you want us to turn a blind eye towards that child pelting stones at Yuuto.”
“What pelting? They were just playing around.”
Uki was about to shout, “You can’t be serious,” when Senri held up a hand to stop her. Her hand was quivering.
Senri took a deep breath and exhaled, as though she was desperately trying to suppress her emotions.
“…We are not planning to further pursue this case. However, I want him to apologize to Yuuto.”
“Why should he. They were just playing around.”
When Senri repeated herself, the woman’s face instantly turned black.
“Look here. Don’t you feel ashamed to get so upset over what a child did.”
A roar came from behind her all of a sudden.
It was Komori. Holding Yuuto’s hand, she rapidly came over to the woman.
“I was there when it happened. Your child wasn’t playing around, he was clearly hurling stones at Yuuto-kun intentionally. Apologize to him.”
“…You’re being overdramatic.”
“If it had hit his eye instead, he could have gone blind. Apologize to him immediately!”
The woman recoiled from Komori’s fierce attitude, but a mocking smile soon formed on her face.
“Are you one of the people here? Their caretaker?”
“It must be tough working at a place like this. But then, surely this is not such a grave matter over which to apologize or not. Aren’t you exaggerating by saying things like intentionally or going blind?”
“You’d understand, right,” said the woman as her smile deepened and she tapped Komori on her shoulder looking for agreement.
“…I see. So, you don’t plan on apologizing.”
“Like I said, it’s nothing so serious.”
With that, Komori sighed and turned towards Uki and the rest.
She looked at them as if looking for confirmation, and when Uki did not say anything, she scratched her head as she said, “…Jeez.”
And then, she turned to face the woman again.
“In that case, we will be lodging a formal report since he refuses to apologize.”
“The charge will be assault. Please provide the name, age and address of your child.”
“W-wait a minute, what are you talking about.”
“I apologize for my late introduction.”
Komori plunged her hand into her pocket and took out an identification badge.
“I am Komori from the Metropolitan Police Welfare and Safety Department. We mainly deal with cases regarding juvenile crime. Let me make it clear, what your child did was clearly a criminal action.”
Not only was the woman dumbfounded upon seeing the police identification badge Komori held up, but so was Uki. Yuuto too looked up at her in bewilderment.
“If you have any doubts, feel free to contact my colleague on this name card for confirmation. Now, please state the name, age and address of your child.”
“A-apologize to him.”
At Komori’s words, the woman pushed the boy’s shoulder. The boy was seized with fear at Komori’s attitude and words, but took his hands out of his pockets and lowered his head right after and said, “…I’m sorry,” in a fading voice.
“I’m not the one you should apologize to. Apologize to Yuuto.”
“I-I’m very sorry.”
Yuuto did not say anything to the lowered head. Or rather, he was in too much of a shock to respond.
When the boy raised his head again, Komori grabbed the lapels of his garish clothes all of a sudden and pulled him up.
“Listen closely, you damn brat. I’ve memorized your face already. The next time you pull something like this again, I’ll throw you into jail without question.”
The hot pot simmered noisily atop the kotatsu in the living room.
Komori had said that her knees were fine now so they could eat in the living room, but nobody said anything. The only movement came from Senri who scooped out the scum forming on top of the broth from time to time.
“Err… right. Actually, I…”
Uki and the others stole glances at Komori awkwardly, and averted their eyes when they met. Feeling uncomfortable, Uki looked towards Yuuto, but he only looked back similarly awkward.
Eventually, Senri turned off the portable stove when the hot pot came to a boil.
Then, she gave an exaggerated sigh as if to say, ‘Good grief.’
“Komori Ayumi, 28 years-old and single. Born in Saitama and now works for the Metropolitan Police Welfare and Safety Department, right?”
The three others all gasped with an, “Eh?”
“After getting a vocational license as a caretaker for your post-education, you came here to Tokyo for employment at one of the nursery schools. You then left when you were 25, and passed the police’s employment examination in the same year. With your experience and expertise as a caretaker, they put you into the Welfare and Safety department.”
Komori’s face stiffened up as Senri went on as though she was reading off a script.
“W-wait a moment, Senri…?”
“There are three main reasons for them to assign you to Aoba dorm. One is for you to serve as a caretaker. Another is to protect us as the family of the perpetrator in the capacity of a police officer. Lastly… is to search for evidence regarding the case. So that when it comes to Takuru’s sentencing, the prosecution can demand whatever they want.”
“…So, will it be life imprisonment… or something beyond that?”
At Yuuto’s remark, Senri shook her head to indicate she did not know.
“Since it’s such a difficult case to pass judgement on after all. Ms. Komori taking back the printouts of the household account records, searching through our rooms and investigating our father were probably also for that reason.”
“Aah, so I was found out…”
Komori cradled her head and groaned.
“…When did you realize it?”
