Authors: Yukito Ayatsuji
“You feeling nervous about something? You keep going all shifty-eyed.”
“Did those notes I brought you in the hospital help?”
Oh, yeah. They were great.
“You want a quick tour around the school during lunch? You’re gonna have a ton of problems if you don’t know where stuff is.”
The student who made this offer was a boy named Teshigawara. There was a rule that the students wear name tags during school, so I could tell people’s names at a glance without needing introductions. He seemed to be good friends with Tomohiko Kazami, and Teshigawara had come over with him to talk to me.
“Yeah, definitely. Thanks,” I replied, then glanced casually back over at Mei Misaki’s desk. The next class was going to be starting soon, but she still wasn’t there. Although…
It was at this point that I realized a bizarre fact.
Her desk, the farthest seat back in the row next to the windows facing the schoolyard, was the only one unlike all the other desks in the room. It was incredibly old.
I blunted my hunger in a quick blitz at lunchtime.
There were a lot of all-boy groups and all-girl groups who pushed their desks together for lunch, but I couldn’t quite work myself up to shoving my way in among them, so I bolted down the lunch my grandmother had given me with the speed of an eating contest.
When I stopped to think about it, I realized this was my first time ever eating a homemade lunch at school. I’d eaten school lunches at my old school, and even when there was some event like a field trip or field day, it had been a foregone conclusion that my lunch would be bought from a convenience store. It was like that all through elementary school, too. Never once had my dad gotten the genius idea that it would be nice to cook something for his motherless son every now and then.
And so it was that my grandmother’s homemade lunch
Thank you, Grandma. It tasted amazing. As always, I was mentally bowing my head over the emptied lunch box, infusing the gesture with my immense gratitude.
Wait a minute. I looked around the room.
Where was Mei Misaki?
How was she spending her lunch?
A voice called out from behind me without warning.
At the same moment, someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder and I tensed more defensively than I had all that day. For no concrete reason, I had convinced myself,
So it’s finally happening?
and I turned around
ready for it
Teshigawara was standing there. Kazami was beside him. And there was no discernible malice on their faces. Late though I was to realize it, I couldn’t help feeling exasperated at my oversensitivity.
“Like we promised,” Teshigawara said. “The tour of the school.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
My true feelings on the matter, kind of cynically, were that they didn’t need to go to all the trouble of giving me a tour. I could just ask where something was whenever I needed to get there. But, okay, I couldn’t insult the kindness of my new classmates. This is the time to keep a lid on it and not act like a martyr…
The three of us all stood up and left the room belonging to third-year Class 3.
Kazami and Teshigawara were, even at a glance, an odd combo.
In contrast to the dead-serious class representative-y Kazami, Teshigawara was a lighthearted character, though the last name he bore sounded very grand and historical. His hair was bleached brown and the top two or three buttons of his uniform were undone. But despite his outward appearance, surprisingly he didn’t have a delinquent slouch.
When I asked, they told me they had been in the same class since their third year in elementary school. Their families also lived really close to each other.
“When we were kids, we hung out and would get into all kinds of trouble. But then this punk had to go and turn all honor-roll-esque and never just wing it with something…”
Teshigawara was grinning all through this disparagement, but Kazami didn’t offer any particular protest. Teshigawara even said they’d be better off without each other, but seriously, doesn’t that sentiment usually go in the opposite direction? So the conversation went until I found myself starting to enjoy it, too.
I’ve never been very good at dealing with people like Teshigawara, who come at you as if you’ve been friends your whole life. Though it’s not as if I felt a driving affinity for “honor-roll-esque” guys like Kazami, either. But, well, I had decided not to reveal those preferences if I could help it.
When my dad came back to Japan next spring, I would go right back to Tokyo. Until then, I wanted to maintain good relations with everyone at this school if I could. That was my top priority for my life in Yomiyama.
“Hey, Sakakibara, d’you believe in ghosts or curses or whatever? Is that your thing?”
Out of the blue, he came at me with a question like that. I tipped my head to one side and replied, “Uh…?”
“Come on, like, you know…”
“You mean…ghosts? Curses?”
“What about so-called paranormal phenomena, generally?” Kazami cut in. “I don’t just mean spectral phenomena, either. It could be UFOs or superpowers or the predictions of Nostradamus, too. Do you think there are real, mysterious phenomena out there that can’t be explained by modern science?”
“I mean, when you hit me with a question like that, I…”
I looked over at Kazami, and his expression was uncomfortably serious.
“I guess, at a basic level, I try not to take stuff like that seriously.”
“None of it? Ever?”
“Well, let me think. Stuff that’s on a level with ‘the Seven Mysteries of the school,’ at least, I’d say never.”
I had no idea how the conversation had made this sudden turn, but I had a strong feeling they were gearing up to tell me those stories. I thought I’d called it and beat them to the punch.
“I’ve already heard the story about the mass demise of rabbits and marmots.”
“Have you heard about ‘the hand in the lotus pond’?”
Teshigawara was the one to ask me that.
“Ha, you guys have a story like that, too, huh?”
“It’s that pond right there, man.”
Teshigawara extended a hand and pointed. A slight distance away I could see a small, square pond circled by concrete.
We came out of the three-story iron-ribbed school building that housed our classroom and walked down a path in the courtyard.
There was a school building of a similar size on the other side of the yard, which was Building B.
The building we’d come out of was Building C. Each of the structures was connected to Building A—the main building, with the teachers’ offices and the principal’s office—by a covered walkway. Past that, right next door, was a building called the Special Classes Building. This building, also abbreviated as Building S, was, as its name implies, where the special classrooms like the home ec room and the music room were.
And the pond Teshigawara was pointing at was a slight distance from the yard. We went as far as the entrance to Building A, then walked down the path away from it.
