Chapter 1 – Me I’m Not
I wanna go home.
It was currently a little over 11am and only homeroom was left after having finished the school entrance ceremony and the orientation about the high school life. We were waiting for the teacher responsible for our class, Miyamae High School First Year Class 7.
My classmates all around me were restless.
One was talking to a friend next to him, another was looking outside the window nervously, another was playing with his smartphone, and a guy was already even trying to get a girl’s attention.
Even if everyone looked different at a glance, you could notice a look of expectation on their faces.
Miyamae High is pretty famous for being loose with its rules.
Thus, there was a wide variety of people here, like having someone aiming for Tokyo University and one winning the national tournament for their club, while also having a blonde fashion model and even a girl aiming to be an idol in the same class.
I’m sure that my classmates too have their heart palpitating at the bright future awaiting them in their highly anticipated fun high school life.
As I was looking at them as if they were part of another world,
A young teacher with a bright expression entered the classroom and started homeroom.
“I’ll be the teacher in charge of this class, Nakaoka Ryuuta. I’m looking forward to this year with everyone!” said Nakaoka-sensei with an athlete-like tone, standing on top of the platform.
He seemed to be in the later half of his twenties. He was wearing a jacket that seemed to be just out of the laundry with not a single wrinkle on it, and he gave off the impression of a lively young man.
The next thing he said after his presentation as the teacher in charge,
“And now, it’s time for self-introductions!”
“In order with the attendance number go in front of everyone, then say your name and the middle school you’re from, and… well, your hobbies or anything like that, just say a few words to everyone! There’s no time limit, so everyone can do what they like, but keep it reasonable. Well then, let’s start!”
The classroom got noisy with this development.
The guy with attendance number 1 stood up,
“Eeh, it’s too sudden─”
And went to the platform with a not so dissatisfied expression.
“Err, I’m Aimura Junji, from Momoi Middle School! Um, I did track and field there, and, err, I did pretty well in the district tournament! If you want my autograph I can give it to you later, so don’t hesitate to call out to me!”
The class laughed at his variety show performer-like tone.
But in my case, I felt uncomfortable in this harmonious ambiance.
I didn’t intend to get close to anyone here.
I wanted to keep the conversations and the committee work to the minimum, and I do not want to join a club either.
That’s why I didn’t care about the name, former school, hobbies or whatever else of my classmates.
“I’m Ikawa Ai! I’m from Igusa Middle School! I wasn’t in a clyub… haha, I bit my tongue. Anyway, I wasn’t in a club but──”
As attendance number 2 had started her presentation, I lowered my gaze at the book in my hand, “14 Years Old” as usual.
Written by Hiiragi Tokoro. The story of the clumsy literature girl Tokiko, living her life as she thinks about various things.
The moment I looked at the sentences that were written on the pages, my dim view brightened up. This A6 sized book was my salvation in my dull everyday life.
It’s been a year since I bought it in the bookstore in front of the station. I reread it so many times that the cover was worn out, the pages were wrinkled up and the spine had frayed spots. It was so worn out that it wouldn’t even be put in the 100 yen wagon of a second hand bookstore. But the feeling of having a comrade in this book didn’t fade away no matter how many times I read it.
“Takashima Ryuuji… From Kamiogi Middle School… Best regards…”
On the cover full of scratches was an easy to read font for the title, and the illustration of a girl in middle school.
Last spring, when I saw this cover in the bookstore, I felt strangely attracted to it.
Books you really come to like are just like that. The title is catchy, or the design stands out, either way they leave a rather strong impression on your mind that you can’t forget.
And in fact, once I started reading it I couldn’t stop myself.
As I continued the story, I got deeply immersed into it.
So much that even after I had finished reading it on the same day, I started to reread it to be in Tokiko’s world a little bit longer.
“Nishio Keisuke is the name! I’m from Zenpukuji Middle School! We have only one high school life, so let’s have fun!”
I turned the pages with my fingers.
The passing everyday of the protagonist, Tokiko.
You can almost say that “14 Years Old” doesn’t have any ups or downs. No falling in love, no problems to confront, just Tokiko passing her everyday life in solitude while thinking about many things.
Tokiko anxiously thinking about the future while looking at the cloudy sky from the train.
Tokiko feeling like she won something after finding a novel surprisingly interesting even though she didn’t like it before then.
Tokiko regretting to have cut her bangs in front of the mirror.
Tokiko crying alone after quarreling with her older sister.
I had a strange empathy for her thoughts, and what’s more, I found them to be lovely.
In a way, you could say that “14 Years Old” was the story made from condensing the sensitivity and charm of a single girl, Tokiko.
I’ve been into books from the start. Since I was a child, I’ve been reading literature books in my house, and even now I still take a look at the ones that interest me in the bookstores.
