Volume 2 Chapter 1: The Correct Way to Steal a Moped II (Part 2)

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Volume 2 – Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu, Sono Ni

Chapter 1 – The Correct Way to Steal a Moped II (Part 2)

 

“—y-you don’t mean to say that you made Honii-chan go on a date with Iriya just so that you could get her to bring you into Sonohara Air Base?!”

“I had other reasons to.”

The river reflected the red sky at sunset, and right smack in the middle of the slow-moving water was Suizenji’s Super Cub, sticking out of the surface of the water with its wheels in the air.

Suizenji and Yuuko were sitting idly on the concrete slope on the river bank. Both were soaked to the skin in muddy water from the river.

“Other reasons too, you say—what else did you have in mind?”

“—no, I could’ve been overthinking things, but…”

He flopped on his back with his arms and legs sprawled out.

 

“I couldn’t help being curious about her, somehow. There are certain things about Special Correspondent Iriya that are a little odd.”

“Like?”

Suizenji sucked in a deep breath as he gathered his thoughts.

“The bus and the phone calls.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Special Correspondent Iriya takes the bus to school every day.”

“—what about it?”

“Every day, he departs from Mitaru Depot and takes the bus to Sonohara Train Station via Sonohara Air Base. Then she gets off at the ‘Sonohara Middle School Main Gate’ bus stop at 8.30AM. She goes home by the same way on the returning bus.”

“Like I said, what’s wrong with that?”

“Until just a while before the summer holidays, that bus route didn’t exist.”

Yuuko couldn’t really understand what Suizenji was trying to say.

“This bus route is immensely unprofitable. Yes, the town administration does have a habit of using public transport as a garbage bin to throw away money it doesn’t need ‘because the rural countryside doesn’t have very many means of public transport’ or on the pretext of being considerate ‘so that the elderly need not walk everywhere they go’. Nevertheless, I do not understand why there was a need to open yet another bus route. If you look at the course the bus takes you’ll immediately know that the operator wouldn’t be able to cover its costs. The route goes through mountains and farms and stops at spanking new bus stops at places where nobody would ever be waiting for buses at. If you were to actually see it for yourself, you’ll find it pretty abnormal, too. I mean, just imagine a road over a mountain pass with not a single house in sight, and beside that road is a bus stop that is so clean it sparkles, with its own attached waiting room…”

 

That would certainly be a little creepy, Yuuko thought. But why would Iriya have anything to do with the bus route?

“And those phone calls, too. Asaba-kun, you did say that Special Correspondent Iriya made a phone call on the way to the movie theatre from the train station where they agreed to meet, didn’t you?”

“Huh? Uh, yea.”

“Special Correspondent Iriya seems to like to use the phone a lot. Every day without fail, she would make two phone calls, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, from the public phone next to the school’s main entrance. There are three public phones there, but Special Correspondent Iriya is particularly fond of the phone on the extreme right, which she always uses.”

For the first time, Yuuko felt like something was out of place.

“—but, that phone is,”

“Yep. The phone on the right has been out of order since a long time ago. Yet for some reason whenever Special Correspondent Iriya uses it, it appears to be working well. Now then, where on earth does Special Correspondent Iriya make those calls to? She hangs up without saying a word, so I would think that she was listening to an information providing service, but—”

“Like, a weather forecast reporting service?”

 

Suizenji nodded in agreement.

“Do you know the number she was calling?”

“#-0-6-2-4, probably, but I’m not sure. It wouldn’t go well for me if she noticed me peeping at her from somewhere close by.”

“Have you tried calling that number?”

“Of course. A recording of a female voice told me to check the number and to make the call again.”

Yuuko felt a tiny bit frightened as her thoughts descended into a wild fantasy.

She imagined herself walking along a deserted corridor by herself one early afternoon. The cicadas were warbling, and at the end of the corridor was the main entrance of the school building, where Iriya is standing with her back facing Yuuko, the receiver held to her ear. A volleyball rolls to her feet, and Iriya tilts her head to the right at an angle that looked humanly impossible. Yuuko could vaguely make out a female voice from the receiver. Dear valued customer, the number you have dialed is not in service. Please check the number and place your call again. She wants to run away, but was frozen in place. Shortly after, the female voice begins to say, —please check who is behind you and place your call again. Dear valued customer, there is someone standing behind you. All of a sudden, Iriya spins around like a wild beast. Her face all the way down to her neck was hidden under numerous layers of bandages, and on that face that had neither eyes nor a nose was a mouth that was slit open from ear to ear—

 

“The phone and bus issues are connected. Strangely enough, the new bus stops along the new bus route I was talking about all had phones installed somewhere.”

