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Chapter 5: The Ninth Comet

"Seems clear she wasn't getting on well with her classmates."

The Aya I met that day was a totally different person from the Aya I'd met before. Before, she was always sleepy and bedheaded, so I saw all of her bad side. But in proper makeup and an ironed white shirt, she was no less charming than her sister. She probably knew full well that she was capable of presenting herself in a charming way, I supposed. No doubt, that excellent ability was fostered by the sense of inferiority her sister instilled in her.

"But I dunno anything beyond that," Aya shrugged. "Yui suddenly took to skipping class in the summer, her third year of middle school. But she hasn't offered me any explanation for it. Not to friends, or to teachers, or to family. When our parents ask what happened at school, it's always "Nothing." Maybe decently smart kids just have a habit of taking all their problems on themselves, and not being able to rely on others."

"Yes, she never was the type who itched to tell others about her troubles."

"Right. So sorry, Yocchan, but I don't think you can be much help. I doubt our parents know any more than me, either."

Aya had a much friendlier attitude than previous meetings. One reason was probably that she was sleep-deprived then, but maybe her personality also depended on whether she'd put on makeup or not. When you have confidence in yourself, you can afford to be nice to others.

I had a reason for coming to visit Aya again. While tailing Hajikano every night, I noticed many little actions and behaviors which overlapped with the Hajikano of the past. While she seemed so different on the surface, I could see how fundamental aspects of her hadn't changed so much since back then. And as my conviction of that grew, a doubt also grew in my mind.

Was Hajikano's despair something caused by the birthmark alone?

No matter what, I couldn't see her as a person who would go as far as suicide over a single blemish. Because this was the same Hajikano who had been the only one to accept my birthmark back in elementary school. Can someone's nature change that much in a year and a half? Or maybe it was as simple as being able to accept it on someone else's face, but not on her own?

Perhaps her despair had some deeper reason behind it. We might have been so fixated on the visible as to overlook what was really important. Maybe, in that half-year gap between the birthmark appearing and her starting to skip school, some significant event happened to her?

If my theory, that her despair was rooted in something other than the birthmark, were correct, the first step to knowing the truth would be getting closer to Hajikano's heart. So I first came to talk to Aya, the person closest to her.

"If you really want to know, you'll probably just have to ask her classmates directly," Aya suddenly spoke after a long silence. "There's probably at least one girl at your school who came from Mitsuba Middle School, right? Maybe she'd know why Yui got like that."

"I was considering that, too. But it's summer break, so everyone is all scattered."
"Then patrol someplace where you'd expect there to be people."

"I suppose... Just as you say, Miss Aya. I'll go around places where people gather. And I'll visit the school too, just to be sure. Maybe I can ask students doing club activities."

"I'd love to help and all, but..." She folded her arms and bit her lip. "I've got plans to meet some friends from high school today..."

Aya stopped there and looked over my shoulder. I looked back and saw a blue car stopped in the street with a surfboard on the roof carrier and the hazard lights on. The car was a horribly old make, the hood was mostly sunburnt white, and the engine made a strange rattling noise.

The driver's door opened, and out came a man about the same age as Aya. He was only a little taller than me, but he was lightly tanned and muscular, emphasized by his tight shirt. Wearing a cheap necklace and sunglasses like the compound eyes of an insect, he walked over to Aya, sandals clopping against the ground. "Hey," he waved. Then, acting as if he only just noticed, he looked toward me and asked, "Who's this guy?"

"Friend of my sister's," Aya answered. "So what are you here for?"

"Didn't I say I'd come pick you up, Aya?" The man took off his sunglasses and made a shocked face. "Promised to come by at 1 today."

"And didn't I later say I'd gotten other plans?"
"Nope."

"Is that right? Well, I do in fact have plans to meet some friends from high school today. I can't spare the time for you."

While the man stood there at a loss, his mouth half-open, Aya said "Oh yes," as if she'd thought of a brilliant plan.

"See, this guy needs to go around town to get information. Masafumi, you help him out. You've got all day, don't you?"

"Me?", Masafumi balked, his voice cracking.

"If you don't want to, that's fine."

His shoulders drooped. "Okay, I'll do it," he weakly replied.


The man's name was Masafumi Totsuka. A 23-year-old college graduate who was in the same class with Aya. He seemed to have a thing for her, but she denied his every approach. He'd only just taken up surfing and still had trouble getting on the waves.

"Hey, how do ya think I could get Aya to get friendly?", Masafumi asked, my circumstances clearly the furthest thing from his mind right now. "You're in good with her, right?"

"No. We've only just met."
"But she seemed real fond of you. Ain't she?"
"You just happened to see it that way. When we first met, she thought I was her sister's stalker."
"But you're something like that, right?"
"I won't deny it."

"Then we've got something in common," Masafumi remarked with deep feeling. "Both getting tossed around by a Hajikano."

The car radio was tuned to a local station, playing pop songs. Afterward, there was a very brief news report. It said this summer would be the biggest scorcher in twenty years. Apparently, by July 13th, the rainy season had come to a close all across the country. In contrast to that report, the AC in the car was keeping us awfully cold, and I kept rubbing my arms to warm up. When I got out at my first destination, the high school, my body which had forgotten it was summer was assaulted by the heat, and within minutes, I was sweating like mad.

I went around the school, and whenever I found students who looked like first-years, I haphazardly asked them about it. The school was surprisingly full of students even on summer break, and their activities were highly varied. Tennis players in a sweaty room, getting really into board games. Baseball players in the courtyard, dealing with the swarms of bugs. Couples in the library paying no mind to those around them, touching and getting looks. Art students who spent so long sketching outdoors, they were more tanned than the sports players. Girls in an empty classroom with the curtains shut, talking amongst each other. A guy in the music club who passed out from a lack of oxygen being put on a stretcher. I asked about twenty students in total, but not one of them was from Mitsuba Middle School.

"That fancy girls' school, right?", a boy said. "Nobody would ever willingly come from a place like that to here. You're looking in the wrong place."

It was just as he said. I left the school and returned to the car. Masafumi was reclining in his seat and reading a film magazine. When I told him I'd had no results, he snorted indifferently, tossed the magazine to the back seat, and started the engine.

Masafumi said he was hungry and stopped in front of a ramen place. I didn't feel especially hungry, but I reluctantly went with him. Many flies flew about the shop, and the ramen they served tasted like instant noodles, just with more oil. Masafumi ordered ramen for two and cleaned it up in no time.

After eating, he requested that I explain the situation to him again. I abridged the details, telling him I was looking into the reason why my former good friend Hajikano had stopped attending class.

"Why're you going around investigating what you could ask her yourself?", he puzzled. "Is there a point in being all roundabout?"

"It's an iffy issue," I answered. "Some roads might look like the fastest and most straightforward on the map, but they turn out to be the most roundabout."

"I dunno what the problem is, but I'd just ask her directly."

"I'd agree," interjected the shop owner over the counter. "Girls love to talk, right? If they see you wanna listen, they'll tell you more than you even asked."

"I wonder about that," the owner's wife refuted. "I'd say everyone has a thing or two they can't let anyone know, wouldn't you?"

"Not me," the owner mumbled.

"Oh, really?", she asked doubtfully. "I'd thought you had plenty."

After leaving the shop, we visited places like the desolate shopping district and the plaza by the shore one after another. After questioning some students stuffing their cheeks with cup ramen in the parking lot on the roof of the supermarket, my vitality finally ran out. Let's call it a day, I thought.

Ultimately, I'd gotten no useful information at all. I'd anticipated this, but much less than a student from Mitsuba Middle School, I didn't even find anyone who knew one. How many students from that prestigious school could there possibly be in Minagisa, anyway? After all, I didn't know a single person from there except Hajikano.

"Guess that was a waste of time," Masafumi said from the driver's seat.
"I'm sorry. Thanks for helping today."
"Sure. You better let Aya know I was helpful, yeah?"

Just as I thought we were going back the way we'd come, the car slowed down in the bar district. I looked at Masafumi suspiciously.

"Let's take a detour. You've walked around all day, a little stop won't hurt." And with that, he brought me into a bar.

Poking at mackerel while Masafumi drank sake next to me, I slurped soba noodles with entirely-too-thick broth. It was my first time in a bar, and I worried about my high school self being there, but they seemed to have no qualms as long as I didn't drink any alcohol. But also, how did Masafumi intend to get home after this? Would he leave the car here, or spend the night in the car, or sure enough, try to drive drunk? Whatever his intention, as his passenger, it was naturally on my mind.

After some time, Masafumi left me and walked around the restaurant to chat with some people who looked like regular customers. I half-watched the TV in the corner of the bar. It was some special on ghosts. Hearing voices at night in the abandoned school building, the kind of story you hear everywhere.

I put my elbow on the counter and started to nod off when Masafumi came back to me with somebody. He was an intellectual-looking man with glasses holding a highball glass in his hand.

"Hey, you, you better thank me," said Masafumi, clearly drunk and red down to the neck. "This guy's little sister's from Mitsuba Middle School."

"Hello," said the bespectacled man with a smirk. "Was there something you wanted to ask a graduate of Mitsuba?"

"Yes, that's right," I replied. "But specifically, I'm looking for anyone who graduated Mitsuba last year..."

The man's lips raised into a grin.

"That's my sister exactly."


I parted with Masafumi there. He collapsed in the driver's seat, said "I'm just gonna rest here," and waved at me haphazardly. I went walking for about 20 minutes with the man in glasses, Yadomura, and arrived at his house. He went to call for his sister, then came back a few minutes later alone.

"It seems she hasn't come home yet," he told me apologetically. "I'll bet she's gone to the woods."

"Woods?", I repeated. "You mean the ones by the coast?"

"Right. I think she's there looking for ghosts."

Ghosts?

I definitely hadn't misheard that; Yadomura said "ghosts." But touching on the subject of ghosts no further, he gave me very simple instructions on how to get to where he believed his sister was. I resolutely asked, "Um, what's that about ghosts?", and Yadomura answered with an ambiguous smile, "If you're curious, you can ask her yourself."

After walking down the path between the rice fields, I found the entrance to the woods. The woods at night were something you never got used to with any number of visits. Especially if it was summer. Naturally, without any artificial light sources, only a tiny bit of moonlight came through the thick branches and leaves, and unending mysterious noises from all directions made you uneasy. It was honestly hard to believe that a student from a prestigious girls' school had gone in here.

Following the path, I found an open area that served as a crossroads. According to Yadomura, his sister should have been there. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw a small girl sitting on a bench formed from a stump. She wasn't moving a muscle, so momentarily I thought she was part of the stump.

"Good evening," I said to her, unable to see her face. "Your brother told me about this place. I've been looking for a student from Mitsuba to ask them something."

After some time, a reply came from the darkness. "Then your journey is over. Good job."

"Do you know a girl named Yui Hajikano?"

"Yui Hajikano...", she repeated, as if to get a handle on the sound of it. "Yes, I know her. The girl with the birthmark on her face?"

"Right, there's a big birthmark on the left side," I confirmed, resisting the urge to jump with joy. "I'd like to ask some things about her -"

She interrupted me. "That's all I know. We didn't particularly mingle, and we were in different classes, so I know nothing about Miss Hajikano. From seeing her in photos and my yearbook, I remembered her name for her distinctive birthmark, but I've never once spoken with her."

"...I see."

I tried to hide the disappointment in my voice as much as I could, but Yadomura's sister picked up on it easily.

"I'm sorry. I would love to introduce you to an acquaintance, but I'm poor at socializing, so I don't have any such person to send you to."

"No, it's fine," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. "Actually, I'm more interested in hearing about this ghost thing."

After a pause, she spoke bitterly. "Did my brother mention that?"

"Yeah. You're searching for ghosts here, aren't you?"

"...I don't honestly believe in them, necessarily," she said as if pouting. "And it doesn't have to be ghosts, either. A UFO, some ESP, a cryptid, anything would do. Essentially, I'm waiting to find a fissure in the world."

I pondered her words. I reasoned that those could be reworded as "things which go beyond human understanding."

"Say, mister," she said to me - I wonder if she misunderstood me to be her elder. "I do understand, you know, that the things people call ghosts are just illusions their brain shows them. But even if it's an illusion or a hallucination, I don't even care. If I can witness just one thing that exists outside the laws of reality, I think it would serve to give just a little bit of meaning to my life."

Then she went silent as if to think for a moment. My eyes finally adjusting to the light, I could see her now. She was a doll-like girl, whose long hair going down to her waist gave an impression of being somewhat heavy.

"...In other words. If even just once, you saw the toys in the toybox get up at night and start talking, wouldn't that change the meaning of every toy you ever saw afterward? That's the kind of revolution I'm awaiting."

