Table of Contents
I learnt that Osanai’s given name was Yuki.
It was a name that really suited her, since she was endearing and gave off the impression of being indefinite1.
For some reason, since we started dating, Osanai never displayed anything resembling stiffness. Based on her behavior, she was not someone who could easily make acquaintances. In fact, it was quite the reverse. She would even try to escape from people she didn’t know well. Yet, she interacted with me normally from the very beginning.
In fact, the one who became stiff since our encounter led us to begin dating was me. I couldn’t get used to leaving school with a girl for about half a month.
During that half a month, I was thrown a gigantic bombshell.
In Funado High School, students are supposed to wear a class tag. Boys wear it at their collar, while girls wear it at their chest. However, that rule had become purely symbolic, and with no one enforcing it, about eighty percent of students did not wear it. And thus, I was made to swallow a fact that I should have known long ago.
It was only a short while into autumn, when the leaves started turning red, I believe. Osanai usually commuted to school by bicycle, but she went out of her way to push it so that she could walk along with me. I inadvertently asked a question.
“By the way, which class are you in again?”
Osanai had seemingly predicted that I would eventually ask such a question. She even seemed to find some kind of humor in the situation, as if she’d thoroughly prepared for it. With a chuckle, she replied.
“I’m in Class C.”
It was a lie, I thought. I was also in Class C, after all.
I still didn’t know Osanai well, which was why I believed it to be a roundabout joke of some sort. Returning a vague smile, I asked again.
“So, what’s your real class?”
“It’s the truth. I’m in Class C.”
“Don’t lie. I’m also in Class C.”
“I’ve been told by others that I’m lying, but this is the truth. I’m really in Class C.”
Osanai then looked up at my face and surreptitiously added a line.
“…For second-year students.”
I’d never doubted that Osanai was a freshman like me. She was so small, after all.
Of course, I couldn’t believe it at first, so Osanai unassumingly retrieved her student notebook from her breast pocket. There was a year written on it, and it was one year earlier than my year of enrollment. I was lost for words.
“So you were a senpai all along?”
Osanai smiled with evident satisfaction.
“Yup, but you can treat me as per usual. I don’t look like a senpai, right… Urino-kun?”
Indeed, she did not look like a senpai at all.
Not long after that, when Hiya found out that I had started going out with Osanai, he said,
“Wow, I never knew you were a lolicon, Urino.”
For that tasteless joke, I responded with a body blow.
Eventually, as the wintry winds blew and the deciduous trees started shedding their leaves, winter arrived.
During the period close to, but not quite, December, I was invited to a café after school by Osanai. It was called “Earl Gray 2”, and was a snug, neat place, perfect for its main clientele of girls.
Osanai frequently went to this café, not because she liked the coffee or black tea there, but because she liked the cakes.
“I’ll have a cake set. Black tea with milk, and tiramisu for the cake.”
She ordered without looking at the menu. I didn’t receive that much pocket money, but I ended up going with the flow and murmuring in a small voice, “I’ll just have a coffee.”
The tiramisu came in a glass cup. Osanai first stroked its surface with a spoon. With some of the cocoa powder scattered over the tiramisu now stuck on the spoon, Osanai licked the powder off the spoon. She looked like a cat playing with its prey.
In contrast, since I was unable to handle the piping hot coffee, all I did was aimlessly stir the contents of the cup, which only had sugar added to it. Since I was in front of Osanai, I didn’t want to do anything discourteous, so I silently stirred, making sure the spoon did not touch the sides of the cup.
Osanai unexpectedly called out to me. Without making a sound, I turned my eyes to look at her. Osanai stopped picking at the tiramisu, instead holding the spoon vertically.
“Why did you sigh?”
Only now did I notice that I had indeed sighed. If Osanai had sighed while we were alone, I would have also panicked and wondered if she was feeling bored. I set the spoon down and apologized.
“Is there something on your mind?”
Osanai lightly waved her spoon in the air.
“How about consulting your elder sister?”
To other people, Osanai and I probably looked a lot more like a brother treating his younger sister to dessert rather than a couple. Hearing Osanai refer to herself as my “elder sister” of all things was too funny, so I couldn’t control myself and let out a burst of laughter. I then replied in a low voice.
“…This isn’t a laughing matter.”
“Eh? It isn’t?”
Osanai stuck her spoon deep into the tiramisu in one stroke, as if it were a sign of protest. It hit the bottom of the cup, creating a chink sound.
I clearly understood the reason behind my sigh. I didn’t exactly feel like consulting this older sister, but I did feel like letting her listen to my worries.
It was not my intention to talk so solemnly, but my voice naturally took on a slightly darker tone.
“Do you read the schoolwide newspaper?”
“By that, do you mean Funado Monthly?”
I was surprised.
The schoolwide newspaper produced by the Newspaper Club was supposed to be distributed on the first day of every month. That said, due to the schedule being put off by events like long holidays and examinations, that was more of a guiding principle. The newspaper had eight pages in total. Apparently, they used to enlist the services of a printing shop in the past, but since articles can be written on a personal computer, we now used the printers installed in the school to print a copy for each student.
It was tough work to fold close to a thousand school newspapers, but distributing them also involved a heavy amount of manpower, since we would place a copy on each student’s table early in the morning of the first day of the month. That was only done because of tradition, but it made us feel a sense of hopelessness, as if no one would pick up a copy if we didn’t deliver it right to their tables. In fact, hardly anyone read it at all. The wastepaper baskets in each classroom would be filled with our newspaper on the first day of every month.
The name of the schoolwide newspaper was indeed “Funado Monthly”, but even some of us in the Newspaper Club would sometimes forget.
“How do you know?”
It was a weird question, but Osanai still answered.
“My friend makes it. I make it a point to read it whenever it gets delivered.”
She was talking about President Doujima. It had already been three months since I started going out with her, but I still hadn’t asked about her relation with the president. After that time right after the summer holidays, Osanai hadn’t come into our clubroom again… That made me want to ask, but I decided to leave it till later. Now was not the time, and more importantly, I would seem like a narrow-minded guy if I poked around too much.
Now, to talk about the schoolwide newspaper.
“So, how is it?”
“What do you mean, how?”
“Is it interesting?”
I don’t know who called Osanai a liar, but at that moment, Osanai undoubtedly spoke the truth. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied.
I smiled wryly.
“Normal? Don’t you have any other way to put it?”
“Yup. It’s smack dab in the middle of average. It’s unparalleled in its regularity. Whenever I read Funado Monthly, I think that its normalcy is out of the ordinary.”
Out of the blue, a bunch of rich expressions was thrown my way. Listening to her words made me think that it was a great thing to be normal.
Anyway, it was exactly as Osanai said. Funado Monthly was normal. Way too normal.
All I could do was nod. Then, I spoke firmly.
“I always thought that was bad, and I had an idea to change it. We could write articles about incidents outside school. I don’t think that would instantly make the paper amazing, but at the very least, it could be the start of something.
“Yet no one accepted my idea. I couldn’t take action. That was why I sighed, I think.”
The tenth issue, distributed on the first of October, ended with coverage on the Sports Festival. The eleventh issue focused solely on the Cultural Festival. The twelfth would undoubtedly be a year-end special issue.
While I kept saying that we couldn’t keep following the average year’s footsteps, I had no trump card to procure, so all I could do was be taken for the ride as time dragged on. I would often be irritated, and sometimes even feel like shouting out loud. At other times, I would feel gloomy. That was why I let out a sigh.
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why do you think that’s bad, Urino-kun?”
I couldn’t immediately tell what she was asking me about. It was, as she said, smack dab in the middle of average. A newspaper like that could be described as nothing but bad.
“Do you like Funado Monthly, then?”
Osanai returned a look of puzzlement, then stuck her spoon into her mouth. Suddenly, I noticed that the tiramisu which she’d been toying with earlier was already half-empty, as if it had been sliced horizontally in the middle. When did she… While holding the spoon in her mouth, Osanai shook her head.
“It has nothing that would make me like it.”
“Exactly. That’s what’s bad about it. There should be something that makes you read on, or makes you say that you like it.”
With a small groan, she placed her spoon on a plate, then frowned.
“That isn’t really a reason to say that it’s bad. Do you really love the schoolwide newspaper that much? Do you want everyone in the school to read it?”
I see, so that’s what she was getting at. I brought the coffee to my mouth, but it was still hot.
“When you put it like that, not really. I, and only I, want to write an article that isn’t already in any issue of Funado Monthly.”
Feeling that wasn’t enough to fully express my thoughts, I added.
“It’s not that I want to become famous or anything. I just want to leave behind some sort of mark saying that Urino Takahiko was in Funado High School. I wonder if this all sounds weird.”
This time, Osanai grinned.
“I understand… it’s like wanting to be the first one to step outside on a snowy morning and create a set of footprints.”
That was romantic. As I thought, Osanai could show off her feminine side.
“And then you shovel the snow so that no one else can leave their footprints.”
“Eh? As I said, so that no one else can leave their footprints.”
I still couldn’t understand Osanai’s sense of humour.
As if she just thought of something, Osanai swiftly moved her spoon, demolishing the remaining half of the tiramisu in one go. She ate so quickly that some cocoa powder got stuck around the edges of her mouth. Without paying any heed to that, she spoke.
“Anyway, I want to root for you, Urino-kun… Is that fine?”
Hiya-kun was also rooting for me. Just the other day, he’d said to me, “Hurrah, hurrah!”
However, Osanai’s support was different from Hiya-kun’s support. With her cheering me on, I felt that I could give it my all.
Naturally, I nodded and replied.
“I’ll be counting on you.”
The effects of that support appeared one week later.
On the first Friday of every month, all members of the Newspaper Club would gather for an editorial meeting. Even people who didn’t normally show up like Kishi Kanta would be forcefully brought in.
It was September when I’d raised the point of writing articles about events outside school. I’d been silent during the meetings in November and December. That was because I thought that constantly bringing up an idea with no material to back it up would only make everyone else less receptive towards it. Of course, that didn’t mean I’d been doing nothing at all. If I could convince the head, the other members would follow suit. I’d approached the President multiple times, but he’d never given a positive response, even as the December meeting drew close.
When I’d brought up the topic in September, I’d had a story in mind, which was the kidnapping of a Funado High School student in the summer holidays. However, I couldn’t find any remarkable news stories at this point in time. Furthermore, bringing up an incident that had occurred during the summer holidays when it was already December would probably not be very persuasive, what with it being a completely different season. Not that any news gathering was going on right now, anyway. Should I still try saying it, even when I’m completely unarmed…
With that dilemma hidden in my heart, I attended the meeting.
“For the January issue, we’ll have one page for the principal’s words. We’ll also have each year head and the student council president write two pages on the theme of ‘Welcoming the New Year’. And, well, that will be the end of it.”
With last year’s January issue in front of him, the second-year student Monchi explained its contents had always been decided by the school every year. That made me find it acceptable, especially since that process had been repeated many times already.
“Right, now to decide who goes where. All of us will be going to the principal.”
President Doujima quickly moved on to the next point of the meeting, about who would go to which person. This was something to pay attention to, in case I had to request an interview with the person I would be assigned to.
“I’ll give you all a simple outline of what you’ll be writing about, so listen carefully. It’ll be a problem if we have any overlap.”
So President Doujima was paying attention to the details. He also seemed apologetic that we were following in the previous year’s footsteps. In the end, I was assigned to ask the second year head to help us with the article, which I quietly accepted. After all, my job would probably be over with an exchange like this: “I’m from the Newspaper Club, please give us two pages again this year.” “Oh, is it that time of year already?”
With that, the procedure was roughly set. The distribution of page space was also just like the average year’s. We would all be dismissed in approximately thirty minutes… If I wanted to bring that up, now was the time.
“Ah, please wait a moment.”
But the person who interrupted everyone as they were about to get up was not me.
It was a voice trembling with indecision.
“Uh, umm, there’s something I would like to try doing, or rather, something I wish to do, or something like that. Could I have a moment to speak?”
The voice belonged to Itsukaichi Kimiya. Since he was the one who told everyone to wait, all eyes were on him, but probably unable to bear all that attention, he started looking down at the ground.
“What is it?”
President Doujima urged him on. Even Kishi, who had almost fully stood up already, sat back down, clicking his tongue.
Itsukaichi restlessly brought a copy of Funado Monthly out from his bag. It was the latest issue, distributed at the start of this month.
“Newspapers often have something like ‘The Reporter’s Eyes’ or ‘Little Tidbits’, right? Those columns, or whatever they’re called, are usually in a corner of the newspaper, and have short write-ups of recent events. I was thinking that it would be good for Funado Monthly to have that as well. What do you think?”
