Mai lay sprawled out on her bed, kicking her legs restlessly. Early afternoon sunlight poured in from the window, lighting her dorm room and illuminating dust motes in the air. Time seemed suspended, or at least, moving far too slowly.
After spending four straight days in Boston, Mai had gotten her fill of sight-seeing, and now she was bored. Using her last day of Spring Break to relax had seemed like a good idea at first. She'd slept in, and gotten a nice breakfast at the cafe. But now she had nothing to do. Well, she could get a head start on reading for her classes, but she didn't feel like touching her books until the evening.
If she were being honest with herself, boredom was only half the problem. After hanging out with the twins on Thursday, going back to Boston by herself the next two days had felt lacking. She couldn't help but notice the distinct absence; no one to talk to, no one to walk with. It just wasn't the same.
And now here she was, in her room, doing nothing. Naru was probably in his apartment, doing who knows what. But they were within walking distance, they had no school or work, and it was a beautiful day. What a waste.
She picked up her phone. He'd probably say no. But it was worth a try anyway, right? She had nothing to lose.
Mai took a deep breath and called his number.
"What do you want?" he answered.
Her heart picked up in pace. "Hey…are you at home right now?"
"Have you had lunch yet?"
"If I bought lunch and brought it over, do you want to eat together? My treat. And I'll leave right after."
A short silence. She waited in suspense.
Mai pumped her fist. "Great! Do you have any preferences?"
"Then I'll just get whatever. Okay, see you in a bit!" She hung up.
That went way better than she could have imagined. Beaming, Mai grabbed her purse and headed out.
Oliver sat cross-legged on the floor, back against the couch, tapping his pen restlessly on the coffee table before him, which he used as a desk. Though the overhead light was off, he'd left the kitchen light on, and the bedroom door was open, allowing natural light from the window to stream in. This left him sitting in the dim interval between two light sources, which suited him just fine.
Nearly an hour had passed since Mai ended her call. He didn't know what had possessed her to offer him lunch, but he was just beginning to get hungry, and it would save him the trouble of preparing something himself. He couldn't think of a reason to say no.
But now he was starting to regret it. More than once in the past hour, he had reached for his mug or his pen, only to see it had moved from where he last put it. The kitchen light had flickered a few times as well. And then he remembered what happened the last time Mai had visited.
Needless to say, he did not want a repeat of that. He'd been having trouble concentrating ever since.
Oliver heard a knock on the door, and in response, the bedroom door slammed shut. Sighing, he got up, deposited his mug in the kitchen, then answered the door. Mai greeted him with a bright smile.
"Hi! Feeling hungry?"
"You can't stay long," he said.
Her smile faltered slightly. "Well, I wasn't planning to…why, you've got something planned?"
"No." Because it wouldn't be safe. "Just because."
"Oh…well, okay." She lifted the paper bag in her hands to show him. "I saw there was a Mexican place nearby, so I wanted to try it. Are you fine with que…quesa…"
"It's fine." He took the bag and went back into the living room as she removed her shoes.
He turned on the lights and tidied the coffee table so they could eat, but Mai still didn't enter the room. What was taking her?
"Mai?" he called, and returned to the entrance.
He found her standing frozen, staring at the counter with a blank expression. No, he realized belatedly, she was staring at the long-forgotten box of chocolates he had placed there nearly a month ago.
Oliver didn't know what to do. He waited for her to react somehow, to get angry or complain, but nothing came. She just looked…disappointed.
Seconds ticked by slowly. Finally, unable to take it anymore, he strode forward and grabbed the box from the counter. It had a thin coating of dust over it, which transferred to his fingers, but he ignored this for the moment and held the box up in between them.
"Dessert," he said.
Mai's mouth dropped open.
Next, he stepped into the kitchen, wet a paper towel, and wiped the box down. Once it was clean, he washed his hands and refilled his mug with tap water.
Mai still hung around the entrance to the kitchen, looking awkward.
"Are you washing your hands?" he asked, moving away from the sink.
