For some reason, I was unusually tired by the time I finally returned home with Misao. Soon after, while I was sluggishly preparing dinner, the telephone rang. Upon picking it up, I was greeted by a voice belonging to an unnecessarily high-strung woman...
"What's up, son? How are you doing? How does it feel to finally experience living by yourself as a high school student? Oh, and just because you're feeling lonely, you still shouldn't go and use your brother's ID to rent adult videos... Actually, you probably don't have the balls for that anyway, hahaha."
Man, just where do you plan to draw the line on things you shouldn't say? I thought to myself as I listened to her ramble on.
"...Your mom?" Misao asked me with a wry smile.
I nodded my head in annoyance. Just hearing her brainlessly upbeat voice was enough to double the crappiness of my life. Mom was employed as a nurse and she apparently talked that way even at work; I always thought it was something of a wonder that no patient ever complained about it.
Glancing out the windows, I could still see pale light emanating from outside. She should still be on duty at this time, so what was she doing skipping out on work?
"What do you need?" I asked her in a deep voice.
She was the sort of parent that would never have the praiseworthy spirit to call out of worry over her son starting to live on his own. Moreover, the fact she would go out of her way and skip work to give me a call could only mean that she must have some urgent and pressing need.
However, instead of the expected request, her response was, "Hehehe... what do you think?"
"...I'm going to hang up."
"Wah! Hey, not so fast! What is with you?! You can't take even one little joke? Just where did I go wrong raising you? Just where, huh?"
I decided to ignore that.
I barely had any memory of this woman "raising" me in any appropriate sense of the word – the product of always being busy at work and never being at home. Coupled with the fact that my brother didn't feel the need to be part of my life growing up, it was a little bizarre that I somehow managed to survive until today on my own... Then again, maybe I was able to because Misao had always been there for me, I thought to myself as I felt a sudden wave of a sense of emptiness. It was a terribly unhappy feeling knowing that the closest thing I had to someone family-like, by far, was a ghost.
"Yeah, I guess it had to be that – the plane accident. Or maybe it's because you fell down some stairs while in kindergarten. That really surprised me! If I had only shot some video of that, I'd totally keep it in my video treasure box collection – you were so slow and dull straight up from the beginning!"
With that, I shoved Mom and her fancily made-up string of theories aside in my mind. Falling down stairs was one thing, but I seriously didn't believe that plane accident could've had any impact on my personality! Anyway, I had more important things to concentrate on: I had to start stir-frying my dinner. If there was one thing I knew about stir-frying, it was that if you want to make stir-fried bean sprouts well, you need to do it all in one fell swoop with a strong fire underneath. I was nearly done stir-frying too, as I could smell the aroma of the spices begin to waft up through the steam. But then, I heard Mom continue...
"...Yeah, yeah... Oh! I nearly forgot. Nao-kun called earlier."
"Eh?!" I let out, as I nearly dropped my frying pan in surprise at Mom's sudden revelation.
My brother called? That was unusual...
Misao, who was floating with her ears almost glued onto the phone receiver, widened her eyes in surprise. She then boxed her fingers into a square shape as if to say, "It probably was about the trunk."
"What did my brother say?" I asked firmly.
"Huhn! You want me to tell you?" Mom replied in a teasing voice.
I grinded my teeth in irritation, "Hurry up and tell me! And anyway, where is he right now?"
"No idea. I forgot to ask, ahaha. Well, he sounded healthy though, so he's probably fine."
It's not fine at all! I thought savagely. There was an entire mountain of questions I wanted to ask him, and yet you...
"Tomoharu, you also seem to be doing fine, as well. I figured you would be a lot more stressed out by yourself. Oh, and don't worry, I'm having lots of fun with Kasuha-chan. Yesterday, we took a bath together. Girls nowadays are so incredibly stylish, you know! I mean, she has long legs and her chest is strangely somehow not flat... you're getting dirty thoughts now, aren't you? Dirty boy..."
"No I'm not!"
"Not in the mood, huh...? Well, Kazuha-chan has been asking me a lot about you, you know! Like about things at school, or when you were younger, or what your favorite foods are, or what type of girl you like. She's incredibly bothered by the thought that it was her fault you walked out of the house."
"Heh... Why?" I voiced that suspicion over the phone. I had been certain she hated me.
From the other end of the phone, Mom sighed deeply.
"You're a little dense, aren't you? That's why you're not very popular with girls, you know. You just have no idea what's in a girl's heart, do you, you cherry boy?"[1D 1]
That's none of your business!
"Well, whatever," she continued without waiting for my response. "In any case, make sure you properly show your face at Sonomiya's house next week."
"Not so fast, just what are you trying to pull? What about the thing with my brother?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot," Mom said, cackling.
I was really starting to not give a rat's ass. I wanted to just hang up the phone as soon as possible. Maybe the fact that my brother left the country and wasn't coming back was also because of having this kind of mother.
"Um... let's see... Nao-kun said he doesn't mind you doing whatever you want in the Meioutei, but you should go properly greet the landlord at least once."
"Yes. Some guy from Kitaarisa named Shoizumi. To tell you the truth, I've never met this guy, but he's supposed to be some sort of famous land-owner around the area."
That was a little unexpected. I couldn't for the life of me figure out just why my brother would go out of his way to contact me from out-of-the-country to do something as normal and conventional as greeting the landlord. But then again, what my brother says always carried weight.
"Understood. Anything else?"
"Nope, nothing else."
"Eh? Just that? What about the trunk and the Asura Machina?"
"What the hell is that? Asura Machina... is that Spanish for... ass machine?[1D 2] Anyway, I told you what I was supposed to from Nao-kun. I get to go on a date with my hubby after this. We're going to enjoy a full course French cuisine. Feeling jealous? Ahahaha!"
Mom then hung up, leaving only her high-pitched laughter ringing in my ears. I just stood there, frozen for a few moments with the phone tightly in my grip. Going to enjoy a full course French cuisine while your son dines on stir-fried bean sprouts...? And to rub it in his face too? Shit... well, whatever.
