Chasing Life With You (Chapter 14)


I think that was probably the best birthday of my life. Back in my childhood, I had never really had the opportunity to celebrate things like birthdays, especially if they were my own – so for my old schoolmate, completely without prompting, to remember and to care… that meant much more to me than I was willing to admit. The surprise party, in the end, was a complete success.

As it turned out, my housemates had loosely planned out the whole rest of the day. First they brought out some board games and similar entertainment, and the three of us played together until lunch. Then, after a short meal of some extravagant takeout Katsumi had bought in the city, the two musicians put on a mini-concert for me in the living room. I was so overwhelmed by the whole affair that the oddly moving events of the early morning were entirely swept from my mind.

Lounging on the couch, I watched and listened for almost two whole hours as they filled the house with music. The songs they played were generally loud, upbeat and festive; some of them I’d heard before, but others were entirely new to me. During a long interlude they took turns soloing against each other in what resolved into an improvisatory jam session. I took it all in with a big, stupid smile on my face, enjoying every second of it. I knew I was incredibly lucky to be sharing space with them – and I could hardly believe that my summer had turned out this way.

After the concert we went back to gaming, and in a demonstration of my newly-gained skills of a twenty-five year-old, I kept up my continuous losing streak. It didn’t bother me, though. I had never been very competitive, and spending time with my housemates in this way was just too fun. Finally, at around four, Tadashi deliberately let me win one game and then left to start prepping my birthday dinner. Katsumi chatted with me as we cleaned up and put the board games away upstairs.

“Are you having a good time?” he started.

“For sure,” I replied. “Thanks so much. Today’s been great.”

“You know what, Chas, I was mistaken about you.” He glanced over his shoulder at me, his eyes flashing.

“What?”

“I always thought you weren’t a very fun person. But how you were today was nice.”

I was a bit surprised by this comment. “Really?”

He nodded. “I think you should be more genuine. You don’t say what you really mean or do what you really want or show your emotions most of the time. You spend most of the day browsing your computer doing pointless things, you dip your toes into new things like cooking and guitar but you don’t actively commit to them… you can’t even make up your mind about me. You live with me, but you don’t talk to me, and you don’t talk all that much to Tama either. We’re going to be here all summer. If you think games are fun and you want to play more, then say so. If you want to talk to me, then say so. If you want to play guitar, just walk into the studio and pick one up. You wait for us to invite you to do things, which I know is part of your consideration and natural reservation, but you also seem to wait for yourself. Honestly, you confuse me.”

I stared at him. He was right, of course – and I had no idea how to react.

“It’s just a thought,” he said, brushing a hand casually through his hair. “No big deal. I’m just saying, you never know what might happen tomorrow, so you should live today. Be genuine. Have a meaningful time. That’s how I live, me personally.”

“I’ll… I’ll think about it.”

Katsumi noticed how taken aback I was, and he loosened up a little. “Oh, nevermind, Chas. Listen, in a little while I’m gonna go help Tama in the kitchen, so you won’t be stuck with me for too long. Tell me what you did this morning.”

“Tadashi took me out kayaking,” I said.

“I figured. Did you like it?”

“Never been kayaking before today… it was good. Not really fun, I’d say. Tadashi put up quite an act.”

“How so?”

“He pretended like he was all depressed and stuff, like something was wrong. I thought he was really having a hard time. I guess he did that to lure me out and make sure I’d follow him – I was really relieved. I’d completely forgotten about it until you asked just now.”

“Tama’s not that good of an actor,” Katsumi remarked. Before I could process that he followed up with, “I was glad he managed to get you out before I got home.”

“How long have you guys been planning this whole thing?”

“Mmm… Tama mentioned your birthday to me early last week, I think. So we started planning around then.”

“Thank you, again. It means a lot to me.”

He shook his head. “It’s Tama you should thank.”

Dinner that night was a huge array of my favorite dishes, arranged basically buffet style. We would definitely have leftovers, I noted, but that was alright. Everything was delicious. After we finished eating, Katsumi took a big cake out of the fridge, and Tadashi lit up a full twenty-five short, colorful candles. Amid all the excitement, I forgot to make a wish. We sat together on the porch, devouring the cake while watching the sun set, each of us basking in the glow of the day-long celebration.

“I’m so tired,” Tadashi commented after a while.

“Sleep early tonight,” Katsumi replied.

“I think I will. Is that okay, Chas?”