While Mai took her turn washing her hands, he looked in the fridge. There was one can of soda left. It belonged to Gene, but he wouldn't mind. Once Mai had finished drying her hands, he handed the soda to her.
"Oh…thanks," she said.
He led the way back to the living room, mug and box of chocolates in hand. There he took his place on the floor with the couch at his back. Mai sat across from him with the coffee table in between them.
She took out the carry out containers from the paper bag, handing one to him, followed by some small sauce containers, which she regarded with a quizzical look.
"What are all these sauces?"
He raised an eyebrow. "You've never had Mexican?"
"Well, there was a Taco Bell in Shibuya, but I've only been once…"
"Taco Bell doesn't count."
"Then no, I haven't."
Oliver sighed. He set the little containers on the table between them. "Guacamole, sour cream, salsa." He didn't feel like explaining further.
"And do I just dip it in them…?"
"If you wish."
Mai tore off a piece of her quesadilla, dipped it in the sour scream, and ate it. "Mmm! Oh, this is good!"
Oliver spooned guacamole onto his quesadilla and took a bite.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, with occasional interjections by Mai commenting on the food.
"So, I've been meaning to ask you," she said at last, "does Gene have any embarrassing secrets?"
He blinked at her.
"You know, something I can tease him about. It's not fair that he gets all the fun!"
So she had been serious about that suggestion.
He thought for a moment, but of the embarrassing incidents he could recall, he imagined Gene would only laugh them off. "I may not be of much help. He is infuriatingly shameless."
"I've seen him get embarrassed before though! Like when he brought me here the first time, he was all bothered about what a mess this place is. And it's not even bad."
He frowned. "Then perhaps I can enlighten you on some of his nasty habits."
"Eww. How nasty?" She made a face. "Actually, never mind. I don't want to know."
"Suffice it to say, if it were up to him, this place would be a trash heap."
"Oh, so you do all the cleaning?"
He nodded. "Most of it. When Gene does clean, he does a slapdash job of it, leaving me to finish the rest."
"That's gotta be annoying."
Truthfully, Oliver didn't like cleaning. It felt like a waste of time. But his poltergeisting made it a necessary skill, and if he didn't want to live in poor conditions again, he had no choice but to pick up Gene's slack. Consequently, the apartment was dusty, but otherwise clean.
"But wow, I didn't take you for the domestic type," Mai said teasingly.
He scoffed. "Does doing the bare minimum count as 'domestic' now? I shudder to think what your place looks like."
"Hey! I can keep clean! My mother didn't teach me nothing," she huffed.
Oliver could have continued bantering, but at the mention of her mother, that temptation quickly died. As far as he could recall, this was the first time she had brought up the subject of her family to him. He obviously knew more, but considering how he'd learned of it, that wasn't something he was keen to reveal.
He wondered if she'd told Gene. Those two seemed to have a much easier time talking to each other. In contrast, Mai did not divulge much about herself in his presence, and Oliver did not know how to ask.
He shook his head, focusing on his food again. This was not something that he usually cared about.
The rest of the meal passed in silence. Oliver finished one quesadilla, leaving the rest to save for dinner. Mai finished all of her food.
Once she did, Oliver took the box of chocolates in hand and opened the seal. Mai stared at him as he opened the lid and placed the box on the table between them.
"Eat," he commanded.
She frowned. "But I bought these for you."
He sighed, took one of the chocolates, and popped it in his mouth. It wasn't as if he were allergic, after all. It wouldn't kill him to eat it. He just didn't enjoy it very much. But he could dilute the sweetness with sips of water, and if it was to avoid that look of disappointment on her face, it didn't feel like a big sacrifice.
Mai seemed to cheer up after that, and helped to eat the chocolates. They managed to finish the box between them.
She sat back, sipping her soda. "So what have you been doing all week?" she asked.
"Why do you need to know?"
She sighed. "It's called making conversation, Naru. Just answer the question?"
It had become a habit, he realized. Pushing people away. He did it without even thinking.
