With this and that came August thirty first. The last day of summer vacation: Orino-san’s birthday.
As promised, the members all gathered at three in the afternoon and began preparing for the party.
“Can I bring along Tamane-sama?” Kikyouin-san asked over the phone the other day. I had no reason to refuse, and in these sorts of celebrations, the more the merrier they say. With that said, “Of course you can,” I answered.
Additionally from Kagurai-senpai, “Can I bring Gakuta?” She phoned in. I mean who cares, I thought, so “Of course you can,” I answered.
Later, from Kurisu-chan, “Can I bring along my grandma?” or so a call—didn’t come in. If it ever did, “Ah, umm…” I’m sure I’d give an exceedingly dubious answer. Even if it’s the more the merrier, there should be a limit, or rather the atmosphere of the whole to consider.
The party preparations were carried out by Kagurai-senpai, Kikyouin-san, Kurisu-chan, Tamane-chan and I, the five of us. Gakuta-kun’s a stuffed animal, so of course, he did nothing.
Well, even if I say preparations, there wasn’t anything too grand to do; making some comparatively extravagant food, moderately decorating the room, and that was the end of it.
“That about does it. Yes, yes, when it was set up at such short notice, it’s really starting to look the part.”
I nodded a, “Right,” to Kagurai-senpai’s musings and looked over the living room.
The table was set with the stylish partyish foods prepared by Kurisu-chan and Kikyouin-san. They were lined up next to the fried chicken and drinks we bought at the shop, doing an adequate job at setting the scene.
The table cloth had been changed to a fancy one.
On the curtains, the words ‘Happy Birthday Orino’ were stuck on, a sheet of drawing paper per letter. Paper chains expended a large amount of time and paper, so we couldn’t make them. Those of for when you have an abundance of time, or in kindergarten and school events, where you have more hands than you have tasks to do.
“Now the problem is… whether Orino’s coming or not.”
Kikyouin said with a sigh, eliciting a reaction from Tama-chan.
“Mmn? What’s this, isn’t this supposed to be that Orino girl’s birthday?”
“You’re right about that, but… well, this and that happened.”
Kikyouin-san struggled to find the words.
For argument’s sake, we did get a text back from Orino-san that said, ‘Coming,’ but… reflecting on our exchange at the department store two days ago, I couldn’t help but think of it in a negative direction.
… Seriously what do we do if she doesn’t come?
The mood of the room sank. No matter how you looked at it, this wasn’t the mood to hold a party.
“H-hey, people, psyche yourself up a bit! We can think of what to do if she doesn’t come, when she doesn’t–”
The moment Kagurai-senpai was on the verge of finishing, the houses’ doorbell rung out.
Everyone exchanged a glance. Our expressions slackened in relief. But at the same time, a number of index fingers stuck up before mouths. Calm down. Not yet. If you panic here, everything’s ruined.
“Yeees! Who is it?”
I raised my voice from the living room to respond to the visitor.
From the entranceway, I heard a voice just barely wrung out. It did seem she was still lingering on the other day, her voice audibly sullen.
Alright, I gripped my fist. Kagurai-senpai started distributing the poppers. Measuring out the time they would have reached everyone, I resumed my correspondence with Orino-san.
“Oh, welcome! Sorry, my hands are a bit full right now, so just come right in. Can you go to the living room? The door’s unlocked.”
I heard the click of the front door unlatching.
We waited on standby, the poppers in hand, our attention concentrated on the living room door.
Gulp. I swallowed my spit, as a queer sense of session impregnated the room. Each time a footstep resounded from the hall, the tempo of my pulse would rise. Sweat oozed down the hand that held the explosive cone.
Concentrate, Kagoshima Akira.
Every element of the surprise hinges on this one single moment.
We’ll all sound our poppers the moment Orino-san opens the door, we’ll all give a chorus of blessings. And we’ll divulge the fact that the matter the other day was actually in preparation for today.
The result: Orino-san’s grand delight.
For this planned series of events, the first popper is more important than anything. If it comes out in scattered bursts, the impact will be halved. More importantly, if someone jumps the gun, it’s over. In the million to one change it goes off before Orino-san even enters, it’ll be a grand sin worthy of seppuku.
