24 days until the show
The next day…
“So, yeah, that’s where we’re at. Might be a bit of a stretch.”
“Well, look, I was about to pull this girl who can play bass from another band. Unfortunately, it turns out her best friend is a girl I messed around with once.”
“Yeah, so she had this picture of me that was totally wrong. Or, like, half wrong. So, the transfer’s been rejected. God, why do things have to get so complicated?”
“Haruki? Dude, are you listening to me?”
“This is supposed to be where you go, ‘You brought this on yourself!’ Are you even awake?”
When Takeya’s puzzled face entered my field of vision, I snapped out of it and shook my head. “Oh, sorry. Nothing.”
“I know you’re not sleeping enough. You’ve taken on way too much for our class.”
“W-Well, what else am I supposed to do? We’ve got the festival coming up.”
It was true that I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before; it had just been for a different reason.
But I was… hesitant to tell Takeya about it, to put it lightly.
‘I asked Setsuna Ogiso to sing for us, and she ran away.’ How was I supposed to say that?
When I thought back over it rationally, it seemed obvious that an approach like that would be rejected.
Actually, maybe the approach didn’t matter. Maybe there was no way Setsuna Ogiso would ever join a band.
That was stupid of me. Ahaha… Right.
“I know you’re the class rep, but you can’t take that much responsibility.”
“You know, you could think about taking a little more responsibility. In several departments…”
“You gotta ease up a little bit, man. This is why you can’t get any girls. Class E is full of babes. Just think about it. Look around a little more.”
“’Looking around’ is all you ever do!”
Incidentally, Takeya was from Class G, though you wouldn’t know it from how comfortably he hung around in here.
“No, no, I mean it. They’re on another level here. Even without any Setsuna Ogisos around, there’s still—oh, right, there’s that one. She could definitely match her for looks.”
Takeya threw a glance at the desk next to mine. The unoccupied seat.
“Guess she’s gonna be late today, too. Well, that’s fine with me. She always glares daggers at me when I’m here. Scares the hell out of me.”
“All right, Takeya, I’ll say it: you brought that on yourself.”
My habitually late seat neighbor—she was a bit of an odd one. She had been my neighbor for about half a year, since April, but I still could never tell what she was thinking.
When Takeya, drawn by her looks, had blithely attempted to make a move on her, she gave him a sudden dropkick in place of an answer. Though, to be totally honest, he kind of deserved that one.
Anyway, ever since then, Takeya had seemed genuinely afraid of her.
“It really hurts me that she can’t see my appeal. At least there’s Setsuna Ogiso.”
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up about Ogiso seeing your ‘appeal,’ either.”
Still… Ogiso’s singing yesterday had been astounding.
Her rendition of “White Album” was truly incredible. It would change everything if she sang for us… Not that she would.
At that moment—
I turned in the direction of the voice, and found exactly the person I expected, striding toward me.
“Haruki, dude, listen, this is wild! It’s—oh, you’re here, Takeya?”
“What, am I not supposed to be, Io?”
The new arrival was Io Mizusawa.
A short-haired, athletic girl, the former captain of the girls’ basketball team, and Takeya’s…
“I didn’t say you weren’t. Just thought you’d have somewhere else to be.”
“Oh, like you have any right to say that to me.”
“Well, I actually have something to talk to Haruki about.”
“I have something to talk to him about, too!”
“Yeah, sure. Probably not anything important, though.”
“Hang on, you were the one who started making accusations about having somewhere else to be.”
“Would you two mind not fighting right in front of me?”
Takeya’s… unfortunate other half.
“Don’t make it sound so bad, Haruki. No one’s fighting.”
Io put on a perfectly casual face. I, too, sighed.
My meeting Io was, naturally, through Takeya. She had been a dear friend to me since we were introduced in our first year. Granted, she was also a nuisance from time to time.
“So, you had something to talk to me about?”
“Oh, shoot, yeah! Quit interrupting me, Takeya.”
“I didn’t do anything…”
Io ignored Takeya’s reproachful glare and continued.
“So, Haruki, there’s someone here to see you! You can thank me later. Since I just happened to know you, I was able to lead her here.”
“And since when do you two know each other? Well, whatever, I’ll make you tell me all about it later—shoot, I forgot. Hey, sorry to make you keep standing out there! Over here!”
Io turned around and beckoned to someone.
I didn’t mention this before, but Io wasn’t from Class E, either. Io was from Class 3-A.
A class apart from mine and Takeya’s, and also…
“Oh, um… Good morning, Kitahara-kun.”
