The Place You Called From

Volume 1, Chapter 4: One Who Sees the Stars
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Volume 1, Chapter 4: One Who Sees the Stars

I resolved, for the few days until summer break, to forget all about the bet and live the kind of life a high-schooler should. In a way, that was a simple task. All I had to do was imitate the methods of the people who had always treated me with disgust, yet a part of me could never stop aspiring to. Similar to how a language very different from your mother tongue makes you that much more conscious of its grammar, I knew a lot about their unwritten rules, even moreso than the unwritten rules of my own groups.

I began hanging out with Chigusa, Nagahora, and their friends. I had assimilated into the class in no time. What really got me to realize how drastically different my life had become was the sports tournament just before summer break. At the time I sent in my form for it, I wasn't sure if I'd be out of the hospital by then, so I was put down as a backup softball player.

I got my chance to play in the first game. At the top of the fourth, when I stepped up to plate as a pinch hitter, the crowd suddenly cheered. I looked around trying to figure out what had happened before realizing their cheers were apparently meant for me. Some volleyball girls who had rather quickly lost their game were especially lively, and unbelievably enough, shouted my name in unison. That made me completely whiff the first pitch. The cheers only got louder.

After the second pitch was a strike, things got a bit calmer. Becoming overly-conscious of the strike zone, I hit the third pitch right with the middle of the bat, and the ball went soaring off into the blue sky. Back in middle school, I had faked sick to leave school early, go to the town's only batting center, and make bets with my "friends" over this and that. But still I thought to myself, I've finally gotten to experience this for once in my life.

Leisurely coming to a stop on second base, I turned to take a peek at the crowd. It wasn't like it was the first time I'd made a long hit, but there was a clamor as if I'd scored the deciding points. Even girls I'd never talked to were waving and calling my name.

At this point even I, in all my wariness, had to admit it.

It seemed that Yosuke Fukamachi was welcome in this class.

Alas, for all their efforts, Class 1-3 was knocked out of all the competitions in round two, and didn't make it to the closing ceremony. Half of us went to watch the other class's games, while the other stayed in the classroom, soaking up the festival mood and chatting.

I had a rambling conversation with Nagahora myself, but soon those girls who had cheered for me during the game came up, poking each other, and showered me with all kinds of questions. Where do you live? Do you have any siblings? Why were you in the hospital for three months? Are you keeping up with class? What club are you in? Do you have a girlfriend? Etcetera. I was unsure how to answer every time and sought help from Nagahora, but he refused; "They're asking you, Fukamachi!"

After the crowd left, Chigusa, who had stood outside the circle, came and sat down next to me, and asked exactly the same questions the earlier girls had. She made me repeat my answers from mere minutes ago word-for-word. When Chigusa left her seat, Nagahora asked her, "What were you hoping for there, Miss Minagisa?", and she gave an unintelligible response: "Who knows. Maybe I just wanted to check if I'd get the same answers if I asked the same questions."

And just like that, I caught up from my three-month delay. I made a promise to Chigusa to accompany her to her rehearsal for the Minagisa summer festival, and made plans with Nagahora and his friends to go to the beach. It felt like planning someone else's summer vacation. Hajikano continued to be absent, and her seat front and to the right remained empty, but I forcibly pushed all the things it would make me think of out of mind. Luckily, Kasai never called me in after the second day, and I didn't hear any public phones ringing.

On July 18th, we had our closing ceremony, and summer vacation began in earnest. I was practically glowing. I had made it to summer break doing all the things I should have done. It was hard to call things ideal, but it was a stellar accomplishment for me.

Naturally, a part of me was also sneering at this extreme turnabout. Forget personality, forget ability, forget that there'd been no real changes since I was about 14 - the fact I'd gotten all this heaped on me the moment my birthmark went away makes you want to think that appearance really is everything for people. But depending on your viewpoint, you could also consider that my life of diligent study in the hospital had unconsciously bettered my personality, or that I was simply a good match with the people at this high school. My conclusion was that even if my birthmark came back, it might not be too late to stop things from turning tragic.

*

For my first two days of summer break, I took the opportunity to enjoy some time alone. To a musician, the times when you're listening to music and times when you're not carry roughly equal importance; to me, time spent alone was about as important as time spent with others, if not moreso. I decided I would use those two days to cultivate a healthy longing for other people.