His way of speaking made it seem as if he was not used to presenting in front of others. I could understand what he was trying to say, but I still didn’t know if anything would happen from this.
With a somewhat fast pace of speech, Itsukaichi continued.
“It doesn’t have to be that long, but I just thought that it would be good if there is a space for anyone to take full responsibility and freely write whatever they want.”
“That’s unnecessary, isn’t it?”
Itsukaichi probably hadn’t finished speaking, but Monchi cast a damper on his idea.
“There’s nothing you particularly want to write, anyway. Also, you seem to be misunderstanding something. Funado Monthly isn’t a place for you to write whatever you…”
“Well, let’s hear him out first.”
President Doujima stopped Monchi in his vehement argument. He then folded his massive arms, showing that he was cool and composed.
“Itsukaichi, there’s something you want to write, correct?”
It was at that point when I noticed that his suggestion overlapped with mine. Both of us wanted a place to write freely.
With President Doujima unexpectedly driving straight to the heart of the matter, Itsukaichi was a little disoriented. Even so, he somehow managed to nod.
“Yes, I do.”
“Why don’t you say it out?”
As if checking the words he was about to say, his mouth moved silently for a moment.
“Umm, on the 20th of January, there will be a charity bazaar at the Community Center. A few students from our school will also be there, and since they would feel uneasy with only adults there, I was asked to promote the event so that other students would attend as well.”
“Asked? By whom?”
“By someone in my class. Um, should I also say their name?”
The president unraveled his fingers.
“No, it’s fine. I understand what you’re saying. So, you want to write a column?”
With the motive clearly communicated, Monchi frowned unhappily. If he opened his mouth, he would have said something like, “So you want to appropriate the paper to reflect first-year tastes?” However, he kept silent. I’d come to realize this over multiple editorial meetings, but apparently Monchi could not say anything while President Doujima was listening to someone else.
“Since it’s for charity, the proceeds will be donated. So it’s not a business, and I was asked to help… Though I told them that Funado Monthly is not such a newspaper.”
No one was asking that of him, but his reasoning improved. I could somewhat understand what he was feeling. Having President Doujima stand in front of you silently with his arms folded certainly made you feel pressured.
The president considered wordlessly for a moment, but that did not take long.
“…I understand what you’re saying. You want to help, right? However, that means we’ll have to mess with the structure of the newspaper. Do you have any ideas?”
As if he’d prepared for that, Itsukaichi flipped over the pages of a copy of Funado Monthly on his table. With his index finger, he pointed at a section on the last page.
“If we remove this part, we can make space for the column.”
The section he was pointing to was the editorial note. It ate up a quarter of the page, and was meant for all Newspaper Club members to write down some simple comments. However, it would be too long if everyone wrote a line, and too short if only a single opinion was presented. It was quite a half-assed space.
“If we cut this in half, we could get back an eighth of the page.”
Someone let out a voice, saying, “Wow.” It was from neither President Doujima nor Monchi, so was it Kishi? Or perhaps I’d muttered it myself. A brief moment of silence ensued, but that was not because everyone was brushing aside Itsukaichi’s idea. In fact, it was the very opposite. Everyone was probably surprised by how good an idea it was. Putting aside Itsukaichi’s silly column, cutting down on the overly long editorial note had enough merit by itself.
Accepting that idea, President Doujima spoke.
He started, but his following words were slurred with a little bewilderment.
“The editorial note could be useful if we had a lot more members, but it’s certainly lacking with only the five of us here. So shortening it is fine… but if we add a column, we can’t have it only once. Itsukaichi, are you going to write it every month?”
For the first time, Itsukaichi hesitated.
At that moment, help was offered from an unexpected source.
“Isn’t it fine? We could just take turns doing it.”
Kishi, who had been silent the whole time, put a word in.
“It’s only once a month, so taking turns is fine, isn’t it?”
Still somewhat displeased, Monchi pressed on.
“If the Newspaper Club gets more members in the future, the editorial note will become longer. Is it alright for us to unilaterally change it now that there is only five of us?”
However, President Doujima made a sharp choice.
“Unilaterally? We don’t exactly need to ask anyone for permission to do it. We can make the decision by ourselves.”
“Of course, but…”
“If lots of new members come in next year in April, we can think about it then. Changing the structure of the paper at the start of the year is also good timing.”
He said, looking at each person in turn.
“…Let’s take a majority vote. Those in favor of Itsukaichi’s suggestion?”
It was a surprisingly swift vote. Itsukaichi himself, Kishi and I raised our hands. Three out of four. The matter was decided.
“Right. Itsukaichi, make preparations on your end. The meeting is adjourned.”
The meaning of this was clear.
While it was only an eighth of a page, a place to write about something outside the school campus had basically fallen into my lap. The idea which I’d presented so passionately in September had been casually dismissed, while Itsukaichi’s lack of confidence seemed to have worked out against all odds.
After leaving school that day, I met up with Osanai at a crepe store, one of the rare occurrences when I invited her out. There, we stood chatting about recent developments, and Osanai was overjoyed to hear my news.
“That’s great, Urino-kun. Good for you!”
At that time, I probably gave a listless reply like “Yeah” or “Yup”. Rather than being unable to believe my windfall, I was a little miffed that my effort had been all for nothing. Did it work because of the word “charity”?
While I was holding a strawberry crepe with copious amounts of fresh cream, Osanai chided me.
“You’ve got to get your act together! At this stage, there’s only the possibility that you could get a page out of it. You have to properly seize the chance! If not, my support will be wasted.”
She was right. I bit down hard with my back teeth.
This was my chance for me, Urino Takahiko, to carve my achievements into Funado High School. In the December editorial meeting, the door towards that goal opened a little, and that was all that happened.
The incident during the summer break had already lost its freshness. Now I had to find something to replace that, and stick it into that mere eighth of a page. However, at that point in time, I still had not found anything like that.
I could probably stifle the doubts of whether all this was possible for me. I can do this!
That was exactly what I felt whenever I saw Osanai’s light smile. Before I knew it, my hands were filled with strength.
As I had those thoughts, a chocolate-coated banana protruded from under the crepe skin.
Nakamaru Tokiko-san had the appearance of someone who played around a lot, but was actually good-natured beyond my imagination. Since that day when I was called out to the classroom via a letter, a blessed high school life started for me. I couldn’t even count how many times I had the thought, “I sure am living the life.”
We explored the school cultural festival, spent a chilly Christmas and went to our first shrine visit on New Year’s Day together. As a petit bourgeois in high school, it was an exquisite daily life. I never once thought that there would be a day in which we would have a quarrel out of jealousy borne from a misunderstanding.
It was the day right before the end of winter, and I was heading out for an appointment. Nakamaru-san and I were to go to a New Year sale in Panorama Island, a shopping mall in Masame City. Everything there was apparently on sale at a heavily reduced price.
When I arrived at the meeting place, Nakamaru-san was already waiting there wearing a black long coat. She also had a white muffler on her head and boots on her feet. It was a mature outfit that went well with her slender body. I approached her in a slight trot.
“Sorry for making you wait on a cold day.”
“No, I just got here.”
We exchanged cliched phrases. Ah, what a pleasant feeling it was.
Together, we walked the streets of January. The weather was clear, but the cold was so intense that it seemed to seep into my body, causing me to make white exhalations that disappeared into the sky.
I even felt like holding her hand.
We headed towards our destination, Panorama Island, by bus.
It was in a neighboring city, but it wasn’t that far. I could have gone there by bicycle if I was alone, although the chilly weather might have given me some problems. However, Nakamaru-san said to go there by bus, probably because she possessed a citywide student commuter pass which she usually used to get to school.
Up until now, I had hardly taken any form of public transport.
Kira City had train tracks running through it in the east-west direction. There were elevated tracks in the surrounding area of the station, as well as a magnificent bus terminal in front. However, with only this one station, the train could not be used to get around the city. Quite a few bus routes were available, but it was possible to go anywhere by bicycle.
But I had now become dependent on the public transportation network, and that was mainly due to Nakamaru-san’s influence. There was this one time when we went to see a romance movie at a cinema complex quite a distance away. It was in the afternoon when we entered the theater, but it was already dark when we exited, so I took the bus with Nakamaru-san, who had been moved to tears by the movie.
The buses in Kira City had a uniform fare. It was the same price no matter how far you traveled, which was a much appreciated system for a non-affluent high school student like myself. However, I couldn’t remember exactly how much it cost. My ability to remember wasn’t that bad, but my memory about that particular value was somehow hazy, and I couldn’t quite remember it was 210 or 260 yen. All I could remember was that it was a little troublesome since it required a 10-yen coin. It would be embarrassing to ask Nakamaru-san, “How much is the bus fare again?” so I stuffed a few coins into my pocket.
The two of us waited together at the bus stop. The schedule stated that the bus was supposed to arrive at 10:42, but it was still nowhere to be seen, although it was already past 10:50. There were only benches at the bus stop, and nothing to block the wind. Worrying that Nakamaru-san might be feeling cold, I looked to the side, only to see that she was also looking at me. It was funny that the timing was so perfect, so we giggled.
“Nakamaru-san, it’s cold, so how about you go some place where there’s no wind? I’ll tell you when the bus arrives.”
But she replied with her hands in her pockets.
“I’m fine, it’s not that cold. What about you, Kobato-chan? Are you fine without your muffler?”
On the first day, I’d refused Nakamaru-san’s suggestion of calling me “Joe”, so she called me “Kobato-kun” for a short while. However, she apparently found “kun” to be weird, so she continuously asked if she could call me “Joe”, and I always said no. At the end of that, we settled with “Kobato-chan”. As a result of some phonic changes, it now sounded like “Koba-cchan” to me. Sometimes it even sounded like “Koma-cchan”. Who the heck is Komatsu?
A siren sounded in the distance. Of course, I could differentiate between the sirens of firetrucks, ambulances and police vehicles. This one was clearly from a firetruck.
I initially thought it came from really far away, but the siren started growing louder in volume, and some firetrucks appeared at the end of the road which we had been looking at and wondering if the bus would show up. Two pump firetrucks with the name “Hinoki Town 2” written on their sides rushed by at an unimaginably breakneck speed, cutting through the traffic junction a stone’s throw away from where we were, and leaving behind a Doppler shift2 in our ears.
I could hear Nakamaru-san mutter. That made me happy, for I also had the exact same thought.
Fires happened often during this period, probably caused by the dryness. That was why there were more firetrucks than usual. My house was quite far from the highway, but I could still hear those sirens fairly frequently. So Nakamaru-san was also concerned about the fires. Perhaps I should ask her about it.
However, that never came to pass.
“Ah, its here.”
As if chasing after the firetrucks, the long awaited bus finally appeared. Kira Bus South Line – Via Panorama Island.
I’d been wondering about the fare, but it was written on the side of the bus. “Citywide Uniform Fare – 210 yen”.
This time I should commit that number to memory, lest I forget.
We got on the bus from the middle. As soon we went up the steps, a coin change machine caught my eye. Nakamaru-san turned towards me and asked.
“You have change?”
No slip-ups there. I’d considered the possibility of the bus fare being 260 yen, and filled my pocket with enough change. I felt a little insecure after being asked that question, so I subtly felt the pocket full of coins. On the other hand, Nakamaru-san retrieved a 500-yen coin from her wallet and exchanged it for smaller denominations.
We would only need to pay before alighting. Actually, along with the privately-owned “Kira Bus”, there was also the municipally-owned “Kira City Bus”, and passengers were supposed to pay upon getting onto buses owned by the latter company. It was quite easy to mix them up. Since it was clearly inconvenient, there were plans to fix the problem in the near future, but right now these two different modes of payment were still mixed together. The bus we were getting on was one from the privately-owned company, so we definitely had to pay at the end of our ride.
The bus was a lot more congested than we’d expected. We weren’t packed like sardines, but all the seats were filled. As someone who hardly took the bus, I sought for knowledge.
“Is it always this packed?”
Nakamaru-san replied in an exasperated manner.
“What are you talking about? It’s only just beginning.”
I had no idea what was beginning, but I would find out sooner or later anyway. I asked another question.
“How long will this take?”
“Hmm, twenty minutes if the roads aren’t jammed. Or perhaps even faster.”
As she was saying that, the next bus stop quickly came into sight. I never knew the stops were placed at such small intervals.
It was at the moment when I found out what Nakamaru-san’s words meant.
There had been only two of us at the previous bus stop. However, by some witchcraft, there was a queue at this bus stop. It was a really long queue that coiled around like a snake. Some of them had fortified themselves with mufflers, and others with woolen hats, but they were unmistakably all waiting for the bus.
