The phone rang at 2 PM on August 14th. I was perusing an astronomy book in my room at the time, studying the movement of variable binary stars. It was pouring outside, raindrops beat against the window, and wind relentlessly blew through the trees. My parents were out at work, so I was home alone.
When I heard the phone, I tossed away my book and ran down the stairs to grab the receiver.
There was no reply. A long silence. It had to be a call from Hajikano, I figured. I couldn't imagine anyone but her doing this.
"Is this Hajikano?", I asked the caller. But still, no reply. 𝒊𝒏𝒏𝙧𝗲𝓪𝙙. c𝒐𝙢
It didn't seem to me that this was a repeat of before, where two phones rang at once and the theoretically separate lines somehow got connected. This silence was full of conviction, leaving me an impression that the caller was staying silent with full awareness I was on the other end. However, it did feel like a hesitating silence of whether or not to say something, rather than a purposeful lack of speaking.
And suddenly, the call ended. What was that all about?, I wondered as I put down the phone.
The sound of the rain seemed strangely clear, and I noticed the window was left open, with a puddle forming. I closed it, wiped the puddle up with a rag, and went around checking the other windows.
Once back in my room, I thought about that phone call again. And I had a sudden thought.
Maybe I should have been the one to start talking.
Maybe she wasn't being silent, but waiting for my words.
I felt uneasy. Putting a yacht parka over my shirt, I went out without even an umbrella and rode my bicycle to Hajikano's house. Arriving in a few minutes, I mashed on the doorbell repeatedly. A few seconds later, Aya showed her face.
"...Huh, Yocchan?", she said with disappointment. That reaction seemed to confirm my bad premonition.
"Something happened to Yui, didn't it?", I asked.
"Yeah," Aya nodded. "You look like you know something. Come inside. I'll lend you a towel."
"Let's talk here, please."
Aya, mid-turning on her heel, turned back to me and sighed.
"Yui's gone missing. She left the house like usual last night and hasn't come back. Of course, that alone wouldn't be worrisome. It's not that rare for her to be gone for over a day, and maybe she's late to come home because of the rain. ...But I get kind of a bad feeling this time."
I spoke after a slight hesitation. "There was a wordless call to my house earlier. I don't have proof, but I think it was from Yui. After about two minutes of silence, the call ended without explanation."
"If that was Yui, then she's still safe for now, huh..." She closed her eyes with relief.
"What's your bad feeling?"
"Thinking about it, she was kind of weird last night," Aya said, staring into the rain outside. "I happened to meet her in the kitchen just as she was leaving. I was hungry and fishing around in the fridge, and she was headed out the back door. Usually, Yui would just turn away from me, but yesterday was different. She stopped at the kitchen door and gave me a solid look, blinking like she was seeing something unusual. I acted like I didn't notice. After about ten seconds, she stopped looking at me and went to the back door, but she bowed her head like giving a passing greeting. ...You know how unusual all that is, don't you, Yocchan?
"Did Yui not say anything then?"
"Nope, not a word." Aya's expression clouded slightly. "Uh, maybe I'm just overthinking it, but... When a classmate of mine died, she was the same way."
"Classmate?", I repeated.
"If I had to put it one way or the other, we got along poorly. She seemed to hate me, and I didn't like being hated away at, so I hated her back. In about autumn of my second year of middle school, she suddenly stopped coming to school. Then about a month later, I got a call from her, and she did all the talking. I wanted to ask why she didn't come to school, but she didn't seem to want to be asked, so I didn't. Just before she hung up, she said an uncharacteristic "Thanks for today." And that's it."
"A few hours after the call, she killed herself." Aya's voice kept a fixed tone. "They found her hung in the woods by the sea. No note or anything. A few days after that, I realized. "Ah, so that call was a sign." That "thanks" was like her last words."
I digested her words. "Miss Aya, do you think Yui is going to kill herself?"
Thinking about it logically, that didn't follow. Lately, it seemed like Hajikano was headed in a happier direction. Hadn't she been enjoying herself watching the Perseid Meteor Shower? Why did she want to commit suicide now of all times?
No, or maybe... I thought about it. Maybe Hajikano seemed happier because she'd already decided when she'd do it? Because she knew that she could leave this world in a few days, she could innocently enjoy the moment?
"I don't know." Aya shook her head. "There's just that possibility. I've put out a search request, but they don't seem to be taking it seriously. Our parents are out looking right now."
