Demon Child, Chapter 7.
from Aili's translation of Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
When Hirose got to the school early in the morning, he saw a crowd of people having to do with the broadcast media gathered in front of the school gates. There were more people now than when the incident with Iwaki occurred.
There was still a little stretch of time before the students would arrive at school. They were lucky to catch a scattering of students and teachers walking to the doors of the school. All the teachers who had been caught lowered their heads and rushed to get away, while forcibly calling over the students who had been caught in the same way and taking them into the school. Perhaps it was lack of good judgment that the students who had entered the school looked like they were disappointed. As they were forcefully brought inside the school grounds, they looked back at the members of the media with high interest.
Hirose stopped at a place where he could see the gates of the school. Seeing the situation at the school entrance, he could only sigh. He didn't want to be asked ludicrous questions, so he turned back and walked a short stretch of road, coming to a place where he could see the back entrance. However, all around the back were also gathered some people. He eyed the number and thought that at least there were less people on this side. Just as he was about to start walking, he heard the soft sound of a car horn behind him.
Looking backwards, he saw the teacher-nurse Totoki sitting inside the car. "Need a ride?"
"Please, that would be great." Hirose bowed and got into the small white car stopped next to the sidewalk. After he got into the cramped space, he released a sigh.
"What a tough teacher-training period," laughed Totoki steadily.
"But it'll be over tomorrow. I'm a little envious."
"I guess," said Hirose as he smiled wryly. Totoki smiled as well, and brought the car to the right. He clicked on the right-turn signal and waited for the red traffic light to turn green.
"Has your body been all right?"
"At most, I just have bruises here and there."
Totoki smiled and nodded. Seeing that the traffic light had changed, he drove as he said quietly, "I heard that yesterday the teachers who went to check up on the students at the hospital they were staying at were asked some strange things by reporters."
"Yeah. They asked about hearing there was an accident involving a student who had fallen from the second floor and if that student had come."
"But that incident..." It was settled as an accident. The newspapers and television had disregarded it.
"They probably heard about it from somewhere. They keep pursuing it, plainly asking where Takasato's house is."
Totoki drove the car towards the back entrance, honked his horn to disperse the media gathered at the gate, and went directly into the school grounds.
"They keep asking if it was really an accident. It looks like they're putting all their attention over there. They might even bring up incidents regarding injured students. You should be careful."
Totoki drove the car to the parking lot next to the back entrance, and smiled, saying, "If you haven't given up by then, I can give you another ride after school, since the surroundings of the school are crowded with these army ants."
Hirose smiled vaguely and nodded. "Please, if it's not too much trouble."
- - - - -
Hirose and Totoki walked into the faculty office together, and discovered that it was enveloped in a strange, nervous atmosphere. The teachers were scattered through the office in small groups, keeping close to each other. Everyone had complex expressions on their faces as they read the newspaper. Hirose scanned the entire faculty office, and after seeing Gotou standing in a corner, he walked towards him.
"Good morning. —What's been going on?"
Gotou lifted his hand gently, and then looking distressed, he whispered, "The sports news carried a really strange report. They're clumping yesterday's incident and the rest of the accidents together, saying something about a curse."
Hirose knew that his face had turned pale. Totoki leaned in with interest.
They couldn't be talking about Takasato, could they? Hirose asked with his eyes. Gotou shook his head.
"I think they heard about Takasato's incident and about the events of the field trip. They've even brought up Ikuta-san." Gotou smiled bitterly. "They're grouping everything together, as if they were afraid that the situation wasn't bad enough, writing about a cursed school or something like that. They're also saying that the people involved are saying that this is some sort of curse and that they're scared."
Totoki made a startled sound. "The people involved?"
"I think they're probably talking about me or Totoki sensei."
Totoki's eyes went wide, and then he smiled wryly. "I didn't know myself that I was so scared."
"Me either," smiled Gotou, and then his face tightened up. "How troublesome. Yesterday, the hospital was made into a mess by those media people."
"So it appears."
"Situations lead to more situations. It's no wonder, since the incident with Iwaki just happened. And then, I think there were those small accidents that occurred yesterday."
"Yeah. There were nine students in our class who, if they didn't trip down the stairs, then they fell from a footbridge, leading to quite a few absences. I'm thinking that there's no way to conduct class today." As he said this, Gotou gave Hirose a look, and just then the headmaster walked in.
- - - - -
The start time of classes was pushed back, and morning meetings were conducted for the whole school. According to the headmaster, of the seven who had jumped off the roof, six of them were already dead.
