by Ono Fuyumi
translated by Aili
and then translated again by Retrooo
©ONO FUYUMI, PINPOINT INC.
last modified, 10.10.2006
The next day began with a morning assembly for the entire school. There, the school officials reported the news of Iwaki's death, and at the same time they announced that the athletics festival of the following week was cancelled.
After the assembly, they continued to follow the regular class schedule, but smaller meetings were convened again and again, so several classes were temporarily turned into study sessions. Hirose was notified that student teachers weren't required to attend the meetings, so he had nothing to do but sit in the prep room and stare into space. When he had gone to the student teacher break room, the topic of conversation circled around Iwaki. Going there only resulted in Hirose fielding question after question, and it had annoyed him.
The mood of the students was unsteady like they were attending some sort of memorial. In the morning, a lot of people who probably had something to do with broadcast media were gathered at the school gate. There was a very obvious difference between the views that the students held and those of the teachers, regarding these people. The school tried their hardest to keep their students away from media harassment--to prevent someone from saying something they shouldn't be saying, they hurriedly separated them, but many of the students deliberately allowed the swarming reporters to reach them, happy and untiringly answering their questions. The student who were like this were now continuously spreading an unsteady yet friendly, noisy atmosphere within school.
Though this was so, classes five and six of the second year had sunk low as expected, and many of them were absent. What had worn away at them wasn't the death of someone in their class, but the reality that they had killed a classmate. Even when the police had come after school to question about the things that happened, several students escaped to the infirmary or other places to avoid being seen. Because of the blood that had stained their shoes and socks, most of the students felt helplessly anxious. No matter how they were urged, none of them were willing to come out from their hiding places at any time.
Hirose simply looked absent-mindedly out the window. There was a small shadow on the white sand of the sports grounds. It was a small mound of sand made with a pile of new sand, on top of which there was even placed some fresh flowers.
It was tragic the way Iwaki looked when he died. Even the paramedics had had a hard time looking straight at him. He'd heard that Iwaki's mother, who had rushed to the hospital, kept asking, "Is this really my son?"
Thinking about these things, Hirose's mood fell into a valley. Just then he heard flustered footsteps outside. The committee leader Gotanda ran in.
"Where's Gotou sensei?" He asked as he panted. The uniform he was wearing was wrinkled and messy, as if he'd gotten into some sort of accident, and his face showed that what had happened was exceptionally unusual.
"He's in a meeting. What's wrong?"
"Please go and stop it. They're going to hang Takasato."
Hirose ran as quickly as he could to 2-6. When he reached the second floor where the classroom was, he saw only a few students gathered here and there in the hall. He pushed past the students and ran to the classroom. As soon as he entered the room, he saw a wall of students facing the window.
"What are you doing?"
A few students turned to look at him, but no one had the intention of dispersing. Not far from the wall of people were a few students huddled together with ashen faces. A few people had bruises on their faces as if they'd been hit.
"Stop!" Hirose grabbed on to the shoulders of the students in front of him, trying to force the crowd to separate, when he was suddenly attacked from the back.
"Don't get in the way!" growled a student angrily as he glared at Hirose. The classroom was full of a tension that could be called frenzy.
"Hey, stop it!"
Hirose tried to push apart the students around him, but was he was met with a countless number of hands throwing fists at him. All the students showed vicious faces.
"Takasato!" He was standing in the front of the wall of students. Hirose saw a few students pushing and tugging at him.
"You killed him, didn't you?"
"It was you, wasn't it?"
Hirose knew that they were talking about Iwaki. He wanted to shout that it wasn't like that, but someone had kneed him in the chest and it hurt so much that wasn't immediately able to say anything.
"The student teacher should butt out!"
Hirose's legs became weak. When he was on one knee, someone kicked him indiscriminately.
"What the fuck are you, Takasato? Are you really human?"
There was no reply, though it might have been that after a round of punching and kicking attacks from those around him, Hirose couldn't hear anything.
"Iwaki said that there was no such thing as a curse, but look, he's really dead!"
Through the legs of the crowd, Hirose saw that Takasato had already been driven next to the window. The agitation of the students had already reached a boiling point. This place was full of an urgently dangerous atmosphere.
"You guys, stop it!" Hirose picked himself up and forcefully pushed apart the students. As he was doing so, there would still occasionally be fists flying at him.
"Are you friends with this monster? There's no use helping him. Iwaki's already dead."
"Do you know what you guys are doing?"
"I do!" As this was said, a kick came at him. Just when he felt a pain coursing through the corner of his eye, a warm fluid started flowing out of his nose. Hirose desperately forced the students apart, making his way to the front row. Now, he felt as if the floor was rocking and wasn't able to stand up again. Hirose propped his forehead weakly on ground, and then two hands came and wrapped themselves around his shoulders. It was in this way that Hirose was restrained, though before the students had chosen to do this, he was already too weak to move.
Takasato saw Hirose and looked as if he wanted to run over to him, but he was blocked by the students who surrounded him.
Someone pushed Takasato over. Another grabbed hold of his collar.
"Apologize to Iwaki! It's all because of you that we're all involved!"
"Kneel down and swear that nothing like this'll ever happen again!"
Someone tried to push Takasato over and forcefully make him bow down. Someone else took hold of his hair, wanting to push his head down.
It happened then. Takasato, who hadn't resisted at all, shouted.
"No!" With the force of the yell, he realized the seething anger of the situation.
Takasato shook off the hand that was pressing down on him and twisted his body away from those who were viciously trying to push him over, staying close to the window. What was strange was that the Takasato who had pulled himself free of those restraining him and picked himself up, looked as if he'd been extremely shaken by something.
"Why not? You mean you're not gonna apologize?"
"You killed someone! Don't you feel anything?"
Takasato's eyes widened. The blood drained from his face, but he cried out.
"Don't push me! I can't!" His words provoked a round of verbal attacks. A few people got closer to Takasato and started pushing and hitting him again.
