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Chapter 1Edit

To put it simply, that was the reason why I started living by myself.

It most certainly wasn't because of something like "I got into an argument with my mom over her remarriage and was chased out of the house."

My biological father died before I entered elementary school, so I have nothing but the fuzzy memories of him, and the man my mom wanted to remarry was, anyway, a seemingly well-loved pediatrician; I simply had no excuse to protest against it. Who knows what sort strange fate had decreed that such a respected man had to marry mom; perhaps it was the product of something akin to careless pity.

Soon after he joined our family, the reality of the remarriage hit me, and since I had shut up and entered a state of extreme focus as if I was already taking my high school entrance exams, I really wasn’t in a position to complain.

Anyway, the call for me to move out was sudden and surprising, but I can't say I wasn't happy about it.

That is not to say I didn't have any problems with it either.

Namely, the first problem came soon after mom's new husband, Mr. Sonomiya, bought an apartment in a new complex. "2LDK" apparently means the number of bedrooms is two. The parents would use one of the rooms and then there would be only one room left. The loan for the place was set for some twenty years and, in the meantime, and let's just say declaring "We've got a new member in our family" isn’t going to be good enough to trade the place for somewhere bigger. Well, that's that.

And then, another problem was that Mr. Sonomiya had a daughter about my age.

She was named Kazuha Sonomiya. Fourteen years old.

So to me, the daughter of Mom's new husband would become my younger sister. A one year different and unrelated younger sister.

To say I wasn't a bit excitedly optimistic would be a lie.

I was, after all, the youngest amongst two brothers, so the people in my usual environment were always just these unsexy and unappealing brothers five+ years my senior. And one day, I'm told out of the blue that I would have a younger sister, just how am I supposed to not be filled with gleeful expectations?

It definitely wasn't that I was thinking about getting myself into some sort of questionable relationship like something out of an 18+ game, instead, the two of us would be spotted by some fellow classmates while strolling through the streets together and I would cry something like "No! You don’t understand! She's just my sister!", and if I bring a girlfriend home, my little sister would become pouty and jealous and refuse to tell what's wrong - yep, it was merely these small fragments of happiness and definitely not scenes of sexual assault that had played across my imagination.

That was naive.

Even now, I remember it as if it was just yesterday. The day I met my new family, at the restaurant that Mr. Sonomiya dragged us to, Kazuha Sonomiya's gaze was downcast, and she never once met my eyes. Kazuha, with the white uniform of the private girl's junior high school hugging her form, was small and fair, her eyelashes were long and she was probably pretty cute if she would smile, but I had no way to confirm that.

In any case, during that entire near-three-hour meal, I fully saw Kazuha's face only twice, and during both times, her expression was the sort of frightened wariness that one would wear after being approached by a pervert molester in a public train.

But of course, I can't just blame Kazuha. Her mother had died, after all, just a short two years ago. And so Kazuha probably was swimming in a sea of emotions regarding her father and this remarriage.

On top of that, she was forced to meet up with random boys she didn't know. It was obvious she couldn't accept it all just because she was told "These guys are, from today on, your older brothers." Nevertheless, though, Mr. Sonomiya was desperately trying to have his daughter join the conversation, asking her questions and whatnot, but realistically, I had a feeling he was just wasting his effort on something simply futile.

And, inevitably, we finished the main course and the adults got up.

With some sort of made-up grown-up reasoning like "You guys probably have things you don't want to say in front of us," our parents left Kazuha and me alone in the restaurant’s private dining room together.

Jeez, that was definitely a bad idea.

After we finished eating the ice cream dessert, we sat there for what felt like, in all seriousness, the entire timespan of the birth to eventual death of some star in a distant region of the night sky.

I wracked my brain for something to dispel the crushingly awkward silence that hung stale in the room. Eventually, the first words of something made its way out my mouth.

"...Do you believe in ghosts?"

In retrospect, that was a horrible thing to say.

With that one sentence, the atmosphere, which until now had been threatening to suffocate me with awkwardness, completely froze over, and no matter what I tried afterwards, not even the slightest smidgeon of warmth could be worked back in. This all happened on the last Thursday of March.

The next day, on the eve of the last Sunday of March, I swore to myself I would leave this house and start living by myself.

By the way, if I was asked if I believed in ghosts, I'd probably confess I'm not sure.

For instance, if someone told me that right over there is some earth-bond spirit, I would not believe it for a second, but if one were to say he can feel the left-behind thoughts and feelings of the departed, I'd probably end up thinking it's definitely a possibility. Well, that sort of cognition does exist. It was perfectly normal.

But then, if we were talking about if I wanted to be able to see things like ghosts in real life, then that is a totally different story: it would be a definite no. I really hate those sorts of occult things. If possible, it'll be good if I'd never have to deal with them in my entire life. It scares me, after all.

Misao spoke up, "Now, just what are you saying? You can feel us, right?"

I definitely think so too.

The spirit was called Misao.

The spring break before I was to become a middle school student, the airplane I rode on plunged into the ocean.

It was certainly quite a big incident, of course, it made it onto the news. About half the passengers survived. I can't recall well exactly what had happened during the episode, however, I do remember with vivid detail what happened after I was rescued and rushed to the local hospital; it had been blood-chillingly horrifying.