But it was the first, and for now the last time I was so fascinated with a protagonist.
“I’m Nohara Yukari. I’m from Momoi Middle School. I wasn’t in a club, and I don’t plan to join one in high school either.”
However, the self-introductions advanced faster than I thought.
My name is Hosono Akira, so my attendance number is in the later half.
I thought I had time, but it was almost my turn.
After the sluggish girl who was currently on the platform, it’ll be the girl with a weak impression before me, and then me. I already decided what to say, so once it’s my turn I’ll quickly get done with it and then return to my seat. As long as I don’t make a blunder, I don’t really wish for anything else.
I don’t intend to become friends with anyone in this classroom. As long as I have this novel, as long as I have Tokiko, I’ll never feel bored.
I really thought like this.
“I’m Hiiragi Tokiko.”
The attendance number just before mine.
While thinking “She has the same name as Tokiko,” I looked up towards the platform and it felt like time had stopped.
“I’m from Shouan Middle School, and my hobby is reading. I have an older sister. In middle school I was in the literature club.”
Languid, almond-shaped, darkish eyes.
A bob cut, black hair and eyelashes that you can grasp the length of even at this distance.
A slender body wearing a brand new blazer not fitting to her, the sunlight shone lightly on her white porcelain-like skin, and her thin neck was like delicate glasswork.
Reflexively, I looked at the “14 Years Old”’s cover in my hand.
They look exactly the same.
The girl drawn on the illustration and the girl right in front of me looked exactly the same.
That wasn’t all. I looked at the platform again. An emerald green hair ornament matching with her pretty looks. A clear and beautiful voice. She stood straight with her gaze looking down.
I got a flashback about Tokiko’s own description in the book.
──The jade hair ornament I received seems to have been made during the start of the Showa era. It isn’t from some brand, it’s mine alone, and my treasure.
──A clear and dignified voice. Even if people praise it, i yearn for a different voice. A low voice, a husky voice, a hoarse voice. I’m sure such kinds of voices represent the life that their owner has lived.
──I’m standing in front of everyone in the classroom. Only the ones in front can see me. That’s why, at least, I must stand straight while enduring everyone’s stares.
What’s more, her family name is the same as the author of “14 Years Old”, Hiiragi. And thinking about it, the Tokiko in the novel had a sister and she was also in the literature club…
No, let’s drop the minor details.
More than anything, the presence of Hiiragi Tokiko, her somehow noble yet lonely aura, was exactly how I had imagined Tokiko.
Totally ignoring reason and common sense, I felt it.
It’s Tokiko. Tokiko is right here.
The girl from the novel is right before my eyes.
My vision shook. I felt a strong sense of dizziness.
My sense of reality disappeared, and instead a strange sensation, as if I had entered into the world of stories, replaced it.
“…Please treat me well.”
Said Hiiragi Tokiko, then she bowed slightly and went down from the platform.
Hands clapped for the twentieth or something time.
In this noise, Hiiragi Tokiko trotted to her seat as if heading towards a shelter from the rain.
“… Hey, next one!”
Hearing the teacher’s voice, I came back to my senses.
Everyone was looking at me.
“…Ah, yes! I’m sorry!”
I hurriedly stood up and went towards the platform.
“And this week’s travel on foot is at the Hida Mountains! Also called the little Kyoto, Hida is an old fashioned town full of charms. In the previous location Mikami-san and Tsuchida-san had a little dispute, so how will the travel unfold──”
“The Hida Mountains, huh, how nostalgic, Honey,” said my father while watching the TV as he drunk beer.
Mom answered from the kitchen,
“The Hida Mountains? What about it?”
“It’s a TV show about a trip. We went there when we were students.”
“Ah, a TV show… But we went there? I don’t remember.”
“… How cruel. Though it’s true we went to many places…”
Twenty minutes from school on foot.
In my house just barely in Tokyo’s 23rd ward, my parents, me and our cat, Shishamo, were together in the living room.
Lying sprawled out on the sofa, I was remembering what had happened today.
Hiiragi Tokiko. The girl looking exactly like Tokiko from “14 Years Old”.
I was pretty confused, but thinking about it, it wasn’t something amazing.
It was simply an accidental resemblance.
We’re not in a fantasy world, and characters from stories can’t just appear in the real world.
It was by chance that they looked alike, and they had the same name. Just that was already a huge coincidence, but searching amongst all the girls of the same age in Japan, it wouldn’t be weird to find one.
In the first place, I’m not even sure I was calm enough when I looked at Hiiragi.
Tomorrow, if I look calmly at her, it’s possible that they won’t actually look that much alike.
“Good morning! I looked forward to coming to the Hida Mountains. I hope this time we will have a calm trip, hahaha, well then, let’s go!”
“Ah, it’s the Takayama Station. Look, Honey, I bought you a sarubobo here!”