"Stop." Hirose's voice was hoarse and at the same time, he began to get extremely dizzy. He threw off the hands pushing him down and told himself that no matter what, he had to get up, but he had already lost his balance.
He saw that Takasato had been pushed to the window. Takasato's eyes widened with terror, but he wasn't resisting at all. He looked as if he was so stunned that he had forgotten to fight back.
This isn't good, Hirose thought to himself. This can't happen. He couldn't let them all become attackers. For their own sakes, this wasn't good.
--Revenge wasn't good.
Revenge, revenge, revenge wasn't good.
"Stop!" yelled Hirose, but it was too late. Takasato's yielding body disappeared out the window. There were sounds of cheering all around.
By the time a few of the teachers ran there, Hirose had already sunken into a haze, and it was very hard for him to maintain clarity of consciousness. Someone held on to him as he walked in the hall, and several times he fell to his knees, once throwing up. After walking what seemed like a long time, he finally fell over in the infirmary and fainted.
The next time he opened his eyes, Hirose realized that he was lying on a bed in the infirmary. He turned his severely aching head about, and while propped himself up, he saw Totoki.
"Are you all right?"
Totoki walked towards Hirose and sat down at a corner of the bed. Hirose could feel his ears ringing heavily, as if he was walking through a tunnel, and it was like a white fog had covered his eyes so that he couldn't see clearly. He also couldn't move his mouth completely of his own volition.
"An ambulance took him away. I don't think he was hurt very badly. In some respects, you're the one with the heavier injuries."
Totoki's words were a relief to Hirose. He blinked hard a few times before his eyesight cleared up a bit.
"What time is it?"
"It's almost noon. Not much time has passed since the other teachers brought you in."
"...Can I get a glass of water?"
His mouth was full of the taste of blood and it was bitter. After he gargled with the water Totoki gave him, he felt much better.
"You've been through some pretty bad stuff."
"Where are the students?"
"They've been kept in the classroom. They're being reprimanded."
"He went to class. At any rate, it'd be best if you rested for a while. You threw up, didn't you? Does your head still hurt? Any nausea?"
"No... I'm fine." Hirose held himself up and felt his entire body ache, but he wasn't dizzy at all.
"It'd be best if you went to the hospital."
"I'll go after I take care of something." Hirose got off the bed. He stood and inspected his body. It was no problem; he could already move. "Thanks for your help."
"Really, you should go to the hospital."
"I will." Hirose bowed his head and left the infirmary.
Hirose encountered Gotou as he was on his way back to class.
"Oh? You still alive, handsome guy?"
Hearing Gotou teasing him, Hirose laughed softly and looked down. Gotou smiled wryly and then patted Hirose's shoulder.
"What a mess."
"It's inexcusable. I was even there."
"It's no use for the injured to think so much about it. Anyways, you should go home, go to a hospital. It's dangerous that you were hit in head and then you vomited."
"Itís not your fault. I knew long ago that something like this was going to happen."
Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou cracked a dry smile.
"It's a revolution by force. Takasato spread politics of terror. I knew there would come a time that they would rise up."
"What about them?"
"They were chewed out by the assistant headmaster. Actually, whether there's a curse or not, how could they understand? But before we knew it, it became something serious. Because as they see it, those guys were just legitimately defending themselves. So, the more blame is laid on them, the more they'll pass it off as if it was innocent teasing."
"Anyhow, go to a hospital. You can't help anyone in the condition you're in."
Hirose nodded, bowed his head, and suddenly asked, "Do you know what hospital Takasato was sent to?"
"I heard it was Red Cross. I don't know why he was sent so far away, since his injuries weren't that bad, huh? He only fell from the second floor after all." After Gotou said this, he smiled wryly. "If you're going to the Red Cross, don't just go to visit. Go get yourself checked out. All right?"
Hirose nodded and continued down the hall.
He walked to the prep room to get his bag. When he opened the door, he saw a few students inside.
"...You're all here?"
"Hirose-san, are you all right?" The first to greet him was Hashigami.
"I'm okay. News sure travels fast."
"When something this big happens, everyone'll find out about it. Do you want anything to drink?"
"How about some water?" Hirose plopped weakly into a chair. For the current Hirose, coming back from the head office area could already be considered tolerable hard labor.
A beaker full of water was placed in front of him. Nozue snuck glances at Hirose's face.
"What a scary face. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah," replied Hirose, noticing a bundle of chrysanthemum on the table. "Who brought those?"
"I did," said Nozue. "I always feel like Iwaki-san's here, so I brought them over from the classroom."
"I see..." Hirose gently touched the chrysanthemums, and then looked around the room. Sakata wasn't there.
"Hashigami-san kicked him out."
Hirose looked at Hashigami, and he creased his brow.
"He looked like he was happy. I told him to get out, since we were in the middle of a wake."
"I see." Hirose nodded. So that's why these regulars were all gathered here.
"I heard that they're having Iwaki-san's funeral today. Hirose sensei, are you going?" asked Nozue. Hirose nodded.
A short moment later, Hirose left the school. He flagged down a taxi and took it to the hospital. The reception desk was already closed, and Hirose used this as an excuse not to get himself checked out. He turned to ask about Takasato's room. Takasato had been sent to a room on the sixth floor. When he got to the door, Hirose knocked lightly and then opened it. Only one of the curtains towards the corner of the room had been pulled shut. He looked around the room and nodded to the other patients. When he got to the corner, he gently pulled back the curtain.
His eyes went wide and then he immediately closed them.
Takasato was fast asleep with his hand hanging off the side of the bed. A white hand was holding onto his hand.
--Then, was it Takasato?
Suddenly, a scene of what had happened before came back to him. A shadow standing next to the window of the building.
