Paradise Noise - Chapter 7
More Sinful than Diamonds
Apparently, there was a student at our high school that went to the same junior high as Akane. At least, Hanazono-sensei told me as much.
“If you’re so curious, why don’t you just go ask her?”
Sensei had an amused expression on her face. I was a bit hesitant to do as she said, but I eventually decided to go to Class 1 at lunch.
The student: Morishita-san. She had a lively look to her, paired with her natural perm and obvious tan. Due to the racket case hanging off of her desk, I assumed that she was probably a member of the tennis club.
“Why do you want to know about Kudou-san?” asked Morishita-san, tilting her head.
So Kudou is Akane’s last name?
“Uhh… you know that she went to the same school as me, right?”
“I heard that much. And I did see her when I took the exam. However, she hasn’t been coming to school at all, right? She doesn’t plan on coming back, does she?”
“Ah, yeah. She didn’t really come to school in junior high either.”
I gave my acknowledgment while trying to rationalize asking about Akane.
“So, I was actually assigned to convince her to regularly attend school again. You see, Hanazono-sensei, the music teacher, knows Kudou-san. It should be her job, but she forced this task on me.”
“I see. That’s tough.”
Though I lied about my motivations, she easily believed me. That was how well known Hanazono-sensei’s abusive relationship with me was. I had mixed feelings about that.
“Hmm… but…” Morishita-san’s voice faded as she glanced around the classroom. Her classmates were eyeing her with a hint of suspicion. Perhaps implying that the classroom was not the place to have this conversation, Morishita-san pointed to the classroom exit and quickly walked out into the hallway. I rushed to follow.
At the landing of the stairs, Morishita-san told me a little more about Akane Kudou.
“We weren’t exactly close, so I don’t know much of the details,” she said before clearing her throat. “All I know is that she stopped coming to school around the middle of the second year. She got called to the principal’s office for skipping class a lot. The only class she actually attended was music. Since she was really good at piano, the teacher would let her play the accompaniment, but… she would ornament and add her own flair to the arrangement. Basically, she did whatever she wanted.”
I lightly chuckled. Her junior high days were pretty much how I imagined them to be.
“In the first year, a group of upperclassmen invited her to join their band, and they got to perform at the school festival. They were really amazing. However, she apparently got into a dispute of sorts with the upperclassmen and they eventually disband. They were so popular… and said that they would do it next year too…”
Morishita-san’s expression clouded over.
“Subsequently, I believe that she tried to form another band, this time with people of the same grade. I don’t really know the details, but the members kept changing. I’ve got a friend who plays the guitar, and she told me that she had joined Kudou-san’s band at one point. However, she soon quit as she said that she had to practice way too much.”
Her tone of voice was progressively becoming heavier. To keep things moving, I interjected with my own inquiry.
“…Was she at the festival in her second-year?”
Morishita-san shook her head.
“Once the second semester came around, Kudou-san stopped attending school. In the end, I guess it’s because she didn’t get along with any people at school. She got into trouble a lot… probably a problem child.”
After that, I thanked Morishita-san and left.
As I walked through the hallways, I thought back and tried to process Morishita-san’s words one by one. Problem child, huh? That’s a convenient term. A term to be bagged up, labeled, and driven away by a garbage truck to be disposed of. A term for avoidance, for prevention, and eventually for omission. We’ve all done it. Because everyone’s got their hands full with their own issues.
Why can’t I let go?
Akane and I were strangers, only having met in the studio and exchanging a few words. Up until just then, I didn’t even know her last name. Even if Akane Kudou’s existence were to vanish, my daily life—the next day, the day after that—would still continue without a hitch.
However, I would still remember her and her music.
Akane’s performance I heard that night—especially the charm in her sound, despite the fact that it was tarnished immeasurably—will continue to reverberate in my ears. And I, being greedy and narrow-minded, wouldn’t mind living in a fantasy world where I could hear Akane’s sound again, 100%. It is a vain expectation, leading to nothing, wobbling like a kite with a broken line, and growing in emptiness.
It’s a pretty… bitter day today, isn’t it?
I eventually arrived in the music prep room, getting ready to have my lunch there. Conveniently, there was hot water available so that I could make myself some instant ramen. The room was also a place where I could work on the arrangements that Hanazono-sensei had pushed onto me.
Sensei was not in the prep room at lunchtime. She probably went out to eat or something. However, Rinko and Shizuki had been coming here with their lunches lately.
“Since you don’t have any friends, I was a bit worried that no one would notice if you choke on your lunch and die here alone.” Rinko stated.
“Don’t worry, Makoto-san! If that happens, I’ll stick a vacuum down your throat and suck out the clogged rice!” Shizuki announced excitedly.
If you don’t want me to worry, then just leave me alone.
My plan to indulge in quiet contemplation was completely shattered. Not to mention I had to tell the two of them about what I had heard from Morishita-san today. Considering that they were both at the disturbing scene involving Akane the other day, I couldn’t help but to bring it up.
“You’re going all over the place to find out more about that girl?” Shizuki asked, her face delicately turning pale.
Is it really that shocking?
“Makoto-san, are you doing the ‘whenever a girl is in trouble, you’re gonna help them no matter what’ thing again?”
“It’s not ‘no matter what’,” Rinko pointed out with an icy voice. “Look at me, you, and that girl. It’s quite obvious that he chooses who he associates with based on certain criteria.”
“Y-You’re right…” Immediately, Shizuki covered her mouth, widened her eyes, and lifted her eyebrows. “So that’s a problem! As long as she’s good-looking, he’s gonna help her!”
“Huh…? Wait, uh, what are you talking about…?”
“Then, Murase-kun, are you trying to say that we’re not good-looking?”
“What the hell is this interrogation?!”
“Look me in the eye and answer honestly. Are Yurisaka-san and I beautiful?”
