The Place You Called From

Volume 1, Chapter 5: The Ninth Comet
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Volume 1, Chapter 5: The Ninth Comet

"Seems clear she wasn't getting on well with her classmates."

The Aya I met that day was a totally different person from the Aya I'd met before. Before, she was always sleepy and bedheaded, so I saw all of her bad side. But in proper makeup and an ironed white shirt, she was no less charming than her sister. She probably knew full well that she was capable of presenting herself in a charming way, I supposed. No doubt, that excellent ability was fostered by the sense of inferiority her sister instilled in her.

"But I dunno anything beyond that," Aya shrugged. "Yui suddenly took to skipping class in the summer, her third year of middle school. But she hasn't offered me any explanation for it. Not to friends, or to teachers, or to family. When our parents ask what happened at school, it's always "Nothing." Maybe decently smart kids just have a habit of taking all their problems on themselves, and not being able to rely on others."

"Yes, she never was the type who itched to tell others about her troubles."

"Right. So sorry, Yocchan, but I don't think you can be much help. I doubt our parents know any more than me, either."

Aya had a much friendlier attitude than previous meetings. One reason was probably that she was sleep-deprived then, but maybe her personality also depended on whether she'd put on makeup or not. When you have confidence in yourself, you can afford to be nice to others.

I had a reason for coming to visit Aya again. While tailing Hajikano every night, I noticed many little actions and behaviors which overlapped with the Hajikano of the past. While she seemed so different on the surface, I could see how fundamental aspects of her hadn't changed so much since back then. And as my conviction of that grew, a doubt also grew in my mind.

Was Hajikano's despair something caused by the birthmark alone?

No matter what, I couldn't see her as a person who would go as far as suicide over a single blemish. Because this was the same Hajikano who had been the only one to accept my birthmark back in elementary school. Can someone's nature change that much in a year and a half? Or maybe it was as simple as being able to accept it on someone else's face, but not on her own?

Perhaps her despair had some deeper reason behind it. We might have been so fixated on the visible as to overlook what was really important. Maybe, in that half-year gap between the birthmark appearing and her starting to skip school, some significant event happened to her?

If my theory, that her despair was rooted in something other than the birthmark, were correct, the first step to knowing the truth would be getting closer to Hajikano's heart. So I first came to talk to Aya, the person closest to her.

"If you really want to know, you'll probably just have to ask her classmates directly," Aya suddenly spoke after a long silence. "There's probably at least one girl at your school who came from Mitsuba Middle School, right? Maybe she'd know why Yui got like that."

"I was considering that, too. But it's summer break, so everyone is all scattered."

"Then patrol someplace where you'd expect there to be people."

"I suppose... Just as you say, Miss Aya. I'll go around places where people gather. And I'll visit the school too, just to be sure. Maybe I can ask students doing club activities."

"I'd love to help and all, but..." She folded her arms and bit her lip. "I've got plans to meet some friends from high school today..."

Aya stopped there and looked over my shoulder. I looked back and saw a blue car stopped in the street with a surfboard on the roof carrier and the hazard lights on. The car was a horribly old make, the hood was mostly sunburnt white, and the engine made a strange rattling noise.

The driver's door opened, and out came a man about the same age as Aya. He was only a little taller than me, but he was lightly tanned and muscular, emphasized by his tight shirt. Wearing a cheap necklace and sunglasses like the compound eyes of an insect, he walked over to Aya, sandals clopping against the ground. "Hey," he waved. Then, acting as if he only just noticed, he looked toward me and asked, "Who's this guy?"

"Friend of my sister's," Aya answered. "So what are you here for?"

"Didn't I say I'd come pick you up, Aya?" The man took off his sunglasses and made a shocked face. "Promised to come by at 1 today."

"And didn't I later say I'd gotten other plans?"

"Nope."

"Is that right? Well, I do in fact have plans to meet some friends from high school today. I can't spare the time for you."

While the man stood there at a loss, his mouth half-open, Aya said "Oh yes," as if she'd thought of a brilliant plan.

"See, this guy needs to go around town to get information. Masafumi, you help him out. You've got all day, don't you?"

"Me?", Masafumi balked, his voice cracking.

"If you don't want to, that's fine."

His shoulders drooped. "Okay, I'll do it," he weakly replied.

The man's name was Masafumi Totsuka. A 23-year-old college graduate who was in the same class with Aya. He seemed to have a thing for her, but she denied his every approach. He'd only just taken up surfing and still had trouble getting on the waves.

"Hey, how do ya think I could get Aya to get friendly?", Masafumi asked, my circumstances clearly the furthest thing from his mind right now. "You're in good with her, right?"

"No. We've only just met."

"But she seemed real fond of you. Ain't she?"

"You just happened to see it that way. When we first met, she thought I was her sister's stalker."

"But you're something like that, right?"

"I won't deny it."

"Then we've got something in common," Masafumi remarked with deep feeling. "Both getting tossed around by a Hajikano."

The car radio was tuned to a local station, playing pop songs. Afterward, there was a very brief news report. It said this summer would be the biggest scorcher in twenty years. Apparently, by July 13th, the rainy season had come to a close all across the country. In contrast to that report, the AC in the car was keeping us awfully cold, and I kept rubbing my arms to warm up. When I got out at my first destination, the high school, my body which had forgotten it was summer was assaulted by the heat, and within minutes, I was sweating like mad.

I went around the school, and whenever I found students who looked like first-years, I haphazardly asked them about it. The school was surprisingly full of students even on summer break, and their activities were highly varied. Tennis players in a sweaty room, getting really into board games. Baseball players in the courtyard, dealing with the swarms of bugs. Couples in the library paying no mind to those around them, touching and getting looks. Art students who spent so long sketching outdoors, they were more tanned than the sports players. Girls in an empty classroom with the curtains shut, talking amongst each other. A guy in the music club who passed out from a lack of oxygen being put on a stretcher. I asked about twenty students in total, but not one of them was from Mitsuba Middle School.

"That fancy girls' school, right?", a boy said. "Nobody would ever willingly come from a place like that to here. You're looking in the wrong place."

It was just as he said. I left the school and returned to the car. Masafumi was reclining in his seat and reading a film magazine. When I told him I'd had no results, he snorted indifferently, tossed the magazine to the back seat, and started the engine.

Masafumi said he was hungry and stopped in front of a ramen place. I didn't feel especially hungry, but I reluctantly went with him. Many flies flew about the shop, and the ramen they served tasted like instant noodles, just with more oil. Masafumi ordered ramen for two and cleaned it up in no time.

After eating, he requested that I explain the situation to him again. I abridged the details, telling him I was looking into the reason why my former good friend Hajikano had stopped attending class.

"Why're you going around investigating what you could ask her yourself?", he puzzled. "Is there a point in being all roundabout?"

"It's an iffy issue," I answered. "Some roads might look like the fastest and most straightforward on the map, but they turn out to be the most roundabout."

"I dunno what the problem is, but I'd just ask her directly."

