The Place You Called From

Volume 1, Chapter 6: The Place I Called From
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Volume 1, Chapter 6: The Place I Called From

August 1st was a designated all-school attendance day at Minagisa First High. Arrive by 9 AM, get a long list of tasks from your teacher, then take a thirty-minute break. Then starting at 10, a talk from the principal in the gym. Once that was over and you got back to the classroom, then began the students' favorite: discussions for the culture festival. The class attractions, the assignment of duties, the time of your next meeting (if necessary) - it all had to be decided within the day. Depending on the class, talks could go right up to 7 PM, the school's ultimate closing time.

Surprisingly enough, the principal's talk wrapped up in less than ten minutes. Retreating from the sweltering gym stuffy with every single student's warmth back to the classroom, as the room was filling with excitement to let the festival prep begin, I leaned over and talked to Chigusa in the seat beside me.

"This could get long, so let's sneak away."

Chigusa blinked a few times, then grinned.

"Ten minutes, next to the gate," I whispered.

Chigusa quickly prepared to leave, and altogether casually slipped out of the classroom. A few eyes gathered on her bold escape, but since she was so natural about it, the witnesses all seemed to rationalize it with various interpretations.

One person harbored doubts: Nagahora in the seat in front. "Is she feeling sick? Ogiue never leaves early."

"Maybe," I said ignorantly. "Or maybe it's simple sabotage."

"No way." Nagahora laughed with a raised eyebrow. "That word couldn't fit anyone in this class less than Ogiue."

"I guess that's true," I agreed, then grabbed my bag and stood up.

"Whoa, don't tell me you're leaving early too?"

"I'm feeling sick."

Evading Nagahora's pursuit, I escaped the classroom. To avoid running into any staff, I went down the stairs to the hallway leading to the gym, put my indoor shoes in my shoebox, held my outdoor shoes in one hand, and took a detour to leave the school without passing in front of the faculty room.

Though Chigusa left the classroom first, she arrived at the school gate after I did. The sight of her spotting me and jogging over gave me a feeling of wrongness I have no good way of describing. I couldn't tell what exactly it was.

"I'm sorry I'm late," Chigusa said short of breath.

We walked along together. We heard faint chatter and laughter from the open windows of the buildings.

"This is the first time in my life I've left school in the middle of the day."

"You come to class too many days to count anyway. Those who skip win."

"You truly are bad, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked, finding it too funny to bear. "So, where might we be headed to now?"

"Who knows. I'm still thinking about it."

"Then let us sit down somewhere and think it over together."

We went into a nearby bus stop. It had a roof, so it was the perfect place to do some thinking while protected from the sunlight. A bus only came once every hour or two, so we wouldn't even be mistaken for passengers and cause drivers any trouble. The sheet iron walls had holes in places, and posters and tin signs for used car places and consumer loans were plastered all over them like a mosaic.

Seeing Chigusa sit and stretch her legs, I finally realized what was amiss earlier. Her skirt was shorter than usual. That said, it was at most 15 centimeters above the knee, and plenty of girls at Minagisa First High wore skirts that length. But for Chigusa who essentially never deviated from the uniform, it was something unheard of.

Until then, I had never thought deeply about the beauty of knees, and only classified them as thick or skinny. But when I saw Chigusa's knees, I had to recollect my thoughts. Knees, just like the eyes, the nose, and the mouth, could be a strongly defining body part. Just a few millimeters difference had such a massive change in impression, a delicate yet eloquent feature. And Chigusa's knees were more ideal than any I'd ever seen. Painting an elegant curve with no wrinkles, her knees brought to mind a carefully-cooked white porcelain vase.

"Is that another way of "letting your parents down"?", I asked, looking at her knees.

"Ah, so you noticed." Chigusa lifted her bag onto her lap to block my gaze. "That's right. I made it shorter. I feel somewhat restless."

"It feels really fresh to see you dressed like that."

"My apologies, they're so unsightly..." Still holding her bag, she bowed repeatedly like a pecking bird.

"Have some confidence. You have such pretty legs, after all."

"Do you think so...? Thank you very much."

With her head still bowed, she thanked me ticklishly, but didn't budge the bag on her lap.

"One day in my third year of middle school, I realized something. I was a mediocre person who could easily be replaced, like an extra in a picture."

The night I was attacked by Nogiyama, after Hinohara left, Chigusa told me: "Please, make me a bad person." Convinced I would hear a rejection at that moment, it was completely unexpected. Stomping out the cigarette that fell from my gaping mouth, her words echoed in my mind.

Make me a bad person?

"Sorry, perhaps putting it that way is unclear." Chigusa averted her eyes and scratched her cheek. "I'll explain in the proper order. Though it may not come across very well..."

Then she began to speak, bit by bit. In her third year of middle school, while taking a course on interviewing, she was astonished to realize she couldn't think of a single thing to describe herself as a person. She became aware for the first time that she'd just lived as her parents told her to, not making a single decision worth calling a decision.

"In other words, I was an empty person," Chigusa said as if reading a sentence she'd already read. "I had no failures, but I had no successes either. I could serve in many people's place, but many people could take my place. I could be liked by anyone, but I could not be anyone's favorite. That was Chigusa Ogiue."

She averted her eyes and smiled self-derisively.

"Of course, that could apply to many people on some level. However, my mediocrity stood a head above the rest. When my friends spoke about their past experiences, I always felt uncomfortable, as if someone was sneering at me. On occasion, I even felt like I was being blamed. "You're lacking in experience in every sense, you don't have any way to describe yourself - such an empty person.""

Perhaps remembering her pain, her words were slightly hoarse.

"There were many people with nothing inside them all around me. Mitsuba Middle School, where I once attended, felt like a collection of samples of girls living tedious lives. People traveling down pre-laid rails without a single doubt, only deciding which car and which seat to sit in, convinced they were making crucial life decisions. That said, somehow they seemed to think of themselves as fairly individualistic people. To my eyes, it seemed as if they had made an agreement to forcibly characterize each other and put on an act of being rich with personality."

