The Place You Called From

Volume 1, Chapter 3: The Mermaid of Agohama
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Volume 1, Chapter 3: The Mermaid of Agohama

When I opened the door, a foul smell wafted over. A smell like rotten vegetables. I took off my shirt and socks to throw them in the washing machine, and in the living room, I saw my mom asleep using folded cushions as a pillow. On the table were strewn peanut shells, and liquor spilling out from a toppled teacup covered the table and dripped from the edge. Small moths flew around the lights in the room, and the TV was left on a news channel.

I got a cloth and wiped off the table, and repeatedly whapped the stains on the carpet with paper towels. As I went back and forth between the kitchen and living room, my mom showed no sign of waking. No matter how much I wiped, the table just wouldn't get any less sticky, so I eventually gave up on it.

Opening the refrigerator, I found white cabbage starting to turn black, radishes which were too late to save, eggs over a week past expiration date, and an open bag of bean sprouts. As I thawed some frozen-solid pork in a frying pan and chopped some vegetables, my finally-awake mother spoke from the living room, "Water, please," in a drunk-sounding voice.

I filled a cup with cold water and took it to her. She sat up, drank it in one gulp, said "Sorry," and fell back on the floor.

After dinner, while I was doing washing, mom came into the kitchen. She stood beside me, not to help me out or anything, but just staring sleepily at my face. And, over thirty seconds later, she finally noticed the change in her son.

"Oh, your face..."

"Yeah," I said. "When I woke up this morning, it was gone."

She came closer and examined my face in detail. Probably suspected it was just cosmetics or something.

After a thorough inspection, she happily slapped my back.

"Well, isn't that great? All that treatment took effect. Going to all those hospitals was worth it after all."

Don't be stupid, I thought to myself. It's not like a pimple or freckles. All the doctors we went to had a dissatisfied frown, and insinuated that I'd just have to find some way to live with it. They told us that even if I had healthy skin transplanted, the birthmark was highly likely to appear again in the same spot. For such a mark to vanish overnight - you're calling it "all that treatment taking effect"?

"Don't you think it's weird?", I asked. "The last time I even went to a dermatologist was over two years ago."

"Yes, yes. It's surely strange. Why, if it were the effects of treatment, I could understand if it healed over time. But going away overnight, now, that isn't normal. You may just have to call it a miracle, in fact."

Mom took a swig from her teacup, and threw three peanuts into her mouth.

"But, Yosuke. You ought to forget about your birthmark now. When it comes to such extraordinary luck, it's best to leave it be. At times like this, you just say "it's luck, no big deal.""

I felt there was truth to that. But it only applied if you weren't certain about where the good luck came from. My luck had a clear source.

"You should let your happiness show. Don't go fearing that you're celebrating prematurely and will be disappointed later. Celebrating knowing the risk of disappointment is the smart thing to do."

I didn't respond, and instead pointed to the teacup in her hand. "I thought you were quitting drinking as of July?"

"It's water," she transparently lied. "Just water."

I took away the cup and gulped down its contents. My throat heated up, and the smell of potatoes gone bad filled my stomach. I vaguely wanted to puke. Honestly, what about this was tasty?

"What a delinquent son," chastised my mother, filling the reclaimed cup with liquor again.

"It's just water," I insisted.

I lied on my side and closed my eyes, but glimpses of the past few hours under my eyelids made it seem impossible to sleep. I went to the living room, took one of the cigarette packs from the second dresser drawer, and returned to my room. Turning the lights off, I lit one up. Not wanting the smoke to fill the room, I opened up the screen door, stuck my head out, and was met with a damp soil smell.

The image of Hajikano's face was burned into my sight. There was a huge bruise on her face. A bluish-black mark, the spitting image of the birthmark I'd had before.

I decided not to think about how it had gotten there. Maybe it happened naturally, maybe it didn't. I wouldn't say I couldn't make any guesses, necessarily... but just thinking about it wouldn't get me a definite answer. What was worth thinking about was what that mark, whatever the reason for its appearance, had wrought on her.

Hajikano had been attempting suicide in that park. That I could tell. Was it indeed that birthmark which led her to such measures? Was she so distraught about her appearance, she decided to hang herself?

Even if we're being modest, Hajikano was truly one of the most beautiful girls in this town. Everyone aspired to her, everyone was jealous of her, everyone envied her. She must have been at least somewhat aware of all that herself. She wasn't someone who cared nothing for the subtle feelings of others. She couldn't have not known that the beauty she possessed warped the meaning of the word "beauty" with how much it surpassed it.

How in the world would she feel having that beauty tainted? I couldn't even imagine. If the birthmark I had was a stain on a mat, hers was a stain on a pure white dress. Though the same color and size, they didn't have the same significance. The mental impact of the latter was incomparable to the former. It wasn't unreasonable to think Hajikano became highly pessimistic for her future.

On the other hand, I felt something amiss with this conclusion. Would Hajikano consider suicide over such an event? Beauty was only but one of her charms. Ever since I first came to know her, I knew she possessed deep insight, especially for a grade-schooler. Her words were full of wisdom, she was very studious, and she was even above-average athletically. She read lots of books, and listened to music older than even her parents knew. At minimum, she had twenty times the sense I did, surely.

Would someone like her turn to suicide just because her beauty was tarnished?

I'll go see Hajikano after school tomorrow, I thought. In everything I pondered about, I was lacking information. Once we met and talked, everything could be made clear, and we could decide what direction to take next.

I felt great unease, but the second I decided I'd meet Hajikano, part of me was excited. Regardless of how it was happening, I would get to be part of her life again. The day we graduated elementary school, I thought I would quickly forget Hajikano once we'd gone our separate ways. Yet taking off the lid now, I found those feelings had only grown stronger over the three years.

In a sense, I had been waiting for this day to come for a long time.

