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BOOK 2:
She Can Talk To Concrete


He opened his eyes, feeling an unwanted warmth on his hand.
Stunned by light reflected off the pure white ceiling, he unconsciously closed them again. It was not a ceiling he knew.
He had awoken when a nurse in her late thirties grabbed his hand and stuck an IV needle into it.
The nurse was slightly surprised to see him wake, and went to call for a doctor. The pattering of her hurried running sounded somehow otherworldly.
All that was within his vision was a somehow unreal, inorganic hospital room.

"What you've come down with can't be cured."

This is what the doctor told him a bit later.


He was told he had a fatal illness.

His class was one he consistently just couldn't get acquainted with.
His high school life was worthless, without many friends.
Targeted by the class leader, he was often bullied.
The potential for his future seemed to diminish. He could hardly see a future ahead.
And at the front of his mind was "This is really just a pain."
So he muttered cynically, "Welp, what can you do," and entered the classroom with a metal bat.


She could talk to concrete.

Her big sister who went to college didn't know, and Tsubasa-kun, who always had girls providing him Dom Pérignon, probably didn't know either.
The hula dance teacher, and her mother who was cheating with him, didn't know, and her father who vanished into thin air one day didn't know.
Orphans starving in Africa didn't know, and her and Tsubasa-kun's children who had not yet breathed the air of the outside world definitely didn't know.
But to that she always said, "Welp, what can you do."


This is the story of them both.

*

What do people do the day they're told they have a terminal illness?
Some give up on living in despair, and some go running to their loved ones.
Some go mad with fear, and some indulge freely in their desires.
There are many different approaches.
But he was a little different.

"I guess now I don't have to think about my future!"

He was filled with cheer and entertained such pointless thoughts as those.
Thus, he went to his school's closing ceremony with a metal bat.
He repeatedly whacked the class leader in the butt with it, and ran out of the room as fast as he could go.
He heard beastly cries of anger from the classroom, but they mattered not to him.
After all, he had a fatal illness. By the end of this summer vacation, he'd no longer be one for this world.
So he'd no longer go to school, which was two hours from home. He'd never meet them again. The anger and yelling of someone you'll never see again is even more pointless than hearing someone talk about the dream they had last night.

Ignoring the voices echoing through the school, he dashed through the halls at top speed.
He liked the feel of the wind blowing against him, and closed his eyes for a moment.
He saw nothing but blackness. Like everyone had vanished from the world.
When he grew scared and opened his eyes, a brilliant light entered his eyes.
He suddenly thought, "If I die, will that blackness go on forever?"
That could have been a very scary thing indeed.
Eternal blackness with no time nor space. Would he be able to stand it?
Those thoughts were wiped away by the shouting from behind.

Running from the school, he went into town. He didn't even give a glance to the school gates which he'd never again pass through. He just kept looking and running ahead.
The piercing blue sky seemed bigger than ever, and a world filled with brilliant color spread before him.

He was already free.

*

"I'm home!"
"Welcome back! You're early."
"Yeah, the closing ceremony ended early."
"Oh, you don't say. Now, go clean your room. I'm going to be going shopping now."
"Okay, mom. See you!"

His mother left, and her lying son saw her off. She never would have imagined he, in his third year of high school, took a metal bat to school and spanked a kid with it. Some things you're better off not knowing.
He hadn't told anyone he had a terminal illness. That was another thing better off not known, he thought.
His mother, of course, would be very sad if she learned about it. He didn't want to see that.

After confirming from the window that his mother was far enough away, he got his textbooks out of his bag. The symbols of high school. As he went up in years, these things got harder, tortured him further.
He tore apart one of these books, bundled it into a ball, and tossed it in the trash.
He put another in the shredder, and buried another to nourish the earth, and burnt another to contribute to global warming.
He went on disposing of his textbooks in all different ways. The last one, he turned into a paper airplane and sent flying away.
Freed from his chains, he went to observe ants in the garden.
That time he spent watching the ants carry sugar in one long line was the happiest of his entire high school life.

From that day forth, he did his best to do absolutely nothing.
He bounced erasers, dug up and immediately refilled holes, counted stains on the ceiling, gave himself baths with water bottles. He tried his hardest in all of these meaningless things.
Considering his beyond-terrible high school life, these days were very enjoyable indeed.
"I wonder if I should just die already," he sometimes thought.

On one of those days, he received an invitation to a class reunion.
That day, he was counting sand in the sand pit as usual. The surprise of hearing his cellphone notification, which he almost never heard, gave him a start.
He didn't have any friends in high school, but he had a fair amount up to middle school. Sou-chan who lived nearby was a popular girl, and since they were close, he had more friends by extension.
So if he were to go there, even he would find friends.
In fact, the text inviting him to the reunion had been from Sou-chan.
"If you have some time, how'd you like to come to a class reunion?"
He wondered whether he should go or not, and asked his mother for her two cents.

"I dunno what I should do..."
"Well, you haven't done anything since summer break started. Go see Sou-chan, I'm sure she misses you."
"I've been doing things! Today I filled a water bottle with pebbles!"
"Please go."
"Okay, mom..."
So he decided to go to the class reunion.
"Well, okay, I guess I should look forward to seeing Sou-chan again," he told himself.

But alas, God was not kind to him.
The kind of god that gives people terminal illnesses willy-nilly is going to be bitterly malicious, he soon realized.
Due to catching an out-of-season flu, Sou-chan couldn't come to the reunion.
Secondly, his friend Tsuu-kun was going on a trip at the same time as the reunion.
Thirdly, his friend You-kun became a shut-in who wouldn't leave the house.
Fourthly, his friend Maa-kun was going to see a baseball game.
Fifthly, his friend Taa-chan was hospitalized after a traffic accident.
Etcetera, etcetera.

