Chapter 1 – Chest
Every one of us has a chest of varying shape, color and size.
Inside this chest, we might keep invaluable memories.
We might keep a past that we are ashamed of.
We might keep a sin that cannot be forgiven.
Every one of us has a chest.
A secret chest in which we hide things that no one must see, that no one must take from us.
I was looking down at a chest.
I reached out for it and opened the chest. Its hinges groaned as the lid tilted backward.
I then carefully put her inside. She awoke from her slumber and faintly opened her eyes.
She gazed up at me with drowsy but focused eyes that seemed to represent how weak she was, saddening me.
Struggling against the urge to say something, I kept my mouth shut.
I could not let her out just yet, no matter what she said. Although she couldn’t even speak the words to ask for it.
Suddenly, something fell on her nose with a soft plop.
It was not a tear drop, but a rain drop from the rain that had been forecast to arrive in the afternoon.
Unable to comprehend what had wetted her nose, she perplexedly squinted forward, and eventually rubbed her nose against the inner wall of the chest to wipe the drop off.
The rain grew stronger by the second and was at its peak in no time. I opened the umbrella that I had brought with me and held it over her.
Once more she was perplexed because the rain drops had suddenly disappeared, and looked around.
It didn’t take long, however, until she got cold and shook herself.
For an instant, I felt the strong desire to enfold her in my arms, but I barely managed to hold myself back.
Not yet. I can’t cuddle you just yet.
Forgive me for putting you into such a place. I really do feel sorry. But I mustn’t hand you over to anyone. I don’t want to.
So be a good girl and hide in here, yes?
As if to escape from the innocent looks she was giving me, I closed the chest.
She was going to be in a deep slumber in the dark, ignorant to what was going on.
One day I will let you out. I promise.
So please bear with me for now!
I, Tokiya Kurusu, was on my way to my part-time job.
Your typical part-time job for a 2nd year high-school student would be at a fast food chain or a gas station, but I was a little special in this regard.
After turning away from the main street and passing a couple of side streets, I arrived at a small old shop whose signboard read “Tsukumodo Antique Shop.” It was the place where I worked.
When I opened the door, I was greeted by the agreeable jingling of bells and the sight of our products—things like ceramic ware, dolls, and an old longcase clock.
“You’re late, Tokiya,” the owner of this shop, Towako Settsu, said as I came in.
A pair of well-formed eyebrows adorned her face, a strong will shone in her eyes, and smooth black hair of a brilliant luster reached down to her waist. Her slender build did not only match up with that of a model, but was a sight for sore eyes when combined with her self-confident demeanor. She would probably beat me up if I said that this was quite stunning for a woman near her thirties, but it was a truth nonetheless.
“She has just returned,” a workmate of mine, Saki Maino, explained as she appeared from the living room.
In contrast to her pale hair, which reached down to the middle of her back and shone silver when lit, and her soft white skin, she was clad entirely in black; she wore a black shirt with frills, a black skirt and black boots. I had never seen her wear anything that wasn’t black of her own accord. It was one of her quirks.
“You’ve been away for quite a while this time, haven’t you?” I said.
“Yeah, but I also got a whole lot of spoils!”
Towako-san had just returned from her purchases. She would sometimes leave the shop to us and go buy new products, although I didn’t know where she took up their trails. On a closer look, she had a hard time controlling her smile—it seemed like she had really made a good buy. She was itching to introduce them to us.
“So, what did you buy?”
As though she had been waiting for me to ask, she quickly picked one of the miscellaneous items behind her and placed it before Saki and me.
It looked like a common big wooden chest whose lid was attached to it with hinges.
“Get a load of this, guys: everything that’s inside this storage box will keep fresh forever!”
Though most people might wonder what she is talking about when she says “a storage box that keeps its contents fresh”, she was not joking or messing with us.
In our world there are objects called ‘Relics’.
Not antiques or objects of classical art, no: they can be tools with special powers created by mighty ancients or magicians, or objects that have absorbed their owners’ grudges or natural spiritual powers after long exposure.
For instance: a stone that brings good luck, a doll whose hair grows night after night, a mirror that shows you how you’ll look in the future, a sword that brings ruin to anyone who draws it.
Everybody has most likely heard of such things, as they appear in countless fairy tales and rumors.
However, most people consider Relics mere fantasies because they have never come across any. Even if a Relic were right before their eyes, they’d fail to notice it. If a mysterious event were to occur, they’d dismiss it as a coincidence. Some remain unconcerned, while others are certain that such things do not exist.
Regrettably, Relics are real, and more common than people think.
As a matter of fact, I too had just recently been involved with a mirror, which silenced its reflections, a mask, which copied the appearance and skills and personality of its owner, a pair of glasses, which gave insight into whatever someone else’s eyes had seen, and a camera, which printed out a photo of a certain point in the future.
The purchases Towako-san made were all Relics.
“Something from several years ago is stored inside. I bought that as well,” she said as she laid her hands on the chest. She gave us short glances and added, “Ready guys? Perk up your eyes and take a good look.”
She pushed the lid open. Suppressing the urge to correct her strange expression, Saki and I stood beside her and peeked into the chest, and—
We shrunk back.
“This stinks! This stinks terribly! There’s something rotten in there, I tell you!”
The moment we opened the chest, a disgusting stench of rot that had been ripening for years was released into the shop.
“Saki! The window! Open the window! Huh? Hey, don’t die on me! Get a grip!” I yelled just to notice that Saki had already been put out of action and was lying on the floor.
“My eyes…! My eyes!” Towako-san lamented as she writhed with soring eyes.
An unlucky customer entered the shop just to make a U-turn and run off with a piercing scream. He had been our first customer in a week, but now wasn’t the time to be concerned with that.
“Close the lid!”
“Tokiya, we believe in you!” Towako-san shouted back and fled into the living area together with Saki, coldly leaving me behind.
With unequalled courage, I carefully drew nearer to the chest and kicked it out of the shop. As the chest rolled over the ground, something unidentifiable that would be censored with mosaics on TV jumped out of it and fell down a drain.
It looked to me like it was moving of its own, but I was sure that I had just been seeing things.
After about half an hour during which we left the windows and the door wide open and sprayed a ton of air freshener on the forbidden chest and the room, the shop finally returned to normal.
“Shit! It’s a fake! That guy totally tricked me!” Towako-san yelled as she held her head and kicked the chest that had turned out to be fake. “Tokiya, put it up for sale.”
In the end, we threw—no, we “put up”—the now smell-less chest in a corner of the shop, adding yet another item that no one would dream of buying to our product range.
I think it’s clear to the reader now: as the shop name suggests, all products lined up in the Tsukumodo Antique Shop (FAKE) were fake Relics that Towako-san had been deceived with.
However, the chest was not all she had purchased this time around. Apart from it, there was also a scrubbing brush that could clean off any kind of dirt (was she home shopping?), a stomach clock that made you hungry at the time you set it to (quite literally), a mirror that made you look slimmer (you can get those everywhere), and so on and so forth. They all turned out to be fake, however, and ended up in our shop shelves.
“Rrrghh…” Towako-san grinded her teeth with annoyance and presented her last purchase to me. “It’s a dog collar that makes the wearer listen to everything you say!”
“Can’t you put some more spirit into your reactions!?”
“‘Think you can make fun of me, eh?!” she yelled as she grabbed my neck, but to be honest, I had grown tired of this procedure.
It gets old. It was funny the first 3 times. Okay, the truth is that I only found it funny the first time, though.
“Okay, sure thing, I’ll have you wear this!”
With these words Towako-san tried to put the collar around my neck, but sadly it was too short. Obviously, the collar was designed for animals like cats or dogs.
While Towako-san was sulking to herself, Saki showed up from the living room: “Are you still at it?”
She had been taking a shower because she complained that the smell had jumped over. Her still wet hair was wrapped up in a bath towel and her clothes had changed. They were also black, though.
