After returning home, Homura lay down face-up on her bed.
She raised her palm and partially blotted out the sunlight with her fingers, making shadow images on the wall.
Now that she thought about it, she had merely been subjected to criticisms over her club entry by the club that had forcibly invited her to join. She hadn’t actually lost anything.
She just felt a little shocked by how she was systemically told the same disparaging words of scorn that her sister always used from someone else.
Once again, her lazy and disinterested personality, making her incapable of continuing anything for long, had been scorned.
“It doesn’t matter…”
Homura mumbled that as she tossed and turned on her bed.
It wasn’t like she couldn’t live without any ambition, and it wasn’t like she would definitely be rewarded if she worked hard either.
She didn’t look down on others.
She had never wanted to win at something or defeat someone.
But, just as she had been about to leave, the Exploration Club advisor had told her one final thing.
“If you want to have your club entry approved, go and win first place in the Shinryoku1 Festival here. It can be in any category. Just make sure you get first place. Prove that you won’t lose to anyone of this school in a certain field.”
As a festival lover herself, Homura had been looking forward to the Shinryoku Festival at school.
Sponsored by the student council, it was a slightly odd event that was meant to greet the new students, occurring after the completion of the mid-term exams.
If she remembered right, she should have had a print-out containing details on the event.
After thinking of that, Homura reached for her bag from the bed… but her arm couldn’t reach, so she stretched out her toes and picked up her bag with them.
She turned over the bag, and out from it fell the Exploration Club’s advertising pamphlet that she’d left in there since yesterday.
On the pamphlet that was slightly more slender than a textbook, the words “Exploration Club Guide” were written with a background depicting a wild and natural landscape on top of a smooth and sleek cover.
The title was inscribed in gold leaf, as if it were surrounded by holographic rings.
When she turned it over, she found various corporate names listed on the backside.
“Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications… Ministry of Foreign Affairs… UNPIEP…? What’s that supposed to stand for…? United Nations Pioneering Imaginary Earth Program…? What’s that?”
It was a list of stiff and formal words without a single character of hiragana2. That alone made her tired of reading it.
For Homura, to whom ‘books’ meant fashion magazines, this book was too much for her brain.
Having lost any interest in turning the pages of the pamphlet, Homura idly traced the holographic letters on the cover, and she recalled Touya’s words from earlier.
It was all Touya’s fault that her mood was messed up.
The pattern was always the same with boys who approached her.
They either wanted Homura or held some childish competitiveness that made them want to prove their superiority over her. She wasn’t used to being easily ignored as she was now at her current school.
In that environment, Touya was, to her, the first Unidentified Boy Object (UBO) for her to have a close encounter with.
Miss Fujimori was also plenty strange herself, but Homura could understand her rude words. When she talked with her more closely outside of the classroom, Homura immediately understood that she was plenty feminine. The reason she repressed it was surely out of antagonism towards men.
Touya had muttered that while pushing his bicycle.
‘You’re giving up with just this? You don’t want me?’ Unable to say such misdirected words, Homura had parted with him while the atmosphere remained awkward between them.
Just as the sun was about to set and her room was darkening, a knock came from her door.
A cheeky voice came from the other side of the door.
“Homura? Are you planning to sleep for three years? Dad has come home.”
Homura’s father, Hinooka Masafumi, followed the creed of returning home early and eating together with the entire family at least twice a week. This was just about the only thing that Homura was able to continue doing without giving up after a while. Even when she had a boyfriend, she admirably followed this family tradition without ever skipping. Well, with her younger sister Tsuyu getting busier studying for her entrance exams, that too would only last until next year when Tsuyu would advance to high school.
Without looking through the pamphlet in the end, Homura went downstairs and sat at the dining table.
Tonight’s dinner was cheese fondue. The smell of wine permeated the air.
Her younger sister skillfully cut a baguette into cubes with a long bread-cutting knife.
“Here’s the ladle.”
Tsuyu handed a fondue-use wooden spatula to her mother.
Homura liked how the fondue with its alcohol burner lit on the table had a bit of a camp-like, rustic beauty to it. According to her mother Serina, it was a meal that gave off the atmosphere of sitting together in a happy circle, while requiring overwhelmingly easy preparations to make in comparison.
As such, even outside of the winter season, the Hinooka family would often eat this fondue meal.
“Homura, the pot.”
