Volume 1, Chapter 2: Fleeting Summer
Mirrors don't always tell the truth. When people look at their faces in the mirror, the light rays reflect off the mirror, refract once in the cornea, pass through the pupil, then refract again in the crystalline lens to project onto the retina, get converted into nerve signals, and finally travel to the optic center in the brain. Yet just before going into consciousness, it can be warped by the filter of self-love.
Strictly speaking, there exists no person who's ever seen themselves objectively. People's eyes see only what they want to see, and with that as a base, reconstruct the rest as they'd like it to be. When going up to a mirror, you subconsciously keep an angle and expression that makes you look more beautiful, and devote your attention to the parts of your face you're most confident in. The majority of people who say "I don't look good in photos" just can't accept the reality of how they actually are due to the self-image they've established by conspiring with mirrors to get their best side. That's what I think, at least.
Most people aren't aware of this filter until they get old enough to discern it. Unlucky people - or, in a sense, incredibly lucky people - go their whole lives not knowing it. In their youth, everyone's princesses and princes. No one so much as dreams that they're not actually Cinderella, but rather one of the stepsisters. Yet as people age, and begin to feel a separation between their self-awareness and the evaluation of others, they're left with no choice but to amend their self-image. I'm not a princess. I'm not a prince.
I realized that early in the summer in fourth grade. We were having a discussion to decide parts for a play at the school arts festival in September. Until that point, I'd only thought of my birthmark as a large mole at best. Even if my classmates teased me for it, I thought it was no different from kids with glasses or chubby kids being teased - nothing I considered too peculiar. Even when I was called associated names, I didn't feel that bad. In fact, I enjoyed it as if it was proof I was easy to get on with.
One boy's statement showed me otherwise.
"How about Phantom of the Opera?"
He raised his hand, then pointed at me.
"See, Yosuke'd be perfect for the Phantom!"
During a music class a few days ago, we'd watched a video of the musical The Phantom of the Opera for just thirty minutes. The Phantom wore a mask covering the right side to hide his hideous face, so the boy had probably made a mental connection to me upon seeing it.
It was surely just meant to be an off-hand joke. A few people did chuckle secretly, and even I thought to myself, "Yeah, I get it."
However, when our ever-gentle homeroom teacher in her late thirties heard his joke, she exploded with rage. She slammed her desk, angrily shouted "Don't you know there are things you can't say?!", grabbed the joke-teller by the collar, and had him stand up front for a major lecturing. It went on until the chime for lunch came along. His eyes were utterly red from crying, and the air in the classroom had become oppressive. It felt like what should have been fun preparations for the festival had been ruined because of me.
In that classroom where no one spoke and only cutlery clattered, I realized the truth. Oh. So this birthmark of mine isn't the kind of thing you can just laugh about and be done with. It's a handicap so severe that adults will feel pity for me. Compared to "defects" like glasses or chubbiness or freckles, which could earn you affection, this was a whole other dimension of defective - it made me someone downright pitiful.
From that day forth, I become unusually anxious about the gazes of others. Once I was aware of it, I saw that more people than I'd thought focused their attention on my birthmark. Maybe I was overthinking it, or maybe our teacher's passionate speech really did cause, in the majority of my classmates, a negative shift in perception of my birthmark. At any rate, I couldn't help but hate the birthmark that covered my face.
I looked up how to remove birthmarks at the library, but my birthmark seemed to have a different cause from common hereditary marks like a Nevus of Ota or a Mongolian spot, so there seemed to be effectively no method of removing it. There had been cases of them going away naturally, it seemed, but even such miracles only seemed to happen on much lighter birthmarks than mine.
When I was young, my mom took me to various hospitals, but it always ended up being in vain. The topic didn't come up among my family again for years afterward, but seeing me desperately looking into it all of a sudden that summer, my mom started trying hospitals again. I remember similar music box songs playing at every hospital we went to. The people in the waiting rooms all had skin conditions that were identifiable at a glance, and whenever they saw a patient who had it worse than them, they seemed to take some comfort in it.
Going to all these dermatologists, I came to learn that there were people cursed with far more severe skin problems than what I had. But that fact didn't comfort me. In fact, it made me fed up to see how many irrational ailments existed in the world. My situation certainly wasn't the worst. But that didn't mean it would always be the case.
As my scopophobia worsened, my behavior got stranger, making me look that much more of an oddity, and making me more frightened still of others watching - this downward spiral continued until soon, I hardly talked to anyone even when I went to school. I was possessed by a persecution complex thinking that everyone was disgusted by me anyway, and couldn't believe in even the most friendly of smiles.
One night, I woke up from a sudden chill of unknown cause. I didn't seem to have caught a cold, and the temperature was over 70 degrees, yet I was struck with unbearable shakes. I hurried for the closet to get a down quilt, put it over the blanket, and dove back under.
Even by morning, the chills hadn't left me. I took the day off elementary school from them, and reluctantly wore a winter coat to school the next day. My mom suspected autonomic ataxia and took me to several hospitals, but came up with no ideas for treating it beyond not going to school for a while. Luckily, there were no symptoms other than chills, so if I just dressed warm, it wouldn't impact my life.
And so I began a slightly early summer vacation.
It was a freezing summer. While cicadas buzzed all around, I was curled up under thick blankets drinking warm tea. At night, I'd fill up a hot-water bottle and shiver to sleep holding it. When my parents went out for work, I snuck outside to get some fresh air; I wonder what the neighbors thought of me bundled up in double-layers under the blazing sun.
Once mom understood that the stress causing my autonomic ataxia was brought about by my birthmark, she stopped asking me all about my days at school.