"Then we should search for Yui too," I suggested. "The more, the better. I'll call some friends too. Sorry, but can I borrow your phone?"
"Use it as you like." She turned and pointed to a phone in the hall. "But sorry, I'm not coming along."
I replied in a somewhat harsh tone. "This is no time to be stubborn, is it? I guarantee it, if you do nothing and Yui kills herself, you'll regret it. It might be days or years from now, but you'll come to lament your actions today. You don't hate your sister as much as you think."
"Of course I know that," Aya said, her voice also getting rough. "But I'm waiting for a call from her. So I can't leave this spot."
"Are you certain she's going to call here?"
"Nope. But going looking now is pointless. If she really wants to die, we can't stop her. She's a very clever girl, so she won't let anyone find her. She might have long since killed herself already. ...But if she still has doubts, don't you think she might call here like she called you, Yocchan? Thinking of it that way, my best option is to wait for that call here."
Aya and I glared at each other for a while. I hated to admit it, but it made sense. If Hajikano had no intention of being found, wouldn't our search for her only end in vain? Was it all we could do to wait for her determination to falter, and not miss the moment it tilted to our side?
But I had already let one such moment slip away. Chances were slim that we could wait for it to swing back. Which meant we had to take action.
I passed by Aya to the phone and first dialed Hinohara's house. After ten dial tones, Hinohara's brother answered. I asked if Hinohara was there, and he said he was out. When I asked if he knew where he was, he bluntly replied "Hell if I know!" and hung up. It was unlikely he went to set up the telescope in this weather, so I had no guesses either.
When I called Chigusa's house, she herself answered promptly.
"No time to explain details," I said first thing. "Hajikano's missing. Help me look for her."
"Err... This is Fukamachi, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Sorry to make you go out in the rain, but get ready to go quick."
"Did something happen to Hajikano?"
"I don't know. But her older sister says she has a bad feeling, and I agree with her. To tell the truth, just a month ago, I witnessed a suicide attempt by Hajikano. She might be trying it again."
I thought that explaining this much would get Chigusa to agree without another word.
But that wasn't the case.
She was silent, like time had stopped on the other end.
"What's wrong? Why aren't you saying anything?"
"Um, Fukamachi," Chigusa said calmly. "Please don't hate me for this. I'm about to say something slightly mean-spirited."
"There's no time to chat about..."
"Let us leave Hajikano be."
At first, I thought I misheard her. No, it's probably more like my brain refused to comprehend it.
Because the Chigusa I knew wouldn't say something like that.
"What did you say?", I asked, knowing there was no point in doing so.
Chigusa didn't answer that, and spoke monotonously. "Say, Fukamachi. Are you familiar with the option of relief the witch provides to the little mermaid after another woman marries the prince?"
"...What in the world are you talking about?"
"To kill the prince with a dagger. If she pierced the prince's heart and let the blood flow, her legs would revert to a tail, and she could once again live as a mermaid," Chigusa said to answer herself. Then she pressed further. "The bet you've taken. What becomes of the conditions if Hajikano, holder of the key, dies? Whether your love would come to fruition would become an eternal mystery, and perhaps the bet could not conclude. Would that not save your life?"
"Wait," I shouted to interrupt her. "Why do you know about the bet, Ogiue? I didn't tell anyone about it..."
Of course, there was no reply.
"Luckily, Hajikano wishes her own death. You only need to respect her conviction. No need to use the dagger yourself. In addition," she cleared her throat, "Fukamachi, do you believe the birthmark alone is the cause of Hajikano's despair?"
"...I don't suppose it has to do with what happened in those "blank four days"?"
"Exactly," Chigusa affirmed. "With her death, she'll atone for a certain sin."
"Look, Ogiue, listen to me," I pleaded. "I'm really interested in that too, and I've got lots of questions, like how you know all this stuff. But as we speak, Hajikano might be walking straight to her death. I have to go search for her."
"Is that so," Chigusa said with disappointment. "Well then, go ahead. I will be here praying that you don't find her."
The call ended. I had countless doubts, but I put them on hold and left Hajikano's house. Before anything else, I went to Masukawa Hotel and searched every nook and cranny, but I found no sign of Hajikano. I went on to try the shrine park, the woods, Minagisa First High, our old elementary school, Chakagawa Station, all the places she might have fond memories of. As time passed, the storm got stronger, and I got as soaked as the time I fell into the pool, my sneakers so muddy you couldn't tell their original color. Yet everywhere I looked, Hajikano wasn't there. As Aya said, if she really wanted to kill herself without anyone finding her, it was impossible to stop her.