I looked left and right, pleading through eye contact, “Everyone concentrate, concentrate.”
I got back nods of, “You didn’t have to tell me twice.”
Looks like it was a needless worry.
Well, it’s not like we’re doing anything that’s particularly difficult, and even if we don’t pay it too much attention, it’ll probably go fine.
And I hear poppers don’t go off unless you pill them considerably hard, so it’s rare you’ll ever misfire one. I mean, it’s fine with this much force.
I’m sure it’ll be fine with a little more.
Huh? This is surprisingly durable.
Then wouldn’t it be alright if I—
‘The hell are you doing!?’
Everyone’s voices overlapped in a yell. The line was the same all around. Even Kurisu-chan swore.
Whoah… I went and did it.
Why, when it really counts, why do I…
Everyone in the living room was quick to disparage me. Even Kurisu-chan offered a course insult. While their words all stabbed into my chest, among them, Gakuta-kun’s, “You bloody hair trigger!” hurt me most as a man. Urk… Gakuta-kun—meaning Kagurai-senpai just called me a bloody hair trigger… it might be just a little exciting, does that thought make me a masochist?
Still, this really is bad. Since a large bang resounded through the hall, perhaps Orino-san was already under the impression that poppers meant party.
“T-that was… don’t tell me–”
Came a shaking voice. Ah, it’s all my fault the surprise is—
…… Maybe not. No, but still, gunfire? What world do you have to live in for your thoughts to reach that point? Was Orino-san from some place where gunshots were closer than party poppers?
“K-Kagoshima-kun! Are you alright!?”
The living room door slammed open, as Orino burst in with an off-complexion.
I hurriedly put out the order. Luckily, the others hadn’t yet unhanded their poppers. Having returned to their senses on my call, they directed their party implements at the day’s main guest, and pulled the strings all at once.
A large sound boomed out as streamers of paper tape danced through the air.
Kagurai-senpai said, and everyone continued on.
As initially planned, we were able to say it cleanly together.
Orino-san stood stock-still beside the door. It seemed she was unable to comprehend the situation, her eyes open wide, her mouth blankly hung open. Eventually, her thoughts caught up to reality.
“… Huh, oh, I-I see… come to think of it, today’s, my, birthday…”
She softly muttered.
“That’s right Orino. Today is your birthday. That’s why, as you can see, we tried holding a surprise birthday. How about it, you feel anything special?”
Kagurai-senpai grinned as she sauntered over to Orino-san.
“Come on. Let’s have a toast, cheers they say.”
Kurisu-chan began pouring out drinks.
With a kitchen knife in hand, “Hey, can I cut this cake into eight for now? Cuttin’ into sixths is hard.” Kikyouin-san said, causing Tamane-chan to show her displeasure.
“What’s that, Yuzuki. You plan to eat the sweets first? Should you not save that for the end?”
“But if we don’t take care of it fast, it’ll go bad…”
“Mm, is that how it works. How the times change…”
“No, wait a second!”
Intruding on the Kikyouin sisters’ conversation, I hurriedly stopped Kikyouin-san as she was about to calmly divide the cake.
“You can’t cut the cake yet. You’ve got to stab in as many candles as her age, sing the birthday song, and then have Orino-san blow them all out.”
“… Ah, right.”
“My, oh my. This is why birthday party amateurs are…”
“Guh… get off your high horse.”
Kikyouin-san vexingly grit her teeth.
There, Orino-san standing near the door fell right into a sit on the spot. Her bottom dropped in the gap between her feet, her legs folded beside her. Her head hung like a puppet whose strings had been severed. Because of that, it became impossible to make out her expression.
“Oh, what’s wrong, Orino? Let me guess, you’ve been moved to tears?”
Kagurai-senpai chided as she tried to peer into her face. To her, “Hey, you shouldn’t tease her,” Kurisu-chan tried to reprimand when—
“U, u, uuu…”
A voice similar to a sob leaked through the gaps in her hair. She slowly raised her face.
“… U, u, Uwaaaaan.”
She raised her voice in tears.
“Uwaaaaaan. H-hic, U, uu, Uwaaaaaaaaan.”