It was a small hospital close to a port in some foreign country. Because hundreds of crash victims were being stuffed in there all at once, I too had my entire body wrapped up in bandages like a mummy and was stuffed into a small hospital resting room with the others. It didn't hurt too much, bumping into bodies left and right. But in the silence of the night, wailing moans shrilled through the air. The other patients, and the nurses who didn't speak my language, and whatnot withered and decrepit elements loitering in the bleak darkness of the hospital room. They all scared me – they were all terrifying to me.

And what was truly most terrifying was the packet of blood plugged via intravenous into my body and the disturbing realization that I was looking down at it – at myself – from above. Even to the barely elementary school graduate me, I knew this was what they say is the soul’s last moments before death. I wondered if I would die... In that hazy dreaming cross-over state, many vague and obscure thoughts assaulted me.

"It's okay."

I think that was the first time I heard Misao, as a spirit, speak to me.

And I quickly came to realize that she was no longer of this world. After all, normal people don't float around in midair, glowing away in the darkness.

This particular Misao seemed a little more adult than usual. How pretty, I thought. And I wasn't scared. After having my plane plunge into the ocean and my life tossed to the verge of death, why should I be shocked to see something like a dead ghost floating above me? I think I laughed at the thought. Yes...Misao was really a beautiful girl.

"Don't be afraid. I'll protect you. And in exchange..."

Well, and that was how Misao became my guardian spirit.

Or, I suppose, that was how I became haunted by Misao.

Today is the first Thursday of April.

With the high school opening ceremony awaiting me tomorrow, today is the last day of spring break.

Three cardboard boxes and one borrowed suitcase.

That was all the luggage I had.

"See you later, Tomo. I have another delivery I need to make, so I can't help. Good luck with the move in!" Oohara's dad, who had helped me drive my stuff over in a dirty van with "Oohara Liquor" written on it, said as he pulled two warm bottles of Cola from the luggage rack and handed them to me.

"Thanks, sir." I said my thanks as I took the bottles, nearly dropping them.

"Ah!" Oohara's dad said with a wide hearty laugh that exposed the whites of his teeth.

"That Apricot guy is going to make me wait for him if I don't go now, so..." With those words, Oohara's dad shut the driver's side door. With a cacophony of clunking and knocking from the beaten engine, the car started and, spewing out deep red toxic exhaust, hurriedly rolled away.

We were left to stand at the doorway, absent-mindedly watching him disappear down the streets.

It was Spring. On the hill-path opposite the busy commercial streets, Sakura petals danced and fluttered in the whirling wind.

"- So that was Oohara family's dad, huh?" My friend, Higuchi, whispered to me after the Oohara car vanished behind the street corner. Snatching a Cola from me, he heaved a hefty sigh.

"Jeez, you really know how to get the scariest people to help you move your luggage. Props to you, man."

"Why? Oohara's dad is good person, you know." I replied. His face looks like someone who would definitely be a yakuza, though.

Misao nodded in agreement next to me. Her slender frame shaking in laughter.

"You're just interested in him, Tomo. You've heard the rumors, that Yamamoto is scared of crossing in front of that shop even to this very day."

"That's Yamamoto's fault, you know. Plus it was he who had started the fight."

Higuchi shrugged but said nothing. This Yamamoto was a fellow student at our middle school, he was the same grade as us and was a low-grade judo fighter. In the second year of middle school, he was something of a giant weighing over 100 kilograms (220 pounds). That guy, wearing the middle school uniform, strutted into Oohara's liquor store wanting to buy alcohol and got into a fight with the man.

Yamamoto refused to tell anyone much about what happened after that.

Most of the eye witnesses, however, claim that Yamamoto, with his face swelling with bruises, ran out of the store and was, for some reason, crying and screaming while wearing nothing but a pair of panties.

Well, whatever really happened is up to debate, but in any case, ever since then, the name "Old Man Oohara" became synonymous with terror to kids the likes of Yamamoto.

As a result, I had two reasons why I became rather famous. Number one, I was some sort of fearless weirdo that worked part time at the Oohara Terror shop. Number two, I was being haunted by ghosts.

"Well, whatever. Get moving putting the boxes away." Higuchi finished his cola first, stood up, and kicked aside a cardboard box on the floor.

My fingers still on the pull tab of the bottle, I stopped and looked at him, "Higuchi?"

"Hm? You want me to help you move?" Higuchi, with his eyes wide and clueless, stared at me as if to add, "I didn't sign up for that."

Then, what the hell did you come here for, jeez.

"If you're not going to help, then just go home. You also owe me a coke. Anyway, didn't some junior girl say she liked you the other day and weren't you planning to go see a movie with her?"

"Fool! Who the hell would go see a movie instead of his friend, who according to rumor, is moving into some haunted house? Besides, doesn't this place have a mountain-load of rumors about monster sightings and unexplained hauntings?"

"How about you stop staining the names of other people's boarding homes...Also, stop spreading these rumors."

"Alright, how about we check if those stories are really just rumors or not. Anyway, I’ll need to install a camera in your yard."

