Volume 1 Chapter 1: Close Encounter with the Third Kind (Part 1)

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Volume 1 – Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Sono Ichi

Chapter 1 – Close Encounter with the Third Kind (Part 1)


 “It feels extremely good, you know,” someone had said.

That was why he too decided to do it.

On the way home from deep in the mountains, Asaba Naoyuki had the thought of sneaking into the school’s pool to have a swim.

It was about 6:05 PM on the last day of summer vacation in his second year of middle school. He parked his bicycle at a nearby video store, shouldered his almost-bursting duffel bag, and walked along a scarcely-lit path back to school.

After climbing over the north-facing side gate, he walked briskly behind the row of clubrooms.

He was starting to feel like a spy infiltrating enemy territory as he surreptitiously glanced around while hidden in the shadow of the incinerator. The school grounds were vast; it was the only redeeming feature of a school in a rural area, on which an unskillful person from some department had drawn indistinct, squiggly white lines which had been thoroughly trampled on for the entirety of this summer.

To his eyes, which hadn’t gotten accustomed to the dark yet, they resembled the Nazca geoglyphs.

On his right was an old, tired-looking gymnasium, and in front of him was a timber structure, the main building of Sonohara Town Ritsuenbara Middle School. The building was so old and musty that it exuded character. On his left was the newest addition to school, Sonohara District’s fourth air raid shelter.

It was dark. Naturally, there was not a soul around him. Distant sounds were surprisingly distinct. He could hear the non-stop ringing of a telephone, the wailing siren of a patrol car chasing after something, the sounds of the engine of a moped revving up in the distance, and a vending machine thanking someone for buying juice from it.

Entering his line of sight was a circle, within which the character ‘Buddha’ was painted in red, towering abruptly in the night sky. It was a billboard that was recently put up for a store selling Buddhist altars on the outskirts of town. It soured his mood somewhat, so he pretended not to see it.

The clock tower rising from the center of the school building indicated that it was 8:14 PM.

It wasn’t just any 8:14 PM.

It was 8:14 PM on the last day of summer vacation in his second year of middle school.

To Asaba, who hadn’t even touched any of his homework, the clock tower on the school building, which divided the school grounds and cut upwards into the summer sky, was nothing more than a wooden, three-storied ticking time-bomb. He detested that clock tower. He had a feeling that if he could stop the cogs in that clock tower from turning, he could stop the entire world’s time at 8:14 PM.

If that happened, summer vacation would never end. The second trimester would never begin. For the past month and a half, even though the only people who looked up at the dial of that clock were probably boys with buzz cuts from sports clubs, even though no one would know even if they skipped out on training a little, even though there was no second hand on the clock, that clock tower had been, second by second, chipping away at the eternity that was the past month and a half.

And now, all Asaba had left was less than thirteen hours.

Thirteen more hours and boom, the second trimester would commence, without mercy. Kawaguchi Taizou, single and thirty-five years of age, science teacher and homeroom teacher of Class 2-4, would make anyone who couldn’t hand in their homework stand in a line on the podium. He would glower at them with that objective, scientific look in his eyes while systematically smacking the row of heads one by one with his attendance book, demanding a logical excuse as to why they couldn’t hand in their homework.

—but sensei, it couldn’t be helped. I was abducted by aliens on the first day of summer vacation and was taken to a pyramid on the far side of the moon. That pyramid was their secret base from which they plan to invade Earth, and the prison facility at which I was forced into also held seven other boys and girls from around the world, who were also there against their will. We broke out of that prison facility, snatched away their laser guns and after going on a rampage, managed to destroy the pyramid and escape in a UFO, only to finally reach Earth last night. I had no time to do my homework, but because of what we did we were able to save humanity from being wiped out, which is why I am here with you today, sensei. Ah, no, this isn’t sunburn. It’s exposure to the radiation from an anti-gravity field. See, look closely, it’s just like in the tragedy of the Lucky Dragon No. 51, right?

Surely he would be ripped apart, limb from limb.

Nonetheless, even if he were to truthfully say “I spent the whole of my summer holidays hanging out with Suizenji, head of the school’s Journalism Club, in the mountains at the back of the Sonohara Air Base looking for UFOs”, he didn’t think his fate will be any different.

That truth was hidden alongside Asaba, in the incinerator’s shadow. In just under thirteen hours, that will come to pass and become mere historical fact.

Asaba Naoyuki’s summer vacation in his second year of middle school had all but disappeared, swallowed up by the mountains behind the Sonohara Air Base.

Just thirteen more hours to go.

Prisoners on the death row still get to smoke one last cigarette.

That was why it was okay for him to just sneak into the school’s pool in the middle of the night for a swim.

Of course he should.

Somewhere right next to him, out of focus and in the dark, a cicada warbled, just once. For the last time, Asada checked that there was no one in his vicinity. Only the wooden, three-storied school building with all its windows wide open as if to say, “I see right through you and everything naughty you did” stood tall, glaring at Asaba.

