Hikaru Hiyama heard the far-off police siren, and glanced over at the alarm clock on the bedside table.
Ten o'clock pm. In New York at this time, police sirens are nothing special.
But no matter how often you hear them, they always make you feel uneasy. Hikaru picked herself up off of her creaking sofa and turned the volume up on her CD player (5).
The sound of Kenny G's soprano sax filled every corner of the room.
The three-colored cat that had been relaxing beside the radiator uttered a voice of protest and jumped up on the bed.
"Oh, I'm sorry, JG," Hikaru said. "The music startled you, didn't it?"
Hikaru reached out her hand for her cat, whom she called JG, and stroked its stomach. JG yawned and closed its eyes sleepily.
The cat had found its way into Hikaru's apartment building some months ago.
She had thought it belonged to the old couple who lived in the apartment across from her, and had immediately gone to return it. She had seen them walking or feeding cats often.
But the happy just handed the cat back to her, shaking their heads. They wanted her to keep it herself.
Hikaru, who lived alone, didn't mind. This gave her an excuse to talk with the old couple more, too.
The name JG came from a cat that Hikaru had known in the past named Jingoro (6). He had been a similarly-colored cat, kept by Kyosuke Kasuga's family.
In order to keep herself from thinking of him too much, Hikaru had left all her pictures of Kyosuke in Japan. She had tried to name her cat something that had nothing to do whatsoever with Kyosuke, but after much soul-searching, the only thing she came up with was Jingoro.
So, JG it was.
Not calling the cat by the actual name of Jingoro was her own way of denying her feelings.
In this way, Hikaru was trying to put distance between herself and Kyosuke, but at the same time, she was keeping in close contact with Madoka.
Scattered around the room were things that Madoka had sent her as gifts over the years.
For example, a hat that Madoka had knitted, and a doll-like thing that Madoka had made.
Hikaru had moved to Otaru, in Hokkaido, when she was in the 10th grade. After some time had passed, she started exchanging postcards with Madoka. Madoka often sent small presents as a reply.
Out of all the presents Hikaru has recieved from Madoka, the alarm clock was most special.
It was a teddy bear inside a tea cup, and had been something that Madoka had treasured when she had entered high school.
There was something strange about such a cute alarm clock in such an old apartment.
But while Hikaru was in Japan, and even when she crossed the Pacific to come to America, she always kept the alarm clock beside her bed.
And whenever she looked at this alarm clock, she said to herself:
Keep in touch! (7)
These words represented Hikaru's true feelings for her friend, as well as acting as a magic spell which provided emotional support when life in America got her down.
"Shuri's late. I wonder where she is."
Hikaru glanced at the clock once more, and sighed.
She was waiting for Shuri Anzai. Shuri had called her that night, saying that she had gotten the airplane ticket to Mexico that Hikaru had wanted, and that she would bring them over.
She said she had to work, but should be there a little after nine o'clock.
She had met Shuri here in New York. Shuri was two years younger than Hikaru, but they felt no strangeness at calling each other by their first names. Shuri was a Japanese living in the U.S., like Hikaru, who had a big build and beautiful, slender Asian eyes.
Hikaru and Shuri got along well, perhaps because they both shared the dream of being in a Broadway musical.
Shuri had returned to Japan temporarily when her one-year visa ended. While in Japan, she had let Hikaru know about an audition for a musical in Tokyo. Hikaru had gone to Japan to be in the audition with her friend.
They both failed, however.
Hikaru had gone back to New York immediately, and Shuri had followed a month later.
Shuri's father owned a medium-sized company, and Shuri was his only child. According to Shuri, her parents were eager for her to get married and take over the family business.
Shuri had told Hikaru, "The real reason I came back to America was to avoid an aunt of mine who kept trying to set me up with _omiai_ (8)."
Shuri attended dance school with Hikaru, but in reality she seemed to like going to parties more.
To Hikaru, Shuri's outgoing personality was a big help.
When Hikaru was down in the dumps over the audition for an upcoming musical, it was Shuri who advised her to go to Mexico for a change of setting.
The reason for the additional stress was that Hikaru and Shuri were in the last round of selection for a big musical which was to open next summer.