"Well, just get some good rest" was all she said. "Don't worry about getting better quick. In fact, it might be nice to think of how you can better deal with those chills."
Had this condition lasted until winter, what would have happened to me? Even summer days over 90 felt like arctic winter. If the temperature went below freezing, maybe I'd have frozen to death. Or maybe I'd have gotten a fever and run around naked in the snow.
But I never got the chance to find out. About twenty days after taking my early vacation, my chills vanished like they were never there.
I'll just say that it was all thanks to Yui Hajikano.
My first day of high school started with pleasant weather.
Putting my arms through the sleeves of white summer clothes and slipping on new loafers, I opened the door and was embraced by the heat soaked into the asphalt. It seemed an old man in the area had been watering outside the front door, so the wet black road sparkled. The power poles and trees cast down distinct shadows, and the tall fuki growing in an empty lot let out a grassy smell.
I felt slightly dizzy from all the sensations to take in. I would be turning 16 this year, yet the beginning of summer was the one thing which still felt fresh. I felt I wouldn't get accustomed to it this time, either.
The season of summer brings about an excessive amount of life. The sun radiates ten times the energy, rainclouds freely scatter the essence of life onto the earth, plants grow monstrously, insects chirp like mad, and humans dance elated in the heat. And yet, that excessive life can be connected with excessive death. The reason ghost stories have become intrinsically linked with summer isn't likely to be the simple fact that they help to forget about the heat. Maybe we all implicitly understand that the bigger a fire burns, the sooner it will burn out. That excessive life comes about via a loaning of energy, and the tab will have to be paid back later.
At any rate, we tuck away this excessive life and death in our memories until the next summer comes, and unbeknownst to us, it shrinks and shrinks. So it can surprise us every time - to realize again that summer was such an intense season.
Due to some misestimation, I thought I left home with plenty of time to spare, yet only reached the station just before the train pulled in. All the passengers had already spilled out onto the platform, and I heard the brakes screech.
As I showed my pass to the worker and passed through the ticket check, I heard a voice from behind cheerfully tell me "Have a good ride!" I turned around and realized it had been that attendee who always stared blatantly at my birthmark.
Though I found that odd, I boarded the train. It was filled with the mixed smells of sweat and tobacco, ensuring my day started with a feeling of disgust.
While looking around for a seat, I noticed two girls over by the wall, wearing uniforms for a different high school, and one of them pointing at me. Laughing about my birthmark, I groaned, and gave them a glare - then as if wondering if she'd done something wrong, she awkwardly averted her eyes, and a shy smile came to her lips.
Getting a reaction like that was extremely rare, so I was thrown off. There was the attendant's greeting, too; maybe the world had gotten a little nicer while I was hospitalized? I shook my head; no, that couldn't be right. Maybe everyone is just elated about summer's arrival.
I disembarked three stops later, mixed in with people all wearing the same uniform, and walked the thirty-or-so minute path to the school. There was apparently an elementary school nearby, and a huge number of grade-schoolers passed us by. About one-third of them looked at my face and greeted me nicely. I faltered, but greeted them back.
Heading straight ahead from the station for a while, in a packed residential district past a railroad crossing, was the school I now attended: Minagisa First High. The building itself was easy to find, but the front gate was so small as to be mistaken for the back entrance - first-time visitors would have to walk along the rusty fence around the area several times in search of it.
On the generally drab-looking building hung three curtains, on which were written the lackluster achievements of lackluster clubs. The eaves untouched by rain were dirty beyond cleaning, and really brought to mind seediness when viewed from below. I'd only visited it twice, but no doubt, this was a high school that was leagues away from elegance.
While walking around the midpoint between the station and school, I saw a strange movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned around, and met eyes with myself in a reflector on the road. So it was me in the reflection who I'd seen move.
I was about to start walking again, but something stopped me.
A powerful, unsettling feeling.
I came to a halt and looked all around my body. I checked my clothes. My uniform was on properly. My shirt wasn't one button misaligned or anything. My pants weren't inside-out, and my belt was tight.
But still, I turned around again, and peered at the mirror.
Yes, something was strange. I searched to find what it could be.
Needless to say, it was seeing myself in the mirror that had triggered that feeling.
Not caring about getting my hands dirty, I scrubbed off the dusty mirror, then looked at my reflection in it once more.
And then I understood.
The person in the mirror looked similar to me. But he wasn't me. He was missing one decisive element that made up who I am.
He was an unfamiliar figure, yet somewhere in my mind, I felt nostalgic. Because it was my ideal appearance, my "if only it were like this," which I'd imagined time after time.
The giant birthmark was gone without a trace, as if it had been washed off.
All sounds and sights instantly became distant. I stood awestruck in front of the mirror.
I felt deep confusion.
A man bumped into me from behind, and I nearly toppled over. I heard an apology, but that was neither here nor there for me. Watching me continue to stare at the mirror, he gave a dubious look and left.
I fearfully observed the area where the birthmark had been from all angles. I confirmed it was no trick of the light or illusion caused by a clouded mirror.
I wonder if there's an infallible way to determine whether this is a dream or reality, I thought. Dreams where your wishes are realized are hardly rare. Most dreams are based on a mix of people's dormant unease and desires. Dreams where you overcome your inferiority are probably the model example. I couldn't get too excited yet - I had to confirm that what I was seeing was reality.
I tried closing my eyes for ten seconds. It may just be me, but closing my eyes or covering my ears in a dream to intercept the flow of information often broke the chain of association, causing the dream to end. Whenever I had a bad dream, and was aware of it being one, I would employ this method.
But ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds brought no change. My senses were still perfectly clear.
