Demon Child, Chapter 2.
from Aili's translation of Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
It was the third day. Three hours of classes had ended, and he had finished writing in his training journal. He was just about to go home when students from 2-6 came looking for Gotou. They said that when they were organizing square planks in preparation for the athletics festival, they had accidentally broken a window. He rushed over to the area behind the gym where students were busily carrying on their work and sorted everything out according to Gotou's instruction. The students that had stayed after school to prepare for the athletics festival had gradually gathered in a crowd. If there were students in his class that stayed after school, Gotou had to stay after as well. And if Gotou stayed behind, it was natural that Hirose not leave either.
While thinking about these things, Hirose contacted the faculty member in charge and was walking in the hall on his way back to the prep room when he saw someone in the 2-6 classroom. No one had put in a request to stay in the classroom after school today, so he looked into the classroom apprehensively and discovered that the person inside was none other than Takasato.
Hirose couldn't tell what he was doing in there, nor could he see if he was thinking about something or just staring off into space. He could only make out that he was sitting in his own seat with his hands together and placed lightly upon the desk, looking in the direction of the window. His only feeling was that he was simply there.
"What's the matter? You're still here?" asked Hirose as he stood in the wide doorway of the classroom. Takasato suddenly turned his head and then quietly nodded.
"Working on the preparations?" Hirose subconsciously wanted to find other things to talk to him about, and so he asked this as he walked into the classroom.
Takasato looked directly back at Hirose's face.
It was at that time that Hirose sensed something zipping by Takasato's feet. He stopped walking and chased with his eyes the shadow that crossed his vision. The speed of the shadow was quicker than his eyes and slipped out of sight. It had happened in an instant and Hirose hadn't really gotten a good look, but he felt like that thing looked like an animal. A stunned Hirose looked in the direction the shadow had darted, but of course he didn't see anything.
Did you just see that? he wanted to ask as he looked straight back at Takasato. There was no color to Takasato's gaze. Hirose suddenly felt awkward and could only shift his line of sight to a corner of the classroom. The dry summer air had settled in the empty classroom.
Hirose smirked and then looked over again at Takasato, who was also looking back at Hirose. "Staying behind to catch up on work?"
"Then, are you feeling unwell?" asked Hirose as he leaned in, but Takasato simply looked up at Hirose and shook his head.
Takasato's responses were always short like that. Hirose looked at the face that looked back at him. Takasato's face didn't have any expression; it was peaceful like that of someone who was fully awake.
"You're Takasato, right?" Hirose reconfirmed the name that he already kept firmly in his mind. Takasato merely nodded.
"Aren't you participating in any after school clubs?"
"Why is that?" Hirose thought about how it would be possible for Takasato to respond with a little bit more and so he asked this. Takasato tilted his head slightly and replied in a voice calm beyond his years.
"Because I don't have an interest in joining any clubs."
Though Takasato had said more, the incongruous feeling he gave off still didn't change. Takasato was not giving Hirose the cold shoulder, but it didn't seem like he was welcoming Hirose either. It was simply because Hirose had talked to him that he respectfully responded. There was merely this feeling.
"What are you doing then? Ah, I'm not interrogating you. I'm only curious."
Takasato tilted his head a little and replied, "I'm looking outside."
"Just looking? Aren't you thinking about anything?"
What a strange guy. Hirose didn't think he'd see anything interesting, but he still looked out the window. Because of the angle, Hirose could only see half of the gym's roof from where he was, and the horizon above it, which looked like a table made out of blue glass. Perhaps the only thing that Takasato could see from where he was sitting was the sky.
"Only the sky is visible."
Takasato turned his head toward the window as well. From the angle of his gaze, he appeared to be looking at the sky. The weather outside was good and though it was September, one could still not see the day growing darker. The cloudless and cold blue background of the sky extended without end.
"I don't see what's so interesting about this view." It was obvious from Hirose's tone that he was puzzled, but Takasato didn't particularly respond. The corners of his mouth simply rose slightly and revealed a faint smile.