Setsuna Ogiso’s class.
A few words about Setsuna Ogiso.
Perfect conduct, doubly gifted in intelligence and beauty, and, of course, attractively built. She was the very image of a well-bred, carefully-cherished young lady.
Everyone in our year—no, just about everyone in the whole school—knew who she was.
As I mentioned before, she had taken first place in the school festival’s unofficial “Miss Houjou High” contest our first year, and in our second year, she won yet again.
She was our school’s biggest celebrity, slated for an unprecedented third successive win this year.
And, to every male student, she was a flower on an unreachable peak.
And as this celebrity stood facing me in the hallway, I felt an indescribable awkwardness, as well as open stares piercing me from all around. Some of them actually felt physically painful…
“Um, I wanted to talk… about yesterday,” Ogiso said, breaking the silence. “I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have just run off like that.”
“Oh, no, I shouldn’t have… I wouldn’t know what to do if someone suddenly said something like that to me, either. I don’t blame you for running off. I’m sorry.”
“No, no, it wasn’t—I…”
Ogiso cast her eyes down slightly, and fell silent again.
Was she really that bothered about yesterday? Maybe she had come all this way today just to apologize. In that case, I felt even guiltier.
“Listen, Ogiso, I was absolutely the one in the wrong yesterday. I would really rather you didn’t worry about it too much… Look, maybe this is selfish of me, but I’m happy to forget all about what happened yesterday. So, if you would forget about how I acted, too—“
“Huh? N-No, Kitahara-kun!”
Ogiso suddenly raised her face, looking flustered.
“No, that’s not what I… Um…”
After a few deep breaths, Ogiso seemed to make up her mind about something, quietly cleared her throat, and looked straight at me.
Under her gaze, I suddenly felt awkward.
“Um, I apologize for being forward about this. Kitahara-kun, I have… a bit of a favor to ask.”
“Huh? Wh-What is it?”
A part of me started to think, Has she decided to join our band after all? But that expectation was subverted in a completely unanticipated way.
“I-If you already have plans, I understand, but, if you’re free…”
In spite of her embarrassment, Ogiso whispered her request.
Quietly enough that no one else would hear it.
“Would you… go out with me tonight? With the real me.”
When I returned to the classroom, Takeya and Io were lying in wait for me, eyes shining.
“Haruki, when the hell did you start putting the moves on Setsuna Ogiso?!”
“Haruki, what was that just now?! You look a little blushy. Don’t tell me she…!”
“Oh, whoops, there’s the bell! You two had better get back to class!”
“Are you telling me the whole time you were ripping into me about picking girls for their looks, you’ve been on the attack with Miss Houjou High? Unbelievable. I’m gonna have a thing or two to say to you later.”
“Look, you’re not as well-worn as Takeya, which is great, but Setsuna is way too high for you to aim.”
“I’m not well-worn, Io! I’ve just got a lot of experience.”
“’Well-worn’ is what we call people with too much experience, I’m pretty sure.”
I had just told them not to fight here…
“That’s not the point! Haruki, start talking!”
“Yeah, Haruki! You asked her out, right? When? Yesterday? So what did Setsuna say when she turned you down?!”
“N-No, no! I didn’t ask her out!” I frantically shook my head. “I just asked her if she would sing for the Light Music Club…”
“What? Haruki, you actually invited her?”
“Oh, your club or whatever. Right, you mentioned you were kind of having a crisis.”
“That’s why she’s here, okay. So, hey, what’d she say? Could it be we’ve got Setsuna Ogiso as our new vocalist for the Light Music Club?!”
“Ah, no… She just said, ‘Sorry.’”
“Tsk. Should’ve known.”
Takeya gave a sigh of resignation.
“You want a singer for your band? Yeah, Setsuna wasn’t gonna do that. She’s not interested in anything like that. I mean, she barely spends any time with other people as it is. She always heads straight home alone after school.”
“Yeah, Haruki, you said she wouldn’t want to do anything in front of that many people. Why the hell did you ask her, anyway?”
Just as I was fumbling over what to say, the bell rang, and the two of them rushed out to return to their own classrooms.
Everyone clattered into their chairs.
I sighed with a groan.
I’d told them that I invited Ogiso to join the band.
But, right now, there was something bigger at hand—
“Tonight…?” I muttered.
Ogiso’s invitation from moments before raced round and round in my head.
I really didn’t understand what was going on.
My brain was so busy with all of that that there was no room for actual thought. I barely processed a word during any of my classes following it. In fact, I completely forgot to submit our withdrawal from the festival concert.
