Volume 2, Chapter 10: Don't Lose Sight of Me
Back when Hajikano and I went home from school together, there were goldfish in the entryway of her house.
They were little wakin goldfish, which Hajikano won from a scooping game. The bowl was the size of a smallish watermelon, and the water was faintly blue, which made the green of the plants and the red of the goldfish show up better.
At the time, I wasn't allowed to go into Hajikano's house, but I remembered the contrast of those three colors with strange clarity. Maybe when Hajikano opened the door, I was embarrassed to look her in the eye, so my gaze always fled to the fishbowl in the back.
The three fish that were there in summer dwindled down to one fish by winter. As for the last one, he (or she) died just before a year had passed since my first visit to the house. That was pretty good for goldfish you won in a game, I thought. She must have cared for them well.
For whatever reason, Hajikano's parents kept the empty fishbowl there. True, even without any fish in it, it was plenty beautiful in its own way; the light from the window hitting the bowl producing a blue shadow, the coontail slowly swaying in the water. But with the knowledge of the time when the goldfish were there, seeing the bowl lacking its red always put me in a melancholy mood.
Ever since, whenever there was something lonely or empty, that comparison came to mind. "Just like a fishbowl that's lost its goldfish."
The next morning, I took the bus from the station to Minagisa Central Hospital. I pondered it briefly, but decided not to buy flowers. In my experience, there was no visiting gift quite as "what do I do with this?" as flowers.
The bus was full of old people, and I was the only young one. For a bus headed to a hospital, I found it odd how there were no passengers who seemed in poor health. But I doubted they were all visitors like me. In a book I read once, there was a scene where an old man is asked, "How are you feeling?", and he jokingly replies, "If I were a little better, I might have to call a doctor." Maybe it was something along those lines. The people riding this bus were those with the stamina left to get to the hospital themselves.
Once at the hospital, I didn't go straight to the reception desk, but instead the smoking area on the outskirts of the parking lot. It was a prefab building with a glass sliding door which seemed to have been around for a long time, and the ceiling was yellowed as if painted with nicotine. After checking there was no one else there, I smoked two cigarettes, then slowly went around the hospital perimeter to calm myself. Once I got my visitor pass from the front desk, I took a deep breath and went up the elevator.
When I arrived in her hospital room, Hajikano was stooped over at the side of the bed, sorting her bag. She wasn't in a hospital gown today, but rather a linen blouse and a neat light-lilac skirt. "Hajikano," I called, and she swiftly turned around. "Hinohara." Her eyes twinkled as she stood up. Yes, I couldn't forget. Here, I was Yuuya Hinohara.
"So, you came again today."
Hajikano bowed her head. It was an unimaginable response from her prior to losing her memory. Like Hajikano from just after she got to know me.
"Yeah. How are you feeling?"
"Very healthy." She sat on the bed and smiled at me. "It's good you came in the morning. If you came at noon, we might have passed each other by."
"Passed by? Are you being let out already?"
"Yes. Just this morning, I was given permission to leave."
Weird, I thought. I'd once read a collection of notes from people who attempted suicide, and according to that, some whose suicides failed were kept in isolation wards for weeks or months in the name of recuperation. Those who were likely to make another attempt had to be temporarily restrained.
Judging from the soft treatment here, I had to imagine Hajikano's fall into the sea was being treated as an accident resulting from lack of attention. After all, she was extremely calm now, and maybe it was judged better to call it an accident than brand a sixteen-year-old as a suicide attempter. Or maybe they really did think it was an accident?
Hajikano looked up at the clock. "My father will come pick me up in about an hour. Would you be all right riding home with me?"
I wasn't really in favor of meeting with her father, but not wanting to refuse her good will, I nodded my head. "Thanks. I'll do that."
I took a folding chair leaning against the wall, set it up by the bed, and sat down. Hajikano clapped as she remembered something, opened the fridge, took out two cups of mizu-youkan, and handed one to me. I thanked her.
While throwing away the empty container and plastic spoon in the trash can, Hajikano sighed all of a sudden.
"After you left yesterday, Hinohara, I kept reading through my diary. It seems that besides just you, I was also relatively friendly with Chigusa Ogiue and my classmate from elementary school, Yosuke Fukamachi."
"Yeah, that's right," I nodded, hiding my inner turmoil.
"The four of us gathered every night to stargaze, correct?"
"Right. At first, it was just you doing it, but one day Fukamachi joined you. And later, so did me and Ogiue."
"We must have had fairly close relationships to see each other every night."
"Well, I wouldn't say we hit it off perfectly. But there was a fairly friendly mood."
"Say, Hinohara." She looked into my eyes. "Why is it only you've visited, and the other two haven't contacted me at all? Did I exhaust all the good will out of Ogiue and Fukamachi?"
I'd anticipated her asking about the other two since the moment I learned about her diary yesterday. Once she read back a few weeks, it was natural she'd have doubts about the other stargazing members not showing up or contacting her. So I was sure to prepare an answer to that question in advance.
