Chapter 1: Close Encounter of the Third Kind
In order for Asaba to let out a sigh, he first had to take a breath. If he took a breath, that odor would permeate his nostrils no matter what: the stench of a damp washcloth and the smell of ground-up chalk. It was the odor of a classroom, the odor of school, the odor of summer vacation fading into the past, and the odor of the first day of second semester.
“Really? You seriously spent your entire summer vacation in the mountains behind Sonohara Base?”
Asaba lay flat on his face, exhausted, on his desk by the window. Without saying a word, he nodded, rubbing his chin against his folded arms. Nishikubo, who was standing beside Asaba’s desk and peering at his face, said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
He summed up Asaba’s summer vacation with that one sentence.
Just like what Asaba had predicted, he was given quite the scolding by Kawaguchi. The entire modern Japanese class went in one ear and right out the other, and he barely made it out alive to the day’s first passing period1.
“So you really did all that stuff? Like pitching a tent in the middle of the mountains and cooking rice in a pot over a fire?” Nishikubo asked in a tone of voice that practically said, ‘Were you really doing all of those stupid things?’
Asaba answered absent-mindedly and a bit irately, “The President brought along a Kei truck2, so we were able to go to the convenience store to buy things the whole time. We ate stuff like prepackaged bentos and pouch curry.”
In reality, he had practically eaten every type of prepackaged bento, and for a while it made him sick to his stomach to even look at pouch curry. Looking back on it, Asaba felt truly thankful for the times Akiho would bring special food up to them.
“Besides, it wasn’t like I was really up there the entire time. About once every three or four days, whenever I felt like eating normal food or taking a shower, I’d go home. Apparently the President stayed the whole time, though.”
“Huh? So does that mean that the President spent the entire summer vacation without showering?”
“No way. A little below the hills in the direction of Ootsukidai there’s, uh, some kind of baseball field.”
Nishikubo also began to think, “What was it again? Some kind of commemorative sports park, right?”
“Right, that one. He’d wash using the water facilities there. Of course it was like that. We aren’t special forces or anything, so it’d be impossible for us to spend the entire summer vacation on our own in the mountains without having water or toilets over there in the first place.”
“But still, bathing in the water facilities. There are a lot of people over there, right?”
“Only during the day. There’d be a few cars with couples in them some nights. The President didn’t really care about them during the day, though.”
“Sounds like him,” Nishikubo laughed. Asaba couldn’t help smiling either. “So basically you guys were camping. Sounds like you had a pretty great time, huh?”
“Pretty much,” Asaba answered. He probably felt that way now because the bad memories had faded away. However, he felt like that wasn’t completely the reason why.
If he thought back carefully, he had a feeling that his summer vacation wasn’t entirely boring at all. They had succeeded at feeding a raccoon. They had done things like “gathering data” with firecrackers on cars rocking side to side in the park in the middle of the night. And, above all else, speaking perfectly honestly, his heart had raced at the idea of “setting up a ‘secret base’ and looking out for ‘enemies’ in the mountains, with just him and his buddy.” He didn’t think that they’d be committing to play “secret army base” at this age, but the President, despite being old enough to know better, earnestly put his heart and soul into it and took it seriously. Despite a few times where Asaba felt like he was half forcing it, once he dived completely into it, there were definitely some “amazing” moments. It might not have been that terrible of a summer vacation after all. Furthermore, at the very end of it all, he felt like doing something wild, snuck into the pool, and—
Asaba snapped back to reality after being hit on the shoulder by Nishikubo.
“What’s up with you, spacing out like that?”
“My bad. What were you saying?”
“As I was saying, you guys camped out behind the mountains of Sonohara Base searching for UFOs, right? Were you able to take at least one picture?”
“No way,” Asaba laughed. “We had a much higher chance of running into guys who came there to bury a corpse.”
“Man, how boring,” Nishikubo muttered.
Right when Nishikubo was about to lose interest in Asaba’s mountain camping trip, “Ah, I actually heard a story about that.” Hanamura, who was sitting in the seat in front of Asaba, turned around, sat backwards in his chair and broke into the conversation. Apparently he was listening to the entire conversation from there. “There’s a rumor dating pretty far back that says Sonohara Base is a UFO base.”
Nishikubo replied pretty skeptically, “Even I’ve heard of that rumor, but isn’t it just that? Didn’t they just mistakenly see like, a stealth fighter? You hear those kinds of UFO stories everywhere, not just in Sonohara. There are also plenty of UFO eyewitness accounts in cities with huge airfields. Especially since Sonohara Base is jointly operated by the JASDF3 and the USAF3, which launch aircraft at strange times of the day, even if people mistakenly think that they saw a UFO and make a big deal about it, the military wouldn’t go making an announcement saying, ‘That was actually one of our aircraft’ every single time it happened.”
