Thanks to the pills he was given in the morning, noon, and evening, Douno’s cold passed its worst stage, and he began to recover little by little. By the time the next checkup day came, his condition had improved so much, he felt like he would not need medicine at all. His gratitude towards Kitagawa was more than words could describe, and he was unsure of how to express it.
Kitagawa was a man of few words, and when he did speak, he was often brusque; he also rarely initiated conversations with Douno. But Douno came to feel that perhaps this man had taken a liking to him. For example, when they were served one of the tastier dishes at mealtime, Kitagawa never failed to share his portion with Douno. Douno never asked for it; Kitagawa simply tranferred some onto Douno’s plate when no one was looking. Douno thought perhaps Kitagawa did it to everyone, but it did not seem to be the case. The man was generous and kind, but never asked for anything in return. Douno felt relieved to know that there was someone in his life who would help him out of goodwill when he was ill or troubled. Compared to when he had been unable to trust anyone else, Douno felt very much put at ease.
It was the end of December, their last exercise day of the year. Douno’s lengthy cold had recently gone away at last, and he was reluctant to go out into the cold grounds. But in order to be excused, he was told that he had to write a request slip to the guard in charge and get a medical exam, which seemed like too much trouble.
Sections 1 and 4 had begun to play softball. Douno’s Section 3 was not playing that day. Douno chose a sunny spot in the field with with not much wind, did some light stretches, then sat down with his back against the wall.
The blue sky was lofty and the wind was nippy. As of late, Douno had taken after his cellmates and made a calendar in his notebook. As each day passed, he coloured in one square. At first, he felt only weariness as he watched his cellmates at the task, but now he understood how they they felt as they filled in each day. As his remaining days grew fewer, his impending release seemed to feel more real by the day. Once he could see the end, he felt a renewed strength to go on.
Kitagawa was walking in his direction. Douno wondered if he was heading towards him. He was. Kitagawa moved upwind of him―whether out of coincidence or consideration, Douno did not know―and quietly sat down.
Thus Kitagawa had come over, but he showed no signs of attempting to start a conversation. In the same way that he watched television, Kitagawa stared blankly at the teams playing softball.
“Too bad there was no game today, huh?”
Kitagawa turned around.
“Not really,” he said in a detached voice.
“But you always look like you’re enjoying yourself. I’m bad at ball games, so I’m envious of you.”
“Softball isn’t really fun. They tell me to play because I’m young, so I do.”
Douno was taken aback by Kitagawa’s short, unfacilitating answer. He had figured all along that Kitagawa played because he enjoyed it.
“If you don’t like to play, why don’t you say so to everyone? I don’t think you have to force yourself.”
Kitagawa looked at Douno’s face.
“It’s easier just to do what I’m told.”
Yes, perhaps it was easier to get on with life here if one just did as he was told, without protesting.
“But isn’t it stressful for you, doing things against your will?”
“What’s stress?” Kitagawa asked with a straight face. Douno was at a loss for words.
“You know, like when things don’t go the way you want, or when so many bad things happen in a row that you start to feel unstable.”
Kitagawa tilted his head in perplexity.
“You don’t get what I mean?” Douno suddenly wondered how much schooling Kitagawa had received. Even elementary school kids these days knew what stress was.
“Everything is already decided for me, from morning ‘til nighttime. I get three square meals a day. As long as I’m cautious, I won’t get into trouble. I don’t have to think about anything.”
The way Kitagawa spoke almost sounded like he was condoning the lifestyle here. Wait a second, Douno questioned mentally.
“But don’t you get sick of such a restricted life, where everything is rigidly structured? Once you get out, you’ll be free. No one will order you around. You’ll be free to do whatever you like and no one will humiliate you.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa murmured his usual reply. “Everyone says they want to get out of here. I wonder what they hate so much about this place?”
I just finished talking about how people hate having their freedom taken away, Douno thought, but the message had apparently not gotten across to Kitagawa at all.
“Hey.” Kitagawa looked up at Douno with his head still on his knees. “Say ‘thank you’.”
