Haruna Kinosaki sometimes found it hard to breathe, like her chest was tightening up, once twilight came. It wasn't until she heard an idle rumour that she realised it to be her sixth sense.
Apparently, the ghost of a girl in a black dress has started showing up at school recently.
Incredibly shy, and still unable to make any friends within her class of first-years, Haruna was crouched in a toilet stall the way she always was during lunch break. She could hear some students conversing near the washbasin.
For real? Something like the old Hanako-san?
There's no way, right?
Apparently, if you meet the ghost and look it straight in the eye instead of running away, she'll grant whatever wish you say.
It was nothing but a standard school ghost story that was brushed off with a laugh, and there was no way that it was real. Even still, she found it strangely interesting.
Ghost stories spread through Kirizuka High often, almost like a tradition - tales such as a sighting of the principal's ghost in the library, or a translucent female student standing near the incinerator in the schoolyard. Perhaps due to its status as an old school campus, built before the war and not yet torn down, it had even been picked up by the internet as a haunted location. The story about the ghost of a girl in a black dress, one of those rumours, had been a particular topic of discussion amongst the students of late.
It was on one such day that Haruna decided to try hunting for the girl's ghost after school. Even without the devious intention of having a wish granted, she still wanted to meet her out of curiosity. She had never gone ghost hunting before. There were kids in her class who'd visited abandoned buildings on dares, but that was nothing more than a game to enjoy the spooky atmosphere.
Real ghosts were closer to home. They would wait for the opportunity, and then occasionally appear to the sensitive - that is, those with a sixth sense. Haruna sensed several of them at the school. Sometimes, she could even feel their gaze. Part of her wanted to know who they really were. She also wanted to experience a feeling that only she could, in the hope that it would give her courage...
She often found herself left alone inside the building after school, like when she would read books in the library. Today, though, she intended to stay even longer than usual. She had decided that she wasn't going home until she found a ghost. Even if she did, she and her parents hardly talked. Either could do without the other. Just like my classmates, they don't care about me. Maybe they'll worry a bit if I'm late coming home, she even hoped faintly.
Haruna walked down the empty first floor hallway, dyed red by sloping beams of sunlight. Illuminated by the sun, the pillars cast long shadows that looked ever so slightly like the shadows of people, making her feel apprehensive. She checked every unlocked room she could find - the staff room, bathroom, library and more - but didn't come across a ghostly girl in any of them.
Ascending the stairs, she made her way along the second floor hallway. Here, she passed by even fewer students and teachers than she had on the first floor. She peeped through the widows on the sliding doors to the science department and home ec room, but couldn't see anything resembling a girl's ghost. The tense feeling that something was going to come leaping out of the shadows at her had only persisted at the start, and before long her investigation consisted of simply repeating the same motions.
Haruna began to doubt whether she really could see ghosts at all. I guess after all... you don't come across ghosts that easily... she thought vaguely.
It wasn't like she'd taken all of the rumour to heart, either. She wanted an opportunity - an opportunity to change herself. She thought that maybe meeting a ghost would give her confidence in herself, which she could use to take a new step forward. She couldn't go on as she was. Haruna repeated this to herself as she continued down the hallway. Despite searching the second floor from end to end, she encountered neither ghosts nor any supernatural phenomena. The third floor was more of the same. The school, in the midst of summer, was steaming hot, with the air conditioning off and even the windows in the hallways kept shut. Coming to a stop, the stuffy heat enveloped her whole body and made it seem difficult even to breathe.
No matter which classroom she peeked into, there were no students still around. The music room at the hallway's dead end, too, was as silent as the grave. Haruna turned around, meaning to walk back down the hall, and as she did so spotted something standing by the window. Huh...? Taking a closer look, she saw that it was a fire extinguisher. But... Just then, it looked like a crouching person...
Tilting her head, Haruna walked back down the hallway. Perhaps due to the heat, her legs felt oddly heavy. I wonder why...? Do I feel so uneasy because I'm stuck in a closed-off space?
As she drew near to the stairs, Haruna stopped. A tall, thin shadow seemed to stretch across from the stairs, which she still couldn't see, to the hallway. ...The shadow of the staircase's pillar? But somehow, it also looked like the silhouette of a person. The swells at the tip and very centre of the long shadow half resembled a head and skirt. Was someone standing on the stairs? Could it be the girl's ghost...?
Nah, I'm just overthinking things. Someone must've forgotten their mop on the stairs, or...
Suddenly, the long shadow began to move, vanishing from the hallway as though being dragged towards the stairs. It was a person!
Nervously, Haruna hurried over to the stairs, and saw the flicker of a small shadow pass over the landing that connected to the steps leading to the rooftop. Haruna gasped. At the other end of the stairs was the door to the rooftop, and it was slightly ajar...
Gripping the doorknob and slowly pushing the door open, she stepped out onto the concrete floor of the rooftop. Another long shadow extended right in front of Haruna's feet. A person stood next to the railing on the western side, her back to Haruna. She was staring at the old school building opposite, wearing a short-sleeved black dress that seemed to merge with her long, straight black hair. Her shoes, too, were black sandals. She was shorter than the railing, perhaps a little over a metre in height. An elementary schooler, then? The slender arms that protruded from her sleeves were so abnormally pale, almost seethrough, that it was impossible to refute the possibility of her being a ghost.
