(It’s the last day… but I haven’t seen that girl...)
Riku was done delivering newspapers and returned to the shop to collect his pay.
His mind was thinking about the girl at the villa.
Today was the last day he would deliver newspapers to that house.
But he had not seen the apprehensive-looking, long-haired girl standing by the postbox.
And even if he had, he could only deliver the newspapers to her without a word.
Even so, Riku felt weak at the thought that he would never get to see that girl again. Somehow, the world around him seemed blurry and devoid of color.
With the feeling of emptiness in his heart, Riku headed off towards the school.
He went into the clubroom alone and opened the sketchbook. The drawing of the girl on the page was smiling at Riku bashfully.
For every page he flipped, there was a variation of her. There was her wearing glasses, her blushing as she lifted her eyes up to meet his, or her with braids, her with eyes wide, or her there bowing deeply towards him.
Heart aching, Riku continued to flip through these illustrations. At this moment ──
— a feeble voice, one that sounded like it was on the verge of vanishing alltogether, reached his ears and Suzuka appeared before him. She looked as if she was about to cry.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said, eyes welling with tears until she could no longer look at him.
“I know, you are really angry with me, Arimura... As expected... Even if I am to be ignored by you, I have no grounds to argue... Y-you can continue to keep ignoring me...but, I just...want to apologize to you for real. I said that I’ll woo you this summer vacation, Arimura...because, if another girl confessed to you...I-I’d be really troubled... There are many other girls...who secretly like you, Arimura... And with this being our last summer in middle school...someone might summon the courage to, confess to you...”
Suzuka looked a lot more feeble than usual. She dared not to look Riku in the eyes and she was stuttering.
“So-so I announced this…to everyone…because I didn’t want that, to happen... I wanted to message them, telling them that we’re dating, because I wanted to warn off others... Tell them that you belong to me, Arimura. B-because, I always, always liked you, Arimura...I didn’t want you to be taken by anyone else...”
Suzuka’s voice got increasingly softer and more hoarse. When Riku turned his head to look at her, her head dropped even more.
For the first time, Suzuka conveyed her unvarnished feelings to Riku. Enduring all the shame, she lowered her head and exposed her cowardice and deceitfulness.
Riku could see her sincerity, and he felt pity for her. The emotional turmoil within him was slowly resolving itself.
It was not just Suzuka’s own fault.
She simply happened to really resemble Riku’s mother and, for that reason, Riku had been biased against her from the start. He had expected her to surely be like his mother, flirtatious and flighty. Thus, he had kept rejecting Suzuka. Like her, Riku revealed himself to be a narrow-minded, ignorant person.
“...I’m not angry with you anymore.”
Suzuka lifted her head, tears filling her eyes as she stared at Riku.
Riku looked straight back at her. There was calm in his voice.
“For me, it’s a painful thing to interact with others. I don’t know what to say when others try to talk to me. There’s just that sense of awkwardness in the heart, for me, for the person talking to me… My heart is most peaceful when I’m alone, drawing. When I’m drawing, I don’t want to be disturbed. I’m such an irritating kind of guy.”
“Then... Can I stay by your side as long as I don’t talk, Arimura?” asked Suzuka timidly.
“If you keep standing by my side quietly, I’ll be distracted by you.”
“I wo-won’t distract you then... I’ll just be there, unnoticed. Okay?”
“You are speaking already, that’s not being unnoticeable, right?”
Riku sounded aloof, but he answered as sincerely as possible. That made Suzuka regain her determination.
“I’ll try my best to remain quiet and hold my breath so that you won’t feel annoyed, Arimura... I’ll do my best to make sure that you won’t notice my presence, that it’s as transparent as air… So that you won’t be irritated because of me, and forget me… But I’ll definitely remain by your side, Arimura, so ──”
With her heads low, Suzuka murmured her last words barely louder than a buzz of a mosquito.
“— so Arimura, if you feel lonely one day and need someone to talk, please call for me.”
Chise was dressed in the handmade blue dress. Her long hair was let down under the straw hat with the white ribbon tied to it. She stood with a lowered head before the door to Riku’s ground-level flat at the corner of the apartment block.
