Kichiro wakes up, and the first thing he notices is a discomfort in his pinky finger. He lazily brings his hand to his face. He can't believe what he sees. There's a red thread tied around his finger.
"I must be dreaming," he thinks and pinches his cheek.
He rubs his eyes. A faint light from the window illuminates the room. He wonders about the time and searches for his phone next to the futon: it's seven in the morning. He leaves it aside, sits up, and focuses his attention on the mysterious thread around his finger.
He stares at it for a few seconds, unsure of what's happening. Is this a dream? It feels too real to be one. A prank? Impossible - he's an only child, and his parents aren't the type to play pranks. Ever. He closes his eyes for a few seconds and then reopens them.
The thread is still there.
Next to his phone are his glasses; he picks them up and puts them on. The thread doesn't disappear. Kichiro notices that the thread extends along the floor and disappears beneath the door.
He has no choice but to accept that what he's seeing is real.
He tries to untie it but pinches his skin. He tries again, but it's useless; he can't hold it. He thinks about cutting it in one go, but to his astonishment, the thread passes through his hand as if it were a spirit.
Or a hallucination.
His phone alarm goes off.
Kichiro gets up. He doesn't have time for imaginary threads. He needs to get ready. It's the first of April, the beginning of his senior year. He rolls up the futon, puts it away in the closet, and takes out his school uniform to get dressed.
His stomach churns. Even if he doesn't want to admit it, the thread reminds him that he hasn't known love in his entire life. This leads him to recall the story he was told as a child about the emperor, the witch, and the red thread that connects people. Maybe, as incredible as it seems, he's going through something similar... He brushes aside these thoughts and dismisses them as mere legends.
He opens the sliding door and leaves the room.
He goes downstairs barefoot. He's alone, as always. An hour ago, his parents left for the train to go to work. In the living room, a pair of attentive ears welcome him. The cat, upon seeing that it's him and not his mother, licks its tail, short like a rabbit's, and settles back on the table. The thread winds its way along the tatami to the house's entrance.
Kichiro prepares to go to the kitchen for breakfast but stops. He looks at the loop on his pinky, unable to avoid the flood of thoughts that fill his mind.
"What if this isn't a hallucination?"
If the thread and the legend are real, it means that his soulmate is on the other end. It's absurd. But what if it's not...
Kichiro is consumed by uncertainty.
On one hand, he could follow the thread to try to discover the person at the other end. On the other hand, he must go to school. It's an important year. His parents always advise him to focus on his future and not waste time. But finding true love is an opportunity that few have. Thinking about his parents, he doesn't want to end up like them; they are never around, and when they are, they don't seem happy. He could swear he has never seen them smile at each other.
He pulls his hair and makes a decision.
Kichiro turns around and heads determinedly toward the door. He can have breakfast at school. He sits on the genkan step, puts on his shoes, feels the morning chill on his skin, and puts on a jacket. He hangs the backpack on his back and grasps the doorknob.
He hesitates to turn it.
Memories swirl in his mind like a typhoon. The same six words, over and over. The same words that got stuck in his throat while cleaning the classroom, that he deleted from his phone so many times before sending them, that he burned in countless letters.
"I like you, please go out with me."
He opens the door to follow the thread and whatever awaits him.
He follows it with his gaze; it continues on the other side of the street and turns right at the corner. Kichiro crosses the street. With each exhale, he can see his breath. He realizes he left without washing his face or brushing his teeth. He turns to go back but knows he only has forty minutes to investigate the thread's path; his personal hygiene will have to wait. He notices something when he looks back. He hasn't left yards of thread in his wake. The red thread stretches to infinity but also shrinks as it moves toward its destination.
There is little movement in the streets; the adults have already gone to work, and it's too early for the children to go to school. The sky is clear, and the scent of flowers hangs in the air. It's a fantastic day to fall in love. His cheeks flush, and he quickens his pace. He walks with his head down, following the thread at his feet and with his hands gripping the backpack straps.
The thread disappears under a woman's shoe.
His heart races. His head feels heavy as a solid rock. He finds her so quickly that he can't believe it. His hands get sweaty, and he can't move. He hates his cowardice.
He forces himself to look up.
Slowly but surely, he manages it.
And he sees her.
Deep wrinkles trace her face.
Kichiro feels his stomach drop. His other half is an old woman. The woman, with gray hair, gazes at him and bows respectfully. With shaky steps, assisted by a cane, she crosses a small garden in front of a house.
Kichiro opens his mouth, but the words evaporate into the air. The old woman disappears inside. Tears gather at the corners of his eyes. He can't delude himself; he had hoped. He looks down, defeated.
And then he discovers it again.
