Girls Blue Part 2 (pg 57-104)

        Back in grade 10, I really went all out. Not in my studies though, but in becoming pretty. I learned to make my eyelids double-lidded through the use of Aipuchi, I learned how to put on eyeliner and mascara, I learned how to dye my hair so that the dye would be all even, and I was a bit elated to be honest. When I put on make up, it was as if a thin layer after layer was coming off, and a beautiful me was emerging. I felt really happy about that.
        I wasn’t the Yoshimura Riho with the small, one-lidded eyes anymore, but I had become someone that I thought was bold and beautiful, and I was satisfied.
        Looking back on it now, I went pretty overboard. If you look at my pictures from that time, you’d know right away. It’s one of those things that is clear as day to see. I was really gaudy. I didn’t put on any foundation because I had confidence in my white skin. But that made the black smudges around my eyes stand out even more. Lightly flapping the photograph, Misaki comments:

        “How disgraceful,”
        I agree. Showered by the natural light pouring in through the classroom windows, the me with the caked on makeup wasn’t pretty at all–to the contrary, I just looked gaudy.
        Fortunately, I realized the error of my ways. Now, I wear really light makeup. Even then, I’m pretty satisfied with my so-so pretty looks.
        At any rate, back in my caked-makeup days, I stopped by the supermarket one day while walking home from school. It was a large chain store that had stores nationwide, and it had everything from clothes to general goods to food. Misaki and Ayana were with me. I don’t even remember anymore what it was that I wanted to buy. Every shelf and row were lined with stuff, and it was overflowing with goods. We were going around the clothes and general goods sections of the store even though we didn’t plan to buy anything from those corners, and we were laughing and making a bit of noise.
        Misaki was the first to notice.
        “Hey, don’t you get this feeling like someone’s watching us?”
        “Huh?”
        Misaki asked whether I felt someone watching us. I looked around us, and my gaze clashed with the gaze of the person who was watching us.
        It was a blue uniform wearing middle-aged lady who was an employee there. She had an old-school perm hair with a big mole on the side of her nose.
        “She’s watching to make sure we don’t try to take anything.”
        Misaki whispers. I lifted my chin in the direction of the security camera that was located on top of a shelf.
        “No way, don’t those things work? So what, the old lady employees have to do the surveillance?”
        “Maybe they get them to trail after those who look especially suspicious?”
        I don’t know why, but Misaki winked at me. Ayana’s cheeks puffed up.
        “That pisses me off. So what? They think we’re going to shoplift?”
        “Ayana, you don’t use a word like ‘think’ for something like that.”
        “Then how’re you supposed to say it?”
        “You’re supposed to say that they’re ‘suspicious’ of us.”
        “Oh right. I shouldn’t expected any less from you, Riho. I guess that A you got in Japanese wasn’t a fluke, huh?”
        While Ayana was being impressed, the middle-aged lady continued to watch us with shifting eyes. It wasn’t really obvious. She pretended to be organizing the goods on the shelves, and while moving around the boxes of hair dye, she watched us. It wasn’t obvious, but it was pretty funny. It’s laughable. It makes me laugh more than make me pissed. Misaki shrugs.
        “Our uniforms and Riho are to blame.”
        “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
        “These uniforms. They probably think that if we’re students from Inanohara, then there’s a good likelihood that we’re going to shoplift. And not only that, but with your caked-on makeup, it doubles the chances of us doing something like that.”
        “If they could spot the shoplifters from the face and uniforms alone, then they wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
        Ayana says with a serious look on her face. That was pretty funny. Snickering, we decided to play along with the middle-aged lady. We walked briskly along the goods on the shelves, and at times we stopped and picked up the goods. The middle-aged lady followed without fail. There were other girls from different high schools there, but she ignored them. It might just be that she was given a special assignment of following those gaudy female high schoolers from Inanohara High. When I mentioned that, Ayana finally lost it and burst out laughing.
        When we got to the snack section, I was hungry. I was really planning on getting something. I grabbed a bag of potato chips, and I looked around me to catch a glimpse of the middle-aged lady. She was hiding half her body with a shelf, and she was peering over at us. Like a kid watching each customer that walked through the door, she silently, but unwaveringly watched us. I’d reached my limit. Even before that though, we were already drunk with laughter. We were practically rolling with laughter even though it wasn’t that funny. Everyday was just fun for us like that. Even if it was just someone falling on their ass, or someone’s octopus-shaped sausage from their lunch rolling onto the floor, or the goat that the farming division had been raising escaping and running around the school grounds, we found it all hilarious. It made us laugh our asses off. The same went for this middle-aged lady with the perm hair who was peering over at us intently with her body half hidden by the shelves. It easily crossed over the minimum limit of what we’d consider funny.
        I covered my face and crouched down. It was so funny that I couldn’t even talk. Misaki even crouched down beside me and was laughing. Ayana had tears running down her face. She was laughing so hard that she had to put her hand on her leg to keep herself upright.
        “This is so funny, I’m about to pee myself.”
        That made us laugh even harder. We could hardly breathe, and we seriously thought we might almost die of laughter.
        The one who was able to return back to normal the fastest was, of course, Misaki. Wiping the tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes, her face returned to a serious one as if she’d never even laughed in the first place, and she pulled out a small camera from the inside of her pocket of her school uniform.
        “Let’s take a photo to commemorate the day!”
        She readies the small camera. Misaki loves cameras. She’s always carrying around this camera that she’s dubbed “Mr. Pocket.” It’s not that she loves being in pictures–it’s just that she loves taking them.
        The scenery, the people, the contents of her lunch, the back figure of a stray dog, the caterpillar hanging off of the branch of a cherry blossom tree, a picture of me and the goat from the farming division…she takes photos of anything and everything. The only thing she doesn’t take, is pictures of herself. Apparently, she doesn’t like the way she appears in photos. She even hates being in purikura shots. I asked her why numerous times. And the kind of reply that I got, was how photographs suck the soul of a person, basically, something that an old-lady from the early Meiji era might’ve said.
        At any rate, thanks to Misaki, I’ve got piles and piles of my daily snapshots, and it’s a perfect documentation of my growth.
        “I’m taking the photo.”
        “All righty.”
