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Chapter 6: Homecoming
-‘She’ is Waiting for You-
That big grey structure beyond the majestic forest is the wall of the country where I spent the first 15 years of my life.
A clear stream cuts a path through the woods, and in that gap I can clearly make out the watchtower at the top of the ramparts.
It’s been five years since I saw it last. And nothing has changed. I’m gazing at the wall. It’s hard to believe I’m actually awake.
My things are heavy, but I heft them once again and walk slowly down the stream. To home.
It’s so close. I’ll be at the gates before evening.
I have no father. He passed away before I was born. Mother supported us by making and selling jam. Everyone loved her jam, so I was fortunate to have never experienced poverty.
My homeland was peaceful, but I always found it very dull.
Year in, year out, we would do the same work on the farm. Mother would boil fruit every day; another symbol of my repetitive life.
By the time I was 11 or 12, I began to seriously dream of becoming an adventurer. Of leaving my country to see the world, every day filled with excitement and new discoveries.
My dreams grew and grew. On my 15th birthday, I finally made my decision.
Naturally, Mother was against it.
“Why don’t you understand? People from this country are best off staying here.”
But I did not listen to her. I did feel apologetic—Mother had raised me alone all this time, after all—but I was more interested in chasing my dreams.
One other person tried to stop me from leaving.
She was five years younger that me. When I was 10, she lost her parents. Mother decided to adopt Toto because she was a friend of Toto’s parents.
Toto was a quiet, introverted girl. She seemed to have trouble talking with others, always avoiding people and not even going to school.
At some point, though, she began learning jam-making from Mother. Toto improved in the blink of an eye, always helping Mother with her work.
“Toto is so much better with her hands than you are, Schwarz. After I die, Toto can take over my recipes and the store, and you can take care of Toto and the store,” Mother would joke, a burden lifted from her shoulders by Toto’s presence.
Eventually, Toto grew used to me as well. We would play together when we didn’t have anything to help out with.
Our favorite game was playing water pistols. I would wait for her with my water pistol fully loaded, and rush out, shouting, “Look out, here I come!”
If I managed to hit her, I would win. If she managed to dodge, Toto would win.
I was always the winner at first. I would shoot, and Toto would get drenched. But eventually, she began to figure out where I was lying in wait and avoided my attacks before I could even leap out. Toto would always laugh, watching me trying and failing to get to her.
“Nothing’s going to change your mind, Schwarz? I wish you wouldn’t leave. I wish you would stay here with us forever.”
I wavered even more than I did with Mother. Toto was looking into my eyes.
Back then, I think I must have loved her. The girl who was always with me.
But I followed through with my decision. On the morning of my 15th birthday, I left the country. I tried not to think about the things I left behind. About Mother. And especially Toto.
“You’ll come back someday, Schwarz,” Toto said at the end. “I’ll wait here for you forever.”
I left the country and began my journey, but nothing worked out the way I wanted it to. My vague dreams of excitement and discovery were shattered.
The first country I visited was in the middle of a terrible drought. Farming their arid lands was the only work I could get. But I stayed there for an entire year to finance my travels.
The second country was recruiting mercenaries in preparation for war. I enlisted, swelling at the idea of being a war hero, but all they made me do was carry things around. And the war never happened, in the end. They paid me a humble fee and told me I was no longer needed.
The third country was caught up in a gemstone rush. I joined in, just as excited as the locals, but all I could do with my complete lack of knowledge and technique was run odd jobs for the miners. Even if I discovered ore, it was not mine to keep. I quit my job the next spring and left the country.
In the final country, I worked as a prison guard. I thought I was lucky to stumble upon the open position, but it turned out to be tedious work. The prisoners were well-behaved. Not one thought about escaping. Bored to tears, I found my chance and fled. It might have been the first time for them that a guard decided to escape the prison.
After that, I wandered from one place to another. I could not stay long in one country, and none of the excitement I craved ever happened. I exhausted myself every day, searching for food in the forests and rivers.
It was after half a year of that life that I decided to go back home.
I had to walk a long way from my first glimpse of the wall, but now it is twice as high in my line of sight as it was back then. Suddenly, I hear splashing.
The overgrown grass is in the way, but I can hear sprays of water ahead of me. I pull out my revolver and peer at the river from a distance.
