Saturday, September 16, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Ten

It’s the last day of the Kyoto trip, and it’s another one that is pretty open for us to do whatever we like with the day, to give another opportunity to go to the gift shops before the bus leaves in the evening.  Since I already did my shopping when I spent the day with the delinquents, however, I’m not sure what to do.  I eat breakfast with Amai, but she wants to go to some store that’s a good distance away because she heard that there are some real gems in Kyoto for things like cookware and cute bento boxes, but wasn’t able to really go looking the first day we were here.  I don’t much feel like wandering around to a bunch of cooking stores, which she understands and tells me that if she sees something I’d like, she’ll bring it back for me.

Why not just stay here today?

Well, that definitely seems like a waste of time.  I should learn as much about Kyoto as I can while I’m here, even if I’m not sure yet where I’d like to go.

You’ll have plenty of time in the future to learn about things.  All the time in the world, you could say.  What’s limited is your time with these peers.  You remember yesterday, how some people weren’t at breakfast?  They never ended up going out with their groups.  They won’t go out today, either.  They won’t talk to each other; But they could use the company.

I guess that is a good point.  I know that Korekara Academy is home to a handful of struggling shut-ins, for sure.  I decide that I’ll wait a couple of hours so that the rest of the students who are planning to do something today finish filtering out, then I’ll hunt down the hermits.  Once that’s done, I go searching.  Nobody’s out in plain sight, of course, since some of the more involved chaperones might then encourage them to get up and get out there.  One of said chaperones, who I don’t even recognize (I’ll assume she’s a teacher for third years) even attempts to get upset with me for staying in, but Kaiba steps in and defends me saying that I’ve already had two busy days in a row.  That gets the chaperone to back off.

Funny.  Do all the teachers know that I’m not exactly capable of being a functioning human on a normal basis?  Admittedly it was convenient this time, Kaiba using my situation as an excuse, but it still feels a bit infantilizing.  I don’t need everyone looking out for my well-being at every turn, I’ve already got Fucko to do that, and it’s built for the job.  Well, it seems lately more like it’s built to look after the well-being of everybody I know, but as it pointed out once before, that can be taken as just another part of looking out for me.

The first person staying in that I track down is Mayu, which does surprise me a bit.  When I met her in the video game club before, and especially when we chatted online, she seemed perfectly friendly.  Still, that doesn’t change the fact that she’s sitting on top of a trunk in the attic when I climb up the ladder.  She looks up with shock in her eyes, but the look softens as she waves and gives me a greeting, “Ah, Hako-chan~!  You found me, huh?  Check this out.  I didn’t know anyone stored anything in trunks anymore, but they’re all over the attic.”

“I guess you’re right,” I nod, finishing the climb and closing up the trap door behind myself again as I look around the room, then let my eyes fall on her as I address her once more, “How did you get in here?  It was unlocked when I got here but I wouldn’t think the owners would want anybody climbing around in their storage space…”

“Of course they don’t,” Mayu shakes her head and swings her feet as she answers in a tone that’s very nearly sing-song, “I had to pick the lock!”

“That just leaves me with more questions,” I say, raising both eyebrows at her because I’m not able to do just one, “What possible reason could you have to know how to pick a lock?”

“I have to have some skill, right?” She hops down from the trunk only to sit cross-legged on the floor instead, “I’m not good at anything else, so it may as well be picking locks that I can do.  My big brother can do it too, we’re both self-taught.”

“Why did you both learn to pick locks?” I question, sitting down across from her.  I’m just more confused at this statement; I’d think she would have been taught by her brother if they both had the ability, but it seems that just isn’t the case.

“It was kind of a necessity when we started growing older,” She presses her hands into her ankles as she explains, her eyes trained on the ceiling.  She seems to be biting her left cheek even as she continues speaking, “Our parents always made sure we were clothed and fed, but it was hard to ever see them enough to ask for things like money for school trips, so we figured out how to unlock their bedroom door when they were out at work and take what we needed.  Zhou-nii could forge their signatures too, but I never got a handle on it.”

