(The previous version of this chapter has been taken down.)
* * *
Chapter 6: The Finished Story
-Ten Years After-
My work is done. As usual, I clean up my manuscripts, put them into an envelope, and put the envelope into the lowermost drawer in my desk. They’ll be there until my editor comes to get them.
I get off my seat and walk into the middle of my room. I stretch lazily. I extend my arms as high as I can, as if I am trying to make myself taller.
After making a sound like a kitten crushed under four of its siblings, I relax.
In an instant, the fatigue that piled up over 10 hours of hunching at my desk to write comes rushing over me.
I love this feeling of exhaustion.
The way I fall my bed feels different depending on how tired I am. If I sink like a rock into the mattress, it means I can spend the next few hours without having a single thought.
If I don't do that, my head spins. I find my mind drifting from one thought to another against my will.
Everything I'm doing now. My plans for the future. Things like that are bearable, but if I end up coming up with a new story, it's over.
Stories keep me up through the night. I have to lie in bed uncomfortably and coddle and plead with the ideas that pop out of my head and put them into sentence form on the notepad I keep beside me. It's not unusual to finish all that and find myself watching the sun rise.
Someone once said, "A writer is someone who works 24/7." I don't know who this person is, but there is no greater truth. Still exhausted, I take a moment to appreciate the quote again.
I just finished a particularly difficult job—I am very tired, but in a good way.
I collapse into bed.
Thud. My weary body bounces back up slightly, and finally—slowly yet surely—sinks into the mattress. I feel heavy. I don’t even want to lift a single finger. But I move my hand very slightly to get my long hair out of my face. I'm still too young to die of suffocation, after all.
That's right. Tomorrow I'll go and get my hair cut. It’s grown out a lot because I didn't do anything about it for a while.
Suddenly, I remember my teens, when I had very short hair for a girl.
It was a time when I was still living in the midst of gunsmoke, with a hand persuader at my side.
And I remember the day—when all too suddenly—it came to an end.
I wonder what that cheeky motorrad Hermes is up to now?
What would he say if he could see me, settled down in a country as a famous female writer?
That's right. Tomorrow I’ll go get my hair cut.
Not as short as it was before, but I’m going to get my hair cut all the same.
My decision made, I fall asleep.
* * *
A lone motorrad stood in the sand.
The sandy beach was dotted with rocks. Scattered across the sea was a chain of tiny islands. The waves were calm. The spring sunlight shining in the clear sky gently warmed the earth.
As the land grew more and more distant from the waves, the number of pine trees increased. Soon they became a great, think forest.
The motorrad was standing between the waves and the forest of pine trees.
On its back was loaded a mountain of traveling gear. Compartments hung from either side of the rear wheel, and a large bag and a rolled-up sleeping bag were tied above it. A wooden plank was placed below the side stand so that it would not sink into the sand.
Someone sat crouched on the left side of the motorrad. A young person, likely in her mid-teens. She had very short, cropped blond hair and emerald-green eyes.
The human wore a ragged, patched-up jacket and pants, sandals with thick rubber soles, and held an automatic hand persuader in hand. There was a stock on it like a rifle so that she could aim for her target while balancing it against her shoulder and cheek.
The human anxiously looked out at the forests from behind the motorrad.
"Hey, I don't know who you are, but you'd better stop," the motorrad said. The human did not answer. She kept her persuader trained on the distance, eyes glinting in an attempt to miss nothing.
"Well, I guess humans have reasons, but you had to attack Kino, of all people…" the motorrad spoke again.
"Shut up!" the human retorted sharply. She then continued, in a slightly diminished voice, "So that traveler's name is Kino?"
"Yeah. And this motorrad you're using as a shield is Hermes," the motorrad that identified himself as Hermes replied in a nonchalant voice, "Well, it's nice to meet you."
"My name's Inid…wait. That doesn't matter!" the human called Inid yelled loudly.