The Tsukumodo Antique Shop was also Towako-san’s residence. Behind the shop itself in the first floor, there was the living room, the kitchen, a restroom and a bathroom, and in the second floor they had their rooms. I myself had rented an apartment elsewhere, but Saki was staying here.
“Call me when you are done,” Saki said.
As she turned around to the living room, I responded, “Got it. This is just the last one, tho—”
Suddenly, I noticed that Towako-san had disappeared. I searched the room for her with my eyes and found her sneaking up to Saki from behind. On her face she wore a mischievous smile and in her hands she carried the dog collar.
Saki noticed something behind her and turned around, but it was already too late: Towako-san slid the collar around Saki’s neck. While it had been too short for my neck, it fit hers perfectly.
“Saki-chan, get us some tea.”
“…Okay,” she nodded in response to Towako-san’s sudden request and went back into the living room, heading toward the kitchen.
“Ta-dah! What do you say now, Tokiya?” Towako-san boasted as she pointed at Saki’s back.
“Give me a break… you’re always having her make tea for you, remember?”
“You’re quite the sceptic today, eh?”
“No, I think I made a perfectly natural objection…”
“Fine then, it’s your turn to come up with an order. If she obeys, I’ll have you acknowledge its genuineness!” said Towako-san.
Before long, Saki returned carrying a cup of black tea.
Towako-san shook her chin in Saki’s direction, signaling me to go. It didn’t look I could talk my way out of this anymore. In order to get her to admit that this was not a real Relic, I needed to come up with a command that Saki would definitely not listen to.
“Err… Hey, Saki, smile.”
“What is it, out of the blue?”
“Never mind, just smile.”
“…I am,” an expressionless Saki said.
That ain’t no smile!
There was an awkward silence between us. Saki had claimed to be smiling, but her face was as straight as always.
Saki was not one to show her feelings and was generally pretty much expressionless. Seeing how she could not even pull a friendly smile in front of our customers, she was clearly not cut out for customer service, even though she was dead-sure of the opposite.
Anyhow, it was not possible to tell whether or not she had followed my order at this rate.
“There are more obvious things you could go with, no? Just tell her to undress and the matter’s closed!” Towako-san urged me.
Whoa, give me a break… tell her to undress? Well, it’s a fake anyway, so she wouldn’t actually do it.
“Okay, fine with me. Saki, take off your clothes.”
Saki’s eyes widened for a moment and her body tensed up, but an instant later she dropped her head and clasped her hands tightly in front of her chest.
Huh? This is taking a different course than I anticipated…?
Saki silently walked up to me and sent me a bashful upward glance from below.
Err, what? Is she really going to…?
It was then that she bounced her hands off her chest and smacked me straight in the face.
“You sure deserved that,” Towako-san said with blank astonishment, casting aside all responsibility.
“It’s you who told me to say so!”
“I was talking about the towel on her head.”
“You didn’t even imply that!” Gosh! I cursed to myself as I rubbed my aching nose. “But now we know that this collar’s just a fake.”
“Oh my god, they tricked me…!”
“You can’t be that slow!”
After her latest purchase trip had turned out fruitless entirely, Towako-san was left in a shocked state and retreated into her room.
I shrugged my shoulders and heaved a sigh of relief—and was interrupted.
“Would you let me in on what you two were doing?” asked Saki with a horribly monotonous voice.
“Ah, look, Towako-san said that the collar you’re wearing would make you listen to everything we say, so we tried to check if it’s the real deal.”
“I see. Is that why you made such a queer order?”
“Well, yeah. But I knew it was a fake.”
“What if it hadn’t been?” she asked in response.
“What would have happened if it had been a real Relic?”
“Duh, I guess you would have listened to my order and taken off your clothes, no?”
“Uh-huh,” Saki uttered with a chilling voice.
For some reason, I had lately become able to recognize a certain type of emotion despite her expressionless face.
“Umm…” I groaned as I scratched my head. “Are you mad?”
Saki remained silent and smacked me in the face once more.
Saki and I were walking side by side. Perhaps to pay me back, she had instructed me to help her do the shopping, which was one of her tasks as the one who did all the housework.
That being said, it was all the same to me if I was waiting the shop or carrying around a couple of bags for her. In fact, forcing the work at the shop onto Towako-san and going shopping myself made for a real good change of pace.
There was naturally no animated conversation going on between Saki and me as we walked, but that wasn’t news. Besides, taking an easy, silent stroll like this seemed to have repaired her mood.
Suddenly, we spotted a little girl who had shouldered a schoolbag squatting in the middle of the way. Noticing that someone was approaching, the girl raised her head and looked at us.
“Saki-chan!” she cheered, waving her arms, as her eyes hit on Saki.
Surprised, I looked at Saki who was waving back at the girl with a face as straight as always.
According to the introduction Saki then gave me, this girl, who had braided two adorable buns into her hair with a pair of flower hair clips, was called Asami Yanagi. They had become friends in the course of feeding a stray cat together. The cat was later adopted by Asami-chan, so lately they only saw each other when they happened to run into each other.
“Is Mii doing well?” Saki asked. Asami-chan’s face clouded over, however, when she heard the name of the cat mentioned earlier. “Is something wrong?”
“Mii has gone somewhere…” explained Asami-chan.
“Do you know where she is?”
“Dunno… she went away three days ago and hasn’t come back.”
Cats are inherently unfettered animals and frequently return only when they feel like it. I did, however, understand that she was concerned as the pet owner.
“But Saki-chan, I think she’s at the cat mansion!”
“The cat mansion?”
“Mm. There’s this mansion nearby where there are lots of cats! They all say that that’s where the cats go when they are missing.”
“Did you go there and look for her?” asked Saki.
“Mmm, I’m scared of the granny who lives there…” Asami-chan muttered with a thin voice, looking down at the ground. I gathered that she was currently at a loss because she worried about her cat but lacked the courage to confront the scary old woman.
To cheer her up, Saki placed her hands on Asami-chan’s shoulders and proposed, “Let’s go there together, shall we?”
“Would you really do that for me?” the girl asked as her gloomy face disappeared behind a radiant smile.
“Yes, I’ll help you search,” assured Saki.
“Thanks so much!”
Saki took her hand and walked in the direction she was pointing.
“Okay, I’m back at the shop if you need me.”
Finally recalling that I was still here as well, Saki stopped and came all the way back to me.
“What are you talking about? You’re coming with us, too, Tokiya.”
She must be kidding! As if I could be bothered to run after a cat. My working time is almost over, too.
“Yes? Do you want to defy me?”
“…No, of course not,” I pressed out and found myself obeying her in spite of my disagreeing own will.
I couldn’t defy Saki’s orders. Maybe the collar was a real Relic, albeit with a slightly different power than expected… oh well, that’s unlikely.
After giving Towako-san a call and telling her that we would be late, we set out to search for that cat. “Let’s go,” Asami-chan said as she took my hand and started to walk.
With the little girl between us, Saki and I headed toward the cat mansion.
The nameplate of the place that Asami-chan called “cat mansion” also read “mansion”. Needless to say, the building, which was surrounded by thick walls, lived up to that name: although appearing somewhat old and brittle, it was no doubt a full-fledged mansion with no less than 20 rooms.
Above all, however, the name “cat mansion” was not without reason: there were cats in the front yard, on the roof, and so forth—from the typical suspects like the white, black and tricolor ones to more special types that you would usually only encounter in a pet shop. I counted more than 20 cats at a glance.
It made sense that the people living here expected cats to be here when they disappeared.
“Color me surprised; that’s an American Shorthair over there. And there’s even a Chinchilla,” Saki remarked.
“You’re quite the specialist, huh?” I hadn’t expected her to be so knowledgeable about this kind of thing.
“I’ve read a book on cats the other day. I think the title was ‘The Complete Guide to the Way of Cats.'”
“Planning to adopt a cat?”