        In front of the chips section, Ayana and I smile and make a victory sign. Mr. Pocket’s flash goes off. Two times, three times. After we finished taking the photos, the middle-aged lady was no longer hiding. She was standing there in the middle of the aisle, and gazing at us with a puzzled look on her face. Misaki turns Mr. Pocket in her direction.
        “Excuse me, but can I take a photo of you?”
        The flash goes off.
        “Thank you very much!”
        She waves to the woman, and turns her back to her. Ayana was still laughing. The photos that resulted from that day turned out pretty well. The packaging of snacks are really colourful. Red, yellow, blue, green–the potato chips bags which are lined up on the shelves according to their color, look like they’re just lined up normally to the naked eye, but as a background of a photo, becomes like the wallpaper of a toy kingdom. Trashy, garish, and fun. Ayana and I were making a victory sign in front of a toy castle. I still have that photo posted up in my room.
        “Geez.”
        Every time Misaki comes over to visit, she flicks the photo with her finger.
        “We’re not THAT immature that we’d shoplift.”
        “Yeah, and it’s not like we’re that bored.”
        I add. Shoplifting is something that bored, immature brats do. We’re not that immature, nor are we that bored.
        We shorten the skirts of our school uniform, wear loose socks, have a tendency to step on the heel of our loafers, don’t study, hang around the convenience store, and can be pretty noisy, but we don’t shoplift. We don’t prostitute ourselves either. We hate smoking. We become sleepy at eleven o’clock at night. We might even be worthy of being given an award from the Mothers’ Association for the Healthy Development of Youth. But that kind of ‘goody-goody children’ aren’t the roles we’re expected to fulfill, apparently.
        “They always pressure roles onto us that match our outer appearance.”
        That’s what she said. The one who said that was, of course, Misaki. I forgot when, but being the goody-goody students that we were, we were for some reason picking up the trash that was strewn around the train station.
        Kei-kun threw away the package from his bread and his cigarettes onto the ground. Suu-chan got mad at him. I would’ve been mad too. I wouldn’t want my boyfriend to be throwing away his yakisoba bread packaging on the ground like that. That’s so lame. But Kei-kun bent to pick up the packaging without arguing, and he even picked up a coke can along with it.
        “Hey, this is the one I threw away yesterday. So what? They don’t have anyone cleaning this place up?”
        Now that he mentioned it, the grounds around the train station are always really dirty. My room is usually pretty messy too, but I make sure to thoroughly clean it once a month. The clean freak in me was triggered in an instant. I started gathering together the cans rolling on the ground, and brought it over to the trash can.
        On top of that, I also picked up the waste paper that was beside the trash can. Suu-chan did the same thing. That was all. We weren’t THAT goody-goody that we would clean up the whole place, and it’s not like we had that kind of time either, and besides, we didn’t have that kind of obligation to do so either. But, we ended up being praised by some old lady we’d never seen before who had just happened to be passing by. She told us how admirable it was that we were doing this. We got this feeling like she was going to come over to pat our heads at any moment, so we quickly dispersed. And what do you know, that incident ended up being written up in the editorial column of the local paper.
        The title read “The Heart-Warming Teenagers Whom I Saw at The Train Station.”
        It began with: “I saw teenagers picking up the trash around the train station. They were silently cleaning it up on their own without being ordered to by anyone.” It continued on: “Those teenagers were wearing the school uniforms of a certain high school. It’s a high school that is rumoured to be a place rampant with misconduct. Those students were silently picking up trash. It touched me. We have a tendency to judge based on appearances, but this made me realize that pure teenagers like this can be found anywhere.” And omitting a few lines, it goes on to conclude: “Rather than the students of university preparation oriented high schools that are engrossed in exams, deviation values, and getting high grades, these students may be the ones with the biggest hearts. For the coming future, what society needs is not scholastic abilities, but rather, generous hearts.”
        It was a fine piece of writing. But it was also hilarious. The lady who submitted the piece, and the newspaper that published this–they’re both worth a laugh. We weren’t ‘cleaning up silently’. We just picked up some cans. If we hadn’t been wearing school uniforms from Inanohara High, I don’t think the old lady who submitted this piece would’ve been as touched. It’s the same for the middle-aged lady who worked at the supermarket. She probably wouldn’t have kept a watch over us hiding half of her body with the shelves. As it turns out, the picking up of trash by female teenagers who totally look as if they’d shoplift or prostitute themselves makes a touching, heart-warming story. Everyone loves stories like that. They love kind, tear-jerking, courageous, beautiful stories like that.
        That’s why you shouldn’t let your guard down. That’s what Misaki meant. If you get sucked in by a beautiful story, you won’t be able to escape from it.
        For Mutsuki, it’s the role of the player who promises victory to the departed coach, for us, it’s the role of the youth who’ve yet to lose their big-heartedness despite their inability to exceed in their studies, for the students who’re in university prep-oriented schools, it’s the role of the exhausted elite who spends day-in-day out in an exam and grade war–we won’t be able to escape from these roles. I don’t want to be restrained by these roles. I don’t want to act the role expected of me. I want to expand the role of the main character. I want to do everything from the directing to the script to the acting. I want to kick to the wayside all those who shove roles onto me and order me to act a certain way. I don’t want to live my life being in someone else’s story.
        That’s why, you can’t let your guard down.

        The cell phone rang. Kei-kun lets out a whoop and pumps his fist in the air. Kisaragi looks up at the ceiling.
        “Hello? Oh, I’m…ah, yeah. Okay, I’ll be there right away.”
        Suu-chan’s expression clouds up.
        “Who was that from?”
        “A friend. That means four people are off the hook. Well, I’m gonna go. Fujimoto, thanks for the meal.”
        He gave a wave to Suu-chan, and after bowing deeply to Kisaragi, Kei-kun left.
        “Don’t you think Kei-kun’s been spending a lot of time hanging out lately?”
        Misaki commented to Suu-chan without looking at her.
        “Yeah…it’s not really that he’s gotten into a habit of it…it’s more like, he’s using it as a way of releasing his anger, you know?”
        “I can’t believe he’d choose his friends over his girlfriend though. I think that’s just disgusting, don’t you think so too, Riho?”
        “Why are you asking me?”
