March 24, 5:00 AM.
I was napping and not sure if I was experiencing a dream or reality.
My mind had fallen to an odd level not quite awake and not quite asleep. In that state, I suddenly felt a sensation seeping out from my chest. It was as if some kind of barrier had grown weak.
Something was clearly wrong.
From the top of my head to the end of my butt, I felt something like thin, thin wires passing through the center of my body.
They were not sturdy or strong. In fact, they felt like they would break like dry pasta if I twisted my body even slightly. Nevertheless, I felt a vague chill of unease as if letting those sharp fragments spread through my body would be a fatal mistake.
At that time, it came clearly to my mind.
Ahh. I’m definitely not a normal Zashiki Warashi.
National Registry ID #36110054Ra2.
XXXXX Prototype Ver. 39 XXX.
Traditional Species Designator: Zashiki Warashi.
Personal Name within the Jinnai Family: Yukari.
There were a lot of terms that could refer to me, but not even I knew which one truly indicated “me”. Even if there was a “me” I wanted to be, the truth of the world would not necessarily take my side so conveniently.
As I thought on my vague definition of myself, the sense that something was wrong travelled down my back.
The thin wire-like sensation seemed to say it was the only thing on which I could rely to identify who I really was.
Even sighing seemed like too much trouble, so I closed my eyes once more within the thick futon blanket.
This was a thought pattern that only existed in this vague level of consciousness.
It was a fluctuation.
Once I clearly woke or clearly fell asleep, this unease would vanish. And I hated putting in any kind of effort, so going back to sleep was always the way to go.
Or so I thought.
Another action interfered with my meager plan.
Something began rustling around next to me in the futon.
I heard a small child’s voice and a boy’s head popped out from under the blanket.
He was about six and had short, black hair.
His face was as red as a boiled octopus as he spoke.
“It’s hot and hard to breath.”
“That’s what you get for pulling such a thick blanket over your head.”
He was well-known for tossing and turning in his sleep, so his pillow had been thrown to the other end of the bedroom. And it was not the work of a Makura-Gaeshi.
If he had woken up, going back to sleep would be difficult.
I rolled over to check the digital clock and found ten minutes had passed since I had last checked.
The rectangular clock was not my taste.
In fact, the futon itself was not mine.
Sneaking into the family’s futons at night is a trait of the Zashiki Warashi, isn’t it?
I rubbed my eyes, gave a quick yawn, and spoke to the actual owner of the futon.
“Good morning, Shinobu. I’d like to change, so could you scoot back just a bit?”
“Bust: 98 cm. Waist: 54 cm. Hip: 85 cm. Isn’t it a bit of a curveball to call this a Zashiki ‘Warashi’? In fact, it’s downright cheating.”
I was inside a large thatch-roof house.
When I lazily made my way to the altar room, I found Shinobu’s mother waiting for me. As Youkai did not have lifespans, it could be hard to judge our ages once we passed our growth period, but it was true I would likely be categorized as a “young wife” using their standards.
Also, there was only one thing I could say to the words thrown at me the instant I opened the door.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“And another thing. The Zashiki Warashi species also contains young samurai and one-legged monks. It doesn’t have to be a small child wearing a kimono.”
“Sure, sure. Now, how’s Shinobu doing?”
“He insisted he could change on his own, so I’m betting he has his head stuck in the neck hole while he flails around like a giant stuffed amoeba.”
“Did he wet the bed?”
“If he had, I would look a lot more upset right now.”
“It’s my mother-in-law who would be upset since she uses you as a dress-up doll. There aren’t many people who wear kimonos.”
“Then why don’t you wear them?”
By the way, she was in the altar room in order to bring me my breakfast.
In the Jinnai house, the humans ate in the living room and the Youkai ate in the altar room. It was a fairly lax rule, so there was no restriction on switching location after the meal actually began.
After setting down the food and placing a bowl of rice in front of the Buddhist altar, Shinobu’s mother waved at me.
“Okay, enjoy yourself. And make sure you bring fortune and prosperity to our house like a Zashiki Warashi is supposed to☆”
After making sure she had left the room, I sat in a daze for a while. Rather than wanting to sleep but finding I couldn’t, I knew I had to wake up but found doing so was too much trouble.
I decided to switch on the flat-screen TV in a corner of the room and flipped randomly through the channels while I waited for my mind to awaken. Hunger really seemed to play a large role as a mental support.
“Here is the number one for today, March 24! If you’re an Aries, listen up! Your perfect match is a Virgo! And your lucky color is…”
“Here is today’s selected best seller. ‘The Nail that Sticks Out is Hammered Down ~How to Create a Society where only Idiots can Survive~’ This is the latest novel from the author of ‘The Idiots whose Names Deserve to Go Down in History’! It far outdoes its predecessor which was famous for readers having such extremely divided opinions of it that they got into actual fistfights.”
“Beauty! This will be the three-minute exercise for the morning. If you want to smile below the summer sun, you have to put in the effort now! This is the perfect exercise for you piglets who are afraid to look in the mirror.”
“ ‘People are Killed for Such Stupid Reasons ~Selfish Motives Straight from the Murderer’s Mouth~’ This week’s special drama is the ninth entry in the series of true stories that reveal the mysteries behind brutal crimes that will freeze your blood! Don’t miss it Friday night at nine!”
Just as I thought I would remember that my stomach was empty after another fifteen minutes, I heard a sound.
It sounded like dishes clinking together.
I quickly realized it did not just “sound like” that.
“Yukari, Yukari. You can’t eat alone.”