Asaba knew that there was a staff room on the left side of that school building, and a narrow, tatami-matted room called the ‘nap room’ next to that, whose purpose was unclear. If there was a teacher on the night shift, that was where he would be. However, there was no light emanating from any of the windows. Moreover, Asaba wasn’t even sure whether the school had a teacher on night shift duty in the first place.

His destination, the pool, was in the same row as the gymnasium and about thirty meters from where the incinerator was, behind which Asaba was hiding. Surrounding the pool was not a fence but a tall wall made from a series of conjoined plastic panels.

That very wall was the infamous Berlin Wall, an unshakeable and impregnable barrier despite the chorus of resentful voices from male students complaining “We can’t see the girls at their swimming lessons”. However, right now, the wall was Asaba’s ally. Thanks to that wall, no one would be able to look in and see him swimming in the pool at night. He had already mapped out his route of invasion. Asaba knew full well that the door at the entrance of the changing rooms was in such a bad shape that even if it were to be locked, the lock would give if he just put in a little strength while turning the doorknob.

Now all he needed was some pluck.

No way would anyone be here. He would never be caught.

However—

There was a certain uneasiness he couldn’t quite shake off. In the unlikely event that he was found, he would be properly chewed out.

He ran.

The duffel bag bounced against his back as he sprinted the last thirty meters without anywhere to hide. He threw himself into a roll, heading into the shadow of the L-shaped brick wall that blocked the changing room door from view. He tried to steady his breathing as he looked around once again, and finally relaxed a little. Putting both hands on the doorknob of the door to the changing room, he turned it with all the strength he could muster. Asaba could almost feel metal grating against metal in his hands as the well-worn metal lock helplessly popped open.

Just then, he heard the siren of a patrol car.

He knew that it had nothing to do with him, but his body stiffened instinctively as he held his breath.

Oh, it must be that car again, he thought. He had heard it while hiding in the incinerator’s shadow.

The siren faded away into the distance before abruptly ceasing to wail.

Asaba thought the patrol cars were frightfully busy tonight. Perhaps there was an incident somewhere. Come to think of it, there was a notice that said “Please be careful of spies from the north that may be hiding in your neighborhood” circulating around households just before summer vacation. Spies probably didn’t have summer vacation.

He took a deep breath.

Quietly, he opened the door to the changing room before peeking inside.

It was pitch black, far too dark to change in. No matter the case, it wouldn’t be a good idea to switch the lights on either. Thus, Asaba decided to change out of his clothes where he was right now, in the shadow of the brick wall. He didn’t think anyone would come by.

He dropped the bag from his shoulders, opened its zipper, and realized his grave mistake.

He was on his way home from deep within the mountains.

In other words, his bag was crammed full of stuff he needed when he was in the mountains, like a toothbrush, a towel, a change of clothes, insect repellent spray, a camera, and a small radio transceiver. No matter how you look it, there was no need for swim trunks.

That means he did not have swim trunks with him.

He was crestfallen.

Asaba crouched down and placed his forehead on his knees. Once, he had set off for a video store that was absurdly far away, hell bent on renting an adult video. “This is it!” he thought as he placed his hands on the packaging, before suddenly realizing that he had forgotten to bring his wallet with him. He felt as despondent as he did back then.

A sudden thought crossed his mind.

Since he was already here, couldn’t he just swim stark naked?

Should he attempt that sort of foolhardiness?

Asaba briefly thought about how awesome it might feel to swim in the school’s pool in the middle of the night with absolutely nothing on, then became uneasy wondering if he might have exhibitionist tendencies. Being naked wouldn't be too good, after all. Perhaps he could find something that he could wear in place of swim trunks, he thought, as he rummaged blindly through his bag.

His search yielded a pair of shorts, crumpled up into a ball.

It was a pair of school-issued exercise shorts that he had worn when sleeping in his sleeping bag.

After once again confirming that there was no one around him, Asaba hastily took off his pants and briefs before putting on the pair of shorts, and taking off his T-shirt. He looked down at himself. The pair of shorts he had on, unlike swim trunks, had pockets and no inner lining, and it felt awfully… breezy.

But he thought it didn't look too strange.

He had come all the way here, after all.

Steeling his resolve and kicking the clothes he had taken off into his bag, Asaba entered the changing rooms. He could barely make out the outline of the lockers as he felt his way through the dark. The changing room was damp and smelled of chlorine.

He walked past the showers and the disinfection tank, watching his step and taking care not to slip on the wet, slippery floor. Last summer, Miyake slipped and fell just about here and got himself covered in blood. He could still remember as vividly as if it were yesterday Miyake’s voice as he cried “Sensei, will I die, will I die?” and Asaba inwardly muttered a word of apology. I’m sorry, Miyake, but you were extremely funny back then.