I got on the down train early in the morning with no particular stop in mind to get off at; I just looked out the window, watching the scenery go by. The passengers dwindled at each stop, the average age increased, the tone of the conversations I heard became less casual. Ultimately, it was down to just me and two old people talking about things I couldn't make any sense of. When they got off at the next station, I followed suit.

I took a look at a sign at the station and found out I was in a hot springs town. There were many to choose from, and I decided to go for the smallest, cheapest one. The lobby only had a single crane game that wasn't powered on and a small shop stand. There wasn't any sign of anyone in the little open-air bath, and I relaxed there for about an hour. Birds, cicadas, water, sky, clouds; there wasn't a single thing else.

The two days passed in a blink. The day after was when I'd planned to go swimming with Nagahora at the beach, which was one of the things I was looking forward to most out of the whole break. I'd gone to look at the sea near-daily for a long time, but I'd never gotten to go there to swim and play with a bunch of friends. And the week after that was Chigusa's rehearsal for the summer festival. I didn't have any plans beyond those yet, but those two alone were more exciting than my last three summer vacations put together.

I think I'd gotten pretty carried away.

When the home phone rang that night, Chigusa's face came to mind. The day of the closing ceremony, as we left, she whispered some numbers into my ear. It was her home phone number.

"You never know when plans will suddenly come up, so..."

And so she asked me for my phone number. Thus, I'd been hoping she would call me eventually.

Having completely dropped my guard, when I heard that woman's voice on the phone, I felt like I'd been whacked in the back of the head with a blunt object. It was a failure unimaginable for the old me. I tried to steel myself for attacks from any angle, at any time, but the peacefulness of these past weeks had really made me slacken.

"Sorry to have gotten out of touch," the woman said in a clear voice that could be mistaken for a call center call if I didn't know better. "Were you disappointed it wasn't a call from the girl in your class?"

"No, I was figuring you'd be calling sooner or later," I bluffed.

"Is that right," she snickered. "How goes it? Are things going well with Hajikano?"

"You're asking that with full knowledge of the situation, aren't you?"

"I would like to know what kind of outlook you have on it."

My grip on the receiver tightened.

"Same as you do. There isn't a chance in hell of Hajikano liking me. It's finally gotten into even my thick head. You offered me this bet knowing from the start I had no chance of success."

"Outrageous. I only meant to make things as fair as I could."

"Make whatever excuse you like. By the way, I'm not backing down. There may be no chance, but I won't admit defeat just like that. I'm going to make the most of the duration of this bet."

"Yes, I know. It is entirely at your discretion how you choose to spend the time up to the wager's end." The woman showed no particular sign of hurt feelings. "To make the best memories you can while you can is a fine choice."

Something about that phrasing bothered me. Before I could locate the exact part that was odd, she interrupted my thoughts. "By the way... I'm terribly sorry, but there's one thing I forgot to explain."

"It's two now," I corrected. "You forget a lot of things. Seriously, you call this fair?"

The woman went on calmly. "It regards the entry fee."

"Fee?"

"Imagine it like a game of poker," she suggested. "I already explained to you what you would earn upon winning the bet. However, I have yet to explain what you would lose if you lost. I did not remove your birthmark simply to do a good deed. I paid that effort as the "ante," so to speak. And to tell the truth, I have already collected the fee of participation from you."

"Don't remember that." I shook my head. "What did you take from me?"

"Your soul. Just a small part."

It took me a second to process that unexpected response.

My soul?

The woman continued, as if stacking onto a growing pile.

"To be clearer still, what I have taken is only the entry fee, and separate from the stakes I have raised. At present, the chips are in the pot. However, if you should lose the bet, I will take all of it for myself."

"And what happens if you do that?"

"You're familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, yes?"

"The Little Mermaid..."

I didn't need to ask "And what does that have to do with the penalty?"

I was born in a town with a deep familiarity with mermaids, and I could recognize her intent in an instant.

The Little Mermaid may have gotten a human form, but she wasn't able to marry the prince. And in the end...?

She turned to foam and vanished.

"I wish you luck."

The call cut off abruptly as always.

And at last, I understood the position I was in.

This was the moment I realized my priorities had changed.

I'll be truthful. Upon learning that I had to confront the issue of Hajikano once more, the first thought I had was "Great - here I was trying to get closer with Nagahora and Chigusa, and then this happens."

