The sky was clear and the weather on this eagerly-awaited Sunday was ideal for a date.
He had been able to leave work at two o’clock on the dot and there was actually some time before their appointment, so Sakuta headed home for a while.
It took around three minutes, flying through the streets on his bike.
Kaede greeted him, and with a pat on her head he went straight to the bathroom. He washed his sweaty body from the exertions of the excessive pedalling and, just in case, changed into a new pair of underwear.Kaede was watching him with a puzzled gaze.
“A man has to be prepared for anything,” he said, as if imparting great wisdom. “I’m off then, Kaede.”
“Ah, right. I’ll see you later.”
Kaede watched him leave with Nasuno held to her chest as he once more left the house at twenty-past two, this time heading to Fujisawa Station on foot.
His body was somehow light, so that he felt somewhat like he was skipping despite walking normally. Like he had grown wings.
The familiar streets of houses seemed different today, the flowers sprouting from the cracked asphalt caught his eye and the chirping of a sparrow on the power lines rang clearly through the air.
As he enjoyed those things, his mood eased.
Three or four minutes after he left home, a cheerful, happy Sakuta heard a small girl’s crying. Ahead of him there was a girl bawling her eyes out at the entrance to the park.
The girl stopped crying at being spoken to by someone nearby, and looked at Sakuta. But immediately after that:
“Uwaahh, you’re not my Mama!”
She said, and burst into tears.
“Are you lost?”
“Yup, you’re lost.”
“Well, that works too.” She had a way with words.
“Come on, stop crying.” Sakuta crouched in front of the girl and put his hand on her head. “I’ll help you look for her.”
“Yeah.” He smiled and gave her a firm nod. The girl seemed to be about to smile, but then tilted her head in puzzlement. “Let’s go then.”
Then, the instant that Sakuta grabbed the girl’s hand after collecting himself—
There came an energetic yell from behind him.
“Drop dead, you lolicon pervert!”
He wondered what on Earth was happening and went to look around, but before he could see the person’s face a sharp pain assaulted his backside.
It was as if he had been kicked in the tail-bone by a sharp pair of boots. Actually, that was exactly what had happened…
He writhed on the asphalt as he cried out. He could see a girl that didn’t seem to be too far in age from him out of the corner of his eye. Probably a high school student.
She had fluffy hair styled into a bob-cut, and a short skirt. Of course her legs were bare, and even her light makeup was the very picture of an everyday high school girl.
“Quickly, run!” The student urged the girl seriously. The girl just made sounds of confusion at the sudden events. “Come on, hurry!” He didn’t know what she was saying ‘come on’ for, but the student grabbed the girl’s hand and went to take her away.
“Before that lolicon gets up!”
“Who’s a lolicon pervert?”
Sakuta stood while holding his backside. The strength had vanished from his legs because of the overwhelming pain. His now pigeon-toed legs shook, and he looked like a new-born foal.
“He was helping me look for Mama.”
“Eh?” The student cried out wildly. “He’s not a lolicon?”
“I like older women.”
“But you are a pervert!?”
Even as she said that, the student’s face was uneasy. Now that he looked, she was a cute high school student. Her face was still slightly rounded by youth, and her wide open eyes and the light makeup gave her a nice, soft impression. Sakuta always saw the girls at school overdoing their makeup, and thought that if they were going to use it, they should take her as an example.
“I was helping her look for her lost mother together.”
“Wait, wait, she’s the one that’s lost, right?”
The girl agreed with Sakuta’s explanation, moving away from the student to Sakuta’s side and grabbing his sleeve tightly. A complete reversal.
The student had a pained smile, acknowledging her mistake.
“Ahh, my backside hurts.”
“It might have split in two.”
“Eh? That’s awful! Wait, it’s already in two!”
“Ahh, it hurts, it hurts.”
“G-got it. I understaaand.”
The student let out a careless yell… then immediately turned around and put her hands on a telephone pole.
She thrust her mini-skirt-clad backside at Sakuta with an energetic yell.
“No, not ‘here’.”
She probably meant for him to kick her, but he didn’t really have an interest in kicking a high-schooler’s backside as the world and his grandma passed by.
“Just hurry up, I promised to meet my friends.”
Sakuta had a promise too, an important one at that. As he was doing this, time was ticking away. He also had to help the lost girl, so he would definitely be late, so now wasn’t the time to spend doing pointless things. At this point, kicking her would be the quickest.
He lightly kicked the student’s backside. She should be satisfied with this, he thought.
The student urged over her shoulder.
He kicked her harder than before, making a thump.
It still wasn’t enough.
“Alright, I don’t know what’ll happen!”
He made up his mind. It was a good man that granted a girl’s request. Sakuta pulled his leg back, pivoting for extra strength. He sighted in on the round backside of his target, steadied his aim, and then let loose with a serious mid-kick.
It made a low pitched thump.
A moment passed.
Then, she cried out with the Hakata dialect’s characteristic merging of adjective and verb. “Uuu~” She crouched down as she let out a groan, gently holding her backside with both hands. She opened and closed her mouth several times, like a goldfish, unable to speak because of the pain. “M-my backside split in two…”
Finally, she managed to wring those words out.
“It’s okay, it was in two from the start.”
“Ahh, excuse me.” A voice called from behind. He and the student turned at the same time and a uniformed, middle-aged policeman was standing there, his expression perplexed. “A park in broad daylight during a holiday isn’t the place to be enjoying perverted activities like that.”
“No, she’s the only pervert.”
He pointed at the student, because it was the truth.
“N-no! That’s not it! There’s a reason for this!”
The girl was frantic at the odd misunderstanding.
“Let’s hear that reason at the station.”
He suddenly grabbed their arms and they couldn’t move. That’s a policeman for you, even if he was middle-aged he was well-trained and unyielding. The town’s peace was assured.
“I’ve got something important to do, so let me go!”
Yelled Sakuta. The station would be no joke. Mai might wait for five minutes, ten if there was a miracle, but she wouldn’t wait any longer. After all, she was Sakurajima Mai.
“Right, right. Calm down and come quietly. You come along too, little miss. Your mother’s waiting at the station.”