None of the people whom he was good friends with came to the reunion. He was left there all alone.
People laughed with each other. Had lively conversation. It had nothing to do with him, so he worked to sprinkle lemon juice on fried chicken in the corner of the room.
He ignored the people at the reunion, and entertained fantasies about a convenient meteorite hitting the place.
"If I'd known it would be like this, I should've just looked for a nice-shaped rock at the river...", he muttered, no one listening.
The loneliness piled up.

He got bored and started looking around. Most people had formed circles engaged in pleasant conversation. An honest thought came to his mind: "I wish they'd break an ankle."
However, among them was a girl who was also isolated in the corner like him.
She had chestnut-colored hair with neatly-cut forelocks, and she was sprinkling lemon juice on fried chicken in boredom.
From what he remembered, she was in a group in their class that didn't stand out very much.



In those days, she had long black hair in braids, and he had hardly ever talked to her in all their nine years of elementary and middle school.
That plain girl cutting her hair and dying it chestnut-colored seemed to make her an entirely different creature, so it took him some time to realize it was her.
He was able to gleam that she similarly had no friends who had come to the reunion.
With a glance over the crowd, he didn't see anyone who he recalled being in her group, and he felt a sudden affinity.
In truth, as she sprinkled lemon juice on fried chicken in boredom, she was occasionally whispering things to the concrete.
Likely put off by the bizarre aura surrounding her, no one attempted to talk to her.
And perhaps not wanting to lose to her, he continued to sprinkle lemon juice on the fried prawns before him.

Of course, no one came to talk to him either.

*

When the reunion was over, the former classmates went off to various after-parties.
He and she had no chance of being invited to any of those, so they loitered around the area.

"Go home."

They both muttered at nearly the same time. He found himself meeting eyes with her, but feeling awkward, averted his gaze.
She looked at him doubtfully. Then she appeared to realize something, and looked at him as if saying "Ahh, it's that guy."
As the only man on his own at the reunion, he had really stood out.
"Are you heading back this way?"
She must have felt a strange sort of sympathy as well. So she talked to him, of all people.
As soon as she spoke, his body froze up. He hadn't had a single conversation at the reunion, so he'd totally forgotten how to respond to being talked to.

He took a breath to calm himself down, then replied.
"No, not that way. Well, maybe that way."
She smirked at his ridiculous response. It was the first emotion she, who was just squeezing lemons, had shown all day.
"Um, what's your name again?", she asked, smiling. She was completely unable to remember it, having interacted with him so little.
"I forgot. Try to remember it for me," he jokingly replied.
She pondered and glared at his face. The smell of perfume tickled his nose.
Looking at her closer, she had quite a bit of makeup on. More than an ordinary high-schooler would wear.

After thinking for a while with her head lowered, her face gleamed and she shouted:
"I remember! You're Tarou Yamada!"
That sounded like the name of a fourth outfielder, and it was not his, but he laughed and said "That's right! Good memory."

He had a tendency to say a lot of pointless lies.
He'd say he hated tomatoes even though he liked them, bring his homework but say he forgot it, say he was full even though he was hungry.
He loved to pointlessly lie. And this was yet another meaningless lie that he would be better off not saying.

"And I believe your name was Hanako Yamada?"
He actually knew her name, but he lied about that too. Getting people's names wrong was a kind of lie he told often.
People are usually a little displeased to have such mistakes made about them. But she laughed hearing it.
"Haha, that's right! Good job yourself!"
Without any sign of anger, she poked his face with a smile. She wasn't named Hanako Yamada, but her sunny smile didn't mind.
He found a little enjoyment in their bizarre first meeting that day.

*

"What have you been up to lately, Tarou Yamada?"
He was walking home with her. Their paths home went in completely opposite directions, but if he had time to observe ants every day, he could spend it walking the wrong way with her.
"Battling with death, I guess."
The first true thing he'd said to her all day. Thinking it was a joke, she laughed "Haha!" like before.
"Yeah, that's summer vacation. No school or anything. So hey, what can you do."
"Right. Hooray for summer vacation!"
"So you've got so much time, you're fighting death?"
"Yeah, yeah. I gotta battle death once summer comes along."
"Naturally!"
With that, she span around happily. She did three spins, then stumbled back toward him.

"Hanako Yamada, are you still in school?"
"Nope, I don't go to school!"
"Oh, wow! You're a free woman."
"Ahaha, that's right. It's great!", she proudly stated, sticking out her chest. It looked like her breasts were about to spill out of her exposing clothes.
"It's kind of a secret, but I work a night job."
"Oh, huh. I bet it must be terrible getting all those weird late-night visitors to the store."
"Nooo, that's not it!"
He more or less understood what she was getting at, but he didn't have that much interest and just acted oblivious.

"I'm a real hit with the guys! Isn't that great?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm jealous!"
"You're not really thinking that at all, are you!"
"No, of course I am. It's been on my mind since yesterday."
"Well then great!"
It was a dumb, thoughtless conversation, but she was smiling the whole time. A big difference from the bored expression she wore while squeezing lemons at the class reunion.

"I guess I'm glad I came today," she suddenly said when they were about halfway home. "Though truthfully, most of the time I was thinking I should have gone to see a baseball game."
"Baseball?"
"Yeah. I love baseball."
After saying this, she assumed a batting pose, pretending to hold a bat with both hands swaying. "See, look! I'm Nori!"
Shockingly, her swing looked exactly like one of Norihiro Nakamura's, from the stance to the throwing of the bat.
"Whoa, good impression! I really like it," he replied, genuinely impressed.
Perhaps pleased, she nodded with a smile. "Yep, I love it!"
Her appearance had changed significantly, but her innocent smile still showed traces of middle school days.

He and she talked about a lot of things afterward.
About how her good friend Mii-chan went missing on a trip to Paris.
About how his good friend Maa-kun was off watching a baseball game.
About how he couldn't make many friends in high school.
About how she couldn't either, and dropped out.
About how he whacked the class leader in the butt with a metal bat.
About the night job she worked (and how it was very R-rated).
And about how she could talk to concrete.

