There was no day I’d miss hearing that name.
“Tsukimori is so lovely…,” muttered my cla.s.smate Kamogawa, sighing, upon which the other male students around him nodded deeply.
“Listen guys: don’t let that slender body deceive you! Got me? She’s also got…b.o.o.bs!”
Their insolent gazes were focused on the girl in debate, Tsukimori, who was surrounded by a group of chattering girls. If I were to describe Youko Tsukimori in one word: she was eye-catching.
“Don’t you agree Nonomiya?”
“If you say so.”
“Wow, now that’s a cold reply! Are you really a man? If there’s a mountain, climb it! If there’s a beautiful chick, fall for her! Isn’t that what it means to be a man?”
The guys, led by Kamogawa, began to show over-exaggerated reactions to my indifferent answer.
“Well, I just thought she’s perfect.”
She had a beautiful face, supplemented by a nice figure and outstanding grades. Her pleasing personality made her rather popular. Apparently, she was also good in sports. Youko Tsukimori seemed to be a perfect girl without anything to complain about.
“How’s that bad?”
“I never said it’s bad. It’s just that I can’t relax around her.”
“Aah, that’s true. Tsukimori is a girl beyond our reach after all…”
Fortunately, Kamogawa interpreted my statement to his convenience.
My honest impression was that she was so perfect it was boring and being around her would be suffocating. Maybe it’s just that my personality is a little warped, but I’ve secretly been keeping a distance from Tsukimori because I couldn’t discover a common ground between us.
However, the guys seemed to be highly interested in the famous girl and started discussing rumors about Tsukimori as if they were gossiping about some star.
“But I heard she has a boyfriend in college?”
“Student ‘K’, was it? That guy who’s three years older than her?”
“Eh? I heard she was the lover of a company president…”
“Aah, so that’s why she gets ¥200,000 in allowance every month?”
“No kidding! But I heard someone spotted her together with math teacher k.u.mada when they came out of a love hotel!”
There was no need for a metaphor anymore—she really was a star. I once more realized how special she was.
But then again, she might not have been happy about that special status. At least I wouldn’t be able to stand it.
“It’s all just rumors without any credibility whatsoever.”
A short laugh escaped my mouth because they were discussing this stuff all too seriously and energetically.
“Why don’t you just ask her directly?” Therefore, I confronted them with that question. Just for fun. And as expected, my idea was rejected with vigor close to booing.
“As if we could ask her something like that!!”
Because I was so amused by their reaction, I spurred them on a little more. “If you want, I can go ask as the representative of the cla.s.s?”
“Wait wait wait!! Nonomiya! Don’t rush things! What are we gonna do if the rumors turned out to be true?” Kamogawa rebuked me in a hurry.
“Maybe they really are just rumors?”
“But maybe it’s all true!”
The other guys nodded in agreement to Kamogawa, “Possible. If it’s Tsukimori, very possible!”
Sure enough Youko Tsukimori stood out in this cla.s.s. You could even say she was of a different nature. No wonder everyone was under the impression that she had already experienced a world unbeknownst to high school students; considering that she acted so maturely it was hard to believe that she was our age.
“The truth is hidden in the dark, huh?” Whatever that truth might have been, I could take it easy since I wouldn’t be hurt by it like Kamogawa and the others.
“The truth isn’t always what’s best, is it?” But it looked like they couldn’t take it as easily since the truth would bother them much more.
“Don’t you find this unproductive? If you keep your eyes averted from the truth, you won’t ever be able to obtain what you seek!”
“We don’t care! A couple of days ago, some idiot confessed to her and got harshly rejected. If you carelessly try to reach out for something on a different level, you’re only going to fall down and hurt yourself. I prefer the ideal over the truth! You could even say we want Tsukimori to remain the source of our fantasies for all eternity.”
I was so amazed at this bunch that I could only laugh. “Adolescence is wonderful, isn’t it?”
“Hey, we’re seventeen! Leave us our dreams!”
Apparently I wasn’t supposed to laugh.
“I shall not bother you anymore if you all insist.”