“Really! Look, here! On that corner! We presented each other a sarubobo for work fortune! Around the time we started job hunting!”
“You really don’t remember?… Even though your smile at that time is clearly etched in my memory…”
Dad dropped his shoulders, disappointed.
However, Mom suddenly made a face as if she had noticed something,
“… Umm? When we started job hunting?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Just around the end of our third year…”
Speaking until there, Dad suddenly shut up.
Mom squinted her eyes and looked down on Dad.
“… You know, Dear, we met during an unofficial job offer party, right?”
“So that means that we didn’t know each other during our third year, right?”
“Then, I wonder who is the one etched clearly in your memory?”
“… A-ahahah. Well, you know… err…”
“Seems like it was a really fun trip.”
“No, well… umm…”
Then Dad suddenly turned towards me,
“B-by the way, Akira! Today was, you know, your school entrance ceremony, right? So, how was it? Think everything will go well!?”
“What? School entrance ceremony?”
I involuntarily doubted what I had heard because of how badly he tried to change the subject.
“Yeah, that. Err, the next three years are important for your future! Studies, club or love or whatever, you should devote yourself entirely to them! Then, you should quickly start to think about your future──”
Whoa, that’s awful.
Even if you want to gloss over your error, there should be a better way to go about it. I’m sure even Dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“Talking about the future, you’re going to get the right to vote soon, Akira! Young people complain that they don’t know about politics, so you need to start──”
He’s straying more and more off topic. I won’t have the right to vote for two more years, you know. You, what are you trying to do, Dad?
Then with good timing, my smartphone vibrated in my pocket.
“… Wait, someone’s calling.”
Stopping the conversation, I stood up and went to the hallway, my Dad imploring me to not go in the back.
Looking at the screen, “Call from Itsuka” was displayed.
… Sudou, huh. Not really someone I want to talk to, but it’s better than being involved in a married couple quarrel.
“Hello, you busy?”
Answering the call, I could hear a cheerful voice the moment I put the phone against my ear.
“No, no problem.”
“Great. So, how was your first day? How was your class?”
“Even if you ask me how they were…”
I thought about Hiiragi Tokiko for an instant, but,
“Nothing special, the usual,” I answered nonchalantly.
“I see. Well, that’s fine then. Just wondering if it went well for you.”
I’ve known Sudou Itsuka since primary school. We’ve been in the same class for nine years, and now, after entering Miyamae High, it was the first time we were separated.
She’s one of the two persons who worry about me since I had started to avoid people, so she calls me once in a while.
I’m sure she’s worried about me, who has isolated himself from people, in her own way. Even though I don’t want her to.
“Once things have settled down, let’s invite Shuuji and go play again together.”
“If I feel like it.”
“Even if you don’t feel like it, I’m going to invite you. That’s all, see ya.”
The call ended with this short reply.
I sighed, went to my room then threw my phone on my bed.
“Go play again together, huh.”
Just like my phone, I let myself fall on my bed, ruminating about these words.
How can she expect something from me?
Even though Sudou is the one who knows best the reason I don’t want to be involved with people.
The next morning.
Arriving barely on time in front of my classroom, I had a bad premonition hearing the noise on the other side of the door.
A few guys were talking. I think I’m hearing four or five people talking around the fourth row from the right entrance, so near to my seat.
… What a pain.
If there’s one using my seat I’ll have to ask him to move.
I want to live as quietly as possible, without having to talk to anyone. So having to call out to a classmate that early in the morning is seriously annoying.
I opened the door dejectedly,
“Oh, you’re from Kamiogi’s basketball club! They’re strong!”
“Thanks to the Senpais! We lost to Shouan, though.”
And sure enough, a few guys and girls were around my seat.
But, should I call it a small mercy, my seat was at the edge of the group, so nobody was sitting on it.
“Ah, morning. Err… Hosono?”
“… Yeah, morning.”
The moment I placed my bag on my desk, a guy from the group greeted me familiarly.
“Sorry for taking so much place around your seat.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
I took out my pencil box from my bag, putting it on the desk while giving a short reply. Seems like I managed to avoid an annoying conversation.
However, I noticed.
The girl in the seat in front of me, Hiiragi Tokiko seemed uncomfortable as she was surrounded by a part of the group.
My heart made a large beat, as if trying to fly out my mouth.
Even after a day, Hiiragi still looked just like Tokiko.
Her looks, her atmosphere and her listless complexion were just like I had imagined them.
So it really wasn’t just my imagination yesterday.
Moreover, it made me remember a passage from “14 Years Old’.
──As I grew older, I became a coward.
In the time it takes for my classmates to talk about the weather, make-up, or the films that they saw recently, I pass all my time searching for the first word to say, looking around restlessly like an idiot.
