Saturday, August 19, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Nine

<--------First Chapter

The next morning, the chaperones announce that due to some poor planning on their part, the list of landmarks to visit was actually much too long for every student to reach, so instead, groups would be drawn at random and handed the list, from which we would be required to pick at least three to visit and take some photographs of or notes on the historical significance of the location.  It’s during breakfast that the groups are called, though I wasn’t really listening until I hear my name called.

“Box Hako, Ayano Ueda, Gin Sakuya, Touko Nozomi.  You will be group number five,” Kaiba was the one to announce it, handing Box the list of locations with a wink, “Here you go, kiddo!  I’ll give one to the Student Council President too.”

I take the paper and give the list a long look over, blinking a few times at just how lengthy it is.  I have no idea how anyone on the faculty could have ever expected everyone in the school could make it to all of these locations.  There’s nothing in particular that I want to see, so when I meet up with my assigned group members following breakfast, I just ask, “So, what does everybody want to visit?”

“I definitely want to see the Kinkaku-ji temple,” Gin answers first, then sets her own copy of the list down in front of herself, “My family says that it’s impressive.  Is anyone in this group Buddhist?”

“I’m agnostic,” I offer, setting down my own sheet so the others have two options to look at.

“Shinto,” Akane cuts in, leaning forward, “Speaking of which, I’d love to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.  That’s the one with a ton of Torii gates.  My mom and my Grandma both used to be geisha, and they both went all the way up the mountain for spiritual reasons  I think it’s really cool.”

“I’m Buddhist,” Touko adds, tapping at her cheek, “Not actively, but a temple would still be nice to see, especially one as famous as that.  We should try to go at a time when there will be fewer tourists, though… So maybe that should be our first stop?  It’s such a popular landmark.”

“My religion’s pretty obvious,” Ayano mumbles, thumbing at her cross necklace.  She seems nervous… Now that I think about it, she’s actually pretty quiet in group settings, and as far as I know there isn’t really anyone at this school right now who considers her a friend.  Maybe Sayaka would be interested though, since they do have some things in common, “But actually, I’d like to visit the Shi-Tomura Shrine… Since Ryoko Tomura was actually Doctor Same’s aunt, you know.”

“Great, so that’s three landmarks!” I note with a grin.

“Three… But shouldn’t we try to do a little bit more than the bare minimum required of us?” Gin questions as she stands up, picking up her list again and thinking, “Though I suppose… Three locations does account for food breaks and travel time, with enough padding left on the end to get back to the inn before nightfall.  If that’s all they expect of us, there’s no reason to break our backs while on a trip, then.”

“I don’t think we’re even being graded on this,” Akane shrugs as she strides past Gin, “Anyway, Sakuya-senpai, we should get going, right?  We have a busy day ahead of us, just like you said!”  At the doorway, she pauses to throw a look towards some of the other groups.  I notice that Amai and Rena ended up grouped together, as did a few other people I know to be friends with each other.  Certain students are nowhere to be seen… I suppose I can’t hold skipping against them, though, because the faculty doesn’t seem to care.  I hope Gin doesn’t notice, though, and seeing as she follows Akane straight out of the door upon her exit, it seems I had nothing to worry about.

I follow as well, and wonder about this group.  I know we’ve all met before, but it doesn’t really go beyond that.  I know that Ayano’s some sort of activist against a fringe religious group, and I know Touko’s brother was a victim of that very same group.  I know that something happened between Gin’s side of the family and Sayuri’s when I was in my first year of middle school, her second.  I know that Akane works in the library… So she’s the group member I know the least about.  I can tell she’s got some confidence behind her, leading even the Student Council President… Touko walks at about the same pace as me, and Ayano’s lagging behind, holding her backpack close to herself.

I frown upon noticing this, and slow down to meet her for two reasons.  The first reason is that I don’t want her getting separated from us in the middle of a city, and the other is that I want to know why she’s not keeping up with the group, and she seems on the brink of panicking, “Ueda-chan?  Is something the matter?”