“We do, we do! Don’t crush the dreams of us delicate boys.”
“You mean ‘impure high school boys’.”
“Who is our dear Nonomiya fond of then? No celebrities allowed, by the way.”
Kamogawa launched an unexpected counterattack. The other guys, too, jumped at the chance and closed ranks by leaning forward and urging, “Tell us! Tell us!”
“Well, let’s see—”
To tell the truth, there was no girl who I could have mentioned specifically, but looking at the situation I didn’t believe those impure high school boys would content themselves with that.
“—I think Usami’s cute.”
I merely spoke out the first name that came to mind right then, but they all seemed rather disappointed and made awkward faces.
“How unthrilling. It couldn’t get any more ordinary, could it? You’re so boring,” complained Kamogawa.
“So you claim that it’s not ordinary to feel attracted to Tsukimori?”
“I admit she’s also an ordinary target, but her quality, so to speak, is on a whole different level from Usami’s! If Usami was orange juice, Tsukimori would be wine.”
“Then don’t you agree that orange juice suits us minors?”
“No, you idiot, you don’t get it. I’m talking about the, um, well, that certain appeal of alcohol because you actually shouldn’t drink it, you know? Like, you’re curious about the forbidden world that opens there and…are you following me?”
“I certainly know what you mean. But I still like orange juice. Don’t you?”
“Um, well, sure, I like orange juice too, but…”
Kamogawa’s guys-alliance grumbled and contorted their faces.
While Tsukimori was an exceptional girl indeed, Usami was very charming, too — for an ordinary girl. Their reaction originated from not wanting to admit that I was right while being unable to deny it.
Feeling like the winner, I said, “Let’s toast with some orange juice and wine, then.”
You could say I tasted the “splendid wine of victory.”
“You’re a pretty d.a.m.n devious guy, you know that?”
“I ain’t praising you.”
Kamogawa was still a little sour, but I had succeeded in getting the air out of him.
“—Hey, boys! Get back to your seats! Afternoon cla.s.ses are starting!”
Driven by this sudden voice, the guys turned their eyes towards the clock at once. They reacted that sensitively because the warning came from the girl they were just talking about.
“She’s right. Let's follow the advice of Orange Juice and wait at our seats,” said Kamogawa, whereupon everyone returned to their respective desks.
“Orange Juice…?” wondered Orange Juice a.k.a. Chizuru Usami and tilted her round head. “…I bet you’ve been talking bad about me or something, haven’t you?”
Usami, sitting beside me, pursed her lips.
“We were merely talking about beverages.”
“That’s a lie. If a couple of boys gather, they talk about either perverted or idiotic stuff,” she claimed.
That was a fairly unfair preconception, I had to say. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t deny it.
“…what kind of tragic life have you gone through, Usami? I’ve just become quite worried about you.”
“Don’t pity me, Nonomiya! Idiot. I’m normal! Your average high school girl!”
Usami always got all worked up in no time whenever I teased her. And once she was worked up, she was like a little animal — pretty amusing to watch, really.
“Listen, you should visit a hospital before it’s too late. If it’s too embarra.s.sing to go alone, I can also accompany you there, but—”
“—I won’t! Stop looking at me with those commiserating eyes!”
She pushed my peeking head away with her palm: “Go away!”
“Rejoice, Usami. It seems Nonomiya is fond of orange juice!”
Kamogawa, who had been watching us, laughed with a face that made him seem like he’d only talk about perverted or idiotic stuff.
“Tell me already, what’s the thing with that orange jui—”
Usami swallowed her words mid-sentence. Our math teacher, k.u.mada, had entered the cla.s.sroom.
The only sounds in the cla.s.sroom were k.u.mada’s weak voice and the chalk hitting the blackboard.
Apparently our conversation was still bothering Usami; she kept stealing glances at me.
After some minutes had pa.s.sed, she finally lost patience. She leaned her upper body a little towards me and whispered, “What was that about?”
“I’m trying to concentrate on the lesson, Usami-san,” I answered without removing my eyes from the blackboard.