The six-year-old child carried a tray with unsteady hands that pushed the danger meter up to 130%. It seemed he had taken it all the way to the altar room.
“They said on TV that food tastes better when everyone’s together.”
“Shinobu, you’re kind of missing the point and you’re also spilling miso soup at a concerning rate.”
“Yukari! Don’t eat alone.”
I was forced to grab a rag and put in the manual labor to fix a disaster that would delight only a tatami mat craftsman.
He seemed to think I was on the verge of becoming a shut-in, but that was just how Zashiki Warashi were. It was just as pointless to urge a bat or mole to sunbathe.
At any rate, I left the TV on while eating breakfast with Shinobu whose misunderstanding remained.
“Grandma’s food is good, but it’s all so brown.”
“Well, she prefers Japanese food while your mother goes more for the Western food.”
“Grandma should just make omurice too. That would add a bunch of yellow and red! And if she added parsley, it’d have green too!!”
He pouted his lips as he complained, but it was interesting to note that he finished his vegetables more often when his grandmother made the food.
Making a six-year-old child eat his vegetables seemed like a good indicator of skill to me.
“I can eat bell peppers.”
“Oh, can you?”
“I can eat celery too.”
“Personally, I’d much rather not.”
I refused to eat celery on principle, so I turned down his persistent sales talk about adding mayonnaise. His small hands then made an odd movement.
He pulled out several metal skewers divided into different bright colors.
“Um…Shinobu? What are those?”
“You don’t know? Beauty!!”
I had a feeling I had heard that word on TV earlier and he stuck the colored skewers into his boiled eggplant and taro.
“You can go on a diet by stabbing these into the food before eating it!”
“Um, a diet?”
A six year old on a diet?
“This one’s for meat and this one’s for fish. You only get one or the other of those, though. This is for green vegetables, this is for red vegetables, and this is for yellow vegetables!!”
“Oh, I get it. It has a lot more skewers for vegetables, so if you use them evenly, you’ll naturally get the vegetables you need.”
“Beauty said it. Beauty said it on TV, so it has to be true!”
I then recalled that effeminate male TV personality whose hair was dyed a bright color.
He was known as a fashion leader and the one who started the latest diet boom, but for some reason no one actually wanted to be just like him. It seemed like an odd position to me.
“If you diet, you’ll get big and strong. Big and strong!”
“Shinobu, you have the entire concept wrong and I’m afraid you’ll get the skewer stuck in your throat, so stop sticking it in your mouth to eat from it. Bite the food off the side instead.”
So are these colorful skewers an official product?
I doubted there was a specialized shop in the rural area, so someone in the family had to have bought them off the internet. The biggest suspect was Shinobu’s mother. She had a bad habit of buying things on a whim and then only using them once. The porcelain bibimbap dish set and the home-made southern rice cracker set were two of the latest ones.
“Yukari, did you know that ikra is Russian for roe?”
“You sure are knowledgeable.”
“Although maybe your knowledge wouldn’t be so strange if we didn’t have all those cable channels.”
No major incidents would happen.
There were no real ups or downs.
The job of a Zashiki Warashi was to laze around a large rural house, so I only had to find a spot that wouldn’t get in the way of the vacuuming and lie on the tatami mats. I was in a carefree mood far removed from my past of being imprisoned and experimented on by the organization named Hyakki Yakou.
Or so I had hoped. Unfortunately, I heard a commotion out front.
As usual, it was Shinobu’s voice.
I circled around to the front entrance, put on my geta, and went outside. There, I found Shinobu having a small disagreement on the road in front of the house.
His opponent was…something. It was a giant three-eyed dog the size of a small truck and it was cutting across the road to block the way.
“I am a Nurikabe and I will not let you through.”
“Why!? Why won’t you!?”
“If you are going somewhere, you must have an adult with you. Go call someone.”
“You stupid Youkai. I bet you’re called a Roadblock or something!”
“I am a Nurikabe. I already explained that. Now go call for an adult.”
Shinobu grabbed the thick fur on the gigantic dog’s side and tugged, but it did not seem to bother the Nurikabe.
The Youkai was as harmless as it looked, but I had heard of them having a serious effect on the domestic economy when they appeared on a highway or railroad. Youkai like us wouldn’t be harmed by having a dump truck run into us or a tanker truck explode on us, so there was not much the humans could do.
However, I had thought a Nurikabe looked like a large hunk of konjac with short arms and legs.
Letting this continue forever would help nothing, so I decided to call out to Shinobu.
“Shinobu, what are you doing?”
“School! I’m gonna go to school!”
He swung his arms around to try to persuade me.
“I’m starting school in the spring, so I need to make sure I know the way!”
Meanwhile, the Nurikabe glanced over at me with its three eyes and slowly vanished as if dissolving into the air.
“Ah, the Roadblock went away! Okay, let’s go!!”
He looked like he was about to run off and not stop until he was on the moon or something, so I lightly grabbed onto the nape of his neck to stop him.
“Do you even know where your school is?”
“I’ll let you join my exploration party. You should be thankful.”
If I refused, he would probably get lost on his own and manage to escape the Solar System, so I had no choice but to go along.
It was the morning during late March.
The weather was in a bizarre state where the temperature would change quite a bit each day, but it was fairly warm on this day. It was also sunny and there were even butterflies flying around after waking up too early.
“The trees are wearing scarves.”
“Those are made of straw.”
“They must really not like the cold. It’s so warm today.”
I decided to keep it a secret that they were put up to allow bugs to nest in them and then burned to kill the bugs gathered inside.