I opened my eyes and looked at the mirror. It showed, of course, me without the birthmark.
This isn't a dream. For now, that's what I have to think. So then, a new question.
What's going on?
I desperately thought. The fact that I still failed to come up with any theories worth calling theories surely wasn't only to be blamed on a lack of sleep. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that - essentially, unless a major change occurred in my thoughts, I knew that no amount of worrying would get me an answer. Unless I were to believe a certain absurd story, thinking things through to the end would only send me in circles.
But I was still unable to accept it. Until I heard it from her own mouth, I couldn't present that conclusion.
I wanted to go somewhere with a public phone. But I didn't know how I would do that here, at a campus whose geography I didn't know my way around. That said, there was probably at least one inside the building. Maybe simply going to school would be the best option. In any event, I couldn't stand here in the middle of the road forever. There was already nobody around, and if I didn't get going soon, I would be unable to make it on time for my first class.
Reluctantly, I looked away from the reflector and set my sights on the school building, visible through the gaps between houses.
Despite it being my first day at school, school had become all but meaningless to me now. Even as I listened to the homeroom teacher in a faculty room filled with the smell of instant coffee, I was completely absentminded. Then, of all times, he gave all kinds of advice in a passionate tone, more than just the bare essentials. "Joining the class now will be tough, no doubt, but they're all nice, so take it seriously and you'll do fine"; "you'll want to reach a certain level of familiarity with everyone before summer break starts, so good luck"; etcetera.
The teacher was an honest man in his mid-thirties, his hair slicked and shining. His name was Kasai. About five minutes after he started talking, a teacher with a slumped posture arrived and whispered something into his ear. Looking as if his mood had been dampened, he told me to wait here for a while and left the faculty room.
Once Kasai was gone, I left the faculty room myself without asking and entered the faculty bathroom. To confirm again that my birthmark was still gone. I couldn't help feeling that the moment I looked away, it would be back to normal. Because with how simply it went away, perhaps it could just as simply return.
Of course, it was just a needless worry. It was, indeed, still gone. I leaned back on the wall as if collapsing and continued to look in the mirror.
It had been years since I looked so closely at my own face.
That's not a bad face, I thought, as if it weren't my own.
And then, I could no longer take a single step from where I stood. I suppose I felt a compulsion to give this sight if only a second more to be etched into my mind. If I looked away, would that birthmark be back? If I didn't keep looking and getting accustomed to "me without the birthmark," would my mind notice that my body didn't match my self-perception and create it again? I couldn't get such worries out of my mind.
It was probably only a couple of minutes before Kasai opened the bathroom door and called my name, or maybe it was more than twenty. With his "Hey, Fukamachi," I finally came back to my senses. "I can understand being nervous on your first day, but don't vanish on me suddenly."
Never mind nervous, I didn't care one bit about the people I was about to meet - but I didn't want to explain myself. I apologized for suddenly absconding, and Kasai patted my shoulder. "Don't overthink it. It'll work out."
Standing in front of the class, I don't remember what I really said in my introduction. I think it was more or less stringing together words I felt like I'd heard somewhere just to get through it. My head was filled with thoughts of my vanished birthmark, so it just wasn't the time for that. Judging from what I saw of Kasai's grim face, it was probably a pretty blunt introduction. I feel like there was a stir among the students.
My first impression was the worst. That said, I'd never had any intention of getting friendly in this classroom, so I didn't mind one bit if it caused everyone to hate me.
The absence of my birthmark didn't appear to be a mere illusion. Generally, when people first met me, they'd stare at it curiously for a few seconds, or avert their eyes and try to not look me in the eye again. But none of the students here were giving me that reaction. They just seemed to think of me as an guy with poor social skills.
After my simplistic introduction and some obligatory applause, Kasai pointed to an empty seat in the far back and told me to sit there. The desks were arranged with seven people in the two columns by the windows, but the other five columns having six people each. So my seat was one of only two in the very back row.
While walking to my seat, I sensed different looks upon me than usual. Whether they were looks of curiosity toward a classmate who was appearing three months late, or demeaning looks toward a guy who couldn't even give a proper introduction, I couldn't be sure.
After being told a few messages, morning homeroom ended, and Kasai was replaced by the first period teacher, who began class without delay. The English teacher, a woman with short hair in her late twenties, seemed to pay no mind to the new face suddenly appearing in her class. I didn't listen much to the lecture, staring at a blank notebook and thinking about my birthmark.
I heard black cicadas from the trees surrounding the bike-parking area. The students all had uniformly serious faces as they listened to the teacher. If there was something they didn't get, their faces turned restless, and they looked happy when they understood something they hadn't been able to before. A huge difference from the bunch I'd been with in middle school.
Class ended in the blink of an eye, and it became break time. I didn't get a crowd of students with burning curiosity surrounding me to ask questions. Some people gave me oblique glances since I was just sitting there absentmindedly, not talking to anyone, but that was all. Half the people in the room were grouped up and talking to each other, and the other half had notebooks and textbooks open. I wanted to go find a public phone, but ten minutes didn't seem like enough to find one in a school I'd never really explored before. I'd just have to wait until lunch.
Bothered by the sunlight, I looked over to an empty seat in front and to the right of mine. The desk's owner didn't seem to have come to class, and there was nothing inside it. On the back of the seat, the number "1836" had been written in permanent marker. What did that number mean? Surely it wasn't the seat number.
The chime for the end of the break period rang, and the scattered students hurried back to their desks. Not long after second period began, either due to my lack of sleep last night or the bizarre events of this morning, I was struck with drowsiness as heavy as a cloth soaked with water. Not wanting to be nodding off even on the first day, I pinched my brow and desperately fought it, but sadly, my eyelids fell in minutes.
