Part 119: Sakutaro
BGM: Mystic Forest
Sakutaro looked up at Maria sadly. Maria's face was covered with tears, and it looked as though it had even lost all traces of sadness...
"...Uu-. I hear you, Sakutaro. You aren't a stuffed animal made of cloth and cotton. You are... my friend. I hate Ange. Uuuuuuuuuuuu..."
'Uryu... Sorry, Maria. Sorry, Maria...! Uryu...!'
Sakutaro regretted doing that. By freezing her heart, Maria had finally been able to escape from her sadness. By speaking up and calling her back, he'd caused her to be overwhelmed with sadness again...
Sakutaro tried hugging Maria, letting go of her, and gazing at her uneasily, lost as to how he could bring Maria's spirits up. He might've looked a little humorous doing that. In the end, that was enough to distract Maria from her sadness...
"Sorry. Crying won't help anything anymore."
'You got in a fight with Ange, but you still have lots of friends, Maria... I'm not the only one. Everyone's here. Sakusuke and Sakukichi, the animal band, and many, many more...'
Maria looked at the many stuffed animals around her pillow, which were gathered together as though they were having an idle chat.
'...Everyone... is worried about you, Maria. They're all talking over and over about how to cheer you up, okay...?'
"...Everyone won't... go away... like Ange...?"
'They won't. We'll always be together.'
"...Really? All of you are only with me at home. We can't go out together when Mama's around, and we can't go to school."
"...Sakutaro, you're big, so you'd be found."
'Then you can take one of the kids that are small enough to walk around with. For example, what about them? If you take the friends in the forest band... look, they're small, so you can hide them in your pocket and go to school together.'
"...There's a lot of them in the band. I can't fit them all in my pocket."
She collected all of the forest band pieces that were scattered across her bed. There were about as many of them as pieces in a chess set, so it'd probably be impossible to fit them all in her pocket...
'In that case, you can just take friends that you're especially close with. You can take the four rabbits, your best friends in the forest band.'
"...I could fit four in my pockets. Yeah. This way, they won't be found."
'Now, you won't be alone even at school, Maria. Those kids will be with you even where I can't go.'
"...Yeah. Maybe... I won't be lonely that way. Maybe I can hold out... until coming home from school..."
'As long as we aren't found by the teacher and Mama, we can be with you at any time. So let's be together, play together forever. We definitely won't leave you all alone, Maria. Uryu!'
Maria's expression finally regained a little of its brightness.
Even without Ange, it was fun with everyone. And yet, strangely enough, it suddenly became sad without Ange, who had come in at the end. All that's happened is that I've returned to the world right before Ange entered it. So there's nothing to be sad about.
"...Yeah. I'm not lonely. Sakutaro and the others are with me."
'Uryu-! I looove you, Maria...!'
"I won't let any more Humans come into my world. Mariage Sorcière is an alliance between me and Beatrice only. From the start, even Beatrice didn't want to let Ange join. It's all right this way. Ange was still too young."
'...For now, until you can be friends with Ange again, I think it's okay to forget about it. You can play together once you've regained your high spirits, Maria. Until then, all of us will be by your side.'
"...Thank you. Sakutaro, everyone."
Just like usual, she didn't have any Human friends at school, but her magic friends were always with her. The rabbit band she hid in her pockets talked with her during class, sounding like they were having fun. Just listening to that greatly embellished the time she spent in class.
Maria made it so that, as long as Mama and the teacher didn't find out, her other friends could always be with her. When Mama told Maria to go play outside, Maria would secretly pack Sakutaro and Sakusuke and the rest into her bag and play together at the library or somewhere. Even when Mama was late coming home and Maria went shopping for dinner, she always went with Sakutaro.
When Mama found out, Maria would get in trouble for bringing Sakutaro and the rest outside. When the teacher found out, Maria would get in trouble for bringing toys to school. The toxin must be strong in Mama and the teacher. That's why Sakutaro looks like a normal stuffed animal to them. After all, the convenience store man and the others say hello to Sakutaro.
...Not all Humans are hopeless. There are tons of people who, unlike Ange and Mama and teacher, can say hello to magic friends like I can...
"Yeah. But I've got Sakutaro, so I'm not lonely. Right, Sakutaro?"
'Uryu. It's not just Sakutaro today. Some other friends came too.'
"Oh, other friends, is it? What kind of friends did you bring today?"
