Of course, it was never going to last. It had all seemed so perfect. But the weather this year had a mind of its own, and before he knew it the clouds had closed in and opened out. It wasn’t torrential by any means, but it was just enough to make him pull up his hood and break his good mood. Luckily, after the last crossroads, he had to cross through some woods, and the thick canopy overhead deflected most of the rain.
Hayato took the chance to take a break. He slipped his bag off and gave a long, satisfying stretch. He opened his back and pulled out a flask of hot green tea and a rice ball. He sat on his bag, leaning against a tree. Without the sound of his own footsteps, it was all so quiet. Unnaturally quiet. The slightest of sounds, from the rustle of a tree branch to the dripping of rain on the undergrowth, seemed louder than they had a right to be. Not for the first time since he set out, he had the feeling he was being watched, or worse, followed – and not in a nice way. He stopped chewing his rice ball halfway through, and looked around him. Greenery stretching out all around him, with a dirt road running through it. And not a sign of anything else.
He rolled his eyes and continued eating. He was just being silly. I’m just remembering Nozomi’s sneak attack in the woods, he assured himself, That’s what got me on edge, that’s all.
Either way, he didn’t want to hang around. There was something about being in a thick, dark forest (even in the middle of the day) that unnerved him. He repacked his flask, picked up his bag and continued on his way. He forcibly ignored the snapping twigs behind him. It’s nothing…it’s all in your mind…
The day wore on. Not much happened. It wasn’t so much that it was a boring day (how often did he get to trek across an abandoned railtrack or navigate his way through a field of cows?) but the going was slow. Keeping track of his progress on his map was slower still and more than once did he have to stop and figure out where he was and which way to go. The map was fairly detailed, but so much of the countryside looked the same that it was hard to tell exactly where he was and which turning he had to take. More than once he’d wandered past a farmhouse, the smoke rising invitingly from the chimney stack, but he remembered the rules with a bitter grimace: no asking for help. What a stupid rule. I mean, what if I got properly lost? I wouldn’t be much good appeasing the Kami then, would I?
The rain slowly tapered off as the afternoon wore on, and there was still no sign of the next town. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be pitching his tent in the dark. He knew he’d be camping out anyway, but he didn’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere for his first night.
Just when he was considering calling it a day, Hayato rounded the crest of the hill. There, nestled in the crook of a gentle valley, was the town of Arashiyama. In the rapidly dwindling light, he could see the first lamps flaring into life, beckoning to him. He gave a great sigh of relief. He’d made it. Just a short stroll more and he’d be in town.
He was so pleased with himself, and so focused on the town ahead, that he didn’t notice the shadowy figure in the field nearby, dashing ahead to town before him.
* * *
Nozomi watched her friend disappear into the mist with a mix of fear and anger. This was such a stupid and dangerous idea. She didn’t blame Hayato for doing it – from what he’d told her, the alternative punishment of paying one-hundred-million yen wasn’t an option – no, she knew exactly who to blame. She glared at the Mayor as she strode past with her aides, a smug grin on her face. Her aides opened the back door of the car for her.
“Are you okay, dear?” said Hayato’s mother, “Do you want a lift back home?”
Nozomi looked up at Hayato’s parents. They looked positively ill: almost as pale as the mist that swirled around them.
“It’s okay,” she replied, “I rode my bike here. I’m heading straight to school from here anyway.”
It was a lie of course: school didn’t start for another three hours. But the Takeis didn’t question her; their minds were understandably elsewhere.
But the Mayor’s car was beginning to pull away now: she made a hasty farewell, hopped on her bike and charged after the car. At first she had to be careful not to get close and risk being seen, but as they climbed up a hill and she wheezed her way slowly up, the Mayor’s car pulled away, the hazard lights glowing through the mist like the eyes of a dragon, shrinking away and disappearing altogether. As Nozomi reached the top of the hill, she looked wildly about. Nothing. They’d got away. She punched her handlebars in frustration, and cycled on. It’s not over yet. Think, Nozomi: where would the Mayor be heading now? Even at this early hour, with an empty stomach and a groggy head, the answer was obvious.
By the time she squeaked her brakes at the corner of the Town Square, the mist had melted away. It was still very early, and the square was deserted – all except around the Shrine, which bustled with workers in hard hats and big, yellow machinery. Clearing up already? That was fast. It was worth investigating, but first things first: she cycled up to the Town Hall and circled around it. The building was quiet and dark, and although there were a couple of cars in the parking spaces, the Mayor’s car was nowhere to be seen. Nozomi scratched her head. Where did she go? Back to her home? But she had already been dressed for work. Nozomi felt a headache coming on. She needed breakfast. But first…
She stopped by the clearance area. It was off limits, blocked by makeshift barriers and a lot of colourful, aggressive signs. Immediately, Nozomi could sense something was wrong. For one thing, they were clearing away everything in the Shrine grounds. Everything. She could understand why they were pulling down the main building – it was beyond repair – but why were they pulling up the trees and bushes too? Even the Torii gate had gone, and that hadn’t been damaged at all.