For some reason, Hirose felt uneasy, but he was unwilling to turn around and escape from the classroom, so he asked Takasato a few meaningless questions. What competitions was he going to participate in during the athletics festival? Did he like exercise? Was school enjoyable? What was his best subject? Who was his first-year homeroom teacher? What junior high had he attended? Who made up the members of his family?
Takasato looked at Hirose's eyes and answered each question plainly. He had not decided to participate in any competitions; he neither liked nor disliked exercise; he did not think that school was especially boring; he didn't have a subject in which he excelled, etc. He always replied to Hirose's questions with the shortest and simplest answers.
He wouldn't offer anything that he wasn't asked, and he didn't ask Hirose any questions of his own. Whenever he was asked something, he would respond, but if no questions were asked, he said nothing. Though he didn't appear to be bothered by Hirose, he wasn't actively seeking to have a conversation either.
"This might be a little blunt, but I think you're a bit unusual. Has anyone told you that before?"
Hirose knew that this question was somewhat rude, but he couldn't help but ask. As a result, he received a short and simple "yes" from Takasato, which carried with it not even a sliver of emotion.
"That's what I thought," smiled Hirose. Takasato cracked a faint smile as well. His expression was like the insincere smile that adults of experienced used to be polite. Takasato didn't give people a crude impression, so he didn't make people feel discomfort, but there was still no way to get rid of that certain feeling of unease. As for his attitude and voice, which were both very calm, it's better to say that they gave people an impression of experience, than to say that they carried with them the sense of maturity that was well past his age. Also, that feeling really didn't match up well with his actual youthful appearance. This inconsistency was in every one of his movements and in everything he said, and it extremely puzzled Hirose.
Hirose personally grasped the strange quality that Gotou had talked about. It might be better to say that Takasato was "strange" than to call him "unusual." There was nothing about him that made others unhappy, so it seemed like "having strange quality" was the only appropriate way to describe him. He couldn't tell what Takasato was thinking about, but he could tell that he didn't have any warped thoughts going through his head.
"Am I bothering you? Please excuse me."
Hirose said this, and that smiling face replied, "Not at all."
"Takasato's really unusual," said Hirose when he was in the chemistry prep room during the lunch break on the following day. Gotou had gone out for lunch.
There were four students next to him. Hirose figured that no matter if it was the present or the past, there were always going to be those who made the prep room their home base. Either because they felt that there was too much of something or not enough, their whereabouts could not be found in the classroom. Except when Hirose was attending school, all the students who had gathered together in the prep room were unparalleled. Compared with those who came before, the students who were surrounding him now eating lunch, gave him the feeling that they did not size up very well.
"We're aware that Takasato is really unusual." The student who said this with a tone of wonder while turning his head upwards, was called Tsuiki. Like Takasato, he was a student in 2-6, and it seemed as if it wasn't until this year that he began hanging out in the prep room.
"I know. I talked to him yesterday."
There was nowhere else as suited to eating lunch as the prep room. Not only was the natural lighting good, but the air conditioning was also on in the summertime. Gotou would also generously treat everyone to tea. It's just that he served it in beakers.
"At a glance, he seems like a really gentle guy, right?" said Tsuiki a bit sarcastically.
"Are you saying that he's not actually gentle?"
"Well, maybe." This was said with the slightest bit of dissatisfaction. Or was there another way of looking at it? A student named Iwaki looked at Tsuiki's face.
At Tsuiki's blunt refusal, Iwaki looked very obviously disappointed. He was a second-year student as well. He was in class 2-5, but he took his electives with class 2-6.
"What? Do you hate Takasato?"
"What is it? Just say it!" Iwaki refused to let it go, and Tsuiki turned away in an attempt not to answer this question. The first-year Nozue and the third-year Hashigami looked on with high interest.
"Is it just that he's a gloomy person? That the first impression he gives people is bad. Or did that guy secretly do something?" asked Iwaki.
Tsuiki blurted out, "Anyways, he's just weird."
His tone was strangely anxious, and everyone had hesitant expressions on their faces.