From close up, the arm had a perfect composition. As if it was carved out of marble, it was the smooth arm of a beautiful woman. Moreover, he couldn't see any trace of the owner of the arm that reached out from under the bed. Before Hirose even had time to be more than a little surprised, the arm hurriedly let go of Takasato's hand and disappeared under the bed.
Hirose walked forward and bent down slightly to peek under the bed. Of course, there was nothing there.
Hirose stood in a daze for a while, and then took a deep breath. As he was troubling himself about whether or not to wake Takasato up, one of the patients behind him brought him a chair, probably thinking that Hirose had just bent over looking for a chair.
"Thank you." Hirose nodded his head. He pulled the curtain back and sat next to the bed. Then, he thought over the problem of Takasato.
Takasato woke up very quickly. Perhaps, he hadn't been in the deepest of sleeps. After he recognized Hirose, he widened his eyes and then propped himself up.
"Are you all right, Takasato?"
"Yes. I'm sorry." Takasato lowered his head quite a bit.
"It's not your fault. Don't think anything of it." As Hirose said this, he thought casually back to yesterday, when he had said much the same thing. "How are your injuries?"
Takasato shook his head. "Nothing big. Just some bruises and scrapes from the fall."
It was just the second floor, but the second floor of their school was pretty high up. In addition, the side path underneath was even lower by about another story, with a place below to park bicycles. Takasato had fallen right onto the concrete slope down to the bicycle lot. It was really a bit hard to believe that falling from three stories up would leave someone unharmed.
"Why didn't you fight back?"
Takasato hadn't fought back then, and this bothered Hirose a lot. Takasato was about to say something, but then shook his head, simply saying indifferently, "I was a bit shocked."
Hirose stood up and patted Takasato's shoulder, who was silently hanging his head.
"Are you going to be hospitalized?"
Takasato lifted his head and looked troubled.
"No... The doctor said I could go home, but..."
It seemed as though Takasato found it hard to speak up. "No one's come to get me."
Hirose tilted his head, told him to "wait a moment," and left the hospital room.
Hirose went to the nursing station and told them who he was, and then asked in a probing way, "Can Takasato not go home yet?"
An older nurse was bewildered and said, "He's still a minor, so we told him that he needed to ask a guardian to come."
"And no one's come?"
"Yep. We gave them a call. His mother answered and said that she understood. Afterwards, we rang over there a few more times, but no one answered the phone..."
Hirose wrinkled his brow.
"What a worry. We need to get a family member of his to bring an insurance card to fill out these forms, and also to settle the medical fees."
"Let me take a look at them."
"Really? We would really appreciate it if you're willing to help out."
The nurse sighed delightedly. Hirose took the invoice the nurse gave him and put it in his pocket. He gave Gotou a call from the lobby and then left the hospital.
Hirose went home first to change out of his blood-spotted clothes before he made his way to Takasato's house, because though he had a jacket with him, by itself it wasn't able to cover up all the blood stains.
Takasato's house was located in the inner part of the old town by the sea. It was a private residence from an era already passed. It had been well maintained, but it was still hard to conceal a dark atmosphere.
Though the gate was closed tightly, it wasn't bolted, and so Hirose opened it by himself. Stepping stones extended out in an area overlaid with gravel. He walked upon the stones to the forbidding entrance hall and rang the doorbell. Inside, someone answered immediately. A little while after Hirose told them who he was, he heard footsteps and the door to the entrance hall opened.
The person who poked her head out was a middle-aged woman. He could tell that it was Takasato's mom with one look. She stood in the entryway with an appearance of evaluating the situation in her eyes, asking, "Might I ask what business you have?"
Hirose felt suspicious as he explained to her what had happened. "The hospital said that a long time had passed and no guardian had gone to the hospital, so he had no way of being discharged from the hospital and coming back..."
She pressed her hard lightly against her forehead. "Please tell him to come back on his own."
Hirose was a little astonished. No matter how good he tried to make it said, what she said wasn't at all like the attitude a mother should have toward a son who had fallen out of a window and was sent to the hospital in an ambulance.
After she tossed those words out, she turned away from Hirose, looking like she was about to close the door. Hirose hurriedly stopped her.
"Excuse me, but about the fee..."
"Ah." Her eyes widened and then she reluctantly invited Hirose into the entrance hall. Hirose stepped onto the dirt floor of the 3-tatami-wide room.
"How much is it?"
A little thrown off, Hirose took out the invoice and handed it to her. Did this woman regard him as someone the hospital sent to collect money?
"I think they need your insurance card too."
"I'll go get it."
"Wait a minute." Hirose called for the woman who was on her way inside to stop. "I'm not here especially to pressure you about the money. Why didn't you go to the hospital?"
She absent-mindedly turned a little towards him and gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm busy. It's a lot of trouble, but might I ask if sensei could go to the hospital for me?"
"You don't look very busy." Hirose's words couldn't help but carry barbs. He really couldn't understand this mother's attitude.
She suddenly turned around and looked at Hirose, glaring at him as if she was gazing at an enemy. "If he wants to come home, then he should come home on his own!"
Hearing her yelling, Hirose was immediately stunned into silence. She pointed at Hirose.
"If you want that child to come home, then why don't you just go and bring him home? I'm just too busy." Her tone had an unsympathetic feeling to it. It would be better to say that Hirose was feeling uncertain than to say that he was angry. He was completely at a loss as to why she was so heated.
"Okaasan, Takasato-kun was injured, you know."
"So what?" she asked condescendingly. A rush of displeasure immediate rose up in Hirose. He couldn't hold it in any longer and said directly what was on his mind.
"Aren't you his mother?"
She stared at Hirose.
I..." She stamped her foot. "I don't care if that child comes back or not. If he wants to come back, I'm not going to stop him, because I am his mother."
When they say that someone's stunned speechless, they were probably referring to how he was feeling now, Hirose thought. As Hirose stood frozen in shock, she went quickly into the house and then came back to the entrance hall just as quickly, holding out an envelope and her insurance card.