Exposed to the north wind under the cold sky, all of them looked pale, and were staring resentfully at me, no, at the bus. It was a tableau that gave off a miserable impression.
The bus stopped, and the doors in the middle opened, allowing the snake-like queue to start being swallowed up. Frankly, I thought that half of the people waiting there would not be able to get onto the bus, but I was wrong. Rather than the queue at the bus stop, the snake description should have been given to the bus itself. The Kira bus fit passengers in with unbelievable pliability, as if it were a snake swallowing bird eggs. Thanks to all the new passengers pushing forward onto the bus, the population density swelled up in an instant, causing me to get shoved, dragged, jostled around, although I eventually managed to lean neatly against Nakamaru-san, with both my hands raised. The fragrance of cologne wafted over.
So Nakamaru-san was referring to the congestion inside the bus when she said, “It’s only just beginning.” I was impressed. By Nakamaru-san’s wisdom to meet at the bus stop before the one which was hellishly packed with people, as well as her bravery for choosing the bus even with knowledge of this congestion. I deeply regretted underestimating this normal high school girl.
However, she quickly betrayed my admiration.
“Why is it so crowded today…?”
It seemed that the level of crowdedness today was unexpected, even for Nakamaru-san. While it was a weekday, it was in the first month, so there would be a slight difference from the normal level.
Thus, I was transported towards Panorama Island with both my arms raised, like a bank employee facing the barrel of a gun. If a pickpocket were to slip their hand into one of my pockets, I probably would not be able to stop them. Thankfully, in this crowded bus, even the most skilled pickpocket would have their hands full protecting their own body. It would be tough being in this posture for more than twenty minutes.
The air conditioning on the bus didn’t seem to be working. I didn’t think “Ah, the heating here is warm” when I got onto the bus from the windswept bus stop. However, playing Oshikura Manju3 instantly made my body nice and warm. Sweat was even forming on my forehead. On top of that, the person next to me was Nakamaru-san, so I couldn’t brazenly press my body against hers. In fact, I ended up desperately exerting my strength in an attempt to protect her from the pressure of the other passengers.
Nakamaru-san, who may or may not have noticed my suffering, spoke.
“It’ll probably ease up three stops from now.”
If that’s so, I should endure it. Let me tighten the muscles on my neck that I usually don’t use, and protect Nakamaru-san from the rabble. As I mustered a tragic but brave resolution, an announcement reached my ears in a bright tone that somehow sounded disparaging.
“This is a notice from the Kira Municipal Office. If you are an elderly person above the age of sixty, please use the elderly discount pass. With this pass, taking any bus will be free during daytime on weekdays, and half price during other times. To use it, please present it to the bus attendant before alighting. Taking the bus contributes to measures against global warming. Ride the bus and let the bus routes live on! That was a notice from the Kira Municipal Office.”
So the bus company was being subsidized by the Municipal Office even though it was privately owned, huh. Then again, if this thriving bus route couldn’t be maintained, then nothing would be able to help it.
There were also multiple people waiting at the next bus stop, but the bus did not stop. Instead, someone, probably the driver, spoke in a voice that was very difficult to hear.
“We’re full. Please wait for the next bus.”
In front of me was the stop button. Wanting to press a button if there is one is just like a petit bourgeois. As I had the thought of pushing the button right before we reached Panorama Island, I noticed the dirt on the button. At the corner of the button which was supposed to be pure white, there was a reddish brown stain. Could it be blood?
Well, it was probably chocolate. On closer inspection, it was simply brown, and not red at all.
“Koba-cchan, what are you looking at?”
Looking at you! That would be a lie, of course. For some reason or other, the pressure on my back increased, so I looked down and clenched my teeth.
Then, an announcement carefreely circulated around the interior of the bus.
“The next stop is Hinoki Town, 2nd District. Hinoki Town, 2nd District. This is a convenient to spot to alight if you want to get to Spring Scenery, a restaurant with an abundant menu of traditional Japanese cuisine. If you wish to alight, please let us know by sounding the buzzer.”
At that point, the buzzer sounded, and the announcement continued.
“The bus will be stopping.”
I looked up and noticed something.
The dirt on the button in front of me had been wiped in the few seconds I wasn’t looking. It hadn’t been completely wiped off, but seemed to be spread out on the button.
The reason was obvious. Someone close to me had pressed the button and sounded the buzzer. For a standing passenger to do that, they would have to extend their arm over me and Nakamaru-san’s shoulders. They could also crouch and hit the button from the bottom.
But none of that had happened, so the person who had pressed the button was someone sitting in the midst of this nightmarish chaos, as carefree as a dweller of the heavens. I had no idea how many people would alight, but I would be grateful for any reduction in human density.
However, the only things waiting for us at the next stop was a miraculous situation and a painfully awkward period of time.
The bus stopped. There were people waiting at the bus stop, but the driver did not open the middle door, because the bus was full. Naturally, the front door was open for passengers to alight.
But no one moved. No one got off, and I could not see even a single person trying to get off the bus. The driver made an announcement with the microphone.
“We have arrived at Hinoki Town, 2nd District.”
Still no movement. The passengers, which had morphed into a nameless mass, seemed to have dropped the virtue of indifference, for they were now staring at each other. Who hit the buzzer? It’s that person’s fault that the bus is stopped. We’ll forgive you, so hurry up and get off. This wordless atmosphere expanded, causing the already cramped bus interior to be filled with a bizarre sense of tension.
Someone tried to get onto the bus from the front, which was supposed to be only for alighting passengers. I only knew that from the driver’s words, spoken in a bitter voice.
“You cannot board the bus from there. Please wait for a short while, we’re currently full.”
And thus that passenger was halted from entering.
I knew who did it.
The person who pressed the button was one of the two people at the seats next to me. They were single seats, with their backs to each other.
Sitting in front was a girl wearing a blazer uniform and headphones, her eyes fixated on a paperback book. In the back seat was an old woman who was clutching a stick even as she was sitting down, her back hunched, as if she was unable to bear the unpleasant bus interior. None of them seemed to be making a move.
This meant that one of them had probably mistaken the bus stop they wanted to alight at, and inadvertently pressed the button. It seemed that the bus driver had also come to that conclusion.
“No one? Alright, the door will be closing.”
The bus started traveling again. What a shame for those poor fellows waiting at the bus stop of Hinoki Town, 2nd District.
There were another two more traffic junctions before the promised “third stop”.
Vibrations that were not insignificant constantly traveled through the interior of the bus. I tried my best to absorb the frequent shocks with the spring force in my knees. I really wanted to lower my hands.
On the seemingly never-ending road, we eventually reached the destination. The announcement was bright and cool, as usual.
“The next stop is Before East Office. Before East Office. If you wish to alight, please let us know by sounding the buzzer.”
But the buzzer had already been pressed by someone.
“The bus will be stopping.”
East Office was apparently an unexpectedly popular spot that I didn’t know of. As Nakamaru-san had said, quite a few passengers were trying to alight here. However, the exit was at the front of the vehicle. In the tightly packed bus, even more friction occurred between the passengers trying to alight and the passengers trying to hold the bridgehead.
That, however, gave us some leeway. The bus was still full, but I was able to put my hands down, release my back from Nakamaru-san and heave a sigh of relief. I somehow felt that I’d been on the bus for an hour already.
Even Nakamaru-san, who was supposed to be used to the crowded conditions in the bus, sighed.
“Ahh, that was rough.”
“I’m sweating all over.”
We looked at each other and laughed wryly.
By maintaining a good posture, my brain, which had been absorbed in more pressing matters, momentarily cleared up. That was when I noticed a chance right before my eyes.
Without thinking, I let out a sound.
“What is it, Kobato-chan?”
Nakamaru-san asked in puzzlement, but I neglected to respond to her.
I was looking at the two seats with their backs to one another. In the front seat was a female student, and in the back seat was an old lady.
One of them had accidentally pressed the buzzer earlier… Basically, one of them could possibly be alighting nearby. Right now, I could move to either the front seat or the back seat.
By being next to the one alighting, I could secure a seat when they stand up!
However, I had no intention of sitting down. Instead, I was thinking of providing a seat to my cute wavy-haired date, Nakamaru Kiko-san.
In this hellish bus, indecision was unacceptable.
If I failed to guide Nakamaru-san to the correct passenger between the student and the old lady, there would be no hope in the game of securing a seat. There wasn’t much time left. Even with an overestimate, this would only last until the next bus stop. I would have to make a clear judgment by then. Which of the female student and the old lady would be getting of the bus?
“Hold on for a bit.”
“Hold on? What for?”
I’ll be sending you a gift, so just hold on. The gift of a seat, that is.
In my view, the problem could be solved with some swift yet detailed observation.
Thankfully, there was a route map posted in my immediate vicinity. Taking a look at it, I understood that the bus was on an unexpectedly long journey. However, the important part was the set of following stops.
Hinoki Town, 2nd District
Before East Office
Hinoki Elementary School
Hinoki Town, 4th District
Hinoki Town Library
Hinoki Town, 6th District
Before Seiheki Girls College
Hinoki Town South, 2nd District
Taiga Bridge North
Taiga Bridge South
Panorama Island South
Masame City Hall
(End of Route)
Looking at the map, it was obvious why someone mistakenly pressed the button. There were too many stops that start with “Hinoki Town”. They could have been distracted by something else, or perhaps they had poor hearing, causing them to press the button at the wrong time. In other words, one of the two people would probably alight at Hinoki Town, 4th District. If not, they would alight at Hinoki Town South, 2nd District.
So, who would alight first? Who pressed the button? I studied the two suspects.
The female student’s pair of headphones was small, with its cord disappearing into a tote bag at her feet. Perhaps it was mixed up with the noise from the bus engines, or perhaps it had been turned down, but I couldn’t make out the type of music she was listening to.
A point to note was the “bookmark” sticking out from the top of the girl’s book. If my eyes were not mistaken, it looked like a citywide student commuter pass that Nakamaru-san also possessed. It was the same color, and I could read the words “Kira bus” and “citywide commuter” on it.
She was wearing a navy-blue blazer, with a school badge at her chest. That was not the same uniform as that of Funado High School, which I was attending. The uniform for girls in Funado High School was a sailor uniform, after all. However, I didn’t know which school’s uniform that was, since I wasn’t exactly well versed with them. Anyway, the female student was also wearing a muffler to protect her from the cold. It was gray and plain-looking.
The stop button in question was diagonally above the girl’s backrest. To press it, she would have to reach behind with her arm. Then again, the button was everywhere in the bus. There was also a button in front of the girl. To press that, she could lean forward and extend her arm.
Generally speaking, if there is a button in front and behind, one would normally press the button in front, right? This view slightly worked against the theory that the female student pressed the button.
As for the elderly lady, she was clinging onto her walking stick even though she was already sitting on the bus. It didn’t seem like her body was aching so badly that she wouldn’t be able to sit down without her stick. It was still before noon, but the old lady’s eyelids seemed heavy. If left alone, she would probably doze off within a short period of time. She could have had a momentarily lapse of consciousness, heard the name “Hinoki Town” and pressed the button in a panic.
The old lady was wearing a dark brown vest on top of her knitted sweater, which was blue and black in color, and looked warm. She also had a handbag. It had a leather surface, but I couldn’t tell if it was real leather. Strangely enough, her left hand, which was already holding onto the walking stick, was also clasping the handbag, while her right hand was simply resting on top.
I suddenly noticed that something was hanging from her neck. It was the size of a cash card, and was placed in a transparent cardholder. I quickly read the text written on the front of the card. It was an elderly discount pass. I could remember that there was an announcement earlier about that. Basically, the old lady was above the age of sixty-five. Or was it sixty?
The stop button was in a location which she could reach by extending her right hand. However, there were still doubts with that possibility. Only about ten seconds had passed from the time that the buzzer sounded to the time when I noticed that the dirt on the button had disappeared. Could that old lady have extended her arm, pressed the button and returned it to rest on the stick within that short amount of time?
Nakamaru-san called out to me, in a low voice, wary of her surroundings. The bus was still crowded, but it was more or less better than before.
Not moving my eyes away from the observation targets, I replied.
“Hm? What is it?”
“Did something good happen?”
Well, can’t say I have an idea about anything good happening.
“Not really, why?”
“You seem happy.”
Happy, huh? I’m not sure, but that might be it. My face must look too relaxed. I don’t have to look stern, but let’s make it a point to have a stiff upper lip.
Even though I called it observation, I would just be staring if I didn’t recognize exactly what I was observing for. People’s appearances don’t change after merely pressing a plastic button, after all. Although if I could see the pulp of their index fingers, I might be able to find dirt from the button stuck onto it.
