Demon Child, Chapter 4.
from Aili's translation of Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
After school let out on Monday, Hirose saw Takasato in the classroom. Thick clouds drifted in the heavy sky. The sky was getting darker earlier than usual. The sound of an announcement was transmitted from some far away place in the school. The uproarious noise of the cheer squad came in waves from the schoolyard.
Hirose was aimlessly wandering the school grounds. He unconsciously walked towards the 2-6 classroom, and as a result, he found Takasato sitting there by himself.
- - - - -
"Takasato, are you alone?"
He needed a little bit of courage, but Hirose still tried his best to say this as if nothing had happened at all. Takasato looked back at Hirose. Scattered on the desks around him were some props for what use he didn't know.
"Where are the others?" asked Hirose.
Takasato replied in an indifferent tone, "They went to buy things."
"Can I talk with you for a little bit? Will that bother you?"
His responses were still as short as they could be. Hirose was about to ask something, but then realized that he didn't know what he should ask. He didn't know what was appropriate to talk about.
"Takasato...you had to redo a year?" He sounded it out with this question. Takasato looked straight at Hirose, and used an expressionless sound to reply.
"Was it because you were sick?"
Hirose himself felt that asking this question was a bit mean, but as the person who was asked this, Takasato didn't appear to particularly care. He replied very naturally.
"I think I've been spirited away before."
"Previously, Hashigami said that, but the so-called spiriting away..."
"I guess I just disappeared."
Hirose stared at Takasato's face. No expression appeared on his face.
"I don't quite...understand."
After he said this, Takasato tilted his head a little bit.
"On a certain day, I vanished. After a year, I reappeared. So everyone says that I was spirited away."
"How did you spend that time?"
"I don't remember."
"You don't remember anything at all?"
An indifferent voice and an indifferent expression, he looked as if he was simply stating a fact.
"Does talking about this make you uneasy?" asked Hirose directly. Takasato tilted his head.
"Well...? Isn't it a question about how you feel?"
Takasato looked to be considering something, and then he looked straight up at Hirose in a way approaching rudeness.
"Why do you want to know?" This was the first question Takasato had ever asked of Hirose.
"I'm not quite clear on that myself."
After Hirose said this, he smiled thinly, a bit embarrassed.
"Weren't you doing that painting?"
"I feel like you want to remember what happened. Right?"
"Why is that?"
"Because I don't remember."
What a detached answer. Hirose sighed quietly. He hesitated for a moment and decided to try out telling Takasato something about himself that he rarely spoke of.
"When I was little, I almost died."
After Hirose said this, Takasato looked a little stunned. For the first time on that blank face, there appeared something that could be called an expression.
"I think it was shock caused by an injection. I don't really remember what happened anymore, but at the time, I felt like I had seen another world."
"Was it a near-death experience?"
"Yes. There was a sky with unimaginable colors and wetlands that were filled with white flowers in bloom. A clear and deep river flowed, and in the distance there was a bridge. I walked forward along the river. The air wasn't hot, nor was it cold, and no matter how far I walked, I didn't get tired. I looked around at the scenery as I walked with uncertainty. When every now and then a small bird or fish would come out, I would play with them. None of the things that appeared there were shy. I guess I was probably walking toward the bridge. I just felt like I had walked a long while." Hirose thought of the scenes that he had mulled over time and time again. "That's about all I remember. I don't remember how I got there or how I got back. I just remember it being a beautiful place."
Takasato didn't say anything.
"I seemed to be unconscious for three days. I think it happened to me when I was six. From then on, whenever something happened to me, my parents would say, 'Who told you to be a child that almost died.' It didn't matter if it was something good or something bad, but I think it probably happened more when something bad happened."
Takasato nodded. It looked as if that was something about Hirose with which Takasato found resonance.
"Perhaps it was because my parents always said that to me that I made these memories up myself, but I feel quite certain that I'd seen those scenes before."
Hirose laughed at himself. Hirose didn't get along with his mother to the extent that people felt it hopeless. His mother tried to restrain Hirose, but Hirose hated being restrained the most. His mother wanted to blame this on his near-death experience. Currently, it was still like this. Hirose felt that it pointless to go home, but his mother always accused him of being a son who never went home. Whenever he used his part-time job or lab experiments as excuses in an attempt to get out of it, his mother would say this and hang up the phone. She would say, "You've thrown all the feelings you had for your parents there."
"Every time I feel discouraged, I think back to that place. When I'm lost in thought, I feel like that place is the world in which I truly belong, and it's not a so-called other world. I realized that the reason that I don't get along with my parents and that I don't get along with my teachers is all because I don't belong with the people here. —Up until now, I still feel a little bit like that."
