(Toggle Theme) (Size Up) (Size Down)

The Place We Called From
by Sugaru Miaki

[+]

Chapter 1: Cross My Heart and Hope to Die

Summer comes but once a year.

In a normal life, we experience only as many summers as we do years of our life. So there's nobody who's going to have lived hundreds of summers. Given the average Japanese lifespan, we'll experience somewhere around eighty summers before we die.

I'm not really sure if eighty is too many or too few. Life can feel much too long when nothing's going on, but all too short when things are happening - that's a quote from Atsushi Nakajima. Eighty summers will feel like way too many to people who can't enjoy summer, and way too few to those who can. Yeah, that's probably about right.

I hadn't even gotten to twenty summers yet. And not a single one among them was ever the same. They were their own summers with their own unique radiance. I couldn't say any one was better or worse than another. That's like trying to say certain shapes of cloud aren't as good as the others.

Laying out my current summers like marbles in a row, you'd notice that two of them had an unusual color. The summer of 1994, and the summer of 1988. The former was the hottest summer of my life, and the latter was the coldest. One had a deep blue color squashed between the blues of the sea and sky, and the other had an amber color like a pale sunset.

*

Now, I'm going to tell the story of the hottest summer of my life.

*

However, everything has an order. I'll probably need to explain the circumstances leading up to that summer, right?

Rewind a bit from the summer of 1994, to March 20th of that year. The day of South Minagisa Middle School's graduation ceremony.

That's where the story begins.

*

I washed my face with cold water and checked my injuries in the mirror. I had a bleeding cut about a centimeter long above my eye. Nothing else really stood out. There was a big bruise on the right side of my face, but unlike the cut, it hadn't just gotten there. It was always there; I was born with it.

I'd last looked in a mirror over a month ago, and it felt like the birthmark had gotten even darker since. Of course, I'm just saying that's how it felt. Since I usually try to avoid looking at myself in the mirror, the presence of the birthmark always strikes me when I do happen to see my face again. But in actuality, probably nothing had changed.

I kept looking into the mirror for a while. The birthmark was a chilling dark blue; it had the look of the skin there being dead. Or like it was smeared with soot, or growing mold, or, if you looked close enough, like a fish's scales.

Even I thought, "What a creepy birthmark."

I wiped my face dry with the sleeve of my uniform, grabbed my diploma from the shelf, and left the restroom. After leaving such a strong smell of ammonia, the air outside felt faintly sweet. There were quite a few students like me in the station plaza, holding the boxes containing their diplomas under their arms, sitting on benches and talking about things.

When I opened the door to go inside, I was greeted by a stove-like warmth. I was intending to wait there until the train arrived, but the area, cramped enough to begin with, was brimming with students having fun late into the night after the ceremony - terribly noisy and uncomfortable. Weighing warmth against silence, I ultimately decided to hurry out onto the platform.

In the middle of March, the nights are still cold. I went to button up my jacket, but found the second button missing. I had no memory of giving it to a girl as a memento or anything. Probably it had just been torn off in the scuffle.

I'd forgotten the reason for the fight. Trying to remember just wore me out.

After the ceremony, I was celebrating with my friends. But they were a hot-blooded bunch already, so bringing alcohol into the equation was bad news. It should have only been trivial conversation, but somehow it escalated to an argument, then becoming a four-on-three brawl. The group of four were getting jobs, and the three were high-school-bound. It was that sort of thing.

Fights weren't an unusual occurrence for me. No, I wouldn't say that - thinking about it, every time the seasons changed, it felt like we put on some big scuffle, like cats in mating season. Maybe that was how we dealt with the isolated feeling of our rural town, our vague unease for the future, and so on.

This would probably be the last of those "fights for honor." After the scuffle ended, that's what I found myself thinking, and it put me in a solemn mood. The fights ended without any conclusion worth calling a conclusion, like it just came to a draw. As we left, the employed four booed away the high school three. One who had been particularly hurt was yelling about how they would get payback. A fitting end for us, really. That brought a close to my junior high life.


When the train finally arrived and I sat down in my seat, I noticed two women in their early twenties standing by a door a little ways away, pointing toward me. The taller skinny one was wearing glasses without any lenses, and the shorter plumper one was wearing a face mask.

The two of them whispered in a way unique to talking about guilty subjects. It must have been about my birthmark, of course. As always. That's how much it stood out.

I kicked the seat with my heel and shot them a glance of "You got a problem?", and they awkwardly looked away. The others nearby looked at me as if to say something, but no one spoke up about any problem.

I closed my eyes and thought. Sheesh. I'm going to be in high school next month - how long am I going to keep up this idiotic behavior? It's a waste of time, energy, and trust to respond belligerently to something that simply irks me. I need to learn the ways of patience and letting things slide.

My mad studying had paid off, as a few days ago, I received my acceptance to Minagisa First High. It was a prominent college-prep school in the prefecture, and I intended to start everything over there. Very few could go from my middle school of South Minagisa to Minagisa First High. In other words, hardly anyone who knew me in middle school would be there. An ideal opportunity to reinvent myself from scratch.

In my three years of junior high, my quick-tempered personality wound me up in a lot of fights. And whether I won or lost them, it always turned out to be a bad idea in some way. I'd had enough of it. Starting in high school, I wanted to stay indifferent to minor disputes, living a quiet, reserved life.

My aspiration for Minagisa First High actually began with the thought that more advanced schools have less petty conflict. You can't always relate education to people's qualities, but those who have lost a lot tend to dislike trouble.

The rumors claimed Minagisa High was more of a prep school than a typical high school, so your studies were chasing you asleep or awake, you had no time to spend on clubs or fun, and you wouldn't have a decent youth. But I didn't care about that at all. From the outset, I didn't think I could ever attain even an average adolescence. The idea of forming good relationships with my classmates and finding a wonderful girlfriend was far from my mind.

Because as long as I had this awful birthmark, people would never truly accept me.

I let out a little sigh.

You know, I thought, those girls who pointed at me are lucky. People who aren't confident in their lower face have face masks. People who aren't confident in their upper face have glasses. But people who aren't confident in the right side of their face have nothing. Unfair, huh.


The train stopped with an ear-grating sound. I got off onto the platform and smelled the faint spring air.

A gray-haired attendee in his forties stood at the ticket check, rudely staring at me as he took tickets. He seemed to be a relatively new hire, and was always like this when I passed by. I stopped, thinking that today I'd give him a piece of my mind, but realizing there were people behind me, I changed my mind and left the station.

I wandered around the shopping district outside the station. There wasn't a single person around, and my footsteps alone echoed. Most of the shops were shuttered, and not just because it was night. A shopping center built on the edge of town two years ago had sucked away the customers, turning a once-central street into a long line of shutters. Sports supply shop, cafe, electronics shop, butcher's shop, photo place, dry goods store, bank, beauty parlor... I gazed at the faded signs of each shop as I walked, imagining what was on the other side of the shutters. In the center of the district was a worn-out statue of a mermaid, looking wistfully toward her home.

Then it happened, right as I passed the tobacco shop in-between the accessory and candy shops.

A public telephone at the storefront began to ring. As if having awaited me for decades, it rang out with fateful timing.

I stopped and looked at the phone's LED screen, emitting a faint light in the darkness. The cabinet that contained it was old; there was no door, and no lighting.

Though it was rare, I knew that public phones could get calls. I recall in elementary school, a friend called 110 from a public phone as a prank, and was startled when he immediately got a call back. It made me curious, and I found out that public telephones do in fact have their own numbers.

The telephone bell wouldn't stop. It kept ringing with a strong, stubborn will, yelling "I know you're there, you know!"

The clock on the barbershop sign read 9:38.

Normally, I probably would have ignored it and went on by. But there was something in the echo of the phone that made me think, "This call is for me and no one else." I looked around, and sure enough, I was the only person there.

Timidly, I answered the phone.

"I have a proposal," the person on the other end said without any preface.

It was a woman's voice. Probably somewhere from twenty to thirty. She spoke calmly, seeming to put care in every syllable. It wasn't an automated voice; I could tell there was a real person on the line from her breathing. I heard roaring wind behind her, perhaps implying she was calling from outside.

Maybe the woman had found out the phone's number by some happenstance and was having fun spooking passersby, I thought. It was plausible she was watching those who answered from somewhere, enjoying their reactions to her outrageous statements.

I didn't answer, waiting for her move. Then she spoke as if whispering a secret.

"You still carry a love you can't give up on. Am I wrong?"

Give me a break, I sighed. You want me to go along with this? I put back the receiver a little roughly and went back to walking. The phone rang again behind me, but I didn't even look.

*

Three boys in high school squatting in the middle of the road, drinking from beer cans. Not an uncommon sight in the town of Minagisa. It sounds nice when you call it a quiet rural seaside town, but being all pubs and snacks without a single place for amusement, the youths are all bored to death. Those starved for excitement would quickly reach out for beer and cigarettes. For better or worse, this town had many ways for those who were underage to obtain those luxuries.

Finding another route would have been annoying, so I tried to pass beside them. One of them standing up at just that moment hit their back against my leg. The boy overreacted and grabbed my shoulder. I didn't mean to cause any trouble, having already been in one big fight today. But when he started ridiculing my birthmark, I found myself fighting.

Unluckily, the one I punched seemed to be experienced in hand-to-hand combat, and the next moment I was lying on the ground. They looked down on me and shouted filthy insults, but my head felt so hazy, I only heard them vaguely, like if I were underwater.

By the time I felt ready to try and get back up, the three had vanished, leaving only empty beer cans. I put my hands on my knees and tried to stand, but my temple ached like it had a screwdriver wedged in it, and I let out a moan.

Lying down face-up, I looked at the stars for a while. Well, I couldn't see the stars, but occasionally I saw the moon through gaps in the clouds. I checked my back pocket and found my wallet missing as expected, but the cigarettes in my inner pocket were safe. I took a bent cigarette out of the crumpled box and lit it with a lighter.

Suddenly, I thought of Yui Hajikano.

For three years, from fourth grade to sixth grade, I was in the same class as her. Back then, whenever I got in a fight and got wounded like this, Hajikano would worry as if it was her who'd been hurt. She was nearly 20 centimeters shorter than me, but she'd stand on her tiptoes to stroke my head and admonish me. "Don't get in any more fights!"

Then she'd stick out her pinky and insist I pinky-promise - that was Hajikano's method. When I reluctantly offered my pinky, she'd give a satisfied smile. I never once kept the promise, and would get hurt again mere days later, but she still patiently tried to persuade me.

Looking back, it felt like Hajikano was the only one around then who took me seriously.

She was a pretty girl. Both Hajikano and I got people's attention, but for completely opposite reasons. I for my ugliness, and her for her beauty.

In a remote elementary school with many generally-unsatisfying kids, Yui Hajikano's seemingly-perfect appearance and talents were cruel, in a way. Many girls avoided standing next to Hajikano when taking photos, and many boys had unrequited love for her, their hearts breaking in an entirely self-contained way.

Hajikano simply being there made people give up on things. Children in the same class as her were taught directly how the world has absolute disparities that can't be overturned, no matter how much you struggle. Irrational things most people gradually realize when they get to middle school and throw themselves into study, clubs, and romance, we all learned instantly by her mere presence. It was too cruel a truth to learn as early as elementary school - though I learned it even sooner thanks to my birthmark.

People were mystified by how someone so overwhelming as Hajikano was personable with a boy like me. In anyone's opinion, Hajikano and I were polar opposites. But if you asked me or Hajikano, we were the same in how we weren't treated like normal humans, albeit for opposite reasons. That alienation was the thread that linked us.

I don't have any idea what we talked about when we were together. I feel like it was all nothing important. Or, well, maybe the majority of the time wasn't spent talking, but just sitting around together. The silence I spent with Hajikano was comforting, oddly enough - rather than awkward, it felt like we were quietly confirming our friendship. As she stared silently into the distance, I watched her from beside.

There was just one conversation I could remember clearly.

"I think your birthmark's wonderful, Fukamachi."

It was Hajikano's response to something self-deriding I'd said about my birthmark. Yes, it just slipped out - something like "I'm impressed you'd stay with the likes of me," I think.

"Wonderful?", I asked. "That must be sarcastic. Just take a look at it. It's creepy enough to startle somebody."

Hajikano brought her face close and observed my birthmark at point-blank range. With a stupidly serious face, she looked for a few dozen seconds.

Then suddenly, she gently put her lips on it. There wasn't even a moment's hesitation.

"Startled?" She smiled mischievously.

Exactly right. Startled enough to die.

I had no clue how to respond to that. Hajikano even changed the subject as if nothing had happened, giving me no chance to figure out the intent of her actions. Maybe there was no real meaning. In any event, this incident didn't change our relationship at all. We just went on being good friends.

I don't think she particularly liked me for who I was. Hajikano simply had more good will than she knew what to do with at the time. Giving it out to people too readily would make those people get far too ecstatic and grandiosely thank her, so she needed to be careful picking people who wouldn't make that much of a ruckus.

Hajikano didn't know how much her every action made my heart tremble.

When we graduated from elementary school, I went to a public school in the Minagisa area, like most of my classmates. South Minagisa Middle School. The sort of school with motorcycles in the halls, teachers being pushed off verandas, spraypainted graffiti all over the gym. If you had any common sense, it would drive you nuts in two weeks. I didn't have any common sense, so I was fine.

Hajikano went to a distant private girls' school. Mitsuba Middle School - a very high-class school. I don't know what kind of life she had there. I didn't hear any gossip, and didn't really care to know. She and I were in different worlds.

I'd never seen Hajikano since then.

I see, I nodded to myself. Let's say there is a love I can't give up on, like the woman on the public phone said.

Then it would surely be Hajikano she meant.

*

Finishing my cigarette, I quit my sentimental reminiscing and stood up. My body ached all over. There was a slight pain in my throat. Maybe I'd caught a cold.

What a terrible day, I thought.

But this unlucky day of mine wasn't over yet.

On my way back home, as I walked by a youth hotel being torn down - and naturally, this was at night, so there weren't any workers around - an accident happened.

There was a temporary enclosure around the building made of flat panels, about two meters high. From within it came an ominous clattering sound. I found it suspicious, but kept walking. Suddenly, there was the loud sound of something collapsing inside, and immediately after, one of the panels forcefully fell down on me.

Bad days are bad to the end.

Why I wasn't completely crushed, who called 119 for me, what happened before the ambulance arrived... I had absolutely no memory of it. When I woke up, I was in a hospital room with my legs in casts. After a few moments, I felt a full-body pain that made me want to yell. My vision went dark, and I broke out in a cold sweat.

Outside, the morning birds were chirping pleasantly.

And just like that, before entering high school, I suffered a major injury that took fourteen weeks to completely recover from. There had been compound fractures in both my legs. Right after waking up, I was taken to an operating table, my legs bolted down. I was shown X-rays afterward; they were impressive fractures, good enough to show in textbooks. It wasn't life-altering, with no apparent worries of after-effects, but this made for a late start to high school.

Oh well, I thought. It wasn't unusual for me to be hospitalized for injuries. I'd be able to attend school in June at the earliest, and by then my class would have nearly finalized their friendships. But I hadn't really felt like making proper friends in high school anyway, so it wasn't a big issue. Besides, if you think about it, maybe it's easier to focus on studies in a hospital room than a classroom.

And as a matter of fact, I was terrifyingly diligent in my studies for those three months. Listening to my favorite music on my Walkman, I repeatedly read textbooks, getting good rest when I got tired of that - I kept up a simple and honest life. The room was white like a minimalist art show, and there was nothing worth looking at outside the window, so math and English were more stimulating than the alternatives.

As someone who liked going at his own pace, I was able to view this as an ideal situation. It felt more effective than trying to deal with drowsiness while desperately copying down words and formulas from the blackboard.

At the end of May, a man in his late sixties named Hashiba moved into my room with a broken left arm. He seemed fond of me quietly tackling my studies, and whenever we saw each other, he told me "Ask me if there's anything you're not sure about" with a face-crumpling smile. There was a lot that was unclear to me about English grammar, so I did ask him a few times, and he offered very understandable explanations which couldn't even be compared to your common lecturer. I asked him about it, and he said he used to be a teacher. He had a decent pile of thick Western books by his bed.

One rainy afternoon, Hashiba casually asked me a question.

"What's that birthmark mean to you?"

It was the first time I'd been asked a question like that, so I needed some time to think of an answer.

"It's the root of all evil," I replied. "If I just didn't have this birthmark, I think about eighty percent of the problems I have now would be solved. It makes others have a bias against me and find me disgusting, but the more pressing problem is that because of it, I can't like myself. People can't try their best for someone they don't even like. Not being able to like yourself means you can't even try for yourself."

"Hmm," Hashiba affirmed.

"On the other hand, by putting all the blame on this birthmark, it feels like I can avoid looking at what I don't want to look at. Maybe I'm fooling myself, putting blame on this birthmark for problems which really, I could solve with enough effort. ...But either way, there's no doubt that it has a negative effect on me."

Hashiba slowly nodded. "I see. Anything else?"

"That's all. There's nothing good about it. I don't think an inferiority complex can help people grow. It's generally just the starting point to a warped nature. Some can spring off of an inferiority complex to achieve success, but even once they do, they keep being tormented by inferiority."

"What you say sounds right," Hashiba said. "But looking at you, I can't help but think this: Some serious flaws are helped to grow by their prudent owners. Of course, that's speaking of those who can't look away from their flaws."

"Are you sure you're not mistaking prudence for inferiority?"

"No mistake." Hashiba's wrinkled face smiled.

When I left the hospital, he gave me a book: the original version of Charles Bukowski's "Ham on Rye." Afterward, I started to read five pages of it a day, an English dictionary in one hand.

Ultimately, I was ready to begin high school in early July. By then, the students would be done with final exams, free from that pressure to let their hearts dance with thoughts of the coming summer vacation.

The summers when you're in high school. No small number of people call those the best days of your life. But the radiance of summer is something that builds up from spring. Being thrown into the height of it from a world of antiseptic smells and white walls, I felt as out of place as if I'd walked into a total stranger's birthday party.

Could I keep up in this world?


The Sunday night after I got out of the hospital, I visited the coast. I'd gotten into bed at 10 PM, but felt unusually awake, so I grabbed my cane and left out the back door. I was as nervous as anybody about school starting tomorrow.

I stopped by a store on the way and bought cigarettes from a vending machine. At the beach, I sat on the seawall and looked over the ocean faintly lit by the crescent moon for about an hour. I hadn't been to the beach in a long time, but I made no major discoveries. The smell of the tide felt a little stronger than usual, maybe.

On my way back home, walking through the silent residential district, I heard a phone ringing in the distance.

At first, I thought it was coming from someone's house. But as I walked, it grew louder.

I came to a stop at a phone booth by the bus stop. That's where it was coming from.

Something like this had happened before. I didn't dwell on it then, as it just seemed like a prank.

But ever since I received that call, with day after day that passed, that woman's words weighed increasingly on my mind.

You still carry a love you can't give up on.

Was that really just a prank call?

If it wasn't, what was she trying to say?

...Thinking about it, I felt like I'd been waiting for her to call me again ever since then.

I took the receiver and heard a familiar female voice.

"It seems you understand that I'm not playing a prank."

I replied, three months late. "I admit defeat. There is someone I can't give up on."

"Yes, that's right," the woman said with satisfaction. "Miss Yui Hajikano. You still refuse to let go of her."

I wasn't especially surprised to hear her say Hajikano's name. She was able to determine my location and make a nearby public phone ring. It didn't seem that strange she'd know about my crush.

"So, what was that proposal you were talking about?"

"Ah..." The woman sounded impressed. "How well you remember from three months ago."

"Just happened to stick with me."

"Well, let's put that aside. So, about the proposal I wanted to make before... Would you make a bet with me?"

"A bet?", I asked.

"Mr. Fukamachi." The woman invoked my name very casually. "One summer, when you were 12, you fell in love with Hajikano. So accustomed to the biases held against you, the fact that Hajikano would pay your birthmark no mind and treat you as an equal made her like a goddess. Surely you thought of wanting her as a girlfriend more than just once or twice."

The woman paused momentarily.

"...But she was too distant a goal for you. "I have no right to love her," you thought, and so you suppressed your feelings for her."

I wouldn't deny it. "And?", I pressed.

"You thought you had no right to love her... But at the same time, you thought this: "If only I didn't have this birthmark, maybe our relationship could have been something a little different.""

"Yeah, I did," I admitted. Sure enough, she could see right through me, even regarding my birthmark. "But everyone's like that. If only I were a little taller, if only my eyes were a little bigger, if only my teeth were a little nicer... It's more unusual not to have those thoughts."

"Well then, let's try removing that birthmark," the woman interrupted. "If you're able to win Hajikano's heart, you win the bet. It will be gone from your face forever. On the other hand, if you can't cause any change in Hajikano's feelings, I win the bet."

I pushed my forehead and closed my eyes.

What was this woman saying?

"This birthmark won't go away," I mumbled with irritation. "I've tried all kinds of treatments. But none of them did a thing. It's a special birthmark. So this bet can't happen. Besides, I haven't met Hajikano for three years, ever since we graduated elementary and went our separate ways. I don't even know what her life is like now."

"Then if your birthmark vanished and you suddenly reunited with Hajikano, you would go through with the bet?"

"Yeah, sure. If a miracle like that happened."

The woman snorted softly. "Well, as for the limit... Let's see. I'll give you fifty days. In a few hours it will be July 13th, so the bet will begin then, and you'll have until August 31st. Please, win over Hajikano by then."

The call suddenly ended. I stood motionless in front of the phone for a while.

Imagining a possibility, I checked with the side mirror of a car stopped under a streetlight, but the birthmark was still on my face as ever. Not a sign of being any lighter, not a sign of being any smaller.

So it was just a prank after all. Someone with thorough knowledge of me was playing with my emotions with bizarre devotion and elaborate means. It was hard to swallow right away, but I could come up with no other explanations. There were plenty of people who'd be bitter toward me, and in a town so lacking in excitement that "bored" just didn't cut it, young people would go far off the beaten track just for momentary thrills. Everybody just had nothing to do. I wouldn't find it odd if someone found out the numbers for all the public phones in town just to ridicule me.

I sighed and put my hands on my knees. I felt beat all of a sudden, probably due to my hospitalization reducing my stamina.

One thing was for sure: I was surprised by my own dejection. I began to feel self-loathing for having actually gone and checked a mirror.

Could I still not give it up?

I went home, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed. The bedside clock read 3 AM. Now I'd be stuck nodding off on my first day of school.

I closed my eyes and waited to lose consciousness as soon as possible. Only at times like these does a second hand sound like a loud metronome, my breathing accelerating to match it. I reached out to change the angle, but it had no effect. Even with the window open, the room was bizarrely humid, and my throat was dry.

When I finally got to sleep, the sky was turning white, and the early morning birds and cicadas were buzzing.

Mere minutes of sleep. But through that short lapse of consciousness, a major change to my life took place.

Miracles always happen when no one's looking.



[+]

Chapter 2: Fleeting Summer

Mirrors don't always tell the truth. When people look at their faces in the mirror, the light rays reflect off the mirror, refract once in the cornea, pass through the pupil, then refract again in the crystalline lens to project onto the retina, get converted into nerve signals, and finally travel to the optic center in the brain. Yet just before going into consciousness, it can be warped by the filter of self-love.

Strictly speaking, there exists no person who's ever seen themselves objectively. People's eyes see only what they want to see, and with that as a base, reconstruct the rest as they'd like it to be. When going up to a mirror, you subconsciously keep an angle and expression that makes you look more beautiful, and devote your attention to the parts of your face you're most confident in. The majority of people who say "I don't look good in photos" just can't accept the reality of how they actually are due to the self-image they've established by conspiring with mirrors to get their best side. That's what I think, at least.

Most people aren't aware of this filter until they get old enough to discern it. Unlucky people - or, in a sense, incredibly lucky people - go their whole lives not knowing it. In their youth, everyone's princesses and princes. No one so much as dreams that they're not actually Cinderella, but rather one of the stepsisters. Yet as people age, and begin to feel a separation between their self-awareness and the evaluation of others, they're left with no choice but to amend their self-image. I'm not a princess. I'm not a prince.

I realized that early in the summer in fourth grade. We were having a discussion to decide parts for a play at the school arts festival in September. Until that point, I'd only thought of my birthmark as a large mole at best. Even if my classmates teased me for it, I thought it was no different from kids with glasses or chubby kids being teased - nothing I considered too peculiar. Even when I was called associated names, I didn't feel that bad. In fact, I enjoyed it as if it was proof I was easy to get on with.

One boy's statement showed me otherwise.

"How about Phantom of the Opera?"

He raised his hand, then pointed at me.

"See, Yosuke'd be perfect for the Phantom!"

During a music class a few days ago, we'd watched a video of the musical The Phantom of the Opera for just thirty minutes. The Phantom wore a mask covering the right side to hide his hideous face, so the boy had probably made a mental connection to me upon seeing it.

It was surely just meant to be an off-hand joke. A few people did chuckle secretly, and even I thought to myself, "Yeah, I get it."

However, when our ever-gentle homeroom teacher in her late thirties heard his joke, she exploded with rage. She slammed her desk, angrily shouted "Don't you know there are things you can't say?!", grabbed the joke-teller by the collar, and had him stand up front for a major lecturing. It went on until the chime for lunch came along. His eyes were utterly red from crying, and the air in the classroom had become oppressive. It felt like what should have been fun preparations for the festival had been ruined because of me.

In that classroom where no one spoke and only cutlery clattered, I realized the truth. Oh. So this birthmark of mine isn't the kind of thing you can just laugh about and be done with. It's a handicap so severe that adults will feel pity for me. Compared to "defects" like glasses or chubbiness or freckles, which could earn you affection, this was a whole other dimension of defective - it made me someone downright pitiful.

From that day forth, I become unusually anxious about the gazes of others. Once I was aware of it, I saw that more people than I'd thought focused their attention on my birthmark. Maybe I was overthinking it, or maybe our teacher's passionate speech really did cause, in the majority of my classmates, a negative shift in perception of my birthmark. At any rate, I couldn't help but hate the birthmark that covered my face.

I looked up how to remove birthmarks at the library, but my birthmark seemed to have a different cause from common hereditary marks like a Nevus of Ota or a Mongolian spot, so there seemed to be effectively no method of removing it. There had been cases of them going away naturally, it seemed, but even such miracles only seemed to happen on much lighter birthmarks than mine.

When I was young, my mom took me to various hospitals, but it always ended up being in vain. The topic didn't come up among my family again for years afterward, but seeing me desperately looking into it all of a sudden that summer, my mom started trying hospitals again. I remember similar music box songs playing at every hospital we went to. The people in the waiting rooms all had skin conditions that were identifiable at a glance, and whenever they saw a patient who had it worse than them, they seemed to take some comfort in it.

Going to all these dermatologists, I came to learn that there were people cursed with far more severe skin problems than what I had. But that fact didn't comfort me. In fact, it made me fed up to see how many irrational ailments existed in the world. My situation certainly wasn't the worst. But that didn't mean it would always be the case.

As my scopophobia worsened, my behavior got stranger, making me look that much more of an oddity, and making me more frightened still of others watching - this downward spiral continued until soon, I hardly talked to anyone even when I went to school. I was possessed by a persecution complex thinking that everyone was disgusted by me anyway, and couldn't believe in even the most friendly of smiles.


One night, I woke up from a sudden chill of unknown cause. I didn't seem to have caught a cold, and the temperature was over 70 degrees, yet I was struck with unbearable shakes. I hurried for the closet to get a down quilt, put it over the blanket, and dove back under.

Even by morning, the chills hadn't left me. I took the day off elementary school from them, and reluctantly wore a winter coat to school the next day. My mom suspected autonomic ataxia and took me to several hospitals, but came up with no ideas for treating it beyond not going to school for a while. Luckily, there were no symptoms other than chills, so if I just dressed warm, it wouldn't impact my life.

And so I began a slightly early summer vacation.

It was a freezing summer. While cicadas buzzed all around, I was curled up under thick blankets drinking warm tea. At night, I'd fill up a hot-water bottle and shiver to sleep holding it. When my parents went out for work, I snuck outside to get some fresh air; I wonder what the neighbors thought of me bundled up in double-layers under the blazing sun.

Once mom understood that the stress causing my autonomic ataxia was brought about by my birthmark, she stopped asking me all about my days at school.

"Well, just get some good rest" was all she said. "Don't worry about getting better quick. In fact, it might be nice to think of how you can better deal with those chills."

Had this condition lasted until winter, what would have happened to me? Even summer days over 90 felt like arctic winter. If the temperature went below freezing, maybe I'd have frozen to death. Or maybe I'd have gotten a fever and run around naked in the snow.

But I never got the chance to find out. About twenty days after taking my early vacation, my chills vanished like they were never there.

I'll just say that it was all thanks to Yui Hajikano.

*

My first day of high school started with pleasant weather.

Putting my arms through the sleeves of white summer clothes and slipping on new loafers, I opened the door and was embraced by the heat soaked into the asphalt. It seemed an old man in the area had been watering outside the front door, so the wet black road sparkled. The power poles and trees cast down distinct shadows, and the tall fuki growing in an empty lot let out a grassy smell.

I felt slightly dizzy from all the sensations to take in. I would be turning 16 this year, yet the beginning of summer was the one thing which still felt fresh. I felt I wouldn't get accustomed to it this time, either.

The season of summer brings about an excessive amount of life. The sun radiates ten times the energy, rainclouds freely scatter the essence of life onto the earth, plants grow monstrously, insects chirp like mad, and humans dance elated in the heat. And yet, that excessive life can be connected with excessive death. The reason ghost stories have become intrinsically linked with summer isn't likely to be the simple fact that they help to forget about the heat. Maybe we all implicitly understand that the bigger a fire burns, the sooner it will burn out. That excessive life comes about via a loaning of energy, and the tab will have to be paid back later.

At any rate, we tuck away this excessive life and death in our memories until the next summer comes, and unbeknownst to us, it shrinks and shrinks. So it can surprise us every time - to realize again that summer was such an intense season.


Due to some misestimation, I thought I left home with plenty of time to spare, yet only reached the station just before the train pulled in. All the passengers had already spilled out onto the platform, and I heard the brakes screech.

As I showed my pass to the worker and passed through the ticket check, I heard a voice from behind cheerfully tell me "Have a good ride!" I turned around and realized it had been that attendee who always stared blatantly at my birthmark.

Though I found that odd, I boarded the train. It was filled with the mixed smells of sweat and tobacco, ensuring my day started with a feeling of disgust.

While looking around for a seat, I noticed two girls over by the wall, wearing uniforms for a different high school, and one of them pointing at me. Laughing about my birthmark, I groaned, and gave them a glare - then as if wondering if she'd done something wrong, she awkwardly averted her eyes, and a shy smile came to her lips.

Getting a reaction like that was extremely rare, so I was thrown off. There was the attendant's greeting, too; maybe the world had gotten a little nicer while I was hospitalized? I shook my head; no, that couldn't be right. Maybe everyone is just elated about summer's arrival.


I disembarked three stops later, mixed in with people all wearing the same uniform, and walked the thirty-or-so minute path to the school. There was apparently an elementary school nearby, and a huge number of grade-schoolers passed us by. About one-third of them looked at my face and greeted me nicely. I faltered, but greeted them back.

Heading straight ahead from the station for a while, in a packed residential district past a railroad crossing, was the school I now attended: Minagisa First High. The building itself was easy to find, but the front gate was so small as to be mistaken for the back entrance - first-time visitors would have to walk along the rusty fence around the area several times in search of it.

On the generally drab-looking building hung three curtains, on which were written the lackluster achievements of lackluster clubs. The eaves untouched by rain were dirty beyond cleaning, and really brought to mind seediness when viewed from below. I'd only visited it twice, but no doubt, this was a high school that was leagues away from elegance.

While walking around the midpoint between the station and school, I saw a strange movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned around, and met eyes with myself in a reflector on the road. So it was me in the reflection who I'd seen move.

I was about to start walking again, but something stopped me.

A powerful, unsettling feeling.

I came to a halt and looked all around my body. I checked my clothes. My uniform was on properly. My shirt wasn't one button misaligned or anything. My pants weren't inside-out, and my belt was tight.

But still, I turned around again, and peered at the mirror.

Yes, something was strange. I searched to find what it could be.

Needless to say, it was seeing myself in the mirror that had triggered that feeling.

Not caring about getting my hands dirty, I scrubbed off the dusty mirror, then looked at my reflection in it once more.

And then I understood.

The person in the mirror looked similar to me. But he wasn't me. He was missing one decisive element that made up who I am.

He was an unfamiliar figure, yet somewhere in my mind, I felt nostalgic. Because it was my ideal appearance, my "if only it were like this," which I'd imagined time after time.


The giant birthmark was gone without a trace, as if it had been washed off.


All sounds and sights instantly became distant. I stood awestruck in front of the mirror.

I felt deep confusion.

A man bumped into me from behind, and I nearly toppled over. I heard an apology, but that was neither here nor there for me. Watching me continue to stare at the mirror, he gave a dubious look and left.

I fearfully observed the area where the birthmark had been from all angles. I confirmed it was no trick of the light or illusion caused by a clouded mirror.

I wonder if there's an infallible way to determine whether this is a dream or reality, I thought. Dreams where your wishes are realized are hardly rare. Most dreams are based on a mix of people's dormant unease and desires. Dreams where you overcome your inferiority are probably the model example. I couldn't get too excited yet - I had to confirm that what I was seeing was reality.

I tried closing my eyes for ten seconds. It may just be me, but closing my eyes or covering my ears in a dream to intercept the flow of information often broke the chain of association, causing the dream to end. Whenever I had a bad dream, and was aware of it being one, I would employ this method.

But ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds brought no change. My senses were still perfectly clear.

I opened my eyes and looked at the mirror. It showed, of course, me without the birthmark.

This isn't a dream. For now, that's what I have to think. So then, a new question.

What's going on?

I desperately thought. The fact that I still failed to come up with any theories worth calling theories surely wasn't only to be blamed on a lack of sleep. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that - essentially, unless a major change occurred in my thoughts, I knew that no amount of worrying would get me an answer. Unless I were to believe a certain absurd story, thinking things through to the end would only send me in circles.

But I was still unable to accept it. Until I heard it from her own mouth, I couldn't present that conclusion.

I wanted to go somewhere with a public phone. But I didn't know how I would do that here, at a campus whose geography I didn't know my way around. That said, there was probably at least one inside the building. Maybe simply going to school would be the best option. In any event, I couldn't stand here in the middle of the road forever. There was already nobody around, and if I didn't get going soon, I would be unable to make it on time for my first class.

Reluctantly, I looked away from the reflector and set my sights on the school building, visible through the gaps between houses.


Despite it being my first day at school, school had become all but meaningless to me now. Even as I listened to the homeroom teacher in a faculty room filled with the smell of instant coffee, I was completely absentminded. Then, of all times, he gave all kinds of advice in a passionate tone, more than just the bare essentials. "Joining the class now will be tough, no doubt, but they're all nice, so take it seriously and you'll do fine"; "you'll want to reach a certain level of familiarity with everyone before summer break starts, so good luck"; etcetera.

The teacher was an honest man in his mid-thirties, his hair slicked and shining. His name was Kasai. About five minutes after he started talking, a teacher with a slumped posture arrived and whispered something into his ear. Looking as if his mood had been dampened, he told me to wait here for a while and left the faculty room.

Once Kasai was gone, I left the faculty room myself without asking and entered the faculty bathroom. To confirm again that my birthmark was still gone. I couldn't help feeling that the moment I looked away, it would be back to normal. Because with how simply it went away, perhaps it could just as simply return.

Of course, it was just a needless worry. It was, indeed, still gone. I leaned back on the wall as if collapsing and continued to look in the mirror.

It had been years since I looked so closely at my own face.

That's not a bad face, I thought, as if it weren't my own.

And then, I could no longer take a single step from where I stood. I suppose I felt a compulsion to give this sight if only a second more to be etched into my mind. If I looked away, would that birthmark be back? If I didn't keep looking and getting accustomed to "me without the birthmark," would my mind notice that my body didn't match my self-perception and create it again? I couldn't get such worries out of my mind.

It was probably only a couple of minutes before Kasai opened the bathroom door and called my name, or maybe it was more than twenty. With his "Hey, Fukamachi," I finally came back to my senses. "I can understand being nervous on your first day, but don't vanish on me suddenly."

Never mind nervous, I didn't care one bit about the people I was about to meet - but I didn't want to explain myself. I apologized for suddenly absconding, and Kasai patted my shoulder. "Don't overthink it. It'll work out."


Standing in front of the class, I don't remember what I really said in my introduction. I think it was more or less stringing together words I felt like I'd heard somewhere just to get through it. My head was filled with thoughts of my vanished birthmark, so it just wasn't the time for that. Judging from what I saw of Kasai's grim face, it was probably a pretty blunt introduction. I feel like there was a stir among the students.

My first impression was the worst. That said, I'd never had any intention of getting friendly in this classroom, so I didn't mind one bit if it caused everyone to hate me.

The absence of my birthmark didn't appear to be a mere illusion. Generally, when people first met me, they'd stare at it curiously for a few seconds, or avert their eyes and try to not look me in the eye again. But none of the students here were giving me that reaction. They just seemed to think of me as an guy with poor social skills.

After my simplistic introduction and some obligatory applause, Kasai pointed to an empty seat in the far back and told me to sit there. The desks were arranged with seven people in the two columns by the windows, but the other five columns having six people each. So my seat was one of only two in the very back row.

While walking to my seat, I sensed different looks upon me than usual. Whether they were looks of curiosity toward a classmate who was appearing three months late, or demeaning looks toward a guy who couldn't even give a proper introduction, I couldn't be sure.

After being told a few messages, morning homeroom ended, and Kasai was replaced by the first period teacher, who began class without delay. The English teacher, a woman with short hair in her late twenties, seemed to pay no mind to the new face suddenly appearing in her class. I didn't listen much to the lecture, staring at a blank notebook and thinking about my birthmark.

I heard black cicadas from the trees surrounding the bike-parking area. The students all had uniformly serious faces as they listened to the teacher. If there was something they didn't get, their faces turned restless, and they looked happy when they understood something they hadn't been able to before. A huge difference from the bunch I'd been with in middle school.

Class ended in the blink of an eye, and it became break time. I didn't get a crowd of students with burning curiosity surrounding me to ask questions. Some people gave me oblique glances since I was just sitting there absentmindedly, not talking to anyone, but that was all. Half the people in the room were grouped up and talking to each other, and the other half had notebooks and textbooks open. I wanted to go find a public phone, but ten minutes didn't seem like enough to find one in a school I'd never really explored before. I'd just have to wait until lunch.

Bothered by the sunlight, I looked over to an empty seat in front and to the right of mine. The desk's owner didn't seem to have come to class, and there was nothing inside it. On the back of the seat, the number "1836" had been written in permanent marker. What did that number mean? Surely it wasn't the seat number.

The chime for the end of the break period rang, and the scattered students hurried back to their desks. Not long after second period began, either due to my lack of sleep last night or the bizarre events of this morning, I was struck with drowsiness as heavy as a cloth soaked with water. Not wanting to be nodding off even on the first day, I pinched my brow and desperately fought it, but sadly, my eyelids fell in minutes.

I only slept for about twenty minutes, but had an oddly vivid dream. A dream in which my birthmark returned. Washing my face in the bathroom, I looked up and spotted it. "Ah, sure enough, that was just a dream." My shoulders slumped.

In the dream, I was dejected, yet somehow relieved. Maybe, as odious a defect as it was, I had carried it so long as to acquire some amount of affection for it. Or perhaps I was relieved to be free from the pressure of having no excuses anymore, now that my greatest handicap was rid of.

I woke up to being poked in the upper arm. It took me a bit to realize I was in neither the hospital room nor my room at home. This was a classroom, so it wasn't a caretaker or parent who woke me.

I looked to my right. The girl in the next seat had woken me up, and looked at me as if stunned by the imprudence of someone who would nod off so early in the morning on their first day attending. Wondering how long I'd slept, I sat up and looked at the wall clock. Second period was already about to end. Maybe she woke me up in time for greetings.

I bowed my head and told her thanks, but she had already turned her attention to the blackboard. It almost seemed like she was blatantly ignoring me. Maybe trying to tell me "I don't need your thanks." Perhaps she woke me up not so much out of good will, but because the teacher yelling at me for sleeping would cause a scene in the classroom and she wanted to avoid that.

My eyes stayed on her. Black hair long enough to reach her chest hung over her well-shaped ears, and her neat facial structure and thin neck stood out. A plain face at a glance, but impressively well-featured if you looked closely. The sailor uniform of Minagisa First High felt like it was made for her. She looked almost comically serious glaring at the board, giving me the impression she was stubborn and not too adaptable. She was sitting with bizarrely good posture, as if this were a tea ceremony, and yet was still shorter sitting down than other girls nearby.

Simply put, a girl like her couldn't be further distanced from a hooligan like me. I doubted we could see eye-to-eye about anything, even how to hold chopsticks.

Class ended. Due to the dream I'd had, I was restless. As I stood up from my seat to go to the bathroom and check my birthmark again, the girl who had woken me up earlier mumbled an "um..." in my direction.

At first, I didn't notice I was being spoken to. If I were to list the people who would decide to speak to me themselves, there would be Hajikano, and then there would be a bunch of good-for-nothings similarly ostracized from society. I would have never dreamed that someone who seemed like she'd be well-trusted by her classmates and teachers would reach out to me.

"Are your injuries all right now?", the girl sitting next to me asked, as naturally as speaking to an old friend.

Processing the voice as only noise, I suddenly noticed a word with a strong connection to me, hurriedly replayed the sentence in my mind, and considering the possibility that it was directed at me, timidly looked toward the speaker.

We made eye contact.

"Could you be talking to me?", I asked.

"Yes," the girl nodded deeply. "Am I a bother?"

"No, nothing like that, just, um..." I sputtered vaguely. "It's unexpected that a girl like you would talk to me at our first meeting."

After taking a few seconds to think about what I meant, she had a slightly pained smile.

"Do I not look like I'm interested in other people?"
"No, I didn't meant it like that."
"Then how did you mean it?"
"It's just, like... I thought you disliked me."
With the same expression, the girl tilted her head. "Why? I won't like or dislike someone I've never even spoken to."
"Then you'll come to hate me later."

She went silent for some seconds to ponder the implication of my response. Then suddenly, her eyes narrowed and she giggled. Apparently interpreting it as a joke told with a serious face.

"How disparaging," she said. "Or are you no good with people liking you?"
"I dunno. Haven't had any experience with that."
"Is that right?"

The girl smiled elegantly with little movement of her lips. This too was mistaken as a joke, it seemed.

"I'm not lying. I really don't have any experience being liked."
"Yes, yes, I understand," she nodded, not believing at all.
Holding in my irritation, I sighed. "To ask you back, are you skilled at being liked?"
"I don't know. I don't have any experience in that area," the girl in the neighboring seat said smugly.

No doubt it was a lie, of course. In fact, it sure wouldn't surprise me if she had several people falling for her every time she took the train or bus.

I sat there stunned and gave no response. Then the girl reached into her bag, took out a long rectangular piece of paper, and put it on my desk.

"What's this?", I asked.

"A tanzaku," she told me, waving about one for herself between her fingertips. "They had them out in the hall. I took another one as a spare, but I'll give it to you."

"Tanzaku, huh? Well, by the Gregorian calendar, Tanabata ended a week ago, and by the lunar calendar, isn't it much too soon?"
"From Orihime and Hikoboshi's perspective, a mere week or month is within the margin of error."
"Is that how it works?"
"Yes, it is. As fellows in having no experience being liked, let's wish to Orihime and Hikoboshi to have someone like us."

After staring at the pale blue tanzaku for a while, I handed it back to the girl.

"I don't need it. You can use mine for yourself."

"Erm, I don't think Orihime or Hikoboshi will grant my wish either," she said, holding a pen and looking out into empty space. "But it's a good chance to think about what you're seeking. As happy as they may be, people who don't know what they want will go on never getting it. Prayers exist to figure out what wish you want granted."

"Look, it's not like I hate prayers," I replied. "To tell you the truth, I've only just had a wish granted. A dream I'd had for a long time came true just a couple of hours ago. I feel like I'll be punished if I wish for any more."

"My, congratulations," the girl said, putting her pen down to quietly clap. "I'm very envious. ...Was your wish to recover from your injury? Or perhaps to go to high school?"

"Neither. It's a more personal wish."
"I see. Then I probably shouldn't probe too deeply."
"I'd appreciate it."

"Well then." She pointed to the tanzaku by my hand. "Instead, please make a wish for me."
"For what?", I asked.
"Freedom," she replied.


"Please, wish for my freedom."


Now it was my turn to wonder about the implications of her words. Though her gentle smile suggested there was ample room to take it as a joke, there was a hint of sincerity somewhere in her voice.

"Alright" was all I said, picking up a pen.

And I asked. "By the way, what's your name?"

"Chigusa. Chigusa Ogiue," she answered, with her eyes still lowered on the tanzaku. "And you are Yosuke Fukamachi."

"Yeah, I know."


When the next break arrived, we had another trivial conversation. According to the things Chigusa told me, it seemed unlikely I had missed any lessons beyond the scope of my independent studying, luckily.

Once on lunch break, I left the classroom right away. I ducked into the bathroom and checked a third time in the mirror that there had been no changes. Then I made my way through the floods of people in the hallways and stairwells, going down to the first floor to find a phone. I found what I was looking for next to a vending machine with a terrible selection placed outside an office.

That was where the problems began. I had no means of contacting that woman myself. I expected that if I were just within range to hear the ringing she would make a call for me, but now, the phone was deathly silent.

I sat at the drinking fountain across the hall and wiped sweat from my brow. Right by the window, a number of cicadas were buzzing as if in a competition. Students came one after another to the vending machine to buy whatever food they liked.

Perhaps because this place had people around, it wouldn't do. Thinking about it, that woman had only called me when I was totally alone, so far without exception. Probably it would have been inconvenient for anyone but me to hear the conversation.

After waiting about ten minutes, I felt a little hungry. I should probably give up on this for now and just get some lunch already, I thought. I felt I could wait here forever and the phone would never ring. The times when that woman called just had to have that unique sense of utter unease.

Up on the second floor, I bought some leftover shiso onigiri, then stopped by the bathroom to check for my birthmark. How many times was that, now? Considering how I would never intentionally look at myself in the mirror before, I'd probably done two years' worth today alone.

I left the bathroom and returned to the classroom on the fourth floor. Most of the students were eating and happily chatting with their friends, but I didn't see Chigusa around. Maybe she'd gone to see friends in another class.

I sat down, and the boy sitting in front of me twisted his upper body around and put an elbow on my desk. He had long dark hair, and a friendly-looking face. From his toned legs, I wondered if he played soccer.

"You had an awfully long spring break, didn't ya?", he said, leaning forward. We were less than 30 centimeters apart. "Hey, looks like Ogiue's taken a liking to you, Nice, nice. Man, am I envious!"

Though taken aback by his familiarity with me, I replied. "We only said a few words. That's not necessarily a liking."

The boy shook his head dramatically. "You only say that because you don't know Chigusa Ogiue. ...Didn't you get this sorta strange feeling talking with her?"

Hearing that, I thought back on my brief conversations with Chigusa.

"She is a little strange, now that you mention it. Seems like she has a tendency to act too polite."

"That's it," he said, raising his index finger with a disagreeable smirk. "She's an all-out princess. I don't know the details, but apparently her family's pretty rich."

That was easy to imagine. Compared to an ordinary high schooler, you could feel the difference in Chigusa's conduct indicating a better upbringing. She must have breathed different air, ate different food, and been raised with a different philosophy from us.

"I don't get it, though," I wondered aloud. "Why would a rich girl attend a remote school like this?"

"We think it's weird, too. Why do you think? Trying to get some human experiences here, maybe?"

"To experience such prejudices would be one reason."

Though I don't know when, Chigusa had returned to the classroom, and stood behind the boy.

"Oh, you heard," the boy said with surprise, trying to hide his awkwardness.

"If you're going to gossip about someone, do it somewhere they won't hear you, please."

The boy reached for the back of his head and combed his hair repeatedly, then leaned back in his chair defiantly.

"I should ask outright while I've got the chance. Why did you pick this school, Ogiue?"

"To get some human experiences," Chigusa answered with a demure look.

"Somebody's got a grudge," he joked with a pained smile. "Free up some more room in your heart. Or else you'll never open up to everybody."

"I'm in the midst of opening up to him." Chigusa pointed toward me. "And you are in the way."

"My bad, then," the boy shrugged.

Someone from a group of four or five students in the corner of the classroom called toward him, "Nagahora, hurry up!" The boy responded to it, said "Well, keep Ogiue company," slapped my shoulder, and went over to his friends.

He probably wasn't that bad of a person. He didn't seem to have any particular ill will toward Chigusa, either.

"Did he tell you anything else odd?", Chigusa asked me.

"I wanna say he said "it's an honor to be in the same classroom as the most beautiful girl in the school.""

"Surely he wouldn't have given such flattery," she snorted. "I'll say this just to avoid any misunderstandings: my family is certainly not rich. That rumor was only true a very long time ago. Because now, it's a perfectly average family."

While I pondered how large a gap there might have been between what she called an "average family" and what I thought that was, I bit into my onigiri and washed it down with tea. Chigusa took out a lunch box from her bag, and while it looked a little old, it also had a fancy-looking lacquer.

"Why not explain that to, uh... to Nagahora?"

"Why, indeed?" She bent her head. "Perhaps I still wish to have them continuing to misunderstand. Perhaps I find it comfortable having them think of me as being rich, and keeping their distance. ...By the way, Fukamachi. Would you like to have lunch together?"

"I don't mind, but... Um, is that not a bother?"

Chigusa's face hardened with a look like she'd been lied to, then she covered her mouth and laughed like she found something deeply funny. "I suppose that's what I should be asking you. Erm, Fukamachi, would it not bother you?"
"Surely not. In fact, I'm grateful."
"To eat lunch with the most beautiful girl in the school?"
"Yeah."
"Even knowing it's a joke, it makes me happy."

Chigusa approached my desk, placed a chair about 30 centimeters away, and sat down in it holding her skirt down with one hand. Her necktie with two white lines on it shook slightly.

I heard a "let's eat" as quiet as a whisper.


After school, Chigusa showed me around the campus. I didn't know if she did it of her own volition, or if that nosy teacher had requested her to. But she didn't seem to dislike it, at least.

"If your legs start to hurt, don't hesitate to say so," Chigusa said.

"I think I'll be fine." I stepped in place to check their status, and nothing hurt or felt out of place.

Outside the open windows of the hallway, I heard shouts from the athletics club, the sound of metal bats hitting baseballs, a trombone practicing, and chaotic guitar-tuning from the light music club. Inter-high-school preliminaries and the culture festival were approaching, so everyone was busy enough to make the sweltering heat of the building seem only natural.

"By the way, Ogiue, don't you have a club to be with?"

"Not to worry," she responded, putting a hand to her chest and shaking her head. "My records will say "flower arrangement club," but as for our activity... we generally just sit around and chat. ...By the way, Fukamachi, have you already decided what club to join?"

"I think I probably won't join any."
"Indeed, you have just recovered from an injury."
"No, my legs are fine. I just can't even imagine myself doing well anywhere like that."
"You're overthinking."
"Maybe so. But my bad feelings tend to be validated."

Chigusa stopped and looked up at my face. She briefly opened her mouth, then closed it as if rethinking it, and after taking some time to choose her words, spoke.

"Actually, Fukamachi... To tell the truth, I'm also somewhat of a latecomer. I had a slight health issue that kept me from coming to school until early May. It's quite recent that I could even walk on my own legs; until half a month ago, I was using a wheelchair. So I can understand your feeling of being at a loss. It feels as if the world has left you behind."

Chigusa let out a breath, then smiled to encourage me.

"But I will guarantee it. You will be fine, Fukamachi. I'm sure everything will work out well for you. I have no proof, but that's the feeling I get."

"Thanks," I told her. "That makes me feel better."

We resumed walking. We passed by lots of people in our once-around of the school, but not one person gave me peeking glances like they had when my birthmark was still there. Maybe people's glances just didn't bother me if I felt good myself. But either way, it was clearly thanks to my birthmark being gone. It surprised me how much easier it became to live in this world with just a minor change to my appearance.

After going around the whole building, we changed shoes at the entrance and went outside. After going around to the back to show me the locations of the club rooms and the second gymnasium, Chigusa tapped my shoulder and pointed to someone on the field. I looked and found Nagahora waving at us, holding a squeeze bottle in his other hand. Just as I predicted, he seemed to be part of the soccer club. He wore white practice clothes stained with dirt.

"I believe he's waiting for your response," Chigusa whispered in my ear.

I waved back with some doubts in my mind, and Nagahora put up his thumb with a satisfied smile. Immediately after, there came an instruction from their supervisor, so he hurried to join the other members.

"He's not a bad person," Chigusa informed me. "If you shut your eyes to his gossipping."

"Seems like it," I nodded.

Once the tour was over, it was past 7 PM. The surroundings had gotten suddenly dim, evening bugs began to chirp, nighttime lights came on at the field, and the wind instruments club shifted to practicing as a group.

Walking a straight line to the school gate alongside Chigusa, I thanked her.

"You helped me a lot today. I'm grateful."

"No, no. I was most happy to take part in meddling with such a man of leisure," Chigusa said with an exaggerated bow of her head. "Besides, were I not there, I believe someone else would have gladly taken up my role."

"Wouldn't think so. The only people to talk to me today have just been you and Nagahora."

"But everyone looked as if they wished to talk to you."

"To me?" I was unable to hide the sheer bewilderment in my voice. "Do they have a problem with me?"

"You truly are pessimistic, Fukamachi," Chigusa smiled.

We walked in silence down a path along a river. Nearly half of the security lights along the sides of the road had gone out or were flickering, and mosquitoes and scarab beetles flew around the brightest spots. Frogs croaked endlessly from a nearby rice paddy, and I heard a dull sound of train brakes in the distance. The smell of grilled fish wafted from the ventilation of someone's house.

I thought deeply on how never for a second had I expected to be heading home from school with someone on my very first day.

When it came time to part ways, Chigusa took a deep breath. "Erm... Fukamachi."

"Whatever could it be?", I responded with silly politeness, and her eyes smiled a bit.

"Well... yes. If there's anything worrying you, don't hesitate to tell me. We will worry about it together."

"Ah, I see. Not necessarily saying you'll resolve it."

"Yes. Because in practice, the things someone can do for another are very few."

"Absolutely," I agreed.

*

Maybe, just maybe, I could live a proper life.

Walking casually down the streets outside of the station, I began to think so. Both Chigusa and Nagahora seemed to show affection toward me, and nobody among my classmates looked bad. The classes seemed like something I could keep up with, too. I couldn't be definite since it was just one day, but for now, there was nothing at all to be uneasy about.

No - if there were one matter for concern, it was, of course, the return of my birthmark.

Chigusa's words of "You will be fine, Fukamachi" made me genuinely happy. But she could only say that not knowing my true appearance. Not knowing my hideousness. And I didn't know how long I could keep this transient appearance. If the appointed day came with me still not having won Hajikano's heart, my face would go back to normal.

If my birthmark were to come back tomorrow, what would Chigusa say when she saw my face? Would she still be able to guarantee to me "You will be fine, Fukamachi"?

Or maybe it was as she said, and I was just too pessimistic, the absence or presence of my birthmark not meaning much in the long run. Then it wasn't impossible that I didn't have as many problems as I thought, and had simply been in bad circumstances up to now...

Going around in circles as usual. Wondering about what others thought of me would never tell me anything. And yet I couldn't not think about it.

I awaited the sound of a phone. There were so many questions I had to ask that woman. How far would I have to take things with Hajikano to satisfy the "victory condition" of this bet? More importantly, would Hajikano show up in front of me? When? Would it be better for me to go look for her?

My feet stopped. I only meant to take a brief detour on the way home, but I had gotten lost. I was on a road with no lights, so narrow I didn't even pass by vending machines, and tall grass grew as tall as it liked by the guardrails on each side. Direction-wise, though, it seemed like I couldn't be too far off-course, so I kept walking, expecting to find a familiar street sooner or later.

After wandering for nearly forty minutes, I finally arrived at a place I knew. It appeared I had done a complete loop, and arrived back at the high school. It was long past closing time, so with the exception of the first floor faculty room, all the lights on campus were off, with only the green glow of exit signs illuminating in places.

This was when I realized there was a shrine next to the school. When I turned the corner intending to go around to the front of the building, a bright red torii stood out in my vision. On both sides of the gate were statues of Inari, and beyond it were long stone steps that went up toward another large torii at the top.

Given there might have been well over a hundred steps on those stairs, I shouldn't have had the vitality left to climb them. I didn't even have a particular inquisitiveness for shrines, and I didn't expect it would be a shortcut to the train station.

As yet, as if being guided, I went up the steps.

Traversing the stairs practically broke my bones. I had already walked for countless minutes, my shirt soaked with sweat. Tall cedars lined both sides, and their long roots pushed up the stone steps in places. After reaching the eightieth step, I stopped counting. I looked down, put my hands on my knees, emptied my head, and just kept walking. There were signs of my injured legs starting to ache, but I couldn't turn back after coming this far.

