Unveiling the Coffin
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
‘Burnt Norton’, T.S. Eliot
Everyone seemed to have places that they preferred. Tenjou-san, she liked the bright, sunny sports fields, the basketball courts and the track. Juri-sempai had a surprising preference for a bench that overlooked the ocean. He didn’t know why, but he thought it might have been because of an old friend, or perhaps she herself had told him that a long time ago.
He preferred the quiet, shaded places, sheltered and open to people like him, who liked solitude. What he also liked was background noise, the vague babble of whispers or the muffled sounds of people going about their own lives. It was odd, that. It seemed to indicate that he liked being alone, but only in the presence of other people. The library was his favorite of the short list of resting places, it filled all the criteria and had the added advantage of being the repository for the books he so loved to bury himself in.
His sister had used that very term, jokingly, when he’d been ignoring her. It wasn’t such an inaccurate label, he felt sometimes that was truly what he was doing. Reading, or at least reading for pleasure, was often labeled as an ‘escape’ of sorts, and he knew he used that particular one as much as piano playing. It felt like he could bury himself in words sometimes, like the pages were thick wool blankets to cover himself in, as the words pulled him into another part of his mind. Juri-sempai often told him he spent too much of his time in introspection.
It wasn’t that he was particularly thoughtful, or that the thoughts he had were anything amazing or phenomenal. He’d always found it strange that people would ask what he was thinking as if they expected that he compiled astronomical charts in his head for fun. He was silent only because he had nothing to say except through music. He knew, just as there was something inside him that caused him to reject the presence of others, there was also something that made him desire to reach them through his music. The horoscope, the Western one, said Gemini was a sign of duality. Duality seemed like indecision in its formal clothes.
His interest in reading was yet another trait his parents, when they’d been together, had commented on and complimented so much, yet more proof of his gifted status. That all seemed strange to him, and the praise was empty. It wasn’t as though he did anything of importance with the so-called ‘genius’ he presumably had.
True, he could absorb information easily. He could calculate high-level mathematical equations, he could perform all of his projects in chemistry. Possibly even outperform the students a few years his senior, if that was something to be proud of. What he lacked was the creativity and the desire to use the knowledge. For all his high grades and IQ test scores, he was not a creator. He never invented anything and his ideas weren’t original.
The true ‘geniuses’ were his fellow students who spent their time creating hydraulic systems out of ordinary household materials just for fun. Miki would sometimes be present to see their blueprinted plans unfold, and found himself constantly amazed at the intensity of their work and conversation. Where he was content to simply learn more, keeping that knowledge for himself, others were driven to use it, either practically or for the sheer joy of seeing whether their plans were possible. Or if not, how they could be fine-tuned to work.
He adjusted the lamp, moving it so the light spilled over his notebook, and hummed under his breath, one of the formless tunes he’d hum when he was bored or restless. The leaves of paper he was writing on were spread haphazardly across the wooden surface of the desk, uncharacteristically messy for him. It didn’t seem right to have all that chaos lying on the desk, so he pulled the papers into a neat stack in front of him.
The stopwatch blinked eerily at him in the dim lighting, showing him that the time had passed by more quickly than he’d thought. It was very easy for him to get lost in his studies, so to speak. Time was always strange for him, fluctuating and fickle. The very nature of time for people was perception, minutes could feel like hours or hours could feel like minutes. It was fascinating. He’d written an essay on it, once, but disliked it because it wasn’t decisive enough. Just like the hours of the day, flying or creeping by depending on his mood, the words to describe time were impossible for him to grasp.
He broke out of his thoughts as his fingertips touched empty wood where his pen had once been. A quick glance told him that it had rolled under the desk when he’d moved his papers around, the bright silver glint of the cap showed from under the nubbly rug that partially lined the floor. Sighing, he bent down to retrieve it. Expensive pen, a gift from his mother. Who didn’t visit in person any more and was resigned to the dusty memory of letters and ink.
When he sat back up, his eyes met the starched edge of a blue and red uniform shirt. Dispassionate eyes met his, and Miki felt a slight shivery-quick jolt as they seemed to pierce right through him. He’d heard Tenjou-san say that some eyes stared past people, some looked at the surface, and some seemed to look deeper right into someone‘s heart. This person in front of him seemed to look just beneath the skin at the workings below, trying to disassemble the fine system of his conscious. It was that kind of gaze, calculating. No, dissecting. Like he was nothing but an object pinned in black wax for him to piece apart.