No... Maybe if I had understood Hajikano better, I could have figured out her destination. But I didn't. In the end, I probably didn't understand half of what she was thinking.
I checked Masukawa Hotel one last time, but she just wasn't there. I returned to Hajikano's house around 2 AM. I hesitated to ring the doorbell, so I knocked lightly on the door. Aya quickly answered. Seeing my face, she shook her head.
"No call, either?"
"Yep," Aya nodded powerlessly. "And you?"
"I still haven't found her. I think I might try the appropriate places one more time."
"Enough. Aren't you exhausted?", she said pitifully. "Get some rest. You can use our shower. Take off those wet clothes. Borrow some from my father."
"Thank you very much. But, no thanks. They'll just get wet again anyway."
Aya grabbed my shoulders. "Listen, take a break for at least thirty minutes. Do you know what color your face looks like, Yocchan? You're like a walking corpse."
"I was born with it. I get that all the time."
Shaking away from Aya, I went back out into the rain.
I continued the search until dawn, but I never found Hajikano.
I headed home, passing by grade-schoolers headed to radio calisthenics. Once home, before even taking off my wet clothes, fully aware of the absurd hour, I called Chigusa's house. I wanted to know the rest of the conversation that got cut short. I had hundreds of questions. But there were only ten dial tones, and no answer. Was nobody up yet? Or had they already gone out?
I gave up and put down the receiver. I undressed, took a shower, and soaked in the warm bathtub for a long time. My head was empty. After getting out, I put on pajamas, ate the cold rice left in the rice cooker, carefully and time-consumingly brushed my teeth, and lied down on my futon. I thought I could never sleep in this dangling situation, but I lost consciousness in a blink and slept like a pile of bricks for five hours.
A sharp beam of light came through the curtains and woke me. In sharp contrast to yesterday, the weather was clear and pleasing. My head ached like I still needed three more hours of sleep, but I gave up and sat up from my futon. I felt like it had all been a bad dream, yet simultaneously knew it was reality. I went downstairs to the phone, called Hajikano's house, and Aya answered at the second dial tone.
"I was literally just about to call you," she said with surprise.
"Does that mean there was a development?"
"Yeah." Aya's voice sounded worn out. "...For now, the worst was avoided. Yui was found alive."
I sighed with relief and collapsed to the floor.
But Aya's phrasing wasn't entirely reassuring. Like she had good news and bad news, and had only told me the good news.
"The worst was avoided... but even so, something bad did happen. Is that right?"
"That's right," Aya affirmed. "Our bad premonition was right. At early dawn, Yui threw herself into the raging sea."
I let out a gasp. The sea. I'd completely overlooked it. Why didn't I search there? Maybe her first attempt had left such an impression on me, I was sure she would choose hanging again. And maybe the beach was too familiar a place to me.
"There's no way to describe it other than a miracle. It seems a lucky wave pushed her back to shore. She was found early in the morning by an old couple taking a walk on the coast. They called 119 right away, and the wife had lifeguard training, so she was able to provide aid before the ambulance arrived. Yui's only just regained consciousness, so she's in a state of deep confusion. But she can talk, so there didn't seem to be any serious brain damage. ...They just say we can't meet her for a while. Her family, that is, so it'd be even harder for you, Yocchan."
I listened to her with bated breath. I wasn't even sure how I should be feeling. Should I be glad Hajikano's okay, saddened about her suicide attempt, or grateful for the luck?
"What are you going to do now, Miss Aya?"
"I just talked with our parents about that. We decided once Yui's out of the hospital, she should go to her grandma's house to recuperate. She'd be able to live cut off from the outside world for a while."
"I see. ...That may be for the best."
Aya spoke to me comfortingly. "Hey, Yocchan, I think you did good. As harshly as your old friend Yui rejected you, it didn't get you down. In fact, you didn't try to force things along, but kept patiently persuading Yui from a reasonable distance. That took your relationship as far as her going out with you every night. Not only that, but you succeeded at getting Yui friends. Seeing it happen up close, I was convinced it was a task only you could do, Yocchan. In other words, no matter how hard anyone tried, it was impossible to cure her self-destructive desires. Maybe that's all there is to it."
"Thank you very much," I said, but then knew I had to append, "And I'm sorry."