Takasato nodded, and his face revealed a sincere expression.
"Yes, I thought you would."
Takasato blinked his eyes, and then looked down. He stared at his own hands resting on the desk.
"At the time, I was standing outside of the house. It was a really old house, and there was a storehouse in a corner of the courtyard. I guess it might be better to say that one side of the courtyard was separated by the storehouse... Do you know what I mean?"
"Yes, for the most part."
"I was standing in the courtyard. And then, in the corner of the yard there was a pale arm."
Takasato's expression was full of longing.
"The wall was right next to the storehouse. There was only a gap in between the wall and the storehouse big enough for a cat to pass through. That arm had extended out of that gap, and it was beckoning to me."
"Was it just...an arm?" A pale, white arm. Hirose's brow was slightly creased.
"Yes, the gap was really small. There was no way a person could fit into there. The arm was pale and bare and like a woman's, reaching out from the gap. It kept waving at me."
"Didn't you feel at all uneasy?"
Takasato laughed lightly. "I guess. But at the time, I didn't feel uneasy or scared. Actually for some reason, I felt extremely safe and extremely happy."
"Because of that arm?"
"Yes. And then I walked in the direction of that arm."
Takasato shook his head. "That was it. I remember myself walking in that direction in the yard, but I don't remember if I reached the corner of the yard anymore. I don't remember any of the things that happened afterwards."
The white arm that appeared frequently. What exactly was it? Were all these factors somehow related to each other?
"When I regained consciousness, I realized that I was walking on the road. I felt like there was a short amount of time when I was walking uncertainly, and then suddenly I came to my senses. I looked around and then tried to figure out where I was. And then I realized that I was next to my house. From where I was, I could tell that a funeral was proceeding at my house. In my head I thought, who'd died? It wasn't until I went to look that I knew it was my grandmother's funeral."
Takasato's face was bare of any expression.
"I walked into the house and everyone there was extremely taken aback. Various people crowded around me, and it wasn't until then that I knew I had already disappeared for over a year."
"You don't remember what happened in that period of time? Nothing at all?"
"Right. Sometimes, I feel like I only remember some colors or some sort of impression, but after thinking about it over and over, I still can't remember."
Takasato sighed quietly.
"But I feel like in that period of time, I was in some place, and it was a place that made me feel extremely comfortable. Because every time I want to remember, I always feel a strong yearning."
Takasato smiled weakly. It was a genuine smile.
"I feel like I was extremely happy when I was there, so that's why I have a feeling of longing that almost approaches sadness."
"Is that what the painting is about?"
"Yes." Takasato nodded. "I was thinking that if I painted it, it might be able to remember more clearly, but it still doesn't work. When I feel like I've remembered something and am just about to paint, the impression I have gets muddled."
His expression really revealed a sorrow. The one thing that Hirose could be sure of was that Takasato wholeheartedly wanted to remember that period of time.
"I see..." Various different trains of thought were roiling about in his head. Hirose didn't know what else he could say, so he could only respond to Takasato in this way. Takasato was someone who had lost his native land, just like Hirose. What he felt in his heart was a strong resonance. There was no way he could or even wanted to believe that Takasato had the intention of taking revenge on the people around him.
Not long afterwards, the group that had gone out to buy things came back in a clamoring pack.
"Eh? Hirose sensei." The one who shouted this with an energetic voice was Iwaki.
Hirose raised his hand in response and slid off of the desk upon which he had been sitting. He gave Takasato a "later," and then made as to leave.
"What? Hirose sensei, are you going back?"
"Can you help us? You came here especially to help us, didn't you? That's so nice of you."
Hearing the students volunteering him to help them, Hirose could only smile dryly, and then Iwaki handed a paper bag over to him.
"This is Hirose-kun's poster paint. You can use it however you like."
"I know, I know." Hirose put the paper bag on the desk. "I'm going to go let Gotou-san know."
- - - - -
Student teachers came every year in September. Furthermore, it had been decided that the athletics festival would also be held in September. The reason that the athletics festival was held when the student teachers came was so that they could avoid the advancement of class work being put off. Hirose searched his own memory and he recalled that the very first class after the athletics festival was a research class. He remembered there being student teachers around during the preparation for the athletics festival, but he never had the impression that the student teachers worked with the students on it. Was the fact that the students often got him to do things because he was especially good with them? Or was it that the students that made use of him were clever and knew to use people when they could use people?
He returned to the prep room to tell Gotou about it, soliciting a mocking laugh from him but nothing much else. After he finished writing in his training journal and asked Gotou to stamp it, he proceeded back to the classroom. When he arrived at the front of the 2-6 classroom, he felt like there had been some sort of argument inside.