"It's nice to meet you, Inid," Hermes greeted her.
Inid ignored him. She stood up slightly and slowly peered out from behind the sleeping bag. She aimed her persuader into the forest and fired.
There were three clear gunshots, followed by three empty shells falling to the sand. Inid was using an automatic persuader that would fire three rounds every time she pulled the trigger.
"Did you miss?"
"With skills like that, you're going to end up getting shot yourself."
Inid snorted. "That's why I have you as a shield. You won't be able to move if your wheels are accidentally damaged."
"That's true, but considering Kino's personality…"
Hermes was suddenly interrupted by the sound of something slicing through the air. Part of the sleeping bag blew open as the feathers that were once its contents flew into the air. The bullet grazed the side of Inid's ear. White feathers landed on her golden hair.
"Kino would fire anyway, just like that."
Inid stiffened and took cover behind Hermes' engine.
"Do something, Inid."
"D-don't just say my name like that!" Inid yelled back, crouching down as much as she could.
"Anyway, why'd you attack us travelers in the first place? Just to let you know, Kino's flat broke."
"That doesn't matter. Attacking and mugging you is all I care about."
"What's what supposed to mean?"
Inid did not reply. Instead, she raised her head, her gaze tracking a figure moving in the woods. She then pulled the trigger again and again. Five bursts of three rounds. Fifteen bullets loudly ripped through the air.
"Damn it! He ran into the woods!"
"You missed again? You're not very good at this, are you?"
"Okay, calm down. You're not gonna win by getting all anxious."
"I told you to shut up! But I guess…I guess you're right."
Inid took a deep breath and lightly shook her head.
"Why'd you attack us, anyway?" Hermes asked.
"I wanted to be acknowledged as a real member."
"A member of what?"
Inid got down on her stomach and adjusted the persuader's muzzle with her line of sight as she replied, "Pirates. It’s a rite of passage for the pirates who control this area. If you want to join, you get a test on the year you turn 15. You have to attack the first person you come across that day and mug them. If necessary, you can kill the traveler, too. If you don't pass this test, you'll never be able to become a pirate."
"I see. But what if the person you attack is really strong? What if they fight back?"
"I have to trust my luck. That's something a pirate needs, too, you know. So part of this test is to see if I'm lucky or not."
"I get it." Hermes replied, sounding impressed.
"Today's the day. Once I take down the traveler, I'll officially become one of them. One day, I'll take my father's place as captain. So…so I can't give up here!"
"You're really desperate, huh?"
"Yeah. I've been waiting for this day my whole life. I don't care who it is. I'll win no matter what!"
Inid tightened her grip on her persuader. Her emerald-green eyes peeked through Hermes' engine and frame, into the heart of the forest.
"Come on out. You can't hide forever…"
Three seconds later, Inid's left eye was irritated by something red. She turned her head in confusion. A red light was etched onto her left shoulder--the exact place her eye had been a moment earlier. A laser sight was reaching towards her from between the engine and the frame.
Inid quickly moved out of the way. In that very instant, the forest was rattled by a single gunshot.
The bullet hit neither Hermes nor Inid. However, the plank that had been supporting Hermes' stand was blown apart.
"Whoa!" Hermes let out a shout. The stand buried itself in the sand. Hermes tilted, falling on his left side. "Ack!"
Inid twisted around to dodge the bag and sleeping bag that were falling towards her head. Although she was able to avoid them, Inid found herself pinned under the fallen Hermes.
"That was mean…" Hermes mumbled.
Inid desperately struggled to free herself from under Hermes, but her left arm did nothing but powerlessly clutch at sand. She tried pushing Hermes with all her strength, but he would not budge.
"Damn it! Why do you have to be so heavy?! Get off me!"
"Let's try to be reasonable."
Inid looked into the sky as she desperately pushed at Hermes.
But the moment she finally freed her left leg from under the engine, she froze.