“That’s terrible!” I exclaim, leaning in towards her.

“Look, we just did what we had to… It’s not like it was really illegal, since we would’ve gotten that stuff anyway if we were ever awake when Mom and Dad came home,” Mayu protests, pouting as she turns to look even further away from me.  She’s on the defensive.

“I’m not saying what you did was terrible, I’m saying that the fact you needed to is terrible!” I insist, trying my best to dissuade her fears, “That’s just downright neglectful, you know.”

“I think maybe it would have been better, if either of us were more useful, but…” Mayu lifts a hand to her cheek, covering the corner of her mouth, “Zhou-nii’s a musician, and I can’t do anything at all.  That’s disappointing to a lot of types of parents, you know?  So it’s not like we were worth any time.  Minimum effort for minimum effort layabout children.”

“That’s not right at all,” I mumble, shaking my head, “Care can’t be conditional like that.  If your parents only wanted children that had impressive skills, they shouldn’t have become parents at all.  Everyone deserves maximum effort.”

“Just because you say that doesn’t make it true,” Mayu notes, pulling out her phone again, “I’d rather just stay inside and talk to my friends online.  Nobody there has ever cared about how useless I am.  The very fact that we all use that chatroom means that to a lot of the world, we’ve got a shameful hobby.  Why would anyone spend money in a mobile game?  We do, though.  So it doesn’t matter if I’m worthless there, everybody else feels the same way.”

“You know,” I start, looking back towards the trap door down from the attic, “I don’t think anybody in this school would care either, if you’re even as useless as you think.”

"Maybe you're right about that," Mayu chuckles, tracing her finger in the layer of dust caked onto the floor of the attic, "I just... I don't want to make anyone bother with someone like me.  Even you, Box, as soon as I could I introduced you to other people I thought would be more interesting to you than I am."

"I want to bother with you, and I'm sure plenty of others do.  Just look at your online friends, okay?  You'd still get along if you'd met in person, but only if you took the time to actually    -:
jhgfdmeet and get to know each other.  As long as you're telling yourself that you don't want to inconvenience others by being their friend, you'll never find the people who'll be better off for knowing you.  People like Tsukkun, and Nadia.  And me."

"I..." Mayu started, then took a deep breath and balled up her fists, "Yeah, you're right.  I have to keep trying my best, and I'll stop thinking about how useless I am... Even if I'm useless, I'll never get any better if I just keep dwelling on that and don't do anything about it, so I definitely have to keep on looking towards the future.  Thank you..." She looks back to me with a sweet smile pushing at her freckles, "You really helped me."

"Of course I did," I laugh a bit, "Making friends is the only thing I'm good at, after all.  It's my special talent... Which is to say, I'm even more useless than your unknown talent, in a way!  At least you'll be able to get a salary job, but I'm just here spending all of my time talking to people because I just don't know what else to do."

"It definitely helps," Mayu assures me, "But... There's others, right?  Other people who you could help?  Why me?"

"Because you're part of everyone!" I answer, "But don't take that to mean you're insignificant, just because I try my best to do the same for everybody  I'm glad I got the chance to meet you, Mayu.  I'd hate to die without ever having done so."

"Thanks," Mayu giggles a bit, holding a hand up to her face, "Well, maybe I'll try to talk to some cute girls sometime soon... Hope I don't annoy them too much!"

Shouldn't you be finding someone else to talk to now?  You've clearly worked it out with Mayu already.

I like talking to Mayu, but I know that I need to follow Fucko's instructions, even if they're disappointing to me.  I say goodbye to Mayu, and make my way back downstairs from the attic.  I have no idea where else somebody might be hiding, but I take a look around.  It's like the world's strangest game of hide and seek.  Nobody's in the bathroom which broke last night, and the building doesn't even have a basement.  I end up finding somebody inside the fireplace, though.  That's weird.  I can't even tell who it is, "Hello?  Fireplace-chan?"

