Read an Excerpt
Kieli, Vol. 3 (novel)Prisoners Bound for Another Planet
By KABEI, YUKAKO
Yen PressCopyright © 2010 KABEI, YUKAKO
All right reserved.
AT THE VERY TOP OF THE SLOPE
“Um, it’s my birthday….”
Harvey wondered what expression he must have worn when she started talking timidly that morning. If he were to make a comparison, he figured it was probably something like the face you’d make hearing some alien language from the edge of space while wondering, “What the hell is she saying?” That’s just how estranged he was from that word. He didn’t even remember if he had a birthday, and if he did, it would just make him feel empty, so he didn’t want to think about it.
He turned these thoughts over in a distant corner of his mind as he gazed into her black eyes for about five seconds, and then answered, “Oh, I see.”
He knew his reaction was lacking somehow. “Oh, do you want something?” he tried again, but that wasn’t quite right either. Wasn’t there something you were supposed to say before you got to such a materialistic question?
“No. I don’t need anything.” He thought she would get depressed or start sulking or something, but, unexpectedly, she answered as if it didn’t really bother her that much. Just as he’d come to expect each morning, she briskly readied herself to go out; finally she pulled the radio’s cord over her head and said, “But it would be nice if you were home tonight.”
“… If that’s what you want.”
“Promise. No matter what,” she emphasized, so he couldn’t help responding, “Yes, ma’am.”
She smiled happily. “Well, I’m off, then!” She spun around and cheerfully left the dining area.
He heard the door open and close on the other side of the mere token of a hallway that led from the dining room, and her nimble footsteps went farther and farther down the hall outside.
The exchange reminded Harvey of just how easy life had gotten, and he felt oddly uncomfortable; he turned around on the sofa and rested his chin on its back. The springs creaked slightly underneath him. The somewhat seasoned sofa had been pushed under the window overlooking the street below, and lately that had become his established spot.
The sofa for two, a rusty dining table, and a tiny storage shelf that had been there before they moved in were all that fit in the combined living, dining, and kitchen area of the commonplace, cheap apartment that also included a bedroom, a bathroom, and a short hall. It had been almost one month since they’d started renting a room on the third floor of this five-story, iron-framed building that looked out on the squalid hill road that overflowed with a sense of liveliness.
Living in an apartment. He got the feeling it was ridiculously unlike him, and he wanted to laugh.
What am I doing…?
The chilly but pleasant air of the early-spring morning came in through the open window. He shifted his gaze through it and saw Kieli hop down from the outdoor staircase on the side of the building. As soon as she got out onto the street, she turned at a right angle and passed under the window.
As he casually watched her go, he realized (after thinking for a while) that if it was her birthday, she must be fifteen now. Maybe it was because he saw her every day, but he didn’t feel as if she had changed at all; if he had to find something different, it would be that her short hair had grown just a little, and her clothes had gotten somewhat more mature. A spring blouse, cropped pants, sandals—no, he was just imagining it. The clothes proved only that it really was spring.
“It’s just…,” he muttered, not knowing himself what it “just” was, and let his gaze wander to the sky diagonally above him. Just then, a long, narrow shadow fell before his eyes.
The kind used for eating, of course.
Harvey reached out instinctively, and nearly slipped and fell as he leaned out the window frame and caught it just in the nick of time. He snatched it without thinking, so normally the fork’s tines would have stabbed his hand; but fortunately, he had reached out with his prosthetic right arm, so all the tines did was create a dry, metallic sound.
He breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for both his own reflexes and those of his false arm, and, still hanging limply out the window, he looked down at the street below to see Kieli pattering by directly below him.
He watched her go, then craned his neck to glare at the floor above.
He could make out a short silhouette in the window two floors up, but the instant he thought their eyes met, it disappeared.
They’re upgrading their weaponry….
Two days ago, a paper airplane; yesterday, a glass marble; and today, a fork. It was looking as though tomorrow it would be a meat cleaver or a wall clock. At this point, he couldn’t let them keep doing whatever the hell they wanted anymore.
As soon as he climbed the outside stairway to the fifth floor and stepped onto the walkway, a man who seemed to be a resident of the floor greeted him. Harvey had a habit of walking around at times when he wouldn’t run into too many people; so although he was meeting this man for the first time, having no intention of bothering with anything like neighborly relations, he ignored the man and kept walking past him. (He did have some idea that his manners had gotten incredibly bad lately.)
The resident shrugged and went down the stairs.
Harvey watched him go out of the corner of his eye, then faced front again. A narrow walkway, built exactly the same way as the one on the third floor, led inside. When he looked forward, doors lined a concrete wall on his right, and the wall of the building behind them stuck to the left of the hallway so closely that there was almost no space between them. He didn’t know which building had been built first, but either way, he was impressed with however they managed to do it.
He stood in front of the door equivalent to theirs on the third floor and started to ring the bell beside it but stopped. He didn’t really have any reason to bother with civility. He noticed that the doorknob was rusty, and there was a light layer of dust over it.
When he reached for it, the man from before popped out from the corner of the stairway. “You want to rent that apartment?”
“That place is trouble. You’d better forget about it,” the man rattled on one-sidedly, wearing an expression as if something had given him chills, and didn’t give Harvey a chance to answer. “No one’s lived there for two years. There’s no one there, but you can still hear sounds and voices…. I’m not lying. I live next door. But the landlord’ll tell you that no one will rent it because I keep putting ideas in people’s heads. Ah, if he sees me here, I’ll be in trouble again.”
He looked around, as if the landlord actually frightened him more than the eerie phenomenon, and with a hurried “Later,” he disappeared down the stairs in a panic.
I guess it takes all kinds in this world, Harvey found himself thinking.
Once the footsteps disappeared down the stairs, he looked around to double-check that he was alone and then slowly turned the knob. The apartment was unlocked. He pulled on the door and heard a light, rusty sound and saw dust scraping across the floor.
The room was gloomy, and in contrast to the dry atmosphere outside the door, a dank cold that clung to the skin hung in the air inside. Deeper in the apartment, just like his own, was a bathroom immediately to the right, and on the other side of the short hall, just like his, was a combined living and dining room.
He could make out a light dully reflecting off something inside.
Just then, that light turned and charged toward him. “Wah!” He barely managed to get out of its way; at the same time, a high-pitched noise echoed right by his ear.
A silver meat knife stuck out of the wall beside him.
He watched the handle tremble slightly and shuddered, then turned a bitter gaze inside the apartment; a woman with long hair stood in the doorway to the dining area. As she fixed a hollow glare on him, there was absolutely no sign of life in her face—but never mind that; more importantly, the angle of her neck was strange. It tilted ninety degrees to the right, like a broken doll’s.
Knives and forks floated up into the air, as if gravity no longer restrained them in the space around the woman, and hung still, pointing at him.
“Um, hey, I’m not here to see you…,” Harvey offered, trying to talk her out of it; but, realizing that he might be at a slight disadvantage, he used his peripheral vision to check escape routes—then he gulped involuntarily. Suddenly, a man was standing so close behind him that he practically had his chin on Harvey’s shoulder, directing an unfocused gaze forward.
