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At least you'll never be a vegetable

Even artichokes have hearts.

Chapter 19 - 美津子 Mitsuko
koyatego
9kinds
[※ Content Warning (click to open)]
※ Content warning for talk of suicide.

It’s mid-September and the summer heat is still unrelenting, with the deaths due to heat stroke in the hundreds. Since Kouta works at night, it doesn’t affect him except for now as he heads to Mitsuko’s house in the early afternoon.

When he got his job offer he called her and she was really happy for him, he could hear her sniffling over the phone, but after that communication from her had suddenly stopped. At first Kouta didn’t think much of it, but he’s been unable to reach her though LINE nor texts and when he tries to call her he just gets a recording saying that her number is not in use. He feels like it’s her refusing him, but he becomes worried and decides to visit her at home.

He doesn’t have a key to her place, but hesitates to ring the bell thinking that if she’s cut off contact with him, then she’s unlikely to let him in. Like he did when entering Shizuku’s building, he gets in when a resident is leaving and heads up to the 3rd floor. He can tell someone is home, and when he rings the doorbell someone calls out from inside, but it’s not Mitsuko’s voice. A boy who looks to be around high school age answers the door and asks who he is.

Kouta, irritated by the heat and the boys rude greeting, asks him who he is and says that he’s here to see Saito Mitsuko and was wondering if she’s in. The boy answers that he’s her nephew and asks who Kouta is. Mitsuko never seemed to want to talk about her family, so Kouta didn’t know she had a nephew. He changes to polite speech, and tells him his name and says that he’s from AIDA and came to see Mitsuko on a sudden urgent matter.

The nephew gives him a dubious look and asks if he hasn’t heard, saying that they told her company. Kouta realizes that he must have seen through his lie and tries to cover asking what he’s referring to. He answers that his aunt isn’t there, she’s passed away.

Kouta asks him if he was told to say that, and the nephew becomes annoyed and asks him to leave. Kouta tells him not to joke around and the nephew says that he isn’t, and the lack of energy in his face annoys Kouta more and he yells at him. The nephew tries to close the door in his face, but Kouta stops it with his foot and forces his way in.

Inside are lots of cardboard boxes, and Kouta asks if they’re preparing to move and the boy is annoyed by Kouta’s insistence. Kouta notices an odd smell. He goes into the apartment without taking his shoes off as the nephew yells after him. As he heads further in the smell gets stronger and Kouta notices that while the furniture such as the bookcase is there, everything is empty and on the table is an urn.

The nephew tells him that his aunt killed herself, and he’s here managing her possessions. Kouta goes to the urn and lifts the lid and inside is a white power, he sees stars flickering on the edges of his vision. The nephew asks him what’s going on and to cut it out. Kouta asks him if she really killed herself, and the nephew said that that’s what he told him before and that she hung herself on the bedroom doorknob. Kouta thinks about how he’s touched that doorknob many times, and sees that floor below it is stained with something and at last realizes what the smell must have been. He is suddenly overwhelmed with nausea and runs to the bathroom to throw up.

Kouta imagines Mitsuko’s hands wrapping a rope around his neck, her face is emotionless and her skin feels as if it’s been coated in wax. Thinking of that makes him throw up again. The nephew asks him if he’s ok and offers him a handkerchief, but Kouta refuses it and wipes his mouth with some toilet paper. The nephew asks him who he is, saying that couldn’t have been a coworker.

Kouta tells him that he’s new to the company and that Mitsuko helped him a lot, so he had wanted to come to thank her, the higher ups didn’t tell him about her death which the nephew accepts. Kouta asks him what happened, and the nephew says that she had been embezzling the company’s money and the stars reappear in Kouta’s vision. The nephew adds that he doesn’t really know, but thinks that she must have killed herself because she was having money troubles.

Kouta thinks about how the reason she was probably able to spend so much at Tuberose despite being in accounting is because she was using the company money. He recalls a conversation with Misaki, and how she told him to not view them as people but as clients- as money, and how kindness or affection will only hurt him. She had told him that whether the clients work the sex industry or borrow money from the yakuza or even die, he should have the strength to pretend he doesn’t know. He thought she had just been over exaggerating to threaten him, and thinks about how that means that the one who killed Mitsuko is….

Thinking that makes the white stars clouding his vision float and move around wildly. Kouta asks the nephew if she left a note and he says that she didn’t. Kouta feels as if he's lost his sense of equilibrium, but manages to stand and apologizes for barging in. The entryway feels far away, and there’s no longer any smell. He opens the front door and the sun which had been shining brightly before is now blocked by clouds.

As he’s leaving, the nephew asks him to tell the higher ups at the company that if her life insurance comes in he’ll repay them and shuts the door before Kouta can answer. The clouds grow larger as Kouta leaves the apartment. He doesn’t want to believe what just happened, and hopes that she just fled somewhere far away, but thinks that it’s unlikely that the nephew was lying to him. No one knew he was coming today for them to try to trick him anyway. But his body can’t accept that she’s gone.

It begins to rain. The time he’s spent with Mitsuko feels like it’s slipping out of his hands, all becoming past tense- her last words to him, her straightening his necktie, their kiss. He wonders when she decided to die, was her embezzlement discovered when they were apart? Or had she already decided from the time they met? The rain strengths getting Kouta thoroughly wet.

He was the one to order her to keep coming to Tuberose, he took advantage of her obedience and hadn’t hesitated in making her spend lots of money. He stops walking and thinks about how he’s the one who invited her death, though he hadn’t wished for that to happen. He thinks about how he’d return all the money she spent and more if she would come back.

The road ahead of him seems to warp, but not from the heat. He thinks about how her skin that he’d like to touch no longer exists in this world. His tears are washed away by the rain, and his sobs drowned out by the sound of it. He feels like he is being swallowed by the puddle that he’s standing in. Before him he sees two big hands, Mitsuko’s hands. The hands surround his neck and begin to squeeze.

It becomes even more difficult for him to breathe, but he finds it comforting to feel her warmth again. But then the arms begin to lose color, they thin and the skin begins to crack and peel and fall away. Her flesh decomposes and turns black. In the end all that remains is bone, but her hands still remain clutching Kouta’s neck.

Kouta closes his eyes and wishes for everything to be a lie. The rain gets even stronger and Kouta feels everything, including himself, grow cold.

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