But thinking more rigorously, the following situation was also possible. Assuming that a passenger was eating pistachio nuts or something similar on the bus, the shells accumulated in their lap would fall below if they leaned forward to press the button. As for whether this theory could be used for this case…
No, it was impossible. In any case, neither of the two passengers had dropped shells into their lap, and no one was kneeling or anything of the sort. I also couldn’t go up to the suspects and suddenly ask, “Can I see your index finger?”
Therefore, I wouldn’t be able to get the answer by only considering the question “Which one of the two pressed the button?” while observing them.
I wanted to know whether the old lady or the female student would alight from the bus first. Are there any characteristics of people who are just about to alight from a bus?
I spoke to Nakamaru-san.
“Shall I hold your muffler?”
Since the bus interior had everyone packed like sardines, it was really hot. It even seemed like sweat would form due to the difference in the temperature of my body and the surrounding temperature. Nakamaru-san was loosening her muffler to cool her neck.
Nakamaru-san replied with a smile.
Incidentally, the student who was seated had her muffler tied firmly around her neck. Could that be considered as her preparing to leave the bus?
We were feeling hot due to the hustle and bustle of the heavy congestion in the bus. It was not strange for a seated female student to be wrapped in a muffler.
What about the elderly lady, then? Could her holding of the handbag in only one hand be also considered as preparation for getting off the bus?
If I had to think about how that would fit, it would be like this. The old lady had taken both her hands off her handbag. When she thought it would soon be her stop, she gripped onto the handbag with her left hand, then pressed the button. After that, she realized that she made a mistake, so she did not hold the handbag with her right hand.
That situation was not impossible. However, I also didn’t think that it was probable. Besides, why did her right hand go white? Was she angry about something and clenched her fist that tightly?
What about the student’s book, then? If she closed the book, dropped it into her tote bag and sat up straight, there would be no room for any other deduction but “Ah, seems like she’ll be alighting soon.” But it was the reverse in reality. The girl was still engrossed in her book, so could that mean she didn’t intend to get off for the time being?
Not really, either. It is impossible to draw a conclusion of whether someone is alighting soon or isn’t alighting yet, only based off the fact that they are still reading a book.
Nakamaru-san piped up.
“Hey, can we hit the shoe shop when we reach Panorama Island? I want a pair of boots, but we can’t wear them to school, so what should I get, I wonder?”
What would a person about to alight do? Keep their personal effects, wear their hat, then push their way through the crowd, alight from the bus and stand on the road. Is that all? If I were to alight at the next stop, what would I do?
There was no time left. Now that it’s come to this, I should be swift and decisive.
I thought, pondered and considered. What would someone alighting do?
Someone alighting would…
As I pondered, I subconsciously stuck my hand into my pocket.
…Ah, I see.
I had a sudden impulse to jump into the air, shout and swear at the same time. Why didn’t I notice this earlier? I was astounded by my foolishness. I could only conclude that the normal signs of embarrassment I displayed during normal conversations as well as the smiles I put on during movies and shopping trips had rusted my brain. Of course, it was the small change. That was the solution to the entire problem.
It was none other than my pockets that gave me the hint. You had to pay before boarding municipally-owned buses. But that was not the case for Kira buses.
For these buses, one would have to pay the fare before alighting. In other words, someone alighting from a Kira bus would be holding onto small change!
I clearly knew the contents of the old lady’s right hand, as if I could see through it. There was no doubt that the tightly clenched fist was holding onto some coins. Besides that, there was nothing else on the bus that she would have to hold onto, to the extent that she would take one hand off her handbag.
Basically, this was what happened. The old lady initially had both hands on her handbag. She then brought out her wallet. Since she couldn’t take coins out while holding onto the handbag, she removed her right hand from the handbag and used it to grab some change. The old lady knew that she would have to insert the coins into the payment register in the near future, so she continued on like this, without gripping the handbag with her right hand again!
Although I was able to derive the answer, I was not satisfied. As Kobato Jougorou, I had taken far too long to reach such a simple line of reasoning. It should have been obvious at a glance.
Even so, I wasn’t too slow. Umm, what was the purpose of guessing who would alight first again?
Ah, right, it was to secure a seat, I believe.
My powers of observation, which had already been warmed up, saved me from certain defeat at the last moment.
I couldn’t explain the hesitance I had in that instance. For some reason, I felt that my reasoning wasn’t enough, that I’d missed something out. What was it?
I looked at the elderly lady, her stick, her left hand which was holding onto her handbag, her right hand which was not holding onto anything. What was that hanging from her neck?
It was the elderly discount pass that promised free travel on buses during the daytime on weekdays.
That was it. What my observation had captured was undoubtedly this pass.
What a close shave it was. The old lady had an elderly discount pass, so she wouldn’t need to pay the fare before alighting.
“Ah, did you say something?”
Nakamaru-san asked, prompting me to respond with a smile, and only a smile. I didn’t say anything.
So, was my observation all for naught?
When alighting from the bus, I would have have to pay 210 yen from the coins in my pocket as the bus fare. However, all the old lady would need to do was show her elderly discount pass. Thus, there was now no method to tell if she intended to alight at the next stop, or at the end of the bus route. It was the same for the female student. If a student commuter pass was indeed stuck between the pages of that pesky book, she could also alight from the bus by simply showing that, too…
Was there anything strange about that?
Someone with a student commuter pass could show it to alight from the bus. Someone with an elderly discount pass could likewise show it to alight from the bus. Nothing strange there. The effects of the elderly discount pass had been announced in the bus earlier, and I’d seen Nakamaru-san use the student commuter pass before. So there was nothing strange about that at all.
If there were no abnormalities there, something was strange somewhere else.
Since entering high school, I’d experienced something like this multiple times. When a slovenly friend of mine made cocoa, the problem was with neither the cocoa nor the cup, but was in the vicinity. It was the same when that slovenly friend left a coded message. The conclusion was outside that message. In that case, I shouldn’t focus my thoughts. After all, it is the outer edge of the pupil that can see through darkness.
“…I finally got it.”
By remembering this ironclad rule, it was not difficult to pinpoint the part that seemed out of joint.
I moved my body, pulling on Nakamaru-san’s sleeve.
“Come over here.”
She slightly raised her voice in protest, but moving a few centimeters in a crowded bus was not a particularly questionable thing to do. Nakamaru-san moved next to the female student, as if she’d planned to stand there from the very beginning.
Would Nakamaru-san understand the train of thought I had from the last bus stop to the next?
As I thought, the answer was borne from observation. This intuition that I get never goes off the mark. However, nothing could be read from simply observing the old lady and the female student. I had to widen the span of my observation.
I should have thought Nakamaru-san’s behavior to be strange from the start.
Nakamaru-san possessed a citywide student commuter pass. With that, the Kira buses would take her anywhere.
That was what I thought, but I was wrong… If that was the case, she wouldn’t have needed to do something like that.
She wouldn’t have needed to break her 500 yen coin into smaller denominations as soon as she got on the bus.
Nakamaru-san needed to pay the bus fare in small change. That was why she exchanged coins. Did the citywide student commuter pass lose its effect?
No, it was clearly in effect, with regards to “citywide”.
It was even stipulated on the side of the bus that there was a uniform fare of 210 yen. To be precise, it said, “Citywide Uniform Fare – 210 yen”.
However, I should have known this from the beginning, but Panorama Island was not within the city. It was a shopping center on the other side of the river, in a neighboring city.
Nakamaru-san knew that since we would be crossing the city border, her commuter pass wouldn’t cut it, so she exchanged her coin. It was the same for the elderly lady. The elderly discount pass was only effective within Kira City. That had also been announced in the bus earlier.
Basically, holding some coins in her hand meant that she was staying on the bus until it left Kira City, at the very least.
In that case, I could use the method of elimination. The one who accidentally pressed the stop button and was about to alight somewhere in Hinoki Town would be none other than the female student.
I wonder if Nakamaru-san would understand this thought process?
Without making a sound, I muttered under my breath.
That was because to Nakamaru-san, needing small change to get to Panorama Island was self-explanatory. As always, it was tough to fill a gap in knowledge with wisdom.
The bus stopped, and the driver spoke.
“We have arrived at Hinoki Town Library.”
Someone sounded the buzzer. The female student reluctantly closed her book, squeezed through the crowd and headed towards the front of the bus. She then showed her commuter pass to the driver and alighted. The seat in front of Nakamaru-san was now empty.
Having an empty seat appear in front of her as if it was a gift from the heavens, Nakamaru-san’s smile was like a blooming flower.
“Oh, lucky me!”
Those who do not take action to create opportunities for themselves are known as slowpokes.
Those who cannot make good use of opportunities are basically fools.
In that case, I was close to being like a fool. An eighth of a page had fallen right into my hands, and I could write anything on it. That was undoubtedly the chance I had been waiting for. However…
It was the beginning of a new year. With an editorial meeting to be held on the next day, I was sitting in my classroom after school, literally cradling my head in my hands. The year had changed and the winter break had ended, yet I hadn’t found anything to write. On the table in front of me was a white notebook, and on the other side, sandwiching it was Hiya, whose face was clouded over.
“There can’t be nothing, right? Why don’t you tell me what you have for now? You never know, something could turn out to be a breakthrough.”
Hiya had been giving advice for my column before the winter holidays began. It was really pathetic of me to be unable to properly respond to the goodwill he’d shown, but I wouldn’t get anywhere by staying silent. Thus, I reluctantly told him what I already knew to be useless.
“A couple was given an official reprimand at a billiard hall on Christmas. The boy is in our school, although he apparently didn’t get suspended or anything like that.”
“There was a case in Panorama Island where a microwave oven was stolen. The shoplifter wasn’t caught, so I don’t know who did it, but I heard rumours that it could have been a high school student.”
“Is that so.”
“Someone in Class E got into an accident. They were riding a bicycle when they ran into a motorcycle making a right turn. Some bones on the student’s leg were broken, so they were hospitalized.”
“Something like that happened, huh.”
Hiya replied with only a few customary responses, then fell silent. I was honestly more thankful for that silence, rather than some half-hearted words of encouragement.
Nothing would come out of writing boring stories like getting an official reprimand for staying out late at night or being involved in a traffic accident. President Doujima probably wouldn’t say anything about it, but I could see Monchi or someone else laughing about it. It obviously wouldn’t work unless I grabbed their attention with something powerful right off the bat.
The microwave theft was quite interesting. If I did detailed research and wrote about how the deed was done, it could turn out to be an unexpectedly interesting read. However, could that be run on Funado Monthly? Moreover, I’d intended to write about a kidnapping case, so wouldn’t having shoplifting as a replacement topic be too much of a difference? From the bottom of my heart, I cursed the small scale of disturbances in this world.
“You should have asked a lot of different people, right? Did they not have any useful stories?”
I vaguely nodded.
“Well… I did ask a few, like those at cram school.”
“What about that senpai?”
I couldn’t immediately understand which senpai he was referring to. Was he talking about President Doujima, or Monchi? But how could I have the face to beg for an idea from either of them?
But the person Hiya was hinting at was neither of the two. A smile appeared on his face, as if he was teasing me even though I was at my wit’s end.
“Come on, that adorable senpai who looks like a junior.”
So he was referring to Osanai-san.
I didn’t want him to call her “adorable” so frivolously. I was thinking of giving him another body blow, but that was impossible since we were both seated. In place of that, I snorted as a sign of protest.
With that out of the way, I answered his question.
“No, I haven’t talked to Osanai about this.”
“Don’t you mean Osanai-senpai?”
“Oh, shut it… But don’t you think it’s futile? Does she look like someone with a wide social circle to you?”
“I can’t say for sure, but probably not.”
Asking that shy Osanai-san whether she knows about some incident would be simply a foolish act. Obviously, she would only be able to give answers regarding which cakes had increased in price, or something along those lines.
I really couldn’t underestimate Hiya’s quick-wittedness. With a vexed smile, I replied.
“Furthermore, I don’t want to discuss this with her. I want to show off my good side, after all.”
This time, I thrust my fist and struck Hiya’s forehead. Pow! It made a sound that seemed more painful than I’d expected.
I knew that it was just for the sake of appearances, and that it didn’t make me look good from an observer’s point of view, but I wanted to write the column without going to her for help, no matter what. Since she was cheering me on, it was my desire to brusquely hand it to her, saying, “This is what I came up with.”
However, if I was unable to produce anything, forget being brusque, I wouldn’t even be able to face her.
After taking that fist, Hiya stopped his banter.
“It’s not your fault that there’s no news story to report, Urino. There should be other members in the Newspaper Club, so how about postponing your turn?”
“I suppose, but…”
“If you do find an interesting story, you can write about it then, right?”
