From the second I woke up, I had the feeling that something was off.
I opened my eyes and turned to look at the clock next to my pillow. The display showed 7:00, and next to it was an indicator reading Sunday.
I felt none of the light-headed grogginess that usually accompanied a rude awakening. The slightest bit of drowsiness remained in my head, but I didn't feel like going back to sleep. I slowly struggled to roll over face-down in my bed and then did what was essentially a pushup to raise myself up.
The strange thing was what happened when I let down my legs from the side of the bed. As I stared at the morning light seeping through the crack in the curtains, I started to mutter to myself in disbelief.
"I feel good."
Both in body and in spirit, absolutely nothing was amiss.
That's not to say I was used to constantly being in some kind of bad bodily condition. In that sense, rather than saying I was in good condition, it'd probably be more appropriate to say that, today, I felt perfectly full of energy. So much that it even crossed my mind that I might even need to do something completely pointless to lower my energy reserves back to normal levels. Moments like these didn't come often.
I went to the kitchen and peered into the refrigerator. We had bacon, maitake mushrooms, and mustard spinach, so I took them out and cut them into large pieces. I put a slice of bread into the toaster and then beat some eggs in a small bowl. As I did so, I haphazardly added some processed cheese, milk, and a little bit later, some curry powder to the mix. Of the two burners, I used one to fry the bacon mix and the other to cook the eggs. Shoot... I didn't have enough room to heat the water up, so my coffee would have to wait.
I brought my meal with me to the living room. Spreading nothing on the toast, it was fluffy as I stuffed it into my mouth. I heard the sound of someone descending down the stairs. My parents are both away on a business trip, so it had to be my older sister. The sound of footsteps continued towards the kitchen.
"Wow, there's breakfast!"
She has a lot of energy this morning.
"Did you make this, Houtarou?"
"Who knows? For all we know it might've been a burglar."
"It's still hot, too. He must still be close... Don't give me any of that sass."
Without responding, I took a bit of the bacon dish and put it on top of the toast. My sister started talking again.
"Can I have some?"
My mouth was full, so I simply nodded. There's no way she'd see it all the way from the kitchen, but she'd still take some even if I said no, so there wasn't any point in asking. Besides, I made enough for her portion as well.
"Hey, it's actually not bad!" she said. She sure didn't waste any time when it came to being rude.
"Get yourself a plate."
"What's with this taste? Did you put something in this?"
She probably had a bite of the eggs. The jar of curry power was left on the kitchen counter, and I had enough faith in her that she’d figure it out herself, so I continued to eat without saying a word. Sure enough...
"Oh, this, huh?" she asked. "It's not like it's anything complicated, but it's still pretty above and beyond you. What going on, Houtarou? Did anything happen?"
Sharp as always. I took a sip of milk and said, "I feel good."
Just as I imagined would be the case, she returned a single, dubious "What?"
After getting out of bed and eating breakfast, I did some cleaning and laundry. I scrubbed the bathtub and then boiled some udon for lunch. It was 1:00. The day was long.
I went into my room, planted myself on top of my bed, and started to think. What should I do now? Peering out the window with its curtains pulled back, the sky looked perfect. Due to a recent stationary front, rain had continued to fall and fall these past days. This kind of sunshine was the first in a long time.
"I guess I'll go outside..."
I changed into a pair of pants with deep pockets and stuck a small paperback book into one of them. I put on a polo shirt and looked outside once more. A smile had formed on my face before I realized.
"Wouldn't want to waste this perfectly good weather."
To think that I, Houtarou Oreki, of all people, would grow unwilling to spend a sunny day inside... If Satoshi heard me say that, he'd probably come rushing over to check me for a fever. I picked my wallet up, but on a whim, I instead took out a single thousand yen note and stuffed it into my other pocket.
Although I left the house, it wasn't like I had any specific plans in mind. It'd just be a simple walk, is all. Though I do want to decide on a destination.
"So, where's a good place to go?"
I thought of going to a bookstore, but due to various reasons, I was short on cash this month. Besides, the paperback in my pocket could probably last me throughout the day.
That meant that I should probably look for a place where I could read. I thought about going somewhere along the riverbank, but we were nearing the season when the bugs start coming out again. I had a bad feeling about being next to the water at this time. Also, the bank is out in the open, so I'd be easily seen by passersby. I wasn't generally concerned about being stared at by others and have some tolerance with it, but even that tolerance has a limit.
There was a shrine for Hachiman nearby.1 It'd be quiet, and there were rocks good for sitting on as well. How about that? Feeling good about that option, I started to walk towards its direction, but something held me back. The shrine was too close by. I was feeling too good today; I felt like my energy would overflow if I didn't go far enough away.
"Then, how about this?"
I turned on my heels. Arekusu Shrine should be sufficiently far. Although it might sound like I was being overly preoccupied with shrines, I probably ended up wanting to go Arekusu only because I considered Hachiman's shrine first.
I started to walk. At first, I felt I bit cold with only a polo shirt on, but I quickly began to warm up and soon felt perfect. Purposely avoiding the road I normally took on the way to school, I instead threaded along unfamiliar back streets. The area might've been a natural wind tunnel as, although I was surrounded by fences on both sides, I still felt a cool breeze blow up against me. I spotted a cat sitting atop one of the fences. It had tiger stripes and a somewhat pissed-off expression.
"Hey," I said, raising a hand in greeting. Perhaps startled, however, the cat immediately ran away. That was bad of me.
I continued to slowly stroll on and neared a bridge. Because of the rain yesterday, the river had risen considerably. I stopped momentarily and gazed upon the murky, rumbling waters.