It was Suizenji’s voice that rescued her, pulling her back into reality. Yuuko was soaked in muddy water, sitting on the concrete slope on the river bank, and Suizenji was lying on his back beside her with his hands and legs sprawled out.

“The phones come in various forms. It could be in a booth at this bus stop, a public phone in the waiting room in another, but all of them had something in common. All the phones at every single bus stop, without exception, weren’t working very well. You either won’t be able to get your call to connect, or your call would go through but your coin or telephone card won’t be returned to you after that, and so on.”

It was already evening, and a laundry pole peddler eager to sell his wares drifted past them along the road on the other side of the river. All go for 1000 yen for two, no matter which you pick. We also do trade-ins.

“There is more. This is related to the phone issue, but Special Correspondent Iriya frequently gets called to the staff room via the school public address system. You’ve heard the announcements before, I presume?”

Yuuko searched her memories, but since she usually ignored announcements which didn’t have anything to do with her, she couldn’t really remember anything like that.

“Every single time, the announcement will go, ‘You have a call from a Mister so-and-so, please report to the staff room at once. The three names that have come up for that certain someone so far is Tanaka, Suzuki, and Satou. If you were to tell me that it can’t be helped that the people who called her up had names like that, then that will be the end of it. However, you could also say that those names sound like code words. After she takes the call from either of these three people, there is a high chance that Special Correspondent Iriya will leave right after that, before school ends. Where on earth does she go, I wonder?”

 

Yuuko started to grow confused.

The encoded signals that were flying around Sonohara Train Station since last night.

The two suspicious-looking people who appeared in the movie theater.

The stamp on Iriya Kana’s Club Application Form that said ‘Shiina’, which she saw with her own eyes. There was only one person called ‘Shiina’ in her school’s teaching staff; Shiina Mayumi, the school nurse who replaced Grandma Kurobe. Baldy Tashiro had introduced Shiina during morning assembly, and when he passed her the microphone after saying that she would greet everyone, she burst into a rousing rendition of an English song, stunning the entire school. That also happened just before the summer vacation, around the same time the dubious bus route that Suizenji was talking about was set up.

“—you know, there is a Japanese proverb that says that if you were to examine the ‘ghost’ closely, you’ll find that it was simply withered silver grass,” she said, as she thought about how ridiculous everything he said sounded.

After all, if one viewed everything with suspicion, anything could appear uncanny. The laundry pole peddler with his chants of “Yo! Bamboo poles, laundry poles for sale!” as he weaved through the residential district in his light pick-up could be a spy. The station employee at the ticketing gate could be cooking up a plot to blow up a train.

“Maybe that’s all there is to it,” Suizenji acknowledged with ease. “Even if whatever I have been investigating turned out to be just withered silver grass or dried flowers, as long I had fun doing it I’ll be okay, really.”

 

He sat up abruptly to throw a pebble at the tire of his Super Cub, which was still sticking out of the water in the middle of the river.

“But I do think that this is different from the withered silver grass you can find anywhere. I urged Special Correspondent Asaba to go through with this and lured him in a situation that was a little different from what he is used to, in the hope that something would happen. In the end, well, I guess you could say that my efforts more or less paid off, but I was a little too cautious this time. If I had been more persistent when chasing them down, they might have given away more information.”

Liar, Yuuko thought.

What he did just now was akin to chasing girls around while holding a tree branch covered with caterpillars.

“—and Special Correspondent Asaba,”

One of his pebbles finally struck home.

“From the way it looked, he seems to know something. He has been behaving rather strangely lately, and he seems to be hiding something, or should I say that he seems to have something up his sleeve…”

At this point, Suizenji started to cackle evilly.

“—well, not much time had passed since that incident at the shelter where he was found riding atop Special Correspondent Iriya with her underwear stripped off. If you say that it is just like him to jump at every mention of her name, I guess you’ll be right.”

 

Yuuko thought back to the day after the anti-air raid drill. The words that were frantically rubbed from the blackboard. The unskillful drawing in chalk on her desk.

“Dwahh!”

Yuuko sent Suizenji flying with a kick to his back, and he rolled off the concrete slope to fall face-first into the river.

“W-What are you doing now, you little—!!”

They were facing each other now, and she was glaring at Suizenji, who was covered in mud. Yuuko was seething, but she wasn’t very good at verbal fights. Frustration whirled inside her as she tried to come up with something clever to say, to no avail. She knew she would think to herself after that, I should have said this to him, or I should have said that to him, and regret bitterly that she didn’t.

“Stupid jerk———!!” she railed. No matter how times she called him a jerk today, it didn’t seem enough. “I’m leaving!”