After surmounting the final step, I came to a flat area a little wider than a 25-meter pool. It seemed to be a shrine that incorporated a park; swings, slides, and benches were placed almost shamefully in the corners. Judging from the long wild grass under the benches, I doubted this place got many visitors.

Turning around, I could get a view of the area around Minagisa First High. I sat on the steps and let out a deep breath, gazing at the school, houses, and supermarkets below. The cold wind drying my sweaty body felt good.

Once I felt I'd had my fill of the modest sights, I stood up to go around once more before returning. Just then, there was a sound behind me. It was like rusted metal rubbing against something - a sound that made me feel genuine fear.

Telling myself the wind just made the play equipment creak, I swallowed down my saliva and looked around.

When I saw the source of the odd sound, I nearly yelped.

There was someone sitting on a moving swing.

It was too dark to see her face, but from her height and general appearance, she seemed to be a girl about my age. She wore a loose and worn-out white shirt and a short skirt, so one could think she'd just walked out of her own room. At a time like this, in a place like this, dressed like that, the girl sitting alone on a swing was a strange sight indeed.

And I didn't need to ask myself "what in the world is she doing?"

She was lying back on the swing, looking up. And up where she was looking, there was a rope.

The rope hanging from the pole was tied in a ring, like a rope you'd hang from for gymnastics. But the fact that there was only one was strange, and the opening seemed a little too big for it.

Yes, you could tell from a glance that it was the girl sitting on the swing who had tied that rope, and that she was about to put her head in it to hang from. The rope hung not directly above one of the swings, but from the center of the bar, and below it was a pile of old books you'd think had been brought from a local junkyard. Acting as a pedestal, the pile was a little bit behind the rope, so after putting her head in, she could simply step off and let gravity do the rest.

She was, at just this moment, about to carry it out. Slowly getting off the swing, she took off her sandals. Carefully standing on the pile of books, she reached for the rope and put it around her neck.

A strong wind blew, and the trees rustled.

It appeared she hadn't noticed yet that there was anyone but her in the park. I stepped gradually closer to the swings. Whether it was persuading her, or pulling her away, or anything, I wanted to get myself in a position where I could quickly respond if she did something hasty.

As I focused my senses trying to not make any noise, the crickets got much louder. Listening to their steady chirping, my sense of time and distance got fuzzy. If I wasn't carreful, I could fall over. Though feeling like I was about to have a dizzy spell, I moved forward bit by bit.

Right as I was nearly within a safe distance, she suddenly noticed the creeping shadow and looked directly at me.

Rather than "do something hasty," I believe her surprise led to an error in judgement.

My evidence was the fact that her body initially fell backward. If she had been trying to die before I could stop her, she should have fallen forward. Maybe my appearance startled her, and she was trying to get her neck out and step off the pedestal.

But due to her haste, the rope didn't quite come loose. In fact, due to her loss of balance, it became tight around her neck - and meanwhile, her feet left the footstool as planned. The pile of books collapsed, and her leg cut through the air.

The rope made a dull sound as it tightened.

For a moment, I couldn't act. Because before I thought "I have to save her," I was struck with terror and instead thought to run away from here as soon as possible. It was the first time I'd ever been in a situation like this, where someone's life was on the line. I somehow felt that if I reached my hand out to save her, something murky black surrounding her death would contaminate me too. So there was the slightest delay before my body's natural reflexes began to overtake my reasoning and move.

I ran over in a hurry and put my right hand behind her thigh to hold her up. With my left, I searched for her neck and grabbed the rope. But her weight had tightened it, and wouldn't easily loosen for me. The girl coughed violently.

As I blindly fiddled in the general vicinity of the knot, she thrashed about in my arm. It was so fierce, I had to wonder where her little body concealed that strength, and struggling to suppress her made untying the rope increasingly difficult. When I tightened my grip in irritation, she desperately struggled in return.

What felt like seconds away from my right arm giving out, the rope finally came loose. My grip weakened from relief, and still holding the girl, I fell over forwards.

Before I knew it, her face was very close by. Thanks to the moonlight and my eyes getting accustomed to the darkness, I could perceive it clearly.

However, my senses couldn't accept it.

Such a thing couldn't have happened, I told myself, stubbornly denying what my sensory functions told me. But at the same time, I thought this:

So, the time has finally come.

I said her name. For the first time in three years.

"Hajikano."

The girl opened her eyes. Sweat made her hair stick to her cheek and neck, and due to her coughing, her eyes were faintly clouded.

"...Yosuke?", Hajikano said in a hoarse voice.

Our breathing was all out of sorts. At first, I thought that was the reason why no further words came out. But even after I stopped panting, I couldn't speak. My throat was dry like I'd gulped down a bucket of seawater.

I had thought I'd be brimming with things to say. When I got to reunite with Hajikano, I'd have so much I wanted to tell her that I wouldn't know where to start. That was my expectation.

But the reality was exactly the opposite. Not a single peep came from my open mouth.

I couldn't accept the reality I saw before me.


On Hajikano's face, there was a giant birthmark.


"Move it," she said.

Coming back to my senses, I released my arm from around her back and stood up as if backing away. Hajikano sluggishly raised herself, put her hands on her knees to stand, and wiped off some dirt from her clothes. She coughed a few times, and without a word of thanks for saving her, passed me by toward the entrance of the park.

I couldn't follow after her. I couldn't even turn around, standing there like an idiot, watching the swing sway with a shrill sound.

I don't know how long I was listening to it.

Once my head finally started working, I had lost sight of Hajikano, and almost felt like I could dismiss the prior events as a dream. But the rope hanging from the swingset bar and the scattered pile of books on the ground wouldn't allow me to. They firmly insisted that someone who had sought death was here.

The clouds blocked the moonlight, and the park fell into a thick darkness. The swing finally came to a stop, but the reverberation of that rusty metal sound stayed there forever.

From far away, I heard the sound of a telephone.

My feet moved before I could think. With such recklessness that another injury which took fourteen weeks to heal wouldn't have been surprising, I all but tumbled down the stone steps. At the last ten steps, I made a big leap to the ground. Trying to force my breathing to calm down, I listened closely to search for the phone.

What are you doing?, echoed a voice in my head. What's your top priority? Shouldn't you focus on going after Hajikano, not asking that woman for more information? What should you really be doing? You can't count on the notion that if she failed a suicide attempt, it'll take some time before she gets the resolve to try again. Hajikano got clean away from you, and now she could be hanging herself somewhere else right away. And the biggest problem is, Hajikano didn't run away from you. You ran away from Hajikano. You got all timid, seeing her so different. You decided it was beyond you and flinched. The proof is, when Hajikano walked away without even a glance at you - that's right, you were relieved. I'm glad she didn't speak to me, you thought. If you don't go after her now, you'll run next time, too. And the next next time, and the next next next time. Are you satisfied with that? Are you really satisfied with that?

I'll ask again. What's your top priority?

My feet stopped.

I heard the ringing coming from a phone booth on a street corner.

If I had any questions, like why I could pick up on the ringing even when it was so far away and coming from inside a phone booth, those thoughts were instantly blown away by the small, distant sight of Hajikano past a downward slope lined with streetlights. If I ran as fast as I could, maybe I could still catch up to her. But simultaneously I wondered, what would I do when I did? What should I say to her? How in the world do you treat a girl who was about to kill herself just a few minutes ago?

As I hesitated with my hand on the door to the booth, Hajikano grew ever distant. Just as I was giving up and telling myself she was too far to catch up to now, I noticed an abandoned bicycle left on the roadside. Probably has a lock on it, so it's no use - I pushed it out of my mind. Whoa, whoa, the voice in my head panicked. Why are you saying that without trying? Look, just look at it, do you see a lock anywhere on that? Probably some brat stole it, rode it out here, and ditched it, no way there's a lock on it. And if you felt like it, couldn't you answer the phone, talk to that woman, and then chase after Hajikano? Why won't you do that?

Admit it. You don't want to go after Hajikano.

Hajikano vanished into the darkness.

I entered the phone booth, and powerlessly picked up the receiver.

"So, how do you feel about your birthmark having gone?", the woman asked.

"Already forgot about it. There's been events with far more impact since."

"I see," she said with a meaningful laugh. "In any event, the conditions are in order. Your birthmark is gone, you have reunited with the one you love. Now, I will look forward to August 31st."

I let out a shaky sigh.

"Hey, I had a question..."

"What is it?"

"Hajikano's face," I said. "Where the hell did that birthmark come from?"

I heard the click of a receiver being put down.

I placed the phone back, slumping against the wall down to the floor, looking up at the ceiling.

Not five seconds later, the phone rang again. I reached up to take the call.

"I forgot to tell you one crucial thing."

"Don't worry, it's definitely not just one."

"Happy sixteenth birthday."

With that, the woman hung up.

"Thanks for that," I spoke at the unconnected receiver.

I left the phone booth and searched through my pocket for a crumpled cigarette pack. Sticking a bent cig in my mouth, I lit it. The filter stuck to my dry lips, peeling the skin and making blood run, leaving a stain like lipstick on the white filter.

This is getting real troublesome now, I thought like I was just an observer to it all, taking my first puff.

And such is how my summer of age sixteen began.



[+]

Chapter 3: The Mermaid of Agohama

When I opened the door, a foul smell wafted over. A smell like rotten vegetables. I took off my shirt and socks to throw them in the washing machine, and in the living room, I saw my mom asleep using folded cushions as a pillow. On the table were strewn peanut shells, and liquor spilling out from a toppled teacup covered the table and dripped from the edge. Small moths flew around the lights in the room, and the TV was left on a news channel.

I got a cloth and wiped off the table, and repeatedly whapped the stains on the carpet with paper towels. As I went back and forth between the kitchen and living room, my mom showed no sign of waking. No matter how much I wiped, the table just wouldn't get any less sticky, so I eventually gave up on it.

Opening the refrigerator, I found white cabbage starting to turn black, radishes which were too late to save, eggs over a week past expiration date, and an open bag of bean sprouts. As I thawed some frozen-solid pork in a frying pan and chopped some vegetables, my finally-awake mother spoke from the living room, "Water, please," in a drunk-sounding voice.

I filled a cup with cold water and took it to her. She sat up, drank it in one gulp, said "Sorry," and fell back on the floor.

After dinner, while I was doing washing, mom came into the kitchen. She stood beside me, not to help me out or anything, but just staring sleepily at my face. And, over thirty seconds later, she finally noticed the change in her son.

"Oh, your face..."
"Yeah," I said. "When I woke up this morning, it was gone."

She came closer and examined my face in detail. Probably suspected it was just cosmetics or something.

After a thorough inspection, she happily slapped my back.

"Well, isn't that great? All that treatment took effect. Going to all those hospitals was worth it after all."

Don't be stupid, I thought to myself. It's not like a pimple or freckles. All the doctors we went to had a dissatisfied frown, and insinuated that I'd just have to find some way to live with it. They told us that even if I had healthy skin transplanted, the birthmark was highly likely to appear again in the same spot. For such a mark to vanish overnight - you're calling it "all that treatment taking effect"?

"Don't you think it's weird?", I asked. "The last time I even went to a dermatologist was over two years ago."

"Yes, yes. It's surely strange. Why, if it were the effects of treatment, I could understand if it healed over time. But going away overnight, now, that isn't normal. You may just have to call it a miracle, in fact."

Mom took a swig from her teacup, and threw three peanuts into her mouth.

"But, Yosuke. You ought to forget about your birthmark now. When it comes to such extraordinary luck, it's best to leave it be. At times like this, you just say "it's luck, no big deal.""

I felt there was truth to that. But it only applied if you weren't certain about where the good luck came from. My luck had a clear source.

"You should let your happiness show. Don't go fearing that you're celebrating prematurely and will be disappointed later. Celebrating knowing the risk of disappointment is the smart thing to do."

I didn't respond, and instead pointed to the teacup in her hand. "I thought you were quitting drinking as of July?"

"It's water," she transparently lied. "Just water."

I took away the cup and gulped down its contents. My throat heated up, and the smell of potatoes gone bad filled my stomach. I vaguely wanted to puke. Honestly, what about this was tasty?

"What a delinquent son," chastised my mother, filling the reclaimed cup with liquor again.

"It's just water," I insisted.


I lied on my side and closed my eyes, but glimpses of the past few hours under my eyelids made it seem impossible to sleep. I went to the living room, took one of the cigarette packs from the second dresser drawer, and returned to my room. Turning the lights off, I lit one up. Not wanting the smoke to fill the room, I opened up the screen door, stuck my head out, and was met with a damp soil smell.

The image of Hajikano's face was burned into my sight. There was a huge bruise on her face. A bluish-black mark, the spitting image of the birthmark I'd had before.

I decided not to think about how it had gotten there. Maybe it happened naturally, maybe it didn't. I wouldn't say I couldn't make any guesses, necessarily... but just thinking about it wouldn't get me a definite answer. What was worth thinking about was what that mark, whatever the reason for its appearance, had wrought on her.

Hajikano had been attempting suicide in that park. That I could tell. Was it indeed that birthmark which led her to such measures? Was she so distraught about her appearance, she decided to hang herself?

Even if we're being modest, Hajikano was truly one of the most beautiful girls in this town. Everyone aspired to her, everyone was jealous of her, everyone envied her. She must have been at least somewhat aware of all that herself. She wasn't someone who cared nothing for the subtle feelings of others. She couldn't have not known that the beauty she possessed warped the meaning of the word "beauty" with how much it surpassed it.

How in the world would she feel having that beauty tainted? I couldn't even imagine. If the birthmark I had was a stain on a mat, hers was a stain on a pure white dress. Though the same color and size, they didn't have the same significance. The mental impact of the latter was incomparable to the former. It wasn't unreasonable to think Hajikano became highly pessimistic for her future.

On the other hand, I felt something amiss with this conclusion. Would Hajikano consider suicide over such an event? Beauty was only but one of her charms. Ever since I first came to know her, I knew she possessed deep insight, especially for a grade-schooler. Her words were full of wisdom, she was very studious, and she was even above-average athletically. She read lots of books, and listened to music older than even her parents knew. At minimum, she had twenty times the sense I did, surely.

Would someone like her turn to suicide just because her beauty was tarnished?

I'll go see Hajikano after school tomorrow, I thought. In everything I pondered about, I was lacking information. Once we met and talked, everything could be made clear, and we could decide what direction to take next.

I felt great unease, but the second I decided I'd meet Hajikano, part of me was excited. Regardless of how it was happening, I would get to be part of her life again. The day we graduated elementary school, I thought I would quickly forget Hajikano once we'd gone our separate ways. Yet taking off the lid now, I found those feelings had only grown stronger over the three years.

In a sense, I had been waiting for this day to come for a long time.

I put out my cigarette and went to the living room to put it in an ashtray. Then I kneeled down in front of the dresser and checked my face.

People who have nothing have one strong point: they have nothing to lose. Once you have just one thing precious to you, you're always tormented by the fear of losing it.

As proof of that fact, I was afraid. Of the birthmark coming back to my face, and of a return to my drab life.

*

The next morning, I came to a sudden stop outside of the Class 1-3 classroom.

I had always hated the moment of opening the classroom door. That trend had only become more obvious as I aged.

It was possible for everything to change in just one night. Any such changes would become clear the instant I opened the door. What had been a peaceful mood yesterday could be painful today, those who yesterday seemed like the center of the class could become outcasts, people who had been kind acquaintances yesterday could lay traps today... Basically, anything from yesterday wouldn't necessarily be the same today. So when I stood in front of the door every morning, I felt like I was turning over a rock on the seashore. There could be a shell that sparkled like a gem stuck to it, or a repulsive sea louse could come crawling out.

Taking a quiet deep breath, I opened the door. I didn't see Chigusa anywhere, but Nagahora noticed me and beckoned. I nodded, put my bag down by my desk, and went over to him.

Nagahora was in a group of, including him, three boys and two girls, chatting and laughing. It seemed he was trying to get me to join the circle. I knew he was doing it out of good will, and it really was the sort of thing someone like me would need right now, but somewhere in my heart, I was fed up with it. I didn't like talking with this many people at once.

"Fukamachi, wasn't it?", said one of the girls, tall and with a clean-cut face. "Are your legs all right? Sounds like you were hospitalized for quite a while."

"It's nothing now," I answered. "I'd pretty much recovered by the end of June. I was just hiding out 'til exams were over."

The five of them laughed all together, and Nagahora poked my chest. "Not bad, man!"

"We were talking about a test of courage," someone said. It was a boy with short hair and darkish skin, who definitely gave the impression of a baseball player. "Have you ever heard of the abandoned hotel at the foot of the mountain?"

"Oh, the Red-Room Ruins, right?"

The instant I spoke, the group of five stopped laughing. Did I say something awkward? Nervousness filled me.

"Red room?", Nagahora asked.
"Yeah. Deep in the hotel, there's a red room."

"First I've heard of it..." In constrast to the other girl, the girl who spoke had a small and plain face, and her eyes sparkled behind glasses. "What's that about?"

"It's not that interesting. It's a room with a corner spraypainted red, that's all. It might surprise you if you see it in the dark, but it's just what it sounds like, a red room."

"You sure know about it," remarked the short-haired boy. "Have you gone in there?"

I hesitated briefly, but I decided to answer honestly. "Yeah. A friend took me in middle school."

"I want to know more," begged the girl with glasses.

"There was a chair in the center of the room, and a mannequin sitting in it." I gradually found myself speaking more smoothly. As if thanks to the loss of my birthmark, I could suddenly carry a natural conversation. "It seems like someone periodically comes to dress her up, so from day to day, she might be in the First High uniform, or in a swimsuit."

The short-haired boy clapped his hands together. "That sounds cool! Feel like going all of a sudden."

"That's not all," I proceeded upon seeing the group's reaction. "In the room next to it, there's an old, but pretty clean bed. And around it, there's a bunch of tossed-out stuff that's barely even been used."

At this, the three boys cheered, and the girl with glasses knit her brows, but didn't seem entirely displeased.

The tall girl seemed to be the only one who didn't understand. "What was thrown away?", she innocently asked.

"Well, it's not crackers or bingo cards..." The other boy who hadn't opened his mouth thus far, pale and with average looks, spoke quietly. "And it's not bags of candy."

"I don't understand. Are you making fun of me?" The tall girl glared at him.

"Tonight," said Nagahora. "I can't wait any longer than that. We'll go see it tonight. You lead us, Fukamachi."

"Tonight?", I repeated. "Oh, sorry, but after school today..."

"Hey, did Fukamachi just get called?" The girl with glasses put her hand to her ear.

We stopped talking at once. Indeed, my name was being repeated on the school intercom.

"That's Kasai's voice," said the pale boy.

"Right at the good part," the glasses girl pouted. "See you, Fukamachi."

As I left, Nagahora asked from behind me. "You don't think you can come to a test of courage tonight?"

"Unfortunately," I affirmed. "Besides, it's more tense without someone who's seen it all before."

After leaving the classroom, I put a relieved hand to my chest.

Today's rock seemed to be hiding a shell rather than a sea louse.

*

"Do you know why I called you in?"

Throughout my life, I must have heard at least thirty questions along those lines. Why do you think I called you in? You know what I'm going to say, right? Can you tell me what you did wrong? I wonder where all school staff learned those roundabout turns of phrase. Did they have training, or did they just naturally pick them up scolding such a large number of students?

In stark contrast to yesterday, Kasai's attitude was cool and indifferent. He had an elbow on his desk and his chin in his hand, clicking a pen with the nervousness of a nicotine addict who hadn't had a smoke all day.

"I don't know," I answered. I didn't know why exactly, but Kasai seemed irritated with me. Better to not say much and watch things unfold here.

"I see." He shook his head as if disappointed, spinning his chair to face me. "But try thinking about it some more. I wouldn't have called you in here for no reason, right? I don't have the time for that kind of thing."

"Then you should just tell me, please. I said I don't know, and I won't suddenly know it either. I don't personally remember doing anything worth blame to anyone."

There were plenty of people going in and out of the faculty room in the morning, and a few people snuck looks at me as I confronted Kasai with his restless eyes. It was difficult to call it a pleasant situation. I wanted to settle this before any classmates saw it.

"Suppose it wouldn't be too strange." Kasai took a sip from his cup of coffee. "Alright, I'll make it quick. Do you know who sits in the seat one up and right of yours?"

He said he'd make it quick, yet it was a leading question. But it wasn't as if I couldn't answer. I recalled the layout of the classroom yesterday. Nagahora was in front of me, Chigusa was to my right, and up and to the right was an empty seat.

"I don't know. Because whoever it was seemed to be absent yesterday."

"Yes," Kasai nodded. "And again today, it seems. We got a call from her parents earlier."

I couldn't read where this was going. What relation was he saying there was between me, who attended for the first time yesterday, and a student prone to absences?

"And?", I pressed.

"So you don't even know that..." Kasai looked stunned. He scratched the back of his neck and sighed.

"For a while now, she's had insistent requests. "Change me to another class, it doesn't matter which." "I can't say why, but just let me leave this class." Of course, we can't listen to selfish requests from every student. If we made one exception, we'd have to make another, and wind up submitting to everyone's demands. So we just said to put up with it for a year. And she seemed to have accepted that well enough."

Even as Kasai explained, he watched me attentively. As if he were waiting for me to make a sudden slip-up.

"But this morning, we got a call. And then we finally knew. Why did she loathe this class so much? And why could she put up with it and attend until two days ago?"

I silently waited for the rest.

"According to what her mother said..." Kasai finally got to the point.


"Yui Hajikano refuses to be in a classroom with Yosuke Fukamachi."


I felt like all the air had left my lungs.

"What did you do to Hajikano?"

Coughing out weak breaths and taking in the musty air of the faculty room, I finally managed to speak.

"Yui Hajikano? Yui Hajikano is in Class 1-3?"

Kasai snorted. He probably thought I was trying to feign ignorance.

"You should have gotten the roster back in April. You never checked it once? You would've had plenty of time in the hospital."

Several thoughts crossed my mind, but careful not to let them show on my face, I just said "So she is..."

"And?", he immediately pressed. "Let me ask you again. Do you know any reason why Hajikano would want to avoid you?"

Reflexively, scenes from last night popped up in the back of my mind. The long stone stairs, the desolate shrine park, the swings, the pile of books, the tightening rope, and her birthmark.

Thinking about the birthmark again delayed my reply. Kasai didn't let it escape his sight. From that subsecond pause, he perceived that I did have some idea.

"I'd like to know that myself," I said as naturally as I could. "I haven't been in contact with Hajikano at all since entering middle school. We were together for a short time in grade school, but I think we both thought of each other as good friends at the time. So I don't have any ideas why she would be avoiding me."

"Then how would you explain the reason for Hajikano's absences?"
"I don't know. Please, ask her."

Kasai pressed the pen to his temple.

"I know it's not fair to dig up the past, but... As someone who knows all the trouble you caused in middle school, I have no choice but to dig deep. You understand?"

Aha. So that was the reason for Kasai's conclusive behavior. No doubt he had spun a story in his mind about me and my delinquent friends bullying Hajikano in elementary school, or something along those lines.

"I understand what you're saying. It's reasonable to be suspicious of me," I partially conceded. "However, as far as this goes, I insist there must be some kind of mistake. Please, ask Hajikano again."

"We intend to, of course."

Just as the conversation was wrapping up, the chime to start class rang.

"You can head back," Kasai told me. "Though I'm thinking I'll have to talk to you again later."

I wordlessly turned my back and left the faculty room behind me.


When I got back to my seat, Chigusa looked up at me like she was dying to say something. After the incident with Kasai, I was on alert. Maybe she too would have some blame to cast at me from a totally unexpected direction.

"Morning," I greeted as a diversion.
"Good morning." Chigusa bowed her head. It was a somehow cold greeting.

"Um, thanks for yesterday," I said warily.
"Don't mention it," she replied rather mechanically.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

I first imagined that the ultimately baseless rumor that I had bullied Hajikano had begun spreading somehow. Next I considered that I had done something to upset Chigusa without realizing, and while thinking back on my interactions with her, she spoke indifferently.

"Fukamachi, you seemed to be greatly enjoying yourself a while ago."

She reminded me of the talk about the ruins I'd been having with Nagahora and his friends, before Kasai called me to the faculty room. His questioning had completely taken away the happiness I'd gotten from that.

I was relieved to realize the reason for Chigusa's sullen mood. Maybe she didn't like Nagahora's friends, or wasn't one for the mood that came about when they came together. I know I didn't really care to become too familiar with their circle.

"We were talking about that ruined hotel," I explained. "They're going to go there as a test of courage. I told them I'd done something like that in middle school and what it was like, and they were delighted."

"Are you going with them, Fukamachi?"
"Nah. They invited me, but I have plans after school."
"I see."

She cleared her throat.

"Erm, Fukamachi. Let's try that again."

I tilted my head in confusion. Chigusa said "Good morning, Fukamachi," and a kind smile came to her lips.

Ah, I get it.

"Thanks for yesterday," I told her again.

"Don't mention it." Her eyes beamed with satisfaction. "As usual, please don't hesitate to depend on me."

"I'll do that. By the way..." I pointed at the seat diagonal from mine. "Is that Yui Hajikano's desk?"

Chigusa blinked, then nodded.

"Yes, that is Hajikano's desk, but you have yet to..." She trailed off and looked up. "Are you acquainted with her?"

"Yeah. We were classmates in elementary school."
"Is that so?"

Chigusa perceived the change in my expression and nodded thoughtfully.

"From that look, I'm supposing you were not simply classmates."

"Nah," I shook my head weakly. "We were just classmates."


I couldn't get into my morning classes at all. I stared at my blank notes and reflected on my meeting with Kasai. Chigusa talked to me each break, but I could only give her the most unenergetic responses.

While I was changing before third period gym class, I casually asked Nagahora something.

"Hey, I wanted to ask about the girl who sits next to you..."

"Next to me... Yui Hajikano?", he asked as he unbuttoned his shirt. "The girl with that big bruise on her face?"

"Bruise?", I repeated without thinking.

That was a surprising reply. If Nagahora knew about it, Hajikano's bruise must have been there some time earlier.

"So what about Hajikano?"
"Oh, she's just an old acquaintance."

"Hmm." He took off his T-shirt and replaced it with his P.E. shirt. "What's your question, then?"

I thought for a second, then changed my question. "How long has she had that bruise?"

"How long?" Nagahora stopped to think. "I dunno. She had it when I first met her."

"...I see. Thanks."
"No prob," Nagahora nodded.

If he was telling the truth, Hajikano had that mark on her face as of April. I grew increasingly confused.

Let's try to sort this out. Hajikano, I'm told, doesn't want to meet me. And this wasn't just something sudden this morning; since a while ago - perhaps the moment she learned she'd be in the same class as me - she made requests of Kasai. So Hajikano avoiding me and the events of last night were unrelated. It wasn't simply anger for interfering with her suicide, or not wanting to look me in the eye after I'd witnessed such a shameful act.

So, how exactly did Yui Hajikano come to despise Yosuke Fukamachi?

I had no guesses - is what I wanted to say, but I did have one theory.

Was Hajikano's birthmark the same one that had vanished from my face?

Had Hajikano's beauty been temporarily taken as collateral for the bet?

Thinking back on it, the woman had called it a "bet," yet there were no apparent stakes. But what if the "money" had already been paid, without my knowledge? And it wasn't taken directly from me, but indirectly, from Hajikano?

And what if Hajikano found out she was being used as chips in a bet?

From this point, though, it was completely within the realm of fantasy. After all, Hajikano's birthmark had been there before mine went away. In order for my theory to hold water, one of these had to be true:

1. The woman on the phone rewound time to take the collateral for the bet.

2. The woman on the phone had known from much earlier on that I would take the bet.

So this is where my theory fell apart. But then again, what did "logic" mean when my birthmark should have never just vanished like it did? It was futile to expect coherency from the chain of events surrounding this bet. And evaluating the actions of the woman on the phone in order to guess at her personality and "what she'd probably be thinking" would probably get me to the truth quicker.

So I imagined. One night, Hajikano was walking alone and heard a public telephone ring. Taking the receiver which seemed to beckon for her, that woman told her: "Your beauty has been made the collateral for Yosuke Fukamachi's bet." Hajikano knit her brows at the crude joke and hung up. And the next morning, she stopped in front of the mirror. A repulsive mark - yet one she felt she knew - had formed on her face. She scrubbed it with soap, but it wouldn't go away.

That afternoon, worried and perhaps after visiting the hospital, she received another call from that woman. She informed her: "That is the birthmark which was originally on Yosuke Fukamachi's face."

A doubt naturally occurred to me here. Was there any reason to take such a roundabout method? I considered it from her position, and came to the conclusion which seemed to follow.

Maybe she was trying to test something. To see whether or not, the way Hajikano once did for me, I could treat Hajikano equally when she was robbed of her beauty.


"Fukamachi." Chigusa poked my shoulder. "Is your pondering going to go on much longer?"

I was dragged back to reality, and the tumult of the classroom returned. Before I knew it, it was already lunch.

"Nah." I did a little stretch leaning back on the back of my chair. "I'll stop now."

Chigusa grinned and bent to come closer to my desk.

While eating lunch and having a rambling discussion, Nagahora came back from the store, said "I'm gonna intrude," and placed a chair in front of us. "Yes, you are intruding," said Chigusa, but she moved her lunch box to make space for him. They got along.

As the three of us finished eating, Nagahora spoke up.

"Don't you think everyone seems restless today?"
"Are they?" Chigusa took a look around.

"Since it's only Fukamachi's second day, maybe he wouldn't know, but everyone's standing on their heels. Because there's a big event coming."

I thought about what was on the schedule of events for July.

"Event... Oh, you mean the sports tournament on Saturday?"
"Yeah, there's that. But that's not what I'm talking about."

Chigusa answered for me. "Now is about the time for them to announce the results of the Miss Minagisa competition."

"Oh, I see," I nodded. I'd completely forgotten such an event even existed.

"It's effectively a beauty contest where everyone in the school is eligible. I'm impressed they can keep an event like that up every year."

"By the way, I voted for Ogiue," Nagahora carelessly remarked.
"I'm not pleased."

Chigusa glared at him, but he paid it no mind and turned to me.

"Hey, who would you vote for, Fukamachi?"

I took a look around the room, then looked back at the girl beside me.

"Let's see... Maybe I would have voted for Ogiue, too."

As long as we're exempting Hajikano, I mentally appended.

Nagahora put his arm around me. "See?" He shot Chigusa a smug look.

"Why me, exactly?", she asked, cheeks turning slightly red.
"You seem like a good swimmer," I replied.
"What does that mean?"
"It means you're also the prettiest," Nagahora interpreted.
"...Well, thank you," sighed Chigusa.


In the summer festival held every year in Minagisa from August 26th to 28th, on the night of the second day, it was customary for that year's "Miss Minagisa" to do a reading of the mermaid legend passed down in our town, and sing the so-called "Mermaid's Song." That role was the highlight of the whole festival, and you were required to be an unmarried woman born in Minagisa to be eligible.

Every year, she was selected from students of Minagisa First High... due to the fact that in such a rural town, it was apparently rather embarrassing to be unmarried, so non-students avoided the role like the plague. Because standing in front of people as Miss Minagisa meant screeching to the world "I'm an unmarried woman." In addition, many legends about mermaids are tragic stories, and Minagisa's was no exception. So being chosen as Miss Minagisa came to be seen as a jinx on your chances of marriage.

The legend of The Mermaid of Agohama was, to put it simply, like taking the legend of Yaobikuni told in Fukui Prefecture, adding it to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, and dividing it by two.

Yaobikuni is a girl who eats mermaid flesh and becomes immortal, and runs away to wander the land for eight hundred years. The Little Mermaid leaves the sea for the first time on her fifteenth birthday, and has a forbidden love with a human. And The Mermaid of Agohama... is basically if the witch from The Little Mermaid were replaced with Yaobikuni.

What's interesting is, if the records are correct, The Mermaid of Agohama already existed over two centuries before Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid. And if, again, you compare it to that, it is intriguing how it shows the story from the side of the witch, not the mermaid. That's why Minagisa is putting in all that futile effort placing mermaid statues around town, promoting itself as the "Mermaid Town" to attract tourists. But as of today, I've yet to see any sufficiently tourist-y tourists.

It's said that until her death, Yaobikuni retained her appearance from when she was fifteen or sixteen. The Little Mermaid fell in love with a human on her fifteenth birthday. So that's one more reason you could say it's appropriate to have high school students reciting The Mermaid of Agohama.

I felt that Chigusa would be appropriate as Miss Minagisa because the slight unfortunate air about her seemed to harmonize with the tragic nature of The Mermaid of Agohama. Of course, I didn't say that to her face. She probably wouldn't be pleased being complimented in such a way.


Just as Nagahora predicted, at the end of lunch break, the results for the Miss Minagisa contest were announced on the intercom. After some dramatic buildup, the announcer read the winner's name.

"Class 1-3, Chigusa Ogiue."

Chigusa's face froze.

For a moment, silence fell on the classroom. It was ultimately broken by Nagahora's applause. The rest of the class followed it up, as if guided by his.

From the sound of the applause, it seemed as if everyone in the class was celebrating Chigusa's selection from deep down. They didn't choose her for the sake of harassment - and there had been times I was put into the spotlight in middle school out of ill will, which is why it came to mind. No, they all voted for her because they felt that Chigusa, bringing to mind a beautiful, misfortunate girl, was the most fitting choice for a tragic heroine. The same way Nagahora and I had seen it.

Chigusa herself, in the middle of the noise, hung her head and paled. Nagahora and I called her name several times, but she didn't respond. Thus, I decided to change up the approach. We had been calling her Ogiue, but I switched to "Chigusa."

Chigusa suddenly looked up at me.

"Sorry, I was a little bewildered. I'm all right."

"If you don't want to go out in front of people, you can turn it down. Nobody'll blame you," I told her.

"It's nothing that severe. I was just a bit surprised."

"No need to worry about it," Nagahora said playfully. "If you really don't wanna do it, I'll take your place."

"It's unmarried women only," she retorted with a pained smile. But thanks to him, her spirits seemed to be lifted a little.

Yet for the remainder of the day, Chigusa seemed visibly distant. During classtime, she was inattentive, staring out the window with a gloomy expression. By the end of sixth period, she still wasn't back to normal. When I told her "Well, see you tomorrow," she shook as if brought back to reality, then just put on a fake smile and waved. "Yes, see you tomorrow."

She must be pretty bad about going out in front of others, I thought at the time. Later, it would become clear that I was completely off the mark, but there wasn't much I could do about that. To fully figure out what she was thinking with only the information I had then would have been absurd indeed.

Yes, it was more than just the reason for Chigusa turning so pale when chosen as Miss Minagisa. There were actually many things about her I didn't know at that point. The clues were scattered around, but I just didn't have the time to stop and give them all a good look.

*

Smoking a cigarette in secret taxes your nerves. The surprisingly difficulty of finding somewhere where no one's watching, despite the population - that's a rural town. There are people here and there so starved for excitement they make a hobby of sitting by the window and watching passersby all day, and they'll joyfully run out of the house at even the slightest change. As soon as one person goes out, people whiffing the smell of bustle come out one after another. And then you get a good hour or so of people standing around talking, no longer sure whether the oddity was real or just mistaken.

I put out the cigarette with my foot, left the park bathroom that stunk of ammonia, and filled my lungs with fresh air. From the asphalt came a dry smell, and from the thicket by the road, a choking smell of greenery. I wiped the sweat dripping down my cheek, and resumed walking in search of Hajikano's house.

What I remembered was the sound of rain. And not a small rain, but the kind that would get you wet up to your knees even if you had an umbrella. The first time I visited her house was around this same time, an afternoon in the middle of July, known for its unstable weather.

That day, there was a huge storm unpredicted by the weather forecast. There were lazy people like me who always neglected to bring their umbrellas home and just left them at school, but most of the students had to wait for their parents to pick them up.

Hajikano was methodical about bringing her things home, so she was of course the latter. But when she found out I had an umbrella, she kept repeating "I sure would be glad if someone could walk me home... I mean, it'd be so boring standing here for two hours until dad shows up!"

And so, I decided to take Hajikano to her house. Most of the boys gave up on going home and went to the gym, most of the girls formed groups and talked, those without friends fled to the library, and some with screws loose went running barefoot on the field. But out of all of them, only Hajikano and I were headed for the entrance.

At the time, rather unusually, we'd had... not quite a fight, but a minor argument, and were thus in a situation where it was hard to talk to each other. My anger toward her had long since vanished without a trace, but unable to find a chance to break the ice, I was looking for a way to reconcile with her.

I think, perhaps, she was in a similar state. And then the rainstorm came. As I watched it through the window, Hajikano stood just a little closer to me than usual. "The forecast was wrong," she said. "Now I'll finally remember to bring home my umbrella," I said.

A few minutes later, we were back to keeping the usual distance.

We left the entrance, and I opened the umbrella. Hajikano ducked under it, and laughed as if tickled.

The moment we stepped past the overhang, fierce raindrops hit the umbrella. Water splashed at our feet with every step, and every breeze shook the umbrella and sloshed lots of water off. This road that normally would have been crowded with students returning home now only had the two of us walking down it.

If it weren't for that rain, I think our reconciliation would have come a little later.


Occasionally, Hajikano's left hand touched my right, but what stayed more strongly in my memory was the feel of my soaked shoes. Interactions with Hajikano had been very rare until then, but for some reason, I only thought of cicadas. Where do the cicadas go during big rainstorms? Of course, it wasn't just cicadas I wasn't sure about, but also what sparrows, butterflies, cats, and bears were up to, yet I felt the most concern about cicadas. They don't even have a month to live, so how must it feel for a whole day of their life to be spoiled by rain?

Even past 3 PM, visibility was bad enough that even the many bicycles coming and going had to blink their headlights. It was fine while going up and down slopes, but not five minutes after reaching a flat path, we were hit with three sprays of muddy water from passing cars. For the first one, I was on the side of the car, serving as a wall for Hajikano, so she didn't get too wet. But the second one got us both so soaked, it felt idiotic to even bother putting up an umbrella. By the third, well, we hardly thought anything of it.

Still, I didn't let go of that umbrella, my free ticket to get close to Hajikano. Thanks to the rain reducing visibility such that no one was watching, I could even forget about my birthmark. If only the world could always be like this, I thought. Being able to see certain things so clearly makes life hard. If the world were more dim and fuzzy, maybe people would be a little more fair to judge things, not relying on the impressions their eyes give them.

"Here it is," Hajikano told me, and I stopped. On the sides of the gate were hydrangeas of many colors, shaking from the blows of raindrops. Apparently, this was Hajikano's house.

"Thanks for escorting me," she said, bowing her head.
"But there wasn't any point to the umbrella after all, huh. We look like we've gone for a swim."
"That's fine. It was fun."

Hajikano opened the sliding door to go inside, but suddenly remembered something and turned around.

"Can I ask you to take shelter inside?"
"Thanks, but no thanks. My house is just a quick jog away."

What I didn't say was, "I doubt your parents would give the nicest look if you invited me, a guy with an ugly birthmark like this, inside as a friend."

"Okay... I guess that's fair." Hajikano scratched her chin with her finger.
"Yeah. Well, see you tomorrow."

As I turned to leave, Hajikano grabbed my sleeve between her fingers.

She whispered close to my ear. "You're not angry?"
"I never was. What about you?", I asked back.
"I was never angry, either." She let go with a relieved look.

"Be careful."
"Uh-huh. Take care of yourself."

Not long after parting, the rain eased up. And less than five minutes after that, it completely stopped. Yet I didn't so much as think "If only I'd stayed at school a little longer, I wouldn't have gotten wet at all."

Starting with that, however small a step it was, our friendship moved forward. The proof of that being, after that, we started walking to school together. Every morning, I visited Hajikano's house. She always came out no more than ten seconds after I rang the doorbell. When the door opened, there was a strange smell from inside the house. All houses do have their own unique smell to them, but Hajikano's made me think of gentle happiness (no particular reason, but it's really what I thought, so what else can I say?). I just thought, if happiness had a smell, it would be something like this.

Hajikano would put on her shoes, check her clothes and hair, and never fail to say "I'm off" to her family in the living room. Her clothes seemed mature at a glance, and if you paid attention, you'd notice they were all far more refined than the kind of things you could buy in the area. I wondered if her mother thought of her like a dress-up doll. Anyone with a daughter like this would probably feel the urge to go shopping.

I visited Hajikano's house every morning, but never did I go any further than the front door. If I'd said I wanted to, she probably would have let me; if she told me to, I would have done so. But it didn't feel necessary. In fact, it felt like a waste for our relationship to become one where we could so easily go in and out of each other's houses. As a result, I never met with her parents. I figured if they never knew their daughter was considering someone with such a disgusting birthmark her friend, it wouldn't hurt them.

Why had I been so prudent about my relationship with Hajikano back then? Thinking about it, maybe I didn't want the comfortable telepathy between us to be substantiated by a close relationship. In other words, I wanted to leave our relationship at "...and yet we understand each other" instead of "...which is why we understand each other." The more distant two people are from each other, the more strongly you can feel the thread tying them together.


Though not necessarily because anything had changed, visiting Hajikano's house for the first time in four years felt like I was visiting a total stranger's house. The wooden Japanese-style house with generally dark colors had gotten thorough upkeep, yet it was unable to totally escape the passage of time, with little cracks and blemishes in places.

I rang the doorbell with a much heavier feeling weighing on me than back then. I straightened my shirt sleeves, waiting for someone to answer, but there was no response of any kind. I rang the doorbell again and leaned on a pole.

Beside the doorbell was a plate with the names of all the family members in bombastic writing. A particularly large tree in the garden seemed to be a favorite of the cicadas, and their buzzing came down from the leaves, shaking the trunk. Maybe on that stormy day, the cicadas had taken shelter here, I considered. I was about to reach into my bag for a cigarette, but I couldn't guarantee that Hajikano's mother wouldn't answer the moment I lit it. In skin-burningly strong sunlight, I waited patiently for someone to show up.

After a while, I heard someone slowly coming down the stairs. A woman in her early twenties opened the door. Her wavy brown hair was terribly frazzled, her skin was messy with cosmetics, and her shirt was full of creases, giving an overall unclean impression. For a moment, my mind wondered about how this bed-headed woman and Hajikano were related, and I suspected she might be a friend of hers, but then I recalled the names on the doorplate. Maybe this was Hajikano's older sister.

She rubbed her eyes and spoke sleepily. "Whaddya want?"

"Is Yui Hajikano home at the moment?"
"Who knows. Maybe she is." She yawned loudly and peered at my face. "You Yui's boyfriend?"

"No," I stated firmly.
"Stalker, then?"
"Just a friend. We were in grade school together."

"Friend, huh," she said mockingly. She scratched the back of her head.

"Even if you were an old friend of Yui's, that's all the more reason that you shouldn't meet her now. I dunno how I should explain it, but the point is, the Yui Hajikano you know isn't here."

"Yes, I realize that," I nodded. "That's why I came here to confirm something with Yui."

"Say it here. I'll tell her for you."
"I'd like to talk to her directly. Could you at least tell Yui "Yosuke Fukamachi came to visit"?"

She shook her head broadly. "She doesn't wanna meet anyone right now."

"I'm aware of that, too. However, it's because she doesn't want to meet with me that I want to meet with her."

There was a long silence. From her look, I could tell I was being appraised.

"Oh well," she snorted. "We're getting pretty fed up with her ourselves. Yosuke, eh? If you think you can do something, try it. Highly doubt it, though."

"Thank you very much."

I looked to the doorplate again. Above the name "Yui" was written the name "Aya." Aya Hajikano. That appeared to be her name.


"I've been sleeping all day. It's been forever since I got a day off."

As she guided me, Aya confessed that she'd been sleeping in the house since noon.

"I've been stuck in the lab for almost half a month. Things calmed down last night, and I thought I could finally sleep without any worries... Then of course you come along. Woke me right up."

"Sorry," I made sure to apologize.
"You could at least give me a day of rest. Couldn't wait just a few days?"
"I could not."

Suddenly, she sniffed around my chest. "You kinda smell like smoke. Aren't you in high school?"

"My parents are both smokers, so I believe that's how it got there."

"Look, I'm not gonna blab about your personal problems, y'know."

After going upstairs, Aya stopped in front of a room.

"This is Yui's room," she informed me. "Not gonna chicken out now, right?"
"Of course not."

Aya pounded on the door. "Yui! You're in there, right?"

There was no response.

"Due to some circumstances, I've gotta open this door." She continued to knock. "I'll count for a minute. And if time runs out, I'm opening it no matter what. That's not just a threat, I'm really opening it. Got it?"

As expected, no response. She clicked her tongue loud enough to be heard through the door.

"Seems to be ignoring me. She's doing it to the whole family."

The Hajikano I knew ignoring her family was difficult to even imagine. The fact that she'd changed drastically had become apparent about ten minutes after our reunion last night, but hearing about it from her sister's mouth forced me to acknowledge it from a whole new angle. Who could've predicted there would ever come a day when our Hajikano would be treated like a burden?

I kept checking the time on my watch, but at 52 seconds, Aya said "I'm coming in" and opened the door. She's forceful, I thought with amazement as I followed behind her. I didn't doubt that she would have busted open the door even if it had been locked.

The room felt unpleasant; darker than you'd ever imagine for it still being day, and stuffy with heat. The curtains were shut, and no lights were on, but light from the hallway illuminated the room. Unusual for an adolescent girl, her room was completely Japanese-style, and there was a faint smell of rush plants.

Hajikano lied on a futon with her back to us. Her thin shoulders showed behind a gray slip, her white legs stretched out of thin cotton shorts, and her glossy black hair drew gentle curves on the white sheets. From just that sight from behind, I saw that her beauty, which four years ago had seemed like the pinnacle, continued to grow, knowing no limit - except for one thing.

The door closed behind me. I turned around and saw we had been left alone. Aya was awfully considerate.

"What is it?", said Hajikano with her back turned, thinking that it was Aya who had entered the room.

"It's me."

There was a long silence.

Being in that room, with the sunlight blocked out, in the middle of summer, brought back memories of a movie showing from elementary school. I'd completely forgotten the actual movie we watched in the gym, darkened by curtains. All I remember is that even in scenes where there was no sound, there was a constant buzzing noise. When the movie ended, and the curtains opened, and light came back through the windows... The bars on the wall, the basketball hoop, the soccer net, the volleyball stuck in the corner of the ceiling - it felt like I was seeing it all for the first time, even though I should have been familiar with it. As if the darkness and film had conspired to repaint reality.

The monotone buzzing of cicadas temporarily stopped as if screeching to a halt. Hajikano rolled over bothersomely, and looked up at me like looking into the sun. Twisting her body made her soft hair fall on her cheek and misaligned the string on her slip, but she didn't pay it any mind.

It was hard to see clearly in the dark, but sure enough, there was a birthmark on her face.

Hajikano sat up sluggishly and approached with an uncertain gait, like she was ill. She stopped close enough for us to feel each other's heat.

She slowly reached her hand to touch my cheek. Her chilly, delicate fingers crawled along to below my eye. She rubbed it again and again, looking for something that wasn't there. Maybe she thought if she kept rubbing, the false skin would fall away and show the birthmark she was familiar with. She was gently stroking at first, but gradually put more force.

Suddenly, I felt a burning sensation on my cheek. I quickly realized she was clawing me with her nails. When my face warped with pain, Hajikano quickly removed her hand as if coming back to her senses. Then she took a few steps back and dropped down on a mat. A sliver of light coming through the curtains illuminated the side of her face which had no mark. I saw a fleeting glimpse of a mole under her eye.

There was a sniffing sound. Hajikano sat on her knees with her legs splayed out, crying and trying to keep it quiet. I doubted she was crying out of guilt for hurting me.

I patiently waited for her to stop crying. I couldn't think of anything better than just waiting. I touched my fingers where I'd been scratched and found a little blood. The room was too sweltering, so I left the curtains closed and opened the window. I understood her feeling of preferring the dark. She was probably finding in this darkness the same reassurance I once felt in heavy rainstorms.

The curtains swelled, and cool wind blew in, flipping the pages of a thick notebook on a desk. Hajikano stood up and closed the notebook, putting it in a drawer. Then she fished around in the bottom drawer, took something inside, and came back in front of me. I prepared myself for whatever she might do, but in her hand was a band-aid. She carefully applied it to my wound, then quietly said "I'm sorry."

I felt like she might listen now.

"I heard you didn't come to school because you didn't want to be in a classroom with me. Is that true?"

"Yes," she answered. She seemed to have calmed down her tears for the time being. "If you already know, good. I don't want to see your face, Yosuke. Please leave."

I had prepared myself, but being given such a strong rejection made my chest tighten suffocatingly.

"Could you at least tell me why?"
"No real reason. It's not your fault. I've just decided to hate you."

She was practically spitting the words out. I took things another step.

"Why did you try to do what you did last night?"

She had no answer for that question.

"Is it because of that?", I asked.

"You don't need to know that," said Hajikano. "...Your birthmark was cured. That's good. Well, goodbye."

Her words weren't phrased in a thorny way, but they still stabbed through my heart. Before, she absolutely wouldn't have used the word cured.

I turned my back to Hajikano and was about to leave the room. But after taking one step out the door, I turned around and asked one last question.

"Hey, Hajikano. Do you remember what you said about my birthmark in elementary school?"

She slowly shook her head.

"I don't."

Crushed by the denial of such a holy memory, I fled from her room. Aya was waiting for me outside, and looked at me as if asking "How'd it go?" I powerlessly shook my head. She shrugged her shoulders with a look of "Didn't I tell you?"

*

Aya and I sat together on the porch and smoked.

"Pretty awful, wasn't it?", she said. "It just suddenly appeared in winter, her second year of middle school. Yui's totally changed because of it. I think it was the summer of third year... Around that time, she started skipping class for no reason. She managed to attend enough to graduate, but apparently had to settle for a high school a step below what she would've liked. Talk about a rise and fall. Shows how important appearance is to people."

Winter, her second year of middle school... That repeated in my head. Even if the woman on the phone knew the future and that I would accept the bet (or went back in time to claim the collateral), planting the birthmark on Hajikano a whole year and a half ago seemed far too early. Maybe my whole idea that it had transferred from me to her was overthinking it.

"You shouldn't bother with her anymore." Aya pressed her cigarette against a can of anti-mosquito incense. "Maybe you used to be good friends before, but she's just a shell of it now. Meeting her again will just destroy your memories."

"Leave once you're done with that," she told me, and left. I went through one more cigarette, then tossed them in the can, gently touched the band-aid on my face, and left the house.

On the way home, I heard ringing from a phone booth on a street corner in the residential district. I wasn't even surprised anymore. I entered the booth and picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"So, your thoughts after meeting Hajikano once again?", the woman asked. "Are you able to love Hajikano, hideous as she is now?"

I slammed the receiver down and left the booth. Can I love the now-ugly Hajikano? Of course I can. It's not like I fell in love with her simply because she had perfect looks. Whether I could love her with that birthmark wasn't a problem. The problem was whether she could love me without my birthmark.


From the speakers around town came a chime which played at 5 PM, to the tune of the Mermaid's Song. Still, it looked like it would be an hour or more until sunset. Many crows flew around above the trees, cicadas made refreshing chirps. A local group of kids were being taught fire safety.

When you think about it, things had been so unusual up until now, I realized. Being a close friend with Hajikano was only the result of numerous coincidences, so realistically, it was only natural she'd treat me this way. Even suggesting that the likes of me could console Hajikano was too much. Thinking she could "be mine" - now that was really not knowing my place.

It seemed I was quite able to handle being rejected by Hajikano. It made me feel like a hopelessly spineless individual. The once-sparkling past changed color; I could imagine that I'd seen everything only my way, and I was never a friend of any importance to Hajikano.

Losing self-confidence all at once, I began to give up on trying to win this bet. Okay, okay, I get what you're trying to say. Just losing my birthmark won't make my dream come true. It was never that simple. It was a game I never had a chance of winning. And you knew that when you proposed this bet, didn't you?

But also, if I changed my thinking, I could put it this way: in exchange for being shown my powerlessness in full, I'd gotten a great chance. At present, my circumstances at school weren't so bad. If I built strong, trusting relationships with Chigusa and Nagahora while I could, maybe I could keep those intact even if my birthmark came back. Yes, this period of not having my birthmark was a perfect opportunity.

That woman had said the deadline was August 31st. So my fate was still postponed for over a month. I'd been given a decent amount of time.

I envisioned it. Chigusa and Nagahora, accepting me as before, even with my birthmark back. Myself, able to forget about it and laugh with my classmates.

That wouldn't be such a bad future, all told.

*

I was naive. When the woman on the phone explained the bet, she - perhaps intentionally - failed to mention an important point. She never mentioned anything about the penalty that would be given to me if I lost the bet. She knew that if she had mentioned it, I wouldn't have been on board.

Remember the story of the mermaid. Not The Mermaid of Agohama. Not Yaobikuni. But Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.

Andersen lived a life full of frustration and heartbreak, and with his early works especially, he had a strong tendency to write tragedies that ended with the protagonist's death. The Little Mermaid is a model example. In the eyes of Andersen at that time, his talent unknown and in the depths of poverty, it's not surprising to see it portrayed that death is the only salvation. That pessimistic outlook would reflect in your work, surely.

Now, as far as I remember, here's how the story of The Little Mermaid begins.

On her fifteenth birthday, the mermaid leaves the sea for the first time in her life and falls in love with a prince on a ship. Mermaids aren't allowed to show themselves before humans, but she refuses to give up on him. So she makes a request of a witch, and in exchange for her beautiful voice, obtains a human form. And the witch warns her: "If the prince marries another girl, you'll turn to sea foam."

Wasn't that just the situation I was in?

And what kind of ending does The Little Mermaid have?

That goes without saying.



[+]

Chapter 4: One Who Sees the Stars

I resolved, for the few days until summer break, to forget all about the bet and live the kind of life a high-schooler should. In a way, that was a simple task. All I had to do was imitate the methods of the people who had always treated me with disgust, yet a part of me could never stop aspiring to. Similar to how a language very different from your mother tongue makes you that much more conscious of its grammar, I knew a lot about their unwritten rules, even moreso than the unwritten rules of my own groups.

I began hanging out with Chigusa, Nagahora, and their friends. I had assimilated into the class in no time. What really got me to realize how drastically different my life had become was the sports tournament just before summer break. At the time I sent in my form for it, I wasn't sure if I'd be out of the hospital by then, so I was put down as a backup softball player.

I got my chance to play in the first game. At the top of the fourth, when I stepped up to plate as a pinch hitter, the crowd suddenly cheered. I looked around trying to figure out what had happened before realizing their cheers were apparently meant for me. Some volleyball girls who had rather quickly lost their game were especially lively, and unbelievably enough, shouted my name in unison. That made me completely whiff the first pitch. The cheers only got louder.

After the second pitch was a strike, things got a bit calmer. Becoming overly-conscious of the strike zone, I hit the third pitch right with the middle of the bat, and the ball went soaring off into the blue sky. Back in middle school, I had faked sick to leave school early, go to the town's only batting center, and make bets with my "friends" over this and that. But still I thought to myself, I've finally gotten to experience this for once in my life.

Leisurely coming to a stop on second base, I turned to take a peek at the crowd. It wasn't like it was the first time I'd made a long hit, but there was a clamor as if I'd scored the deciding points. Even girls I'd never talked to were waving and calling my name.

At this point even I, in all my wariness, had to admit it.

It seemed that Yosuke Fukamachi was welcome in this class.

Alas, for all their efforts, Class 1-3 was knocked out of all the competitions in round two, and didn't make it to the closing ceremony. Half of us went to watch the other class's games, while the other stayed in the classroom, soaking up the festival mood and chatting.

I had a rambling conversation with Nagahora myself, but soon those girls who had cheered for me during the game came up, poking each other, and showered me with all kinds of questions. Where do you live? Do you have any siblings? Why were you in the hospital for three months? Are you keeping up with class? What club are you in? Do you have a girlfriend? Etcetera. I was unsure how to answer every time and sought help from Nagahora, but he refused; "They're asking you, Fukamachi!"

After the crowd left, Chigusa, who had stood outside the circle, came and sat down next to me, and asked exactly the same questions the earlier girls had. She made me repeat my answers from mere minutes ago word-for-word. When Chigusa left her seat, Nagahora asked her, "What were you hoping for there, Miss Minagisa?", and she gave an unintelligible response: "Who knows. Maybe I just wanted to check if I'd get the same answers if I asked the same questions."

And just like that, I caught up from my three-month delay. I made a promise to Chigusa to accompany her to her rehearsal for the Minagisa summer festival, and made plans with Nagahora and his friends to go to the beach. It felt like planning someone else's summer vacation. Hajikano continued to be absent, and her seat front and to the right remained empty, but I forcibly pushed all the things it would make me think of out of mind. Luckily, Kasai never called me in after the second day, and I didn't hear any public phones ringing.

On July 18th, we had our closing ceremony, and summer vacation began in earnest. I was practically glowing. I had made it to summer break doing all the things I should have done. It was hard to call things ideal, but it was a stellar accomplishment for me.

Naturally, a part of me was also sneering at this extreme turnabout. Forget personality, forget ability, forget that there'd been no real changes since I was about 14 - the fact I'd gotten all this heaped on me the moment my birthmark went away makes you want to think that appearance really is everything for people. But depending on your viewpoint, you could also consider that my life of diligent study in the hospital had unconsciously bettered my personality, or that I was simply a good match with the people at this high school. My conclusion was that even if my birthmark came back, it might not be too late to stop things from turning tragic.