"You're assuming much worse than it is." I smiled to soothe her. "First, Fukamachi seems to have his own perspective on things. I asked him to come visit, but he said "It's best to leave her be for now." The truth is, I think he wanted to stop me from coming too. Guess he's really prudent... worried in the weirdest ways. Now, Ogiue - and this surprised me too - she's moving to Canada in September as a foreign exchange student. Said she always wanted to do that. Thinking about it, though, she was better in English than any of her other subjects. She probably didn't tell anyone until she left because she didn't want to be annoying."
Hajikano looked down thoughtfully, and after about two breaths of silence, closed her eyes and smiled.
"You're so kind, Hinohara."
"What do you mean?", I played dumb.
"Exactly what it sounds like."
Hajikano seemed to have decided not to press me on my excuses.
"And I have to say, it's rather unexpected. Reading my diary, I had the impression you were more blunt and foul-mouthed... but talking with you now, I don't get that feeling."
"I'm holding off since it's a hospital."
"As I thought, you're taking care not to injure me?"
How would Hinohara respond here? My thoughts raced.
I replied like so.
"Yeah, that's right. Wouldn't want you killing yourself again."
At this, Hajikano's expression brightened slightly.
"It helps for you to treat me with such honesty."
She patted the space to her right. "Over here, please."
I sat down next to her as told. Because of the safety bars on the side, there was little room to sit, so our shoulders ended up stuck together. Being so close made it more obvious than ever how our bodies differed. It was striking, as if my body's blueprint was drawn with a ruler and pencil, and her body's blueprint was drawn with a curved rule and drafting pen. There was a large contrast in degree of detail as well, and her skin was as white as if someone forgot to color it. My skin had been tanned light brown over the course of the past month.
"Hey, Hinohara, please tell me." Hajikano put her hands together on her thighs, bent forward a little, and looked up at my face. "About all the things I've forgotten. There's only so much written in my diary."
"There's no need to rush," I said admonishingly. "For now, you can focus on resting your body and mind. No one will hurry you up, so you can remember slowly."
"But I can't keep troubling you all, can I? And also..."
Hajikano stood up wordlessly, put her hand on the window frame, and looked up at the sky.
"You may scold me for saying this, Hinohara." She turned around, then smiled in a way that emphasized it was a joke. "If getting back my memories led me to attempt suicide again, I believe I would make sure not to fail this time. I think doing that would be a resolution, in its own way. My worries would vanish, and no one would be getting pushed around by me any longer."
Without thinking, I stood up and grabbed Hajikano's shoulder. She seemed extremely startled and cowered, but I think I was even more surprised. My mind couldn't keep up with my actions. Whoa, what am I trying to do here? But my body moved before I could think. Once my hands went around her back, I finally understood the mistake I was about to make, but it was too late. A moment later, I was embracing Hajikano from the front.
Is there an action more cowardly than this?, I wondered. Using another person's name to hug a girl I'd kept pining after unrequited. This was a complete violation of the rules. No excuse would hold water. Once her memory returned, I would be rightfully scorned.
But, I thought at the same time. What was I planning to do at this point? Ten days left. In just ten days, I would have to leave this world. Couldn't I be forgiven a lie like this? I wouldn't be punished for some slightly happy memories at the end, would I?
Hajikano said my name - no, his name - questioning the meaning of my actions. She was stiff with confusion, but still didn't push me away. I stroked her back to calm her, but this had the complete opposite effect. My arms sought her warmth and hugged her body tighter.
"You don't have to remember anything," I said into her ear. "When someone forgets something, it means it should be forgotten. So there's no need to force yourself to remember."
"...Is that right?"
She thought, with her face still buried in my chest.
"But... I'm uneasy. I feel I'm forgetting something tremendously important."
I shook my head. "It's a common illusion. Even if it's trash, as soon as you lose it, it makes you uneasy. What if what you threw away really held unbelievable value? But turning over the trash can to get it back, you'll find it's just trash after all."
Hajikano twisted her body as if in pain, and I noticed I was holding her tighter than I thought, so I quickly weakened my grip.
"Yes, that's about the right strength." The tension left Hajikano's body with relief.
"Sorry," I apologized, then went on. "...People end up forgetting lots of things sooner or later. Only a handful of people can remember every little thing. But nobody complains about it. Why do you think that is? Because in the end, memories are no more than trophies or mementos, and everyone knows deep in their heart that what's important is the present, this very moment."
I slowly released Hajikano from my arms, and she dizzily stepped away and fell back on the bed. She looked at me with a peaceful expression. After a few seconds, she came to her senses, and seeming to be struck with the worry that someone was seeing this, looked around restlessly. Seeing her so distracted was new to me, so I couldn't help but chuckle.
"Hey, Hajikano. It's still summer break. And it's no ordinary summer. It's the summer when we're sixteen. Instead of worrying about your lost memories, don't you think it's wiser to enjoy this time?"
She stared at her lap, thinking about what I said. Eventually, she spoke.
"...Yes, you might be right. But even if you tell me to enjoy this moment, I don't know what exactly I should do."
I responded at once. "I'll help. I mean, let me help."
Hajikano blinked with surprise at the quickness of my reply.