The sky darkened. Someone was looking down at Inid. She could not see the person's face because of the sunlight behind their head, but the person had a large-caliber revolver trained on her.
"Damn it…so you had two guns…" Inid mumbled weakly.
Inid's opponent looked up.
The traveler was a young human in their mid-teens with short, messy, black hair, wearing a black jacket.
"You okay, Hermes?"
"I am, but I can't speak for your sleeping bag. How about you, Kino?" Hermes asked.
The person called Kino aimed the persuader at Inid, who was still stuck under Hermes, and replied, "I'm fine."
"That's good to hear. Anyway, help me up."
"Just a second."
Kino slowly turned to meet the glaring emerald-green eyes under the motorrad.
"Hmph! You can shoot me for all I care!" Inid spat.
"Let me introduce you, Kino." Hermes said, quickly explaining Inid's situation.
"I see. So that's why you attacked us out of the blue like that. A test for acceptance, huh…" Kino mumbled.
Still lying on the sand, Hermes chimed in like a know-it-all, "That's right. It's a 'rough of personage', like most cultures have."
"…You mean, 'rite of passage'?"
"That didn't even sound similar… I think you're getting worse, Hermes," Kino replied incredulously.
"Really? As long as you understand, right? That's how language works."
"But it still takes too much time for me to figure out what you're saying."
"Really? I'm sure I did my part to help you practice your reasoning abili—"
"Hey! Don't ignore me, you bastards!" Inid cut in, glaring at Kino and Hermes.
Kino holstered the revolver, snatched the persuader from Inid, and quickly disarmed and dismantled it. Then, Kino took out a rope from the bag rolling on the sand and restrained Inid's wrists and ankles. Only afterwards was Inid dragged out from under Hermes.
Kino stood Hermes back up and attempted to balance his stand on some pieces of the original plank. Inid, meanwhile, tried biting and pulling on the ropes in an attempt at escaping.
Kino finally managed to balance Hermes' stand. At the same time, Inid freed herself from the ropes and lunged at Kino.
Kino effortlessly dodged Inid's fist and simultaneously grabbed her by the collar. Inid was instantly thrown to the ground. An elbow bearing Kino's entire body weight slammed into Inid's solar plexus.
Inid let out a strange noise and fainted. Kino lay her on the ground sideways and bound her wrists together.
"She just won’t stay down…" Kino mumbled.
"That's some spirit she's got there. You should try and be more like her, Kino," Hermes comments playfully.
Inid coughed several times and sat up. She then glared at Kino, her face a mess of sand and water.
"Kill me! Just kill me! Right now! I'd rather die than fail this test! Come on! What, you can't? Don't be a coward!"
"She wants you to kill her, Kino. What are you gonna do?"
Kino gave Hermes a quick glance, then gave Inid a reluctant shake of the head.
"Kill me! You're just going to let me live?! Take responsibility and kill me now, you bastard!"
Kino ignored Inid and headed into the forest to bring back another persuader. An automatic hand persuader was tied to a tree, and a long string was attached to the switch that activated the laser sight. Kino untied the string and holstered the persuader.
When Kino returned to the beach, Hermes was chattering to Inid, who was sitting with her head bowed.
"So what I'm saying is, you were just unlucky this time. You said it yourself, didn't you? It's all about luck. You don't need to be so disappointed. Er…I guess you can't help it, since you've always wanted to be a pirate, huh. Then I won't tell you to not be disappointed. But that's all it is. You have to accept the facts. You still have a long life ahead of you, and if you're lucky, maybe you'll find something you love even more—"
Between sobs, Inid mumbled, "Shut up…shut up…"
Hermes ignored her and continued. "You know, motorrads sometimes end up with new owners. Sometimes it might be unbearable because they have different riding styles. But that's like a motorrad's fate. So there's no point in resisting. Maybe it's like that for humans too."
