1. Present: 17.0km; 3.0km Remaining
I ran without thinking for some time after.
Chitanda had started a couple minutes before I did, so I wasn’t likely to catch up with her. All that was left for me to do was to wait for Ōhinata. I could’ve achieved this by simply standing still and waiting for her, but I ran regardless. Some of the pain in my knee still remained, but be it through the small river path that was constantly hounded by the May wind, be it on the cedar-lined road that chilled my skin with the moisture in the air, be it over the exhaust-filled sidewalk that followed the bypass, I ran regardless.
A traffic signal appeared in front of me, and the green pedestrian walk light began to blink. In front of the signal stood a General Committee member with a face looking like a first-year’s appearing poised to potentially stop my rhythm. I slipped past the side and flew across the crosswalk in one go. At that moment, I realized I had finally entered the city’s center once more. Residential cars and trucks came up and down the bypass, and looking up, I could see several rows of featureless apartment buildings.
Running was scary. The inside of my mind went blank. It felt like all of the events I had remembered as well as all of the ideas I had formulated were all beginning to melt and drip down from my brain. I could understand the happiness behind achieving that pure, detached mental state, but I absolutely had to remember everything at this point. And yet, I continued to run. Wasn’t it possible that I had indeed forgotten something along the way, like water spilling recklessly from a cup? I knew I had to calm down, but I couldn’t stop running. Just like you’d see in an actual long-distance race, my breathing was short and my arms swung bit-by-bit.
It was strange. Last year, I had experienced so many one-on-one encounters. During summer break when we watched the upperclassmen’s video movie project, it was with Irisu-senpai. In the parking lot during the culture festival, I had a face-to-face conversation with only two of us. There were probably so many others as well, but because my breathing was so rapid, I couldn’t remember any of it.
I had a certain thought, however. No matter the extent to which I had confronted them at those moments, none of it weighed as heavily on my heart as it did now.
Possibly in order to steer clear of any intersections, the course that previously stretched straight alongside the bypass as it skirted the suburbs turned onto a thin street passing through a residential area. Because it was in a particularly old corner of Kamiyama City, rust and amber-colored sheet iron roofs stood out on all sides. I slipped by postboxes with their cinnabar paint peeling off and by telephone poles with fading, yellow reflectors and approached a bridge built over a small channel only several meters wide.
This place would probably be good. There was water nearby, it was cool and refreshing out, and there was a small area at the foot of the bridge I could stand on without getting in anyone’s way. I steeled my nerves and stopped running. I squatted down with an “Oh, my laces came undone!” and put on a show like I was retying my dirtied shoes, but it only made me feel like a smart-ass.
I could hear the slight murmuring of the water in the channel. Students clothed in white and crimson passed me on my side.
It was difficult to smile after running a ten or so kilometer track.
There was an exhausted boy moving even more slowly than a normal walk, but he continued to move his arms up and down as he maintained a running posture. There were two girls walking side-by side, their heads handing down, perhaps bound by some promise like “Let’s run all the way to the end together!” There was another student trudging along, face contorted in agony, likely in some sort of pain. I couldn’t see a single smile among any of their faces.
I figured that, by this point, essentially all of the second-years had already gone ahead. Everyone I could see now was a first-year. Judging by their faces as they ran without knowing how much longer they needed to run, they were a miserable bunch. It made me want to reassure them that if they continued running earnestly, they would reach the end in no time. If I did, I guess I would also turn into everyone’s beloved “senpai,” whether I wanted to become one or not.
Once I retied the laces on my right shoe, I started retying the laces on my left one. Once I retied the laces on my left shoe, I started retying the laces on my right one. This was how I earned myself time crouching there.
I saw off dozens of tired faces, and wondered how long I had been waiting there.
Then Ōhinata appeared.
Just like I had assumed would be the case, she wasn’t with anyone else. With her arms hugging her flanks and her mouth slightly open, she ran at a fairly quick pace, entirely alone.
I slowly stood up and waved to her. She noticed me immediately.
I had initially thought that she might decide to ignore me. If that was the case, then it couldn’t be helped, and I was prepared to give up on the entire thing altogether.
However, Ōhinata looked at me wide-eyed and began to drop her speed, eventually coming to a halt right in front of me. She calmed her slightly labored breathing, and then suddenly brought her face up to look at mine.
“You’re in quite the strange location, aren’t you senpai?”
It was difficult to smile after running a ten or so kilometer track.
And yet, Ōhinata showed me a beaming grin, just like she had done during the New Recruit Festival.
“What’s wrong Tomoko, who’s that?!”
Someone suddenly called out to Ōhinata in a teasing manner. Ōhinata responded to the figure.
“It’s just an upperclassman from my club!”
After finally being convinced by Ōhinata that it was nothing, the student started to run off once again. She was probably a classmate.
“She’s only shrewd when it concerns things that are none of her business.”
After jokingly complaining, Ōhinata started to squint at me.
“But seriously, senpai, what are you doing here? You were supposed to have started way ahead of me if I remember correctly.”
She suddenly stopped me with a sharp command and then brought a hand to her chin.
“Let me try to guess. General Committee members normally stand in places like that. But you aren’t a member, Oreki-senpai. Fukube-senpai, however, is a member, and the two of you are friends. I understand it now.”
She raised her head and asked me, “What do you think’s my guess?”
Was she perhaps unaware that she had already said it out loud?
“You think that Satoshi’s relying on me by having me serve as a replacement General Committee member.”
Her face instantly lit up. Unlike yesterday after school, it was a natural smile. Perhaps it was runner’s high? Or maybe she felt relieved of a large burden after deciding to quit the club.
“Well? Was I right?”
I pointed at my shoes.
“My shoes have dirt on them. If I was acting as a General Committee member, I would’ve been dropped off here, so my shoes wouldn’t have gotten this dirty. They’re like this because I had to run.”
Ōhinata looked at my sneakers and pouted seemingly in disappointment.
“But only a normal person would have been able to run enough to get them that dirty. How did you manage it, Oreki-senpai?”