"You can talk to concrete? That's amazing!", he praised, and she shyly giggled.
Things happened after she dropped out of school, and she wasn't sure why, but she eventually realized she could do it.
It was a hard thing to believe right away, but he just thought "Yeah, I guess that could happen."
After all, he had an incurable illness. So if there was a person or two who could talk to concrete, that didn't seem so strange.
"I was so bored during the class reunion, I talked to concrete the whole time. I thought we were going to run out of things to talk about."

Her Norihiro Nakamura impression done, she started doing a Daisuke Miura one.
She put her weight on one leg, and with a little bit of unsteadiness, pretended to pitch a ball.
"There's so many dull people around, I'm glad you're here to put me at ease," he replied.
"What's that supposed to mean?!", she said, poking him in the back.

After crossing an intersection into a residential area and walking a ways, her feet suddenly stopped.
"Ah, we're here. This is my place."
It was a pure white, three-story apartment. It had a fresh, pretty exterior, but by any measure, it didn't seem big enough for a whole family to live in.
"Do you live alone?", he asked, getting curious.
"Well... I guess I live with my boyfriend!", she answered, not seeming to hide anything.
"Huh. That sounds fun."
"It's terrible, it wears me out to be with him. I want some time to myself!"
"You could go into the woods or something to be alone."
She clapped her hands and went "Eureka!" She was the first person he'd ever seen react in such a way.

"Still, it's a pretty good place, isn't it?", he cautiously praised.
"Right? There's a batting center, a butcher's, and a mat-maker's all nearby! And the woods," she incomprehensibly gloated.
"I'm jealous."
"You want to move in, Tarou Yamada?"
"Should I? I don't think I'm that swayed by a mat-maker's, a butcher's, and a batting center."
"Really? What a shame..."
She headed for the entrance, pushed the auto-lock button, and the door opened with a pleasing sound.
"Well, see you! Maybe in three years or so!"
"Alright. Let's play again five years from now!"
"O-kay!" She waved like a grade-schooler.
Then she said one last thing.

"Today was pretty fun! Thanks!"

Skipping each step as she climbed the stairs, she whimsically vanished into the apartment.
When the sound of her steps stopped, he slowly began his walk home.

*

The next day, he resumed his usual life. Which, of course, was just observing ants in the park.
He stared at the ground in the red sun shining down on the early-afternoon park.
He watched the ants with each coming day, but on the fifteenth day he felt a creeping boredom.
Getting thirsty, he walked over to the park's water cooler. Even that chalk-smelling water was a delicious feast for the thirsty boy.
And with little else to do, he sat on a bench and stared into the sky.

"Oh! We meet again!"

He turned to the voice, and found the one he called Hanako Yamada. She waltzed over to him.
"It's been a while. Five years, almost?"
"It's been a week! What are you doing now, Tarou Yamada?"
"I'm busy wasting time, I guess."
"Ooh, sounds important."
She had very little makeup on that day. Her strawberry-patterned white one-piece reflected the light and fluttered in the wind whenever she walked.
It was a more the kind of casual dress you'd expect from a high-schooler, and a huge change from her prior night-worker clothes.
This was closer to how he remembered seeing her.

"What are you doing, Hanako Yamada? You gonna be okay not sleeping for your night job?", he asked.
She replied sourly. "Well... I guess I kinda got fired from my night job, or something like that."
"Huh? What'd you do?"
"I was so enthusiastic to serve my customers, I gave out a little too much for free."
"I see. I don't get it, but I guess people get fired for that kind of thing all the time these days."
"I know. Gosh!" She pouted, pretending to be mad.
As he gazed absentmindedly at her, he daydreamed about how he would waste time today.

"Are you listening?"
"Wah!"
When he ignored what she was going on about, she started to stare at him.
He suddenly noticed her big eyes looking at him and was startled, letting out a small yelp. He positioned himself like nothing had happened.
"Umm... I guess I was listening until about three minutes ago."
"Geez! Hear out my hardship, will you? What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about how I'd waste time today."
"Alright, well, what can you do."
She ran over to the corner of the park and reached a steel pole. She grabbed it and flipped upside down on it.
He could see her black underwear under her strawberry one-piece, but he looked away.

"I'm bored now, too. Since I'm thinking already, I'll think about how we can waste time."
"Okay," he said, still staring into the sky. He reminisced vaguely on the past.
A long-past memory arose: "Back in elementary school, I think I played with Sou-chan around here."
They played tag and kick the can every day during the summer.
Still, as time passed they got bored, and sat around like now wondering if there was anything else fun they could do.
"What did we do back then?"
Just as he thought it, it revived another memory.

That's right. Their secret base.

When they were in elementary school, they made a secret base to play in.
They spent the summer making a base for the two of them in the grove behind the park. A secret place where their parents and teachers wouldn't interfere.
"But what ended up happening with that?" It was so long ago, he couldn't remember anything more.

"A secret base," he mumbled.
"Hm? What's that?", came her voice from afar.
"I know what we'll do. We'll make a secret base."
He suddenly stood up from the bench. But he was dizzy for a moment from doing so and staggered, then regained his balance and stood back up.
"Ooh, that's a good idea!"
Ignorant to his stumbling, she ran over from the pole.
"Just the idea of a secret base makes me excited! That's pretty good coming from you, Tarou Yamada."
"Right? You can just call me Japanese Thomas Edison."
"What a genius! Alright, I'll help you make a secret base!"