"This may be a naive question," she began, fiddling with her hair, "but why would you go so far for me?"
"I can tell you, but you might regret asking."
"I don't care. Please, tell me."
"It's simple. I like you, Hajikano. And not as a friend, but as a girl. So I want to lend my aid, if only a little. And hopefully be liked a little in return."
Geez, did I understand what I was doing? I kept being taken aback by myself. Deceiving a girl with memory loss by assuming a friend's name, confusing her, and opening my heart about what I couldn't confess to her before. I was no different from a guy wooing a girl by abusing his social standing and getting her drunk to lower her defenses.
"Wait, hold on a moment." Hajikano had a complicated expression that could be taken as anger or on the verge of tears, and she seemed very bewildered. "I mean... Um, in my diary, it seemed like you were captivated by Ogiue..."
"The writer of that diary must have thought so. But that's not the truth. From the day we met, I've been captivated by you."
Hajikano opened her mouth to say something, but it seemed like the words broke up into pieces before they got out her throat. I waited for her to gather them back up, but her lost words wouldn't return.
She began putting together new words. And once she blinked with a certain level of conviction, she lifted her head. She put her hands on the bed to stand up, then fell toward me. I caught her thin body immediately, holding onto it carefully.
"I'll stop trying to remember," Hajikano said in a slightly blurred voice. "There couldn't be any memories more wonderful than this moment, after all."
I stroked her head like a little child's. "That's for the best."
Hajikano kept repeating "Hinohara, Hinohara" into my chest to confirm my existence. Every time I heard her say that someone else's name, my heart ached.
She released her arms from me and wiped tears at the edge of her eyes with her palm. Wind coming through the window blew her hair, and right after, the buzz of cicadas returned as if time was resuming. Up to then, I had only heard Hajikano's voice.
"Hinohara, please assist me," she said, holding down her hair with one hand. "Make at least the last ten days of my summer of sixteen wonderful ones."
"Leave it to me."
I firmly grabbed her right hand as she extended it.
We didn't let go until her father came to pick her up.
The next day, a letter arrived at my house. I took it out of the mailbox and flipped the envelope over. When I saw the sender's name, I gulped.
It was a letter from Chigusa Ogiue.
It didn't seem I had been sent a letter from beyond the grave. There was a sticker indicating the date to be sent in the corner, and the postmark was from eight days ago. August 14th, the day Chigusa suggested that I desert Hajikano. Chigusa gave me a letter about Hajikano's past on August 15th, but it seemed she had left another one.
There should have been plenty of opportunities, so why didn't Chigusa give me this letter directly? Did she anticipate dying before she could meet with me and talk, and thus leave this letter just in case? But if that were it, why have it sent eight days later?
Itching to know the answer, I went to my room, opened the envelope, and took out the folded letter. It was familiar stationery. The same as the letter she gave me on the 15th. I sat down in a chair and looked over it.
"Fukamachi, you must be wondering why you're receiving a letter from me at this time," the letter began. "To tell the truth, I don't quite know either. Let us say the reason is: "Thinking that on August 15th, you would be distraught over Hajikano's suicide attempt and my disappearance, I left a few days gap to not confuse you further." But perhaps deep down, I feel that this letter shouldn't reach you, Fukamachi. Why? Because written here is a way for both you and Hajikano to survive."
I read over that sentence three times to be sure I wasn't misreading it. "A way for both you and Hajikano to survive." That was, indeed, what it said.
Holding off my impatience, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
"However," it went on. "This is, in a sense, a fantasy of mine. I have not a shred of proof, and even if my predictions are all correct, there is not even a whole percent of chance that you will be saved. So please, do not get your hopes up."
There was a double line break after that. Here comes the juicy part, I supposed.
"I have had five exchanges with the woman on the phone thus far. Most of the calls were at night, but just once, the phone rang in the evening. Exactly at 5 PM on July 29th. I remember the time because just as I answered the phone, I heard a chime indicating 5 PM on the other side of the call. Since I heard it so clearly, she must have been very close to the speaker."
Now that it was brought to my attention, I realized how I didn't pay much attention to background noise when I talked with the woman on the phone. But consciously searching my memories for it, I felt there were often noises like wind during our conversations.
"I will get to the point. That woman is somewhere in this town," the letter continued. "The chime I heard was clearly the Mermaid's Song. It goes without saying that this chime is used to indicate evening only in Minagisa. And one more point. I did not only hear the Mermaid's Song. Just before the call ended, I heard train brakes on the other end. It was around 5:05 PM. As you're aware, the tracks that run through Minagisa are single-track, and thus few in number. The places where, at that time, one could hear both the chime and brakes nearby, are extremely limited."
I swallowed. A bead of sweat fell from my forehead onto the letter.
"Now, let me present a convenient theory. "When that woman calls us, she always uses a specific phone booth." Of course, I have hardly any proof of this. I just heard many of the same noises each time, so I thought it would not be too unusual. ...Now, following this hopeful assumption, I had a somewhat interesting discovery. There exist at most only four or five public phones in Minagisa where you can both hear the 5 PM chime and brakes at 5:05 PM."
