Volume 1 – Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Sono Ichi
Chapter 1 – Close Encounter with the Third Kind (Part 2)
“Huh? Wasn’t the plan for the next edition something to do with Ouija boards or—”
Asaba took out a can of Oolong tea that had been rolling about in his back pocket for quite a while now and pulled off the tab.
“You mean, ‘Let’s ask the Ouija board! Experiments to predict exam questions!’? That was trashed.”
Akiho instinctively raised her voice, which surprised Asaba slightly. If the three members of the Journalism Club were to split into factions, Suizenji would be the conservative and Akiho the reformist. Since Akiho strove for the newspaper to become a ‘serious’ newspaper, Asaba thought that she would be delighted to hear any one of Suizenji’s plans petering out. Holding a sip of Oolong tea in his mouth and looking up at Akiho, he waited to see if she would say anything else. Akiho looked away huffily and sat herself down roughly on the folding chair she was sitting on before Asaba came in. In front of her was a laptop computer, and somewhere in the middle of a half-written article titled ‘I’m Giving Away a Puppy’, a cursor blinked. Akiho placed her hands on the keyboard before continuing suddenly:
“But Asaba, weren’t you looking up various things and preparing for it? Doesn’t that mean that all your effort has gone to waste?”
“It can’t be helped. It’s not as if Chief trashed the idea without any reason. I mean, Chief and I sometimes sleep over in the club room, right? Seems like Kawaguchi caught wind of the plan to predict exam questions, and told him, ‘Surely you’re not saying that you guys have been sneaking into the staff room in the middle of the night, right?’”
On an unrelated note, Asaba and Akiho’s homeroom teacher, Kawaguchi Taizou ‘The Manservant of Science’, who was single and thirty-five years of age, was admittedly on extremely bad terms with Suizenji Kunihiro ‘The Pursuer of the Truth’, who was also number 12 in Class 3-2 and 175 centimeters and 81 and 11 seconds.
“Apparently Kawaguchi talked about it briefly during the staff morning assembly. I heard that Chief got called to the staffroom and even got a warning about it from his homeroom teacher. Somehow the topic seems to be troublesome, so he said that if predicting exam questions and the like wasn’t going to work out then we might as well pick something else.”
“Chief said that?”
Akiho knitted her eyebrows together in a little frown.
“—but, that’s still pretty surprising. That Suizenji, of all people, would give up after a mere warning from a teacher.”
Asaba laughed. “Well, you really can’t know with him. He actually seemed quite unperturbed. Perhaps, to Chief, whether it was through an Ouija board or ghost photos the final destination remains the same. Therefore if he were to run out of luck and meet an obstacle while walking down one path, he probably thinks that he should just walk around it.”
Perhaps, the person who was truly vexed was himself, Asaba thought.
He drained the remaining Oolong tea in one gulp and proclaimed with renewed vigor, “Well then,” as he stood up. Picking up several books from the large pile of graduation albums in his hands, Asaba then dropped them onto the table with a loud thud.
“But I think this plan is pretty good too. Look, these photos are so old that they look creepy anyway, so we probably could find at least one convincing photograph that shows someone being surrounded by a ghostly-ish aura. Whether or not it’s really a ghost being caught on camera is beside the point, though.”
“Say it however you want,” said Akiho as she returned to her article titled ‘I’m Giving Away a Puppy’. Asaba could not really catch what she said.
“What was that about?”
I will only give the puppy to someone who would cherish it, she typed in romaji before lifting her head from the screen to glower at Asaba with slightly moist eyes.
“What’s with the ‘Whether or not it’s real is beside the point’? I already know anyway. It’s quite plain to see that although you always have this look on your face that goes ‘Oh, I have no choice but to accompany Chief,’ you don’t actually dislike stuff like that, right? Telekinesis and ghosts and such.”
To someone who would care responsibly for this two-month-old male mixed-breed…
“I won’t be helping out with that plan. Hmph, I couldn’t care less. You borrowed so many albums and brought them here, too. By the time we look through all of them, I bet it’ll be the next decade already. If you showed them to Chief, he would definitely yell ‘Whose arm is this?!” every two pages or so. Ah, and here I thought Asaba was in the neutral party. I guess I’m my only ally here in this club. Sigh. The road to reform sure is steep.”
At that very moment…
“This is absurd!”
He was probably eavesdropping on them from behind the door.
“What sort of tone are you using when talking about reform?! Is your ‘reform’ about the joys and sorrows surrounding our sports clubs’ alternating victories and defeats!! Or does your ‘reform’ refer to the search for a new owner for cats and dogs!! Answer me, Special Correspondent Sudou!!”