Douno wondered what in the world this man was saying. Besides, words of gratitude were not things you forced out of people. Nevertheless, Douno bundled all of the past kindnesses Kitagawa had given him until now, and said, “Thank you.”
“You know, you have so many different ‘thank you’s,” Kitagawa said. “While you’re crying, or laughing, or sometimes looking a little worried.” He kicked up the dirt on the field with his heel. “Do normal people usually say ‘thank you’ so much?”
“Shiba said you were a normal guy. But nobody’s ever said ‘thank you’ to me much before.”
How old is Kitagawa? Douno thought. He was twenty-eight, if memory served him correctly. He was far into adulthood, yet spoke like a child barely of age. Douno did not know how to answer him.
“It feels good when you say ‘thank you’ to me,” Kitagawa continued. “I want you to say it more. Will you? I promise I’ll do more things to make you happy.”
It was absolute nonsense.
“That’s not right,” Douno said. “You don’t give kindness and consideration to get words in return.”
“I don’t care about the emotional stuff. You just have to say ‘thank you’ to me and it’ll be fine. I put money in the vending machine like I should, don’t I?”
Douno could not hide his astonishment. Did Kitagawa see his own kindness towards Douno as some kind of currency? Douno felt like the kindness bestowed upon him was now a mere systematic action. He was shocked as he realized that Kitagawa’s deeds had actually carried no real sympathy whatsoever.
Kitagawa looked up at the sky and took a breath.
“I have tissues coming at the end of the month. I bought a lot of them with my wages. I’ll give them all to you. So make sure you say ‘thank you’.”
Douno thought about what kind of man Kitagawa was. It was clear that his way of thinking was more than a little abnormal, but strangely, Douno did not feel compelled to break off his association with him.
Douno even saw a sort of innocence in the man when he thought of how Kitagawa had taken care of him all night with nothing in mind but earning those two small words of thanks. When children first thought of doing a kind deed to someone, perhaps it was something as simple as the desire to be praised or to make someone happy. If Douno regarded Kitagawa’s thought processes as those of a child, he felt like he could get a slightly better grasp of them. The only problem was that Kitagawa was twenty-eight, and well into his adult years.
Douno felt like Kitagawa was not a bad man at heart if it pleased him to receive words of gratitude. Even if Kitagawa had been guilty of killing someone, Douno felt like he would be able to start over if he repented his past crimes. He wanted Kitagawa to stop thinking of human feelings in a mechanical way, and realize that they were in fact warm and tender things.
On lunch break the next day, once they had finished putting away their dishes, Douno stopped rifling through prison’s books and sat down beside Kitagawa.
“Is that interesting?”
“Not really,” replied Kitagawa dully, as he stared absently at the TV.
“Let’s have a chat.”
Kitagawa tilted his head.
“Remember what you said yesterday, how you wanted me to say ‘thank you’? The thing is, I don’t want to say ‘thank you’ automatically like a machine. I want to be friends with you.”
“No,” Kitagawa said without even a pause.
“W-Why not?” Douno stammered.
“Friends are no good.”
“But if we’re friends, we don’t have to have such a benefit-oriented kind of relationship. That way, we can develop a proper kind of connection.”
“Like what kind?”
“Maybe I would be able to help you if you ever got into trouble.”
Kitagawa’s shoulders trembled as he laughed silently.
“How can you help me? You don’t know anything. You don’t have anything. You’re weak. You even had to ask someone like me to help you.”
Perhaps it was true, but Douno did not want to be told to his face.
“You’re always saying weird things,” Kitagawa continued. “Is that what ‘normal’ is?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Normal is weird, isn’t it?”
When they were eating dinner, Kitagawa tossed the last half of his tangerine―their dessert―onto Douno’s plate. He was thorough enough to transfer Douno’s peels over to his own plate to disguise that he had given his tangerine away.
If their cellmates knew that Kitagawa was sharing his food with Douno, they did not say anything. Some inmates tipped off prison guards secretly about their fellow inmates, so in that sense, Douno felt lucky to have cellmates who did not snitch.
