1. Present: 1.4 km; 18.6 km Remaining
Even though the entire width of the road was covered in brand-new asphalt, there was hardly a passing car in sight. On all sides of me were Kamiyama High School students wearing gym clothes. It was almost like the roads that went through the mountainous area behind the high school were expressly built for the sake of the Hoshigaya Cup. Ibara was probably going to be coming up soon from the back. Before that happened, I wanted to make sure I clearly remembered all of the events that took place during the new-student recruitment week.
The time between when a class started to run and when the next class started after them was usually around three minutes. I was in Class A and Ibara was in Class C, so that meant I had started around six minutes before she did.
For the first kilometer, I had matched my pace with that of those around me. Once I had reached the uphill slope, Satoshi caught up with me, and I slowed down a little bit. On average, I should have been running at around the pace of a slow jog.
I once heard that a person’s casual walking speed was roughly 4 kph. Running would normally double that, and so on. I remember reading a book in which the characters were punished if they started to walk slower than 4 mph.1 Unfortunately, the exact conversion from kilometers to miles was hazy at best in my head, so I couldn’t use that as a reference. Anyways, let’s just assume that it was somewhere in-between a stroll and a fast run. 6 kph. Ibara was probably running more earnestly than the average, so I decided on 7 kph. From there, I had to figure out how many kilometers were between me and Ibara, who had started six minutes prior. That meant the answer was…
The answer was…
Multiplications and divisions ran in circles inside my head. My grades in math weren’t bad, and the calculations weren’t all that extreme in this case. It’s just that doing all of the math in your head and doing it with pen and paper required different skills altogether. Add to that the fact that I was running, and my head just couldn’t function like it usually could. Taking time while I was trying to figure out the answer was unavoidable. As I made excuses one after another, I kneaded the all the distances, times, and speeds into the formula in my head.
Let’s see. In around one minute, one would probably travel about 17 meters or so. She would catch up to me at around 4.1 km from the start then. That meant that the approximate distance between us was… Well, she probably wasn’t that far back anyways.
Even though I didn’t have enough time nor distance in the first place, in order to calculate how much of each I had left, I ended up using more of both in the process. Talk about lacking foresight. I had two possible ways to reclaim the lost time and distance.
The first one was to try running a bit more seriously.
And my second option was to try remembering what happened that day all the more quickly.
That day, if I recall correctly, was a day just like this one. I remember the skies were clear.
It was certainly colder, however.
2. Past: 42 Days Ago
The Friday that fell on the very last day of the new-student recruitment week was often called the New Recruit Festival. It was apparently called this not because anyone in particular named it such, but because it was simply more convenient to say.
The new-student recruitment itself, however, lasted all throughout the entire week.
From Monday onward, the new students gathered in the gymnasium after school and sat through several orientations. On Monday was the student council’s presentation. After that came the important school committees. From Tuesday on, the various clubs took turns getting up on stage to show the various first-years just how fantastic they were. Anyways, there were a considerable number of groups, so the orientations were held over a period of four days.
The same sort of thing happened last year as well, but I wasn’t interested in being solicited, so I left early. Now that I’m on the soliciting side this year, however, I should probably do at least a little enemy reconnaissance. On Tuesday, Chitanda grabbed me and we did a little spying in the gym.
Each group was allotted five minutes to present. In that time, the Theater Club put on a skit, the Clothing Research Society put on a fashion show, the Choir and Acapella clubs showcased the musical differences between the two of them, and the Track & Field Club brought in a mat to demonstrate running high jumps.
There were also clubs clearly at a disadvantage. Not only did the Divination Research Society have only a single member, that one member didn’t like appearing in front of people. With a quiet voice, she gave a brief explanation on the history of the Kabbalah and then quickly put down the mic and left. The Cooking Research Society similarly had their own troubles. It’s not like you can instantly start preparing something the second you get on the stage. All they could do was tell the first-years to come visit them at their table during the end-of-the-week New Recruit Festival where they would treat everyone to their wild plant cooking. The Go Club played a game for the audience, but it was a failure in every sense of the word. They didn’t have a large demonstration board, so the audience couldn’t even see where they were placing the stones. It would have been fine if they had someone reading the moves out loud, but apparently there were only two people in the club. It was like time had frozen in place, and I desperately wanted to run away.
But this wasn’t the time nor place to be feeling sorry for the Go Club. Five minutes was an unexpectedly long amount of time.
The Classics Club was scheduled to present on Thursday. Because they were still sorting things out after becoming second-years, Satoshi and Ibara were often busy, so they didn’t show up to the clubroom for the most part. On Wednesday, however, everyone happened to be gathered.
“What are we doing?”
Within my question was not only me wondering how we should fill our five minute timeslot, but me wondering if we were even capable of doing something like that in the first place.
“For now, let’s just do our best,” responded Ibara with a voice clearly suggesting she wasn’t going to.
“I agree, let’s do our best,” I retorted in like.
As I said this, however, she replied, “Doing what?”
How would I know? You were the one that said it first.
“Well as it goes, I’m the club president, so technically speaking I should probably be the one to give a speech that explains what makes the Classics Club attractive, but…”
Chitanda was also being evasive. Judging by the way she hesitated while saying that sentence, she was, without a doubt, unable to think of any attractive points. That wasn’t all.
“Chitanda, even if you were to go onstage to try to sell up the Classics Club, I don’t think anyone would come.”
“Are you serious? Try looking in a mirror next time you say something like that.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Chitanda to the hostile Ibara. “I know I’m not good at asking people for favors.”
Chitanda had a strong will and limitless amounts of sincerity, but on the other hand, because that will of hers was so one-sided, she didn’t have it in her to use cunning tricks. If we had the materials needed to convince them, Chitanda’s way of doing things might’ve worked, but unfortunately, there was nothing up our sleeves.
That being said, Ibara was right about me not being any better. If I were the one pushed out to face the first-years, I would almost certainly just end up saying something along the lines of “We don’t really do anything, but we do have a clubroom, so it’d be nice if you could stop by.”
I had reservations about getting Ibara to do it, however.
“I don’t think you’d be bad at it, Chi-chan. If it were me doing it, I’d probably end up saying something I’d regret.”
It appears the girl in question also understood this.
At this point, there was only one person left.
Satoshi showed a troubled look on his face, but his eyes were clearly smiling.
“I wonder if I’m really the right person for the job. If there are no other suggestions and you absolutely need me, though, I guess I could do it to kill some time.”
With that, it became Satoshi’s time to shine.
“If everyone is happy with our Thursday plans, you guys should start deciding on what you’re going to do on Friday. After all, if you plan on using fire or gas, you’ll need to turn in a request form by tomorrow.”
Satoshi said this in his official General Committee voice and then stood up. I wouldn’t learn that he had been chosen as the General Committee vice president and was busy as a result of that until later on.
And then came Thursday after school. Satoshi Fukube stood on the gym stage as the sole Classics Club representative and let loose a variety of clever, apt one-liners, like “On the way here, I heard a lot of sawing noises coming from the Construction Club, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see a thing. Classics Club, everyone.” His appropriate humor invited a good number of laughs from the first-years, and his flawlessly delivered speech wrapped up perfectly in four minutes and thirty seconds. He received a sparse applause and then exited the stage as the Abacus Calculation Club came on next.2
Even now, I admired my old friend’s remarkable gift.