“U-Uh…” She mutters, furrowing her brow as she squeezes the straps on her backpack so tight that her knuckles are turning pure white, though she was already pretty pale to begin with, “Y-yeah… I don’t do well with new places, and I feel like you’re the only person in this group who likes m-me at all, and I really shouldn’t have brought up the Shi-Tomura shrine, and I’m scared, and one of the chaperones almost took my medicine away, and… I’m just not doing great t-today…”

“You brought up the Shi-Tomura shrine because you’re a red woman, right?  Just like Ryoko Tomura was?” I ask, keeping my voice down so the others can’t hear.

“Where did you hear that?” Ayano questions, staring at me.

“I heard it from Sayaka Shinku,” I explain, “I also heard that you collect stuffed animals with red eyes and that you take medicine which keeps you from hurting anybody… But that’s all she could tell me.  Um, I won’t hold it against you at all, so if you want to talk to me about any of it, then I’ll listen, okay?”

“Oh, yeah…” Ayano nods, biting her bottom lip, “She figured it out as soon as she met me… Would you really be saying things like this if you knew what I’d done, though?”

“I know what Sayaka-chan’s done,” I answer, then hold my arms behind myself, “And even though Amai-tan never said anything in detail about it to me, I kinda figured out by now that the Vagrant Killer attended Aoba Public Middle.  And then, there’s that mostly-erased calligraphy in the bathroom that spawned a mystery.  Haruhi-san said I didn’t need to solve that one, but… I think I did anyway.  Because you do calligraphy, right, Ueda-chan?”

“You got me,” She sighs, tucking some hair back behind her ear, “But… That’s in the past now.  You can understand, right?  Middle school was a troubling time.”

“I can,” I nod, reaching out to grab her hand, hoping it will be comforting, “Because you helped my best friend, Ueda-chan.  How could I ever be mad about that?  I could never protect her, and I could never get revenge in her name either.  That’s not something I’m capable of, because I’m weak and I’ve never been in a fight.  I’m glad she found somebody who could do that for her, and I’m glad it was somebody as sweet as you.”

“You know…” Ayano starts, taking a few steps forward to at least stay close enough to see the rest of our group, “It’s not even like you’re the only person who knows.  Your friend does, the adults in my life do, my own childhood friend does.  I guess if you’re joining those ranks, I can tell you a little bit more.”

“Hm?” I wonder what more there is to tell.

“I’m not like Sayaka-chan.  I’m no distant relative, I’m not somebody in the bloodline, somebody who was really and truly meant for this kind of life,” I swear, I can see tears in her eyes, “I would have just b-been a normal girl, you know, I would have.  This me, with the medicine, this is the real me, the me that would have been if my mother and father never agreed to that experiment.  My status as a red woman… It’s a synthetic one.”

“I guess we’re kind of the same, then,” I chuckle, still smiling at her, “You’re not The Vagrant Killer.  The Vagrant Killer is someone who’s a part of you, but you’re Ayano Ueda.  And I… I’m a synthetic person too, in a way.  I don’t know what it is to think entirely for myself.  That’s something I haven’t been allowed to do in years, and I’ve forgotten how to do it at this point.  My actions, every day, they’re fake too.  I would’ve died a long time ago if I didn’t have that fakeness on my side, though.  So, Ayano, I want to know.  What do you really think would have happened if you were never The Vagrant Killer?”

“If I never was…” Ayano’s eyes go wide and she wipes her tears as she works through her words, “I won’t even begin on maybes, but if I never did those things… I couldn’t have gotten revenge on behalf of others.  Not Oishi-senpai, and not Hikari either.  Those people never would have paid for hurting them.  That’s just what’s certain.  There’s things which would be better… but it could be worse too.”

“Just keep that in mind,” I nod to her, then point at the rest of the group, “Anyway, we need to keep up with the others!  Try and forget about everything bad for now and just enjoy the school trip, okay?  There’s no reason to think too much instead of having fun.  Everything’s going to work out okay.  You still have your medicine, and nobody will let anything happen to you, and nobody here hates you, even if they don’t have anything to like about you yet, it’s fine, they don’t dislike you.”

