Ijime (The Bullies)

by Dan Abe

About The Book

*There is a moment in each life when you have a singular chance to make the right decision.

When she first heard about the deaths, that three students at her school had taken their own lives, Akemi Sato was elated. Her plan had worked. This, more than anything else that could have ever happened was proof that she was the true Queen of the Bullies.

Until she started to see the ghosts of the dead kids, and realized that they’d trapped her forever. No matter what she did from that point on, she’d always be a murderer. Caught in her own clever web.

Now Akemi must seek to make the world a better place. Not for the dead, but for the living.

No matter what it costs her to get that done.

Ijime (The Bullies): A Novel, is a book that deals with hard questions, and provides both some possible answers and food for thought. This must read work is destined to become a classic for a new world.



Get Up To Speed

It’s the beginning of the story, so dive on in….

The Hook

Chapter One

Akemi brushed her collar length hair back, the black strands glistening in the light that came through the bank of windows on the left hand side of the room. The brilliant sheen was due to the special conditioner she used, which was the most expensive brand she could find. It smelled like jasmine. That’s what the bottle claimed at least. To her it smelled like success. It could have smelled like a sewer, or fetid and rotting meat, and she still would have used it, just for that one reason. That it was the product that had the highest price was enough for her. No one else in her school could afford that kind of thing. Her father could. It was one of the few things she actually liked about him most days.

There was a strange feeling to the room she was in that day. The students were fine, and fairly normal seeming, but there was still something off. Wrong, in a way that tickled at the back of her mind, setting Akemi on edge. A tension to the air that didn’t have any good explanation. There was a test coming, but that was weeks away. No one would be that nervous or scared about it until it was right on top of them. The scent of chalk was familiar, and the low hum of the air conditioning unit was what everyone expected it to be, which was mildly annoying. Mrs. Tanaka, Tanaka Sensei, seemed nervous, and that carried into the space as loudly as her calling it out in words. Her hands were held in front of herself, clutching at something that wasn’t there. Grasping to hold on to a thing that wasn’t visible, or that didn’t have substance even to her own narrow vision of existence. Her lips had no color to them, but the woman had no sense of style anyway, and wouldn’t even wear the allowable amount of make-up for a teacher, so that portion of things was expected. She was pale, but it was hard to tell if that was just her normal bookish nature, or a sign of something being different than it always was.

It was important to pay attention to things like that, Akemi knew. More so than anyone else in the room would ever credit her with being able to understand. After all, she wasn’t the top student in the class, so people would naturally think that meant she wasn’t as smart as some of the others. Nor was she the prettiest, or the most popular. No, what she was, deep down inside, was a master. One of the secret rulers of the world. Oh, truly, she was just a school girl, for now, but grades and sports achievements aside, or the lack of them, she simply knew that she, and she alone, out of all of them, was actually worth something. She paid attention, and had a comprehension of how things really worked that almost no one could ever match. Not the kids at her school, at any rate.

Their teacher simply stood at the front of the room, alone. Unspeaking and unmoving for a long enough time that everyone started to pay attention to her. It was a form of silent command, and pulled on their minds, being irregular. A strange thing made powerful by the very fact that it was unusual. The woman was young, for a teacher, being in her mid-twenties, or she was a bit older and simply seemed that way. Too youthful to have a class of high school students, if Akemi were in charge. Regardless of the actual number of years being that how you were seen counted in life. It made her seem like a senpai, an older student or mentor, rather than the one in command. Too often that meant she lost control of the class for hours at a time. It was like a contagion, nearly, when that happened. Each class becoming suddenly wild, filled with animals that hooted and played, rather than working to make themselves better. One period after another would go that way, making it nearly impossible to learn for an entire day. Once, they managed to not get anything done for a whole week. It was a good thing.

When the class was working hard, memorizing their tables and charts, the lists and stories that made up their normal work day, Akemi was just average. A little above, since she was smart, if not driven like some of the others. That’s what she told herself. She was the best, regardless of what the tests said. Number one. These others were just too stupid to realize it yet. They would, eventually. That didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the bit of respite she achieved when the others made learning impossible. For that time, in those howling moments, she was actually one of the good students. Sitting at her desk and trying to listen. Pretending too, at least. Like she was now. Everyone in the room was. All attention focused to the front, a sense of presence being held there, as unlikely as that really was.

The chairs stopped making noise, as everyone settled, and a heavy sense of darkness hung over the room. It was the feeling that came right before a large storm. Electric and exciting, but scary at the same time. People seemed to be holding their breath, as Tanaka Sensei worried both her hands and lips. Biting the latter nervously, trying to hold in whatever she had to say.

In that moment it could have been anything. She might have been dismissed, for being a poor teacher, or been told that there was some form of disaster that had happened. It was the last class of the day, which meant that all the bad news would be delivered then. There was no reason to lose a day of study to anxious students milling around, uselessly fretting about topics that they had no control over, so it was part of the normal pattern. An expected reaction to a thing that was patently unexpected.

“Students. I… Please listen closely.” The words were timid sounding. Meek enough that she normally would have lost them all shortly after using that tone with them.

Kids only responded to power, Akemi knew. It was her way, and it worked. She wasn’t the smartest or the strongest in any sport, but she was in charge of the school. Behind the scenes. The organizer. The puppet master. The queen spider in her web, dancing on the strings, making the others respond and react, without knowing why they were doing it.

“If you please, I’m sorry to announce…” Tanaka Sensei clutched at herself some more, forestalling the classroom collapse that should have come. That normally would have, about then. “Three of our students, your friends… Killed themselves last night. Ito Chiya, Kachida Hajime, and Sorenson Sara.”

There was no sound, for a time. Nothing real, or tangible. Just the rushing of blood to Akemi’s head. It pounded there, her heart beating hard as her breathing stopped for a few moments. At first she wondered if the teacher was simply joking with them. Not that the woman was a clown, or the kind of person that would lie that well for a gag. No, that she’d stood in front of them like she was, hands tight in front of her, face drawn and sad, it was a sign of something.

A thing so major and important that it was all Akemi could do to slap a shocked expression on her face. The polite look that a regular person should have, instead of a smile.

She’d done it. Using nothing but words, a few suggestions to others in her school in the right places, without any force or direct action on her part, Akemi had killed three people. It sent a thrill through her soul. This, she decided, was the way she wanted to live. To be on top so securely that others killed themselves, not even understanding that she, their secret queen, was dictating it. The scent of expensive jasmine shampoo and chalk dust tickled her nose. The scent of success. Of power. An unlimited thing that thrilled her so deeply she wondered for a moment if it might show on her face.

Looking around at the drones in her hive, she took a deep breath, letting it calm her fluttering heart. Chiya, the Korean girl that had pretended to be one of them, Sara the outsider, and Hajime, the new boy. All gone. Stripped from their midst without her even lifting a finger. She’d never even sent a text message to any of them, or harassed them online. At no moment had she pointed a finger, or laughed at them in the hallway, either. She’d just indicated the obvious, in the right way, and let the wolves of the school run at them. Baying and howling, like the monsters they were, until the targets flung themselves from a cliff to escape. That thought brought her attention back to the front of the room, focusing her being on what was happening around her. Tanaka Sensei was still speaking, after all, and it would be rude to ignore her. She wasn’t a good teacher, but she was still worthy of respect. Just showing up each day to this class of ungrateful little creatures was enough to earn that.

“There’s… It’s hard to believe, but there was a note… They said that they were… bullied? Ostracized and taunted. Even hurt? I… don’t know what to think about that.” The poor woman seemed lost, as if she honestly couldn’t understand that some of the students, in her own classes, and at times directly in front of her, had done it. They, the people in that room, hadn’t really been a part of things, but that was happenstance. Mere coincidence, not design. It wasn’t that they were better than the bullies she’d sent after those three. These students just stood by, and watched.

They were just the little fish that swam around the scene, joining in a bit, so they wouldn’t be the target themselves, later. Looking around the room, Akemi felt the power she possessed. These others were hers now to control. If they didn’t do what she wanted, then they, too, could have her unknowing minions cast at them. They were the watchers, too afraid to act to protect another. Too driven by fear to even speak up and say no.

It meant they were probably too scared to protect themselves either, when it came down to it. It was no way to live, but most did it that way. She didn’t have to be like that, because she was their master, not a fellow potential victim.

One of the boys at the back of the room, Isamu, spoke out of turn. No one turned to look at him, still sitting in shock, and the teacher didn’t tell him to be quiet. Normally that would have been asking to lose control, but that day, after those words… No one would be so callus as to do that. They all just held their peace, looking toward the front.

“Is there to be a memorial? I knew that Hajime was being bullied. I should have said something. This is my fault.” The sadness in the words fairly rang out into the room, and there was a stirring as people turned to look at him. Staring at the one person in the room that was smart enough to figure that part of things out, and bold enough to admit it. If he, the powerful and popular Isamu, a good student had spoken out, then the whole thing could have been stopped in its tracks before it really even started.

Mrs. Tanaka gave him a look of abject horror then.

“You bullied him?” It still sounded meek and little, like a girl, rather than a grown woman who was supposed to be in charge. A child that could have been bullied herself, not an adult that had sat back and let it happen.

Akemi turned in time to see the dark look on the large boy’s face. It spoke of anger and even power, if of a different kind than she had. Personal physical ability to stand up to people. He was large, and strong, but also smart. People respected him, just for showing up, and the boy didn’t let them down that day.

“No, Sensei. I saw it happen, and didn’t stop it. That’s the same thing. Close enough. I should have helped him, but didn’t. I won’t let that happen again. I won’t. I swear it.”

