"I'll be gone soon," Anri says.
"So it makes no difference-a life like this."
She smiles with some effort, puts a gray tablet on her tongue, and swallows it.
Use or possession of this drug by ordinary people is prohibited by law and strictly controlled. The person taking it feels as if every bone in his or her body is melting. All the anxieties and cares of life vanish as the individual wanders in the space between languor and pleasure.
"Why don't you take one, too?"
Anri pulls another tablet from her leather pouch and holds it out to Kaim, who is standing by her bed.
"Coward!" she says with a grim smile when he shakes his head in silence, and then she places the second tablet on her tongue.
"How many pills does that make today?" Kaim asks.
"Hmm, I forget . . ."
With empty eyes, Anri stares into space and sighs.
This is an addiction-a serious one.
"How do you feel?" he asks.
"Not bad," she says. "Very happy."
She gives him a smile. It is deeper and softer than her earlier smile-though maybe too deep and too soft. It appears to be a smile of ultimate bliss, but, for that very reason, it also has a frightening quality that sends chills up his spine.
The drug is called "signpost."
This is not its formal designation, of course.
People started calling it that as a secret code word to avoid prosecution, and the term caught on.
"Signpost" is, however, the single most appropriate name for this drug.
Each pill takes the user one step farther down the road. And when withdrawal symptoms strikes, the person rushes to take the next pill, thereby advancing yet another step.
Farther and farther and farther . . .
The road marked by this signpost is a soothing one, entirely free of pain or suffering.
At the end of the road, however, there waits only death.
The use and possession of signpost is so strictly prohibited because it is seen as an invitation to gradual suicide.
"How many more pills, I wonder?"
Anri mutters, stretching her emaciated body full length on the bed.
It is a question that Kaim can not answer. He knows only that she is nearing the end of her signpost journey.
It is for this that Kaim has been called to this hospital, which is a facility for people on the verge of death.
"I have no regrets," Anri says.
"None at all. This way I die pleasantly, quietly, like going to sleep."
Her empty eyes are fixed on Kaim, but they seem to register nothing.
"I'll be fine."
She reaches into the leather pouch again.
"You probably shouldn't do that," Kaim says.
"I'm telling you, I'm fine," she says, laughing weakly, and placing a third signpost in her mouth.
She closes her eyes.
Her sunken eye sockets harbor dark shadows.
Kaim settles himself into the chair by her bed.
He waits for her to say more, but she seems to have fallen asleep.
Her breathing is calm, and a slight smile plays upon her sleeping face. The signpost seems to be working. Without the drug, hammer-like pains in her back and violent chills would prevent her sleeping. Even worse than the physical suffering would be the fear of approaching death.
More a girl than a woman, young Anri was struck by a mortal illness. At the end of her long battle with the disease, the doctor gave up all hope of treating it and prescribed signpost for her instead.
Ordinary people are not allowed to use the drug, but special permission has been given to patients for whom there is no hope of recovery in order to afford them a peaceful death and bring their lives to a quiet close-in other words, to enable them to die without having a deal with a regret or despair.
Before Kaim began this work, a doctor explained the effects of the medicine to him, concluding with a smile, "In other words, signpost forgives all the debts the person has built up toward life."
After she has confirmed Kaim's presence at her bedside, she says. "You don't have to worry," and closes her eyes again, smiling.
"I'm fine. I think I can go just like this . . ."
So, she knows there are other possibilities.
In certain rare cases, signpost can have undesirable side-effects. Sometimes at the very end, when the person is just beginning to slide into the abyss of death, there can be an attack of nightmares. The patient experiences a literal death agony. Even though signpost has provided such a wonderfully tranquil departure on the person's final journey, every last bit of tranquility can be swept away on the cusp of death.
Worse still, some patients concluded their hallucinatory episode with a frenzied physical outburst. They might have barely enough strength to breathe until, tormented by the nightmares, they lash out violently enough to break the bed or even strangle the caregiver in attendance. Such can be the mysteries of the human body, or, more so, the human heart.
This is why Kaim is here.