        “Well, before you and Takurou-kun broke up, you snapped at him too, remember? Saying stuff like how he’s always hanging out with his friends instead of you. He probably dumped you because you were ragging on him too much about it.”
        “Misaki, that’s going a bit far. I’m gonna get mad if you say anymore.”
        “Why don’t you? I warned you that if you complain too much, the guy’s gonna make a run for it.”
        “Well yeah, but I wasn’t being annoying. I just said what I wanted to say.”
        “That’s what I meant by being annoying.”
        “I don’t care if I’m annoying. If I always have to hold back from saying what I really want to say, I’d rather be dumped.”
        “Huh, but for someone with that kind of attitude, you sure were racking your head over your relationship. Enough to get a stomach ache from it.”
        She really is impressive. She always knows which buttons to press. She’s a genius. I don’t know what use it’ll be for her to have such a skill, but it’s really a God-given gift. It probably won’t be of any use to her though.
        Kisaragi stands up waveringly. He let out a deep sigh as he held the bill in his hand. Misaki smiled thinly.
        “Looks like you’re the loser today.”
        “The five minute penalty was the cincher, I think. You lost a close game.”
        I comment.
        “Kisaragi-kun, you’ll have other chances in the future.”
        Suu-chan comforts him. Kisaragi counts the contents of his wallet, and let out an even deeper sigh.

        The rain had stopped. The rain that had been coming down without a break since morning had let up, the clouds dispersed, and the light of summer washed the city. The air feels nice. This is a town rich with green. The abundant trees create pockets of shade throughout the town, and it preserves the coolness. The cicadas that had come before its season are already chirring. The more awkward their sound, which drenches the town along with the light, the cooler the breeze that blows across the city.
        In our town, the summers pass with break-neck speed. Even though the summer break had yet to begin, the sky today reminded me already of Fall.
        “What are you going to do afteryou graduate?”
        Suu-chan asked on a whim. I don’t know who she meant the question to be for. We were walking along the stone pavement of Shiroyama. There are no castles here. The only thing left are the stone walls covered in moss.
        A swallow glides so low that it almost touches the ground, and it soared high up into the air before disappearing. It was as if it was showing off to those who couldn’t fly what they were missing out on.
        “Are you going to go on to university? Or are you going to find a job?”
        She stops. One black-winged dragonfly has its wings spread on Suu-chan’s shoulder. It’s going to be the season for dragonflies soon.
        “What about you, Suu-chan?”
        I repeated the question back to her. I know it’s a cowardly method. When I don’t know the answer to something, or when I don’t want to answer the question, I use this method. I know it’s a cowardly way of covering it up. Misaki shrugs.
        “I don’t know.”
        Suu-chan simply shakes her head.
        “Suu-chan, you could advance to university since you’re smart.”
        “Yeah…but I don’t think I’d be able to get into a public university, and my parents told me private schools are out because they cost too much money.”
        Suu-chan’s family runs the Nagahara factory, I heard that a long time ago, they made more than one hundred types of screws. They even had around twenty employees. Now, there are only Suu-chan’s parents and a man named Imai-san left.
        “They’re not doing too well. They said they didn’t know how much longer they could keep the factory going. I guess that means university’s out for me.”
        “Work’s gonna be out too, you know.”
        Misaki lifted her gaze up to the sky as if tracing the path of the swallow.
        “It’s super tough for high schoolers to find full time jobs these days. Especially from our school–no company even comes to recruit at our school. I heard that students going to university or technical school are flooding into the jobs that high school graduates used to do. There are lots of people who graduated this year who’re just lazing around and doing nothing because they couldn’t find jobs.”
        After saying all that, Misaki realized she went a bit too far, even for her, so she adds:
        “But Suu-chan, you’re the top scorer of our grade. I think you’ll be able to find a job somehow.”
        Misaki said this in a calm manner that was unlike her.
        “Yeah, but it’s not like I have a dream or anything. There’s nothing really that I want to become, and it’s just a big hassle to be told stuff like ‘find a job.’ If only I could stay a student of Inanohara forever…”
        Turning to Suu-chan, I nod in agreement. Now’s the best. Now’s fun. I want for things to stay like this forever. If only time could loop. Rather than passing by, I wish it could just go in circles. Then, we could always be as we are now.
        Sometimes, I seriously wish for that. At the same time though, I wish I could leave it all. Leave this town for somewhere far beyond, and find a me that’s completely unlike the me that exists now. I think that too. I wonder if there’s a spell that could grant me a way of making such complete opposite wishes possible to have at the same time?
        I glanced over at Misaki’s side profile with her pointed chin.
        I wonder how it is for Misaki?
        I wonder how she plans to live her life with her fragile, weakly body and her tough and stubborn spirit?
        “What about you, Kisaragi?”
        Misaki turns on her heels, and faced Kisaragi, who had been walking right behind us.
        “Me?”
        “Yes, you. Have you ever thought about what you want to do in the future?”
        “Sure, I have. Lots.”
        Misaki’s eyes, which were already big, opened up even further. My eyes were in the same state. I was shocked. I’m shocked that Kisaragi had been thinking seriously about his future. With us staring at him, Kisaragi scratches the back of his head. Kisaragi’s not a bad looking guy. If you had to put him in one column or another, then he’d probably be considered even a good catch–a “hot guy.” If he just became more conscious of himself and invested more time into the way he looks, that is. He always dyes his hair half-heartedly on a whim, so it ends up looking like a pudding do with the roots black and the ends brown. Not only that, but it’s all frizzy because he doesn’t care for it. Even when it comes to shaving, there’s always some patches of stubble that he misses, and it’s unseemly, really.
        Misaki and I’ve been talking about how one day, we should hold Kisaragi down and re-dye his hair, foam up his entire face, and give him a good washing.
        So I thought that just as he is in his looks, he would be equally half-hearted about his way of thinking and living. And yet here he was…
        “Well then, we’d love to hear it.”
        Misaki folds her arms.
        “Well, it’s not really that big of a deal that’d warrant telling somebody ‘bout it.”
        “Okay everyone, gather around!”
        I stood beside Kisaragi and whistled. Being surrounded by three girls, Kisaragi tries to step backwards. Putting a hand on his shoulder, I pull him forward.