That was a bit over the top, Akemi thought. A proclamation like that was too dramatic for the moment. It was the kind of thing he should have said while alone, by the side of Hajime’s grave marker. Now, if he stood by the next time something took place, he’d look bad. Like a coward, instead of someone silently supporting those that ruled by fear. Her people. The ijimekko.

There was a nod from the front of the room, the woman understanding now, and Tanaka Sensei swallowed, her face nervous rather than filled with the proper grief. The fact there was simple enough. She didn’t want to lose her job, and if bullying had been going on in her classes, which it had been, then she could be held responsible for it. Those useless pieces of garbage could take down the entire school, with what they’d done. Killing themselves like that, all at once. It made a powerful statement and got attention. The kind no one would really want, at the school.

A small hint of worry ran through Akemi then, thinking about that part of the equation. If that happened, and things shut down, then she might end up in a different school. One that didn’t tolerate ijime, and if that took place… Sighing, she relaxed and focused on pretending to seem sad. If that was the course that life set her, she’d deal with it, but already, right in front of her, she saw that it wouldn’t. No, things would go on as they always had, with the ones in power holding to their silence.

Tanaka Sensei shook her head, trying to deny what had just been said.

“We don’t have bullying here. If anyone feels bullied, they can of course come and speak to me, at any time, before or after classes. We were instructed to let you know what happened, to lessen the shock later, when you hear this at home. It’s important that we all stand together now. There is none of that here. There has never been ijime in our ranks, and won’t be.” Her voice firmed on that point, which was clearly something that she was repeating. It had that dusty tone of a thing that was practiced and that hadn’t come from her own mind. A speech learned by rote, like their daily lessons. Probably from the Principal of the school directly. There was a special feeling to it that sounded like him. Hard, and a bit ignorant about the reality of the world. The only other thing that could have been happening was the man actually supporting the bullies. It seemed like that, but couldn’t be the case. He was a school official. A person hired to protect all his students, and to see to their education.

They were all supposed to deny it, when the police came. Or if the news people showed up to inquire about that strange note. The one that had been left, marked with a triple sacrifice. That was so clear they didn’t have to be told directly. There was, after all, no bullying at their school. That could never happen, with all their little angels arrayed in neat rows, memorizing their tables without pause. No one cried for the dead ones, either, she noticed. Not out of guilt, or remorse. Not even Isamu. He looked stoic, and like he wanted to fight death itself, but there was no sense of grief from him. Just anger. A few of her boys might even end up with a bruise or two for what they’d done, if he had his way. That was fine with her. It wasn’t like she was controlling individuals. No, she was the master of the system. The Kouhi Ijimekko. The Queen of the Bullies.

It hadn’t even been hard to get started. Chiya really was from a Korean family, after all. That made it pretty simple to arrange the attacks, being that it marked her as an outsider the second people were reminded that they actually already knew that fact about her. The girl had annoyed her one day, bumping into her between classes and not apologizing for it. She’d been distracted, rather than mean about it, but Akemi had felt the affront, and gone on the offensive. Mainly to test her theories about how to set up long term attacks at the school. Subtly, so that the girl, who’d been popular enough, had never even known who was coming for her, or why. Just pointing out that she wasn’t really one of them, not a true Japanese person, was enough. All she’d had to do was text that message to a few girls that were prone to being a bit jealous. They’d taken up the cause and torn the prettier girl down, tormenting her for months. Most of the school had refused to talk to her after the first week of it, causing the poor thing to fold in on herself.

Her parents weren’t rich enough to afford a private school for her, either, so she’d been trapped there with her tormenters and abusers. Never allowed to escape, or hide from them. Once in motion, the plan worked perfectly, and the girl paid and paid. It was important that she learn who her betters were, and not wanting to get the same treatment, everyone else went along with it.

Sara Sorenson, the girl from America, that had begun almost by mistake. Akemi started to feel a bit sad for her, since the girl had tried really hard to be nice to everyone, and was exotic, with her blonde hair and green eyes. The problem there had actually been Hajime. So it wasn’t truly her fault. She’d been forced to take that action, by someone else.

He’d been the one that deserved it the most. At the beginning of the year Akemi had liked him. Enough so that she’d confessed her love to him after school one day, doing it right, with a small gift to get his attention. It wasn’t anything too impressive, just a new set of headphones for him to use. Shining red and black, with a long cord, that could have connected them together. Good ones, however, that cancelled out the din of the world. So that he could study without noise bothering him. Back then he’d been a top student, so it made sense that he’d like that sort of thing.

That’s when he’d told her that he loved the foreign girl, not her. It had left her feeling rejected and upset. Unloved and hopelessly frustrated. Embarrassed too, after she’d told him she liked him, doing it openly and without reservation. So she’d destroyed them both. The boy and the hapless and innocent girl. He was new himself, not having been there for years like most of them had, having transferred from another school. When they’d talked he’d been polite, and seemed interested in her. She wasn’t the best looking one around, she knew, but she was well put together. Slim enough not to have people think her lazy, and while her face was a bit round, she thought that he might see past that. After all, she was herself. Nearly perfect, if in ways that people were too dense to comprehend most of the time. He was special too, and could have looked beyond that sort of thing, into her true heart.

That wasn’t the case, and Hajime didn’t see her as an option, since he wanted the gaijin. That exotic foreign girl. Her family had moved there for some reason or another. Really, Akemi would have been happy enough with them moving away, or even sending their daughter to another school. Rather than having her kill herself. It hurt a bit, now, she realized. Yes, she’d done it, but it wasn’t like Hajime would be back to date her now. He was gone, and in a way that was final, and unfixable.

Worse, they’d all killed themselves together. As part of a pact. That was kind of romantic, and showed that, in the end, they were all standing together. Yes, it was in a silly school girl way, but she was still young enough to know that others would think that. Secretly, but it would happen. Some of her peers would find what they’d done to be a powerful statement, even if the words were never spoken out loud.

They all sat then, with Mrs. Tanaka muttering about how they all needed to stand together, and be a group. The meaning, the real one, was very clear. It wasn’t about defeating the bullies either, which made sense to Akemi. No, she was suggesting a thing that was very different. Don’t talk to outsiders about what had been going on. Keep their secret shame to themselves. They were a unit, one school united in a single cause. Protecting their good name, above all else. It didn’t have to be spelled out, since everyone already knew it to be true. They lived it, every day, and there was no denying that the faculty would desire them to keep doing that now. Especially with their jobs on the line.

Just before they were released, the mood in the room shifted. It was a slight thing, but it was clear that about half of the students didn’t really care about what had happened. Death might be big news, but it couldn’t really impact their lives. They were more concerned with other things, and merely pretended to be sad, not wanting to seem like the monsters they really were. Sex and studies, games and the latest styles. Their own problems, or possibly the hope that they, personally, would be out from under the thumb of their own bullies for a while. It might even work, for a few weeks. Then, sooner or later the angry and frustrated kids would seek them out again. Looking for some kind of retribution for their own problems. Misplaced coping mechanisms that helped no one. She was self-aware enough to understand that much. It was why she’d set things in motion in the first place. Frustration at being rejected, and not being treated the way she thought was correct.

No one rushed from the room, since that would be lacking in respect. They lined up instead, doing it so naturally that no one even thought about what it meant. They were all on the same page, ready to do what they were asked. At the moment that meant hiding the truth. It left her feeling slightly angry at them all. They should have been screaming. Crying and lamenting the loss of those three people. Ready to do something about the problem. To stand together against the bullies of the world and bring them down. Even if that meant undoing her own work, Akemi could see the need for it. They just stood in line, and walked out of the room, like cattle in a pen. Barely any noise was made, either. There was a slight shuffling of feet, the school shoes making little impact on the world.

She carried her book bag in her left hand, the strap feeling heavy and rough against her fingers. It was one from years before, since it was still good. She could have changed it, and probably should have, but there was no reason too yet. It was her one conceit, really. Everything else about her was just a bit better than what the rest of them had, but the bag was the same, one year to the next. All the girls were dressed like she was, with knee length skirts, all in the same pleated blue, and nearly identical white shirts. White knee high socks too, which she wore in regulation fashion, pulled up tight. Some of the girls were trying to start a trend of letting them droop, thinking it was cute, but she hadn’t gone in for it. It was a matter of pride. Her socks had cost twenty dollars at a designer store, the quality evident in the better material used. There was fine herring bone pattern worked into them, which you had to be close to her to see. The skirt was in the same vein. Hers was just nicer than the others. More expensive, since her father was rich.

He’d invented some computer hardware systems over the years, and built his own company, which had worked out pretty well for him. Her mother had died, six years before, so it was just them at home now. Or, to be more exact, it was just her, and his credit card. Living in a place that felt like a tomb, or a cave, for all that it had nice things inside of it. He worked so much that Akemi hadn’t even seen him for weeks. Even then, it had just been in passing one morning, with her rushing off to school and her father finally taking a single day off, to sleep.

They never spent time together, since they had nothing in common. He only thought about computers, and Akemi, for all her charms, didn’t know anything about that, having never taken a class in that sort of thing, or gotten her father to show her how it worked. Not past what was popular as far as the latest gadget to have. She had them, since expense wasn’t an issue for her, including a few that she’d never even used, just for the status boost owning them would give her. Her cell phone wasn’t even that really, being more of a high end portable computer, if a tiny one. It had cost enough that she got envious looks every time she pulled it out at school, and sometimes just in public. Sitting right there in her almost defiantly old and worn bag.

The kids in the hallway were all busy trying to look sad, and now, out here, she saw some genuine seeming grief. People, mainly girls, that had stood by and let their “friends” be abused in front of them. Ones that hadn’t so much as said konichiwa to any of the dead three, for months. Their fear had made them cowards, and now they were going to pay for that. It showed in the wet tracks that finally ran down a few faces.