Meanwhile, Shinobu was looking around in confusion.
“This is tricky,” he said while forcing a knowledgeable look. “Finding your way without landmarks is tricky.”
Spreading out before us was the stereotypical scenery of paddy fields one would see on a postcard for foreign tourists. The landscape contained water-filled paddies, thatch-roof houses, and narrow roads and waterways connecting it all together.
However, this was not just some old rural area.
On pillars set up at set intervals along the roads were solar panels that changed angle like sunflowers, the waterways contained small water wheels for power generation, and the paddies without water were being plowed by unmanned drone tractors. I’d also heard that the scarecrows contained sensors to precisely fire a spear-like sound wave at any animal movement using trumpet- or megaphone-shaped directional speakers.
To combat the cheap and plentiful imported vegetables, this special village created an ultra-high quality brand out of the limited domestic crops.
A new idea of the rural had been created to battle those other nations. It created a fusion of tradition and cutting-edge technology that used the words “safe” and “delicacy” as weapons to sell a bunch of grapes for 30,000 yen and a liter of the water in its rivers for 300 yen.
This was an Intellectual Village.
Japan had suffered a critical defeat in the precision machinery industry and these villages had been created during the great change of focus intended to help the economy recover.
That was the sort of village we lived in.
And at the same time…
“Look, Yukari. There’s an Umbrella Obake and a Lantern Obake.”
“Looks that way. But I think they’re in a hurry, so let’s leave them alone.”
Shinobu was pointing at a road beyond a paddy field. A paper umbrella and paper lantern both with a single comical eye were speaking loudly to each other while running(?).
“Hurry! Mrs. Yonesaki’s labor pains have already begun!!”
“Oh, dear. We need to hurry back to the house!!”
The perfectly recreated rural scenery had invited Youkai back to human civilization after they had hidden themselves during the rise of modernization. That umbrella and lantern were likely causing trouble at one of the village’s houses just like I was.
“Shinobu, I don’t think you need to search for landmarks on a straight road.”
“Y-you’re right! I’ll write on the map that this part is okay!”
He began writing a meaningless comment on a piece of drawing paper.
Once we arrived at a critical fork in the road, he spoke up with a troubled look.
“I’m at the edge of the paper, so I can’t draw the rest of the map.”
“This was nothing but an empty straight road, so why did you draw it so long on your map?”
Of course, he would be travelling in a group for a while after beginning school, so there was no need for him to draw a map and remember the way.
In the end, he flipped the paper over, said “I’ll keep going from here!”, and continued drawing while dragging me further along. He was so focused on the paper that I wasn’t sure he had even seen the fork in the road.
Soon, someone approached us along the narrow road.
It was a girl of about Shinobu’s age who held a large dog on a leash.
She may have been the target of an overprotective parent because every single article of clothing was homemade. She looked a lot like a storybook illustration of Red Riding Hood.
“Oh, it’s Nagisa! Beauty!!”
…If she understands that greeting, that effeminate TV personality must be popular with more than just Shinobu. I wonder if that’s been nominated as a fad phrase.
It seemed Nagisa’s parents had misread the harsh ups and downs of the late March temperatures because she looked hot in the Red Riding Hood look.
Shinobu would sometimes throw fried chicken bones to play fetch with it, so the Saint Bernard that protected the nervous-looking girl wagged its tail and welcomed him. The rumor was that Nagisa’s parents had put it through a legitimate war dog training program and it was trained to immediately rip out the windpipe of anyone suspicious who approached the girl, but I had to wonder if it was true.
At the moment, she hid behind the dog that looked like a giant stuffed animal.
“Shinobu-chan, are you with that Youkai again? A-aren’t you afraid?”
Oh, how troublesome.
The existence of Youkai had been generally accepted in the Intellectual Village, so it wasn’t often you saw someone afraid of us like this.
Of course, the nation had no laws to judge Youkai themselves. It was treated the same as an accident involving a falling rock or a lightning strike, so I couldn’t really complain if people were afraid of us.
Shinobu on the other hand was comfortable around Youkai to an unusual degree.
“Hm? Afraid of Yukari? You don’t have to worry about her. She doesn’t bite.”
“Don’t do that, Yukari! Nagisa won’t get it’s a joke! Look, she fell down!!”
By the way, even though Nagisa had stiffly collapsed like a cicada skin, the Saint Bernard did nothing more than calmly look up at me with its tongue sticking out. Then again, it could probably tell at a glance that I didn’t mean any real harm.
“Sh-Shinobu-chan, you’re mean. If you lie, you have to swallow a thousand needles.”
“No, Nagisa. Liars have to swallow a porcupinefish.”
In just a few seconds, their conversation took a zigzagging turn toward the roots of old words Their conversations were quite peculiar. They were logical, but they would take sudden bypasses based on instinct or emotion. If you lost sight of the flow of conversation for even an instant, you would never find the link.
And if you could not follow the thread of conversation, you could not join in.
With nothing to do, I looked the well-behaved Saint Bernard in its small, round eyes.
No, I can’t start empathizing with a dog. I’m not going to sit and wait like that. My position has to be somewhere higher.
“Bye, Shinobu-chan. I need to finish my errand.”
As I thought about my dignity and respect as a Youkai, their conversation finally came to an end. Nagisa seemed to be dragged by the leash more than she was walking with the dog, but she began walking toward the small post office all the same.
We corrected our course toward our destination. Or rather, I corrected Shinobu’s course.