"What happened?" he asked as he entered the classroom, and saw simply a student named Okada turn back to look at him.
"Hirose sensei, please stop Iwaki."
Hirose saw Iwaki standing in the middle of a circle of students. He was standing in front of Takasato's desk, looking down at Takasato with a hostile face.
"What's going on, Iwaki?"
Without even looking at Hirose, he muttered, "Nothing." He kept glaring at Takasato with that hostile look, while Takasato simply looked up at Iwaki expressionlessly.
"What happened, Takasato?"
Takasato didn't reply. All he did was return Iwaki's look without any expression.
"Iwaki, what's going on?"
Iwaki finally turned to look at Hirose. "Didn't Tsuiki take the day off today? All I did was tell him that it'd be best if he went to Iwaki's house and talked with him for a bit."
More than half the students looked very anxious. The other half, perhaps because they didn't know the circumstances, simply looked as if they weren't involved, some appeared a little baffled and some also appeared to have had their curiosity piqued, as they looked at Iwaki and then at Takasato.
"That guy actually just needs crutches to come to school, but he didn't because he was afraid. So I thought it would be better if someone went to talk it over with him. If he just lets these misunderstandings go unexplained, the mysterious rumors'll just get more and more ridiculous." After Iwaki said this, Iwaki simply creased his brow. "What spiriting away? What curse? We're already high school students, and we're still talking about that stinking kid's stuff. The people who talk about it like it's real are being irresponsible, but Takasato, the one doesn't say anything at all, is to blame too. Just clear everything up already!"
"Iwaki, stop it." A student standing next to Iwaki quietly rebuked him. Actually, it was less a rebuke than it was a warning. A feeling of crisis permeated the place.
"Are you stupid!?" Iwaki glared at that student. "Do you believe it too? How can there be anything like a curse? If I die because of this, it won't be a curse, it'll be retribution. Unless Takasato kills me with his own hands, regardless of what happens to me, it'll be purely chance."
Iwaki didn't cover up his shock.
"This is a problem of probability. It's because of Takasato's personality that other people make things difficult for him. There must be a lot of people who bully you on their own, right? There are a lot of people like that, and among them there'll also be people who get into accidents or die. It's a question of their own luck. What does that have anything to do with Takasato?"
"Iwaki, that's enough." Hirose spoke up to stop him. Iwaki appeared stunned.
"What? Could it be that Hirose sensei believes in this too?"
"It's not like this."
"Then what is it like?" Hirose didn't reply. Iwaki bent his mouth. "Really, can no one think for themselves?"
Tsuiki probably didn't even want to see Takasato. Even if Takasato did go, he would most likely not get to see Tsuiki. Tsuiki believed that Takasato had cursed him. Now, it was no longer important how things really were. No matter if Takasato did go see Tsuiki, and no matter what he said, everything would just add to Tsuiki's uneasiness.
Suddenly, Iwaki raised his hand. A sound both horrible and biting made everyone in the room hold their breath.
"Keeping with this, I'll probably die, huh?" said Iwaki mockingly as he looked at the students around him. All the students that had seen everything happen very obviously looked even more distressed than Takasato, who had just been slapped. "Don't hold back. Go ahead and curse me."
Takasato simply looked at Iwaki. Neither the slightest bit of anger nor dissatisfaction could be seen in his face. His very slightly creased brow was the only clue to the thoughts of Takasato that people feared.
"What a joke," said Iwaki as he laughed lightly, and then he went and picked up the props that were scattered everywhere. "What are you all still looking at? Get back to work!"
Iwaki sat down in a chair to the side with a thud, and then everyone started to move. Each person would occasionally sneak glances at Iwaki and Takasato. The two who had been involved were both expressionless. Iwaki tossed the unopened packages and memo paper to Takasato.
"Cut the cloth off."
Takasato nodded silently, as he picked up the scissors next to his hand.
"Hey." During the lunch break of the next day, the first person who showed up at the prep room was Iwaki. Hirose greeted him and Iwaki smiled.
"How about it? I haven't died yet."
"So it appears."
"There've been no accidents or surprise attacks. All is well."
Hirose simply smiled and nodded.
"When I went into the classroom this morning, everybody looked like they'd seen a ghost. What a bunch of idiots."
Hirose simply smiled dryly and took out a beaker. "Is coffee all right?"
"Are you serving? What great treatment."
Iwaki smiled. "Are you saying I deserve it? —How's Tsuiki now?"
"I think he took today off too."
"What a useless guy."
Hirose handed the beaker over to him.
"It's a belief issue."
"What do you mean?"
"Aren't there people who pray for good luck before a test? That's exactly the type of problem this is."
"Ah, I see."
