Volume 2 Chapter 2: 18:47:32 I (Part 4)

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

Chapter 2 – 18:47:32 I (Part 4)

 

Iriya said, I’m sorry I cried.

In between the row of clubrooms and the fence behind it was a long, narrow strip of dirt, and Iriya dug a tiny hole in a corner and buried the dead cicada in it. She also picked up a broken piece of plywood from the pile of junk in the clubroom and wrote ‘cicada’ on it with a permanent marker, and placed it in the mound of dirt as a grave marker.

‘It’s time,” she said.

They turned the corner of the row of clubrooms, and glare of the midday sun bore down upon them. A klaxon horn tooted, and they raised their faces to see a white armored van parked at far corner of the school grounds with its side-hatch open. Beside the van stood a man dressed entirely in black despite the heat, his figure a shimmer in the heat haze as he waved at them, looking like a desert mirage.

 

“I’ll be off then,” was all she said before breaking into a run.

Iriya was quick on her feet; she ran like she weighed nothing at all as she flitted across the grounds. Her running figure blurred as it melted into the haze.

“—e-erm, would you be in school tomorrow?” Asaba called after her, but perhaps she didn’t hear him; Iriya did not answer, nor did she exchange any words with the man clad in black as she climbed into van via the open side-hatch. The van was so far away that Asaba could hardly hear the engine start, and the white armored slowly disappeared without a sound, like it had been nothing but an illusion.

Asaba was left alone, at the corner of the grounds.

The fourth period has not yet ended. A pervasive silence descended on the grounds, and Asaba could hear the humming of the generators on a nearby fruit farm. There was a faint smell of fertiliser and the chirring of many different species of cicadas in the air. The sky that loomed over him was so blue it was almost terrifying.

 

A peaceful day came and went.

 

When Asaba’s batch first enrolled into the school, the tallest construct in the vicinity of Sonohara Middle School was the public bath ‘Musashu’. It had a towering chimney, and was located near the center of the Rising Sun shopping street. The five-storey bath was completed in the beginning of the previous year, snagging the title for tallest building in the neighborhood, and even up to this day ‘Musashu’ continued to operate, and every day thick plumes of smoke can be seen billowing from its chimney, which was the public bath’s pride and joy.

 

Emerging fresh out of the baths and tossing off an entire bottle of coffee flavored milk, Hanamura let loose a belch and sat himself down on a lounge chair, dressed only in his boxers.

“What is that?” He laughed, as he pointed his bottle of milk at a notice on the wall of the changing room. The heading said: “The following actions are strictly prohibited in the baths,” followed by a list.

One, running in the washing areas of the baths.

One, swimming in the tubs.

One, the throwing of buckets and soap.

One, the use of a towel as a noose.

One, postmortem examinations.

“They’ve only recently put this up,” Nishikubo mused. Like Hanamura, he was wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.

 

Nishikubo was someone who knew ‘Musashu’ inside out. Unlike those who only patronized the baths during its peak season, Nishikubo had been particularly fond of going for a dip in the baths on the way home from school, like a typical middle-aged man. Even the old men who frequented ‘Musashu’ knew him by sight.

“Hm? I wonder if there is a notice like this in the girl’s changing rooms, too.”

“Probably not.”

It was already close to 10:00 PM, but many students from Sonohara Middle School could still be seen in the changing room. Hanamura left some change on the attendant booth and watched idly as female middle school students disappeared behind the wall separating the male and female sections of the bath, while Nishikubo continued to look in the general direction of the television sitting at the corner of the changing room.

“—with regards to this both the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the U.S. Air Force have maintained that investigations are currently underway. The CNN and other news agencies have reported that un-manned drones patrolling our surrounding waters have been shot down, and that the situation there has become even more disorderly. Experts say that this move by the Northern forces—”

“Hey. There is a picture of the Miho pine groves against Mount Fuji in the male side of the bath, but what picture do you think is on the other side of the bath?”

“Why don’t you go take a look for yourself if you really want to know?”

“I mean, aren’t you curious, too?”

“—I am.”

“Who do you think has the greatest figure amongst the girls in our class?”

 

“Tsuji. Or Sugiyama.”