"No. And stop spouting off about those pointless things and help me out already." I turned to Higuchi and handed over a cardboard box. I swore to myself that, even if Higuchi ran to me bursting out in tears because he got dumped, I'm definitely not involving myself with him in the future.

In reality, Higuchi, for whatever reason, was often dumped. In fact, on average, he is rejected by his love interests about five times a year. For Higuchi, everything from his first impression to the content of his conversations is irritatingly problematic. He had something of an obsession with the supernatural and the occult.

Even though he treats me with the friendly casualness as one would a friend, Higuchi only approached me in the first place because he heard a rumor that I was haunted by a spirit.

Basically, Higuchi talks about only occult-related crap to even girls; on his first dates, nonstop conversations about demons, UMAs, aliens, and the like would drone on and on and, no matter how good-looking his face might be, everyone backed off. Then he would probably go back to digging up more supernatural crap.

"Shit, this is heavy. What the hell do you have in here?" Higuchi said as he lifted the cardboard box and, with his face in a crooked sneer, looked at me.

"Textbooks, dictionaries, and such. Oh, and the thing all the new students received at the E-Dance last week."

"That's all? What about the presents of the guide book to spirit-sightings and city legends that you were suppose to offer me?"

"I disposed of all that sort of stuff ahead of time." I replied and Higuchi's face immediately flashed an enraged color redder than the setting sun.

Spitefully, he glared angrily at a cardboard box innocently labeled "Oranges."

"Then, what about the porno magazines?"

"I don't have things like that."

"Tomo, you're a pretty uptight about stuff like that, aren't you."

"It's not that I'm particularly uptight..."

Normally, one wouldn't mix his porn and textbooks together. And, in any case, something must seriously be wrong with that Higuchi if he was actually expecting someone haunted by ghosts to give him a spirit-sighting guide book as present.

"Tomo, you don't need either one of those things, right? Since I'm here, after all." A teasing voice whispered straight into my head.

What the hell. Don't be saying things that are just going to invite misunderstandings.

Looking up in the direction of the sighing reply, I saw Misao starring off in the distance as if oblivious to the situation.

The Misao I saw now was, probably, about my age - fifteen. A beautiful teenager with her hands stuffed into the pockets of her spring coat.

Noticing my stare, Misao turned to me slowly and smiled.

Without realizing it, my heart fluttered with a flurry of playfulness and I squinted my eyes and stuck out my tongue at her with a "Pei". Between the shifting gaps of her long silky hair, the fluttering petals of the Sakura trees swept past and through.

"...but man, this really is an old house, you know."

Pushing aside the rusted iron gate, Higuchi stepped inside onto the stone pavement of the garden.

The front yard was a dreary place, poorly maintained and lifeless, only a few garden plants were left to sparsely populate the empty enclosure. The small brick house stood at the end of the short stone-paved path. Like Higuchi had said, it was definitely an old place. If I was told by someone that this was some sort of historical cemetery, I probably would've believed it. It looked old enough to have lived through the memories of easily half a century. The place wasn't just old, it was, frankly, crumbling from age.

"Are you really planning to live in a place like this? Are you going to be okay?" Higuchi asked, crinkling his brow.

Carrying my luggage in one hand, I fished for the gate key. "One of my brothers lived here two years ago. The inside is perfectly alright. Plus the high school is close by."

I produced the old fashioned brass key from my pocket. Instead of a key holder, a small protection pendant was attached to the key...probably just one of bro's particular preferences. I was sure there was no deep meaning or implication behind it.

The house’s door’s keyhole was thoroughly rusted through, but the key nevertheless turned unexpectedly effortlessly. With a screaming screech akin to something out a horror film, the door opened. Despite the midday sun, the hall, with its storm-shutters closed, was dark. All around, gray specks lay scattered about, shed from the white stucco walls. The light, shining in from the entrance way, glanced off the high ceiling and cast a most ghastly, disturbing, shadow. The billowing wind rushed and fluttered the curtains in rippling waves.

"Ooh, this is great...This place might seriously be haunted. But you'll definitely never be able to get a girl come here, man." Higuchi said excited as he peaked down the dust-stained corridor.

Hearing that, Misao chuckled out loud. And, with some level of sincerity, "A ghost, and a girl, both are already here, you know." She said teasingly.

Higuchi's ears, however, heard none of Misao's soothing, melodiously musical voice.

Even as I glanced at Misao gesturing at herself, I realized if I looked carefully, I could see through her ethereal form. The swirling flower petals, swaying gently downward, did not gather upon her shoulders and instead swept through her and away.

With that thought playing across my mind, I stepped through the doorway and laid down my bags. Definitely, if it wasn't because I had grown accustomed to Misao, I probably would never have built up the guts to live in a place like this.

Still wearing her stylish brown boots, Misao stepped into the house.

I could not hear her footsteps.

Without casting a shadow, Misao walked on tiptoes down the corridor; she floated just a little in the air.

It's been nearly three years since the girl called Misao Minakami went missing because of the airplane crash. In other words, nearly three years has passed since I was first haunted by a ghost named Misao.

However, perhaps it's because Misao became a ghost, her personality hasn't changed at all. In fact, she was actually enjoying her current situation.

