Volume 1 – Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Sono Ichi
Chapter 2 – Love Letter (Part 2)
He woke because he felt warm.
The dust specks floating about were glittering in the sun. Whilst he slept, the sunlight from the window had completely changed angles. It now shone through the partition curtain, scorching the side of his face. Asaba sat up, shielding his eyes with both hands as he kicked aside his blanket which was damp with sweat.
He didn’t feel sick nor dizzy anymore. He seemed to remember having a dream about quarreling with someone over the phone, though.
He poked his head out from between the curtains, but Shiina Mayumi was nowhere to be found. A look at the clock on the wall gave him a little of a startle. Lunch break was over and the fifth period had already started.
He didn’t quite feel like returning to the classroom and toyed briefly with the thought of going straight home.
Leaving a note on Shiina Mayumi’s desk that said: “I have returned to the classroom” despite his thoughts, Asaba left the infirmary and slowly walked along the deserted corridor, unable to make up his mind about whether he should go to class. Today was Wednesday; fifth period on Wednesday was English and the English teacher Kishimoto was a really nasty lady.
Maybe it would have been wiser to remain in the infirmary until after the fifth period had ended—by the time that thought crossed his mind, he was already in front of his classroom.
The classroom was empty.
Written boldly in chalk on the blackboard were the words ‘English class will be held in the audio-visual room’.
Asaba thought about how he seemed to have no luck with lessons today and how his laudable effort at dragging himself to class had gone to waste.
He should have gone home after all.
Steeling his resolve, he began packing up, determined to go home. Lessons in the audio-visual room sounded nice, but it usually meant being shown a movie with the subtitles switched off and being made to write one’s opinions in an English essay. In other words, it was a skive-off session for the teacher. Furthermore, since it was the fifth period, about half the class would be nodding off by now. The only person who would be able to hand in a decent essay would probably be Iriya. After all, Iriya was a student who recently came back from abroad—
His hands, still in the midst of packing up, paused.
Asaba slowly lifted his head and looked towards the back of the classroom.
There stood Iriya’s desk.
There was not a soul in the classroom. The slanted rays of sunlight streaming in from the window made the dim classroom look even gloomier. The gentle breeze blowing from the window brought with it heat from the outside.
A sinister thought sneaked into his head.
Asaba slowly made his way to Iriya’s desk. Anxiety began swirling in the pit of his stomach, making his insides feel heavier as his heart began to beat faster. What are you thinking you idiot, stop it, this will end badly—a voice was shouting at him inside his head, but Asaba’s pace quickened instead. Placing his hands on Iriya’s desk, he once again looked around him, even though there was no one in the classroom. His eyes fell onto the clock on the wall.
He had a time limit of three minutes. After three minutes, he would wrap up whatever he was doing, even if he found nothing.
He pulled out the chair and peered under the desk. It was empty. He took her brand-new school bag off its hook and placed it flat on the desk. There were no stickers on it, nor were there any sort of charm hanging from it. The name card holder, which the majority of the student body had removed from their bags because “it’s ugly and gets in the way”, was still on its handle, but her name, address, phone number and blood type was not written on the card inside.
He placed his fingers onto the clasp on the cover flap. The voice in his head turned desperate. This is for your own good so stop this already; this really is very dangerous; you already got into so much trouble since last night; don’t you know by now that you’re already up to your neck in mud? You aren’t some child in primary school who just became aware of the opposite sex; this is completely different from general mischief like sucking on the recorder belonging to a girl you like! The person you are dealing with is an agent from outer space, you know—!!
—there was no way he could endeavor to be a Special Correspondent for the Sonohara Radio Wave Newspaper if he was afraid of aliens.
He inhaled a shaky breath.
And undid the clasp.
He then stood the bag up and opened its cover flap. Peering inside, he found, stacked together, brand new textbooks and a dreary-looking spiral notebook on the right side of the bag. A cloth bag of sorts occupied the left side. When he tried to pull it out onto the table, he found that it was a cloth pouch with a handle containing something angular with lots of corners. It was too heavy to be a lunchbox.
Thinking that he should probably snoop around a bit more, Asaba then felt around the inside of the pocket-like compartment of the bag and took out a pass case.
He opened it.
In it were four mysterious looking cards.
One of the cards looked like a gate pass for entering the Sonohara Air Base. It was made of plastic so thick that he could not bend the card with his fingers. The card also had a magnetic strip, the kind that could be read by a machine. On it was a photo of Iriya. Beside the photo was a row of some numbers and code he didn’t understand, but he assumed those referred to her address in the Sonohara Air Base’s living quarters. He wondered why they left the ‘Name’ field blank, though.
The remaining three cards looked identical to him.