After all, Satoshi’s speech had almost nothing to do with the actual Classics Club. Even though there was nothing to talk about, he splendidly filled the desired timeslot. That in itself was a spectacular ability, and one that I could never hope to imitate.
Finally, Friday rolled around. The sky was very clear.
In front of the Kamiyama High School building, in the garden or roundabout (or whatever you called it), there were several spaces dotted with shrubs. During lunch break, each of the clubs and committees had set up tables there. Because of the scattered bushes, the tables couldn’t be set up in a straight line, and as a result, the tables on both sides curved around in any number of offshoots.
I was the one who set up the table for the Classics Club. Satoshi was busy with General Committee work, and as much as I believed in my motto, “if I don’t need to do something, I won’t,” I didn’t feel right pushing all of the manual labor onto Ibara and Chitanda. I carried out the table and folding chairs and then lunch break ended. During the afternoon classes, I was able to see the venue I set up from the window, and the dozens of tables lined up next to each other made the front gardens seem something like mysterious maze.
Before the bell that signaled classes were over chimed, my class, 2-A, started becoming restless. I heard various whispers coming from all directions.
“How are the preparations going?”
“Before anything else, we have to start with this.”
…and other things of that nature. A particularly hasty student put on an armband reading “Certain Victory!” while he was still in the class. Another one placed a stuffed bear on his desk. I couldn’t even begin to guess what clubs these people where in, but I did understand the rush. If you were too late to catch the first-years before they left, all of that preparation would have been for nothing. A running start was crucial.
The bell rang, and classes ended. All of my classmates immediately flew out the door like a cascading avalanche. Most likely, this scene was the same in all of the second and third-year classrooms. Although a little reluctant, I ended up joining the end of the avalanche anyways.
The garden that was at one point solely occupied by a line of empty tables was now overwhelmingly packed with various posters, sign, and handouts. Even at a quick glance, I could see things like:
“Visit the Chemistry Club! May our future relations combust!”
“Willing to bet your youth? Damn straight! The Basketball Club is for you!”
“Enjoy creating it, and then have fun wearing it! Clothing Research Society.”
“The Han Dynasty hath fallen, and the History Research Club shall be joineth!”3
“One more person and we’ll have eleven! Join the Soccer Club.”
The Cheering Squad held a group flag, the Cheerleading Club formed a large circle, the smell of black tea began to waft from the Confectionery Research Society, the Tea Ceremony Club had diligently laid out an outdoor mat, and there was a large gathering of people with headbands who, if I remembered correctly, were part of the Broadcasting Club. Not even ten minutes had passed since the school bell rang, yet already this much pandemonium had broken loose.
All of this had started at 3:30, and it was scheduled to be completely taken down once it reached 6:00. This roughly two-hour long madness was commonly known as the New Recruit Festival. The fact that the “recruit” in the name didn’t mean “warmly invite” but rather “solicit by any means necessary” was something very typical of this school, indeed.
Most clubs had a single standard table, but depending on member count, popularity, and some invisible political element, there were other clubs that had one of the several large ones. Of course, it was decided beforehand which clubs would get them. The Classics Club had the number 17 table, and as I wandered around, searching for it, Chitanda called out to me, “Oreki-san, over here.”
I wasn’t expecting anything much, and as if to confirm that, our table was placed in a small corner of the venue. On it was placed a small cardboard sign reading “Classics Club.” While the writing was elegant, it also felt unreservedly warm. Without a sign, no one would be able to tell what kind of club we were trying to get them to join, but we hadn’t mentioned doing this kind of preparation. Possibly reading my expression, Chitanda gave a slightly conflicted laugh.
“I put it together during lunch break. I probably should have made it a bit cuter, but I didn’t think of that at the time.”
That meant this was Chitanda’s handwriting. I had assumed she would write in a more textbook fashion, but her brushwork was surprisingly carefree. Just as she had mentioned, however, it wasn’t cute in the slightest. It might’ve been nice if Ibara had drawn a little figure on it, but hindsight’s 20/20.
Chitanda wore a black coat as she sat on the folding chair. The front wasn’t buttoned, so her white sweater and tie peeked through. I was also wearing a white trench coat. There was plenty of burning passion in the air around us, but even then, it was still abnormally cold for April. Looking around, almost all of the recruiters and recruitees wore thick coats.
Next to the Classics Club were the Ink Painting and Karuta clubs. Each of them had only a single person stationed at their tables. I said some vague greetings, and squeezed through. I then sat next to Chitanda, directly behind the “Classics Club” sign.
Satoshi wouldn’t be coming this time. He was busy with General Committee work, so there was nothing he could do. Then Chitanda spoke up.
“I guess Mayaka-san won’t be coming after all.”
“I think so, but she may not be working at their booth.”
I remained quiet and nodded. I heard that Ibara’s position in the Manga Research Society had become somewhat delicate. It was probably becoming difficult for her to even look the most of them in the face. At any rate, we’d run into some problems if Ibara decided to show up. Although it seemed pretty big when I was carrying it earlier, looking at it now, the table we got wasn’t nearly as big as the larger ones.
In other words, it was really small.
With just the two of us sitting side-by-side, it was already getting cramped. Had Chitanda been a little more considerate in moving to give me some breathing room, I would have been quite comfortable, but unfortunately, she had a peculiar understanding regarding personal space, so the fact that we were close enough for our shoulders to be touching didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.
I took a small breath. Let’s just play it cool. I wasn’t the only one pressed for room. Just in my field of vision, for example, I could already see the Photography Club and Global Act Club squeezed far too closely together, and we all had to start advertising our club whilst buried in this mess.
At any rate, I had to start doing something to catch the attention of the passing first-years.
With interested expressions that were still clearly intimidated by the presence of their seniors and faces that still betrayed their middle-school roots, the first-years started to trickle in, little by little. It that moment, you could almost hear the sound of people licking their lips, waiting in anticipation for their prey. Fake, luring smiles filled the New Recruit Festival grounds.
The Classics Club couldn’t afford to lose either. Now, come on up, ladies and gentlemen. Come forward, anyone with a little time to spare. If you would like to join the fantastic Classics Club, the reception table is right over here.
After five minutes, I became bored.
No one was even stopping at our table.
“I know I said I was going to catch us some first-years, but what am I supposed to do?” I grumbled as I stared at the new students passing by. Chitanda sat upright, her hands resting on her thighs, and without looking at me she responded.
“If only we had some birdlime, this would be simple.”4
I knew roughly what birdlime was, but I had never seen it before. It basically does what a bird net does, right?
“Wouldn’t a bird net be more efficient?”
“Possibly, but it’s illegal.”
“I don’t think anyone will find out.”
“Oreki-san, are you the kind of person that ignores a red signal in the middle of the night?”
“I’m the kind of person that doesn’t go out on walks in the middle of the night, period.”
The conversation was so unproductive that it put even me in a miserable mood.
“You strike me as the type that would stop.”
“There are no traffic signals where I take my midnight strolls.”
It was so incredibly unproductive.
I assumed something like this would happen, so I took out the book hidden in my coat pocket. I started reading the short story collection, and then spoke to Chitanda who continued to face forward exactly as a receptionist might.
“We have nothing to do, so I’m going to be reading.”
As I said this, Chitanda finally turned to face me, and with a soft smile she said, “That won’t do.”
“But no one’s coming.”
