The Place You Called From

Volume 1, Chapter 1: Cross My Heart and Hope to Die
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Volume 1, Chapter 1: Cross My Heart and Hope to Die

Summer comes but once a year.

In a normal life, we experience only as many summers as we do years of our life. So there's nobody who's going to have lived hundreds of summers. Given the average Japanese lifespan, we'll experience somewhere around eighty summers before we die.

I'm not really sure if eighty is too many or too few. Life can feel much too long when nothing's going on, but all too short when things are happening - that's a quote from Atsushi Nakajima. Eighty summers will feel like way too many to people who can't enjoy summer, and way too few to those who can. Yeah, that's probably about right.

I hadn't even gotten to twenty summers yet. And not a single one among them was ever the same. They were their own summers with their own unique radiance. I couldn't say any one was better or worse than another. That's like trying to say certain shapes of cloud aren't as good as the others.

Laying out my current summers like marbles in a row, you'd notice that two of them had an unusual color. The summer of 1994, and the summer of 1988. The former was the hottest summer of my life, and the latter was the coldest. One had a deep blue color squashed between the blues of the sea and sky, and the other had an amber color like a pale sunset.

*

Now, I'm going to tell the story of the hottest summer of my life.

*

However, everything has an order. I'll probably need to explain the circumstances leading up to that summer, right?

Rewind a bit from the summer of 1994, to March 20th of that year. The day of South Minagisa Middle School's graduation ceremony.

That's where the story begins.

*

I washed my face with cold water and checked my injuries in the mirror. I had a bleeding cut about a centimeter long above my eye. Nothing else really stood out. There was a big bruise on the right side of my face, but unlike the cut, it hadn't just gotten there. It was always there; I was born with it.

I'd last looked in a mirror over a month ago, and it felt like the birthmark had gotten even darker since. Of course, I'm just saying that's how it felt. Since I usually try to avoid looking at myself in the mirror, the presence of the birthmark always strikes me when I do happen to see my face again. But in actuality, probably nothing had changed.

I kept looking into the mirror for a while. The birthmark was a chilling dark blue; it had the look of the skin there being dead. Or like it was smeared with soot, or growing mold, or, if you looked close enough, like a fish's scales.

Even I thought, "What a creepy birthmark."

I wiped my face dry with the sleeve of my uniform, grabbed my diploma from the shelf, and left the restroom. After leaving such a strong smell of ammonia, the air outside felt faintly sweet. There were quite a few students like me in the station plaza, holding the boxes containing their diplomas under their arms, sitting on benches and talking about things.

When I opened the door to go inside, I was greeted by a stove-like warmth. I was intending to wait there until the train arrived, but the area, cramped enough to begin with, was brimming with students having fun late into the night after the ceremony - terribly noisy and uncomfortable. Weighing warmth against silence, I ultimately decided to hurry out onto the platform.

In the middle of March, the nights are still cold. I went to button up my jacket, but found the second button missing. I had no memory of giving it to a girl as a memento or anything. Probably it had just been torn off in the scuffle.

I'd forgotten the reason for the fight. Trying to remember just wore me out.

After the ceremony, I was celebrating with my friends. But they were a hot-blooded bunch already, so bringing alcohol into the equation was bad news. It should have only been trivial conversation, but somehow it escalated to an argument, then becoming a four-on-three brawl. The group of four were getting jobs, and the three were high-school-bound. It was that sort of thing.

Fights weren't an unusual occurrence for me. No, I wouldn't say that - thinking about it, every time the seasons changed, it felt like we put on some big scuffle, like cats in mating season. Maybe that was how we dealt with the isolated feeling of our rural town, our vague unease for the future, and so on.

This would probably be the last of those "fights for honor." After the scuffle ended, that's what I found myself thinking, and it put me in a solemn mood. The fights ended without any conclusion worth calling a conclusion, like it just came to a draw. As we left, the employed four booed away the high school three. One who had been particularly hurt was yelling about how they would get payback. A fitting end for us, really. That brought a close to my junior high life.