Worried I would be bored by her long story, Chigusa kept glancing at my expression. I kept nodding to show interest and encourage her to continue.

"I felt a faint coldness from such a relationship, and quickly changed my choice of high school. Perhaps something would change if I went there, I thought. Of course, my parents resisted, but I managed to coax them with assorted logic. That was my first time clearly defying my parents' will. My heart danced to have finally been able to take the first step in my own life. ...Yet, ultimately, even at Minagisa First High, the fundamental parts of me did not change. A commonplace cheery girl had simply changed into a commonplace mature girl."

At this point, Chigusa looked up into my eyes.

"So, Fukamachi. I want to stick outside the box. I don't believe there's any aspect in which I excel over others. So I at least want to do things to make people furrow their brows, to have teachers scold me, to disappoint my parents - to escape a pre-established harmony. Whatever filthy color it may be, I want to be a more genuine me. Will you assist me with that?"

There was plenty of room for a rebuttal. For one, I'd never thought of Chigusa as a mediocre, commonplace person, and could offer up several ways she excelled over others. Most importantly, only a handful of truly unique individuals existed in the world, and she was making a mistake asking the far-more-mediocre me for assistance.

But I gulped down the words as they came up my throat. This was the conclusion Chigusa herself had come to after plenty of thought. It wasn't an issue for me to speak on, having known her for less than a month. If Chigusa wanted to stick outside the box, then that was the right thing to do. Even if it was a mistake, a mistake done after careful consideration is worth about as much as the right thing.

"Got it. I'll help," I agreed. "But what exactly should I do to make you a bad person?"

Chigusa spoke after a decent pause.

"I don't mind if it's only for the day. Tomorrow, could you treat me as if I were one of your middle school friends? I'd like to experience the unhealthy lifestyle you once lived with your friends."

That would be fine, I thought. To tell the truth, I didn't want Chigusa to be a delinquent, and spending more time together would make it harder to part. But if it was just a day, that was nothing. I had plenty of time to make a recovery afterward. If that made her feel better, then why not?

Just maybe, when we first met and she said "Wish for my freedom," this was what she meant.

"Have you thought of something?", Chigusa asked, moving the bag on her lap to the side.

I shook my head. "Delinquent things are hard to think up on the spot."

"Then let's enforce some limits," she said, sticking up her index finger. "Did you ever slip away without permission with your friends in middle school?"

"Countless times."

"Do any such days stick out in your memory?"

I searched my thoughts. "Come to think of it... Second year, in summer, I faked sick in fifth period to get out early. We got out at different times, and met up outside of school like today."

Chigusa jumped on it. "Tell me more about that day, please."

"We sneakily bought cigarettes from a vending machine, then had a party in Hinohara's room. Oh, Hinohara's the one guy who apologized to you last night, Ogiue. His house was a bar, so he had plenty of alcohol. We didn't really know how to drink at the time, so we just kept drinking without stopping. I remember both of us getting drunk in no time, and throwing up in the toilet together."

"Wonderful. That sounds fun," she said with a smile, then seeming to have an idea.

"Let us do that."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, we should party at my house."

"Are you being serious?"

"Yes. It's all right. There should be alcohol at my house."

Chigusa got up and leapt into the sun outside the bus stop. Then she turned and beckoned to me.

"Let's go, Fukamachi."

After going down a long, winding hill, the lake smell grew stronger. Chigusa's house was in an intricate residential district.

I'd already had the thought when escorting her home yesterday, but it was a model semi-rich family's house. Made of brick, with a mowed lawn, a shined-up expensive car, a garage full of tools, and a porch lined with decorations in good taste. It was all above average, yet you could clearly see where the family was making compromises. That kind of house. Of course, there was no doubt it looked pretty wealthy compared to my place.

Chigusa led me into the house through the back door. Built on an incline, the house had entrances on both the first and second floor. The second-floor entrance, facing a wide path, seemed to be used as the front door, whereas the first-floor, facing a thin path, was the uncommonly-used back door. It was the ideal design for Chigusa to sneak in without her family noticing.

Not turning on the hallway lights, we proceeded down the hall with extreme care not to make any noise, my eyes on Chigusa's back. The reversed roles of first and second floors wasn't limited to the entrances; the living room and kitchen were on the second floor, with the bedrooms and nursery on the first. Though a relatively minor difference, I felt extremely restless, like I was driving backwards down a one-way road.

After we entered Chigusa's room and she locked the door, I let out a deep sigh. The room was air-conditioned and comfortable. "Take a seat," she told me, so I sat in a chair in front of a coffee table. Starting with the chair and table, I noticed the room furniture had a matching dark brown color scheme. Maybe it was a little too calming for a sixteen-year-old girl's living space. Or maybe girls' rooms were just like this nowadays?

"I've secretly brought a boy into the house," Chigusa said. "It would be dreadful if my parents found out."

"I'll pray that won't happen."

"Since what's more, it's former bad boy Fukamachi."

"Just so I know, what would happen if we were found?"

"Nothing, really. It would just be terribly awkward. Surely my father and mother would be unsure how to treat me, I suppose. Such a development wouldn't be so bad."

"Well, maybe an excessively orderly family needs a little chaos."

"Indeed. So you need not worry, Fukamachi."

Chigusa opened a cabinet and took out two white cups, then three marine blue bottles from a lower drawer. The labels had a mermaid drawn on them, and "Mermaid Tears" written in pale white letters. A local drink that any citizen of Minagisa would know.

"For some reason, my family frequently receives alcohol. But since no one drinks it, it only piles up. There are six more of the same in the kitchen. If you want them, go ahead."

"Thanks, but I'll pass."

We filled each other's cups, sat in front of the coffee table, and quietly gave a toast. After quickly downing her cup in one swig, Chigusa furrowed her brow and said "Strange flavor," but poured a second cup from the bottle.

"Looking as pretty as it does, I had expected a cleaner flavor."

