One month later, Akagame was admitted to the hospital. Two months later, she was released. But she didn’t return to school for another two weeks. No one knew what happened. No one told us. That girl’s mystery deepened even further.
When she walked into class for the first time after being released, she was covered in bandages, and her hair was longer, as though it hadn’t been cut. Her eyes could barely be seen anymore.
She didn’t say anything, so no one said anything to her. She simply took her seat, silent as ever. I glanced over at her, perhaps out of concern, more likely out of curiosity, but quickly averted my eyes when she looked up.
Akagame seemed to creep everyone out more than usual. She somehow seemed even quieter, stranger, and somehow... sad.
Two days after she returned, I was heading to a section of the roof that most other students didn’t know about. I almost always ate lunch there, preferring to be alone. But when I got there, Akagame was there, too. She was mainly picking at her food, and there were tears slipping down her face.
Somehow, that made her seem a little less creepy and distant, and just slightly, slightly more human and approachable. So I sat down next to her. She didn’t look at me.
“Is something wrong?”
The silence was longer than usual. I counted a full ten seconds before she finally replied, “No.”
“Then why are you crying?”
Akagame slowly lifted a hand to her cheek, looking at it when her fingers came away wet with her tears. “I... it’s... this... croquet. I... mistook pepper for something else... and put it in instead.... It’s... too spicy.”
She was such a bad liar. That obviously wasn’t the case.
Even longer silence. Yet more proof that something was wrong. “...Yes.”
“If you say so,” I shrugged. Obviously I wasn’t going to be getting any answers. So, rather than press, I just opened my bento and started to eat. Akagame not-so-subtly edged away from me, still not eating. I sighed inwardly. I had never met anyone so reclusive in my life.
The silence between us was awkward, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t say anything until I had finished, and neither did she. Checking the time, I stood.
“It’s almost time for class to start,” I said, looking down at her. “You coming?”
She shook her head slightly. “I... want to stay up here... for a while...”
“Okay, but... be sure not to be late, you can get into a lot of trouble from this teacher for that.” I left.
Akagame didn’t show up in class for the rest of the day. I didn’t see her walking home at the end of school, either, so she must have left early. I frowned. That girl...
I must have been walking without realizing, because I suddenly found myself in front of the book shop. Strangely enough, in front of the door that lead directly to the new section, which I had barely ever visited in all my years of living in this town.
What was I doing here? I opened the door and walked in, greeted by the scent of new books that I never liked.
I glanced around. It was as I remembered it. Several new series, yes. But everything was perfect. No worn edges, no faded covers, no tiny tears on the pages or whiteness at the edges of the spine.
I myself had never liked perfection. I found it to be unnatural, unprioritized and almost sickening.
I started to head straight for the door that lead to the used section, but something stopped me.
I looked around and realized that I didn’t know what had stopped me, just that whatever it was did. It wasn’t a nice feeling, being stopped by something without knowing what it is. I shook off a strange feeling-Was it normal to feel like someone was watching you inside a bookstore? I didn’t think so-and quickly headed to the used section.
I saw Akagame there and contemplated talking to her. I was about to decide against it when I noticed that she wasn’t looking at the books out of interest. She was trying to postpone something. Or at least a similar purpose. So, out of desire to help, I walked over to her.
“Hey,” I said, turning to the shelf to pretend that I came here to look for books.
“...Hello,” she whispered. I was about to start a conversation up, but to my surprise, she said something before I did. “What... brings you here?” Her speech was getting slightly faster. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt like a good thing.
“Well, normally I come here for books,” I smiled inwardly. Was she opening up? “But I decided to talk to you at the same time. Where did you go after lunch? You just disappeared.”
“I was feeling... sick. I wanted... to leave.”
I discreetly studied her face to try and determine if she was telling to truth. Well she was certainly pale. Well, paler than usual. Her face was almost pure white, lacking any color except for dusty pink lips. Was she really going to be all right?
“Feeling sick how?” I asked. “Like, stomache or head?”