“Are you sure?” Ayano asks, loosening her grip on the straps of her backpack.  I give her one more reassuring nod, then pick up the pace.  She does as well, and it isn’t long before we’ve caught up with the rest of our group.  Nobody seems to notice we’d been lagging behind, or if they do, they don’t mention it.  I think that’s for the better, actually.  The first landmark that we arrive at is the temple, as per Touko’s suggestion.  There aren’t too many tourists this early in the day, like she expected.

I can see why this temple is a big tourist spot, though.  The walls are covered in gold leaf, which would be impressive even to somebody who doesn’t know a thing about the religion this place is connected to.  It’s understandable why anyone would want to see it.

“It’s pretty,” Gin notes, staring up at it, then pulls out her phone to take some photos of it, “Prettier than it probably used to be.  In 1955 it was rebuilt, and the gold leaf used was much thicker than it originally was.  Still, it’s rather impressive to see something like this.  It’s just… So shiny.  I know there’s a reason, but who made that decision?  People make fun of abstract art and modern architecture all the time, but somebody in the past had to sit down and decide… Let’s make this temple gold.”

“Yeah, I gotta wonder,” Akane nods, putting her hands on her hips as she squints up at the building, “But that’s what history is, right?  The past is all the same as today, except without so many easy avenues to find out what’s going on, what reasons people had to do strange things or make odd decisions.  If somebody made a temple covered in gold leaf today, there would probably be something on the internet like ‘lol guys what if I made a temple covered completely in gold leaf’.  But since it’s history, we don’t have dares or shitposts to hunt down.”

“There is research to be done, though,” Touko mumbles, side-eyeing Akane, “The reason for it is because gold is believed to purify and mitigate negative feelings toward death.  Plus, visual excess was important in the Muromachi Era.”

“Oh!” Akane nods, “That’s cool!  So this sort of thing was normal for the time… I wonder if future people will look back and wonder what possible reason we could have had to create things like skyscrapers?” She clasps her fingers together in front of herself, “Hey, you said they had to rebuild it, right?  Why, though?”

“It burned down in 1950,” Gin answers, fiddling with her hair, “I did some research, you know.  It was the act of a novice monk who tried to kill himself after he did it.  He was sentenced to seven years in prison, released early, then died of tuberculosis in 1956.”

“Arson, huh?” Akane asks, frowning, “Well, that doesn’t make sense, why would somebody burn this place?  Gold leaf isn’t flammable, so it must have been way more trouble than it was worth, for one thing.”

“How do you just… know off the top of your head that gold leaf isn’t flammable?” I can’t keep myself from asking.  That seems like an odd thing to have memorized, though if she reads as many books as her library aide status would imply, I guess there’s all sorts of things that she might know.

“I’m smart,” She answers with a shrug, then turns to face me, giving a slow blink before she continues, “What’s so weird about knowing that an extra-thin sheet of a certain precious metal wouldn’t be likely to catch fire?”

“I guess that’s true,” I nod, then take a few steps backward, “Well, we’ve seen it.  Should we head to the next stop?  Or figure out which shrine is closer to here, anyway…”

“Right, good plan,” Gin nods, walking over to me and switching her phone from camera to maps, “We can write down some notes of the knowledge we already had, and coupled with the photographs, that should be plenty for the teachers on this location,” She runs two different requests for directions and compares them, “Looks like Shi-Tomura is closer to here, so we should head there next.  Then we can get lunch to beat the rush, and make it to Fushimi Inari Taisha while most of the tourists will be taking a break for their own lunches.”

“You’re so smart…” Ayano mumbles, barely audible, but Gin seems to hear her, looking over wide-eyed, blinking in surprise.

“Ah, I’m just good at planning.  I have to be, since I’ve been involved in student councils ever since elementary school.  Planning things out is a big part of the job, really it’s almost the entire job.  Usually the faculty collaborates with the Student Council to plan these trips out properly, but for some reason they didn’t this year.”

“That is strange,” I nod, leaning back against a nearby fence, “I wonder why…  Maybe I’ll find out eventually.”

Don’t worry, you most certainly will.  You’ve been going above and beyond so far… So if we continue this path, you’ll learn about it.