Hirose proceeded to the classroom to carry out a morning meeting and there was quite the bleak situation in the classroom. Six people had died, and one was unconscious. From the day before yesterday until this morning, there were twelve students absent because of an accident, and four who had called in sick. There were only 16 students sitting in the classroom, looking uneasy.
The two-week teacher-training period was coming to an end. The student teachers' study curriculum was strained in its implementation, but most of the other courses were left to the students' self-study. According to the set plan, during fifth period Hirose went to the first-year Science I class, but the minds of most of the teachers who had come to look on and that of the students were not in it.
When Hirose had returned to the prep room after the study curriculum was over, the telephone rang. It was a notification that the last student in the hospital had died while still completely in a coma.
Gotou put down the telephone receiver and dejectedly placed his hand on his forehead. He didn't know quite how to tell Hirose, and thus looked silently at his back.
"Hirose," said Gotou quietly to Hirose's back. "I really don't like the feeling of being afraid of Takasato. But, after this, I can't help it anymore."
Hirose's back was still to Gotou, as he nodded gently.
"Disliking Takasato is much easier. Seven people. Seven."
"We still can't say for sure that it's Takasato's doing."
Gotou turned his head. "You said before that Takasato curses others."
Hirose shook his head. "I only said that Takasato and the retribution were related. First of all, this isn't necessarily revenge. It could really be suicide."
"Often those who kill themselves don't even know for sure. There are some who seek death because of small reasons like being laughed at by those around them."
"Do you really believe what you're saying?"
Being stared at by Gotou, Hirose lowered his head. "—It's not Takasato, Gotou-san."
After Hirose said this, Gotou blinked his eyes in doubt.
"Takasato's not the one cursing people. It's that thing that Gotou-san had previously seen."
Gotou looked at Hirose, and then looked over at the locker where he kept his sketchbook. "...Are you referring to that?"
"Yes. I don't know what they are. They've attached themselves to Takasato, and are constantly protecting him. I don't know the reason."
"I don't know if I'd call that protecting."
"Their methods are wrong, but their intentions are very obvious. They're using their own ways to protect Takasato. They are not the least tolerant of those whom they've decided are Takasato's enemies. I think that they're using the methods of retribution to achieve the goal of protection.
"Then," Gotou murmured. "Then, will they never harm Takasato?"
"If this is really the case, then aren't the people standing by Takasato's side actually safer? I don't know how they exact their revenge, but as long as Takasato is in the classroom, then they probably won't use methods that bring the ceiling crashing down or punch up through the floorboards. Even if they use more makeshift means, the safety factor while next to Takasato is much higher than if one wasn't next to Takasato. Is that how it is?"
Hirose opened his eyes wide. "Yes, that's exactly right."
If they're protecting Takasato, then the closer one is to Takasato, the higher the safety factor.
"Takasato..." Should be called here, Hirose was about to say, but Gotou stopped him.
"Wait," he said firmly, and then he looked away as if he was still undecided.
"Let me call home."
"No!" Gotou was clearly a little dismayed. Not understanding, Hirose cocked his head to the side to look at him.
"—It's too dangerous. The students don't understand the situation. Right now, they're all afraid of Takasato. They're convinced that Takasato personally curses others. There might be those in a helpless situation who'll conclude that everything will be all right if Takasato wasn't there... This is a possibility. They'll think that once Takasato's dead, they'll be able to escape misfortune."
"That's true, but..." Hirose continued. "But, were something to happen to Takasato, those things would surely protect him." Wasn't it because of them that he came out unharmed after falling three stories?
After Hirose finished speaking, Gotou looked away. "Don't do this. I don't believe there are any students who're willing to stay next to Takasato. Isn't the best proof that there are students who've called in sick?"
"We just need to explain to them that it's in the best interest of their safety. They should be able to understand that. We need to find an opportunity to persuade those absent students, and let them know that when they come to school, it'll be more..."
"Did you want to tell them everything about the situation?"
"Don't be absurd," spit out Gotou curtly. Hirose thought this inconceivable and looked at Gotou.
"You want to tell them that because of this and that, so don't leave Takasato's side? It's no use. It's not as if they could stay by Takasato 24 hours a day."
"When I say no, I mean no. Wait and see. If someone else dies, when they see Takasato, what do you suppose will happen?"
"But there's nothing else we can do to protect ourselves!"
"I don't know how effective it would be. Also, the risk is too great. Stop with this."