It was, as the old saying went, better to be the bully than to be bullied. Their weakness, the ones left in the hallway, was the refusal to embrace it. If they’d been willing to own what had happened, they would have been fine. Just admitting that standing by and doing nothing was the same as forcing people to eat bugs. That or sending out pictures to everyone of their genitals taken covertly in the locker room at school. They’d all received them, but no one had said anything, had they? No one had reported it, or tried to tell anyone that it was less than funny. Not even Chiya or Hajime had.

Now they were dead. She tried to make herself feel bad for them, and she did feel a bit sad, since it hadn’t really been her intent. She wasn’t evil after all. Just powerful, compared to them. The kind of person that they shouldn’t have messed with. It was, she was willing to bet, how all the bullies thought. The difference there was that she couldn’t be called on her actions, because no one knew about them. The Queen of the Bullies was invisible, to the average person. Almost magically so.

There were others in the hallway who seemed a bit guilty, and a few of the worst and most aggressive boys were huddled in a corner, forcing themselves to laugh. Hajime the freak was dead, which they had to think was a good thing. Otherwise they were evil people. That couldn’t be the case, so naturally the weak and sensitive boy was at fault. One of them, the thug that had beaten up about half the lower grade boys by himself, looked up to see her staring at him, and smiled. It was a flirtatious thing, which meant inappropriate for the day. They were supposed to be expressing grief, not clowning around like buffoons. Then, no one had claimed that the boy was intelligent. Just big, and angry.

He wasn’t the leader of his group either. None of them really was. It made them easier to control, she knew. If they’d been organized, then her little messages wouldn’t have had any impact. They were used to things just starting however, which allowed her to pluck the right strands of the web and send them after the struggling insects. Victims to be eaten alive. Without smiling back, she walked on, heading for the exit as fast as she could without making it seem like she was fleeing from the scene of a crime. As she did two men in dark suits, both looking to be near forty or so, approached the group of rowdy and happy seeming boys. Drawn to their inappropriate responses, which were a sort of beacon to them. The bullies stood out, and practically called the concerned adult men over to them. They should have frowned and shuffled out, like everyone else. It was what she was doing.

Those would be the detectives, she didn’t doubt. They didn’t even look at her as they passed. Her footsteps were hidden among the hundreds of others, but the larger of the two adult men thundered along, nearly stomping as he went. It got her attention, since it was out of place. Aggressive when there was no need for it. Just as she went out the door, the largest boy was grabbed by the bigger man. He yelped in surprise, or possibly pain. There was symmetry there. The biggest fish in the little pond suddenly finding out that he actually lived in a world of much larger animals that could eat him whole without having to chew first.

Akemi had to fight a smile as she left, so that no one would know that she was secretly as giddy as those boys were. Sad too, but she was capable of feeling more than one conflicting emotion at a time. It was how she lived, most days.

For instance, she loved her father, but also hated him a bit, for not being there for her. No one was, really. They didn’t even have a house keeper to talk to. She cleaned, and cooked for herself, and left the occasional meal for him. Half of that didn’t get eaten, just sitting there to be cleaned up later, since the man barely lived there. The other part just made a mess. Crumbs and leavings, plates left dirty, sitting on the table, and not even on the counter near the sink. It wasn’t, she didn’t think, like most men even. Many would have done the same thing as a sign of power over her, their own daughter or wife, at any rate. Her dad just didn’t care. He left his messes around for her to clean up, without ever seeming to realize that she was the one doing it. For all she knew he actually thought they had a maid to take care of things like that. He’d mentioned hiring someone several years before, but when it never happened, she’d taken over. It wasn’t hard or anything, and really if he’d ever have a kind word for her, Akemi wouldn’t have minded.

Honestly, he rarely spoke to her. She wasn’t a computer technician or engineer, whatever they were called, so nothing she could add to a conversation would matter much. His world had a singular focus, and Akemi, no matter how hard she tried, wasn’t it.

Her feet felt heavy as she walked to the sub-way, moving slowly enough that she missed the first train, and had to wait for the next one to come along. That meant ending up with a perverted older man standing right behind her on the platform, ready to jockey for position in the car, so that he could press up against her. At sixteen she’d had that happen enough times that she was well disabused of the idea that it was something random or rare. A lot of men did that. Desperately trying to do something daring, or possibly just satisfy their own hunger without bothering to ask if it was all right with the women they pressed and fondled. She looked over her shoulder, made eye contact and shook her head firmly, once. She wasn’t a victim, and that feeling of power was useful at times. Without ever speaking a word the man moved off, to find a slightly older girl that seemed to be coming home from a day at the office. Akemi wasn’t some meek little thing to be used like that, herself. This other girl probably was. Most people were.

The air was cool underground that day, but heavy with moisture. The scent of the place was as clean as a large concrete structure could be, but that didn’t remind her of flowers, or even room freshener. More like desperation and anxiety. A hopeless sense that things could never really change. There was an acrid sharpness to it all. As they moved into the train car, without pushing or making purposeful contact, she saw the pervert doing exactly what she’d figured he would. This time of day it was hard to not end up pressed against someone, part of the time. The man in question had his hips thrust out, his lecherous old face calm as the woman in her tan skirt looked at the wall. She was clearly shamed by the whole thing, which showed as he started to subtly thrust and grind. Her face was red, and even though other people looked on, no one mentioned it. No one called out, or cleared their throat to indicate disapproval. They glanced, and looked away stonily, but didn’t try to stop it from taking place.

Some of the men even seemed envious, as if they wished they were the ones rubbing up against the attractive office girl. For some reason the words that Isamu had spoken in class came to mind. What he’d said about not speaking up, and that being the same thing as being the bully himself. She knew what she was, but this woman wasn’t her prey. She was just a person trying to get home, in peace. A fellow traveler, that was being harmed for the pleasure of another. It wasn’t a visible thing, but had enough reality that it made her feel slightly angry, watching the scene unfold.

Akemi took a breath and spoke out loud, surprising herself. It actually jolted her for a second as the words range in the otherwise calm train car.

“You there, hentai, get off that woman! That isn’t right.” Calling him a pervert should have gotten an angry denial, but too many people were looking directly at the contact, his pants straining at the front. They knew, and had been trying to ignore it, that or covertly watch, pretending not to. Getting a thrill from seeing something so wrong happening in front of them.

Another man called out from across the car, “yes! We see you doing that. Leave the woman alone. Conductor! Conductor!”

The pervert tried to get away, but several people took his arms. Not just men, but older women too. It took several minutes for anything to happen, but the fellow wasn’t using that time to abuse the woman, who seemed embarrassed still. They kept riding until the same stop, where she climbed off with Akemi, reaching out to touch her arm a few steps off the train.

“Miss? I just wanted to say thank you. Most of the time when that happens…” She flashed, her face angry, but she said nothing more.

That was part of the problem. People almost never did. All they needed to do was speak up, for themselves and for others, but politeness made that hard for some. It was a thing they’d all learned as children, that was difficult to shake.

Akemi smiled a little, feeling sad for some reason. She knew why, of course. Her good deed didn’t mean anything. She was the evil monster that had driven people to their deaths. That still made her feel powerful too, which meant that calling herself bad wasn’t just her making excuses. A good person wouldn’t have felt like that. They would have only had pain. Other people shouldn’t matter to someone as powerful as she was, but they did. It was a sign of weakness, but it was there, inside of her. The two feelings warred, which she fought to keep from her expression.

“Most of the time people just let the pervert finish up, so as to not cause a scene? I’ve been there. Maybe we need to make a fuss, when we see things like that happening?”

The other woman sighed, and started to move off, speaking as she did. She seemed in a hurry to get on with whatever her day held, and to put the trauma behind her.

“That wouldn’t be polite, would it? We’re taught not to cause waves. The nail that sticks up-” She didn’t finish the old saying.

Akemi did. “Get’s hammered down. I know. Maybe we need to start pointing out that old chikan, like that man, are the tall nails? Not the good people that are treated roughly.” It was a different thought, and if it was a good idea, she couldn’t tell. The other woman simply moved away, quickly. Trying to outrun a sense of shame that wasn’t really hers. It wouldn’t be possible, since she was clearly carrying it with her.

As an experiment it had been instructive to Akemi, however. All she’d done was speak up, and the whole train had moved to support her instantly. Would school be any different? If one or two kids had moved to protect Sara or Chiya, they might still be alive. All that it seemed to take was one voice, saying that what was happening was wrong. If that had taken place, then Hajime might have lived, and not died because of her hurt feelings.

So, it was their fault, the bystanders, that those three had died. That, and the actual bullies. Not her. She’d just pointed out some facts, things that no one should have really acted on. She tried saying that to herself for a while, holding on to the idea as the reality hit her. They were all dead.

Gone forever, sitting in a morgue or funeral parlor, ready to be cremated. Holding everyone else responsible wasn’t going to work, was it? The fault had been hers, and she, just like anyone else involved, could have stopped it at any time. She just hadn’t wanted too. Akemi had desired power. The ability to summon others to do what she wanted. Influence that would mean she wasn’t just another faceless nobody in the crowd, looking out on the world. That had cost more than she’d thought it would.

The trudge to her house was a long one, and while nice, it was a small place with only five rooms. They had a garden, tended by a kind old man that she wasn’t certain was paid to do it, and the front door was locked, like always. She had to fight with the key for a bit, since it seemed slippery in her numb fingers. The reality of what had happened pounding into her as it creaked open, the hinges protesting the action. When she finally got in, she locked it behind her, not planning to go out that night. The day was too momentous for that kind of thing. Shopping suddenly felt trivial and a tiny bit shameful, for some reason.

