“You want to talk here?” I say . “Not in the warehouse?”
“Here’s fine . ”
Since this conversation might get complicated quickly, I thought it might be better to have it indoors, away from the public eye, but Lutz shakes his head .
“So, what did you want to talk about?”
Anger may burn in Lutz’s green eyes, but his behavior is comparatively calm . Without suddenly flying into a rage, he begins to speak in a low voice that hints at the anger he keeps contained, boiling in his gut .
“…Who are you, really?”
A difficult question right off the bat . I actually don’t quite know what to call myself . Even now, I still think of myself as Urano Motosu, but no matter how anyone looks at me, all they could possibly see is Maine . Also, I’ve been living in this body for nearly a year now, growing accustomed to life in this world, so I’m no longer really Urano Motosu, either .
Urano only read books, and didn’t really do anything else of her own volition . When I went to college, I was commuting to and from home, so I never even moved out of my parents’ place . Thanks to the fact that my mother was fundamentally a housewife, I didn’t have to do much housework, although I was technically capable of doing it if I ever felt so inclined .
Going to the forest every day like this to gather things for my family, devoting myself to finding new flavors so that I can broaden my diet even just a little, making paper from scratch so that I can read books in the future… none of these things are actually necessary . If you compare the me of right now to the Urano of the past, whose desires were limited to reading whatever book happened to be nearby, we’re absolutely different .
As I worry over how exactly I should answer, Lutz takes my silence as a sign that I’m not going to answer at all . He glances at me again, strength flaring in his eyes, and asks me again .
“You know how to make paper like this, and you said you’ve done this before, right?”
“…It was very different the last time I made it . ”
“And that’s not Maine . ”
“…Yeah . ”
Although I still want to hide the truth, Lutz is already convinced of it . Even if I were to lie, nothing would come from it . I answer honestly .
“Maine couldn’t know anything like that,” says Lutz . “She barely ever left her house . ”
From Maine’s memories, I know very well that Maine only rarely left her house . Thanks to that, I had almost no information about the world, and who knows how many problems that has caused me? Since Maine’s memories were of almost nothing but the inside of her house, I couldn’t even catch a glimpse of what this world would consider to be common sense, and my own modern common sense constantly clashes with that of this world . Even still, I think that I’m making a lot of mistakes .
“That’s right,” I say . “Maine really didn’t know much of anything . ”
“So, who the hell are you?!” he shouts . “Where’s the real Maine?! Bring Maine back!”
Lutz raises his voice, his anger unleashed . However, whether it’s because the things I had imagined him saying were far more cruel than the words he hurls at me now, or whether it’s because I’d already prepared myself for what was going to come when we’d finished making paper, I feel entirely calm right now . My reaction is vastly different from the panic I showed right after I wrecked myself earlier .
“Sure, I can bring her back, but… I think it would be better if I did that at home, you know?”
Lutz’s eyes go wide with astonishment, and he furrows his eyebrows . It seems he didn’t expect me to agree .
“Well, it would look really bad if you came home carrying a corpse over your shoulder, right? If I go away, all that’ll be left is a dead body, after all . It wouldn’t be good if people thought you were a murderer, right?”
Lutz and I are the only two people who use this warehouse, and both our families and the people from Benno’s shop know that the two of us came here today . If I were to lose consciousness and die here, it’s extremely likely that all of the blame would be put on Lutz . Even if it wasn’t, Lutz himself would know of his own sin, I think .
I, personally, was thinking of Lutz when I proposed that it would be better to do it at home, but Lutz acts as if this came entirely out of nowhere .
“Y-y-you, w-w-w-what are you saying?!”
Startled by my words, Lutz’s face goes completely stiff as he grows incredibly flustered . It seems that it was far beyond his expectations that Maine wouldn’t come back if I were to disappear .
“S-so, Maine isn’t here anymore?! She’s not coming back?!”
I can’t describe it as anything else but “probably” . All I’m able to do is search through Maine’s memories . I’ve never been able to talk to her, and she’s never spoken up to demand her body back .
Lutz fixes a powerful glare on me, the picture of an ally of justice facing down a hated evil . I can’t help but smile a little when I realize that . This is so perfectly like him . His frail childhood friend, who he treated like his own sister, has been hijacked by me, a foul villain, and he is leaping to her defense, like the hero he is .
“What about that fever that Maine was talking about with Mister Otto and Master Benno? Did you make her fever eat her up?!”
I’m a little impressed that Lutz put together that Maine had been swallowed whole by the fever that still lurks deep within me . I’m pretty sure he’s not wrong, at least not about that part .
“You’re about half right and half wrong . I also think that Maine was eaten away by the fever . Her last memories are all “it’s hot”, “help me”, “it hurts”, “make it stop”, that’s why . But I’m not the fever . It’s eating me alive too . “
“What are you saying?! Isn’t this your fault?! Didn’t Maine disappear because of you?! Say it!!”