Pushing aside the swinging door, Asaba came out to the poolside.

It was then his enjoyable recollection of past events came to an abrupt end. He briefly neglected to watch his step and stepped on a hose that was snaking around, and very nearly fell over.

Someone was already there at the poolside, before him.

 

It was a girl.

 

First of all, there the pool was, a standard-sized pool twenty-five meters long and fifteen meters wide. The surface of the water was so calm that it looked almost ethereal. However, what first caught his eye was the starlight reflected in the depths of the pool, several light years deep. It was as if a pool-shaped cut-out of the night sky was just lying there.

To Asaba, who had just emerged from the darkness of the changing rooms, the scene before his eyes was strangely vivid. In the midst of all that, the girl was crouching at the right corner of the pool with her back to Asaba, a hand gripping the handrail firmly. She was wearing a school-issued swimsuit and a swim cap and gazing intently at the inky, metallic surface of the water.

Asaba didn't even stop to wonder who she was.

He was so taken aback by the surprising turn of events that he couldn't even think.

All he could do was to stand there, rooted to the ground like a post.

Although he had taken great pains to not be seen, he also didn’t expect to see anyone around. He did force his way past that door, after all, and it was not as if he had tried to cover up the sound of his footsteps as he walked here. If that girl had been here from the beginning, there was no way she did not hear anything.

However, as far as Asaba could see, the girl seemed completely oblivious to his presence. With her back still facing Asaba, she continued to stare fixedly at the surface of water without moving a hair. Emanating from her back was a sort of somberness that could not be put into words. Tension hung thick in the air, as if she was about to jump to her own death.

The girl moved.

While her right hand still held the handrail firmly, she reached out her left hand and touched the water surface.

Gingerly, as if she was doing some sort of experiment, she swirled the water lightly with her fingers.

Not one object disrupted the tranquility of the water surface, not even a single leaf. On it, ripples formed, spreading across the pool like radar waves, bouncing back when they reached the edges. The girl stared at the ripples as they came and went.

He finally got down to wondering who she was.

Was she a student from his school? Her swimsuit looked like the school’s standard issue but it didn’t have a name tag on it. She looked about his age, but he couldn’t be too sure since he could only see her back. Diagonally behind her was a large bag that looked like it had been tossed down carelessly. Around it were clothes, strewn all over the place. That was probably her bag, and those were probably her clothes.

Then, in other words, this girl changed into her swimsuit by the poolside?

Asaba thought really, really hard, about why he was born a human being. He wanted to point with all his might and shout, why a human and not this wriggly hose over here, nor that deck brush leaning on the wall over there. As the girl, illuminated by the starlight, in school, at night, with no one in it, at a pool at night with no one around, slowly peels off her clothes one layer by one l-

By sheer force of will, Asaba twisted and broke off that chain of thought.

The vibes she was emitting were so serious that Asaba felt uncomfortable all of a sudden. He also felt ashamed for harboring that meaningless fantasy just a moment ago. He didn’t know why this girl was here, nor what she was doing.

However, he thought that it was terribly unfair for her not to notice him standing there. Even if he didn’t have any ill intent, what he was doing now was akin to peeping.

He decided to speak to her.

To tell her that he was here.

But what should he say? Without even deciding how he should string some words together to form a sentence, he took a deep breath.

The timing was bad.

Perhaps due to her squatting for too long, at the very instant she stood and took a tottering step, Asaba sucked in a breath of air and breathed out the words “Excuse me…”

She jumped in surprise at his words, attempting to turn back to look at him. Her balance, already precarious, was completely lost.

Just for a split second, their eyes met.

With the whites of her eyes, rounded in surprise, still suspended in mid-air, she fell bottom first into the pool.

With a loud splash, large droplets of water rained down on the poolside tiles.

Asaba became flustered, seized with fear as the situation developed rapidly. He thought about running away. Dazed, he scanned his surroundings, and realized, a little too late, that the pool was surrounded by a tall, flimsy wall.

The wall was not a magic mirror, so no one outside could peek in, nor could anyone inside look out. He had a feeling that the teacher on night duty or someone else may come storming in at any moment.

He should run away.

That was what Asaba decided to do, after a long indecisive bout. He ran towards the changing rooms and was about to make a right, but his feet stopped.

The splashing sounds behind him had yet to cease.

The girl was struggling in the water. Occasionally, an arm or a leg would stick out at an unexpected angle, breaking the water surface, before slapping against it as she sunk back down.

He thought she was just fooling around.