"Actually, if someone has time to go to a shrine and pray, it'd probably be more realistic if they used that time to study a little more. But stopping other people based on that reasoning would be too obviously insensitive."
Iwaki smiled wryly. At this time, the door opened and Hashigami poked his head in.
Iwaki raised a hand in greeting.
"You look energetic, Hashigami-san. How's your injury?"
"I had a fever yesterday; it was horrible. It hurts a little bit, but it's really nothing."
"Gonna fess up to your bad luck?"
Hashigami looked like his spirits were quite good. Though his left hand was bundled up with a thick bandage, it didn't look like it affected him much. When Hashigami joined the ranks of the coffee-drinkers, three more students came in while chatting with each other. The first one who came in was Nozue and he groaned as soon as he saw Iwaki.
"I heard you were up against Takasato yesterday. You all right?"
Iwaki brought the beaker to his lips as he glared at Nozue.
"Don't be ridiculous. What exactly is going through that brain of yours?" He set his empty beaker down roughly. "Also, how did you find out?"
Nozue pointed his eyes at Sakata, who'd been standing behind him. Iwaki looked at Sakata.
"Who knew that everyone paid so much attention to Takasato? It looks like maybe we should be calling him an idol."
From the time when school let out the day before until the current day's lunch break, the gossip had already reached all the other classes. These were truly exceptional circumstances.
"What did Takasato do?" asked Hashigami. Iwaki smiled.
"They're all saying that Takasato curses people. What happened to Hashigami-san is also because of Takasato's curse."
Hashigami looked at his left hand, and then laughed. "Idiotic."
"That's what I'm saying!" Iwaki laughed and then looked up at the ceiling. "Takasato sure is a weird guy. When I hit him, he didn't get mad at all."
"He didn't get mad?" asked Nozue.
Iwaki smiled and said, "He wasn't mad. If he had the guts to get mad when stuff like that happens, then there wouldn't be any of those rumors. Maybe it's because he doesn't get mad, and that makes people uncomfortable, so it scares them."
"Huh?" Hashigami looked at Iwaki. "What did you do?"
"I smacked him." Iwaki moved his hand in a slapping motion.
"Why'd you do that?"
For some reason, Nozue looked a little satisfied.
"So your meaning was that if he could curse you, he should go right ahead and do it, huh?"
"That's not what I said." Iwaki denied it insistently. Nozue put on an innocent face and explained it to Hashigami.
"I heard he said to Takasato, just try and kill me! And then he slapped him across the face. Then he yelled at him, if you're going to curse me, then I'd like to see it! He even yelled at other people, I can't believe you guys are so scared of such nonsense!"
"I knew how the rumors would be exaggerated," sighed Iwaki. Hashigami looked at him cheerfully.
"Who knew Iwaki was so brave?"
"They said you smacked him and Takasato didn't get mad? He must have. Were you just being gentle?"
"What? No..." Iwaki being shy was an amusing sight.
"But regardless of whether or not you were being nice, most people get mad when they're slapped in the face," said Nozue. Iwaki nodded in agreement.
"Right? Is it just that people are raised that way? I think he's just a coward."
Sakata quietly said, "Isn't it a little bit too early to relax?"
After he finished he smiled weakly. Iwaki couldn't help but raise his eyebrows.
"So you'd like to see me die?"
"That's not what I said." Sakata seemed to be enjoying himself. "Since Takasato is definitely a difficult kind of guy, I think it's too early to let your guard down right now. Iwaki-kun, you should be careful."
Iwaki laughed coldly. "And I hope you don't anger Takasato with what you're saying."
"That won't happen. I'm not the kind who's going to go provoke Takasato's anger..."
"No, really! I think Takasato is amazing." His tone seemed like it was full of anticipation. Everyone was disappointed and stopped talking. Iwaki wasn't happy and creased his brow as he stood up. Nozue called to him.
"I have gym during fifth period," Iwaki said as he waved his hand. The rest of the people watched him leave, and he left behind a strange, stifling atmosphere.
"Sakata-san, Iwaki-san's angry now," said Nozue. Sakata smiled weakly.
"Did I really need to say it? What you said sounded like you wanted Iwaki to die."
"That's not what I meant. That never even crossed my mind. I was just letting him know that it's best not to belittle Takasato..."
"What do you mean belittle? There's no such thing as curse."
"I'm not so sure of that."
"Well, suppose there is a curse..."
Hashigami glanced at his left hand for a second. This action didn't escape Hirose's notice.
"Iwaki just said that to be nice. I don't think Takasato would be stupid enough not to understand that."
Nozue nodded vigorously.
"If you look at it that way, then Iwaki-san sure is a really decent guy."