She went on explaining her reason for looking for ghosts using various such examples for nearly twenty minutes. And once she reached what seemed like her conclusion, she suddenly fell silent like running out of battery, and muttered something.

"I've talked too much."

She sounded like she wanted to fade away. If it weren't so dark, I'm sure I would've clearly seen her blushing.

"It was very interesting," I told her, not actually being sarcastic at all.

Her voice grew even weaker. "I usually have no one to talk to, so when I have the chance, I talk too much. When I get home, I'll have a serious reflection session."

"I know how you feel."
"Lies. Surely you couldn't understand. You seem like you have many friends."

I smiled bitterly, mentally muttering to myself "definitely not." In elementary school, I had made that kind of mistake again and again with Hajikano. After spending long breaks on my own and then going back to school, once I was able to talk to Hajikano there, I would keep talking about things she never asked about, and always felt depressed afterward. What an embarrassing loser I am, I chided, and every time I vowed to be a more quiet person.

"Hey, mister," the girl asked as I left. "Do you think I'll meet a ghost?"

"You'll be fine," I turned back and answered. "The world is overflowing with more intriguing phenomena than you think. I can guarantee that. In the process of looking for ghosts, you might encounter something even more bizarre."

"...Thank you. If you say so, I'll keep at it a little longer."

She smiled, or so I think.

"It's getting late, so be careful," I told her, and left the woods.

As I walked the road back, I saw a number of green lights shimmering near an agricultural irrigation channel. If there was any blinking light smoother than a firefly's, I didn't know it. No ornamental light could turn on and turn off so naturally.

I stood there and gazed at the dreamlike spectacle of faint green, never tiring of it.


I'd failed to mention it to Yadomura's sister, but to tell the truth, I also had experience passing by the coast in search of something, though it wasn't ghosts.

It began with a strange occurrence at the beach.

It was in the summer, and I was seven. I'd come with a friend to the beach and was walking along the waves barefoot as usual. At the time, I liked stepping on the flattened sand after the waves retreated, so I spent as long as I could doing it as long as nobody stopped me.

My friend, meanwhile, got tired of this simple game quickly and began to seek new excitement. He rolled his pants up to his knees and began walking toward the open sea. Not thinking deeply about it, I followed behind him.

"Want to see how far you can go?", he said. "Even if we get wet, we'll dry off before we get home in this weather."
"Sounds fun," I agreed.

We threw the sandals in our hands onto the shore, and took careful steps into the ocean.

The weather was mind-numbingly clear. The sand was all dried up, the ocean gleamed white, and far in the horizon were clouds shaped just like the wave in The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Once the water got up to my chest, my feet became unsteady. Even if I could get my soles flat on the ground, every push and pull of the waves seemed like it might pry them away. We should have turned back right there, but not yet having learned to fear the sea, we optimistically thought that if things got really bad, we could retrace our steps.

The moment came suddenly. The seafloor took a steep downturn, and my legs were swept up. By the time I realized the danger, it was too late; my body was being dragged into the open sea. I tried to hold on with my tiptoes and return toward shore, but my body was only carried in the opposite direction of what I wanted.

By the time the water rose to my mouth, my mind was blank with fear. I tried to swim back, but whenever I stopped to catch my breath, I took in water, and became increasingly panicked. I was aware that when you were going to drown at sea, you should float face-up and wait for help, but that knowledge went off who knows where when I was actually drowning. Unable to find my way whatsoever, I struggled in the water, only worsening the situation.

It came up to the point of thinking that I didn't have enough breath left to survive. When all of a sudden, a hand grabbed my wrist. And it pulled me with incredible force.

Of course, I'm sure I was only imagining it in my fear, and had really only been caught in some seaweed or something. But personally, I couldn't make a calm judgement like that at the time. Certain that someone was trying to drag me out toward the open sea, I shuddered. But I didn't even have the strength left to pry away that hand.

For the first time in my life, I was cognizant of death. Strangely, as soon as I started to become aware of it, my feelings of fear and regret weakened. Only a deep resignation remained. I felt I now had a true understanding of the word "unrecoverable."

I wanted to know who was grabbing my wrist, and tried to grab theirs in return. But there was nothing there. Without me realizing it, the hand grabbing my wrist had gone.

Just then, my fingers touched ground.

I slowly stood up, and found myself in the shallows where the water didn't even reach my waist. I could hear seagulls. My friend was calling my name in the distance. My fear earlier seemed like it had never been; there was only a tranquil summer day. I stood there a while, staring at the wrist which something had been holding earlier. A delayed fear welled up in me. My pulse throbbed, my body shook. I rushed up to the shore, fell on the dry sand, and waited for the chills to recede.

The next day, I came to this conclusion about the miraculous event that happened at the beach.

On that day, I was saved by a mermaid.

Ever since then, I came to watch the sea every day. I probably thought that if I did, I would someday meet the mermaid who had saved me. Or else, maybe I couldn't forget the intense thrill of having such a close brush with death and coming back alive. I'd completely forgotten what seven-year-old me was thinking about.

Day after day I went to the beach, but naturally, no mermaid ever showed up. Gradually, my initial objective dwindled in importance, I forgot about the mermaid, and I was left with only the habit of going to the beach. Yes, I'd completely forgotten - but the reason I went to the beach whenever I could spare the time had its origin in a search for a mermaid.

*

The next day, I met Chigusa in the plaza outside the station. I'd promised to accompany her for her rehearsal for the Minagisa summer festival. When Chigusa appeared at the meeting place, despite it being the middle of summer break, she was diligently obeying the school's stupid rule of wearing your uniform when you go outside during the break.

Minagisa was limited in terms of shops and facilities where you could sit and relax, and more than half of them were packed with students on vacation, so we reluctantly set up camp in the supermarket. In one corner, some high school boys were arm wrestling each other with juice on the line, and in the other, two high school girls were eating ice cream and complaining about their spineless boyfriends.

While I listened closely to Chigusa's melodic voice, I pondered what would be an appropriate place to get information next. A place where there were lots of graduates of Mitsuba Middle School. The first and most obvious candidate was Mitsuba High School. Mitsuba was basically a middle school and high school in one, and the vast majority of graduates went on to Mitsuba High. If I went there, I was sure to meet someone who knew Hajikano.

If you're wondering why I didn't ask there in the first place, you'd be right to wonder, but it was just so far away. The reason Hajikano went to Mitsuba Middle School was because she'd moved to the house of her grandmother on her mother's side. It was over an hour away from Minagisa by train. As such, I would've wanted to settle things here if I could, but it wasn't looking likely. Seems like I'll be going tomorrow morning to ask around Mitsuba High, I thought.

The problem was, it might seem a tad suspicious if I were to go down to that high-class girls' school by myself. Since so many people came to see the Mitsuba girl "brand," Mitsuba High was particularly harsh on outsiders, with guards always watching the front gate. A boy from another school would be the number one target to watch out for.

"...Ever since then, the girl broke all contact with both human and mermaid, quietly staying on the seafloor, occasionally recalling the past and weeping." Chigusa looked up from the script. "...The end. Fukamachi, were you listening?"

"Yeah, of course," I insisted, and applauded her to cover up my inattention. "I got really sucked into it. I'm amazed. You could just go up on stage right now without a problem."

"Thank you very much," Chigusa laughed, shaking her shoulders. "But compliment me more, please."

"It's not flattery when I say you have a prettier voice than anyone in the radio club."

"I suppose I feel rather elated."

"That's good." I smiled wryly. "By the way, don't you need to practice the song too?"

"I am practicing. And though I am, I will not let people hear it yet. And I have no intention of letting them hear until the performance."
"Why?"

Chigusa lowered her head. "Because it's embarrassing," she quietly murmured.

After reading through the script three times, we decided to take a break. I bought juice from a vending machine, and on returning to the table, four men with bright hair and gaudy outfits were laughing next to us.

"Let's switch locations," I said, and Chigusa nodded.

I snuck a glance at her face. The look she was giving the men was terrifyingly cold.

I felt uneasy wondering what she would think if she knew I used to be one of those people. Surely she would give the same cold glance to me, wouldn't she?

We finished up practice and took a stroll down a path by a river. I casually looked over to the other shore of the sparkling river. There, I saw children walking on a hill made silhouettes by the backlight of the sunset, and wires connecting steel pylons painted a distorted musical score in the sky.

Suddenly, a plan came to mind.

I came to a stop and ceremoniously said, "Hey, Ogiue."

"Yes?" Chigusa turned around forcefully, showing me a broad smile. "What is it?"

"Is it okay if I ask you something sort of weird?"

"Ask me something?" Chigusa awkwardly averted her eyes from me, staring at the ends of the hair draped over her chest. "Yes, of course."

"To tell the truth, I have an earnest request of you."
"Huh...?" Chigusa's back straightened and her face stiffened. "A request?"
"Only if you have the time, I mean."
"I do," she replied before asking anything about the time.

"Thanks. See, tomorrow, I'm planning to go to Mitsuba High. I want you to come with me."

"Mitsuba High?" Chigusa looked to find this totally unexpected. "Err, of course, I can accompany you... but what kind of business do you have there?"

I summarized the situation for her. My classmate Yui Hajikano being my friend in grade school. How she seemed to be mentally taxed right now (of course, I didn't mention the suicide attempt). The cause of that not being certain. And how a middle school classmate of Hajikano's might possibly know something about it.

"I understand," Chigusa nodded. "Not a deplorable objective, then."

"I went looking around Minagisa yesterday, but only found a single graduate from Mitsuba Middle School. Probably no choice but to go to Mitsuba High then, right?"

"However, you're wrong about that," Chigusa said with a serious look.
"What do you mean?", I asked.

"I mean that there's no need for you to go all the way out to Mitsuba High, Fukamachi," she answered. "For you see, the girl standing before you now was indeed a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School. What's more, she was in the same class as Hajikano in her third year."

Now that she was telling me this, I realized it wasn't that strange. In fact, I should have tried asking her first thing. If there was anyone I knew at Minagisa High that struck me as being Mitsuba-esque, it would be none other than Chigusa Ogiue.

"Well, Ogiue, do you know why Hajikano ended up -"
"I may know that," she interrupted, speaking like it wasn't of interest. "However, whether I will tell you is a different story."

Ignoring my response, Chigusa firmly made her position clear.

"After all, Hajikano wouldn't even say it in front of her own parents, would she? I simply can't go blabbering about a secret she wanted to conceal to that extent."

"You're absolutely right, Ogiue," I said after a few beats. "But given that, this is what I'm thinking. Maybe that secret in itself is a heavy burden for Hajikano. What if the pain of having to bear it herself and tell no one is the very thing putting pressure on her? Because in that case, I have to know."

"...This may be a slightly rude way of asking it, but." The tone of Chigusa's voice dropped. "Why do you feel you must go that far for her, Fukamachi?"

"She helped me, a long time ago. I want to repay the favor."

Chigusa hung her head and thought for a while.

"Understood," she raised her head to say. "However, you absolutely must not tell anyone else. If possible, act like you don't know even in front of her."
"I understand. Thanks."

"And also..." Chigusa's tenseness eased up into a grin. "In exchange, I will ask a request of you, too."
"A request?"

"I haven't decided what it is yet. I will think about it," she said with a good mood.


Tall sunflowers planted in a field cast thick shadows on the road from the western sun. The blackened heads of the sunflowers all facing west looked like countless giant eyeballs.

Sunflowers chase after the sun in the process of growth. By the time the flowers open, they stop moving; by the time they produce seeds, they bend down as if bowing. After running around without principle seeking light, in the end they just stare at their feet and wilt. Feels like an allegory - so I think every time I see sunflowers.

Chigusa began to speak slowly, choosing her words. "I may have spoken somewhat arrogantly, but in truth, the information I have is rather meager. All our classmates would say the same if you asked them. I believe they all know only as much as I do."

I nodded and urged her to go on.

"You may be aware already, but that birthmark of Hajikano's appeared suddenly in the winter of her second year of middle school. At first, it was as small as a speck. However, it grew by the day, enlarging to its current size in less than a month. Hajikano herself acted as if the birthmark did not bother her, but the change had an impact on the people around her in many ways. For those who felt pity for Hajikano, there were also those who laughed and said it served her right, and some simply lamented the loss of one of her beauties. But on the whole, I believe people were mostly sympathetic."

Here, Chigusa took a break.

"Fukamachi, perhaps you're wondering if the appearance of that birthmark resulted in bullying at an all-girls school?"
"...Did it not?"

She shook her head. "At least until July of next year, Hajikano got on more or less the same as she did beforehand. Until then, Hajikano had such a perfect appearance - though this was no fault of her own - that she had a certain unapproachable nature. But perhaps mitigated by the birthmark, she was liked more by her classmates than before. To my knowledge, Hajikano was never bullied."