She’d study, and pretend that it meant she wasn’t evil incarnate. No good student could really be all that bad.

It wasn’t until she got to the front room, her shoes slipped off by the door, and house slippers on, that she noticed something was wrong. It was just a vague shadow in a darkened room, at first. A thing that her mind rejected, knowing that it wasn’t there, and could never be.

There, sitting cross legged, in the middle of the woven mat on the floor, sat Hajime.

The dead boy.

The one she’d killed.

Chapter Two

Two things happened at once. The first was simple fear. An acrid and sour taste in her mouth, which suddenly went dry. A thing that reminded her of having accidently eaten the wrong part of a grapefruit. It shouldn’t have been possible, but it happened anyway. Akemi felt her lips grow cold as the blood rushed from her face. Then she shook, trembling as she stood there, her old bag still in her hand. Staring at the boy that sat in the middle of the room, looking blankly at the television, which wasn’t on. He wasn’t truly there, but she saw him, looking at the empty window to the world.

There was no reason for it to be anything but glossy and black. No one was home. Not even Hajime.

Blinking, she realized that he wasn’t actually there, not in any way that mattered or counted. Oh, she still saw him, sitting there vapidly looking straight ahead. His hair was gray now, in the way that black in a charcoal drawing wasn’t exactly that color. There was no shine to it, just a mote that drank in all light, reflecting gloom, instead of the color of night. The clothing he wore wasn’t what she would have expected either. It was a pale red shirt, a simple pullover with short sleeves, along with black slacks.

He wasn’t there however, clearly.

No, her seeing him didn’t make any sense. Not even as a real ghost or spirit. Not that she believed in something that stupid. That meant, she understood without really thinking about it, that Hajime wasn’t real, and she was imagining him. Really well, but still creating the vision in front of her. It was a trick of her own mind setting him there, a vision of shadows and pale light. Nothing more than that.

The other thing that happened was a bit more abstract. Still shaking, and suddenly worried that her mind had snapped, Akemi smiled and spoke to the dead boy, as if he were a guest in her home, and not there to punish her for what she’d done.

“Hajime! I wasn’t expecting you. Welcome. Can I get you something to drink? Or eat?” She managed to sound both polite and friendly to the boy, who had never been there before. Not while he was alive. This wasn’t some replayed memory, or anything as pleasant as that.

When he turned to face her, for a brief moment, she wondered if he’d faked his death, and was hiding out with her. She’d loved him, once, after all. Maybe that was his plan? Foil the bullies and make them suffer for hurting him. Looking around she wondered if the others were there too. Waiting in the other room, to jump out and yell surprise. To act pleased about how well they’d fooled everyone, as she served them drinks and snacks.

The boy didn’t look right however, so it wasn’t that. In fact, it was pretty clear he was a bit see through. Insubstantial, but still almost solid. Real, and not, at the same time.

“No, thank you, Akemi.” His voice was distant and hollow, remote seeming somehow. It sent a chill to the core of her very being, freezing her heart enough that it physically missed beating for a few moments.

It hit her, like a force coming from the center of the room, which was more about her own guilt than ghost powers. She was pretty certain of that, since, as she knew, Hajime wasn’t really there. Ghosts didn’t exist, ergo, neither did this one.

“Ah. Say… Um, Hajime, I… you died? I heard it at school. So, you know, did you fake that or…?” She still liked that answer. After all, the boy breaking into her house to hide made sense. Why wouldn’t he seek out a girl he spurned, after faking his death? People did that kind of thing all the time…

Except of course that they didn’t. Not even in books or movies. That would be even more insane than the kid being dead, his impossible ghost sitting in front of her.

“Yeah… I… Sort of remember that? I’m here for a reason…” His face was blank, and his eyes were solid black, with no whites at all. They stared at her, as if trying to see to the center of her soul. It was the sort of thing that she’d expect of a real ghost, if they existed.

Akemi sighed.

“I guess I can see that. Well. It was me. I did it. I was mad at you, after you told me that you didn’t want me that time, and wanted Sara instead, so I pointed out to everyone that you were new, and that she wasn’t one of us. Chiya too. She bumped me.” That last bit actually came out sounding petulant, as if Chiya being of Korean ancestry meant anything. Five percent of the kids at school probably were. No one had cared, until she’d spoken up and pointed that out, driving the bullies at her.

“Oh? That wasn’t very nice. You know, those guys… They really hurt me. They kept telling me that I should die. That I was worthless. You did that? You told them to do that too me?” There was a plaintive sense to the distant words. It actually hurt to listen to. Not that it was a real sound. It echoed, but only inside of her head. Like thunder, and the whistling of a breeze at the same time. Silent, and so loud that it could never be ignored.

Akemi shook her head, not knowing what to say to that. She tried to explain, the weight of her bag pulling her down. The strap cut into her left palm, bringing her to the surface. Shaking her head Akemi saw that Hajime really was gone.

There was a moment when she tried to make sense of what had happened, but couldn’t. So she just stood, for a long time. Nearly an hour, until her hand hurt so much that she had to go and put her bag down. There were lines and ripples along her palm, which stung after it was empty. The blood came back slowly, as she rubbed at it, trying to sooth the discomfort. If only the pain in her head would go away as easily.

How guilty did you have to be before you invented ghosts? She knew that Hajime hadn’t really been there, because if he had been, she’d be dead, or at least have been more tormented by him than she had been. Yes, she’d been scared, but why shouldn’t she have been? It was a strange thing to think you saw. A dead person, talking to you, as if it were common and so normal that everyone did it.

At her desk, in her room, she set up to study. It was made all out of wood, with a slightly tilted white top. She liked to keep it clean, near sparkling, so that it was always ready for her to change to the next thing she wanted to work on. It didn’t take long to do, being something she was familiar with. A part of the daily grind that school had become over the years. There was comfort in the rote pattern. Her pens were to the right, her books stacked to the far left. Off to the side was her computer. In front of her she had the text she wanted to study from, which she did for as long as her mind would focus on it. It was history, which was an easy enough subject for her. She didn’t have the top grades in the class, but she was in the top four. Math was her worst subject. Chiya, Ito Chiya, had always been higher in that class than Akemi was.

So that was a good thing about her killing herself. Akemi would be one place further up on the roster. It was a dismal thought, but she couldn’t take it back now, not in any meaningful way. She’d loosed the dogs on the girl, and her plan had worked really well. Too well.

“I’m sorry, Chiya.” She wasn’t totally certain that she meant it, but the push against her arm got her attention. It was a bump, really. Familiar and out of place, at the same time.

When she looked around she expected her father to be there, but it wasn’t him. Just a shadow. A dim thing that was small and thin, but made of darkness. It had three dimensions, and felt like a girl. Like a certain girl, to be truthful. The one she’d just been talking too. That made a lot of sense to her, in the moment. In her guilt she was inventing things. Ghosts and shadows, to accuse herself of her crimes, since no one else could.

The thing was gone before she looked at it squarely, being just an idea that hovered on the edge of her awareness after that. Teasing her from the periphery. There was almost no sound in the house, so the low hum of appliances in the other room was the only thing to keep Akemi company. It was lonely, and sad. A thing that she always noticed, but hadn’t ever really put words too. She, more than anyone else she knew, was alone. So profoundly that it was oppressive, at the moment. She buried herself in her class work, since people being dead wasn’t going to get anyone out of having assignments due the next day. Learning was too important for mere death to get in the way.

She saved math for last, since she really wasn’t fond of it. The book looked blurry to her, but she forced her mind to accept the knowledge inside it for an hour, working all the problems, including the extra ones at the back. At nine, she stood up, realizing that she’d forgotten to eat. It was strange for her. She was careful not to over eat, but by this time of day she was normally a bit hungry.

Now, inside her middle, there was a cold feeling that burned like acid, but no growling hunger. It was just a sense that she didn’t need to eat. Changing, she climbed into bed, which was a very expensive and nice western style thing. Her father had it imported. It was a status symbol, more or less. Not that anyone knew what they slept on. He’d never shown anyone his, that Akemi knew about at least. That would require him bringing someone there, and being home himself, so it wasn’t likely.

The room was dark, and lonely, but she finally drifted off, since the next day would start early. They all did. Even Sunday, since getting off schedule for a single morning was asking for her entire life to fall apart.

Drifting off was easier than she figured it would be, and she didn’t wake until about three, when the bed shifted under her. At first she figured it was a small earthquake. On occasion those could hit and make things move, and if you were asleep, that might well confuse a person enough that it felt like someone had climbed into the bed with them. Reaching out she tried to touch whoever was there, but no one was.

The room carried a light scent of jasmine, which was normal, since it was her favorite scent. It also smelled of something different. Something wet, and salty. A bit rotten. Using total midnight logic, she rolled over, figuring that if there was a monster under her bed, or even a natural disaster, she’d figure it out if it was important. Otherwise, she needed to get some sleep. The sheets were warm and smooth, being the pricy kind. It was comforting, if not as much as having someone in the house would have been. For a while she wondered if her father was home yet, and nearly went to check on him.

Akemi didn’t, because that wasn’t the kind of thing they did. He didn’t come to see if she was around at least, so it made sense that she give him an equal portion of space. She hadn’t heard the door open. That could mean anything from the man sleeping in his business office, to him having just not made much noise. Getting up early she made some rice, and set a bowl out for him as well, just in case he was actually there, or came in. If so, it didn’t happen until after she was out the front door, which squeaked a little as it swung shut. Locking up behind her, she headed back to school. That was her life, most days, after all.