        “Ri-Riho, stop it! If something happens between us, I don’t know how I’m gonna be able to face Mutsuki.”
        “What are you planning on doing with me? And anyway your face was never anything to brag home about in the first place. Now, spit it out. What’ve you been thinking?”
        “Well…so it’s like, the future, right? Um, it involves Mutsuki.”
        “Mutsuki?”
        “Right. He’s probably–no, for sure going to turn pro, right? When he does that, he’s gonna get loads in his contract, right? Like a million?”
        “What does Mutsuki’s contract have to do with you?”
        “It does. It’s ‘cause we made a promise.”
        “About what?”
        “That if either of us turns pro and got our hands on a lot of money, that we would split it.”
        “When did you make that promise?”
        “Back in elementary school.”
        That reminded me. Back when we were in elementary school, Kisaragi and Mutsuki were both in the local Sports Boys’ Scouts. Mutsuki was crazy about baseball even back then. Kisaragi played soccer. I remember now. On the school grounds, Kisaragi showed me his lifting. The soccer ball was bouncing around on his shoulder and leg as if it were alive. It was almost sunset.
        For a writing for grade 6, Mutsuki graduated after writing: “My dream is to become a professional baseball player.” One year later, I wonder what it was that Kisaragi wrote as being his dream? I don’t remember. I don’t even remember what I wrote down in mine.
        “Mutsuki isn’t one to break his promises, so I think he’ll definitely split that contract money with me. So using that $500,000 as my funds…”
        “Yeah?”
        “I’m thinking of going on an adventure trip. What do you think?”
        “Huh? What’s that? What do you mean by an ‘adventure trip’?”
        “Well, I have lots of stuff planned, but I guess I’ll start off with a ‘Great Journey.’”
        We looked at each other. We didn’t expect an English phrase to come from his mouth.
        “I’ve heard of that. That’s the show that has this doctor who’s also an explorer spending years trekking and cycling from South America to Africa, right? Something about going backwards of the route that humans made since first appearing on the Earth…am I on the right track?”
        Suu-chan cocked her head in an uncertain manner. Kisaragi snaps his fingers.
        “Bingo! We shouldn’t have expected any less from the top scorer of our grade! That’s right, it’s a gigantic journey. A 50,000 kilometre journey. Sounds cool, don’t you think?”
        “But, someone’s already completed that journey, right? That’d make you a pallid imitation.”
        “ ‘Pallid imitation’…? Riho, you’re really old school, you know that? No high schooler today would use a term like that. That’s what you get for being a Granny’s girl.”
        I grimaced, and clucked my tongue.
        “Just drop it, all right? I was asking you a serious question. What’s so ‘gigantic’ about that?”
        “Well, I’m serious too.”
        “How old are you anyway? Can’t you be a little more realistic?”
        “That might not be so bad.”
        Misaki lets out a snap with her fingers. It sounds better than when Kisaragi did it.
        “That might not be so bad. A journey to trace back the beginning of mankind. I’m in!”
        “Misaki, this isn’t a bus. You can’t just hop on like that.”
        “But, I think that sounds nice too. You know, like going on a journey…I’d like to go someplace away too.”
        Suu-chan stretched her hand into the air as if grasping for something.
        “Geez, you three are just like, totally trying to run away from the reality of the situation. How pathetic.”
        “Whoa, Riho. You’re such a realist. You really should watch out for that.”
        “What are you talking about?”
        “If you’re too focused on the reality of things, then you’re gonna get crushed. With our school being the school that it is, it practically rules out being able to advance to university, and we don’t even know if we’ll be able to find jobs. It’s not like we’re particularly stunning in looks either. We don’t have any ambitions, and we hate putting effort into things. In other words, we’re stuck on a sinking ship. If you really face the facts, you’ll get depressed and feel like dying.”
        Misaki lightly patted the trunk of a cherry blossom tree that was indicated to be around ten years old.
        “These branches are the perfect size to hang yourself from, Riho.”
        “Thanks. When you hang yourself, I promise I’ll hold down your legs for you.”
        “Hey—listen to my ‘Great Journey’ plans, will ya? That’s what we were talking about originally anyway. I’ll start from Patagonia. It’ll be 50,000 kilometres from there to Tanzania in East Africa. 50,000 kms.”
        “I really wonder if he’s going to get a million bucks?”
        Me being the realist that I am, I honed in on the part of the story that was the closest to reality.
        “It’ll probably be even more than that. If it’s Mutsuki, taking into factor the bribes and stuff that he’s probably gonna get, the total will probably be somewhere around 3 million.”
        Misaki holds up three fingers. Even though she doesn’t admit it, Misaki’s a realist too. She knows that we’re not the residents of some la-la dream land.
        “Sounds great. Then I guess I could con a million off of Mutsuki and make one.”
        “Make a what?”
        This time, it was Kisaragi asking the questions.
        “A reverse harem. I’m going to gather together the hottest guys and have them wait on me. What do you think?”
        “That’d be tiring.”
        Misaki shakes her head in distaste.
        “Yeah, but if you get pregnant from it, then that really would be the birth of mankind–literally.”
        Suu-chan pats her stomach with a slap.
        “Hey, c’mon. Listen to me. Don’t you think becoming an explorer sounds awesome? Have you ever heard of the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia? Of course you haven’t. It’s amazing, you know. 120 kms of pure white Earth stretched out before you.”
        “How many $10,000 piles would 3 mill make?”
        “I would be satisfied with $30. I really could use that today.”
        “Are you guys listening? It’s pure white! It’s white all along the horizon.”
        We began walking under the cherry blossom trees while saying whatever came to our minds. The wind blows. The swallows fly. The droplets that drip from the branches disperse with a sparkle.
        “Ah.”
        I let out a brief cry. Suu-chan noticed it right away too.
        “It’s a rainbow.”
        The vivid rainbow is stretched out across the sky. And, like an apparition, there’s another faintly outlined rainbow right on top.
        “It’s a double rainbow.”
        We saw something really beautiful. Even though we saw the beautiful rainbow, nothing changes. Our reality is still that we’re stuck on a sinking ship. Unless this is a dream world, the double rainbow won’t be a promise of happiness. Even then though, I feel a bit happy.
        Maybe I should let Mutsuki know?
