Table of Contents
The long season of rain had ended, and only a single petal-like cloud floated in the night sky, illuminated by the crescent moon. The breeze that entered the room was warm, despite the time of night, and seemed to herald the coming of summer. Although I became aware of the house lights scattered about in the distance, I continued to press the organ’s keys, my eyes scanning a sheet of music.
I memorized the basic progression of notes that flowed out and then proceeded to slowly hum the tune. I felt a little embarrassed when imagining how far this “la-la-la” melody of mine might carry through a night this silent, and my voice became soft.
As if drowning in the sound myself, I hummed the same song countless times. At last, I had become nearly satisfied with the accuracy of my pitch and took a deep breath, intending to add the lyrics on my next attempt.
At that moment, a voice called to me from the other side of the sliding door.
It was my father.
It was incredibly rare for him to come all the way to my room to call for me. Perhaps the organ, or maybe my humming, had been too loud. I timidly responded.
“Come to the shrine room.”
As usual, his voice was serious, but he didn’t appear to be angry. I was relieved, yet all the more struck by how mysterious it was. The shrine room was often used when there was something important to discuss, but I couldn’t possibly imagine what there was to talk about.
“I’ll be there shortly.”
The sound of footsteps faded away. It seemed that today’s practice was complete. I closed the lid of the organ and shut the window.
Suddenly, as I left my room, I became inexplicably hesitant. What exactly was it that he wanted to talk about? For no particular reason, I felt a terrible apprehension.
—Maybe I could just continue to hum instead?
Even thoughts like these passed through my head at that moment.
Of course I couldn’t. As I approached the moment of truth, I somehow managed to steel my nerves a little. I smiled as I thought about my earlier moment of panic and turned off the lights in my room.
Beyond the window, across which the curtains had not been closed, a small cloud drifted in front of the moon.
After completing their finals, solely waiting for the start of summer break, all of Kamiyama High School had been enveloped by an atmosphere of lethargy; the Earth Sciences lecture room was no exception. That said, it’s not like I could really say that this kind of atmosphere wasn’t the norm from the start. I had the feeling that it was the first time in a long while that all four members were gathered in the clubroom at the same time.
Each of us sat in whichever seat we wanted, in a room that could fit an entire class. That said, it wasn’t like any of us were that far apart from another. We all tended to sit somewhat close to the center.
Chitanda and I were silently reading. My book was about a ninja, a princess, and their illegitimate child; their story consisted entirely of a rapid succession of major incidents, all completely devoid of any subtle literary workings or underpinnings, with each chapter simply showing someone getting into some kind of pinch or another. There wasn’t a single difficult aspect about it—a truly pleasant read. For a mind like mine, one that had been ravaged by tests, I can say it was an undeniably perfect fit.
I had no idea what Chitanda was reading. It was a large book abundant with photos, so I assumed it might be something like a travel guide, but I couldn’t see it very well from where I was sitting, nor did I really even make the effort to do so. At any rate, it didn’t appear to be very interesting as even Chitanda herself stared vacantly at its pages.
Ibara and Satoshi were scribbling over and over all over an open notebook and talking about who-knows-what with each other… But as I paused between my chapters and peeked at the two, it appeared that Ibara was the one leading the discussion. With a pen in her hand and a conflicted expression, she spoke.
“It’s the hand. The problem has to be the hand,” she muttered.
Satoshi nodded, as if in complete agreement. “I see, the hand, huh?”
“This guy can’t use his right hand… Actually, if I could draw it like it was a psychological thing—that he didn’t want to use it instead—that could set up some good foreshadowing.”
“I see, foreshadowing, huh?”
It appeared they were outlining the plot to a manga.
Ever since Ibara had left the manga research society, she hadn’t shown any reserve with regards to drawing manga. Simply put, maybe because both Chitanda and I had known about her creations, there wasn’t any point in feeling embarrassed or trying to hide it. Or perhaps quitting the manga society had caused something within her to change.
Ever since the beginning, it had been decided that Chitanda would inherit her family’s business. With Ibara also being resolute in her passions, only Satoshi’s and my pathetic indecision was brought to the fore. What a troubling situation.
…No, the two of us were normal. These 11th graders with absolutely no uncertainty regarding their future pursuits—these two girls who only wanted to refine their beloved skills—they were the strange ones.
“It’d be fine if I made someone ask him ‘What happened to your hand?’ but he’s alone in this scenario. Looking at your own hand and then breaking out into some sort of self-deprecating speech feels so forced too… What should I do…?”
“I see, alone, huh?”
As he listened with a huge grin, Satoshi added only this.
“What do you do when you’re alone?”
“What do I do… um…”
Without even acknowledging him, Ibara crossed her arms and glared up at the ceiling. Finally, her eyes suddenly sparkled and she spoke up.
“I see! Nice job Fuku-chan, that’s it! I didn’t have to think very hard about it after all. Why did I try to make it so complicated? All I have to do is make him drink some coffee. He’ll try to hold the coffee in his right hand, but in the next panel do it with his left instead. Yeah, that’s natural, that’s what I’ll do.”
I had no clue what was going on, but it looked like she thought up a nice idea. Ibara drew some broad strokes in the notebook, and then finally closed it with an emphatic “Okay!”
“Did you finish the first step?”
“For the most part. I can’t start drawing yet, but with this, I think I can basically visualize the completed product.”
“Good to hear.”
And then Satoshi added, “This time, at least tell me what kind of story it will be.”
So he had essentially been offering remark after remark to her monologue without knowing what kind of story it was. I didn’t know whether I should’ve been disappointed in him or simply impressed.
Perhaps relieved after overcoming that hurdle, Ibara spoke with somewhat less enthusiasm than before.
“Speaking of coffee, something strange happened to me a while back.”
“I went to an art supplies shop in Kiryuu, but…”
“Kiryuu? Why would you go that far?!”
Although Satoshi was the one that interrupted her story, I understood where he was coming from. Kiryuu was the northernmost part of this city and even by car took up to twenty minutes to reach from Kamiyama High School. From Ibara’s house, it could take an hour at worst. There should be at least one art supplies store nearby. With a somewhat irritated expression, she responded.
“Yeah, the thing is… there’s an old tone that I can only get at that shop. I don’t use it much, but it was just in case.”
“Huh, I see.”
What on earth is a tone? I suppose I could at least guess that it was something used when drawing a manga. I wasn’t really interested in eavesdropping any more so I decided to return to my book, only to notice that my wristwatch nearing 5:00. If I were to start a new chapter now, I undoubtedly wouldn’t be able to finish it before the school gates close. I decided to save it for when I return home and closed the book. Possibly noticing my movements, Ibara turned to face me.
“Oreki, listen to this, too.”
“I already am.”
“Oh yeah? So, after I finished shopping, I ended up getting really thirsty and decided to go to a nearby café since finals had just ended and all. Apparently they had really good coffee, so I got that, and, like, it had this weird taste. I wonder why.”
“I’m imagining you getting coffee in a café. You’re just like Houtarou.” Satoshi suppressed a laugh.
Ibara grumpily puffed out her cheeks. “It was research, just research! Hey, I was able to think of something good because of it, wasn’t I?”
“I know, I know. So? Why was the taste weird?”
Although it was essentially an obligation to Satoshi, I had gone to cafes several times. It wasn’t to the extent that I could appreciate the subtle differences between different types of coffee, but I could at least distinguish a good one from a bad one. That said, for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what a weird-tasting coffee might taste like.
Ibara dismissingly waved her hand in front of her face. “Oh, by ‘weird taste,’ I was talking about the sugar.”
I was becoming more and more confused. Sugar is sweet; that much doesn’t change. Satoshi looked confused as well, but he eventually broke out into a smile.
“I understand. It was sour, right?”
“…Fuku-chan, you’re making fun of me, aren’t you.”
“I’m just having a little fun.”
Ibara glared at his nonchalant smile for a little bit, but then finally let out a small sigh. “That’s not it. It was sweet.”
“Wasn’t it normal then?” Satoshi and I unexpectedly responded at the same time.
Ibara slammed her fist down on the desk with a thud. “We’re having this discussion right now because I’m saying it wasn’t!”
Ibara glared at the both of us as if to make sure our mouths were thoroughly glued shut and then continued. “It wasn’t just sweet, it was extremely sweet. I’ve never had anything like it other than those over-sweetened canned coffees, so I was really surprised.”
“Didn’t you just put too much in?” I replied, and then, as if apologizing for not giving enough information, she abruptly nodded her head.
“Let’s see. Starting from the beginning, I ordered a coffee and cake set. It was a lemon cake and honestly not that sweet, in my opinion. They asked me if I wanted milk and sugar and I told them that I did. The coffee that the server brought out had the milk in it already, and then there were two sugar cubes placed on the saucer. I took one sip and thought it was pretty normal, so I added one cube and tasted it again and… well… it was basically sugar water at that point.”
Satoshi nodded gently. “So, it was a sugar cube, huh… If they gave you a small bowl of sugar and a spoon, I could understand why it might be too sweet; you might’ve simply added too much in that case.”
“It was quite shocking for a single sugar cube to turn it that sweet, so I couldn’t help but think it was strange. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, but nothing else was out of the ordinary.”
Satoshi crossed his arms and tilted his head in thought. “Hmm, overly sweet sugar, huh?“
“Right? It’s strange, right?”
“It is, but that’s not to say I can’t think of a reason why.”
Ibara leaned forward. “Really?”
Satoshi nodded solemnly. “There are sweeteners that are hundreds—no, thousands—of times sweeter than sugar. If you added as much of them as you would normal sugar, of course you’d get something ridiculously sweet.”
“Hmph!” Ibara gave a single dissatisfied grunt and then continued with a wary expression. “Sure it was really sweet, but, just like I said earlier, it wasn’t as undrinkable as canned coffee is for me. And besides, have you ever seen a shop that gives you sweetener in the shape of a sugar cube?”
“No, I haven’t. I can’t even imagine something like that existing.”
Then why did you even mention it?
“Maybe it was some kind of strong tasting sugar. For example, it used a different manufacturing process, or maybe it came from a difference source.”
Satoshi uncrossed his arms and turned his head to look at Chitanda.
“Hey, Chitanda-san. Do you have any idea?”
“Huh?” Chitanda, who had been absentmindedly reading a book, raised her head as if suddenly being brought back to reality by Satoshi’s question. “Uh, about what?”
Our voices had been fairly loud while we were talking, however it appeared that not an ounce of it reached her ears. With a large grin, Satoshi responded. “Mayaka was talking about how she went to a café and did this and that, and how they brought out some sugar cubes for her. We were thinking that there might’ve been something special about it that made it sweeter than normal sugar. Don’t you know a lot about different kinds of foods?”
“Oh, that’s what it was.”
Chitanda closed the book in her hands and smiled, but I suddenly felt an unsettling discomfort from her expression. From the very beginning, she was a reserved person. She didn’t smile wide, get angry, or say anything bluntly. And yet, even after ruling that out, her current smile looked stiff, almost like it was manufactured.
Chitanda responded in a soft voice. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure. We don’t grow sugarcane or sugar beet.”
“I see. I was thinking you might’ve produced it at some point.”
She immediately casted her eyes downwards, only slightly.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Gotcha. My bad, my bad. Sorry for asking such a strange question. I wonder what the deal with the sweet sugar is then. It’s surprisingly difficult to solve. I’m a little curious.”
“Yes, I wonder.”
Judging by how she responded, since she couldn’t enter the conversation, it seemed she was thinking about something else after all.
Ibara stared at me as if trying to say something. If I had to guess, it was probably something along the lines of “Doesn’t Chi-chan look a little off? Do you know anything?” I shook my head to add an “I have no idea.”