"Apparently, if you meet the ghost and look it straight in the eye instead of running away, she'll grant whatever wish you say."
What do I do? If she's the ghost, I have to see her face... Should I call out and make her turn around? But what if she cursed me or something...?
At that moment, the girl turned around slowly. Ah...! She pushed back her fringe with her right hand, then looked at Haruna with big, round eyes. Her features were mature, but she looked just like any other girl.
The girl stared expressionlessly at Haruna for a while, then grinned. Haruna felt a flood of inward relief at the human warmth in her face. At the same time, she began to doubt whether the girl was truly a ghost after all.
"Lady..." the girl said suddenly.
She spoke in a surprisingly clear tone. A ghost, speaking to her? No way.
"...What?" Haruna said timidly.
"The sky's pretty..." the girl said, looking up.
Haruna looked up, too. The setting sun stretched out overhead, unobstructed. She always stayed at school until late, but had never realised until now how pretty the sunset looked from the roof.
Haruna smiled, the tension broken, and looked back at the girl. All of a sudden, she was standing right in front of Haruna, staring intently at her with fascination. Rather than a ghost, she seemed more like an average, curiosity-filled elementary student. Haruna knew that she wasn't a ghost.
"Hey, what are you doing at this school?" she asked daringly. The girl, however, simply watched Haruna in silence. "Oh, you must have a brother or sister who goes here. Did you come to play with them or something?"
The girl shook her head, smiling.
"So you're a kid from near here, then? Sneaking into the school to play explorer?"
The girl shook her head again.
"There was something I was interested in," the girl said clearly.
"Something you're interested in?"
The girl momentarily turned a grown-up gaze on Haruna, startling her. What was with this girl? Then, wordlessly, the girl walked past Haruna.
"Hey, lady," the girl said, turning as if called to a halt. "How about we play hide-and-seek together?"
hide-and-seek? Elementary kids still do that? Ugh... Even if she looks grown up, she's still a kid at heart.
"It's pretty popular at my school right now."
"Yeah. This way."
The girl approached Haruna, taking something out of her skirt pocket. A black, rectangular object was in the girl's hand. Numbered buttons lay in rows, like on a calculator, and it had a liquid crystal screen. It was a mobile phone. Its black lustred body looked pointlessly oversized sitting on her small palm.
Oh, so elementary kids have phones, now? I've never had or used one before, so I don't really get them...
With practised movements, the girl pressed several of the phone's buttons and showed the screen to the curiously-watching Haruna. Words in katakana were displayed upon it.
"A chain mail."
"Chain mail...? Like those messages you have to pass on to a bunch of people?" Haruna asked, and the girl nodded.
"Some mysterious person called No Name sends them. Apparently, you have to pass them around or you get cursed..."
Haruna looked at the rows of katakana on the screen.
please pass on to 6 people
if you play hide-and-seek at school at twilight
you will see the truth
"If you play hide-and-seek at school at twilight, you will see the truth...?"
What's this 'truth'...?
The girl looked at Haruna and grinned. "Hey, lady, let's play hide-and-seek!"
Haruna looked at the girl. At first she was reluctant to go along with the strange proposal, but somehow managed to understand.
Ahh, so she thinks she'll be cursed if she doesn't do it. Adorable.
"Alright, I'll play with you. Only one time, though. You have to go home after that."
"Okay. You start off as 'it', then."
"You shut your eyes and count to ten while I hide."
Haruna nodded and did as she was told, closing her eyes and beginning to count.
"Eight... Nine... Ten..."
That'll do, right?
"Ready or not, here I come!" she said, repeating the usual hide-and-seek line with her eyes still shut, but there was no response.
Haruna opened her eyes and looked around, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. Ugh, well, this got weird... I came here to hunt for a ghost, and ended up playing hide-and-seek with a little kid. Thinking about it calmly, the whole thing seemed a little foolish.
Haruna smiled wryly, looking around her as she went. She peeked behind the door, but the girl wasn't there. Where else could she be hiding on the rooftop? Her eyes went to the water tower on top of the entrance building.
The water tank... Could she really...?
Haruna went to enter the school building, but stopped and looked back at the water tank. If she is hiding in there... And if I don't go and find her... Unpleasant thoughts filled her mind. What if something so simple led to her drowning? She felt like she'd heard something similar in an urban legend long ago.
if you play hide-and-seek at school at twilight
you will see the truth
That chain mail the girl had showed her... What had she even been doing at this school? It made no sense. The doubts began to resurface.
What if she really is a ghost, just like the rumour said? It's too weird for her to suddenly show up on the roof and ask to play hide-and-seek. Something must be up... But what? What's she trying to do with me?
The word "message"suddenly came to mind. She'd heard of ghosts trying to pass on messages to people with strong sixth senses.
What if there really is a girl's dead body in that water tank that no one ever found, and now she wants me to find her so she can be at peace...? Yeah. She must've hidden inside the water tank during hide-and-seek without anyone finding her and died. That's why she wants to play...