Once their meal was over, they cleared off the table and spent their time until rest period reading or chatting. Douno, while occupied with a book, could feel Kitagawa’s eyes blatantly fixed on him. He knew that the man was waiting for a ‘thank you’ in return for the tangerine, but he did not want to say it.
When Kakizaki began to talk about how he had cheap access to drugs, Kumon pounced on it and listened intently. Shiba responded with an occasional affirmation. Kitagawa was facing Kakizaki’s direction, yet he had the same vacant eyes as when he watched TV.
He looked uninterested in drugs. Was he pretending to listen to the conversation in order to maintain good rapport? Douno had no idea about the man’s intent. He looked up from the magazine he had been reading.
The man turned around languidly.
“Want to read a book together?”
Kitagawa glanced briefly at Kakizaki, but in the end he leaned over to peer into Douno’s magazine. Though Douno had made the offer to read together, there was nothing about this particular book that he had wanted Kitagawa to read. He had just felt somewhat uncomfortable letting Kitagawa hear the rest of the men talking about drugs.
Douno pointed offhandedly at a photo on the page. It was blazed with the headline “Hot Springs Feature” and went on to introduce the nation’s top twenty best hot spring resorts.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to a hot spring?” Douno said. “With the baths in this place, you have barely any time to soak and relax. An outdoor hot spring would be nice. You could enjoy the scenery while you bathe.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa grunted. “But isn’t a hot spring just a giant bath? Why would you need to go so far away? You could just go to a public bath.”
Kitagawa’s lack of imagination made Douno hesitate in his next words.
“Yeah, but... I think it’s nice to be able to go far away―well, it can be close by, too―and just go through the whole process of a trip, taking time and effort to plan and do things.”
“I don’t understand.”
Douno could not ask a man to understand what he was not capable of understanding. He decided to change the topic, and flipped the page. It was an interview article with a bestselling author. His eyes were instantly glued to the old house in the background of the author’s photo. It was a commonplace house, in the type of housing complex that had popped up abundantly in times of economic growth. But the house was also almost identical to the house he had grown up in.
“You know him?”
Douno smiled wryly. “I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at the house.”
“It looks a lot like mine.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa said as he peered at the photo. It was an old, small house, but nevertheless a house he had lived in with his family. When he thought of how it could belong to someone else by the time he was released, and how his parents’ decision was forced upon them all because of him, he felt as if a hand were clenching around his heart.
“What’s it like inside?”
“What’s it like inside your house?”
“What’s normal like?”
It was difficult to explain in words, so Douno got his notebook out. He had made a calendar on the front page, so he tore out a page from the back instead. There, he drew up a simple floor plan of his house.
Kitagawa, who had previously seemed uninterested in most things, showed a strong intrigue to Douno’s floor plan.
“That’s the entrance. Once you go in, you’ll see the hallway, and a set of stairs on the right side. My sister’s room and my room are on the second floor. We have three rooms downstairs: the living room, my parents’ bedroom, and the guest room.”
Kitagawa then asked for the tinier details, like where the windows were located, and how spacious the bathroom was. Douno repeatedly erased and corrected his floor plan until he was left with a perfect blueprint of the Douno family home.
“So, don’t you have any trees in the yard? How about a dog?” Kitagawa continued to ask. Douno ended up even filling in the sketch with the crape-myrtle tree in his yard and the flowerbed that his mother had constructed as a hobby.
Kitagawa gazed intently at the floor plan drawn in Douno’s notebook. He held it at arm’s length, then placed it on the table. Placing his fingertip on the sheet, he went through the front gates, entered the house, and made his way to the living room. There, he traced his finger round and round.
“What are you doing?” Douno asked.
“Running around because it looks really big,” Kitagawa said, in a way a fanciful child would.
“What was your house like?” Douno was piqued with interest, but Kitagawa just tilted his head a little.
“Small, I guess.”
“Draw it out for me.” Douno handed him the pencil. Kitagawa drew a small square on the page.
“This is it?”
“It looks pretty cramped.”
“About two tatami mats, I think.”