“Head...” she replied, softer than before. “It... was hurting... a... a lot.” She was slowing again. Bad sign?
“Sounds like a headache or a migraine. Did you take medicine?”
She shook her head. “I’m not... allowed to take medicine... doctors... orders...”
“I see...” I looked down at her again. Was she sad? “Hey, Akagame-san... can I call you -chan?”
She slowly nodded.
“Well then, um... Akagame-chan, you can talk to me if you ever want to. You know, for whatever reason. Doesn’t even have to be important, or make sense. Okay?”
She looked up at me, a little surprised. “Sure... thank you...”
I smiled. I wasn’t expecting her to smile in return... but she did. It was the smallest, faintest smile I had ever seen. But it was there. And... kind of cute, especially since it did reach her eyes just slightly. Somehow, that humanized her. She seemed a little more like a living girl and less like a ghost. I didn’t even think before chuckling slightly and mussing her hair. She blinked up at me, perhaps a sign of confusion.
“Ah, sorry,” I lifted my hand. “Not sure why I did that.”
She simply blinked at me again.
Well, that was a fine way to turn a nice situation awkward. Oh well, at least she seemed to trust me a little now.
“So...” I said, trying to disperse the awkward air. “You must really like books. What genres do you like the most...?”
Akagame thought for a few moments before replying. “Dark romance... gothic novels... thrillers... historical fiction... and horror.”
“Interesting selection.” Somehow, none of them came as a surprise.
“I, uh, guess I like fantasy, teen fiction and manga,” I replied, a little embarrassed when my own preferences seemed normal and boring in comparison to her own assortment. “Oh, and psychological.”
Akagame looked at me unblinkingly, her pitch black eyes a little brighter than usual.
“Tell me...” she whispered, catching me by surprise. “...Why do you read...?”
“I...” I started, then stopped a moment to think. “I don’t know.” I smiled sheepishly. “I guess I just find the stories interesting?”
“I see...” she was silent for a bit. “Do... do you...”
“Do I...?” I prompted.
“R-Rokuro... can you speak English...?”
“Um, kind of?” I replied, confused. “It’s kind of choppy, though. And I’m not good with pronounciation. Plus I mess up the grammar a lot...”
“Then... if you don’t mind... could you please... try to translate a Japanese book for me...?”
I tilted my head. “Why?”
Akagame looked down. “I... I am Japanese... but I was raised in England... so I grew up speaking English. I am... not so good with speaking Japanese as... I would like to be... I try to speak slowly to... to make sure I choose the right words... and particles... but the book is very old, and written in traditional Japanese... which I don’t know well enough to properly read...”
“Sure, I’ll try,” I smiled. “Just take the book to me sometime and I’ll do my best. I can’t guarantee it’ll be very good, but if it’s what you want.”
“Thank you, Rokuro...”
“Akagame... if you don’t speak Japanese well, does that mean most of your books are English?”
“That... used to be true. But since moving here... I try to choose more Japanese novels... to help me learn the language better...” she shifted. “But... there are still things... I do not properly understand.” She looked up at me, seeming to glow faintly with a shy pride. “But... I do enjoy my collection... even if I am running out of space... for them all...”
“Really?” I raised my brows. “How big is your collection?”
“I am told... that it is larger than most...” She glanced away and back a couple times. “W-would you... like to see it...?”
“If you’re fine with it, sure!”
“Then... when would you like to go now...? I do not... have anything else to do...”
“Same here, so let’s go whenever you’re ready.”
She nodded. “Just... let me go pay for this first...” she took her book to the counter and paid for it, putting it into her school bag. She looked back at me. “...Follow me.”
I followed Akagame out of the book store, to the sparse edge of the already miniscule town. Her house was large, and built in a gothic style.
When we were inside the house, one thing came quickly apparent: There was no one else there. It was very open, in the sort of way that let sound carry easily. But it was silent, except for our footsteps, which eerily echoed down the hall and staircase up to her room.