The village had a single elementary school, middle school, and high school and they were all located near each other. To ensure a safe walk to school, it was probably best to have them all use the same path.
“Well, we did walk about two kilometers.”
After traveling a little more, we saw a large area surrounded by a chain-link fence and a large rectangular building inside.
“Is that my school?”
“No, that’s not where you’ll be going. I think it’s the high school. Y’know, the one Hayabusa goes to.”
It was late March, so I was pretty sure all the schools were out for spring break, but there were still quite a few students in the schoolyard. Sports teams such as baseball or soccer may have been practicing.
For some reason, Shinobu was trembling while pressed up against the fence.
“What is it, Shinobu? If you’re thirsty, how about we go in and borrow their water fountain?”
“No, I could never go in the high school! I don’t have the right!!”
It wasn’t some consulate, so I didn’t see why he would have to worry about that. However, it seemed he had run up against a barrier of age or school year that kids seemed to have issues with.
Having heard the commotion, some girls wearing track suits approached from beyond the fence.
“Hm? What are you doing here? Do you have a lunch for your big brother or sister? If so, go to the main entrance on the other side.”
“Ee!? N-no, I do not have a lunch! And I do not have a big brother who plays sports!!”
“Ah ha ha. Why’s he speaking so politely all of a sudden?”
Shinobu had started to panic, but his confusion faded as time passed. His eyes opened as wide as they would go as he looked at the schoolyard through the fence.
“That’s a big horizontal bar!”
“Yeah, I don’t think I could do a back hip circle on that,” replied one of the girls.
“There’s a sandbox there but no slide or swings. It looks boring.”
“Well, that is for the long jump.”
At that point, Shinobu finally seemed to take an interest in the girls he was talking to through the fence.
“By the way, who are all of you?” he asked with a confused look.
“We’re the tennis team.”
“If you lie, you have to swallow a porcupinefish.”
“Why are you calling me a liar out of nowhere!?” asked one track suit girl who seemed quite willing to play along.
Shinobu proudly puffed out his chest and gave a snort as he made an announcement to her.
“Girls who play tennis wear clothes that flutter around.”
“That’s only in official games. We aren’t going to wear that embarrassing thing all the time.”
Some boys who had appeared out of nowhere began pouting their lips and protesting while swinging their rackets around.
“C’mon, wear the embarrassing outfits! Half the reason we started playing tennis was to see those, so why are you wearing those horrible track suits year-round!?”
“Because lowlives like you have eyes, you damn boys!! Get lost! Any guy without pure eyes needs to go away!!”
Having heard all the noise, a female teacher who seemed to be the coach began hitting balls over at them with her racket, so the boys and girls began running around in confusion.
The teacher walked over to Shinobu who was the flustered source of the commotion.
“Are you interested in tennis?” she asked while perfectly expressionless.
“I don’t know the rules!! I only know you hit something back and forth like in badminton!”
“I see. Then let me give you a chance. This is an old ball. If you’re interested, learn how to use it.”
She forced the yellow ball through a hole in the chain-link fence and handed it to him.
One of the track suit girls running along the schoolyard opened her eyes wide.
“No fair! Are you luring him in with toys like Santa Claus, you old hag! No matter what you say, you’re the kindest one when it comes to little kids!!”
“Shut up!! I’ll have you know I actually wanted to teach elementary school! But the next thing I knew, I was dealing with you deceptive mini-adults and your dead eyes!!”
However, Shinobu had not heard that exchange because he was too focused on the ball in his hand.
“It’s yellow, round, and fluffy. I’ve never seen a ball like this. It’s like a baby duck.”
“Ahhh, Shinobu. This isn’t good.”
“Wow! It bounces really good. This baby duck bounces more than a baseball!!”
He shouted in delight as he threw the tennis ball against the road again and again, but I groaned as I watched.
He had reacted in much the same way when he had gotten a small rubber ball at the temple festival. After making a hole in every sliding door and screen in the house, he had broken the glass in the wall clock and helped revive the intangible cultural asset of the crying child locked in the storage shed as punishment. However, it seemed all of that had vanished from his mind.
I earnestly hoped that a small storm was not approaching the Jinnai house for that night.
“Shinobu, the elementary school is this way.”
“Sure. With this baby duck ball, I’m not afraid of anything!!”
With the legendary Baby Duck Shooter in hand, he grew too bold and tried to walk down the center of the road, so I grabbed the nape of his neck and pulled him to the side of the road.
The elementary school he would begin to attend come April was quite close to the high school. The middle school was also nearby, so the village planners had probably vaguely decided “the schools go here”.
Speaking of which, the village did not have a university.
A tidy place of learning may not have fit into an Intellectual Village that was strategically managed to have the proper image.
To use Shinobu’s checklist from before, this schoolyard had a few swings, slides, and other playground equipment. The horizontal bars seemed to have different heights for the lower grades and the higher grades. Also, the soccer goal and basketball goal were smaller than the ones at the high school.
However, a Youkai like me noticed something else first.
“Why are high schoolers kicking a ball around outside the elementary school?”
For one, it was spring break. Elementary school had no concept of sports teams or clubs, so there would not have been any elementary school students here in the first place. But when you found larger middle and high school students there instead, it looked a lot like they had chased out the younger kids to have the place to themselves.
And that may not have been far from the truth.
The children at the high school had been the passionate athletes. It would have been difficult to dislodge them if you just wanted to play around. And if they then wanted to play somewhere else, it was only natural what would happen next.
They may not have even realized they were forcing out the younger children who should have been there.