Sakuta was relieved at the girl’s problem being sorted. But even that…
“Is pain ‘in’ with the youth recently?”
Was ruined by the man’s question.
The man let them go an hour and a half after they arrived. The clock-hand had swung dreadfully close to the four o’clock mark. He really wanted to find someone that would give him a time machine.
“Hahh, geez, this is the worst~”
The girl spoke with a tired expression as she walked next to him.
“That’s my line, moron.”
“What are you calling me a moron for. It was because you were misleading.”
“You’re worse for misunderstanding.”
“Excuses are lame.”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s the truth. Besides, it’s your fault that that took so long, Koga.”
The girl shifted in surprise.
“…Wait, how come you know my name?”
“Koga Tomoe. It’s a cute name.”
“My full name too!?”
She must not remember giving her name at the station. He knew what school she went to too. It was actually the same school as him, Minegahara High School. She was in the year below him, his kouhai.
“I know everything about you.”
“Hah, are you an idiot?”
“You come from Fukuoka.”
The panicking schoolgirl, Koga Tomoe, put her hands to her mouth.
“You shouted ‘s’painful’ earlier too.”
“I-I don’t know anything about that.”
She looked away. He didn’t really get it, but she didn’t seem to want people to know. It was too late to hide it now though.
“Well, getting back to it, you’re in the wrong.”
“Tell me your name. It’s not fair that only you know mine.”
“I’m Satou Ichirou.”
He didn’t have the courtesy to tell her, so gave an obvious lie. He’d thought it was a name that anyone would realise was fake, but—
“Then, Satou, how am I in the wrong!?”
Tomoe readily accepted it. Apparently she didn’t know how to doubt people and was a good, honest girl. It would just cause a bother to admit it was fake now, so Sakuta decided to keep quiet about it.
“I’ll tell you if you don’t understand. Even though the officer understood the mistake in the first thirty minutes, you were just on your smartphone, playing with it, not listening.”
In truth, the remaining hour was a sermon on not just focusing on your ‘phone’ when people were talking to you. Sakuta didn’t have a phone or a smartphone, so it was utterly pointless. But…
“That’s true… don’t be so logical about it.”
She said, pouting.
“Have you reflected on that?”
“But, I got messages so I couldn’t help it.”
“Couldn’t help what?”
“Replying, if I didn’t do it quickly I’d lose my friends.”
Tomoe hunched her head forward in shame.
“Ah, so you were frantically typing replies?”
“If I didn’t they’d get angry.”
Tomoe puffed up her cheeks and glared up at him.
“What’s with that reaction? It’s creepy.”
“You’re probably just thinking: ‘if they stopped being friends with you because of that, they aren’t real friends’.”
She had probably been told that before and her tone changed slightly as she recited it.
“Don’t you think so too?”
Sakuta put his hand on her head and ruffled her hair.
“Wah! Idiot! My hair was all done up.”
She shook off his hand and hurriedly put her hair back in order.
“Well, do your best, high schooler.”
“What? Are you making fun of me?”
“You’re franticly living by those stupid rules, aren’t you? Then I won’t make fun of you. I will think you’re an idiot though.”
‘You must email’, ‘you must message’, he didn’t know who had wanted and made the rules, or really who they were for. They were rules that were there first to make people ‘feel good’, but if they paid attention to them they also became restrictions that hurt them.
Once people decided to make them rules, that was it. If you didn’t follow the rules, you would be excluded, isolated. Simply losing your friends. And when you were excluded once, you couldn’t come back into the fold. Sakuta knew this well, Kaede had suffered greatly through it.
It was a waste, but even so those rules bound people, connecting them, making them need to have a place to belong. email by email, message by message; you would get exchanges like “You okay?”, “I’m okay.” People that couldn’t affirm themselves were affirmed by others. And when that was shared between everyone, they sympathised and could relax with a place to belong.
Middle school, high school… within society, school in general was a world itself. Of course everyone was frantic about it.
Sakuta had come to feel like he understood that part of society after he had entered high school, when he had started work and come into contact with university students and adult staff. When watching the atmosphere called ‘school’ from an outside perspective he felt that he understood: what they wanted was a place to belong…
“You’re making fun of me.”
“You seem like a good person, Koga, so whatever.”
“What’s that mean?”
“The guts to try and save a little girl from a pervert should be respected. Though it’s dangerous, so you should call someone in future. You’d have been attacked if it was a real pervert; ‘cause you’re cute.”
“D-don’t call me cute!”
Tomoe shied away, her face red. Maybe she was surprisingly unused to being told that.
“Well, don’t forget your sense of justice, and keep going.”
“Ah, yeah, thanks.”
Tomoe thanked him surprisingly honestly. He guessed she really was a good person at heart, dazzlingly pure.
A smartphone rang. Sakuta didn’t have one so it was, of course, Tomoe’s.
“Ah, crap! I had plans. See you!”
She rushed off. Because she was wearing a short skirt her panties were visible for glimpses, but shouting and pointing that out would draw attention. So Sakuta stayed silent and watched her leave.
When Tomoe had completely vanished, he thought to return home and started walking.
He stopped after about three steps.
Was he forgetting something important?
“…Ah.” Mai’s face went through his head. She wasn’t smiling kindly, and she wasn’t pouting cutely either. It was the memory of the one time he had seen her seriously angry.
His legs tangled as he dashed off towards their appointed meeting place.
Sakuta had run to the station he used to get to school every day, the Enoden Fujisawa Station, and was in front of the ticket barriers. This was where Mai had decided they would meet.
As he caught his breath he looked to the right, then to the left. It didn’t take long to check the six or seven-metre wide area in front of the barriers.
Unfortunately, Mai wasn’t there.
“Well, of course not.” Sakurajima Mai wouldn’t have waited for an hour and a half for him. “Uwahh, I’ve really done it…”
Regret encroached upon him. But he couldn’t have just passed by and done nothing when he saw that lost girl, and he’d never have thought that the high school girl with a sense of justice would get involved, so he couldn’t help that.
He resented himself not having a phone or smartphone. If he did, he could have called her. Well, once he’d explained she would have said ‘Hmm, so you have something more important than a date with me’ or something and the date wouldn’t have happened anyway.