“I’m just repeating what I heard from the President, but,” Asaba suddenly began, “The mysterious flying objects witnessed around Sonohara Base are called, ‘Area Sonohara4 Foo Fighters,’ and are apparently pretty famous among UFO buffs. They’re written about pretty often in those types of magazines. Foo Fighters originally refer to mysterious flying objects that Allied fighter pilots witnessed during World War II. They initially thought that they were some kind of German or Japanese secret weapon, but it turns out that after the war ended, German and Japanese pilots had seen the same thing and thought that they were some kind of Allied secret weapon. Nowadays though, they’re considered to be either some kind of natural phenomena or collective hallucinations. But of course, to UFO buffs, if you mention Foo Fighters that’s just another name for UFO.”
Nishikubo and Hanamura listened to Asaba’s story with half-amazed and half-dumbfounded expressions. Asaba noticed, and added, “Keep in mind, I’m just repeating what I heard from the President.”
Nishikubo placed his hand on Asaba’s shoulder. “Be honest, Asaba.”
“W-What are you talking about?”
“C’mon now. Well? According to what the President said, what was the true identity of those Area Sonohara something-somethings?”
“Who knows? I can never really tell if he’s being subtle or vague. I never asked him directly, but contrary to what I expect, he probably doesn’t really care what their true identity is.”
“Well, what do you think then?”
Asaba began to feel slightly cornered. “Among UFO buffs, the most plausible, or I guess the staple, theory is that ‘Sonohara Base is launching manmade UFOs.’ There are similar stories in America too. There are rumors that they recover crash-landed UFOs and copy their technology and make aircraft with amazing capabilities. That’s probably it.”
“So then, does that mean that when war finally breaks out that those UFO fighters will be zooming around?” Hanamura asked amusedly.
Nishikubo, acting dumbfounded, added, “Wouldn’t that just be an amazingly advanced jet fighter? Why would you suddenly say that they use ‘technology recovered from crash-landed UFOs’?”
Feeling like he was being mocked, Asaba became annoyed. But in reality, even Asaba didn’t completely believe that “manmade UFO” theory. Feeling somewhat masochistic, he answered, “Oh yeah, I have a picture too; a picture of a Foo Fighter. It’s just a picture I printed from my computer, but it’s pretty famous.”
He pulled out his binder of notes that he used for data gathering from out of his bag. He dug through his files. “Hmm, ah, here it is. This.” Mixed in with a bundle of suspicious-looking spirit photos, he unfolded a wrinkled up picture on his desk.
Nishikubo and Hanamura leaned forward to see. It was a blurry and monochromatic picture. It was the kind that had to be explained in order for anyone to know what it was, like a typical UFO photograph.
Nishikubo was the first to respond. “What is this? Which side is up?”
“Like this.” Asaba rearranged the picture so that Nishikubo could see it properly from where he was standing. “This picture floated around on the Internet around the beginning of the year, and caused a bit of a stir. This part is the ground, this part is the sky, and this fuzzy shadow right in the middle is the Foo Fighter. The photographer is unknown.”
“And right here is the Yeti5 and over there is Nessie6, right?”
Hanamura was mocking the picture, but surprisingly, Nishikubo stared intently at it. Pointing at the shadow of the Foo Fighter, he asked, “Are these the illuminations from the wingtip lights?”
“No idea,” Asaba replied, tilting his head to the side. “I think that this was probably taken on the west side of apron7 number four, not too far from the section of the mountains where the President and I were at. There was a video that also circulated around the Internet with this image file, but that was way blurrier than this one and I couldn’t tell what was going on at all.”
“Isn’t this just an airplane? You can’t explain anything with such a blurry photograph like this in the first place.”
“Well, for sure, putting aside stuff like UFO technology, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were doing something like testing newly developed secret weapons. War is imminent, after all.”
War is imminent.
That phrase was like a type of running joke to Asaba’s generation. Even before he was born, people had said, “Anytime now.” But even so, all that ever happened on the news was repeated skirmishes, and the “full blown war” never began, even after all this time.
“War won’t happen,” Hanamura said.
“Won’t it?” Asaba replied.
“But haven’t airstrikes on the North started again recently? Some college professor or something on the news this morning was saying that this time it’s serious,” Nishikubo said.