“I’m for Sugiyama as well. Iriya, too.”

“Iriya?”

“Ah well it’s true she doesn’t have much of a bosom but how do I say this, well, her figure is on the whole pretty well proportioned, don’t you think? Hey Asaba, say something. You’ve seen it before, haven’t you… huh?”

Asaba, who was sitting beside Hanamura just moments ago, was no longer there.

“Where did Asaba go?”

Nishikubo looked around the male changing room, but Asaba was nowhere to be found.

“—he kept saying that he was starving, so maybe he went back already.”

“When did he leave?”

“Beats me.”

They didn’t enter the baths at the same time; when Nishikubo and Hanamura slid open the door to the baths they found Asaba already in the tub, dozing off. They got onto the weighing scales together, and before Hanamura left to buy coffee flavored milk he asked Asaba if he wanted any, and Asaba replied that he didn’t. He was definitely present, up till then.

 

“Lately, he seems to disappear into the background, doesn’t he?” Nishikubo murmured.

“Think so too,” Hanamura concurred. “Sometimes I’m not sure if he is around or not.”

 

Hugging a washbasin to his chest, Asaba walked along the row of clubrooms, his beach sandals slapping against the pavement as he went. Just as he was about to turn the corner to emerge into the back of the clubrooms, his stomach growled, once.

“Ah.”

He stopped in his tracks. It finally hit him that he had forgotten to stop by the convenience store on the way back to school.

Asaba felt a pang of annoyance with himself. Despite nursing his empty stomach the entire time he was soaking in tub, and even deciding what he wanted to eat from which convenience store, when he left ‘Musashu’ he had simply retraced his steps, all the way back to school.

Perhaps he had been too pre-occupied with walking. Yet his stomach did growl several times along the way back, and he did think about how hungry he was, but the thought of stopping by the convenience store never crossed his mind. He found it strange that it did not, even though he often made blunders like this. He must be flawed as a living creature, he thought.

It was too much trouble to go to the convenience store now. Besides, there should be some food leftover from all the food that Suizenji had bought back. Asaba mussed up his hair, which he hadn’t combed after his bath, as he settled on a plan of action. He shall eat bananas, or whatever that is left. Only if he got hungry in the middle of the night will he set off for the convenience store to buy something to eat.

 

As he entered the grounds via the north-facing side gate one sandal slipped off his feet. While standing on one foot he picked up the stray sandal, and admired how large it was. This pair of beach sandals was the pair that Suizenji left lying about in the clubroom. Asaba had large feet for his height, but the size of his feet was no match for Suizenji’s.

The school grounds that night was mostly void of people; occasionally, there would be nights that was as quiet as this one. Asaba abruptly became aware of the sound of insects in the air. Somewhere in the distance a patrol car could be heard giving chase to something, and Asaba wondered if it was Chief they were after. From somewhere a vending machine could be heard thanking someone, while a billboard for a store selling Buddhist altars towered over the outskirts of town.

All of a sudden, time seemed to contort.

The last night of the summer holidays. The night he first met Iriya.

Asaba spun around look behind him. There the pool lay, surrounded by the same unshakeable, impregnable wall, next to changing rooms that looked like concrete military dug-in forts.

It almost felt as if Iriya was in that pool now, wearing her school-issue swimsuit without a nametag and a swim cap in dead earnest, gently swirling the water in the pool with hands that had silver spheres buried in the wrists and gazing intently at the ripples spreading across the pool like radar waves.

He sighed.

 

Suizenji probably won’t return before tomorrow morning. He shall complete whatever work he could in the meantime, Asaba decided, and just as he approached the door to the Journalism Club’s clubroom he noticed a figure standing in front of it. The figure had a bag from a store dangling from one hand, and the other was jiggling the knob of the locked door. He was tall, but yet it didn’t quite look like Suizenji—

“—Asaba?” The person asked, noticing his presence before Asaba could open his mouth. “Back from the baths? Great timing, I was thinking of just leaving this and going back if no one was in.” With that, he held up the bag from the convenience store that he was carrying.

It was Enomoto.