“That won’t do. Please just sit here quietly.”
Understood. I returned the book to my pocket. Thinking about it, if I were reading a book on the side like I had no interest in the festival, I guess new students would find it difficult to approach the table. On the other hand, if I were to do nothing but sit like this until the evening, I would only get colder and colder. I placed my hands behind my head.
Chitanda also looked like she had way too much time on her hands. No matter how strong her sense of responsibility was, she wasn’t an inanimate object. We should probably just pack up and leave if nothing continues to happen. She turned her head to the side and seemed to be watching an excited student from another club with interest.
People continued to flow by. For some reason, as I watched this happen, I suddenly spoke up. “Cursed spots really do exist.”
“Yes, they do.”
She replied immediately. I didn’t know how to respond.
A little while later, Chitanda turned to me and tilted her head. “That’s not what you were talking about?”
What exactly was ‘that’ referring to? I decided to not think about it too hard and leaned back into my folding chair.
“You know what I mean. In areas like shopping districts and roadside malls, you have that one place where the stores constantly go out of business and are quickly replaced, even though the location doesn’t seem that bad. Whenever you look at it, there’s a new shop there, and no matter what kind of shop it is, it never gets any business. I was just thinking that spots like those really existed.”
“Oh, I see. A place that’s constantly changing ownership. It’s mysterious, but once they change the sign, I can never seem to remember what kind of shop it was previously.”
“That’s true, isn’t it? When it becomes a vacant lot, you end up even forgetting if there was a shop there in the first place.”
Chitanda nodded and her expression begged me to continue. I wanted to avoid her eyes so I slightly averted my face. As if to bring attention away from that, I lightly tapped the table with the back of my hand.
“I’m getting the same vibes here.”
“You mean in this location?”
One section of the row of tables was placed in an area surrounded by ring of hedges. According to the General Committee’s official statement, the Classics Club was to be one of the clubs stationed in that clearing. I had been keeping a close eye on the route that the students had been taking, however, and things weren’t looking good.
When the first-years enter the ring, their backs are turned to us. If students weren’t interested in what was going on and decided to continue through to the school gates, they wouldn’t ever see us. However, if they were curious, if even for a little bit, and they decided to look around, they would naturally end up directly in front of our table. Judging solely by the flow of traffic, this spot shouldn’t be bad at all.
And yet, for some reason, none of the first-years were even so much as stopping in front of it. They wouldn’t even look at Chitanda’s handwritten Classics Club sign.
“Doesn’t it feel like people are finding it hard to stop walking around here for some reason?”
As Chitanda watched the group passing in front of us, she slowly responded, “I think the biggest problem is that we aren’t calling out to them.”
Loud voices from every club were flying across each other in the air all throughout the front gardens.
“Hey, you look like a quiz kind of guy. I bet you’re searching for a quiz even as we speak. I feel you. Well then, first question!”
“We also host English debates. Your English grade will certainly rise; it normally does.”
“No no, I’ll start from the rules. It’s easy if you memorize them. If you just pay attention to where “gold” and “silver” are, you’ll be fine!”5
“Are you bad at cooking? It’s fine if you are, because you’ll only get better in the Cooking Society. Come to our clubroom now, and we’ll show you some cooking right away!”
“Astronomy Club, Astronomy club over here! Do you like stars? Love planets? Although technically we can’t see them right now…”
I had only just realized it, but even the singularly-manned Ink Painting Club and Karuta Club were calling out to the passing students.
Certainly enough, staying quiet and then complaining that “no one was stopping” seemed pretty irrational.
However, Chitanda then said, “Although, with ‘that’ right in front of us, it does seem a little unfair.”
While saying this, she indicated what she was talking about with her eyes.
“That” was putting on a huge exhibition in front of the students passing along the path. A large banner read “Ready for Tea Time.” It was an exquisite banner with cat and panda mascots embroidered on it with beads. A black tea fragrance wafted from it. On the table were a Thermos, two stacks of paper cups, a club entry form, and a pen. On one end of the table were also a tabletop gas stove and a golden kettle, the type that a sports team might drink from during a match. The shining kettle looked as if it could carry an impressive 10 liters. At the moment, the stove wasn’t turned on.
And the thing that stood out the most was the pumpkin on the opposite side from the gas stove. This utterly massive thing had eyes and a mouth carved into it to turn it into a Halloween decoration. Did Halloween take place in April?
In the center behind the table were two girls. Both of them wore only aprons over their school uniforms. Even though that was the case, they were so enthusiastic that it seemed like even the cold hadn’t reached them. Sandwiched in-between the pumpkin and gas stove, they vigorously waved their arms around.
“Come and have a bite. Cookies you’ll be sure to love! Great, here you go!”
“The thing is, we put a mysterious concoction inside these cookies. Now you’ve fallen into our trap. You want to join the club now. See, you really want to join. You want to join so badly that you can’t stand it anymore. The registration sheet is right over here.”
“Yes, this is that kind of cookie. I’d be bad if it got stuck in your throat, so drink some of this here black tea.”
As she said this, she picked up the Thermos and poured the tea into a paper cup.
“Hey you, you over there. You look like the type who loves cookies!”
“Ah, you’re right! He does have a face perfectly suited towards eating cookies. Now eat up. It doesn’t matter why, just eat it!”
Somehow I felt like I’d met those two before. What was it, I wonder. I don’t think I’ve seen their faces before.
It seemed like they had a lot of cookies prepared. They were giving them out one after another. I didn’t know whether or not their plan was actually succeeding in getting people to sign up, but they were certainly getting a lot of students to stop.
“The Confectionery Research Society, huh?”
“Yes, one can’t help but look over there, completely forgetting about the Classics Club.”
Using food to lure the new students in, what a dastardly pair. At any rate, those who would let their hearts be stolen over something like a cookie were likely frivolous people anyways. They wouldn’t make good additions to the Classics Club. As I was playing around in my head with these baseless accusations and feelings of superiority, I noticed Chitanda seemed a bit strange next to me. She was staring intently at the busy Confectionery Research Society table without so much as twitching.
No way… I called to her with fear in my voice.
“Huh… oh, what is it?”
The startled Chitanda turned towards me, and I asked her a question.
“Is it possible…”
“…you want a cookie?”
Chitanda thought a bit and then replied with an earnest expression.
“If I said no, I would be lying.”
“It’s fine if you go and get one.”
“Thank you very much, but I can’t. We have other priorities.” Once again, she turned her head to stare at the Confectionery Research Society. “Isn’t there something strange going on over there?”
Caught in her trap, I ended up looking once more myself. The energetic duo. The Thermos, paper cups, and club entry sheet. The tabletop gas stove, pumpkin, and cookies.
…Well, I certainly couldn’t deny that there were strange things going on with their choices in presentation. The strangest thing there was probably how lively the two were.
Other than that, there were a couple other weird things.
“I guess you’re right. It is odd.”
I was careless to let that slip out. Chitanda suddenly turned towards me. Because the table was so small, when she did, she was so close that I immediately pulled back without thinking.
“Really? Which parts are odd?”
“What do you mean ‘which parts’? You were the one that said it first, weren’t you? It just is.”
Or perhaps she was playing some sort of high-level mind game with me, saying that “it was strange in a way that only the Confectionery Research Club could be.”6
Chitanda casted a sidelong glance at the commotion surrounding the cookie distribution and then whispered something in response.