"I'd agree," interjected the shop owner over the counter. "Girls love to talk, right? If they see you wanna listen, they'll tell you more than you even asked."

"I wonder about that," the owner's wife refuted. "I'd say everyone has a thing or two they can't let anyone know, wouldn't you?"

"Not me," the owner mumbled.

"Oh, really?", she asked doubtfully. "I'd thought you had plenty."

After leaving the shop, we visited places like the desolate shopping district and the plaza by the shore one after another. After questioning some students stuffing their cheeks with cup ramen in the parking lot on the roof of the supermarket, my vitality finally ran out. Let's call it a day, I thought.

Ultimately, I'd gotten no useful information at all. I'd anticipated this, but much less than a student from Mitsuba Middle School, I didn't even find anyone who knew one. How many students from that prestigious school could there possibly be in Minagisa, anyway? After all, I didn't know a single person from there except Hajikano.

"Guess that was a waste of time," Masafumi said from the driver's seat.

"I'm sorry. Thanks for helping today."

"Sure. You better let Aya know I was helpful, yeah?"

Just as I thought we were going back the way we'd come, the car slowed down in the bar district. I looked at Masafumi suspiciously.

"Let's take a detour. You've walked around all day, a little stop won't hurt." And with that, he brought me into a bar.

Poking at mackerel while Masafumi drank sake next to me, I slurped soba noodles with entirely-too-thick broth. It was my first time in a bar, and I worried about my high school self being there, but they seemed to have no qualms as long as I didn't drink any alcohol. But also, how did Masafumi intend to get home after this? Would he leave the car here, or spend the night in the car, or sure enough, try to drive drunk? Whatever his intention, as his passenger, it was naturally on my mind.

After some time, Masafumi left me and walked around the restaurant to chat with some people who looked like regular customers. I half-watched the TV in the corner of the bar. It was some special on ghosts. Hearing voices at night in the abandoned school building, the kind of story you hear everywhere.

I put my elbow on the counter and started to nod off when Masafumi came back to me with somebody. He was an intellectual-looking man with glasses holding a highball glass in his hand.

"Hey, you, you better thank me," said Masafumi, clearly drunk and red down to the neck. "This guy's little sister's from Mitsuba Middle School."

"Hello," said the bespectacled man with a smirk. "Was there something you wanted to ask a graduate of Mitsuba?"

"Yes, that's right," I replied. "But specifically, I'm looking for anyone who graduated Mitsuba last year..."

The man's lips raised into a grin.

"That's my sister exactly."

I parted with Masafumi there. He collapsed in the driver's seat, said "I'm just gonna rest here," and waved at me haphazardly. I went walking for about 20 minutes with the man in glasses, Yadomura, and arrived at his house. He went to call for his sister, then came back a few minutes later alone.

"It seems she hasn't come home yet," he told me apologetically. "I'll bet she's gone to the woods."

"Woods?", I repeated. "You mean the ones by the coast?"

"Right. I think she's there looking for ghosts."

Ghosts?

I definitely hadn't misheard that; Yadomura said "ghosts." But touching on the subject of ghosts no further, he gave me very simple instructions on how to get to where he believed his sister was. I resolutely asked, "Um, what's that about ghosts?", and Yadomura answered with an ambiguous smile, "If you're curious, you can ask her yourself."

After walking down the path between the rice fields, I found the entrance to the woods. The woods at night were something you never got used to with any number of visits. Especially if it was summer. Naturally, without any artificial light sources, only a tiny bit of moonlight came through the thick branches and leaves, and unending mysterious noises from all directions made you uneasy. It was honestly hard to believe that a student from a prestigious girls' school had gone in here.

Following the path, I found an open area that served as a crossroads. According to Yadomura, his sister should have been there. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw a small girl sitting on a bench formed from a stump. She wasn't moving a muscle, so momentarily I thought she was part of the stump.

"Good evening," I said to her, unable to see her face. "Your brother told me about this place. I've been looking for a student from Mitsuba to ask them something."

After some time, a reply came from the darkness. "Then your journey is over. Good job."

"Do you know a girl named Yui Hajikano?"

"Yui Hajikano...", she repeated, as if to get a handle on the sound of it. "Yes, I know her. The girl with the birthmark on her face?"

"Right, there's a big birthmark on the left side," I confirmed, resisting the urge to jump with joy. "I'd like to ask some things about her -"

She interrupted me. "That's all I know. We didn't particularly mingle, and we were in different classes, so I know nothing about Miss Hajikano. From seeing her in photos and my yearbook, I remembered her name for her distinctive birthmark, but I've never once spoken with her."

"...I see."

I tried to hide the disappointment in my voice as much as I could, but Yadomura's sister picked up on it easily.

"I'm sorry. I would love to introduce you to an acquaintance, but I'm poor at socializing, so I don't have any such person to send you to."

"No, it's fine," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. "Actually, I'm more interested in hearing about this ghost thing."

After a pause, she spoke bitterly. "Did my brother mention that?"

"Yeah. You're searching for ghosts here, aren't you?"

"...I don't honestly believe in them, necessarily," she said as if pouting. "And it doesn't have to be ghosts, either. A UFO, some ESP, a cryptid, anything would do. Essentially, I'm waiting to find a fissure in the world."

I pondered her words. I reasoned that those could be reworded as "things which go beyond human understanding."

"Say, mister," she said to me - I wonder if she misunderstood me to be her elder. "I do understand, you know, that the things people call ghosts are just illusions their brain shows them. But even if it's an illusion or a hallucination, I don't even care. If I can witness just one thing that exists outside the laws of reality, I think it would serve to give just a little bit of meaning to my life."

Then she went silent as if to think for a moment. My eyes finally adjusting to the light, I could see her now. She was a doll-like girl, whose long hair going down to her waist gave an impression of being somewhat heavy.

"...In other words. If even just once, you saw the toys in the toybox get up at night and start talking, wouldn't that change the meaning of every toy you ever saw afterward? That's the kind of revolution I'm awaiting."

She went on explaining her reason for looking for ghosts using various such examples for nearly twenty minutes. And once she reached what seemed like her conclusion, she suddenly fell silent like running out of battery, and muttered something.

"I've talked too much."

She sounded like she wanted to fade away. If it weren't so dark, I'm sure I would've clearly seen her blushing.

"It was very interesting," I told her, not actually being sarcastic at all.

Her voice grew even weaker. "I usually have no one to talk to, so when I have the chance, I talk too much. When I get home, I'll have a serious reflection session."

"I know how you feel."

"Lies. Surely you couldn't understand. You seem like you have many friends."

I smiled bitterly, mentally muttering to myself "definitely not." In elementary school, I had made that kind of mistake again and again with Hajikano. After spending long breaks on my own and then going back to school, once I was able to talk to Hajikano there, I would keep talking about things she never asked about, and always felt depressed afterward. What an embarrassing loser I am, I chided, and every time I vowed to be a more quiet person.

"Hey, mister," the girl asked as I left. "Do you think I'll meet a ghost?"

