Hayato could tell they were stalling for time: not just him, but all of the family. Finally, though, the first signs of daylight were beginning to wash the windows, and he knew he had to go. He bid Grandma farewell, and she gathered him up in a rough hug. He picked up the Kami box, tied up his hiking boots, and opened the front door. As he stepped out into the early morning air with Mother and Father, his breath rushed out in a plume of steam. He was immediately grateful for the thick jacket they had given him: it was a chilly, dull morning: a low mist hung in the air. Not even the birds were awake yet.
Father placed the rucksack in the boot of his car, and as they drove away Hayato looked out the back window, watching the old house disappear around the corner and into the mist. He felt a lump in his throat, and pulled his eyes away, forcing them to look ahead.
They trundled through the town. It was quiet and still, and very eerie in the steely grey light. Hayato felt a surge of grim satisfaction: he was going to get out of this town for a while. No more backwards, bizarre traditions, no more being forced to do what everyone else does: just him and the road ahead. Even if it wasn’t a punishment, the idea of a hike out of Namerikawa would have sounded like a great idea anyway. The more he thought about it, the more this sentence felt like a backwards kind of reward. Perhaps Nozomi was right, maybe something fishy was going on…
The wheels of the car crunched across the gravel as they arrived. He could tell instantly that this wasn’t going to be a dramatic send-off. For one thing, there were only a couple of other cars parked nearby, one of which looked abandoned. The weather, too, looked less than ideal. He hadn’t really paid attention to his father when he explained how a compass worked, reasoning that the ever-looming Kasayama would always be give him a reference point. Now he wished he’d listened.
But when he stepped out of the car, he was greeted by the only other person he was happy to see: Nozomi. She looked cold and a little bit ill. How long had she been out here? She gave a quick bow to Hayato’s parents then turned to him.
“Can I have a word in private?” she said.
“Err…sure,” said Hayato, looking at his parents who gave him a small smile and a nod. They moved a distance away, and through the mist he could make out the shapes of more people. Instantly he recognised the tiny frame of the Mayor, flanked on either side by two governing cronies. For such a small, quiet town, the two of them looked out of place. In fact, had he even seen them before?
“You noticed them too,” Nozomi murmured to him, “I told you Hayato, something strange is going on in this town. Something…bad.”
“Yeah I know,” Hayato rolled his eyes, “But no worries, I’ll be gone soon.”
“I’m serious,” Nozomi’s face was set as firm as stone, “Actually, that’s kinda why I wanted to talk to you alone. You know I have a pet, right?”
Hayato nodded, wondering where on earth this could be going.
“Well, Shisha’s a pigeon. And not just any pigeon: a carrier pigeon,” Nozomi grinned, “She can carry messages.”
Ah. So that was where it was going.
“Nozomi, that’s against the rules,” he hissed, “If you’re found out, you could be in big trouble.”
Nozomi raised an eyebrow. “Since when have you cared about rules? Anyway, I’m not going to be sending messages just to talk about the weather: I’m going to use Shisha to keep you updated.
“Updated? On what?”
“Clues,” she said mysteriously, her eyes sparkling, “Signs of anything suspicious going on.”
Hayato rubbed his forehead, “You’re really sure something strange is going on, aren’t you? Good luck to you and all, but won’t find anything.”
“Says the boy who says he was kicked off the float by a doll,” Nozomi countered, “Be honest: do you really think you were imagining things?”
Hayato recalled its deep voice, the foot on his back, and those burning red eyes. He couldn’t fool himself. “It was…real, I suppose.”
“Well then,” Nozomi brushed her hands together as though this settled the matter, “Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this, and that somebody needs to be me.”
He had to admire his friend’s guts. “Well, okay then, but please be careful, alright?” he whispered. The last thing he wanted was his best friend being dragged into this as well, but there was no way he could stop her.
“Hayato Takei,” the Mayor called through the mist, “It’s time.”
It was hard to tell if it was sunrise or not, but Hayato didn’t want to hang around anyway. Together with Nozomi and his parents, he approached the Mayor and her aides.
“Do you have the Kami box?” she said, her words rising in plumes of steam like a dragon.