Poked by her younger sister, Homura tore her gaze away from absently watching the TV and frantically stirred the pot. If the contents of the pot burned and became sticky, the fondue would become the worst picture of Hell.
Her younger sister grumbled in her usual tone.
“It would be nice if we could buy a fondue-use electromagnetic cooker or a hotplate…”
“Eh, but that’s a good pot. Isn’t it cute?” Homura protested while arranging the mini-salad bowl.
“I also like it. You don’t see this kind of design anymore. Right?” her mother said, smiling gently at Homura’s words.
Homura’s mother was young and kind.
These days, there were times when she and Homura were mistaken for sisters while they were shopping.
Homura resembled her mother, and her younger sister clearly resembled their father. In particular, her sister and father were both short-sighted.
“Then make sure not to burn it, Homura.” Tsuyu grumbled. “It’s always a trouble to wash it afterwards.”
“I’ll wash it myself.”
“Tsuyu, you shouldn’t address your sister so impolitely.”
Their father, having just gotten out of the bath, sat down at the table.
Tsuyu glared at her father with a frown.
“Hmm? What’s wrong?”
“Masafumi-san, please make sure to leave water in the bath for the girls later.”
“Ah. I forgot,” their father said as he gaped.
The way he couldn’t oppose his wife’s words at all was their father’s cute point.
“I don’t mind at all,” Homura said.
“I can’t believe you,” Tsuyu grumbled as she struck her bread-cutting knife against the cutting board with a bang.
“Sorry, Tsuyu. You too, Homura. I’ll pay more attention next time.”
The family had gathered around the table.
They made silly and trifling conversation.
They talked about how the family car was being examined and how they would have to use a loaned car for a while, and Tsuyu complained about how she wanted to go to a different cram school.
Suddenly, during a news flash on the TV, Homura saw familiar letters dance across the screen.
“UNPIEP… is it pronounced ‘anpiepu’?” Homura murmured.
“It’s an acronym, so it doesn’t really matter how you pronounce it. More importantly, do you even know its official name?”
Homura wanted to smash the piping hot fondue against Tsuyu’s irritating face.
“O-Of course I know it. It’s called the United… League of… Gi… Giant Stuffed Animals… or something.”
“Wrong. Was that on purpose? It’s the United Nations Pioneering Imaginary Earth Program3!”
“Hmm. So, what is it?”
Both her sister and father drooped their shoulders despondently.
“It appears in Social Studies tests these days, you know?”
Tsuyu strongly nodded at her father’s words.
“Sorry. Don’t know it. It’s probably something from Tsuyu’s grade.”
“There’s no way that could be,” Tsuyu retorted. “It’s common knowledge. It’s fundamental knowledge these days.”
“UN… I don’t know anything about that kind of thing either,” their mother admitted.
“Ah, that’s right. They call it by the popular name ‘Imaginary Earth Nutella’ on the news. They might start making insurance related to the Imaginary Earth at my company too.”
“Oh my, is that so? But didn’t they say that they still don’t know much about it?”
“That’s exactly why. In the first place, insurance companies originated from dispatching collateral to aristocrats when trading vessels sunk during the Great Age of Exploration.”
“You mean Lloyd’s insurance market in England, right?”
“Yeah, right. You’re quite knowledgeable, Tsuyu,” their father complimented.
Homura’s chest slightly prickled.
Imaginary Earth Nutella… Speaking of which, she felt like she’d heard of it before… or not.
“That Imaginary Earth thing, it might be connected to the Exploration Club.”
Her glasses-wearing father and sister were once again left dumbfounded.
“Geez, could you two stop with that face?” Homura protested as she jabbed her metal chopsticks into a piece of bread.
“You’re interested in the Exploration Club, Homura-chan?” her mother asked.
“Err, rather than interested…”
“Homura—Onee-chan, you aren’t in any clubs, so how about you join the Exploration Club?”
“Muu, then why don’t you try joining it, Tsuyu? If you’re already bored of tossing batons.”
Her younger sister had zealously worked hard practicing in her Cheerleading Club, but recently, there had been no sign of her practicing at all.
“Tsuyu is preparing for her entrance exams. It can’t be helped.”
“That’s right, I’m different from you, Onee-chan.”
“Though Homura-chan is cute,” her mother added disappointingly with a sigh.
“Uu… Anyway, this isn’t a joke! Joining the Exploration Club is like becoming a sacrifice for the country. There are rumors that, even though there are a lot of club members that have actually gone missing, it never appears on the news due to government censuring.”