"Shouldn't you spend time with your boyfriend with your time off?", he asked the elated girl, having some doubts.
"He's busy with his host job, so I've got lots of time," she answered with a hint of disappointment.
"That sounds terrible."
"I wish he'd sympathize with me more. I wish he'd make me meals, too."
"Well, what can you do. I guess you can help me make a secret base, then."
"Hooray! I'll do my best!" She spun and hopped in place.
Her skirt fluttered up revealing her black underwear multiple times.
"I can see under your short skirt, you know."
"Huh? Don't be ridiculous. It's just your imagination."
"Alright, I guess it could just be my imagination."
"Yeah, when it's just your imagination, what can you do. So give up." A childlike, worriless grin came to her face.

*

"So, do you know what you do first in making a secret base?"
"Um. Well, I'm hungry, so first we should get some food!"
"Wrong! First, we procure cardboard!", he proudly explained.
"Cardboard?"
"Yes, cardboard. With enough cardboard, we can create an infinite number of secret bases. Cardboard is the greatest invention of all mankind."
"Ohh." She rapidly nodded, taking him very seriously.
They were the only two voices in the park, lit by the red mid-afternoon sun.
"And so we must procure cardboard."
"Roger that!"
They left the empty park and headed for the shopping district.

There weren't many people there, but since it was summer, there would sometimes be bored kids passing by. Every one of them had a joyous expression, like they'd been freed from something.
The two walked around the shopping district, old and littered with shuttered stores. At the far end was the only convenience store in town.
"We're here. Let's get some cardboard."
"Huh, you can get cardboard from the convenience store? I didn't know that."
"That's common knowledge for secret base builders. Remember it!"
"Roger that!"
Not wanting these exchanges to go on excessively, they entered the store.

"C'm'n in," came a soulless voice from the register, accompanied by pleasant music.
When the boy saw the clerk, he put a hand to his head.
"This could be bad..."
"What's up?"
"Hanako Yamada, this is very bad. This clerk here is extremely lacking in motivation. If we ask him for cardboard, it's highly likely he'll consider it more trouble than it's worth."
"Oh, no... We only just started, and we're already stuck...?" Her shoulders drooped.
Seeing this, he put on a firm, cheery voice.
"But it's too early to give up. We'll see what we can do."
"Just as I expected, Tarou Yamada the Great! So cool! Cooler than a dogu doll!"
"Stop, you're embarrassing me."

He walked right up to the register. There was a cold sweat on his back. He tried to ignore the quickening of his heartbeat.
"Visit'r, eh, c'mon to th' reg'ster..."
When the boy approached, the blond clerk spewed words that he was unable to ascertain as Japanese.
He took a deep breath and stated his intention.
"Excuse me. Um, would you be able to give us some cardboard?"
"Ehh... s'rry, can't, bossain't'ere..."
"Ah. Okay."
"Th'nksfer..."

He twirled away from the clerk and returned to her.
"I, uh, don't think it was any good..."
"You're so lame, Tarou Yamada..."
"Yeah..."
He, too, drooped his shoulders in disappointment.

"It's over. Our secret base project is at a standstill right after it was begun."
"Ah, what can you do... Alright, just leave it to me."
Hating to see him in such lamentation, she patted his head, then adjusted the straps on her one-piece. Her cleavage was significantly more noticeable than before.
He tilted his head, thinking it a strange thing to do, as she traipsed over to the register.

"C'm'n in..."
As she approached, she heard the same soulless voice as before. The clerk showed no signs of wanting to give them cardboard.
"Um, excuse me. Could I get some cardboard?"
"S'rry... I, I 'unno rig'now."
"Just give us that cardboard in the back. We'll take it all, so it won't be any more trouble for you."
"Ehh, uh... I 'unno, really... nocando."

The blond clerk was clearly too lazy to bother. How can you be a clerk with this attitude?, the boy thought deep down.
She faced the clerk and made a request a little bit louder.
And with her words, the mood in the store changed immediately.

"Um, you can touch my boobs if you want. Will you give us cardboard?"

She took the clerk's hand and put it on her own breast.
The clerk was wordless at this sudden action, and his mouth hung open. There was immediate silence.
She took the clerk's hand and groped her breast with it. Even through the one-piece, one could tell her large breasts were being squeezed.
All the customers in the shop turned toward the clerk to see this sight rarely seen in daily life. Noticing the odd atmosphere, the clerk quickly took his hand away.
"I, I go'cha. Y', take it. M'bad."
"Thank you very much! Also, can we borrow a cart or whatever?"
"K-kay. Pleese."
"Hooray! Thanks so much!"
She thanked him and ran back to the boy. With a quick breath, she innocently smiled and took his arm.
"Alright! We procured cardboard!"
"Hanako Yamada... No, Hanako Yamada the Great. You did well. Now let's take it before he changes his mind."
"Roger that! Let's carry!"
The two took a cart from the clerk and ran through the back entrance to the cardboard storage.



*

"I'm beat!"
The two returned to the park carrying a mountain of cardboard. They had pushed the carts a long way, so sweat dripped down their faces.
He drank water while trying to catch his breath, and she tried to fan herself with her hands.
"Still, I'm glad it went well."
"Thanks to you, Hanako Yamada. You saved us!"
"Heheh. More praise!"
"Such brilliance! Smarter than a chimpanzee!"
"Aren't I? Teehee!" Again, she stuck out her breasts.
Further asserting her already large breasts, her one-piece looked about to tear.

"Alright, time to make our base."
"Roger that! Let's get started quick!"
On the way back, they had bought packing tape, glue, and other supplies, so their preparations were nearly complete. All that was left was to build.
"Okay, ready?"
"Yes!"
Pushing the cart loaded with luggage, they headed into the grove.

The grove behind the park had changed little since he was in elementary school, as it had been mostly untouched by people.
Even though it was early afternoon on a holiday, they didn't hear anyone. Of course, it was quite far from the shopping district. All they could hear in the dim grove was the buzzing of cicadas.
After walking a little ways, they found a light spot that stood out among the darkness. The sun poked through thanks to the lower density of trees there, and the ground sparkled in the light.
"Let's build around here."
"Ooh, that's good!"
They unloaded the luggage from the cart. It took a while to get all the cardboard off, but filled with excitement to make a secret base, they didn't mind the work.

