A ball bounces out into the street, bright orange and patterned with neon cartoony flowers. A little girl runs out after it, her dark curls flying. She isn’t paying attention to anything else with the unique tunnel vision that children have: all that matters is her ball, and that it’s gotten away from her.
Too late, though, she hears the sudden wail of tires. When she looks up, she sees a car skidding desperately to the left to avoid her. For a moment, as it screeches by, she sees a boy, about her age, staring through the window back at her. His mouth moves, but she can’t hear a word he says.
The car slams into a lamp post and the doors pop open. The boy goes flying in a neat arc over her head; she can only watch, hands pressed to her mouth, ball forgotten.
The sound he makes when he hits the ground is one she’ll remember for the rest of her life, even when she forgets.
Watanuki hurts. His vision is hazed over in red, and if he tries to concentrate, everything goes even more blurry. Mama, he wants to say, Mama, where are you? Where have you gone? Mama–
There’s a girl sobbing. She’s saying things he can’t quite make out, because she’s sobbing too hard to make sense. The sound makes something in his stomach twist a little: another little added pain to everything else. He wants to tell her to stop, he’s fine, it doesn’t hurt that much (though it’s a lie)–please don’t cry, he hates it when anyone cries …
Sirens pick up in the distance. Watanuki closes his eyes.
“I have a wish,” the girl says.
“And I,” Yuuko replies, “have the means to grant it.”
Sometimes Himawari thinks her name must be a joke more than anything else. Sunflowers are bright things and attracted to bright things in turn, symbols of light and warmth and summer. Without the sun, they wither away and die. That’s their nature, inevitable and unchangeable. Her parents couldn’t have known, when she was born–but names have meanings, and she doesn’t think a family as superstitious as hers would have left something like that to chance.
It’s a joke. It has to be.
“You’re asking for something very great indeed,” Yuuko says, exhaling thick, sweet-smelling white smoke. She reaches out and tips the girl’s chin up with one long finger. “The price will be equally steep. Are you prepared?”
“I am,” says the girl. “No matter what, I want this wish granted.”
There were others, ones that she didn’t tell Watanuki about in that small dark room, with its paper walls and its heavy clouds of incense. The first boy who ever confessed to liking her, cute and smart and earnest enough to make her heart flutter had been hit by a car after she’d allowed him to kiss her for the first time. Years later, she still visits him in the hospital sometimes on the dull tired hope that he might someday wake up. A kitten she’d picked up and brought home out of the rain, who’d strangled itself on the ribbon she’d tied around its neck.
And there are others. There are so many she knows she could drown in them.
“No matter how hard you run, you won’t be able to escape it entirely.” Yuuko brushed her thumb carefully over the girl’s cheekbone, almost gentle. “Those who summon misfortune always find that it will follow them. Anywhere. Everywhere. That, too, is inevitable.”
The girl trembles just a little. “I don’t mind,” she whispers. “I don’t care what happens to me, as long as that person is all right …”
“You might come to regret that, in time.” Yuuko lets go of her face and steps back. In the hazy moving shadows of the shop, she looks like a creature of stone and smoke and illusions. The girl blinks, but the impression never quite fades away. “However, if your heart is set … let’s begin.”
“Do you believe in other worlds, Himawari-chan?” Watanuki asks her one afternoon. His eyes are fixed on the bento that is open in his lap, but they’re distant, like he’s lost in something far, far away.”
She pauses with the chopsticks half raised to her lips. Something cold unfurls just under her breastbone and a shiver furls through her, despite the heat of the sun overhead. “Watanuki-kun?”
“Ah, no, never mind!” He snaps back to the present suddenly, flapping a hand wildly. “I was just daydreaming, don’t worry about it!”
“You’re so strange,” she says with a laugh, but the cold in her gut never quite goes away.
“He won’t thank you for this,” Yuuko says, as the magic circle flares to life under their feet. “No one will.”
The girl smiles and clasps her hands over her breast. She bows her head. “Even so, I’m fine.”
Really, her name must be a joke. Sunflowers are so very bright, and Himawari lives in such a dark, dark place. There are more things that she’s forgotten than she cares to consider, but she can’t help but be grateful for it. Some things are better off forgotten. She knows this as truly as she knows her own name.
“Ah, Doumeki-kun!” she chirps. “I have to run to a piano lesson, but Watanuki-kun’s still back in the classroom. I think he’s a bit lonely, won’t you walk him home?”
Doumeki blinks at her slowly. Himawari’s fond of him in her own way–he’s a good man, in a way very few are in this day and age; there is a quality at the core of him that cannot be merely imitated or pretended. Something inside of her is uncomfortable to just be in the same room, and so, perversely, she seeks him out when she can: the angry thing that mutters at the back of her mind is nothing she loves. It will never leave her, but at least she can make it as miserable as it makes her.
As long as he’s there, she knows, nothing too horrible will ever happen. How could she be anything but grateful for that?
“Right,” he says. “I’ll go. Be careful.”
“Of course,” she says brightly. When he gives her an unreadable look, she waves at him and hurries off to be sick.
“Yuuko,” Mokona says softly.
Yuuko leans back in her chair, turning the small jet-black pearl in her fingers slowly. Though all the lamps in the room are lit, nothing reflects through the stone, or off its dark surface: it seems to suck the light in, instead, insatiable as only the unliving can be.
“This too, was inevitable,” she says softly. “Kunogi Himawari has her own role in shaping Watanuki’s life. Whether or not she remembers what that is–” Her fingers close abruptly around the pearl, then open, revealing an open palm. “Unnecessary.”
Mokona hops up onto the couch next to her and snuggles into her hip. Yuuko holds her outstretched hand up, and studies the shadows it makes on the ceiling overhead.