From the way Chigusa was speaking, I could tell her effort to not sound authoritarian. It was like she was trying to tell me objective facts about Hajikano from as much of an "official standpoint" as possible. She probably felt a bit guilty talking about her when she wasn't around.

"Now then," she said to introduce the main topic. I braced myself for what awfulness might be coming.

"I do not remember the exact dates, but it was definitely just before summer break, so I believe it was probably the middle of July of last year. Hajikano did not come to school for four days straight. When she did attend school again, I realized that this Hajikano was not the Hajikano from before."

"Thus ends the story," said Chigusa.

"No one knows what happened in the span of those four days. In any event, what did happen in that short period changed everything about her. She didn't speak with her friends, she didn't make eye contact, and once summer break ended and the new term began, she had a habit of not coming to class. Soon various rumors and theories began to circulate, but ultimately, no conclusive facts that sound conclusive came to light."

After finishing, Chigusa gave a little sigh and sent a sympathetic glance at me, no doubt looking at a loss.

"My apologies, it seems I only confused you further. ...However, I believe that if you did go to Mitsuba High and asked around, this is still all you would come up with."

"No, this is plenty. Thanks."

I looked up to the sky. Not only had I not found a lead toward resolution, the mysteries had only deepened.

For a long while afterward, we walked together in silence. I had my things to think about, and Chigusa seemed like she had Chigusa things to think about. When my thoughts finally found a place to land, Chigusa opened her mouth.

"My house is around here, so..."

Before I knew it, the smell of the tide was on the air. We'd come pretty close to the sea.

"This is far enough. Thank you very much for today." Chigusa bowed her head deeply.

"Come to think of it, we sure walked a long way," I said, reflecting on the way we came. "Aren't you tired, Ogiue?"
"I am fine. I like to walk, you see."

"I do, too. Thanks for today. I'll see you later."
"Yes, sometime soon."

Chigusa turned her back to me and walked away. But then, she soon stopped, turned, and called "Fukamachi."

"Today, you did a very cruel thing to me. Did you realize?"
"A cruel thing?", I repeated.

Chigusa grinned wide. "It was a joke. Goodbye."

At the time, I didn't think very deeply about what "cruel thing" I'd done to her. I decided it was a meaningless joke and forgot about it right away.

If I were in a position to be more calm and objective, I probably could have easily figured out the meaning of it. But my head was filled with Hajikano, so I couldn't even afford to consider the possibility of someone showing me good will. Cruelty is less often something done consciously, and much more often done by unmindful people.

*

I visited Masukawa Hotel again that night. For the past few days, I'd been taking an approach of not tailing Hajikano from her house, but lying in wait at the ruins. Even if there was a light rain, or it was windless and sweltering, her feet never carried her anywhere besides those ruins. Knowing that, there was no need to risk tailing her.

I'd long since achieved my original objective of learning why she left the house night after night, to deepen my understanding of her. In essence, she liked watching the stars at the ruined hotel. It was futile to try and extract any more information out of her actions. And yet I'd continued tailing her, night after night.

My first priority now should have been to learn what events took place in the "blank four days" Chigusa told me about. And indirect means such as asking around and tailing were insufficient. For it remained an incomprehensible mystery even to Chigusa, who was as close to Hajikano as anyone at the time.

I couldn't think of any option but to ask her directly... Though conscious of that fact, most likely I was unable to take that plunge because I wanted to watch Hajikano look at the stars from the shadows forever.


The next morning... I'd like to say, but in actuality, it was past noon. Because of my visits to the ruins, I'd picked up a nocturnal schedule of waking up at noon and sleeping in the early morning.

I was woken up by the phone. The ringing sound in the silent house had a hollow feeling like the bell ringing at an elementary school on a day off. Leisurely making my way downstairs, not caring if I made it in time, I answered the call.

It wasn't the voice of the woman I heard.

"Hey, is this Fukamachi?"

It was my teacher, Kasai. To put it nicely, it wasn't a comforting voice to hear just as I was waking up. I regretted not just ignoring it and continuing to sleep snugly.

"Sorry to ask suddenly, but can you come to school right now?"

Kasai's attitude was different from usual today. There was a sense of distance, like he'd taken a step back. Maybe it wasn't Kasai who had business with me, but someone else.

"Understood," I replied drowsily. I wanted to ask why I was being called in, but Kasai's tone gave me the impression that he wouldn't take any questions from me. "I'll head there as soon as I'm ready."
"Right. Bye then."

The call ended. I took a shower, put on my uniform, had a breakfast of salmon slices and wakame miso soup while listening to the radio, and left the house with minimum luggage. The forecast seemed to call for another midsummer day, and piercing sunlight burned my skin.

The faculty room at Minagisa High seemed to be conserving energy even in this heat, so the non-air-conditioned room was just as hot as outside. The staff faced their desks with emaciated looks, and the plants by the windowsill were the only lively things in sight.

Kasai was waiting for me outside the room. Sure enough, he took me to see another faculty member. The one who called for me was Endou, the guidance counselor. He had a striking appearance - a giant body tanned black and a shaven head - that earned him many nicknames among the students, but nobody would say them in front of the man himself. Not only would Endou get irritated by the most minor of things, he was dreadfully threatening; once every few days, he would berate students who came late and make them get on their knees to apologize, or shout at girls whose skirts were a little too short and make them cry. You probably need one such person at a school, I feel, but he was someone you'd definitely want to avoid if you could help it.

Kasai went back to his desk, and Endou looked at me like looking at an inanimate object. Though the conversation took its time starting, asking any questions was strictly off-limits. Teachers like this hated students speaking up independently more than anything.

"Yosuke Fukamachi," Endou mechanically read, glancing at the papers on his desk. Then he turned his chair around, re-faced me, and spoke threateningly.

"What were you doing out late last night?"

This wasn't my first time being questioned by an oppressive teacher. I was called to the faculty room dozens of times in middle school, so Endou's attitude could feel nostalgic to me, even. I could tell he was preparing to shout at me. Maybe he even had definite proof ready for it.

Endou must have called me in to condemn me breaking into the ruins, I supposed. Was it getting around that a high school student was sneaking in there every night?

"I was taking a walk outside," I first replied. Lying wasn't a good plan, but it wasn't wise to reveal myself before knowing how much information he had.

"You're aware that by law, young boys aren't allowed to go out past 11 without supervision, aren't you?"
"I am."
"Then why did you think to take a walk?"

I wanted to say "could there any answer to that besides "I wanted to take a walk"?", but I swallowed it in my throat. I had no choice but to hang my head and stay silent.

Endou broke the silence earlier than expected. "But let's put that issue aside for now. Here's the real question. Do you know of the ruined hotel at the foot of the mountain?"

"Do you mean Masukawa Hotel?"
"Right. Last night, there was a fire there."

A cold sensation ran down my spine for an instant. Yet thinking back on everything I'd witnessed last night, from Hajikano visiting the ruins to me leaving, I sighed with relief. Most likely, whatever Endou was talking about happened after we left the ruins.

"By fire, I don't mean a very big one," he continued. "But it was one step away from escalating into a mountain fire."

"So in short," I interjected, wanting to move this along. "You're suspecting that I might be the culprit?"

Endou glared at me with annoyance. "There was a report this morning. At the time of the fire, a student saw a young man walking from the window of their house. By chance, they also knew that person to be Yosuke Fukamachi. And that's why you've been called here. ...So I'll ask you again. What were you doing last night?"

I hesitated to reply. First off, I wanted to avoid bringing up Hajikano at all costs. Any suspicious slip-ups, I would take responsibility for; I didn't want to get Hajikano involved in it too. But if I said "I went to the ruins to see the stars," would Endou believe me? No doubt about it, it would only deepen his suspicion.

Endou tapped the desk with his fist to hurry me up as I wondered if I had any decent escape routes. "What's wrong? Why can't you explain yourself? Something you can't tell me?"

At times like this, you had to restrict yourself to one lie. From experience, telling two or more lies just made it that much easier to dig a hole for yourself. And if I could use only one lie, I would want to use it to hide the fact that Hajikano was on the scene.

Just as I started to say "Yes, last night, I...", someone interrupted from out of the blue.


"He went with me to see the stars."


Endou and I looked toward the source of the voice simultaneously.

The first thing to leap out to me was a dark blue birthmark covering half her face. Come to think of it, it was my first time seeing her birthmark in clear daylight.

"I believe the arson occurred after we left," Hajikano said calmly. "You should be able to know if you look a little further into the witness report and the time of the fire."

The question of why Hajikano was here was answered by a B4-size manila envelope under her arm. She was probably called here by Kasai to pick up assignments and handouts from the days she was absent.

Hajikano in uniform was probably a familiar sight for Kasai, but totally new to my eyes. It should have been just a common, unremarkable sailor outfit, but when she wore it, it escalated her to something otherworldly. Like the way a skilled player can totally change the meaning of an instrument.

Endou glared at the location of her birthmark, then all around her body, then brought his attention back to the birthmark. I snuck a glance at the side of her face without the birthmark. That crying mole was still there. It was too small to determine if it was a real mole or not.

"Your name?" As if asserting that he was in charge here, Endou picked up a pen and opened a wrinkled notebook. "First-year, I see. Class?"
"Yui Hajikano. Class 1-3, the same as him."

Endou paused and pondered with the pen for a while, but not seeming to know the kanji for "Hajikano," settled for writing it in katakana.

"Another law-breaker, then," he snorted and closed the notebook. "So what were you there for?"

"I went to see the stars," Hajikano answered without timidity. "There's little light interference there, so it's ideal for viewing them."

"You like stars?"
"More than other things."
"Was there any interesting movement last night?", he asked as if testing her.

She thought briefly. "From about 1 to 2 AM, I saw a meteor shower. I believe about thirty meteors went by in an hour."

"Oho. Anything else?"
"It seems that maybe there wasn't only one meteor shower. As there were two or three radiant points."

"There's no maybe about it. It was Aquarius's Delta and Iota showers and Capricorn's Alpha shower," said Endou nonchalantly. "To get more specific, Delta and Iota are split up into north and south showers. So NDA, SDA, NIA, SIA. Their radiant points are close together, so it's hard to distinguish, but they're separate alright. The majority's SDA, though," he rattled off like it was nothing. "If you like stars, you oughta learn this stuff."

I unconsciously looked at the two's faces. Neither had any expression, but I felt the hostility between them had settled.

"Guess it's not likely you're lying about going to see the stars."

With that, he turned back to his desk as if losing interest in us and waved to shoo us away. It looked like he wasn't going to chastise us for being out late, either. I left the faculty room with Hajikano in bewilderment. From behind, we heard Endou say "Perseid is coming soon, so don't miss it!"

Meteor showers. So that's the reason Hajikano had been lying face-up last night.

But I didn't notice a single shooting star. Since there was something more worth looking at than the night sky.


Once we left the room, before anything else, I thanked Hajikano.

"You saved me."

Without looking at me, Hajikano began to walk. Normally, I would have gotten nervous at this point, but her having just saved me from a predicament gave me a push.

"So you noticed I was tailing you. Why didn't you say anything?"

Hajikano stopped and opened her mouth to say something, but ultimately thought better of it and resumed walking.

"I feel bad about following you in secret. It's not unreasonable that you'd be upset. But I've been worried since the incident in the park. Wondering if you'll try anything funny again."

If I was giving her such blatant excuses, it probably would've been better to be honest and say something like "I like your singing, so I kept following you wanting to hear it again." But I was focused only on clearing up misunderstandings and showing my good intentions, postponing the things I really wanted to say.

If it were possible, I wanted to explain to her the reason my birthmark had disappeared. Since fourth grade, I was strongly drawn to you. I always thought that if I just didn't have this birthmark, you would turn to face me. And one day, a mysterious woman called me and proposed as The Little Mermaid-style bet. I could have my birthmark removed, but if I couldn't form a mutual relationship with you, I would turn to foam...

Sigh. Is there anyone who would believe such a preposterous story? Even if she did believe it, depending on how she interpreted it, she might get the impression I made myself a hostage to force her to like me. From her point of view, it was "You have to love me or I'll die." I didn't want to do something that equated to pointing a knife at my throat and demanding her love. So I said nothing more, and just kept walking alongside Hajikano.

Hajikano looked toward me and let out a deep sigh. And as if running out of patience, she finally opened her mouth.

"...I know you're thinking of my sake deep down, Yosuke."

She went quiet after that, and took time choosing her next words. I kept my mouth shut, patiently waiting for them.

"So I want to tell you my feelings as honestly as I can."

She looked at me head-on and spoke.

"Don't care about me anymore. It's an annoyance."

Hajikano turned her back to me and ran. I quickly grabbed her hand and asked the last question I had in store.

"I heard from a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School about your middle school days."

Our faces were so close, I saw Hajikano's pupils dilate.

"What happened to you in those blank four days last summer?"