“Hello?” he said, the faint flutter of nerves in his voice. “Is there something wrong?” Sometimes Touga looks like that, the thought surfaced out of nowhere.
“No. I was merely wondering if you were Kaoru Miki.” His voice was smooth, almost as colorless as his eyes, a tenor just on the verge of adulthood. Neither deep nor boyish. He smiled, too, polite and unassuming, but his expression remained almost the same. Just his mouth changed.
“Yes, I’m Miki,” he said, somewhat relieved. When people asked for him by name now, it was because they either wanted the services of the Treasurer, or they wanted to ask him about school-related issues, or they were delivering assignments or requests from the staff. This wasn’t nearly as threatening as a stranger looming over his table and stripping away layers of his composure with his eyes. He could deal with another budget request from one of the clubs.
“Interesting,” the word curled around him like smoke. “If it’s not too much trouble, Kaoru-kun, I’d like to take a few minutes of your time. Will you allow me to do so?”
For some reason, it felt as though allowing him to do so would mean something far deeper than the surface intentions of the vague question. He closed his notebook and replaced his pen. “What did you want to discuss with me? And may I ask your name?”
“I’m Mikage Souji.”
The recognition crept like a blossoming vine, it seemed as though it planted itself and exploded outward. For a split-second felt he must have never heard of him before…but that was silly, who hadn’t heard of Mikage? He was reputedly a genius, although Miki didn’t pay very much attention to the label until he met the person himself, charismatic and competent enough to have a measure of control over even high-ranking businessmen. A few students had met with him and commented on his seminar, he’d chosen Ohtori as a place to research. It struck him that he’d never heard of what exactly they were researching. It was always spoken of with near-reverence, the facility was amazing, the progress the seminar was making, the quality of the people there, the formulas, the theory…but nothing cohesive was said. He didn’t know why he found it unsettling. The image of a carnival salesman tugged, just beyond conscious thought. Persuasion and colorful description. Smoke and mirrors. Adults never revealed anything.
“Mikage-san,” he said politely bowing his head, and dismissing his thoughts, “I’m surprised that you want to speak to me. Wouldn’t you prefer to speak to the President of the student council, if you have any business with us?”
“You’re far too modest, Kaoru-kun. You’re correct, if I were to seek business with the council as an entity, I would most certainly direct my questions towards Kiryuu-kun, as the President. However, I supposed that as a fellow scholar and scientist, you’d have something of an academic interest in what we are studying in Nemuro Hall, and would enjoy a tour of the building, if not a position in the seminar itself. My business here is with you specifically, and not with the other members of the council,” he leaned slightly against the desk, “You see, I’m not entirely without my sources, and I’ve heard that you are a promising young student. I should like it very much if you’d think about joining.”
He met him on a balcony in Nemuro Hall, glasses of cold tea sweating condensation between them on a small table. All the furniture was made of hard painted iron, the chairs and the table curled and curved with luxurious detail, but the seat was hard and uncomfortable. He shifted uneasily, trying to find a position that didn‘t leave the metal’s hard edges pressing into his skin.. It made him feel like a child waiting for a reprimand, and that did nothing to ease his tension. In fact, it made him wonder if that was the reason Mikage had chosen those particular seats.
What made it more disconcerting was the fact that Mikage, so far, wasn’t talking. He merely sat at the opposite end of the table, a faint smile curling his lips. It was as if he wanted Miki to say something or react in some way. His intensity hadn’t been at all dulled after their first meeting; in fact, it seemed to have become more focused. Miki disliked the way he was watching him. It wasn’t like he was a specimen this time, it felt subtly different. His status hadn’t changed all that much, it still felt like he was an object…but the purpose of this objectification was different, somehow.
His father made him feel that way when he looked at him, but Mikage wasn’t reminding him of that. That was a different sensation altogether, that he was very small and very far away and very unimportant. It was the kind of look his music teacher gave him sometimes, or the subtle presence Touga had. It was a kind of maturity, a notice of adulthood that he didn’t yet understand. It wasn’t the sedate and calm presence of the teachers, or the self-assured way they spoke. This form of adult behavior seemed somewhat dangerous. Predatory, that was the word. As though there was something they wanted from him that they wouldn’t mind taking without permission.