Reed Ka-Fai
"What do you want?" The girl in the fireplace asks as she steps out, revealing herself to be another student who's in the other second year class.  In their first year, she'd transferred from Hong Kong, and promptly avoided showing up to classes most of the time.  She's in the cooking club, but Amai says she usually contributes by mailing her creations in.

"Ka-Fai-chan!" I greet her, maybe with a bit too much enthusiasm, "I didn't think that I would ever meet you!  I'm trying to talk to everyone who avoided going outside."

"Not to convince me to go outside, I hope," Reed mumbles, brushing the soot off her socks.  Since the fireplace doesn't seem to have been used since last winter, it wasn't very dirty, "I'm not keen at all on the idea of doing that."

"I won't make you do anything you aren't comfortable with, I just thought you could use some company.  Is that okay?  Do you mind talking to me?" I question, leaning in towards her a bit.

"As long as you don't make me leave the building, I will be perfectly glad to socialize with you, thank you," Reed nods, then points back to the sleeping area, "Actually, would you like to read some of my poetry?  I do hear it is good.  Good enough to get me into this school, I suppose, so I've been told.  I like sharing it."

"I'd love that!" I nod, holding my hands behind my back, and follow her over to her mattress.  I sit down next to her, and she pulls a notebook out from her bag, opening it up as she sidles next to me.  We stay silent for quite a while as we just flip through her poems, and I'm glad she didn't take offence to my lack of anything to say.  It's very emotional poetry, and through it I feel like I understand her on a level I've never really understood any other of my friends, except maybe for Amai because Amai is the best.

Reed's agoraphobic, that much I knew, but her poems almost make me just as afraid of the outside world.  Everything from blades of grass, to cars, to pigeons are described in chilling, visceral terms which don't even seem out of the ordinary.  Everything she says about how terrifying these things are is a perfectly valid description, even if I don't personally see the world that way.  It makes sense, if this imagery is what her mind jumps to, that she'd be scared.

There are poems on getting lost out there, and poems on strangers too.  The poems on strangers... I find them disturbing, even more than the everyday items.  I can't imagine seeing a person on the street and immediately thinking to myself all the awful things that person could have done, in excruciating detail.  I look up from the notebook and turn to Reed, "I can understand why you wouldn't want to go outside..."

"Hah..." Reed chuckles, shaking her head, "Thank you.  It's funny.  People say that it's important to see the beauty in the world, but I just can't find it outside.  I have another notebook, about the types of things I find beautiful, but I don't show that to a lot of people.  When taken together, the two perspectives will make people write me off as a standard millennial, choosing the creature comforts of modern life over sunlight.  If I only share half of how I feel... I can make a name for myself as a morbid poet."

"Well, I won't think of you like that.  Maybe it's because I'm from the same generation of you, but I think most kids our age can appreciate the outdoors a lot.  Just look at today, for example.  Everyone chose to go out and do something, and most of them will stop to appreciate some nature of some sort," I chuckle, holding my knees to my chest,  "The market's oversaturated with ways the outside is beautiful.  I think it is, but I think the indoors is lovely too.  I want to see that loveliness through your eyes, after seeing what you fear."

"Once we get back to Korekara, come by my dorm and I'll share it with you.  Ah, here," She pulls a page from the back of her notebook and writes down a number, her handwriting full of unnecessary swoops and loops when she uses roman characters, "That is my dorm number.  First floor.  I live alone, and get my food delivered by a grocery service in the area.  A school like ours, and its graduates, that's the perfect market for grocery delivery, don't you think?"

Now that she mentions it, I have to agree, "Between agoraphobia like yours, types of anxiety, physical disabilities... All of that's more common around a school which specifically invites troubled kids, so that makes a lot of sense.  It's nice of them to do something like that for us here, since I can imagine there's bigger business even than a den of mental illness like ours produces in the city."