But, I thought.
What would I do with that knowledge?
"Perhaps nothing can be done with that knowledge," Chigusa wrote. "Assuming you learn the place that woman is calling from, and by overlapping coincidences, end up present while she is calling there, I do not think she would be open to any dealings with you. Not only that, it may end up angering her. Or perhaps the woman on the phone is no more than a conceptual entity with no physical form, who cannot be found anywhere on the Earth. In any case, a search for her is most likely to end in vain. Any amount of effort may only be a waste of the time you have left. And yet, even so, is it not preferable to meeting your final day having done nothing? ...Of course, the best thing would be to win the bet with fair methods. But considering Hajikano's current state, that also feels extremely unrealistic. I cannot even be sure if she will be alive by the time this letter reaches you. (Though naturally, even if Hajikano tried to kill herself being unable to bear the weight of her sin, perhaps the woman on the phone would save her to prolong her bet with you.)"
Then Chigusa began to wrap up the letter around the next sentence.
"There is very much I'd like to tell you, Fukamachi, but I think I will discuss those things with you in person. It's strange; one should be able to more accurately describe things in writing than orally, but everyone ultimately trusts the latter more. Maybe accuracy isn't such an important thing when it comes to words. Well then, tomorrow - eight days ago, to you - I look forward to meeting you."
I re-read the letter four times, folded it up, and put it back in the envelope.
I was happy that Chigusa was wishing for my safety to the very last moment. But it was just like she said; a search for the woman on the phone would most likely end in vain. If by some mistake I found that woman, I could say nothing after having already been given a penalty for "acting in violation of the rules" just yesterday. I couldn't imagine there being any room for negotiation. And as Chigusa also indicated, it wasn't guaranteed she was even a physical entity.
No matter from what perspective, using my remaining ten days to find the woman and have her rescind the bet seemed like a dim prospect. And I would rather use my time for Hajikano than stake it on a long shot.
I'd had it with this sink-or-swim bet.
I stuck the envelope in a drawer and left the house.
At this point, I recalled something I'd neglected to ask the woman on the phone. She once connected the lines to give me at home and Hajikano at Chakagawa Station a chance to talk on the phone, but to what aim? To give me a faint hope so as to deepen the despair later? I had gotten no explanation about it from her. Something's strange there, I thought. I didn't know how to express it, but something didn't sit right.
After thirty minutes by train, switching over to a bus for ten minutes on an old highway, and after getting off the bus, walking for twenty more minutes through a riverside residential district with map in hand, I finally arrived at Hajikano's grandma's house.
It was an awfully old two-story house. Numerous tiles were missing from the roof, the paint peeled more the higher you went up the clinker-built walls, and the cracked polished glass of the kitchen was patched up with packing tape. Along the path to the front door, the boughs and leaves of overgrown trees formed a tunnel. Ducking under the tunnel to reach the door, I smelled a unique scent mixing nukazuke, boiling food, grilled fish, and rush plants. To say it outright, the smell of an old person's house.
Yesterday, Hajikano had given me directions here as I left.
"I'm forbidden from going out on my own. I think it'll be difficult for me to meet you, Hinohara. So I'm sorry, but can you come meet me?"
"Of course I will," I said, and Hajikano smiled softly.
Hajikano was to recuperate for a while here. There was nothing to stimulate her here, and no worry of meeting people she knew and digging up memories. Also, as I'd heard it from Aya, Hajikano had been rather attached to their grandmother on her father's side, who lived alone here. Even after those blank four days that drastically altered her personality, she would come here on her own periodically. Her parents probably took that into account and decided this house would be a perfect place for recuperation. Her grandmother didn't especially see eye to eye with her son and his wife, but seemingly opened up to her granddaughter Hajikano.
After ringing the doorbell, I heard the floor creak, and some time later, the glass sliding door opened. There appeared a thin woman over 70 or so. Her hair was all white and her skin wrinkled, but she stood up startlingly straight. Looking closer at her wrinkled face, the left and right sides had a different feel; her right eye seemed to glare at me, yet her left eye observed me neutrally. Her mouth was firmly shut, and she gave me an impression of considerable intelligence for her age.
So, this was Hajikano's grandmother.
I opened my mouth to explain myself, but she shook her head.
"Aya's already told me. Come in."
With only that, Hajikano's grandma turned her back and went inside. Wanted me to come along? I went inside and politely closed the sliding door, took off my shoes, and followed her. With each step down the hall, the plywood floor creaked.
Opening a screen door to enter an old Japanese-style room, Hajikano's grandma sat at a low table. Seeing me standing in front of the door with nothing to do, she looked stunned. "What're you doing? Sit."
I sat at the table, then asked.,"Where is Miss Yui?"
"Still in the bath. She must've been tired yesterday, since she slept as soon as she got here."
Seeming to remember something, she stood up and left the room, leaving me behind.
