The Place You Called From
by Sugaru Miaki
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?"
"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."
"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.
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.