        That thought came to my mind on a whim.
        “The rainbow’s appeared. Something good might happen.”
        Maybe I should send him a text like that?
        “All righty.”
        Kisaragi joins his feet together and jumps. He lands on the puddle that’s a few metres in front of us. The water sprays upwards. It gets on our skirts. It also gets on our legs and arms. It’s cold. We jumped too. There are numerous puddles all around us.
        Splash!
        Su-chan lets out a shriek while laughing. Misaki leans against a cherry blossom tree and continues to gaze up at the rainbow.
        Summer’s approaching. I should go and get a tan. I should expose my skin to the sun as a way of commemorating the summer of my 17th year. I’ll spray water as I run along the beach. I don’t care if my skin begins to peel from the sun exposure. I don’t even care if I can’t prevent wrinkles because of it. As for the future? Well I’ll just throw it to the wayside for now.
        “Let’s go to the beach.”
        I thrust out a fist.
        “Yeah, let’s!”
        Suu-chan was the first to react. She bumped fists with me.
        “Well what’s the point in seeing you guys in swim suits?”
        Kisaragi slapped my fist with an open hand.
        “What about you, Misaki?”
        Misaki turns around slowly. She has a face void of blood like that of a doll’s.
        “I’m not going. I hate the beach.”
        And while continuing to gaze at us, she takes a step backwards. Behind her is a downward slope with thick grass. And at the bottom is a row of roofs of people’s houses. It’s a pretty steep hill. Misaki’s loafer digs into the summer grass. The grass, wet from the rain, is a dark green. Suu-chan gulps.
        “Misaki, watch out!”
        Pushing aside me with my outstretched hand, Kisaragi springs forward. Grabbing her arm, he pulls her forward. Misaki’s bag went tumbling down from her hand.
        “What are you doing? It’s dangerous around here. If you slip, you’re gonna fall all the way down.”
        Misaki clings onto Kisaragi. Misaki with her thin body, fits easily in Kisaragi’s arms, and I couldn’t help but think that it looked as if she might disappear into thin air. She leaned her head against Kisaragi’s shoulder, and closes her eyes. For only a brief moment though. After that brief moment, she recovers, and she pushed herself away from the arms that held her. She picks up her fallen bag. She nods towards the slope with her jaw.
        “There’s…a dead cat.”
        Kisaragi blinks, and slowly moves to peer down at the slope. He let’s out a small “whoa.” Suu-chan and I do the same thing. We peered down.
        The summer grass looks fierce. It grows thickly being exposed to the sun, being hit with the rain, and taking in the summer heat. Amongst the dark green grass, I spotted a small white mass. My eyes strain to see it.
        “There’s another one.”
        Misaki says in a tone void of intonation. An ash-colored striped cat was laying down with its head facing the direction of the slope. There is red foam around its mouth. After checking the white tongue hanging out and the collar with the bell attached to it, I shift my eyes away from the sight.
        “There’re…two dead.”
        Misaki lets out a moan. Holding a hand up to her mouth, she squats down near the root of the cherry blossom tree.

        After we forced Misaki into the car that had come to pick her up, we decided to walk home. It’ll take around twenty minutes, but it’s not like we were in any hurry.
        “I wonder if Misaki-chan’s gonna be okay? She looked as white as a sheet.”
        Suu-chan mutters. Neither Kisaragi or I assured her that she’d be fine.
        Misaki’s super weak against shocks. Especially if it involves dead bodies. Even if it’s the body of a bug, she reacts in an excessive way. She’s fine when it comes to dogs that rear its sharp fangs in her direction, snakes that are coiled to strike at her, cockroaches, centipedes, and anything alive, but when those things die and stop moving, she becomes deathly afraid of it. Blood drains from her face, and she has to restrain her urge to gag, and she ends dry heaving like she just did. Even if it wasn’t Misaki though, that sight we came across earlier would’ve been enough to give anyone a fright. I was scared too. The cats with the bloody foam around its mouth– there’s no way that they died naturally. Someone poisoned it. I’m more scared of the fact that someone tried to kill it more than the carcasses itself. I’m scared of the intentions and the feelings of the person that did this. It frightens me.
        I lift my head up to look at the sky. The rainbow was still there in two layers. The carcasses in the grass, that rainbow, and the feelings of fear inside our hearts–this is all reality.
        This peaceful town called mini-Kyoto of the West that’s centered around the remains of ancient castles, is graced with a rainbow across the sky. And with the murdered cats swallowed up by the grass, the town attempts to welcome an evening like all the others before it.
        I stopped walking, and took in a deep breath.

Chapter 2 Fireworks and a World Conquest

        Right after we finished the end-of-term exams, Misaki collapsed. I think she had been pushing herself quite a bit.
        Ever since we saw the carcasses of those cats at Shiroyama, she hadn’t been feeling that well. She got even thinner, and her skin remained bloodlessly pale.
        “Morooka, are you okay?”
        Suzu-chan asked numerous times throughout the day.
        “You should go to the nurse’s office and lay down. You go and do that.”
        He urged her many times. Misaki continued to refuse. The body temperature and commotion of 30 high school students, the hot and humid air, the floor littered with trash…you wouldn’t call this classroom pleasant by any means. It’s especially worse during the Summer season. Even the young with their tough and sturdy bodies gradually settle into exhaustion.
        “You should rest.”
        I told Misaki that while looking down at the chest area where you could probably feel her collarbone if you touched her from the top of her summer blouse.
        “There’s no point in coming to school, you know?”
        “Well, I could say the same for staying at home.”
        Her voice remained upbeat though. I don’t know why but I feel relieved to hear shooting back a retort in her usual manner.
        “I never thought you liked school this much.”
        “I just don’t want to be at home, that’s all.”
        Misaki turns to the side. In a slightly weak voice, she adds:
        “What an incident.”
        “You mean, about the cats?”
        “Yeah. It’s a serial case, right? Everyone’s making a pretty big deal out of it.”
        It didn’t stop at just two cats being poisoned. It was discovered that an additional four, for a total of six, was discovered among the grasses, the dry riverbeds, and the ditches. Apparently, they all had red foam around their mouth area. I even heard that a stray cat was discovered dead in the same manner right near my house. I heard rumours that the police have started to spring into action. The adults near the area are all talking about it.