I only slept for about twenty minutes, but had an oddly vivid dream. A dream in which my birthmark returned. Washing my face in the bathroom, I looked up and spotted it. "Ah, sure enough, that was just a dream." My shoulders slumped.
In the dream, I was dejected, yet somehow relieved. Maybe, as odious a defect as it was, I had carried it so long as to acquire some amount of affection for it. Or perhaps I was relieved to be free from the pressure of having no excuses anymore, now that my greatest handicap was rid of.
I woke up to being poked in the upper arm. It took me a bit to realize I was in neither the hospital room nor my room at home. This was a classroom, so it wasn't a caretaker or parent who woke me.
I looked to my right. The girl in the next seat had woken me up, and looked at me as if stunned by the imprudence of someone who would nod off so early in the morning on their first day attending. Wondering how long I'd slept, I sat up and looked at the wall clock. Second period was already about to end. Maybe she woke me up in time for greetings.
I bowed my head and told her thanks, but she had already turned her attention to the blackboard. It almost seemed like she was blatantly ignoring me. Maybe trying to tell me "I don't need your thanks." Perhaps she woke me up not so much out of good will, but because the teacher yelling at me for sleeping would cause a scene in the classroom and she wanted to avoid that.
My eyes stayed on her. Black hair long enough to reach her chest hung over her well-shaped ears, and her neat facial structure and thin neck stood out. A plain face at a glance, but impressively well-featured if you looked closely. The sailor uniform of Minagisa First High felt like it was made for her. She looked almost comically serious glaring at the board, giving me the impression she was stubborn and not too adaptable. She was sitting with bizarrely good posture, as if this were a tea ceremony, and yet was still shorter sitting down than other girls nearby.
Simply put, a girl like her couldn't be further distanced from a hooligan like me. I doubted we could see eye-to-eye about anything, even how to hold chopsticks.
Class ended. Due to the dream I'd had, I was restless. As I stood up from my seat to go to the bathroom and check my birthmark again, the girl who had woken me up earlier mumbled an "um..." in my direction.
At first, I didn't notice I was being spoken to. If I were to list the people who would decide to speak to me themselves, there would be Hajikano, and then there would be a bunch of good-for-nothings similarly ostracized from society. I would have never dreamed that someone who seemed like she'd be well-trusted by her classmates and teachers would reach out to me.
"Are your injuries all right now?", the girl sitting next to me asked, as naturally as speaking to an old friend.
Processing the voice as only noise, I suddenly noticed a word with a strong connection to me, hurriedly replayed the sentence in my mind, and considering the possibility that it was directed at me, timidly looked toward the speaker.
We made eye contact.
"Could you be talking to me?", I asked.
"Yes," the girl nodded deeply. "Am I a bother?"
"No, nothing like that, just, um..." I sputtered vaguely. "It's unexpected that a girl like you would talk to me at our first meeting."
After taking a few seconds to think about what I meant, she had a slightly pained smile.
"Do I not look like I'm interested in other people?"
"No, I didn't meant it like that."
"Then how did you mean it?"
"It's just, like... I thought you disliked me."
With the same expression, the girl tilted her head. "Why? I won't like or dislike someone I've never even spoken to."
"Then you'll come to hate me later."
She went silent for some seconds to ponder the implication of my response. Then suddenly, her eyes narrowed and she giggled. Apparently interpreting it as a joke told with a serious face.
"How disparaging," she said. "Or are you no good with people liking you?"
"I dunno. Haven't had any experience with that."
"Is that right?"
The girl smiled elegantly with little movement of her lips. This too was mistaken as a joke, it seemed.
"I'm not lying. I really don't have any experience being liked."
"Yes, yes, I understand," she nodded, not believing at all.
Holding in my irritation, I sighed. "To ask you back, are you skilled at being liked?"
"I don't know. I don't have any experience in that area," the girl in the neighboring seat said smugly.
No doubt it was a lie, of course. In fact, it sure wouldn't surprise me if she had several people falling for her every time she took the train or bus.
I sat there stunned and gave no response. Then the girl reached into her bag, took out a long rectangular piece of paper, and put it on my desk.
"What's this?", I asked.
"A tanzaku," she told me, waving about one for herself between her fingertips. "They had them out in the hall. I took another one as a spare, but I'll give it to you."
"Tanzaku, huh? Well, by the Gregorian calendar, Tanabata ended a week ago, and by the lunar calendar, isn't it much too soon?"
"From Orihime and Hikoboshi's perspective, a mere week or month is within the margin of error."
"Is that how it works?"
"Yes, it is. As fellows in having no experience being liked, let's wish to Orihime and Hikoboshi to have someone like us."
After staring at the pale blue tanzaku for a while, I handed it back to the girl.
"I don't need it. You can use mine for yourself."
"Erm, I don't think Orihime or Hikoboshi will grant my wish either," she said, holding a pen and looking out into empty space. "But it's a good chance to think about what you're seeking. As happy as they may be, people who don't know what they want will go on never getting it. Prayers exist to figure out what wish you want granted."
"Look, it's not like I hate prayers," I replied. "To tell you the truth, I've only just had a wish granted. A dream I'd had for a long time came true just a couple of hours ago. I feel like I'll be punished if I wish for any more."
"My, congratulations," the girl said, putting her pen down to quietly clap. "I'm very envious. ...Was your wish to recover from your injury? Or perhaps to go to high school?"
"Neither. It's a more personal wish."
"I see. Then I probably shouldn't probe too deeply."
"I'd appreciate it."