"I told you, there's nothing to apologize for," Aya laughed haggardly.
Once the call was over, I called Chigusa without delay. I had to question her about her detailed knowledge of my bet.
A theory had formed in my head, perhaps while I was sleeping, about why information about the bet had reached Chigusa.
Chigusa Ogiue had experienced this bizarre bet.
Let's say the woman on the phone proposed a bet to more than just me. It could be just a few people, or it could be hundreds, but say there were others who she offered bets to, and Chigusa was one of them. And Chigusa was able to win - or perhaps not win, but by some means make it through the bet - and successfully survived. As a result, she noticed her classmate Yosuke Fukamachi was taking on a bet like she once had. Also, she knew a loophole in the bet.
Out of all the theories I could extract from the facts that had come to light, none seemed more plausible than this one. Of course, it was possible I was overlooking something serious. But even so, the theory that Chigusa had been through the bet had a unique sticking power.
"Hello?" Chigusa answered the phone. "Fukamachi, I assume?"
"Right. Hajikano was found. She jumped into the sea in the early hours. Luckily, she didn't die, but it'll be hard to meet with her for a while."
"I see," Chigusa said, and nothing more. She didn't seem to have any more thoughts on the matter. She was as calm as if she expected it to happen from the start.
"I want to carry on with our conversation from yesterday."
"Then come to my house, please. It could be a long one. And there is something I want to show you."
"Something to show me?"
"It would help to come as soon as possible. There does not seem to be much time left."
With that, Chigusa ended the call.
Not much time?
I twisted my neck. What was she talking about? Was what she wanted to show me something that would go away with time?
In any event, I obeyed and headed for her house.
Many things were approaching an end. There were dead cicadas lying on the road here and there. Ants swarmed on the dried corpses, and from a distance it looked like the ground itself was squirming.
Tsukutsuku-boushi had come to make up the majority of the cicada buzzing; the close of summer drew near. The hot days would surely continue for a while. But no more escalation than this. It was only downhill from here.
Entering the complex, hilly residential district, after a while, I reached Chigusa's house. Washing hung up on the second-floor veranda blew pleasantly in the wind.
Just as I stood at the door to ring the doorbell, I was called for from the garden.
I turned to the voice and stepped onto the neatly-cut lawn.
Chigusa was waiting for me there.
Seeing her there, sitting in a wheelchair, instantly melted a number of my doubts.
"Say, Fukamachi. I want to go to the beach," she said, tilting her head slightly.
There was a small white flower at her feet.
At the beginning of summer in third grade was the first time I experienced life in a hospital.
Then, too, it was my legs which were injured. While going down the hill to the shore on my bike, I wanted to see how far I could go without using the brakes. Just as I made it to the end of the hill and thought "Alright, I made it!", the front wheel hit a bump and my body was thrown through the air. Since I turned the handlebars just before, I avoided landing face-first, but my left knee hit the asphalt hard instead.
At the first hospital I visited, it was diagnosed as a bruise, but the pain was so great I couldn't walk or even bend my knee. At a separate hospital, they found it to be a broken kneecap that would take two months to heal. Since that was my first major injury, I remember my mother being more flustered than I was.
These days, I was able to even enjoy living in the hospital, but being in third grade and having never been hospitalized before, a single day spent lying in bed felt like an eternity. At first, I had no idea how to spend my time, and just went mad from boredom. It felt like time had been stopped for me. My three meals a day were my only stimulation and pleasure. There was lots of plain food - pickled food, syrupy boiled food, soup with weak flavor, fish with no fat meat. But occasionally there was food with condiments like sauce and ketchup, and that alone made me feel fulfilled for a few hours.
My dad bought me books from many fields to stave off my boredom. I had no habit of reading back then, and was the sort of kid who barely looked at any books, not even illustrated encyclopedias. But having nothing else to do, I had to read those books. Not thinking about if it was interesting or not, worthwhile or not, I just followed the words in front of me and stared at the photos and illustrations. Doing that, I gradually found no small amount of enjoyment there.
One book I read again and again was a book explaining magic tricks. Like the stuff you see on TV: getting the number right for a card pulled at random, making a coin vanish into a cup, making a wand levitate in midair. It explained in detail how all those tricks were set up and performed.
It was a complex and difficult subject, but the author, who was a magician, had an extremely smooth and easy-to-read style, and I read it like I was learning about the other side of the world. Thinking about it now, rather than the secrets to the magic tricks themselves, what I really enjoyed was probably the author's perspective on the psychological blind spots of the people who witnessed them. Most people's first experience as a reader is with novels or essays, but I learned the joy of reading from a book on magic tricks.