In the meantime, Misao as pointing at the burnt lump in the frying pan and interrupted my thoughts by saying, "Tomo, it's blackening. The bean sprouts!"
There was another trick to stir-frying of course: finish it quickly. Looking down at the charred black corpse that was my bean sprouts, I sighed deeply, lamenting over my dinner. It was all because Mom just kept babbling on and on about pointless things... In the end, just what the hell was with that call? It's not like my brother ever expressed any brotherly concern or whatever.
Kitaarisa's Shioizumi-san, huh?
After I finished eating the burnt, charcoal-tasting pile-of-ash-crap that was my dinner's side dish, the glass repairman finally showed up. I had asked him to come over to repair the shattered window.
The man was a regular at the Oohara's bar and so I already knew him well. As he inspected the window broken by the fake miko in the living room, he breathed a sigh of concern for me.
"Man, you really did a number on this, huh? You'll have to replace the entire sash window, you know. And it'll definitely cost you an arm and a leg."
"...Seriously?" I lamented.
I had thought I would be able to at least afford one pane of window glass, despite being a poor high school student living on his own.
"Take a good look at this. Your window frame has completely melted. It's not the sort of thing that the tiny bit of heat emitted by a lighter could possibly do. Just what did you do, anyway? Were you waving around a gas burner or something?"[1D 3]
"No...I had an accident here..." I answered with an innocent excuse.
The more I stared closely at the destroyed window, the more it became obvious that this wasn't just your everyday incident, even to someone as naive as me. The leftover fragments of glass seemed to have completely melted. It would not have been easy to melt the glass even if one was using a welder's acetylene torch. The more I thought about this, the more I realized just what sort of monster the fake miko from before dawn must've been.
"Hmm... Did Takatsuki-san really do all of this?" Misao asked, floating upside down in the air with her arms crossed.
I said nothing and only shrugged.
I would have no way of knowing anyway. Even if we assumed for the moment that Takatsuki was the one that did this, just what sort of trick did she pull to melt all the window glass in one blinding instant?
"...In any case, I'll put in an order for more window frames. I think my company should have some in stock; I'll check with them tomorrow. Sorry, but it seems like you'll just have to hang in there like this for tonight."
"Uhh... Isn't leaving a hole there just tempting fate?" I asked out loud. That's pretty careless of you too, I thought worriedly, but kept my mouth shut.
The window repairman, however, laughed it off heartily, "You'll be fine! The weather report claimed we'll have clear skies today and tomorrow. Besides, and I think I've said this already, but burglars won't go out of their way and break into some rundown house like this one."
"Well, I guess so..."
Although... even if burglars don't barge in, ghosts and monsters sure as hell do.
But whatever, I thought to myself. Besides, it's not like a pane of glass is any match against that fake miko if she were to break in here again.
"I wonder if she'll come again," Misao commented while staring at the melted glass shards on the floor with a most unusual expression on her face.
I shook my head absent-mindlessly. It was only because that demon was wearing Takatsuki Kanade's face which prevented the feeling of wretched intense fear from gripping me as hard is it should have. In reality, it was a situation a lot more dangerous than my reactions had belied.
I had no idea if I would survive another encounter with that pair of death-filled eyes. After all, the opponent was a monster capable of melting the alumina window frame in a split second.
"But if that fake miko was really Takatsuki, then I don't think she'll assault me the way she did again. Since you already know who she is, after all," I said in a crackling voice.
The posting of the class schedules and lists had been just before this morning's opening ceremony. In other words, last night Takatsuki should have had no way of knowing she and I were in the same class. Which could have been why that fake miko attacked me yesterday without even bothering to disguise her face.
"Uh... then what if it was just someone that looked like her?" Misao quipped back.
"Even then, I don't think she'll attack again today."
"Because you showed up and shocked her."
Although, I suppose, it was more like the ‘scared-the-living-hell-out-of' kind of shock. That fake miko got a clear look at Misao and bolted the hell out. I don't know why, but a person (which she may or may not be) as scared to all hells by ghosts and spirits would most likely find it difficult to revisit the Meioutei and risk another encounter with Misao.
"Eh... Well... it was because of me then. Be grateful, little boy."
"...Moreover, why don't you realize just what sort of terrifying existence you really are?"
"What the hell?! What are you saying?!"
"Hmm, did you say something?" asked a voice.
The window repairman, who had been taking measurements, had returned and apparently overhead our conversation.
"No, not particularly... I didn't say anything," I quickly corrected with a fuzzy smile.
With that rumor that I was being possessed by ghosts spreading around, if I wasn't careful, people might really become scared of me.
Fortunately and happily, the window repairman apparently figured I was just talking to myself and didn't pursue it any further.
"Alright then, when the materials get here, I'll give you a call."
"Ah, please do. I'll be counting on you," I replied politely as I went to see the repairman to the front door so he could return to the shop.
"Tomo, about what you said before..." Misao began as she floated lightly behind me, "You shouldn't count on me too much. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to scare her off the next time so don't you think that you should come up with some sort of method to reliably drive her off?"
"And by ‘some sort of method' you mean?"
"Um... something like... a molester-repellent spray[1D 4], maybe?"
I've never heard of any demon that could be driven away by something like that. For that sort of thing, the main ingredient of that would have to be Togarashi X[1D 5] or something. Well, considering how garlic is supposed to be effective against vampires...
"She was looking for whatever or whoever that Asura Machina is, so she'll probably leave us alone if I hand it over to her."
If this was a ghost story, it was beginning to feel like there was some sort of pattern to this. Stories of monsters seeking their own beheaded skull or some freshly cleaved off arm or whatever was fairly common, but why the hell does this one wander out here and demand something that sounds so ridiculously like a piece of technology?! I mean, just what the hell is this Asura Machina?
"One, it is some treasure hidden away in this mansion. Two, it's inside the mysterious trunk Kurosaki-senpai gave to us. Three, it is something else. Now then, I wonder which one it could be?" Misao mused with a smile.