Suizenji entered the room, practically kicking the door down while holding melon bread in his right hand and a packet of milk in his left. There was a glint in the silver rim of his glasses, which he wore only for show and at a whim.
Asaba was rather taken aback by Suizenji’s effervescence. “—d-did something good happen?” he asked.
Akiho offered Suizenji only an icy glance before saying, “You look like an idiot.”
Suizenji snickered. “You still seem to bear a grudge against me for not erasing the phrase ‘Radio Wave’ from the name of our newspaper, Special Correspondent Sudou. Certainly, a name change to ‘Sonohara Middle School Newspaper’ might be a fitting climax to crown your narrow-minded view of reform. However! ‘Solar System Radio Wave Newspaper’, which has since become the old name of our newspaper, referred to expertise in a genre as expansive as the solar system and reporting as speedy as radio waves…”
At that, Akiho stood up, kicking away her chair.
“I want to improve this journalism club! I don’t want to surgically operate on common sense using radio waves, unlike someone here! Besides, what are we going to do if we lose readers simply because of the name of our newspaper?”
They began dragging out an argument that had already been previously dealt with. Asaba once again found himself caught in the middle of it. Despite that, he chuckled.
“Chief, you’re still hung up over ‘Solar System Radio Wave Newspaper’, aren’t you?”
“That is correct. I am still very much hung up on it. By the way, Special Correspondent Asaba.”
With the hand that was still holding on to the melon bread, Suizenji pointed at the pile of graduation albums stacked up like a mountain, as if he was going to shoot an arrow at it.
“What are those?”
Asaba was flabbergasted. After all, the person who had ordered him to borrow those graduation albums from the library was none other than Suizenji himself.
“—graduation albums. I borrowed them from the library.”
“Special Correspondent Asaba. What is something like that doing here?”
At this, Akiho, who stood next to him, knitted her eyebrows. Without knowing what was going on, Asaba replied, “Uh—weren’t we going look through them to see if we could find a photo we could use?”
“Special Correspondent Asaba. What on earth do you mean by ‘a photo we could use’?”
Asaba turned instinctively to face Akiho and was met with a face that said it’s no use even if you look at me.
Both Asaba and Akiho began speaking simultaneously.
“That was Chief’s proposal, wasn’t it? ‘Ghost photos in graduation albums’, the new plan for the July issue?”
“I heard about it from Asaba. You discarded the earlier plan, right?”
Suizenji let out a lengthy sigh. The look he had in his eyes was of someone who had lifted his gaze to gaze at a sunset but had looked in the opposite direction. He whispered, “I did.”
Asaba heard him.
Akiho did not.
She asked once more, “Harh?”
“THAT PLAN HAS BEEN DISCARDEDDD!!”
Without warning, Suizenji roared, Godzilla-like. He slapped a hand on his forehead and shook his head in a highly-strung manner as he walked determinedly across the room.
“Answer me, answer me, my two special correspondents!! Ah ah ah ah what a thing to happen, that you two were still caught up in something like ghosts!!”
Throwing open the window at the end of the room, Suizenji let forth a shriek, launching it into the azure sky on the twenty-fourth of June after school as if it were an anti-aircraft missile.
“Y’ALL TOO LATEEE———!!”
Closing the window silently with both hands, Suizenji turned his back on the light streaming in from the other side of the frosted glass.
In a quiet voice that was completely different from the one before, he said:
“Well then, special correspondents. Do you know what day today is, the twenty-fourth of June?”
Both of them looked at each other once again. Akiho looked at Asaba with a look in her eyes that said what was that, did he eat something strange, but Asaba silently responded with I have no idea with a shake of his head.
Left without a choice, Akiho answered Suizenji without much confidence, “Thursday, right?” and Asaba ventured a “Toilet Paper Day.”
Then, Suizenji gravely told them the correct answer:
“The twenty-fourth of June is International UFO Day.”
At long last, both of them understood.
The Suizenji topic changed with the season.
The winter of ESPs had passed, the ghosts of spring had passed, and the day for the Suizenji topic to receive a thorough update has come again, without any forewarning whatsoever.
Asaba slumped his shoulders, crestfallen. Akiho returned to ‘I’m Giving Away a Puppy’. A three-month-old Shiba-ken, she typed, pressing the space key repeatedly to enter the correct character for -ken, she said:
“I see it’s that time again.”
“Those were heavy, though,” was all Asaba could say.
“I’ll wear the summer uniform from tomorrow onwards then.”