Homura was shocked by her sister’s words.
Her father also silently nodded while stuffing his cheeks with bread.
Only her mother looked puzzled.
“Really? When I was a university student, there were people in the university Exploration Club that crossed the Pacific Ocean on self-made rafts, but they all came back safely.”
“Kuh… Mom, that was a normal Exploration Club, a university group, right? The Imaginary Earth is a really dangerous place where common sense doesn’t apply at all.”
“Hey, are there other… rumors like that…?”
Though she really didn’t want to hear it, Homura hesitantly asked.
“Others? Yeah, there are. Like how members are given a cell phone equipped with a transmitter and put on surveillance 24-7, or how toxins build up in their body just by spending a long time there—”
They were all dangerous-sounding rumors. They might just be pieces of idle gossip, but Homura couldn’t laugh when she recalled the words ‘state secret’ that Touya and Fujimori had said.
While tracing the round slices of paprika that formed the color scheme of the salad bowl using her chopsticks, Homura confessed what was on her mind.
“The truth is… I’m thinking about joining the Exploration Club…”
She didn’t mention that she had been rejected in the very first interview. There was no point in telling them that part.
“Oh my, isn’t that nice?”
Her mother clapped her hands together happily.
“Do whatever you want.”
Her younger sister spoke while crunching on a cherry tomato stem in her mouth.
And when Homura looked to her father, he was in the midst of returning with some beer from the refrigerator.
“Hey, what do you think about it, Dad?”
The sound of the beer can popping open followed Homura’s question.
“Hmm? A club, huh? Why not? I always approve of you starting something. Of course, your studies take priority, but in your case, Homura, I think it’d be better if you got a bit more exercise.”
“I still don’t know whether I’ll manage to join or not, though.”
Homura smiled self-effacingly.
“You’ll surely be fine if it’s you, Homura-chan.”
“If it’s things like tools that are on your mind, you don’t need to worry. It’s different from clothes or manga, after all.”
“Apparently, the state prepares all that stuff, though…”
That was quite obvious, based on that fortress erected on the school grounds.
Tsuyu’s fingers froze in motion.
After quite vigorously shaking his beer can, her father asked once again.
“So, what club are you joining?”
“The Exploration Club.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” her mother said approvingly.
“By Exploration Club, you mean THAT Exploration Club?”
Wrinkles foretelling a frown quickly spread across her father’s brow.
“It sounds romantic, and working together with your comrades seems fun.”
“The UNPIEP Exploration Club? For Youth Investigators of the Imaginary Earth?”
While trying to suppress his shaking hand, her father accidentally put down his beer can over the edge of the table, but Tsuyu flawlessly caught it.
“No way! I absolutely forbid it!”
This was the second time today that Homura had been subjected to criticism.
The pot shook on its stand. The burner’s fire blinked out for an instant and a peculiar smell wafted over the dining table.
Though the force of her father’s anger was as she expected, she still responded hesitantly.
“I-I still haven’t decided for sure yet, though.”
“Either way, I forbid it! It’s too dangerous. That club’s just a smokescreen by the government to cover up their lack of actual measures and policies on the matter. It’s the same as the moon development plans! It’s all high risk and no return!”
“B-But, didn’t you say it’s reached the point where it will become a commodity for your insurance company, Dad?”
“This and that are two different things!”
Her younger sister also backed up her father’s argument in this case.
“Are you stupid, Homura? You need the right qualifications to join the Exploration Club, you know?”
Indignant, Homura lifted her chin in a prickly manner and tried to bluff.
“I didn’t mention it before, but I do have the qualifications to join the Exploration Club. I took the aptitude test when I was in middle school, and my results were satisfactory. So…”
“I never heard anything about that. And regardless of whether or not you have the qualifications, young lady—”
“Masafumi-san, yelling too much isn’t good for your body.”
Rebuked by his wife, Homura’s father sat back in his seat, but his anger was clearly smoldering.
Her mother spoke to him while maintaining her gentle smile.
“Homura-chan declared it herself, so let’s just stand back and watch over her.”
As Homura was left speechless, her father somehow maintained his calm as he resumed speaking.
“Sorry, Homura. I shouldn’t have yelled. But I really am opposed to it.”
He turned back towards his wife.
“Serina-san, are there any parents who want to send their children to war?”
His wife was puzzled.