I put out my cigarette and went to the living room to put it in an ashtray. Then I kneeled down in front of the dresser and checked my face.

People who have nothing have one strong point: they have nothing to lose. Once you have just one thing precious to you, you're always tormented by the fear of losing it.

As proof of that fact, I was afraid. Of the birthmark coming back to my face, and of a return to my drab life.

*

The next morning, I came to a sudden stop outside of the Class 1-3 classroom.

I had always hated the moment of opening the classroom door. That trend had only become more obvious as I aged.

It was possible for everything to change in just one night. Any such changes would become clear the instant I opened the door. What had been a peaceful mood yesterday could be painful today, those who yesterday seemed like the center of the class could become outcasts, people who had been kind acquaintances yesterday could lay traps today... Basically, anything from yesterday wouldn't necessarily be the same today. So when I stood in front of the door every morning, I felt like I was turning over a rock on the seashore. There could be a shell that sparkled like a gem stuck to it, or a repulsive sea louse could come crawling out.

Taking a quiet deep breath, I opened the door. I didn't see Chigusa anywhere, but Nagahora noticed me and beckoned. I nodded, put my bag down by my desk, and went over to him.

Nagahora was in a group of, including him, three boys and two girls, chatting and laughing. It seemed he was trying to get me to join the circle. I knew he was doing it out of good will, and it really was the sort of thing someone like me would need right now, but somewhere in my heart, I was fed up with it. I didn't like talking with this many people at once.

"Fukamachi, wasn't it?", said one of the girls, tall and with a clean-cut face. "Are your legs all right? Sounds like you were hospitalized for quite a while."

"It's nothing now," I answered. "I'd pretty much recovered by the end of June. I was just hiding out 'til exams were over."

The five of them laughed all together, and Nagahora poked my chest. "Not bad, man!"

"We were talking about a test of courage," someone said. It was a boy with short hair and darkish skin, who definitely gave the impression of a baseball player. "Have you ever heard of the abandoned hotel at the foot of the mountain?"

"Oh, the Red-Room Ruins, right?"

The instant I spoke, the group of five stopped laughing. Did I say something awkward? Nervousness filled me.

"Red room?", Nagahora asked.

"Yeah. Deep in the hotel, there's a red room."

"First I've heard of it..." In constrast to the other girl, the girl who spoke had a small and plain face, and her eyes sparkled behind glasses. "What's that about?"

"It's not that interesting. It's a room with a corner spraypainted red, that's all. It might surprise you if you see it in the dark, but it's just what it sounds like, a red room."

"You sure know about it," remarked the short-haired boy. "Have you gone in there?"

I hesitated briefly, but I decided to answer honestly. "Yeah. A friend took me in middle school."

"I want to know more," begged the girl with glasses.

"There was a chair in the center of the room, and a mannequin sitting in it." I gradually found myself speaking more smoothly. As if thanks to the loss of my birthmark, I could suddenly carry a natural conversation. "It seems like someone periodically comes to dress her up, so from day to day, she might be in the First High uniform, or in a swimsuit."

The short-haired boy clapped his hands together. "That sounds cool! Feel like going all of a sudden."

"That's not all," I proceeded upon seeing the group's reaction. "In the room next to it, there's an old, but pretty clean bed. And around it, there's a bunch of tossed-out stuff that's barely even been used."

At this, the three boys cheered, and the girl with glasses knit her brows, but didn't seem entirely displeased.

The tall girl seemed to be the only one who didn't understand. "What was thrown away?", she innocently asked.

"Well, it's not crackers or bingo cards..." The other boy who hadn't opened his mouth thus far, pale and with average looks, spoke quietly. "And it's not bags of candy."

"I don't understand. Are you making fun of me?" The tall girl glared at him.

"Tonight," said Nagahora. "I can't wait any longer than that. We'll go see it tonight. You lead us, Fukamachi."

"Tonight?", I repeated. "Oh, sorry, but after school today..."

"Hey, did Fukamachi just get called?" The girl with glasses put her hand to her ear.

We stopped talking at once. Indeed, my name was being repeated on the school intercom.

"That's Kasai's voice," said the pale boy.

"Right at the good part," the glasses girl pouted. "See you, Fukamachi."

As I left, Nagahora asked from behind me. "You don't think you can come to a test of courage tonight?"

"Unfortunately," I affirmed. "Besides, it's more tense without someone who's seen it all before."

After leaving the classroom, I put a relieved hand to my chest.

Today's rock seemed to be hiding a shell rather than a sea louse.

*

"Do you know why I called you in?"

Throughout my life, I must have heard at least thirty questions along those lines. Why do you think I called you in? You know what I'm going to say, right? Can you tell me what you did wrong? I wonder where all school staff learned those roundabout turns of phrase. Did they have training, or did they just naturally pick them up scolding such a large number of students?

In stark contrast to yesterday, Kasai's attitude was cool and indifferent. He had an elbow on his desk and his chin in his hand, clicking a pen with the nervousness of a nicotine addict who hadn't had a smoke all day.

"I don't know," I answered. I didn't know why exactly, but Kasai seemed irritated with me. Better to not say much and watch things unfold here.

"I see." He shook his head as if disappointed, spinning his chair to face me. "But try thinking about it some more. I wouldn't have called you in here for no reason, right? I don't have the time for that kind of thing."

"Then you should just tell me, please. I said I don't know, and I won't suddenly know it either. I don't personally remember doing anything worth blame to anyone."

There were plenty of people going in and out of the faculty room in the morning, and a few people snuck looks at me as I confronted Kasai with his restless eyes. It was difficult to call it a pleasant situation. I wanted to settle this before any classmates saw it.

"Suppose it wouldn't be too strange." Kasai took a sip from his cup of coffee. "Alright, I'll make it quick. Do you know who sits in the seat one up and right of yours?"