It was an unexpected visit, and in his surprise time contorted inside Asaba’s thoughts once again. He did speak to Enomoto over the phone during the Shelter Incident, but this was the second time he actually met Enomoto, the first being that day on that night when he—

“—but, why are you…?”

“You see, quite a fair number of the younger folks from our base are involved in your school festival, yes? They do a flea market every year, and on top of that this year they will be doing a ‘Grenade Scooping’ stall and a short lecture on the art of self-defense and… I can’t remember the rest. In any case, I came to see how they were doing and to bring them food, and well… you’ve been a great help to Iriya too, so. Have you eaten?”

 

The worm in Asaba’s belly answered that question for him.

“Awesome. I bought these in bulk anyway. I have drinks, snack packets and instant cup ramen. Was wondering if I should get lunchboxes and sandwiches and the like, but then again I couldn’t get an estimate on how many people I was buying food for… so things that can keep a bit longer should be better choices, yes? —ah damn. Fuck.”

As Asaba wondered what the matter was, Enomoto continued:

“I bought instant cup ramen but there isn’t any hot water for it. What should we do?”

If you need hot water there is an electric kettle in the clubroom, answered Asaba with one half of his brain not working, much to Enomoto’s delight. Then an idea seemed to strike him, and Enomoto looked around him before turning to Asaba, a broad smile on his face:

“Hey. Do you have a ladder here, somewhere?”

 

The roof of the clubroom was a flat slab of concrete, and when Asaba sat on it with his legs crossed he could still feel the heat the sun left in it. The view from the roof was a good one as they now overlooked the grounds from a perfect height to observe the preparations for the festival; in the middle of the school grounds stood the yagura for the Firestorm, surrounded by enormous papier-mâché sculptures, foldable signboards, and large tents. Perhaps it was because there weren’t too many students staying over that night, for no lights illuminated the grounds and everything on it seemed to be engulfed into a dull darkness.

Like a playground in the dead of the night.

Asaba has never seen a playground at night before, but he could imagine it would look like that.

 

“It was when I was a kid, still in elementary school, I think,” explained Enomoto, who was all smiles as he poured hot water into his cup ramen, “that I saw my first total lunar eclipse, while on the roof of my house. It was winter at that time, and I brought whatever food I had in my house up onto the roof with me. You cannot believe how delicious that cup of ramen was, that night.”

And it was then he decided that every time he ate cup ramen out in the open it would have to be on a roof, declared Enomoto, with no small amount of swagger.

Eating cup ramen on a roof aside, wouldn’t eating cup ramen out in the open be a pretty rare occurrence to start with, for most people? Perhaps the common sense of the townsfolk did not apply to people who came from came from Sonohara Air Base, Asaba thought.

Enomoto placed a small torchlight on the lid of his cup ramen.

It was easy enough to carry over a ladder from the gym equipment storage. However, Asaba met with a slight problem when retrieving the electric kettle from the clubroom; it would be a terrible idea to let Enomoto inside the clubroom with solid evidence of their spying activities carelessly strewn all over the place. If Asaba managed to keep their preparations a secret all the way till the start of the festival and successfully complete the exhibition, he didn’t care what might happen after that. However, there was no way he would not stand by and watch all their efforts come to nothing, not now at least, so he had to think of an excuse.

“The Journalism Club’s activity for the festival is a secret,” Asaba has said, and managed to get himself out of that tight spot. However, on second thought it was Enomoto he was dealing with. Enomoto knew things like the fact that he still got into the bathtub with his sister till he was in Elementary Six, so maybe he had seen through Chief’s plan a long time ago… Asaba had a vague feeling that he already knew.

 

He wondered if his cup ramen was ready. Asaba often thought that three minutes was too long a cooking time for cup ramen whose label instructed him to wait three minutes. He liked his noodles a tad harder than usual.

“Iriya is always giving you trouble, isn’t she? I apologize for that,” said Enomoto.

Asaba’s hands, which was just about to pull the lid off the cup ramen, stilled.

“Erm—” started Asaba. He had no idea where his questions should begin. “Iriya has been absent from school more frequently these days, and I was wondering…”

“—we’ve been busy dealing with multiple issues lately. I feel bad that she needs to skip school, but I can’t do anything about it.” Enomoto reached for his cup ramen as well and pulled off the lid in one quick motion. He then broke apart his chopsticks and started stirring his ramen vigorously.