He cleared his throat nervously. “I don’t want to sound rude, but I’ve got a meeting later on today,” he said, “Would you mind giving me your proposal now, please?”
“It’s best given when not rushed,” Mikage said, and placed his tea glass in front of him. Neither of them had as much as had a sip of their beverages. They sat in small pools of dripped water, the ice melting with a faint cracking sound as the cubes separated. “But I’ll be happy to give you the basic outline.”
Miki sat back in his chair and waited.
Mikage acknowledged his desire to rush the interview with a faint smile. “The first thing you must be aware of is that our seminar isn’t quite like any other you may have attended. It’s open for students who don’t excel academically and students who have little patience with the concentration needed for actual study along with those like you, advanced in the academic field. The qualities one needs to join the Mikage Seminar are limited to force and strength if personality, along with a certain mindset.”
“Then what is it you discuss or research in this seminar of yours?”
"Our study revolves around a particular interest," Mikage said as he set his glass of tea on the table with a sharp click. "Although the members of my seminar are varied and quite diverse- they range from normal students of this school to businessmen with more lofty positions, but they all share a common interest. Each of the members of my Mikage Seminar are fascinated with the concept of 'eternity'."
At that he paused, as if realizing that what he said was too vague and an inadequate explanation for what he was trying to express. "Or, to be specific, they are interested in an aspect of 'eternity'. They all wish to make something eternal."
"That sounds like you're trying to create a perpetual motion machine," he commented suspiciously, and was surprised at the immediate response: Mikage laughed as if he'd said something mildly amusing.
"I've said something funny?" Miki asked, the question coming out sounding more stiffly than he'd intended. He'd been reminded briefly of being five years old and labeled merely 'precocious', and not truly 'genius' yet. The difference between those two labels was wide. When he was younger, he'd try to join in the adult conversation at times, but they hadn't believed him when he said he'd been reading his father's literature and science magazines. The adults would just smile at him as if he was a pet trying to show them a trick, and send him away to play the piano. They'd always attempted to be kind about it, but the smiles were still fresh in his memory. However, now that he was shown to be a prodigy, every word was given respect. It was strange, that the same opinions were given different merit because of a single word.
Mikage waved a hand dismissively, banishing concerns with a curt gesture,” No, the comment brought up an unexpected memory. I apologize. In any case, the project has nothing to do with anything so useful as that. No, it's a rather selfish desire that they want fulfilled."
The way he danced around the subject made him wonder just what they were doing in this building. Something about Mikage's tone as he spoke made it seem as though the seminar was on the bare verge of being some kind of secret society, something to be hushed and kept private and select. He wondered why he'd been so specifically chosen. The sound of grating of iron against the polished marble of the patio tiles made him glance up.
"Come with me," Mikage said.
The hallways were bare of everything save for a dark paneling that separated the upper and lower halves of the walls, running in a straight line down to the huge ending windows, placed at each corner of the building. It was very dim, the lighting apparently entrusted to the windows alone during the daytime hours. Now it was nearing evening, in the grey and watching hours close to sundown. It felt strangely dangerous to be roaming the empty building with Mikage alone as his guide. His mind flickered toward thoughts of the campfire murder stories Kozue told to tease him.
"I must apologize for the current situation with our lighting system," Mikage spoke from the partial shadows ahead, "The building has been recently refinished, and they haven't gotten around to fine-tuning the electricity quite yet. Therefore, we take blown fuses as a matter of course, and always make preparations."
Just as he wondered what sort of preparations they made for it, Mikage paused to open a door, which apparently led to a closet, and withdrew a small, battery-operating camping lantern. It seemed eerily appropriate for the setting, which seemed to beg either for flickering candlelight or dim bulbs. As he closed the door, Miki had the strange sensation that whatever had been behind it had changed. He dismissed the thought. It was most likely because all the doors here looked the same, as if each led to an identical room with identical furnishings, or lack thereof. The disturbing image of multiple Mikages in each room, each with a blank look on their identical faces, filled his mind for an instant before he shook that thought away, too. Clearly it was growing too late.