Rinko was looking directly at me, as if she were staring into my soul. I turned my face away, but was greeted by the sight of Shizuki’s close-up face, her eyes staring back at me from the same distance. I rushed to twist my head back the other way, but I was very evidently cornered. I had no choice but to give my truthful opinion.
“It’s… well… yeah, of course, comparatively-speaking… you two are—I mean, no, I don’t mean to compare… but I think you two are very, very good-looking.”
What am I being made to say?
“I can’t believe you. Don’t you feel any shame saying something like that directly to a girl’s face?”
“You made me say it!”
“Makoto-san, please say that to me again at least five more times!”
No. What kind of shame play is this?
“No need to fret, Yurisaka-san. I’ve recorded Murase-kun’s embarrassing line on my phone already.”
“Delete it! Delete it right now! Break your phone! And wipe your memories!”
“Trying to help a girl just because of her appearance can be almost always considered as a sex crime. This recording here is proof of the crime, so we can’t delete it.”
“Which part of that is a crime? And what do you mean by ‘just because of her appearance’? Who in the world told you that?”
“If it’s not just about looks, then explain why you’re getting involved with that Akane girl!”
Why am I even getting assailed by Shizuki?
I had no choice but to explain the complicated feelings I kept within ever since I heard Akane play that night. To be honest, it was a hundred times more embarrassing than telling a girl that they were good-looking.
However, Shizuki nodded along with a mysterious look on her face.
“… I understand now.”
“It’s her playing. She wasn’t being serious at all. You want to hear how great it would be if she gave it her all. That’s all you’re saying, isn’t it?”
The more I thought about it, the closer I came to the realization that Shizuki was completely correct. That’s all I was saying. I just wanted to hear her.
“…Is that all?” Rinko asked.
I nodded, flinching under her accusing, suspicious stare.
“Then I’ll give you permission.”
Why do I need your permission again?
“…No, but… you know, after all the digging I did on her, I don’t think I should get involved in her situation…”
“It’s really too late for that,” Shizuki spouted, disgusted. “I’ll just get brazenly involved in her.”
Hey, don’t take the “situation” part out. Now it sounds like something scandalous.
“Even if Murase-kun dies here and now, reincarnates as a dog, dies again, and reincarnates as a toad, he’ll still be saying ‘It’s too late for that…’”
There was not much I could say other than that she was cursing me.
“Well then, Yurisaka-san, I’m looking forward to working with you.”
“Yup. Me too.”
“Huh? What’s with that ‘looking forward to working with you’?” And how in the world did you get through to Shizuki just now?
“We’ll be working together to prevent Makoto-san from any further attempts at getting involved with other girls on his own, since it could lead to a sex crime. That’s what I mean.”
“Ignoring the contents of that for the moment, did that really make sense to Rinko through just eye contact?”
“It’s just ‘cause it’s me and Rinko.” “It’s only natural given our friendship.”
“That’s bullshit! You two literally only met the other day! You guys haven’t even known each other for that long!”
“Friendship isn’t about length, but about depth. You wouldn’t understand, Murase-kun, considering you don’t even have a single friend.”
“Guh…” I had no words for that despite my desperate mind-search for a rebuttal. Why do they assume I don’t have any friends in the first place? Perhaps it was because of the glaring fact that instead of having a nice, amiable lunch with my classmates, which is what a normal high schooler should do, I was sitting in the music prep room, looking over arrangements of music in solitude.
“Plus, Yurisaka-san and I are linked together by our victimization of the same crime.”
“I didn’t even do anything to you two, did I?”
“I never said that you’re the perpetrator, Murase-kun. But hey, you said it….”
I didn’t even know what to say to that.
“Makoto-san, when you say ‘didn’t do anything to you two’, are you saying that you’ve committed sex crimes on everyone else?”
It’s no use. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ll eat my lunch and write the score in the bathroom.
“Alright, Yurisaka-san, if you keep tormenting Murase-kun, we’re going to run out of time to eat lunch. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Is that, uh, some kind of ‘Itadakimasu’ between the two of you?”
“Yup.” “No way!”
As the two of them began to eat their lunches, I had this feeling that it would be inapt for me to leave. There was no other choice other than to turn my attention back to the score while biting into a piece of stuffed bread.
“So, back to the point,” Shizuki said, looking at me.
We really don’t need to go back to the point. I don’t want to. You two go back (to your classrooms).
“I also want to hear Akane-san’s play for real.”
Is that really your point? Are you messing with me?
“Well, me too… I’ll try to hire her next time. Oh, wait, that won’t work ‘cause she’s not gonna play seriously…”
“I’ll take care of that. I have an idea.”
Shizuki announced this with her eyes gleaming with pride.
Since then, I had not seen Akane at Moon Echo.
Even though I increasingly frequented the studio, I could never find her in the lobby. It was quite worrying, and I asked Kurokawa-san about it. However, she responded with a troubled expression.
“I haven’t seen her since that.”
The “that” probably referred to the shouting incident after the show. It seemed that it had reached Kurokawa-san’s ears too.
“I think that she’s pretty depressed because she got ‘fired’ from all three of the bands that she’d been helping. But I really didn’t expect her to stop coming here. If my zashiki-warashi disappears, will this business be in trouble?”
“Eh? All three—you mean all three of them?”
Shizuki and I, who had come to the studio together, exchanged looks.
“Was it for… the same reason?” Shizuki murmured, and I responded with a small nod.
It was entirely possible. That night, Akane’s performance on guitar, bass, and drums were splendidly tasteless and brilliantly lifeless. At the drinking party after the show, the other band members likely vented their pent-up feelings about Akane, who was absent. And so, all three bands decided to get rid of Akane…
That was a very probable development.
“Well, you live in her area, don’t you?” Kurokawa-san suddenly asked, breaking me out of my thoughts.
“Yeah. How do you know that?”
