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Chapter 7: The Summer Triangle, or Square
The rain that had fallen since yesterday finally stopped by noon. As I stepped carefully down the road with puddles here and there, children on bikes rushed past me from behind one after another. One of them was shouting something and pointing - at a large, clear rainbow. I stopped and gazed at it for a few seconds. Once I looked back down to start walking again, the children were already nowhere to be seen.
Maybe they'd gone in search of something at the end of that rainbow, I thought.
There's a superstition that a pot of gold lies at the end of a rainbow. I never really liked that. I wasn't pleased with the idea that buried under something beautiful was something beautiful. I was the one of those people who wanted there to be a corpse buried under a cherry blossom.
Things that were "just beautiful" made me uneasy. I worried that someone out there was taking the hit to balance out that beauty. Would be nice for there to be a graveyard at the start of a rainbow, I thought. I wanted those brilliant seven colors to have been brought about by a thousand-some piles of bones. Since maybe then I could innocently appreciate the beauty of a rainbow a little more.
On a visit to the town library, I reunited with the girl searching for ghosts. While putting my 100 yen in the vending machine and choosing my juice, I noticed a girl holding a parasol standing in front of another machine. She was frozen with her 100 yen in hand, staring at the options as if facing the most important decision of her life. Noticing me looking, she raised her parasol and looked at me.
"Ah, mister." Her eyes widened, then she bowed her head. "Good day. How unexpected we'd meet here."
"Suppose you wouldn't be looking for ghosts all day."
"Well, that's not quite true." She hoisted up the bag under her arm. "Both of the two books I checked out today are on ghosts."
"Fantastic," I commended.
"You think it's stupid, don't you?" Her mouth twisted. "Go ahead. For I truly am stupid. My grades are awful, too."
"I wasn't saying it ironically. I really think it's fantastic. Don't be too normal, please."
The girl glared at me in silence for a while, but her expression suddenly softened, and she pointed at a bench on the road facing the library.
"If you don't mind, can we talk for a bit?"
We bought our juices and slowly drank them on the bench together. From the thicket behind the library, I heard an ear-aching cicada buzz.
"By the way, what sort of entities do you think ghosts are?", I asked. "I mean, people have their own perspectives on them. Some think they're entities that watch over you from close by, and others think they have grudges, cursing and killing people. And some think they can't interfere with living people - they're just there. So I wanna know your view."
"Did you forget? I told you, I don't believe in ghosts in the first place. A UFO, a cryptid, anything will do," she said with a demure look. "It's simply... the town of Minagisa is bountiful with ghost stories, is it not? So for the time being, I'm searching for ghosts."
"Then I'll change up the question. What would you like ghosts to be like?"
The girl took a sip of juice and stared into the sky. Her wet lips shimmered in the sunlight.
"Let's see... I think ghosts should be in much suffering, hateful of the living, lamenting their circumstances. That's what I'd want them to be."
"If that were how it was, living would be a bit more preferable, wouldn't it?", she replied, still looking to the sky. "If all ghosts were peacefully watching over the living, I might find myself so jealous that I'd want to join them."
"Ah. Makes sense."
Maybe glad about my agreement, the girl's feet swayed under the bench.
"Though once I grow old, I may come to say the exact opposite thing."
"To affirm your approaching death?"
"Exactly." She smiled under the parasol. "You understand an oddball like me so well, mister."
"I'm not doing anything but talk naturally. If we understand each other, you must not be an oddball. Or else, I'm an oddball."
"It's the latter. No doubt," she snickered.
"Come to think of it," I said, "I forgot to mention, but don't call me "mister." We're the same age."
The girl peered at my face.
"I'd thought you were two or three years older," she mumbled as her eyes wandered around. "...But can you let me keep on with that assumption?"
"I guess, but why?"
The girl averted her eyes. "The thought that I'm talking with a boy my age makes me so tense, I might just send back up my breakfast."
I couldn't resist a chuckle. "Got it. Let's just say I'm older."
"Indeed, that would be helpful." She closed her eyes and sighed. Then she spoke cheerily to regain her spirits. "Say, I want to hear from you too, mister."
"It's unfair for me to do all the talking. Tell me something."
I thought about it. I was bad at talking about myself. I'd always lived under the assumption that no one would have any interest in me, so I had far less "things to say about myself" saved up than a normal person.
Ultimately, having no topics worth bringing up, I decided to talk about something that was currently on my mind.
"Lately, I've been going to see the stars at night."
"Ah, how wonderful. To think you had such a hobby."
"Nah, it's not my hobby. I'm just going along with it."
"Hmm. Sounds like fun," she said sulkingly. "I suppose you're going with a girl?"
"Girls, and a guy too."
"As I thought, so many friends." Her shoulders drooped. "I feel betrayed."
"For your information, counting you, I have about five friends total right now," I explained with a pained smile. "It's a mish-mash group. I'm the only one who's acquainted with all of them, and I'm always struggling to make them get along."
The girl stared closely at my face.
"That doesn't sound like your kind of thing, mister. Tiring, isn't it?"
"Yeah, deathly so."
Her cheeks softened at once. "Because you're reaching out into unfamiliar territory. A good feeling."
"Tell me about it," I agreed.
After getting home, I put the radio on a music station and continued to read the books I checked out from the library. Even with the windows open and fans blaring, it was hot enough to make sweat stains on my shirt. After dinner, I took a bath, then went straight to bed. At 1 AM, the alarm clock at my bedside went off. I slowly got up, quickly got ready, and left the house.
Even in the middle of the night, cicadas were buzzing in places on the road. Maybe they were confused by the streetlights and the persistent heat into thinking it was day. Or maybe cicadas who weren't able to make noise during the day were doing their best to make up for it now. Lately, I'd witnessed the phenomenon of cicadas stopping all at once during the hottest part of the day numerous times. I guess it makes sense, but it seems even cicadas hate extreme heat.
The heat this summer was abnormal, to be sure. The news was reporting new record highs for days in a row, and even adults said this was the hottest summer they'd ever seen. The rainfall during rainy season had also been less than half the average, there were water shortages around the country, and some places were cutting off the water at night. Maybe all the ambulance sirens I'd been hearing were because of people collapsing from heat exhaustion.
After walking along, occasionally brushing away spider webs that came out of nowhere, I arrived at Yui Hajikano's house. As expected, Chigusa Ogiue was already waiting by the gate, and gave a little wave when she noticed me. Chigusa always faithfully wore her uniform when going out, but probably thinking a school uniform would just be suspicious at this hour, tonight she wore a shirt one-piece with thin stripes.
"Regular clothes today, huh?", I pointed out.
Chigusa tugged on the sleeve of her one-piece worriedly. "It isn't odd, is it?"
"It's not. It suits you."
"I see. Does it, now?" She smiled, swinging slightly left and right.
While talking with Chigusa about the heat wave, the back door opened silently and Hajikano appeared. She saw my face, then looked to Chigusa.
"Good evening, Hajikano," Chigusa smiled, and Hajikano silently bowed her head.
The three of us went to Masukawa Hotel together. Opening the door to the rooftop, we saw Yuuya Hinohara there early, setting up a telescope. Seeing us arrive, he just said "Hey," then beckoned to Hajikano. "Hajikano, help me with this."
Hajikano stood beside the telescope, and Hinohara began to instruct. "Okay, I taught you how to tune the finder last time. You can do it yourself now, right?" Hajikano nodded wordlessly.
Chigusa and I watched from a distance as Hajikano tuned the telescope in silence and Hinohara supervised. Chigusa took peeks at me with a complicated smile on her lips.
"Why did it end up like this, you think?"
Yes, why had it come to this?
I retraced my memory to recall the day that had set it all off.
Back to the day Hajikano and I had a call together. The day a phone booth at an empty train station where Hajikano was and the phone at my house rang simultaneously.
Finally getting the chance to have a proper conversation with her, I at last spoke the feelings I'd kept in for years. The call ended before she could reply to them, but for the time being, it seemed like the roughness between us had been smoothed to some extent. I'd learned that Hajikano didn't really hate me, and got Hajikano to realize that I wasn't just pitying her. Just those two things made for a big step forward.
That night, right at 2 AM, I visited Hajikano's house. When Hajikano came out the back door in less than five minutes, she saw me and stopped.
I raised my hand and greeted her, and she glared at me like she wanted to say something. But that expression didn't have the hostility and hate there had been before. Depending on your point of view, it could be seen as merely covering for her embarrassment.
"Well, let's go see the stars, as usual," I said. "Like the night with the shooting stars."
Hajikano lightly shrugged with an amazed look, and giving neither a "fine" or "no," began to walk. For the first time, I got to walk toward the ruined hotel not tailing behind her, but alongside her.
As she sat on the chair on the rooftop and looked at the sky, I casually asked a question.
"If you like looking at stars this much, why not use a telescope?"
"I want to," she honestly replied. "But those things are expensive."