“Stop it. This man is our guest,” he soothed the woman in a monotone voice, then abruptly swiveled his eyes in their sockets, fixing them on Harvey and forming a strangely flat smile. “Pardon her. My wife is a little neurotic,” the man said, grinning, a knife sticking out of the left side of his chest.
The “parent-and-child stew,” consisting of poultry, eggs, and chickpeas, was the popular dish of Buzz & Suzie’s Café, and many of their customers ordered it as soon as they were seated. When Kieli first visited the café, she found herself just copying those around her and asking for the same thing.
Harvey was extremely well-informed, though he didn’t look it. (It was rude to say it that way, but apparently to most outsiders, he looked as if he was never really thinking about anything.) He knew more than Kieli about just about everything; when it came to food, though, maybe because he had no interest in it, he lacked common sense at times. When he whispered, “Are chickpeas born from birds?” the woman who had just shown up with their food heard him, and she laughed so hard she slipped and fell, hurting her back.
That was how Kieli met the female owner of this establishment, Suzie.
So, in a way, it was thanks to Harvey that Kieli was able to get a part-time job at this café. However, birds do not birth chickpeas. She smiled whenever she thought of it.
“Hey, take this. Outside.”
A goofy grin had appeared on Kieli’s face without her knowing it, but when she heard the gruff voice from behind the counter, she stifled it. A stern man’s arm reached out from the open kitchen and placed bowls full of hot, milky stew on the counter.
The cook at Buzz & Suzie’s Café and Suzie’s husband, Buzz was a big, burly, silent man with a thick beard, who looked much more suited to skinning and skewering sand lions in the rocky mountains than specializing in soft meals made with milk. Kieli had been working there for three weeks but still jumped a little when accepting the orders from this giant man with the scary face.
But there was one thing that she and Buzz had in common to talk about. Surprisingly, this man also liked the music, forbidden by the Church, called “rock.”
These days, when Kieli arrived in the morning, her first job was to put the radio on a corner of the counter near the kitchen and turn on the up-tempo music found on the guerrilla channels. They couldn’t be so bold as to make it the café’s background music, so she set it to a very low volume so that only Buzz, in the kitchen, could hear it. Still, some of the regular male customers who came to talk to Buzz over the counter would notice and stop to listen for a while. According to the Corporal, “All men like rock by nature.” Kieli didn’t really understand, but she supposed it was true.
“Kieli. When you’ve taken that to its table, can I ask you to do some shopping?” A bright voice reached her from inside the restaurant as she was about to leave the counter, stew in hand.
“Sure, I’ll go,” she answered, turning. Suzie, who had just come out of the back room, tossed her a folded shopping list and the key to the three-wheeled motorbike. Kieli hurried to balance the bowls of stew in one hand as she caught the bundle with the other.
Suzie was bright, cheerful, and very attentive, but sometimes she did slightly crass things like this, which was how she could occasionally laugh so that hard she fell over. She walked with a cane in one hand to support the hip she’d injured in the incident. In a corner of her mind, Kieli thought, “She must be feeling well today.”
Kieli noticed that she had been superimposing her mother onto Suzie just a little. Although it wasn’t as if the short, plump Suzie and her slender mother with her clean-cut demeanor looked or acted much alike.
Kieli turned back to the counter one more time and pulled the radio’s cord toward her in a rather awkward pose, as she still held the stew. As he turned a frying pan in the kitchen, Buzz glared her way (but he always looked like that; she didn’t think he was in a bad mood… probably) but immediately returned his attention to his work. He didn’t ask why Kieli always kept the radio somewhere she could see it, but he seemed to understand. Normally, anyone would think it a little strange for this girl to wander into the neighborhood and rent an apartment with a guy who had a fake arm, and Kieli couldn’t complain if people kept their distance, but Buzz and Suzie treated her completely normally, as if there were no reason not to.
That’s the kind of couple they were, and that’s why Kieli liked working at their diner.
She went through the hall, bustling with hungry customers, and out the open glass door onto the squalid, one-lane hill road in front of the restaurant. Two three-wheeled trucks loaded with fossil fuels passed in a line down the street in front of her. As the name, Mine Street, suggested, if she followed the path all the way up to the top of the slope, she would reach the coal mine towering behind the town. Most of the patrons of the diner were miners there.
It had gotten pretty warm, so they had set up some tables on the footpath in front of the café the week before, and miners who had come for an early lunch talked and laughed as they waited for their food. They were in the middle of a sloping path, so the chairs and tables slanted a bit on the uneven ground, but no one seemed to care.
“Thank you very much for waiting,” Kieli greeted them, still unused to the phrase, and put the food on the table. No one seemed to care that the bowls slanted, too, as they tasted their stew.
Apparently the residents of this town were rather tolerant of slanting. Not only did the old buildings on the intricate hilly roads crowd together in a jumble, with no sense of organization, but they were also all built at relatively random angles, so if she looked carefully, she could tell that everything slanted a little. Never mind Harvey, but when Kieli got here, her sense of balance was off for the first few days, and she found herself crashing into poles.
Now that she had been here a month, she had gotten completely used to the scenery, and she really felt she was living here. She hadn’t felt this way since her grandmother died, even in Easterbury, where she grew up.
Looking up, she could see the light sand-colored sky between the roofs of the uneven line of houses. She took a deep breath, pulling the pleasant spring air into her lungs.
“I hope we can stay in this town forever…,” she muttered, half to herself and half to the radio hanging from her hand along with the key to the three-wheeled motorbike.
“… Unfortunately, Kieli, that’s probably not possible,” she heard a staticky male voice reply through the speaker of the radio over the faint music of stringed instruments.
“I know,” Kieli answered, still looking up at the sky, regretting getting carried away in her good mood and blurting out something so irresponsible. She didn’t know if Harvey had come here with some goal in mind or if he had just felt like it (she tried asking, but as usual, she didn’t get much of an explanation), but either way, he probably had no intention of staying in the same place forever.
It could be said that the life of an Undying is eternal and unchanging, so why did she get the feeling that his way of life was so fleeting?
“Oh, my, what am I doing!? You’re a friend of our daughter’s, aren’t you? You should have said so sooner.”
We’re not really “friends.”…
“Please, please, come in and make yourself at home. We don’t have much, but…”
Well, I can see you don’t have much….
“Now that everyone’s here, we have to hurry and get ready for the party!”
Hey, don’t include me. What am I doing here anyway? As Harvey mocked himself for faithfully responding, in his head, to every sentence, he was half-shoved inside the apartment. He sighed, realizing he’d gotten mixed up with some guys that were going to be a different kind of annoying than he had expected.
The man with the knife in his chest and the woman with the broken neck hurried in and out of the dining area, exchanging shrill conversation.
“We should use those, dear. Would you get out those plates? The ones we got as a wedding gift.” “You threw them in a fit of hysteria.” “Oh, come now, I would never break such valuable china.” “Then maybe I took them to the pawnshop.” “That must be it. What am I to do with you? You trade everything for money and use it all for gambling, hee hee hee.” “No, but you broke them. You threw them, cabinet and all, remember? Ah-ha-ha-ha.” As they talked congenially about such brutal things, their expressions were strangely empty, and their eyes remained unfocused. The scene made Harvey dizzy with its three levels of inconsistency; he looked away, and his eyes met those of a shadow, looking at him from the doorway in the side of the dining room.