"How is he weird?" Hashigami continued to ask, and Tsuiki looked even further down while he muttered in a resolute tone.
"Because that guy's a bit different from other people."
Hirose heard something in Tsuiki's tone that made him think. He tilted his head and asked, "Is Takasato disliked?"
Hearing this, Tsuiki looked a little distressed.
"I don't think anyone likes him." After saying this, he looked at Hirose. "It's best not to have anything to do with him."
Tsuiki didn't answer.
"Does he have some sort of problem?"
"—Anyways, he's just different."
Iwaki let out an exaggerated sigh.
"He just doesn't talk much. Is bullying still going on these days?" asked Iwaki mockingly. Hearing this, Tsuiki looked down again. After he was at a loss for a moment, he spoke in a meaningfully quiet voice.
"Don't tell anyone I told you this," he warned those around him. "Takasato's experienced kamikakushi."
In that moment, Hirose thought, what written characters go with "kamikakushi"? After a little bit of thinking, he finally thought of them, "spiriting away," and he couldn't help but open his mouth widely. [note: this part doesn't quite work in english. after hearing tsuiki say "kamikakushi," hirose was at a loss initially as to how to write it, and therefore what it meant. after he figured it out, he realized that it meant "spiriting away."]
"A spiriting away? You mean one day he just vanished suddenly?"
Tsuiki nodded. "I think it happened when Takasato was in elementary school. He really did just suddenly disappear one day, and then he suddenly came back one year later. Where he was or what he did during that time, absolutely no one knows."
"What does Takasato say about it?"
"He doesn't seem to remember anything about it."
Hashigami leaned forward curiously. "Are you sure that it wasn't just a kidnapping? It was really a spiriting away?"
"I guess. That's why Takasato had to do a year of school over."
"That's ridiculous," said Hashigami derisively. "So what? It's just hearsay."
Tsuiki glared at Hashigami. "It's real! Because this story's really well-known. Anyways, that's why Takasato's so weird."
Hirose was really puzzled. This area had been developed quickly within a few years, but he had heard that Tsuiki and Takasato had lived around here since before the development push started. The so-called "well-known story" didn't represent a "well-known school story," but a "well-known local story" instead. It made sense up to this point, but to speak of "spiriting away"...
"That's nonsense." Iwaki's words ended this conversation, but the phrase "spiriting away" was stuck deep in Hirose's mind. Hirose essentially had no interest in mysticism or paranormal phenomena, but that didn't mean that he rejected it all. Not to mention that when it came to Takasato, it was very hard for him to treat this subject like idle talk as Iwaki had done.
The fifth period immediately afterwards was the mandatory club. Hirose and Gotou, who had returned from lunch, proceeded together to the art room, where most of the students had already arrived.
Though it was called a mandatory club, in reality it wasn't all that different from an art club. After Yoneda the art teacher perfunctorily took roll, the students left the art classroom in twos and threes. Hirose knew from his own previous experience that though the students all carried their sketchbooks under their arms when they left, most of them either went to the library or an empty classroom to study, or they went somewhere else to have fun. The teachers gave their silent consent to that sort of thing as well, and the students knew about such a thing, thus the cultural clubs were all ordinarily those that the most students signed up for. Of course, among the students there were also those who really liked to paint and remained in the art classroom. These students started on their work as Gotou and Yoneda had a leisurely conversation over to the side.
Takasato was one of the students who remained. He opened up his easel and set it in a corner of the classroom, and then took a canvas out of the communal locker.
"Is he going to do an oil painting?" guessed Hirose quizzically. Perhaps it was because the atmosphere that he had about him was associated with watercolors. Using movements that revealed familiarity, Takasato took a box of paints out of the locker and opened it. Hirose walked towards him silently.
After he walked to a place where he could see the canvas, he greeted Takasato. Hearing Hirose's voice, Takasato looked back and, after recognizing that it was Hirose, he nodded a little bit. His face was like that from the day before, revealing a smiling expression. Hirose raised his hand and waved it, and then looked over to Takasato's canvas and watched closely as he painted for a while.
