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I can't... see.... Don't... come... near me....
A Prayer Yonder
Good fortune, then,
To make me blest, or cursed'st among men!
- The Merchant of Venice Act II Scene I 
She tried to call to him. But her voice would not come out. Her tongue would not move. Her arms and legs were heavy as if they had been bound in shackles, and she could not get them free. Shion didn't turn around. His back, clad in a white shirt, moved further and further away. Around them was darkness. An inky black darkness spread out all around. There was not even the smallest ray of light.
Shion, wait. You can't go.
Turn around. Come back home. Don't go any further.
The darkness shifted. It bristled slimily and reared like something alive, and swallowed the retreating white back whole.
A shriek tore through her throat. Terror turned into vicious pain as it raced through her whole body. She tried to leap into the darkness after Shion, but her body would still not move. She couldn't take a single step forward.
Someone―someone help me. Stop him.
She heard voices. Someone was holding her hand. She was shaken lightly.
"Karan, can you hear me? Can you hear my voice?"
"Ma'am, wake up!"
The voices had strength. The darkness was brushed away from her eyes, and her vision lightened into a dim haze.
Oh―I hear you. I do hear you.
Karan opened her eyes. Her vision was blurry, like there was a veil being draped over it. Two hazy faces―one of a tan man and one of a girl―were peering into her face. But they were fleeting. She felt like if she blinked, they would ripple and shimmer, and disappear.
She could smell bread. Butter rolls, with ample butter kneaded into the dough. Come evening, Lost Town residents would flock to Karan's bakery for her affordable and delicious breads: labourers, after a long day's toil; hungry students; children with loose change in their fists―for these poor customers, she had set the oven to finish baking at 5 o'clock sharp. It looked like the outdated oven had functioned properly―the dozen or so butter rolls were finished and ready.
For Karan, the aroma of baking bread was the aroma of life itself. The savoury smell, now long familiar to her nose, yanked Karan energetically back into the real world.
The veil was thrown off. The outline of two faces flew clearly into her vision.
"Looks like you've come to," Yoming heaved a relieved sigh. Thank goodness, his lips moved. "Can you get up? You don't have to force yourself."
"Yes―I'm... I'm fine."
Yoming supported her while she raised her upper body. She had been lying on an old sofa in a corner of her workspace.
"I... went unconscious..."
"Yeah," Yoming said. "Behind the display case there, you just kind of crumpled to the ground. I was so startled. My heart's still going a mile a minute."
Yoming flashed a relieved smile. Karan tried to smile back, but her cheeks were stiff, and didn't move the way she wanted them to.
"Ma'am!" Lili threw herself at Karan and clung to her neck. Her eyes were brimming with tears. "Ma'am, you're okay, right? You're okay now?"
Lili pressed her cheek against Karan's neck. It was wet. The arms that clung to her were trembling as well. The little girl's tears were warm. They were almost hot. Normally she would gently embrace the little girl, but Karan's arms would still not move as she wanted them to. They were still heavy, and she felt like she was still clawing about in her dream.
She wanted to tear her hair out. She felt like she would go insane. Right this moment, what if Shion was heading to a place where his mother's hands could never reach? What if he was descending into the depths of hell?
If he is, if that's really happening, what am I to do? What should I...
"Oh!" Lili gasped softly, and drew away from Karan. "They're little mousies!"
A little brown mouse was sitting on the spice shelf. Another grey one poked its furry face out from beside it.
"Hey, there's two." Lili raised two fingers. Were they siblings? The two mice blinked their very similar grape-coloured eyes, and huddled together.
One had brought her Shion's letter. But what about the other one?
"Lili, can you bring me a tiny piece of cheese from the fridge? It's in the bottommost drawer."
Karan extended her hand up to the mice on the shelf, gently, but with as much strength as she could. The tips of her fingers trembled. The two mice looked at each other, and busily twitched their whiskers.
One of them encouraged the other, and the encouraged one turned to face Karan. It had such small eyes, but they were eyes that showed intelligence. These mice possessed intellect. They could understand human language and emotions.
Karan reached out further. She turned her palm upwards.
The grey one slipped forward. Without a minute of hesitation, it jumped down onto her palm. It shook its head side-to-side, and spat a small capsule out of its mouth. It was her second letter today.
"Ma'am, are you gonna give the cheese to the mousies?"
Karan nodded at Lili, and opened the capsule. It wasn't Shion's writing. But she remembered seeing it before. It was the writing that had extended a hand to Karan and pulled her up when she had been wallowing in the depths of despair, after Shion was taken away by the Security Bureau. It was the beautiful, flowing hand that showed its owner's intelligence and resilient will. She could never forget this writing.