If my father had given me books on astronomy at the time, maybe I would have ended up as an astronomy fanatic like Hinohara? No, I got bored of magic tricks after a month or two, so maybe the same thing would have happened with astronomy. At any rate, making such theories was pointless. A life where Yosuke Fukamachi came to like stars and the life Yosuke Fukamachi had lived now were entirely separate things. Maybe he couldn't have loved Hajikano even then.
The room I stayed in had four other children in all. There were three boys and one girl. Their injuries were in different areas, but they were all serious ones.
The girl in the bed in front of me seemed to have broken a leg like me, as one of her legs was wrapped up in a cast. The thinness of her uninjured leg and the thickness of the multi-layered cast felt as unbalanced as a crab's pincers. I wasn't sure if she was depressed about being in the hospital or if she had a gloomy personality to begin with, but she always had a glum look. Of course, I've never seen a long-term patient in a hospital who was all smiles.
Once every three or four days, the girl's mother paid a visit. It wasn't all that infrequent. Yet every time, without exception, within ten minutes she'd say "Well, your mother's busy" and leave early, which only seemed to spur the girl's loneliness. When her mother came to visit, she set out to make the most of those ten minutes, complaining about her every dissatisfaction to get across the hardship of her hospitalization. Her mother, exhausted from work, let it pass through her ears with a fed-up expression, then left with the excuse of being busy. It was probably an undeniable fact that she was busy with work, but I had to wonder if it was better to just not visit at all at that point.
Once her mother left, the girl would bury herself in her pillow and sob. I got melancholy seeing the series of events unfold. Why couldn't things go any better than that? Why couldn't they be more honest? You don't want to quarrel either, do you? I loathed her clumsiness - but now, I think that irritation came from the awareness that I had the same sort of clumsiness.
I hated the crybaby girl, but she hated me too. She seemed annoyed by how my mother would visit frequently and stay for a while. Every time she came and replaced the flowers or doodled on my cast, the girl glared scornfully. After the visit ended and I was alone, she spent a long time glaring at me. Like saying "don't ever forget this glare."
Only someone who's been through it will really get it, but people in the hospital with broken legs taste all kinds of discomfort and misery. To take it to an extreme, they lose some of their dignity as people and are attacked by extraordinary powerlessness. Maybe she and I both kept our vitality by hating those nearby, so we could fight that powerlessness.
The girl and I formed a cease-fire a month after I entered the hospital. I was reading a book in bed like usual, and heard a festival band from the dark outside the window.
Holding my injured leg, I slowly stood up on the other leg to look out the window. Dozens of people were walking down the road in the same direction. Many had family along with them, but there were plenty of students in uniform who seemed to be coming home from school. There was no small number of kids about my age. And they were all laughing together.
While watching the people going down the street, I spotted a few of my classmates. I impulsively wanted to call out to them, but rethought it just before I did. Maybe having a conversation with them could temporarily soothe my loneliness. But the moment they saw me at a hospital window as they headed to a festival, it would shift the clear boundary between me and them - so I felt.
No, the boundary was already being pulled, I thought. I was just ignorant of its existence before now. There was already an unrecoverable distance between me and everyone at school. While I lied in bed and counted stains on the ceiling, they were spending irreplaceable time with friends, making many precious memories.
I alone felt like I'd been completely left behind by the world. Before I knew it, tears filled my eyes. I hurried to rub them before any spilled out. I sat on my bed, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited for my tear glands to settle down.
Suddenly, I heard a sobbing voice very close by. It didn't seem likely I had let out a sob without even realizing. I opened my eyes and saw the girl leaning from her bed to look out the window.
Her cheeks were wet with tears.
She must be feeling a similar lonesomeness as me, I realized.
I think I sought to console her then because I knew, in a roundabout way, it would give me consolation too. In essence... it's hard to soothe your own sorrow, but not so hard to soothe someone else with similar sorrows. And once you prove their similar sorrows can be soothed, it's simple to do it with your own.
I took a handkerchief from the bedside table, plucked a small white flower from the vase on the table, and folded it to a suitable length. Once prepared, I carefully stood up on one leg and called to the girl.
She hurried to wipe her tears and looked at me. I extended my palms to show her I wasn't holding anything. She stared, looked between my hands and face, and asked with a slight sob, "What is it?"