They looked like telephone cards, from their round corners, lack of stiffness, and the punched hole on the right. Placing a telephone card he pulled out from his own wallet on top of the three cards, he found that they were of the exact same size and shape. The cards looked increasingly like telephone cards the more he looked at them, but there were no words nor patterns printed on them. Both the front and back of the cards were of only one color, gray, and the usual barcode, numbers indicating the number of times of use, and warning message ‘Do Not Bend. Do Not Contaminate Do Not Bring Close to Magnets” were missing.
Only a small triangular sign was printed on one side. Asaba inferred that this side was the front of the card and the triangle indicated the direction of insertion should the card be pushed into a slot on a machine. He could figure out that much, at least. But, before wondering how the card was to be pushed into a slot, he needed to know whether these really were phone cards.
Asaba ignored the voice in his head, which was now practically screaming at him to stop, and stuffed one of the three cards into the pocket of his trousers.
A look up at the clock on the wall told him that two minutes have gone by.
He hurriedly returned the cards to the pass case and threw the case back into the bag’s pocket. Telling himself that he will end his investigation once he was done looking through the contents of the cloth pouch, he placed his hands on it and opened it, once and for all. He had to fight the fear of not knowing what to do after finding sanitary pads in it.
The cloth pouch revealed three plastic vials of medicine, a portable game console, and three ROM cartridge cases.
The vials of medicine made Asaba feel strangely relieved. They seemed to assure him that the previous night’s occurrences were not just a dream.
He popped out the lid of one of the vials and tried to pour its contents out onto his palms, finding that they were not sugar-coated tablets but compressed tablets. The pills were completely white and had no numbers nor words impressed on them. The contents of the three vials appeared similar, but Asaba took three pills from each vial and wrapped them in tissue paper before putting them into his pocket.
The voice in his head had been reduced to a low, angry murmur. It’s too late now. You’re going to be wiped off the face of Earth.
Finally, he took the last item, the game console, into his hands.
It was a normal looking game console which he often saw around. It had an analog stick and four buttons below a colored LCD screen surrounded by laser projection points. This game console came in three types, all priced differently, and each type had a name so extravagant-sounding that Asaba would be embarrassed saying them out loud. The one that Iriya owned was the type that could aerially project three auxiliary holographic screens; in other words, it was the most expensive type.
When he flipped the game console over, he found that there was already a ROM cartridge in its slot. The ROM cartridge did not have a manufacturer name nor the usual colorful label on it. However, scrawled in black permanent ink on the cartridge were the numbers and letters:
Maybe it’s a pirated ROM cartridge, he thought.
As he expected, on the other ROM cartridges from the cartridge cases were similar codes:
Three minutes had passed by a long time ago. That’s enough, put it away quickly, return everything to where it originally was and get out of here, said the voice in his head, as insistent as ever. Yet, Asaba continued to stand there motionless with the game console in his hands.
He wondered what kind of games Iriya liked.
Someone must have given Iriya the mysterious cards and the large amount of medicine. However, the game console was not something Iriya was ‘made to carry’ but something she ‘chose to carry’ with her. The choice must have been hers alone and not anyone else’s, or so he thought.
Instead of investigating the cards and the medicine, he had a feeling that playing this game would bring him closer to Iriya.
Asaba placed a finger on the power button on the game console and was about to pr-
“What are you doing?”
At that very moment, the person who had been speaking to him all this while in his head blew off the top of his skull and ejected himself from his seat before running away.
Asaba thought he would die. He literally shrieked in surprise. This will spell the end of the Earth, he thought, and by sheer reflex, he turned back to look. In the process of turning back, he clumsily tripped over his own two feet and the game console slipped from his grasp.
The game console was expertly caught in mid-air by a right hand with a wristband around the wrist. No emotion flickered across her face. She didn’t even blink, nor did she even glance at the game console as she caught it.
She had an English textbook and another dreary-looking spiral notebook tucked under an arm. She continued to look at Asaba, who was still glued in place, with no expression in her eyes. Once again, she asked:
“What are you doing?”
He would not be able to explain the situation away. Even if he were to try to come up with some excuse, it would be in vain. There was no way an agent from outer space would go easy on a human sniffing through her belongings.
In the very first place, why was Iriya here? Isn’t class still on? Wasn’t she supposed to be watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ with subtitles switched off? There must have been some sort of contraption in her bag, some security device one could only see under a microscope that was made to trigger an alarm that was sent to her telepathically when someone opened her bag. Iriya must have heard that alarm and teleported herself here from the audio-visual room to get rid of the troublesome human being who was trying to uncover her true identity.