“Those were heavy, though,” was all Asaba could manage.
“Look here, why are you two acting so calm? You should be deeply moved you know, deeply moved!”
Suizenji’s tone of voice had returned to an informal one.
Like hell we would be, thought the both of them at the same time. Above all, Asaba had suffered a great blow. He gave the large pile of graduation albums on the table a fleeting glance. Thinking about how he now needed to return all those made him feel like sinking into the bottom of the earth.
“In other words, we’re not doing ghosts anymore and chasing down UFOs instead, right?”
Suizenji nodded in assent, narrowed his eyes into slits, and smiled while making an extremely pleased face.
Year after year, a rather large number of fresh, new schoolgirls will get taken in by this smile of his and commit acts of sheer folly by converting valuable paper resources into love letters and sticking them into his shoe locker.
Perhaps Akiho thought to ask him, just in case.
“—erm, why is the twenty-fourth of June International UFO Day?”
“Special Correspondent Sudou!! Can you still call yourself a correspondent from the Sonohara Radio Wave! Are you able to hold your head up high and say that you are doing your best as a journalist, without even knowing something like that?”
“It’s normal to not know something like that!” she snapped.
“Then I shall give you a hint. The date was Tuesday, the twenty-fourth of June in 1947 AD, and the location was approximately 9500 feet up in the sky on Mount Rainier in Washington DC, North America.”
Asaba, who was slowly recovering bit by bit from the earlier blow, reacted to that hint.
He seemed to have heard that somewhere before—
He remembered hearing that name before.
It must be a children’s book on UFOs that he read as a child or something like that—
“—the Kenneth Arnold Incident?”
That name fell from his lips just as they reached his mouth.
As if it was a nickname of a friend from long ago whose face he didn’t even remember, that name evoked deep feelings of nostalgia. He was slightly impressed with the fact that the name had remained in some corner of his mind.
“As one would expect of Special Correspondent Asaba!”
Suizenji walked towards the cork bulletin board hanging on the wall and slapped on a red, round sticker on the ‘Asaba’ column on the ‘Good Job!’ Chart.
Wheeling around to face them again, he continued.
“Kenneth Arnold, who was flying in a light aircraft over Mount Rainier, witnessed ‘nine saucer-looking unidentified flying objects being thrown across the water surface from the way they skipped as they flew’. This is the very first officially reported sighting of UFOs. Thereupon the twenty-fourth of June became International UFO day.”
Suizenji concluded his explanation with satisfied nods.
However, Asaba still couldn’t quite get over ‘Ghost photos in graduation albums’.
“—then what about next issue’s plan? Do you have anything in mind?”
“Needless to say, the collection of data for our next article would warrant a long and arduous journey in an extremely harsh environment. We would need to be careful and meticulous with our preparations.”
“Special Correspondent Sudou. We shall leave the pages for the July issue entirely in your hands. Write to your heart’s content as many ‘serious’ articles as you like. The two of us will be busy with preparations for our top-secret data collection.”
Akiho and Asaba both went “Harh?” which made the both of them sound like fools.
“I-It’s not easy for me to come up with so many articles all of a sudden, you know!”
“E-Erm, ‘the two of us’ refers to you and me, right?”
“Since Special Correspondent Asaba is concerned about his physical stamina, if you must, use exercise equipment like the Bull-worker or drink herbal tonics like Yomeishu. In any case, do try to get into shape for this, starting from today.”
Asaba began to feel uneasy. The phrase ‘top-secret data collection’ had an ominous ring to it. He might be dragged off to some appalling place and be forced to do outrageous things.
“Where are we going to do this, err, top-secret data collection?”
“Oh, in the mountains just over there.”
Upon hearing that response, Asaba heaved a sigh of relief. That was because he did not yet know that this one moment of negligence would cause consume his entire summer vacation.
He asked again, “Why do we have to go to mountains again?”
Suizenji, flashing a bold grin, said, “Why, you ask? Only mountains have UFOs, right?” as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Such were the happenings on the twenty-fourth of June after school, nearing summer.
Asaba Naoyuki’s winter of ESPs had passed, his spring of ghosts had passed, and his summer of UFOs had arrived.
One must first inhale to let out a sigh. If he took in a breath now, the offensive smell of damp dust cloths and chalk-trampled-to-pieces will assault his nostrils. This was the smell of a classroom, the smell of the entire school, the smell that reminded him that his summer vacation was now a thing of the past, the smell of the first day of the second semester.
“Are you serious? You were at the mountains behind Sonohara Air Base for the entire summer vacation?”