Saki frowned at me and replied, “What are you talking about, Tokiya? It’s all to improve the customer experience.”
Saki had the habit of reading through all kinds of books to master the art of customer service, which she believed to be her true vocation.
However, she was the one who was out of it.
“If I understand the willful nature of cats, I will also understand the willfulness of our customers, don’t you agree?”
“No, not at all. That’s definitely not gonna work out.”
Asami-chan was inclining her head while we were talking, unable to follow the conversation. Well, fair enough: even I had no idea what we were talking about even though I was used to this.
Well, we shouldn’t be standing around at the entrance anyway.
Since we couldn’t just walk in, I had Saki push the bell for starters.
Moments later, someone yelled at us, “Who is it?” and appeared on the other side of the iron fence. It was an aged, stooping woman who had white hair and a small stature. The deep wrinkles in her face gave her a rigorous impression; Asami-chan hid behind Saki’s back.
“I asked you who you are!” she yelled not at Saki, who had rung the bell, but at me, looking me in the eyes.
“Err, it seems like the cat of this girl here has lost its way into your property. Would you be so kind as to let us look for it?”
The old woman looked at each of us and then screw up her nose, “These cats all belong to me. Don’t bother me and go home.”
She was a textbook example of an uncompromising person. I gathered that the old woman’s chilly attitude would intimidate a child like Asami-chan. Having to deal with a much more emotionless attitude on a daily basis, however, that unfriendly response was no skin off my nose.
“But someone actually saw the cat enter here! Can’t you make an exception for us?”
“I think I told you to go.”
“We’re not going to bother you, madam. We’ll be gone before you know it.”
“You’re a pushy lad, eh? You are already bothering me, if you haven’t noticed!” she said and turned around to bring our discussion to a close.
Before we knew it, a bunch of cats had assembled around the old woman, rubbing their cheeks at her legs.
“Is it time for a meal?” Saki asked. The old woman did answer with a brief nod, “Yes.”
Saki turned around to the young girl and said, “Asami-chan, did you hear that? They’re about to eat, so let’s come back later.”
Okay…they must be hungry after all…” Asami-chan agreed because she noticed that the cats were constantly Miiing by the old woman’s feet.
“We’ll come again at a better time. I would appreciate it if you would let us search for our cat at that time,” Saki explained in a polite tone.
The old woman sneered annoyedly, “…If you help me feed them, I’ll let you in for a moment so that you can search for that cat.”
She walked up to the fence, unlocked the door and went back, followed by her cats.
“Hurry up and come in. I don’t need slackers,” she shouted backward without looking because we were still frozen on the spot, confused by the turn of events. Maybe she was not as bad a person as her attitude suggested.
We followed the cats that were walking after the old woman into the big front yard. Slowly but surely, more cats started to gather from all sides, allured by the upcoming meal, and joined the big march of dozens of cats. Asami-chan, too, joined the march and followed them with eyes twinkling with excitement.
“Cheerful girl, eh?” I remarked to Saki, who was walking besides me, but I didn’t get a response. Slightly suspicious of her silence, I turned my head to her and found her utterly bewitched by the sight of the cat march. She had obviously not even noticed my speaking.
Before long, the old woman returned carrying a huge sack of cat food that she had fetched at the entrance. Still afraid, however, Asami-chan hid behind Saki’s back.
The old woman noticed her timid behavior but didn’t pay any attention to it and instead thrust her hand into the sack and scattered a handful of cat food, starting to feed the cats.
With loud Miiing, the cats gathered around the food and produced a cracking sound with their gnawing.
“Here,” the woman said as she held out the sack to us. Apparently, we were supposed to work.
I moved my hand to accept the bag, but Saki was stepped forward and took it in my stead. Asami-chan’s presence seemed to inspirit her. That being said, I was a bit afraid that the sack was too heavy for her because it looked quite massive.
“I’ll leave the cats outside to you. Make sure that they all get their food!” With these words, the old woman disappeared into the house.
Simultaneously, Asami-chan stepped out of Saki’s shadow.
“Are you still afraid?” I asked and got an awkward smile for an answer. “Well, she may not be sociable, but I don’t think she’s a bad person.”
It was perfectly possible that she had gone back in so as to not scare Asami-chan.
“Mm…” the girl nodded.
“But Saki isn’t any more sociable, is she?”
“Huh? That’s not true at all! Saki-chan isn’t scary! She’s really nice and smiles a lot!”
“She does what?” I asked with astonishment. “She doesn’t smile, does she?”
“But she does! Although it’s not so easy to tell. You’re doing a bad job if you can’t tell as much, Onii-chan! You’re her boyfriend, so get your act together!”
While I was a bit bewildered by her sudden acting up, I answered in a clear way: “I’m not her boyfriend.”
“Adults are such poor liars!” she declared as if she knew it all and walked off to Saki who was about to distribute the cat food.
Slightly unsteady on her feet because of the sack’s weight, Saki started to scatter the food just like the old woman had demonstrated. The cats, in response, jumped at their meal and gnawed away at it.
“Saki-chan, let me scatter some, too!” Asami-chan said as she held out both her hands to Saki to receive the sack.
After pondering for a moment, Saki eventually handed the food over to her. However, the sack was too heavy for a little girl like Asami-chan; unable to sustain its weight, she dropped the sack and the contents got scattered about.
Saki made an impulsive attempt to scoop the food back into the sack, but this proved to be a mistake: cats charged at the spilled food from all sides, some of them even taking leaps, and Saki ended up tumbling over because of the rush. The cats didn’t seem to care, though, and before long she drowned entirely in the torrent of cats.
“I hope Saki-chan’s fine…”
“Maybe she’s suffocating.”
After a while during which we watched the cat’s feast from afar, they wandered off and a slobbery Saki with rumpled hair and clothes became visible underneath the mountain of cats.
When we rushed to her, she sat up and stared into the air.
“Hello? Are you okay?” I asked as I waved my hand in front of her face but she showed no reaction whatsoever. However, she didn’t seem to be in a shock.
As a test, I grabbed white kitten by its neck and held it aloft before Saki. As if in a trance, she slowly raised her hands
I moved the kitten to the right and her hands wiggled to the right.
I moved the kitten to the left and her hands wiggled to the left.
When I finally released the cat into her arms, she squeezed it tenderly, her cheeks flushed and her eyes damped.
“You love cats, don’t you?”
As if to confirm my discovery, Saki unconsciously let out a blissful sigh, “Hew…”
Hm… it’s news to me that she liked cats that much.
Apparently, she had first become interested in them when reading that self-improvement book and grew fond of them in the course of feeding that stray cat Mii. Perhaps, she wanted to actually adopt one, although I had not picked up any signs that suggested so in her behavior.
Asami-chan would give me another scolding if she found out…
After we had finished feeding the cats, we got permission from the old woman to search all her mansion except for her own room.
“Go home when you found your cat!” she grunted and retreated into her room. She had no plans to monitor us, it seemed, let alone help us.
“Okay, where do we start? Oh, what does that cat look like, anyway?”
“She has white fur, and her right ear is black. She’ll respond if you call her Mii, so you won’t miss her.”
I wouldn’t be too sure about that I disagreed in my mind, but it seemed like she firmly believed that the cat would show up if we called her. Asami-chan then tried to estimate the cat’s size with her hands, but the size was pretty much equivalent with any other cat’s.
“Does she wear a cat collar or something of the sort?”
“Yes. A collar that reads ‘Mii.'”
She had white fur, a black right ear, and wore a collar—those were the characteristics of the cat in question. Our task seemed to be to find every white cat with a black ear and check their collar.
The cats didn’t only linger about outside in the yard, but also inside the mansion. Asami-chan had not spotted Mii when she fed the cats in the yard; we should have watched the old woman when she fed the other cats, but it was too late for that now.
“Let’s focus on the mansion for the time being.”