It was a risky gamble. Generally, I would have wanted to ask this question carefully, after slowly easing up her heart and removing all the obstacles I could. Getting right to the heart of the matter at this point might not only not get me an answer, but make her even more wary. But it seemed I was running out of options. In any event, the question seemed to shake her. There was probably no other time I could talk about it.

Ultimately, that question resulted in her showing me her first emotion-like emotion.

In the worst way, however.

"...Why won't you just leave me alone?"

After two or three blinks trying to keep it in, a spilling teardrop fell down her cheek. Right afterward, the dam burst and tear after tear fell. She turned away to hide her face from me, wiping her cheeks with her palm repeatedly. She herself seemed bewildered by the tears.

I was filled with guilt at the sight of it. I felt like I'd become an unbelievable villain.

As much as I struggled, maybe all I could do was hurt her. So I thought.

Hajikano left like she was escaping, and I didn't go after her. Hajikano realized that I was thinking of her deep down. She lied to keep me from being falsely accused. I'd clearly determined that the Yui Hajikano I'd loved still lived on in her now. She looked me head-on and did her best to be honest. And then she rejected me.

What more could I do?


Had I been a little more calm, maybe I wouldn't have missed the sight of Hajikano's crying mole blurring from her tears. Maybe I would have noticed that the mole drawn in erasable marker had vanished after she wiped her face.

But it wasn't to be. I couldn't look directly at her as she cried. If I looked at her face for more than five seconds, I feel like I would've gone crazy. I was so thrown off, the mole was pushed completely out of mind.


Kasai called to me as I stood there in the hallway. He came out of the faculty room, saw me, and beckoned back inside with a quiet "Fukamachi."

As I stood in front of his desk with a hollow expression, Kasai spoke.

"First, I need to apologize for something. I checked up on you and Hajikano's relationship in grade school."

He bowed his head to me. "Seems you were good friends after all, just like you said. Sorry for doubting you."

I shook my head apathetically. "In your shoes, I think I would've been just as suspicious of me."

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat on his brow, then put it back. He pursed his lips, took a breath, crossed his arms, and leaned back in his chair.

"I've been cautiously watching you these past three weeks. Without any real basis, I was waiting for you to slip up and show your true colors sometime. And I came to this conclusion - at least these days, you're not the kind of guy people would have a strong grudge against. ...So then, now I'm getting less and less sure. Why did Hajikano say she didn't want to be in the same school as you? Plus, say she did hate you more than she could bear. Then why did she step in with Endou and send you a lifeboat? Why did Hajikano come from Mitsuba to this school in the first place? There's too much that doesn't add up."

He didn't seem to be seeking the answers to these questions from me. I could only nod back.

"Of course, even if we solve those mysteries, it's too late. Fukamachi, I don't think for a second you're accountable, not anymore. In any event, this is a decided fact. I'll be telling everyone after summer break, but I'll tell you in advance."

"What are you talking about?"

"Hajikano's withdrawing from Minagisa First High," Kasai sighed.


According to Kasai, Hajikano had been in the faculty room today to fill out the forms so she could withdraw. Her mother had been there too until just before I arrived. After the last discussion and as they were about to say goodbye is when I arrived. Kasai left his seat to take me to Endou, and Hajikano sat there waiting for him to return. After he did and they had their talk, she was about to leave when she noticed me being questioned by Endou, and after some hesitation, came to my aid.

I thanked Kasai and left, then spent a long time wandering the school without an aim, then left. Under the deep blue post-sunset sky, everything looked pale. In my mind, Hajikano's crying face surfaced and vanished. Each time, I felt my spirit slowly but surely being grinded down.

The more I tried to go after her, the further away she seemed to get. And as a matter of fact, she had chosen to go far away. Though her destination wasn't clear, it was somewhere out of my reach.

How does it feel to vanish into foam? I pictured it. It probably doesn't hurt. Your existence just becomes something thin and uncertain, gradually dissolving in the waves. I felt like there could be no more suitable way to die for a person in the depths of despair over lost love.


At this point, of course, it wasn't as if I could realistically visualize my death. That wouldn't be until half a month later, when I personally witnessed a person vanishing into foam.

*

I didn't feel like going straight home, so I passed by my house. My feet naturally brought me someplace lively. Past the shuttered street, on a long quiet hill lined with bars and snacks, my aimless wandering brought me to a most unexpected reunion.

While gazing at paper lanterns illuminating the stores red and gaudy signs, I thought I heard someone call my name. But I looked all around and saw no one, much less the source of the voice. Just as I determined it to be a misheard remark from inside one of the stores, I heard my name shouted more clearly.

I looked up and met eyes with someone looking down from the second-floor veranda of a bar. Hinohara said "Wait there" and went back inside. A few seconds later, the upstairs light went out. I sat on the curb and waited for him to come down.

Yuuya Hinohara was a friend of mine in middle school. On the night of our graduation, when the job-getters and high-school-goers had a four-on-three fight, he was one of them. Like me, he was proceeding to high school.

Hinohara went to Minagisa South High School, a somewhat less reputable school than Minagisa First High, but he seemingly applied there simply because he had no real preference for where he went. Though far too intelligent to even begin comparing him to me, he didn't aim for Minagisa First High because he only cared to attend a high school that was within walking distance.

Maybe I'm not really one to talk, but Hinohara was a strange guy. Though his test scores were generally below average, he shocked everyone around him by ending up with around 90% in all his classes. It goes without saying that he was suspected of foul play, but by the latter half of his second year, the teachers had recognized the sheer strength of his dormant abilities. Such a waste, they said in unison. If he took his studies seriously, he could be at the top of the class.

Hinohara, a man with no interest in improving his grades and showing his academic prowess, told me only once about his reason for only rarely taking things seriously.

"I want everyone to get a taste of the irrational," he said in a low, echoing voice. "I want them to know full well that there's someone who can learn in three days what they spent a month on."
"Is that meant to be an enlightenment of sorts?", I asked.

"You could say that. Basically... Once upon a time, there was a woman who thought herself to be beautiful, with average intelligence. One day, she met a woman so perfectly beautiful she couldn't even compare herself to her, and was so shocked she wanted to go around smashing all the world's mirrors. What do you think the woman did then?"

"Had the beauty eat a poison apple."

"Dumbass," he snorted. "Obviously she'd start to work on more than just looks, right? Because she'd been shown there was a competitor she could never beat fair and square. So that's the kind of enlightenment I try to give to students."

He was a man who could say that with a straight face.

By process of elimination, Hinohara would probably be the person I was closest to in middle school. Both he and I had no interest in hanging out with healthy sorts, but that certainly didn't mean we felt at home with delinquents either. Wherever we were, we felt the discomfort of being in the wrong place. Just naturally, it made us get together often.

The tacit agreement between us was "I won't seek anything from you, so you don't seek anything from me." We formed a bond to make it through middle school days full of tedium and irrationality, and were in fact glad that we could think of each other as merely "convenient friends."

"Sorry to keep you." I heard Hinohara, then saw him descend down old steel steps along the wall of the building. He was dressed light - faded T-shirt, cut-off jeans, black beach sandals. He came up to me and playfully tapped my chest with his fist. "Been a long time. You been doing well?"

"Averagely." I grabbed his fist and pushed it back.

"What's with your face? Where'd the birthmark go? Got surgery or what?"
"It went away naturally. Seems like Mongolian spots go away as you grow."

He folded his arms and twisted his neck. "What a shame. I think I liked it better before. There was something amazing about that birthmark, let's say."

"Thanks. But I'm living a normal high school life now, so I don't need "amazingness.""
"A normal life? You?", Hinohara asked with suspecting eyes.

"Yeah, normal. Since April, I haven't punched a single person, and nobody's punched me. Haven't even been drinking in the gym storeroom or smoking on the emergency stairs. It's a peaceful high school life, nothing awry."

Of course, it was only "normal" if you omitted the many circumstances surrounding the bet. But there was no point giving a thorough explanation of all that to Hinohara. All it'd come to is him thinking it was an intricate joke.

"Our Yosuke Fukamachi, enjoying high school like a normal person..." Hinohara seemed deeply impressed.

"What about you, Hinohara? Same as ever?"
"How should I explain it?", he said, scrunching up his face. "Well, I'd like you to know the significance of me explaining it, too. Seeing as you're wandering around here at this hour, I assume you've got the time?"

Hinohara started walking without waiting for a reply. Without thinking much about it, I followed.


Hinohara led me to a parking lot for a public housing district surrounded by a tall fence. He didn't say this was our destination and seemed to be using it as a shortcut, so I had my guard down. I heard low voices from the corner of the lot, but students being out here at night wasn't uncommon at all in this town, so I paid it no mind.

By the time I realized who they were, it was too late.

Hinohara pushed me from behind in front of them. The four squatting and talking all looked at me at once, and smiled maliciously.

"These guys were pretty insistent about bringing you here," Hinohara laughed dryly. "Didn't think you'd show up for me. Saved me the effort."

I scratched the back of my neck, and tried to remember the names of those faces I hadn't seen in some time... From left to to right, it was Inui, Nogiyama, Mitake, and Harue. They were the four getting jobs in the big fight on graduation day.

I was aware they had a grudge because of that day. In spring, it seemed they would occasionally call me or lie in wait outside my house, but I was hospitalized the whole time, so I ended up not seeing them. Four months had passed by now, so I figured their anger had settled. But I guess I'd underestimated their deep-seated grudge.

It would've made sense if Hinohara was also their target, but this time he seemed to be on their side. I wondered if he was told that he'd be spared if he turned me in. Hinohara was the kind of person to readily sell a friend to save his own hide. He was selfish - or just that cold, maybe.

"Haven't seen you since graduation, huh?", spoke the tallest man, Nogiyama. "Sounds like you were in the hospital 'til recently."
"Yep, I had an accident the night of graduation, after I left. So I had a pretty long spring break."

Nogiyama laughed, and the other three followed. Seems like the power dynamic between these four hasn't changed, I thought. Just like in middle school, Nogiyama assumed clear superiority over the other three.

"You know what's gonna happen next?", Nogiyama asked.
"Couldn't say. Maybe the six of us can go drinking to let bygones be bygones?"

Again, Nogiyama laughed, and the three imitated. Hinohara looked on emotionlessly, but I doubted he had even the slightest intention of coming to my aid. He was that kind of guy. I was on my own to handle this problem.

Nogiyama took a metal bat from one of his henchmen, and after a few test swings, he drew near me and pushed it to my jaw.

"Must've been glad to have that long break, huh? I was glad to hear you were in the hospital myself. 'Cause if my friends are happy, I'm happy. ...So here's what I'm thinking. How 'bout we extend your summer break, too?"

Nogiyama gave a self-satisfied grin, and the three cackled.

I re-evaluated the situation. One against four. Depending on Hinohara's mood, one against five. One of them has a metal bat. I couldn't imagine any chance of victory. It was probably best to swallow my pride and run, but they were already closing the distance, driving me into the corner of the parking lot.

I'd just have to prepare for the worst, I thought. Resist as much as I could manage, and leave it up to luck -

Just then, it happened.

"Fukamachi?"

I couldn't see her because of the men standing in my way, but I didn't need any further confirmation of who had spoken.

Nogiyama slowly turned around. I felt a chill run down my spine.

Chigusa, dressed in uniform, was looking at me anxiously.

Why was Chigusa out at this hour? I ran through my thoughts. And I remembered Chigusa saying we had an appointment today for the Minagisa summer festival.

Talk about poor timing.

"I see," Nogiyama said as if having a realization. He was sharp enough to immediately tell the relationship between us.

Nogiyama turned back to me and smiled, a completely face-contorting smile. Like he was just so pleased about what was going to happen.

The situation had changed. There was no time to hesitate. Any action would have to be as quick as possible. While Chigusa's appearance has them distracted and unprepared - this was the only chance I had.

Just as Nogiyama instructed to the other three "Hey, get her over here," I went on the attack. Aiming for the moment he turned back to me, I landed a blow square on his nose. Stepping on his wrist after he fell backward, I pried away the bat, flipped it around, and thrust it right into his solar plexus. Already holding his nose with both hands and writhing, this kept him from moving any further.

Hearing Nogiyama wail, the three headed for Chigusa finally noticed the commotion behind them. They rushed over and tried to jump me, but I kept them at bay with the bat, then making another forceful blow with it on Nogiyama's shin. He let out a yell of anguish. I felt bad for him, but the theory for a one-against-many fight like this called for an overwhelming beatdown of the group's leader. By creating a situational difference between the head and the followers, you could set them up as onlookers. So I could show no discretion.

Suddenly looking up, I saw Chigusa standing there expressionless. "What are you doing? Get away from there!", I told her, and she nodded, but didn't move from that spot. Maybe she wanted to move, but couldn't.