"Hanako Yamada, what kind of secret base do you want to make?", he asked, and her face beamed.
"I want it to be a fancy type thing! Like a castle!"
"Alright. We'll do our best."
"We will! Let's do it!"
"Yes, we'll both do it."
After carrying that conversation, he took the largest piece of cardboard and began construction.
He honestly didn't care much about what kind of base she wanted to make.

*

"I'm exhausted... I feel like I made something awesome!", she said with satisfaction, wiping her sweat with a handkerchief.
The sun set behind the horizon, and everything got much darker. Looking at the time, it was already nine. That meant he and she had been toiling away on their bases for nearly five hours.
After all that work, they still weren't done, but you could see them starting to come together.

Using cardboard extravagantly, he had built a large rectangular-prism-shaped base.
There were splinters, corners, and nails all over, so it was a simple design, yet one that tickled his male instincts. He was quite satisfied with his achievement.
Meanwhile, her secret base was the opposite of his.
Using color sprays she had bought from the shopping district, she made all her cardboard pink during construction.
She glued flowers and vines all around, adding some wonderful color. Though it was small, with its greens and browns, it didn't feel at all out of place in the grove.

In places around her base, there were incomprehensible scribbles drawn with magic marker.
"What're these?"
"These are concrete."
"They look like humans to me, albeit stick figures."
"Because Concretelings are pretty human-like already."
"Well, okay, what can you do."
She innocently laughed.

Suddenly, his body swayed with dizziness.
Unable to stand his reeling vision, he dropped to the floor.
"What's wrong? Are you okay?"
She looked at him in a panic. Her face was swaying and warping in his eyes. It was clearly something entirely unlike the dizziness from standing up earlier.
"I'm fine. I think I'm just a little tired..."
"Really? Good. Boy, you're weak."
"I've always aspired to be a fragile, misfortunate person, so I consider being in poor condition a good thing."
"Haha. It's no good to aspire to that!", she laughed, stroking his back. It made his shaky vision calm down just a little bit.

Once he was feeling better, he staggered to his feet.
"Better go home, I'm exhausted for today."
"Yeah, I'm tired too."
"Guess we should take the cart back."
"Right. My boyfriend will be back soon, so I need to get home."
"We'd better hurry, then."
"Yep. Run!"
"I might get dizzy again..."
"Okay then, walk!"

The two leisurely walked back to the convenience store.
Having their usual content-less conversations, they swaggered through the shutter-filled shopping district. Theirs were the only voices in the desolate place.
When a conversation ended, she started humming. And when she got bored of that, they talked again. The two were comforted having that appropriate sense of distance between them.
There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and thousands of stars glittered in the summer night. The Milky Way's glow lit the shopping district, which lacked in streetlights.

She looked up at the sky and sighed.
"Wow, the Milky Way is pretty. Looks tasty."
"It'd be nice to eat it someday. When you die and become a cloud, do your best to eat the Milky Way for me."
"I'll do the best I can!"
They returned the cart to the store, promised to meet again tomorrow, and parted ways.

*

"Ahh! They're destroyed!"
When they met at the park the next day and entered the grove, their secret bases were in shambles.
"Oh, this is awful... Can we possibly let this stand?"
She was despondent and crumpled to the ground. He didn't let it show, but he was very dejected inside as well.

That was when he remembered the fate of the secret base they made long ago.
Indeed, he recalled it was destroyed just the same way. When he and Sou-chan found the ruins of their base, they wailed in sorrow.
It may have been such a sad memory that he tried to erase it from his mind. But with the same sight before him, it was brought back.
And the ones who had destroyed it had been...

"Hey, you the ones who built those weird things?!"

As he was reminded of the past, a voice came from behind.
When he turned, he saw four young boys in middle school uniforms, arms linked. Maybe middle-schoolers these days are brought up better, as the one serving as their leader was about same height as him, a high-schooler.
"Yeah! And you're the ones who destroyed them?"
"That's right! We're thinking we're gonna build a secret base here! What's the big idea building that weird junk?!"
"We got here first!"
"Shaddup! We already decided we'd build one here and everything!", the largest of the boys shouted back.

From their attitudes, they didn't seem like very logical people.
On top of that, he had a fatal illness, and was getting weaker by the day. It was obvious he wouldn't win in a fight against these four.
That was when he remembered the whole story.
Back in elementary school, it was a group of middle-schoolers who destroyed their base.
Since they were far older than him and Sou-chan, they could do nothing before them and ran away in tears.
An enjoyable memory was immediately turned into a dark past that they never wanted to remember.

No matter the times, people's natures don't change. He yielded once more to the childish threats of selfish middle-schoolers.
While he remained silent, the middle-schoolers went on and on.
"Ikkun said we're gonna build here, so we're gonna build here. Can I make it any clearer?!"
"Yeah, yeah! Get outta here!"
"Heck, you should know without us havin' to tell you!"
"Go home! Go hooome!"
Not just Ikkun, the leader, but also his three cronies started berating them. Though they had certainly made their point already.
The power of numbers defeated his rationality.

"So what! You can go build over there! You don't have to destroy anything!"
She was angered by this irrational spectacle. It was the first time he'd seen her actually be mad.
He couldn't help noticing that her rebuttal made the middle-schoolers wince for a moment.
"Hanako Yamada, let's withdraw for now."
"Huh? Why?! Let's kick them in the stomachs and make them apologize!"
"Come on!" He took her arm and ran.
She was too surprised to react and ran with him.

The middle-schoolers got rowdy to the point of not being able to make anything out, and their yelling echoed through the grove.
This sort of thing had happened before, hadn't it?
He smiled a little, remembering that.