That painting was one that truly left a deep impression on people. For a long time this was how Hirose looked at Takasato and then looked at his painting.
"...It might be a bit impolite to ask about something like this..." Hirose didn't know quite how to say it, but he knew it wasn't possible for him not to ask. "What is that?"
On the canvas, the colors that appeared to have been applied without the least bit of order, were only pure colors. It seemed as though he could see some faint shapes, but it was just when he concentrated his sights to try to grasp onto a concrete form that he again felt the outlines were excessively murky, and he wasn't able to see any real shapes. The use of colors was very complex. Mostly, the colors that Takasato used were soft colors, but he felt that they were extremely opaque. It was hard for him to say that they were pretty colors. Regardless of if it was the colors or the blending of the colors, neither could be described as pretty, and also it looked like there wasn't a composition to be spoken of.
"Is it some sort of vista?" asked Hirose very confusedly, making Takasato widen his eyes a little bit.
"Yes." He softly squeezed out a smile. It looked almost as if it was a real smile.
"Where is it?" Hirose asked this in an interested manner, but Takasato shook his head.
"I don't remember."
"You don't remember, but you can still paint it?" asked Hirose rhetorically, in doubt. Takasato showed a focused expression as he nodded.
"I was thinking, if I managed to paint it, would I be able to remember it then?"
"I see," replied Hirose. He was amazed at this strange sort of guy. Hirose left Takasato with several doubts in his gut. He suddenly remembered Tsuiki's words: He's experienced a spiriting away, and one year later, he didn't remember anything.
He turned back to look at Takasato. He really wanted to ask him: was that vista from when he had been spirited away? He immediately forced himself to keep his mouth shut, and got rid of such an idea. Without giving it a thorough consideration, he definitely couldn't ask something like that offhand. He couldn't just blindly believe what Tsuiki had said, and he also felt that if it was to be believed, then he would be even less able to rudely touch upon this question.
"What a peculiar guy," mumbled Hirose to himself.
If he had really underwent a spiriting away, then Takasato really didn't remember what happened to him within that span of time but hoped that he would be able recall it. It must be rather discomfiting for a person to have lost a block of their memory. Despite this, Takasato was still so positive about wanting to remember. This fact puzzled Hirose.
People are extremely sensitive living things. Tsuiki's tone was the most typical expression of this. Takasato had previously undergone the experience of spiriting away, so he was a bit strange. He was a bit different than them—so he wasn't able to create a good feeling in other people.
Even if a person deliberately hides their own likes and dislikes, the feelings will still be conveyed to other people. Hirose didn't suppose that Takasato wasn't able to pay attention to this. Did Takasato not want to wipe out the "spiriting away"? Had he never thought to wipe it clean from his own past experiences? Had he never thought about forgetting what had happened to him before? —Or, had there even been something like a "spiriting away" after all?
- - - - -
During the club, Takasato silently painted on his canvas. He would often stop, as he thought things over while he painted, and then he would also often use a knife to scrape off some colors. The only thing that Hirose could understand was that painting this painting—when he thought back on this later—was very important to Takasato.
On the fifth day, the fifth period on Friday was a long homeroom. Naturally, the topic was locked strictly on the athletics festival to be held just a week away. After various warnings were communicated to them simply, all there was to do was to stand at the side and watch as the class representative arranged the working preparations.
The students conversed about disparate topics while the meeting was going on. It was only because the teacher wasn't standing up at the podium that the classroom revealed itself to be much noisier than usual. Just about everyone had to decide the competitive events and the distribution of the prep work, but the entire process was not much different from a leisurely chat.
Hirose looked about the whole classroom while standing in the back. Takasato had not involved himself in the chatter. He had been completely isolated by the atmosphere of the classroom, just as if the air around him had been separated. No one sought to talk to him, and he didn't actively seek to talk with other people. He simply sat and watched as the others conferred. The attitude exhibited by the people around him was as if he wasn't there at all.