Sakata smiled as well. "They do say, keep your nose out of other people's business..."
His smile made them shudder. Iwaki's behavior had definitely been out of kindness; Takasato probably knew that. However, why did people then feel so uneasy?
Hirose thought this over for a while. He didn't know why, but he wasn't able to calm the fearful trembling in his heart.
Fifth period on Tuesday was a Science-I class. That day, class was being held in the lab. The first year students were busy plating 10-yen coins. For a while, the silver 10-yen coins could be seen in the store occasionally, flying through the air, probably causing the lady at the counter to duck down amidst the chaos.
After two-thirds of the class was over, Hirose at last breathed a sigh. Gotou was sitting half-asleep in the back of the lab, and all Hirose had to do was to prompt the students from time to time. He finally had some extra time to look out the window.
The wide sports area was outside the window of the lab, and there were currently students there attending gym class. According to custom, all the gym classes before the athletics festival were used as practice for the events of the festival. From the looks of it, the students were practicing for the cavalry battle today. Many schools had considered this activity too dangerous and had cancelled it on those grounds, but at this school, it was seen as a tradition, and so they kept it.
Takasato and Iwaki are probably out there, thought Hirose casually. Although, he didn't know exactly where they were.
Glancing absently in that direction, Hirose immediately noticed something small and strange happening.
It was a spot. A small shadow-like spot had appeared under the feet of the disorderly students. It was a completely clear day with sunlight so bright that the sand in the sports area reflected white. The shadows of the students were both small and dark. The spot that appeared beneath their feet was about the size of a puddle and looked like a spray of water. As if groundwater was seeping up to surface, the puddle quickly expanded, and in a glimmer, it engulfed the feet of all the students.
Hirose pressed his face against the window, which was closed tightly because of the air conditioning. Neither the entangled students nor the teachers that watched from the sidelines appeared to notice that stain.
"Gotou-san," Hirose called out quietly, and Gotou, who had been resting his chin in his hands while leaning on the window frame, opened his eyes a sliver.
His heart beat anxiously. Takasato and Iwaki were both out there.
Gotou looked out the window and then stood up. Hirose knew that some of the students doing experiments were looking over suspiciously.
Gotou opened the window and shouted, "Hey!" At just about the same time, there was the sound of a whistle. The tumult of the cavalry dispersed as they separated themselves to either side. The stain that had discolored the surface of the sports area also faded as if it was evaporating under the harsh light of the sun.
In the midst of the current of people returning in bunches to their own sides, there appeared an isolated shadow. It was a student. His entire person was lying on the ground, not moving at all. However, for a shadow normally made by a person who had fallen over, it was a little bigger and had a strange color to it as it fell under the student's body.
It was Iwaki. It had to be.
They saw the gym teacher yelling something as he began to run. The white gym uniform of the student lying on the ground was discolored with smudges of sand and blood.
Hirose rushed out. Behind him, he could hear Gotou's hoarse voice.
"Everybody sit down! Be quiet and remain seated!"
- - - - -
Hirose sprinted down the stairs and ran to the sports area in his indoor shoes. That place was already permeated with a panicked atmosphere.
"What happened?" Hirose peeled his way through the circular wall of students, urgently rushing up to the front of the students. All the sand was white. A student was lying in the middle of the circle. Standing at the side was a student teacher in physical education. He was bent at the waist and looked as if he was ready to get away at any time.
"What's going on?" asked Hirose as he panted. In his head he was thinking, was there any question stupider than that? One look at the situation was all that was needed to know that something serious had happened.
The student teacher looked at Hirose, and then he turned around and began vomiting. A few of the students had also squat down, holding their heads.
Hirose didn't know if the student lying there was Iwaki or not. Though he was lying face up, Hirose couldn't distinguish him by his face. His entire face had become a ripe red lump of flesh. Blood and mud clung indiscriminately to his gym uniform. At a glance, he could see that countless muddy footprints and countless blood-stained footprints had chaotically trampled over his body.
"Where's the teacher?" asked Hirose. The gasping student teacher sputtered only "telephone" between breaths. The chest covered up by the school uniform had just stopped moving a little before. Hirose could see the name "Iwaki," written on the shirt in an area stained with blood.
Hirose looked around at all of the students.
"What happened?" He tried asking, though he actually had an idea already. "How could no one have noticed that Iwaki had fallen down?"
No one in the circle replied.
"Who was in his cavalry team?"
"Sensei..." A voice on the verge of tears spoke up from behind him. Three students stood closely to each other in front of the circle of people. They were 2-5 students.
They nodded. They looked like frightened grade school students.