When the train finally arrived and I sat down in my seat, I noticed two women in their early twenties standing by a door a little ways away, pointing toward me. The taller skinny one was wearing glasses without any lenses, and the shorter plumper one was wearing a face mask.

The two of them whispered in a way unique to talking about guilty subjects. It must have been about my birthmark, of course. As always. That's how much it stood out.

I kicked the seat with my heel and shot them a glance of "You got a problem?", and they awkwardly looked away. The others nearby looked at me as if to say something, but no one spoke up about any problem.

I closed my eyes and thought. Sheesh. I'm going to be in high school next month - how long am I going to keep up this idiotic behavior? It's a waste of time, energy, and trust to respond belligerently to something that simply irks me. I need to learn the ways of patience and letting things slide.

My mad studying had paid off, as a few days ago, I received my acceptance to Minagisa First High. It was a prominent college-prep school in the prefecture, and I intended to start everything over there. Very few could go from my middle school of South Minagisa to Minagisa First High. In other words, hardly anyone who knew me in middle school would be there. An ideal opportunity to reinvent myself from scratch.

In my three years of junior high, my quick-tempered personality wound me up in a lot of fights. And whether I won or lost them, it always turned out to be a bad idea in some way. I'd had enough of it. Starting in high school, I wanted to stay indifferent to minor disputes, living a quiet, reserved life.

My aspiration for Minagisa First High actually began with the thought that more advanced schools have less petty conflict. You can't always relate education to people's qualities, but those who have lost a lot tend to dislike trouble.

The rumors claimed Minagisa High was more of a prep school than a typical high school, so your studies were chasing you asleep or awake, you had no time to spend on clubs or fun, and you wouldn't have a decent youth. But I didn't care about that at all. From the outset, I didn't think I could ever attain even an average adolescence. The idea of forming good relationships with my classmates and finding a wonderful girlfriend was far from my mind.

Because as long as I had this awful birthmark, people would never truly accept me.

I let out a little sigh.

You know, I thought, those girls who pointed at me are lucky. People who aren't confident in their lower face have face masks. People who aren't confident in their upper face have glasses. But people who aren't confident in the right side of their face have nothing. Unfair, huh.

The train stopped with an ear-grating sound. I got off onto the platform and smelled the faint spring air.

A gray-haired attendee in his forties stood at the ticket check, rudely staring at me as he took tickets. He seemed to be a relatively new hire, and was always like this when I passed by. I stopped, thinking that today I'd give him a piece of my mind, but realizing there were people behind me, I changed my mind and left the station.

I wandered around the shopping district outside the station. There wasn't a single person around, and my footsteps alone echoed. Most of the shops were shuttered, and not just because it was night. A shopping center built on the edge of town two years ago had sucked away the customers, turning a once-central street into a long line of shutters. Sports supply shop, cafe, electronics shop, butcher's shop, photo place, dry goods store, bank, beauty parlor... I gazed at the faded signs of each shop as I walked, imagining what was on the other side of the shutters. In the center of the district was a worn-out statue of a mermaid, looking wistfully toward her home.

Then it happened, right as I passed the tobacco shop in-between the accessory and candy shops.

A public telephone at the storefront began to ring. As if having awaited me for decades, it rang out with fateful timing.

I stopped and looked at the phone's LED screen, emitting a faint light in the darkness. The cabinet that contained it was old; there was no door, and no lighting.

Though it was rare, I knew that public phones could get calls. I recall in elementary school, a friend called 110 from a public phone as a prank, and was startled when he immediately got a call back. It made me curious, and I found out that public telephones do in fact have their own numbers.

The telephone bell wouldn't stop. It kept ringing with a strong, stubborn will, yelling "I know you're there, you know!"

The clock on the barbershop sign read 9:38.

Normally, I probably would have ignored it and went on by. But there was something in the echo of the phone that made me think, "This call is for me and no one else." I looked around, and sure enough, I was the only person there.