“Yes. The name ‘Exploration Club’ sounds nice, but it is part of a proxy war with the honor of each country staked on it.”
Homura’s father continued with a serious face.
“In socialist countries, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many young people were treated as disposable pawns with the use of drugs in order to train Olympic gold medalists. Even now, there are former competitors who suffer impairments from those times and live harsh lives without ever receiving any proper compensation. That competition itself was the battleground of the Cold War. The Exploration Club is a den of secretiveness and systemization that allows anything as long as it brings about showy results.”
“Hmm… I do truly feel bad for those competitors who were sacrificed in the Cold War, but Homura-chan would never get involved in something so terrible.”
“She doesn’t understand anything. They’ll brainwash her in the organization. That’s the most terrifying thing about it.”
“There’s always something like that to a greater or lesser degree, right? First, she has to try it out. Right?”
Her mother’s soft fingers touched Homura’s fingertips.
Just by bringing up the topic a little to discuss with the rest of the family, Homura had actually ended up creating an atmosphere that stopped her from hastily saying that she had refused to join the club.
“And the things Tsuyu-chan spoke about earlier are still just rumors, right? Homura-chan still hasn’t experienced anything dangerous. Don’t you think that Homura-chan should join and make her own judgment on it after seeing it with her own eyes?”
“I wonder about that,” Tsuyu murmured.
“It will be too late at that point. In the first place, it’s impossible. The employment age limit for the Exploration club is…”
At that point, her father’s shoulders drooped and he heaved a big sigh before saying, “Let’s stop arguing over this.”
“Yeah… let’s continue talking about it another time.”
Her mother still didn’t seem to have accepted her husband’s explanation.
Her father also merely nodded obediently for the time being.
“The fondue is burning.”
With a fed-up expression, Tsuyu poked at the lake of cheese in the pot with her ladle, making a crunchy sound at the depths of the pot as a savory smell wafted out. The crispy cheese was turned inside out and splintered across its surface from the edge inwards.
“Ah, I like that. It’s like a cheese rice cracker,” her mother said happily.
“I’ll also have some,” her father said as well.
“It’s not fondue anymore, you know.”
The next day. Recess between classes.
As preparations for the Shinryoku Festival advanced within the school, the posters hung on the corridor walls were changed.
Club recruiting posters were switched with all kinds of program sheets for the festival.
Homura absentmindedly gazed at the newly hung posters.
Seiran High’s Shinryoku Festival was an event held by gathering various plans and projects from all the sports and culture clubs.
The difference with the Cultural Festival was that the second and third year students planned and executed the event, while the first years served as the festival’s participants. Also, each club proposed a project and the student council selected ten of them to be implemented in the festival. As such, there were many cases where several clubs submitted a plan together.
In other words, it was a school-wide welcoming party for first year students.
Homura looked over the posters lined up on the wall.
There were things like [Basket-Volleyball-Handball Summit Play-Off], [Kanji Larger Than One Meter! Giant Calligraphy Exhibition], and [Karaoke Tournament Accompanied by a Brass Band at Full Power!].
There seemed to be a lot of projects for participants like tournaments or concerts.
As she looked further down the line, Homura saw that the remaining posters were still in the midst of being hung up.
“Doesn’t it still lack some impact like this?”
“Should we decorate with gold lace or something?”
“I think there’s some luminous paint left over.”
“Please don’t. In the first place, what good does it do us to make it stand out at night?”
A tall female student was giving various directions to a boy hanging up the posters.
The female student was a third year with an attitude just like that of a supervisor.
Homura recalled seeing her face often at the school’s morning assembly as well. If she remembered right, she was…
Suddenly, that female upperclassman turned around and handed Homura a rolled-up poster without batting an eyelash.
“You’re Hinooka Homura-san from Class 1-A, right?”
“Yes. Ah, umm, how did you know my name—?”
“That’s my natural responsibility as the student council president, after all.”
The student council president puffed up with pride as she stood at attention.
“Ah, just so you know, she’s lying. She just happened to remember it.”
The male second year student nearby whispered that to her, resulting in the student council president clapping him over the head with a rolled-up poster.
“You’re President Rokujizou, right?”
“YES! Seiran High’s student council president, Rokujizou Takara. Nice to meet you!”
“Y-Yes. Nice to meet you too.”
Homura received quite a powerful handshake.
There were a lot of spirited women like this at this school. Maybe something about the place attracted them here?