He flicked the switch on he lantern Mikage had handed to him, illuminating the area in front of him, and continued along down the path that he was setting before them.
“I am sure you know of the definition of eternity, Kaoru-kun.”
His voice was quiet and echoing in the empty halls. “Yes,” he replied absently, “Both sempiternity and eternity proper: existing through the totality of time, in which there is no time where the eternal thing does not exist, and separately, eternity proper, a thing completely outside of time, as time does not touch something eternal.”
“Precisely. Our seminar tries to accomplish another form of eternity- the ability to keep a set moment in a repeating loop for an infinite amount of time. As you say, very much like a perpetual motion machine. It’s a tantalizing concept, is it not? And we may have come very close to achieving this goal. Consider the possibilities.”
“I can’t see how it could come to be possible.” Miki replied, considering the likely prospect that he was just having fun giving him inconceivable theories to consider, “There would be a number of paradoxes.”
“We’ve spent considerable time correcting the minor difficulties in this procedure. You’re correct, there are still some problems we must overcome, but the basic theory seems sound, and we’re quite close to getting effects. What we’ve achieved so far is a kind of bio-stasis, ‘frozen time’. However, this does not allow us to enjoy the benefits of our newly-gained eternity, so this is clearly not an option.” They turned the corridor, the lights dimming as they went deeper into the heart of the building. “I can see you have doubts, which I hope will be sent away by what I will show you. It’s good that you do not believe what I tell you immediately, like a child. It proves that you have a logical mind.”
“Or a suspicious one,” he pointed out.
“Or a suspicious one,” Mikage granted him. They stopped walking. Or rather, Mikage stopped walking. It was such an abrupt movement that he would have run right into him if he hadn’t heard the final ‘click’ of his heels on the floor. The lamplight flickered uneasily, as if it too was confused about the maneuver.
“What happened?” he asked uneasily. By this time, the building had gone completely dark, and the light that shone from their battery-operated lanterns illuminated a surprisingly small area. It was as though the hallways had somehow grown wider as they’d traveled, opening up to be as wide as a stretch of highway. Panels of neat, black glass shone mirrored reflections of them, ghostly images lit up in patches of harsh white light. Those were the windows; the walls were only flat, opaque stretches of shadow.
“Nothing. We have reached our destination.”
Miki reached a hand out to touch the wall, but his fingers met only the slightly raised and grooved surface of the dividing strip of wood. “But there’s no door here,” he said, feeling somewhat dense even as the words left his mouth. He’d only assumed that the place he’d been being led to was a separate room. After all, the building seemed to contain so many.
He couldn’t see Mikage’s expression, but from the tone of his voice he could guess that he was smiling. “No, this is a mere wall, Kaoru-kun. I didn’t bring you here to explore the interiors of any of the rooms, at least not at this moment, though we shall do so directly. I simply wanted you to observe the pictures hanging here,” at this, he brought the lantern and its light closer to the wall, clearly illuminating what was on it. Plain, wooden frames gleamed in the faint glow, the glass reflecting fractured pieces of the light. In each frame, a picture of a boy dressed in the standard Ohtori male uniform looked out solemnly, almost emotionlessly, and below each photograph was an identification number. The wall was lined with the pictures, putting them in neat rows. It was almost like a graveyard of portraits.
He inspected them for a few minutes, observing the old black and white photography and the somewhat faded appearance of the pictures. “Who are they?” he asked.
“They were once students here. Each of them were accepted to this school under a contract, to research and develop something known as the Eternity Project, which was started and led by Professor Nemuro. I’m sure you know of him, and what befell his team of students. Yes, these are the one hundred boys that worked and died in order to bring their ideal to life.”
As Mikage spoke, Miki thought he felt a strange pressure, a slight current of air brush past him. He thought he heard the faint sound of rattling, echoing and metallic, bones clattering on tile. As the sound drew closer, he thought he could identify it as the sound of a cart, a metal gurney, rolling across the floor.
“Although the students and the professor died in the fire, Professor Nemuro’s research survived. I, and my seminar, carry on his work, although often I wonder about these children that you see on the walls. It is not widely accepted in conventional science, the concept of spirits of the dead. Spiritual matters at all are left to that bastard branch, parascience, which is held in even less esteem than the social sciences, scoffed at as mere illusions or delusions of the mind. I must confess, however, that I believe these students still to be present, and still looking for their own individual desires.”