"Why?" Hirose couldn't help but ask. She stepped down into the dirt floor of the hall in her bare feet and tried to put the items into Hirose's hand. He shook his hand away at once.
"He's different." She stared at Hirose. "Another death, am I right?"
Hirose didn't understand her meaning right away and tilted his head in doubt.
"Another of his classmates has died, haven't they? It's because of that child."
Hirose took a shallow breath. Her hands were in tight fists, and she trembled like an unhappy child.
"Did you think it was the first time? People have even accused us of being murderers." Tears fell from her eyes, and her tone sounded like a curse. "We have to close our storm doors again and spend our days hiding in our home. It's all because of that child."
"It's not Takasato's fault!" Hirose couldn't help but shout. This is too much, he thought. Even if the entire world blamed them, aren't parents supposed to do their very best to protect their children?
"Everyone says it. They all say that it's because of that child. All the people around here know about it, and everyone talks about it like that. Even if they don't say it outright, I know." She said this with determination. "Did you ever think of how tragic it is for me and my husband because of that child? When people aren't turning a cold shoulder to us, they're speaking to us scornfully. Our kid too has suffered bullying more than once."
The word "kid" pierced Hirose's heart. Takasato had said before that he had a younger brother. When she spoke of her kid, she was probably talking about the younger brother. It was very obvious that she wasn't including Takasato with that word.
"Then does a mother just abandon him?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know? He's your child, isn't he? Haven't you ever considered how much this attitude hurts Takasato?"
She laughed. "Does that child ever get hurt? I've never seen him show anything worth feeling compassion over."
"Who's to decide? Maybe he just doesn't show it."
"Yes, I don't know. I have no way of knowing what sorts of feelings that child has in his heart, or what's going through his head." She laughed again, and it very noticeably carried with it a mocking tone. "He doesn't feel anything, and he doesn't think about anything, because that child isn't even human."
"How can you say that?"
She sneered. Hirose thought that he had never before seen such an ugly smile.
"That child is a substitute. When he disappeared, he was switched out."
Changeling. When he heard what she had said, Hirose began to search his memory. He was sure he'd seen that word in his college English textbook. It was a folk story passed down through Ireland. The legends say that native sprites would steal the babies of beautiful humans and leave behind the hideous child of a sprite hundreds of years old.
Hirose felt as if he was witnessing a shattered parent-child relationship with his own eyes. He didn't want to say anything further.
"Ever since he was little, he's been a strange child. But before he disappeared, he really was a good child. We're already letting this substitute stay in our home, providing for his room and board, even allowing him to go to school. I'd really hoped that our behavior would get your admiration!" After she said this, she hid her face in her hands. The sounds of her voice that leaked out from between her fingers gave Hirose chills. "Why, when he came back, didn't I just hit him with a fire poker...?"
Sprites disliked fire, and they hated metal. It was said that all one needed to do was pierce the throat of the substitute with a red hot fire poker, and it would turn back into the original child.
Hirose stood speechless, when she abruptly lifted her head and stared at Hirose.
"Please don't tell him what I've said to you."
Hirose widened his eyes, and for a while he didn't know what to say. She suddenly cringed in fright.
"Please don't say anything. I'm begging you."
It was fear of Takasato. Hirose just understood this, and he could tell that this household was full of that sort of atmosphere.
Hirose couldn't help but feel a tightening in his heart. The distance between Takasato and the world around him was so far. After school, Takasato remained in the classroom. Hirose thought, he wasn't staying at school because he liked to or wanted to. It was that he had no home to return to.
"I won't say anything." Hirose murmured.
She handed the envelope over to Hirose. This time, Hirose silently accepted it.
"Takasato-kun..." Hirose began. He felt he had to say it. "Would it be better if he didn't come back home for now?"
She looked suspicious.
"Until it settles back down, I'll take care of him. Is that all right?"
She nodded, looking visibly relieved. As soon as she consented, she turned her back to Hirose and went back into the house.
Hirose was left in the room with the dirt floor, and he stood there without a word, hanging his head for a while. He felt like crying.
After he got back to the hospital, Hirose settled the bill with accounting, and then went to Takasato's room. The curtains for Takasato's hospital bed were still shut tightly, and Hirose gently took one end of the curtain and looked in, seeing simply Takasato sitting on the bed staring at the curtain.
"Is it fun watching the curtain?" Hirose asked jokingly. Takasato smiled as well.
"Sparrows are casting their shadows on it."
An image of the tree outside was replicated on the curtains facing the window. He couldn't see any shadows that looked like birds, but only those of branches and leaves swaying steadily in the wind. Just when Hirose was about to ask where the sparrows were, one of the branches suddenly quivered. An extremely light shadow shook, and from that jumping movement, he could tell that something was there. There appeared the round silhouettes of something other than those of leaves, flying to the branches on the side. With those branches moving as if the wind behind them, he could see small birds perched on top. It was as if he was watching a difficult shadow picture.
There were sparrow shadows as expected. After Hirose spotted them, he looked at Takasato. Takasato looked up at Hirose as if seeking approval.
"It's spectacular," said Hirose. Takasato smiled and looked over to the curtain.
"There are three."
Hirose glanced when he was looking, but he didn't know which one he had seen before. He smiled dryly and pressed Takasato.
"Let's go! I've already settled your bill."
Takasato's expression immediately dimmed. "I'm sorry."
"I told you before not to worry about it."
Though Takasato was wearing his uniform, his shirt was thin, and it looked dreary. It was unclear whether it was due to the attack or the fall, but there were several rips in his shirt and even some sparse spots of dried blood. "Put this on," said Hirose as he handed Takasato the jacket he was holding. Takasato stood up and accepted the jacket, and then bowed his head deeply toward Hirose again.
After they stopped by the nursing station to say goodbye, they left the hospital and walked to a nearby subway station. Takasato bowed to Hirose again and made as to leave.