“Yuuto noticed you had searched through the house and you also mentioned our father a week ago. The part about you being in the police I had known two days ago. I’m sorry, but I investigated after hearing the suspicious phone call you had the other day. I only found out about your detailed profile and motives this morning.”
“…Let me guess, was it Shinjou from Shibuya station?”
Yes, Senri nodded.
Shinjou was a detective from the police who have helped Uki and the others greatly during the series of incidents. Senri further elaborated that she had contacted Shinjou the night she overheard Komori’s phone call and requested him to investigate her. They soon learned that she was from the police, and during Senri’s stay in the hospital last night, he had personally passed her the additional information.
“So she wasn’t from the mass media…”
Komori laughed bitterly at Yuuto’s surprised remark, “Do I appear that way to you?”
The same smile formed on Senri’s face as she watched them before she turned to face Komori again.
“Now then, Ms. Komori. What I just said about your profile, I had planned to let Yuuto and Uki know after you have left, then we’d pretend not to know. I did not have the intention of letting you know that we knew.”
“…I’m sure you didn’t.”
“I’m telling you all this because you were the first to reveal that you are someone from the police. Why did you do that?”
“That’s just ‘cause I couldn’t stand that pair of mother and child. Especially the mother. Just look at her, can you believe it? What kind of attitude was that.”
Komori answered in a flash and slammed her fist on the table in annoyance. She did not restrain herself at all, perhaps since her identity has already been revealed. Uki and Yuuto were half-amazed and half-troubled, and did not know what to do.
Senri smiled wryly.
“Looks like Ms. Komori is more of the ‘get physical’ kind of person. You’re probably the type to go too far when apprehending delinquent youths and end up having to write written explanations. Twice, even.”
“How did you know that!”
Komori shouted with her face flushed.
Uki and Yuuto were frightened by her loud voice and tried to back away without being noticed.
“…Not to mention, didn’t you say it yesterday, Senri. About what it means to become an adult.”
“I had never thought about things like that. …So, when I see you guys like that, it made me question what kind of adult I was being, sneaking around like that hiding my identity.”
When they saw their big sister smiling in response to Komori’s frustrated explanation, Uki and Yuuto also grinned.
“…Since everything is already out on the table, I want to ask you this. Don’t you know anything else regarding this incident?”
“There is nothing more beyond what I have already shared with the police.”
“And, that goes the same for you two, Uki, Yuuto?”
The two of them nodded.
“The higher-ups seem to think that Shinjou and you guys still know something they don’t. I have never met Shinjou, but in this time we have spent, I think that that seems to be true. Even so, are you still going to maintain that you don’t know anything?”
“I don’t know anything.”
Following her, Uki and Yuuto also nodded in agreement. Komori looked at them in turn as if to judge the authenticity of their words, and seeing that they did not look away, muttered in resignation, “…I see. I get it.”
With that, Senri lighted up the portable stove again.
“Shall we eat, then?”
Komori looked at Senri in surprise.
“Are you sure?”
“You aren’t going to chase me out?”
“I do not have the authority to do so. Besides, you are our caretaker, aren’t you?”
“And also, I’m really grateful for today. To tell you the truth, I very much wanted to grab that kid and choke him too.”
Senri ladled out a serving for Komori as though to indicate the end of the discussion. Komori looked at Uki and Yuuto as though to see if they were okay with that as well, and took the bowl from Senri shyly at last.
Right then, a thought came to Uki.
The matter that was supposed to be decided only after serious deliberation flowed from her lips naturally without hesitation.
“Then, Ms. Komori, please change seats. That is originally Yuu’s seat.”
“Eh?”, the other three looked at Uki. She was still focused on Yuuto.
“You’re fine with that, right, Yuu?”
Yuuto also answered without pause.
He drew out his legs from the kotatsu next to Senri and moved to his original spot.
Chased away by him, Komori stood before the seat facing Senri.
“It’s okay, right, Big Sis?”
Senri was lost in thought for a moment and did not answer, but eventually nodded with a smile, “Geez…”
“As I thought, something must have happened last night, right.”
She seemed truly happy as she said that. Komori appeared to be somewhat confused, but sat down obediently at Senri’s urging.
“What is it, don’t keep me in the dark?”
“Ms. Komori. Compared to me, Uki is much more of an adult.”
The four of them ladled from the hot pot, whichever of their preferences.
Uki faced the others and said.
“Shall we all go to the zoo in Ueno next weekend?”
Their hands stopped at her sudden suggestion.
“…That sounds great. Do you like pandas?”
Uki shook her head at her sister’s question.
“No, I just want to visit it, since I have never been there before. I want to find out what it’s like.”
Back to Prologue | Table of Contents | Forward to Interlude 1
1. A padded kimono-type jacket. ↩
2. A wataire is a garment padded with cotton. A chanchanko is a padded sleeveless kimono jacket. Both are terms referring to traditional Japanese clothing that is hardly used nowadays. ↩
3. A short winter coat. ↩
4. Pretty much a hanger, especially for use with Japanese clothing. ↩