Yes, at this point, I began to see Hajikano, my initial objective, as a bother. To be blunt, I didn't want to worry myself with Hajikano ever again. I was frankly fed up with it.

What about Hajikano did I like? Maybe anyone who was kind to me would have done the job. After all, wasn't I slowly becoming captivated by Chigusa Ogiue, too? Was I not feeling that if I had time to smooth-talk Hajikano, I should devote it to hanging out with Nagahora and his friends?

...To make a self-justification, people pampering me for the first time in my life simply threw me off, and made me forget the importance of things. It was a mistaken thought, as foolish as cutting off your hand to take care of a pain in your fingertip. In fact, the reason I wanted to be a better person in the first place was to be someone who Hajikano would consider to be on her level. Yet at some point, the steps became the goal. I lost sight of the thing that was most important to me.

Though in a state of confusion, my feet carried me to Hajikano's house. It was true that I wanted to deepen my bond with Nagahora and the rest. But that wouldn't do me much good if I was dead. I had no choice. There was no other way to save myself except by earning Hajikano's love.

It was 8 PM. As I crossed the bridge, a two-car train came down the track. There was a brief silence once the train left, but just as my ears got used to it, the bugs came back little by little.

I didn't have any plan resembling a plan. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could budge Hajikano as she was now. She had completely shut herself away. Hiding in her shell, refusing all communication. Made to despair by life to the point of putting her head in a noose. What could someone like me say to someone like her?

Besides, it wasn't even what to say that was important - it was who said it. Because it was none other than Hajikano who had soothed me back in grade school, saying "I think your birthmark's wonderful, Fukamachi." Even if someone else had said the same thing, it would probably only sound like a cheap consolation. Hearing it from Hajikano, who had no need to curry favor or get in good with anyone, made those words feel genuine. There was at least one person in this world who didn't think poorly of my birthmark - she let me believe that.

Could I do the same thing? Me saying "I think your birthmark's wonderful, Hajikano," well, I doubted I could expect any decent results. And before that - did I really, earnestly think her birthmark was wonderful? It was an undeniable fact that seeing her face that night in the moonlight, I was chilled by the feeling that something precious had been tarnished. Most importantly, wasn't I overjoyed about the disappearance of my own birthmark? I was leading a fulfilling life for the first time now that it was gone... How could I speak well of Hajikano's?

I was blocked on every side. Going to Hajikano's house felt like going to accept a death sentence. Even if I could meet with her, surely all I'd get is a reaffirmation of how much she hated me. Mud thrown on my memories, disappointment, a reminder that the girl I adored had been lost to me forever.

My feet grew heavy, and my steps got shorter with each one. Yet as long as I kept walking, however long it might take, I would eventually reach my destination. Standing at Hajikano's front door, I rang the doorbell with a feeling of desperation. If her parents answered, what kind of excuse would I make up? If they told me through a door chain, "Don't come here again," what would I do then? I didn't have any strategies in mind for those. Just get this over with, I thought.

The one who appeared at the door was Hajikano's sister, Aya.

"Oh, it's you." She remembered me, it seemed. "What'd you come for at this hour?"

"I've come again to talk with Yui."

"Didn't I say you shouldn't bother with her anymore?"

"Miss Aya." I spared no time turning to my trump card. "Are you aware that Yui has attempted suicide once?"

Aya's expression didn't change. But that, in fact, indicated her unease.

After taking a moment to recover, she spoke aggressively.

"Yeah, I know. But what about it?"

With hands behind her back, she closed the door, searched her right pocket, then searched the opposite pocket for a crumpled cigarette pack. She began to smoke; it gave off a sharp peppermint smell.

"To be honest, I don't care if she doesn't go to school, or tries to kill herself. If she doesn't wanna go, sure, don't go. If she wants to die, go ahead and die."

"...Surely you don't seriously think that way?"

"Oh, I think I'm thinking it pretty seriously. Yosuke Fukamachi, right? You have any experience having a sibling who's way too good?"

"No," I shook my head.

"When your sister's like that, to be frank, it makes you wanna die. I've heard people talking behind my back, like "why is the older one so average when the younger one's so pretty?", a million times. "Sisters? Huh, you don't look anything alike," they smirk - that's not a rare occurrence either. The relatives all fawned over her and paid me no attention. ...But as time passed, I stopped caring about what other people thought. I'm able to just say "think what you want to think" now."