Just looking at her, one would ever guess she was a ghost. If anything, one would just assume she was some normal teenage girl. Perhaps if one were to look at her entire body, one might feel something was missing, but unless inspected carefully, one would not notice she was translucent. She even still has legs. She doesn't go out as much as a normal girl would, but she does have a great sense of style and fashion.

From the moment we met in the hospital soon after the plane accident, through my return to Japan, acceptance to and completion of middle school, to right now, the very hour of my middle school graduation. Just why she continued growing up with me at the exact same pace. Just for that reason alone, she is already deviating from the standard image of your average ghost in this world.

Ghosts that grow up. Oh really? Isn't that great. Let us all approve.

The lovable and cute little girl guardian angel-sama grows up and becomes a beautiful teenager. If asked, I suppose it’s as fortuitous as it is unfortunate.

Certainly, Misao is cute. It's undoubtedly a blessing to have a girl like her only talk with me and always be by my side.

On the other hand, the reality that no matter how I reach out my hand for her, that I can never cross over to her world is, in a certain sense, terribly heartbreaking.

Those feminine arms and legs, or that deepening cleavage between those breasts, or the fair slender neck, or her well formed lips. The sort of situation where I, an adolescent boy rising into manhood, am forced to always see the siren's allurement, yet never be able to reach out my hands to take, is close to waterboarding and torture.

On top of that, even though Misao was well aware of it, she didn't much care about just what her own attractiveness was doing to me: approaching so close her lips nearly brush against me, sideling up next to me while I'm trying to bathe, standing around at such frustrating angles that the fluttering of her skirt would tease me just enough to check if I could see it or not. My god, are you doing this to me on purpose, miss?

Ghosts, by all means, aren't real in the first place and so perhaps Misao's existence can be explained as just some sort of hallucination created in my mind. After all, only I can see Misao, only I can hear Misao.

If I ever went to discuss this is with a psychiatrist, they'd probably theorize that I have schizophrenia and thus have a split personality - which in part was caused by a person named Misao.

And probably because of that, I would come off as something of a fragile pansy, and unfortunately, I have no basis to deny that accusation.

Incidentally, I have no real other connection with ghosts or spirits, and, aside from Misao, I've never met another ghost in my life. I might just be overly harsh on myself, thinking this way, but in terms of reality, I really wonder...

"Yeah, I really wonder, too." Misao said and, in a charming manner, purposely unbuttoned the collar of her shirt as if almost inviting me to peek between them.

That's really erotic, so please stop.

"If you can understand it that way, then isn't that good enough?”

It's not fine at all. I don't understand it. In the first place, I really hate pseudoscience like ghosts or the occult. And even if I didn't hate them, there is still that rumor that spread around middle school that I was possessed by ghosts and so there had been a large group of kids at school who, to this very day, were too scared to even come close to me. If things continue on like this, even if I enter high school, I still won't have a chance of getting a girlfriend through normal methods.

And if Misao was truly a real ghost and that her physical body did, in fact, die in the airplane incident, then hasn't three years been long enough for her to hesitate and meander? I think it's about time she found some peace in rest and go to heaven. I know that my hope for something like that was not just for Misao's own sake.

Well...at least until this night, before I met them.

We had started the project of moving in around noon, and with absolutely no thanks to whatever help Higuchi might have provided, and some thanks to Misao's roughly helpful advice of first taking care of the things necessary for daily survival and worrying about cleaning up and putting things away later, we were almost finished with it by the evening.

If nothing else Meioutei (1) was vast. A thorough cleaning of the house probably couldn't be finished with even a week.

"...So, how much is the rent for this place?" Higuchi, strewn lazily on the old sofa in the living room sofa, asked.

The rays of the setting sun shone through the open window and plastered onto the wall clock on the opposite with a bright reflective film.

In any case, no matter how much an old building gets cleaned, that tired and worn impression is just never going to be swept out. But once one gets used to it, living here won't be bad at all. The place has the feel of a setting out of 19th century London. It's the sort of atmosphere one would read about in a murder-mystery detective novel. Or perhaps a suspense-horror novel. It’s the sort of place a real monster might actually live. So anyway, how much is the rent here?

"I don't think it's that expensive, but I'm not sure. My brother is paying for it." Actually, I was just told I could use this place while he was out. He probably didn't think I'd actually come and live here.

"Tomo, your brother is in America right now, right?"

"Yeah." I nodded. Then, something popped up in my thoughts, "Actually, I'm not sure...he recently sent me a post card from India..."

"What the hell? Didn't he call you from North America just a little while ago?" Higuchi looked up, his brow furrowed doubtfully, "...Yeah, I don't really understand what’s going on with these super- smart people."

Yeah, I feel completely the same.

I've been told my brother, Naotaka Natsume was, from childhood, extremely intelligent.

Since middle school, he's been submitting scholarship papers and winning tens of thousands of yen in scholarships. When he became a college student, he had turned all that into cash and flew out the nest, where he was easily accepted into studying abroad.