(Andou-san told me that this is Riku-kun’s house. I made up my mind to come here…but nobody’s home...)
Her arrival at another person’s house was beyond shamelessness. It showed an utter lack of common sense too.
Surely Riku would feel perturbed as well.
But once her father sold the villa away, she would be unable to return to this village in the future. Truly, this was the last day she could meet Riku.
Earlier in the morning, she had trembled with the newspaper in her hands, pleading with Andou-san to be told Riku’s home address. While shocked, Andou-san had understood what was on the girl’s mind. The old woman had that forlorn, yet gentle look to her then.
──So Chise-san, you weren’t waiting for the newspapers, but for Riku-kun...
Chise had promised Andou-san that she would return before the car arrived. Following the map the housekeeper had given her, she had arrived at the apartment where Riku lived with his mother.
She just needed to say thanks.
Just that alone...
Chise pressed the doorbell, but there was no answer.
She shriveled and hid in the shadows behind the stairs for an hour.
If anyone was to see her, she would surely be deemed suspicious and that would cause Riku trouble.
This old apartment stood by the side of a graveyard. There were no pedestrians walking along the pavement in front of it. There was just that one kitten that hopped off from somewhere and landed nearby, startling Chise to a point of near-death.
The sun was right above Chise’s head. It was lunchtime.
(Just an hour more... Maybe he’ll be back for lunch...)
Chise took her phone out to check the time, full of worry.
An hour passed. Then two. She waited for another hour, but Riku did not return.
Chise wanted to cry, yet she could not shed any tears at this moment.
(It is about time...to return.)
By the time Riku left school, it was late afternoon, almost dusk.
He told Suzuka that he had no intentions of getting close to anyone at this point, and likely never would have. The girl had left the classroom despondently.
Since then, he was looking at the sketchbook alone, looking at the illustration of the girl from the villa.
He did not return to the apartment, going straight to the shop instead. He changed his clothes and got ready to deliver the newspapers.
While riding on the bicycle —
(Did that girl...return to Tokyo already?)
— he thought of the girl.
If she was still at the cottage, Riku wanted to have a look at her for the last time.
And so this feeling drove Riku to cycle to the cottage.
The sky gradually got paler and the sunset was about to come. Riku arrived at the red postbox of the old cottage and parked his bicycle.
There was no one at the courtyard, and the house looked especially quiet. Riku looked towards the window of the girl’s room and found the grassy green curtains pulled down inside.
As expected, her family had arrived to take her back.
Riku looked towards the window longingly, then bit his lips and pedaled off.
By the time he was done delivering newspapers, a faint shade of pink started to tint the sky.
The brook slowly moved on, and a trail of lush, green trees grew along the path. A tender orange light embraced him as he cycled on...
(This was where I first met her... It was evening too...)
His heart was aching.
Right at this moment, a white ribbon appeared fluttering in the air, slowly gaining focus in Riku’s eyes.
That straw hat with the ribbon tied to it...
Startled, Riku hurriedly hit the brakes. A long-haired girl ran out from behind the trees, chasing after a straw hat.
Everything in his world was aflutter, the white ribbon, the delicate black hair of the girl chasing it, and the sky-blue dress that trailed behind her.
Riku reached out to grab the straw hat that was flying by.
The girl from the cottage stared at him with surprised, wide eyes.
Riku looked back at the girl’s face and extended his arm out to hand over the straw hat.
The white delicate hands timidly received the hat Riku retrieved. She then brought it to her chest, looking as if she had just witnessed a miracle.
Riku harbored the same feelings, his eyes never leaving her body.
(I met her... again...)
The setting sun shone upon her face, hair, lips, and blue dress.
Suddenly, she bowed deeply, as politely as she did when receiving the newspaper from him.
But her back was arched more than usual.
“Thank you...very much.”
She thanked gracefully but, to Riku’s ears, the ‘thank you’ had an additional meaning to it and he felt a shiver in his heart.
“I will be returning to Tokyo today. I really wanted to thank you... I thought I will never see you again… Thank goodness I got to meet you.”
She lifted her face, beaming, looking as though she would be vanishing imminently.