Our unspoken conversation created an awkward silence during the break in discussion. As if trying to salvage the conversation, Satoshi spun around to face me and asked a question. “What do you think, Houtarou? Do you think it was a special type of sugar after all?”
Listening to the conversation, a thought did in fact cross my mind at one point. I didn’t see any real need to bring it up as long as I wasn’t asked, but now that I have been, I didn’t see any real need to keep quiet about it either.
“I don’t think it’s as difficult as you’re making it out to be,” I responded.
“Wait, really?” Satoshi looked astonished.
On the other hand, Ibara’s eyes came alive. “What do you mean? Weren’t you listening? I didn’t see anything other than a normal sugar cube.”
“Then it was probably just a normal sugar cube.”
“Was it that my taste was off after all?”
“I thought you were insisting that wasn’t the case.” I scratched my head. “Didn’t you mention it earlier—what happened to the coffee that the server brought for you?”
Satoshi responded immediately. “She said that the saucer had two sugar cubes on it.”
“That’s right, but I’m not talking about the sugar cubes.”
Both Ibara and Satoshi became quiet as puzzled expressions appeared on their faces. I glanced at Chitanda out of the corner of my eye, and while it seemed she was listening somewhat, she stared blankly as if she had no idea I just asked a question.
“Ibara. When you ordered the coffee, what did the shopkeeper ask you?”
“I already told you. They asked if I wanted milk and sugar.”
“Was that was they said, word-for-word?”
Ibara looked down as if retracing her memories and then finally shook her head. “I can’t remember it very well.”
“I might’ve sounded a bit harsh when I asked that, sorry. It’s only natural to forget something like that. I was just thinking that maybe they asked, ‘Would you like us to add milk and sugar?’”
“But I had taken a sip and then added the sugar cube because I thought it was too bitter. That shouldn’t have been the case if the sugar was in it from the very beginning.”
“You’d think so. By the way, what did you do after you put in the sugar cube?”
“I drank it.”
“No, I mean before that.”
“I had the lemon cake, but—”
“I’m not talking about that.”
Chitanda, who had been merely listening up until that point, timidly began to speak.
“Umm… Maybe what Oreki-san’s talking about is the fact that you mixed it.”
Hearing that, Satoshi immediately spoke up. “Oh, that’s it!” He turned to Ibara and continued enthusiastically. “That’s right. The coffee that Mayaka drank had sugar in it from the very beginning, but the problem was that it had sunk to the bottom, so you didn’t taste any sweetness. After you mixed in the sugar cube on top of that—”
Ibara also exclaimed with the realization. “I see. It had the potency of two sugar cubes mixed into it at once.”
“Yeah, that does seem pretty likely. That has to be it.”
After saying that, Satoshi nodded with deep satisfaction and then turned to smile at me.
“I gotta say, you’re quite the armchair detective, aren’t you?”
It’s not like I came up with anything ingenious… It could probably just be chalked up as a lapse of memory from the involved party—Ibara.
But, Ibara, on the other hand, hesitantly responded: “Yeah… I guess it does make sense, but… my memory is hazy; I get the feeling that I can’t say with 100% certainty that that’s the answer. I feel like maybe I should go one more time to confirm it.”
Considering that the cafe was next to the art supplies store she frequented, she’d probably have the chance to go again in the future. At any rate, there was nothing more we could do with the information we had. Thinking it was about time to go home, I began to pack away my paperback.
At that moment, Satoshi suddenly piped up. “Let’s go to confirm it then.”
As I proceeded to wish the two of them good luck on their travels…
“We have to start working on the anthology after all,” he continued.
“That’s true. You do have a point there.”
In order to prepare for the eventual culture festival, we certainly did not need to travel all the way outside the city; staying at the school would suffice. At the same time, however, a trip to a cafe to resolve the mystery behind the overly sweet sugar wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea. I refrained from reacting.
All I said was, “It would get too late if we left now.”
The clock on the wall read 5:40.
“That’s a good point. Then tomorrow“—he paused—”actually I’m busy then. I have student council business.”
Tomorrow was the end-of-term ceremony. Being a member of the general council, Satoshi likely had stuff to do.
“Will the day after tomorrow work?”
Not that I cared, but doing preparation work on the first day of summer break would be quite diligent of us. Ibara didn’t seem to have any objections either. Just as I assumed it would be a done deal, Chitanda spoke in a small voice almost like a whisper.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be preoccupied that day.”
Ibara’s face suddenly changed. “Ah, that’s right. I forgot.”
Neither Satoshi nor I had said a thing, but a stiff, impermeable atmosphere suddenly overtook the room. Ibara faced us then continued.
“Chi-chan’s performing in the choir festival,” she said.
“So that’s what it was. I guess that day won’t work then.”
Satoshi nodded, seemingly convinced, but I was left confused. This school had been feverishly enhanced with event after event, starting with the culture festival, but I had never once heard of the choir festival.
“They put on something like that over summer break? Do they have it in the gym?”
I received two cold stares in response.
“Of course not.”
“It’s an event hosted by the city.”
So it wasn’t a school activity. I guess that only makes sense; no matter how much I averted my gaze from the energy on this campus, there was no way I’d go without even knowing an event existed. What a relief.
“It’s called the Ejima Choir Festival, named after Sandou Ejima, a famous composer from Kamiyama city. They do it every year round this time. Choir groups come from not only Kamiyama city, but nearby towns as well. They sing all sorts of choir pieces, not just those that Sandou wrote.”
“Never heard of him before.”
This kind of topic was Satoshi’s area of expertise and his alone. He seemed aware of this himself, and his ego inflated accordingly.
“He was a writer of nursery rhymes in the Taisho era children’s magazine, ‘Red Candle.’ He wrote alongside Hakushuu Kitahara, Yaso Saijou, and Ujou Noguchi. Together, they were dubbed the ‘four heavenly kings of children’s songs. ‘“
That last ‘kings’ bit was undeniably made up by Satoshi.
“I was invited by Chi-chan to participate, so I went to a practice once; but now that I want to work on my manga…” Ibara mentioned somewhat apologetically. While she said this to me, it was likely aimed in part at Chitanda as well, though she didn’t say anything in return. She might not have been aware that Ibara was talking about her at all.
The Classics Club was of course only one of many activities in Kamiyama High School, and outside of the things that classmates and students in the same year did with each other naturally, there was nothing else connecting us. I didn’t know each and every thing that happened outside of the school, nor did I even think it was important to know in the first place. It’s because of this mentality that the thought of Chitanda and Ibara performing together in a choir only came as a light surprise.
Satoshi rested his hands behind his head. “Well, let’s decide when we should meet some other time, then. We can talk about it over the phone.”
Although he mentioned this nonchalantly, he essentially said he would be taking care of it himself. He really was the type of person who took on more work than anyone else and did it without any pomp and circumstance; I really respected him for that.
“Yes, that will be fine.”
With Chitanda’s reply, it seemed that at least today’s activities were over. The days were long at this point in the summer; even though it was nearing 6:00, there was no trace of the nighttime sky.
I put my novel in my bag and stood up. “Well then, I’ll be going now.”
“Oh yeah, see ya.”
I wasn’t intent on peeking, but as I was leaving the lecture room, I caught a glimpse of the book Chitanda was reading. It might’ve just been my imagination, but it appeared to be something along the lines of a career guide.
On the first day of summer break, I made myself chilled noodles.
Perhaps due to the ominous clouds lurking in the sky all afternoon, looking as if they’d bring rain at any moment, it was somewhat chilly out as it neared lunchtime despite the summer just beginning. I couldn’t exactly say it was a perfect day for chilled noodles, but I couldn’t really change the menu since the noodles expired today.
I mixed a rough amount of vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and mirin to throw together a quick sauce and then cooked and rinsed the noodles. The toppings I chose were tomatoes, ham, and a thinly cooked omelet wrapping that I had accidently forgotten on the stove and let burn a little. I cut the tomato into several chunks and the ham and egg into thin strips. I couldn’t care less about the presentation, so I dried the noodles, piled them on a plate, and then simply dropped a handful of the toppings on top. Finally, I quickly poured the sauce over it and added the finishing touch: a dash of mustard to the edge of the plate.
I took the plate from the kitchen to the living room and prepared some chopsticks and barley tea; with that, the preparations were complete. As I readied myself to enjoy the meal, taking the chopsticks in hand, the phone started to ring.
I stubbornly ignored it as it continued to ring and looked at the clock hanging on the wall. While I was ready to be utterly offended that they had called right in the middle of lunchtime, it had already turned 2:30PM. Since the sun had started to shine in the afternoon, I took the laundry out to dry; it must have taken longer than I thought. I couldn’t exactly claim that the caller had a lack of common sense. I stared intently at the chilled noodles in front of me. Maybe I should be thankful that I chose a noodle dish that wouldn’t go stale. I stood up, swaying back and forth, and picked up the receiver.
“Yes,” I replied in a voice that you couldn’t really blame for being as irritated as it was.
“Hello, my name is Ibara. Is Oreki-san currently home?”
As much as I wanted to tell her that he wasn’t, her voice seemed tense, so I couldn’t bring myself to joke around.
“Oh, Oreki. Thank god. What the heck was up with that deep voice just now?”
“I was just about to eat lunch.”
“I see, sorry about that. In that case, don’t worry about—”
The fact that she called me definitely meant that something had happened. I had no choice but to let the chilled noodles sit for a little longer.
“I don’t mind. What is it?”
“The thing is…”
It felt like I could hear hesitation from the other end of the call. She finally asked.
“Do you know any places Chi-chan might go?”
I moved the receiver to my other hand.
“…Why are you asking me?”
Her response carried a harsh tone.
“I called everyone I could think of. You’re the last one.”
I wanted to ask her what had happened, but I could tell her back was up against the wall. The explanation would have to wait until later.
“My first guess would probably be the school.”
“After that would be the city library. There’s the place next to Kaburaya Middle School—what’s it called—the café that we went to with Ohinata. There’s also Pineapple Sand, though it moved.”
I continued to offer her names as I thought of places Chitanda might go. In the end, however, my best guess was the library. Even I realized that the possibility of her going to a café on her own was slim.
“Got it, thanks. I didn’t think of the library. Fuku-chan’s doing general committee stuff at the school, so I asked him to look around, but he said her shoes aren’t there.”
“I see… Did anything happen?” I asked, and remembered what we talked about previously, “Wasn’t the choir festival today? Chitanda didn’t show up?”
“No, she hasn’t.”
So that’s why she was in such a rush.
“She goes on stage at 6:00, so we still have time, but she’s nowhere to be found.”
After I heard her say 6:00, somehow I felt the strength leave my body.
“Couldn’t she have just slept in?”
“She’s not like you.”
“Sure, I’ve been late to things here and there, but I’ve never once slept past my alarm. Never mind, that’s beside the point. Doesn’t that mean you just have to delay the preparations a little bit?”
She responded with clear irritation in her voice: “That’s not it. There’s an old lady saying that she rode the bus with Chi-chan all the way from Jinde, where her house is, to the cultural center.”
I guess the choir festival was being held in the city’s cultural center. I could bike there from my house in around 10 minutes.
“So then she disappeared after arriving at the cultural center, huh. Considering you’re calling even me, I guess that means you’ve already searched the building.”
“Many times. She’s nowhere to be found.”
I switched hands once more.
“Should I be worried?”
“I don’t know. I feel like she’ll come in time, but the choir leader ended up getting worried and asked me to call people that know her.”
“It might be a bit late to ask this, but why are you there in the first place?”