"You'll be fine," I turned back and answered. "The world is overflowing with more intriguing phenomena than you think. I can guarantee that. In the process of looking for ghosts, you might encounter something even more bizarre."

"...Thank you. If you say so, I'll keep at it a little longer."

She smiled, or so I think.

"It's getting late, so be careful," I told her, and left the woods.

As I walked the road back, I saw a number of green lights shimmering near an agricultural irrigation channel. If there was any blinking light smoother than a firefly's, I didn't know it. No ornamental light could turn on and turn off so naturally.

I stood there and gazed at the dreamlike spectacle of faint green, never tiring of it.

I'd failed to mention it to Yadomura's sister, but to tell the truth, I also had experience passing by the coast in search of something, though it wasn't ghosts.

It began with a strange occurrence at the beach.

It was in the summer, and I was seven. I'd come with a friend to the beach and was walking along the waves barefoot as usual. At the time, I liked stepping on the flattened sand after the waves retreated, so I spent as long as I could doing it as long as nobody stopped me.

My friend, meanwhile, got tired of this simple game quickly and began to seek new excitement. He rolled his pants up to his knees and began walking toward the open sea. Not thinking deeply about it, I followed behind him.

"Want to see how far you can go?", he said. "Even if we get wet, we'll dry off before we get home in this weather."

"Sounds fun," I agreed.

We threw the sandals in our hands onto the shore, and took careful steps into the ocean.

The weather was mind-numbingly clear. The sand was all dried up, the ocean gleamed white, and far in the horizon were clouds shaped just like the wave in The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Once the water got up to my chest, my feet became unsteady. Even if I could get my soles flat on the ground, every push and pull of the waves seemed like it might pry them away. We should have turned back right there, but not yet having learned to fear the sea, we optimistically thought that if things got really bad, we could retrace our steps.

The moment came suddenly. The seafloor took a steep downturn, and my legs were swept up. By the time I realized the danger, it was too late; my body was being dragged into the open sea. I tried to hold on with my tiptoes and return toward shore, but my body was only carried in the opposite direction of what I wanted.

By the time the water rose to my mouth, my mind was blank with fear. I tried to swim back, but whenever I stopped to catch my breath, I took in water, and became increasingly panicked. I was aware that when you were going to drown at sea, you should float face-up and wait for help, but that knowledge went off who knows where when I was actually drowning. Unable to find my way whatsoever, I struggled in the water, only worsening the situation.

It came up to the point of thinking that I didn't have enough breath left to survive. When all of a sudden, a hand grabbed my wrist. And it pulled me with incredible force.

Of course, I'm sure I was only imagining it in my fear, and had really only been caught in some seaweed or something. But personally, I couldn't make a calm judgement like that at the time. Certain that someone was trying to drag me out toward the open sea, I shuddered. But I didn't even have the strength left to pry away that hand.

For the first time in my life, I was cognizant of death. Strangely, as soon as I started to become aware of it, my feelings of fear and regret weakened. Only a deep resignation remained. I felt I now had a true understanding of the word "unrecoverable."

I wanted to know who was grabbing my wrist, and tried to grab theirs in return. But there was nothing there. Without me realizing it, the hand grabbing my wrist had gone.

Just then, my fingers touched ground.

I slowly stood up, and found myself in the shallows where the water didn't even reach my waist. I could hear seagulls. My friend was calling my name in the distance. My fear earlier seemed like it had never been; there was only a tranquil summer day. I stood there a while, staring at the wrist which something had been holding earlier. A delayed fear welled up in me. My pulse throbbed, my body shook. I rushed up to the shore, fell on the dry sand, and waited for the chills to recede.

The next day, I came to this conclusion about the miraculous event that happened at the beach.

On that day, I was saved by a mermaid.

Ever since then, I came to watch the sea every day. I probably thought that if I did, I would someday meet the mermaid who had saved me. Or else, maybe I couldn't forget the intense thrill of having such a close brush with death and coming back alive. I'd completely forgotten what seven-year-old me was thinking about.

Day after day I went to the beach, but naturally, no mermaid ever showed up. Gradually, my initial objective dwindled in importance, I forgot about the mermaid, and I was left with only the habit of going to the beach. Yes, I'd completely forgotten - but the reason I went to the beach whenever I could spare the time had its origin in a search for a mermaid.

*

The next day, I met Chigusa in the plaza outside the station. I'd promised to accompany her for her rehearsal for the Minagisa summer festival. When Chigusa appeared at the meeting place, despite it being the middle of summer break, she was diligently obeying the school's stupid rule of wearing your uniform when you go outside during the break.

Minagisa was limited in terms of shops and facilities where you could sit and relax, and more than half of them were packed with students on vacation, so we reluctantly set up camp in the supermarket. In one corner, some high school boys were arm wrestling each other with juice on the line, and in the other, two high school girls were eating ice cream and complaining about their spineless boyfriends.

While I listened closely to Chigusa's melodic voice, I pondered what would be an appropriate place to get information next. A place where there were lots of graduates of Mitsuba Middle School. The first and most obvious candidate was Mitsuba High School. Mitsuba was basically a middle school and high school in one, and the vast majority of graduates went on to Mitsuba High. If I went there, I was sure to meet someone who knew Hajikano.

If you're wondering why I didn't ask there in the first place, you'd be right to wonder, but it was just so far away. The reason Hajikano went to Mitsuba Middle School was because she'd moved to the house of her grandmother on her mother's side. It was over an hour away from Minagisa by train. As such, I would've wanted to settle things here if I could, but it wasn't looking likely. Seems like I'll be going tomorrow morning to ask around Mitsuba High, I thought.

The problem was, it might seem a tad suspicious if I were to go down to that high-class girls' school by myself. Since so many people came to see the Mitsuba girl "brand," Mitsuba High was particularly harsh on outsiders, with guards always watching the front gate. A boy from another school would be the number one target to watch out for.

"...Ever since then, the girl broke all contact with both human and mermaid, quietly staying on the seafloor, occasionally recalling the past and weeping." Chigusa looked up from the script. "...The end. Fukamachi, were you listening?"

"Yeah, of course," I insisted, and applauded her to cover up my inattention. "I got really sucked into it. I'm amazed. You could just go up on stage right now without a problem."

"Thank you very much," Chigusa laughed, shaking her shoulders. "But compliment me more, please."

"It's not flattery when I say you have a prettier voice than anyone in the radio club."

"I suppose I feel rather elated."

"That's good." I smiled wryly. "By the way, don't you need to practice the song too?"

"I am practicing. And though I am, I will not let people hear it yet. And I have no intention of letting them hear until the performance."

"Why?"

Chigusa lowered her head. "Because it's embarrassing," she quietly murmured.

After reading through the script three times, we decided to take a break. I bought juice from a vending machine, and on returning to the table, four men with bright hair and gaudy outfits were laughing next to us.

"Let's switch locations," I said, and Chigusa nodded.

I snuck a glance at her face. The look she was giving the men was terrifyingly cold.

I felt uneasy wondering what she would think if she knew I used to be one of those people. Surely she would give the same cold glance to me, wouldn't she?