That's a tough question. Anything that involved my brother, I think, would be suspicious. But even then, I had no idea why she had to come before dawn to attack. Before I moved in, this Meioutei had been vacant for over a year. If she wanted to search the house, then would've been the best time.
That leads to possibility number two. That was also a suspicious possibility. But Kurosaki Shuri brought the mysterious trunk only late last night. And it was difficult to just surmise that the whereabouts of the trunk was intercepted and she came running to attack in under half a day. Moreover, Shuri said that piece of luggage belonged to us. But then again, we had absolutely no clue as to what this Asura Machina was exactly.
"Then, how about directly asking the person in question?"
"Person in question...!?" the face of one particular classmate flashed across my mind as I uttered those words.
Since we were classmates, I knew her phone number and address.[1D 6] Plus, tomorrow was Saturday and there would be no school.
Certainly a conversation as intrusive as this would be best done outside the classroom away from the prying eyes of others. However...!
"...What should I do if Takatsuki Kanade has nothing to do with this?"
I could almost see Takatsuki's reaction and a chill ran down my back at the thought.
If one small touch in the school corridors today was enough to get me placed in the ‘suspicious and weirdo' category, flat out barging into Takatsuki's house would seriously get me labeled a stalker. And if Saeki found out about this, I could almost see her blowing up in rage in my face all over again. Plus, this was only right after the opening ceremony... I needed to avoid being treated like some sort of strange pervert no matter what. As if that wasn't enough, I had to discuss various things with her, such as monsters, demons, and whatever the hell else.
Misao, with a finger on her lips, mused, "Hm... Yeah, it might go down like that if you went to met her alone."
Without even having Misao pointing it out, I suddenly realized that the volume of my voice had been steadily rising. The window repairman who was walking in front of me suddenly came to a stop and turned toward me with a slightly disturbed expression. It wasn't that I let down my guard; my voice simply rose bit by bit as I chatted breezily with Misao without me realizing it before it was too late. The repairman's expression was one of someone who had just seen something he didn't want to see.
"Ah... Just here is fine, you don't have to see me out any further. I'll give you a call when the parts come," he said without considering my feelings as the repairman put on his shoes and stepped down and out the door.[1D 7]
I bid him farewell and, with a screeching squeak, the ancient heavy door of the Meioutei closed.
And once again, another strange rumor about me might just end up spreading.
I sighed lightly as that thought ran through my mind.
Well, I'm used to it already...
The following day, a Saturday, was bright and clear.
Beckoned by the swirling flower pedals dancing in the wind and flowing through the broken window, I woke up from a blank, dull, and sleepy stupor. At first, I had been too scared and unable to sleep due to fear of another attack by the fake miko, but after some time, I managed to fall asleep anyway. And before I knew it, it was past ten in the morning.
Since I wasn't in the mood to make some breakfast at this hour, I changed into my casual clothes and left the house. I headed for the store, which was close to the Meioutei. From start to finish, it took only about ten minutes to walk to the shopping district, which was the normal kind that can be found in any town. At the dead center of the district, standing out against the gray-paved streets, was the Oohara liquor store.
"Oh, Tomo?" An[1D 8], who had been inspecting a coupon at the counter, noticed me and looked at me with her big eyes. The sports brand one-piece shirt and the house apron looked well on her.
"What's up? You're not supposed to work today, right? Would you like some coffee? It's made from a sample mix I received." But before she even finished speaking and allowing me a chance to reply, An chucked a can of it at me. Somehow I managed to catch the thing in my arms before it could clatter to the floor. Curious, I inspected the can and soon frowned. There was something on the can which described a "soy bean taste" that just didn't make it a very appetizing sale to me.
"Oh yeah, where did you guys disappear to after school yesterday? You weren't around when we were supposed to head back home." An asked, casting me a fleeting glance.
Pulling open the can's tab, I nodded back in her direction, "Higuchi and I were visiting the Science Club rooms."
"...Science Club? You and Higuchi?" An's expression was filled with dubious doubt.
I quickly tagged on an explanation, "The club's president, our senior Kurosaki, came to my house and randomly dropped off a trunk a day ago. I figured I should go and try to find out just what was going on with the trunk."
"Uh-huh..." An's expression was becoming increasingly more dubious, "by Kurosaki, do you mean Kurosaki Shuri?"
"Why yes, do you know her?"
"Well, she is pretty infamous. I see, so that person is Kurosaki Shuri, huh? Ah... wait, so that means Nao-nii[1D 9] also knows Kurosaki Shuri? Oh, now everything makes sense. Uh-huh."
While An was busy comprehending everything by herself, I was completely at a loss. When I looked up, Misao also looked troubled as she shrugged her shoulders.
"What do you mean by infamous? What is she?"
"Huh? Didn't you go met her in person, Tomo?"
"Yeah, I did. I guess you could call it a meeting, at least."
I gave an explanatory summary about the conversation with Ichihara and Shuri yesterday in the chemistry preparation room.
I told her about the fact that Naotaka was said to have been the one that revived Raku-High's Science Club, and the activities of the Science Club, and about being coerced into joining the Science Club through the withholding of information regarding Naotaka's past and the trunk. I told her everything except about the possibility that Shuri might have been able to see Misao. Throwing that piece of information in would have only served to make me sound incoherent.
"Heh... Black Chemistry, huh...? Now I see." An nodded at me quite a few times with a look of concern. "I had no idea! All I've heard, you see, were just rumors. The upperclassmen were saying there was an amazing demon exorcist master in Raku-High. This person apparently even shows up and helps out the police and has, many times in fact, resolved incredibly complicated cases."
"And that's Kurosaki Shuri?"
"Demon exorcising... can you really actually have that sort of career?"
And in any case, helping out the police solve complicated cases was the job of detectives. I would have figured demon exorcist masters would really have nothing to do with that sort of stuff. And whatever the circumstances, there was no way that the Church, the police, etc. could possibly need help so badly as to be begging for the assistance of one mere high school girl, could they?
"Well, it might have just been a rumor, but, you know, I really could see where it comes from. So that's how it is, huh? That person was the real Kurosaki Shuri. Yep. Tomo, did you really join up with the Science Club then?"
