Chapter 1: Close Encounter of the Third Kind
There was a normal sized 25 x 15 meter pool. The starlight passing through the depths of the pool was reminiscent of the depth of countless light years, and easily drew the focus of Asaba’s eyes over the almost magically calm surface of the water. It appeared as if the night sky was cut out into the shape of the pool. To Asaba, having just emerged from the darkness of the locker room, that view was curiously bright.
In that curiously bright view, a girl was crouching with her back to Asaba, tightly gripping the handrail next to her. She wore a school swimsuit and a swimming cap. She stared intently at the pitch-black metallic surface of the water.
He didn’t even wonder who she was. Having run into such an unexpected situation, he was unable to think of anything. Asaba simply stood there stone-footed, like a wooden plank. Although he had been careful not to be seen by anyone, he also didn’t really take the possibility of anyone being there in the first place seriously.
He had forced open the locker room door, and it wasn’t like he’d walked through without making any footsteps. If that girl had been there from the beginning, then there was no way that she wouldn’t have heard those sounds. And yet, as far as Asaba could see, she gave absolutely no indication that she had noticed Asaba’s existence. With her back to Asaba, she remained completely still, and continued to gaze intently at the surface of the water.
An indescribable seriousness emanated from her back. A feeling of tension hung in the air, as if she would jump and drown herself at any moment.
She moved. Firmly gripping the handrail with her right hand, she reached out with her left hand and touched the surface of the water. Carefully, as if she was performing some kind of experiment, she stirred the water gently with her fingers. Several ripples formed on the tranquil surface of the water, extending across like radar waves, and lapped gently against the edge of the pool. She stared intently at the ripples.
“I wonder who she is,” he finally thought. “I wonder if she’s a student at this school. Her school swimsuit looks like the one this school has, but there’s no nametag. I think she’s about the same age as I am, but I can’t say for sure just looking at her from behind.”
A large bag lay diagonally behind her, as if somebody had thrown it aside. There were clothes freshly strewn around it.
“I guess those must be her bag and clothes.” He paused. “In other words, she probably changed into her swimsuit right on this poolside.”
He began to contemplate profoundly. “Why was I born as a human?” He wanted to point and scream, “Why wasn’t I born as this coiled up hose at my feet, or that deck brush hanging on that wall? Bathing in the starlight by a pool in an empty school in the middle of the night, a girl slowly took off her clothes, one piece at a –“
Asaba forced what followed out of his mind with sheer willpower.
The intense seriousness emanating from the girl’s back made Asaba suddenly feel uncomfortable. He felt embarrassed for having such worthless delusions.
He had no idea why she was here, or what she was doing. But he felt that it was extremely unfair that she didn’t notice him at all. “Even though I have no dirty intentions, this is basically the same as peeping.” He decided to call out to her. “I should let her know I’m here.”
Having no idea how he should call out to her, or what to say, Asaba took a deep breath.
It was terrible timing. At the very moment Asaba was about to speak after taking a breath, the girl suddenly tried to stand up. Since she had been crouching for such a long time, she staggered a bit as she rose.
She jumped in surprise at Asaba’s single word, and tried to turn around to face him. The delicate balance that she had barely maintained finally crumbled to pieces.
Their eyes met for an instant.
The whites of her eyes opened in surprise were left staring upward into space as she fell bottom-first into the pool. Along with an impressive splash, large drops of water scattered onto the tiles of the poolside.
Asaba also panicked. He lost his nerve in the face of this sudden development. “Should I just run away?” he thought. Looking around in confusion, he finally noticed something obvious. The pool was surrounded by a tall and thin wall. It wasn’t a one-way mirror, so if he couldn’t see into the pool from the outside, that meant he couldn’t see the outside from inside the pool either. He had a feeling that the night watch Sensei or somebody would come in yelling at any moment.
“I have to get out of here.”
After quite bit of hesitation, he finally made his decision. He made an about-face towards the locker room, but his feet froze.
The splashing hadn’t stopped.
The girl was thrashing about in the water. From time to time, her arms and legs would pop out of the water at surprising angles, and flap about before sinking again.
He thought she had been fooling around. Even after noticing that she really was drowning, his body that was getting ready to run away failed to respond immediately.
He hastily made his way towards the pool and leapt in. Since he jumped in feet-first, air gathered in his short-shorts and they inflated in the water like a pumpkin.
Using both of his arms to push his way through the water, he walked towards her. Closing one eye to avoid the sheets of water being sprayed everywhere by her arms and legs, he stretched out his hand and yelled, “Here, grab on. You should be –“
Able to stand here, right? The instant he was about to utter those words, the girl clung onto him. His foot slipped on the bottom of the pool, and before he even had a chance to let out a cry of surprise, his head had plunged underwater.
It was pitch black, and he couldn’t see anything. The girl continued to cling onto him, and he couldn’t move or breathe. He panicked.
In an instant, he no longer had any idea what was going on. He had no idea where he should reach out to grab the edge of the pool, no idea where the surface of the water or the bottom of the pool was, and no idea whether his body was facing upwards or downwards. It was like he was struggling for survival in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Asaba tried to shake her off, but the more he struggled, the more the girl desperately clung onto him. She had an unbelievable amount of strength. “At this rate, I’m seriously going to drown too,” he thought. “My feet should be able to reach the bottom here. This is right next to the edge of the pool,” he desperately told himself. He frantically felt around with his arm and both of his legs.