*

For my first two days of summer break, I took the opportunity to enjoy some time alone. To a musician, the times when you're listening to music and times when you're not carry roughly equal importance; to me, time spent alone was about as important as time spent with others, if not moreso. I decided I would use those two days to cultivate a healthy longing for other people.

I got on the down train early in the morning with no particular stop in mind to get off at; I just looked out the window, watching the scenery go by. The passengers dwindled at each stop, the average age increased, the tone of the conversations I heard became less casual. Ultimately, it was down to just me and two old people talking about things I couldn't make any sense of. When they got off at the next station, I followed suit.

I took a look at a sign at the station and found out I was in a hot springs town. There were many to choose from, and I decided to go for the smallest, cheapest one. The lobby only had a single crane game that wasn't powered on and a small shop stand. There wasn't any sign of anyone in the little open-air bath, and I relaxed there for about an hour. Birds, cicadas, water, sky, clouds; there wasn't a single thing else.

The two days passed in a blink. The day after was when I'd planned to go swimming with Nagahora at the beach, which was one of the things I was looking forward to most out of the whole break. I'd gone to look at the sea near-daily for a long time, but I'd never gotten to go there to swim and play with a bunch of friends. And the week after that was Chigusa's rehearsal for the summer festival. I didn't have any plans beyond those yet, but those two alone were more exciting than my last three summer vacations put together.

I think I'd gotten pretty carried away.

When the home phone rang that night, Chigusa's face came to mind. The day of the closing ceremony, as we left, she whispered some numbers into my ear. It was her home phone number.

"You never know when plans will suddenly come up, so..."

And so she asked me for my phone number. Thus, I'd been hoping she would call me eventually.

Having completely dropped my guard, when I heard that woman's voice on the phone, I felt like I'd been whacked in the back of the head with a blunt object. It was a failure unimaginable for the old me. I tried to steel myself for attacks from any angle, at any time, but the peacefulness of these past weeks had really made me slacken.

"Sorry to have gotten out of touch," the woman said in a clear voice that could be mistaken for a call center call if I didn't know better. "Were you disappointed it wasn't a call from the girl in your class?"

"No, I was figuring you'd be calling sooner or later," I bluffed.

"Is that right," she snickered. "How goes it? Are things going well with Hajikano?"

"You're asking that with full knowledge of the situation, aren't you?"
"I would like to know what kind of outlook you have on it."

My grip on the receiver tightened.

"Same as you do. There isn't a chance in hell of Hajikano liking me. It's finally gotten into even my thick head. You offered me this bet knowing from the start I had no chance of success."

"Outrageous. I only meant to make things as fair as I could."

"Make whatever excuse you like. By the way, I'm not backing down. There may be no chance, but I won't admit defeat just like that. I'm going to make the most of the duration of this bet."

"Yes, I know. It is entirely at your discretion how you choose to spend the time up to the wager's end." The woman showed no particular sign of hurt feelings. "To make the best memories you can while you can is a fine choice."

Something about that phrasing bothered me. Before I could locate the exact part that was odd, she interrupted my thoughts. "By the way... I'm terribly sorry, but there's one thing I forgot to explain."

"It's two now," I corrected. "You forget a lot of things. Seriously, you call this fair?"

The woman went on calmly. "It regards the entry fee."

"Fee?"

"Imagine it like a game of poker," she suggested. "I already explained to you what you would earn upon winning the bet. However, I have yet to explain what you would lose if you lost. I did not remove your birthmark simply to do a good deed. I paid that effort as the "ante," so to speak. And to tell the truth, I have already collected the fee of participation from you."

"Don't remember that." I shook my head. "What did you take from me?"

"Your soul. Just a small part."

It took me a second to process that unexpected response.

My soul?

The woman continued, as if stacking onto a growing pile.

"To be clearer still, what I have taken is only the entry fee, and separate from the stakes I have raised. At present, the chips are in the pot. However, if you should lose the bet, I will take all of it for myself."

"And what happens if you do that?"

"You're familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, yes?"

"The Little Mermaid..."

I didn't need to ask "And what does that have to do with the penalty?"

I was born in a town with a deep familiarity with mermaids, and I could recognize her intent in an instant.

The Little Mermaid may have gotten a human form, but she wasn't able to marry the prince. And in the end...?


She turned to foam and vanished.


"I wish you luck."

The call cut off abruptly as always.

And at last, I understood the position I was in.


This was the moment I realized my priorities had changed.

I'll be truthful. Upon learning that I had to confront the issue of Hajikano once more, the first thought I had was "Great - here I was trying to get closer with Nagahora and Chigusa, and then this happens."

Yes, at this point, I began to see Hajikano, my initial objective, as a bother. To be blunt, I didn't want to worry myself with Hajikano ever again. I was frankly fed up with it.

What about Hajikano did I like? Maybe anyone who was kind to me would have done the job. After all, wasn't I slowly becoming captivated by Chigusa Ogiue, too? Was I not feeling that if I had time to smooth-talk Hajikano, I should devote it to hanging out with Nagahora and his friends?

...To make a self-justification, people pampering me for the first time in my life simply threw me off, and made me forget the importance of things. It was a mistaken thought, as foolish as cutting off your hand to take care of a pain in your fingertip. In fact, the reason I wanted to be a better person in the first place was to be someone who Hajikano would consider to be on her level. Yet at some point, the steps became the goal. I lost sight of the thing that was most important to me.

Though in a state of confusion, my feet carried me to Hajikano's house. It was true that I wanted to deepen my bond with Nagahora and the rest. But that wouldn't do me much good if I was dead. I had no choice. There was no other way to save myself except by earning Hajikano's love.

It was 8 PM. As I crossed the bridge, a two-car train came down the track. There was a brief silence once the train left, but just as my ears got used to it, the bugs came back little by little.

I didn't have any plan resembling a plan. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could budge Hajikano as she was now. She had completely shut herself away. Hiding in her shell, refusing all communication. Made to despair by life to the point of putting her head in a noose. What could someone like me say to someone like her?

Besides, it wasn't even what to say that was important - it was who said it. Because it was none other than Hajikano who had soothed me back in grade school, saying "I think your birthmark's wonderful, Fukamachi." Even if someone else had said the same thing, it would probably only sound like a cheap consolation. Hearing it from Hajikano, who had no need to curry favor or get in good with anyone, made those words feel genuine. There was at least one person in this world who didn't think poorly of my birthmark - she let me believe that.

Could I do the same thing? Me saying "I think your birthmark's wonderful, Hajikano," well, I doubted I could expect any decent results. And before that - did I really, earnestly think her birthmark was wonderful? It was an undeniable fact that seeing her face that night in the moonlight, I was chilled by the feeling that something precious had been tarnished. Most importantly, wasn't I overjoyed about the disappearance of my own birthmark? I was leading a fulfilling life for the first time now that it was gone... How could I speak well of Hajikano's?

I was blocked on every side. Going to Hajikano's house felt like going to accept a death sentence. Even if I could meet with her, surely all I'd get is a reaffirmation of how much she hated me. Mud thrown on my memories, disappointment, a reminder that the girl I adored had been lost to me forever.

My feet grew heavy, and my steps got shorter with each one. Yet as long as I kept walking, however long it might take, I would eventually reach my destination. Standing at Hajikano's front door, I rang the doorbell with a feeling of desperation. If her parents answered, what kind of excuse would I make up? If they told me through a door chain, "Don't come here again," what would I do then? I didn't have any strategies in mind for those. Just get this over with, I thought.

The one who appeared at the door was Hajikano's sister, Aya.

"Oh, it's you." She remembered me, it seemed. "What'd you come for at this hour?"
"I've come again to talk with Yui."
"Didn't I say you shouldn't bother with her anymore?"

"Miss Aya." I spared no time turning to my trump card. "Are you aware that Yui has attempted suicide once?"

Aya's expression didn't change. But that, in fact, indicated her unease.

After taking a moment to recover, she spoke aggressively.

"Yeah, I know. But what about it?"

With hands behind her back, she closed the door, searched her right pocket, then searched the opposite pocket for a crumpled cigarette pack. She began to smoke; it gave off a sharp peppermint smell.

"To be honest, I don't care if she doesn't go to school, or tries to kill herself. If she doesn't wanna go, sure, don't go. If she wants to die, go ahead and die."

"...Surely you don't seriously think that way?"

"Oh, I think I'm thinking it pretty seriously. Yosuke Fukamachi, right? You have any experience having a sibling who's way too good?"

"No," I shook my head.

"When your sister's like that, to be frank, it makes you wanna die. I've heard people talking behind my back, like "why is the older one so average when the younger one's so pretty?", a million times. "Sisters? Huh, you don't look anything alike," they smirk - that's not a rare occurrence either. The relatives all fawned over her and paid me no attention. ...But as time passed, I stopped caring about what other people thought. I'm able to just say "think what you want to think" now."

With a distant gaze, Aya let out a puff of smoke.

"Except the problem of me always comparing my sister's life to mine has stuck around to the end. While I'm desperate to win over just one guy, she brings in ten. Lest I think a good-looking guy wanted to talk to me, the second sentence is just "Introduce me to your sister." I studied my butt off to get into a high school she treats as a backup. Whaddya think of that? Even if she has no ill will, doesn't it seem natural to wish she'd go poof?"

"...But, even then," I managed to interrupt. "You really wouldn't care if your own sister killed herself?"

"I wouldn't. No doubt I'd be relieved," she replied without hesitation. "So that's that. Sorry that you walked all this way - could you leave?"

After stomping out her cigarette, Aya wordlessly turned her back to my glare and reached for the door.

She turned back and asked, "First things first, what can you even do? You couldn't do anything last time. You just jumbled up her feelings more and left. If that didn't teach you to give up, you must have some secret plan this time, huh?"

Seeing that I wasn't answering, Aya snorted and shut the door in my face.


Leaning on a stone wall, I looked up at the July night sky. Even with streetlights right nearby, I could identify a few dozen stars. From a house across the street came murmurs from a television. I smelled boiling curry from somewhere else.

I twisted my body to look at the second-floor windows. The light in Hajikano's room was off. Already fell asleep, probably... Or maybe she was glaring at the sky from her dark room? That sounds more likely. I had no basis, but I thought so.

The energy left my body. I felt I wouldn't be able to stand back up for a while. As I closed my eyes and listened to the bugs, a comfortable fatigue embraced me.

While I nodded off, memories of a week ago surfaced behind my eyelids. The pitch dark room, the ray of light seeping through the door, Hajikano stroking my cheek, her face illuminated by the light through the curtains, her sitting on the floor and crying, the blood pouring from where she'd scratched me...

There I stopped the flashback and rewound a few seconds.

Something bothered me.

It was a small thing. Like a single instrument a little out-of-tune in a full orchestra, something you'd easily overlook unless you were a pretty sharp person.

I listened closely to seek it out.

Had it just been the birthmark that was different about her? Was there anything else odd? Just how much time had you spent in grade school sneaking looks at her face? Compare that memory burned into your brain and her present appearance - is there any change you can see that can't be explained by simply growing up?

The moment I was done playing spot-the-difference, I almost yelled.


There was a mole under her eye.


I'd read a lot of writings about dermatology. So I knew that moles appearing later in life certainly wasn't a rare occurrence. But with the mole being under her eye, I couldn't brush it off as a coincidence. After all, there was a time when a so-called "crying mole" held special significance for Hajikano and I.

I recalled a conversation I had with her four years ago.

"What an awful wound," Hajikano said, looking at my scraped knee. It was no exaggeration; it really was an awful wound. I'd gotten in a fight with some middle-schoolers who laughed at my birthmark, and they shoved me to the ground.

"It doesn't hurt?"
"Nah, it hurts."
"Then you should look more like you're hurting."
"Sure, if that made it heal up faster..."

Hajikano squatted and stared at my knee. She wasn't directly touching it, but I felt kind of ticklish and said "don't stare at it like that."

She stood up and looked into my eyes.

"Yosuke, even when bad things happen, it never shows on your face."
"Is that bad?"

"It's not good." She stood up tall to gently stroke my face. "If you make a habit of that, then when you're really having a hard time, you might not be able to ask for help."

"That's fine."
"No, it's bad." She shook her head and put her hands on my shoulders.

"Okay, how about this? When you're really in trouble, Yosuke, but you don't feel like you can ask for help, you can give me a signal instead."
"A signal?"

Hajikano took a marker out of her pencil box, said "Stay still," and made a black dot under my eye.

"What's this?", I asked.

"A crying mole." Hajikano put the marker away. "When you want help, draw a mole under your eye. If I see that, you won't even have to say anything, and I'll help you."

"I see. So it's a distress signal," I smiled awkwardly, rubbing under my eye.

At the time, I thought it was just a joke. The topic of crying moles never came up between us ever again, and I never used that signal. So I had completely forgotten it was even a thing.

Of course, it was possible that Hajikano's mole wasn't drawn on, but a real one that had sprung up there. Maybe I was just making a big mistake, and she didn't remember that silly joke from four years ago.

But for now, that was fine. If it was a mistake, that was enough. Consciously or not, Hajikano was seeking help. And via a signal which only I would understand. A method that we devised back when we were closest. Right now, I had the freedom to convince myself of that.

My earlier despair was clearing away. I felt like I could keep trying for a little longer.


The next morning, I was shaken awake by Aya.

"Don't tell me, you stayed out here all night?", she asked in amazement.
"Seems that I did."
"Are you an idiot?"
"Seems that I am."

My joints were all screaming from sleeping out on the road, but I felt strangely pleasant otherwise. I stood up and stretched. Closing my eyes, I heard the morning wind rustling the trees and birds chirping. It was probably around 6 AM. The air had yet to fill with that heavy humidity; its slight warmth felt good on my skin.

"I was waiting for you. I felt that in order to approach Yui, it would be fastest to persuade you, Miss Aya."

"Still haven't given up?" She furrowed her brow.
"Correct. Yui needs me, you see."

"Hmph. Well, isn't that swell." She grabbed my shoulder and brushed me aside. "See ya, I'm in a hurry here."
"Have a good day. I'll wait here for your return."

Aya glared at me and looked like she wanted to say "Um, y'know...", but seeing that I wouldn't avert my gaze, she swallowed her words.

After a while, she sighed with resignation.

"My sleepless nights are still going strong," Aya said, pointing at the bags under her eyes. "Why's that? Because every night at 2, there's a rustling coming from the back door. Seems she's sneaking out of the house every night to go somewhere."

"At 2? 2 AM?"

"Yeah. Dunno where she goes, and I'm not interested in finding out. But you've got some understanding of her; maybe knowing where she's headed might give you some kind of clue."

With that, she went to leave, and I bowed my head.

"Thank you very much, Miss Yui."

"You're a real idiot. You could always just find another girl." She put her hand on my head and ruffled my hair. "See ya, Yocchan."

Once Aya left, her dark-rooted brown hair fluttering in the wind, I let out a big yawn. No, not even I could just wait around here until 2 AM. I decided I'd get back home and sleep soundly.

I began walking home. In the morning air, I found myself naturally stretching my back. Children ran past me with radio calisthenics stamp cards hanging from their necks. Water plants floated on the still water in a ditch. Announcements played on the town broadcast system, but it was too crackly to make out a single word. That was always the way. Even if it were the Earth's final day, they'd announce the end of the world with the same old mutter that nobody could make out.

At home, mom was having breakfast alone. Dad had already gone to work. "Where did you go?", mom asked, so I lied, "On a walk. I got up weirdly early." She seemed to believe that. After getting a bare minimum of food in me, I took a shower, put on dry clothes, and slept for about five hours.

Waking up in the afternoon, I called Nagahora.

"I know we were going to the beach later today, but I've got other plans, sorry. Hope the five of you have fun."

"Too bad, we were all looking forward to it." He didn't show any irritation about my sudden change of plans, but readily accepted it. "It's fine if you come late, so let us know if you think you can come."

"Sure. Sorry to let you know at the last minute."

I put the receiver down, then faced my desk and began on my summer homework. Even if the end of our lives is within sight, unless that's something particularly concrete, we can't just abandon our daily duties. It's absurd, really.

When the sun set, I went to the living room to get dinner, and sat across from my mother to eat yakisoba with such an overload of cabbage that it hardly had any taste. There was a baseball game on TV, but neither mom nor I favored either team. So unless the fielding team showed some particularly good play, we just cheered for the team at bat.

"When people have favorite teams, I wonder what makes them like that team?", mom pondered while pouring liquor into her teacup. "It's not because they know someone on the team, right?"

"Usually because they're local, or they have a favorite player, or it's the first team they ever watched, or because they're just good, or maybe even because they're bad. There can be a lot of reasons, I guess."

"I see! How interesting." My answer seemed to leave an impression on her. "It almost sounds like reasons for falling in love. Because her house is close by, she has elements you like, she was the first girl you ever saw, she's dependable, or maybe you figure she can't be left alone..."

"I don't really get the "first girl you ever saw" one."

"Oh? I think that one really fits," she proudly insisted. "What I mean is, the moment you meet her, you feel like she's the first girl you've ever seen in your life. It's as if you've been struck by lightning, your blood's running hot, your heart beats fast like it isn't your own, your throat is dry... And that's when you know love."

I smiled wryly. "That's not the kind of thing you say drinking beer from a teacup."

"But don't you think that's more persuasive? Surely it's at least more genuine from me than from a dreamy-eyed high school girl in a fancy café."

Once dinner was over and I'd washed the dishes, I still had over five hours to spare. I went to my room and did some basic weight training, then set my alarm to go off at 12, turned off the light, and fell asleep on my futon.

And so the time came. To help with tailing, I wore a black shirt with muted denim jeans, and tightly tied the laces of my well-worn sneakers. To further disguise myself, I put on black-framed glasses. The lenses were covered with dust, and I had to blow on and wipe them repeatedly. I'd bought them in middle school hoping to cover my birthmark, but upon wearing them, I found I'd made a miscalculation. The blueish-black birthmark blended into the color of the glasses, making it just look like it spread even further across my face; once I realized that, they earned a permanent spot on my desk. Luckily, my vision hadn't changed much since then, so the lenses still worked fine for me.

It took less than twelve minutes to walk to Hajikano's house. The stone wall around her house had not only a front gate on the south side, but also a small entrance on the east, leading me to believe Hajikano went in and out of that after going out the back door. I dared to hide not outside the gate, but on the inside. There, I could stay out of the streetlights, and it seemed easy to conceal myself in the bushes.

Time passed slowly. It being such a humid night, even sitting still in the shadows made me sweat. Thus, I was bitten by many mosquitoes while waiting for Hajikano. There were at least ten bites on my legs alone. On top of that, several crickets were making a grating sound nearby. It was uncomfortable, but I couldn't move; this was the only location where I could be in Hajikano's blind spot as she came out the back door. I couldn't know when she'd show up, so I certainly couldn't smoke either. I should've applied bug spray, I lamented.

Just as Aya said, Hajikano appeared at 2 AM. She opened the door soundlessly, and came out looking like a sleepwalker. She wore a linen slip similar to before, a sweat miniskirt, and flat sandals that looked difficult to walk in. If you were headed somewhere far away on a summer night, you wouldn't dress like this. Her destination must have been somewhere close.

Tailing Hajikano was simple. Unless they have reason to believe you're being followed, people don't check for someone behind them or abruptly start moving faster. Just keeping a fixed distance and keeping your footsteps quiet is enough; no need to even hide.

When I was at last able to hazard a guess at where she was headed, I couldn't help but feel that it was all somehow fateful. After going down a path alongside rice paddies and through several tunnels, she went off the path and began to descend a slope. All there was that way was a forest.

A normal person might have lost their nerve at this point. But I had some familiarity with that route.

Past the trees was a road which had been abandoned ages upon ages ago. Following the path of soil and fallen leaves, there was a red bridge going across a river. But one would hesitate to call it a bridge. It was naturally rusted all over due to years of neglect, and over half of the wooden boards had rotted away. All that was left was a metal frame about 15 centimeters thick and guardrails, and even those were in such a state that I would expect them to break any time now.

Hajikano crossed the bridge without any trouble.

Beyond it was her destination. The Red-Room Ruins I had once told Nagahora and his friends about.

Technically, the building was called the Masukawa Hotel. Though now decrepit and covered with vines, the hotel had once been fairly prosperous, but it was closed when a guest smoking in bed started a fire that killed many people - so goes the rumor, which any student in the town of Minagisa has heard at least once. But that was just the made-up ramblings of bored students, and in truth, the proprietor had simply fled in the night when business started to decline. For a time, it had been treated as a hangout for delinquent students, so all the windows were broken, it was littered with trash, there was spraypainted graffiti all over. But as the building aged further, floorboards started to give out and ceilings crumbled, so not even delinquents would come near it anymore.

Hajikano went casually into those ruins with just a flashlight. No mistaking it, she'd become quite accustomed to walking around here. The building was even worse for wear than when I'd visited; the hallways were fine, but the rooms were filled with holes. She went straight for the stairs, up to the second floor, to the third. A chain hung in front of the stairs going up from there, with a plate reading "Staff Only"; she stepped over it and proceeded even further.

In stark contrast to the rooms, with furniture and peeling ceilings and beds and mats that seemed beyond repair, the rooftop retained its appearance from when the hotel was still a functional hotel. Unless she intended to jump off this roof, this had to be her final destination.

A chair was placed in the center of the roof. It was a familiar chair with armrests. Maybe someone had brought it up from the "red room." Hajikano sat in it, put her arms on the armrests, stretched her legs, and relaxed.

This was her special viewing seat.

It was a strange scene, but at the same time, somehow invited a sense of nostalgia. A girl dressed in night clothes, sitting in a single comfy chair in the middle of a dreary rooftop, looking at the stars. It was all so unnatural, but bizarrely harmonious. That lack of coherence made it feel like a dream. Yes, this is probably what it would feel like to wander into someone else's dream.

If you ignored the various dangers, this was an ideal place to view the stars. No trees or power lines to obstruct your vision, no chance of light interference. When I followed her lead and looked up, my vision was filled with hundreds of stars. I hadn't even walked thirty minutes from the residential district - was the view really so different here? Or maybe walking in the dark had made my eyes able to see meager lights I wouldn't otherwise.

I observed Hajikano's actions from behind a pillar. She stayed in the chair and didn't move. Five paper-rolled cigarettes worth of time passed.

Then, I heard a song.

At first, it was terribly modest. The voice was quiet and weak. But it gradually became louder, and clearer. A song with a melody that was melancholic, but with a hint of warmth.

The Mermaid's Song. There wasn't a person in Minagisa who didn't know it.

I listened in to Hajikano's song. Her clear voice echoed alongside the rustling trees and insects, and it seeped into the warm summer air.

I'll keep this night a secret, I thought. Yes, I had a duty to at least let Aya know what her sister was going out every night and doing, but I didn't even want to relinquish that.

It's fine if I'm the only one who knows this beautiful secret.

About an hour exactly after coming to the rooftop, Hajikano slowly stood up. But I didn't tail her. I was convinced she would head straight home without any detours.

Once she left and I was alone, I sat in the comfy chair she had been in and looked up at the stars. I felt some of her warmth was still there.


The next night, and the night after, Hajikano left home at about the same time to go look at the stars. During the day, I went around inspecting the ruins to ensure she wouldn't get hurt; stomping on weak floors to open clearly-visible holes, sweeping away glass shards and sharp splinters on her usual route to the roof.

There were all sorts of things laying about in the rooms. Bottles with drinks still in them, broken tableware, torn curtains, stained futons, broken fans, TVs with holes in the screen, ropes with unknown use, piles of adult magazines, snapped umbrellas. I'd expect it to be a breeding ground for bugs and rats, but oddly, I didn't see even a single spider. Maybe even bugs don't come near a truly dead place.


I had no reason to know it at the time, but the summer of 1994 was an extremely important summer for astronomers. On March 24th, 1993, three researchers at Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California - Eugene Shoemaker, his wife Carolyn Shoemaker, and David Levy - discovered an elongated comet in the Virgo constellation. The comet was named "Shoemaker-Levy 9" (SL9) after the three of them.

It was found that the comet had been caught in Jupiter's gravity in the 1960s, and in 1992, it split up into over twenty linked pieces. In 1994, from July 16th to 22nd, those pieces rained down on the south side of Jupiter. For a few months afterward, you could see the bruises they left on the surface of the planet even with a small telescope. It was a huge, historic event in the field of astronomy and got lots of coverage on TV and in the newspapers, but Hajikano and I having no interest in news, we didn't have any inkling of it.

The appearance of this comet ended up taking away one great joy from amateur astronomers. The impact of SL9 into Jupiter seemed to prove that a comet colliding with Earth, previously only considered as a mere possibility, was entirely plausible. This led experts in the field to become extra-observant of near-Earth objects, in turn making it extremely difficult for an amateur to be the first to discover a comet.

But suppose Hajikano did know something so historic was occurring among the stars she was looking at. I still doubt she would think anything of it. She'd showed no interest in astronomical knowledge, or observation, or photographs. She just liked to look up at the sky and absentmindedly gaze at stars she didn't know the names of.

On another night, she was looking at the stars. On the roof of the ruined hotel, listening to their voices. I watched over her from the shadows. I knew that alone wouldn't turn the situation in my favor, and felt the deadline of the bet coming ever closer, but I just couldn't bring myself to speak. I wouldn't dare intrude on her secret joy.

And so summer break proceeded, day by day.



[+]

Chapter 5: The Ninth Comet

"Seems clear she wasn't getting on well with her classmates."

The Aya I met that day was a totally different person from the Aya I'd met before. Before, she was always sleepy and bedheaded, so I saw all of her bad side. But in proper makeup and an ironed white shirt, she was no less charming than her sister. She probably knew full well that she was capable of presenting herself in a charming way, I supposed. No doubt, that excellent ability was fostered by the sense of inferiority her sister instilled in her.

"But I dunno anything beyond that," Aya shrugged. "Yui suddenly took to skipping class in the summer, her third year of middle school. But she hasn't offered me any explanation for it. Not to friends, or to teachers, or to family. When our parents ask what happened at school, it's always "Nothing." Maybe decently smart kids just have a habit of taking all their problems on themselves, and not being able to rely on others."

"Yes, she never was the type who itched to tell others about her troubles."

"Right. So sorry, Yocchan, but I don't think you can be much help. I doubt our parents know any more than me, either."

Aya had a much friendlier attitude than previous meetings. One reason was probably that she was sleep-deprived then, but maybe her personality also depended on whether she'd put on makeup or not. When you have confidence in yourself, you can afford to be nice to others.

I had a reason for coming to visit Aya again. While tailing Hajikano every night, I noticed many little actions and behaviors which overlapped with the Hajikano of the past. While she seemed so different on the surface, I could see how fundamental aspects of her hadn't changed so much since back then. And as my conviction of that grew, a doubt also grew in my mind.

Was Hajikano's despair something caused by the birthmark alone?

No matter what, I couldn't see her as a person who would go as far as suicide over a single blemish. Because this was the same Hajikano who had been the only one to accept my birthmark back in elementary school. Can someone's nature change that much in a year and a half? Or maybe it was as simple as being able to accept it on someone else's face, but not on her own?

Perhaps her despair had some deeper reason behind it. We might have been so fixated on the visible as to overlook what was really important. Maybe, in that half-year gap between the birthmark appearing and her starting to skip school, some significant event happened to her?

If my theory, that her despair was rooted in something other than the birthmark, were correct, the first step to knowing the truth would be getting closer to Hajikano's heart. So I first came to talk to Aya, the person closest to her.

"If you really want to know, you'll probably just have to ask her classmates directly," Aya suddenly spoke after a long silence. "There's probably at least one girl at your school who came from Mitsuba Middle School, right? Maybe she'd know why Yui got like that."

"I was considering that, too. But it's summer break, so everyone is all scattered."
"Then patrol someplace where you'd expect there to be people."

"I suppose... Just as you say, Miss Aya. I'll go around places where people gather. And I'll visit the school too, just to be sure. Maybe I can ask students doing club activities."

"I'd love to help and all, but..." She folded her arms and bit her lip. "I've got plans to meet some friends from high school today..."

Aya stopped there and looked over my shoulder. I looked back and saw a blue car stopped in the street with a surfboard on the roof carrier and the hazard lights on. The car was a horribly old make, the hood was mostly sunburnt white, and the engine made a strange rattling noise.

The driver's door opened, and out came a man about the same age as Aya. He was only a little taller than me, but he was lightly tanned and muscular, emphasized by his tight shirt. Wearing a cheap necklace and sunglasses like the compound eyes of an insect, he walked over to Aya, sandals clopping against the ground. "Hey," he waved. Then, acting as if he only just noticed, he looked toward me and asked, "Who's this guy?"

"Friend of my sister's," Aya answered. "So what are you here for?"

"Didn't I say I'd come pick you up, Aya?" The man took off his sunglasses and made a shocked face. "Promised to come by at 1 today."

"And didn't I later say I'd gotten other plans?"
"Nope."

"Is that right? Well, I do in fact have plans to meet some friends from high school today. I can't spare the time for you."

While the man stood there at a loss, his mouth half-open, Aya said "Oh yes," as if she'd thought of a brilliant plan.

"See, this guy needs to go around town to get information. Masafumi, you help him out. You've got all day, don't you?"

"Me?", Masafumi balked, his voice cracking.

"If you don't want to, that's fine."

His shoulders drooped. "Okay, I'll do it," he weakly replied.


The man's name was Masafumi Totsuka. A 23-year-old college graduate who was in the same class with Aya. He seemed to have a thing for her, but she denied his every approach. He'd only just taken up surfing and still had trouble getting on the waves.

"Hey, how do ya think I could get Aya to get friendly?", Masafumi asked, my circumstances clearly the furthest thing from his mind right now. "You're in good with her, right?"

"No. We've only just met."
"But she seemed real fond of you. Ain't she?"
"You just happened to see it that way. When we first met, she thought I was her sister's stalker."
"But you're something like that, right?"
"I won't deny it."

"Then we've got something in common," Masafumi remarked with deep feeling. "Both getting tossed around by a Hajikano."

The car radio was tuned to a local station, playing pop songs. Afterward, there was a very brief news report. It said this summer would be the biggest scorcher in twenty years. Apparently, by July 13th, the rainy season had come to a close all across the country. In contrast to that report, the AC in the car was keeping us awfully cold, and I kept rubbing my arms to warm up. When I got out at my first destination, the high school, my body which had forgotten it was summer was assaulted by the heat, and within minutes, I was sweating like mad.

I went around the school, and whenever I found students who looked like first-years, I haphazardly asked them about it. The school was surprisingly full of students even on summer break, and their activities were highly varied. Tennis players in a sweaty room, getting really into board games. Baseball players in the courtyard, dealing with the swarms of bugs. Couples in the library paying no mind to those around them, touching and getting looks. Art students who spent so long sketching outdoors, they were more tanned than the sports players. Girls in an empty classroom with the curtains shut, talking amongst each other. A guy in the music club who passed out from a lack of oxygen being put on a stretcher. I asked about twenty students in total, but not one of them was from Mitsuba Middle School.

"That fancy girls' school, right?", a boy said. "Nobody would ever willingly come from a place like that to here. You're looking in the wrong place."

It was just as he said. I left the school and returned to the car. Masafumi was reclining in his seat and reading a film magazine. When I told him I'd had no results, he snorted indifferently, tossed the magazine to the back seat, and started the engine.

Masafumi said he was hungry and stopped in front of a ramen place. I didn't feel especially hungry, but I reluctantly went with him. Many flies flew about the shop, and the ramen they served tasted like instant noodles, just with more oil. Masafumi ordered ramen for two and cleaned it up in no time.

After eating, he requested that I explain the situation to him again. I abridged the details, telling him I was looking into the reason why my former good friend Hajikano had stopped attending class.

"Why're you going around investigating what you could ask her yourself?", he puzzled. "Is there a point in being all roundabout?"

"It's an iffy issue," I answered. "Some roads might look like the fastest and most straightforward on the map, but they turn out to be the most roundabout."

"I dunno what the problem is, but I'd just ask her directly."

"I'd agree," interjected the shop owner over the counter. "Girls love to talk, right? If they see you wanna listen, they'll tell you more than you even asked."

"I wonder about that," the owner's wife refuted. "I'd say everyone has a thing or two they can't let anyone know, wouldn't you?"

"Not me," the owner mumbled.

"Oh, really?", she asked doubtfully. "I'd thought you had plenty."

After leaving the shop, we visited places like the desolate shopping district and the plaza by the shore one after another. After questioning some students stuffing their cheeks with cup ramen in the parking lot on the roof of the supermarket, my vitality finally ran out. Let's call it a day, I thought.

Ultimately, I'd gotten no useful information at all. I'd anticipated this, but much less than a student from Mitsuba Middle School, I didn't even find anyone who knew one. How many students from that prestigious school could there possibly be in Minagisa, anyway? After all, I didn't know a single person from there except Hajikano.

"Guess that was a waste of time," Masafumi said from the driver's seat.
"I'm sorry. Thanks for helping today."
"Sure. You better let Aya know I was helpful, yeah?"

Just as I thought we were going back the way we'd come, the car slowed down in the bar district. I looked at Masafumi suspiciously.

"Let's take a detour. You've walked around all day, a little stop won't hurt." And with that, he brought me into a bar.

Poking at mackerel while Masafumi drank sake next to me, I slurped soba noodles with entirely-too-thick broth. It was my first time in a bar, and I worried about my high school self being there, but they seemed to have no qualms as long as I didn't drink any alcohol. But also, how did Masafumi intend to get home after this? Would he leave the car here, or spend the night in the car, or sure enough, try to drive drunk? Whatever his intention, as his passenger, it was naturally on my mind.

After some time, Masafumi left me and walked around the restaurant to chat with some people who looked like regular customers. I half-watched the TV in the corner of the bar. It was some special on ghosts. Hearing voices at night in the abandoned school building, the kind of story you hear everywhere.

I put my elbow on the counter and started to nod off when Masafumi came back to me with somebody. He was an intellectual-looking man with glasses holding a highball glass in his hand.

"Hey, you, you better thank me," said Masafumi, clearly drunk and red down to the neck. "This guy's little sister's from Mitsuba Middle School."

"Hello," said the bespectacled man with a smirk. "Was there something you wanted to ask a graduate of Mitsuba?"

"Yes, that's right," I replied. "But specifically, I'm looking for anyone who graduated Mitsuba last year..."

The man's lips raised into a grin.

"That's my sister exactly."


I parted with Masafumi there. He collapsed in the driver's seat, said "I'm just gonna rest here," and waved at me haphazardly. I went walking for about 20 minutes with the man in glasses, Yadomura, and arrived at his house. He went to call for his sister, then came back a few minutes later alone.

"It seems she hasn't come home yet," he told me apologetically. "I'll bet she's gone to the woods."

"Woods?", I repeated. "You mean the ones by the coast?"

"Right. I think she's there looking for ghosts."

Ghosts?

I definitely hadn't misheard that; Yadomura said "ghosts." But touching on the subject of ghosts no further, he gave me very simple instructions on how to get to where he believed his sister was. I resolutely asked, "Um, what's that about ghosts?", and Yadomura answered with an ambiguous smile, "If you're curious, you can ask her yourself."

After walking down the path between the rice fields, I found the entrance to the woods. The woods at night were something you never got used to with any number of visits. Especially if it was summer. Naturally, without any artificial light sources, only a tiny bit of moonlight came through the thick branches and leaves, and unending mysterious noises from all directions made you uneasy. It was honestly hard to believe that a student from a prestigious girls' school had gone in here.

Following the path, I found an open area that served as a crossroads. According to Yadomura, his sister should have been there. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw a small girl sitting on a bench formed from a stump. She wasn't moving a muscle, so momentarily I thought she was part of the stump.

"Good evening," I said to her, unable to see her face. "Your brother told me about this place. I've been looking for a student from Mitsuba to ask them something."

After some time, a reply came from the darkness. "Then your journey is over. Good job."

"Do you know a girl named Yui Hajikano?"

"Yui Hajikano...", she repeated, as if to get a handle on the sound of it. "Yes, I know her. The girl with the birthmark on her face?"

"Right, there's a big birthmark on the left side," I confirmed, resisting the urge to jump with joy. "I'd like to ask some things about her -"

She interrupted me. "That's all I know. We didn't particularly mingle, and we were in different classes, so I know nothing about Miss Hajikano. From seeing her in photos and my yearbook, I remembered her name for her distinctive birthmark, but I've never once spoken with her."

"...I see."

I tried to hide the disappointment in my voice as much as I could, but Yadomura's sister picked up on it easily.

"I'm sorry. I would love to introduce you to an acquaintance, but I'm poor at socializing, so I don't have any such person to send you to."

"No, it's fine," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. "Actually, I'm more interested in hearing about this ghost thing."

After a pause, she spoke bitterly. "Did my brother mention that?"

"Yeah. You're searching for ghosts here, aren't you?"

"...I don't honestly believe in them, necessarily," she said as if pouting. "And it doesn't have to be ghosts, either. A UFO, some ESP, a cryptid, anything would do. Essentially, I'm waiting to find a fissure in the world."

I pondered her words. I reasoned that those could be reworded as "things which go beyond human understanding."

"Say, mister," she said to me - I wonder if she misunderstood me to be her elder. "I do understand, you know, that the things people call ghosts are just illusions their brain shows them. But even if it's an illusion or a hallucination, I don't even care. If I can witness just one thing that exists outside the laws of reality, I think it would serve to give just a little bit of meaning to my life."

Then she went silent as if to think for a moment. My eyes finally adjusting to the light, I could see her now. She was a doll-like girl, whose long hair going down to her waist gave an impression of being somewhat heavy.

"...In other words. If even just once, you saw the toys in the toybox get up at night and start talking, wouldn't that change the meaning of every toy you ever saw afterward? That's the kind of revolution I'm awaiting."

She went on explaining her reason for looking for ghosts using various such examples for nearly twenty minutes. And once she reached what seemed like her conclusion, she suddenly fell silent like running out of battery, and muttered something.

"I've talked too much."

She sounded like she wanted to fade away. If it weren't so dark, I'm sure I would've clearly seen her blushing.

"It was very interesting," I told her, not actually being sarcastic at all.

Her voice grew even weaker. "I usually have no one to talk to, so when I have the chance, I talk too much. When I get home, I'll have a serious reflection session."

"I know how you feel."
"Lies. Surely you couldn't understand. You seem like you have many friends."

I smiled bitterly, mentally muttering to myself "definitely not." In elementary school, I had made that kind of mistake again and again with Hajikano. After spending long breaks on my own and then going back to school, once I was able to talk to Hajikano there, I would keep talking about things she never asked about, and always felt depressed afterward. What an embarrassing loser I am, I chided, and every time I vowed to be a more quiet person.

"Hey, mister," the girl asked as I left. "Do you think I'll meet a ghost?"

"You'll be fine," I turned back and answered. "The world is overflowing with more intriguing phenomena than you think. I can guarantee that. In the process of looking for ghosts, you might encounter something even more bizarre."

"...Thank you. If you say so, I'll keep at it a little longer."

She smiled, or so I think.

"It's getting late, so be careful," I told her, and left the woods.

As I walked the road back, I saw a number of green lights shimmering near an agricultural irrigation channel. If there was any blinking light smoother than a firefly's, I didn't know it. No ornamental light could turn on and turn off so naturally.

I stood there and gazed at the dreamlike spectacle of faint green, never tiring of it.


I'd failed to mention it to Yadomura's sister, but to tell the truth, I also had experience passing by the coast in search of something, though it wasn't ghosts.

It began with a strange occurrence at the beach.

It was in the summer, and I was seven. I'd come with a friend to the beach and was walking along the waves barefoot as usual. At the time, I liked stepping on the flattened sand after the waves retreated, so I spent as long as I could doing it as long as nobody stopped me.

My friend, meanwhile, got tired of this simple game quickly and began to seek new excitement. He rolled his pants up to his knees and began walking toward the open sea. Not thinking deeply about it, I followed behind him.

"Want to see how far you can go?", he said. "Even if we get wet, we'll dry off before we get home in this weather."
"Sounds fun," I agreed.

We threw the sandals in our hands onto the shore, and took careful steps into the ocean.

The weather was mind-numbingly clear. The sand was all dried up, the ocean gleamed white, and far in the horizon were clouds shaped just like the wave in The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Once the water got up to my chest, my feet became unsteady. Even if I could get my soles flat on the ground, every push and pull of the waves seemed like it might pry them away. We should have turned back right there, but not yet having learned to fear the sea, we optimistically thought that if things got really bad, we could retrace our steps.

The moment came suddenly. The seafloor took a steep downturn, and my legs were swept up. By the time I realized the danger, it was too late; my body was being dragged into the open sea. I tried to hold on with my tiptoes and return toward shore, but my body was only carried in the opposite direction of what I wanted.

By the time the water rose to my mouth, my mind was blank with fear. I tried to swim back, but whenever I stopped to catch my breath, I took in water, and became increasingly panicked. I was aware that when you were going to drown at sea, you should float face-up and wait for help, but that knowledge went off who knows where when I was actually drowning. Unable to find my way whatsoever, I struggled in the water, only worsening the situation.

It came up to the point of thinking that I didn't have enough breath left to survive. When all of a sudden, a hand grabbed my wrist. And it pulled me with incredible force.

Of course, I'm sure I was only imagining it in my fear, and had really only been caught in some seaweed or something. But personally, I couldn't make a calm judgement like that at the time. Certain that someone was trying to drag me out toward the open sea, I shuddered. But I didn't even have the strength left to pry away that hand.

For the first time in my life, I was cognizant of death. Strangely, as soon as I started to become aware of it, my feelings of fear and regret weakened. Only a deep resignation remained. I felt I now had a true understanding of the word "unrecoverable."

I wanted to know who was grabbing my wrist, and tried to grab theirs in return. But there was nothing there. Without me realizing it, the hand grabbing my wrist had gone.

Just then, my fingers touched ground.

I slowly stood up, and found myself in the shallows where the water didn't even reach my waist. I could hear seagulls. My friend was calling my name in the distance. My fear earlier seemed like it had never been; there was only a tranquil summer day. I stood there a while, staring at the wrist which something had been holding earlier. A delayed fear welled up in me. My pulse throbbed, my body shook. I rushed up to the shore, fell on the dry sand, and waited for the chills to recede.

The next day, I came to this conclusion about the miraculous event that happened at the beach.

On that day, I was saved by a mermaid.

Ever since then, I came to watch the sea every day. I probably thought that if I did, I would someday meet the mermaid who had saved me. Or else, maybe I couldn't forget the intense thrill of having such a close brush with death and coming back alive. I'd completely forgotten what seven-year-old me was thinking about.

Day after day I went to the beach, but naturally, no mermaid ever showed up. Gradually, my initial objective dwindled in importance, I forgot about the mermaid, and I was left with only the habit of going to the beach. Yes, I'd completely forgotten - but the reason I went to the beach whenever I could spare the time had its origin in a search for a mermaid.

*

The next day, I met Chigusa in the plaza outside the station. I'd promised to accompany her for her rehearsal for the Minagisa summer festival. When Chigusa appeared at the meeting place, despite it being the middle of summer break, she was diligently obeying the school's stupid rule of wearing your uniform when you go outside during the break.

Minagisa was limited in terms of shops and facilities where you could sit and relax, and more than half of them were packed with students on vacation, so we reluctantly set up camp in the supermarket. In one corner, some high school boys were arm wrestling each other with juice on the line, and in the other, two high school girls were eating ice cream and complaining about their spineless boyfriends.

While I listened closely to Chigusa's melodic voice, I pondered what would be an appropriate place to get information next. A place where there were lots of graduates of Mitsuba Middle School. The first and most obvious candidate was Mitsuba High School. Mitsuba was basically a middle school and high school in one, and the vast majority of graduates went on to Mitsuba High. If I went there, I was sure to meet someone who knew Hajikano.

If you're wondering why I didn't ask there in the first place, you'd be right to wonder, but it was just so far away. The reason Hajikano went to Mitsuba Middle School was because she'd moved to the house of her grandmother on her mother's side. It was over an hour away from Minagisa by train. As such, I would've wanted to settle things here if I could, but it wasn't looking likely. Seems like I'll be going tomorrow morning to ask around Mitsuba High, I thought.

The problem was, it might seem a tad suspicious if I were to go down to that high-class girls' school by myself. Since so many people came to see the Mitsuba girl "brand," Mitsuba High was particularly harsh on outsiders, with guards always watching the front gate. A boy from another school would be the number one target to watch out for.

"...Ever since then, the girl broke all contact with both human and mermaid, quietly staying on the seafloor, occasionally recalling the past and weeping." Chigusa looked up from the script. "...The end. Fukamachi, were you listening?"

"Yeah, of course," I insisted, and applauded her to cover up my inattention. "I got really sucked into it. I'm amazed. You could just go up on stage right now without a problem."

"Thank you very much," Chigusa laughed, shaking her shoulders. "But compliment me more, please."

"It's not flattery when I say you have a prettier voice than anyone in the radio club."

"I suppose I feel rather elated."

"That's good." I smiled wryly. "By the way, don't you need to practice the song too?"

"I am practicing. And though I am, I will not let people hear it yet. And I have no intention of letting them hear until the performance."
"Why?"

Chigusa lowered her head. "Because it's embarrassing," she quietly murmured.

After reading through the script three times, we decided to take a break. I bought juice from a vending machine, and on returning to the table, four men with bright hair and gaudy outfits were laughing next to us.

"Let's switch locations," I said, and Chigusa nodded.

I snuck a glance at her face. The look she was giving the men was terrifyingly cold.

I felt uneasy wondering what she would think if she knew I used to be one of those people. Surely she would give the same cold glance to me, wouldn't she?

We finished up practice and took a stroll down a path by a river. I casually looked over to the other shore of the sparkling river. There, I saw children walking on a hill made silhouettes by the backlight of the sunset, and wires connecting steel pylons painted a distorted musical score in the sky.

Suddenly, a plan came to mind.

I came to a stop and ceremoniously said, "Hey, Ogiue."

"Yes?" Chigusa turned around forcefully, showing me a broad smile. "What is it?"

"Is it okay if I ask you something sort of weird?"

"Ask me something?" Chigusa awkwardly averted her eyes from me, staring at the ends of the hair draped over her chest. "Yes, of course."

"To tell the truth, I have an earnest request of you."
"Huh...?" Chigusa's back straightened and her face stiffened. "A request?"
"Only if you have the time, I mean."
"I do," she replied before asking anything about the time.

"Thanks. See, tomorrow, I'm planning to go to Mitsuba High. I want you to come with me."

"Mitsuba High?" Chigusa looked to find this totally unexpected. "Err, of course, I can accompany you... but what kind of business do you have there?"

I summarized the situation for her. My classmate Yui Hajikano being my friend in grade school. How she seemed to be mentally taxed right now (of course, I didn't mention the suicide attempt). The cause of that not being certain. And how a middle school classmate of Hajikano's might possibly know something about it.

"I understand," Chigusa nodded. "Not a deplorable objective, then."

"I went looking around Minagisa yesterday, but only found a single graduate from Mitsuba Middle School. Probably no choice but to go to Mitsuba High then, right?"

"However, you're wrong about that," Chigusa said with a serious look.
"What do you mean?", I asked.

"I mean that there's no need for you to go all the way out to Mitsuba High, Fukamachi," she answered. "For you see, the girl standing before you now was indeed a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School. What's more, she was in the same class as Hajikano in her third year."

Now that she was telling me this, I realized it wasn't that strange. In fact, I should have tried asking her first thing. If there was anyone I knew at Minagisa High that struck me as being Mitsuba-esque, it would be none other than Chigusa Ogiue.

"Well, Ogiue, do you know why Hajikano ended up -"
"I may know that," she interrupted, speaking like it wasn't of interest. "However, whether I will tell you is a different story."

Ignoring my response, Chigusa firmly made her position clear.

"After all, Hajikano wouldn't even say it in front of her own parents, would she? I simply can't go blabbering about a secret she wanted to conceal to that extent."

"You're absolutely right, Ogiue," I said after a few beats. "But given that, this is what I'm thinking. Maybe that secret in itself is a heavy burden for Hajikano. What if the pain of having to bear it herself and tell no one is the very thing putting pressure on her? Because in that case, I have to know."

"...This may be a slightly rude way of asking it, but." The tone of Chigusa's voice dropped. "Why do you feel you must go that far for her, Fukamachi?"

"She helped me, a long time ago. I want to repay the favor."

Chigusa hung her head and thought for a while.

"Understood," she raised her head to say. "However, you absolutely must not tell anyone else. If possible, act like you don't know even in front of her."
"I understand. Thanks."

"And also..." Chigusa's tenseness eased up into a grin. "In exchange, I will ask a request of you, too."
"A request?"

"I haven't decided what it is yet. I will think about it," she said with a good mood.


Tall sunflowers planted in a field cast thick shadows on the road from the western sun. The blackened heads of the sunflowers all facing west looked like countless giant eyeballs.

Sunflowers chase after the sun in the process of growth. By the time the flowers open, they stop moving; by the time they produce seeds, they bend down as if bowing. After running around without principle seeking light, in the end they just stare at their feet and wilt. Feels like an allegory - so I think every time I see sunflowers.

Chigusa began to speak slowly, choosing her words. "I may have spoken somewhat arrogantly, but in truth, the information I have is rather meager. All our classmates would say the same if you asked them. I believe they all know only as much as I do."

I nodded and urged her to go on.

"You may be aware already, but that birthmark of Hajikano's appeared suddenly in the winter of her second year of middle school. At first, it was as small as a speck. However, it grew by the day, enlarging to its current size in less than a month. Hajikano herself acted as if the birthmark did not bother her, but the change had an impact on the people around her in many ways. For those who felt pity for Hajikano, there were also those who laughed and said it served her right, and some simply lamented the loss of one of her beauties. But on the whole, I believe people were mostly sympathetic."

Here, Chigusa took a break.

"Fukamachi, perhaps you're wondering if the appearance of that birthmark resulted in bullying at an all-girls school?"
"...Did it not?"

She shook her head. "At least until July of next year, Hajikano got on more or less the same as she did beforehand. Until then, Hajikano had such a perfect appearance - though this was no fault of her own - that she had a certain unapproachable nature. But perhaps mitigated by the birthmark, she was liked more by her classmates than before. To my knowledge, Hajikano was never bullied."

From the way Chigusa was speaking, I could tell her effort to not sound authoritarian. It was like she was trying to tell me objective facts about Hajikano from as much of an "official standpoint" as possible. She probably felt a bit guilty talking about her when she wasn't around.

"Now then," she said to introduce the main topic. I braced myself for what awfulness might be coming.

"I do not remember the exact dates, but it was definitely just before summer break, so I believe it was probably the middle of July of last year. Hajikano did not come to school for four days straight. When she did attend school again, I realized that this Hajikano was not the Hajikano from before."

"Thus ends the story," said Chigusa.

"No one knows what happened in the span of those four days. In any event, what did happen in that short period changed everything about her. She didn't speak with her friends, she didn't make eye contact, and once summer break ended and the new term began, she had a habit of not coming to class. Soon various rumors and theories began to circulate, but ultimately, no conclusive facts that sound conclusive came to light."

After finishing, Chigusa gave a little sigh and sent a sympathetic glance at me, no doubt looking at a loss.

"My apologies, it seems I only confused you further. ...However, I believe that if you did go to Mitsuba High and asked around, this is still all you would come up with."

"No, this is plenty. Thanks."

I looked up to the sky. Not only had I not found a lead toward resolution, the mysteries had only deepened.

For a long while afterward, we walked together in silence. I had my things to think about, and Chigusa seemed like she had Chigusa things to think about. When my thoughts finally found a place to land, Chigusa opened her mouth.

"My house is around here, so..."

Before I knew it, the smell of the tide was on the air. We'd come pretty close to the sea.

"This is far enough. Thank you very much for today." Chigusa bowed her head deeply.

"Come to think of it, we sure walked a long way," I said, reflecting on the way we came. "Aren't you tired, Ogiue?"
"I am fine. I like to walk, you see."

"I do, too. Thanks for today. I'll see you later."
"Yes, sometime soon."

Chigusa turned her back to me and walked away. But then, she soon stopped, turned, and called "Fukamachi."

"Today, you did a very cruel thing to me. Did you realize?"
"A cruel thing?", I repeated.

Chigusa grinned wide. "It was a joke. Goodbye."

At the time, I didn't think very deeply about what "cruel thing" I'd done to her. I decided it was a meaningless joke and forgot about it right away.

If I were in a position to be more calm and objective, I probably could have easily figured out the meaning of it. But my head was filled with Hajikano, so I couldn't even afford to consider the possibility of someone showing me good will. Cruelty is less often something done consciously, and much more often done by unmindful people.

*

I visited Masukawa Hotel again that night. For the past few days, I'd been taking an approach of not tailing Hajikano from her house, but lying in wait at the ruins. Even if there was a light rain, or it was windless and sweltering, her feet never carried her anywhere besides those ruins. Knowing that, there was no need to risk tailing her.

I'd long since achieved my original objective of learning why she left the house night after night, to deepen my understanding of her. In essence, she liked watching the stars at the ruined hotel. It was futile to try and extract any more information out of her actions. And yet I'd continued tailing her, night after night.

My first priority now should have been to learn what events took place in the "blank four days" Chigusa told me about. And indirect means such as asking around and tailing were insufficient. For it remained an incomprehensible mystery even to Chigusa, who was as close to Hajikano as anyone at the time.

I couldn't think of any option but to ask her directly... Though conscious of that fact, most likely I was unable to take that plunge because I wanted to watch Hajikano look at the stars from the shadows forever.


The next morning... I'd like to say, but in actuality, it was past noon. Because of my visits to the ruins, I'd picked up a nocturnal schedule of waking up at noon and sleeping in the early morning.

I was woken up by the phone. The ringing sound in the silent house had a hollow feeling like the bell ringing at an elementary school on a day off. Leisurely making my way downstairs, not caring if I made it in time, I answered the call.

It wasn't the voice of the woman I heard.

"Hey, is this Fukamachi?"

It was my teacher, Kasai. To put it nicely, it wasn't a comforting voice to hear just as I was waking up. I regretted not just ignoring it and continuing to sleep snugly.

"Sorry to ask suddenly, but can you come to school right now?"

Kasai's attitude was different from usual today. There was a sense of distance, like he'd taken a step back. Maybe it wasn't Kasai who had business with me, but someone else.

"Understood," I replied drowsily. I wanted to ask why I was being called in, but Kasai's tone gave me the impression that he wouldn't take any questions from me. "I'll head there as soon as I'm ready."
"Right. Bye then."

The call ended. I took a shower, put on my uniform, had a breakfast of salmon slices and wakame miso soup while listening to the radio, and left the house with minimum luggage. The forecast seemed to call for another midsummer day, and piercing sunlight burned my skin.

The faculty room at Minagisa High seemed to be conserving energy even in this heat, so the non-air-conditioned room was just as hot as outside. The staff faced their desks with emaciated looks, and the plants by the windowsill were the only lively things in sight.

Kasai was waiting for me outside the room. Sure enough, he took me to see another faculty member. The one who called for me was Endou, the guidance counselor. He had a striking appearance - a giant body tanned black and a shaven head - that earned him many nicknames among the students, but nobody would say them in front of the man himself. Not only would Endou get irritated by the most minor of things, he was dreadfully threatening; once every few days, he would berate students who came late and make them get on their knees to apologize, or shout at girls whose skirts were a little too short and make them cry. You probably need one such person at a school, I feel, but he was someone you'd definitely want to avoid if you could help it.

Kasai went back to his desk, and Endou looked at me like looking at an inanimate object. Though the conversation took its time starting, asking any questions was strictly off-limits. Teachers like this hated students speaking up independently more than anything.

"Yosuke Fukamachi," Endou mechanically read, glancing at the papers on his desk. Then he turned his chair around, re-faced me, and spoke threateningly.

"What were you doing out late last night?"

This wasn't my first time being questioned by an oppressive teacher. I was called to the faculty room dozens of times in middle school, so Endou's attitude could feel nostalgic to me, even. I could tell he was preparing to shout at me. Maybe he even had definite proof ready for it.

Endou must have called me in to condemn me breaking into the ruins, I supposed. Was it getting around that a high school student was sneaking in there every night?

"I was taking a walk outside," I first replied. Lying wasn't a good plan, but it wasn't wise to reveal myself before knowing how much information he had.

"You're aware that by law, young boys aren't allowed to go out past 11 without supervision, aren't you?"
"I am."
"Then why did you think to take a walk?"

I wanted to say "could there any answer to that besides "I wanted to take a walk"?", but I swallowed it in my throat. I had no choice but to hang my head and stay silent.

Endou broke the silence earlier than expected. "But let's put that issue aside for now. Here's the real question. Do you know of the ruined hotel at the foot of the mountain?"

"Do you mean Masukawa Hotel?"
"Right. Last night, there was a fire there."

A cold sensation ran down my spine for an instant. Yet thinking back on everything I'd witnessed last night, from Hajikano visiting the ruins to me leaving, I sighed with relief. Most likely, whatever Endou was talking about happened after we left the ruins.

"By fire, I don't mean a very big one," he continued. "But it was one step away from escalating into a mountain fire."

"So in short," I interjected, wanting to move this along. "You're suspecting that I might be the culprit?"

