The Place You Called From

Volume 2, Chapter 11: This Is Just A Good Luck Charm
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Volume 2, Chapter 11: This Is Just A Good Luck Charm

The incident occurred in the middle of the night, three days after I started living at Hajikano's grandmother's house. Under the light of a rusty desk lamp, as I turned through the pages of the book Hashiba once gave me, I heard Hajikano catching her breath on the other side of the screen.

It was a horribly hot night. So at first, I thought she was having trouble sleeping and got woken up. A while later, I heard her making deep breaths. Trembling breaths that made me imagine someone stranded in a cabin in a blizzard, awaiting help. Did she have a frightening dream?

While I was indecisive about whether to go look or not, I heard a sliding door open. Not the dividing one, but the one to the hallway. I didn't hear any footsteps, but I found it certain that Hajikano had left the room. Could have been to get water in the kitchen or to use the bathroom, one of the two.

But five minutes passed, and Hajikano hadn't returned. Windchimes rang outside the window. I felt a vague apprehension, put down my book, turned off the lamp, and left the room. Walking carefully to not make a sound, I found the front door left open, the night wind blowing in. I put on sandals and went outside.

I found Hajikano right away. No, "she found me" might be more accurate. Lying against a stone wall, she looked up at the night sky. When she noticed me, she sighed as if she'd been waiting there for hours.

"You finally noticed." Hajikano smiled with her eyes closed. It seemed like a pained smile that was forcing itself to be cheerful. "You need to watch me more carefully. You didn't know I'd snuck out at night last night and the night before, did you?"

"No, I didn't. ...Guess I've failed as a lookout."

I sat down next to Hajikano, put up my index finger to confirm that she was windward of me, then took out a cigarette and lit it.

Thanks to the security lights, I didn't miss the fact that her eyes were red.

"You used to look at the night sky a lot before you lost your memory, too," I said after letting out my first puff of smoke. "You were a girl who liked stars. Seems like that hasn't changed."

"Yes, so it seems."

It was a somewhat inattentive reply.

"Did you have a bad dream?"

"Wow. Well done." Hajikano put her fingertips together and her eyes widened. "Why did you think that?"

I couldn't answer that question. "Did you wake up from nightmares last night, and the night before that?"

"Yes."

"What kind of dreams were they?"

She shook her head, stood up, and wiped her clothes.

"I already forgot. I only remember being scared."

"...I see."

"Hey, Hinohara. Since we're awake, let's go for a walk."

She started walking without waiting for my reply. I got up and followed.

Maybe her dreams had to do with her lost memories. It wasn't normal to have nightmares for three days straight. Perhaps she's reliving those "blank four days" in her dreams every night, I thought.

We kept walking the dark roads in silence. Wooden power poles were placed in intervals along the rice paddies; small mosquitoes gathered around their security lights, and scarab beetles and ground beetles swarmed underneath. There were faint clouds in the sky, the moon dimly shining beyond them.

We did a lap of the residential district, and as we were about to reach the house again, Hajikano broke the silence.

"Hinohara, how long can you stay at my side?"

"What do you mean?", I asked nonchalantly.

"Who knows? Not me." She tried to smile, but couldn't form a very good one. "It's just... well, Chigusa and Yosuke both left me, didn't they? So I wondered if you might have to leave me too someday."

I wanted nothing more than to say "that's not true at all" and reassure her. And I knew Hajikano was hoping for that. She asked that question because she wanted me to laugh off the tinge of unease her nightmare left her with. To say something like "Me, leave you? I wouldn't do something so wasteful."

The problem was, her fear was correct. If I lied to her here, would I be able to keep up a perfect act and fool her to the end? Could I deceive her fully without even a speck of doubt? I had no confidence whatsoever.

If lying now would fill her with distrust, it was better to be honest to an extent - that was my conclusion.

"In seven days," I answered.

I saw Hajikano's face freezing.