He said he'd make it quick, yet it was a leading question. But it wasn't as if I couldn't answer. I recalled the layout of the classroom yesterday. Nagahora was in front of me, Chigusa was to my right, and up and to the right was an empty seat.

"I don't know. Because whoever it was seemed to be absent yesterday."

"Yes," Kasai nodded. "And again today, it seems. We got a call from her parents earlier."

I couldn't read where this was going. What relation was he saying there was between me, who attended for the first time yesterday, and a student prone to absences?

"And?", I pressed.

"So you don't even know that..." Kasai looked stunned. He scratched the back of his neck and sighed.

"For a while now, she's had insistent requests. "Change me to another class, it doesn't matter which." "I can't say why, but just let me leave this class." Of course, we can't listen to selfish requests from every student. If we made one exception, we'd have to make another, and wind up submitting to everyone's demands. So we just said to put up with it for a year. And she seemed to have accepted that well enough."

Even as Kasai explained, he watched me attentively. As if he were waiting for me to make a sudden slip-up.

"But this morning, we got a call. And then we finally knew. Why did she loathe this class so much? And why could she put up with it and attend until two days ago?"

I silently waited for the rest.

"According to what her mother said..." Kasai finally got to the point.

"Yui Hajikano refuses to be in a classroom with Yosuke Fukamachi."

I felt like all the air had left my lungs.

"What did you do to Hajikano?"

Coughing out weak breaths and taking in the musty air of the faculty room, I finally managed to speak.

"Yui Hajikano? Yui Hajikano is in Class 1-3?"

Kasai snorted. He probably thought I was trying to feign ignorance.

"You should have gotten the roster back in April. You never checked it once? You would've had plenty of time in the hospital."

Several thoughts crossed my mind, but careful not to let them show on my face, I just said "So she is..."

"And?", he immediately pressed. "Let me ask you again. Do you know any reason why Hajikano would want to avoid you?"

Reflexively, scenes from last night popped up in the back of my mind. The long stone stairs, the desolate shrine park, the swings, the pile of books, the tightening rope, and her birthmark.

Thinking about the birthmark again delayed my reply. Kasai didn't let it escape his sight. From that subsecond pause, he perceived that I did have some idea.

"I'd like to know that myself," I said as naturally as I could. "I haven't been in contact with Hajikano at all since entering middle school. We were together for a short time in grade school, but I think we both thought of each other as good friends at the time. So I don't have any ideas why she would be avoiding me."

"Then how would you explain the reason for Hajikano's absences?"

"I don't know. Please, ask her."

Kasai pressed the pen to his temple.

"I know it's not fair to dig up the past, but... As someone who knows all the trouble you caused in middle school, I have no choice but to dig deep. You understand?"

Aha. So that was the reason for Kasai's conclusive behavior. No doubt he had spun a story in his mind about me and my delinquent friends bullying Hajikano in elementary school, or something along those lines.

"I understand what you're saying. It's reasonable to be suspicious of me," I partially conceded. "However, as far as this goes, I insist there must be some kind of mistake. Please, ask Hajikano again."

"We intend to, of course."

Just as the conversation was wrapping up, the chime to start class rang.

"You can head back," Kasai told me. "Though I'm thinking I'll have to talk to you again later."

I wordlessly turned my back and left the faculty room behind me.

When I got back to my seat, Chigusa looked up at me like she was dying to say something. After the incident with Kasai, I was on alert. Maybe she too would have some blame to cast at me from a totally unexpected direction.

"Morning," I greeted as a diversion.

"Good morning." Chigusa bowed her head. It was a somehow cold greeting.

"Um, thanks for yesterday," I said warily.

"Don't mention it," she replied rather mechanically.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

I first imagined that the ultimately baseless rumor that I had bullied Hajikano had begun spreading somehow. Next I considered that I had done something to upset Chigusa without realizing, and while thinking back on my interactions with her, she spoke indifferently.

"Fukamachi, you seemed to be greatly enjoying yourself a while ago."

She reminded me of the talk about the ruins I'd been having with Nagahora and his friends, before Kasai called me to the faculty room. His questioning had completely taken away the happiness I'd gotten from that.

I was relieved to realize the reason for Chigusa's sullen mood. Maybe she didn't like Nagahora's friends, or wasn't one for the mood that came about when they came together. I know I didn't really care to become too familiar with their circle.

"We were talking about that ruined hotel," I explained. "They're going to go there as a test of courage. I told them I'd done something like that in middle school and what it was like, and they were delighted."

"Are you going with them, Fukamachi?"

"Nah. They invited me, but I have plans after school."

"I see."

She cleared her throat.

"Erm, Fukamachi. Let's try that again."

I tilted my head in confusion. Chigusa said "Good morning, Fukamachi," and a kind smile came to her lips.

Ah, I get it.

"Thanks for yesterday," I told her again.

"Don't mention it." Her eyes beamed with satisfaction. "As usual, please don't hesitate to depend on me."

"I'll do that. By the way..." I pointed at the seat diagonal from mine. "Is that Yui Hajikano's desk?"

Chigusa blinked, then nodded.

"Yes, that is Hajikano's desk, but you have yet to..." She trailed off and looked up. "Are you acquainted with her?"

"Yeah. We were classmates in elementary school."

"Is that so?"

Chigusa perceived the change in my expression and nodded thoughtfully.

"From that look, I'm supposing you were not simply classmates."

"Nah," I shook my head weakly. "We were just classmates."

I couldn't get into my morning classes at all. I stared at my blank notes and reflected on my meeting with Kasai. Chigusa talked to me each break, but I could only give her the most unenergetic responses.

While I was changing before third period gym class, I casually asked Nagahora something.

"Hey, I wanted to ask about the girl who sits next to you..."