In front of my eyes, “I pass all my time searching for the first word to say, looking around restlessly” was clearly describing how Hiiragi Tokiko looked like right now.
I don’t know how to enter the conversation. In the first place, I don’t know why I am here. These two sentences described her current expression.
Most likely, the group moved around her seat after she sat down. It seems like Hiiragi resembles Tokiko on the inside too.
“Ah, by the way,” a girl from the group turned her gaze towards Hiiragi, “you’re from Shouan right, Hiiragi-chan?”
“Y-yes,” Hiiragi answered timidly.
“Then you know Tsuzuki-senpai!? He was in the basketball club, super strong and really handsome, so he was super popular!”
Hiiragi made a troubled face, and after worrying a little,
“S-sorry, I don’t know him…”
“Hey, Hiiragi-chan was in the literature club, remember? Then it’s no wonder that she doesn’t know about a Senpai from a sport club.”
“But Tsuzuki-senpai was pretty famous…”
Hiiragi continued to look uncomfortable as the conversation continued.
Somehow, just looking at her made me feel like choking.
They don’t have any ill will. They just want to profit off their short free time before class.
But I perfectly understood how Hiiragi felt, so I prayed for homeroom to start quickly in my mind.
“If you were in the literature club, that means you read many books?”
They continued to ask questions to Hiiragi.
“What kind of novel do you like? I’m not very knowledgeable about them, do you have a recommendation?”
Hiiragi frowned a little, her gaze lowered as she started thinking seriously about it.
──”What do you like about this book?”
When my sister asked me that, it made me want to cry.
I can only express my love for a novel with my own words chosen for myself. Feelings are personal, they’re something private you can’t share nor explain. That’s why, I keep them in my head just like a squirrel keeping food when hibernating during winter.
It felt like she had pointed out that doing that was insincere.
I think I’m not wrong to think that it’s an accidental resemblance.
I mean, it’s impossible for the heroine of a book to appear in reality.
Still, the girl before my eyes, Hiiragi Tokiko looked like she was in dire distress, just like Tokiko when she felt that “Feelings are personal, they’re something private you can’t share nor explain”.
And that’s why,
“… Somehow, she looks like she would like old literature.”
Unconsciously, I started to talk.
“Something from early Showa… rather than something with an impressive development, she gives the image of liking feminine and tranquil works made by female authors. With a woman as a protagonist…”
Everyone from the group stared at me, who had suddenly started to talk.
They had an Eh, what…? Why did that guy start to talk…? like expression.
But amongst them, only Hiiragi said “Y-yes,” looking at me as if she was looking at a rare creature.
“You’re, right. Exactly like you said…”
“… Just like I thought. Somehow you give the vibe you’d like that. I read that kind of novel rather often too…”
While making it look like I was calm as I was talking, the truth was that I was pretty surprised from Hiiragi’s affirmation.
I got it right.
What I said was exactly what Tokiko said she liked in “14 Years Old”.
It’s not that peculiar of a taste. I’m sure there are as many girls who like Showa’s literature for women as there are stars.
However, her looks, her atmosphere, her name and even her taste in novels. Even if this a coincidence, I think it’s quite a rare case.
As I was thinking such things, the chime signaling the beginning of homeroom rang.
With some “Already?” and “Later,” each person of the group went back to their seat.
Hiiragi, relieved, took a short breath, then glanced briefly my way with her eyes narrowed in question.
And that, too, overlapped with my image of Tokiko, giving me a strange sense of uneasiness.
“Well then that’s it for today. See you tomorrow!”
The last homeroom ended and my classmates left their seat noisily.
Some were making plans to go play with others, some were promising to go look at clubs together, another hurriedly left the classroom, and amongst them, Hiiragi was quietly putting her things away in her bag.
If it was Tokiko… I thought, as I looked at the back of her bob cut.
If Hiiragi was Tokiko… She would go back home immediately. It seems like she was a member of her club only on paper in middle school, so I feel like she would just leave school, stop by the bookstore, and if a new book interests her then she’d buy it.
When I was thinking that,
She dropped something.
It rolled on the ground until it hit my foot.
I reflexively bent and picked it up.
It was shining black with a gold coloured ornament, a palm-sized writing implement.
It was a fountain pen.
I’m not even surprised at this point.
Tokiko too carried a fountain pen, she had received it from her sister. When I read that, I saved up a little money and bought one for myself to imitate her.
And today, it kept happening again and again.
During lunch break, Hiiragi ate her lunch box, which looked homemade, alone at her desk. Said lunch box was made of wood and had two layers. Tokiko made her and her sister’s lunches everyday, and if I remember correctly the lunch box depicted was something similar too.