A gruff construction worker with a great barrel of a chest and a chin covered in stubble marched towards her, waving her away.
“Move along please, little girl,” he said, “You can’t stand there.”
Little girl? Nozomi’s nostrils flared. She took a calming breath.
“Yes I can,” she replied, pointing at the barrier, “I’m on the right side of this, aren’t I?”
“No need to get smart,” the worker crossed his arms, “It’s for your own safety.”
“Why are you clearing everything away?” Nozomi asked suddenly, hoping to shock him into an answer. To her own shock, though, he gave an answer quite freely.
“Well, it’s a chance to start afresh, isn’t it?” he said, waving an arm at the construction site, “It’s going to be a brand new Shrine.”
“Even the Torii gate?”
“It’s just in storage,” he replied, shrugging, “The Mayor thought it best to protect the gate while the heavy machinery operate.”
Nozomi nodded, and walked away, wheeling her bike to the bakery. As she sat by the window and chewed on her toast, she watched the clearing and ran over what she heard. It all seemed so…easy. If Nozomi and Hayato agreed on one thing that annoyed them about Namerikawa, it was how slow everything was. They’d taken weeks of meetings to just select the drummers for the float. And yet, merely hours after the Shrine was destroyed, she was expected to believe that the Mayor had already hired workers and devised a plan for a brand new Shrine. And that was another thing: a brand new Shrine? She recalled the way Hayato’s eye twitched at the mere mention of ‘tradition’. It didn’t annoy her as much, but he had a point: Namerikawa prided itself on how little it changed. And now they were flattening the entire area from something brand new? It didn’t make sense.
She itched to investigate further, but then she glanced at the clock on the wall: it would have to wait. Now it was time for school.
From the moment she walked through the school gates, the talk was only about one thing: Hayato and his thoughtless destruction of the float and Shrine. Even the teachers found it hard to focus on teaching, and kept coming back to talking about the festival and how much of a disaster it was. Nozomi had expected it, but her blood boiled at how mean and downright wrong her classmates were about Hayato.
“He has no shame, does he?”
“Hasn’t he been expelled?”
“Maybe he’s run away.”
“Most sensible thing he’s done.”
Nozomi bit her lip all day, resisting the temptation to bite back. But when she heard the class head student spreading rumours, that Hayato had in fact planned to do that, she snapped.
“You know that’s not true, Michika,” Nozomi shouted during break time, “You were one of the drummers! You were in that room when he was given his punishment. You know full well that he never meant to cause trouble.”
Michika puffed her cheeks out. “Well, excuse me, Nozomi! He may have fooled the Mayor but I know a guilty face when I see one!”
It was a good thing the bell rang just then, otherwise a fight would have broken out. Nozomi’s spirits were low all afternoon, quiet through all the class. She ate lunch alone, then headed straight to the library for a bit of peace from the Hayato-bashing. Her eyes locked on to the ‘folklore’ section, and an idea struck her.
She picked out a couple of dusty books that looked like they hadn’t been touched in years: one was called: ‘Kami – a children’s reference guide’, and another was titled ‘All About Namerikawa’, with a picture of the old shrine in black and white on the front. She checked them out just as the bell rang for afternoon classes: sports, then woodwork. She dashed back to her classroom, stuffed the books in her bags, and coughed at the plume of dust that rushed up into her face. As she changed into her sports kit, she gazed absently out the window – and nearly tripped over at what she saw. There, in the school’s car park, was Mayor Nieda’s big black car, parked right next to the Headmaster’s car. She’s here? Why?
This was her chance. As the class filed into the corridor, she hung at the back. As everyone else filtered noisily towards the gym, she ducked into the doorway of the toilets and waited for the corridor to empty. She looked left and right. The coast was clear. She doubled back on herself, heading towards the Headmaster’s office on tip-toe. When she reached the door, she hugged the wall, and listened to the muffled voices in the room. It was impossible to make out, but Nozomi could make out the voices of the Mayor and the Headmaster in there. But what were they saying? A bead of sweat trickled down her face. She could be missing some vital information right here. She had to know.
She crept away, and left through the front door of the school. She kept her head low as she ducked under the window of the school nurse’s office. Then she found the window to the Headmaster’s office. She gave a silent cheer when she saw it was open. When she crouched underneath it to listen in, however, it sounded like their discussion was finishing: chairs squeaked across floors and a suitcase was being clipped shut. But before they slid the door aside, Nozomi overheard a nugget of information:
“So you’re certain he is gone?” said the Headmaster.
“Quite sure. I saw him off myself.”
“Good. So we commence the plan as we discussed.”
“Correction. As he discussed.”
The door slid open, and they left the room. Nozomi felt a plunging sensation in her stomach. What that little exchange meant she had no idea, but if she could glean one meaning, it was the worst one: whatever was going on in Namerikawa, the Mayor and the Headmaster were in it together.