"Ah," I nodded. Then I suddenly thought of something. "Actually, I have a friend with a fairly pricey telescope."
Sure enough, Hajikano latched on. "...Really?"
"Yeah. Would you want to borrow it?"
She kept silent. But if Hajikano didn't instantly refuse, that usually meant agreement, I felt. Silence was her way of resistance.
"Okay, leave it to me. I'll have it ready by tomorrow night."
I didn't get my hopes up for a true response, but after seeing two shooting stars, Hajikano spoke in a voice so quiet as to be practically inaudible.
"Don't mention it." I bowed my head overly low. "I didn't expect to get thanks. I'll have to write that in my diary when I get home."
Hajikano turned away with displeasure.
The next morning, rubbing my sleepy eyes and walking under the blazing sun, I visited Hinohara's house.
The flowers in the pots in a row under the shop overhang were all terribly wilted without exception. Only the morning glories wrapped around the window lattices had healthy blue and purple flowers. The drab mortar walls hadn't been painted over for years, and there were dark cracks all over them. The entrance said "Bar" with a paper lantern hanging down, and the white electronic sign in front had the name of the place in deep blue letters, "Sea Roar." The outdoor air conditioning unit under the second floor window made a strange rattling noise.
It was still only ten, and the cicadas were holding back. I opened the creaking gate, went around to the dwelling-side door, and rang the doorbell. I counted to thirty, then rang it again, but there was no response.
I heard a familiar engine noise from the back of the house. I went to check it out and found Hinohara in a cramped, messy garage, fiddling with a scooter. Probably changing the oil; next to him was an oil can, a box wrench, and a cut-open water bottle.
"Want some help?", I asked.
Hinohara turned around, and his eyes widened as he saw me. "Ohh, Fukamachi! Rare for you to visit. ...Here to have your revenge for three days ago, maybe?"
"That wouldn't be a bad idea." I picked up a monkey wrench in the corner of the garage and tapped it in my palm. "But I've got other business today. Hinohara, as I recall, don't you have a telescope?"
"Yeah, I do. What about it?"
"I'd like to borrow it for a little while."
He wiped the sweat off his brow with his arm.
"That's real abrupt. Sheesh, you make fun of my hobbies so much, and now you've got an interest in astronomy?"
"I don't remember making fun. And I'm not the one interested in astronomy. Someone I know likes to look at stars."
Hinohara stared me down with his mouth half-open.
"Sorry, I've got no intent of lending it out. It's valuable, so I'm not letting some ignorant amateur touch it."
With that, he returned to work. He stopped the warmed-up engine, put on vinyl gloves, removed the drain bolt, and caught the dripping oil in the water bottle. Once the old oil was all poured out, he retightened the bolt, opened the oil pump cap, and poured in new oil from the can. He closed the cap, started the engine, and again let it run for a while. I'd helped him with this many times in middle school, so I learned the process well.
"I really do need it. I'll repay you. And I'll forget all about the other day. I'll treat it with extreme caution so I don't break it."
"Do you know how to use it?"
"I'll start learning now."
"Come to me after you learn."
"I'm in a hurry. Please, I'm serious about this."
"Doesn't seem like you to beg like this," Hinohara said curiously. "Is there a woman involved?"
"Depends on your point of view," I said, muddling the answer.
"Then all the more reason you're not getting it. I don't want my precious telescope being used just to get a woman's attention."
I shrugged. "A girl I owe a lot to is really in the pits right now. She usually stays locked up in her room, but goes out at night just to see the stars. It seems like the only time she can feel at peace is when she's looking at the night sky. I want to help her out."
Hinohara stopped the engine, removed the oil cap, wiped it with a rag, then stuck it back in and checked the amount of oil. Confirming it to be sufficiently full, he tightened the cap and removed the vinyl gloves.
After taking the scooter to the back of the garage, he brought a folding table leaning against the wall over and set it up in front of me. Kneeling in front of the dent-filled wooden table, he rolled up his sleeves and put out an arm.
"The rules are simple," Hinohara said. "We're gonna arm-wrestle. As many times as you want. If you win even once, then I'll lend you my telescope."
"Arm wrestle?", I repeated. "As if I have a chance of winning that?"
"I'm the one lending the telescope. What's the point of giving you the advantage?"
"That's still too unfair for me. I was hospitalized from graduation to the middle of last month. My whole body's gotten weak."
"Then give up. I don't intend on changing my conditions."
I reluctantly kneeled in front of the table. And I looked again at his shoulder, upper arm, and forearm in order. He worked out regularly, so they were all trained up very well. He was a man who wasn't in the exercise club, but ranked first in the school in numerous physical tests. I had no shot at victory.
And yet, I couldn't give up before I even started. I put my elbow on the table and grabbed Hinohara's hand. With my left hand, I gripped the edge of the table.
"You ready?", Hinohara asked. I nodded.
On his signal, I put all my energy into my right hand. It didn't budge. Without exaggeration, it didn't move a millimeter. As if his arm were affixed in place with screws. He gave me a cocky smile. Putting some slight force in his wrist, my wrist buckled at once. And he took it to the end in one motion. "One win," he counted. My entire arm was numb, and sweat poured from my body. "Well then, round two?", he said.
After ten rounds, my right hand shook against my will, and I had trouble moving my fingertips. The inside of my elbow hurt like it was inflamed, and everything from my shoulder down felt incredibly hot.
Once my arm felt a little less numb, I doggedly put my elbow on the table. Hinohara, convinced of his victory, coolly talked to me in the midst of the match.
"Where did you get to know her?"
"Her?", I looked up and asked. Sweat from my forehead went down my cheek and neck.
"The girl who almost got involved in the quarrel with Nogiyama three days ago."
I attempted a surprise attack as he was talking, but he predicted it and instantly pushed back with even more force. I clicked my tongue, then answered him. "Ogiue? She's just a classmate. She has the seat next to me."
"You go see the stars in the middle of the night with "just a classmate"?"
"Stars?" I twisted my neck. "Oh, Hinohara, were you under the impression I'm stargazing with Ogiue? She's totally unrelated to this. The one I see stars with is a different girl..."
Just as I got that far, the force in Hinohara's arm suddenly weakened. I wasn't sure what happened, but I noticed it, and used all my remaining might to bring his arm down.
For a while, Hinohara looked curiously at his arm which suddenly became non-functional during the match.
"...A promise is a promise." He scratched the back of his neck. "Alright, fine. I don't want to, but I'll lend you my telescope."
"Thanks," I said, wiping the sweat from my brow and massaging my right arm all over.
"But I have a condition. If you don't accept, we're back to square one."
"I'll accept most conditions," I replied. "What is it?"
"When you use the telescope, you have to take me along."
"...Uh, hold on. That's a problem." I shook my head. "I'll study up on how to use it, so don't accompany me, please."
"No way. I won't yield to this one."
"A guy like you would scare her, Hinohara."
"If she'd get friendly with you, Fukamachi, I'm sure she can get friendly with me too."
"We're old acquaintances. You, not so much."
The dispute continued until noon, and Hinohara really wasn't going to submit. So I decided to borrow his phone and call Hajikano's house.
Hajikano's older sister Aya answered the phone.
"Can you hand it over to Miss Yui? If you say it's about the telescope, she should come out of her room."
"Telescope?, Aya repeated, it not ringing a bell for her. "Well, whatever. I don't understand, but if you say so, Yocchan, I'll try it. Hold on a second."
Not a minute later, Hajikano came to the phone. "...It's been handed over."
"First, the good news," I began. "After some discussion, I've been allowed to loan the telescope. ...Now, the bad news is, the guy who owns it won't allow it to be used without him coming along. I wouldn't say he's a bad guy or anything, but I'm turning him down if you don't agree, Hajikano. What do you want to do?"
"If he'll lend a telescope, it doesn't matter," Hajikano answered simply.
"You're really sure?", I pressed. "Isn't that a special place for you? You aren't opposed to outsiders knowing about it?"
"I don't really think much of it. Also, you already know about it, Yosuke."
"...Well, uh, that's true."
Bewildered by Hajikano's demeanor softening up so much quicker than expected, I suddenly realized something.
"If it's okay, can I bring another girl along? It might be uncomfortable with two guys, right?"
Hajikano replied with silence showing neither agreement nor disapproval.
"You had a classmate at Mitsuba Middle School named Chigusa Ogiue, right?", I asked.
"Maybe," Hajikano answered.
"I'm thinking of bringing her. Would you mind that?"
After another long pause, Hajikano spoke. "It doesn't matter."
"Then I'll see about inviting Ogiue. Wait for me to come by at 2 AM tonight. See you."
Lastly, Hajikano softly muttered, "...Thanks."
"Don't mention it." I hung up.
"It's decided," Hinohara remarked, seeing me end the call. "Now, what about the location?"
"Remember Masukawa Hotel? We go there all the time to look at stars on the rooftop."
"Ahh, the "Red-Room Ruins." Hung out there a bunch in middle school," Hinohara nodded, full of nostalgia. "But why go out to such a dangerous place?"