I looked across the table at him. “‘Course. I’m exhausted, too. Thank you guys again. I haven’t had this much fun in forever, and I used to never celebrate my birthday… I’m really not used to it.”

“Birthdays are important,” Tadashi said. He smiled at me, and I smiled back.

“If you’re sleeping soon, I’m gonna go shower,” Katsumi announced, getting up from his chair.

We ended up showering one after another, and as a result we were all in bed by nine. Lacking any energy to write, I crashed into my sheets and fell asleep almost immediately. Perfect days, after all, never last. And I had no idea what the next day would bring.


Synchronicity (Part 10)

11:06

As the bus left another town behind and started heading into the mountain pass, Chie rubbed her eyes slightly. It was dark, and she was tired – but the endpoint of the route would be coming up in less than half an hour, and after that she’d be able to head to a motel and crash. Normally she was able to catch small naps during the many rest-stop breaks, but what sleep she had gotten had been too light and shallow to be of particular value. Too excited about the engagement, maybe.

Chie just wanted to go home. And home, even for a veteran driver like her, was not this bus. The bus was not a home for anyone – it was just an impartial container moving from here to there and there to here, a vacuum being continually filled and emptied, its occupants getting on and off like waves washing in and out of the shore. In the short term a beach looks unchanged despite the force of these steady waves, but in the long term the effects of longshore flow and erosion can be seen; in the same way, the bus would eventually get dirty and break down, and people would try to fix it by cleaning it, upgrading its mechanical parts, and adding new technology just as they try to fix beaches by building groins and seawalls and trucking in sand… but in the end, for both, the decay was unavoidable. Humans are arrogant, Chie concluded, to think they can fix anything without facing consequences.

As she pondered all of this, in part as a method of staying awake, she gave a cursory glance in the rearview mirror. The few passengers who remained appeared to be asleep. She sighed deeply. For sure, she loved her job and wouldn’t settle for anything less, but sometimes she wished it was less mindless, more personal, less alienating. She never got to know the real lives of her passengers, even though she truly cared about them. A brief conversation here, a “good morning” there – that was about the extent of her interactions with them, and it was mandated to be that way. Nothing would change if she was suddenly removed from the equation. Her passengers would still get on and off, same bus, same route, same times, with just a different person at the wheel, and that didn’t matter. Her work was largely unskilled, and she knew that even her experience and seniority, in a time of financial crisis, would not prevent her from being replaced with a desperate person willing to be paid less to do her job. That’s just how it was – and for her, how it would always be. The decay was unavoidable.

At 11:06pm on a Tuesday night, a wrong-way driver speeding through the mountain pass slammed their car into the front of the bus. Chie saw it coming. The drop-off on her right, another oncoming car on her left, she did nothing but step on the brake. Both drivers and all passengers died. In this, too, the decay was unavoidable. Beyond the grave she would be condemned for lack of action, for supposedly killing all her passengers, for the crime of knowing something was going to happen beforehand and just letting it happen. But that’s how it was. On the last stretch of the route, with everything around her rushing towards an undefinable conclusion, Chie had been moving unavoidably towards the accident, and she could not have stopped that the way she could not have stopped time, for time flows apathetically in one single direction – at least in the here and now in which she had lived. So, in the end, they never made it. Like a tsunami ravaging a coastline, the bus itself was abruptly cleaned out and destroyed –

And tomorrow, it would be made anew.

Chasing Life With You (Chapter 13)


The day after that terror-inducing night ride might have become the last day I saw Tadashi alive, had things the rest of the summer not gone right.

I woke up to an apparently normal morning. The sun was shining, birds were chirping outside my window, and I was feeling very, very glad to be alive. I sat up in bed, indulging in the clean air and waking up my brain. For a moment I held my breath and listened to the world around me. The rest of the house was silent, and I assumed Tadashi and Katsumi hadn’t gotten up yet. I checked my phone for the time – 7:43 – and began to plan out my day. First I’d wash up and change, then I’d go downstairs and do some work; at some point my housemates would come down and we’d have breakfast. Then I’d ask for my third guitar lesson, if Tadashi was free. After lunch I’d call Tadashi and Katsumi’s manager asking for permission to write some articles on them. Normally, magazines and other employers would tell me what to write, but I occasionally got to propose topics myself, and I wanted this new life of mine to be one of them. If all went well, I’d be able to start some kind of writing project this afternoon. Then I’d lounge around and maybe watch a movie or something before dinner, and afterwards I’d pitch in on some house chores.