By now, time in the audio-visual would have come to a momentary standstill. Everything would have been frozen in place, the drool dribbling from the corner of Hanamura’s mouth, the movement of Nishikubo’s eyes as he read novels under his desk, the flutter of the hem of Laura Ingalls’s skirt as she ran through the forest as fast as she could to call for help for her father who had been injured by an exploding hunting gun.
Iriya did not question him the third time.
When Asaba took half a staggering step back, Iriya wordlessly approached her table and started to put away all the things that have been taken out of her bag. She didn’t hurry as she cleared her things, nor did she look angry. She seemed oblivious to Asaba’s very existence.
He thought he should at least say something.
“What about the fifth period? Did you skip it?”
Iriya had finished putting everything into her bag and was shutting the clasp on it.
“—where is this audio-visual room?” she asked, simply.
Quietly, she pointed at the blackboard. He didn’t need to turn back to look at the board to know that ‘English class will be held in the audio-visual room’ was written on it.
“If you had just followed everyone closely when they were going there…”
“When I came back, no one was here.”
Asaba could not understand what she meant. He tried to piece together the fragments of what he already knew and what Iriya was saying, using guesswork and inference.
Kishimoto, the English teacher, was very particular about punctuality. Often, she would already be in the classroom before the bell had even rung. She usually had a lot of unpleasant things to say to students who come in late, so everyone in class would have left the classroom early to go to the audio-visual room. Iriya, who had left the classroom to walk around the school alone during lunch break, had returned to find the classroom empty, and that she had been left behind.
Perhaps something like that happened.
Asaba was beginning to feel annoyed. What unfriendly classmates he had.
On second thought, he might just be as unfriendly as all of them. When Iriya asked for his help when she was surrounded and accosted by Nakagomi and her friends with their machine guns, who was the one who left behind a single word, “washroom”, before making a fast break for the door?
Asaba’s thoughts were filled with excuses justifying his actions. It couldn’t be helped, he didn’t have the ability to avoid confrontation and settle things peacefully at that point in time. The dynamics of classroom control was, for better or for worse, characteristically bizarre and tricky to maneuver, and he was not good at it anyway.
Furthermore, it was inconceivable that Nakagomi had any ill intent. Technically, no one was ‘wrong’; it was simply unfortunate that Nakagomi and Iriya had crossed paths, that’s all.
Logically, he was right.
Putting logic aside for now, he thought he should apologize to Iriya for abandoning her and running away, and of course, for opening her bag without her permission.
He should also let her know that everyone in class, including Nakagomi, were not bad people.
“Eh, about this morning…”
Something got in his way.
The public address speaker looking down at them from the corner of the classroom sputtered to life with a pop. The strong language in the lyrics of Sonohara Middle School’s school song had caused much controversy within the Parent Teacher Association, and two bars of the melody of that school song played over the broadcasting system before a voice said,
“Ah—I would like to make an announcement. Iriya of Class 2-4,”
Some distance away from the microphone, the same voice could be heard asking,
“It’s Iriya, right?”
The owner of that voice was the Head Teacher, Tashiro. Every time he made announcements, he would hold the microphone so close to his mouth that he was practically breathing into it. Asaba always felt he could almost catch a whiff of his bad breath through the speakers.
“Iriya Kana-san. Ah—Iriya Kana-san of Class 2-4, you have an urgent phone call from a Tanaka-san, so please make your way to the staff room. I repeat,”
Asaba turned to look at Iriya with a face that asked who’s Tanaka-san?
It was then he thought he saw a slight wavering in her facial expression.
The last vestiges of an emotion so intense that it broke through the thick barrier that she had placed around herself had inadvertently shown on her face.
If Asaba had turned to face her just a split second sooner, he probably would have been able to make out the true nature of that emotion. However, the hole in her defenses closed up almost as soon as it opened, and Iriya returned to her usual self.
Grabbing her shoes and looking at Asaba, she said:
With a flash of her skirt and her hair streaming behind her, she started to run.
Tashiro the Head Teacher breathed into the microphone for the last time and the melody of the school song finished playing. By the time the speakers fell silent, there was no one but Asaba left in the classroom.
He could hear the cicadas warbling.
Asaba whiled away the rest of the fifth period in the library but punctiliously attended sixth period’s Modern Japanese. Iriya did not return after being called to the staff room. The Modern Japanese teacher Ujiki explained that “she had to leave early due to certain circumstances”.
Asaba only heard about Iriya’s “go away” remark when it was time to clean the classroom. After he left the classroom, Iriya had said to Nakagomi and the girls surrounding her:
“Don’t bother me. Go away.”
“It was dreadful, you know,” said Nishikubo with a groan, as he leaned on the blackboard he was wiping with a damp dust cloth.
“Nakagomi cried, and the three other girls were furious, too.”