She knew that if she were to lock horns with him now she would eventually be defeated in the ensuing battle of words. Since she was afraid of losing, she decided to say whatever she could say and make her escape. As she turned and took her first unwavering step away from him, a large hand reached out from behind her and grabbed the nape of her collar.

Be it aliens or girls he was dealing with, Suizenji never pulled his punches.

He pulled Yuuko towards him by the collar with all the strength he could muster, planted his feet firmly on the sloping riverbank which compensated for their height difference, and threw Yuuko over his shoulder.

 

Yuuko was flung head-first into the water with a muddy splash, before she even had the time to scream, as Suizenji pumped a triumphant fist in the air.

“Ga ha ha ha!” he cackled. “Oya oya, you okay there, Yuuko-kun? One should watch both your mouth and your step near the riverside—oof!”

Tossing up spray, Yuuko lunged for him and her foot caught the side of Suizenji’s face. He fell back into the river with a magnificent splash, but got up immediately after, sputtering muddy water.

“I thought I should go easy on you because you were a girl, and yet you keep kicking me!! I will pardon this no longer!!”

Yuuko still couldn’t come up with a smarmy retort.

Her brain couldn’t process anything right now, but she didn’t need to summon a single shred of courage to face him. Despite the 20-centimeter height difference and the gigantic figure towering over her against the light of the setting sun, Yuuko didn’t feel anything remotely like fear. With a yell that was somewhere in between a war-cry and a tearful cry, Yuuko lunged for Suizenji, and he took on her challenge head-on as he sprung at her, shrieking like a monstrous bird:

“Eat this! Butterfly kick!! Hiyaaa———!!”

In the summer heat, the boy jumped and kicked; a dance against a sunset-colored sky.

 

Iriya dismounted and abandoned the scooter in a grove of trees behind the Minakami Shrine. Tugging on Asaba’s hand, she swiftly departed from the place. Together, they silently made their way through paddy fields on country roads, all the while being bitten by mosquitoes as they cut through a forest that looked like it was cursed by Jizō, Japanese guardian deity of children himself, before passing underneath the railroad bridge which was part of the Bikage train line. They continued walking without stopping, like a machine, at a pace which Asaba found exhausting to keep up with.

 

“—hey, it’s okay now. We’ve come this far so it should be alright.”

That one sentence of his seemed to flip a switch in Iriya which switched her off. Iriya abruptly slowed her steps, and she eventually came to a standstill at the roadside where she stood, hanging her head. In fact, she stopped walking so suddenly that Asaba thought she might have developed stomach pains or something—

“Y-you okay? Are you feeling unwell?”

She didn’t answer.

When Asaba peered into her face, she looked away to hide her reddened cheeks.

“—erm, erm, you know…”

“If you find one wiretap, you have to check everything else. There can’t be just one wiretap present, there will most definitely be others as well.”

Her voice was shrill, like the whine of mosquitoes. She seemed to be trying to explain why she had pulled him into the bathroom and had him peel off all his clothes.

After an extremely bad explanation with poor choices of words in a voice that was so soft that it was hard to catch what she was saying, Asaba finally began to understand that ‘wiretap’ referred to a microphone or a listening device, and there were several such devices planted all around Asaba. She also said that she didn’t know who planted them, but suspected that it might have been covert operatives from the North.

 

“—er.”

Despite her suspicions, Asaba had his own ideas about who the real culprit was, as he thought about the ‘top-secret’ meeting at diner Shimizu for ‘strategic planning’ last night. Chief had paid for his meal, and he had gotten out of his seat multiple times to use the washroom.

That, along with the Super Cub that was tailing them, the one with the exhaust that sounded so familiar.

He sighed. Perhaps he should have known that something like this would happen. Still, he found it amazing that Iriya would think that spies from the North planted microphones on him.

“It’s okay now. It’s okay, so…”

Let’s go now—he urged her on, but Iriya refused to take another step. Asaba felt a twinge of irritation as looked at his watch.

“It’s six in the evening now, is it okay if you are not home yet?” he said.

I do need to go back soon, Iriya murmured at long last, and both of them starting walking.

Around them were paddy fields and farms, but as they walked, houses started popping up along the roadside, and the dusky country road that they were walking on eventually turned into one of the streets in a grid-like avenue lined with brand new houses. The houses looked so much like each other that it was off-putting. No matter where he went all he saw was a never-ending row of spindly, malnourished trees, and stuck on each telephone pole he passed was the same poster advertising for the same rental video store.

Asaba was dead tired.

 

He was walking half step ahead of Iriya, but he didn’t speak to her.

He didn’t notice Iriya, who was walking half a step behind, frequently checking up on him.