Saki and Asami-chan took on the first floor, while I was in charge of searching upstairs. A cat that had made itself at home on the handrail of the stairs looked my way and dashed off. It was just a brown one, though.
Upon arriving at the second floor, I walked along the corridor when suddenly a round chubby cat with fluffy white fur pushed open a door and crossed my way. The cat was way bigger than the one Asami-chan had described. Bad luck.
However, I then noticed that none of the doors were actually closed, most likely to enable the cats to enter and leave the rooms freely.
In order to start somewhere, I picked the nearest door and tried entering the room. Inside was not a futon but a real bed mounted by a calico, which lazily yawned at me and went back to sleep. The cat seemed to have no fear at all of humans.
I then also took a look into the other rooms, but all of them were practically empty. If it weren’t for the old woman, I might have deemed this place to be an empty mansion.
Come to think about it, is she the only one living here? This place seems a bit too spacious for a single person to inhabit. Does she have no family?
After I had finished my tour, I went back downstairs and ran into the old woman who was leaving her room.
“Didn’t find her?”
After I’d replied with a nod, she sighed: “I thought so.”
“Do you live alone here, if I may ask?”
“Yes, I’m alone now.” For a moment there, I feared having asked a nasty question because of the ‘now’, but as though she had seen through me, she added: “I had a husband and a daughter whom I both survived. I’m certainly not lonely and seeking company of cats, though, mind you.”
The difference in life experience between the two of us showed.
“Why is it then that you are keeping so many cats around here?”
“I’m not keeping them—they come here of their own. Although there are also people who abandon their cats here. Must be thinking I wouldn’t be able to tell if there’s one more or one less.”
“Do you not return those to their owners?” I asked.
“You want me to return a cat to someone who just disposed of it? I’m not going to do that even if that former owner changed his mind and came here pleading me to give his cat back.”
That explains why there are so many of them here, I said to myself.
As she finished speaking, a kitten walked up to her and rubbed itself against her legs.
“Got no slice of the cake, eh?” she said, fully understanding the kitten’s intent, and put some cat food on the floor that she had taken out of her pocket. Apparently, the kitten had lost in the competition for food and had not eaten enough.
Suddenly, the old woman realized that I was watching and asked bashfully, “What’s there to laugh about?”
“Oh, don’t mind me.”
Obviously, she was not being honest with me at all when she told me that she was not keeping the cats. The fact that she had told us that these cats all belonged to her must have slipped her mind as well.
“Hmph! Don’t get the wrong idea, young man. It’s not like I’m a hopeless cat lover who can’t forsake a stray cat in need!”
Does that also qualify as a tsundere? I asked myself but then decided to change the subject in order not to cross her:
“You don’t happen to know about an all-white cat with a black right ear?”
“Young man, you’re mistaken if you think that I remember each and every cat around here.”
She was lying. Just a few moments earlier she had gone on about how some cat owners abandoned their cats at her place thinking she wouldn’t notice. I was quite sure that she remembered all cats that lived here.
“We’re grateful for any hint.”
“…I don’t believe there was a cat like that. I think I’d remember such a special one.”
In that case, maybe the cat wasn’t here after all.
“At any rate, can I ask you to leave for the day? It’s about time to go to sleep,” she said. Looking at my watch, it was almost 6pm. “I don’t know about the kids nowadays, but I’m quite sure a little one like this girl shouldn’t be playing outside at this time. Are her parents informed? If not, then they’ll be worried about her!”
While there was no curfew for Saki and me, she was absolutely right in that we were supposed to take Asami-chan home.
It was then that Saki and Asami-chan appeared.
“Did you find her?”
The two of them shook their head. Asami-chan looked rather disappointed. I had heard her calling Mii’s name in the second floor as well earlier, but apparently her efforts were fruitless.
“Let’s call it a day, shall we?” I proposed to Saki and pointed at the clock on the wall. She probably wanted to search some more, but reminded of the time she agreed with me.
“Let’s call it a day, Asami-chan,” I said.
“But…” the girl muttered reluctantly.
“We’ll give you a hand tomorrow as well. Deal?”
Saki nodded affirmatively. We then agreed on a time when we would gather.
“A white cat with a black ear, right?” the old woman said. “I’ll let you know if I find one. Now, quick, get home safe.”
Asami-chan nodded obediently and left together with Saki to fetch her satchel.
“You’re quite the do-gooder, eh?” the old woman said as she looked at me with a wry smile.
Well, I want to see this matter through now that I’m part of it. Besides, I can’t just bail on one of the sparse friend of Saki’s.
“But how come you’re so cooperative?” I asked because I had definitely not expected that she would help us judging by her attitude when we met at the entrance.
“Hmph. Well… because of sympathy, I suppose? I had a similar experience in the past. Never … never let go of what you treasure. Because there’s no going back sometimes.”
Did her parents abandon her pet when she was a child or something? Maybe this cat mansion is a reaction to that event.
Just when such thoughts crossed my mind, someone knocked on the door.
“Who is it at this unreasonable hour?” the woman growled.
We both headed to the entrance. When she opened the door, a young lady appeared on the other side. The expression on her face was serious but her features somehow resembled those of Asami-chan’s.
“Is Asami here? Someone has seen her entering.”
She really turned out to be Asami-chan’s mother. I gathered that she had come to fetch her daughter because of the time.
“Yes, she’s here and preparing to leave. Wait a moment, I’ll call her,” the old woman said and went inside to call Asami-chan.
Having missed the opportunity, I was left alone with her mother who was anything but amused.
“Um, I’m a friend of Asami-chan’s. We were looking for Mii.”
“For Mii? Uh-huh. Thank you.”
Even though she had given thanks to me, I didn’t feel a grain of gratitude. An awkward silence was between us.
Suddenly, a trusting kitten turned up and walked up to her legs.
At first, I thought the cat might help us bridge the time, but Asami-chan’s mother quickly moved somewhere else after giving the kitten a brief glance. Unimpressed by that, however, the cat approached her again. Eventually, the woman resorted to pushing the cat away with her legs. While she was careful not to hurt the kitten, it was clear at a glance that she didn’t like cats.
“Do you dislike cats?”
That question escaped my lips and earned me a frosty look.
“Um, I was wondering because Asami-chan loves cats.”
“Yes. Asami and my husband insist on keeping a cat, but I don’t particularly like cats. They need a lot of looking after and they soil the carpet and the laundry…”
“Do you have an idea where Mii could be?”
“I wouldn’t know. But cats are footloose animals.”
To me she didn’t seem disinterested about the cat’s whereabouts but rather deliberately indifferent, perhaps even glad that the cat had gotten lost.
“Well, we will no longer keep that cat anyway, even if you find her.”
“Hasn’t Asami said anything?” she asked. “We’re moving into a newly constructed apartment block this week because the house we rented has gotten old. It’s not that far, so Asami can still go to the same school as before, but pets are not allowed in our new apartment.”
“I’m not going anywhere!” Asami-chan loudly denied as she appeared at the entrance. “I’m not going to that new house! I’m staying home with Mii!”
“Asami. Will you stop being a naughty child? We agreed that you can keep Mii only while we’re living at our old home, do you remember?”
“No! I want to be with Mii!”
“But Mii has run off, child!” her mother argued.
“She’s taking a stroll somewhere! Mii is going to come back to me!”
“…Anyway, it’s late. We’re going home.”
“I don’t wanna!”
“Fine! Have it your own way!”
It was then that the old woman stepped in and reproved the mother, “You shouldn’t be saying such things.”
However, she ignored the old woman and said, “Thank you for looking after Asami. But I would appreciate it if we could put an end to this farce.”
She bowed lightly and walked off, followed by a weeping Asami-chan who begged her to wait. No child can endure being left behind by her mother, even when in an argument. Well aware of that herself, her mother stopped shortly after leaving the mansion and went home together with Asami-chan.
I sure didn’t expect that, I thought. Asami-chan’s family is moving in a few days, so she won’t be able to keep Mii anymore.