We finished up practice and took a stroll down a path by a river. I casually looked over to the other shore of the sparkling river. There, I saw children walking on a hill made silhouettes by the backlight of the sunset, and wires connecting steel pylons painted a distorted musical score in the sky.

Suddenly, a plan came to mind.

I came to a stop and ceremoniously said, "Hey, Ogiue."

"Yes?" Chigusa turned around forcefully, showing me a broad smile. "What is it?"

"Is it okay if I ask you something sort of weird?"

"Ask me something?" Chigusa awkwardly averted her eyes from me, staring at the ends of the hair draped over her chest. "Yes, of course."

"To tell the truth, I have an earnest request of you."

"Huh...?" Chigusa's back straightened and her face stiffened. "A request?"

"Only if you have the time, I mean."

"I do," she replied before asking anything about the time.

"Thanks. See, tomorrow, I'm planning to go to Mitsuba High. I want you to come with me."

"Mitsuba High?" Chigusa looked to find this totally unexpected. "Err, of course, I can accompany you... but what kind of business do you have there?"

I summarized the situation for her. My classmate Yui Hajikano being my friend in grade school. How she seemed to be mentally taxed right now (of course, I didn't mention the suicide attempt). The cause of that not being certain. And how a middle school classmate of Hajikano's might possibly know something about it.

"I understand," Chigusa nodded. "Not a deplorable objective, then."

"I went looking around Minagisa yesterday, but only found a single graduate from Mitsuba Middle School. Probably no choice but to go to Mitsuba High then, right?"

"However, you're wrong about that," Chigusa said with a serious look.

"What do you mean?", I asked.

"I mean that there's no need for you to go all the way out to Mitsuba High, Fukamachi," she answered. "For you see, the girl standing before you now was indeed a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School. What's more, she was in the same class as Hajikano in her third year."

Now that she was telling me this, I realized it wasn't that strange. In fact, I should have tried asking her first thing. If there was anyone I knew at Minagisa High that struck me as being Mitsuba-esque, it would be none other than Chigusa Ogiue.

"Well, Ogiue, do you know why Hajikano ended up -"

"I may know that," she interrupted, speaking like it wasn't of interest. "However, whether I will tell you is a different story."

Ignoring my response, Chigusa firmly made her position clear.

"After all, Hajikano wouldn't even say it in front of her own parents, would she? I simply can't go blabbering about a secret she wanted to conceal to that extent."

"You're absolutely right, Ogiue," I said after a few beats. "But given that, this is what I'm thinking. Maybe that secret in itself is a heavy burden for Hajikano. What if the pain of having to bear it herself and tell no one is the very thing putting pressure on her? Because in that case, I have to know."

"...This may be a slightly rude way of asking it, but." The tone of Chigusa's voice dropped. "Why do you feel you must go that far for her, Fukamachi?"

"She helped me, a long time ago. I want to repay the favor."

Chigusa hung her head and thought for a while.

"Understood," she raised her head to say. "However, you absolutely must not tell anyone else. If possible, act like you don't know even in front of her."

"I understand. Thanks."

"And also..." Chigusa's tenseness eased up into a grin. "In exchange, I will ask a request of you, too."

"A request?"

"I haven't decided what it is yet. I will think about it," she said with a good mood.

Tall sunflowers planted in a field cast thick shadows on the road from the western sun. The blackened heads of the sunflowers all facing west looked like countless giant eyeballs.

Sunflowers chase after the sun in the process of growth. By the time the flowers open, they stop moving; by the time they produce seeds, they bend down as if bowing. After running around without principle seeking light, in the end they just stare at their feet and wilt. Feels like an allegory - so I think every time I see sunflowers.

Chigusa began to speak slowly, choosing her words. "I may have spoken somewhat arrogantly, but in truth, the information I have is rather meager. All our classmates would say the same if you asked them. I believe they all know only as much as I do."

I nodded and urged her to go on.

"You may be aware already, but that birthmark of Hajikano's appeared suddenly in the winter of her second year of middle school. At first, it was as small as a speck. However, it grew by the day, enlarging to its current size in less than a month. Hajikano herself acted as if the birthmark did not bother her, but the change had an impact on the people around her in many ways. For those who felt pity for Hajikano, there were also those who laughed and said it served her right, and some simply lamented the loss of one of her beauties. But on the whole, I believe people were mostly sympathetic."

Here, Chigusa took a break.

"Fukamachi, perhaps you're wondering if the appearance of that birthmark resulted in bullying at an all-girls school?"

"...Did it not?"

She shook her head. "At least until July of next year, Hajikano got on more or less the same as she did beforehand. Until then, Hajikano had such a perfect appearance - though this was no fault of her own - that she had a certain unapproachable nature. But perhaps mitigated by the birthmark, she was liked more by her classmates than before. To my knowledge, Hajikano was never bullied."

From the way Chigusa was speaking, I could tell her effort to not sound authoritarian. It was like she was trying to tell me objective facts about Hajikano from as much of an "official standpoint" as possible. She probably felt a bit guilty talking about her when she wasn't around.

"Now then," she said to introduce the main topic. I braced myself for what awfulness might be coming.

"I do not remember the exact dates, but it was definitely just before summer break, so I believe it was probably the middle of July of last year. Hajikano did not come to school for four days straight. When she did attend school again, I realized that this Hajikano was not the Hajikano from before."

"Thus ends the story," said Chigusa.

"No one knows what happened in the span of those four days. In any event, what did happen in that short period changed everything about her. She didn't speak with her friends, she didn't make eye contact, and once summer break ended and the new term began, she had a habit of not coming to class. Soon various rumors and theories began to circulate, but ultimately, no conclusive facts that sound conclusive came to light."

After finishing, Chigusa gave a little sigh and sent a sympathetic glance at me, no doubt looking at a loss.

"My apologies, it seems I only confused you further. ...However, I believe that if you did go to Mitsuba High and asked around, this is still all you would come up with."

"No, this is plenty. Thanks."

I looked up to the sky. Not only had I not found a lead toward resolution, the mysteries had only deepened.

For a long while afterward, we walked together in silence. I had my things to think about, and Chigusa seemed like she had Chigusa things to think about. When my thoughts finally found a place to land, Chigusa opened her mouth.

"My house is around here, so..."

Before I knew it, the smell of the tide was on the air. We'd come pretty close to the sea.

"This is far enough. Thank you very much for today." Chigusa bowed her head deeply.

"Come to think of it, we sure walked a long way," I said, reflecting on the way we came. "Aren't you tired, Ogiue?"

"I am fine. I like to walk, you see."

"I do, too. Thanks for today. I'll see you later."

"Yes, sometime soon."

Chigusa turned her back to me and walked away. But then, she soon stopped, turned, and called "Fukamachi."

"Today, you did a very cruel thing to me. Did you realize?"

"A cruel thing?", I repeated.

Chigusa grinned wide. "It was a joke. Goodbye."

At the time, I didn't think very deeply about what "cruel thing" I'd done to her. I decided it was a meaningless joke and forgot about it right away.

