NARRATOR: "After buying a plastic plate of takoyaki from a stall belonging to the class next to ours, I take a seat in the school gardens and watch people pass as I tentatively nibble away at the rather bland-tasting item. I guess I shouldn't complain. It's better than nothing and didn't cost much. As I look out towards the school, watching the people coming and going proves a surprisingly entertaining way of passing the time as I eat."
NARRATOR: "Little children accompanied by parents or grandparents scamper about in the din from event to event; one hand dragging their company and the other bearing an oversized, colorful snack. I can't help but notice the age range among the people here is skewed towards the elderly, something that I'd also noticed when I was walking around town."[note 2]
NARRATOR: "This must be one of those towns where the only people left are those that lived here their whole lives and ardently refuse to leave, and those wanting to live out the rest of their days in one of the increasingly few tranquil places. I guess that also goes a way to explaining how conservative Yamaku's school culture seems to be. Not that I mind one bit. I kind of like how calm Yamaku and its surroundings are."
NARRATOR: "The heat, though, is another matter entirely. Sitting in one place for so long has focused my mind on how annoyingly humid it's getting, now that the hottest part of the day is here. I'd better get moving if I—"
NARRATOR: "The sound of the carillon bells takes me completely by surprise as I stand up, a reaction shared by a few of the people strolling around as well. The PA system crackles to life after the tolling bells end. Its age shows as the principal makes a barely intelligible announcement over it, officially opening the festival that's very much in full swing. It's quite amusing to contrast the pleasant smiles of the older folk against the alternatively pained and bored grimaces of their younger charges. The students, on the other hand, seem to pay it little heed. Nevertheless, as the address finally ends, all are united in polite - if not overly enthusiastic - applause, and then get back to business. Slipping a hand in my pocket to look as relaxed as possible, I casually glance around for something to do."
NARRATOR: "...It's somewhat difficult to see very far with all the people around. I decide to fall back on a tried and trusted rule: go where everyone else seems to be gathering. Right now, that's the school courtyard and surroundings. Throwing the used plate into a trash can, I make my way towards the school building. Seeing the number of stalls around the perimeter of the school building surprises me. Quite a few of the classes must have opted to have multiple stalls. In deciding which to visit first, I catch sight of a familiar banner with a blue patterned border and red text. Lilly's stall is as good a place to start as any. I'm curious as to how it's going, after all of the work she and her class have been doing for it."
NARRATOR: "Stepping up to it, I begin to see why the class took so long to organize everything. Easily twice as wide as many of the other stalls and with equipment for cooking strewn everywhere, it's closer to an outdoor restaurant than a festival event. As a student in front of me takes a bowl of noodles and leaves, I walk up to the counter. The girl behind it seems quite exasperated, and asks me to wait a moment before she disappears underneath the counter. Seizing the moment, I take a quick glance around."
NARRATOR: "Steam seems to be rising from everywhere, as pots and pans simmer away. The most blind of the students are unpacking ingredients while being helped by someone who is probably the teacher of 3-2. It doesn't take long to notice Lilly among them, talking with the teacher as she quickly counts out the boxes and packets with her fingers. From her expression and the fact that both she and the teacher seem to be in a state of mild confusion, it appears that there's been some problem in coordination. Before I can stare any longer, the girl behind the counter pops up again, only to look back and ask where the spare change box is. Lilly pauses for a moment, before she and the girl switch places at the counter and the teacher quickly walks off somewhere."
LILLY: "Sorry about that, we're having a few problems. What would you like?"
NARRATOR: "It takes me a second to remember what I'd come here for. My eyes quickly dart to the side to read the menu sitting on the counter."
HISAO: "Oh, uh, I guess some... miso soup?"
LILLY: "Ah, is that Hisao?"
HISAO: "Yep. Looks like you're pretty busy."
NARRATOR: "Her face all but confirms it as she drops her waitress facade."
LILLY: "Somewhere along the line, our order got mixed up. We're trying to fix it now, but it looks like we only have half of what we needed."
HISAO: "Wouldn't serving smaller portions cover over the problem?"
LILLY: "It seems like that's what we'll have to do, though I wish we didn't. The fact that a good half of our class is gone doesn't help, either."
NARRATOR: "I glance behind her to see how many people are actually operating the stall. It couldn't be over about eight."
HISAO: "I take it that's why your teacher left?"
LILLY: "That's right. She's going to try and round up a few more of our classmates to help."
NARRATOR: "Hearing the sound of footsteps behind me, I stealthily glance backwards to see an elderly couple taking a place in the line. I guess I'd better stop loitering around and chatting."
HISAO: "Here's the money for the soup."
LILLY: "Soup... oh, right, coming right up."