“She hasn’t been to school much at all, even before this. I bet she doesn’t speak to anyone in class apart from you. Am I right?”

“—erm, well.”

The truth was that Iriya wouldn’t even speak to Asaba in places where there were other people around.

“—well. It can’t be helped. Still, I wanted to meet you and thank you properly. Iriya has become much more cheerful these days. If you don’t eat it quickly it’ll get soggy, you know.”

 

Upon his words Asaba hurriedly picked up his own pair of chopsticks.

“Hey. Don’t tell her I said this, alright? Iriya probably always have this poker face on when you are around, but whenever she returns to the base it’s always ‘Asaba said this’ or ‘Asaba said that’ and wouldn’t shut up. It gets pretty annoying.”

Asaba hesitated. He could scarcely believe his ears. Nowhere in his imagination could he find an Iriya who ‘wouldn’t shut up’. Nor in reality too, of course. Enomoto could have been talking about some mysterious happening on the far side of moon for all he knew.

“She went on and on about you even today, when she returned to the base in the afternoon. With an all-knowing face she told me, ‘I’m going to do something for the school festival with Asaba.’ When I asked her if she even knew what a school festival was she had to cheek to answer, ‘I don’t, but Asaba will be with me so it’ll be okay.’ Imagine that!”

Asaba sat up with a start. He finally started to feel that what Enomoto said was indeed true, since ‘I’m going to do something for the school festival’ sounded awfully like something that Iriya would say.

“—truth is, I have something important to ask you regarding the festival. Do you happen to have a date for the Firestorm?”

At Enomoto’s unprecedented question Asaba’s words seemed to stick in his throat. Enomoto took a can of green tea from the convenience store bag and pulled off its tab with one hand before offering it to Asaba.

“N-No. Not really,” Asaba managed.

 

“You know. If you wanted someone to blame for this it’ll be me and the slip of my tongue but,” Enomoto bit his lip and looked down. “Since we were talking about the festival and all I carelessly asked her if she would be with you during the Firestorm. She looked taken aback, and once I saw that startled look on her face I knew I had said something completely unnecessary, but it was too late.”

Asaba himself had a startled looking expression on his face. He wasn’t very sure what it was that Enomoto was getting at.

“What I’m saying is that, Iriya now knows what the Firestorm is, and what it means. As to why she knows, well, it’s because I explained it her. I had to… she went so far as to threaten to not listen to the personnel at the base if I didn’t. And when she heard about the folk dance, she was over the moon. In fact, she was so happy that she wouldn’t stop talking after that. I’m sure that in her head right now she firmly believes that she will dance that folk dance with you during the Firestorm. However,” Enomoto exhaled a small sigh. “She probably will not be able to go to the festival.”

Asaba’s eyes went round. “—but, why…”

“Remember I said just now, that we have been busy dealing with many different issues lately? I’m sorry I cannot say any more than this.”

What issues? Busy doing what?

 

Folk dance aside, Asaba felt he should bear some responsibility for this. After all, he was the one who first put ideas in her head, by telling her how much fun school festivals were.

Enomoto’s gaze was inscrutable.

“Of course, I haven’t told her that. I couldn’t have. If she were to throw a tantrum right now we’ll all be in a grand fix. Naturally I do want to help her and all but her sortie is not something I can change at my own discretion.”

“What’s a sortie?”

“It’s nothing. Forget I said that. Shit. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe she doesn’t really understand what a folk dance is. A folk dance is a ‘dance with everyone’, and not a ‘dance with just Asaba’, since your dance partners would change every now and then during the dance. I explained that to her, I did, yet… Jeez, she can be such a blockhead at times.”

Enomoto slurped his noodles with great gusto, and his ramen disappeared in a flash. After drinking half of the remaining soup in his cup,

“—I don’t know whether to call it a joyful event or an embarrassing event, but it is still the Firestorm we are talking about, after all.”

Enomoto studied the bottom of his cup.

“Even if you don’t have a date, you probably have your own stuff to deal with and I know that I don’t have any right to ask this of you, but…”

 

He turned to face Asaba.

