Please hover over the image to see the text. See annotations on mouse-over.
The Angel of the Netherworld
I love him, love him. He's a millstone round my neck - he'll take me to the bottom with him. But I love this millstone of mine - I can't live without it.
-Chekhov "The Cherry Orchard" Act III
The girl came just as Karan was about to close the blinds of the store.
"Ma'am, are there any muffins left?" She was an adorable child with a round face, probably not yet ten.
"We're all out of cheese, but if you like raisin muffins, we've got one of those left."
"Alright, Lili. Just a second." Karan picked the leftover muffin off the tray, and put it in a bag with two doughnuts.
"The doughnuts are a little something extra."
"Thank you, Ma'am." Lili dropped a few copper coins into Karan's hand. She had probably held them tightly in her hand her whole way here, for although no blood coursed through the coins, they held the warmth of a human body.
Lili peeked inside the bag, and her face glowed as she observed aloud that there were two whole doughnuts inside.
"You're one of my regular customers after all, Lili. Next time, I'll bake some extra cheese muffins for you."
"Ma'am, you won't quit running this store, will you?" Lili raised her face from the bag, and questioned Karan with a sombre expression.
"I would never. Why would you think so?"
"Mama said that you might close your store. But I'm glad you're not." A relieved grin spread across her round face. Karan squatted down and wrapped her arms around the girl's small frame.
"Thank you for worrying about me, Lili."
Her soft body, her warm presence― she was so small, yet she provided Karan with definite encouragement.
"Mama and Papa were both worried," Lili said. "They were saying, 'what if we can't eat the bread or cakes from your bakery again?'. Because you know, the cake shop in front of the station is bad-tasting, and expensive, and mean," she said huffily.
"Yeah. Because the other day, there was a huge white cake on display, and it was like a toy castle. And me and Ei― oh, do you know who Ei is?"
"No, I don't."
"He's my friend. He's really good at blowing bubbles. So Ei and me were looking at it together, because it was so pretty."
"So you two were looking into the shop window?"
"Yeah. And the old man in the store started yelling at us. He said, don't touch the glass with your dirty hands. We were just looking. We weren't even touching the glass," Lili said indignantly.
"So Ei yelled at him back, and said 'you stupid stingy old man!' and so I yelled at him too, and said 'you stupid bald old man!'. And then we both ran away."
Karan found herself bursting into laughter. It had been a while since she had laughed out loud. She kissed Lili on the cheek.
"I can't make anything as big as a castle, but for your birthday, Lili, I'll bake a nice, all-white cake for you."
"Really. Make sure you share with Ei, too."
"Thank you, Ma'am," said Lili happily. "I like cherry cake."
Cherry cake― Shion had liked it too.
Lili waved her hand, and walked out of the store. Karan watched her retreating back until it melted into the dusk, then lowered the blinds. She sank into a chair.
After Shion had left her, she found it hard to bear when evening set in each day. Evening trapped her in the deep disappointment that another day had passed without Shion coming home. The feeling turned into heavy exhaustion that made it feel troublesome to lift a single finger.
At times a murmur, at times unvoiced; at times as if in conversation, at times coming close to screaming― she wondered how many times she called her son's name each day.
When she heard that the Security Bureau had taken Shion into custody on charges of civil disturbance and murder, she thought she would go insane.
"Please be aware that you will likely never meet with the suspect again."
The night that she had been given the news by a Security Bureau official, Karan had a premonition that her son would die. She knew more certainly than anyone that Shion would never take part in a murder. But a mother's desperate feelings would never get across to the Bureau― she knew that well too. In No. 6, where the crime rate was almost zero percent, there was no judicial system. Merely being arrested and taken into custody by the Security Bureau confirmed the suspect's guilty status. Pleading guilty or not guilty was not allowed, nor was raising a formal objection.