If I were in a position to be more calm and objective, I probably could have easily figured out the meaning of it. But my head was filled with Hajikano, so I couldn't even afford to consider the possibility of someone showing me good will. Cruelty is less often something done consciously, and much more often done by unmindful people.

*

I visited Masukawa Hotel again that night. For the past few days, I'd been taking an approach of not tailing Hajikano from her house, but lying in wait at the ruins. Even if there was a light rain, or it was windless and sweltering, her feet never carried her anywhere besides those ruins. Knowing that, there was no need to risk tailing her.

I'd long since achieved my original objective of learning why she left the house night after night, to deepen my understanding of her. In essence, she liked watching the stars at the ruined hotel. It was futile to try and extract any more information out of her actions. And yet I'd continued tailing her, night after night.

My first priority now should have been to learn what events took place in the "blank four days" Chigusa told me about. And indirect means such as asking around and tailing were insufficient. For it remained an incomprehensible mystery even to Chigusa, who was as close to Hajikano as anyone at the time.

I couldn't think of any option but to ask her directly... Though conscious of that fact, most likely I was unable to take that plunge because I wanted to watch Hajikano look at the stars from the shadows forever.

The next morning... I'd like to say, but in actuality, it was past noon. Because of my visits to the ruins, I'd picked up a nocturnal schedule of waking up at noon and sleeping in the early morning.

I was woken up by the phone. The ringing sound in the silent house had a hollow feeling like the bell ringing at an elementary school on a day off. Leisurely making my way downstairs, not caring if I made it in time, I answered the call.

It wasn't the voice of the woman I heard.

"Hey, is this Fukamachi?"

It was my teacher, Kasai. To put it nicely, it wasn't a comforting voice to hear just as I was waking up. I regretted not just ignoring it and continuing to sleep snugly.

"Sorry to ask suddenly, but can you come to school right now?"

Kasai's attitude was different from usual today. There was a sense of distance, like he'd taken a step back. Maybe it wasn't Kasai who had business with me, but someone else.

"Understood," I replied drowsily. I wanted to ask why I was being called in, but Kasai's tone gave me the impression that he wouldn't take any questions from me. "I'll head there as soon as I'm ready."

"Right. Bye then."

The call ended. I took a shower, put on my uniform, had a breakfast of salmon slices and wakame miso soup while listening to the radio, and left the house with minimum luggage. The forecast seemed to call for another midsummer day, and piercing sunlight burned my skin.

The faculty room at Minagisa High seemed to be conserving energy even in this heat, so the non-air-conditioned room was just as hot as outside. The staff faced their desks with emaciated looks, and the plants by the windowsill were the only lively things in sight.

Kasai was waiting for me outside the room. Sure enough, he took me to see another faculty member. The one who called for me was Endou, the guidance counselor. He had a striking appearance - a giant body tanned black and a shaven head - that earned him many nicknames among the students, but nobody would say them in front of the man himself. Not only would Endou get irritated by the most minor of things, he was dreadfully threatening; once every few days, he would berate students who came late and make them get on their knees to apologize, or shout at girls whose skirts were a little too short and make them cry. You probably need one such person at a school, I feel, but he was someone you'd definitely want to avoid if you could help it.

Kasai went back to his desk, and Endou looked at me like looking at an inanimate object. Though the conversation took its time starting, asking any questions was strictly off-limits. Teachers like this hated students speaking up independently more than anything.

"Yosuke Fukamachi," Endou mechanically read, glancing at the papers on his desk. Then he turned his chair around, re-faced me, and spoke threateningly.

"What were you doing out late last night?"

This wasn't my first time being questioned by an oppressive teacher. I was called to the faculty room dozens of times in middle school, so Endou's attitude could feel nostalgic to me, even. I could tell he was preparing to shout at me. Maybe he even had definite proof ready for it.

Endou must have called me in to condemn me breaking into the ruins, I supposed. Was it getting around that a high school student was sneaking in there every night?

"I was taking a walk outside," I first replied. Lying wasn't a good plan, but it wasn't wise to reveal myself before knowing how much information he had.

"You're aware that by law, young boys aren't allowed to go out past 11 without supervision, aren't you?"

"I am."

"Then why did you think to take a walk?"

I wanted to say "could there any answer to that besides "I wanted to take a walk"?", but I swallowed it in my throat. I had no choice but to hang my head and stay silent.

Endou broke the silence earlier than expected. "But let's put that issue aside for now. Here's the real question. Do you know of the ruined hotel at the foot of the mountain?"

"Do you mean Masukawa Hotel?"

"Right. Last night, there was a fire there."

A cold sensation ran down my spine for an instant. Yet thinking back on everything I'd witnessed last night, from Hajikano visiting the ruins to me leaving, I sighed with relief. Most likely, whatever Endou was talking about happened after we left the ruins.

"By fire, I don't mean a very big one," he continued. "But it was one step away from escalating into a mountain fire."

"So in short," I interjected, wanting to move this along. "You're suspecting that I might be the culprit?"

Endou glared at me with annoyance. "There was a report this morning. At the time of the fire, a student saw a young man walking from the window of their house. By chance, they also knew that person to be Yosuke Fukamachi. And that's why you've been called here. ...So I'll ask you again. What were you doing last night?"

I hesitated to reply. First off, I wanted to avoid bringing up Hajikano at all costs. Any suspicious slip-ups, I would take responsibility for; I didn't want to get Hajikano involved in it too. But if I said "I went to the ruins to see the stars," would Endou believe me? No doubt about it, it would only deepen his suspicion.

Endou tapped the desk with his fist to hurry me up as I wondered if I had any decent escape routes. "What's wrong? Why can't you explain yourself? Something you can't tell me?"

At times like this, you had to restrict yourself to one lie. From experience, telling two or more lies just made it that much easier to dig a hole for yourself. And if I could use only one lie, I would want to use it to hide the fact that Hajikano was on the scene.

Just as I started to say "Yes, last night, I...", someone interrupted from out of the blue.

"He went with me to see the stars."

Endou and I looked toward the source of the voice simultaneously.

The first thing to leap out to me was a dark blue birthmark covering half her face. Come to think of it, it was my first time seeing her birthmark in clear daylight.

"I believe the arson occurred after we left," Hajikano said calmly. "You should be able to know if you look a little further into the witness report and the time of the fire."

The question of why Hajikano was here was answered by a B4-size manila envelope under her arm. She was probably called here by Kasai to pick up assignments and handouts from the days she was absent.

Hajikano in uniform was probably a familiar sight for Kasai, but totally new to my eyes. It should have been just a common, unremarkable sailor outfit, but when she wore it, it escalated her to something otherworldly. Like the way a skilled player can totally change the meaning of an instrument.

Endou glared at the location of her birthmark, then all around her body, then brought his attention back to the birthmark. I snuck a glance at the side of her face without the birthmark. That crying mole was still there. It was too small to determine if it was a real mole or not.