“But there’s no entrance, toilet, or bathroom.”
“This is the entrance. I didn’t have a toilet or bathroom.”
“What?” Douno replied in disbelief.
“I had a potty instead of a toilet. I had a blanket, too. It was hot and smelly in the summer, and cold in the winter.”
“Were you living alone?”
“I had a mother, but I barely saw her. She threw my food in through the window, but some days she would forget and I wouldn’t have anything to eat.”
Douno swallowed hard.
“And... when was this?”
“I dunno. I was still a kid. I don’t remember anymore.” Kitagawa scribbled out the square box-like room with his pencil. “I went to my aunt’s place afterwards, but at first I couldn’t talk because I’d forgotten how. It was my first time in a long time using my voice.”
Kitagawa began to draw another floor plan on the next page.
“This is my aunt’s place.” The drawing had only an entrance, washroom, and a room in the back.
“Didn’t your aunt’s house have a kitchen or bathroom?”
“It did, but I don’t remember anymore. I was always in the room in the back. I think I was there for less than half a year. One day―I don’t remember when it was―my aunt stopped bringing me food. I got hungry so I stepped out of my room, and the whole house was empty except for me. After that, I went to an orphanage.”
It was a past that would grieve any listener; yet Kitagawa recited it in a calm and regular manner.
“After finishing middle school, I started working. Noodle factories, printing factories. I liked working at construction sites, though. That was fun.”
He drew another picture on the page.
“I used to work for a place called the Nishimoto Group, and I was staying at their dorm before I got into jail.”
The dormitory was rectangular and long in shape.
“Everyone just put their stuff everywhere, and slept wherever they wanted. It was smelly and dirty. Some people had sticky fingers, so if you weren’t careful you could get your money stolen. I always wore a belly-warmer and hid my money there.”
Kitagawa suddenly looked up. “Do you enjoy listening to this kind of stuff?”
“It’s not really about enjoying, it’s just...”
“Draw me the building you used to work at.”
“I don’t think you’d find it very interesting. I worked at city hall.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa said through his nose. He tilted his head slightly, then glanced up at Douno from under his eyebrows. “So what do people go to city hall for?”
Nights were long in the group cell. Lights-out was at 21:00. When he was unable to sleep, Douno was instead forced to think. When an idea entered his mind, it possessed him entirely and bothered him constantly.
He thought of the police’s appallingly biased investigation; the woman who had called him a molester; Mitsuhashi, who had tricked him; his parents, who had been forced into moving out. All of these thoughts were wreathed in hatred and regret, and made Douno’s spirits sink.
One cold, sleepless night, Douno turned his thoughts away from himself and thought of the prison system. Disciplined group activity. Strict rules. He had half-resigned himself to them since he figured he had no choice but to comply―but what meaning did those rules hold?
They were forced into labour, burdened with restrictions. But that was it. There were probably many people who wanted avoid being caught so they would not be brought here; but how many people truly acknowledged and regretted the crime they had committed? He did not mean to say that this place was absolutely lacking in remorseful, constructive-minded people. That was not what he was trying to say, but....
During exercise or break, sometimes the conversation turned to their criminal histories. Many more considered themselves merely unlucky for being caught, rather than feeling remorseful. Thieves even discussed doing future stints together after their release, destroying the purpose of prison altogether.
Douno wished prisons would look at and treat a little more of inmates’ psychological aspects. After all, there were criminals here whose psychologies were so immature that they were unable to recognize their deeds as crimes.
His feet were cold. Douno gave a small sneeze. Since coming to prison, he felt a renewed sense towards the true frigidity of winter.
“You cold?” A voice spoke from beside him. He could tell Kitagawa was looking his way.
“My feet are, a little bit.”
Kitagawa never spoke of his criminal history. Douno had heard through other people that he was guilty of murder, but he did not know of the events that led up to it. It was dubious whether it was even a good idea to ask.
“Try sticking your feet in my futon.”
“Your foot. Gimme your foot.”
Douno did as he was told and quietly slid his right foot into the futon next to his. A pair of hands inside the futon grabbed his ankle and pushed his foot up against something warm.
