The first time I really noticed her was the first day of school. I don't know if I'd ever seen her before then, but she looked pretty enough that I'd probably have noticed.
Everyone was supposed to introduce themselves, giving their name, middle school, and maybe one or two hobbies. Some people tried to liven up their introductions with carefully-rehearsed jokes or little stories, which we all dutifully applauded, no matter how painful or awkward it was.
I can't remember how my own introduction went. It must have been pretty normal, since I don't have any good or bad memories of it.
The girl behind me stood up, said her name, and sat down again.
That was all. Even the teacher's hesitant suggestions for her to elaborate a bit more was met with a certain expression, that made him trail off into embarrassed mumbles. That expression was one that I'd be more than familiar with, having seen it plenty of times as the year went by. It was a sort of surprised, and yet disdainful expression: "Why are you still bothering me with this? I've already said everything worth saying, so who are you to tell me otherwise?"
From the way she acted, it looked like she wasn't aware of that expression herself. Usually she wore a friendly-looking smile, like cashier clerks at the convenience store. She's not really happy to see you or talk to you; she just smiles because it's polite. It seemed like she saw everyone as around the level of potatoes, male and female alike.
I overheard some of the girls talking about her a little later. It sounded like they tried to make friends with her.
"She's so stuck-up, I can't stand her!"
"She acts like she's the class representative, even though she's not. Every time she opens her mouth, she's ordering you about or talking down to you."
"She doesn't listen to what other people tell her."
Things like that. Girls can be really mean sometimes.
I had to admit that she was a striking beauty, guaranteed to attract the attention of any of us hormone-addled boys, until she opened her mouth. Still with that polite smile, she'd say exactly what was on her mind, without any sense of delicacy or courtesy. I heard that every boy who asked her out was immediately turned down, without mercy. Worse, she started listing out all their faults and shortcomings, instructing them how to change. Word spread fast, and soon none of the male students even dared to approach her, except for official business.
Even so, she turned out to be pretty popular, in her own way. Nobody could call her a close friend, but soon everyone heard of how she went through every club the school had, trying them out one by one. One day she would be dribbling a basketball and scoring easy three-pointers, the next she would be on the track team breaking school records. Swimming, dancing, singing, sewing, cooking... it seemed like there was no end to her talents. Every club in the school wanted her, with the sports clubs in particular asking her to help them win the championships for the year or something. Tennis, lacrosse, soccer, softball...
In the end, she didn't join any of them. Such a fickle person.
She was also very smart. Every question the teacher asked her, she answered perfectly. Even though it didn't seem like she put in any effort towards studying, she aced every test and exam. She was the sort of student every teacher would love to have. If it wasn't for her attitude, she would have been the undisputed school idol. It was like a goddess walking among mortals.
Maybe that's why she acted the way she did.
Because I had to sit right in front of her every day, enduring her cold, uncaring gaze on the back of my head, that must have been why I first noticed her spacing out.
She did it quite often, sometimes even in the middle of class. She still answered questions correctly, but once she was done, she went back to staring at thin air.
I tried asking her what she was thinking about. It didn't go very well.
"What? What do you want?"
Was she just bored, and lost in her own imagination? Or was she watching something none of us could see?
"You'd never understand."
Still, when she was sitting quietly like that, she was really pretty. I think that's why I still remember her, even after all this time.
Tatchi was the one who discovered her interests. He claimed to have been on the same train as her, and along the way, he took out one of his manga to read.
"She was totally reading over my shoulder! Who'd have guessed she'd be that type of girl?"
Everyone's free to have their own likes and dislikes, right?
"No, really! She tried to look like she wasn't interested when I turned around, but I swear she wasn't just bored. I mean, she was definitely excited by what was happening in the story!"
Turned out that Tatchi's manga was about super robots. Not really the sort I read, but when he lent me a few volumes, it turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, even though the plot was kind of simple. The hero always won, even if he had to rely on some miracle the author dreamed up.
"Hey, you think I could have a chance if I used this? Mutual interests, right? You have to admit she looks cute, long hair and all. She's got a great figure, too. Maybe I can fix her troublesome personality if I work at it?"
Tatchi is an idiot.
I brought it up to her the next time I saw her spacing out. For once, she didn't react like she usually did, brushing me off with some dismissive answer. Instead, she leaned forward, eyes bright.
"Do you think such things can happen in real life?"
That's a weird question to ask. If you asked me whether I believed in the supernatural and fantastic things that only happened in stories, the answer would have been a definite no. I can't even remember when I realized that aliens, demons, ghosts, giant robots, and superpowered people only existed in works of fiction; by the time it mattered, I had already long given up on such childish things.
Needless to say, I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or anything like that either.
"But what if you see it with your own eyes? Don't you believe in miracles that come from the gods?"
It's not like I insist that everything can be explained by today's science, of course. There are still a lot of things we haven't learned about yet, but I think there will be a reasonable explanation for everything, sooner or later.