Hanamura sat on top of the teacher’s table and skillfully balanced the broom handle vertically on the tip of his foot. With a grin on his face, he imitated the way the girls’ spoke:
“They were like, ‘there’s no need to speak like that, right?!’ or something like that.”
“There was this huge ruckus after that.”
Hanamura continued with his mimicry of the girls.
“Like, ‘what were you thinking? I don’t believe this!’”
“But no matter what they said to her, Iriya was unfazed. I thought, wow, this girl must be quite ballsy despite how she looks, but when I looked her way, there was blood falling from one nostril in drips and drops,” Nishikubo added.
“It was a nosebleed, you know? Blood coming out from the nose.”
Asaba was hit by the memory of the smell of chlorine and red blood stains on a towel.
“Anyway, the girls who were kicking up a fuss withdrew like wharf roaches upon Iriya’s nosebleed ‘attack’, and Iriya made use of that opening to leave the classroom. She came back after the third-period bell with torn pieces of tissue sticking out of her nostrils.”
Asaba tried to imagine Iriya with torn pieces of tissue up her nostrils, but it didn’t go too well.
Asaba urged Hanamura to continue with his story, and Hanamura snorted in laughter.
“What do you think? After that, everyone decided to let the sleeping dogs lie.”
I guess that’s to be expected, thought Asaba.
After all, she had said, “Don’t bother me. Go away.” While he knocked himself out in the infirmary, it was likely that Iriya had been left alone the entire day. Nakagomi and her clique of friends was the group that wielded the greatest influence over the class, and since ‘the enemy’s ally is an enemy’, the other girls in class wouldn’t have poked their noses in Iriya’s business for fear of getting embroiled in the conflict.
Perhaps Iriya had found it difficult to stay in the class, which made her leave the classroom to aimlessly wander about the school during the lunch break. It wasn’t difficult to imagine her being left behind for English as no one would have told her anything about class changing locations.
Asaba began to feel guilty.
If only he hadn’t gone to the washroom. Even if he was unable to do anything to help Iriya at the point of time, perhaps things wouldn’t have to end with Iriya saying something like “go away.”
To make matters worse, he had opened her bag without permission to leaf through her belongings and was caught red-handed. He really wanted to apologize for that, though. He would have already done so if that baldy Tashiro hadn’t called Iriya to the staff room.
“You three over there, stop loafing about and help me carry these desks!”
They finally got yelled at by Akiho. Nishikubo and Hanamura grudgingly returned to their cleaning under that fearsome glare of hers, but Asaba continued to stand there, lost in his thoughts.
And he was soundly thumped on the head by Akiho with her broom.
“Snap out of it! Hurry up and—“
Her expression immediately turned serious, and she asked:
“Are you okay? Feeling better? Don’t tell me you’re still feeling sick.”
“—huh? Did you say something?”
“In your own world as usual I see”, muttered Akiho with a small sigh, before going:
“Ah, right. Asaba, I’ll have to give club a miss today.”
“The Air Defense Committee called for a meeting, and I have to go to listen to them brief us for tomorrow, help out with the preparations, and whatnot.”
“—I see. The anti-air raid drill is tomorrow, isn’t it?”
Just like how members of the Library Club undertook routine tasks in the library, and how the members of the St John’s Brigade were tasked to bring students feeling unwell to the infirmary, members of the Air Defense Committee were to lead students and count their numbers during anti-air raid drills. Other than that, they usually had nothing much to do. This earned the committee the name ‘Free and Easy Committee’ and it was really popular with the students.
With a wry smile on her face, Akiho said:
“Nakamura-sensei was getting all pumped up for it, too. He was saying, ‘the theme for this round of anti-air raid drills is realism!’ or something like that. I have a feeling the briefing is going to end late so I’ll be going straight home after that. Tell Chief that for me, okay?”
Asaba answered noncommittally and went back to his cleaning. Re-arranging the wiring in his brain to allocate ninety percent of its capacity on his thoughts and the remaining ten percent on controlling all movements below his neck, he continued to be preoccupied with thoughts of Iriya, as he randomly picked up desks, randomly moved his broom, and randomly threw away trash. Before he knew it, he had done more cleaning than he usually did.
Just like how oil and water did not mix, Suizenji Kunihiro and Sudou Akiho would squabble every time they saw each other. However, they had two things in common.
Firstly, they were both good at Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Secondly, they both ate a lot.
Suizenji ate as if he had a worm in his belly, and Akiho ate as if she was carrying a baby in hers.
Asaba was often teased for only eating a regular portion of rice without and not asking for seconds by the middle-aged ladies working at the diner Shimizu. Shimizu was right next to Sonohara Middle School and was basically the Journalism Club’s second clubroom. It might be natural for someone who was male with large body like Suizenji to eat enormous amounts of food, but Asaba thought it was rather amazing for Akiho to be able to keep up with him. The size of their lunch boxes was mind-boggling and they would be eating something every now and then, even when they were in the clubroom.
