Chapter 2: Love Letter
He awoke because of the heat.
Specks of dust suspended in the air were glittering. The sunlight pouring in from the window had greatly shifted angles while he was asleep, pierced the dividing curtain, and was warming his face diagonally. He covered his eyes with his arms, kicked off the blanket that had become dampened from sweat, and sat up.
He didn’t feel ill. Nor did he feel dizzy.
He felt like he had a dream where he fought with someone over the telephone.
He stuck his head out from an opening in the curtain. Shiina Mayumi was nowhere to be found. He looked at the clock on the wall, and was a little surprised. Lunch break had ended, and fifth period was beginning.
Somehow, he didn’t feel too inclined to return to class.
“Maybe I should just head home for today,” Asaba thought briefly.
For the time being, he left a note that read, ‘I’m returning to class,’ on Shiina Mayumi’s desk, exited the nurse’s office, and lazily wandered about the empty hallway. “Today is Wednesday. Fifth period on Wednesday is English, and the English teacher Kishimoto is quite the disagreeable old hag. Maybe it would have been wiser if I had stayed in the nurse’s office until fifth period ended.” By the time he had reached that conclusion, he was already standing in front of the classroom.
There was nobody in the classroom.
On the blackboard, written in thick bold characters, was the message, “Fifth period English will be held in the audiovisual room.”
“Today is a really bad for classes,” Asaba thought. His commendable attitude was immediately sunk. “I’m going to go home, after all.”
This time, he really made up his mind, and resolutely began preparing to go home. “Having English in the audiovisual room sounds pretty good, but Kishimoto would just show an English movie with the subtitles turned off and make everyone write their impressions down in English. Basically, she’d take the easy way out. What’s more, it’s fifth period. Around this time of the day half of the class is falling asleep anyway. The only person who could properly give an impression would be Iriya, given that she’s a returnee student—”
He stopped his preparations and paused. Asaba slowly raised his face and turned around to the back of the classroom.
Iriya’s desk was there.
At the moment, there was nobody in the classroom. The slanting rays of sunlight shining in diagonally from the windows accentuated the dimness of the classroom, and the gentle breeze carried with it the warmth of the sun.
An unsettling idea snuck into Asaba’s mind.
A combination of gastric fluid and feelings of nervousness weighed his stomach down. His heartbeat began to race. Asaba slowly inched his way towards Iriya’s desk. ‘What the hell are you thinking, you idiot? Cut it out, that’s definitely bad news—’ His other self was screaming at him from inside of his mind, but Asaba’s feet didn’t stop. In fact, he quickened his pace. He placed his hand on Iriya’s desk, and looked around the empty classroom once more. The clock on the wall came into view.
“The time limit is three minutes. Even if I don’t find anything, I’m going to stop in three minutes,” he decided.
He pulled out the chair and peeked inside the desk. Empty. He lifted her brand new school bag hanging on the hook and placed it on top of the desk. There weren’t any stickers pasted on it, and there weren’t any mascot straps attached either. The nametag holder, which most students removed because “it was uncool and got in the way” remained attached to the bag handles, but the card inside didn’t have her name, address, phone number, or blood type.
He placed his fingers on the clasp of the bag’s cover.
His other self was frantically trying to stop him. ‘I won’t say anything bad about you anymore, so cut it out. This is seriously risky. Did you forget about all the crap you went through last night? You still don’t realize that you’re already neck deep in the gutter? You’re not some horny grade-schooler; what you’re doing is on a completely different level from sucking on the flute that belongs to some girl that you like. This girl is an agent from outer space!!’
“Yeah, right. Like a correspondent of the Sonohara Radio Wave would be afraid of aliens,” he fired back.
He inhaled nervously.
He unfastened the clasp.
He propped up the bag and opened it. He peered inside. Brand new textbooks and plain spiral-bound notebooks stood vertically on the right side, and some kind of cloth wrapper was stuffed on the left side. When he put it out on the desk, he realized it was a handbag. Something square-shaped was inside of it. It was too heavy to be a bento box.
“I should check out the bag first,” he thought to himself, and rifled through the compartments of the bag. A pass case came tumbling out. He opened it up. There were four unfamiliar cards inside.