"Nope, I'm still on reserve."
"What's that mean?" An asked out loud. Reading between the lines, I knew that she had snuck in a ‘You're not being very direct' snide criticism into her words.
"I couldn't help it. If I don't join the club, she won't answer all my questions."
"And by questions, you mean about things like what's in the trunk?"
I nodded in response and An mulled over my plight. In the meantime, I kept quiet and enjoyed the taste of my protein flavored coffee.
"Delicious?" Misao asked, to which I shook my head.
Hell no. It was bad. In fact, it was tasted absolutely dreadful.
"This just hit me, but couldn't this be exactly what Nao-nii planned?"
"Yes, yes. You see, right now the Science Club has Kurosaki-senpai as the only member, right? So wouldn't they be disbanded because they couldn't meet the member count requirement as laid out by the Student Council? Yeah, I guess so, I thought to myself as I nodded in agreement. If this went on and she couldn't get even one new member to join up, then I doubt they'd even let her continue the club.
"And consequently, wouldn't she be doing what she can to force you to join? She and Nao-nii colluding and conspiring together..."
"Eh... if that's the case, then the contents of the trunk would be..."
"Yep. Nothing important in reality. But if you take it to be something your brother is entrusting to you, you'd still be interested in it, right? Then, using that secret as bait, they plan to force the club onto you. I'm sure Kurosaki-senpai and Nao-nii have discussed this through. Like, when they thought of decent methods to secure new members for the club."
"Oh, I see" I actually gave the matter serious thought.
Now that she mentioned it, it really was an amazingly-likely possibility.
If Naotaka was the one pulling the strings behind her, then that would explain a great many suspicions and doubts, like how the hell she was able to time her appearance before me so well two nights before, or how she knew about the existence of Misao. And if nothing else, Naotaka loved micromanaging petty little things like that.
"An-chan, amazing..." Misao nodded in approval.
However, An took no time to puff up her chest in pride over her own theory and instead pressed on with her reasoning, "Yeah, if you think about it, it would also explain why you can't get that trunk to open up."
"...That certainly would make sense."
It was not being unable to open the trunk that was the problem; rather, it was the circumstances that would allow it to be opened that was the issue. It was old, but surely it was made to be heavy and tough for a reason.
"Hmm... maybe she was also only pretending to be able to see me. If she's really involved with Naotaka, she just might do things like that," Misao mused aloud as she bobbed about in the air, but provided no further useful proposals and theories on the matter. Then, An suddenly looked up at me with a serious face, "Oh right, Tomo, didn't you say you had some business to do here?"
Oh right. I had completely forgotten.
"I came here to take a look at your maps. I need to go pay a visit to the home of some guy named Shioizumi from the Kitaarisa district but I have no idea what his exact address is."
The Oohara store kept a large residency map for use during deliveries. The thing was detailed to the point of even having the family names written above their respective locations.
"By Shioizumi-san, you mean the landlord Shioizumi-san? Wait, so the Meioutei is also possibly the property of the Shioizumi household?" An managed to grasp all that on her own, saving me the need for an explanation. But the fact that even An knew the name meant that this Shioizumi person really was some seriously famous land owner.
"Found it. Here." An pointed at the location on a page of the map spread out on the counter. Wow, I breathed.
I knew the part of the city known as Kitaarisa was a wealthy high-class neighborhood, but to think that massive mansion sitting in the dead center of it would be Shioizumi's house... I got it now. That would be why this guy was so famous. From the looks of it, the place easily occupied the same area as Raku-High.
"...Tomo," Misao urged me on while pressing tightly against my back.
An ominous feeling was creeping down my spine and making my hair stand on end.
In truth, aside from checking out the map, I had another reason for coming over to the Oohara store: Takatsuki Kanade. If I went and intruded upon Takatsuki's house by myself, they would no doubt get up-and-arms about it. So I had come here to ask An if she would be willing to go with me and visit Takatsuki out of classmate friendliness.
When the idea first hit me, I had thought it was brilliant, but in reality, it was surprisingly hard to put forward my request into words to An. I could think of no good persuasive reason that I could use to convince An to come with me to visit Takatsuki while keeping quiet about the business with Misao. And it would have probably also invited in all sorts of misunderstandings.
"Know your way? If you're going to write it down, did you bring a pen?" An's face suddenly appeared right in front of me.
She couldn't see Misao, but the fact I was firmly and tightly sandwiched between two girls made the situation unusually comfortable for me.
"Um..." Without any actual thoughts, all I could do was pause there with my mouth firmly open but no words forthcoming.
"– Welcome!" An called out at about the same time.
Turning around, I saw the automatic doors of the shop swing open and a male customer sporting a pure-white coat step inside. What a weird customer, I thought to myself. Buying alcohol this early in the morning was certainly unusual. Even when it did happen on occasion, it was usually a housewife who ran out of cooking wine or a group of people right before they headed out for Hanami.[1D 10]
But the atmosphere around this particular white coated man seemed to fit neither type.
His eyes and expression were hidden under the brim of a low hat. The rim of the man's coat was lined in a sparkling golden color. Finally, a faded cross hung tightly around his neck and could be clearly seen right above his chest.
"...A catholic priest? He sure looks young! And kind of unreliable..." Misao whispered with a hint of surprise.
She had a point. This guy looked extremely young for a priest. His face and features were still innocent and childish and he could have maybe passed off as a high school student. But in any case, Misao, since you're still a ghost after all, shouldn't you be at least a little more respectful of these holy figures?
"Are you looking for red wine? If so, they're over here," An said with a cheery, welcoming smile as she directed the customer towards the proper storage box.
And since I had nothing else to do, I simply sipped nasty-tasting coffee in a corner of the shop until the priest selected and left with his newly-purchased imported wine.
Right before the priest left, he apparently realized I was in the corner and threw me a glance of greeting, to which Misao waved in response. For an instant, it looked like the priest seemed to freeze in his tracks... but then again, that might have just been my imagination. From between the gaps of his white coat, colors that resembled the ones on the Raku-High uniform flashed through.