The short sentence didn't even add up to a tenth of his last note, but Karan was able to heave a sigh of relief. A cool, soothing breeze blew through her body. The obstruction in her chest, her airway, cleared somewhat.
Oh, I can breathe.
It was too early to despair. She could not lose hope yet.
"Nezumi..." She found herself saying his name out loud. For an instant, she felt like someone had put an arm around her shoulders. Although she couldn't see it, she could feel strong and supple arms supporting her.
Reunion will come. Whatever happens, I will bring Shion back to you alive. This I promise.
She could hear a low voice whisper at her ear. She breathed deeply again.
Nezumi was there. Always, at any time, he would be by Shion's side. Her boy was not alone.
"Karan, what's that?"
Yoming was peering into Karan's hand.
"Letter? Do the mice deliver the post where you live?"
"They do," she smiled. "And it's handwritten, too. Isn't it so much more delightful than electronic mail?"
Now she could smile. Yoming and Lili looked at each other, and the corners of their mouths turned up as well. Lili, who was breaking the cheese and feeding it to the two mice, came up to Karan and buried her cheek into Karan's bosom. This time, Karan could finally put her arms around her properly.
"I was scared," Lili mumbled tearfully. "I was scared that... you wouldn't move at all anymore... like Daddy... I was scared. Really scared."
"Daddy? Did something happen to your Daddy, Lili?"
"My Daddy before. My real Daddy."
Yoming shook his head slightly.
"Lili's current father is Renka's second husband―she remarried."
"So Getsuyaku-san is..." Karan trailed off. "―I see."
She conjured to mind the long, thin face with drooping eyebrows. Now that Yoming had mentioned it, she realized he and Lili were not alike at all in facial structure or body type. But she never felt anything strange about seeing them walking hand-in-hand, or coming to buy bread together. They were a happy family, father and daughter who truly got along. After Shion had disappeared, she felt a twinge of pain in her heart at times when she saw Getsuyaku and Lili together. She was both saddened and envious.
"Then Lili's father..."
"He passed away a few years back."
"A little before you moved in here, ma'am," Lili chimed in. "But you know, I love my new Daddy too. He's really funny. He always makes me laugh."
Lili lifted her chin, and a grin spread across her face. It was a bright smile of relief as she confirmed that Karan could speak properly, feeble though it was.
"I never knew. Renka never mentioned anything."
"She probably didn't want to," Yoming said. "They're painful memories for her."
The words had probably slipped without him knowing. Yoming gave a deep sigh. Lili began to speak.
"One day when we were eating together, Daddy stopped moving. He said, 'I can't breathe' and fell out of his chair. And I don't know why, but he stopped moving after that."
Lili's body began to shake, as memories of her younger days began to come back to her. Karan slid her gaze to Yoming. She questioned him with her eyes.
What is this about?
"Lili's father―died, before her eyes," Yoming said hesitantly, casting his eyelashes down. "No," he then said momentarily. "He was murdered."
The frightful word overlapped with the image of Shion's retreating back. Karan found herself clenching her fists so hard that her nails were digging into her palms.
"Lili's father―his name was Suifu―was a construction worker, and a giant of a man who was proud of his strength, and rightly too," Yoming said.
"Mommy says he was really kind, strong, and cool. He was really in love with Mommy, right?"
Yoming smiled wryly.
"I think Renka's prettying it up a bit too much, even for a story to tell her daughter. Suifu was a big drinker and a loose spender, so they were always getting into fights. But, well, he was a nice guy, and worked hard for his family. He was a boisterous one, and liked to sing. When he'd get drunk, he'd always sing in that booming voice. Yeah," he nodded. "He was a good guy. He certainly did love his family very much."
"But he was... killed?"
"Indirectly..." Karan repeated. "Yoming, will you explain in a way I can understand?"
Yoming drew up a battered chair, and sat down. With his right hand, he gently stroked Lili's hair. It was a gesture that showed how much Yoming cared for and cherished his niece.
"Explain so you understand, huh... if only it was as easy as that. There are so many things I still don't know, that it's hard to even tell in proper sequence."
Yoming always spoke in a muddled way, and often ended his sentences awkwardly. But nevertheless, he groped for the right words, and began to weave the story in fragments.
"Suifu, back then, was involved in the construction of a certain building. He was a construction worker."
"A certain building..."
"Yeah. But we still don't know what building it was. I heard even Suifu didn't have an idea what it was. He used to be taken to the construction site in a windowless van―he couldn't see anything outside."
"Then to silence him―?"