Even when the thought of her really drowning crossed his mind, his cold feet didn’t allow his body to move immediately. When it did, he ran helter-skelter to the pool and leaped into it. As he had jumped in feet first, air was trapped in his shorts, causing them to puff out underwater like a pumpkin. He pushed against the water with both arms as he walked, closing an eye due to the water the girl splashed his way with her arms and legs as he reached a hand out and said:

“Look, grab onto this, at least from this distance,”

“—maybe your legs could reach me?” was what he was about to say when the girl flung herself onto him. His feet slid on the bottom of the pool and his head was pulled underwater before he could even make a sound of surprise.

It was pitch dark underwater and he could not see a thing.

Since the girl was clinging onto him, he was unable to move freely, and of course, he could not breathe either.

He immediately fell into a panic.

He was unable to make sense of his current situation. He should have been able to touch the edge of the pool if he just reached out his hand, but he had no idea which way the edge of the pool was, nor where the surface or the bottom of the pool was, nor whether his body was facing upwards or downwards. He could very well be right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He tried once to shake free of the girl’s grasp, but the more he tried to wriggle free the more desperate her death grip became. She had a strength that was almost unbelievable.

Asaba really thought that he might drown, right there and then. He tried very hard to convince himself that he could touch the bottom of the pool with his feet, that he was right next to the side of the pool as he fervently searched the water with both legs and an arm.

The tip of his fingers brushed past the edge of the pool.

The tip of his toes grazed the bottom of the pool.

He somehow managed to regain his footing, and finally, both their heads broke the surface of the water. We’re saved, was the thought that flooded through his body as he coughed up the water that had gotten into his windpipe.

With his feet firmly on the bottom of the pool, what felt like a bottomless mire just a few moments ago was a pool that only came up as high as his chest.

Haha,” he laughed softly.

He lifted his head. To say their eyes met would have been an understatement.

It was the first time in his life that there was a girl’s face at point-blank range, barely a cigarette-length away.

Their breathing was ragged, and they were still holding on to each other. Their bodies swayed, ever so slightly, with the movement of the water that they had roiled up.

She was a little shorter than Asaba. Water dripped from the tips of her hair peeking out from the bottom of her swim cap. Her expression seemed to say “I have never met another human being before,” as she stared straight at him. In school, at night, with no one in it, at a pool, at night, with no one around, a girl he didn’t know, illuminated by starlight…

He couldn’t believe this situation was real.

Tilting her head slightly, the girl tried to say something, in a voice that sounded like a child who didn’t know very many words trying to ask a question. It also sounded like she was going to exclaim in a foreign language.

“…”

The girl who was sticking closely to Asaba suddenly came to life. She took half a step away, turned her face away and covered her nose and mouth with both hands.

Her movement snapped Asaba, who had been staring at her face in fascination, back into reality. He was dismayed that he might have smelt strange, and exhaled into the palm of his hand in a furtive attempt to check whether his breath smelled bad.

The girl choked on something.

What followed was so astonishing that Asaba thought the girl might die. She was coughing up blood. Blood dripped from between the fingers that were covering her mouth.

“!! Ah, wah, uwa! Excuse me…”

With upturned eyes, the girl watched Asaba fret as he kicked up an unseemly fuss over the blood, before finally muttering in a voice that could be understood:

“Nosebleed.”

As she said that, she scooped up some water with one hand and washed away the blood that was dripping from her nose to her mouth. Asaba had assumed, incorrectly, that she had been coughing up blood, and when he took a closer look she was, indeed, simply having a nosebleed.

However, to Asaba, they were both the same.

In any case, he should do something.

With the vigor of a rocket, Asaba got up from the pool and ran towards the girl’s bag, located at the side of the pool. He tried very hard not to look at her clothes scattered all around, placing his hands on the massive zipper on the bag, which was at least a thumb-width wide.

The part of his brain that was panicking thought that ‘there should be a towel in it, at least’, and the part of his brain that was still calm told him that ‘this doesn’t look like a very girly bag’. It was dark green, made from a hard, tough material and had many large pockets, like the ones the soldiers from the Sonohara Air Base carried around. He opened the zipper without hesitation and pulled out the bath towel that was right on top, and what he saw right underneath it made him catch his breath.

Three plastic bottles, as large as juice cans, stuffed full of pills.

He saw something that he shouldn’t have seen, he thought.

He hastily zipped up the bag. He was in a hurry anyway, and the bottles of pills had such a large impact on him that his eyes couldn’t quite take a good look at anything else. That was why he inadvertently failed to spot the nine-millimeter caliber ‘something that really shouldn’t be seen’ with a sixteen-bullet magazine, even though its grip was sticking out.

Bath towel in hand, he darted back to the pool while putting on the most nonchalant expression he could muster.

The girl was finally in the midst of getting up from the pool, climbing out as if there were metal rods attached to her legs. She looked completely defenseless. Since Asaba had wholeheartedly decided to not stare at her, he awkwardly turned away as he went, “Here,” holding out the bath towel.