At the end of the road was a large park and a bus stop. A signboard at the bus stop read ‘4 Hikigawa Street’, and beside it was a plastic bench which encased an advert for an 18-liter drum of a milk-based product; a drum was large enough to be used as a wastepaper bin. Asaba wiped the sweat off his brow and looked at the bus schedule which was affixed to the signboard with wire.

6.57PM: Mitaru Depot via Sonohara Air Base.

This date will come to an end in another thirty minutes or so. It was relief that Asaba felt, somewhere deep inside his heart.

When he looked out at the park, he saw a signboard at the entrance which read ‘Children’s Riverside Playground’ in Gothic-style lettering. In parentheses below were the words ‘Sonohara Town Hikigawa District’s 7th Shelter’. The plot of land that was fenced off was inordinately spacious. On the playground were different kinds of playground equipment, painted in garish colors. There was a playing field so large that one could play baseball on, or even land a helicopter on. There was a drinking fountain with a roof, along with a grand-looking structure which was the park’s public washrooms. If he wasn’t paying attention, he could have missed the entrance leading to the shelter.

There was not a single child in sight.

This was not uncommon. Almost all ‘Parks with Parentheses’ were entirely void of children. Since the country’s air defense strategy took precedence over all else when it came to building these anti-air raid shelters, it mattered very little to the authorities if there were any children living in the vicinity or not.

 

There were countless such parks all over Sonohara Town. ‘There are more swings in this town than there are children’ was a phrase so commonly used by the residents of Sonohara Town to poke fun at these parks that it had almost become clichéd.

“Shall we wait inside? And sit on the swings while waiting for the bus?” It was a good idea, Asaba thought, wearily.

Their date today was a huge disaster, thanks to Chief. Although, of course, the blame for this could not rest entirely on Chief’s shoulders. Although the date was something that would not have happened if Chief hadn’t suggested it, Asaba had gone along with his plans despite knowing full well what ulterior motives he harbored.

Nevertheless, Asaba thought he should wrap things up cleanly in the end.

With that thought in mind, he pointed to the swings and looked at Iriya at the corner of his eye to see how she would react, only to see that her face had gone extremely stiff.

“What’s wrong?”

He thought that there might be something in the park that bothered her and turned to look, but there wasn’t.

“—hey, there are places to sit in the park, so instead of waiting here, we could…”

At this point, Asaba fell silent mid-sentence. Iriya was having yet another nosebleed.

 

She had tilted her head slightly towards the left, and was looking wide-eyed at the park. Anyone looking at her now could tell that her neck muscles were hard and unyielding, and an unnatural strength quaked beneath that slim nape of hers.

Blood from her nose was flowing along her jaw and dripping on her school-issued shoes.

She then said something under her breath. It sounded like she spoke in English, but Asaba couldn’t hear very clearly what she said.

Like a string that snapped under tension, Iriya’s body grew slack as it collapsed towards the left. Asaba rushed to catch her in his arms. Frantically, he called out her name.

“—I’m okay, I’m alright.”

Somehow managing to get onto her feet, Iriya pulled out some tissues and sluggishly tried to wipe the blood from underneath her nose.

“A-Are you sure you’re okay? Anyway, it’s better if you sat down. Here.”

Thinking that she should rest in the shade, Asaba took her by her hand and tried to lead her into the park, but where the flagstones on the sidewalk met the park’s pavement her feet stilled, like someone had drawn a barrier at that boundary. After a great deal of coaxing he eventually managed to get her to step into park and they seated themselves on a concrete bench near the drinking fountain.

“Erm.”

“I’m okay now, I really am.”

She didn’t look okay, Asaba decided. She almost fainted just now, and that wasn’t normal.

 

“But you know, you look really pale right now.”

Iriya remained silent.

“If you aren’t feeling well, you could call someone to come pick you up, and…” His voice trailed off as he thought about how Iriya would not answer any of his questions, even if he was genuinely worried for her.

Throughout the entire day, he had been asking her about many things but Iriya, being Iriya, would refuse to answer any of the more important questions he had. Although this was how she always had been, Asaba had been particularly affected by her reticence today. After all, they were on a date today and somewhere inside his heart he had hoped that she would show him a different side of her which she usually kept hidden from others.

Furthermore, that date would end soon, too.

He sighed.

How very tired he felt.

“—right, sorry. You wouldn’t tell me anything, anyway.”

He heard her breath hitch her throat.

That was out of line, he thought. He had blundered, but he could no longer take back his words. The ‘sorry’ part aside, it was the ‘anyway’ at the end of the sentence that sounded too harsh. He was exhausted, the cogs in his head weren’t turning properly, and that thoughtless remark had slipped through one of the many gaps that had opened up in his worn-out mind.