“I know, but the thing is, for a while now, I can’t help but feel like something is amiss. It’s so frustrating.”
“Oh, that’s probably just…”
I stopped speaking and swallowed the words before they came out.
“Please don’t tell me yet. I’m still trying to figure out the answer. Yes, I feel like I understand it somewhat.”
I’ve been asked plenty of times to give an answer, but this was my first time being told the opposite. While I was considering how rare this was, I stared at the side of Chitanda’s close face as she in turn stared at the Confectionery Society.
At last, she looked resolute.
“It’s the pumpkin. I have a feeling that the pumpkin is off.”
The orange pumpkin had two triangular eyes and a jagged mouth cut into it. No matter how you looked at it, it was your standard, run-of-the-mill Jack O’Lantern, but I could understand why it might have attracted one’s eyes to such an extent.
Chitanda, however, pursued a different line of thought.
“Goods along those lines aren’t authorized in Japan… No, that’s wrong. That’s just a normal variety of pumpkin seed.”
“Is that so?”
“Pumpkins are grown in the fall, but I guess if they were stored properly, it wouldn’t be strange that they didn’t rot.”
“They aren’t being widely sold as a commercial crop yet. I don’t think there are any farming families growing them in Kamiyama City.”
“But you can buy them normally at the supermarket. Is it domestically-produced? Or perhaps it’s an imported variety.”
“Why are you looking at it from an agricultural perspective!?”
That part wasn’t the problem. As she continued to miss the point so splendidly every time, I began to feel like remaining silent was an evil deed in itself.
Chitanda whispered a couple more things to herself, but finally let out a small sigh.
“I guess everything up until now was wrong. I have no idea. I give up. Why am I so curious about that pumpkin?”
She became bashful, as if apologizing for her previous obstinacy.
Normally I would have thought this kind of thing was a nuisance.
After all, Chitanda’s limitless curiosity had brought about a similarly limitless number of nuisances to not only the Classics Club, but to this energy-saving advocate right here as well. Rationally speaking, even had I not resolved a large majority of these, it’s not like I would be any worse off than I was now, and yet, even I didn’t really understand why I ended up sticking around all the way to the end in most of these cases. I think Chitanda’s large eyes were to blame.
However today, as Chitanda said she was curious at that moment in this very spot, I didn’t find it all that annoying. After all, sitting behind this table, I wasn’t allowed to read a book nor get up and leave. If I was only going to be sitting at this table anyways, I figured having a discussion wouldn’t be bad.
At the same time, I had already mostly understood the true identity of the thing that had caused Chitanda to have a ‘feeling that something was off.’ It didn’t look like this discussion would last for very long. I started speaking.
“That pumpkin is pretty big, isn’t it.”
Chitanda tilted her head.
“Well, it’s a variety of Cucurbita pepo, so it actually isn’t that big in compari—”7
She cut herself short
“You could probably just barely fit your arms around it, right? At the very least, it’s a lot bigger than the cardboard you used to make the Classics Club sign,” I continued.
She looked at the sign, and then finally nodded in assent. “That’s correct. It’s much larger.”
“That pumpkin was placed on one side of the table, and on the other side is the tabletop gas stove, and yet, between them are two Confectionery Society members jumping around and handing out cookies. At our table are just the two of us sitting side by side, and it’s already this cramped.”
“Really? Is it that cramped?”
It figures she didn’t think so.
Let’s just put that aside for now. Because we were watching the table from a gap in the passing flood of students, and its orientation was somewhat diagonal when compared to ours, it was probably difficult for her to accurately gauge distance. The answer to Chitanda’s question was actually very simple.
“The Confectionery Society’s table is bigger than ours. When I was setting up our table earlier, I noticed there were several clubs using extra-large ones. You didn’t know the tables came in different sizes; wouldn’t that explain the feeling of discomfort?”
“Ah…” Chitanda’s voice leaked out.
However, her face wasn’t glowing.
“Their table is extra-large. That’s evident from the distance between the pumpkin and gas burner. I see. You were correct about me not noticing that, but I have a feeling that it’s something else. …In that case, why do they have a pumpkin there?”
And now we arrived at the ‘why’. It was a difficult question.
“Does there have to a reason in using decorations? Handing out cookies while using a Halloween theme makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it?”
Even though it was completely out of season.
Chitanda looked back at the Confectionery Society.
“Let me change my phrasing a bit. If they didn’t have the pumpkin there, what would be different?”
As she asked that, I tried imagining it. What would happen if you took away the pumpkin, and the table only had a tabletop gas stove and kettle.
“The table would look pretty open and spacious.”
She then turned towards me and started speaking slowly, as if emphasizing the point.
“If that pumpkin wasn’t there, don’t you think the Confectionery Society would be able to do so much more with all the space?”
I felt like I understood what she was getting at.
Considering the pumpkin was solely being used as a decoration, the Confectionery Society was limiting the amount of space they had. And yet, even though they had done that, it didn’t look like they were cramped at all.
This meant that they had an excessive amount of table space. To think they were even assigned an extra-large table in the first place.
“So are you saying that them having the extra-large table is a waste?”
Chitanda shook her head slightly.
“That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just that they seem to be using the same amount of space that we are at our smaller table. In that case, why were they assigned an extra-large table?”
The General Committee was responsible for divvying up all of the spots. Naturally, they also decided which clubs got to use the extra-large tables. For example, if a physically bulky club like the Brass Band Club was given an extra-large table, no one would think twice. Yet, the Confectionery Society didn’t take up a lot of space. Even at the moment, there were only two there advertising.
I could think of several reasons aside from that, however, that might explain it.
“Possibility one: There were a lot of extra-large tables, and all of the clubs that actually needed them got one, so there was a surplus. As a result, even the Confectionery Society was given one.”
“Do you really think so?”
Hearing such an earnest response to my half-assed theory almost made me choke on my words.
“I don’t think so either. If that were there case, it’d be unfair to the clearly-troubled Photography Club and Flower Arrangement Club over there.”
I could see the Photography Club completely drowning in their photos with not enough room to put all of them, but the Flower Arrangement Club that Chitanda pointed out as well was in an even worse position. Because they lined up a row of showy flower arrangements on their table, the final result resembled something more akin to a densely packed jungle as opposed to a collection of floral pieces, and on top of that, you couldn’t even see the club members’ faces. They had probably brought one arrangement per person without thinking about it and quickly ran out of room. Besides, I had basically known there was no surplus in the first place.
Extra-large tables are distributed among the clubs that have a lot of showpieces to exhibit, while the Confectionery Society puts up with a normal-sized one. This is what normally should have happened. So why didn’t it?
“Possibility two: The Confectionery Society has pull with the General Committee, and they bribed these connections to make off with an extra-large table.”
Recruiting the new students was a matter of survival of the fittest; it was accepted that those who haphazardly approached the event without a plan of attack were morons. For a little while after, Chitanda had a sad look in her eyes. Was she despairing over the cruelty behind this cold calculation? In the end, however, she finally replied.
“So after doing that and making off with the extra-large table, those two…”
“Put a big pumpkin on it.”
No, that was wrong. There was a fundamental contradiction in that. If they didn’t have a way to effectively use that extra space, there wouldn’t even be a reason to pull so many strings to get one in the first place.
