Notes on certain words can be viewed on mouse-over.
Hope. He repeated the word silently. It was a word he hadn't used for years. It was neither sweet nor bitter, but it slowly warmed him from deep inside of his body.
Hope. What do I hope for?
His promised future had collapsed. What was left to him now were his mother, the meager wages from his job, and his own sixteen-year-old body. What hope resided in those? He wasn't sure. But he was sure that he hadn't completely lost hope either.
They entered the station. The old-town district where Shion lived was located adjacent to the West Block and the city border, and functioned as a sort of buffer zone between the city centre and the West Block. It was called Lost Town. A far cry from the tranquility of the city centre, it was a squalid place, dense with people. The station they were in was also very crowded. The faint smell of deep-fried food and alcohol wafted in the air.
"I'm fine from here." Safu stopped. There was a black winged insect on her shoulder. Brushing it away, Shion asked a nonchalant question.
"Be careful. Oh, when are you off for your exchange again?"
"In two days."
"Two days!" Shion exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
"Because I didn't want to. Would you have thrown me a farewell party if I did?"
Safu jutted her chin out defiantly.
"Shion, I want to ask something from you."
"Sure, if I can manage to get it to you in time..."
Safu looked Shion in the eyes as she said those words. She didn't blink once. Shion gaped at her open-mouthed.
"Did you hear me? I want your sperm."
"Uh― what? Safu... um―"
"Out of all the people I know, you would probably be the most superior sperm donor. Your sperm and my ovum. Don't you think it would produce the most perfect child? I want it, Shion. I want your sperm."
"Artificial insemination needs permission from the city," Shion answered cautiously.
"Getting permission would be easy. The city encourages artificial insemination between people who possess excellent DNA and superior skills."
Shion swallowed, and turned away. The winged insect crossed his line of vision, buzzing incessantly. Irritation welled up inside him.
"Safu, I don't know if I told you this, but I've never known my father. I don't know his personality, his stature, or if he had any illnesses."
"I know. But parents don't matter. Ninety-nine percent of the human genome has been decoded already. I can find out anything I need to know about your genetic information."
"And then... if you do get the information, and there's something in there that you don't want, what are you going to do?"
"Safu, what are you trying to get at? Do you think a human being is entirely what his DNA base sequence tells us he is? Sure, you can look up my DNA, analyze my genes, but what's that going to tell you about me? You talk about having kids like it's easy, but―"
"I know a lot more about you than you think!"
Safu's voice cut him off shrilly. People turned their heads as they passed.
"We've been together since we were two. I know what kind of person you are, what you like to do... I know. I know, and I'm still telling you this― you're the one who doesn't know anything."
Safu mumbled something, but he couldn't catch it. He bent toward her slightly so he could hear better.
"I want to have sex with you."
Her words rang clear in Shion's ears.
"I don't want your sperm. I don't want artificial insemination. I don't care about having kids or not. I want to have sex with you. That's it."
"Wait, uh― wait a minute... Safu, I―"
Shion inhaled. The greasy scent of fried food wafted into his nostrils. The clock chimed eight o'clock.
"Why not? Because you're not interested in me? Or not interested in sex?"
"I'm interested in both. But... I don't want to do it, not now, with you."
"So it's because it's with me?"
"No― my body would probably respond no problem. Even now I'm... but― but that's why I don't want to. I don't want to sleep with you on a spur of the moment."
"You know that's like saying you've never seen me in that way before."
"Yeah. I always thought of you as a friend."
"I can't believe it."Safu sighed in exasperation. "Why are you such a kid? Whatever. I'm going home."
"Safu, in two years―"
"Your exchange is for two years, right? When you come back, I'll ask this time."
"If I want to have sex?"
"You're a bonafide idiot if I ever saw one. I don't know how you could have come this far being that laid-back."
"Stay safe. Don't work too hard."
"Oh, you can count on me working hard. I'll work so hard, it'll keep all the boys away."
With a casual wave of her hand in farewell, Safu turned around, and gave a small shriek. A small grey animal darted past Safu's feet and scurried up Shion's body.