“I’m telling you I ran here myself. What more do you want me to say?”
“Well, why are you here then?”
“I wanted to say something, so I waited here.”
After asking this, she suddenly pointed a finger at herself with a shocked expression.
“What? To me?! Yikes…”
I guess she wasn’t really averse to being ambushed like this. If anything, she seemed amazed.
“I’m sorry you took time out of your day for this.”
She briefly lowered her head in apology and then continued speaking while playing with her short hair.
“To be honest, I did expect that someone would come and say something to me, but I didn’t think it would be you during the Marathon Tournament, Oreki-senpai.”
She then stared fixedly at me and smiled.
“But I’m sorry. I’ve already made up my mind. It was a really fun club, so I’m sure someone else will join quickly enough.”
There was no way that would happen.
At the same time, I hadn’t really intended on trying to stop her from leaving either.
“That’s not what I wanted to talk with you about.”
I took a small breath.
“There’s something I want to tell you.”
“Um, I’d be in a bind if you asked me out here.”
I brushed the joke aside and hit her over the head with the single sentence I had spent my time carefully refining.
“Chitanda doesn’t know a single thing about your friend.”
“She doesn’t know a single thing.”
Ōhinata’s expression quietly vanished from her sun-tanned face.
Chitanda didn’t know a single thing. At the same time, however, that was exactly how much I knew as well, and Ōhinata quickly realized this herself.
How long did the silence continue, I wonder. A runner enjoying his spare stamina ran by directly next to us, causing wind to form in his wake. As if riding this breeze, Ōhinata started to speak.
“If Chitanda-senpai didn’t know anything, then who told you?”
“No one did.”
“I don’t want to have a long conversation here.”
I felt the same way. We’d stand out far too much if we talked while standing directly next to the course. I had prepared for this ahead of time. I gestured with my eyes over to an alleyway lined with wooden fences in-between two old houses.
“It should be fine if we take a different road.”
She was at a loss for words.
“Is that even allowed? This is the Marathon Event, right?”
“It’s the Hoshigaya Cup. Of course if you want to keep everything on record, I won’t say it’s impossible.”
Ōhinata looked at the alleyway and then at the students dutifully crossing the bridge as they progressed through the course, and she started to think. I didn’t have to wait very long for her answer.
“Alright, let’s do it. I’m a bit nervous though…”
It would be bad if we were seen blatantly leaving the course. Ōhinata and I waited for a lull in the passing line of Kamiyama High School students and then nonchalantly slipped into the alleyway.
2. Present: 18.6km; 1.4km Remaining
“This road leads back to Kamiyama High School, right?”
Considering she was being taken along an unfamiliar road, it was no wonder she felt uneasy.
“It connects back up to the course in front of Arekusa Shrine. It’s quite the shortcut, you know.”
“A shortcut, huh…”
Apparently still hung up on our leaving the course, I could hear her grumbling.
“You pretty much do whatever you want, don’t you Oreki-senpai.”
I wouldn’t say that was true. If I absolutely had to, even I would properly run the entire length of the course. I just couldn’t think of any others alternatives, so it couldn’t be helped that I had to resort to this.
The two of us walked. There was no longer a need for us to run.
“Hey, a cat,” muttered Ōhinata. I looked, and certainly enough, I saw a cat sitting atop the wooden fence. It was striped like a tiger.
“Senpai, you don’t like animals, do you?”
“I haven’t considered whether or not I do. Why’d you assume that?”
“Because animals are a pain in the ass. Don’t you dislike things that are a pain in the ass, senpai?”
She was dead-on. At the same time however, I’ve never really considered myself to be someone that disliked animals. I never really went out of my way to like them either, however.
“Aren’t you assuming a little too much?”
Her voice became slightly quieter.
“That’s just like me. I always assume too much.”
“Give me an example.”
“I’m assuming that you’re covering for Chitanda-senpai by lying to me about her not knowing anything. If she didn’t know anyone, then how could you have known about it?”
During this Hoshigaya Cup, I had done a lot of thinking about Ōhinata. …
“That’s not it. If you think about it, you can learn a surprisingly large number of things.”
I assured her that was the case, and she sighed.
“From the very start, it’s not like I even said Chitanda-senpai was the reason I was quitting.”
“You didn’t say it outright, but you told Ibara ‘Chitanda looked like a bodhisattva,’ right?”
“Isn’t that compliment?”
If that was truly the case, then why was her head hanging so low as she said it.
“’If someone looks like a bodhisattva on the outside, then they must be a yakṣa on the inside,’ right?”
Ōhinata weakly looked up at me with a bitter smile.
“I went through the trouble of pretending I didn’t know about it, so couldn’t you just follow suit?”
“Second-years know a whole bunch. If you didn’t want us to know, you should’ve tried something harder.”
A small pebble rolled in front of us. Ōhinata kicked it down the street and let out a shallow sigh.
“I guess you found me out. If Chitanda-senpai really didn’t tell you anything, then how about you tell me, senpai? How was I wrong?”
“This isn’t about being wrong.”
“It was just a figure of speech.”
I had arrived at my conclusion based on what I remembered from Ōhinata’s behavior; I hadn’t heard anything from Chitanda. As long as I didn’t explain this process to her, she probably wouldn’t listen to what I had to say. There was probably no working about it, but it was difficult to arrange everything in order.
“I wonder where I should start.”
“Why not from when we first met?”
Of course that seemed to be the easiest solution, but…
“That would make it really long. I feel like it should be possible to condense it a little.”
“It’s fine if it’s long, isn’t it? After all, we…”
She paused as if to think about her choice of words, and then continued with a conflicted smile full of self-mockery.
“After all, we accidentally veered from the proper path.”
To think she could say such disreputable things about us. I even told her we would join up with the main group later…
I suppose it was true, however, that we broke off from the school event. There wasn’t a single trace of anyone in the alleyway around us under the midday sun. Even the cat that was there earlier seemed to have disappeared amidst the silence. Only the sound of our footsteps and voices resounded off the wooden fences.
“Well then, for now I guess I’ll start at the very beginning, on the day of the New Recruit Festival.”