With a distant gaze, Aya let out a puff of smoke.

"Except the problem of me always comparing my sister's life to mine has stuck around to the end. While I'm desperate to win over just one guy, she brings in ten. Lest I think a good-looking guy wanted to talk to me, the second sentence is just "Introduce me to your sister." I studied my butt off to get into a high school she treats as a backup. Whaddya think of that? Even if she has no ill will, doesn't it seem natural to wish she'd go poof?"

"...But, even then," I managed to interrupt. "You really wouldn't care if your own sister killed herself?"

"I wouldn't. No doubt I'd be relieved," she replied without hesitation. "So that's that. Sorry that you walked all this way - could you leave?"

After stomping out her cigarette, Aya wordlessly turned her back to my glare and reached for the door.

She turned back and asked, "First things first, what can you even do? You couldn't do anything last time. You just jumbled up her feelings more and left. If that didn't teach you to give up, you must have some secret plan this time, huh?"

Seeing that I wasn't answering, Aya snorted and shut the door in my face.

Leaning on a stone wall, I looked up at the July night sky. Even with streetlights right nearby, I could identify a few dozen stars. From a house across the street came murmurs from a television. I smelled boiling curry from somewhere else.

I twisted my body to look at the second-floor windows. The light in Hajikano's room was off. Already fell asleep, probably... Or maybe she was glaring at the sky from her dark room? That sounds more likely. I had no basis, but I thought so.

The energy left my body. I felt I wouldn't be able to stand back up for a while. As I closed my eyes and listened to the bugs, a comfortable fatigue embraced me.

While I nodded off, memories of a week ago surfaced behind my eyelids. The pitch dark room, the ray of light seeping through the door, Hajikano stroking my cheek, her face illuminated by the light through the curtains, her sitting on the floor and crying, the blood pouring from where she'd scratched me...

There I stopped the flashback and rewound a few seconds.

Something bothered me.

It was a small thing. Like a single instrument a little out-of-tune in a full orchestra, something you'd easily overlook unless you were a pretty sharp person.

I listened closely to seek it out.

Had it just been the birthmark that was different about her? Was there anything else odd? Just how much time had you spent in grade school sneaking looks at her face? Compare that memory burned into your brain and her present appearance - is there any change you can see that can't be explained by simply growing up?

The moment I was done playing spot-the-difference, I almost yelled.

There was a mole under her eye.

I'd read a lot of writings about dermatology. So I knew that moles appearing later in life certainly wasn't a rare occurrence. But with the mole being under her eye, I couldn't brush it off as a coincidence. After all, there was a time when a so-called "crying mole" held special significance for Hajikano and I.

I recalled a conversation I had with her four years ago.

"What an awful wound," Hajikano said, looking at my scraped knee. It was no exaggeration; it really was an awful wound. I'd gotten in a fight with some middle-schoolers who laughed at my birthmark, and they shoved me to the ground.

"It doesn't hurt?"

"Nah, it hurts."

"Then you should look more like you're hurting."

"Sure, if that made it heal up faster..."

Hajikano squatted and stared at my knee. She wasn't directly touching it, but I felt kind of ticklish and said "don't stare at it like that."

She stood up and looked into my eyes.

"Yosuke, even when bad things happen, it never shows on your face."

"Is that bad?"

"It's not good." She stood up tall to gently stroke my face. "If you make a habit of that, then when you're really having a hard time, you might not be able to ask for help."

"That's fine."

"No, it's bad." She shook her head and put her hands on my shoulders.

"Okay, how about this? When you're really in trouble, Yosuke, but you don't feel like you can ask for help, you can give me a signal instead."

"A signal?"

Hajikano took a marker out of her pencil box, said "Stay still," and made a black dot under my eye.

"What's this?", I asked.

"A crying mole." Hajikano put the marker away. "When you want help, draw a mole under your eye. If I see that, you won't even have to say anything, and I'll help you."

"I see. So it's a distress signal," I smiled awkwardly, rubbing under my eye.

At the time, I thought it was just a joke. The topic of crying moles never came up between us ever again, and I never used that signal. So I had completely forgotten it was even a thing.

Of course, it was possible that Hajikano's mole wasn't drawn on, but a real one that had sprung up there. Maybe I was just making a big mistake, and she didn't remember that silly joke from four years ago.