Timidly, I answered the phone.

"I have a proposal," the person on the other end said without any preface.

It was a woman's voice. Probably somewhere from twenty to thirty. She spoke calmly, seeming to put care in every syllable. It wasn't an automated voice; I could tell there was a real person on the line from her breathing. I heard roaring wind behind her, perhaps implying she was calling from outside.

Maybe the woman had found out the phone's number by some happenstance and was having fun spooking passersby, I thought. It was plausible she was watching those who answered from somewhere, enjoying their reactions to her outrageous statements.

I didn't answer, waiting for her move. Then she spoke as if whispering a secret.

"You still carry a love you can't give up on. Am I wrong?"

Give me a break, I sighed. You want me to go along with this? I put back the receiver a little roughly and went back to walking. The phone rang again behind me, but I didn't even look.

*

Three boys in high school squatting in the middle of the road, drinking from beer cans. Not an uncommon sight in the town of Minagisa. It sounds nice when you call it a quiet rural seaside town, but being all pubs and snacks without a single place for amusement, the youths are all bored to death. Those starved for excitement would quickly reach out for beer and cigarettes. For better or worse, this town had many ways for those who were underage to obtain those luxuries.

Finding another route would have been annoying, so I tried to pass beside them. One of them standing up at just that moment hit their back against my leg. The boy overreacted and grabbed my shoulder. I didn't mean to cause any trouble, having already been in one big fight today. But when he started ridiculing my birthmark, I found myself fighting.

Unluckily, the one I punched seemed to be experienced in hand-to-hand combat, and the next moment I was lying on the ground. They looked down on me and shouted filthy insults, but my head felt so hazy, I only heard them vaguely, like if I were underwater.

By the time I felt ready to try and get back up, the three had vanished, leaving only empty beer cans. I put my hands on my knees and tried to stand, but my temple ached like it had a screwdriver wedged in it, and I let out a moan.

Lying down face-up, I looked at the stars for a while. Well, I couldn't see the stars, but occasionally I saw the moon through gaps in the clouds. I checked my back pocket and found my wallet missing as expected, but the cigarettes in my inner pocket were safe. I took a bent cigarette out of the crumpled box and lit it with a lighter.

Suddenly, I thought of Yui Hajikano.

For three years, from fourth grade to sixth grade, I was in the same class as her. Back then, whenever I got in a fight and got wounded like this, Hajikano would worry as if it was her who'd been hurt. She was nearly 20 centimeters shorter than me, but she'd stand on her tiptoes to stroke my head and admonish me. "Don't get in any more fights!"

Then she'd stick out her pinky and insist I pinky-promise - that was Hajikano's method. When I reluctantly offered my pinky, she'd give a satisfied smile. I never once kept the promise, and would get hurt again mere days later, but she still patiently tried to persuade me.

Looking back, it felt like Hajikano was the only one around then who took me seriously.

She was a pretty girl. Both Hajikano and I got people's attention, but for completely opposite reasons. I for my ugliness, and her for her beauty.

In a remote elementary school with many generally-unsatisfying kids, Yui Hajikano's seemingly-perfect appearance and talents were cruel, in a way. Many girls avoided standing next to Hajikano when taking photos, and many boys had unrequited love for her, their hearts breaking in an entirely self-contained way.

Hajikano simply being there made people give up on things. Children in the same class as her were taught directly how the world has absolute disparities that can't be overturned, no matter how much you struggle. Irrational things most people gradually realize when they get to middle school and throw themselves into study, clubs, and romance, we all learned instantly by her mere presence. It was too cruel a truth to learn as early as elementary school - though I learned it even sooner thanks to my birthmark.

People were mystified by how someone so overwhelming as Hajikano was personable with a boy like me. In anyone's opinion, Hajikano and I were polar opposites. But if you asked me or Hajikano, we were the same in how we weren't treated like normal humans, albeit for opposite reasons. That alienation was the thread that linked us.