Asaba slumped limply face-down on his desk next to the window, nodding wordlessly with his face rubbing against his folded arms.
Standing by the side of the desk and peering into Asaba’s face was Nishikubo.
“Are you an idiot or what?”
He basically summed up Asaba’s summer vacation in that one sentence.
The day unfolded just as he predicted; Kawaguchi gave him a severe telling off, the entire modern Japanese class during the first period went into his right ear and out the left, and he barely escaped with his life to reach the day’s first recess.
“Is it really like, well, that? Did you pitch a tent in the mountains and boil rice in a mess-tin?”
“Did you really do something as dumb as that?” was what Nishikubo might as well have asked, with the tone he was using.
Absent-mindedly and wearily, Asaba said:
“—Chief drove out in a mini pickup, so we could make frequent trips to the convenience store. That’s why we had boxed lunches from the convenience store, ready-made curry and the like.”
In fact, he had gone through almost every single kind of boxed lunch from the convenience store and just looking at ready-made curry had put him off for a while now. Only now did he realize how grateful he was to Akiho for dropping off provisions every now and then.
“On top of that, it’s not like I was in the mountains the whole time. Maybe once in about three or four days, I’d go home whenever I felt like eating normal food or having a bath. Chief was up there the whole time, though.”
“So, your chief went without a shower the entire summer?”
“He couldn’t have. A little way down those mountains towards Ootsukidai, there’s, err, something like a baseball field.”
Nishikubo racked his brains and continued:
“What was the place called again? It was some nan- or kan- Memorial Sports Park, right?”
“Yup, that one. He could have bathed out in the open with the running water supply. We aren’t the Special Forces, so we wouldn’t have been able to hide away in the mountains for the entire summer without the running water and washroom there.”
“But, bathing in the open, you said? Won’t there be quite a few people around?”
“In the afternoon, yes. But only the occasional car with a couple in it will show up at night. Although Chief didn’t really care even if it was in the afternoon.”
“I would think so,” said Nishikubo with a laugh. Asaba laughed as well.
“The point is, you guys were camping, right? Weren’t you guys actually enjoying yourselves, then?”
“Something like that,” Asaba answered.
Perhaps because it was already in the past, his unpleasant memories had started to fade.
He, however, thought that it probably wasn’t just that.
If he were to carefully think back on his summer, he had a feeling that ‘it wasn’t the least bit interesting’ would not be an accurate description.
He managed to feed a raccoon dog.
He also ‘collected data’ by using firecrackers on the cars in the sports park which were rocking back and forth.
Above everything else, if he had to confess, the plan to ‘monitor the enemy’ at a ‘secret base’ they had prepared ‘in the mountains which no one could come to except their allies’ sent a thrill up his spine. He did not expect to wind up building make-believe secret bases at his age, but Chief, despite his age, was a person who would, in heartfelt earnestness, do things like that. Although it was true that he was in part coerced into going along with the plan, there were definitely fun times after he dove into it all.
His summer vacation might not have been too bad after all.
However, at the very end of it, he had felt like doing something reckless, so he had sneaked into the pool, and then…
Nishikubo prodded his shoulder, jolting Asaba back into reality.
“Earth to Asaba! Why are you spacing out like that?”
“—like I was saying, you guys hid away in the mountains behind the Sonohara Air Base looking for UFOs, right? Did you manage to take at least one photograph?”
“Of course not,” said Asaba with a laugh. “Bumping into some guy who was looking to bury a dead body would have been much more likely.”
“How disappointing,” Nishikubo grumbled and just as he was about to lose interest in the subject altogether…
“Oh, but I heard something like this before.”
Hanamura, whose seat was in front of Asaba’s, had adjusted his sitting position to face backward in order to weigh in on their conversation. He had probably been listening to their conversation with his back facing them the entire time.
“The rumor that the Sonohara Air Base is actually a UFO base has been going around for a long time, or so they say.”
Nishikubo, in an even more doubtful sounding tone, continued:
“Even I’ve heard of things like that before, but isn’t it like, you know, that? People mistaking stealth aircraft for UFOs? You hear about UFOs everywhere, not just in Sonohara. You’ll hear many first-hand accounts of UFOs in any town with a large airfield. That’s especially true for Sonohara Air Base, where the Air Self Defense Force and the US Air Force gather, so they’d probably be launching planes at some strange, unusual timings. They won’t make announcements like ‘That was actually our plane’ every time their planes were mistaken for UFOs even if it did cause an uproar, right?”
“This is just Chief’s s opinion, but…”
Asaba interjected suddenly.
