more. Honda is with them, clutching a candle to his chest. I move as if to go to him, but the girl tightens her grip on my hand. “Not yet,” she says. Each villager lights a candle, places it on a metal plate, and faces the shrine. They then clap three times and bow. At that moment, the world bends; the trees behind the shrine, the thatched buildings, the lanterns lining the street, the distant torii gate, our bodies, everything shudders slightly. “What is this place?” I ask. The priest joins us. He touches the girl on her shoulder, and she releases my hand. “A memorial,” he says. Honda’s form appears increasingly insubstantial as he nears the shrine. His steps take on the fluid cadence of those ahead of him. I run to him. “Wait,” I say. I take hold of Honda’s arm, but recoil as his skin feels like a waxy paper, barely on his body. “There’s nothing to be done,” he says. Fresh dirt spots Honda’s jacket and pants, and his face is pale and distant like the moon. The only warmth comes from his eyes, which continue to reflect my image. “I remember a little more,” he says. “I was afraid, but then the girl in lavender found me and helped me.” He smiles. Cherry blood stains his teeth and streaks a thin line from one side of his mouth down onto his chin. “She came while you slept and showed me I was wrong, and that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. It turns out I’m more like these people than I am like you.” A weak pearlescent glow radiates from Honda’s body as he walks up to the shrine. Stillness envelops the square, like each object is alive and holding its breath. “I’m happy you were with me,” he says. “But the child is right when she says you don’t belong.” Honda touches my face with his hand, and everything turns a shock of white. “There is no more shame,” he says. “Everyone comes for a reason.” Brightness explodes from behind my eyes and squeezes my head. I feel myself falling. “Find me again,” his voice says. “Don’t forget me.” # My parents are with me in a land of emptiness; I feel their presence calling to me. “We want you back,” my mother’s voice says. “And for you to be happy,” my father’s voice says.
Their outlines are wispy and inconsistent, more memories than actual people. Ropes pull against my wrists, drawing me up, circling me, consuming me. Soon they are wrapped around my body and begin to constrict. A crushing pain attacks me from within, pulsing out like a surging tide. An uncertain time passes. Gradually the pain recedes. I see a double door in front of me. Carved from fading wood, it is a life-size version of the entrance to the village shrine’s inner sanctuary. A voice behind the door calls to me. The girl in the lavender dress is at my side, and her hand on my hip urges me on. I pull on the door. # 5 A biting wind cuts across my body and drags my consciousness back to the moment. I am in Aokigahara forest, lying on my back among leaves in a thicket. The world is an ashen brown-grey dotted with green. Shadows approach from every angle, lit by a sun barely visible through the dense canopy. For a moment the torii gate is above me, but then it disappears, and I see the girl in the lavender dress standing over a body slumped against a nearby boulder. I sit up. “It was nice to have met you,” she says. The girl offers me a string identical to the one I had tied around my wrist. As soon as it is in my hand, she vanishes, leaving no trace of her footprints on the ground or her movement through the brush. “At least tell me your name,” I say. “I’m sorry,” her voice says. “But I can’t.” I face the body on the ground, and see it is Honda, and that he is dead. His eyes are open but empty, frigid to match his exposed skin. Wet dirt cakes his suit and is smeared across his shirt. A small bottle lies open and just out of reach of one of his hands; blue and white pills have rolled from where it fell and splash the ground with their color. “I found you, Hikaru,” I say. I tie the string around my wrist and pull Honda’s body toward mine, wrapping my arms around him and burying my face in his chest. “I found you.”