Ever since, whenever he felt like he had time to waste on me, he would call internationally; I, on the other hand, had no way of contacting him. Maybe he told mom his address and email, but I didn't know. At first, I was completely unsatisfied, but recently, I've had cause to change my mind a little. Probably in order for my genius-born older brother to actually be a good older brother, he had to be paying more attention to me. I suppose some people could say we were lost on how to bridge that gap between us siblings...No, that's probably not it. It's just him.

"Ann-chan is here!" Misao snuck up on me and whispered into my year I held a wet wiping cloth in my hands absent-mindedly. Then, the slightly late and incredibly dull sounding door chime rang. Maybe the batteries are running out.

I returned the cloth to its bucket, washed my hands in the restroom, and, wearing slippers I brought from my real home, I headed toward the entrance. The door opened with a screech at its hinges and, standing outside, was a short-haired cheerful young girl who looked at me with a pouty expression. Her name is Ann Oohara; a classmate from back in middle school.

"Took you long enough, Tomo!" Ann said as she shoved into my arms a three-layered new-year's meal box and a bottle of orange juice.

"What's this? Whoa, what's in here?" The boxes were surprisingly heavy.

"Dad told me to bring you some dinner. Are you done moving in?" Without waiting for me to say "Well, pretty much", Ann barged into the house.

Looking down the corridor at the candle-holder shaped light bulbs, she blew a small whistle as if to say Aha! "This is amazing! I've heard people talk about it, but this place feels incredibly rustic and antique. It's called Meioutei?"

"Right. My brother called it that." Meioutei was the name of this rather western-styled house. And, actually, there really was a splendid Sakura tree standing dead center in the backyard that, even now, was blooming with vibrant vivaciousness. (2)

"Maybe it has a corpse buried at its roots." Misao giggle as she whispered into my ear.

I looked up at her with a horrified expression. Seriously, stop saying things like that! If because of nothing else than you, yourself, are a ghost.

Ann, who didn't seem at all frightened, occasionally breathed "Uwa - " and exclaimed "Hya-!" as she walked down the corridor. When she peaked into the living room, she blinked in mild surprise, "Ooh? Higuchi! You're here too!"

"Hnn?" Higuchi lazily propped himself up and, without much emotion in his voice, "Oh, it's just Oohara. What are you here for? It's a bit too late for little girls to be wandering around outside."

I think the fact he speaks with such a carelessly condescending tone even to girls that he really likes, is the reason why Higuchi has never even once gone out on a real second date.

"What's with the attitude? Especially when people go out of their way to bring food for you!"

"Eh? Really? I was wrong about you, Oohara. You're the greatest!" Making a complete 180 to a fresh new attitude, Higuchi jumped off the sofa.

I continued arranging the food onto the table in the living room – I have yet to clean the dining room.

“Where are the cups...?" I whispered softly, too quietly for Higuchi and Ann to hear.

Misao nodded, "I don't know about cups, but I saw a beaker in the next room."

Beaker, huh. It's certainly usable as a cup. Well, it should be fine as long as no one used it to store weird drugs or whatever.

"It's okay. I'll be here with you."

What the heck is that? How does that resolve anything? Besides, Misao, are you sure you're not mistaking "be here with" with "possess"?

Misao's personality had been like that since forever; whenever my judgment was at a loss, I would always be swayed over by her opinion. I mean, I know that if I ended up failing because of it, I would be the one who suffered the consequences, but once one is fixed in his or her role of listening to someone else it becomes incredibly difficult to break free. Just how many times did I get myself into a sticky situation even though Misao told me "I'll be with you, so it'll be fine.”? I headed over to the next room, mumbling to myself over that matter.

That room was, apparently, a work room my brother used for his various hobbies.

The interior was dreary with specialized tools and machines were strewn about. Like Misao had said; beakers of various sizes and shapes lined the medicine cabinet next to the nearby wall. Now that I think about it, my brother really used a lot of armies and remote-controlled helicopters in this room. Then he would burst out of here with his homemade air guns blazing; dropping bombs and firing rounds at me, who was then just a small child. Those were horrible times.

I picked three seemingly usable beakers from the shelf and turned to go back to the living room when I suddenly noticed it.

There was a strange lid covering something on the workshop floor. What is that? I thought with a flutter of interest. On top of the lid there was a distinct insertion slit for a key. More than a just a lid, this thing looked more like a door.

"Hmm...basement, maybe?" Misao suggested in a light tone.

I tilted my head, but didn't reply. No one ever said we had something like that here.

For no particular reason, I found myself incredibly interested. It's fine if it's just a storage room, but what should I do if there was really something like a dead body in there? What if I'm going to hear the cries and moans of demon spirits in the middle of the night? Surely, Higuchi's whole rhetoric about monsters can't possibly be anything but lies.

"Tomo, what are you doing? If you don’t come back soon we'll finish eating everything!" Ann's voice echoed in from the living room.

Even though Ann was a girl, she sure could eat, and Higuchi eats like an overworked, starved carriage horse. Leaving those two alone with food really could mean they would even eat my portion and finish everything. Am I really going to have nothing left?

"Wait! Seriously, just what did you two come here for?!"

Hugging the beakers, I hurriedly rushed back down the corridor. Misao stared at the door at her feet for just a little while longer before giving a shrug and turning to chase after me.