“How about it, Hinooka-san? I personally recommend this event here!”
The student council president pointed at the poster she had given Homura.
Doing as told, Homura smoothly rolled open the poster, and on it appeared an event title along with the illustration of a slovenly-dressed woman who looked like a geisha or a dancing girl.
“[Tea Ceremony Club and Swimming Club Joint Project, Yamato Nadeshiko4 Contest]…”
In other words, this was that kind of thing.
“Doing a beauty pageant in this day and age is practically sexual harassment…”
The second year boy grumbled, receiving another strike to the head in the process.
If Homura remembered right, this male upperclassman who gave off the feeling of being dominated was the student council’s accountant.
“Hey now, there’s no other event that’s as popular as this. We don’t do it every year as an annual custom just for show, after all.”
“I’m amazed you got the school to give permission for it,” Homura said, impressed, even as she wore a strained smile.
“It’s because it’s listed as a swim meet on paper.”
The student council president replied nonchalantly.
Homura reflexively looked at the poster again.
When she carefully looked over the main points of the event, there were strange rules included like competing over points divided between being judged artistically for tea making and being judged for your technique in a fifty meter free-style swim.
“Our school’s prided indoor pool plays a big part in the event.”
“The highlight is the girls taking off their kimono and changing into swimsuits at the pool.”
That was pushing the limit even for showmanship.
“But, though it seems like a popular event, it’s a high hurdle for first year students, so I don’t think many girls will willingly participate…” Homura pointed out.
“Fufufu, the winner gets a gift certificate for books. And the extra prize… is the right to double the budget of the club the winner is part of!”
“Ah, I see…”
In other words, all the clubs were sending out their best members to participate.
The student council was truly terrifying.
“Similarly, I was the winner the year before last in my first year.”
Rokujizou smugly pointed at herself with both her thumbs.
“Wow, that’s amazing.”
Homura was honestly impressed.
“That’s right, praise me, praise me more.”
“…It was really terrible. The student council basically took the top rank in all categories, after all. That’s why they substantially lowered the scoring ratio for technique since last year.”
“Don’t. Say. Anything. Unnecessary!”
The accountant was struck so hard that the poster harshly bent after hitting him.
The fact that he properly continued working even while being hit demonstrated how used to this he actually was.
The student council president turned to look at Homura with sparkling eyes.
“So, how about it? You look like you’d really look good in a kimono, Hinooka-san, and I think you could have good prospects for winning.”
“Umm, thanks for the offer, but… I don’t know anything about tea making, and swimming isn’t my forte… Moreover, I haven’t read many books either.”
“It’s fine. That kind of thing is just playing around, after all. In the end, what’s important is the person’s interior substance. What’s inside will show up on the outside. Someone with a pretty and pure appearance will have their heart grow and mature in an upright manner as well. Besides that, you just need to take off your kimono as erotically as possible when you change out of it, right?”
Even if Rokujizou said “Right?”, Homura was troubled over how to respond to that.
“And if there are no major contenders, senpai’s football pool event will also fall through… is what she’s leaving unsaid.”
“Yamashina, you should shut up soon if you know what’s good for you.”
“Keep that a secret,” the president said while putting a finger to her lips and winking at Homura.
It appeared that they were raising money by sending in assassins backed by the student council this year as well.
The student council truly was terrifying.
The student council president suddenly stopped moving after she hung up another poster.
“That reminds me, what club are you in, Hinooka-san?”
“I’m… No, I’m in the Going-Home Club5.”
“Then, why not join the student council. Will you join? You’ll join, right!? Come on, join us!!”
“Hey, President? The student council members for this year have already been decided, you know?” Yamashina interjected.
True, the election of student council members had ended calmly just a few days again with a lack of rival candidates.
“The post of accountant became vacant just now.”
The student council president held out her open palms apologetically while laughing.
The president took the poster back from Homura and moved to pin it to the wall herself.
Homura also helped by holding down the ends for her.
Having guessed from the atmosphere that her invitation had been declined, the president nodded regretfully.
“I see, how unfortunate… Well, leaving that aside, feel free to come and play at the student council whenever you like. I think it would be good for you to get used to the atmosphere of the student council in preparation for when the accountant dies in an unforeseen accident.”
“T-Thanks. I appreciate the offer.”
The accountant in question, Yamashina-senpai, was in the middle of running errands to the preparations room to get more decorations.