"No, Karan, that couldn't be it. Suifu took his assigned job seriously, but he wasn't interested at all in what he was building. He didn't care which part of the city this building was in, or what it was going to be used for. Even if he was interested, it wasn't a kind of secret that a construction worker could sniff out. It was put under skilful concealment. Right after Suifu died, I did some footwork of my own trying to find out where this brother-in-law of mine used to work, but to no avail. Open disclosure doesn't exist in a city like this. If the authorities wanted it concealed, there would be nothing we citizens could do against it, anyway. There shouldn't have been any need to go as far to kill Suifu to hide a secret."
"Then... what did he die of?"
"Outwardly they're saying it was a heart attack. But I can't bring myself to believe that Suifu could have had one. It's as likely as a duck drowning in a pond."
"So it must mean there's something else to it."
"Yeah..." Yoming sealed his lips gravely, and cast his gaze around the room.
"It's alright," Karan reassured. "We're not being tapped."
"Is that so." Yoming paused. "I'm sorry," he said abruptly, "being all furtive like this. It's shameful."
"No, not at all."
Were they really free from tapping devices? Frankly, Karan wasn't completely sure. The authorities possessed enormous power. They could do anything if they wished to. It should be no large feat for them to tap all citizens' conversations and manage that information.
But even so.
Karan grasped the memo tightly in her hand.
She would accomplish nothing if she kept shrinking back from fear. Instead of being afraid, sealing my lips, plugging my ears―let me speak, let me listen. She would say it out loud; she would tilt an ear to listen. To her it seemed like it was the only option left.
Karan leaned forward determinedly to the man and his roundabout words.
"And this 'something else' that you were talking about?"
Yoming blinked just once. Then, he stared straight into Karan's eyes.
"All of this is speculation. But if I tell you, I might end up loading you down with a burden."
"I want to hear about it, and this is from my own will."
She tried spurring Yoming on.
"You went and you investigated your own side of the truth. You said you barely know anything, but knowing you, you've probably at least gotten a clue. You've grasped something, haven't you? A hint―it might be thinner than a thread, but something to lead you to the truth?"
"You've expected too much from me," Yoming said heavily. "I didn't have the power, courage, or method to do any of that... but I can say that the pay that Suifu received while he was working at that site was quite, quite high. I heard it was double that of how much he usually gets. Renka was surprised when she heard Suifu was getting 'special danger compensation'. It's hard to imagine a construction site with danger risk in a place like No. 6."
"Special danger compensation..." Karan pondered. "For tearing something down, or blowing it up..."
"Or handling chemicals."
"Chemicals―you mean poison?"
"Or the equivalent. Something unknown: something even the scientists of No. 6 wouldn't know the proper method of handling."
"I can't imagine anything that would fit."
"It's hard to. There's just not enough information."
"But Lili's father wasn't the only one working at the site, was he?" Karan persisted. "Wouldn't we be able to find out more if we asked those other people too?"
"That's the thing; I can't find any of them."
"You can't find them?"
"Yeah. They're missing―or maybe they didn't exist in the first place. In other words, there were no other humans involved in the construction other than Suifu."
"No other humans... oh, then do you mean robots―"
"Yes. Robots. They were using construction robots."
Karan lifted her face, and gazed at the ceiling without really seeing it. Shion used to operate robots, too. They were cleaning robots for the park.
"They're really cute, but functionality-wise they've still got some ways to go. Like just the other day: a lady had her hat blown away by the wind, and the robot picked it up, which was perfectly fine. But the robot couldn't control its grip, and ended up squashing the hat. The lady was furious, can you imagine? So I think humans are still better with small and delicate tasks. Human fingers are really amazing, you know."
And he would wiggle his fingers lightly....
Karan screwed her eyes shut to forcefully scatter the memories of her son from her mind. She spoke in the calmest voice she could muster.
"Lili's father must have been doing a job that robots couldn't do."
"Probably," Yoming conceded. "But Suifu wasn't a technician. He didn't have any special technical skill. I mean, being the serious guy he is deep-down, I'm sure he would have done a thorough job with anything that was given to him, but... I can't imagine what he could have been doing amongst those robots."
"The difference between humans and task robots."
Shion's fingertips fluttered in her memories. They were deft fingertips. They always skilfully performed the delicate work she asked him to do. Once in a while, she even found herself gazing in admiration at their dexterity.
You know mom, human fingers are really amazing.
"Robots might be more useful for things like tearing down walls, or carrying heavy things, but with smaller tasks that require more care... for example, let's see... using small tiles to make a complicated pattern on the wall, or engraving letters into a pillar... robots still can't do that, right? It's the same with bread. If you want to make bread that tastes the same and looks the same, a machine would be enough. But celebration cakes, for example―where it's important for them to look nice, and to match that person's taste―you'd have to make them by hand if you wanted something good."