"Yeah, it's surprisingly dry." I finished my cup too and poured a second. "So, how does it feel indulging in underage drinking?"

The cup headed for Chigusa's mouth stopped at her chest, and she faintly smiled.

"It's very thrilling."

"That's good."

"...Ah, yes. Hold on a moment."

Chigusa then opened the cabinet again and put a small glass bottle on the coffee table.

"Use it as an ashtray. You smoke, do you not?"

"Thanks. But it's not like I smoke that frequently. And your room would stink if I smoked in here..."

"Please, smoke. I wish to try it, too."

I took a pack from my bag, pulled out two cigarettes, and handed one to Chigusa.

"Wakaba," Chigusa read from the packaging.

"It's third-rate. Gross, but cheap."

I held my lighter up in front of Chigusa, and she timidly held the filter and held it near the flame. "Suck in," I instructed, and the paper faintly lit red.

After taking in the smoke, sure enough, Chigusa coughed. After hacking up a storm with tearful eyes, she glared scornfully at the cigarette in her fingers. Then she tried a second time, and this time slowly let out the smoke without coughing. I lit my own and we quietly smoked together.

"I think I finally understand," said Chigusa as she imitated me in tapping the cigarette on the edge of the bottle to knock off ash.

"What do you understand?"

"This is the smell you sometimes have, Fukamachi."

"Do I have that much of a nicotine smell?" I sniffed my shirt.

Chigusa snickered. "No, it's really only a faint smell. Normally, one wouldn't notice it."

After finishing our cigarettes, we again filled our cups.

"You don't have to push yourself to drink a lot, okay?", I advised after seeing her down a third cup.

"Right. But if I'm drinking, should I not try to get drunk at least once?" Then she poured a fourth cup.

Brown cicadas buzzed outside the screen door. Due to the brightness outside, it felt dark and gloomy in the room. It was an August-esque, languid summer afternoon. Having aimless conversation, we leisurely continued to drink.

Chigusa seemed to be a heavier drinker than appearances might have indicated. I tried to keep up with her pace, and soon felt my senses growing hazy.

"What's the matter? Fukamachi, are you sleepy?", Chigusa asked in an oddly good mood, maybe because of the alcohol. Last time I checked, she was in front of me, but now she was beside me. Maybe I was the one who moved? The order of events in my memory was hazy.

"Seems I'm a little drunk," I replied.

"I may be as well. I'm oddly enjoying myself," Chigusa remarked without any slurring. "Fukamachi, Fukamachi. What typically happens when people get drunk?"

"Depends on the person. Some people change completely, and some don't change at all. Some are merry drinkers, and some are sobbing drinkers. It's just different habits. Some start suddenly preaching, and some get nice beyond recognition. Some fall asleep comfortably, some get quick to fight, some get all touchy-feely..."

"Well, that's me."

Before I could respond, Chigusa collapsed on my shoulder like a puppet with cut strings.

"What's this?", I asked, hiding my bewilderment.

"My drinking habit," she replied, unable to fully conceal her embarrassment. "I'm feeling clingy."

"Uh, Ogiue. You don't decide what kind of drunk you are for yourself."

"It's all right. I'll apologize later."

Being coaxed with incomprehensible logic, I lit up another cigarette to conceal my increasing temperature.

"Fukamachi, are you the type that doesn't change when drunk?", she asked.

"I dunno. I've drank too much and thrown up, but I've never gotten properly drunk before."

"It's all right if you cry and shout. And I won't mind if you're touchy. ...Oh, but I would slightly dislike being preached to."

"Seems like you're a talkative drunk, Ogiue," I joked. She rubbed her face on my shoulder with displeasure.

Soon, my eyelids got heavy. Seems I'm a sleepy drunk, I thought distantly, and was swallowed by afternoon drowsiness.

When I opened my eyes, the sun was going down, and the room had gotten pretty dark. The cups were dried up and let off a sharp smell.

I had a rough feeling on my cheek. That quickly reminded me that I had fallen asleep in Chigusa's room. I quickly shot up, and heard a yelp at my ear.

"G-Good morning," Chigusa awkwardly smiled.

After four or five full thoughts, I realized what kind of situation I'd been in.

Apparently, I had been sleeping using Chigusa's thighs as pillows.

"Was I asleep?", I said rubbing my eyes, concealing how flustered I was. "You should have woken me up."

Chigusa coughed quietly. "...I should just mention, you fell over into my lap."

"I did?" I tried to recall falling asleep, but my memory seemed to cut off somewhere. "Sorry. Are your legs numb?"

"It's all right. You're a lightweight, Fukamachi," Chigusa remarked with faint smile as I fumbled.

"You're just too heavy a drinker, Ogiue."

I looked up at the clock. It was 7:30 PM.

Chigusa spoke with her gaze fixed on the glass bottle on the table. "Um, Fukamachi, I'm sorry about earlier."

"No, I should be sorry."

We bowed our heads to each other, then an unspeakable silence persisted. I tried to light a cigarette to fill it, but I reconsidered and put it in my pocket.

"We should get some fresh air."

"Yes, good. Let's do that," Chigusa agreed with a look that said "thank goodness."

The residential district was brimming with assorted smells at night. Smells of dinner on the wind - fish, miso soup, meat and potato stew - and the smell of soap from a bathroom window stimulated my nose.

Chigusa's walking beside me seemed unstable. Hardly tottering or anything, but she swung from side to side.

"Were you perhaps drinking while I was asleep?", I asked.

"I mean, you wouldn't wake up, Fukamachi."

"I'm not blaming you. I'm impressed."

"Is that right? Tell me if you get sleepy, lightweight Fukamachi," Chigusa said cockily.

"Now, it's finally night. The ideal time for ne'er-do-wells. What badness do you wish to do?"

"Don't get your hopes so high. I'm just a hoodlum."

Walking without thinking about the destination, my legs seemed to carry me where they knew how. Without even realizing, I was headed down the road to the usual shopping district. Somehow, it felt like there were oddly many people headed in the same direction. Every time people passed us by, there were wafting smells of deodorant and bug repellent.