“The mysterious flying objects that were reportedly sighted near Sonohara Air Base are called ‘Area Sonohara’s Foo Fighters’, and are actually quite well-known in the UFO mania community. They’re often mentioned in magazines too. Those mysterious flying objects that Allied pilots saw during World War II were the first Foo Fighters. At first, they thought they were German or Japanese secret war weapons. But, after the war ended, apparently the German and Japanese pilots had seen similar things in the sky and thought that they were the Allied forces’ secret weapons. At the end of all that, people agreed that those sightings were either some sort of natural phenomenon or the result of a collective hallucination. Of course, to UFO maniacs, ‘Foo Fighters’ is just another name for UFOs.”
The look that Nishikubo and Hanamura wore while listening to Asaba’s story could only be described as half impressed and half scandalized.
Noticing both their expressions, Asaba continued:
“—that’s just Chief’s opinion, though.”
Nishikubo placed his hand on Asaba’s shoulder with a light pat.
“Stop deceiving yourself, Asaba.”
“W-What do you mean?”
“Okay, okay. And? What does your chief think about the true identity of Area Sonohara or whatever that is?”
“—I wonder. I really don’t know if Chief is someone who pays attention to details or someone who’s laid-back. Though I’ve never really asked him, I think he doesn’t really care what they really are, surprisingly.”
“Well, what do you think, then?”
Somehow feeling like he was being driven to a corner, Asaba continued.
“Among the UFO maniacs, the most prominent, or rather, most well-established theory is that the Sonohara Air Base is launching man-made UFOs. People in America are saying that too. Rumor has it that they recovered a UFO that fell from the sky and they made some aircraft with astounding capabilities from the technology. I think that’s probably the case.”
“And so, if we finally go to war, UFO fighter aircraft will be whizzing around in the sky?” said Hanamura, amused.
Nishikubo added with a look of exaggerated amazement, “You know, why can’t they just be ‘high capability aircraft’? Why would you bring up something like ‘technology from fallen UFOs’?”
Asaba felt like he was being made fun of. Deep within his heart, he took offense at their remarks. Yet, it wasn’t as if he had completely accepted the theory of ‘man-made UFOs’ as the truth. Slipping into the mood for self-torment:
“—right, I do have a photo, you know. Of those Foo Fighters. It’s just a printout from my computer but it’s quite famous.”
Asaba pulled out a binder notebook which he used to collect data for his articles from his bag.
He flipped through the contents of the file, rustling through its contents.
“Ah, there it is. Here.”
He unfolded the badly creased printout, which had been bundled up together with some suspiciously false-looking ghost photos, on his desk.
Nishikubo and Hanamura both leaned forward.
It was a typical picture of a UFO, a black and white image so fuzzy and out-of-focus that nobody would understand what was photographed if you didn’t explain it to them.
Nishikubo spoke first.
“What’s that? Which way is up?”
“Here, like this.”
Asaba turned the printout around so that Nishikubo was looking at it right side up.
“This is the one that was circulating on the Internet some time near the start of this year, which was a hot topic of discussion for a while. This is the ground, this is the sky, and those hazy shadows right in the middle over here are the Foo Fighters. The photographer is unknown.”
“And this is the Yeti and this one over here is Nessie, right?” interjected Hanamura flippantly, but Nishikubo seemed to be studying the printout earnestly. Jabbing a finger at the shadows of the ‘Foo Fighters’:
“Are these the lights on an airplane’s wing tips?”
“Who knows?” said Asaba with a tilt of his head.
“I think this was taken from the west of the apron1, not too far away from the mountains where Chief and I was. There’s also a video being circulated online along with this image, but that video is even blurrier than this so you can’t see anything at all.”
“—maybe this really is just a plane. Anyway, in the first place, a blurry picture like this probably can’t explain anything properly.”
“Well, it’s true that even if we put aside UFO technology and stuff like that, it probably isn’t too strange that they’re doing tests for newly-developed secret military weapons. I mean, according to them, we are supposed to be on the brink of war.”
On the brink of war.
To Asaba’s generation, those were words people said in jest. Despite the fact that people have been saying ‘a war is coming soon’ since before he was born, the news on television has only reported repeated skirmishes with the enemy. There was no chance that a ‘real war’ will begin.
“That war probably won’t happen,” said Hanamura.
“I wonder if it will, though,” said Asaba.
At this point, Nishikubo said:
“But aerial bombing of the north recently started up again, didn’t it? There was a professor or someone like that who was saying that things are pretty serious this time around on the news this morning.”