The collaborating seemed already to have a conclusion, and the competitions that all the students were taking part in were clearly set. Committee leader Gotanda counted the names in the competitions on the blackboard to reconfirm, and then he suddenly said, "Huh? We're short one person."
Hirose realized that the missing name was Takasato's, but he didn't say anything. Takasato likewise didn't say anything in particular. The student who sat at the front whispered into Gotanda's ear, and Gotanda became flustered as he looked at Takasato.
"Takasato, do you have an event that you prefer to be in?" Gotanda's voice sounded nervous. Takasato offered a short and simple, "no." Gotanda hesitantly looked from Takasato to the blackboard.
"All that's left is the 200-meter dash. Is that all right?"
Takasato nodded without an expression on his face. Gotanda relax with a sigh of relief.
Hirose watched everything develop as he tried to grasp the atmosphere of the classroom. Takasato was isolated, and all the students deliberately ignored his presence. What was really strange was that Hirose couldn't feel any spitefulness here. It looked as if no one excluded him because they held some sort of malice. They just purposefully avoided looking at Takasato. —This was the impression that Hirose got.
- - - - -
Afterwards, the students left the classroom for the prep work to which they had all been assigned. According to convention, the athletics festival divided first-years through third-years vertically to compete in three teams. Classes five and six of each year, which was traditionally called the Blue Army, were combined into one team. The fifth period on Friday was a long homeroom for the entire school, so first-year and third-year students began to frequent the classroom.
Gotou yawned as he went back to the prep room, though Hirose remained in the classroom. He inattentively watched the students chatting as they worked.
"Hirose sensei, if you're free, can you help us out?" Having been called out in this way, Hirose smirked.
"What would be best for me to do?"
"Help cut this up." The student handed over newspapers. It seemed like they were preparing to do papier mache. Takasato sat not too far away, and was also compliantly cutting something up with scissors.
"Oh? Hirose-san, have you been recruited too?"
Hearing this, Hirose looked up and saw that it was the third-year Hashigami popping his head in.
"Isn't this what apprentice teachers do?"
"Training is very tough, after all. —Is there anyone here in charge of the cheer squad?" asked Hashigami as he looked over at the people that remained in the classroom. A student raised his hand, and Hashigami began to pass on some coordination info about how he had to stay after school to discuss arrangements for the cheer squad.
"Takasato, next, do this one." Just at that time, someone handed a portion of blue cloth over to Takasato, who was then sorting out the paper he had cut.Takasato nodded and took the piece of cloth. Hashigami stared over at him."So you're Takasato?"
"Yes." Regardless of whether it was a student teacher or a senpai, there was no change in Takasato's attitude. Those expressionless eyes simply returned Hashigami's stare.
"Ah huh," replied Hashigami with much interest, and then asked, "So I hear you were spirited away when you were little?"
It's impossible to fully describe the change that underwent the room after he said that. Hirose felt as if a nervous feeling so thick it could almost be seen snatched up the students present. In an instant, everyone once again went back to their work pretending as though nothing had happened at all, but they all looked like they were desperately trying to look away from something that made them uneasy.
"Was that for real?" asked Hashigami with a tone full of curiosity. Takasato just nodded silently.
"It wasn't just a kidnapping? I hear you don't remember it at all. Is that true?"
"Yes," replied Takasato plainly. He didn't look like he was especially uncomfortable.
"So it was a so-called loss of memory, huh? Amazing..."
Then, for the first time Takasato wrinkled his brow. Though it didn't seem as though he was unhappy about anything, one could faintly feel that he didn't like discussing this topic.
"You sure you weren't abducted by a UFO? You hear a lot of that sort of thing happening lately. Those creepy aliens do experiments on people's bodies, and then after they wipe your memory, they send you back."
Takasato opened his mouth to speak. This was the first time Hirose saw him talk without being prompted.
"Who did you hear this from?"
Hashigami lifted his chin and without any hesitation, he glanced over at Tsuiki. You cruel jerk, thought Hirose to himself. Then, he heard the violent crash of a chair falling over, and his expression froze. He looked back at where the noise came from and simply saw that Tsuiki's expression had changed and that he was now standing.