"I can stay at your side until August 31st. Once that's over, I'll have to go far away, for good. I don't want to leave you either, Hajikano, but it was decided long ago."

"Far away? Where are you going?"

"I can't answer that very well."

"Can you come back sometimes?"

"No," I shook my head. "Unfortunately, not even that. Once August 31st passes, I think I'll never be able to meet you again."

"...Ah."

Hajikano lowered her head and smiled lonesomely. It was a much more peaceful reaction than I'd expected. Maybe she had the possibility of such a response in mind from the start. Maybe she saw through little incongruities in my actions to figure out I was hiding something.

"I understand. You must have your reasons too, right?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry for hiding it until now. I wasn't sure how to break it to you."

"No, I'm sorry for making you worry for me."

Hajikano mumbled. "Seven days... I see."

Returning to the house, we quietly walked down the hallway so as not to wake Yoshie, and went to our respective beds.

The next morning, as I opened the screen to wake up Hajikano, I found her sleeping holding her knees, and discovered her diary next to her bed. Ultimately, she had chosen "remembering." It wasn't unreasonable. The people near her kept disappearing one after another. It was perfectly natural for her to look into her past wanting to know the reason why. Even if you knew there might be devastating information in there that shakes you to the core.

I gently picked up the diary, sat by the windowsill, and opened it. Maybe by learning the details of the "blank four days," I would be disappointed with Yui Hajikano - no, I never thought that for a second. Whatever her past was like, I was prepared to accept it. Even if Hajikano was deeply connected with the suicide of two middle school girls a year ago - for that matter, even if Hajikano killed those two - my feelings for her wouldn't change.

Resisting the desire to read every page over closely, I turned pages in search of July of 1993. My hand stopped on a certain page. Many pages were mostly blank and easy to glance over, but the pages in that area alone were packed with long sentences in thin writing.

There was written the truth of the blank four days.

*

The cogs began to go awry on February 28th, 1993. That day, Hajikano was walking down the street through light snowfall when she had an unexpected reunion with old friends.

Mei Funakoshi and Maiko Aida. They were girls she'd been in the same class with in elementary school. Hajikano noticed the two approaching in front of her and quickly looked for somewhere to hide. But they had her in their sights before she could. Seeing Hajikano's face, they were about to say something, but quickly said "Long time no see" instead. Hajikano reluctantly greeted them back.

Hajikano could easily imagine what they were about to say. By that time, her birthmark had gotten big enough that she couldn't hide it with her hair. These two really want to ask about my birthmark, but they're holding it in, she thought. Just like everyone else. Once they see it, they stare wide-eyed at it, then say something unrelated with an innocent look. Even during conversations, they frequently sneak looks at it. Looks mixing sympathy and curiosity. But they never refer to the birthmark themselves.

If you're that curious, I'd feel better if you just asked me honestly already, she always thought. Just "What's with that birthmark?" is enough. But people who take that step are rare indeed. They're concerned about touching a sore subject. Not many people understand that some sore subjects hurt less if you just touch them.

These two, too, would surely treat my birthmark like it wasn't there, then talk all about it amongst themselves after leaving, Hajikano figured. However, a few minutes into the conversation, Funakoshi said "by the way," and pointed right at her birthmark. "What's with that birthmark?"

"It's not just an injury, is it?", Aida asked modestly.

"Sorry if this is just me, but Yui, it looks like you're overly tense," Funakoshi said. "Hey, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk about it."

Glad for the two's honest questions, Hajikano began, "Well, actually..." And once she started, she couldn't stop. She talked at length about the changes in her life since the birthmark appeared, letting out what she'd kept in this whole time. How the looks strangers gave her changed, how sometimes people would see it and make their disgust clear, how she became resistant to looking others in the eye while talking, how she was often hampered by being too conscious of those looking at her, how she gradually grew scared of being around others and stayed at home on days off, how she tried to act calm at school but was already terrified inside, and how she had no one to talk to, so she kept all her worries to herself.