After a short while, he returned his gaze to her, which clashed with the girl’s upturned one. She was sitting on the edge of the pool with her feet in the water, pressing onto her nose with both ends of the bath towel that was draped around her shoulders. Her nosebleed seems to have subsided, but the red splotches in her towel still made Asada’s heart skip a beat.

What should he do?

He still felt as if he had taken a step out of reality, not to mention a little weirded out. Honestly, a large part of him wanted to say “Well then, I’ll be heading back,” and leave this place.

However—

The girl was still staring intently at him. He turned his face away once again.

He had a feeling that the girl would never get up from the side of the pool if he continued standing there.

“Did you see it?”

The girl asked, out of the blue.

Her words caught him off guard. Though you could say that he had hurried due to the sight of blood, he thought it unwise to open her bag without permission. Furthermore, to continue feigning ignorance when asked such a direct question would be kind of dishonest, and maybe even unmanly.

Like the girl, Asaba sat at the edge of the pool at a distance not too near yet not too far away.

“—are you ill?”

For a split second, the girl looked a little puzzled, but immediately shook her head. Asaba expected an explanation to follow, but the girl remained quiet. Unable to bear the silence, he strove to fill it.

“What’s your name?”

“Iriya,” the girl answered.

Every word she said sounded as if she was speaking in a foreign language, in an accent that was a little clumsy, a little odd.

“Is that your name? Or your surname?”

After taking in a breath, the girl answered, “Iriya, Kana.”

He thought that her name was written the same way as Iriya, the name of a place in Sonohara Town.

The girl waited patiently for Asaba to speak, compelling him to find something to say.

“Don’t you know how to swim?”

Just as the words left his mouth, he cursed himself for not asking something worth asking. Of course she couldn’t swim. Didn’t he just save her from drowning a while ago?

Asaba, who was careful not to meet her eyes, saw her nod at the edge of his field of vision.

He once again searched for something to say.

Perhaps due to the influence of the girl who could only speak in fragments, Asada was unable to turn the whirling doubts in his head into proper, coherent ‘questions’. If he were to verbalize his doubts as they were, raw and unprocessed, it would have been a simple question: “Who are you?”

He didn’t think she would be able to give a clear answer to that.

The silence persisted, which only heightened his nervousness. However, the more impatient he got trying to think of something to say, the more difficult it was for him to think of anything other than “Well then, I’ll be heading back.”

“You can swim?”

The girl asked, again out of the blue.

She was asking him if he knew how to swim. It took a while for him to fully comprehend what she was saying. At those words of hers, Asaba finally saw the light.

“—erm, if it’s okay with you…”

This girl couldn’t swim. Although it wasn’t really one of his strong points, he could, at the very least, swim.

In that respect, he could show off to her, even if it was just a little.

“…I could teach you, how to swim.”

Even though Asaba was the one who suggested it in the first place, he felt uncertain. The girl had just suffered a nosebleed a few moments ago. There were heaps of suspicious-looking medicine in her bag. He knew not how she felt about all those, but wondered if it was even possible for her to swim in the pool in the first place.

Despite all that, the girl nodded, and her expression brightened up, just a fraction.

Merely looking at that face of hers gave Asaba new resolve.

“Wait here for a while.”

He thought of bringing over a kickboard and jogged over to the where the equipment was kept. Sensing someone’s presence behind him, he turned back to look and found that, despite him asking her to wait, she had followed him like a puppy.

Even as he flipped over the mountain of kickboards, trying his best to look for ones that were clean and not slimy, he could feel her gaze tickling his back.

Rather than not being able to swim, this girl hasn’t swum a stroke before in her life. She must have wanted swim so much that she made this huge decision to come by the pool.

That must be it, Asaba decided, without any basis whatsoever.

He did ask her if she was sick, and she had shaken her head. However, even if she was ‘not sick’, it wasn’t normal to be carrying so much medicine around.

Maybe she was weak since birth.

Or maybe she was a long time sufferer of a disease that had only just recently been cured.

That must be it.

This must be a girl who spent her most of her life going in and out of the hospital, someone who was often absent from school and could only observe from the sidelines during physical education classes. She watched her classmates swim in the pool and admired them, and recently, when her condition finally improved, she asked her mother, “Could I visit the pool?”, but her mother’s reply was something like, “What is this silly girl saying now of course you cannot go oh dear it’s almost time now have you taken your medicine?”. But, despite that, she didn’t give up and clandestinely slipped out of the house at night to come to this pool. That must be how it was.

If that was the case, it would explain everything: why she seemed so fragile, why she seemed to be brooding over something when looking out over the pool, why she put on a swim cap in dead earnest just to swim, not to mention the sudden nosebleed and the large amount of medicine.

He returned to the pool with two kickboards in his arms, jumping into the pool feet first with a splash. The girl hesitated briefly at the edge of the pool before also jumping in feet first. It looked like she was copying exactly what he did.

He handed the girl a kickboard.

