Girls Blue Part 3 (pg 104-169)

        I can hear a dry sound go off in the distance. It’s the sound of fireworks shooting up into the sky. It’s the sound that signals the start of the summer festival. Back when I was little, I’d get excited every time I heard that sound. This town’s festival goes way back. We don’t have portable shrines or wooden carts like we do during the fall festival, but fireworks bloom in the night sky. I love fireworks. I love how the light bursts into different colors in the sky. I also like the sky after the fireworks have faded, when what’s left is a quiet, wide darkness unlike the usual night sky. I love it. Even now, I get excited, even after breaking up with Takurou and becoming single. I know I can’t be all “On this summer night, this is the yukata I’m wearing to go out with my boyfriend,” but still, I feel excited.

        I bought off Kisaragi with promises of a pack of takoyaki and roasted squid, and arranged it so he’d come pick me up at seven tonight. Kisaragi seemed pretty reluctant to go at first because according to him:
        “Yeah, but what’s the point in going with you…?”
        “Then, who are you going to go with, huh? Misaki’s still in the hospital.”
        Even if she hadn’t been hospitalized, Misaki’s not the type to dress up in a yukata on the night of the festival and walk alongside a guy.
        “Well…I was planning on staying at home to watch some TV.”
        “Kisaragi! While Mutsuki’s working his butt off aiming for the nationals, how can you, as a brother, be lazing around like that?”
        “Hey, don’t try to bring Mutsuki into this. Don’t you think it’d be more brotherly for me to stay at home to check the results of Mutsuki’s game than go to the festival with you?”
        Apparently, Mutsuki’s high school’s continuing to do pretty well. By the end of the month, those teams who would advance to the nationals will be decided.
        “Hasn’t it ever crossed your mind for you to, you know, go and at least cheer Mutsuki on during the finals?”
        “Welll~ I don’t know a thing about the rules when it comes to baseball, and it’d be hot, and I’d get a sunburn, and to be honest the whole idea of ‘high school baseball’ is a little too much like some overly sentimental teen drama for my liking…”
        Kisaragi wrinkles his nose and turns to the side.
        “Mutsuki definitely drew the short stick falling for someone like you. I honestly feel sorry for the poor guy.”
        Kisaragi sighed. Still though, he was easily hooked with the promise of takoyaki and roasted squid, so he accepted the role of the knight who’d come to pick me up.

        While enjoying the sound that echoed from the light sky, I cut through the park. Early afternoon in the summer, a distinct shadow stretches on the white cement that is void of a human figure. Even here, you can find the loud sounds of early cicadas.
        Suddenly, I had my arm grabbed. I tried to scream, but my mouth simply opened without any sound coming out of it. I flung my bag around; it was a pretty good hit.
        Mao was crouched down holding his head in his hands. He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and black pants. His middle school uniform.
        “Mao, what are you doing? No matter how sexually frustrated you are, don’t try you assault your own sister.”
        “Who assaulted who? If I had to choose, I’d rather sleep with Someko than try to start something with you.”
        Mao stood up, and brushed off his knees. My younger brother, who turns fifteen this year, is a head taller than 158 centimeter tall me. As for who Someko is, that’s the name of our family dog. It’s a mixed female breed, and to top it off, it’s really old.
        “I didn’t think you had a thing for older women.”
        “I didn’t think you were this strong, Riho. I guess there’s no need to worry about rapists with you, huh?”
        “You shouldn’t go around grabbing a girl’s arm without saying something first. I’d bet you money you’re gonna be slammed with an attempt to rape one of these days.”
        “The very people who’d do the slamming are here.”
        Mao lifted his chin towards the south in the direction of our house.
        “Who’s here?”
        “The cops.”
        Leaning against an Indian azalea tree, he raked his fingers through his hair. It’s something that he does when he’s nervous.
        “The cops…? But–I haven’t done anything.”
        “Riho, your eyes shifted just now. That means you have some kind of idea why they’re here, huh?”
        “I don’t…oh, but I DID ride with two other people on a single bicycle the other day…”
        Mao whistled with his fingers.
        “That must be it. Three people riding on a single bicycle is a clear violation of road safety regulations.”
        “Seriously? So what, can they fine me for that?”
        Mao laughs. He has a straight nose and nicely shaped lips. He has handsome, balanced features, so he looks a lot older than his actual age. That’s if you put a positive spin on things. On the other hand though, he does come off as overly serious. This is just my personal opinion, but for guys with well-proportioned features, unless you’re pretty dumb, you end up looking really strait-laced and serious.
        “They’re not here for you. They’re here because of me.”
        “You? But why?”
        Mao’s slim fingers rakes through his hair again and again.
        “I think it’s about the cat.”
        That rang a bell.
        “You mean, the cat poisoning incident?”
        I looked my younger brother in the face. The image of the cat with its tongue hanging out and bloody foam around its mouth superseded on top. However, it just layered on top before fading. Nothing bound them together.
        “Mao-san, I don’t really get where you’re trying to go with this, so if you could explain it to me that’d be great.”
        “Riho-san, in a situation like this, you’re supposed to be walking backwards holding your hand to your mouth with your eyes rounded yelling ‘are you the culprit?!’”
        I moved my black eyes back and forth, and covered my mouth and tried asking:
        “Are you the culprit?”
        But there’s no way that could be true. Mao’s not capable of killing animals. Maybe a mosquito, fly or slug, and that’s only when pressured to. His dream is to become a veterinarian, and next year, he’s planning on applying to the math division of Ryo-High. Even the inside of his head is balanced. Despite being my brother, he’s someone of exceptional talent.
        “I…could never kill a cat.”
        And with almost perfect timing, there was a meowing sound. From the thicket beside the Indian azalea, out popped the face of a slightly dirty cat.
        “Riho, you came.”
        “Huh? Me wha?”
        “No, I meant the cat. I’ve been calling it ‘Riho.’”
        “Don’t name a stray cat after your older sister. What, you have a sister complex or something?”
        “Yeah, pretty much. She’s the reason why the cops are here though.”
        The cat rubbed itself against Mao’s leg while observing my cautiously. It was a brown striped cat, and apparently she got the name “Riho” seeing as how its coloring reminded him of my hair. For my brother, it was a pretty simple way of thinking.
        “She’s a stray cat, and she has a wound around her neck area so she’s been crying.”
        “So what, you’ve been feeding her all this time?”
        “Yeah, since Someko is afraid of cats, I couldn’t take her home with me, so I’ve been buying cat food at the convenience store and coming to feed her once every two days.”
        Someko, back when she was still a pup, had her ear chewed and nose scratched by the resident boss cat of the neighbourhood. What happened was, she boldly challenged the boss cat that was lying down taking an afternoon nap, and ended up getting her butt whipped. Ever since, she starts trembling when she hears a cat meowing — even if it’s a kitten.
        “I’ve heard that there are all sorts of problems in feeding stray cats…but is it really something that that the police would get involved in?”
        “If people got picked up for feeding cats, then riding three to one bike would definitely be worthy of being locked up for.”
        Mao got out a tuna can from his school bag, and placed it in front of Riho. Riho wolfed it down. Since it has the same name as me, I wish it’d be a bit more considerate in its manners.
        “It seems like someone saw me feeding her. Not only once, but multiple times. That’s how I ended up getting reported. They apparently told the cops that there’s a suspicious middle schooler around here, and that he might be the one responsible for the cat murders.”
        “No way! Who was the retard that thought that?”
        “I don’t know. I left school early today, and I went in from the back door. That’s when I heard the cop talking to mom…he said that it wasn’t like they were particularly interested in me as a suspect, but that since there’s been a series of cats getting killed lately, that everyone’s on a thin thread, and there’s been lots of reports being made. Since they can’t just ignore those reports, he said they’re just going around and investigating, but I…wonder if that’s true?”