"Your name?" As if asserting that he was in charge here, Endou picked up a pen and opened a wrinkled notebook. "First-year, I see. Class?"

"Yui Hajikano. Class 1-3, the same as him."

Endou paused and pondered with the pen for a while, but not seeming to know the kanji for "Hajikano," settled for writing it in katakana.

"Another law-breaker, then," he snorted and closed the notebook. "So what were you there for?"

"I went to see the stars," Hajikano answered without timidity. "There's little light interference there, so it's ideal for viewing them."

"You like stars?"

"More than other things."

"Was there any interesting movement last night?", he asked as if testing her.

She thought briefly. "From about 1 to 2 AM, I saw a meteor shower. I believe about thirty meteors went by in an hour."

"Oho. Anything else?"

"It seems that maybe there wasn't only one meteor shower. As there were two or three radiant points."

"There's no maybe about it. It was Aquarius's Delta and Iota showers and Capricorn's Alpha shower," said Endou nonchalantly. "To get more specific, Delta and Iota are split up into north and south showers. So NDA, SDA, NIA, SIA. Their radiant points are close together, so it's hard to distinguish, but they're separate alright. The majority's SDA, though," he rattled off like it was nothing. "If you like stars, you oughta learn this stuff."

I unconsciously looked at the two's faces. Neither had any expression, but I felt the hostility between them had settled.

"Guess it's not likely you're lying about going to see the stars."

With that, he turned back to his desk as if losing interest in us and waved to shoo us away. It looked like he wasn't going to chastise us for being out late, either. I left the faculty room with Hajikano in bewilderment. From behind, we heard Endou say "Perseid is coming soon, so don't miss it!"

Meteor showers. So that's the reason Hajikano had been lying face-up last night.

But I didn't notice a single shooting star. Since there was something more worth looking at than the night sky.

Once we left the room, before anything else, I thanked Hajikano.

"You saved me."

Without looking at me, Hajikano began to walk. Normally, I would have gotten nervous at this point, but her having just saved me from a predicament gave me a push.

"So you noticed I was tailing you. Why didn't you say anything?"

Hajikano stopped and opened her mouth to say something, but ultimately thought better of it and resumed walking.

"I feel bad about following you in secret. It's not unreasonable that you'd be upset. But I've been worried since the incident in the park. Wondering if you'll try anything funny again."

If I was giving her such blatant excuses, it probably would've been better to be honest and say something like "I like your singing, so I kept following you wanting to hear it again." But I was focused only on clearing up misunderstandings and showing my good intentions, postponing the things I really wanted to say.

If it were possible, I wanted to explain to her the reason my birthmark had disappeared. Since fourth grade, I was strongly drawn to you. I always thought that if I just didn't have this birthmark, you would turn to face me. And one day, a mysterious woman called me and proposed as The Little Mermaid-style bet. I could have my birthmark removed, but if I couldn't form a mutual relationship with you, I would turn to foam...

Sigh. Is there anyone who would believe such a preposterous story? Even if she did believe it, depending on how she interpreted it, she might get the impression I made myself a hostage to force her to like me. From her point of view, it was "You have to love me or I'll die." I didn't want to do something that equated to pointing a knife at my throat and demanding her love. So I said nothing more, and just kept walking alongside Hajikano.

Hajikano looked toward me and let out a deep sigh. And as if running out of patience, she finally opened her mouth.

"...I know you're thinking of my sake deep down, Yosuke."

She went quiet after that, and took time choosing her next words. I kept my mouth shut, patiently waiting for them.

"So I want to tell you my feelings as honestly as I can."

She looked at me head-on and spoke.

"Don't care about me anymore. It's an annoyance."

Hajikano turned her back to me and ran. I quickly grabbed her hand and asked the last question I had in store.

"I heard from a graduate of Mitsuba Middle School about your middle school days."

Our faces were so close, I saw Hajikano's pupils dilate.

"What happened to you in those blank four days last summer?"

It was a risky gamble. Generally, I would have wanted to ask this question carefully, after slowly easing up her heart and removing all the obstacles I could. Getting right to the heart of the matter at this point might not only not get me an answer, but make her even more wary. But it seemed I was running out of options. In any event, the question seemed to shake her. There was probably no other time I could talk about it.

Ultimately, that question resulted in her showing me her first emotion-like emotion.

In the worst way, however.

"...Why won't you just leave me alone?"

After two or three blinks trying to keep it in, a spilling teardrop fell down her cheek. Right afterward, the dam burst and tear after tear fell. She turned away to hide her face from me, wiping her cheeks with her palm repeatedly. She herself seemed bewildered by the tears.

I was filled with guilt at the sight of it. I felt like I'd become an unbelievable villain.

As much as I struggled, maybe all I could do was hurt her. So I thought.

Hajikano left like she was escaping, and I didn't go after her. Hajikano realized that I was thinking of her deep down. She lied to keep me from being falsely accused. I'd clearly determined that the Yui Hajikano I'd loved still lived on in her now. She looked me head-on and did her best to be honest. And then she rejected me.

What more could I do?

Had I been a little more calm, maybe I wouldn't have missed the sight of Hajikano's crying mole blurring from her tears. Maybe I would have noticed that the mole drawn in erasable marker had vanished after she wiped her face.

But it wasn't to be. I couldn't look directly at her as she cried. If I looked at her face for more than five seconds, I feel like I would've gone crazy. I was so thrown off, the mole was pushed completely out of mind.

Kasai called to me as I stood there in the hallway. He came out of the faculty room, saw me, and beckoned back inside with a quiet "Fukamachi."

As I stood in front of his desk with a hollow expression, Kasai spoke.

"First, I need to apologize for something. I checked up on you and Hajikano's relationship in grade school."

He bowed his head to me. "Seems you were good friends after all, just like you said. Sorry for doubting you."

I shook my head apathetically. "In your shoes, I think I would've been just as suspicious of me."

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat on his brow, then put it back. He pursed his lips, took a breath, crossed his arms, and leaned back in his chair.

"I've been cautiously watching you these past three weeks. Without any real basis, I was waiting for you to slip up and show your true colors sometime. And I came to this conclusion - at least these days, you're not the kind of guy people would have a strong grudge against. ...So then, now I'm getting less and less sure. Why did Hajikano say she didn't want to be in the same school as you? Plus, say she did hate you more than she could bear. Then why did she step in with Endou and send you a lifeboat? Why did Hajikano come from Mitsuba to this school in the first place? There's too much that doesn't add up."

He didn't seem to be seeking the answers to these questions from me. I could only nod back.

"Of course, even if we solve those mysteries, it's too late. Fukamachi, I don't think for a second you're accountable, not anymore. In any event, this is a decided fact. I'll be telling everyone after summer break, but I'll tell you in advance."

"What are you talking about?"

"Hajikano's withdrawing from Minagisa First High," Kasai sighed.

According to Kasai, Hajikano had been in the faculty room today to fill out the forms so she could withdraw. Her mother had been there too until just before I arrived. After the last discussion and as they were about to say goodbye is when I arrived. Kasai left his seat to take me to Endou, and Hajikano sat there waiting for him to return. After he did and they had their talk, she was about to leave when she noticed me being questioned by Endou, and after some hesitation, came to my aid.

