Fourth Story – On Becoming Independent – Part 2
Senpai and I sneaked into the junior high school where Shuto studied disguised as freelance journalists. The school had fully acknowledged the bullying that happened, and they readily allowed us to conduct “interviews.”
“It’s been two months, hasn’t it? To be honest, I was aware of the bullying but… I couldn’t do anything to stop it. Back then, if I’d only noticed even a little of his pleas for help…”
“We understand your feelings and we’re not blaming you. After interviewing around, we had noticed that only a handful of teachers cared for their students. But no matter how much you care about them, it would still be difficult to take action and help.” Senpai said gently, as though to console the young female teacher.
“And we’re not here to blame the students involved in the bullying either. We just don’t want this incident to be buried and forgotten. For the sake of the other students, we thought it was necessary to cover the story.”
The teacher looked kind and reserved so it was understandable that she couldn’t stop the bullying. But it was evident that she knew deep in her heart that she didn’t think her inaction was appropriate. With a resigned expression, she smiled weakly, “If that’s the case, then that’s comforting. The suspended students had been recently allowed to return to school. I’m sure they’re all nervous, being blamed by everyone, so please don’t be too harsh on them.”
Shortly after, we met with the three principal bullies, who were left waiting in the classroom after school was over under the pretense of “cooperating with interviews.”
“Sudo, Mikagami and Hayakawa, these two here are Mr. Shindo and Ms. Nikaido, whom I mentioned earlier. Remember your manners, okay?” After introducing us briefly, the female teacher added, “Well then, please don’t be too hard on them.” before returning back to the staff room.
“Hello, I’m Shindo and this is Nikaido. Nice to meet you.” Senpai bowed lightly and silently waited for their response.
“I’m Sudo.” The boy with slightly bleached hair, who seemed to be the leader of the group, greeted with hesitation. The other two also introduced themselves saying “I’m Mikagami.” and “I’m Hayakawa”, with their heads bowed down.
Sudo gritted his teeth as he said, “I know we made a terrible mistake… We deeply regret it.”
Senpai simply looked at Sudo. “I see.”
“Me too.” said Hayakawa. His face was littered with acne, something unusual for a middle school student.
“Thanks to the media, we finally understood the impact of what we did. We’ve been feeling penitence for what we’ve done and accept responsibility for Shuto’s death.” It was Sudo who spoke again.
“I feel the same. I know we did something we could never make up for.” Mikagami added. He spoke with a remorseful tone as he swept his long hair back. He seemed to be greatly pained knowing that he sent a young boy to his death.
“Everyone regrets only when it’s too late.” Senpai remarked as he stared at the three boys.
“We won’t share it with everyone here nor write an article about it, but we would appreciate it if you could be honest with us.”
“Okay.” Sudo agreed. “You won’t write an article?”
Senpai nodded. “We’ll vaguely cover it but won’t write it directly.”
The three boys looked at each other, relief washing over their faces.
Senpai spoke once more. “So, tell us the truth. What do you guys really think of this incident?”
“We think we’ve done something bad.” After pondering for a moment, Sudo answered, seemingly on behalf of them three.
“Not that. We want to know how you really feel about it.”
With a stern look, Sudo stared at Senpai. “Um, we’re reflecting on it.”
“Being trained by the media is great, huh.” Senpai snided.
“I noticed that you’ve only uttered a few words. I’ve met a lot of people like you. You say the nicest words. In the first place, the word ‘penitence’ isn’t something kids your age would normally use, and I don’t think you even know what it meant. Your words are all superficial; ‘We regret it.’ or ‘What we did was wrong.’ You pretend to be remorseful but it just shows how much self-centered you are. You’ve never even once spared a thought on how painful it must have been for Shuto. When you did those terrible things to him, do you really think you can insist that all that bullying was just a ‘mistake’?”
Sudo was stunned speechless. After exchanging glances with the other two with confusion written all over their faces, he bowed his head again.
“We’re really sorry that we have no other words to say. We do think we’ve done something irreparable…”
“Really?” Senpai shrugged his shoulders as though to give up, then let out a deep sigh.
“It doesn’t seem like those are your real thoughts. Something’s amiss.”
“…” The three boys pursed their lips as they lowered their heads.
Senpai asked a few more boring questions before we left the classroom. On our way out, he whispered. “Apprentice, once we get out of the door, let’s make ourselves invisible and enter the classroom again without them noticing. I wanna hear their real thoughts.”
“Come on, just do as you’re told.”
With a question mark hanging over my head, I answered okay.
The three remained with their heads bowed down with expressions of guilt on their faces, even after we’ve “gone out.”
“Seems like they feel really bad and regretful over the fact that their bullying had led to someone’s death—” As soon as I tried to speak on behalf of their hearts, I heard Sudo ask, “Have they gone?”
The other two answered with “yeah” once they saw that there was no one walking at the corridor.
All of a sudden, muffled sounds emerged from Sudo’s throat, whose head was still down, filling the room with an eerie atmosphere.