Lutz grabs tightly onto my shoulders and starts shaking me . My thoughts thrown into disarray by agitation, the words “it’s my fault,” and “Maine disappeared because of me” bounce around endlessly in my head . Then something snaps .
“Like hell I actually wanted to come here and be Maine! I died, or at least I’m pretty sure I did, and then before I knew it I was this child . If I could have actually chosen where I was going to go, I’d pick a world with tons of books I could read, or maybe be an aristocrat in this world who could actually read, or even just a body that’s healthier than this feeble, pathetically weak one! There is no way that I would ever have voluntarily picked a body that is plagued by an incurable disease that constantly threatens to strike me down with fever at any moment!”
The instant I so plainly say that I never wanted to become Maine, Lutz’s face goes slack and hollow, and his hands loosen from my shoulders .
“You… didn’t want to become Maine?”
“Would you, Lutz? In the beginning, just leaving the house left me out of breath, and I’d have to stay in bed the whole next day, you know? Even though I can finally make it out to the forest, I’m still growing so slowly, and even now if I make the slightest mistake my fever comes back…”
Lutz thinks about it for a little while, slowly shaking his head . The energy he had when he’d grabbed me has all vanished, and his troubled eyes drift off to the side .
“…You could be swallowed by the fever too?”
“Yeah, I think so . If I loosen the grip I have on it, it immediately rushes back out, and I start feeling like I’m being devoured . It’s something like being swallowed, or maybe like being dissolved… it’s difficult to explain . ”
Lutz frowns as he mulls over my words . It seems like it’s also difficult to imagine, just from my explanation .
“That’s why,” I say, “if you’re not happy with the fact that I’m using Maine’s body, and if you think you want me to disappear, just say it . I can disappear whenever you want . ”
Lutz, who just moments ago had been yelling at me to bring the real Maine back, stares at me with astonishment . His terrified expression is asking me what the hell I’m saying, which leaves me a little bewildered .
“…It’s better if I disappear, right?”
When I ask for confirmation, Lutz suddenly raises his eyebrows and starts shouting, as if he’s the one who should be angry at me, the victim .
“Don’t ask me! Why are you asking me?! It’s really weird to say that you’ll disappear if I tell you to!”
“It’s probably weird, yeah, but… if you weren’t here, I probably would have already disappeared a long time ago . ”
Lutz looks like he has no idea what I’m talking about . I start to explain what happened the last time I nearly disappeared, thinking back to how it all began .
“Don’t you remember? When Mommy burned my mokkan, how I collapsed?”
With an “oh, that’s right, that happened, didn’t it” expression, Lutz nods . To him, that hadn’t been a big deal, but to me it was an enormous turning point in my life .
“Back then, I was thinking I should just let my self be swallowed up . I really was planning to disappear . I didn’t have any lingering attachments to this world without books, and no matter how hard I tried I wasn’t ever able to finish anything, so I was thinking I might as well give up . ”
Lutz gulps nervously, so loudly I can hear it . He looks at me, silently urging me to continue, so I gently close my eyes and remember . As I was drowning in the heat, amidst the faces of my family dimly projected across my consciousness, Lutz’s face unexpectedly had risen to the surface .
“When I was being swallowed by the fever, I could see my family’s faces, but then suddenly I saw your face, and I wondered why you were there too . I focused on that, and gathered up my strength to drag my consciousness back from the fever . When I saw you really were there, I was a little surprised, you know?”
“That’s… you can’t seriously have come back because you were surprised that you saw me, and not a family member?”
He frowns, sighing, and I gently shake my head at him .
“What brought me back was that I was surprised to see you, but then you said that you were going to go get me some bamboo, so that my mother wouldn’t burn it? That made me think that I should hold on for a little bit longer, that I should fight back against the fever . ”
“Your mom burned the bamboo too, didn’t she?”
I nod . I can still clearly recall the anger and chagrin that pierced through me, leaving me with that deep despondency . Even just remembering it makes me feel like the fever within me is growing more powerful .
“If everything really is awful, and I don’t actually care about anything anymore, I was thinking, then the fever will just rush in and carry me away . I didn’t care enough to fight back anymore, so dying like that might have been a relief, but… then I remembered our promise . ”
“I don’t remember a promise,” he mumbles to himself . He looks up and to the side, as if he really doesn’t remember and is having to dig through his memories . Of course . I smile a little to myself . To Lutz, all he had been trying to say was that I’d better get well soon . Even so, those words were the all-important lifeline to which I clung .
“I promised I’d introduce you to Mister Otto . Didn’t you say that the bamboo was advance payment for the favor, so I had to get better?”
Perhaps he remembered something that he didn’t want to, but when he hears me clearly identify him as the source of my last lingering attachment to this world, he groans in embarrassment, holding his head in his hands .
“Th… that was! I wasn’t trying to make you feel like you owed me… aaargh, no!”
“Then, what were you trying to say?”
“Don’t ask! Nothing! Forget about it!”