        “Is there a connection between you not staying home from school and the adults making an uproar?”
        “Nope.”
        Misaki turns to me again, and slowly laughs.
        “It’s just that being at school is slightly better than being at home.”
        “You’re going to die.”
        “What, you mean the cats?”
        “No, I mean you.”
        She sits down in her chair, and looking up at me, Misaki begins to slowly laugh again.
        “You’re about the only person I know who would say something nasty like that to a person’s face.”
        “Well, you hardly have any energy left. Once you use up what’s left, you’re going to die. You’re gonna pay for it if you underestimate school. It’s a place where you use quite a bit of energy.”
        “Well as for you, I suggest you reroute some of that energy that you spend talking to improve your brain functions.”
        “You can’t reroute it because it doesn’t have a circuit.”
        Misaki’s laughter spills over.
        “That’s terrible. Then that’s an even worse use of energy. Are you sure there isn’t radiation spilling out from your brain, Riho?”
        “It’s been oozing out for a while.”
        Misaki’s laughter gets even louder. The neck that she had bent downwards and thin shoulders shakes. The shoulders enveloped in a blouse that was carefully ironed, leaves a vivid impression on me.
        “Misaki-chan, you should eat some ice cream. It’s on Kisaragi-kun.”
        Suu-chan plops down a plastic bag with ice cream inside. There’s a vanilla and chocolate ice cream cup. They’re the most expensive ones that they sold at the school kiosks.
        “No way, Kisaragi–what’s gotten into you? Now THIS is friendship.”
        Kisaragi winks at me, and twists his shoulder.
        “He said he struck it rich at the pachinko parlor yesterday.”
        Suu-chan holds up two fingers.
        “$200? That’s amazing.”
        “Geez. While the older brother’s aiming to the nationals in the sweltering heat, the younger brother’s off winning $200 at the pachinko parlor without even bothering to study for his entrance exams?”
        Misaki puts the cup against her cheek and closes her eyes. I put some vanilla ice cream on the top of my tongue, and let it slowly melt.
        “Which do you think is more impressive–winning $200 at the pachinko parlor, or making it to the nationals?”
        “It’s a no brainer that Mutsuki’s the more impressive one. Seriously, Riho, you’re probably the only one who would ask that. Your brain is contaminated, for sure… Hey, Kisaragi.”
        “ ‘sup?”
        “If the school finds out you’ve been playing pachinko during the exams, they’re gonna suspend you for a week.”
        “If that happens, I could spend that week going to play pachinko.”
        We looked at each other and broke out laughing. When she laughed, Suu-chan got white ice cream right under her nose, and it turned into a moustache. It looked so strange that we broke out laughing again. Why is it that we find even the most mundane of things funny? We were born to laugh–not cry, get angry, or grieve. There are times I seriously think that. No matter how hard you try to hold it back, the laughter bubbles up, and even your spirit resonates with laughter and shakes.
        “My energy’s filled up to the max.”
        Misaki passed me her ice cream, which had more than half of it still left.
        “You don’t want anymore?”
        “I’ve had plenty.”
        “Okay, then I’ll eat it…but are you sure I won’t get fat from this?”
        “Riho, you’ll be fine. It’ll just add onto those boobs of yours that you’re so proud of.”
        “Yeah, probably. Lately, I’ve been finding my size E bra a bit on the tight side.”
        “Then I guess you’re an F now. Whoa. You’re in the Koike Eiko class. If people could think with their breasts, you’d be the top scorer of our grade, no brainer.”
        “Yeah, too bad.”
        “But you’ve got the advantage when it comes to relay races. Remember how you managed to get first place ‘cause of a difference of a breast?”
        “Suu-chan, that was because I was fast at running. This isn’t horse racing, so don’t say stuff like I won by a difference ‘of a breast.’”
        “Riho, just so you know? For horse relays, they use the term ‘win the race by a nose.’ There is no such thing as ‘winning by a breast’ for horses.”
        “Well, no duh. It’d be really hard for them to run with bras on.”
        “Hey, hey—how many do horses have anyway? I wonder if they differ in size and shape?”
        I got another good laugh because Suu-chan asked that with a serious look on her face while pressing down her own chest.
        What a stupid topic. It’s light fluff. Most times when adults overhear our conversation, they knit their eyebrows. But it’s funny. Even if it’s stupid and light fluff, it’s laughable. It’s only after we laugh and catch our breath that we begin to move into action. If anyone were ever to bar us from laughing, we would probably step up and fight.
        I really think so.
        After overcoming the five day end-of-term exams, Misaki collapsed. She was checked into the hospital with a high fever.

        After the exams, there are supplementary lessons leading up to the final ceremony. Even at our school, for the general division, we do supplementary lessons with our sights set on moving on to university.
        “Do you want to go and visit Misaki-chan?”
        The first day of the supplementary lessons, Suu-chan asked me as she borrowed my English notes.
        “Nah.”
        I replied.
        “You’re not going?”
        “Nope.”
        Suu-chan blinks. She had a look on her face as if she didn’t expect me to reply as I did.
        “You’re not going?”
        She asked me again as she gave me back my notes.
        “I’m not.”
        “Why? You’re such good friends with her.”
        I shrugged my shoulders without replying. I couldn’t be bothered to explain.
        If I went to see her, Misaki would just laugh at me. She might even burst into laughter if I brought her flowers and snacks. For Misaki, having to be hospitalized is like a regular event. It’s nothing to make a big uproar over.
        Back when we were in grade 6, Misaki got complications from a cold and had to be hospitalized, and I went to see her. It wasn’t out of my own free will. It was decided by the student council that we would go and see her because she had her stay at the hospital extended. We brought the letters everyone had written, along with the cranes we had folded along with a bouquet of flowers, and I went along with the Tomosako-san from the student council and our teacher into the hospital room. My role was as a friend.
        “You’ve known her since back in pre-school. You and Misaki-chan are the best of friends, right?”
        That was the reason for me being chosen. If it were me now, I would have flat out refused. I don’t want to use a beautiful, yet hollow word like “friendship” to Misaki of all people. But back then, I was still 12 years old, and the 12 year old me wasn’t capable of kicking aside the role of the kind friend who goes to visit her sick friend.