If I assume they went after one deliberately, then it was possible that they were using the extra-large table not because they needed it, but because it put the clubs that would need it at a disadvantage. By this hypothesis, the Confectionery Society secured the extra-large table simply to harass the other clubs. It wasn’t like that couldn’t be the case, but the realm of possibility is often far separated from that of reality. I didn’t believe they would go that far, and I don’t think Chitanda would either.
“Let’s just put that one aside for now. Time for possibility three.”
Deep, down inside, I thought that this one was the correct answer. Listing the other two before it was… well… me just killing time really.
It took a little bit for me to find the words.
“The Confectionery Society filled out a request to use a particular device, and they were given an extra-large table because they needed the space for safety purposes as a result.”
“What device would that be?”
There was something that you needed to get special permission for.
“Fire. The tabletop gas stove.”
Upon hearing this, Chitanda turned her head and once again looked over towards the Confectionery Society.
“The Confectionery Society was given an extra-long table in order to use that. It’s dangerous to use fire in a narrow space, after all. However, the table was much too large with only the gas stove at the end. As a result, they added the pumpkin to the other end of the table in order to achieve a nice, pleasant balance. Doesn’t this sound correct to you?”
With this, I was sure I solved the mystery behind the pumpkin. It took a little more than I thought it would, but Chitanda was sure to be satisfied with this.
How naïve I was. Chitanda continued to stare intently at the Confectionery Society table, as well at its ever-energetic club members handing around cookies and black tea.
After an anxiety-inducing period of silence, Chitanda slowly turned towards me.
“I see. I wish I could call it a fantastic deduction, however…”
I also started looking at the thing Chitanda was staring at in particular. A Thermos. Paper cups. A tabletop gas stove and kettle.
”The gas stove isn’t being used.”
Certainly enough, the fire wasn’t lit at the moment. You could figure that out just by looking.
But even that being the case, Chitanda’s point didn’t make any sense.
“What are you saying? Just because they aren’t using it at the moment doesn’t mean they won’t be using it later.”
Currently, they were pouring tea from the Thermos, however, if they continued to distribute it, they would eventually run out. When that happened, they would certainly use the gas stove to heat up more. Even a kindergartner could figure that out.
Chitanda suddenly moved her face close to mine. I looked up and our eyes met. It was like her pupils penetrated all the way through to the bottommost areas of my heart.
“Oreki-san, you were thinking that I was dumb just now, weren’t you.”
“I wouldn’t say…”
“Then, were you thinking I was an idiot?”
I was thinking it was logic that even a kindergartner would understand.
Chitanda leaned back in her chair and started talking in a miffed tone.
“It’s not like I say things without thinking beforehand. I figured it out when I was looking really carefully at the table.”
Chitanda had an impressive sense of vision, hearing, and smell. Her taste was probably similar. Perhaps she had caught on to something that I didn’t notice as a result of those five senses.
“What did you see?”
“Nothing that you can’t.”
She probably wasn’t sulking. She was issuing me a challenge. Damn you, I thought and then strained my eyes to look for something.
I guess I couldn’t say that there was nothing suspicious.
“That kettle looks brand-new. It doesn’t look like it’s been used over a fire even once yet.”
In saying that, however, there was no way to tell if it hadn’t actually been used before just from that observation. I snuck a quick glance at Chitanda, and I could see her cracking a small smile without looking like she was going to say anything anytime soon. …Which probably meant that wasn’t it.
“The Confectionery Society is giving out black tea. They are pouring it out of the Thermos into the paper cups. Once they run out, they’ll have to boil more, of course.”
Wait a second, that’s incorrect. You don’t boil black tea.
Ah, so that’s what it was. Even if the Confectionery Society was really boiling water over there, was there really anything they could do with just that?
“I understand now. You were talking about the black tea, right?”
“Exactly,” she replied, seemingly puffing out her chest with pride. “The Confectionery Society is handing out cookies and black tea. Even if they decided to boil some water, there’d be no point if they didn’t have the tea leaves, and yet, I haven’t seen these tea leaves anywhere on their table. They must have previously brewed the tea somewhere else and then poured it into the Thermos.”
Although I constantly recognized her incredible senses, there were few times when I thought her insight was similarly extraordinary. I wasn’t feeling down at being bested by her, but I retorted with a stingy counter anyways.
“Maybe the black tea base is already in the Thermos. All they needed to do would be directly add the boiling water and it would turn into black tea. Or maybe the leaves were in the kettle…”
As I finished saying this, Chitanda’s eyes became wide.
“Oreki-san… don’t tell me you’ve never brewed black tea before?”
I remained silent.
That was exactly the case. I preferred coffee much more, but even when I did drink black tea, it would always be some that I got from a vending machine. As a result, I had never once had the need to brew it for myself. It almost felt like me admitting to my life’s pathetic nature however, so I didn’t want to say that out loud.
“If you were to do that, the tea would get more and more bitter. That’s why it’s made in teapots with removable strainers and why the tea leaf packages themselves have recommended amounts for single use. For example, even if you were to use a tea bag, you’d normally take out the bag after a certain amount of time had passed.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes it is.”
So that’s how it all worked. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the whole thing, but I could at least understand that there was something wrong with the fact that they didn’t have tea leaves nor a pot used to brew the tea in.
This meant that the black tea that they had already prepared in their Thermos was all they had, and that the gas stove wasn’t there to make more.
Things were becoming increasingly bizarre.
“I guess this means that the Confectionery Society wasn’t planning on using the gas stove that they prepared from the very start. In that case it’s just like the pumpkin; at this point it’s just a decoration.”
I thought for a bit.
“Even if they aren’t using it, I still think my hypothesis about them being assigned an extra-large table after applying for permission to use the gas stove was correct. The strange part is how they don’t seem to have a use for it. What does that mean, then?”
Unexpectedly, this was starting to become a hassle. I went along with it at first just to kill some time, but to think it would drag on for this long. Incidentally, as I was being pursued by this anxiety, I turned away from Chitanda. She also averted her eyes at the same time.
We then both noticed a person standing in front of us.
Skin tanned under the cloudy skies that persisted even in spring. Hair cut short. A face and countenance that suggested a lively, gallant nature. A thick jacket that would have hidden the sex of its wearer had it not been unfastened, showing the sweater and tie underneath. At essentially the same time, Chitanda and I saw a girl standing before us. It wasn’t like I forgot we were in the middle of the New Recruit Festival, but I didn’t think anyone would actually come to our table. How long had she been standing there?
As the two of us sat there dumbfounded and unable to speak, the girl stuck her hands into her jacket pockets and slightly bowed her head.
She then flashed a beaming smile.
Chitanda was the first to come to her senses.
“O-Oh, um, are you perhaps interested in joining? My name is Chitanda. I’m the club president.”
The girl in the jacket continued to smile as she responded.
“Not necessarily, but I was walking around and looking at the clubs, and I finally saw you guys looking like you were talking about something interesting over here. My name’s Ōhinata. I’m a first-year.”
It was my first time hearing the name. It wasn’t as rare as the name “Chitanda,” but it was still very peculiar, so I had I feeling I wouldn’t forget it. Even that was already out of character for me. I wasn’t normally good at remembering things like names and faces after all.
And yet, it felt like I had seen her face somewhere before. There could only be one reason for me knowing a first-year’s face.
“Kaburaya Middle School?”
Ōhinata looked at me and smiled as if she were extremely happy.