"Next to me... Yui Hajikano?", he asked as he unbuttoned his shirt. "The girl with that big bruise on her face?"

"Bruise?", I repeated without thinking.

That was a surprising reply. If Nagahora knew about it, Hajikano's bruise must have been there some time earlier.

"So what about Hajikano?"

"Oh, she's just an old acquaintance."

"Hmm." He took off his T-shirt and replaced it with his P.E. shirt. "What's your question, then?"

I thought for a second, then changed my question. "How long has she had that bruise?"

"How long?" Nagahora stopped to think. "I dunno. She had it when I first met her."

"...I see. Thanks."

"No prob," Nagahora nodded.

If he was telling the truth, Hajikano had that mark on her face as of April. I grew increasingly confused.

Let's try to sort this out. Hajikano, I'm told, doesn't want to meet me. And this wasn't just something sudden this morning; since a while ago - perhaps the moment she learned she'd be in the same class as me - she made requests of Kasai. So Hajikano avoiding me and the events of last night were unrelated. It wasn't simply anger for interfering with her suicide, or not wanting to look me in the eye after I'd witnessed such a shameful act.

So, how exactly did Yui Hajikano come to despise Yosuke Fukamachi?

I had no guesses - is what I wanted to say, but I did have one theory.

Was Hajikano's birthmark the same one that had vanished from my face?

Had Hajikano's beauty been temporarily taken as collateral for the bet?

Thinking back on it, the woman had called it a "bet," yet there were no apparent stakes. But what if the "money" had already been paid, without my knowledge? And it wasn't taken directly from me, but indirectly, from Hajikano?

And what if Hajikano found out she was being used as chips in a bet?

From this point, though, it was completely within the realm of fantasy. After all, Hajikano's birthmark had been there before mine went away. In order for my theory to hold water, one of these had to be true:

1. The woman on the phone rewound time to take the collateral for the bet.

2. The woman on the phone had known from much earlier on that I would take the bet.

So this is where my theory fell apart. But then again, what did "logic" mean when my birthmark should have never just vanished like it did? It was futile to expect coherency from the chain of events surrounding this bet. And evaluating the actions of the woman on the phone in order to guess at her personality and "what she'd probably be thinking" would probably get me to the truth quicker.

So I imagined. One night, Hajikano was walking alone and heard a public telephone ring. Taking the receiver which seemed to beckon for her, that woman told her: "Your beauty has been made the collateral for Yosuke Fukamachi's bet." Hajikano knit her brows at the crude joke and hung up. And the next morning, she stopped in front of the mirror. A repulsive mark - yet one she felt she knew - had formed on her face. She scrubbed it with soap, but it wouldn't go away.

That afternoon, worried and perhaps after visiting the hospital, she received another call from that woman. She informed her: "That is the birthmark which was originally on Yosuke Fukamachi's face."

A doubt naturally occurred to me here. Was there any reason to take such a roundabout method? I considered it from her position, and came to the conclusion which seemed to follow.

Maybe she was trying to test something. To see whether or not, the way Hajikano once did for me, I could treat Hajikano equally when she was robbed of her beauty.

"Fukamachi." Chigusa poked my shoulder. "Is your pondering going to go on much longer?"

I was dragged back to reality, and the tumult of the classroom returned. Before I knew it, it was already lunch.

"Nah." I did a little stretch leaning back on the back of my chair. "I'll stop now."

Chigusa grinned and bent to come closer to my desk.

While eating lunch and having a rambling discussion, Nagahora came back from the store, said "I'm gonna intrude," and placed a chair in front of us. "Yes, you are intruding," said Chigusa, but she moved her lunch box to make space for him. They got along.

As the three of us finished eating, Nagahora spoke up.

"Don't you think everyone seems restless today?"

"Are they?" Chigusa took a look around.

"Since it's only Fukamachi's second day, maybe he wouldn't know, but everyone's standing on their heels. Because there's a big event coming."

I thought about what was on the schedule of events for July.

"Event... Oh, you mean the sports tournament on Saturday?"

"Yeah, there's that. But that's not what I'm talking about."

Chigusa answered for me. "Now is about the time for them to announce the results of the Miss Minagisa competition."

"Oh, I see," I nodded. I'd completely forgotten such an event even existed.

"It's effectively a beauty contest where everyone in the school is eligible. I'm impressed they can keep an event like that up every year."

"By the way, I voted for Ogiue," Nagahora carelessly remarked.

"I'm not pleased."

Chigusa glared at him, but he paid it no mind and turned to me.

"Hey, who would you vote for, Fukamachi?"

I took a look around the room, then looked back at the girl beside me.

"Let's see... Maybe I would have voted for Ogiue, too."

As long as we're exempting Hajikano, I mentally appended.

Nagahora put his arm around me. "See?" He shot Chigusa a smug look.

"Why me, exactly?", she asked, cheeks turning slightly red.

"You seem like a good swimmer," I replied.

"What does that mean?"

"It means you're also the prettiest," Nagahora interpreted.

"...Well, thank you," sighed Chigusa.

In the summer festival held every year in Minagisa from August 26th to 28th, on the night of the second day, it was customary for that year's "Miss Minagisa" to do a reading of the mermaid legend passed down in our town, and sing the so-called "Mermaid's Song." That role was the highlight of the whole festival, and you were required to be an unmarried woman born in Minagisa to be eligible.

Every year, she was selected from students of Minagisa First High... due to the fact that in such a rural town, it was apparently rather embarrassing to be unmarried, so non-students avoided the role like the plague. Because standing in front of people as Miss Minagisa meant screeching to the world "I'm an unmarried woman." In addition, many legends about mermaids are tragic stories, and Minagisa's was no exception. So being chosen as Miss Minagisa came to be seen as a jinx on your chances of marriage.