But for now, that was fine. If it was a mistake, that was enough. Consciously or not, Hajikano was seeking help. And via a signal which only I would understand. A method that we devised back when we were closest. Right now, I had the freedom to convince myself of that.

My earlier despair was clearing away. I felt like I could keep trying for a little longer.

The next morning, I was shaken awake by Aya.

"Don't tell me, you stayed out here all night?", she asked in amazement.

"Seems that I did."

"Are you an idiot?"

"Seems that I am."

My joints were all screaming from sleeping out on the road, but I felt strangely pleasant otherwise. I stood up and stretched. Closing my eyes, I heard the morning wind rustling the trees and birds chirping. It was probably around 6 AM. The air had yet to fill with that heavy humidity; its slight warmth felt good on my skin.

"I was waiting for you. I felt that in order to approach Yui, it would be fastest to persuade you, Miss Aya."

"Still haven't given up?" She furrowed her brow.

"Correct. Yui needs me, you see."

"Hmph. Well, isn't that swell." She grabbed my shoulder and brushed me aside. "See ya, I'm in a hurry here."

"Have a good day. I'll wait here for your return."

Aya glared at me and looked like she wanted to say "Um, y'know...", but seeing that I wouldn't avert my gaze, she swallowed her words.

After a while, she sighed with resignation.

"My sleepless nights are still going strong," Aya said, pointing at the bags under her eyes. "Why's that? Because every night at 2, there's a rustling coming from the back door. Seems she's sneaking out of the house every night to go somewhere."

"At 2? 2 AM?"

"Yeah. Dunno where she goes, and I'm not interested in finding out. But you've got some understanding of her; maybe knowing where she's headed might give you some kind of clue."

With that, she went to leave, and I bowed my head.

"Thank you very much, Miss Yui."

"You're a real idiot. You could always just find another girl." She put her hand on my head and ruffled my hair. "See ya, Yocchan."

Once Aya left, her dark-rooted brown hair fluttering in the wind, I let out a big yawn. No, not even I could just wait around here until 2 AM. I decided I'd get back home and sleep soundly.

I began walking home. In the morning air, I found myself naturally stretching my back. Children ran past me with radio calisthenics stamp cards hanging from their necks. Water plants floated on the still water in a ditch. Announcements played on the town broadcast system, but it was too crackly to make out a single word. That was always the way. Even if it were the Earth's final day, they'd announce the end of the world with the same old mutter that nobody could make out.

At home, mom was having breakfast alone. Dad had already gone to work. "Where did you go?", mom asked, so I lied, "On a walk. I got up weirdly early." She seemed to believe that. After getting a bare minimum of food in me, I took a shower, put on dry clothes, and slept for about five hours.

Waking up in the afternoon, I called Nagahora.

"I know we were going to the beach later today, but I've got other plans, sorry. Hope the five of you have fun."

"Too bad, we were all looking forward to it." He didn't show any irritation about my sudden change of plans, but readily accepted it. "It's fine if you come late, so let us know if you think you can come."

"Sure. Sorry to let you know at the last minute."

I put the receiver down, then faced my desk and began on my summer homework. Even if the end of our lives is within sight, unless that's something particularly concrete, we can't just abandon our daily duties. It's absurd, really.

When the sun set, I went to the living room to get dinner, and sat across from my mother to eat yakisoba with such an overload of cabbage that it hardly had any taste. There was a baseball game on TV, but neither mom nor I favored either team. So unless the fielding team showed some particularly good play, we just cheered for the team at bat.

"When people have favorite teams, I wonder what makes them like that team?", mom pondered while pouring liquor into her teacup. "It's not because they know someone on the team, right?"

"Usually because they're local, or they have a favorite player, or it's the first team they ever watched, or because they're just good, or maybe even because they're bad. There can be a lot of reasons, I guess."

"I see! How interesting." My answer seemed to leave an impression on her. "It almost sounds like reasons for falling in love. Because her house is close by, she has elements you like, she was the first girl you ever saw, she's dependable, or maybe you figure she can't be left alone..."

"I don't really get the "first girl you ever saw" one."

"Oh? I think that one really fits," she proudly insisted. "What I mean is, the moment you meet her, you feel like she's the first girl you've ever seen in your life. It's as if you've been struck by lightning, your blood's running hot, your heart beats fast like it isn't your own, your throat is dry... And that's when you know love."