Add to and ever hasten,
Well, this wasn't the Mogami River, and yesterday's weather conditions weren't really early-summer rains either. Maybe I'd be able to think up a more suitable haiku if I was more cultured, but you can't give what you don't have. Satoshi would've probably been able to come up with a good one. Or maybe this was more up Chitanda's alley.
I passed by in front of a takoyaki shop. A sweet aroma wafted in the air. Although I'd already eaten breakfast, something about it was oddly alluring. I had a one thousand yen note with me—the takoyaki were something I could buy... The temptation slowly crept upon me. Wait... Hold on. Get a grip. If I were to buy some now, where would I sit down to eat them? I managed to endure the urge by the skin of my teeth, and I could feel myself speeding up as I walked away.
After I walked for around ten minutes, I noticed that the number of unfamiliar roads increased. Although I've never left this town in my entire life, a mere ten minutes brought me to such unknown areas. What an economical life I've led. I've never thought too poorly of my sense of direction, so I was able to continue along this untrodden route with a certain degree of confidence. Go over here and then there, and then if I turn somewhere around here...
I entered an open area. That was splendidly done, if I do say so myself. I stood facing the very Arekusu Shrine itself.
"Now then..." I muttered, looking up at the large torii gate. I had forgotten about that. The shrine was on the side of a hill. What that meant was, to get to the main grounds, I'd have to continue up the long flight of stairs leading up to it. It didn't matter how good I was feeling today, possessed by some strange condition leading me to take an idle stroll—I wasn't so sure about doing that. I hesitated for a moment, and then—
"Oh well, I guess it's fine."
—I then proceeded.
I walked up and up, counting each step along the way. Not before long, I noticed overgrown cedar trees starting to line both sides of the path. The temperature gently started to fall. As I passed thirty steps, I lost count. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, a whole bunch... I'd never given much thought to what kind of job I wanted in the future, but I'm fairly certain that one involving counting might not be the best match for me.
My breathing quickened. I'd have a difficult time reading my book now, too. Should I just sit on the steps and start reading here? No, no... I'm already more than halfway there. Just a little, little bit longer. I continued to climb, my body leaning forward as I did.
I must've done more than a hundred steps—not that I counted, of course. I finally made it to the top and took a deep breath. My eyes fell on a small structure containing a basin of water for ceremonial washing. I wanted to drink a mouthful, but I doubt the water was intended to be used that way. I looked around for a vending machine... but like one would've figured, there weren't any in sight.
My eyes were wandering around the area when I locked eyes with someone who had just left the shrine's administration office. She had on a casual T-shirt and shorts, looking as if she hadn't even left her house for the day. She wore glasses with small lenses, and her hair was long.
It was Kaho Juumonji. I guess she technically hadn't left her house for the day, considering she lived here as well. It looked like she had also realized it was me and slowly walked over.
She placed her hands in front of her body, palms-down, and lowered her head politely. Normally, I would've been shaken up being unexpectedly greeted like this, but I remembered falling for the same trick in the past.
"Thanks," I replied, at any rate. She pouted back, probably unsatisfied with my calm reaction, but quickly smiled.
"Did you come to pay the shrine a visit?"
"Not really, but... actually, I guess I could do that too."
"I'm taking a walk."
I guess it was a bit difficult to say that the shrine was any old location for me to someone who actually lived there.
Juumonji turned around to face the direction of the administration office she came out from.
Sounds like something Gennai Hiraga would invent.3 Eru's here...
Wait... Eru's here?!
She snickered back. "She's just here to hang out. You can also come in if you'd like. I'll make you some tea."
"No, it's okay. I'm just—"
"It’s not like you’re unrelated to what we’re currently talking about, you know."
Me? What could it be about?
"I won't force you," she continued, "but you know what they say. 'Even chance meetings are preordained.'"
"Is that a Buddhist saying?"
"It's a principle that goes beyond the boundaries of religion."
"I don't know..."
"Still, I have to say... Actually, never mind. I think I'd rather you see it for yourself. Come now."
Before I realized it, I was already being escorted into the shrine's administration office.
I don't think I put up much of a fight.
In one section of the office was a six tatami mat-sized room. The traditional sliding screen door was like the rest in the building, but upon entering, I could see it was a bedroom, full of personal belongings. There was a cabinet and an alarm clock, a bookshelf with novels and magazines, a small teapot, and in the center of it all, a low table. She probably had more stuff at her house, but it looked like this area was put aside for Juumonji to occupy.
Not to mention...
"H-huh? Oreki-san... Why are you..."
Chitanda was there, flustered. She looked around, frantically running her hands through her hair, and then, as if it suddenly dawned on her, she reached out and started gathering together everything on the low table. Juumonji started to speak, a hint of laughter in her voice.
"You don't really have to hide it, you know."
"A-ah, yes. I see. Now that you mention it, you do have a point."
She pointed her face downwards, probably trying to pull herself together a little, and then finally sat properly back up.
"Good afternoon, Oreki-san. Fancy meeting you here."
"Yeah. I was surprised."
"But you knew I was here, right?"
What the heck was she talking about?
"Oh, really?" asked Juumonji, as she turned to look at me. I shook my head.
"I said it though, didn't I?" interjected Chitanda. "I said that I promised Kaho-san that I'd visit her on Sunday."
"When and to whom did you say something like that?"
"I told Mayaka-san after school on Friday."
Why would she assume I'd know that from her telling Ibara? Right as I was about to ask her this myself, she seized away the initiative.
"Weren't you sitting right next to her?"
My memory was a bit hazy, but I feel like I did visit the clubroom that day, in which case, I may've very well been sitting next to Ibara then. Even still...
"I didn't hear it."
My denial wasn't very strong, so I had the sinking feeling that it sounded more and more like I had eavesdropped on their conversation and then purposely gone to the place where Chitanda had plans. I said it once more, this time with conviction.