“Hahaha! Deceiving those dumb adults is easy as ever! I was surprised when he pressed further but the moment I said ‘penitence’, he was easily convinced. But then what? He wouldn’t write an article over it? What would he say? That something’s amiss?”
I found myself dumbfounded by the abrupt change in his character. Meanwhile, the other two also burst out into laughter, with nasty smiles on their faces as though they have been freed from restraint.
“In the first place, that guy looked wishy-washy for a man, making me feel all weird.” Mikagami said.
“No matter what he said, it wasn’t like we would give in. After all, we’re like predators and he was nothing but a prey destined to be eaten. Isn’t that the basic rule of nature? Hey, I just said something cool, didn’t I?” Hayakawa quipped.
The trio guffawed, unable to hold their laughter.
“After all,” Sudo opened his mouth, “He’d been living a worthless life and then he had to be a nuisance by dying on his own. Now the media are going after us. If anything, we’re the victims here!”
“He just couldn’t go along with our prank! When we pulled down his underwear, he had barely any hair growth. We took a photo and sent it to everyone! They all had a good laugh! Why should we be the only ones blamed?!” As he swept his long hair, Mikagami said in annoyance.
“Now that you mention it, it really didn’t grow much! He’s already a junior high sophomore, how could it not grow much?” Hayakawa chuckled.
“Well, that’s exactly why we haven’t really reflected on it. We’re still junior high students; the school can’t kick us out. And as long as we show that we’re remorseful, those dumb adults will believe us and even sympathize with us. They’re really dumb—those adults. Besides, those who commit suicide are obviously weak-willed. Isn’t it just like getting rid of a pest? There’s no value in that guy’s life—” Sudo couldn’t finish his words. A loud bang echoed in the classroom, and I could feel the stinging pain on my palm.
I had been invisible all this time, but seeing them react like that made me go through a series of emotions—dismay, perplexity, fury—and before I realized it, I had already banged the desk in thundering rage.
“Are you guys even humans?!” I wasn’t cursing them out; it was more a rhetorical question.
Before I could continue my outburst, Senpai spoke in his low deep voice only I could hear, stopping me instantly.
“Wh-What was that just now?”
The trio were clearly terrified by the “loud bang” and the “words” I had spoken.
“Hey, Hayakawa, did you say something just now?”
“I didn’t! It wasn’t you?”
“What in the world was that?”
Senpai let out an inaudible sigh.
He said in exasperation and dragged me out of the classroom.
After leaving the school, Senpai didn’t get mad at me, despite my emotional outburst.
“Have you calmed down a little?” He was uncharacteristically kind to me instead.
“Yes, I’m really sorry.”
There was an exasperated look on his face as he spoke, “You can be too straightforward at times. That’s good and all, but sometimes you need to be mindful of the time, place and occasion.” Instead of berating me, he simply gave me a gentle reminder.
After apologizing once more, I said. “But Senpai, they were too much…and I thought you agreed to get revenge for Shuto. I was merely expressing my feelings.”
Senpai muttered, “That’s right…” and scratched his head. “But well, this is the reality. Shuto is dead. It’s all in the past. So they can say anything they want, however inhumane they might be. Besides, don’t you think it’s pointless to get worked up over the past?”
“I guess so…” Much to my chagrin, Senpai had a point.
“When it comes to bullying, the weak would always be weak. No matter how hard you try, your efforts would always be ridiculed and made fun of. It’s like a bottomless pit that you can’t get out of no matter how hard you struggle. The harder you try, the more you become the object of ridicule, and the more they find you amusing, the more crushed you will be in the long term.”
“I know.” I nodded empathically.
“Apprentice, I think you can understand it more than anyone else. You and Shuto share that same connection when it comes to hatred. However, you’ve already gone through those dark emotions and have grown more mature. And so—-”
In his usual nonchalant manner, he continued. “Since you’ve always been ridiculed as a failure, I think you would know better how to deal with Shuto’s regrets. I believe that you will be able to come to your own conclusions, regardless of the twists and turns along the way.”
Senpai patted me on the head. “I think you should take charge of this case. No, you have to. Alright?”
He said it as though to persuade me, and then repeated it again, this time with more certainty.
“You’re taking charge of this case.”
My heart skipped a beat.
A case… I’m in charge of.
It’s technically the second case I’m in charge of, but unlike the last one, Senpai emphasized that this was mine. The weight of this case was a little—no, a lot—different than last time. The previous case was like a “trial” to help me become aware of my shortcomings. This time, it was a case that I’m taking charge of… The sense of responsibility and the gravity of the task sent shivers down my fingers.
This was a test. To see if I could be an agent.
A case that I, myself, would have to be in charge of.
Senpai patted me on the head once more. I felt the warmth of his hand, brimming with trust and expectation. I looked up to him and said, “…Yes.” as I nodded my head.
T/N: What nasty brats! Friendly reminder that bullying of any form—physical, verbal or otherwise—is bad! Always be kind, folks! You never know how a single gesture of kindness, small as it may be, could bring a ray of hope to someone else.