"Today, the rabbits from the forest band are also with me. Look, in my pocket."
Maria began to line up four ceramic rabbit dolls on the register. As the owner of the shop looked at it, smiling, he sent a signal to a part-timer with his chin. Then, the sign on the other register that said 'closed' was taken down, and a voice called out for everyone to move over there. All of the people in line behind Maria lined up behind that one...
"I see, I see. You do have a lot of friends, Maria-chan. But I hope your Mama comes home soon."
"Uu-. Mama's busy with work again, so she's spending the night at the company. It's been very busy lately. She hasn't even been able to get much time to talk to me on the telephone."
"But I'm not lonely! I've got Sakutaro and the rest! Right?"
"I've even got all the rabbits from the band. Look. Kyu-kyu-♪"
"Is kyu-kyu- the sound a rabbit makes? My, I've never heard that."
After smiling at Sakutaro, who was poking his head out of her knapsack, she played around with the rabbit band on the register, making them frolic around.
...This was apparently a single mother household, where the mother had to work hard and couldn't come home very often. On top of that, it looked like this girl didn't even have any friends. As he watched her play around happily with her dolls and claim that she wasn't lonely despite everything, he couldn't help but feel a kind of compassion.
And actually, this wasn't limited to him alone. Maria had become quite famous in this shopping district...
"Uu-? Can't get a cream roll...?"
'Uryu. If you don't eat certain things, you won't get big. How about oden for today?'
"Uu-. Then I'll have some oden."
"Yep, yep, that's the ticket. Why don't I stick a whole bunch in there? Want mustard?"
'Uryu. I can't handle spicy things...'
"I see, I see. Then, you make sure you don't let it spill on the way home. It'll sure be delicious while it's hot."
"Uu-. Thank you."
She had planned on getting some sweet pastries for dinner, but since oden had been recommended to her, she would be having that tonight instead. Letting someone else determine the menu makes for an unexpected and interesting meal. Very often, Maria had to decide what her dinner would be on her own, so it was easy for the menus to get a little one-sided. So, it felt fun to have a meal she hadn't anticipated...
'Uryu-! Thanks for giving us extra, Mister!'
"Send my regards to your other friends at home. No stuffing yourself on your way back. Go straight home and eat it there."
"Uu-! Thanks Mister!!"
Maria raised the bag with the oden container high...
'...Uryu? What is it, Maria?'
"...The key isn't in my pocket."
She always methodically put it in the same pocket. So there was no way she had put it in another pocket, but she searched her whole body just in case. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't there.
'Did you drop it when you took your wallet out...?'
"No. When I took my wallet out, I definitely felt it. I also felt it when I searched my pocket partway here. It was there until partway. I didn't drop it! Uu-uu-uu-...!"
Even though the late autumn wind had been bearable when Maria had been thinking of returning home, where the heater was, now that she was confused and had lost her key, that wind tormented her. But no matter how hard she searched, she couldn't find her key. She turned out all her pockets and even tried taking off her jacket and hitting it, but to no avail. Of course, she also turned the knapsack Sakutaro was in upside down, but the key didn't come out.
Something that should have been there... wasn't where it was supposed to be. Why isn't the key there, when I didn't do anything wrong? Why isn't it?! Why?! Why...?!!!
Maria was cold and frustrated and angry, and she stamped on the ground... The bottom of her foot throbbed, but that didn't lessen her frustration. At the same time, her tears poured out.
It wasn't her fault. So, it was someone else's fault. But Maria didn't know who that someone was... and could do nothing but continue to let out a moan of anger.
'...Uryu... I'm sure you dropped it partway... Let's look for it, okay? Let's return on the road we came by and search, okay...?'
"...Uu-... Even though I went to all the trouble of buying oden... and got eggs and stuff for free... I won't be able to eat it while it's hot... Uuuu----!!!"
'...Maria, I know it's frustrating, but let's search, okay...? It's no one's fault, so let's search...'
Maria finally lent an ear to Sakutaro's words and began to trod back down the road she had come on. The wind was colder than before, and it felt like it was blowing in through the corners of her jacket in a mean way...
'Uryu... Let's watch our feet closely and search, okay...? Then let's get home quickly, let the heater warm us up, and eat oden, all right? I'm sure it'll be delicious.'
"...Uu-. Gone. Uu-. It's gone..."