At this point, how would he get her to forgive him? She was probably extremely angry at Sakuta not coming and had returned home, or gone somewhere alone. He didn’t think that she would let go of her anger so easily.
A set of footsteps approached from behind Sakuta’s crestfallen form. They sounded somehow familiar, but also sounded extremely angry judging by their rhythm.
“You must think highly of yourself to keep me waiting for an hour and thirty-eight minutes.”
He turned in disbelief and Mai was standing there, in her casual clothes.
“What? You look like a deer in the headlights.”
“It’s just that Mai-san isn’t the kind of woman who has the grace to wait for a latecomer for an hour and thirty-eight minutes! You must be a fake!”
Mai’s eyes narrowed and the surrounding temperature seemed to drop by several degrees.
“I know just how Sakuta looks at me.”
He’d probably been found out for looking at her mainly in perversion.
“You forgot the ‘kun’.”
“Sakuta is plenty for you.”
Mai probably meant it as a punishment, but frankly speaking, it didn’t sound like anything but a reward to Sakuta. If he told her that, she’d switch back to calling him ‘Sakuta-kun’, so he kept quiet.
“What are you smirking about?”
“Nothing at all.”
Fighting against his expression softening, he looked at Mai again. It was the first time he had seen her in casual wear. She was wearing a knitted, hooded vest atop her long-sleeved blouse. Her skirt was knee-length, and had a slightly adult design, being flared at the hem. Added to that, she was wearing boots that came to just under her knees. Her outfit was refined and elegant, but struck a fine balance in not being too much. It suited Mai, with her adult features, very well.
“…” But nothing was exposed, the most he could see was a slight area just above her knees. “Hahh…”
He couldn’t help but let out a sigh.
“What’s with that rude reaction.”
“Mai-san, are you sane?”
Mai leaned away, guardedly.
“A date needs a miniskirt, and bare legs!”
“I’ll hit you.”
Mai tightened her fist.
“Are you that upset about it?”
“I was looking forward to it so much.”
“You’ve got some nerve after being so late.”
“You’re always wearing tights with your uniform.”
“W-what? I put a lot of thought into this…”
She looked away and muttered.
“Well, it’s really cute.”
With a sideways look, Mai demanded more.
“You’re way too cute, Mai-san.”
“It’s good that you’re honest.”
“My heart’s racing, I want to pick you up, take you home and put you up as a decoration in my room.”
“Any more than that is creepy, you don’t need to say it.”
“Shall we go then?”
He tried to indirectly move to them leaving.
“Wait, the conversation isn’t over.”
“Was there anything else?”
It was something he wanted to avoid, so he feigned ignorance.
“Enough with the awful acting.”
“Acting in front of you would be terrifying.”
“Make your excuse for being late, then sincerely beg for forgiveness.” Mai seemed to be enjoying herself somehow, and her expression was lively. “If it’s not good enough, I’ll go home.”
Maybe she had waited for an hour and thirty-eight minutes to tease him. That’s what he felt.
“While I was on my way, I found a lost child on the corner of the residential area.”
“I’m going home.”
“It sounds like a lie, but it’s the truth!”
“If you came from work, why did you go through the residential area?”
Mai looked sharply at him.
“I went home first.”
“I had time, so I took a shower and changed my underwear for the critical moment.”
“…Disgusting.” Mai pulled away from him. “Well that’s just the worthless effort of a younger boy, so I’ll have to accept it.”
“Thank you very much.”
“However, don’t get closer than thirty metres to me.:
That couldn’t be called a date anymore, Sakuta would look like a stalker.
“Come on, continue your tale.”
“I really did go with her to a police station.”
“The lost child was a girl?”
“You have some nerve to keep me waiting to meet another girl.”
“Even though she was six!?”
She denied him without hesitation. At this point, there was the risk of being too honest and telling her everything. The day that he told her he was with a cute high school girl called Koga Tomoe… she actually was a fairly cute high school student, who knew what jeers he would be assaulted with.
“But there’s a station right over there?”
Mai pointed a little way past the entrance to the station.
“She asked me to stay until they found her parents, and was crying.”
“Hmmm.” Mai’s gaze stabbed into him with doubt. “I hate lies.”
“What a coincidence, so do I.”
“If you’re lying, I’ll have you eat pocky with your nose.”
It was the type of torture that could be done in a hurry, and the situations he could imagine were things he’d rather avoid.
“I don’t think you should waste food.”
“You’ll be eating it, so it’s fine.”
She moved her face close to his and stared carefully at him, pressuring him to confess. Her breath tickled his cheek and she smelled nice.
He definitely couldn’t tell the truth now. He didn’t want to eat pocky through his nose.
“Well, okay. I won’t forgive you, but I’ll go on a date with you.”
He could rejoice at that.
“Thank you very much.”
Then, the instant Sakuta relaxed:
“Ah, that lolicon from earlier.”
He heard a familiar voice.
He looked to the corridor that connected the JR and Oda Express stations, and saw Koga Tomoe, who he had been with until earlier. The three girls he was with were probably the friends she had plans with. They were a group of four that had a showy atmosphere about them and seemed to get on. They seemed to be the central group of their class.
“That Hakata woman from earlier.”
Tomoe hurriedly approached Sakuta at his reaction and tried to cover his mouth.
“D-don’t say that!”
She quietly menaced him.
“The Hakata woman?”
“Ah, you know, that souvenir from Fukuoka? The one with yokan in Baumkuchen. The woman character isn’t read like ‘woman’ though, it’s like ‘person’.”³
“Ah, I’ve eaten that, it was tasty.”
Another of her friends grabbed her arm and pulled her away from Sakuta.
“That’s the guy from the hospital incident.”
Even whispering, her voice was clearly audible. Tomoe then muttered.
“Eh? That’s Satou Ichirou.” And the like.
“Huh? What are you… anyway, look.”
This time, the gathered girls peeked at Mai. Apparently, they could see her.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Pulled along by her friends, Tomoe hurried through the barrier. As he watched them, Sakuta realised his mistake. He’d reflexively replied to Tomoe, but he should have pretended not to know her, that would have been much better.