However, would elementary school children really choose to gather in a place filled with clearly older and bigger children? Just as Shinobu had been oddly unwilling to enter the high school, the elementary school children may have naturally left without being actively threatened by anyone.
From high school to middle school and from middle school to elementary school.
As the people were left out, they would move down to the next school in line. It was certainly a twisted social structure.
Whether he had caught on to the situation or not, Shinobu tugged on my kimono and asked me a question.
“Is this my school?”
“Looks like it. You’ll be going here every day come April.”
Before I had finished speaking, a soccer ball crashed loudly against the chain-link fence.
It rolled along the ground in front of Shinobu whose eyes were opened wide.
I assumed someone had accidentally kicked the ball this way, but I was quickly proven wrong.
“What are you doing here?”
I heard a scratchy voice much like metal scraping together.
It seemed this high school boy had kicked the ball our way on purpose.
“We already told you the rules, remember!? We’re using this place right now! We even got permission from the teacher as alumni of the school. We’re not gonna deal with little brats like you. If not having your schoolyard is such a problem, go tell on us, but don’t blame me for what happens then!”
Shinobu was not used to being the target of that kind of hostility, so he was more confused than scared.
The boy seemed to have mistaken him for an elementary school kid who had come to play.
A glance through the fence showed that there were no small children despite it being an elementary school. Everyone there was a taller high school student.
“Dammit. Why do they get to be first string and we’re only second string. They’re just splitting us up based on who they like and using up all the equipment and practice space for themselves. Practice…I need to practice. Thinking you can win with guts or a fighting spirit is complete nonsense. I’ll prove to them that people grow more with a training regimen calculated out by a program.”
Shinobu tilted his head and looked up at me.
“Yukari, what is he talking about?”
“He’s saying it’s tough not being a winner because he can’t live up to his parents’ expectations or get the cute girls in his class.”
I gave an arbitrary comment with a lovely grin and received obvious verbal abuse for my trouble.
“Shut the hell up, you damn Youkai!! I know you don’t have any human rights, so how about I beat the shit out of you right here!?”
“We all know you can’t do that☆”
The boy I decided to call Grumpy-kun kicked the fence and then left.
Um, what am I supposed to do at times like this?
Oh, right. Raise my middle finger.
“Yukari, what was all that?”
“Don’t worry. Guys like that have probably never even held hands with a girl. You have him beat by a wide margin, so you don’t have to worry about anything.”
There was nothing more for Shinobu to see. Or rather, the schoolyard had more or less become a post-apocalyptic land where everyone had a mohawk, so sticking around was unlikely to be an enjoyable experience for him.
Today’s theme had been “learning the way to school”, so bringing that to an end and going home was the best option.
“Things can look different on the way back, so let’s try that too.”
“What are you talking about? It’s the same path, so there’s no way to get lost.”
“Shinobu, you’re already taking a wrong turn at the first fork in the road.”
I grabbed the nape of his neck and corrected his path.
He flailed his arms and legs around in protest for a while, but he finally gave a low energy comment as if he were a wilting house plant.
“I’m tired from walking so much.”
“Sorry, but I’m not going to carry you. Why? Because it sounds like a lot of work.”
When we returned to the house that had a full security system and solar panels on its thatch roof, it seemed to be lunchtime.
The day’s lunch was oyakodon.
Meals were always prepared by Shinobu’s mother or grandmother, but the food was always plain yet reliable when his grandmother made it.
After lunch, I had nothing to do and just lazed around until I heard someone talking on the phone.
The voice came from the hallway.
I saw short hair dyed brown and glittering silver accessories.
Hearing he was in his late teens might make you think he was Shinobu’s older brother, but he was actually his uncle.
His name was Jinnai Hayabusa.
He was an obvious delinquent boy who rode around on his electric maxi scooter and got into fights.
“Yes, yes. I get that. What? You think I’m a moron? I agree the instigator on TV is clearly suspicious, but someone that well-known would never do something so dangerous.”
“You mean…still…how…ick works?”
“I already told you that! I don’t know what the trick is or how it works! But they’re definitely using a Package involving a Youkai. Anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred people are involved in a single crime, so we aren’t going to find them that easily! Are you sure you aren’t the moron here!?”
“Ha…ha. Watch what…say or…a kick in…balls.”
Oh, a Package? This sounds dangerous.
That was a criminal method that incorporated the vague existence and traits of a Youkai into a single system.
For example, a Satori’s ability to read minds could be used for insider trading.
For example, a god of pestilence’s ability to make people sick could be used to bring a natural death to someone you hated.
These cutting-edge crimes that involved the occult were often put off until later by the professional police. This was not something a high school boy should be getting involved in, so I decided to cut in.
Specifically, I snuck up behind him and kicked him just as the voice on the phone had threatened.
I seemed to have misjudged my strength because Hayabusa was left rolling around on the ground.
I ignored him, picked his cell phone up off the floor, and heard a dignified female voice.
“Hello. I don’t know who this is, but thanks for stopping Hayabusa-kun from getting too worked up. Heh heh heh. That was a surprisingly cute scream. What did you do?”
“You could say I helped the student council president with the mischief she’s notorious for. Anyway, please don’t get our stupid boy caught up in anything. Half the time he’s suspended it’s due to the requests you give him.”
“I never ask him to go that far. While I do want to stop anyone in our school from getting involved in Packages, he has a bad habit of rushing in too quickly. It’s because he goes too far in his handling of justice. On a field trip, he rescued a girl in his class from some boys of another school and ended making the girl he rescued afraid of him.”