That instant, the other person quickly ducked out of sight.
As for the couple in the dining room, they continued their monotonous chitchat as they set the table, but the conversation had completely devolved into a war of insults.
Harvey shrugged and retreated to the wall, then slipped through the door to the bedroom where the shadow had disappeared.
A slender beam of light shone through the small window, casting a spot of faded sand-colored sunlight onto a corner of the room. Under the light was a child’s bed. A small person curled up under a comforter of quilted scraps, hiding.
Wordlessly, he stood by the bed and slowly pulled the fork he had been clutching out of the pocket of his work pants. He sensed the shadow under the blanket wince and stiffen. He looked casually down at the fork’s tines, giving off a dull light in the sunshine, and the shadow on the bed abruptly jumped up, shouting, “Gyaaa! Murderer!”
Harvey hadn’t expected that, and he went speechless for a second, then responded, “No, um, look, wait a minute.”
“Help! Don’t kill me!”
“Hey, before you start…”
“Nooo! He’s gonna kill me!” The shadow refused to listen to what he had to say and kept wailing from the corner of the bed, head in hands. “Help! Stop! Aaaaah!”
“……” Harvey started to get annoyed. “Shut up. Be quiet.”
He threw the fork unceremoniously from his hand. It flew through the shadow and stuck into the wall with a thunk; at the same time, the screaming stopped.
“You’re already long dead anyway.”
“… Tch. You’re no fun.” The shadow pouted and frowned.
You little brat… If you had a body, I’d want to slug it.
The pajamas were completely plain, but it was a girl wearing them. She was a good talker, but it was hard to tell if her age had reached two digits yet. As for why a child like her would be dead—he didn’t care about the details. He hadn’t come here to sympathize.
“So? You got something against my roommate?” He finally got to the point, lowering his voice. It seemed he’d had to take quite a useless detour for such a simple matter.
It was this girl who’d dropped something when Kieli passed under her each morning, starting with the paper airplane two days ago, then the marble and the fork. He had left her alone, figuring it was just a little prank, but when it got to a fork, it wasn’t a joke anymore.
“Lots,” the ghost girl answered, puffing out her chest proudly. “Because she’s so healthy and goes out every morning.”
Just as he started seriously thinking that it might solve things neatly to bring the radio and have him blow her away with a shock wave, now the girl suddenly slumped her shoulders and put on a depressed expression. She directed her downcast gaze at the windowsill and narrowed her eyes at the outside light, as if it was too bright, or, depending on how you looked at her, as if it annoyed her.
“When I was alive, I almost never got to go outside. They said I was born with a blood disease. If I moved just a little, I could get a bruise, and the bleeding wouldn’t stop. If I kept taking medicine, I could have gotten a little better, but it was really expensive.” She shifted her gaze from the window to the bedroom door. “That’s why my parents were always fighting.” The girl hung her head in self-derision.
Just then, the shrill sound of shattering glass echoed from the other side of the door.
“It’s all your fault. It’s your fault we’re so poor.” “It’s not my fault we’re poor; it’s because the girl was born like that.” “It’s your fault she was born that way. If only she weren’t like that….” The discussion between the man and woman was as monotone and rapid-fire as ever; the expression vanished from the girl’s face when she heard the exchange.
The couple’s conversation suddenly broke off, and an awkward silence hung in the air.
A few seconds later, the woman with the broken neck and the man with the knife in his chest appeared side by side in the bedroom doorway. They plastered friendly smiles on their faces, gauging the girl’s mood.
“Um, did you hear what we just said?”
The girl glanced blankly at her father and mother. “No. What was it?” she answered, wearing a fake smile. Maybe her parents didn’t notice the subtle movement of their daughter’s visage; they looked thoroughly relieved.
“We’re almost ready for the party. Come on out.”
“You, too, sir. This way, please,” they said, and both disappeared again into the dining room.
He was silent for some reason as he watched them go, then looked back at the bed, where the girl was conscientiously pulling a cardigan over her pajamas, despite just being a ghost.
“It’s my birthday party. If I was alive, I’d be ten. But I died the day before my birthday, so I’ll be nine forever. Wanna know why I died?”
“You’re no fun. And here I was thinking I might stop bugging that girl if you would give me someone to talk to.”
“… I’m going home,” Harvey said as he spun around and started to walk toward the door. Having her tread on his weakness and use it as a bargaining chip like that really got on his nerves—no, maybe he was mad at himself that it actually was a weakness, and he felt like he might accept her terms because of it, but never mind that. If she really wasn’t going to stop, then he just had to get serious and have the Corporal blast her.
“Come on, wait! Aren’t you coming to my birthday party?”
“Why should I have to go to a party for someone who’s got nothing to do with me?” he answered without even turning around.
“Nothing to do with you? You’re mean, mister!” the girl’s voice chased after him, a little dramatically. “I mean, we’re kind of the same, aren’t we? Mister Undying.”
He stopped. So she had realized—it wouldn’t really cause him any problems for a ghost to know, but he naturally put up his guard as he turned around.
The girl sat on the edge of the bed in her dimly lit bedroom, swinging her bare feet back and forth.
“I know all about Undyings. You’re alive, but you’re not. No matter how much everything changes around you, you’re the only thing that doesn’t change, and time leaves you behind—just like me; I’ll always be nine years old. No matter how many times my birthday comes and we celebrate it, I’ll never be ten years old. See? We’re the same, right?”
“I…” he started automatically, but even he didn’t know how he’d meant to finish that sentence. The girl smiled with an expression that seemed innocent at first, but seemed to hint at something—a kind of look unsuited to someone her age.
“You’re coming to my party, right?”
Kieli fastened four large cans of milk and a paper bag full of onions to the three-wheeled bike’s rack, then started up the sloping Mine Street to Buzz & Suzie’s Café.
In this town made entirely of hills, the three-wheeled motorbike was commonly used as a mode of transportation. There was no clutch, and anyone could control the accelerator and brakes with just the handles, so it was pretty simple. After learning from Suzie and practicing for a day, even Kieli could more or less drive one.
The luggage rack was extremely big, but its inside was mostly occupied by the gas tank with its inefficient fossil fuel. Exhaust spouted out of the clumsy muffler sticking out the back, creating an immense nuisance to the neighborhood, as she flew by the pedestrians. Nevertheless, from what she could see, it didn’t really bother anyone, and laundry still hung calmly out to dry in the house windows.
The exhaust, along with the slanting, must have been an everyday thing for this town.
Even though the roads were paved, they were cracked and bumpy due to the high traffic of trucks carrying fuel, and she didn’t go very fast. The streets on either side of her passed by at a peaceful pace along with the spring wind that felt nice on her skin.
“It’s okay to be a little extra cheerful today. It is your birthday.”
“Yeah…” Kieli agreed, a little inarticulately, with the voice from the radio hanging around her neck. “But it’s just a day my grandmother decided on; it’s not my actual birthday.”
A day on the border between spring and winter—the last day of winter before spring term started—had become Kieli’s birthday. Apparently, her grandmother picked the last day of the school year for the simple reason that Kieli was small, so she called it her birthday, but it meant nothing more than, “I might be around fifteen years old today.”