*

"I'm so upset! Geez..."
After running from the middle-schoolers, they went to the convenience store at the end of the shopping district.
She sulked and held his arm tight, very frank about her sorrow over the destruction.
"Hey, calm down a little."
"You want me to calm down?! Our secret bases were destroyed!"
"Well, we can just make them again."
"But they'll be destroyed again! That's not the only good place for a secret base, right? Why didn't we beat them up?!"
"Didn't you see? Even though they're middle-schoolers, their leader's arms are as thick as yours, Hanako Yamada. If I punched one in the gut, I'd be the one beaten up."
"Hmm... I guess that might have happened. The others were big, too."
"And violence begets violence. Even if we got some lucky hits, our bases would be destroyed as soon as we were gone."
"I guess that might be true... But Tarou Yamada, didn't you tell me you beat a kid's butt with a metal bat?"
"That was different. Things happened. Anyway, I don't think violence is the right approach."
"Hmm... I guess I get it..."

She listened to his argument, but she didn't appear to accept it.
The secret bases they put their all into had been destroyed. Was that just another "what can you do"?
"But it sucks to just keep running..."
Hanging her head, she sourly offered one last plea. Tears were faintly forming in her eyes.
Patting her on the head, a bold smile came to his lips.
"Of course I'm not going to run. We'll keep away from that place, but other than that, I don't have any intention of giving up on our bases."
"What do you mean?"
"I've got a good idea."
"Really? Tell me, tell me!" Her face brightened instantly.
He started calmly explaining.

"Hanako Yamada, did you see? When you protested, the leader, the one they called Ikkun, was rather shaken."
"Huh? Really? I didn't notice that!"
"I think they probably haven't had much contact with girls. They didn't look cool enough for that. Plus, in middle school, boys and girls still tend to be on bad terms with each other."
"That's true! When I was in middle school, I hardly talked to any boys."
"So they've never really had a cute girl like Hanako Yamada get mad at them, either. That's why they were so taken aback."
"Heheh, you're making me blush. Heap on the praise!"
He completely ignored her and went on talking.

"So I think we should set up a Venus flytrap."
"I get it! You're amazing, Tarou Yamada! So I guess I should have them touch my boobs?", she proposed with face beaming, holding her large breasts up.
"Hmm... I don't think that's the best idea. There's four of them, but only one of you."
"Oh... Yeah, that'd be hard." She was let down by having the idea rejected.
She felt like she'd come up with the most brilliant plan the world had ever seen, and never expected it to be shot down so quickly.
Seeing her disappointment, he said something.
"Well, I might be able to work something out with what I'm thinking. Give me a second."

He entered the convenience store, and a pleasant door jingle echoed throughout it.
"W-Welcome!"
The clerk who had given them the cardboard stood up tall and greeted him. He paid him no mind and walked to the back of the store.
He brought a large quantity of something back to the register. The clerk was startled, but rang it up without a word.
"T-Thank you, come again!"
"No, thank you," he said to the polite clerk, then left the store.
When he exited the cool store to the midsummer exterior, he stumbled for a moment. He felt he was getting dizzier every time.
He stopped for a while, then when it had calmed down, walked over to her.

"Sorry for the wait. I was a little nervous..."
"What'd you buy?"
"Take a look." He handed her two vinyl bags.
The bags were both stuffed full, and thus rather heavy. When she took them, she immediately pulled an item out.
"Whoa, what the?! Tarou Yamada, you perv!"
She found a large quantity of porn magazines.
High school girls, married women, everything from Gravure Photo Collection to Kairakuten, they had it all at the convenience store.
Ten thousand yen's worth of cheap porn.

"We'll use these to take back our secret base."
"Ohh. But can we really do it?"
"Of course we can!", he confidently replied. Though she had doubts, he put them at rest.
"How reliable! Great job, Tarou Yamada!"
"Also, there's one more thing we have to do, so we'll do that today. Tomorrow we'll put the plan into action."
"Alright! Let's do it!"
With a ton of porn in hand, they walked away from the store.

*

"Man, those two were pests. We told 'em we were building here! How dare they go against us?"
"Heck, it looked like they're in high school or something, yet they couldn't say a word back. Super lame!"
"Ikkun's too cool to be beaten by high-schoolers!"
"Ha, it wasn't even hard. Those guys were weak!"
The next afternoon, the four middle-school boys were in the park by the grove. After driving off the high-schoolers, they were very enthused.

"Alright, let's make our base."
They rudely marched into the grove. Nothing seemed different from yesterday, and theirs were the only voices in the grove.
But when they neared the secret bases they had destroyed yesterday, there was a clear oddity.
"What're these?"
"Whoa..."
There, they found porn magazines. Tens of them, scattered all around.
"Ikkun, what do we do with these?"
"Ah, uhh... Well, er... Can't we just ignore them?"
Ikkun was clearly shaken. He was as inexperienced as an elementary-schooler.
Having done nothing but karate all through elementary and middle school, he was not so immune as to honestly say such a thing.
After all, he was in middle school and still talking about secret bases. That alone could give you insight into his personality.

As the boys worked on their secret base, they kept glancing over at the porn. Anyone could tell they were enthralled by the sight of magazines containing naked women.
Even once construction began, there was an uneasy atmosphere that persisted between the boys.
Nervously and with clumsy hands, they put the base together. But unable to focus, little progress was made.

"Hey, Ikkun. Can't we... clean that stuff up a little?", one of the boys asked.
They did their best to hide it, but erotic material clearly excited them, and they couldn't take it any longer.
"S-Sure. Yeah, it's getting in the way. Clean it up."
The four went over to the porn together. Their eyes lept to the covers of captivating naked women.
Ikkun's face went red with embarrassment, and he looked away.
"Whoa! Awesome!"
"Take a look at this! Duuude!"
"Ohhh man..."
Quickly forgetting their sworn duty to clean the magazines up, the boys looked over the covers as if chowing down. The sound of slurping up saliva echoed through the grove.
Unable to contain himself, one boy took a magazine and flipped it open. With that, the other boys started reading through them one by one.
"This one's unbelievable!"
"This one's sooo hot!"
"..."
With the boys around him engrossed, Ikkun timidly reached for a magazine.
The moment he flipped open one labeled "Kairakuten," the sound of a camera shutter echoed around them.