Orino-san loudly bawled, still seated on the floor.
Caring not who saw her. Like a newly born child, she cried and wailed out loud. Large droplets of tears were dripping in chunks down her face.
The rest of us had no option but to be dumbfounded. Even Kagurai-senpai who teased her was making an expression that spoke she had no idea what to do?
Do you think she’ll cry? I did consider, but I never thought it would reach this level.
“U-umm… O-Orino-san, are you alright?”
I approached and called out.
[THERE IS SUPPOSED TO BE AN IMAGE OF ORINO CRYING HERE]
“U-urp, I-I’m fine… hi, c…”
She didn’t seem very fine?
“… What happened? You suddenly…”
“I mean, I was so happy… truly happy that I…”
Her sob-mixed voice carried on.
“The other day, when I spotted everyone at the department store, I thought I was the only one being left out… it was a huge shock and… the whole time I was wondering if I did something wrong, if I made everyone hate me… so… so when I was called here today, I was sure it would be for something awful…”
“T-that’s why… I’m so relieved, and happy, now I don’t know what’s even happening… u, uuu, hic, uuu…”
It did seem that matter at the department store hurt Orino-san more than any of us had anticipated. More than half of it was pretty much my fault, so a sense of guilt was swelling in my chest.
Albeit, I was just the slightest bit happy as well.
It may be imprudent, but by with Orino-san misunderstanding she was left out of the group, hurt enough to cry—now that she knew that was all a lie, the way she cried tears of joy was kinda intolerably adorable.
For argument’s sake, the surprise party was a success.
Though I get a feeling it was too much of a success.
“Now stand up, Orino-san.”
“The party can’t start without the lead role.”
I tried to produce a handkerchief from my pocket to hand to her, but unfortunately, I didn’t make a habit of carrying the symbol of a gentleman. I felt a sliver of regret as Orino-san wiped her tears with her personal handkerchief and stood.
“Here, Orino-senpai. Have a drink. Let’s start with the cheers, raise your glass.”
“You’re seventeen, aren’t you? Puttin’ up seventeen candles is surprisingly hard…”
Kurisu-chan prepared a drink, Kikyouin-san the cake.
Once the preparations were over, Kagurai-senpai began the rally for cheers.
“Ahem, well then, to Orino’s seventeenth year, and to our wonderful comrades—”
Everyone brandished the cup in their hand.
The birthday party continued around another four hours.
We ate cake, handed over presents, ate food, drank juice, talked, gamed.
Whatever the case, we had a fun time.
We laughed, and laughed some more.
To a helpless extent—we laughed.
It was a merry time, like a dream.
Precisely because it was as blessed as a dream, it greeted its end as all dreams must.
“Kagoshima-kun, are you alright…?”
The night path had completely gone dark.
We were on the way back from some shopping at the nearest convenience store, when Orino-san beside me spoke in a worried voice. Her gaze was poured on the shopping bags hanging down from my hands.
“I really should hold some.”
“No, I’m perfectly fine. This much is nothing.”
Or so I put up a strong front, but honestly, it was a bit harsh. After buying a large quantity of drink bottles at the store, I tried acting cool and carried a large majority, all was well to that point, but it did seem I had overestimated my physical strength a bit.
“Let me look cool once in a while.”
“… I see. Yeah. Got it.”
Orino-san grinned. The ones who went out for the run were Orino-san and I, just the two of us. As Orino-san was the lead role today, we normally shouldn’t have been entrusted such routine work as shopping, but there was a deep reason behind all of this.
“Do you think they’re alright…?”
“We just up and left them when they were so hammered, but… umm, I just hope your living room is in one piece.”
“One can dream…”
The reason us two were the ones shopping was because the other members were all drunk and downed. It all started when Tama-chan said, “This is what ya’ need for a celebration,” and took out some expensive-looking Japanese sake. In the time I was busy wondering what the kid was saying, she had forced a shot down Kikyouin-san.
What followed was debauchery.
Apparently the sort whose personality changes with some alcohol in her system, Kikyouin-san’s talkative drunk state activated, the mood somehow became so that we felt obligated to drink, and by the time I noticed it, everyone had gulped.