Despite that, she had not given up hope and was looking for her cat, believing things would somehow work out. For her mother, though, the cat’s sudden disappearance must have been a convenient coincident.
Maybe Mii ran away because she sensed that she would be abandoned soon?
“I want to be with Mii…” the old woman whispered, repeating what Asami-chan had said a few moments before.
It was seven in the evening—the time when the chest would appear.
Said chest, which had been in my property for quite a while, had the peculiar characteristic of perfectly preserving anything stored in it. There was a sequence of 14 rotating dials attached to it that allowed setting a date and a time; the chest would then disappear once and reappear before the owner at the set time.
Depending on the setting, the chest could disappear almost eternally—but eventually, it would reappear again. Just like a sin once committed, it was impossible to erase the chest altogether,
If there came a time when I could erase my sin—and this chest—then it was bound to be the time when I drew my last breath.
I was convinced that even if the chest had once belonged to someone else, they had certainly not used it the way I did: Not for the foolish act of locking up a living being.
However, I had no other choice but to keep hiding it. No one could see it, no one could get it; for the chest held proof of the sin I had committed.
I opened the lid of the chest, which had appeared before me, and sighed with relief upon confirming that nothing had changed.
While my daily rhythm had been somewhat disturbed by my unexpected visitors, this moment was a firmly established and unshakable ritual.
But I didn’t expect that girl to be the daughter of Yanagi-san. Good grief…
Things have gotten a bit complicated.
It was then that the attester of my sin opened her eyes and looked up at me. With unknowing, innocent eyes, the little one gazed at me.
She faintly opened her mouth to let out a thin utter that faded meaninglessly into nothingness.
“Release me!” my mental ear heard. Of course, there could be no conversation between us.
Suddenly, someone knocked at the door. I ignored the knocking at first, but the visitor would not stop. Left with no other choice, I eventually left the room and went to open the door.
“Who is it?” I asked and was faced by Asami-chan. “What business do you have here at this late hour?”
Has she forgotten anything? I wondered, but it was most unlikely that her mother would send her here. She had obviously come here in secret.
“Did something happen?”
Asami-chan focused on me and demanded, “Give Mii back to me.”
I had to immediately give up on my notion of lying to her when I looked into her eyes.
She had found out.
I thought I had hidden her quite well, though…
“…Fine! I’ll let you see Mii,” I said.
Asami-chan nodded and without any further ado entered.
It may have been for the better if you had remained ignorant, girl…
I closed the door.
I was on my way home from the Tsukumodo Antique Shop. I had taken a somewhat lengthy route so as to pass by the mansion, with the faint hope of running into Mii by any chance.
Just when my path was crossing the mansion, I noticed that someone was standing by the entrance door.
It was past 08:00pm; had she been visited by someone at such a late hour? Upon taking a closer look, I recognized the visitor as Asami-chan’s mother.
Is she complaining about Asami-chan’s late return? I wondered, and decided to step in should the situation get out of control as I sneaked through the gate onto the lawn.
However, my concerns proved to be unnecessary: The mother turned around to leave, and noticed me.
“Who are…” she muttered, probably having momentarily mistaken me for a ghost or some shady figure. “Do you still have business here?”
“No, I was just passing by. But what are you doing here, Yanagi-san?”
“…I was apologizing for Asami’s sudden visit. You shouldn’t come here anymore, either. Mii’s not here.”
“How can you tell?”
“Well, just…” she started but did not seem to have a reason for her claim.
“You’re on bad terms with the owner of this mansion, right?”
“I just have trouble understanding her, that’s all! It puzzles me how she can put cats ahead of everything else. For instance, her neighbors once complained about the noise of her cats and she just ignored them.”
“Is that all you’re bothered about?” I asked.
“…There’s also this rumor that someone spotted a child in her mansion… even though she has no grandchildren. She’s keeping someone hostile there, they said, and the Police actually went to check. They didn’t find anything, though.”
Rubbish, I thought. Those were bound to be stories made up by people who didn’t like the old woman.
“Anyway, please stop looking for Mii, okay? I’ll also persuade Asami to give up.”
She had finally come to the point of the matter.
It was true that Asami-chan would not have been able to go anywhere near that mansion without our support; perhaps she would have given up already! I couldn’t help but feel that her mother was blaming us indirectly.
Of course, she said nothing of the sort and went home. I stayed on the front lawn for a few moments so as to not run into her again when, suddenly, the lights turned on in the old woman’s bedroom.
I recalled that she had said that she went to sleep at seven—had she woken up?
Looking through the window, I spotted her. Struggling against my conscience because I felt bad for peeping, I noticed something strange.
She was holding a cat. Of course, there was nothing strange about the fact that there was a cat in her room, but I had been under the impression that there wasn’t because she had forbidden us to look into her room….
While I was certainly not mistrusting her, I still had to draw nearer and take a closer look.
She seemed to be tidying up something despite the late hour, standing in front of a large chest placed in the middle of the room. It was an old, wooden box with space for several cats to fit in—or a human child.
I couldn’t make out what was inside because the lid of the chest, which was supported by hinges, was pointing my way. There was a mirror behind her, however, in which I could see her back. If I changed my view angle a bit, there was a chance that I could also sneak a peek into the chest.
I stretched out my head in hope to see more, when suddenly the old woman stood up. Because her position changed, the contents of the chest became visible in the mirror.
I was too far away to make out any details, but I was pretty sure that there was something moving inside. When I stretched out my head to see more, the old woman returned and I immediately ducked my head.
She stood in front of the chest again, closed the lid, and locked the chest after adjusting something with her fingers.
I almost uttered an exclamation of surprise.
Am I seeing ghosts?
I could have sworn that the chest had disappeared into thin air the very moment she had locked it.
It was Saturday, so we had half of the day at our disposal to look for that cat. When I showed up at the Tsukumodo Antique Shop, all set to go searching, Saki was preparing herself to go out as well.
“Oh, you’re early, Tokiya.”
“I’m totally going to find that cat today,” I replied.
“Saki-chan, will this do?” Towako-san asked as she appeared from the living room, carrying a black laced ribbon.
“Hm? I’m not the only one who’s all set here, eh?”
“Well, I suppose you’re going to tie up your hair with that, aren’t you?”
Saki accepted the ribbon from Towako-san, replied, “Of course,” and tied her long hair to a ponytail.
We then headed to the cat mansion where we had agreed with Asami-chan to meet.
Truth be told, I wanted to widen out our search to other places. However, Asami-chan didn’t show up no matter how long we waited. Since we had no other pointers, we decided to continue looking through the mansion for the time being.
“You’re quite the stubborn kids…Well, go ahead. Just don’t take too long,” the old woman sighed.
To increase our success rate, I was in charge of the first floor this time, while Saki searched the second one. The old woman followed Saki up to the second floor.
I examined every corner of every room, but there was no trace of Mii.
Suddenly, a certain door caught my eye. I could have sworn that I had heard some Miiing from inside.
It was the old woman’s bedroom; a room we had not stepped our feet in so far.
We were told not to enter, but I could not get off my mind what I had seen the night before. I had recognized a cat inside that room.
With some pangs conscience I made sure no one was coming downstairs and then broke into the private room—which might be a stretch to say because the room was not locked or anything, but it was still clearly trespassing.
I did not expect to find Mii. I just couldn’t suppress the urge to find out what the deal was with the cat I had seen the night before.
There was only a bed and a cabinet; there was no TV, desk or anything of the sort.
Strangely enough, I could not catch sight of a cat anywhere. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was no chest either. Clearly a chest of that size could not be hidden anywhere in this room, so I assumed she had stored it away somewhere else in the mansion.
Although I could’ve sworn the chest just vanished…
It was then that I noticed a photo stand on the rather low cabinet.
The photograph was old and faded, and showed a family of three. It was not hard to recognize the old woman in the young mother that was pictured in the photo. The kid was probably going to elementary school, I estimated. Next to that photograph, there was an even older picture that was monochrome and showed a baby.