"I suppose that's correct!" Reed laughs, pressing her hands together, "A den of mental illness... That's our town.  Even those who don't show it obviously, right?  You too, I bet."

"That bet would work out well for you," I nod, holding my hands against my chin, "I'm not a functional human being, not really.  I have some Assis-co technology which helps me, though I'm not at liberty to discuss it any further than that.  I completely lack natural impulse control; I'd put my hand on a hot stove, remove it, then immediately put it back.  I'd die if left to my own devices for sure."

"Ah, then you're even more impressive," Reed holds her hands to her face, showing me a wide smile, "The beauty of a classmate with such bravery!  Were I to be in such a condition, I would be even more terrified at every turn.  Not only are there so many outside threats, but I would have no clue of when I might give myself, wanton, onto those threats..."

"Well, it's not really that scary when it's the everyday.  Besides, like I said, I have help!  There's not really anything for me to worry about, honestly, and I wouldn't say that it's bravery at all," I shake my head, "I think you're more brave.  The outside world is that terrifying to you, and yet you still went outside for long enough to come along on this school trip.  Even if you won't go anywhere of interest in Kyoto, at least now you can say that you've been here."

"Yeah, that's exactly why I came instead of going to hide when we were leaving," Reed nods, staring at me, "It would have been easy, to just avoid coming in the first place, but I decided that I needed to at least take the first step towards being a little bit less terrified of everything, if I could.  It isn't much, but..."

"It's one step, and that's all you need.  It's all anyone needs.  Just go from zero to one, and then taking the next step could be just a little easier,”

I offer, and I’m really glad that I was able to help Reed in some small way, though I'm not sure I actually did that much.  That seems to be a pretty common theme in all of this.  I'm not helping anyone all that much, just facilitating coincidences and getting people to realize they're able to help themselves.  I guess that's good as long as I'm still able to accomplish my goal, though.

My goal... What is it that I'm really trying to do by following Fucko's instructions?  It says that it knows the steps I need to take to make sure that nobody dies during my time at Korekara Academy.  That's morbid, and I guess my goal is to stop that, but it's strange to even think how that might happen.  At one point, it felt all too real.  I felt horrible thinking about all that destruction, when from a rational standpoint, it seems irrational to think so many bad things could happen, or be prevented by just one person.