“…don’t be mean~”
Because I kept silent, she started poking my side with her mechanical pencil. The tip pierced through the fabric of my uniform and stuck into my skin.
“Hey, that hurts.”
“Then don’t ignore me,” sulked Usami. “During lunch break, you boys were talking about Youko-san, weren’t you?”
“Oh, were we?”
“…you always try to slip off like this, Nonomiya. Actually, I know that you were gossiping about her!”
“You eavesdropped on us? I'm shocked.”
“That’s not it! I only heard Youko-san’s name by chance! Because you boys were talking so loudly!”
“Usami,” I called for her attention because k.u.mada had turned towards the cla.s.s. She sat up in a hurry and pretended to be copying what was written on the blackboard.
After some moments of silence: “…Say, Nonomiya. You prefer girls like Youko-san too, don’t you?” muttered Usami while looking down at her notes.
I glanced towards the front right. Youko Tsukimori—the girl in question—stared charismatically at the blackboard. From the side her face looked intelligent, giving her a little of the feel of the anchorwoman from the news.
Sitting in the very middle of the room, her outstanding aura made it feel as though she were the heart of the cla.s.sroom.
Indeed, she was someone special. Although I personally avoided excessive contact with her, I could very well comprehend why everyone seemed to adore her.
“—No, not particularly.”
I don’t like trouble, but I became interested in how Usami would react.
“Is that so?”
She made a smile, seeming somehow relieved.
“We discussed this allegory: if she were a beverage, Tsukimori would be wine.”
—What kind of reaction is she going to show me, I wonder?
“And, by the way, you’d be orange juice.”
Beside me I heard the sound of a pencil lead breaking.
Usami played with the pencil between her fingers, feigning indifference. However, I didn’t overlook that moment when her cheeks blushed.
After that Usami’s questioning stopped.
Her honest reaction had something that calmed my mind. I had only given her name back then to put them off, but perhaps I had actually revealed my true thoughts which I had been unaware of myself.
At least at that very moment I felt that I liked Usami.
“…by the way.”
I considered our conversation finished, but she still wanted to say something it seemed.
Usami whispered with a serious expression on her face, “I-I’m normal, you know? A normal girl! Not some strange girl like you a.s.sumed earlier! I don’t want to be misunderstood, okay?”
I accidentally smiled because of Usami's lovely words.
Her honesty was very comfortable to me—almost like tasting a gla.s.s of delicious orange juice.
I wished I could fall in love with her.
After the monthly cla.s.s officers’ regular meeting I watched the female officer of my cla.s.s leave in a hurry and strolled back to our cla.s.sroom.
Having reached the empty room, I prepared myself to leave as well. As I was in no club, I had nothing to do at school anymore. What was left was going home and preparing for my part-time job.
When I stood up from my seat, I noticed a university notebook on the floor. I immediately noticed whom it belonged to. Its front page read “Youko Tsukimori”.
I looked around the room, but she wasn’t there. I decided to put it on her desk before leaving.
But just when I was about to do so, I registered a sc.r.a.p of paper that peeked out from the notebook. I grasped the sc.r.a.p, thinking nothing of it, and pulled it out.
“…now that’s unexpected,” I unintentionally let out.
It turned out to be a folded A4 report sheet. The caption written on it matched neither the Tsukimori everyone talked of nor my personal image of her.
After making sure n.o.body was watching, I stowed it away in my bag. I did so because I presumed it would take quite some time to read all of the tightly-written text.
You could say I succ.u.mbed to temptation.
No, at that very moment I felt not even a speck of guilt whatsoever. It was but pure curiosity.
I didn’t have anything against wine. To begin with, I couldn’t possibly judge without ever having taken a sip. It’s just that my attachment to the familiar drink won over my wariness of the unfamiliar one.
In short, I was interested in the wine everyone praised so highly.
“Alright, what kind of secret of our idol is going to come to light…?”
I left the cla.s.sroom as I always did.
It was past 10 p.m. when I returned home after finishing my work at the café.
When I arrived there I had completely forgotten about the sheet. I had been looking forward to reading its contents, but the various stimuli at the café drove its existence into a corner of my memory.