He has already been impounded into the Correctional Facility. Soon, as a first-class VC he will be sentenced for life; or under special law, be sentenced to death penalty. The Security Bureau official's words were neither exaggerated nor twisted in any way― they were the bare truth. They had always been. The next time this uniform would appear at her door would be after the sentence had been handed down to her son. At this moment, Karan experienced for herself what despair physically felt like. All sounds disappeared from around her, and all colours faded. She couldn't smell or feel anything. Darkness was the only thing she could see before her. It was an inky-black darkness that would never see the light of dawn. Was this bottomlessness what people called despair―?
I've lost everything.
Suddenly, a certain man's face crossed her mind. If I beg him for help, could something be done? But the crack of light that had shone into her heart soon flickered and vanished. No― there's no time. She didn't even know where that man was right now. She had no time to search him out and beg for her son's life.
Suddenly overcome with nausea, Karan vomited all the contents of her stomach. She broke out into a sweat. She half-crawled to the storage room, and collapsed on Shion's bed. Most of Shion's belongings had been confiscated as evidence by the Security Bureau. I can just die too, in a corner of this storage room. I'll close my eyes, and follow after him.
Rather than live this brutal life, I can choose the peace of death that'll come after short suffering. I'm not strong enough to go on living alone in this darkness.
She thought she heard something squeak at her ear as she lay there. It was probably just her imagination. It might not be my imagination. But it doesn't matter, I'm already....
Something bit her earlobe. A dull pain raced through it. She lifted her upper body. A small mouse scurried away into a corner of the storage room.
―What was a mouse doing here?
She swallowed. She touched her earlobe. A little blood came off on her finger. Lost Town may be in the older parts of town, but it was still rare for animals, excluding pets, to be running around. Even more so for mice―
"Nezumi." Her heart thumped loudly.
Nezumi. Hadn't Shion murmured that word more than once? While he was drinking cocoa; while he gazed at the trees swaying in the wind; while he looked up at the evening sky, he had murmured that word. Ever since that day, when they had been evicted from Chronos and moved to Lost Town because of that incident― it was the day that Shion had undergone an investigation and received a stern warning for guarding a VC, regarded as a violent criminal in No. 6. Concealing and aiding in the escape of a VC normally classified as a serious crime, but with regards to his young age of twelve and his emotional state, he had been let off with only the removal of his special privileges.
Karan, for some reason, didn't feel much of an attachment to Chronos, nor did she find her life in Lost Town harsh. Though others may have reprimanded Shion's actions for lacking common sense, she was able to believe that there was something in Shion's feelings and beliefs that lead him to do what he did. Although the city gave him preferred treatment as a gifted child because of his level of intellect, perhaps she had begun to realize somewhere inside that her son would take emotion over knowledge, and take a future that he could grasp of his own free will over a future that was already promised to him. That was why she chose not to question him much about that incident. But she had asked him once about Nezumi.
"So what's this Nezumi? Who is he?"
"It's someone's name, isn't it?" She had thought so because of the tender way her son said the word. Nostalgically, lovingly, at times strained― it even carried a tone of longing. He would definitely not use that tone of voice to call a regular mouse or rat.
"Did you get your heart broken by that person?"
"Never. What're you saying, Mom?"
"Well, it sounded like that."
"No, it's not like that. You've got it all wrong."
It was then that Shion would become unusually agitated, blush crimson, and do things like drop his spoon. Yes, she remembered it now. Nezumi...
She stood up. Her heartbeat returned to normal, and her body felt lighter. Hope― though she didn't know why― flickered inside her. She could breathe, and the willpower to move on revived within her again.
A small mouse was curled up next to a box of flour. It made eye contact with Karan, and swung its face around in a wide circle. It spat a capsule out of its mouth. Then it disappeared into the back of the storage room. There was a memo inside the capsule.
The light that flickered in her became a roaring flame. She pressed a hand firmly to her mouth. She felt if she didn't, she would cry out in joy.
He's alive. My child is alive. I'll be able to see him again.
Karan breathed in, and furtively looked about her.
If the memo was true, and Shion had escaped alive to the West Block, then this house was probably under heavy surveillance by the Bureau. Pinhole cameras. Audio tapping. Wireless signal tapping. She would not be able to act recklessly.