What followed was hell.
How should I put it, this and that went out of whack…
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Kikyouin-san cut loose like that. She started doing one-liners as if it was only natural.”
“I’ll rue this as the day I failed to record it.”
“I really panicked when Kurisu-chan started stripping. That kid really has to do something about her exhibitionism… seriously, I’m worried for her future.”
“Umm… yeah, I really don’t think I can support her this time…”
“I’m surprised Kagurai-senpai was a crying drunk. Well, in the end, the reason she was crying was, what do I do about summer homework, but…”
“… All I can tell her is, do your best.”
As the other members were smashed like that, me and Orino-san, who somehow got off unscathed, ended up going shopping.
“But, Orino-san. About these.”
I held up the drinks we bought at the store.
“We got loads of Pocari, but now that I think about it, aren’t you supposed to avoid sports drinks like Pocari when you’re drunk? I’ve heard it makes you feel needlessly more intoxicated.”
“Ah, that’s just a common urban legend.”
“Yeah. You won’t feel too good if it’s between drinks, or right after, but if you wait a little, and need something to rehydrate, a sports drink is the appropriate choice.”
I see. Orino-san’s as knowledgeable as ever.
“But still, Kagoshima-kun, you don’t look too drunk.”
She stared fixedly at my face.
“Don’t tell me you drink regularly?”
“No, no. I just didn’t take in much. Just a bit, and everything after that was juice. And even if I say that, I do feel a bit drunk.”
My body was just a little hot, my head a bit hazy. Well, I was pretty much sober.
“Ah, but back there, it looked like Gakuta-kun was walking around on his own. Perhaps I’m actually quite smashed.”
“… S-sounds like it! Yeah, I’m sure it looked like that because of the drink!”
Orino-san said especially loudly.
“And how about you? You don’t look drunk at all.”
“Oh, I’ve been trained from a young age, so alcohol and that sort of stuff is mostly ineffective and—”
“Ah! No, umm… l-looks like I’m stronger than I thought! I’m surprised myself! Ahaha.”
I wonder what was with that professional-sounding line.
Could it be Orino-san’s eighth-grade syndrome is activating? Personally speaking, Kurisu-chan’s already a handful.
“Ah, that’s right.”
I suddenly recalled and spoke up.
“Come to think of it, I haven’t properly apologized yet.”
“Apologize? About what?”
“About the department store. Because I arbitrarily played it off, I gave you a strange misunderstanding, didn’t I? I’m sorry.”
When I lightly lowered my head as we walked, Orino-san gently shook hers.
“It’s fine. I get it was all a misunderstanding.”
Her saying that was much appreciated on my side.
“But you never thought just a little, ‘everyone’s secretly planning my birthday’?”
It was two days before her birthday after all. Just pondering, ‘it might be for my birthday’ a bit couldn’t be called overly self-conscious. If I was in the opposite position, I get the feeling I’d just normally think, ‘Ah, aren’t they preparing for a surprise?’
But, “… No, not at all.” Orino-san said. A slight smile graced her lips
It was a somewhat self-derisive smile.
“I’d completely forgotten today was supposed to be my birthday…”
There, Orino-san held her words as if hesitating. After one deep breath, she raised her face and directed her gaze to the night sky.
“The truth is, I don’t know my own birthday.”
Not understanding the meaning of her words, I reflexively turned towards her. She didn’t know her birthday?
“… It’s not today?”
“Yeah. August thirty-first, you see, is a birthday I decided for myself. It’s quite inconvenient if you don’t decide it, so once upon a time, I randomly made it up.”
Why? I swallowed the word. I wasn’t trying to be tactful. Before Orino-san’s unnaturally bright smile, I simply ended up hesitating to step in any further.
“The reason I made it August thirty-first was because I didn’t really want it to be celebrated. I found it a little unpleasant for a fake birthday to be celebrated. If it was just before the end of summer vacation, everyone would have too much on their mind to consider it, right?”
“… Y-you mean.”
“Ah, d-don’t misunderstand. Today’s birthday party’s a separate story.”
Orino-san hurriedly waved her hand that wasn’t carrying a shopping bag.