I was in a bit of a dilemma about it, but hiding things from Hiya here would seem insincere. I resolved myself to speak frankly.
“Actually, I did think about that option.”
“As I thought.”
I bit down on my molars.
“Even so, it’ll all amount to the same thing. It has already been established that Itsukaichi will be the first batter, and I’ll be the second. If I don’t raise my hand here, I can see them saying something like, ‘So it didn’t work out.’ On top of that…”
I hesitated for a moment.
“… I feel like that’s turning my back on an opportunity. We’ve only got three years in high school, after all.”
Hiya stayed silent for a short while. After staring at the ceiling and letting out a sigh, he put on a smile that seemed to say, “What a troublesome guy.”
“Time is limited, and you have to seize fortune by the forelocks, huh. I wonder if I should also follow this way of thinking?”
“It probably differs from person to person. I might be desperate because I don’t really have any redeeming qualities.”
“It’s as you say, I suppose. Though I can’t be absolutely sure.”
Hiya muttered as he stuck a hand into his bag. I thought he was intending to go home, but I was mistaken. With a black file in his hand, he closed the bag.
“I thought I would be only hurting your pride if I tried lending you a hand, but it seems that you’re quite determined to do this no matter what, so I’ll stop showing you such unnecessary consideration.”
The file was thin, to the point of being flimsy. However, I knew that important things could be transmitted in a single sheet of paper most of the time. As if it were a forbidden book, I timidly accepted it.
“Something that should be useful to you, I think.”
I gingerly opened the file.
|(10 November – Yomiuri Newspaper, Regional Section)|
Suspected Arson at Kira City
An incipient fire6 broke out at Kira City, Nishimori 2nd District at 12:15am on 10 November. The fire originated from a trashcan in Nishimori Children’s Park 2, and spread to approximately one square meter of land around it. Since there were no signs of fire nearby, the Kira Police Department are investigating it as a case of suspected arson.
|(11 November – Mainichi Newspaper, Regional Section)|
Incipient Fire at Nishimori, Kira City
At about 12:15am in the morning of 10 November, a male passer-by noticed a burning trashcan in Nishimori Children’s Park 2 of Nishimori 2nd District, Kira City, and promptly called 119 to report it. The fire burned in an area of approximately one square meter, but there were no casualties. The Kira Police Department are viewing the case as suspected arson.
|(8 December – Asahi Newspaper, Regional Section)|
Suspected Arson at Koyubi, Kira City
An incipient fire broke out in Koyubi, Kira City at 1am on 8 December, burning up waste material in the area. The Kira West Police Department are investigating it as a case of suspected arson.
In the investigations, it was found that the fire originated from a storage area in Koyubi 1st District, and a column of waste material was burned down. The fire was extinguished by residents and firefighters, and no casualties were reported.
They were newspaper scraps, bits that had been cut out from a copy of the newspaper.
After I spontaneously took a look, Hiya spoke at an unusually fast pace.
“There’s one more thing I’d like to add. The Gardening Club we have at Funado High borrows a field at Hamae, and the grass clippings there were set on fire in October last year.”
As if he’d fulfilled his duty, Hiya stood up.
“Use it if it’s useful to you, though I don’t know how it will turn out. Also, I won’t ask why if you don’t want to use it.”
Putting on his coat, Hiya turned his back to me and left the classroom, but I didn’t say anything.
…Well, that’s troubling.
Now I would have to show off my good side not only to Osanai, but also to Hiya.
It seemed that there was a serial arsonist on the loose.
A series of arson cases was significant enough, and on top of that, Funado High School might have been a victim, too. This was undoubtedly a news story that I could use.
As for the investigation, I decided on two policies.
The first was to do it without letting Osanai know. The second, to never hesitate in asking for Hiya’s help if I ever got stuck.
For the policy regarding Osanai, it was, needless to say, due to pride. The one for Hiya was slightly more complicated. It wouldn’t be applicable if I could write the article alone, but I shouldn’t forget that it was Hiya who told me about this in the first place. In other words, while it might seem like I was doing all this on my own from an outside perspective, I had actually intercepted the topic from Hiya, and that was making me feel awkward about it. Though I understood that it was an unnecessary concern, since Hiya wasn’t even a member of the Newspaper Club.
That was probably the reason why I couldn’t throw out my chest in pride as I was about to explain the topic of my article. I’d wanted to seize the vastly treasured pages with pomp and aplomb, but there was no helping it.
The meeting progressed entirely according to schedule. Basically, we first decided on the main article of the next issue. That said, the February issue would always begin with an article along the lines of “With the Center Test7 over, Time to Prepare for the Real Deal! A Collection of Golden Words from Various Senpai”. After that, President Doujima brought up the topic, as if he’d only just remembered about it.
“By the way, who’s writing the column for the February issue?”
“I’ll do it.”
Without a single moment’s delay, I declared my bid.
“Urino, huh? What will you write about?”
I then expounded upon the series of arson cases occurring throughout the city, as well as the newspaper articles about them. The president listened with his usual sullen look, but Monchi scoffed at it, as if saying, “How ridiculous.” However, as long as the president was listening, Monchi wouldn’t be able to interfere.
“Thus, I would like to take up this story, at the very least as a warning against the dangers of fire.”
With my explanation complete, President Doujima nodded slowly.
“I see. Is there anyone else who wants to write for the column? No one else? We’ll leave it to Urino, then.”
If there is a precedent, anything can easily come to pass. Thus, I effortless stepped on the path that Itsukaichi had opened up and Hiya had leveled.
I’d been wondering if Kishi actually wanted to write something for the column deep down. He’d been in favor of Itsukaichi’s proposal during the December meeting, after all. Even with the lack of motivation apparent on his face, he’d given Itsukaichi a push from behind, so I was suspecting if he actually wanted to write something. However, in this meeting Kishi fiddled with his phone when President Doujima wasn’t looking, and said nothing at all.
Now that I have the space, it’s time for the real deal! I was excited to start work, but President Doujima cast a damper on my enthusiasm.
“It’ll be quite tough to investigate a news story like that alone, right? How about it, Itsukaichi? Can you help him out?”
With his name suddenly being called out, Itsukaichi’s eyes widened, and he let out a voice, “Eh?”
I also had the same reaction. I’d intended to do it alone, or with Hiya if that proved to be impossible, but I’d never thought of getting someone else to shoulder the burden.
“Can you do it?”
Having been pinned down by the president’s stern glare, Itsukaichi lost his head, and was unable to provide a proper response.
“But I already wrote last month’s…”
“I’m not telling you to write it. It’ll be rough on Urino to do it alone, so I’m just asking if you could lend him a hand.”
“But last month I…”
He was clearly reluctant to be a part of this. I snuck a peek at Kishi, only to see that he was firmly staring at the ground and had turned into a rock, afraid of his turn coming around.
In any case, it was unnecessary to involve either of them. I spoke out.
“President, I can do it on my own.”
“Urino’s also saying that…”
Itsukaichi’s pathetic voice followed mine.
“He’s saying that he can handle it on his own, so you should let him do it.”
Monchi edged into the conversation, probably with the intention of leaving me out to dry. However, I was thankful for that in this particular instance. Doing it alone would be quite a lot more convenient, and if that proved to be an impossible task, I could still rely on Hiya. I had no use for someone like Itsukaichi.
Seeing Itsukaichi’s indecision, even President Doujima didn’t force the issue. He did glance at Kishi, but no matter how you looked at it, it didn’t seem like Itsukaichi, or anyone else for that matter, would take it up.
“But going it alone is…”
Even so, he was apparently reluctant to entrust it to me, causing me to flare up.
“I’m not saying that I don’t need anyone at all, am I? If you can’t trust me for something like this, just tell me to quit, and I can leave the club at any time.”
President Doujima sighed.
“That’s exactly it. It’s that temperament of yours that I’m worried of.”
He leaned forward slightly.
“I do understand your desire to work alone. I also believe that you can do it. I trust you on that point.
“However, you tend to be too hasty. Now that we’ve gotten to this point, I won’t tell you to stop writing your article. It’s just that based on your story, you’ll have to interview people from outside the school. I’ll be frank. I’m worried that you’ll do something to besmirch the honor of the Newspaper Club, or even Funado High School if you don’t have someone to apply the brakes.”
“Honor! Something like that…”
“Then I’ll ask you a question. You mentioned that there was arson at a storage area. Do you think you can write the article without going inside?”
“Don’t take me for a fool.” That was what I wanted to say.
However, I wasn’t so hot-headed to give tit for tat. Since he said all that, I took some time to consider. Knowing that the storage area was the scene of an arson case, would I have to go in?
The location probably wasn’t well-enclosed. I would hesitate if there was barbed wire, but what if it was like a regular empty lot?
I couldn’t admit it verbally, but the answer was clear. I would undoubtedly go in headfirst.
“Do you understand that in that moment, if someone asks who you are and what you are doing, it becomes an incident caused by the Newspaper Club? I can stop you if I’m there. If we want to enter, we’ll do so only after getting permission from the authorities. But as for whether you’ll be attentive to these things and apply the brakes on your own…”
No one else put in word. Kishi hadn’t even been listening in the first place, while Itsukaichi had his mouth agape.
Monchi’s eyes were wide open, staring at President Doujima as if he was unable to comprehend what was just said.
The president contemplated for a while before finally speaking.
“… But well, now that I’ve said all this, all I can do is leave it to you. Urino, do your investigation prudently. And if anyone asks what you’re doing, say that you’re doing a special feature on fire prevention for the Funado Newspaper Club. If there’s still trouble, call me before it gets complicated. You understood all that, right?”
On that day, I learnt two things. The first was that I was being observed quite a bit more than I’d thought.
And the other thing was that Doujima-senpai was indeed like a club president.
Starting from the Gardening Club would make a lot of sense.
To be honest, I hadn’t even been aware that there was a Gardening Club in the school. Funa High wasn’t a school with a flourishing extracurricular activity scene, after all. While it might be a bit rich as a member of a fellow cultural club member, I wondered what kind of gloomy people had joined such a minor club.
But after doing some research, I found that there was a Gardening Club member in my class, and my useless assumptions were completely off the mark. The Gardening Club member in question was a girl proficient in both sports and studies, and was a conspicuous presence in class.
Homeroom ended, and the students stood up from their seats one after another. My quarry grabbed her bag, apparently about to leave the room. I hurriedly approached her.
“Satomura-san, could you spare some time? I would like to ask you some questions as a member of the Newspaper Club.”
Satomura of the Gardening Club was definitely not a sociable person. In fact, she was an austere girl who even chased out a boy who wasn’t pulling his weight during preparations for the Cultural Festival. I felt a little intimidated by her, but Satomura didn’t seem particularly bothered by me calling out to her.
“Tsumeno, hm? What kind of questions?”
“Oh come on, it’s not Tsume, it’s Uri.”
“My bad, my bad.”
She smiled. Tsume (爪) and Uri (瓜) were indeed close, but Satomura wouldn’t have remembered my name by its characters. Basically, it was a joke.
Hearing our conversation, Hiya butted in.
“It’s not your fault, Satomura-san, it’s Urino’s fault for having such a rare name.”
He was grinning. Then again, he was a guy who smiled most of the time.
“Ah right, Urino, you’re in the Newspaper Club, huh… So, what did you want to ask about?”
She’d turned to look at Hiya when he came in, but never turned to look back at me, so it seemed as if I was interviewing her from the side.
“Satomura, you’re in the Gardening Club, right?”
Hiya interrupted again.
“Do you do some kind of sports? You’ve got fast legs?”
“Who’s got fat legs?”
With that joke, Satomura threw her hands in the air. Hiya’s appearance single-handedly brightened the atmosphere and livened up the conversation. Having all parties actively engage in the conversation was extremely advantageous for me, but for now…
“Don’t be a nuisance.”
“Ah, sorry, sorry, I’ll pull back for now.”
He apologized, while actually moving back by half a step.
I resumed the interview.
“I would like to ask about something that happened in the Gardening Club. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. You probably don’t know what we do, right? Just like no one knows what you guys do in the Newspaper Club.”
We do distribute an eight-page newspaper to the entire student population every month, though. Well, in any case, that was a good conversation starter.
“What do you actually do?”
“We grow flowers. For example, the planters in front of the entrance are grown by the Gardening Club.”
“Eh? All of them? That’s a lot of flowers.”
“All of them… I think. Sorry, you’ll have to confirm that with a second-year student.”
I wrote all of that in the notebook I was holding. It probably wouldn’t be published, but I felt that it was good manners to do so.
Time for the main topic.
“So, you grow those flowers in Hamae, right?”