        “This isn’t the time to be so laid back about it. What is up with this ‘suspicious middle schooler’ shit anyway? No matter how you look at it, you’re not some ‘suspicious middle schooler.’ If you’re suspicious looking, then what about Kisaragi then, huh? He’s a high schooler who’s like the king of abnormality.”
        “Riho, Kisaragi has nothing to do with what we’re talking about right now. And besides, what’s suspicious is not the way I’m dressed, but the time.”
        “The time?”
        “Yeah. You know how I haven’t been going to school lately, right? And even today, I left early…”
        I know that Mao’s been skipping school a lot lately. It’s probably that he’s in a state like that of a goldfish swimming in the water moving its mouth open and closed. He must be lacking oxygen. At any rate, junior school is like a danger zone for chronic shortages of oxygen.
        Commands, discipline, group-mentality, public order — it’s a place filled to the brim with out-dated words like that. Freedom, pleasure, individuality — these kinds of words are in low supply. Even then, I still had a blast there. For those three years, I hit the jackpot when it came to teachers. For grade 7, I had Ms. Seo Takae. She was tall and lanky, and every time someone would comment “Gee, you’re so tall, teach!” she would smile shyly. She was an avid reader, and she was the type to read to us junior high schoolers everyday. Thanks to her, I read a lot of books during this period. Even though I was a reader who mainly read only mysteries, even now, I still like reading books a teeny bit.
        For grades 8 and 9, I had Mr. Sugano, whose nickname was Sugarin. He was this huge PE-type kind of old geezer, and he was a pretty interesting character. Despite his favourite phrase being “Oh well, what can you do?” he was someone who could genuinely laugh, get angry, and cry with us. Sugarin crying Niagara Falls on the day of our graduation ceremony has become somewhat of a legend that’s been handed down from generation to generation within our group.
        Thanks to an air pump-like teacher, we were able to breathe pretty easily. But apparently, Mao wasn’t so lucky. Right around the time his absences became noticeable in grade 9, his teacher, who seemed to have a nervous disposition, said to our mother:
        “Yoshimura-kun is a very bright young man, so even if he misses a few of his classes, it is not as if he would not be able to keep up. There is no need to worry with regards to that, but on a related note, is he currently attending cram school?”
        He said stuff like that. Forget about being an air pump, he’s the type who can’t even become a decoration in a water tank.
        Mao’s finger strokes Riho’s dirty neck.
        “Maybe it’s weird for a junior schooler to be feeding cats in the park during a time when he should be at school…well, what with the cat incident and all, it’s not just weird—but creepy. And not only that, but since I’m not really good with talking to other people, I walk with my head down, so maybe it makes me look even more suspicious.”
        Mao said this in an indifferent tone. He had that kind of bad habit to him. He talks about himself as if he’s talking about someone else. He analyzes things and explains them. I guess you could say he’s being calm about it, and I could guess you could say he’s being intellectual about it. He doesn’t drown in his emotions, and he’s able to achieve the feat of looking at himself from a third person’s perspective. The only person who can do that that I know of, is Mao. I hated my brother’s calm and intellectual side.
        Who cares what other people think? But when it’s about yourself we’re talking about here, be serious about it. Don‘t just lie there and take it. That’s what I want to yell at him. He’s under suspicion just for not going to school and feeding some cat. He was even reported for it. Don’t try to put on a calm face about it. It makes me pissed off.
        I was two when Mao was born. Although I was only two, I felt a rush of love for the light baby who smelled of milk. I was really proud to be the big sister of this beautiful child. Fifteen years have passed since then, and my younger brother who’s become a head taller than me doesn’t smell of milk any longer, and he’s not light or cute. But even then, I still love him. I care about him. That’s why this pisses me off.
        “Where are you going?”
        Mao looks up at me as I swiftly stood up. Riho, in a panic, scrambles back into the bushes.
        “I’m going home.”
        “But they might still be there.”
        “So what? Do I need permission from the police to go back to my own home? Are they THAT great?”
        “Riho, what are you so mad about?”
        “So what, you aren’t mad?”
        “What’s the use in being mad?”
        I turned around and glared at him. If it had been Misaki, I’m sure she would’ve given him a hard slap across the cheek. But since I’m not as violent as Misaki, I held myself back and just glared at him.
        “A 15 year old brat shouldn’t go around acting high-and-mighty saying shit like ‘what’s the use?’”
        When blood rushes to my head, my way of talking becomes really harsh. My voice is pretty low to begin with, so apparently I come across as pretty intimidating. “Riho, I’m begging ya, please just calm down. You should realize how scary you’re being. You could even play the main role in some gangster wife movie.” I don’t know how many times Kisaragi has warned me about this. But I’m angry. I couldn’t care less if I came across as scary.
        Taking big steps, I cut across the park as I headed in the direction of my house.
        Mao walked alongside me.
        “I didn’t kill any cat.”
        “Of course you didn’t, you idiot.”
        I don’t know why, but Mao smiled as he nodded.

        Just as we reached the front door of our house, it was as if he calculated it, because the front door opened. A short pudgy man who was lacking in the hair department stepped out. Smiling, he was bowing in the direction of the inside of the house. He looked like a salesman. He spotted us right away, and the smile that was being drawn back returned in full force.
        “Are you the children of this household?”
        “We’re their daughter and son.”
        “Is that right? Oh, then is this Mao-kun?”
        Mao silently lowered his head. With an intent to obstruct this man’s vision, I stood in front of Mao.
        “Mao didn’t do it, just so you know.”
        “Excuse me?”
        “I don’t know what they told you on the phone, but he’s just been giving food to a stray cat, so please don’t go laying false accusations on him.”
        The man’s black eyes shifted. He had a pretty charming face.
        “Oh…no, no that’s not why I was here. I guess you two heard about it, huh? Well…the residents around here have been pretty uneasy because of the cat incident, and our division has been getting many phone calls everyday. It’s not as if we could just ignore them, so we had no choice but to…well, this is all in a day’s work, you have to understand.”
        His charming face broke into a smile as he explained smoothly. I could feel the anger inside of me hardening, then shrinking.
        “I apologize if this caused you any discomfort. But, Mao-kun—”
        “I heard you haven’t been going to school very much lately…”
        “Is it the job of the police to look into stuff like that too?”
        I remained standing in front of Mao, and puffed up my chest.
        “No, it’s just that I used to work in the juvenile division, and so, I’m quite curious about those things. There’s no denying though that it’s not good to be spending your days lazing around while the rest of your classmates are at school. Just some food for thought.”
        The man smiled at me and rested a hand on Mao’s shoulder before leaving. There was a white car parked in the front. It wasn’t the panda-like white and black patrol car. It was a slightly old, everyday car. He got into the passenger’s side of that car.
        The moment he got into the car, the smile disappeared from the man’s side profile. The eyes that gazed fixedly in front of him became sharp. I shrugged, and encouraged Mao to go inside. The entrance was permeating with a sickly sweet smell. It was the smell of a perfume by Nicole Richie.
        “Whoa, mom sure did scatter that perfume all throughout the entrance.”
        Mao waved his hand in front of his face. He let out a small cough.
        “Geez, aren’t you usually supposed to sprinkle salt in cases like this? What a waste to use Nicole Richie perfume.”
        The policeman didn’t smell of anything. He didn’t smell of hair gel and his body didn’t give off any odour either; or from where I was standing, I didn’t catch it at least. Maybe it was just that my mom wanted to erase his presence using the scent of the perfume.
        I made a loud ruckus on purpose as I went over to open the door to the dining room.
        “Welcome back.”
        My mom, who had a red-bean bun held in her mouth cast us a sharp glare.
        “I’m just going to start off by saying: don’t take this out on us, all right? Mao and I have nothing to do with that police geezer that came in today.”