Still, there was that light in the bathroom, and the way that Takeda almost got kidnapped by delinquents... That's the only hard proof I seem to have so far on if my actions are really doing anything, really helping at all, but it's better than no proof at all, and I guess it's not like I'd want to just abandon this goal now and take it easy.
With that existential quandary out of the way, I guess I have one person left to talk to.  Yoshiko Nishimura, of the occult club.  I remember meeting her once before, and I guess that she really did strike me as the shut-in type.  I've already searched every inch of the inn, however, so I have no idea where she could possibly be hiding.  I wonder if this is one of those things that Fucko will deign to help me out on.
Well, I guess that we're not smart enough to figure that out all on your own.  Uh... Pardon the phrasing there, it was a slip of the metaphorical tongue.  Anyway, she is actually outside, but she's in the woods out behind the inn.  She's been there since the bus arrived.
I can't imagine how I ever would have figured that out on my own, so I'm grateful for the information, and make my way outside only to find that, indeed, there's thick forest directly behind the inn.  It's strange to see something like this in a city, but I suppose anything's possible geographically, and if I had to guess the area these trees covered I, with no real knowledge to guide my hypothesis, would say it's less than half a mile.  That's pretty small.  I'm probably going to get bit by bugs, but I guess that's the price I pay.  I wander into the woods, looking around for any movement, anything out of place, and after quite some time my eyes fall on none other than Yoshiko, leaning against a tree and reading a thick book.  She looks up when she hears me approach.
"Hako," She greets me, listless, "You've arrived... I suppose I was expecting you.  Someone with such an aura of light around her would naturally be drawn to aggression towards my malaise."
"I'm not here to be aggressive at all," I shake my head, then hesitate a moment before I sit down across from her, "And I don't care about your malaise.  Well, not that I don't care in a complete sense, but I mean that it won't make me think any less of you or anything like that.  That sort of not caring.  If your malaise is important to you, Nishimura-chan, you.  Are.  Valid."
"...Yeah, whatever you say," Yoshiko rolls her eyes, then returns her attention to the book she's reading, "Kyoto... It's an ancient city, rich with history.  Rich with history and dead people.  I've been reading this book nonstop since our arrival, seeking out some way to take advantage of the sheer number of ghosts which must infect the area... To no avail.  I fear that with the number of temples and shrines, every spirit to die within Kyoto's borders has found some sort of peace or purpose in their afterlife.  None wish to answer to the most evil human to walk the Earth this century."
"We're only fifteen years into the century," I can't help myself but point out the problem in her chuunibyou logic.  I guess that's rude.
"Yes.  This century thusfar.  I do not know if somebody more evil will begin," Yoshiko explains, turning the page on her book, "It is a shame, that I was not able to gain anything from this school trip... It seems that despite allowing me admission, the staff of Korekara do not wish to aid in the development of my dark desires."
"Weren't able to gain anything?  Well..." I trail off, then stand back up and hold a hand out to her, "There's still a few hours before we need to leave, so why don't you let me buy you dinner?"
"Dinner..." Yoshiko mumbles, then takes my hand and gets to her feet, "Yes, though I may feel in my soul as if I am a wraith made only of evil and darkness, I inhabit a mortal vessel which does require sustenance.  How foolish of me to forget that... Though, I have money that I was supposed to spend on food all weekend, so I cannot on my honor as a soldier of the night allow you to pick up the tab."
"You didn't eat the whole time you were out here?  That's terrible," I frown, and offer my entire arm to prop her up instead of just the one hand.  She's so short, and so frail... No different than usual is the way her skin hangs to her bones, but knowing that she hasn't eaten makes the emaciated look seem like something which is an actual problem, and not just the way that she is.  I end up supporting most of her little weight as we go to the nearest restaurant, and she orders nothing but a seaweed salad.  I order four entrees.
"Are you going to eat all of that food?" Yoshiko questions, staring straight at me, "I suppose you haven't gained back the weight you lost in your sickness yet, so that's fine.  I simply never bothered to gain it back, myself."
"I won't eat all of it.  I can only eat two entire entrees all on my own!  I ordered that much food because a seaweed salad just isn't enough.  I got a tofu dish, too, in case you're a vegetarian.  Are you?" I ask, leaning towards her.  We're beside each other at a counter restaurant, not somewhere with tables.
"I am no vegetarian.  Were I to care about mortal pleasures, the idea of biting through something which was once alive would surely be exhilarating," Yoshiko muses, staring up at the ceiling, "I suppose if the food is here anyhow, I should help myself to some of it..."
"That's the spirit!" I encourage her, "Maybe I need to get somebody to bring you food every day, so that you actually eat it 'just because it's there'."