"It couldn't have been like this." One of them couldn't hold it in any longer and began sobbing. "Iwaki was supporting my leg. From the time the whistle blew to before we came apart, there was always, always someone holding onto my left leg!"
Murmur, murmur. The people around were in commotion.
"If it wasn't Iwaki, then who could it have been?"
The other two nodded as well, displaying a fretful demeanor.
"There was definitely someone beside me. I didn't see his face, but our arms were pulled together. If he wasn't there anymore, I would know for sure. How could this have happened?"
"We didn't know that Iwaki fell down. If you think about it, if Iwaki had fallen over, I would have fallen right after him, but really, nothing happened at all. If Iwaki'd disappeared, when who was holding onto my arm the whole time?"
The people around erupted into a commotion again and the circle opened up in an odd spot. Standing in front was an uncertain Takasato.
Hirose could hear a person somewhere whispering. He couldn't hear it very clearly, but Hirose could imagine what they were talking about. The circle of people was saturated with an unusual atmosphere. It's too dangerous, thought Hirose in an instant.
It was too dangerous here. This place with a horrible dead body laying there was too dangerous.
"Go to the prep room."
Takasato looked at Hirose as if he had something to say.
"Hurry up! Go to the chemistry prep room and wait there for me, all right?"
Takasato nodded lightly, and then turned and left. The gym teacher walked past him on his way back.
It was in this way that gym class was cut short. The students had been called back to their classrooms, and the first years that had been in the lab had gone back to their classrooms as well. The school administration directed the entire student body to self-study. An ambulance had hurried its way there, and it was discovered that Iwaki was still just barely alive, but in the end, he had died in the ambulance.
The assistant headmaster and the dean repeatedly queried the students about the sequence of events, but all they found out was that no one had realized Iwaki had fallen down, and at the same time, no one realized that they had stepped on anyone.
All of sixth period was a self-study session and the school officials had convened an emergency meeting. It looked now as if the athletics festival was going to be called off for certain.
- - - - -
When the long meeting ended, it was already past nine at night.
"So they're going to cancel the athletics festival? They probably won't have the cavalry battle anymore starting next year."
Gotou muttered while in the dark hallway on the way back from the faculty office.
"Did you see it too?"
"Do you think it's related?"
Hirose shut his mouth. He didn't think it was unrelated. That discoloration must have had a lot to do with the accident that killed Iwaki.
Replying nothing, he maintained his silence. When they reached the stairway, Gotou patted his shoulder.
"I'll be heading back now. I'll leave it up to you to close up," said Gotou simply. He took off his white lab coat and handed it over to Hirose, and then he went down the stairs that led to the first floor.
- - - - -
Hirose hung his head uncertainly as he walked silently down the hall. Just an hour before it happened, he'd even seen and talked to a lively Iwaki. Walking into the prep room, Iwaki'd said: How about it? I haven't died yet.
Hirose closed his eyes and sighed deeply as he opened the door to the prep room. Iwaki would never again open this door like Hirose was doing now and walk into the prep room. A second year student. Seventeen years old. Only seventeen.
It was dark within the unlit prep room. None of the lights in the hall were on either, but the dim light casting from both the sports area and the courtyard made it so that the prep room wasn't completely dark. Thin curtains hung from above the windows, and the cold fabric fluttered gently as he drew them tightly closed. Under the light coming in from the sports area, it looked like a square-shaped water's surface. The prep room in itself was like a large square well. Hirose looked into it, a well both dark and empty.
The mysterious feeling of the easel which Gotou had placed in front of the window pulled Hirose back to reality. The appearance of the paints that filled the canvas glistened moistly. Hirose glanced over there and immediately stiffened. As he stood in the doorway, he gasped.
He discovered a person sitting on the floor underneath the waist-high windows. Under the dim lighting, he couldn't tell who it was, but Hirose could see that he was wearing a gym uniform. He was sitting there, hugging his knees and looking at Hirose. In a split second, Hirose thought of Iwaki—how he had usually looked and his tragic appearance just then—he was about to back away when he suddenly thought of something else.
From the dark room came a reply. "Yes."
Hirose turned on the light. Seeing for sure that the person standing up was Takasato, he let out a sigh of relief.
"I'm sorry. I'd forgotten about you," Hirose hurriedly apologized. "It's my fault. I was too upset."
He couldn't sense any emotion in Takasato's voice.
- - - - -
"I'm really sorry." Hirose pulled a chair out for Takasato and then went to brew some coffee.
"It's okay. Thank you."
"I feel really bad, so please don't."
Takasato shook his head. "Because when I was there, I was a little scared."
"Really?" Hirose used a handkerchief to pad it and handed the coffee to Takasato. Takasato opened his eyes widely, and then revealed a faint smile as he received it.
