The night was young. The last rays of sunshine has faded a while ago. The summer breeze gently flows through my hair as I pedal across the street.
I, Hikigaya Hachiman, is on my way home after a long day. The number of times I needed to talk to people had exceeded my daily quota. My legs ache as I've been pedaling all day. I got lost more than once which in turn added more wasted time outside on this heat. And of course the sun in cue wanted to shine brighter today more than ever to scorch my skin, make me sweat rivers, and parch my throat. Summer should be spent inside houses lounging on the couch all day away from the heat and labor instead of what I'm experiencing right now.
I tried to recall on why did I agree upon this cruel task. Earlier today my sister informed me that some of the light novels we've wanted to read are on sale today but we both didn't want to sacrifice the comfort of our cool, less humid home to embark upon this perilous journey to a far away place. So with an honorable game of luck namely rock, paper and, scissors we decided which one of us would be the unfortunate soul to carry this task. I shouldn't have accepted the bet in the first place. Luck have never favored me before so logically the outcome would have been obvious . If not for the sake of my dear Komachi who's relying on her responsible brother then I wouldn't have accepted this torture.
As I take a turn I noticed an ominous black smoke bellowing towards the sky blotting out the stars behind it. The source seems to be within my route as it grows larger as I move forward. With every pedal I approach its source. I noticed a luminescent glow of red as I come near it. After a while I was now in front of the source. My pedaling slowed down and came to a halt.
Fire. Flame escaping the windows. Ember scattering across the breeze along with a monstrous smoke blocking the scenery behind the house. Sirens blasting from the fire trucks. News reporters on the distance with cameras pointed towards the building. Firefighters with hoses on their hands and some with axes trying to enter the establishment.
It took a minute to process everything and take in the spectacle I'm seeing.
By the looks of the building I didn't arrive while the strength of the fire was at its peak. With the continuous torrent of water the fire seems to have died down a bit. Firefighters have now almost entered the building.
With the fire coming to an end, bystanders one after another have started to crowd the place like buzzards drawn to a rotting meal. Whispers of the event that's transpiring echoed through monotonic voices.
"Scary. It might spread throughout the neighborhood"
"It was raging on for a long while wasn't it?"
"It's my first time seeing fire so huge"
I despised it. These people are of no help to the situation. Why do bystanders need to stay and gawk at scenes not concerning them. Do they believe that what they're doing is an act to show empathy. No. They are just scouring information for gossip on what to discuss tomorrow with their coworkers, schoolmates, friends and family. The tragic events that have unfolded will be nothing more than small talk for a few minutes to pass time as a next topic to talk about. Will they talk to the people involved if they will be alright. Will they try to give solace to the family that have been felled upon by such misfortune. No they won't.
I needed to get away from this scene. I am not involved in this incident in any way nor am I obliged to stay to give a token of pity.
As i prep up my bike I glanced one last time to look at the scenery unfolding. The firefighters are now entering the house. Whispers turned to noise as tensions rises. With eyes glued to the events unfolding in front of them to satisfy their curiosity.
I looked away. I close my eyes and held my head down. I say a small prayer for the people involved. It's unfortunate but it's come to pass. May they find the strength to stand up again and recover financially. I get ready to pedal away. With news covering this my family might be watching this at home. My sister might inquire me the moment I enter the scene like Oniichan oniichan Did you see the house fire on your way home? etcetera etcetera
"Hey do you know who lived here?"
"I hope there wasn't anyone inside"
"Was there any lights on indicating someone was inside moments ago?"
"Kyaa this is so intense Kyo-kun"
"Stand back everyone. The smoke is still thick"
"If I recall correctly. The household belongs to the Tsurumi family"
Did I heard that right? It's a name I'm familiar with. No it can't be... can it?
"Yes. it's a family of three I believe A father, mother and a daughter attending middle school at..."
"Really. It's sad I hope they w..."
I looked at the woman talking, grabbed her attention and finally let my voice out "Hey... please... tell me the names of the residents living here."
"Eh... well they're a family of three; the father Tsurumi Ruko, the mother Tsurumi Misaki and their daughter Tsurumi Rumi"
"Were they inside when the fire started?", I asked frantic hoping she'll answer with the ones I want to hear
"I...I don't know"
The world around me darkened... I can no longer hear the gossip permeating around me. Shaken, I left my bike and began to walk mindlessly towards the fuming building like a moth attracted to fire shoving away the people in front of me. I held deep breaths. Now is not the time to panic... there's the chance that they might have been not present in the house when the fire started.