Anyone who was looking on from the sidelines would wonder how they managed to not put on weight, but he thought it was a question of ‘how vigorously they went about with their daily lives’.
As such, Suizenji came by the clubroom with food in his hands, as he usually did. He ate his way through bread rolls with red bean paste filling and pork cutlet sandwiches before washing everything down with juice that was a rather unhealthy-looking color.
Suizenji thought only for a second before,
“Which porn actress is that? Was she from an indie porn flick?”
Who is he to say that when his name was also as flashy as a traditional Japanese ballad singer’s, Asaba thought.
“On second thought, it’s nothing.”
Asaba looked away in a huff. It was a mistake to think he could discuss this with Chief to begin with.
Suizenji pulled out three more rice balls from a bag from the school co-op and started to munch heartily on one of them.
When he got to the second rice ball, he threw Asaba a sideward glance and said:
“Shupecial Correshpondench Afuaba.”
Suizenji’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and when his mouth was finally empty:
“Special Correspondent Asaba.”
“What is it?”
“When I open the door of my heart and strain my ears, I seem to hear from somewhere a sigh coming from a young man; one who wishes to speak his mind about whatever it is that he is brooding over. Or am I simply imagining things?”
“You’re just imagining things.”
Suizenji quickly dismissed the matter. This time, he pulled out a cup of instant yakisoba from the same bag and proceeded to pour hot water from Akiho’s personal electric kettle into it. Asaba watched Suizenji with an incredulous look on his face. At the same time, he started to drag around in his head the trail of thoughts he had been pondering over since coming from the classroom.
He wanted a chance to talk to Iriya.
First and foremost, he wanted to apologize. He also had plenty of things to ask her, and if she had been shunned by the rest of the class, he wanted to, at least, be someone she could talk to.
Nevertheless, he didn’t like the idea of being ostracized alongside Iriya. Even if Akiho were to call him a big coward for thinking this way, it couldn’t be helped for that was what he truly felt.
He racked his brains, trying to come up with a good excuse to talk to Iriya, one that would allow him to not offend his classmates when he tries to speak to Iriya in front of them.
“—you’re eating a lot more than usual today, I see.”
Suizenji, who was pouring away the water he used to cook his yakisoba in out of the window, spun around and said:
“I was suddenly called out during lunch break, and I didn’t have time to eat.”
“Called out? By who? A teacher, or the leader of a band of young thugs?”
“A girl, a freshman. She made me this really exquisite looking lunchbox and I ended up having to eat it with her.”
So you did manage to eat after all, Asaba muttered.
How rare, he thought. The ‘Suizenji Popularity Phenomenon’ that always occurred amongst the newly admitted girls in early spring would spontaneously die down by the mid of the first semester. That was because Suizenji’s true disposition would be apparent by then. However, there were girls who have been dwelling on their admiration of Suizenji without consulting anyone, and continued to have the wrong idea of how he was actually like. Once in a while, one of them will do something terribly out-of-style and send him a love letter.
“So, how was it?”
“What can I say? There’s no way I’d be full eating food neatly arranged in tiny portions.”
“No, as in, how did you feel talking to her, or…”
“Out of the question. She can’t be my rival if the name Jesse Marcel didn’t even ring a bell for her.”
Suizenji-san, why would you bring up something like the Roswell Incident when eating a lunchbox with a girl who put in great effort to make said lunchbox for you?
Asaba felt as calm and serene as a Buddha statue as he sent his heart out to that freshman girl whose name and face he didn’t even know. He hoped that she would continue to live strongly, and once again thought about how useless it would be to discuss Iriya with Chief. Even if he would earnestly listen to what Asaba had to say, he would, at very best, say something like:
If you want to apologize, go apologize.
If you have something you want to ask her, then ask her.
If you want to be someone she could talk to, then be someone she could talk to. Don’t bother about what others think of you.
He felt that Suizenji’s suggestions would be very, very good suggestions indeed. However, if Asaba could do any of those things, he wouldn’t be troubled in the first place.
Suizenji’s hand, which had been reeling in noodles like a winch, stilled, as if he had suddenly recalled something.
“Oh, by the way, where is Special Correspondent Sudou?”
“—huh? Oh, Akiho said she’ll be late coming from the Air Defense Committee meeting anyway so she’ll be going home after that.”
Suizenji clicked his tongue in annoyance.
“Right. The emergency evacuation drill is tomorrow.”
“You mean the anti-air raid drill, right?”