I didn’t use to preemptively plan out my days like this. It was just one example of the small ways in which my life had begun to change. I thought about that for a minute before tossing off the covers and getting out of bed.

As it turned out, Tadashi was already up, wrecking my schedule from the get-go. I found him sitting at the kitchen counter, brooding over a piece of toast and a bowl of soup leftover from the previous night’s dinner. He saw me come down the stairs and his eyes lit up a little, but his usual gentle smile was notably absent.

“Hey,” I said to him casually.

“Morning,” he replied.

“I like that shirt.”

He looked down at the bluish-grey button-up he was wearing. “Oh. Thanks.”

I stared at him for a second before turning to rummage through the fridge. He didn’t seem to be up for a conversation; I couldn’t tell what was wrong with him. Probably not the day for a lesson, I thought to myself as I scoured the shelves for something that didn’t need to be cooked. Remarkably, Tadashi didn’t offer to make anything for me. I settled for some microwaveable leftovers and pulled up a chair to sit beside him.

“So,” I started, “not eating outside today?”

He shook his head slightly. “Nah.”

“Everything okay?”

“No,” he replied. He downed the rest of his soup, set the bowl down with surprising force, and added, “But it’ll be fine.”

I considered that for a moment. “Katsu up yet?”

“He went to the market.”

We sat in silence for a while after that, each of us working through our own breakfast. Then Tadashi glanced over and said, “Hey, can you do something for me?”

“What’s that?”

“Let’s go kayaking.”

I was taken aback. “Huh? You want me to go kayaking with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, sure.” I stared at him, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh… okay. Let’s go.”

Tadashi nodded, stood up, and grabbed his jacket from the living room. He headed out briskly without another word, and I followed, half-stunned into silence. As I trailed my friend through the woods, the early-morning sunlight splashed against his figure and gave his long blond hair a near-golden glow; I drank in this image without hardly noticing it, so occupied as I was with trying to process this strange morning.

We reached the lake after a few minutes without any words having passed between us. Abruptly Tadashi turned left and started walking parallel to the shoreline, and again I followed in silence. Some ten minutes of this adventure took us to a little wooden dock and a beachy area where a single blue-and-white canoe lay flipped over on the sand.

I stood around watching as Tadashi prepped the canoe. “So, uh… where do I sit?”

He glanced at me. “In the back.”

“Okay.”

“I’m smaller,” he said.

“Oh.”

“I’m gonna sit in it, and then you walk it a little farther into the water and then you sit down in back.”

“Alright.”

We got out onto the lake without a problem. Breathing deeply and still slightly wary of the whole situation, I stared at Tadashi from behind, matching my paddling to his strong, steady strokes. We headed out into deeper waters and then angled towards the opposite shore – I wondered if Tadashi had a particular destination in mind. Soon he cut in directly toward a small, sandy, unremarkable area, jumped out into the gentle waves, and hauled our kayak out of the water.

I stood up cautiously and stepped onto the sand. “What are we doing?”

“What time is it?”

I checked my phone. “Almost 8:45… there’s no service out here.”

“Too far from the house.”

Tadashi found a nice spot on the sand and lay down there on his back. I went to stand next to him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Lay down, Chas.”

I settled in beside him, putting my head back so that I was gazing up at the sky.

“We used to do this when we were kids,” Tadashi started slowly.

“Watching the clouds?”

“Yeah. And stargazing at night.”

“I don’t remember too well.”

“One time… after somebody had hit me. I was on the ground, and you came over and for some reason you lay down next to me, and you said something about about how you’d never appreciated looking at the sky like that before. You were trying to not embarrass me. That’s how it started.”

“…Really? I did that?”

He sighed – slow, quiet, and empty. “You’ve changed, Chas…”

I froze at that statement. “Well… everybody changes. That’s life.”

“That’s life.”

We lay around for a while without talking. I stared up above as puffy white clouds came and left, and something in the scene profoundly moved me. At some point I closed my eyes and thought, when we get home, I need to write this all down…

I never got the chance, for by the time we got back to the house, the whole first floor was decked out in party decorations and Katsumi was screaming happy birthday.


Synchronicity (Part 8)

8:03

They stood at the bus stop, silent and still, taking in the sights and sounds of the morning. Mornings were beautiful for some but not for others – that’s how it was for everything. For the two of them, at least, this morning was glorious.

The bus rolled up at 8:03.

“Who is it?” Sarrah asked. “Can’t see.”

Tim peered through the glass. “Oh, it’s her, it’s her…”

The door opened, and the bus driver got out of her seat and came to stand at the entrance.