When he realized that Kitagawa was warming his cold foot with his own belly, Douno felt guilty. He reassured Kitagawa that it wasn’t necessary, but the man did not let go of his foot. Surely Kitagawa was cold himself―but he was enduring it for Douno’s sake, which pained Douno’s heart.
He knew these acts were being done out of a prospect for a reward, but he could not simply dismiss it as just that. Indeed, Kitagawa’s way of thinking was strange, but he was still a kind man. Why had someone as kind as him perpetrated a murder?
Perhaps Kitagawa had not thought deeply about it; perhaps it had been an impulsive act. Douno found it hard to believe that it could be premeditated.
“Your left foot next.”
Douno had pulled his right foot back into his futon, and with a polite “No, I'm fine”, he refused to stick his left foot out. A hand came reaching into his futon this time, grabbing his left ankle firmly and pulling it over to the other man’s futon.
He could feel the warmth slowly spreading in his foot. Douno laughed a little, in spite of himself, at the strange sense of happiness that it brought him.
Douno’s desire to do something was almost a natural, logical turn of thought. Kitagawa was always doing things for him, admittedly even things which Douno did not necessarily need him to do. Even so, it was an unshakable fact that Kitagawa was doing these things for Douno’s sake.
Kitagawa was in his ninth year in prison, while Douno had been here for a mere four months. In terms of advice, there was nothing he could give. But when he heard that Kitagawa was being released in just over a year, Douno wondered if he could give the man something that was not done in prison: an education in sensitivity and morals.
Douno felt like Kitagawa’s misdeed was somehow related to his unhappy childhood history. Douno believed Kitagawa’s lack of understanding concerning certain things stemmed directly from his lack of interaction with others and with society. If Douno could teach Kitagawa what he did not know, and enable him to recognize the right from the wrong, he felt Kitagawa could get on with life just fine after getting out of prison. It was only the best for him. Douno felt he could not let Kitagawa while his days away in what was essentially a criminal prep school.
The prison management, from its own point of view, would perhaps protest that interfering with the individual emotions of its inmates was beyond its responsibility. However, it remained a fact that autonomous people were those who possessed strong wills; those who resorted to crime were weaker ones―they were people who were unsure of what to do, or how.
Douno began making a conscious effort to read books with Kitagawa. Since the man had shown interest in the floor plan of his house, Douno mainly chose books related to buildings. The types of books available were limited; they were often stuck with titles such as A Collection of One Hundred Temples or Art Galleries of the World, but Kitagawa expressed a little more interest than he did towards the TV as he leaned over to peer at the book in Douno’s hands.
Perhaps it was due to Douno’s influence, or a spark of interest ignited within him: Kitagawa, a man previously never seen reading, began to borrow books on his own. He began to sketch the buildings from them into his notebook.
In the evenings, Kitagawa seemed impatient for dinner to end. Once it was finished, he would immediately open his notebook and begin drawing. Once he was done, he showed Douno the completed sketches. At first, they were like the clumsy scribbles of a young child. “That’s a nice picture,” Douno would say, more out of politeness than out of real admiration. Recently, however, Kitagawa’s drawing had improved at an astonishing pace, and his skill was enough to leave one awestruck.
“That’s drawn really well,” Douno would say. Kitagawa’s lips would turn up a little. Then, he would draw some more. He drew with such fervent concentration that he took no notice his cellmates speaking to him. He hunched over his sketches intently as if possessed by a demon of illustration.
In the end of January, Kitagawa drew the Sagrada Família over two pages of his notebook, opened in a spread and turned sideways. It was a stunning piece, and even cellmates who had been rather uninterested in Kitagawa’s drawing pursuits now leaned in to have a look.
“It’s amazing,” Douno said enthusiastically. “I didn’t know you had such a talent for drawing.” Kitagawa beamed proudly at his compliment.
“It was a hell of a lot of work, though.” He peered into Douno’s face from below. “Praise me more. Say more things like “that’s amazing” or “that’s well done”. This took me three whole days to draw. Give me three days’ worth of praise.”