“Misao told me.”
Hey! I thought a student’s address was supposed to be confidential!
“If you meet her again, tell her that I don’t mind her showing up.”
“…Haaah… Well, I’ll let you know if I happen to.”
Shizuki started to ask me questions after we left the studio.
“You live in her area?”
“Oh, yeah… well, not exactly. We just get off at the same station. I live on Second Street while she lives on Sixth Street.
“Why do you know so much about her…?”
Shizuki peered at me with a pair of worried eyes.
“We just happened to be on the train together, you know, on our way back home from the show? And we just talked for a while, okay? I wasn’t stalking her or anything like that,” I answered hurriedly.
“Y-Yeah, I don’t think Makoto-san is the type to stalk people either.”
At Shizuki’s confused reaction, I scratched my head in regret. It was all because I had kept being treated like a criminal lately. That was why I panicked and made an unnecessarily long excuse.
“So, Makoto-san, why don’t you just start wandering around the Sixth Street area for ‘no particular reason’ so there’s a chance to bump into Akane at some point?”
“Eh…? Ah, yeah, good idea…”Isn’t that what stalking is, though? Wait, no, let’s not point that out.
I didn’t want the conversation to steer toward that direction again. Besides, I didn’t have any other ideas.
Even though Shizuki had said that she had an idea of what to do when they finally crossed paths with Akane, she didn’t give me any concrete details.
“It’s better to keep it a secret for now.”
That was worrying. Do you even have an idea of what you’re going to be doing…?
Sixth Street covered a large area. Realistically speaking, there was little to no chance that I could bump into Akane by just strolling around a bit after school. After three consecutive days of taking a detour to Sixth Street on my way home, the futility of this plan was evident.
Well then, what else should I do?
Since Akane was a student at our high school, this whole situation could be solved instantly if I just asked Hanazono-sensei for her address. That was an idea… and I immediately pinched my leg in warning.
What are you thinking? You were literally upset with Sensei for the same reason just the other day!
It would be a serious stalker move if I were to get the information from the school and barge into Akane’s house. Her family would surely be surprised. There would be no way to ask her to come to the studio. I had to make it look like a coincidental encounter.
On my way home, I sat on the guardrail and peacefully breathed. The June evening sun was scorching yet humid, a hint of the rainy season still lingering in it. If I were to wander around aimlessly in this type of weather, I would certainly be staining the ground like a slug.
Let’s think. How is Akane doing now? Is she just holed up in her room, wallowing in her depression?
I didn’t think she was that kind of person. She wasn’t the kind to flip a switch and go out to play either. If she was open-minded as such, she wouldn’t skip school just because she didn’t fit in with the rest, and she wouldn’t be a zashiki-warashi scavenging for every chance at a possible job. She had her own dark wounds.
Then I suddenly felt a chill.
Isn’t it just ridiculous how I, who only met Akane a few weeks ago and only exchanged a couple of words with her, am speculating about her personal life? What do I even know about her?
I lifted up the tips of my sticky, sweat-soaked slacks in an attempt to get some air flowing through under them.
I needed to stay calm and do what was within my reach.
One thing I could say for certain was the fact that Akane was a musician. She could play any instrument; undoubtedly, she had poured her time and passion into music far more than I had. There was no way she could just throw it all away.
Up until now, she had been practicing as a helper so that she could play as loud as she wanted in a studio where the fees were all paid for by the employer. Now that she had been fired, there was no one to pay for the studio rental fees. In addition, the cost was quite expensive for a high school student to afford alone (though I almost forgot about it since I was allowed to use the studio free of charge due to the errands I ran).
But what does she do if she still wants to play guitar?
There was a point in time where I was like that. At that time, I had not come in contact with software music. When my parents bought me my first guitar, I was so excited that I played it all day long, got kicked out of the house for being too noisy, and rode my bike while carrying my case…
I’d go to that place.
I sprinted home in a hurry, ran into my room, and slung my guitar case over my shoulder. My mother asked “What do you want for dinner?”. I hastily replied that I didn’t need any, and sprinted back out the house.
By the time I reached the riverbank, the sun had already set and the moist nighttime air clung tightly around my cheeks. The shadows cast by the railroad bridge floated in contrast with the indigo sky. The lights of a train formed a continuous beam, cutting through the darkness. The scenery was accompanied by the creaking of the train wheels against the tracks.
I parked my bike at the side of the bike path. The weight of my guitar case bit deep into my shoulders. My sweat cools, and the damp grass envelops me. I walked down the weed-filled slope and down toward the quiet riverbed.
Someone was cleaning up the cluttered baseball field, dragonflies flying around them. An elderly man walked past me, seemingly dragged by three large, plump dogs. Summer insects chirped mournfully, hidbehind the tall grass. I craned my neck around the area, observing the nighttime darkness that was engulfing the location. A breeze from the river brushedmy bangs, fluttering them and gradually carrying away my body heat in its wake.
I wondered how long it had been since I came to this riverbed. My elementary school was near this area, so I would pass by it frequently; once on my way to school, once on my way back. I would see people practicing their instruments here all the time, whether it be guitar, trumpet, trombone, or saxophone. Some were practicing their vocalizations, while others were dancing to music playing from small speakers. It was a place where one didn’t have to worry about the eyes of those around or the annoyance of excess noise. Everyone was absorbed in their passion. When I saw this scene as a young child, I secretly longed to be there, to be part of it.
I wonder if Akane would have the same idea.
If that were to be the case, considering the fact that there wasn’t any band that would accept her, she might go to this place. A place filled with heartbreak, frustration, and passion, with her instruments.
As I was pedaling my bike, I had a definite hunch that things would turn out as I expected. I walked along the riverbed, treading through the grass, the sky dusked, the flowing of the river trinkled in my ears, and the heat of my body was sucked out, cooling my head. I felt calm.