"Well then." She pointed to the tanzaku by my hand. "Instead, please make a wish for me."
"For what?", I asked.
"Freedom," she replied.
"Please, wish for my freedom."
Now it was my turn to wonder about the implications of her words. Though her gentle smile suggested there was ample room to take it as a joke, there was a hint of sincerity somewhere in her voice.
"Alright" was all I said, picking up a pen.
And I asked. "By the way, what's your name?"
"Chigusa. Chigusa Ogiue," she answered, with her eyes still lowered on the tanzaku. "And you are Yosuke Fukamachi."
"Yeah, I know."
When the next break arrived, we had another trivial conversation. According to the things Chigusa told me, it seemed unlikely I had missed any lessons beyond the scope of my independent studying, luckily.
Once on lunch break, I left the classroom right away. I ducked into the bathroom and checked a third time in the mirror that there had been no changes. Then I made my way through the floods of people in the hallways and stairwells, going down to the first floor to find a phone. I found what I was looking for next to a vending machine with a terrible selection placed outside an office.
That was where the problems began. I had no means of contacting that woman myself. I expected that if I were just within range to hear the ringing she would make a call for me, but now, the phone was deathly silent.
I sat at the drinking fountain across the hall and wiped sweat from my brow. Right by the window, a number of cicadas were buzzing as if in a competition. Students came one after another to the vending machine to buy whatever food they liked.
Perhaps because this place had people around, it wouldn't do. Thinking about it, that woman had only called me when I was totally alone, so far without exception. Probably it would have been inconvenient for anyone but me to hear the conversation.
After waiting about ten minutes, I felt a little hungry. I should probably give up on this for now and just get some lunch already, I thought. I felt I could wait here forever and the phone would never ring. The times when that woman called just had to have that unique sense of utter unease.
Up on the second floor, I bought some leftover shiso onigiri, then stopped by the bathroom to check for my birthmark. How many times was that, now? Considering how I would never intentionally look at myself in the mirror before, I'd probably done two years' worth today alone.
I left the bathroom and returned to the classroom on the fourth floor. Most of the students were eating and happily chatting with their friends, but I didn't see Chigusa around. Maybe she'd gone to see friends in another class.
I sat down, and the boy sitting in front of me twisted his upper body around and put an elbow on my desk. He had long dark hair, and a friendly-looking face. From his toned legs, I wondered if he played soccer.
"You had an awfully long spring break, didn't ya?", he said, leaning forward. We were less than 30 centimeters apart. "Hey, looks like Ogiue's taken a liking to you, Nice, nice. Man, am I envious!"
Though taken aback by his familiarity with me, I replied. "We only said a few words. That's not necessarily a liking."
The boy shook his head dramatically. "You only say that because you don't know Chigusa Ogiue. ...Didn't you get this sorta strange feeling talking with her?"
Hearing that, I thought back on my brief conversations with Chigusa.
"She is a little strange, now that you mention it. Seems like she has a tendency to act too polite."
"That's it," he said, raising his index finger with a disagreeable smirk. "She's an all-out princess. I don't know the details, but apparently her family's pretty rich."
That was easy to imagine. Compared to an ordinary high schooler, you could feel the difference in Chigusa's conduct indicating a better upbringing. She must have breathed different air, ate different food, and been raised with a different philosophy from us.
"I don't get it, though," I wondered aloud. "Why would a rich girl attend a remote school like this?"
"We think it's weird, too. Why do you think? Trying to get some human experiences here, maybe?"
"To experience such prejudices would be one reason."
Though I don't know when, Chigusa had returned to the classroom, and stood behind the boy.
"Oh, you heard," the boy said with surprise, trying to hide his awkwardness.
"If you're going to gossip about someone, do it somewhere they won't hear you, please."
The boy reached for the back of his head and combed his hair repeatedly, then leaned back in his chair defiantly.
"I should ask outright while I've got the chance. Why did you pick this school, Ogiue?"
"To get some human experiences," Chigusa answered with a demure look.
"Somebody's got a grudge," he joked with a pained smile. "Free up some more room in your heart. Or else you'll never open up to everybody."
"I'm in the midst of opening up to him." Chigusa pointed toward me. "And you are in the way."
"My bad, then," the boy shrugged.
Someone from a group of four or five students in the corner of the classroom called toward him, "Nagahora, hurry up!" The boy responded to it, said "Well, keep Ogiue company," slapped my shoulder, and went over to his friends.
He probably wasn't that bad of a person. He didn't seem to have any particular ill will toward Chigusa, either.
"Did he tell you anything else odd?", Chigusa asked me.
"I wanna say he said "it's an honor to be in the same classroom as the most beautiful girl in the school.""
"Surely he wouldn't have given such flattery," she snorted. "I'll say this just to avoid any misunderstandings: my family is certainly not rich. That rumor was only true a very long time ago. Because now, it's a perfectly average family."
While I pondered how large a gap there might have been between what she called an "average family" and what I thought that was, I bit into my onigiri and washed it down with tea. Chigusa took out a lunch box from her bag, and while it looked a little old, it also had a fancy-looking lacquer.
"Why not explain that to, uh... to Nagahora?"
"Why, indeed?" She bent her head. "Perhaps I still wish to have them continuing to misunderstand. Perhaps I find it comfortable having them think of me as being rich, and keeping their distance. ...By the way, Fukamachi. Would you like to have lunch together?"
"I don't mind, but... Um, is that not a bother?"
Chigusa's face hardened with a look like she'd been lied to, then she covered her mouth and laughed like she found something deeply funny. "I suppose that's what I should be asking you. Erm, Fukamachi, would it not bother you?"