Hayato unzipped a chest pocket and revealed the golden box. It seemed to glow of it’s own accord, illuminating the damp air.
“Then you are ready,” the Mayor declared. She nodded to her aides and they stepped back, opening the way to a rickety old footbridge arching over a river: the Namerikawa River itself, marking the western border of town.
Father helped to hoist the bag onto his back. It was heavy, but a snug fit. Then his parents gathered him up in an even more snug hug.
“Good luck,” Mother whispered, “Stay safe, remember to write, and remember: if it gets too dangerous, you can always come home. We’ll sort something out.”
That won’t happen, Hayato vowed silently, fighting back tears and failing. Now he felt silly, especially in front of Nozomi. He was going to be gone for two weeks at the most. He brushed his eyes dry as he turned to her. She grinned. “See you soon, I guess.”
“Yeah,” said Hayato thickly, “I’ll bring you back a souvenir.”
If he didn’t go now, he never would. He faced the bridge, took a deep breath, and crossed slowly. The bridge was damp and mossy from lack of use, and he nearly slipped. That would not have been a good start. Finally, he laid a boot on the dewy grass on the other side. He was out of Namerikawa. It was a small thing, he knew that, but Hayato felt the thrill of adventure surge through him. Who knew what the open road ahead held for him? He tightened his gloves, unfolded his map and…looked at it. Then looked at the misty field. Then he looked over his shoulder to the misty silhouettes across the border.
“Err…” he called, “…which way to Kasayama? Left or right?”
Groans of exasperation floated back to him, including a laugh he knew belonged to Nozomi. He blushed.
“Straight ahead,” Father called.
“Mr. Takei, you are not to assist him in any –”
“And it’s not technically sunrise for another six minutes, so it looks like we’re even in playing fast and loose with the rules, Mayor Nieda.”
Even from across the river, Hayato could have sworn he could hear the grinding of teeth.
“Keep going forward son, and don’t look back.”
And so he did. Hoisting his rucksack up on his back, he put one foot in front of the other. The mist swallowed up everyone on the other side of the bridge, then the bridge itself, until at last he was alone on an island of grass, surrounded by thick fog.
As he walked, he could make out the vague outlines of skeletal trees in the distance. The sun was beginning to rise in earnest now, shining weakly through the trees. The birds were waking up too, and their singing floated through the air. Hayato’s bag felt lighter somehow. He picked up the pace. The warm sunshine tingled on his neck and slowly burned away the mist. He felt…good. More than that, he felt great. As the mist peeled back to reveal more and more of the path ahead, he walked faster and faster until he was nearly running, and –
A river leapt out of nowhere, and he nearly slid down the back into the water. Another river already? But then the mist cleared some more, and he saw a familiar-looking footbridge overhead. Very familiar: in fact he’d only just walked across it mere minutes ago.
“How the –?” Hayato clambered back up the bank and brushed his muddy hands on his knees. How had he got turned around so easily? He could have sworn he’d been walking straight. True, it had been a pea-souper of a mist (and it had cleared unusually fast), but still…
But now the mist had cleared completely, and there stood Kasayama, towering over the other mountains lining the horizon. It looks so close! Hayato thought, this will be done and dusted in no time. He clapped his hands together. Right then. Just a minor set back. No big deal. Now, let’s get this show on the road for real.
The grey morning had fizzled away, and it promised to be a glorious sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. It was pleasingly cool, too. He came to a stile and clambered over it, then tumbled into the thicket on the other side. It didn’t matter. He was laughing to himself even as he brushed the prickles from his hair. He walked along a narrow pathway , skirting the edge of a paddy field, and up ahead he saw an old car trundle on by. So there’s a road up ahead…he unfolded his map, and located the space between the Namerikawa River and the road running parallel. He could see the route he would have to take. With luck, he could be in Arashiyama by tonight.
He came to the road. In fact road was a bit generous: it was a dirt track that had been pounded flat by cars over time, with two deep tyre marks engraved on each side. He took a left turn, heading south. He unzipped his jacket as the sun rose higher in the sky. For the first time in what felt like ages, he felt happy. Was this a punishment? If it was, he’d have to break the rules some more.