Which came first, the chicken or the egg? There was a saying that went like that. A question where you would have no right answer in the end, perhaps my current situation was the same thing as that.
Did I come at this time (7:45 p.m.), to this place (the supermarket) because I was hungry and had no money, or was it because I wanted to learn more about the “something” that had happened at that place with The Ice Witch being the biggest mystery? I didn’t really know myself.
And then, I also didn’t really know why Oshiroi was beside me again. Sorry, but it wasn’t some kind of dramatic development like she was waiting for me. Just like yesterday when she saw me staring intensely at the entrance’s bright signboard by chance, we ended up running into each other somehow.
I tried talking to her, but we ended up talking about solving the mystery and things like that. And then, she said, “I… I, if I’m not here you, would be troubled right? 1” another shitty cliché line topped off by her terrible acting skill. Once again, she tried to look for my reaction but I had yet to find a right way to respond to that.
Ignoring would look bad, so I ended up giving a vague response.
“Eh, ah… right, yeah.”
While she didn’t get upset after hearing my vague response, Oshiroi hung her head, and looked a bit dejected. That face resembled the one I made in the past when I overheard my mother confidently said, “Look, it’s the actor that appeared in films like ‘The Crimson Rivers’ or the Hollywood version of ‘Godzilla’… See! It’s John Lennon!” to her friend while talking about movies. Without a doubt, Oshiroi was a bit disappointed.
Perhaps my anything-goes mom had already become a bit old from then, I thought.
For the third day in a row, we set foot into the supermarket, or rather, it was already more accurate to call it a battlefield filled with mysteries and horrors.
“Because this time I… I, I will go as well.2”
“You better be careful, even with 10% of her strength, the Ice Witch is not a joke.”
Oshiroi’s face reddened in a flash. It seemed like this time it was the right response.
I expected the store’s atmosphere to change into that peculiar one once again with the apron-wearing employee’s appearance; but, it managed to maintain the usual peacefulness. However, there was still a change at the side dish and bento section, the group that consisted mainly of first years that would have been standing there at this time had disappeared. Perhaps they had run away after receiving the same painful experience as I had.
A shiver ran down my spine when I was reminded of the Ice Witch’s palm from that time. There’s no way I’d eat that again, I thought. This time I’ll try to keep away from her as much as possible and go for the bentos… No, wait a minute. Even if it’s her, it’s unthinkable that she would go for bento three days in a row.
After I snapped my fingers, Oshiroi looked at me and started nodding her head. She must be thinking of the same–
“An old person smell would also be nice.”
– or not. What was she even thinking to even mention old person smell in this place…
I first tried to scan around the store and only saw about 10 customers that looked like students, while the figure of the Ice Witch was nowhere to be found. From just looking alone, I can’t determine who was in that dreaded group from yesterday and the day before, I thought. It might even be all of them, it’s not impossible.
However by the looks of it, the opponent I fear, the Ice Witch is not here. I should be able to somehow do it.
The sense of joy that tickled my very core made me clench both of my hands that were hanging by my sides.
…It was only a half-priced bento. The price difference was from 200 yen to 300 yen at most and yet. It was a mysterious feeling.
The employee appeared from the Staff Only door. Oshiroi and I exchanged glances and nodded once.
“It’s better to be at the bento section beforehand isn… ain’t it… right?”
“Alright,” I nodded and started to head out. I came to realize that the best way to deal with that weird acting from Oshiroi was to just completely ignore it and carry on as usual without paying it any attention.
I arrived at the bento section without any problems… However, even though it was a normal action, for the words “without any problems” to come out so naturally, as expected, was unsettling after these past two days.
Well, what should I do now? I thought. In that space that had been thinned out, that space where products are displayed, that space where I was helplessly unable to obtain the object of my desires, that very space where many bentos were sublimely enshrined. Right now, they’ve concealed themselves with modest and innocent decorations like, ‘100 yen discount’; however, in a few minutes they will be adorned with ‘half-priced’ which, leaving nothing to imagination, is an erotic accessory on the same level as black lingerie that emphasizes their exquisite beauty, transforming them into something audacious yet magnificent.
…The question now is, naturally, whether Oshiroi and I would be able to get our hands on them. Without a doubt, if I reached for them now, then I would be able to grab one by the time someone could say ‘Ah!’ No matter how fast “they” might be, to be able to react from beyond the range of the few meters surrounding me, is, as one would expect, physically impossible.
“Ah, this looks delicious.”
While murmuring that, Oshiroi stealthily reached towards the 580 yen “Become a man’s blood, become a man’s body! Spring’s garlic grilled meat bento (with 100 yen discount sticker)” which sounded like something Shuuzou Matsuoka3 made during the Olympics.
It was the moment where one would ask, “Will she touch it or not?” And then, as if it was boiling water, she withdrew her hand in a rush.