During all the breaks, she spent her time reading. Contrary to what you would normally expect from her, it was a foreign novel titled “The Scream of Auction Number 49”. The same novel that Tokiko had said that she would like to try herself at reading once she gets into high school in “14 Years Old”.
At first, I was surprised each time I found something they had in common.
But after lunch break, conversely I had frantically started to search for differences between them.
Because I searched what they had in common, I found them. Surely it must have been because deep down I had some expectations. That’s why, if I search for differences, I should definitely find them. Or so I thought.
However, Hiiragi continued to behave like Tokiko.
When designated by the teacher, Hiiragi smoothly read out an old text using the former writing system. During PE, she tied up her short hair behind her head. During the last homeroom, she listened to the teacher with her back straight.
Her every behavior matched perfectly with my impression of Tokiko and her portrayal I had in my mind.
I know that a character from a novel can’t appear in reality.
And yet, Hiiragi who was nothing but the perfect representation of Tokiko was gradually destroying my reason and common sense.
“I’m sorry,” said Hiiragi turning towards me apologetically as I was looking at the fountain pen.
“Thank you for picking it up.”
Her eyes, which gave a big impression because of her small face, looked at me from point-blank range.
“Ah, no problem… Still, it’s rare to be using a fountain pen…”
“Umm… My sister gave it to me.”
“Ooh, I, see… Actually, I got one too.”
“Really? Hosono-kun too…”
Perhaps it interested her, Hiiragi peered at me.
I reflexively looked away from her.
“There was the thing this morning too… Perhaps we have the same tastes?”
I can’t hold back anymore.
I don’t know what’s happening, or what kind of reason is at work here.
Even so, I want to know the relation between Hiiragi and Tokiko.
Even if there isn’t one, I’m fine with that.
As I started to talk, Hiiragi stiffened up to the point that even an outsider could understand.
“Hiiragi’s favourite novel, it’s ‘Wanderings in the Realm of the Seventh Sense’ from Ozaki Midori, right?”
The instant I said that, Hiiragi opened her eyes wide.
She opened her mouth slightly, looked at me blankly for a moment then answered shortly after.
And one more. But I guess it’s still in the realm of being just a coincidence, so let’s try to question about more private things.
“You have an oil painting you received from your grandmother in your bedroom?”
“Every week you listen to the radio broadcast made by some university students?”
She didn’t answer anymore.
To the dumbfounded Hiiragi, I asked the last question:
“Hiiragi, do you think that you want to live beautifully?”
I don’t know what’s happening, or what kind of reason is at work here.
Still, if she can understand this question.
If when asked this she can understand the meaning of the question.
Then there would be no doubt that Hiiragi is Tokiko.
Hiiragi looked at me, trembling slightly.
But a few seconds later, she made the face of someone who understood something.
“… Could it be…” Hiiragi murmured, “Hosono-kun, could it be that… you read…”
“Read this book?”
I took out “14 Years Old” from inside my desk.
The next instant, Hiiragi caught my arm with incredible swiftness.
I could feel her cold fingers on my wrist.
“Eh!? Wait, what are you…”
“Come with me,” said Hiiragi looking at her wits’ end. “I’ll explain, so come with me,” she said as she left her seat.
Her expression was serious, and she looked pretty cornered, so,
I agreed, left my seat and followed Hiiragi silently.
We went out of the classroom, walked through the hallway, traversed the passage towards the club building, climbed the stairs, then Hiiragi finally stopped in front of a door where “Temporary Classroom” was written.
We could hear the workshop’s machines-like beat of drums, and the long tones of trumpets sounding like a worn out klaxon.
Behind the window, the members of the baseball club were doing some kind of training on the sports ground.
I don’t see signs of anyone around. Seems like the guys in the cultural clubs don’t really come here.
“W-what’s the matter…” I asked Hiiragi nervously after she had finally let go of my hand.
“… You read it?”
Hiiragi looked at me at point-blank range.
It was kind of discomforting, so I unintentionally twisted my body.
“You read it…?,” repeated Hiiragi.
Then I finally understood that she was talking about “14 Years Old”.
“Y-yeah, I read it…”
Hiiragi let out a miserable voice, then put both of her hands on her face.
Her white cheeks tinged red before my eyes.
“… Of course. It was obvious… that I would meet someone who had read it one day…”
“… Can you explain?”
I made up my mind and started to talk:
“The heroine of this novel, Tokiko… She really resembles you, Hiiragi. Be it the appearance, or the personality, not only that, basically everything…”
“The fountain pen and your favourite novel, they were written in ‘14 Years Old’. And the painting from your grandmother in your bedroom, as well as the radio broadcast too.”
“… You really remember the content of this novel.”
“Well yeah, I reread it many times after all.”
I reflexively trembled a little from her sudden rise in voice.
Changing her expression totally from earlier, she pressed me,
“Err, well… Because I really liked it.”