As I grew bored with her non-committal answer, I heard what sounded like a groan from the dead in the depths of the earth.
Delinquent Boy Hayabusa reached a hand toward me while curled up on the floor that was polished to an amber color.
I sighed, tossed the phone toward him, and gave him some relevant advice.
“Halfheartedly getting involved in Youkai-related crimes will only shorten your life. You can’t resolve this kind of thing, so if you have time to talk about this nonsense, try to find some trouble more your size. Maybe you could deal with those complete idiots who’ve taken over the schoolyard of the elementary school Shinobu will be attending soon.”
“Y-you do know assault is a crime, don’t you?”
I had done what I had to do and it wasn’t my job to decide whether he would listen to me or not.
There was no cure for stupidity or death. I began to leave the hallway, but another voice reached me from behind.
It was Shinobu. By the time I figured out he was making an airplane noise, he had already run right into my butt.
“Shinobu, what are you doing?’
The unexpected action made me jump away.
Not because it hurt, though!
I frantically turned around and Shinobu was confused by my extreme reaction.
“Hm? Yukari, what is it?”
“Shinobu, um, don’t do that. You aren’t supposed to bite people.”
That was something I should never have had to tell anyone, but he only tilted his head further.
“But mommy does it all the time. She bites my arm or side.”
“That stupid mother! Can’t she think about how things will influence her child!?”
Anyway, why is he here?
As I wondered that, he waved a hand weakly and asked me a question.
“Where were you going?”
“”I’m going to sleep, but I can’t sleep without you there.”
“Oh, you wanted to take a nap, didn’t you?”
Normally, a Zashiki Warashi snuck into the family’s futons as a harmless prank, but Shinobu had gotten so used to it that he could not sleep without someone in the futon with him.
I laid out the futon in his bedroom and we both lay down in it.
“Yukari, that’s too tight.”
“Bear with it.”
I was holding him in my arms more tightly than absolutely necessary for a good reason: he tossed and turned a lot in his sleep. It was completely normal for him to end up upside down, take the entire blanket from me as he rolled around, find his way underneath me, get tangled up in my long hair, or anything else really.
However, he did not have trouble getting to sleep.
The trip to and from his school must have been a lot for him because he fell fast asleep only five minutes after his complaint.
I had nothing to do until he woke up and my eyelids grew heavy as I passed the time doing nothing.
However, my eyes opened again before I fully fell asleep.
Someone had snuck into the bedroom.
“Heh heh heh. They’re asleep. Fast asleep. Buuut, this makes me a little jealous as his mother.”
It was Shinobu’s mother.
For some reason, she was lifting up her breasts with her hands.
“Does he naturally choose the one with the bigger breasts and smoother skin? I guess I can’t compare to a Youkai that doesn’t age.”
“You have no reason to get upset over this. The only reason he can approach me so easily is because I’m not as close an existence to him. In fact, it’s because I’m so different.”
“What do you mean?”
“Children sometimes have complaints they find difficult to make to a parent, but they can reveal those to a stuffed animal. There are advantages to being something other than human. …However, that can be a harsh truth to the one being treated that way. If you want to be his parent, you don’t want that, do you?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure he puts that much thought into it.”
“It’s even harsher because it’s done subconsciously.”
I gave a dark and cold smile I never let Shinobu see.
This was a good opportunity and I felt like there was a little more I needed to tell the parent who was meant to protect him.
“There’s something about Shinobu that worries me.”
“What is it now?”
“He’s completely unaware of that forbidden line that everyone can naturally sense. Think of a school at night, an abandoned hospital, or a sealed-off tunnel. He might find those places scary, but he would never think of turning back.”
For example, he had no problem bringing his food into the altar room that smelled of the dead to eat with something as inhuman as a Youkai.
I felt it was worth noting the positive possibilities of getting along with any Youkai, but our traits did not always have a positive effect.
“He can’t sense that line that everyone else can, so he always ends up stepping into areas that are best avoided. You need to be aware of that. If a location is separated out, there is reason why. Entering forbidden territory does not always have a happy ending like with Momotarou. It can also end more like Kaguya-Hime or Urashima Tarou.”
Shinobu’s mother lightly traced her index finger along her chin.
“Urashimia Tarou, hm? That really is a strange story. Unlike a lot of old stories, it has no lesson. The main character rescues a turtle and it ends with his misfortune.”
That was how the story went when looking at it with human standards.
None of the major characters of the story – Urashima Tarou, the turtle, and Otohime – had meant any harm. Urashima Tarou had rescued the turtle with no intention of gaining anything from it, the turtle had tried to repay him with no ulterior motive, and Otohime had genuinely fallen in love with him.
Nevertheless, the story ended with his despair.
We might look a lot alike and we might use the same words, but humans and Youkai had definitively different values. In Urashima Tarou’s case that difference was in the view of time. Youkai have no lifespan, so they had not known Urashima Tarou would not like what happened to him.
“It has nothing to do with good will or malice. That is a constant danger whenever humans and Youkai come into contact and it is a risk that never occurs between parent and child. Do you understand now that I’m not stealing your position?”
That was all Shinobu’s mother said.
It was short and concise.
But then she said more with a hint of a smile.
“But you don’t want anything like what happened to Urashima Tarou to happen to Shinobu. That’s not a bad reaction as a parent, you know?”
It seemed I had fallen asleep at some point.
When I opened my eyelids, Shinobu was absent from the futon.
I started by heading to the kitchen and drinking a can of chilled soda from the refrigerator. The refrigerator had a flat-screen computer on the door for looking up recipes. I swiped my finger across it to wake it from sleep mode and opened the online news page.