What surprised people was the look of panic on Tsuiki's face.
"Please, believe me! I didn't say it!" denied Tsuiki fervently.
Hashigami laughed, "Wasn't it you who said it?"
"Not me! I didn't say anything!"
Takasato looked down. His brow was a little bit furrowed, but still no one was sure what sort of feeling it represented.
"It wasn't me, Takasato."
A stunned Hashigami followed Tsuiki with his eyes as he fled out of the classroom.
"What wrong with him?"
Hirose was also dumbfounded. Why had Tsuiki been so anxious that his entire expression had changed? At this time, Hirose discovered something else, that all the students who were present had strange looks on their faces.
They all seemed to be nervous, and moreover they all tried their best to cover up that nervousness. Every person pretended that they had not noticed Tsuiki's unusual behavior. Hirose thought that they all looked to have just the sort of response people have when they witness a drunk guy making a scene on the train.
Hirose looked back at Takasato. Takasato's face was blank again. He didn't appear to be the type of person who was secretly violent. Hirose didn't consider him to be someone who would inspire fear in others.
"I think this Tsuiki is turning out to be even weirder," mumbled Hashigami to himself. Still, none of the students there gave any acknowledgement.
After school was out, the clamor in the schoolyard had still not quieted down. One of the teams was standing under the window of the chemistry prep room, working hard on a signboard, and somewhere, the cheer squad of the Red Army was practicing. Class 2-6 had also registered to stay after school. Gotou painted blithely, so Hirose was free to bury his head into his training journal.
It was just then that Gotanda from the student committee hurried in while in a state of agitation.
"Sensei, someone's hurt."
Hirose suddenly dropped the pen in his hand.
"Tsuiki? What happened? Was there a fight?" asked Hirose apprehensively, because he couldn't forget that strange scene.
Unexpectedly, Gotanda shook his head.
"When we were making a billboard, his leg was accidentally hurt with a saw."
"Oh... I see." Strangely enough, Hirose let out a sigh of relief.
"It is serious?" asked Gotou, and Gotanda shrugged. It didn't appear to be a very serious matter.
"When we took him to the infirmary, he was bleeding a bit."
"I'll go check up on him," said Hirose as he stood up. Gotou nodded at him.
- - - - -
When Hirose and Gotanda rushed to the infirmary, Tsuiki had already gone home.
"He went home?"
If he could make it home on his own, then it shouldn't have been a very serious injury, right? Hirose felt like a burden had been lifted from his shoulders, but at the same time it was hard for him to relax. The teacher-nurse Totoki smiled wryly.
"I don't know why, but he seemed very intent on hurrying back home."
The teacher-nurse while Hirose was in school had already reached retirement age and retired. Totoki was one of the few teachers that Hirose had never seen before.
"Actually, his injury wasn't so serious that he needed stitches, but I told him it would be best if he went to the hospital for a visit."
Hirose raised his hand and waved it at Gotanda, who then nodded blankly and left the infirmary. Hirose then give Totoki a light nod.
"Sorry for the trouble."
"No trouble at all." After he said this, Totoki, who was close to Hirose in age, smiled.
"Would you like some tea? How is your training going?"
"It's a bit easier than I thought it would be."
At Totoki's gesture, Hirose sat down in a chair at the side. Totoki prepared a cup of chilled barley tea with practiced movements.
"Hirose sensei, what subject do you teach?"
"Ah, then your supervising teacher must be Gotou sensei, yes?"
"Isn't that tough? I hear he thrusts all of his students upon the student teacher."
"Yeah, he does," smirked Hirose as he picked up the teacup.
"Totoki sensei, are you also staying after school and working overtime?"
"When it's time for the athletics festival or the culture festival, I always have to wait until the last student goes home before I can leave. Because, someone might need me at any time."
Totoki laughed calmly and sat down as well.
"Kids these days are a bit clumsy. Just now, that..." As Totoki said this, he looked at the notebook on the desk. "Tsuiki-kun? He said that he had securely propped the board up with his leg and the sawing was done very carefully."