The legend of The Mermaid of Agohama was, to put it simply, like taking the legend of Yaobikuni told in Fukui Prefecture, adding it to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, and dividing it by two.

Yaobikuni is a girl who eats mermaid flesh and becomes immortal, and runs away to wander the land for eight hundred years. The Little Mermaid leaves the sea for the first time on her fifteenth birthday, and has a forbidden love with a human. And The Mermaid of Agohama... is basically if the witch from The Little Mermaid were replaced with Yaobikuni.

What's interesting is, if the records are correct, The Mermaid of Agohama already existed over two centuries before Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid. And if, again, you compare it to that, it is intriguing how it shows the story from the side of the witch, not the mermaid. That's why Minagisa is putting in all that futile effort placing mermaid statues around town, promoting itself as the "Mermaid Town" to attract tourists. But as of today, I've yet to see any sufficiently tourist-y tourists.

It's said that until her death, Yaobikuni retained her appearance from when she was fifteen or sixteen. The Little Mermaid fell in love with a human on her fifteenth birthday. So that's one more reason you could say it's appropriate to have high school students reciting The Mermaid of Agohama.

I felt that Chigusa would be appropriate as Miss Minagisa because the slight unfortunate air about her seemed to harmonize with the tragic nature of The Mermaid of Agohama. Of course, I didn't say that to her face. She probably wouldn't be pleased being complimented in such a way.

Just as Nagahora predicted, at the end of lunch break, the results for the Miss Minagisa contest were announced on the intercom. After some dramatic buildup, the announcer read the winner's name.

"Class 1-3, Chigusa Ogiue."

Chigusa's face froze.

For a moment, silence fell on the classroom. It was ultimately broken by Nagahora's applause. The rest of the class followed it up, as if guided by his.

From the sound of the applause, it seemed as if everyone in the class was celebrating Chigusa's selection from deep down. They didn't choose her for the sake of harassment - and there had been times I was put into the spotlight in middle school out of ill will, which is why it came to mind. No, they all voted for her because they felt that Chigusa, bringing to mind a beautiful, misfortunate girl, was the most fitting choice for a tragic heroine. The same way Nagahora and I had seen it.

Chigusa herself, in the middle of the noise, hung her head and paled. Nagahora and I called her name several times, but she didn't respond. Thus, I decided to change up the approach. We had been calling her Ogiue, but I switched to "Chigusa."

Chigusa suddenly looked up at me.

"Sorry, I was a little bewildered. I'm all right."

"If you don't want to go out in front of people, you can turn it down. Nobody'll blame you," I told her.

"It's nothing that severe. I was just a bit surprised."

"No need to worry about it," Nagahora said playfully. "If you really don't wanna do it, I'll take your place."

"It's unmarried women only," she retorted with a pained smile. But thanks to him, her spirits seemed to be lifted a little.

Yet for the remainder of the day, Chigusa seemed visibly distant. During classtime, she was inattentive, staring out the window with a gloomy expression. By the end of sixth period, she still wasn't back to normal. When I told her "Well, see you tomorrow," she shook as if brought back to reality, then just put on a fake smile and waved. "Yes, see you tomorrow."

She must be pretty bad about going out in front of others, I thought at the time. Later, it would become clear that I was completely off the mark, but there wasn't much I could do about that. To fully figure out what she was thinking with only the information I had then would have been absurd indeed.

Yes, it was more than just the reason for Chigusa turning so pale when chosen as Miss Minagisa. There were actually many things about her I didn't know at that point. The clues were scattered around, but I just didn't have the time to stop and give them all a good look.

*

Smoking a cigarette in secret taxes your nerves. The surprisingly difficulty of finding somewhere where no one's watching, despite the population - that's a rural town. There are people here and there so starved for excitement they make a hobby of sitting by the window and watching passersby all day, and they'll joyfully run out of the house at even the slightest change. As soon as one person goes out, people whiffing the smell of bustle come out one after another. And then you get a good hour or so of people standing around talking, no longer sure whether the oddity was real or just mistaken.

I put out the cigarette with my foot, left the park bathroom that stunk of ammonia, and filled my lungs with fresh air. From the asphalt came a dry smell, and from the thicket by the road, a choking smell of greenery. I wiped the sweat dripping down my cheek, and resumed walking in search of Hajikano's house.

What I remembered was the sound of rain. And not a small rain, but the kind that would get you wet up to your knees even if you had an umbrella. The first time I visited her house was around this same time, an afternoon in the middle of July, known for its unstable weather.

That day, there was a huge storm unpredicted by the weather forecast. There were lazy people like me who always neglected to bring their umbrellas home and just left them at school, but most of the students had to wait for their parents to pick them up.

Hajikano was methodical about bringing her things home, so she was of course the latter. But when she found out I had an umbrella, she kept repeating "I sure would be glad if someone could walk me home... I mean, it'd be so boring standing here for two hours until dad shows up!"

And so, I decided to take Hajikano to her house. Most of the boys gave up on going home and went to the gym, most of the girls formed groups and talked, those without friends fled to the library, and some with screws loose went running barefoot on the field. But out of all of them, only Hajikano and I were headed for the entrance.

At the time, rather unusually, we'd had... not quite a fight, but a minor argument, and were thus in a situation where it was hard to talk to each other. My anger toward her had long since vanished without a trace, but unable to find a chance to break the ice, I was looking for a way to reconcile with her.

I think, perhaps, she was in a similar state. And then the rainstorm came. As I watched it through the window, Hajikano stood just a little closer to me than usual. "The forecast was wrong," she said. "Now I'll finally remember to bring home my umbrella," I said.

A few minutes later, we were back to keeping the usual distance.

We left the entrance, and I opened the umbrella. Hajikano ducked under it, and laughed as if tickled.