There after, in the span of thirty minutes two newspaper salesmen came by.

Ann greeted them for me. Maybe it was because she had been watching her father work since a young age, but she was surprisingly good with this sort of social interaction. In an overly friendly tone, her non-stop, one-sided chatting dropped whatever sales pitch for laundry detergent or baseball tickets the salesman might have prepared and slowly scared the guy away. I think that is a wonderful talent to have.

Ann was Oohara Liquor’s self-proclaimed poster girl. In addition to being classmates, we also became fellow employees, she’s my senior there at the Oohara store.

Ever since the proud, physically invincible old man Oohara strained his back and asked Ann for help I had began working at the store three days a week. I have no idea just what they actually thought about a middle school student working at a liquor store but the teachers at school seemed to have figured I was just helping out with the family business and overlooked the issue.

"But, Tomo, Dad says if your club activities conflict with your job you don't have to worry about the shop. Since you're in high school, you might as well enjoy doing things that only high schoolers can do." Ann said, happily stuffing her face with fried chicken.

"Clubs, huh..." I mused, tumbling around an asparagus roll in my mouth. Hmm, I thought, the spices making some sort of flavour dance, delicious.

"Tomo, you're really going to join a club or something?" Higuchi asked, as if truly mystified by the idea.

At that point, Ann cut in, "Ah! I made that egg roll, is it good?"

"A little too sweet… It's not that I don't want to join one, it's just that there isn't a club that I'm really interested in."

However, I don't have a hobby and the days of no work in addition to no club activities would just pile up becoming tedious. It's not like I have a girlfriend to go out with or the money to go out and play by myself.

And, more than anything else: I didn't want Misao to grow bored.

It's pretty understandable considering she's the ghost haunting me but Misao, who obviously had a lot of time on her hands, would often involve herself in my business. And if I ignored her she would, of course, get angry. As a ghost, Misao wasn't particularly powerful; she was, after all, no violent poltergeist who would rampage about and damn people. Instead, Misao would often whisper whimsically in my ear reminders of all my past failures, all of which she remembered well. If I could, I wanted to avoid such situations.

"Anything will do. Join the track club with me Tomo, you're pretty fast aren't you?"

Well yes, I was good at running. It was one of the few things I could actually compete with against my brother.

"Uh, don't. It's sweaty and it sucks. How about you join the go-home-club, you live alone, anyway, why waste that?"

"Stuffing yourself in a crumbling house like this isn't good for you! It's bad for your health, you know. Some creepy girl might crawl out of the old abandoned well and kill you or some murderer might spring out from under your bed and butcher you, you know."

"What are you, stupid? He'll be fine even if that was the case. Besides, Tomo is possessed by ghosts anyway and it shouldn't be a problem if one or two more monsters join up with him.”

‘What the hell kind of reasoning is that?’ I thought to myself. Misao bared her teeth at Higuchi and glared at him angrily.

"Only Higuchi would say something like that," Ann said, biting on tsukemono (3). Ann didn't believe in ghosts.

Even though she always called herself my guardian spirit, Misao had none of the powers a ghost would likely have. Of course possession and cursing all go out the window. It probably has something to do with her personality. Dark and malicious actions like that were bad for making friends.

Thus people only suspected my possession because suspicious videos and photos were taken of me, and that had been the direct reason why the whole rumor about me being haunted by spirits came about. There isn’t much more basis for it though than that and consequently I was classified under the possessed-but-harmless weirdo group at school. At the very least I was able to make friends with people like Ann, who did not believe in the existence of ghosts.

"How about joining the drama club, Tomo?" Out of nowhere, Higuchi suggested suddenly and randomly, "According to my sources, there isn't a single guy in the drama club so if you join you can easily be the male lead in anything!"

"That won't work! There's no way Tomo can act! There's just no way he could be a prince or something."

"If prince is no good, there are other roles. Like the princess or a corpse."

"Hmm! I kind of want to see him as a princess."

No way in hell. And anyway, I didn't say a single thing about wanting to join the drama club.

I guess it just has to be track then. No, the film club! Higuchi and Ann completely ignored me and my opinions and continued to argue over the matter while I stared at the three-layered dinner boxes and ate a sandwich.

"Tomo," Misao drifted down lightly and land on my shoulders, "Someone’s coming. A weird one."

"Eeh? Who is it?" I said aloud without thinking. Higuchi and Ann, with mystified looks on their faces, turned to look at me. They could not hear Misao's voice.

Before suspicion could settle in, the dull doorbell rang from the entrance way.

"Another newspaper salesman? Hey, Oohara!"

"Leave it to me!" Ann, responding to Higuchi's call, stood up energetically and dashed to the door.

Misao folded her arms across her chest, deep in thought, "Hmm...certainly didn't look like a newspaper salesman..."

Maybe it's the milk man or a security guard. Maybe a member of the neighborhood watch. It's probably nothing we should be worried about.

But then again, Ann seemed unusually quiet out there.

"Tomo, come here for a second, please."

Ann came back a short while later and beckon for me from the end of the corridor, a sort of discouraged disappointment apparent on her face. "I think we have a guest..."