“Yes,” she nodded. She was a very straightforward person.
Just like I thought, she was once an underclassman of mine. I figured I should say something about Kaburaya Middle School, but there wasn’t really anything I wanted to ask or talk about, so I stayed silent.
Chitanda started to speak from the side.
“Well, we are recruiting at the moment, so how about it? Over at the Classics Club we do… various things.”
“I don’t know, it seems kind of complicated. You guys read stuff like classical Chinese literature, right? I mean I guess I do like Japanese studies and all…”
“No, we don’t do those kinds of things. Of course, if you would like to we could.”
“Is that so? Still though…”
I didn’t know if Ōhinata had heard something up in the sky somewhere, but she suddenly stooped over and brought her face close to Chitanda’s.
“This is just something a friend told me, but people should finish the things they start. So? What’s up with the pumpkin after all?”
I see. So she was eavesdropping on us, huh?
“From which part did you start listening?”
“Umm,” she thought as she pursed her lips from side to side, “From the part where you told her she could go and get some cookies if she wanted to.”
“That’s basically from the beginning!”
Chitanda let out something like a yell. Her cheeks were becoming visibly flushed.
“You heard everything? That’s so embarrassing.”
Could you really call a conversation like that embarrassing?
It was such an unexpected reaction that it caused even Ōhinata to falter.
“Um, I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to overhear it all. It’s just that… I just got really curious about the pumpkin when I heard you guys talking about it, so I kind of just stopped walking and it went from there. I couldn’t help but wonder how much you guys were going to think about the pumpkin, is all.”
She quickly lowered her head.
“I’m really sorry.”
“No… It’s fine.”
As Chitanda said this, she brought her hand up to her mouth like she was about to cough. Ōhinata also had an embarrassed expression for a little while after, but she quickly reverted to her original self.
“So? What’s up with the pumpkin?”
Chitanda aside, why was this first-year’s curiosity so fired up about something like that as well. As I thought this, however, I figured I’d just continue anyways and ignore the new element. I recalled the point where we had left off.
“If I remember correctly, we were talking about the gas stove being unused.
“The reason they have the space to use a pumpkin as decoration is because they have an extra-large table.
“The reason they were assigned an extra-large table was because they filed a form asking to use a gas stove.
“However, in reality, they aren’t using the gas stove. Something’s fishy. We left off right around there.”
I looked to Chitanda as I said this, but she only casted her eyes downwards without responding. It looked like she was really embarrassed after all. Ever since Chitanda joined the club, she’s been bringing troublesome things behind her one after another, and yet this was the first time I had ever seen her like this. What was she so conscious about?
“So how about this then?” Ōhinata asked with a voice that sounded like it was competing with the surrounding ruckus. “Those guys had initially planned on using the gas stove for a reason that was unrelated to brewing black tea, but later their plans changed, and they ended up not needing it. More importantly than its use, however, was the fact that they felt they had to put the gas stove on the table even though they weren’t going to use it.”
She must have really payed attention to our conversation if she could already make these kinds of deductions. Although, that’s not to say they were correct.
“However it should have been decided long ago that they were going to distribute black tea and confections. At any rate, it’s not like they suddenly decided on it today. It’s a bit inconsistent to assume that they had long decided on handing out tea and confections while also having plans to use a gas stove for a different purpose.”
“We don’t necessarily know that’s the case, do we? If they had the ingredients and tea on hand, wouldn’t they be able to make them in time even had they decided on it today? If they started in the morning, wouldn’t they be able to finish by the afternoon?”
It’s true that the Confectionery Society would most likely have the cookie ingredients ready to go if they needed them. That wasn’t the problem, though. I raised my arm and pointed towards the item in question.
“That’s true about the cookies, however the banner isn’t really something you could make in the same amount of time.”
The large banner that read “Ready for Tea Time” was embroidered with a ton of beads. It would be extremely difficult to sew that entire thing between classes.
“They had decided a while ago on the ‘tea time’ theme, and as a result, they were able to spend time making that.”
Ōhinata appeared dissatisfied.
“Yeah, I guess if you put it like that I’d have to agree. This is really difficult.”
Looking at her, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d made a mistake. I didn’t really have any obligation to illuminate the truth for Ōhinata, so it probably would have been much easier to just say something like ‘you might be right there’. As an energy-saving advocate, I made the wrong choice.
“In that case, let’s see…”
She began thinking again. Considering Ōhinata wasn’t the one who originally thought the pumpkin was strange, she seemed to be very enthusiastic about the whole matter. She said something about always finishing what you start, but maybe that was actually her own motto.
Apparently unable to think of anything else, Ōhinata started to glare menacingly at the Confectionery Society and began saying things like “Anyways, it’s pretty much decided that they’re bad people.”
“That’s pretty cruel of you. Even if you say all that, I’ve found myself eating quite a number of their cookies already.”
“Did they come over here to hand some out?”
“They came to sell them to me during the culture festival. So anyways, why do you say they’re bad people?”
Ōhinata once again threw a quick glare at the Confectionery Society and then spoke with her chest puffed out.
“This is just something a friend told me, but apparently people who don’t use nametags are always pretty shady.”
I wonder about that. I think I’d prefer to not have a tag hanging from my chest reading ‘Hōtarō Oreki’ no matter where I went. Or maybe it was some kind of metaphor.
As I was stuck thinking up a response, Chitanda suddenly raised her head.
“Wh… what is?”
“Ōhinata-san said it perfectly. How wonderful, that’s exactly the problem.”
The frightened Ōhinata took a step back. Chitanda, try not to scare the innocent first-year.
“What are you talking about?”
Upon hearing this, Chitanda almost certainly started to drill a hole into my head with her strong gaze.
“It’s strange that the pumpkin was placed there.”
“Isn’t that exactly why we started this conversation in the first place?”
“No, not that. I’m talking about this.”
As she said that, she pointed to the only thing place on our table, the signboard that read “Classics Club”.
“I knew I thought something was strange. It’s the fact that the Confectionery Society is missing something.”
From beside the enthusiastic Chitanda, Ōhinata timidly started to ask a question.
“Um… for a while now you two have been constantly mentioning something called the Confectionery Society, but what exactly does that stand for?”8
As she said that, I finally realized it. The Confectionery Society was missing something that it should obviously have.
Unbelievable. I was so used to Kamiyama High School that I had thoughtlessly glossed over such an important fact. Just by seeing those two jump around, I had known they were from the Confectionery Research Society. However…
“So that’s what it was. They don’t have a sign. ‘Confectionery Research Society’ isn’t written anywhere, not on the table nor on their banner.”
“Exactly. Even though they’re recruiting new members, they don’t have their name anywhere, which should be the most important thing when doing that, and seeing something like a pumpkin there instead made me curious.”
Ignoring Ōhinata as she nodded with newfound comprehension concerning the Confectionery Research Society’s shorthand, I started to think.
Was it a mistake on their part? No, it couldn’t be. For a club that put as much effort into the New Recruit Festival as they did with their extravagant banner, that kind of oversight should have been impossible.
Then, was it just like Ōhinata had mentioned earlier? Had the Confectionery Society done something so shady that it would prevent them from putting their name up? What could something like that even be? In the first place, who would be on the receiving end of that shady action?
Did it have something to do with the gas stove they got permission to use but ended up not using at all?