I guess it isn’t that convenient, huh?
The only thing we had in common was that we both were the same age, and that we lived close to each other, playing music.
The railroad bridge was ever so distant. No matter how much ground I seemed to cover, I didn’t feel as if I were approaching it. The sound of my steps on the gravel became dreary, slowing down. The sound of the train I had heard earlier echoed again, a line of light trailed across the nightfallen sky.
Hunger pangs from my stomach alerted me.
This is pretty stupid, isn’t it? There’s no way I could find her so easily.
I had run out of my house without dinner. Now I was trudging my way, dragging my feet, and weighted down by my crushing guitar case filled with regret.
The most cynical part of me was let out due to my exhaustion.
Do I really want to hear her perform at 100%? That mundane performance might very well have been her maximum potential. There may not be anything beyond that.
That could be true. I was just asking myself in vain.
However, I still wanted to hear it. In retrospect, I didn’t care if it was her 55%, 87%, or 1200%—it didn’t matter. Either way, I wanted to hear more of Akane’s sound. She seemed insecure, like a zashiki-warashi who might disappear at a moment’s notice and be forever lost. That was why I wanted to keep my eye on her, to keep my hand within her grasp. Now that I had lost her, I could only imagine. Her fingertips, her breath, her strokes and passages…
I heard it.
Before I knew it, I had halted in my tracks and looked up.
A shadow that was blacker than the crepuscule of night loomed over me. It was a thick concrete trestle that was supporting a steel bridge. I turned my head, looked up-bridge, and traced my gaze in its direction away from the river. There, between the slope and the bridge, was an area of concentrated darkness.
The sound of guitar was definitely coming from there.
I kicked off the gravel immediately and began running. I stepped into that long shadow cast by the bridge. The chilly air bit my skin. My footsteps become soft and damp, just as the grass beneath my feet was. I ran up the slope, stopping halfway to catch my breath and stare into the tenebrosity at the base of the bridge.
It’s Akane. She’s really there.
She was leaning against a steeply sloping support block with her knee up. She held a guitar the same color as the encompassing darkness on her thigh with her gaze downcast. She stroked the strings with a tender hand as if she were comforting an infant.
Eventually, the melody seeped out.
There was humming. It was Akane’s voice. It gently kindled the spark of metal strings. At that moment, I experienced a strange sensation. Time was slowly rewinding around us, the dark western sky was slowly turning blood red, and the dim evening sun was pushing the shadow of the railway bridge further and further behind us…
The song had been cut off. I could hear the sound of something scraping against the grass in the dark.
I heard a voice. I stiffened.
Akane was lifting her guitar off her lap and standing up. For a moment, I thought about running away.
What am I going to do? What’s the point of running away? I came looking for her, and I found her, just as I wanted. I’ve got to face it properly.
“…Uh, yeah, it’s me.”
I was sort of dumbfounded as I really did not expect to see her again. I heard the sound of someone slipping on the grass. Akane came out from under the shadow cast by the railroad bridge and into the dim light.
“What a coincidence? What’s up? Ah—” Akane pointed to the guitar case on my shoulder. “Have you been practicing here by any chance, Makoto-chan? I’m in your way, aren’t I?”
“No, it’s not like—”
“Really?” Akane exclaims with upturned eyes. “In that case, can I sit beside you and listen? While hugging my knees, of course.”
You really like sitting while hugging your knees, don’t you? Uh, you know, it’s a bit uncomfortable to be sitting next to you in your hotpants with your legs so… generously exposed.
I took the guitar case off, relieving my shoulder of the weight of regret stuck inside the actually-empty case.
“I brought this as, um… an excuse to be here.”
Akane nodded her head in curiosity. My words evidently made no sense to her, so I continued:
“Can we pretend that our encounter was a pure coincidence? Like, I just happened to be at the riverbank practicing my guitar, and I wasn’t really looking for you… ‘cause you see, uh, it’d be kinda embarrassing if other people knew that I was intentionally looking for you…”
“Huh? …So you’re saying that you were looking for me? I mean, is it really okay to say that? Aren’t you embarrassed? I’m pretty embarrassed right now, you know?”
Please don’t say that. I’m three times as embarrassed as you are.
“I’m not very good at acting, though.”
“Then why’d you bring your guitar in the first place?” Akane said while chuckling. She was absolutely right.
“I’ve always wanted to practice on the riverbank,” I excused myself dismissively. “I’ve seen a lot of people practicing here, and it’s refreshing to play an instrument outside.”
“Do you like to play outdoors?”
“Okay, at this point, it’s not even misleading anymore, is it?”
Akane laughed again, but this time, she seemed to be forcing it and a strained expression appeared on her face. She then slumped down against the slope.
“But, um, anyway, you were looking for me? Why?”
“Well… lately, you haven’t been coming to the studio, so I was wondering what had happened to you. Kurokawa-san was worried too.”
“Oh, really? Ahaha. Yeah, well, I guess so. I don’t think the sales would be affected too much, though, considering I was always using the studio with other people’s money.”
I don’t think Kurokawa-san was concerning about the sale. I mean, isn’t it natural to worry about someone who frequent a place suddenly disappeared? I tried to explain this to Akane, but I guess I didn’t say it well as she only chuckled slightly.
“I thought Kurokawa-san would be mad at me. I caused trouble at her studio.”
“No, that… wasn’t your fault…”
“It was my fault. You don’t know how many bands I’ve ruined. Geez, I never learn, do I? I hate myself. Me not playing seriously… it was obvious. I deserved to be fired.”
I would bet that if she had played with her full potential, she would have completely destroyed the show and she would be fired for it.
“Well, I’m just a helper, so it’s not like the bands fell apart—I was just kicked out. I was too naive to think that helping like this would be okay… I barely paid for anything… I shouldn’t have exploited them for money… sniff…”
Akane, who had been tossing and turning in agony on the grass for a while, eventually raised her upper body and looked at me.