“ ‘How Does Pizza Arrive at your Door in Only Thirty Minutes?’ is finally getting a movie! This new schedule(?) mystery is from the author of the masterpiece ‘Hamburgers, the Magic of Ninety Seconds from Order to Completion’. This will be another problem film filled with fast food trivia you’ll wish you didn’t know. It is being directed by…”
With the red can in hand and a blue face, I returned the computer to sleep mode.
That was not an article I wanted to read while drinking that. Of course, there were rumors the extreme junk food criticism was a way of opposing imported goods.
I carried the cold can around the house and found a large number of paper airplanes scattered around the Japanese living room that was large enough for a judo match.
This was not the result of some bizarre person getting obsessed with a single action.
A Kappa, a Tengu, and a Yamanba – a group needing no explanation due to their appearances in picture books and Youkai manga – were forming a system for mass producing paper airplanes using the giant pile of paper Shinobu had prepared.
I decided to ask about it.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, Yukari. We’re having a paper airplane championship! It’s not too late to catch up now!!”
“What are you doing?” I asked again.
My voice was more threatening the second time and it was directed at the Youkai rather than Shinobu. They looked up as if they had come back to their senses.
“O-oh, no. I returned to my childhood for a moment there! We didn’t head into the mountains to do this!!” (<– Tengu)
“We’re here to get a sip of the mysterious sake of the Jinnai Brewery.” (<– Kappa)
“It’s made by humans, so I’m not expecting much. But I’ll try it out, so hurry up and bring some.” (<– Yamanba)
They showed no intention of apologizing for entering the house without permission. The Jinnai house seemed to act as an inn for travelling Youkai.
Shinobu was explaining his new discovery of folding down a corner of the rectangular paper and cutting away the excess to form a square, but he tilted his head when he heard what the Youkai said.
“Are you talking about work? I can go call for daddy and grampa.”
“Fwa ha ha ha ha. You probably shouldn’t. If they heard the master of Mount Kurama had rushed all the way here after hearing some rumors, they’d probably collapse in fear. It’s best for them not to know the details.”
That muscular man was the natural enemy of Youkai who would not hesitate to bring his fist down on anyone who strayed from the proper path, be they a Mikoshi-Nyuudou or a guardian of hell, but it was best for these Youkai not to know the details. They’d be the ones collapsing in fear then.
Shinobu then spoke up completely innocently.
“Do you want to see them work? Do you want to see how amazing they are?”
“If their sake really is good enough for Youkai to accept it, that would definitely be amazing.”
“Nobel Prize amazing.”
Ah, this generally arbitrary group just gave them an arbitrary title!
But Shinobu was completely focused on the sudden foreign term.
“Nobel… Y-you just need some sake, right!? I’ll show you how amazing they are! C’mon, Yukari! I think there’s some in there!!”
He pulled my hand and brought me right back to the kitchen.
Of course, I was not simply going along with what he wanted. My true reason was to stop him from getting into the first-class daiginjo.
The sake made by the Jinnai family was worth 50,000 yen a cup, so some people would not be happy if a child removed the stopper for a prank.
However, my fears proved unfounded when Shinobu did something unexpected.
He opened the refrigerator with his small hands, stuck his upper body inside, and pulled out a thick white liquid in a clear plastic bag.
“This is it, Yukari! This is the kind even I can have on New Year’s, so it has to be the best.”
“Well…I guess you can bring out the amazake. It isn’t a product at least.”
It was treated much like a leftovers meal made from scraps of meat and the centers of vegetables. Then again, everything from the ingredients to the preparation belonged to the Intellectual Village brand, so a cup would probably still leave you minus a 10,000 yen bill.
“How do you heat it up? The microwave?”
“You put it in a pot and use the stove.”
As Shinobu started getting worked up, I grabbed the nape of his neck to stop him.
Should a small child be distanced from the kitchen which was filled with fire, hot water, and knives? Or should they be familiarized with cooking at an early age to give them a good sense for the process? Both arguments could be made, but it was not my job to make that decision. If Shinobu’s family had chosen the former, I had to deal with the pot on the stove.
Not that I was all that good at cooking. No matter how many times I tried making rice balls, they never came out as a proper triangle. I could not let Shinobu see that.
Some of it burned onto the bottom of the pot a little, but I managed to heat up the amazake in about ten minutes. I had Shinobu carry a few cups and I brought the entire pot into the living room.
The Kappa, Yamanba, and Tengu looked a bit skeptical when they saw the thick white liquid in the transparent cups.
“Oh, I was expecting some mysterious sake, but it’s just some amazake for kids. If you think that’s going to get full marks from us, you- bvgrfaaaahhhh!?”
“What is it, Kappa!? Don’t tell me living in the water made your entire body overly sensitive to heat!”
“No, Tengu. Look at his face. He’s overcome by such euphoria that his pupils are opened wide. It looks like this sake might be known as the Youkai Crusher for a reason. I think I need to prepare myself and try it out for myse- bhyaaaaaaaaaah!?”
Youkai would not die from being stabbed or shot, so it was a mystery why they were so influenced by this amazake. And yet they would be able to eat an entire pufferfish or killer jellyfish without issue.
The Tengu assumed he alone would be fine no matter the disaster, so he chugged his cup of amazake and ended up collapsed on the living room floor.
“See, daddy and grampa are amazing, aren’t they?” said Shinobu.
“Mwa ha ha ha ha. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this good. I’ll turn you into Ushiwakamaru!”