As a last performance, I kicked Nogiyama in the side, then threw the bat down in front of the three rendered immobile from panic. It made a loud sound as it hit the asphalt. After seeing no one go to pick it up, I squatted down, took a deep breath, and looked up.

"Would you let me call it here for today?"

I put on a smile that looked flattering, but had a hint of cockiness. Of course, it was just a bluff. If the three attacked me all at once, there was nothing I could do.

"If you're just not satisfied, beat me with that bat until you feel better. Then we can call it a draw."

The three looked at each other. Then they looked at curled-up Nogiyama writhing in pain. Two of them picked him up, and with a glare at me, they left in silence.

In the end, only Hinohara remained.

"So, what about you?", I asked him, scratching the back of my neck.

"Nothing, really," he shrugged. "I was just told to bring you here. Man, though, that was quite a show. Always liked that resoluteness of yours."

Then Hinohara glanced at Chigusa. She was still frozen in the same stance as when I called to her. He walked up to her, said "Sorry you got involved in something weird," and walked off in a different direction from Nogiyama's crew. Maybe the reason those three backed off so easily could be owed to the lingering chance of Hinohara coming to my aid, I realized.

Once he was out of sight, I sat down on the spot with relief and closed my eyes. Such luck. That everything went so smoothly could be nothing but a miracle. If there were a next time, it certainly wouldn't play out this way again.

When I opened my eyes, Chigusa was looking down at me.

Her eyes didn't have any emotion in them. Like she wasn't looking at me, but through me, at the design of the fence behind me

"Who were those people?", she asked.
"Friends from middle school," I replied, not untruthfully.

"Middle school, you say. ...Come to think of it, I never did ask what school you came from, Fukamachi."
"You can probably guess now."

Strangely, I laughed. It was a dry laugh.

The sensation of hitting Nogiyama still lingered in my fingers. I closed and opened my hand to get it away, but the impure exhilaration in my hands wouldn't fade easily.

"Minagisa South Middle School. Just like the rumors say, it was a place full of good-for-nothings. Like me, and like those guys."

Chigusa thought for a moment. "Occasionally, I heard of students from there assembling in ruins on the outskirts of town. Were those acquaintances of yours?"
"Not just acquaintances. I was one of them."

"Is that a fact," Chigusa said with no real surprise. "So you were a bad person, Fukamachi."

"Yeah, that's it." I lifted the corners of my mouth. "No more questions?"
"Correct," she nodded.

Now Chigusa hates me too, I thought. I can't get my way out of this. Even if I did it to protect her, there was no mistaking it was a brazen act of violence.

But in a sense, this was an outcome I wanted. I had a natural liking toward Chigusa Ogiue. It seemed to me that Chigusa had a similar kind of appreciation for me. Thus, I thought there was a need for her to start hating me.

August 31st - which, come to think of it, was the last day of summer vacation. If I couldn't move Hajikano's heart by then, I would vanish into foam. If I, as a friend, were to suddenly be lost, Chigusa at least would be made sad. The deeper our relationship got, the more severe the pain promised to her would be.

So before the time came to part, it was good to make myself hated. If by August 31st I could essentially exhaust Chigusa's good graces for me, then even when I turned to foam, she wouldn't be too torn up about it. Maybe she'd think something like "I should have been a little nicer to him," but it would sidestep any devastating wounds.

I had been wondering how I could go about disappointing her. So depending on how you thought about it, you could say Nogiyama and his lackeys saved me effort. There was no clearer way to show my disgraces to Chigusa. I proved Yosuke Fukamachi to be a person who was involved with dubious sorts, who wouldn't be above violence if it came to it. Chigusa would no doubt scorn me for it. Thank goodness.

I took a cigarette out of my pocket and lit it. I kept a puff in my lungs for a long time, then slowly exhaled.

Chigusa watched the whole thing without moving an eyebrow.

Once about two centimeters of the cigarette had been turned to ash, she broke the silence.

"Come to think of it, I've yet to decide my "request.""
I blinked. "Oh yeah, I did promise that."

I misjudged you. Please, never talk to me again.

Surely that was what she'd say, I thought.

"Fukamachi."

Chigusa suddenly smiled.


"Please, make me a bad person."


It was the night of July 31st.

The cigarette fell out of my mouth to the asphalt, launching miniature fireworks.



[+]

Chapter 6: The Place I Called From

August 1st was a designated all-school attendance day at Minagisa First High. Arrive by 9 AM, get a long list of tasks from your teacher, then take a thirty-minute break. Then starting at 10, a talk from the principal in the gym. Once that was over and you got back to the classroom, then began the students' favorite: discussions for the culture festival. The class attractions, the assignment of duties, the time of your next meeting (if necessary) - it all had to be decided within the day. Depending on the class, talks could go right up to 7 PM, the school's ultimate closing time.

Surprisingly enough, the principal's talk wrapped up in less than ten minutes. Retreating from the sweltering gym stuffy with every single student's warmth back to the classroom, as the room was filling with excitement to let the festival prep begin, I leaned over and talked to Chigusa in the seat beside me.

"This could get long, so let's sneak away."

Chigusa blinked a few times, then grinned.

"Ten minutes, next to the gate," I whispered.

Chigusa quickly prepared to leave, and altogether casually slipped out of the classroom. A few eyes gathered on her bold escape, but since she was so natural about it, the witnesses all seemed to rationalize it with various interpretations.

One person harbored doubts: Nagahora in the seat in front. "Is she feeling sick? Ogiue never leaves early."

"Maybe," I said ignorantly. "Or maybe it's simple sabotage."

"No way." Nagahora laughed with a raised eyebrow. "That word couldn't fit anyone in this class less than Ogiue."

"I guess that's true," I agreed, then grabbed my bag and stood up.

"Whoa, don't tell me you're leaving early too?"
"I'm feeling sick."

Evading Nagahora's pursuit, I escaped the classroom. To avoid running into any staff, I went down the stairs to the hallway leading to the gym, put my indoor shoes in my shoebox, held my outdoor shoes in one hand, and took a detour to leave the school without passing in front of the faculty room.

Though Chigusa left the classroom first, she arrived at the school gate after I did. The sight of her spotting me and jogging over gave me a feeling of wrongness I have no good way of describing. I couldn't tell what exactly it was.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Chigusa said short of breath.

We walked along together. We heard faint chatter and laughter from the open windows of the buildings.

"This is the first time in my life I've left school in the middle of the day."
"You come to class too many days to count anyway. Those who skip win."

"You truly are bad, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked, finding it too funny to bear. "So, where might we be headed to now?"
"Who knows. I'm still thinking about it."
"Then let us sit down somewhere and think it over together."

We went into a nearby bus stop. It had a roof, so it was the perfect place to do some thinking while protected from the sunlight. A bus only came once every hour or two, so we wouldn't even be mistaken for passengers and cause drivers any trouble. The sheet iron walls had holes in places, and posters and tin signs for used car places and consumer loans were plastered all over them like a mosaic.

Seeing Chigusa sit and stretch her legs, I finally realized what was amiss earlier. Her skirt was shorter than usual. That said, it was at most 15 centimeters above the knee, and plenty of girls at Minagisa First High wore skirts that length. But for Chigusa who essentially never deviated from the uniform, it was something unheard of.

Until then, I had never thought deeply about the beauty of knees, and only classified them as thick or skinny. But when I saw Chigusa's knees, I had to recollect my thoughts. Knees, just like the eyes, the nose, and the mouth, could be a strongly defining body part. Just a few millimeters difference had such a massive change in impression, a delicate yet eloquent feature. And Chigusa's knees were more ideal than any I'd ever seen. Painting an elegant curve with no wrinkles, her knees brought to mind a carefully-cooked white porcelain vase.

"Is that another way of "letting your parents down"?", I asked, looking at her knees.

"Ah, so you noticed." Chigusa lifted her bag onto her lap to block my gaze. "That's right. I made it shorter. I feel somewhat restless."

"It feels really fresh to see you dressed like that."
"My apologies, they're so unsightly..." Still holding her bag, she bowed repeatedly like a pecking bird.

"Have some confidence. You have such pretty legs, after all."
"Do you think so...? Thank you very much."

With her head still bowed, she thanked me ticklishly, but didn't budge the bag on her lap.


"One day in my third year of middle school, I realized something. I was a mediocre person who could easily be replaced, like an extra in a picture."

The night I was attacked by Nogiyama, after Hinohara left, Chigusa told me: "Please, make me a bad person." Convinced I would hear a rejection at that moment, it was completely unexpected. Stomping out the cigarette that fell from my gaping mouth, her words echoed in my mind.

Make me a bad person?

"Sorry, perhaps putting it that way is unclear." Chigusa averted her eyes and scratched her cheek. "I'll explain in the proper order. Though it may not come across very well..."

Then she began to speak, bit by bit. In her third year of middle school, while taking a course on interviewing, she was astonished to realize she couldn't think of a single thing to describe herself as a person. She became aware for the first time that she'd just lived as her parents told her to, not making a single decision worth calling a decision.

"In other words, I was an empty person," Chigusa said as if reading a sentence she'd already read. "I had no failures, but I had no successes either. I could serve in many people's place, but many people could take my place. I could be liked by anyone, but I could not be anyone's favorite. That was Chigusa Ogiue."

She averted her eyes and smiled self-derisively.

"Of course, that could apply to many people on some level. However, my mediocrity stood a head above the rest. When my friends spoke about their past experiences, I always felt uncomfortable, as if someone was sneering at me. On occasion, I even felt like I was being blamed. "You're lacking in experience in every sense, you don't have any way to describe yourself - such an empty person.""

Perhaps remembering her pain, her words were slightly hoarse.

"There were many people with nothing inside them all around me. Mitsuba Middle School, where I once attended, felt like a collection of samples of girls living tedious lives. People traveling down pre-laid rails without a single doubt, only deciding which car and which seat to sit in, convinced they were making crucial life decisions. That said, somehow they seemed to think of themselves as fairly individualistic people. To my eyes, it seemed as if they had made an agreement to forcibly characterize each other and put on an act of being rich with personality."

Worried I would be bored by her long story, Chigusa kept glancing at my expression. I kept nodding to show interest and encourage her to continue.

"I felt a faint coldness from such a relationship, and quickly changed my choice of high school. Perhaps something would change if I went there, I thought. Of course, my parents resisted, but I managed to coax them with assorted logic. That was my first time clearly defying my parents' will. My heart danced to have finally been able to take the first step in my own life. ...Yet, ultimately, even at Minagisa First High, the fundamental parts of me did not change. A commonplace cheery girl had simply changed into a commonplace mature girl."

At this point, Chigusa looked up into my eyes.

"So, Fukamachi. I want to stick outside the box. I don't believe there's any aspect in which I excel over others. So I at least want to do things to make people furrow their brows, to have teachers scold me, to disappoint my parents - to escape a pre-established harmony. Whatever filthy color it may be, I want to be a more genuine me. Will you assist me with that?"

There was plenty of room for a rebuttal. For one, I'd never thought of Chigusa as a mediocre, commonplace person, and could offer up several ways she excelled over others. Most importantly, only a handful of truly unique individuals existed in the world, and she was making a mistake asking the far-more-mediocre me for assistance.

But I gulped down the words as they came up my throat. This was the conclusion Chigusa herself had come to after plenty of thought. It wasn't an issue for me to speak on, having known her for less than a month. If Chigusa wanted to stick outside the box, then that was the right thing to do. Even if it was a mistake, a mistake done after careful consideration is worth about as much as the right thing.

"Got it. I'll help," I agreed. "But what exactly should I do to make you a bad person?"

Chigusa spoke after a decent pause.

"I don't mind if it's only for the day. Tomorrow, could you treat me as if I were one of your middle school friends? I'd like to experience the unhealthy lifestyle you once lived with your friends."

That would be fine, I thought. To tell the truth, I didn't want Chigusa to be a delinquent, and spending more time together would make it harder to part. But if it was just a day, that was nothing. I had plenty of time to make a recovery afterward. If that made her feel better, then why not?

Just maybe, when we first met and she said "Wish for my freedom," this was what she meant.


"Have you thought of something?", Chigusa asked, moving the bag on her lap to the side.
I shook my head. "Delinquent things are hard to think up on the spot."

"Then let's enforce some limits," she said, sticking up her index finger. "Did you ever slip away without permission with your friends in middle school?"
"Countless times."
"Do any such days stick out in your memory?"

I searched my thoughts. "Come to think of it... Second year, in summer, I faked sick in fifth period to get out early. We got out at different times, and met up outside of school like today."
Chigusa jumped on it. "Tell me more about that day, please."

"We sneakily bought cigarettes from a vending machine, then had a party in Hinohara's room. Oh, Hinohara's the one guy who apologized to you last night, Ogiue. His house was a bar, so he had plenty of alcohol. We didn't really know how to drink at the time, so we just kept drinking without stopping. I remember both of us getting drunk in no time, and throwing up in the toilet together."