“You idiot. How is that an anti-air raid drill? When the siren wails, everyone just becomes turtles hugging their heads on the floor in a row along the corridor. They then toddle along to the front of the air-raid shelter, stand in a row, and have their numbers counted. If anyone is able to survive an aerial bombing by going through such useless training then no one should worry about anything at all. No matter how favorable a light you cast on it, that sort of training won’t even help you get through what that proverb says are the four things people fear the most in Japan; earthquakes, lightning, fires, and the traditional Japanese father.”
Suizenji leaned back into his chair and tipped his chin up to face the ceiling.
“Seriously, she should just skip that briefing. I can’t split the work for the next issue if she isn’t here.”
“Speaking of the next issue, what are we going to do for our special feature? That little expedition we did turned up nothing, and we can’t very well write an article about us shutting ourselves away in the mountains…”
Mmmf, said Suizenji as he pursed his lips in thought.
“—Special Correspondent Asaba. Are you free on the coming Saturday?”
“Yeah, for now.”
The chair creaked as Suizenji leaned forward.
“Special Correspondent Asaba. How do you feel about taking turns to sneak into the restricted section of Sonohara Air Base with a camera in one hand, and taking as many pictures as we wanted of UFO wreckage or alien carcasses or whatever it is we find?”
Asaba flatly answered,
“I’m 100% sure we’ll get caught. You can go by yourself if you want.”
“If we manage to take pictures, it wouldn’t matter if we got caught or not, yes?”
“If they confiscate the films in our cameras it’ll be the same as not taking any at all, right? I’ll say this just in case you didn’t know. If we’re arrested on US Air Force territory, Japanese juvenile law would be of scant use. I’m sure they will clap handcuffs on us and throw us into an interrogation room where they’ll probably even search up our assholes, which you should be very familiar with.”
To elaborate on the asshole comment, when spiritual phenomena was all the rage last spring thanks to Suizenji, Asaba and Suizenji had snuck into the female toilet at a particular train station which was rumored to be haunted by ghosts in order to collect information for an article, which resulted in someone calling the police on them.
What was not written in the article on the May edition was that at that time, Asaba and Suizenji were dressed in female clothing. This was, of course, an idea that Suizenji came up with, and the cross-dressing was less for disguise than it was for drawing out the ‘ghost’ who, according to the rumor, would wring the necks of girls who were prettier than she was from behind them if they entered the toilet. Even Asaba, who was wearing his younger sister’s school uniform, looked fairly strange, not to mention Suizenji, who stood at close to six feet. He was dressed in the image of a mother going out shopping, but he simply looked like he came straight out of a horror film.
They attracted the attention of someone in the vicinity who called the police, and when Asaba caught sight of the ensuing patrol car he panicked and ran for his life. Suizenji, however, refused to budge and even handed in his student pass to the police of his own accord while refusing to yield to requests that he leave, asserting that ‘he was a journalist in the midst of gathering information for an article’. He was promptly walked to the Sonohara police station and given a stern warning. The next day after lessons ended, he made a triumphant return to the clubroom and with an ostentatious smile upon his face, tossed to Asaba a roll of film he took out from his pocket.
“What?! Is that is the film from yesterday night?! How on earth did you manage to not let them confiscate this?! Where did you hide it?”
With a grin that seemed to say that he had scored one for journalism, Suizenji bellowed in a voice so loud that the clubroom shook:
“Up my asshole!”
In the end, the film was never used for that article. Akiho had flown into a rage and, donning cotton work gloves, had dumped the roll of film into the incinerator. However, even till now, Asaba felt sorry that the film was lost. Even if they were not able to publish the pictures, he had at the very least wanted to develop the film.
After all, they really might have managed to get pictures of… something.
Or of someone not of this world.
“How very naïve you are, Special Correspondent Asaba. There are many ‘holes’ other the asshole that you could use,” said Suizenji with an unflinching smile. With the cup of yakisoba still in his hand, he continued, “For example, you could use your digital camera, laptop and mobile phone to send the pictures via an FTP client outside of Sonohara Air Base as soon as you take them. As long as we delete the logs in the laptop, we would be able to keep the pictures we took even if they put us under arrest.”
“—in any case, we would still be put on the rack.”
“Special Correspondent Asaba. Do you not want to ascertain with your own eyes the true form of the Foo Fighters? Will you not roll in dirt and listen to the Miranda rights being read to you just once, for the sake of journalism? Ooh, that sounds so good, I’m shivering with excitement just thinking about it.”
What was so scary about Suizenji’s utterances is that you never know exactly how serious he is when he makes them. Asaba wondered if he should earnestly try to hold Suizenji back.
He finally hit upon an idea.
“—right. We should simply ask Iriya for help.”
Suizenji gave him a questioning look.