"Surely not. In fact, I'm grateful."
"To eat lunch with the most beautiful girl in the school?"
"Even knowing it's a joke, it makes me happy."
Chigusa approached my desk, placed a chair about 30 centimeters away, and sat down in it holding her skirt down with one hand. Her necktie with two white lines on it shook slightly.
I heard a "let's eat" as quiet as a whisper.
After school, Chigusa showed me around the campus. I didn't know if she did it of her own volition, or if that nosy teacher had requested her to. But she didn't seem to dislike it, at least.
"If your legs start to hurt, don't hesitate to say so," Chigusa said.
"I think I'll be fine." I stepped in place to check their status, and nothing hurt or felt out of place.
Outside the open windows of the hallway, I heard shouts from the athletics club, the sound of metal bats hitting baseballs, a trombone practicing, and chaotic guitar-tuning from the light music club. Inter-high-school preliminaries and the culture festival were approaching, so everyone was busy enough to make the sweltering heat of the building seem only natural.
"By the way, Ogiue, don't you have a club to be with?"
"Not to worry," she responded, putting a hand to her chest and shaking her head. "My records will say "flower arrangement club," but as for our activity... we generally just sit around and chat. ...By the way, Fukamachi, have you already decided what club to join?"
"I think I probably won't join any."
"Indeed, you have just recovered from an injury."
"No, my legs are fine. I just can't even imagine myself doing well anywhere like that."
"Maybe so. But my bad feelings tend to be validated."
Chigusa stopped and looked up at my face. She briefly opened her mouth, then closed it as if rethinking it, and after taking some time to choose her words, spoke.
"Actually, Fukamachi... To tell the truth, I'm also somewhat of a latecomer. I had a slight health issue that kept me from coming to school until early May. It's quite recent that I could even walk on my own legs; until half a month ago, I was using a wheelchair. So I can understand your feeling of being at a loss. It feels as if the world has left you behind."
Chigusa let out a breath, then smiled to encourage me.
"But I will guarantee it. You will be fine, Fukamachi. I'm sure everything will work out well for you. I have no proof, but that's the feeling I get."
"Thanks," I told her. "That makes me feel better."
We resumed walking. We passed by lots of people in our once-around of the school, but not one person gave me peeking glances like they had when my birthmark was still there. Maybe people's glances just didn't bother me if I felt good myself. But either way, it was clearly thanks to my birthmark being gone. It surprised me how much easier it became to live in this world with just a minor change to my appearance.
After going around the whole building, we changed shoes at the entrance and went outside. After going around to the back to show me the locations of the club rooms and the second gymnasium, Chigusa tapped my shoulder and pointed to someone on the field. I looked and found Nagahora waving at us, holding a squeeze bottle in his other hand. Just as I predicted, he seemed to be part of the soccer club. He wore white practice clothes stained with dirt.
"I believe he's waiting for your response," Chigusa whispered in my ear.
I waved back with some doubts in my mind, and Nagahora put up his thumb with a satisfied smile. Immediately after, there came an instruction from their supervisor, so he hurried to join the other members.
"He's not a bad person," Chigusa informed me. "If you shut your eyes to his gossipping."
"Seems like it," I nodded.
Once the tour was over, it was past 7 PM. The surroundings had gotten suddenly dim, evening bugs began to chirp, nighttime lights came on at the field, and the wind instruments club shifted to practicing as a group.
Walking a straight line to the school gate alongside Chigusa, I thanked her.
"You helped me a lot today. I'm grateful."
"No, no. I was most happy to take part in meddling with such a man of leisure," Chigusa said with an exaggerated bow of her head. "Besides, were I not there, I believe someone else would have gladly taken up my role."
"Wouldn't think so. The only people to talk to me today have just been you and Nagahora."
"But everyone looked as if they wished to talk to you."
"To me?" I was unable to hide the sheer bewilderment in my voice. "Do they have a problem with me?"
"You truly are pessimistic, Fukamachi," Chigusa smiled.
We walked in silence down a path along a river. Nearly half of the security lights along the sides of the road had gone out or were flickering, and mosquitoes and scarab beetles flew around the brightest spots. Frogs croaked endlessly from a nearby rice paddy, and I heard a dull sound of train brakes in the distance. The smell of grilled fish wafted from the ventilation of someone's house.
I thought deeply on how never for a second had I expected to be heading home from school with someone on my very first day.
When it came time to part ways, Chigusa took a deep breath. "Erm... Fukamachi."
"Whatever could it be?", I responded with silly politeness, and her eyes smiled a bit.
"Well... yes. If there's anything worrying you, don't hesitate to tell me. We will worry about it together."
"Ah, I see. Not necessarily saying you'll resolve it."
"Yes. Because in practice, the things someone can do for another are very few."
"Absolutely," I agreed.
Maybe, just maybe, I could live a proper life.
Walking casually down the streets outside of the station, I began to think so. Both Chigusa and Nagahora seemed to show affection toward me, and nobody among my classmates looked bad. The classes seemed like something I could keep up with, too. I couldn't be definite since it was just one day, but for now, there was nothing at all to be uneasy about.
No - if there were one matter for concern, it was, of course, the return of my birthmark.
Chigusa's words of "You will be fine, Fukamachi" made me genuinely happy. But she could only say that not knowing my true appearance. Not knowing my hideousness. And I didn't know how long I could keep this transient appearance. If the appointed day came with me still not having won Hajikano's heart, my face would go back to normal.
If my birthmark were to come back tomorrow, what would Chigusa say when she saw my face? Would she still be able to guarantee to me "You will be fine, Fukamachi"?