“Did I tell you I participated in one of the practices? I just thought I’d come to help out as long as it was just for one day.”
So that’s what it was. “I understand. Well, at any rate, she hasn’t shown up here.”
I had said that as a joke, hoping it would help calm Ibara down a little as she seemed tense, but she responded coldly instead: “I didn’t think she went to your house.”
“Is that so.”
“…Well, thanks anyways. I’m hanging up now.”
The line disconnected. I set the receiver down and turned back to my chilled noodles.
It had one huge advantage that normal soba didn’t: I wouldn’t burn myself. I could eat it in however short of a period I’d like.
The Kamiyama City Cultural Center was a four-story tall building covered in red tiles that resembled bricks; it was separated into two areas, one large hall and one small hall, both of which gave a grand impression. I didn’t know how many people each could hold at first, but from looking at the information board, the large hall had around 1200 people and the smaller one 400. A signboard reading “Ejima Choir Festival” stood in the black marble atrium beyond the entranceway with a fair number of people walking about.
The choir festival itself had apparently started at 2:00. The fact that there were still four more hours before Chitanda went on stage was a testament to the sheer number of choir groups that must’ve been participating. Or perhaps there was an afternoon segment and an evening segment. Either way, there was nothing written on the signboard that revealed the answer to me.
I went to the information counter and started speaking to the clerk dressed in a light blue uniform.
The clerk was a woman who, even after seeing I was a student, retained her cheery, polite attitude.
“Yes. How may I help you?”
At that moment, I suddenly had a vicious realization. I didn’t know the name of the choir group that Chitanda belonged to. I thought if I went to the group’s waiting room I’d be able to meet up with Ibara, but because of this I had no way of asking.
“Um…” The clerk’s cheery attitude changed into confusion.
I thought for a second about how to construct my question.
Ah! I guess there wasn’t any reason to worry.
“Could you tell me where the waiting room is for the group that performs at 6:00?”
The clerk smiled brightly at me and then started to search through some files in her hands.
“At 6:00 is the Kamiyama Mixed Chorus. Their room is A7, on the second floor.”
As I expected, it was a pretty straightforward name. I thanked her and proceeded to go to the second floor.
I quickly found my destination: the A7 waiting room. Judging by the space between the doors leading to its neighboring rooms, the space inside was probably around 20 square meters. The door was off-white, almost gray, and made of metal. On it, held up by a piece of scotch tape, was a sheet of printer paper reading “Kamiyama Mixed Chorus.” The metal looked as if it would ring like a gong if knocked, so I skipped that and simply opened it.
The person inside looked at me as if someone flicked them in the face. It was Ibara. Once she realized it was me that entered, her eyes widened in surprise.
“Hey.” I held up a hand as I came inside.
As I did that, my foot got caught on an umbrella stand propped up next to the door. It looked rather unsteady, and, even though I didn’t think I put much force into it, it toppled over. The umbrella it held rolled out onto the carpet.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
It was supposed to be something along the lines of “the brave reinforcements have arrived,” but I ended up having a terrible first step. An elderly woman sitting in a folding chair nearby said, “Oh dear,” and went to stand up. It guess it was her umbrella.
“Sorry.” I apologized while putting the stand upright and placing the umbrella back in it. My hands ended up getting wet, so I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and wiped them off.
“No, I’m the one who should be sorry.”
The lady said only this as she sat back down. She wore a black jacket and a black skirt, reminiscent of mourning attire, and the way she sat up straight left a strong impression.
Waiting Room A7 was just as large as I had initially imagined from the hallway, but the room was surprisingly sparse, giving it a deserted feeling. Aside from the ten or so folding chairs set up in the room, there was only a single desk lined up next to the wall bordering the hallway–nothing more. The desk was being used to hold personal belongings; on it was a row of bags. Along the other walls were more folding chairs stacked up against each other in their closed positions. Possibly due to their performance still being some time away, only Ibara and the elderly woman were in the room. Ibara jumped up and came over to me. As if forgiving me for my earlier umbrella mishap, the first thing she said was: “You came. Thanks.”
Although we had discussed this over the phone, I could only think about how intrusive I was. Who am I to recklessly stick my head into problems unrelated to school? And yet, well, I thought it’d be too heartless to simply continue pulling apart strands of chilled noodles while knowing that something this troubling was happening so close by. With that, I decided to come. That said, being appreciated like this gave me a somewhat awkward feeling. For some reason, I averted my eyes from Ibara’s gaze and looked around the room.
“It looks like Chitanda is still missing.”
“That’s right. She doesn’t have a cellphone either…”
“When was she supposed to be here?” As I said this, I briefly glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost 3:30.
“That’s pretty early, isn’t it?”
“The choir group representatives had to go on stage when the concert started at 2:00. Chi-chan was supposed to go.”
“There was an opening event, huh? So then her real performance is at 6:00. Have the other members arrived?”
“Everyone who was supposed to come in the afternoon came in time—they’re currently listening to the other groups sing. The members that join us in the evening are supposed to show up around 5:00.”
If that was the case, even if Chitanda didn’t show up at 5:00, there shouldn’t be any major effect on the group as a whole. That was a small relief, but the fact that Chitanda suddenly disappeared after coming to the center without telling anybody wasn’t a small issue.
I was worrying a little bit about whether or not I should tell her what was on my mind, but considering Ibara seemed to be almost desperately anxious, I had to ask.
“Do you really need Chitanda?”
“In a chorus, a lot of people are singing, right? Of course it’s not ideal, but missing only one person shouldn’t pose any real problems, right?”
Ibara shook her head. “That won’t work.”
“Why not? Are her parents coming or something?”
“They may be coming, but that’s not the problem… Chi-chan has a solo.”
Dear god. I looked up at the ceiling.
I had no idea what kind of song they were singing, but the person who sings the solo is the star. The fact that she was missing was no laughing matter. While Ibara was probably genuinely concerned about Chitanda’s wellbeing, the rest of the choir group was likely anxious that they might not even be able to go up on stage at all.
In order to shake off the negative atmosphere, I tried asking a question.
“What other information do you have about her whereabouts?”
Ibara took out a small notebook that looked like it could fit in the palm of her hand. She rifled through the pages as she answered.
“Juumonji-san told me she didn’t go to her place. Other than the school, she told me Castle Park and Kobundo Bookstore. Irisu-senpai mentioned a clothing store called Houki-ya and Arekusu Shrine.”
I scratched my head.
“I don’t know about Houki-ya, but the rest are really far. If she came here by bus, she would’ve probably had to walk. All of those places would take way too long to walk to.”
“I think she could if she really wanted to, but I can’t imagine why she would.”
“The train station is within walking distance, so you’re saying she could’ve taken a different bus at the bus center in front of the station, huh.”
“But would she do that?”
I couldn’t see it happening… if it was a normal situation of course. There was a fundamental question regarding all of this.
“Hey, did Chitanda go somewhere of her own accord? Or, and I hate to say this, do you think she got wound up in some incident?”
“Don’t ask something that horrible…”
Her voice was terribly faint.
“There’s no way I could answer that. I have no way of knowing.”
That was only to be expected. I continued to scratch my head.
The knob on the door turned with a metallic clanking noise, and the door itself opened shortly after. Ibara and I turned to face the entrance, but the person standing there was not Chitanda; instead, a woman who looked to be somewhere in her forties entered. She had on a beige jacket and in her hair was a shining ornament made from a gem, or maybe a well-crafted piece of glass. She was likely a member of the choir group.
“Danbayashi-san,” called Ibara.
The woman named Danbayashi wore a stiff expression as she walked towards us and asked her question.
“Well? Is she here?”
“I see. This isn’t good.”
Her brow furrowed as she muttered this, and then she continued talking to Ibara as if she suddenly noticed me.
“And this is…?”
“Ah, this is Oreki-kun. We’re in the same club. He came to help search.”
To have her call me “Oreki-kun” didn’t make me feel even slightly more comfortable. As I thought this, Ibara turned her head to look at me.
“I can assume that’s what you’re here to do, right?”
Even though this was the start of summer break, I didn’t come here to play around, as one would expect. As I nodded, Danbayashi-san asked me a question out of nowhere.
“Would you happen to know anything?”
Bewildered, I responded: “No, not at the moment.”
She sighed deeply, almost as if doing it on purpose.
Her expression and voice once more began to ooze irritation as she continued.
“I could tell the pressure was getting to her, but to think she’s not even showing up today. I swear, this is unbelievable.”
“What if she’s just getting her thoughts in order?”
“If that was the case then she should’ve told someone. No matter how nervous she was, disappearing without telling anyone is just plain irresponsible.”
Considering their performance was slated for 6:00, I thought she may have been overreacting somewhat, but at the same time, I suppose it was only natural for her to be flustered when the soloist has gone missing.
However, I couldn’t honestly agree with her theory of Chitanda disappearing due to the pressure. It’s not that I thought she wasn’t the type to get nervous; whenever she found herself speaking on the campus radio, she always ended up scared stiff. Even then, she always managed to do what needed to be done. So, especially in this situation, I found it hard to imagine that she would’ve been unable to cope with the stress. If she was, in fact, not here by her own decision, the reason is likely unrelated to the pressure of having the solo part.
“I suppose we should try calling her house after all.”
Danbayashi-san muttered to herself with her hand over her lips. At that moment, the elderly lady sitting on a folding chair nearby started to speak.
“You needn’t worry; I believe she’ll come in due time.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Yokote-san, but I really can’t help but feel anxious about it.”
Although Danbayashi-san was clearly losing her temper, the woman named Yokote never once lost her gentle tone.
“Many things happen to the youthful—many fortunate things. You should give her another hour without punishing her.”
“Again with that… Didn’t you say the same thing earlier?”
“Well then, I suppose I did.”
Yokote-san remained completely calm, so perhaps embarrassed at her own flustered appearance, Danbayashi-san averted her gaze.
“…True enough, we still have some time left. Fine. We’ll wait a little longer.”
She then left the waiting room immediately after saying this, not even glancing at Ibara nor me on the way out. Hearing the door firmly shut, I asked a question, still somewhat taken aback.
“So, who was that?”
“Danbayashi-san. She’s the choir group’s… how should I describe it? The manager?”
“So the leader?”
“She’s not exactly the lead part, nor is she the group head. Umm, she directs the group.”
I think I get the gist of it. You occasionally meet people like that.
“She mentioned something about ‘earlier.’ Is she always like that?”
Ibara scowled and responded, “Yeah, always.”
I glanced over at Yokote-san. If all the other members had gone to the hall, then I suppose she had some reason to stay here, sitting alone on her folding chair. Another thought struck me, so I decided to ask.
“Hey, Ibara, you said that there was a lady who rode together with Chitanda on the bus from Jinde, right? Was it her?”
“That’s right: Yokote-san.”
Just as I had thought. Although I couldn’t be certain since Jinde is a large district, there’s a strong possibility that Yokote-san lived near Chitanda; they may have even known each other prior to the festival. Her covering for Chitanda to Danbayashi-san lent further credence to that theory.
Perhaps unable to keep still, Ibara started to turn around.
“I’m going to go check the building again.”
“I’ll go in a little bit as well.”
She hurried off and left the two us—Yokote-san and me—alone in the room.
Since Chitanda had disappeared just after arriving at the cultural center, the woman I next to me was probably the last person to have seen her. Searching for Chitanda on foot was all well and good, but where we stood currently, there was no way to even guess where she might’ve gone. I figured I might as well learn from Yokote-san whatever I could.
“Um, excuse me,” I started.
She placed her hands on her lap and tilted her head only slightly with curiosity. “Yes?”