NARRATOR: "Lilly turns and calls for a bowl of miso soup as I hand over the money for it. Taking the coins in her palm, I can't help but notice how efficiently she counts them out with her long, pale fingers. Eventually satisfied that I've handed over correct change, she puts it into a small metal tray. It isn't long before the soup is made and carefully handed to her, after which she turns and subsequently passes it to me."
HISAO: "Thanks. I'll come back to drop off the bowl."
LILLY: "Thank you, Hisao. Oh, there is one other thing. Have you seen Hanako?"
HISAO: "Hanako... no, not today. Why?"
NARRATOR: "She gives a small sigh of abject disappointment."
LILLY: "It's okay. I was just wondering what she was doing for the festival. You'll come back when you're done, then?"
HISAO: "Sure. I'll keep an eye out for Hanako, too."
LILLY: "Thank you, Hisao."
NARRATOR: "I walk off from the stall and find a seat, carefully cradling the steaming wooden bowl in both hands. Compared to the dumplings from before, this is quite nice. A little cool compared to what it probably should be, perhaps, but the flavor is enough to cover for that reasonably well. As I drink, I can't help but feel somewhat guilty for not being as involved in the festival as the others. It can't really be helped, considering I was dropped into the school only a week ago, but it still weighs heavily on my mind. That, and the fact that a few students don't really seem to be enjoying the festival as much as the visitors. Eventually I finish my bowl and leave for the stall, to drop it off. Considering that there seems to be no line at all, I take my time walking up. It seems the teacher's mission paid off: there are now over a dozen students helping, and much of the unpacking has been done. Despite most of them seeming quite relaxed as they work, Lilly still appears to be somewhat stressed."
NARRATOR: "Lilly doesn’t look impressed at all, and I can't really blame her. On top of her issues with her stall, she still seems to be worried about Hanako. I can't really help her with the former, so I guess the only way I can help is by trying to take her mind off our shy mutual friend. Placing the bowl back on the counter, I call out to Lilly."
HISAO: "Hey, Lilly, don't worry about Hanako. I'll go find her and hang out with her, okay?"
NARRATOR: "I can see Lilly's relief plainly written across her face."
LILLY: "Thanks Hisao. And if you see anyone from my class, can you tell them to come back here please?"
HISAO: "Will do. Have a good one. And make sure you take a break, okay?"
LILLY: "I will if I can. See you later, Hisao."
NARRATOR: "I leave Lilly in the stall and head out in search of Hanako. In a way, I feel bad for leaving her with the crowds, but even though she was clearly under pressure, I can't help but think that she is enjoying herself. The halls are packed with swaying crowds meandering throughout the festival. If there's one thing I know about Hanako, it's that she's not going to be anywhere near this. And with the students showing their friends and family their dorms, I doubt she'll be there either."
NARRATOR: "Following blind intuition, I move against the grain of the crowd. Thankfully, this crowd seems to be slightly less festive than your usual festival crowd; I assume this is out of consideration for the student body. As I force my way through the masses, it doesn't take long for them to thin down into nothingness. This is not surprising, since I am standing before the library. Even the most eager of students don't bother to show anyone this section of the school. As I enter the library, the noise of the festival fades into a dull background noise, and soon I am in the reading area at the rear of the room. Behind one of the partitioned desks I see the top of a head, with straight, dark hair catching my eye."
HISAO: "Hey, Hanako. I had a feeling I'd find you here..."
NARRATOR: "The head jumps a little in shock before slowly peeping over the partition."
HISAO: "Hey. Lilly's pretty busy, so she sent me to find you."
HANAKO: "O-oh. Do you want to sit down?"
HISAO: "Actually, I am feeling a little hungry. Would you to like to get something to eat from one of the stands?"
HANAKO: "Um... I... I brought some food so..."
NARRATOR: "I shouldn't be surprised, but it was worth a try. Expecting her to go outside today was a long shot."
HISAO: "How about we eat in the tea room? I passed by it on the way here, and no one was around. We can make some food there, and it'll be a little more comfortable. What do you say?"
HANAKO: "S-sure. Let's go."
NARRATOR: "Hanako closes her book and puts it away with deliberate, practiced movements."
HISAO: "Good to go?"
NARRATOR: "We walk side-by-side from the library to the tea room. As expected, there is barely a soul around. If it weren't for the murmurs through the walls, you wouldn't tell that there was a huge festival going on outside. Hanako carries her bag in both hands and focuses on just the floor ahead of her. Every now and again, she seems to break her pace a little and steps in slightly shorter paces. The first time it happened, I gave it no mind, but I soon notice that she does it on a regular basis."
HISAO: "Are you all right?"
NARRATOR: "She stops dead in her tracks."
HISAO: "I dunno... it looked like you were tripping or something..."
NARRATOR: "A pink blush rises into her cheeks as her gaze returns to the floor."
HANAKO: "It... it's nothing."
HISAO: "You know, when you say “nothing” like that, people are inspired to ask further questions."