Wake up and get ready, leave and walk to catch an early train, as Hajime walked along side her, looking transparent and ghostly. Not really being there, naturally. He didn’t speak, just sighing at her every time she glanced away. He didn’t vanish either, which really would have been polite, she thought. No, her guilt ghost just followed, seeming to walk, instead of even floating or looking like a proper spirit, or even making the correct noises to try and scare her. That wasn’t a normal part of her mornings, but the change didn’t seem too hard to accept. It was like he was just being there with her. Almost friendly and companionable.

Then again, he didn’t try to rip her eyes out or bite her neck open either, like a story ghost, so maybe it was better that way. A vengeful spirit, an onryou, would have killed her already. If he wasn’t ready for that he would have at least engaged in some proper retribution. Scratching, biting, or calling her names. That, she feared, would probably be coming. Akemi deserved it, but still wondered if she could escape without it taking place. Find a Shinto priest to help the boy next to her to move on. He was dressed the same as before, including house slippers, even as he traipsed along behind her silently. This time she didn’t say anything to him, since people would see her do that. It was pretty clear that no one else saw him, other than her. She could tell, by the way that no one stared at him for dressing so strangely in public. For that matter, no one did more than glance her way, either. She looked normal for her, so there was very little need to.

The train ride was chikan free, since perverts were evening creatures in her experience, and everything else went exactly the same as normal for her during the day. Oh, people were subdued, and didn’t speak to her, but that was sadness, she thought. Not her being shunned for what she’d cause to happen. No one talked about it either. Not even Hajime, who just walked when she did, and stood directly behind her when she was in class. It was freaky, but she thought she understood. The ghost wasn’t real, and couldn’t be, she was just making it up, to deal with her own guilt and even the grief of it all. So he waited for her to do or say something, to indicate remorse, or even to goad her into it, if that didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until last period, in Tanaka Sensei’s class again, since she had that two days in a row right now, that she heard the first real gossip about the deaths. The words came from across the room, to her right. The girl speaking had a high pitched voice that was fake and meant to attract boys, but she lacked the face to really do that on her own. In fact, she looked a bit like a flat faced bulldog. Cute, if you didn’t mind slobber all over your pillow. She was compensating by sharing some juicy pieces of information, which had most of the room pretending not to listen to her. There was a particular set of motions and stillness that happened when everyone was straining to listen, not looking at the person talking.

“I heard that they were all holding hands when they jumped, and that the note said that they were all lovers.” That got attention, but couldn’t have been true. For one thing, no boy would kill himself if he had two girls like that. Even if he were being bullied all the time.

Near the back Isamu spoke up, his words harsher than normal, and directed at the girl who’d just spoken. There was a glare to go with it, and he had both hands on his desk, ready to stand and fight, it looked like to Akemi. Not that Rei would have been a good target for that. The girl was, after all, a female. She also didn’t mean anything by her words. Anyone paying attention could see that.

“That isn’t what I heard. They all jumped, but it wasn’t like that. It was just horrible. Sara lived… and died in the hospital. The note was about how they’d been bullied and asked for all of us to try and stop it if we see it happening again. Asking us to prevent ignorance and madness. It was in the paper.”

Not that anyone read the paper, not in their generation. That was just how they referred to a web-based article most of the time. That it wasn’t on paper wasn’t the point. If you said that you found something online, older people would think that it wasn’t real. It meant everyone still pretended that their sources of information were the same ones that people had used for centuries.

That started a debate, and Mrs. Tanaka didn’t even try to teach anything that day. Homework was handed in, and everyone had it ready, since, like her, they’d intuited that something as pedestrian as death wouldn’t save them from it. Akemi felt fine enough about it for a while, but as the stories got darker, spinning into larger things, with some bits coming into play that were probably true, more or less, guilt started to grow. Blossoming in the center of her being in a way she really hadn’t expected.

Almost everyone agreed that the three had found each other because they were all being ostracized by everyone else. It had a certain balance to it, that everyone could see, no matter how dense they normally were. Hajime nodded behind her at that, as if it were so obvious that anyone would be able to understand it. Muttering so that only she could hear, he explained, saying the words inside her mind.

“Yeah. Sara, she said that she wasn’t interested in me that way. We met up through Chiya, trying to protect each other, but it was too late by then. No one would speak to either of them, and… Well, I was beaten up a lot. The calls and threats were the worst. In the middle of the night, every night, we’d all get texts telling us to kill ourselves. That we didn’t deserve to live. That sort of thing. It’s a lot worse than it sounds like. When you hear about it, it seems like the kind of thing you could just brush off. When it’s hitting you, it’s never that easy. We were worn down, and when Chiya said that maybe we should die, to end all this, I just went along with it. I doubt it will stop anything. The world is filled with people that are little and want to feel big. The weak that want to make themselves strong by pushing others around. We can’t stop that with a note. Not even one signed with three deaths.” Then, being a ghost, he faded a bit. She’d turned to look at him, which made it seem like she was staring at the pug faced girl across the room. She looked away, glancing down at the desk in front of her, embarrassed.

As if Akemi could judge her for being wrong in what she’d said? It was better than what she’d done, by far.

The trip home was the same that day as the one before, except with no one trying to do anything with another passenger against their will. That she noticed at least. The only thing that really seemed unique was that no one stood where her imagined version of Hajime was. They all seemed to avoid that spot totally. It would have made sense, if he’d been a real ghost, since standing there would be freaky, leaving a cold spot, or a sense of evil, but her version shouldn’t have had that effect. On the walk to her house it finally occurred to her what was going on. Or might be.

She’d really liked him and lashed out when he hadn’t thought she was good enough for him, which lead to him eventually dying. So her mind was playing tricks on her, and probably would, until she apologized to him. Even if she were wrong and he were a real spirit, telling him that she was sorry would be what he was after. That, or making some kind of gesture of atonement. All the ghosts went in for that sort of thing. It was in the stories at least. Some of them. In most the onryou just killed people. There was a refreshing lack of bodies so far, however. It left her with an illusion of safety.

When they got into the house, it was empty again, except for her and the dead boy, who seemed to be well and truly gone after all. Either that, or everyone in the world was playing a massive joke on her. She would have been willing to be the butt of it, if that was the case. Her playing at being powerful was just an excuse to be petty. She could see that now. Life was always worth more than how she felt. What was it Hajime had said? The world was filled with small people that wanted to feel big? That… pretty much described her. When she’d heard he was dead, that they all were, she’d even been happy. Their passing had, for a few moments, made her feel strong and like she mattered. Not like herself.

She wasn’t that. Sato Akemi wasn’t the secret queen of the school, or a master of the world. She was just a fool that had made horrible things happen.

“I’m sorry, Hajime. I release you, to go and do whatever it is you need to. I can’t fix this, but I didn’t mean for you to suffer, not like that. Can you forgive me? If you can’t…” Then what? She could turn her closet into a guest room for him? Let him sleep on the other half of her bed? Being that he was all in her head, that seemed a bit too crazy, once the words had occurred to her. Even speaking to him at all made her wonder what the state of her mind really was.

The phantom, with his see through shirt and torso, shook his head at her. His words were more hollow than the day before, but no harder to understand. Coming from inside her more certainly now, since she’d worked things out.

“Akemi… I’m not here for that. I didn’t even know to blame you, and don’t now. All you did was send a few messages pointing out that I was a transfer student? That Chiya wasn’t really named Ito, but had changed her name for school from Gim? That Sara was a foreigner? Do you really think that’s enough to make people treat us like they did? You didn’t do this, and couldn’t have. You just feel like it’s all your fault, because you’re delusional. Really off your head.” He smiled, which wasn’t happy in any way. In fact it held a hint of sadness to it, as if he were being serious.

“Well, a few days ago I would have said that you were being mean, calling me names like that, but here I am, imagining you like this, so that’s pretty delusional, if it pleases you.”

The look she got back from the soulless and hungry ghost eyes, all black and flat inside, like the night sky, if all the stars in the universe had burned out, was unblinking. For the longest time she stared at him, seeing through him, but also knowing he was there, at least for her.

“I agree.” This had a sense of finality to it, and the boy looked around, as if expecting something else to happen. “You clearly don’t see it yet, do you? What you did, well, you didn’t mean well, that’s true, but it should have been nothing. I should be here to tell you I’m sorry, for not being kinder to you when I had the chance. Not that I knew you were imagining yourself some kind of psychopathic mastermind at the time. You were hurt, because I wasn’t who I should have been. That still doesn’t make you a monster. Just a bit lost.”

The words held peace in them, and wisdom. More than Hajime ever would have had, in life. He’d seemed a kind boy, and polite, but not all that deep. Maybe being dead did that to people? Caused them to become more than they were in life? It could also simply have been that her imagination was working overtime to make him seem more capable than he really had been. Not that she wanted to lay special claim to that one, at the moment. It sounded too self-serving, for one thing. Making herself out to be a person of depth and substance.

She gestured, since today she didn’t want to stand there for an hour like a statue, waiting for nothing much of interest to happen. She understood now that she’d lost her mind, but that was no excuse for not getting her work done. Especially if her delusions were going to tell her things like that. She wasn’t really responsible for the bullying? It didn’t feel true to her, but if it ever could, that would be a relief. Akemi didn’t really want to be a murderer, she decided. Now that things had come around like they had, she kind of liked the idea that she was better than that.

The problem there was a thing that she was too smart to gloss over, so she walked toward the kitchen, where there was an untouched bowl of rice with chopsticks next to it on the napkin. The table large enough for four, and perfectly square, with a wooden chair on each side. That meant her father hadn’t been home for a while, she bet.