"But Suifu couldn't bake bread or cakes like you can. He didn't have the skill to make patterns with tiles, or engrave lettering. He really couldn't do anything special... or at least, I don't think so."
"How about carrying things?"
"Yes, important things... like fragile items, or soft things... things that have to keep their shape, like a hat. Human hands would be more suited for things like that."
"You're right. That might be it. Maybe Suifu was carrying some highly-dangerous something-or-other, that couldn't be left to robots. But... even if that was true, I have no idea what that might be, or how it could relate to those sudden deaths. No matter how much I rack my brains, I can never get out of the range of speculation. In the end, with nothing to work with, we can only keep asking the same questions that will never have answers. We don't know anything for sure... all we know is that Suifu was involved in city construction work, and that he died. That's it. Right, Karan?"
Yoming's tone of voice grew more leaden by the second, and dropped so low she could barely hear him.
"This city devours people ruthlessly," Yoming growled. "Sometimes I can't help but think so. It devours people that have fallen out of the boundaries of the city's values; people whom they've deemed inferior to their values; people who have objected against their values. They devour them head-first, ripping them, strewing the bits, until they throw them away."
"Mm..." Karan answered vaguely.
"So in the end, a place like this, Lost Town, is like a cesspit for the city: it's a gathering-place for people who have fallen out of the city's criteria of value, inferior humans. No, they probably deliberately made it this kind of gathering-place. It's a warehouse of disposable people."
Karan felt an onset of shivers at Yoming's heavy, low voice, as well as the words that were coming out of his mouth. She stole a glance at Lili. Apparently weary of the adults' conversation, the little girl had moved some paces away to play with the two mice. The brown and grey mice were in Lili's lap, stuffing their cheeks with morsels of cheese. Whether human or some other animal, small beings were always adorable. It was the adult's job to protect these small and fragile bodies and minds, with whatever it took.
That was what Karan believed. She didn't want to thrust the terror of reality on Lili, still so young. Yes, one could not be blinded. One must not be tricked. One had to be able see through the deceit and find real truth. But this hardened will was something to be born by adults who were old enough to withstand 'knowing'. Lili was still much too young.
The little girl turned towards Karan's voice with her large, black eyes.
"I don't think the cheese is enough to make those little mousies full. I think there's a butter roll from yesterday left in a corner of the display case. Will you give them half each?"
"You can give bread to mousies?"
"Yes. Will you give it to them as a reward? And could I ask you to watch the store, too? If a customer comes in, I want you to give them a nice greeting, and say, 'welcome!'. I promise I'll treat you to freshly-baked butter rolls later."
"Yay! You know, I've always wanted to do a baker's job."
The mice were now perched on Lili's shoulder, evidently having become close friends with her. They were a pair of smart mice: they could tell which humans were dangerous, and which ones could be trusted.
"Ma'am, you know what?" Lili stood on her toes and brought her lips to Karan's ear. "I'm gonna tell you a secret."
"Alright, what is it?"
"Mommy's gonna have a baby. I'm going to be a big sister."
"Oh my, Renka? That's fantastic. When?"
"When it gets warm, and lots of flowers start to bloom."
Yoming gave an exasperated smile.
"Hey, Lili, are you sure it was okay to just reveal Mommy's secret like that?"
"Ma'am's allowed to know."
"I'm so glad," Karan said warmly. "Thank you for telling me. When the baby is born, we'll have to celebrate with a giant cake. Alright, Lili, you'll watch the store for me, right?"
"Yeah. I say 'welcome!' right? 'Welcome!'" With the mice sitting on her shoulder, Lili left the room and made for the bakery counter. Yoming gave yet another sigh.
"Right. I guess it's something we wouldn't want Lili to hear."
"Of course. To hear that your own father was treated like an object, and that he lost his life as a result... even if she were to find out eventually, right now is too early."
Yoming slowly lifted his gaze from the exit into which Lili had disappeared, and rested it back on Karan.
"Treated like an object―yes, Suifu was given the same treatment as the robots. He wouldn't have been told how risky that job was. They must have glossed it over with something vague, and dangled high wages under his nose. Suifu wanted money. It was still only a short time after he'd been fired from his former workplace for getting into a disagreement with a colleague. If it was to support his family, he would have been prepared to risk a few things to get a job. The authorities researched all of that, of course, and chose Suifu for that reason. After all, they've got complete access to citizen information. It was probably a piece of cake for them to pick a suitable candidate. They needed someone to handle a job with unknown dangers; someone who was used to heavy lifting; someone who was responsible, and worked silently and efficiently. A man without curiosity, inquisitiveness, or a sense of suspicion. Someone who wouldn't mind risking danger for money―Suifu was probably the perfect choice."