While pushing down and straightening out the last poster that had been bent after harshly hitting Yamashina earlier, Homura asked the president a question.
“Umm, President? Can I ask you something?”
“What is it?”
“Will the Exploration Club be hosting an event in the Shinryoku Festival?”
“Ah, the Exploration Club, huh?”
The president murmured while pondering where to place the pushpin on the poster.
After giving up on hanging it up properly, she arranged it in a way that made it look like some crumpled piece of art instead. It was quite a bother to the club that had made the posters.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t hand in a proposal this year. Though I was hoping they would.”
“Like I thought, it’s difficult when they only have two members, right?”
“Hmm? They have three members, you know?”
“Eh? Doesn’t the Exploration Club only have two—”
As silence descended between them for a while, Rokujizou turned to face Homura.
There seemed to be some stiffness in her expression.
“Who did you hear that from?”
“Umm… Touya-kun, from the Exploration Club.”
“That little brat…”
Rokujizou glared at the pin in her hand with hateful eyes.
Then, she quickly relaxed her expression and looked back at Homura.
“Hinooka-san, could it be that you—”
Rokujizou suddenly cut off her words in the midst of talking.
Her gaze was directed at something behind Homura.
When Homura reflexively turned around, she saw a slender silhouette wearing jeans standing there at the end of the hallway.
For a while, Rokujizou and that person gazed at each other sharply as if competing with each other.
But in the end, the other person left soon after, and the student council president also merely shrugged and spoke to Homura.
“Hmm, never mind. Forget about it. It was a misunderstanding on my part.”
Homura didn’t press her further.
The president then expressed her gratitude for the help with the posters as she departed.
“Thanks, Hinooka-san. If there are any events you’re interested in, please make sure to participate, okay? The whole point of a festival is to get pulled along by the flow of events! Get into the thick of things!”
“I-I’ll consider it.”
“Please consider it positively!”
On her way home from school that day.
As she was riding the commute train.
Homura’s fingers froze as she was about to send a text to a friend attending another school.
She suddenly felt sick of the message, reading ‘I really wasn’t able to make a good leading joke’, which could only be taken as an idle complaint, or rather simple discontent grumbling towards the other person.
In the end, she deleted the text and leaned against the handrail to gaze out the train window. Scenery that she had gotten tired of looking at passed by outside.
Just as it was about to turn to evening.
She arrived at the station, and just as she was leaving the ticket gate, she once again saw that woman in the summer sweater.
Homura went to buy a coffee milk carton at the vending machine next to the station kiosk, and as she inserted the straw into it, she gazed at the woman for a while.
As always, she was calling out humbly and trying to hand out flyers, but only one person out of thirty at most took one.
Homura had started seeing her at this station around three years ago.
She had noticed the woman while commuting to school by train, but the woman always appeared there once or twice a week (the second time when it was a holiday), with the exact day of the week she appeared differing slightly as time went on.
A summer sweater with pieces of lint standing out on it. Short hair. When Homura had first seen her, she had much longer and beautiful hair. It used to be tied up behind her head, until it eventually became short as it was now. Homura recalled how she had thought it was a waste when she saw the change.
“…She wears very little makeup.”
While sipping on the coffee milk with her back against the station wall, Homura absentmindedly gazed at the woman.
The woman wore a minimal amount of makeup, and she never seemed to wear it well either.
She should still be quite young, probably in her late twenties, but her fingers and eyes clearly indicated inerasable exhaustion.
“How long will she continue like that…?”
Homura had thought, ‘Ah, how sad’, when she first saw the woman.
She also feared what she should do if that happened to someone close to her.
But at some point, she had become completely tired of looking at the woman, and now she was buried in the background scenery of the station without evoking any emotion in Homura. Sometimes, there was a slight change and the woman caught her attention, making part of her feeling depressed at the sight.
On the station bulletin board, there was the same flyer that the woman was handing out. The only difference was that the tape attaching it to the board had aged to the point of fading in color.
A flyer was blown near Homura’s feet by the wind. Someone had probably dropped it there after receiving it.
Homura squatted down and picked it up.
I’m searching for this child.
If you held a piece of hope that you couldn’t throw away, how were you supposed to give up on it?
The picture of a very young baby girl stared back at Homura blankly.
The flyer stated that she went missing when she was one year and one month old.
“Then she would already be four years old by now…”
The clothes she wore when she went missing—such information was completely useless at this point.