“Special Correspondent Asaba. What is this about?”
“Erm, in other words, there was a transfer student who came to my class just today. Her name is Iriya Kana, her brother is some sort of military officer in Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, and she lives in the living quarters of the Sonohara Air Base. Well, we probably can’t ask for access to the restricted sections but if we could just ask her to allow us in to look around the inside of the air base for a bit, perhaps…”
“SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT ASABA!! WHY DID YOU NOT SPEAK OF THIS EARLIER!?”
Asaba rolled off his chair in fright. Suizenji stood and flung away the cup of yakisoba in his hand before running to the corkboard hanging on the wall and drawing a new column with the heading ‘Iriya’ on the ‘Good Job!’ Chart. In a flourish, he slapped on ten stickers in that column.
“Follow me, Special Correspondent Asaba!!”
Suizenji dashed out of the clubroom and Asaba followed, without quite knowing what was going on. There was no way that Asaba could catch up with someone whose top speed was 100-meters in 11 seconds, and he soon lost sight of Suizenji. However, he could guess which direction Suizenji went by the cries of “Gya-” and “Wah-” that he left in his wake.
By the time Asaba reached Class 2-4, he was gasping for breath. The classroom was awash with sunset colors from the light coming from the windows. The few students who were still around looked taken aback at Suizenji’s sudden forced entry into their classroom.
Looking around, Suizenji asked:
“Special Correspondent Asaba, who is the student you speak of, the one that has come from outer space?”
Asaba did not breathe a word about Iriya coming from outer space, but that fact had already been established inside Suizenji’s head.
“I heard that I-Iriya had gone back early after an, er, announcement calling her to the staff room.”
“Special Correspondent Asaba. I trust that no other club has had its eye on this transfer student yet, yes?”
Asaba shook his head, while still desperately trying to catch his breath. He hadn’t confirmed it, but there was no reason as to why another club would scout Iriya, and he did not think that Iriya would have applied to a club on her own.
“Chief, don’t tell me you want to ask Iriya to…”
Without hesitation, Suizenji declared,
“Right-o. We shall take in that transfer student, and we cannot allow another club to outfox us. The Sonohara Radio Wave Newspaper is in constant need of human talent.”
Asaba wondered what Suizenji intended to do if Iriya did not wish to join.
He also thought that if Iriya were to join the Journalism Club, he would have an excuse to speak to Iriya in front of his classmates without offending any of them.
Yet again, if Iriya were to join the Journalism Club, perhaps some questions he had about his current state of affairs will be answered. No matter what sort of cauldron it was, as long as he threw Suizenji into the mix, it will bubble over theatrically in a chemical reaction that will produce some sort of conclusion, eventually.
Bathed in the light of the setting sun, Suizenji laughed, dauntlessly.
The first day of the second semester had finally come to an end.
Outside, the evening cicadas chirred.
Asaba didn’t know who pranked him, nor what kind of prank it was supposed to be, but, the next day, he found a live cat in his shoe locker.
He had spent the entire night the day before single-mindedly copying over answers from the photocopy of the homework Akiho gave him, and once again a sleep-deprived Asaba arrived nearly late for school. The parking space for bicycles, which was far too small, was already overflowing with bicycles. Reluctantly, he chain-locked his bicycle to the bit of fence that was quite a distance away from the shelter of the roof. The evening sun shone mercilessly on that area after school hours, thus the seat of his bicycle would sometimes be too hot to sit on even when it was time for him to go home. However, there was no other place he could park his bicycle now.
Rushing into the school foyer, he placed his hands on the door of his shoe locker to get his indoor school shoes.
That was when his daily routine ended.
The moment he yanked open the door of his locker, a ginger tabby kitten flew out and clung onto his face. Asaba ate a lightning quick jab and a cross before promptly going down without a fight. The kitten yowled before disappearing out of the main entrance.
Asaba stepped in the classroom in great befuddlement, and when Akiho caught sight of him, she said, “What’s that?” and pointed to his face. Only then did Asaba realize that he was bleeding rather badly from where the kitten had scratched him.
Asaba sat on his seat at an angle and timidly tipped his face upwards.
“Sheesh, I wonder who did this. What a horrid prank,” Akiho said as she puffed out in anger. With her usual violent fashion, she slapped the largest of the Band-Aids she always had ready in her bag onto Asaba’s nose.
“Imagine shutting it in such a narrow, confined space. Poor thing.”
Oh, so you were concerned about the kitten, Asaba thought to himself.
“I wonder if that kitten is the one I always see loitering around the bus stop. It was about three months old and had a little kink in its tail. Was it wearing a collar?”
“—I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. It all happened in a flash.”