I don't have any idea what we talked about when we were together. I feel like it was all nothing important. Or, well, maybe the majority of the time wasn't spent talking, but just sitting around together. The silence I spent with Hajikano was comforting, oddly enough - rather than awkward, it felt like we were quietly confirming our friendship. As she stared silently into the distance, I watched her from beside.

There was just one conversation I could remember clearly.

"I think your birthmark's wonderful, Fukamachi."

It was Hajikano's response to something self-deriding I'd said about my birthmark. Yes, it just slipped out - something like "I'm impressed you'd stay with the likes of me," I think.

"Wonderful?", I asked. "That must be sarcastic. Just take a look at it. It's creepy enough to startle somebody."

Hajikano brought her face close and observed my birthmark at point-blank range. With a stupidly serious face, she looked for a few dozen seconds.

Then suddenly, she gently put her lips on it. There wasn't even a moment's hesitation.

"Startled?" She smiled mischievously.

Exactly right. Startled enough to die.

I had no clue how to respond to that. Hajikano even changed the subject as if nothing had happened, giving me no chance to figure out the intent of her actions. Maybe there was no real meaning. In any event, this incident didn't change our relationship at all. We just went on being good friends.

I don't think she particularly liked me for who I was. Hajikano simply had more good will than she knew what to do with at the time. Giving it out to people too readily would make those people get far too ecstatic and grandiosely thank her, so she needed to be careful picking people who wouldn't make that much of a ruckus.

Hajikano didn't know how much her every action made my heart tremble.

When we graduated from elementary school, I went to a public school in the Minagisa area, like most of my classmates. South Minagisa Middle School. The sort of school with motorcycles in the halls, teachers being pushed off verandas, spraypainted graffiti all over the gym. If you had any common sense, it would drive you nuts in two weeks. I didn't have any common sense, so I was fine.

Hajikano went to a distant private girls' school. Mitsuba Middle School - a very high-class school. I don't know what kind of life she had there. I didn't hear any gossip, and didn't really care to know. She and I were in different worlds.

I'd never seen Hajikano since then.

I see, I nodded to myself. Let's say there is a love I can't give up on, like the woman on the public phone said.

Then it would surely be Hajikano she meant.

*

Finishing my cigarette, I quit my sentimental reminiscing and stood up. My body ached all over. There was a slight pain in my throat. Maybe I'd caught a cold.

What a terrible day, I thought.

But this unlucky day of mine wasn't over yet.

On my way back home, as I walked by a youth hotel being torn down - and naturally, this was at night, so there weren't any workers around - an accident happened.

There was a temporary enclosure around the building made of flat panels, about two meters high. From within it came an ominous clattering sound. I found it suspicious, but kept walking. Suddenly, there was the loud sound of something collapsing inside, and immediately after, one of the panels forcefully fell down on me.

Bad days are bad to the end.

Why I wasn't completely crushed, who called 119 for me, what happened before the ambulance arrived... I had absolutely no memory of it. When I woke up, I was in a hospital room with my legs in casts. After a few moments, I felt a full-body pain that made me want to yell. My vision went dark, and I broke out in a cold sweat.

Outside, the morning birds were chirping pleasantly.

And just like that, before entering high school, I suffered a major injury that took fourteen weeks to completely recover from. There had been compound fractures in both my legs. Right after waking up, I was taken to an operating table, my legs bolted down. I was shown X-rays afterward; they were impressive fractures, good enough to show in textbooks. It wasn't life-altering, with no apparent worries of after-effects, but this made for a late start to high school.

Oh well, I thought. It wasn't unusual for me to be hospitalized for injuries. I'd be able to attend school in June at the earliest, and by then my class would have nearly finalized their friendships. But I hadn't really felt like making proper friends in high school anyway, so it wasn't a big issue. Besides, if you think about it, maybe it's easier to focus on studies in a hospital room than a classroom.