A human. A girl on the opposite bank, washing her hair in nothing but her underclothes. She’s about 15 years old, skinny with short black hair.
She hasn’t noticed me. I look on with conflicting emotions.
It’s painful to acknowledge that I was wrong.
Wandering from one country to the next, I realized that leaving my homeland for a fool’s dream was the wrong thing to do. But I never wanted to admit it.
But looking at Toto now, I find myself with a bitter laugh on my lips. I can now admit it easily. I admit that I was an utter idiot. That Toto and Mother were right.
People in every country live the lives they were born into, finding happiness and meaning in their day-to-day activities. A kind of life I once thought too ordinary and dull, but now I see it differently.
That is the life I want. Making and selling jam with Toto every day. A normal life where everything is ordinary and unspecial. And if the past five years of traveling were what it took for me to learn this lesson, maybe it was worth it after all.
I have several things I want to do.
The first thing is to apologize to Mother and Toto for worrying them.
I need to take jam-making much more seriously now too. Toto must be working hard every day just like Mother, doing everything she can to preserve the flavor. And I want to be there to take care of her.
I want to bake new bricks to fix up our old house. I’ll have to chop firewood every day, too.
But before all of that, I wan to tell Toto that I’m finally back, in one piece.
I empty out my revolver. All nine rounds in the cylinder and the slug in the middle, too. I put the rounds in my pocket. Then I creep forward through the grass to make sure Toto doesn’t notice me.
Toto has finished her bath; she turns her back to put on her clothes. I take aim at her from the opposite shore and rush out into the open. I know exactly what I’m going to say: ‘Look out, here I come!’
“Look out! Here—”
It feels like someone has kicked me in the chest. Toto turns, her right hand outstretched. For some reason, it’s wrapped up in white smoke. I can’t hear anything.
Everything goes dark.
What’s happening? I can’t see
The second Kino pulled her hand persuader from the holster under her pile of clothes, she turned and fired. She had chosen Cannon, the large-caliber revolver with an octagonal barrel.
The shot pierced the man’s chest and destroyed his heart. The second shot went through his mouth and lodged itself in his brain.
Two gunshots filled the woods. The second shot was fired so quickly that it almost blended into the first. Birds rushed into the air, spooked.
The man died with his aim still on Kino. His body landed in the river with a loud splash.
Kino wiped herself down and put on her clothes. Her pants, her boots, her white shirt, and her long black vest. She wrapped her belt around her waist and tied Cannon’s holster on her right thigh.
Standing in the grass next to the water’s edge was a motorrad laden with travel gear.
“Are you okay, Kino?” he asked loudly.
“Yeah. I got him before he could get me,” Kino called back.
“That’s good to hear.”
Kino went up to the motorrad. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Hermes.”
“Was that a bandit?” Hermes wondered. “He couldn’t be alone, then.”
“I thought he was just a peeping tom at first. I was surprised when he leapt out with a gun.”
“Anyway,” said Hermes. “We’re kind of weird for being here too, but I wonder what this guy was doing here?”
“Maybe he was on his way to the country,” Kino replied, looking over at the grey wall.
“For what, though? There’s nothing but bones and skulls in there.”
Kino nodded. “Yeah.”
“Some countries can be so pointless to visit,” Hermes said nonchalantly. Kino took out a small wooden box from the compartment on his rear wheel.
“Yeah. That’s what happens when a pandemic strikes.”
“No survivors, huh?”
“None. It must have been at least two years.”
“Huh.” Hermes paused. “Oh, I know! Kino, I bet that man was a grave robber. Some sort of scavenger going after the treasures left behind in a ruined country! Maybe he attacked because he thought you were a rival.”
“Maybe. Or maybe not,” Kino replied. She took out a vial of gunfluid and two extra rounds from the wooden box, and loaded Cannon.
Then, she closed the box and took out a small mirror. Kino scrutinized her own face and fingered her bangs.
“Maybe it’s a little short. What do you think, Hermes?”
“I think it’s okay,” Hermes said, disinterested. Kino put the mirror back.
Putting on her hat and goggles, Kino started Hermes’ engine.
“Let’s get going. Preferably to a country with living people this time. And a safe one would be even better.”
“All right. Let’s go.”
The motorrad disappeared into the woods.
The man’s body drifted down the river.