"So that's why his job and his sudden death must be related somehow. You're sure of that."
"Yeah. I don't know how in the world they could be related, but I certainly believe they're connected to each other. Ask me why I think so, and I'd say―"
"The ambulance. Suifu collapsed, and Renka, naturally, called the ambulance. But she told me it came unusually quickly. She said it wasn't even three minutes after she'd phoned them."
An ambulance arriving within three minutes―this was an extremely rare occurrence in Lost Town; no, one could even say it was nonexistent.
The Holy City of No. 6 was an urban society built upon a rigid hierarchy. With the mayor and his city policies at the apex, only a handful of "chosen ones" reigned. They were named "elites", and lived in the luxury residences of Chronos in a special district, blessed with an undisturbed, excessive, and exceedingly comfortable life. The regular citizens below them, although far from having a life like one in Chronos, lived their daily lives supported by highly-developed medical and scientific technologies, in happiness―or in what they were made to think of as happiness. People like Karan who lived in Lost Town, even farther from "elite", were not insured of any of the city's services and aid that were normally available to regular citizens. They were treated like sub-citizens. To borrow Yoming's words, Lost Town was like a warehouse for disposable humans.
Emergency medical care was almost unattainable in Lost Town. Karan remembered hearing that the number of ambulances and medical clinics were less than a tenth of Chronos. This was regardless of the fact that Lost Town had many more injured and ill patients than Chronos.
An ambulance had arrived in less than three minutes. What was the meaning behind this almost miraculous occurrence?
"Do you mean that Lili's father was being placed under surveillance, so that they could deal with it quickly if anything out-of-the-ordinary happened?"
"It was probably Level 3 surveillance. Suifu started convulsing at the dinner table, but by the time the ambulance arrived, he was already not moving. I don't know whether he was still alive at this point, or if he was already a corpse, because people from the Health and Hygiene Bureau carried him off. Renka tried to accompany him in the ambulance, but she was refused. They ordered her to stay at home."
"And after that, Lili's father..."
"Two hours later, he came back as a cold body. A doctor that was sent over by the Health and Hygiene Bureau explained that it was a heart attack, but of course we could never believe that. I was at the scene too, because I'd rushed over after getting Renka's call. I begged him to explain in more detail, but it didn't do any good. The only thing that happened was Suifu's ID card getting exchanged for a Confirmation of Death card to permit his funeral."
"I see... so that was what happened."
She knew she was giving a rather unthoughtful answer. But she had no idea what kind of answer she could have given to Yoming's words―what answer she ought to have given. It wasn't something she could just let in one ear and out the other. But of course, easy words of consolation and condolence were equally as inappropriate. Then what would she say, and how? She couldn't help but hesitate. Her hesitation turned to unease, and faintly took on a tinge of fear. Yoming's words further coloured this fear deeply.
"When the doctor was leaving, what do you think he said to Renka? 'This patient passed away almost without any pain at all,' he said. And true, Suifu's dead face was peaceful. He was smiling like he was having some nice dream. But Renka and Lili saw how his face was twisted in pain before he collapsed. How could they ever believe that he'd died a peaceful death?"
"So you're saying the Lili's father's dead face was made to look peaceful by some special method..." Karan swallowed hard. Her own parents included, all of the bodies that Karan had ever seen were always smiling peacefully. Their faces were graced with smiles that made them look like they had never experienced a single pain or hardship while they were alive. Every dead face was beautiful. That was how she thought they were supposed to be―that in No. 6, where palliative care was highly developed, everyone was promised a calm and painless death.
It was a lie. It was all artificial. Here, even human deaths were covered up and modified. All the circumstances and truths that clung to each and every human death were scrubbed clean like tanned hide, levelled, fixed up, and tucked away as a "peaceful death".
We're living in a world that is more disturbing than I could ever fathom. And what if this disturbing nature was far beyond what my pallid imagination could visualize...?
"Whatever the case, Suifu's death is still shrouded in mystery. Renka's remarried and managing to get on with her life. I'm―as you can probably see―living day-to-day as an information-broker. I've been so caught up with other tasks that a lot of times, I forget about Suifu. And I say damnit to myself every time. Those are my days: gnashing my teeth, reminding myself that I can't let myself forget about Suifu, and of course my wife and son."
"There would be no way you would forget it," Karan reassured him, "if Lili's father and your wife and son have been murdered by this city. You wouldn't be able to, would you?"
"No. And that's the only thing I can do now: remember. Keep remembering. I'll never forget all the people that were taken from me. But sometimes I get a nasty chill when I think―what if the authorities catch me? And I wonder, if they ever erased my memory..."