Endou glared at me with annoyance. "There was a report this morning. At the time of the fire, a student saw a young man walking from the window of their house. By chance, they also knew that person to be Yosuke Fukamachi. And that's why you've been called here. ...So I'll ask you again. What were you doing last night?"

I hesitated to reply. First off, I wanted to avoid bringing up Hajikano at all costs. Any suspicious slip-ups, I would take responsibility for; I didn't want to get Hajikano involved in it too. But if I said "I went to the ruins to see the stars," would Endou believe me? No doubt about it, it would only deepen his suspicion.

Endou tapped the desk with his fist to hurry me up as I wondered if I had any decent escape routes. "What's wrong? Why can't you explain yourself? Something you can't tell me?"

At times like this, you had to restrict yourself to one lie. From experience, telling two or more lies just made it that much easier to dig a hole for yourself. And if I could use only one lie, I would want to use it to hide the fact that Hajikano was on the scene.

Just as I started to say "Yes, last night, I...", someone interrupted from out of the blue.


"He went with me to see the stars."


Endou and I looked toward the source of the voice simultaneously.

The first thing to leap out to me was a dark blue birthmark covering half her face. Come to think of it, it was my first time seeing her birthmark in clear daylight.

"I believe the arson occurred after we left," Hajikano said calmly. "You should be able to know if you look a little further into the witness report and the time of the fire."

The question of why Hajikano was here was answered by a B4-size manila envelope under her arm. She was probably called here by Kasai to pick up assignments and handouts from the days she was absent.

Hajikano in uniform was probably a familiar sight for Kasai, but totally new to my eyes. It should have been just a common, unremarkable sailor outfit, but when she wore it, it escalated her to something otherworldly. Like the way a skilled player can totally change the meaning of an instrument.

Endou glared at the location of her birthmark, then all around her body, then brought his attention back to the birthmark. I snuck a glance at the side of her face without the birthmark. That crying mole was still there. It was too small to determine if it was a real mole or not.

"Your name?" As if asserting that he was in charge here, Endou picked up a pen and opened a wrinkled notebook. "First-year, I see. Class?"
"Yui Hajikano. Class 1-3, the same as him."

Endou paused and pondered with the pen for a while, but not seeming to know the kanji for "Hajikano," settled for writing it in katakana.

"Another law-breaker, then," he snorted and closed the notebook. "So what were you there for?"

"I went to see the stars," Hajikano answered without timidity. "There's little light interference there, so it's ideal for viewing them."

"You like stars?"
"More than other things."
"Was there any interesting movement last night?", he asked as if testing her.

She thought briefly. "From about 1 to 2 AM, I saw a meteor shower. I believe about thirty meteors went by in an hour."

"Oho. Anything else?"
"It seems that maybe there wasn't only one meteor shower. As there were two or three radiant points."

"There's no maybe about it. It was Aquarius's Delta and Iota showers and Capricorn's Alpha shower," said Endou nonchalantly. "To get more specific, Delta and Iota are split up into north and south showers. So NDA, SDA, NIA, SIA. Their radiant points are close together, so it's hard to distinguish, but they're separate alright. The majority's SDA, though," he rattled off like it was nothing. "If you like stars, you oughta learn this stuff."

I unconsciously looked at the two's faces. Neither had any expression, but I felt the hostility between them had settled.

"Guess it's not likely you're lying about going to see the stars."

With that, he turned back to his desk as if losing interest in us and waved to shoo us away. It looked like he wasn't going to chastise us for being out late, either. I left the faculty room with Hajikano in bewilderment. From behind, we heard Endou say "Perseid is coming soon, so don't miss it!"

Meteor showers. So that's the reason Hajikano had been lying face-up last night.

But I didn't notice a single shooting star. Since there was something more worth looking at than the night sky.


Once we left the room, before anything else, I thanked Hajikano.

"You saved me."

Without looking at me, Hajikano began to walk. Normally, I would have gotten nervous at this point, but her having just saved me from a predicament gave me a push.

"So you noticed I was tailing you. Why didn't you say anything?"

Hajikano stopped and opened her mouth to say something, but ultimately thought better of it and resumed walking.

"I feel bad about following you in secret. It's not unreasonable that you'd be upset. But I've been worried since the incident in the park. Wondering if you'll try anything funny again."

If I was giving her such blatant excuses, it probably would've been better to be honest and say something like "I like your singing, so I kept following you wanting to hear it again." But I was focused only on clearing up misunderstandings and showing my good intentions, postponing the things I really wanted to say.

If it were possible, I wanted to explain to her the reason my birthmark had disappeared. Since fourth grade, I was strongly drawn to you. I always thought that if I just didn't have this birthmark, you would turn to face me. And one day, a mysterious woman called me and proposed as The Little Mermaid-style bet. I could have my birthmark removed, but if I couldn't form a mutual relationship with you, I would turn to foam...

Sigh. Is there anyone who would believe such a preposterous story? Even if she did believe it, depending on how she interpreted it, she might get the impression I made myself a hostage to force her to like me. From her point of view, it was "You have to love me or I'll die." I didn't want to do something that equated to pointing a knife at my throat and demanding her love. So I said nothing more, and just kept walking alongside Hajikano.

Hajikano looked toward me and let out a deep sigh. And as if running out of patience, she finally opened her mouth.

"...I know you're thinking of my sake deep down, Yosuke."

She went quiet after that, and took time choosing her next words. I kept my mouth shut, patiently waiting for them.

"So I want to tell you my feelings as honestly as I can."

She looked at me head-on and spoke.

"Don't care about me anymore. It's an annoyance."

Hajikano turned her back to me and ran. I quickly grabbed her hand and asked the last question I had in store.

"I heard from a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School about your middle school days."

Our faces were so close, I saw Hajikano's pupils dilate.

"What happened to you in those blank four days last summer?"

It was a risky gamble. Generally, I would have wanted to ask this question carefully, after slowly easing up her heart and removing all the obstacles I could. Getting right to the heart of the matter at this point might not only not get me an answer, but make her even more wary. But it seemed I was running out of options. In any event, the question seemed to shake her. There was probably no other time I could talk about it.

Ultimately, that question resulted in her showing me her first emotion-like emotion.

In the worst way, however.

"...Why won't you just leave me alone?"

After two or three blinks trying to keep it in, a spilling teardrop fell down her cheek. Right afterward, the dam burst and tear after tear fell. She turned away to hide her face from me, wiping her cheeks with her palm repeatedly. She herself seemed bewildered by the tears.

I was filled with guilt at the sight of it. I felt like I'd become an unbelievable villain.

As much as I struggled, maybe all I could do was hurt her. So I thought.

Hajikano left like she was escaping, and I didn't go after her. Hajikano realized that I was thinking of her deep down. She lied to keep me from being falsely accused. I'd clearly determined that the Yui Hajikano I'd loved still lived on in her now. She looked me head-on and did her best to be honest. And then she rejected me.

What more could I do?


Had I been a little more calm, maybe I wouldn't have missed the sight of Hajikano's crying mole blurring from her tears. Maybe I would have noticed that the mole drawn in erasable marker had vanished after she wiped her face.

But it wasn't to be. I couldn't look directly at her as she cried. If I looked at her face for more than five seconds, I feel like I would've gone crazy. I was so thrown off, the mole was pushed completely out of mind.


Kasai called to me as I stood there in the hallway. He came out of the faculty room, saw me, and beckoned back inside with a quiet "Fukamachi."

As I stood in front of his desk with a hollow expression, Kasai spoke.

"First, I need to apologize for something. I checked up on you and Hajikano's relationship in grade school."

He bowed his head to me. "Seems you were good friends after all, just like you said. Sorry for doubting you."

I shook my head apathetically. "In your shoes, I think I would've been just as suspicious of me."

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat on his brow, then put it back. He pursed his lips, took a breath, crossed his arms, and leaned back in his chair.

"I've been cautiously watching you these past three weeks. Without any real basis, I was waiting for you to slip up and show your true colors sometime. And I came to this conclusion - at least these days, you're not the kind of guy people would have a strong grudge against. ...So then, now I'm getting less and less sure. Why did Hajikano say she didn't want to be in the same school as you? Plus, say she did hate you more than she could bear. Then why did she step in with Endou and send you a lifeboat? Why did Hajikano come from Mitsuba to this school in the first place? There's too much that doesn't add up."

He didn't seem to be seeking the answers to these questions from me. I could only nod back.

"Of course, even if we solve those mysteries, it's too late. Fukamachi, I don't think for a second you're accountable, not anymore. In any event, this is a decided fact. I'll be telling everyone after summer break, but I'll tell you in advance."

"What are you talking about?"

"Hajikano's withdrawing from Minagisa First High," Kasai sighed.


According to Kasai, Hajikano had been in the faculty room today to fill out the forms so she could withdraw. Her mother had been there too until just before I arrived. After the last discussion and as they were about to say goodbye is when I arrived. Kasai left his seat to take me to Endou, and Hajikano sat there waiting for him to return. After he did and they had their talk, she was about to leave when she noticed me being questioned by Endou, and after some hesitation, came to my aid.

I thanked Kasai and left, then spent a long time wandering the school without an aim, then left. Under the deep blue post-sunset sky, everything looked pale. In my mind, Hajikano's crying face surfaced and vanished. Each time, I felt my spirit slowly but surely being grinded down.

The more I tried to go after her, the further away she seemed to get. And as a matter of fact, she had chosen to go far away. Though her destination wasn't clear, it was somewhere out of my reach.

How does it feel to vanish into foam? I pictured it. It probably doesn't hurt. Your existence just becomes something thin and uncertain, gradually dissolving in the waves. I felt like there could be no more suitable way to die for a person in the depths of despair over lost love.


At this point, of course, it wasn't as if I could realistically visualize my death. That wouldn't be until half a month later, when I personally witnessed a person vanishing into foam.

*

I didn't feel like going straight home, so I passed by my house. My feet naturally brought me someplace lively. Past the shuttered street, on a long quiet hill lined with bars and snacks, my aimless wandering brought me to a most unexpected reunion.

While gazing at paper lanterns illuminating the stores red and gaudy signs, I thought I heard someone call my name. But I looked all around and saw no one, much less the source of the voice. Just as I determined it to be a misheard remark from inside one of the stores, I heard my name shouted more clearly.

I looked up and met eyes with someone looking down from the second-floor veranda of a bar. Hinohara said "Wait there" and went back inside. A few seconds later, the upstairs light went out. I sat on the curb and waited for him to come down.

Yuuya Hinohara was a friend of mine in middle school. On the night of our graduation, when the job-getters and high-school-goers had a four-on-three fight, he was one of them. Like me, he was proceeding to high school.

Hinohara went to Minagisa South High School, a somewhat less reputable school than Minagisa First High, but he seemingly applied there simply because he had no real preference for where he went. Though far too intelligent to even begin comparing him to me, he didn't aim for Minagisa First High because he only cared to attend a high school that was within walking distance.

Maybe I'm not really one to talk, but Hinohara was a strange guy. Though his test scores were generally below average, he shocked everyone around him by ending up with around 90% in all his classes. It goes without saying that he was suspected of foul play, but by the latter half of his second year, the teachers had recognized the sheer strength of his dormant abilities. Such a waste, they said in unison. If he took his studies seriously, he could be at the top of the class.

Hinohara, a man with no interest in improving his grades and showing his academic prowess, told me only once about his reason for only rarely taking things seriously.

"I want everyone to get a taste of the irrational," he said in a low, echoing voice. "I want them to know full well that there's someone who can learn in three days what they spent a month on."
"Is that meant to be an enlightenment of sorts?", I asked.

"You could say that. Basically... Once upon a time, there was a woman who thought herself to be beautiful, with average intelligence. One day, she met a woman so perfectly beautiful she couldn't even compare herself to her, and was so shocked she wanted to go around smashing all the world's mirrors. What do you think the woman did then?"

"Had the beauty eat a poison apple."

"Dumbass," he snorted. "Obviously she'd start to work on more than just looks, right? Because she'd been shown there was a competitor she could never beat fair and square. So that's the kind of enlightenment I try to give to students."

He was a man who could say that with a straight face.

By process of elimination, Hinohara would probably be the person I was closest to in middle school. Both he and I had no interest in hanging out with healthy sorts, but that certainly didn't mean we felt at home with delinquents either. Wherever we were, we felt the discomfort of being in the wrong place. Just naturally, it made us get together often.

The tacit agreement between us was "I won't seek anything from you, so you don't seek anything from me." We formed a bond to make it through middle school days full of tedium and irrationality, and were in fact glad that we could think of each other as merely "convenient friends."

"Sorry to keep you." I heard Hinohara, then saw him descend down old steel steps along the wall of the building. He was dressed light - faded T-shirt, cut-off jeans, black beach sandals. He came up to me and playfully tapped my chest with his fist. "Been a long time. You been doing well?"

"Averagely." I grabbed his fist and pushed it back.

"What's with your face? Where'd the birthmark go? Got surgery or what?"
"It went away naturally. Seems like Mongolian spots go away as you grow."

He folded his arms and twisted his neck. "What a shame. I think I liked it better before. There was something amazing about that birthmark, let's say."

"Thanks. But I'm living a normal high school life now, so I don't need "amazingness.""
"A normal life? You?", Hinohara asked with suspecting eyes.

"Yeah, normal. Since April, I haven't punched a single person, and nobody's punched me. Haven't even been drinking in the gym storeroom or smoking on the emergency stairs. It's a peaceful high school life, nothing awry."

Of course, it was only "normal" if you omitted the many circumstances surrounding the bet. But there was no point giving a thorough explanation of all that to Hinohara. All it'd come to is him thinking it was an intricate joke.

"Our Yosuke Fukamachi, enjoying high school like a normal person..." Hinohara seemed deeply impressed.

"What about you, Hinohara? Same as ever?"
"How should I explain it?", he said, scrunching up his face. "Well, I'd like you to know the significance of me explaining it, too. Seeing as you're wandering around here at this hour, I assume you've got the time?"

Hinohara started walking without waiting for a reply. Without thinking much about it, I followed.


Hinohara led me to a parking lot for a public housing district surrounded by a tall fence. He didn't say this was our destination and seemed to be using it as a shortcut, so I had my guard down. I heard low voices from the corner of the lot, but students being out here at night wasn't uncommon at all in this town, so I paid it no mind.

By the time I realized who they were, it was too late.

Hinohara pushed me from behind in front of them. The four squatting and talking all looked at me at once, and smiled maliciously.

"These guys were pretty insistent about bringing you here," Hinohara laughed dryly. "Didn't think you'd show up for me. Saved me the effort."

I scratched the back of my neck, and tried to remember the names of those faces I hadn't seen in some time... From left to to right, it was Inui, Nogiyama, Mitake, and Harue. They were the four getting jobs in the big fight on graduation day.

I was aware they had a grudge because of that day. In spring, it seemed they would occasionally call me or lie in wait outside my house, but I was hospitalized the whole time, so I ended up not seeing them. Four months had passed by now, so I figured their anger had settled. But I guess I'd underestimated their deep-seated grudge.

It would've made sense if Hinohara was also their target, but this time he seemed to be on their side. I wondered if he was told that he'd be spared if he turned me in. Hinohara was the kind of person to readily sell a friend to save his own hide. He was selfish - or just that cold, maybe.

"Haven't seen you since graduation, huh?", spoke the tallest man, Nogiyama. "Sounds like you were in the hospital 'til recently."
"Yep, I had an accident the night of graduation, after I left. So I had a pretty long spring break."

Nogiyama laughed, and the other three followed. Seems like the power dynamic between these four hasn't changed, I thought. Just like in middle school, Nogiyama assumed clear superiority over the other three.

"You know what's gonna happen next?", Nogiyama asked.
"Couldn't say. Maybe the six of us can go drinking to let bygones be bygones?"

Again, Nogiyama laughed, and the three imitated. Hinohara looked on emotionlessly, but I doubted he had even the slightest intention of coming to my aid. He was that kind of guy. I was on my own to handle this problem.

Nogiyama took a metal bat from one of his henchmen, and after a few test swings, he drew near me and pushed it to my jaw.

"Must've been glad to have that long break, huh? I was glad to hear you were in the hospital myself. 'Cause if my friends are happy, I'm happy. ...So here's what I'm thinking. How 'bout we extend your summer break, too?"

Nogiyama gave a self-satisfied grin, and the three cackled.

I re-evaluated the situation. One against four. Depending on Hinohara's mood, one against five. One of them has a metal bat. I couldn't imagine any chance of victory. It was probably best to swallow my pride and run, but they were already closing the distance, driving me into the corner of the parking lot.

I'd just have to prepare for the worst, I thought. Resist as much as I could manage, and leave it up to luck -

Just then, it happened.

"Fukamachi?"

I couldn't see her because of the men standing in my way, but I didn't need any further confirmation of who had spoken.

Nogiyama slowly turned around. I felt a chill run down my spine.

Chigusa, dressed in uniform, was looking at me anxiously.

Why was Chigusa out at this hour? I ran through my thoughts. And I remembered Chigusa saying we had an appointment today for the Minagisa summer festival.

Talk about poor timing.

"I see," Nogiyama said as if having a realization. He was sharp enough to immediately tell the relationship between us.

Nogiyama turned back to me and smiled, a completely face-contorting smile. Like he was just so pleased about what was going to happen.

The situation had changed. There was no time to hesitate. Any action would have to be as quick as possible. While Chigusa's appearance has them distracted and unprepared - this was the only chance I had.

Just as Nogiyama instructed to the other three "Hey, get her over here," I went on the attack. Aiming for the moment he turned back to me, I landed a blow square on his nose. Stepping on his wrist after he fell backward, I pried away the bat, flipped it around, and thrust it right into his solar plexus. Already holding his nose with both hands and writhing, this kept him from moving any further.

Hearing Nogiyama wail, the three headed for Chigusa finally noticed the commotion behind them. They rushed over and tried to jump me, but I kept them at bay with the bat, then making another forceful blow with it on Nogiyama's shin. He let out a yell of anguish. I felt bad for him, but the theory for a one-against-many fight like this called for an overwhelming beatdown of the group's leader. By creating a situational difference between the head and the followers, you could set them up as onlookers. So I could show no discretion.

Suddenly looking up, I saw Chigusa standing there expressionless. "What are you doing? Get away from there!", I told her, and she nodded, but didn't move from that spot. Maybe she wanted to move, but couldn't.

As a last performance, I kicked Nogiyama in the side, then threw the bat down in front of the three rendered immobile from panic. It made a loud sound as it hit the asphalt. After seeing no one go to pick it up, I squatted down, took a deep breath, and looked up.

"Would you let me call it here for today?"

I put on a smile that looked flattering, but had a hint of cockiness. Of course, it was just a bluff. If the three attacked me all at once, there was nothing I could do.

"If you're just not satisfied, beat me with that bat until you feel better. Then we can call it a draw."

The three looked at each other. Then they looked at curled-up Nogiyama writhing in pain. Two of them picked him up, and with a glare at me, they left in silence.

In the end, only Hinohara remained.

"So, what about you?", I asked him, scratching the back of my neck.

"Nothing, really," he shrugged. "I was just told to bring you here. Man, though, that was quite a show. Always liked that resoluteness of yours."

Then Hinohara glanced at Chigusa. She was still frozen in the same stance as when I called to her. He walked up to her, said "Sorry you got involved in something weird," and walked off in a different direction from Nogiyama's crew. Maybe the reason those three backed off so easily could be owed to the lingering chance of Hinohara coming to my aid, I realized.

Once he was out of sight, I sat down on the spot with relief and closed my eyes. Such luck. That everything went so smoothly could be nothing but a miracle. If there were a next time, it certainly wouldn't play out this way again.

When I opened my eyes, Chigusa was looking down at me.

Her eyes didn't have any emotion in them. Like she wasn't looking at me, but through me, at the design of the fence behind me

"Who were those people?", she asked.
"Friends from middle school," I replied, not untruthfully.

"Middle school, you say. ...Come to think of it, I never did ask what school you came from, Fukamachi."
"You can probably guess now."

Strangely, I laughed. It was a dry laugh.

The sensation of hitting Nogiyama still lingered in my fingers. I closed and opened my hand to get it away, but the impure exhilaration in my hands wouldn't fade easily.

"Minagisa South Middle School. Just like the rumors say, it was a place full of good-for-nothings. Like me, and like those guys."

Chigusa thought for a moment. "Occasionally, I heard of students from there assembling in ruins on the outskirts of town. Were those acquaintances of yours?"
"Not just acquaintances. I was one of them."

"Is that a fact," Chigusa said with no real surprise. "So you were a bad person, Fukamachi."

"Yeah, that's it." I lifted the corners of my mouth. "No more questions?"
"Correct," she nodded.

Now Chigusa hates me too, I thought. I can't get my way out of this. Even if I did it to protect her, there was no mistaking it was a brazen act of violence.

But in a sense, this was an outcome I wanted. I had a natural liking toward Chigusa Ogiue. It seemed to me that Chigusa had a similar kind of appreciation for me. Thus, I thought there was a need for her to start hating me.

August 31st - which, come to think of it, was the last day of summer vacation. If I couldn't move Hajikano's heart by then, I would vanish into foam. If I, as a friend, were to suddenly be lost, Chigusa at least would be made sad. The deeper our relationship got, the more severe the pain promised to her would be.

So before the time came to part, it was good to make myself hated. If by August 31st I could essentially exhaust Chigusa's good graces for me, then even when I turned to foam, she wouldn't be too torn up about it. Maybe she'd think something like "I should have been a little nicer to him," but it would sidestep any devastating wounds.

I had been wondering how I could go about disappointing her. So depending on how you thought about it, you could say Nogiyama and his lackeys saved me effort. There was no clearer way to show my disgraces to Chigusa. I proved Yosuke Fukamachi to be a person who was involved with dubious sorts, who wouldn't be above violence if it came to it. Chigusa would no doubt scorn me for it. Thank goodness.

I took a cigarette out of my pocket and lit it. I kept a puff in my lungs for a long time, then slowly exhaled.

Chigusa watched the whole thing without moving an eyebrow.

Once about two centimeters of the cigarette had been turned to ash, she broke the silence.

"Come to think of it, I've yet to decide my "request.""
I blinked. "Oh yeah, I did promise that."

I misjudged you. Please, never talk to me again.

Surely that was what she'd say, I thought.

"Fukamachi."

Chigusa suddenly smiled.


"Please, make me a bad person."


It was the night of July 31st.

The cigarette fell out of my mouth to the asphalt, launching miniature fireworks.



[+]

Chapter 6: The Place I Called From

August 1st was a designated all-school attendance day at Minagisa First High. Arrive by 9 AM, get a long list of tasks from your teacher, then take a thirty-minute break. Then starting at 10, a talk from the principal in the gym. Once that was over and you got back to the classroom, then began the students' favorite: discussions for the culture festival. The class attractions, the assignment of duties, the time of your next meeting (if necessary) - it all had to be decided within the day. Depending on the class, talks could go right up to 7 PM, the school's ultimate closing time.

Surprisingly enough, the principal's talk wrapped up in less than ten minutes. Retreating from the sweltering gym stuffy with every single student's warmth back to the classroom, as the room was filling with excitement to let the festival prep begin, I leaned over and talked to Chigusa in the seat beside me.

"This could get long, so let's sneak away."

Chigusa blinked a few times, then grinned.

"Ten minutes, next to the gate," I whispered.

Chigusa quickly prepared to leave, and altogether casually slipped out of the classroom. A few eyes gathered on her bold escape, but since she was so natural about it, the witnesses all seemed to rationalize it with various interpretations.

One person harbored doubts: Nagahora in the seat in front. "Is she feeling sick? Ogiue never leaves early."

"Maybe," I said ignorantly. "Or maybe it's simple sabotage."

"No way." Nagahora laughed with a raised eyebrow. "That word couldn't fit anyone in this class less than Ogiue."

"I guess that's true," I agreed, then grabbed my bag and stood up.

"Whoa, don't tell me you're leaving early too?"
"I'm feeling sick."

Evading Nagahora's pursuit, I escaped the classroom. To avoid running into any staff, I went down the stairs to the hallway leading to the gym, put my indoor shoes in my shoebox, held my outdoor shoes in one hand, and took a detour to leave the school without passing in front of the faculty room.

Though Chigusa left the classroom first, she arrived at the school gate after I did. The sight of her spotting me and jogging over gave me a feeling of wrongness I have no good way of describing. I couldn't tell what exactly it was.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Chigusa said short of breath.

We walked along together. We heard faint chatter and laughter from the open windows of the buildings.

"This is the first time in my life I've left school in the middle of the day."
"You come to class too many days to count anyway. Those who skip win."

"You truly are bad, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked, finding it too funny to bear. "So, where might we be headed to now?"
"Who knows. I'm still thinking about it."
"Then let us sit down somewhere and think it over together."

We went into a nearby bus stop. It had a roof, so it was the perfect place to do some thinking while protected from the sunlight. A bus only came once every hour or two, so we wouldn't even be mistaken for passengers and cause drivers any trouble. The sheet iron walls had holes in places, and posters and tin signs for used car places and consumer loans were plastered all over them like a mosaic.

Seeing Chigusa sit and stretch her legs, I finally realized what was amiss earlier. Her skirt was shorter than usual. That said, it was at most 15 centimeters above the knee, and plenty of girls at Minagisa First High wore skirts that length. But for Chigusa who essentially never deviated from the uniform, it was something unheard of.

Until then, I had never thought deeply about the beauty of knees, and only classified them as thick or skinny. But when I saw Chigusa's knees, I had to recollect my thoughts. Knees, just like the eyes, the nose, and the mouth, could be a strongly defining body part. Just a few millimeters difference had such a massive change in impression, a delicate yet eloquent feature. And Chigusa's knees were more ideal than any I'd ever seen. Painting an elegant curve with no wrinkles, her knees brought to mind a carefully-cooked white porcelain vase.

"Is that another way of "letting your parents down"?", I asked, looking at her knees.

"Ah, so you noticed." Chigusa lifted her bag onto her lap to block my gaze. "That's right. I made it shorter. I feel somewhat restless."

"It feels really fresh to see you dressed like that."
"My apologies, they're so unsightly..." Still holding her bag, she bowed repeatedly like a pecking bird.

"Have some confidence. You have such pretty legs, after all."
"Do you think so...? Thank you very much."

With her head still bowed, she thanked me ticklishly, but didn't budge the bag on her lap.


"One day in my third year of middle school, I realized something. I was a mediocre person who could easily be replaced, like an extra in a picture."

The night I was attacked by Nogiyama, after Hinohara left, Chigusa told me: "Please, make me a bad person." Convinced I would hear a rejection at that moment, it was completely unexpected. Stomping out the cigarette that fell from my gaping mouth, her words echoed in my mind.

Make me a bad person?

"Sorry, perhaps putting it that way is unclear." Chigusa averted her eyes and scratched her cheek. "I'll explain in the proper order. Though it may not come across very well..."

Then she began to speak, bit by bit. In her third year of middle school, while taking a course on interviewing, she was astonished to realize she couldn't think of a single thing to describe herself as a person. She became aware for the first time that she'd just lived as her parents told her to, not making a single decision worth calling a decision.

"In other words, I was an empty person," Chigusa said as if reading a sentence she'd already read. "I had no failures, but I had no successes either. I could serve in many people's place, but many people could take my place. I could be liked by anyone, but I could not be anyone's favorite. That was Chigusa Ogiue."

She averted her eyes and smiled self-derisively.

"Of course, that could apply to many people on some level. However, my mediocrity stood a head above the rest. When my friends spoke about their past experiences, I always felt uncomfortable, as if someone was sneering at me. On occasion, I even felt like I was being blamed. "You're lacking in experience in every sense, you don't have any way to describe yourself - such an empty person.""

Perhaps remembering her pain, her words were slightly hoarse.

"There were many people with nothing inside them all around me. Mitsuba Middle School, where I once attended, felt like a collection of samples of girls living tedious lives. People traveling down pre-laid rails without a single doubt, only deciding which car and which seat to sit in, convinced they were making crucial life decisions. That said, somehow they seemed to think of themselves as fairly individualistic people. To my eyes, it seemed as if they had made an agreement to forcibly characterize each other and put on an act of being rich with personality."

Worried I would be bored by her long story, Chigusa kept glancing at my expression. I kept nodding to show interest and encourage her to continue.

"I felt a faint coldness from such a relationship, and quickly changed my choice of high school. Perhaps something would change if I went there, I thought. Of course, my parents resisted, but I managed to coax them with assorted logic. That was my first time clearly defying my parents' will. My heart danced to have finally been able to take the first step in my own life. ...Yet, ultimately, even at Minagisa First High, the fundamental parts of me did not change. A commonplace cheery girl had simply changed into a commonplace mature girl."

At this point, Chigusa looked up into my eyes.

"So, Fukamachi. I want to stick outside the box. I don't believe there's any aspect in which I excel over others. So I at least want to do things to make people furrow their brows, to have teachers scold me, to disappoint my parents - to escape a pre-established harmony. Whatever filthy color it may be, I want to be a more genuine me. Will you assist me with that?"

There was plenty of room for a rebuttal. For one, I'd never thought of Chigusa as a mediocre, commonplace person, and could offer up several ways she excelled over others. Most importantly, only a handful of truly unique individuals existed in the world, and she was making a mistake asking the far-more-mediocre me for assistance.

But I gulped down the words as they came up my throat. This was the conclusion Chigusa herself had come to after plenty of thought. It wasn't an issue for me to speak on, having known her for less than a month. If Chigusa wanted to stick outside the box, then that was the right thing to do. Even if it was a mistake, a mistake done after careful consideration is worth about as much as the right thing.

"Got it. I'll help," I agreed. "But what exactly should I do to make you a bad person?"

Chigusa spoke after a decent pause.

"I don't mind if it's only for the day. Tomorrow, could you treat me as if I were one of your middle school friends? I'd like to experience the unhealthy lifestyle you once lived with your friends."

That would be fine, I thought. To tell the truth, I didn't want Chigusa to be a delinquent, and spending more time together would make it harder to part. But if it was just a day, that was nothing. I had plenty of time to make a recovery afterward. If that made her feel better, then why not?

Just maybe, when we first met and she said "Wish for my freedom," this was what she meant.


"Have you thought of something?", Chigusa asked, moving the bag on her lap to the side.
I shook my head. "Delinquent things are hard to think up on the spot."

"Then let's enforce some limits," she said, sticking up her index finger. "Did you ever slip away without permission with your friends in middle school?"
"Countless times."
"Do any such days stick out in your memory?"

I searched my thoughts. "Come to think of it... Second year, in summer, I faked sick in fifth period to get out early. We got out at different times, and met up outside of school like today."
Chigusa jumped on it. "Tell me more about that day, please."

"We sneakily bought cigarettes from a vending machine, then had a party in Hinohara's room. Oh, Hinohara's the one guy who apologized to you last night, Ogiue. His house was a bar, so he had plenty of alcohol. We didn't really know how to drink at the time, so we just kept drinking without stopping. I remember both of us getting drunk in no time, and throwing up in the toilet together."

"Wonderful. That sounds fun," she said with a smile, then seeming to have an idea.

"Let us do that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we should party at my house."

"Are you being serious?"
"Yes. It's all right. There should be alcohol at my house."

Chigusa got up and leapt into the sun outside the bus stop. Then she turned and beckoned to me.

"Let's go, Fukamachi."


After going down a long, winding hill, the lake smell grew stronger. Chigusa's house was in an intricate residential district.

I'd already had the thought when escorting her home yesterday, but it was a model semi-rich family's house. Made of brick, with a mowed lawn, a shined-up expensive car, a garage full of tools, and a porch lined with decorations in good taste. It was all above average, yet you could clearly see where the family was making compromises. That kind of house. Of course, there was no doubt it looked pretty wealthy compared to my place.

Chigusa led me into the house through the back door. Built on an incline, the house had entrances on both the first and second floor. The second-floor entrance, facing a wide path, seemed to be used as the front door, whereas the first-floor, facing a thin path, was the uncommonly-used back door. It was the ideal design for Chigusa to sneak in without her family noticing.

Not turning on the hallway lights, we proceeded down the hall with extreme care not to make any noise, my eyes on Chigusa's back. The reversed roles of first and second floors wasn't limited to the entrances; the living room and kitchen were on the second floor, with the bedrooms and nursery on the first. Though a relatively minor difference, I felt extremely restless, like I was driving backwards down a one-way road.

After we entered Chigusa's room and she locked the door, I let out a deep sigh. The room was air-conditioned and comfortable. "Take a seat," she told me, so I sat in a chair in front of a coffee table. Starting with the chair and table, I noticed the room furniture had a matching dark brown color scheme. Maybe it was a little too calming for a sixteen-year-old girl's living space. Or maybe girls' rooms were just like this nowadays?

"I've secretly brought a boy into the house," Chigusa said. "It would be dreadful if my parents found out."
"I'll pray that won't happen."
"Since what's more, it's former bad boy Fukamachi."

"Just so I know, what would happen if we were found?"
"Nothing, really. It would just be terribly awkward. Surely my father and mother would be unsure how to treat me, I suppose. Such a development wouldn't be so bad."

"Well, maybe an excessively orderly family needs a little chaos."
"Indeed. So you need not worry, Fukamachi."

Chigusa opened a cabinet and took out two white cups, then three marine blue bottles from a lower drawer. The labels had a mermaid drawn on them, and "Mermaid Tears" written in pale white letters. A local drink that any citizen of Minagisa would know.

"For some reason, my family frequently receives alcohol. But since no one drinks it, it only piles up. There are six more of the same in the kitchen. If you want them, go ahead."
"Thanks, but I'll pass."

We filled each other's cups, sat in front of the coffee table, and quietly gave a toast. After quickly downing her cup in one swig, Chigusa furrowed her brow and said "Strange flavor," but poured a second cup from the bottle.

"Looking as pretty as it does, I had expected a cleaner flavor."
"Yeah, it's surprisingly dry." I finished my cup too and poured a second. "So, how does it feel indulging in underage drinking?"

The cup headed for Chigusa's mouth stopped at her chest, and she faintly smiled.

"It's very thrilling."
"That's good."
"...Ah, yes. Hold on a moment."

Chigusa then opened the cabinet again and put a small glass bottle on the coffee table.

"Use it as an ashtray. You smoke, do you not?"
"Thanks. But it's not like I smoke that frequently. And your room would stink if I smoked in here..."
"Please, smoke. I wish to try it, too."

I took a pack from my bag, pulled out two cigarettes, and handed one to Chigusa.

"Wakaba," Chigusa read from the packaging.
"It's third-rate. Gross, but cheap."

I held my lighter up in front of Chigusa, and she timidly held the filter and held it near the flame. "Suck in," I instructed, and the paper faintly lit red.

After taking in the smoke, sure enough, Chigusa coughed. After hacking up a storm with tearful eyes, she glared scornfully at the cigarette in her fingers. Then she tried a second time, and this time slowly let out the smoke without coughing. I lit my own and we quietly smoked together.

"I think I finally understand," said Chigusa as she imitated me in tapping the cigarette on the edge of the bottle to knock off ash.
"What do you understand?"
"This is the smell you sometimes have, Fukamachi."

"Do I have that much of a nicotine smell?" I sniffed my shirt.
Chigusa snickered. "No, it's really only a faint smell. Normally, one wouldn't notice it."

After finishing our cigarettes, we again filled our cups.

"You don't have to push yourself to drink a lot, okay?", I advised after seeing her down a third cup.

"Right. But if I'm drinking, should I not try to get drunk at least once?" Then she poured a fourth cup.

Brown cicadas buzzed outside the screen door. Due to the brightness outside, it felt dark and gloomy in the room. It was an August-esque, languid summer afternoon. Having aimless conversation, we leisurely continued to drink.

Chigusa seemed to be a heavier drinker than appearances might have indicated. I tried to keep up with her pace, and soon felt my senses growing hazy.

"What's the matter? Fukamachi, are you sleepy?", Chigusa asked in an oddly good mood, maybe because of the alcohol. Last time I checked, she was in front of me, but now she was beside me. Maybe I was the one who moved? The order of events in my memory was hazy.

"Seems I'm a little drunk," I replied.

"I may be as well. I'm oddly enjoying myself," Chigusa remarked without any slurring. "Fukamachi, Fukamachi. What typically happens when people get drunk?"

"Depends on the person. Some people change completely, and some don't change at all. Some are merry drinkers, and some are sobbing drinkers. It's just different habits. Some start suddenly preaching, and some get nice beyond recognition. Some fall asleep comfortably, some get quick to fight, some get all touchy-feely..."

"Well, that's me."

Before I could respond, Chigusa collapsed on my shoulder like a puppet with cut strings.

"What's this?", I asked, hiding my bewilderment.
"My drinking habit," she replied, unable to fully conceal her embarrassment. "I'm feeling clingy."

"Uh, Ogiue. You don't decide what kind of drunk you are for yourself."
"It's all right. I'll apologize later."

Being coaxed with incomprehensible logic, I lit up another cigarette to conceal my increasing temperature.

"Fukamachi, are you the type that doesn't change when drunk?", she asked.
"I dunno. I've drank too much and thrown up, but I've never gotten properly drunk before."

"It's all right if you cry and shout. And I won't mind if you're touchy. ...Oh, but I would slightly dislike being preached to."

"Seems like you're a talkative drunk, Ogiue," I joked. She rubbed her face on my shoulder with displeasure.

Soon, my eyelids got heavy. Seems I'm a sleepy drunk, I thought distantly, and was swallowed by afternoon drowsiness.


When I opened my eyes, the sun was going down, and the room had gotten pretty dark. The cups were dried up and let off a sharp smell.

I had a rough feeling on my cheek. That quickly reminded me that I had fallen asleep in Chigusa's room. I quickly shot up, and heard a yelp at my ear.

"G-Good morning," Chigusa awkwardly smiled.

After four or five full thoughts, I realized what kind of situation I'd been in.

Apparently, I had been sleeping using Chigusa's thighs as pillows.

"Was I asleep?", I said rubbing my eyes, concealing how flustered I was. "You should have woken me up."

Chigusa coughed quietly. "...I should just mention, you fell over into my lap."

"I did?" I tried to recall falling asleep, but my memory seemed to cut off somewhere. "Sorry. Are your legs numb?"

"It's all right. You're a lightweight, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked with faint smile as I fumbled.
"You're just too heavy a drinker, Ogiue."

I looked up at the clock. It was 7:30 PM.

Chigusa spoke with her gaze fixed on the glass bottle on the table. "Um, Fukamachi, I'm sorry about earlier."
"No, I should be sorry."

We bowed our heads to each other, then an unspeakable silence persisted. I tried to light a cigarette to fill it, but I reconsidered and put it in my pocket.

"We should get some fresh air."
"Yes, good. Let's do that," Chigusa agreed with a look that said "thank goodness."


The residential district was brimming with assorted smells at night. Smells of dinner on the wind - fish, miso soup, meat and potato stew - and the smell of soap from a bathroom window stimulated my nose.

Chigusa's walking beside me seemed unstable. Hardly tottering or anything, but she swung from side to side.

"Were you perhaps drinking while I was asleep?", I asked.
"I mean, you wouldn't wake up, Fukamachi."

"I'm not blaming you. I'm impressed."
"Is that right? Tell me if you get sleepy, lightweight Fukamachi," Chigusa said cockily.

"Now, it's finally night. The ideal time for ne'er-do-wells. What badness do you wish to do?"
"Don't get your hopes so high. I'm just a hoodlum."

Walking without thinking about the destination, my legs seemed to carry me where they knew how. Without even realizing, I was headed down the road to the usual shopping district. Somehow, it felt like there were oddly many people headed in the same direction. Every time people passed us by, there were wafting smells of deodorant and bug repellent.

"I wonder if there's a festival or some such?", Chigusa pondered.
"Might be one at the shopping district. Yeah, I want to say they do one around this time every year."

"While we're near, would you like to go see it?"
"Sure. Can't think of anything else to do right now."

We went with the crowds to the festival grounds. Though the shopping district was typically just deserted and vaguely creepy at nighttime, today it was brilliantly colored by tens or hundreds of paper lanterns. Stands lined both sides of the street, and many young people filled the area.

"So there are more summer festivals in Minagisa than just the one," Chigusa remarked with wonder, gazing at the stands.

"Yeah. Tons of people." I stood up tall and looked toward the back of the street. "But I'm sure the Minagisa summer festival gets many times more visitors than this."

Chigusa sighed. "Now I'm getting nervous."

Forgetting about doing badness for now, we went by all the stands from end to end. Yakisoba, sumiyaki, honeycomb toffee, sculpted candy, cotton candy, shaved ice, a string lottery, yo-yo fishing, a mask shop, superball fishing. Chigusa stopped at a goldfish scooping stand, and her eyes sparkled at the goldfish swimming around the white tank.

A small child was squatting in front of the fish tank, glaring seriously at the goldfish. When he stuck the poi scooper into the tank, it made a ripple that scattered the koaka fish. The sight of the red shapes dispersing reminded me of exploding fireworks.

"Fukamachi, Fukamachi. There's one strange one."

I looked into the tank alongside Chigusa, and sure enough, mixed among the koaka was a single fat ryukin goldfish.

"What do you know... How unusual."

I gave a look at Chigusa, trying to share her surprise. But she was absorbed in the goldfish in the tank and didn't notice.

I found myself looking at Chigusa in profile. Gazing at her smiling face lit by the soft light of a light bulb, all of a sudden it occurred to me what an incredibly unfitting happiness had been bestowed upon me. And that thought was nothing less than the truth. Instantly, rather late, the core of my body heated up, and I came to see each passing second as precious.

But at the same time, I had to think: If it were Hajikano I was sharing these seconds with, how good would that be? If I just had her smiling beside me, how fulfilled would that make me feel?

I felt guilty for ignoring the girl before me and imagining one who wasn't here in her place, so I averted my eyes from Chigusa. Instead, I watched the boy scooping goldfish.

He was handling the paper poi skillfully. He prepared to catch one goldfish, then at the last second changed the angle of the poi to aim for another. The goldfish that he avoided had white specks, like it was covered with flour. Maybe it was sick.

I supposed he avoided that specked goldfish not because he reasoned it might die an early death from sickness, but just because it felt somehow creepy. It wasn't like it was something he did out of clear prejudice.

It was the same for those who avoided me when I had my birthmark. I wasn't avoided because people thought I had genetic issues, or because I had some malignant disease, but because people felt somehow too creeped out to want to approach.

Why can people know logically that it's not that significant, but be led astray by such slight differences in appearance? When really, everyone's not so different if you just look more than skin-deep.

Yet the day when people's foolishness to judge solely by appearance is bettered, the beauty of these hundreds of goldfish swimming around a white tank, the vivacious feeling welling up in me from seeing Chigusa's face - all of that I was feeling now would be lost. So I couldn't speak out against that hasty judgement. If people's true natures became the basis of judgement, the world would surely become a terrifyingly insipid place.

Chigusa stood up. "Sorry, I became rather entranced. Let's move on."
"Won't you try the goldfish scooping?"
"No, I'm not one for keeping living creatures."

After going through all the stands, we bought two piles of shaved ice and looked for a place we could sit down and eat it. Just then, something briefly crossed my vision and alerted my subconscious.

I had a bad omen. I quickly grabbed Chigusa's hand to stop her, and my gaze darted around. My prediction was correct, and a few meters away, I saw several familiar faces.

Inui, Mitake, Harue. The three who had tried to attack me with Nogiyama last night. They sat in a row on the curb, their backs turned to us, talking about something. Nogiyama probably wasn't there because of the damage I'd inflicted.

As far as I could tell from their conversation, they weren't looking for me for payback, but were simply here to enjoy the festival. I breathed a sigh of relief. That said, if they saw me, it could probably be trouble.

"Er, what is the matter?" Chigusa asked with some nervousness, looking between her hand and her face.

"It's the guys from last night," I said quietly, letting go of her hand. "I don't think they're looking for me, but it'd be bad if they saw us. Let's retreat while we can."

Chigusa stood tall and followed my gaze. "I see. The three sitting there?"
"Right. They haven't noticed us yet."

"Fukamachi." She looked toward my hand. "Do you mind if I take that shaved ice?"
"Shaved ice? That's not really the..."

Before I could finish, Chigusa took the cups of shaved ice and quickly walked over to the three. I had no time to stop her, and the next moment, Chigusa was dumping the shaved ice on their backs. An emerald green mix of solid and liquid drew a parabola as it fell upon them. Making voices which were either screams or shouts, the three turned around, but Chigusa didn't falter, and poured the shaved ice with lemon drops in her other hand on their front sides. Then she turned on her heel, ran back, and took my hand as I stared in shock.

"Now, let us run."

It sure seemed like that was the only thing to do.

*

I think we ran around for about twenty minutes. Eventually, we ended up back at the shopping street where we started. The festival had long since ended, the lanterns were gone without a trace, and most of the stands were cleaning up, so people were sparse.

Looking back one last time to check for them chasing us, we sat down on a low wall and caught our breath. My heart flailed like a fish just reeled in, and sweat poured out my body. My stiff, sweat-soaked uniform felt unpleasant.

I didn't feel like condemning Chigusa for doing something so rash. In fact, I had respect for her actions. Seeing them flustered after having shaved ice poured on them was thrilling, and I hadn't felt the excitement of running away from something chasing me in a long while.

"Next time you do something crazy, tell me first."
"Sorry," Chigusa said out of breath.

"But that was good. Very relieving. Very delinquent."
"Was it? That's good." Chigusa smiled with her eyes, her head still lowered.

I was really parched. I put my hands on my knees and stood up.

"I'll go buy something to drink. You rest there."

Chigusa looked up and nodded silently. I ran over to a brightly-shining vending machine a few dozen meters away, and came back with two sports drinks with blue labels. Chigusa tried to offer her wallet. I refused, but she insisted. "Since I did ruin the shaved ice."

I took the 500-yen coin she offered me. "Okay, let's use this money to buy something for delinquency."
"Agreed."

After downing the sports drinks and throwing away the empty bottles, we entered a supermarket just before closing time and bought fireworks. And we spent a while walking around in search of the least appropriate place to use them.

"Perhaps we might as well sneak back into the school we deserted at noon, and launch them on the field somewhere?", Chigusa suggested. "Don't you think that's sufficiently mischevious?"
"Not bad," I agreed.

Breaking into Minagisa First High was easy. We waltzed right in after climbing over the gate, and there wasn't any real security system. Surely the buildings were probably locked, but it didn't seem anyone would find fault with us wandering around campus.

Maybe I was just accustomed to the school being full of staff and teachers, but at night, Minagisa First High was wrapped up in an extreme silence, like any peep was sucked up into the walls. The green lamp of the emergency exit cast an eerie light from the other side of the window.

While walking on the gravel behind the gym, I suddenly recalled a conversation with Nagahora on the day of the closing ceremony.

"The guys from the swim club sometimes practice at night without permission," Nagahora said. "Since the fence is so short, it's not hard to break in. There's no patrols at all, so if you're not unlucky, you won't get caught. Hey, Fukamachi, want to sneak in with me once on summer break? Swimming as much as you like in a pool at night isn't a chance you'll get anywhere else."

"That does sound fun," I nodded. "But you should be careful, pools are horribly cold at night. If you jump in without a care, it might be pretty miserable."

Nagahora thought for a second. "You sound like you've got experience."
"I just happen to know. I had a friend who did the same thing in middle school."

That was a lie, of course. Once, I was invited by some friends to sneak into the pool at night. There were clouds covering the sky all day, and the pool that night was colder than anything. It helped a little that we jumped in with our clothes on, but ten minutes later, our lips were purple and we were running home dripping wet.

"I didn't think about the temperature," Nagahora said with admiration. "Bet you'd want to pick a day that's especially hot. Around the start of August would be perfect..."

Then Kasai opened the door into the classroom, so the conversation was cut short. That was ultimately the only time we discussed sneaking into the pool. Since then, I'd completely forgotten Nagahora ever mentioned it.

I didn't really feel the urge to swim. Sure, this was miraculously the hottest day of the year, and thus the perfect day for night swimming. The water should have been clean for the swim club's practice. However, it wasn't Nagahora with me, but Chigusa. I couldn't make her join me in something so ridiculous as this.

Still, I figured just walking around the poolside would be fun, so I told Chigusa what I'd heard from Nagahora. And she showed incomparable interest in this stupid idea. "We simply must to do that, let's do that right now," she urged.

Climbing over the fence less than two meters tall, we touched down by the pool. Obviously, it was pitch black, and the pool was a deep blue, the bottom not visible. The wind made small waves on the surface, breaking against the edge and making quiet splashes. Occasionally, the smell of chalk unique to school pools struck my nose.

I took off my shoes and felt the rough poolside, neither warm nor cold. I rolled up my pants and put my toes in the water glittering in the moonlight. It was just the right coldness to feel good. "That's good," said Chigusa, who took off her loafers and socks and drew an ellipse in the water with her right toe.

I resolutely sat on the pool edge and soaked my legs below the knees in the water. My legs hot from running around were thoroughly cooled, and felt revived. The energy left my body, and I fell back onto the poolside like a deflating life preserver.

Listening to the sound of the water, I looked up at the night sky. The sole light sources from the parking lot didn't reach the distant pool, so while not a match for the roof of the hotel, it wasn't a bad place to view the stars.

Once I thought about stars, my chest clouded as I was unable to avoid remembering a certain person, but I forcibly put her out of mind. I couldn't worry over what had already come and gone.

I heard a sound from the end of the pool. Before I could process that it was Chigusa taking off her uniform, I heard a loud splash. Drips of water hit my cheek, and I sat up in a hurry.

At first, I thought Chigusa had fallen into the pool by mistake. But seeing her discarded blouse and skirt, I realized she jumped in intentionally. And if her clothes were there, that meant Chigusa, sticking her head out of the water, was wearing nothing but underwear - if that.

I was so surprised, I had no words. What in the world was she thinking?

"Don't scare me," I finally uttered. "I thought you slipped and fell."

"Apologies. But it's nice and cool," Chigusa said, wiping her forelocks. Her white shoulders poked out of the water, and I worried for where to look.

Not brave enough to swim with her, I stayed sitting at the rim of the pool. Then Chigusa walked up to the water's edge and held out her hands to me.

"Lift me up, please."

I gulped, and grabbed her hands while trying not to make eye contact. But the moment I was about to pull, she forcefully pulled me. I tried to stand my ground, but my feet didn't make it, so I lost balance and fell into the pool.

It was pitch dark in the water, so I had no idea where anything was. After struggling a while, my feet found the bottom. I stuck my head out of the water and wiped my face, then looked around for Chigusa. I heard laughter behind me. "Hey, remember what I said about telling me...", I said as I turned, and found Chigusa's face right in front of my nose.

We met eyes at a close distance.

The expression she had was a kind I hadn't seen before, neither happy nor joking. If I had to find the closest description, it was a look of surprise. Like the kind when you're cleaning a room and find a precious childhood photo you thought you lost.

There was a long short silence. Or maybe a short long silence.

I slowly averted my gaze and put my hands on the edge of the pool.

"Let's look in the storage room. Might find something interesting."
"Indeed. A beach ball would be nice, for instance."

Even Chigusa's reply was extremely natural.

I'd discovered during class in July that the storage room's lock was broken. Mixed in among items like kickboards, flotation devices, lane markers, and scrubbing brushes, there was a single blue beach ball. I took it to the sink, washed it with water, and blew it full of air. After filling and capping it, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, then left the storage room.

I hesitated greatly, but Chigusa being in underwear and me being fully clothed felt somehow unfair, so I also stripped down and jumped in the pool. A splash went up and fell onto the sides. I hit the beach ball up high, and Chigusa happily went after it.

My head spun again seeing her white back, but as we hit the ball back and forth and swam around, I gradually stopped worrying about it. Chigusa swimming nude in a pool at night was just too beautiful to be an object of my desire. When beauty crosses a certain line, it somehow detaches itself from impure feelings.

While playing in the pool, Chigusa called out "Yosuke" numerous times. Oddly, it didn't feel strange being called that. Judging from how I felt when she first said it, maybe it was calling me by my surname that felt more unnatural.

Similarly, I tried calling her Chigusa in return. My voice found it familiar, like I'd already spoken it many times.

"Once more," Chigusa said. "Call me again."

So I did as she said.


Lastly, we played with toy fireworks in the corner of the parking lot. Water still dripped from our clothes and hair, making dark stains on the dry asphalt. My wet shirt and underwear took my body heat, making me a little chilly. We had no candle to light the firework, so I used my lighter to scorch the ends of two Long Peonies. Once both were lit, I handed one to Chigusa.

The flame transferred to the main part of the firework, and one after another, shots fired off like plant roots into the darkness. After proceeding through the stages of peony, pine needle, willow, and chrysanthemum, the ball's purpose was complete and it dropped off, making a low splash in the water that dripped from our bodies.

We silently went on lighting fireworks. We were exhausted after leaving the pool and didn't say much to each other, but it wasn't the awkward kind of silence.

As the last two fireworks began firing off, Chigusa spoke. "Fukamachi." She'd gone back to using my last name.

"You were thinking about Hajikano just now, weren't you?"

I didn't deny it, but asked her back. "Why do you think so?"

Chigusa giggled. "Why, indeed? Well, my bad premonitions are often correct."

I dutifully answered honestly. "Your hunch is right, Ogiue."

"See, what did I tell you?", she said jokingly. "Furthermore, I suppose not only now, but several times while we've been together, Hajikano has come to mind."

"Yeah, you're not wrong there."

"Were you thinking, "What if it wasn't Chigusa Ogiue in front of me, but Yui Hajikano"?"

The ball on Chigusa's firework dropped before it fully burned, meeting a sudden end.

"Thank you for joining in my selfish whims today," she said without waiting for a reply. "I had a great deal of fun spending the day with you."

My firework still went on burning.

"But, Fukamachi. If there's really something that strikes your interest, if there's really a person that you're wondering about, please don't concern yourself with me, and settle that issue first. You still have a lingering affection for Hajikano, don't you? Isn't that why you occasionally forgot about the girl standing in front of you to think about her?"

She picked up the used-up fireworks and put them in a bag, tied a knot, and gradually stood up.

We walked to the school gate in silence. I couldn't find any words to say. Everything Chigusa said was an accurate truth, and anything I said would just sound like an excuse.

"...You haven't yet exhausted everything you can do for her, have you?", Chigusa suddenly spoke. "Then you should see that through to the end."

After passing the gate, she came to a stop. She bowed her head to me to say "this is far enough."

"Today really was a pleasure. Thank you for the wonderful day."
"I enjoyed it, too. It was a good day." It took me ages just to say that. "Thanks."

Chigusa smiled with deep joy to hear it. "Say, Fukamachi. You made me promise to tell you in advance before doing anything crazy, did you not?"
"Yeah," I nodded, though not getting why she was asking.
"I'm about to do something rather strange."

Before I could reply, Chigusa shortened the distance between us looking as if she was going to fall, stood up a little taller, and softly put her lips on my neck.

Even I could feel the blood rushing to my head and turning me red.

"If there's anything I can assist with, let me know," she whispered in my ear. "Even if entails showing kindness to an enemy, I'll do it if it's of use to you. And after you've done everything to completion, if you still have a slight bit of interest in me... then feel free to call for me anytime. I'll wait patiently."

With that, Chigusa fled the scene. I watched her go while standing like a scarecrow, and even after she was out of sight, I couldn't move a muscle.

At this point, I finally understood the meaning of that "cruel thing" Chigusa had mentioned one day. It wasn't a joke at all. I was unconsciously doing something terrible to her.

I was bewildered by this new truth coming from an unexpected angle. I could intuit she at least had good will toward me, but I didn't imagine it was such a distinct and romantic attraction.

Chigusa's words played on repeat in my head for the duration of about five cigarettes. But at least at present, I couldn't easily answer to her feelings.

Still, there was one thing she said that was definitely on-point. I still hadn't exhausted everything I could do. A small possibility remained somewhere in my heart.

Subconsciously, I had kept thinking about it. But I hesitated to let it surface. Fearing the risk of being hurt in going through with it, I intentionally removed it from my options.

Now, at least once, I had to face that possibility. To dig up that thing hidden in my consciousness, shine light on it, and face it head-on.

That's what Chigusa was telling me.

That night, I headed for the shrine park near Minagisa High. I went up the long steps one by one, and sat on the swing Hajikano was once on. The rusted chain made a screeching noise. Someone had removed the rope Hajikano tied on the bar. Maybe she retrieved it herself.

I thought there all night.

What could I do?

What was Hajikano seeking?

By the time the sky turned a faint violet, I came to a conclusion.

*

The buzzing of cicadas even reached into the closed-off room. Mixed in with familiar sounds was the sound of tsukutsuku-boushi cicadas, which I hadn't heard until yesterday.

I sat cross-legged on the floor of my room and gazed at jet streams outside the window. The two straight white lines in the sky perfectly divided the view of the sky through the window frame into two halves.

As the noon cicadas' voices died out and the chorus of higurashi began, I finally lifted my heavy body. There was a heavy old-style steam iron on the desk. I connected the plug coming out of the charging stand to the outlet, gave the dial a full turn, and waited for the iron to heat up.

After about ten minutes, I grabbed the iron handle and held it with the flat side facing me. The openings to let out the steam reminded me of seeds in a fruit. Come to think of it, I'd never had the chance to look at the bottom of an iron in such detail. Staring at the strange shape like a cut-open watermelon, sweat from my forehead dropped off my hair, and evaporated into a little puff of smoke with a satisfying sound.