Something bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was bothering me. Before I could find out what it was, however, something else caught my attention.
A hair clip had gotten stuck on the floor between behind the wall and the cabinet; one with a cute flower attachment for kids. While it seemed absurd that the old woman would put on such a childish thing, I couldn’t shake off a feeling of familiarity.
I stooped to pick it up and accidentally bumped into the cabinet with my shoulder.
Knocked over by the jolt, the photo stand fell on the floor with a thud, and triggered anxious cries from somewhere inside the room.
“Hm?” I uttered as I turned my eyes to where I heard the crying. However, there was nothing there.
No, if I’m not mistaken this is…
I went flat on the floor and peered under the bed.
There was a bunch of cats huddling together.
Why do they hide there? I wondered because I knew the cats at this mansion as trusting and unwary.
I returned the photo stand to its former position and stretched my arm out toward the cats who then hushed away deeper under the bed. Stretching my arm as far as I could and almost reaching them, the cats scurried out from under the bed and escaped.
One of them, however, stumbled over.
Now that’s a clumsy one, I thought to myself, but the cat stumbled over right again after it quickly got on its fours. It had trouble running away because it seemed to have had bad control over its legs.
I had to hold my breath with surprise when I took a closer look: The cat’s left leg didn’t move at all.
I turned around to the rest of the cats who had made it to a corner of the room—there was something strange about all of them. One missed a front leg, another one had one of its eyes, and so forth.
Why does she hide such cats here…?
“!” I became alert when I heard footsteps from the stairway. The two were coming downstairs.
The cats in there were bothering me, but I had no other choice but to hurry out of the room. I made it in time by a hair’s breadth: The old woman was just getting off the stairs.
In the end, there was no trace of Mii in either of the floors, and Asami-chan hadn’t shown up, either. Just when we wanted to leave the mansion, however, someone knocked at the door.
The old woman sighed and opened the door to Asami-chan’s mother, who was waiting outside.
“Have you seen Asami?” she asked in a pressing manner that made me suspicious.
“Did something happen to her?” I asked.
“She’s missing since yesterday evening!”
The reason why she hadn’t shown up at the appointed time had just gotten clear.
I looked at Saki. Her face was as blank as ever, but I noticed a touch of anxiety in her eyes. She was definitely worried about Asami-chan.
“But as I already told you, you’re not going to find her here. Right, you two?” the old woman asked for our consent.
Quite true, she wasn’t here. But that wasn’t the problem here.
“Asami-chan has gone missing?” I asked the old woman.
“Yeah, she hasn’t been seen since yesterday evening.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Hey, I thought you knew! Besides you didn’t ask.”
I decided to ask Asami-chan’s mom about the details. She then explained to us that her daughter wasn’t in her room when she went to wake her up in the morning. She immediately started looking for her, but Asami-chan was not to be found at school, at any of her friends’ places or at this mansion. By the look of the situation, she had run away from home.
“Ah!” I gasped and took the hair clip I had found in that room out of my pocket.
“That’s Asami’s!” her mother exclaimed.
So that’s why it looked familiar to me.
“Where did you find this?” the woman asked.
“I came around it while I was searching this house for M…”
“She must have dropped it yesterday during your previous search session,” the old woman interrupted me as she snatched the hair clip out of my hand and returned it to Asami-chan’s mom.
It was true that there was nothing strange about finding that hair clip here because Asami-chan had been here all day the day before. Except for the fact that I had found it in the old woman’s private room.
“Asami-chan hasn’t been here since yesterday, correct?”
“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since she left with you.”
Then why was her hair clip in the old woman’s room? Neither of us entered that room yesterday.
“Couldn’t it be that she sneaked in without you knowing?” I asked.
“I’m fairly sure that I would notice.”
“Maybe she’s hiding?”
“There’s no place to hide here except for the rooms. And those you have inspected, right?”
Indeed, we had searched all of them for Mii, and of course hadn’t come around Asami-chan either.
“If she’s not hiding in any of the rooms…you don’t happen to have a chest that is large enough for a child to fit in?” I asked half-unwittingly as I recalled what I had seen yesterday.
In an instant, the old woman contorted her face.
“Hey. Why do you…”
“Uh, I mean isn’t that THE hideout for cats and children? Because I saw one earlier, you know!” I tried to talk my way out, but I failed.
The old woman became blatantly suspicious of me.
“…Where did you see the chest?”
“Ah, no, actually, I don’t think I…”
“…So you lied? Uh-huh? You’re doubting me, kid? Way to stab me in the back when I let you ransack my house! You’re one unthankful brat! Get out of my sight.”
“Out!” she yelled as she drove us out of the mansion without giving us a chance to explain ourselves.
I had made a blunder; I had only ever seen that chest the day before when I was peeping. It was easy to read off her face that she wondered how I knew about it.
On the other hand, this meant that she hadn’t expected me to catch sight of the chest. In other words, she was probably hiding it somewhere.
But why did she flip out when I started talking about the chest? No, she didn’t make an angry impression on me. Rather, she seemed horribly unsettled.
Asami-chan’s mother, who had been hunted out together with us, was giving the cat mansion a restless look.
“Why do you think she’s there?” I asked curiously. While the mansion was certainly a probable candidate for Asami-chan’s whereabouts, the old woman had denied her presence. Yet, her mother kept on being suspicious nonetheless.
“…She left a message,” the woman explained as she produced a letter and showed it to me. The letter said, “I’m with Mii and I won’t come back until you let me keep her.”
That still seemed a little too weak a reason; if she believed Asami-chan’s message, then she wouldn’t suspect the cat mansion unless she knew something.
“You think Mii’s here, right? Why?”
“Yesterday you told me Mii wasn’t here, didn’t you?” I pressed.
At last, Asami-chan’s mother gave in and confessed: “…The truth is, I paid the old woman to adopt Mii.”
“Because you can’t keep Mii at your new home?”
“Yes. We made that lie up because Asami wouldn’t have given up otherwise. Maybe she learnt the truth when I was discussing the matter yesterday with my husband.”
“And why did you come here yesterday evening?” I asked.
“I reminded her to keep silent about this matter.”
Obviously, the old woman wouldn’t have feigned ignorance the day before if she had really planned to tell us anything, so that was a horribly selfish complaint.
I did not intend to meddle in their affairs, though; Asami-chan came first.
If she really found about that Mii was in the cat mansion, then she would certainly go get her. The old woman claimed that she hadn’t come, but the hair clip proved otherwise.
However, it was unknown where she had gone after that. If her mother had not found her anywhere else, then the odds were that Asami-chan was still in the mansion.
It was unlikely that she was hiding, though—no matter how big the building, the old woman would certainly notice the intruder.
In other words, she knew of Asami-chan’s being in the mansion and was either playing dumb or hiding her away.
Why would the old woman do that, though?
This could be easily justified when thinking back at the day before: The old woman may have changed her mind and decided to help Asami-chan with her attempt to persuade her mother.
In my view, the old woman definitely knew Asami-chan’s whereabouts.
The main reason for that was because she had shown no trace of concern when hearing about Asami-chan disappearance, even though she had been worried about her late leave the other day.
As though she knew Asami-chan was safe.
Most likely, both Asami-chan and Mii were in the mansion.
However, we hadn’t found Mii the day before. Saki and I hadn’t found either of them today, either.
While the mansion was certainly large, there was still a limited number of hideouts.
Yet we hadn’t found either of them.
It was as though they had vanished. Yes, as though they had vanished.
…And that was the answer.
I sensed that someone had been here when I returned to my room.
The fact that the cats, who would usually hide under the bed during my absence, were sitting in a corner proved my fear.
Either he tried to capture them or he tried to catch a glimpse. Even though I forbade them to enter…
What did that kid think when he found them? I wondered. Perhaps he had also discovered the photographs, but it didn’t really matter to me.