He glanced at Mai. She had a perfectly blank expression.
“It’s a mistake…’
“What Tomoe-chan said.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t go home.” Mai put her arm around his. “First we need to buy the pocky.”
“Can you get thin ones?”
He couldn’t stop to enjoy her impish tone, nor to have his fill of the sensation enveloping his arm.
“No, you lolicon.”
And thus… His first date with Mai started with heading to the convenience store in front of the station.
The snap of a stick of pocky breaking sounded.
Sakuta was sat next to Mai in a carriage on the Enoden train, in the seats facing the sea.
Another snap sounded. Mai was eating the pocky she had bought at the convenience store, stick by stick. The small opening of her mouth bewitched him. Of course, Mai wasn’t doing that intentionally, but the short time she took before chewing to bite off just the sweet tip of the pocky held his attention.
However, he couldn’t just enjoy the scene. He didn’t know when she would stab at his nose with a stick of pocky, so he was uncomfortable.
And then, that time came surprisingly quickly. Mai held out a stick of pocky and said.
“I am full,” he replied stiltedly.
“I don’t want to get fat, so eat the rest.”
“You can eat them normally.”
Mai looked sidelong at him with a sigh.
“Thank you for the food.”
He took the whole box.
“Did you really think I’d make you eat them with your nose?”
“You looked completely serious.”
“It was impressive.”
“Well, I thought I might have you try at least one.”
“Uwahh, you’re a real demon.”
“It seems you haven’t repented properly, shall we?”
“I’m sorry, that was a lie. Oh great and beautiful Mai-sama, please forgive me.”
“Somehow, you don’t feel too sincere.”
Mai turned her gaze tiredly to the window. Although, they were only three stations from Fujisawa Station, so the sea wasn’t visible. Before long, the train reached the section of track passing between the houses on either side.
As it was getting towards the evening, the carriage wasn’t too full, and there were still empty seats. He indirectly checked the nearby passengers’ reactions, but they didn’t seem to have noticed her… they probably couldn’t see her, he thought.
“Are you going to tell me to apologise on my hands and knees?”
“No. Sakuta, why do you care about me? Your punishment is to confess why.”
“What brought this up?”
“Normally, you wouldn’t want to get involved with a troublesome woman like me.”
“So you realise it yourself.”
“Anyone would if they saw everyone’s reactions.”
Mai was isolated from her class, and the school as a whole. Everyone treated her like the atmosphere not something to relate with.
“It’s because you’re uncooperative like that that you don’t have any friends, Mai-san.”
“You’re just as uncooperative.” He pretended not to hear Mai’s cynicism. He knew that even if she hadn’t told him so, Yuuma and Rio would always say it. “And you’re strangely bold on top of that.”
“You’re about the only one that would talk to me without fear.”
“That’s true, you do seem rather overwhelming, Mai-san. I think that’s why you can’t make friends.”
It would be hard to talk to her if she was just beautiful, but she was also known throughout the nation as an actress.
“Mai-san, do you enjoy school?”
“If you’re asking that as in ‘despite having no friends’, then that’s been the case since elementary school, so I don’t really think anything of it. I don’t think school is enjoyable though, no.”
That was no bluff, no deceit, it was without a doubt her true feelings. She didn’t feel anything about not being used to school, she didn’t feel any unease from the difference between her and the people around her. She had resigned herself to this long ago, and Sakuta felt that those feelings had vanished.
“And don’t change the subject.” She glared sharply at him from his side. “I asked you a question, and you still haven’t answered.”
“What was that?”
“Why are you interfering with me so much, even going so far as to give that announcer information that puts you in a bad position? You must have a reason to do that.”
She was speaking much more harshly than earlier.
“I just have that kind of personality; I can’t leave someone alone that needs help.”
“I was asking you seriously.”
“Mean.” Sakuta retorted.
“You’re softhearted, but not by nature.”
“Am I not?”
“Not everyone is kind. There were some pretty awful things said with that couple in Shichirigahama Station that tried to take a picture of me.”
“I think they’d have said that even if it wasn’t me.”
“I’m saying that you didn’t put it kindly, you could have given them a mild warning, couldn’t you?”
“Even though I was angry?”
“You could have done it if you wanted to, couldn’t you? If you weren’t calm enough, you wouldn’t have been able to corner them verbally like that.”
“The more I hear, the worse my personality sounds…”
“Did you think it was a good one?”
Mai looked at him in faux-surprise.
“There’s someone with a worse personality here.”
“That’s enough of that, hurry up and tell me.”
Mai wouldn’t let him avoid the topic, as usual.
“I’ll answer seriously, then ask you something seriously.”
“It was a chance to get close to my beautiful senpai, so I got excited.”
“Who said to be so frank about it?”
“You were the one to tell me to be serious, Mai-san, weren’t you?”
“Tell me your real reason.”
Ordinarily, she wouldn’t want to hear his true intentions. Perhaps. He still didn’t understand her sense of values.
“Because it’s annoying to not have anyone to rely on when you’re in trouble.”
This time she didn’t say anything, he’d probably passed.
“When Kaede got Adolescence Syndrome, no one believed what was happening right in front of their eyes…” He picked out a stick of pocky and brought it to his mouth. Mai would be angry with his manners if he kept talking as he ate, so he swallowed it first and then continued. “No one listened to me, and everyone pushed me away. And even though I was telling the truth, everyone called me a liar.”
Even so, he didn’t think they could help it. That’s right, they couldn’t. Even Sakuta would have closed his eyes and ears to it, not seen it and not heard it. It was easier to live like that. Everyone knew so.
“Can I ask something?” Mai let out, somewhat hesitantly. Sakuta nodded at her, already mostly sure of what she would ask. “What about your parents?”
She asked carefully. She had a bad relationship with her own mother, so was wary of causing any unnecessary conflict. Sakuta admired her putting herself in his shoes like that. She may act like a queen, but she understood her citizen’s feelings.
“We live separately now.”