As I said this, Ōhinata stared hard into the side of my face. I continued, slightly put off.
“On the day of the New Recruit Festival, you overheard Chitanda and I having an unimportant conversation. Even thinking back on it now, you must have ended up stopping in a really inconspicuous place.”
“It wasn’t unimportant at all. You may have potentially saved somebody’s life then.”
Now that she mentioned it, I suppose that really was a serious case of food poisoning. I hadn’t considered up to this point that was took place at our table ended up being that significant of a conversation. At the moment, however, I didn’t care to think about it.
“The biggest hint from that conversation was actually something you said.”
She pointed at herself.
“What did I say again?”
“I don’t remember your exact choice of words, but it was something along the lines of ‘shady people don’t wear nametags.’ It was because you said that that we were able to figure out what it was that the Confectionery Society was missing.”
A somewhat happy look appeared in Ōhinata’s eyes.
“Now that you mention it, I guess I did say something like that.”
It certainly felt like it happened ages ago considering not even two months had passed since then. A recollection that had previously been trapped in my memories somehow escaped and reminded me of the smiles that Chitanda and Ōhinata had exchanged that day, completely uninhibited by worry.
“What captured my interest even more than that, however, was what you said right before it. I think it was something like this.”
I took a single breath.
“’This is just something a friend told me, but…’”
“…You have quite the memory.”
“After all, the second I heard it, I thought that it was probably you just expressing your own opinions.”
During the Hoshigaya Cup, I had asked Satoshi to try something for me. What would he think if I told him, “This is just something a friend told me, but no matter how you think about it, it’s pretty unfair that the General Committee doesn’t have to run.” Satoshi responded with, “So that’s what you really think, huh? I’d think something like that would make me pretty upset.” I thought it was a fairly representative answer.
“When people have something difficult to say to someone else, they often use phrases like ‘I heard this from someone,’ ‘there’s this rumor,’ or ‘I overheard this just now’ and make up some imaginary third-party to soften the blow. This wasn’t something that I said, and I don’t believe it at all, but apparently it exists somewhere in the realm of thought… I suppose it feels like a way of talking to someone using their back gate.”
“Using their back gate… what a roundabout way of saying that.”
Ōhinata smiled bitterly.
“Just say what you’re thinking and call it cowardly.”
“I’m not so brazen that I could criticize somebody like that.”
The alleyway continued to stretch on. I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, but it simply turned out to be laundry hanging on a drying pole over someone’s veranda as it swayed in the wind.
Had Ōhinata been using a method like this when talking with us? That’s what I had originally thought, however…
“In your case, that back gate comparison didn’t apply.”
There was no response.
“‘This is just something a friend told me.’ This ‘friend’ isn’t an imaginary third-party, but rather actually exists in reality. I can’t be certain that every phrase you evoked your friend for was something that they actually said, but some of them undeniably came from that very real ‘friend’ of yours.”
Without either affirming or denying this, Ōhinata continued to stare at me with an incredibly calm expression.
“Why do you think this?”
“Your actions and your ‘friend’s’ actions contradicted each other. Things happened that wouldn’t have had you been simply using this ‘friend’ as a pretense for expression your own opinions.”
“No way… nothing like that happened.”
She complained listlessly as she stared at her feet.
“It was on the very last Sunday in April, from 2 PM onwards.”
“I don’t remember anything about that, but considering you can talk about it so specifically, I’m assuming it was on your birthday, senpai?”
“That’s correct. Let me just thank you again for celebrating it with me in the first place.”
“I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed it.”
Even as we exchanged these pleasantries, the uncomfortable tension between us as we carefully watched each other showed no signs of letting up. It wasn’t like it was incredibly tense, but I figured I’d proceed with caution anyways.
“That day, if I remember correctly, I brought up the idea of getting some pizza. It’d be perfect for the five of us to snack on, but in the end, we didn’t order any. Do you remember why?”
She raised her head and responded immediately.
“It was because Ibara-senpai doesn’t like cheese.”
“That’s right. …By the way, did you know that even though Ibara talked about it like she didn’t like any cheese at all, she’s apparently perfectly fine with cheesecake?”
I cracked a small grin.
“I’ve eaten it with her once before.”
She didn’t respond to this little observation of mine. Ibara and I might’ve not been on the best of terms, but we had known each other for over ten years. I had seen her many times, and in one of those scenes she happened to be eating cheesecake.
“Do you remember what you said at that moment?”
After I asked that, she nodded slightly.
“I believe I said ‘You don’t like cheese either?’ or something like that. ‘One should throw away rotten mandarin oranges and spoiled milk.’”
Sure it was a normal food to dislike when divvying your likes and dislikes, but it seemed like an awfully excessive way to word it. That wasn’t all, however.
“You forgot the ‘This is just something a friend told me, but…’ in front of it.”
“Is that so.”
I was sure she remembered, but she played dumb regardless.
“You have quite the memory. You get unexpectedly hung up on the small stuff, don’t you senpai?”
“Even you remembered something like Ibara not liking cheese. So even I try to make it a point to remember what people can’t eat. It’d be bad if I ended up recommending something bad to them even after hearing it after all.”
“…Is that really how it goes?”
She scratched her check and showed me an embarrassed smile.
For a bit, the alleyway seemed to curve around an old house with sheet iron walls. A lot of water appeared to be dripping onto one of the walls from a raised gutter, and the sound it made felt refreshing to my ears.
“After that I assumed that you couldn’t eat cheese. After all, I thought that the ‘This is just something a friend told me’ simply prefaced your own words and opinions. That’s why I thought something seemed off when we went to the coffee shop.”
After reaching this point, Ōhinata seemed to be able to piece the rest together on her own.
“I see, so that’s what it was. I’m an idiot as well.”
“I thought for sure that you’d order the plain cream. Imagine my surprise when you didn’t.”
At the coffee shop started up by Ōhinata’s cousin, the only thing we could eat there were scones as well as the jam and cream to spread on top. There were two types of jam, and as for the cream, he offered us plain cream and mascarpone.