"I heard absolutely nothing."
Chitanda readily nodded. "I understand. You were reading at the time, Oreki-san."
Juumonji let out an unconvinced hum from the side. I was a little worried she didn't believe me.
She then brought out a floor cushion for me to sit on and poured me a cup of green tea. As she did that, Chitanda started to rearrange the things she had previously tried to hide back on top of the low table.
"I came to look at these."
They were photos—photos of the living doll festival that had taken place back in April, near Chitanda's house.
"It really is too embarrassing."
She started to hide them again.
In the living doll festival, Chitanda played one of those dolls and wore an intricate twelve-layered kimono. At her request, I played the umbrella bearer. Satoshi had taken pictures of the festival and showed them to me as well. The photos currently on the table, however, were different ones.
I was also embarrassed and wanted to hide them as fast as possible. My eyes wandered to a certain photo. Behind the doll-dressed Chitanda, whose gaze seemed to be looking slightly down with elegant composure, walked me in a traditional court hat... with the dumbest-looking expression on! My mouth was hanging wide open and my eyes looked dull and unfocused.
I subconsciously averted my gaze.
"That's one cruel picture."
"Ah, this one?" Chitanda pulled the photo in question closer to her. "It certainly isn't the best shot."
Juumonji placed her cup of tea on the low table and started to talk as she sat on the cushion. "You were yawning, huh. What miraculous timing on your part."
"More like nightmarish."
That face of mine wasn't from a yawn. If I had to guess... the photo had captured a moment of fascination. I didn't really see anything like that in Satoshi's pictures, so it's clear I wasn't making that expression the entire time. At least, that's what I wanted to believe.
"Sorry I dragged you in here like this, but I couldn't help but laugh when I saw this picture. I figured that if you weren't here, it'd be like laughing at you behind your back, and that left a bad taste in my mouth."
I got where she was coming from, but I doubt she looked at the picture intending on laughing at it from the start. What an upstanding person.
"By the way, this picture of Eru over here's pretty terrible, too."
"Kaho-san! That's off-limits!"
The two of them continued to talk on and on, laughing as they discussed the photos, and I quietly sat between them, slowly sipping my tea. Although Juumonji was the one who invited me to sit with them, I was definitely in the wrong spot. In other words, I desperately wanted out, though my parched throat did appreciate the tea.
I tried to wait for a lull in the conversation that I could use to say my goodbyes, but it was near-impossible to find. As I was doing this, I reached the bottom of my cup. I guess this was definitely a sign that I had to go, but as I thought this, Juumonji suddenly looked at the clock.
"It's already this late? You should probably get going soon, Eru."
Chitanda smiled. "Yes, I know. Have you finished with your errands?"
"Oh," said Juumonji as she froze. "Shoot. I was going to do it but saw Oreki-kun and got distracted."
I wasn't sure what they were talking about, but it sounded like it was my fault. Juumonji's brow furrowed slightly, and she lowered her head.
"I'm really sorry. I wonder if I can still make it..."
"What happened?" I asked.
To that, Chitanda responded, "Today, I was planning on showing Kaho-san these pictures and then helping her with something after."
Juumonji explained the rest. "I was also asked by my family to do some shopping. I left because there wasn't much time left, but then I got surprised when I saw you and ended up forgetting about it."
She was surprised? Not an ounce of it showed on her face.
"If that's the case, I'll take care of the preparations," Chitanda said. "You go on ahead, Kaho-san."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. It's not the first time I've done it."
"You're a lifesaver." As Juumonji said that, she closed her eyes and brought her hands together in prayer towards Chitanda. "Namu."4
"That's Buddhist, isn't it?" I said before realizing it. Juumonji opened her eyes.
"It's a principle that goes beyond the boundaries of religion. Though, what'll you do now, Oreki-kun? I don't mind if you stay here."
"No, I think I'll excuse myself. Thanks for the tea."
"Really? Well, you're welcome."
As I was about to stand up, I suddenly thought of something.
"By the way, what are you going to help her with?"
Chitanda gestured with both arms as if doing some kind of dance.
I guess she was imitating a broom-sweeping movement. Juumonji added on to that.
"We have a miniature shrine dedicated to Inari.5 Though, it doesn't really have to be cleaned today."
"It's alright. I had intended on coming here to do it today anyways."
So essentially, one person was going to be doing a two-man cleaning job... I wish I hadn't heard.
As I did hear, there was no getting around it. I only had one option available to me.
"I'll help out."
At first surprised, Chitanda immediately said that I didn't need to. After that, however, she didn't reject my offer any further.
Inari's shrine was located off to the side from the main hall of worship, at the end of a long, narrow trail.
Now that I think about it, there was a banner fluttering in the corner of the shrine's grounds, reading "High Ranking Shrine." I had no idea why it wasn't closer to the path.
"This doesn't make much sense. Would something like this attract worshippers?"
"I'm not sure... although I don't think the shrine was built here to gather followers."
I held two brooms, each one resting on a different shoulder. Chitanda carried a bucket. Inside it were damp rags, a dustpan, some trash bags, and working gloves.
The narrow path started up as a small hill and quickly became a set of stairs. I felt like if I walked in front, I'd end up constantly poking her with the brooms, so I let her go first instead. As we started to climb, I turned around, thinking nothing in particular, and saw that the shrine grounds had already disappeared from view behind the many trees.
I had to say... it was all so peaceful.
Exactly as I thought this, however, I started to become conscious of all the sounds surrounding me. The rustling leaves, chirping birds, my footsteps, Chitanda's footsteps... My simple stroll had turned into something really strange.
"I'm sorry, Oreki-san. This has all turned into something really strange."