        It’s the first strike that decides the battle.
        “You don’t have to tell me that. I know.”
        Aiming towards me, she threw a chocolate donut still in its wrapping at me. I catch it with one hand.
        “Riho, not bad. Not bad at all. You’ve gotten pretty good lately.”
        “I guess.”
        I hand Mao the donut, and took out an oolong tea bottle from the fridge. I pour it into a glass and hand it to mom.
        “You’re such a thoughtful child.”
        My mom’s semi-long hair which was pinned back into a bun slightly shook. My mom’s really beautiful. She has a compact, traditional Japanese face, but the degree of perfection of each of her parts is high. She doesn’t have a bold kind of beauty, but in return, she ages well, and from time to time, people mistake me and my mom for sisters. My father fell in love with my mother, who was the only daughter of a delicatessen in Shiroshita, at first sight. And even though his home town was in Hokkaido, he applied for the teacher employment examination in her prefecture and passed. While working full time at the town’s high school, he visited the delicatessen “Shiroshita” everyday.
        “I felt like what the major general Fukasou must’ve felt when he fell in love with Ononokomachi.”
        My father at times would look back on the passions of his youth with a note of longing. My father’s major was the same as Suzu-chan’s: Classical works. Both my grades and knowledge in classics sucked. Not only that, but until very recently, I believed that “Makura no Soushi” was a person named “Makura Kusako.” But thanks to the love story of my mom and dad, I knew about the legend of Fukasou, the general who died from grief after being rejected by Ononokomachi despite having visited her for a hundred nights with a heart full of love for her, and the beautiful song of Komachi that went “Ever since a brief rest / when I saw / my love / I have begun to rely upon / this thing called a dream.”
        Mao was born taking after my mother.
        “For God’s sake.”
        My mother grabbed the cup with oolong tea in it with her hand and drank it all up in one big gulp. She did it with great gusto, but it wasn’t that impressive since it was only oolong tea.
        “Looks like you’re quite thirsty there, Risa-san. Would you like another cup?”
        I hold out the bottle. My mother’s name is Risako, and even now my dad still calls his wife “Risa-san.”
        “For God’s sake! I can’t believe someone would accuse my son of being the cat killer! If someone has a problem, then they should just bring it! Cowards! They’re lower than stewed pork, I tell you! Don’t you think so, Riho?”
        “Mom, stewed pork is low in fat, delicious, and is chock full of collagen. I feel sorry for the stewed pork for being used as a reference of comparison for something like this.”
        “You’re right.”
        “To whom?”
        “To the stewed pork.”
        My mom laughed at my lame joke, and she bowed her head as she apologized to the stewed pork. Her eyes are red. I’m guessing she got so frustrated that she cried her eyes out while eating the red-bean bun. Mothers are a species who are capable of crying out of frustration for these people other than themselves called children. At times, they even put their own lives at risk to protect them.
        “Fundamentally, mothers are pretty impressive.”
        Misaki said once.
        “Babies usually weigh around 300 kg, right? And they give birth to that. They give birth to that from that tiny place. Don’t you think that’s amazing?”
        “Misaki, it’s not kilograms. They’re not giving birth to baby gorillas. Babies are measured in grams. 300 grams.”
        “Riho-chan, 300 grams is too small. It’s not as if we’re buying beef or something. 3000 grams is more like it.”
        Suu-chan corrects me.
        Misaki continued in a slightly disenchanted manner.
        “It’s pretty amazing, but it gets pretty lame quick, you know? It’s like, ‘just leave me alone already. I’m not your property.’”
        As it turns out, an endless supply of love and a desire to possess often come hand in hand. I love you, I love you, I love you — that’s why you’re mine. When it involves a man and a woman, an obsession that leads to a hundred night visits can turn into a love story, but it’s not like that when it’s family. Misaki’s mother, who devotes her life to her daughter is considered by her to be annoying and stifling. But at the same time, Misaki loves her.
        My mother doesn’t try to say anything to Mao. I don’t know why, but these two are always awkward when it comes to dealing with one another. They can’t open up to the other. My mother, who is always pleasant, uninhibited, and cute when she’s around me, becomes really nervous and awkward when it comes to Mao.
        Mao was the same. He would avoid her gaze and emotions, and become completely silent. Even now, he didn’t say anything — he simply retreated to his room on the second floor still holding the donut in his hand.
        “Riho…he’s okay, right?”
        “You mean, Mao?”
        “Yes. There’s no way…he could’ve done it, right?”
        “No duh.”
        “Of course. Of course.”
        “Get a grip, mom. Who has he got left to turn to if he’s being viewed with suspicion by his own mother?”
        “I’m not suspicious of him. But you know how they say about boys his age becoming rebellious. They say that it’s a dangerous time, and that you can’t say for sure that your child will be fine…and he doesn’t talk to me either. About school or anything. He hardly ever says anything, so it’s hard to know. Not knowing can make you feel doubtful.”
        My mother’s beautiful face distorts. Wrinkles that are befitting of her age gathered together around her lip.
        “There’s no way a boy of 14-15 would be having fun conversations with his mother. I’d say the ones who tell everything to their mothers at that age are the strange ones.”
        “But Kisaragi-kun is pretty talkative.”
        “Kisaragi’s a special case. I feel sorry for Mao to have to be compared to someone like that.”
        “Oh, don’t tell me you don’t know?”
        My mother blinked as she grinned. When she smiled, she looked younger. It’s better if she lives her life smiling. Her face is one that suits laughter.
        “Mao really looks up to Kisaragi-kun.”
        “Huh? Maybe you’re mixing him up with Mutsuki?”
        “No, Kisaragi-kun. Mao said so himself. I forgot when he said it exactly but he said one day ‘Kisaragi-san’s my ideal’ — he said it, I swear!”
        “Unbelievable. You better take Mao one of these days to a hospital. He must‘ve come down with some terrible disease.”
        I joked the comment off, but I kinda understand why Mao would look up to him. Not Mutsuki, but Kisaragi. Kisaragi has something that neither Mao or Mutsuki has. I can’t explain what that is exactly. I don’t really understand it myself. It’s not something that society praises like kindness, diligence, talent, scholastic abilities, or appearance — but he has something that Mao wishes he could have. I do know that. But I don’t need it. I want something different. Sure, I wish I could have rounded double-eyelids and mascara that won’t clump up, but more than that, what I want is something that only I want — something that Kisaragi or Misaki or Mao doesn’t have. One day, I’d like to make that mine.

        The very same Kisaragi that Mao looked up to so much, only showed up at my house well after seven.
        I was really pissed off. It’s a no brainer. I’d already finished getting ready an hour ago. This year, my mother, who had gone to a Japanese dress-making school, made me a yukata. The light pink fabric was scattered with pink flowers. The obi was white. It had a pattern of small bunnies flying through the air. I even had sandals with yellow-colored straps made. I spent thirty minutes setting my hair to feather outwards, and topped that off with a pink decorative hair stick.
        “Riho, you’re…”
        My dad was at a loss for words. After a short while, he finished his sentence: “You look beautiful.”
        He’s really sincere when it comes to showing his emotions. As for me, I was sincerely pleased. He was able to think that the pink yukata wearing me was beautiful. And yet, my knight was late.
        “My bad. I was watching TV and I somehow ended up falling asleep.”
        “You have absolutely no feeling of tension. Your heart never goes pitter-patter. Not only that, but you lack discipline.”
        “Why does my heart have to go ‘pitter-patter’ when I’m just going to the festival with you?”
        “You’re telling me you feel absolutely nothing seeing a girl in a yukata get-up? Don’t you have any interest in women?”
        “Sure I do. Too much, you could even say. The other day, I even had a dream of me being a middle-aged virgin who was taking secret snapshots of girls on the tennis team changing in the change room.”