Riku’s heart tightened all the more.
“Why...are you, at such a place?”
She thanked Riku, who in turn wanted to tell her something. The summer with her was so... impossible to describe. She saved him, and he drew a picture of her. However, he could not convey these thoughts into words, only into more doubts.
“Before I go... I wanted to see the firefly swamp.”
“Fireflies...? But they appear during Tanabata. Now ──”
The girl smiled, and nodded, interrupting him.
“Yes, I know there are no fireflies now, but I saw a photo at the exhibition at the department store, a swamp with lots of fireflies flying around. The title was ‘The Cowherd and the Fairy’. I wanted to have a look at the place after seeing the picture... but I got lost... and did not get to see it. I should be heading back soon.”
‘The Cowherd and the Fairy...’ Riku was quietly startled by these words.
He had once had a short conversation with the maiden-like granny at the marsh in the forest. He could still recall the words she muttered.
──Especially during summer nights, when those who come here become fairies and cowherds.
And the relative of that fairy, the girl, was here now, smiling, yet looking so forlorn.
“Let’s go!” he shouted without even realizing what he was doing.
“It’s right there, straight ahead of us. I’ll bring you along. Hurry, get on the bicycle!”
Prompted by Riku, the girl sat on the back seat of the bicycle. With some hesitation, she grabbed onto the side of the back seat.
“This might get bumpy. Hold me tight!” said Riku adamantly.
The girl, in shock likely, also raised her voice and her slender arms wrapped firmly around Riku’s waist.
At that moment, Riku stepped on the pedals hard and the bike surged forth.
(What am I doing? The shop owner told me not to approach the Princess!)
But he felt his heart tighten at the thought that he could finally spend time with the girl.
He hoped for this moment to last longer, even if just a little bit. He wanted to bring her to that place.
The bicycle bounced a few times on the unpaved dirt path. Whenever it did, the girl’s face would lean upon his back. The parts of his body touching the girl slowly started to feel sizzling-hot, and that heat reached Riku’s heart.
His heart was beating loudly.
The sun gradually descended, forging a blazing red trail through the sky, and then, it was night.
On the way to the swamp, an upbeat melody chimed from the girl’s phone. Riku felt the girl gasp behind his back. However, she almost immediately yelled, “never mind that! Keep going! Please!”
It was the first time he heard her sound so determined.
He pedaled harder than before.
The surrounding greenery got denser and he struggled to see in the dark. Going any farther on the bicycle was not possible.
“Get off. We’re almost there.”
Riku held the girl’s hand, and they advanced through the grass.
His big, sweaty palm held the delicate, little hand. Her palm was damp as well, and cold too, but she was holding on firmly.
The vegetation got thicker. There was no light to be seen anywhere. The entire world seemed to consist only of him and the girl.
Their breathing was frantic, echoing through the pitch-black darkness.
After a short while, suddenly, they could see ahead of them again.
The faint moonlight reflections were scattered on the vast surface of the swamp. The illusion of the wide-open skies seen intermittently through the forest canopy flickered rhythmically, soundlessly reflected on the water surface.
──This is the most beautiful place in the world.
The genial voice of the fairy Riku had heard that day once again echoed in his ears.
The girl, still holding his hand, sighed softly.
“The stars... are floating on the surface... Like the fireflies.”
The girl’s eyes too were dazzling like the stars, her cheeks and lips betraying delight.
And then, clear dew fell from her eyes.
The moonlight shone upon her white, ethereal face. She shivered, and... a tear slowly trickled down her cheek.
This tear looked so beautiful to Riku, so sacred. New tears formed in response to that tear, as one by one, they slipped down the girl’s cheeks.
They flickered as they fell, one by one.
Riku stared at the girl, eyes wide.
“I guess...I can cry when I am happy,” he heard her mutter with a quivering voice.
It was as though she had just learned about it.
And then, she smiled cheerfully.
Her tears kept flowing, yet her heart was ever so blissful.
“I am really happy, to meet you Riku-kun... And to come to this place with you.”
Riku-kun... The girl uttered his name so naturally.
A burning feeling slowly rose up from the depths of Riku’s heart.