“I hear you rode the bus here together with Chitanda…-san. I’m trying to come up with ideas to find her; would you mind telling me anything you may have noticed?”
“Oh my, you’re…”
Without acknowledging my question, she looked at my face and then suddenly smiled.
“I thought I recognized you from somewhere! You were the young man who held the Chitanda daughter’s umbrella at this year’s Living Doll Festival. You did a splendid job!”
Yes, that had indeed happened. Considering she was a resident of Jinde, it only makes sense that she would’ve seen the festival. Well, her recognizing my face would only play to my advantage.
“Thank you very much. So? What was Chitanda-san acting like?”
As I gave a hurried reply, Yokote-san began to think with “let’s see…” Finally, she began to speak little by little.
“I was by myself at the Jinde bus station. Chitanda-san dropped off the young lady by car and then opened window to offer us well–wishes.”
‘Chitanda-san’ must have referred to Chitanda’s mother or father. For now, it didn’t really matter which one it was.
“The young lady and I then exchanged greetings. After that, the two of us stood under our umbrellas as we waited for the bus to arrive.”
Something that caught my interest was the fact that Chitanda was driven to the bus stop. Couldn’t she have gone all the way to the cultural center that way? Well, a simple answer could be that the drive to the bus stop was shorter than the drive to the cultural center and the “Chitanda-san” mentioned must have had more pressing matters.
If I was intending on searching for her, there was still something essential that I hadn’t asked yet.
“Do you remember what Chitanda…-san was wearing?”
Once more, Yokote-san muttered: “Let’s see.”
“She had on her stage ensemble, so she was wearing a white shirt with a black skirt. Her shoes were also black, too, and her socks were white. She also had her cream-colored bag—oh, and her umbrella was a striking shade of crimson. An unusual choice, I thought.”
If that was the stage outfit, then I had no idea what was up with the beige jacket that Danbayashi-san was wearing earlier. She’d probably change out of it before going on stage.
At any rate, aside from the things she was carrying, Chitanda was entirely in monochrome. Searching for her inside the cultural center would be difficult, but it seemed like she would stand out if she were outside.
“So the two of you rode the bus together?”
“That is correct—just the two of us.”
“Which bus was it?”
“The 1:00 bus, on the dot.”
“When did it arrive here?”
Chitanda was supposed to have arrived here at 1:30, so she had ridden the bus just in time as to not be late. Any earlier and it would have probably eaten into her lunchtime, and there was no reason to come earlier anyways; I applaud her efficiency.
“Chitanda also got off at the cultural center bus stop, right?”
“Yes.” Yokote-san nodded and then added: “The two of us came to this waiting room together, but before I realized it, she was gone.”
Even though the person accompanying Yokote-san had vanished from right in front of her, she simply looked like she was peacefully waiting for Chitanda to return. I wonder where her strength of mind comes from, to display no agitation whatsoever in this bizarre situation.
“Do you have any idea where Chitanda might’ve gone?”
As I asked this final question, Yokote-san returned a peaceful smile. “I’m sure she’s just getting some fresh air to calm her nerves. There’s no need to be worried.”
As I left the waiting room, I could hear some sort of commotion from the entrance hall in the distance. It was the area right before the hallway, where Ibara had gone to check once more.
Although I had come to search the building’s every nook and cranny for her, there wasn’t much time left. Perhaps something had come up, and she had to leave. Ibara saw me standing in front of the waiting room and her brow furrowed a bit.
“You’re still here?”
Without giving me time to respond, she continued.
“Still, this is perfect. Fuku-chan just called to tell me that he’s leaving school and wanted to know if there was anything he could do. I told him I was going to ask you, then get back to him.”
This was a welcome request. Satoshi was a sensible person, so I could trust him with finding information.
We had talked previously about the library and Castle Gardens, so one option would be to have him check those two places, and yet, honestly speaking, I felt like it was gamble with low chances of success. I looked at my wristwatch, and it read a little before 4:00. We would start to feel the crunch soon. I couldn’t afford to use this precious mobility on something pointless like that.
There was something that had been tugging at the back of my mind. I couldn’t exactly shape that thought into coherent sentences yet, but rather than having him run around Kamiyama City to bet on a gamble with chances as thin as paper, I could see continuing this line of thought possibly paying out.
“Have him go to the station.”
Ibara’s voice was almost in hysterics. “What do I tell him to do there?”
Nothing really, I wasn’t planning on having him go on some kind of trip.
“Rather than the station, I want him to go to the bus center that’s connected to it. I want him to get a route map and timetable and bring it here.”
Ibara opened her mouth as if wanting to say something. There was no doubt she wanted to know why, however her expression stiffened as if she revised her thoughts, and she bit her tongue.
“A route map and timetable. I understand,” she nodded, “How will he deliver it?”
“I’ll be waiting at the entrance. It’s crowded there, but it should be fine.”
While saying this, she pulled out her cellphone. Satoshi apparently picked up after a couple seconds, and Ibara then relayed my request over the line.
The call finally ended, and Ibara started talking to me once more, phone still in hand.
“He said he’ll be here in 15 minutes.”
Even if you came here straight from Kamiyama High School, it’d probably take more than 15 minutes, and he wasn’t coming straight here. He was also going to stop at the station for me; there was no way he’d make it in time. He might’ve been trying to express how much he’d be hurrying, but I would have felt terrible if he had ended up getting into an accident because of me.
“Could you text him to not be reckless in coming here?”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I was only half done looking around when I came back, so I’ll finish my search of the building. If I still can’t find her after that, I’m thinking I’ll go search in the nearby park, too. Don’t worry about me; just do what you need to do.”
I had no other choice. After all, I didn’t have a cellphone, so I wouldn’t be able to coordinate my efforts with her.
“I understand. See you, then.”
I headed to the first floor, leaving Ibara as she started to type out her message.
Although the Ejima Choir Festival started at 2:00, the entrance hall was still packed. Since there were a ton of choir groups participating, maybe the place was filling with people who arrived just in time to watch their friends perform. I guess that meant that new people were constantly arriving, didn’t it?
As I stood in the center of the black marble floor of the entrance hall, I scanned all around me just to confirm that Chitanda wasn’t there.
She was supposedly wearing a white shirt and black skirt. There were plenty of people whose clothes matched that description, but none of them even slightly resembled Chitanda. Well, I suppose if she were here, she’d return to the waiting room by herself without any need for me to worry.
I hadn’t noticed it previously, but there were some Ejima Choir Festival pamphlets stacked up on the information counter. I took one to kill time as I waited for Satoshi. I went to the entranceway and stood in the most conspicuous location in front of the large signboard reading “Ejima Choir Festival,” and then opened the pamphlet.
The pamphlet itself was cream-colored and printed on glossy paper. The Ejima Choir Festival start time was clearly indicated as being 2:00, but nothing was written about the ending time. Perhaps it was like that so they could extend or shorten it in case of any unforeseen issues; maybe they had some other reason. The thought crossed my mind that it would make it difficult for the guests to plan their dinner.
The text introducing the participating choir groups was very small. The majority of the page was dedicated to the lyrics of Sandou Ejima pieces. I hadn’t heard of Sandou Ejima until Satoshi had first mentioned him, but it seems like he lived quite some time ago. All of the words seemed archaic. The pamphlet had on it which group was performing which piece, so I searched for the one being done by Chitanda’s group, the Kamiyama Mixed Chorus.
“This one, huh.”
It was a piece titled “Moon Over Release.”
I wonder if no one warned him it sounded like that famous Rentarou Taki composition.1
I went ahead and read the lyrics out of boredom.
Moon Over Release
What a beautiful voice, that of the caged bird!
Although I contemplate the virtue of release,
A figure of this fleeting world can never attain eternity.
Ah, I pray once more. I, too, strive
To live in the unrestricted skies.
I release ye, o’ caged bird.
How lovely the fish in a tank is.
Although I contemplate the virtue of release,
A figure of this fleeting world can never attain eternity.
Ah, I pray once more. I, too, strive
To die in the unrestricted seas.
I release ye, o’ trapped fish.
“…I’m not sure I get it.”
Unfortunately, I hadn’t an ounce of poetic sentiment. Regardless of my opinion on the work, I suppose I should at least keep in mind the kind of song they’d be singing. It looked like they’d be performing one more piece, but I couldn’t find anything about it other than the name, not that it mattered; it was a famous pop song—so famous that even I knew it. It had something to do with everyone living in harmony, or something like that.
I rolled up the pamphlet into a tube in my right hand and started to hit it against my left palm. As I produced a steady, hollow rhythm, my gaze absentmindedly wandered towards the small area in front of the entryway.
From what I could see outside the glass doors, the clouds had all but vanished; an intense sunlight was shining down from above. An elderly woman carrying a sun umbrella walked in while wiping her sweat, and then suddenly smiled. I wondered what on earth had caused that, but then realized she had to have been overjoyed by a sudden rush of air conditioning. From what I could tell, the air conditioning in the entrance couldn’t have been very effective; it has to travel all the way down to the entrance from the third floor. Even from here, most of the room felt unaffected. Well, it was probably preferable to being outside, at least.
I suddenly noticed something interesting about that elderly woman.
She had on a black skirt and white shirt and carried a small shoulder bag over her dark blue jacket. Since her clothing matched Chitanda’s, I figured this woman wasn’t a guest; rather, she was a member of the choir group. I had no idea if this was true or not, but I was strangely curious about it.
A skirt, a shirt, a jacket, a shoulder bag, a sun umbrella. Air conditioning and a smile.
“A sun umbrella.”
In the cultural center’s entranceway were a number of umbrella stands lined up next to each other. There were also umbrella stands lined up next to the wall in the entrance hall—probably since the entrance area alone didn’t have enough space to hold 1600 peoples’ umbrellas. The elderly lady, however, continued to hold onto her umbrella as she ascended the stairs.
I suddenly had a realization and headed over to the information counter. Behind it was the same pleasant lady as before.
“Are you looking for something?” she asked.
“This might be a strange question.”
“Of course, I’ll help you in any way I can.”
No matter how you looked at it, I was clearly just a high schooler; there was no need for her to be so polite. What a difficult job, I thought.
“Are the choir performers not allowed to use the umbrella stands at the entrance?”
I thought it was an undeniably strange question to ask, but the clerk responded without a hint of hesitation: “That’s correct. In order to leave as much room as possible for the guests, we’ve asked them to use the umbrella stands provided in the waiting rooms.”
“Okay, thank you very much.”
“Of course. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask.”
After hearing that impeccably polite response, I felt guilty for some strange reason and turned to leave the counter. With this information, I now understand the reason that the elderly lady earlier didn’t leave her umbrella in the stands out front.
With this, I became a little closer to finding out where Chitanda had gone. At the very least, it wasn’t there…
I walked back towards the “Ejima Choir Festival” signboard, and decided to think about it a little more. But on the way there, a voice called out, interrupting my return.
“I won’t tell you to look up, but you could at least look in front of you, Houtarou!”
In the place where I had been just until recently stood Satoshi, absolutely drenched in sweat.
As I said this, I looked down at my watch. It read 4:14. It had truly been 15 minutes since he had talked with Ibara earlier. We even told him to not be reckless.
“That was fast.”
“Was it? Anyways, here’s your order.”
The bus timetable and route map were both printed on glossy paper, folded in his hands.
“Sorry to make you do this for me.”
“No problem, ‘twas but a simple matter.”
His expression then became serious.
“I heard about the situation from Mayaka. She said Chitanda disappeared?”
“That seems to be the case.”
“She wasn’t at the school. At the very least her shoes weren’t in the school’s entrance. Still, this is really troubling.”
It was a half-hearted response; I was focused on reading the timetable.