“Um, so, Makoto-chan, what did you want from me? Are you going to hire me? I’m in a really bad spot right now, so now’s the time to take advantage of it! Even just a little pity will make me fall in love with you, you know? And I’m willing to lower my price!”
I bit my lower lip and looked down.
I’m not pitying you… wait, no, it’s still pity, though? Either way, I didn’t want her to take it that way. But I couldn’t formulate my thoughts into words. Since I couldn’t think of a way to explain it, she was probably right, then.
I let out a big sigh, scented like the grass I was standing on.
There was no use agonizing over it. By any means, I had found her. It was the most I could do for right now.
“…Yeah. I was wondering if I could ask for help.”
At my reply, Akane’s expression turned into one of inexplicable joy. It was a look of wistful relief, almost like when one finds a puddle of dirty mud on the verge of death by thirst.
“Will you come to Moon Echo tomorrow?” I asked.
“All right. What are we going to play? Should I bring any instruments?”
“…Sorry, I’m not sure. It was actually that drummer girl that practices with me; she’s the one who asked for this, not me.”
Akane’s expression faded.
I sat in my room that night, and while I chewed on a CalorieMate for dinner, I typed into my search bar with resolve. I had to find out what song Akane was playing under the bridge.
However, the truth was, I had only heard a few phrases of the music. I could only vaguely recall the chord progression—in other words, I had no other clues. There was no plausible way to search and find it.
…Wait. Maybe I could just hum it.
I didn’t know if it was the beginning of the song or the middle, but I could hum about two measures. Thankfully, there was a nifty tool that allowed me to search for a song by humming. I could sing the melody into the microphone, and the server searched for the corresponding song from a database as vast as the deep sea.
However, I could even count the number of notes I remembered with two hands, and it also was not necessarily a professionally released song—but with these low expectations in mind, I hummed into my microphone. As such, I was blown away by the eye-opening development of information technology. There was an instant match.
“Same Side” – WANDS
I had heard the name before. It was a Japanese group. Isn’t that a pop-rock band that was popular before I was even born? Their image was so far removed from Akane’s playing that I suspected that there was an error in the search server.
I played the song on a video site.
The dry guitar strokes were dragged along by the feedback sounds. The song was depressingly mumbled. There was no doubt—this was indeed the song Akane had been playing.
I looped it three times. It took a tremendous will for me to stop looping it. I switched tabs and used the search engine again.
What the hell is this song?
This band was the poster child for commercial rock music, selling like hotcakes in their time. They had deals and collaborations with TV dramas and commercials at the end of the bubble economy. Their music evoked such vivid twilight colors… I wonder what part of them they had to bare open to create such a kaleidoscope of hues.
So why was Akane humming this song?
Before I knew it, my fingers snuck their way over to the iTunes app. Fueled by an inexplicable impetus, I purchased “Same Side”, ignoring other songs by WANDS. I turned on auto-repeat and put on my headphones. When I closed my eyes, I could see the serenity of the river flowing before me, covered in a majestic evening glow. The guitar began to rasp the corners of my consciousness.
I leaned back in my chair, listening to the singing.
The next day, Akane showed up at Moon Echo carrying a black guitar case on her back. The hard case was fairly wide.
The regulars in the lobby immediately began buzzing when they saw her.
“I haven’t seen her around lately.”
“Didn’t she get into some trouble or something?”
Through the automatic door came Akane, who seemed to be looking around uneasily at the stares surrounding her. When she noticed Shizuki and Rinko next to me, I could see a sliver of anxiety in her eyes.
“You must be Akane Kudou-san. My name is Shizuki Yurisaka.”
Shizuki bowed with a graceful gesture. Then, she signalled for Rinko with her hand.
“This is Rinko Saejima-san. We both are students of Hanazono-sensei.”
Akane’s tension seemed to fade a bit, perhaps because Sensei was mentioned.. Well, technically, Shizuki was not her student, but now was not the time to be pointing such things out.
“We’re part of the Victim Club, so to speak,” Rinko blurted. “I heard you were tutored by Hanazono-sensei at some point, so you were probably being used by her in some way. You must be one of us.”
“Being used…? No, not really. I just listened to songs and scored them; I think it was a college assignment.”
That’s what’s called exploitation. That fucking woman—already evil in her part-time job days.
“Akane-san, I think you have a natural talent to be used!” Shizuki exclaimed awkwardly.
“Today I’m going to give you a hard time. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you well in advance.”
“…O-Okay. Thank you.”
“I’ve already got a room.”
The room we reserved was the D6 Studio, the largest room in Moon Echo. It had a control booth with recording equipment. The wall on the left side facing the drum set was covered with mirrors, likely for the dance practice. That said, considering I was in this studio with three girls my age, I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed by the whole situation.
Up until this spring, almost all of my music came from a dark, gloomy room with me staring at a computer screen and clicking around with a mouse. Nonetheless, I had come a long way in less than three months. I wondered what kind of scenery I would see in the future.
“So, uh, what are we gonna play?” Akane asked, putting her guitar case down on the floor and looking up at the three of us.
“Let’s pay first,” Shizuki interjected. “Please check that this is the right amount.”
Akane accepted the envelope that Shizuki handed to her. She peered inside at the contents, and her eyes quickly widened.
“N-No, not this much money!”
I saw it, too. There was a thick bundle of ten-thousand yen bills in the envelope. My jaw dropped as I threw a glance at Shizuki.
What are you thinking?
“Don’t worry about it. Since the flowers I use for the arrangements are very expensive, my mother always gives me more than I can spend every month.”
“So lucky—wait, that’s not the issue here…” I interrupted.
Shizuki continued in complete disregard of me.
“Akane-san, I’ve heard that you were holding back in many bands that you’ve joined.”