"Hajikano seems to have a liking for the place."
"The heck? Weird girl." He tilted his head. "Oh well. Just gotta be on the roof of Masukawa Hotel by 2, right?"
"Yeah. Make sure you do it."
"'Course. A promise is a promise."
After leaving Hinohara, I called Chigusa from the nearest public phone. I couldn't raise my right arm after the arm wrestling, so I carefully dialed the numbers one by one with my left.
"Hello?", Chigusa said through the phone.
"Do you have time right now?", I asked.
"Fukamachi? This is Fukamachi, is it not?" Her voice lit up slightly. "Of course, I have time. What is it you need?"
"I have another request for you, Ogiue."
"A request... Concerning Hajikano, I presume?"
"Yeah, you got it." Feeling like attempting to hide it would only have the opposite effect, I truthfully explained the situation. "I'm planning to see the stars with Hajikano tonight, but some things came up, and now a guy named Hinohara is coming along. But I'm sure Hajikano would feel uncomfortable around two former delinquents. I think having a girl like you around might mitigate that. So I called."
"In other words, I'm to be a front in order to get close with Hajikano?"
"Can't help it if you take it that way. But I don't have anyone else I can ask. Of course, you can refuse if you want."
Chigusa gave a deep sigh. "...Well, I am the one who said "If there's anything I can assist with, let me know." Very well, I'll assist you."
"Thanks. I'm in your debt."
"Playing with people's love... You truly are a natural-born bad boy, Fukamachi," Chigusa said playfully. "But please, do not forget this. I, too, am a bad person just like you. If you're negligent, I may just steal you away from Hajikano."
"I'm aware of that danger. I'll be careful."
"No, no. Please, be negligent," Chigusa snickered. "When and where should we meet?"
"Wait at her house at 2 AM. I'll come pick you up."
"Understood. I look forward to it."
"Can you sneak away without your parents finding out?"
"I'll be all right. As my father and mother would not even dream of me going out in the night."
I put down the receiver and headed for the small local library, checked out a book on telescope operation, and skimmed through the whole thing. I diligently read for the first two hours or so, but all the astronomy terms I'd never seen before and cross-sections of various lenses got me incredibly sleepy, and I fell asleep without realizing. It was gloomy outside when I woke up. I went home, had dinner with my mother, lied down in bed and read over the book again. A brief nap left me leaving the house pretty much right on time.
The meeting of Hajikano and Chigusa, root of my worries, went smoother than I thought. As Hajikano tried to hide behind my back, Chigusa spoke to her very naturally.
"We haven't met in some time, Hajikano."
Hajikano nodded, her lips tight and straight. It wasn't a disinterested nod, but one that, while nervous, was a proper response to Chigusa's greeting.
"I did not expect to meet with you again in a way like this. You never know what destiny holds."
Thinking about it, in the three months I was hospitalized, Chigusa and Hajikano probably saw each other often, since the former sat behind the latter. As far as I could tell, Hajikano had no ill will toward Chigusa. I didn't sense Chigusa had issues with Hajikano either. Though the degrees of it varied, maybe there was some resonation given their general lack of friendliness with classmates.
Hinohara came to the ruins early to set up the telescope, so his meeting with Hajikano was slightly postponed. According to him, the telescope lens and reflector took a while to adapt to the night air, and if you didn't let it adjust to outdoor temperature one or two hours before viewing, the seeing would have distortions. Tuning the finder also seemed to be easier in lighter hours. Masukawa Hotel happened to be a place Hinohara knew, so there was no problem letting him go on ahead.
The most pressing issue was avoiding a rejection of Hinohara from the other two. Hinohara would casually do rude things even to people he was just meeting or give them awful nicknames; in general, he had a prodigious talent for earning people's contempt. I needed to keep a handle on him in order to protect Hajikano and Chigusa from his innocent ill will. Once I arrived at the ruins, I braced myself for the three meeting. Though certainly, it would be best if nothing happened.
I also had to escort Chigusa who was unfamiliar with the ruins, so I brought a flashlight to light up the floor and proceed with care. At the rooftop, I turned off the flashlight and called to Hinohara, who was done setting up the telescope. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"Ah, you're here." Hinohara put out his cigarette and tossed it in an empty can. Standing up and taking an electric lantern at his feet, he illuminated our three faces. Since our eyes weren't adjusted to it, the lantern light seemed as dim as if it were about to go out.
Hinohara first looked at Chigusa's face with scrutiny. In a few seconds, the faint smile vanished from his lips. His eyes went round, and he looked all over Chigusa's face like an important message was written on it.
"Yuuya Hinohara," he said with bizarre respect, extending his right hand. "I was Fukamachi's best friend in middle school."
"I'm Chigusa Ogiue," Chigusa said, timidly extending her hand too and grabbing his. Not surprising she's afraid, I thought. She only recognized him as "one of the people who was standing around Fukamachi about to beat him up that day."
I whispered into Chigusa's ear. "Nothing to fear. He's not that bad a guy."
"Right. Not that bad a guy," Hinohara repeated. "Even if I am bad, it's strictly only as much as Fukamachi."
"Is that a fact? Then I'm relieved." Chigusa smiled, her tension still not gone.
Next, Hinohara brought the lantern to Hajikano's face. I held my breath and watched. He rudely glared at the birthmark.
"Awful bruise, there. Like the Ghost Story of Yotsuya."
If Hinohara made any more remarks so lacking in forethought, I might have punched him on reflex. But before I could even curl up my fist - and in fact, maybe to keep me in check - Hajikano replied plainly.
"Yes. It is awful, isn't it?"
"No exaggeration there," Hinohara affirmed. Then he inspected the other side without the birthmark.
"Then again, you've got a pretty good face all around." Hinohara scratched his chin. "Can't say if you're a beauty or an ugly. ...Eh, if you ask me, there's not much difference either way."
Hajikano's eyes narrowed from the light of the lantern. She at least didn't seem irritated or hurt by his comments. In fact, she might have even appreciated the way he didn't mince words. Maybe those with strong inferiority complexes can get along surprisingly well with wide-open people like Hinohara. In fact, that was one reason I chose Hinohara as an ally in middle school.
Chigusa brought her face close to mine. "Hinohara seems like a rather interesting sort."
"He sure is. For better or worse."
"In addition, he slightly resembles you."
"Hinohara resembles me?", I asked with surprise.
"Yes. You're even about the same height, and have the same eyes. And I have to say, you have the same air about you."
"Huh. ...I'm not too happy to hear that."
Chigusa patted my back encouragingly. "It's all right, you are the cooler of the two."
"Thanks for that."
Anyway, that was the biggest hurdle cleared. These four didn't seem to be desperately incompatible. Hajikano evidently had no negative feelings toward the other two, and the same for Chigusa.
At that point, I suddenly saw myself objectively, and felt a new surprise - to think I would be in a position to be handling relationships between friends. It was the first time in my life I'd ended up with such a duty. Who could have guessed a role that should usually go to the one with most personality in the group would go to me of all people.
The first thing we saw was Saturn. After Hinohara adjusted the telescope, Hajikano, Chigusa, and I looked into it in order.
"If the seeing was a little bit better, there'd be enough detail to spot the gaps between rings," Hinohara said. Probably means the Cassini Division, I thought, recalling the book I read before coming. When you view Saturn's rings not as single thick rings but many small rings together, the three rings making up the main ring are called rings A, B, and C. And the giant gap between A and B is called the Cassini Division.
To avoid disturbing Hajikano as she looked into the telescope, we sat a few meters away and quietly conversed.
"I never asked, come to think of it, but Hinohara, why did you get into astronomy?"
"Why?" Hinohara groaned in thought as he lied down and looked into the sky. "How should I put it? In my case, the telescope came before the stars."
"How do you mean?"
"Not fussing over the pictures, but simply liking the structure of the camera. Not fussing over the music, but liking the look of the vacuum tube amp. Not fussing over the taste of coffee, just liking the bean-grinding and dripping. It's like that. I always liked the idea of carrying around a telescope and setting it up."
"But you wouldn't keep it up for long then, would you? It's a pretty annoying hobby, honestly."
"That's what makes it good. What you're going to see through the telescope and what I'm going to see through the telescope are the same thing, but there's a completely different meaning to it. The same way a fish you caught yourself is tastier. Your brain beautifies it according to the amount of effort you put in. And as soon as you see those already-beautiful planets and stars made more beautiful, you might just become a slave to astronomy."
"That's a beautiful point of view I can't believe I'm hearing from you," I said jokingly, but I wasn't lying about being impressed. "By the way, I wanted to ask your opinion on something... Why do you think Hajikano likes stars?"
"Hajikano? Oh, the girl with the birthmark." Hinohara sat up and looked at her back as she enthusiastically peered into the telescope. "Well, it might be the obvious answer, but for her, maybe she likes the darkness more than the stars."