At that moment, a small ship appeared from behind one of the islands dotting the sea. It sped over in their direction. Several men were on board.
Hermes took Kino's mumble as a cue to pause. "Yeah. Looks like they're Inid's friends," he said.
Kino nodded. "Good timing. Wanna run for it?"
Grabbing a hat and a pair of goggles, Kino climbed onto Hermes and was about to start the engine—but was interrupted.
"Traveler! Please, wait! We don't mean to harm you!" A voice boomed from a loudspeaker on the ship. "It is our tradition to make reparations to those who become involved in this rite and survive! Please, wait a moment!"
The ship, along with the voice, closed in.
"What do you wanna do, Kino?"
"Maybe we should go, just in case."
However, Kino was suddenly interrupted.
"It's true… A pirate never lies," Inid mumbled, head still bowed.
Kino got off Hermes and untied Inid. But Inid still sat weakly on the beach.
The ship slid directly onto the beach. Seven men were on board, each armed with a persuader. But none of them showed any signs of hostility.
First, the men surrounded Inid and asked her if she was all right, voices full of concern. Inid looked away from them and silently shook her head.
A bearded, middle-aged man walked up to Kino.
"I am the captain of this crew. Please, take these."
The captain took out all kinds of valuable objects from the sack he had slung over his shoulder, and handed them to Kino.
Kino politely declined, explaining that traveling with objects that once belonged to other people might cause unnecessary suspicion.
But the captain insisted on making amends. Kino asked him if he could spare some fuel or ammunition instead.
The captain ordered one of the men to bring out some fuel from the ship. Kino filled Hermes' tank until it was nearly spilling over.
The captain shook his head.
"I should be the one thanking you. Inid failing her test upsets me, of course, but it's thanks to you that she's still alive," the captain continued, "Once you had her restrained, you had her at your complete mercy. I can tell that someone of your caliber could have killed her without batting an eye. So why did you spare her?"
Kino glanced at Inid, who was still sobbing on the ground. The rugged-looking men around her were crying alongside her. Kino looked back at the captain.
"I'm not sure."
The captain said quietly, eyes damp with tears, "Then let's say…that she was very lucky."
* * *
So on that day 10 years ago, I failed to become a pirate. And I found myself living in a completely different world. Nothing had changed, but everything was different. The fact that I was no longer part of that life broke my heart.
I was still crying on the ride back to headquarters, listening to the distant sounds of the motorrad's engine.
Everyone was very kind to me. No one blamed me, laughed at me, or feigned sympathy. I would have killed anyone who acted that way, but in the end there was no bloodshed.
Afterwards, I went to a deserted island alone without telling anyone. It was a tiny place with no food or drinking water. I spent about 50 days there by myself.
I just sat there, doing absolutely nothing. I even thought about starving myself to death sometimes. I might have, too, if not for the others secretly leaving me food and water there. I'm still grateful to them to this day.
Afterwards, I was sent to a country that secretly supports the pirates, as per tradition. There I began a 'normal' life. I went to a school and studied for the first time.
Learning new things really helped me to get over my grief.
I finished school surprisingly quickly, and found a job at a publishing company surprisingly easily.
It was much more fun than I expected. Although I never had much of an interest in books, I found myself reading more and more. Eventually I wanted to write them myself, and that became my job.
I'll never know if my life now is more fulfilling than the life of a pirate.
Sometimes, I see news stories or hear rumors about them. My heart aches a little every time, reminding me that I'm no longer a part of that world.
But…this is who I am. I’m not the person I was back then. That's how it will be until the end.
Ever since then, I've always kept an eye on the list of people entering the country. But I've still yet to see a traveler named Kino on a motorrad called Hermes.
If I ever see them again, I'll welcome them with open arms.
They couldn't have run into bandits and gotten killed, right?
I know that there's no way that could have happened.
Now, I think I’ll go get my hair cut.
Not as short as it was before, but I’m going to get my hair cut all the same.