Hanamura, however, completely blew it off. “Don’t they always say that? You know, if war really never breaks out we’re all going to look like huge idiots. We even turned the school into a shelter and run disaster drills once every month.”
“Asaba.” Asaba, Nishikubo, and Hanamura all looked up at the same time. It was Akiho.
All Akiho said was, “Come here a minute,” and dragged Asaba towards her desk. Within the class, Sudou Akiho was known for being a violent girl, so even Hanamura didn’t dare to make any jokes openly.
“Why were you late today?”
“I wasn’t. I barely made it.”
“Walking into the classroom at the same time Kawaguchi does is basically the same as being late. You were easy prey,” Akiho said. She pulled out a stack of papers fastened together with a paperclip from her bag and shoved it into Asaba’s arms.
“Wha- Don’t look at it here! Hurry up and put it away somewhere.”
Asaba was shocked. It was a photocopy of all of the summer homework. Asaba chuckled shamefully, “This looks like it’ll score pretty high.”
“Naturally. I’m sure you already know, but don’t copy it all exactly.”
Right when he was about to thank her, she whispered angrily at him, “Hurry up and put it away!” Asaba hastily stuffed the bundle of papers down his collar into his shirt. Akiho stared at Asaba, surprised, “You’re going to hide it in there?”
“Oh yeah.” At that moment, Asaba suddenly remembered something important. There was something he needed to ask Akiho.
“Hey, there’s something I want to ask you.”
“This might sound kind of weird, but about the school swimsuits the girls at our school wear—“ Akiho’s eyes darkened instantly. Asaba braced himself and continued. “They have like, shoulder straps I think, with white lines on the edges around them, right?
“That’s extremely detailed. Why do you know something like that?” Akiho glared intensely at Asaba. “You weren’t peeping during the girls’ swimming classes were yo—“
“No way. There are plenty of girls swimming in school swimsuits if you go to the city pool, right?”
Akiho stared at Asaba suspiciously, but she was convinced for the time being. “And?”
“They have name tags on them, right? On the front and back. Kind of like the ones on the short-sleeved gym clothes. Can you remove those easily?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are they attached by Velcro or by snap fasteners so you can remove them easily if you felt like it? Or are they sewn on?”
Akiho thought over it briefly. “I’m pretty sure they’re usually sewn on. There’d be no point if you could just remove them. Why are you asking something like that?”
It was a logical conclusion, but it didn’t reveal anything to him. That girl looked like she was about the same age as him. Apparently, the school swimsuit she was wearing was a school-designated one. However, all schools probably had similarly designed swimsuits. Regardless of whether or not she had a nametag, it was possible that for some reason she had gotten a new swimsuit and it just so happened that the nametag wasn’t attached that night. He couldn’t say anything with certainty.
The clock tower’s bell rang. Second period was beginning.
He wasn’t thanking her for the copy of the homework; he was thanking her for answering his question. He returned to his desk, deep in thought. Naturally, Nishikubo cast a quick glance at Asaba from the corner of his eyes, and Hanamura pestered him with, “Hey, what were you guys talking about?” But Asaba barely heard a thing, and Hanamura quickly gave up. Everybody around him began to take their seats, unenthusiastic about the end of passing period.
Staring at a single point on his desk, Asaba began to contemplate. “Who on Earth was that girl? ‘You leave first. The guys outside won’t hurt you.’ That’s what the mystery man who appeared at the pool said. And I followed obediently. I still feel the uncanny aura, the suspense, and the fear from that moment. But those feelings slowly faded as time went by. Why didn’t I say what I wanted to at that time?” Those were the kinds of regrets that he should have been immediately wracked with.
But he was thinking about something else. “I left that girl with the man by the poolside, and exited outside the locker room. That much is fact. Outside there were large white vans and men dressed in black clothing. I think there were five or six vans, and ten or twenty men dressed in black. One of the men approached me and offered, ‘If you’d like I can take you close to home by car.’ He spoke politely. ‘I apologize for not being able to explain anything to you, but we’d like to get you out of here as quickly as possible, so this van would be most convenient.’”
“I obediently followed the men dressed in black too. At that time, I forgot that I had parked my bike at the video shop. Being urged along, I got into one of the vans parked nearby. I was wearing only a pair of soaked short-shorts, holding my bag, and carrying my shoes in one hand. After the car began moving, I remember taking a t-shirt out of my bag and putting it on.”
His memory suddenly broke off after that.