That was a logical idea. She came to prefer darkness after her birthmark appeared, and in trying to find enjoyment in darkness, she met the stars. She definitely had that aspect to her, I thought. Of course, since her interest in the stars came far before her birthmark, surely his answer was only one of many things facilitating her appreciation.
"Of course, when you get down to it, reasons for "liking" anything are always after the fact," Hinohara added. "People who like stars are just born such that they'll like stars, and that's really all it is."
"You got that right," I agreed.
After Hajikano, Chigusa looked into the telescope and let out a cheer. "Wow. Fukamachi, Fukamachi, this is really something amazing."
Hurried by Chigusa, I too stood at the telescope and looked into the lens.
A lonely sphere floating in the darkness, and giant rings encircling it. It was a unique shape even kindergarteners were familiar with. Yet looking at the real thing through a lens like this, it seemed like a bad joke. Was it acceptable for such an illogically-shaped thing to exist in this world? Since I'd been taught that Saturn had this shape, I was able to leave it at that, but how bewildered would someone who didn't know anything about Saturn be at the sight of this?
While I was being overwhelmed by Saturn's appearance, Hinohara spoke from behind me.
"Seeing you looking into a telescope like this reminds me of that night on our class trip."
"...You're as detestable as ever," I quietly replied.
"What is this about?" Sure enough, Chigusa showed interest in the story.
"Oh, it's nothing big," Hinohara began in a lively voice. "There was an open air bath at the place we stayed for our third year class trip. And on the third night, it came to light that we could lean forward and use binoculars to see from our room to the stairs connecting the women's interior bath and the open air bath. The next day we did some on-site procurement of binoculars, and that night took turns looking through 'em. Eh, Fukamachi?"
"Hmm... So Fukamachi would also do such things." Chigusa gave me a mix of a scornful look and a teasing one.
"So what? If I were the only one who didn't look in that situation, that'd make it more suspicious," I excused, then went on the counterattack. "You know, Hinohara, you always did have a habit of trying to tease me around the girls you were into."
"You've got that wrong," Hinohara replied without delay. "I just like teasing you."
"How friendly." Chigusa grinned with a hand over her mouth.
Hinohara and I shrugged, like saying "I wonder about that." Then the three of us looked toward Hajikano, still plastered to the telescope and not tiring of looking at Saturn.
"Does she like stars that much?", Hinohara asked me, lowering his voice so she didn't hear.
"Yeah. I mean, she comes out here every night just to see them."
"Every night? You sure there isn't some other objective?"
"No, nothing. I can be sure of that."
"Huh. Weird gal." Hinohara stared at Hajikano's back like he was making sure of something.
"Hey, ghost of Oiwa," he dubbed Hajikano. "You gonna get tired of Saturn already?"
Hajikano took her eyes away from the lens and shook her head at Hinohara. "I'm not tired of it."
"Oh yeah? Well, I am. So I'm gonna have you point the telescope at the moon now. You know how to do that?"
"Okay, take it away. Tell me when you've got a good view of the moon's surface."
Hajikano bowed her head deeply and carefully began to fiddle with the telescope.
"Well now, you're using the finder right. Way to go," Hinohara remarked happily.
"You say it's too important to want an ignorant novice touching it, then you let a girl you just met fiddle with it," I pointed out. "So much for that."
"It's alright, she won't break it," Hinohara said confidently.
"Y'know, I did study up on this too. Even learned how to read star maps."
"That's some good spirit. But I can't trust you since your motives are impure."
Hinohara seemed to grow impatient while watching Hajikano take her time, so he stood up with a flashlight covered in red cellophane and began giving instructions next to her. "Dummy, first you wanna use the low-magnification eyepiece. Once you line up the focal point, then you can increase magnification."
"I don't know how to change eyepieces," Hajikano complained.
"Then just ask me. Are you stupid?"
"...How do I do it?", Hajikano nervously asked.
Chigusa and I watched the two mess with the telescope from behind.
"People who understand what you like are wonderful," Chigusa whispered.
"Yeah. I really couldn't get deep into one thing like that," I remarked. "Maybe I can't have that much confidence in my hobbies."
"I know that feeling. I expect that I'll at some point get bored or frustrated, and put in less effort as a precautionary measure."
Looking at Hinohara giving annoyed instructions and Hajikano reluctantly following them, my heart slightly ached. It was a strange sensation I'd never experienced before. At that point, I wasn't conscious of it being the emotion known as jealousy. Maybe I had experienced it because of my inferiority, but I'd given up on myself to the point that I didn't compare myself to others, and lived a life where I would never have jealousy toward specific people. As a result, I didn't know the name to give to that feeling I was having for the first time.
I felt a vague ill omen. Maybe I've opened a door that I shouldn't have opened, I thought.
And that omen was for a not-too-distant future.
"Fukamachi, what is the matter?", Chigusa asked worriedly as I fell silent.
"Nothing. Just had a strange feeling."
"Indeed. ...It is strange."
Hajikano turned around to glance at us, then went right back to the telescope.
Around 4 AM, when the sky began turning violet, we left the ruins. With an uneventful farewell, we all returned to our respective houses.
Yet by some strange alignment of the stars - or rather, maybe an alignment caused by stars - from then on, me, Hajikano, Chigusa, and Hinohara came to assemble at the ruins every night as if called there.
The most surprising part of this was that Hinohara kept bringing his telescope and setting it up on the roof of the hotel every time without anyone asking him to. Of course, I assume he did it not out of purely good will, but mostly as an excuse to meet with Chigusa. I didn't know how serious he was, but Hinohara seemed to like Chigusa, and kept trying to extract information about her from me (which I always evaded).
Chigusa's reason for being there every night, as she told it, was to prevent me and Hajikano from being alone together. Once, right when Hajikano and Hinohara were focused on the telescope, I asked Chigusa why she kept coming. She glared at me with dissatisfaction and lightly bumped her forehead into my shoulder.
"Is it not obvious I want to prevent you and Hajikano from meeting in secret?", she said without fear. "Are you not even aware of that?"
"...I've been meaning to ask, but what exactly do you see in me?", I asked. "It's honestly a mystery to me."
"Think about it for yourself, you miscreant." Chigusa turned away.
And the all-important Hajikano - the one who was coming to the roof every night without anyone asking her to. I thought her acceptance of us three intruders was simply due to the telescope. But lately, I'd come to see that differently.
Maybe... Possibly... Potentially.
Perhaps Hajikano wasn't focused on the telescope, but Hinohara.
I began to think this after an event a few days into our stargazing. I was with Chigusa, watching Hinohara and Hajikano set up the telescope from behind. Hajikano had quickly taken the role of Hinohara's assistant, and came to follow his instructions and change lenses, adjust the finder, check star maps without any look of displeasure. Hajikano seemed to enjoy those tasks, and Hinohara trusted her as an astronomy lover, and he was freely letting her touch the telescope he wouldn't usually let anyone have.
As Hinohara finished preparing and called to us, there was the sudden sound of a car engine in the distance. He put up a finger to silence us and closed his eyes to listen close.
"It's coming this way," he groaned. "I can tell from the sound of the engine. Probably the guys who hang out around the mountain pass. They might be out on a dare or something."
He was exactly right. After a while, the engine sound stopped near the building, and we heard people getting out and doors shutting. The voices sounded like three or four guys in their twenties. They seemed to be headed right for us.
"We should probably hide," I suggested. "We don't want to have a run-in with those guys."
"We've got two ladies here." Hinohara looked at Hajikano and Chigusa and scratched his head. "Alright, fine. Fukamachi, you hide these two. A dumpster, an incinerator, wherever. In the meantime, I'll put away the telescope."
"Got it," I nodded. "Hajikano, Ogiue, come with me."
Chigusa followed, but Hajikano just stood there thinking about something. "Hajikano, hurry," I said, trying to grab her hand. But her hand slipped away, and she ran over to Hinohara to help him disassemble the telescope.
Maybe Hajikano figured it would be more efficient to look for places for all four of us to hide after putting away the telescope. Figuring she wouldn't get in Hinohara's way, she instantly chose to help him disassemble, ignoring me. That was a perfectly rational notion.
Yet, even knowing that, I felt an indescribable unease the moment Hajikano slipped away from my hand and ran over to Hinohara. I felt like that action was more than it seemed.
Ultimately, the guys on a dare never came to the roof - they wandered the first floor, smashed some windows, and left in about thirty minutes. While waiting for them to leave, we held our breath hiding behind a structure on the roof. Once the car was out of earshot, we sighed with relief and got out to stretch. We felt strangely elated to be free from the tension, and me, Hinohara, and Chigusa laughed. Hajikano's expression seemed a little less stiff than usual, too.
After that day, I began watching with caution when Hajikano interacted with Hinohara. And I saw that she frequently showed relaxed expressions to him that she never showed to me. Once I became aware of it, I kept finding proof that Hajikano looked at Hinohara in a special way.