 

“Ah, no, I mean. I thought I asked you something I shouldn’t have, so.”

Asaba floundered about as he tried his best to come up with an excuse for his thoughtlessness, and from somewhere nearby the cicadas began to warble.

 

“Will you promise me? That you won’t tell anyone?”

 

Her words, spoken so firmly that Asaba wouldn’t think that they fell from her mouth, cut off his attempts to explain himself. She was looking down as she normally did when talking to him. However, her eyes were wide open, and they burned with an intensity that usually wasn’t there as she gazed intently at the bit of skirt she held balled in her fists.

“Will you promise me to never, never, ever tell anyone?”

More and more cicadas were joining in the chorus now, and the warbling gradually grew louder. The cicadas were chirping for all they were worth, as if they sought to wring every last drop of sweat from the human bodies around them; it was a sound that suited dusk very well indeed.

“I will not repeat myself. You cannot ask any questions. I cannot give you specific names or dates. Would you be okay with that, still?”

The offensive and defensive positions had switched places, in the blink of an eye.

Asaba shrank back in fear. He was afraid. Perhaps Iriya had wanted to explain to him why she had to keep her silence, but have been fervently biting down on her lip the entire time without doing so. If Asaba were to shake his head, he had to do so now. A simple ‘sorry’ or ‘you wouldn’t tell me, anyway’ wouldn’t be valid anymore, from this point on. If Asaba were to step into Iriya’s world, he had to prepare himself for whatever that might come thereafter.

 

Asaba nodded.

“I understand, I promise. But—”

“Someone on my team died in training.”

 

 

Yuuko recalled the events on the day after the Incident at the Shelter took place. She even remembered that the characters were written wrongly.

When she arrived in the morning, ‘Asaba’s elder brother is a pervert’ was written all over the blackboard at the back of the classroom.

Gii had turned on Oda in a fit of anger. There was no doubt that the culprit was Oda. After all, back then when Suizenji came to greet her in her classroom, Oda, who was a dullard and a lecher and also the class clown, was the most persistent in his teasing of Yuuko after that. Gii didn’t even need to get him to admit he was the culprit; Oda freely admitted that he had written those sentences on the blackboard. As Gii shook her fist at him, he put on a great show of cowering under her raised fist and pretended to scream like a little girl. When Yuuko returned to her seat after rubbing the words off the blackboard in a wild frenzy, she noticed that there was scribbling on her desk in chalk. The person who scribbled on her desk was so unskillful at drawing that she could not make out what it illustrated until she read the words, ‘Ohhh Onii-chan, you have such a dirty mind’. Before she knew it, she was standing in front of Oda and she had sunk her fist into his zit-covered face. By the time he went down, she had managed to get three punches in.

 

Gii rushed to hold her back, the teacher came into the classroom, and she was made to clean up the blood that had spilled from his nose onto the floor.

On the way home at a coffee stand Gii spoke gently to her, but her words brought her no comfort at all.

Oda likes you, you know.

 

Be it aliens or girls he was dealing with, Suizenji never pulled his punches. He did not practice that sort of discrimination, and it was possible that he saw no difference between the two.

“Hiyaaa———!!”

Yuuko was sorely defeated.

She took a kick in the face, her face almost completely buried under the sole of a gigantic sneaker, and she tumbled into the shallows at the lower reaches of the river, sinking into the river so deep that her head touched the riverbed. Her legs were then grabbed from under her and she was swung about in a ‘giant swing’ before being thrown upstream, where the water was deeper.

Somehow, she managed to get up on her feet even though she could barely stand, only to find that Suizenji had fallen into the river as well. It would seem that he had gotten himself dizzy after the ‘giant swing’ just now. What appeared to be a dead body floating in the muddy river suddenly sat up, and it said:

“Such impudence! I shall not fall for that trick again! Prepare yourself at once, for there is no one who would wash their clothes in a river as muddy as this one! Skip through flower fields inside your head while you roll along the waves all the way to the promontory!”

 

Suizenji blew on his fists and then scrambled to get on his feet, but he was unable to walk in a straight line. He corrected his course at every three steps he took as he slowly advanced towards her.

Yuuko was unable to take another step forward.

Her vision begin to blur, but it wasn’t because of river water in her eyes. Frustration continued to mount inside her, as the memories she had buried in her old wounds began to resurface; Gii’s angry shouts, the sound of Oda’s laughter, ‘Asaba’s elder brother is a pervert’ and ‘Ohhh Onii-chan, you have such a dirty mind’, the night she chased her brother out of the room and swore at him, the vaccinations against viruses used a biological weapons, the vaulting box that was set too high on purpose, the fact that her family name was Asaba and her seat number was one and there was nothing good about having a name like that—

And Suizenji’s showy smile as he came all the way to her classroom to just to greet her.