 “You won’t drown if you hold on to this.”

Then, something suddenly nagged at him.

“—erm, can you put your head underwater?”

The girl shook her head fearfully.

That meant that they would have to start from there, then.

That was the most time-consuming part. No matter how much he encouraged and pacified her, it was very difficult for her to put her face into the water. When she finally managed to submerge her entire head, things progressed much faster. They practiced stretching out their bodies while holding on to the edge of the pool, flutter kicks, breathing, and finally moved on to exercises on the kickboard.

It was now about 9:10 PM on the last day of summer holidays in his second year of middle school.

By then, the girl could swim about fifteen meters while holding on to the kickboard, despite making flutter kicks with her knees bent and moving rather slowly for all the water that was splashing wildly about in the pool. Furthermore, if he left her like this, she would start veering towards the right. That being said, those were long strides of improvement for a complete beginner. She might even have been athletic to begin with.

Asaba, on the other hand, was nervous and cautious at first, and considered immediately stopping if her nose started bleeding again, but he became a little greedy after looking at how quick she was progressing.

The girl remained as taciturn as ever and only nodded or shook her head at what Asaba said, but, bit by bit, her expression became more cheerful every time she was able to do something new.

“That was awesome. If you keep this up, you’ll be the swimming club’s ace by next week.”

The girl seemed somewhat delighted to hear that. In the past hour or so, Asaba had somehow become able to read the small changes in her expression. The expression she was wearing now was the happiest one thus far.

“Well then, shall we graduate from using the kickboard?”

At that very moment, the girl’s expression froze.

“It’ll be fine, really. You can already swim on your own. It’ll be the same with or without the kickboard.”

The girl nodded. But, that didn’t mean she agreed with him. Her nod seemed to be simply out of a desire to not disappoint Asaba.

“E-Erm.”

Asaba caved, just like that.

“Then, why don’t you try just holding on to my hands?” Asaba asked, holding out both his hands.

This time, the girl nodded with an expression that looked a little relieved. She reached out to grab both Asaba’s wrists while Asaba in turn, held on to her wrists as well.

It was then Asaba finally noticed those.

With a start, she also realized that Asaba had noticed them, and stiffened. The girl may have also forgotten that she had those things on her wrists.

Asaba, with his fingers, felt her wrists.

There was something round and hard on them.

Slowly, he turned her wrists over.

They were silver metal spheres, as large as egg yolks, buried in the girl’s wrists.

The girl stared intently at him, as their bodies swayed with the movement of the water.

Reality, swayed by the water, once again receded into the distance.

“It doesn’t hurt.”

So she said, drawing nearer to him and offering up her wrists so that Asaba may have a better look.

That burning question. The question he should have asked, before anything else.

Who, are you?

 “It’s nothing, really.”

They seemed to have switched positions; she seemed to be holding the upper hand now. Now, she was the one telling him not to be afraid. Held spellbound by that earnest gaze and that foreign accent in her tone, Asaba tried to shrink away but was unable to take the first step backward.

“Want to try licking them?”

The girl was already right in front of him, almost in his face. All he could see between the girl and his face were her wrists with those silver spheres buried in them.

“They taste like electricity, you know.”

Everything didn’t seem real: the school at night that shouldn’t have anyone in it, a pool at night that shouldn’t have anyone in it, the starlight, and the girl he didn’t know.

Suddenly, the siren of a patrol car wailed.

In his shock, Asaba let spill a pathetic-sounding cry as the siren seemed to come from right beside them. It really sounded as if the patrol car was either inside of the school, or even if it were outside, it was possible that it could be circling the school grounds. He could see the flashing lights from the rotating beacons on those patrol cars reflected in the windows of the gymnasium. It wasn’t just one, or two cars.

The girl remained silent.

You could say that her expression shifted, but the fact that she didn’t look like she felt even a tenth of the surprise Asaba felt further filled him with panic. In any case, he thought he should do something. Without understanding what was going on, he grabbed that girl’s hand and pulled her along as he blindly tried to get out of the pool.

But, before Asaba could reach the edge of the pool, that man appeared.

From the swinging door of the changing rooms, he walked placidly towards them.

He was tall, and Asaba couldn’t tell how old he was.

He had his suit thrown over his shoulder, and already had a bath towel in one hand. He wasn’t wearing a tie. His facial features made him look young, with droopy eyes, and he seemed to be the sort who would crack ribald jokes and then laugh uproariously at them himself. However, he also gave off the impression that he was awfully fatigued, or perhaps worn out by something.

“It’s time to go back,” the man said, as he stopped in his tracks and looked the girl straight in the eye from the poolside.

Reality seemed to have been washed away, disappearing into the drainage of the pool, not unlike the girl’s blood a few moments ago.

He didn’t know what was going on, and was horribly confused, so to say he wasn’t scared would have been a terrible lie. Yet, in a show of courage, he took a step forward to stand in front of the girl, taking on a stance to protect her.