I took a look around the room. The first thing I noticed was a giant altar. It was decorated with two small watermelons and two ears of corn, arranged symmetrically on the left and right. There was a wicker lounge chair with a half-read book on the seat. On an antique shelf were two Japanese-style dolls in a glass case. There was a calendar hanging from a lintel that was still on May. While it was an orderly room, it seemed like it ended up the way it had not because of frequent cleaning, but because it didn't see much in the way of being "lived in."
Hajikano's grandmother soon returned and poured me barley tea in a glass. I thanked her, took a sip, and spoke.
"Could I ask your name, ma'am?"
"Yoshie Hajikano," she answered. "Wasn't it on the plate outside?"
"Mrs. Yoshie, what has Miss Aya told you?"
"That my fool granddaughter jumped in the sea and came back with her memories gone. And so now I need to look after her."
"I see." If she knew that much, it seemed I didn't have to tiptoe around things with her. "Incidentally, what do you think of me?"
"I hear you're a curious man who likes diving into trouble." Yoshie's lips lifted just a millimeter. "Aya seems mighty fond of you."
That expression she briefly showed me was the spitting image of Aya's smile. Aya sure takes after her, I thought.
I guessed that Aya hadn't told Yoshie that I was Yosuke Fukamachi in the guise of Yuuya Hinohara. Way to go, Aya, making allowances for a lie like that. It was just more convenient for Yoshie not to know about my use of a fake name.
Yoshie took a cigarette from the table and lit it with a match. She put out the match with familiar movements and put it in a glass ashtray, then took in a deep breath of smoke, letting it out slowly.
"Want something to eat?"
"No, I'm fine."
After that, we didn't exchange a word up until Yoshie's cigarette was done. Through a bamboo screen, I heard windchimes. Listening closely, I heard the water of a shower from the other side of the hall. They were refreshing sounds to be sure, but in reality, it was swelteringly hot in the room. The sun-baked fan next to the altar wasn't having any real effect, and there was no way this house had air conditioning.
The awkward silence continued. The clock on the wall was broken, so I didn't know the exact time, but it felt like twenty minutes at least. It was like a bunch of ancient time had been locked in this room and came out now to lengthen the gap before Hajikano appeared.
After carefully putting out the cigarette flame, Yoshie put an elbow on the table and put her chin in her palm.
"Somebody's gotta keep watch."
"On Yui," she clarified. "Say Yui's memories suddenly come back. If nobody's there at the time, she might carry on with what she was up to before."
"But I can't watch her 24 hours a day, and I'm sure she doesn't want that either. Neither of us are fans of being rigid. ...So. How about you keep watch on Yui when I'm not?"
"Yes, that was my intention. I can handle her during the day -"
"It's settled," she grinned, looking like she was waiting to hear just that. "You go back home and bring changes of clothes and toiletries."
I twisted my neck, not following.
"Err... What do you mean?"
"You'll keep watch, won't you? Hinohara, eh. Starting now, you're working for me. The pay won't be much more than pocket change, but you'll get three tasty meals a day. Just 'til the end of summer vacation, stay in this house and keep a close eye that she doesn't get any funny ideas."
"Are you being serious?", I asked impulsively.
"'Course, I'm opposed to living under the same roof with an adolescent boy and girl too. But... you do have Aya's endorsement."
"Have you gone over this with Hajikano?"
"I'm about to."
Just then, the hallway floor creaked, and the sliding door opened. Hajikano wore a T-shirt with a wide neckline and shorts, holding a bath towel in one hand.
"Granny, I think the water heater's broken. The shower water only came out cold..."
There, Hajikano went silent, looked at my face, and gave a shrill yelp as she retreated into the hall.
"H-Hinohara? You're here already?", she said from behind the door. "Sorry, can you stay there for a while? I'll be ready soon."
"Guess I might have come a little too early. Should I wait outside?"
"No, wait there. It'll be really quick."
I heard Hajikano hurrying up the stairs.
Even after she left, a sweet soap smell still lingered.
"Never mind the money," I said. "For the right to be with Hajikano, I'd be willing to pay you. When Hajikano gets back, I'll say farewell and go back home for my luggage."
"So you accept the job?"
"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Yoshie."
Yoshie snorted and closed her eyes, which again felt just like what Aya would do. She's definitely blood-related to the Hajikano sisters, I recognized again.
When Hajikano reappeared twenty minutes later, she had changed from her earlier casual outfit to a frilly sleeveless shirt. Her hair still hadn't dried, bits of moisture still on it.
"Sorry for the wait." Hajikano sat at the table and looked restlessly between me and Yoshie. "What were you two talking about?"
I casually glanced at Yoshie, but she bluntly averted her gaze to tell me "explain it yourself."
I thought for a little bit, then asked. "Hey, Hajikano. What would you think if I told you I was going to stay over here for a while?"
"Huh...?" She froze with mouth hung open for a few seconds. "What do you mean?"
I hesitated for how to reply. I couldn't give her the unvarnished truth of "I was asked to watch and make sure you don't commit suicide." I glanced at Yoshie again seeking help, and with a reluctant look, she offered it.
"I asked him. I wanted help with a few things, like household chores and shopping. So I could use a manservant. And Yui, you wouldn't get bored with him around, would you?"