“I should have asked my mom when my birthday is….” She spoke what was on her mind, and immediately regretted it.
Her mother slept at the final destination of the Sand Ocean—Kieli thought she had gotten over it, but as it really was painful to remember, she did her utmost not to think about it.
Maybe Harvey was being considerate, or maybe he just didn’t care, but anyway, he hadn’t mentioned it since then. It seemed as though the man named Jude who was with her mother (she still didn’t really know if he was her father or not) was someone Harvey knew a long time ago, and Harvey seemed unusually insistent—for him—on learning about him. At a certain point, though, he suddenly stopped bringing it up, as if it no longer mattered to him.
When she thought about it, she got the feeling that that certain point happened about when they arrived in this town.
From South-hairo port, the western entrance to the southeast continent, the train tracks went due east and ran into the line of mountains that divided the huge South-hairo parish between east and west. This town stood as if someone had cut out a part of that line and glued it back on at an angle. The reason it had so many sloping roads was its location.
Yellowish gray smoke rose from the cluster of exhaust pipes at the very top of the slopes, at the peak of the fault, painting the sandy clouds in the sky an even thicker color. Some dregs of the fossilized resources that had dried up during the War still remained inside the mountains, and the mine tunnel had been dug in order to find them. Apparently there were a few other mining towns like this left in South-hairo, but of them, this one was especially big and bustling.
They’d arrived at port about two months ago. They had continued their fairly freewheeling—or at least it seemed freewheeling to Kieli—train travel, stopping at stations along the way, but for some reason, apparently Harvey felt like stopping and settling down in this city.
“All he said was, ‘We’re gonna be living here for a while.’ Damn, what is he thinking?”
“He might not be thinking of anything, you know.”
“No, but hey, he looks as if he’s just lying around, not doing anything, and then sometimes he’ll actually look at the time and go out. It’s downright fishy, if you ask me.”
“There’s your weird detective spirit getting fired up again…,” Kieli muttered in exasperation, although she had been wondering the same thing. Once or twice a week, he would wander out at night and not come back until morning. It was suspicious that the one time she asked him where he was going, all he said was “Cards.” It was true that there were days when he went to the gambling house in the business district, but to Harvey, gambling seemed to be something to pay for necessary expenses, not something he actually enjoyed, so it was difficult to think that he’d get so caught up in it that he’d be gone all night long.
He suddenly said they were going to live here for a while, just went and rented an apartment, and for all that he didn’t seem to really be doing anything—he just stayed in the apartment every day except when he would wander off somewhere. Even when Kieli, bored with so much free time, used Suzie’s injury as an opportunity to say she wanted to help at the diner, the only reaction he gave was, “Sure, why not? Go ahead.”
She hadn’t thought about it much before because when they were traveling they’d never stayed in one place for very long, but now that they had settled down in town like this, she thought that Harvey wasn’t really suited to living in society. Maybe it was because he was so used to traveling alone, but he basically did whatever he pleased. He lived life at random hours, couldn’t fit in with other people, thought it was a pain to deal with others….
Thinking about these things, she actually felt a bit superior, though her feelings weren’t really directed at anyone. Harvey was the way he was, but at least he allowed Kieli to enter his field of vision; and as of yet, he hadn’t abandoned her, choosing instead to stay with her.
“What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing.” She dodged the dubious question from under her chin, and while she was at it, she increased her sluggish pace slightly. The sound of the fossil fuel engine may have enveloped their conversation, but if anyone passing by saw her grinning and talking to herself, that person would think she was weird.
“What’s with you, smiling all weird like that?”
“It’s nothing. I’m just looking forward to tonight.”
“You can’t expect anything thoughtful from him, you know.”
“I’m not. It would be creepy if he did do anything thoughtful for me.” Kieli felt that if something like that happened, she would worry about Harvey’s ulterior motive. Like maybe he would be gone when she woke up the next morning.
Fears like that would sometimes suddenly occur to her before she fell asleep. When she would crawl out of bed and peer into the dining room, Harvey would be sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette and gazing out the window into the night without really looking at anything. That made Kieli feel better, and she would sneak back into bed.
“Have him buy you something. He can make as much money as he wants when he puts his mind to it.”
“But what do I want…?”
She thought about it for a bit, then answered, “Nothing especially.” Well, it wasn’t as if there was absolutely nothing. It was helpful to have clothes and daily necessities, and the radio’s cord was getting pretty beat up. She could pay for those things with her own wages, though, so she didn’t see a need to specifically ask for them.
Now, more than anything, it was enough just to have someone to spend her birthday with. The last time she remembered anyone celebrating with her was her eighth birthday, just before her grandmother died. All her birthdays after that were nothing but melancholy days of packing her things so she could change rooms in the boarding house, thinking things like, “So spring term starts tomorrow. It’s hard having to make friends with a new roommate and new classmates.”
Oh, I remember. But last year, she had had a birthday party for the first time in a while. It wasn’t for her, though; it was for her roommate.
Becca’s birthday, according to the ghost herself, was in the middle of summer, so they’d taken advantage of everyone being gone for the summer holidays to sneak into the school’s chapel and have fun playing with the organ together.
When they’d sunk to the floor, tired from all the merry-making, Becca had smiled and said slowly, “But I won’t get older anymore.”
… If Becca did grow up, I think she would be so pretty. A woman with golden hair down to her hips, fluttering in the wind as she walked briskly down the street—Kieli could imagine it so clearly it was as if Becca was actually in front of her. Men wouldn’t be able to help stopping and turning when she passed by.
“Kieli, watch out!”
She automatically grabbed the brakes in response to the radio’s shout, and at the same time, the grown-up Becca standing in front of her turned in her direction.
There was a dull thud at the front wheel.
… I hit her.
It took her a few seconds to realize.
The paper bag came loose from the luggage rack, and onions tumbled down the sloping road. As she listened to the strangely peaceful rolling sound in a corner of her consciousness, she gazed dumbly at the woman on the ground a few meters ahead of her. Passersby gathered noisily around them.
“… Kieli. Hey,” the radio whispered, in a similarly dumbfounded but urgent voice, and the girl came back to her senses.
“A-are you all right!?”
Kieli practically flung the bike aside as she jumped off and ran to the woman she’d struck. The pedestrian picked herself up, shaking her head. Oh good, she’s alive! There was no doubt she had done something terrible, but still, Kieli was somewhat relieved. “Are you injured? Do you hurt anywhere? I’m sorry! I wasn’t paying attention. I thought you were an illusion. I was thinking about my friend, and, um! I’m really sorry!” She rattled off things that didn’t make sense even to her as she peered into the face of the woman sitting on the asphalt.
That instant, Kieli cut herself off, and her eyes widened.
The woman really looked exactly like the adult version of Becca that Kieli had just imagined. Her long blond hair with a slight wave to it, her clear blue eyes…
“Oh, I’m fine. I just fell trying to dodge.” Even her bright, carefree smile and her manner of speech when she answered were exactly like Becca.
Surprise and relief struck Kieli speechless as she continued to gape, and the woman blinked and said, “Hey, are you okay?” while waving a hand in front of Kieli’s face.