Akiho returned her Band-Aid box to her bag as she said:
“There are two ginger tabbies in the area. The smaller one doesn’t have a collar and is probably a stray, and the larger one with a collar is Kojirō from Takizawa Stationery Store.”
Akiho often wrote articles like ‘I’m Giving Away a Stray Cat’, which was why she was extremely well-informed when it came to strays around the school.
“—I really don’t care which it was, though.”
Asaba gingerly felt the Band-Aid on his nose, lost in idle thought. He wondered who had put the cat in his shoe locker, and why.
It was then he felt someone’s gaze on him. Without thinking, he turned to see who it was, and Akiho also turned to look.
Iriya, who had been staring intently at them, promptly dropped her gaze.
“—what on earth was that for, I wonder,” Akiho muttered.
Feeling ill at ease, Asaba turned back to face the front of the classroom, but Akiho eyes remained fixed on Iriya. Lowering her voice, she continued,
“Hey Asaba, did you hear about her saying ‘go away’?”
“Don’t you think it was awful? It’s natural that Maki-chan would dislike her.”
“She went too far. If it was a thoughtless remark she should have simply apologized for it, but she doesn’t seem to think she is wrong. I wonder who she thinks she is. At this rate, she’s definitely not going to be able to make any friends. What is with those wristbands of hers? Does she think it looks cool or something?”
Asaba looked up in surprise. He had never heard Sudou Akiho speak ill of others in that manner before. Akiho also had a look of surprise on her face at her own words. Noticing the look that Asaba was giving her, Akiho immediately rearranged her face into a smile and forcefully changed the topic.
“—erm, right. Asaba, did you and Chief wrap up any discussions yesterday? Like the allocation of work for the next issue, or…?”
It was Asaba’s turn to sit up with a start.
“Ah, no, we haven’t decided on anything like that yet, but…”
What Chief had decided on yesterday was something fairly outrageous.
“What is it?”
Akiho seemed to not like Iriya very much, and this would be a bad time to tell her. Then again, she would eventually know anyway, and it might be less injurious for him if he coughed it out as soon as he could.
Asaba decided to tell her.
“Yesterday at the clubroom, I told Chief about Iriya, an unusual person that transferred into our class that day.”
Akiho remained silent, and her expression did not waver as she continued to look at Asaba.
“Chief was so happy to hear that she stayed in the living quarters in the Sonohara Air Base. I mean, our efforts in the mountains during the summer holidays didn’t yield anything fit for an article, right? He was also talking about his plans to sneak into the base to take photos, so before any other club takes her in, we should probably…”
Before he could finish, the worst person possible to appear at this time chose to show up.
He flung open the door of the classroom, and everyone in it looked up in surprise.
“Special Correspondent Iriya!”
Suizenji was standing at the door of their classroom.
There was a gleam in the silver rim of his fake glasses, and his hair was combed back in a pompadour that looked like the back of a very well-fed cockroach.
Unbelievably enough, he had a bouquet of sunflowers in one hand.
With long, swinging strides, he strode over to stand squarely in front of Iriya’s desk, completely ignoring the attention he was getting before thrusting out the bouquet to Iriya with such vigor that some petals fell off.
“We, of the Sonohara Radio Wave Newspaper, are a small group of elite journalists who offer our readers expertise in a genre as expansive as the solar system and reporting as speedy as radio waves! These are dangerous times we live in, with imminent threat of open war and the world in disarray. Therefore, there is no day as important as today for journalism that aspires to bring to light the truths of this world! Join us, Iriya-kun, on our crusade to seek the Truth!!”
Iriya looked at Suizenji, and then at the bouquet he held out to her. Then, she held out both her hands and accepted the bouquet from Suizenji. She looked like she was, for the time being, simply trying to hold something that was thrust in her face.
Suizenji, however, interpreted her gesture as an expression of her intent to join the club.
“We welcome you!!”
He said in a ringing voice, before pivoting about his heels and giving Asaba an exuberant thumbs-up with his right hand.
It’ll bring me nothing but trouble if you do that, Asaba thought.
“Well then, Special Correspondent Iriya, we shall meet again after school!”
Leaving behind those words, Suizenji laughed raucously as he slowly made his way out of the classroom.
Right after his departure, the classroom broke out in hushed whispers much like the ground rumbling during an earthquake.
I must say something, Asaba thought.
“—in other words, what I told Chief was that, well, since Iriya lives in Sonohara Air Base, with her help we might be able to take a look at the inside of the air base, and…”
Asaba choked on his next few words under the force of Akiho’s withering glare. She then turned that glare on Iriya, before scowling at the door that Suizenji exited the classroom from.
“All of you are idiots,” she muttered.
In the midst of all the whispering, Iriya sat not knowing what to do as she stared at the sunflowers in her bouquet.