When I said that, a bored look appeared on Satomura’s face.
“Oh, so you do know about what we do already.”
“All I know is that you borrow a field in Hamae.”
“It’s not a field, but a vinyl house. We only use a small corner of it, though.”
Did that mean that a vinyl house was set on fire? That was quite different from what I heard… Probably in response to the expression I was making, Satomura continued.
“Ah, that must mean you want to ask about the fire.”
For an instant, I was frantically wondering how she could see through my motives, but immediately calmed down. I knew nothing about the Gardening Club, yet was aware that they were borrowing some land in Hamae. It was only natural that I would want to ask about the arson case.
It helped that she was quick to catch on. I nodded.
“That’s right. About that…”
I started, but was stopped in my tracks as Satomura raised her eyebrows and spoke in a sharp tone.
“Before that! There’s one thing that I have to say. No, two things. On second thoughts, three.”
You don’t have to decide on that number, though.
“Ah, whatever. First, the fire did not occur on a field that the Gardening Club was borrowing. It was on an empty plot of land owned by Tanaka-san, who kindly lent us some space in his vinyl house. Also, if you plan on making it into an article, I won’t say a word. That’s because the Student Council got really angry over that and forbade us to speak about that incident. Who did you hear it from in the first place?”
Without hesitation, I pointed backward at an oblique angle.
“Hey, Urino, don’t you think it’d be good to have that journalistic quality of not revealing your news sources?”
Hiya had been silently listening, but hurriedly raised his voice as sparks suddenly rained down on him. Not like I was a journalist, anyway.
However, Satomura’s facial expression immediately softened.
“Oh, it was just Hiya-kun, huh.”
If this was any indicator at all, Hiya would probably be able to reap a good amount of benefits in life with that likeable personality of his. With Satomura’s edge dulled, I continued with my questioning.
“I won’t make a news article out of it if you’re telling me not to. But I’d like to understand. Why did they get angry at you over the fire at Yamada-san’s vacant lot?”
Satomura corrected me and sighed.
“The reason they got angry at us, huh. It’s a ridiculous story.
“Vinyl houses have quite a high maintenance cost, and we thought that it would be wrong to borrow it for free, so we helped cut the grass in the vacant lot. At first, it was only supposed to be cutting grass, so we intended to borrow grass sickles from Tanaka-san, but the plan changed when we went over to that plot of land. There was a JA8 signboard there, and we were told to get rid of it since it was useless.
“It was really stupid. It was a gigantic wooden signboard, and on it were the words, ‘Let’s eat vegetables!’ written like it was for a penmanship class. We could instantly tell that it was absolutely useless.”
…Indeed, it would have been understandable if the signboard had said, “Let’s eat locally farmed vegetables!” or “Let’s eat domestically produced vegetables!” but just saying, “Let’s eat vegetables” wouldn’t help at all.
“Anyway, we’d brought a hammer and work gloves from school. We then split into two teams. One was in charge of breaking apart the signboard, and the other in charge of cutting grass. The signboard group was faster but it was a little awkward since there weren’t enough sickles.
“The entire process took about two hours, I think. We asked Tanaka-san about what to do with the cut grass and broken down signboard, and he told us to just pile them up. That was what we did, but one week later, we found that they’d been set on fire.
“Tanaka-san didn’t say anything, but some old guy from JA made a fuss about how ‘the incorrigible students from Funado High’s Gardening Club set fire to our signboard’, and our student council took that to be the truth. The signboard had been broken to bits, after all. Later, we heard that it was just a small patch of grass that had been set on fire, and not the signboard. They got quite angry at us, but in the end, the reason for that has gotten really unclear.”
“That does sound terrible.”
Hiya immediately replied.
“Right? It was so unbearable.”
Satomura said as she patted Hiya’s shoulder. On the other hand, all I could think was that it was a plausible story. Should I have shown some sympathy as well?
Judging that doing so at this point would only seem fake, I continued with the questioning.
“When was this?”
“It was quite a while ago. Do you want to know the exact date?”
“If it’s possible.”
Satomura thought for a while, then muttered, “Maybe it’s still there,” as she brought out her mobile phone. She haltingly pressed some buttons, as if she seldom used it.
“I think I took a picture of the part that was burnt… Ah, here it is.”
She said, but didn’t show her screen.
Perhaps she wasn’t willing to show her phone to a mere male classmate. That was understandable. I recently set a picture of Osanai with caramel mousse on her cheek as my phone’s wallpaper, and I would never agree to showing it to someone else.
“Erm, the picture was taken on the 15th of October. It was a Monday, and the fire occurred on Saturday, so that would be the 12th.”
I see. I took a note of that.
“Why did the fire occur?”
“I heard it was an act of arson. The grass was apparently smoldering in the middle of the night, but the fire went out naturally. It might have worked for the wooden signboard, but grass contains a lot of water, so it’s hard to burn.”
So she knew it was an arson case from the beginning.
Based on what I’d heard thus far, there was probably not much meaning to the student council’s gag order. It was likely that they only said something along the lines of, “Don’t say anything unnecessary” while scolding the Gardening Club.
There was one more point I was curious about.
“And another thing, is it possible to instantly tell that the vinyl house or the vacant lot is related to Funado High?”
“You can’t tell. We don’t put out a sign or anything.”
Basically, it was not an arson attack aimed at Funado High. That was a shame, since I was thinking of somehow linking the column to the school.
I was just about to thank Satomura and end the conversation, when she spoke up again.
“Ah, that’s right, there was one other thing. The student council doesn’t even know about this.”
I could sense that this was good information. Vigor surged through my hand that was holding the pen. Seeing me in this state, Satomura seemingly puffed up with pride.
“On that day, something went missing.”
“Something went missing? What was it?”
“A hammer that we brought from school.”
A hammer, huh…
I made a note, but my heart sank. The disappearance of a hammer was on a different level from a series of arson cases.
But Satomura didn’t seem to think that way.
“It was school equipment after all, so it was a quite troubling that it went missing. In the end, we all had to chip in for compensation. Really annoying, don’t you think?”
“How much did each person have to pay?”
She tilted her head.
“…300 yen, I think?”
No matter how you looked at it, they were definitely on completely different levels.
The next Saturday, I took to the streets on my bicycle.
I was only intending to check out the crime scenes. Hence, it would have been fine for me to go alone, but I’d asked Hiya to come along as well, probably because President Doujima’s warning was still in the back of my mind, as annoying as it was.
The known arson locations were: Hamae in October, Nishimori in November, and Koyubi in December. While those three districts were all on the west side of Kira City, they still covered quite a wide area altogether, since they were not exactly right next to each other. It would probably take an entire day to walk from the northern end of Hamae to the southern end of Koyubi. Even though we were using bicycles, we would still have to travel for quite some distance. Hiya knew that it would be a long journey, but he still agreed to come along without a single complaint, and I was silently grateful to him for that.
It was now January. Snow hardly fell in Kira City, but a small amount of snow had fallen before and after New Year’s Day, and had hardened at the roadside. I left my house at 9am. I would have been in a fix if the roads were frosted over, but thankfully it was a fine day, perfect weather for news gathering.
Hiya and I met at Funado High School. I’d arrived about ten minutes earlier than the appointed time, but he was already standing in front of the school gates. He was the first to speak.
Hiya was wearing a coat, while I was wearing a jumper. Both of us had mufflers and gloves on. Even so, that couldn’t completely protect us from the cold January air.
“Well, you’ll feel warm when you’re moving.”
It was all I could do to ease his concern. With the season being what it was, the temperature wouldn’t increase by much even if the sun went up.
“So, shall we first go to Hamae?”
I said, about to step on the pedals, but Hiya stopped me.
“Wait. Don’t you know?”
“There was another arson attack.”
I unconsciously disembarked from my bicycle. A rare troubled look crossed Hiya’s face.
“It’s true. But we probably won’t be able to go today. Some abandoned bicycles were set on fire in Akanebe, but I don’t know the exact location.”
“When was this?”
“It was reported in today’s morning paper, so probably yesterday, I think? Sorry, I should have brought over the newspaper, but I forgot.”
Yesterday, or in other words, Friday, January 11, huh.
I bit my lower lip. What the heck, I thought.
My house also had a newspaper subscription, but I hadn’t read it thoroughly. From now on, I should be more sensitive to the news, or at least to news about arson attacks in this city.
“What should we do?”
If it was reported in the morning paper, we could get a copy somewhere. But if Hiya was right, we probably wouldn’t be able to go anywhere else today even if we were to be able to go to that crime scene.
“…Let’s go. We’ll start with Hamae, as scheduled.”
“As I thought, that’s the only option, huh.”
Hiya nodded as he straddled his bicycle.
The wind would be cold if we traveled quickly, so Hiya and I didn’t cycle at a particular high speed. I only ever went to Funado High and its surroundings on school days. While it was familiar scenery, there were no Funado High students at all since it was a rest day, which was quite a fresh sight to behold.
We entered a bypass highway. The pavement was wide, and the guard rails looked to be sturdy. There was also a sign saying that bicycles were allowed on the road.
We might have pedaled slowly, but we almost immediately reached the crime scene in Hamae. That was only natural, since the Gardening Club members usually walked there.
Hamae was connected by a brand new road, but it still didn’t have a steady flow of people. Both sides of the road were desolate, and would have been surrounded by barren plains if not for the farms. A few vinyl houses dotted the landscape.
There were no signs of human presence in front or behind us. We decreased the speed of our bicycles, then came to a stop.
“Is this it?”
“Hang on, I’ll check.”
I took out my mobile phone and opened an image. Within the uniform scenery, I couldn’t tell which empty lot was the one we were looking for.
“Satomura sent me an image of the site. She said I’d be able to tell just by looking at it, but…”
As I explained, a mischievous grin formed on Hiya’s face.
“What a stud, Urino, what a stud you are. I’m impressed. If only I were half as proactive as you!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Satomura-san sent you that image, meaning that you must have exchanged email addresses with her, right? I’m just thinking that was real smooth of you. Satomura-san’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
What a load of garbage. Someone like him could probably say, “Please tell me your address” with a smile and easily obtain his target’s email address, phone number, or whatever.
Sulkily, I replied.
“I’m afraid of her, really. She’s not someone I want to get close to.”
Hiya responded with an awfully large nod.
“Well, yeah, I get you. Osanai-senpai doesn’t seem as scary, after all.”
Not wanting to stand around and chat forever, I started comparing the photograph in my mobile phone with the scenery in front of me.
Holding the mobile phone in front, I twisted my body left and turned my body right, trying to find the scene depicted in the photograph. After a few moments, I tilted my head a few times in confusion.
“…What’s the matter?”
“I think it’s right here.”
It just so happened that the place where we stopped our bicycles was right in front of the vinyl house we were looking for. That was quite a stroke of luck, but there was a reason for us not noticing it immediately. Hiya also seemed to have perceived that reason.
“It’s here? But… there’s nothing left!”
Apparently, nothing was being grown in the vinyl house. We could see through the walls, but there were no signs of vegetation at all.
On the other hand, it was indeed next to an empty plot of land. Only a few fragments of snow remained, blackened and dirty, probably due to smoke from the road. Since we were in the middle of winter, the grasses were withered and the air was dry. If a fire was started here and now, it would probably burn well.
There were no traces that would make one think of a fire that happened three months ago.
According to Satomura, the fire in Hamae had disappeared naturally. Even so, I’d thought that there would be a few small burn traces remaining. Just in case, I adjusted my mobile phone and started taking a video of the surrounding area. If I didn’t get a digital camera in the near future, it would reflect poorly on me as a member of the Newspaper Club.
I wandered around the area aimlessly, arbitrarily taking pictures here and there, but there was clearly no point to it. If only there was a little something that looked like traces of a fire…
As I was doing that, Hiya suddenly called out to me.
“Urino! Do you think this is related to the case?”
“Did you find something?”
I jogged over to him. Hiya was pointing at a road sign that displayed the speed limit in the area, 50 kilometers per hour.
Approximately in its center was a mark. It was dented, as if something hard had crashed into it, and some paint had been scraped off. It looked like it had been struck by a bicycle.
“…What do you think?”
Hiya asked, but I couldn’t say anything at this point in time. It certainly didn’t seem like an old mark, but I couldn’t be sure if it could be tied to the incident three months ago. I snapped a photograph of it for posterity.
Even after that, I stubbornly stuck around. Hiya didn’t complain, but asked a question wonderingly.
“If there are no traces of a fire, this is just a normal, empty lot. What are we doing here?”
“Ah, I just thought of something. I’ll tell you later.”
It was cold, after all. I still had some regrets, but half-heartedly discontinued the photography of the area, then started cycling towards our next destination, Nishimori.