Haruna looked up at the water tank with determination in her eyes and nodded, climbing the ladder from the concrete roof of the entrance building to the water tower.
What if one of the teachers sees me...? No, I don't have time for that now. Haruna placed her hand on the cover of the water tank. What if there really is a body...!? I wish I could run away... But if I did, I'd just be the same old me. I want to change, right...?
Haruna grabbed onto the cover with both hands and turned it slowly. Once it was open, she peered timidly inside. The water's surface was rippled by a faint breeze, reflecting the sun as it set in the sky. After her eyes had adjusted to the murky tank, she could see to the bottom of the water. She could see dead leaves and spider webs inside the rust-covered tank, but there was no sign of either a body or the girl hiding in the clear water.
Haruna let out a deep sigh. I guess I just overthought things a little...
She stared into the tank for a while, then closed the cover. Despite searching the entire roof, starting with the area around the tank, she couldn't find the girl anywhere. Jeez, where did she go?
Haruna looked at the entrance door.Was she supposed to search the whole school, too? Exasperated, Haruna went downstairs and began by searching the fourth floor. The hallway was completely silent. All of the rooms were locked, and there was no sign of the girl having gone inside. She'd even taken a peek inside the boys' bathroom, but the girl wasn't there, either.
She wasn't on the third or second floor, either. Growing tired of searching, Haruna simply walked around lazily. Where could she have gone?
The only unlocked room on the first floor was the staff room. Haruna looked in through the window in the door. Two of the teachers were still inside, but there surely would've been a fuss if a little girl had gone inside. Judging from the scene, she wasn't hiding in there.
She's not even in the school... What if she was just making fun of me and went home ages ago? Maybe another student who fell victim to her spread the rumour of having seen a ghost as revenge...? But... wasn't there somewhere I haven't searched yet? Right...
Haruna remembered what had happened when she had first met the girl. She'd been gazing down at the old building. It seemed stupid, but Haruna left the building and walked across the schoolyard. As she walked down the gloomy path that served as a rift between the new building's rear yard and the old building, her eyes finally stopped upon an old brick incinerator. The incinerator had been in disuse due to issues with dioxins before Haruna had even come to the school, abandoned for all this time. There were rumours that it was going to be demolished soon...
Haruna stared at the incinerator. hide-and-seek... No way... She slowly moved closer. Why do I feel so uneasy? It's just an incinerator... It's just because it's old and dirty, and those scary rumours going around...
As the distance closed between her and the incinerator, her chest ached like it was being squeezed.
Why does it feel so hard to breathe...?
Haruna stood before the incinerator, grimacing. It stood there quietly, as if having fulfilled its duty, its rusty iron door shut. Haruna stared at the door.
...I shouldn't open it, she knew instinctively. It's a really bad idea to open it, and especially to look inside...
Haruna shook her head from side to side, then hung it. Taking a deep breath, she looked at the door and grabbed onto the handle. I can't go on as I am. Pulling the door to the side, it opened immediately. Darkness filled its inside. Haruna drew her face closer. Cool air drifted from within.
The girl...? She stared into the depths of the darkness. Something was in there with the piles of ashes. Ah...
Haruna strained her eyes. Someone was there, crouching atop the ashes further in with their arms around their knees. They wore a skirt. Was it the girl...?
She gasped. T-that's... our school's uniform!? The arms and legs that protruded from it were dry, simply skin and bones. Her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. How...? The girl's hairstyle was familiar. Her crouched posture... Yeah... When I was alone in a stall in the bathroom...
"Did you remember?" said a voice from behind. It was the girl's voice.
Her whole body trembling, she couldn't turn around. Haruna stared back at the mummy sitting deep inside the incinerator. ...Yeah. I wanted everyone to worry a little bit so they'd pay attention to me, so one day after school I pretended to go missing and hid inside this incinerator. But instead of searching the school, my parents and teachers immediately reported me missing to the police as a runaway, and that was all. Drowning in despair, I couldn't stand to come out and just went on hiding in here...
Haruna smiled faintly. She thought she felt something warm slide down her cheek.
"...Can even a... ghost cry?" Haruna asked in a shaky voice, turning slowly. The girl stood before Haruna, staring straight at her.
"I... heard that there was a ghost here who couldn't be at peace and was checking it out."
A ghost who couldn't be at peace... Haruna smiled softly.
"It was me, wasn't it...? Thank you for telling me."
The girl, too, grinned and nodded. Haruna stared at the incinerator.
"This incinerator will be pulled down soon. And then... they'll find my body, and I can rest..."
The girl shook her head. "You'll be okay. You're already aware. You can choose your next path for yourself."
Haruna gave a wry smile at the girl's grown-up advice. "I guess so..."
Haruna looked at her hands. All of a sudden, they were seethrough. Her body felt strangely light, as if all of her pain and strife until now had been a lie. Her consciousness fading, Haruna looked at the girl.
"Hey, tell me one last thing. What's your name?"
The girl nodded, looking at Haruna, and replied, "Reika Izumi. I'm supposed to transfer to this school in six years."