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

[+]

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