“I have absolutely no idea what happened. Before I realized it, I was sitting alone on the bench at the bus station nearby home. I was dressed properly in my clothes. The bike that was supposed to be parked at the video shop was right next to me, tied to the bench leg with a chain lock. The bus station’s clock indicated that it was 2:10 A.M.”
“I can calmly recall all of this right now, but at that moment I was absolutely frightened to tears. I realized how terrifying it was. It was no joking matter. Memory loss wasn’t calm and carefree or romantic like it was made out to be on TV and manga. I couldn’t anticipate how utterly terrifying a mere few blank hours could be. I have no idea what I did, and it was practically like I couldn’t take responsibility for any of my actions. I have no idea at all what I did to anyone, or what anyone did to me.”
“I was so scared that I couldn’t remember the combination for the lock right away. I desperately pedaled home. It was truly horrifying.”
“Hey! You guys over there, hurry up and take your seats!” Class President Nakagomi yelled.
A pair of boys at the back of the classroom who had been throwing a rubber ball at each other grudgingly returned to their seats, grumbling and complaining, “Man, what a pain in the ass.” “If times hadn’t changed, she’d be the type that’d be the first to say ‘For the Homeland.’”
Asaba continued to stare at a single point on his desk and contemplate. “What if everything that happened last night was all a dream? Frankly, it kind of feels that way. Everything was just so absurd: the girl I met by the pool at night and the silver metallic spheres embedded in her wrists; the mystery man and the men in black. Everybody other than myself was unidentifiable. There was zero physical evidence. And to top it all off, after I was put into the van my memory was cut off.”
“Even if I talked to someone, I don’t think I could ever get them to believe me. Even I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me this story. First of all, there’s no way that a memory with holes in it has any credibility at all, so even if I did experience something surreal at the pool, I have no reason to insist that it was even a ‘surreal incident’ at all. I had some type of memory distortion, and I came back to my senses on the bench at the bus station nearby home. Only those two facts were reality, and the chain of events that began after I snuck into the pool all seem like they could have been a dream. There was the mental and physical exhaustion caused by the mountain camp, and the stress of summer vacation ending and my untouched homework. It seems possible that all of that twisted my mind and was the cause of my memory distortion and my escapist dream.”
“That was all a dream. Thinking about it like that puts my mind at ease. It’s far better than thinking that something insane happened to me.”
However, there was another side of him that refused to be content with that peace of mind. “You spineless bastard, cut it out and open your eyes!” his other self screamed. “Mental and physical exhaustion and stress, huh? I see how it is. If it’s like that, no matter what you see or hear, it can’t be helped, huh? Damn, this convenient explanation works for everything. Modern rationalism is the miracle trash bin that every household invariably possesses. So, did you plan on explaining something away? Alright, listen up. All you’re trying to do is pretend that nothing ever happened because you gave in to the fear of having lost a portion of your memory. ‘It wasn’t anything worth worrying over.’ You want to believe that so badly that, regardless of the presence of objectivity or repeatability, you dragged out this “psychological explanation” that’s basically the equivalent of fortune telling or folk remedies. All you’re trying to do is reconstruct a homemade everyday life.”
“That’s the very thing they’re aiming for. Don’t be fooled by it. ‘That was all a dream.’ You lose if you think like that,” his other self continued.
His mouth twisted into a wry smile. “There must be something wrong with me. Who in the world is ‘they?’ When did this turn into something about ‘winning or losing?’ I practically sound like a fanatic believer of supernatural phenomena.”
But still, nonetheless.
Even now, no matter what, he couldn’t imagine that everything was a dream. The image of the ripples extending across the black surface of the water, like radar waves, lapping against the edge of the pool; the image of the girl wearing her swimming cap so earnestly; the crimson image from her nosebleed that stained the towel; the sound of her mysterious voice that sounded as if she was speaking in a foreign language no matter what she said; the image of her slightly delighted smile when she swam 15 meters with the kickboard; the image of her brown eyes that peered at him from less than an inch away, their noses almost touching; the image of the silver spheres glittering on her wrists.
No matter how hard logic and reason attempted to disclaim it, his emotions wouldn’t accept denial.
“Who in the world was that girl?” He wanted to know. He didn’t even know what he’d do once he found out, or whether or not he even wanted to meet her again.
But regardless, even now, he wanted to believe that “Iriya” was there.
“Rise.” The sliding door at the entrance of the classroom, which didn’t very slide well, gave off a harsh grating noise as it opened.
Before he’d realized what was going on, everybody in the class had risen and paid their respects at the Class President’s order. Asaba was the only one sitting down, and by the time he hastily tried to stand up, everybody was already sitting down.