“Umm, for one, I really understand Tokiko’s feelings… and well, because I simply just really like this novel.”
“… I-I see,” said Hiiragi, then she finally drew back and took a short breath.
My stiff body calmed down, and I loosened the strength of my grip.
Then she blushed faintly, and with a slight smile,
“It’s the first time someone has said something like that to me…”
From the way she spoke, there was no doubt that Hiiragi knew “14 Years Old”. More than that, it looked like she had some sort of deep attachment to it.
“… Umm, you see…”
Hiiragi searched for words for an instant, looking down. Then, after looking away, most likely hesitating to speak, she turned towards me with a determined expression and said:
“The author, Hiiragi Tokoro… she’s my sister, and ‘14 Years Old’ is a novel written about me. So, the Tokiko in this novel, it’s me…”
A few seconds after hearing these words, the meaning finally made its way to my brain.
The heat I felt throughout my body wasn’t from something as simple as just being shocked.
I had trouble breathing, my mind became numb and became hot. My hands were trembling, and my legs grew weak.
My thoughts suddenly became vague, and my vision fuzzy.
Tokiko was before my eyes.
My impression wasn’t wrong.
“14 Years Old” is a novel about Hiiragi Tokiko made by her sister.
So in short, my classmate, Hiiragi Tokiko, was the protagonist of “14 Years Old”, Tokiko herself.
She didn’t show me any proof. In fact, I never met Hiiragi’s sister, so it could just be her spouting nonsense.
Still, I easily believed her words.
If not, how would I be able to explain how much Hiiragi and Tokiko resembled each other.
Once the heat passed on, I was trembling with excitement.
“This novel, I really like it! Seriously, amongst all the books I read, it’s the one I found the most interesting!”
“R-really?… Thank you…”
Hiiragi looked away, blushing faintly.
“I rarely have such thoughts, but I could feel real empathy towards Tokiko, each of her words are full of persuasiveness… I felt like I had a comrade in there.”
“Thank you… This novel, it’s a little like a diary of my middle school days… so it makes me happy for you to be saying that…”
“I see, considering Hiiragi’s point of view, that would be the case… Umm, more importantly, err… Right! The ‘I’m not different from them’ part! You know, ‘I’m different from everyone and I’m the same as everyone, no matter which one, the moment you put others on a different axis, they’re the same’! I thought it was totally right, it’s something really perceptive to point out──”
Hiiragi pushed her palm towards me, her face bright red.
“It’s embarrassing, so stop… Speaking about the contents is…”
“Err, ah, yeah, s-sorry…” I hurriedly stopped myself from talking, “Could it be you don’t really want to talk about it…?”
“… Umm, well, that’s not really it,” Hiiragi lowered her sight, searched for words for a moment, and then, “I don’t mind talking about ‘14 Years Old’. It really depicts my feelings and thoughts very well, and even now I think the same way as I did in the book… But, to hear someone talking about it, how to say it, it’s like listening to a recording of myself…”
“… I see.”
I kinda felt like I got it.
Certainly, hearing someone read out aloud sentences from your thoughts and feelings must be embarrassing.
My tension was too high causing me to talk too much.
“… But you know, it’s amazing. To become the protagonist of a novel I mean.”
I hurriedly suppressed my excitement and this time what came to mind was pure admiration.
I couldn’t really calm myself down completely. Though I guess it’s normal, considering the situation.
“What’s more, it’s quite well rated, no? I think I saw somewhere that the literary critics had given it rave reviews.”
While the sales of “14 Years Old” were average, it was supported by some maniac fans. In fact, it still gets some small articles in a few magazines, and many zealous reviews praise it as an unknown masterpiece on the Internet.
“You’re right… It seems even the editorial department rated it rather well, so they started talks about a sequel with my sister…”
“Yes, though the release date and all aren’t fixed at all.”
That’s the best news I could hear.
After all, my only gripe with “14 Years Old” is its shortness.
Though it being short for a full length novel is one of the reasons, it’s more that it’s wasteful to have Tokiko’s charm contained in only a single volume. I always thought that they should absolutely publish a sequel.
“I see. Well… I’m looking forward to it, really.”
“Thank you. I’ll tell my sister too… A-also, umm,” Hiiragi blushed once again, “I would like it if you kept it secret that I appear in a novel. Because… well, you know, there are some rather embarrassing scenes…”
“… Ah, yeah.”
Just after being told that, I remembered.
There is a bath scene where Tokiko thinks about her body. A passage where she thinks that her breasts getting bigger was unpleasant, but she can’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, though, a guy like me couldn’t sympathise with her on that.
But I see.
What was depicted is the Hiiragi in front of my eyes, her feelings and her body──
As I was thinking that, I looked towards Hiiragi’s chest for an instant.