The room was illuminated with the light of the western sun.


Once, because of the inferiority that came from the birthmark covering half my face, I thought I had no right to love Hajikano. And if you inverted that, it meant that if only I didn't have my birthmark, I would have the qualifications for her to love me.

But maybe that was just a one-sided impression of mine. While it could have possibly been accurate four years ago, at least in the present, the disappearance of my birthmark had never once aided in coming closer to Hajikano. In fact, more than that. It was preventing any progress.

The day I visited Hajikano's house to determine the truth of what Kasai told me, in a dark room with curtains closed, she touched my cheek and rubbed it again and again. As if in search of the birthmark that should have been there. Maybe what Hajikano really needed now wasn't a person to kindly console her, but a companion with the same injury - that suddenly occurred to me, looking back on that day.

And once I came to have that mindset, this scenario the woman on the phone had put together started to seem coherent. She claimed to have made this bet as fair as she could. I thought my odds of success were far too low for that to be true. But maybe she was telling the truth, and the bet was being carried out fairly. In other words, she had prepared a path toward victory for me, too.

Removing my birthmark took away an obstacle between me and Hajikano. That was my thought at first. But was the truth the exact opposite? Had removing my birthmark taken away a red thread of destiny connecting us? Maybe the true nature of this bet wasn't asking, "Can a normally-impossible love happen with the removal of an obstacle?", but that woman saying, "Can I add an obstacle to set back a love that normally wouldn't be held back?"

By personally renouncing the birthmark-less face I was temporarily given for the bet, I could advance my relationship with Hajikano. That was a situation the woman on the phone intentionally created. I was being tested to see if I would give up the ideal body I was granted for the girl I loved. Looking at it that way, would I?

If I was right about this, I needed to regain my lost ugliness. I had to prove to that woman there was nothing higher-priority to me than Hajikano.

But while I had to "get my birthmark back," a simple bruise would heal in no time. I wanted a semi-permanent mark of ugliness. So I thought to use the iron.

Where my birthmark had once been, this time, I would give myself a large burn.

If I'd had a little more good judgement left in me at the time, I could probably see how foolish it was from an objective standpoint to burn my face with an iron to get Hajikano's attention. Yet with the combination of the short remaining time on the bet and the confusion Chigusa caused me last night, I had a narrow perspective. You could say I was deranged. I was possessed by the naive thought that strong pain had to have a high return.

The hand I held the iron with was damp with sweat and trembled. The peak of the pain would probably be in the first instant. But the problem came after that. If I cooled it off too quickly and adequately treated it, the burn would just fully heal. If I wanted to make it "part of me" like my former birthmark, then after firmly burning my face at max temperature, I would probably have to not cool or treat the burn for an hour at least. Imagining that hour made my legs buckle.

Still, I had already made my decision. Slowly but surely, I got accustomed to the image of me burning my face. Once it reached a certain point, I was suddenly able to accept it all naturally. Or maybe logically, you could say I went fully mad. I closed my right eye, and pushed the iron plate heated to the necessary temperature toward my face,

when the phone rang.

If that noise had come a tenth of a second later, I'm sure the iron would have had no problem burning my face. At a distance close enough to scorch my eyelashes, my hand stopped.

The ringing came from the phone in the first floor hallway. I couldn't be sure, but from the timing and the way it echoed, I felt sure it was the woman who orchestrated this bet.

I put the iron back in the stand, ran down the stairs, and took the receiver.

"Hello?"

There was no reply.

Usually, there would be a one-sided dialogue of telling me some business, but this one time, I heard nothing. But just because I couldn't hear anyone didn't mean there was no one there, and I sensed there was a living person's breathing on the other end. The person seemed to be quietly listening to my breathing.

The silence went on. Just as I opened my mouth with impatience, with the suddenness of a hidden track on a CD after leaving it alone on the last track for over ten minutes, the person on the other end spoke.

"Who are you?"

It wasn't the usual woman's voice, but it was one I'd heard before.

A moment later, my head was filled with questions.

"Hajikano?", I asked. "No way, is that you, Hajikano?"

I heard her swallow. From that reaction, I was convinced the caller was Hajikano.

"How?", the person I thought to be Hajikano said. "How did you call here?"

That sentence repeated in my head. How did I call here? It was a strange way to put it. She made it sound like I had called her.

"Answer," Hajikano said. "How did you know I was here? Are you nearby?"

There seemed to be a discrepancy here. I got my head in order and decided on what the most important matters to have clarified were.

"Listen, Hajikano, stay calm and listen," I said soothingly. "You just asked me "How did you call here?", right? Are you telling me you didn't call me, but you just answered the phone?"

There was a silence as if for thought. I assumed that to be proof and continued.

"Well, same here. I was at home, and I heard the phone ringing, so I answered. And then I heard your voice. Where are you? Not at home?"

"...Chakagawa Station."
"Chakagawa Station?"

"One of the unmanned stations along a route that was shut down a few years ago. In other words, Yosuke, a place you wouldn't know," Hajikano explained plainly. "I was wandering around there when a public phone rang. When I took the receiver, I heard you. ...Just what is going on?"

Of course, I knew the cause. It was the doing of that woman who proposed a bet to me. While her methods and objectives were unclear, I could only imagine she had some involvement in such an irrational occurrence.

I didn't know why she had made such an arrangement at the exact time she did. Maybe the woman on the phone was pleased that I was about to take back my own ugliness for Hajikano's sake. So she decided to give me a little chance.

But explaining all those subtleties would surely only further confuse Hajikano. While thinking up ways to dispel her wariness, she said "So you don't know either," seeming ready to hang up.

"Wait. I'm begging you, don't hang up," I pleaded. "I want you to listen to me, just for a little bit. You're changing schools soon, aren't you? Before you leave, there's something I want to tell you. It'll take two minutes. You don't even have to reply. Just listen, that's all I ask."

There was no response. But also, no sign of hanging up. Relieved, I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. The sunlight coming through the window at the end of the hall cast a shadow of me on the opposite wall.

"As you know," I began, "the birthmark on my face vanished without a trace. It was something that normally would never go away. Countless doctors tried to cure it, and threw in the towel. They all more or less said "You'll just have to compromise." That's the kind of birthmark it was. ...But just a month ago, there came a sudden turning point."

I stopped there and listened closely. There were still faint noises, so the call hadn't been terminated.

"Explaining it in detail would take a whole lot of effort. And maybe no matter how I go about explaining it, it'll be impossible to accurately convey what I've experienced without misunderstandings. In any event, I met someone, and had my incurable birthmark cured - but it was a hefty trade. Before too long, I'll have to give up something more important than anything to that person. But of course, I did it all of my own volition, so the responsibility's all on me."

Unconsciously, I stroked the area where my birthmark had been.

"But... It sounds strange, but truthfully, lately I've stopped thinking so badly of my birthmark. I'd had it on my face for sixteen years, came to accept its existence, and even picked up some attachment. And yet, why did I pay such a massive price to have it removed?"

After a deep breath, I gave the answer.

"Because I wanted you to like me, Hajikano."

The moment I spoke, the air around me felt more damp, and I sensed a smell like split-open berries spreading. I felt something hot behind my ears, and my heart beat faster. Though Hajikano wasn't there in front of me, I covered my mouth with my open hand to hide my red face.

"Anyway, that's all I wanted to tell you," I appended. "Though from your reaction, it seems like the idea you'd like me just because my birthmark was gone was a one-sided misconception."

Once I'd finished with what I wanted to say, I closed my eyes and listened for her response. The call was still going, but I hadn't heard a sound. Maybe Hajikano wasn't actually listening to me in silence, but had left the receiver hanging and left... Just as I began to have such fears, I heard a sudden cough.

"Can you hear me?", she asked. "Are you still there?"

I replied immediately. "I plan to be here until you hang up. However long it takes."
"I see."

There was a thoughtful silence.

"I don't know," Hajikano said with concern. "I was sure you felt pity for me now, and that's why you were so overly concerned. I thought you just sympathized seeing me with the same problem you once had."

"Well, I'm not that mature of a person."
"Yes, so it seems."

There was no change in her tone. Even so, the image of Hajikano smiling on the other side surfaced in my mind.

"...To tell the truth, I do like that about you even now," Hajikano admitted. "I've hardly come to hate you, Yosuke. So then, the reason I dislike being with you... is purely a personal problem."
"A personal problem?"

"When I see you, I go mad with jealousy," she said with a light sigh, as if embarrassed with herself. "That said, it's not your birthmark being gone that I'm terribly jealous of. It's because you're a strong person who was able to accept his birthmark and live a decent life, and I'm a weak one who's been unable to do that, and fallen to such lows in less than half a year. That fact hurts me more than anything. When you're in front of me, I have to constantly acknowledge it. That's the hate that's led me to put distance between us."

Hajikano was silent for a few seconds. Somehow, I felt I could see her purse her lips and rub her birthmark.

"At this point, this birthmark isn't such an issue. The issue is my weakness that will let one blemish ruin me. When I see you now, Yosuke, my chest could burst from sheer misery."

"I think you're still misunderstanding me," I interjected. "If you saw me as accepting my birthmark and living a decent life, you're mistaken. The truth is, I was saddled with a feeling of inferiority. Every time I looked in the mirror, I thought how nice it would be to just be reborn."

I switched the phone to my right hand and toyed with the cord with my left.

"I didn't get through it all by myself. You were a big support to me back then. Because you accepted me, Hajikano, I could feel like accepting my birthmark. The birthmark I'd come to think of as such an ugly, dirty thing, I could think of as a mere piece of discolored skin once you touched it. That's how significant Yui Hajikano was to me."

"...It really never seemed that way," Hajikano said doubtfully.
"That's not unreasonable. Since I've been trying to keep it as cool as I could in front of you."
"Why?"

"I didn't want to accept that deep down, I strongly desired contact with someone else. And more than that, I was scared of you and those around me realizing the feelings I had for you. I felt like they'd scorn me. "You think a guy like you has the right to love Yui Hajikano?" So when I was with you, I tried to keep a cool face."

Yes, in my eyes, Yosuke Fukamachi wasn't a person who could love a specific girl. He would be someone who never loved anyone and was never loved, only living at a solitary pace.

"But each time I parted from you and went home, the conversations we had that day repeated in my head, burned into my memory. On days when especially happy things happened, I wrote them in my journal to re-read later. It might sound stupid, but at the time, I did that kind of thing to make it through the days of crushing inferiority. Even after going our separate ways for middle school, my memories of the days spent with you propped me up when I was hurting. If I hadn't met you, Hajikano, my weak endurance would someday crumble for sure."

After a while, Hajikano whispered something.

"...So you were thinking things like that."

Just then, I heard a quiet sound like a buzzer on the other end.

"What's that sound?", I asked.
"The telephone. I think it's the sound it makes when the time is expiring," she answered. "This call might end soon."
"Oh, I see..."

I was regretful about it, but I had told her everything I wanted to.

"Thanks for not hanging up on me. I was glad to talk to you."

Just afterward, the call cut out.


Even after the call ended, I stood for a long time in front of the telephone.

Just like back then, I was soaking indefinitely in my conversation with Hajikano.



To Be Continued in "The Place I Called From"



[+]

Chapter 7: The Summer Triangle, or Square

The rain that had fallen since yesterday finally stopped by noon. As I stepped carefully down the road with puddles here and there, children on bikes rushed past me from behind one after another. One of them was shouting something and pointing - at a large, clear rainbow. I stopped and gazed at it for a few seconds. Once I looked back down to start walking again, the children were already nowhere to be seen.

Maybe they'd gone in search of something at the end of that rainbow, I thought.

There's a superstition that a pot of gold lies at the end of a rainbow. I never really liked that. I wasn't pleased with the idea that buried under something beautiful was something beautiful. I was the one of those people who wanted there to be a corpse buried under a cherry blossom.

Things that were "just beautiful" made me uneasy. I worried that someone out there was taking the hit to balance out that beauty. Would be nice for there to be a graveyard at the start of a rainbow, I thought. I wanted those brilliant seven colors to have been brought about by a thousand-some piles of bones. Since maybe then I could innocently appreciate the beauty of a rainbow a little more.


On a visit to the town library, I reunited with the girl searching for ghosts. While putting my 100 yen in the vending machine and choosing my juice, I noticed a girl holding a parasol standing in front of another machine. She was frozen with her 100 yen in hand, staring at the options as if facing the most important decision of her life. Noticing me looking, she raised her parasol and looked at me.

"Ah, mister." Her eyes widened, then she bowed her head. "Good day. How unexpected we'd meet here."
"Suppose you wouldn't be looking for ghosts all day."

"Well, that's not quite true." She hoisted up the bag under her arm. "Both of the two books I checked out today are on ghosts."
"Fantastic," I commended.

"You think it's stupid, don't you?" Her mouth twisted. "Go ahead. For I truly am stupid. My grades are awful, too."
"I wasn't saying it ironically. I really think it's fantastic. Don't be too normal, please."

The girl glared at me in silence for a while, but her expression suddenly softened, and she pointed at a bench on the road facing the library.

"If you don't mind, can we talk for a bit?"

We bought our juices and slowly drank them on the bench together. From the thicket behind the library, I heard an ear-aching cicada buzz.

"By the way, what sort of entities do you think ghosts are?", I asked. "I mean, people have their own perspectives on them. Some think they're entities that watch over you from close by, and others think they have grudges, cursing and killing people. And some think they can't interfere with living people - they're just there. So I wanna know your view."

"Did you forget? I told you, I don't believe in ghosts in the first place. A UFO, a cryptid, anything will do," she said with a demure look. "It's simply... the town of Minagisa is bountiful with ghost stories, is it not? So for the time being, I'm searching for ghosts."

"Then I'll change up the question. What would you like ghosts to be like?"

The girl took a sip of juice and stared into the sky. Her wet lips shimmered in the sunlight.

"Let's see... I think ghosts should be in much suffering, hateful of the living, lamenting their circumstances. That's what I'd want them to be."

"Why?"

"If that were how it was, living would be a bit more preferable, wouldn't it?", she replied, still looking to the sky. "If all ghosts were peacefully watching over the living, I might find myself so jealous that I'd want to join them."
"Ah. Makes sense."

Maybe glad about my agreement, the girl's feet swayed under the bench.

"Though once I grow old, I may come to say the exact opposite thing."
"To affirm your approaching death?"

"Exactly." She smiled under the parasol. "You understand an oddball like me so well, mister."

"I'm not doing anything but talk naturally. If we understand each other, you must not be an oddball. Or else, I'm an oddball."

"It's the latter. No doubt," she snickered.

"Come to think of it," I said, "I forgot to mention, but don't call me "mister." We're the same age."

The girl peered at my face.

"I'd thought you were two or three years older," she mumbled as her eyes wandered around. "...But can you let me keep on with that assumption?"
"I guess, but why?"

The girl averted her eyes. "The thought that I'm talking with a boy my age makes me so tense, I might just send back up my breakfast."

I couldn't resist a chuckle. "Got it. Let's just say I'm older."

"Indeed, that would be helpful." She closed her eyes and sighed. Then she spoke cheerily to regain her spirits. "Say, I want to hear from you too, mister."

"From me?"
"It's unfair for me to do all the talking. Tell me something."

I thought about it. I was bad at talking about myself. I'd always lived under the assumption that no one would have any interest in me, so I had far less "things to say about myself" saved up than a normal person.

Ultimately, having no topics worth bringing up, I decided to talk about something that was currently on my mind.

"Lately, I've been going to see the stars at night."
"Ah, how wonderful. To think you had such a hobby."
"Nah, it's not my hobby. I'm just going along with it."

"Hmm. Sounds like fun," she said sulkingly. "I suppose you're going with a girl?"
"Girls, and a guy too."
"As I thought, so many friends." Her shoulders drooped. "I feel betrayed."

"For your information, counting you, I have about five friends total right now," I explained with a pained smile. "It's a mish-mash group. I'm the only one who's acquainted with all of them, and I'm always struggling to make them get along."

The girl stared closely at my face.

"That doesn't sound like your kind of thing, mister. Tiring, isn't it?"
"Yeah, deathly so."

Her cheeks softened at once. "Because you're reaching out into unfamiliar territory. A good feeling."

"Tell me about it," I agreed.


After getting home, I put the radio on a music station and continued to read the books I checked out from the library. Even with the windows open and fans blaring, it was hot enough to make sweat stains on my shirt. After dinner, I took a bath, then went straight to bed. At 1 AM, the alarm clock at my bedside went off. I slowly got up, quickly got ready, and left the house.

Even in the middle of the night, cicadas were buzzing in places on the road. Maybe they were confused by the streetlights and the persistent heat into thinking it was day. Or maybe cicadas who weren't able to make noise during the day were doing their best to make up for it now. Lately, I'd witnessed the phenomenon of cicadas stopping all at once during the hottest part of the day numerous times. I guess it makes sense, but it seems even cicadas hate extreme heat.

The heat this summer was abnormal, to be sure. The news was reporting new record highs for days in a row, and even adults said this was the hottest summer they'd ever seen. The rainfall during rainy season had also been less than half the average, there were water shortages around the country, and some places were cutting off the water at night. Maybe all the ambulance sirens I'd been hearing were because of people collapsing from heat exhaustion.

After walking along, occasionally brushing away spider webs that came out of nowhere, I arrived at Yui Hajikano's house. As expected, Chigusa Ogiue was already waiting by the gate, and gave a little wave when she noticed me. Chigusa always faithfully wore her uniform when going out, but probably thinking a school uniform would just be suspicious at this hour, tonight she wore a shirt one-piece with thin stripes.

"Regular clothes today, huh?", I pointed out.

Chigusa tugged on the sleeve of her one-piece worriedly. "It isn't odd, is it?"
"It's not. It suits you."
"I see. Does it, now?" She smiled, swinging slightly left and right.

While talking with Chigusa about the heat wave, the back door opened silently and Hajikano appeared. She saw my face, then looked to Chigusa.

"Good evening, Hajikano," Chigusa smiled, and Hajikano silently bowed her head.

The three of us went to Masukawa Hotel together. Opening the door to the rooftop, we saw Yuuya Hinohara there early, setting up a telescope. Seeing us arrive, he just said "Hey," then beckoned to Hajikano. "Hajikano, help me with this."

Hajikano stood beside the telescope, and Hinohara began to instruct. "Okay, I taught you how to tune the finder last time. You can do it yourself now, right?" Hajikano nodded wordlessly.

Chigusa and I watched from a distance as Hajikano tuned the telescope in silence and Hinohara supervised. Chigusa took peeks at me with a complicated smile on her lips.

"Why did it end up like this, you think?"

Yes, why had it come to this?

I retraced my memory to recall the day that had set it all off.

*

Back to the day Hajikano and I had a call together. The day a phone booth at an empty train station where Hajikano was and the phone at my house rang simultaneously.

Finally getting the chance to have a proper conversation with her, I at last spoke the feelings I'd kept in for years. The call ended before she could reply to them, but for the time being, it seemed like the roughness between us had been smoothed to some extent. I'd learned that Hajikano didn't really hate me, and got Hajikano to realize that I wasn't just pitying her. Just those two things made for a big step forward.

That night, right at 2 AM, I visited Hajikano's house. When Hajikano came out the back door in less than five minutes, she saw me and stopped.

I raised my hand and greeted her, and she glared at me like she wanted to say something. But that expression didn't have the hostility and hate there had been before. Depending on your point of view, it could be seen as merely covering for her embarrassment.

"Well, let's go see the stars, as usual," I said. "Like the night with the shooting stars."

Hajikano lightly shrugged with an amazed look, and giving neither a "fine" or "no," began to walk. For the first time, I got to walk toward the ruined hotel not tailing behind her, but alongside her.

As she sat on the chair on the rooftop and looked at the sky, I casually asked a question.

"If you like looking at stars this much, why not use a telescope?"

"I want to," she honestly replied. "But those things are expensive."

"Ah," I nodded. Then I suddenly thought of something. "Actually, I have a friend with a fairly pricey telescope."

Sure enough, Hajikano latched on. "...Really?"
"Yeah. Would you want to borrow it?"

She kept silent. But if Hajikano didn't instantly refuse, that usually meant agreement, I felt. Silence was her way of resistance.

"Okay, leave it to me. I'll have it ready by tomorrow night."

I didn't get my hopes up for a true response, but after seeing two shooting stars, Hajikano spoke in a voice so quiet as to be practically inaudible.

"...Thanks."

"Don't mention it." I bowed my head overly low. "I didn't expect to get thanks. I'll have to write that in my diary when I get home."

"Hm."

Hajikano turned away with displeasure.


The next morning, rubbing my sleepy eyes and walking under the blazing sun, I visited Hinohara's house.

The flowers in the pots in a row under the shop overhang were all terribly wilted without exception. Only the morning glories wrapped around the window lattices had healthy blue and purple flowers. The drab mortar walls hadn't been painted over for years, and there were dark cracks all over them. The entrance said "Bar" with a paper lantern hanging down, and the white electronic sign in front had the name of the place in deep blue letters, "Sea Roar." The outdoor air conditioning unit under the second floor window made a strange rattling noise.

It was still only ten, and the cicadas were holding back. I opened the creaking gate, went around to the dwelling-side door, and rang the doorbell. I counted to thirty, then rang it again, but there was no response.

I heard a familiar engine noise from the back of the house. I went to check it out and found Hinohara in a cramped, messy garage, fiddling with a scooter. Probably changing the oil; next to him was an oil can, a box wrench, and a cut-open water bottle.

"Want some help?", I asked.

Hinohara turned around, and his eyes widened as he saw me. "Ohh, Fukamachi! Rare for you to visit. ...Here to have your revenge for three days ago, maybe?"

"That wouldn't be a bad idea." I picked up a monkey wrench in the corner of the garage and tapped it in my palm. "But I've got other business today. Hinohara, as I recall, don't you have a telescope?"

"Yeah, I do. What about it?"
"I'd like to borrow it for a little while."

He wiped the sweat off his brow with his arm.

"That's real abrupt. Sheesh, you make fun of my hobbies so much, and now you've got an interest in astronomy?"
"I don't remember making fun. And I'm not the one interested in astronomy. Someone I know likes to look at stars."

Hinohara stared me down with his mouth half-open.

"Sorry, I've got no intent of lending it out. It's valuable, so I'm not letting some ignorant amateur touch it."

With that, he returned to work. He stopped the warmed-up engine, put on vinyl gloves, removed the drain bolt, and caught the dripping oil in the water bottle. Once the old oil was all poured out, he retightened the bolt, opened the oil pump cap, and poured in new oil from the can. He closed the cap, started the engine, and again let it run for a while. I'd helped him with this many times in middle school, so I learned the process well.

"I really do need it. I'll repay you. And I'll forget all about the other day. I'll treat it with extreme caution so I don't break it."

"Do you know how to use it?"
"I'll start learning now."
"Come to me after you learn."
"I'm in a hurry. Please, I'm serious about this."

"Doesn't seem like you to beg like this," Hinohara said curiously. "Is there a woman involved?"

"Depends on your point of view," I said, muddling the answer.

"Then all the more reason you're not getting it. I don't want my precious telescope being used just to get a woman's attention."

I shrugged. "A girl I owe a lot to is really in the pits right now. She usually stays locked up in her room, but goes out at night just to see the stars. It seems like the only time she can feel at peace is when she's looking at the night sky. I want to help her out."

Hinohara stopped the engine, removed the oil cap, wiped it with a rag, then stuck it back in and checked the amount of oil. Confirming it to be sufficiently full, he tightened the cap and removed the vinyl gloves.

After taking the scooter to the back of the garage, he brought a folding table leaning against the wall over and set it up in front of me. Kneeling in front of the dent-filled wooden table, he rolled up his sleeves and put out an arm.

"The rules are simple," Hinohara said. "We're gonna arm-wrestle. As many times as you want. If you win even once, then I'll lend you my telescope."

"Arm wrestle?", I repeated. "As if I have a chance of winning that?"

"I'm the one lending the telescope. What's the point of giving you the advantage?"

"That's still too unfair for me. I was hospitalized from graduation to the middle of last month. My whole body's gotten weak."

"Then give up. I don't intend on changing my conditions."

I reluctantly kneeled in front of the table. And I looked again at his shoulder, upper arm, and forearm in order. He worked out regularly, so they were all trained up very well. He was a man who wasn't in the exercise club, but ranked first in the school in numerous physical tests. I had no shot at victory.

And yet, I couldn't give up before I even started. I put my elbow on the table and grabbed Hinohara's hand. With my left hand, I gripped the edge of the table.

"You ready?", Hinohara asked. I nodded.

On his signal, I put all my energy into my right hand. It didn't budge. Without exaggeration, it didn't move a millimeter. As if his arm were affixed in place with screws. He gave me a cocky smile. Putting some slight force in his wrist, my wrist buckled at once. And he took it to the end in one motion. "One win," he counted. My entire arm was numb, and sweat poured from my body. "Well then, round two?", he said.

After ten rounds, my right hand shook against my will, and I had trouble moving my fingertips. The inside of my elbow hurt like it was inflamed, and everything from my shoulder down felt incredibly hot.

Once my arm felt a little less numb, I doggedly put my elbow on the table. Hinohara, convinced of his victory, coolly talked to me in the midst of the match.

"Where did you get to know her?"

"Her?", I looked up and asked. Sweat from my forehead went down my cheek and neck.

"The girl who almost got involved in the quarrel with Nogiyama three days ago."

I attempted a surprise attack as he was talking, but he predicted it and instantly pushed back with even more force. I clicked my tongue, then answered him. "Ogiue? She's just a classmate. She has the seat next to me."

"You go see the stars in the middle of the night with "just a classmate"?"

"Stars?" I twisted my neck. "Oh, Hinohara, were you under the impression I'm stargazing with Ogiue? She's totally unrelated to this. The one I see stars with is a different girl..."

Just as I got that far, the force in Hinohara's arm suddenly weakened. I wasn't sure what happened, but I noticed it, and used all my remaining might to bring his arm down.

For a while, Hinohara looked curiously at his arm which suddenly became non-functional during the match.

"...A promise is a promise." He scratched the back of his neck. "Alright, fine. I don't want to, but I'll lend you my telescope."

"Thanks," I said, wiping the sweat from my brow and massaging my right arm all over.

"But I have a condition. If you don't accept, we're back to square one."
"I'll accept most conditions," I replied. "What is it?"

"When you use the telescope, you have to take me along."

"...Uh, hold on. That's a problem." I shook my head. "I'll study up on how to use it, so don't accompany me, please."

"No way. I won't yield to this one."
"A guy like you would scare her, Hinohara."
"If she'd get friendly with you, Fukamachi, I'm sure she can get friendly with me too."
"We're old acquaintances. You, not so much."

The dispute continued until noon, and Hinohara really wasn't going to submit. So I decided to borrow his phone and call Hajikano's house.

Hajikano's older sister Aya answered the phone.

"Can you hand it over to Miss Yui? If you say it's about the telescope, she should come out of her room."

"Telescope?, Aya repeated, it not ringing a bell for her. "Well, whatever. I don't understand, but if you say so, Yocchan, I'll try it. Hold on a second."

Not a minute later, Hajikano came to the phone. "...It's been handed over."

"First, the good news," I began. "After some discussion, I've been allowed to loan the telescope. ...Now, the bad news is, the guy who owns it won't allow it to be used without him coming along. I wouldn't say he's a bad guy or anything, but I'm turning him down if you don't agree, Hajikano. What do you want to do?"

"If he'll lend a telescope, it doesn't matter," Hajikano answered simply.

"You're really sure?", I pressed. "Isn't that a special place for you? You aren't opposed to outsiders knowing about it?"

"I don't really think much of it. Also, you already know about it, Yosuke."
"...Well, uh, that's true."

Bewildered by Hajikano's demeanor softening up so much quicker than expected, I suddenly realized something.

"If it's okay, can I bring another girl along? It might be uncomfortable with two guys, right?"

Hajikano replied with silence showing neither agreement nor disapproval.

"You had a classmate at Mitsuba Middle School named Chigusa Ogiue, right?", I asked.

"Maybe," Hajikano answered.

"I'm thinking of bringing her. Would you mind that?"

After another long pause, Hajikano spoke. "It doesn't matter."

"Then I'll see about inviting Ogiue. Wait for me to come by at 2 AM tonight. See you."

Lastly, Hajikano softly muttered, "...Thanks."

"Don't mention it." I hung up.

"It's decided," Hinohara remarked, seeing me end the call. "Now, what about the location?"

"Remember Masukawa Hotel? We go there all the time to look at stars on the rooftop."

"Ahh, the "Red-Room Ruins." Hung out there a bunch in middle school," Hinohara nodded, full of nostalgia. "But why go out to such a dangerous place?"

"Hajikano seems to have a liking for the place."
"The heck? Weird girl." He tilted his head. "Oh well. Just gotta be on the roof of Masukawa Hotel by 2, right?"

"Yeah. Make sure you do it."
"'Course. A promise is a promise."

After leaving Hinohara, I called Chigusa from the nearest public phone. I couldn't raise my right arm after the arm wrestling, so I carefully dialed the numbers one by one with my left.

"Hello?", Chigusa said through the phone.
"Do you have time right now?", I asked.

"Fukamachi? This is Fukamachi, is it not?" Her voice lit up slightly. "Of course, I have time. What is it you need?"

"I have another request for you, Ogiue."
"A request... Concerning Hajikano, I presume?"

"Yeah, you got it." Feeling like attempting to hide it would only have the opposite effect, I truthfully explained the situation. "I'm planning to see the stars with Hajikano tonight, but some things came up, and now a guy named Hinohara is coming along. But I'm sure Hajikano would feel uncomfortable around two former delinquents. I think having a girl like you around might mitigate that. So I called."

"In other words, I'm to be a front in order to get close with Hajikano?"

"Can't help it if you take it that way. But I don't have anyone else I can ask. Of course, you can refuse if you want."

Chigusa gave a deep sigh. "...Well, I am the one who said "If there's anything I can assist with, let me know." Very well, I'll assist you."
"Thanks. I'm in your debt."

"Playing with people's love... You truly are a natural-born bad boy, Fukamachi," Chigusa said playfully. "But please, do not forget this. I, too, am a bad person just like you. If you're negligent, I may just steal you away from Hajikano."

"I'm aware of that danger. I'll be careful."

"No, no. Please, be negligent," Chigusa snickered. "When and where should we meet?"

"Wait at her house at 2 AM. I'll come pick you up."
"Understood. I look forward to it."

"Can you sneak away without your parents finding out?"
"I'll be all right. As my father and mother would not even dream of me going out in the night."

I put down the receiver and headed for the small local library, checked out a book on telescope operation, and skimmed through the whole thing. I diligently read for the first two hours or so, but all the astronomy terms I'd never seen before and cross-sections of various lenses got me incredibly sleepy, and I fell asleep without realizing. It was gloomy outside when I woke up. I went home, had dinner with my mother, lied down in bed and read over the book again. A brief nap left me leaving the house pretty much right on time.


The meeting of Hajikano and Chigusa, root of my worries, went smoother than I thought. As Hajikano tried to hide behind my back, Chigusa spoke to her very naturally.

"We haven't met in some time, Hajikano."

Hajikano nodded, her lips tight and straight. It wasn't a disinterested nod, but one that, while nervous, was a proper response to Chigusa's greeting.

"I did not expect to meet with you again in a way like this. You never know what destiny holds."

Thinking about it, in the three months I was hospitalized, Chigusa and Hajikano probably saw each other often, since the former sat behind the latter. As far as I could tell, Hajikano had no ill will toward Chigusa. I didn't sense Chigusa had issues with Hajikano either. Though the degrees of it varied, maybe there was some resonation given their general lack of friendliness with classmates.

Hinohara came to the ruins early to set up the telescope, so his meeting with Hajikano was slightly postponed. According to him, the telescope lens and reflector took a while to adapt to the night air, and if you didn't let it adjust to outdoor temperature one or two hours before viewing, the seeing would have distortions. Tuning the finder also seemed to be easier in lighter hours. Masukawa Hotel happened to be a place Hinohara knew, so there was no problem letting him go on ahead.

The most pressing issue was avoiding a rejection of Hinohara from the other two. Hinohara would casually do rude things even to people he was just meeting or give them awful nicknames; in general, he had a prodigious talent for earning people's contempt. I needed to keep a handle on him in order to protect Hajikano and Chigusa from his innocent ill will. Once I arrived at the ruins, I braced myself for the three meeting. Though certainly, it would be best if nothing happened.

I also had to escort Chigusa who was unfamiliar with the ruins, so I brought a flashlight to light up the floor and proceed with care. At the rooftop, I turned off the flashlight and called to Hinohara, who was done setting up the telescope. "Sorry to keep you waiting."

"Ah, you're here." Hinohara put out his cigarette and tossed it in an empty can. Standing up and taking an electric lantern at his feet, he illuminated our three faces. Since our eyes weren't adjusted to it, the lantern light seemed as dim as if it were about to go out.

Hinohara first looked at Chigusa's face with scrutiny. In a few seconds, the faint smile vanished from his lips. His eyes went round, and he looked all over Chigusa's face like an important message was written on it.

"Yuuya Hinohara," he said with bizarre respect, extending his right hand. "I was Fukamachi's best friend in middle school."

"I'm Chigusa Ogiue," Chigusa said, timidly extending her hand too and grabbing his. Not surprising she's afraid, I thought. She only recognized him as "one of the people who was standing around Fukamachi about to beat him up that day."

I whispered into Chigusa's ear. "Nothing to fear. He's not that bad a guy."

"Right. Not that bad a guy," Hinohara repeated. "Even if I am bad, it's strictly only as much as Fukamachi."

"Is that a fact? Then I'm relieved." Chigusa smiled, her tension still not gone.

Next, Hinohara brought the lantern to Hajikano's face. I held my breath and watched. He rudely glared at the birthmark.

"Awful bruise, there. Like the Ghost Story of Yotsuya."

If Hinohara made any more remarks so lacking in forethought, I might have punched him on reflex. But before I could even curl up my fist - and in fact, maybe to keep me in check - Hajikano replied plainly.

"Yes. It is awful, isn't it?"

"No exaggeration there," Hinohara affirmed. Then he inspected the other side without the birthmark.

"Then again, you've got a pretty good face all around." Hinohara scratched his chin. "Can't say if you're a beauty or an ugly. ...Eh, if you ask me, there's not much difference either way."

Hajikano's eyes narrowed from the light of the lantern. She at least didn't seem irritated or hurt by his comments. In fact, she might have even appreciated the way he didn't mince words. Maybe those with strong inferiority complexes can get along surprisingly well with wide-open people like Hinohara. In fact, that was one reason I chose Hinohara as an ally in middle school.

Chigusa brought her face close to mine. "Hinohara seems like a rather interesting sort."
"He sure is. For better or worse."

"In addition, he slightly resembles you."
"Hinohara resembles me?", I asked with surprise.

"Yes. You're even about the same height, and have the same eyes. And I have to say, you have the same air about you."
"Huh. ...I'm not too happy to hear that."

Chigusa patted my back encouragingly. "It's all right, you are the cooler of the two."
"Thanks for that."

Anyway, that was the biggest hurdle cleared. These four didn't seem to be desperately incompatible. Hajikano evidently had no negative feelings toward the other two, and the same for Chigusa.

At that point, I suddenly saw myself objectively, and felt a new surprise - to think I would be in a position to be handling relationships between friends. It was the first time in my life I'd ended up with such a duty. Who could have guessed a role that should usually go to the one with most personality in the group would go to me of all people.


The first thing we saw was Saturn. After Hinohara adjusted the telescope, Hajikano, Chigusa, and I looked into it in order.

"If the seeing was a little bit better, there'd be enough detail to spot the gaps between rings," Hinohara said. Probably means the Cassini Division, I thought, recalling the book I read before coming. When you view Saturn's rings not as single thick rings but many small rings together, the three rings making up the main ring are called rings A, B, and C. And the giant gap between A and B is called the Cassini Division.

To avoid disturbing Hajikano as she looked into the telescope, we sat a few meters away and quietly conversed.

"I never asked, come to think of it, but Hinohara, why did you get into astronomy?"

"Why?" Hinohara groaned in thought as he lied down and looked into the sky. "How should I put it? In my case, the telescope came before the stars."
"How do you mean?"

"Not fussing over the pictures, but simply liking the structure of the camera. Not fussing over the music, but liking the look of the vacuum tube amp. Not fussing over the taste of coffee, just liking the bean-grinding and dripping. It's like that. I always liked the idea of carrying around a telescope and setting it up."

"But you wouldn't keep it up for long then, would you? It's a pretty annoying hobby, honestly."

"That's what makes it good. What you're going to see through the telescope and what I'm going to see through the telescope are the same thing, but there's a completely different meaning to it. The same way a fish you caught yourself is tastier. Your brain beautifies it according to the amount of effort you put in. And as soon as you see those already-beautiful planets and stars made more beautiful, you might just become a slave to astronomy."

"That's a beautiful point of view I can't believe I'm hearing from you," I said jokingly, but I wasn't lying about being impressed. "By the way, I wanted to ask your opinion on something... Why do you think Hajikano likes stars?"

"Hajikano? Oh, the girl with the birthmark." Hinohara sat up and looked at her back as she enthusiastically peered into the telescope. "Well, it might be the obvious answer, but for her, maybe she likes the darkness more than the stars."
"...I see."

That was a logical idea. She came to prefer darkness after her birthmark appeared, and in trying to find enjoyment in darkness, she met the stars. She definitely had that aspect to her, I thought. Of course, since her interest in the stars came far before her birthmark, surely his answer was only one of many things facilitating her appreciation.

"Of course, when you get down to it, reasons for "liking" anything are always after the fact," Hinohara added. "People who like stars are just born such that they'll like stars, and that's really all it is."
"You got that right," I agreed.

After Hajikano, Chigusa looked into the telescope and let out a cheer. "Wow. Fukamachi, Fukamachi, this is really something amazing."

Hurried by Chigusa, I too stood at the telescope and looked into the lens.

A lonely sphere floating in the darkness, and giant rings encircling it. It was a unique shape even kindergarteners were familiar with. Yet looking at the real thing through a lens like this, it seemed like a bad joke. Was it acceptable for such an illogically-shaped thing to exist in this world? Since I'd been taught that Saturn had this shape, I was able to leave it at that, but how bewildered would someone who didn't know anything about Saturn be at the sight of this?

While I was being overwhelmed by Saturn's appearance, Hinohara spoke from behind me.

"Seeing you looking into a telescope like this reminds me of that night on our class trip."

"...You're as detestable as ever," I quietly replied.

"What is this about?" Sure enough, Chigusa showed interest in the story.

"Oh, it's nothing big," Hinohara began in a lively voice. "There was an open air bath at the place we stayed for our third year class trip. And on the third night, it came to light that we could lean forward and use binoculars to see from our room to the stairs connecting the women's interior bath and the open air bath. The next day we did some on-site procurement of binoculars, and that night took turns looking through 'em. Eh, Fukamachi?"

"Hmm... So Fukamachi would also do such things." Chigusa gave me a mix of a scornful look and a teasing one.

"So what? If I were the only one who didn't look in that situation, that'd make it more suspicious," I excused, then went on the counterattack. "You know, Hinohara, you always did have a habit of trying to tease me around the girls you were into."

"You've got that wrong," Hinohara replied without delay. "I just like teasing you."

"How friendly." Chigusa grinned with a hand over her mouth.

Hinohara and I shrugged, like saying "I wonder about that." Then the three of us looked toward Hajikano, still plastered to the telescope and not tiring of looking at Saturn.

"Does she like stars that much?", Hinohara asked me, lowering his voice so she didn't hear.
"Yeah. I mean, she comes out here every night just to see them."

"Every night? You sure there isn't some other objective?"
"No, nothing. I can be sure of that."

"Huh. Weird gal." Hinohara stared at Hajikano's back like he was making sure of something.

"Hey, ghost of Oiwa," he dubbed Hajikano. "You gonna get tired of Saturn already?"

Hajikano took her eyes away from the lens and shook her head at Hinohara. "I'm not tired of it."

"Oh yeah? Well, I am. So I'm gonna have you point the telescope at the moon now. You know how to do that?"
"...Maybe."

"Okay, take it away. Tell me when you've got a good view of the moon's surface."

Hajikano bowed her head deeply and carefully began to fiddle with the telescope.

"Well now, you're using the finder right. Way to go," Hinohara remarked happily.

"You say it's too important to want an ignorant novice touching it, then you let a girl you just met fiddle with it," I pointed out. "So much for that."

"It's alright, she won't break it," Hinohara said confidently.

"Y'know, I did study up on this too. Even learned how to read star maps."
"That's some good spirit. But I can't trust you since your motives are impure."

Hinohara seemed to grow impatient while watching Hajikano take her time, so he stood up with a flashlight covered in red cellophane and began giving instructions next to her. "Dummy, first you wanna use the low-magnification eyepiece. Once you line up the focal point, then you can increase magnification."

"I don't know how to change eyepieces," Hajikano complained.
"Then just ask me. Are you stupid?"
"...How do I do it?", Hajikano nervously asked.

Chigusa and I watched the two mess with the telescope from behind.

"People who understand what you like are wonderful," Chigusa whispered.

"Yeah. I really couldn't get deep into one thing like that," I remarked. "Maybe I can't have that much confidence in my hobbies."

"I know that feeling. I expect that I'll at some point get bored or frustrated, and put in less effort as a precautionary measure."

Looking at Hinohara giving annoyed instructions and Hajikano reluctantly following them, my heart slightly ached. It was a strange sensation I'd never experienced before. At that point, I wasn't conscious of it being the emotion known as jealousy. Maybe I had experienced it because of my inferiority, but I'd given up on myself to the point that I didn't compare myself to others, and lived a life where I would never have jealousy toward specific people. As a result, I didn't know the name to give to that feeling I was having for the first time.

I felt a vague ill omen. Maybe I've opened a door that I shouldn't have opened, I thought.

And that omen was for a not-too-distant future.

"Fukamachi, what is the matter?", Chigusa asked worriedly as I fell silent.
"Nothing. Just had a strange feeling."
"Indeed. ...It is strange."

Hajikano turned around to glance at us, then went right back to the telescope.


Around 4 AM, when the sky began turning violet, we left the ruins. With an uneventful farewell, we all returned to our respective houses.

Yet by some strange alignment of the stars - or rather, maybe an alignment caused by stars - from then on, me, Hajikano, Chigusa, and Hinohara came to assemble at the ruins every night as if called there.

The most surprising part of this was that Hinohara kept bringing his telescope and setting it up on the roof of the hotel every time without anyone asking him to. Of course, I assume he did it not out of purely good will, but mostly as an excuse to meet with Chigusa. I didn't know how serious he was, but Hinohara seemed to like Chigusa, and kept trying to extract information about her from me (which I always evaded).

Chigusa's reason for being there every night, as she told it, was to prevent me and Hajikano from being alone together. Once, right when Hajikano and Hinohara were focused on the telescope, I asked Chigusa why she kept coming. She glared at me with dissatisfaction and lightly bumped her forehead into my shoulder.

"Is it not obvious I want to prevent you and Hajikano from meeting in secret?", she said without fear. "Are you not even aware of that?"

"...I've been meaning to ask, but what exactly do you see in me?", I asked. "It's honestly a mystery to me."

"Think about it for yourself, you miscreant." Chigusa turned away.

And the all-important Hajikano - the one who was coming to the roof every night without anyone asking her to. I thought her acceptance of us three intruders was simply due to the telescope. But lately, I'd come to see that differently.

Maybe... Possibly... Potentially.

Perhaps Hajikano wasn't focused on the telescope, but Hinohara.

I began to think this after an event a few days into our stargazing. I was with Chigusa, watching Hinohara and Hajikano set up the telescope from behind. Hajikano had quickly taken the role of Hinohara's assistant, and came to follow his instructions and change lenses, adjust the finder, check star maps without any look of displeasure. Hajikano seemed to enjoy those tasks, and Hinohara trusted her as an astronomy lover, and he was freely letting her touch the telescope he wouldn't usually let anyone have.

As Hinohara finished preparing and called to us, there was the sudden sound of a car engine in the distance. He put up a finger to silence us and closed his eyes to listen close.

"It's coming this way," he groaned. "I can tell from the sound of the engine. Probably the guys who hang out around the mountain pass. They might be out on a dare or something."

He was exactly right. After a while, the engine sound stopped near the building, and we heard people getting out and doors shutting. The voices sounded like three or four guys in their twenties. They seemed to be headed right for us.

"We should probably hide," I suggested. "We don't want to have a run-in with those guys."

"We've got two ladies here." Hinohara looked at Hajikano and Chigusa and scratched his head. "Alright, fine. Fukamachi, you hide these two. A dumpster, an incinerator, wherever. In the meantime, I'll put away the telescope."

"Got it," I nodded. "Hajikano, Ogiue, come with me."

Chigusa followed, but Hajikano just stood there thinking about something. "Hajikano, hurry," I said, trying to grab her hand. But her hand slipped away, and she ran over to Hinohara to help him disassemble the telescope.

Maybe Hajikano figured it would be more efficient to look for places for all four of us to hide after putting away the telescope. Figuring she wouldn't get in Hinohara's way, she instantly chose to help him disassemble, ignoring me. That was a perfectly rational notion.

Yet, even knowing that, I felt an indescribable unease the moment Hajikano slipped away from my hand and ran over to Hinohara. I felt like that action was more than it seemed.

Ultimately, the guys on a dare never came to the roof - they wandered the first floor, smashed some windows, and left in about thirty minutes. While waiting for them to leave, we held our breath hiding behind a structure on the roof. Once the car was out of earshot, we sighed with relief and got out to stretch. We felt strangely elated to be free from the tension, and me, Hinohara, and Chigusa laughed. Hajikano's expression seemed a little less stiff than usual, too.

After that day, I began watching with caution when Hajikano interacted with Hinohara. And I saw that she frequently showed relaxed expressions to him that she never showed to me. Once I became aware of it, I kept finding proof that Hajikano looked at Hinohara in a special way.

It seemed Hajikano was captivated by him. Even someone as estranged from people's feelings as me could tell what a favorable attitude she had around him. With him around, she instantly smiled more, and when he left, she looked blatantly gloomier.

Her actions gradually became easier to understand. While stargazing on the roof, she came to dangle after Hinohara. I wasn't sure if it was out of love, or friendship between fellow likers of astronomy. But at the very least, Hajikano seemed to be having considerably more fun hearing about astronomy from Hinohara than being alone with me. Once I noticed that fact, my vision went black. Every time I saw them getting close and chatting since, my pulse wouldn't calm down, and I felt despair like sinking to the dark sea bottom.

Wasn't this Andersen's The Little Mermaid exactly? Out of love for Hajikano, I put my life on the line to remove my birthmark, but in trying to save her from her predicament, another man snatched away the credit. It had a lot of overlap with the fate of the little mermaid, obtaining a human form out of love for the prince, but another woman taking credit for her saving his life.

But I was unable to blame Hinohara. It's not like he tried to lead Hajikano astray. He just liked a girl who had his same interest in stars, cordially answering to her desire.

Also, through this stargazing, Hinohara and I reattained a comfortable friendship like we had in middle school. I hated to admit it, but even I took a liking to him. In the end, Hinohara knew me best, and I knew Hinohara best. It was hard to hate him. And it was none other than me who got these two together who never would have otherwise. I sowed the seeds here.

I absolutely wanted to get Hajikano back, but looking at her passionately listening to Hinohara, I came to think of myself as a nuisance. Forcibly trying to pull them apart at this point would only make her sad. I went to the library almost every day to try and catch up to Hinohara's astronomy knowledge, but cramming didn't cut it at all. Rather, the more I studied, the more I realized the tremendous extent of his knowledge.

The one small salvation was that Hinohara was captivated by Chigusa rather than Hajikano, but I felt pathetic thinking of that as a salvation. When I noticed myself wishing deep down that Chigusa would reciprocate Hinohara, I felt like vanishing off the face of the Earth from embarrassment.

Out of the four of us on the rooftop, my head was the most dirty. Sure, I'd gotten a normal appearance, but this time it was my mind that was ugly beyond compare. It hadn't been like this when I had my birthmark. As soon as I felt like I'd gotten something, it turned to greed, and that greed threw my heart into disarray.

Sitting next to Chigusa, sipping on iced tea she made, I watched Hajikano and Hinohara with the telescope between them and drew a long sigh.

"Not going so well, is it," Chigusa remarked as if knowing what I was thinking.
"Yeah. Not so well," I repeated like an incoherent mutter.

"All the gears are out of sorts in such strange ways. If only there were some deus ex machina to fix it."
"Yeah. I'd only want to change the directions of two arrows."
"Two?" Chigusa tilted her head, ignorant of the arrow pointing from Hinohara to her.

"Why did it have to be like this?", I mumbled to myself.

"...While it seems unsatisfactory to you, Fukamachi, I like these relations," Chigusa responded. "Of course, the biggest reason is that I can be with you. But that isn't the only thing. Somehow, the four of us being together feels very natural."

I thought about it for a while, then spoke. "Yeah, I don't want to admit it, but I feel the same way."

"Right?", Chigusa smiled. "Who knows how long it will go on, but I adore this time. I pray it can go on as long as possible. ...Of course, if you were to pick me, that would be a different story."

Every time Chigusa stated her affection like that, my heart ached. For one thing, I couldn't face her feelings head-on, but more than that, it was an ache of guilt over the fact that the "me" she was loving wasn't my real appearance, so I was in some sense fooling her.

"Hey, Ogiue."

Unable to bear it, I asked in a roundabout way. Or confessed, maybe.

"If the Fukamachi you were looking at right now was a fake, what would you do? For instance, if my face were actually much uglier, do you think you would still have this sort of relationship with me?"

Chigusa tilted her head with a stare.

"Ah, do you perhaps mean the birthmark?", she said casually. "If I hated you that much, I could never love you from the start. In fact, if you were to go back to when you had the birthmark, it would help to reduce competition."

Seeing how I was too shocked to put together a reply, Chigusa laughed like at a joke.

"Did you think I was that unknowledgeable about you? I should have you know, I want to know about you just as much as you want to know about Hajikano."

"...I'm getting really fed up with my own ignorance."

I put my hands on the floor and stared up at the sky.


Chigusa had noticed it, and even I was faintly aware. These times wouldn't last too long. A break would inevitably come in the not-too-distant future.

August 7th was a new moon. Pointing binoculars at the sky, in the Milky Way between Vega and Altair, we could observe star clusters and nebulae.

The night of August 12th, without taking any telescope or binoculars, we climbed the highest hill in town and lied down to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. The one the guidance counselor Endou had told us not to miss. From 1991 to 1994, due to the influence of the returning parent body Swift-Tuttle, the Perseid Meteor Shower was setting record numbers far above the yearly average. On the night of the 12th, it hit its peak, and we saw an average of about 50 shooting stars per hour. Some people would never get to see this many in their entire lifetime, I thought. Hajikano's innocent smile as she watched the stars go by left a strong impression on me. I thought it was proof that she was on the way to improvement.

On August 13th, it rained, and for the first time in a while we spent the night alone.

On August 14th, it rained more than the day before.

On August 15th, unbeknownst to anyone, Hajikano plunged into the sea.

And just like that, our short relations met an end.



[+]

Chapter 8: Save the Last Dance for Me

The phone rang at 2 PM on August 14th. I was perusing an astronomy book in my room at the time, studying the movement of variable binary stars. It was pouring outside, raindrops beat against the window, and wind relentlessly blew through the trees. My parents were out at work, so I was home alone.

When I heard the phone, I tossed away my book and ran down the stairs to grab the receiver.

"Hello?"

There was no reply. A long silence. It had to be a call from Hajikano, I figured. I couldn't imagine anyone but her doing this.

"Is this Hajikano?", I asked the caller. But still, no reply.

It didn't seem to me that this was a repeat of before, where two phones rang at once and the theoretically separate lines somehow got connected. This silence was full of conviction, leaving me an impression that the caller was staying silent with full awareness I was on the other end. However, it did feel like a hesitating silence of whether or not to say something, rather than a purposeful lack of speaking.

And suddenly, the call ended. What was that all about?, I wondered as I put down the phone.

The sound of the rain seemed strangely clear, and I noticed the window was left open, with a puddle forming. I closed it, wiped the puddle up with a rag, and went around checking the other windows.

Once back in my room, I thought about that phone call again. And I had a sudden thought.

Maybe I should have been the one to start talking.

Maybe she wasn't being silent, but waiting for my words.

I felt uneasy. Putting a yacht parka over my shirt, I went out without even an umbrella and rode my bicycle to Hajikano's house. Arriving in a few minutes, I mashed on the doorbell repeatedly. A few seconds later, Aya showed her face.

"...Huh, Yocchan?", she said with disappointment. That reaction seemed to confirm my bad premonition.

"Something happened to Yui, didn't it?", I asked.

"Yeah," Aya nodded. "You look like you know something. Come inside. I'll lend you a towel."
"Let's talk here, please."

Aya, mid-turning on her heel, turned back to me and sighed.

"Yui's gone missing. She left the house like usual last night and hasn't come back. Of course, that alone wouldn't be worrisome. It's not that rare for her to be gone for over a day, and maybe she's late to come home because of the rain. ...But I get kind of a bad feeling this time."

I spoke after a slight hesitation. "There was a wordless call to my house earlier. I don't have proof, but I think it was from Yui. After about two minutes of silence, the call ended without explanation."

"If that was Yui, then she's still safe for now, huh..." She closed her eyes with relief.
"What's your bad feeling?"

"Thinking about it, she was kind of weird last night," Aya said, staring into the rain outside. "I happened to meet her in the kitchen just as she was leaving. I was hungry and fishing around in the fridge, and she was headed out the back door. Usually, Yui would just turn away from me, but yesterday was different. She stopped at the kitchen door and gave me a solid look, blinking like she was seeing something unusual. I acted like I didn't notice. After about ten seconds, she stopped looking at me and went to the back door, but she bowed her head like giving a passing greeting. ...You know how unusual all that is, don't you, Yocchan?

"Did Yui not say anything then?"
"Nope, not a word." Aya's expression clouded slightly. "Uh, maybe I'm just overthinking it, but... When a classmate of mine died, she was the same way."

"Classmate?", I repeated.

"If I had to put it one way or the other, we got along poorly. She seemed to hate me, and I didn't like being hated away at, so I hated her back. In about autumn of my second year of middle school, she suddenly stopped coming to school. Then about a month later, I got a call from her, and she did all the talking. I wanted to ask why she didn't come to school, but she didn't seem to want to be asked, so I didn't. Just before she hung up, she said an uncharacteristic "Thanks for today." And that's it."

"That's it?"

"A few hours after the call, she killed herself." Aya's voice kept a fixed tone. "They found her hung in the woods by the sea. No note or anything. A few days after that, I realized. "Ah, so that call was a sign." That "thanks" was like her last words."

I digested her words. "Miss Aya, do you think Yui is going to kill herself?"

Thinking about it logically, that didn't follow. Lately, it seemed like Hajikano was headed in a happier direction. Hadn't she been enjoying herself watching the Perseid Meteor Shower? Why did she want to commit suicide now of all times?

No, or maybe... I thought about it. Maybe Hajikano seemed happier because she'd already decided when she'd do it? Because she knew that she could leave this world in a few days, she could innocently enjoy the moment?

"I don't know." Aya shook her head. "There's just that possibility. I've put out a search request, but they don't seem to be taking it seriously. Our parents are out looking right now."

"Then we should search for Yui too," I suggested. "The more, the better. I'll call some friends too. Sorry, but can I borrow your phone?"

"Use it as you like." She turned and pointed to a phone in the hall. "But sorry, I'm not coming along."

I replied in a somewhat harsh tone. "This is no time to be stubborn, is it? I guarantee it, if you do nothing and Yui kills herself, you'll regret it. It might be days or years from now, but you'll come to lament your actions today. You don't hate your sister as much as you think."

"Of course I know that," Aya said, her voice also getting rough. "But I'm waiting for a call from her. So I can't leave this spot."
"Are you certain she's going to call here?"

"Nope. But going looking now is pointless. If she really wants to die, we can't stop her. She's a very clever girl, so she won't let anyone find her. She might have long since killed herself already. ...But if she still has doubts, don't you think she might call here like she called you, Yocchan? Thinking of it that way, my best option is to wait for that call here."

Aya and I glared at each other for a while. I hated to admit it, but it made sense. If Hajikano had no intention of being found, wouldn't our search for her only end in vain? Was it all we could do to wait for her determination to falter, and not miss the moment it tilted to our side?

But I had already let one such moment slip away. Chances were slim that we could wait for it to swing back. Which meant we had to take action.

I passed by Aya to the phone and first dialed Hinohara's house. After ten dial tones, Hinohara's brother answered. I asked if Hinohara was there, and he said he was out. When I asked if he knew where he was, he bluntly replied "Hell if I know!" and hung up. It was unlikely he went to set up the telescope in this weather, so I had no guesses either.

When I called Chigusa's house, she herself answered promptly.

"No time to explain details," I said first thing. "Hajikano's missing. Help me look for her."

"Err... This is Fukamachi, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Sorry to make you go out in the rain, but get ready to go quick."

"Did something happen to Hajikano?"
"I don't know. But her older sister says she has a bad feeling, and I agree with her. To tell the truth, just a month ago, I witnessed a suicide attempt by Hajikano. She might be trying it again."