I didn’t remember most of the specifics, but the two things I did remember were that all of us had ordered a different combination of jam and cream to the shop owner’s dismay and that the same Ōhinata who had said “One should throw away rotten mandarin oranges and spoiled milk” had chosen a cheese-flavored cream.
“I realized it at that moment, although I suppose I would’ve realized it far sooner had I accepted what you always said at face value.”
Ōhinata had told us “This is just something a friend told me” from the very start. I should’ve simply accepted that for what it was rather than trying to add all sorts of complicated, unnecessary layers to it.
“You have a ‘friend’, and unlike you, this person dislikes cheese.”
Ōhinata bit her lip and didn’t reply.
She didn’t even retort with the obvious response, “Of course I have friends, what of it?”
That silence of hers spoke plenty. Ōhinata had a certain friend she didn’t want anyone to know about.
The back alleyway became somewhat convoluted and it contained some small crevices along the way that only a single person could squeeze through at a time. To my surprise, I saw a nameplate attached to a wall containing the name of this particular neighborhood. That meant that even this narrow road was an actual street in the city registry. As I silently applauded myself for getting this far, Ōhinata spoke up from behind.
“Is this even an real street? Kinda suspicious if you ask me.”
Although she said this in a joking manner, her voice contained none of its usual playful lightheartedness.
“What are you planning on doing if I’m lying?”
“What are you planning on doing?”
“Well I’m not lying, so I have no idea.”
There was no way to continue this kind of constricted small talk. We passed through the back alleyway, carefully stepped over a flowerpot sitting in the middle of the path, and finally stepped out into a slightly larger street. I finally took a deep breath.
It was halfway up a gentle slope. Ōhinata looked left and right and muttered a question.
“Where are we?”
I had no idea how to explain it in relation to other points in the area, so I decided to just cover up that fact.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
As we started to descend the hill, Ōhinata walked alongside me.
There was no doubt that in our previous conversation, Ōhinata indicated that she indeed had a friend and had also been parroting this friend in her talks with us. There were other things I knew about that friend, however.
“By the way, that ‘friend’ is also from middle school I assume. That’s quite a special relationship. There’s also the possibility of that person being from your prep school or something else, but that aside, they must have transferred here in their third year, and after, didn’t enter Kamiyama High School with you.”
As I suddenly brought this up, Ōhinata fiercely raised her eyebrows. It was clearly a look of suspicion. There was no reason for me to repeat what I had just said.
“Chitanda didn’t tell me this.”
“But there’s no way you could know that much…”
“You said yourself that you didn’t have any friends in high school. When you, Satoshi, and I walked home after school that one day, I’m pretty sure you said just that. If you didn’t have any in high school, then it’s clear that that ‘friend’ of yours must have been from your middle school days, right?”
When Satoshi and I went to walk home that one rainy day, we ended up seeing Ōhinata right as we left the gate. Because she told us, “I haven’t really made any friends yet,” the three of us ended up walking together. I distinctly remember thinking on the inside, “Is that so? You really seem like the social type though…”
Even though she spoke up, she quickly became quiet again.
“You didn’t mean, however, that you didn’t have anyone you could speak intimately with. It seems like you’re on good terms with a bunch of people in your class, and yet, you don’t refer to them as friends.”
I waited a little bit for her to respond. She stayed silent.
If she continued to clam up even as I baited her like this, however, she would probably need energy equal to something like the equivalent in order to speak up once more. In reality, it looked like she had become quite depressed just from me talking like this.
I was going to tread on her feelings and thoughts and analyze this girl that I had so naturally talked to yesterday as her upperclassman. Essentially, I was going to be telling her “This is who you are.” I ended up stopping as the gravity of my actions towards her flooded into the front of my mind. I had to continue.
“Because I’m going to be talking about yesterday now, I’m sure the both of us will be able to remember it perfectly. We had a little talk in the hallway before entering the clubroom. The talk itself was meaningful of course, but I was also intrigued when you mentioned being in the same class as Satoshi’s little sister.”
Ōhinata had known about what had happened between Satoshi and Ibara, and while not knowing the exact details, she also knew about him owing her. She had apparently heard all of this from Satoshi’s little sister.
“I think that Satoshi’s little sister is a considerably strange person, but apparently you don’t feel the same way. By the way, someone who talks about all of her sibling’s romantic entanglements to someone she isn’t very close to is strange no matter how you might try and frame it.
“If you did hear about Satoshi’s entanglements from that girl, then you had to at least have had a friendship with her strong enough for her to be able to tell you those kinds of things. Additionally, you said you also ate lunch with her, right? And yet, you wouldn’t even refer to someone like Satoshi’s little sister as a friend. I essentially realized it because you kept on simply calling her your ‘classmate’.”
A truck was coming up the hill towards us. The road was getting wider, but I stepped in front of Ōhinata to form a single file just in case. The sun was right in front of us. I had used this pass every now and then, but I didn’t realize the hill faced the south.
Smelling the exhaust as it passed me, I lined up with Ōhinata once more. I then continued on like nothing had happened.
“Thanks to a certain strange meeting, I’ve been constantly dragged into hassle after hassle over the past year. I got to thinking in all of that and it made me realize something. The situation always required me to solve everything. At that moment, Satoshi had said I had the ‘detective’s role’, but I didn’t like the sound of that at all. It made me kind of embarrassed, and I didn’t want to be referred to in that manner.
“That act of not wanting to call it that purely due to a selfish desire that held no regard for its validity… isn’t that what you’re doing right now? You don’t want to use the word ‘friend’ like it was cheap. Since not even two months had passed since you entered high school, even though you had intimate conversations with her and sat by her side as you both ate lunch, you still couldn’t find it in you to use that word to describe Satoshi’s little sister. Isn’t that the case?”
I should’ve realized how preciously Ōhinata regarded that word a lot time ago. She even said it clearly herself when talking about what it was she treasured the most on that rainy day. Again, things turned out so convoluted and roundabout because I hadn’t taken her words at face value.