"... Lately around here, I occasionally see him around. That priest customer just now," An said as she filed the payment into the register.
But still, I responded with an "Eh..." The man was contributing to the sales of the part-time job I depended on; I had no reason to be displeased. Actually, I was rather grateful he didn't also feel the need to start strangling me like the fake miko from yesterday.
"Well then, what's up? You were saying something earlier?" An asked while sporting the look of having helpful intentions and the appearance of actually giving me her full attention.
"Uh, I want to ask a small favor of you... how long is your shift today?"
"I promised Dad I'd work until he comes back from his deliveries. What favor?"
"Aah, um... it's a complicated, but yesterday..."
"Oh my, Tomo-kun?" a gentle lady's voice interrupted my own stammering one. Coincidentally, An's mother appeared from within the inner sanctums of the shop wearing a flowery patterned one piece dress that tightly hugged her form. I bet people often seriously confused her and An for sisters when they stroll through the city together; she had the small frame of the lolita-type of woman. Looking at my face, she seemed to suddenly recall something apparently interesting as she covered her lips and chuckled.
Just what is she going to say? I thought.
"Tomo-kun, I hear you found a girl you like?"
What the heck? I looked to An in surprise.
Just where did Oohara's mom[1D 11] hear that baseless rumor from? An, meanwhile, shakily turned toward her mom with her eyebrows arched up. In a high-pitched voice, she cried, "Mom! Stop saying weird things!"
"What? Don't whine, An. I only heard that there's an amazingly cute girl in the same class and Tomo-kun is apparently quite interested in her."
"I'm not whining!"
"Oh really now? I wonder... Hmmm?" As if on purpose, Oohara's Mom cupped her face in her hands as she teased and prodded purposefully. While staring at the unusually panicky An, she had managed to read most of the details of the situation.
By ‘cute girl in the same class', she probably meant Takatsuki. If that was the case, then it certainly wouldn't be a lie to say I was interested in Takatsuki. But coming back to what Oohara's Mom just said, it seemed that An was going to be under the false impression that I fell for Takatsuki at first sight.
"This somehow got really complicated, huh?" Misao whispered, twisting her lips.
I stood silently and stared at the ceiling.
If I asked An right now to come with me to go see Takatsuki, I could already see the disastrous complications looming in front of me. Plus, An probably wouldn't believe me right now if I told her that maybe Takatsuki could see ghosts. If An was at least a major spirit- and ghost-fanatic like Higuchi, an explanation would have been easy. However...
"Um... yeah..." An broke the uncomfortable silence with those hesitating words before the tension in the air could explode and kill us all.
"Tomo, if you're going to go all the way to Kitaarisa, you should go by bike. I'll let you borrow mine," An said quickly as she spun on her heels and dashed into the back of the shop, probably to retrieve the key.
"Yeah. That would be wise. If you're available, come by the house at night again and let's all have dinner together," Oohara's Mom said with a sweet smile.
When it came to mothers, the first image that always came to mind wasn't my own dumb mom but this mother, with her smile. Oohara's Mom, after glancing in the direction An disappeared to, turned towards me and looked at me with a very meaningful smile. "Don't tell An but I'm rooting for you."
"Huh... rooting for me?" For what?
"Takatsuki-san, was it? That's quite a good choice, ne!"
"Oh no! It's a misunderstanding!"
Even if you say that with a smile, it was still seriously distracting.
However, Oohara's Mom only narrowed her eyes in fun and enjoyment, "But it's a good thing, isn't it? I was actually a little worried, you know. I mean, you already have a cute childhood friend ghost haunting you, don't you? And I thought that since you loved her, you had no interest in real-life girls. I guess you're a normal healthy boy after all, huh!"
Aah... I was struck speechless. Just what the hell was this person saying all of sudden?
And floating to the upper left of Oohara's Mom, Misao's mouth was wide open in a gasp of surprise. Moreover, why was she laughing with her eyes like a cat that had its chin tickled would? Just what sort of meaning could that have?
"Here's the key... and what were you two talking about?" An asked suspiciously when she returned and noticed the almost indescribable expression that must have been clearly on my face.
I remained speechless.
Oohara's Mom laughed.
"Okay then, I'll be borrowing the bike." I took the key from An and bolted out the shop like I was in the midst of a prison break. The work-related local delivery bike was parked out in the shop parking spot. While I was squatting in front of the bike unlocking the lock, An came chasing.
Her face was unusually flushed and she was unusually gasping for air, "Don't pay too much attention to what my mom said earlier, okay?"
"What Auntie[1D 12] said?"
My heart had skipped a few beats back there. About Misao... I had never even once talked about Misao until just now, and so I was certain that person could not have heard about the rumors about me being haunted by ghosts. Yet just how was she able to drag the conversation towards me falling in love with a ghost? I wanted to keep Misao from getting too carried away on this. However, An said, "Um well, I really didn't whine or make a fuss or anything like that, okay?"
Oh, we were still on that? Before I even had time to think about those words, An waved goodbye and ran back to the shop. I had no idea just what sort of impression that was suppose to leave on me and so all I could do was watch her back as she disappeared back into the shop. I had no idea just why An would go out of her way just to say something like that. Unwillingly, I had already gotten accustomed to bad rumors spreading out of things I didn't really understand and I had become quite resistant to those sorts of attacks. Besides, Takatsuki was a beauty and I did make some suspicious advances on her yesterday so it's not unreasonable to assume An's Mom could have found out about it by going to the school.
"What's with her?" I whispered as I glanced up at Misao.
Misao, however, was staring off far into the distance and did not respond.
As I started pedaling the squeaky work-use bike, Misao conveniently sat down on the passenger seat. Wearing the same crescent-eyed smile that she made earlier on her face, she threw her ghostly translucent arms around my waist. Of course, her arms left neither sensation nor impression on my body as they merely passed through me. However, Misao still laughed in satisfaction. She was in an unusually good mood.
I remained quiet and continued pedaling the bike. Under just the weight of one person, the work-use bike quickly picked up speed on the paved stone streets.