Yoming peered closely at Karan's face. Her eyes were shadowed. It looked as if despair had been poured into her eyes, and her gaze was swimming in it.
"What do you mean, erase your memory?" she asked.
"Lobotomy. Cutting into my brain with a scalpel, and taking my memories and thinking ability from me."
"Yoming, you're―" You're letting your thoughts run away with you. You're being delusional.
She couldn't say the rest of her words. Lobotomy―maybe it was possible. After Shion disappeared, the Holy City shed mask after mask of artifice, right before her eyes. Although she had only seen a small portion, what Karan saw of No. 6 was not a Holy City; it was a remorseless authoritarian city-state.
This city is trying to dominate people.
They wanted to dominate without exception the minds, the bodies, of everyone who lived in the city. They wanted to put their thoughts, lives, and fates under relentless scrutiny, and dominate them.
Yes, it was like Yoming said. No. 6 devoured people. They tore through any attempt to remain human, any soul, or will to resist, any wish, and wolfed it all down. It was no Holy City. It was a rearing monster, gone mad with desire for domination.
Had no one realized? Was everyone too fooled by their appearance of a satisfactory and comfortable lifestyle to even notice the monstrous figure? What stupidity...
Karan shook her head vigorously. These were not simply someone else's problems. They were most certainly not.
"Karan, are you starting to feel ill again?" Yoming said with concern. "You just fainted after all―you should rest a little. I'm sorry for bringing up something like this."
Yoming looked sincerely apologetic. Karan shook her head firmly again.
"No, that's not it. I was just―remembering something."
"Lili's asked me that before. Whether we're really happy or not."
Lili had once asked her.
"We're happy, right?"
It was quite a while back. It was after Karan had gone through the struggle to open her bakery, and it was finally starting to operate smoothly. Karan had murmured, hmm, well, I guess, and cocked her head to the side. She had been able to make baking, which she liked, into her life's work. It wasn't much to live on, but at least she had an idea now of how she and her son could make a living. Even after being revoked of all their special privileges and being exiled from Chronos, they had been able to acquire a stable life. It was during that time. Back then she had no way of knowing that in a few years, a cruel separation from Shion would be waiting for her. So in truth, if she was asked are you happy, she could very well have nodded and said, why yes, I guess I am. Karan had indeed not thought of herself as unhappy at that time.
Karan's fall from Chronos to Lost Town didn't cause her much grief or suffering. On the contrary, she was enjoying the lightness of her load, having cast off her life insured of all amenities like food, clothing, and shelter. Despite having to deal with treatment as a sub-citizen, she was still within the walls of No. 6 as a resident of Lost Town. As long as she didn't desire anything extravagant, she had nothing lacking in her life. Clean water and food were easily accessible. Although understaffed, there were medical clinics for Lost Town residents where she could go to get examined. She had an abode that could withstand wind and rain. She was free from any fears of malnutrition, starvation, hypothermia, or genocide. Shion was by her side, and she had customers who came to her bakery to buy her bread.
She was not unhappy at all.
She had not been able to agree promptly to Lili's question of whether they were happy, not because of her own situation or state-of-mind, but because of a shadow that had flitted across Lili's eyes. Perhaps it was uncertainty. Perhaps Lili was uncertain, her emotions so unsettled, that she had clung to the bakery madam, whom she loved and trusted.
"It's hard to say whether we're happy or not, in one word. There's a lot of times where we're happy and we're not, when we're joyful or sad. Lots of different feelings."
"Right?" Lili squeezed her fingers. "We have lots of different feelings, right?"
"Right. You feel like that too, don't you Lili? Even during a single day, sometimes you feel happy, and sometimes unhappy, right?"
"Yeah, I do. When I'm really hungry, and I get to eat your muffins, ma'am, I feel happy. But when Mommy gets mad at me or when I get into a fight with my friend and we can't say sorry and make up, I feel sad. But..."
"But at school, the teacher says that everyone who lives in No. 6 is happy. He says there's no one in No. 6 that's unhappy."
"You learned this in class?"
"Yeah. When the principal was saying his speech. He said outside of No. 6, the world is really tough and unhappy. And people die there every day. They die because they don't have enough to eat, or because they fight and hurt each other. He said people are like beasts, and they live like beasts too. And compared to those people, No. 6 is heaven, and everyone's happy."
By beast-like people, he probably meant the residents of the West Block. It was such a scornful way to talk about people. To think that someone involved in the education of children would call another human a beast....
Karan knitted her brow. She crouched down, and looked Lili in the eye.
"But you didn't think so, Lili?"