“I know that, I thought so when I went into your home.” Seeing their rooms did remove the need for an explanation, there wasn’t a sign of an adult there and there were no shoes in the entranceway other than Sakuta’s.When they went into his room, the atmosphere was the same where normally there would be a sense of territory separate from the family’s. “What I want to ask is…”
“I know.” Of course, he knew the aim of Mai’s question, she was asking about their reaction to the problems with Kaede. He picked up three sticks of pocky, emptying the box before crushing it and putting it in his pocket. “Mom, well, she tried to accept it, but it was too much, something happened… she’s still in the hospital. She was worrying enough with just the fact that Kaede was being bullied, but it’s only reasonable with something incomprehensible like Adolescence Syndrome. Dad’s looking after her.”
Sakuta still didn’t know how to feel about that. Before he could do anything things had changed, and he had only noticed once this was the case.
All that remained were the results.
He hadn’t been able to do anything, and there was nothing he could have done do.
“With the shock of being rejected by mom, and thinking that it was because of her as well… She wouldn’t embrace anyone but me, her older brother.”
“How old was she again?”
“Two years younger than me, her third year of middle school. Since then she loves the house and hasn’t been going to school.”
Strictly speaking, she couldn’t leave… If she put her shoes on and stood in the entranceway, she wouldn’t move take even a step out of the door, and start crying like a child and saying “No, no!”
“Do you… resent your mother?”
“Well yeah, of course I do,” Sakuta answered truthfully and bluntly. “I thought it was obvious our parents would help us, that they’d believe me and Kaede.”
But there were also things he had learnt from living apart. For example, every day, his mother would cook for them, wash for them, clean the bath and toilet and take on all kinds of responsibilities single handedly. When they had lived together, Sakuta had thought that it was only natural.
There were things he noticed now that he had to do something if he wanted it done, things that had changed. It might be a tiny thing, but when he sat on the toilet for example.
He thought that his mother had had to endure things, that she had wanted her family to notice, but she had never said a word about it in front of Sakuta. Never shown it on her face. She had never asked for a single word of thanks.
When he thought of not being able to thank her for those days, he had a feeling his resentment might be misplaced. That’s how he had come to feel over this past year. He felt the same towards his father, who met with them monthly to find out how they were doing. While he nursed their mother, he put aside money for their living expenses. Even if Sakuta worked as hard as he could, he knew that in reality, he wouldn’t be able to even pay the rent for the flat they lived in and had to admit that. To admit he couldn’t live alone…
“What happened with Kaede made me understand. I’m still a kid, and even adults can’t solve everything… of course they can’t.”
“Hmm, that’s amazing.”
“Uwahh, I’m being called amazingly idiotic.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. There are lots of your classmates that don’t realise that, right?”
“They just haven’t had the chance to realise it, if they had to face the problem, everyone would.”
“So, where’s this conversation going.”
Mai was paying attention to the window, and it was just getting to the point where the sea was visible.
He could remember the question perfectly.
“Sakuta, why do you care about me?”
This was the start of this conversation.
“I was alone. There was someone that would listen seriously to what happened to Kaede with Adolescence Syndrome…”
If he hadn’t been able to meet them, Sakuta didn’t think he would have been able to overcome the incident with Kaede. That was when he realised something.
That there were things worse than being alone in this world.
Having no one was the worst.
He was sure that everyone realised that subconsciously. So they were terrified of it, and would not forgive late replies to emails, or leaving messages as ‘read’, not knowing that doing so also tightened the noose… Not knowing that that itself became a reason that you would have no one…
“There was someone that believed me,” he finished.
It was somewhat painful to remember her, and thinking of her name made him chew his bottom lip.
“That was a woman.”
Sakuta was startled at her blunt statement. Her cold, even voice had some force behind it.
“You were making that kind of face.”
She didn’t seem interested.
The train was a station before where they normally alighted, Shichirigahama Station… the stop in front of Kamakura High School. The instant the doors opened, Mai suddenly stood.
“We’re getting off.”
Their plans should have been at the last station, and they would have needed to ride the train for another fifteen minutes.
“Eh, Kamakura?” By the time he asked for confirmation, Mai had already left the train. “Ah, wait.”
He hurriedly followed.
A few seconds later, the train doors closed, and it sluggishly left the platform. Mai watched it until it trundled out of site, and then looked towards the sea.
The station was built facing the sea and atop a hill at that, so there was nothing to obstruct their site. Just standing on the platform waiting for a train gave you a monopoly on the sight of the sea. It was a location that seemed liable to appear in movies and dramas. It seemed like it was actually used for recording, as Sakuta had seen groups of people with TV Cameras before.
“It’s already evening because you were an hour and thirty-eight minutes late.”
The sun had started to dye the sky red as it set towards Enoshima.
“It’s a little walk.”
Mai pointed towards the sea and then left the station without waiting for a reply. Even as he gave a pained smile at her continued odd behaviour, Sakuta happily walked alongside her.
Sakuta and Mai crossed National Route 134, which had traffic lights that rarely went green, then descended a staircase that was about twenty steps and then onto the beach of Shichirigahama.
They faced away from Shichirigahama and headed in the direction of Kamakura.
The sand on their feet made their steps heavy.
“Did you know? Even though Shichirigahama is written with ‘seven ri’, it’s not that long?”
“One ri is about four kilometres, and the beach isn’t even three.”
In other words, it wasn’t even reading the measurements wrong.
Apparently, it was important information to Mai.
“Chiba’s Kujukurihama isn’t ninety-nine ri long either apparently.”⁴
“You know some boring things.”
Mai said over her shoulder, as if she really was bored.
“Even though you brought the topic up?”
“So, what kind of person were they?”
Taking a risk, he made as if he didn’t understand.
“The fairytale girl that believed your gossip.”
“What was her name?”
“Just tell me her name.”
“Her name was Makinohara Shouko. She’s a hundred and sixty centimetres tall, and all-together smaller than you. I don’t know how much she weighs.”
Sakuta recited as he listened to the waves.
“If you did know, I’d have to ask why.”
“How should I put it, she listened to people, but… didn’t let them change her, and was strangely unsympathetic.”
Mai reacted coldly, even though she was the one that asked.
“If I had to think of a particular trait of hers, it’d be that she wore a Minegahara High School uniform.”