The play was to open in the famous Shubert Theater, and the title was "The Legend of Atlantis."
The story went like this. In the distant past, there existed a legendary continent known as Atlantis, either in the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans. It was a story about love and hate between the humans and the gods of that era.
Both Hikaru and Shuri were trying for the role of Dancer, the Asian island-daughter, and had been recommended by their dance studio.
The role had just one line, but also called for a dream-like solo dance number. If the musical became a hit, it would be a role that would get a lot of attention.
Besides the two girls, there were several Chinese and Korean candidates. But Hikaru, with her small body, was in a favorable position; Shuri, whose build wasn't that different from the American dancers, had decided she had no chance of getting the role.
Hikaru had finally begun to feel the pressure of being so close to her goal, but Shuri had told her, "Don't give up, Hikaru. You're practicing your autograph every day, right? Pretty soon, you'll be known as Star Hiyama."
'Star Hiyama' was what Hikaru had thought of for her autograph, writing 'Hikaru' which means 'star,' followed by a star symbol, and finally, her last name, Hiyama (9).
America was nothing if not the land of autographs and signatures.
A few months ago, Hikaru had realized that her name meant 'star' in English, and had started going out of her way to write a star symbol when signing credit card slips and checks.
Then she started copying Americans, who are so good at creating appealing images of themselves in the eyes of others, and started writing "STAR*" on the T-shirt she wore over her leotard and even on her jeans.
If it had been in Japan, it would have stood out too much for her, but this was New York. Hikaru had learned that doing original things like this allowed her to better fit in with American society.
More and more people at the dance school started calling her "Star-chan."
She had used her new autograph on a postcard she had sent to Madoka. Madoka had embroidered Hikaru's new mark into the hand-knitted gloves she had sent.
In this way, Hikaru and Madoka had managed to put the problems of the past behind them, as if the two of them were bound by a thread.
"Jeez! I'll bet Shuri didn't really get the ticket, even after she told me she had."
One might say that Shuri was good at dealing with people, which sounded good, but in another light you could say that she was prone to getting carried away with words. She might have said that she had gotten the tickets even though she didn't actually have them yet, making Hikaru get her hopes up for no reason.
Hikaru was already packed and ready to go off to Mexico.
She had to be back in New York before the next audition, so she couldn't stay away too long. A largish shoulder bag was all she would need to take with her. All she had to do was leave JG with the elderly couple across the hall, and that was it. If she was able to get the ticket, that was.
Hikaru pulled a notebook computer which was kept permanently on the bed, to her.
As she had done so many times before, she logged in to Fame.
Fame, named after the American movie by the same name, was a computer BBS for the exchange of information between Broadway performers.
The movie was about a group of young dancers who, like Hikaru now, endured grueling dance lessons in order to realize their dreams of one day dancing on stage. The young people who had access to the computer network were like the dancers in the movie in many ways.
People on the network exchange various information about upcoming dance and theatrical openings, even people posting things like "please sell me your old dancing shoes cheap" and "looking for a sex friend."
And because this small network was connected to the largest information system in the world, the Internet, it was possible to get the newest information on acting roles in Europe, Japan and so on.
A few days ago, Hikaru had posted a message on the Fame BBS that she was looking for a cheap ticket to Mexico. "Anyone with information, please contact me. My handle name is HIKARU," she added.
A 'handle name' was an alias used by people posting messages.
Users gained access to the network by giving their credit card numbers before logging on. The fee would be charged to the credit card later, but because the network was cheaper even than using the telephone, it was the most economical source of information available.
But the network wasn't only for exchanging information on upcoming roles, but also for having "electronic meetings" and exchanging opinions about various plays. Because people who didn't know each other were engaging in the discussions, there were often some very exciting ideas put out.
On the other hand, if people could easily find out who you were through the network, it was possible there would be some trouble or danger.
That was why Hikaru used "HIKARU" as her handle. Of course, people who knew her knew her real identity.
Now Hikaru was checking out the Fame BBS, like she always did.
Mixed in with the serious discussions about dance and acting roles, were the usual advertisements for sex. "Looking for someone to be my big brother. My handle is 'Tom Sawyer.'" That kind of thing. These always made Hikaru laugh out loud.