I wonder who? There are only a handful of people who would know I moved in here today. Ann's dad, my mom, Mr. Sonomiya and Kazuha Sonomiya. It would be great if Kazuha came but that's not very likely. There's no reason for her to visit me. Or perhaps she is coming to patch things up with me...well, probably not.

"Uwaa..." Misao breathed in admiration.

A young lady, whom I had never met before, stood at the door.

She was tall, stylish, and slender. Wearing her high-heeled boots, she stood taller than me.

Even though it was April, she wore a full winter coat. The coat was jet black. Her long straight hair was jet black. Everything about her was black. She looked like a witch.

The only piece of color she had on her was the bright red frame of her glasses which somehow made its surroundings less stern and serious.

Underneath her glasses, she was a full-blown, heartbreakingly beautiful woman.

"She’s pretty, isn't she? Tomo, you really fall head-over-heels for people like that, don’t you?"

I was flustered that Misao was right on the bull’s-eye. Maybe it's the repression from my extremely capable brother working my cognition or perhaps I'm just weak to beautiful older women, but all my resistances instantly burned away. Misao clearly didn't sound too happy about that.

Certain if we were just comparing looks, Misao wouldn't lose so easily, but I never really thought of Misao as an older woman figure. If anything, she was more like a twin sister: and a ghost. Moreover, how should I put this… Misao had none of that erotic sexiness that seemed to exude from this other girl.

"Good evening. I suppose I should also say 'pleased to meet you.' For the sake of my task I want to just confirm you are Naotaka's younger brother, right?" The black-clad woman asked.

Instantly, I felt all the random thoughts and feelings that had played across my mind sink away. Oh, I see. So the beautiful lady is just an acquaintance of my brother. This suddenly got a lot less interesting.

"Umm, I'm sorry but my brother hasn't came back from studying abroad yet," it's not that I did anything particularly wrong I need to say sorry for, but I figured I might as well apologize anyway.

If I got her hopes up that maybe Naotaka was coming back, then I was so terribly sorry.

However, the lady did not seem especially downcast or disappointed; instead she smiled faintly as she studied me.

I was beginning to get a bad feeling in the bit of my stomach and I was at a loss for what to do.

This person might be beautiful, but she was also a bit weird. It's hard to put a finger on it, but there is definitely something strange about her.

"I know what you’re thinking."

"Huh?"

"I too am an acquaintance of Naotaka. And I didn't come here to meet him. I have need of you, Tomoharu Natsume."

"Eh, me?"

I was so surprised I used "Ore" without thinking (4).

The lady nodded, "Naotaka asked me to do this: If you were to ever move into this house, I was to entrust this to you."

"Oh."

Entrust. What? I realized I needed to ask.

An oddly out-of-place suitcase stood at the feet of the black-clad woman.

It seemed big enough to be used for travelling and the surface shone with a glossy metallic brilliance.

"Here," She brought the suitcase up and handed it over to me as I stared in bewilderment.

"Um, what?!"

As a result of taking that suitcase, I lost my balance and nearly fell over.

Since she had handed it over with such ease I didn't expect it to be so ridiculously heavy. I could barely lift the thing with both hands even though I was pretty confident in my physical strength from working at the liquor store.

"It's in your care now. Make sure you take care of it, okay?" She said in a stern tone.

Instead of heeding her words, I dropped the suitcase at my feet. "Wait a second. What is this thing? And who are you? When the hell did my brother ask you do to something like this?"

As far as I know, Naotaka left Japan only last summer and hasn't come back since. Has this girl has been holding on to this piece of luggage for the whole time? Or maybe he already came back. If that was the case, why didn't he just give this to me in person instead of asking her to do it?

"Don't ever lose track of this thing - it is extremely important for everyone. Even for yourself." She warned, completely ignoring my questions.

Even if you tell me that, just what the hell am I suppose do with it?

The suitcase entrusted to me wasn't just incredibly heavy, it was also made of something extremely tough - both the handle and the case itself were made of metal. The thing was closed so tightly together I couldn't tell where it was supposed to open. The outside was mechanical with slightly rusted thick bolts on its surface, with strange brown spots strewn about. I had no idea when this thing could have been made.

One thing was definite though: the case seemed extremely valuable and costly. I wouldn't have been surprised if there were stacks of bank notes inside there. Actually, I'd be fairly grateful if that was the case.

A thought ran across my mind and captured my imagination: what if there were weapons or dangerously suspicious white powder inside? What would I do then? I shuddered in fright at the thought. Just what the hell are you mixed up in while running around outside the country, bro?

"Umm...I'm sorry but can I return this to you?" I asked, nervously.

"No. If you don't hold onto it then there is absolutely no point." She said with a slightly scary glint in her eyes.

I was becoming increasingly more panicky. What the hell do you mean "no point?" I thought I just had to keep this for you for a while. Like, until I give it back to you after the time is up or when you want it back.

"Um...this really did belong to my brother, right?" I asked persistently.

I probably had a pretty pathetic expression on my face then because her stern look loosened and she laughed, "nope."

Eeh. My finger tips shook and I gripped the suitcase so tight that my knuckles turned white. So this really is stolen goods, then? I flashed the lady a look of terror and astonishment.