"That's true, but this is too quick...", Hajikano said so quietly I could barely make it out.
"Huh, you don't want it? Looked so excited for him to come this morning."
"G-Granny..." She crossed her index fingers in her direction. "Um, well, I don't mind at all. I just thought it might be bothersome for Hinohara..."
"It's decided," Yoshie nodded with satisfaction.
I turned to Hajikano. "I need to go home for the moment and get my things. I should be back in three hours, so wait here."
"Okay, got it. I'll take you to the bus stop."
Hajikano glanced toward Yoshie as if to get confirmation.
"Be off, you two," she waved as if to drive us away.
Once we left the house, Hajikano questioned me.
"So, what did you really talk about?"
"I was hired to keep an eye on you. In other words, uh..."
As I pondered how to phrase it, Hajikano smiled bitterly.
"Yeah, because I attempted suicide. Not surprising."
"I'm grateful you can put it so succinctly," I sighed with relief.
"Hey, Hinohara," Hajikano said bashfully. "If you've been hired to watch me, then don't lose sight of me."
"Right. If it's not a bother."
"Of course not. Is it a bother for you, Hinohara?"
"Surely not. Whatever it is, I'm glad for an excuse to be with you, Hajikano."
She stood up tall and ruffled my head. "Nice and honest." It felt somehow nostalgic. Back in grade school, she would pat my head like that over everything. Even if her memory was lost, she still retained habits like this.
I parted from Hajikano at the bus stop, and took about an hour getting home. No one was home, so I left a note saying "I'm staying at a friend's house for about ten days" on the dining table. I frequently stayed at Hinohara's house in middle school, so my parents likely wouldn't think much of it. I puzzled over whether to take the letters from Chigusa, but I couldn't be sure Hajikano wouldn't read them by some accident, so I decided to leave them. Putting the minimum amount of clothes and toiletries in a bag, I quickly left the house.
I arrived back at Hajikano's house at noon. After a tasty meal of chilled Chinese noodles with lots of toppings, Yoshie ordered us to clean the house. She took all the bathrooms, while Hajikano and I worked together to clean the rooms, study, closet, hallways, and stairs. I wore clothes I could afford to get dirty, and with a bucket of soapy water and a bucket of clean water, we went wiping the windows of each room. The water in the buckets quickly turned murky, so we had to replace it each time.
Once done cleaning windows, we took feather dusters and went knocking off dust in the rooms. After sweeping it together with a broom and throwing it away, we wiped the tatami mats with a rag. The trash bag ended up full of dust and dirt, making me want to sneeze just looking at it.
"It kind of feels like you really were hired as a helper," Hajikano smiled, watching me wipe a mat on all fours.
Hajikano was accustomed to cleaning these old-style rooms, so she taught me how you should sweep brooms along the pips of tatami mats, and how they were weak to moisture. I questioned why she remembered details about cleaning despite losing her memory and asked her about it. She stopped working and thought.
"Hmm... I don't really know, either. I just can't remember most new things I learned in the past few years, or how I got high school... So maybe it's simply the events of the past few years I've forgotten. It's not about the nature of the memories."
"Until when exactly can you remember?"
Hajikano looked into space and searched her memory.
"I can clearly remember up to about winter in my first year of middle school. From there to the present, there's a big gap. ...I'm sure that's about the time my life started going downhill."
I looked up in surprise. "So right now, you're really kind of like a first-year in middle school?"
"Precisely speaking, not really. But you can think that way if you like, Hinohara-senpai," Hajikano giggled.
Once we were done cleaning the hallways and stairs, we concluded with the entryway. After sweeping away dust with a broom, we sprayed water and scrubbed the concrete floor with brushes. The water turned black in no time. We brought the cleaning tools back to the storeroom just as Yoshie was finishing up most of her tasks.
No sooner had we finished our big cleanup than Yoshie handed us a bamboo basket and had us harvest vegetables from the garden. Thorn-covered cucumbers, tomatoes with a grassy smell, corn with long whiskers. After the harvest came watering the plants. While spraying plants whose names I didn't know with a hose, a thin rainbow appeared over the garden, and Hajikano happily clapped her hands. In the midst of winding the hose back on the reel, I heard the water dripping from the leaves.
Dinner used the freshly-picked produce lavishly. After dinner was over, we even helped with washing, then Yoshie sat in a lounge chair by the window and opened up the evening paper. Hajikano and I waited around for her next instruction, and she spoke to us.
"Do as you please for the rest of the day. Go wherever you want."
We looked at each other. "Should we go outside for now?", Hajikano asked. I gave my approval.
Without a destination in mind, we walked together in the sunset town. A chorus of higurashi who survived up to the end of summer echoed from the thickets around the houses. It wasn't even 5 PM yet, but a brilliant sunset dyed our surroundings. It wasn't the blazing red sunset seen in the city, but an orange sunset that seemed to steal the sense of reality from all things.
We walked without aim through what felt like an old memory. Buying soda pop from a shop and sitting on a nearby bench to drink it, I made a discovery.