Indeed, Kitagawa’s drawing was very impressive; but Douno was slightly bothered by his persistent requests to be praised.
“But it’s not like you drew this just to show me, right? I mean, I agree that your drawing is amazing, but―”
“I did draw it to show you,” Kitagawa said impatiently, as if exasperated that Douno had just realized the fact. “It feels good when you tell me it’s amazing, or that I’m talented. Why else would I draw something that’s such a pain in the ass?”
“That’s not right,” Douno said. “Drawing is what you do for yourself. It’s not for me. You draw for your own sake.”
Kitagawa cocked his head.
“What’re you saying?”
“I’m saying that you should draw for yourself―”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Society is all about transactions, isn’t it? If I want something, I have to give something in exchange. I want to be praised, so I draw. How’s that wrong?”
“I just wanted to... to give you a sense of initiative...”
Douno was at a loss for an answer. Kitagawa slammed his notebook shut irritably. That day, when normally he would have drawn with fervour, Kitagawa did not draw at all. The next day during lunch break, Kitagawa got out of his seat to talk to Kakizaki, when before he would have been beside Douno, reading a book with him. The thought made Douno feel a little lonely.
Evening came, along with rest period before lights-out. Kitagawa still had not talked to Douno. Of course, he had not drawn anything, either. Kitagawa was angry―but Douno, for the life of himself, could not understand what he was angry about. Four days after they stopped talking, Douno was called out by the factory guard in the morning. It was an interview. His father had come to see him.
“You lost weight,” said his father, although he looked like he had lost even more. Douno had no words to say. The grey was more prominent in his father’s hair, and he looked as if he had shrunken a size. His face was perpetually turned downwards, and he had a lost look about him, as if he was uncertain of what to say to his son.
“I’m sure you’ve heard from your mother and Tomoko. We’ve sold the house. It’s been about a month since our move now, but living in the country isn’t so bad. Everyone’s laid-back.”
The more his father emphasized the good points of the country, the more it discomforted Douno, making him feel as if his father was just putting on a brave face.
“And about the man from the police department―the guy hasn’t been found yet.”
“I’m sorry. It’s all my―”
His father shook his head.
“It’s not your fault. Your mother and I weren’t cautious enough. You don’t need to worry.”
Their conversation was intermittent, but his father remained sitting across from him for the entire fifteen-minute allowance before going home. Douno returned to the factory and sat down in front of his sewing machine again. Suddenly, he felt like crying. His parents and sister had done nothing wrong. It was painful to be reminded that their suffering stemmed from his own mistake.
Noon came before he could get very far in his work. Kitagawa sat down beside him and finished his meal in seconds, and stood promptly as the signal to finish eating was given. Until then, Douno had not been thinking of anything in particular; he had only felt helplessly lonely, and could describe it in no other word than loneliness. Before he knew it, he had grabbed the hem of Kitagawa’s factory jacket.
Kitagawa’s steely, cruel-looking eyes glanced downwards at Douno.
“Would you... would you be able to stay with me a while?”
Kitagawa looked over at Kakizaki once, but lowered himself back into his chair. With Kitagawa beside him, Douno let his thoughts rove over a great many things. They were not much different from what he had been thinking of before, but he felt a little more at ease to know that he was not alone. Beside him was someone who would give him help. If something should happen to him, he trusted that this man would be there somehow. This belief created an escape path for his feelings.
A little before lunch break ended, Douno thanked Kitagawa.
“I haven’t done anything,” the man beside him said bluntly.
“You stayed beside me.”
“I said I didn’t do anything.”
“Even if you didn’t do anything, you made me feel better by being beside me. That’s why I said ‘thank you’.”
Creases appeared between Kitagawa’s eyebrows.
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s fine if you don’t.”
Kitagawa remained sitting in his chair, and began to shake his leg in an irritated manner. The expression on his face remained sullen as he questioned Douno.
Douno wondered what he could say to make Kitagawa understand how he felt.
“Because I was glad to have you beside me.”