I thanked Kasai and left, then spent a long time wandering the school without an aim, then left. Under the deep blue post-sunset sky, everything looked pale. In my mind, Hajikano's crying face surfaced and vanished. Each time, I felt my spirit slowly but surely being grinded down.

The more I tried to go after her, the further away she seemed to get. And as a matter of fact, she had chosen to go far away. Though her destination wasn't clear, it was somewhere out of my reach.

How does it feel to vanish into foam? I pictured it. It probably doesn't hurt. Your existence just becomes something thin and uncertain, gradually dissolving in the waves. I felt like there could be no more suitable way to die for a person in the depths of despair over lost love.

At this point, of course, it wasn't as if I could realistically visualize my death. That wouldn't be until half a month later, when I personally witnessed a person vanishing into foam.

*

I didn't feel like going straight home, so I passed by my house. My feet naturally brought me someplace lively. Past the shuttered street, on a long quiet hill lined with bars and snacks, my aimless wandering brought me to a most unexpected reunion.

While gazing at paper lanterns illuminating the stores red and gaudy signs, I thought I heard someone call my name. But I looked all around and saw no one, much less the source of the voice. Just as I determined it to be a misheard remark from inside one of the stores, I heard my name shouted more clearly.

I looked up and met eyes with someone looking down from the second-floor veranda of a bar. Hinohara said "Wait there" and went back inside. A few seconds later, the upstairs light went out. I sat on the curb and waited for him to come down.

Yuuya Hinohara was a friend of mine in middle school. On the night of our graduation, when the job-getters and high-school-goers had a four-on-three fight, he was one of them. Like me, he was proceeding to high school.

Hinohara went to Minagisa South High School, a somewhat less reputable school than Minagisa First High, but he seemingly applied there simply because he had no real preference for where he went. Though far too intelligent to even begin comparing him to me, he didn't aim for Minagisa First High because he only cared to attend a high school that was within walking distance.

Maybe I'm not really one to talk, but Hinohara was a strange guy. Though his test scores were generally below average, he shocked everyone around him by ending up with around 90% in all his classes. It goes without saying that he was suspected of foul play, but by the latter half of his second year, the teachers had recognized the sheer strength of his dormant abilities. Such a waste, they said in unison. If he took his studies seriously, he could be at the top of the class.

Hinohara, a man with no interest in improving his grades and showing his academic prowess, told me only once about his reason for only rarely taking things seriously.

"I want everyone to get a taste of the irrational," he said in a low, echoing voice. "I want them to know full well that there's someone who can learn in three days what they spent a month on."

"Is that meant to be an enlightenment of sorts?", I asked.

"You could say that. Basically... Once upon a time, there was a woman who thought herself to be beautiful, with average intelligence. One day, she met a woman so perfectly beautiful she couldn't even compare herself to her, and was so shocked she wanted to go around smashing all the world's mirrors. What do you think the woman did then?"

"Had the beauty eat a poison apple."

"Dumbass," he snorted. "Obviously she'd start to work on more than just looks, right? Because she'd been shown there was a competitor she could never beat fair and square. So that's the kind of enlightenment I try to give to students."

He was a man who could say that with a straight face.

By process of elimination, Hinohara would probably be the person I was closest to in middle school. Both he and I had no interest in hanging out with healthy sorts, but that certainly didn't mean we felt at home with delinquents either. Wherever we were, we felt the discomfort of being in the wrong place. Just naturally, it made us get together often.

The tacit agreement between us was "I won't seek anything from you, so you don't seek anything from me." We formed a bond to make it through middle school days full of tedium and irrationality, and were in fact glad that we could think of each other as merely "convenient friends."

"Sorry to keep you." I heard Hinohara, then saw him descend down old steel steps along the wall of the building. He was dressed light - faded T-shirt, cut-off jeans, black beach sandals. He came up to me and playfully tapped my chest with his fist. "Been a long time. You been doing well?"

"Averagely." I grabbed his fist and pushed it back.

"What's with your face? Where'd the birthmark go? Got surgery or what?"

"It went away naturally. Seems like Mongolian spots go away as you grow."

He folded his arms and twisted his neck. "What a shame. I think I liked it better before. There was something amazing about that birthmark, let's say."

"Thanks. But I'm living a normal high school life now, so I don't need "amazingness.""

"A normal life? You?", Hinohara asked with suspecting eyes.

"Yeah, normal. Since April, I haven't punched a single person, and nobody's punched me. Haven't even been drinking in the gym storeroom or smoking on the emergency stairs. It's a peaceful high school life, nothing awry."

Of course, it was only "normal" if you omitted the many circumstances surrounding the bet. But there was no point giving a thorough explanation of all that to Hinohara. All it'd come to is him thinking it was an intricate joke.

"Our Yosuke Fukamachi, enjoying high school like a normal person..." Hinohara seemed deeply impressed.

"What about you, Hinohara? Same as ever?"

"How should I explain it?", he said, scrunching up his face. "Well, I'd like you to know the significance of me explaining it, too. Seeing as you're wandering around here at this hour, I assume you've got the time?"

Hinohara started walking without waiting for a reply. Without thinking much about it, I followed.

Hinohara led me to a parking lot for a public housing district surrounded by a tall fence. He didn't say this was our destination and seemed to be using it as a shortcut, so I had my guard down. I heard low voices from the corner of the lot, but students being out here at night wasn't uncommon at all in this town, so I paid it no mind.

By the time I realized who they were, it was too late.

Hinohara pushed me from behind in front of them. The four squatting and talking all looked at me at once, and smiled maliciously.

"These guys were pretty insistent about bringing you here," Hinohara laughed dryly. "Didn't think you'd show up for me. Saved me the effort."

I scratched the back of my neck, and tried to remember the names of those faces I hadn't seen in some time... From left to to right, it was Inui, Nogiyama, Mitake, and Harue. They were the four getting jobs in the big fight on graduation day.

I was aware they had a grudge because of that day. In spring, it seemed they would occasionally call me or lie in wait outside my house, but I was hospitalized the whole time, so I ended up not seeing them. Four months had passed by now, so I figured their anger had settled. But I guess I'd underestimated their deep-seated grudge.

It would've made sense if Hinohara was also their target, but this time he seemed to be on their side. I wondered if he was told that he'd be spared if he turned me in. Hinohara was the kind of person to readily sell a friend to save his own hide. He was selfish - or just that cold, maybe.

"Haven't seen you since graduation, huh?", spoke the tallest man, Nogiyama. "Sounds like you were in the hospital 'til recently."

"Yep, I had an accident the night of graduation, after I left. So I had a pretty long spring break."

Nogiyama laughed, and the other three followed. Seems like the power dynamic between these four hasn't changed, I thought. Just like in middle school, Nogiyama assumed clear superiority over the other three.

"You know what's gonna happen next?", Nogiyama asked.