I smiled wryly. "That's not the kind of thing you say drinking beer from a teacup."

"But don't you think that's more persuasive? Surely it's at least more genuine from me than from a dreamy-eyed high school girl in a fancy café."

Once dinner was over and I'd washed the dishes, I still had over five hours to spare. I went to my room and did some basic weight training, then set my alarm to go off at 12, turned off the light, and fell asleep on my futon.

And so the time came. To help with tailing, I wore a black shirt with muted denim jeans, and tightly tied the laces of my well-worn sneakers. To further disguise myself, I put on black-framed glasses. The lenses were covered with dust, and I had to blow on and wipe them repeatedly. I'd bought them in middle school hoping to cover my birthmark, but upon wearing them, I found I'd made a miscalculation. The blueish-black birthmark blended into the color of the glasses, making it just look like it spread even further across my face; once I realized that, they earned a permanent spot on my desk. Luckily, my vision hadn't changed much since then, so the lenses still worked fine for me.

It took less than twelve minutes to walk to Hajikano's house. The stone wall around her house had not only a front gate on the south side, but also a small entrance on the east, leading me to believe Hajikano went in and out of that after going out the back door. I dared to hide not outside the gate, but on the inside. There, I could stay out of the streetlights, and it seemed easy to conceal myself in the bushes.

Time passed slowly. It being such a humid night, even sitting still in the shadows made me sweat. Thus, I was bitten by many mosquitoes while waiting for Hajikano. There were at least ten bites on my legs alone. On top of that, several crickets were making a grating sound nearby. It was uncomfortable, but I couldn't move; this was the only location where I could be in Hajikano's blind spot as she came out the back door. I couldn't know when she'd show up, so I certainly couldn't smoke either. I should've applied bug spray, I lamented.

Just as Aya said, Hajikano appeared at 2 AM. She opened the door soundlessly, and came out looking like a sleepwalker. She wore a linen slip similar to before, a sweat miniskirt, and flat sandals that looked difficult to walk in. If you were headed somewhere far away on a summer night, you wouldn't dress like this. Her destination must have been somewhere close.

Tailing Hajikano was simple. Unless they have reason to believe you're being followed, people don't check for someone behind them or abruptly start moving faster. Just keeping a fixed distance and keeping your footsteps quiet is enough; no need to even hide.

When I was at last able to hazard a guess at where she was headed, I couldn't help but feel that it was all somehow fateful. After going down a path alongside rice paddies and through several tunnels, she went off the path and began to descend a slope. All there was that way was a forest.

A normal person might have lost their nerve at this point. But I had some familiarity with that route.

Past the trees was a road which had been abandoned ages upon ages ago. Following the path of soil and fallen leaves, there was a red bridge going across a river. But one would hesitate to call it a bridge. It was naturally rusted all over due to years of neglect, and over half of the wooden boards had rotted away. All that was left was a metal frame about 15 centimeters thick and guardrails, and even those were in such a state that I would expect them to break any time now.

Hajikano crossed the bridge without any trouble.

Beyond it was her destination. The Red-Room Ruins I had once told Nagahora and his friends about.

Technically, the building was called the Masukawa Hotel. Though now decrepit and covered with vines, the hotel had once been fairly prosperous, but it was closed when a guest smoking in bed started a fire that killed many people - so goes the rumor, which any student in the town of Minagisa has heard at least once. But that was just the made-up ramblings of bored students, and in truth, the proprietor had simply fled in the night when business started to decline. For a time, it had been treated as a hangout for delinquent students, so all the windows were broken, it was littered with trash, there was spraypainted graffiti all over. But as the building aged further, floorboards started to give out and ceilings crumbled, so not even delinquents would come near it anymore.

Hajikano went casually into those ruins with just a flashlight. No mistaking it, she'd become quite accustomed to walking around here. The building was even worse for wear than when I'd visited; the hallways were fine, but the rooms were filled with holes. She went straight for the stairs, up to the second floor, to the third. A chain hung in front of the stairs going up from there, with a plate reading "Staff Only"; she stepped over it and proceeded even further.

In stark contrast to the rooms, with furniture and peeling ceilings and beds and mats that seemed beyond repair, the rooftop retained its appearance from when the hotel was still a functional hotel. Unless she intended to jump off this roof, this had to be her final destination.