She moved further into the storage room. Beside a crate of jam, she scribbled on a piece of wrapping paper. The word 'West Block' brought to mind a hazy figure. What was his name again? He worked for the Latch Bill... he was a good person. She remembered that much. Perhaps he would― but―
She had an endless amount of things she wanted to tell Shion.
Shion, stay alive. No matter what you do, stay alive. Your mother is fine. As long as you're alive, I'll be fine. So please, don't die.
But there was no use in spilling her heart out now.
The small mouse appeared at her feet. It twitched its whiskers as if to urge her on. She couldn't stay in one spot like this for long― especially because she didn't know where the surveillance cameras would be located. She scribbled hastily, rolled the paper up, and tossed it on the floor. In an instant, the small mouse picked it up in its mouth and disappeared.
If I follow it, will it lead me to Shion?
It was a fleeting thought. She waved it away, and took a step forward.
I'll wait here, until my child comes back to me. I'll stay here, and I'll wait. It's an easy thing to do. He's alive, and he's in the West Block. If he's alive, I can wait. Hope hasn't been cut off from me. I haven't lost yet.
I haven't lost? Who am I fighting with, anyway?
Karan smiled slightly to herself, lifted her face, and strode out of the storage room.
It had been almost a month since then. Just once, a small mouse appeared. It was brown, which meant that Shion was still safe. She felt relieved, but at the same time, distressed. Next time, a black mouse might appear. There was nothing ensuring Shion's safety.
She wanted to see him again. Lately, she had been having frequent dreams. In them, Shion was still young, and she would became afraid if they weren't clasping hands with each other. I won't let this hand go. But no matter how strongly she thought so, the little boy's hand would always slip from hers as he began running ahead of her.
Don't go there. It's dangerous over there, there's a horrible danger―
She would awake to her own scream. These sort of mornings had been continuing for some time. She had often moaned with dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches. But she still continued to bake, and continued to open her store for people like Lili.
Even after news of Shion's arrest and imprisonment had been broadcasted, the attitudes of the people around her hadn't changed.
The factory worker who always stopped by on his way to work to buy raisin bread and a sandwich for lunch― the college student who came once a week to buy a walnut cake― the housewife who came every morning to buy a freshly-baked loaf of bread― all rejoiced that Karan was still continuing her business.
"Whenever I eat your cakes, Madam, it fills me with a happy feeling. I don't know why, but it just makes me feel happy."
"Not being able to eat your raisin bread'll take all the fun outta my day. It's one of the things I look forward to, so don't ya take it away from me, Karan-san."
"You're a baker, aren't you? It's your job to bake, no matter what happens. We're all waiting, you know. Every morning, we all wait for the aroma of baking bread to waft into the streets."
These, and so many other countless words had supported her. Although they were still far from strong, the words of others made her soul hold ground as it threatened to collapse from the distress of not being able to confirm her son's well-being.
She had borrowed their shoulders to stand, clench her teeth, and continue to bake bread and cakes.
But evenings were still unbearable. If the people that passed her storefront on their way home were youths, it was unbearable all the more. It made her want to weep her heart out.
She sank into a chair, and covered her face with her hands.
She lifted her face. Under the glass display case, a small mouse was twitching the tip of its nose. It was brown.
The mouse looked around, then spat a capsule out of its mouth. She instinctively knew what would be inside the transparent capsule case.
The writing was slightly slanted, and distinctive in style. It was none other than Shion's hand.
Mom. The words became his voice as it echoed in her ears. Right then, at this moment, her son was living. He was alive as he wrote these words to his mother. He had written on this tiny piece of paper, a message just several words long. But it was enough to make Karan cry. She couldn't stop the tears that streamed down her face. She traced the words over and over again with her fingers.
Shion was probably in a dire situation. He may well be suffering in uncertainty. But he was not in utter dejection. His cramped but energetic handwriting expressed that.
Mom, I'm alright. I'm not unhappy. I really haven't despaired.
Karan wiped her tears on her apron. She vowed them to be her last. The next time she would cry would be when she was holding Shion again in her arms. Until that day, she would weep no more. Despair no more. I'll bake bread every day, sell it, manage my money, clean my shop, put out some flowers, and go on living. I'm going to do my job.