Or maybe it was as she said, and I was just too pessimistic, the absence or presence of my birthmark not meaning much in the long run. Then it wasn't impossible that I didn't have as many problems as I thought, and had simply been in bad circumstances up to now...
Going around in circles as usual. Wondering about what others thought of me would never tell me anything. And yet I couldn't not think about it.
I awaited the sound of a phone. There were so many questions I had to ask that woman. How far would I have to take things with Hajikano to satisfy the "victory condition" of this bet? More importantly, would Hajikano show up in front of me? When? Would it be better for me to go look for her?
My feet stopped. I only meant to take a brief detour on the way home, but I had gotten lost. I was on a road with no lights, so narrow I didn't even pass by vending machines, and tall grass grew as tall as it liked by the guardrails on each side. Direction-wise, though, it seemed like I couldn't be too far off-course, so I kept walking, expecting to find a familiar street sooner or later.
After wandering for nearly forty minutes, I finally arrived at a place I knew. It appeared I had done a complete loop, and arrived back at the high school. It was long past closing time, so with the exception of the first floor faculty room, all the lights on campus were off, with only the green glow of exit signs illuminating in places.
This was when I realized there was a shrine next to the school. When I turned the corner intending to go around to the front of the building, a bright red torii stood out in my vision. On both sides of the gate were statues of Inari, and beyond it were long stone steps that went up toward another large torii at the top.
Given there might have been well over a hundred steps on those stairs, I shouldn't have had the vitality left to climb them. I didn't even have a particular inquisitiveness for shrines, and I didn't expect it would be a shortcut to the train station.
As yet, as if being guided, I went up the steps.
Traversing the stairs practically broke my bones. I had already walked for countless minutes, my shirt soaked with sweat. Tall cedars lined both sides, and their long roots pushed up the stone steps in places. After reaching the eightieth step, I stopped counting. I looked down, put my hands on my knees, emptied my head, and just kept walking. There were signs of my injured legs starting to ache, but I couldn't turn back after coming this far.
After surmounting the final step, I came to a flat area a little wider than a 25-meter pool. It seemed to be a shrine that incorporated a park; swings, slides, and benches were placed almost shamefully in the corners. Judging from the long wild grass under the benches, I doubted this place got many visitors.
Turning around, I could get a view of the area around Minagisa First High. I sat on the steps and let out a deep breath, gazing at the school, houses, and supermarkets below. The cold wind drying my sweaty body felt good.
Once I felt I'd had my fill of the modest sights, I stood up to go around once more before returning. Just then, there was a sound behind me. It was like rusted metal rubbing against something - a sound that made me feel genuine fear.
Telling myself the wind just made the play equipment creak, I swallowed down my saliva and looked around.
When I saw the source of the odd sound, I nearly yelped.
There was someone sitting on a moving swing.
It was too dark to see her face, but from her height and general appearance, she seemed to be a girl about my age. She wore a loose and worn-out white shirt and a short skirt, so one could think she'd just walked out of her own room. At a time like this, in a place like this, dressed like that, the girl sitting alone on a swing was a strange sight indeed.
And I didn't need to ask myself "what in the world is she doing?"
She was lying back on the swing, looking up. And up where she was looking, there was a rope.
The rope hanging from the pole was tied in a ring, like a rope you'd hang from for gymnastics. But the fact that there was only one was strange, and the opening seemed a little too big for it.
Yes, you could tell from a glance that it was the girl sitting on the swing who had tied that rope, and that she was about to put her head in it to hang from. The rope hung not directly above one of the swings, but from the center of the bar, and below it was a pile of old books you'd think had been brought from a local junkyard. Acting as a pedestal, the pile was a little bit behind the rope, so after putting her head in, she could simply step off and let gravity do the rest.
She was, at just this moment, about to carry it out. Slowly getting off the swing, she took off her sandals. Carefully standing on the pile of books, she reached for the rope and put it around her neck.
A strong wind blew, and the trees rustled.
It appeared she hadn't noticed yet that there was anyone but her in the park. I stepped gradually closer to the swings. Whether it was persuading her, or pulling her away, or anything, I wanted to get myself in a position where I could quickly respond if she did something hasty.
As I focused my senses trying to not make any noise, the crickets got much louder. Listening to their steady chirping, my sense of time and distance got fuzzy. If I wasn't carreful, I could fall over. Though feeling like I was about to have a dizzy spell, I moved forward bit by bit.
Right as I was nearly within a safe distance, she suddenly noticed the creeping shadow and looked directly at me.
Rather than "do something hasty," I believe her surprise led to an error in judgement.
My evidence was the fact that her body initially fell backward. If she had been trying to die before I could stop her, she should have fallen forward. Maybe my appearance startled her, and she was trying to get her neck out and step off the pedestal.
But due to her haste, the rope didn't quite come loose. In fact, due to her loss of balance, it became tight around her neck - and meanwhile, her feet left the footstool as planned. The pile of books collapsed, and her leg cut through the air.
The rope made a dull sound as it tightened.
For a moment, I couldn't act. Because before I thought "I have to save her," I was struck with terror and instead thought to run away from here as soon as possible. It was the first time I'd ever been in a situation like this, where someone's life was on the line. I somehow felt that if I reached my hand out to save her, something murky black surrounding her death would contaminate me too. So there was the slightest delay before my body's natural reflexes began to overtake my reasoning and move.
I ran over in a hurry and put my right hand behind her thigh to hold her up. With my left, I searched for her neck and grabbed the rope. But her weight had tightened it, and wouldn't easily loosen for me. The girl coughed violently.