“I...” Kitagawa began, then fell silent.
“This isn’t a transaction,” Douno said. “It’s not about getting rewards or something in return. It’s about how I feel.”
The man beside him was silent at Douno’s words.
“But I haven’t done anything.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
Kitagawa stood up from his seat and left to go to Kakizaki. Douno had done his best to communicate his feelings truly and honestly, and he felt forlorn that he had not been understood.
There was exercise period the next day. After a light warm-up, Douno took a seat by the fence and absently watched the softball game. At first he had been amazed at how enthusiastically everyone played the game, but later when he found out that people bet on it, Douno was simultaneously exasperated and strangely convinced.
The wind was chilly, but the sun’s rays were warm. As Douno sat with his arms around his knees, he heard the birds chirping above. He was suddenly reminded of the school hike he went on as a child. He smiled wryly at the stark difference between the forest of his childhood and the prison grounds.
A shadow fell over his feet. He looked up to see Kitagawa standing in front of him. His brow was furrowed, and he had a difficult expression on his face.
“What is it?”
Kitagawa averted his eyes. He was clearly avoiding eye contact, yet showed no signs of moving away. He wavered uncertainly in front of Douno, then looked at him head on.
“You give me the creeps.”
A sharp pain stabbed Douno's heart at the direct blow. He had no idea what part of him had made Kitagawa think him “creepy”, but if it bothered him, Douno wished he would have just ignored him and not said anything.
“So?” he answered, with some spite. Suddenly, Kitagawa began to stamp his feet restlessly on the spot.
“So... so, I’m just saying...”
“If you think I’m creepy, you should just stay away from me.”
He could see Kitagawa chewing his lip. The man was mumbling something, but he could not catch the words.
“...I said you’re creepy and that’s what you are.” Douno could finally catch that much. “You say things I can’t understand, no matter how much I think about it. It keeps bothering me, and it creeps me out.”
“What is it with you?” Kitagawa demanded. “What is this weird feeling?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Kitagawa clenched his fists.
“I’m saying I don’t like it!” he said heatedly.
“Okay, I understand you don’t like it, but what kind of feeling is it?”
Douno thought the man would leave, but contrary to his expectations, Kitagawa sat down about twenty centimetres away from him. He glanced over at Douno from time to time, as if to assess him.
“I feel really small and shrivelled up inside. Why does that happen?”
Douno had a hard time understanding Kitagawa’s abstract answer.
“Are you saying you feel lonely?”
“I dunno.” Kitagawa stared at the ground and uprooted a handful of grass at his feet. “Pat my head,” he mumbled, without looking up. Douno had no idea what the man was thinking, but did as he was told anyway and patted Douno on the head. Despite having asked for it, Kitagawa remained stiff, hugging his knees for the whole time he was being touched.
“I won’t do anything for you, you know.” A pair of glowering eyes looked up at Douno. “I won’t share any of my good dinner with you. I won’t give you medicine if you catch a fever.”
“I’m not expecting anything in return.”
“I said I won’t give you anything! Stop listening to what I say!”
Douno gently drew his hand away from the trembling head.
“Can’t you have a relationship without transactions or rewards?”
A pair of teary eyes looked up at Douno.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Neither person has to profit. People can get along as long as the feelings are there.”
“I think that’s how it normally is.”
Kitagawa’s face remained cast down as he sat still. Then, once more, he murmured, “Pat me on the head.” When he did, Kitagawa hugged his knees harder and curled up into a tighter ball.
“What am I supposed to do for you?”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
Kitagawa looked at him.
“You really don’t have to do anything,” Douno reassured him gently.
Kitagawa’s eyes were still fixed on the ground. “Mm-hmm,” he murmured. Someone had swung a large hit and sent the softball flying. The ball made an arc as it glided through the air, and disappeared in the glare of the sun. Kitagawa looked up to follow the ball with his eyes.
He was supposed to be a full-grown adult, yet he had a childishness about him. When their eyes met, Kitagawa hastily looked down again. Douno was almost sure that it was out of sheepishness this time.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).