        “How lame. What a stupid dream.”
        “So in other words, Riho’s not in your field of vision when it comes to women?”
        My dad commented frankly. He really is a frank person. Kisaragi, smiling, replies:
        “Riho and I—We’re just friends.”
        “That makes sense. People aren’t sexually attracted to their friends.”
        “That’s right. If it were Riho, even if she was dancing in front of me buck-naked, I don’t think I’d feel a thing, to be honest with you.”
        “Hmm…as a father, I’m a bit on the fence about how I should feel about that…well at any rate, friendship is priceless. It is pretty rare for a friendship to be formed between a male and female. Kisaragi-kun, do your best.”
        “I will.”
        My dad’s gone into total teacher-mode. As for me, I pulled on Kisaragi’s ear.
        “Let’s get going.”
        “Ow, you’ve been getting stronger and stronger lately, Riho. Ah, Mao, you should come with us.”
        Kisaragi called out to Mao, who had just come down the stairs from the second floor. Mao had shut himself in his room ever since he had come home. I don’t think he’s even had dinner.
        “To…the festival?”
        Mao only hesitated for a slight moment before saying:
        “I’ll go.”
        He nodded his head. My mother and I looked at each other.
        Mao hates being in large crowds. He literally can’t handle being around large groups of people. It’s been that way ever since he was a kid. For him, the play dates in preschool and Sports Day in elementary school were nothing more than pure torture.
        So it’s no surprise that he would get in a hypoxic state from going to junior high wearing the same uniform as everyone and being expected to go through the same motions as everyone else. That’s why my mother and I were surprised right now. There was never a time that he voluntarily went to the summer festival with its large crowds.
        “Then let’s go.”
        Kisaragi lets out a crappy whistle. My mother smiled beautifully.

        The sky that had yet to change completely into darkness was a deep purple, and the west ridgeline was still noticeably light.
        The yukata’s really hot. Especially when you’re just standing there not moving. My normal summer wear was a camisole and short shorts, in other words, an energy saving fashion to the max, so it’s no surprise that I’d find clothing that wraps around my entire body stifling.
        Even then, I felt flattered when middle aged men and women I knew from around the neighborhood came up to me to say “My Riho-chan, you look adorable!” and “I almost didn’t recognize you. You’ve become so grown up!.” Every time that happened, I smiled, and bowed while holding the goldfish patterned fan to cover my mouth.
        “Is it just me, or are you acting more cutesy than usual?”
        Kisaragi, who had been walking behind me commented to Mao, who was walking alongside him. Hiding his smile, he replied:
        “My sister’s narcissism personified, after all.”
        He spouted. I turned around and glared at the two.
        “Bystanders, you’re being annoying. Just shut up and follow behind me. Oh, and Mao, it’s no use using complicated words like ‘narcissism personified’ around Kisaragi—there’s no way he knows what that means.”
        “Riho, don’t underestimate me. I sure as hell know what that means. Well, let me tell you this then. Who’s the one that’s always staring into a mirror during class like the wicked witch in Snow White? Who’s the one in love with herself, huh? I’d say you’re the epitome of ‘narcissism personified’.”
        The middle aged woman who worked at the salon my mom always went to squinted her eyes and went “Oh, is that you, Riho-chan?” as she came waving towards me.
        “I almost didn’t recognize you. You’ve gotten so pretty in the time that I haven’t seen you.”
        “Oh, really? Thank you.”
        She might’ve said that partly out of politeness. As a societal etiquette. But, part of it must be true. I glanced over at Kisaragi and Mao.
        What’s wrong with loving yourself? The 17 year old me has supple skin and no wrinkles. I have a glow that no expensive foundation can give you. It’s only this time in my life that I could wear light pink yukata with scattered with pink flowers and look good in it. It’s because it’s the current me that it suits me. Even though I only etched in my eyebrows lightly and swiped my lips lightly with gloss, the pink flowered-yukata plays off them beautifully. What’s wrong with loving that?
        It’s up to us whether we love, hate, ignore or accept the present that’s given equally to our 17 year old selves. We don’t have a dream or specific goal that we’re aiming for and doing our best to achieve like Mutsuki, but still, I’ve come to accept the person I am in the present time unconditionally, and I love myself.
        “Well, I guess that’s your good point.”
        I don’t know when he bought it, but Kisaragi was licking a candied apple as he said this to me. Mao looked happy as he licked his candied apple.
        “The way you love yourself. People who’re like that can’t get crushed, you know? Even when you got dumped, you didn’t let that get you down.”
        “Don’t bring that up now.”
        “Yeah, but most people would’ve gotten really depressed over something like that.”
        “I WAS depressed. So much that I even got my hair cut.”
        “No, but you did that just because you wanted a change in hairstyle, right? I remember how you kept raving about how good it looked on you.”
        “An insensitive guy like you could never understand a woman’s heart.”
        “’Woman’ you say?”
        Mao was the one who burst out laughing. Geez. There really aren’t any decent guys around me.
        I was about to shoot back a retort, but as I looked up, fireworks bloomed in the star-filled sky. One, two. They were the preliminary fireworks before the main fireworks display at nine o’clock. These fireworks, which were only red in color, wilted and disappeared in an instant.
        “Whoa, fireworks!”
        Kisaragi held the candied apple in his mouth, and started clapping. I guess the others on the roadside were drawn in by it, because there was a smattering of clapping.
        “Hey, you’re embarrassing us. This isn’t pre-school—it’s not something to get THAT excited over.”
        “Why not? This is a festival after all. The ones who get excited are the winners.”
        “This isn’t about winning or losing. So what, are you saying you’re the type to jump into the Doutonbori River buck naked when the Hanshin Tigers win the championships?”
        “Nah, I’d at least wear a swim suit. I’m just good mannered like that.”
        “Huh. I bet you just don’t have the guts to go naked.”
        “Riho, you haven’t even seen me naked before, so don’t say stuff like that.”
        “I have–more than I ever care to remember. We’ve shared baths countless times, and we’ve even slept naked together lots of times.”
        “And that was HOW many years ago? You don’t know how much I’ve grown. It’s not only your tits that’ve grown big, you know.”
        “Huh, well it’s free to brag, but I really doubt it.”
        “Oh, so what? You want to give me a try? You want to sleep with me naked again, is that it?”
        “No friggin’ way. If it has to be between sleeping with you or remaining a virgin for life, I’d rather stay a virgin for the rest of my life.”
        “Well look who’s talking! It’s the same for me — I’d rather do it with Mao than with you!”
        “Hey, if you EVER think about laying a hand on my precious brother, you’re not going to live to take your next breath.”
        The people that were walking passed us giggled. I guess we were being a bit loud.
        Mao was standing there blushing right up to the ends of his ears. They were the same shade as the candied apple in his hand.
        “Mao, don’t react to his perverted joke.”
        “Nah…I was just thinking you’ve met your match in him.”
        His cheeks were still stained pink as he laughed. When he laughs, he resembles mom even more.
        My cell phone’s ringing in my drawstring porch. It’s a text message from Ayana. We’d made plans to meet at the festival.
        “ ‘I’ll be waiting with the fish. Right now, I’m working at my part-time job.’ — so it said, but what did she mean by the fish?”
        “Maybe she’s working part time at an aquarium?”
        “Our town doesn’t have an aquarium.”
        “Then maybe she’s working at the goldfish scooping stand–”
        Before Kisaragi could finish his sentence, someone called out my name.
        Ayana was waving to me from a stand 2-3 metres away. She was wearing a bright red tank top and jeans. She had a spotted patterned towel wrapped around her forehead. She also had a bright red towel draped over her neck.
        I ran over to her.
        “Riho, it’s been a while. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about me already?”
        “Sure did.”
        “Well aren’t you the cold hearted bitch. So, you remember me now?”