"I wonder if there's a festival or some such?", Chigusa pondered.

"Might be one at the shopping district. Yeah, I want to say they do one around this time every year."

"While we're near, would you like to go see it?"

"Sure. Can't think of anything else to do right now."

We went with the crowds to the festival grounds. Though the shopping district was typically just deserted and vaguely creepy at nighttime, today it was brilliantly colored by tens or hundreds of paper lanterns. Stands lined both sides of the street, and many young people filled the area.

"So there are more summer festivals in Minagisa than just the one," Chigusa remarked with wonder, gazing at the stands.

"Yeah. Tons of people." I stood up tall and looked toward the back of the street. "But I'm sure the Minagisa summer festival gets many times more visitors than this."

Chigusa sighed. "Now I'm getting nervous."

Forgetting about doing badness for now, we went by all the stands from end to end. Yakisoba, sumiyaki, honeycomb toffee, sculpted candy, cotton candy, shaved ice, a string lottery, yo-yo fishing, a mask shop, superball fishing. Chigusa stopped at a goldfish scooping stand, and her eyes sparkled at the goldfish swimming around the white tank.

A small child was squatting in front of the fish tank, glaring seriously at the goldfish. When he stuck the poi scooper into the tank, it made a ripple that scattered the koaka fish. The sight of the red shapes dispersing reminded me of exploding fireworks.

"Fukamachi, Fukamachi. There's one strange one."

I looked into the tank alongside Chigusa, and sure enough, mixed among the koaka was a single fat ryukin goldfish.

"What do you know... How unusual."

I gave a look at Chigusa, trying to share her surprise. But she was absorbed in the goldfish in the tank and didn't notice.

I found myself looking at Chigusa in profile. Gazing at her smiling face lit by the soft light of a light bulb, all of a sudden it occurred to me what an incredibly unfitting happiness had been bestowed upon me. And that thought was nothing less than the truth. Instantly, rather late, the core of my body heated up, and I came to see each passing second as precious.

But at the same time, I had to think: If it were Hajikano I was sharing these seconds with, how good would that be? If I just had her smiling beside me, how fulfilled would that make me feel?

I felt guilty for ignoring the girl before me and imagining one who wasn't here in her place, so I averted my eyes from Chigusa. Instead, I watched the boy scooping goldfish.

He was handling the paper poi skillfully. He prepared to catch one goldfish, then at the last second changed the angle of the poi to aim for another. The goldfish that he avoided had white specks, like it was covered with flour. Maybe it was sick.

I supposed he avoided that specked goldfish not because he reasoned it might die an early death from sickness, but just because it felt somehow creepy. It wasn't like it was something he did out of clear prejudice.

It was the same for those who avoided me when I had my birthmark. I wasn't avoided because people thought I had genetic issues, or because I had some malignant disease, but because people felt somehow too creeped out to want to approach.

Why can people know logically that it's not that significant, but be led astray by such slight differences in appearance? When really, everyone's not so different if you just look more than skin-deep.

Yet the day when people's foolishness to judge solely by appearance is bettered, the beauty of these hundreds of goldfish swimming around a white tank, the vivacious feeling welling up in me from seeing Chigusa's face - all of that I was feeling now would be lost. So I couldn't speak out against that hasty judgement. If people's true natures became the basis of judgement, the world would surely become a terrifyingly insipid place.

Chigusa stood up. "Sorry, I became rather entranced. Let's move on."

"Won't you try the goldfish scooping?"

"No, I'm not one for keeping living creatures."

After going through all the stands, we bought two piles of shaved ice and looked for a place we could sit down and eat it. Just then, something briefly crossed my vision and alerted my subconscious.

I had a bad omen. I quickly grabbed Chigusa's hand to stop her, and my gaze darted around. My prediction was correct, and a few meters away, I saw several familiar faces.

Inui, Mitake, Harue. The three who had tried to attack me with Nogiyama last night. They sat in a row on the curb, their backs turned to us, talking about something. Nogiyama probably wasn't there because of the damage I'd inflicted.

As far as I could tell from their conversation, they weren't looking for me for payback, but were simply here to enjoy the festival. I breathed a sigh of relief. That said, if they saw me, it could probably be trouble.

"Er, what is the matter?" Chigusa asked with some nervousness, looking between her hand and her face.

"It's the guys from last night," I said quietly, letting go of her hand. "I don't think they're looking for me, but it'd be bad if they saw us. Let's retreat while we can."

Chigusa stood tall and followed my gaze. "I see. The three sitting there?"

"Right. They haven't noticed us yet."

"Fukamachi." She looked toward my hand. "Do you mind if I take that shaved ice?"

"Shaved ice? That's not really the..."

Before I could finish, Chigusa took the cups of shaved ice and quickly walked over to the three. I had no time to stop her, and the next moment, Chigusa was dumping the shaved ice on their backs. An emerald green mix of solid and liquid drew a parabola as it fell upon them. Making voices which were either screams or shouts, the three turned around, but Chigusa didn't falter, and poured the shaved ice with lemon drops in her other hand on their front sides. Then she turned on her heel, ran back, and took my hand as I stared in shock.

"Now, let us run."

It sure seemed like that was the only thing to do.

*

I think we ran around for about twenty minutes. Eventually, we ended up back at the shopping street where we started. The festival had long since ended, the lanterns were gone without a trace, and most of the stands were cleaning up, so people were sparse.

Looking back one last time to check for them chasing us, we sat down on a low wall and caught our breath. My heart flailed like a fish just reeled in, and sweat poured out my body. My stiff, sweat-soaked uniform felt unpleasant.

I didn't feel like condemning Chigusa for doing something so rash. In fact, I had respect for her actions. Seeing them flustered after having shaved ice poured on them was thrilling, and I hadn't felt the excitement of running away from something chasing me in a long while.

"Next time you do something crazy, tell me first."