A small mouse about the size of Shion's pinky sat on his shoulder, twitching its nose.
"I'm surprised to see mice in this city. But it is kind of cute," Safu mused.
"Pretty friendly, too."
The mouse brought its face close to Shion's ear.
"Still a natural," it whispered.
He felt an electric shock run through him. He grabbed at the mouse, but it slipped through his fingers, bounded off his shoulder and shot toward the station exit. True, this was an older district―but Lost Town was still within city limits, and mice were rare. The Health and Hygiene Bureau saw to the complete removal of all pests, animal or insect. People weren't used to seeing the mouse that sped past their feet. Shrieks of surprise and bursts of anxious buzzing rose from the crowd.
And at the very end of it, Shion saw a pair of grey eyes. It was for a fleeting instant. A jolt pierced through his body again.
"Shion, what's wrong?"
"Safu, you can make it home by yourself, right?"
"What? Of course. I was just about to, wasn't I? What's wrong? Why are you so agitated?"
After they parted here, he wouldn't see Safu again for two years. He knew he had to give her a proper sending-off. At the very least, watch her retreating back until it disappeared into the jostling crowd. Whether they were going to have sex or not, didn't change the fact that Safu was important to him. He knew well that this was nearly not the proper farewell that she deserved. He knew. But what he thought he knew so well was swept away instantly. His body moved on its own, defying his rational thought. Yes, he had experienced this four years ago― even though he knew reason always had the right answer.
Turn the security system on. Notify the Security Bureau. Remove the foreign presence. He had defied all of it. It was the same now. He was letting his emotions control his actions.
It had begun raining outside. Raindrops pelted his cheek. In the crowd of people briskly walking to and fro, not a familiar face was to be seen.
"Shion!" Karan greeted her son at the door, and widened her eyes. "You're soaked through! What were you doing?"
"In this rain? From where?"
"And why on earth did you let yourself get this wet?"
"I was cooling off."
"Cooling off, hmm? Laid back as always, aren't you?"
Safu has used the same words only moments before. Shion chuckled to himself and began towelling off his hair. It had suddenly grown very cool since it started raining; the old kerosene fan heater was humming to keep the room warm. Karan yawned. It was already time for her to sleep. Tucked away in a corner of Lost Town, Karan ran a modest bakery. It was small, with only one showcase. But people seemed to be drawn to the aroma of freshly-baked bread that wafted from the doors early each morning, and business was booming. She opened early, and so slept early too. It was rounding nine o'clock, which for Karan was like midnight.
"I'm thinking of increasing the batch of butter rolls tomorrow. And maybe be a little adventurous and try selling some simple cakes, on top of the muffins that we sell. What do you think?"
"Like cherry cake?"
"That's the one. A little something that people can buy as a snack, but a little more higher-end than bread or muffins. A small souvenir for a special day, or something like that."
"That sounds great," Shion enthused.
"Don't you think so? And I think having cakes in the display case would liven things up a little."
Shion nodded, and began to leave the living room. In this house, they didn't have the luxury of private bedrooms. Karan slept in a corner of the living room, and Shion in the storage cellar.
"Shion," his mother called. He turned around.
"Did something happen?"
"Did something happen to you that would make you need to cool off?" Karan continued without waiting for Shion's answer. "When you came home, you seemed a little dazed. You didn't even seem to realize you were wet. And... even now―"
"You look absent-minded, but then again a little agitated... it's a strange face you've got on. Do you want me to bring a mirror?"
Shion exhaled shortly.
"Someone died in the park today."
"What? In the Forest Park? There was nothing in the news about that."
Nothing in the news? Did that mean that the man died of natural causes? Although sudden, maybe it was explainable. Not enough to make the news, just a normal death ― Shion shook his head. Of course not. The time it took for that body to become rigid, the expression on his face, the green stain. It was all too abnormal.
To the Security Bureau he had only explained what he found at the scene. He pretended that he hadn't noticed the rigor mortis or the stain―he felt like he had to. He didn't know why, but a voice inside him had told him to play dumb, to lie. Just as a small animal might sense danger and hide itself, his instinct had warned him. Instinct - there it was again. He was acting not on reason, but on whim. He was turning away from logic and sense only too easily to succumb to instinctive emotion. Shion sighed deeply. It was a little hard to breathe.