She settled back in her seat, her expression changing back to that disappointed, disdainful look. I began to feel like I had said something wrong, but even when I apologized, she shook her head in irritation.
"No, that's enough. Never mind."
The first time I visited her home was when she caught a cold.
Or maybe it was the flu; I don't really remember anymore. In any case, as a member of the Health Committee, I was asked to deliver some forms and worksheets to her place. Not that I asked to be a member of the Health Committee, but the teacher wouldn't shut up until I agreed to join.
Her home was actually a shrine, a fair distance away from the school, a little out of the way from anything in particular. For someone who acted so superior, the place looked more than a little run-down. Maybe her family had money problems.
She answered the door herself. She looked pretty bad, but I think the next day she was back at school, completely recovered. Maybe some people just have quick immune systems.
For the sake of courtesy, she invited me inside. It was an awkward conversation, full of silences and pauses, broken only by the sounds of construction work going on nearby. I think I did most of the talking, while she just sat there and tried not to cough or sneeze. I probably should have excused myself early, but I was curious about how it didn't seem like there was anyone else living with her in the shrine.
"No, I don't live alone. They're not in right now."
Were both her parents working? Even when their daughter was ill?
"Not my parents, my guardians."
Looked like her family situation was complicated. Maybe that's why her place didn't look like much. Then again, it was a shrine, so maybe they relied on donations to keep things going? If how she normally acted in school was also how she acted as a shrine maiden, then I can't fault worshippers for going to some other shrine instead, especially since this shrine was so hard to get to.
"Would you like to make an offering? I can draw a fortune for you, if you'd like."
I don't think drawing a "Great Luck" fortune or something would mean that I'll truly be blessed with good luck for the rest of the year. It's just a piece of paper, nothing more. But since it would have been rude not to, I put a couple of hundred yen into the offertory box and clapped my hands together. It didn't matter what I wished for, even if I remembered, since it's not like it would come true just from something like that.
I don't remember what fortune I got either.
I think, in her own way, she had been trying to make friends as well. She did approach me once, although I'm not sure what that had been about.
Summer was here, and the heat was getting pretty unbearable. Everyone was complaining about it, and according to the weather forecasts, it was only about to get worse.
Out of the blue, she tapped me on the shoulder. "Would it help if there was some rain?" she asked.
Maybe. Although it would have to rain for a long time, since just an afternoon's worth would only make it steamy and humid.
The next day, it rained. In fact, it rained for three days straight. The complaints about the heat turned into complaints about forgetting to bring umbrellas, or getting soaked and muddy from puddles. The weather forecasts on TV quickly changed their predictions, acting like they had said so all along.
While I was listening to the downpour outside the classroom window, she tapped me on the shoulder again. "It's raining," she told me, as though expecting me to provide her with the punchline. Was she proud that she managed to predict the weather accurately? Wasn't it just a lucky guess, in the end?
I don't know what comedy skit she was referring to, so I just acknowledged her statement of the obvious, trying not to sound too confused. She looked dissatisfied, but didn't say anything else.
If I remember correctly, that was the last time she talked to me.
The second time I visited her home was when I heard about a summer festival being held there.
It wasn't a very big one, to be honest. Most of the people there were old geezers and country bumpkins, either there because they lived near the area, or because they'd been going there for years and years.
The food there wasn't very good, and the atmosphere was a little lacking. It was like seeing a tired old attempt at reviving something that should have been left in the past, instead of forcing it now.
I heard that she would be performing a dance for the gods, but by the time I got there, the area around the stage was packed with people. The dance was probably the only reason everyone turned up, like me. Since it was too crowded, I decided to leave.
I did hurry back to the festival site after it was over, though, since I left something behind. Apart from the stall-owners packing up, and the patrolmen on duty busy helping those too drunk to move, nobody else was around. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of her, in her shrine maiden outfit, quietly sweeping up. Her silhouette in the darkness looked very tired. Since she had been performing that dance, and organizing the festival at her shrine, it wasn't that surprising. I didn't see anyone around who looked like her guardian, but maybe they were helping out elsewhere.
Luckily, one of the police officers had found my wallet, and he returned it to me, telling me to go home quickly. I was so happy at this miracle that I forgot to find her and greet her.
When school started again in the autumn, she was gone. According to the teacher, her family had to move away suddenly, due to certain circumstances.
People talked about it, since she had made that unique impression after her tour of all the clubs in the school, but it died down after a few days.
I don't think she made any real friends here.
Anyway, all that was a long time ago. How many years has it been? I haven't thought about her at all. Life moves on.
Recently, I happened to be in the area, waiting for a friend, when I remembered that this was the address she used to live in. Not anymore, of course; now there was just a row of buildings, offices for small businesses or something.
The shrine had been replaced by a convenience store. They must have started building it right after she moved away, or they'd never have gotten it up so quickly.
I went into the convenience store to buy a drink. The polite, fake smile of the clerk behind the counter reminded me of her.
I wonder where she is now.