Funakoshi and Aida earnestly listened to her. Hajikano decided to open up to these two in the first place because she felt they would understand. Both of them had body-related worries like Hajikano's. The two were intelligent, charming girls with a sense of humor, but as far as being girls their age went, they had fatal flaws in noticeable places. (The diary didn't give a detailed description of those "flaws." However, much like my likening to the Phantom of the Opera, and Hajikano to the ghost of Oiwa, these girls seemed to receive shameful nicknames related to their appearance as well.)

After hours of opening up, Hajikano thanked the girls.

"Thank you. I've never had people to talk to about this before, so I'm really happy."

"It's fine," Aida said. "I'm kind of glad to know even someone as popular as you is thinking about the same stuff as us."

"If you need anything, talk to us," Funakoshi told her. "And just so you know, we're not saying that to be polite. We really know how you feel, Hajikano."

Then Aida thought of something. "Hey, if it's fine with Yui, do you think we three should keep meeting like this?"

Via this suggestion, Hajikano came to see the other two periodically. They gathered once a week to talk about daily troubles and questions, and the general hardship of life. When they talked together, Hajikano had a sensation of it being one personality split into three to talk amongst itself. Fellow girls plagued with a sense of bodily inferiority could really understand each other, it seems. She was frequently impressed how well they could understand such a subtle mindset.

For instance, Funakoshi said in one meeting: "Honestly, I don't see what's bad about plastic surgery. Or cosmetic surgery? Well, whatever you want to call it. If makeup and perms and dental correction is permitted, isn't it weird that plastic surgery is frowned upon? Some people say it's rude to cut up the body you got from your parents, but if I were them, I'd say cut away if it makes my kid happy. 'Cause I mean, in a way, ugliness is a kind of sickness."

Hajikano thought about this, then replied. "I've had some thought on that myself... Most people's problems with plastic surgery seem like postscripts. I think at the root of hate toward plastic surgery is enormous trust in the body, and fear of it being betrayed. They're instinctively afraid of the borderline that says "that person is who that person is" being shaken."

"It's like a slippery slope," Aida promptly replied. "Ultimately, you have to allow just leaving the brain and making everything else into a different person."

Funakoshi nodded. "Yeah, like that old question. "A ship's parts get gradually replaced, so when all the parts have been replaced, can you say it's the same ship?" But realistically, nobody's gonna say "this is a totally different ship" when you only replace like 10% of the parts, so I feel like human bodies should get away with 10% replacement too."

"At any rate, our problems can't be solved with plastic surgery, so it's a pointless argument," Aida weakly smiled.

Funakoshi and Hajikano sighed, but there was a comfortable empathy there. An abject relief that they weren't the only one experiencing this irrationality.

Before she knew it, Funakoshi and Aida had become reliable supports for Hajikano. Maybe you could say they were highly codependent. So in spring, when the two gradually started voicing their hate for classmates, alluding toward desires for suicide, she could only think of it as proof they were opening their hearts to each other.

Their eyes were completely clouded.

On June 4th, Funakoshi and Aida revealed to Hajikano that they were being bullied at school. "It seems like we've become outlets for exam-cramming stress," Funakoshi said to break the news. They talked distantly about what they were going through at school. If they weren't exaggerating, then it was a hell beyond imagination. Hajikano felt deeply sorry for them, but also felt an oppressive expectation on her. After they were done talking, they seemed to put a threatening silent pressure on her. Like they'd invisibly grabbed her arms and told her "Now that you've heard this much, you're not leaving that easily."

I might be getting involved in something bad, Hajikano thought.

She was right to be worried. After their bullying came to light, Funakoshi and Aida came to say hateful and despairing things more bluntly than before. The topics were always "I want to die soon," or "I want to kill so-and-so." Without any replacement of body parts, the two had become completely different people. They weren't the Funakoshi and Aida who Hajikano liked anymore. She was just saddened that the girls who once made witty jokes and calmed down those around them had changed like this.