A large amount of yelling reached my ears. The Quiz Club, the Debate Club, the Photography Club, the Flower Arrangement Club, the Cooking Society, the Astronomy Club, and now, the Confectionery Research Society.
I turned to face Chitanda.
I felt like I knew what had happened for the most part.
”It’s because the place where that pumpkin is sitting right now doesn’t belong to the Confectionery Society.”
I ended up instantly stating the conclusion without any lead-up.
Naturally there were a lot of steps omitted to get to that point, so Chitanda stared at me blankly.
“What do you mean it’s not theirs?”
“Well… It’s probably best if I go in order.”
I stayed quiet long enough to arrange the explanation in my head.
“Basically, it’s this.
“If there was a club that filed for permission to use a tabletop gas stove, that club would be assigned an extra-large table. However, on the day of the event, the club that arrived at that table, the Confectionery Society, didn’t need the gas stove at all. Why?
“It’s because the club that applied to use the gas stove wasn’t the Confectionery Club.”
“Which means…” Chitanda covered her mouth with her hands. “They stole the table?”
That carefree duo from the Confectionery Society did? No, that’s not it.
“What I’m saying is they switched tables, the Confectionery Society and whoever put in the request for that gas burner.
“This explains why they would look like they put in a request for the gas burner without actually needing it in the first place. Because they didn’t plan on having an extra-large table, they brought a pumpkin to fill up some space. It’s also why they don’t have a sign. They probably didn’t put their sign out in order to fool the General Committee who would have realized they were ignoring the table assignments.”
Likely unable to believe it right away, Chitanda shook her head.
“If that were the case, that would mean the club originally assigned that table would be at a disadvantage. Why would they do that?”
Without directly answering her, I gestured to point out the large number of clubs tightly lined up next to each other throughout the gardens around us.
“Somewhere in this courtyard is a club that was originally supposed to use a gas stove but isn’t.”
“You know you don’t really have to beat around the bush,” interrupted Ōhinata from the side. “If you’re talking about a club that uses fire, there shouldn’t be too many of them no matter how you look at it.”
O sweet, naïve first-year. You underestimate the sheer number and variety of clubs in Kamiyama High School. I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under, but one small mistake and Classics Club might have been forced to serve a tempura lunch and pork soup, that’s the kind of school this was.
Though, saying that, I was certainly wrung dry during the occasion.
Chitanda started to whisper.
“Oh, that’s right. How could I have forgotten?”
Chitanda had also watched the orientations in the gym. Her memory was far superior to mine, so it wasn’t strange that she had remembered.
“The Cooking Society, wasn’t it? Didn’t they say they were going to treat everyone to a mountain-herb cuisine demonstration at their table during the New Recruit Festival?”
I wondered if the Cooking Society was handing out their food to the new students. No, they weren’t. Even now they were telling the students to come to the clubroom if they wanted to try some food.
“I wonder if the ingredients didn’t arrive on time.”
“The herbs? If they were so strapped as to warrant giving their extra-large table to the Confectionery Society, they could have just lied and cooked up some fake dish instead.”
“A fake dish… Couldn’t you at least say they could use the ingredients available to them to make something else?”
“They could use the ingredients available to them to make something else.”
Chitanda glared at me. I only said it because she asked me to…
“It wasn’t that. It was a much bigger slip-up. Something happened that rendered them unable to hand out the food to the new students.”
“Maybe they didn’t get rid of the bitter herb taste. No one would want to eat it if that were the case.”
“That’s the same thing. All they would need to do is start over with the remaining ingredients and they’d be fine. Something much more serious would have had to happen for them to be willing to give up the extra-large table like that. With that table, they’d be able to line up all of their cooking utensils and still have a bunch of space, just like the Confectionery Society is enjoying right now.
“The fact that the Cooking Society switched tables with the Confectionery Society and had to keep it a secret means that they must have made a mistake that they couldn’t report. They had such a bad problem that they couldn’t even have anyone wondering why they had an extra-large table with a gas stove but they weren’t using it to make any food. I’m willing to bet on it; the Cooking Society won’t have their name displayed anywhere.”
Just like Ōhinata had said, those who didn’t have nametags were shady.
At some point, my voice had become soft. Perhaps because it was hard to hear me amidst all the hustle and bustle, Chitanda had brought her face close to mine. Incidentally, Ōhinata had also bent over and brought her tanned face closer. She was the first to whisper her question.
“Does that kind of mistake even exist? No offense, but what’s the worst that a club could do with their cooking? No matter how much they mess up, what kind of mistake could force them to keep quiet about it?”
If she thought that was really the case, then she really was truly naïve.
“It’s related to food handling. Even a shop would be forced to temporarily shut down if they made this mistake.”
“Wait, do you mean…”
I nodded, and softened my voice even more.
”It’s food poisoning.”
3. Present: 4.1km; 15.9km Remaining
At the end of the day, it turned out that I was mostly correct about the food poisoning, but Chitanda’s hypothesis about them not getting their mountain herbs in time had some truth to it as well.
The Cooking Society had failed in their preparation of the herbs. It appeared that they had initially intended on cooking a miso soup made from bracken, but when some of the club members sampled it during lunch, they complained that their stomachs began to hurt.9
If they were truly intending on hiding their slip-up, there was a strong possibility that the affected members wouldn’t even go to the infirmary for help. As I said this, Chitanda immediately started to run off. I suppose she didn’t take food poisoning from mountainous herbs lightly.
“They might need help,” she said as she did so, but I wasn’t so sure about leaving one’s table empty during the New Recruit Festival. The flustered Ōhinata responded with, “Oh, then I’ll help too,” and then started chasing after her. I heard what had happened after that from Ōhinata later.
“Chitanda-senpai barged into the Cooking Practice Room without a second thought. At first the Cooking Society members tried to play dumb, but once they could tell she knew everything that had happened, they pulled out the members with the ruined stomachs. It looked like she knew some of the people in the club, so things went more quickly than expected.”
“Chitanda has acquaintances everywhere. So, how were the poisoned members faring?”
“Not very well. It looked like they really wanted to go home and rest, but they knew they couldn’t do that. The second she saw them, Chitanda-senpai rushed out of the classroom and brought back some student who looked something like an aspiring doctor. Apparently her family is in the hospital business, and she looked really cool and all, but it felt like she was really annoyed by the whole situation.”
That was most likely Irisu-senpai. Ōhinata had said she looked annoyed, but she was probably no different than how she normally was.
“She had them throw up using salt water and then told the others to bring the students to her place if their condition got any worse. Taking them to the hospital would only make things complicated, after all.”
“I guess if they got food poisoning, the doctors would have to report it to the school infirmary.”
“I wonder if they’d actually have to. Isn’t there doctor-patient confidentiality or something like that?”
“I have no clue.”
“At any rate, the members fortunately recovered after throwing up.”
That was a relief.
The Cooking Society managed to hide their failure. According to Ōhinata, Chitanda sternly lectured the entire Cooking Society on how to properly handle mountainous herbs as a condition in overlooking their irresponsible actions. At that point, I was convinced that this time for sure no one would be coming to our Classics Club table, so I took out my book and continued to read.
I had only managed finish one paragraph however, when Ōhinata started to speak again, showing her teeth in a bright smile reminiscent of the one she showed me when I first noticed her earlier today.
“I’m going to join this club. What’s it called again?”
Chitanda told her at that point.
“Are you sure? We haven’t explained what we do at all yet.”