"Sorry," Chigusa said out of breath.

"But that was good. Very relieving. Very delinquent."

"Was it? That's good." Chigusa smiled with her eyes, her head still lowered.

I was really parched. I put my hands on my knees and stood up.

"I'll go buy something to drink. You rest there."

Chigusa looked up and nodded silently. I ran over to a brightly-shining vending machine a few dozen meters away, and came back with two sports drinks with blue labels. Chigusa tried to offer her wallet. I refused, but she insisted. "Since I did ruin the shaved ice."

I took the 500-yen coin she offered me. "Okay, let's use this money to buy something for delinquency."

"Agreed."

After downing the sports drinks and throwing away the empty bottles, we entered a supermarket just before closing time and bought fireworks. And we spent a while walking around in search of the least appropriate place to use them.

"Perhaps we might as well sneak back into the school we deserted at noon, and launch them on the field somewhere?", Chigusa suggested. "Don't you think that's sufficiently mischevious?"

"Not bad," I agreed.

Breaking into Minagisa First High was easy. We waltzed right in after climbing over the gate, and there wasn't any real security system. Surely the buildings were probably locked, but it didn't seem anyone would find fault with us wandering around campus.

Maybe I was just accustomed to the school being full of staff and teachers, but at night, Minagisa First High was wrapped up in an extreme silence, like any peep was sucked up into the walls. The green lamp of the emergency exit cast an eerie light from the other side of the window.

While walking on the gravel behind the gym, I suddenly recalled a conversation with Nagahora on the day of the closing ceremony.

"The guys from the swim club sometimes practice at night without permission," Nagahora said. "Since the fence is so short, it's not hard to break in. There's no patrols at all, so if you're not unlucky, you won't get caught. Hey, Fukamachi, want to sneak in with me once on summer break? Swimming as much as you like in a pool at night isn't a chance you'll get anywhere else."

"That does sound fun," I nodded. "But you should be careful, pools are horribly cold at night. If you jump in without a care, it might be pretty miserable."

Nagahora thought for a second. "You sound like you've got experience."

"I just happen to know. I had a friend who did the same thing in middle school."

That was a lie, of course. Once, I was invited by some friends to sneak into the pool at night. There were clouds covering the sky all day, and the pool that night was colder than anything. It helped a little that we jumped in with our clothes on, but ten minutes later, our lips were purple and we were running home dripping wet.

"I didn't think about the temperature," Nagahora said with admiration. "Bet you'd want to pick a day that's especially hot. Around the start of August would be perfect..."

Then Kasai opened the door into the classroom, so the conversation was cut short. That was ultimately the only time we discussed sneaking into the pool. Since then, I'd completely forgotten Nagahora ever mentioned it.

I didn't really feel the urge to swim. Sure, this was miraculously the hottest day of the year, and thus the perfect day for night swimming. The water should have been clean for the swim club's practice. However, it wasn't Nagahora with me, but Chigusa. I couldn't make her join me in something so ridiculous as this.

Still, I figured just walking around the poolside would be fun, so I told Chigusa what I'd heard from Nagahora. And she showed incomparable interest in this stupid idea. "We simply must to do that, let's do that right now," she urged.

Climbing over the fence less than two meters tall, we touched down by the pool. Obviously, it was pitch black, and the pool was a deep blue, the bottom not visible. The wind made small waves on the surface, breaking against the edge and making quiet splashes. Occasionally, the smell of chalk unique to school pools struck my nose.

I took off my shoes and felt the rough poolside, neither warm nor cold. I rolled up my pants and put my toes in the water glittering in the moonlight. It was just the right coldness to feel good. "That's good," said Chigusa, who took off her loafers and socks and drew an ellipse in the water with her right toe.

I resolutely sat on the pool edge and soaked my legs below the knees in the water. My legs hot from running around were thoroughly cooled, and felt revived. The energy left my body, and I fell back onto the poolside like a deflating life preserver.

Listening to the sound of the water, I looked up at the night sky. The sole light sources from the parking lot didn't reach the distant pool, so while not a match for the roof of the hotel, it wasn't a bad place to view the stars.

Once I thought about stars, my chest clouded as I was unable to avoid remembering a certain person, but I forcibly put her out of mind. I couldn't worry over what had already come and gone.

I heard a sound from the end of the pool. Before I could process that it was Chigusa taking off her uniform, I heard a loud splash. Drips of water hit my cheek, and I sat up in a hurry.

At first, I thought Chigusa had fallen into the pool by mistake. But seeing her discarded blouse and skirt, I realized she jumped in intentionally. And if her clothes were there, that meant Chigusa, sticking her head out of the water, was wearing nothing but underwear - if that.

I was so surprised, I had no words. What in the world was she thinking?

"Don't scare me," I finally uttered. "I thought you slipped and fell."

"Apologies. But it's nice and cool," Chigusa said, wiping her forelocks. Her white shoulders poked out of the water, and I worried for where to look.

Not brave enough to swim with her, I stayed sitting at the rim of the pool. Then Chigusa walked up to the water's edge and held out her hands to me.

"Lift me up, please."

I gulped, and grabbed her hands while trying not to make eye contact. But the moment I was about to pull, she forcefully pulled me. I tried to stand my ground, but my feet didn't make it, so I lost balance and fell into the pool.

It was pitch dark in the water, so I had no idea where anything was. After struggling a while, my feet found the bottom. I stuck my head out of the water and wiped my face, then looked around for Chigusa. I heard laughter behind me. "Hey, remember what I said about telling me...", I said as I turned, and found Chigusa's face right in front of my nose.

We met eyes at a close distance.

The expression she had was a kind I hadn't seen before, neither happy nor joking. If I had to find the closest description, it was a look of surprise. Like the kind when you're cleaning a room and find a precious childhood photo you thought you lost.

There was a long short silence. Or maybe a short long silence.

I slowly averted my gaze and put my hands on the edge of the pool.

"Let's look in the storage room. Might find something interesting."

"Indeed. A beach ball would be nice, for instance."