Hajikano had already become unable to join with the two in their discussions, but distancing herself now wasn't an option. She feared being left out of the group more than anything. If I abandon them, I'll instantly lose the place I go to with my troubles. Hajikano forced herself to talk with them; if they said they wanted to die, she said she did too, and if they said they wanted to kill someone, she said the same. Hajikano was Hajikano, but cultivated the madness the other two were heading toward.

Funakoshi and Aida's words continued to escalate. Once it crossed a watershed line, they switched from words to actions.

One day, the two were calm, as if they'd come to their senses. They talked lots, ate lots, laughed lots. Hajikano was delighted, as they seemed to have gone back to how they were months ago. Just maybe, the bullying at school had died down. Now we can be as close as we used to be - just as Hajikano thought this, Funakoshi casually spoke.

"We set fire to it."

Hajikano was dumbfounded and couldn't speak. The two merrily went on. About how last night, they went to the house of the classmate who led the bullies, spread around kerosene, and set fire to it. And how she didn't come to school today. They went to look at the house on their way home, and the building was completely burned, the girl's room showing bare.

"What happened to her?", Hajikano asked quiveringly.

"She didn't die. For better or worse," Funakoshi replied. "But she probably won't be coming to school for a while."

"School was so peaceful today," Aida said heartily. "I never knew how much easier things could be with her gone."

I can't go along with this anymore, Hajikano thought. Steadying her resolve, she encouraged the two to turn themselves in. If the police questioned their classmates, they would quickly discover their hostility toward the girl. You couldn't underestimate the investigation skills of modern police. They could be knocking on your door as soon as tomorrow morning. Wouldn't it be wisest to turn yourself in before that?

"It's fine, we'll never be found out," Funakoshi claimed baselessly - half to convince herself, surely. "As long as the three of us keep quiet."

"I thought you'd be celebrating with us, Yui," Aida said with disappointment. "But you kinda just ruined the mood."

"Hey, Yui, I trust you. But that said, let me tell you something."

Funakoshi leaned over and whispered in Hajikano's ear.

"If you betray us, we'll burn down your house too."

At this point, Hajikano finally realized there was no going back. She'd already failed to run from this chain of hatred, and kept herself involved in it. There was no appropriate choice. Only an inappropriate choice, and an even more inappropriate choice.

When Hajikano read the newspaper the next day, her face went white, and she nearly collapsed on the spot.

Like the two had told her, they burned down the house, but the girl who led the bullies survived with minor injuries.

Her baby brother, however, had died.

Hajikano folded up the page with the article, put it in her bag, and went to meet Funakoshi and Aida. Naturally, the two of them had looked over every inch of the paper, so they also knew that they'd killed their target's brother instead of her.

"It's that girl's fault," they repeated defensively, but their eyes were hollow, like they couldn't even fool themselves.

Gradually, the two of them lost their minds. They feared calls from the police daily, always looked around themselves restlessly, hung their heads and walked fast when they saw police, and shook with surprise when they heard the sirens of police cars or ambulances. They didn't seem able to get much sleep, so they had deep bags under their eyes; as if unable to get food down their throats, they grew thinner by the day.

They saw danger in every shadow, and they feared Hajikano's betrayal most. As such, sometimes they would call her over, and repeat their threat of "if you betray us, we'll burn your house down" three times.

"You're planning to betray us anyway, aren't you?", Funakoshi said one day. "But you kept agreeing with us knowing how much we meant it, so you're practically an accomplice. If we get arrested, we're taking you with us."

Unable to bear the self-blame and fear, the thoughts of suicide they previously only entertained started to seem like a realistic escape option. We did nothing wrong; if the police are going to arrest us and expose us, we'd rather die, they said. And Hajikano was naturally included as part of that group suicide.

Aida drew near Hajikano. "If you run away, we'll have the note say "Yui Hajikano threatened us to burn it down; we killed ourselves because we couldn't live with our sin.""