"Starting tomorrow, I'll put out a few more kinds of muffins. I know, I'll make it a Kids' Special day."
Karan nodded at her own words, and reached into the glass case to take out a round savoury roll. The bread, which was sprinkled with powdered cheese, was still fragrant and tasty even after it had gotten cold. With its affordable price to boot, it was a popular choice at her bakery. This one was the last of the batch that she had baked today.
"Thank you. Thank you so much, Mr. Mouse." She broke off a piece and tossed it in front of the little mouse. The dark brown mouse stared warily at the bread for a little while, sniffed it, and began to nibble at it cautiously.
"Is Nezumi your master? Will you tell him that I'm very, very grateful? And please tell him to come by one day to have a bite to eat. I'll treat him to as much bread as he can eat. And plenty of bread for you too, of course."
There was knocking at the door. It wasn't rough-sounding; on the contrary, it was quiet and almost hesitant. But Karan's heart shrank in fear.
Oh no. There was the possibility that this house was now a part of the Bureau's surveillance net. She had been so preoccupied with Shion's note that she had completely forgotten.
Is it the Security Bureau? Have they come to collect this letter―?
There was no complete security system here like in Chronos. There was no security alarm or camera, nor an auto-lock with a built-in recognition sensor. There was only a door paned with thin glass, blinds that covered them, and an outdated manual lock. One powerful man would be able to force his way in easily.
Karan crumpled the note into a ball in her hand. If worse came to worst, she was prepared to swallow it whole. The knocking still continued. She stood up slowly. She clenched her hand into a tight fist.
"Excuse me." It was a young woman's voice. "Excuse me... is anyone home―?"
The voice trailed off feebly. For an instant, the face of the college student who liked walnut cakes rose into her mind. But it wasn't her. Karan pressed the button to open the blinds.
Beyond the glass panes of the door stood a slender girl. She was wearing a thigh-length grey coat that seemed to melt into the dusk. Karan remembered the face that looked up and smiled at her.
"Why, it's Safu." Karan hastily opened the door. The girl stepped into the store along with the evening breeze, and commented on the tasty aroma. Then she bowed her head.
"Madam, it's been a long time."
"It has. How many years has it been now? You've grown so beautiful. I was so surprised."
"I did used to be mistaken for a boy a lot," Safu smiled, dimples showing in both her cheeks. Her smile was still the same as before. Like Shion, she had placed in the top rank for her intelligence in the city's Children's Examinations. She had been studying with him as a classmate in the Gifted class until the age of twelve. Karan remembered hearing that Safu had lost her parents at a young age, and was living with her grandmother.
After Karan and Shion had been banished from Chronos, Safu was the one classmate that continued to treat Shion as she had before. She had also come to this store once. That time, her face had still harboured some of its girlish innocence.
But the Safu now, who had unwound her light pink scarf, had silky skin and a gentle mouth. She showed hints of the beautiful woman she would eventually grow into.
"But hadn't you gone away on exchange to another city? I remember hearing something like that from Shion," Karan said.
"I've come back. My grandmother passed away. I received word not long after I arrived there, so I packed up and came right back."
"Your grandmother? Oh, dear..."
This girl has lost the last of her blood relatives.
"Safu... I don't know what to say. My heart goes out to you."
This girl had also experienced the same despair. She had experienced the loneliness of standing by herself in neverending darkness. And she was so young.
"Is there anything I can do? Safu, is there any way I can help?"
"There is." Safu stood in front of Karan, and looked her straight in the eyes. She was not wrought with grief. She wasn't anguished, or spent in exhaustion. She had a resilient and defiant gaze. The kind of eyes that one could only have in her girlhood.
"I came here because I have a favour to ask you, Madam."
"What is it?"
"Please tell me where Shion is."
Karan drew a breath, and gazed back into Safu's eyes.
"Please, tell me," Safu persisted. "He's alive, isn't he? He's not incarcerated in the Correctional Facility. He's alive― where is he?"
Her tone of voice was anxious for an answer. Karan clenched her fist harder around the small scrap of crumpled paper.