"Then what can we do?"
"At any rate, we mustn't tell people about it."
Hirose sighed. He didn't understand why Gotou suddenly chose such a stubborn attitude.
Gotou didn't look at Hirose as he went to stand in front of the easel. He glanced over the canvas with his arms crossed.
"Hirose, what kind of person do you think I am?"
Hirose didn't know why Gotou asked such a question, and he didn't know how to respond. He remained silent as he tilted his head.
Thus, looking at his canvas, Gotou murmured, "I'm pleased with you."
"—So, I'm urging you not to tell people. I don't want to attend your funeral."
Hirose widened his eyes. "Gotou-san!"
"This is my ego. I know this. But, at least I'm not one of those great people who are capable of liking everybody equally. If you tell them everything and create an obstacle for them, then even you might be cursed. I really don't want to see Hirose becoming like Iwaki and what happened to him."
"Do you know what I mean when I say that I want to explain it to them?"
Gotou still didn't look at Hirose. "I do. Do you want me to say it more simply? —Even if you told them everything, they would still need a scapegoat. They will do what they have to do to someone, and you must pay the price for what you've done. This is not a price you can afford to pay."
Gotou cracked a bitter smile as he faced the canvas. It was a bitter, bitter smile. "Are you surprised? Or should I say even more inappropriate things?"
"I don't want to hear anymore."
"Then let me ask you. —If you died, what do you think would happen to Takasato?"
Hirose looked at Gotou's profile.
"You can't compare this to when Ikuta-san or Iwaki died. Hirose, you could possibly be the first person Takasato's met in his lifetime able to understand him. Did you want to leave Takasato behind?"
Gotou moved his eyes elsewhere, and revealed a harsh and bitter expression. "If it were possible to treat everyone well, then anybody would do that. But sometimes we have to decide on an order. Liking everyone the same means that you don't like any one person. At least that's what I think."
Hirose was silent. He felt as if he had been jabbed where it hurt. In reality, Hirose was also worried because he thought that if something happened with the students, it would all likewise add on to Takasato's psychological burden. In his mind, there also really existed the thought that it was unavoidable that those who had pushed Takasato down would receive some amount of retribution. However, excessive retributions would become burdens to Takasato. Thus, if there was some way he could stop it, he hoped that he would be able to do so. He didn't realize that if he had come out to stop it, he himself could very well be harmed.
"If no matter what, you're going to explain it to them, then let me do it. A young person like you shouldn't cross such a dangerous bridge."
Hirose felt himself being hit where it hurt again.
"...You mean old man."
"Yeah." Gotou seemed all of a sudden to be a lot older. Hirose remembered that when Gotou was his homeroom teacher, he was already almost 50 years old. Hirose suddenly thought, is he quickly approaching retiring age?
"I don't like attending the funerals of people like you. It's simply a waste of funeral gift money," said Hirose quietly, and Gotou really laughed painfully. He didn't say anything else, so Hirose didn't speak any further.
The affection of one person thinking highly of another should be a precious thing, but on the other side, there exists such an ugly ego. Every person existing in this world as a person is itself so dirty. This is what Hirose felt in his heart.
- - - - -
The funerals of the students who had jumped off the roof and died that day had been planned for the afternoon. After watching a heavy-footed Gotou leave, Hirose opened up the attendance record. After each of the seven names, he used a straightedge to carefully draw a long line, just like he had done before for Iwaki.
This day was also nothing but meetings, so there was a lot of self-studying. Even though classes were going on, the school grounds were still very noisy. A little bit after Gotou left the prep room, the sound of people talking approached. Hirose was straining his ears to listen when the door burst open, and Nozue and Sugisaki walked in.
"Oh? Sensei, are you all right?"
"How are you feeling?"
The two spoke at the same time. Hirose smiled bitterly at them.
"I'm okay, I suppose."
Nozue peered exaggeratedly at Hirose's face. "You're fine? I heard that yesterday you looked like you were about to die."
"Who said that?"
"The guys in class. They said that the face of the student teacher wearing white looked like he'd been the one that jumped off a building."
"That's an overstatement."
"Is that so? Sensei, it's because you're so naive."
"You know what that means?" Nozue began to chuckle.
"Don't you guys have to be in class?"
It was supposed to be fourth period. When Hirose asked this, Nozue opened his eyes impishly.
"It's self-study. So we thought we'd self-study some chemistry."
Hirose looked on with a certain feeling of being rescued, as they willfully invaded the cabinet and took out some beakers. It had been depressing sitting here all by himself, and their laughter cheered him up a little.