There was nowhere to run. I should have gotten away as soon as I felt something was wrong, Hajikano lamented. The two had given me time to do so. If I'd wanted, I could have even stopped their rampage at an early stage.

No, not only that - maybe that was the exact intent of getting me involved. The two let me into their group wanting me to put a stop to their wild notions. And yet, I was too afraid of losing people to share in my injuries with. So not only did I not stop them, I added to their hate.

It was the weakness of my heart that led to this.

Then the day came. On July 12th, 1993, Hajikano was called to a ruined building deep in the mountains. Opening a heavy iron door, she found Funakoshi and Aida sitting in the corner of the room, lit by a square light from a window.

At their feet were bottles of sake and oil cans. When Hajikano saw them, she trembled. The cans were undoubtedly filled with gasoline. The alcohol was probably to get them drunk and slightly lessen their fear of death. The two of them planned to die here today - or three, including herself.

Hajikano earnestly tried to persuade them. What good would this do? You can still recover, start over having atoned for your crimes. Since she had been complicit in the arson, they could all turn themselves in. It was too soon to turn to despair.

But of course, they didn't even listen. They casually poured gasoline on their heads as if it were hot water - putting extra amounts on the body parts that brought about their sense of inferiority - and demanded Hajikano do the same. She refused, so Funakoshi held her down while Aida doused her in gasoline.

Hajikano shook Funakoshi off and tried to run, but there was only one entrance, and the two blocked it. Funakoshi approached with an oil lighter, and Aida also closed in to block her off. Seeming to enjoy watching her back away fearfully, they drove Hajikano into the corner of the room.

I imagined that at that point, maybe their resolve wasn't firm yet. I think Funakoshi probably only put her finger on the flint wheel as a threat. That she actually rubbed the flint was maybe a simple slip of the finger, and in the excitement of the moment, she might have forgotten she was coated in gasoline.

The gasoline ignited like miniature fireworks. In moments, Funakoshi's body was engulfed in flame. A moment later, there was a shriek like a beast roaring. It wasn't certain whether that was Funakoshi or Aida.

As Funakoshi's body burned, she held her throat with her hands and ran around seeking help. Aida's legs buckled, and when Funakoshi reached out to her, instantly, the fire spread to Aida's body. This time, there was a scream that was clearly Aida's.

Hajikano reflexively ran. Aida's screaming behind her died out in seconds. Once out of the ruins, Hajikano ran as fast as she could, and she thought. No matter how much I hurry, it's twenty minutes to the nearest house. There aren't any public phones around here, are there? She searched her memory, but knew she at least hadn't seen any on the way there. At any rate, she quickly descended the mountain. Not a minute to waste. Not a second to waste.

When she finally found a phone, fifteen minutes had already passed. Hajikano dialed 119 with trembling hands. She told them she saw some strange smoke from the mountains, grew scared when she heard screams, and let them know the exact location of the ruined building, but hung up without revealing herself. Once she put down the receiver, she collapsed on the spot. The public phone continued to ring above her head, likely a redial from the fire department.

*

When I looked up from the diary, I made eye contact with Hajikano sitting up from her futon and looking at me. She just had a weak smile, and didn't seem to blame me for reading her diary without permission. Maybe she put her diary by the bed wanting me to read it in the first place.

"Disappointed, aren't you?" Hajikano lowered her gaze. "Yui Hajikano - no, I left two girls to die, then went on to erase that memory and try to escape the weight of that sin. ...So it seems."

"Does it say anything like that?" I tilted my head. "It just seemed like the story of a pitiable girl who unluckily got involved in the crimes of others."

"If everything written here is the truth, then maybe that's a viable point of view. But there's no guarantee that I didn't distort the facts of my past to make it more convenient for me."

Hajikano stood up, folded her futon, did a small stretch with her back to me, then asked without turning around:

"...Will you still stay with me today?"

"Obviously," I replied. "I would be even if you said no. I have a lookout job to do, you know."

"...Yes, so you do."

Hajikano smiled with relief.