And, though the seat next to me remained unoccupied at the start of first period…
Someone suddenly spoke to me during lunch break, and when I turned to look, there she was—
Standing with her arms crossed, glaring silently at me—my neighbor, Kazusa Touma.
My neighbor was constantly late, when she wasn’t skipping altogether.
Taciturn at all times, apathetic, unfriendly, but with a face that even Takeya would admit was finely featured. Anyone who looked at her, no matter how mildly, would consider her a beauty. And for all of her beauty, her eyes (when they weren’t expressionless) tended to leave a cold impression on whomever they regarded.
But, for some reason, today, they weren’t so much cold as…
I got the sense that she was angry, somehow, but maybe I was imagining it.
She never so much as responded when I spoke to her, so why had she decided to speak to me today?
“Er, you’re later than usual today. You usually show up in the middle of first period.”
My attempt at making a normal conversation fell flat, as expected, though I was sure she must have something to talk to me about.
“Did you sleep in super late or something? Oh, there are bags under your eyes, though. Have you not been sleeping enough?”
It occurred to me that I wasn’t in any position to criticize.
“Whose fault do you think that is…?”
As Touma muttered something inaudible, the look in her eyes seemed to grow even sharper.
“S-Sorry, what did you say?”
In response to my return question, Touma fell silent for a moment, before finally replying, “Yesterday—“
“Hey, Mr. President! Can we talk about the festival budget for a sec?”
Touma’s lips had seemed to be on the cusp of saying something, but after this interjection from another girl, they shut tight.
Instead, she glared hard at me, then turned and left the classroom.
All I could do was watch her as she left, her long, black hair fluttering behind her.
I had been so close to witnessing a miracle.
“It looks like we might go a bit over, but maybe if we put this request in we can make it work?”
Of course, Touma wasn’t my only classmate.
As I took care of my duties as class representative, the fact that I had made Touma angry weighed on my mind, in spite of me.
And, when Touma came back later, my attempt to speak to her again was met only with a blunt “Shut up.”
I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
The time was ten o’clock p.m.
As our meeting place, Ogiso had picked the stationfront at Minami-suetsugu.
The surrounding area was a major leisure quarter, and the whole time there had been a continuous stream of drunken businessmen and noisy groups of lively young people passing by me.
How was I supposed to make myself look, standing around in a town that didn’t sleep until dawn?
Soon enough, Setsuna Ogiso—the Setsuna Ogiso—would be here. And she was the one who invited me.
What kind of night was this going to be…?
Startled as I was to be called so suddenly, I kept a calm façade as I turned.
“Oh, hey, Ogiso…”
A light-pink dress, a white cardigan.
A small necklace, sparkling modestly.
There stood Ogiso, catching her breath, in an outfit that, though simple, exuded a certain refinement. It was, indeed, perfect for Miss Houjou High.
“Sorry for being late, when I was the one who asked you…”
“Oh, no, it’s fine.”
“My curfew at home is pretty strict, so… This is the only time I can slip out.”
She had snuck out to meet me here?
“Well, if you’re ready… Why don’t we get going?”
Ogiso’s face as she mumbled this was slightly turned down, blushing, shy.
Get going? Where, exactly?
And, about an hour later…
Inside the building she’d brought me to, Ogiso let out an absentminded, satisfied sigh.
“Ah, that felt great… I’m thirsty now.”
She muttered something about overusing her voice, looking a bit shy.
As for me, I was sitting down heavily, completely exhausted. Why? Because from the moment we entered this room, we had been at it nonstop.
“Hey, Kitahara-kun. How… How was I?”
“You can be honest. Did I put you off?”
“N-No, not at all. It was just… my first time, doing something like this with…”
“With a girl who sang so much… Ah, ahaha…”
From Minami-suetsugu station, three minutes on foot…
Fifth floor of the Daimachi building…
Mayflower Karaoke House, room 15.
Ogiso, having sung her heart out for ten straight songs, was finally taking a small rest.
As I tried to figure out what to say, all I could do was laugh.
“Oh, I’ll order some drinks. What do you want, Kitahara-kun?”
“I… No, I’m fine.”
I was already full, in a different sense.
In stark contrast to me, Ogiso’s voice as she ordered her oolong tea sounded oddly excited.
Even when she joined me on the sofa, her expression was shining with energy.
“All right, since I’ve just been singing new songs, maybe I’ll go with a classic next!”
Evidently, she actually had no need or desire for a break.
“You look weirded-out, Kitahara-kun.”