"Hm, what're you guys up to?"

There the two stood, holding a digital camera and a smartphone. With a grin on his face, he approached the boys.
"Buh... wha? What's this about?!", Ikkun shouted, tossing the magazine aside in haste.
"Hmm, I wonder if I should tell you? You're students at Yamanoura, aren't you?"
"Huh? How'd you know that?"
The boys were taken aback by his question and looked at each other. He continued on with coldhearted eyes.
"I can tell from your uniforms. There's only three middle schools around here, but they have different uniforms. I don't know if you were coming from club meetings or what, but you should have changed outfits."
"Why you..."
"Oh, oh! Not another step. I've already sent the photo to my friends. What will people at school think when they see you were looking at porn? Girls really hate pervy creeps."
In reality, he had few friends and thus no one to rely on for such a thing, but the boys couldn't know that. Their red faces were visibly turning pale.

"B-But we were just cleaning up some magazines we happened to find..."
"You think anyone will believe that? Cameras these days are amazing. Everything from your bloodshot eyes to the extent of the collection you were perusing... It's all perfectly clear in the photo."
He waved around his brand new digital camera like such a show-off. The boys could say nothing. Some of them were about to cry.
He laughed with satisfaction and slowly walked over. Standing in front of them, he gave Ikkun a wide smile.
To Ikkun, it was the most terrifying thing in the world.
"Oh, there's nothing to worry about. We're not demons. If you behave properly, there'll be no need to do such an awful thing," he kindly told the quivering boys.
Ikkun shook fiercely with his head hung low.
"...orry..."
"Hm? I don't think I heard that," he lied. Huge tears formed in Ikkun's eyes.
"We're sorry! We're sorry for destroying your secret base!", he sobbed. One after another, the other boys apologized as well.
"Very well!" He gave her a stealthy peace sign.
"That was so cool, Tarou Yamada!", she whispered into his ear.

"Now don't go making people mad at you!", she gleefully said to the boys who would not stop sniffling. Perhaps because of the sudden kindness, the boys burst into tears.
She approached the wailing boys and patted their heads.
"These things happen in life. It's all right."
"Sniff... I'm so sorry..."
"It's fine. Don't worry! We'll put it behind us and make a secret base together. We'll have lots of fun!"
Smiles returned to the boys' faces. They still did want to make a secret base.
So they energetically told the kind goddess who had forgiven their sin and offered to build one with them, "Yes, ma'am! Understood!"
"Alright, we can get lots of cardboard from over thataway. Hoof it!"
"Got it! Let's go!"
She pointed in the direction of the shopping district and the boys ran off that way.
After they were gone, he muttered. "Bad girl."
"Haha! With their help, we should be able to make a great base. Aren't I smart?"
"Yeah. It's leagues better than just driving the kids away."
"Heheh! Of course!" She confidently slapped his back.

When the boys returned, they began making a secret base together.
With the change in command, this time it had a quieter vibe.
"Put a flower there! And put cardboard together there!"
"Yes, ma'am! Understood!"
She worked the boys hard to create her own secret base. They obeyed her commands without question.
The boys felt like they were getting friendly with a cute older woman, so they didn't mind the work one bit.
"Ohh, now that's a good job! Great, great!"
Every time the boys completed a task, she would pat them on the head. They delighted like faithful puppies and felt proud indeed. They were absolutely her servants.
Meanwhile, he worked silently to recreate his own secret base.
He helped her out with her base from time to time, but in a few hours, his was back to where it was before.

Entranced in the building of their bases, they worked until sunset, and then they were finally complete.
"Woo, we did it! Hooray!", she shouted, looking upon her base. She hopped up and down to express her joy. And he looked on in satisfaction at his own base, wiping sweat.



"You did great! I'm so happy for you kids!"
"It was nothing! We had lots of fun too!", they frankly told her. They smiled with childish innocence.
"Well, we have to get home now."
"Right. Good work today!"
"Um... Can we come to the base again?"
"Of course! For sure!", she laughed. The boys shyly nodded. Yes, they were absolutely her slaves.
"We've got porn mags too, so you can come read those if you want!"
Immediately, the boys got awkward looks and ran away.
"Way to hog all the friendliness, Hanako Yamada."
"This is popularity in action, Tarou Yamada."
He didn't quite understand, but he'd had too much fun to care.

By the time the boys left, it was very dark. Only the moon lit the area, as there were no lights around. The grove was silent except for the buzzing of bugs.
"Guess we should go home," he said, and she replied a little differently.
"Hmm... While we're here, why don't we take it easy in the base? My boyfriend won't be coming home today."
"Alright, let's take it easy here."
"Right. Let's do that!"
So the two lied down in the pink secret base she created.
As they looked up through the roof of the base, glittering stars filled their vision with no clouds to block them. It was so bright, he closed his eyes.

Ahh, this is great. I wish this could go on longer.

He suddenly had that thought.
But he had a terminal illness. Soon, he wouldn't be able to tease the boys nor talk to her anymore.
He would only return to the secret base they had built just a few more times before it was all over.
For the first time, he thought "I don't want to die yet."

"Sure is pretty," she uttered beside him. The moonlight gently illuminated them both.
"I haven't seen such a pretty sky in forever."
"Hahh... It's great."
He gazed at the fantastic sight for a little while.
The two were wrapped in comfortable silence in the gloomy secret base.