        Misaki was lying down in a pure white bed inside an eerily white hospital room. The yellow liquid dripped inside an IV tube attached to a vessel. The 12 year old Misaki didn’t have a brown dyed shortcut. She instead, had long black hair. The blackness of her hair, and the crimson color of her lips highlighted the paleness of her face, and young girl buried amidst the whiteness all around her made it look as if she was a frail figure who might disappear at any moment.
        Up and down her arms were numerous markings from needles, and they made an indeterminate dark-red pattern.
        “Morooka-san, we hope you get well soon…”
        She didn’t continue on with her words because she said the others were waiting to see her too, and Tomosako-san burst into tears.
        “I feel so sorry for you, Morooka-san.”
        I had a bad feeling about this. For some reason, I couldn’t feel relaxed.
        Tomosako-san sobbed convulsively saying that Misaki must be in pain having to endure it all. Even the teacher was tearing up, and stroking her head.
        Misaki’s mother said while wiping the sides of her eyes with an apron:
        “Thank you. You’re very kind. But it won’t be for much longer. She’ll be able to go back to school from the second term, so please be nice to her.”
        I was silent the entire time. Misaki had her eyes closed and wasn’t moving. It was just her fingers that had the sheets balled up in her hand.
        Tears, thoughtful words, the dignity of visiting a sick person, the words of thanks—it all passed through the inside of the clean, white hospital room, and after a certain point, we decided to take our leave.
        “Riho-chan.”
        When I tried to hurriedly leave the hospital room, Misaki opened her eyes, and called out my name in a weak voice. She called me with a “-chan.” The bad feeling I had turned into a confirmation, and I prepared myself.
        “I’ll…stay for a while longer.”
        Oh? But make sure that you don’t tire Morooka-san, all right? Riho-chan, I’ll give you a ride home later. Morooka-san, goodbye. We’ll be waiting for you, so hold in there, okay? Well then, I’ll see you off to the exist. No, that’s quite all right. Sensei, regarding the required attendance days…
        The words drifted over my head and past the sides of my body and disappeared. Everyone’s leaving. On the other side of the door just as it closed, Tomosako-san, with red-tinged eyes, smiled and waved her hand.
        Things couldn’t have taken a worse turn. I understood that, and I prepared myself before taking a big step toward Misaki’s bedside. Misaki got up.
        “Riho.”
        Misaki didn’t even give me a chance to ready myself. With slap, my cheek burns. The sharp pain runs across my face. All I could do was brace my legs so that I wouldn’t stagger.
        “You sure must be proud of yourself for setting me up this whole embarrassment of a situation.”
        Misaki glares at me while breathing roughly. The IV tube wavered.
        “Riho, what you did was terrible!”
        “I know.”
        “No you don’t.”
        “I do!”
        I do know. This was humiliating. To Misaki, there’s nothing more humiliating than cheap pity. The thousand folded cranes slid off the bed.
        The folded cranes were okay. Even the letters and the flowers were okay. But Tomosaka-san’s tears wasn’t good. Misaki was pale with fury at being treated like a pitiful little girl. Even though she was furious, she held it in.
        “Why? Why do I have to be cried over like that…?”
        From Misaki’s eyes came tears. A moan slipped out from her lips that she had been biting down on.
        I hate this. I hate this. Damnit.
        People need to take a bit more care when they cry and feel sorry about another person. It’s okay to cry if you’re capable of helping them, of saving them, of having prepared yourself of supporting them through to the end. But as for Tomosako-san’s tears–that was just irresponsible. She just burst into tears, and told Misaki she felt sorry for her. She got all of that out of her system and left saying goodbye with a smile—how much more irresponsible could she get? Kindness that comes with a lack of responsibility is no different from pity. That was something that I learned from Misaki.
        There’s no way she’s going to just stand being pitied.
        The sheets became stained with Misaki’s tears.
        “I know.”
        I muttered. I humiliated her too. Because I couldn’t refuse the role of the “kind friend,” I shamelessly came long with them. It was terrible what I did. I know that.
        I can hear the sound of slippers hitting the ground. Misaki’s mom must be coming back. I grabbed a towel from the top of the stand at the sink. It’s damp.
        “Misaki, is this clean?”
        “Yeah, it is. Why do you ask?”
        I shove Misaki down onto the bed. I cover her face with the towel and wiped it down. I held down the shoulders that were not much more than skin and bones, and I put my strength into wiping it, because if I did, then at least it’d hide a some of the remnants of the tears. I didn’t want anyone to see Misaki crying. Even to her parents.
        I threw the towel off to the side, and slipped passed Misaki’s mom who had just opened the door and I ran the rest of the way home under the cloudy sky. I didn’t stop. Not once.
        I don’t think Suu-chan would do what Tomosako-san did. We weren’t so young as to openly say a line like “I feel sorry for you” anymore. But even so, I’m still not going to go and visit her in the hospital.
        “Oh besides that–tomorrow’s the festival, right? Suu-chan, what are your plans?”
        “Oh…I’m going with Kei-kun….”
        “Oh, right. Sorry, stupid question. I’m so jealous–you get to dress up in a yukata and go to the summer festival with your boyfriend.”
        “Yeah, I know. It doesn’t get much more staple than that, huh?”
        “C’mon, you’ve got it great. Damnit, I’m so jealous–”
        Suu-chan moved her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but she just gulped in a breath without saying anything. Wearing a yukata going to a summer festival with your boyfriend–for a topic fully loaded with fun like that, she seemed pretty gloomy.
        It may just be that something happened between her and Kei-kun. I became quiet too, and shoved my notebook inside my desk.
        If she wants to talk about it, she will. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, I’m not going to pressure her to. It’s up to her what she’s going to do with those words that she swallowed. I have two ears to me, so I can lend her a ear. I slipped my hand up to touch my earlobes, which had two small earrings on them each. I have confidence in my earlobes. They’re smallish and have a nice shape to them, so gold earrings look really good on me.
        “It’s just…there are lots of unpleasant stuff in this world…you know?”
        Suu-chan let out a breath while knitting her eyebrows together. Balling her hand into a fist, she taps her shoulders. When she puffed out her cheeks, with her round face, it made her look older than she is. She looked like an old woman past 20.