Fragmented shapes moved in the darkness, and he could make out the figures of men and the harsh contours of the carts they pushed. On each cart, something blocky and pale lay, and the shapes were as featureless and fleeting as shadows cast by flickering candlelight.
“What is your opinion, Kaoru-kun? Do you believe that there are indeed spirits haunting this building of mine?”
He turned his head slowly, unable to bring his gaze away from the phantoms already there in the hall. “I’ve never believed in ghosts,” he said.
“Really? We shall have to do something about that.”
The voice was high and clear, and distinctly not Mikage’s. He jumped and whirled fully around to face whoever had spoken.
“Don’t you know that every time you say you don’t believe in ghosts, a poor little ghost somewhere falls down dead?” The eyes struck him first; they seemed as separate from the boy’s face as the grin on a Cheshire cat. As the child emerged from the hallway, from the woodwork it seemed, he gained definition enough for Miki to see his lips curve upward in a wry smile that seemed too mature for the face it was on. “It’s very cruel of you to deny their existence so. They may be the very essence of what we know as eternal, for they have managed to extend what they were even past natural demise.”
“This is Mamiya,” Mikage introduced, as if anticipating the nervous question on Miki’s lips. “He works with me. He is what you might call my protégé. He’s also our prototype, at least an imperfect one, for our brand of immortality. We intend to complete our work in the near future.”
“The path before us has been prepared,” Mamiya said. He sounded as though he was quoting someone.
He’d backed up without really being conscious of it. His body seemed to be repelled by the strangeness of it all. “What sort of place is this?” he asked, already aware that the answer would either be ungiven or unable for him to comprehend.
They both smiled equally strange, unreadable smiles. Those smiles had the look of a thing shattered and put together hastily, unsure of itself and its purpose. Mikage made a gesture like a conjurer summoning doves from a hat, and a cart wheeled itself into the light. From the shadows, it looked like someone was there steering it, but on the handlebar of the cart, where the light shone, there were no hands. On the cart was a coffin, large and old-looking, and made of carved and polished granite. The school insignia shone on the end facing him. Something inside shook, rattling against the sides of its prison, and then the lid slowly began to slide open.
He found that he couldn’t move a muscle. It wasn’t as though he was really and truly terrified, or so he thought. It was like the sheer enormity of the strangeness, the eerie setting, the frightening people in front of him, all of it was too much to take in at once. He felt it sinking in as slowly as a shovel edge through frozen ground, every logical portion of his brain screaming at him in denial. Gaze frozen to the lid of the coffin, he simply stood and stared as his mouth worked silently, making wordless protests.
The heavy stone lid clattered to the floor.
The inside of the coffin was dark, shrouded in shadow. He couldn’t even see the vague formlessness of shapes within it. It was so much closer than he had been a minute before; it was as though the cart had flashed forward while he blinked. Mamiya ran his hand along the edge of it, sensuously, and smiled at him. “Are you prepared to experience eternity, Miki-kun?” he asked in a low, soft tone.
And Mikage pushed, and he tumbled through the darkness within it.
“I want a milkshake,” she pleaded childishly, smiling at him.
The garden was brighter than usual, full of vivid colors and swollen with the plenty of spring. Flowers bloomed in their beds, swaying in the breeze and perfuming the air with their scent. The trees sent dappled shadows on everything, making their improvised piano hall full of green coolness and the mellow scent of bark, loam, and leaves. Tinkling piano music swelled and halted as Kozue turned on her polished piano seat and turned laughing eyes on him.
Miki turned as though he was on strings, and the machine on the side table whirred to a stop just as his fingers touched it. It was vanilla, his favorite. “Are you sure? Mother says not to ruin our appetites.”
“Don’t be silly, Miki.” Kozue softly started to play again, each note perfect and crystal-sweet, the sound he’d missed for years. He wrapped his fingers around Kozue’s cup, pink-lined glass shaped like a flower bud, and slowly poured.
“Is that what you wanted, Miki?” she asked.
Smoky-sweet perfume this time, and the texture of smooth cotton and even smoother and silkier skin. She slipped her legs around him and moved. Her hair stuck to her face with damp, and he brushed it from her face, feeling motion like waves embrace him and move him like the sea.