Even Chigusa's reply was extremely natural.

I'd discovered during class in July that the storage room's lock was broken. Mixed in among items like kickboards, flotation devices, lane markers, and scrubbing brushes, there was a single blue beach ball. I took it to the sink, washed it with water, and blew it full of air. After filling and capping it, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, then left the storage room.

I hesitated greatly, but Chigusa being in underwear and me being fully clothed felt somehow unfair, so I also stripped down and jumped in the pool. A splash went up and fell onto the sides. I hit the beach ball up high, and Chigusa happily went after it.

My head spun again seeing her white back, but as we hit the ball back and forth and swam around, I gradually stopped worrying about it. Chigusa swimming nude in a pool at night was just too beautiful to be an object of my desire. When beauty crosses a certain line, it somehow detaches itself from impure feelings.

While playing in the pool, Chigusa called out "Yosuke" numerous times. Oddly, it didn't feel strange being called that. Judging from how I felt when she first said it, maybe it was calling me by my surname that felt more unnatural.

Similarly, I tried calling her Chigusa in return. My voice found it familiar, like I'd already spoken it many times.

"Once more," Chigusa said. "Call me again."

So I did as she said.

Lastly, we played with toy fireworks in the corner of the parking lot. Water still dripped from our clothes and hair, making dark stains on the dry asphalt. My wet shirt and underwear took my body heat, making me a little chilly. We had no candle to light the firework, so I used my lighter to scorch the ends of two Long Peonies. Once both were lit, I handed one to Chigusa.

The flame transferred to the main part of the firework, and one after another, shots fired off like plant roots into the darkness. After proceeding through the stages of peony, pine needle, willow, and chrysanthemum, the ball's purpose was complete and it dropped off, making a low splash in the water that dripped from our bodies.

We silently went on lighting fireworks. We were exhausted after leaving the pool and didn't say much to each other, but it wasn't the awkward kind of silence.

As the last two fireworks began firing off, Chigusa spoke. "Fukamachi." She'd gone back to using my last name.

"You were thinking about Hajikano just now, weren't you?"

I didn't deny it, but asked her back. "Why do you think so?"

Chigusa giggled. "Why, indeed? Well, my bad premonitions are often correct."

I dutifully answered honestly. "Your hunch is right, Ogiue."

"See, what did I tell you?", she said jokingly. "Furthermore, I suppose not only now, but several times while we've been together, Hajikano has come to mind."

"Yeah, you're not wrong there."

"Were you thinking, "What if it wasn't Chigusa Ogiue in front of me, but Yui Hajikano"?"

The ball on Chigusa's firework dropped before it fully burned, meeting a sudden end.

"Thank you for joining in my selfish whims today," she said without waiting for a reply. "I had a great deal of fun spending the day with you."

My firework still went on burning.

"But, Fukamachi. If there's really something that strikes your interest, if there's really a person that you're wondering about, please don't concern yourself with me, and settle that issue first. You still have a lingering affection for Hajikano, don't you? Isn't that why you occasionally forgot about the girl standing in front of you to think about her?"

She picked up the used-up fireworks and put them in a bag, tied a knot, and gradually stood up.

We walked to the school gate in silence. I couldn't find any words to say. Everything Chigusa said was an accurate truth, and anything I said would just sound like an excuse.

"...You haven't yet exhausted everything you can do for her, have you?", Chigusa suddenly spoke. "Then you should see that through to the end."

After passing the gate, she came to a stop. She bowed her head to me to say "this is far enough."

"Today really was a pleasure. Thank you for the wonderful day."

"I enjoyed it, too. It was a good day." It took me ages just to say that. "Thanks."

Chigusa smiled with deep joy to hear it. "Say, Fukamachi. You made me promise to tell you in advance before doing anything crazy, did you not?"

"Yeah," I nodded, though not getting why she was asking.

"I'm about to do something rather strange."

Before I could reply, Chigusa shortened the distance between us looking as if she was going to fall, stood up a little taller, and softly put her lips on my neck.

Even I could feel the blood rushing to my head and turning me red.

"If there's anything I can assist with, let me know," she whispered in my ear. "Even if entails showing kindness to an enemy, I'll do it if it's of use to you. And after you've done everything to completion, if you still have a slight bit of interest in me... then feel free to call for me anytime. I'll wait patiently."

With that, Chigusa fled the scene. I watched her go while standing like a scarecrow, and even after she was out of sight, I couldn't move a muscle.

At this point, I finally understood the meaning of that "cruel thing" Chigusa had mentioned one day. It wasn't a joke at all. I was unconsciously doing something terrible to her.

I was bewildered by this new truth coming from an unexpected angle. I could intuit she at least had good will toward me, but I didn't imagine it was such a distinct and romantic attraction.

Chigusa's words played on repeat in my head for the duration of about five cigarettes. But at least at present, I couldn't easily answer to her feelings.

Still, there was one thing she said that was definitely on-point. I still hadn't exhausted everything I could do. A small possibility remained somewhere in my heart.

Subconsciously, I had kept thinking about it. But I hesitated to let it surface. Fearing the risk of being hurt in going through with it, I intentionally removed it from my options.

Now, at least once, I had to face that possibility. To dig up that thing hidden in my consciousness, shine light on it, and face it head-on.

That's what Chigusa was telling me.

That night, I headed for the shrine park near Minagisa High. I went up the long steps one by one, and sat on the swing Hajikano was once on. The rusted chain made a screeching noise. Someone had removed the rope Hajikano tied on the bar. Maybe she retrieved it herself.

I thought there all night.

What could I do?

What was Hajikano seeking?

By the time the sky turned a faint violet, I came to a conclusion.

*

The buzzing of cicadas even reached into the closed-off room. Mixed in with familiar sounds was the sound of tsukutsuku-boushi cicadas, which I hadn't heard until yesterday.

I sat cross-legged on the floor of my room and gazed at jet streams outside the window. The two straight white lines in the sky perfectly divided the view of the sky through the window frame into two halves.