Ah, this is probably where he picked up that hair clip. That explains why he suspected me so much—the little girl wasn’t in this room when they searched for her cat yesterday indeed.
But then how did he find out about the Chest?
Maybe he genuinely thought of a common chest? In that case, I didn’t react properly.
I guess I’ve been getting a little overanxious. Not that it matters. He can doubt me as much as he wants, he’s not going to find the Chest.
No one is. Except for me.
Therefore no one is going to find the guilt I’m hiding inside!
In the evening of the same day, I paid the old woman yet another visit that was not exactly well-received.
“You’re one obstinate boy, you know that?”
“I’m very sorry, but I tried looking for her in various places and came to the conclusion that she must be here,” I explained.
“Come again tomorrow. I want to go to sleep.”
It was 06:45pm, which meant that I had 15 minutes since she went to bed at 7pm. That was more than I needed.
“It won’t take long. I only want to ask you a few questions. Do you really not know where Asami-chan has gone?”
“I do not,” she replied bluntly.
“I don’t mean to repeat myself, but is there really no place to hide in you mansion?”
“There isn’t,” she assured.
“None at all? Is there no attic? A shed? An old well? Or an unused room, perhaps?”
“There is neither a shed nor a well on my grounds. And almost all of my rooms are unused, if you haven’t noticed.”
“…then how about a large chest where a child could hide in?”
“There is no such thing here. Understood?” she said in a slightly aggressive—no, uneasy—tone.
However, she didn’t seem to be willing to come out with the truth.
Well, then I’ll have to uncover it myself.
There are rules to hide and seek, and they must be obeyed—even more so if breaking them may result in danger.
“Are you sure?” I asked once more.
“I’m talking about a chest like that one over there,” I said as I pointed toward the yard.
The old woman’s eyes followed my finger and opened widely: A large chest had appeared from nowhere and was bathing in the evening sun.
It was a beautifully adorned chest with a lid attached to it that could be pushed backward. And it was large enough for multiple cats or a child to fit into.
“I understand. So that’s the only one you have, right? Well, then let me take a look inside just in case.”
I turned around and started walking toward the chest.
“Care to join me?” I asked.
This can’t be! I thought with utter astonishment.
What is the Chest doing here…? It’s still too early for it to appear!
What did that boy do…? Why did he notice?
Hold on. Maybe he knew all along. Maybe the fuss about the cat was all a lie and he was really after the contents of the Chest!
No, that’s not possible. He can’t have known of the Chest.
But then why…?
Maybe he saw me. I remember sensing someone’s gaze on me last time, so maybe he was watching.
I acted negligently. I didn’t expect anyone to be watching because no one ever was up until now. The only thing I paid attention to was to be in my room at 7pm.
Anyway, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. The question is how he managed to summon the Chest ahead of time.
No, even that does not really matter now.
If I don’t act, that brat is going to open the Chest. He is going to see what’s inside!
I absolutely have to stop that, or there will be no way back.
What do I do? What should I do? How can I…?
I turned my back on the old woman and walked toward the chest, hearing her follow me with unsure steps.
The reaction she had shown upon spotting the chest was proof that there was more to it.
No, let’s be clear.
That chest was no doubt a Relic. I had by no means been seeing things when the box vanished the other day.
The true reason why the old woman had not told us where Asami-chan was and why she had reacted so sharply when we asked about the chest was not because of the contents of the chest, but the chest itself. Because if that chest was a Relic, then she certainly didn’t want anyone to know about it.
I could understand that sentiment. The desire to keep special things a secret is perfectly normal.
I had come to see a lot of people like that, and therefore I knew how to deal with them.
They talk their way around your questions if you ask them directly. They try to get away. Thus, you have to cut their escape route.
I hurried to the chest and stood in front of it, blocking the old woman’s way.
“That’s a large chest you have there. I bet a child could easily hide in there.”
“Y-You think so?” she stammered.
I tried knocking at the chest. “Hm? I could swear that I just heard something moving inside.”
“Y-You think so?” the old woman said as she positioned herself behind me.
“Care if I take a look? No, you don’t, right? Well, here we go!” I said without waiting for her approval, undid the buckle on the chest and slid my fingers under the lid.
It was then that a painful noise rang in my head—
What I saw upon turning around was the old woman holding aloft a rock with both her hands. The rock was the size of a child’s head and light enough for her to lift, but it was still more than enough to serve as a deadly weapon.
With bloodshot eyes, she threw the rock at me. Taken by surprise, I had no chance of evading and passed out to the sound of something breaking.
—However, that wasn’t reality.
It was but the future my Relic showed to me.
My right eye was artificial. A Relic named “Vision” had been implanted where once my real eye had been.
“Vision” would show me the immediate future. However, it wouldn’t just show me all of the future. I couldn’t foresee the winning number of a lottery, or the winner of a sports match. Not even the weather. Nor could I see any future events at will.
But there was one type of future it would show me without fail.
That is, when I or someone I knew was in danger. At those times, it showed me the moment of their death.
When that happened, a pain would run through my head, much like static TV noise, followed by a cut-in of the future. And then I would take another action than in the future shown, trying to prevent the predicted death.
What’s going on?
I realized that I had apparently got something wrong. According to my guesswork, this case could be explained like this:
After receiving Mii from Asami-chan’s mother, the old woman hid the cat away in the Chest until the Asami-chan would calm down. However, the old woman started to feel pity for the girl and helped her get her mother’s approval by making the mother believe Asami-chan had run away from home when she was hiding in the Chest together with Mii.
There was simply no better place to hide than a chest that could disappear.
However, the vision I had just seen was way too heavy for a case like this.
Why would she want to kill me just for looking into the chest…? If only Asami-chan and Mii were inside, there would be no reason to do that.
Relics and their magic may appear useful and beneficial at first glance, but many people drown in the power and end up ruining their life. Towako-san never failed to remind me of that.
Saki and I, too, had found ourselves at the verge of death because of Relics.
The old woman may have only wanted to help Asami-chan and Mii by hiding them inside the Chest, but it was entirely possible for the Chest to have unexpected side effects that could prove life-threatening for Asami-chan or the old woman herself.
That’s why I wanted to uncover her secret before it was too late.
Is the situation more advanced than I anticipated…? I thought to myself.
“Madam. What is it that you want to hide so badly?” I asked without turning around and heard her hold her breath. “I do not yet see what you are about to do, so please stop it before I turn around. I will have to take action otherwise.”
A dull sound notified me that something had just fallen to the ground.
I turned around to the old woman who was had sunken down to the ground with a big rock lying by her side.
“Madam, please tell me what you are hiding. What’s inside that chest?”
“Why don’t you just open it…” she replied vapidly.
“I want to hear it from you. That chest is a Relic, isn’t it?”
The old woman slightly raised her cast-down glance in response to my question. “Yes, I think that is what it was called. It’s been so long that I don’t quite remember, though.”
She has had the Chest for so long…? I commented in thought.
“I wonder why it suddenly appeared, though…” she muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“I set it to appear at 7pm, you know…”
“You ‘set’ it?”
“You don’t know how it works? Well, the Chest keeps its contents in the exact same state and it can be configured to disappear and appear before its owner at a specific time.”
With this, I finally knew why the Chest had seemed to disappear when I was peeping on her. And why we hadn’t found it anywhere no matter how thoroughly we searched.
“It’s really useful! A perfect fit for hiding old sins.”
Sins—that word sent chills down my spine.
It seemed like the situation was indeed worse than expected.
Had already something happened? Had I come too late? My worst fears started to fill me with anxiety.
It was 7pm. The moment the hour hand of my watch pointed at the seven, I sensed that something appeared and the old woman’s eyes widened yet again.
A chest had literally appeared from nowhere right before her eyes.
It was a beautifully adorned chest with a lid attached to it that could be pushed backward. And it was large enough for multiple cats or a child to fit into.
“I owe you an apology: I tricked you.”