 “I’ll do my best to help Iriya be able to attend the school festival. Or do something so that she can make it for the Firestorm, at least. Just that, from the way things are looking now, I’ll have to tell her that her chances of being able to go is slim... but she does have a chance of getting back in time, and in the event that she does make it for the Firestorm, please dance the folk dance with her. There is no need to open up your schedule specially for her… you can certainly put her on the waiting list. It could be a ‘if she happens to make it, and you happen to have time’ kind of thing. I’ll back you up. If our plans fall through I’ll be the one to talk sense into her. Deal?”

Enomoto sounded completely serious.

“Since she is how she is, I doubt this will develop into anything romantic. She might get cold feet and back out at the very last minute. She might try to do something completely off track and cause trouble for people around her. I don’t know what she thinks of herself, but you probably feel like you are babysitting a kid. All I’m asking for you is to well, babysit a kid, that’s all. What do you think?”

Enomoto wasn’t being fair, Asaba decided.

Most people wouldn’t be able to say no to him if he phrased his request in that way unless they had a very, very good reason to turn him down. Enomoto probably took that into consideration.

 

However, he wasn’t averse to the idea of doing the folk dance with Iriya. Not the least bit, actually.

In fact, ‘not being averse to the idea’ was a bit of an understatement. Actually, he would…

“I understand,” he said.

“Sorry about all this,” said Enomoto with a deflated sigh of relief. “Really. This is a load off my shoulders.”

Asaba could feel an itch crawling up his back, and he had no idea what expression to put on his face. Instead, he chose to concentrate on eating his ramen.

“Hey.”

Asaba looked up at Enomoto, with noodles dangling from his lips. Enomoto drained his cup and his gaze fell on his watch.

“Let me show you something interesting. It’s my way of saying thank you.”

He then continued to frown at his watch while Asaba waited, not understanding anything, with noodles still dangling from his lips.

 

“Erm,” he ventured, but Enomoto said, “Wait. It’ll be in another 30 seconds or so.” He then continued to stare at his watch without moving, so Asaba continued to slurp up his noodles noisily and was about to place his lips on his cup to toss off his soup when—

“5 more seconds. 4, 3, 2, 1. Look up.”

 

Asaba tipped his head upwards. He looked into the starry night sky covering the countryside, from the roof of the two-storied clubhouse next to the school grounds that look like a playground in the dead of the night.

Since there weren’t many students staying back in school that night, the grounds were pitch dark. The sky was filled with stars. If the weather was fair and there weren’t any annoyingly bright lights in the area, a night sky filled with stars was not a rare sight to the townsfolk of Sonohara Town. Asaba wondered if that was what Enomoto wanted to show him. If so, what was he counting down for?

It was then he saw it.

There was something in the sky.

 

Somewhere very, very high up, something was… moving. All Asaba could see were faint flashes of light, and if no one directed his attention to it he would probably never have noticed. He had to squint hard at it in order not to lose sight of it.

Suddenly, the flashes of light, which Asaba thought looked slightly orange, seem to fade away a little. Then it disappeared altogether.

It was gone. The pulses, that was already very hard to spot, was gone, swallowed effortlessly by the blackness of the cosmos.

All that is left are the stars, still glittering in the sky.

A sticky heat spread across his thighs, and Asaba jumped up in alarm. He had inadvertently spilled the soup in his cup onto his lap. Almost throwing the cup aside, he frantically rubbed at the spot on his pants, hoping that the soup will not stain his pants Eventually, he got onto his feet while pinching at the wet spot on his pants, a picture of weariness and dejection as he raised his face.

Enomoto had disappeared.

 

Asaba hastily scanned the roof. The bag of food Enomoto had brought over was there. The empty cup of ramen, split chopsticks and its packaging were there. The kettle he brought up from the clubroom was also there, and the Mag-Lite flashlight he brought along just in case they needed one was also there.

However, Enomoto was nowhere to be found.

Only Asaba remained, standing on the roof of the two-storied clubhouse next to the school grounds that look like a playground in the dead of the night. A gentle breeze was blowing, and the school was bathed in the sounds of insects.