However, Hanamura threw that notion out the window.
“But things like that happen all the time, don’t they? We would’ve looked really stupid doing all these things if the war didn’t happen, right? I mean, they even built a shelter in school and made us do emergency evacuation drills once a month, right?”
Asaba and Nishikubo both lifted their heads at the same time.
It was Akiho.
She dragged Asaba off towards her seat without saying anything else. It was well known that Sudou Akiho was someone who did not hesitate to use force or violence if deemed necessary. It was because of her that even Hanamura did not dare to openly poke fun at Asaba.
“Why were you late today?”
“I wasn’t. I barely made it in time, but I made it.”
“Entering the classroom at the same time as Kawaguchi is the same as being late. You’ll end up being preyed on like that.”
With that, she pulled out a stack of papers clipped together from her bag and pushed it towards Asaba.
“Wait a– You don’t need to look at it here, okay? Put it away somewhere, quickly.”
Asaba was dumbfounded.
It was a copy of the homework they were given for summer vacation.
With a pathetic, sheepish smile, Asaba said:
“—this will sell for a handsome price, I think.”
“Of course. I think you already know not to, but don’t copy it word for word, okay?”
He was about to thank her but she whispered angrily, “I said, put it away quickly!” He hurriedly stuffed the stack of papers down his collar into his shirt. “You mean you’re going to keep it there?” Akiho said as she eyed him derisively.
It was then Asaba recalled something really important.
There was something he needed to ask Akiho.
“Erm, there’s something I need to ask you.”
“What is it?”
“I’m going to ask you something a little strange, but our school’s girls swimsuits…”
Akiho’s brow instantly became clouded, but Asaba readied himself for whatever that may come and continued speaking.
“It’s the one with a shoulder strap and a white line along this edge, right?”
“You seem to be awfully familiar with it. Why would you know something like that?”
Akiho stared right into Asaba’s face with a frown.
“Don’t tell me you peeped into the pool during our lesson—“
“No, I didn’t. I just need to go to the municipal pool and there’ll be many girls swimming there wearing the school’s swimsuit, right?”
Akiho glared at Asaba with a deeply suspicious look, but perhaps because she had accepted his explanation, she continued:
“That swimsuit has a name tag across the chest area and the back, like your short-sleeved PE attire, right? Are those easy to remove?”
“What’s this about?”
“I’m just wondering whether those tags were held down by Velcro strips or hooks that you could take off in a jiffy if you felt like it, or whether they were sewn on.”
Akiho thought for a moment.
“I think they’re sewn on normally. It’d be silly if they could come off easily, anyway. What’s with the sudden question though?”
It was a meaningful conclusion, but Asaba learned nothing new.
That girl seemed to be around his age. The swimsuit she was wearing was somehow the standard school-issued one. Yet, the design of the school’s swimsuit might just have resembled one from another school somewhere else.
Even without the name tag, it was possible that it was just a coincidence that she didn’t have her name tag on last night, if for some reason she was wearing a swimsuit from some new school somewhere.
He couldn’t say for sure.
Just then, the bell on the clock tower rang, signaling the start of the second period.
He meant to thank her for answering his question, not for giving him a copy of her homework. Deep in thought, he returned to his seat. As he expected, Nishikubo only observed him by throwing him brief sidelong glances but Hanamura pressed him unrelentingly, “Oi, what were you guys talking about?” However, Asaba did not seem to hear even half of what he was saying, so Hanamura eventually gave up. Everyone in his vicinity appeared to return to their seats in a manner that demonstrated their longing for summer vacation, now long gone.
Asaba thought to himself as he stared fixedly at a spot on his desk.
Who on earth was that girl?
Do go out before us. Those people outside won’t harm you.
That was what the mysterious person who appeared at the pool said.
And he did exactly as he was told.
It was alright because he could, even now, remember how abnormal the situation was and how anxious and fearful he had felt. However, memories like that tend to fade over time.
Why didn’t he say what he wanted to say at that time? Any time now, he would be tormented by feelings of regret.
But he shall put those feelings aside for the time being.
He had left through the changing room, leaving behind that girl with that man at the poolside.
That was the truth.
Waiting outside were large, white vans and men in black clothing. There were five or six vans and ten, perhaps twenty men. One of those men approached him and offered to drop Asaba off at his house if he was alright with it. He had spoken extremely courteously to Asaba. Perhaps he had made the offer because he felt sorry for not being able to explain anything to him, or perhaps he had felt that it would be more convenient for him if Asaba were to depart from the place as quickly as possible.