If we continue this path?  I’m not sure what that means, but I feel like Fucko’s said it many times before, even though I can’t consciously recall hearing it at all.  It’s a really strange feeling, so I shake it off before I start feeling sick from it.  I don’t know why, but feeling particularly strong emotions, (especially it seems, this overwhelming deja vu) can at times make me physically ill.  Another reason why I try not to make my own decisions too often.  If I make a wrong move and end up having feelings, it can end up making the situation worse.

It really is a pain.  Especially when, just as an example, I’m eating somebody’s food and my feelings toward that person make me feel too ill to eat any more, even though what I’m eating is delicious, and if I was eating it alone my stomach would stay settled.

The rest of the day goes just about the same as it already has; we go to the other landmarks, take photos, and conspire to write down the facts we already knew anyway.  Ayano and Akane know a lot about the Shi-Tomura shrine, then Gin and Akane have facts on our final destination, so we don’t even need to bother with trying to get past anyone else to read the informational plaques, though Shi-Tomura was empty enough that I decided to grab some photos to read later anyway.  Back at the inn, while waiting for the rest of the groups to get back so we can all eat dinner together, the information seems like a crude bastardization, though, knowing what my peers have to say about it.

All the plaques say is that Ryoko Tomura was a respected spirit medium who was mysteriously assassinated in 1994.  A terrorist group calling themselves ‘The Order’ claimed responsibility, but no motive, leaving debate on if they only wanted to get reactions without being the actual culprit.  The Order… Wasn’t that the cult that Ayano and Ssnad are standing up against?

Yes, it was.

Well, that’s the motive right there.  If they’re a fringe religion with extremist tactics, of course they’d kill somebody as famed in Shinto as Ryoko Tomura.

What’s not mentioned at all in the shrine is that the spirits Ryoko was most skilled at channeling were those of her own ancestors, Red Women throughout the ages.  It leaves out the fact that she was a red woman too, though that may be a matter of making sure that anyone who doesn’t already know the story doesn’t think it’s too absurd.  The ‘Shi’ portion of the shrine’s name comes from that fact, though.  It’s rumored that Ryoko would personally kill those who came to her shrine to confess any crime other than petty ones or manslaughter, and offer protection to victims and those who killed others accidentally or under duress.  

Akane even heard that there was one G.I. back when they were still occupying Japan after the second world war who thought to visit Ryoko, only to find that anyone in his platoon who was cruel to him was murdered, or at least grievously injured.  I don’t know how valid this account is, since she admits it’s only hearsay, but knowing what I do about Ayano, and Sayaka, and even Iwako to an extent… I’d believe it.  Red women seem to have their own sense of justice, and while I don’t understand it completely, I can respect it.

Akane seemed to be holding back on her Shi-Tomura facts though, so I go seek her out to see if I can get any more information out of her.  She’s reading at a table by herself, so it’s easy to sit myself down next to her.  I take note of the book she’s reading; The title is in English, so I’m not sure what it means, but the cover has a bird on it, so it seems nice.  I lean a bit towards her, “Fujishiro-chan, I’m no detective, but I noticed earlier that you cut yourself off when talking about the Shi-Tomura shrine.  Is there a reason for that?”

“Huh?” She looks up, blinking slowly, “Oh, right, that.  Well, it’s nothing that’s a big deal, right?  It just wasn’t something that everyone in the group needed to know, especially not Sakuya-senpai or Nozomi-san.  They both kind of annoy me… And got annoyed when I made a joke about the gold leaf being the product of a dare.  Would you disclose your family history to somebody your relationship was so lukewarm with?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t,” I shake my head, “But… Does saying that it’s family history mean that you’re willing to elaborate on that to me?”

“I guess it does,” Akane closes her eyes and her book, setting the latter down on the table and holding her hands over the back cover, “The truth about that shrine, Shi-Tomura… I wasn’t born yet, but I’ve heard the stories.  My mother and my elder brother spent a lot of time there,” She explains, opening one eye as she continues, staring straight ahead, “My mom used to be a geisha, I mentioned.  Normally they’re hired as sophisticated entertainment for things like office parties, but Tomura-sama paid for her to come live in Kyoto, if she’d work as a shrine maiden for as long as she liked.”