Ōhinata opened her mouth. A slight “I…” leaked out.
But in the end, she didn’t continue.
She restrained herself almost as if sighing. The problem wasn’t over yet.
“In this case, what kind of person is the one you call your ‘friend’ then? The only thing that’s certain is that that person doesn’t go to Kamiyama High School.
“Well, that kind of thing couldn’t be avoided. When I graduated from middle school, I ended up having to leave a bunch of people who I was on good terms with as well. Satoshi was about the only person that came with me.”
Although I said it like that, I couldn’t actually think of any names aside from Satoshi’s. What a heartless reality.
Was it a case of them being seldom seen and soon forgotten? Or was I truly a little coldhearted after all?
I suddenly began to smell the scent of miso soup drift in from somewhere. I saw a small puddle of water on the ground where some residents must have been washing something off. Most of it had already dried up under the shining spring sun. I hadn’t fully realized how dead the streets would be before noon. Even though I had assumed we see the occasional neighborhood resident and had even prepared a way to talk ourselves out of their certain questioning, we didn’t meet a single person. I thought it a little strange that we constantly saw these traces of human activity but never saw the people themselves. At any rate, had this not been the case, we wouldn’t have had the chance to walk around the town like this on a school day.
“All Chitanda told me was what you two talked about in the clubroom after school yesterday.”
As if half talking to myself, I continued.
“It was about Ibara, huh. About how she quit the Manga Society. Chitanda agreed with her decision to leave it. She probably even gave her a push. I don’t really know both sides of the issue, so I can’t say if I personally agree or disagree. What I do know, however, is that Ibara really calmed down after that. It may have been for the best simply on account of that alone.
“By the way, yesterday after school you clearly looked like you were preparing yourself to try and settle something. In order to clear up something and stop your feeling of perpetual suspension, you decided you were going to confirm something with Chitanda. Was it about what happened with Ibara? Did you argue with Chitanda over her decision to support Ibara because you didn’t want her to leave the Manga Society?”
Of course it wasn’t. Ōhinata herself quickly replied.
“If that was the kind of conversation that you couldn’t have without readying yourself, I would have a hard time believing that you could simply bring it up on the fly and in a single go. I figured you were just changing the subject or perhaps hiding your true intentions.
“So I tried to think further back. There was indeed a point at which you threw a sudden, unrelated question at her. It was when we were at the coffee shop started by your cousin. I believe it went something like this. Chitanda has a big face, but I wonder if she knows a certain someone? Chitanda responded by saying that person was a first year in Kamiyama High School.”
“Agawa. Sachi Agawa. Class 1-A”
“I have no idea who that is. She was simply someone you used to judge how large Chitanda’s face was, right?”
“You should know who Agawa is, Oreki-senpai.”
“Chitanda told me the same thing. She gave the pledge as the student representative this year in the entrance ceremony, but simply knowing that isn’t enough to say that you know them.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
I stopped walking and turned to face her.
“If it’s someone that I should know, then do you mean she’s from Kaburaya Middle School?”
If Ōhinata knew her, then it wouldn’t be strange if she came from Kaburaya. Unlike Chitanda, however, I couldn’t do something like remember the names and faces of underclassmen that I had no connection with. As I thought this, however, Ōhinata started talking as if reproaching me.
“She was the Health Committee president. Do you seriously not remember her?”
“…Was that so.”
Certainly enough, in the latter half of my third year in Kabuyara Middle School, I lost to the majority vote and ended up joining the Health Committee. Because none of the third-years could handle an actual position on the committee as they prepared for the testing season, a second-year was chosen as the president. I guess her name was something like that after all.
Hearing this however, I understood something else.
“I see. If that’s the case, then I can say this with even more certainty. What you wanted to confirm by asking Chitanda that question was: was her face so large that she could even accurately identify a student from Kaburaya Middle School when she herself when to Inji Middle School? When she told you she did recognize that name, I remember that it came as quite the shock to you.”
Ōhinata probably expected her to say “I don’t know” at that moment. After that expectation was shattered, she was dumbfounded. Maybe expectation was the wrong word to use. Perhaps it was her hope. Even though she understood how many people Chitanda knew, she hoped that it wouldn’t be to that extent.
“What Satoshi said was poorly worded. After all, he made it sound like she knew everyone that lived in this city. I’m telling you this just to make sure that you understand, but Chitanda doesn’t know anything about Agawa outside of the fact that she was the student who gave the pledge during the entrance ceremony.”
I had already become used to his exaggerated phrasing. That’s why I took everything he said with a grain of salt. It wouldn’t be impossible for Ōhinata to misconstrue it as the truth, however, as she had only just started to hear him speak often this year.
Ōhinata shook her head slightly however.
“I wonder about that. And I’m not talking about Fukube-senpai. Didn’t Chitanda-senpai also know about your friends as well? She got one of them to show her your old Kaburaya Middle School anthology. She even knew about when Fukube-senpai was singing in the broadcasting room in middle school.”
“You’re really afraid that Chitanda may know your ‘friend’, aren’t you.”
There was no response.
Essentially, that meant Ōhinata had yet to tell me the entire story.
This “friend” was a special existence to her. Even though it influenced her to the extent that she even borrowed phrases, Ōhinata didn’t want anyone else to know anything about it. And then, enter Chitanda. She knew about Satoshi’s and my past, and according to Satoshi’s exaggeration as well, her knowledge of others was something incredible.
“I should’ve realized you were afraid of Chitanda then and there.”
“Then and there?”
“Don’t you remember?”
Although I said this, even I myself couldn’t remember exactly when it was. Pulling it as clearly as I could from my memories, however, I continued.
“It was when we were talking about how Ibara was sharp-tongued, but we couldn’t imagine her ever snapping at Chitanda. You said maybe it was because she knew and could exploit all of Ibara’s weaknesses. Because it was so ridiculous, neither of us gave it any thought. Thinking about why you might’ve imagined something like that, however, I finally understand why.”
It was because, rather than knowing Ibara’s weaknesses, she was afraid that Chitanda would know hers.