He is to stand vigil by Anri's deathbed against the remote possibility that she might be tormented by nightmares and go wild under the influence of signpost's side-effects.
The doctor has supplied him with yet another drug.
It is a poison that will kill the patient instantaneously.
Kaim has been instructed to administer it to Anri as soon as she begins to exhibit strange behavior.
"Believe me, this a humane measure," the doctor said, "not murder by any means. The face of a patient who has suffered the drug's side-effects is truly grotesque-not something that anyone could stand to look at.
A person's death should never be that excruciating.
This is a final kindness to give the person a quiet, peaceful ending."
Kaim was not entirely convinced by the doctor's rationale. Neither, however, was he able to bring himself to take issue with it.
Now he can only hope that, led by her signpost, Anri will be able to pass her final moments in peace.
Some part of her inner self might be paralyzed at the moment, and her empty eyes might never regain their former gleam, but if she is happy that way, it is nothing that anyone has the right to deny her.
Waking again, Anri reaches for another signpost but drops the leather pouch.
"Sorry, but . . . would you pick it up for me?" she asks Kaim.
She no longer has the strength even to hold the pouch.
Her final moments are closing in.
Kaim lifts the pouch from the floor, but when she asks him to put a tablet in her mouth, he hesitates for a moment before complying.
Her tongue is dry and rough as sandpaper. She really must be nearing the end.
Having taken another signpost, Anri seems to be overtaken by that languorous feeling again. She moves the flesh of her cheeks in a way that has no meaning, releases a feeble sigh and says, "I was just dreaming."
"About when I was little . . . everybody was there . . . my father, my mother, my big brother and sister . . . all smiling."
This is not a good sign. The drug might be having a bad effect.
If the signpost is working properly, she should not be dreaming-especially about her family. The more lingering attachment or regret or sadness a person retains, the more likely he or she is to experience side effects. This is precisely why the family is never admitted to the patient's room. The final farewells are made before the administering of signpost, and only after everything is finished do they "meet" again.
"Everybody was in such a good mood!"
Kaim wonders if he should give her another signpost.
"I'm sure when I was born that my parents never imagined I would die so young."
A more seasoned caregiver would probably give her another pill without hesitation. Then Anri would fall into another peaceful sleep without any thoughts to disturb her, perhaps never to wake again.
Kaim, however, sets the leather pouch on a shelf and waits to hear what else she has to say.
Anri herself does not request another signpost but moves the sunken flesh of her cheeks again.
This time the movement takes the form of a deliberate smile.
"You know," she says to Kaim, "I'm beginning to wonder."
"Why I was ever born."
Kaim is at loss for words, but she does not let this prevent her from continuing.
"I mean, if I'm going to die so young, when I’ve never had a chance to fall in love, wouldn't it have been better if I’d never been born at all?"
Kaim nods as if to tell her that he understands.
Why was I ever born?
This is the question that Kaim himself has been pondering all through his endless journey.
He has still not found the answer, and maybe never will.
"My mother and father will be sad, I'm sure."
"You had better rest now."
"Maybe I was born to make my parents sad."
"Close your eyes and take a few long, deep breathes."
"Can I have some more medicine?"
This time he gives it to her without hesitation.
"Thank you," she says simply for the first time, and then closes her eyes.
"I guess it's possible I might never wake up again."
"It's a good thing to die without suffering, isn't it?"
"It probably is."
"And to die with your head in a fog, without thinking or feeling anything . . . that's a good thing, too, isn't it?"
Kaim says nothing.
This is a question he cannot answer, a question he doesn't want to answer.
Anri falls asleep without asking him anything else.
She is still sound asleep when the doctor examines her and tells Kaim, "She will probably pass away before the night is out."
It is late that night-close to dawn-when Anri begins to suffer.
"I'm sorry, Mommy, I'm sorry I ate the jam. It was me."
She is running a high fever with large drops of sweat on her forehead as she moans deliriously.
"What's taking you so long, Daddy? Hurry, hurry, the butterfly's going to fly away!"
Kaim wonders if she could be reliving memories of early childhood.
"You hit me! Big brothers shouldn't hit their little sisters! You're bad! I'm gonna tell Mommy!"