"Wonderful. That sounds fun," she said with a smile, then seeming to have an idea.

"Let us do that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we should party at my house."

"Are you being serious?"
"Yes. It's all right. There should be alcohol at my house."

Chigusa got up and leapt into the sun outside the bus stop. Then she turned and beckoned to me.

"Let's go, Fukamachi."


After going down a long, winding hill, the lake smell grew stronger. Chigusa's house was in an intricate residential district.

I'd already had the thought when escorting her home yesterday, but it was a model semi-rich family's house. Made of brick, with a mowed lawn, a shined-up expensive car, a garage full of tools, and a porch lined with decorations in good taste. It was all above average, yet you could clearly see where the family was making compromises. That kind of house. Of course, there was no doubt it looked pretty wealthy compared to my place.

Chigusa led me into the house through the back door. Built on an incline, the house had entrances on both the first and second floor. The second-floor entrance, facing a wide path, seemed to be used as the front door, whereas the first-floor, facing a thin path, was the uncommonly-used back door. It was the ideal design for Chigusa to sneak in without her family noticing.

Not turning on the hallway lights, we proceeded down the hall with extreme care not to make any noise, my eyes on Chigusa's back. The reversed roles of first and second floors wasn't limited to the entrances; the living room and kitchen were on the second floor, with the bedrooms and nursery on the first. Though a relatively minor difference, I felt extremely restless, like I was driving backwards down a one-way road.

After we entered Chigusa's room and she locked the door, I let out a deep sigh. The room was air-conditioned and comfortable. "Take a seat," she told me, so I sat in a chair in front of a coffee table. Starting with the chair and table, I noticed the room furniture had a matching dark brown color scheme. Maybe it was a little too calming for a sixteen-year-old girl's living space. Or maybe girls' rooms were just like this nowadays?

"I've secretly brought a boy into the house," Chigusa said. "It would be dreadful if my parents found out."
"I'll pray that won't happen."
"Since what's more, it's former bad boy Fukamachi."

"Just so I know, what would happen if we were found?"
"Nothing, really. It would just be terribly awkward. Surely my father and mother would be unsure how to treat me, I suppose. Such a development wouldn't be so bad."

"Well, maybe an excessively orderly family needs a little chaos."
"Indeed. So you need not worry, Fukamachi."

Chigusa opened a cabinet and took out two white cups, then three marine blue bottles from a lower drawer. The labels had a mermaid drawn on them, and "Mermaid Tears" written in pale white letters. A local drink that any citizen of Minagisa would know.

"For some reason, my family frequently receives alcohol. But since no one drinks it, it only piles up. There are six more of the same in the kitchen. If you want them, go ahead."
"Thanks, but I'll pass."

We filled each other's cups, sat in front of the coffee table, and quietly gave a toast. After quickly downing her cup in one swig, Chigusa furrowed her brow and said "Strange flavor," but poured a second cup from the bottle.

"Looking as pretty as it does, I had expected a cleaner flavor."
"Yeah, it's surprisingly dry." I finished my cup too and poured a second. "So, how does it feel indulging in underage drinking?"

The cup headed for Chigusa's mouth stopped at her chest, and she faintly smiled.

"It's very thrilling."
"That's good."
"...Ah, yes. Hold on a moment."

Chigusa then opened the cabinet again and put a small glass bottle on the coffee table.

"Use it as an ashtray. You smoke, do you not?"
"Thanks. But it's not like I smoke that frequently. And your room would stink if I smoked in here..."
"Please, smoke. I wish to try it, too."

I took a pack from my bag, pulled out two cigarettes, and handed one to Chigusa.

"Wakaba," Chigusa read from the packaging.
"It's third-rate. Gross, but cheap."

I held my lighter up in front of Chigusa, and she timidly held the filter and held it near the flame. "Suck in," I instructed, and the paper faintly lit red.

After taking in the smoke, sure enough, Chigusa coughed. After hacking up a storm with tearful eyes, she glared scornfully at the cigarette in her fingers. Then she tried a second time, and this time slowly let out the smoke without coughing. I lit my own and we quietly smoked together.

"I think I finally understand," said Chigusa as she imitated me in tapping the cigarette on the edge of the bottle to knock off ash.
"What do you understand?"
"This is the smell you sometimes have, Fukamachi."

"Do I have that much of a nicotine smell?" I sniffed my shirt.
Chigusa snickered. "No, it's really only a faint smell. Normally, one wouldn't notice it."

After finishing our cigarettes, we again filled our cups.

"You don't have to push yourself to drink a lot, okay?", I advised after seeing her down a third cup.

"Right. But if I'm drinking, should I not try to get drunk at least once?" Then she poured a fourth cup.

Brown cicadas buzzed outside the screen door. Due to the brightness outside, it felt dark and gloomy in the room. It was an August-esque, languid summer afternoon. Having aimless conversation, we leisurely continued to drink.

Chigusa seemed to be a heavier drinker than appearances might have indicated. I tried to keep up with her pace, and soon felt my senses growing hazy.

"What's the matter? Fukamachi, are you sleepy?", Chigusa asked in an oddly good mood, maybe because of the alcohol. Last time I checked, she was in front of me, but now she was beside me. Maybe I was the one who moved? The order of events in my memory was hazy.

"Seems I'm a little drunk," I replied.

"I may be as well. I'm oddly enjoying myself," Chigusa remarked without any slurring. "Fukamachi, Fukamachi. What typically happens when people get drunk?"

"Depends on the person. Some people change completely, and some don't change at all. Some are merry drinkers, and some are sobbing drinkers. It's just different habits. Some start suddenly preaching, and some get nice beyond recognition. Some fall asleep comfortably, some get quick to fight, some get all touchy-feely..."

"Well, that's me."

Before I could respond, Chigusa collapsed on my shoulder like a puppet with cut strings.

"What's this?", I asked, hiding my bewilderment.
"My drinking habit," she replied, unable to fully conceal her embarrassment. "I'm feeling clingy."

"Uh, Ogiue. You don't decide what kind of drunk you are for yourself."
"It's all right. I'll apologize later."

Being coaxed with incomprehensible logic, I lit up another cigarette to conceal my increasing temperature.

"Fukamachi, are you the type that doesn't change when drunk?", she asked.
"I dunno. I've drank too much and thrown up, but I've never gotten properly drunk before."

"It's all right if you cry and shout. And I won't mind if you're touchy. ...Oh, but I would slightly dislike being preached to."

"Seems like you're a talkative drunk, Ogiue," I joked. She rubbed her face on my shoulder with displeasure.

Soon, my eyelids got heavy. Seems I'm a sleepy drunk, I thought distantly, and was swallowed by afternoon drowsiness.


When I opened my eyes, the sun was going down, and the room had gotten pretty dark. The cups were dried up and let off a sharp smell.

I had a rough feeling on my cheek. That quickly reminded me that I had fallen asleep in Chigusa's room. I quickly shot up, and heard a yelp at my ear.

"G-Good morning," Chigusa awkwardly smiled.

After four or five full thoughts, I realized what kind of situation I'd been in.

Apparently, I had been sleeping using Chigusa's thighs as pillows.

"Was I asleep?", I said rubbing my eyes, concealing how flustered I was. "You should have woken me up."

Chigusa coughed quietly. "...I should just mention, you fell over into my lap."

"I did?" I tried to recall falling asleep, but my memory seemed to cut off somewhere. "Sorry. Are your legs numb?"

"It's all right. You're a lightweight, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked with faint smile as I fumbled.
"You're just too heavy a drinker, Ogiue."

I looked up at the clock. It was 7:30 PM.

Chigusa spoke with her gaze fixed on the glass bottle on the table. "Um, Fukamachi, I'm sorry about earlier."
"No, I should be sorry."

We bowed our heads to each other, then an unspeakable silence persisted. I tried to light a cigarette to fill it, but I reconsidered and put it in my pocket.

"We should get some fresh air."
"Yes, good. Let's do that," Chigusa agreed with a look that said "thank goodness."


The residential district was brimming with assorted smells at night. Smells of dinner on the wind - fish, miso soup, meat and potato stew - and the smell of soap from a bathroom window stimulated my nose.

Chigusa's walking beside me seemed unstable. Hardly tottering or anything, but she swung from side to side.

"Were you perhaps drinking while I was asleep?", I asked.
"I mean, you wouldn't wake up, Fukamachi."

"I'm not blaming you. I'm impressed."
"Is that right? Tell me if you get sleepy, lightweight Fukamachi," Chigusa said cockily.

"Now, it's finally night. The ideal time for ne'er-do-wells. What badness do you wish to do?"
"Don't get your hopes so high. I'm just a hoodlum."

Walking without thinking about the destination, my legs seemed to carry me where they knew how. Without even realizing, I was headed down the road to the usual shopping district. Somehow, it felt like there were oddly many people headed in the same direction. Every time people passed us by, there were wafting smells of deodorant and bug repellent.

"I wonder if there's a festival or some such?", Chigusa pondered.
"Might be one at the shopping district. Yeah, I want to say they do one around this time every year."

"While we're near, would you like to go see it?"
"Sure. Can't think of anything else to do right now."

We went with the crowds to the festival grounds. Though the shopping district was typically just deserted and vaguely creepy at nighttime, today it was brilliantly colored by tens or hundreds of paper lanterns. Stands lined both sides of the street, and many young people filled the area.

"So there are more summer festivals in Minagisa than just the one," Chigusa remarked with wonder, gazing at the stands.

"Yeah. Tons of people." I stood up tall and looked toward the back of the street. "But I'm sure the Minagisa summer festival gets many times more visitors than this."

Chigusa sighed. "Now I'm getting nervous."

Forgetting about doing badness for now, we went by all the stands from end to end. Yakisoba, sumiyaki, honeycomb toffee, sculpted candy, cotton candy, shaved ice, a string lottery, yo-yo fishing, a mask shop, superball fishing. Chigusa stopped at a goldfish scooping stand, and her eyes sparkled at the goldfish swimming around the white tank.

A small child was squatting in front of the fish tank, glaring seriously at the goldfish. When he stuck the poi scooper into the tank, it made a ripple that scattered the koaka fish. The sight of the red shapes dispersing reminded me of exploding fireworks.

"Fukamachi, Fukamachi. There's one strange one."

I looked into the tank alongside Chigusa, and sure enough, mixed among the koaka was a single fat ryukin goldfish.

"What do you know... How unusual."

I gave a look at Chigusa, trying to share her surprise. But she was absorbed in the goldfish in the tank and didn't notice.

I found myself looking at Chigusa in profile. Gazing at her smiling face lit by the soft light of a light bulb, all of a sudden it occurred to me what an incredibly unfitting happiness had been bestowed upon me. And that thought was nothing less than the truth. Instantly, rather late, the core of my body heated up, and I came to see each passing second as precious.

But at the same time, I had to think: If it were Hajikano I was sharing these seconds with, how good would that be? If I just had her smiling beside me, how fulfilled would that make me feel?

I felt guilty for ignoring the girl before me and imagining one who wasn't here in her place, so I averted my eyes from Chigusa. Instead, I watched the boy scooping goldfish.

He was handling the paper poi skillfully. He prepared to catch one goldfish, then at the last second changed the angle of the poi to aim for another. The goldfish that he avoided had white specks, like it was covered with flour. Maybe it was sick.

I supposed he avoided that specked goldfish not because he reasoned it might die an early death from sickness, but just because it felt somehow creepy. It wasn't like it was something he did out of clear prejudice.

It was the same for those who avoided me when I had my birthmark. I wasn't avoided because people thought I had genetic issues, or because I had some malignant disease, but because people felt somehow too creeped out to want to approach.

Why can people know logically that it's not that significant, but be led astray by such slight differences in appearance? When really, everyone's not so different if you just look more than skin-deep.

Yet the day when people's foolishness to judge solely by appearance is bettered, the beauty of these hundreds of goldfish swimming around a white tank, the vivacious feeling welling up in me from seeing Chigusa's face - all of that I was feeling now would be lost. So I couldn't speak out against that hasty judgement. If people's true natures became the basis of judgement, the world would surely become a terrifyingly insipid place.

Chigusa stood up. "Sorry, I became rather entranced. Let's move on."
"Won't you try the goldfish scooping?"
"No, I'm not one for keeping living creatures."

After going through all the stands, we bought two piles of shaved ice and looked for a place we could sit down and eat it. Just then, something briefly crossed my vision and alerted my subconscious.

I had a bad omen. I quickly grabbed Chigusa's hand to stop her, and my gaze darted around. My prediction was correct, and a few meters away, I saw several familiar faces.