“Good morning,” the driver said amiably.

“Sure is,” Tim replied with his usual cheer.

The driver fished in her pocket. “Thanks for helping me with that thing the other day… here, let me pay you back.” She extended her arm and dropped a ten dollar bill and a pile of quarters into Tim’s hand.

Sarrah smiled widely. “It was no problem.”

“Come on in.”

The driver returned to her seat. Tim boarded after her and started feeding the quarters into the payment slot; Sarrah wandered off towards the empty rows in the back.

“Here,” she decided aloud. She let down her huge pack next to the window and sat down in the neighboring aisle seat. Tim, when he had finished paying their fare, did the same across from her.

“Air conditioning is glorious,” Tim murmured softly.

Sarrah sighed. “I hope it rains.”

“You were just saying you wished it wouldn’t rain!”

“Yeah, but now we’re on a bus, so now it’s allowed to rain.”

“I don’t think it’s going to rain. There’s no clouds.”

“Whatever. It can still rain.”

Their bantering went on and on, a steady, soft chatter, and anyone witnessing it would have been hard-pressed to believe that there existed anyone happier.

Synchronicity (Part 7)

11:05

Xueying sat down in the second row without even registering that she had boarded the bus. Just another work day, or so it seemed – and the commute by now was nothing but routine. The motions of walking, boarding, and sitting were all performed completely mindlessly. It was only when the ride began that Xueying seemed to snap out of this haze.

Today, she opened her bag and pulled out a book. It was a three-hundred-page coming-of-age novel set in the snowy countryside, and it had been recommended to her by her adult son. Xueying opened to the bookmarked page, settled back, and started to read. She was lucky that motion sickness did not plague her.

As Henry walked along the winding path that led down to the river, he was barely able to see his feet beneath him, buried as they were in the blinding white…

Her son did not often recommend books to her. Xueying was determined to find out why – why this particular book, why now, why to his mother. She would read it from cover to cover, multiple times if she had to. She knew there was some deeper meaning behind it. Her son was wise and sensitive to such things. He would not hand her a book out of the blue without reason.

Just as Xueying was finishing another chapter, her phone buzzed in her pocket. She marked the page, set the book down on her lap, and went to check the message. It was a younger coworker, asking for advice on their current engineering project. Xueying thought about it for a few minutes while staring expressionlessly out the window.

Henry turned around. “You’re late,” he said casually. “Sometimes being prompt isn’t a good thing,” his friend replied. “But you know, if you ever”…

Xueying answered her coworker’s question, put her phone away, and went back to the book.

Thirty or so minutes remained on the commute – there would be plenty of time to finish.

Synchronicity (Part 5)

6:05

She had just run away from the hospital – and no one needed to know.

Working hard to maintain a calm, collected demeanor, Mal boarded the bus, gave the driver a polite “good morning,” paid in coins, and headed for the back. The early bird gets the worm, they say – and Mal got first choice of seating. As she settled for a window seat near the rear door, she looked up and met the driver’s gaze in the rearview mirror for an awkward, uncomfortable second. Then the driver glanced away and merged back into the relatively empty street, and Mal forced herself to relax.

Nothing could give her away, she told herself. There wasn’t anything notable about her appearance that would make her stand out in a crowd. Covered with several layers of long-sleeve shirts and jackets, the scars and tattoos and wrists rubbed raw from hospital bracelets had all but disappeared, and Mal was transformed into a seemingly normal girl. Normal…

She hated that word.

Mal slipped in some headphones – minus the music, just for appearance – and gazed out the window as the bus moved fluidly through the city. Some shops and businesses were just starting to open. A couple of kids were chasing each other down the sidewalk, their mother trailing them still somewhat sleepily. Mal surveyed the storefronts, the pedestrians, the clear glowing sky, the fading lane lines painted on the street, and she couldn’t help but wonder – did she really see the world so differently from other people? So differently that they would lock her up for it?

None of it had ever made sense to her. But if all went well, that didn’t matter. She would ride the bus across the island, get off in some random town, and start a new life, and no one would ever have to know about her past. No one would ever lock doors on her again, not one more time would she have to hear the word crazy being hurled against her throbbing heart. Not one more time would her family leave her to die.

Mal hadn’t been a troublesome child. She had never whined or begged or thrown self-centered tantrums. All she had wanted was love. But apparently even that was too much to ask of certain human beings.