It never would have remotely occurred to me that Setsuna Ogiso, Miss Houjou High herself… would be such a karaoke freak.
“You probably think I’m weird, but I come here once a week to do karaoke by myself. It’s half-price after nine o’clock.”
“O-Oh, wow. Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t be able to find many friends who would come out with you at this hour. Ahaha…”
“Oh, no, it’s not that. I like doing karaoke on my own.”
“Well, if I had someone with me, that would cut into my singing time, right? And I can’t handle that. I get antsy and irritated.”
“And people would start booing me off after I sang five songs in a row. Alone is best for me.”
“Five songs… Huh.”
It would take her five songs to get the hint…
“You were just thinking about how I can’t take a hint, weren’t you, Kitahara-kun? I can see it on your face.”
“Wha—?! S-Sorry! I just…”
“Ahaha! It’s okay, I already know. But…”
Ogiso’s face took on a slightly more serious cast.
“But, when it comes to singing, I don’t want to take a hint. Just for singing. I don’t want to give it up to anyone else.”
“That’s why yesterday happened. Even up on the school roof, when I heard a song I knew, my favorite song… there was no way I could keep myself from singing.”
“Yep. It’s a little old, sure, but I love it.”
“It was… the first CD I ever bought, actually.”
“Really? That makes me happy, for some reason.” Ogiso gave a small smile at this knowledge of our shared tastes. “I had so much fun doing that. I felt so great, so light. I hadn’t felt that way in years. That’s… why it startled me so much when you showed up.”
“Ah… Sorry. I didn’t realize I was intruding on such a nice moment.”
“No, I mean, there was that, but…”
After a quiet, deep breath, Ogiso continued.
“Kitahara-kun… You already knew about me, right?”
For a few seconds, I didn’t understand what she meant.
“Knew about… Well, yeah, I did. You’re practically a celebrity, you’ve won the Miss Houjou High contest for the past two years—“
Ogiso cut me off with a shake of her head, then pulled something out of her bag.
“This… You knew about this side of me, right?”
On the table she laid out a truly unflattering orange apron, bearing the words “Gonda Grocery.”
This was Setsuna Ogiso’s other secret—one that, as far as I could tell, only I knew.
I think the first time I saw it was summer of last year.
Takeya had dragged me out to a musical instrument store. On the way there, in the shopping district, there had been a girl about our age, working in a small supermarket.
At the time, I had probably just gone, “Oh, huh.” This girl, with her hair in a braid and black-rimmed glasses, didn’t seem to be anyone I knew.
But this year, after I started to play the guitar myself, I visited that music store several times to buy strings and sheet music and so on, and in the course of that, something struck me. The girl from the supermarket always looked strangely plain.
If she had just been plain, it would have been one thing, but something felt curiously off—it was unnatural how unmemorable she was, as though she were making a concerted effort not to attract any attention.
I think that was why.
Because I had her in my mind that way, when I passed Ogiso in the hall at school one day, it hit me. The reason for that strange feeling became clear in a completely unthinkable way.
I still remembered that moment, because I reflexively yelled, “Ahh!”, in a voice that echoed through the hallway.
It was that massive a shock.
Setsuna Ogiso, the school’s biggest celebrity, the perfect flower of a girl…
Who would picture her looking so frumpy, working part-time in a grocery store?
“I remember it, too, Kitahara-kun. The way you suddenly yelled in the hallway.”
“Oh. Uh… Sorry about that.”
I was definitely embarrassed.
“B-But, Ogiso, how… How did you know that I had figured out your ‘true identity’?”
“It was easy. I was paying attention to you, the same way you were paying attention to me.”
“I was working at a secret job, dressing as inconspicuously as possible so no one would catch me. Whenever someone wearing one of our school uniforms passed by, I paid attention. There aren’t a lot of places where students hang out around there, so I didn’t see many—apart from you.”
“I’m actually pretty alert to other people looking at me.”
I had no idea… No idea that she had realized.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like I stalked you or anything. All I knew was your face, and that you were also a third-year. I figured if I tried to learn more about you, you might sense something. But when you yelled out in the hallway, I thought I was done for. Because you were looking at me.”
“You saw that far through me…”
“That’s my line! I’d worried about it, but I didn’t think it would actually get out. I thought I might have to quit my job…”
“But nothing changed. No one came to see me, or said anything to me. I just saw you passing by now and then, like I had. It meant a lot to me that you didn’t say anything about it. Io told me later that I didn’t have anything to worry about with you.”
“Oh, I mean… But, that’s how you knew about me, huh.”