Hearing her mimic my thoughts startled me.
"Yeah, well, I had nothing to do today, anyway."
We wordlessly continued our ascent. The stairs were much steeper than they had initially appeared to be from the base, and I found myself focusing solely on my footing. Just as I was beginning to forget what we were talking about, she responded.
It had felt like quite the journey from a physical standpoint, but in reality, it had probably only taken abound five or so minutes. This part of the mountain started to level off, and I finally saw a red torii gate and a miniature shrine behind it. There was a small stone pedestal in front of the shrine, and on it was a sake bottle. Although I figured no one would come to a place like this, I saw empty beer cans and cigarette butts lying scattered about.
I handed one of the brooms to Chitanda.
"What do we do for the cleaning?"
"The priest takes care of the actual shrine itself, so all we do is sweep up the leaves and so on."
"What's with the washcloth?"
"It's to wipe off the bird droppings and other things from the guardian fox statue and the torii gate. Although..." Chitanda trailed off. She did a figure-eight around the guardian fox statue and then smiled brightly at me. "It looks like it's okay. All we have to do is wipe the sake bottle."
Why is there even a bottle there in the first place? I'm guessing it wasn't that someone forgot about it...
"Okay, let's get to it."
Chitanda started to chuckle lightly. "Let's offer our greetings, first."
I see. We laid the brooms against the guardian fox statue and then stood before Inari, side-by-side. I brought my hands together. Namu.
If I remembered correctly, Inari blessed commerce. I think I read once that he was originally a god of agriculture. Or maybe it was Satoshi that told me that. At any rate, I didn't really have anything to do with either at the moment. Let's see... okay. Please forgive me in advance for the quick job I'm about to do in cleaning your shrine.
"Let's begin, then," said Chitanda.
It looked like she was going to start with the scrubbing. Since I had already gone through all the effort of bringing up the heavy brooms, I figured I might as well start by sweeping. Although we were in the wrong time of year for it, a surprising number of leaves had fallen and piled up on the ground for some reason. This'd probably be a pretty tedious job.
I began to sweep. I decided to first clear the area around the torii gate.
The rhythmic sound of the bristles scraping against the ground felt inexplicably pleasant to my ears.
Now that I think about it, I'd also done some cleaning just this morning. Why was I doing something like this again in a place like this, especially after taking the time to enjoy the sunshine?
Hm, hm, hm... I hummed with each sweeping stroke.
"You seem to be in a good mood, Oreki-san."
As she said this, I suddenly realized how loud I was being. As one might expect, I wanted to die from the embarrassment. I began to heat up. In a situation with no salvation like this one, I at least wanted to avoid showing any bewilderment.
"Not really," I ended up responding.
Chitanda covered her mouth with her hand as her shoulders started to shake.
She finished wiping the sake bottle and then put her gloves on. After she put all of the empty cans into the bucket, she then took the broom and started sweeping with me. We didn't plan out anything in advance, but I ended up taking the right side of the shrine whereas she worked on the left.
I swept in silence, taking special care to make sure my humming was the same. The sounds of our brooms were in synchronicity at times and at others, slightly off.
"I was a little surprised," Chitanda suddenly remarked. I listened without looking up.
"That you offered to help."
"Sometimes you just have to clean."
"Is that so?"
I thought for a second.
"Well, maybe except for when you have a test coming up or something else to do."
She replied, her voice cheery. "I'm the same before tests. I'm not confident at all."
I could hear a bird chirping in the distance.
"...Oreki-san, aren't you always saying that if something would resolve itself without you doing anything, then you'd rather not do anything about it? That's why I was a bit taken aback. I thought for sure you'd go home right away."
Well, I guess in the end, the cleaning wasn't as laborious as I thought it would be. I had nothing to do with it from the start, and I'm sure she would've been fine had I just wished her good luck and left then and there. In fact, normally I would've done just that.
I started to speak without stopping my hands.
"I'm not feeling well today."
"What? Are you hurting somewhere?"
"It's not that. It's just that—how can I put this—I'm not feeling like I usually do. I'm just feeling like I wanted to move around. If I wasn't helping you, I'd probably be taking a jog right now. It's good that I'm able to do something productive."
I glanced up at Chitanda and saw her tilting her head to the left and right in uncertainty. Finally, she spoke.
"Um, thank you very much."
I'm not exactly sure what she was thanking me for.
As I continued to move my arms, I started to feel the trickle of sweat. There was no wind within the forest. Possibly because the earth was damp from the prolonged rainfall, the dirt didn't budge all too well when my broom brushed over it, and thus the fallen leaves proved to be difficult to move. Naturally, I had to put more force into it. The broom seemed to be suffering under the pressure.
"Could I ask you a question?"
What kind of question is it? It's probably too early in the year for it to be about the culture festival anthology.
There was a lull in the conversation as Chitanda seemed to be hesitating about something. She wouldn't say a thing. Hearing only the sound of her moving broom, I looked up and saw her sweeping the exact same spot continuously.
Getting irritated, I was about to ask her what she wanted to say when she finally opened her mouth and started to speak.
"Um... Please don't answer if you don't want to, but—"
"If it's about my grades, I'm not telling you. Yours are probably higher, anyway."
"No, that's not it."
There was a pause long enough to take a deep breath.
"Why are you always saying that thing you say?"
"That thing I say?"
"You know... 'If I don't have to do it, I won't. If I have to do it, I'll make it quick.'"
I stopped moving. The rhythmical sounds of the broom scraping on the soil halted.
Seemingly misinterpreting something I did, Chitanda quickly started to shake her hand in apology.
"Um, it's okay not to talk about it. That came out wrong. It's okay if you don't need to talk about it. Wait... did I say that correctly?"
A soft smile came across my face before I realized it.