It seemed like a hundred years had passed since she had felt her brother’s hands in her hair. At that time, they were both still in elementary school, and her brother had put out a chair for her in the yard so that he could cut her hair for her.

She shouted at Suizenji, in a voice that was almost half a sob:

 

Honii-chan is not a pervert!”

 

Her face was just one step away from being within the range of Suizenji’s fist, but he stopped in his tracks.

“Ah?” he said.

 

“It’s all your fault!! It’s your fault that Honii-chan became a little strange in the head!!”

Suizenji thought for just a second.

“—who said anything like that? In what way would Asaba be a pervert if he was at complete loss what to do when he was all alone in the shelter with a girl?”

“How would you know that?!”

“Then why do you think otherwise? Because that is what the rumors say? How can you not know what kind of person your brother is when you are his younger sister?”

Suizenji plopped himself down to sit at where he was standing, and proceeded to scratch his chin.

“Seriously. And I was wondering what it was that was bothering you, too.”

He rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist and searched the insides of his mouth with his tongue before letting fly a gob of spit mixed with blood.

“—look here, now. Think carefully. Do you think that a coward like him would be capable of doing something like push a girl down, strip her bare of underwear and sit on top of her?”

I said, Honii-chan isn’t a coward!!”

“Okay, then what kind of person did you hope he was? Would you have preferred him to be someone who would force himself on a girl when he saw the opportunity to do so, or someone who didn’t have the courage to do something like that, no matter how hard he tried?”

Yuuko did not answer. She sniffed.

 

“Well, my best guess is that Special Correspondent Asaba is the latter. He probably couldn’t imagine himself doing anything lewd to a girl, not in his wildest dreams, and he wouldn’t do it even if he could stop time and take a pill which made him invisible. He just can’t. Those rumors are groundless.”

“But, but there were many people who said they saw it! They were spreading rumors about how Honii-chan had assaulted the transfer student and sat on top of her, and about how they actually saw him do it!”

“That simply meant that that was how it looked like. I’m sure that coward was caught in some sort of situation in which he had no choice but to do so.”

“What kind of situation would that be?!”

Suizenji snorted scornfully, like he thought Yuuko was being stupid.

“Why’re you asking me that? After all, I’m someone whom you think looks at withered silver grass and sees ghosts instead, aren’t I?

“Would you give silver grass and ghosts a rest?!”

Suizenji breathed a sigh. Water splashed around him as he pulled his knees to his chest and rested his chin on his hands.

“—in the confusion during the anti-air raid drill, Special Correspondent Asaba dragged the transfer student to the shelter and was about to do something unpleasant to her but was stopped before he could go through with the deed. Was that what the rumors said?”

Yuuko nodded, while trying to wipe away her tears.

“Who did you hear that from? A friend from your class?”

Yuuko nodded a second time.

 

“It’s probably second-hand information, anyway. Since that rumor was simply something they heard from someone else, it’s not as if they had witnessed the incident first-hand. Am I correct?”

Yuuko nodded, for the third time.

She and her classmates were still turtles in the corridors when the announcement for the suspension of the anti-air raid drill was broadcasted over the speakers, and her teacher made all of them go back to their classroom after that. No one in her class was present at the scene when the hatch to the shelter opened.

“It was only after I started thinking about the oddities surrounding Special Correspondent Iriya that I started an independent secret investigation into the ‘Incident at the Shelter’ by collecting statements from those who had witnessed the incident first-hand. Just to say this up front; I have not asked Special Correspondent Asaba for his side of the story. Now that things have come to this pass, it is clear that he has already become part of the mystery that is Special Correspondent Iriya. He might even let Special Correspondent Iriya on the fact that I was sniffing around her. Even if he does not, well. He isn’t someone who keeps secrets very well. He is very much like open book.”

This was someone who was chasing the person he was stalking around on a bike, and Yuuko wondered if he should be saying something like that, but she kept her mouth shut.

Just as he said, Suizenji did things simply ‘because it was interesting’. As long as the quest for the Truth was interesting, he would go all out in his pursuit, but she was sure that if something else caught his interest, his attention will turn to it almost immediately.

“Well, what I can conclude after the secret investigation was, firstly, there is one crucial difference between the witnesses’ statements and the prevailing rumors. The rumors say that Asaba had led the transfer student into the shelter, but the truth is that it was the exact opposite.”

Yuuko’s face was scrunched up and she was ready to cry, but her tears stopped in her surprise.

 

“—eh?”