I thought that explaining this much would get Chigusa to agree without another word.

But that wasn't the case.

She was silent, like time had stopped on the other end.

"What's wrong? Why aren't you saying anything?"

"Um, Fukamachi," Chigusa said calmly. "Please don't hate me for this. I'm about to say something slightly mean-spirited."
"There's no time to chat about..."

"Let us leave Hajikano be."

At first, I thought I misheard her. No, it's probably more like my brain refused to comprehend it.

Because the Chigusa I knew wouldn't say something like that.

"What did you say?", I asked, knowing there was no point in doing so.

Chigusa didn't answer that, and spoke monotonously. "Say, Fukamachi. Are you familiar with the option of relief the witch provides to the little mermaid after another woman marries the prince?"

"...What in the world are you talking about?"

"To kill the prince with a dagger. If she pierced the prince's heart and let the blood flow, her legs would revert to a tail, and she could once again live as a mermaid," Chigusa said to answer herself. Then she pressed further. "The bet you've taken. What becomes of the conditions if Hajikano, holder of the key, dies? Whether your love would come to fruition would become an eternal mystery, and perhaps the bet could not conclude. Would that not save your life?"

"Wait," I shouted to interrupt her. "Why do you know about the bet, Ogiue? I didn't tell anyone about it..."

Of course, there was no reply.

"Luckily, Hajikano wishes her own death. You only need to respect her conviction. No need to use the dagger yourself. In addition," she cleared her throat, "Fukamachi, do you believe the birthmark alone is the cause of Hajikano's despair?"

"...I don't suppose it has to do with what happened in those "blank four days"?"

"Exactly," Chigusa affirmed. "With her death, she'll atone for a certain sin."

"Look, Ogiue, listen to me," I pleaded. "I'm really interested in that too, and I've got lots of questions, like how you know all this stuff. But as we speak, Hajikano might be walking straight to her death. I have to go search for her."

"Is that so," Chigusa said with disappointment. "Well then, go ahead. I will be here praying that you don't find her."

The call ended. I had countless doubts, but I put them on hold and left Hajikano's house. Before anything else, I went to Masukawa Hotel and searched every nook and cranny, but I found no sign of Hajikano. I went on to try the shrine park, the woods, Minagisa First High, our old elementary school, Chakagawa Station, all the places she might have fond memories of. As time passed, the storm got stronger, and I got as soaked as the time I fell into the pool, my sneakers so muddy you couldn't tell their original color. Yet everywhere I looked, Hajikano wasn't there. As Aya said, if she really wanted to kill herself without anyone finding her, it was impossible to stop her.

No... Maybe if I had understood Hajikano better, I could have figured out her destination. But I didn't. In the end, I probably didn't understand half of what she was thinking.

I checked Masukawa Hotel one last time, but she just wasn't there. I returned to Hajikano's house around 2 AM. I hesitated to ring the doorbell, so I knocked lightly on the door. Aya quickly answered. Seeing my face, she shook her head.

"No call, either?"
"Yep," Aya nodded powerlessly. "And you?"
"I still haven't found her. I think I might try the appropriate places one more time."

"Enough. Aren't you exhausted?", she said pitifully. "Get some rest. You can use our shower. Take off those wet clothes. Borrow some from my father."

"Thank you very much. But, no thanks. They'll just get wet again anyway."

Aya grabbed my shoulders. "Listen, take a break for at least thirty minutes. Do you know what color your face looks like, Yocchan? You're like a walking corpse."

"I was born with it. I get that all the time."

Shaking away from Aya, I went back out into the rain.

I continued the search until dawn, but I never found Hajikano.

I headed home, passing by grade-schoolers headed to radio calisthenics. Once home, before even taking off my wet clothes, fully aware of the absurd hour, I called Chigusa's house. I wanted to know the rest of the conversation that got cut short. I had hundreds of questions. But there were only ten dial tones, and no answer. Was nobody up yet? Or had they already gone out?

I gave up and put down the receiver. I undressed, took a shower, and soaked in the warm bathtub for a long time. My head was empty. After getting out, I put on pajamas, ate the cold rice left in the rice cooker, carefully and time-consumingly brushed my teeth, and lied down on my futon. I thought I could never sleep in this dangling situation, but I lost consciousness in a blink and slept like a pile of bricks for five hours.


A sharp beam of light came through the curtains and woke me. In sharp contrast to yesterday, the weather was clear and pleasing. My head ached like I still needed three more hours of sleep, but I gave up and sat up from my futon. I felt like it had all been a bad dream, yet simultaneously knew it was reality. I went downstairs to the phone, called Hajikano's house, and Aya answered at the second dial tone.

"I was literally just about to call you," she said with surprise.
"Does that mean there was a development?"

"Yeah." Aya's voice sounded worn out. "...For now, the worst was avoided. Yui was found alive."

I sighed with relief and collapsed to the floor.

But Aya's phrasing wasn't entirely reassuring. Like she had good news and bad news, and had only told me the good news.

"The worst was avoided... but even so, something bad did happen. Is that right?"

"That's right," Aya affirmed. "Our bad premonition was right. At early dawn, Yui threw herself into the raging sea."

I let out a gasp. The sea. I'd completely overlooked it. Why didn't I search there? Maybe her first attempt had left such an impression on me, I was sure she would choose hanging again. And maybe the beach was too familiar a place to me.

"There's no way to describe it other than a miracle. It seems a lucky wave pushed her back to shore. She was found early in the morning by an old couple taking a walk on the coast. They called 119 right away, and the wife had lifeguard training, so she was able to provide aid before the ambulance arrived. Yui's only just regained consciousness, so she's in a state of deep confusion. But she can talk, so there didn't seem to be any serious brain damage. ...They just say we can't meet her for a while. Her family, that is, so it'd be even harder for you, Yocchan."

I listened to her with bated breath. I wasn't even sure how I should be feeling. Should I be glad Hajikano's okay, saddened about her suicide attempt, or grateful for the luck?

"What are you going to do now, Miss Aya?"

"I just talked with our parents about that. We decided once Yui's out of the hospital, she should go to her grandma's house to recuperate. She'd be able to live cut off from the outside world for a while."

"I see. ...That may be for the best."

Aya spoke to me comfortingly. "Hey, Yocchan, I think you did good. As harshly as your old friend Yui rejected you, it didn't get you down. In fact, you didn't try to force things along, but kept patiently persuading Yui from a reasonable distance. That took your relationship as far as her going out with you every night. Not only that, but you succeeded at getting Yui friends. Seeing it happen up close, I was convinced it was a task only you could do, Yocchan. In other words, no matter how hard anyone tried, it was impossible to cure her self-destructive desires. Maybe that's all there is to it."

"Thank you very much," I said, but then knew I had to append, "And I'm sorry."

"I told you, there's nothing to apologize for," Aya laughed haggardly.


Once the call was over, I called Chigusa without delay. I had to question her about her detailed knowledge of my bet.

A theory had formed in my head, perhaps while I was sleeping, about why information about the bet had reached Chigusa.

Chigusa Ogiue had experienced this bizarre bet.

Let's say the woman on the phone proposed a bet to more than just me. It could be just a few people, or it could be hundreds, but say there were others who she offered bets to, and Chigusa was one of them. And Chigusa was able to win - or perhaps not win, but by some means make it through the bet - and successfully survived. As a result, she noticed her classmate Yosuke Fukamachi was taking on a bet like she once had. Also, she knew a loophole in the bet.

Out of all the theories I could extract from the facts that had come to light, none seemed more plausible than this one. Of course, it was possible I was overlooking something serious. But even so, the theory that Chigusa had been through the bet had a unique sticking power.

"Hello?" Chigusa answered the phone. "Fukamachi, I assume?"

"Right. Hajikano was found. She jumped into the sea in the early hours. Luckily, she didn't die, but it'll be hard to meet with her for a while."

"I see," Chigusa said, and nothing more. She didn't seem to have any more thoughts on the matter. She was as calm as if she expected it to happen from the start.

"I want to carry on with our conversation from yesterday."

"Then come to my house, please. It could be a long one. And there is something I want to show you."
"Something to show me?"

"It would help to come as soon as possible. There does not seem to be much time left."

With that, Chigusa ended the call.

Not much time?

I twisted my neck. What was she talking about? Was what she wanted to show me something that would go away with time?

In any event, I obeyed and headed for her house.

Many things were approaching an end. There were dead cicadas lying on the road here and there. Ants swarmed on the dried corpses, and from a distance it looked like the ground itself was squirming.

Tsukutsuku-boushi had come to make up the majority of the cicada buzzing; the close of summer drew near. The hot days would surely continue for a while. But no more escalation than this. It was only downhill from here.

Entering the complex, hilly residential district, after a while, I reached Chigusa's house. Washing hung up on the second-floor veranda blew pleasantly in the wind.

Just as I stood at the door to ring the doorbell, I was called for from the garden.

"Over here."

I turned to the voice and stepped onto the neatly-cut lawn.

Chigusa was waiting for me there.

Seeing her there, sitting in a wheelchair, instantly melted a number of my doubts.

"Say, Fukamachi. I want to go to the beach," she said, tilting her head slightly.

There was a small white flower at her feet.

*

At the beginning of summer in third grade was the first time I experienced life in a hospital.

Then, too, it was my legs which were injured. While going down the hill to the shore on my bike, I wanted to see how far I could go without using the brakes. Just as I made it to the end of the hill and thought "Alright, I made it!", the front wheel hit a bump and my body was thrown through the air. Since I turned the handlebars just before, I avoided landing face-first, but my left knee hit the asphalt hard instead.

At the first hospital I visited, it was diagnosed as a bruise, but the pain was so great I couldn't walk or even bend my knee. At a separate hospital, they found it to be a broken kneecap that would take two months to heal. Since that was my first major injury, I remember my mother being more flustered than I was.

These days, I was able to even enjoy living in the hospital, but being in third grade and having never been hospitalized before, a single day spent lying in bed felt like an eternity. At first, I had no idea how to spend my time, and just went mad from boredom. It felt like time had been stopped for me. My three meals a day were my only stimulation and pleasure. There was lots of plain food - pickled food, syrupy boiled food, soup with weak flavor, fish with no fat meat. But occasionally there was food with condiments like sauce and ketchup, and that alone made me feel fulfilled for a few hours.

My dad bought me books from many fields to stave off my boredom. I had no habit of reading back then, and was the sort of kid who barely looked at any books, not even illustrated encyclopedias. But having nothing else to do, I had to read those books. Not thinking about if it was interesting or not, worthwhile or not, I just followed the words in front of me and stared at the photos and illustrations. Doing that, I gradually found no small amount of enjoyment there.

One book I read again and again was a book explaining magic tricks. Like the stuff you see on TV: getting the number right for a card pulled at random, making a coin vanish into a cup, making a wand levitate in midair. It explained in detail how all those tricks were set up and performed.

It was a complex and difficult subject, but the author, who was a magician, had an extremely smooth and easy-to-read style, and I read it like I was learning about the other side of the world. Thinking about it now, rather than the secrets to the magic tricks themselves, what I really enjoyed was probably the author's perspective on the psychological blind spots of the people who witnessed them. Most people's first experience as a reader is with novels or essays, but I learned the joy of reading from a book on magic tricks.

If my father had given me books on astronomy at the time, maybe I would have ended up as an astronomy fanatic like Hinohara? No, I got bored of magic tricks after a month or two, so maybe the same thing would have happened with astronomy. At any rate, making such theories was pointless. A life where Yosuke Fukamachi came to like stars and the life Yosuke Fukamachi had lived now were entirely separate things. Maybe he couldn't have loved Hajikano even then.


The room I stayed in had four other children in all. There were three boys and one girl. Their injuries were in different areas, but they were all serious ones.

The girl in the bed in front of me seemed to have broken a leg like me, as one of her legs was wrapped up in a cast. The thinness of her uninjured leg and the thickness of the multi-layered cast felt as unbalanced as a crab's pincers. I wasn't sure if she was depressed about being in the hospital or if she had a gloomy personality to begin with, but she always had a glum look. Of course, I've never seen a long-term patient in a hospital who was all smiles.

Once every three or four days, the girl's mother paid a visit. It wasn't all that infrequent. Yet every time, without exception, within ten minutes she'd say "Well, your mother's busy" and leave early, which only seemed to spur the girl's loneliness. When her mother came to visit, she set out to make the most of those ten minutes, complaining about her every dissatisfaction to get across the hardship of her hospitalization. Her mother, exhausted from work, let it pass through her ears with a fed-up expression, then left with the excuse of being busy. It was probably an undeniable fact that she was busy with work, but I had to wonder if it was better to just not visit at all at that point.

Once her mother left, the girl would bury herself in her pillow and sob. I got melancholy seeing the series of events unfold. Why couldn't things go any better than that? Why couldn't they be more honest? You don't want to quarrel either, do you? I loathed her clumsiness - but now, I think that irritation came from the awareness that I had the same sort of clumsiness.

I hated the crybaby girl, but she hated me too. She seemed annoyed by how my mother would visit frequently and stay for a while. Every time she came and replaced the flowers or doodled on my cast, the girl glared scornfully. After the visit ended and I was alone, she spent a long time glaring at me. Like saying "don't ever forget this glare."

Only someone who's been through it will really get it, but people in the hospital with broken legs taste all kinds of discomfort and misery. To take it to an extreme, they lose some of their dignity as people and are attacked by extraordinary powerlessness. Maybe she and I both kept our vitality by hating those nearby, so we could fight that powerlessness.


The girl and I formed a cease-fire a month after I entered the hospital. I was reading a book in bed like usual, and heard a festival band from the dark outside the window.

Holding my injured leg, I slowly stood up on the other leg to look out the window. Dozens of people were walking down the road in the same direction. Many had family along with them, but there were plenty of students in uniform who seemed to be coming home from school. There was no small number of kids about my age. And they were all laughing together.

While watching the people going down the street, I spotted a few of my classmates. I impulsively wanted to call out to them, but rethought it just before I did. Maybe having a conversation with them could temporarily soothe my loneliness. But the moment they saw me at a hospital window as they headed to a festival, it would shift the clear boundary between me and them - so I felt.

No, the boundary was already being pulled, I thought. I was just ignorant of its existence before now. There was already an unrecoverable distance between me and everyone at school. While I lied in bed and counted stains on the ceiling, they were spending irreplaceable time with friends, making many precious memories.

I alone felt like I'd been completely left behind by the world. Before I knew it, tears filled my eyes. I hurried to rub them before any spilled out. I sat on my bed, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited for my tear glands to settle down.

Suddenly, I heard a sobbing voice very close by. It didn't seem likely I had let out a sob without even realizing. I opened my eyes and saw the girl leaning from her bed to look out the window.

Her cheeks were wet with tears.

She must be feeling a similar lonesomeness as me, I realized.

I think I sought to console her then because I knew, in a roundabout way, it would give me consolation too. In essence... it's hard to soothe your own sorrow, but not so hard to soothe someone else with similar sorrows. And once you prove their similar sorrows can be soothed, it's simple to do it with your own.

I took a handkerchief from the bedside table, plucked a small white flower from the vase on the table, and folded it to a suitable length. Once prepared, I carefully stood up on one leg and called to the girl.

She hurried to wipe her tears and looked at me. I extended my palms to show her I wasn't holding anything. She stared, looked between my hands and face, and asked with a slight sob, "What is it?"

"What do you think?", I asked back, and loosened my face up to lower her guard. I'm sure it was a horribly awkward smile. "You'll see soon."

I put the handkerchief on my left hand, stroked it with my right, then pulled it away and offered the white flower that appeared to the girl. Her eyes widened and she blinked a few times. She timidly took the flower with both hands and inspected it from various angles. Once sure it was real rather than artificial, she lovingly put it in the small vase at her bedside. Then she turned back to me and smiled with a face swelled from tears.


Ever since then, once per day, I would perform a magic trick I'd practiced that day for the girl. After dinner was over, she'd beckon to me and politely put her hands on her knees, waiting for my show to begin. I'd walk over on one leg to her bed and sit in the chair there, then perform the trick I'd desperately practiced in secret all day as if I was very familiar with it. Regardless of the outcome of the trick, she gave a small round of applause.

Eventually, we came to converse without any magic tricks involved. It was mostly trivial stuff like the food being good, or how we didn't like the way the nurse wrapped bandages.

Just one time, the girl mentioned my birthmark.

"That bruise really doesn't want to heal, it seems."

"Oh, this?" I lightly touched where the birthmark was. "I've had this since I was born. It's not an injury."

"Born with it...", she said curiously, staring at it. "It doesn't hurt or itch or anything, does it?"
"Nah, not at all."
"Good." She smiled with relief.

And also... Just one time, she had a complaint.

"If you had to live your whole life in a wheelchair, what would you do?"

She asked me this as I was headed back to bed, after cleaning up from a magic trick.

I grabbed the windowsill and stopped, thinking about what she said.

"I don't know. I've never thought about it. Why do you ask?"

The girl hung her head and wore a hollow smile. "Because it seems I may have to."

"Did a doctor tell you that?"
"Yes. They said quite some time ago that the possibility wasn't zero. At the very least, they said, some nerve paralysis would remain."

I spent a while thinking about my reply.

"If it were me, I'd probably cry a ton. I'd keep crying for days and days, and take it out on my mom, the nurse, and you, and ask for selfish things. I think if I was gonna be unable to walk for life, I could be forgiven for that much."

The girl said "That's true," and nodded repeatedly. As if her agreement was deepening each time she nodded. Then she looked up with a sudden thought, grabbed my sleeve, and sat me on the bed. Slowly lifting up her cast-covered leg with both hands to re-adjust her position, she held me from behind, dug her face into my back, and cried.

I think even at the time, I had a gut understanding of what her "selfishness" was. So I didn't say anything and accepted it. She cried for a long time. Like she was getting out all the water in her body. I wasn't even ten and didn't know what words I should say to her, so I stayed silent. Even though I was sixteen now, I still couldn't tell you what words I should have said.


When I left the hospital, the girl said "I'll come meet you when my leg heals" and asked for my address and phone number. I wanted to ask the same of her, but figured I could ask her when she called me. And I'll have to learn a bunch of magic tricks by then, I also thought.

I was more optimistic in third grade than you'd ever believe looking at me now.

A month, two months went by after I left, and I heard no word from the girl. Half a year passed, and not a single call.

After a year went by, I came to realize I would probably never meet her again. She hadn't broken her promise. In other words, her leg never healed.

Gradually, I forgot about her. Her presence within me grew weaker by the day, reaching the point where I might think "Oh yeah, there was that girl" when passing in front of a large hospital. Soon even that was gone, I forgot her face and name, and the brief summer memories I spent with her were buried deep in my mind.

*

That hill to the beach I had ridden my bike down that day, I was now pushing a wheelchair down. The rusty guardrails along the path had vines curled around them in places. Thousands of cicadas buzzed from the thickets on either side, making it as noisy as the inside of a clockwork toy.

"Did you leave the hospital right after I did, Ogiue?", I asked.

"It couldn't be right after, I'm afraid," Chigusa said, looking straight ahead at the distant sea. "I returned to school nearly half a year after you left the hospital. By then, my classmates had completely forgotten about me. For children that age, half a year is plenty to forget about a girl's entire existence. Of course, I never did have much presence."

"But there wasn't that sort of "transfer student" interest either?"

"Indeed, not at all." Chigusa weakly smiled. "Once I was wheelchair-bound, my avenues for friendship were greatly limited. It wasn't quite that I was discriminated against for being handicapped. Luckily, Mitsuba Elementary School did have instructors familiar with that. ...However, even with little discrimination, the simple fact that I could not walk couldn't be changed. People's actions when they were with me were limited. I couldn't participate in any athletic play, and my wheelchair had to be carried every time there was the smallest step. The girls there did not hate me, but deeply hated the trouble that came along with interacting with me. At first, they found it curious and escorted me around, enthralled with the idea of looking after someone disabled. But given a week, the bother won out, and they came to blatantly avoid me. People naturally distanced themselves."

I could easily imagine that process. There was a girl in a wheelchair at my middle school, and while not hated, she was avoided. I remembered her always in the corner of class, desperately trying to keep up with a group of quiet girls in the culture club.

"Previously, I described myself in middle school as "could be liked by anyone, but could not be anyone's favorite." But that was a bald-faced lie. I told such lies wanting to be thought of as a normal person. The real me was not only not liked by anyone, but estranged no matter where I was. I thought a hundred times each day, "I'm someone who shouldn't be here." At such times, I often recalled days spent with a certain boy with a large birthmark on his face to soothe my heart. That was a symbol of happiness to me. It was my sole proof that one could have wonderful memories no matter how restricted one was. And... that is why I never contacted you, Fukamachi. If you also refused me, the sole thing I was holding onto would vanish. ...However, after entering Minagisa First High, I discovered that name on the class roster."

Chigusa twisted around to look at my face.

"Indeed, the name "Yosuke Fukamachi" was there. I would be lying to say I wasn't happy. It was like a dream to end up in the same high school classroom as my first love. But more than that, I feared reuniting with you. You would not necessarily accept me now as you did then. Even if we could return to a cordial relationship like before, I could not hope for any further development. Since to a boy of sixteen, a girl in a wheelchair is in many ways inconvenient as a lover."

She turned forward again and stroked her legs with her hand.

"If only I could move these legs, I thought. I didn't have to be able to run around freely; just to walk alongside others. I wanted to have an average love of my own. ...Three months later, at school and after class, I heard a public phone ring. It was exactly fifty days ago."

At the end of the downward slope, the thickets on the side came to an end, and the sea glittering in the sunlight appeared. Seagulls loitering around the breakwater hurriedly flew away when they saw us coming.

"The only ones surprised I could suddenly walk were the doctor and my family. All others had a reaction such as "Ah, your injury finally healed." Though a lifelong worry to the one affected, apparently that's how it seems to others. ...And upon meeting with you after ten years, it seemed you had completely forgotten me. Of course, I could have reminded you by only saying "the girl you were with in the hospital," but I decided against it. I thought we might as well start from scratch. Forgetting my miserable past self, and living as an average girl."

Once at the edge of the breakwater, we silently listened to the waves for a while. Past the sea, there were thick clouds seeming to touch the top of the sky.

"Say, Fukamachi," Chigusa spoke. "If the girl sitting next to you that day were in a wheelchair, do you think you wouldn't have been this friendly?"

"Nah," I shook my head. "Instead of walking along with you, I'd be pushing your wheelchair like today. That'd be the only difference."

Chigusa smiled happily.

"...Perhaps I shouldn't have gone along with any bet, and it would have sufficed to simply say "I'm the girl from the hospital room.""
"Maybe," I nodded.

"But if I had, I wouldn't have gotten to run around town with you, and sneak into the pool, so perhaps it was the right choice." She put her arms together and stretched. "...But I wish I could have shown up to the festival. I did practice reading with you, even."

Remembering something, Chigusa dug into her pocket and handed me a letter.

"I've written what you want to know here. Read it later."

I thanked her and put the letter in my pocket.

After that, we talked at length about all that had happened this summer. Chigusa walking me up as I slept in my first day in class. Her guiding me around the school. Having Chigusa eat cup ramen when she said she'd never had it in her life. The various bad deeds we did to make her a bad person. Swimming nude in the pool. Sneaking out of the house at night, and the four of us seeing innumerable comets together.

Once we were out of things to say, Chigusa suddenly looked to the sky and pointed straight above. "Fukamachi, look."

A white jet stream drew a line in the sky.

We watched it in fascination for a long time.


When I looked back, Chigusa was gone.

Only a wheelchair without its owner was left behind.

I looked at my feet. White froth from the waves floated on the water.

I sat on the edge of the breakwater, and watched intently as the froth soundlessly dissolved into the sea.

I'll soon go the same way as her, I thought.



[+]

Chapter 9: Someone Else's Name

The next day, Hinohara visited my house. He rang the doorbell several times with ten-second gaps, and while I did hear the sound of it, I had trouble hearing it as the doorbell, so it took me a while to notice my guest.

I slowly rose from bed, left my dark closed-curtains room, and went down the stairs while the light dazed me. I knew from his way of ringing the doorbell that my guest was Hinohara. It wasn't uncommon for him to visit me in person without notice. Perhaps he'd quickly noticed what had happened to Hajikano, or Chigusa, or maybe both.

I opened the door and Hinohara drew close to me. Unusual for him, his face was full of concern and haste.

"How much do you know?", he asked me.

"It'd be probably faster if you started." I went past him and sat on the front steps outside. "How much do you know?"

Hinohara glared at me for a while like he wanted to say something, but eventually his shoulders drooped and he sat beside me.

"I got a call from Chigusa at noon yesterday." He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it restlessly. "We'd traded numbers, but it was the first time she called me. I was surprised, and asked "What's wrong?" Then Chigusa said, "Are you listening, Hinohara? Listen closely to what I'm about to say." I didn't know what that was about, but I said sure."

Noon must have been before I arrived at Chigusa's house. So she'd not only left me a letter, but left a message with Hinohara in the form of a phone call.

Hinohara continued. "It was short, but I couldn't parse it at all. "A number of strange things may happen from here on. But please, do not blame anyone," Chigusa said. "Is that it?", I asked. "That's it," she said. Right after that, she hung up. It was curious, alright, but the weather was good for stargazing yesterday, so I figured I could ask her in person later."

"Strange things...", I repeated. "Ogiue said that?"

"Yeah, that was it, word for word. And last night, I was the only one at the hotel. Was that the "strange thing" Chigusa was talking about?, I wondered. But that didn't seem right to me. I felt like Chigusa would've described an occurrence like this some other way, not "a strange thing." So I considered, maybe the other three not showing up was just an influence of "strange things" that had already gone down?"

"So you called Ogiue."

"Yeah. I called her house right at noon today, but nobody answered. I was getting a bad feeling, so I kept calling with some time between each call. In the evening, somebody finally picked up. Seemed to be Chigusa's mother. I asked if she was there, and got an incoherent reply. Like she was really bewildered. I immediately sensed something real bad had happened. I told her I was a close friend of Chigusa's, and all of a sudden she cried like a dam burst. And she told me Chigusa drowned this morning."

"Drowned?", I repeated instinctively. Chigusa had surely turned to seafoam and vanished with me right there. But to know the cause of death for sure, they must have found her body. "Where did they...?"

"She washed up on the coast in a neighboring town. They called an ambulance right away, but it was already too late. Chigusa's mom had to go through some formalities for her daughter dying in an accident, and I guess she was getting the necessary stuff when I called. I was so shocked, I couldn't even give condolences. Chigusa was dead? It was a little hard to believe. But at the same time, I knew deep down... so this was the "strange thing.""

Once Hinohara finished his first cigarette, he promptly lit up another. Like he was trying to cover up his emotions with smoke.

"I had to think Chigusa knew about her coming death. Which led to the possibility her death wasn't an accident, but a suicide. But I couldn't think of any reason why Chigusa would have to die. Sure, there was no hope for the love she had, it wasn't going to be repaid, but she wasn't a girl who would kill herself over that. All of a sudden, it occurred to me you might know something, so I called, but you weren't at home. So next, I called Hajikano's house."

As soon as he uttered the name Hajikano, his mostly-level tone began to waver. More than being sad, it seemed he was incredibly angry about something.

"Hajikano's mother answered the phone. I asked if Hajikano was there, and again got a vague, inarticulate answer. Like with Chigusa, I told her I was a close friend of Hajikano's, but her mom was deeply cautious. After a long line of questioning, the phone suddenly got handed to a young woman. I think it was Hajikano's older sister. She asked me some questions to make sure I really was a friend. Once she knew I wasn't lying, she apologized for doubting me, then explained what happened to Hajikano."

Hinohara stopped there, seeming to observe my reaction.

"It was a different time and different place, but Hajikano had a drowning incident similar to Chigusa's," I said in his place. "Right?"

"What the hell is happening?" Hinohara dropped his cigarette underfoot and squished it against the ground. "You know something, don't you?"

"No, I don't have any more info than that."
"But you at least have some ideas?"

"I don't know." I shook my head. "Listen, Hinohara. I'm sorry, but give me some time alone. I still haven't accepted everything, and I need to sort things out. If I come up with anything, I'll contact you. So can you leave for now?"

Hinohara watched carefully for slight changes in my expression, trying to probe into me. And perhaps seeing that there was what looked like real sadness there, he gave a resigned sigh.

"I'll do what I can to look into the cause of the two accidents. I'll keep digging until I find an answer I'm satisfied with. And if I find out Chigusa's death wasn't an accident, but somebody else's doing, I'm gonna find the culprit and beat them to a pulp. I'm willing to put them through the same as Chigusa, depending."

Hinohara stood up and kicked the cigarette butt into the gutter.

"Call me if you change your mind. See you."
"Right, got it."

After Hinohara left, I went back to my room and lied on my futon. Being told the official truth about Chigusa's death, I felt a sense of loss like somebody'd secretly shaved away a portion of my body.

I told Hinohara "I don't have any more info than that." Obviously, that was a lie. I at least knew in detail the reality of Chigusa's death. More than that, depending on your point of view, I essentially killed her.

And in the letter Chigusa left me with, there was information about the "sin" Hajikano was trying to atone for. What happened in those blank four days. Chigusa looked into it herself for me, and arrived at what she thought to be the truth.

"I suppose I should have told you all this earlier, Fukamachi," she wrote. "But I was afraid of being seen as a disagreeable girl trying to eliminate her competition, so I kept silent. I'm sorry."

When I read that, I felt I had a gut understanding of why Hajikano had to kill herself at this particular time.

Perhaps Hajikano enjoyed those stargazing days more than anyone.

And that's why she felt she couldn't be the only one to keep on living.

*

I stood at the bathroom mirror, uncapped the marker, and marked under my eye. Even looking at it closely in the mirror, the black spot fit very naturally on my skin. A stranger would surely think it was a real crying mole.

Two days had passed since Hinohara visited my house. In that time, I'd stayed up in my room with the curtains closed, questioning myself about this and that. Should I have not led Hajikano out of her room? Was it my meddling which led Hajikano to attempt suicide again? Was there really no way to save Chigusa? If I had given up on Hajikano sooner, could I at least save Chigusa's life? Was it none other than me who led things to this worst conclusion?... Once I got thinking, I couldn't stop. I felt like everything I had done completely missed the mark.

Lying in my futon and staring at the ceiling all day, I gained an understanding of why Hajikano stayed in her dim room. Once you're caught in a vortex of regret, your mind becomes dominated with the powerlessness of thinking anything you do will only worsen the situation, and even leaving your room becomes an ordeal. And sometimes, a vague longing for death comes upon you. Like being under some kind of curse.

The cicadas were still ever-present outside the window, but had lessened compared to a week ago. The setting of the sun somehow seemed to have gotten much faster, too. Hot days were hot days, but I'd never experienced such unbearably hot days as the last ten or so.

Which would come first: the end of summer, or my death? If possible, I wanted to leave this world before summer ended. Before the cumulonimbus clouds departed, before the cicadas went away, before the sunflowers wilted. The most lonely thing was always being the last to leave.


The morning of the 20th, I got a call. I had started to find even eating troublesome, but the instant I heard the phone ring, my body moved naturally. I guess my body still hadn't forgotten the joy of when I was on the line with Hajikano.

The caller was Hinohara.

"I've been running around everywhere for four days," he said. "But thanks to that, I've got a general idea of things."

"A general idea?", I repeated, thinking there was surely no way he'd figured out everything, down to the bets with the woman on the phone, in just four days.

"Yeah. I mostly get why the two of them fell into the sea. I went fishing around in Chigusa and Hajikano's history."
"What? How?"

"First, Chigusa," he continued, ignoring my question. "There was nothing clearly amiss in her history. She never had disputes with others, and seemed to live a calm life. The one exception was that from elementary school up to very recently, she was in a wheelchair. She damaged her vertebrae in an accident and couldn't stand for long periods, but recently was finally able to walk again."

"Well," I prodded, "what about Hajikano?"

"Just the opposite," he said like reading bad news. "I went around asking former classmates of Hajikano's, and they all told me the same thing. "She wasn't always like that." "She was honest, cheerful, liked by everyone." It seems most attributed that change to the birthmark that appeared on her face in winter, second year of middle school. Her personality gradually changed after that, and she was like a different person half a year later. That was the general consensus. ...But some had different ideas. In summer of her third year, Hajikano had a four-day absence from school without any warning. And those four days marked when honest, cheerful, liked-by-all Hajikano turned into the silent and gloomy girl of today... That was their view."

Through the phone, I heard him sitting down on a sofa.

"Logically, the former is more reasonable. People's personalities don't change in four or five days. But for some reason, I felt like those blank four days were the key to answering my doubts. ...To get to the point, my hunch was right. Hajikano was absent just before summer break started, around July 12th. I went checking up on what happened to Hajikano within that timeframe. Expanding my scope from her class, to her year, to her whole school, I came upon a curious incident. It happened in a neighboring town, on the second day of those four blank days. On that day, the charred corpses of two middle school girls were found in some ruins in the mountains. The news said it was suicide, with a definite note left behind."

Struck with admiration for his detective skills, I spoke. "I remember that. It made the news, even got mentioned at a school assembly."

"Yeah, it was a well-known incident around here. But at the time, I couldn't see any common points between the two dead girls and Hajikano. But I had an unusual conviction. It was absolutely no coincidence that their deaths and Hajikano's blank four days overlapped. As I kept digging, sure enough, I found the thread connecting them to Hajikano. The three of them were in the same class for one year in elementary school. ...Now, here's where I made a slightly crazy leap. What if the gruesome suicide by fire in the ruins wasn't planned for two people, but for three? What if there was meant to be three charred corpses instead of two, but one of them ran away?"

I had no words.

...Had Hinohara really gotten this far in just four days?

He went on. "It was an interesting theory, but too much of a leap of logic. I didn't have a shred of proof. If I knew what the suicide note said, the truth would be clear, but unfortunately I don't have those kinds of connections. Just as I was giving up, I got a call from a friend who heard I was questioning Mitsuba Middle School students. Turned out he knew a teacher at the school. He told me I could meet him anytime if I was interested.

"So the next day, I went to meet that teacher, and told him my ridiculous theory with deadly seriousness. I thought he'd deny it out of the gate. But once I was done, the teacher put his fingers to his brow and rubbed it, then said this. "You won't hear anything from me, but it wouldn't be strange if that happened." ...Don't you think that's odd? Shouldn't you normally imply denial after you say "you won't hear anything from me"?"

"There's nothing odd about it," I said. "In short, you're saying your idea was right?"

Hearing my stifled laugh, Hinohara got annoyed. "What's so funny?"

"No, I'm not laughing at you, Hinohara. It's just too funny that you arrived at a truth I couldn't reach after a month in just four days."

Hinohara gulped. "I knew it. You knew all this?"

"Yeah. Though I only knew the reason for Hajikano's suicide after she jumped into the sea, so it was all too late anyway."

What Hinohara was telling me was largely the same as what Chigusa wrote in her letter. Their approach to the mystery and thought processes had some overlap, and their conclusion was exactly the same. The two separate lines of logic filled in each other's holes, and it seemed there was no more room for doubt: Hajikano was involved in the suicide of those two middle school girls from the neighboring town.

I stopped laughing and collected my breath. "Hey, Hinohara. I don't know when, but I'll be able to meet Hajikano in the hospital soon. When that happens, will you come with me? She's fond of you."

"Sorry, but I can't do that," he coldly refused. "I'm still not certain about the connection between Chigusa's illogical death and Hajikano's suicide attempt. But there's one thing I can say. For some reason, whenever Hajikano tries to die, she doesn't, but people around her do. ...Or maybe my theory that Hajikano led Chigusa to suicide is wrong. And the cause behind her death is somewhere completely different, and I'm over here just making up conspiracies. But at any rate, three people who were deeply connected to Hajikano are dead. That's an undeniable fact."

He paused a few seconds, like giving his words time to sink in.

"I want absolutely no involvement with her anymore. You better watch it too, Fukamachi. Or else you might just be number four. ...And now that Chigusa's gone, I have no reason left to go to that rooftop. Our stargazing days are over. Goodbye."

The call ended.

I put down the receiver, returned to my dark room, and lied down on the futon once more. I spotted the telescope case lying in the corner of the room. The day we saw the Perseid Meteor Shower, Hinohara said "I completely forgot a telescope would only get in the way," and had me keep it at my place. Though for a time he didn't even let me touch the telescope, lately he could tell how passionately I was studying stargazing, to the point that he'd even let me hold onto it.

The telescope I had done everything to get for Hajikano's sake. Now I got fed up even looking at it. It was a symbol of my failure, a symbol of defeat. These past few days, I had tried to avoid even letting the telescope enter my sight, but I felt its presence in the corner even if I wasn't looking directly at it. I should really return it to Hinohara already, I thought.

I lifted my heavy body, picked up the case containing the lens tube and tripod, and left the house. The sun was still shining, but its rays felt weak; none of that scorching, skin-burning sensation. The road was dirty with mud dropped by a tractor. Maybe from a barbecue, the lukewarm smell of burning sausage was carried on the wind.

As I tightly re-gripped the telescope case so as not to drop it and started walking, a familiar blue car stopped in front of my house. Masafumi appeared from the driver's seat. From what I could tell, it wasn't like he just happened to see me and stopped the car.

"Aya's calling for you," Masafumi said, and pointed to the passenger seat. "Get in."

I nodded and got in the car.

*

"Just to let you know, it'd be a waste of time asking me the situation."

Masafumi picked out a cigarette butt with relatively more leaf left from a tray packed with them like sunflower seeds, put it in his mouth, and lit it with a cigarette lighter. Then his face scrunched up like it was disgusting, and he breathed out the smoke.

"Aya just asked me to come get you, so I have not a clue about any details. She's waiting at the hospital, so ask her anything there you want to ask there. All I was told is that her sister is in the hospital, and she's open for visiting as of today."

"In other words, Aya wants me to meet with Hajikano - er, her sister?", I asked half-believing.

"I told you, I dunno," Masafumi said unhappily with the cigarette still in his mouth. "Maybe Aya just has to stay near the hospital, y'know?"

I nodded. He was right. The possibility existed that Aya just wanted to talk to me, but had to look after Hajikano at the hospital, so she asked Masafumi to bring me to her.

After the top of a narrow, winding hill was a tiny local hospital surrounded by thick forest. Masafumi dropped me off at the rotary, said "I've got tons to do back at the lab, so find your own way home," and drove off in a hurry. I looked around for Aya, but didn't spot her. Figuring it was safer to wait here rather than run around searching, I sat on the planter in front with the telescope case on my lap and waited.

A large river ran in front of the hospital. The riverbed was covered with plants as tall as people, and it wasn't clear how much was ground and how much was river. The thick vegetation even spread deep into the side of the road on the bank, and it really didn't seem to be in any state for people to walk on. Past the river, I could see dense green mountains, and a few steel towers rose from the foot of the mountains up to the middle. While waiting for Aya, I gazed absentmindedly at the peaceful scenery without any particular focus.

After some time, Aya appeared from the front entrance. She had a worn T-shirt and a denim skirt with frayed edges. Her makeup was messy, as was her hair, and she looked like she'd aged three years since we last met.

"Sorry to call you all of a sudden." Aya gave me an exhausted smile. "I'll have to give Masafumi some compensation later too. ...Well, let's go."

"Hold on a moment," I hurriedly stopped her. "Are you taking me to meet Yui?"

"Well, obviously. Or is there someone else in the hospital you know?"

"Nothing like that. But I felt that me meeting Yui right now would have an adverse effect. Have you told her that I'm coming?"

"I haven't. But relax, it's fine." She smiled at me, but her eyes were hollow. "Yui seems more peaceful than she's been in years. Just -"

Her words cut off there as she seemed to reconsider something.

"...No, you should meet her in person instead of me explaining it."

Going through the door, the unique hospital air of disinfectant and patient odor enveloped me. The fluorescent lights in the halls emitted a pale blue light, making the already-glum hospital interior even more uncomfortable. The linoleum floor was stained in places, and the old sofa in front of the reception desk was unspeakably shabby, showing signs of many repairs.

After receiving visitor passes at the front desk, Aya took me to the elevator and we went up to the fourth floor. Aya stopped in front of a room with the door left open and wordlessly pointed inside. I couldn't see in from where I was standing, but the entrance had a plate with "Yui Hajikano" on it. There was space for three other plates, but they were all empty. So it was a four-person room, but only Hajikano was occupying it now.

I put my hand on my chest, took a deep breath, looked at the plate with Hajikano's name again, and stepped resolutely into the hospital room.

There were beds in the four corners of the cramped room, and Hajikano was in the back-right bed from the door. She wore a pale blue gown and was absorbed in what looked like a thick notebook, so she didn't seem to notice me there. What was she reading so passionately? I quietly walked over and peered at what was in her hands. I couldn't tell the contents, but I saw there were many short handwritten sentences.

Just then, Hajikano finally noticed my presence. She shook, quickly closed the notebook, and put it at her bedside as if to hide it from my sight.

When she made eye contact with me, she shyly bowed her head.

I felt an indescribable unease from that reaction.

"Hajikano." The voice I barely managed to squeeze out my throat felt like it wasn't my own. "Could you -"

"U-Um, sorry," Hajikano interrupted. "Before you talk, there's something I need to make sure of..."

She lowered her head and cowered pitifully, then slowly breathed in and spoke like she'd been thinking hard.

"What is your name?"

The color left my vision, and my ears rang so loud, it was as if they directly shook my consciousness.


As I stood there at a loss for words, Hajikano innocently spoke.

"...The place I'm in is a hospital room. What I'm sleeping in is a bed. Outside the window are keyaki trees, and the season is summer. I haven't lost any knowledge of that sort. As you can tell, I can clearly speak, too. But when I look in the mirror, I don't feel like I'm seeing myself in it. It's like I'm looking at an older relative."

It was clear to anyone that these were signs of memory loss - more specifically, retrograde amnesia. Perhaps it was an escape reflex from her mental wounds. Or maybe memory damage from a lack of oxygen. But all that didn't matter.

My concern wasn't the cause of the memory loss, but the future it would bring about.

"So I don't know who you are, and what kind of relationship I had with you. I'm sorry to tell you this after you came and visited."

I knew very well that it was imprudent to be delighted about it.

But, potentially.

Maybe if her memory loss wasn't very temporary, and lasted for some time.

Could Yosuke Fukamachi get to start over with Yui Hajikano?

But those hopes were crushed by Hajikano's next words.

"Luckily, however, before I lost my memory, it seemed I wrote a diary every single day. It was in the luggage my sister brought me. That said, it's a very simple diary, really not much more than a list of events. ...Ah, and so I should mention, you don't need to hide the fact that my fall into the sea was a suicide attempt and not an accident."

Hajikano gave me a worry-free smile.

I looked to the notebook on her bedside. Thinking about it, I did recall that notebook. That day I entered Hajikano's room with Aya's forceful aid, it was open on the desk. Maybe she was writing in it right up until I arrived.

The fact that Hajikano kept a daily diary was surprising, at least to me. I thought she had long since lost interest in her own life. Does someone who's planning to commit suicide soon write in a diary every day? Or maybe she kept a diary because she was going to commit suicide?

Hajikano noticed my gaze and shifted to block the path between me and the notebook.

"I've still only read the entries for the past few days, but it seems Yui Hajikano had a strong desire to kill herself. I still haven't found any part explaining the cause of it, but she must have been troubled by this birthmark. Was memory loss the best escape from her desire to die? How miserable."

She lifted her head, which had been lowered the whole time, and peered into my eyes from under her hair. "Er, so, I'd like to ask your name soon..."

"Don't you already have a guess?", I dodged, wanting to delay judgement by just a little more. "You read your diary, right?"

"Yes, as far as I've read, it seems the people who would come visit me are rather limited, so I do have a guess. I'm just not sure."

Then suddenly, her eyes stopped on something hanging down from my hand.

"...Is that..."

Hajikano pointed at the telescope case.


"Are you perhaps Yuuya Hinohara?"


After a long hesitation, I slowly nodded.

The smile Hajikano gave me was a special kind, which she'd never given me before.

Ahh. This is how she smiles in front of Hinohara, I thought.

*

After the long meeting was over and I left the room, Aya, who was seemingly sitting outside the whole time, stood up laboriously.

"Well done, Yocchan. Or should I say, Yuu-chan?"

I drew a deep sigh. "You heard everything?"

"I haven't seen Yui enjoy herself so much in forever. What a clever idea, Yuuya Hinohara."

We took the elevator down to the first floor, gave back our passes, and went outside. The sounds of higurashi and crows came from the trees around the hospital and overlapped each other. I checked the time table at the bus stop; it was twenty minutes until the next bus.

"...What should I do?", I asked Aya. "I can't possibly keep calling myself Yuuya Hinohara."

"I want to confirm some things," Aya said. "Is Yuuya Hinohara the guy who called me the other day, digging up this and that about Yui?"
"That's right."

"Judging from earlier, Yui seemed attached to him."
"Yes. Before she lost her memory, Hinohara was the only one she had affection toward."

"Only? Doesn't she like you, Yocchan?"
"She doesn't hate me, that's all. But Hinohara was not only not hated, but actually liked."

"Hmm." Aya nodded vaguely. "So, why hasn't Yuuya Hinohara made any contact since that call?"

I gave it some thought, then spoke. "Miss Aya, you were aware Yui and I were going to the rooftop of the ruined hotel to stargaze every night, yes?"

"Yeah. And Yuuya Hinohara was one of the people there, right?"

"Exactly. And there was another member of our stargazing group, a girl named Chigusa Ogiue. The day after Yui's attempted suicide, she fell into the sea and died as if following after her. And Hinohara feels that Yui is responsible for Ogiue's death."

"Wait, what do you mean?" Aya twisted her neck. "Why would this Ogiue jump into the sea because Yui did?"

"While this is only within the realm of possibility...", I prefaced, then explained. "Last summer, there was an incident where two middle school girls in a neighboring town were found to have burned themselves to death. Hinohara suspects Yui's involvement in this incident. This is because, at just the same time, Yui was absent from school for four days straight without warning. And a number of her classmates say her personality changed drastically after those four days."

Aya pondered. "...In other words, Yui was the sole survivor of a group suicide, then went on to get Ogiue involved in something similar?"

I nodded with admiration. Her head worked fast, like only a sister of Hajikano's could.

"Of course, this is only something Hinohara thought up. I'm convinced that Yui's suicide attempt and Ogiue's death aren't directly related."

"I see." Aya closed her eyes in thought. "At any rate, this Hinohara guy decided to abandon Yui? So he's not going to visit."

"I believe you could reasonably assume that."

"And yet Yui doesn't know that. She still doesn't realize she's been abandoned by the one man she trusted in. After all, a man calling himself Yuuya Hinohara showed up."

My shoulders drooped. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told such a lie."

"Really? I thought it was a good idea, myself."
"Are you being serious?"

"Of course. Or do you intend on going back to that room right now and saying, "Sorry, all that was a lie. I'm not Yuuya Hinohara, I'm Yosuke Fukamachi. Also, the real Yuuya Hinohara never wants to see you again"?" Aya laughed it up. "It's fine. Yui seems really happy, and it's advantageous for you, right, Yocchan? On the off chance you're found out, if you offer a good explanation, well, maybe she won't forgive you, but I think she'll at least accept it."

"I wonder about that." I tilted my head. "Why did you have to give Yui the diary in the first place, Miss Aya? What merit is there to giving back her memories? Didn't you consider that leaving her having forgotten everything would be happiest for her?"

"Yeah, maybe you're right, Yocchan," Aya admitted. "But I just wanted her to look back on her life from an objective standpoint. To look at herself like a third party and see what stupid ideas she was possessed by. 'Cause that's something she can only do now, right?"

The bus arrived. I bowed my head to Aya and got on the steps.

"You'll come visit again tomorrow, won't you?", she asked from behind.

I turned back. "What point is there in me visiting?"

"Um, Yocchan," Aya said forcefully to be heard over the sound of the engine. "I didn't call you here because I wanted someone to console Yui. Unfortunately, I'm not that good a sister. I just want to know how far one boy's fairytale-y love can go in a heavy situation like this. I just want to see where that ends up."

The driver warned me to hurry up since the door was closing. I went up the steps and sat in the nearest seat, and the bus departed right after.

I leaned back in the seat, closed my eyes, and looked back on every bit of the conversation we had. And I quietly became convinced that I would visit the hospital room again tomorrow. It was a hard invitation to resist. Even if I was fooling Hajikano, even if I was using a friend, I felt it would let me have a close relationship with her again like four years ago. Everything else became unimportant. Ultimately, just like Chigusa said, my true nature was that of a bad person.

The sun was setting as the bus arrived at my stop. While walking down the shopping district, I heard a phone ring like it had some distant day. It had been quite a while since I heard it. When was the last time I received a call from that woman? I think it was the second day of summer break, when she used The Little Mermaid as an example to explain the penalty for losing the bet.

"This is your first time using such means," the woman said with surprise as I put the receiver to my ear. "I did not expect you assuming another person's name to approach Hajikano. ...Not exactly fair, is it?"

"I don't want to be lectured on fairness after you offered bets to me and Ogiue at the same time," I replied. "No matter how things went down, one of us had to lose their bet, right?"

"If you did not want Ogiue to die, you should have loved her. You are the one who abandoned her," the woman on the phone said, as if all responsibility lay on me. "Now... Fukamachi. I should warn you. Right now, to Hajikano, you are not Yosuke Fukamachi, but Yuuya Hinohara. Say your relationship advances, and there is a mutual love between you. Even so, who she would be loving is Yuuya Hinohara, looking like you and talking like you. I cannot recognize that as winning the bet."

"Oh, I'm aware. I'm not pretending to be Hinohara because I want to win the bet. I'm just doing it because I want to."

The woman spoke after some silence. "Is that a declaration that you do not care if you lose the bet?"

"Not necessarily. Of course I'm afraid to die. But for now, I'm happy to see Hajikano smile up close. To meet my end while I'm being distracted by that... surprisingly, it doesn't sound so bad," I said, then laughed to myself. "Well, I guess you wouldn't get it."

"Is that right," the woman bluntly replied, but I felt her voice was a little more irritated than usual. "In any event, what you have done is in clear violation of the rules. As such, you will receive an appropriate penalty."
"Penalty?"

"Henceforth, you are forbidden from revealing your true identity in front of Hajikano," the woman informed me. "Since you have named yourself as Yuuya Hinohara, I will have you enforce it to the end."

"Aha. Selectively taking my voice when I give my name. That makes things very Little Mermaid-esque," I said distantly. "And it makes victory pretty desperate, huh?"

"For your information, you are the one who broke the rules," the woman coldly remarked. "Well then, I look forward to August 31st, Yosuke Fukamachi wearing Yuuya Hinohara's skin."

I heard the call end. I put the receiver back and resumed walking down the shopping district.

And so I came to spend the remaining eleven days of summer break as Yuuya Hinohara.



[+]

Chapter 10: Don't Lose Sight of Me

Back when Hajikano and I went home from school together, there were goldfish in the entryway of her house.

They were little wakin goldfish, which Hajikano won from a scooping game. The bowl was the size of a smallish watermelon, and the water was faintly blue, which made the green of the plants and the red of the goldfish show up better.

At the time, I wasn't allowed to go into Hajikano's house, but I remembered the contrast of those three colors with strange clarity. Maybe when Hajikano opened the door, I was embarrassed to look her in the eye, so my gaze always fled to the fishbowl in the back.

The three fish that were there in summer dwindled down to one fish by winter. As for the last one, he (or she) died just before a year had passed since my first visit to the house. That was pretty good for goldfish you won in a game, I thought. She must have cared for them well.

For whatever reason, Hajikano's parents kept the empty fishbowl there. True, even without any fish in it, it was plenty beautiful in its own way; the light from the window hitting the bowl producing a blue shadow, the coontail slowly swaying in the water. But with the knowledge of the time when the goldfish were there, seeing the bowl lacking its red always put me in a melancholy mood.

Ever since, whenever there was something lonely or empty, that comparison came to mind. "Just like a fishbowl that's lost its goldfish."

*

The next morning, I took the bus from the station to Minagisa Central Hospital. I pondered it briefly, but decided not to buy flowers. In my experience, there was no visiting gift quite as "what do I do with this?" as flowers.

The bus was full of old people, and I was the only young one. For a bus headed to a hospital, I found it odd how there were no passengers who seemed in poor health. But I doubted they were all visitors like me. In a book I read once, there was a scene where an old man is asked, "How are you feeling?", and he jokingly replies, "If I were a little better, I might have to call a doctor." Maybe it was something along those lines. The people riding this bus were those with the stamina left to get to the hospital themselves.

Once at the hospital, I didn't go straight to the reception desk, but instead the smoking area on the outskirts of the parking lot. It was a prefab building with a glass sliding door which seemed to have been around for a long time, and the ceiling was yellowed as if painted with nicotine. After checking there was no one else there, I smoked two cigarettes, then slowly went around the hospital perimeter to calm myself. Once I got my visitor pass from the front desk, I took a deep breath and went up the elevator.

When I arrived in her hospital room, Hajikano was stooped over at the side of the bed, sorting her bag. She wasn't in a hospital gown today, but rather a linen blouse and a neat light-lilac skirt. "Hajikano," I called, and she swiftly turned around. "Hinohara." Her eyes twinkled as she stood up. Yes, I couldn't forget. Here, I was Yuuya Hinohara.

"So, you came again today."

Hajikano bowed her head. It was an unimaginable response from her prior to losing her memory. Like Hajikano from just after she got to know me.

"Yeah. How are you feeling?"

"Very healthy." She sat on the bed and smiled at me. "It's good you came in the morning. If you came at noon, we might have passed each other by."

"Passed by? Are you being let out already?"
"Yes. Just this morning, I was given permission to leave."

Weird, I thought. I'd once read a collection of notes from people who attempted suicide, and according to that, some whose suicides failed were kept in isolation wards for weeks or months in the name of recuperation. Those who were likely to make another attempt had to be temporarily restrained.

Judging from the soft treatment here, I had to imagine Hajikano's fall into the sea was being treated as an accident resulting from lack of attention. After all, she was extremely calm now, and maybe it was judged better to call it an accident than brand a sixteen-year-old as a suicide attempter. Or maybe they really did think it was an accident?

Hajikano looked up at the clock. "My father will come pick me up in about an hour. Would you be all right riding home with me?"

I wasn't really in favor of meeting with her father, but not wanting to refuse her good will, I nodded my head. "Thanks. I'll do that."

I took a folding chair leaning against the wall, set it up by the bed, and sat down. Hajikano clapped as she remembered something, opened the fridge, took out two cups of mizu-youkan, and handed one to me. I thanked her.

While throwing away the empty container and plastic spoon in the trash can, Hajikano sighed all of a sudden.

"After you left yesterday, Hinohara, I kept reading through my diary. It seems that besides just you, I was also relatively friendly with Chigusa Ogiue and my classmate from elementary school, Yosuke Fukamachi."

"Yeah, that's right," I nodded, hiding my inner turmoil.

"The four of us gathered every night to stargaze, correct?"
"Right. At first, it was just you doing it, but one day Fukamachi joined you. And later, so did me and Ogiue."

"We must have had fairly close relationships to see each other every night."
"Well, I wouldn't say we hit it off perfectly. But there was a fairly friendly mood."

"Say, Hinohara." She looked into my eyes. "Why is it only you've visited, and the other two haven't contacted me at all? Did I exhaust all the good will out of Ogiue and Fukamachi?"

I'd anticipated her asking about the other two since the moment I learned about her diary yesterday. Once she read back a few weeks, it was natural she'd have doubts about the other stargazing members not showing up or contacting her. So I was sure to prepare an answer to that question in advance.

"You're assuming much worse than it is." I smiled to soothe her. "First, Fukamachi seems to have his own perspective on things. I asked him to come visit, but he said "It's best to leave her be for now." The truth is, I think he wanted to stop me from coming too. Guess he's really prudent... worried in the weirdest ways. Now, Ogiue - and this surprised me too - she's moving to Canada in September as a foreign exchange student. Said she always wanted to do that. Thinking about it, though, she was better in English than any of her other subjects. She probably didn't tell anyone until she left because she didn't want to be annoying."

Hajikano looked down thoughtfully, and after about two breaths of silence, closed her eyes and smiled.

"You're so kind, Hinohara."
"What do you mean?", I played dumb.
"Exactly what it sounds like."

Hajikano seemed to have decided not to press me on my excuses.

"And I have to say, it's rather unexpected. Reading my diary, I had the impression you were more blunt and foul-mouthed... but talking with you now, I don't get that feeling."

"I'm holding off since it's a hospital."
"As I thought, you're taking care not to injure me?"

How would Hinohara respond here? My thoughts raced.

I replied like so.

"Yeah, that's right. Wouldn't want you killing yourself again."

At this, Hajikano's expression brightened slightly.

"It helps for you to treat me with such honesty."

She patted the space to her right. "Over here, please."

I sat down next to her as told. Because of the safety bars on the side, there was little room to sit, so our shoulders ended up stuck together. Being so close made it more obvious than ever how our bodies differed. It was striking, as if my body's blueprint was drawn with a ruler and pencil, and her body's blueprint was drawn with a curved rule and drafting pen. There was a large contrast in degree of detail as well, and her skin was as white as if someone forgot to color it. My skin had been tanned light brown over the course of the past month.

