Chapter 14 – ‘This naivety,’

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                The sky is a very bright blue today. I don’t normally take notice of things like that, but today’s an exception. The vivid color flickers between buildings as they pass by. You tend to forget that trains go fast, especially when you take them all the time. I guess it’s one of those things that get taken for granted. The train stops on time – it always stops on time – and I get off at the first stop into the city. It’s starting to get chilly now, so I made sure to bundle up a little with a scarf. I like how warm it makes my neck, it’s nice.

                Now, even if it’s the weekend, I wonder what a middle school student like me is doing going into the city by myself, I mean, not that it’s weird for a middle school student to go into the city by themselves. Actually, it is weird because if I go downtown, I often take the train alongside Rea. But she said she was busy again and had to go on ahead, so it can’t be helped. Also weird because I’m going into city. I’m not against it, per se, but I don’t do it too often. (Close to never on my own volition.) Last time was when I begrudgingly went to the arcade, and now it’s for a more academic reason.

                Research. Ouch.

                Thanks to a certain student council president, the club I recently joined was tasked to investigate alleged ‘hauntings’ taking place in an abandoned shed at the school. Through some… events I wish I didn’t get wrapped up in, we found a photo buried deep amongst the mess in that shed. We found the name, and really that should be enough to wrap things up, at least in my opinion, I’m kind of done with this whole thing already. But curiosity kills the cat, and Ayase has brought her pride – that is, the rest of the S.O.L. – out for the slaughter. She wants to learn more about the girl in the photo, of which I must come to the unfortunate conclusion that she is in fact, dead. Well, truth be told, I’m kind of curious too. Never mind. Why does it feel like I’m going to regret this? Man, if I have to ask… Ow.

                Boryumu station is super crowded on weekends, but I manage to find my group pretty quickly. Darn. Looks like I was the last one to show up. I hate when that happens. Oof! Some businessmen in the middle of a conversation. It’s so crowded I accidentally bump into one of them. I would say they shouldn’t stand around like that, but that’s exactly what my friends are doing. I pass them, and I can see the full lineup:

                Haruko Rea, my best friend of ten years, and unknowingly connected to the stuff that’s been happening around me lately. And there’s Midori Ayase, a ‘super-powered journalist’ who honestly scares me a little, considering how much she seemingly knows about the world and what she’s capable of. And there’s Hinata Megumi, god I hope you’re not a multi-dimensional entity! And then there’s me, Akiyama Lilly, a supposed-to-be-normal girl who’s capable of telepathy and other things I really, really don’t want to think about. My head hurts doing so. If you were to take that order and line us up, we’d look like a split apart matryoshka doll. Height-wise.

                We’re all junior high girls. Can it be any more silly?

                Finally, I catch up. I massage the sides of my head. This headache has been bothering me the whole trip downtown. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

                “You’re finally here! Hey, you okay?” Rea’s words were wet with worry.

                “No, I’m fine,” Lilly said. As if she commanded it with those very words, the headache subsided. Oh, I feel better now.

                With the S.O.L. now complete, the group saw it fit to start with the first activity, lunch. It’s noon after all. A nine minute walk from the station was a particular café recommended by Rea, so they head there.

                “Tch! You two again? And you brought friends?”

                The waiter was as fiery as ever. Rea had no problem doubling the heat.

                “What do you mean? You should be happy we brought new customers, Annie!” Rea’s sly demeanor hit him exactly where she wanted.

                Irritated, but he’s on duty. Annie took their order: tea and a salad for Ayase, nothing for Megumi, a coffee for Rea, and a water and meal for Lilly. Rea struggled with trying to remember what she ordered last time, so she settled with two servings of what Lilly got. A burger and fries. He scribbled the order, and with the vein on his head as red as his hairclip, he strolled into the kitchen.

                “Ah, that was fun! We should come here more often.” Rea soaked in every second of her delightment. Lilly recalled the last time they were there.

                The drinks came right away, and their food soon after. Unlike the others, Ayase scarfed down her meal, unbefitting of her stereotypical girly image. If it were Rea, maybe not so much.

                “I’m too excited, I think I’ll head to the library first,” Ayase places down some money on the table, “Megumi, care to join me?” Megumi was the second to finish, mostly quiet as they ate, and was now adjusting her headband. She nodded, one so slight the untrained eye wouldn’t notice. The two depart, leaving behind Lilly and Rea. “Miss Akiyama, Rea, come meet us at the library when you’re done!”

                Lilly and Rea sat inactively for a moment. It’s brief.

                “Hey, tell me what he’s thinking!” Rea bumped Lilly with her elbow. She points to Annie, taking care of another table.

                “Why should I? Besides, I know he doesn’t think too fondly of you.”