The moderate twin bulges pushing up her blouse.
I strangely felt guilty, so I hurriedly looked away.
Perhaps she noticed… That I glanced at her chest.
If so, then it’s the worst. Glancing at her chest while remembering the bath scene from the novel, it’d be an understatement to just call that disgusting.
Seriously, what am I doing…
“W-well, that’s all I wanted to say…”
I don’t know if she noticed it or not, but Hiiragi said that with a stiff tone.
“I’m sorry, to bring you to such a place so suddenly…”
“N-no, I don’t mind.”
I shook my head like a dog who got drenched with water.
“Thank you… Well, with this…”
Hiiragi bowed her head a little, then she turned and left towards the classroom building.
I couldn’t see her back anymore.
I could faintly hear the drums’ beat and the long tones.
And I was still confused, as a psychedelic whirlpool was swirling in my mind.
That night, I had quite a hard time falling asleep.
Excitement and confusion. The joy of having Tokiko in my class, and regret from my rude glance. It was the first time in my life that I had felt so many feelings so vividly at the same time.
What will I do from now on?, I thought as I laid down on my bed.
I will get to be with Tokiko for at least a year. During that time, I wonder what will I encounter, and what will I experience.
Or perhaps, nothing will happen.
After all, I’m supposed to keep the secret about her being the heroine of “14 Years Old”, so we can’t really talk about it in the classroom. So maybe we will just live on as “only classmates” until graduation. Considering my personality, it’s the most possible outcome.
… But well, that’s just how it is.
The only thing I want is to live alone, without being involved with anyone.
The same goes for Hiiragi, so it wouldn’t do good for any of us by closing the distance between us.
I looked up at the clock while sighing, it was already 3am.
Then, the next morning.
I opened my shoe rack half asleep, and inside was a small letter.
──I thought about various things and there is something I want to talk about. Please come see me after school. Hiiragi.
Black ink from a fountain pen. Different from the girls in my class, it was written elegantly.
Without a doubt it was Tokiko── it was Hiiragi who wrote this letter.
“I’m sorry, right after what I said yesterday…”
While walking a little ahead of me Hiiragi turned her head towards me feeling sorry.
“There’s something that I really want to talk about…”
As usual, her expression was the same as my image of Tokiko, and just like yesterday I was still in a sort of intoxicated state, so I shook my head nervously.
“Yeah, well, I don’t mind it…”
After school, just like the letter asked I went to see Hiiragi, then she told me to follow her and we went out of the school.
Then we passed the shopping district and the station, and were now currently at the residential area. Yet, she still didn’t tell me where we were going.
Where are we going? And what does she want to talk to me about?
I looked at Hiiragi’s back, gradually being filled with anxiety.
It can’t be… She’s going to make me sign a contract to not reveal anything? While being only a mid sized company, the Machida Edition who published “14 Years Old” is still a veteran in the field. Perhaps they have procedures to respect the privacy of the author and their relatives.
Or maybe Hiiragi noticed my glance yesterday and wants to tell me to never talk to her again. I’m sure that I was pretty creepy back then.
Thanks to “14 Years Old” I’m supposed to know rather accurately about her personality and the way she thinks.
And yet, no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t understand what Hiiragi wanted to do.
Finally, we arrived in front of a park.
A children’s park in the middle of the residential area, around half the size of a 25 meters pool. Kids back from their kindergarten classes were running around, and the mothers were intimately talking to each other on the benches.
“Let’s talk here,” said Hiiragi, heading towards a vacant bench.
Seeing how naturel she felt, I finally noticed.
This was the park which appeared many times in “14 Years Old”, Tokiko’s favourite place. When she usually had a dispute with her sister or felt down, Tokiko often came here and passed the time idling around.
“So this place is…”
Coming to the “stage” of my favourite work, isn’t that basically what’s called a pilgrimage? I wasn’t particularly interested in these kind of things, but actually being here it’s pretty moving. What’s more, the protagonist is actually next to me.
“Umm… I’m sorry,” Hiiragi started to speak, “for making you come here. But it’s a little difficult to talk at school, so…”
Hiiragi started to explain nervously. Considering her character, it’s probably the first time she took out a classmate somewhere.
“Ah, well, no, don’t worry about it, it’s not like I had something planned.”
“Thank you. Well then, about the thing I wanted to talk about…”
Hiiragi hung her head, then started to mumble a few words for a while.
Then, probably having resolved herself, she suddenly raised her face and said:
“I have a favour to ask of you.”
“… A favour?”
I couldn’t help but repeat the words because of how unexpected they were.
What does she mean? A favour to ask? To me? Like I thought, she doesn’t want me to talk to her again──
“Please help me.”
My thoughts came to a stop.