“…” At that point, Mai finally looked at him. “Did you try to enter Minegahara High School to chase after her?”
“Things were tough back home after what happened with Kaede, so I decided to move away. There was talk of moving even further, but I didn’t think distance mattered much with gossipping on the internet… And then, well, the reason I came here is just like you said.”
He confessed honestly, now that he had said that much, there was no point in hiding it.
“But she rejected you.”
Mai seemed to be enjoying some schadenfreude.
“It ended up the same way, but I didn’t confess.”
“Even though you went out of your way to go to the same school?”
“I couldn’t meet her.”
He picked a stone up from the beach and threw it into the sea. Now that he thought of it, this might be the beach he threw away his phone on.”
“So she graduated.”
“We met when I was in third year in middle school, and she said she was in her second year of high school.”
“Then did she transfer?”
“That would still be okay.”
“You say that like something else happened.”
“I went through all of the third year classrooms and spoke to all of the students.”
“And they said?”
Sakuta slowly shook his head.
“That they didn’t know a student called Makinohara Shouko.”
Mai seemed lost at how to take that.
“I looked at the student registers, I even thought she might have had to repeat the year… and I looked through all the graduation albums of the last three years or so.”
But, of course, he couldn’t find her.
There were no records of a student called Makinohara Shouko.
“I don’t really understand it, but I definitely met someone called Makinohara Shouko, and they definitely saved me.”
“It seems like I won’t be able to repay the favour to her, so I thought I’d try and do it with you.” It was something that couldn’t be solved alone, you needed someone at your side to feel saved. That was Sakuta’s experience two years ago. “And, there’s something I want to know.”
“Something you want to know?”
“Why Adolescence Syndrome occurs, if I knew that…”
Sakuta’s hand approached his chest.
“Are you worried about your scar?”
“In a way.” Swimming lessons were rather depressing as summer approached, if he could get rid of the scar, he would by all means. “And if I can solve it, it might help Kaede too.”
He thought it would be a shame if she could never leave the house. Wasting every day away by reading and playing with Nasuno the cat was definitely a shame. He wanted to bring her to this beach. So he wanted to know a lot about Adolescence Syndrome, and find a way to solve Kaede’s case of it. That was the reason that Sakuta had first been interested in Mai…
Even without expressly saying it, Mai’s profile had a smile that said she had seen through him. Sakuta picked up another stone and threw it towards the sea, where it traced out an arc, and fell in with a splash.
He waited wordlessly for what she would say next.
“Do you still like her?”
Whether he did, or whether he didn’t, he could answer immediately, and not even Sakuta would divert this with a smile.
“Do you still like Makinohara Shouko-san?”
He mentally repeated her questions once more.
“Do you still like her?”
It might be a problem he had avoided until today.
“Do you still like Makinohara Shouko-san?”
Before today, whenever he thought of her, his chest would prickle, and if he thought of her too much, it would grow painful and he wouldn’t be able to sleep. But now that a year had passed since then it was different. It had changed.
He thought he had come to a conclusion long ago, but unconsciously avoided putting it into words. He thought he might be able to say that here though.
“I seriously liked her.”
He spoke his feelings as he looked to the sea. Simply by doing that, it was like a load had been taken off his chest.
Even without the opportunity, feelings changed into memories as time passed. Even a wound of unrequited love would grow a scab, and that scab would fall off without notice. And thus, people moved on.
“You might as well say it louder.”
“If I gave you that kind of material, I’d be teased for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll record it for you.” Mai took out her phone. “Come on, say it.”
Somehow seemed to have sharpened, but that was probably his imagination.
“You seem really angry?”
“Hah? Me? Why?”
She was clearly indignant and angry. Her sharp gaze and emotions felt like they were jabbing at Sakuta.
“I was the one asking…”
“Is there anyone that would be happy about their date confessing that they liked someone else?”
“I said ‘liked, that’s important!”
She didn’t seem to agree at all. It would take some time to curry favour with her again. Just as Sakuta thought that:
“It’s the seeeaaa.”
He heard a carefree voice. Looking he saw a man and woman walking down the stairs to the beach.
The man had a head of tousled hair and a large pair of headphones around his neck.
The woman was slight and wore glasses. She was glaring at her boyfriend as he ran around on the beach. Her heels were sinking into the sand and making it hard to walk.
They both felt a little older than Sakuta and Mai, probably university students.
Her boyfriend retraced his steps to where she was struggling with the sand, and then suddenly.
“D-don’t mess with me.” He hoisted his resisting girlfriend up into a bridal carry and took her to the water’s edge. “Geez, I can’t believe you.”
Her cheeks were red when he let her down. Sakuta was the closest, and he indirectly watched them.
“You’ve got some nerve.” But the boyfriend left her and was shouting in the waves, not listening at all. They were a strange couple. “It’s cold, I’m leaving.”
He immediately hugged her from behind when she said that, and Sakuta couldn’t help but let out a shout. But, fortunately, the flirting couple didn’t seem to have heard.
“You’re really warm.” Spoke the male.
The woman seemed to mumble some complaint, but burrowed into his arms cutely.
Sakuta looked sidelong at Mai.
“I’m not cold.”
His strategy failed at her preventative warning.
“Maaan, it sure is cold.”
He looked at the sea and muttered, receiving a disgusted look from Mai.
The couple left along the waterfront, hand-in-hand. It was like a scene in a movie.
“Man, that’d be nice.”
Mai had apparently let out her true feelings, and hurriedly turned away.
“Shall we hold hands?”
“Why are you so overbearing?”
Even as she said that, Mai obediently put her hand over Sakuta’s outstretched palm. However, that wasn’t to hold hands. When her hand moved away, her phone remained in his hand, a smartphone in a red rabbit case.
“Are you giving it me?”
As he was about to continue his question, Sakuta’s gaze fell to the screen.
There was a message written on it. He asked silently if he could read it, and Mai nodded with a somewhat uneasy expression.
On the May 25th (Sunday), come to Shichirigahama beach at 5 PM.
That was today, and it would become five o’clock in another five minutes.
He didn’t know why Mai was showing him the message.
He understood when he looked at the ‘To’ field. The word ‘Manager’ was written there.