Sitting here now, the only passenger in the bus, blank headphones in her silent ears, Mal felt incredibly tired. But she was also momentarily content – and wasn’t that always the most important thing? To be able to live with yourself? Such an ordinary feat, but so many people lied to themselves about it, or at least so it seemed to Mal. She, for one, didn’t want to have to lie about her own happiness. So much had been taken from her already – it didn’t seem right to waste whatever she had left.

As the two of them were carried steadily to their respective destinations, the young blond-haired driver glanced at Mal in the mirror occasionally – not suspicious or curious glances, but rather motions of consideration and care. Noticing this habit, Mal began to relax in her seat even further.

If she was going to have to spend almost two days on this bus, she was glad most of all to have a human driver.

Taiga (Chapter 10)

I am not a philosopher, nor am I a writer. When I set out to transcribe this story into countless rows of words on a page, I had no intention of crafting a murder mystery or a crime novel. Maybe it seems like it, but that’s not how I felt. As I write I am only trying to understand something that cannot ever be understood – so it may be futile, but I am doing it anyway, so here I go. The section that follows contains all of the interesting facts surrounding Taiga’s death that have stood out to me over time.

In the days that followed, the biggest immediate question was that of suicide or murder. The community jumped to murder. For most people, the idea of Taiga killing himself was a complete impossibility. He was too perfect, too good, had too much going for him – and besides, they’d found me, an infamous good-for-nothing perpetually-drunk party-goer, standing over his dead body. Murder, clearly. Case closed.

But the thing is, I don’t think it was that simple. At this point in my life, if you were to ask me murder or suicide? I’d probably say both. I don’t think there’s such a clear-cut difference between the two. I might say, maybe he killed himself, but even then it’s murder, because society drove him to do it – but is that taking out his agency, his rationality? Is that too quickly framing a potential murderer? We tend to think that all questions must by nature have answers, easily explainable, rational answers. That’s not always the case.

If it was straight-up murder – that is, another person entered the basement, shot him, dropped the gun, and left before I got there – then who did it? It may as well have been me, but it wasn’t. Taiga and Isabella were having roommate problems – so was it Isabella, who upon his death almost instantly disappeared, never to be seen again? Maybe. This was another possibility that it seemed the community had failed to consider. But I honestly don’t think it was her. She was too strong-hearted – by which I mean, if she and Taiga had really been having such a significant issue that couldn’t be solved through words, she would have just moved out and found somewhere else to live. I don’t think she would have snuck into the basement of the library and shot him. To this day I wonder what happened to her, where she went and why. More unanswerable questions. Maybe a third party for whatever reason shot Taiga, kidnapped Isabella, and vanished. Maybe that third party killed her, too, and her body was just never found. But why this, why now? Who was that third party – someone from work, the guy he was dating, the drunk who slashed him across the thigh that one night? Why would they take both of my roommates – and not me? Maybe, after Taiga died, Isabella just up and left completely on her own volition, as part of her own way of processing the event, and she just never came back. I hope that she’s okay. I believe that she is. Perhaps one day in the future she’ll contact me and all these questions will be answered – but I am also equally prepared to accept that I’m just never going to know.

And what if it was suicide? Granted, I have no authority to speak on this subject – but as an outsider looking in, I’ve come to believe that most people driven to commit suicide actually go through with it not because of one singular reason but the buildup of many. I will never be as eloquent as Taiga was, nor do I hope to be – seriously, I haven’t changed that much – but if I really had to say it, I firmly believe in this very real metaphor that Taiga slipped through the cracks. Not by being invisible, but by standing out in a way that made it so nobody paid attention to him. I suspect that too many people, including myself, forgot that Taiga was himself a complex human being, that he had his own life, his own backstory, his own relationships, his own emotions. It took his death for us to remember that.

A lot of bombshells dropped in the weeks following. For one, Taiga Tatekawa wasn’t his real name. His ID was fake; he had a lot of money but nobody knew where from; the questions of how he passed his job interviews and even enrolled in a university, in a time and place where identity is so rigorously scrutinized, may never be answered. And why the fake identity in the first place? But all of this was covered up or overlooked in favor of the Taiga Tatekawa that we had known – or that we thought we had known – and I had no objection. The fact that he had lied about his name, and possibly his family and his history, didn’t make him a bad person. This is another thing his death taught me – people are more complex than we think. We can be simultaneously survivors and victims and perpetrators, and that doesn’t take away from who we are. I, for one, believe that Taiga’s deceit wasn’t out of malice. Maybe he was undocumented. Maybe he was a runaway. Who knows? Does it matter?