“Chitanda-san ended up going somewhere in this town and doesn’t have a cellphone on her. I mean sure, I know a place or two that she might go, but there’s no time to check them all one by one. Houtarou, the scale is a bit too big this time, and I’m feeling a little like my hands are tied behind my back right now.”
I didn’t have enough information to completely examine the timetable that he’d brought for me. As expected, the number of buses that passed through Jinde was small, and it looked like there was only one running at 1:00 in the afternoon. I nodded once and then folded up the timetable once more.
Satoshi wiped the sweat dripping down his face with his hand, and then continued.
“I really am sorry, but I have something l need to take care of, so I’m going to need to leave soon. But c’mon: It’s Chitanda we’re talking about. I don’t think there’s any need to worry… Right, Houtarou? Wait, have you just figured out something about where she might be?”
“Something like that.”
As I said this, Satoshi’s eyes grew wide. I guess he didn’t expect me to say that.
“Wha—wait, what?! Do you actually know where she is right now?”
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I knew the exact answer… but I do have something in mind. I have a lead, at least.”
If I’m right, however, the real problem will be what happens after finding her.
I checked my watch. There was 1 hour and 40 minutes until her solo performance.
What Satoshi said had truth to it.
To find the missing Chitanda by searching every nook and cranny of Kamiyama City would require more than a week. Since an exhaustive search would be no good, it was necessary to adopt an efficient method, one which minimizes time and energy spent. It’s a method that was probably simpler than Satoshi was imagining.
“So what are you going to do?”
He asked this directly to my face, making it difficult to respond. I wouldn’t say I was the type of person to really care about what others thought of me, but if I were to confidently say something like, “This is what we should do,” before being certain, even I would get a little embarrassed if the plan didn’t work out.
“Well, I’m not really certain yet…”
I responded with a poor attempt at dodging his question and then tried to forcefully change the topic completely with my own well-timed question that I had wanted to ask anyways.
“By the way, was Sandou Ejima really that famous—to the point where he was called one of the Four Something-or-other Heavenly Kings?”
I’m sure Satoshi was fully aware that I was trying to pull the conversation away from Chitanda, but he responded as if he didn’t seem to mind.
“I guess I might’ve exaggerated it a little, but even if you factor my love of local cultures into how I described them earlier, the fact that Hakushuu, Ujou, and the like were unrivaled was still true, in my opinion.”
“So you’re saying that calling it an exaggeration… is an exaggeration itself?”
Satoshi silently shrugged in response. I opened the pamphlet I picked up earlier from the reception desk.
“It looks like Chitanda’s going to be singing this ‘Moon Over Release’ song.”
“Is that so?”
Satoshi threw a quick glance at the lyrics, nodding with a strangely satisfied expression. “That’s right. I don’t really know that much on the subject, but this is classic Sandou Ejima.”
“Oh yeah? Why is it ‘classic’ Ejima?”
“If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s because it’s excessively preachy.”
I see, it’s preachy. Without realizing it, I was nodding vigorously. It was truly cathartic to have been given the perfect word to describe the thoughts I had when initially reading it.
“Things like filial piety, diligence, honesty—his works were always dedicating to devoutly praising these kinds of values. The man himself was originally a monk, and it was written in a book I read once that his brotherly life may have been where the preachy quality came from. That might be why he was such a big deal, well, at least to the people who knew about him.”
“And now we even have a festival named after him.”
He smiled back, his expression containing a hint a cynicism.
“Choirs usually have periodic performances. That’s just the kind of group they are. If you’re going to hold an event, you might as well attach a cool-sounding name to it. I can understand where they’re coming from on that front.”
I couldn’t sympathize personally, but if I imagined it was Satoshi instead, I’d understand completely.
Satoshi glanced down at his watch. His eyebrows knitted slightly.
“I have to go now. I swear… I got myself tied up with something really annoying.”
He really did want to help me in spite of his business. I could readily tell that’s what his words implied.
“Don’t worry about it. So, what do you have to do?”
“The thing is—“
It seemed like he didn’t have much time, but he leaned in to complain anyways. I guess he really wanted to get it off his shoulders and vent.
“My cousin and his wife are coming over. The nephew is such a pain.”
“Your cousin’s kid is also your nephew?”
“It’s called something like a cousin twice removed, but I just call him my nephew. He really likes shogi, so he’s going to pester me to play with him.”
I never would’ve thought that Satoshi couldn’t play shogi, especially considering he always tried everything out. Oh, wait, that’s not true at all. He was actually really good at shogi, if I remember correctly. One night, on a study trip in middle school, he played a game against one of our classmates who always bragged about placing third in a city tournament—and won.
“What’s wrong with playing him then?”
“He cries whenever I win, and doesn’t want to stop playing until he does instead. He’ll even skip dinner.”
“That’s pretty annoying.”
Satoshi shook his head.
“I don’t really mind that part. All I have to do is let him win.”
I knew Satoshi when he was in middle school. I knew the part of him that would go to any lengths necessary for victory; he would abuse loopholes in the rules or let a game become stale and boring as long as it would lead to his victory. That said, I also knew the part of him that would go against his own beliefs, discarding any part of his personality, in a heartbeat.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“If I don’t say ‘I give up,’ he calls me a coward and screams bloody murder.”
In shogi, you lose if you end up in a situation where you king will be taken no matter what you do, but you can forfeit before it comes to that. As far as I know, saying “I give up” is the most common way to communicate your surrender.
“Because I’m only playing to appease him, I’ll let him checkmate me; but he won’t let me off with a simple ‘your win’ or ‘you beat me.’ I mean it’s a checkmate, so there’s really nothing to say.”
“Do you really hate saying ‘I give up’ that much?”
Satoshi face changed to a somewhat pained expression.
“I can’t help but think: ‘How about you make me say it by actually beating me with your own skill.’ I’m really bad at saying things I don’t believe in. It’s honestly just a problem with the choice of words, and even he has a point, but—I don’t know. I guess it just means I’m still immature.”
This wasn’t the kind of conversation we should be having while our remaining time was ticking away with every moment, but I couldn’t help myself from smiling bitterly at that.
“I completely understand. I was at a relative’s wedding a while back, and I—“
It was a Christian-style wedding. I had entered the church wearing a stiff-collared school uniform and listened to the reverend’s sermon—
I suddenly started to feel like something was lingering on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t really put it into words, but just as I was about to put my finger on it, the thought came and was then washed away, as if a wave carried it back to sea. What was it, I wonder? What was it about a game of shogi and a wedding ceremony that brought something so vividly to my mind?
“So that’s why I have to leave, Houtarou.”
His voice brought me back to my senses.
“Hm? Yeah, okay.”
“I’m asking you to find Chitanda. I’m really sorry I can’t help you at a time like this.”
As I was still collecting my thoughts, I added on the spur of the moment, “Leave the rest to me.” Satoshi’s eyes widened and he cracked a little smile.
“Got it. I’ll leave it to you—I mean, in the end, the only one who’d be able to find the hidden Chitanda would probably be you anyways.”
I returned to room A7 on the second floor, but Ibara was nowhere to be seen. I guess she was searching the surrounding area like she said she was going to do earlier.
A folding chair was set up in the center of the 20 square meter or so room, and Yokote-san was the only one sitting. Danbayashi-san was also there—next to the window—and was almost certainly glaring at me as I entered. But as soon as I looked over, her shoulders relaxed as if she was disappointed.
“I thought you were the girl.”
I lowered my head a bit, half as a greeting and half as an apology for not being Chitanda, but Danbayashi-san didn’t even spare me another glance; she immediately turned to start arguing with Yokote-san.
“Well then Yokote-san. An hour has passed. We’re calling her house now. She might not make it at this point, but if we aren’t even going to consider getting someone else to sing the solo instead, then we have no other option.”
Ever since earlier, Danbayashi-san’s tone has seemingly carried all manners of ill will directed at the “youth of today.” If you took out all of those negative emotions, her upturned eyes genuinely made her look like a fish. It was only understandable though, given the fact that she was battling a time limit.
As usual, Yokote-san remained calm and composed and responded: “I see, but I’m sure she’ll come any second now. How about we give her another hour?”
“Again with that—look, this isn’t the time to be all easygoing. Listen, Yokote-san, I’m going to call her right now, so I’m asking you to please give me her family’s number.”
I see. I didn’t understand why she was trying to get Yokote-san’s approval in order to contact Chitanda, but it looks like she didn’t know the number. The surname Chitanda wasn’t exactly common, so it didn’t seem like it would be too difficult to find it in the phone book, however—wait, hold up a second. If Danbayashi-san was after her phone number, that meant I was going to be in her sights too, doesn’t it?
As I thought this and was about to turn back, it was already far too late. Danbayashi-san spun around to look at me and started to briskly walk closer and closer, her terrifying face creased at the forehead.
“You! You’re that girl’s classmate, right?”
For now, I’ll just correct her.
“I’m not her classmate. I’m in a different class.”
I suppose that no one did—in fact—care.
“Then you must know Chitanda-san’s phone number, right?!”
Now then, I was in a bind. Of course I had gotten each of their numbers since we may have needed to contact each other about the club, but, unsurprisingly, I did not have them committed to memory. I had nothing to hide, so I told her the truth.
“I have the numbers, but I’d have to go back home to get them.”
“Don’t you have a cellphone?”
Danbayashi-san responded in a shrill voice.
“You have got to be kidding me!”
But I wasn’t. I should probably say something before she gets too upset, though. I didn’t have time to debate with her, so I put on my best serious expression; I could manage a pretty good one if I put my heart into it.
“Well, I know where Chitanda is: her stomach hurts because she’s so nervous, so she’s resting.”
Danbayashi-san’s jaw dropped. I expected her to be surprised upon her hearing an update about Chitanda, especially since it came out of nowhere.
“She’ll be here even if you stop looking for her, but I understand: you’re nervous that she won’t make it in time. Don’t worry, I’ll go get her right now.”
Thinking about it logically, my having come into contact with her—especially since I didn’t have a cellphone—was an unlikely story at best, but Danbayashi-san didn’t seem to doubt me. In fact, she seemed relieved; her stern expression melted almost instantaneously. She replied in a strangely curt manner, “Oh, I see. Well then, I’ll leave it to you,” and turned to leave the waiting room. Maybe she was embarrassed after realizing just how flustered she was only minutes ago.
While I appreciated that she was going to leave without a fight, there was still something I wanted to ask her before I headed out. I called out to her as she reached for the door-handle.
“Huh?” Startled, she turned to look at me with a surprised expression. “Are you talking to me? There’s more?”
“Well, it’s not very important, but…”
As I was speaking, I pulled out the pamphlet I received from the information counter and pointed at the lyrics to the song being sung by Chitanda, “Moon Over Release.”
“Which part is Chitanda going to be singing?”
Danbayashi-san’s brow furrowed once more.
“Huh? Why would you want to know something like that?”
I had assumed that she would simply tell me if I asked her nonchalantly enough, but instead she raised her defenses and countered with a question of her own.
“Well you see—” I spoke slowly so I could come up with a good excuse. “I want to take a picture of her when she’s singing her solo for our club’s records. I’ve have to get the timing just right. I was going to ask Chitanda herself, but it looks like I might not get the chance.”
I wonder if that sounded a bit too forced.
“Oh, that’s why? Uh, sure.”
It looks like she bought it. Danbayashi-san’s finger started to move over the lyrics.
“Hmm… right here.”
Ah, I pray once more. I, too, strive
to live in the unrestricted skies.
“This part is sung with the chest, so it has a full sound and looks emotional. It’d probably be better if you took a video though.”