In other words, it was an email sent to Mai’s mother, and what’s more, the screen told him it had already been sent. It was sent on the day they agreed to go on this date. The day that Mai had told him she would be returning to show business, after they had separated.
It would soon be time for the appointment,
“Are you meeting?”
He asked, as he returned the phone.
“I don’t want to.”
“Then don’t.” Mai had become estranged from her mother in her third year of middle school with the argument over her photobook. She had already decided to switch agencies, so now there wouldn’t be any need to talk to her mother directly. “Ah, are the still things to deal with in the contract?”
“I left the contract with her agency at the same time as I went on hiatus, so that’s okay.”
And so it had to be a problem of the heart. If he had to distinguish the type…
Mai had a sad face as she watched the waves. Though she may have decided to meet, she still seemed to not want to.
“My logic is ‘don’t do things you don’t want to’.”
He spoke to no one.
“And is there more to that?
“Well, ‘you can only do what you have to’ goes together with it.”
He looked to the sea and spoke resolutely.
There were things you could avoid.
And there were things you could not.
There were these two types of things in this world. There was no need to do things you could avoid, but turning away from the things that could not be avoided would halt your progress.
And, in this case, Mai felt that meeting her mother was the latter of these two types.
“Are you okay?”
Sakuta asked straightforwardly.
“It’s something I decided myself, so… Besides, it seems she’s already here.”
Mai had noticed a small silhouette coming from the direction of Enoshima.
“She’s a punctual person.”
She was still far away, so Sakuta couldn’t distinguish her. But Mai’s surety was of course because they were mother and daughter.
“Let’s go over.” Mai flicked her wrist at him like one would ward off a stray dog. “Maybe I should greet her seeing as I’m here.”
“…” Mai glared seriously at him and he could do nothing but raise his hands in surrender. “We’ll continue our date when I’m done, so wait back a little bit.”
He walked off along the water’s edge and sat down on a piece of driftwood. The distant figure gradually grew larger and Sakuta could see her clearly.
She was a strong looking beauty that was similar to Mai. Strictly speaking, Mai would be similar to her mother, but…
She was slender, tall and still seemed young. At the very least, she didn’t seem old enough to have a daughter in her third year of high school. Seeing her in person, Sakuta remembered the rumours that she gave birth to Mai when she was twenty.
If that was true, she’d be in her thirties. She didn’t look any different from an older woman, but she didn’t have the aura of a ‘mother’, and her bright suit reinforced that impression all the more.
Mai’s mother approached her step by step, and was about a dozen steps from her.
He saw Mai say something, probably something like ‘it’s been a while’, the sound of the waves overwhelmed the words and he couldn’t hear them. Her mother just slowed slightly, and didn’t stop, and showed no sign of replying.
Mai said something else, leaning forward and speaking desperately.
As he thought that things were weird, he noticed, her mother’s gaze hadn’t stopped, it was swinging left and right, looking to Sakuta almost like she was searching for the one that had summoned her.
And even as she was right in front of Mai, she showed no sign of stopping.
He had a horrible foreboding. As Sakuta yelled mentally for her to stop… her mother passed right by Mai.
Almost as if she couldn’t see her…
As if she couldn’t hear the girl calling for her mother…
She passed her by all too easily.
He could instantly see that something was happening between the two estranged women. His heart tightened. He felt shock, and the fear flowing through his body.
Mai rushed around to in front of her mother, gesturing and pleading.
“Can’t you see me?”
Her voice carried to Sakuta.
But her mother once more passed her by, and Mai’s arms dropped loosely down. At that moment, Sakuta moved, walking straight towards Mai, growing closer to her mother.
When he was within about ten metres, her mother noticed his approach, and when he reached five, she spoke irritatedly at him, looking for confirmation.
“Was it you?” She was similar to Mai in that way, and Sakuta was taken aback. “Why did you call me here? Who are you? I’ve seen you before but we’re not acquainted, are we?”
She asked successively.
“I’m Azusagawa Sakuta. A high schooler. From over there.”
He gestured towards Minegahara High School, further up National Route 134.
“I see. So, what do you want with me, Azusagawa Sakuta-san? I’m busy.”
“Ah, it’s not me that wants something with you.”
He could feel Mai’s gaze from behind her mother.
She seemed to worry and take a few attempts, but she eventually nodded slowly. Mai had probably thought that this might happen, and brought Sakuta here as a preparation for the worst case. Using the date as bait…
“Who does then?”
He thought it was a strange question.
“It’s Mai-san, you know right?”
It was because of her email that her mother had come here. Even though she couldn’t see Mai at the moment, that shouldn’t change that reality.
Mai’s mother appraised him steadily.
“Would you tell me once more, who called me here?”
Her mother held her hair down as it fluttered in the wind, and then spoke.
Mai’s eyes opened wide in shock. He could see her eyes trembling fiercely. That was only natural, her mother had just asked who she was.
Sakuta answered emotionally. They might have separated, but her mother’s reaction was too cruel.
“I don’t have a daughter called Mai, stop kidding around.”
“Which of us is kidding around!?”
In contrast to Sakuta’s fiery emotions, her mother’s were just cooling.
“What is this? Is it because you want to become part of my agency?”
“Why would I? What are…” The instant he looked at her eyes again, Sakuta fell silent. He noticed her eyes looking pityingly at him… Her earlier question was genuine, she didn’t know who ‘Sakurajima Mai; was… That was why she had said those words…
Her mother’s eyes didn’t hold a hint of deceit.
“That’s right, the message! Mai-san sent a message saying she would meet you here today, right?”
“If I show you that, will you stop this incomprehensible farce?”
Mai’s mother took out her smartphone from her handbag, and turned the screen to Sakuta.
That came from Mai, who looked at the screen from next to him. Of course, her mother couldn’t see Mai, or hear her.
The message body was the same as Mai had shown him earlier.
On the May 25th (Sunday), come to Shichirigahama beach at 5 PM.
‘Mai’ was written in the ‘from’ field, there was nothing strange about it, and yet for some reason.
“The sender is unknown, but I went out of my way to put it in my diary, and even freed some time for this… what is it?”