Akane’s body stiffened promptly. I gave a suspicious stare to Shizuki. Is she really the type to say blunt things like that to someone she isn’t even that close to?
“Also, I’ve heard that you’ve been fired from all the bands you helped.”
“To me, that was to be expected if Akane-san kept doing what you were doing.”
I thought about stopping Shizuki, but Rinko, who was setting up the synthesizer right beside Shizuki, gave me a glare that expressed her will to strangle me. I shut my mouth in terror.
“Y-Yes—I guess that’s how it is.” Akane chuckled awkwardly. “I’ve been thinking that I still need to improve myself. Since I felt bad if I charge a lot of money and couldn’t live up to the expectation, I tried my best to keep my price low. ”
“Yes, that’s exactly the problem,” Shizuki stated clearly. Akane blinked in confusion.
“My mother is… well, she’s the head of the family,” Shizuki began with downcast eyes. Her gloomy voice spun around the studio floor. “The art of arranging flowers is a very expensive one. Mother really wouldn’t worry about how much she spent, whether it is for flower tools or kimonos. And so, She would charge a lot of money when she accepted a job. She wouldn’t even give out any discount even if it is a request from an acquaintance. She has her pride as a flower arranger. When she decided to give me this unreasonable monthly allowance, she told me, ‘Buy high, sell high. Those who sell cheaply will only attract cheap customers.’”
Akane’s eyes widened in surprise. Shizuki looked up and wrapped her hands tightly around Akane’s hand that was holding the envelope.
“This is the price I put on you, and I am proud to say that I have judged your skills to be worth this much. Therefore, you will now perform for this price.”
Akane was dumbfounded. Shizuki peered down at her face.
“Or maybe you’re not confident in yourself? If that’s the case, please leave. I, too, am ashamed of my misjudgement.”
“And if you leave, don’t come near Murase-kun again,” Rinko added.
“Ah, yes, that’s right! If you run away here, please don’t get into any lewd business with Makoto-san again!”
…That almost ruined the stinging, serious mood.
Akane kept her face down for a while and did not move. An uncomfortable air drifted through the room of the D6 studio.
Eventually, Akane sat down on her knees and opened her guitar case on the floor. It was a Gibson ES335: a masterpiece of semi-acoustic guitars used in a wide range of music, including jazz and rock. Since she didn’t know what type of songs we were going to be playing, her choice for this particular guitar was likely because it could produce a variety of sounds. With such considerations in mind, it was clear why she could only sit in the corner of the studio lobby, hugging her knees, and wait for customers to come to her.
“…Got it. Let’s play,” she announced as her fingers traced the neck of the guitar.
“But what are we gonna play?”
“I’ll leave that decision up to you, Akane-san,” Shizuki answered.
If it hadn’t been for the soft-spoken Shizuki, that statement would have sounded much more cruel.
I snuck a sideways glance at Akane and noticed the puzzlement on her face. I remembered that last time, she said that she didn’t have any specific pieces of music she wanted to play.
She really meant it, didn’t she?
So now, I couldn’t do anything except clutch my deep-sea colored guitar, slump my back, and keep silent. To be honest, I had predicted Shizuki to leave the song selection to Akane herself, and I had also predicted Akane to be frozen in place, indecisive.
No, I have to be clear. It isn’t a prediction. It is an expectation.
Staying silent was scum-like behavior, but there was nothing I could do about this situation. In fact, I hoped that Akane would be at a loss.
I could request it. That song.
“Then, how about this?” I said as I pulled my instrument out of its case.
“Yesterday, you were playing a song at the riverbank. Sing it for me.”
Akane turned to look at me. Her eyes were those of a lost cat in a freezing downpour. Even when she noticed the bass guitar I was holding, her eyes stayed stormy, not clearing up.
“I practiced a little overnight. Bass, I mean.”
The bass guitar I play has no power to push or support Akane. She looks down at her guitar again and falls silent.
But I would like to add one more thing.
“The other day I was listening to a show where you were helping out and I kind of understood. You’re good at all the instruments, but your real job, or what you want to do the most, is to be a vocalist, right?”
Her shoulders twitched slightly. That was her only reaction.
I was praying in my mind, as I plugged my bass into the amp and began tuning.
Rinko, in sync, placed the synthesizer on a stand, set the sustain pedal under her feet, and plugged the shielded cord into the mixer.
Only Shizuki remained motionless, standing firm in front of Akane and waiting for an answer.
When I connected the microphone to the mixer, a thick, chest-rumbling noise echoed throughout the room, causing Akane to finally raise her gaze.
No words were being said, but Shizuki looked toward Akane, nodded, and proceeded to walk over to the other side of the drumset, sitting down on a chair in the process. In no time, she held a stick in her hand.
This is an all-out session.
It couldn’t be helped. This was all we had. Words were uncertain, imperfect, occasionally insubstantial. They could be easily tarnished, warped, broken, or lost before they were registered in the human mind. This was never the case with music. Music had no meaning in the first place. The performer’s heart, the listener’s: they simply tremble and resonate through the ripples of the air, manifesting an illusion as they please.
After finishing her tuning, Akane stood before the microphone stand.
The tense air tasted of electricity.
A thin, delicate hand clutching the pick swung down toward the strings. The calm water of the river, tinged vermillion by the evening glow, was scooped up by a pleasantly frigid and lonely tone, letting it all spill out between the fingers.
Before long, Akane’s voice breathed into the microphone.
By just hearing the first phrase, tears welled up in my eyes. What I had lost, the scenery I had admired and longed for as a child, the light of each moment that would continue to be lost, the distant stars that would continue to be unreachable—her voice contained it all.
…No, don’t fall in. When I found a rest in the song, I exerted a bit more pressure with my hand gripping the neck of the bass. The rough texture of metal strings dig into my fingers, bringing a slight sense of reality back to me.