"Can I ask you a question?" He asked quietly after he took a sip of coffee.
"What is it?"
"Why did you tell me to come here?"
"Because that place was drenched in an unpleasant mood."
"Were you protecting me? Or where you isolating me?"
Hirose glanced at Takasato. His eyes held fast to Hirose's look, not moving one bit. They radiated an air of utmost sincerity that didn't allow for lies or deceit.
"My intention was to protect you."
His silent gaze was still fixed upon Hirose.
"Takasato... Are you familiar with the rumor that if anyone angers you, they'll be cursed?" asked Hirose. Takasato simply nodded. "What's really going on?"
Takasato looked away and was silent for a moment.
"...I've realized that a lot of the people around me get into accidents or die. They all look like they have something to do with me, and that's what everyone's afraid of. But, that's not how it is."
"What's not how it is?"
Takasato sighed. "None of those things had anything to do with whether or not I was mad."
Hirose looked at Takasato. Takasato was simply looking down, staring at the beaker in his hands.
"Weren't you mad at Iwaki?"
"Why would I be mad at him?"
Hirose nodded. Takasato wasn't stupid; at least he was able to understand Iwaki's intention. "Then what about Hashigami and Tsuiki?"
Takasato lifted his head and tilted his neck slightly. "Hashigami... Is that that third year?"
"He was saying something about living experiments. I just thought he was one of those people who said weird things. As for Tsuiki, it wasn't anything...because everyone was saying the same thing."
Hirose smiled dryly. "I guess you're right."
"It's just that when people are saying that something's going to happen, it's a little annoying."
"Like when they said that accidents were going to happen to Tsuiki or Hashigami?"
"Yes. I feel like if it turns out to be true, that's really annoying."
Hirose was a little hesitant, but he still asked in a surveying manner, "Then what about what happened on the field trip?"
Takasato looked up at Hirose, and then smiled wryly. "Even when someone hits me, I don't get mad."
"Because it's not something that can be helped. Because I'm not like other people, so people can't accept my presence."
His tone was so indifferent. Hirose stared at him, and Takasato lifted his head.
"...Doesn't that make you angry? That your presence isn't tolerated?"
"But it's because I'm like a different species of creature that's been mixed up here." Takasato looked at his hands as he said this. "When something is obviously different, but they can't figure out what it is, people will inevitably feel discomfort. Because, people have no way to decide if this thing is harmful or harmless. Plus, I look like I'm harmful, so it's even more unavoidable."
Hirose felt like Takasato was talking as if he wasn't talking about himself.
"So even if I do get hit, I don't have any special feelings... But, everyone still dies."
A chill immediately ran up his back. Just because Takasato's tone was so indifferent, it made Hirose feel what he'd just said was even more frightening.
"...Why is it like that?"
Takasato's tone sounded as if he really couldn't figure it out.
"Is it really because of me?" asked Takasato, seemingly to himself.
"You're not the cause." Though Hirose didn't have this sort of self-confidence, for the time being he comforted Takasato in this way. Takasato still hung his head and didn't look up. Hirose pondered silently for a moment and then looked away.
What was that thing, that strange discoloration that appeared on the sports grounds? If Iwaki had already fallen down, then who was holding up the cavalry team? Everything showed that these were bizarre circumstances that couldn't be figured out with common sense.
The spiriting away, the rumors of the curse, the hand that grabbed hold of Tsuiki's leg, the person who had pounded a nail into Hashigami's hand.
—There were too many things that couldn't be explained.
Hirose peered at Takasato.
He didn't think that it was all unrelated. Everything that had happened had some sort of connection, and the center of it all was Takasato.
"...There just isn't any reason for it."
Hearing Takasato mumble this to himself, Hirose lifted his head. Takasato stared into space with a blank look on his face.
"There's just no reason that he had to die."
Hirose didn't reply. Takasato said nothing further.
＊ ＊ ＊
He was rushing along the night road. He was a sixth grade student and he lived an extremely busy life. His mom had said that a kid's work was to study. If that was true, then that work was a bit too arduous. He grumbled in his head.
At some point in time, his dad had started working for the bottom line, not coming home until the middle of the night. He remembered very well his father once saying that working more than 12 hours a day is unbearable. Well, I've been working 13 hours, he mumbled to himself. After school was over, he had to go to two cram classes. His mom always said that if he worked a little harder now, then it'll be easier later. He thought that that was a strange thing to say. After he got into junior high, it would most likely be like it was for the girl next door, attending cram school until late at night, and after he got into high school, he'd probably still have to go to cram school. After he grew up and got a job, he would have to work overtime to pay the bills.
