I was hurried along by the cicadas, screeching like they still hadn’t had enough.
The day before marked the end of our supplementary lessons, and as summer vacation finally began in earnest, I found myself steadily climbing a flight of stone steps.
It was another especially hot day. I was mercilessly besieged by the scorching sun’s rays from above, as well as its reflection off the ground below. Already, my T-shirt had become drenched.
But I wasn’t really trying to repent for anything by putting myself through this ordeal.
“I’ve always thought this, but you’re pretty weak huh.”
So said the girl walking ahead of and laughing at me, who was dripping in sweat and short of breath. Indignant, I was thinking of making a rebuttal in my defence, but ultimately I decided to calm down for now, and pressed ahead desperately.
“Come on, you can do it, you can do it.”
With breath to spare, she cheered me on, clapping while making a face that I couldn’t tell if it was meant to encourage or provoke me.
Having reached the top at long last, I wiped off my sweat with a towel as I finally issued my rejoinder.
“I’m different from you, y’know.”
“Like how you’re a man? How embarrassing.”
“You see, I’m of noble birth, so it’s alright even if I don’t move my body.”
“Don’t insult those of noble birth.”
I retrieved my tea from my bag, and fiercely gulped down the PET bottle’s contents. Within that interval of time, she had already pushed on without me. With no other choice, I followed after her, and soon arrived at a place with a pleasant view. From where we stood, an unobstructed panorama of our town stretched out below us.
She had shouted aloud, arms stretched outwards. The scenery and breeze were certainly a delight. As I felt my sweat dry up in the wind, I drank my tea once more, reinvigorating my spirits.
“Alright, so it’s just a little more huh.”
“Oh? Well aren’t you lively all of a sudden. Let me give you this candy as a reward.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask, but do the two of you think that I live with candy or gum as my staple food or something?”
I spoke while remembering the face of a friend that would always, always offer me gum in our classroom.
“It can’t be helped y’know, I always just happen to have some in my pocket so, here.”
Reluctantly, I accepted the candy and placed it in my pocket. Just how many times would this make it?
She hummed a tune while keeping a brisk pace, leaving me behind as I trudged slowly after her. However, I got the feeling that this situation was like a display of the imbalance of power between us, so I forced myself upright and started to put some spring in my step.
Before I knew it, the dirt beneath our feet had become cobblestone, and we had arrived at our destination.
Among the many stone markers that were lined up, we searched for a single one.
“Ah, isn’t Haruki the one on water duty? Go get some from over there.”
“Can I just make two points? Firstly are there even any other duties? And secondly, wouldn’t it be fine if the two of us went together?”
“Keep your mouth shut and get going. Didn’t I already give you candy?”
Dismayed as I was to do her bidding, I kept quiet, put my belongings down and walked to a nearby water point, knowing that her personality would render any further objections useless. Several buckets and ladles had been left at the water point. Taking one of each, I twisted open the faucet, and let the bucket fill with water before returning to where she was waiting.
The girl stood gazing up at the sky.
“Hm, oh, good work, must’ve been hard on you.”
“If you think so then you should have helped.”
“You see, I’m of noble birth after all.”
“Alright alright, well then, be my guest.”
I handed the bucket and ladle over to her. She received them politely, and with all of her might, proceeded to douse the Yamauchi family grave before us. Some of the water splashed off the stone and onto my cheeks. The gravestone shimmered in the sunlight, creating a mystical sight.
“Come on, wake up, Sakuraaa!”
“I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Definitely.”
I tried to calm the girl that had hurled water at the grave. But taking no heed of me, she flung all of the remaining water at the grave, working up a sweat as though she enjoyed it. It gave the mistakable impression that this was some sort of sport.
“Y’know, when putting our hands together before a grave, should we make a sound?”
“It’s probably done quietly in most cases, but wouldn’t it be better if we made some noise for her?”
Standing side by side, she and I each struck our own palms together once, letting our claps resonate. We closed our eyes, wishing that our prayers would properly reach her.