The girl’s elation was infectious, gently tugging at his heartstrings. Something warm was sprouting deep within his heart.
The girl’s tears, soft voice, words, all awakened Riku’s emotions.
The crying girl looked towards Riku’s face, her eyes slightly expanded, and then her smile bloomed even more beautiful than before.
“This is the first time I saw your smile, Riku-kun,” she whispered happily.
(Ah, so it’s that simple.)
The parched heart was gradually coming back to life, his dull vision regained clarity and color.
“Yeah... This is the first time.”
Riku savored the feeling rising up his heart as he stared at the girl.
“This is the first time I smiled,” he answered calmly.
Like the cowherd and the fairy, so innocent, so blissful...
“How did you know my name?”
“My helper told me.”
The girl blushed immediately, averting her eyes.
She masked her embarrassment with a light cough. Riku smiled.
“In that case... tell me your name too.”
The clenched hands shook, and the girl lifted her head timidly, her face apprehensive,
“My name is Chise.”
The kanji of her name turned into a thousand stars.
And she launched the stars into Riku’s heart.
A thousand stars she gave him, and they all scattered inside in a gentle haze.
Both of them stayed at this place for a short moment longer, until Chise’s phone rang once again. She had to hurry back.
On the path back to the cottage, Riku worked the pedals, while Chise sat behind him, grabbing him firmly. None of them said a word.
The bicycle rode upon the cobbled path, jolting up and down. They were reluctant to talk, and they did not know what to say.
Both of them saw the summer swamp filled with stars and the moonlight. It was truly beautiful and more than by the loneliness of the impending farewell, they were mesmerized by its beauty.
That special place was filled with summer magic. It got a girl to cry and made him smile. They were just happy, blissful.
Riku felt the girl’s steady breath on his back. He continued to cycle down the path in darkness and could almost fool himself that this moment would last forever.
But the villa was there, right before their eyes.
He saw the red postbox, and a black, grand sedan parked by the fence. His searing body immediately cooled down.
Farewell was inevitable...
This fact was on clear display to Riku.
(I don’t want to leave her!)
(I still want to be with her!)
(I still want to talk with her!)
(Our feelings have just blossomed, right? Does it just end here, after I finally got to know her name?)
He experienced intense pain he had never felt before. Sadness and anxiety struck at him over and over again.
He stopped in front of the postbox with a shrill sound that echoed through the air. His collar was icy cold, for Chise had left his side. The slender arms wrapped around his waist until now, released their hold.
He remained seated on the bicycle, his face tense. Chise’s long hair swayed, the hem of her blue dress moving along as she smiled forlornly.
Her hands brought the white ribbon straw hat to her chest.
“Thank you for seeing me off.”
Her voice sounded so fleeting, so gentle.
“I will never forget about this village, and about you, Riku-kun. Please take care of yourself.”
The steady eyes stared straight at him, unwaveringly.
And then they narrowed in sadness.
In the past, Riku would deliver the newspaper into Chise’s hands, bow, and hastily leave. They lived in different worlds, and he felt that he should not get too close to her.
But on this day, Riku gripped the handles of his bicycle firmly and did not move an inch.
This time, it was Chise who turned around.
Through gritted teeth, Riku watched her leave.
Once she was about to reach the corridor, Riku yelled.
“Chise! I’m... I’m drawing a picture of you! Once I’m done, please have a look at it!”
A faint light was oozing out from the cottage, highlighting the girl. She who turned around with shock.
He looked at her with earnestness and determination.
Riku’s request was too sudden. Chise had no idea Riku could draw.
And he knew the cottage would be sold off, that Chise would not return to this village. He knew and was all the more despondent because of it.
Chise appeared to be on the verge of tears. Surely, in her mind, she was thinking that it was impossible. They were middle schoolers and, no matter how fervent, there were times when prayers could not be fulfilled. But even so...
“It’s a promise.”
Chise and Riku made a promise that could never possibly be fulfilled.
Until the very end, she maintained that apprehensive, yet gentle smile.
And with Riku watching her go, Chise’s delicate black hair swayed for the last time as she went towards the villa’s front door.