It seemed Hajikano was captivated by him. Even someone as estranged from people's feelings as me could tell what a favorable attitude she had around him. With him around, she instantly smiled more, and when he left, she looked blatantly gloomier.
Her actions gradually became easier to understand. While stargazing on the roof, she came to dangle after Hinohara. I wasn't sure if it was out of love, or friendship between fellow likers of astronomy. But at the very least, Hajikano seemed to be having considerably more fun hearing about astronomy from Hinohara than being alone with me. Once I noticed that fact, my vision went black. Every time I saw them getting close and chatting since, my pulse wouldn't calm down, and I felt despair like sinking to the dark sea bottom.
Wasn't this Andersen's The Little Mermaid exactly? Out of love for Hajikano, I put my life on the line to remove my birthmark, but in trying to save her from her predicament, another man snatched away the credit. It had a lot of overlap with the fate of the little mermaid, obtaining a human form out of love for the prince, but another woman taking credit for her saving his life.
But I was unable to blame Hinohara. It's not like he tried to lead Hajikano astray. He just liked a girl who had his same interest in stars, cordially answering to her desire.
Also, through this stargazing, Hinohara and I reattained a comfortable friendship like we had in middle school. I hated to admit it, but even I took a liking to him. In the end, Hinohara knew me best, and I knew Hinohara best. It was hard to hate him. And it was none other than me who got these two together who never would have otherwise. I sowed the seeds here.
I absolutely wanted to get Hajikano back, but looking at her passionately listening to Hinohara, I came to think of myself as a nuisance. Forcibly trying to pull them apart at this point would only make her sad. I went to the library almost every day to try and catch up to Hinohara's astronomy knowledge, but cramming didn't cut it at all. Rather, the more I studied, the more I realized the tremendous extent of his knowledge.
The one small salvation was that Hinohara was captivated by Chigusa rather than Hajikano, but I felt pathetic thinking of that as a salvation. When I noticed myself wishing deep down that Chigusa would reciprocate Hinohara, I felt like vanishing off the face of the Earth from embarrassment.
Out of the four of us on the rooftop, my head was the most dirty. Sure, I'd gotten a normal appearance, but this time it was my mind that was ugly beyond compare. It hadn't been like this when I had my birthmark. As soon as I felt like I'd gotten something, it turned to greed, and that greed threw my heart into disarray.
Sitting next to Chigusa, sipping on iced tea she made, I watched Hajikano and Hinohara with the telescope between them and drew a long sigh.
"Not going so well, is it," Chigusa remarked as if knowing what I was thinking.
"Yeah. Not so well," I repeated like an incoherent mutter.
"All the gears are out of sorts in such strange ways. If only there were some deus ex machina to fix it."
"Yeah. I'd only want to change the directions of two arrows."
"Two?" Chigusa tilted her head, ignorant of the arrow pointing from Hinohara to her.
"Why did it have to be like this?", I mumbled to myself.
"...While it seems unsatisfactory to you, Fukamachi, I like these relations," Chigusa responded. "Of course, the biggest reason is that I can be with you. But that isn't the only thing. Somehow, the four of us being together feels very natural."
I thought about it for a while, then spoke. "Yeah, I don't want to admit it, but I feel the same way."
"Right?", Chigusa smiled. "Who knows how long it will go on, but I adore this time. I pray it can go on as long as possible. ...Of course, if you were to pick me, that would be a different story."
Every time Chigusa stated her affection like that, my heart ached. For one thing, I couldn't face her feelings head-on, but more than that, it was an ache of guilt over the fact that the "me" she was loving wasn't my real appearance, so I was in some sense fooling her.
Unable to bear it, I asked in a roundabout way. Or confessed, maybe.
"If the Fukamachi you were looking at right now was a fake, what would you do? For instance, if my face were actually much uglier, do you think you would still have this sort of relationship with me?"
Chigusa tilted her head with a stare.
"Ah, do you perhaps mean the birthmark?", she said casually. "If I hated you that much, I could never love you from the start. In fact, if you were to go back to when you had the birthmark, it would help to reduce competition."
Seeing how I was too shocked to put together a reply, Chigusa laughed like at a joke.
"Did you think I was that unknowledgeable about you? I should have you know, I want to know about you just as much as you want to know about Hajikano."
"...I'm getting really fed up with my own ignorance."
I put my hands on the floor and stared up at the sky.
Chigusa had noticed it, and even I was faintly aware. These times wouldn't last too long. A break would inevitably come in the not-too-distant future.
August 7th was a new moon. Pointing binoculars at the sky, in the Milky Way between Vega and Altair, we could observe star clusters and nebulae.
The night of August 12th, without taking any telescope or binoculars, we climbed the highest hill in town and lied down to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. The one the guidance counselor Endou had told us not to miss. From 1991 to 1994, due to the influence of the returning parent body Swift-Tuttle, the Perseid Meteor Shower was setting record numbers far above the yearly average. On the night of the 12th, it hit its peak, and we saw an average of about 50 shooting stars per hour. Some people would never get to see this many in their entire lifetime, I thought. Hajikano's innocent smile as she watched the stars go by left a strong impression on me. I thought it was proof that she was on the way to improvement.
On August 13th, it rained, and for the first time in a while we spent the night alone.
On August 14th, it rained more than the day before.
On August 15th, unbeknownst to anyone, Hajikano plunged into the sea.
And just like that, our short relations met an end.
Chapter 8: Save the Last Dance for Me
The phone rang at 2 PM on August 14th. I was perusing an astronomy book in my room at the time, studying the movement of variable binary stars. It was pouring outside, raindrops beat against the window, and wind relentlessly blew through the trees. My parents were out at work, so I was home alone.
When I heard the phone, I tossed away my book and ran down the stairs to grab the receiver.
There was no reply. A long silence. It had to be a call from Hajikano, I figured. I couldn't imagine anyone but her doing this.
"Is this Hajikano?", I asked the caller. But still, no reply.
It didn't seem to me that this was a repeat of before, where two phones rang at once and the theoretically separate lines somehow got connected. This silence was full of conviction, leaving me an impression that the caller was staying silent with full awareness I was on the other end. However, it did feel like a hesitating silence of whether or not to say something, rather than a purposeful lack of speaking.
And suddenly, the call ended. What was that all about?, I wondered as I put down the phone.
The sound of the rain seemed strangely clear, and I noticed the window was left open, with a puddle forming. I closed it, wiped the puddle up with a rag, and went around checking the other windows.
Once back in my room, I thought about that phone call again. And I had a sudden thought.
Maybe I should have been the one to start talking.
Maybe she wasn't being silent, but waiting for my words.
I felt uneasy. Putting a yacht parka over my shirt, I went out without even an umbrella and rode my bicycle to Hajikano's house. Arriving in a few minutes, I mashed on the doorbell repeatedly. A few seconds later, Aya showed her face.
"...Huh, Yocchan?", she said with disappointment. That reaction seemed to confirm my bad premonition.
"Something happened to Yui, didn't it?", I asked.
"Yeah," Aya nodded. "You look like you know something. Come inside. I'll lend you a towel."
"Let's talk here, please."
Aya, mid-turning on her heel, turned back to me and sighed.
"Yui's gone missing. She left the house like usual last night and hasn't come back. Of course, that alone wouldn't be worrisome. It's not that rare for her to be gone for over a day, and maybe she's late to come home because of the rain. ...But I get kind of a bad feeling this time."
I spoke after a slight hesitation. "There was a wordless call to my house earlier. I don't have proof, but I think it was from Yui. After about two minutes of silence, the call ended without explanation."
"If that was Yui, then she's still safe for now, huh..." She closed her eyes with relief.
"What's your bad feeling?"
"Thinking about it, she was kind of weird last night," Aya said, staring into the rain outside. "I happened to meet her in the kitchen just as she was leaving. I was hungry and fishing around in the fridge, and she was headed out the back door. Usually, Yui would just turn away from me, but yesterday was different. She stopped at the kitchen door and gave me a solid look, blinking like she was seeing something unusual. I acted like I didn't notice. After about ten seconds, she stopped looking at me and went to the back door, but she bowed her head like giving a passing greeting. ...You know how unusual all that is, don't you, Yocchan?
"Did Yui not say anything then?"
"Nope, not a word." Aya's expression clouded slightly. "Uh, maybe I'm just overthinking it, but... When a classmate of mine died, she was the same way."
"Classmate?", I repeated.
"If I had to put it one way or the other, we got along poorly. She seemed to hate me, and I didn't like being hated away at, so I hated her back. In about autumn of my second year of middle school, she suddenly stopped coming to school. Then about a month later, I got a call from her, and she did all the talking. I wanted to ask why she didn't come to school, but she didn't seem to want to be asked, so I didn't. Just before she hung up, she said an uncharacteristic "Thanks for today." And that's it."
"A few hours after the call, she killed herself." Aya's voice kept a fixed tone. "They found her hung in the woods by the sea. No note or anything. A few days after that, I realized. "Ah, so that call was a sign." That "thanks" was like her last words."