"I know what you want to say."
"I was just wondering what I should say, is all. It's not a very interesting story, and there isn't much to it in the first place. It really just boils down to me not wanting to put work into anything."
I looked back on my memories. From between a gap in the trees, I peered into the cloudless sky. To think I was going to answer a question like that... Today really was strange.
"Let's see..." I muttered, resuming my sweeping once more.
Now, I'm not really saying this is the exact reason, nor am I even saying it's worth listening to in the first place, but it probably beats listening to me hum.
It happened back when I was in 6th grade. At my elementary school, everyone was assigned to be in charge of something or another. Oh, yours too? Then I guess it wasn't that strange after all.
Anyways, I was put in charge of something as well. At first they'd let us apply for the job we wanted, but if everything wasn't sorted through that, then it'd be put to a vote. I don't remember how it went exactly, but I ended up with the switching duty. I was basically like one of those people who worked at old phone companies. Huh? You don't get it? Um, maybe something like a phone operator... Well, just ask Satoshi to tell you about it later.
It was more or less just another school grounds job. For things like cleaning duties, there were things like the beautification committee, and so on. Basically, because they split up the entire class into different jobs, there had to be a job where they could assign whatever task still wasn't being taken care of. The one I got assigned to was—you better not laugh—watering the flower garden.
Now, I don't really know much about flowers. Even with their names, pretty much all I can remember is the pansy. Anyways, so this proved to be more of a hassle than I'd anticipated. I thought all I had to do was water them every day, but I was wrong. You probably know what I'm talking about. I also had to check the condition and dryness of the soil to see if I should give them water or not. There were three classes, and the watering was assigned to a different class each week. So essentially, I had to check the soil every day for one week every three weeks and water the flowers if they needed it. There was a lot to learn. Unlike doing the same thing every day, having to change your actions depending on your day-to-day discretion becomes a real pain.
I didn't do it alone. I was put into a team of two. The other person's name was... I wonder if it's okay to say it. Let's just say Tanaka for now. Hm? It was a girl. Everyone was put into boy-girl pairs.
Tanaka really didn't stand out all that much in class. So much so, that even someone like me, who wasn't really concerned with other people's lives in the classroom, knew about it. She was really withdrawn, and even if you tried to strike up a conversation with her, it'd end after only a few words. There definitely might've been something gloomy about her. Her hair? I feel like it was long. Not as long as yours though. Why? Is there something important about the hair?
Anyways, so Tanaka and I were both in charge of watering the flowers. For the first couple of weeks or so, there weren't really any issue. When it was our week to water, we'd go out to the shack behind the school after classes ended. Then we'd check the condition of the soil. Things would usually go something like me insisting that we water them and Tanaka saying it was still unnecessary. She'd tell me that it was actually bad to water them too much. She was the kind of girl that never really asserted herself, no matter the situation, so hearing that kind of firm resistance from her, even if it were softly worded, really shocked me at first. Even though it was only watering some flowers, I felt like it was my responsibility to not let them wither.
That said, this exchange of ours only lasted through the first week. We'd gotten used to the flower-watering fundamentals, so there wasn't really any need for the two of us to do the job at the same time. We started alternating turns. I figured that'd be for the best.
That didn't last, though. I wonder how much time passed before then. At a certain point, the situation changed. Tanaka had asked me for help.
"Because my house is being rebuilt, I'm going to have to live far away. It takes an hour to the city via the city bus. There aren't many of them running, and it'd be really bad if I missed it, so I want to leave right away, after school," she said.
I don't recall feeling too reluctant about it, but our class teacher ended up entering the mix as well. He tried to talk me into it.
"Tanaka is also in a difficult situation, so please try to see where she's coming from. Your house is pretty close, so being a little late shouldn't be too bad, right?"
That was correct. I do live pretty close to the elementary school. High school ended up being pretty far away, but I'll leave that for another time.
This teacher was a young man who'd been an instructor for only three years, if I remember correctly. He was pretty zealous. He was always trying to improve the classroom somehow and kept on doing various things to revise it.
"Oreki, could you stick some tape on the ground so it’ll be easier to reposition the tables?"
"Oreki, I want to make the class bulletin larger, so could you go ahead and cut this paper?"
"Oreki, I feel like the ceiling light has gotten a little dim, so could you be careful and take it down?"
Are you surprised? I don't blame you. He always used to tell me to do various things. Thinking back on it, that kind of thing might've been one of his teaching tenets. Anyways, usually, after I finished up with the garden and returned to the near-empty classroom, he'd often be waiting there to get to me to do something or other. It goes without saying that I'd always say yes, no questions asked. That was something that became pretty common after I entered 6th grade. I guess it did depend on the person, though.
He knew about Tanaka's circumstances and asked me to take care of her portion of the work. I said that I would. The next week, I was in charge of the gardens, I did everything myself, every day of the week. At first, Tanaka would say, "Sorry, and thanks," but you'll get used to everything over time, I suppose. After a while, she started to simply leave without saying anything beforehand, though I didn't think poorly of her because of it. I understood what she was going through. Having to walk all the way to the bus station and then enduring an hour-long ride back would be really difficult.
That was the first part. Is there anything you didn't understand so far? I'm not really used to telling stories like this.
Good. Then I'll keep going.
One day, it happened.
Tanaka and I were headed towards the flower garden during our lunch break. We had been asked to plant some seeds in the corner by our teacher. I forgot what kind of seeds they were. It was right before summer, so they might've been morning glories. No, I'm serious, I don't remember.