        “Yep. How’ve you been? What’re you doing?”
        “I’m roasting sweetfish. I’m also roasting some scallop.”
        On a portable stove with charcoal fire, she was roasting skewered sweetfish. On top of the grid iron, the scallops gaped open as it made a sizzling sound. It smelled really good.
        “I’ve been undergoing training from the neighborhood fish shop owner. Today, I’m acting as the resident stand overseer.”
        “So you’re working at a fish shop?”
        “That’s right. At first, I was working part-time on the catering side, but I was pretty good at handling the fish, you know? So—oh hey Fujimoto-kun. Long time no see.”
        “Yo, Takenoshita. Looking like a pro there.”
        “Heh. Oh…? And who’s this? Are you Riho’s boyfriend?”
        Mao waves off her question while shaking his head no. His eyes squinted from the smoke rising upwards.
        “I’m her brother.”
        “Ooh~ I didn’t know you had such a looker for a bro, Riho! Ah, hey, here, have some. It’s my treat.”
        Ayana holds out a skewered sweetfish. The smell of the fish that had been roasted to perfection on the charcoal fire tickled the senses.
        “Ah, thanks.”
        Ayana’s face which had sweat pouring down it broke into a smile. Now that I think about it, she’s into guys who have clean lines.
        “Takenoshita, me too.”
        Kisaragi holds out his hand.
        “That’ll be 300 yen. I’ll give you a break on the scallops and let you have ’em for two for 200 yen.”
        “Takenoshita– are you friggin’ serious? Come on, have some heart.”
        “Aya-chan, it’s okay. They’re you’re friends, right? Be a little nicer to them.”
        A middle-aged man with a round face and a receding hairline commented to Ayana as he dripped soy sauce on the scallop. The spotted towel wrapped around his forehead suited him perfectly.
        “But boss, you shouldn’t go around saying stuff like that. If you let high schoolers take advantage of you, they’ll wring you dry. Oh, hi, welcome–”
        Ayana’s voice is really clear. It doesn’t have a muddiness that irritates the ears–it just goes in smoothly.
        “Okay, so two skewers of sweetfish and one scallops. That’ll be 800 yen. Okay, so from 1000 yen, that’s 200 in change. Thank you very much. Yes, you’re next, right? Thanks for waiting. We’ve got freshly roasted sweetfish.”
        Her mouth and hands never stagnated as they worked. She’s very lively.
        “She sure is a pro at this.”
        Kisaragi took a bite out of the sweetfish that he took from Mao, and he let out a groan that even her roasting abilities were professional-level. I took out a 1000 yen bill from my wallet, and ordered two sweetfish. I was starting to get really hungry.
        “Don’t worry about it.”
        The middle-aged man waved the money away.
        Ayana shakes her head.
        “You sure are strict, Aya-chan.”
        “Oh, but I’d prefer it this way. Since Ayana put the effort into roasting it, I’d rather pay for it properly.”
        “Yeah, right? I thought you’d say something like that, Riho.”
        The middle-aged man put one scallop into a small package, and handed it over to me saying “Okay then, here’s a freebie.”
        “Where’s Misaki?”
        Ayana craned her neck to look behind me.
        “She’s in the hospital right now.”
        “It’s nothing new.”
        “She sure does have her work cut out for her having to live the way she does.”
        “Yeah, but it’s people like her who’ll show everybody and live so long that she lands herself in the Guinness Book of World Records.”
        “So, nothing much has changed with you, huh Riho?”
        Ayana asked how everyone was doing as she turned the skewers.
        “They’re doing good.”
        “That’s great. You know, I never liked studying, but I really loved school.”
        “Right around this time of year, I get this urge to wear a school uniform again. It makes me wish I’d gone to the school library at least once, you know?”
        “Riho, didn’t you used to visit the library a lot?”
        “Sure did. It’s really cool there, and they have stuff like manga by Tezuka Osamu, so I used to go there to read them.”
        “Oh. So they had manga too? Dang. And like, I won’t have the chance to eat lunch with you guys ever again, you know? And even though the curry udon they served at school was crap, I really wish I could eat it again.”
        “Yeah, it does have a pretty unique taste to it. But if you were still in school, you’d still have to put up with two more years of English and Math.”
        Ayana’s face was undisguised in its disgust. She looked as if she had been forced to eat something that she hated.
        “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t want that…oh well, what can you do, huh?”
        Ayana giggled as sweat poured down her face. She made an “O” with her cotton-glove fingers.
        “Are the mountain goats from the agriculture division doing well too?”
        “One gave birth to a kid. The agriculture division said they’re going to milk the goat to make cheese.”
        “Well way to go.”
        I didn’t know who Ayana was praising — the mountain goat that gave birth to a kid, or the agriculture division that would be giving cheese-manufacturing a shot.
        I bite into the sweetfish. It tasted noticeably better than the ones that we roasted at our home grill. I felt like I could almost eat even the bones.
        The melody of the bear echoes in my cloth string purse. I’ve got a text message. Misaki’s name appeared on the screen. Without even realizing it, I looked up at Kisaragi. I never expected to receive a text from Misaki. I’ve known her for over ten years since back in pre-school, and it’s been two years since we got cell phones, but we’ve never once even exchanged text messages. To Misaki, a cellphone wasn’t something that connected you to others, but something she used to contact family and the hospital in the case of an emergency when she had a fit or felt dizzy.
        Misaki hated holding ambiguous relations with countless numbers of people. More than numerical formulas and English terms, she said she’ll never be able to come to terms with it. Even then though, she never missed playing our cell phone roulette game. And strangely enough, she never ends up as the loser. Someone always calls her — whether it be her parents, doctor, a wrong number call, or a spam call. It just might be that as a way to make up for her weak body, God gave great luck to this weak, stubborn young girl.
        “Riho, please come here.”
        I glared at the text that floated to the surface of the screen for a while. The fingers holding my cell phone shook slightly. I looked up at Kisaragi again.
        “What is this…”
        “You should go.
        Kisaragi took in a breath.
        “It’s not everyday that Misaki calls for you, so you should go.”
        I nodded, and began to run. The straps of my sandals dig into my feet and it hurts.
        Damnit, if I knew this was going to happen, I would’ve chosen to wear sneakers.
        I take off my sandals and hold them in my hand. Right before that, I flipped over the hem of my yukata and tied it right above my obi. It’s five centimetres above my knee. It’s way longer than my school uniform. It looks stupid, but I ran in this outfit.
        Ayana bumped into me from behind.
        “Wear these.”
        Nike sneakers roll to my feet. I stuck my feet in them almost reflexively. Ayana swiftly slipped into the sandals I had thrown to the wayside.
        “Ayana, I owe you one.”
        “Don’t worry about it. They’re just sneakers. Oh, before you go—here.”
        I was given a plastic bag with sweetfish in it.
        “They’re for Misaki. I remember her saying once before that sweetfish is the only kind of fish that she eats.”
        A bicycle came to a screeching halt beside me.
        “Riho, hop on.”
        Kisaragi gestures to the back as he crouched down on the saddle. I put my hands on his shoulders, and placed my feet on the steps on the back wheel.
        “And we’re off–”
        Ayana waves. I wonder where Mao went? Well, whatever. He’s 15, it’s not like he’s still at an age where his big sister has to constantly watch over him.
        “Kisaragi, whose bike is this?”
        “I borrowed it.”
        “From who?”
        “I don’t know. Somebody had it parked nearby.”
        “Then, you stole it?”
        “Idiot. Once I drop you off at the hospital, I’ll come back and leave it where I found it. Don’t worry, I left Mao in the spot. If the owner comes, he said he’ll explain the circumstances.”
        “I can’t believe you. There’s no way Mao can do that.”
        “Why not?”