"He used his leg?"
"He used his knee to prop up the board, and as a result, he cut his shin. For sure he was a bit clumsy in supporting the board, but the person doing the sawing wasn't too great either."
Hirose looked over at Totoki again.
"He didn't hurt himself?"
"Nope. There were other students helping with the sawing."
"Do you know the name of the student who was using the saw?" asked Hirose. Totoki looked uncertainly at his notebook again.
"It was probably the student that came here with him. Let's see, Seta-kun."
Hirose couldn't help but let out a sigh.
"What is it?"
Hearing Totoki ask this, Hirose hurriedly shook his head. Totoki tilted his head in doubt and said, "Well, their situation wasn't so bad. The third-year that came before them actually got a nail driven into his own hand."
"A third-year?" Hirose had a bad feeling about this. Totoki nodded.
"He'd somehow put a 5-inch nail into his palm, up to the head of the nail, and he'd done it to himself. I really wonder how he was using the hammer that he was able to do that."
Totoki nodded. "I sent him to the hospital immediately, since he was using an old nail that someone'd brought. This sort of thing is what I'm most afraid of."
"Oh no, I wasn't asking about that." Even Hirose thought that his thinking was a little strange, but no matter what, he wanted to find out for sure the name of that student. "What was that student's name?"
Totoki widened his eyes and flipped through his notebook for a third time.
"Third year, class five's Hashigami."
On his way back to the prep room, Hirose didn't know at all how to settle his mood.
Tsuiki and Hashigami. It looked like there was another meaning to this. Although he understood that there probably wasn't any particular significance to the whole thing. It seemed to him that he had seen strange signs one after the other: Hashigami, the nervous students, Tsuiki who had fled so quickly—and Takasato.
From the head office area that housed the infirmary, he could go directly back to the special classroom section. He slowly ascended the stairs of the head office area to the third floor. A landing was designed between the sets of stairs where they turned, after which one could continue upwards. The wall of the landing was taken completely up by a window that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. On the other side of the window, he could see the colors of dusk draping over the school building. He was directly facing the neatly arranged classrooms of the classroom section, with the wide courtyard lawn in between.
The glass forming a horizontal row was the window of the hallway. Most of the interiors of the windows were lit up with lights. When Hirose drew his face near to the glass at the landing, he could clearly see the inside of the classroom section. Students were walking back and forth along the lit hallway. He could even see the silhouettes of the working students through the open doors of the classrooms.
Hirose forgot about agitation that he had just had, and without thinking, he smiled. The excitement of the students that arose concerning festivals was always like that of working mice, and there was something about them that made him smile. Hirose was looking around at all the students when something suddenly caught his eye. His line of sight stopped upon a student who was standing by the window at one end of the school building.
In the midst of all the bustling to-and-fro, there was only one person who wasn't moving at all. He was standing at the window on the second floor and appeared to be glancing down at the lawn.
Hirose couldn't help but blink his eyes a bit and then close them for a second. Afterwards, he opened them widely and looked toward the far side of the second floor. He raised his hand and wiped at the glass, and then he stared even more closely over there.
The distance between the two sections wasn't close enough for him to see the face of that student clearly, but Hirose could see that there were arms resting upon his shoulder. They were bare arms. The uniforms that the students wore currently were short-sleeved, so it was normal to be able to see a student's elbow. However, those arms were exposed up to the shoulder. It was as if the bare arms were covering up the student from behind. For a moment, Hirose had thought that the student had his back toward someone, but he couldn't see the rest of the person's head and shoulders behind the student. There were simply two arms resting lightly upon his shoulders.
Hirose thought he was seeing something that couldn't exist. Why couldn't he see the head and shoulders of the owner of those two arms? The upper arm seemed to rest completely over the student's shoulders, and yet Hirose couldn't spot any sort of figure behind him. The posture of the student with the arms around his shoulders didn't look as if it was bearing any sort of weight. Those arms almost looked like they grew out of his neck and hung in front of his chest. A few students passed behind him quickly, though none of them discovered anything abnormal.