He had accepted the man’s offer, forgetting about the bicycle he parked outside the video store.
He was urged into one of the vans that was parked nearby while still clutching his shoes, wearing his dripping wet shorts with his bag on his shoulders. He remembered pulling on a T-shirt from his bag after the car had left the school.
The chain of memories broke off, just about there.
He had no idea what happened after that.
When he came to his senses, he was sitting alone on a bench at a bus stop near his house.
He was wearing all of his clothes, while the bicycle which should have been at the video store was right next to him, attached to the legs of the bench with a bicycle chain lock. The clock at the bus-stop indicated that it was 2:10 AM.
Only now was he able to quietly recall the events of last night. But, at that time, he was so frightened that he had burst into tears.
It struck home just how frightening memory loss can be and how it was nothing joke about. It wasn’t as tranquil and romantic as how it went on television or in manga. He would never have thought that drawing a blank for just a couple of hours would be so terrifying. During that period of time, he had no idea what he did, nor could he be responsible for anything he did. Moreover, since he had no idea what had been done to him, he could not take anyone to task for anything either.
He was so petrified that he couldn’t immediately recall what the number to his combination lock was. When he finally did, he fled for his dear life, pedaling furiously until he reached home.
It was an experience so harrowing that he couldn’t even laugh it off.
“Hey! Everyone, get back to your seats!”
Nakagomi, the class president, was yelling. The two boys who were bouncing their rubber balls off each other’s at the back of the classroom grumbled in discontent as they grudgingly shuffled back to their seats.
“Jeez, she sure is annoying.”
“If these were different times, I bet Nakagomi would be the type of person that’ll be the first to say, ‘This is all for the sake of my country’.”
Perhaps everything that happened last night was but a dream, Asaba thought as he stared at a fixed point on his desk.
In all honesty, he had a vague feeling that that really was the case. Everything was just so preposterously fantastical. A girl with silver metal spheres buried in both her wrists at the pool. A mysterious man along with the assemblage of men in black. Except for himself, the identity of everyone who appeared last night was unclear. He had zero tangible evidence. On top of that, he had no recollection of what happened after he was made to go into that van.
Even if he were to tell someone, no one would ever believe him.
After all, if someone were to tell him something similar, he would not have believed that person either.
In the first place, there is no credibility in a memory with a gap in it. He had no way to firmly insist that everything was completely and undeniably real, even if everything that happened at the pool felt like it was completely, undeniably real.
He could think of it this way. His memory got mixed up somehow, and he had come to himself at a bus stop right next to his house. Only those two things were ‘real’, and the chain of events starting from around the time when he had sneaked into the pool was actually a ‘dream’.
He could stretch it by saying that his jumbled-up memories and the dream that allowed him to escape reality was the result of mental and physical fatigue from being in the mountains, as well as stress from knowing that summer vacation was about to end and that he had yet to get any homework done.
That explanation put his mind at greater ease than to think of it all as a dream.
It made him feel much, much better than believing that something inexplicable had happened to him.
Nonetheless, there was a part of him which refused to be content with that peace of mind.
—you cowardly bastard. For heaven’s sakes, wake up.
That part of him shouted at him.
—mental and physical fatigue, along with stress, you say? I see. And because you were fatigued and stressed there was nothing you could do despite what you saw or heard? What a convenient explanation for everything. Modern rationalism is a magical garbage bin that every household has armed themselves with, without fail. Do you intend to explain away everything using that bin?
Well then, listen here. You’re just trying to pretend that nothing happened, because you gave in to fear after losing part of your memory. You want to believe that there was nothing worth worrying about. In order to make that possible, you’re going to reconstruct your own homemade version of the day’s events.
In terms of objectivity and reproducibility, there is scant difference between the ‘psychological explanation’ that you dragged out and things like divination and old wives’ remedies.
This is what those fellows were gunning for.
Don’t be taken in by something like that.
Thinking that it was all a dream is equivalent to admitting defeat.
There was a bitter, lopsided smile on Asaba’s lips. There was something wrong with him. When he said ‘those fellows’, who exactly was he referring to? Since when did it become a matter of victory or loss? That sounded exactly like what a fanatical believer of the paranormal would say.
Despite such thoughts—
The ripples reverberating across the inky surface of the water like radar waves, the swim cap she had put on in dead earnestness, the crimson of the bath towel stained with blood, that mysterious voice which sounded foreign no matter what she said, that slightly cheery expression of hers when she managed to swim fifteen meters with the kickboard, those black eyes peeking at him at point blank range along with the glimmer on the silver spheres on her wrists.