And as a matter of fact, I was terrifyingly diligent in my studies for those three months. Listening to my favorite music on my Walkman, I repeatedly read textbooks, getting good rest when I got tired of that - I kept up a simple and honest life. The room was white like a minimalist art show, and there was nothing worth looking at outside the window, so math and English were more stimulating than the alternatives.

As someone who liked going at his own pace, I was able to view this as an ideal situation. It felt more effective than trying to deal with drowsiness while desperately copying down words and formulas from the blackboard.

At the end of May, a man in his late sixties named Hashiba moved into my room with a broken left arm. He seemed fond of me quietly tackling my studies, and whenever we saw each other, he told me "Ask me if there's anything you're not sure about" with a face-crumpling smile. There was a lot that was unclear to me about English grammar, so I did ask him a few times, and he offered very understandable explanations which couldn't even be compared to your common lecturer. I asked him about it, and he said he used to be a teacher. He had a decent pile of thick Western books by his bed.

One rainy afternoon, Hashiba casually asked me a question.

"What's that birthmark mean to you?"

It was the first time I'd been asked a question like that, so I needed some time to think of an answer.

"It's the root of all evil," I replied. "If I just didn't have this birthmark, I think about eighty percent of the problems I have now would be solved. It makes others have a bias against me and find me disgusting, but the more pressing problem is that because of it, I can't like myself. People can't try their best for someone they don't even like. Not being able to like yourself means you can't even try for yourself."

"Hmm," Hashiba affirmed.

"On the other hand, by putting all the blame on this birthmark, it feels like I can avoid looking at what I don't want to look at. Maybe I'm fooling myself, putting blame on this birthmark for problems which really, I could solve with enough effort. ...But either way, there's no doubt that it has a negative effect on me."

Hashiba slowly nodded. "I see. Anything else?"

"That's all. There's nothing good about it. I don't think an inferiority complex can help people grow. It's generally just the starting point to a warped nature. Some can spring off of an inferiority complex to achieve success, but even once they do, they keep being tormented by inferiority."

"What you say sounds right," Hashiba said. "But looking at you, I can't help but think this: Some serious flaws are helped to grow by their prudent owners. Of course, that's speaking of those who can't look away from their flaws."

"Are you sure you're not mistaking prudence for inferiority?"

"No mistake." Hashiba's wrinkled face smiled.

When I left the hospital, he gave me a book: the original version of Charles Bukowski's "Ham on Rye." Afterward, I started to read five pages of it a day, an English dictionary in one hand.

Ultimately, I was ready to begin high school in early July. By then, the students would be done with final exams, free from that pressure to let their hearts dance with thoughts of the coming summer vacation.

The summers when you're in high school. No small number of people call those the best days of your life. But the radiance of summer is something that builds up from spring. Being thrown into the height of it from a world of antiseptic smells and white walls, I felt as out of place as if I'd walked into a total stranger's birthday party.

Could I keep up in this world?

The Sunday night after I got out of the hospital, I visited the coast. I'd gotten into bed at 10 PM, but felt unusually awake, so I grabbed my cane and left out the back door. I was as nervous as anybody about school starting tomorrow.

I stopped by a store on the way and bought cigarettes from a vending machine. At the beach, I sat on the seawall and looked over the ocean faintly lit by the crescent moon for about an hour. I hadn't been to the beach in a long time, but I made no major discoveries. The smell of the tide felt a little stronger than usual, maybe.

On my way back home, walking through the silent residential district, I heard a phone ringing in the distance.

At first, I thought it was coming from someone's house. But as I walked, it grew louder.

I came to a stop at a phone booth by the bus stop. That's where it was coming from.

Something like this had happened before. I didn't dwell on it then, as it just seemed like a prank.

But ever since I received that call, with day after day that passed, that woman's words weighed increasingly on my mind.

You still carry a love you can't give up on.

Was that really just a prank call?

If it wasn't, what was she trying to say?

...Thinking about it, I felt like I'd been waiting for her to call me again ever since then.

I took the receiver and heard a familiar female voice.

"It seems you understand that I'm not playing a prank."