"I've been working on my letters."
"Oh yeah, you said you were doing that. How's it been going?"
"It's taken longer than anticipated."
"Oh?" She leaned forward. "What are you having trouble with?"
"Past events can be difficult to write about."
Her eyes widened slightly. "Yeah…I guess they would be, huh?" She sipped her soda, looking pensive. "But they say writing can be therapeutic. Maybe it'll be good for you?"
"Hmm." He didn't really care. He just wanted it over and done with.
"Do you want to talk about it? That might help."
"Well, then maybe go outside and take a walk? Refresh your mind a bit."
"I can think better in here than out there."
"In here. In a dark room, all by yourself."
"Yes. I prefer it that way."
She hugged her knees. "Just sounds depressing to me."
"Well, not everyone is like you, Mai."
He felt grateful for the solitude. Eventually Gene would come crashing back into his life, but until then, he could be alone with his thoughts and not have to worry about frightening anyone.
Though, he supposed the occasional break wasn't too bad. This hadn't turned into a disaster yet.
"Can I read one?" she asked.
"What?" He snapped out of his thoughts.
"Can I read one of your letters?" But a second later, she seemed to think better of it. "…Or, is that too private?"
Oliver thought it over. Certainly, the accounts were all very personal. He was not proud of any of these incidents. But it might be beneficial to have an outside opinion, and Mai was the only outsider with full knowledge of his past.
He opened the folder he'd placed on the couch, shuffled through his drafts and selected one. "Here," he said, handing it to her.
Mai's face lit up at once. He watched as she began to read. Very soon, the smile fell from her face, to be replaced by an expression of concern and sympathy.
This particular letter related an event that took place when he was twelve years old. In private, he and Gene referred to it as the "school bus incident," as it had resulted in him lifting an entire school bus full of children, which had gotten quite an amount of press at the time. Even now, when he browsed paranormal websites, he would see mention of it as an infamous case of known paranormal activity, and thus he had chosen it as one of the incidents to relate in his letters to ASPR.
When Mai finished, her expression had changed yet again. This time, her brows were knit together, and she was frowning slightly.
She handed the paper back to him. "That was…hmm."
"You look dissatisfied."
"Well, I kinda am."
He sighed. "I'm not proud of what happened."
"No, no, it's not about the content!" She waved her hands hastily. "Sorry. It's about the writing."
"Excuse me?" She was going to criticize his writing?
"Just hear me out, okay? Basically…there's no sense of urgency. And it felt detached. You had all the facts and details of what happened, but I couldn't see any of the emotion."
"It is a factual account. Emotion has no place in it."
"No, I think it does. What happened here, this accident, you caused it because you felt something, right? But I don't see any of that in the writing. Don't you think that should be important? This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. If I don't know what you felt, I don't know why it happened. It doesn't even seem connected to you; for all I know, it could be a ghost or an alien or some other supernatural entity. You might as well just be another bystander, observing what happened."
Oliver looked at the paper, skimming through the words. To his surprise, she was exactly right. From this account alone, no one would be able to tell that he'd caused the accident.
"…They're scientists. I thought they would value objectivity."
"Well, maybe they will, I don't know. But in this case, I think it'd be better to write from the heart. Play to their sympathies. You're asking for help, not writing a report."
"That's not my forte," he admitted.
Mai smiled. "Then think of it as a story, and put yourself at the center of it. You're not just the narrator, Naru. You're the main character."
He gazed at her for a long moment. Who knew she could be so insightful? "…I'll take that into consideration," he said at last.
When she finished her soda, they cleaned up, and Oliver followed her to the door. He watched as she put her shoes back on. Perhaps he should say something.
"Thank you for lunch."
Mai looked up, mouth dropping open again.
"What?" he frowned.
"So you do know some manners."
"I'm polite when it's warranted."
"I don't think that's how it works, Naru." She smirked. "But you're welcome."
And then she left, with a smile, a small wave, and a "See you tomorrow."
He stared after her for a moment. This had been oddly refreshing.