One of them appeared to be a pass card that activated the Sonohara Base gate. It was made of plastic, thick enough so that he couldn’t easily bend it with his fingers, and had a magnetic strip on the back of it so that machines could recognize it. Iriya’s portrait was placed on the front, along with lines of completely foreign numbers and codes, and something that probably represented her address in the residential zone of Sonohara Base entered on it. He was puzzled over why the “Full Name” column was blank.
The remaining three cards all looked the same as each other. They resembled telephone cards. They all had rounded corners, were flimsy to the touch, and even had the small circular hole on the far right side. He pulled a telephone card from out of his wallet, and lined them up. The size and shape matched up exactly. The more he looked at it, the more he had the feeling that these three cards were precisely telephone cards. But these three cards didn’t have any letters or designs printed on them at all. The front and back were solid gray. There weren’t any digits indicating the number of uses available, there wasn’t a barcode, and there weren’t any warning labels telling users not to bend it, dirty it, or keep it away from magnetic devices. The only thing that he could barely make out was a small triangular arrow that probably indicated which side was the front and which direction to insert it. But Asaba wondered if what these cards went into were really public telephones.
Asaba ignored the voice in his head screaming, “Stop it,” and stuffed one of the three telephone card-like cards into his pocket.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. It was already past two minutes.
He put the cards back into the pass case and threw it into the bag’s pocket. “I’ll be done after checking this out,” he told himself, and placed his hands on the handbag. Worrying about what he’d do if he found feminine hygiene products, he resolutely opened the bag.
He found three small plastic medicine bottles, a portable gaming device, and three software ROM packs.
The moment he saw the bottles of medicine, he felt a peculiar sense of relief that last night’s events at the pool weren’t a dream, after all. He opened the lid of the small bottle and poured its contents into the palm of his hand. They weren’t sugarcoated pills; they were the compressed type. They were white, and didn’t have any seals with letters or numbers on them. The contents of all three bottles appeared to be the same, but Asaba took three pills from each bottle, wrapped them each in tissues and stuffed them into his pocket. “It’s all over. You’re definitely going to be erased,” the voice in his head muttered, dumbfounded.
Then, he picked up the final object: the portable gaming device.
It was a familiar, and rather common, gaming device. It had an analog D-pad, four buttons, a color LCD screen above that, and ports for displaying laser images surrounding the screen. This model had three variations depending on price, and each variation had an exaggerated name that was somewhat embarrassing to say out loud. Iriya’s model had three sub-screens that could display a hovering overlay, and, colloquially speaking, it was the “top-of-the-line and most expensive” type.
When he turned the gaming device over, there was a ROM pack already inserted into the software slot. There wasn’t any manufacturer’s logo, nor were there any colorful labels. Instead, there were letters and numbers scrawled onto it with black magic.
“Maybe it’s a pirated ROM,” he thought to himself.
The other three ROM packs similarly read:
His three minutes had long since passed. ‘Enough is enough, hurry and put it away. Put everything back the way you found it and get the hell out of there,’ the voice inside his head insisted, like usual. But even so, Asaba gripped the gaming device in his hands.
“I wonder what kind of games Iriya likes.”
“The mysterious cards and large amounts of medicine might have been things that someone gave to Iriya, but this gaming device and software are things that Iriya herself chose to have. They’re different from things that she’s forced to carry. The decision was made by Iriya; not by anyone else.”
He felt like playing this game would bring him closer to Iriya, rather than studying the cards or medicine.
He placed his finger on the gaming device’s power button.
“What are you doing?”
At that very instant, his other self residing in his mind blew the canopy of his head off and bailed out in an ejection seat.
He thought he was going to die right then and there. He even screamed. “Earth is doomed,” he thought. He instinctively turned around, carelessly tripped over his own two feet, and dropped the gaming device.
Wrist hidden by a wristband, her right hand gracefully caught the gaming device midair. Her expression remained unchanged, and her eyes unblinking. She wasn’t even looking at the gaming device. Holding her English textbook and her plain spiral-bound notebooks at her side, staring expressionlessly at a frozen Asaba, Iriya asked him once again. “What are you doing?”