As I blindly fiddled in the general vicinity of the knot, she thrashed about in my arm. It was so fierce, I had to wonder where her little body concealed that strength, and struggling to suppress her made untying the rope increasingly difficult. When I tightened my grip in irritation, she desperately struggled in return.
What felt like seconds away from my right arm giving out, the rope finally came loose. My grip weakened from relief, and still holding the girl, I fell over forwards.
Before I knew it, her face was very close by. Thanks to the moonlight and my eyes getting accustomed to the darkness, I could perceive it clearly.
However, my senses couldn't accept it.
Such a thing couldn't have happened, I told myself, stubbornly denying what my sensory functions told me. But at the same time, I thought this:
So, the time has finally come.
I said her name. For the first time in three years.
The girl opened her eyes. Sweat made her hair stick to her cheek and neck, and due to her coughing, her eyes were faintly clouded.
"...Yosuke?", Hajikano said in a hoarse voice.
Our breathing was all out of sorts. At first, I thought that was the reason why no further words came out. But even after I stopped panting, I couldn't speak. My throat was dry like I'd gulped down a bucket of seawater.
I had thought I'd be brimming with things to say. When I got to reunite with Hajikano, I'd have so much I wanted to tell her that I wouldn't know where to start. That was my expectation.
But the reality was exactly the opposite. Not a single peep came from my open mouth.
I couldn't accept the reality I saw before me.
On Hajikano's face, there was a giant birthmark.
"Move it," she said.
Coming back to my senses, I released my arm from around her back and stood up as if backing away. Hajikano sluggishly raised herself, put her hands on her knees to stand, and wiped off some dirt from her clothes. She coughed a few times, and without a word of thanks for saving her, passed me by toward the entrance of the park.
I couldn't follow after her. I couldn't even turn around, standing there like an idiot, watching the swing sway with a shrill sound.
I don't know how long I was listening to it.
Once my head finally started working, I had lost sight of Hajikano, and almost felt like I could dismiss the prior events as a dream. But the rope hanging from the swingset bar and the scattered pile of books on the ground wouldn't allow me to. They firmly insisted that someone who had sought death was here.
The clouds blocked the moonlight, and the park fell into a thick darkness. The swing finally came to a stop, but the reverberation of that rusty metal sound stayed there forever.
From far away, I heard the sound of a telephone.
My feet moved before I could think. With such recklessness that another injury which took fourteen weeks to heal wouldn't have been surprising, I all but tumbled down the stone steps. At the last ten steps, I made a big leap to the ground. Trying to force my breathing to calm down, I listened closely to search for the phone.
What are you doing?, echoed a voice in my head. What's your top priority? Shouldn't you focus on going after Hajikano, not asking that woman for more information? What should you really be doing? You can't count on the notion that if she failed a suicide attempt, it'll take some time before she gets the resolve to try again. Hajikano got clean away from you, and now she could be hanging herself somewhere else right away. And the biggest problem is, Hajikano didn't run away from you. You ran away from Hajikano. You got all timid, seeing her so different. You decided it was beyond you and flinched. The proof is, when Hajikano walked away without even a glance at you - that's right, you were relieved. I'm glad she didn't speak to me, you thought. If you don't go after her now, you'll run next time, too. And the next next time, and the next next next time. Are you satisfied with that? Are you really satisfied with that?
I'll ask again. What's your top priority?
My feet stopped.
I heard the ringing coming from a phone booth on a street corner.
If I had any questions, like why I could pick up on the ringing even when it was so far away and coming from inside a phone booth, those thoughts were instantly blown away by the small, distant sight of Hajikano past a downward slope lined with streetlights. If I ran as fast as I could, maybe I could still catch up to her. But simultaneously I wondered, what would I do when I did? What should I say to her? How in the world do you treat a girl who was about to kill herself just a few minutes ago?
As I hesitated with my hand on the door to the booth, Hajikano grew ever distant. Just as I was giving up and telling myself she was too far to catch up to now, I noticed an abandoned bicycle left on the roadside. Probably has a lock on it, so it's no use - I pushed it out of my mind. Whoa, whoa, the voice in my head panicked. Why are you saying that without trying? Look, just look at it, do you see a lock anywhere on that? Probably some brat stole it, rode it out here, and ditched it, no way there's a lock on it. And if you felt like it, couldn't you answer the phone, talk to that woman, and then chase after Hajikano? Why won't you do that?
Admit it. You don't want to go after Hajikano.
Hajikano vanished into the darkness.
I entered the phone booth, and powerlessly picked up the receiver.
"So, how do you feel about your birthmark having gone?", the woman asked.
"Already forgot about it. There's been events with far more impact since."
"I see," she said with a meaningful laugh. "In any event, the conditions are in order. Your birthmark is gone, you have reunited with the one you love. Now, I will look forward to August 31st."
I let out a shaky sigh.
"Hey, I had a question..."
"What is it?"
"Hajikano's face," I said. "Where the hell did that birthmark come from?"
I heard the click of a receiver being put down.
I placed the phone back, slumping against the wall down to the floor, looking up at the ceiling.
Not five seconds later, the phone rang again. I reached up to take the call.
"I forgot to tell you one crucial thing."
"Don't worry, it's definitely not just one."
"Happy sixteenth birthday."
With that, the woman hung up.
"Thanks for that," I spoke at the unconnected receiver.
I left the phone booth and searched through my pocket for a crumpled cigarette pack. Sticking a bent cig in my mouth, I lit it. The filter stuck to my dry lips, peeling the skin and making blood run, leaving a stain like lipstick on the white filter.
This is getting real troublesome now, I thought like I was just an observer to it all, taking my first puff.
And such is how my summer of age sixteen began.
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