She looked at me and then Chitanda and then smiled once more.
“It feels really friendly over here. Seeing people having a good time with their friends is my favorite thing in the world.”
I don’t remember what I said in response.
The upward slope was finally starting to become fierce, and the number of students that were passing me on it while struggling for oxygen was increasing as well. I hadn’t initially intended on it, but at some point without realizing it, I had slowed my pace to a walk. I guess I was too wrapped up in my thoughts to pay attention to my speed.
A boy who was in my class last year suddenly passed me. If I remembered correctly, he was in 2-C this year. Class C was catching up. I hadn’t even noticed it until now, so perhaps they were closer than I thought.
As I turned around to look for Ibara, I could see a long line of students running up the sloped street, trailing like a procession of hardworking ants. If I continued to walk slowly like the grasshopper I was, I might end up dying a dog’s death by the time the end of the line caught up with me.10 As I turned my head to face the path ahead of me, the top of the hill came directly into sight. I guess I had ended up mostly walking the entire thing after all. I couldn’t say I didn’t predict it might turn out like this, but my efforts to measure the distance between Ibara and I had clearly failed.
Intending to compensate for this this slip-up, I sprinted up the small stretch of gentle slope that remained before the peak. My field of vision opened up, and I felt a cool breeze so slight that it could’ve been simply born from my imagination. I had thought that the slope would instantly enter into a decline the second I reached the top, but I guess I remembered it incorrectly. The street continued on for about 100 meters at a fairly level elevation. There was a miniature shrine located on the side of the road. I didn’t know what god was enshrined there, but I figured I might as well form a prayer in my heart just in case. A bunch of unanswered questions were still laid out in front of me after all. My piety usually came around in these kinds of troubling situations.
Both sides of the road opened up, and I could tell by the color of their walls that there were several old houses scattered about. A single, brand-new vending machine stood among them and I couldn’t help but feel that it looked out of place.
I slowly walked along the level street. Because it was the haven right after the grueling hill, there were many others walking as well. A massive guy arrived as if he had sprinted all the way from the bottom of the hill, and he sharply exhaled as he stood still, hunched over while grabbing his knees. I had to wonder if he had decided he was going to use all his strength on this one hill beforehand or if he was planning on keeping this pace up all the way until the end.
I had no proof, but I decided to assume that Ibara was right behind me. If she were to pass me now, doing so on this flat stretch of road would be nice. Trying to talk to someone while they passed you on a downwards slope seemed like it would prove to be somewhat difficult. In order to have that not happen, I began to move at a crawl.
When Ibara first heard that Ōhinata was joining, I wonder how she reacted.
I remember Satoshi’s reaction. He had celebrated in a typically exaggerated fashion over the fact that even one new student had joined. “To think that Hōtarō has actually managed to recruit someone… To be frank, I had never even imagined it to be possible. This is truly a miracle.” …among other things of that nature. And then to Ōhinata he started asking various questions about Kaburaya Middle School, like if anything had changed or if anyone had transferred.
On the other hand, I didn’t have the impression that Ibara felt the same way. Before I realized it, they had become best friends. When Ibara had first met Chitanda, they had bonded just as quickly. Maybe it was because, even though she looked like a harsh person to other people, she wasn’t very shy at all. Even though Ōhinata was clearly taller, it was strange how easy it was to tell who the senior was when the two of them were talking.
When did that happen, I wonder.
“Hina-chan, you look really athletic. I mean you even have the tan.”
When Ibara said this, Ōhinata began to look a little embarrassed.
“Some of it’s left over from when I went skiing, but I have naturally dark skin as well.”
“I see, so you ski, huh? Nearby?”
“Sometimes, but this year I went to Iwate.”11
“No, I only ski. Do you snowboard?”
“I can’t do either.”
I had remembered that absurd conversation.
In my memory, I could see the two of them smiling brightly.
I looked behind me countless times as I continued to walk forwards.
My prediction was correct. As I was about halfway across the flat stretch, Ibara’s face popped up from behind the rising slope.
Her arms were pressed close to her sides, and she was staring at her feet. Because her head was hanging down, I couldn’t see her eyes through her bangs. As she was probably taking the run up the slope seriously, I could see that her breathing was rough. She had a thin stride, but as the road leveled out, her arms began to swing more freely. She came running at a set rhythm.
I also raised my arms and abruptly began to run over to her. I matched my pace up with Ibara’s and moved alongside her with about a single person-sized amount of space between us.
When I called out to her, only her eyes moved to look at me.
Surely enough, she remained silent and started to pick up her pace. I had predicted this would happen from the start, so I instantly got to my point without any hesitation.
“I just need to ask one thing, Ibara. Only one thing. It’s about Ōhinata.”
Even then, Ibara didn’t move to face me in the slightest, however I could hear the single word from within her exhale.
I had decided on what I wanted to ask.
“Yesterday, you said you passed Ōhinata in the hallway. You heard she was going to quit the Classics Club.”
Ibara returned a small nod.
“At that moment, Ōhinata said something about Chitanda. Satoshi told me about it; he said Ōhinata mentioned Chitanda was ‘like a Buddha.’ Is this exactly what she said?”
For the first time, Ibara turned her face to look at mine. For a second, I thought it looked like there was a hint of confusion in her pained expression.
She quickly returned to look at her feet as she ran. As if to catch her breath on the flat stretch, she deeply inhaled.
Thinking that me being close would only irritate her, I had purposefully stood somewhat far away from her as the two of us ran, and yet, all of a sudden she closed that distance. In the couple of meters that we ran truly side-by-side, she said a single sentence that forbade interruption.
I slowed down. Ibara continued at her pace and then eventually disappeared as she started to descend the slope.
Her words remained echoing in my ears. Ibara had said this.
“That’s wrong. What Hina-chan said was, ‘Chitanda really does look like a bodhisattva, doesn’t she.’”12
- This is a reference to Stephen King’s The Long Walk. ↩
- Unlike in the west, abacus calculation, or soroban, is commonly taught to kids in Japan. ↩
- This is a play on words. The original line (蒼天已死 黄天当立) comes from the Chinese Records of the Three Kingdoms, and it generally refers to the predicted downfall of the Han Dynasty and success of the Yellow Scarves Rebellion. For more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Turban_Rebellion ↩
- Birdlime is an adhesive that traps birds that land on it. ↩
- ”Gold” and “silver” here refer to pieces from Shogi, a Japanese game similar to chess. ↩
- In Japanese, the word for strange, okashii, sounds almost identical to a word meaning confections, okashi. ↩
- One of the most common pumpkin varieties. ↩
- While not necessarily clear in the translation, the shorthand that they have been using for Confectionery Research Society, seika-kenkyūkai, is seikaken, so while it might make more sense in English, the Japanese would sound ambiguous to someone who didn’t know what word was being abbreviated. ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pteridium_aquilinum ↩
- A reference to Aesop’s fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The story is about a grasshopper that dies because it is too busy having fun instead of preparing for the winter like the ants in the story were. ↩
- Prefecture in the northwest section of Japan’s main island. ↩
- A bodhisattva is a Buddhist term that refers to someone who has achieved enlightenment through his desire to help others. While similar to a Buddha, a bodhisattva is commonly differentiated by his decision (and sacrifice) to cast aside paradise and return to the earthly realm in order to help others achieve enlightenment as well. ↩