NARRATOR: "For a second I don't think she is going to answer. Prepared to leave it be, I almost set off walking again, when..."
HANAKO: "It's a... a game."
HANAKO: "Do you... see the floor here?"
NARRATOR: "What a bizarre question. The floor looks just like any other floor; covered in those tiles made up from squares of linoleum. Nothing noteworthy."
HISAO: "Well, yes. What about it?"
HANAKO: "Sometimes... when there's no one around... I only step on the darker ones..."
NARRATOR: "Hanako's voice trails off as her explanation continues, until I can barely hear her voice over the roaring silence of the empty hall."
HISAO: "Darker ones?"
NARRATOR: "Shuffling her feet, Hanako points the toe of her shoe at a tile that is barely a shade darker than the others."
HANAKO: "L-like these ones."
HISAO: "Oh, right, so these ones are no good?"
NARRATOR: "I point out a nearby tile."
HANAKO: "Y-yeah. Something... something like that."
HISAO: "Oh, I see. Do you play this game a lot?"
NARRATOR: "Hanako shakes her head."
HISAO: "Just when the halls are empty?"
NARRATOR: "She nods."
HISAO: "Well then, no point in stopping, I'm beginning to get really hungry."
NARRATOR: "She nods again, this time with a little more enthusiasm."
HISAO: "Well then, let's go."
NARRATOR: "We set off down the hall, and this time I notice that Hanako is paying a little less attention to the floor. I wonder; just how lonely does someone have to be to come up with a game like that? But, before I realize what I'm doing, I find myself trying to aim each step so it lands on the correct tiles. The noise of the festival is slightly louder inside the tea room, but the breeze coming through the open window makes it worth it. Without thinking, I walk to the windowsill and inhale deeply. I sometimes forget how clean the air is here compared to back home."
HANAKO: "Do... would you like some tea?"
HISAO: "That would be great, thanks."
NARRATOR: "It occurs to me that this is the first time I've been alone with Hanako without her trying to be somewhere else. Turning from the window, I watch as she makes a simple pot of tea and arranges some sandwiches onto a plate. I've seen her do this before a number of times, but this time she seems slightly different. It's like she's... calm. Eventually she places the small tray on the table and pours two cups of tea. The fresh scent of brewed tea mingles with the breeze, and for a second I feel like I'm the only one in the world."
HISAO: "I think I know why you like this room now."
HANAKO: "Um... I don't know what you mean."
HISAO: "Well, there are quite a few people out there, but in here it's like another world. You can pretend that there's no one around for miles."
HANAKO: "Y-you're right. It's like the world has forgotten this room. And b-because of that, you can forget about the outside."
NARRATOR: "That would be appealing in some cases. As far as I can tell, conventional bullying doesn't exist in this school. But then again, I haven't seen a single person talk to Hanako besides Lilly. If you're ignored by the world, a place where you can forget its existence would hold a special appeal."
HISAO: "That's a good point. It's like this room gives you some kind of complete freedom."
HANAKO: "Y-yeah. Say... do you play chess?"
HISAO: "Chess? I've played it a bit, I guess. I take it you've played before?"
HANAKO: "A little..."
NARRATOR: "Without saying anything more, Hanako moves to one of the cupboards and digs out a small chess set."
HANAKO: "Do... do you want..."
HISAO: "Sure, why not?"
NARRATOR: "I cut her off, but she doesn't seem to mind it."
NARRATOR: "We arrange the pieces, and before long we are sending pawns charging to their inevitable fates. I take my time and intently examine each move and its consequences, nostalgia for the game taking second place to the matters at hand. For a time the game is a lengthy battle of attrition, but I spot an opening and tear a line in her defense. A few moves later, her king is cornered by several of my pieces."
HISAO: "Checkmate. You're not bad at this, are you?"
NARRATOR: "An honest appraisal. Her technique is pretty good, but several times I was able to exploit her lack of prediction. I pick up a piece and examine it. It looks relatively new, yet worn for its age."
HANAKO: "I... I guess not."
HISAO: "Does Lilly play?"
NARRATOR: "The absence of Hanako's answer causes me to think about my question."
HANAKO: "A... A bit... T-this is the first time I've played against someone... other than her, or..."
NARRATOR: "Or...? She cuts herself off abruptly, leaving the answer hanging in the air. Someone she knew before coming to Yamaku, maybe."
HISAO: "Well then, I'm honored to have played against you."
HANAKO: "Um... can we play again?"
NARRATOR: "She asks as if she were asking me to cut off my own hands. The spirit of competition's gotten into her?"
HISAO: "Sure. Though don't expect me to go easy on you this time..."
NARRATOR: "Not that I was before, mind. She seems to appreciate the competitive tone."
HANAKO: "S... same here..."
Next Scene: Movement