A chair was placed in the center of the roof. It was a familiar chair with armrests. Maybe someone had brought it up from the "red room." Hajikano sat in it, put her arms on the armrests, stretched her legs, and relaxed.

This was her special viewing seat.

It was a strange scene, but at the same time, somehow invited a sense of nostalgia. A girl dressed in night clothes, sitting in a single comfy chair in the middle of a dreary rooftop, looking at the stars. It was all so unnatural, but bizarrely harmonious. That lack of coherence made it feel like a dream. Yes, this is probably what it would feel like to wander into someone else's dream.

If you ignored the various dangers, this was an ideal place to view the stars. No trees or power lines to obstruct your vision, no chance of light interference. When I followed her lead and looked up, my vision was filled with hundreds of stars. I hadn't even walked thirty minutes from the residential district - was the view really so different here? Or maybe walking in the dark had made my eyes able to see meager lights I wouldn't otherwise.

I observed Hajikano's actions from behind a pillar. She stayed in the chair and didn't move. Five paper-rolled cigarettes worth of time passed.

Then, I heard a song.

At first, it was terribly modest. The voice was quiet and weak. But it gradually became louder, and clearer. A song with a melody that was melancholic, but with a hint of warmth.

The Mermaid's Song. There wasn't a person in Minagisa who didn't know it.

I listened in to Hajikano's song. Her clear voice echoed alongside the rustling trees and insects, and it seeped into the warm summer air.

I'll keep this night a secret, I thought. Yes, I had a duty to at least let Aya know what her sister was going out every night and doing, but I didn't even want to relinquish that.

It's fine if I'm the only one who knows this beautiful secret.

About an hour exactly after coming to the rooftop, Hajikano slowly stood up. But I didn't tail her. I was convinced she would head straight home without any detours.

Once she left and I was alone, I sat in the comfy chair she had been in and looked up at the stars. I felt some of her warmth was still there.

The next night, and the night after, Hajikano left home at about the same time to go look at the stars. During the day, I went around inspecting the ruins to ensure she wouldn't get hurt; stomping on weak floors to open clearly-visible holes, sweeping away glass shards and sharp splinters on her usual route to the roof.

There were all sorts of things laying about in the rooms. Bottles with drinks still in them, broken tableware, torn curtains, stained futons, broken fans, TVs with holes in the screen, ropes with unknown use, piles of adult magazines, snapped umbrellas. I'd expect it to be a breeding ground for bugs and rats, but oddly, I didn't see even a single spider. Maybe even bugs don't come near a truly dead place.

I had no reason to know it at the time, but the summer of 1994 was an extremely important summer for astronomers. On March 24th, 1993, three researchers at Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California - Eugene Shoemaker, his wife Carolyn Shoemaker, and David Levy - discovered an elongated comet in the Virgo constellation. The comet was named "Shoemaker-Levy 9" (SL9) after the three of them.

It was found that the comet had been caught in Jupiter's gravity in the 1960s, and in 1992, it split up into over twenty linked pieces. In 1994, from July 16th to 22nd, those pieces rained down on the south side of Jupiter. For a few months afterward, you could see the bruises they left on the surface of the planet even with a small telescope. It was a huge, historic event in the field of astronomy and got lots of coverage on TV and in the newspapers, but Hajikano and I having no interest in news, we didn't have any inkling of it.

The appearance of this comet ended up taking away one great joy from amateur astronomers. The impact of SL9 into Jupiter seemed to prove that a comet colliding with Earth, previously only considered as a mere possibility, was entirely plausible. This led experts in the field to become extra-observant of near-Earth objects, in turn making it extremely difficult for an amateur to be the first to discover a comet.

But suppose Hajikano did know something so historic was occurring among the stars she was looking at. I still doubt she would think anything of it. She'd showed no interest in astronomical knowledge, or observation, or photographs. She just liked to look up at the sky and absentmindedly gaze at stars she didn't know the names of.

On another night, she was looking at the stars. On the roof of the ruined hotel, listening to their voices. I watched over her from the shadows. I knew that alone wouldn't turn the situation in my favor, and felt the deadline of the bet coming ever closer, but I just couldn't bring myself to speak. I wouldn't dare intrude on her secret joy.

And so summer break proceeded, day by day.

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