“You were only cautious around Chitanda. Thinking rationally about it, rather than it being Chitanda who would know about your friend, shouldn’t it be me? I went to the same middle school as you after all.”
“Oh, that’s why…”
Ōhinata’s voice seemed to be blurred with resignation as she continued.
“That’s why you said she must’ve transferred here in her third year.”
“That’s right. If she was someone in Kaburaya Middle School and yet there was no way we’d know her, she must’ve transferred in after we had already graduated. At any rate, the fact that you seemed very relaxed around us supports this. You only feared Chitanda.”
It wasn’t something that I did consciously. Before I realized it, a small sigh escaped from my lips. As if fearing that sigh alone, her body stiffened. I couldn’t see a single trace of the underclassman with the winning attitude that I had known in her.
“In order to start thinking about this, I put together a hypothesis based on what I heard about your conversation with Chitanda yesterday after school. Chitanda talked about Ibara. There was neither subtext nor an ulterior meaning. She talked about Ibara.
“But that’s not how you heard it. As you hung from the doorframe contemplating just how much Chitanda knew, you decided that you needed to bring this whole dark and shady matter to light. The conversation you had after was the result of you steeling yourself with the resolution needed to confirm your suspicions. It was possible that that was some sort of metaphor.”
If you implicitly distrusted someone, you might end up seeing them as some sort of demon.
If I accepted this to be true, then I could say that Ōhinata likely saw Chitanda as a yakṣa.
With that, the misunderstanding became clear.
“In her conversation with you yesterday, this is the gist of what she said. To Ibara, the Manga Society was already a detrimental lost cause. In the interest of protecting herself, Chitanda believed that her decision to quit was the correct one. To that, you responded with this. ‘Even then, you shouldn’t just abandon them, right?’ It was strange for you to suddenly use the word abandon. If I had to choose, I’d say it was the Manga Society that chased her away, and yet, why did you choose that word to describe it all of a sudden?”
I took a breath.
“If I’m wrong, just tell me.”
I prefaced it with that.
“Isn’t it that you felt Chitanda was trying telling you to abandon your own ‘friend’ in that conversation?”
Ōhinata looked up at me weakly.
“How can you say for sure that that’s not what she was getting at?”
Even as she said that, I could tell that she herself didn’t believe the words coming out of her own mouth. No one whose voice resonated in such a weak, raspy manner could think something like that.
“…Hey. Can you think of the reason why Chitanda thinks you’re quitting?”
She had a confused look in her eyes, but she didn’t respond.
“She thinks it was because she touched your cellphone without asking you that you got angry at her and wanted to quit the club.”
“Can you believe it? Someone who just became a second-year on the verge of tears as she told me she honestly thought that that was the reason. That girl told me she was planning on going to see you after reaching the finish line to apologize for touching your cellphone yesterday.”
Ōhinata’s eyes became wide and her mouth looked as if it were poised to laugh. The only thing that escaped from her throat, however, was something that sounded like a strange, choked sob.
Ōhinata lowered her head. Her shoulders started to shake.
They shook because she was silently laughing; that’s what I wanted to believe.
3. Present: 18.9km; 1.1km Remaining
The scenery opened up before us.
As we finally passed through the narrow residential streets, we neared Arekusa Shrine’s rear approach. The street was wide and shops lined the left and right sides of the road. It normally bustled with activity on New Year’s and during the spring and autumn festivals, but at this moment, it was dead silent and only the shops’ banners retained their festive colors.
“So we get out here, huh.”
Ōhinata started to mutter this as if finally being convinced.
“Once you take that path through the shrine, you can connect back up with the original course. Feel better now?”
“Oh come on, it’s not like I doubted you or anything.”
I wonder about that.
The sun shone brightly as it approached midday. Our shadows took on a deep shade as they stretched along the asphalt. Summer was already just around the corner.
Ōhinata raised her arm and pointed towards a single shop. A large, old-fashioned umbrella and tatami-styled bench were set up in front of it.
“I want to eat some dango.”1
“What’s up with that all of a sudden?”
“I’m tired, so I decided I wanted to eat some dango.”
After making this one-sided statement, she immediately started walking to the store. I followed behind her, flustered.
“Hold on a sec. We’re technically in the middle of class right now.”
It didn’t stop her in the slightest.
“You brought me this far off the course and now you want to start talking rules? We might as well break all of them at this point.”2
“Do you even have money on you?”
Hearing this, she finally turned to look at me over her shoulder.
“You have some, right?”
She smiled as she said this.
“I could hear the coins clinking around in your pocket.”
Surely enough, I had brought some with me in case I wanted to buy a drink halfway through the course, but…
“I swear, you never stop once you get going. What if I don’t have enough?”
“Oh, I didn’t think about that. Do you have enough?”
I reached into my pocket and pulled them all out. In my palm, I counted ¥240 worth of ¥100 and ¥10 coins.3
The shop Ōhinata had pointed out was very reasonably priced. Even though there were people here who would still probably buy it at a more expensive, touristy price, the traditional-looking sign on the wall said “¥80 for one stick”.
“…I guess I do.”
“Then it’s decided.”
Ōhinata lightly sprinted over to the shop and called out in front of it.
“Excuse me, three sticks of dango please.”
Was she planning on sucking me dry? Wait a second, why was I even treating her in the first place? The questions didn’t stop coming, but I supposed it was already too late to do anything at this point anyways considering she had already ordered. I guess I could act like a good upperclassman and treat her just this once. ¥80 though… Talk about a cheap favor.
The one working the shop was an old, sweet-looking lady. The two of us must’ve looked like we ditched class considering we were still in our gym clothes, but without bringing any attention to it, she simply said, “We have mitarashi and yomogi.”4
“I think mitarashi is better.”
“It’d be annoying to deal with any questions if the bean paste got on our clothes.”
Thinking about it, that was a very good point. She really payed attention to the strangest things.
Before I fully realized what was going on, the two of us ended up sitting on a bench eating dango. Although I thought I preferred mitarashi because I didn’t like the strong, vegetation-like smell of mugwort, the yomogi’s fragrance ended up being really refreshing. The sweet taste sank into my bones.