He also told us to stick in some signs with the flowers' names on them. Now that I mention it, that was probably his own idea. What that meant was that his "education environment improvement" goals weren't limited to his class alone. There were a lot of signs, and they were difficult to carry, even for the two of us. We also had to bring the seeds, so there was a bit of an issue. I ended up putting the seeds in my pocket. As long as I wrapped them with some paper, there'd be no problem. Tanaka, on the other hand, was trying to hold the seeds between her fingers while she carried the signs, and, as you might imagine, it ended up not working out.
"Put them in your pockets," I said, naturally. It worked for me, after all. Tanaka, however, shook her head.
"I don't have pockets."
For a while after she told me that, I became under the impression that girl clothes simply didn't have pockets in general. In reality, it was because I never really had the chance to check it for myself.
We didn't talk all that much. Although we shared the same job, Tanaka hadn't actually done any work for it in a while, so we had nothing to talk about. First, we planted the flower seeds, and then we took a look at the signs and immediately fell at a loss. Neither Tanaka nor I remembered the names of the flowers. Let's just say we were never taught them in the first place. Because of that, we weren't able to finish setting up the signs, and our lunch break was completely wasted on something or other.
And then came after school.
That week was our class's turn to take care of the flower garden. However, as I had already checked the soil while planting the seeds, I decided that there was no need to water it. I probably should've gone home early at that point, but I instead stayed and messed around. I'm pretty sure I was talking with my friends in class. That's when Tanaka walked in. She looked like she was on the verge of tears.
"My backpack's missing," she said.
It was a backpack. How could something that big go missing, I thought, but it's not like saying that would magically make it appear again. We briefly searched the room, and once we were certain it was missing, I proposed we go to the teacher for help. It was 6th grade, after all. Kids were starting to grow up. There were kids who absolutely hated talking to the teacher, no matter what the situation, but Tanaka quickly agreed.
The three of us searched wherever we could think of. Who searched? It was Tanaka, the teacher, and me. Oh yeah, the friends I was talking to, right? I wonder what happened to them. I don't remember them being with us, so they probably ran off right away.
The teacher was really desperate. I didn't realize it then, but thinking back on it, he was probably suspecting it. What do you mean, what? I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. You don't? I see. That it was bullying. He probably didn't actually believe that she was being bullied and that her backpack was hidden by someone. I had my own idea of what was going on and was looking for it as fast as possible.
Don't give me that look. It turned out that it wasn't bullying after all. It was by the pilotis... Don't you know what those are? It’s like a recreational area, or an open area, or whatever you call it. Anyways, we had one of those at our school, and Tanaka was playing there after classes ended when she set her backpack down. What happened apparently was some first or second grader walked by and delivered it to the lost-and-found in the faculty room out of the kindness of his heart. That's all it was. Unfortunately, the head teacher, the one who received it, had to leave for a bit to take care of something, so for a while, no one knew that the backpack was a lost item. It was all just a simple misunderstanding.
Honestly speaking, I was relieved. Although Tanaka and I had only talked with each other through our shared job, I felt as if I absolutely had to help her find it.
When the head teacher finally returned with the backpack, I was really happy.
He didn't forget to lecture her as well. "It's inexcusable to leave something important like this alone!", or something like that. I had also taken my backpack off to play countless times before, so I felt the problem lay more with the younger student who had carelessly assumed it was a lost item. Of course, I didn't say any of that.
As he was scolding her like that, Tanaka sat there, fidgeting nervously the entire time. I could understand what she was feeling. If you think about it, she hadn't even been able to confirm if its contents were safe yet. She probably wanted to check inside it as soon as possible. On that subject, our teacher was a little more thoughtful. He waited for a pause in the head teacher's rant and interjected with a quick conclusion.
"The head teacher's exactly right. Though, you should check to see if everything's safe in there."
As Tanaka was handed the bag, all of her usual silence seemed to be kicked out of the door as she lunged for it. She eagerly twisted the knob to open the top and pulled out a pencil case. I think it was a pretty small one. The design was really plain.
Upon spotting the mechanical pencil inside it, she heaved a sigh of relief.
I only caught a small glimpse of it, but it was one of those mechanical pencils that had a little character on top of it. Which character was it, again...? She told me about it sometime later, but it was one of those things you could win from magazine contests. It was probably pretty cheap, but, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It was probably her treasure. Tanaka looked truly happy.
So I asked, "Is everything inside okay?"
She gripped the mechanical pencil in her hand and responded, "As long as I have this, it's okay for now. I'll check the rest when I get home."
"Are you sure?"
There was nothing wrong with bringing a mechanical pencil to an elementary school, of course. The whole thing with character figure mechanical pencils being banned in schools hadn't even been brought up yet at that moment as well. Unfortunately for Tanaka, however, the head teacher ended up noticing it.
"It's inexcusable to bring something valuable like that to school," he said angrily. If you think about it, though, textbooks were much, much more valuable. According to his logic, you should only bring things you wouldn't mind losing to school... Am I just arguing for argument's sake?
The next day, the school sent out a notice banning all stationery with character designs on them. It came completely out of the blue. Notebooks, erasers, desk pads... all sorts of character ornamented goods were dragged into the problem. They all had to be replaced, and it caused a huge fuss. Out of all of the students, it was probably only Tanaka and I who actually knew the truth behind the reason why.
Well, that's pretty much it.
I was also pretty shocked at this turn of events. I think that around then was the moment when I first started to say "If I don't have to do it, I won't."
Chitanda paused. Impressive. She didn't even twitch.
She continued to stand frozen in place, possibly trying to go through the story once more in her head. She'd probably fall right over if I nudged her, but I went back to work instead. I made quite a lot of progress during that long story. All that was left was to pick up the fallen leaves with the dustpan and stuff them in the trash bags. That final step proved to be a little more annoying that I'd initially thought.
The dustpan was still in the bucket that Chitanda brought. As I took a step, about to go get it, she finally spoke up.