“They say that a human hand comes out of that pond, all wrapped in lotus leaves. Sometimes covered in blood.”
Teshigawara told the story in a menacing voice, but all I could think was,
. Besides, he said it was a lotus pond, but when we got closer and I could see, it looked as if it was actually water lilies growing there, not lotuses.
“Well, let’s leave the ‘Seven Mysteries’ for another time,” Kazami offered. “I wonder, Sakakibara. There are so many kinds of paranormal phenomena. Do you categorically deny them all?”
“Well, that’s true,” I murmured, casting a sidelong glance at the surface of the pond, covered in round lily leaves. “The word UFO means an ‘unidentified flying object,’ so in that sense they exist. Whether or not they’re flying saucers driven by aliens is a separate issue. As for superpowers, those people they show you on TV or in magazines are phonies, one hundred percent. When you see stuff like that, don’t you think that actually makes it harder to believe?”
Kazami and Teshigawara looked at each other, both wearing troubled expressions.
“Nostradamus’s predictions about what ‘the prince of darkness’ may or may not do is a story for next year. If we just wait a year and a couple more months, we should find out if he’s for real or not, even if we don’t want to…So? Do you guys think he’ll be right?”
When I asked the question, Kazami cocked his head ambiguously. “Who knows?”
On the other hand, Teshigawara replied, “I pretty much buy it, actually,” and twisted one corner of his mouth in a contrived smirk. “So since the world is gonna end in the summer of 1999, it’d be stupid to get myself all worked up over tests and whatever. Doing what I enjoy while I still can, that’s the way to go.”
I was having trouble telling exactly how serious he was, but what with all the fuss over the Aum Shinrikyo group, our generation had a surprisingly large number of “true believers” in this event. I’d seen data about that somewhere.
They’re not giving it any deep thought; they’re just using a prediction about destruction as a reason to avoid personal issues that are staring them in the face in the here and now. I don’t remember when it was, but my dad had instantly pointed out this interpretation after hearing about the attack, and I pretty much agreed with him.
“Getting back on track…”
When we’d gone past the lily pond and were heading toward the back of Building B, Teshigawara spoke up.
“You don’t believe in ghosts or curses or stuff like that then, do you?”
“Yeah, I guess not.”
“Do you feel like something could happen that would make you believe?”
“I mean, if something like that popped up right in front of me, and it had proof that it was a ghost and shoved it in my face, I guess I’d start to believe in it.”
“Heh. Proof, huh?”
“Proof, is it?”
That last was Kazami. He pushed the bridge of his silver-rimmed glasses back up his nose with a furrowed brow.
God, what now?
What were these two trying to get at? I was starting to get kind of a bad feeling about them after all and my pace quickened.
“What’s that?” I turned back around to look at them, pointing at a building that had come into view just then on the other side of Building B. “Is that another school building?”
“That’s Building Zero. That’s what everyone calls it,” Kazami answered.
“Because it’s so old. Until about ten years ago, the third-year classes were in there. There are a lot of reasons they stopped using it, but…the number of students dropped, so the number of classes dropped, too. Apparently Building A and all the others got their names later on, so that’s why people call the old building Building Zero…”
That “old building” certainly did look older than any of the other buildings I’d seen on campus today.
It was a two-story structure of massive red bricks. But the bricks in its walls were incredibly faded and, after a closer look, I saw that cracks had formed in places. All the windows to the original classrooms that marched around the second floor were shut tight. In places, boards had been put up, probably to replace broken glass.
Given the turn of the conversation up till now, this struck me as a perfect spot to generate fodder for whispered rumors of the supernatural, about ghosts or spirits or the “Seven Mysteries.”
“So it’s not being used for anything now?” I asked, taking a careful step forward.
“Not as regular classrooms, anyway,” Kazami replied as he walked beside me. “The second floor is as good as abandoned, so no one’s allowed up there. The secondary library and art room are on the first floor, and the culture club.”
“You guys have a secondary library?”
“Hardly anyone uses it. Usually everyone goes to the main library in Building A. I’ve only ever been in there once.”
“What kind of books do they have there?”
“Documents about local history and antique books that alums have donated. It’s got a truly remarkable number of things like that, apparently. It’s more like a storage room for books than a library.”
I wouldn’t mind taking a look at least once. My interest was piqued.
“This school has an art club, right?” I asked, having a sudden thought.
After a dragging delay, Kazami answered, “Yeah. Now we do.”
“‘Now you do’? What does that mean?”
“Extracurricular activities were suspended last year. They started up again in April.”
Teshigawara was the one who replied.
“Just FYI, the lovely Ms. Mikami is the sponsor. If I had any talent in that area, I’d be swearing how much I wanted in on the club, too. You gonna join or something, Sakakibara?”
I stopped walking and turned back to look at the bleached bobble-head, then shrugged my shoulders rather exaggeratedly. Teshigawara didn’t seem to take it badly, his eyes flashing with a grin.
I’d started walking again when Teshigawara spoke, as if trying to pull me back.
“There’s actually something we—”
But just then, I let out a surprised “Oh!” which served to interrupt whatever Teshigawara had been about to say. The sound had escaped me after an inadvertent tightening of my throat.
Magnificent flowerbeds had been set up in the yard between Building Zero and Building B, where we were headed. A few among them were resplendent with yellow roses in bloom. And just then, beyond the clusters of flowers bobbing in the placid spring breeze, I saw her—Mei Misaki.
Without a second to spare for thought, I started heading straight toward her.
“What are you doing, Sakakibara?”
I heard the dismayed tone in Teshigawara’s and Kazami’s voices, but I ignored it. I hurried over, and even broke into a slight jog.
Mei Misaki—she was by herself, sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree on the far side of a flowerbed. There was no one else in sight.
“H-hey there,” I called out to her.