As Sakutaro encouraged her, Maria searched for the key... But she made it all the way back to the convenience store where she'd bought the oden. She hadn't found it. Just in case, she asked the man at the convenience store whether they had found a dropped key, but they hadn't found anything. One more time, she returned home, paying close attention to the area around her feet. But, unsurprisingly, she didn't find it.
She was no longer frustrated enough to stomp her feet. But hot tears dripped down her face. The oden had cooled down completely. Even though she had been told it would be delicious when warm, she hadn't been able to eat it. Even though that man had given her so much free stuff...
"...Why can't I find it...? Uuuu, uuuuuuuu!"
'Maria, don't cry...! Let's do our best and search...! Maria...'
Maria was no longer able to hold back her tears. Sobbing, she clutched Sakutaro and held the bag of oden, returning once more down the road she had come by. Perhaps because more and more houses and stores had turned their lights off by now, it was even darker and harder to search than before. And, once again without finding the key, she returned to the convenience store.
"...Uu-... My key... It's gone..."
"Wasn't your mother away for the night? So, you can't get into your house without a key?"
"Uu-... Can't get in..."
"Well, that's not good... Did you try going to the police? They might be able to help you."
"...Mama said not to talk to policemen, even if they start talking to me."
"Oh? Well, why is that?"
So, Maria was indoctrinated into changing the stores she bought things at, so that she didn't catch the eyes of adults, and into saying no more than a greeting to policemen, even if they talked to her. Maria had obediently done as she was told. Instead of considering why she must do that, she was much more concerned with meekly obeying because her mother had told her so.
But the manager of the convenience store probably didn't think of it that way. In the first place, seeing such a young girl being forced to watch over the house alone, and so frequently, would make anyone worry...
"It's that child. Maria-chan, did you find your key?"
"...Uu-... Didn't find it..."
"What's your name, miss?"
The policeman asked her name, but Maria didn't answer.
"Did your mother tell you not to talk to policemen? Heheheh! Don't worry, no need to be scared of me. Have you eaten dinner yet, miss?"
"...I bought some, but I couldn't get into my house, so I couldn't eat it."
"What's your mother doing? Is she not coming home tonight? Is it her work?"
"Do you know how we can contact your mother at work?"
Maria hung her head limply. She didn't understand why the policeman was getting mad at her. No, he probably wasn't getting mad at her, but if this reached her mother's ears, then she would definitely be in trouble. Even if she didn't understand the reason why she would be in trouble, she at least understood that much. But the policeman wouldn't let Maria go. And her head was swimming from hunger.
The policeman noticed that, and it was decided that he'd listen to her story as they ate in the police box.
She had been told not to talk to policemen, but after being asked about Sakutaro, she responded, starting to feel that this wasn't a bad person. And anyway, she wouldn't be able to return home now, so she didn't know what to do. She told him Mama's work phone number, which she had been told to tell no one of and to use only in a very, very serious situation. In the tatami room inside the police box, as she ate the oden that was so hot it felt like it would burn her, she watched the policeman making the phone call, lazily thinking, 'Aah, I'm probably gonna get in trouble'.
He must have been listening to the phone ringing for a very long time. With the receiver up to his ear, the policeman looked up at the clock, grumbling.
"...Maybe they aren't picking up because their business hours are over. Hmmmmmm... Huh? Hello? Hello? Is this Anti-Rosa Ltd.? This is the Komatsugawa Police Department police box in front of Senbonzakura Station. Is President... umm... Udaikan... no, wait, President Ushiromiya available? ...Yes. What? She's on vacation?"
"Oh no, no, no, never mind. So, do you know where she might be? You haven't heard where to contact her, have you?"
"Sure, could you hold on for a second? Hey, anyone heard where the president went for her vacation? Or how to contact her?"
"I heard she was going for all-you-can eat crabs in Sapporo with her boyfriend. Aaaw, I'm sure such a cold place will do wonders for shrinking the distance between them, don't you? I haven't heard how to contact them."
"Yep, understood. Um, hello. I hear she went to Sapporo, but I'm not sure about how to reach her. Should I take a message?"
"Hmm, I see, what a shame. Well then, if you manage to get in touch with her again, could you tell her that we called? Sure, yes."
After that, I was taken to the police department, which was even bigger, and ended up spending the night there. Then, they asked me various things about myself.
And I was told 'You poor thing'. When I heard that, I learned for the first time.