“…What’s going on? Something, is tingling.”
“Static electricity?” I asked, but Oshiroi shook her head. The short hair tied into a bundle behind her swayed gently.
Her line of sight, still locked onto the bento, dropped; but her face had turned pale. It was faint… it was only faint, but the hand on her chest was trembling.
“Many people are watching… with a really disgusted look. But they’re taking care so that we don’t notice them.”
As if it was a monologue, she spoke softly like tears were trickling down her face. However, unlike her, who was acting as if she had been thrown into the snow without any clothes on, I didn’t feel anything… Or, were those ‘disgusted looks’ only directed toward her…? I thought to myself.
I tried to look around inconspicuously, but I couldn’t find anyone observing her… I think.
Because the employee with half-priced stickers had appeared before us, in order to get in his way, I lightly tapped Oshiroi’s shoulder and the two of us took a few steps away from the bento section. Oshiroi was still fidgeting while looking at the ground; but, she then started glancing at my hand and took out a handkerchief from her pocket.
The same thing that had happened before, where my hand had been scrubbed to the point that touching water stung. While remembering that, in order to avoid the same result, I put my hands behind my back while looking at the employee putting half-priced sticker on that grilled meat bento with a hotblooded name. He looked at us once and then returned to the Staff Only room without stopping.
“Let’s buy some bento first.”
Oshiroi squeezed on the handkerchief in her hand and nodded.
Once again, I looked for the bento that had been interesting me since earlier, “Extra large rice & Okonomiyaki 4 set.” And then, even if it was a step closer to become a fatty, I reached towards the lump of carbohydrate inside an elliptical bowl.
In that instant, I felt a shiver run down my spine.
…Someone is watching me. Furthermore, I remember this gaze. Without a doubt, the Ice Witch is looking at me, I concluded.
Did she just enter the store at the very last moment? …No, maybe, it could be a different person. I ran through every possibility in my head.
…But, I can do it, anyhow. The bento is already right there. My fingers have been slowly creeping forward to the point that I could faintly feel the wrapping paper clinging tightly to the bento…
A gust of wind rushed upwards.
Along with the sensation of my hair standing on its ends, I saw the figure of Oshiroi dancing in the sky; the place where Oshiroi had been standing had been replaced with a man raising his fist toward the heavens; and Oshiroi’s handkerchief drifting in the air.
“Impossible,” I wanted say that; however, I couldn’t say it. Through my eyes, and then my skin, I was able to understand… about my surroundings.
Even though there was no one around us just a few seconds ago, more than ten people had suddenly appeared around us. My consciousness shifted towards the bentos and in that very moment where I was distracted.
Even though they were strangers, they all had the same eyes. The eyes of a hunter. And then, the color of disdain filled those eyes.
The fist of an unknown man slammed down on my right hand that was reaching for the bento, and then, he continued to drill the same fist into my abdomen.
“Beat the weaklings…”
As I was falling over backwards, a male voice appeared from somewhere and with it, a knee strike to my back.
It was a female’s voice this time. The source of that voice grabbed my left arm.
A male’s voice. A heel from somewhere headed for my defenseless left flank and dug into it. Before I could even feel the pain, the girl that had been grabbing my left side flung me away.
I dropped down onto the hard ground back first. The impact jolted my brain and my consciousness clouded. But rather than my current situation, the thing that was in my mind was that numbing stimulus.
That was cold like ice and clear like pure water. The voice… of her, the person I couldn’t confirm was here or not today.
With the sound of some small movements, the figure of a person appeared right next to me.
That figure looked down with its almond-shaped eyes as if piercing me who was lying face-up on the ground. In its hand was the large elliptical bento. It suddenly rose and revealed a girl’s slender and supple legs and before my eyes were the back of her conspicuous rugged boots.
The Ice Witch.
“…That is the rule of this area.”
What was with the ‘pig’ and ‘this area’? And then the ‘rule’ thing?
Those questions, due to the soles of her shoes plunging into my face, were chased away by force along with my consciousness.
Glow of the Fireflies.
To faintly light up for a fleeting moment. The meaning of both sweet and bitter. For most people who was born since the middle of the Shouwa period5, they would feel a sense of parting through this melody6.
Even though I was barely conscious, I thought that the melody of Glow of the Fireflies was announcing the end of my life. However, on the contrary, my consciousness had been gradually pulled back to reality because of it.
Since when had my vision turned all white, I wondered. It took me some time to realize it wasn’t because my mind was blanking out, but rather the white handkerchief on top of my face and the dazzlingly bright light that was behind it.
Despite the pain that stung to the bone of my left hand, I grabbed the handkerchief to find it was the one in Oshiroi’s hand from that time.
