The only person who came to Daiki’s deathbed was a stranger, a woman with almond-shaped eyes, cherry-red lips, and dyed chestnut hair. She could’ve been a model or an actress. Or based on her youthful appearance, his daughter.
“How are you feeling?” the woman asked, sitting in the armchair next to his bed. Her pencil skirt made him wonder whether she’d come straight from work.
“Dead,” Daiki replied, his voice faint and nasal due to the oxygen cannula.
She chuckled, guiltily cupping her mouth. “Funny even on your deathbed. You’re hopeless.”
“You talk like you know me.”
“I’m Aiko, remember?” she said in a cheerful, almost teasing manner. “You have a very bad memory.”
Daiki did indeed. So much so that sometimes he forgot how old he was, how cold he was, or that he’d forgotten something. “Refresh my memory with a memory.”
Aiko lifted his shriveled hand from the blanket and caressed it. “Remember when I was little? When I was crazy about baseball? I asked you if we could go to the park to play catch. You accepted with a smile. I was smiling too — but not for long. As soon as we arrived, I realized that only fathers and sons were playing. I was about to cry and tell you I wanted to go back home when you crouched beside me and said, ‘I bet they’ll be jealous. I’m the only dad who gets to play with his daughter.’”
“I don’t remember that … but it’s a nice memory.” Speaking was becoming harder. And thinking. Perhaps he was about to fall asleep?
“It’s nice because you’re a nice dad,” Aiko’s said with a proud smile. “Want me to share another memory?”
He nodded, feeling strange about having someone calling him dad. “I wish this could go on forever … but nothing is forever, right? Especially life.”
“I can’t stay here forever, but I’ll do it as long as I can.” She cradled her chin in her hand. Then, as if a divine revelation had come upon her, she gasped and said, “Remember when I had my first period? You panicked and hurried to 7-Eleven to buy me pads. When you returned, you gave me one and guided me into the toilet — while you stayed outside, reading the how-to-use instructions to me. It didn’t go well. We even argued about some of the steps.” She chuckled. “That was both the most embarrassing and funniest day of my life.”
Daiki laughed too, then had a fit of cough that almost made him vomit. When Aiko leaned over to help him, he lifted his IV-injected hand and said, “Please don’t mind me … Continue.”
With a hesitant nod, she eased back in the chair. “Remember Haruki? My first boyfriend? I came home crying after breaking up with him, and you didn’t stop pestering me until I screamed out what had happened. Then you remained silent. When I stopped sobbing, you put on your best suit and invited me to a father-daughter date. I thought you were crazy — but madness was better than pain. So I said yes. And you took me to the most expensive sushi restaurant you knew. There we ate crazily delicious nigiri and sashimi, and drank cup after cup of sake.” She paused, her eyes turning dreamy. “I realized then that Haruki couldn’t compare to you. That my dad would always be my first love.”
Daiki wiped warm tears with his jittery fingers. Why was he crying over a memory he didn’t recall?
“Hey, don’t cry.” Aiko patted his tear-soaked hand. “I’m here to make you happy, not sad.”
“Don’t worry … you’re doing … a great job.”
Or I should say, you’ve done was Daiki’s final thought before he hurtled down a dark, endless spiral, while a voice echoed around that blackness. No longer was it the voice of a stranger.
“Dad?” Aiko called, pushing up from the chair.
With a continuous beep in the background, the doctor and nurses rushed into the room, baring Daiki’s chest and applying electric shocks.
Please don’t die! she wanted to scream but decided against making a scene. Instead, she slipped out of the room, then the hospital.
When she arrived at the Shinjuku shopping area, she ventured into a bar and ordered a Bloody Mary and a Zombie. Once her body and mind were anesthetized, she resumed her way along the sunset-painted streets.
Back at the offices of I Love You, Goodbye — a rental family service for people who didn’t want to die alone — she slumped onto the white sofa and sighed heavily.
“How did it go?” Kojima asked from behind the desk.
“The man passed away peacefully,” said Aiko, whose real name was Ayako. “Can’t say I’m at ease, though.”
“You should be used to it by now.”
“Yeah, I should.” She reminisced about Tanaka, who’d wanted to spend his last moment with his ex-wife. About Okada, whose deathbed wish had been to say “I love you” to her estranged sister. About Suzuki, a man who didn’t care who was next to him before he died, as long as he didn’t die alone. They had all touched her heart. However, Daiki had gripped it. Not only because his script — which he’d asked her to follow — had been very moving, but also because she’d spent a lot of time by his side — talking with him, laughing with him, sharing fictional memories with him.
However, at the end of the day, at the end of Daiki’s life, everything had been fake. She was never his real daughter.
Ayako stood up from the sofa to resume work. To resume her life.
By the way, I’m writing a novel. If you want to know when it’ll be released, click here.