"Where are you going?" Hirose asked, as he put coins into the ticket machine, buying two tickets to the same destination.
"I'm going home," said Takasato wanly, and Hirose couldn't help but sigh. He'd previously been sent to the hospital in an ambulance, so of course he hadn't brought his schoolbag. That is to say, he didn't have any money on him, so he was probably just going to walk home. Even if he took the subway to a station near his house, it would take half an hour to get home, but for Takasato, this wasn't much of an issue.
Hirose handed the subway ticket to Takasato. "Come to my place. My room's a bit smaller, but I'm the only one living there. You needn't worry about being a bother."
Takasato looked at Hirose with amazement in his eyes, and then a gloomy shadow pass over his face as he probably guessed what had happened. He hung his head heavily. "I can't."
Hirose didn't take his reaction to heart and gently pushed Takasato's back. "I only have one futon, but I probably wouldn't need it in this weather. Although, I might wake up with aches and pains."
"Why don't we talk about it later?" said Hirose quietly. Takasato nodded reluctantly and then once again bowed deeply.
"I'm really very sorry."
"You don't need to apologize to me."
Hirose didn't mention anything to him, but Takasato seemed to understand it all and looked at Hirose painfully. How many times had a dispute like this between mother and son happened before? When he thought of this, Hirose felt a sort of sorrow in his heart.
Hirose lived on the edge of town. It was on the second floor of an old apartment complex with windows facing the weir at the mouth of a river. The height of the weir rose above its roof, and thus, the view was terrible. It was a dense residential area, so even though it was by the sea, it felt as if the wind had stopped blowing, making it hard for people to endure the extremely hot summer weather. The only merits were that the rent was cheap, and that it was next to a college.
"There's not much here," Hirose said as he entered his place, and Takasato looked like he was seeing something unusual as he looked around the interior of the room.
The first room in was a 3-tatami-wide kitchen. Beyond that was a 6-tatami-wide Japanese-style room, and next to the lowered area by the door was a unit bathroom.
Hirose didn't have a habit of collecting things, and thus the rooms appeared extremely spacious and clean. He'd always been the kind of person who was unsettled by messy clutter, so he made things as simple as they could be. Since he had a closet, he didn't have use for a dresser. In the 6-tatami-wide room, he had a kotatsu that stood in for a table, a bookshelf, and a three-section chest that stood in for a television stand. This was all his furniture.
"Isn't it dreary?" Hirose said with a wry smile.
Takasato shook his head and asked, "Can I look out the window?"
Hirose nodded and Takasato went to the window. There was a small balcony outside the window and out in front of that was the road paved along the weir. The road was higher than the window, so even standing on the balcony, one couldn't see much unless they looked horizontally up outside of the concrete. Because the road was a little far from the room, they got plenty of light, but there still wasn't much circulation of air.
Takasato pulled back the curtain and gazed out the window, and then turned around and looked up at the bookshelf. Hirose liked reading, but he didn't like filling his room with books, so he mostly made use of the library. After he finished reading the books he did buy, he immediately got rid of them, so the only things on the bookshelf were textbooks and a few photo books.
Takasato looked at the bookshelf as if he'd never seen one before. Hirose smiled dryly as he looked at him. "Is it unusual?"
Takasato nodded yes. "This is the first time I've been to someone else's house before."
What a lonely thing to say. He didn't even have a friend with whom he could visit.
"I need to go back to the school. Do whatever you like. On my way back, I'll stop by your house. Do you need anything?"
Takasato tilted his head and said simply, "If there are textbooks."
Hirose nodded and handed Takasato a spare key. He gave a rough explanation of the things in his home and left. He didn't know why, but as he left the room, Takasato asked, "Is it all right if I look at your books?"
For some reason, this left a deep impression in Hirose.
"How are your injuries?" asked Gotou, as soon as Hirose walked into the prep room.
"I'm sorry to have worried you. They're fine now." Hirose laughed as he said, "I afraid that for a while, my entire body was swollen."
It was quiet throughout the school. It was already after school, and it should have been relentlessly clamoring with the preparations for the athletics festival that was supposed to be happening the next day.
"According to the nurse, it shouldn't be anything serious. At most are some bruises and scrapes."
"I see." Gotou nodded and poured some coffee in a beaker for Hirose.
"What happened to those students?" asked Hirose. Gotou put his feet up on the desk and looked up at the ceiling.
"Still racking our brains about how to take care of them. There was a meeting just now, and we decided not to punish them right now. Well, if we disciplined all of them, then it looks like starting tomorrow, we'll all be holding classes for empty desks."
"The school administration has decided first to handle it as an accident for the time being, since even Takasato has said that he had fallen by mistake."
Hirose looked at Gotou. "He said that?"
"You didn't hear?"
Gotou sighed. "The students that pushed him out are also maintaining that Takasato jumped out on his own. The few witness who were standing in the hall watching all say that Takasato was pushed, but before Takasato was taken away by the ambulance, he said that he had tripped, and that's why he fell out of the window."
"Is that so...?"
Gotou heaved another sigh.
"He's not a bad guy... He's not, but he seems to have a lot of problems," Gotou seemed to be saying to himself, and so Hirose didn't respond. "So, your situation is also going to be considered an accident."
Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou creased his brow.
"Agitated by the death of their classmate, a group of students became hysterical and were trying to hang youth A. Youth A, feeling that his life was in danger, tried to escape and then as a result, accidentally fell out of the window. Also, a student teacher, who was trying to intercede, fell down in the midst of the shoving and pushing students and hurt himself." As he said this, Gotou pointed at Hirose.
Hirose smiled dryly. "I understand."
Hirose could still only smile dryly, and then he said, "Gotou-san, Takasato will be staying at my place for a while."
Once Gotou heard this, he took his feet off the desk with a thump.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I think it's best for now if he doesn't go back home. I've already let his mother know."