He was unable to believe that they were all a dream.
No matter how much the rational side of him tried to deny it, his feelings will not accept it.
Who on earth was that girl?
He wanted to know.
What would he do after he knew who she was? Did he even want to meet her again in the first place? He did not know.
Even so, he believed that Iriya had really been there.
The sliding door at the entrance of the classroom didn’t slide well, which caused the sliding sound to grate on his ears.
Before he knew it, the entire class had risen at class president’s command, one that was prone to false starts, and were lowering their heads. Only Asaba was still seated, and by the time he was scrambling to stand up everyone else had already sat down. “Alrighty,” huffed Iizuka the math teacher as he climbed onto the podium with the unsteady, tottering steps of someone who had seemingly crawled out of his grave just a few moments ago. Throwing his textbook down onto the teacher’s desk, he went “Ah~~~” in a voice one would think a mummy approaching death would speak in, if it did try to speak.
It wasn’t as if the Grim Reaper had finally come to fetch him. He was simply trying to remember where he had left off in the previous lesson. What should have followed after his “Ah~~~” was his usual “Well then,” but he suddenly fell silent halfway through. Only the half of the class closer to the corridor heard the discrete knock on the door. The other half must have thought, “Oh, he died.”
The door opened a slit, and Kawaguchi Taizou’s face, which was thirty-five years of age and single, peered in.
“Iizuka-sensei. Could I have a moment, please?”
Iizuka uttered a sound which was probably something between an “Ah” and an “Oh”.
Asaba breathed a tiny sigh. Perhaps as Asaba had to deal with him all the time as a member of the Journalism Club, or perhaps it was already in his nature that he would be unable to see eye-to-eye with someone like him, it was just impossible for him to grow fond of this man called Kawaguchi, his homeroom teacher. Just looking at his face put him off, so Asaba avoided looking at him by immediately turning his gaze to his left, out the window that was thrown open.
What met his gaze was the view looking down from the second floor, from a window on the side of the school building facing the main gate. There wasn’t anything particularly interesting in this view. A row of cherry blossom trees as old as the school building, a stone plaque with a leftish-sounding slogan carved on it, a stone plaque with the leftish-sounding school song carved on it, the aging green paint on the roof over the main entrance. He slowly became aware of the cicadas’ warbling, which usually went unnoticed as background noise. The summer sunlight cast no shadows, while the gravel-covered car park was empty save for a white van enveloped in shimmering heat waves, a van that seemed really familiar…
That man was there.
The very man who had appeared by the poolside and told him the story about the querulous old janitor, who was young but seemed to be masking the weariness of an old man under his demeanor, was standing right there, beside the white van.
He was wearing a suit similar to the one he had on last night with his jacket thrown over his shoulder like before, but he was now wearing a necktie he didn’t have on previously. He was looking up at the school building, with a hand held up over his forehead to shield his eyes.
The man spotted Asaba almost immediately. “What an unexpected surprise!” his face said, as a smile broke out across his face the same way it did last night. He waved to Asaba just once, from right to left.
Kawaguchi was saying something. His voice automatically entered his ears.
“Ah, due to certain circumstances we were unable to make it in time for homeroom period, so we had to borrow a bit of time from Iizuka-sensei’s lesson.”
The cicadas’ warbling grew louder and louder.
What he felt wasn’t something as simple as a sense of foreboding.
Bit by bit.
Bit by bit.
Asaba slowly turned back to face the classroom.
Her name was written neatly on the blackboard.
That girl was standing on the podium. She was wearing a brand-new summer uniform, carrying a bag so shiny that it looked like it belonged to a freshman. She wore a pair of indoor school shoes that had never been into a shoe locker along with wristbands on her wrists.
The cicadas’ warbling became even louder.
Kawaguchi seemed to be saying something. I would like to introduce to you a new transfer student, were the words he seemed to be mouthing, but Asaba could no longer hear what he was saying. He could not hear the general hubbub in the classroom either.
Only that clumsy sounding voice of hers, the voice that made her sound like she was saying those words for the first time, was crystal clear.
“My name is Iriya, Kana.”
Somewhere in his heart, he believed that to be a false name.
There were cicadas in his head.
The girl said her name before bowing in a way that made him feel like she had practiced this countless of times and this was the culmination of her efforts.
Then, she stared right at the seat next to the window, at Asaba who was unable to lift even a finger.
If you were to think about, it was obvious that she would look at him.
It would seem that summer vacation had ended, but summer had not.
Summer will continue for a while longer.
It was the summer of UFOs.
1 Airport apron: Wikipedia link here