        “Well…he’s smart and all, but he’s not very good when it comes to interacting with other people. There’s no way he’ll be able to explain to some stranger that he had his bike stolen. There’s just no way.”
        “Sure he can.”
        Kisaragi crouches forward. We’ve reached an upward slope. The muscles in his shoulders flex underneath my hands
        “He’s more grown up than you give him credit for, and he’s capable of anything, Riho.”
        “So you shouldn’t think that you need to protect him or anything.”
        “I’m not thinking anything like that.”
        Regardless of whether it’s my brother, I’ve never thought of an impudent thing like that.
        “Then don’t go around saying he can’t do it.”
        The upward slope continues. Kisaragi’s muscle flexes, and becomes slightly warmer.
        “People tell us all the time that we can’t do this or that, and that we’re no good, but it’s not like that, right?”
        “You think that there’s a lot more we’re capable of than even we think we’re capable of, right?”
        “It’s the same for Mao.”
        “And you know, this bicycle was locked. The one who unlocked it was Mao. There’s hope for him yet.”
        “Yeah…wait, what ‘hope’?”
        Kisaragi’s nape is drenched with sweat. Without decreasing speed, we reach the peak, and enter the descending slope. The wind comes blowing head-on. My sleeves flap. I can feel the power of the wind on the legs that are exposed fifteen centimetres from the knee.
        People walking in the streets look back at us. They see two people riding to a bike, with the girl wearing sneakers with her yukata tied back. It’s no wonder they felt the need to look back and stare. I can’t be bothered by that though.
        Suddenly, a powerful boom went off from behind me. The fireworks have started. Not the weak ones that had been going off since this afternoon, but a strong powerful one that echoes right down to the bottom of your stomach.
        “It’s started, huh?”
        Kisaragi continues to pedal without looking back. Behind us, the fireworks went off one after another into the night sky.

        The night entrance to the hospital was lit dimly by a light. As soon as I got off the bicycle, Kisaragi did a 180 on the bike.
        “Well then, I’m going to go and give this back. I’ll come to pick you up again later.”
        “You’re not going to go see Misaki?”
        “You’re the one she texted, right? If she wants me to come, I’m sure she’ll text me too.”
        “Yeah, you’re right.”
        “Do you know where her room is?”
        “Nope. What room number is it?”
        “I don’t know. I think it was on the fifth floor though.”
        “Are you sure about that?”
        “Don’t bet on it.”
        “I’ll try and find my way as I go along.”
        Inside the hospital, you can’t use your cell phone. Using the dimly lit emergency stairs, I climbed up to the fifth floor. My knees’ve gone all funny. I finally understood what that meant. I can’t put pressure on my knees. My thighs feel heavy, and sweat poured down by entire body. I definitely think I lost at least 2kg from going up the stairs alone. I should let Suu-chan know later about the emergency stairs climbing diet.
        The moment I opened the door that led to the fifth floor, a sense of nervousness washes over me, and the respiratory organs that were gasping for breath forgot for a moment to take in oxygen. The sweat retreats for an instant.
        I can see nurses coming and going in the white linoleum-floored hallway. They’re heading to the room at the very end of the hallway. It’s the only room that has light spilling out, and it swallows up and spits out the white-uniform wearing women. Equipment I didn’t know the name of were being carried into that room. Once I got closer, I could hear the sound of someone crying. It’s the sound of someone who’s trying her best to hold herself back.
        “Riho, please come.”
        The text turns into words, and becomes Misaki’s voice as it echoes in my head. What was I doing? If Misaki’s in that room right now, then what was I doing until now? I feel weak at my knees. If Misaki disappears from my life, what will be left? There are lots that would be left. I’m not Kisaragi, but I know we have more than we think we do. Even then though, a hole would be left in her place. If I lose Misaki suddenly like this, a hole will be left in me– one that can’t be filled. It’s as if I was unexpectedly assaulted by a thug. There’s no way to prepare yourself for it.
        “What’s wrong?”
        A nurse who had noticed me rooted on the spot asked.
        “Are you a relative?”
        “Ah, no…”
        “Would you like to go in? …Are you all right?”
        I’ve never felt so small in my whole seventeen years as I did at this very moment. I felt so small that I couldn’t even decide my own words or actions.
        The sound of someone crying rises. The emotions that had been held in check overflows. “Grandpa!” “Dad!” I could only catch those two words.
        Grandpa? Dad?
        I bring my eyes up to the name plate. With a big fat felt pen it read: “Kitahara Taizou.”
        “What would you like to do? Would you like to go in?”
        “Ah, no. I’m sorry. That’s okay.”
        I think it must’ve been because she was wearing a hospital frock, but I lowered my head to the nurse who looked a bit like Mizuki Arisa. In my moment of confusion, she was the one who quietly gave me kind words.
        “Thank you very much.”
        As I gave her my thanks and turned, I spotted Misaki peering down at me from the stairs.
        She’s beckoning me over. I slowly made my way over to her.
        “Riho, that was fast.”
        “Luck was on my side today. There was an open seat on a jet plane.”
        “Whoa, what kind of outfit is that? You sure must’ve been in some hurry. That’s hilarious.”
        I spot my reflection in the window. My hair is a mess, the front of my yukata is loose, and you could see the white camisole I was wearing underneath. The hem was still tucked into my obi, and the obi itself had been shifted out of place. Not only that, but I had on no socks and was wearing a pair of sneakers. I just knew this image would come up in a dream 2-3 days from now.
        I start walking down the stairs.
        “Hey Riho, where you going?”
        “But you just got here.”
        “Yeah, but I’m leaving.”
        I shoved the bag of sweetfish towards her.
        “This is from Ayana. She roasted it herself. Even though it’s really hot out, she stood in front of the charcoal fire and roasted it as she sweated her butt off.”
        “Yeah. I really love sweetfish.”
        I sniffed.
        “Well excuse me for feeling the need to hurry. Couldn’t you have sent me a more decent text than that, you moron?”
        Misaki glanced over at Kitahara-san’s hospital room.
        “Did you think I’d died or something?”
        “Yeah, I did. I was thinking about what I should do about the condolence gift.”
        Misaki, who was wearing a yellow checkered pyjama, grinned.
        “I won’t die.”
        “I know that. I was the idiot for getting my hopes up.”
        Misaki’s fingers wrapped around my wrist.
        “This way.”
        We begin climbing the stairs with her still holding onto my wrist. When she opened the ash-colored door, it revealed the rooftop.
        “The real-deal’s going to start soon, right? This is the best seat in the city.”
        The wind passes through the rooftop. When I focus my eyes onto the darkness, I could make out the shadowy figures of a few others.
        The fireworks go up into the sky. Without being obstructed by the crowd or houses, it fills my field of vision.
        “Whoa, that’s amazing.”
        Without realizing it, I let out a whoop of delight.
        “Right? I knew that seeing as how you’re single and all, you were probably pulling Kisaragi this way and that wandering amidst the crowd without even being able to see the fireworks decently, so I decided to invite you up here. Last year, I saw the fireworks from here and I remember how pretty awesome it was.”
        “Oh, were you in the hospital last summer too?”
        Misaki peers into the plastic bag, and took out a can of oolong tea.
        “Hey, there’s even a can of tea in here.”
        “That’s Ayana’s doing. She sure is considerate, huh?”
        “Yeah, it’s pretty impressive. Back when she used to go to school, she was more of the type to always have her head stuck in the clouds—you know, the kind who didn’t pay attention at all to anything around her?”
        “Well it looks like she’s taken the lead, huh? Why don’t you try the sweetfish?”
        Misaki had become noticeably thinner. Her cheeks had become hollow, and the arm that peeked out from her short-sleeved t-shirt was nothing more than skin and bones.
        “This is really good.”
        She bit into the sweetfish. She had an impressive appetite that was ill-matched with her fragile outer appearance.