"I hear 2-6 is empty, huh?" Nozue sat down in front of Hirose, holding a beaker of coffee.
"How many people?"
"Sixteen. The classroom has great ventilation, eh?"
"If you're asking me..." Sugisaki suddenly lowered his voice. "Have you guys heard about the curse?"
Nozue murmured, "Are you still going on about that?"
Sugisaki shook his head. "No, no. I'm not talking about that second-year... uh... Takasato?"
"If it's not Mr. T, then whose curse is it?"
Sugisaki lowered his voice even more. "Iwaki-san."
For an instant, Hirose was dumbstruck. Nozue was also silent for a little bit, and then laughed.
"No way. Why would Iwaki-san have a curse?"
"Don't people keep getting hurt in class 2-6? Isn't that why they killed Iwaki-san?"
"Class 5 people were there too!" said Nozue.
Sugisaki grinned, saying, "Weren't they taking advantage of the time when classes 5 and 6 had a joint class to do a dry run of the cavalry battle? Of course, they're going to split it into two teams. I mean, we've played it before. They usually make teams based on which class we're in, right?"
"You have me up to here."
"Iwaki-san was in class 5, so how could he get tangled up with his own classmates? So, the people around Iwaki-san's cavalry team should have been guys from class 6. After a struggle with the guys in class 6, when Iwaki-san fell down, most of the attackers would have to be from class 6. QED."
"Ah, I see."
"Also, there are people who saw it."
Sugisaki lowered his voice. "The people who live near the school say that at night, they saw someone wearing a gym uniform on the roof of the classroom building."
"A gym uniform?"
"Also, guys from another class said that when they were in the entrance hall, they saw someone wearing a gym uniform walking behind the shoe rack. They even said that the gym uniform was stained with dirt and blood."
Hirose smiled wryly. "It seems like after people die, if they don't turn into ghosts, they aren't satisfied, eh?"
Sugisaki furrowed his brow. "I'm not the one saying it. I'm just the one who's saying there are such rumors."
"Whenever someone dies, these sorts of rumors always appear."
After being mocked by Hirose, Sugisaki defiantly puffed up his cheeks.
"But everybody's saying that yesterday's jumping incident had something to do with Iwaki-san..."
"No, really. They say that the people in the gym heard everything. They heard the guys on the roof shouting, 'Please help us! Please forgive us!'"
Hirose wrinkled his brow. "Shouting?"
"That's right. That's how the people in the gym discovered that there were guys on the roof. They said that they were shouting deliriously, 'Forgive us!' How do you save a whole group of people standing at the edge of the roof? Some people were saying they looked like they were being controlled."
Suddenly a vision passed through Hirose's mind. In that paralyzed state, their bodies couldn't move, nor could they make a sound, except that there was movement in their legs. They didn't want to go, but their legs made their way towards the roof. The door that shouldn't have been opened was opened, and they came to the roof. Their two feet wouldn't listen to their commands and moved them to the edge of the roof. But because they were so terrified, it was such an effort just to squeeze out a little sound. "Please save us!"
Hirose shook his head. It'd just been a daydream. No one knows exactly what happened there. And one couldn't eliminate the possibility that they had killed themselves based on their own volition.
"Also, this morning..." said Sugisaki.
Hirose disconcertedly shot a look back at him. "What happened?""Someone said that muddy tracks were smeared in front of the first-year classroom."
"Yeah, muddy tracks that looked like they were made by something crawling were smeared across the first floor hallway. Mud, it's so... you know?"
"When did you hear about that?"
"Just this morning! It was the first thing I heard when I got to school. It's just too bad that by the time I got here, it'd already been cleaned up. Seems like a janitor cleaned it up or something."
"Oh!?" exclaimed Nozue. Sugisaki continued.
"The muddy tracks left were about this wide, from the bottom of the stairway next to the entrance hall up to the front of the class 6 classroom." Sugisaki held his hands out and measured out a width a little less than a meter. "After I heard about this in the entrance hall, I ran up there immediately. I've always been a gawker, but I didn't get to see anything. Although, there was a strange smell."
"A strange smell?" Hirose looked up to ask, and Sugisaki nodded.
"It was some sort of wet and putrid smell. I felt like I'd smelled something like that before."
Hirose asked timidly, "Was it...the smell of the tide?"
"Ah!" shouted Sugisaki as he tapped his finger. "That's it. I kept thinking how familiar that smell was. It's the odor of the sea, the dirty smell of sticky mud when you're by the sea."