Sakuta was the one that wanted to ask that. ‘Mai’ was clearly written there, and yet her mother couldn’t see those characters.
What he could tell from this discussion was that at least when the message was sent three days ago, she knew that the sender was her daughter, Mai. That was why she had freed the time to make the opportunity to come here.
But at some point, as the day approached, Mai’s mother had forgotten her. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t see her, couldn’t hear her… she had completely forgotten her. He couldn’t believe it, but her mother’s behaviour left no other explanation.
“Would something so ridiculous happen?” He had unconsciously put it into words. And even hearing it made him shudder, and his voice grow dry. “Could such a ridiculous thing happen?”
He said twice to her mother.
“That’s an interesting sales-pitch, but it’s too absurd. Study society a little more and try again.”
Mai’s mother turned on her heel and walked back the way she had come.
“You’re her mother!”
She didn’t turn around, and didn’t even stop.
“How can you forget your daughter!?”
That was Mai’s quiet voice.
“We’re not done talking!”
Sakuta was putting all of his emotions into his yells at her back.
Her near-crying voice froze his entire body. He noticed that he was hurting Mai more, and kept silent.
“I really am sorry.”
“…Mhmm, it’s fine.”
Just what on Earth had happened to Mai?
Sakuta had thought that she became invisible and inaudible in the moment. Mai herself had thought so too. Coming here had made them face the reality that they might have made a huge misunderstanding.
Sakuta and Mai might not know anything. She couldn’t be seen, couldn’t be heard… and even her existence itself had completely vanished from her mother’s memories.
The more he thought about it, the more uneasy he felt.
Mai’s eyes swam anxiously. Seeing that, Sakuta realised that Mai had the same doubt.
It won’t just be her mother, she might even vanish from the memories of other people.
He didn’t know when it would happen, but that might happen when she was invisible. Or it might not.
But if she actually did vanish from people’s memories…
It didn’t take much time for that doubt to become conviction.
Sakuta and Mai had walked the path they used to commute to Shichirigahama Station and quickly got onto the train home. They hadn’t really discussed it, but they naturally headed along the road home.
On the way, Sakuta had spoken to tourists, and to locals. Of course, that was to ask them about ‘Sakurajima Mai’. He asked ten or so people, and they all said the same thing.
“I don’t know of her.”
There wasn’t a single person that said they knew her. And none of them could see her either.
Even so, Sakuta hoped deep down, hoped that he had happened to just speak to people that didn’t know her. But this meagre hope was soon extinguished.
Once they arrived at Fujisawa Station, Sakuta used a pay-phone to call the announcer, Nanjou Fumika. He’d been right to keep her business card in his wallet.
A somewhat formal voice answered the phone.
“It’s Azusagawa Sakuta.”
“Oh my,” Her voice suddenly brightened, and her tone had certainly risen. “To think I’d get a loving call from you, this must be a special day.”
“There’s not an ounce of love here.”
“Don’t you fancy a torrid relationship with an older woman? I’m happy to play with fire.”
“That’s an older woman’s mistake.”
“So, what is it.”
Apparently, Fumika made a habit of not listening to things that inconvenienced her, as she changed the subject.
“It’s about Sakurajima Mai.”
“What’s this all of a sudden?” Oh, thought Sakuta, that was a response. However, his expectations were destroyed by her continuation. “Who’s that?”
“You don’t know someone called Sakurajima Mai?”
He asked again.
“I don’t, who are they?”
“Then… about that picture?”
The picture of the scars across his chest. She should at least still have that, and had promised Mai not to publish it. In exchange for an exclusive on Mai’s return to show business…
“I promised I wouldn’t publish that, right? I remember, I won’t.”
“Who did you promise?”
“You obviously, Sakuta-kun. What’s wrong? …Are you okay?”
She seemed to be half interested, and half worried at Sakuta’s condition. Sakuta thought he should stop the conversation there, before he brought trouble on himself.
“I’m okay. Sorry, I was worried about the picture and just said something a bit weird.”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you when you’re busy. Excuse me.”
While he could stay calm, Sakuta hung up.
He put the receiver back, his hands oddly heavy.
He slowly turned around to where Mai was waiting, and shook his head. She probably hadn’t expected much to begin with, not showing anything on her face and simply saying.
“I see.” She then continued dully on with “Thank you for today, bye,” before turning around. There was no hesitance, no unsurety, Mai walked straight along the path home.
Walking away with her usual aloof gait.
Sakuta’s chest ached as he watched her go. He was driven by an unease, that if he let her go, he would never see her again. And then, his body moved without his input.
“Mai-san, wait.” He rushed after her and grabbed her wrist. Even though she stopped, Mai didn’t turn around, just looking ahead. “Let’s go.”
“…” Mai raised her face a little. “Go where?”
“There might still be someone somewhere that remembers you.”
“It’s already pretty clear everyone but you has forgotten me.”
Mai laughed dryly.
“…” He didn’t deny it. He couldn’t. He couldn’t think of anything else in this situation. And Mai herself thought the same way, that was why she said that. But still, he wanted to believe. To believe that if they went to some distant town, someone would know of Mai, be able to see her and point at her saying ‘Isn’t that Sakurajima Mai?’ He still wanted to believe that. “Let’s go check.”
“What will checking do? What will knowing that no one else can see me, that no one else can remember me do!?”
“At least, I’ll be able to be with you while we do.”
Of course she would be uneasy. She couldn’t not be, she would be weighed down by it. She wouldn’t know what was happening, she didn’t know why it was happening, or what would become of her tomorrow. Of course she would be scared if she returned like that to her deserted house.
And as proof of that, her shoulders were shaking slightly as she cast her eyes down.
“Or at least, I want to be with you, Mai-san.”
“We’re on a date after all.”
“You’re so cheeky, even though you’re younger.”
“My hand hurts, let go.”
He noticed he was gripping her hand tightly, and quickly opened it.
“I won’t forgive you with just an apology.”
Their short exchange of words was broken there.
And then, after a minute of silence.
“If you’re saying you don’t want to send me home yet, I’ll continue our date.”
Mai looked up and teasingly poked Sakuta’s nose. At some point, her shaking had stopped.