Piano music played somewhere in the distance. “Yes,” he said in a breath.
They were standing in front of an audience after their concert, a long series of musical pieces that brought his soul somewhere close to heaven. He’d recovered from his fever to see her next to his bed, flowers in her hands, blue roses. Together they had practiced a new song, a continuation of ‘The Sunlit Garden’, a piece that transcended his talent, that eclipsed his own skills. He turned to smile at her and she took his hand.
A dark-skinned girl in the audience handed him blue roses, smiling.
“Yes," he was saying as pleasure rushed through him like a storm.
He handed her the milkshake and she drank it. “Was it too sweet?” he asked her. She looked up at him, eyes changing from blue to patchwork blue-green. Her skin darkened to brown as the cup left her lips.
“No,” she said, “Not at all.”
He looked down and saw his sister’s face, her eyes shut, her face flushed.
“No! No! I don’t want this!” he cried, and the garden smashed into a million pieces and melted away like rain. The piano music died out in a long, tinkling whisper, and he started to run through what he could see behind it all. A long, dark hallway, full of doors. It seemed to stretch out into a horizon he couldn’t reach, even if he were to run for a year without stopping.
“A sideways eight.” Mikage said, stepping out from behind a door. “The hallway was designed that way.” His eyes were dead and staring. He wore a purple lab coat and black slacks, and rose-colored glasses gave his eyes and alien appearance. “Keep running. I tried.”
The doors rumbled fiercely, each shaking as though something inside was desperately trying to escape. Miki turned to look behind him, and when he looked back, Mikage was gone. The doors down the hallway rattled in their hinges, but the one Mikage had emerged from was quiet, almost pensively so. He slowly backed away, and continued running, breathing heavily, a stitch in his side as the repetitive scenery flashed by behind him. As he continued, on and on, for an eternity, he noticed the doors were shaped like coffins. He was in a building of dead boys.
“Come, big brother,” Kozue said from behind him. “Come back to the garden.” She was holding a coffin lid, and her face was a five year old’s, her body a thirteen year old’s. “I’ll play you the piano.”
And 'The Sunlit Garden' played through the bright gap in the wall.
“There, it appears that the electrician fixed the fusebox once again.”
Miki blinked. “What?” he asked vaguely.
“The light in my office is on again,” Mikage said, looking over Miki’s shoulder at something. “It’s a newly refinished building, and so we’re having a few technical difficulties with the lighting and the electricity. Fortunately, that seems to be the extent of our problems. Kaoru-kun, you look somewhat pale. Do you feel sick? If so, we can conclude the conversation.”
“No, I just felt like I’d forgotten something,” he replied, closing his eyes in frustration. For a moment, he’d had a creeping, unsettling sensation, like he’d eaten something rotten, and the intense feeling that something pivotal had happened. Then, like a flash, it disappeared. “I guess its déjŕ vu,” he said jokingly, trying not to let any of his uneasiness show. He looked at the near-empty glass of iced tea on the table in front of him as if it would somehow answer his questions.
“I see. Your student council duties must keep you busy, Kaoru-kun. I wouldn’t want to impose on any more of your time. But please keep my offer in mind if you can, I’d appreciate a scholar of your caliber in my seminar. I’m sure you’d be interested in our studies.”
“Oh, yes.” Miki replied, a sort of mental fog unwrapping from his brain. He hadn’t zoned out from a conversation since he was a child. Usually, he paid careful attention to everything, in case important information came up in an unlikely place. Often, it did happen. He must have been more tired than he realized, if he was both daydreaming and forgetting his daydreams. Even if they were just whimsy, he hated forgetting anything. “I’ll get back to you tomorrow with my decision.”
He dreamt that night, of dark boys and darker smiles, and a place where time didn’t exist. In his dream, there was building full of rooms, each room containing a world frozen in time. The occupants of the rooms looked at him with blank smiles and dull eyes. Their places were as lifeless as they were.
When Miki returned to Nemuro Hall, he felt nervous and strange. He had thought for a long time about the proposition, and it had been a difficult decision to make, but he finally told Mikage-san that he didn’t feel worthy or able to attend the seminar, though it was an honor to be chosen to attend.
He wondered, when he left, why it seemed as though Mikage had looked as though he’d known the answer would be no the whole time.