I had a general idea of how big the place would be from looking at the map, but the Shioizumi mansion was far more enormous than I could have ever imagined.
Along the road, a near-endless length of white mud wall stood erect, preventing all outsiders from even gasping at the buildings inside in awe. If one managed to make it past the front gate, a magnificent stone-paved path stretched out from there, like the ones seen in Kung-Fu movies that lead to a grand Buddhist temple. This path however, seemed to stretch all the way up the small mountain. Yes, there seriously was a mountain in the mansion garden. To put it lightly, it was a rare sight to behold.
"Yeah... as expected of the landlord of a haunted monster mansion; he really has the ostentation to back it up," Misao stated her thoughts bluntly.
I was beginning to regret deciding to just barge in through the front door instead of through some back door. But then again, just where would a back door be? If it was like what the words suggested and it was actually directly opposite the front door, then I'd have to end up climbing over a mountain to get there.
After being lost for a little while, I found myself before the front gate. I buzzed the intercom. Soon, a woman's voice spoke out through some speaker.
"... Natsume Tomoharu-sama, is it? We have been expecting you. Please come inside."[1D 13]
I had given no forewarning I was coming, yet I was expected and being welcomed in. What was going on? I looked up towards Misao in confusion and she shook her head since, of course, she had no idea either.
"Maybe Naotaka-kun made some previous arrangements?"
There was no other possibility. Pushing away the mild ominous feeling churning around my insides, I parked the bicycle at the edge of the entrance gate and stepped into the Shioizumi mansion grounds. The garden before me was far more like a forest than a family garden and while trekking through it I thought the place bore a charming old Japanese mansion aura.[1D 14]
At the house entrance, a lady stood outside waiting to greet me. She was a tall lady dressed in a pair of jeans and a light cardigan. Probably the daughter of the household? That was certainly a little unexpected. One would think that with a house this big, it would be reasonable have ten or twenty servants milling about.
"You're Naotaka's younger brother? I see," she said with a laugh as she looked at me.
Just what did she see?
"... You know my brother?"
"Yes, he's famous isn't he? Over here, follow me." After leaving me with that hopelessly vague answer, she began to walk away.
In front of us, the path led up the garden hill. Further up the path, after we passed the giant stone Torii[1D 15], we arrived at a set of stone stairs, which she began to ascend. The climb was so incredibly long that I had wondered if it would ever end.[1D 16]
"Is this place a Shinto shrine?" I asked between wheezing breaths.
"In the past it was, apparently." The lady in jeans, apparently completely free from the influence of gravity, climbed the stone stairs naturally and breezily. Was she just used to the climb or was she some hardcore athlete that had gone through some extreme limit-pushing training? Just which was it?
"This place also probably housed a Shinto shrine in the past. I wonder if the Noh Theater[1D 17] is still around... I'm sorry."
"Eh? For what?"
"Making you come all the way here. Nowadays, my grandfather meets with almost no one. He doesn't even eat unless I bring food to him. So when he straight up stated he would meet with you, the whole family was surprised," she said with a chuckle. There was something about her overly-friendly way of talking that made her seem to glow with an aura of unusual attractiveness. She looked like an adult, but in truth she was probably just around my brother's age. Personally, I thought it would be great if she got married to my brother and became an older sister to me.
But in any case, I was just here for a polite post-move-in greeting. I didn't know if it was such a good idea to go meet this magnanimous and legendary grandfather face-to-face.
"This way, come on in."
Our destination, in the end, was a small building nestled in the middle of the mountain. One could have mistaken this place for a Lego-block log house. I would never have figured that this was the residence of some major landlord.
Although unexpected, at least the outside appearance was acceptable. Upon stepping into the house, however, I came face-to-face with reality. It was truly incredible that I didn't let out a scream.
"What the hell... is this...?" Misao whispered in terror.
There were countless whirlpools everywhere.
The walls, the ceiling, the carpet, the decorations atop the drawers, even the wind chimes underneath the window sill – everything was engraved with whirlpool patterns. The curtains were, of course, patterned with whirlpools. The legs of the metal bed post were patterned with a rococo-styled whirlpool. And finally, what was on the screen saver of the old computer on top of the desk? A whirlpool. This room definitely could not belong to a sane man. Just looking at it all made my eyes quiver and flicker.
Sitting on top of the sewn-in whirlpool patterned sheets on the bed was an old man in a whirlpool-patterned yukata listening to classical musical. The music originated from a nearly old phonograph. Of course, it had been engraved with a whirlpool insignia. This guy must have been incredibly thorough to have gone that far with his whirlpool patterns.
"Grandfather, I have brought Natsume Tomoharu-sama," the Shioizumi granddaughter said as she motioned me to enter the room. Apparently she was just going to push me into the room with this whirlpool-loving old guy by myself.
Old-man Shioizumi turned and motioned in my direction with the awkwardness of a broken tea doll. He was an old man wrinkly enough to be confused for various preserved foods, but there was a certain sparkle in his eyes that left an impression on me.
"... It's beautiful, don't you think?" the man began after looking back at the whirlpools in the room. I was a little taken back by his surprisingly steady tone. The old man lit the end of a long spiral tobacco pipe and puffed out smoke from the end. The classical piece flowing in the room was Raphael's Bolero. Riding the simple resonating beats of the melody, the tobacco smoke steadily expanded in the room.
"The spiral is the core of this world's existence. Or you could call it something that resembles this world. The weather, life, the motion of heavenly bodies, and the laws of everything are kept within the spiral. Amongst theoretical physics, there are those who believe the universe itself is nothing more than an expanding spiral spinning out in at the speed of light – what do you think of that?" "Heh?"
What do I think...? How the hell would I know even if you asked me? Maybe my brother could give you a satisfactory answer if you asked him.
However, the old man did not wait for my reply.
"Welcome, Natsume Tomoharu-kun. I'm pleased to meet you."
"Hah..." I stared at the old man, getting lost in the conversation. I was becoming ridiculously restless and uncomfortable.