"There's nothing 'huh' about it."
"I heard the entire story, right?"
"I hope so."
"Wasn't that ending a little weird?"
Well, I guess it was a little.
"Oreki-san, you helped Tanaka-san search for her backpack, right? You then managed to find it, and her precious mechanical pencil was safe inside, and then after that, goods with character designs were banned from your elementary school, right?"
Exactly. I picked up the dustpan.
I heard a loud clap.
"Ah, I got it!"
"You must've had a lot of character goods yourself, Oreki-san. When they were all banned, it came as a huge shock to you. Wait... But what does that have to do with 'If I don't have to do it, I won't'?"
She started to tilt her head left and right once more. She moved the broom as if deep in thought, and then finally timidly followed her theory up.
"Maybe...because the character goods ended up being banned, you regretted ever helping her from the start? Was that what you were thinking?"
Not bad. If I tried hard at anything, I would only be making more trouble for myself in the end. That's where she was going with this, huh?
"Don't stop cleaning."
Chitanda was also more-or-less finished with her side of the shrine. Though there weren't many leaves left, the pile was pretty huge.
I started to use the dustpan first. As I was collecting the leaves, I started to speak.
"You always start talking from the conclusion first. I just wanted to give you a taste of your own medicine."
"You're terrible! You really did leave out parts of the story, Oreki-san!"
Hearing that was music to my ears.
I really wasn't feeling well today. Even though there was clearly a better way to tell that story, for some reason, I just didn't feel like doing it. Seeing the distressed Chitanda, well, it made me feel once more that doing this kind of thing every now and then might not seem that bad. It was a completely faultless way to kill time. Thanks to it, even the cleaning itself felt brief.
"Let's see..." Chitanda mused, placing a finger on her lips. Staying silent would probably be a bit too cruel, so I gave her a little help.
"The whole thing with the banned goods with character designs was kind of just an afterthought. It doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the story."
She stared at me with huge, upturned eyes. "Wait... were you teasing me?"
"Something like that."
I put the leaves I collected into the bag. Although I'd supposedly cleaned up such a large area, after I stuffed it all inside, the resulting amount looked pitifully small. It felt like I was only cleaning up dirt.
"Don't get so angry. My elementary school self immediately realized it was strange. You shouldn't have a difficult time figuring it out, either."
"That doesn't help me..." she said as she hung her head. "You and I are different, Oreki-san. I just can't do that kind of reasoning. I don't know why."
I guess she was aware of it as well...
I didn't mean for this to turn into some kind of harassment. Besides, maybe I didn't tell the story well enough.
"Okay, first, Tanaka and I were doing our shifting job. I explained that thoroughly, right?"
Chitanda started to lean forward and nodded. Her expression was dead serious. I kind of had the feeling I did something terrible to her.
"Halfway through, Tanaka couldn't stick around after school anymore. Because of that, I had to take care of the plants every day for a week when it was our class's turn to do it."
"Right." As if trying to hammer in the fact that she had properly listened, she added, "She was living in a much farther place because her house was being rebuilt. It took an hour."
"That's the part I'm talking about."
Chitanda had a great memory. Although I didn't mention that detail, I definitely hadn't forgotten about it either.
"I believe I said something about exactly what took an hour and from where."
"Right. It took one hour from the station by bus."
"You said the city bus."
"How was she planning on getting on it?"
It looked like Chitanda finally realized it for herself. Her expression took on a surprised look, and she covered her mouth with both her hands. Her broom rested under her arm. She was pretty good at doing that.
"Oh, I figured it out. Tanaka-san couldn't return home. The clothes she wore that day didn't have pockets, after all."
"In order to ride the bus, you'd need money or a ticket. If you couldn't carry either of those on your person, you'd have to put it in your backpack."
I nodded emphatically.
"That's right. I thought it was a bit strange from the start. At first, I thought that the teacher had asked me to help find it so she could get on the bus, but why was she playing when she lost it after school in the first place? I figured that she was having fun while giving herself enough time to catch the bus, so I was really desperate to find it for her in time.
"When she got it back, however, the only thing important to her in it was the mechanical pencil with the little character on top. I even asked her if she was sure that that was the only important thing she needed to check for, but she couldn't think of anything else."
"What does that mean?"
We'd gotten this far and she still couldn't figure it out?
Well, I guess I couldn't blame her. Even I didn't want to believe it at the time.
"The only conclusion I could draw was that Tanaka didn't actually need to take the bus."
Speechless, Chitanda's eyes opened wide.
"I don’t think that was actually the case at the start. When she initially asked me to take care of the watering duty, she might've actually had to take the hour-long bus ride. At the very least, however, her situation was different that day. A simple mechanical pencil took precedence over her means to get home. The reason being: Tanaka no longer needed to take the bus."
"The construction work on her house had already finished? Then why didn't she..."
"Isn't it obvious?"
"She pushed all the job onto me so she could skip out on work."
Chitanda spoke as she gathered the leaves with the dustpan.
"So that's what happened. You hated being lied to, so you started to say 'If I don't have to do it, I won't.'"
That wasn't really it.
I guess my storytelling really wasn't good, after all. That wasn't the case at all.
What happened from that point on wasn't a very pretty story. I knew, as well, that it wasn't the kind of thing you could just tell anyone.
Chitanda had gone a little too far with her assumptions, though. Could I remain silent after the last part of the story being misunderstood like that?
"No," I interjected. "That day, I realized that Tanaka didn't have any money or tickets for the bus. My first reaction was to immediately look at our teacher. In the first place, he was the one who told me to do all of that hard work by myself because Tanaka's house was being rebuilt, after all. He'd notice if there was something strange about that situation. If he found out, he'd immediately start scolding her, right...? But he didn't."