“Really?” I question, “Why would she do something like that?”

“My mom always wondered the very same thing,” Akane opens her other eye now and turns to look at me, “Tomura-sama apparently always answered in the same way.  ‘Because nobody else makes tea the way you do’.  Something so mundane made a famous spirit medium open her heart to a young woman who didn’t know what she was doing, at the time.  The job didn’t last long, since she and Mitsuru-nii moved back in with Grandma after he was in an accident, but I hear that it was nice.  That Tomura-sama… Was nice.  It really is a shame what happened to her.”

“...Fujishiro-chan?” I prod, leaning a bit close to her.  I’m surprised by this melancholy she’s slipping into.

“It’s just… I have to wonder about it.  That group, ‘The Order’, who took responsibility for killing her… It’s not like that’s common knowledge to most people, nobody made a point of spreading the word.  Maybe it was to avoid giving that group the attention they wanted, but isn’t it wrong?  Tomura-sama’s killers… They’re still out there, still recruiting people.  Someone who went to the shrine for help, years ago, could end up in that group none the wiser, not even knowing that they’re betraying her memory… Why aren’t people afraid?” She questions, digging her fingernails into her cheek, “I’m afraid.”

“I’m afraid too,” I nod, reaching out to pull her hand from her face so she doesn’t hurt herself, “And I know lots of people are afraid too, of a lot of things.  I think the only way to live in this world, is to be afraid… And say that it’s fine.  Come on, repeat after me.  If some terrorist group decided they wanted to kill me, it’s not like being scared will stop them.  The best I can do is do the best I can until the day they do.”

“I’m not going to repeat that,” Akane shakes her head, a slight smirk poking at the corners of her lips, as if something I said was funny, “That’s absurd.”

“No, just try it,” I tilt my head to the side, “I promise, it’ll make you feel better, even if only a little bit, okay?”

“...Fine,” She brushes her hair away from her face and steels her shoulders, “If some terrorist group decided they wanted to kill me, it’s not like being scared will stop them,” She takes a deep breath, “The best I can do is do the best I can until the day they do.”

“See, that does make you feel better, right?” I question, “If you pretend like it’s inevitable, that you’re going to get killed, you can just put it out of your mind.  It becomes just like any other way you could die.  Someday it will happen.  Just do your best until then, do your best because living each day like it’s your last is what everyone does anyway.  We keep going.  We make the best of our world, even when it’s cruel and painful.  You don’t have to be afraid.”

“I have a friend who could stand to hear that, too,” Akane taps the table, “But it’s dumb, too.  A dumb way to think.  If it was that easy to stop being afraid of death, wouldn’t everybody have done it by now?  Maybe that works for you, Hako-chan, but you can’t just assume it’s going to help at all.”

“I guess you’re right,” I nod, looking up at the ceiling, “But maybe it will help that friend of yours, if it didn’t help you?  Mind me asking who it is?”

“Ryouma Kobayashi,” Akane doesn’t even hesitate, watching me out of the corners of her eyes, “It just isn’t terrorists that are inevitably going to kill her, but, you know.”

“But there’s always luck,” I note, “It’s always possible that she’ll avoid disease for a very long time, so I think it’s extra important that she just live like she has her entire future waiting.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think too,” Akane nods, smiling at me, “So your advice may be useless to me, but it’ll help somebody.  So… I have to thank you for it, even if it was dumb to say to me.”

“Anytime!” I nod, then flash her a grin.

Dinner is fine that night, and not memorable.  I just spend it seated between Amai and Sayaka, and we just chat about what sort of things we saw during the day; pretty mundane.  I skip out on dinner early so I can get a shower before the bathrooms get busy, then head to my mattress in the sleeping area.  I’m about to sit down, when Fucko speaks up.

Actually, you should go to the bathroom again.

That’s a particularly weird command, but I listen anyway, turning around only to find upon arrival that there’s now a line out the door.  I don’t want to wait, especially since I don’t know what reason I would have to be back here.

There’s another one that’s only toilet stalls and sinks on the other end of the building, head that direction.