I like to observe people. You might even call it my hobby.
Part of the reason why I chose to work at a café was surely that I simply like coffee, but more than that I found the different types of people you meet there interesting.
A young woman who always takes the same seat and just keeps gazing outside. A man in the prime of his life who changes the girl at his side each visit. The cooled-down relationship of a couple that had been deeply in love just half a year ago. And many more.
It was something that excited my imagination—a favorite pastime of mine.
In reality though, I was no different from Kamogawa and the others. I, too, was just an ordinary 17-year-old teenager. I did not want to know the truth. I simply wanted to enjoy wallowing in my fantasies.
I was in the middle of relaxing, taking a warm bath, when I remembered the sheet I had picked up after school.
With my body still warm I dove onto my bed and unfolded the paper. While holding myself back from hurrying things, I slowly glanced over the t.i.tle.
“The Murder Recipe”
I felt like I was reading the mystery novel of some popular author. Maybe this was due to the t.i.tle actually sounding like a novel’s.
A sc.r.a.p of paper that appeared from the notebook of the person who was on everyone’s lips—Youko Tsukimori.
There seemed to be no end to the rumors dealing with her vivid love life, but her image still remained mostly irreproachable. She was by no means a girl the word “murder” would have suited.
Perhaps it was this fact that piqued my curiosity. Contrasts like this have a sort of magic to them that sucks you in—be it for the good or the bad.
My gaze skimmed over the text, completely absorbed by it. Faithful to its t.i.tle “The Murder Recipe”, it introduced different ways of killing someone.
I noticed that parts of the text had been erased and corrected, indicating that the recipe had been revised several times. I could virtually sense the breath of the person who wrote down these rather messy characters. It had something vivid to it, so to speak.
While reading on, I discovered something that all of the approaches had in common.
The most important objective appeared to be eliminating the target without getting one’s own hands dirty. It was not a text written by a human who is fond of killing—who sets the act of killing as his highest objective.
“…is she really aiming to become a mystery author?”
These seemed exactly like tricks made for a mystery story. However, they were written rather clumsily and were far from perfect.
To present an example: there was one way of killing t.i.tled “The Feigned Traffic Accident Murder Recipe”. The content was most simple.
On a road over a steep mountain pa.s.s.
Disturb the driver somehow.
Make him lose control of the steering wheel.
It was written in bullet points like this. Additional remarks like “Phone the driver in order to make him lose concentration?” or “Put some hindrance on the road?” were very spa.r.s.ely added.
As can be seen, the grade of completion was very low. Maybe she was still in the stage of collecting together various ideas, trying to perfect it?
The risk was reduced to a minimum, but I didn’t think the plan was likely to succeed either. I could see she tried, but this was one weak plan if she was to really kill someone.
I dropped the murder recipe onto my desk.
Having had high expectations, the letdown was great. The all too childish contents of the recipe had killed my interest.
“This just spoiled my after-bath-bliss.”
After complaining aloud, I reached out for my bookshelf to remove the bad taste by reading a real mystery novel.
“…no, hold on a sec.”
However, I stopped my hand and started thinking. A new thought lifted my spirits to new heights again.
Who was the owner of this “Murder Recipe”?
It was Youko Tsukimori!
What if, purely hypothetically, she had written this because she seriously wanted to kill someone…? That thought made the clumsy text feel rather realistic at once.
Leaving aside the reason for now, there was a person whom Tsukimori wanted to die and she had desperately written a murder plan to make it happen.
Tsukimori had! That perfect, stylish, beautiful, intelligent “Tsukimori” who was adored by everyone!
And she had edited such an immature murder plan over and over.
“…now, aren’t we cute?”
If this guess turned out to be true, I’d almost become a big fan of hers.
My imagination was put in motion. I started puzzling over all kinds of questions, like the person she wanted to kill, her potential motive and her hidden personality. I kept playing this game until the sky started to dawn in the east.
The next morning I went to school later than I usually did.