"Move away Move away", shouted the Fireman emerging from the building with a stretcher surrounded by several men strolled outside.
Before my mind could analyze the situation my scent picked up a dreadful odor. I could only describe the scent similar to a cooking gone wrong but with a horrible, disgusting twist. Burnt flesh. It was coming from the stretcher they brought with them.
My stomach churned. My face flushed. My teeth grinded, My stand weakened, My heart tightened. My head felt assaulted by uncomfortable dizziness.
One of the worst pain you can ever feel can be caused by fire. I can imagine it like needles piercing every nerve on your flesh leaving you in excruciating pain and after you endure this you'll be left numb devoid from the sense of touch turning you into charred remains were the only sensation you'll wish for will be an embrace by death. Dying by fire is literally hell.
"Another Body found"
"Quickly get him medical attention immediately"
"We have another one here"
Another stretcher was rushed toward the house.
Her face flashed across my mind. Memories we've spent together stack upon one another. The bullied child I met at summer camp. Someone I can relate to. Someone who experienced the same pain I felt. The confident girl singing songs of joy at the christmas event. Someone who overcame her weakness. Her innocent smile... gone...burnt
No, I can't keep calm anymore. I can't remain uninvolved, not when someone I know, I care for could be in harm or worse. I ran and jumped above the no crossing line. I tried to get near the house but was stopped by the firefighters around.
I caught a glimpse of what's inside through the windows. A torrent of melted appliances and charred materials are scattered all around. I tried to look for a place still accessible yet there doesn't seem to be a place untouched by the flame. No safe cover. No signs of life.
Unable to control my emotions I shouted in anguish.
Before I could shout again I was grabbed by a fireman trying to pull me back to safety. Tsk. No, not yet. I'm becoming impulsive. I've lost my usual calm demeanor. But I didn't care, every second could mean life or death. She may still be inside crying for help, hurt and helpless.
I struggled against his hold and was able to free myself. I decided to circle around the house to deduce possible rooms where the firefighters may not have entered yet.
I saw a broken window where I could fit in. But before I tried to enter I noticed the pile of scraps scattered from its direction. Strange, the other windows despite being open or broken doesn't have the same amount of scraps congested around them. I looked closely where the scraps lie and I noticed a pattern easily missed if you don't focus on it, footprints, small ones too. Further investigation shows that their direction is pointed away from the house.
I felt a little relief and hope at what I saw. But not enough to remove my anxiety, there are still uncertainties. Now is not the time to be relaxed. I cannot rest until I see her safe and sound.
I followed the direction lead by the footprint away from the house, away from the horrid scene. Now focusing on a discovery that I hope will lead me to the person I wanted to find. Examining the trail I noticed that there are a few peculiarities with the footprints. Their form differs from every step, shaped by traces of grime. Along the path there are bits of debris of a common material I'm not sure what exactly it is but it's probably from the house caught with fire. There are droplets of liquid, most probably water, along with the footprints. I'm glad I noticed the traces, within a few hours this would have been gone, with the debris blown by the wind and the moisture evaporated.
I followed the trail to a distance away from the wreck hoping it will lead me to her but soon my source of hope began to dwindle. I tried to carefully examine every detail to navigate effectively but it kept becoming harder and harder. The farther I follow the trail the less visible it became. Gaps between the debris began to appear farther away from each other. I kept moving until the trace finally disappeared. I ended up near a bridge. I looked around but both the trail and the girl I'm looking for are nowhere to be found. Fear once again crept through my mind.
"Tsurumi-chan Tsurumi-chan", I kept shouting her name like a broken record
"Are you here...please... answer me...", my voice sounding like a prayer begging for mercy
"...where are you" , my breath giving up, my strong shouts turn to sad whispers
I took deep breaths tired from all the shouting. I felt light-headed after all the shouting. My eyes started to strain and the dizziness I felt earlier returned full force. But what hurts the most was the pain in my chest. My heart aching in despair as I didn't find tsurumi-chan after all this time. Maybe I should retrace my steps back, I might have missed something or I might have took the wrong turn or maybe the path might have been or... or maybe... maybe I was just wrong this whole time. Maybe this trail I kept following is not even a trail leading to her, only something I wanted it to be. She may not even have escaped the house in the first place. My head kept filling with unbearable thoughts. No matter what I try negative thoughts of her fate kept plaguing across my mind.