“This is an unexplainable situation,” he thought to himself. “Even if I do try to offer an explanation, it’s probably hopeless. An agent from outer space would never have mercy on a human sniffing around its belongings. Why in the world is Iriya here in the first place? Wasn’t it the middle of class right now? Wasn’t she supposed to be watching “Little House on the Prairie” without subtitles in the audiovisual room? Obviously, there’s some kind of device inside of her bag. She installed some kind of security device, so tiny that you can’t see it with a microscope, which triggers an alarm using telepathy if someone opens her bag. Iriya responded to that alarm, and teleported from the audiovisual room in order to destroy the meddling human who was trying to uncover her true identity. Time in the audiovisual room must be in stasis right now. At this very moment, everything is frozen in place: the drool dribbling out of Hanamura’s mouth; the movement of Nishikubo’s eyes as he reads a paperback under his desk; the fluttering of Laura Ingalls’ skirt as she runs at full speed through the forest calling for help for her father who had been injured by his rifle misfiring—”
“Move.” Iriya didn’t ask a third time.
As soon as Asaba staggered half a step backwards, Iriya silently approached her desk, and began cleaning up the contents of her bag that had been dragged out. It didn’t look like she was panicking or upset. It was like she was completely ignoring Asaba’s existence.
“U-Um—” Asaba began.
“I have to say something,” he thought.
“What happened to fifth period? Are you ditching?” he asked.
Iriya returned everything on her desk into her bag, fastened the clasp, and muttered, “Where’s the audiovisual room?”
Iriya silently pointed to the blackboard at the front of the room. Without needing to turn around, Asaba knew what was written there: “Fifth period English will be held in the audiovisual room.”
“Why didn’t you just follow behind everyone el—” Asaba began to ask.
“When I got back, nobody was here.”
Asaba didn’t understand a thing she was saying.
Based on guesswork, Asaba tried to piece together what happened based on the facts he already knew and on Iriya’s fragmented sentences. “English teacher Kishimoto is very strict with time. For the most part, she’ll be in the classroom before the bell rings, and makes snide remarks towards students who come in late. So everyone changed classrooms early while Iriya was wandering around by herself during lunch break, and when she came back everyone was gone, and they just left her like that. I wonder if that’s what happened,” he thought.
He felt annoyed. “What a bunch of cold jerks,” he thought.
“But if I call them jerks, then I’m the same,” Asaba reconsidered. “Who’s the guy who said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom’ and ran away when Iriya pleaded for help after being surrounded by Nakagomi’s group and peppered with questions?”
Excuse-like thoughts filled his mind. “I couldn’t help it. I’m not smooth enough to defuse a situation like that. The dynamics that control a classroom environment are, for better or for worse, unique, complicated, and mysterious. I have no idea how it works. Besides, it wasn’t like Nakagomi and her friends had any bad intentions. That whole thing wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It was like an unfortunate collision. Logically speaking, that’s all it was.”
“Um—“ he began.
“Putting aside logic for the moment, I’m going to apologize,” he thought to himself. “I’m going to apologize for abandoning Iriya and running away, and, of course, for opening her bag without permission. I need to at least let her know that, starting with Nakagomi, the guys in class aren’t all that bad.”
“Uh, about this morning—“ He was suddenly interrupted.
The school public announcement speakers in the corner of the classroom looking down at the two of them came to life with a crackle. Two stanzas of the school song’s melody, which had extreme lyrics that caused a fuss within the PTA, flowed forth.
“Ahh, contacting, from class 2-4, Iriya—”
The voice suddenly grew distant, and asked someone, “It was Iriya, right?” It was vice-principal Tashiro. He constantly spoke with his mouth way too close to the microphone, and breathed loudly while speaking. Asaba felt like he would smell his bad breath through the speakers.
“Iriya Kana-san. Ahh, Iriya Kana-san from class 2-4, you have a phone call from Tanaka-san. Please proceed immediately to the faculty office. I repeat—”
“Phone call?” he wondered. Asaba turned around and looked at Iriya, with an expression that asked, ‘Who’s Tanaka-san?’
Right then, Asaba thought that he saw her expression tremble ever so slightly.
It was the final vestiges of an intense and raw emotion that burst through the surface of the massive walls erected around Iriya’s inner being. If Asaba had turned around just one moment earlier, he might have been able to discover the true form of that emotion. However, the holes drilled into the walls were instantly sealed, and Iriya returned to her usual self.
She grabbed her bag. “I’ll be going now,” she stated, gazing at Asaba.
She ran off.
Her skirt swayed in the air. Her hair fluttered.
Vice principal Tashiro exhaled from his nose one last time into the microphone, and left off with the school song’s melody. By the time the speakers had returned to silence, Asaba was the only living soul left in the classroom.
He heard the chirping of the cicadas.