By the time I entered the cla.s.sroom, most of my cla.s.smates were already present. Of course, Tsukimori was among them as well.
While walking to my seat, I secretly glanced at her. She was putting the things in her desk in order. At least to others it looked like such a perfectly normal action.
Not to me.
“Good morning, Tsukimori.” I greeted her as always.
She stopped peeking into her desk, tilted her head and looked at me while using her little finger to brush her elegant, long hair out of her face. “Good morning, Nonomiya-kun.”
She showed me her mature smile as always.
Usually, our conversation would have ended right there. We knew each other only well enough to exchange greetings.
“Are you looking for something?”
However, that morning I didn’t want to let it end there. My curiosity was vexing me, for I suspected that she might be searching for the “Murder Recipe”.
I intensively stared at her, not wanting to miss the slightest stir.
“No, I am just sorting my desk.”
Sadly, her smile was left unchanged.
I told her, “I see,” and headed to my own seat, while thinking to myself that reality was so boring compared to imagination.
“But…,” she suddenly called me from behind, “why did you think I was searching for something?”
I was desperate not to break into a broad smile.
It was a feeling as though prey had hopped readily into my trap. Whatever her sentiments were, I started getting in high spirits just from the expectation of some amusing developments.
“No, I’m afraid there’s no particular reason,” I turned around towards her, playing dumb. “But let me return that question: why do you ask?”
I decided to probe lightly.
“I had no particular reason, either.”
Before me was only her unchanged mature smile. I felt the desire to make that smile freeze, but I didn’t intend to get to the core just yet. I thought it was best to keep my trump card for the very end.
“But if…,” I began, “if you are troubled, feel free to ask me for help.”
“What’s the matter, Nonomiya-kun? I don’t remember you being this gentle?”
“I’m gentler than you believe, that’s for sure.”
“I beg your pardon. I’ll be sure to remember that then.”
“Of course the primary motivation would be getting a girl of outstanding popularity like you indebted to me, though.”
“Thank you. I will directly consult you then, Nonomiya-kun, should I ever be troubled.”
Tsukimori smiled with her almond eyes half closed.
It didn’t look like she wasn’t scheming something. I won’t deny the influence of my wishful thinking on this a.s.sessment, though.
Our conversation ended because our cla.s.s teacher, Ukai, had appeared in the cla.s.sroom.
My mood was quite good that day. Kamogawa and his comrades were annoying when they came to question me about my conversation with Tsukimori in the following break, but I considered it a good harvest because I had discovered how thrilling and amusing it was to talk to her.
Well, it was just me savoring the thrill produced by my own fantasies, though.
Still, it was much better than a boring reality.
Without any progress or new information, my peaceful daily routine went on and, before I knew it, two weeks had pa.s.sed since finding the murder recipe.
As there wasn’t anything to stir up my imagination, my excitement subsided and I was about to forget the very existence of the recipe.
Because I had kept holding back my trump card, the game had stopped slowly and quietly. It was a truly pathetic situation.
However, a change occurred all of a sudden.
Perhaps…the game had not even started yet.
I went to school as always, and the cla.s.sroom was ever noisy. But Tsukimori was nowhere in sight. Her seat was empty.
I was puzzled, but the answer wasn’t long in coming.
“Hey, Nonomiya! Have you heard?”
It was Kamogawa.
“Can’t say I have.”
Of course I had no idea what he was talking about because his sentence lacked the object.
“Someone from Tsukimori’s family is dead.”
I felt my heartbeat accelerate.
“Who?” I asked while suppressing the arising excitement.
“Her dad, it seems. It was a traffic accident. Youko-san has my fullest sympathies…,” answered Usami with a sad face.
“Really, I feel sorry for her. To lose one’s father at this age, that’s…”
Unlike his usual behavior, even Kamogawa showed a mournful mien. That must be the normal reaction.
“…Indeed. Let’s all support her.”
However, I harbored different emotions from the others. Youko Tsukimori, traffic accident, death—these keywords led me straight to the murder recipe.
I desperately suppressed the grin that was about to flash over my face.
It’s getting interesting.