25 days until the show
Putting a band together for the school festival. It happens all the time.
Picking up and learning the guitar for that purpose. This also happens all the time.
But what about the band crashing and burning and breaking up less than a month before the show? Does that happen all the time?
I sighed and slowly strummed at the guitar I held.
Its tones filled the quiet of Music Room #1, sounding just as listless as I felt.
“Quit sighing, Haruki, you’re gonna get me depressed, too. Ugh.”
My best friend, Takeya Iizuka, heaved a substantial sigh of his own.
To an onlooker, two guys sighing in unison like this would probably look almost comical.
But we, the Light Music Club, were pretty seriously stuck. The fact that we were spending one of our two rehearsal days a week sitting around and sighing was solid proof of that.
“Man, why do we have to deal with all this?”
I almost responded to Takeya’s complaint by pointing out that it was really his fault in the first place, but decided not to. I had already said the same thing countless times in the past few days.
Our final autumn in high school.
The evening sun slicing in through the wide-open window was dazzlingly bright for November. I narrowed my eyes.
As I remained silent, Takeya continued.
“We had a band until like three days ago. Now we’ve just got two—a guitar player and a guitar trainee.”
“Oh, sorry for not being an expert yet!”
At the same moment as my outburst, the strings of the guitar scraped against my chair, letting out a groan.
My high school, the attached academy at Houjou University, was holding its annual school festival at the end of November—this month.
The Light Music Club, which had been formed in April for the purpose of playing a concert on the festival stage, had been rehearsing for half a year, only to fall apart completely.
The cause, to put it straight out, was a girl.
The girl who had been serving as our vocalist was an enormous diva, and her string-pulling with all of the other members of the band had caused our friendships and the club alike to collapse.
Just thinking about it wore me out. She was the perfect example of a terrible personality lurking beneath a pretty face. The fact that she was our junior just made it worse.
And the one who brought this troublemaker into the picture was none other than the chief (not the president, for some mysterious reason) of the Light Music Club, the man who judged girls by their looks on principle, Takeya Iizuka.
The point was, because of him, we had lost all of our other members, her included. The only two remaining were Takeya, who was enough of a playboy already to be immune, and me, who had no interest in her.
On top of that, Takeya was the guitarist, and I was… the substitute guitarist. In other words, the Light Music Club now had guitars and nothing else. Truly hopeless.
“I thought you were looking for new members, Takeya. How has that been going?”
A few days before, perhaps out of some tiny sense of guilt, Takeya had loudly proclaimed that he would find new members for us.
“Oh, yeah, about that, turns out all the really good ones are already in other bands. Should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy to find people this late in the game.”
It struck me as a bit early for giving up, but if Takeya, who was way better connected than I was, was stumped, then maybe things really were that tight.
“Man, I was planning on getting all the instruments together quick, then bringing in a babe to sing for us… Shit.”
“You did seriously look for members, right?”
“Well, yeah. I did allll my research on the Miss Houjou High contestants. But it’s not like I can call in a singer when we’re short on instruments.”
“Stop focusing everything on the singer! Look for players, too! God, is the word ‘regret’ even in your vocabulary?!”
In spite of myself, I heaved a different sort of sigh. This guy had a way of making me question my friendship with him now and then…
By the way, “Miss Houjou High” is the title given to the winner of a beauty contest held for the school festival. It isn’t an authorized school event, but it whips up enough excitement each year to be considered a main attraction. The aforementioned troublemaker was, in fact, the previous year’s runner-up.
“I mean, the only way to cover up our failure is to succeed, right? Like, here, if we got Setsuna Ogiso in on this, we’d totally kill it.”
Takeya had spoken the name of the girl who outshone all the rest in the Miss Houjou High contest last year, and the year before.
“No… I don’t think she would want to do anything in front of that many people.”
“You think? Yeah, I guess she does have that vibe a little… Hang on, though, what do you know about her?”
At this jab, I suddenly realized my slip.
“Oh, no, nothing. I just… get a feeling.”
“Hmmm? If you say so. There are plenty of other girls besides her, anyway. I dunno if they’re good singers, but.”
“Takeya… It’s your job to find that out.”
“I guess it won’t mean anything if we can’t find people for the other instruments, though…”
With this, Takeya sighed heavily again.
“Y’know, Haruki, maybe this just isn’t gonna happen.”
“You’re sounding awfully defeated, chief.”
“Guess so. I feel bad, since I was the one who brought you into the club in the first place, but… The entry deadline is tomorrow, right?”
The concert was going to be held in the gym on the festival day in question. The participation entry period had already ended, but the final deadline was tomorrow. If we withdrew by the end of tomorrow, we could avoid causing any disasters on the stage the day of.