"What do you think?", I asked back, and loosened my face up to lower her guard. I'm sure it was a horribly awkward smile. "You'll see soon."
I put the handkerchief on my left hand, stroked it with my right, then pulled it away and offered the white flower that appeared to the girl. Her eyes widened and she blinked a few times. She timidly took the flower with both hands and inspected it from various angles. Once sure it was real rather than artificial, she lovingly put it in the small vase at her bedside. Then she turned back to me and smiled with a face swelled from tears.
Ever since then, once per day, I would perform a magic trick I'd practiced that day for the girl. After dinner was over, she'd beckon to me and politely put her hands on her knees, waiting for my show to begin. I'd walk over on one leg to her bed and sit in the chair there, then perform the trick I'd desperately practiced in secret all day as if I was very familiar with it. Regardless of the outcome of the trick, she gave a small round of applause.
Eventually, we came to converse without any magic tricks involved. It was mostly trivial stuff like the food being good, or how we didn't like the way the nurse wrapped bandages.
Just one time, the girl mentioned my birthmark.
"That bruise really doesn't want to heal, it seems."
"Oh, this?" I lightly touched where the birthmark was. "I've had this since I was born. It's not an injury."
"Born with it...", she said curiously, staring at it. "It doesn't hurt or itch or anything, does it?"
"Nah, not at all."
"Good." She smiled with relief.
And also... Just one time, she had a complaint.
"If you had to live your whole life in a wheelchair, what would you do?"
She asked me this as I was headed back to bed, after cleaning up from a magic trick.
I grabbed the windowsill and stopped, thinking about what she said.
"I don't know. I've never thought about it. Why do you ask?"
The girl hung her head and wore a hollow smile. "Because it seems I may have to."
"Did a doctor tell you that?"
"Yes. They said quite some time ago that the possibility wasn't zero. At the very least, they said, some nerve paralysis would remain."
I spent a while thinking about my reply.
"If it were me, I'd probably cry a ton. I'd keep crying for days and days, and take it out on my mom, the nurse, and you, and ask for selfish things. I think if I was gonna be unable to walk for life, I could be forgiven for that much."
The girl said "That's true," and nodded repeatedly. As if her agreement was deepening each time she nodded. Then she looked up with a sudden thought, grabbed my sleeve, and sat me on the bed. Slowly lifting up her cast-covered leg with both hands to re-adjust her position, she held me from behind, dug her face into my back, and cried.
I think even at the time, I had a gut understanding of what her "selfishness" was. So I didn't say anything and accepted it. She cried for a long time. Like she was getting out all the water in her body. I wasn't even ten and didn't know what words I should say to her, so I stayed silent. Even though I was sixteen now, I still couldn't tell you what words I should have said.
When I left the hospital, the girl said "I'll come meet you when my leg heals" and asked for my address and phone number. I wanted to ask the same of her, but figured I could ask her when she called me. And I'll have to learn a bunch of magic tricks by then, I also thought.
I was more optimistic in third grade than you'd ever believe looking at me now.
A month, two months went by after I left, and I heard no word from the girl. Half a year passed, and not a single call.
After a year went by, I came to realize I would probably never meet her again. She hadn't broken her promise. In other words, her leg never healed.
Gradually, I forgot about her. Her presence within me grew weaker by the day, reaching the point where I might think "Oh yeah, there was that girl" when passing in front of a large hospital. Soon even that was gone, I forgot her face and name, and the brief summer memories I spent with her were buried deep in my mind.
That hill to the beach I had ridden my bike down that day, I was now pushing a wheelchair down. The rusty guardrails along the path had vines curled around them in places. Thousands of cicadas buzzed from the thickets on either side, making it as noisy as the inside of a clockwork toy.
"Did you leave the hospital right after I did, Ogiue?", I asked.
"It couldn't be right after, I'm afraid," Chigusa said, looking straight ahead at the distant sea. "I returned to school nearly half a year after you left the hospital. By then, my classmates had completely forgotten about me. For children that age, half a year is plenty to forget about a girl's entire existence. Of course, I never did have much presence."
"But there wasn't that sort of "transfer student" interest either?"