As the noon cicadas' voices died out and the chorus of higurashi began, I finally lifted my heavy body. There was a heavy old-style steam iron on the desk. I connected the plug coming out of the charging stand to the outlet, gave the dial a full turn, and waited for the iron to heat up.

After about ten minutes, I grabbed the iron handle and held it with the flat side facing me. The openings to let out the steam reminded me of seeds in a fruit. Come to think of it, I'd never had the chance to look at the bottom of an iron in such detail. Staring at the strange shape like a cut-open watermelon, sweat from my forehead dropped off my hair, and evaporated into a little puff of smoke with a satisfying sound.

The room was illuminated with the light of the western sun.

Once, because of the inferiority that came from the birthmark covering half my face, I thought I had no right to love Hajikano. And if you inverted that, it meant that if only I didn't have my birthmark, I would have the qualifications for her to love me.

But maybe that was just a one-sided impression of mine. While it could have possibly been accurate four years ago, at least in the present, the disappearance of my birthmark had never once aided in coming closer to Hajikano. In fact, more than that. It was preventing any progress.

The day I visited Hajikano's house to determine the truth of what Kasai told me, in a dark room with curtains closed, she touched my cheek and rubbed it again and again. As if in search of the birthmark that should have been there. Maybe what Hajikano really needed now wasn't a person to kindly console her, but a companion with the same injury - that suddenly occurred to me, looking back on that day.

And once I came to have that mindset, this scenario the woman on the phone had put together started to seem coherent. She claimed to have made this bet as fair as she could. I thought my odds of success were far too low for that to be true. But maybe she was telling the truth, and the bet was being carried out fairly. In other words, she had prepared a path toward victory for me, too.

Removing my birthmark took away an obstacle between me and Hajikano. That was my thought at first. But was the truth the exact opposite? Had removing my birthmark taken away a red thread of destiny connecting us? Maybe the true nature of this bet wasn't asking, "Can a normally-impossible love happen with the removal of an obstacle?", but that woman saying, "Can I add an obstacle to set back a love that normally wouldn't be held back?"

By personally renouncing the birthmark-less face I was temporarily given for the bet, I could advance my relationship with Hajikano. That was a situation the woman on the phone intentionally created. I was being tested to see if I would give up the ideal body I was granted for the girl I loved. Looking at it that way, would I?

If I was right about this, I needed to regain my lost ugliness. I had to prove to that woman there was nothing higher-priority to me than Hajikano.

But while I had to "get my birthmark back," a simple bruise would heal in no time. I wanted a semi-permanent mark of ugliness. So I thought to use the iron.

Where my birthmark had once been, this time, I would give myself a large burn.

If I'd had a little more good judgement left in me at the time, I could probably see how foolish it was from an objective standpoint to burn my face with an iron to get Hajikano's attention. Yet with the combination of the short remaining time on the bet and the confusion Chigusa caused me last night, I had a narrow perspective. You could say I was deranged. I was possessed by the naive thought that strong pain had to have a high return.

The hand I held the iron with was damp with sweat and trembled. The peak of the pain would probably be in the first instant. But the problem came after that. If I cooled it off too quickly and adequately treated it, the burn would just fully heal. If I wanted to make it "part of me" like my former birthmark, then after firmly burning my face at max temperature, I would probably have to not cool or treat the burn for an hour at least. Imagining that hour made my legs buckle.

Still, I had already made my decision. Slowly but surely, I got accustomed to the image of me burning my face. Once it reached a certain point, I was suddenly able to accept it all naturally. Or maybe logically, you could say I went fully mad. I closed my right eye, and pushed the iron plate heated to the necessary temperature toward my face,

when the phone rang.

If that noise had come a tenth of a second later, I'm sure the iron would have had no problem burning my face. At a distance close enough to scorch my eyelashes, my hand stopped.

The ringing came from the phone in the first floor hallway. I couldn't be sure, but from the timing and the way it echoed, I felt sure it was the woman who orchestrated this bet.

I put the iron back in the stand, ran down the stairs, and took the receiver.

"Hello?"

There was no reply.

Usually, there would be a one-sided dialogue of telling me some business, but this one time, I heard nothing. But just because I couldn't hear anyone didn't mean there was no one there, and I sensed there was a living person's breathing on the other end. The person seemed to be quietly listening to my breathing.

The silence went on. Just as I opened my mouth with impatience, with the suddenness of a hidden track on a CD after leaving it alone on the last track for over ten minutes, the person on the other end spoke.

"Who are you?"

It wasn't the usual woman's voice, but it was one I'd heard before.

A moment later, my head was filled with questions.

"Hajikano?", I asked. "No way, is that you, Hajikano?"

I heard her swallow. From that reaction, I was convinced the caller was Hajikano.

"How?", the person I thought to be Hajikano said. "How did you call here?"

That sentence repeated in my head. How did I call here? It was a strange way to put it. She made it sound like I had called her.

"Answer," Hajikano said. "How did you know I was here? Are you nearby?"

There seemed to be a discrepancy here. I got my head in order and decided on what the most important matters to have clarified were.

"Listen, Hajikano, stay calm and listen," I said soothingly. "You just asked me "How did you call here?", right? Are you telling me you didn't call me, but you just answered the phone?"

There was a silence as if for thought. I assumed that to be proof and continued.

"Well, same here. I was at home, and I heard the phone ringing, so I answered. And then I heard your voice. Where are you? Not at home?"

"...Chakagawa Station."

"Chakagawa Station?"

"One of the unmanned stations along a route that was shut down a few years ago. In other words, Yosuke, a place you wouldn't know," Hajikano explained plainly. "I was wandering around there when a public phone rang. When I took the receiver, I heard you. ...Just what is going on?"

Of course, I knew the cause. It was the doing of that woman who proposed a bet to me. While her methods and objectives were unclear, I could only imagine she had some involvement in such an irrational occurrence.