"Hey, Hinohara, please tell me." Hajikano put her hands together on her thighs, bent forward a little, and looked up at my face. "About all the things I've forgotten. There's only so much written in my diary."

"There's no need to rush," I said admonishingly. "For now, you can focus on resting your body and mind. No one will hurry you up, so you can remember slowly."

"But I can't keep troubling you all, can I? And also..."
"Also?"

Hajikano stood up wordlessly, put her hand on the window frame, and looked up at the sky.

"You may scold me for saying this, Hinohara." She turned around, then smiled in a way that emphasized it was a joke. "If getting back my memories led me to attempt suicide again, I believe I would make sure not to fail this time. I think doing that would be a resolution, in its own way. My worries would vanish, and no one would be getting pushed around by me any longer."

Without thinking, I stood up and grabbed Hajikano's shoulder. She seemed extremely startled and cowered, but I think I was even more surprised. My mind couldn't keep up with my actions. Whoa, what am I trying to do here? But my body moved before I could think. Once my hands went around her back, I finally understood the mistake I was about to make, but it was too late. A moment later, I was embracing Hajikano from the front.

Is there an action more cowardly than this?, I wondered. Using another person's name to hug a girl I'd kept pining after unrequited. This was a complete violation of the rules. No excuse would hold water. Once her memory returned, I would be rightfully scorned.

But, I thought at the same time. What was I planning to do at this point? Ten days left. In just ten days, I would have to leave this world. Couldn't I be forgiven a lie like this? I wouldn't be punished for some slightly happy memories at the end, would I?

"H-Hinohara?"

Hajikano said my name - no, his name - questioning the meaning of my actions. She was stiff with confusion, but still didn't push me away. I stroked her back to calm her, but this had the complete opposite effect. My arms sought her warmth and hugged her body tighter.

"You don't have to remember anything," I said into her ear. "When someone forgets something, it means it should be forgotten. So there's no need to force yourself to remember."

"...Is that right?"
"It is."

She thought, with her face still buried in my chest.

"But... I'm uneasy. I feel I'm forgetting something tremendously important."

I shook my head. "It's a common illusion. Even if it's trash, as soon as you lose it, it makes you uneasy. What if what you threw away really held unbelievable value? But turning over the trash can to get it back, you'll find it's just trash after all."

Hajikano twisted her body as if in pain, and I noticed I was holding her tighter than I thought, so I quickly weakened my grip.

"Yes, that's about the right strength." The tension left Hajikano's body with relief.

"Sorry," I apologized, then went on. "...People end up forgetting lots of things sooner or later. Only a handful of people can remember every little thing. But nobody complains about it. Why do you think that is? Because in the end, memories are no more than trophies or mementos, and everyone knows deep in their heart that what's important is the present, this very moment."

I slowly released Hajikano from my arms, and she dizzily stepped away and fell back on the bed. She looked at me with a peaceful expression. After a few seconds, she came to her senses, and seeming to be struck with the worry that someone was seeing this, looked around restlessly. Seeing her so distracted was new to me, so I couldn't help but chuckle.

"Hey, Hajikano. It's still summer break. And it's no ordinary summer. It's the summer when we're sixteen. Instead of worrying about your lost memories, don't you think it's wiser to enjoy this time?"

She stared at her lap, thinking about what I said. Eventually, she spoke.

"...Yes, you might be right. But even if you tell me to enjoy this moment, I don't know what exactly I should do."

I responded at once. "I'll help. I mean, let me help."

Hajikano blinked with surprise at the quickness of my reply.

"This may be a naive question," she began, fiddling with her hair, "but why would you go so far for me?"

"I can tell you, but you might regret asking."
"I don't care. Please, tell me."

"It's simple. I like you, Hajikano. And not as a friend, but as a girl. So I want to lend my aid, if only a little. And hopefully be liked a little in return."

Geez, did I understand what I was doing? I kept being taken aback by myself. Deceiving a girl with memory loss by assuming a friend's name, confusing her, and opening my heart about what I couldn't confess to her before. I was no different from a guy wooing a girl by abusing his social standing and getting her drunk to lower her defenses.

"Wait, hold on a moment." Hajikano had a complicated expression that could be taken as anger or on the verge of tears, and she seemed very bewildered. "I mean... Um, in my diary, it seemed like you were captivated by Ogiue..."

"The writer of that diary must have thought so. But that's not the truth. From the day we met, I've been captivated by you."

Hajikano opened her mouth to say something, but it seemed like the words broke up into pieces before they got out her throat. I waited for her to gather them back up, but her lost words wouldn't return.

She began putting together new words. And once she blinked with a certain level of conviction, she lifted her head. She put her hands on the bed to stand up, then fell toward me. I caught her thin body immediately, holding onto it carefully.

"I'll stop trying to remember," Hajikano said in a slightly blurred voice. "There couldn't be any memories more wonderful than this moment, after all."

I stroked her head like a little child's. "That's for the best."

Hajikano kept repeating "Hinohara, Hinohara" into my chest to confirm my existence. Every time I heard her say that someone else's name, my heart ached.

She released her arms from me and wiped tears at the edge of her eyes with her palm. Wind coming through the window blew her hair, and right after, the buzz of cicadas returned as if time was resuming. Up to then, I had only heard Hajikano's voice.

"Hinohara, please assist me," she said, holding down her hair with one hand. "Make at least the last ten days of my summer of sixteen wonderful ones."

"Leave it to me."

I firmly grabbed her right hand as she extended it.

We didn't let go until her father came to pick her up.

*

The next day, a letter arrived at my house. I took it out of the mailbox and flipped the envelope over. When I saw the sender's name, I gulped.

It was a letter from Chigusa Ogiue.

It didn't seem I had been sent a letter from beyond the grave. There was a sticker indicating the date to be sent in the corner, and the postmark was from eight days ago. August 14th, the day Chigusa suggested that I desert Hajikano. Chigusa gave me a letter about Hajikano's past on August 15th, but it seemed she had left another one.

There should have been plenty of opportunities, so why didn't Chigusa give me this letter directly? Did she anticipate dying before she could meet with me and talk, and thus leave this letter just in case? But if that were it, why have it sent eight days later?

Itching to know the answer, I went to my room, opened the envelope, and took out the folded letter. It was familiar stationery. The same as the letter she gave me on the 15th. I sat down in a chair and looked over it.

"Fukamachi, you must be wondering why you're receiving a letter from me at this time," the letter began. "To tell the truth, I don't quite know either. Let us say the reason is: "Thinking that on August 15th, you would be distraught over Hajikano's suicide attempt and my disappearance, I left a few days gap to not confuse you further." But perhaps deep down, I feel that this letter shouldn't reach you, Fukamachi. Why? Because written here is a way for both you and Hajikano to survive."

I read over that sentence three times to be sure I wasn't misreading it. "A way for both you and Hajikano to survive." That was, indeed, what it said.

Holding off my impatience, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

"However," it went on. "This is, in a sense, a fantasy of mine. I have not a shred of proof, and even if my predictions are all correct, there is not even a whole percent of chance that you will be saved. So please, do not get your hopes up."

There was a double line break after that. Here comes the juicy part, I supposed.

"I have had five exchanges with the woman on the phone thus far. Most of the calls were at night, but just once, the phone rang in the evening. Exactly at 5 PM on July 29th. I remember the time because just as I answered the phone, I heard a chime indicating 5 PM on the other side of the call. Since I heard it so clearly, she must have been very close to the speaker."

Now that it was brought to my attention, I realized how I didn't pay much attention to background noise when I talked with the woman on the phone. But consciously searching my memories for it, I felt there were often noises like wind during our conversations.

"I will get to the point. That woman is somewhere in this town," the letter continued. "The chime I heard was clearly the Mermaid's Song. It goes without saying that this chime is used to indicate evening only in Minagisa. And one more point. I did not only hear the Mermaid's Song. Just before the call ended, I heard train brakes on the other end. It was around 5:05 PM. As you're aware, the tracks that run through Minagisa are single-track, and thus few in number. The places where, at that time, one could hear both the chime and brakes nearby, are extremely limited."

I swallowed. A bead of sweat fell from my forehead onto the letter.

"Now, let me present a convenient theory. "When that woman calls us, she always uses a specific phone booth." Of course, I have hardly any proof of this. I just heard many of the same noises each time, so I thought it would not be too unusual. ...Now, following this hopeful assumption, I had a somewhat interesting discovery. There exist at most only four or five public phones in Minagisa where you can both hear the 5 PM chime and brakes at 5:05 PM."

But, I thought.

What would I do with that knowledge?

"Perhaps nothing can be done with that knowledge," Chigusa wrote. "Assuming you learn the place that woman is calling from, and by overlapping coincidences, end up present while she is calling there, I do not think she would be open to any dealings with you. Not only that, it may end up angering her. Or perhaps the woman on the phone is no more than a conceptual entity with no physical form, who cannot be found anywhere on the Earth. In any case, a search for her is most likely to end in vain. Any amount of effort may only be a waste of the time you have left. And yet, even so, is it not preferable to meeting your final day having done nothing? ...Of course, the best thing would be to win the bet with fair methods. But considering Hajikano's current state, that also feels extremely unrealistic. I cannot even be sure if she will be alive by the time this letter reaches you. (Though naturally, even if Hajikano tried to kill herself being unable to bear the weight of her sin, perhaps the woman on the phone would save her to prolong her bet with you.)"

Then Chigusa began to wrap up the letter around the next sentence.

"There is very much I'd like to tell you, Fukamachi, but I think I will discuss those things with you in person. It's strange; one should be able to more accurately describe things in writing than orally, but everyone ultimately trusts the latter more. Maybe accuracy isn't such an important thing when it comes to words. Well then, tomorrow - eight days ago, to you - I look forward to meeting you."

I re-read the letter four times, folded it up, and put it back in the envelope.

I was happy that Chigusa was wishing for my safety to the very last moment. But it was just like she said; a search for the woman on the phone would most likely end in vain. If by some mistake I found that woman, I could say nothing after having already been given a penalty for "acting in violation of the rules" just yesterday. I couldn't imagine there being any room for negotiation. And as Chigusa also indicated, it wasn't guaranteed she was even a physical entity.

No matter from what perspective, using my remaining ten days to find the woman and have her rescind the bet seemed like a dim prospect. And I would rather use my time for Hajikano than stake it on a long shot.

I'd had it with this sink-or-swim bet.

I stuck the envelope in a drawer and left the house.

At this point, I recalled something I'd neglected to ask the woman on the phone. She once connected the lines to give me at home and Hajikano at Chakagawa Station a chance to talk on the phone, but to what aim? To give me a faint hope so as to deepen the despair later? I had gotten no explanation about it from her. Something's strange there, I thought. I didn't know how to express it, but something didn't sit right.

*

After thirty minutes by train, switching over to a bus for ten minutes on an old highway, and after getting off the bus, walking for twenty more minutes through a riverside residential district with map in hand, I finally arrived at Hajikano's grandma's house.

It was an awfully old two-story house. Numerous tiles were missing from the roof, the paint peeled more the higher you went up the clinker-built walls, and the cracked polished glass of the kitchen was patched up with packing tape. Along the path to the front door, the boughs and leaves of overgrown trees formed a tunnel. Ducking under the tunnel to reach the door, I smelled a unique scent mixing nukazuke, boiling food, grilled fish, and rush plants. To say it outright, the smell of an old person's house.

Yesterday, Hajikano had given me directions here as I left.

"I'm forbidden from going out on my own. I think it'll be difficult for me to meet you, Hinohara. So I'm sorry, but can you come meet me?"

"Of course I will," I said, and Hajikano smiled softly.

Hajikano was to recuperate for a while here. There was nothing to stimulate her here, and no worry of meeting people she knew and digging up memories. Also, as I'd heard it from Aya, Hajikano had been rather attached to their grandmother on her father's side, who lived alone here. Even after those blank four days that drastically altered her personality, she would come here on her own periodically. Her parents probably took that into account and decided this house would be a perfect place for recuperation. Her grandmother didn't especially see eye to eye with her son and his wife, but seemingly opened up to her granddaughter Hajikano.

After ringing the doorbell, I heard the floor creak, and some time later, the glass sliding door opened. There appeared a thin woman over 70 or so. Her hair was all white and her skin wrinkled, but she stood up startlingly straight. Looking closer at her wrinkled face, the left and right sides had a different feel; her right eye seemed to glare at me, yet her left eye observed me neutrally. Her mouth was firmly shut, and she gave me an impression of considerable intelligence for her age.

So, this was Hajikano's grandmother.

I opened my mouth to explain myself, but she shook her head.

"Aya's already told me. Come in."

With only that, Hajikano's grandma turned her back and went inside. Wanted me to come along? I went inside and politely closed the sliding door, took off my shoes, and followed her. With each step down the hall, the plywood floor creaked.

Opening a screen door to enter an old Japanese-style room, Hajikano's grandma sat at a low table. Seeing me standing in front of the door with nothing to do, she looked stunned. "What're you doing? Sit."

I sat at the table, then asked.,"Where is Miss Yui?"

"Still in the bath. She must've been tired yesterday, since she slept as soon as she got here."

Seeming to remember something, she stood up and left the room, leaving me behind.

I took a look around the room. The first thing I noticed was a giant altar. It was decorated with two small watermelons and two ears of corn, arranged symmetrically on the left and right. There was a wicker lounge chair with a half-read book on the seat. On an antique shelf were two Japanese-style dolls in a glass case. There was a calendar hanging from a lintel that was still on May. While it was an orderly room, it seemed like it ended up the way it had not because of frequent cleaning, but because it didn't see much in the way of being "lived in."

Hajikano's grandmother soon returned and poured me barley tea in a glass. I thanked her, took a sip, and spoke.

"Could I ask your name, ma'am?"

"Yoshie Hajikano," she answered. "Wasn't it on the plate outside?"

"Mrs. Yoshie, what has Miss Aya told you?"

"That my fool granddaughter jumped in the sea and came back with her memories gone. And so now I need to look after her."

"I see." If she knew that much, it seemed I didn't have to tiptoe around things with her. "Incidentally, what do you think of me?"

"I hear you're a curious man who likes diving into trouble." Yoshie's lips lifted just a millimeter. "Aya seems mighty fond of you."

That expression she briefly showed me was the spitting image of Aya's smile. Aya sure takes after her, I thought.

I guessed that Aya hadn't told Yoshie that I was Yosuke Fukamachi in the guise of Yuuya Hinohara. Way to go, Aya, making allowances for a lie like that. It was just more convenient for Yoshie not to know about my use of a fake name.

Yoshie took a cigarette from the table and lit it with a match. She put out the match with familiar movements and put it in a glass ashtray, then took in a deep breath of smoke, letting it out slowly.

"Want something to eat?"
"No, I'm fine."

After that, we didn't exchange a word up until Yoshie's cigarette was done. Through a bamboo screen, I heard windchimes. Listening closely, I heard the water of a shower from the other side of the hall. They were refreshing sounds to be sure, but in reality, it was swelteringly hot in the room. The sun-baked fan next to the altar wasn't having any real effect, and there was no way this house had air conditioning.

The awkward silence continued. The clock on the wall was broken, so I didn't know the exact time, but it felt like twenty minutes at least. It was like a bunch of ancient time had been locked in this room and came out now to lengthen the gap before Hajikano appeared.

After carefully putting out the cigarette flame, Yoshie put an elbow on the table and put her chin in her palm.

"Somebody's gotta keep watch."
"Keep watch?"

"On Yui," she clarified. "Say Yui's memories suddenly come back. If nobody's there at the time, she might carry on with what she was up to before."

I nodded.

"But I can't watch her 24 hours a day, and I'm sure she doesn't want that either. Neither of us are fans of being rigid. ...So. How about you keep watch on Yui when I'm not?"

"Yes, that was my intention. I can handle her during the day -"

"It's settled," she grinned, looking like she was waiting to hear just that. "You go back home and bring changes of clothes and toiletries."

I twisted my neck, not following.

"Err... What do you mean?"

"You'll keep watch, won't you? Hinohara, eh. Starting now, you're working for me. The pay won't be much more than pocket change, but you'll get three tasty meals a day. Just 'til the end of summer vacation, stay in this house and keep a close eye that she doesn't get any funny ideas."

"Are you being serious?", I asked impulsively.

"'Course, I'm opposed to living under the same roof with an adolescent boy and girl too. But... you do have Aya's endorsement."

"Have you gone over this with Hajikano?"
"I'm about to."

Just then, the hallway floor creaked, and the sliding door opened. Hajikano wore a T-shirt with a wide neckline and shorts, holding a bath towel in one hand.

"Granny, I think the water heater's broken. The shower water only came out cold..."

There, Hajikano went silent, looked at my face, and gave a shrill yelp as she retreated into the hall.

"H-Hinohara? You're here already?", she said from behind the door. "Sorry, can you stay there for a while? I'll be ready soon."

"Guess I might have come a little too early. Should I wait outside?"
"No, wait there. It'll be really quick."

I heard Hajikano hurrying up the stairs.

Even after she left, a sweet soap smell still lingered.

"Never mind the money," I said. "For the right to be with Hajikano, I'd be willing to pay you. When Hajikano gets back, I'll say farewell and go back home for my luggage."

"So you accept the job?"
"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Yoshie."
"Hmm."

Yoshie snorted and closed her eyes, which again felt just like what Aya would do. She's definitely blood-related to the Hajikano sisters, I recognized again.

When Hajikano reappeared twenty minutes later, she had changed from her earlier casual outfit to a frilly sleeveless shirt. Her hair still hadn't dried, bits of moisture still on it.

"Sorry for the wait." Hajikano sat at the table and looked restlessly between me and Yoshie. "What were you two talking about?"

I casually glanced at Yoshie, but she bluntly averted her gaze to tell me "explain it yourself."

I thought for a little bit, then asked. "Hey, Hajikano. What would you think if I told you I was going to stay over here for a while?"

"Huh...?" She froze with mouth hung open for a few seconds. "What do you mean?"

I hesitated for how to reply. I couldn't give her the unvarnished truth of "I was asked to watch and make sure you don't commit suicide." I glanced at Yoshie again seeking help, and with a reluctant look, she offered it.

"I asked him. I wanted help with a few things, like household chores and shopping. So I could use a manservant. And Yui, you wouldn't get bored with him around, would you?"

"That's true, but this is too quick...", Hajikano said so quietly I could barely make it out.

"Huh, you don't want it? Looked so excited for him to come this morning."

"G-Granny..." She crossed her index fingers in her direction. "Um, well, I don't mind at all. I just thought it might be bothersome for Hinohara..."

"It's decided," Yoshie nodded with satisfaction.

I turned to Hajikano. "I need to go home for the moment and get my things. I should be back in three hours, so wait here."

"Okay, got it. I'll take you to the bus stop."

Hajikano glanced toward Yoshie as if to get confirmation.

"Be off, you two," she waved as if to drive us away.


Once we left the house, Hajikano questioned me.

"So, what did you really talk about?"
"I was hired to keep an eye on you. In other words, uh..."

As I pondered how to phrase it, Hajikano smiled bitterly.

"Yeah, because I attempted suicide. Not surprising."
"I'm grateful you can put it so succinctly," I sighed with relief.

"Hey, Hinohara," Hajikano said bashfully. "If you've been hired to watch me, then don't lose sight of me."

"Right. If it's not a bother."
"Of course not. Is it a bother for you, Hinohara?"
"Surely not. Whatever it is, I'm glad for an excuse to be with you, Hajikano."

She stood up tall and ruffled my head. "Nice and honest." It felt somehow nostalgic. Back in grade school, she would pat my head like that over everything. Even if her memory was lost, she still retained habits like this.

I parted from Hajikano at the bus stop, and took about an hour getting home. No one was home, so I left a note saying "I'm staying at a friend's house for about ten days" on the dining table. I frequently stayed at Hinohara's house in middle school, so my parents likely wouldn't think much of it. I puzzled over whether to take the letters from Chigusa, but I couldn't be sure Hajikano wouldn't read them by some accident, so I decided to leave them. Putting the minimum amount of clothes and toiletries in a bag, I quickly left the house.

I arrived back at Hajikano's house at noon. After a tasty meal of chilled Chinese noodles with lots of toppings, Yoshie ordered us to clean the house. She took all the bathrooms, while Hajikano and I worked together to clean the rooms, study, closet, hallways, and stairs. I wore clothes I could afford to get dirty, and with a bucket of soapy water and a bucket of clean water, we went wiping the windows of each room. The water in the buckets quickly turned murky, so we had to replace it each time.

Once done cleaning windows, we took feather dusters and went knocking off dust in the rooms. After sweeping it together with a broom and throwing it away, we wiped the tatami mats with a rag. The trash bag ended up full of dust and dirt, making me want to sneeze just looking at it.

"It kind of feels like you really were hired as a helper," Hajikano smiled, watching me wipe a mat on all fours.

Hajikano was accustomed to cleaning these old-style rooms, so she taught me how you should sweep brooms along the pips of tatami mats, and how they were weak to moisture. I questioned why she remembered details about cleaning despite losing her memory and asked her about it. She stopped working and thought.

"Hmm... I don't really know, either. I just can't remember most new things I learned in the past few years, or how I got high school... So maybe it's simply the events of the past few years I've forgotten. It's not about the nature of the memories."

"Until when exactly can you remember?"

Hajikano looked into space and searched her memory.

"I can clearly remember up to about winter in my first year of middle school. From there to the present, there's a big gap. ...I'm sure that's about the time my life started going downhill."

I looked up in surprise. "So right now, you're really kind of like a first-year in middle school?"

"Precisely speaking, not really. But you can think that way if you like, Hinohara-senpai," Hajikano giggled.

Once we were done cleaning the hallways and stairs, we concluded with the entryway. After sweeping away dust with a broom, we sprayed water and scrubbed the concrete floor with brushes. The water turned black in no time. We brought the cleaning tools back to the storeroom just as Yoshie was finishing up most of her tasks.

No sooner had we finished our big cleanup than Yoshie handed us a bamboo basket and had us harvest vegetables from the garden. Thorn-covered cucumbers, tomatoes with a grassy smell, corn with long whiskers. After the harvest came watering the plants. While spraying plants whose names I didn't know with a hose, a thin rainbow appeared over the garden, and Hajikano happily clapped her hands. In the midst of winding the hose back on the reel, I heard the water dripping from the leaves.

Dinner used the freshly-picked produce lavishly. After dinner was over, we even helped with washing, then Yoshie sat in a lounge chair by the window and opened up the evening paper. Hajikano and I waited around for her next instruction, and she spoke to us.

"Do as you please for the rest of the day. Go wherever you want."

We looked at each other. "Should we go outside for now?", Hajikano asked. I gave my approval.

Without a destination in mind, we walked together in the sunset town. A chorus of higurashi who survived up to the end of summer echoed from the thickets around the houses. It wasn't even 5 PM yet, but a brilliant sunset dyed our surroundings. It wasn't the blazing red sunset seen in the city, but an orange sunset that seemed to steal the sense of reality from all things.

We walked without aim through what felt like an old memory. Buying soda pop from a shop and sitting on a nearby bench to drink it, I made a discovery.

Thinking back, from the time we left the house to now - a period of about thirty minutes - Hajikano had never once walked on my right side. I didn't know if it was conscious or not, but she was probably wary of showing the side of her face with the birthmark to me.

Once I noticed that, I found more of her little considerations one after another. When talking to me, it seemed she didn't change the angle of her face much, doing her best to hide the birthmark from sight. And after wiping sweat from her forehead, she always put her bangs to the left, and sometimes put her left hand to her cheek for no reason.

Why was she so sensitive? No, I didn't think that. Because I had constantly stayed on Hajikano's right side when with her before. Wanting her to remember me being at least a little less ugly.

Hajikano opened the ramune bottle cap, took out the marble, and held it between her thumb and index finger up to the sun. I imitated her and looked through the marble; it was like a little lens that flipped the scenery, resulting in the appearance of an orange sea.

"The sun's setting early these days," I said.

"August is almost over." Hajikano swayed her legs from the bench. "In less than two weeks, we probably won't even hear these cicadas anymore."

She stood up and tossed her bottle in the collection box, then spun around and smiled at me.

"But the days getting shorter is a good thing."
"You like night, Hajikano?"

"Right. It lets me forget about my birthmark."
"I like it, myself."

"Thanks. But I'm sure there are many people who hate it." She softly put her left hand on her cheek. "Including me."

We started walking again. Even once the sun went down, heat clung to the ground. Seeking a cool-down, we entered the nearest supermarket. It was bizarrely dark inside, and the AC made it disagreeably cold. After fully checking out its selection, we went upstairs and through an arcade to the rooftop parking lot. It was already pitch black outside. There were no other tall buildings in the area, so we could see the spotty lights of the residential district below.

Time passed slowly by. We put our elbows on the paint-peeled and splintered guardrails, talking aimlessly as we gazed at the modest night scenery. Being on a rooftop at night, I couldn't help but recall the four of us gathering at the ruined hotel to stargaze, but I tried to keep the pain and anguish from showing.

Hajikano used a toothpick to carry pieces of cherry candy she bought earlier to her mouth, one by one. As I casually watched her, she seemed to misunderstand and held out the toothpick with a piece on it. "Do you want some, Hinohara?" Before I could even take the toothpick from her, she brought it to my mouth instead. It was such a naturally-performed action, I naturally opened my mouth too. It's just like we've gone back to four years ago, I thought. Back then, she would calmly do things that scared me out of my wits.

"Should we go back now?"

Hajikano reached for the last piece. But seemingly not pierced well enough with the toothpick, it fell from her hand off the edge, down to the ground against the night wind.

Back at Yoshie's house, since it seemed the water heater was indeed broken, we reluctantly took buckets and towels to a local bathhouse. We paid the old manager 300 yen each, and agreeing to meet up an hour later, I parted from Hajikano. But the bathtub was so hot, I stepped out before even 30 minutes went by.

Until Hajikano came back, I sat in front of a fan and absentmindedly watched TV. There was a special on about a robbery than took place half a month ago. One of the culprits wore bandages of some sort around his face, so the news dubbed him the "Mummy Man" for convenience. Such a summer-esque incident, I irresponsibly thought.

Hajikano returned five minutes earlier than promised. She bought fruit milk and sat down next to me, and without saying anything, looked to the TV. After finishing her milk, she returned the bottle to a case by the vending machine. Then, thinking of something, she stood behind me and rustled my hair with both hands. I did the same in return, and she laughed ticklishly.

We returned home in the cool night air, our sandals leisurely clopping against the ground. At home, we got futons out of the closet and prepared our respective beds. Yoshie was in the second floor bedroom, and Hajikano and I in the first-floor old-style room with a screen between us.

While Hajikano was stooping over to light a mosquito coil, Yoshie took the opportunity to whisper to me.

"Just so you know, the quietest noises echo in this house. So don't even think about anything funny."

I shrugged. "I understand that."

Once Yoshie closed the dividing screen and went upstairs, I lied on the futon and turned off the light. I was exhausted from being worked hard all day, and the smell of a stranger's house felt restless, but on top of that, knowing Hajikano was there on the other side of a screen door mere centimeters away made me too awake to sleep.

I closed my eyes and focused on the monotone sounds of insects, waiting for drowsiness. Then I heard Hajikano quietly call for me through the screen.

"Hinohara, are you awake?"
"I am," I whispered back.

"Doesn't this feel kind of like a school trip?"
"Want to throw pillows?"
"Boys have some funny ideas," Hajikano laughed.

It seemed like she was up very close to the screen. It would be bad if our voices were heard upstairs, so I got close too and kept my voice as low as possible.

"Well, what ideas do girls have?"
"Isn't it obvious? Girls talk about their second-most crush."
"Second-most?"

"Yes, second-most. Because your number-one crush absolutely can't overlap with anyone else's. You don't want to alert your competition, either. So no one ever speaks about their number-one crush. But second crushes - even if those overlap, it won't make things so tense, will it? Which means the boy who should be the most popular in class never gets his name mentioned at all."

"That's an interesting way of thinking."

"It's absolutely true. I knew a bunch of precocious girls who confessed to boys right before elementary school graduation, and they were all completely different from the "crushes" they talked about on our class trip."

"In other words, when you open up on a class trip, it's more like a sounding-out?"

"That's right. Nothing good comes of being foolishly honest. Well, in grade school, at least. I don't know what my middle school class trip was like."

I paused for a breath, then spoke. "Well, did you join in with giving the name of your second-most crush, Hajikano?"

"That's a secret."
"It was elementary school. There's no reason to hide it now, is there?"

"No, I just can't. My head is still in middle school, after all," she said anticlimactically. Then she asked, to change the subject, "What about boys? Don't tell me you threw pillows at each other for an hour before bed?"

"Boys are no different. Everyone talked about the girls they liked on day one. ...Of course, in our case, it's not like we gave the name of the girl we liked second-best."

"You were honest and spilled the beans about your favorite?", Hajikano asked with surprise.

"Honest may not be the right word. I don't know if all boys are like this, but the guys I was with always phrased it like, "I don't have a crush on any girls per se, but if I had to say, maybe her.""

Naturally, I wasn't part of that circle then, and hid alone under my futon.

"Boys sure are cute," Hajikano said.
"Well, if you compare with how the girls do it, I guess it's kinda cute."

Hajikano cleared her throat like some kind of signal, then asked me: "Hey, Hinohara, do you have a crush on any girls?"

"Not especially, but if I had to say, maybe Hajikano," I replied with a laugh. "And you?"

"I like Yosuke."

For a moment, my spine froze, thinking she had seen through me. But thinking about it more, that couldn't be. The "closest boys" to Hajikano right now were Yuuya Hinohara and Yosuke Fukamachi, so she had simply given the name of the one who couldn't be her first pick as her "second-most crush."

Yet, even if it was a meaningless statement that arose by chance from the flow of the conversation, I couldn't help but feel joy over hearing the words "I like Yosuke" from Hajikano's mouth. I etched her words into my memory. Not only the lyric and melody, but even details of the intonation. Along with the illusion of happiness I felt on hearing it.

Then, I suddenly remembered the "penalty" the woman on the phone had mentioned. "Henceforth, you are forbidden from revealing your true identity in front of Hajikano." So she said, with no further explanation. But there were numerous ways I could convey to her that I was Yosuke Fukamachi without directly revealing my identity. Would using those indirect means also count as a violation of the rules? And in what sense was she using the word "forbidden," anyway? Did it simply mean that the action would be punished? Or else - like the witch in The Little Mermaid - she had made it impossible to reveal who I really was around Hajikano?

I decided to test out one such "gray area" method. My procedure would be as follows. I would ask if Hajikano kept goldfish in her house in elementary school. Once she told me yes, I would guess one of the goldfish's names was "Hinoko." If she asked how I knew, I would say "I just had a feeling." By doing that, I wouldn't be revealing myself directly, and Hajikano would find it strange that I knew the name of her goldfish. Of course, that alone was no proof that I was Yosuke Fukamachi. But it would provide an opportunity for her to start wondering it.

I put my plan into action. "Hey, Hajikano."
"What is it?"

"In elementary school, did you -"

Instantly, a sharp pain rain through my throat. Like burning tongs had been thrust into it. My throat was blocked, so I couldn't even scream, and curled up to endure the pain as a cold sweat ran down me.

"What's wrong?", Hajikano asked through the screen. "Are you hurt?"

I wanted to say I was fine to put her at ease, but I was unable to move or reply. Worried about the lack of response, she quietly opened the screen and asked, "Hey, what happened?" Seeing me curled up and holding my throat, she sat beside me and stroked my back repeatedly, asking "Are you okay?"

For as great as the pain was, it receded in less than a minute. But it seemed like I sweat an unbelievable amount in that time, so my shirt was soaking wet, and my throat was dry as a desert.

"...I'm okay now. Sorry to worry you." I smiled at Hajikano. "I'll get some water."

I stood up, and she followed me worriedly.

"Are you really okay? Do you need to go to the hospital?"
"Nah. My leg just cramped up a little."

I had three cups of water in the kitchen and calmed down a little bit.

Back in the room, Hajikano continued to sit by my futon and ask "Are you okay?" "Does it still hurt?" I told her it wasn't a problem at all anymore, really, but she wouldn't believe it. After about thirty minutes, she finally went back to her own futon.

"Good night, Hinohara. See you tomorrow."
"Yeah, good night."

I moved away from the screen back to my former position and closed my eyes again.

Despite the turbulence at the end, generally speaking, it had been a very, very happy day. I thought, in my sinking senses, how I wish it could be another day like this tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that... I would offer all my good fortune toward that purpose. My life would be up in a few days anyhow. I couldn't ask for any more happiness than this. If days like these where I could laugh with Hajikano could just continue until the end of summer break, I would be satisfied.

Yet this world gives change to those who seek stability, and stability to those who seek change. This tranquility would end very soon - with this very day. The next day, while I wasn't looking, Hajikano heard a sound she shouldn't have.

Yes - the sound of a phone ringing in the darkness.



[+]

Chapter 11: This Is Just A Good Luck Charm

The incident occurred in the middle of the night, three days after I started living at Hajikano's grandmother's house. Under the light of a rusty desk lamp, as I turned through the pages of the book Hashiba once gave me, I heard Hajikano catching her breath on the other side of the screen.

It was a horribly hot night. So at first, I thought she was having trouble sleeping and got woken up. A while later, I heard her making deep breaths. Trembling breaths that made me imagine someone stranded in a cabin in a blizzard, awaiting help. Did she have a frightening dream?

While I was indecisive about whether to go look or not, I heard a sliding door open. Not the dividing one, but the one to the hallway. I didn't hear any footsteps, but I found it certain that Hajikano had left the room. Could have been to get water in the kitchen or to use the bathroom, one of the two.

But five minutes passed, and Hajikano hadn't returned. Windchimes rang outside the window. I felt a vague apprehension, put down my book, turned off the lamp, and left the room. Walking carefully to not make a sound, I found the front door left open, the night wind blowing in. I put on sandals and went outside.

I found Hajikano right away. No, "she found me" might be more accurate. Lying against a stone wall, she looked up at the night sky. When she noticed me, she sighed as if she'd been waiting there for hours.

"You finally noticed." Hajikano smiled with her eyes closed. It seemed like a pained smile that was forcing itself to be cheerful. "You need to watch me more carefully. You didn't know I'd snuck out at night last night and the night before, did you?"

"No, I didn't. ...Guess I've failed as a lookout."

I sat down next to Hajikano, put up my index finger to confirm that she was windward of me, then took out a cigarette and lit it.

Thanks to the security lights, I didn't miss the fact that her eyes were red.

"You used to look at the night sky a lot before you lost your memory, too," I said after letting out my first puff of smoke. "You were a girl who liked stars. Seems like that hasn't changed."

"Yes, so it seems."

It was a somewhat inattentive reply.

"Did you have a bad dream?"

"Wow. Well done." Hajikano put her fingertips together and her eyes widened. "Why did you think that?"

I couldn't answer that question. "Did you wake up from nightmares last night, and the night before that?"

"Yes."
"What kind of dreams were they?"

She shook her head, stood up, and wiped her clothes.

"I already forgot. I only remember being scared."
"...I see."

"Hey, Hinohara. Since we're awake, let's go for a walk."

She started walking without waiting for my reply. I got up and followed.

Maybe her dreams had to do with her lost memories. It wasn't normal to have nightmares for three days straight. Perhaps she's reliving those "blank four days" in her dreams every night, I thought.

We kept walking the dark roads in silence. Wooden power poles were placed in intervals along the rice paddies; small mosquitoes gathered around their security lights, and scarab beetles and ground beetles swarmed underneath. There were faint clouds in the sky, the moon dimly shining beyond them.

We did a lap of the residential district, and as we were about to reach the house again, Hajikano broke the silence.

"Hinohara, how long can you stay at my side?"
"What do you mean?", I asked nonchalantly.

"Who knows? Not me." She tried to smile, but couldn't form a very good one. "It's just... well, Chigusa and Yosuke both left me, didn't they? So I wondered if you might have to leave me too someday."

I wanted nothing more than to say "that's not true at all" and reassure her. And I knew Hajikano was hoping for that. She asked that question because she wanted me to laugh off the tinge of unease her nightmare left her with. To say something like "Me, leave you? I wouldn't do something so wasteful."

The problem was, her fear was correct. If I lied to her here, would I be able to keep up a perfect act and fool her to the end? Could I deceive her fully without even a speck of doubt? I had no confidence whatsoever.

If lying now would fill her with distrust, it was better to be honest to an extent - that was my conclusion.

"In seven days," I answered.

I saw Hajikano's face freezing.

"I can stay at your side until August 31st. Once that's over, I'll have to go far away, for good. I don't want to leave you either, Hajikano, but it was decided long ago."

"Far away? Where are you going?"
"I can't answer that very well."

"Can you come back sometimes?"

"No," I shook my head. "Unfortunately, not even that. Once August 31st passes, I think I'll never be able to meet you again."

"...Ah."

Hajikano lowered her head and smiled lonesomely. It was a much more peaceful reaction than I'd expected. Maybe she had the possibility of such a response in mind from the start. Maybe she saw through little incongruities in my actions to figure out I was hiding something.

"I understand. You must have your reasons too, right?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry for hiding it until now. I wasn't sure how to break it to you."
"No, I'm sorry for making you worry for me."

Hajikano mumbled. "Seven days... I see."

Returning to the house, we quietly walked down the hallway so as not to wake Yoshie, and went to our respective beds.


The next morning, as I opened the screen to wake up Hajikano, I found her sleeping holding her knees, and discovered her diary next to her bed. Ultimately, she had chosen "remembering." It wasn't unreasonable. The people near her kept disappearing one after another. It was perfectly natural for her to look into her past wanting to know the reason why. Even if you knew there might be devastating information in there that shakes you to the core.

I gently picked up the diary, sat by the windowsill, and opened it. Maybe by learning the details of the "blank four days," I would be disappointed with Yui Hajikano - no, I never thought that for a second. Whatever her past was like, I was prepared to accept it. Even if Hajikano was deeply connected with the suicide of two middle school girls a year ago - for that matter, even if Hajikano killed those two - my feelings for her wouldn't change.

Resisting the desire to read every page over closely, I turned pages in search of July of 1993. My hand stopped on a certain page. Many pages were mostly blank and easy to glance over, but the pages in that area alone were packed with long sentences in thin writing.

There was written the truth of the blank four days.

*

The cogs began to go awry on February 28th, 1993. That day, Hajikano was walking down the street through light snowfall when she had an unexpected reunion with old friends.

Mei Funakoshi and Maiko Aida. They were girls she'd been in the same class with in elementary school. Hajikano noticed the two approaching in front of her and quickly looked for somewhere to hide. But they had her in their sights before she could. Seeing Hajikano's face, they were about to say something, but quickly said "Long time no see" instead. Hajikano reluctantly greeted them back.

Hajikano could easily imagine what they were about to say. By that time, her birthmark had gotten big enough that she couldn't hide it with her hair. These two really want to ask about my birthmark, but they're holding it in, she thought. Just like everyone else. Once they see it, they stare wide-eyed at it, then say something unrelated with an innocent look. Even during conversations, they frequently sneak looks at it. Looks mixing sympathy and curiosity. But they never refer to the birthmark themselves.

If you're that curious, I'd feel better if you just asked me honestly already, she always thought. Just "What's with that birthmark?" is enough. But people who take that step are rare indeed. They're concerned about touching a sore subject. Not many people understand that some sore subjects hurt less if you just touch them.

These two, too, would surely treat my birthmark like it wasn't there, then talk all about it amongst themselves after leaving, Hajikano figured. However, a few minutes into the conversation, Funakoshi said "by the way," and pointed right at her birthmark. "What's with that birthmark?"

"It's not just an injury, is it?", Aida asked modestly.

"Sorry if this is just me, but Yui, it looks like you're overly tense," Funakoshi said. "Hey, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk about it."

Glad for the two's honest questions, Hajikano began, "Well, actually..." And once she started, she couldn't stop. She talked at length about the changes in her life since the birthmark appeared, letting out what she'd kept in this whole time. How the looks strangers gave her changed, how sometimes people would see it and make their disgust clear, how she became resistant to looking others in the eye while talking, how she was often hampered by being too conscious of those looking at her, how she gradually grew scared of being around others and stayed at home on days off, how she tried to act calm at school but was already terrified inside, and how she had no one to talk to, so she kept all her worries to herself.

Funakoshi and Aida earnestly listened to her. Hajikano decided to open up to these two in the first place because she felt they would understand. Both of them had body-related worries like Hajikano's. The two were intelligent, charming girls with a sense of humor, but as far as being girls their age went, they had fatal flaws in noticeable places. (The diary didn't give a detailed description of those "flaws." However, much like my likening to the Phantom of the Opera, and Hajikano to the ghost of Oiwa, these girls seemed to receive shameful nicknames related to their appearance as well.)

After hours of opening up, Hajikano thanked the girls.

"Thank you. I've never had people to talk to about this before, so I'm really happy."

"It's fine," Aida said. "I'm kind of glad to know even someone as popular as you is thinking about the same stuff as us."

"If you need anything, talk to us," Funakoshi told her. "And just so you know, we're not saying that to be polite. We really know how you feel, Hajikano."

Then Aida thought of something. "Hey, if it's fine with Yui, do you think we three should keep meeting like this?"

Via this suggestion, Hajikano came to see the other two periodically. They gathered once a week to talk about daily troubles and questions, and the general hardship of life. When they talked together, Hajikano had a sensation of it being one personality split into three to talk amongst itself. Fellow girls plagued with a sense of bodily inferiority could really understand each other, it seems. She was frequently impressed how well they could understand such a subtle mindset.

For instance, Funakoshi said in one meeting: "Honestly, I don't see what's bad about plastic surgery. Or cosmetic surgery? Well, whatever you want to call it. If makeup and perms and dental correction is permitted, isn't it weird that plastic surgery is frowned upon? Some people say it's rude to cut up the body you got from your parents, but if I were them, I'd say cut away if it makes my kid happy. 'Cause I mean, in a way, ugliness is a kind of sickness."

Hajikano thought about this, then replied. "I've had some thought on that myself... Most people's problems with plastic surgery seem like postscripts. I think at the root of hate toward plastic surgery is enormous trust in the body, and fear of it being betrayed. They're instinctively afraid of the borderline that says "that person is who that person is" being shaken."

"It's like a slippery slope," Aida promptly replied. "Ultimately, you have to allow just leaving the brain and making everything else into a different person."

Funakoshi nodded. "Yeah, like that old question. "A ship's parts get gradually replaced, so when all the parts have been replaced, can you say it's the same ship?" But realistically, nobody's gonna say "this is a totally different ship" when you only replace like 10% of the parts, so I feel like human bodies should get away with 10% replacement too."

"At any rate, our problems can't be solved with plastic surgery, so it's a pointless argument," Aida weakly smiled.

Funakoshi and Hajikano sighed, but there was a comfortable empathy there. An abject relief that they weren't the only one experiencing this irrationality.

Before she knew it, Funakoshi and Aida had become reliable supports for Hajikano. Maybe you could say they were highly codependent. So in spring, when the two gradually started voicing their hate for classmates, alluding toward desires for suicide, she could only think of it as proof they were opening their hearts to each other.

Their eyes were completely clouded.

On June 4th, Funakoshi and Aida revealed to Hajikano that they were being bullied at school. "It seems like we've become outlets for exam-cramming stress," Funakoshi said to break the news. They talked distantly about what they were going through at school. If they weren't exaggerating, then it was a hell beyond imagination. Hajikano felt deeply sorry for them, but also felt an oppressive expectation on her. After they were done talking, they seemed to put a threatening silent pressure on her. Like they'd invisibly grabbed her arms and told her "Now that you've heard this much, you're not leaving that easily."

I might be getting involved in something bad, Hajikano thought.


She was right to be worried. After their bullying came to light, Funakoshi and Aida came to say hateful and despairing things more bluntly than before. The topics were always "I want to die soon," or "I want to kill so-and-so." Without any replacement of body parts, the two had become completely different people. They weren't the Funakoshi and Aida who Hajikano liked anymore. She was just saddened that the girls who once made witty jokes and calmed down those around them had changed like this.

Hajikano had already become unable to join with the two in their discussions, but distancing herself now wasn't an option. She feared being left out of the group more than anything. If I abandon them, I'll instantly lose the place I go to with my troubles. Hajikano forced herself to talk with them; if they said they wanted to die, she said she did too, and if they said they wanted to kill someone, she said the same. Hajikano was Hajikano, but cultivated the madness the other two were heading toward.

Funakoshi and Aida's words continued to escalate. Once it crossed a watershed line, they switched from words to actions.

One day, the two were calm, as if they'd come to their senses. They talked lots, ate lots, laughed lots. Hajikano was delighted, as they seemed to have gone back to how they were months ago. Just maybe, the bullying at school had died down. Now we can be as close as we used to be - just as Hajikano thought this, Funakoshi casually spoke.

"We set fire to it."

Hajikano was dumbfounded and couldn't speak. The two merrily went on. About how last night, they went to the house of the classmate who led the bullies, spread around kerosene, and set fire to it. And how she didn't come to school today. They went to look at the house on their way home, and the building was completely burned, the girl's room showing bare.

"What happened to her?", Hajikano asked quiveringly.

"She didn't die. For better or worse," Funakoshi replied. "But she probably won't be coming to school for a while."

"School was so peaceful today," Aida said heartily. "I never knew how much easier things could be with her gone."

I can't go along with this anymore, Hajikano thought. Steadying her resolve, she encouraged the two to turn themselves in. If the police questioned their classmates, they would quickly discover their hostility toward the girl. You couldn't underestimate the investigation skills of modern police. They could be knocking on your door as soon as tomorrow morning. Wouldn't it be wisest to turn yourself in before that?

"It's fine, we'll never be found out," Funakoshi claimed baselessly - half to convince herself, surely. "As long as the three of us keep quiet."

"I thought you'd be celebrating with us, Yui," Aida said with disappointment. "But you kinda just ruined the mood."

"Hey, Yui, I trust you. But that said, let me tell you something."

Funakoshi leaned over and whispered in Hajikano's ear.

"If you betray us, we'll burn down your house too."

At this point, Hajikano finally realized there was no going back. She'd already failed to run from this chain of hatred, and kept herself involved in it. There was no appropriate choice. Only an inappropriate choice, and an even more inappropriate choice.


When Hajikano read the newspaper the next day, her face went white, and she nearly collapsed on the spot.

Like the two had told her, they burned down the house, but the girl who led the bullies survived with minor injuries.

Her baby brother, however, had died.

Hajikano folded up the page with the article, put it in her bag, and went to meet Funakoshi and Aida. Naturally, the two of them had looked over every inch of the paper, so they also knew that they'd killed their target's brother instead of her.

"It's that girl's fault," they repeated defensively, but their eyes were hollow, like they couldn't even fool themselves.

Gradually, the two of them lost their minds. They feared calls from the police daily, always looked around themselves restlessly, hung their heads and walked fast when they saw police, and shook with surprise when they heard the sirens of police cars or ambulances. They didn't seem able to get much sleep, so they had deep bags under their eyes; as if unable to get food down their throats, they grew thinner by the day.

They saw danger in every shadow, and they feared Hajikano's betrayal most. As such, sometimes they would call her over, and repeat their threat of "if you betray us, we'll burn your house down" three times.

"You're planning to betray us anyway, aren't you?", Funakoshi said one day. "But you kept agreeing with us knowing how much we meant it, so you're practically an accomplice. If we get arrested, we're taking you with us."

Unable to bear the self-blame and fear, the thoughts of suicide they previously only entertained started to seem like a realistic escape option. We did nothing wrong; if the police are going to arrest us and expose us, we'd rather die, they said. And Hajikano was naturally included as part of that group suicide.

Aida drew near Hajikano. "If you run away, we'll have the note say "Yui Hajikano threatened us to burn it down; we killed ourselves because we couldn't live with our sin.""

There was nowhere to run. I should have gotten away as soon as I felt something was wrong, Hajikano lamented. The two had given me time to do so. If I'd wanted, I could have even stopped their rampage at an early stage.

No, not only that - maybe that was the exact intent of getting me involved. The two let me into their group wanting me to put a stop to their wild notions. And yet, I was too afraid of losing people to share in my injuries with. So not only did I not stop them, I added to their hate.

It was the weakness of my heart that led to this.


Then the day came. On July 12th, 1993, Hajikano was called to a ruined building deep in the mountains. Opening a heavy iron door, she found Funakoshi and Aida sitting in the corner of the room, lit by a square light from a window.

At their feet were bottles of sake and oil cans. When Hajikano saw them, she trembled. The cans were undoubtedly filled with gasoline. The alcohol was probably to get them drunk and slightly lessen their fear of death. The two of them planned to die here today - or three, including herself.

Hajikano earnestly tried to persuade them. What good would this do? You can still recover, start over having atoned for your crimes. Since she had been complicit in the arson, they could all turn themselves in. It was too soon to turn to despair.

But of course, they didn't even listen. They casually poured gasoline on their heads as if it were hot water - putting extra amounts on the body parts that brought about their sense of inferiority - and demanded Hajikano do the same. She refused, so Funakoshi held her down while Aida doused her in gasoline.

Hajikano shook Funakoshi off and tried to run, but there was only one entrance, and the two blocked it. Funakoshi approached with an oil lighter, and Aida also closed in to block her off. Seeming to enjoy watching her back away fearfully, they drove Hajikano into the corner of the room.

I imagined that at that point, maybe their resolve wasn't firm yet. I think Funakoshi probably only put her finger on the flint wheel as a threat. That she actually rubbed the flint was maybe a simple slip of the finger, and in the excitement of the moment, she might have forgotten she was coated in gasoline.

The gasoline ignited like miniature fireworks. In moments, Funakoshi's body was engulfed in flame. A moment later, there was a shriek like a beast roaring. It wasn't certain whether that was Funakoshi or Aida.

As Funakoshi's body burned, she held her throat with her hands and ran around seeking help. Aida's legs buckled, and when Funakoshi reached out to her, instantly, the fire spread to Aida's body. This time, there was a scream that was clearly Aida's.

Hajikano reflexively ran. Aida's screaming behind her died out in seconds. Once out of the ruins, Hajikano ran as fast as she could, and she thought. No matter how much I hurry, it's twenty minutes to the nearest house. There aren't any public phones around here, are there? She searched her memory, but knew she at least hadn't seen any on the way there. At any rate, she quickly descended the mountain. Not a minute to waste. Not a second to waste.

When she finally found a phone, fifteen minutes had already passed. Hajikano dialed 119 with trembling hands. She told them she saw some strange smoke from the mountains, grew scared when she heard screams, and let them know the exact location of the ruined building, but hung up without revealing herself. Once she put down the receiver, she collapsed on the spot. The public phone continued to ring above her head, likely a redial from the fire department.

*

When I looked up from the diary, I made eye contact with Hajikano sitting up from her futon and looking at me. She just had a weak smile, and didn't seem to blame me for reading her diary without permission. Maybe she put her diary by the bed wanting me to read it in the first place.

"Disappointed, aren't you?" Hajikano lowered her gaze. "Yui Hajikano - no, I left two girls to die, then went on to erase that memory and try to escape the weight of that sin. ...So it seems."

"Does it say anything like that?" I tilted my head. "It just seemed like the story of a pitiable girl who unluckily got involved in the crimes of others."

"If everything written here is the truth, then maybe that's a viable point of view. But there's no guarantee that I didn't distort the facts of my past to make it more convenient for me."

Hajikano stood up, folded her futon, did a small stretch with her back to me, then asked without turning around:

"...Will you still stay with me today?"

"Obviously," I replied. "I would be even if you said no. I have a lookout job to do, you know."

"...Yes, so you do."

Hajikano smiled with relief.


Hajikano was absentminded that day, from beginning to end. She had a slow response to anything I said, and replied to my questions with misdirected answers. Most of the time she looked listlessly into the distance, but she would sometimes rebound and act cheerily, then quickly get tired by it and revert to docility. They were dangerous signs. I paid close attention to her, so that she wouldn't get any ideas, and so I could respond quickly on the off chance she did.

Half a day passed uneventfully. After dinner, we went to the bathhouse and washed away a day's worth of sweat. Looks like today will end without incident, I sighed with relief. But that was a naive estimation. The situation was already headed toward a sharp turn.

Hajikano was waiting for me outside, and as soon as she saw me, she asked "Can we take a detour?" I asked where that would be, but she didn't answer, saying only "There's something I want to show you," and guiding me with a secretive smile. Where was she planning to take me? I mean, there weren't many places in this town that were a decent destination. Considering the direction, I predicted she was heading toward the sea.

I turned out to be right. Hajikano went straight to the sea, and stopped behind a storehouse in the corner of the pier. A gust made the sleeves of her saxe blue one-piece flutter. The pale blue moon was reflected on the peaceful surface of the water.

Hajikano turned around to face me, took something wrapped in a towel out of her bag, then unwrapped it and handed it to me. It was a small knife. The decorated handle was scratched in places, and the blade was darkly stained. And yet the point was as sharp as if it were just now sharpened.

"What is this?", I asked.
"I picked it up earlier," Hajikano replied concisely. "Where do you think I got it?"

"I don't know."
"Really?"
"The only place I can think of where you'd pick up a knife is at a dump."

"A phone booth," she said. "And Hinohara, I'm going to have you kill me with it."

Seeing my shock, Hajikano smirked.

"Sorry for playing dumb, Hinohara. To tell the truth, I already know. How your life's going to end on August 31st, and how the only way you can be saved is by killing me."

Hajikano was blurry in my vision. I was so thrown off, I couldn't even focus my eyes.

"Why do you...", I started to ask, then suddenly realized. "Did the woman on the phone tell you that?"

She slowly nodded. "I was surprised when I first got a call. I was walking around by myself at night, and a public phone suddenly rang. I gave in to curiosity and answered, and without any introduction, the woman on the other end said: "Your memories don't seem to be returning, Yui Hajikano." It was just two days ago. ...Of course, I was so scared I hung up right away, so I didn't hear any more than that."

Hajikano flipped and tilted the knife in her hand, observing it from many angles. Likely not because she wanted to look closely at the knife, but because she didn't want to look me in the eye.

The woman on the phone really didn't seem very pleased with me defiantly enjoying my time with Hajikano, I thought. She wanted to get in my way to the point that she'd twist the way things had been so far - until now, she didn't interfere with anyone but those involved in the bet.

"But when she called again the next night, I could listen to her more calmly. That woman knew all sorts of things only I should know, and in more detail than I did. She even knew exact details from when Funakoshi and Aida died that I didn't write in my diary. I asked her why she knew these things, but she just laughed. I thought, I must be hearing things. I'd already lost my memory, so a malfunction like that wouldn't be too strange."

Hajikano put her index finger to the side of her head and smiled lonesomely.

"But after the call ended, that event started to feel like a revelation. It wasn't a big deal whether that woman was a real person, or a fictitious one made up by my subconscious. I came to think that she was trying to tell me something important, and that message was incredibly significant to me. Whether it was coming from inside my head, or from externally."

She was silent for a few seconds as if confirming the meaning of her words. Then she continued on.

"And just earlier, as I got out of the bath and was waiting for you, the public phone across the street rang. "To tell you the truth, Yuuya Hinohara who you currently live under the same roof with has only days left to live." "The reason he will only be able to stay with you until August 31st is because he will die on that day." "And the cause lies with none other than you, Hajikano." ...Strangely, I wasn't even surprised. I was able to swallow that irrational declaration. Ahh, of course, I thought. So it probably wasn't a coincidence that Chigusa and Yosuke went away, either. I didn't know the reason, but maybe people who depended on me were fated to be unhappy."

Hajikano looked up from the knife at my face, then quickly lowered her head again.

"After a long silence, like waiting for my despair to set in, the woman went on. "There is not necessarily no way of saving Hinohara. Please, look under the phone book in the booth." I did that, and on the shelf where the book was, there was this knife. As soon as I grabbed the knife, the woman said: "Have Hinohara stab you with that knife. That is the only way to save his life." Then she hung up."

Once Hajikano was done, she approached me and held out the knife.

"I don't think anyone will suspect you if you do it now," she said. "Everyone in my family knows I've attempted suicide, and my sister and granny will verify that you cared for me. Everyone should believe that I ran away while you were in the bath."

She took my hand and wrapped it around the knife.

"It's okay, you don't have to see my death through to the end. Just stab it into my chest and drop me in the sea, Hinohara. Don't think of it as killing me to save yourself. Please, think of it as killing me to save me. ...If I keep living, I'm sure I'll make the same mistake again. So end my life by your hand before that happens."

Hajikano slightly bent her head and gave a transient smile.

I held up the knife she put in my hand and stared at the detailed design that brought to mind the spray of waves.

Tossing the knife into the sea would be easy. But in the end, that would just be a temporary postponement. Simply refusing her demands didn't seem like it would persuade her.

Holding the knife, I approached Hajikano. She shook briefly, then closed her eyes as if ready for anything.

I brought the knife to her chest, and slid it along her collar to put the blade to her heart. I felt like I could feel it beating through the knife. Hajikano gulped. After a sufficient pause, I slowly moved the knife on her chest. Her face twisted from the sharp pain.

When I removed the knife, there was a light cut about 3 centimeters long. Blood came out of it in no time, dying the fabric of her one-piece. I ran my finger over the wound to wipe the blood. Hajikano's body stiffened from the pain of having the wound touched.

I painted the right side of my face with the wiped blood.

It was a kind of good luck charm.

"What are you doing?", Hajikano asked, wide-eyed.