“Apparently, it was Special Correspondent Iriya who had been pulling Special Correspondent Asaba along with her, according to those present. I’m pretty sure of that. The students in Class 2-4 were watching them. You probably would have heard it too, but the idiot Nakamura broadcasted the First Level Siren without announcing the start of the drill, didn’t he? I heard that Special Correspondent Iriya had lived abroad for a long time with her Japanese Air Self-Defense Force officer brother in an army base. It would seem like she had a really bad scare, for she panicked and made a mad dash for the anti-air raid shelter. I also heard that she was saying things like ‘what’s the use of doing that?’ and ‘come with me if you do not wish to die!’ to one of the students that was crouching on the floor at that time.”

Suizenji lifted his index finger.

“Question number one. The hatch to the shelter should have been locked. How then, did Special Correspondent Iriya open it?”

Yuuko unwittingly made a small sound of surprise. If Suizenji hadn’t pointed it out, she wouldn’t have noticed. The rumors breezily said that ‘Asaba had led the transfer student into the shelter’, but how did her brother open the hatch in the first place?

“That shelter falls under the direct control of HQ, in other words, Sonohara Air Base. I can imagine that the only time you could only tamper with the door was if signals from the control bus had been cut off. Those fellows who have been calling your brother a pervert didn’t bother to look into all these, did they?”

A second finger was raised.

“Question number two. Why did Special Correspondent Iriya, out of all people, choose to bring Special Correspondent Asaba with her to the shelter?”

 

“—that was because,”

Her reason for applying to the Journalism club was because Asaba is in it.

Suizenji stared at Yuuko’s face. With a smile, he said:

“What is with that look of discontentment on your face? —well, I have no problem with her reason being something like that, but perhaps she had other reasons to as well. Anyway, if you put both questions side-by-side…”

It was then he suddenly clammed up.

The chants of “Yo! Bamboo poles, laundry poles for sale!” from just now can be heard again. The white light pick-up that was crammed full of laundry poles selling for 2000 yen apiece was driving past them along the road on the other side of the river, but in the opposite direction.

“—what’s wrong?”

Suizenji squinted against the setting sun, his eyes following the movement of the slow-moving light pick-up. Shortly after, “—no, never mind that. Next, I would like to talk about Special Correspondent Asaba’s mounted position. There were many witnesses. However, even if he was found straddling a girl with her clothes taken off, it doesn’t automatically mean he was doing something obscene to her, does it?”

“Then what else could it have been?”

“Needless to say, the only people who know for sure what happened in the shelter that day are the two of the them, and no one else. Anything I say from this point on is nothing more than a conjecture, or perhaps just pure imagination. Please listen to this, but please keep that in mind.”

 

Yuuko nodded.

“Emergency first-aid treatment.”

Yuuko’s eyes grew round.

“Why? How?”

Special Correspondent Iriya frequently suffers from nosebleeds. She eats bread and drinks milk from the school co-op for lunch, but after that she would take a large number of pills. I don’t know the details, but we can assume that she has some problems with her health. It is, perhaps, not too far a shot to think that Special Correspondent Iriya may have suffered some sort of seizure while in the shelter.”

“—and?”

“I heard that there was an ambulance already on stand-by near shelter even before the lock on the hatch was lifted, and I also heard that Mayumi Shiina was loitering about the shelter at that time. Okay? This is what I imagined took place.”

Suizenji slapped both his hands on his lower back, opened up his chest, and stretched himself.

“Special Correspondent Iriya suffers from a seizure in the shelter. She loses consciousness, going out like a light. Special Correspondent Asaba panics. He tries to contact someone outside the shelter to tell them that he has an emergency situation on his hands, and succeeds in getting a direct phone line to Sonohara Air Base. However, they are unable to open the hatch immediately after it was locked. Every minute and every second counted. It was then that someone from Sonohara Air Base instructed Asaba to do what has to be done. That person might have asked him to perform CPR on her. That person might have asked him to perform a heart massage on her. In any case, Special Correspondent Asaba does as he is told, while trying not to piss himself. That was why Special Correspondent Iriya was without her clothes, and why Special Correspondent Asaba was straddling her. And, just when he had summoned enough courage and tells himself I’m going to do it now, I’m going to do it and breathe a sigh of relief after this, the hatch suddenly opens and everyone outside the shelter sees him on top of her.”

 

She couldn’t accept his explanation. Yuuko thought that if it was just as Suizenji said, then all those people present at the scene would have been able to tell what her brother had been trying to do.