The two of us that got along – we sent her our thoughts.
We kept our own hands together for a long time, and after opening our eyes at almost the same time, she and I set down the various offerings we had each brought along.
“Well then, guess we should get going to Sakura’s house.”
“Since Auntie and I are gonna be giving you a stern lecture.”
“What’s with that? Not a single reason comes to mind though.”
“If you ask me, it’s more like I’m not even sure where to begin. That’s right, I guess first is how you’re a third year now, but you’re still pushing your luck and haven’t been studying at all huh.”
“It’s not something I need to tell you, but I’ve a good head on my shoulders so there’s no need for me to study.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!”
Her retort faded into the vast blue sky. My thoughts turned to the Yamauchi house that I hadn’t visited in some time. The last time I went there, I met her big brother for the first time, and was able to speak with him.
“Speaking of which, this is the first time I’m heading to that girl’s house together with somebody else.”
“And that’s the point you need to be lectured on the most about.”
While having an enjoyable but exceedingly meaningless exchange, this time, we returned the bucket and ladle together. Arriving before the grave once more, we said, “We’re heading to your house now alright,” and returned to the path from which we came. Returning down that path was a little bothersome, but even if we stayed on, we would only have continued our pleasant but fruitless back-and-forth, and that wouldn’t have been very productive.
Once again, just like when we were coming here, I trailed behind Kyouko-san as she went on ahead.
Bringing my hands together, I closed my eyes.
My feelings – I’ll turn them from something that’s mine alone, to something I can send to you.
I’d like you to forgive me. For the things I will think here.
For the things I will pray here.
Because I’m this sort of person, let me air my grievances first.
It wasn’t easy. As easy as you said it would be, as easy as you felt it would be.
Involving myself with people wasn’t easy you know.
It was hard, really.
That’s why it even took a year. Though some of the responsibility for this might lie with me.
But, I chose to, and have finally come all the way here. I’d like you to praise me for that.
One year ago, I made a choice. To become a human like you.
A human that acknowledged people. A human that loved people.
I’m not sure whether I’ve become accustomed to it, but at the very least, I chose to do so.
Right now, I, together with your best friend – the girl that became my first friend – are heading to your house.
Actually, it’d be great if the three of us could meet up, but since that’s not possible, it can’t be helped. Let’s just do that in heaven.
As for why the two of us are heading to a house you’re no longer in, we’re heading there to fulfil the promise I made to your mom that day.
Aren’t I late, you say? Kyouko-san said that to me too.
I’d like you to listen to my excuse. Because I’d always lived the life I did, I wasn’t sure what the standard was for someone to be called a friend.
And since I thought that it wouldn’t do if I didn’t go to your house with Kyouko-san as my friend-
I, who wasn’t sure, made the relationship between you and me the standard.
“I won’t forgive you” – ever since the day I was told that, one step at a time, truly one step at a time, we’ve been walking the path towards friendship. For waiting for me with great patience – despite her usual hastiness – on this path I was treading on with shaky feet for the first time, I have plenty of gratitude for Kyouko-san. As expected of your best friend. Of course, there’s no way I’d say that to the person herself.
And so, finally, during this period, I went on a day trip with Kyouko-san, though it was to that place we visited a year ago. That was when I told Kyouko-san for the first time about the promise that I had made to your mom. And then Kyouko-san got mad at me for not saying so earlier.
Honestly, that friend of mine really is quick-tempered.
The offerings we’ve brought are the souvenirs that we bought during that time.
It’s something that’s made where the God of Studies is, and its main ingredient is plum.
Even though you’re still only eighteen, I’ll overlook it just this once. The sample tasted great y’know.
It’d be good if it catches your fancy.
Kyouko-san is doing well. I wonder if you know.
I’m doing well too. So much better than even before I met you.
When you died, I thought of it. That I had lived in order to meet you.
However, I wasn’t able to believe that you had lived in order to be needed by me.
But that’s changed.