I was getting a horrible feeling about this.

I looked up at her, but she didn't meet my stare.

Underneath those red-framed spectacles her eyes stared directly upward above my shoulder at the ceiling.

But before that:

"Tomo, this person..." Misao's voice shook.

The black-clad woman's eyes without doubt or hesitation, locked upward straight toward Misao. To Misao, who couldn't be seen by anyone else except me.

"This from the beginning, belonged only to you guys", she stated clearly. She then turned on her heels, her back to us. Her coat fluttered wildly in the wind like a witch's cape as she walked away.

Misao and I stared after her in shock and astonishment.

Afterwards only the silver-colored suitcase was left at my feet.

"Hey, so who was that person just now?" Ann, sitting on her knees on the couch asked as I returned to the living room. Her big pretty eyes were sparkling with curiosity but a look of slight worry was on her face.

"She was friggin' hot. Who was she?" Higuchi asked. His eyes too, were glittering with wolfish lust. I suppose he was peeking earlier.

"Hey, what's with the suitcase? What's in it?"

"Let's open it and see, should be fine, right?"

The two of them then proceeded to drown me out with a steady flood of questions about the incident.

When I realized that I couldn't answer a single one of them a shiver of shock ran down my spine. Now that I think about it, I even forgot to ask for her name. Was she even really my brother's acquaintance?

‘My brother's acquaintance’, those words have a horrible ring to them; they were the causes of many dark times in my past.

I had been an idiot the day I became a middle school student – I had told Naotaka about Misao.

The next day, Naotaka brought over three older woman – his acquaintances – who were cognitive-psychology students. The three women stripped me naked and forced me down on what could only be described as a surgical table and then proceeded to, for the purpose of investigation, insert all sorts of strange metallic instruments into whatever holes and or orifices on my body and ran electricity through them, all the while pounding me with over 500 questions all of which I had to respond with "no". For half a year afterwards I was traumatized and pathologically scared by all serious-minded and stern-looking girls.

The year after, Naotaka dragged me to a strange and suspicious martial artist, whose name I didn't know, for training. Somewhere during that interim I was thoroughly beaten down and knocked out to the point I couldn’t recall what happened three days thereafter.

A meeting with Naotaka’s acquaintances has never, not even once, ended without me going through all sorts of intense pain and suffering.

Rushed by Ann and Higuchi, I chucked the suitcase down on the living room floor. The more I look at it, the more suspicious it gets. It looked like the sort of thing the Apollo 11 astronauts would've used to bring back lunar rocks, but it's probably a little too late for that.

"Maybe there's a biological weapon in there." Higuchi said jokingly. I found myself unable to laugh.

Well, there isn't a biological radiation sign or serial number on the case. Whether that's good enough a reason to feel safe was a bit too early to say. But if that was the case, then, maybe I shouldn't have thrown it onto the ground so violently earlier.

"So, how do we open this?" Ann asked, shaking and hitting the case.

I don't think you should be treating it so roughly, Ann. But because I was afraid that mentioning the elephant in the room might cause it to go crazy, I remained silent.

But Ann does have a point. The case's surface was flat and there didn't seem to be any hidden switch, keyhole, or place to enter the combination to open the thing.

"Maybe they use remote control to open this thing," Higuchi said without a sense of responsibility.

Ann, giving up, sighed, and laughed a little, "I've never heard of a remote-control bag like that. Besides, it's not like this is a bomb..." Ann's laughing tone dropped below a whisper midway through.

Now that I think about it, the news did mention a while back that instead of being scared of terrorist missiles delivering in nukes, rather, we should be scared of terrorists nowadays using suitcases to smuggle nuclear warheads into the country.

"..."

A thick white lace of silence hung stale in the room; everyone subconsciously glanced away from the suitcase.

I gave Misao a brief look. Since she was a ghost, surely she could easily peek into the sealed-shut case and see.

"Can't." Misao, however, shook her head from side to side.

In any case, it seems even Misao can't get into that trunk. Either that, or the inside of the case was pitch black and she couldn't see anything anyway.

I sighed deeply, "The next time my brother calls I’ll ask him what's inside." I have no idea when that is going to be though, I thought, but didn't say.

Preferably, it'll be nice if he called before I get blown up into chunks of raw meat. On the other hand, maybe there is only some special North American-only fruit in there...which would've gone rotten by now. Or maybe it's my brother's comfort blanket. In a certain sense, that might be worse than a nuclear blanket!

Whenever I looked at that mysterious trunk, I'd start to feel depressed, so I picked up the trunk and carried it out of the living room again. I lugged the thing over to the northern-most room, which I had designated for storage and left it next to the cardboard boxes that had already served their purpose in helping me move.

Then, the dull door bell rang once again. It was the third salesman today.

When the door of the storage room shut, a cardboard box tumbling in the draft, fell over. The box labelled "oranges" conveniently covered up the suitcase. However, I noticed none of this and instead headed toward the entrance. Outside the windows the sky was already dark. Today is the last day of spring and that was going to end in just a few moments. However, I had no idea today was also the last day of my peaceful and uneventful life, which will also end in just a few moments. Just not yet.

However, the wheels of fate are beginning to spin.

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