"Indeed, not at all." Chigusa weakly smiled. "Once I was wheelchair-bound, my avenues for friendship were greatly limited. It wasn't quite that I was discriminated against for being handicapped. Luckily, Mitsuba Elementary School did have instructors familiar with that. ...However, even with little discrimination, the simple fact that I could not walk couldn't be changed. People's actions when they were with me were limited. I couldn't participate in any athletic play, and my wheelchair had to be carried every time there was the smallest step. The girls there did not hate me, but deeply hated the trouble that came along with interacting with me. At first, they found it curious and escorted me around, enthralled with the idea of looking after someone disabled. But given a week, the bother won out, and they came to blatantly avoid me. People naturally distanced themselves."
I could easily imagine that process. There was a girl in a wheelchair at my middle school, and while not hated, she was avoided. I remembered her always in the corner of class, desperately trying to keep up with a group of quiet girls in the culture club.
"Previously, I described myself in middle school as "could be liked by anyone, but could not be anyone's favorite." But that was a bald-faced lie. I told such lies wanting to be thought of as a normal person. The real me was not only not liked by anyone, but estranged no matter where I was. I thought a hundred times each day, "I'm someone who shouldn't be here." At such times, I often recalled days spent with a certain boy with a large birthmark on his face to soothe my heart. That was a symbol of happiness to me. It was my sole proof that one could have wonderful memories no matter how restricted one was. And... that is why I never contacted you, Fukamachi. If you also refused me, the sole thing I was holding onto would vanish. ...However, after entering Minagisa First High, I discovered that name on the class roster."
Chigusa twisted around to look at my face.
"Indeed, the name "Yosuke Fukamachi" was there. I would be lying to say I wasn't happy. It was like a dream to end up in the same high school classroom as my first love. But more than that, I feared reuniting with you. You would not necessarily accept me now as you did then. Even if we could return to a cordial relationship like before, I could not hope for any further development. Since to a boy of sixteen, a girl in a wheelchair is in many ways inconvenient as a lover."
She turned forward again and stroked her legs with her hand.
"If only I could move these legs, I thought. I didn't have to be able to run around freely; just to walk alongside others. I wanted to have an average love of my own. ...Three months later, at school and after class, I heard a public phone ring. It was exactly fifty days ago."
At the end of the downward slope, the thickets on the side came to an end, and the sea glittering in the sunlight appeared. Seagulls loitering around the breakwater hurriedly flew away when they saw us coming.
"The only ones surprised I could suddenly walk were the doctor and my family. All others had a reaction such as "Ah, your injury finally healed." Though a lifelong worry to the one affected, apparently that's how it seems to others. ...And upon meeting with you after ten years, it seemed you had completely forgotten me. Of course, I could have reminded you by only saying "the girl you were with in the hospital," but I decided against it. I thought we might as well start from scratch. Forgetting my miserable past self, and living as an average girl."
Once at the edge of the breakwater, we silently listened to the waves for a while. Past the sea, there were thick clouds seeming to touch the top of the sky.
"Say, Fukamachi," Chigusa spoke. "If the girl sitting next to you that day were in a wheelchair, do you think you wouldn't have been this friendly?"
"Nah," I shook my head. "Instead of walking along with you, I'd be pushing your wheelchair like today. That'd be the only difference."
Chigusa smiled happily.
"...Perhaps I shouldn't have gone along with any bet, and it would have sufficed to simply say "I'm the girl from the hospital room.""
"Maybe," I nodded.
"But if I had, I wouldn't have gotten to run around town with you, and sneak into the pool, so perhaps it was the right choice." She put her arms together and stretched. "...But I wish I could have shown up to the festival. I did practice reading with you, even."
Remembering something, Chigusa dug into her pocket and handed me a letter.
"I've written what you want to know here. Read it later."
I thanked her and put the letter in my pocket.
After that, we talked at length about all that had happened this summer. Chigusa walking me up as I slept in my first day in class. Her guiding me around the school. Having Chigusa eat cup ramen when she said she'd never had it in her life. The various bad deeds we did to make her a bad person. Swimming nude in the pool. Sneaking out of the house at night, and the four of us seeing innumerable comets together.
Once we were out of things to say, Chigusa suddenly looked to the sky and pointed straight above. "Fukamachi, look."
A white jet stream drew a line in the sky.
We watched it in fascination for a long time.
When I looked back, Chigusa was gone.
Only a wheelchair without its owner was left behind.
I looked at my feet. White froth from the waves floated on the water.
I sat on the edge of the breakwater, and watched intently as the froth soundlessly dissolved into the sea.
I'll soon go the same way as her, I thought.
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