The man looked at him with an expression that said “Oh…!” He was seemingly impressed by this unexpected turn of events.

“It’s okay, I know him.”

The girl whispered from behind his back.

“Who’s that?” Asaba asked over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the man.

 “—about that. Well, I’m sort of like her elder brother. What about you?” the man answered.

Asaba swallowed, and in a deliberately surly tone, said, “I’m a student from this school” and fought the urge to add the polite copula desu at the end, which he very nearly did. The man scanned his surroundings, and went, “Why then, are you here at a time like this?”

“I wanted to swim.”

A smile broke out across the man’s face upon hearing Asaba’s terse reply.

“…That so, is that so. I see. Summer holidays end today, after all.”

The man squatted at the edge of the pool. Looking at Asaba with a broad grin, he said:

“I used to do that a lot back then, too. The school I went to had a live-in janitor and he was this incredibly querulous old man, yes? Rather than just going to swim, it was more like a battle of pluck amongst my friends.”

 “We would make a huge racket while swimming, and once or twice that old man came rushing over with a broom, but we knew that he would do so from the start, so it wasn’t that easy to catch us. Then, after succeeding in getting away, we would prank-call the old man and go, ‘Ah, Nagasawa-kun.’ This was us mimicking our headmaster, yes? And Nagasawa was this old man’s name, yes? In old man speak we would go, ‘Ah Nagasawa-kun, about that, the fact that you cannot even catch students who sneak into the pool? Since that’s how it is, it’ll be the sack for you.” That old man was hopping mad, you know. It was so funny.”

There were signs of several people and cars outside the pool; the quiet sounds of a car engine, the sound of tires crunching on gravel, the sound of a door closing, as if someone was rapping on it.

They were surrounded.

Despite that, no one except this man entered the pool area.

This man was extremely suspicious. He sounded reasonable, seemed to be playing the role of her brother, and it didn’t look like the role was something he created just for appearance’s sake. But, that very fact was rather unsettling.

“Excuse me…”

Once again, that burning question crossed his mind.

What are you guys?

Much like that girl, he didn’t think that the man would give a clear answer to his question. His words abruptly lost its momentum from the beginning of his sentence, and the man went ahead and continued speaking.

“Even now, I am grateful to him. He went along with all the games that we kids played, after all.”

 “It was well known that we were the ones playing tricks, so even if he didn’t catch us he could have at least identified us by our names. However, not once did he tattle on us to our teacher… That’s why, well, even now, I’m quite lenient towards mischievous lads like you,” said the man, as he stared right at Asaba.

“I shall not breathe a word of you being here, but, in return, don’t ask any questions.”

That was what he said.

Asaba understood.

Under his watchful stare, Asaba gave a small nod.

After seeing his nod, the man flashed a broad grin. He fished something that looked like a transceiver out from his coat pocket and briskly said:

“We’re done here. C1, we’ll proceed to leave now.”

While stretching his back, he stood up.

“Well then, come up now. Put away the kickboards and wash your eyes after that, too. By the way…”

He turned to the girl.

“Isn’t today your first time swimming?”

With Asaba helping her up as she got out of the pool, the girl said, simply.

“He taught me how.”

The man had an expression on his face that said: “Oh, is that so?” He threw the towel over the girl’s head as he said, “I guess he did you a favor, then. You thank him, too,” as he unceremoniously pushed her head downwards with his hands still on the towel, forcing her into a bow.

“Do go out before us. Those people outside won’t harm you.”

Asaba thoughts were jumbled up inside his head.

He had so many things he wanted to say, so many things he wanted to ask.

As he walked by the side of the pool on unsteady feet and pushed open the swinging door of the changing room, he glanced back. The man gave him a small wave, and the girl stood motionless beside him, like a doll with poor balance, watching him intently from under the shadow of the towel draped over her head.

Everything didn’t seem real.

He had forgotten to put away the kickboards and wash his eyes, but the man didn’t say anything.

 

🌀

 

Asaba Naoyuki’s UFO summer began two months ago, after school on the twenty-fourth of June.

There was this truly ‘high-spec’ guy called Suizenji Kunihiro, from Class 3-2 in Sonohara Middle School.

His student number was 12, and he was 175 centimeters tall despite being only 15 years of age. His standard score for the national trial examinations was 81, and he ran the 100-meter in 11 seconds without any exertion showing on his face.

But.

This guy was, by nature, someone who used his energy on all the wrong things, Asaba thought.

After all, he was a guy who in all earnestness wrote ‘CIA’ as his very first choice on his career questionnaire.