A stunned Gotou opened his mouth, and Hirose explained everything that had happened to him. Gotou looked speechless.
"...Really, why did you make that sort of decision on your own?"
Gotou frowned. "Oh well. At any rate, you should keep it to yourself before the training period is over."
Hirose nodded. Gotou sighed earnestly. "Also, let me do the next home visit."
"You don't believe me?"
"It's not that. I just haven't done a home visit at Takasato's house." Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou smiled wryly. "I've been there once, but no one was home. Afterwards, I called them a few times, but they just kept saying they were busy, busy, busy. They even said that they entrusted their child to us and that we could handle him however we pleased. It was much the same for his first year, and so that's how it's been up until now. I've never made a home visit for him."
This time it was Hirose who sighed.
"At the time, his homeroom teacher Ikuta sensei had been hopping mad."
Hirose laughed lightly. Ikuta was an English teacher and served as the soccer coach as well. He was a hot-tempered guy.
"When he couldn't get it figured out with his mother, he went to Takasato's father's workplace to look for him. He was surprised to find the father saying that these sorts of matters were completely the child's mother's responsibility. He was at a loss."
"That's a distinct possibility." Hirose nodded.
"He said that they never ever called Takasato by his name."
Hirose suddenly recalled that Takasato's mother was always calling him "that child," but never mentioned him by name.
"I think Ikuta-san also considered bringing Takasato to his house several times. But, it was hard for most people to avoid thinking more about it. Ikuta-san had two vivacious children in his home, and Takasato brought with him such negative rumors, so he had a lot to consider."
Hirose nodded. Gotou smiled uneasily.
"--It's not like I hadn't thought about bringing him home. Any person couldn't help but think this way after talking with his mother. But, at my house, we have a bad-tempered old woman who only opens her mouth to say disagreeable things." Gotou sighed. "Ikuta-san took great care of Takasato. Actually, it was by Ikuta-san's request that Takasato was placed in my class."
"You can do that?" Hirose asked doubtfully.
Gotou smiled wryly, saying, "There's always a way. --Although, I wasn't much help."
Gotou sighed yet again. Hirose felt like sighing was all Gotou could do today.
"I was hoping I could help him out in some way. But then, even Ikuta-san died..."
Hirose couldn't help but stand up. "What did you say?"
"Don't you know?" Gotou asked dubiously. Hirose could only shake his head. "It happened on the day of the closing ceremonies after the third school term. That day, Ikuta-san had come here and said to me, 'Please take care of Takasato,' because he said that he'd ended up yelling at Takasato. I didn't know what he'd done or what he'd said. I knew only that on the way home that day, he'd crashed into a curb. I heard that at the scene, there was no trace that brakes had been used or evidence that the steering wheel had been turned. It's possible he was dozing off as he was driving."
Hirose closed his eyes.
"Someone probably knew that he'd left Takasato behind, and so during the funeral, the students in his class then called it the result of a curse."
Hirose sighed deeply.
Ikuta and Iwaki had both done something to Takasato without bad intentions. Or perhaps it could be said that it'd been out of good intentions, which Takasato himself had been clear about. However, both of them died. It had nothing to do with what Takasato was thinking. They'd actually done it for Takasato's own good and shouldn't have died. But they did die, and as a result, everything was being blamed on Takasato.
Thus, Takasato was forever alone.
Gotou heaved another deep sigh. "...He's not a bad guy. He really isn't a bad kid, but..."
Hirose called Takasato's house from the school to tell them that he was going to go pick up Takasato's belongings, and then he left the school.
The quiet school seemed to be enveloped by a nervous atmosphere. The school would still be on a regular schedule tomorrow, but a relatively long time was probably necessary before the schoolyard returned to normal.
When he got to Takasato's house, Hirose saw bags placed in front of the entrance hall, one was a paper bag and another was a travel-size bag. Hirose opened the paper bag and inside there were textbooks, notebooks, and the like. He bit his lip and made up his mind to ring the doorbell. He rang it a few times in succession and waited patiently, but there was no response from inside. The rooms next to the entry hall were completely shut up with storm windows. Hirose sighed, took the bags and left.
By the time Hirose got back to his apartment, the sun was already slowly descending, and the sky above the weir dyed the thin clouds in crimson. He called out a greeting and opened the door. Through the glass door, he could see Takasato sitting by the window, looking at a book.
Takasato looked up, and when he saw Hirose, he immediately shut the book and stood up. After he apologized, he went to get the bags in Hirose's hands.
"I told you before not to worry about it."
"Stop apologizing." After Hirose said this, Takasato smiled gently.
Hirose was taken aback. Though it was only a weak smile, he felt like Takasato was recently more and more expressive. His mother had said those things, but Hirose didn't believe that Takasato was completely devoid of feelings or that he didn't think of anything. It was just that he'd never had someone to whom he could express his feelings and thoughts--It had even been the same at home.
The twilight filled the entire room. Hirose turned on the lights as the window that had been so bright just before grew a bit darker.
"There's nothing here. You must have been bored, huh?" said Hirose, but Takasato shook his head. Hirose looked at the book in his hands and discovered that what he'd been looking at was a photo book on the Guyana Highlands.
"Were you looking at that? Pretty nice, huh?"
"I'd really like to go see it in person," said Hirose as he was changing.
Takasato replied, "Yeah."
"You think so too?"
"Yes." He nodded, and then said, "I want to go to Mt. Roraima."
"Ah, you mean that place with valleys of crystal?"
Takasato smiled faintly. "A place with a maze of rocks."
"A maze of rocks?"
Hirose bent down and stooped in front of where Takasato was sitting and looked at the pages of the book. He saw pictures of the areas Takasato called "a maze of rocks" that were photographed from above. The formations of strange crags and crevices were like a maze. Because of the scale, it looked tiny, but in reality, it was a giant maze the size of tens of Tokyo Domes.