"And that's why you're agitated?"
"Well, yeah. I've never seen a dead body before."
I'm lying, mom. I saw those eyes again today. I saw Nezumi. I have a feeling that something's going to happen. That's why―
Karan smiled and wished him good night. It was a gentle smile. He wished her good night in answer, and left the living room.
Karan's stature was still plump, but she looked much younger than before. It seemed like she hadn't taken the move from Chronos to Lost Town too harshly. She often smiled as she talked about how enjoyable it was to bake bread, and how uplifting it was when people bought them. It wasn't just out of kindness or a desire to reassure her son. Karan wasn't despairing at all about their life here. In Chronos, everything was given to them, but their life in Lost Town was something Karan had built up with her own hands. That was why Shion didn't want to destroy it. He didn't want to uproot her entire life as he did four years ago. He didn't want to get her involved in trouble again.
Shion collapsed into bed. He felt a faint chill, and there was a dull pain at the back of his head. When he closed his eyes, a flurry of images rushed past his eyelids. The greenish stain, the abandoned lettuce, the pink shirt, Safu's face. I want to have sex. The mouse that had scurried up his body. Still a natural. The core of his body grew hot. His heartbeat quickened. It was no dream. It wasn't an illusion. Nezumi did exist there, in the crowd people at the station. That was some flashy appearance you made back there. "Jerk," he muttered under his breath. What was he supposed to expect from that short appearance? What was Nezumi planning to do?
Shion sat up in bed. Safu aside, were the body in the park and Nezumi somehow connected? On the same night that he discovered the body, Nezumi appeared. Was that a coincidence? If they were related, how were they―
A chime interrupted his thoughts. The mobile telephone on his ID card was ringing. It couldn't be. He knew it couldn't be Nezumi, but his heart raced. His fingers trembled as he grasped the card. White letters flashed on the display―Safu. He tapped the Talk button and the screen switched to Safu's face.
"Shion, were you asleep?"
He had forgotten. He should be the one calling her back, and to finish saying the farewell that he had left hanging.
"Safu, I'm sorry about back there. I―"
"That person was that important to you, huh?"
Safu's face had broken into a wry smile. It was both serene and beautiful.
"I've never seen you look like that before. Do you know what kind of expression you had on?"
"Huh? Wait―did I look that bad?"
"It was very interesting indeed. It kept me entertained the whole time. First, it was astonishment, and then―well, let's see―what could you call it? Joy? Raptness, maybe. Enough to wipe everything else out of your mind. And then you beelined out of the station, leaving me behind all by myself. Sad story, huh? I know."
"I'm so sorry. I can't apologize enough."
"I'll say. You're welcome. At least I got to see a new side of you―I've never seen you with that face before. So, Shion, who is it that makes you look like that? Was she that important to make you drop everything and chase after her?"
He even surprised himself at his prompt affirmation.
"Um, Safu, don't get me wrong. It's not a girlfriend, or anything like that. Uh―I can't really explain it well, but..."
"Also my first time seeing you stumble over yourself trying to explain things. That's alright if you have a girlfriend. I don't mind if you've already got someone on your mind. ―No, that was a lie. Look at me, I always try to put up a strong face in any situation. It's a bad habit of mine."
"That's not true," Shion retorted. "You're always truthful to yourself."
"Only in front of you." Didn't you realize? Safu continued, and her expression grew serious.
"Safu, really, um― take care of yourself. When we meet in two years―"
"I love you, Shion. More than anyone else."
The line died without waiting for his answer. He could hear the pitter-patter of rain. He thought he saw something move in a corner of the room.
Amidst the bags of flour and sugar piled in the storage room, only the sound of rain echoed. Shion hugged his knees and sat silently in the darkness, lending an ear to its continuous drizzle. The rain showed no signs of either worsening or letting up, and continued through the rest of the night.
Read Chapter 3.