"Hmm," Lili thought aloud. "I just felt kinda weird. Like this wiggly feeling in my stomach. Because―because you know... Mommy sometimes makes a sad face because she's tired from work, or because we don't have money. And Grandpa Saiton next door always looks painful because his back hurts. So when he said everyone's happy, it just felt weird..."
"And you didn't tell the principal this?"
Lili widened her eyes, shook her head vehemently.
"If I said that, the principal would be really angry at me. Sometimes you get called to the office and they hit you with a whip."
"My goodness, with a whip! That's terrible..."
"If you live in No. 6 and you don't think you're happy, it means you're a bad kid. So they say, of course we should get whipped."
"Certainly not!" Karan found herself saying shrilly. She placed a hand on Lili's shoulder. "Lili, that's certainly not true. Not true at all."
Her heart grew restless. She could hear its fitful rustlings. She knew she had to tell this young girl in front of her something important, but she could not put it well into words. She felt frustrated at herself.
"Lili, you're still a child, and..." She stopped. "No, even adults are allowed to have all sorts of different thoughts. It's just not right if everyone thinks and feels exactly the same, right? And―and―"
There are unhappy people in No. 6, too. Probably a lot more than I think.
It was something Karan knew first-hand. She had transferred from Chronos, a place of chosen citizens, to Lost Town, a residence for sub-citizens. She didn't think of that as any tragic fate, but she had definitely seen with her eyes and experienced with her body the apex, as well as the bottom, of the city-state of No. 6.
Indeed, there were unhappy people not only in Lost Town, but even in Chronos―a place that was known far and wide as the ideal neighbourhood. Yes, there were unhappy people, and many of them. But no one in that area ever said 'I'm unhappy' out loud. Chronos had not a single person who lamented difficulties with their household income, or those who complained of physical ailments like Saiton. All residents were promised a high and stable income, and they were in a position that granted them access to the latest, most developed medical treatments at any hour of the day. But yet there were still unhappy people.
"Whatever shall I do tomorrow?" she had heard someone mutter once.
She was an elderly lady who lived next door. However, "next-door" in terms of Chronos was quite a distance because of the spacious yards attached to each house. Periodically, gardeners from the city would come to maintain the gardens (and also check up on and maintain the security systems in the yard, which Karan didn't find out until much later), so unlike Lost Town, where only a single wall separated one household from the other, Karan wasn't accustomed to seeing her neighbours in person or having conversations with them.
But Karan was on unusually good terms with this woman of over seventy, and once in a while she would be invited over for tea. The woman's husband, daughter, and grandchildren were all acknowledged as the highest elites like Shion, and she was provided for and insured with extremely favourable circumstances even compared to other residents of Chronos. But despite that, she was neither arrogant nor condescending, and often looked out for and lent a helping hand to Karan, who was raising her son all by herself.
On that day, it was the same. On a sunny and temperate afternoon one day in late autumn, the woman had invited Karan over for tea.
Smelling the fragrant aroma of black tea poured from the teapot, Karan had been about to give an appreciative mmm when the woman had mumbled those words. Her voice was dry and brittle, like the foliage that danced on the streets. It was dry, but heavy and gloomy.
"Whatever shall I do tomorrow?"
Karan slowly raised her gaze from the rose-patterned teacup, and stared at the elegant, composed profile of the woman who had just spoken. The words had reached Karan's ears, no problem. But the tone of her voice clashed so much with the beautiful scenery, the lavish mansion, and the fragrant tea, that she couldn't help but ask her to repeat.
"What was that?"
The elderly woman slowly let her gaze wander. Behind her ruby-studded spectacles (almost solely a fashion item), her two eyes, set in the wrinkles of her skin, blinked.
"I... have no idea what I would like to do tomorrow."
"Do you mean you've got nothing to do?"
"I don't know... what I want to do, Karan-san." Tears welled up in the rims of her eyes.
"You don't know...?"
"There's nothing. It's just empty. And it makes me so afraid. I especially despise mornings. They're utterly horrible. When I think that it's the start of another empty day, I feel so terrified, so..."
Karan, who had still been young, was perturbed by the elderly woman's tearful face and her mumbled words. As if to prove that she wasn't acting, the woman's shawl-clad shoulders were trembling.
"Ah―but―" Karan stammered. "As long as you're willing, I should think you'd be able to do anything you like. So many things..."
"Do you think so? I just have a feeling that it's going to be one empty day after another until I die.... When I think about how I'll die without having been able to do anything, I feel more fearful than painful."
Karan rose out of her seat, and shook her head almost automatically.
"That's not true. Because, look―the decor of this room, or the way you arrange tea―it's all so nice, and you're so good at it."
The elderly woman responded to Karan's awkward compliments with a serene smile.