Thinking back, from the time we left the house to now - a period of about thirty minutes - Hajikano had never once walked on my right side. I didn't know if it was conscious or not, but she was probably wary of showing the side of her face with the birthmark to me.
Once I noticed that, I found more of her little considerations one after another. When talking to me, it seemed she didn't change the angle of her face much, doing her best to hide the birthmark from sight. And after wiping sweat from her forehead, she always put her bangs to the left, and sometimes put her left hand to her cheek for no reason.
Why was she so sensitive? No, I didn't think that. Because I had constantly stayed on Hajikano's right side when with her before. Wanting her to remember me being at least a little less ugly.
Hajikano opened the ramune bottle cap, took out the marble, and held it between her thumb and index finger up to the sun. I imitated her and looked through the marble; it was like a little lens that flipped the scenery, resulting in the appearance of an orange sea.
"The sun's setting early these days," I said.
"August is almost over." Hajikano swayed her legs from the bench. "In less than two weeks, we probably won't even hear these cicadas anymore."
She stood up and tossed her bottle in the collection box, then spun around and smiled at me.
"But the days getting shorter is a good thing."
"You like night, Hajikano?"
"Right. It lets me forget about my birthmark."
"I like it, myself."
"Thanks. But I'm sure there are many people who hate it." She softly put her left hand on her cheek. "Including me."
We started walking again. Even once the sun went down, heat clung to the ground. Seeking a cool-down, we entered the nearest supermarket. It was bizarrely dark inside, and the AC made it disagreeably cold. After fully checking out its selection, we went upstairs and through an arcade to the rooftop parking lot. It was already pitch black outside. There were no other tall buildings in the area, so we could see the spotty lights of the residential district below.
Time passed slowly by. We put our elbows on the paint-peeled and splintered guardrails, talking aimlessly as we gazed at the modest night scenery. Being on a rooftop at night, I couldn't help but recall the four of us gathering at the ruined hotel to stargaze, but I tried to keep the pain and anguish from showing.
Hajikano used a toothpick to carry pieces of cherry candy she bought earlier to her mouth, one by one. As I casually watched her, she seemed to misunderstand and held out the toothpick with a piece on it. "Do you want some, Hinohara?" Before I could even take the toothpick from her, she brought it to my mouth instead. It was such a naturally-performed action, I naturally opened my mouth too. It's just like we've gone back to four years ago, I thought. Back then, she would calmly do things that scared me out of my wits.
"Should we go back now?"
Hajikano reached for the last piece. But seemingly not pierced well enough with the toothpick, it fell from her hand off the edge, down to the ground against the night wind.
Back at Yoshie's house, since it seemed the water heater was indeed broken, we reluctantly took buckets and towels to a local bathhouse. We paid the old manager 300 yen each, and agreeing to meet up an hour later, I parted from Hajikano. But the bathtub was so hot, I stepped out before even 30 minutes went by.
Until Hajikano came back, I sat in front of a fan and absentmindedly watched TV. There was a special on about a robbery than took place half a month ago. One of the culprits wore bandages of some sort around his face, so the news dubbed him the "Mummy Man" for convenience. Such a summer-esque incident, I irresponsibly thought.
Hajikano returned five minutes earlier than promised. She bought fruit milk and sat down next to me, and without saying anything, looked to the TV. After finishing her milk, she returned the bottle to a case by the vending machine. Then, thinking of something, she stood behind me and rustled my hair with both hands. I did the same in return, and she laughed ticklishly.
We returned home in the cool night air, our sandals leisurely clopping against the ground. At home, we got futons out of the closet and prepared our respective beds. Yoshie was in the second floor bedroom, and Hajikano and I in the first-floor old-style room with a screen between us.
While Hajikano was stooping over to light a mosquito coil, Yoshie took the opportunity to whisper to me.
"Just so you know, the quietest noises echo in this house. So don't even think about anything funny."
I shrugged. "I understand that."
Once Yoshie closed the dividing screen and went upstairs, I lied on the futon and turned off the light. I was exhausted from being worked hard all day, and the smell of a stranger's house felt restless, but on top of that, knowing Hajikano was there on the other side of a screen door mere centimeters away made me too awake to sleep.
I closed my eyes and focused on the monotone sounds of insects, waiting for drowsiness. Then I heard Hajikano quietly call for me through the screen.
"Hinohara, are you awake?"
"I am," I whispered back.
"Doesn't this feel kind of like a school trip?"
"Want to throw pillows?"
"Boys have some funny ideas," Hajikano laughed.
It seemed like she was up very close to the screen. It would be bad if our voices were heard upstairs, so I got close too and kept my voice as low as possible.
"Well, what ideas do girls have?"
"Isn't it obvious? Girls talk about their second-most crush."
"Yes, second-most. Because your number-one crush absolutely can't overlap with anyone else's. You don't want to alert your competition, either. So no one ever speaks about their number-one crush. But second crushes - even if those overlap, it won't make things so tense, will it? Which means the boy who should be the most popular in class never gets his name mentioned at all."
"That's an interesting way of thinking."