"In Andersen's The Little Mermaid," I said, "when the warm blood from the prince's chest touched her legs, it would fuse them and revert them to a mermaid tail. ...But in my case, I'm sure this much blood is enough."

Hajikano tilted her head. "I don't get what you're saying, Hinohara."

"Right. You don't have to. This is just like a good luck charm."

With a big swing, I tossed the knife toward the open sea. Soon, I heard a distant splash.

"Now, let's get home and treat that wound."

Hajikano stared blankly at where the knife fell and lightly sighed.

"...This won't do anything," she mumbled.
"I wonder. We don't know that yet."

"I'm sure I'll do the deed myself once my watcher is gone, you know."
"Nope. I won't allow it."
"You don't have to. Because you'll be dead by then."

Hajikano came straight for me like she was crashing into me. I smelled the sweet scent of her hair. Her body was cold with sweat.

She cried, keeping her voice low. The front of my shirt got soaking wet with her tears. While she cried, I kept stroking her back.

"Even if it's a lie, can you promise me something?", I whispered in her ear. "Even if I go away, keep living."

"I can't."
"There's no need to seriously vow it. A lie's fine."
"...Then it's a lie, but I promise."

Hajikano looked up from my chest and extended the pinky on her right hand.

And we made a pinky promise in name only.


On our way back, we heard the sound of a ringing public phone many times. Just as one seemed to stop, another phone in a different location started. Sometimes there was the sound of a phone in places where it seemed like there couldn't possibly be one. Hajikano gripped my hand tightly every time.

"Hey, Hinohara."
"What?"

"If you change your mind, kill me anytime."
"Right. If I change my mind."

"I won't mind being killed by you."
"I understand."

"Really?"
"Yes, I know."

"I'd be happy if you kissed me at the end."
"Right. If that happens."
"Great. I can't wait."

We innocently walked home as the sound of ill-omened phones echoed through the night.



[+]

Chapter 12: The Mermaid's Song

The evening of August 27th, Hajikano and I headed for the site of the Minagisa summer festival. She wore a yukata she'd only worn once three years ago, and I wore a cheap jinbei I bought in the area. We walked down the dim rural roads, our clogs resounding under the voices of higurashi. Thanks to her deep blue yukata, Hajikano's white skin stood out more than ever.

The closer we got to the festival, the more we heard taiko drums rumbling the earth, the sound of flutes and sho, guiding voices on megaphones, and the stirring of people. There was a long line of cars outside the local elementary school designated for parking, and just ahead of there, we could see the community plaza.

Just as we were stepping in, a small firework went up to announce the start of the festival. Everyone around stopped at once and looked up to the sky, gazing at the white smoke left behind. Just after, the area was filled with applause.

In the center of the plaza was a scaffold, and strings of lanterns extended radially from the pillar. Stands were packed close together along the long sides of the plaza, one of the short sides served as an entrance, and the other short side had a giant stage set up. A few dozen or hundred people were already seated, and the head festival runner was up on stage giving a greeting.

I opened the program given to me at the entrance and went over the plans for today. As expected, the reading of The Mermaid of Agohama and the singing of the Mermaid's Song were still there. They must have found a replacement. It was only natural, I guess. In the corner of the program was a photo of this year's Miss Minagisa. She was a pretty woman, certainly, but seemed too lively to suit the part of the mermaid - of course, maybe I only thought that because I knew that role had been for Chigusa.

We bought usuyaki and yakisoba at the stands and went to the stage. There, we saw a children's iai performance, a middle school wind instrument band, buyo and minyou dances by volunteers, and spinning tricks by a performer. An hour went by in a blink. As a raffle started up, we left our seats, waded through the crowd, sat on a planter near the parking lot, and observed the hubbub of the festival from a distance.

As Miss Minagisa's reading was about to begin, I felt something cold on the back of my hand. I thought it was just my imagination, but seeing Hajikano look to the sky, I knew I hadn't been the only one to feel it. Less than a minute later, it began to rain. It wasn't intense, but it was enough to get you soaked if you weren't paying attention. Everyone took shelter in tents or the community center, or ran to the parking lot; the people on the plaza scattered at once. In no time, a voice on a megaphone announced that the stage shows would be canceled.

Hajikano and I hid from the rain under the community center's overhang. The thin raindrops blurred the lights of lanterns and stands, dying the plaza a dark red. Girls running with carpets held above their heads, old people walking pitifully with umbrellas up, children running around without regard for the rain, merchants hastily putting away their stands - as I watched it absentmindedly, a voice suddenly hit my ears.

The Mermaid's Song.

I didn't hear it from the stage, but from right beside me.

I looked Hajikano in the eye. She smiled shyly and stopped singing. "The rain doesn't seem like it'll stop soon," she said to cover her embarrassment.

"It's fine, keep going," I told her.

She nodded and resumed singing.

Her voice soaked into the air filled with rain.

This was my third time hearing her sing the Mermaid's Song.

The second time was a month ago, on the roof of the hotel.

The first time was six years ago, at an abandoned shrine on a mountain.

*

It was back when I still called Hajikano "class president."

The summer of 1988 was in one way my worst summer, and in another way my best summer. As I mentioned once before, that summer I'd fallen victim to autonomic ataxia, and had chills so bad I had to stay under a down blanket in the middle of the day in July. The coldness got worse day by day, ultimately hindering my everyday life. Going to a university hospital that was a three-hour round trip even using buses and trains, I was examined, and it was judged to be a result of stress (which was obvious). The doctor said I needed periodic hospital visits and a long recuperation. And thus my summer vacation started early.

It was unlike any summer I knew. There was such a gap between what I saw and what I felt, everything seemed somehow less real. Even though I'd been given a long break, I didn't have any will to go outside and play - for that matter, I couldn't even focus on reading inside. I feel like most of my time was spent watching a video tape on repeat. I forget what the video was. I only remember it was some old foreign film.

Once exactly a week had passed since I stopped coming to school, as I was watching the TV in my room as usual, I heard a knock on the door. The knock had a strange amount of force, not too strong, not too weak, low-tempo and musical in a way that just barely kept itself consecutive. I'd never heard such a polite knock before. I was sure it wasn't my mother knocking.

"Who is it?", I asked them. The door slowly opened, and a girl with a cute white one-piece appeared. She shut the door without making a sound, then turned back to me and bowed her head.

"The class president?" I sat up, forgetting the cold. "What are you here for?"

"Visiting." Hajikano smiled at me, let down her backpack, and sat next to my futon. "And also, to bring the handouts you've been missing."

I hastily looked at the state of my room. I'd gotten out of the habit of cleaning since no friends had come into my room in months, so it was a mess. If I'd only known she was coming, I would have gotten it nice and neat, I lamented. Then I looked at myself and felt even gloomier. Hajikano was dressed so sharply, she could walk right into her graduation, but I looked pathetic, wearing an unmatching jacket over creased pajamas.

I dove back under the covers to escape her gaze.

"Did a teacher ask you?"
"No, I proposed it myself. Since I was curious how you were doing, Yosuke."

She took a clear file out of her backpack, neatly took out the folded B3-size papers, checked what was printed on them, and put them on my desk. Then she sat next to me again, and looked at me as if to say "now then." Here come the questions, I thought. Why do you keep not coming to school? Why are you wrapped in a down blanket when it's summer? What kind of sickness is it? Why did you catch it?

But contrary to my expectations, Hajikano didn't ask anything. She took out a notebook with her name and class written on the front, opened it where I could see, and started going over the relatively high-importance information from the past week's lessons.

What was the meaning of this?, I wondered, but I obediently listened to her. Within minutes, I was deeply engrossed in what she was saying. New knowledge being told to me from a live human mouth. That was the sort of stimulation I needed most after spending entire days in my room.

Once she was done, Hajikano put her notebook in her backpack, said "I'll come again," and left. As soon as she was gone, my mom came into the room without knocking.

"Well, isn't that nice of her to visit. You should cherish friends like that," she said with pleasure.

"She's not a friend," I sighed. "She's the class president, so she's nice to everyone."

I wasn't just saying that to cover up my embarrassment like boys my age often would. The relationship between Hajikano and me back then simply wasn't such that you could call us "friends." As of moving up to fourth grade, her seat was closer, so we talked more, but that was it; it was limited to the classroom, and ever since we changed seats at the start of June, we didn't talk much at all.

I was honestly happy about Hajikano coming to visit me when I was sick, and deeply grateful for her going over the lessons I'd missed, but thinking that she probably did it out of sympathy depressed me. Because really, she was "the class president" who "had to be nice" to "a poor classmate." Surely she only saw me as a weakling to pity.

The next day, and the day after, Hajikano knocked at about the same time. And she thoroughly went over the lessons for the day. I thought her good will to do so could be largely interpreted as just fulfilling her duties as a class president. But as she paid frequent visits to my room to do everything she could for me, there was certainly a part of me that couldn't help being captivated. If it weren't for my belief that her kindness only came from pity, I think I would have been totally smitten in a few days.

At the time, I had a self-awareness of my love that could easily be called bizarre for a fourth-grader. If it were a month or two earlier, I would probably have a vague choking feeling, but not be able to figure out what it was. But since starting to think of my birthmark as ugly, my personality became extremely introspective. When I had time, I would mentally go over all these things I had just sort of accepted before, examine them, give them proper names, and put them back where they were. Love was one thing I found through this re-examining process.

Every time Hajikano finished going over the day's lessons and left, I felt a terribly miserable feeling. The big problem was, just as she expected to happen, I was very much soothed by her. Even though she was only being nice to me out of pity, my heart legitimately trembled at her smile and her slightest actions, and I couldn't be more miserable about that. Wanting her to think of me as someone who understood things quickly, I secretly did lesson prep with the textbook, and I excitedly cleaned my room around the time school got out - and I was so embarrassed with myself for doing it. I decided to take as blunt an attitude as I could with Hajikano, to at least counter it somewhat. So it wouldn't feel lonely when she eventually stopped coming.

Please, don't show me any weird dreams, I thought. I can't have it anyway, so don't let it into my sight. Stop toying with people with the pretense of being conscientious. But Hajikano didn't know about those thoughts, so she innocently held my hand and smiled "your hand's nice and cold, Yosuke," and lied down next to me to give detailed explanations of diagrams in her notebook. And so my chills got steadily worse.


July 13th was dedicated to a school-wide cleanup of the whole campus. All day, I could hear kids making a clamor outside. There didn't seem to be any classes that day, so I figured Hajikano wouldn't come teach me anything. But at 4 PM, I started to get fidgety, then the doorbell rang as usual, and there was a knock on my door.

That day, Hajikano wore cut-and-sew clothes of white fabric and a calm light green skirt. The uniform for the cleanup day was gym clothes, so maybe she went back home to change her dirty clothes, I thought.

"What is it?", I asked. "There weren't any classes today, were there?"

"Nope. But I'm here." Hajikano smirked mischievously.

"For what?"
"Just visiting."

Hajikano sat by my bedside like usual, smiling at my face without doing anything in particular. I couldn't stand it and flipped over in bed.

"You don't have to come on a day like this, do you?"
"I guess it's become a habit. And I'm worried for you, Yosuke."

I believe I was very happy to hear those words. And thus I chastised myself for getting elated, and blurted out something thorny.

I turned back around and said to Hajikano:

"Liar. You just like yourself for being nice to me."

I thought she'd bluntly deny it.

I thought she wouldn't even pay it any mind.

I thought she'd laugh it off. "Yosuke, you dummy."

But Hajikano didn't say anything.

She tightly pursed her lips and stared into my eyes. She had an expression like a long needle was being slowly pushed into her.

After a few seconds, Hajikano came to her senses and blinked, then tried to smile. But it was certainly an awkward one.

With an expression hard to pin down the emotion of, she mumbled.

"...That one really hurt."

She slowly stood up, turned her back to me, and left the room without a goodbye.

Initially, I hardly felt any sort of guilt. I even felt proud for hitting upon Hajikano's sore spot and getting her to run. But as time passed, the haziness in my chest grew thicker. It gradually covered the entire room, tormenting my heart inside and out.

Had I perhaps been making a terrible mistake?

If Hajikano really were using me for the sake of self-satisfaction, then no matter what I said, she could easily ignore it or refute it. Hypocrites generally establish a way to retaliate when their good will is questioned. They're well aware of how to act to seem saintly, and keep on hiding their true intentions. That's how it goes. Especially if it's someone smart.

But Hajikano seemed hurt by me calling her out on it.

Was that proof that she saw me as an equal?

Did she feel betrayed because she wasn't showing sympathy as a hypocrite, but from her heart?

If that were the case, then I'd done a terrible thing to Hajikano, who was doing so much for me.

I kept worrying all evening in my futon.

...I need to apologize to her.

My heart became set on that as of the next morning.


I felt like I couldn't convey my feelings well over the phone. When the noon bell rang, I got a duffel coat from my bureau and put it on over a thick sweater. My whole body smelled of bug spray. In the coat pocket were tissues and candy from last winter.

It had been a while since I went outside by myself. In fact, leaving out the "by myself," it had been a week. Being in a gloomy room for so long, the sky's blue and the trees' green, the sun's brightness and the smell of grass, the cicadas' buzz and the birds' chirping - it all felt more intense than I remembered it. Was the world always such a stimulating place?, I thought at a loss. I pulled my coat together as if to protect myself, put my hood all the way up, and took my first step on the path to school.

I purposefully chose a weird time to leave the house so I could avoid being seen as much as possible. My aim was spot on; I didn't see a single grade schooler on the road to school besides me. I prayed I could get to school without seeing anybody.

I passed a number of adults, and they looked at me dubiously, but luckily I made it to school without meeting anyone my age. I looked up at the clock tower; it was just about lunch time.

The school seemed a little more formal than usual after not being there in a while. I put my head down and quickly walked to my classroom. I looked through the open door, but didn't see Hajikano inside. I reluctantly went inside and asked some girls talking in the corner where she was. While they were suspicious of my getup, they told me Hajikano was absent today because she wasn't feeling well.

Disappointed, I left the classroom. Just then, I finally noticed the existence of a few dozen photos put up on the bulletin board in the hall. I had my head lowered the first time, so I didn't see them at all.

The first one I looked at was a photo of Hajikano. It was an extremely well-taken photo, so I stopped and stared at it for a while.

The photos seemed to be from a race, a class event in May. Each one was numbered, and you could write the number of the photo you wanted on an envelope to buy it. If I had to guess, it was probably targeted toward parents who came for teacher conferences.

I searched for photos with Hajikano, looking at them in order. The photographer was probably trying to get as many students as possible without bias, but Hajikano clearly showed up more often than any others. Photographers unconsciously choose subjects that make a good picture, after all. I always think that when I watch TV, too. For instance, photos of a school are taken in a priority hierachy, starting with "a particularly child-like child," followed by "a pretty girl," then "a serious kid about to respond to a question." And subjects that are likely to cause viewers discomfort are cleverly pushed out of frame.

While looking to see if there were any pictures that showed Hajikano closer-up, I unintentionally found a photo containing myself. It was a complete sneak attack. I wasn't prepared, expecting there to be not a single one.

Thinking about it now, it was a miracle photo, taken by coincidence. Not in the sense that the photo came out well, of course. I mean it was a miraculously awful photo. It was like a repulsive deep-sea creature.

No matter how pretty the people, sometimes you get photos like this. Especially when snapping in the middle of quick face movement; no one beautiful is perfectly beautiful at all possible moments. Sometimes you get photos that look like you're ten or twenty years older, or gained 20 or 40 pounds. As for me, having the devastating feature that was my birthmark, that took full effect to make the worst possible photo. Normally the photographer should have taken out such a photo, but maybe it slipped in by mistake.

Young girls can foolishly base their self-image upon a miraculously well-taken photo. My self-image instantly changed based on this miraculously awful photo.

Ahh, so this is how my face looks to others.

I looked at the photos of Hajikano, then back at the photo of me. And I asked myself. Do you think you two fit each other? Do you think you're in any equal position to talk with her? Do you think you have the right to love her? The answer to all of those was, "I don't."

My legs shook like the ground had shifted under me. I managed to stop myself from falling, but a stronger chill than I'd ever felt before struck my body. I shivered all over, and had trouble breathing.

I ran home with my tail between my legs, curled up in my futon, and waited for the shaking to stop. My heart felt like it was beaten to the ground; it seemed I was made as weak as I could possibly be. Finally the chills receded, and I crawled out, got some water from the dim kitchen, and went straight back to the futon.

How long would I have to live like this?, I thought, face buried in my pillow. Even if these chills went away, the fundamental problem of my birthmark wouldn't. It wouldn't change that I'd have to keep hiding from people's sight.

Please, someone, get rid of this birthmark, I prayed. But I didn't know what I was praying to. If they could grant this wish, I didn't care if they were a god, a witch, a mermaid, whatever.

This was when I remembered the abandoned shrine.

It was some idle gossip I talked about with one of my classmates one day. A little abandoned shrine at the top of a small mountain on the outskirts of town. If you went there at night and made a wish right at midnight, the god of the shrine would appear and grant your wish - a ridiculous rumor. It had come from seemingly nowhere, but the same claim was made even by students from other schools. A few young teachers had heard of it when they were kids, too. So the rumor of the abandoned shrine always caught the interest of Minagisa children as a ridiculous but not-fully-deniable mystery.

That said, for a fourth-grader to earnestly believe in a fantasy story about an abandoned shrine's god granting your wish... it was difficult to imagine. But my vision being constricted by a long time indoors, and my head fogged up from my illness, and having just been knocked into the depths of despair to boot, I was in the mood to grasp at straws. So that gossip echoed like a revelation to me.

I thought about that rumor for a while from under my futon. After about an hour, I sat up, put my wallet in my coat pocket, and left the house. The time was about 4 PM.


I needed to use the bus to get to the shrine. Luckily, I knew which stop to get on at. I remembered, while taking the bus to the hospital in the town over with my mom, passing by the mountain which the shrine was on.

Twenty minutes after arriving at the bus stop, the bus came. There was only a single old couple on board. Once they got off two stops later, I was the only passenger left.

While waiting to arrive at my destination, I sat at the edge of the far back seat, looking at the monotone fields going by. The road seemed in poor shape, as the bus frequently jolted unpleasantly. The driver muttered in a voice so quiet I couldn't hear it. It hadn't been thirty minutes since I got on the bus, but it felt like two, even three hours. Sometimes, when I saw unfamiliar houses, I got worried that I'd taken the wrong bus. Once I saw the mountain with the shrine, I was relieved and pushed the disembark button.

As I put my ticket and the fare in the box, the driver looked at me dubiously.

"You alone, kid?"

I tried to respond casually. "Yes. Actually, my granny should be here at the bus stop to pick me up..." I glanced toward the stop and purposefully sighed. "It seems like she isn't here yet. Maybe she forgot?"

"You gonna be okay on your own?", the driver, who looked around fifty, asked with concern.

"It's fine. Granny's house is close to here."

The driver nodded understandingly. "Alright. Take care."

Once the bus left, I pulled my coat hood over my eyes and began walking toward the shrine. I soon found the signboard marking the entrance to the mountain. According to the sign, its elevation was only about 300 meters.

Starting to climb the mountain, the paved road quickly ended, and there was just a gravel road so thin that one person could just barely squeeze through. The branches of the trees along the path stuck out everywhere, making it hard to walk, and some fallen trees blocked the path. On the fallen trees grew mold and unfamiliar reddish-green mushrooms, so I was careful not to touch them as I climbed over.

Finally, as I made it up to about the middle point, rain began to fall with no prior indication. The tree leaves served as umbrellas, so despite the sound, not many drops fell. But as the rain grew stronger, it poured down on me alongside all the rain that had been kept up in the leaves beforehand.

After coming so far, I was reluctant to admit that it would be best to turn back there, so I ran up the mountain. But the path was much, much longer than I anticipated. At the time, I mistakenly thought that paths up mountains were a straight shot from the base to the summit. By the time I reached the torii at the shrine entrance, my melton duffel coat was twice as heavy from all the rainwater it soaked up.

I pried open a poorly-fit door with both hands and escaped into the shrine's main building. As soon as I sat on the floor and relaxed, I got an intense chill. I stripped off my drenched coat, leaned on the wall, and shivered holding my knees. It would be impossible to wait until midnight in this condition. But going down the mountain and waiting at the bus stop for the next bus was about as suicidal.

Mixed with the sound of raindrops on the roof, I heard water dripping here and there inside the building as well. There seemed to be some leaks. The water dripping through the ceiling gradually covered the floor, sapping my body heat. The frigid floor and my helplessness worsened my shaking. My teeth chattered, my limbs were numb to the core, and I felt like I would freeze to death, in July no less.

I shouldn't have come to this place, I regretted. But it was too late. I hadn't told anyone where I was going. No help would come for me. The bus driver probably thought I was at my grandma's house, having a nice friendly dinner. How nice it would be if that were true.


Probably about three or four hours passed. I realized the sound of the rain had lessened. I heard the sound of drips falling from one leaf onto another like a reverberation, but perhaps the rain itself had stopped. It was pitch dark inside the building, and I couldn't even see my own hands.

My stamina was at rock bottom. I felt like I couldn't take another step. My senses were faint, and I could hardly remember who I was or why I was here. The only certain things were the chills and my trembling body.

I heard a knock on the door. It was a familiar knock, but I couldn't consciously remember when and where I'd heard it. After a little bit, the sliding door opened, and my vision was filled with light. I was this close to being afraid, but when I saw it was someone coming in with a flashlight, my body went limp with relief.

"So you were here."

It was a girl's voice. That voice, too, seemed familiar. I looked up and tried to identify her, but the flashlight she was shining on me was too bright, I couldn't keep my eyes open.

She closed her umbrella and shook off the water, walked over to me, stooped over, and pointed the flashlight at the floor. Then finally, I could see the face of the person who came to get me.

"Yosuke," Hajikano said. "It's me."

I rubbed my eyes. Why was Hajikano here? How did she know I was here? No, why was she looking for me in the first place? Hadn't she not come to school because she was sick? Did she climb the mountain alone? In the middle of the night?

I didn't even have the vitality left to ask those questions. Seeing how weak I was, Hajikano put a hand on my shoulder and said "Wait here, I'll call for help," then went to leave with the umbrella and flashlight.

I reflexively went after Hajikano and grabbed her hand. Stopping her, I strained my voice with teeth chattering.

"It's cold."

Hajikano turned around and looked at my hand, then briefly hesitated. Should she let go and call for help, or stay here with me for now?

Ultimately, she chose the latter. Putting down the umbrella and flashlight, she grabbed my hand back and squatted down. Relieved that she decided to stay, I fell on my bottom.

"You're cold?", she asked to confirm.

I nodded, and she put her arms around my back and brought her body close.

"Stay still." She patted my back affectionately. "You'll warm up slowly."

Initially, her soaking wet body felt very cold. Stop it, I thought, you'll just make me even colder. But soon, that coldness numbed a little bit at a time. And I began to feel heat from within her skin. My coldly stiffened muscles loosened up from the heat, and my various lost bodily functions gradually resumed. My body, cold to the core, regained a normal human-like temperature over a long time.

"It's okay," Hajikano kept repeating while warming me up. "It'll be okay."

Every time she spoke, I felt strongly encouraged. If she said it would be okay, it probably would be, I thought with all honesty.

I wonder how long it went on for.

Suddenly, I realized my body's senses had returned to normal. I felt the normal temperature of a July night. My skin was a little cold because of my wet clothes, but that was it.

Seeming to notice my shaking had calmed down, Hajikano asked, "Are you still cold?"

I wasn't cold anymore. I was sweating, even. Yet I replied, "Just a little." I wanted to feel her warmth for a little longer.

"Ah... I hope you warm up soon."

Whether she saw through my lie or not, Hajikano stroked my face.


After being warmed up to the core, I softly released my arms from her.

"Class president," I said.
"What?"
"Sorry."

With that one word, she guessed what I was trying to say.

"Don't worry about it," she said happily. "I mean, to tell the truth, it is kind of on my mind still. You really injured me, Yosuke. That's for sure. But I'll forgive you."

"...Thanks."

Hajikano ruffled my head with her hands.

"Hey, Yosuke. I visited you every day because I wanted you to come back to school."
"Why?"

"Why do you think?" She bent her head and smiled. "Um, Yosuke, you might not realize, but I like talking with you. I like just listening to you talk, and I like you just listening to me talk. I also like it when you're there and we don't say anything. And when you go, I'm really lonely."

She stopped there and took a breath, then drooped her head and spoke weakly.

"So don't disappear on me. ...I was worried, you know?"

"Sorry."

It took all I had just to say that.


We went outside, but it was just as dark as inside. The rain had completely stopped, the clouds cleared, and the moon was out, but it seemed like it'd be difficult to walk down the mountain right now. Even if we did go down, the bus wouldn't come until tomorrow morning. Ultimately, we stayed the night at the abandoned shrine.

I still remember it clearly even now. The many names of stars Hajikano taught me, sitting and pointing at the night sky. I didn't understand half of what she was explaining at the time, but every time she spoke one of the names, which felt almost like magic incantations, my body was filled with a strange energy.

"Come to think of it, didn't you take the day off school since you were sick?", I asked. "Are you feeling okay?"

"It's fine. I was lying about not feeling well. Really, I was just sad about what you said."

"My bad. I apologize."

"I forgive you." Her eyes narrowed in a smile. "...Anyway, I was lazing around at home, when your parents called asking if their son was staying over at my house. So I knew you had left the house to go somewhere."

"But how did you know I was here?"

"Do you remember when we were talking back in spring, and I mentioned this shrine once?"

I instinctively clapped my hands together. "Oh, yeah..."

"I thought you didn't like such unrealistic stories, so I was surprised when you got interested in the rumor about the shrine. That left an impression on me. When I heard you were gone, I suddenly remembered that, and thought, maybe..."

"What would you have done if I wasn't here?"

"Wait until midnight and wish, "I hope Yosuke will be okay.""

Once out of things to say, Hajikano stood up and whistled a song. A melancholic, but somehow nostalgic melody. The Mermaid's Song. I had never witnessed her singing it by herself before, so I was at a loss for words from the sheer beauty of her singing. Her voice reminded me of clear, cold water in the bottom of a well. Once she was done, I applauded, and she laughed.

After that, we stared at the night sky for a long time without saying a word. "Let's go back inside," Hajikano eventually said. We went in, lied down on the floor, traded some meaningless words, and the flashlight which she'd left on gradually grew weaker. Soon, the battery ran out, and the room was pitch black. We grabbed each other's hands, neither of us necessarily being first, and waited for morning to come.


With this day, my world took on a whole new meaning. A world made up of "me" and "everything else" became a world of "me," "Hajikano," and "everything else." And Hajikano alone gave me proof that this world was a place worth living in.

People may laugh it off as something akin to imprinting. Like a newborn bird thinking the first thing it sees is its mother. From an outside perspective, it may be I was a fool forever imprisoned in childhood memories. But I didn't care what anyone said. I would probably be a happy slave to these memories until the day I died.



[+]

Chapter 13: The Place You Called From

Time passed in a blink, and before I knew it, it was the deadline of the bet, August 31st.

It was pouring rain from early in the morning. Appropriately bad weather for my last day, I thought, looking out the window. The weather report said it would rain all over the country all day. The TV showed a crowd of people with umbrellas at a scramble crossing in the city, and read out the estimated rainfall in each area.

Hajikano and I gave up on going outside and spent the day lying in the room, gazing at the rain from the porch, and watching disaster reports on TV. The fact that it was the last day is exactly why we didn't want to do anything special, just savor a meager but certain happiness.

In the evening, while listening to a record on a turntable found in the closet, Hajikano crept up and covered my back. Her hands came around to my chest, holding a fruit knife.

"Hey, Hinohara. I really enjoyed these ten days," she said. "It was really like a dream. When I lied down at night and turned off the light, I kept thinking, "maybe this is a dream I'm having unconscious after my suicide attempt." I was worried that the next time I woke up, I'd be in a hospital, all alone. ...But when I woke up in the morning and opened the screen, you were always there. And I was so happy to know it wasn't a dream, and that alone almost made me cry."

Hajikano stopped there.

"...So please," she said pleadingly, putting the knife in my hand.

I refused it, and she pouted. "Mean."

I took the knife from her hands and put it back in the kitchen. When I returned to the closet, Hajikano was lying down there.

She looked up at me and asked, "Do you not like seeing blood?"
"I dunno," I dodged.

"I don't mind strangling."
"I'll consider it."

"That way, I'll be able to feel your warmth to the end."
"I think you've already felt it plenty these past few days."

"Absolutely not. And it's not a matter of how much."
"Greedy, huh."

"That I am. You just realized?" She smiled.

This was when I finally noticed that the crying mole under her eye was gone. I got up close to her to look at her face and make sure it wasn't a mistake.

So that mole wasn't real after all. Hajikano had been seeking my help all along, with that distress signal she thought up in grade school.

"What's wrong?", Hajikano asked, blinking.

I hesitated for how to reply, but after a few breaths, only said "Nothing, it was just my imagination." Now, I was Yuuya Hinohara. Talking about the crying mole would be bizarre. That was within Yosuke Fukamachi's jurisdiction - and he would never appear before Hajikano ever again.

Looking at her at close range, Hajikano closed her eyes as if expecting something. I parted her bangs and lightly flicked her forehead. She opened her eyes and turned away with dissatisfaction. It was such a childish reaction, my face broke into a smile.


After dinner, I went to look outside, and the rain had become a light drizzle. We notified Yoshie reading the evening paper in her lounge chair and left the house. As I took an umbrella from the rack, she stopped my hand and shook her head. One was enough, she was saying.

We put our shoulders together under one umbrella, slowly walking to a coast about twenty minutes from the house. By the time we saw the light of a small lighthouse, the rain had completely stopped. We sat on the edge of the bank, listening to the sound of the waves.

"Hinohara," she said to me. "To tell the truth, there's something I need to apologize for."
"What do you mean?"

She took a deep breath before answering.

"Last night, I finished reading my diary."

I looked at her face dumbfounded. "...Why would you do that? Didn't you decide to stop remembering?"
"I'm sorry."

She lowered her head and gripped the edge of her skirt with her hands.

"Well, what did it say?", I asked.

Hajikano hesitated to answer that question for a long time.

I forced myself not to face the water, patiently waiting for her to start talking.

And finally, she broke the silence.

"Hinohara. Right now, I like you to a hopeless degree. But before I lost my memory, it seems that wasn't the case. At least until that moment she leapt into the sea, Yui Hajikano loved Yosuke Fukamachi."

Her words turned my world upside-down.

My mouth hung open.

She continued. "According to my diary, I attempted suicide another time in the middle of July. At a shrine park near my high school, I tried to hang myself. Yosuke was the one who saved me."

Then Hajikano pointed below her eye.

"Did you notice my crying mole here was a fake?"

I wordlessly nodded.

"This is a signal that only makes sense between Yui Hajikano and Yosuke Fukamachi. Like a distress signal, kind of. When you're hurting, but it's difficult to be honest about wanting help, you draw a mole under your eye to signal it. That's what we decided."

She put her hand under her eye and ran her finger down her cheek, like showing the path of a tear.

"Even after we went to separate middle schools, I would draw a mole under my eye when I wanted help, like it was a good luck charm. I kept that habit even after I lost my memory; not even knowing why I was doing it, after getting out of the bath or washing my face, every day I would mark under my eye with a marker. ...So when I got to high school and found Yosuke Fukamachi's name on the class roster, I felt like I was ascending to heaven. "Ahh, so Yosuke really came to save me.""

"But," I interrupted. "But Fukamachi was saying then that Hajikano seemed to hate him."

"Right. It's not that I hated him, but it's true I was trying to keep my distance," Hajikano said. "Because after that horrible incident, I couldn't look him in the eye. And I wanted Yosuke to just remember me as I was in grade school. I didn't want the memories of our time together being overwritten by seeing me in my shameful present state. ...For better or worse, Yosuke had an accident during spring break and was three months late to start school. So I was able to stay away from him for then."

She glanced toward me to see my reaction, then faced forward once more.

"When I met Yosuke again months later, I was really surprised. The birthmark that covered the right side of his face had cleanly vanished. When I saw him, I thought, "I don't want to burden him." If he knew the misery of my life, dutiful Yosuke would surely throw away everything to come to my aid. But I didn't want to interfere with his life like that, when he was free from the prejudice over his birthmark. So I resisted taking the hand he extended to me, and kept refusing him."

"...I think Fukamachi would be glad to know that," I said.

Hajikano grinned.

"As much distance as I put between us, Yosuke followed after me. He even clearly stated his fondness for me. I tried to bluntly push him away every time, but... truthfully, I was so happy, I didn't know what to do with myself. The thought that he was still thinking about me like this made my head spin with joy. But responding to his affection felt like fooling him, so I refrained. And I felt like there must be a girl much more fitting for Yosuke now than me."

"But ultimately, you ended up stargazing together," I appended.

"I'm so weak-willed," Hajikano said self-derisively. "In the end, I gave into temptation and started going with Yosuke to see the stars every night. In my heart, I told myself excuses. "I'm about to kill myself soon, so can't I dream a little at the end?""

"And then you met me and Chigusa."

"Right. ...Honestly, at first I didn't like giving up my time alone with Yosuke. But once we talked, I found that you and Chigusa were really great people, and I came to like you in no time. Only, Chigusa seemed to be interested in Yosuke, so I was always on edge watching them. Of course, I didn't let it show. Chigusa was pretty with almost no flaws and had an honest personality, so I thought she would have taken Yosuke from me soon enough."

Hajikano looked up at the night sky and sighed.

"It's strange, isn't it. Just a while ago, I was trying to keep Yosuke away, but now I couldn't help but feel regretful if someone else took him away. Even though I should have been supporting their relationship. ...That said, other than that, our days together were really wonderful. All three of you were at a comfortable distance where you'd turn away but let me hold your hand, so I was free to relax."

"...If that's the case, then why did you have to jump in the sea?"

She bowed her head and smiled worriedly. "I couldn't forgive myself for enjoying my life. It seemed wrong for someone who left two girls to die to be having such a wonderful youth. And yet, I kept desiring more and more happiness. I especially wished to get Yosuke back from Chigusa. I came to hate all of that about myself, so I jumped into the sea."

Her story seemed to end there. Hajikano looked at my face, and awaited my response to the whole thing.

Once my head was in order, I asked her.

"Do you still love Fukamachi now?"

"Yes," she nodded without hesitation. "I still love Yosuke. I've lost my memory, but reading my diary, it hit me. "Ahh, I do love this person." ...But it was a "love" that sat on the same line as affection shown to family and siblings. And different from the "love" I have for you, Hinohara. Because the first time I truly fell in love was the moment when you visited me in the hospital and embraced me."

With that, Hajikano leaned against me and hugged me.

Even I didn't know how I should feel.

In a sense, everything I had done up to now was completely off the mark.

In a sense, nothing I had done up to now was wrong in the slightest.

Something like that, surely.

*

But the story didn't end here.

That night, I met the witch.

*

When I woke up, the first thing I did was check the time. It seemed like I'd fallen asleep. Hajikano was leaning against my shoulder and sleeping, faintly breathing. My watch said it was 11:56 PM.

Though the bet would be up in less than five minutes, I was calm enough that even I found it strange. Maybe I had experienced enough happiness in these ten days for nearly a lifetime. So there was no need for hastiness. I couldn't decisively say there was nothing left undone, but to ask any more than this would be a luxury. Considering it was my life, you could call it complete.

I was glad Hajikano was asleep. If I vanished before she woke up, she wouldn't have to experience the decisive moment. Like a cat vanishing from its owner before it's about to die, I felt it would be good to die quietly while Hajikano didn't notice.

I stared at the second hand on the watch. The red hand relentlessly brought today toward tomorrow, second by second. It seemed like I would be in a staring contest with the numbers to the end at this rate, so I took off the watch and threw it into the sea. Then I laid Hajikano on the ground careful not to wake her, and quietly walked to the edge of the bank.

Time passed slowly. Less than five minutes felt like ten or even twenty. They say that before death, your mental activity goes up as your life flashes before your eyes, so maybe it's something like that, I thought at first.

But it really was a long four minutes. It was like the length of a second increased with each one. Or else with each second forward, tomorrow moved a little further away. I even thought that at this rate, I might never reach tomorrow. Like Achilles chasing after a tortoise he could never catch forever.

Just then, I heard footsteps behind me.

I turned around thinking that Hajikano had woken up, and when I saw the person there, I gulped.

The surprising thing was, when suddenly faced with that revealed truth, I was hardly perturbed. No, not even that. Hard as it was to believe, from my own reaction, it seemed that maybe I had expected her to show up from the beginning, and was just waiting for it to happen.

Perhaps, from some time ago, I had considered the possibility.

The wind blew, and the ribbon of Minagisa First High's uniform swayed over her chest.

"It has been a while, Fukamachi," Chigusa said.

"Yeah. Long time no see, Ogiue," I responded with a wave.


Chigusa sat at the edge of the water and looked up at me.

"May I have a cigarette?"

I took a pack from my pocket, pulled out the last one, and handed it to Chigusa. She put it in her mouth, and I held the lighter to her face. Chigusa coughed from the bitter taste and knit her brow.

"It really doesn't taste good, does it."

I stood next to Chigusa and gazed at her outfit once more. No mistaking it, she was the Chigusa Ogiue I knew. Her voice, her body, her scent, her behavior, it was all as I remembered it.

But it was also she who was the "woman on the phone," who'd offered me a bet.

"Don't talk too loud," I said. "I don't want to wake up Hajikano."

"Not to worry, she will not wake until dawn," Chigusa said with conviction.
"Did you do something to Hajikano?"

"Hm. Who can say?", she answered vaguely. "Really though, Fukamachi, you weren't surprised at all to see me. Amazing."

Once I was sure Hajikano was sound asleep, I talked to Chigusa.

"They got a replacement Miss Minagisa."
"Yes, I'm aware," she nodded. "What was she like?"

"I only saw her photo, but she was pretty."
"Hmm."

"Personally, though, I liked the previous one better."
"Is that so. Hooray," Chigusa raised her hands in delight.

I turned around again to make sure Hajikano wasn't awake.

Then I got to the point.

"There's one thing I don't understand."
"Only one? What is it?"

"What happened to the real Chigusa Ogiue? Or, was there a real girl named Chigusa Ogiue at all?"

"Rest easy," Chigusa replied quickly, as if expecting the question. "The real Chigusa Ogiue you met in the hospital safely left two months after you. She is doing fine now, in a distant town. ...And just as you've imagined, the Chigusa Ogiue you reunited with in high school was no more than a fictitious character I played. No such girl existed from the start."

"...I see. I'm relieved to hear that," I nodded deeply. "Well, turn me to foam, drown me, do as you please."

"Please, don't rush things. We have gotten to meet again, after all."

I shrugged. Even seeing the trick unveiled to me, I still had trouble believing this Chigusa was the same person as that woman on the phone. Their voices were different, of course. But that wasn't all. Chigusa to me was a symbol of innocence and harmlessness, and the woman on the phone, a symbol of maliciousness and harmfulness. I had trouble linking the two together. Even if I knew it to be factual in my head.

"Fukamachi, when did you start to find me suspicious?", Chigusa asked.

"I don't know." I shook my head. "But helping you with that reading practice definitely did something."

"It really was just coincidence I was picked as Miss Minagisa," Chigusa laughed heartily. "Don't you think that's ironic? For me to play the part of the mermaid, of all things."

"Yeah. It's ironic, alright," I agreed. "Hey, Ogiue. Can I ask one more thing?"

"So you'll still call me that name," Chigusa smiled. "What is it?"

"Did you put me through all that irrational stuff for some deeper reason than just being a pest?"

"Yes, that's right." She slowly nodded. "I wanted, this time, to make The Little Mermaid have a happy ending."

"...I see."

A dry laugh came out of my mouth.

"Seems like that was a failure, though."

Then Chigusa tilted her head. "...How do you mean?"
"I mean it couldn't be a happy ending."

After an unnaturally long pause, Chigusa suddenly put her hands to her mouth and laughed.

"You're so sharp, Fukamachi, and yet so slow where it's most important."

"What's so funny?", I asked, taking offense.

Chigusa took a deep breath to calm herself, and wiped tears of laughter from her cheek.

I couldn't understand what Chigusa was saying at all.

She stood up tall, and made a ceremonious declaration.

"Congratulations, Fukamachi. You've won the bet."

*

Like I explained before, The Mermaid of Agohama was like a mix of the legend of Yaobikuni told in Fukui, and Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The story begins with a girl living in the little fishing village of Agohama eating the flesh of a mermaid her fisherman father caught without realizing what it was, and becoming immortal also without realizing it.

It was long, long ago.

For a few years after she ate the mermaid flesh, not a single person noticed the change to her body. It was very normal for growth to stop around her age, so even she never even thought that she had become immortal.

A decade later, everyone was astounded by her peculiar body. Compared to other girls her age, she was all too young-looking. White skin and glossy hair, just like a girl of fifteen or sixteen. And not only that. Ever since she ate the mermaid flesh, a difficult-to-describe charm radiated from the girl's body, even seeming as if she glowed slightly. Naturally, the young men of the village became entranced by her.

But after several decades, as others her age had their hair turning gray, the fact that she still showed no sign of aging began to feel definitely strange to the people of the village. There had simply been too few changes to her. It couldn't be dismissed as "liveliness" anymore. Was she really human?

Still more decades passed. By that time, most of the girl's friends had died. And though that much time had gone by, her body still showed no sign of age. She stood at the deaths of innumerable people, her heart worn down each time. When her last friend died, the girl decided to leave the village she was born in.

The girl became a Buddhist priestess, and went around the country in pursuit of death. In her long journey, she acquired Buddhist powers, and came to use them to heal the sick and give help to the poor. But she never found a means to be freed from her eternal life. As overwhelmingly many days went by, she became unable to even remember her own name. And by the time she forgot her reason for traveling, by coincidence, she arrived in her hometown.

...Up to this point, you'd be right to say there's no real difference between The Mermaid of Agohama and Yaobikuni. To get more exact, the legend of Yaobikuni also existed in places besides Fukui. Depending on the region, the protagonist could be a rich man's daughter, or given the mermaid flesh by a mysterious man, but they all shared the point of an immortal girl becoming a Buddhist priestess, wandering the country, and arriving back home.

The legend of Yaobikuni ends with the girl finally dying after arriving home. But in The Mermaid of Agohama, this is where the story truly begins. Back in her home fishing village after centuries, exhausted from a life full of others' death, the girl cut off communication with people and decided to live in the sea. Yet when she saw people in trouble, she couldn't help extending a hand, so as she brought people from shipwrecks to shore and saved people from drowning, she came to be worshipped in the village as a god of the sea.

One night, the girl saved a young fisherman drowning in a storm. The fisherman was hardly conscious, but he thanked the girl and tightly grabbed her hand. With this incident, she fell in love with the fisherman many centuries younger than her. Every time he went fishing, her heart beat fast. At those moments, she really was a girl of sixteen again.

One day, a few years later, a young mermaid came to the girl. The mermaid said she sought the aid of her powers. The girl listened, and found that the mermaid had fallen in love with a human man. She said she would make any sacrifice to become a human and live with the man. Thinking of the young fisherman, the girl sympathized with the mermaid's plight, and turned her tail into human legs. Not knowing that the man the mermaid loved and the young fisherman she loved were one and the same.

As they parted, the mermaid said: "What am I thinking, falling in love with a fisherman of all things? Even though my mother was killed by a fisherman..." The girl had a thought. What if, perhaps, her "mother killed by a fisherman" was that mermaid my father caught? Was it her mother's flesh I ate back then?

When she found out the mermaid's love was for that young fisherman, the girl regretted her actions. But she couldn't interfere with the course of the mermaid's love. I ate her mother's flesh, so I have a duty to advocate for her happiness. That's the least I can do to atone.

And so the young fisherman and the mermaid were wedded. The two had a happy life. It seemed as if there wasn't any room for displeasure. But there was an ironic twist of fate. One day, the mermaid couldn't bear not to tell her husband everything about her, and revealed that she had once been a mermaid, not a human. This set the tragedy into motion. The fisherman had lost both his parents in a storm when he was young, and it was believed in the village at the time that storms were caused by the singing of mermaids. As a result, he had a deep hatred of mermaids.

Upon learning that his wife was a mermaid, the fisherman despaired and threw himself into the raging sea. The mermaid jumped in to save him, but having lost her tail, she didn't even have the strength to carry him and swim. By the time the immortal girl came rushing over, they had long since drowned. The girl grieved, and decided to live alone at the bottom of the sea.

That was the gist of The Mermaid of Agohama.

But Chigusa made an addition.

"Then a few centuries passed, and while leaving the sea again after quite some time, the girl saved a drowning boy. The boy who felt somehow similar to that young fisherman, having some kind of thought, visited the beach near-daily afterward, and he began to weigh on the girl's heart. The boy came to love a certain girl, but feeling that he wasn't a suitable partner for her, seemed to keep those feelings in his chest. I want to help him, the girl thought. This time, I'll make it work. No mistakes like back then. I would make this boy's love succeed in the best possible way."

*

"I win?"

Chigusa nodded.

"Yes, that's right. You have surmounted many forms of adversity, marvelously ending up with a mutual love with Hajikano. Though it seems you haven't realized it yourself."

"What do you mean?", I said, my voice unconsciously raising. "That can't be right, can it? I mean, Hajikano..."

Chigusa interrupted. "Hajikano is not as slow as you think. She had long since seen that you were Yosuke Fukamachi assuming the name of Yuuya Hinohara."

I was too shocked to speak.

"Your long conversation earlier was a roundabout confession. She told you to your face that she had always loved you, and now loved you even more." Chigusa shrugged. "Did you really not notice that?"

My legs buckled and I collapsed on the spot. Chigusa chuckled at my reaction.

"It was convenient for her as well to remain fooled. She hesitated to admit her affection to Fukamachi, but if it were "Yosuke Fukamachi as Yuuya Hinohara," she could share her feelings without it weighing on her."

I ran through my interactions with Hajikano in the past few days in my head.

That time... and that time... that that time...

Hajikano knew who I really was, and still accepted my affection?

I lied down face-up and put a hand over my face. "I was a fool."
"Yes, you rather were," Chigusa agreed.

"So basically, everything was set up for me from the start?"
"That's correct."

I pulled my hand away. "So then why did you take such roundabout actions? If you just wanted to make my love succeed, was there any point to removing my birthmark, any point to appearing before me as Chigusa Ogiue?"

"I wanted the two of you to experience every kind of hardship. Taking away your birthmark, your ultimate weapon which earned you Hajikano's sympathy; borrowing the appearance of Chigusa Ogiue to shake your feelings; creating a situation where there was no salvation except by killing Hajikano - I wanted to have it proven that you could both overcome it all."

"...I get it," I said. "Come to think of it, that letter you sent mentioned "a way for both of us to survive." Was that a trap?"

"Yes. Hajikano saw who you really were because you were constantly attending to her for ten days. If you had followed the letter and chosen to search for "the woman on the phone," you would have very little time together, and it would have likely been impossible for her to realize who you really were by today."

I was starting to accept it, but then a new doubt appeared. "But, that one time, you linked the calls to make an opportunity for me and Hajikano to talk, right? What was that about? Just on a whim?"

Chigusa scratched her cheek with a troubled look. "That was completely outside of my expectations. I did not imagine you would try to burn your face. I mean, there would have been no purpose to it. I was stunned, but at the same time, I rather admired it. I saw you really would go that far for Hajikano. In deference to that recklessness, I allowed you to talk on the phone for just ten minutes. ...By the way, do you have an ashtray?"

"Nope. Put it in here."

I offered her the empty pack. She grinned, put the cigarette butt in her hand, then held it up to me. A moment later, the cigarette butt had turned into a white camellia. Unlike my magic tricks, there was probably no secret to this one. She handed me the flower with a cocky look. I held it to my nose; it had a faint sweet smell.

"Kind of a pity about Hinohara," I said, looking at the flower. "He seemed pretty fond of Ogiue."

"Is that a fact?" Chigusa put her hands together and her eyes widened. "But not to worry. By dawn, there won't be anyone left who remembers me."

"And I'm no exception?"
"Right. Aren't you glad?"

I didn't want to answer that question. I felt like I'd flat-out regret answering, whether I was honest or not.

"I've been fooling you all this time, haven't I?", Chigusa said peacefully. "I played the part of the fictitious "Chigusa Ogiue" smiling to myself with all these thoughts of "if I behave like this, surely it will shake Fukamachi's resolve." Feel free to be more angry."

"...Yeah, that might be true." I took my eyes off the camellia, stood up, and turned back to Chigusa. "But even so, I liked the time I spent with you. And I think maybe you might not have hated your time with me, either. Isn't that right?"

"...You hit where it hurts," Chigusa said, trying to conceal her emotion, and hit my chest with her forehead. "You really are a bad person, Fukamachi."

"We're in the same boat there," I said.

Chigusa raised her face and smiled sadly. "At first, I simply approached you to fulfill the role of testing your devotion. But half a month into performing as Chigusa Ogiue, I realized I was deeply enjoying the role. I was swallowed up by the fictional person I'd created. I got so into my part, I even forgot who I really was at times. The times I spent with you, Fukamachi, truly were as "Chigusa Ogiue," forgetting all my past. ...But, oh well. It's not my first experience with heartbreak. I can't be wounded by such things."

She parted from my chest, stood on the edge of the water with her back to it, looked up at the night sky, then turned back to me.

"I shall reveal one last secret from my bag of tricks. About the birthmark I removed from your face, Fukamachi. To tell the truth, it would have gone away with time from the start. I only slightly accelerated the time it took to do so. Practically the same as doing nothing."

I thought for a bit, then shook my head. "That "slight acceleration" was really important. If I still had the birthmark at the time of our reunion, I think the relationship between me and Hajikano would be more codependent and destructive. So, thanks."

"Don't mention it." Chigusa smiled with her eyes shut. "...Now, Fukamachi. Even once I go, please don't slack off. You still have one final job left to do."

"One final job?"

Chigusa whispered something. As I brought my ear closer to make out what she was saying, she stood up and softly put her lips on my cheek.

After smiling with satisfaction over my surprise, Chigusa leapt from the edge of the water. I reflexively tried to grab her hand, but I didn't make it in time. A moment later, I saw her land on the water. Not in the water, but on. Like there were an invisible one-centimeter floor above the water, she walked soundlessly on the surface. I stood there in amazement, seeing her off.

After walking about ten meters, she turned around.

"Goodbye, Fukamachi. I'd never had such a fun summer before. My one regret has been settled, so now I can finally put an end to myself."

Immediately after, a gust of wind blew, so strong that I couldn't keep my eyes open.

When the wind stopped and I opened my eyes again, Chigusa had vanished.

*

The horizon was dyed orange, and I saw a faint yellow-green on the boundary with the deep blue sky. Early-morning higurashi buzzed and sparrows chirped, and the outlines of things gradually became clear. The white rays of the sun drew a boundary line along the sea which sparkled in the morning sun, perpendicular to the horizon. A morning calm came to heat up the ground, and the wind I'd felt on my skin for a long time came to a stop.

Hajikano, sleeping on my lap, opened her eyes. She smiled as she saw my face. "Good. You're still here." She sat up and clung to me tightly, rubbing her cheek against mine to be sure I was really there.

"Hey, Hajikano. It seems that I won't have to die yet after all."

"...Really?"
"Really. I guess I can keep staying here."

"Until when?"
"Until, whenever."

"Always?"
"Yes, always."

"You're not lying?"
"Yeah. I've given up on lying to you, Hajikano. So you don't have to act like you're being fooled, either."

After a few seconds of silence, I felt her body suddenly heat up in my arms.

"Yosuke?", Hajikano asked timidly.

"Yeah," I nodded. "Not Hinohara anymore."

Hajikano lifted her head and looked at my face closely.

"Welcome back, Yosuke."

"Yeah. I'm back."

Keeping her arms around me, Hajikano shyly smiled and closed her eyes.

And I carried out the "final job" Chigusa had taught me.



Epilogue

This brought an end to my summer of age sixteen. In September, the heat from just days ago seemed like a bad joke, and autumn hit Minagisa in the blink of an eye.

Hajikano began coming to Minagisa First High again, and we walked home together like we had in grade school. It would probably be a while before her memory loss recovered, but she seemed to enjoy being able to experience so many things fresh. Sometimes she would call me "Hinohara" and look apologetic.

Hajikano didn't draw crying moles anymore. Instead, when something happy happened, she drew a mole on her cheek.

"What kind of mole is that?", I asked.

"A smiling mole," she replied. "It's a sign that I'm really happy, and I want you to know it, Yosuke."

"Ah, I see."

I took the marker from her and drew a similar mole on my cheek.

It seemed like it would take a while for Hajikano to get used to Class 1-3. But she was in no hurry. She carefully processed things one at a time, and chose her actions after deep consideration about what these things meant to her.

Lately, my classmate Nagahora was starting to make passes at Hajikano. Maybe he still felt lonely about the absence of Chigusa, even though his memories of her were gone. Every time he talked to Hajikano, she made a worried face and looked to me for help, but she didn't seem to dislike Nagahora. Once, while he wasn't around, she said "He's tiring to talk to, but a good person." I agreed with that sentiment.

When I checked after summer break, all mention of Chigusa Ogiue was gone from Minagisa First High's records. There really hadn't been such a student at this school from the beginning. Not a single classmate remembered her. I asked Hajikano, but the same phenomenon had occurred even in her diary. Mentions of Chigusa had all vanished, with revisions such that everything still made sense without her. I visited Chigusa's house by myself a few days later, but there was only an empty lot full of weeds in its place.

I continued investigating in various ways, but it seemed I was now the only one who remembered the Chigusa Ogiue at Minagisa First High. No doubt with some intention, she had left herself only in my memory. Whatever that intention was, I was glad for it.

Oh yeah, the other day, I saw Hajikano out with Aya. They both had awkward expressions, but their sisterly relationship seemed favorable. When I visited the house, sometimes Aya would greet me in pajamas. She was itching to know how the relationship between me and Hajikano was going, but I kept it vague and asked how she was getting along with Masafumi. Looked like his relationship with Aya stopped at being an errand boy.

"He's not a bad guy, but..." Aya paused. "I kind of can't tell how serious he is, so it makes it hard to know how to respond."

I'll casually let him know next time we meet, I thought to myself.

I was hanging out with Hinohara more lately. Not to do bad stuff like in middle school, but competing at a batting center for juice, or going to a bowling alley in the town over, watching other people's games, and predicting who would win. Generally useless ways of spending time together.

In the middle of October, I went to see how the real Chigusa Ogiue was doing. She looked and behaved strangely differently from the woman on the phone, and was for better or worse a normal girl for her age. We talked for about an hour, and then that was it. However, Hinohara happened to accompany me and had an interest in her, so the two were apparently keeping in touch still. Fate is strange sometimes, I thought.

Occasionally, Hajikano and I still invited Hinohara to go stargazing. Since their memories of Chigusa were gone, Hinohara's hostility toward Hajikano seemed to be resolved. Recently it was decided they'd demolish Masukawa Hotel, which made it hard to get inside. So lately, we were walking around town looking for an even better stargazing spot.

I still unconsciously braced myself when walking by public phones. Maybe just like that night, the phone would suddenly ring, a mysterious woman would correctly guess my heart's secrets, and she'd propose a bet. Yet, if I did get a call from her again, I probably wouldn't take the bet. Though I might go along with the conversation, just wanting to hear her voice.


And, one last thing.

I got a call from Yadomura's sister recently. That girl looking for ghosts in the woods.

As I took the receiver, she spoke so excitedly, I could feel it through the phone.

"Mister. I... I found a ghost."

I asked her what in the world she was talking about. But she replied "I'm keeping it secret from you," and hung up.

I intend on going to hear her story soon.








Afterword

Recently, I wrote a short piece on a made-up term called "the summer complex," and found it had a startlingly major influence. There are people in this world who feel "I've never once lived a proper summer," and every time they see things which they strongly feel to be summer-like, they feel melancholy about the gap between their summers and a "proper summer." I named this trend the "summer complex" for convenience; however, the term "proper summer" which I used casually and vaguely seemed to grab some people's hearts. I believe the large approving response can only be attributed to it being "proper summer," and would not hold true for "proper spring," "proper autumn," or "proper winter."

The proper summer. No one taught you what it was, but it exists in your mind like a memory from a past life, a primal scenery which carries a kind of nostalgia. The clearer this vision is, and the more aware of it you are, and the more estranged your summers are from this vision, the deeper the summer complex. What's more, seek it as you will, the proper summer only exists in your head. To reveal the secret: the "proper summer" is a combination of all the countless "if only I'd"s you've had in your life. Attempting to recreate this summer, well, it's a game that you're set up to lose from the start. To give an comparison, it's like falling in love with a girl you only see in your dreams. Being tormented by "correctness" that doesn't really exist is a strange thing. But however foolish the vision may be, if you think just once "I wonder, is there someone who's lived a summer like that out there?", instantly, that vision acquires the same weight as reality.

A "proper summer" exists in my mind too, and has continued to throw my mind into disarray since I was around 14 years old. Maybe me writing a story about summer now is me struggling to at least reproduce the "proper summer" in the pure framework of a story. Once you're able to give appropriate names to your feelings, that alone can lighten your mood a little. By telling of my summer with the appropriate words, I believe I'm easing that load just a little.

- Sugaru Miaki




Back