“Eh? But Benkei’s way cooler. Then I could be big and muscly like daddy!”
You don’t need to be big and muscly.
Shinobu’s grandfather entered from the sake brewery behind the house in order to take a break, but he stopped walking when he saw the bodies lying around the living room.
He turned the troublesome question to me.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m fully prepared to be thrown into the storage shed with Shinobu, but let me say one thing first. Shinobu seems to believe you’re artisans on a Nobel Prize level.”
“It’s hard not to get mad after seeing the commotion in here, but there’s something to be said for seeing humans and Youkai get along using something you made. That muscleman will probably still yell at you all like some kind of demon, but he might cry in secret afterwards.”
Shinobu and I were severely lectured.
Fortunately, we weren’t locked in a room.
Then again, whenever Shinobu was locked in the storage shed, he would cry and wild Youkai would arrive to comfort him. Last time, some mascot-types that were either foxes or tanukis ended up filling the shed with him.
His parents had since developed a more effective method.
They only needed an illustrated encyclopedia of deep sea fish. Then they only needed to slowly turn the pages.
“It’s all squishy! It’s alive, but it’s all squishy!!”
“Oh, the crab’s kind of cool.”
I was forced to sit still while he clung to my upper body and desperately tried to look away from the book.
As for why he had such a problem with deep sea fish…
“These are scary! That one looks like it’ll pop if you poke it! That one puffs up if you catch it and something comes from its mouth!!”
It was already evening.
After finally being released, I walked down the hallway that was filled with the orange sunlight. Shinobu was watching TV in the large Western living room. He was sitting with a giant fox and tanuki that had gotten in somehow. They were probably travelling Youkai who were spending the night.
I could hear voices from the TV.
“There’s fox udon and tanuki soba, but why isn’t there anything with badgers!? We’re seriously troubled by that question!”
“But badgers don’t sound very delicious! No one likes snakes!!”
“That’s adder! They barely sound the same!!”
“Then what’s a badger?”
“It’s in the same family as weasels and wolverines.”
“Wolverines! Now you’re scaring me!!”
“A badger isn’t that frightening! It’s more like a red panda or a raccoon!!”
“Oh, so it’s like a tanuki. Then why not just say tanuki?”
“Because it’s a badger! The fox, the tanuki, and the badger are the big three for transforming Youkai!!”
The stage on the screen had a single microphone stand with two people in suits standing on either side of it. In other words, it was a manzai act, but one of the two was clearly a Youkai. There were no laws or obligations restricting us, but the lack of human rights also meant we could not work. After all, we were not “human”. However, it seemed there was a loophole in taking a position much like a dog that was part of an act. I didn’t know the details of the situation, though.
I didn’t feel like interrupting, so I left for the time being.
However, I still had nothing to do, so I wanted someone to fill the time.
And there was one person I knew was the easiest to deal with.
“Haaayaaabuuusaaa!! Help me kill some time!!”
“No!! Why is this mass of selfishness here!?”
As expected, Jinnai Hayabusa, the brown-haired, accessory-covered delinquent boy, let out a girlishly shrill voice. He had been maintaining his maxi scooter in the garage he had made in the shed.
He had brought this unreasonable fate on himself by trying to look cool by drinking a Cassis Orange he had made. Then again, it wasn’t actually alcoholic. He had made an imitation by melting some cassis jam in hot water and mixing it with orange juice.
However, my enemy(?) was skilled.
To oppose my special skill “Forcing the Flow of Events”, he recovered from his panic on his own.
“Hey, god of pestilence. I’m sure you’re only here because Shinobu wouldn’t play with you, but as you can see, I’m busy.”
“Ahh, ahh. Mic test, mic test. Please respond, Jinnai Hayabusa-kun, the indecent boy who feels a slight throb of the heart when he hears the word ‘sister-in-law’. I repeat…”
“Bphhhh!!!?? Y-you idiot, stop making up things that could put irreversible cracks in our family!!”
“But it’s profane in a different way how you get so caught up over the word ‘sister-in-law’ and she has no interest whatsoever. Do you not care in the slightest what other people want?”
“Again, you’re completely wrong here!! You’re not going to claim these baseless accusations are part of your ‘innocent pranks’ as a Zashiki Warashi are you!?”
“Shinobu’s one thing, but you’ve got a troublesome trait as well. It’s not often you see someone who’s actually scared by a Hitotsume-Kozou or a Nopperabou. Of course they’re all gonna gather together to scare you.”
“Yeah, but I get attacked by the deadly ones too like a Kappa or a Makuragaeshi. Thanks to that, I could be killed at any moment.”
He seemed to think he was hated by Youkai, but in a way, it might have been the opposite. He was treated a lot like the monster in an RPG that gave a ridiculous amount of experience points.
“So what exactly are you going to do to kill time?”
“Well, I’ll roll you around and…”
“Don’t scare me! And I asked for specifics! I’m not some reaction comedian whose weapon is the boiling bath. If I tell you to stop, you seriously need to stop!!”
This seemed to be another trait of a Zashiki Warashi. If the other person reached the point of actually crying, I naturally put on the brakes. My defaults were set so I would stop at the line of what qualified as “innocent”.
I had no choice, so I got to the real issue at hand.
I reached into the chest of my kimono and pulled out a handheld game system advertised for its graphics.
“Shinobu said I was really bad at this hunting game. I don’t want him to hate me, so help me practice.”
“I’m pretty amazed just seeing a Youkai from an Edo-period drawing holding a handheld game system.”