“Yes! Um, I was thinking how pretty you are…,” she blurted. When she realized how absurd she sounded, Kieli turned bright red and jumped back.
“Thank you,” the woman said smoothly, smiling, without anything like modesty. Then she waved her hand again, this time to shoo away the gathering onlookers—“Okay, there was no accident here. Go on, get out of here”—and it felt good to hear her unaffected, sociable tone.
A few passersby (all of them male) had come over to lend a hand, but they went off, seeming somehow disappointed.
The woman stood up, brushing the dust off her clothes, so Kieli stood up with her. She breathed a sigh of relief to see that her victim wasn’t really hurt, then hung her head again.
“I really am sorry.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s partly my fault for jumping out in front of you. Some weirdo just wouldn’t leave me alone.” She scanned her surroundings, looking thoroughly disgusted, and after a bit, she relaxed and softened her expression. “It looks like he disappeared in the commotion. You actually helped me out.”
She’s a nice person. Kieli felt better. The more she looked at the beautiful woman, the more the woman looked identical to Becca. She appeared to be about Harvey’s age, or maybe a little older. In a corner of her mind, Kieli wondered if she herself would be a good match for Harvey when she got to that age, but she had a hunch that train of thought wouldn’t lead anywhere pleasant, so she stopped.
Instead, she remembered the onions.
She looked back at the bike, but every single onion had fallen out of the bag on the rack and had long since vanished from sight at the bottom of the slope. She panicked and ran back, turning her head halfway to say, “I work at Buzz & Suzie’s Café at the top of the hill; please come by if you like. I’ll treat you, as an apology!”
Kieli didn’t wait for an answer as she straddled the driver’s seat and started the engine. After a pause, black smoke spouted out of the muffler, along with the sound of a cheap motor. As she twisted the accelerator in an effort to get the bike to face downward, she suddenly heard the radio’s voice. “Hey, wait a second. Look. In front.” Easy for him to say, but as Kieli didn’t know where to look, her gaze wandered for a while before her eyes stopped on the front wheel’s fender.
The metal plate was spectacularly dented.
Now that she thought about it, the woman said she just fell, but Kieli was sure she had felt an impact.
By the time she turned around, the woman had disappeared into the crowd of people coming and going along the street.
“Mama and Papa went though a lot of trouble because I was born like this. Papa started gambling to earn money for my medicine, but he went into debt instead, and Mama had a terrible time taking care of me because I kept crying about how much it hurt every single night, and she went crazy. They said I wouldn’t live to be ten years old, but my tenth birthday was coming up and I was still alive. Mama and Papa were so exhausted because I lived much longer than they’d thought, and we were out of money, so the day before my birthday, they couldn’t take it anymore and our family ended in a murder-suicide.” The girl related the story indifferently as she used her fork to stab at the chocolate cake on her plate.
“Then, the next thing I knew, we were having a birthday party. We have a party every day. Every single day, and nothing I do can stop it.”
The utensils were real, but the cake was nothing more than an illusion painted before her. Every time the girl stabbed her cake, the fork would hit the plate with a high-pitched clank. To a normal person, it would probably look as though the fork was floating on its own and hitting a barren plate.
That would be a chilling scene in itself, but Harvey thought he could safely say the scene he was witnessing was even more bizarre.
Chipped plates and rusted cutlery crammed the dining table, and countless elegant foods, out of balance with the humble tableware, sat on top of them. But the assortment was somehow mismatched or, to put it bluntly, lacking in good taste. (Not that he really had any place judging, when it came to food.) A giant guinea fowl cooked whole; a frighteningly sweet-looking three-layer chocolate cake (Three layers! who’s gonna eat that?); mutton sausage; and a combination platter of whole fruits—they’d just indiscriminately conjured up whatever first came to mind when you thought of a “feast.”
The mother with the broken neck gazed on them with a proud but somehow vacant, cheap smile and encouraged the girl to eat one thing after another. The father with the knife in his chest grinned and offered Harvey a plate. “Now, now. Don’t be shy; you have some, too. This is the first time we’ve had a guest for our daughter’s birthday.”
Harvey rested his chin in his hand with his elbow on the table, directing his eyes nowhere in particular, and answered only, “Thanks.” He ignored the food (or rather, the chipped plate with nothing on it).
He’d already asked himself several times today, but from the depths his heart, he thought, What am I doing?
Sure, he might not be able to go home until he got the girl to stop harassing Kieli, but even he thought it was incredibly stupid to get carried away by events enough to stick around.
He looked over at the birthday girl sitting in the so-called “birthday seat” diagonally across from him. She wasn’t bringing the food to her mouth either, but rather thrusting her fork into it and yanking it out in a way that almost looked like she was trying to destroy it.
“I’m tired of this. Every day the same birthday, every day the same feast. And I never once said I wanted to eat any of this stuff,” she spat in a low voice.
Harvey averted his eyes from her face without a word and cast a sideways glance at her parents, who were quarreling at the center of the table as they cut up the roasted bird.
He looked back at the girl and opened his mouth. “What do you want to do?”
“Eh?” The girl stopped stabbing with her fork, a blank expression on her face.
“Your parents are just doing their best to make you happy, aren’t they?”
“Their ‘best’ is just empty effort. I mean, this stuff doesn’t make me happy at—”
“So I’m asking what you do want to do,” said Harvey, his tone growing harsh as annoyance started to set in. “You’re stuck in this loop because you have some lingering regret, right? There’s something else, isn’t there? Something you want to do that’s not a party.”
“… There is!” the girl said energetically, then, “But—” She cut herself off and hung her head. In the silence, the parents’ voices, in their ever-monotonous chatter, reached his ears, along with a surreal feeling, like background music from behind a screen.
After a little while, the girl continued haltingly. “But I know they’ll say I can’t, so it’s pointless to even ask.”
“I’m telling you, just say what you want. You won’t know until you ask.” Argh, this is irritating. That thought probably contained some annoyance at himself for saying stuff like this to a complete stranger. This was getting to be a pain, so Harvey lumped all the irritation together and directed it at her parents. “Hey, listen to her. Stop just bickering back and forth!”
The parents, who had been arguing about whether to start cutting the guinea fowl from its head or its tail (Who the hell cares?), stopped abruptly, and the meat knife slipped out of their hands, its blade sticking into the table with a thunk.
They concentrated their stares at the girl, who faltered and winced a little. She threw a sideways glance at Harvey, as if pleading for help. “Go on, say it,” he urged with a sigh.
The girl turned her eyes up at her parents, looking from one to the other, then, with a meek expression, opened her mouth. “… Um, hey. You promised on my ninth birthday, remember? If I lived to be ten, you would take me outside town. I want to try going to the top of the hill. At the very, very top you can see a spaceship on the other side, right? I want to see the spaceship.”
She got that far and clammed up. Timidly, but with the faintest hope in her eyes, she checked her parents’ reactions.
Her parents exchanged a troubled look.
“But you couldn’t,” her father said, shaking his head regretfully. “You’d have to climb a lot of hills and stairs. You can’t be outside for that long, you know.”
Her mother nodded in agreement, “He’s right. What if you start hurting before we get there? What if you get a scrape and can’t stop bleeding?”