It was lonely. Depressing.
Is this what she came home to every day...?
Akagame opened a door. “This... this is my room...”
She motioned me through the door, so I walked in.
I was greeted by walls and floors built of purple heart wood. There was an overhead light, but rather than flip the switch, Akagame went about lighting a bunch of long, white candles in brass holders, throwing the room into sharp relief, making the black and white color scheme shockingly intense.
But... no bookshelves.
And then Akagame went to another doorway, only it had a black curtain instead of a door.
“Come here...” she said, and I walked over as she pulled the curtain aside, revealing another room.
This one was fairly small, but packed with bookshelves. There were even two in front of the door, leaving barely enough space for a skinny girl or a lanky guy to squeeze through.
Carefully sliding in behind Akagame, I found the walls to be lined with bookshelves, and even more weaving in every possible way to preserve space. The shelves themselves were jammed. There were books resting on top of the books, on the very tops of the shelves, on piles next to the shelves, in little nets hanging from the ceiling. From the looks of it, the overhead light of this room had even been removed to make more space. Which made me wonder how someone was even supposed to read the titles until Akgame pulled a flashlight keychain from a hook on the only bit of wall not covered by a bookshelf. Turning it on, she flashed it over all of the book spines in range of the light. Most of them were in either Japanese or English. Some of them were old, faded and torn. Others looked newer. Some of them were hardcovers that had lost their dust covers, leaving the metallic lettering to fade completely, a lable underneath with small, neat English handwriting the only thing to identify it.
“Amazing,” I breathed. It looked exactly how I would have imagined Akagame’s mind to be like, if manifested into a substantial room. Introverted, mysterious, cluttered and yet somehow organized. “This is the last thing I expected. It’s... wow.”
Akagame looked vaguely confused. “What does... that reaction mean...? Is it... good or bad...?”
“It’s good. Surprised, but good.”
“I’m glad...” Akagame pulled the book out of her schoolbag and sided along the bookshelves to bring over a footstool, which she stood on top of to place the novel onto one of the piles.
I looked at her as she stepped down. “You are... an amazing girl, Akagame.”
“Th...thank you...” she didn’t look at me.
“I mean it.” I looked around the room. At the shelves made of varying woods, the deep purple carpet, the countless books, all of the lables made with the utmost care to categorize the books into the most personalized library I had ever seen.
And yet, it all made one thing even more apparent: she was lonely. She didn’t have anyone to talk to. I wasn’t doing to deny that I liked reading, but... I at least had a couple close friends and a few semi-friends to talk to so I never became a complete book-hermit.
But... Akagame didn’t have that. It was obvious her parents weren’t home often, and she didn’t have any friends, except for all these books. And possibly me... I wasn’t sure.
“Akagame...” I said very softly, then again, louder. “Akagame... do you want to be friends?”
Her head jerked up to stare at me with wide eyes, her hair falling away from her face. “Friends...?”
“Yes, friends. You’re the kind of person I’d want to make friends with, and, well...”
“I... seem lonely...” She glanced around, looking down as she bit her lip nervously.
“Y-you don’t have to if you don’t want to!” I said quickly.
“N-no... I... I-I want to be... friends...” she said the word even more unfamilarily than any other word I have ever heard her speak. She slowly looked up... and she was smiling again.
But there were tears at the corners of her eyes.
“A-Akagame...?” I said nervously. “Are you... all right?”
“Yes...” she said softly. “Yes... just... happy to have my first... friend.”
So I’m the first friend she’s ever had...
“S-should I make tea...?!” she suddenly blurted out, flustered enough to mistake every particle.
“Tea...?” I asked, confused. “Why?”
“M... my mother always... makes it when she’s... happy, s-so...” she was nervous again, playing with her fingers.
I smiled. “Sure, why not? Make whatever kind you want, I’ll drink it.”
“O-okay... let’s go to the kitchen, then... f-follow me...” she carefully slid out, closely followed by me.
End of part 2