I had always figured that lots of rich people might be a little weird, but this one took the cake and ran with it. The fact that the house rented out by this guy would turn out to be haunted was, in retrospect, as obvious as day. In fact, I was starting to think it would be weirder if he didn't do something strange or weird to the place.
"Engage me in a boring conversation for a little while. A joke from an old and short gramps," he said with old and pale parted lips. I could not refuse him.
I said nothing and my silence was apparently taken for consent.[1D 18] The old man took a deep puff of tobacco and continued talking.
"The spiral... I believe nature is composed of spirals as opposed to straight lines because the spiral is more efficient. This might just be a post-hoc theory, though. However, if empty space was a direct derivation from the spiral, then it is obvious the theory is a direct consequence. So if empty space is a spiral-type existence, then time also should be the same type of spiral-type existence." What the hell were you saying all of a sudden?
Misao and I stared at the whirlpool-patterned yukata man with blank, uncomprehending, expressions.[1D 19]
Whatever the case, the guy managed to line up some quite difficult diction decisions, but whether that served his purpose... well, he probably didn't want to just explain to us how great spirals were.
Maybe this gramps was a believer from some obscure spiral church. It seemed almost as if this guy really believes that if he uses yukatas and bed sheets and such with whirlpool patterns on it, he'll win the lottery, cure cancer, and weaken the influence of gravity. And in the end, the rest of the family got tired of putting up with his antics and ended up quarantining him in this small Lego-box of a house. If that was the case, then this was one sad and pitiful old man.
That would also explain why we were forced to keep him company.
However, the old man continued talking...
"If we assume that time flows linearly from past to future then that must mean that it is almost impossible to change the past or the future. This is because, if we were to repair and alter the sequential time line, we would substantiate inescapable paradoxes of causality. However...!" The man's thin arm flew up in the air as he continued, "If we assume that time flows in a spiral pattern, as opposed to the standard linear time we're cognizant of, then it becomes possible."[1D 20]
Suddenly, the singing record player sitting on the counter skipped a beat.
A hellish screech blasted from the record player and the record needle jumped off. But that was that. The old man, as if nothing had happened, returned to his bed. The only thing that changed was the background music. The bravura of the strings' closing in the bolero was, once again, replaced with the dull monotone of the woodwinds of the opening. It was the fault of the skipping needle.
Could this also be called time spinning backwards on itself? Actually, cassette tapes and digital videos could pull off that sort of nonsense quite easily...
"And with that, the symphony begins its performance a second time. However, can this performance really be called the past? The spiral is a fusion of the repeating past and the flowing future. Almost as if the two form a sort of inseparable Moebius ring, and therein we resolve the former plaguing paradox. Namely, we only exist here today because we have already been influenced by the future. Thus it isn't as if we're simply trapped in the blind alley of time, but we are actually given second chances at our choices." After spewing out all that in one breath, the old man slowly puffed out tobacco smoke. It looked like a particularly unhealthy way to smoke.
"... That's all I have to say," the old man said as he twirled his long mustache with his fingertips.
Now just leave me alone, I seriously thought to myself. I was feeling a little restless from not understanding a word of what he was saying to the very end. However, the old man did not apparently seem to mind or care about my impressions.
"I give you permission to continue living in the Meioutei, Natsume Tomoharu. I don't mind you using it to your best judgment," he said with a completely more compassionate and understanding tone.
I didn't really understand what was happening and so I merely nodded my head in thanks. I wondered what will happen to me next, but the objective of my visit had already been achieved. That was great. I wondered what I'd think if he suddenly turned and told me to buy a whirlpool-pattern blanket for 10,000 yen. But however!
"You're probably presently being forced to make a choice now," the forceful foreshadowing punched out of the old man's mouth as I finished with the formalities and had turned to leave.
I spun around and faced him; his face cracked a faint smile.
"I pray you make the correct choice for yourself."
A horrible, unnerving tingle ran down my spine as I left behind the room with the countless whirlpools. For a short while, my eyes felt like they were swirling around.
When I returned from the mysterious spiral space to normal common space, there was no longer anyone outside. The granddaughter, who had already finished her role of leading me in, had apparently long since left.
I had a mountain of questions I wanted to ask her, but I figured it would probably be better if I didn't involve myself too deeply with the people of this family. Besides, I had already accomplished my mission of greeting my landlord and was, for some reason, filled with a burning desire to go home.
"That was pretty interesting, huh?" Misao asked rhetorically with a feather-light sigh.
I shrugged. Well, it was good material for a joke and that Higuchi would probably have been pleased.
It didn't hit me when I was being led here, but the old man's house was buried unexpectedly deep in the forest.
And the ascending mountain path I had thought was whole was actually, in fact, split and forked every now and then. After passing through many paths I had yet to cross while trying to descend the mountain, I eventually realized I was lost.
To someone unfamiliar with wood-lore and the innards of a forest, the scenery everywhere looked the same. The dense bamboo grooves, the greenery of every tree and branch, and everything else blocked my path and my vision was proving to be ineffective. That lengthy stone staircase was nowhere to be found either.
"Misao, do you happen to know the way back?"
"Eh... I don't know. You didn't know where you were going?" Misao retorted in a I'm-tired-of-you tone.
I stayed quiet and twisted my lips.
No matter how expansive this place could be, it was still just someone's residence. Thus, if I just properly walk in one direction, I figured I would eventually make it through. The thought that I could meet disaster in someone's backyard never once occurred to me. "Can you please investigate the path a bit from the sky?"
"Eeeh?!" Misao exclaimed with her lips wide with disbelief.
Misao absolutely hated all these ghost-related powers which I found to be useful. She would rage because girls didn't normally use things like this. However, this time I was sure the need was simply too great for her to not help.
"I guess there's no other choice... wait here –" With a short sigh, Misao's ghostly body billowed up gently toward the sky. I stared at the floating girl with a blank mind.
"Hey! Quit peeking!" she yelled furiously like it was sexual harassment! Misao, pressing her short skirt against her with both hands, stopped her ascent about a meter right above my head. Because she was a ghost haunting me, she couldn't be separated too far from me. That was about her limit.[1D 21]
"What can you see?"