“Umm, I thought about it for the whole night then I noticed. That you helped me yesterday morning, Hosono-kun. When I was helpless and couldn’t answer, you intervened to make it easier for me. When it happened, I didn’t notice it at all. I just thought that there was someone else who liked Japanese literature. But… actually, that was you helping me, right?”
I was at a loss for words for an instant. I helped her. Saying that makes it look good, but actually it was also me investigating her. Unlike what Hiiragi said, it wasn’t an act based purely on my sense of justice.
“Well, yeah, you’re right. But you know, a big part of it was also me wanting to know why Hiiragi looked so much like Tokiko…”
“Even so, it really helped me. I’m always like that, so I make the ambiance awkward. I would like to improve a little, but I don’t know how to…”
I remembered that even in the novel, there were scenes where Tokiko couldn’t talk clearly with people.
That she still didn’t solve this problem was obvious enough looking at what happened yesterday.
“You see, I thought you were really kind, Hosono-kun. That you had to be a good person for helping a stranger like me.”
“You’re… thinking too highly of me.”
I understood her feelings to a certain degree, but I couldn’t agree about me being kind. I’m not the good guy she thinks I am.
“That’s not true,” said Hiiragi shaking her head obstinately. “You see, I think it’s like this. A kind person isn’t always a good person, and a good person isn’t always a kind person. But… Someone not aware of their own kindness is without a doubt a good person and a kind person too.”
“… I see.”
Even though she praised me, I didn’t feel like it was true, so I couldn’t feel embarrassed.
However, hearing her remarks, I felt it once again.
These thoughts and this way of thinking… It was unmistakably Tokiko who I was talking with right now.
“That’s why, if possible… Would you help me, Hosono-kun? Umm, until I can get used to everyone, as well as a few other things, could you help me like you did yesterday…? I’ll do anything I can as thanks…” said Hiiragi carefully, her gaze wandering around.
Then, looking apologetic, she looked towards me,
“I’m sorry for being selfish. But by myself I just don’t know what to do…”
──I’m sorry for being selfish. In no way am I as strong as you think I am.
I remembered that line from Tokiko in “14 Years Old”.
Right now, Tokiko herself said words that really resembled those to me.
I took a big breath, then spat out the air slowly.
Looking around the park, kids were still shouting happily, and the mothers zealously chattering. The slides had rust on them, the sandbox had a net hanging around it. The driver for a home delivery service company was asking for the sign on a voucher to its recipient; a bicycle made a strident sound when it stopped suddenly.
And, next to me, was a high school girl in her uniform.
Hiiragi Tokiko, looking at her feets anxiously.
In a way, you can say that we’re continuing after the epilogue of “14 Years Old” here.
Continuing after the time Tokiko passed in the novel.
She became 15, and this is a new page of the high school girl Hiiragi Tokiko’s daily life.
And there, not only do I exist, but she even asked me for my help.
I’m becoming a character of her story──.
… My head and my feelings couldn’t keep up anymore.
Even though Hiiragi appearing in front of me should be a coincidence happening only once in a lifetime, instead of everything going back to normal, it’s starting to develop in a really strange direction.
…What should I do?
Should I accept? Or should I refuse?
I intended to not involve myself with others in high school, just like in middle school.
Keep the conversations and the committee work to the minimum, and not join any clubs. Same for my human relations, I intended to keep them as small as possible.
Based on these principles, I should refuse without hesitation.
“… Okay,” I said, nodding at Hiiragi. “If there’s something I can help with, I will.”
“Yeah, though I don’t think I can help you that much…”
There was no way I could refuse.
Tokiko is asking for my help. I, who was yearning for her and continued to receive her influence, am needed by her. It was impossible for me to ignore her wish.
There was also the feeling of wanting to be near Hiiragi.
I wanted to look at her, listen to her words, observe her actions.
I’m sure that many readers would love to look at the Tokiko from after the story. And most likely, I was the only one in the whole world who could get this privilege right now. I couldn’t think about letting that right go away right before my eyes.
Also, I think I can manage.
I know Hiiragi’s hobbies and her personality pretty well. After all, I read, read and reread again and again the novel about her for a year. If I was asked by someone else I would hesitate, but if it’s Hiiragi, I felt like I could manage.
I don’t know how helpful I’d be.
Still, I don’t think that she’ll think it’d have been better if she didn’t ask.
In that case, I want to help Hiiragi.
Hiiragi smiled. Her white and soft cheeks loosened, and she narrowed her almond eyes slightly.
It was like the first smile of a newborn baby, a defenseless cherubic smile.
“Please take care of me from now on.”
Then I noticed.
That until just now, Hiiragi didn’t smile a single time.
──Being sly, yet holding expectations, even if I finally feel ashamed now, I can’t say anything. That’s why, I only blink solemnly.
(14 Years Old/Hiiragi Tokoro – Machida Edition)