I digested her words. "Miss Aya, do you think Yui is going to kill herself?"
Thinking about it logically, that didn't follow. Lately, it seemed like Hajikano was headed in a happier direction. Hadn't she been enjoying herself watching the Perseid Meteor Shower? Why did she want to commit suicide now of all times?
No, or maybe... I thought about it. Maybe Hajikano seemed happier because she'd already decided when she'd do it? Because she knew that she could leave this world in a few days, she could innocently enjoy the moment?
"I don't know." Aya shook her head. "There's just that possibility. I've put out a search request, but they don't seem to be taking it seriously. Our parents are out looking right now."
"Then we should search for Yui too," I suggested. "The more, the better. I'll call some friends too. Sorry, but can I borrow your phone?"
"Use it as you like." She turned and pointed to a phone in the hall. "But sorry, I'm not coming along."
I replied in a somewhat harsh tone. "This is no time to be stubborn, is it? I guarantee it, if you do nothing and Yui kills herself, you'll regret it. It might be days or years from now, but you'll come to lament your actions today. You don't hate your sister as much as you think."
"Of course I know that," Aya said, her voice also getting rough. "But I'm waiting for a call from her. So I can't leave this spot."
"Are you certain she's going to call here?"
"Nope. But going looking now is pointless. If she really wants to die, we can't stop her. She's a very clever girl, so she won't let anyone find her. She might have long since killed herself already. ...But if she still has doubts, don't you think she might call here like she called you, Yocchan? Thinking of it that way, my best option is to wait for that call here."
Aya and I glared at each other for a while. I hated to admit it, but it made sense. If Hajikano had no intention of being found, wouldn't our search for her only end in vain? Was it all we could do to wait for her determination to falter, and not miss the moment it tilted to our side?
But I had already let one such moment slip away. Chances were slim that we could wait for it to swing back. Which meant we had to take action.
I passed by Aya to the phone and first dialed Hinohara's house. After ten dial tones, Hinohara's brother answered. I asked if Hinohara was there, and he said he was out. When I asked if he knew where he was, he bluntly replied "Hell if I know!" and hung up. It was unlikely he went to set up the telescope in this weather, so I had no guesses either.
When I called Chigusa's house, she herself answered promptly.
"No time to explain details," I said first thing. "Hajikano's missing. Help me look for her."
"Err... This is Fukamachi, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Sorry to make you go out in the rain, but get ready to go quick."
"Did something happen to Hajikano?"
"I don't know. But her older sister says she has a bad feeling, and I agree with her. To tell the truth, just a month ago, I witnessed a suicide attempt by Hajikano. She might be trying it again."
I thought that explaining this much would get Chigusa to agree without another word.
But that wasn't the case.
She was silent, like time had stopped on the other end.
"What's wrong? Why aren't you saying anything?"
"Um, Fukamachi," Chigusa said calmly. "Please don't hate me for this. I'm about to say something slightly mean-spirited."
"There's no time to chat about..."
"Let us leave Hajikano be."
At first, I thought I misheard her. No, it's probably more like my brain refused to comprehend it.
Because the Chigusa I knew wouldn't say something like that.
"What did you say?", I asked, knowing there was no point in doing so.
Chigusa didn't answer that, and spoke monotonously. "Say, Fukamachi. Are you familiar with the option of relief the witch provides to the little mermaid after another woman marries the prince?"
"...What in the world are you talking about?"
"To kill the prince with a dagger. If she pierced the prince's heart and let the blood flow, her legs would revert to a tail, and she could once again live as a mermaid," Chigusa said to answer herself. Then she pressed further. "The bet you've taken. What becomes of the conditions if Hajikano, holder of the key, dies? Whether your love would come to fruition would become an eternal mystery, and perhaps the bet could not conclude. Would that not save your life?"
"Wait," I shouted to interrupt her. "Why do you know about the bet, Ogiue? I didn't tell anyone about it..."
Of course, there was no reply.
"Luckily, Hajikano wishes her own death. You only need to respect her conviction. No need to use the dagger yourself. In addition," she cleared her throat, "Fukamachi, do you believe the birthmark alone is the cause of Hajikano's despair?"
"...I don't suppose it has to do with what happened in those "blank four days"?"
"Exactly," Chigusa affirmed. "With her death, she'll atone for a certain sin."
"Look, Ogiue, listen to me," I pleaded. "I'm really interested in that too, and I've got lots of questions, like how you know all this stuff. But as we speak, Hajikano might be walking straight to her death. I have to go search for her."
"Is that so," Chigusa said with disappointment. "Well then, go ahead. I will be here praying that you don't find her."
The call ended. I had countless doubts, but I put them on hold and left Hajikano's house. Before anything else, I went to Masukawa Hotel and searched every nook and cranny, but I found no sign of Hajikano. I went on to try the shrine park, the woods, Minagisa First High, our old elementary school, Chakagawa Station, all the places she might have fond memories of. As time passed, the storm got stronger, and I got as soaked as the time I fell into the pool, my sneakers so muddy you couldn't tell their original color. Yet everywhere I looked, Hajikano wasn't there. As Aya said, if she really wanted to kill herself without anyone finding her, it was impossible to stop her.
No... Maybe if I had understood Hajikano better, I could have figured out her destination. But I didn't. In the end, I probably didn't understand half of what she was thinking.
I checked Masukawa Hotel one last time, but she just wasn't there. I returned to Hajikano's house around 2 AM. I hesitated to ring the doorbell, so I knocked lightly on the door. Aya quickly answered. Seeing my face, she shook her head.
"No call, either?"
"Yep," Aya nodded powerlessly. "And you?"
"I still haven't found her. I think I might try the appropriate places one more time."
"Enough. Aren't you exhausted?", she said pitifully. "Get some rest. You can use our shower. Take off those wet clothes. Borrow some from my father."
"Thank you very much. But, no thanks. They'll just get wet again anyway."
Aya grabbed my shoulders. "Listen, take a break for at least thirty minutes. Do you know what color your face looks like, Yocchan? You're like a walking corpse."
"I was born with it. I get that all the time."
Shaking away from Aya, I went back out into the rain.
I continued the search until dawn, but I never found Hajikano.
I headed home, passing by grade-schoolers headed to radio calisthenics. Once home, before even taking off my wet clothes, fully aware of the absurd hour, I called Chigusa's house. I wanted to know the rest of the conversation that got cut short. I had hundreds of questions. But there were only ten dial tones, and no answer. Was nobody up yet? Or had they already gone out?
I gave up and put down the receiver. I undressed, took a shower, and soaked in the warm bathtub for a long time. My head was empty. After getting out, I put on pajamas, ate the cold rice left in the rice cooker, carefully and time-consumingly brushed my teeth, and lied down on my futon. I thought I could never sleep in this dangling situation, but I lost consciousness in a blink and slept like a pile of bricks for five hours.
A sharp beam of light came through the curtains and woke me. In sharp contrast to yesterday, the weather was clear and pleasing. My head ached like I still needed three more hours of sleep, but I gave up and sat up from my futon. I felt like it had all been a bad dream, yet simultaneously knew it was reality. I went downstairs to the phone, called Hajikano's house, and Aya answered at the second dial tone.
"I was literally just about to call you," she said with surprise.
"Does that mean there was a development?"
"Yeah." Aya's voice sounded worn out. "...For now, the worst was avoided. Yui was found alive."
I sighed with relief and collapsed to the floor.
But Aya's phrasing wasn't entirely reassuring. Like she had good news and bad news, and had only told me the good news.
"The worst was avoided... but even so, something bad did happen. Is that right?"
"That's right," Aya affirmed. "Our bad premonition was right. At early dawn, Yui threw herself into the raging sea."
I let out a gasp. The sea. I'd completely overlooked it. Why didn't I search there? Maybe her first attempt had left such an impression on me, I was sure she would choose hanging again. And maybe the beach was too familiar a place to me.
"There's no way to describe it other than a miracle. It seems a lucky wave pushed her back to shore. She was found early in the morning by an old couple taking a walk on the coast. They called 119 right away, and the wife had lifeguard training, so she was able to provide aid before the ambulance arrived. Yui's only just regained consciousness, so she's in a state of deep confusion. But she can talk, so there didn't seem to be any serious brain damage. ...They just say we can't meet her for a while. Her family, that is, so it'd be even harder for you, Yocchan."
I listened to her with bated breath. I wasn't even sure how I should be feeling. Should I be glad Hajikano's okay, saddened about her suicide attempt, or grateful for the luck?
"What are you going to do now, Miss Aya?"
"I just talked with our parents about that. We decided once Yui's out of the hospital, she should go to her grandma's house to recuperate. She'd be able to live cut off from the outside world for a while."
"I see. ...That may be for the best."