I dropped to my knees in defeat. I succumb to exhaustion. As I rest there my senses began to heighten making me aware of my surroundings. The moonlight illuminating my surroundings, the night breeze flowing through my sweat and hair, the water calmly flowing under the bridge, and the tears flowing through my cheeks before hitting the pavement.
I began to hear a strange noise. I close my eyes and strained my ears to focus my attention.
It sounded like laboured breathing. But where is it coming from?
Under the bridge! I got up and started a sprint towards the end of the bridge. I walked down the stair that will lead me to its foot and approached the source of the noise. I tried to look around but couldn't see anything. The moonlight was not enough to penetrate the dark so it took a while before my eyes could adjust. That's when I saw her.
What took the small space at the far corner could be mistaken for a rag if you judge it from a distance but as I get close I noticed that it's moving and it seems to be sitting curled in a fetal position . I quickly moved towards the curled being to confirm what I'm seeing. But soon my pace began to slow down as I move nearer more dreadful details began to surface. The movement I noticed earlier is laboured breathing akin to something exhausted or in pain. What's covering her are clothes that had cuts everywhere and its edges burned. Images of the scene I saw earlier ran through my mind again. I feared for the worst. What snapped me from my momentary dread was when I saw her familiar face.
It was none other than Tsurumi Rumi. I touched her shoulders. She opened her eyes in notice of my presence. I began to quickly examine her body to judge her state. I noticed several bruises from her body scattered most at her hands, feet, knees and elbow. But luckily there doesn't seem to be heavy burn marks, nothing as bad as the ones I saw earlier
"Tsurumi-chan, Tsurumi-chan, Does your body still hurt?, Can you move?, " I avoided that instinctive question about asking her if she's ok because from the looks of it
she most definitely is not.
I awaited her reply but she doesn't seem to respond. My questions are only met with stares from eyes devoid of life.
"Can you understand me? Answer me Tsurumi-chan... it's me Hachiman"
I felt relief after she responded. I stopped bombarding her with more questions. She was most likely shocked from what happened and her state right now proves this.
"Don't worry Tsurumi-chan I'll be calling an ambulance they'll be here right away."
Before dialing I began to look around to gather information on our exact location. After thinking about a coherent address I began to dial the emergency hotline number. Or at least I would have if it weren't for the unexpected pain suddenly coursing through my right hand.
"OUCH…. ow ow ow... stop it.. let go"
She bit me. There have been a lot of surprises tonight and this is one of the the most surprising one to happen. After a mini tug of war she let go and began to crawl away from me.
"No... no... no..no.. no. no"
She wailed as she frantically tried to move away from me. Her sudden change took me by surprise. A minute ago she could barely move, but like electricity suddenly charging her, she kept squirming desperately trying to get away. I grabbed her and held her down to calm her.
"Listen, Listen to me. It's alright. I'm only calling an ambulance to get you healed."
It didn't matter how hard I tried to reason to her as it was all for naught. It's as if my voice is falling on deaf ears as she kept shaking and crying her lungs out.
Her sudden outburst is taking a toll on her body. Her wounds have now started to bleed again. This is bad, I need to do something to calm her down. Mentioning about contacting an ambulance seems to dismay her. There doesn't seem to be a place near here where we could get immediate help and my house too far away from. Well, now that I think about it, judging by this location there is someone I know who lives not too far from here. Though I rather not let her shoulder this burden with me but I'm running out of options.
I held her tight and tried to get her attention focused at me.
"Rumi... you don't need to be scared anymore. I'm here and I won't leave you alone. We're going somewhere safe. A home where you can rest. It's a place owned by someone you know, someone you can trust", I said in the calmest voice I could muster.
"H-Home...", she whispered faintly
I must have said something right as she stopped crying and relaxed her tense expression. I didn't want her to walk in this condition so I offered her a piggyback ride to which she obliged with no fuss. She hugged me tightly from behind. Now I could trick her and try to contact the hospital again without her knowledge but I stopped the thought. I don't want to deceive her now. She's been through enough. So we went on our way to the place I promised.
I knocked on the door. As she opened the door she held an expression I pictured her to exactly have at this moment. Her blue eyes slightly enlarged with a mouth hung slightly opened unable to utter any words. An expression mixed with shocked and confusion as she sees a schoolmate holding a disheveled child on his back at her doorstep at the middle of the night. The events of the night must have affected me deeply now to the point of stopping me from thinking anything coherent or witty to say to her to explain the situation at the moment so I'll say something simple and straight to the point.