Suizenji continued speaking: “This is how the world works. Everyone there at that time should have seen the exact same thing, but humans only see what they want to see. They look at airplane exhaust and see UFOs, they look at their own shadow and see a ghost, they see a 1000-yen bill fluttering in the wind of their breath and imagine that they have telekinetic powers. Worse still, since there are many people out there who go around spreading rumors other than those who actually saw what happened for themselves, the story changes each time. They ignore the minor details of the incident because people don’t tend to find those parts very interesting, and even if they didn’t know what actually happened, they jump onto the bandwagon and start talking about it as if they did know. In the end, the incident is reduced to nothing more than a ‘interesting story that is easy to talk about’.”

 

His finger whipped up and pointed directly at Yuuko.

“Hey, don’t you dare take me at face value. Unlike those people, I take responsibility for what I say. I told you that whatever I said just now was simply how I imagined things to be, as I find it more believable than all the nonsense about that coward attempting sexual violence on anyone.”

Yuuko puffed up in anger once more.

“I said, Honii-chan isn’t a coward!!”

“Nope, he is a coward. A complete namby-pamby. I told him countless of times that once she would be ours if he manages to kiss her, and yet…”

Yuuko did a right-face and a right and turned her back on the river.

“I’m leaving!”

Suizenji abruptly got onto his feet.

“Bye-bye,” he said.

 Yuuko started to climb the concrete slope, water sloshing noisily around her legs as she got up from the river. When she got up onto the banks she stopped, and without turning around she clenched her fists and yelled: “A girl is telling you she wants to go home, so the least you could do is to send her back, right?”

“…the shit you saying now?”

Suizenji looked up at Yuuko, who was on top of the slope, with an irritated look.

“Don’t you think it would be embarrassing for me to go home alone looking like a drowned rat? Since it’s your fault that I got wet, you should take responsibility and stay with me till I reach home!”

 

She turned to glare down at Suizenji, with a face covered with cuts and bruises. Suizenji, who was still in the river, continued to look up at her. There were several cuts and bruises on his face, as well.

“—then, since you’re already soaked, help me pull up my motorbike from the river.”

Yuuko lips curled in a little moue of defiance, but she descended the slope once more, splashing water around her as she got back into the river.

Dusk continued to deepen.

“But, you know, I could send you back to your house, but…”

“It’ll be fine. You only need to be with me until I get to the front of my house. If anyone asked I would say that I got into a fight with a couple of delinquents in town, and after beating the shit out of sixteen of them I ran out of strength and got thrown into the river.”

“Then, I’ll say that I was nearly abducted by aliens in a UFO in a back-alley, so I tore those aliens to pieces and threw them around, and after five straight hours of fierce fighting I ran out of strength and got thrown into the river.”

Uh huh, Yuuko nodded in agreement.

“I don’t think anyone would be home anyway, if Onii-chan hasn’t reached home yet. Dad said he would be going to a meeting at the Association, and Mom is out for her Sunday Shaolin Kung Fu class.”

“!! You little shit! Jeez, you sure got me wondering if you have been dabbling in some sort of martial art.”

“I’ve only done it for half a year. I go with Mom to the dojo sometimes, but that’s all.”

“But you’re still far, far too green. You aren’t yet worthy of being my opponent.”

 

“What! That aside, do you always do things like these?! Pummel at girls with your fists?!”

“Harh? Would you have preferred to lose to me despite me going easy on you?”

“I haven’t lost to you!!”

“You womenfolk are all the same. Remember this; there is unwritten rule that says that the person who cries loses the fight, and the person who is able to make his opponent cry wins.”

“I did not cry!! This has nothing to do with womenfolk or unwritten rules!! This match isn’t over yet, we’ll settle this on another day, and the person who runs away from the fight will be the loser, you got me?!”

It took the two of them to haul the Super Cub out of the river and onto the road.

Yuuko walked ahead, and Suizenji followed behind her while pushing the Super Cub along.

“I forgot to ask, but…”

“Hm?”

Yuuko turned behind as she continued to walk. She pointed to the bag that Suizenji had stuck into the basket of his Super Cub.

“There are wireless transreceivers and computers in there, right? Will be they be alright, since the bag got drenched? Is the camera that you used to take a picture of the two people in the movie theater in there as well? Did you manage to get a good picture of them?”

“Ah, the bag is waterproof so the stuff in it should be fine, probably. I’m not too sure if I managed to get a picture of those two, though.”

“There is one more thing I’d like to ask you.”

“Hm?”

 

Yuuko stopped in her tracks, and Suizenji stopped, too.

Around them were telephone poles, a concrete block wall, hedges, a garbage collecting center, a Japanese Self Defense Force recruitment poster, all outlined in the dusk. They could smell curry cooking, and from somewhere the ending theme of an anime was playing.

Onii-chan, does he have hair, down there?”

 


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