On top of being number 12 in Class 3-2 and 175 centimeters and 81 and 11 seconds, he was also the self-proclaimed head of the school’s Journalism Club. As to why it was ‘self-proclaimed’, it was because this Journalism Club was not recognized as a formal club by school regulations. The members of this club have always been just third-year student Suizenji and second-year student Asaba. However, in spring in the same year, Sudou Akiho, who was now in the same class as Asaba, barged into the club with an “I guess I will join, too.” Asaba had no idea what she was thinking.

With her, they now had three members.

According to the school’s regulations, they were now able to submit a petition for a club. If they became a lawful, formal club, they would be able to use a club room and receive a club budget, which was why Akiho was always pestering them with “Go apply, go apply.” However, the most crucial person here, Suizenji, was completely uninterested in doing so. His reason for this was, again, something rather out of the world.

“In order to protect our autonomy and independence as journalists, we should maintain a careful distance from organizations.”

Spoken like a true idiot, Akiho had said.

Despite saying all these, Asaba thought that even if Suizenji were to submit a petition, the school probably wouldn’t have recognized his club anyway.

That was because what’s written in the newspaper is, well, what it is.

In Sonohara Middle School, even if there were some who didn’t know that Suizenji Kunihiro could run the 100-meter in 11 seconds, there was not a single person who did not know that Suizenji Kunihiro was a maniac, obsessed with the paranormal.

To add on to that, even the world-famous CIA was nothing more than one of the means to uncover the truth behind certain supernatural phenomena to Suizenji. When asked why he wanted to join the CIA, Suizenji himself said: “If I could get into CIA and become a covert operative, I could do stuff like participate in secret missions or read classified documents, and perhaps I would get to know all the things I wish to know.”

Then again, what exactly ‘he wished to know’ generally changed with the seasons.

For example, the Suizenji topic for last winter was, ‘Does extra-sensory perception really exist?” At that time, Suizenji (and Asaba) were found guilty of taking over the broadcasting room and doing a telepathic experiment using all the students in the school as subjects.

They received a huge earful from their teacher.

The coming spring, the Suizenji topic changed to “Do ghosts really exist?” At that time, Suizenji (and Asaba) had, in the middle of the night, infiltrated the female toilet at Ichikawa Daimon Station on the Teito Line which was rumored to be haunted by ghosts, to collect data. Someone called the police on them.

They received a huge earful from their teacher.

This was the kind of person that editor-in-chief was. In other words, that was the kind of newspaper it was.

Even the name of the newspaper was, up until recently, ‘Solar System Radio Wave Newspaper’.

However, circumstances changed slightly when Akiho entered the club. Even till now, Suizenji had managed to keep articles relating to the Suizenji topic at close to seventy percent of the paper. However, Akiho’s ‘serious’ articles have been stealthily encroaching on his territory. At a recent editor’s meet, Akiho had spoken frankly, insisting that ’the paper’s name should be changed‘. After a five-hour long war of words, Asaba’s mediation efforts finally bore fruit; both sides just barely found middle ground at ‘Sonohara Radio Wave Newspaper’ and the discussion, for now, seemed to have been wrapped up.

When Asaba asked Nishikubo, who sat next to him, what he thought of the newspaper’s new name, he said:

“When it had ‘Solar System’ in it, we could laugh at your paper since it sounded far too grandiose. But now, you get the feeling that just the ‘Sonohara’ part has become much closer to the ‘Radio Wave’ part. It sounds awesome, really.”

That was how things were, so, even today, Suizenji Kunihiro continued to run riot with an empty clubroom as his stronghold, and the Sonohara Radio Wave Newspaper continued to be a cheap looking, flash placard newspaper containing profoundly deep content which was put up on the various bulletin boards around the school once a month.

Two months ago, after school on the twenty-fourth of June.

Suizenji’s interest in “spiritual phenomena”, the topic he had picked since spring, showed no signs of waning and Asaba was hard at work doing physical labor. Staggering under the weight of the package he was carrying in both his arms, he thought, “Finally!” when he reached the row of club rooms. Finding it too troublesome to place the package on the floor once, he called, “Akiho—If you’re in please open the door,” thinking that Akiho may have already reached.

She had.

The door to the club room which they unlawfully occupied opened, and Sudou Akiho peeked her head out. Her eyes widened when she saw the large package Asaba was carrying.

“What’s that?”

Asaba entered the room and plopped the package down on the table. He sank into a folding chair next to that table and sighed.

Uwa, that was heavy.”

It was a large pile of graduation albums, borrowed from the library. The twenty-one books, when stacked, was about 50 centimeters high, and it was made from good quality paper which made them awfully heavy.

“This isn’t all of it. There are two piles just like this. Really, there’s nothing good about a school that’s old.”

“Right… So what are going to do with these?”

“Ah, you haven’t heard from chief?”

“What haven’t I heard?”

“The plan for the July edition. The one for ‘Hair raising! Ghost photos in graduation albums!’”


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Translation Notes:

1  The Lucky No. 5 Incident: Wikipedia link here