        “Misaki, are you doing better?”
        “I get discharged next week.”
        “Even once you’re back at home though, you should make sure to take it easy.”
        “So what, are you suggesting that I should stay at home 24/7?”
        “Bingo. It would be even better if you could just stay locked in a cage.”
        Misaki polished off the sweetfish in the time it took to blink. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she exhaled. The sky becomes quiet again. The stars sparkle.
        “We should go to the beach.”
        I said this on the spur of the moment. I said it. As I looked up at the stars sparkling in the sky, an image of the open sea floated to surface.
        “That sounds great.”
        “I thought you didn’t like going to the beach though?”
        “And yet you still said that?”
        “Well, you don’t know until you try. So, do you wanna go?”
        “Okay then, let’s all go to the beach!”
        “Take a parasol though, okay? My skin’s weak against the sun. It breaks out in a rash.”
        “I’ll tell Kisaragi that.”
        “Oh, and no buses. I get car-sick. Let’s go by train, okay?”
        “But we’d have to switch trains though—that sounds like a lot of work.”
        “Well you’ll have to just deal with it. Oh, and–”
        It was as if the fireworks served to cut Misaki’s orders off as it spread throughout the sky. One breath later, the sound echoes. It blossoms and fades, blossoms and fades—one after another. They overlap, echo, and disperse their colors. Countless large flowers of fire bloom. Applause and echoes of joy. The squeals of children mix in.
        “I didn’t know that even little kids were hospitalized.”
        “No duh. It’d start an uproar if there was a minimum age limit at the hospital. You can find everyone from newborn babies to hundred year old grandpas.”
        In an instant, I think back to the hospital room from before. For Kitahara-san’s family, tonight’s fireworks serves as a funeral background. I was really relieved. I know it’s selfish and shameful to feel this way, but I was really glad that it wasn’t Misaki who had died. It’d just be too much if I was reminded of her death every time the summer festival rolled around.
        “If you’re going to die, do it on a day that has nothing going on that day, okay? Like a day that’s so busy that it passes before you know it.”
        Misaki continued to look up at the fireworks as she placed her hand on the fence that enclosed the rooftop.
        “I’m not going to die.”
        “I heard you say that before.”
        “I’m not going to just give up and die. I’m strong. There’s no way I’m going to just simply lay there and let death take me.”
        You won’t lose. You’ve never lost — not even once. That’s not you. We’re not going to lose. Even if we have to put up with oxygen tanks and Ivs at a frequent rate, and even if we’re accused of shoplifting, and even if some old geezer comes up to us and asks “How much?,” and even if we get kicked out of school, there’s no way we’re going to allow ourselves to lose.
        “Wanna go for it?”
        I turn to Misaki and get into a fighting stance. Misaki laughed quietly.
        “You’re such a moron. You’re not my enemy, Riho.”
        The fireworks go up one after another without stopping. Although this town is struggling because of the recession, it still spends a huge chunk of its early budget on the summer festival that’s held once a year. It’s as if they’re setting off the fireworks partly out of despair.
        “This really is the best seat of the city.”
        “Right? Sitting here, it makes you feel as if the fireworks are being set off just for you.”
        “It even makes you think that a world conquest can be done in a cinch.”
        This time, I laughed.
        “A world conquest? And then what?”
        Misaki became quiet, and shook the fence slightly.
        “Hmmm…let’s see—well for starters, I’d build a humongous fashion building in this town.”
        “Oooh~ that sounds nice. I’m all for it. Yeah, it could be like ten times bigger than 109*.” [*HUGE department store in Shibuya targeted towards young women]
        “We could even call it 1090.”
        “That’d be nice. And they could sell not just clothes, but jewellery, clothes, and makeup—basically, everything a girl could ever wish for!”
        “Yep, and I’m going to give fifty percent off all the stuff to Inanohara students only! Or maybe we could even make it free?”
        “Misaki, you’re one smart cookie. Talk about having love for your school! If you did that, I’m sure people would be trampling each other try to get into our school!”
        “Yep. Oh, and we’re going to export goat cheese. And all high schools will be legally liable to raise at least ten mountain goats.”
        “That might not be such a bad idea.”
        “What would you do, Riho? Let me guess– a reverse harem?”
        “Yep. I’m going to build a castle like the one that shows up in the Snow Queen, and I’m going to have guys wait on me. And around the outside of the castle will be all natural wood scenery, and there’ll be lots of wild animals.”
        “You should keep mountain goats in the castle.”
        “Yeah, since baby goats are really cute. We should set pet protection laws too. Like you get the death penalty if you kill a cat.”
        “What if it’s a dog?”
        “You get exiled.”
        From behind me, I sensed a person’s presence. A boy with a net over his head was gazing up at me. Throughout the rooftop, there are lamps hanging from various places. Amidst that light, I could tell this young boy’s skin is almost a translucent white. He looked to be around ten years old.
        “What is it?”
        I asked. The young boy shook his head from side to side, and apologized. I didn’t understand.
        “Why are you apologizing?”
        The young boy backed up half a step. It looks like he’s scared of me. Even if it’s just a kid, a guy’s a guy. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to frighten him like that.
        “What is it? Did you come to see us for something?”
        I said this in my best kitten voice. Misaki bursts out laughing.
        “Um…I was listening…”
        “…to what you were saying. It was really interesting.”
        Misaki and I, with the light from the lamp shining on us, glance at one another. Did we say something that would catch a kid’s interest?
        “Um…it’d be great if you could make a zoo too.”
        “Inside the castle.”
        “Oooh~ that’s the part you were talking about? Sure thing, let’s. What kind of animals would you want to keep there?”
        “An alligator.”
        “Alligator? You mean the animal that gets its skin turned into bags and belts? Wouldn’t you rather have more cuter animals?”
        “No, I’d want an alligator. And make it so they give birth to eggs too, okay?”
        “Huh? Do alligators hatch from eggs?”
        The young boy blinks. Apparently, he was trying to figure out whether I was serious or just joking.
        “Alligators and turtles hatch from eggs. Dolphins and whales give birth to babies though.”
        “Huh, so even though they’re fish, they don’t give birth to eggs?”
        “They’re not fish. They’re mammals.”
        “What? So even though they look the way they do, they have boobs?”
        Misaki pulls on my sleeve.
        “Riho, I think that’s enough of you proclaiming your idiocity, don’t you agree? You’re embarrassing me.”
        “Y-Yeah, but this is breaking news! Thanks, kid. Thanks to you, I’m smarter than I was a minute ago.”
        “Sure. Tell me more stories next time, okay?”
        “You bet. We’ll even let you join our plan for world conquest.”
        Bowing politely, he turned around, and disappeared behind the door. He moved really swiftly. Like the fireworks, he was gone before we knew it. I missed the chance to ask him what it was about alligators that he liked so much.

        Misaki became impatient—so impatient in fact that she kept complaining that she’d grown bored of watching the fireworks, so we decided to go back to her hospital room. Her room was located right near the stairs to the fifth floor. Surprisingly, Kisaragi’s instincts were right on the money.
        Kitahara-san’s hospital room was already pitch black, and not even a sliver of light poured from that room. Even the sounds of crying that leaked out into the white hallways and the hurried footsteps had disappeared like it was all just an illusion—not even a trace of it was left.
        Misaki’s hospital room was a private one, and the bed had a patchwork cover draped over it. Apparently, her aunt made it for her by hand.
        “A private room? Geez, talk about living it up.”
        “Well, I am a regular after all, so it’s kinda like a given they’d give me special treatment. There’s no way I’d share a room with some stranger.”
        Misaki burrowed into her bed. The area right under her eyes looked slightly red.
        “Are you sure you don’t have a fever?”
        I place a hand on her forehead. Surprisingly, it was cool, and it was almost like touching porcelain.