…Well, back to work.
Oliver closed the door and returned to his spot in the living room. He got out a fresh sheet of paper. First, he would start by rewriting this letter.
But before he'd even written one word, he was stuck.
How did he feel? How was he supposed to know? Could he even remember?
He had written everything just as he remembered it the first time; what more was there to say?
The tip of his pen seemed glued to the paper. He would get nowhere at this rate.
Oliver sighed, putting the pen down. Was this even worth the effort? Even if he did appeal to the heart, that might not improve his chances of being taken seriously. But now that Mai had pointed it out, he couldn't imagine the letter in its current form would be convincing either. He couldn't just ignore her advice.
Five hours passed, with him still unable to write a single word. He'd wanted to finish this before Gene returned home, but that was looking impossible now. And tomorrow, he returned to work. If only he'd had that conversation with Mai earlier in the week, he could have had more time…
Resisting the temptation to just give up on the whole thing, Oliver reached for his phone with a growl of frustration. Time to shelve his pride.
He called Mai's number and put the phone to his ear. She picked up after a few rings.
"N-Naru?! What's wrong? Why are you calling me?!"
"Mai, I need your help."
"Oh god. Do I need to call an ambulance?!"
"What? No, Mai, calm down." He took a deep breath. "I am having…difficulty with this letter. I would like your advice."
A long silence. Then finally, "Naru, what is wrong with you today? Do you have a fever?"
He pursed his lips. "Mai."
"Okay, okay, sorry. Wow, uh, sure. I'd be glad to help."
"Good. Tell me, how would you approach writing something like this?"
"Well…first, I'd try to remember how I was feeling back then…"
"But I don't know how I felt back then. It was a long time ago. I don't remember."
"But it was memorable enough to stick with you, right?"
"And even if you can't remember how you felt exactly, you can still imagine it, right? You know yourself. You know how you react to things."
Did he? Oliver frowned. The way she described it, that seemed to be a normal experience for her. But he could not relate. "Give me an example," he said.
"An example? Uhh. Well, I don't clearly remember when I moved out of my house in Kanagawa—"
"I was born there. I used to live there with my parents until my Dad died."
"I see." He didn't know how he should react to this. He hadn't expected her to divulge something like that so easily.
"Anyway," she cleared her throat. "I was too young to remember exactly, but I was probably scared, and sad, and anxious. I probably really missed my Dad and our home. I don't have to remember to know that much."
"Because you know yourself," he nodded. Yes, he could understand that logically. But he still could not apply it to himself. "Perhaps I don't know myself," he muttered.
The line fell silent.
"…Um," she said finally. "Sorry. I, uh…maybe I can talk you through it? How does that sound?"
He winced at the tone of her voice. This was humiliating. "Fine," he growled.
"Okay, hopefully I remember all this right…let's start at the beginning. You and Gene are waiting at a bus stop. Then an older boy starts harassing you."
"How do you feel about that?"
"I don't know."
"Don't you feel scared?"
"Why would I be scared?"
"He's older than you, right? That means he's probably bigger and stronger. That's a threat to your safety."
"But I could easily rip him apart if I so wished."
"Oh jeez, Naru." Her voice quivered. That probably was not the best thing to say. "D-did you want to?"
"Of course not. I would rather he left us alone."
"But he doesn't leave you alone, he keeps threatening you. And you don't want to hurt him. How does that make you feel? Frustrated?"
"You keep telling him to stop, but he won't listen. He doesn't believe you can hurt him back. How does that make you feel?"
"I think he is boorish and stupid. He doesn't know what he is dealing with. He is letting a perceived advantage over us get to his head, and he will regret it."
"So you're angry? Do you hate him? Do you pity him?"
"I don't care enough to call it hate. I just want to be left alone."
"Then are you sad? Because he won't listen?"
'Sad.' That sounded so extreme and simplistic. He could not imagine applying that word to himself. "No."