It might matter, depending on the paths and possibilities that we are brave enough – or paranoid enough – to entertain. I hadn’t mentioned this before, because it wasn’t important, but all of this happened around the time when our country was going to war. And it wasn’t one of the countless quiet, censored, professional-army wars. The draft was coming, and for once in our nation’s history, it was coming equally. There were no college deferments, no buy-outs, no substitutes, and up to a certain level even politicians were being put in uniform and shipped to boot camp. I couldn’t have cared less about all of this – I had such a bad track record, I was pretty sure I’d either be straight-up rejected or my superiors would get fed up and discharge me within a week – but I think it was scaring Taiga more than any of us knew. He never said a word to me about it, but I suspect he was stressed at the idea of being forced to participate in a war, maybe even being forced to fight, as a pacifist who espoused human love. And if the officials from the War Department one day walked in on one of his lectures and chose his side of the room to enlist, his fake identity would have automatically, unwillingly, come to light. Can our imaginations now even come close to the reality of how he was feeling at the time?

And what about me? I was just one of many. It may not seem like it, given that everything I’ve written has been from my perspective only, but Taiga had a whole line-up of classmates, juniors, and hopeless folks like me that he’d been trying to help. It’s not to underestimate his emotional strength and resilience, but I think that he’d been trying to take care of too many people, shoulder too many burdens on top of his own – and in the end, maybe drowning people, like me, pulled him under. I still remember that night when he’d first written the four characters of his fake, chosen name to show Isabella, and I can’t help but think: standing gracefully in a river, drowning in it. Like the stories of people who walk into the sea and never come back.

It’s easy for people to look at everything I’ve written and say suicide. It’s also easy for people to look at all the evidence and say that I killed him. As survivors, victims, and perpetrators, we are arrogant. We think we could have seen the signs, we think we can understand all the facts, we think we can look into a dead person’s heart and mind and deduce the simple reasons why they killed themselves or why someone else killed them. But after all this time has passed, I have to ask – do any of these questions even matter anymore? Does understanding the circumstances of his death matter more than understanding the circumstances of his life, the people he saved, the people he changed? Accepting the things we will never know is difficult, but hasn’t it always been more productive to focus on the things we actually do know, the memories we have, the emotions that can never be taken away?

When I first sat down to write this tale, I was incredibly determined to kill myself once I’d finished. A satisfactory, understandable conclusion – write my life story, put it in the paper shredder, and then die. But as I reach the closing of this chapter it occurs to me that this work, this stack of several dozen sheets of paper filled top to bottom with my completely unreadable scribbles, is not my life story. It’s someone else’s. At this point, Taiga’s death makes sense, but not mine –

So then what else can I do but go on living?

Taiga (Chapter 9)

It happened on a late Friday night. I remember it vividly because even now the scene still frequents my dreams – not necessarily nightmares, but dreams nonetheless. The moon was a thin crescent sliver, its two points looking as sharp as ever, and the air held that profound crisp cleanliness that is brought only in the wake of great rain. I don’t remember the rain, but I remember the air. I stood outside the library for ten minutes smoking in it.

After those ten minutes I crushed my cigarette beneath my shoe and walked inside. A sleepy-eyed long-haired student was manning the front desk. They raised their head to smile at me, and then lowered it to resume what appeared to be a nap. Behind them I saw the head librarian busily doing paperwork in her office.

Taiga was playing the piano, as usual. The strains of an arranged rock melody filtered up through the floor; I noticed nothing different about it. I wandered about the library – mostly empty, as expected of a Friday night – and headed downstairs. As I turned the corner into the room where I now lived, my eyes took in the familiar sight of my roommate leaned slightly over the keyboard. He glanced at me, nodded in time with the music, and went on playing.

I tossed my backpack onto the couch and crashed next to it, both mentally and physically tired from the day. Not that I had done much of note. I’d attended one of my classes, wandered around town, gotten lost, and hitchhiked back to the university. I guess getting lost was a pretty amazing feat, but other than that, it had been a perfectly average, boring day. I fiddled around on my phone until Taiga was done.

When he finished his piece, he turned on the piano bench to face me. I met his gaze expectantly.

“Have you eaten dinner yet?” he asked.

“No.”

“Let’s go out later. For some real food.”

I nodded. “Okay. Drinks after?”

He considered it. “I know a good place,” he said after a moment. “Should be open.”