We must have lived in order for the two of us two exist together – that’s what I believe.
On our own, we were lacking.
That’s why, it was in order to compensate for each other that we had lived.
Recently, that’s how I’ve been thinking.
That’s why, having lost you, I have to be able to stand on my own.
I think, that is something I’m able to do for the two – and now one – of us.
…………I’ll come again. I’m not sure about what happens to a person’s soul after death, so I’ll talk about the same things again at your house, in front of your photo or something. If it’s such that you’re unable to hear me, I’ll tell you when I go to heaven.
Well, see you soon.
Aah, that’s right, that’s right. There’s one lie I told you that didn’t get found out.
In the ‘Disease Coexistence Journal’, you revealed how you cried, what you thought about me, and the lies you told – so to be fair, I guess I’ll reveal some information too.
The story I told about the first person I fell for – that was a lie.
I told you, didn’t I? That story about the person who used ‘san’. That was an outright lie, a made-up story.
Since you got so moved by it, I wasn’t able to tell you.
Well, as for the truth. I’ll leave it for when I meet you again or something.
Maybe, if a girl like my true first love appears again-
Next time, it might be good to eat her pancreas.
We descended the white stone steps as they glistened under the unflinchingly cruel Sun-san.
In front of me, Kyouko-san slung her bag used for club activities over her shoulder, swinging it about as she hummed a tune.
I caught up to the side of my friend who was in a rather good mood, and correctly guessed the song she was humming.
Seemingly embarrassed, Kyouko-san forcefully hit me on the shoulder.
I raised my head to the sky as I laughed, and I ended up saying what had come to mind, just as it was.
“Let’s be happy.”
“…………What’s with that, are you confessing to me? On the way back from Sakura’s grave? How shocking.”
“Surely not. My words have greater meaning behind them. Besides, unlike that boy, I like girls that are more refined than you.”
Grinning, I – who shouldn’t have been forgiven – provoked the girl that had forgiven me.
Then, I realised right away that I shouldn’t have said those words just now. But it was already too late – what I’d said had raised a question mark within Kyouko-san, and she tilted her head to the side in suspicion.
“Unlike that boy?”
“Sorry, stop, wait, I take it back.”
She watched as I got uncharacteristically flustered, and thought for a little bit. Suddenly, she lifted both corners of her lips repulsively, and struck her hands together. Like thunder, it reverberated off the stone around us.
I shook my head and gave her a pleading look.
“Really, that just now, because of my carelessness, I was told many times over to keep it a secret……”
“If only Haruki had made more friends, maybe even I might not have figured it out y’kno~w. Well at any rate, heh, so it’s him huuuh. Hmmm, I thought he liked girls that were more refined.”
That’s what I’d thought too – after all, he himself had said so. Perhaps his preferences had changed, or maybe he was lying, but it didn’t matter which it was, in any case, I sincerely apologised to him inside my heart. Sorry, next time I’ll be the one to give you gum.
“Huuuh.” “Hmm.” Kyouko-san continued her murmuring, still grinning.
“Are you happy?”
“Hm, well, being liked by someone wouldn’t make you unhappy right.”
“Guess that’s good news.”
To the careless me as well.
“But I gueeess, dating is for after exams are over.”
“You’ve gotten rather ahead of yourself huh, guess I should tell him – wouldn’t it motivate him to study for the exams?”
We boisterously went at it as we descended the stairs.
Surely, she must have been watching us.
With probably enough force to twist my neck, I turned back towards the laughter I had heard coming from behind. Kyouko-san too had made the same movement, and with an “ouch!”, she grabbed onto her neck.
Of course, there wasn’t anyone behind us.
The wind caressed our faces, wet as they were with sweat. Kyouko-san and I faced each other, and looked affirmatively into each other’s eyes before bursting into laughter at the same time.
“Well then, let’s get going to Sakura’s house!”
“Yeah, Sakura’s waiting after all.”
Roaring with laughter, we climbed down the long flight of stairs.
No longer, was I afraid.