Chitanda looked at my reasoning with eyes tinged with suspicion.
"Doesn't that just mean he hadn't figured it out?"
That'd be much more preferable.
"No, he had a crazy expression on. You could see the 'Shit, I messed up' written all over it. Because of that, I was able to confirm that her house's construction had indeed already been finished at that point."
"So then why didn't he tell me? Why didn't everything go back to how it was on the first day of our switching duty?
"It could've just been that I had some sort or persecution complex. He could've just forgotten for all I knew. But on that day, when I saw that expression of his, one thing went through my head... It was because I always did everything that was asked of me without a word of complaint. It was because I was so convenient in that sense that he didn't bother to do anything about someone else pushing their work onto me."
I propped myself up with the broom, as if it were a cane, and continued.
"I then thought a little more about it. You know, the construction on Tanaka's house didn't even have anything to do with me in the first place, right? Maybe it was through some kind of mistake of mine that I ended up with the responsibility to do Tanaka's share of the work for her? That's not right. Tanaka's business was hers alone. I had nothing to do with any of it.
"Though, I guess we were technically classmates and job partners. Maybe it was good for us to help each other out. I mean, just watering the flower garden wasn't really that much work. It's true that my house was close by, so it was probably fine to help someone in need...
"...These kinds of thoughts, I realized, were the reason I was taken advantage of."
All Tanaka did was seize the opportunity.
After that incident, I started to realize there were two kinds of people: those who knew how the world worked and pushed everything they didn't want to do on others and those who happily accepted being on the receiving end of the former’s actions. When I entered 6th grade—no, when I grew old enough to understand my surroundings, I started to realize that I was one of the latter. As I did, all my memories started to flood back, one-by-one. That time, that time, and that time too... so that's what was happening.
How about when I was told to bring the heavy, one-liter container of salad dressing on our class daytrip? When the school was on the verse of stopping classes temporarily due to an influenza outbreak, was there anyone else besides me who had to visit countless houses to deliver all of the sick students' classwork? When we accidently broke a window during a game of kickball, was the reason I went to the principal's office alone to apologize on everyone's behalf and instead got chewed out by our teacher because I was the leader? No. It was because I never talked back.
That in itself was fine, really. None of the things I did were unmanageable. It wasn't like I considered me doing those kind of stuff some sort of loss, and I didn't hate them for constantly taking it easy.
It's just that imagining myself being used like a convenient tool made me sad.
I thought back.
At that time, my discovery made me so sad, and it was getting too painful to keep silent about it, so I told my older sister.
Even if you think that fellow human beings should help each other, others won't necessarily think of you as being worth it. It's not like I wanted anyone to appreciate me. I just never imagined that people thought of me as such an idiot. I won't stay after school anymore. As long as I'm around others, they'll ask me to do something. They probably think I'm an idiot because I always did what they asked without resisting. I don't care about what they think. I just hate being used. Of course, if I have to do it I will. I won't complain at all. But, if it's not necessary... If it turns out it's someone else's responsibility... If I don't have to do it, I won't. I absolutely won't.
My sister listened to this unspecific story of mine, and placed her hand atop my head as she spoke.
Yeah. Even though you're so awkward, you always want to be useful. Even though you're such an idiot, some strange part of you is so smart you've picked up such a nasty outlook. That's fine then. I won't stop you. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that, right? I don't think anything you're saying is incorrect.
I wonder what she said after that. I felt like she said a little more. That's right. If I remember correctly...
From now on, you should go on a long holiday. It'll be for the best. Take it nice and easy. It's okay. Even if, while you're resting, you can't change yourself fundamentally—
I must've ended up getting lost in thought. I hadn't realized Chitanda was calling out to me.
"Uh, sorry. What were you saying?"
Chitanda's face was right before me. Her massive eyes stared into mine.
"You were sad, weren't you, Oreki-san?"
I turned away and smiled.
"It wasn't that bad. All it was, was a case of a sulking boy who ended up with nowhere to turn."
It was such an ingrained habit of mine, that I imagined it was difficult to adopt a new motto like that. If I don't have to do it, I won't.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chitanda gripping her broom with both hands. Without so much as looking away, she said something completely out of the blue.
"I've been thinking, though, Oreki-san... About the 'you' in your story and the 'you' standing here right now... I was thinking they might actually not be that different after all."
I wanted to laugh off her statement.
But nothing came out.
Chitanda took a step away. She bent over and picked up the trash bag stuffed with fallen leaves.
"Thank you very much. Thanks to you, this place looks really nice now."
"Kaho-san will probably bring out some tea and snacks for us. Would you like relax with us for a little while longer?"
I smiled softly and waved my hand to decline. Please spare me from another moment of sitting between those two.
"Nah. Hand me that broom. I'll take it back with me."
I took it from her and rested each one on a different shoulder. I turned around as to not hit her with the end and then started talking with my back turned.
"Give Juumonji my regards. I'll be going now."
I started to descend down the stairs, assaulted by the shadows of the foliage above. The sound of the leaves rustling in the wind softly reached my ears. It looked like this rare, beautiful day hasn't given up on me yet. The laundry will probably be already dry by the time I get back.
As I was leaving, I heard Chitanda's voice.
"Oreki-san! Thank you for telling me your story! I'm really happy that you did!"
It'd be too much of a hassle to turn around with the heavy brooms on my person, so I just pretended I didn't hear her in the first place. If I don't have to do it, I won't. Oh, would you look at that. Even though today was such a strange day, coming here was all it took to return me back to normal. I scratched my head.
I then suddenly remembered. I remembered the rest of what my sister said at that moment, as she violently ruffled around my hair.
—I'm sure someone will end your holiday for you.