“I’d meant for it to happen, even if you’re correct, Delusion Hajime. The bullying was my intent. Not your deaths, but it was what I’d tried to make happen and if I didn’t, if it really wasn’t me, should that get me out of being responsible for it? That’s worse than the people that just stood by and let it happen. I did that too, but I liked it. It made me feel like I was important. That I pulled the strings that made the world work and that people who crossed me had to pay for it. Now you’re saying that-”

“Exactly! I’m telling you that you, Sato Akemi-Chan, are just an ordinary school girl, no more responsible for my death than anyone else. Except, like you said, the ones that did it and those that stood and watched, never speaking up. The ones that went along with it too. But if you want to be absolved of all guilt, you’re going to have to do some things for me.” He rubbed his ghostly hands together, clearly pretending to be lecherous. It was both cute and a bit creepy, given how she was making it all up.

That got her to put her hands on her hips and stomp her right foot, trying to keep her face appropriately angry seeming, which was the acceptable response to treatment like that. You had to be firm with boys.

“If you wanted that kind of thing, you should have agreed to date me when I’d asked. Besides, you don’t really exist, so it would just be mean acting like a monkey anyway, dancing in front of a mirror naked, or whatever it is you’re going to ask for.”

The room suddenly changed then. It was subtle at first, but the shadow thing that she’d noticed the day before was back, the one that felt like Chiya. It pushed her, knocking into her with a shoulder, to be exact. She understood it this time.

“Paying me back?”

The form came together a bit, after a fashion. It was still made of dark shadowy bits, but wasn’t see through, and clearly was able to make her move. Then, it was her imagination, so of course it could. The girl was herself however, if all made of darkness. She was a bit shorter and more heart shaped through the face than Akemi. Pretty, even like this. A statue carved from ebony, except that she insisted on moving, ruining the effect a little. A living doll, doing things that simply weren’t natural.

Speaking was included too, which didn’t help. The voice was the one Akemi remembered from the girl, except hollow and distant. Because she was, after all, what Akemi thought of as a ghost. Or a demon really. An imagined thing that had no reality. That meant it could be whatever fit the moment, rather than being tied down into the shape and form of a real thing.

“Naturally! Seriously, selling me out like that, hoping I’d be bullied? How low is that? Do you know what I went through, you witch? If I were alive I’d pull your hair so hard!” There was laughter. It had a morose tone to it however, a heavy sense of dread behind it that would have set most people on edge. “I agree with Hajime. You didn’t really do anything. Everyone at school knew about my family, and had for years. You saying that I was Korean didn’t change anything. How could it? It was them, in the end, just like it always is. The bullies. The real ones, not the ones that are just too afraid to stand up to them. I was like that, when I saw it happen to other people. We all were. Standing and watching, witnessing it without remark.”

Akemi looked down, feeling the blood rushing from her face, then filling it again in waves. Each beat of her living heart reminding her that she should be ridden with guilt and shame. This was the trick. The part where they required her to do something that would end with her death. They wanted something from her. Those tasks that Hajime had mentioned…

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Unless he really wanted to see her without clothing on. If so he could go haunt somewhere else. She had a strict no dead boyfriend policy, and she wasn’t so easy as to do that sort of thing for every guy that drooled a bit. Some girls were like that, but not her. Akemi was better than that.

“So, what? You want me to help you kill them all? Blow up the school, or tell the police who did it? I guess I actually do know. I watched a lot of it happen. That makes me just about the perfect witness. If I do that… everyone will hate me, won’t they? I’d probably have to change schools, but… I know what you both said, but it still might have been me. The timing is right, the bullying starting just after I mentioned those things. It was all three of you, too. How can that be a coincidence? I guess that if I have to take that kind of abuse, so you can rest in peace, even if just in my own mind, I can. Let’s face it, if I vanish from school one day, no one will miss me much.”

Hajime smiled grimly and nodded, but Shadow Chiya shook her head and then glared at the boy, her hands on her hips.

“Seriously? Think about it, will you? We’re here, and Sara isn’t. She doesn’t blame you for this, but she does blame them. The three bullies that really organized it all. The ones that hurt Hajime and frightened everyone else into staying silent. We need you to stop her from what she has planned.”

Akemi frowned then, and looked from one spectral form to another. Not seeing them, but finding them there, in her mind’s eye.

“Wait, you’re both… Delusions, right?” It was important to her that she knew the truth. For a few moments she feared the real answer would be that they were actually spirits, come back to seek vengeance against her, but the dark version of the pretty girl giggled, letting her know that her thoughts were stupid.

“Of course we are. Don’t be ridiculous, Akemi. Ghosts don’t exist. That doesn’t mean that those three are safe however. Too many people know what they did, and they’re all scared now. The school has to cover this up with the police, but they also will want to make certain this doesn’t happen again.” There was a long look between Hajime and the dark form, and then she went on, like it was a real conversation. Not just something that Akemi was playing out in her mind. “Think of it like this; you watched all the bullying going on, and know the players. Somewhere in your subconscious mind you’ve collected data that indicates that bad things are about to happen to these people. Sara get’s the blame for doing that part, because you can’t fake her American accent well enough to imagine her like you are the two of us. Does that make you feel more secure? Knowing that you’re just a little girl playing make believe with her dead imaginary friends? It still needs to be done. Either you protect these monsters and find a way to make them change, or things are going to get really bad, for a lot of people.” There was a sincere certainty to what she said, as if it were merely what had to happen.

If they weren’t ghosts, then what did they know, really? Akemi wasn’t so special that she could actually see things like that coming, was she? It didn’t make sense.

“Why on Earth would I do that? Why should I help the bullies? Especially the ones that hurt the both of you. All three of you? Shouldn’t I do the exact opposite? Help them fall, and find ruin? Go to the police and turn myself and the others in? That makes a lot more sense.”

Hajime, his voice gentle and kind sounding, gave her a slightly betrayed look.

“Akemi, bullying won’t be stopped by just punishing people. That’s never worked in the history of mankind. People tend to be horrible, without guidance. If you want anything to change, which I think Chiya and I being here indicate pretty clearly that you do, then you have to help them see the need to change. You can’t do that by ruining them.” It sounded sensible coming from him.

It also seemed to her that what these two were doing was exactly that same thing. Giving her a chance to reform. This was coming from inside herself too, so she knew that it was important. A thing that needed to be done, no matter how much it hurt her to try. Except that it was probably just her inner self trying to not take the blame for being what she really was. Saying that Akemi wasn’t responsible. If the ones that had actually harmed people could get away with it, even if they changed, then that would simply follow. It was kind of the voices to say, but not the truth. She knew that as well as she’d ever known anything.

Chapter Three

Akemi had spent a lot of time, over the last few months, thinking of herself as brave, strong and powerful. Now things were clearer to her. Nothing she’d done could have really influenced much. She was, when it came down to it, just one girl, and not well respected or loved, in particular. Her mental conversations, no matter how unreal they seemed, had absolved her pretty well, hadn’t they? She expected Hajime or Chiya to come and stare at her about her thoughts, but that didn’t happen. Nothing did. She was left alone in the relatively large and empty house to study and think about everything. The place smelled a bit like dust, and needed to be aired out soon. It wasn’t a cloying scent, not being unpleasant or harsh, but it wasn’t what home should smell like, so she’d fix it. Not that night, but on the next day she had off, she needed to clean everything.

Her mother had done that on every nice day, when she’d been alive. Opening all the windows and doors, letting the sunlight into every nook and tiny space of the place. Her death had been fast, a car hitting her as they walked to the market one day after school. The memory of it all tried to come back, hammering into Akemi, but she fought it. She always did, now. She’d loved her mother, but there was nothing that she could do to help her. There never had been. It had been an accident, as her father had told her a hundred times. Trying to convince himself that losing his wife didn’t matter.

It did to her. Sitting at her desk, a blank bit of white wall in front of her, with her bed behind and to the right, she tried to consider what she really wanted to do. Her imaginary ghosts had been being silly, but she understood why that was. She thought so, at least.

Real ghosts wouldn’t want the bullies helped, they would have cried out for revenge, or at least punishment. Akemi, however, had a reason for them not to think that way, didn’t she? In her mind she’d been the cause of their deaths. The guiding hand that steered doom and attack at them. As they’d pointed out to her, showing more insight than she’d had for a long time, what she’d done simply couldn’t have really mattered all that much. Telling a few people, not even the bullies in question, things they already knew wasn’t some grand Machiavellian plan. It was a pathetic attempt to be more than she was.

She wasn’t much, after all. Just some lonely girl that didn’t have anyone to talk to. No friends, no real family anymore. Not even a doll for her to obsess over and give a name too, like some kind of otaku loser. Even her hobbies were lame attempts to get people to notice and like her. From her top end shampoo, to the clothing she wore. Every part of her life was all about trying to get people to see her. To respect Sato Akemi, even if she wasn’t worthy of being loved. To generate a perception, that would linger in the minds of those that saw her and paint Akemi as a princess, or a person to be thought well of.

It was a lot clearer now that she’d been wasting her time. Her plans had been stupid, and worse, useless. That was a relief, now, but she was still guilty. That part was harder to deal with as she sat in her nice bedroom, not studying math like she should have been. She might not have killed Hajime, but in her anger and loneliness she hadn’t helped him either, and that was as bad.

No imaginary voices came, so she figured that her reasoning skills had kicked in finally. Grief filled her, but she knew that sensation pretty well. It was intense, like when her mother died, but different. Back then she’d hated that driver, that man who’d stolen her mother from her arms. It had covered part of what she’d felt, that burning and lingering rage. This time she couldn’t feel that way, because she was that man. The hapless idiot that lost control and killed her okaasan had actually been a better person than Akemi was. That, as much as she still sort of hated him for doing it, had really been a mistake. An accident. She didn’t have that excuse. No matter what had really taken place, she’d meant it. There was no accident there, with the dead three. It had been part of a plan. Her revenge for things that not only didn’t matter now, but never should have.