                “C’mon! Just try, pleeease!” Tugging on her sleeve, Rea rocked Lilly around.

                “Eeeh? Alright, alright, just let go!” Lilly folded her arms, and stared at the back of Annie’s head. As she expected, she can hear what he’s thinking.

                Lilly leaned back. “He’s trying to memorize the order, and planning what I think is a date with his girlfriend.”

                “Girlfriend? A date? Like what? What are they gonna do?” Rea got all the more excited.

                “Stop that, I don’t want to intrude anymore!”

                Rea whined, and as compromise, convinced Lilly to try another person instead. She halfheartedly complied. They played that game on a few more people. Some thoughts were kind of entertaining, some were downright sobering. After a few rounds, Lilly has had more than enough.

                “There! She’s the last one, I’m done now,” Lilly sulked more in her seat.

                “That’s super cool though, you can mind read anyone you see!” Rea said, as impressed with it the first time as she was now.

                “Well, not always, sometimes I get this weird radio buzz and I can’t get anything,” Lilly remembered the few times it’s happened, “so it’s not perfect, I guess.” She remembered another note. “Also, I feel like I can’t do it when I’m in your body. Like the switch isn’t there, but there was a switch, ha ha.” Rea pretended to not hear that awful joke.

                “Huh, that’s news to me.”

                There’s a lot that’s news to you, Rea.

                Rea reclined on Lilly. “Hey, we haven’t done anything like this in a while.”

                “Like this?”

                “You know.”

                “Ah,” Lilly got what Rea was referring to. “But we know what happened back then.” I’ve been apprehensive about that ever since.

                Rea scratched her nose. If Lilly didn’t nudge her she might have clawed it right off. Ultimately, she changed the subject. “You know, you’ve been getting pretty close with that Midori girl lately. Calling you ‘Miss Akiyama’ and stuff.” Her voice trailed off with those last words. “What’s up with that?”

                “What, are you jealous?” Lilly joked, taking it at face value.

                “…” Rea doesn’t say anything, but there was no need.

                “You’re neither confirming nor denying it.”

                Get outta my head, Lilly.

                “Oh, you don’t like it when I do it to you? How selfish.” Lilly joked again.

                “Grr…” Rea actually grr-ed. Lilly pushed a plate of fries closer to Rea.

                Her annoyance was obvious, so Lilly does her best to alleviate it. “She’s just being nice, you could learn a thing or ten from her really, and plus…” Lilly couldn’t find the words to explain where Midori Ayase actually stands in this whole situation. Honestly, I don’t want to find the words. If things are fine now, best leave them that way.

                “In any case, it won’t hurt to not to get too friendly with her. Besides, you’re… you’re…” Rea mumbled incomprehensibly.

                “I’m what?”

                “…” She mumbled again.

                “Huh?”

                “YOU’RE MINE!!”

                Eyes shut, face red, Rea yells in the center of a crowded café. Her high voice squeaked into the air. Everyone turns and stared. Rea’s embarrassment is contagious, and immediately transferred to Lilly. They both look away from each other.

                “Hey! If you’re gonna do that, take it outside!” Annie is heard from the kitchen. A few customers laugh at the innocent scene.

                The two allow that to be the end of their café stay, and after finishing off the remainder of their meals, they proceed to the library. There were two in the city, but one was under construction. Ayase never specified, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess which one she was in. They guess correctly, Lilly finding Ayase nose-deep into an old newspaper, the paper stained a light yellow. She was standing, disregarding the many empty chairs and tables around her.

                “Hi, we’re here,” Lilly whispered, “where’s Megumi?”

                “She’s off in the horror section, she just… floated over there.” Ayase doesn’t once take her eyes off the newspaper.

                “Alright, then what are you doing?”

                “I’m going through the oldest papers in the archives, starting from the 1960s. If something happened to Yoya Nouko back then, it should be in here somewhere!”

                How very detective of you. Lilly pulled her shoulder away. Rea was clinging to Lilly’s scarf from the café to the library. Rea get off!

                Rea lets go, looking around in the library like a lost child. Ignoring her, Lilly goes and grabs a newspaper out of a stack by Ayase. A sharp sense of sympathy hit Lilly; to think, Yoya Nouko’s ultimate fate, whatever it may be, reduced to a game of detective by a bunch of junior high girls. Yoya Nouko, I promise to appease your spirit! For Yoya Nouko’s sake, Lilly utilized that thought to strengthen her resolve. In reality it was for both. To make her feel better about playing this game. There really aren’t wholly selfless acts.

                1962, 1965, 1969, 1970. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and will you look at that? Nothing. Lilly rummaged through piles of print, the old scent starting to give her a headache again. Even for someone who has an affinity for reading, Lilly was approaching her limit. While Lilly and Ayase were the more diligent in their investigating, Megumi periodically popped in every now and then to help, and then went off elsewhere again. Rea was nowhere to be found.