"...It just feels so familiar..." Takasato mumbled quietly. Hirose peered at his face.
"Are you talking about the maze?"
Takasato nodded passively. "The views of the plateaus of Guyana give that sort of feeling... I guess you could call it deja vu."
"You mean that? The place you went when you were spirited away?"
"I don't know." Takasato shook his head. "I keep thinking about it, but I just can't figure it out."
Hearing in Takasato's voice a hesitant uncertainty, Hirose forced himself to say to him with an upbeat tone, "Don't be discouraged. There'll be a day when you'll remember."
Takasato wanted to smile at Hirose, but in the end, he couldn't succeed in bringing a smile to his face.
"Takasato, it won't help to overthink it."
"I just feel like I have to remember. I keep thinking that if I don't do it soon, something will happen that can't be recovered from..."
Hirose creased his brow, not knowing what to say.
"I feel like I've forgotten some extremely important promise, and it's a promise that must never be forgotten."
Hirose silently placed his shirt on a clothes hanger, and then opened the closet and put it away. As he was about to slide the door closed, he discovered Takasato staring over in his direction. He was looking at the lower part of the closet with an amazed look.
He used the upper portion of the closet to hang his clothes, and he had placed shelves in the lower portion to store books. Takasato looked at the bookshelf as if he had never seen one before. They looked at each other and Takasato asked, "Can I take a look?"
"Go ahead." Hirose moved out of Takasato's way.
There were two small shelves on the left side of the closet. Hirose used them to store books that he couldn't get rid of. He'd been living here since he started college, and though it had been four years ago, there was still some empty space on the shelf.
Takasato browsed the shelf, but he didn't look at the back covers of the books. Instead, he pointed inside. Hirose looked at where he was pointing, and hanging there on the back wall was a painting.
"Ah... Gotou-san painted that for me." Mounted in a rather bland frame, the watercolor was of a view, painted with the muted colors of an embellished style. On a field full of blooming white flowers, there was a clear river twisting and winding on and on, and in the distance there was a partially transparent bridge.
This is something Gotou had painted for him when Hirose had told him the story of "that world." Gotou had used pencil to sketch out a rough picture and asked Hirose, "Is it this sort of feeling?" Hirose had told him that he wanted this painting, so then Gotou had added color to it for him that day and created this extremely faint and multicolored painting.
"Why do you hang it there?"
Hirose smiled and pointed at a desk lamp next to the lower shelf.
"When we sleep, don't we usually lay the futon out straight?" Hirose bent his arm so that it was perpendicular to the closet, and then he pointed towards the closet. "So, I put my pillow here, and I can read if I just turn the lamp on. It looks like a lazy guy's study. It's not a bad idea, is it?"
After Hirose finished speaking, Takasato smiled and nodded.
"Takasato, what would you like to eat?" asked Hirose as he put his shirt in the washing machine on the balcony. Takasato tilted his head in astonishment, as Hirose pointed at the shirt Takasato had on, meaning that he wanted Takasato to take it off so that he could wash it with his.
"Anything is fine."
"Do you especially like anything?"
"There's nothing really that I can't eat."
"Great!" Hirose turned on the water for the washing machine and then poured in some detergent. Takasato had changed into something more comfortable and poked his head out to the balcony.
"I don't need this anymore. There's a spare uniform in my bag."
"I see," said Hirose as he indicated the trash can on the balcony. In reality, once a shirt gets stained with blood, it's not an easy task to wash it off, not to mention the fact that the shirt was ripped in several places. With Hirose's domestic skills, he felt like there was no way he could get the shirt back to its original condition, so he was relieved at Takasato's words. Takasato opened the cover of the trash can and then looked at Hirose uncertainly.
Hirose thought it peculiar and when he looked into the trash can, he saw his own shirt which he had thrown into there during the day. --It had been heavily stained by his nosebleed, so he hadn't felt like wearing it again.
"How curious," said Hirose softly. Takasato hung his head apologetically.
Deep in the night, the rumbling of the sea could be heard from Hirose's room. Hirose liked hearing these beat-like sounds. Tonight, he could also hear the faint noise of breathing that seemed to accompany the rise and fall of the waves.
The lamp had already been turned off. The glow of the moon reflecting off of the weir flooded into the entire lightless room. Hirose turned his head and saw the sleeping face of Takasato. He'd laid out the thick, winter-use bed covering for Takasato, and gave him a blanket to take the place of a summer futon. If he'd never been to someone else's house before, then this must be the first time he's spending a night away from home--other than on the field trip.
To be honest, this was the first time Hirose had let someone else stay at his place. He'd never liked having other people in his room. However, this wasn't something he could just come out and say directly, so it wasn't as though he stood in his doorway and shooed visitors away, but once someone entered his place, he would feel strong unease. If one wanted to give this problem a name, it'd probably be visitor phobia. He had an irrational anxiety where he was worried that someone would then stay for a long time, or never leave once they had entered. On the one hand, he was afraid they would stay, and on the other he was afraid that anything and everything would be messed up. But if you asked him what exactly would be jumbled up, even Hirose himself wasn't clear on it.
Thus no matter what, he never let anyone else stay at his place. Though he did allow people to come in, he definitely wasn't okay with them staying there. It was the same for even his mother or father. He let them come in, but he absolutely didn't allow them to stay overnight. It might be better to say that it was because he couldn't deal with that kind of fear and discomfort, than to say that it was because he didn't like it, but since he was this way, Hirose was often described as weird.
For as long as he could remember, Hirose just didn't like spending a long period of time with other people, no matter how familiar they were, for example: his parents or a lover. As time went by, it would start to feel unpleasant. It wasn't that he didn't like the other person, but one it did start feeling disagreeable, he would then really need to find some time and space where he could be alone. When he was at someone else's house and he began to feel impatient, he simply needed to leave and go back to his own home, but when someone else was at his place, he couldn't very well require that they leave on their own. What exactly was going on with him? Even Hirose would wonder this about himself.