“Never mind!” The girl’s abrupt shout interrupted her parents. “See? I told you they’d say no. They just promised me that to get me to be quiet. I mean, look, there was no way I could have lived to be ten,” she said in a joking tone and shrugged at Harvey. But she suddenly averted her eyes and hung her head, biting her lip as if she was holding something in. Her father started to open his mouth again but ended up just swallowing his words awkwardly, and a heavy silence enveloped the dining room.
After a few seconds, Harvey finally interjected, “… Hey.” His timing was thrown off by the oppressive atmosphere, but this was getting to be too much. The girl and her parents glanced up, still looking depressed. “Well, er…” He got the feeling that having the whole ghost family look at him with those dejected faces might get him cursed, and faltering a little, he asked the girl, “You wanna go now?”
The girl just blinked with a blank expression, so her father raised his voice angrily instead. “Please don’t say those irresponsible things!” Following suit, her mother spoke, in almost a scream, “You’re terrible! You only say that because you don’t know! You don’t know how pitiful this girl is, how painful her attacks are!”
He noticed the plates on the table starting to shake in concert with the mother’s outburst. Then, in defiance of the laws of physics, they floated upward. Knives and forks rotated in the air and then pointed his way, taking aim.
“Wait a—Listen! Maybe when she was alive, but she’s already—” he added in a panic as he got up from his chair, but he stumbled on its legs, and while he was distracted, a fork flew at him like an arrow. It sliced a few millimeters of skin off his cheek and pierced the wall behind him.
He shuddered and shouted, “She’s already dead! She won’t have any attacks!”
“Mama, stop!” The girl’s voice overlapped his, and a knife stopped abruptly, right at the tip of his nose.
Harvey had a staring match with the point of the knife floating in front of him and gulped unconsciously—that instant, as if its strings had been cut, the knife dropped straight down, and a dry clatter echoed from the floor.
Harvey let out a deep breath he didn’t know he had been holding.
“You’re just letting the way things were when you were alive hold you back. She really won’t have any more attacks—she doesn’t have a body. If she wants to go outside, she could just pass through the wall and go,” he said in a somewhat softer tone than usual, looking toward the girl. She had frozen in a half-standing position, about to cry.
Then he shifted his focus to the girl’s parents. “Ah…,” the two said dumbly as they stood gaping side by side on the other side of the table, then both clapped their hands together, looking as if they finally understood.
“Now that you mention it, you’re right.”
“Now that he mentions it, he’s right.”
Harvey was getting a headache.
“I can go outside…?” the girl asked nervously. “But I’ve hardly been outside at all since I was little, because I get attacks right away….”
“I’m telling you, you won’t have an attack.” You still won’t believe me? Harvey sighed in exasperation. “The other side of the top of the slope, right?”
What am I doing? He inwardly recited the line that he had been muttering all day and vowed to himself that no matter what happened in the future, no matter how long he lived, he would never, ever, under any circumstances, help another stranger this much again.
“I’ll take you there. Come on,” he said, offering his hand to the girl.
Kieli’s work for the day at Buzz & Suzie’s Café ended with taking the chairs from the outside tables inside and hanging the CLOSED sign on the door. She carried the last chair to a corner of the hall and was about to go flip the sign when Suzie suggested she eat dinner before she went.
Kieli thanked her but shook her head. “You see, I have plans today. It’s my birthday.”
After a brief pause, Suzie suddenly got angry. “Your birthday? Today? Why didn’t you tell us sooner? Just what kind of people do you think we are?!” Suzie ranted as Kieli stood in dumbfounded bewilderment; then Buzz just said, “Wait there,” shutting himself up in the kitchen. After thirty minutes, he came back out with a freshly baked pound cake.
Still in shock, Kieli let them press the package with the pound cake into her hands and let Suzie rant at her some more about how that skinny boy (boy?) she lived with probably wasn’t eating properly, and she should bring him here to eat sometime. At length, they finally released her, and she put the diner behind her.
“That was a surprise…. I didn’t think she’d get mad at me for saying it’s my birthday.”
As she trudged up the slope that led to their apartment, carrying her bag, the radio, and the pound cake, Kieli was still stunned.
“They thought you were treating them like strangers.”
“But they are strangers….” After she answered, for some reason her own words struck at her heart. But at this point in her life, the only people Kieli could say were not strangers to her were Harvey and the Corporal.
“Sussy doesn’t think so.”
“Suzie,” she corrected him, as Harvey had done so many times. When Kieli announced that she was thinking of working at Buzz & Suzie’s Café, the first thing Harvey’d said was, “Sure, why not?” but the Corporal’s immediate reaction was that it was too hard to say with all the Zs.
“You’re not as bad as Herbie, but you draw too many boundaries between yourself and others.”
“Harvey.” As she corrected him again, Kieli wondered if he was right.
One person’s footsteps and two voices resounded quietly in the empty night street, like static in the air.
The day’s work at the mine ended as the sun went down, and the miners went home, making people scarce relatively early on Mine Street. Almost all the shops lining both sides of the avenue had closed, and the yellow glow spilling out of windows from upper floors and the dull light of streetlamps made spots here and there on the now blue-gray asphalt. After being so noisy and overflowing with activity during the day, the street seemed even emptier than it actually was after the sun set.
Although it was the beginning of spring, the night wind was still chilly, and Kieli hunched her shoulders a little, clutching the paper bag in her hands to her chest. She felt the warmth of fresh pound cake and smelled its faint fragrance.
“Come to think of it, she didn’t come to the diner after all,” Kieli murmured, remembering the face of the woman she had crashed into that afternoon—the beautiful blond woman who looked like Becca.
“I wonder if she’s really okay. I hope she’s not passed out somewhere right now….”
“She said herself she was fine, so she’s probably fine.”
“But the bike was dented. What did I hit?”
“Forget it. She’s fine.”
“Corporal?” She looked down at the radio, wondering about his strangely blunt tone.
After a moment of silence, the radio said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. There’s just something about her.”
Now that her companion was speaking normally, Kieli wondered even more. She furrowed her brow, but he forced the conversation to a close, saying, “No, I’ll tell you about it later. I have to check something with Herbie.”
“Hmm…,” Kieli murmured, sounding somewhat dissatisfied, and took her eyes off the radio. So there were things the Corporal could talk to Harvey about but not to her. There wasn’t much reason for it, but she was a little disappointed.
The apartment came into view at the top of the hill. The reddish gray, five-story building stood tightly squished between similar, but slightly leaning, buildings on either side and in front of it.
She looked casually up at a window on the third floor and stopped for a second.
The light wasn’t on. The glass inside the window frame had sunken into pitch darkness.
Kieli started walking again, her pace quickening in the first two or three steps, and by the time she turned around the side of the building, she was jogging; she ran up the outside stairway to the third floor in one bound, the radio bouncing as she went. She carefully hid the unevenness of her breath as she stood in front of the door, shifted the pound cake to her side, and put her hand on the knob.
It was unlocked, and her hopes rose a little, but when she opened the door halfway and peeked inside, it was still completely dark, and she sensed no sign of anyone inside.