                “I’ve got it!” Ayase kept her excitement to a hush tone, but it’s hardly contained. “Miss Akiyama, go get the others! Go go!” You’re a little too happy that you found it. Lilly turned to the rest of the library. It’s not too impressive in size, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t big. She almost took out her phone when she remembered; ‘No cell phones!’ Then how am I going to –

                “WAAAAH!”

                Lilly found herself in Rea’s body. Again. That falling sensation, not unlike the first time this happened. It looked like Rea took a nap in some off corner. This is starting to get a little too convenient. Lilly only now noticed Rea’s outfit. Short denim shorts and light red long sleeves. Is she not cold? Her right wrist adorned a Hello Kitty bracelet. I haven’t seen this in a long time. A Doraemon picture book rested face down on her lap. She found some relief that people still cared about Doraemon. She tapped her cheeks. They’re lightly damp. Must have been a really deep nap.

                When Lilly yelled awake, a few people frowned and hushed her. Lilly mouthed her apologies and left her cushioned seat.

                At least that solves that. Now where’s Megumi? She wisely started in the horror section, but it’s fruitless. Searching around the adjacent sections were to no avail as well. It wasn’t until Lilly got to the front desk – funnily enough in the center of the library – did she find Megumi. Also, when did I get so used to running about in Rea’s body? I wonder if Rea’s used to mine now too…

                “Gumi! Hey, over here!” Lilly imitated a certain redheaded energetic short girl. Whispering.

                Megumi perked up as she heard her name, and saw Lilly, in Rea’s body. Of course, she doesn’t know that. But she’s trembled, as if cornered by a hunter and she was but a fawn. Whoa, Megumi, are you alright? Lilly observed the scene, and understood. A long line wraps around the front desk, full of people wanting to check out a book. Megumi was close to the end of the line, but not in it, and shivered while holding her own book. Lilly put the two and two together.

                “Megumi, did you want to check that out?”

                “Uh… um.”

                “Come here, I’ll help you.”

                Lilly takes the book from Megumi, getting in line. Despite its length, the line moved smoothly, Lilly and Megumi soon get close the front. Megumi tried to protest for some reason, but Lilly doesn’t listen.

                “I’m sorry, but this book is already checked out,” the librarian apologetically says, as though the loud bleep after Lilly tried to scan the book wasn’t enough. I’m not sure if I should be surprised by this.

                After that little situation, Lilly and Megumi made it back to Ayase. To be more precise, Lilly felt like she was escorting Megumi. Lilly was by Ayase when they switched, so Rea was also in sight.  She waved like nothing was out of place. When they regrouped, Ayase finally got going. If she noticed that Lilly and Rea switched, she didn’t comment on it.

                “Now, see here, 1973!” Ayase set the newspaper on a nearby table for the rest to read. Lilly coughed up a bit of dust. “July 11th, junior high student Yoya Nouko was found…”

                “…”

                Lilly, Rea, and Megumi waited for Ayase to continue, but she stopped dead in the middle of her sentence. They completely forgot that the option of reading on their own was available to them.

                Ayase swallowed. “… found dead inside a storage shed in the newly founded Shouai Junior High. She was found with numerous cuts on her wrists. Yoya Nouko was…”

                Ayase kept going, but the details go muffled and became white noise. This was like opening Pandora’s box! I knew something happened to Yoya Nouko, I knew she died, but to read that it happened in this way is… is…

                Lilly thought all this in a span of four seconds.

                Ayase fell silent, which was a signal that she finished reading. However, judging from the looks from the other S.O.L. members, she was forced to read it again. Was this some sort of punishment game?

                “Ah, alright, okay…”

                Yoya Nouko. Aged 13. A second year student who was thrown into isolation during her first two years in junior high. Apparently the bullying got worse with each passing day. From simple ignoring to fully despicable acts not specified in the article. It’s tough for any of them to fully grasp the severity of her time spent in that school. Then one day mid-July, a teacher making their afterschool rounds, found the shed doors open, and when they went to look…

                If it’s too much for us just to read, I can’t imagine what exactly she went through… Lilly thought of something else. After investigators and police were done with the shed, could it be possible that we were the only people to properly look inside since?

                “Oh here,” Ayase mentioned, “since it was the first and only incident of anything like this at the school, and because the school was still new, they allowed the parents to take back all personal information and records the school had on her, and only kept the name for student lists and archiving purposes. After that, the school just fell into a hush. So, I guess that solves… that.”

                We got what we came here for, yet this feels so empty. This was certainly not fun.