I want to play the straight man in to Lutz’s completely unforeseen reaction, but right now I’m supposed to be being blamed . As Lutz requests, I pretend that nothing’s happening .
“Ummm, well, I remembered the promise like that, and then I also thought that I really shouldn’t disappear without returning at least one favor, after everything you did for me, so I worked hard to push the fever back, and, um…”
“So we met Mister Otto and Mister Benno, and I kept my promise, and then we made paper, so even though I want to make a book if I can, I think it’s okay if I disappear now, if you want me to?”
Lutz looks at me with a face like he’s swallowed a bug . He looks me up and down, with eyes that wouldn’t miss even the slightest lie, then hangs his head limply .
I can’t hear anything he’s saying as he mumbles with his head hung low, so I tilt my head curiously to one side and ask him to repeat himself . Lutz raises his head and stares at me dead on .
“Since when have you been Maine?”
“…When do you think? When do you think that I wasn’t the Maine you knew anymore?”
I may have answered his question with another question, but Lutz doesn’t get angry . Instead, he looks vacantly off into the sky, thinking deeply . He looks back down at me, mutters something too quietly for me to hear, then looks down at his feet, kicking at the dirt with his shoe .
“…That,” he says, pointing at my hairpin . “Was it about when you started wearing that?”
I didn’t expect him to guess quite so accurately, but it’s true, I’m the only one who wears my hair with a hairpin like this . If my hair weren’t so silky and straight, liable to come loose no matter how many times and how tightly I’d tie it, I’d probably be wearing it normally, tied back with a string .
“…Correct . ”
“That’s basically a year ago!” he yells, with such force that spittle flies from his mouth . His eyes flare wide open with rage .
Come to think of it, I became Maine at about the end of autumn . Right now it’s about halfway through the autumn, so soon the seasons will have come all the way around once .
“Yeah, I guess that’s right . Most of what I remember is being stuck in bed with a fever, but it’s been about a year . ”
My memories of over half of the time I’ve been living in this world have been of being feverish and bedridden, but if you compare that to the Maine of before who spent the vast majority of her time stuck in bed, I’m remarkably energetic .
“…Has your family noticed?”
“I have no clue . I know they notice I’ve been doing some strange things, but I wonder if they really haven’t even considered that I’m not actually Maine?”
I especially can’t think that Tory and my mother, who had to spend so much time looking after Maine while she was secluded in the house, haven’t noticed anything at all . However, they haven’t said anything about it, and I haven’t either . Living like that is very practical, so I think it’s more-or-less okay .
“Also, Daddy said that he’s overjoyed just that his daughter is starting to get healthier . ”
“…I see . ”
Lutz lets out a long sigh, then turns his back on me as if to say the conversation is over . He runs a fingertip along one of the pages of paper clinging to the board, checking it to see how well it’s drying . I had been fully prepared to disappear, but when this conversation ended without a satisfying conclusion, I can’t help but be troubled about how my future is going to play out .
“…I think your family should decide, not me . ”
He interrupts me before I have a chance to finish . He’s saying that my family should be the ones to decide whether or not I should disappear . However, if that’s the case, then nothing will actually change for me right now .
“So, should we keep going like this for now?”
“Yeah, let’s do that . ”
I don’t know what Lutz is really thinking, since he’s not looking over here . Does he not particularly mind that I, who am not Maine, am going to continue living like this for the time being?
“And that’s okay?”
“Like I said, that’s not something I should be deciding…”
Lutz stubbornly refuses to look at me, so I reach out and grab his arm . I want to ask him how he feels about me, since I’m not Maine . But, if I avoid such a troubling topic of conversation and just maintain the status quo, I wonder if he’d be alright with that?
“Lutz, is it really okay if I don’t disappear? I’m not the real Maine, you know?”
Lutz’s arm twitches a little bit . I thought for a moment that his arm was trembling a little bit in my grip, but it was really my hand that was trembling .
“…It’s fine . ”
As I ask him again, he finally turns around to look at me . With an expression somewhere between shock and amazement, he reaches up and flicks me on the forehead .
“If you disappear, Maine’s not coming back, right? Also, if you’ve been here for an entire year already, then you’re basically the Maine I know . ”
He roughly scratches at his head as he speaks, messing up his golden hair . Then, he looks me firmly in the eyes . What I see reflected in the pale green of his eyes is calmness, the anger and threatening attitude from the beginning evaporating away . These are the eyes of the Lutz I’ve always known .
Because before, I hadn’t thought about exercising my body, so I was even weaker . Because if I counted the number of times I’ve actually come face-to-face with Lutz or Ralph, I wouldn’t need more than my two hands .
“…That’s why, it’s okay if you’re my Maine . ”
When Lutz says that, something deep in my heart clicks into place . Something that had been fluttering about within me settles down with a thump . It really wasn’t a big change, so small that you couldn’t see it if you looked, but for me, it was the biggest, most important change in the world .