As I thought about getting up, I noticed there was something warm weighing down my abdomen. What came to my eyes as I tried to look at it, was an unconscious Oshiroi. It seemed that our collapsed figures had somehow managed to form a plus sign.
I propped my upper half up with one hand while making a small groan. My entire body was in pain even with just that small movement. One by one, the numerous injuries I received from that crowd deeply resounded through my very core.
What on earth, has been happening in this place? I wondered. It seemed like they had tried to give me some kind of advice through the resounding pain on my body; but the only thing that got across was just ‘agitation’.
My shoulders jerked as a deep voice suddenly reverberated through the air. I looked in the direction it had come from to find an employee mopping the floor in the meat section. He had his sleeves rolled up, showing his muscular arms. It took me a moment to realize it was the same employee who put the half-priced stickers on the bentos.
The burly middle-age man set his mop against the wall and approached us.
“Is that girl over there still unconscious? Good grief, this is because you acted in an unsightly fashion.”
He then grabbed the collapsed Oshiroi’s neck and lifted her up. The employee carried her over his shoulder as if she was a light jacket. “I’ll go on ahead.” With those few words, he disappeared towards the Staff Only door.
I got up and followed him with my aching body. It was a dim kitchen filled with the smell of cooking oil. The employee then guided us further inside to a door with an old name plate that said “Break Room.” That room was filled with the smell of smoke, completely unlike the kitchen.
The employee laid Oshiroi down on the sofa and headed for the break room’s exit.
“Wait. You…. No, what the heck is this place? What on earth is going on?”
Although the employee’s feet stopped, he didn’t turn back to look at me.
“I’m merely an employee of this supermarket. A fellow named ‘Fried Old Man’ as well as ‘Fried God’ because of this smell.
And, this is merely a supermarket. A place with a bunch of prideful idiots along with fools that try to prove themselves… Oh well, it doesn’t matter to pigs like you bunch.”
Pigs, I repeated that word in mind. I’m pretty sure that group and the Ice Witch also said that.
‘Beat the weaklings, crush the pigs. This is the rule of this place,’ something like that.
“Hmm, the thing you should learn from this is to not even think about touching those half-priced bentos, or to just buy them before they become half-priced. If you try pulling off something like that the next time, you will die.”
“Die,” the word that no one would expect to hear in some supermarket made me burst out laughing.
“Die? Really? Stop joking around, they are just half-priced ben…”
My body, trembled. It was not from the gust of wind that assaulted my body and the fist big enough to cover my face suddenly appeared before my very eyes. Yes, it wasn’t because of the fearsome punch that stopped just before hitting me, it was from the wrath emanating from the employee.
“I’m merely an employee of this supermarket, that’s why I won’t do anything. But if you dare say that in front of the group that was once called ‘knights’, and now ‘wolves’, you will learn that ‘die’ was definitely not a figure of speech.”
The employee withdrew his fist as I dropped down onto my knees and my entire body started sweating profusely.
“…On that shelf over there is my stock of CalorieMate7. When that girl wakes up, you can each take one for dinner. It’s my favorite cheese flavor. There’s also apricot SoyJoy8, you can take that instead of you want. Soybean is good for your body. And it’s more filling than it looks.”
He left the break room while leaving only those words.
While still trembling and on my knees, I hugged my own shoulders. Even though I didn’t know how much strength was in the punch just now, I certainly saw it. Without a doubt, I saw my life flashed before my eyes.
This place… what is this ‘area’? What was with the ‘pigs’ and ‘wolves’? What is happening? What is the Ice Witch and that group doing at this place?
What on earth… is going on?
There was not a single answer in my mind. Those certain questions, the pain throughout my body, and the sense of dread.
“Uu…” Oshiroi groaned on top of the sofa. I stood up with my trembling knees and look at her face filled with cold sweat. I couldn’t find any injury but her expressions were strained from anguish.
I spread out Oshiroi’s handkerchief, which had become wrinkled from being in her tight grasp, and softly wiped the sweat off the girl’s face
I didn’t know what she was thinking, but for me, I was thinking about how I wanted to have at least something cheap, warm and not bread for dinner. Just only that.
It wasn’t that much of a wish. And yet, why couldn’t it become a reality?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Did I come here for a warm dinner, or did I come here for the truth about what had been happening… And then, was that something worth taking on all this risk…?
Only my questions kept increasing.
- She started with her usual “atashi” which is a feminine pronoun and switched to ore and omae which are masculine
- Oshiroi with her atashi -> ore once again
- Former Japanese professional tennis player. Perhaps more famous now for these kinds of videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxGRhd_iWuE See more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuzo_Matsuoka
- From 1926 to 1989
- Glow of the fireflies(蛍の光) is a contrafactum of Auld Lang Syne. According to Wikipedia: “Many stores and restaurants play it to usher customers out at the end of a business day.”