                “Wait, there’s more,” Ayase said, slowly. Lilly stomach sank.

                “The bullying got worse after rumors began spreading that she was in love with another girl.” Ayase read that line coldly and methodically. “I guess that was what it was like, back in the day.”

                A gut punch. Closer to a knock out. Lilly glanced over to Rea. Seeing her own face contort to an expression of dread, or any other, will never not be something to get accustomed to.

                Silently, mutely, Ayase took a photo of the article. Newspapers are among the few things that couldn’t be borrowed from the library. Right afterwards the S.O.L. called it in, and promptly left. It’s around 2 PM now. Thankfully – the type of thanks a newly incarnated snake god would exhibit after receiving a hefty donation from an otherwise stingy conman – a more easygoing atmosphere managed to settle in. It was in the back of their minds, but they felt somewhat better when they got to the station.

                “I’ll send you the picture, do you want to do it?” Ayase asked Megumi.

                “M-hmm, sure,” she responded. The protocol to follow after ‘solving’ a ‘case’ would be to write up a summary of the case’s completion, and submit it to the school newspaper, where they would be more than willing to publish it. It has definitely been a while since the club submitted a summary.

                From the station they went their separate ways. Ayase and Megumi both had other matters to attend to, so Lilly and Rea head back together. That train back was wordless. Somewhere along the way, they switched back to their respective bodies.

               “That was so sad, don’t you think?” Rea finally said something on the walk home, summing up the long day.

               “Yeah, it was, you okay?” Lilly asked.

               “Of course! I just wish it didn’t end up like that.”

               “Well, sometimes that’s how it ends up.”

               Rea said something under her breath, but Lilly didn’t catch it. She played the story back in her head, despite her best efforts not to think about it anymore. Ah, it’s just so tragic, it’s giving me another headache. 

                “Alright, that should conclude this week’s meeting. Good work everyone.”

                Suzuki Yuki was the last the leave the classroom. Also among the last few to leave school, as always. The time to sigh has long passed; she should be used to it already.

                She stepped out into the hallway, lit only by sunlight spilling through the windows, and was surprised to see a familiar face.

                “Yo,” Yuki said to greet a waiting Midori Ayane.

                “Yo,” she said back.

                “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be home by now,” Yuki lifted her shoulder to fix her bag.

                “I read the occult club’s article in the school paper,” Ayane said, her green eyes glow in the natural light. “I just wanted to thank you for earlier. You really helped me out.”

                Yuki exhaled. “Whatever. What was up with that anyways? Making me go down there with some B.S. story about a haunted shed. They ended up coming back to me with a history lesson about a ‘Yoya Nouko.’ Sure it was sad, but I got dragged into that more than I wanted to. You should be held responsible for all of this.” She took out a box of Pocky from her bag and chomped on a stick.

                “Well, that’s what I’m here for,” Ayane walked up to Yuki and bit off one half of the chocolate-cover snack, still in her mouth. Yuki hardly reacts. “And as to ‘why,’ I wanted to make something clear to Ayase.”

                “‘Make something clear?’”

                “Yup.”

                She was going to respond, but Ayane moved in until she was two centimeters from Yuki’s face. Gently with one hand, she pushed away Yuki’s bangs, exposing her forehead. And with the other, just as gently, she tapped said forehead. For an instant, Yuki goes lightheaded. Whoa whoa.

                “Damn, this mental barrier against her was trickier than I thought,” Ayane murmurs. Even so close, Yuki couldn’t pick that up. She was more concerned as to what Ayane was doing being this close in the first place.

                Lightly pushing Ayane away, Yuki’s stuttered with her mouth full. “I-If you wanted to play with your little sister and her club, you could’ve done so by yourself.”

                “No, it wouldn’t have worked out the way it did, that’s why I needed you.” Ayane winked. I hate when she does that, Yuki thought.

                Against her better judgment, she decided to keep butting in. “May I ask why you made me go through all this trouble? I deserve that, don’t you think?”

                Ayane flipped her hair. “Yeah, you do.” Her expression shifted from lighthearted to serious. “In short, she won’t listen to me.”

                “Huh.”

                “I wanted Ayase to know where she stands. She acts like she knows everything. In reality she’s naïve.”

                Naïve? Whatever. Which that vague answer, Yuki opts to drop the subject. She’s never concerned herself with the Midori sisters’ relationship before, and there was no need to do so now. “And she’ll get all that from a little ghost story? You guys sure are weird.”

                It wasn’t the first time Yuki said that to Ayane, so she smirked. “Weirder than you think. How about it, let’s get some scones. My treat.” She clapsed her hands with Yuki’s.

                Yuki takes her hand, but tilted her head to look away, a little shy. I hate when she does that too.

                “…Whatever!”

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