"But he won't stop, so you know you'll end up hurting him. You don't know how bad it'll be, or what the consequences could be. If he'll die, if you'll hurt anyone else…"
"Are you afraid?"
Back to that again. But this time, it felt a little more appropriate. "…Perhaps."
"So…" Mai took a deep breath. "So you toss rocks at him with PK. Why?"
"As a warning. So he would back off before it's too late."
"And it works. He screams and runs away. But…" She hesitated.
"Mai. Do not bother trying to be 'sensitive.' It just wastes time."
"Jeez. Fine." She took another deep breath. "…Gene moves at the last second, and the rocks end up hitting him."
"He…he falls to the ground, and stops moving. You see blood on his face. …How do you feel?"
"I've seen people like that before. They are usually dead."
"…You think you've just killed your brother." Her voice fell to a hush. "How does that make you feel?"
Oliver opened his mouth to speak, but his stomach gave a sudden wrench. He clapped his hand over his mouth and swallowed hard against the nausea.
"Do you feel shock? Sadness? Guilt?"
Something felt on the verge of breaking. No. Stop. He couldn't allow it.
Oliver steadied his breath as best he could. "I don't know."
Mai paused. "You don't know? Or you don't want to know?"
"What?" he snapped.
"It kind of sounds like you're running away."
"I didn't ask you to psychoanalyze me."
"You asked for my help. And I thought we were getting somewhere."
He grit his teeth. What did she know about it? "I am not running away."
"You don't know me!" he spat. The harshness of his own voice surprised him.
He heard her take a sharp breath. "…Maybe, but you just said you don't know yourself either. And I'm just— trying to understand you." Her voice sounded strained, like she was trying not to shout or cry. "Unless you want to give up? We could just hang up, and forget all about it. Is that what you want?"
She was right. He was being an idiot. He had asked for her help and she was doing her best to be patient with him. And now he had hurt her again.
"Naru?" she sniffed. "Do you want to stop?"
Truthfully, he did. He felt deeply uncomfortable with the whole situation. But that would be running away. And if his only options were to do it alone, or to ask Mai, right now, the latter seemed like the safer option.
Oliver sighed. "No. I'm sorry."
He heard her sniffle again, and waited for her to compose herself.
"…Okay. Well, do you want to start over?"
"No. Continue where we left off. But, do not ask me to identify what I am feeling. If I could do that, I would not be asking you."
"Sure. Then let's focus on how you reacted physically. Did you scream? Did you cry?"
"Then what did you do?"
"I just stood there, and things occurred around me."
She groaned. "That just takes us back to square one!"
"That is my experience."
"But what was going on inside your head while you stood there?"
"Again," he sighed, "If I could tell you that…"
"Didn't you think about helping Gene?"
"Of course. For a moment."
"So why didn't you?"
"…I froze. It might have already been too late. And the poltergeisting had already started. Whatever I might do, or think, could just make things worse."
"So you panicked."
"And if you're convinced you'll make things worse, doesn't that just make you more anxious? And if you're more anxious, doesn't that just make it worse? Like a self-fulfilling prophecy…"
"And meanwhile Gene's still lying there, not getting help…and you can't stop what's happening long enough to get him any—"
"And people are screaming. I cannot think rationally if they are screaming. It is distracting."
He didn't have to remember the exact circumstances to know this. It was what he experienced, every time.
"So you keep driving yourself farther into a corner, and things keep building and building and building, and you don't know what to do—"
Her voice abruptly faded. Suddenly, he couldn't breathe.
He saw the scene before him, clear as day. Gene, lying lifeless on the ground, blood trickling down his temple. His own hand outstretched, trembling, but unable to reach.
It was all his fault. He couldn't even save his brother. He could only stand there, powerless to act.
Screams pierced the air from seemingly every direction. There was a roar in his head, his heartbeat thudded in his ears.
Stop. He just wanted it to stop. STOP.
And then he heard a heavy metallic groan. The screams increased in volume. Turning, he saw the school bus lift into the air…
Tears pricked his eyes. He'd done it again. Everyone was going to die.