As she said that, she started studying me carefully. Of course, I didn’t have anything like a DSLR or camcorder on me. Her expression started to harden; she must have been getting suspicious, so I quickly took the initiative.
“Thank you very much. I’ll go ahead and tell Ibara.”
Of course Ibara didn’t have a camera either, but Danbayashi-san couldn’t have known that for sure.
“Hmm… that’s a good idea. Well then, I’m going to return to the hall and tell everyone that we found her. I’ll leave the rest to you.”
After Danbayashi-san left the room and the door closed with a heavy thud behind her, the only two people left were Yokote-san and I. Since there were only two of us in a room that was meant to hold ten or so people, the empty space around me felt terribly strange and uncomfortable.
Yokote-san sat deeply rooted in her folding chair, and her hands rested on top of her lap. She hadn’t moved an inch in the hour I spent with Satoshi; she was so still, I started to wonder if she really had taken root in her metal chair—not moving an inch since I’d left.
At this moment, however, her calm, gentle eyes were fixed intently on me, as if silently demanding to know what was going on.
I approached her and stood right in front of that gaze. I then lowered my head respectfully.
“I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Oreki Houtarou. I’m in the same grade as Chitanda-san, as well as in the same club.”
Yokote-san avoided eye contact for a split second, but then quickly formed an almost imperceptible smile as she lowered her head in return.
“I’m so pleased to meet you. My name is Atsuko Yokote. Forgive me for not standing up to greet you; my knees are not what they used to be.”
“Of course, I don’t hold that against you.”
It was a polite exchange, but in the end, our warm words were just temporary pleasantries. Yokote-san’s eyes narrowed and her voice stiffened slightly as well, almost as if taking on an accusatory tone.
“Oreki-san. You mentioned that you know where the Chitandas’ daughter is, didn’t you? Was that really true?”
I responded without hesitation: “No, it was a lie.”
She opened her mouth and closed it again, as if at a loss for words. She stared at me fixedly, and then finally muttered, “A lie…”
“I needed Danbayashi-san to leave, so I lied to her.”
“Oh? Why would you do something like that?”
Although she was clearly perplexed by the fact that I had lied, it seemed like she wasn’t reproaching me for doing it. It was most likely because she couldn’t bring herself to criticize me for lying.
“I did it because there’s something I’d like to ask you, Yokote-san.”
“Me? What is it?”
I briefly glanced down at my watch and saw that it was nearing 4:20; there was little time left. This wasn’t the time to be beating around the bush. Besides, “if I have to do it, I’ll do it quickly.” My mantra meant that I needed to get right to the point.
“You said that you rode the bus with Chitanda all the way to the cultural center and came with her to this very room, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
Accusing someone always requires a good deal of courage. I didn’t have much, however, so I continued while avoiding her gaze.
Yokote’s expression froze.
What Satoshi said had truth to it; there was no use in using brute force to search for Chitanda. I had to find another method and, of course, the simplest one would be to just ask the person who knew.
Without a doubt, Yokote-san had lied about Chitanda’s arrival. She knew something, and getting it out of her would be much faster than searching around every cafe and bookstore in Kamiyama City.
Her hands stiffened, as if succumbing to nervous tension while they rested on top of her lap. I’d be able to keep our conversation short if only she’d come clean right away, but that was probably wishful thinking. After all, I haven’t done anything to earn her trust.
As I expected, she started to feign ignorance as she talked.
“What are you talking about?”
Abandoning my sliver of hope that this might end quickly, I tried to goad it out of her once more.
“I want to resolve this as quickly as I can, so would you please take back your statement claiming you rode the bus with Chitanda?”
“But that’s the truth. How could you possibly say something like that; don’t you think you’re being a little rude?”
My emotions grew unsteady as I encountered this resistance head-on. Negotiation and persuasion were never my strong suits. If I had the opportunity, I would’ve pushed it all on Satoshi or Chitanda and returned to my quiet school life. In the end, however, I was the only one here. Not only that, I was pressed for time. I balled my hands into fists and summoned up as much courage as I could.
“I’m sorry. I run the risk of repeating myself at this point, but it’s essentially impossible that you came with Chitanda to this room.”
“How about you explain why.”
“Of course. The logic itself is incredibly straightforward.”
I pointed towards the door at the front of the waiting room.
“It’s because of that.”
“No. I’m talking about the umbrella stand, of course.”
Next to the door was an unstable umbrella stand, and only a single black umbrella stuck out from it. I had accidentally gotten my foot caught on it when I entered last time and toppled it over as a result. In picking it back up, my hand got wet.
“It didn’t rain near my house, but—since the umbrella was wet—I can only assume that it rained in Jinde.”
“I believe I already said this.”
“Yes, I heard. That and how Chitanda had a crimson umbrella while she waited for the bus. But look: that umbrella of hers is nowhere to be found. It has been cloudy in this area since the morning, but when you supposedly arrived with Chitanda at 1:30, it had become sunny. After coming all the way here once, I have a hard time imagining her taking the umbrella somewhere else. That means that Chitanda didn’t come here at all, which then means I am not the only one to have lied today.”
Yokote-san placed a hand on her cheek. “How could you possibly come to that conclusion solely because her umbrella isn’t here? This isn’t the only umbrella stand in the building, you know.”
“Of course there are also some in the entrance way downstairs. Performers were expressly asked to use the ones in the waiting rooms whenever possible, though.”
“As much as possible—”
It wasn’t like you could follow every rule perfectly; actually, even knowing each and every rule was unlikely. I was, of course, fully aware of this.
“Well, had Chitanda come here alone, it would’ve been entirely possible for her to have used a different umbrella stand due to not knowing about the rule. But that wasn’t the case, was it? I tried to imagine it—a scenario where you and Chitanda came to this room together, but where only you followed the rules while Chitanda ignored them—and it seems impossible. It only makes sense that people grouped together do the same things. Not only that, but Chitanda’s the type of person to know and follow all of the rules.”
Yokote-san didn’t respond, and the feeling that she still wouldn’t tell me what really happened still persisted, so I eased up and changed my approach.
“Even with this, I don’t have enough evidence to prove that Chitanda hasn’t been here. Had Chitanda actually arrived and then decided to return home for whatever reason, she may have decided not to come back and take her umbrella with her. It’s much easier to find evidence of someone being somewhere than not being there.”
“I suppose so.”
I took a small breath and examined her out of the corner of my eye.
“By the way, you’ve been in this room since you got here, correct?”
I suddenly decided to change the subject.
“Even though the rest of the choir members are in the hall?”
Yokote-san’s brow furrowed with displeasure.
“I’m not breaking any rules.”
“Of course not. But something has been bugging me. Ever since I arrived, you’ve been saying something weird to Danbayashi-san every time she’s mentioned Chitanda’s absence: ‘I’m sure she’ll come any second now.’“
“Was my wording strange?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think that phrase itself is strange.”
“Then I don’t see…”
“However, you said more: ‘She’ll come any second, just give her an hour.’ Why one hour? Why not say ‘just a little longer’ or ‘some more time?’ You specifically mentioned one hour. I only heard you mention it twice, but apparently you even said it once before I came; Danbayashi-san said something along those lines. Instead of 30 minutes or 2 hours, why did you say one hour?”
I’d considered that maybe it was just a thing that Yokote-san says in her normal speech, but I had another theory; thanks to information provided by Satoshi, I was able to have complete confidence in my hypothesis. The one hour she kept mentioning—made me aware of something important.
“You were referring to the bus.”
While Yokote-san’s expression didn’t change, I got the impression that her shoulders suddenly stiffened.
I took out the timetable that Satoshi had retrieved for me.
“This is the bus timetable. In order to get this, my friend had to bike over here like a madman. It’s a good thing he didn’t hurt himself. According to this, there are a limited number of buses connecting Jinde and the cultural center, and they’re an hour apart. This is why you specifically said to wait one hour, isn’t it?”
I watched Yokote-san as she averted her gaze. I was right.
“By saying ‘wait one hour,’ you essentially meant ‘wait until the next bus arrives.’ Chitanda must be on the next one. That’s what you were hoping for as you calmed the panicking Danbayashi-san.”
Yet 3 hours had passed, and Chitanda still hadn’t shown up. I was impressed by Yokote-san’s calm and collected outward appearance, but she was probably starting to panic on the inside.
Based on our conversation thus far, Chitanda’s possible locations were quite limited.
“Chitanda is still in Jinde, am I correct?”
This sentence was the deciding blow. Yokote-san’s gaze started to dart around, exuding confusion and unease, but she finally drew a short breath.
“That’s correct. The Chitandas’ daughter never came here. I’ve been lying this entire time.”
A kind smile returned to her face once more as she started to speak.
“Just as you mentioned, it rained in Jinde this morning,” said Yokote-san as she continued. “I was telling the truth when I said the Chitandas’ daughter and I waited under our black and crimson umbrellas. I wasn’t lying when I said we rode the bus together, either. There was hardly anyone else in it, so we sat near each other.
“I noticed while we were waiting for the bus that she didn’t look well. After we got on the bus and I got a closer look, it was all the clearer that her face was terribly pale. I asked her what was wrong, but the poor thing repeatedly tried to assure me that she was completely fine. However, all of a sudden, as I was wishing there was something I could do for her, she pressed the button to stop the bus.”
I suppressed my impatience and remained silent. Not only might there be more information to glean, but I thought that silently listening was the least I could do for someone willing to tell me her story. Most importantly, though, I was concerned about Chitanda’s strange appearance. I had never seen her with a pale expression like the one she had described.
“I called out to the child as she was about to get off the bus—she looked like she was about to say something, but instead she bowed her head and hurried away without saying a single word. I thought about chasing after her, but I didn’t want to stick my nose where it didn’t belong, so I stayed on the bus without doing a thing.”
It looked like she had finished with her story, so I asked a question.
“Did Chitanda look sick?”
Her response was simply, “I wonder if she was…”
It was a silly question. In the event she was sick but still didn’t want to give up on singing the solo, she could’ve simply gone to the cultural center and explained her situation to everyone—or maybe she could’ve returned home to focus on getting better until just before her appearance. Whatever it was, she didn’t have to get off the bus like she was escaping from something.
The reason Chitanda got off the bus early—the reason behind her pale face—likely had nothing to do with her health. This was my hypothesis, so I decided to jump straight into the matter.
“At which stop did Chitanda get off? Do you have any idea where she went after that?”
Yokote-san looked at me coldly as I asked her this.
“What will you do if I tell you?”
“Search for her, of course.”
“It’s no use.”
She sat up straight and said so resolutely.
“That child is the successor of the Chitanda estate; she understands her responsibilities. Her getting off of the bus was simply a moment of hesitation. I’m confident beyond a doubt that she will arrive in time. It would behoove you to refrain from doing anything unnecessary and to have some faith in your friend.”
“Yeah, I’m sure she’ll make it in time, too.”
Yokote-san sat there with a blank expression, looking as if all of previous ferocity had been sucked out of her.
“Then why did you say you were going to search for her?”
That much was obvious from the very start.
“It’s probably hard on her, after all.”
“It’s hard on her?”
“Can’t you see it?”
I had no idea about anything when it came to the topic of succession, but one thing I was certain of was how strong Chitanda’s sense of responsibility was. If she had truly gotten off the bus and disappeared, there had to have been a serious reason behind it. I didn’t want to dismiss that reason as just being a “moment of hesitation.”
Of course, as Yokote-san had mentioned, she would almost certainly show up before her time to go on stage. But her appearance would be the end result of the conflict—a conflict within her to smother and bury her reasons for escaping with a pale face, completely bound by her sense of responsibility. To me, it sounded like she was saying that she wanted to run away, but she had to go. She had to go. Doesn’t that seem unbearably hard on her?