Convulsions wrack her entire body.
"Let me in! I want to play with the big girls!"
It doesn't end with her delirium.
She starts moving her arms as if trying to embrace family members floating around her.
This is what they were afraid of: the side-effects.
"Take me with you, please! I don't want to stay here! Don't leave me!"
Her cries mingle with tears. Hallucinations seem to have taken the place of past memories in her empty eyes.
"Please, I'll be good! I'll do what you tell me, Mommy and Daddy! Take me with you!"
In fact, just the opposite is happening: the ones being left behind are the family who so loved their youngest daughter, Anri.
"Don't leave me alone! Mommy! Daddy! Come back, please!"
He can feel her pain and sorrow.
Her convulsions become increasingly violent. Her face contorts in agony.
Alerted by the commotion, a doctor comes charging into the room.
"What are you doing?" he shouts at Kaim, "Put her out of her misery now!"
Kaim knows what he should do.
This is what he was hired for. The poison that will prevent Anri from suffering any more is within easy reach.
What he takes hold of, softly, however, is not the poison but the hands that Anri stretches out into empty space.
"What are you doing?" the doctor shouts at him.
"Stop it! This is a direct violation of your duties! You're fired!"
Kaim turns toward the fuming doctor and says simply, "Be quiet, please."
"What in the hell are you-"
But the doctor breaks of his shouting when he catches sight of the look on Anri's face.
She is smiling.
"Are these my mother's hands? My father's? Big brother's? Big sister's? Tell me whose hands are these?" she asks joyfully.
Feeling the strength of Kaim's grasp, she squeezes back, an almost indescribably happy smile on her face, tears streaming from her eyes.
"I'm here with all of you . . . together . . . always . . ."
Her convulsions have subsided, and her breathing has calmed down.
Kaim whispers in her ear, "Thank you, Anri."
Smiling through her tears, she says, "I know it's you!"
Kaim smiles back at her and says, "I'm speaking for all of us-for me, your mother, your brother, your sister, when I say 'Thank you, Anri.'"
Anri seems almost embarrassed when she asks, "For what?"
"For having been born, Anri. For having come to be with us. For having allowed us to share time with you. Mommy and I and Brother and Sister, we're all so grateful to you for that."
Unfortunately, life has its limits. There are long lives and short lives.
And in life-even more unfortunately-there is happiness and unhappiness.
There are happy lives and unhappy lives.
For all of this, however, for the chance to be alive in this world, for the chance of having lived life in this world, the only thing to say is
When Kaim says this to her, Anri gives her slender chin a little shake and says,
"No, I should be the one to be thanking you-all of you!"
These are Anri's last words.
The look on her face in death following the torment of the drug-induced nightmares is neither tranquil nor peaceful.
It is, however, happy.
Are you really leaving us?" the doctor asks Kaim with a genuine show of regret.
Dressed for the road, Kaim smiles and says, "I don't think I’ll be ever able to perform the duties of a caregiver properly."
"To tell you the truth, Kaim, I still can't get over the fact that it's even possible to do it your way."
With a serious look, he adds, "I wonder if your hands give off some substance like signpost. Otherwise, I can't imagine how she could have died so happily."
Kaim turns his palms toward the doctor. "They're just ordinary hands, nothing special."
"I'm not so sure about that," the doctor says. "If we spent some time studying them properly, maybe . . ."
Kaim shakes his head with a sour smile as if to say "You wouldn't find a thing."
He does have one point to make with the doctor:
"I've seen lots of people die alone-probably a lot more than any of you doctors have. That's why I wanted to bring her together with her family at the end. That's the only reason I took her hands."
The doctor's vague nod suggests that he is not convinced, but Kaim is through talking with him.
He strides off toward the highway.
He must continue his journey.
His journey will go on as long as he is unable to reply to Anri's question.
Why was I ever born?
Anri had a family at least. Her life consisted of her joining and leaving her family.
Kaim has not had even that much.
Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
Why does the passing wind draw Kaim along on his endless journey?
A journey without signposts.
This is why Kaim is always free-and always alone.