"It's absolutely true. I knew a bunch of precocious girls who confessed to boys right before elementary school graduation, and they were all completely different from the "crushes" they talked about on our class trip."
"In other words, when you open up on a class trip, it's more like a sounding-out?"
"That's right. Nothing good comes of being foolishly honest. Well, in grade school, at least. I don't know what my middle school class trip was like."
I paused for a breath, then spoke. "Well, did you join in with giving the name of your second-most crush, Hajikano?"
"That's a secret."
"It was elementary school. There's no reason to hide it now, is there?"
"No, I just can't. My head is still in middle school, after all," she said anticlimactically. Then she asked, to change the subject, "What about boys? Don't tell me you threw pillows at each other for an hour before bed?"
"Boys are no different. Everyone talked about the girls they liked on day one. ...Of course, in our case, it's not like we gave the name of the girl we liked second-best."
"You were honest and spilled the beans about your favorite?", Hajikano asked with surprise.
"Honest may not be the right word. I don't know if all boys are like this, but the guys I was with always phrased it like, "I don't have a crush on any girls per se, but if I had to say, maybe her.""
Naturally, I wasn't part of that circle then, and hid alone under my futon.
"Boys sure are cute," Hajikano said.
"Well, if you compare with how the girls do it, I guess it's kinda cute."
Hajikano cleared her throat like some kind of signal, then asked me: "Hey, Hinohara, do you have a crush on any girls?"
"Not especially, but if I had to say, maybe Hajikano," I replied with a laugh. "And you?"
"I like Yosuke."
For a moment, my spine froze, thinking she had seen through me. But thinking about it more, that couldn't be. The "closest boys" to Hajikano right now were Yuuya Hinohara and Yosuke Fukamachi, so she had simply given the name of the one who couldn't be her first pick as her "second-most crush."
Yet, even if it was a meaningless statement that arose by chance from the flow of the conversation, I couldn't help but feel joy over hearing the words "I like Yosuke" from Hajikano's mouth. I etched her words into my memory. Not only the lyric and melody, but even details of the intonation. Along with the illusion of happiness I felt on hearing it.
Then, I suddenly remembered the "penalty" the woman on the phone had mentioned. "Henceforth, you are forbidden from revealing your true identity in front of Hajikano." So she said, with no further explanation. But there were numerous ways I could convey to her that I was Yosuke Fukamachi without directly revealing my identity. Would using those indirect means also count as a violation of the rules? And in what sense was she using the word "forbidden," anyway? Did it simply mean that the action would be punished? Or else - like the witch in The Little Mermaid - she had made it impossible to reveal who I really was around Hajikano?
I decided to test out one such "gray area" method. My procedure would be as follows. I would ask if Hajikano kept goldfish in her house in elementary school. Once she told me yes, I would guess one of the goldfish's names was "Hinoko." If she asked how I knew, I would say "I just had a feeling." By doing that, I wouldn't be revealing myself directly, and Hajikano would find it strange that I knew the name of her goldfish. Of course, that alone was no proof that I was Yosuke Fukamachi. But it would provide an opportunity for her to start wondering it.
I put my plan into action. "Hey, Hajikano."
"What is it?"
"In elementary school, did you -"
Instantly, a sharp pain rain through my throat. Like burning tongs had been thrust into it. My throat was blocked, so I couldn't even scream, and curled up to endure the pain as a cold sweat ran down me.
"What's wrong?", Hajikano asked through the screen. "Are you hurt?"
I wanted to say I was fine to put her at ease, but I was unable to move or reply. Worried about the lack of response, she quietly opened the screen and asked, "Hey, what happened?" Seeing me curled up and holding my throat, she sat beside me and stroked my back repeatedly, asking "Are you okay?"
For as great as the pain was, it receded in less than a minute. But it seemed like I sweat an unbelievable amount in that time, so my shirt was soaking wet, and my throat was dry as a desert.
"...I'm okay now. Sorry to worry you." I smiled at Hajikano. "I'll get some water."
I stood up, and she followed me worriedly.
"Are you really okay? Do you need to go to the hospital?"
"Nah. My leg just cramped up a little."
I had three cups of water in the kitchen and calmed down a little bit.
Back in the room, Hajikano continued to sit by my futon and ask "Are you okay?" "Does it still hurt?" I told her it wasn't a problem at all anymore, really, but she wouldn't believe it. After about thirty minutes, she finally went back to her own futon.
"Good night, Hinohara. See you tomorrow."
"Yeah, good night."
I moved away from the screen back to my former position and closed my eyes again.
Despite the turbulence at the end, generally speaking, it had been a very, very happy day. I thought, in my sinking senses, how I wish it could be another day like this tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that... I would offer all my good fortune toward that purpose. My life would be up in a few days anyhow. I couldn't ask for any more happiness than this. If days like these where I could laugh with Hajikano could just continue until the end of summer break, I would be satisfied.
Yet this world gives change to those who seek stability, and stability to those who seek change. This tranquility would end very soon - with this very day. The next day, while I wasn't looking, Hajikano heard a sound she shouldn't have.
Yes - the sound of a phone ringing in the darkness.
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