I replied, three months late. "I admit defeat. There is someone I can't give up on."

"Yes, that's right," the woman said with satisfaction. "Miss Yui Hajikano. You still refuse to let go of her."

I wasn't especially surprised to hear her say Hajikano's name. She was able to determine my location and make a nearby public phone ring. It didn't seem that strange she'd know about my crush.

"So, what was that proposal you were talking about?"

"Ah..." The woman sounded impressed. "How well you remember from three months ago."

"Just happened to stick with me."

"Well, let's put that aside. So, about the proposal I wanted to make before... Would you make a bet with me?"

"A bet?", I asked.

"Mr. Fukamachi." The woman invoked my name very casually. "One summer, when you were 12, you fell in love with Hajikano. So accustomed to the biases held against you, the fact that Hajikano would pay your birthmark no mind and treat you as an equal made her like a goddess. Surely you thought of wanting her as a girlfriend more than just once or twice."

The woman paused momentarily.

"...But she was too distant a goal for you. "I have no right to love her," you thought, and so you suppressed your feelings for her."

I wouldn't deny it. "And?", I pressed.

"You thought you had no right to love her... But at the same time, you thought this: "If only I didn't have this birthmark, maybe our relationship could have been something a little different.""

"Yeah, I did," I admitted. Sure enough, she could see right through me, even regarding my birthmark. "But everyone's like that. If only I were a little taller, if only my eyes were a little bigger, if only my teeth were a little nicer... It's more unusual not to have those thoughts."

"Well then, let's try removing that birthmark," the woman interrupted. "If you're able to win Hajikano's heart, you win the bet. It will be gone from your face forever. On the other hand, if you can't cause any change in Hajikano's feelings, I win the bet."

I pushed my forehead and closed my eyes.

What was this woman saying?

"This birthmark won't go away," I mumbled with irritation. "I've tried all kinds of treatments. But none of them did a thing. It's a special birthmark. So this bet can't happen. Besides, I haven't met Hajikano for three years, ever since we graduated elementary and went our separate ways. I don't even know what her life is like now."

"Then if your birthmark vanished and you suddenly reunited with Hajikano, you would go through with the bet?"

"Yeah, sure. If a miracle like that happened."

The woman snorted softly. "Well, as for the limit... Let's see. I'll give you fifty days. In a few hours it will be July 13th, so the bet will begin then, and you'll have until August 31st. Please, win over Hajikano by then."

The call suddenly ended. I stood motionless in front of the phone for a while.

Imagining a possibility, I checked with the side mirror of a car stopped under a streetlight, but the birthmark was still on my face as ever. Not a sign of being any lighter, not a sign of being any smaller.

So it was just a prank after all. Someone with thorough knowledge of me was playing with my emotions with bizarre devotion and elaborate means. It was hard to swallow right away, but I could come up with no other explanations. There were plenty of people who'd be bitter toward me, and in a town so lacking in excitement that "bored" just didn't cut it, young people would go far off the beaten track just for momentary thrills. Everybody just had nothing to do. I wouldn't find it odd if someone found out the numbers for all the public phones in town just to ridicule me.

I sighed and put my hands on my knees. I felt beat all of a sudden, probably due to my hospitalization reducing my stamina.

One thing was for sure: I was surprised by my own dejection. I began to feel self-loathing for having actually gone and checked a mirror.

Could I still not give it up?

I went home, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed. The bedside clock read 3 AM. Now I'd be stuck nodding off on my first day of school.

I closed my eyes and waited to lose consciousness as soon as possible. Only at times like these does a second hand sound like a loud metronome, my breathing accelerating to match it. I reached out to change the angle, but it had no effect. Even with the window open, the room was bizarrely humid, and my throat was dry.

When I finally got to sleep, the sky was turning white, and the early morning birds and cicadas were buzzing.

Mere minutes of sleep. But through that short lapse of consciousness, a major change to my life took place.

Miracles always happen when no one's looking.

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