"Couldn't say. Maybe the six of us can go drinking to let bygones be bygones?"

Again, Nogiyama laughed, and the three imitated. Hinohara looked on emotionlessly, but I doubted he had even the slightest intention of coming to my aid. He was that kind of guy. I was on my own to handle this problem.

Nogiyama took a metal bat from one of his henchmen, and after a few test swings, he drew near me and pushed it to my jaw.

"Must've been glad to have that long break, huh? I was glad to hear you were in the hospital myself. 'Cause if my friends are happy, I'm happy. ...So here's what I'm thinking. How 'bout we extend your summer break, too?"

Nogiyama gave a self-satisfied grin, and the three cackled.

I re-evaluated the situation. One against four. Depending on Hinohara's mood, one against five. One of them has a metal bat. I couldn't imagine any chance of victory. It was probably best to swallow my pride and run, but they were already closing the distance, driving me into the corner of the parking lot.

I'd just have to prepare for the worst, I thought. Resist as much as I could manage, and leave it up to luck -

Just then, it happened.

"Fukamachi?"

I couldn't see her because of the men standing in my way, but I didn't need any further confirmation of who had spoken.

Nogiyama slowly turned around. I felt a chill run down my spine.

Chigusa, dressed in uniform, was looking at me anxiously.

Why was Chigusa out at this hour? I ran through my thoughts. And I remembered Chigusa saying we had an appointment today for the Minagisa summer festival.

Talk about poor timing.

"I see," Nogiyama said as if having a realization. He was sharp enough to immediately tell the relationship between us.

Nogiyama turned back to me and smiled, a completely face-contorting smile. Like he was just so pleased about what was going to happen.

The situation had changed. There was no time to hesitate. Any action would have to be as quick as possible. While Chigusa's appearance has them distracted and unprepared - this was the only chance I had.

Just as Nogiyama instructed to the other three "Hey, get her over here," I went on the attack. Aiming for the moment he turned back to me, I landed a blow square on his nose. Stepping on his wrist after he fell backward, I pried away the bat, flipped it around, and thrust it right into his solar plexus. Already holding his nose with both hands and writhing, this kept him from moving any further.

Hearing Nogiyama wail, the three headed for Chigusa finally noticed the commotion behind them. They rushed over and tried to jump me, but I kept them at bay with the bat, then making another forceful blow with it on Nogiyama's shin. He let out a yell of anguish. I felt bad for him, but the theory for a one-against-many fight like this called for an overwhelming beatdown of the group's leader. By creating a situational difference between the head and the followers, you could set them up as onlookers. So I could show no discretion.

Suddenly looking up, I saw Chigusa standing there expressionless. "What are you doing? Get away from there!", I told her, and she nodded, but didn't move from that spot. Maybe she wanted to move, but couldn't.

As a last performance, I kicked Nogiyama in the side, then threw the bat down in front of the three rendered immobile from panic. It made a loud sound as it hit the asphalt. After seeing no one go to pick it up, I squatted down, took a deep breath, and looked up.

"Would you let me call it here for today?"

I put on a smile that looked flattering, but had a hint of cockiness. Of course, it was just a bluff. If the three attacked me all at once, there was nothing I could do.

"If you're just not satisfied, beat me with that bat until you feel better. Then we can call it a draw."

The three looked at each other. Then they looked at curled-up Nogiyama writhing in pain. Two of them picked him up, and with a glare at me, they left in silence.

In the end, only Hinohara remained.

"So, what about you?", I asked him, scratching the back of my neck.

"Nothing, really," he shrugged. "I was just told to bring you here. Man, though, that was quite a show. Always liked that resoluteness of yours."

Then Hinohara glanced at Chigusa. She was still frozen in the same stance as when I called to her. He walked up to her, said "Sorry you got involved in something weird," and walked off in a different direction from Nogiyama's crew. Maybe the reason those three backed off so easily could be owed to the lingering chance of Hinohara coming to my aid, I realized.

Once he was out of sight, I sat down on the spot with relief and closed my eyes. Such luck. That everything went so smoothly could be nothing but a miracle. If there were a next time, it certainly wouldn't play out this way again.

When I opened my eyes, Chigusa was looking down at me.

Her eyes didn't have any emotion in them. Like she wasn't looking at me, but through me, at the design of the fence behind me

"Who were those people?", she asked.

"Friends from middle school," I replied, not untruthfully.

"Middle school, you say. ...Come to think of it, I never did ask what school you came from, Fukamachi."

"You can probably guess now."

Strangely, I laughed. It was a dry laugh.

The sensation of hitting Nogiyama still lingered in my fingers. I closed and opened my hand to get it away, but the impure exhilaration in my hands wouldn't fade easily.

"Minagisa South Middle School. Just like the rumors say, it was a place full of good-for-nothings. Like me, and like those guys."

Chigusa thought for a moment. "Occasionally, I heard of students from there assembling in ruins on the outskirts of town. Were those acquaintances of yours?"

"Not just acquaintances. I was one of them."

"Is that a fact," Chigusa said with no real surprise. "So you were a bad person, Fukamachi."

"Yeah, that's it." I lifted the corners of my mouth. "No more questions?"

"Correct," she nodded.

Now Chigusa hates me too, I thought. I can't get my way out of this. Even if I did it to protect her, there was no mistaking it was a brazen act of violence.

But in a sense, this was an outcome I wanted. I had a natural liking toward Chigusa Ogiue. It seemed to me that Chigusa had a similar kind of appreciation for me. Thus, I thought there was a need for her to start hating me.

August 31st - which, come to think of it, was the last day of summer vacation. If I couldn't move Hajikano's heart by then, I would vanish into foam. If I, as a friend, were to suddenly be lost, Chigusa at least would be made sad. The deeper our relationship got, the more severe the pain promised to her would be.

So before the time came to part, it was good to make myself hated. If by August 31st I could essentially exhaust Chigusa's good graces for me, then even when I turned to foam, she wouldn't be too torn up about it. Maybe she'd think something like "I should have been a little nicer to him," but it would sidestep any devastating wounds.

I had been wondering how I could go about disappointing her. So depending on how you thought about it, you could say Nogiyama and his lackeys saved me effort. There was no clearer way to show my disgraces to Chigusa. I proved Yosuke Fukamachi to be a person who was involved with dubious sorts, who wouldn't be above violence if it came to it. Chigusa would no doubt scorn me for it. Thank goodness.

I took a cigarette out of my pocket and lit it. I kept a puff in my lungs for a long time, then slowly exhaled.

Chigusa watched the whole thing without moving an eyebrow.

Once about two centimeters of the cigarette had been turned to ash, she broke the silence.

"Come to think of it, I've yet to decide my "request.""

I blinked. "Oh yeah, I did promise that."

I misjudged you. Please, never talk to me again.

Surely that was what she'd say, I thought.

"Fukamachi."

Chigusa suddenly smiled.

"Please, make me a bad person."

It was the night of July 31st.

The cigarette fell out of my mouth to the asphalt, launching miniature fireworks.

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