“Where the hell did he go without locking the door? How can he be so careless?” the radio cursed. Kieli didn’t say a word as she slowly pushed the door closed behind her. She made her way into the dining room without turning on the lights.
Faint illumination from the streetlamps shone in from under the window, casting a bluish glow above the sofa. The deserted sofa seemed to float, the only thing lit up in the gloom, and looked strangely forlorn.
“But he promised….” The murmur escaped her lips haltingly, before she was aware of it.
“Kieli…” The radio’s anxious voice came to her. “He’ll be right back, I’m sure. He just went somewhere nearby, that’s all.”
“Oh, it’s okay. It’s not like we were gonna do anything special, and Harvey probably won’t eat any cake anyway, so let’s just eat it without him,” she said quickly, then, “Oh, you won’t be eating it, either, will you, Corporal….” She trailed off and closed her mouth.
She meaninglessly surveyed the dining room one more time, as if she expected to find something, then left the package of cake on the dining room table. It made a more violent sound than she expected.
Damn it, this is farther than I thought.
But Harvey didn’t realize that until, well, after they had gotten there. He seemed to remember that the one time he went there before it took only about thirty minutes, but even he realized that his sense of time was pretty arbitrary. If someone were to ask him if it really did take thirty minutes, he wouldn’t have confidence that he was right. He didn’t even remember how many years ago it had been.
After climbing to the top of Mine Street, passing beside the mining building, taking a narrow path even higher up, then climbing even farther up a stairway that crawled zigzagging along the stone wall towering behind the city, they reached the peak of the fault, the very top of the slope. By the time they got there, naturally, the sun had set. With the faint city lights that reached them from far below, back down the way they had come, Harvey could just make out the bare rock beneath his feet.
The dry wind from the wilderness would sometimes gust by, ruffling his hair. Unlike the air he felt in town, with its sense of life, this air had the scent of desolate earth. It wasn’t as if he had any good memories of such places, but if he had to choose, he was more familiar with this wind, and it felt more comfortable to him.
The girl in pajamas stood on tiptoe next to him and squinted into the distance. Harvey lit a cigarette and feigned ignorance.
“ ’Cause it’s night….”
“I can’t see a thing. And we came all this way! That’s no fun.” The girl frowned.
Wondering why this girl who couldn’t just tell her parents what she wanted had no reservations about shooting off complaints to him, Harvey sighed and indicated far into the dark night with the fingers that held his cigarette.
“You can kind of make out a black shadow sticking out over there, right? That’s the ruins of the spaceship.”
The girl just tilted her head and made a vague response, so he felt a little discouraged inside. She can’t see it? He re-created the scene in his mind from when he’d gazed on it before, though he didn’t remember how long ago it had been.
Under the sky, pierced by the dull sunlight between the sand-colored clouds, the bare, rocky wilderness formed a gentle downward slope that continued far beyond his vision, to the distant horizon and its gaseous haze. Shifting his gaze a little to the right, he could see, in the center of the wilderness, a circular area, the one place of a very slightly different color, where something stuck out of the ground at an angle.
That thing, which looked like a rusty bayonet piercing the earth, was actually an enormous structure—the last interstellar spacecraft, said to have crashed here hundreds of years ago.
It wasn’t a very good description, but he explained it to her. The girl didn’t seem to get it after all, and adopted a questioning look.
“Why did the spaceship crash?”
“I don’t know. But after that last ship crashed there, prisoner escort ships stopped coming to this planet. They say that there was a revolution or something on the mother planet at the same time, but those are just old rumors—they probably have nothing to do with this planet anymore.”
“Prisoner escort ships?” The girl responded with another question, confusion in her voice. Oh, right, this isn’t really common knowledge. Harvey mulled for a bit over how to explain.
“This world was originally an exile planet. A place where they banished prisoners for eternity. They didn’t think there was anything on this barren wasteland, but then they found fossilized resources and started using prisoners to mine here. That was when the pioneering age started, and the Church’s ship came at the end of that age. They said it was for some noble cause like saving the sinners, but they only came here to get the resources, and that’s why you’re—” Why you’re probably right that there’s no God, he started to say, then caught his mistake and cut himself off. Without realizing, he had started thinking he was explaining this to Kieli.
The girl looked straight ahead into the darkness. She had said she couldn’t see anything, but she gazed forward as if she had found what she was looking for. Apparently she was only half listening to him.
“I think I might be able to see the spaceship,” she muttered almost to herself, still directing her eyes forward. “Lots of people are coming out of a big ship and walking this way in a long line, and they’re digging a tunnel and building a town and starting to live here.” The ship crashed, so they were probably all dead; I don’t think the people living here are from that ship, Harvey opened his mouth to interject, but gave up. The girl probably was really seeing that right now.
“And the town is getting bigger and bigger, and they’re making streets and building houses, and Papa and Mama are being born, and I’m being born.” The girl jumped up and turned around.
Harvey blinked, then turned around himself to see an unbroken view of the city lights spreading out below the path they had climbed.
One after another, streetlights rose out of the darkness, indicating Mine Street as it gently wended its way downward, and the warm glow from the windows of houses dotted the scene, scattering grains of light. The cluster of lights twinkling close together at the very bottom was probably the business district downtown.
“This is the first time I’ve looked at the city from above like this. It’s so pretty….”
“You think so?” Harvey answered after a moment. He didn’t quite feel strongly enough to sympathize with the girl’s murmur of admiration. You could find this scenery in any city, and he thought that if you wanted a nightscape, Westerbury’s flock of neon was much more spectacular.
But the girl was completely entranced, and she looked wordlessly down at the city lights for a while.
“Do you like this city, mister?” she asked him without warning. The Undying had never thought about the question she suddenly threw at him, and it took him a minute to respond.
“I don’t really like it. But I don’t hate it.”
“Then start liking it now. I just started liking it now, too.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” he retorted, scowling with his cigarette in his mouth.
But the girl didn’t even bother continuing the topic, declaring, “I’m satisfied. Let’s go back!” She started running full-speed toward the city lights. She hopped quickly down the paved steps that bent back and forth along the stone wall.
“Hey, hey…!” Harvey tried to stop her, but in the end, he lost all will to say anything and let out a tired, smoky sigh, then started down the steps trailing behind the girl.
As she jumped energetically down the stairs, the ghost turned halfway back toward him and smiled. “You’re a nice guy, mister!”
“Gee, thanks,” he responded halfheartedly, still walking. Harvey himself was shocked at just how stupidly nice he was being.
“Start liking this city, ’kay?”
The girl repeated her line from before and faced forward again. “Because I finally just started to like it, but I won’t be able to like it anymore….” Her back, clad in white pajamas and a cardigan, faded into the air with each step she descended. The scene beyond her, the faint city lights that floated in the dark night, shone through her.
“So I really hope you’ll like it for me.”
Her clear, bright voice lingered in his ears as she took a small hop down one more step… and then the girl disappeared in midair, never reaching the next one.
Harvey got back to the apartment building well after midnight. When he visited the apartment on the fifth floor, the girl’s parents had already vanished, and only their white dishes remained on the table, as if the family had been eating dinner mere moments before. But the porcelain plates were cracked with layers of dust on top of them, and the tarnished silver cutlery had long since lost its usefulness.