Whenever I feel pushed into a corner like that, seeing someone come to pull me out always makes me happy. In that sense, finding her was more necessary than Yokote-san could know.
Instead of saying all of that, though, I compressed it all into a single short sentence:
“I mean, that’s what friends do.”
She stared silently at me. It looked as if she was trying to judge how much of what I said she could believe, but there wasn’t any reason the both of us should be on edge.
“After all, isn’t the reason you’re waiting here because you want to greet Chitanda when she returns?”
Yokote-san looked taken aback.
“You want to meet her here, we want to go meet her in Jinde–don’t you think we have the same goal? How about it? Won’t you tell me where she got off?”
“Who is the ‘we’ that wants to find her in Jinde?”
Hm? Oh, yeah.
“Ibara is worried after all. It’d probably be better if she came along, or even if met Chitanda on her own. The only thing is, she’s out searching right now, so it might be difficult to contact her. There’s no time, so I’m not even sure if I should try. Do you think it’s a bad idea?”
For some reason, Yokote-san placed her hand over her mouth and looked somewhat happy. She then returned her hand to her lap and continued with confidence.
“I understand. You do have a point. I’ve also begun to feel a little restless, even though I know she’ll come. I’ll tell you what I know.”
“That child got off at the South Jinde bus stop. If you were to head there from here and follow the bus route on the right hand side of the mountain ridge, you should be able to see a single storehouse with plastered walls. If she were looking for a place to hide, it would most certainly be there.”
Yokote-san said she saw Chitanda off as she left the bus. The bus would’ve likely departed soon after that.
I had no idea how far the storehouse was from the main road, but if it was on the mountain ridge, then it was likely some distance away. She probably only had enough time to see where Chitanda started to go before the bus pulled away. Even though she only saw so little, Yokote-san seemed to have no doubts, so I continued to harbor some doubts.
“Did you see her go there?”
Yokote-san shook her head. “I did not, however I know she did even without having seen it for myself.”
Her expression was soft, as if recalling a blissful moment from her past.
“It belongs to my family, but we don’t use it anymore. When she was young, that child often went there to hide from others.”
I thought that Yokote-san was a close neighbor, but if Chitanda used that storehouse as her hideaway, then she must have been more than just a good neighbor.
“Yokote-san, are you related to Chitanda?”
“I’m her aunt. Today, there should be some people from the Chitanda household about. You mustn’t head straight for the storehouse as there may be prying eyes. First, search for the home surrounded by hedges next to the storehouse. There will be a nameplate that reads “Yokote.” Once you go past the hedges, circle around to the back of the storehouse. There won’t be anyone home, but if someone asks why you’re there, you can tell them I asked you to retrieve something that I forgot before coming. That’s all, so please hurry.”
She quickly raised her hand and pointed at the metal door.
Jinde was an area encircled by rows of rolling hills just to the northeast of Kamiyama City. On paper, it was included as a part of Kamiyama City in district administration matters. But in reality, the two were merely connected by narrow mountain roads, the residences of each entirely separate from each other.
Emotional distance aside, though, there wasn’t that great of a distance between the two in reality—Chitanda making the commute to school every day was proof of that. Going up and down the mountain road was arduous, but you could cover the distance in less than 30 minutes if you flew along it by bike. I checked my watch and it read a couple minutes till 4:30. There was no time to waste.
Right as I stepped out of the cultural center, assuming that I would have to make the trip by bike, the bus pulled up in front of me and the door opened as if it were a chauffeur coming to pick up a celebrity. I was completely dumbfounded. Like a deer in headlights, I was unable to move for a moment. Not only would the ride certainly be faster than going by bike, I wouldn’t have to take the time to find the bus stop once I got there. Still, what unbelievable luck I had for a bus that only came once every hour to show up just when I needed it most. This had to be a trap, right?
Oh, and what a trap it must be! The route direction must have been different. If I were to board this bus of fortune, I would end up trapped in a pit, being whisked away in the opposite direction, wouldn’t I? How smart was I to realize that ahead of time? I took a peek at the signboard to see where this huge detour would have taken me: “Heading to Jinde.”
“Ah, ok. I’m getting on.”
Other than my initial moment of shock, my mind had been racing the entire time. Without realizing it, I ended up saying this aloud to the bus that looked as if it was only moments from departing. I jogged up to it and got on, sitting in a nearby seat while sighing deeply. At that moment, I heard a sound like a deflating inner tube, and the bus door closed.
“The bus will start moving.”
It began to slowly inch forward with the announcement. It was the kind of bus where you paid when you get off.
I wanted to briefly search for Ibara before going to Jinde, but the unexpected bus arrival forced a change of plans. “Don’t be late for the bus!” said some commentator I had seen on TV at some point. After settling in, I wondered if I had money on me. I was fairly certain that I had brought my wallet with me. I searched my pockets for my wallet and confirmed that I did—in fact—have a single 1,000 yen note. While I managed to narrowly avoid a future in which I’d be forced wash dishes to compensate for not having paid the bus fare, I’d have to put off buying the book I’d wanted for a little while longer. I cursed the heavens, but—well—I guess that’s life.
There were fewer than 10 people in the bus, including me. After having left the cultural center, it took us a while to finally reach the older districts. Thanks to the narrow streets, the roads couldn’t support lots of traffic, so they were doomed for congestion. I absentmindedly peered outside the windows and a flurry of familiar scenery flowed by: the confectionary shop with delicious yomogi dango, the bookstore with empty top shelves because its elderly owner could no longer reach them, the drycleaners who used to sell kimono fabric when I was still young, the convenience store that put the tobacco shop out of business…
The next bus stop was announced over the speakers, and someone pressed the button to get off. Two left and one got on. The next stop was flagged as well. I was about to look at my watch, but I forcefully pulled my eyes away. Regardless of how many ways there might have been to reach Chitanda, I had already chosen the bus. I’d probably just panic if I saw the time and that’d do absolutely nothing to get me there faster.
The bus finally cleared the old district. It passed through a crossroads with a gas station the size of four tanker aircrafts on one side and a hamburger joint complete with a drive-through on the other. We finally picked up speed as the bus pulled onto the bypass.
I rested my elbow on the window frame and started to think more about the case as I gazed outside.
At first, Yokote-san referred to Chitanda as “the Chitandas’ daughter.” Only after while did she start calling her “that child.” I couldn’t say anything for sure, but I thought that she made a strong effort to not call her “that child” in front of Danbayashi-san. Some might pass it off as her simply minding her manners around others, but I felt like it was expressing something more complex—something that she couldn’t talk casually about to non-relatives.
Yokote-san had called Chitanda “the Chitandas’ daughter,” “the successor to the Chitanda estate,” and then—only after everything else—she finally revealed that she was her niece. I don’t know any of the details, and I’m not sure I should, but when I thought about the Eru Chitanda that I knew—the president of Kamiyama High School’s Classics Club—being enveloped and encircled by that title, I couldn’t stop my endless waves of nausea. I couldn’t even determine what was causing them.
Chitanda had gotten off the bus.
Why did she do that? I had nothing in particular to do while I waited to reach my destination, and the same thoughts continued to circle round and round in my head.
There were several mountain roads that connected Jinde and Kamiyama, and the road that the bus took was different than the one I normally took when going by bike. At first I was alarmed, thinking that the bus was starting to go in the wrong direction, but I soon realized that this was another viable path and sunk back, deep into my seat, as I continued to wait.
The bus finally neared the mountainous area. As we passed through a series of cleared hills, the curves starting swaying sharply left and right, and with them, my body. The carsick feeling resurfaced memories of when we were on the hot springs trip that Ibara planned around this time last year. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I heard that some cases of carsickness are purely mental; so, as I ascended the slopes, I came up with a song called “I’m Not Afraid of No Carsickness” and let myself be cradled by its melody.
The growling sounds of the clearly laboring engine started to fade away, and the bus entered a straight stretch of road beyond the curves. We stopped at a traffic signal, something I felt I hadn’t seen in a long time, and a female voice called out an announcement.
“Next stop is South Jinde. Next stop is South Jinde.”
I pressed the button to request the stop. Just as the bus had started to move with the green light, it began to slow down to yet another halt, the doors eventually opening. This time, the driver himself called out in a hoarse, yet strangely rhythmic voice, “We’ve arrived at Sou—th Jinde.”
I paid the fare and got off the bus, and my first action was to take a deep breath. I thought I would’ve been okay, but I guess I ended up getting a little sick after all, and the fresh air felt wonderful. It was supposed to have rained in Jinde, but I didn’t see a single trace of water on the road’s surface. I guess it was July, after all, so even if the sun had only been out for a little bit, that would’ve been enough to quickly dry small amounts of water. Although, looking at it now, the previously blue sky had become completely filled with dark clouds. There seemed to be indications of rain lurking in the air. This wasn’t good. I didn’t have an umbrella.
I scanned my surroundings and noticed that the road the bus had taken was built along an incline. The land on its right side sloped upward, and the land on the left went gently down. Below were fields that were efficiently constructed, sparing no inch of land, and they radiated a deep green fostered by the warmth of the summer. The many houses were built far apart, dotting the scene before me as if they played a supporting role. I couldn’t get a grasp on the actual distance, but some ways off I could tell that the landscape started to slope up once more. Beyond those green hills towered the Kamikakiuchi mountain range with its remnants of ancient snow.
As I muttered this, I looked around once more. Yokote-san had told me that I would be able to see it on the right side of the road when going into Jinde. That meant it was on the hill’s incline.
I quickly spotted it. I was anxious at first, wondering what I would do if there were multiple storehouses, but I could only see the one after scanning the area; it wasn’t too far away, either. From where I was standing, the bottom half of the storehouse was hidden from view by a wooden fence surrounding it, so all I could confirm was that it had a triangular roof, what looked to be plastered white walls, and a set of double doors on the second story for ventilation and lighting. It didn’t look like there were any buildings bordering it; the sight of the lonely storehouse on the slope presented an almost bizarre image.
I briskly made my way across the street and was about to head straight for the storehouse when I recalled what Yokote-san had told me; I should make my way there in a manner that didn’t attract attention. I was a little annoyed by how she said it as well, but I couldn’t ignore a request from the woman who told me where Chitanda was. Just as I was told, I began to search for the house with hedges.
A few dozen meters away from the storehouse, I noticed a home that seemed to fit the bill. It was built on a level foundation and had a tile roof; through a gap in the hedges, I could see a gatepost next to a large tree. It couldn’t compare to Chitanda’s estate, but it was still an impressive sight.
“I have to go there, huh?”
Although I had permission to enter, I still felt nervous about the whole ordeal. Maybe it was all a set-up orchestrated by Yokote-san, and the second I entered, I’d be apprehended on breaking and entering charges. I really didn’t think that would be the case, though.
I checked my watch: it was 4:50. I guess the bus ride took about 20 minutes, then. I suppose what Yokote-san said leaving at 1:00 and arriving at 1:30 was just an estimate. The pamphlet said that the next bus for the cultural center was scheduled for a 5:10 arrival.
“This should work out then.”
There were 20 minutes until the next bus came, so all I had to do was pull Chitanda out of the storehouse. If she wasn’t there, well, I did everything I could have. Ibara probably wouldn’t blame me, either.
I felt something cold hit my cheek. I touched my face, only to realize it was wet. Black spots began to litter the street. It had started to rain.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
It’s all too common for these evening showers to escalate into heavy downpours. I had really tried my hardest today, but it looks like the heavens weren’t going to grant me even a moment of relief. I let out a long exhale and sprinted over to the house with hedges.