        “Riho, do you want to crash here for the night?”
        Misaki lifts up the quilt.
        “I’ll even sleep with you.”
        “How idiotic. Seriously, what’s the point in having a lez moment with you, huh Misaki? I’m leaving.”
        I heard footsteps on the other side of the door.
        “Oh shit, Riho. Under here.”
        I burrow under the bed. It was a mess with paper bags and boxes everywhere. I lay myself flat in the shadow of those objects.
        “Morooka-san, I’m going to take your temperature. I also have your medicine for before you go to sleep.”
        When I peered out from between the space between the paper bags, I could see white stockings and nicely shaped legs. Her ankles were without an ounce of extra fat, and they looked kinda sexy. I felt like some pervert peeping tom or something.
        “Oh my, it looks like you have a bit of a fever. Does your body feel heavy?”
        “I feel fine.”
        “Is that right? There’s no need to take any special medicine to bring the temperature down, but you should make sure to rest up. Don’t let the fireworks excite you too much, all right?”
        This woman with the beautiful legs gave her a word of warning as if she saw through Misaki’s actions.
        “I’m not THAT young.”
        Misaki answers. What a transparent lie.
        “Hey, besides that—I heard that Kitahara-san in room 510 died.”
        “Yes, he just passed away.”
        After rephrasing Misaki’s blunt phrasing into a more thoughtful manner, Misaki’s nurse let out a small sigh.
        “He was still only 60 years old. Much too young.”
        Misaki sounded pretty goofy when she said that.
        “Is 60 ‘young’?”
        “Well, to someone young as yourself, Morooka-san, it might sound old.”
        “Much too young to die” is what she meant, I know. But for people like me and Misaki, it sounds strange to put the words “60” and “young” alongside one another. If 60 is young, that means we’d be young for many years yet.
        “That’s pretty old. He’s lived enough of his life, don’t you think?”
        “Sixty is nothing — it passes in a flash. And I’d say it’s pretty difficult to say you’ve had ‘enough’ of life.”
        “How old are you, Muramoto-san?”
        “Me? I’m 31.”
        “Oh, so you’re pretty old, huh?”
        “Do I look younger?”
        “For your age, yeah.”
        “Thank you. What a nice girl you are.”
        Letting out a small giggle, the white stockinged legs disappeared from my field of vision. I climb out from underneath the bed. My yukata had given away so that the sleeves and front were now gaping open. I undo my obi, and put them back in their place.
        “Riho, I didn’t know you could put on a yukata by yourself.”
        “Sure I can. I can even tie the obi by myself.”
        “It’s rare to find a high schooler who can put on a yukata by herself.”
        “Maybe. I guess I could put that in the column for ‘special abilities’ in my resume, huh?”
        I settled for tying the obi in a simple butterfly tie. I can still hear the fireworks going off outside. Even though we’re only separated by one wall, the sound that echoes is noticeably smaller than what we heard up at the rooftop.
        “Do you think we could do a lot of stuff by the time we’re 60?”
        “No duh. That’s A LOT of time. It’s even plenty of time for a world conquest. But for starters–”
        “The guys, right?”
        “Nope, research on how to keep an alligator.”
        “Well aren’t you the strait-laced one.”
        “Well, that boy back there was pretty cute. Ten years from now, he’ll definitely be a looker. I might as well lay claim on him early, you know?”
        “So it all comes down to guys, huh? So what, you want to be a reverse-Hikaru Genji?”
        “Huh? Hikaru Genji*? You mean, the old idol group?” [*This was the name of a popular all-boys idol group in the 80’s]
        Misaki brought the quilt cover up to her shoulders and let out a big sigh.
        “We JUST learned about ‘Hikaru Genji’ at the end of first term. Remember how you and Kisaragi were going on about how he was a pedophile with a mother complex?”
        “Really? Hey, geez, lay off the school work talk. My hands are shaking so bad I can’t even tie my obi decently.”
        Once I re-tied my obi, my back straightened out.
        “That’s a really nice yukata.”
        Misaki complimented me.
        “That’s a yukata you can only wear now.”
        “Yeah, next year, I might be in the mood to wear more subdued colors like indigo or pale yellow.”
        We still have lots of time. Still though, there are yukata that we can only wear now, and songs that touch us only know, and things that we can only love now. I don’t think that what’s important is just the present time. But at the same time, I don’t want to regret the time that’s passing by, or be frightened of what’s to come; I just don’t.
        I sat on the bed as I placed my hand back on Misaki’s forehead.
        “Want me to give you a kiss goodnight?”
        “Hah, over my dead body. I’m going to have a nightmare if you do that.”
        Misaki’s eyes become watery. I placed a kiss on the porcelain-like forehead.
        “I’m leaving now. Good night.”
        I turn off the light by her bedside. In the darkness of the hospital room, I could see Misaki’s white hand waving.
        When I got outside, Kisaragi and Mao were both leaning against the wall. I guess they were talking about something funny, because Mao was looking down and laughing.
        “I thank ye for coming to retrieve me. There is no need for formality; move thy self closer.”
        “Boss. Likewise, we thank you for your hard work.”
        Kisaragi bows deeply.
        “C’mon Kisaragi, the setting’s completely different.”
        “Well, it’s a bit of a stretch for you to play the part of a princess, don’t you think? Anyway, how was Misaki?”
        “She talked to me about her desire to conquer the world.”
        “Huh, well ain’t that fitting for a night like tonight.”
        An especially loud noise goes off.
        “I guess this is the last of it.”
        Mao lifted his face up to the sky, and took in a deep breath.
        “I guess the festival’s drawing to a close.”
        Kisaragi placed his hand on his hip, and shook his head.
        “Takenoshita told me to tell you that you can wear her sneakers home. She said she’ll come to see you with your sandals one day or another.”
        I was in a hurry, so I didn’t even notice it. These Nike sneakers with the orange line through them is her favorite pair—the one she worked a part-time job for during the winter break of grade 10 to buy. Even though she was in the critical moment of not knowing whether she would be able to advance to the next grade or not, without studying for her exams, she skipped class and worked part time at a conveyer belt sushi bar to be able to buy these. I wonder if Ayana’s working right now while wearing my yellow strapped sandals?
        “I wonder if it’ll be a clear day tomorrow?”
        I also look up at the sky. But not to see the fireworks—but rather, the stars. If it’s a clear day tomorrow, I’m going to wash the sneakers. I’ll wash them carefully and hang them out to dry in the shade. I’ll clean them right up so that Ayana could come to pick them up any day.
        “Do you know how to have an alligator?”
        “Don’t pet shops sell ‘em?”
        “I didn’t mean BUYING one…more like, ways to raise them.”
        “How would I know? I have heard though that alligator meat is pretty tasty, believe it or not.”
        “Alligators are born from eggs, you know.”
        “No duh. I’ve never seen an alligator giving milk to a baby alligator.”
        “Oh, so you knew about it? Then did you know that dolphins and whales aren’t fish?”
        “Yep. They’re mammals through and through.”
        “Damnit! You’ve gotta be kidding me. Okay then how about this—do you remember what character Hikaru Genji is from?”
        “Huh? Genji…? Oh, you mean, like a type of firefly?”
        Mao turns his face away to laugh.
        The fireworks ended. We walked down the dark roads a little quieter than usual. It was only right after we said goodbye to Kisaragi at the front of our house that I realized that I didn’t buy him the takoyaki and roasted squid as promised. I considered asking Mao about what happened with the bicycle, but I decided against it. I was really tired. Mao didn’t say anything either. Apparently he went gold-fish scooping though, because he released three red goldfish into the tank.
        Misaki being discharged from the hospital was prolonged by two days.
        The cicadas began their full-scale chirping, and as the festival drew to a close, our short summer began.

[UP NEXT: pg 169-231 {END}]


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