The moment we stepped past the overhang, fierce raindrops hit the umbrella. Water splashed at our feet with every step, and every breeze shook the umbrella and sloshed lots of water off. This road that normally would have been crowded with students returning home now only had the two of us walking down it.

If it weren't for that rain, I think our reconciliation would have come a little later.

Occasionally, Hajikano's left hand touched my right, but what stayed more strongly in my memory was the feel of my soaked shoes. Interactions with Hajikano had been very rare until then, but for some reason, I only thought of cicadas. Where do the cicadas go during big rainstorms? Of course, it wasn't just cicadas I wasn't sure about, but also what sparrows, butterflies, cats, and bears were up to, yet I felt the most concern about cicadas. They don't even have a month to live, so how must it feel for a whole day of their life to be spoiled by rain?

Even past 3 PM, visibility was bad enough that even the many bicycles coming and going had to blink their headlights. It was fine while going up and down slopes, but not five minutes after reaching a flat path, we were hit with three sprays of muddy water from passing cars. For the first one, I was on the side of the car, serving as a wall for Hajikano, so she didn't get too wet. But the second one got us both so soaked, it felt idiotic to even bother putting up an umbrella. By the third, well, we hardly thought anything of it.

Still, I didn't let go of that umbrella, my free ticket to get close to Hajikano. Thanks to the rain reducing visibility such that no one was watching, I could even forget about my birthmark. If only the world could always be like this, I thought. Being able to see certain things so clearly makes life hard. If the world were more dim and fuzzy, maybe people would be a little more fair to judge things, not relying on the impressions their eyes give them.

"Here it is," Hajikano told me, and I stopped. On the sides of the gate were hydrangeas of many colors, shaking from the blows of raindrops. Apparently, this was Hajikano's house.

"Thanks for escorting me," she said, bowing her head.

"But there wasn't any point to the umbrella after all, huh. We look like we've gone for a swim."

"That's fine. It was fun."

Hajikano opened the sliding door to go inside, but suddenly remembered something and turned around.

"Can I ask you to take shelter inside?"

"Thanks, but no thanks. My house is just a quick jog away."

What I didn't say was, "I doubt your parents would give the nicest look if you invited me, a guy with an ugly birthmark like this, inside as a friend."

"Okay... I guess that's fair." Hajikano scratched her chin with her finger.

"Yeah. Well, see you tomorrow."

As I turned to leave, Hajikano grabbed my sleeve between her fingers.

She whispered close to my ear. "You're not angry?"

"I never was. What about you?", I asked back.

"I was never angry, either." She let go with a relieved look.

"Be careful."

"Uh-huh. Take care of yourself."

Not long after parting, the rain eased up. And less than five minutes after that, it completely stopped. Yet I didn't so much as think "If only I'd stayed at school a little longer, I wouldn't have gotten wet at all."

Starting with that, however small a step it was, our friendship moved forward. The proof of that being, after that, we started walking to school together. Every morning, I visited Hajikano's house. She always came out no more than ten seconds after I rang the doorbell. When the door opened, there was a strange smell from inside the house. All houses do have their own unique smell to them, but Hajikano's made me think of gentle happiness (no particular reason, but it's really what I thought, so what else can I say?). I just thought, if happiness had a smell, it would be something like this.

Hajikano would put on her shoes, check her clothes and hair, and never fail to say "I'm off" to her family in the living room. Her clothes seemed mature at a glance, and if you paid attention, you'd notice they were all far more refined than the kind of things you could buy in the area. I wondered if her mother thought of her like a dress-up doll. Anyone with a daughter like this would probably feel the urge to go shopping.

I visited Hajikano's house every morning, but never did I go any further than the front door. If I'd said I wanted to, she probably would have let me; if she told me to, I would have done so. But it didn't feel necessary. In fact, it felt like a waste for our relationship to become one where we could so easily go in and out of each other's houses. As a result, I never met with her parents. I figured if they never knew their daughter was considering someone with such a disgusting birthmark her friend, it wouldn't hurt them.

Why had I been so prudent about my relationship with Hajikano back then? Thinking about it, maybe I didn't want the comfortable telepathy between us to be substantiated by a close relationship. In other words, I wanted to leave our relationship at "...and yet we understand each other" instead of "...which is why we understand each other." The more distant two people are from each other, the more strongly you can feel the thread tying them together.

Though not necessarily because anything had changed, visiting Hajikano's house for the first time in four years felt like I was visiting a total stranger's house. The wooden Japanese-style house with generally dark colors had gotten thorough upkeep, yet it was unable to totally escape the passage of time, with little cracks and blemishes in places.

I rang the doorbell with a much heavier feeling weighing on me than back then. I straightened my shirt sleeves, waiting for someone to answer, but there was no response of any kind. I rang the doorbell again and leaned on a pole.

Beside the doorbell was a plate with the names of all the family members in bombastic writing. A particularly large tree in the garden seemed to be a favorite of the cicadas, and their buzzing came down from the leaves, shaking the trunk. Maybe on that stormy day, the cicadas had taken shelter here, I considered. I was about to reach into my bag for a cigarette, but I couldn't guarantee that Hajikano's mother wouldn't answer the moment I lit it. In skin-burningly strong sunlight, I waited patiently for someone to show up.

After a while, I heard someone slowly coming down the stairs. A woman in her early twenties opened the door. Her wavy brown hair was terribly frazzled, her skin was messy with cosmetics, and her shirt was full of creases, giving an overall unclean impression. For a moment, my mind wondered about how this bed-headed woman and Hajikano were related, and I suspected she might be a friend of hers, but then I recalled the names on the doorplate. Maybe this was Hajikano's older sister.

She rubbed her eyes and spoke sleepily. "Whaddya want?"

"Is Yui Hajikano home at the moment?"

"Who knows. Maybe she is." She yawned loudly and peered at my face. "You Yui's boyfriend?"