“I feel alive again.”
As Ōhinata muttered this, I found myself nodding without realizing it. It had a certain kind of feeling to it. Even though this long-distance running event seemed to carelessly stretch on forever, it was almost like our fatigue itself was being fatigued as well.
Five balls of dango were stuck on her skewer. She ate two more and then looked up at the sky, taking a long, drawn-out breath.
“Ah, I feel so refreshed. I haven’t felt like this in forever.”
She then suddenly said something to me.
“Senpai, there’s something you haven’t been saying on purpose, isn’t there.”
“About the dango?”
“Of course not.”
Yeah, there’s no way it would be about the dango. There was certainly a very large gap present in our previous conversation. I hadn’t intended on saying anything about it, but Ōhinata brought it up herself.
“There was a certain ‘friend’ of mine that I wanted to conceal, and I was afraid that Chitanda might’ve known about this person and me. Why was that, then? Why, do you think, was I trying to conceal the existence of this ‘friend’?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“You’re so full of it. If you’re going to be kind and tell me a lie, at least make it a good one.”
Without saying anything, I stared at the dango in my hand.
I guess she saw through me. I did have a general idea as to what might’ve happened. It might even be more accurate to say that it was precisely because I figured out what I had that I was even able to put everything together in the first place.
I hadn’t intended on talking about any of it however. I thought it was something that she wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to know about. That said, it wasn’t like I was entirely certain that I knew the entire truth.
“Man, why did it have to come to this.”
As she muttered this, Ōhinata pulled another dango off with her teeth.
She then started to speak.
“I thought she was a good person. Just like you said, senpai, she… that girl transferred here in her third year. She was a really strange one. I didn’t know if she had trouble making friends or if she didn’t even care about having any in the first place, but she was really independent.
“I was her very first friend and probably her only friend in this entire city. She told me this herself, after all. The two of us made a promise that’d we’d never leave each other.”
“That’s a tough promise to keep.”
“I didn’t think so when I made it, apparently. I was pretty dumb.”
She beamed at me.
“I mean, I was in middle school after all. Kids in middle school are all pretty dumb, aren’t they.”
You’re one to talk considering you just graduated from it two months ago.
“We didn’t really talk that much while we were in school. It felt like a secret between the two of us. That’s why I don’t think anyone really knew about us being friends even though we were in the same grade. The second school got out, however, she’d show me all sorts of ways to have a good time. She took me to concerts, she taught me billiards, and we even started something like a little band. She was also the one who taught me about ‘MilleFleur’ jam, like the one we saw on your birthday. I told you I got this snow tan from when I went skiing, but it was the first time I ever tried it when she took me on a ski trip. It was really fun.”
“It wasn’t snowboarding?”
“I keep saying it was skiing, jeez.”
As someone who had embraced the energy-saving lifestyle, I didn’t really know a lot about the different ways one could mess around.
That said, there was something that I did understand about the whole thing. To have that kind of fun, you needed money.
Ōhinata had gone on a ski trip to Iwate. She had followed a band on tour from Sendai to Fukuoka. As I heard her mention these things, I always wondered what she was doing about the money.
My sister travelled the world on a whim, but the only reason she could do that was because she earned enough money to make that possible. Ōhinata wouldn’t have that ability most likely as a middle school student. I had originally thought that her family was simply wealthy enough for those kinds of expenses to be covered by her allowance, but judging by the complaints she accidentally talked about while in Blend, I ruled that out as being impossible.
“And then… I ran out of money.”
Only her mouth was still smiling.
“If I remember correctly, your family doesn’t let you work part-time, right?”
“That’s right. They’re pretty strict.”
“Even though they let you go on those trips?”
“Only because I was with someone else. Essentially, they don’t trust me.”
Ōhinata then muttered something else, almost sounding like she herself hadn’t thought of it up until this very moment.
“Even if they said it was okay for me to get a part-time, I’m not even sure I would have wanted to do it to support that kind of fun anyways…”
Ōhinata had previously said “it was really fun.” I couldn’t imagine that being a lie, however it also looked as if she couldn’t truly enjoy it from the bottom of her heart because of the wasteful spending that accompanied it.
“Even though I made it a point to say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have any money at the moment,’ I don’t think it quite got through to her. She was quite peculiar, you see, so she’d just tell me to take care of it somehow so we could continue doing stuff together. I couldn’t do anything about what didn’t exist however, and besides, I had exams coming up. While I was at a loss for what to do, she told me, ‘Just leave it to me.’ She told me, ‘It’s fine. We’re friends, aren’t we?’”
There were any number of ways to get your hands on some money, even for a middle school student. The only problem was how you would go about implementing them.
After talking to this point, Ōhinata started to fumble around with her words. She was likely still on the fence about if she should continue or not. It would probably be for the best if I helped her out.
“…When you have something you want to avoid talking about at all costs, it’s really difficult when you end up face-to-face with another thing that brings that very subject up.”
Ōhinata tilted her head to the side as if unsure about what to say.
“If that kind of thing remains out in the open, someone is bound to suddenly become curious regarding it. If you make a concerted effort to hide it, however, people are liable to become even more interested in why you did that.”
Take my birthday, for example. I was constantly distressed about how I might go about dealing with the lucky cat that pointed to the fact that Chitanda had come to my house once before. As long as it sat there on the table, I wasn’t sure when it’d be brought up in conversation. It was too unnatural for me to simply remove it, however, so I couldn’t do that either.
“By the time Chitanda arrived, something had disappeared unnaturally. I could pretty much guess what had happened because of that.”
“When we went to the coffee shop.”
Ōhinata probably did it subconsciously, which was also probably why she didn’t understand what I was getting at right away. When she did, however, her eyes opened wide and she stared at me unblinkingly.
“Oh, now that you mention it…! Senpai, you even noticed that?”
When we were at the coffee shop, Ōhinata had hid something.
The magazine Shinsou.