His fingertips touched the edge of the pool, and the tips of his toes touched the bottom. He had somehow straightened himself out. With great difficulty, both of their heads emerged above the water. “I’m saved,” he thought as he violently coughed from the water that had entered his respiratory tract.
What felt like a bottomless swamp just a few moments ago actually turned out to be only chest-deep when Asaba actually put down both of his legs and stood up. “Haha,” he chuckled softly.
He raised his face. What happened next went far beyond just their eyes meeting. Less than the length of a cigarette away, for the first time in his life he was at point blank range from a girl’s face. The two of them were still breathing wildly, and the two of them were still holding onto each other. Both of their bodies swayed gently in the wake of the water that they had thrashed about in.
She was slightly shorter than Asaba. Droplets of water dripped from the ends of her hair sticking out of the edge of her swimming cap. She stared directly at Asaba with an expression that seemed like she was looking at another human being for the first time since she was born.
In a school at night where there shouldn’t have been anyone there, on a poolside at night where there shouldn’t have been anyone there, Asaba and this girl that he had never seen before were illuminated by the starlight. It hardly felt like reality.
She tilted her head slightly to the side, and tried to say something. It sounded like the voice of an infant that had not yet learnt how to speak, wanting to ask something, or an interjection in a foreign language.
Suddenly, her body tensed up. She backed up half a step away from Asaba, turned her face away and covered her nose and mouth with her hands.
With that, Asaba, who had been charmed by the face of the girl in front of him, was immediately pulled back to reality. “Do I really smell that bad?” he thought to himself, panicking. He secretly breathed into the palm of his hand and checked if he had bad breath.
She choked with a cough. Asaba was so surprised he thought he would have a heart attack. She was coughing up blood. Blood dripped from the spaces between the fingers of her hands covering her mouth.
“!! Ah, Wah, Uwah! Um, !” Asaba stammered.
The girl cast an upward glance at Asaba, who was completely flustered, and finally said at an audible level, “Nosebleed.” She scooped up water with one hand and wiped away the blood dripping from her nose down her mouth. Asaba was mistaken about her coughing up blood, and when he looked carefully, it really was just a nosebleed.
But both were pretty much the same to Asaba. “In any case, I have to do something,” he thought. There was no change in that. He jumped out of the pool with the force of a rocket, and made his way towards the girl’s bag lying on the poolside. Trying his best not to look at the girl’s clothes scattered about, he grabbed the massive zipper, whose width was about the size of his thumb.
The flustered portion of his brain was thinking, “There must be at least a towel in here,” and the tiny remaining calm portion of his brain was thinking, “This really isn’t a very feminine bag.” The bag was dark green, made of strong and rigid feeling material, and had several large pockets attached to it. It resembled the bags that the soldiers at the Sonohara Base carried around. He pulled open the zipper in one motion, pulled out the bath towel sitting on the very top, and involuntarily gasped when he saw what lay directly beneath it.
There were three plastic bottles about the size of a juice can, stuffed to the brim with pills. “I saw something I shouldn’t have,” he thought to himself.
Asaba hastily zipped up the bag. At any rate, since he was in such a panic, and since the impact of the bottles filled with drugs stole his attention, he didn’t really get to see anything else. Because of that, Asaba just happened to miss noticing the grip of “something he really shouldn’t have seen,” sticking out right next to the bottles: something that was 9mm caliber and loaded with 16 rounds.
Towel in hand, and doing his best to put on a nonchalant expression, Asaba hurried back to the pool. The girl was finally trying to get out of the pool, and she was in a compromising position, like she was trying to put her leg over a horizontal bar and climb over. Asaba was intent on not staring, and looked away from her almost unnaturally.
“Here,” he said while handing her the towel. After waiting for a little while, he looked back at her again, only to be met by her upturned gaze. Sitting on the edge of the pool with her legs in the water, she was pressing both ends of the towel resting on her shoulders up against her nose. It looked like the nosebleed was finally settling down, but he was startled at the red that was staining the towel.
It still felt like he had wandered just a step away from reality. “Honestly speaking, this feels kind of creepy,” he thought. A substantial part of him wanted to quickly leave and tell her, “Well, I’ll be going now.”
But the girl continued staring intently at Asaba. He looked away from her again. He had a feeling that if he just left her here like this, she would continue sitting by the pool forever.
“Did you see?” the girl suddenly asked.
Asaba was taken by surprise, and was at a loss for words. “Even though I was in a panic after seeing blood, opening her bag without permission was wrong,” Asaba thought. “Plus, being asked directly like this and still playing dumb feels kind of unfair to her, and unmanly.”
Eyeballing a distance not too close to her, yet not too far from her, Asaba sat down at the edge of the pool just like her.
“Are you sick?”
For just an instant, the girl looked somewhat puzzled, and then immediately shook her head. Expecting some kind of an explanation to follow, Asaba waited for her next words, but the girl remained silent. Asaba couldn’t stand the silence, and felt like he had to say something.
“What’s your name?”
“Iriya,” the girl answered.
No matter what she said, it sounded like she was speaking in a foreign language. Her voice was mysterious, and had an awkward feeling to it.
“Is that your first name? Last name?”
Taking a breath, the girl answered, “Iriya, Kana.”