I went around her garden and stood in front of the storehouse.
I couldn’t say that the rain was as violent as an evening downpour. At most, it was a light shower; but even then, all of the surrounding scenery had been made hazy. The eaves of the storehouse roof didn’t extend out very far. I wouldn’t say that it was great cover, but I managed to stay dry underneath since it wasn’t windy. Thanks to the wooden fence, even though I must have looked like a lost high school student as I stood there, I didn’t have to worry about being spotted. I was thankful for it, but at the same time, it the design could have attracted would-be robbers. I suppose she did say that it wasn’t being used anymore; they probably weren’t too worried about it.
The storehouse door was thick and plastered over. I initially thought it was fireproof as well, but in reality it was made from wood. Rivets—perhaps the size of a baby’s fist—were hammered into the door forming a line from top to bottom making it look extremely sturdy. There was a hole that indicated you could padlock the door, but the most important part, the lock, was missing. I guess I didn’t need a key to enter. I started muttering to myself while running my finger along the rivets.
“Well then, I wonder what I should do.”
First of all, I had to confirm that Chitanda was actually here. I figured I could just knock and raised my hand accordingly.
At that moment, I felt like I heard a sweet sound mixed among the falling rain. I brought my ear to the door.
Ah… Ah… Ah…
I wondered what it was, but I figured it out quickly: vocal practice. In order to make it in time to perform on stage with the choir, she was warming up her throat here. As I realized it, I subconsciously tapped my fingers against the door.
The sounds from inside the storehouse promptly stopped. To someone inside, my tapping probably sounded like something from a horror film. I called out to put Chitanda at ease.
“Chitanda, are you there?”
I pressed my ear to the door again yet heard nothing. I spoke once more, this time keeping my ear in the same spot.
“Are you there?”
A trembling voice whispered out. “…Oreki-san?”
There she was. Chitanda being here was entirely Yokote-san’s prediction, so I had given a lot of thought to the possibility that she was wrong, but it looked like everything worked out.
I could hear Chitanda’s voice. Although the door looked thick, it must have been quite thin; her voice felt unexpectedly close.
“Why are you here?”
Did she want to know my reason for coming, or how I knew where to go? I had no idea, so I responded with both.
“Ibara was searching for you, so I came to help. Thanks to Yokote-san’s advice I ended up here.”
After a slight pause, she continued with a voice sapped of its strength.
There was no reason for her to apologize to me, so I pretended I didn’t hear a thing.
“It’s hard to hear you. Can I open the door?”
Her response sounded as if it came from terribly far away.
“I won’t if you don’t want me to. I’m sorry.”
Yokote-san said that this was something of a secret hideaway for Chitanda. Given the situation, she would probably forgive me if I barged in without asking, but I still felt awkward about the whole thing. The rain wasn’t all that heavy, and I didn’t really mind talking through the door like this. But as I considered this, Chitanda suddenly replied, her voice panicked and flustered.
“No, it’s nothing like that! It’s just… I’m just a mess right now.”
A small silence ensued, and then Chitanda started to speak in a voice that sounded like she was mocking herself.
“You must be sick of me, Oreki-san. Even though I have responsibilities, I ran away like this. I’m sure I’ve caused so much trouble for everyone. I’m just… the absolute worst.”
Sure, I had thought it was strange, but never once had I gotten sick of her.
“Well you didn’t make it for the 2:00 meeting time, but I’m sure you were planning on getting there before 6:00. I mean, you were doing vocal practice just now after all.”
She immediately fired a question.
“You were listening?!”
“Well, only at the end.”
“Rather than listening, it was more like I just ended up hearing it.”
For a little while, only the sound of the falling rain reached my ears. It became difficult to stand facing the door beneath the narrow eaves, so I leaned my back against it. I cleared my throat and softly spoke once more.
“So, how about it? Do you think you can go?”
She responded in a timid voice.
“You’re not going to just tell me to?”
Chitanda couldn’t see it, but my shoulders relaxed.
“If you can’t go, I won’t force you. Danbayashi-san was getting all worked up about finding a replacement. I’m sure there’s a singer or two who could take your place.”
“I couldn’t do something like that.”
I had never heard her sound as frail as she did in that moment.
A small snail had climbed the wooden fence in front of me; when did it get there, I wondered. As I absentmindedly watched it slowly move, I started to speak.
“But you can’t sing, can you?”
For a little while, there was no reply. Finally, I heard a voice that seemed to be cautiously searching for something.
“Oreki-san, do you know anything?”
“No, not really. I’m sorry, I said something that sounded like I did. I don’t know anything.”
A voice—one with a little more pep—responded.
“Of course not, there must be something wrong with me.”
The blades of wild grass at my feet were enveloped by the light shower; they stooped over, ever so slightly, under the water’s weight. The snail on the fence looked as if it was trying to climb, but it hadn’t made any progress whatsoever.
“I don’t know everything, but I feel like I might understand a little.”
Why had Chitanda gotten off the bus?
What kind of expression was on Chitanda’s face, I wondered. I heard her voice respond, perhaps sounding somewhat like a child who was pestering me to tell them a story.
“Please tell me.”
What would happen if I did tell her? If I was truly right about the feelings she held inside of her, would I be able to give her at least a little salvation? I had no guarantee I was even right in the first place. This was absurd. It was better to simply stay quiet.
I couldn’t hear anything from beyond the door. She must have been waiting with bated breath.
I looked at my watch; there was still a little time before the bus came.
I feel like there was a folk story that fit this situation. What was my role in it? The wise man? The strong one? Perhaps I was the dancer who opened the door with her absurd dance. Fine, I guess. If the star of the show wants it, I had to tell her everything. Even if it was wrong and disappointing, I had to say it.
“Let’s see. Was it perhaps—”
I took a single breath and looked up, through the ceaseless rain, into the dark sky.
“—that you were told you didn’t have to succeed your family’s business?”
I heard nothing but the rain. All of my senses were overwhelmed with the soft white noise, shhh.
“A little while back, Ibara brought up a strange story. It was about a cup of coffee that was too sweet. You were spacing out that day—certainly not your usual self. Initially, I just thought that everyone had those kinds of days, but then, as I left, I noticed the book you were reading; that image hasn’t left my mind. It was a career guide. What kind of college should you go to after high school, what kind of job should you pursue, what will you eventually do with your life—it was that kind of book.”
Although I should’ve been safe from the rain, my feet were a little wet. There was no chill from it, though. It was a lukewarm summer rain.
“We’re in our second year of high school. Maybe it’s only natural for us to be reading those kinds of books… but I thought it was a little strange. Ibara and Satoshi might be thinking about where they want to go in life, but you’re different. At our first shrine visit of the year in January and at the living doll festival in April, I saw you act as the decided successor of the Chitanda household. You had chosen your path in life far sooner than the rest of us—at least that was supposed to have been the case. So why did I see you staring at a career guide?”
At the time, I had carelessly imagined she was just reading about a different career path that she wouldn’t pursue. With the events of today, though, I had started to consider an entirely different possibility.
“Then came today’s choir festival. I heard from Ibara that you’d gone missing. I knew you must have had a reason for running away. It was only after I read the lyrics that you were supposed to sing that I got this idea.”
I read the lyrics in the pamphlet at the cultural center, but I didn’t know which part was Chitanda’s solo until I managed to ask Danbayashi-san.
“Satoshi mentioned something to me: in his works, Sandou Ejima often paised the common values of his day without holding back and, as a result, they became too preachy—he was never truly considered top class.”
Ah, I beseech thee. I, too, strive to live in the unrestricted skies.
“In your part, you sang directly about the unparalleled admiration of freedom.”
It was thanks to Satoshi that I was able to connect the strange feeling I had reading the lyrics with the disappearance of Chitanda. When playing shogi with his relatives, he told me that, while he was fine with throwing a game, it was the act of saying “I lose” that didn’t sit well with him.
“I have a certain memory of something similar. I had gone to a relative’s wedding a long time ago, and I ended up having to sing a hymn. I should’ve been fine with singing it because the whole thing was completely surface-deep—honoring Jesus and hailing Maria—but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. To praise that in which I don’t believe—isn’t that just wronging the people who earnestly worship Christ?”
Lies place a heavy burden on the heart.
“If the lyrics were about something else, it’d be a different story. But, as you are now, don’t you find yourself unable to sing a song praising freedom?”
I wondered if Chitanda was still there beyond the riveted door. She didn’t speak, and I couldn’t hear a single sound come through. I simply continued to talk, as if giving a monologue.
“Up until a little while ago, your future—forgive me for saying this—wasn’t what I would call ‘free.’ I’m sure you had some input, but the one thing that wouldn’t change was the fact that you’d succeed the Chitanda household in the end. If that were still the case, then I don’t see why you’d have any trouble singing. But not only does it seem like your practices went normally, you also didn’t decline being given the part. That means your circumstances must’ve changed since then.”
It probably happened the day before Ibara told us the story of the overly sweet coffee.
“If you became unable to sing it in these past couple days… wasn’t it because you became free yourself?”
I could hear neither a confirmation nor denial.
“You are someone who was able to do what she wanted while being told that she’d someday inherit the family business. You had thoroughly internalized that as an unchangeable truth. With that in mind, what would happen if you were suddenly told that wasn’t the case? What would happen if you were suddenly told by your parents or someone else that you didn’t have to worry about being the successor and that you should live your own life?”
Yokote-san mentioned that that girl was the successor of the Chitanda estate and that she would definitely come because she understood her responsibilities; but what would happen if that Chitanda no longer fit in that role?
“You would probably have no idea what to do.”
I am someone whose shoulders bore no grand role and whose vocal dedication to an energy-saving lifestyle delivered to him idle days. With that in mind, I shouldn’t have been able to honestly understand any of what Chitanda was thinking. I shouldn’t have been able to understand anything at all—and yet, I still came up with this answer. It was all kinds of ridiculous.
“In front of so many people, could you sing a song in which you yearn for freedom? ‘Of course you’ve been entrusted with an important solo, so by all accounts you should follow through. You’ll just end up putting your fellow choir members into a tough situation. You should put aside your situation and sing, as this is also part of your role. Don’t make this all about you—’ I guess all of those sound like pretty rational arguments. I could see someone saying those things.”
In reality, it’s pretty likely someone would tell her these things. Ibara wouldn’t. Satoshi definitely wouldn’t. But, even still, someone would.
“But I—even if my deduction were correct, I wouldn’t blame you.”
After all, I had no right to.
Although the rainy season had long since passed, the soft, silent shower showed no signs of weakening or fiercening. The snail on the fence had disappeared. Had he, slowly but surely, made his way to the top? Had he fallen to the grass below? I hadn’t seen.
From beyond the closed door came a terribly soft voice.
“Even though I’m told I can now live freely… Even though I’m told I can choose what I want to do with my life… Even though I’m told that the Chitanda household will be fine somehow, so I don’t have to worry…”
Her voice, changing as if descending into self-mockery, muttered one last thing.
“Even though I’m told I now have wings, what am I supposed to do?”
And with that, the storehouse became silent.
As I thought of the burden that Chitanda has carried thus far, and of the burden she was told she no longer had to carry, I suddenly felt like I wanted to hit something with everything I had. I felt like I wanted to smash it—to injure my own hand and draw blood.
I looked at my watch: 5:06. In less than four minutes, the bus bound for the cultural center would arrive.
I had said everything I needed say and done everything I needed to do. The rest, no matter how much it pained me, was for Chitanda to sort out.
Becoming neither any fiercer nor any weaker, the rain continued to fall. The sound of singing couldn’t be heard from within the storehouse.