Nozue made a startled sound. "And then? What does the smell of the seashore have to do with Iwaki-san?"
"Eh? Uh... That's right, huh... Hm?" Sugisaki tilted his head, and Nozue laughed. Nozue went on for a while about how people never had any basis for rumors, but Hirose wasn't listening.
The smell of the tide.
From a certain perspective, it was frightening to consider that that was what Iwaki left behind. Didn't Takasato mention it as well? He'd said that they were always accompanied by the smell of the sea.
When the class bell rang, Hashigami came immediately.
"Hey, did you hear?" Hashigami asked, as soon as he entered the prep room. "I heard it happened, Sugisaki."
Sugisaki smiled proudly. "I've known for a while now. It's Iwaki-san, right?"
Hearing this, Hashigami was surprised. "Iwaki? What about Iwaki?"
After getting this reply from Hashigami, Sugisaki couldn't help but open his eyes wide. "Aren't you talking about this? That Iwaki-san's ghost has been appearing?"
"There's a rumor like that?"
"Yeah, there is. Are you talking about something different?"
Hashigami sat down in a chair with an amazed look on his face. "Are you talking about a rumor that Iwaki turned into a ghost and began appearing? That's the first I've heard of it. It's not Iwaki. It's about a young woman."
Sugisaki leaned forward with great interest.
Hashigami grinned. Nozue handed a beaker of coffee to him, and he gently raised his hands. "It's a common story, but lately it seems to be pretty popular. I heard that she's been appearing a lot around this area."
"What is it? What is it?"
"It's the ghost of a young woman, who stops people and asks them a question. 'Do you know the ki?' When they reply that they don't know, she immediately vanishes, but when they reply that they do, a one-eyed dog will appear out of nowhere and eat them up."
Sugisaki let out a delighted sound.
"You love stories like this, don't you?"
Nozue tilted his head. "What is that, ki?"
"Well..." murmured Hashigami. "What about 'oni'? Ki, as in ogre." [note: the kanji for "oni," which means "ogre," can also be pronounced "ki."]
"Why do you think oni?"
"I don't know. That's the most likely, isn't it?"
Sugisaki cocked his head. "I wonder if it's someone's name. Because a while ago, there was a similar ghost story about a woman who kept looking for a man whose name started with 'hi.'"
"What's that?" Just as Hashigami asked this, the door to the prep room burst open, and Sakata appeared.
After looking at the three for a moment, he approached Hirose. "Sensei, do you know where Takasato is?"
Hirose didn't know what he meant by this question, and so tilted his head.
"I called his house yesterday, but no one picked up. Do you know where he is?"
"Yeah, I do," he replied, and Sakata affected a flattering smile.
"I was wondering if you could tell me. Takasato's probably not coming back to school, huh? No matter what, I have to see Takasato and speak with him."
Hirose thought it over a little bit, and then replied simply, "I can't tell you tell you where he is. I think Takasato will probably come back to school. After you see him at school, you can speak with him then."
Sakata looked up at Hirose discontentedly. "It seems like sensei and Takasato are on pretty good terms."
"It just seems different. When other people mention Takasato, the mood is just different from when sensei talks about Takasato."
Hirose didn't reply to this.
"Sensei, if you get along with Takasato so well, I was wondering if you'd let me see him. No matter what, I have to talk with Takasato."
Sakata was annoyingly persistent.
"What do you want to talk to him about?"
"A lot of things."
His yearning tone made Hirose feel nauseous.
"Takasato's present situation is a bit tough, so I wanted to give him a little encouragement."
"Oh?" The one voicing another implication was Nozue. "I didn't know Sakata-san was so kind-hearted."
Sakata scoffed nasally. "I'm very kind-hearted...to people who are worth being kind-hearted towards."
"That's not what I mean. I just dislike having anything to do with the trifling sort, because there are so many people out there who are so boring, but then pretend they're so great."
Nozue held ridicule in his smile. "So if you become good with Takasato-san, just maybe you won't be cursed, huh?"
"It's not like that." Sakata puffed up his cheeks. "I just think that everyone's misunderstanding Takasato. He's a person who has unique talents, and I think treating that sort of person like an ordinary person is wrong. Special people should receive special treatment. If not, then Takasato won't think much of it."
Hirose found his words annoying. Takasato probably wouldn't like Sakata. "You'll probably have plenty of chances to see Takasato at school. I don't want to do this."