"Safu, you know about Shion, then?"
"I only know what's been broadcasted by the Bureau. Which means I don't know anything. They're all lies, aren't they?"
"What they said about Shion planning indiscriminate murder from twisted hatred― that's a huge lie. Shion wasn't twisted, and he didn't harbour any grudges toward anyone."
Karan tugged the girl by her hand and led her into the storage room.
"It looks like this room doesn't have any surveillance cameras or recording devices. Though I'm not sure how safe it is―"
Safu's eyes sparkled.
"If you're being spied on, that means Shion hasn't been captured, right? He's escaped somewhere, hasn't he? He's been able to escape safely, and he's still out there alive― Madam, you're sure of it, aren't you?"
"Why would you say that?"
"Because you're so calm about it... Just one look at you, and I could tell. You looked thin and worn, but you hadn't given up completely. It wasn't the face of a mother who's lost her son."
"I'm blown away, Safu. You'd make an excellent detective."
"Madam, Shion's alive, isn't he? He's doing well, right?"
Karan continued to hold Safu's gaze with her lips firmly shut.
Was there a possibility that Safu had been requested by the Bureau to come here to seek Shion's whereabouts? Karan thought for a moment. The answer was no. If the Bureau really intended to, there was no need to use Safu. It would be easy enough to extract information from Karan herself using a confession serum.
Was the Bureau actually pursuing her son in earnest?
The thought suddenly crossed her mind. All this time she had been too swayed by emotional exhaustion and confusion to even think about it, but if the Bureau were to actually pursue him with all their might, a mere young boy like him would not be difficult to put under arrest. Even if Shion had thrown his ID card away, tracking satellites would be able to confirm his location. As long as he didn't remain eternally underground, it was nearly impossible to escape the highly-refined tracking satellites.
Safu's hand grasped Karan's arm.
"Shion's outside of No. 6, isn't he?"
"I knew it... but it's only natural, isn't it? Within the city, surveillance would be in effect everywhere. It would be impossible to hide..."
"Safu, what's the image resolution of tracking satellites nowadays?"
"The newest ones would be under fifty centimetres. I heard it's possible to zoom in now by sending commands from the ground. Which means, it's possible to get an image of a person on ground-level with clarity."
The shrewd girl had guessed Karan's next thought. Safu swallowed, and continued talking.
"If they input Shion's data into the system, the satellites would start tracking him automatically. If he's above ground, it would be impossible for him not to be found."
"Then I wonder if he's gone underground. Or―"
Or has his appearance changed greatly from the recorded data― was that even possible?
"Madam... I think as long as Shion is outside the city, he'll be safe."
"Safe?" Karan repeated Safu's words in question. She didn't understand what Safu meant.
"I can't say it very well. It's just a hunch I have... we've never learned to put things like feelings and hunches into words. But after spending time outside the city, I've come to feel something..."
Safu's words became awkward and stumbling. She was desperately searching for words that described not theory, but something that resided within herself.
"Ah... I feel like this city is really closed― like it's shut itself in. Like it's just withdrawn completely into itself, solved everything within itself... and it's not interested or intrigued by anything outside of it."
"And you're talking about this city, here."
"Yes. That's how I feel. So if Shion is outside the city, I figure the Bureau would leave him alone, no matter if he's the suspect of a serious crime. If he were to come back to the city, though, they would probably arrest him immediately."
"That would mean Shion would never be able to come back, right?"
"As long as the city itself doesn't undergo some kind of change― I feel like that's how it would continue to be."
"That's such a cruel thing to say, Safu."
Safu shook her head, and grasped Karan's arm again.
"Madam, where is Shion?"
"In the West Block. That's all I know."
"West Block― is that so?" A breath escaped Safu's lips. For an instant, her gaze wandered in the air. Then she bowed her head deeply toward Karan.
"Thank you. I'm glad I was able to see you, Madam."
This time, Karan was the one to grab Safu's arm.
"Wait," she said. "What are you going to do, now that you've heard Shion's whereabouts?"
"I'm going to see him."