"No," I stated firmly.

"Stalker, then?"

"Just a friend. We were in grade school together."

"Friend, huh," she said mockingly. She scratched the back of her head.

"Even if you were an old friend of Yui's, that's all the more reason that you shouldn't meet her now. I dunno how I should explain it, but the point is, the Yui Hajikano you know isn't here."

"Yes, I realize that," I nodded. "That's why I came here to confirm something with Yui."

"Say it here. I'll tell her for you."

"I'd like to talk to her directly. Could you at least tell Yui "Yosuke Fukamachi came to visit"?"

She shook her head broadly. "She doesn't wanna meet anyone right now."

"I'm aware of that, too. However, it's because she doesn't want to meet with me that I want to meet with her."

There was a long silence. From her look, I could tell I was being appraised.

"Oh well," she snorted. "We're getting pretty fed up with her ourselves. Yosuke, eh? If you think you can do something, try it. Highly doubt it, though."

"Thank you very much."

I looked to the doorplate again. Above the name "Yui" was written the name "Aya." Aya Hajikano. That appeared to be her name.

"I've been sleeping all day. It's been forever since I got a day off."

As she guided me, Aya confessed that she'd been sleeping in the house since noon.

"I've been stuck in the lab for almost half a month. Things calmed down last night, and I thought I could finally sleep without any worries... Then of course you come along. Woke me right up."

"Sorry," I made sure to apologize.

"You could at least give me a day of rest. Couldn't wait just a few days?"

"I could not."

Suddenly, she sniffed around my chest. "You kinda smell like smoke. Aren't you in high school?"

"My parents are both smokers, so I believe that's how it got there."

"Look, I'm not gonna blab about your personal problems, y'know."

After going upstairs, Aya stopped in front of a room.

"This is Yui's room," she informed me. "Not gonna chicken out now, right?"

"Of course not."

Aya pounded on the door. "Yui! You're in there, right?"

There was no response.

"Due to some circumstances, I've gotta open this door." She continued to knock. "I'll count for a minute. And if time runs out, I'm opening it no matter what. That's not just a threat, I'm really opening it. Got it?"

As expected, no response. She clicked her tongue loud enough to be heard through the door.

"Seems to be ignoring me. She's doing it to the whole family."

The Hajikano I knew ignoring her family was difficult to even imagine. The fact that she'd changed drastically had become apparent about ten minutes after our reunion last night, but hearing about it from her sister's mouth forced me to acknowledge it from a whole new angle. Who could've predicted there would ever come a day when our Hajikano would be treated like a burden?

I kept checking the time on my watch, but at 52 seconds, Aya said "I'm coming in" and opened the door. She's forceful, I thought with amazement as I followed behind her. I didn't doubt that she would have busted open the door even if it had been locked.

The room felt unpleasant; darker than you'd ever imagine for it still being day, and stuffy with heat. The curtains were shut, and no lights were on, but light from the hallway illuminated the room. Unusual for an adolescent girl, her room was completely Japanese-style, and there was a faint smell of rush plants.

Hajikano lied on a futon with her back to us. Her thin shoulders showed behind a gray slip, her white legs stretched out of thin cotton shorts, and her glossy black hair drew gentle curves on the white sheets. From just that sight from behind, I saw that her beauty, which four years ago had seemed like the pinnacle, continued to grow, knowing no limit - except for one thing.

The door closed behind me. I turned around and saw we had been left alone. Aya was awfully considerate.

"What is it?", said Hajikano with her back turned, thinking that it was Aya who had entered the room.

"It's me."

There was a long silence.

Being in that room, with the sunlight blocked out, in the middle of summer, brought back memories of a movie showing from elementary school. I'd completely forgotten the actual movie we watched in the gym, darkened by curtains. All I remember is that even in scenes where there was no sound, there was a constant buzzing noise. When the movie ended, and the curtains opened, and light came back through the windows... The bars on the wall, the basketball hoop, the soccer net, the volleyball stuck in the corner of the ceiling - it felt like I was seeing it all for the first time, even though I should have been familiar with it. As if the darkness and film had conspired to repaint reality.

The monotone buzzing of cicadas temporarily stopped as if screeching to a halt. Hajikano rolled over bothersomely, and looked up at me like looking into the sun. Twisting her body made her soft hair fall on her cheek and misaligned the string on her slip, but she didn't pay it any mind.

It was hard to see clearly in the dark, but sure enough, there was a birthmark on her face.

Hajikano sat up sluggishly and approached with an uncertain gait, like she was ill. She stopped close enough for us to feel each other's heat.

She slowly reached her hand to touch my cheek. Her chilly, delicate fingers crawled along to below my eye. She rubbed it again and again, looking for something that wasn't there. Maybe she thought if she kept rubbing, the false skin would fall away and show the birthmark she was familiar with. She was gently stroking at first, but gradually put more force.

Suddenly, I felt a burning sensation on my cheek. I quickly realized she was clawing me with her nails. When my face warped with pain, Hajikano quickly removed her hand as if coming back to her senses. Then she took a few steps back and dropped down on a mat. A sliver of light coming through the curtains illuminated the side of her face which had no mark. I saw a fleeting glimpse of a mole under her eye.

There was a sniffing sound. Hajikano sat on her knees with her legs splayed out, crying and trying to keep it quiet. I doubted she was crying out of guilt for hurting me.

I patiently waited for her to stop crying. I couldn't think of anything better than just waiting. I touched my fingers where I'd been scratched and found a little blood. The room was too sweltering, so I left the curtains closed and opened the window. I understood her feeling of preferring the dark. She was probably finding in this darkness the same reassurance I once felt in heavy rainstorms.