When Hirose was watching again and the again the student and the arms, the student suddenly turned to the side. He turned only his head, and from where he was looking emerged two students.
Hirose couldn't help but let out a sigh. It must have been just a prank. He took the fake arms that he had used in the costume competition—one this school's most famous competitions—and was hanging them in front of his chest as a joke. And then when people noticed this, they called out to him. That must have been it.
The student by the window said something, and then he turned so that his back was facing the window. In the extremely short time it took for him to turn completely around, it seemed as though those arms had retracted toward his back and appeared to disappear. The entire process looked a lot like arm-like snakes that slithered backwards. Of course no figure could be seen at the back of the student who was now leaving the window.
- - - - -
Hirose stood there absent-mindedly for a while. He rested his forehead on the glass and envisioned what he had just seen over again.
"It was because of the distance," said Hirose to himself. "Yes, it was because of the distance and the backlighting."
Now, in the midst of the preparation for the athletics festival, the inside of the school was overflowing with all sorts of things. There were papier mache figures, costumed props, and things the cheer squad utilized that one couldn't even figure out the use of if one just glanced at it.
It must have been because of the unusual circumstances that caused him to look at that situation as he did.
This was what Hirose told himself and then he sighed. The warm air had made his forehead damp with sweat. He forced himself not to think about it anymore and took this opportunity to turn away. The picture of what had happened then settled in a deep corner of his mind.
Deep in the night, a man hurried back to his home. The night air brushed gently against his sweaty skin, causing him to sweat even more.
He'd drank quite a bit. The man walked upon the road relying on his homing instinct, though to the contrary, there was no way for his instincts in to kick in here in this residential neighborhood where all the buildings looked the same. More than once, he'd rang someone else's doorbell.
With his memory, some sense still remained in him, and thus he would often stop, raise his head, and look up. With the buildings of the same exterior design lined up neatly, they looked like giant gravestones. He did frequent verifications. The building numbers were hung in big, color ceramics on the side of the highest floor of the 12-story buildings facing the emergency ladder.
"I've done this so many times before, why do I still get it wrong?" he thought to himself.
At the same time, he was reminded of the makuragaeshi.
Back in his hometown, there was a legend concerning the "makuragaeshi." It's said there is a demon called the "makuragaeshi" that comes out at night and moves the pillow of a person deep in sleep to an unusual place. Every time he went to his grandmother's house in the countryside, the "makuragaeshi" would appear. When he woke up in the morning, his pillow would always be resting by his feet. Although, when he remained motionless after he opened his eyes, it felt like the position of his futon was different. When he thought about it now, it was probably just that his sleeping posture hadn't been very good, but he still couldn't forget that mysterious feeling, the uneasiness of waking up in the old tatami room of the old country house. After some careful thought, the futon hadn't moved the night before, but nevertheless, there remained thoughts he wasn't able to explain.
He smirked as he stopped walking. He stared up at the building in front of him. He had confirmed that he was standing in front of the building he should have returned to.
He nodded arbitrarily and looked up once again. There were no other figures in the road on which cars were prohibited from driving. His steps echoed throughout the wide open space. It looked like the tall buildings were about to fall on top of him. He turned his head and looked around, feeling faintly dizzy.
He shook his head about and discovered that there seemed to be a white light on top of the building that he was looking at.
It was shining weakly and dimly. There was a dim, round glowing at the edge of the roof. He a blinked a few times, and then stared fixedly at it. He saw something rising out of the light.
The man's jaw dropped in surprise. It was as if some animal had climbed up out of the light. He didn't know exactly what it was, but he knew that it was a big beast with four legs. It was too big and tall to be a dog. The body of the four-legged beast grew dark and there was no way for him to identify it, though he saw that it was giving off a faint glow from its back.
"What the heck is that?" he asked himself, but before he could think anymore about it, the four-legged beast leapt into the air. It passed over the top of his head as fast as if it had been swimming in the water, and glided across the 12-story buildings.
Even after its silhouette disappeared, he still stood there dumbfounded, looking in that same direction.