With a gasp, Oliver snapped back to the present.
"Naru? Hello? Are you still there?!" Her voice sounded very faint and distant.
The phone must have fallen out of his hand. He didn't know where it was now. He seemed to be lying on the floor. A crashing sound alerted him to the coffee table slamming into a wall.
With a groan, he sat up. Looking around, he saw papers scattered everywhere. The couch was upside down and on the opposite side of the room. All the lightbulbs had shattered, littering the floor with shards of glass, which glittered in the orange glow of sunset leaking from the open bedroom doorway.
"Are you okay?! Naru!"
He crawled toward the sound of her voice and found his phone in a corner. He put it to his ear and mumbled, "M'fine."
Mai sighed in relief. "Hold on, I'll come over—"
"No," he said sharply. "Stay there."
"I need to be alone for this."
His hands shook. His breath was heavy. His vision blurred.
"Say something," he muttered.
The screams still echoed in his head. Any moment now, he could be pulled back, back into that moment, or countless others like it; an endless maze.
"Wh-what do you want me to say?"
"Anything. Just talk."
"O-okay, um. Well, I went into Boston again yesterday and…"
He listened to her prattle on for a while about her adventures in the city. He didn't really pay attention to what she said; he just listened, letting her voice anchor him to reality.
Gradually, the world reconstituted itself around him. His breathing began to calm.
Mai stopped talking. "…Naru?"
This. This was feeling. And he hated it. It was too much, all at once, too overwhelming. It paralyzed him, turned him stupid.
But he couldn't let it be for naught. He needed to write something while still in this state of mind.
His pen had disappeared somewhere. He looked around, finally found it near the upside-down couch. He retrieved it, then grabbed the nearest sheet of paper and smoothed it across the floor. He put the phone down and set pen tip to paper.
The room fell silent but for the scratching of his pen. His hand moved automatically, feverishly transcribing every thought before it could flit away.
"Naru? Are you still there?"
"Shush. I'm writing."
His handwriting was uncharacteristically wild. He almost felt possessed. He only stopped when he ran out of room on the paper.
Then finally, in the dim, dying light of dusk, he sat up and looked at the finished product.
Look at me. Look at what I am. I don't want to be this. I don't mean for it to happen. Look at me. No one knows me. No one wants me. I am weak. I am dangerous. I am cursed. Don't look at me. I ruin everything I touch. I deserve nothing. No one should be near me. I should not exist. Please help me. I just want to live my life. Why won't anyone help? LOOK AT ME.
Oliver recoiled. These words did not belong to him. They were raw and needy and desperate. He did not recognize it as himself.
Reflexively, he grabbed the paper and crinkled it up in his fist.
"Are you still there?" Mai's worried voice broke through his thoughts.
"…Yes." Perspective. He needed perspective. Taking a deep breath, Oliver smoothed the paper out again. What he'd written was an impassioned plea, a cry for attention. A poltergeist personified. This was just what he needed.
And now he remembered. It was after this incident that he'd stopped fighting back against bullies. Every time, the fear that he would inadvertently hurt someone overpowered whatever terror they tried to instill in him. So he let them do whatever they pleased. But that still didn't present disaster in the end…
"Naru? Are you done?"
He picked up the phone and held it to his ear again. "That's enough for now," he sighed, leaning against the couch. He felt drained.
"Okay…will you be alright?"
"Yes. I'm going to rest for a while."
"Sounds like a good idea. I can come help clean?"
"No. Let Gene do it."
Mai giggled. Then there was a short pause, neither of them bothering to hang up yet.
"So…" she began hesitantly. "Did this help?"
"…Yes, it did."
He heard her gasp. A moment later, she asked softly, "Hey, Naru? When you're done with this…are you going to let me read it?"
Oliver thought about it. Truthfully, he did not want this mess to be seen by anyone, even in a refined form. But if anyone deserved to see it, it would be her.
"Perhaps." He tilted his head back, smiling grimly in the darkness. "We'll see."