I’d learned after the past few months that I’d made a lot of erroneous assumptions about Taiga. At the beginning of the school year, I’d assumed him to be a perfect goody-two-shoes, a shallow and dumb idiot who followed all the rules without thinking, who constantly played the part of the good boy because it made life easier to bear. Of course, I had been wrong. He was a pretty interesting person when it came down to it – and I didn’t know half of it yet.

“When do you want to go eat?” I asked.

“I’m not hungry yet, are you?”

“No.”

“How about in an hour?”

I looked at my phone. “Okay.”

Taiga smiled at me, turned back around, and started a new song. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack, plugged it into the wall charger, and sank into the couch for some pointless downtime. I don’t recall exactly what I was doing – probably browsing Facebook or some other site. It never mattered, anyway. I was just wasting time. Even now it shakes me that I spent some of my very last moments with him in such a manner.

After some twenty or thirty minutes, in a short break in his playing, Taiga turned to me and said, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

I looked up. Depends, I thought, but all I said was “what?”

“Grab a water from the vending machine outside? I’m really thirsty and I don’t think I can wait until dinner.”

Looking back at it now, I’m pretty sure this was a test. At any other point in my life prior, I probably would have replied with something along the lines of, Why can’t you get it yourself? Those words did come to mind in that moment, but I held my tongue and instead nodded, got up, and left for the vending machine. There was nothing deep or philosophical about this decision; it wasn’t like I’d in a flash evaluated everything Taiga had done for me and decided to pay him back with this one small favor of getting him water. Maybe there was something like that going on inside, but on the surface I did it just because. As it was, if it truly had been a test, I passed.

As I was re-entering the library with the water bottle in hand, I heard Taiga downstairs abruptly stop playing. Even the sleepy student at the front desk raised their head at this, surprised – Taiga rarely stopped in the middle of a song. He hated to leave things unfinished. I shrugged it off, rounded the corner from the main entrance into the stacks, and headed for the stairs. A few moments later we all heard the gunshot, echoing through the floor all the way up to the thick wooden rafters and collapsing against the immense light-giving window glass.

I froze in my tracks. I’d already heard enough gunshots in my life; I was hoping for there not to be another.

Though they were blocked from my view by several rows of bookcases, I heard the head librarian poke her head out of her office and hesitantly ask the desk worker, “Was that…?”

“A gun,” I replied to myself. I heard my own voice as though it were someone else’s – perfectly calm and relaxed. Too calm and relaxed. Had I been so traumatized from my youth that the sound of a gun no longer tormented me?

Moving automatically, almost unwillingly, as though in a dream, I went quickly down the stairs and turned into the basement. Taiga was on the floor next to the piano. I could easily lie and paint a picture of the kind you’d see in movies, but I don’t find that useful. A perfectly round bullet hole, a slight trickle of blood, beautiful glassy eyes, as graceful in death as he was in life… disgusting. There was blood everywhere and he looked like a dead man. I put the water bottle on the table and stood there staring at the scene. It took me some time to notice that the gun was still there, laying beside his left hand.

What was there to say? Emotions and feelings don’t hold up in court, and mine would never have matched up anyway. I stood over the dead body of this roommate I’d never once cared to call my friend, and I did nothing. I said nothing. Even when some sense of alarm arose in my failing brain, even when I became aware of eyes on my back and the quiet, horrified voice of the librarian on the phone, I did and said absolutely nothing at all. To this day I’m still not sure that I made the right choice – much less if there had even been any choice for me to make.

The minutes passed like hours, and before long the two university policewomen came and took me away.

Synchronicity (Part 4)

8:18

Waiting silently beneath the dimly lit bus stop, Jayden thought about nothing but suicide.

Not their own – someone else’s. Sitting there, Jayden couldn’t stop this intense focus, this rapidly growing storm inside of them as thoughts and feelings and old conversations and old memories swirled around and around in a violent, painful mass. The reason was simple. Their friend K, of the same age, was studying at a different university halfway across the island, and Jayden was very plainly afraid that K was going to die. Or that she was already dead. She had not responded to their texts and calls for almost a week now – something had to be up. Why Jayden’s mind jumped to the presumption of suicide, they weren’t entirely sure; of course, having lost several loved ones to suicide and living in a country with a rising epidemic of it gave rise to bias, but there could have been a multitude of other reasons for K’s failure to reply. They just weren’t willing to take that chance. Not again.

The bus rolled up right on schedule. Jayden watched and waited as the driver, a familiar young woman with streaky blond hair, opened the rear doors, got out of her seat, and started asking other passengers politely to make way. She lowered the ramp and stepped off the bus onto the trash-laden sidewalk, and Jayden smiled.