The thread doesn't enter the garden. It continues its zigzag path along the sidewalk.
Kichiro's spirit returns, and he laughs at his foolishness.
The unexpected opens his mind to a tsunami of questions. What will the person on the other end be like? What if it's a man? He dismisses the idea since he's always been interested in women. How old will she be? They say love knows no age, but he wishes they were both still in school; they could go to college together and share the best years of a Japanese person's life. What are her interests? He envisions a typical high school girl, praying she's not a shut-in, and replaces her with a regular schoolgirl.
That would be best.
But the absolute best would be if his destined person were like Akane, his schoolmate. The girl he's liked for as long as he can remember. Akane with her pink-dyed hair. The one to whom, when they're alone cleaning the classroom, he always wants to confess his feelings but never dares. Akane and her smile. The girl he wrote letters to but never sent, keeping them hidden in his room. Akane, the unattainable girl for him. Perhaps the gods believe he's so inept at love that they've decided to intervene.
Engrossed in his imagination, he leaves the residential area and enters the city center. It's still early, but the area is becoming more crowded. Businesses open their doors. The smell of fish dominates the surroundings. The thread snakes between the feet of various people, men and women, most of them covering their faces with masks. This time, before jumping to conclusions, he ensures that the red strand ends on another pinky.
Kichiro watches an adult woman dressed in a kimono adorned with koi fish and colorful carp. Her straight hair reaches her waist, and her face is as delicate as a geisha's. He wouldn't mind if she were the one. He shakes his head and follows the thread with the determination of a hunting dog. He has little time, and he has a hunch; he's close.
He smells incense.
A row of steps leads to an old temple. Inside, he sees a priest praying. Kichiro mimics him; he clasps his hands, bows his head, and closes his eyes. "Please let it be real," he murmurs. Every second, the desire to find love grows. He checks his phone; he has ten minutes.
He walks faster.
The thread passes by a flower shop and enters the cemetery.
Kichiro follows it.
The cherry blossom trees bring the spirits' home to life with their pink petals. Petals that remind him of Akane. He walks on a gravel path. The serenity of the place relaxes him. The cemetery is a city within his city. The sweet scent of flowers and the incense smoke envelop him. An old man draws water from a bucket with a wooden ladle and cleans a grave. The thread vanishes beneath a woman's shoe. She's dressed in a faded kimono, her eyes closed, and she holds a juzu between her hands.
There's no red knot.
Unobserved by her, he bows in respect and passes by.
Kichiro checks the time; he's run out of time.
He takes a deep breath and resigns himself; he'll try again later.
No, he won't wait; what if the thread disappears? This might be his only chance. He has a hunch that she's very close. He'll worry about school and the excuses to tell his parents later.
A couple of meters before the exit, a crow startles him. The bird perches on a grave. It pecks at a piece of food left by some careless visitor. It gazes at him with one eye and offers a mocking caw, as if it thinks he's a fool for following an imaginary thread.
Kichiro pays no attention to it.
Then a sound catches his attention.
He's almost certain he heard a car horn... also a sort of whistle, and perhaps even screams? When he reaches the other cemetery entrance, he's sure something has happened.
People on the street seem shocked. Several cover their mouths with their hands, and many others gather in the middle of the road, seemingly watching something.
Upon arriving, a man from the crowd speaks to him, advising him not to look. He pays no attention. He's noticed that the thread zigzags between people's feet in that direction. A chill runs down his spine. Kichiro pushes his way through the crowd, trying not to lose the thread. Various voices reach his ears.
"Was he drunk?"
"No, it wasn't his fault."
"He didn't have time to stop."
"It's true; she appeared out of nowhere."
Kichiro doesn't register them. The thread snakes next to a vehicle stopped in the middle of the road. It smells like burnt rubber, but that's not important. There's a girl lying on the ground. She doesn't move. She's bleeding. No one tries to help her. She seems to be dead. He's never been in front of a dead person. His stomach churns, and his forehead is damp. He struggles to breathe.
The world spins around Kichiro.
That's why he doesn't realize that the end of the thread is in the girl's hand. Or that suddenly, the thread starts darkening from end to end. It's completely dyed black.
The only thing he can focus on is the girl's pink hair.
His legs fail him, unable to support him in the face of the weight of this revelation, and he falls to his knees.
Several people hurry to check on her condition. They talk to him. A woman notices his uniform, the same as the deceased girl's. She asks if he knows her, if she's his schoolmate.
Kichiro opens his mouth. He could answer that and a thousand other questions about that girl, but he can't speak. He's lost his voice to the outside.
Inside him, three words form, filled with a pain he's never felt before.
"She's my soulmate."
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