Inui, Mitake, Harue. The three who had tried to attack me with Nogiyama last night. They sat in a row on the curb, their backs turned to us, talking about something. Nogiyama probably wasn't there because of the damage I'd inflicted.

As far as I could tell from their conversation, they weren't looking for me for payback, but were simply here to enjoy the festival. I breathed a sigh of relief. That said, if they saw me, it could probably be trouble.

"Er, what is the matter?" Chigusa asked with some nervousness, looking between her hand and her face.

"It's the guys from last night," I said quietly, letting go of her hand. "I don't think they're looking for me, but it'd be bad if they saw us. Let's retreat while we can."

Chigusa stood tall and followed my gaze. "I see. The three sitting there?"
"Right. They haven't noticed us yet."

"Fukamachi." She looked toward my hand. "Do you mind if I take that shaved ice?"
"Shaved ice? That's not really the..."

Before I could finish, Chigusa took the cups of shaved ice and quickly walked over to the three. I had no time to stop her, and the next moment, Chigusa was dumping the shaved ice on their backs. An emerald green mix of solid and liquid drew a parabola as it fell upon them. Making voices which were either screams or shouts, the three turned around, but Chigusa didn't falter, and poured the shaved ice with lemon drops in her other hand on their front sides. Then she turned on her heel, ran back, and took my hand as I stared in shock.

"Now, let us run."

It sure seemed like that was the only thing to do.

*

I think we ran around for about twenty minutes. Eventually, we ended up back at the shopping street where we started. The festival had long since ended, the lanterns were gone without a trace, and most of the stands were cleaning up, so people were sparse.

Looking back one last time to check for them chasing us, we sat down on a low wall and caught our breath. My heart flailed like a fish just reeled in, and sweat poured out my body. My stiff, sweat-soaked uniform felt unpleasant.

I didn't feel like condemning Chigusa for doing something so rash. In fact, I had respect for her actions. Seeing them flustered after having shaved ice poured on them was thrilling, and I hadn't felt the excitement of running away from something chasing me in a long while.

"Next time you do something crazy, tell me first."
"Sorry," Chigusa said out of breath.

"But that was good. Very relieving. Very delinquent."
"Was it? That's good." Chigusa smiled with her eyes, her head still lowered.

I was really parched. I put my hands on my knees and stood up.

"I'll go buy something to drink. You rest there."

Chigusa looked up and nodded silently. I ran over to a brightly-shining vending machine a few dozen meters away, and came back with two sports drinks with blue labels. Chigusa tried to offer her wallet. I refused, but she insisted. "Since I did ruin the shaved ice."

I took the 500-yen coin she offered me. "Okay, let's use this money to buy something for delinquency."
"Agreed."

After downing the sports drinks and throwing away the empty bottles, we entered a supermarket just before closing time and bought fireworks. And we spent a while walking around in search of the least appropriate place to use them.

"Perhaps we might as well sneak back into the school we deserted at noon, and launch them on the field somewhere?", Chigusa suggested. "Don't you think that's sufficiently mischevious?"
"Not bad," I agreed.

Breaking into Minagisa First High was easy. We waltzed right in after climbing over the gate, and there wasn't any real security system. Surely the buildings were probably locked, but it didn't seem anyone would find fault with us wandering around campus.

Maybe I was just accustomed to the school being full of staff and teachers, but at night, Minagisa First High was wrapped up in an extreme silence, like any peep was sucked up into the walls. The green lamp of the emergency exit cast an eerie light from the other side of the window.

While walking on the gravel behind the gym, I suddenly recalled a conversation with Nagahora on the day of the closing ceremony.

"The guys from the swim club sometimes practice at night without permission," Nagahora said. "Since the fence is so short, it's not hard to break in. There's no patrols at all, so if you're not unlucky, you won't get caught. Hey, Fukamachi, want to sneak in with me once on summer break? Swimming as much as you like in a pool at night isn't a chance you'll get anywhere else."

"That does sound fun," I nodded. "But you should be careful, pools are horribly cold at night. If you jump in without a care, it might be pretty miserable."

Nagahora thought for a second. "You sound like you've got experience."
"I just happen to know. I had a friend who did the same thing in middle school."

That was a lie, of course. Once, I was invited by some friends to sneak into the pool at night. There were clouds covering the sky all day, and the pool that night was colder than anything. It helped a little that we jumped in with our clothes on, but ten minutes later, our lips were purple and we were running home dripping wet.

"I didn't think about the temperature," Nagahora said with admiration. "Bet you'd want to pick a day that's especially hot. Around the start of August would be perfect..."

Then Kasai opened the door into the classroom, so the conversation was cut short. That was ultimately the only time we discussed sneaking into the pool. Since then, I'd completely forgotten Nagahora ever mentioned it.

I didn't really feel the urge to swim. Sure, this was miraculously the hottest day of the year, and thus the perfect day for night swimming. The water should have been clean for the swim club's practice. However, it wasn't Nagahora with me, but Chigusa. I couldn't make her join me in something so ridiculous as this.

Still, I figured just walking around the poolside would be fun, so I told Chigusa what I'd heard from Nagahora. And she showed incomparable interest in this stupid idea. "We simply must to do that, let's do that right now," she urged.

Climbing over the fence less than two meters tall, we touched down by the pool. Obviously, it was pitch black, and the pool was a deep blue, the bottom not visible. The wind made small waves on the surface, breaking against the edge and making quiet splashes. Occasionally, the smell of chalk unique to school pools struck my nose.

I took off my shoes and felt the rough poolside, neither warm nor cold. I rolled up my pants and put my toes in the water glittering in the moonlight. It was just the right coldness to feel good. "That's good," said Chigusa, who took off her loafers and socks and drew an ellipse in the water with her right toe.

I resolutely sat on the pool edge and soaked my legs below the knees in the water. My legs hot from running around were thoroughly cooled, and felt revived. The energy left my body, and I fell back onto the poolside like a deflating life preserver.

Listening to the sound of the water, I looked up at the night sky. The sole light sources from the parking lot didn't reach the distant pool, so while not a match for the roof of the hotel, it wasn't a bad place to view the stars.

Once I thought about stars, my chest clouded as I was unable to avoid remembering a certain person, but I forcibly put her out of mind. I couldn't worry over what had already come and gone.

I heard a sound from the end of the pool. Before I could process that it was Chigusa taking off her uniform, I heard a loud splash. Drips of water hit my cheek, and I sat up in a hurry.

At first, I thought Chigusa had fallen into the pool by mistake. But seeing her discarded blouse and skirt, I realized she jumped in intentionally. And if her clothes were there, that meant Chigusa, sticking her head out of the water, was wearing nothing but underwear - if that.

I was so surprised, I had no words. What in the world was she thinking?

"Don't scare me," I finally uttered. "I thought you slipped and fell."

"Apologies. But it's nice and cool," Chigusa said, wiping her forelocks. Her white shoulders poked out of the water, and I worried for where to look.

Not brave enough to swim with her, I stayed sitting at the rim of the pool. Then Chigusa walked up to the water's edge and held out her hands to me.

"Lift me up, please."

I gulped, and grabbed her hands while trying not to make eye contact. But the moment I was about to pull, she forcefully pulled me. I tried to stand my ground, but my feet didn't make it, so I lost balance and fell into the pool.

It was pitch dark in the water, so I had no idea where anything was. After struggling a while, my feet found the bottom. I stuck my head out of the water and wiped my face, then looked around for Chigusa. I heard laughter behind me. "Hey, remember what I said about telling me...", I said as I turned, and found Chigusa's face right in front of my nose.

We met eyes at a close distance.

The expression she had was a kind I hadn't seen before, neither happy nor joking. If I had to find the closest description, it was a look of surprise. Like the kind when you're cleaning a room and find a precious childhood photo you thought you lost.

There was a long short silence. Or maybe a short long silence.

I slowly averted my gaze and put my hands on the edge of the pool.

"Let's look in the storage room. Might find something interesting."
"Indeed. A beach ball would be nice, for instance."

Even Chigusa's reply was extremely natural.

I'd discovered during class in July that the storage room's lock was broken. Mixed in among items like kickboards, flotation devices, lane markers, and scrubbing brushes, there was a single blue beach ball. I took it to the sink, washed it with water, and blew it full of air. After filling and capping it, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, then left the storage room.

I hesitated greatly, but Chigusa being in underwear and me being fully clothed felt somehow unfair, so I also stripped down and jumped in the pool. A splash went up and fell onto the sides. I hit the beach ball up high, and Chigusa happily went after it.

My head spun again seeing her white back, but as we hit the ball back and forth and swam around, I gradually stopped worrying about it. Chigusa swimming nude in a pool at night was just too beautiful to be an object of my desire. When beauty crosses a certain line, it somehow detaches itself from impure feelings.

While playing in the pool, Chigusa called out "Yosuke" numerous times. Oddly, it didn't feel strange being called that. Judging from how I felt when she first said it, maybe it was calling me by my surname that felt more unnatural.

Similarly, I tried calling her Chigusa in return. My voice found it familiar, like I'd already spoken it many times.

"Once more," Chigusa said. "Call me again."

So I did as she said.


Lastly, we played with toy fireworks in the corner of the parking lot. Water still dripped from our clothes and hair, making dark stains on the dry asphalt. My wet shirt and underwear took my body heat, making me a little chilly. We had no candle to light the firework, so I used my lighter to scorch the ends of two Long Peonies. Once both were lit, I handed one to Chigusa.

The flame transferred to the main part of the firework, and one after another, shots fired off like plant roots into the darkness. After proceeding through the stages of peony, pine needle, willow, and chrysanthemum, the ball's purpose was complete and it dropped off, making a low splash in the water that dripped from our bodies.

We silently went on lighting fireworks. We were exhausted after leaving the pool and didn't say much to each other, but it wasn't the awkward kind of silence.

As the last two fireworks began firing off, Chigusa spoke. "Fukamachi." She'd gone back to using my last name.

"You were thinking about Hajikano just now, weren't you?"

I didn't deny it, but asked her back. "Why do you think so?"

Chigusa giggled. "Why, indeed? Well, my bad premonitions are often correct."

I dutifully answered honestly. "Your hunch is right, Ogiue."

"See, what did I tell you?", she said jokingly. "Furthermore, I suppose not only now, but several times while we've been together, Hajikano has come to mind."

"Yeah, you're not wrong there."

"Were you thinking, "What if it wasn't Chigusa Ogiue in front of me, but Yui Hajikano"?"

The ball on Chigusa's firework dropped before it fully burned, meeting a sudden end.

"Thank you for joining in my selfish whims today," she said without waiting for a reply. "I had a great deal of fun spending the day with you."

My firework still went on burning.

"But, Fukamachi. If there's really something that strikes your interest, if there's really a person that you're wondering about, please don't concern yourself with me, and settle that issue first. You still have a lingering affection for Hajikano, don't you? Isn't that why you occasionally forgot about the girl standing in front of you to think about her?"

She picked up the used-up fireworks and put them in a bag, tied a knot, and gradually stood up.

We walked to the school gate in silence. I couldn't find any words to say. Everything Chigusa said was an accurate truth, and anything I said would just sound like an excuse.

"...You haven't yet exhausted everything you can do for her, have you?", Chigusa suddenly spoke. "Then you should see that through to the end."

After passing the gate, she came to a stop. She bowed her head to me to say "this is far enough."

"Today really was a pleasure. Thank you for the wonderful day."
"I enjoyed it, too. It was a good day." It took me ages just to say that. "Thanks."

Chigusa smiled with deep joy to hear it. "Say, Fukamachi. You made me promise to tell you in advance before doing anything crazy, did you not?"
"Yeah," I nodded, though not getting why she was asking.
"I'm about to do something rather strange."

Before I could reply, Chigusa shortened the distance between us looking as if she was going to fall, stood up a little taller, and softly put her lips on my neck.

Even I could feel the blood rushing to my head and turning me red.

"If there's anything I can assist with, let me know," she whispered in my ear. "Even if entails showing kindness to an enemy, I'll do it if it's of use to you. And after you've done everything to completion, if you still have a slight bit of interest in me... then feel free to call for me anytime. I'll wait patiently."

With that, Chigusa fled the scene. I watched her go while standing like a scarecrow, and even after she was out of sight, I couldn't move a muscle.

At this point, I finally understood the meaning of that "cruel thing" Chigusa had mentioned one day. It wasn't a joke at all. I was unconsciously doing something terrible to her.

I was bewildered by this new truth coming from an unexpected angle. I could intuit she at least had good will toward me, but I didn't imagine it was such a distinct and romantic attraction.

Chigusa's words played on repeat in my head for the duration of about five cigarettes. But at least at present, I couldn't easily answer to her feelings.

Still, there was one thing she said that was definitely on-point. I still hadn't exhausted everything I could do. A small possibility remained somewhere in my heart.