The chest that had appeared before 7pm was just a dummy—a fake Towako-san had once bought. In fact, it was probably a fake of exactly that chest, since it did not only resemble the old woman’s one, it was also said to have similar powers when Towako-san acquired it.
It was the first time that one of her poor buys came into use.
“I’ll open it.”
The old woman was too discouraged to resist.
I undid the buckle on the chest and slid my fingers under the lid.
I felt warmth.
Unlike the empty chest I had brought, there was something warm inside this one. A living being.
Although perfectly aware that I had to hurry up, I found myself in doubt.
The old woman’s sins were sealed inside this chest.
Expecting the worst—and praying that this worst case wasn’t entirely reached—I opened the lid. There was a little girl sleeping inside.
“Who is this girl…?”
It wasn’t Asami-chan. It was another young girl.
What’s the meaning of this?
Apparently, I had been completely off the mark with all my worst expectations.
With a smile of ridicule, the old woman explained the situation: “It’s my daughter!”
Her explanation didn’t sit well with me in the least.
No matter how you looked at it, the woman was too old to have a young child that was just about two or three years old. Moreover, the child in the family photograph I had discovered in her room was clearly around the age of a middle school student.
No, wait. There was a second picture.
There was one more photo in that room. One picturing a child about the age of the girl lying before me.
Back then, I thought it was an older picture of the same girl. With this, however, I finally knew what was off and what had bothered me:
The photo was too old.
The monochrome picture of the young girl was way too old compared to the color photo of the family of three. It was approximately dozens of years older than the color year. The inconsistent age difference between the girl and the photos had sounded my alarm bells.
In other words, those two are different children…?
“I already gave birth when I was fifteen, you know. Everyone tried to talk me into aborting the child, but I didn’t bend. My partner and I almost literally eloped and tried to bring our child up by ourselves. It didn’t last long, though; he was still immature and ran off one day. Well, I guess he didn’t do too bad since we managed to stay together for 2 years.
“I was eager to raise the child on my own nonetheless, but do you think a teenager girl would be capable of that? No dice. I was powerless. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave the child to an orphanage, either, let alone abandon it. That’s why I put it into the Chest! Vowing to raise it when I was a proper adult.”
The Relic had probably appeared before her when she needed it the most—one with a power that was a perfect match for her case.
“I returned home to my former life and pretended that someone had adopted the child… life became so easy again. No empty stomachs, no freezing cold, and most of all, I could enjoy my youth. I also fell in love again and got married—but this time my family and friends gave me their blessings. We also had a child… which of course hindered me from taking my other daughter out of the chest. I hadn’t told my husband about my past, and there was absolutely no way to explain how a child that should have been a teenager by then was still only 2 years old. I ended up keeping her a secret and well, here I am. An old hag. I have outlived my husband and my daughter—I’m just too old to raise her.”
She was speaking in a self-mocking tone, but I was sure that she had never forgotten that child. Surely, she had made sure the child was safe and well whenever she could, setting the Chest to appear before her regularly.
“I really don’t know what I should do about her…” she sighed as she gave me an exhausted look. “You wouldn’t happen to be willing to take her?” she asked.
However, I did not answer her cry for help.
“Can you really abandon it? Can you, who was disgusted by cat owners who abandoned their pets, really abandon your own child? Looking after homeless cats is not going to free you of your guilt. As long you live, it is your duty to bring up your daughter.”
People and cats are essentially the same in this respect; nobody deserves to be abandoned.
“You’re quite merciless…”
I clasped the little girl who was slumbering inside the chest in my arms.
She was warm. She was alive.
Who could ever abandon such a lovely child?
I passed the child on into the arms of the old woman.
“…I always made sure not to hug her, you know?” she said. “Because I would no longer be able to abandon her otherwise…”
I picked up the Chest and took my leave—so that she would never again give in to the temptation of hiding away her sins.
I had been absolutely blind; I had been too fixed on the Chest after seeing it in action, and was preoccupied by the idea that Asami-chan was hiding there.
It had completely slipped my mind that there was another place where she could hide; that there was another person that she could rely upon.
I was a bloody fool.
“Come out, Asami-chan,” I said.
A moment later the girl appeared carrying Mii… from Saki’s room.
The whole story went like this:
Asami-chan’s mother paid the old woman to look after Mii because pets weren’t allowed at their new residence. However, she also made sure to cut off the characteristic black fur on Mii’s ear and take off her collar, so that the cat could no longer be identified.
I thought that the old woman wasn’t willing to return Mii because she didn’t do so at the beginning, but that was a misunderstanding: She simply didn’t know which cat was Mii.
The cats she kept in her own room were cats that were terrified of people and other cats because of injuries and mistreatment. That’s why she prohibited us to enter. Mii was also one of them because of the injured ear.
However, when Asami-chan’s mother showed up, the old woman realized which cat Mii was and gave the cat back to Asami-chan out of compassion when she came to her at night.
Upset at her parent’s decision, Asami-chan then ran away from home in order to force them to approve of her wish to keep Mii. My original assumption was correct up to this point, but I got her partner in crime wrong.
Saki was the one who Asami-chan relied on, and Saki’s room was the place where she was hiding at. Asami-chan had probably asked Saki to keep it a secret—even to me.
Asami-chan didn’t trust me and the old woman yet, since we had only met the other day. The only person who had gained her trust was Saki.
The reason why the old woman wasn’t concerned about Asami-chan’s disappearance was probably because she had a hunch where the girl was hiding. Come to think about it, she was upstairs together with Saki during the second search session. I doubted that Saki had told her about Asami-chan, but maybe she had seen through Saki.
In truth, it was a trivial incident.
“Don’t think bad of Saki-chan! She was just helping me! I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you! I’ll try to talk it out with mom, and if she says no, I’ll ask the granny,” Asami-chan said as she stroked Mii’s head.
Certainly not understanding anything of what we were talking, Mii meowed once.
In the end, the Asamis reconsidered moving out of the house they had rented and revoked the rental contract for their new apartment. Apparently, her mother had realized her mistakes and changed her mind.
As for the old woman: She decided to take responsibility and bring up her daughter by herself, pretending to have adopted her from a remote relative. In order to atone for her sins, she would not be a “mother” but a “grandmother”.
Saki, on the other side, bitterly regretted keeping secrets from me.
As a matter of fact, she had been burning to let me in on the truth, seeing how desperately I was looking for Mii, but she couldn’t bring herself to break the promise she had made to Asami-chan.
The black ribbon, too, had actually been for Asami-chan because she had lost her hair clip.
Honestly speaking, I was indeed somewhat offended by her not telling me anything.
…But I decided to forgive her when seeing her sincerely regretful attitude.
“As a punishment you shall carry the shopping bags.”
As we continued the shopping trip we had started a couple of days ago—albeit with reversed positions—I reflected on this time’s incident.
Everyone had kept secrets from the others.
Asami-chan’s mother concealed fact that she had sold Mii for the sake of a new residence.
Asami-chan’s concealed the fact that she had reclaimed Mii for the sake of getting permission to keep her.
Saki concealed the fact that she was hiding Asami-chan for the girl’s sake.
The old woman concealed Asami-chan’s whereabouts, also for the Asami-chan’s sake.
However, the old woman had one more secret that was completely unrelated to all the other ones—a secret that was concealed by means of a Relic.
I had erroneously tied that secret to this case and messed up. Blinded by the Chest, I had not noticed the other secrets.
Every one of us has a chest of varying shape, color and size.
A secret chest in which we hide things that no one must see, that no one must take from us.
I, too, had one thing that I wanted to hide away in such a “chest”: the embarrassing truth that I had boasted about my reasoning that was all wrong.
Well, my flawed reasoning ultimately saved a child, so it’s all OK under the bottom line, I consoled myself.
Suddenly, I recalled one thing the old woman had said to me when she told me about her future plans.
“You make a real poor detective.”