The next-door neighbor would no longer have to fear poltergeists (or the landlord), and there would no longer be any forks falling from the window.
Harvey stood in the doorway for a while, gazing at the desolate space, then left the apartment.
He went back to the third floor, his faint footsteps echoing on the outside stairs. He opened the second door down the hall, the plain door to his own home (although he had forgotten what “my own home” felt like sometime long, long ago, so it didn’t quite feel real to him). Late as it was, the inside of the room was silent in slumber. He closed the door softly, so as not to make a sound, and went inside.
He stopped unthinkingly in the door to the dining room and was about to peer into the bedroom beside it, when he heard a “Hey…”
He heard a low, very slightly staticky voice. Its tone was strangled, as if it had crawled up from the depths of the earth, and he gulped and froze in spite of himself, then turned slowly toward the dining room.
A dull, bluish light shone from the window, dimly outlining the sofa underneath it. An old, beat-up little radio sat in its center—leaning a little, as if it had been carelessly abandoned there.
“… What?” Harvey answered, bracing himself somewhat, in a voice quiet enough not to be heard in the bedroom.
“Just what is your memory made out of? So you never forget stuff that happened eighty years ago, but you have no problem forgetting something that happened just this morning? Why don’t you open up that rusty head of yours and wash your brains out? It won’t kill ya.”
Did he have to go that far? “I didn’t forget. I feel bad,” he retorted, understandably irked.
“Damn it, does somebody who feels bad…,” the radio started to yell, but then fell silent, with a short burst of static. After a pause, a quieter voice came from the speaker.
“Oh, never mind. That’s just how you are. I’m so disgusted, I don’t wanna say anything anymore.”
“What? Say it.”
“… Think more about how Kieli feels. That’s all,” the radio spat, and then stopped talking altogether. Usually whenever the Corporal was unhappy about something, he would rant about it until he was done, and Harvey felt as if the radio had actually blown him off.
He glared sulkily at the radio, wondering if he deserved that much wrath, but for some reason he started feeling awkward and looked away, peering again into the bedroom.
Semidarkness enveloped the small room. There was a single pipe bed under the window, and in the faint night light, he could make out a small figure burrowed under the blanket. There was no quilted comforter, but for a second in his mind this bed overlapped with that of the girl from the fifth floor.
She seemed to be sleeping facing the wall, so he walked up and leaned over to look at her. Kieli stirred and rolled onto her stomach.
“What, you were just pretending?”
“… I was asleep. The Corporal’s yelling woke me up,” she muttered into her pillow, muffling her voice, but after that, she went abruptly silent again. He noticed her slender fists, clutching the blanket so tightly that they were white, and finally sincerely regretted what he had done.
“Uh, um, hey. Something suddenly came up, and I went out for a bit,” he began but realized it sounded like a mere excuse and gave up partway through the explanation. He looked upward, in some arbitrary direction, and thought for a few seconds that seemed more like an hour to him before finally coming up with “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” He said it with a sigh and hung his head a little while he was at it.
Kieli raised her head slightly, for about one second. “… Whatever, I’m not mad,” she replied curtly, and buried her face again. Clearly, she was mad.
“… Um, hey. Argh, how can I get you to cheer up?” His speech pattern went a little strange in his utter bewilderment, and he made a face that was sour even for him.
“Cake,” Kieli murmured.
“Huh?” Caught off guard, Harvey reflexively answered with a question.
Kieli pulled her cheeks away from the pillow and glared sideways up at him, then, with a scowl, repeated, “Cake.”
What am I doing?
That must have been the millionth time Harvey had wondered that today. Apparently that was just the kind of day it was, and he sighed in resignation as he gazed at the plate of pound cake that had been handed to him. Why should he have to eat cake he didn’t even really want in the middle of the night like this?
He threw a sidelong glance at the girl sitting next to him on the sofa, and for someone who had been so pouty before, she was awfully cheery as she held a fork in one hand and cut up the cake on the small plate in her lap. She brought a small piece to her mouth and tasted it with a complicated expression on her face, then grinned happily from ear to ear. She may have turned fifteen, but she’s definitely no more mature in any way, he found himself thinking with a strange sense of relief.
“Like it?” the radio asked, sitting between them in the middle of the sofa (he had been left there since he got home).
“I wish you could have some, too, Corporal.”
“It’s times like this I wish I had possessed a living thing.”
“Like… hmm. A dog or something.”
“A dog corporal?” Kieli’s question sparked Harvey’s imagination, and he almost laughed at the image of a dog that came to mind.
“Nothing.” He erased the look from his face and turned away from the radio’s displeased voice.
The black windowpane dimly reflected Harvey’s profile and the scene in the dining room. As he casually watched the glass, he poked at his plate with the fork in his right hand (he wasn’t really right- or left-handed, but fairly ambidextrous; but recently, his prosthetic arm was performing better than his original right arm, so he had sort of become right-handed), and tossed a piece of cake into his mouth. It wasn’t as sweet as he expected. He wasn’t qualified to say one way or another about how anything tasted, but this might be pretty good.
With the fork in his mouth in place of a cigarette, he sat on the sofa, resting his elbow on the back with his chin in his hand, and dropped his attention past the scene of the room reflected on the window glass, through to the streets below.
A cramped, sloping road stretched to the right and left, with old, iron-framed buildings on either side. There was no movement aside from the weak flicker of streetlamps here and there, and there was a complete sense of quiet slumber. When the miners began work the next morning, though, it would be the start of another bustling day.
Harvey turned his mind to the conversation going on beside him, where Kieli was speaking modestly about how famous a cook the owner of Buzz & Suzie’s Café was, and the radio was complaining about how hard it was to pronounce “Buzz & Suzie’s Café.” The two sides of the conversation didn’t quite mesh.
“Kieli, do you like this city?” Harvey articulated the question that suddenly came to mind as he stared out the window. The conversation broke off, and he sensed Kieli turning to look at him. By that time, he regretted asking such a peculiar question and was about to say “Never mind” when she answered.
It was a short, honest reply. “Yeah. I like it pretty well.”
Still resting his chin on his hand, Harvey glanced sideways at her. Kieli contemplated the cake on her lap with a bashful smile and continued. “I like the people here well enough, and I like Buzz and Suzie well enough, and I like working at Buzz & Suzie’s Café well enough.”
“I’m telling you, it’s hard to say!” the radio interjected selfishly, bringing the topic back.
Harvey just sighed and didn’t join the debate, looking back outside the window.
He paid no heed to the voices of the girl and the radio that reached his ears as he looked down at the streets again. He wondered if he might feel something, but in all honesty, he didn’t personally feel any preference. He didn’t really have any interest in the people who lived here, and he just didn’t care one way or another.
… But he also thought that if Kieli and that girl said so, maybe he could try a little.
“Ah…,” he uttered unintentionally. After a pause, he adjusted the fork in his mouth, smiling wryly.
He felt as if he’d seen a girl running vigorously up the slope, her cardigan fluttering in the wind, but she blended into the darkness of the asphalt and quickly disappeared.
Excerpted from Kieli, Vol. 3 (novel) by KABEI, YUKAKO Copyright © 2010 by KABEI, YUKAKO. Excerpted by permission.
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