        “ ‘Unpleasant things’?”
        “Yeah.”
        “For example?”
        “Well for starters, I gained even more weight recently, and I don’t know how I’m going to fit into a swimsuit come Summer.”
        “Well…you could overcome that depending on how much effort you put into it. There’s still time.”
        “And secondly, my parents’ moods couldn’t be any worse because things aren’t going so great with their business. The air’s always tense between them, and they’re always fighting.”
        “Uu…that does sound pretty bad.”
        “And thirdly, because circumstances being the way they are, I don’t get an allowance. And because I couldn’t work part-time what with all the tests, I’m really beginning to feel it in the wallet this month.”
        “Whoa, yeah that’s pretty…”
        “And fourthly, yesterday while I was spaced out at the train station, some old man came up to me and asked me: ‘How much?’”
        “What the hell?”
        “He was just your average looking geezer in a suit. Like, he didn’t give off that kind of creepy vibe at all–he looked really normal, you know? And that kind of person was going around asking “How much?” to someone in broad daylight. It scared me more than it pissed me off. It made me think like, is that all that’s on guy’s minds, you know?”
        “Well, you’ll have to ask guys that.”
        “And fifthly…”
        Suu-chan hesitated, and lowered her ees.
        “Kei-kun’s been acting strangely lately…”
        “What do you mean?”
        Suu-chan folded up the sleeve of her blouse, and revealed her upper arm to me. Suu-chan’s skin is white and smooth. It’s what you would call ‘velvety’ skin. And there, was a dark-red bruise.
        “Yesterday, I told Kei-kun about that old man, you know? Because I was so creeped out by it, I thought talking about it might make me feel a bit better…but that’s when he…with a fist…”
        “He hit you?”
        “Yeah…here and my head. He said it happened because I was making myself out to be like I was someone who would do that.”
        “That makes no sense.”
        With a start, I got up in surprise and anger.
        “Then what’d you do, Suu-chan?”
        “I was so surprised, that I grabbed my bag and made a run for it.”
        “You should’ve given him a right smack with the bag.”
        “But I had an English dictionary in there. If I had hit him with it, it would’ve hurt pretty bad.”
        No wonder she’s the top scorer of our grade. I’ve never carried around a bag with a dictionary in it.
        “Then afterwards, he sent me a text message apologizing. He said he felt really bad for what he did.”
        She makes a tearful smile, and she falls into silence.
        “That’s sick.”
        I lightly rubbed my own arm. It makes me sick. The men who go up to teenage girls and ask them “How much?” and the men who abuse their girlfriends—they both make me sick. I felt myself getting goosebumps.
        “Kei-kun’s been in a bad mood lately. Lately, he keeps on saying…how he wants to quit school…”
        “So what? Does him being in a bad mood justify him hitting you? That’s just sick. That makes no sense.”
        “It’s sick, huh…?”
        In a flash, all expression disappears from Suu-chan’s face. Her face becomes flat and emotionless. The only thing moving are her lips.
        With a turn, everything changes. Just like that shutter that was in that scary drama on TV–the Suu-chan who did a 180 was someone that I had never seen before. A stranger.
        “You know, my dad does it too.”
        “Huh?”
        “My dad. He hits too.”
        “He hits you?”
        “No, my mom. He hits her so hard that her face swells up—even over something little. In my dad’s case though, he doesn’t even apologize. In comparison, Kei-kun’s at least a little better.”
        “It’s not something that you should be comparing.”
        “Well, that’s true, but…”
        Suu-chan withdrew two tomatoes from inside her bag. She hands me over one. The fruit with its luminescent redness, held a significant heaviness to it. She told me that she got them from Kei-kun, who had come to attend the school’s cultivation training session. It’s harvesting season already for the summer vegetables.
        “He looks pretty happy you know, when he’s watering the crop. He had this great big smile on his face when he told me that the vegetables are growing really well this year.”
        Kei-kun scrunches up his face when he smiles. He’s someone who’s capable of smiling really cutely. I sunk my teeth into the tomato flesh. It has a juicy, sweet crunchiness to it. It made me understand once again just what “fresh” vegetables are about. It’s delicious. To think that someone who can make a delicious tomato like this, and who can smile like that would hit others. As if she read into my heart, Suu-chan commented:
        “It’s the same with my dad too. He works really hard, and there are times he’s super nice. Still though, he hits her.”
        I didn’t know what I should say, so I stayed quiet. Suu-chan gently cradled the tomato in her hands as if it was something really fragile. I think that she didn’t tell me this not because she wanted me to comfort her, or to cheer her up. With my gold earrings sparkling, I wordlessly bit into my tomato.
        “That’s it—I’m going to lose weight.”
        Suu-chan stretched out her back.
        “I’m going to do everything that I can. I’m going to lose 2kg by August.”
        “Don’t you think that’s a bit much—you know, 2kg?”
        “I’m going to do it.”
        “In your case though, Suu-chan I think it’s more losing weight in certain parts rather than just general dieting. If you do sit-ups, I think the area around your stomach would feel a lot slimmer.”
        “Yeah. It’ll be a summer when I can say goodbye to this pudgy stomach of mine.”
        “Yeah, so we should totally go to the beach.”
        “In August?”
        “Yep.”
        “Don’t get me wrong–I really want to. But wearing a swimsuit in August…it’s going to take some guts.”
        “Well I think that’s important. It’s good to think that you’re going to have eyes on you, you know? Since it’s not like you can wear bikinis in the winter. Do your best!”
        “Yeah, I will. I’m going to make this stomach flat. I’m going to wear a bikini. I’m going to the beach. Misaki-chan’ll be able to go too, right?”
        “If not, we’ll just leave her behind.”
        “Well aren’t you the cool one, Riho-chan.”
        “Well if we tell her that we’re not going to the beach because we felt sorry for her, Misaki’d kick our asses.”
        “Yeah, that’s true. I can just see her coming with a right hook yelling ‘screw you!’”
        “Nah, I think for the first swing, she would go with an intense upper cut swing.”
        She caught my fist that was coming up from underneath with one hand, and Suu-chan laughed. She was back to being the Suu-chan I was used to being around.

TO BE CONTINUED…
[UP NEXT: pg 104-168]

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