"You're a kind soul, Karan-san. But... well, someday I suppose you'll have a taste of the same fear I feel."
The pair of eyes behind the spectacles were not laughing at all. They were like dark caverns. Karan remembered shivering. She had felt a chill in this room, filled with extravagant furniture and maintained at comfortable temperature levels all year long. The elderly woman's gaze had been so vacant, so morose, that it had made her shudder. The woman had plentiful time and wealth. Was she not in a position where all her wishes could come true? Yet here she was, lamenting: how over-privileged of her, how greedy... Karan tried to mutter those words in her mind. But both her heart and body shrank back from the morose and vacant look before her. A despair enough to petrify someone was living behind those spectacles, emitting a dull light. Karan drained her tea, and left hastily. She remembered clearly how the dishes had clinked as she replaced her cup on its saucer with trembling fingers.
Then not long after, on the edge of the changing seasons, the elderly woman suddenly passed away. In her coffin and surrounded by the white lilies which she always said she loved, the elderly woman with her eyes closed had the same glowing skin as when she was living, and her face was graced with a gentle smile. Karan felt like if she called her name, the woman would answer.
"I've lived a very happy life. I'm thankful for everything about No. 6."
Those were her last words, according to the woman's daughter, who worked at the Central Administration Bureau.
I've lived a very happy life. I'm thankful for everything about No. 6.
"Your mother said this? Really?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't she? My mother lived a life lacking in nothing. Wouldn't anyone think the same?"
"Well... I was just wondering if you yourself were just under the impression that..."
"Yes," Karan had said. "Have you ever thought that your mother may have been unhappy?"
The daughter furrowed her brow, and a clear look of distaste swam in her eyes. She gazed at Karan as if she were looking at a hideous beast, and took half a step backwards.
"It's simply impossible that my mother could have been unhappy," she snapped. "She has never spent a single day in that kind of state. Wouldn't you know from common sense? I do hope you refrain from any more rude comments."
She turned her back to Karan. Throughout the funeral, she kept her distance. That was when Karan was certain that the elderly woman had been unhappy. She had been struggling with her unhappiness that came from being required to be happy―a life in which she was not allowed to be sad.
Her heartbeat grew more frantic. In her mind rose the woman's face, doll-like, surrounded by white lilies.
Maybe... she killed herself―?
She could not say it out loud. It was simply impossible for a resident of Chronos to take her own life. It was unthinkable. They had been told it was unthinkable.
Yet... but... if unhappiness existed despite the fact that it wasn't supposed to, then couldn't there also be people who took their lives, on the brink of despair with no other choice?
Karan tightly clutched her mourning gloves as the coffin was carried out and whisked away to the cemetary.
I should have told Lili about the elderly lady. Unhappiness was bound to exist anywhere, whether it be Chronos or Lost Town. Karan felt like she should have thought it out together with Lili―about why people were unhappy; about how they could be happy again; what it was that they could call real happiness. She should have talked it out with the little girl―about her principal who forced happiness upon them; about the elderly woman and her morose gaze; the pain of being whipped like cattle. She should have reflected more intently on her own disquieted soul, and the little girl's agitation. But Karan had not said anything, and had done nothing.
"There are unhappy people everywhere. Just because he's the principal, I don't think he has the right to say everyone has to be happy," she had said, taking the most neutral way out. Just then, she had heard the flour merchant calling from the back door with his rye and wheat flour. Customers were trickling into the store.
"Thanks, ma'am. See you later."
And Lili had left. Karan pretended to be immersed in her work, and pushed Lili, memories of her fear at the funeral, her thoughts of happiness and unhappiness, clean out of her mind. She had not stopped to think. She had even forgotten. Yoming had set his jaw and committed everything to memory. But she had forgotten. She had never tried to remember.
She herself was the fool, and no one else.
If I had been more wise, if I'd stopped to think a little harder, maybe Shion wouldn't have had to go through what he did.
It was not only Shion. Perhaps she had burdened Safu as well, with an unfair and cruel fate. Karan chewed her lip hard.
Shion, Safu, be alive. Please, live on. Live to come home, and let me apologize for my foolishness. Let me embrace you with these arms. Let me beg for your forgiveness.
She pressed the scrap of paper to her bosom, and prayed.
Nezumi, I pray to you. Please, let me see their faces again. Just one more time.
She heard Lili's tinkling laughter. It was lighthearted and carefree, and punctuated with soft chirrups from the little mice.
Reunion will come.
She murmured the words on the memo. She tried to hold back the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes. Crying wasn't going to solve anything.
Right now, I can only send my prayers to you, whom I've yet to see.
Reunion will come.
Read Chapter 2.