“Honestly, maybe dropping it really would be better. I’ll keep looking around until tomorrow, but I’m not super hopeful.”
Takeya hefted his bag onto his shoulder.
“So, seriously… I’m sorry, Haruki. For this whole thing.”
“I’m gonna go look a bit more. Seeya.”
And with that, he left.
Left alone, I added another sigh to the mountain I had already produced.
Maybe it was a lost cause?
I had barely even touched a guitar before, but I had dedicated myself fully to practicing it since April. This was my third and final year of high school. I had put all this effort toward making something memorable of it.
Of course, given that I was a backup, I might not have wound up onstage anyway. Even so, I never imagined that the Light Music Club’s part in the show would just evaporate like this.
Because I was after something else. Something I could have attained as long as the Light Music Club took the stage, even if I weren’t performing myself.
Something that could have been realized as long as we had a female vocalist…
The knowledge that it wasn’t to be made me sigh yet again.
“I guess this is it.”
I didn’t need Takeya to tell me that the situation was about as hopeless as it could be.
Here was our “band,” flawed as it was.
What about the bass? The drums? The keyboard? What about the vocals?
No, there was no way we could pull all that together now.
It was an unfortunate end, but there was nothing we could do.
“Which makes this my last day here, I guess.”
I looked around the deserted room one last time.
The Light Music Club had rehearsed twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, here in Music Room #1. With the show at the end of the month, we would only be able to use it a handful of times more, but now it looked like we wouldn’t need to, anyway.
This really was the end.
“Well, all right.”
I picked the guitar back up.
If today was in fact the last, then this, here—this would be my final performance.
I took a deep breath, gripped the neck, and slid my fingers down. There was the first sound. I carried on from there, steadily carving out the melody line.
The beginning went well. Maybe I was still bad at it, but I was at my happiest when I played this song. Because this song was my favorite.
And so, making my best effort to avoid any mistakes, I produced the tune that I had drilled into my fingers countless times.
The first song I had ever played, the first song I had learned to play without any slipups.
It was almost ten years ago that this song had been released.
You could call it a staple—at the time it was big, but even now, if you asked people to name an essential winter song, a good percentage of them would name this one.
The melody, the lyrics, the woman’s translucent singing voice—
Ever since I had first heard the song as a child, I had loved everything about it.
When I decided to play the guitar, this song was the very first one I thought of.
I was adamant that I would learn this melody line before anything else.
“So… what now?”
I waited, keeping my fingers in place.
For my “neighbor” to join the performance—my performance, the final performance of the Light Music Club.
Another sound came in, layering itself over my own melody, uncertain as it was.
It had a light, natural touch, such that I didn’t notice it at first.
Finally, the sound caught up with me, nestled up to my side, at times gently guiding me, at times jumping around, like a dance. This overwhelming talent, evident even to a novice musician like me, took my clumsy guitar playing and transformed it into a “White Album” session.
This was what I had been waiting for. The piano drifting out of the window of the next classroom over.
I started to say, “Thanks for helping me again,” then corrected myself: “Thanks for helping me this whole time.”
There was no way my murmur would make it to anyone’s ears. So I focused all my nerves on the movements of my fingers, fully savoring the joy I felt at this person, at a level I could never match, so plainly far above my own, playing this song together with me.
Thanking this unknown neighbor of mine as best I could.
This was great. I was playing well.
I had first become aware of my neighbor two months earlier.
With my lousy guitar-playing ability, I was never able to participate in the full band rehearsals, so after everyone went home, I stayed behind and did my own intensive practice. It was clear that if I did try to join in at this point, I would only bog everyone down.
Even so, I kept at it, practicing steadily, improving bit by tiny bit, until I began to feel that things were taking shape. It was at this point that it happened.
One day, in the midst of playing the guitar as usual, I noticed that a piano had joined me.
I was confused at first, but it sounded like someone next door, in Music Room #2, was joining me for a session.
The piano acted like a guide, straightening out my error-riddled guitar melody with the proper intervals and rhythm, until I got tired out and stopped practicing.
And after that, every time I practiced on my own, this someone would move in again. I didn’t know what they were thinking—maybe they just had a lot of time on their hands—but it couldn’t have been more ideal for me. I felt as though I were being taught music through music itself, rather than through words.
My neighbor did most of their speaking through the piano, but there were times when other instruments were layered over my guitar—bass, drums, even saxophone. And every one of them was performed at a level far above my own.