“Today was really fun. It was really, really fun. Enough to cry out loud.”
She gave a mischievous smile. I pat my chest in relief.
“I always thought it would only feel empty to have a fake birthday celebrated. I thought it would just remind me I didn’t know when I was born…”
“But—I was wrong.”
Her eyes directed at the night sky returned to me, she smiled sweetly. A very gentle smile.
“I was really happy. So happy I’m even finding it curious myself.”
“Then that’s good. Well… how should I put it. I think something rough like that’s just right for a birthday.”
“What do you mean?”
“No one knows for sure if their birthday’s what it really is or not. For example, I know my own birthday, but that’s just because I heard it from my parents. I can’t declare there’s no possibility I’m wrong.”
From the start, a birthday’s something arbitrary.
Within the predefined period of a year, it’s simply the date a person marks as the day they were born. The precise time doesn’t factor into calculation, it’s a rough celebration done in day increments.
For example, between couples and close friends, one might celebrate with a text as soon as the date changes, but it’s not as if they were born precisely at midnight.
That being the case.
Criticizing it from that angle may come off as uncouth.
The point is, don’t think too deep, it’s whatever works.
Like the Japanese people who only pray to god when they’re troubled, just do it whenever works. That’s not what’s important.
“Whether your birthday’s real or not isn’t important. What’s important is that someone knows it. That someone will celebrate it. That someone else is thankful you were born into the world. That’s what I think.”
I stopped my feet and stood before Orino-san.
I faced her straight on.
“… Thank you.”
Orino-san lowered her face. I could hear the sound of a sniffle.
It seemed I’d made her cry again.
Umm, what do I do…?
My hands are sealed off, so I can’t pull out a handkerchief, rather, I don’t have one in the first place. Unable to think of any good ideas, for the time being, I turned forward and started to walk. I thought it best if I didn’t watch her.
When I slowly walked without turning, Orino-san followed behind.
Quietly, the two of us walked down the dark path.
“… Hey, Kagoshima-kun.”
A while later, Orino-san called out to my back.
“Are you happy I was born?”
“Of course I am.”
Still turned forward, I answered without a second’s hesitation.
Behind, I got the feeling Orino-san was smiling.
It was just the feeling I got.
Upon our return, Orino-san and I did make an attempt to nurse the downed party, but in the end, everyone had fallen asleep on the spot. They were sound asleep.
If tomorrow was a holiday, that wouldn’t be a problem, but hang on, today just had to be the last day of summer vacation. We had the opening ceremony tomorrow. I tried my best to rouse everyone and return them to their own homes, but that was an impossible feat.
“Well then, Orino-san. It’s getting late, take care on your way.”
“Yeah. Thank you.”
The hour hand was passed ten. In the entranceway to the Kagoshima House, I saw Orino-san off. It’s no good to let a girl return home alone at this hour, but as she had before, Orino-san obstinately rejected my bodyguard application.
“I’ll drop by tomorrow morning. I want to help clean up and such.”
As a result of our discussion, we would wake everyone around five tomorrow, and return them all to their own homes, was the plan.
“Don’t worry about that. It’s your birthday party, so I’d feel bad if I made you clean up…”
“Nah. I’ll help. And we can’t have you sleeping in.”
When she said that much, I had no reason to refuse. I let myself be pampered by her words.
Orino-san corrected her posture and looked straight at me.
“Thank you for today.”
“You should give those thanks to everyone. It’s not like I was doing it all on my own.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Well ‘n, see you tomorrow.”
Orino-san gave a small nod, before turning on her heels and walking off.
Once she had walked a while, she turned towards me again, made a smile brimming with energy, and grandly waved her hands.
“See you tomorrow.”
A gentle smile.
A bright smile.
But—no, precisely because of it, my heart somewhat hurt.
Perhaps by that time, she had already noticed.
Perhaps she already had a slight sense that this might be the end,.
In contrast to me who couldn’t notice anything—somewhere in her heart, perhaps she had already made her resolve.
The resolve to never meet us again.
The resolve to never return to this side again.
The resolve to know the meaning behind her birth.
The resolve to know the meaning behind her creation.