4-6 Youko lowered the sword, now painfully heavy in her hand. She had known all along, deep in her heart, that those she called her friends were not her friends at all.
For a brief moment of their lives they had been stuck together, shut up cheek by jowl in a little cage. Next year they would end up in different homerooms and forget about each other. After they graduated they would probably never meet again.
Even so, the tears welled up.
She knew these relationships were temporary at best. Yet, and perhaps all the more so, she had hoped to discover some greater truth hidden inside. She wished she could fly back to that classroom, plead her case before them. How would they respond then, she wondered.
They were living far from here in a peaceful country, young women who undoubtedly believed they experienced much misery and woe in their lives. Once upon a time, the same had been true of her.
The thought made Youko laugh so hard she ended up rolling around on the ground clutching her stomach. Curled up like that in a fetal position, it struck her that she was alone, truly alone, totally cut off from the rest of the world.
When she fought with her parents, when she had a falling out with her friends, or when she simply felt down for a spell and told herself how lonely she was, hadn't that been little more than an indulgence? She had a home to go home to, people who would not turn against her at the drop of a hat, who would console her. And if all that went away she could make more friends soon enough, even if they were only fair-weather friends.
Just then she heard the sound of a voice that, as many times as she had heard it, she still could not stand. Curled up on the ground she grimaced.
"You can't go back, I keep telling you."
"I don't want to hear it."
"But as long as you are thinking about it, shall we consider the substance of your hypothetical? Even supposing you could go back, nobody would be waiting for you. You simply are not a person worth waiting for."
In some way, the monkey's appearances were connected to the visions she saw in the sword. The blue monkey always showed up immediately after she saw a vision. It never did her any physical harm. It's just that he never said anything she wanted to hear, and in that grating tone of voice. Moreover, Jouyuu did not react to him in the slightest.
"My mother is!"
There came to her mind the image from another vision of her mother petting the stuffed doll. Even if she could not call her friends real friends, she could count on her mother to stand by her. A sudden welling up of homesickness made her chest hurt.
"My mom was crying for me. That's why, someday, I know I'm going home."
The monkey laughed all the harder. "But of course. She's your mother, after all. It's always so sad for a parent to lose a child.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Youko raised her head above the underbrush. There was the monkey's head, bathed in blue light, close enough to touch with her outstretched arm.
"Oh, she's not sad because you have gone missing, little girl. She's sad because her child is gone. Her sorrow amounts to nothing more than that. Can you not even understand this much?"
It was like getting hit in the stomach. Youko couldn't think of how to respond.
"If, for example, the child in question were not you--were perhaps the black sheep of the family--she would react the same. That is the kind of creatures mothers are."
"Oh, now don't you go giving me those angry looks. I tell you nothing but God's honest truth." The monkey howled with laughter, laughter that resounded brightly in ear-piercing shrieks. "It's the same as any domesticated animal. You raise the creature and it gets attached to you, now, doesn't it?"
"Shut up!" She sprang to her feet, brandishing the sword.
"Oh, I'm scared, I'm scared." The monkey went on laughing. "You miss your parents, don't you? Even parents like yours."
"I'm not listening."
"I understand, little girl. There's no place like home, there's no place like home. Not that you're absolutely dying to see your parents again. What you want to go back to is a warm house and your playmates."
"What are you trying to say?"
The monkey giggled cheerfully. "No worries about being betrayed by your parents, right? Are you sure? But aren't you really nothing more than a pet?"
"Your point is?"
"That you, pet, are no different than a dog or cat. All goes swimmingly as long as you are gentle and affectionate. But bite the master's hand or chew up the furniture, then what? They won't beat you because they have reputations to protect. And yet, were society to look the other way, there'd be no end to the number of parents who'd like to strangle the little tykes."
"Is it? Perhaps it is." The monkey looked teasingly at her, playful eyes wide. "Parents do think so well of themselves for doting on their children. No, by gosh, I've got that wrong. It's how well they play the part of the loving parent, that's what they love about themselves the most."
The monkey's spirited screeches hurt her ears.
"You . . . . "
"True of you, too, eh?"
Youko stopped with her hand on the hilt of the sword.
"Playing the good child was fun, no? Because then you could take everything your parents said as right, right? Yet you still had that feeling you'd be punished if you disobeyed, which makes you no better than the dog who curries his master's favor, no?"
Youko bit her lip. She never worried about getting physically punished. But getting yelled at, or coming home to that heavy, brooding atmosphere, or not being allowed to buy something she wanted, or the imposition of other penalties--those were the things that weighed her down, that without her really knowing it made her continuously attentive to her parents' moods.
"It's not true that you were the good child. Not a good child at all. You were scared of rejection so you made yourself a convenient child for your parents to have around."
"And your good parents--well, that is a lie as well. Not good parents at all, always looking over their shoulders, afraid of what people might be saying behind their backs. You think that liars who flock together never betray each other? Oh, you will betray your parents. And your parents will certainly betray you. It is the way of all flesh. We tell each other our lies and the betrayed betrays the betrayer."
"You son of a bitch."
The monkey shrieked hilariously. "Oh, what a fine tongue you have on you. Yes, yes, I am a son of a bitch, but an honest son of a bitch. I never lie. I alone will never betray you. It is most unfortunate that I must be the one to teach you this lesson."
"Shut the hell up!"
"No, no, you can't go home. You'd be better off dead. But if you haven't the courage to die, you had better find yourself a better way to live."
The monkey eyed Youko's raised sword. "Another truth I shall tell you. You have no allies. Nothing but enemies. Even Keiki is your enemy. Your stomach is empty? You wish a better life for yourself? He won't help you. Instead, why not use that thing to shake a few people down?"
"Hither and thither, everywhere you look, nothing but dirty little moneygrubbers. Extort yourself a little cash. That is the way to a better life."
Youko swung the sword in the direction of the ear-piercing screeches, but there was nothing there. Only the loud laughter fading away into the dark night.
She tore at the ground, her hands bent into crooked tongs. She felt tears spilling down between her fingers.