While I said that I would tell him later, we got to a point during our journey towards Nishimori when we could only idly wait for the traffic lights to change, so I just told him what I’d thought about.
“It was necessary to take detailed photographs of the Hamae crime scene.”
Since it was before noon on a Saturday in the winter, the pavement was sparsely populated with people. Hiya and I cycled side by side.
“I was thinking of the column. Just writing ‘A series of arson cases occurred’ would be dull. Since you found these bits of news for me, I was wondering if I could make it bigger.”
“Well, I knew you were aiming big anyway.”
Hiya grinned, then continued.
“So, what do you have in mind specifically?”
Only looking at the path in front of me, I answered.
“I’ll try to find some common points between the arson cases.”
Hiya nodded, but there was a slight ironic smile on his lips.
“It would certainly be good if there was something like that.”
There might not be another common points at all, though. Rather, it would be natural for that to be non-existent.
It was doubtful for a deviant who went around setting fires to have a consistent motive. It could even be completely random. It was possible that thinking about it would be a waste of time and effort.
However, I felt that it was worth trying.
“Hypothetically speaking, what do you think would happen if I do manage to find that common point?”
“It would be easier for you to write that article.”
Hiya started with a light joke, then pondered for a while.
As expected, it didn’t even take ten seconds for him to figure out what I was trying to get at.
“Ah, I see. Basically, you were thinking of predicting where the next arson case would occur.”
If there was a common point linking the series of arson cases, I might be able to find a rule for it. In that case, it wouldn’t end with me merely writing an article of the cases that had already occurred.
There is an arsonist in this city who had already set fire to four different locations… and this is his next target.
I would be able to write an article like that.
Even if I was off the mark, I could simply write it off by saying, “It was worth a shot.” On the other hand, it would be a huge deal if I did get it right. Firstly, credit would go to Funado Monthly for foreseeing a crime before it occurred. Monchi, who had been treating others as fools, would be shut up by this achievement, and President Doujima would be proud of the Newspaper Club. No one would be able to say that they didn’t know what the Newspaper Club did.
And most importantly, I would be able to show off to Osanai.
“At this time, I can’t tell if there will be any common points, but I think we should just start by going to all the locations and taking photos of them.”
For some reason, Hiya sighed.
“Man, I really admire your ability to take action.”
Since I knew what he was like normally, I took those words to be ironic rather than his sincere thoughts. I would have slammed a punch into his gut if my hands were empty, but they were currently holding onto the bicycle handles. It was difficult to grab the brakes with my thick gloves, so punching him would be dangerous. I should let him go for now.
There was no sign showing the boundary between the towns. As we turned the corner at the fire department, we could see a plate wrapped around a utility pole, with the words “Kira City, Nishimori Town, 1st District”9 written on it, telling us that we’d just entered Nishimori.
Days were short in the winter, but it seemed that they were getting longer now that the winter solstice had passed. After moving around different locations in Kira City, we ended up at the station. There hadn’t been an arson attack there, but we were both hungry and tired, so we came to the station to drink something hot and end the day.
There was a hamburger shop near the station. Since I started going out with Osanai, I’d learnt that there were all kinds of shops on this street. That said, I was completely satisfied with a 100-yen hamburger.
As expected, the temperature didn’t rise in the afternoon. Hiya’s face, which was originally white, had turned even more pale, making me feel bad for unreasonably getting him to tag along. He was currently holding a hot cup of coffee in his hands gratefully, though that feeling was probably not directed at me. With an almost non-existent smile on his face, he asked.
I understood what Hiya was saying with that one word. He was asking this: “So, do we have any results?”
The park at Nishimori.
That storage area at Koyubi.
The newspapers included the park name, so I presumed that we would be able to instantly find the crime scene if we went there. However, there was no open area resembling a park there. At that time, Hiya followed me without a word, but I couldn’t help but feel an air of protest behind my back, screaming at me to do proper research before going out to investigate.
Thus, we struggled and toiled, and eventually found the crime scene, but Hiya could only let out a word upon seeing it.
Nishimori Children’s Park 2 was as good as a vacant lot, with only a couple of benches and a wisteria trellis. It was absolutely presumptuous to call it a park.
There were traces of fire on the ground. In that sense, it was certainly a lot more of a crime scene than the empty lot in Hamae. Specifically, there was still some soot on the surface of the dirt.
However, it was just a minor speck. If you said it was a burn mark from kids playing with fireworks, I would have no choice but to agree.
This crime scene was by a residential area. Unlike Hamae, which had only one new road and was still under urban development, this was a jumbled, busy section. It was a narrow road where a car could not overtake another, and one-way signs had been put up here and there. I could not find any common points between the crime scenes at Hamae and the one at Nishimori.
Even so, after settling with a meat bun from a convenience store for lunch, I headed for the Koyubi crime scene. At this point, Hiya said, “Enough, let’s go home,” but still shook his head, laughed and followed. I was quite thankful for that, since I would have probably lost to the fatigue and cold if I had been left alone.
However, it was questionable as to whether the crime scene at Koyubi was a location worth persevering through the harsh weather to visit.
The storage area at Koyubi 1st District was relatively easy to find. As luck would have it, it was just two doors away from the fire department. At that distance, they could have run over to fight the fire.
We could find the storage area, but there was no evidence that an arson had occurred there. It was an uninhabited, empty space in between two old houses that had numerous blocks of timber and steel frames piled up in it. But there were no traces of the arson; it had been tidied up cleanly. A column of waste material had been set on fire, and that was probably the only item that had been taken away. What exactly did “waste material” refer to, anyway? Perhaps it was just a scrap of wood…
In the hamburger shop by the station, I let out a small sigh, such that Hiya wouldn’t be able to detect it. The crimes scenes at Nishimori and Koyubi were not entirely unalike. Both were residential areas that were relatively squalid. But that was all. I couldn’t think of anything to write linking the series of arson attacks, and with the thought that I had wasted an entire day, I was now feeling extraordinarily tired.
Without saying a word, I chewed on my hamburger.
It wouldn’t have been that bad if I was alone, but I had also wasted Hiya’s rest day, and I felt really bad for that. Thanks to that, I could by no means say, “Since these three places were no good, let’s go to Akanebe.”
No, it wasn’t over yet. Before jumping to any conclusions, I desperately thought of any regularities among the three locations. If I couldn’t come up with anything, I would apologize to Hiya for his wasted effort.
A vacant lot next to a vinyl house.
A trashcan in a small park.
A storage area between two detached houses.
A brand new road, speed limit sign, three-way intersection, utility pole and park appeared in my head, one after another.
Each of them were things that we had seen today. They looked familiar although I had never seen them before. It was the first time I had stepped into a town neither me nor my friends lived in, and scrutinized specific areas here and there. From this experience, I had vacant thoughts like, “So this is what the residential area here looks like,” and “This is quite different from our shopping street,” but I certainly couldn’t write such miscellaneous musings in Funado Monthly.
“In the first place…”
Hiya’s voice interrupted my thoughts, though they weren’t very important anyway.
“What is it?”
“Urino, you think that this is a serial arson attack, and it was all committed by the same person, right?”
“I don’t think I asked why you think that to be the case. I was the one who showed you the articles, but I never mentioned that they were all the handiwork of the same culprit.”
It surprised me a little that Hiya hadn’t noticed that.
…No, that wasn’t true. He’d obviously noticed it, but was trying to get me to say it aloud. I appreciated his thoughtfulness. Vocalizing that reason might help me gather my thoughts.
Let’s follow his lead, then.
I retrieved a file from my bag. It was the one that Hiya had given me, with a few memos that I’d inserted into it. The file had become quite thick.
“There’s a common point with the days of the week.”
I opened the file. Spread out on two pages was last year’s calendar.
The articles you gave me were from Saturday newspapers. The two arson attacks described both happened on Friday. Also, there is a high chance that the fire at Hamae occurred on Friday, according to Satomura. Those three cases have the common point of occurring on Friday. Or to be precise, Saturday, since they all occurred past midnight. Moreover, if you look at the calendar, they were all on the second Friday of the month.”
Hiya nodded and gave me a look, urging me to carry on.
“Furthermore, these fires are on the same scale. They burn for a short amount of time, and can be instantly extinguished. There is even the question of whether the fire in Hamae flared up at all. With these similar levels of severity – if that’s the right word for fires – I believe that they were carried out by the same culprit.
As I spoke, I noticed something niggling at the back of my mind. After some thinking, I realized what it was.
“…No, you can’t really say they’re on the same level. They escalate, if ever so slightly. The first fire was on the pile of cut grass, but it didn’t flare up. The next one was in a trashcan, and it quickly burned out. After that was the storage area. If this viewpoint that the fires are gradually escalating is correct, then perhaps it can be used as evidence that they were caused by the same person.”
“That’s good, Urino. You’re starting to really look like someone from the Newspaper Club. Anything else?”
I flipped through the file, reaching a small-scale map of the Kira City, folded into four. I brought it out and expanded it.
“This is Hamae, this is Nishimori, and this is Koyubi.”
I said, pointing at the route we’d taken today. My finger traced only the left side of the map, hardly touching the right.
“These three towns are not adjacent. Nishimori and Koyubi are next to each other, but Hamae is a little distance away. However, it is a fact that although Kira City is so big, there were only arson attacks on the western side.”
Staring at the map, Hiya grunted. He didn’t seem altogether surprised by my statements.
“That’s true. Looking at the entire city map, it does seem unexpectedly concentrated there.”
“And yesterday was the second Friday of January.”
This was proof that I hadn’t had my skin in the game. If I knew the pattern, I should have known that an arson attack would have occurred last night. However, after seeing reports of the past three cases, the thought of another one happening this month hadn’t crossed my mind.
I can’t be like this again next month. While reflecting on my actions, I pointed at the map.
“This is Akanebe. It’s in the southeastern part of the city.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s approximately in the southeast.”
“Though I’m not sure if this counts as being in the east, or whether the culprit will continue expanding from here.”
I sank back into the chair, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable.
“Neither of the the two options are definite. However, with this there is enough evidence to deduce that they were all done by the same culprit, I suppose.”
“I see. If that’s so, it would help if the next attack happens, since that would increase the amount of data we have.”
That was quite a dangerous thing I was saying… though I did mean what I said.
After that sentence, I suddenly realized something.
I’d been trying to find a common point among the four arson cases, but thinking about it, wasn’t it fine even if they weren’t connected?
For example, in mahjong, collecting three “1 Character” tiles would give you a triplet. However, you could also form a sequence by collecting “1 Character”, “2 Character” and “3 Character” tiles. Assuming that a piece of paper with the letter “A” written on it was dropped in all the crime scenes, that would be a common point. But if B was dropped after A, and C was dropped after B, that would also hold significant meaning.
The arson attacks were carried out in Hamae, Nishimori, Koyubi, Akanebe, in that order, or in those positions. Could there be any hidden meaning in that?
I stared fixedly at the map, but I wasn’t actually looking at it. Instead, I was trying to recall every single thing that I’d seen today.
I wondered what Hiya was thinking when I suddenly lapsed into silence, but all he did was nibble on some fries without saying anything. Some time passed like this, but it was interrupted by an unexpected siren coming from the direction of the station.
I raised my head to see a firetruck traveling down the crowded road outside the station, its siren ringing clamorously. On its side was the name “Ueno Town 2”. However, even an emergency vehicle couldn’t crash into other cars. The firetruck’s siren was noisy, but its path was blocked, and could only slowly inch past, bit by bit.
Hope it reaches its destination in time, I vaguely thought as I watched it move away.
It was at that moment when I was assaulted by a sudden idea.
That can’t be possible! I immediately laughed it off, but perhaps there was some merit in checking it out.
I was reading a book that night. As the clock ticked past twelve, I heard a siren. I recognized it as a firetruck siren, but was shocked, as it sounded like it was getting closer and closer. I lifted up my body, which had been lying down on the bed, and approached the window to clearly see a reddish, shimmering light. There was a fire nearby, but not so close as to concern me. At present, the siren that had gotten close was moving away.
Absentmindedly, I gazed at the flames. It was dark so I couldn’t get a grasp of the exact distance, but it looked like it was at the riverbed. There was a good running route on top of the embankments, and some unsavory folk would sometimes hang out under the railway bridge.
Was there anything that could burn there? Or did I misjudge the distance?
The siren went quiet, so I yawned, put the book down and drifted off to sleep.
I thought we’d just welcomed the new year, but before I knew it, it was already February, much to my surprise. It was a Saturday morning, and I was out taking a walk. There is nothing quite as wonderful as a morning walk to a petit bourgeois.