Math teacher Iizuka walked up to the platform, tottering like he had just crawled out of an open grave. Tossing his textbook onto his desk, he spoke in a voice that a mummy would have if it tried to communicate. “Uhhhhhhhh…” That didn’t mean that he was finally starting. He was trying to remember where he last left off in the previous class. Normally, he’d go, “Uhhhhhhhhh… alright then,” but today, he suddenly stopped. Half of the class sitting on the side near the hallway heard a discrete knock, and the other half on the side near the window definitely thought that Iizuka had suddenly died.
The door opened delicately, and 35-year-old bachelor and homeroom teacher Kawaguchi Taizou’s face peeked in. “Iizuka-sensei, may I have a moment?”
Iizuka responded with a few low sounds. “Oohh.” “Aahh.”
Asaba sighed softly. It might have been because he was a member of the Newspaper Club and they clashed often, or maybe they just didn’t get along since birth, but Asaba just couldn’t bring himself to like his homeroom teacher Kawaguchi. Asaba couldn’t stand looking at his face, and he immediately shifted his gaze outside through an open window on the left.
It was a view from the second story of Sonohara Middle School’s main building on the side of the main gate. There wasn’t really anything interesting out there. There was a row of sakura trees about as aged as the school building itself, a stone monument with a progressive school motto engraved upon it, another stone monument with a traditionalist school song engraved upon it, and the roof of the main entrance of the school building painted over by lines of old paint. The chirping of buried cicadas rose to the forefront of his consciousness as background noise. The rays of the summer sun didn’t cast a single shadow anywhere. The parking spaces paved with gravel were barren. A familiar white van shimmered in the heat.
His body froze.
That man was there. That man was standing next to the white van. The man who appeared by the poolside, who told the story of the angry old janitor, and who gave off an exhausted aura like an old man even though he was young.
He wore a suit like last night, slung his jacket over his shoulder like last night, and wore the tie that he wasn’t wearing last night. He was shading his eyes with his hand and looking up at the school building. The man then immediately noticed Asaba, and made an expression that said, “Looks like I ran into someone unexpected.” He gave Asaba a wide grin like last night, and waved his arm from right to left only once.
Kawaguchi was saying something. His voice automatically came flowing into Asaba’s ears. “Aahh, due to certain circumstances, she was unable to make it to homeroom, but borrowing a bit of Iizuka-sensei’s time here—“
The chirping of the cicadas gradually became louder.
It wasn’t something as simple as a premonition.
Asaba slowly, slowly, slowly turned around and faced the classroom.
That’s what was written in beautiful characters on the blackboard.
That girl was standing on the platform. She stood there wearing a virtually brand new summer uniform, holding a spotlessly polished bag like a first year student, wearing a pair of indoor shoes that had never seen the inside of a shoe locker, and wearing wrist bands on both of her wrists.
The chirping of the cicadas grew louder and louder.
Kawaguchi was saying something. Kawaguchi’s mouth was moving, as if to say, “I’d like to introduce a new transfer student.” But Asaba could no longer hear those words. He couldn’t hear the stir throughout the classroom either. Despite that, he distinctly heard that girl’s voice; her awkward voice that sounded like she was speaking her first words since she was born.
“My name is Iriya Kana.”
“Definitely a fake name,” he thought to himself somewhere in his mind.
There were cicadas in his head now.
She stated her name, and bowed with a motion that felt like she had practiced countless times to somehow reach this point.
The girl then stared intently at Asaba, who was sitting by the window and still unable to move a muscle.
“If I think about it, it’s perfectly obvious,” Asaba thought to himself. Just because summer vacation ended, didn’t mean that summer itself ended at the same time. His summer would continue on for a while longer.
It was the summer of UFOs.
1. Passing period: text in Japanese is 休憩時間. In middle school / high school there is a period of usually 5-10 minutes between each period for students to get their other books or rest before the next class begins. In America, it is commonly referred to as passing period. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=passing%20period
2. 軽トラ: light truck. http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~bq9t-tkhm/g-image_4wd/IMG_2597.jpg
3: JASDF: Japan Air Self-Defense Force. // USAF: United States Air Force
4. Area Sonohara is probably a reference to Area 51, a large military airfield that is the subject of many conspiracy theories.
5. Yeti: The Abominable Snowman. Like a snow version of Bigfoot.
6. Nessie: The Loch Ness Monster
7. Apron: the area of an airport where aircraft are parked, unloaded or loaded, refueled, or boarded.