I firmly tied my laces together. The pain in my right leg had begun to lessen as well. I had finished everything I had needed to do in the span of the Hoshigaya Cup. The finish line wasn’t very far off anymore, but I didn’t feel like running. I walked haphazardly towards the shrine’s empty approach. The road continued straight forward in a gentle decline.
I passed beneath the back approach’s massive tori and entered the shrine grounds. It was a straight path to the end, so I assumed that Ōhinata wouldn’t get lost. Even though I still continued to worry, I stopped myself from turning around to verify it. I lightly closed my eyes and opened them again, and I suddenly noticed a familiar mountain bike parked by the side of the road. Looking around, I saw Satoshi leaning on a nearby lantern, arms crossed.
Before I could even open my mouth, he called out to me.
“Hey. How should I put this… the walls have ears, you know?1 The General Committee vice-president heard that a pair of students left the course and decided to come here hunting them down himself.”
So someone saw us, huh? Not only that, but to think they even politely notified the committee.
“Pretty impressive of you to guess this spot.”
“Of course, considering the alleyway that we were told the pair walked down was the exact path I told you about myself, Hōtarō.”
Was that so? I couldn’t really remember it all too well. I didn’t recall searching for the street myself, so that was probably the case.
“Are things going to get annoying then?”
Hearing this, Satoshi shrugged.
“I came here to take care of it myself, didn’t I?”
“As long as you aren’t a police officer.”
“Then I’ll be revenue officer. Or did you want me to properly reprimand you, perhaps?”
He said this without sounding amused, and then asked me another question without waiting for my answer.
“So how did it go?”
After retracing my memories and hearing various stories over a 20 kilometer distance, how did it go? This was my conclusion.
“She’s not going to join.”
Satoshi looked like he had expected it, but he let out a small sigh regardless.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said.
He then sized me up from behind.
“It looks like you know the reason why she won’t join at least.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If you didn’t, Hōtarō, there wouldn’t be any reason for you to talk with her in person. If it’s alright, would you mind sharing it with me?”
I couldn’t nod, however. I couldn’t tell him Ōhinata’s reason, nor could I tell him the truth behind why she had denounced Chitanda and feared her to the point of avoiding her. Even if it was Satoshi Fukube, I felt conflicted. Possibly noticing my hesitation, Satoshi started to walk ahead of me.
“I won’t force it out of you. At any rate, let’s just walk. If you don’t hurry up and pass the finish line, I’ll never be able to leave.”
I stood next to Satoshi as he pushed his mountain bike and walked along the stone-paved road just like we had done shortly after starting from the Kamiyama High School grounds.
Just like he had promised, Satoshi didn’t push the issue. That was probably why I couldn’t remain silent about the whole thing without letting at least one small thing spill from my mouth.
“The problem didn’t have anything to do with us.”
The thing that Ōhinata feared was from her past, and her friend currently went to a different school. The problem concerning Ōhinata’s “friend” was something entirely unrelated to Kamiyama High School.
“I had a feeling…” said Satoshi. “I had a feeling that that was the case. I’m much more forgiving than you are, but even if we overlooked everything during this Hoshigaya Cup, I doubt things would be able to go back to the way they were. If this is unrelated to school, there’s nothing we can do about it after all.”
Thinking back on it, Satoshi had told me something right after the race had started. Make sure I don’t take it all on myself. After all, I’m not responsible for anything.
“How did you know?”
He relaxed his shoulders while still dexterously holding onto the mountain bike’s handlebar.
“No real reason. I was just thinking that nothing really happens to anyone on campus right after they enter school. Additionally, we kept seeing Ōhinata off-campus as well.”
He then looked forward and continued.
“Above all, we’re students. We can’t extend our reach beyond the school. There was nothing we could’ve done from the start, Hōtarō.”
Was that really the case?
In reality, what Satoshi was saying was true. When we were in middle school, Kaburaya was everything we could see. Now that we were in high school, we couldn’t do anything beyond Kamiyama High.
But was that really, truly the case? If we were to lead our high school lives without a hitch, we would complete our second year and eventually go beyond Kamiyama High School. If we were to dutifully continue this for six more years, we would eventually leave the place called school altogether. If we continued to think that we couldn’t extend our reach beyond school during this entire duration, we would be suddenly thrusted out into an unknown wasteland, bewildered as the sun started to set.
He was probably wrong.
Just like Chitanda had already carried out various dealings in society, just like my sister had been travelling the world, you should be able to extend your reach anywhere. The only thing inhibiting that was whether or not you had the will to do it.
As an energy-conserving advocate, I didn’t possess this will of course. At this moment, however, the smallest semblance of it could be found residing sedimented in the bottommost depths of my heart.
Chitanda had told me that if Ōhinata was truly suffering because of something, she wanted me to help her. I told her that I would. In the end, however, I couldn’t do anything.
I could make any number of excuses. Above all was the fact that after I cleared up the misunderstanding between them, the rest fell on Ōhinata to sort out; anything further than that would just be unnecessary meddling on my part.
But what if when I said, “I would just be meddling, so I shouldn’t get involved,” I was actually thinking “Talking about those kinds of things is a pain, so I don’t want to get involved” instead? Rather than it being an issue of whether or not I could even do anything to help, wasn’t I simply throwing her feelings aside and abandoning her?
…I was so incredible tired. My thoughts wouldn’t come together. Without responding to Satoshi as he tried to console me, I ended up asking something that was simply floating around in my head at the time.
“Satoshi. Do you recall hearing the name ‘Sonoko Sōda’ before?”
I ended up muttering it far too quietly however.
“What’d you say?”
“…No, it’s nothing.”
No matter how much Ōhinata had feared the issue of her “friend” being brought to light, I felt that there had to have been inciting incident, a moment that had led her to start doubting Chitanda in the first place. For example, a moment at which she accidentally ended up saying that friend’s name.
Thinking about it like this, I could only remember one instance during which Chitanda had clearly said a name in front of Ōhinata; it was when she referenced “Sōda” while talking about finding my address in one of my old class anthologies. Hadn’t Ōhinata started to fear Chitanda from the moment she mentioned she was an acquaintance of Sōda’s?
Without that first name, “Sonoko,” she might’ve thought that it was simply another ambiguous family with the same name. When I was talking with her earlier, Ōhinata referenced her “friend” using “sonoko” only once, correcting it to “anoko” quickly after.2 Couldn’t it have sounded similar to her friend’s name and thus inspired the fear from then on?
It was simply a guess, founded on absolutely nothing concrete, so I’d have to confirm it with Chitanda. And yet, if I didn’t have the resolve to try and save Ōhinata, I probably didn’t even have the right to ask her in the first place.
As we approached the edge of the shrine gate beneath the massive tori, Satoshi climbed on top of his mountain bike once more.
“From here on, it’s an official school event. Make sure you run properly.”
I nodded and saw him off as he pedaled away. I then started to move slowly and gradually picked up speed from there, returning to the Hoshigaya Cup course. All of the second-years were probably already at the finish line as I could only see first-years in front of and behind me. I looked up and saw the white Rengō Hospital. Beyond it, I should begin to be able to see Kamiyama High School.
I turned back following a gust of wind, but as I looked across the group of suffering first-years, I couldn’t find that smiling, suntanned face. As for how far back she was, there was no longer any way anyone could approximate that now.