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there is a hollow in me now

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“ID?”

Akari fumbled around her borrowed handbag and thrust her license across the  front desk. The receptionist glanced at it and nodded.

“Sign in here. The doctor will be with you in a moment.”

“Can’t I just go and see him?” Her heart pounded. No one had called; had something happened? 

“I’m sorry, his instructions were very clear. Please have a seat.”

Akari sat. The waiting room was off-white, with a few old magazines about fitness and interior decorating and other trivial nonsense that couldn’t dislodge the heavy lump in her throat or the nausea in her stomach that came with being here. It was ingrained in her now; she’d sit down in the too-hard chair and close her eyes and feel the anxiety that she battled constantly descend like a sudden, dense fog. 

Every tick of the clock was an agony. Where was the doctor?

“Miss Tsukumo?” 

“I’m here.” She leapt up so quickly that her purse fell, scattering lipstick and her wallet and her microphone onto the ground. She flushed as she scooped everything up and threw it back in. She’d chosen her mother’s handbag to take to these appointments instead of her more practical messenger bag, in the hopes of looking a little more adult in front of the doctor, but it wasn’t working.

“Come with me, please?” He led her out of the waiting room and into the white, sterile hallway of the institution. Every door was shut. The lights were deadening somehow, giving everything pallor. Akari hated it viscerally. 

“Is something wrong with him?”

“No, no. In fact, I’m beginning to make sense of his delusions quite nicely. That’s why I wanted to speak to you. I’m hoping you can help me make sense of it all, so we can begin more aggressive treatment, and hopefully help your brother return to a normal life.” 

“That’s great.” Akari felt hope spring up in her chest. The idea of Yuuma coming home, after everything that had happened, and finally being himself again…it was too much to believe in, and yet she couldn’t help herself. If she gave up, she was certain, Yuuma would know somehow, and he would too.

“Now, I’ve been classifying the delusions your brother sees. They’re all people, as you make have noticed, and there are a great many of them. However, I believe that this Astral Yuuma sees is the key to it all. From what I have understood his appearance marks the beginning of your brother’s symptoms.” 

“Astral.” Akari repeated. The word was bitter in her mouth. It was ‘Astral’ that had been the start of all their problems.

At first she had thought Yuuma was just making new friends. There were so many names of his lips, but he was always out of the house and smiling and asking for extra lunch or money to go hang out with them. Akari had even been happy for him. Then she’d noticed he was talking to himself, frequently, and that he was very secretive about it. Then she’d noticed there were odd pauses in his talking, like he was listening to someone else. 

Someone who wasn’t there.

She’d taken him to a doctor, and then another, and then another. He’d had a few therapy sessions, some aggravating, some fruitless. Then he’d tried hypnosis, and run out of the room screaming. Screaming about how everyone was gone and he was alone and please, Akari, please, I have to find them. 

She’d found him in the bathtub with a slit wrist later that night, after he’d been sedated and the doctors had cleared him and she’d brought him home. That was when Yuuma’s current doctor had suggested, in the same kind voice they had used to tell her her parents were dead, that he be committed. Just for his own safety. Just until he was better.

A year had passed. 

“We discussed the discrepancy in Yuuma’s memories when we last spoke, if you remember – he remembers very clearly things that didn’t happen, and not just recently. In fact his perception of the last six months especially is radically different from reality. Can you think of anything else that happened during that time period? It’s crucial that we try to discover what triggered this initial break from reality.”

Akari had thought about nothing else for the past year. Her thoughts had circled and circled and circled and never come a conclusive stop. 

“I just – thought he was finally making friends in school. They all sounded like real people.” She was crying. She tried hard to not cry in front of the doctor, for fear they’d sugarcoat the truth. But it was pointless now. Even if Yuuma came home, how would readjust? Could he readjust?

Did he want to? 

“To him, they were real. Are real.” The doctor sighed. “There have been great advances in pharmacology that may help your brother stabilize. Beyond that, he’s going to need therapy to help him distinguish fact from fiction. I must tell you, Miss Tsukumo, it could be years before he’s stable enough to return home or attend school. But I believe that now that we’re beginning to understand the nature of his disease, we can begin to help him see that it only exists in his own mind.”

“Right. Of course. Thank you, doctor.” She should probably have asked questions, but she couldn’t think of anything but Yuuma unconscious in the tub, blood in the water. She let him lead her by the shoulder to Yuuma’s room. 

It was small. Bare. So unlike the treasure-filled attic where Yuuma had lived before. Yuuma was sitting on the bed, arms wrapped around his knees. His eyes keep flicking up to the corner, where there is an empty chair.

“Hey, Yuuma.” Her voice trembled. 

“Nee-chan.”

“How are you? The doctors are saying they think…they think they can really help you now.” 

“Okay.”

“How’s the food here? I snuck you a chocolate bar.” She offered it to him, and he just looked at it. Then at her, like she was a stranger – and after a year with weekly visits, with lying in this cold white place and no doubt believing he was sane, maybe she was. 

“I know this must be so hard for you, Yuuma. I just want you to know – this is all so you can get better.”

“Astral’s still here.” Yuuma whispered. He wasn’t talking to her. He wasn’t even looking at her anymore, but down at his chest, where his hands gripped something invisible. “He has to be. He can’t be gone…I can’t be alone…I can’t be alone…” 

Tears fell down his face. “I went to Shark’s place but there was no one there. And the tower’s all gone…where’d they all go? Why am I here, Nee-chan?”

“Yuuma, you’re sick, you don’t know what you’re saying…” 

“There’s no way this is real. There’s no way they all vanished…I’m going to find them…”

“Yuuma, I’m right here. Look at me. No one is dead, okay?” 

“I know they aren’t dead. I saw Shark…Kaito even came to visit me…and Astral’s here, right? Astral?” Yuuma looked around wildly, and his eyes fell on the empty chair. His shoulders sagged in relief. “See? He’s right there.”

“Yuuma. Yuuma!” 

“I’ll save you some of my Duel Lunch next time, Astral. We’ll eat it together…”

“Yuuma, please! Just look at me!” 

He didn’t.