"Who would possibly do something as idiotic as that for humanity's greatest enemy?  You do understand, that one day I will plunge this entire world into a fit of untamed dark magic?  I will open a portal through which I will invite all things evil," Yoshiko insists, her eyes growing wide as she tries her best to intimidate me with a raspy voice that I'm only just now realizing is a result of her horrible physical state rather than an act.
"Yeah, yeah, that's something to worry about later, though," I wave her off, "Not a problem for right now.  The problem for right now is making sure that you don't die of starvation before you get the chance to open that portal of darkness."
"Good point, I guess," She relents, and when the food arrives, eats as much of it as she can stomach.  That's not a lot, but it's more than a single order of seaweed salad, that's for sure.  After we're done, we make our way back towards the inn to catch the train back to the airport, and arrive just in time to pack our bags before we ought to leave.  On the train, I notice that the delinquents aren't anywhere to be seen, and assume that Kaiba's driving them again.
I decide, then, to sit down next to Amai.  There isn't anybody else in those four seats, and I realize that Sayaka probably got the same offer from Kaiba again.  It makes sense, if Kaiba's trying to get Sayaka to join No Boys, of course she would offer up favors as a sort of... Cooperation bonus.  That seems to make sense for gang members... I think.  It's not like I know about that type of thing firsthand.
"Hey there," Amai greets me, raising a hand, "How did your lazy day go?"
"Not that lazy," I sigh, rubbing the side of my neck, "I helped Mayu Wang figure out how to make friends, I listened to Reed Ka-Fai's poetry, and I forced Yoshiko Nishimura to eat the first food she's had in three days."
"The only one of those names I know is Reed's," Amai notes, leaning against me, "But in any case, I'm exhausted.  We'll sit together on the plane, right?  You'll let me sleep on you?  Though I guess 'let' is kind of an overstatement, I bet you'd be overjoyed to have me fall asleep on your shoulder, since you're in love with me and all."
"Of course!  I wouldn't forsake you to falling asleep on a stranger," I laugh, "Since apparently, you don't know any of your peers."
"I know plenty of my peers!  The members of the cooking club, plus Rena-kun.  Those are the only peers I need to know," She yawns, "You, and Rena-kun, and Sayakacchi... That's who I care about.  Well, sort of.  Just enough to say I do, but without being sappy."
"Sure thing," I can't help but chuckle a bit at her.  She's such a softie, if she'll ever admit it.  Well, I guess that she's pretty cruel too, with the way that she covers it up.  Tsundere may seem endearing in theory, but it's kind of obnoxious to experience firsthand.  I kind of wish I could just have Amai's nice moments without any of the mean ones, but when I think about it, I'm mildly disturbed.  It might be nice to have, but a compassionate Amai just wouldn't be her.  The way that she insults people without a second thought... She's been that way since we were kids, but not the whole time.  I don't know when it started.  Maybe after she fake divorced me from our fake marriage, as kids often do.  Actually, if I think about it, I don't know what happened when we were in elementary school that prompted her to want us to leave.
I guess I sort of put it together, eventually.  She wanted to go to public school even though she'd previously frowned upon it so much, seemed desperate to make the switch.  It was easy enough to figure out the reason in a vague sense once that teacher turned up dead.  "Shitty lolicon".  Those were the words which appeared beside his corpse, and they held just enough stock that nobody was all too embittered that he was dead, while also allowing the school to avoid a huge scandal.  Why believe the words of a murderer?  But why disbelieve them either?  Still, I can't help but feel like Amai was more impacted by all of that than she lets on.
I won't press her about it, though.  Not now.  There are plenty of things I still don't know about her even though we met when we were hardly even capable of maintaining a coherent conversation.  I like that, actually.  I wouldn't want to be with somebody who never has any more surprises for me, whose personality, mannerisms, and past I know to a fault.  My parents have been married for a while, and they still surprise each other, even if it's just in little ways.  Not that I'm thinking about marrying Amai or anything like that, of course; it's just an example.  I mean, we tried that when we were toddlers and it ended in quite the messy divorce.  She got the house and everything, all I got to keep was custody of the teddy bear we were pretending was our child.  Though, those were some pretty nice days.  We didn't have to worry too much.  And we never had to wonder if that fake marriage had any basis in real feelings, because we were kids, and love was a foreign world to us.
You had better not be falling for her.  I can't possibly say what might happen if you break her heart.
What makes you think I'd break her heart if I did?
You wouldn't.  It would happen, though.  Some things are just inevitable, you know.  Just like some people don't know how to say I love you.  Just like some people will suffer over and over again.  There's no explanation, and it's a melancholy thing.  Trying can only get you so far in the end.
I want to just say that Fucko's being a pain, but it seems sad while it says this.  Inevitable? 
Did you seriously think that you could change the course of history and walk away?
Somehow, I know the answer to that question.
No.  I didn't.

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