I follow the instruction, finding that the other bathroom is so far away from everything else that I don’t even see anybody in the hallway towards it.  I enter the room, only to find that it’s empty… No, mostly empty.  There is one person in here, or at least there was pretty recently, since there’s smoke rising up out of the stall on the far end.  I wander over there and tap on the door, “Hey, hey, why’ve you got a cigarette going indoors?”

“Who’s there?” The person within the stall questions, and I have my answer just from hearing her voice.  I’d assumed it was one of the chaperones who was smoking, but if this was a student who wasn’t allowed to go outside after dinnertime, it would make sense.

“Box Hako,” I answer, then hear the latch undoing, and the door’s kicked open.  I lean in to look and see that Yukari Akashiya’s seated on top of the toilet’s water tank, holding a cigarette in her left hand.

“Hey,” She greets me, looking down with her eyes but not her entire head, “You come on back here to smoke in secret too?  Didn’t think you were the type.”

“I’m not really,” I shake my head, “I just wandered over here.  Don’t worry, though, I won’t tell anybody.  Why are you smoking on a school trip?”

“I didn’t think I would, honestly.  I’m not an idiot, I didn’t want to risk getting caught,” She scoffs, rolling her eyes, “But I guess I at least had to go ahead and bring a pack in case I had a shitty day, and would you look at that, I did.”

“Oh no,” I frown as I look up at her and continue, “What happened?  How did you have a bad day on a school trip?”

“Because not everybody can have a high school life as charmed as yours?” Yukari shoots back, and while it catches me off-guard and feels aggressive, she does continue on, “Look, it’d sound stupid if I said it aloud, so let’s just say I didn’t really get along with my group.”

Yukari Akashiya
“That’s a shame,” I sigh, moving to lean against the wall, “I guess that’s the problem with having groups that are randomly assigned… One person in my group didn’t really get along with two of the others, either.  I’d think that we could all get along okay, since there’s only, what, fifty something students in the whole school?  But I guess people will always have problems.”

“Tch,” Yukari taps her knuckles against the wall, grimacing, “I wouldn’t really call it people having problems, Nagata’s just a magnetic bitch.”

“Magnetic bitch?” I question, unsure of what she means by that.

“Yeah, magnetic bitch,” Yukari confirms, tilting her head, “Someone whose cruelty is magnetizing.  Hanamura and Akabane are so weak-willed they just went along with it when she said she heard that I do compensated dating.  Look, I might break the rules occasionally, but I didn’t make the cut of delinquent enough to be in No Boys or anything, so it should be pretty obvious I don’t do that shit…”

“How mean,” I furrow my brows, looking down at the floor, “If you say you don’t do something, why would they still think you do?  And even if you did, that’s not a reason to be cruel to you.  Girls who turn to compensated dating have pretty desperate situations, they deserve sympathy, not rudeness like that at all!”  With this information, I’m not so sure I’m looking forward to having any conversations with Natsuki Nagata.

Don’t worry.  She has her reasons not to behave that way toward you.

“Well,” Yukari climbs back down to stand on the floor, staring off into the distance, “That’s true, isn’t it?  Anyway, I should be getting to sleep.  So should you, Hako-san.”

“...Right,” I nod, watching her leave, and I somehow feel like that conversation didn’t quite go the way it should have.  Did I mess that up?  Yukari doesn’t seem to be any better off for me encountering her in here and talking to her.

No.  You’re doing perfectly.  Let’s go back to bed.

I hold my arms to myself as I make my way out of the restroom, only to freeze in the hallway at the sound of a large crash.  Yukari’s already gone, out of what would have been earshot for that noise, but I turn around again and return to the doorway of the bathroom, looking inside only to see that the last stall in the line seems… Off.  It’s now shrouded in some level of darkness, and I could have sworn there wasn’t a dent on the top of the wall before.  I cautiously make my way back in, only to see that the light on that end’s fallen, knocking the door off the stall.  It must be a heavy light, too, because there’s a powder of the toilet’s porcelain scattered on the floor, the ceiling light lodged in the bits it’s displaced.

Come on, Box.  Do you really need the proof?  Just go to sleep.  You never need to know what would have happened if you hadn’t done as I asked.

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