The last place where she was seen was the restaurant floor within a department store right near this station.
Even if it said that, that department store had already been closed and the entire block of restaurants there was gone, replaced with supermarkets and diners that were open all hours of the day.
“By now, she would have gone to kindergarten and went on her first traditional shrine visit6…”
She would have been pampered by her grandpa and grandma in the countryside and eaten a birthday cake.
What was the person closest to both this baby and this woman doing right now? Why wasn’t he here? He should definitely exist, this baby’s father—
All the circumstances surrounding it had absoluuuuuutely noooothing to do with Homura anyway.
Even today, there were plenty of people in the world who were unfortunate, who lost their lives in unreasonable accidents and circumstances and lost their irreplaceable family. There were plenty of others who were suffering the consequences of their own actions as well.
There were people more unfortunate than this woman who had lost her child. If you were to compare people’s happiness, that is.
It was often said, ‘What are you going to do even if you care?’
Don’t pop songs also say it?
How can you make other people happy if you don’t become happy yourself?
Even manga shouted it.
Things will change. Memories won’t disappear. So forget about it.
“It’s impossible. Someone—”
That woman was always standing in the middle of the crowd of people passing by and lowering her head like a mechanical doll.
Please. Please. Please.
Before she knew it, Homura was standing in front of the woman, while holding the flyer she had picked up in one hand and her coffee milk carton in the other.
Though she was confused for an instant, the woman soon gave a gentle smile.
“Hello again. On your way home, are you?”
The woman looked radiantly at Homura’s uniform.
This might be the first time Homura had seen her smile. And no matter how sad and lonely it looked, Homura couldn’t help but feel it was worth calling out to her because of it.
“So you’re a high school student now.”
“Ah, yes. Umm, I…”
Homura quickly ran over to the station wall to put down her bag there and then came back.
“Umm, may I help?”
Homura held out her hands towards the bundle of flyers.
“Thank you. But it’s all right.”
‘It’s all right.’ Those words resounded heavily in Homura’s chest.
Take, for example, a heavyweight blow.
Her irresponsible sympathy on a whim had caused her to be lightly blown away outside of the ring.
Homura froze as her offered hands lost an outlet.
The commuters passing by glanced at Homura and then immediately blended back into the station rotary in the evening.
“No, umm, I—”
She didn’t mind being stared at. Just, the woman’s exhausted gaze—
And yet, despite the exhaustion, those eyes of a mother who hadn’t lost a firm will at her deepest depths made Homura feel tense and strained.
Words of justice repeated in manga and TV dramas went through her brain. But…
“E-Even if I got home now, I’d be bored with nothing to do.”
—What came out of her mouth were those horrible words.
“…I-Is it no good?”
There was a brief instant of silence.
And then, the woman let a chuckle.
“Then can I rely on you for a little while?”
“Yes. Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Homura accepted half of the bundle of flyers. It had the faint smell of an ink jet printer.
She copied the woman’s manner of doing things, having long gotten used to seeing her at work, and held out flyers while calling out to students her age.
Nothing particularly changed. Even the people who took it after seeing the odd sight of Homura there as well immediately saw it was a familiar flyer and lost interest as they carelessly shoved it into their pockets.
In the end, the peak of the home commute rush ended without them being able to hand out many flyers, just as expected.
After taking a rest, the woman gave a deep bow to Homura.
“If possible, can I ask your name?”
Homura gave out her name, and the woman handed out her business card in return.
It held a contact address that was no different from what was printed on the flyer, but Homura treated it preciously as she put it in her commuter pass case. It was the first business card she had ever received in her life.
Chapter 2 END
(1) Shinryoku: Japanese for “fresh green leaves/verdure”.
(2) To better explain, hiragana is the simpler written system of the Japanese language that uses purely phonetic characters. Since the words in question use the more difficult and varied concept-based kanji characters, Homura has trouble reading them and likely does not fully understand the proper meaning and pronunciation.
(3) Here, Tsuyu repeats the word twice, once in the original Japanese and a second time in English to explain the letters behind the acronym. Since this is redundant in English, I only had her say it once here.
(4) Yamato Nadeshiko: a woman who displays the feminine virtues of old Japan.
(5) Going-Home Club: the Japanese term for those who aren’t in any clubs and simply go home after school.
(6) This refers to a traditional rite of passage and festival day in Japan for three-year-old and seven-year-old girls and three-year old and five-year-old boys, held annually on November 15.