There was one thing that she knew for certain however. Helping the bullies get away with what they’d done wasn’t going to stop them. The school wasn’t going to give the police their names, or provide witnesses against them, and if she tried it, she’d be bullied too. Shunned by everyone, at the very least. Cast out and marginalized until she was just a ghost herself. An ephemeral thing that didn’t hold weight in the world of her school.

“I can bear the strain of it.” It might not be true, but she spoke the words out loud, jumping when someone answered her. She spun, expecting Hajime to be standing there, her image of him ghostlike and hazy. It wasn’t the black haired and pale boy at all. It took a while for her mind to adjust to that, to figure out what was really happening, since things in her world rarely changed all that quickly, tending to be predictable most of the time.

Her father stood there, looking slightly rumpled and in need of a shave. It was clear that he hadn’t been eating well for a while, since he looked haggard and thin. His suit needed to be pressed, but only after a good washing, and his black leather briefcase was still in his left hand. There was a confused smile on his face, rounding things out. It wasn’t that he was ever hard with her, or mean, just distant. It was more like they were simply sharing the place, not family.

“Is everything all right, Akemi-Chan? You can bear what? Your studies?” He looked at the desk, and gave a nod, as if that might explain everything. Kids weren’t supposed to have more problems than that, were they?

Their lives were supposed to be all about learning, and getting the best grades they could. Nothing more. Or, on rare occasion, the odd hobby or two. That was frowned on, but tolerated as a way to blow off steam. As long as it didn’t take up too much of their day.

She didn’t answer directly, not knowing what to say. They didn’t really speak much, and hadn’t for a long time. That was her fault, as much as his. She wanted him to pay attention to her, but hadn’t insisted on it. Just waiting and hoping for things to change. Standing by and watching her life, like one of those side-bullies at school. A rider on the train that refused to speak up. Akemi didn’t have to be that however. She’d proven that to herself, the other day, calling out that pervert.

“Can we talk about it over a meal? You could clean up first?” It would take time to prepare anything, so she stood, knowing that even if he claimed to be busy, the man would still need to eat.

Her father. When had she started thinking of him as just some person that lived near her like that? Trying to think back, she couldn’t place the exact day, but it had been so long ago that it seemed normal now. Natural to her, even as she looked at him. His eyes familiar, but still seeming a little like those of a stranger.

Smiling at her, he turned.

“That sounds nice. Thanks Akemi. You’re such a good girl.” Then he walked away.

Preparing food wasn’t her strongest suit, she knew. She could make some simple dishes, and ended up with bowls of ramen, sliced hard boiled eggs and rice. It was all wrong, being too much grain and not enough vegetables, but she had some seaweed for it, which made it taste better. There was some cabbage, which she turned into a small salad, for the side. There was also some miso soup from a packet, which she put out first. When it was done, she called out, her voice firm. That surprised her, since she still felt pretty awful.

“Otousan! Dinner is ready.” From the rustling sounds it seemed like he was finished getting ready, or as much as he would be. When he came out he was wearing a red t-shirt and black slacks. It was his favorite outfit when he wasn’t going to be at work. That, and house slippers. It made him look a lot less like an important inventor, and more like a hermit, but she didn’t mind. It meant he planned to be there for a while. A few hours at least.

“This smells great. Thanks for the food!” Then, like always he ate, staring at some papers that he had with him. That was so normal she didn’t even think about it, knowing that they wouldn’t talk then. He would work, and she would sit and brood about how he didn’t notice her. It was their normal pattern, and so usual that she nearly didn’t even try to break it.

This time she sighed once, knowing that she had something important to say, comfortable or not, and set her chopsticks across her bowl of rice, moving it to the side.

“Father? I…” She didn’t know what to say. How to explain what she was thinking of doing. Not even a little bit. She also didn’t know how he’d react to her idea. It could affect him and his business, if people hated her too much. He might be blamed for having an inappropriate child. Thought a bad parent.

He looked up and smiled at her, which slid into a troubled look as the man held her gaze, reflecting her own. His thin face reminded her of Hajime. They looked a lot alike she realized, not having seen it before. The same hair and facial type, both thin and wiry. Blinking she felt sad for a moment, and then shook her head.

“Akemi?”

“I… Three kids in my grade at school, two girls and a boy, killed themselves.”

After a second the papers were pushed away and he looked directly into her eyes, not breaking that lock for a long while. It had been a long time since that had happened. He searched her face, seeking something there. Probably sadness. That was what normal people would feel. Not guilt.

“Are you all right? They’re poor parents! We should send a note, or… go to them. Does anyone know why they did it?”

Her face felt numb. Frozen in place, and her lips tingled. It took all the strength she had to nod, swallowing convulsively, to keep tears from coming. Ones of shame. That didn’t show at least. He looked away, but she managed to get the words out.

“Ijime. They were all being bullied, and left a note, saying that it had to stop. I…” It would have been easiest to say nothing, to just cry like a child and let him comfort her, if he could, which wasn’t that likely. Even lying would have been simpler. Claiming that she was merely sad, and felt badly for them. It was all so hard to explain.

“I didn’t bully them, but I watched it happen. I was mad at them. Hajime, the boy… I asked him to date and he said no, so the girl he liked and… I didn’t try to stop it! I enjoyed it, like a monster. I should die. I should be gone from the world, not good people like them!” She was yelling, but stopped, tears finally streaking her cheeks as the words came out. She was ready for his reaction then. For him to cast her out of the home, or to say she wasn’t his child.

Even for him to mutter a few sad or angry words, about how they should never speak of such things again. What she wasn’t ready for was what happened next. He stood, moved the three feet between them and put his arms around her in a tight hug.

“I’m sorry, Akemi. That… What can I do? Is there anything I can do to help you? This isn’t your fault. They were being bullied. I bet that no one stood up for them. It wasn’t just you.” The concern poured from him then, and he patted her back, awkwardly. It made her feel a lot better.

Strength flooded into her, as if coming from him. Her father, the only family she had left in the whole world, was actually trying to be there for her. It was so strange she nearly pushed away, but managed not to. When he finally pulled back a bit she took a deep, slightly sobbing breath.

“No. This is my fault, Otousan. I have to fix it.”

That got a worried look, a thing so strained that she hadn’t seen it on the man, on her father, for years. His brows went up, and pulled together in the middle, making wrinkles. His lips were tight. Pursed and white with the stress of the situation. Even if it wasn’t his. Just his child’s. That he’d care about her even remotely left her feeling strange and out of sorts for a moment, but finally she exposed her plan.

Her foolish and probably suicidal idea.

“I’m… In the morning, I’m going to the police, and will tell them who did the bullying. I don’t know if they’ll listen to me, but that’s what I have to do. Then I’ll go to each of the families and apologize.” It was Sunday the next day, so she wouldn’t be missing school for it. Not that it would matter. “Then, on Monday, I will be the new bullied student. Someone has to do it, or this kind of thing just keeps happening, and… I tried to make this happen, father. I know that nothing I did really made a difference, but it’s the same thing as me having sent messages to them in the night, telling them to die.”

Blinking, her father looked at her, the eyes slightly watery, a deep brown that reminded her of Hajime so much. The idea hit her then that she’d really been attracted to the boy in the first place because she wanted her father to love her. To notice her. That had been why she’d gotten so angry with him when he hadn’t appreciated her much. He’d liked Sara, like her dad liked his work. Both things meant that she was nearly worthless. Even knowing it was what had motivated her, anger came, just thinking about both situations.

“Daughter, this is a hard thing, what you’re saying. Perhaps if you sleep on it, you’ll change your mind? Being bullied… It wears a person down. Over time it makes you feel like you’re nothing, or even less than that. No matter what you do in life, it’s always there, hovering next to you. Telling you that you’re worthless, and that everyone else is better than you are.”

It wasn’t a confession of anything, she noticed, but it was, at the same time. It held too much depth for it to be her absent minded father simply reflecting on things that had happened to others.

“No. This is my course. To think, the imagined ghosts in my head tried to tell me I should help the bullies. That was just me trying to protect myself from all this. So that I wouldn’t have to feel responsible, or take the blame for anything. It has to be done, and no one else will do it. I… I’m probably going to fail out of school, too. They’re trying to hide this, and won’t like it when I point fingers.”

It was the perfect time for her father to put his foot down and tell her not to do it. To suggest that an anonymous note would work as well as her coming forward. That wasn’t true, however. The fact was that nothing she did would likely do anything helpful. That was how the system worked. The police would protect the school, the school would protect the teachers, and they, not wanting to lose their jobs for having failed to stop things happening in front of them daily, would protect the bullies.

Who would then come for her. No doubt harder than before, knowing that they probably wouldn’t be punished for what they did. It made her afraid, and she shook a little, trying to hide it from her dad.

For his part, he simply seemed upset and a bit troubled.

“I… Understand. Think about it carefully, and in the morning, if you still desire to go through with this, I will go with you.”

That got her to cry again, and hug him. It was the closest she could remember being to him in… Honestly, she couldn’t remember a time like that. Not even when her mother had been alive. They had never been that close, even when she’d been a tiny child.

She cleaned up the dishes from the table, and he retired to his room, probably needing the sleep and thinking that his daughter had lost her mind. That wasn’t totally wrong, Akemi knew. When she got back to her room, Hajime was sitting on her bed, dressed identically to how her father had been at dinner.

He looked down at himself, and then laughed at her a bit darkly.