The curtains swelled, and cool wind blew in, flipping the pages of a thick notebook on a desk. Hajikano stood up and closed the notebook, putting it in a drawer. Then she fished around in the bottom drawer, took something inside, and came back in front of me. I prepared myself for whatever she might do, but in her hand was a band-aid. She carefully applied it to my wound, then quietly said "I'm sorry."

I felt like she might listen now.

"I heard you didn't come to school because you didn't want to be in a classroom with me. Is that true?"

"Yes," she answered. She seemed to have calmed down her tears for the time being. "If you already know, good. I don't want to see your face, Yosuke. Please leave."

I had prepared myself, but being given such a strong rejection made my chest tighten suffocatingly.

"Could you at least tell me why?"

"No real reason. It's not your fault. I've just decided to hate you."

She was practically spitting the words out. I took things another step.

"Why did you try to do what you did last night?"

She had no answer for that question.

"Is it because of that?", I asked.

"You don't need to know that," said Hajikano. "...Your birthmark was cured. That's good. Well, goodbye."

Her words weren't phrased in a thorny way, but they still stabbed through my heart. Before, she absolutely wouldn't have used the word cured.

I turned my back to Hajikano and was about to leave the room. But after taking one step out the door, I turned around and asked one last question.

"Hey, Hajikano. Do you remember what you said about my birthmark in elementary school?"

She slowly shook her head.

"I don't."

Crushed by the denial of such a holy memory, I fled from her room. Aya was waiting for me outside, and looked at me as if asking "How'd it go?" I powerlessly shook my head. She shrugged her shoulders with a look of "Didn't I tell you?"

*

Aya and I sat together on the porch and smoked.

"Pretty awful, wasn't it?", she said. "It just suddenly appeared in winter, her second year of middle school. Yui's totally changed because of it. I think it was the summer of third year... Around that time, she started skipping class for no reason. She managed to attend enough to graduate, but apparently had to settle for a high school a step below what she would've liked. Talk about a rise and fall. Shows how important appearance is to people."

Winter, her second year of middle school... That repeated in my head. Even if the woman on the phone knew the future and that I would accept the bet (or went back in time to claim the collateral), planting the birthmark on Hajikano a whole year and a half ago seemed far too early. Maybe my whole idea that it had transferred from me to her was overthinking it.

"You shouldn't bother with her anymore." Aya pressed her cigarette against a can of anti-mosquito incense. "Maybe you used to be good friends before, but she's just a shell of it now. Meeting her again will just destroy your memories."

"Leave once you're done with that," she told me, and left. I went through one more cigarette, then tossed them in the can, gently touched the band-aid on my face, and left the house.

On the way home, I heard ringing from a phone booth on a street corner in the residential district. I wasn't even surprised anymore. I entered the booth and picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"So, your thoughts after meeting Hajikano once again?", the woman asked. "Are you able to love Hajikano, hideous as she is now?"

I slammed the receiver down and left the booth. Can I love the now-ugly Hajikano? Of course I can. It's not like I fell in love with her simply because she had perfect looks. Whether I could love her with that birthmark wasn't a problem. The problem was whether she could love me without my birthmark.

From the speakers around town came a chime which played at 5 PM, to the tune of the Mermaid's Song. Still, it looked like it would be an hour or more until sunset. Many crows flew around above the trees, cicadas made refreshing chirps. A local group of kids were being taught fire safety.

When you think about it, things had been so unusual up until now, I realized. Being a close friend with Hajikano was only the result of numerous coincidences, so realistically, it was only natural she'd treat me this way. Even suggesting that the likes of me could console Hajikano was too much. Thinking she could "be mine" - now that was really not knowing my place.

It seemed I was quite able to handle being rejected by Hajikano. It made me feel like a hopelessly spineless individual. The once-sparkling past changed color; I could imagine that I'd seen everything only my way, and I was never a friend of any importance to Hajikano.

Losing self-confidence all at once, I began to give up on trying to win this bet. Okay, okay, I get what you're trying to say. Just losing my birthmark won't make my dream come true. It was never that simple. It was a game I never had a chance of winning. And you knew that when you proposed this bet, didn't you?

But also, if I changed my thinking, I could put it this way: in exchange for being shown my powerlessness in full, I'd gotten a great chance. At present, my circumstances at school weren't so bad. If I built strong, trusting relationships with Chigusa and Nagahora while I could, maybe I could keep those intact even if my birthmark came back. Yes, this period of not having my birthmark was a perfect opportunity.

That woman had said the deadline was August 31st. So my fate was still postponed for over a month. I'd been given a decent amount of time.

I envisioned it. Chigusa and Nagahora, accepting me as before, even with my birthmark back. Myself, able to forget about it and laugh with my classmates.

That wouldn't be such a bad future, all told.

*

I was naive. When the woman on the phone explained the bet, she - perhaps intentionally - failed to mention an important point. She never mentioned anything about the penalty that would be given to me if I lost the bet. She knew that if she had mentioned it, I wouldn't have been on board.

Remember the story of the mermaid. Not The Mermaid of Agohama. Not Yaobikuni. But Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.

Andersen lived a life full of frustration and heartbreak, and with his early works especially, he had a strong tendency to write tragedies that ended with the protagonist's death. The Little Mermaid is a model example. In the eyes of Andersen at that time, his talent unknown and in the depths of poverty, it's not surprising to see it portrayed that death is the only salvation. That pessimistic outlook would reflect in your work, surely.

Now, as far as I remember, here's how the story of The Little Mermaid begins.

On her fifteenth birthday, the mermaid leaves the sea for the first time in her life and falls in love with a prince on a ship. Mermaids aren't allowed to show themselves before humans, but she refuses to give up on him. So she makes a request of a witch, and in exchange for her beautiful voice, obtains a human form. And the witch warns her: "If the prince marries another girl, you'll turn to sea foam."

Wasn't that just the situation I was in?

And what kind of ending does The Little Mermaid have?

That goes without saying.

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