I didn't know why she had made such an arrangement at the exact time she did. Maybe the woman on the phone was pleased that I was about to take back my own ugliness for Hajikano's sake. So she decided to give me a little chance.

But explaining all those subtleties would surely only further confuse Hajikano. While thinking up ways to dispel her wariness, she said "So you don't know either," seeming ready to hang up.

"Wait. I'm begging you, don't hang up," I pleaded. "I want you to listen to me, just for a little bit. You're changing schools soon, aren't you? Before you leave, there's something I want to tell you. It'll take two minutes. You don't even have to reply. Just listen, that's all I ask."

There was no response. But also, no sign of hanging up. Relieved, I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. The sunlight coming through the window at the end of the hall cast a shadow of me on the opposite wall.

"As you know," I began, "the birthmark on my face vanished without a trace. It was something that normally would never go away. Countless doctors tried to cure it, and threw in the towel. They all more or less said "You'll just have to compromise." That's the kind of birthmark it was. ...But just a month ago, there came a sudden turning point."

I stopped there and listened closely. There were still faint noises, so the call hadn't been terminated.

"Explaining it in detail would take a whole lot of effort. And maybe no matter how I go about explaining it, it'll be impossible to accurately convey what I've experienced without misunderstandings. In any event, I met someone, and had my incurable birthmark cured - but it was a hefty trade. Before too long, I'll have to give up something more important than anything to that person. But of course, I did it all of my own volition, so the responsibility's all on me."

Unconsciously, I stroked the area where my birthmark had been.

"But... It sounds strange, but truthfully, lately I've stopped thinking so badly of my birthmark. I'd had it on my face for sixteen years, came to accept its existence, and even picked up some attachment. And yet, why did I pay such a massive price to have it removed?"

After a deep breath, I gave the answer.

"Because I wanted you to like me, Hajikano."

The moment I spoke, the air around me felt more damp, and I sensed a smell like split-open berries spreading. I felt something hot behind my ears, and my heart beat faster. Though Hajikano wasn't there in front of me, I covered my mouth with my open hand to hide my red face.

"Anyway, that's all I wanted to tell you," I appended. "Though from your reaction, it seems like the idea you'd like me just because my birthmark was gone was a one-sided misconception."

Once I'd finished with what I wanted to say, I closed my eyes and listened for her response. The call was still going, but I hadn't heard a sound. Maybe Hajikano wasn't actually listening to me in silence, but had left the receiver hanging and left... Just as I began to have such fears, I heard a sudden cough.

"Can you hear me?", she asked. "Are you still there?"

I replied immediately. "I plan to be here until you hang up. However long it takes."

"I see."

There was a thoughtful silence.

"I don't know," Hajikano said with concern. "I was sure you felt pity for me now, and that's why you were so overly concerned. I thought you just sympathized seeing me with the same problem you once had."

"Well, I'm not that mature of a person."

"Yes, so it seems."

There was no change in her tone. Even so, the image of Hajikano smiling on the other side surfaced in my mind.

"...To tell the truth, I do like that about you even now," Hajikano admitted. "I've hardly come to hate you, Yosuke. So then, the reason I dislike being with you... is purely a personal problem."

"A personal problem?"

"When I see you, I go mad with jealousy," she said with a light sigh, as if embarrassed with herself. "That said, it's not your birthmark being gone that I'm terribly jealous of. It's because you're a strong person who was able to accept his birthmark and live a decent life, and I'm a weak one who's been unable to do that, and fallen to such lows in less than half a year. That fact hurts me more than anything. When you're in front of me, I have to constantly acknowledge it. That's the hate that's led me to put distance between us."

Hajikano was silent for a few seconds. Somehow, I felt I could see her purse her lips and rub her birthmark.

"At this point, this birthmark isn't such an issue. The issue is my weakness that will let one blemish ruin me. When I see you now, Yosuke, my chest could burst from sheer misery."

"I think you're still misunderstanding me," I interjected. "If you saw me as accepting my birthmark and living a decent life, you're mistaken. The truth is, I was saddled with a feeling of inferiority. Every time I looked in the mirror, I thought how nice it would be to just be reborn."

I switched the phone to my right hand and toyed with the cord with my left.

"I didn't get through it all by myself. You were a big support to me back then. Because you accepted me, Hajikano, I could feel like accepting my birthmark. The birthmark I'd come to think of as such an ugly, dirty thing, I could think of as a mere piece of discolored skin once you touched it. That's how significant Yui Hajikano was to me."

"...It really never seemed that way," Hajikano said doubtfully.

"That's not unreasonable. Since I've been trying to keep it as cool as I could in front of you."

"Why?"

"I didn't want to accept that deep down, I strongly desired contact with someone else. And more than that, I was scared of you and those around me realizing the feelings I had for you. I felt like they'd scorn me. "You think a guy like you has the right to love Yui Hajikano?" So when I was with you, I tried to keep a cool face."

Yes, in my eyes, Yosuke Fukamachi wasn't a person who could love a specific girl. He would be someone who never loved anyone and was never loved, only living at a solitary pace.

"But each time I parted from you and went home, the conversations we had that day repeated in my head, burned into my memory. On days when especially happy things happened, I wrote them in my journal to re-read later. It might sound stupid, but at the time, I did that kind of thing to make it through the days of crushing inferiority. Even after going our separate ways for middle school, my memories of the days spent with you propped me up when I was hurting. If I hadn't met you, Hajikano, my weak endurance would someday crumble for sure."

After a while, Hajikano whispered something.

"...So you were thinking things like that."

Just then, I heard a quiet sound like a buzzer on the other end.

"What's that sound?", I asked.

"The telephone. I think it's the sound it makes when the time is expiring," she answered. "This call might end soon."

"Oh, I see..."

I was regretful about it, but I had told her everything I wanted to.

"Thanks for not hanging up on me. I was glad to talk to you."

Just afterward, the call cut out.

Even after the call ended, I stood for a long time in front of the telephone.

Just like back then, I was soaking indefinitely in my conversation with Hajikano.

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