“Oh, this is a sad and sorry thing, isn’t it? You only liked me because I remind you of your dad? Probably a good thing that we never dated then, or you’d be traumatized for life. This way you can just move past it when they bury me. Put your unholy and slightly sick daddy issues behind you.” Stroking the bed a little, his imaginary hand trying to smooth wrinkles that his sitting didn’t make, he sighed. “So, truly, you aren’t going to listen to me? No trying to save the bullies from harm? Instead you’re going to make yourself the target? Brilliant, Akemi. I wonder if the police will arrest you for it? If you go in claiming that you were the grand mastermind, they just might. I bet you’ll look pretty good on the news, when they slap a sign under your name, proclaiming you the Queen of the Bullies. The most devious murderer in all of human history.”

She sat at her desk, on her hard chair, looking at the empty bed, seeing the boy in her mind.

“Hey, you said I was innocent, due to my ineptitude.” She tried to mean it, but the words were just sad, not funny. There was more pain in them than she would have figured on, given that she was talking to herself.

“I know that. I said it, remember? It’s true too, but you still kind of think of it as being your fault. So that makes one bully willing to take responsibility, even if it’s a bit misplaced. I wonder about the others? Do you think any of them feel bad about what they did to us? Does anyone? Other than you, I mean?”

“Probably everyone, now. Even them. Even the people that did it. That you all died… How can we not feel that way? Wasn’t it the point? To make everyone feel bad? To punish us all for not helping you?”

That got her glared at, inside her head.

“You really just don’t get it, do you? Even after what your father just said? We all felt worthless, and like nothing would ever make it better. If I’d been like you, rich, I probably would have stayed at home and not gone to school anymore. Just sitting in my room and being a hikikomori. A shut-in. My parents couldn’t afford that kind of thing, so I did what I had to in order to make it all stop. A lot of poor kids do it that way. It wasn’t about anyone else, or anything else, other than the relentless attacks. Maybe I took my own life, but it was still murder. The same for the others, if for different reasons. They couldn’t get free, or escape, and didn’t think they could make it for the years we had left. So we got together and did it. Got away from the source of pain.”

Then, as if vanishing like a real ghost, he was gone from her mind’s eye. That was good, since her father could probably hear her ranting at herself in the other room. That would make her decisions seem sane, wouldn’t it?

She changed into night clothes that were far too expensive for a girl that always slept alone to bother with, and climbed into her bed, waiting in the dark for sleep. It came, after a while, since that sort of thing had too. Sooner or later you slept, and felt hunger again. You wanted to be clean and then, like magic, life would go on. Possibly alone, and maybe in pain, but it would happen.

In the morning, she felt better. Scared, and determined, but with a bit less guilt. That she might, as her imagination had told her, wind up in prison or be branded a bully herself, well, that could happen. If it didn’t, then she’d be called a liar, almost certainly. No one else would step up, so it would be her word against everyone else. In the end, that meant she’d lose.

So she dawdled a little getting ready. When she dressed, it was in white, a gown that was simple, and nearly a kimono, but not complex or decorative. Simpler in style and basic in a way that made her seem purposely understated. It had been something that she’d gotten a few months before, hoping it would make her stand out and seem adult. Now it would work for other reasons. It would show that she mourned for those lost.

She let her hair simply hang down, since it wasn’t that long, and applied no makeup to her face. It didn’t make her look as good, leaving that off, but that wasn’t the point of the day. She was clean, but presented simply. Adult seeming, because she intended to act like one. If she could. In the mirror, standing behind her, she imagined the three ghosts. Chiya looking dark, and lovely at the same time, like a solid shadow, and Sara Sorenson just standing there, not speaking, but looking grim. A bit disapproving.

After all, she wasn’t doing what they wanted, and helping the bullies. She was trying to… That part got her to freeze in place and feel cold to the center of her being. What did she really think would happen? That she’d go and tell the truth and everyone would be happy to see her? She knew better. The truth was that she was throwing her life away, and it wouldn’t amount to much when she was finished. In the end, she would be worse off, and no one would be punished.

If she didn’t do that, make that sacrifice, then no one would, and that would be even worse than those three simply dying. Even if it didn’t help, it was important. The memories of the dead deserved that much respect.

So she went out, choosing not to eat that morning, being that she felt a little sick. Her father was awake already, and dressed in his good black suit, looking ready for a day at the office. Seeing her he let his face tighten, and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long, and on opening them he gave her a single nod.

“So, police first?”

“Yes, if that serves? I… I’m afraid.” She sounded so young and small then. Dainty and fragile. “We should go soon, before I lose my nerve.”

For a moment it seemed like her father would tell her not to do it. Order her to stay home and never think of the whole thing again, but he did no such thing. Instead he went directly to the door, and opened it, a slow movement that made it creak a little, at the hinges. There was a finality to it. Almost telling her that walking through that opening, a thing she did every day, would change everything forever. That what had happened to Hajime, Chiya and Sara could happen to her next.

That she might be the one throwing herself from the top of a roof, soon enough. Driven there by hateful people, who didn’t know any better way to deal with things than to lash out.

As she moved into the sunlit morning, she stopped and looked at her father closely, not smiling, just feeling a bit like she was in shock. Her face tingled and felt numb, and everything was cold, even in the warm rays of light.

“Jifu? If I need to become a hermit, we can afford that, can’t we? You could hire a maid to set trays of food in front of my door. I could take up a video game habit, or become addicted to anime.”

That got a sad look, but an answer she didn’t expect from him. It came in a firm voice, but wasn’t unkind.

“No. We have the money, but you will not become hikikomori. I’ll send you off to some foreign school first. How’s your English? I have a lot of contacts in America. We could move there, and not lose my business, even. I’ve thought about it before, I just figured that you wouldn’t want to leave your friends.”

She smiled and shook her head.

“My English is horrible. It… You’d really move to a different country for me? I… thought you didn’t care about me? I mean… Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.” She felt bad, since he was trying to be nice to her about the whole thing, even as she was going off to make trouble for him.

They didn’t speak about it again, as they walked to the train, her father handling how to get to the correct police station. That was good, given that she hadn’t considered that sort of thing, the day before. In her mind she’d simply be there, like magic, and then ruin her life. When they got there, she was surprised by how small it was. There was an open room, and one of the men, the large one from the day before in the hallway, looked over at her. She glanced back, and then averted her gaze, but bowed slightly. It was enough to get him to walk over first, before one of the others could.

“I’m Detective Wantanabe, may I help you with anything? Is there some problem?”

She couldn’t speak, her voice refusing to work even as she opened her lips for it. Thankfully her father did it for her.

“My name is Sato, Isao. This is my daughter, Akemi. She attends…” He didn’t have to finish that, since the man got the idea. It was his job, and school students probably didn’t show up at his office all that frequently. Especially ones all dressed in mourning white.

“Is this about the deaths? We don’t really have any leads. It was suicide, not murder, so not much will be done. Ijime.” He knew that much, at least. It was down to bullying. There had been a note, but it was hard to know what that meant to a man like this one.

Akemi found her voice, and even if it shook a bit when she spoke, and sounded meek, the words came forth.

“I know who bullied them. I know the names, and will tell you. Even if it means being made a target myself.” Why she added that part, she didn’t know, but the man smiled at her, for half a second.

“You will? I threatened to beat a few of the likely culprits with a taped up phone book and they wouldn’t budge or give a single word. That type never does. I should give that treatment to the Principal there, but the Chief wouldn’t like it. Come back this way. Can I offer you anything? Tea? Water? I think I have an energy drink left, if you’d like?”

She shook her head, and followed the man, her father close behind her. Not touching, but near enough that no one looking would doubt that he was with her. The room was plain, and held eight desks in an open area. They were old looking, and made of wood, scratched and faded, but were large enough to seem important, for all that. Off to the side, on the right, was a single door that had a placard on it. She couldn’t make it out, but it was probably the office of whoever was in charge there.

“Now, Miss Sato, if you would?”

She took a breath, and wondered suddenly what would happen if she refused to speak. Probably the same thing that would if she did. Nothing. It was tempting, but Akemi knew that she was going to act. No matter what it cost her, the price of doing nothing was worse.

“Yishida Kaname. He was the one that set the group after Hajime. The rest followed along, but he’s the leader. The girls were targeted by other girls. Hayashi Mai. She was the one that organized against Chiya. Ono Mikiko, was the other one. She went after the foreign student.” The man carefully wrote the names down.

“How do you know this?”

That was the hard part, so she started at the beginning, wondering how the man would judge her. Would he blame her for what had happened? Working her way through the whole thing, starting at the text messages that she sent and who she’d sent them too, he simply wrote, not commenting on the disaster she’d made. He asked questions, about what she’d seen in the hallways and in her classes, so she told him everything, hitting a lot more names than just the three she considered to be really guilty.

“I… You understand, most of them, they didn’t do more than refuse to talk to people? I… I did that too. It, it was still wrong.”

The man stared directly into her eyes, making her look away. He wasn’t ugly, but he was huge and a bit scary. His hair was brown, and he had tension wrinkles by the sides of his eyes. His nose was a bit lumpy, which she could only imagine being due to having been hit there too hard a few times.

“Yes. It was very wrong. So is hiding information from us so that we can’t make things better. Do you think that anyone else will be willing to confirm any of this?” His big right hand patted the paper he’d been writing her words down on.

“Honestly, sir? Not really. It’s all true, but… No. You know that. School pride first. Not even the teachers will speak up. It would take someone willing to lose everything to do that.” She didn’t think about the words, or what they said about how she saw herself, until after they came out and the large detective nodded at her.

It was clear that he understood the idea. He’d been to school himself, once.

“Yes, it would take someone willing to be very brave.”

That caused her to remember something, and she looked away.

“I… I could be wrong, but there may be one person. Isamu.”

That got the detective to write the name down, even if he didn’t seem to think it would come to anything.

After all, he had, once upon a time, been in school himself. He understood. They all did.


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