“Evening,” the driver said with her usual soft smile.

“Evening, ma’am,” Jayden replied, relinquishing five small coins.

“Want a hand?”

“Please.”

She wheeled them up the ramp and set about strapping their wheelchair to the floor, all the while humming under her breath to the soft radio music. Jayden meanwhile took a quick glance around the interior of the bus. The other passengers paid them no attention.

“Where are you headed?” the driver asked when she was almost done.

“M City,” they replied.

“Same as last time, isn’t it?”

They grinned. “Hey, you remember!”

“Another job interview?”

“Yup.”

It was true – Jayden really was going for a job interview. It was scheduled for the next day at 4pm; they hoped to check on K before then. Nowadays, the applications and interviews seemed to never stop. University tuition was on the rise, and they needed to find a way to pay for it – even though they already were with the added stresses of the job search. This particular company they were currently applying for had already interviewed them once, but wanted them to come in for a secondary interview at their headquarters in M City. Jayden hoped that this was a good sign. Their excitement, however, was tempered by K’s week-long silence. It seemed to be good luck that no matter the reason for their trip, their destination was the same.

“Hey, don’t worry about falling asleep, okay?” the driver said with a friendly smile. “I’ll wake you when we get there.”

“Thank you,” Jayden replied, looking up into her eyes. “I really appreciate it.”

She lifted the ramp, closed the doors, and returned to her seat up front. Before long the bus slid steadily into motion. Jayden breathed deeply. Something in their gut told them that this trip would not be perfect. One outcome would be good, the other would be bad. The question was which would be which. Or the bad outcome could be something else entirely. They weren’t typically given to things such as prophecies and fortune-telling, but any human being one day comes to understand that they are not the center of the universe, that things do not always go their way, that each positive must somehow be balanced with a negative – and Jayden had understood this from a very, very young age.

Riding in silence as the bus moved inevitably toward its destination, Jayden remembered K and closed their eyes.

Synchronicity (Part 3)

9:01

As he climbed aboard the bus, Jiawei nodded politely to the uniformed blond young woman sitting in the driver’s seat. He tapped his public transport card against the machine, waited for the familiar mechanical chirp and a thumbs-up from the driver, and then wandered toward the back to find an empty seat. The other passengers paid him no attention. He accidentally brushed against a teenager in a wheelchair, apologized in a soft tone, and settled next to the window in the far corner. The bus driver, who had been watching him through her rearview mirror, released the brake and merged back into traffic.

His family – what was left of it – had not wanted him to go on this strange adventure of his. But Jiawei knew that for now he could not stay. He was embarking now on an impulsive journey into the countryside with nothing but the clothes on his back and whatever just happened to be in his wallet, and he was determined that he would not return home until he figured out, as a human being with blood on his hands, whether or not he deserved to live. As he had climbed the steps into the bus he had not even been sure he was alive.

Her death had not been his fault – Jiawei knew that. But that did not erase the fact that he had held her in his arms as she died. It should not have been me.

Jiawei gazed out into the darkness of night, hoping to see stars. He found himself disappointed. They were still too close to home, and the city in which he lived was far too industrial, and thus far too polluting, for a clean night sky. He stared out the window at the numerous other cars on the road, at the living buildings leaning against the sidewalk, at the elderly man emerging from a 24-hour convenience store. When he bored of this he stared at the window at the shimmering reflection of himself. He studied his face, his long, messy hair, his wide milk chocolate eyes, and he concluded as usual: terribly average. It made no sense why the gods had chosen him.

Considering what he had been through, it would have been fair for Jiawei to feel any number of emotions. Grief, anger, depression, emptiness, disgust, remorse – even happiness would not have been noteworthy. But he did not experience any of these states. Rather he felt on one level confused and shaken, and on another level simply incredibly lonely. He did not think anyone was capable of understanding what was going on in his mind, in his heart. It was a rare thing, he believed, for humans to know what it feels like to hold each other as they die. Much less to do that holding in the place of someone else… someone who should have been there, but because of him, had not been. Jiawei closed his eyes briefly and focused hard on the act of not remembering.

The bus hummed along beneath and around him, steady and soothing. The passengers rode in silence. As they left the city behind, the driver conscientiously dimmed the lights. Jiawei thought, I have no plan, and laid his head back.

Within moments he had fallen asleep, and the bus drove on without him.