This being said, Sakata dissatisfiedly snorted. "Whatever. I don't mean to be unreasonable. But..." Sakata searched Hirose's face.
"I'm unhappy with your attitude."
"Nothing. If you don't understand, then nevermind." Hirose felt like he was one of those people who unsettled others for no reason. Then, Nozue made a stunned sound.
"Sakata-san, why do you care so much about Takasato-san? When I look at you, I feel like something's not right."
"You're speaking very impolitely."
"But isn't that how you are? Sakata-san, you seem to really worship Takasato-san. Won't that just annoy Takasato-san?"
"Usually, if someone is accused of having caused the death of another, I don't think anyone would feel happy about that, much less someone who's been injured as a result of an attempted hanging."
"So, didn't I say I wanted to see him and give him some encouragement? He might not be feeling so well because he could possibly have caused the death of others, and I feel bad for him. There's nothing to be done. Takasato is just that special. I feel like those who don't understand that and then bully him are stupid. Takasato doesn't need to feel like he's responsible for any of this." Sakata gave an exaggerated sigh. "No one recognizes it, and so they do inappropriate things. The point is, if people were to not go against Takasato, then no one would die. Though everyone says that Takasato curses people, no one really thinks that in their hearts, so that's why these weird things have been happening. If only everyone were able to understand how special Takasato is, then absolutely nothing would happen."
After he spoke, Sakata smiled unevenly. Hashigami blurted out, "I'm sorry. There's no way I would want to appease some person just so I could go on living."
"For people like that, they can do whatever they want. Because there will finally be a day when they'll be purged."
Hashigami glared at Sakata. "Let me just make this clear. Sakata, you've got some sort of disorder. There's something critically weird about you."
Sakata laughed at that. "I just think that if we don't change that sort of attitude where we think only we're right, then one day, we'll feel the wrath of Takasato."
Hirose didn't say anything. He couldn't stand Sakata's presence, and that made him uneasy. Hashigami seemed disappointed and also kept his mouth shut. An obvious look of disgust also appeared in the faces of Nozue and Sugisaki.
Hirose stood up.
"What's wrong?" asked Nozue, as he looked up inquiringly at Hirose.
"Errands," said Hirose curtly, and then he left he prep room. When he exited into the hallway, putting a door between himself and Sakata, he couldn't help but heave a deep sigh.
Because he hadn't left the prep room with any particular goal, Hirose descended aimlessly to the first floor. When he looked outside from the hallway of the first floor, he saw students gathered on the lawn of the courtyard. As best as he could see, nothing gave him the impression that odd things kept occurring at this school. When he sat absent-mindedly by the entrance, the shrubbery immediately in front of him made a sound, and a student popped his head out from the other side of the slender boxwood. It was Tsuiki.
"What are you up to over there?"
"Taking a break. You eating lunch?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki nodded. Hirose stood up and went into the courtyard in his indoor shoes. He went around to the other side of the shrubbery and saw Tsuiki and Gotanda sitting on a bench.
"Ah, your indoor shoes."
"Let's keep it between us."
Tsuiki smiled and squeezed out a space on the bench for one more person. Hirose sat down. The two rested their lunchboxes on their knees, though they were already almost done eating.
"It's probably still a bit warm to be basking in the sun."
The intense sunlight shone on the bench. Bright sunlight makes darker shadows. Hirose felt that though it was bright all around him, but his mood had fallen to a nadir.
"It's because there's no air conditioning right here." Tsuiki smiled.
"Yeah. Tsuiki, you didn't come to the prep room, huh?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki looked a little perturbed.
"I wanted to, but I just don't know how to face Hashigami-san... Plus, Sakata is there."
"What? You don't like Sakata?"
Tsuiki wrinkled his brow. "He's never really been the type that I liked. Although, recently that guy's been weird."
Tsuiki hesitated. Gotanda spoke for him. "Because lately, he's possessed, like he's starting a new religion."
Hirose tilted his head.
With no expression on his face, Gotanda said, "Takasatoism."
"Ah." Hirose nodded. Gotanda shrugged indifferently.
"I keep getting calls."
"Yeah. He tells me to repent."
Surprised, Hirose looked at Gotanda and then at Tsuiki. Both of them looked fed up.
"Whether he knows us or not, he keeps calling people in our class, and preaching to us about not going against Takasato."
Hirose sighed. "So...do you plan on entering the faith?"
Gotanda shrugged once more. "You've got to be kidding me. Sakata's got an abnormal personality."