It was still too soon to see any hints of spring, but the light from the sun seemed warm, so I went out without my muffler. However, a few steps outside was enough to make me regret that decision, for the air was filled with an incisiveness one would expect of February. When I went to Panorama with Nakamaru-san some time ago, we’d bought matching, long mufflers, and yet I’d chosen to make myself suffer through the cold.
Then again, it wasn’t so hard to endure that I would take off my shoes and head back to my room. Furthermore, my destination wasn’t even that far. Burying my neck in my coat, I continued on.
In the first place, I didn’t know the direction last night’s siren came from, let alone the location. However, I could clearly see the flames. I’d come out first thing in the morning after filling my belly with some toast, just to be an onlooker.
In my pockets were my mobile phone, as well as a few hundred yen in small change. Earlier, when I was moving about with a particular lying girl, my savings had been cut due to tea, coffee and all kinds of cakes. Now that I was going out with Nakamaru-san, it felt like the clothing expense had drastically increased instead. Perhaps it would be wise to consider taking up a part-time job in spring.
On the way, I bought a canned coffee from a vending machine. Instead of opening it immediately, I held it under my arm in place of a disposable body warmer, stuck my hands in my pockets and trudged along. I reached the embankment in ten minutes of walking in this manner, but it was also really cold there. Not counting tributaries, there are roughly two rivers flowing through Kira City, and both of them are quite wide, a few dozen meters in width. In other words, the embankment is a wide and open area where the north winter wind freely blows through. Even the canned coffee became lukewarm in an instant.
For such a harsh environment, there was quite a crowd of people there. Some of them were just onlookers wearing some form of cold protection in their own way, but a good number of people were in uniforms. They were either police officers or firefighters, but I couldn’t tell just by looking, since I wasn’t well acquainted with uniforms. Those uniformed personnel seemed to be investigating last night’s fire.
My sense of direction was evidently not that worthless, since I was able to reach the location after just one guess. The cold would get to me if I walked too slowly, so I quickly moved towards the crowd.
“Stand back. Please stand back.”
A young officer repeatedly shouted. The onlookers looked to be making a wide enough berth to me, but… well, perhaps they didn’t like the existence of the onlookers. Anyway, I joined their ranks and looked at the center of the ring of people that had suddenly formed.
Next to me, two ageing men who seemed like they had too much free time during their day off, spoke.
“What a waste. It won’t run any more like this, huh?”
“It was abandoned anyway, wasn’t it? If only I took it for myself.”
As I thought, there was something that had been set on fire. The thing that had been burned black was a vehicle, or to be precise, a light van. Not every inch of it was charred, so I could tell that it used to be cream-colored. Its number plate also remained. A window was broken, apparently because some kindling material had been thrown in. The movies I watched would often have vehicles explode after being set on fire, but… perhaps this one had too much moisture for that to happen.
I went, “Hmm,” then moved a small distance away from the crowd. Of course, being with other people would be better at protecting me from the wind, but I had to make a phone call. I took my mobile phone out from my pocket, planning to make a call from my call history.
However, it didn’t go as planned. No matter how far I scrolled, only “Nakamaru-san Mobile” appeared on the call history. The name I wanted couldn’t be found. Come to think of it, I hardly spoke with that person on the phone. Having no other choice, I brought up the address book and made a search for “Kengo Mobile”.
It was quite early in the morning on a rest day, yet Kengo picked up within one ring.
Another curt response, as usual…
Kengo was an old acquaintance of mine. We were in the same elementary school, and during that time Kengo seemed to have formed a decisively erroneous impression of me. We went to different middle schools, but were reunited in high school. Nowadays he frequently said brazenly pushy things like, “Where did that old Kobato Jogorou go?”, even though that Kobato, this Kobato and the current me were all merely little citizens. Thanks to that conflict, I could not have the same friendship with him as I did in the past. Then again, I honestly have no memory of ever building up a friendship with Kengo in elementary school.
That said, I hadn’t completely cut all ties with him. We still sometimes talked, and went to eat tanmen occasionally. When I happened to ask a favor of Kengo, he pedaled on his bicycle at full speed, but I probably wouldn’t have to worry about that today.
“Hey, Kengo. Sorry for calling you so early in the morning.”
“It’s not that early. What is it?”
An early riser, as expected.
I could have cut to the chase, but we would be speaking later anyway, so I decided to start with a different matter.
“Sorry for the sudden call. I was just wondering what happened after the discussion the other time.”
I could feel his confusion from the other side of the call.
“Discussion? What are you talking about?”
Come to think of it, it wasn’t exactly a discussion. It was more like a word of warning or advice, I believe. In any case, I had to dredge up Kengo’s memories.
“You know, that stuff about the Newspaper Club being interfered with. You were talking about how you were called out after school and being reminded about something you didn’t even understand.”
It seemed like he’d finally remembered.
“You’re talking about Osanai, right?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
It was the end of November last year, or perhaps it was the beginning of December, when I received a rare phone call from Kengo. But I didn’t know how significant it was, since Kengo himself didn’t seem to understand what had happened either.
Osanai-san, or Osanai Yuki, had called Kengo, and said this:
“Doujima-kun, don’t write about the incident that happened during the summer holidays. I think it would be wonderful if you write about anything other than that.”
Kengo called me after that, and he seemed completely dissatisfied. Both of us clearly knew what “the incident that happened during the summer holidays” was referring to. Last year in summer, Osanai-san was embroiled in some trouble. She was pinched, had her hair pulled, and even abducted. That was what happened.
Kengo had played a part in that incident, too. Or rather, I’d dragged him in. It was understandable for Osanai-san to tell the Newspaper Club President to not write about it.
What Kengo was confused about was the situation surrounding that incident. He’d put it like this:
“There’s a guy in the club who wants to write about things happening outside our school. Of all things, he was trying to write about what happened during the summer holidays, though I stopped him by giving all sorts of reasons. And then Osanai comes along and says something like that. I never know what you’re thinking, Jougorou. But this Osanai is an even bigger mystery to me. Tell me, do you know anything? If the Newspaper Club is being played for a fool, I’ll have to think of something.”
I didn’t know a thing. Osanai-san and I had already started walking different paths, after all.
That was what I thought, anyway.
Kengo spoke on the phone.
“It’s gone in a weird direction. I told you about the guy who wanted to write about something outside our school, right? Right after I talked with you, that topic came up during the editorial meeting, and this time, I had no choice but to let it pass.”
That’s a surprise, I thought. Kengo was usually overly conscientious and inflexible. Would he really let a topic that he’d once rejected pass?
“Were there any circumstances behind that?”
“It was some other guy who brought up that topic. He gave a perfectly valid reason, and he suggested opening up a space for off-campus happenings. Alright, this is getting troublesome, so I’ll use their names. At first, it was a first-year student called Urino, but the one who brought up the idea during the December meeting was another first-year student called Itsukaichi.”
Basically, Itsukaichi-kun took Urino-kun’s idea that had been rejected after the summer vacation, raised it again in December, and it passed. Then what Osanai-san said was meant to help Itsukaichi-kun’s suggestion…
“Is there a relation between Itsukaichi-kun and Osanai-san, I wonder?”
But Kengo replied grouchily.
“But if I had to say, I think it’s more likely that it’s Urino-kun she has a connection to.”
“I said I don’t know. Aren’t you more informed than I am?”
I’m not so sure about that.
“Which of the two wrote the column in this month’s Funado Monthly? I feel like their name was there, but I can’t remember.”
At that moment, the Newspaper Club President Doujima Kengo’s voice unexpectedly broke.
“What, you actually read it?”
“Is it wrong for me to read it…”
I heard a noise that sounded like he was clearing his throat.
“No, it’s just the first time someone’s told me they’ve read it.”
What a pitiful club president. Indeed, the trashcan was often filled with copies of the school newspaper.
“Anyway, if you’re asking about this month’s column, it was Urino. He wrote about the series of arson attacks and made a prediction of the next one… No one may have been injured, but this isn’t something you write about for fun. First and foremost, it’s imprudent. I tried to stop him in the first place because I was afraid he would go off the rails like this.”
“Right, it was that kind of article. Where did he say the next attack would happen again?”
“He wrote that it would be Ritsuno or Kobiki. He didn’t seem to have any evidence for that at all, though.”
For an instance, I was at a loss. I was thinking if I should tell Kengo this: “By the way, I’m at the crime scene of an arson attack. There’s a burnt-out vehicle in front of me, and I’m pretty sure this area is called Ritsuno.”
Well, there was no need to tell him right now. There were two reasons for that. Firstly, I wanted to maintain my dignity. Secondly, my cellphone bill would become expensive if we talked for too long. I’d gathered all that I needed from the call already.
“By the way, Kengo, I actually called to request something of you.”
He was clearly on high alert, causing me to let out a wry smile. That wasn’t exactly uncalled for, since the last time I asked a favor from him, he desperately cycled to meet me, and eventually received some cuts from a knife as his reward.
“Don’t worry, it’s a really peaceful request this time. I just need you to send over one photo.”
“A photo, huh.”
After one beat, he continued.
“It’s a troubling request, as I thought. I’ll say this beforehand, but I hardly take photos.”
“How unreliable for someone supposed to be the Newspaper Club President. I know that the photos you take are clear, so please help me out. Then again, it’s about something that happened quite a while back, so I’m worried that you might have deleted that photo already.”
“Fine. Spit it out, then.”
Thus I explained what I wanted from him.
With a doubtful tone, he replied, “It might already be gone,” but I could tell that he immediately went to search for it.
I waited for a few minutes.
While I was having that phone call, I was also being bombarded by the wind flowing across the embankment. My body was now so cold that I almost couldn’t take it. That few minutes’ wait was hellish.
After pulling the tab of the canned coffee, which I couldn’t even complacently call a substitute for a body warmer, I drank the sweet beverage in one gulp. It had cooled quite significantly, so it didn’t warm up my body as much as I’d liked it to. Just as I willed myself to finish my business before heading straight home, the awaited email finally arrived.
While Kengo might seem to have a rough personality, he properly saved important things. What he sent over was unmistakably the photo I wanted.
It was a photograph of a vehicle. More specifically, a cream-colored light van. Its number plate was also clearly depicted, with its number readable, so I memorized that.
I then stuffed my phone back into its pocket, then slipped into the crowd while putting on a nonchalant face and humming a tune. I was now looking at the scene of the arson.
Stretching my neck and straining my eyes, I looked at the number of the burnt vehicle.
I unexpectedly let out a sound.
It was exactly the same as the number I’d just committed to memory.
The photo that Kengo sent was one that he’d taken last year, during the summer holidays, at the South Municipal Gymnasium. It was the vehicle that had been used in the abduction of Osanai-san, and Kengo had taken a photograph of it as evidence for posterity.
The juvenile trial had already ended, and the girls involved in the abduction had been taken into custody. That case should have already ended.
But now right in front of me was the vehicle that had been used in that case, except that it was now blackened…
Once again, I made a sound as I was deep in thought.
But hemming and hawing here wouldn’t do me any good, and on top of that, it was still frightfully frigid, so I turned back, lest I catch a cold.
Ah, what a wonderful morning walk this has been! As a little citizen who puts health as his number one priority, perhaps I should make a habit of doing this every week. I’ll think about it when the weather gets warmer.
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher
Assistants (Tier 1) : Definitelynotme, Rolando Sanchez
Thank you very much for all yo
- Yuki as a name often carries the meaning of “snow”.
- The change in frequency of a wave in relation to an observer who is moving relative to the wave source. Basically, this means that a car engine or siren will sound higher in pitch when it is approaching than when it is receding.
- A simple Japanese singing game that is played on cold days in order to get warm, in which the players gather around in a circle, as close to each other as possible, stand back to back facing the outside, then powerfully shove backwards, pressing their backs towards other players’ backs as they chant “Oshikura Manju osarete nakuna”, meaning “Oshikura Manju don’t cry when shoved”.
- Literally meaning “snow sandals”, setta are zori (see following footnote) that have a leather sole and metal rivets added to the sole.
- Thonged Japanese sandals, usually worn with a kimono.
- A flame that is still in its beginning stage, and can be extinguished or controlled by portable firefighting equipment.
- Refers to the National Center Test for University Admissions, a type of standardized test used by public and some private universities. However, most national universities have a secondary exam that applicants need to take as well, which is what the phrase “real deal” is referring to.
- Refers to Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, the national group of 694 regional co-ops in Japan that supply members with input for production, undertake packaging, transportation, and marketing of agricultural products, and provide financial services.
- Errata: I always considered Kira as a town because it didn’t seem very big and populated, but in this sentence the words for “city” and “town” show up together, so Kira is clearly considered a city in this universe.