Thus, it was absolutely shocking that he himself had invited someone else to stay with him. Hirose couldn't help but crack a wry smile. He was also very clear on the fact that this stay would be for a very long time.
Hirose turned over. --He knew the reason.
Hirose wasn't afraid of Takasato. Takasato didn't give rise to Hirose's uneasiness, and he wouldn't "make a mess of everything." If one were to change it to make it sound more sentimental, then it was because Takasato was his compatriot. Neither Takasato nor Hirose were people from "here." At the very least, Hirose had that feeling, so he knew that Takasato wouldn't "make a mess of everything."
What exactly was "everything"? thought Hirose. Did it have a lot to do with the fantasy about losing their native land?
After almost falling asleep, Hirose was suddenly awake again. He kept the train of thought he'd had when he was half-asleep, that there was still a lot to think about; that there was still a lot to consider, and he didn't want to sleep yet.
When he was about to fall asleep while thinking this, he suddenly felt like there was someone breathing nearby. Who is it? thought Hirose, a little astounded, but he then immediately remembered that Takasato was sleeping next to him. Of course. Takasato's sleeping here. Afterwards, he was on his way to sleep again when he heard someone's footsteps. This time, he became wide awake.
Did Takasato get up? Could he not fall asleep because he wasn't used to it? Hirose wanted to turn and look, but he discovered that he couldn't move his body. He couldn't even move his hands or feet, and even breathing became difficult. Every breath took a long time to perform.
Scuff, the noise of feet nearby. He heard the sound of feet dragging on top of the tatami. He tried his hardest to turn and look at where the sound was coming from, but even shifting his line of sight used up tremendous strength. Still laying face up and unable to move, Hirose couldn't see whose footsteps he was hearing. He tried looking around, but performing even this action made him sweat. Is this what so-called sleep paralysis felt like? Hirose finally thought of that.
Scuff, the noise of feet. The sound of feet was extremely distant. Even using as much strength as he might use moving a boulder, there was no way he could turn his head even a little bit. Shuffle, the sound of feet again with the feeling of someone's breath nearby. He could sense the presence of someone in the periphery of his field of vision that he couldn't shift no matter how hard he tried. If only he could turn his head just a centimeter, then he would be able to see who it was.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle... The sound of something sliding along the tatami mat. And then, in an instant all the sounds stopped. The surroundings returned to stillness.
Hirose was still persistent in identifying the source of the sounds. The sweat on his forehead slipped to his temple. He mustered up all his strength to move his neck. Just a little bit more. I just need a little bit more.
He used the strength in his entire body, almost choking himself, as his line of sight finally moved with great difficulty towards the area from which the breathing came. Even so, he could only see the top of the window through which the moonlight was shining. In the corner of his field of vision, he could see the sleeping figure of a person next to him.
Had it been Takasato? Was it Takasato getting up, and then lying back to sleep? Just as he was speculating about this, in the corner of his eye, he saw something white moving about. He knew they were white fingers.
White fingers were moving around in the periphery of his stationary field of vision, trying to touch the sleeping Takasato's face. The hand made its way next to Hirose as it went to caress Takasato. The white arm appeared in full as if gently embracing Takasato's neck. Hirose held his breath as he turned his head. He could finally see in plain sight this image.
The white arm hugging Takasato's neck had full lines, and one could tell immediately that it was a woman's arm. It extended out from the other side of Takasato. That area was not very low, and it looked like someone was sleeping in that dead space, but Hirose knew that this wasn't the case.
Just then, a face suddenly appeared from the other side of Takasato's profile where Hirose was staring.
Hirose looked directly at it and saw that it was a woman's face. She had revealed the upper portion of her face to look at Hirose. Hirose wanted to call out, but that just produced cramps in his stomach as he wasn't able to make a sound. He had no way of closing his eyes, and he couldn't turn his head away. Because it was dark in the room, he wasn't able to make out much of the woman's facial features, but those round, wide eyes stared at Hirose.
Hirose suddenly felt as if he'd heard a voice.
--Are you an enemy of the king?
Before he could make sense of what she said, with a whoosh, the face suddenly appeared in front of Hirose's eyes. The roaring force of her big, round eyes was as if they wanted to penetrate his eyes, and he could perceive the smell of the sea. Hirose screamed silently, and as if his entire body was bounced up, the restraints on his body were released and he sprang up. At the same time, the arm and the head shrank back faster than Hirose's eyes could follow.
As he leaned forward to catch up, the arm and the head looked as if they were about to be sucked into the tatami. The arm that was up to the elbow and the woman's head that showed only the upper portion of her face--and those round eyes--grew slimmer until whoosh, it was gone. It was as if she disappeared as if she had dropped into the tatami.
Hirose was terrified as he panted. His sweat slid continuously down to his chin and dripped onto the tatami. That presence was no longer there. All that remained was the cold-looking tatami and Takasato, in a deep sleep.
A stunned Hirose remained propped up as he looked in the direction of what had happened. He thought about what he had just seen. It was a woman. She seemed to have long hair and eyes like a reptile or a fish, those round eyes. She gave off the strong smell of seawater. It felt as if it was her breath, rather than her smell. He hadn't seen her nose, or perhaps she didn't have one. He hadn't seen the rest of her either, not her lips, neck, or shoulders. It was in this way that she sank into the tatami.
Hirose covered his face with his hands and wiped off the sweat that kept dripping. He looked at Takasato, who was still sleeping soundly, and it appeared as if he hadn't been affected by what had just happened at all.
Hirose hugged himself with his arms. His sweat was quickly turning cold, and chills penetrated his body. The goose bumps on his arms that he was holding with his hands had risen up.
Hirose drew up the summer futon, lay back down and pulled it over his head. He closed his eyes and didn't think about anything. He wanted with all his heart just to fall asleep.
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