Hajikano was absentminded that day, from beginning to end. She had a slow response to anything I said, and replied to my questions with misdirected answers. Most of the time she looked listlessly into the distance, but she would sometimes rebound and act cheerily, then quickly get tired by it and revert to docility. They were dangerous signs. I paid close attention to her, so that she wouldn't get any ideas, and so I could respond quickly on the off chance she did.

Half a day passed uneventfully. After dinner, we went to the bathhouse and washed away a day's worth of sweat. Looks like today will end without incident, I sighed with relief. But that was a naive estimation. The situation was already headed toward a sharp turn.

Hajikano was waiting for me outside, and as soon as she saw me, she asked "Can we take a detour?" I asked where that would be, but she didn't answer, saying only "There's something I want to show you," and guiding me with a secretive smile. Where was she planning to take me? I mean, there weren't many places in this town that were a decent destination. Considering the direction, I predicted she was heading toward the sea.

I turned out to be right. Hajikano went straight to the sea, and stopped behind a storehouse in the corner of the pier. A gust made the sleeves of her saxe blue one-piece flutter. The pale blue moon was reflected on the peaceful surface of the water.

Hajikano turned around to face me, took something wrapped in a towel out of her bag, then unwrapped it and handed it to me. It was a small knife. The decorated handle was scratched in places, and the blade was darkly stained. And yet the point was as sharp as if it were just now sharpened.

"What is this?", I asked.

"I picked it up earlier," Hajikano replied concisely. "Where do you think I got it?"

"I don't know."

"Really?"

"The only place I can think of where you'd pick up a knife is at a dump."

"A phone booth," she said. "And Hinohara, I'm going to have you kill me with it."

Seeing my shock, Hajikano smirked.

"Sorry for playing dumb, Hinohara. To tell the truth, I already know. How your life's going to end on August 31st, and how the only way you can be saved is by killing me."

Hajikano was blurry in my vision. I was so thrown off, I couldn't even focus my eyes.

"Why do you...", I started to ask, then suddenly realized. "Did the woman on the phone tell you that?"

She slowly nodded. "I was surprised when I first got a call. I was walking around by myself at night, and a public phone suddenly rang. I gave in to curiosity and answered, and without any introduction, the woman on the other end said: "Your memories don't seem to be returning, Yui Hajikano." It was just two days ago. ...Of course, I was so scared I hung up right away, so I didn't hear any more than that."

Hajikano flipped and tilted the knife in her hand, observing it from many angles. Likely not because she wanted to look closely at the knife, but because she didn't want to look me in the eye.

The woman on the phone really didn't seem very pleased with me defiantly enjoying my time with Hajikano, I thought. She wanted to get in my way to the point that she'd twist the way things had been so far - until now, she didn't interfere with anyone but those involved in the bet.

"But when she called again the next night, I could listen to her more calmly. That woman knew all sorts of things only I should know, and in more detail than I did. She even knew exact details from when Funakoshi and Aida died that I didn't write in my diary. I asked her why she knew these things, but she just laughed. I thought, I must be hearing things. I'd already lost my memory, so a malfunction like that wouldn't be too strange."

Hajikano put her index finger to the side of her head and smiled lonesomely.

"But after the call ended, that event started to feel like a revelation. It wasn't a big deal whether that woman was a real person, or a fictitious one made up by my subconscious. I came to think that she was trying to tell me something important, and that message was incredibly significant to me. Whether it was coming from inside my head, or from externally."

She was silent for a few seconds as if confirming the meaning of her words. Then she continued on.

"And just earlier, as I got out of the bath and was waiting for you, the public phone across the street rang. "To tell you the truth, Yuuya Hinohara who you currently live under the same roof with has only days left to live." "The reason he will only be able to stay with you until August 31st is because he will die on that day." "And the cause lies with none other than you, Hajikano." ...Strangely, I wasn't even surprised. I was able to swallow that irrational declaration. Ahh, of course, I thought. So it probably wasn't a coincidence that Chigusa and Yosuke went away, either. I didn't know the reason, but maybe people who depended on me were fated to be unhappy."