"Ugh... It's no good. The trees are in the way so I can't really see... ah!"
"I see buildings! Huge ones! It's straight ahead down about fifty meters from here, though."
"Fifty meters... isn't that cliff?"
So there was a dead end just ahead. At the edge of the cliff, yellowing forestry formed a simple fence around it. [1D 22]
"They're not sheer cliffs or anything. Plus there's a bamboo groove. Don't you think you can get down somehow?"
"So it's just my problem, huh?" I complained all the way until I reached the cliff.
A few sparse shafts of bamboo poked up at me. However, I could also certainly see the roofs of buildings. The buildings were pretty massive. It felt like it would be the main body of the Shinto shrine.
But Misao was right: this wasn't an absolutely impossible cliff to scale. Actually, it was the kind of declination that would probably show up on the pro slopes at some ski resort. There was plenty of vegetation growing that could serve as footholds too.
"Somehow, this looks doable..."
I'd really end up looking like a bamboo robber, though, I thought as I crossed over the bamboo groove bunches. Stepping onto the soft fertile soil that no one else had apparently stepped on before, I could feel my shoes filling with all sorts of earth. Gross, the thought played across my mind at the same moment my feet slipped. Instinctively, I reached out and felt a branch, which I tried to cling to, but it was apparently rotten and it almost instantly crumpled in my hands.
"Uwah!" I screamed out. At least, I thought I actually screamed out, but it wasn't even that sheer or fast a drop. I'm not doing this on purpose, am I? I thought to myself as I flamboyantly fell backwards as I slipped down the cliff. On the way down, tree branches punched me the in face and bits of earth threatened to suffocate my breath. But before I knew it, after I had tumbled down who knows how many meters, I finally stopped after crashing into the wall of a building.
"... Still alive, Tomo?" Misao asked as she slowly floated down in the air.
With scratches and cuts all over my face and body, I raised my head. I froze in exactly that position.
Before me, a storehouse stood before me.
Massive double doors as wide as I was tall stood wide open.
Perhaps they were airing the place out? As I took peek inside, my eyes caught site of an item stashed inside the storehouse that shone out from the darkness, reflecting the rays of sunlight.
At first, I thought it was the leftover part of some machine, but I was wrong. Escapements, planetary gears, springs, winches[1D 23], heavy spindles, and cone pulleys were clearly visible. All of these things and a skillful hand were needed to make this.
"...A doll?" Misao whispered.
A three or four meter tall massive marionette leaned against the wall of the storehouse as if it was simply abandoned there. It was reinforced by wood and steel, and coated with hides and skins. It was an incredibly old-style design doll.
It had no decorations, but it bore the traces and vestiges of having been made to move about before. But it probably couldn't move anymore. Parts of it were strewn here and there and it didn't look like it had been at all maintained.
Buried within a vast mountain residence that one would not know existed... An old storehouse... The song of the wild birds and the dancing pedals of the cherry trees outside...
The broken doll, shining within the calm and quiet spring sunlight's deep shadow, bore a sort of solemn impressiveness that seemed to transcend time. Misao and I stood staring at the sight with our breaths stolen.
At that moment, the air behind me moved.
Misao was the first one to react. The ghost girl twirled silently around and her movements froze in alarm.
"Who are you...?" a voice asked. It was a beautiful voice but, somehow, it also sounded scared and uncertain.
I slowly turned around like a troubled youngster who had just been caught shoplifting red-handed.
"Ah!" I swallowed my breath.
The person right in front of me also stood, eyes wide and frozen, wearing the same surprised and speechless expression.
Standing right there was a long black haired young lady with very bold eyebrows and fair skin. Her features were well proportioned and balanced. She wore the white-laced red robes of a Shinto miko. She clutched a bamboo broom tightly to her chest.
I shook my head violently. Why the hell was I meeting her here of all places?!
Moreover, there was no way I could have confused her for someone else even under this situation. Not this girl.
She was the Miko-look alike that nearly killed me yesterday.
And she happened to wear Takatsuki Kanade's face.
"Ah~..." the girl in the miko robes began. She studied me seriously and, sensing my returning stare, looked down at her own clothes.
For some reason, her face suddenly flushed bright red all the way to her ears and she quickly covered her chest. The parts of her figure that jutted out against the tight form of the miko attire were being ogled at by me – which was probably pretty embarrassing for her. I had thought she had dressed like that out of personal preference, but that apparently wasn't the case. And as a consequence, she hung her head in shame and mumbled in a troubled and indecipherable tone. This was definitely Takatsuki Kanade's voice.
The bewilderment and confusion then worsened. My grasp on the situation had completely slipped away.
Wasn't this place the home of that landlord from earlier? Or maybe this was some sort of bad daydream I was being forced to see caused by contact with that whirlpool old man?
However, there was no mistaking the fact that the person before me was the same monster that had melted the glass in the Meioutei in an instant – and at the same time Takatsuki Kanade.
Misao pushed herself between us as if to protect me. Her frail shoulders were tense with anger and she faced her opponent threateningly in an almost cat-like fashion. But the girl simply hung her head quietly, showing no sign that hinted that she could or could not see Misao.
The atmosphere was unbelievably tense.
Even if I just let her go, as the situation was now, the girl probably still wouldn't talk. So I racked my brains desperately for something to say to break the heavy shroud of silence that had buried us.
There was a mountain of things I needed to explain to her as well as questions I needed to ask her. The reason I was here. The reason she was here. Was she the same person as that monster that had attempted to kill me? Was she really Takatsuki Kanade or someone else? Finally, I wanted to ask about about Misao. Could she see Misao?
"Ah~... Um..." A flood of too many questions rushed through my mind, leaving me with no idea what would be a good place to start. The girl abruptly raised her face and my mind instantly went blank. Since I was rendered completely unable to think and unable to process thoughts, I simply let the first thing that came to mind roll out from my mouth.
"Do you... believe in ghosts?"
Somewhere in the distance, the clear-as-crystal voice of a nightingale resounded in the air.