Aya spoke to me comfortingly. "Hey, Yocchan, I think you did good. As harshly as your old friend Yui rejected you, it didn't get you down. In fact, you didn't try to force things along, but kept patiently persuading Yui from a reasonable distance. That took your relationship as far as her going out with you every night. Not only that, but you succeeded at getting Yui friends. Seeing it happen up close, I was convinced it was a task only you could do, Yocchan. In other words, no matter how hard anyone tried, it was impossible to cure her self-destructive desires. Maybe that's all there is to it."
"Thank you very much," I said, but then knew I had to append, "And I'm sorry."
"I told you, there's nothing to apologize for," Aya laughed haggardly.
Once the call was over, I called Chigusa without delay. I had to question her about her detailed knowledge of my bet.
A theory had formed in my head, perhaps while I was sleeping, about why information about the bet had reached Chigusa.
Chigusa Ogiue had experienced this bizarre bet.
Let's say the woman on the phone proposed a bet to more than just me. It could be just a few people, or it could be hundreds, but say there were others who she offered bets to, and Chigusa was one of them. And Chigusa was able to win - or perhaps not win, but by some means make it through the bet - and successfully survived. As a result, she noticed her classmate Yosuke Fukamachi was taking on a bet like she once had. Also, she knew a loophole in the bet.
Out of all the theories I could extract from the facts that had come to light, none seemed more plausible than this one. Of course, it was possible I was overlooking something serious. But even so, the theory that Chigusa had been through the bet had a unique sticking power.
"Hello?" Chigusa answered the phone. "Fukamachi, I assume?"
"Right. Hajikano was found. She jumped into the sea in the early hours. Luckily, she didn't die, but it'll be hard to meet with her for a while."
"I see," Chigusa said, and nothing more. She didn't seem to have any more thoughts on the matter. She was as calm as if she expected it to happen from the start.
"I want to carry on with our conversation from yesterday."
"Then come to my house, please. It could be a long one. And there is something I want to show you."
"Something to show me?"
"It would help to come as soon as possible. There does not seem to be much time left."
With that, Chigusa ended the call.
Not much time?
I twisted my neck. What was she talking about? Was what she wanted to show me something that would go away with time?
In any event, I obeyed and headed for her house.
Many things were approaching an end. There were dead cicadas lying on the road here and there. Ants swarmed on the dried corpses, and from a distance it looked like the ground itself was squirming.
Tsukutsuku-boushi had come to make up the majority of the cicada buzzing; the close of summer drew near. The hot days would surely continue for a while. But no more escalation than this. It was only downhill from here.
Entering the complex, hilly residential district, after a while, I reached Chigusa's house. Washing hung up on the second-floor veranda blew pleasantly in the wind.
Just as I stood at the door to ring the doorbell, I was called for from the garden.
I turned to the voice and stepped onto the neatly-cut lawn.
Chigusa was waiting for me there.
Seeing her there, sitting in a wheelchair, instantly melted a number of my doubts.
"Say, Fukamachi. I want to go to the beach," she said, tilting her head slightly.
There was a small white flower at her feet.
At the beginning of summer in third grade was the first time I experienced life in a hospital.
Then, too, it was my legs which were injured. While going down the hill to the shore on my bike, I wanted to see how far I could go without using the brakes. Just as I made it to the end of the hill and thought "Alright, I made it!", the front wheel hit a bump and my body was thrown through the air. Since I turned the handlebars just before, I avoided landing face-first, but my left knee hit the asphalt hard instead.
At the first hospital I visited, it was diagnosed as a bruise, but the pain was so great I couldn't walk or even bend my knee. At a separate hospital, they found it to be a broken kneecap that would take two months to heal. Since that was my first major injury, I remember my mother being more flustered than I was.
These days, I was able to even enjoy living in the hospital, but being in third grade and having never been hospitalized before, a single day spent lying in bed felt like an eternity. At first, I had no idea how to spend my time, and just went mad from boredom. It felt like time had been stopped for me. My three meals a day were my only stimulation and pleasure. There was lots of plain food - pickled food, syrupy boiled food, soup with weak flavor, fish with no fat meat. But occasionally there was food with condiments like sauce and ketchup, and that alone made me feel fulfilled for a few hours.
My dad bought me books from many fields to stave off my boredom. I had no habit of reading back then, and was the sort of kid who barely looked at any books, not even illustrated encyclopedias. But having nothing else to do, I had to read those books. Not thinking about if it was interesting or not, worthwhile or not, I just followed the words in front of me and stared at the photos and illustrations. Doing that, I gradually found no small amount of enjoyment there.
One book I read again and again was a book explaining magic tricks. Like the stuff you see on TV: getting the number right for a card pulled at random, making a coin vanish into a cup, making a wand levitate in midair. It explained in detail how all those tricks were set up and performed.
It was a complex and difficult subject, but the author, who was a magician, had an extremely smooth and easy-to-read style, and I read it like I was learning about the other side of the world. Thinking about it now, rather than the secrets to the magic tricks themselves, what I really enjoyed was probably the author's perspective on the psychological blind spots of the people who witnessed them. Most people's first experience as a reader is with novels or essays, but I learned the joy of reading from a book on magic tricks.
If my father had given me books on astronomy at the time, maybe I would have ended up as an astronomy fanatic like Hinohara? No, I got bored of magic tricks after a month or two, so maybe the same thing would have happened with astronomy. At any rate, making such theories was pointless. A life where Yosuke Fukamachi came to like stars and the life Yosuke Fukamachi had lived now were entirely separate things. Maybe he couldn't have loved Hajikano even then.
The room I stayed in had four other children in all. There were three boys and one girl. Their injuries were in different areas, but they were all serious ones.
The girl in the bed in front of me seemed to have broken a leg like me, as one of her legs was wrapped up in a cast. The thinness of her uninjured leg and the thickness of the multi-layered cast felt as unbalanced as a crab's pincers. I wasn't sure if she was depressed about being in the hospital or if she had a gloomy personality to begin with, but she always had a glum look. Of course, I've never seen a long-term patient in a hospital who was all smiles.
Once every three or four days, the girl's mother paid a visit. It wasn't all that infrequent. Yet every time, without exception, within ten minutes she'd say "Well, your mother's busy" and leave early, which only seemed to spur the girl's loneliness. When her mother came to visit, she set out to make the most of those ten minutes, complaining about her every dissatisfaction to get across the hardship of her hospitalization. Her mother, exhausted from work, let it pass through her ears with a fed-up expression, then left with the excuse of being busy. It was probably an undeniable fact that she was busy with work, but I had to wonder if it was better to just not visit at all at that point.
Once her mother left, the girl would bury herself in her pillow and sob. I got melancholy seeing the series of events unfold. Why couldn't things go any better than that? Why couldn't they be more honest? You don't want to quarrel either, do you? I loathed her clumsiness - but now, I think that irritation came from the awareness that I had the same sort of clumsiness.
I hated the crybaby girl, but she hated me too. She seemed annoyed by how my mother would visit frequently and stay for a while. Every time she came and replaced the flowers or doodled on my cast, the girl glared scornfully. After the visit ended and I was alone, she spent a long time glaring at me. Like saying "don't ever forget this glare."
Only someone who's been through it will really get it, but people in the hospital with broken legs taste all kinds of discomfort and misery. To take it to an extreme, they lose some of their dignity as people and are attacked by extraordinary powerlessness. Maybe she and I both kept our vitality by hating those nearby, so we could fight that powerlessness.
The girl and I formed a cease-fire a month after I entered the hospital. I was reading a book in bed like usual, and heard a festival band from the dark outside the window.
Holding my injured leg, I slowly stood up on the other leg to look out the window. Dozens of people were walking down the road in the same direction. Many had family along with them, but there were plenty of students in uniform who seemed to be coming home from school. There was no small number of kids about my age. And they were all laughing together.
While watching the people going down the street, I spotted a few of my classmates. I impulsively wanted to call out to them, but rethought it just before I did. Maybe having a conversation with them could temporarily soothe my loneliness. But the moment they saw me at a hospital window as they headed to a festival, it would shift the clear boundary between me and them - so I felt.
No, the boundary was already being pulled, I thought. I was just ignorant of its existence before now. There was already an unrecoverable distance between me and everyone at school. While I lied in bed and counted stains on the ceiling, they were spending irreplaceable time with friends, making many precious memories.
I alone felt like I'd been completely left behind by the world. Before I knew it, tears filled my eyes. I hurried to rub them before any spilled out. I sat on my bed, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited for my tear glands to settle down.
Suddenly, I heard a sobbing voice very close by. It didn't seem likely I had let out a sob without even realizing. I opened my eyes and saw the girl leaning from her bed to look out the window.
Her cheeks were wet with tears.
She must be feeling a similar lonesomeness as me, I realized.
I think I sought to console her then because I knew, in a roundabout way, it would give me consolation too. In essence... it's hard to soothe your own sorrow, but not so hard to soothe someone else with similar sorrows. And once you prove their similar sorrows can be soothed, it's simple to do it with your own.