“Yep. So I was even more surprised when you showed up on the roof. And then, to have you just invite me to sing for your band…”
“Sorry about that. When I think about it now, that was pretty inconsiderate of me. Coming to try to scout you for the Light Music Club, knowing you were already busy with your job. I know you have your own life stuff to deal with.”
“Oh, well, um, it’s nothing that big.”
“Your family, though, I know you’re kind of upper-class…”
“That’s not really true.”
Ogiso looked a bit awkward.
“Um, we’re not really wealthy or anything like that. We’re just a normal family.”
“Yes. But, after I won the Miss Houjou contest in our first year, this image of me as some sort of high-class young lady apparently just took root… At first, I sort of had fun with it, kept a smile on my face, but then everyone started actually believing it, and I couldn’t back out of it…”
“The next thing I knew, every time I hung out with my friends, I had to wear new clothes. That was actually why I started working, but that cut into my time for hanging out, and I stopped being able to spend time with anyone. As backwards as it is, that somehow made people think I was pampered and fancy.”
Such a weird, delicate situation… It really wasn’t anything significant. Of course, Ogiso must have had her own way of thinking about it.
“That’s all. I’m not like the image everyone has of me.”
“Why would you tell me, though?”
“Oh. yeah. I know it took me a little while to get around to it, but that was the big thing I wanted to talk about today. Now that I’ve got everything off my chest, I can tell you.”
Ogiso took a deep breath.
“Kitahara-kun, I’m sorry for running away from you yesterday. I’m really embarrassed about that.”
“No, you really don’t have to—”
“I was actually really happy. It was… the first time anyone had praised my singing voice like that. And so earnestly, too.”
“Singing ‘White Album’ felt really nice. I’ve always sung it by myself, but getting to create the music together with someone else showed me how much fun it could be.”
She fixed her eyes straight at me.
“That’s why I wanted you to know me as I really was. I’m not some kind of princess. I’m… someone who loves to sing.”
I had learned a lot about her.
About her family.
Her reason for working.
Her love for singing.
Not the Miss Houjou High that everyone at school knew, but Setsuna Ogiso, the ordinary girl—today, I had met her.
“So, here goes. If you’re okay with it… If you think I’ll be what you need, please let me join the Light Music Club!”
“I do love singing. If it means that I can do what I love… If there’s some role I can fulfill… I want to do it.”
These were the words I had been longing to hear since I first heard her voice the day before.
“I might not be that good at it. Even if I practice and practice all the way up to the show, it’s possible that everyone will just laugh at me. But I’m going to put everything I have into it until the last moment. I won’t back down. So… Let me sing! Please!”
“No, I should be the one saying… Thank you!”
I did it… I was going to be able to put on a show with the owner of that voice.
It had happened so suddenly, almost weirdly so, but I didn’t care whether it was some angel’s slip-up, or some devil’s trap.
Because, in the course of a single night, when I was on the cusp of giving up, she had shown me that it wasn’t all over yet.
Just at that moment, one of the staff showed up with the oolong tea, set it down, and left.
“As of right now… Setsuna Ogiso doesn’t have any secrets any more. You know everything.”
She gave me a small smile, and I averted my eyes, having difficulty facing it straight on. I hoped desperately that my face wasn’t red from the heating in the room.
“W-Well, if you do the show with us, everyone will know you like singing, at least.”
“Oh, good point. Well, everything up to that is our secret.”
With a chuckle, Ogiso picked up the tablet sitting on the table. She input a code, the movements of her hands showing that she had it memorized.
“I’m going to sing it for you now. The song that led us to meet.”
After downing her oolong tea in one gulp, Ogiso grabbed the mic and stood up.
The intro that I had heard countless times gently enfolded us.
Ogiso’s lips began to produce their song, a white, melting voice.
And, in the midst of that world, I pressed down the clear guitar strings and began to strum.
The night was not yet over.
Looking back on it, the whole day had been one surprise after another.
Yes, I was worn out, but what I ultimately ended with was a pleasant exhaustion, and a new name in my phone’s address book—which, as far as girls went, had only contained Io before.
I was brimming with a sense of contentment, satisfaction with how extraordinarily lucky I had been.
As a result, my mind didn’t have room to roam anywhere else.
It didn’t even occur to me, for example, to wonder whether someone had spotted me and Ogiso walking around downtown together, late at night.
“Kitahara-kun, sorry to call you so late…”
After I reached home, I received a call from the number I had just entered in my phone.
“Well… When my dad heard about the Light Music Club, he…”
I never could have anticipated the darkness I heard in Ogiso’s voice.