Completely, muttered Hirose in his head.
Tsuiki sighed exaggeratedly. "He says that those who were injured received a sort of baptism."
"A baptism from Lord Takasato. He says it's an opportunity."
"I don't get it."
"Me either. He's saying stuff like, he doesn't think any of us know what Takasato's capable of, so we should take the initiative to change our attitudes; that even though we've been punished, we still have a chance to reform ourselves; that on some level, we have it better than those we have no clue whatsoever. He says that if we don't change our attitudes, then even worse things will happen, and that Takasato is already weary of us... That guy's not right in the head."
"I agree," mumbled Hirose.
"I'm not sure, but I wonder if 'blessed are the poor in spirit' refers to him."
"I think it's a little different."
Gotanda said, "If we're going to translate Sakata's words in terms of religion, then it'd be like this: Going against Takasato is a sin, and those who've committed a sin are declared guilty by God. This declaration is a kind of miracle. Sinners have committed a sin, and so their sins are great, but in being punished, they have the blessing of being in the presence of God. Among them, there are those who have committed unpardonable sins and thus condemned to death, but those who survive have the opportunity to see a miracle with their own eyes, so this is a sort of blessing."
Tsuiki sounded surprised. "You seem to understand it well."
"It's not that I just understood it. It's that I've done some studying in order to understand it. In the entire class, I'm probably the only one willing to spend an hour or two on the phone, dealing with Sakata."
"I wonder if you could call it a vigorous intellectual inquisitive nature. —Well, whatever. Since Sakata's phone calls are harmless for me. But, the other guys..."
"How's that?" asked Hirose, and Gotanda shrugged.
"In a nutshell, even though he keeps talking about stuff like miracles and condemnations, and about how if we don't quickly repent, we'll be punished again, I'm not especially concerned, because whether actively or passively, I was not involved in trying to hang Takasato. Although, if I were one of the people involved in that, then I might be threatened by Sakata's calls."
Hirose sighed. "For certain..."
"I think most of those guys who're absent are probably faking illness. Even for those who were really injured, there are probably very few of them hurt so badly that they can't come to school. People are just afraid of coming. I also think that of the guys who are still coming to school now, most of them must be those with strict parents that refuse to let them take days off. In any case, I think Sakata's calls play an important role in people skipping school."
"No way. It's probably just a simple fact that they're afraid of retribution."
Gotanda asserted, "They can't be so scared as to not come to school, because there's already a scapegoat. There'll eventually to be a day when they'll come again."
Hirose tilted his head, and Gotanda widened his eyes.
"Ah, I was also in the same class as Takasato when I was a first-year. Incidentally, I was also in the same class as him for half of the third year of junior high. He'd transferred there during that year. So, I have a pretty good idea of Takasato's situation. I don't think that it's certain that retribution will come once you've hurt Takasato."
Gotanda nodded. "It's like last time. When a whole bunch of people hurt Takasato, a few of them will be injured badly, but the rest of them will either only be injured a little, or not at all, which basically means they were overlooked. That's the rule."
"Ah, so that's what you mean by scapegoat..."
"I think Takasato's intention isn't in revenge, but rather in a warning. He's making a threat to everyone, that good things will not come out of messing with him. So when a group of people hurt him all at the same time, only the unluckier ones receive a severe retribution, and the rest get away with only a few scratches. For the lucky ones, nothing happens to them at all. Those who've taken days off because of injury can't have been hurt very badly, right?"
"Thus, nothing more serious is going to happen to the people who've already been hurt, and the onlookers won't get hurt either. Regardless of when, there are always onlookers, those who'll only stand by and watch, and not try to stop it. To the contrary, none of those onlookers have gotten into any accidents. In other words, it's a warning. For a warning, a more severe retribution would be useless and meaningless."
"Actually, it's easy to understand with a little thinking, but I think the reason that those guys didn't come to school is because of Sakata's strange method of persuasion."
At first listen, it seemed reasonable.
"Then, do you know how many people were involved in the end?" asked Hirose. Gotanda cocked his head and mumbled the names of a few students.
"Twenty-six, I think. Tsuiki and a couple others were absent, and I immediately refused to get involved. There were four others who were hurt but tried to stop it, and there were probably five onlookers. Including Takasato, that makes 14. Our class is exactly 40 people, so 26 were involved in it."
Accidents already happened to twelve people. Seven more were no longer alive, which left seven people. —Could it be possible that those seven would get away with only a few warning scratches?