"Working oneself to death isn't covered by workers' insurance," he muttered to himself, though he didn't really understand what that meant; it was just a complaint that had recently become popular in his cram classes.
In reality, he wasn't really that dissatisfied with the current situation. Going to cram school was a given, and he was also attending an exam course at a famous private junior high. This was evidence that he still had a sliver of hope remaining. Even so, he still hated going home this late. If he took shortcuts on this stretch of road between the station and his home, it wasn't actually very far. It was just that on the side of the shortcut was the long earthen wall of a temple that annoyed him and made him feel uneasy. In addition, the season brought with it the popularity of telling ghost stories at cram school. Today, during break time and on the train back home, he had heard plenty of unpleasant stories.
Because of that, in all honesty there were many places where he would anxiously rush past. After taking a right at the traffic light in front of the station, and then he taking the first turn after the next traffic light, he reached a one-way street. After walking across the one-way street and over the stone bridge hanging over a ditch, it was the road beside the temple.
On the right side of the unpaved 50-meter stretch of road was all earthen wall, and on the left side, there was a bamboo thicket. He broke into a jog, and in order to spur on the force of his movement, he swung his bag vigorously.
When he was only a little way past the bridge, a rustling came out of the bamboo thicket. His entire body froze and he stopped running. He looked back towards where the sound was coming from. If he didn't see anything, then perhaps he would start to run ahead. In reality, he saw within the thicket the back of a white dog and relaxed his shoulders. He immediately felt a bit embarrassed, knowing that he had been scared just then. Thus, when there was another rustling sound, he was calm as he looked over attentively at where the sound had come from.
The shape of the dog was blocked by the grass at the bottom of the thicket, so he couldn't see very clearly. However, because he could see its white fur and from that tell its size, he figured that it was probably another dog. A human figure appeared as if it was chasing the dog. He thought of the shiba inu that they raised at home and the trouble of taking the dog out for a walk.
The person that appeared out of the bamboo thicket was a young woman. She walked from the darkness as if she was protecting the dog, and then she looked up as though she felt his gaze. She looked a little like she had come straight out of those special effects TV shows he watched, a team member wearing a pink uniform.
After she glanced at the dog, she walked over to him. He could tell from her face that she wanted to say something. She then stopped walking.
When she reached the side of the road, her line of sight rested upon him, not moving at all. He first checked to see if she had legs, and then he looked up at her slightly tilted head. What a gentle person, he thought to himself.
"Do you know the ki?" Her warm voice sounded a little sorrowful.
"What ki? Like a tree with leaves?" [note: remember, "ki" can mean "tree" in japanese.]
"Taiki." She looked down at him.
"I've never heard of it before. Is it really important?"
She nodded and appeared mournful. In his head he thought, so the reason that she's come to such a deserted area so late at night with her dog is to look for something?
"Extremely important. I have constantly been looking. You haven't heard anything?"
"No, nothing. What kind of thing is it? Maybe I can go ask my friends about it for you."
She smiled faintly. "It's not a thing. It's a beast."
He peered into the bamboo thicket. That dog was still making rustling sounds. She might have been looking for the wife or husband of that dog.
"A dog? Named 'Ki'?"
She nodded. "Taiki is his name."
He tilted his head in doubt.
"I haven't heard anything. But, I'll ask around about it at school. Is it a dog that onee-san is raising? What kind is it?" He asked. She shook her head.
"Not a dog. It's the ki."
He still didn't understand.
"The ki of Taiou."
He didn't understand what she was talking about. "I've never heard of a ki. What does he look like?"
She shook her head.
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
She nodded. "The shape of everything here is distorted, so I don't know what he looks like."
He thought her talking to be strange. "Then there's no use looking."
"There are traces left behind."
He looked over in the direction of the dog whose nose was shoved into the grass.
"Is it like a smell?" That's why she'd brought the dog to look.
"It's like a light. Ordinarily, I can see it very clearly, but the traces of Taiki are faint. They are almost gone, so I don't know where he is."
He tilted his head. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't understand for sure what she was talking about.
"Perhaps he's sick..."
"Hm," he answered uncertainly, since he didn't know how to respond. She sighed and said thank you, and then went back into the bamboo thicket. He watched as she left and felt it unbelievable.
She faded directly into the thicket. When she passed the dog, she spoke to it softly. The dog's fur shuddered.
He was stunned, because the dog that lifted its head when she called to it had only one eye. He watched speechlessly as the woman and the dog pushed aside the grass and walked deeper into the thicket. In the distance, he could faintly see some sort of earthen wall.
She then made her way through the grass and walked into the wall. She disappeared into the wall with the dog as if they'd been sucked into it.
He screamed and afterwards, ran at full speed in the direction of his home.