Hajikano looked up from the knife at my face, then quickly lowered her head again.

"After a long silence, like waiting for my despair to set in, the woman went on. "There is not necessarily no way of saving Hinohara. Please, look under the phone book in the booth." I did that, and on the shelf where the book was, there was this knife. As soon as I grabbed the knife, the woman said: "Have Hinohara stab you with that knife. That is the only way to save his life." Then she hung up."

Once Hajikano was done, she approached me and held out the knife.

"I don't think anyone will suspect you if you do it now," she said. "Everyone in my family knows I've attempted suicide, and my sister and granny will verify that you cared for me. Everyone should believe that I ran away while you were in the bath."

She took my hand and wrapped it around the knife.

"It's okay, you don't have to see my death through to the end. Just stab it into my chest and drop me in the sea, Hinohara. Don't think of it as killing me to save yourself. Please, think of it as killing me to save me. ...If I keep living, I'm sure I'll make the same mistake again. So end my life by your hand before that happens."

Hajikano slightly bent her head and gave a transient smile.

I held up the knife she put in my hand and stared at the detailed design that brought to mind the spray of waves.

Tossing the knife into the sea would be easy. But in the end, that would just be a temporary postponement. Simply refusing her demands didn't seem like it would persuade her.

Holding the knife, I approached Hajikano. She shook briefly, then closed her eyes as if ready for anything.

I brought the knife to her chest, and slid it along her collar to put the blade to her heart. I felt like I could feel it beating through the knife. Hajikano gulped. After a sufficient pause, I slowly moved the knife on her chest. Her face twisted from the sharp pain.

When I removed the knife, there was a light cut about 3 centimeters long. Blood came out of it in no time, dying the fabric of her one-piece. I ran my finger over the wound to wipe the blood. Hajikano's body stiffened from the pain of having the wound touched.

I painted the right side of my face with the wiped blood.

It was a kind of good luck charm.

"What are you doing?", Hajikano asked, wide-eyed.

"In Andersen's The Little Mermaid," I said, "when the warm blood from the prince's chest touched her legs, it would fuse them and revert them to a mermaid tail. ...But in my case, I'm sure this much blood is enough."

Hajikano tilted her head. "I don't get what you're saying, Hinohara."

"Right. You don't have to. This is just like a good luck charm."

With a big swing, I tossed the knife toward the open sea. Soon, I heard a distant splash.

"Now, let's get home and treat that wound."

Hajikano stared blankly at where the knife fell and lightly sighed.

"...This won't do anything," she mumbled.

"I wonder. We don't know that yet."

"I'm sure I'll do the deed myself once my watcher is gone, you know."

"Nope. I won't allow it."

"You don't have to. Because you'll be dead by then."

Hajikano came straight for me like she was crashing into me. I smelled the sweet scent of her hair. Her body was cold with sweat.

She cried, keeping her voice low. The front of my shirt got soaking wet with her tears. While she cried, I kept stroking her back.

"Even if it's a lie, can you promise me something?", I whispered in her ear. "Even if I go away, keep living."

"I can't."

"There's no need to seriously vow it. A lie's fine."

"...Then it's a lie, but I promise."

Hajikano looked up from my chest and extended the pinky on her right hand.

And we made a pinky promise in name only.

On our way back, we heard the sound of a ringing public phone many times. Just as one seemed to stop, another phone in a different location started. Sometimes there was the sound of a phone in places where it seemed like there couldn't possibly be one. Hajikano gripped my hand tightly every time.

"Hey, Hinohara."

"What?"

"If you change your mind, kill me anytime."

"Right. If I change my mind."

"I won't mind being killed by you."

"I understand."

"Really?"

"Yes, I know."

"I'd be happy if you kissed me at the end."

"Right. If that happens."

"Great. I can't wait."

We innocently walked home as the sound of ill-omened phones echoed through the night.

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