Hirose knew in his heart that the reason Gotanda made sense to him was that nothing else was worth hoping for. The scary part was that in reality, Takasato wasn't the one carrying out retribution. Would human logic suit that monstrous crew?
Even so, Hirose was a bit relieved. It was definite that some of the tension he'd held in his chest had loosened.
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
＊ ＊ ＊ ＊
He hurried along the third floor hallway to the stairs. The level of light in the school building had already dropped, and gloomy shadows lurked here and there.
He glanced at his watch. He didn't think that drawing Agrippa would take so much time. Particularly since the art teacher Yoneda had covered it with a plastic bag, what was originally a bust he had grown accustomed to drawing became today a difficult problem. Even if he could catch a cab in front of the school gates and rush directly to his drawing lessons, he didn't know if he would be able to make it by the start of the class. Today's lesson was going to be sketching, and he didn't want to be late. He was terrible at sketching, but his first-choice art college often put sketching into its entrance exams.
He trotted down the stairs and made his way to the entrance hall. There weren't a lot of windows, and in addition, the entrance hall was on the side opposite the sun which had already set.
He was standing in the empty space in front of the vacant, lined-up shoe racks, when he momentarily thought of that rumor that kept being brought up recently. The rumor was a ghost story about how the underclassman who'd died on Tuesday would unexpectedly appear here. He'd only thought about it for a second, since he was in a rush.
Based on the hensachi numbers, this school he attended was considered a high-level school, but to someone who wanted to get into an art college, it wasn't considered a very good prep school. He was confident about the written exam, but what decided admission was the practical exam. He hadn't spent enough time drilling for the practical test, nor did he receive special attention from any of the teachers.
He pulled out his shoes roughly and at the same time, threw his indoor shoes in. He hurriedly put his shoes on, and as he was about to cross the entrance hall, he discovered a person standing in the shadows nearby.
It wasn't the underclassman who'd died, he could say that for sure, because though he wasn't familiar with the dead student, he knew that he'd gone this school, and so was certainly not a woman.
She was standing with her body leaning on the shoe racks, facing him with her white face.
Who's that, he thought to himself, though he didn't think it especially suspicious. He knew the contents of the rumors that were beginning to go around inside the school, but he wasn't familiar with the ones that had started to circulate around the new town.
He cocked his head.
"Um... Who are you? Are you someone's family member?" he asked. She hung her head dejectedly, and then immediately looked back up at him again.
"I'm looking for Taiki."
She nodded. "Do you know the ki?"
He didn't understand the meaning of her words and simply stood there, so she looked down again.
"I'm very troubled. If I don't find him soon..."
He tilted his head and said, "I've never heard of that before. Sorry."
He couldn't help but apologize, because she looked so sad. Thus, he questioned her.
"What is that? A person?"
She shook her head. "The ki is a beast, one that called Taiki."
"Is it a dog?"
She sighed lightly. "The ki is a ki. Well, I suppose you don't know of it."
"Yeah, I'm sorry I couldn't help you." As he said this, he searched his memories. Was there a beast called ki?
"Then, do you know of Sanshi?"
This had even less meaning than "ki" to him. "Is that a beast too?"
She tilted her head. "I think she's closer to a human than a beast. Have you seen her?"
He shook his head, as he pondered, what does she mean by "closer to a human than a beast"?
"If I don't find them soon, very bad things will happen..."
"Yes, very bad. The situation will become dire."
"Dire..." In that moment, the strange things that had been happening continuously in the school passed through his mind. He didn't know what she was thinking about, but she shook her head.
"Taiki's presence has become extremely dirty, but it is not the impurity of blood, because a beast who hates blood will become sick from blood," she said to herself. "It was so much effort for Hanshi to find this place for me..."
He didn't quite understand what she was talking about. It was then that he finally began to feel as if things were a bit off. Something was different, different from the world that he knew.
At last, he thought that he should probably get away from her, so he said, "Anyway, I think it's best if you leave soon. The security guard's going to come and close up, and if he spots you, it'll be a big fuss."
After he said this, she nodded and departed from the shoe rack.
That's right. If I don't get rid of this strange woman and go back, if I don't hurry up, I'll be late for my lesson.
She turned around so that her back was facing him, and walked in the direction of the hallway.
"That's not good. An outsider..." In the middle of talking, he swallowed his words.
Her silhouette slowly faded, and as he was forgetting whether or not he should be saying something, her figure disappeared as if it were melting.
For a long time, he stood there dumbfounded.