It occurred to me that there might be more than one person doing this, but something told me this wasn’t so—because there were never multiple instruments being played at once. My neighbor was apparently an extraordinarily versatile performer.
They always kept the door locked and the curtains closed, so I still had no idea who my neighbor actually was. Our high school had a general education course, to which Takeya and I belonged, as well as a music department, so I assumed they belonged to the latter, but that was all.
The melody we created together expanded, claiming the air around it. I was so enraptured that I thought it might come to reverberate across the entire world. I kept playing and playing, determined that I wouldn’t bring that to an end with any foolish errors.
My fingers were working oddly well today, well enough that even I could tell. What was it?
At the very end, of all times—no, maybe because it was the end.
As the guitar followed its path, the piano dyed that path in bright, vivid colors.
As the piano danced on its stage, the guitar followed, illuminating it.
Even with the gap in our skill levels, the feeling was incredible. This moment was like a dream to me.
For this little while, we understood each other, encouraged each other, walked shoulder to shoulder.
So, inevitably, I found myself thinking—
If only we could get this neighbor of mine to join our Light Music Club.
But there was no way such a wish could be granted.
Which meant that this was the end.
This session was the Light Music Club’s final performance.
Once we withdrew our entry tomorrow, everything would be over.
“Is this… it?”
My own muttered words depressed me all over again.
I knew this was a luxury. That my final performance should be not alone, but with an astonishingly good pianist to help bring it to a close, was fortune enough.
But I had wanted to make it happen. The Light Music Club’s concert. My other aim, my true aim.
For that, I had spent the past half a year so hard at work…
Bearing feelings I couldn’t describe or express.
Devoting my fingers to this strange melody, which could give me satisfaction even in its seeming deficiency, with only the guitar and piano, no other—
The guitar, the piano, and—
One other element, layered on top. The moment I noticed it, my fingers froze.
Someone was singing “White Album.”
The next moment, I had dashed out of the music room.
I didn’t have any clear idea of where I was hearing the voice from. I just had the sense, somehow, that it wasn’t too far away.
And, this being the third floor, the nearest spot would be…
Of course, it could have been any of the classrooms nearby.
But I ran and ran, spurred by something close to certainty.
I dashed up the stairs, practically tumbled through the door onto the roof, and there she was—the owner of the voice.
I muttered her name without thinking.
The one before me was none other than the girl who had won the title of Miss Houjou High for two years running.
And her singing voice was nothing other than unquestionably ideal for our seemingly doomed Light Music Club, a voice that was enchanting beyond comparison.
Startled by this sudden intrusion, Setsuna stopped singing, her eyes wide open.
“Oh, you… U-Um, were you… listening just now?!”
She hadn’t been thinking when she started singing, but now that she considered it, it was more than possible that someone should hear her.
As she started to panic, the intruder—a male student—quickly spoke up.
“Wait, wait! Um, I’m sorry to barge in on you like this. I’m Haruki Kitahara, from Class E. I mean, not that I was doing anything bad, but… Right, I heard singing, so I…”
“Y-You were listening!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to! I really love ‘White Album,’ and it’s the first time anyone has ever started singing along while I was playing the guitar, so I just…”
While he was playing the guitar?
“Then… You were the one playing just now?”
“Yeah. Not very well, but yeah. Oh, but your singing was outstanding, Ogiso! I was really stunned. I’ve heard plenty of people sing this song, but you were the best by far. I was actually really moved, so I rushed up here to—Ogiso?”
“Ah… Uh, um, look, I…”
Setsuna darted her eyes around, unsure of how to respond to such ardent praise.
Now hopelessly embarrassed, she made up her mind to get away.
But the boy, apparently having guessed as much, frantically called out to stop her.
“Um, listen, Ogiso, would you… sing for our band, maybe?”
“Huh? S-Sing for your…?”
For a second, she couldn’t process his words. Band?
“I’m in the Light Music Club, and we’re going to play for the school festival concert, but we don’t have a vocalist right now. So, if you would do that for us, Ogiso, I would be enormously grateful… I think we could put on an incredible show with you.”
So… Singing in front of people? A lot of people?
“Your voice is so amazing, I know anyone who heard you would get—“
“I, I… Um, s-sorry!”
“—into it… What?”
Averting her eyes, Setsuna broke into a run, opening the door and dashing down the stairs.
She realized he wasn’t following her, which must mean he was still just standing there, blankly.
She knew it was rude to run off in the middle of a conversation, but there was nothing to be done about that now. Her brain was in a jumble.
The fact that she had been unable to restrain herself from singing—
The fact that she had been heard, and praised so effusively—
And—the fact that she knew him…
Her head was too full of all of it to consider anything else.