At the change of the chord, I gently pluck the strings.
I noticed my conventionally-quiet bass sounded surprisingly clear. Then I quickly realized: it wasn’t just my sound. The beat of the bass drum and hi-hat gently supported it from behind. Even the sound of the organ could be heard, cool like the haze of an early summer morning. Although we had not planned this out, Shizuki, Rinko, and I had all stepped into the song at the same place, as many small streams gathering at the heart of a valley would, forming a single, lone river.
There was no way that Shizuki or Rinko knew about this song. Shizuki was fumbling around with a simple rhythm pattern, and Rinko was playing passively so as to not clash with the song’s chord progression. I had to lead the way.
However, Akane was oblivious to my concern, beginning to pluck her own six strings while stepping on the pedal of the effector. The sound of the ES335 cracked and warped with the noise, heating up the song instantly. In just a mere two bars, what was once the murmur of fine bubbles forming transformed into the roar of scorching-hot water boiling.
Akane’s voice emanated from the gap in the array of sounds. Everything in the studio was electrified through the microphone. My breath was clogged. The chorus clung to the undulating clash of the major and minor keys, twisting the syncopation of the bass. Rinko’s obbligato crashed onto the long-breathed, sustained melody that greedily ate up space.
Such intensity. Such a special voice, such a special song.
“Same Side” – WANDS—
… Once upon a time, two hard rock-loving younglings were discovered by one of Japan’s music companies which owned successful record labels, Being Inc. They were given the name “WANDS” and thrown into the midle of the ripe and ready to burst bubble economy. The record label went all out, churning out a myriad of trendy digital pop songs, glittering with tie-ins to dramas, commercials, and anime. Their songs sold like hotcakes—Millions, and millions upon millions. In the whirlpool of Being’s magic, the two younglings eventually shriveled, exhausted, and crumpled.
“This isn’t the music we wanted to play. This isn’t the future we had in mind. We were put together for other people’s reasons, forced to play other people’s songs, and played as if we were other people.”
“We are sick of it.”
With these thoughts made apparent, for their tenth single, WANDS wrote the song on their own. Over the phone, they hummed tentative lyrics, played the guitar, and searched for chord progressions, burning their longings and impulses directly into the notes, just as they had done in the past.
They wrote “Same Side”.
It became a special song for both of them.
However, it didn’t sell well. It was number two on the hit charts and sold over 200,000 copies at one point.
In the twenty-first century, these numbers would seem unattainable. However, in that raging storm curated by Being Inc., it produced results that caused the song to be branded as a failure. That was the public’s answer to their unadorned, true faces. No one wanted to see their flaws, flowing from their pores like blood from a fresh wound. People only wanted stars with the magic of pop, people who could make carbonated beverages flow out of any scratch on their skin.
The two of them threw down their wands and broke away from the band.
Still, the song remained. As long as it was special to someone, it would always be sung. When they were suffering, when they were about to break down, when they were struggling to give shape to their music, we were not even born yet. But the song jumps across that time gap, even spans the century, and connects our hearts and makes them resonate.
What kind of feelings would Akane have received? What selfish fantasies did she create? It wasn’t a sin, a mistake, or an error. It couldn’t be. Because music and words are not the same. There is no right or wrong, because music is something that breathes in the depths of darkness, which is bottled up in words, and something that disappears in the heights far beyond words. There is only their desire on their side and hers on hers.
On the same side, I was standing close to her.
Akane’s bestial cry trailed through the reverberation of the cymbals, the song coming full circle. She slowly let her foot off the effects pedal, narrating the melody afresh with a clear tone. Shizuki and Rinko stopped holding back. They had already heard the chorus once; it was already ingrained into their mind. The shade from the exalted organ accentuated Akane’s husky voice. The crisp snare drum perfectly complemented the distorted guitar, leading to a crash evoking the darkness of the music. In the midst of all this, I clung desperately to the roots of the chord, quickly being swallowed by the frenzy of the second chorus. I bit my own concoction of frustration and joy. And it was Rinko who was the backbone of the guitar solo, keeping the energy from diminishing. She added a swell to the third chorus, foreshadowing the apocalypse.
Eventually, the silence returns.
After confirming the extinction of the instruments’ echoes in the air, Akane crooned the last phrase, accompanied by only a singular arpeggio from her guitar.
Even as she wiped the sweat from her forehead, face clear with embarrassment, and put her guitar on the stand, time continued to flow in the room.
Nearly simultaneously, Akane and I looked back at Shizuki, whose body was obstructed by the drum set. Suzuki was rebinding the tape on the grip of her drumsticks with a composed expression. Akane’s anxiety-filled gaze drifted up to me. It was quite uncomfortable when she looked at me that way. Was that good enough?
Shizuki’s long eyelashes moved in a very deliberate way, and she raised her eyes.
She first looked at me, smiled meaningfully, and then moved her eyes to Akane.
“…1500 yen. That sounds about right.”
I didn’t understand what Shizuki was saying right away, but out of the corner of my peripheral vision, I could just barely notice the slump in Akane’s shoulders.
So, it was an evaluation of the performance. She said it was only worth 1500 yen. That wasn’t the price we paid in advance.
“I think 500 in that 1500 yen,” Rinko said as she fiddled with the settings on the synthesizer, “came from what I did.”
“…U-Uhm… I’m sor—”
Akane’s voice faded.
“I’ve rented this room for two hours today. I’ll make sure that you perform for the price I paid,” Shizuki ensured.
After a few seconds of awkward silence, Akane looked up resolutely.
“Yeah! I’ll service you lots! I won’t let you rest!”
“I want to take a break. Can we pick a song that doesn’t have a shit ton of keyboard playing in it, please?” Rinko jeered listlessly. Akane giggled and slipped her shoulder into the strap of her guitar again.