Subconsciously, I had kept thinking about it. But I hesitated to let it surface. Fearing the risk of being hurt in going through with it, I intentionally removed it from my options.

Now, at least once, I had to face that possibility. To dig up that thing hidden in my consciousness, shine light on it, and face it head-on.

That's what Chigusa was telling me.

That night, I headed for the shrine park near Minagisa High. I went up the long steps one by one, and sat on the swing Hajikano was once on. The rusted chain made a screeching noise. Someone had removed the rope Hajikano tied on the bar. Maybe she retrieved it herself.

I thought there all night.

What could I do?

What was Hajikano seeking?

By the time the sky turned a faint violet, I came to a conclusion.

*

The buzzing of cicadas even reached into the closed-off room. Mixed in with familiar sounds was the sound of tsukutsuku-boushi cicadas, which I hadn't heard until yesterday.

I sat cross-legged on the floor of my room and gazed at jet streams outside the window. The two straight white lines in the sky perfectly divided the view of the sky through the window frame into two halves.

As the noon cicadas' voices died out and the chorus of higurashi began, I finally lifted my heavy body. There was a heavy old-style steam iron on the desk. I connected the plug coming out of the charging stand to the outlet, gave the dial a full turn, and waited for the iron to heat up.

After about ten minutes, I grabbed the iron handle and held it with the flat side facing me. The openings to let out the steam reminded me of seeds in a fruit. Come to think of it, I'd never had the chance to look at the bottom of an iron in such detail. Staring at the strange shape like a cut-open watermelon, sweat from my forehead dropped off my hair, and evaporated into a little puff of smoke with a satisfying sound.

The room was illuminated with the light of the western sun.


Once, because of the inferiority that came from the birthmark covering half my face, I thought I had no right to love Hajikano. And if you inverted that, it meant that if only I didn't have my birthmark, I would have the qualifications for her to love me.

But maybe that was just a one-sided impression of mine. While it could have possibly been accurate four years ago, at least in the present, the disappearance of my birthmark had never once aided in coming closer to Hajikano. In fact, more than that. It was preventing any progress.

The day I visited Hajikano's house to determine the truth of what Kasai told me, in a dark room with curtains closed, she touched my cheek and rubbed it again and again. As if in search of the birthmark that should have been there. Maybe what Hajikano really needed now wasn't a person to kindly console her, but a companion with the same injury - that suddenly occurred to me, looking back on that day.

And once I came to have that mindset, this scenario the woman on the phone had put together started to seem coherent. She claimed to have made this bet as fair as she could. I thought my odds of success were far too low for that to be true. But maybe she was telling the truth, and the bet was being carried out fairly. In other words, she had prepared a path toward victory for me, too.

Removing my birthmark took away an obstacle between me and Hajikano. That was my thought at first. But was the truth the exact opposite? Had removing my birthmark taken away a red thread of destiny connecting us? Maybe the true nature of this bet wasn't asking, "Can a normally-impossible love happen with the removal of an obstacle?", but that woman saying, "Can I add an obstacle to set back a love that normally wouldn't be held back?"

By personally renouncing the birthmark-less face I was temporarily given for the bet, I could advance my relationship with Hajikano. That was a situation the woman on the phone intentionally created. I was being tested to see if I would give up the ideal body I was granted for the girl I loved. Looking at it that way, would I?

If I was right about this, I needed to regain my lost ugliness. I had to prove to that woman there was nothing higher-priority to me than Hajikano.

But while I had to "get my birthmark back," a simple bruise would heal in no time. I wanted a semi-permanent mark of ugliness. So I thought to use the iron.

Where my birthmark had once been, this time, I would give myself a large burn.

If I'd had a little more good judgement left in me at the time, I could probably see how foolish it was from an objective standpoint to burn my face with an iron to get Hajikano's attention. Yet with the combination of the short remaining time on the bet and the confusion Chigusa caused me last night, I had a narrow perspective. You could say I was deranged. I was possessed by the naive thought that strong pain had to have a high return.

The hand I held the iron with was damp with sweat and trembled. The peak of the pain would probably be in the first instant. But the problem came after that. If I cooled it off too quickly and adequately treated it, the burn would just fully heal. If I wanted to make it "part of me" like my former birthmark, then after firmly burning my face at max temperature, I would probably have to not cool or treat the burn for an hour at least. Imagining that hour made my legs buckle.

Still, I had already made my decision. Slowly but surely, I got accustomed to the image of me burning my face. Once it reached a certain point, I was suddenly able to accept it all naturally. Or maybe logically, you could say I went fully mad. I closed my right eye, and pushed the iron plate heated to the necessary temperature toward my face,

when the phone rang.

If that noise had come a tenth of a second later, I'm sure the iron would have had no problem burning my face. At a distance close enough to scorch my eyelashes, my hand stopped.

The ringing came from the phone in the first floor hallway. I couldn't be sure, but from the timing and the way it echoed, I felt sure it was the woman who orchestrated this bet.

I put the iron back in the stand, ran down the stairs, and took the receiver.

"Hello?"

There was no reply.

Usually, there would be a one-sided dialogue of telling me some business, but this one time, I heard nothing. But just because I couldn't hear anyone didn't mean there was no one there, and I sensed there was a living person's breathing on the other end. The person seemed to be quietly listening to my breathing.

The silence went on. Just as I opened my mouth with impatience, with the suddenness of a hidden track on a CD after leaving it alone on the last track for over ten minutes, the person on the other end spoke.

"Who are you?"

It wasn't the usual woman's voice, but it was one I'd heard before.

A moment later, my head was filled with questions.

"Hajikano?", I asked. "No way, is that you, Hajikano?"

I heard her swallow. From that reaction, I was convinced the caller was Hajikano.

"How?", the person I thought to be Hajikano said. "How did you call here?"

That sentence repeated in my head. How did I call here? It was a strange way to put it. She made it sound like I had called her.

"Answer," Hajikano said. "How did you know I was here? Are you nearby?"

There seemed to be a discrepancy here. I got my head in order and decided on what the most important matters to have clarified were.

"Listen, Hajikano, stay calm and listen," I said soothingly. "You just asked me "How did you call here?", right? Are you telling me you didn't call me, but you just answered the phone?"

There was a silence as if for thought. I assumed that to be proof and continued.

"Well, same here. I was at home, and I heard the phone ringing, so I answered. And then I heard your voice. Where are you? Not at home?"

"...Chakagawa Station."
"Chakagawa Station?"

"One of the unmanned stations along a route that was shut down a few years ago. In other words, Yosuke, a place you wouldn't know," Hajikano explained plainly. "I was wandering around there when a public phone rang. When I took the receiver, I heard you. ...Just what is going on?"

Of course, I knew the cause. It was the doing of that woman who proposed a bet to me. While her methods and objectives were unclear, I could only imagine she had some involvement in such an irrational occurrence.

I didn't know why she had made such an arrangement at the exact time she did. Maybe the woman on the phone was pleased that I was about to take back my own ugliness for Hajikano's sake. So she decided to give me a little chance.

But explaining all those subtleties would surely only further confuse Hajikano. While thinking up ways to dispel her wariness, she said "So you don't know either," seeming ready to hang up.

"Wait. I'm begging you, don't hang up," I pleaded. "I want you to listen to me, just for a little bit. You're changing schools soon, aren't you? Before you leave, there's something I want to tell you. It'll take two minutes. You don't even have to reply. Just listen, that's all I ask."

There was no response. But also, no sign of hanging up. Relieved, I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. The sunlight coming through the window at the end of the hall cast a shadow of me on the opposite wall.

"As you know," I began, "the birthmark on my face vanished without a trace. It was something that normally would never go away. Countless doctors tried to cure it, and threw in the towel. They all more or less said "You'll just have to compromise." That's the kind of birthmark it was. ...But just a month ago, there came a sudden turning point."

I stopped there and listened closely. There were still faint noises, so the call hadn't been terminated.

"Explaining it in detail would take a whole lot of effort. And maybe no matter how I go about explaining it, it'll be impossible to accurately convey what I've experienced without misunderstandings. In any event, I met someone, and had my incurable birthmark cured - but it was a hefty trade. Before too long, I'll have to give up something more important than anything to that person. But of course, I did it all of my own volition, so the responsibility's all on me."

Unconsciously, I stroked the area where my birthmark had been.

"But... It sounds strange, but truthfully, lately I've stopped thinking so badly of my birthmark. I'd had it on my face for sixteen years, came to accept its existence, and even picked up some attachment. And yet, why did I pay such a massive price to have it removed?"

After a deep breath, I gave the answer.

"Because I wanted you to like me, Hajikano."

The moment I spoke, the air around me felt more damp, and I sensed a smell like split-open berries spreading. I felt something hot behind my ears, and my heart beat faster. Though Hajikano wasn't there in front of me, I covered my mouth with my open hand to hide my red face.

"Anyway, that's all I wanted to tell you," I appended. "Though from your reaction, it seems like the idea you'd like me just because my birthmark was gone was a one-sided misconception."

Once I'd finished with what I wanted to say, I closed my eyes and listened for her response. The call was still going, but I hadn't heard a sound. Maybe Hajikano wasn't actually listening to me in silence, but had left the receiver hanging and left... Just as I began to have such fears, I heard a sudden cough.

"Can you hear me?", she asked. "Are you still there?"

I replied immediately. "I plan to be here until you hang up. However long it takes."
"I see."

There was a thoughtful silence.

"I don't know," Hajikano said with concern. "I was sure you felt pity for me now, and that's why you were so overly concerned. I thought you just sympathized seeing me with the same problem you once had."

"Well, I'm not that mature of a person."
"Yes, so it seems."

There was no change in her tone. Even so, the image of Hajikano smiling on the other side surfaced in my mind.

"...To tell the truth, I do like that about you even now," Hajikano admitted. "I've hardly come to hate you, Yosuke. So then, the reason I dislike being with you... is purely a personal problem."
"A personal problem?"

"When I see you, I go mad with jealousy," she said with a light sigh, as if embarrassed with herself. "That said, it's not your birthmark being gone that I'm terribly jealous of. It's because you're a strong person who was able to accept his birthmark and live a decent life, and I'm a weak one who's been unable to do that, and fallen to such lows in less than half a year. That fact hurts me more than anything. When you're in front of me, I have to constantly acknowledge it. That's the hate that's led me to put distance between us."

Hajikano was silent for a few seconds. Somehow, I felt I could see her purse her lips and rub her birthmark.

"At this point, this birthmark isn't such an issue. The issue is my weakness that will let one blemish ruin me. When I see you now, Yosuke, my chest could burst from sheer misery."

"I think you're still misunderstanding me," I interjected. "If you saw me as accepting my birthmark and living a decent life, you're mistaken. The truth is, I was saddled with a feeling of inferiority. Every time I looked in the mirror, I thought how nice it would be to just be reborn."

I switched the phone to my right hand and toyed with the cord with my left.

"I didn't get through it all by myself. You were a big support to me back then. Because you accepted me, Hajikano, I could feel like accepting my birthmark. The birthmark I'd come to think of as such an ugly, dirty thing, I could think of as a mere piece of discolored skin once you touched it. That's how significant Yui Hajikano was to me."

"...It really never seemed that way," Hajikano said doubtfully.
"That's not unreasonable. Since I've been trying to keep it as cool as I could in front of you."
"Why?"

"I didn't want to accept that deep down, I strongly desired contact with someone else. And more than that, I was scared of you and those around me realizing the feelings I had for you. I felt like they'd scorn me. "You think a guy like you has the right to love Yui Hajikano?" So when I was with you, I tried to keep a cool face."

Yes, in my eyes, Yosuke Fukamachi wasn't a person who could love a specific girl. He would be someone who never loved anyone and was never loved, only living at a solitary pace.

"But each time I parted from you and went home, the conversations we had that day repeated in my head, burned into my memory. On days when especially happy things happened, I wrote them in my journal to re-read later. It might sound stupid, but at the time, I did that kind of thing to make it through the days of crushing inferiority. Even after going our separate ways for middle school, my memories of the days spent with you propped me up when I was hurting. If I hadn't met you, Hajikano, my weak endurance would someday crumble for sure."

After a while, Hajikano whispered something.

"...So you were thinking things like that."

Just then, I heard a quiet sound like a buzzer on the other end.

"What's that sound?", I asked.
"The telephone. I think it's the sound it makes when the time is expiring," she answered. "This call might end soon."
"Oh, I see..."

I was regretful about it, but I had told her everything I wanted to.

"Thanks for not hanging up on me. I was glad to talk to you."

Just afterward, the call cut out.


Even after the call ended, I stood for a long time in front of the telephone.

Just like back then, I was soaking indefinitely in my conversation with Hajikano.



To Be Continued in "The Place I Called From"



Part 4
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