I took a handkerchief from the bedside table, plucked a small white flower from the vase on the table, and folded it to a suitable length. Once prepared, I carefully stood up on one leg and called to the girl.
She hurried to wipe her tears and looked at me. I extended my palms to show her I wasn't holding anything. She stared, looked between my hands and face, and asked with a slight sob, "What is it?"
"What do you think?", I asked back, and loosened my face up to lower her guard. I'm sure it was a horribly awkward smile. "You'll see soon."
I put the handkerchief on my left hand, stroked it with my right, then pulled it away and offered the white flower that appeared to the girl. Her eyes widened and she blinked a few times. She timidly took the flower with both hands and inspected it from various angles. Once sure it was real rather than artificial, she lovingly put it in the small vase at her bedside. Then she turned back to me and smiled with a face swelled from tears.
Ever since then, once per day, I would perform a magic trick I'd practiced that day for the girl. After dinner was over, she'd beckon to me and politely put her hands on her knees, waiting for my show to begin. I'd walk over on one leg to her bed and sit in the chair there, then perform the trick I'd desperately practiced in secret all day as if I was very familiar with it. Regardless of the outcome of the trick, she gave a small round of applause.
Eventually, we came to converse without any magic tricks involved. It was mostly trivial stuff like the food being good, or how we didn't like the way the nurse wrapped bandages.
Just one time, the girl mentioned my birthmark.
"That bruise really doesn't want to heal, it seems."
"Oh, this?" I lightly touched where the birthmark was. "I've had this since I was born. It's not an injury."
"Born with it...", she said curiously, staring at it. "It doesn't hurt or itch or anything, does it?"
"Nah, not at all."
"Good." She smiled with relief.
And also... Just one time, she had a complaint.
"If you had to live your whole life in a wheelchair, what would you do?"
She asked me this as I was headed back to bed, after cleaning up from a magic trick.
I grabbed the windowsill and stopped, thinking about what she said.
"I don't know. I've never thought about it. Why do you ask?"
The girl hung her head and wore a hollow smile. "Because it seems I may have to."
"Did a doctor tell you that?"
"Yes. They said quite some time ago that the possibility wasn't zero. At the very least, they said, some nerve paralysis would remain."
I spent a while thinking about my reply.
"If it were me, I'd probably cry a ton. I'd keep crying for days and days, and take it out on my mom, the nurse, and you, and ask for selfish things. I think if I was gonna be unable to walk for life, I could be forgiven for that much."
The girl said "That's true," and nodded repeatedly. As if her agreement was deepening each time she nodded. Then she looked up with a sudden thought, grabbed my sleeve, and sat me on the bed. Slowly lifting up her cast-covered leg with both hands to re-adjust her position, she held me from behind, dug her face into my back, and cried.
I think even at the time, I had a gut understanding of what her "selfishness" was. So I didn't say anything and accepted it. She cried for a long time. Like she was getting out all the water in her body. I wasn't even ten and didn't know what words I should say to her, so I stayed silent. Even though I was sixteen now, I still couldn't tell you what words I should have said.
When I left the hospital, the girl said "I'll come meet you when my leg heals" and asked for my address and phone number. I wanted to ask the same of her, but figured I could ask her when she called me. And I'll have to learn a bunch of magic tricks by then, I also thought.
I was more optimistic in third grade than you'd ever believe looking at me now.
A month, two months went by after I left, and I heard no word from the girl. Half a year passed, and not a single call.
After a year went by, I came to realize I would probably never meet her again. She hadn't broken her promise. In other words, her leg never healed.
Gradually, I forgot about her. Her presence within me grew weaker by the day, reaching the point where I might think "Oh yeah, there was that girl" when passing in front of a large hospital. Soon even that was gone, I forgot her face and name, and the brief summer memories I spent with her were buried deep in my mind.
That hill to the beach I had ridden my bike down that day, I was now pushing a wheelchair down. The rusty guardrails along the path had vines curled around them in places. Thousands of cicadas buzzed from the thickets on either side, making it as noisy as the inside of a clockwork toy.
"Did you leave the hospital right after I did, Ogiue?", I asked.
"It couldn't be right after, I'm afraid," Chigusa said, looking straight ahead at the distant sea. "I returned to school nearly half a year after you left the hospital. By then, my classmates had completely forgotten about me. For children that age, half a year is plenty to forget about a girl's entire existence. Of course, I never did have much presence."
"But there wasn't that sort of "transfer student" interest either?"
"Indeed, not at all." Chigusa weakly smiled. "Once I was wheelchair-bound, my avenues for friendship were greatly limited. It wasn't quite that I was discriminated against for being handicapped. Luckily, Mitsuba Elementary School did have instructors familiar with that. ...However, even with little discrimination, the simple fact that I could not walk couldn't be changed. People's actions when they were with me were limited. I couldn't participate in any athletic play, and my wheelchair had to be carried every time there was the smallest step. The girls there did not hate me, but deeply hated the trouble that came along with interacting with me. At first, they found it curious and escorted me around, enthralled with the idea of looking after someone disabled. But given a week, the bother won out, and they came to blatantly avoid me. People naturally distanced themselves."
I could easily imagine that process. There was a girl in a wheelchair at my middle school, and while not hated, she was avoided. I remembered her always in the corner of class, desperately trying to keep up with a group of quiet girls in the culture club.
"Previously, I described myself in middle school as "could be liked by anyone, but could not be anyone's favorite." But that was a bald-faced lie. I told such lies wanting to be thought of as a normal person. The real me was not only not liked by anyone, but estranged no matter where I was. I thought a hundred times each day, "I'm someone who shouldn't be here." At such times, I often recalled days spent with a certain boy with a large birthmark on his face to soothe my heart. That was a symbol of happiness to me. It was my sole proof that one could have wonderful memories no matter how restricted one was. And... that is why I never contacted you, Fukamachi. If you also refused me, the sole thing I was holding onto would vanish. ...However, after entering Minagisa First High, I discovered that name on the class roster."
Chigusa twisted around to look at my face.
"Indeed, the name "Yosuke Fukamachi" was there. I would be lying to say I wasn't happy. It was like a dream to end up in the same high school classroom as my first love. But more than that, I feared reuniting with you. You would not necessarily accept me now as you did then. Even if we could return to a cordial relationship like before, I could not hope for any further development. Since to a boy of sixteen, a girl in a wheelchair is in many ways inconvenient as a lover."
She turned forward again and stroked her legs with her hand.
"If only I could move these legs, I thought. I didn't have to be able to run around freely; just to walk alongside others. I wanted to have an average love of my own. ...Three months later, at school and after class, I heard a public phone ring. It was exactly fifty days ago."
At the end of the downward slope, the thickets on the side came to an end, and the sea glittering in the sunlight appeared. Seagulls loitering around the breakwater hurriedly flew away when they saw us coming.
"The only ones surprised I could suddenly walk were the doctor and my family. All others had a reaction such as "Ah, your injury finally healed." Though a lifelong worry to the one affected, apparently that's how it seems to others. ...And upon meeting with you after ten years, it seemed you had completely forgotten me. Of course, I could have reminded you by only saying "the girl you were with in the hospital," but I decided against it. I thought we might as well start from scratch. Forgetting my miserable past self, and living as an average girl."
Once at the edge of the breakwater, we silently listened to the waves for a while. Past the sea, there were thick clouds seeming to touch the top of the sky.
"Say, Fukamachi," Chigusa spoke. "If the girl sitting next to you that day were in a wheelchair, do you think you wouldn't have been this friendly?"
"Nah," I shook my head. "Instead of walking along with you, I'd be pushing your wheelchair like today. That'd be the only difference."
Chigusa smiled happily.
"...Perhaps I shouldn't have gone along with any bet, and it would have sufficed to simply say "I'm the girl from the hospital room.""
"Maybe," I nodded.
"But if I had, I wouldn't have gotten to run around town with you, and sneak into the pool, so perhaps it was the right choice." She put her arms together and stretched. "...But I wish I could have shown up to the festival. I did practice reading with you, even."
Remembering something, Chigusa dug into her pocket and handed me a letter.
"I've written what you want to know here. Read it later."
I thanked her and put the letter in my pocket.
After that, we talked at length about all that had happened this summer. Chigusa walking me up as I slept in my first day in class. Her guiding me around the school. Having Chigusa eat cup ramen when she said she'd never had it in her life. The various bad deeds we did to make her a bad person. Swimming nude in the pool. Sneaking out of the house at night, and the four of us seeing innumerable comets together.
Once we were out of things to say, Chigusa suddenly looked to the sky and pointed straight above. "Fukamachi, look."
A white jet stream drew a line in the sky.
We watched it in fascination for a long time.
When I looked back, Chigusa was gone.
Only a wheelchair without its owner was left behind.
I looked at my feet. White froth from the waves floated on the water.
I sat on the edge of the breakwater, and watched intently as the froth soundlessly dissolved into the sea.
I'll soon go the same way as her, I thought.