"I'm getting kinda sleepy...", he said, rubbing his eyes. It was already 11 at night.
"Really? Stay up longer!"
"I'm too tired. I'll get some sleep for tomorrow."
"Aww... Well, what can you do. Alright, we'll make modifications to the base tomorrow. We'll combine my base and yours, Tarou Yamada!", she said, her excitement still not quelled.
He quietly laughed. "Alright. Let's do our best!"
"Yeah, we will!"
"Alright, see you tomorrow. Good night."
Just then, his vision spun. With a pain like his head was splitting, his vision gradually narrowed.
Not just one moon, but many like shooting stars filled the sky.
He could feel the energy being sucked out of him.

"I hope I can make it tomorrow."

He softly whispered, and relinquished consciousness.

*

He was awoken by a warmth in his hand.
He saw not the sky above the secret base, but a white ceiling he had seen before.
Surprised, he looked around. He was on a white bed, with several needles in his arm attached to a tube. His every muscle ached.
Beside him, there was a girl anxiously holding his hand. He seemed to recall who it was.
"W-Whoa! You're up! N-Nuuurse!", the girl called in panic.

It seemed he was in the hospital. There was a pattering in the hallway, and a nurse in her thirties he'd seen before appeared.
"Are you okay?", the woman asked, touching his cheek. He didn't know what had happened at all, but he said "I'm fine."
"You didn't tell your mother about your illness, did you?", the nurse said with a sigh.
It was just common sense. It was unthinkable that he, a boy in high school, wouldn't tell his mother he had a terminal illness.
"No. But anyway, how did I end up here?"
""But anyway," he says...", the nurse loudly sighed. She was simply stunned.
"You were apparently near the park, coughing up large amounts of blood. If the girl there hadn't called an ambulance, you wouldn't be with us here now."
"I see..."

That day, at the same time he lost consciousness, he had coughed up a ton of blood. This threw her into quite a panic.
She called for an ambulance with shaky hands and ran to the park carrying him. Every time he drew a pained breath at her back, she nearly cried.
She let him down in the park, and his mouth was red with overflowing blood. Her back was bloody too, but it didn't matter.
While waiting, she kept stroking his back, muttering "Get well, get well, get well..."
Before long, the ambulance arrived at the park. He was carried on and taken to the hospital.

"You should really thank her. I'm going to call your mother now."
"Right. Understood."
The nurse ran down the hall again. As he watched her go, he thought, unbelievably, "I wonder if mom'll be mad."
Once the nurse vanished down the hall, she said "You scared me..." with a sigh of relief, stroking her chest.
"Sorry to make you worry. Thanks."
"It's fine. I'm glad you're safe."
"Hanako Yamada, I owe you my life. I'll thank you to the day I die."
"Tarou Yamada, are you going to die?", she solemnly asked. There was silence in the empty hospital room.
"Hmm. Well, humans die someday."
"I don't mean like that!", she angrily specified. He was silent.
She looked straight into his eyes, and he unconsciously looked away.

"Hey, will you come work on the secret base tomorrow?"
"Hm. Tomorrow might be hard."
"I see..." The typically naive girl hung her head, like she had at the class reunion.
In response, he spoke as cheerfully as he could muster.
"Tomorrow's no good, but we'll work on it as soon as I get better."
"But you have a terminal illness, right, Tarou Yamada? You'll die."
"I won't. I'm full of energy, see?"
He stood up from the bed. It was a total bluff; his body was falling apart.
Still, he forced his teetering body and hopped around on the bed.

"Believe me. It's not like I've ever lied."
"Alright, I'll believe you. But you tell lies all the time, Tarou Yamada. I don't even know your real name."
"Okay then, I'll tell it to you the next time we work on the secret base."
"Ooh! Okay, and I'll tell you my real name then, too!"
"It's okay. I already know your real name, Hanako Yamada."
"Whaaa?! How?! That's not fair!"
"Your fault for forgetting my name after going to the same middle school, Hanako Yamada."
"Geez...", she said with puffed cheeks, smiling for the first time that day. It made him laugh from deep down.

There was pattering in the hallway again.
"I guess your mother will be here soon."
"Probably, yeah."
"Well, I should go, then."
"Right. Thanks so much."
"No problem! I'll be praying for Tarou Yamada to get well every day, so you hang in there too!"
"I'll get better real quick. Protect the base until I'm back."
"Okay! Make sure you come! That's a promise!"
"I promise. And if I should break it, I'll do whatever you say."
"Ooh! Well, if you keep it, I'll do whatever you say!"
"Really? Definitely!"
"Ahaha. Leave it to me! Well, see you!"
"Right. See you."
He promised a future that may not have really come, and she left waving.

"Ahh, I want to live... Dammit."

He mumbled after she left.
He heard someone greeting his mother in the hallway. Once they stopped talking, the nurse promptly brought her toward his room.
Listening to the hurried footsteps, he stared at the ceiling. It was so much smaller than the sky he'd seen that night.
He closed his eyes and thought back on it.
The glittering, unfading spectacle came clearly to his mind.
He opened his eyes, and made one last little wish.

"I hope I live to see tomorrow."

He didn't believe in God, but for the first time, he made a wish to someone who was not himself.

*

He was told he had a fatal illness.

His class was one he consistently just couldn't get acquainted with.
His high school life was worthless, without many friends.
Targeted by the class leader, he was often bullied.
The potential for his future seemed to diminish. He could hardly see a future ahead.
And at the front of his mind was "This is really just a pain."
But he prayed that he could live in that world.
He wanted to live to the fullest in this beautiful world.


She could talk to concrete.

Her big sister who went to college didn't know, and Tsubasa-kun, who always had girls providing him Dom Pérignon, probably didn't know either.
The hula dance teacher, and her mother who was cheating with him, didn't know, and her father who vanished into thin air one day didn't know.
Orphans starving in Africa didn't know, and her and Tsubasa-kun's children who had not yet breathed the air of the outside world definitely didn't know.
Only he knew.
So she prayed with all her might that someone could live happily in this beautiful world.



Part 3
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