“And Akane-san,” Shizuki said in an adjusted, more formal tone, “during the performance, you seemed to be paying attention to Makoto-san a lot. Please speak out what you had in mind, now.”
Akane squirmed and compared my face with Shizuki’s. I had noticed that she had been stealing glances at me several times.
“You know, Akane-san, it’s this kind of useless concern that led you to lost your gigs! Now, let it out once and for all!”
“Ugh… o-okay!” Akane clenched her hands into fists and turned to me.
“Makoto-chan, you’re trash at bass!”
I fell down on the floor, with bass in my hand, curling up into a ball.
“Attagirl, Akane-san, keep going!”
“It would be so~ much better if I played bass! But then, Makoto-chan would have to play guitar, and that wouldn’t end well either. So, in the end, there’s nothing I can do about it!”
“Your honesty is so refreshing, Akane-san! That’s how Paul McCartney did it, too—he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he thought he was a better guitarist than John and George or that he was a better drummer than Ringo! And that’s why the Beatles broke up!”
Is that supposed to be some kind of follow-up?
“Are you okay, Makoto-chan? You kinda look like a turtle,” Akane commented.
“I think he’s ok. This is probably just Makoto-san’s tactic trying to score some pity from me after getting hit by mean words from Akane-san.”
“You’re the one that’s being mean!”
“Ah, that just slipped out”
Shizuki exaggeratedly covered her face with both hands, turning pale. That was probably part of her act.
“I’m so jealous of Shizuki,” Rinko blurted. “I can’t believe she’s better at teasing Murase-kun than I am.”
“Don’t start some weird rivalry about me…”
“I’m not teasing him! I mean everything I said!”
Why are my friends so mean?
“Well, Makoto-chan, you may not be a good bass player, but I’m sure you’re good at using your mouth.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better!”
Akane broke into laughter, her voice as pleasant as the ring of an unglazed bell, and spelled the magical words that would end the prattle into the microphone.
“—Now, the next song!”
As soon as the guitar riffs rang out, every breath was taken for the music. There remained no room for idle chatter. Rinko’s glissando on the piano and Shizuki’s fill-in riffs ambled in and out of the fast-paced beat. I wasn’t allowed to come in late. This was an old, old song that everyone knew. It was the song that Paul McCartney nearly destroyed the Beatles with, denouncing Ringo Starr’s drum-playing in the process. McCartney himself played the drums and created this song.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”.
Of course, the three girls didn’t hold back either. All I could do was to hold on tight and try to not be swept away by the supersonic speed of the Soviet-bound jet.
Monday, the first day of the week…
The rain that had lasted over the weekend had ended, yet the weather was still tingling with a hint of the rainy season. On both sides of the school gates were hydrangeas in pots, though they were turning red as if they were defeated by the heat already. We would soon see summer.
I was greeted by someone I didn’t expect to be at the school entrance.
“Good morning, Makoto-chan!”
A familiar husky voice, a familiar aggressive face. But for a moment, I didn’t know who it was. It was because she was wearing our high school uniform.
It was hard to believe, but it was Akane.
“…What’s with that face? Didn’t I tell you that we went… the same high school?”
Other students on their way to school walked by, staring at the strange pair that was stationed at the entrance.
“…I thought you weren’t coming to school?”
“I shouldn’t have come?” asked Akane with pursed lips.
“No, no! I was just surprised. Why did you suddenly decide to come to school?” I’d rather you didn’t, though.
“Shizu-chan told me to stop selling myself. Then, you know, I can’t just sit around waiting for customers all day.”
Hey, don’t call it “selling yourself”. What if someone misunderstands?
“All right, I’m going to start taking high school seriously. And if I come to school, I can see Makoto-chan, Shizu-chan, and Rin-chan! Oh, and Misao-san!”
“Yeah… Well, that’s good.”
That’s your solution?! I woulda never seen that coming. Your not-so-serious reason for coming back is quite dubious for someone who’s been out of school for so long, isn’t it?…
However, when I took a closer look at Akane, her face was slightly tense, her bare legs, which stretched out from her skirt, were chattering, and her entire body was trembling. It was a bit strange, as instead of going inside the school building, they were hanging about the entrance chatting.
“Well, ahaha! When push comes to shove, you’re still nervous, aren’t you?”
Akane noticed my gaze and gave me an unnaturally embarrassed smile.
“Yesterday, my mom cried when I told her I was going to go to school. When I called the teacher, she also cried. Geez, I wish they wouldn’t make things so complicated for me. I mean, I’m about to go to a place full of strangers. I already don’t know what to do…”
There was no way she would be fine with this. All I saw was just darkness and despair on her side.
And yet, I was on the same side.
“…The music room.”
My words were caught in my dry throat, throttling my voice and making me cough. I continued:
“You can come anytime. There’s usually either Hanazono-sensei, me, or… some other people you might know.”
Akane’s expression, at that instant, was probably the first time I saw her truly smile.
I watched on as Akane ran toward Class 4’s shoe rack, back facing me. The two people who had just taken off their shoes greeted her.
“Good morning, Akane-san! So it is true that you’re coming to school!”
“You didn’t believe me?”
“Since you don’t know where your classrooms are, where the restrooms are, who your classmates are, what your classes are about, or how to put on your gym uniform, I’ll be helping you out for a while.
“I can at least put on my gym uniform by myself, you know? But thank you!”
Ah, Rinko was in her class and Shizuki was in the next class over. So there was nothing to worry about. I tried my best to act cool, but it was to no avail considering my relationship with Akane.
Wait, you told them beforehand that you were coming to school? When did you guys get so close? Why didn’t you tell me?
I headed for Class 7’s shoe rack. On my side, I had my own boring life, after all.
The bell rang. The trampling sound of footsteps of the many students blitzing past me breezed past me. I switched out of my shoes, thrust on my jacket, and took off toward the stairs.