If I recall correctly, Satoshi had noticed the copy of Shinsou in the magazine rack and had asked Ōhinata if she could grab it for him. She had had a difficult time pulling it out. The rack was so crammed tight with various newspapers and magazines that she had to hold it down with one hand as she pulled the copy of Shinsou out.
Before Chitanda arrived, the conversation had turned to be about the weather report. I forget the details, but while we were leaving I went to go pull out the newspaper from the magazine rack to verify if what I had said initially about the weather was correct. At that point, the newspaper had easily slid out.
There was space where the copy of Shinsou had previously been.
Shinsou had disappeared from the magazine rack. Of course, it wasn’t left behind on the counter either. It wasn’t really that important where it had disappeared to; it was probably simply hidden somewhere. What was strange, however, was why it had disappeared in the first place. It wasn’t obvious at all. Someone had done it on purpose, and if it was on purpose, why would they do it?
“The Suitou Co. incident… In other words, it was because of the story involving the stolen money con featured in that copy of Shinsou. You casually took it with you when you went to go use the restrooms. To think it would be exposed by something like that though…”
Ōhinata let loose an unnatural sigh.
“Forget Chitanda-senpai, I should’ve been more wary of you, Oreki-senpai.”
“How rude. I treated you to dango, didn’t I?”
“They really are delicious.”
She ate another ball, and only one more yomogi remained.
“I’m such an idiot. There’s no way of knowing for sure that that just having the magazine in the rack would automatically steer the conversation that way.”
“What the hell was I doing? Maybe even I don’t know the answer to that…”
After muttering this to herself, she turned to face me and nodded slightly.
“It looks like you basically understand what happened, Oreki-senpai, so I’ll just say it. That girl’s uncle was part of a rich family. Even I wouldn’t be scared if Chitanda-senpai simply had a lot of connections. The fact was, however, that she belonged to an old family, so they would naturally have a lot of old connections to other houses as well, right? She could’ve one day simply said with a smile that she went over to that very house to exchange greetings, couldn’t she have?”
It was an undeniable possibility.
“That’s right. My ‘friend’ deceived her own uncle to get money.”
“A lot of money?”
“It was a lot of money.”
Ōhinata stared at the last remaining dango as she continued.
“I was so scared. Had the police… no, that’s not it. Even had they found out everything, the police would’ve only arrested her, not me. I had nothing to do with it. However, I was afraid of her. If it was in order to be with her ‘friend’, she would do anything. She could even casually laugh off committing a crime. And that ‘friend’ was me. I didn’t know what to do. I had completely misjudged the distance between us. That’s what I’ve always thought.”
Although the sun shone so fiercely above us, Ōhinata’s body shivered for a second.
“After she learned that I was coming to Kamiyama High School, she said so many things to me. Things like ‘Oh yeah? So that’s the kind of person you are?’ and ‘You’re just bursting at the seams with lies, aren’t you?’ She was barely a couple points short on her exam so she couldn’t get in. In the end, however, even though we were going to different schools, we once more promised that we would remain friends and then promptly graduated. After entering high school, I’ve came to realize something. I was so incredibly relieved.”
Her voice gradually became louder.
“But that’s a terrible story, isn’t it. Even though its shape is twisted in her head, she still thinks of me as her only ‘friend’. …I don’t want to abandon her. If there was some kind of misunderstanding between the two of us, shouldn’t I try to remedy that? I can’t abandon her. I’m not allowed to abandon her. It would be wrong for me as a human being. That’s what I kept telling myself.
“And yet I’m so afraid of it all. I’m afraid of her crime being exposed and I’m afraid of my friendship with her being exposed. The second the idea of Chitanda-senpai coming up to me and saying “You’re friends with her, right?” entered my mind, I couldn’t bear to face her any longer.”
Ōhinata then faced the asphalt in front of us and started to scream like she wanted to crush her words into it.
“I’m… I’m such an idiot!”
The dango shop’s owner came out and handed us both tea. We graciously accepted it but there was nothing else we needed. We had been able to rest up completely during this stop in our journey, but we had to eventually reach the finish line.
I stood up and spoke to Ōhinata as she remained sitting.
“Chitanda would be really happy if you joined the club. Ibara and Satoshi as well.”
When she raised her head however, she showed me a faint smile as she lightly shook her head.
“I got all scared on my own and then went and blamed it on Chitanda-senpai, and I even ended up saying all those terrible things to her. How could I possibly face her after all that?”
“It was just a moment of anxiety. Things will go back to normal before you realize it. Chitanda doesn’t hold anything against you; in fact she might even be able to help.”
Even I knew that that was impossible at this point. I may have cleared up the misunderstanding between them, but that only proved that Chitanda was entirely unrelated to Ōhinata’s problem.
“I know you’ve been hurt, but you can’t take it out on us.” That was all I said.
And then, as expected, Ōhinata started to shake her head once more.
“I’ll go and apologize to Chitanda-senpai eventually, but I don’t think that I can bear being in the same place as her yet.”
“I see. I’ll be going ahead then.”
The second I turned to leave, she called out to me.
“Do you remember, senpai? Do you remember what I said to you in the front gardens when I decided to join the Classics Club amidst all the recruiting?”
I relaxed my shoulders as I responded.
I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell she was smiling regardless.
“You’re so full of it.”
How was she always able to tell? Was I really that easy to read?
“Seeing friends with each other makes me happier than anything else in the world. I mean it. So what I’m saying, senpai, is… these past two months… I think they really saved me.”
At this moment, maybe I should’ve turned around and said something else to her. “If you ever feel like it, feel free to stop by anytime.” In the end, however, I couldn’t. Her words came out much faster.
“The dango were good. …Thank you very much.”
- A Japanese, ball-shaped sweet usually made from rice and flour, often sold in 3s on a stick. ↩
- Originally the Japanese idiom, “If you end up eating poison, you might as well finish the plate.” (毒を食らわば皿まで) ↩
- ¥240 ≈ $2.40 ↩
- Mitarashi dango is the more common rice-flour type dipped in a soy/sugar sauce, while yomogi is a steamed rice type flavored with mugwort. ↩