Anyone was able to read the messages on the BBS, just as anyone was allowed to post them. Moreover, because you could hide your true identity, you could post anything you liked. Anyone interested in your post could send you private e-mail.
There was no response to Hikaru's query about the airline ticket.
But there was a question for her: "HIKARU, are you a girl or a boy?"
Hikaru chuckled, and typed, "In Japanese, HIKARU means 'queen' (10).'"
At that moment, there was a knock on the door.
Still reading the computer screen, Hikaru said, "You're really late, Shuri!" The door was ajar. Hikaru was still in the middle of doing her laundry, and would have to go down to the laundry room in the basement in a few minutes.
Planning to tell Shuri a thing or two about being on time, Hikaru turned around towards the door. Then she froze. JG let out a horrendous meowl.
Three men wearing ski masks were standing in the doorway. There were holes in the mask for their eyes, noses and mouths, but Hikaru was unable to see their faces. They wore matching "bomber" style jackets and black sheepskin pants. But what made her unable to move more than anything else was the Beretta pistol one of the men was pointing at her.
One of them said something to her in fast accented, tongue-trilling English. Hikaru didn't understand what he said.
The smallest of the three men approached her. He pulled a scarf out his pocket and, getting a grip on Hikaru, shoved it under her nose.
That was when Hikaru felt the softness in the person's chest. She smelled the same aud d'cologne that she used.
This person was a woman?
Then Hikaru was pulled into a great blackness.
The woman passed the girl to her companions. Hikaru was out cold.
Then, looking around the room as if she were familiar with it, she picked up the shoulder bag that was sitting on the floor. Then she switched off the Kenny G CD. The computer, still on, sat on the bed.
There was a postcard that Hikaru had just finished writing. It was probably written to someone in Japan. The kanji, organized in neat little rows, seemed almost like some kind of code.
At the bottom of the postcard was the signature, "Star*."
She looked at the signature smiled to herself. She looked around the room again, finding a just-discarded T-shirt with the same signature on it.
The woman decided to have a little fun.
She saw right away that the Japanese girl had been accessing the Fame BBS. She had used it herself in the past.
The two men behind her tried to hurry her, but she gestured for them to leave. She sat down and typed: "Bye bye, Star*"
This message appeared right next to Hikaru's explanation of the meaning of the word "HIKARU."
A smile appeared on the face of the woman, as she shut off the computer. Then, picking up a bunch of keys that were on a shelf, she turned off the lights and left the room.
Outside the darkened apartment was the sound of the door being locked. Then, after the men had left and silence returned, JG, who had been crouching in a corner, meowed once.
Piano and clarinet, along with wood base instruments and electric guitar: all of these instruments are part of a standard jazz ensemble. The bar "ABCB" was full of happy people, as always.
Master, his eyes seeming to be remembering some far-off memory, was standing behind the counter, listening to the performance.
But that was to be expected.
All the performers were friends of his from college days, and all had normal jobs in companies during the day.
One was an insurance salesman. Another the president of a taxi company.
All, Master was fond of saying, had wanted to be jazz musicians when they were younger, and now they were as good as any pro you could find.
Master had quit the coffee shop "ABCB" that all of us had spent so much of our time back in high school and had opened this place in front of the station one town over. That was a year and a half ago.
He had apparently always wanted to open a place like this, where you could hear live music.
"Well, I'll put some money into a venture like that," said some of Master's old friends, getting caught up in the idea. They had all participated in building the bar.
Well, a little past eight p.m. or so, everyone would gather here, and then one would start playing around up on the stage, and others would join in. I couldn't play any instruments at all, and it made me quite envious.
"Oh, really? Really?"
After the performance ended, I heard the high-pitched voices of Kurumi and Manami, intermixed with the applause of the people in the bar.
My twin sisters were sitting with my evil friends, Komatsu and Hatta, along with a man I had never seen before. They had been sitting in the back of the room for some time.
Right after I walked into the bar, Komatsu and Hatta had come up to me, acting excited. "Come on, Kasuga. Over here. I'm going to treat you tonight." Komatsu pulled my arm as he spoke.
But I wasn't in the mood for them, so I sat by the counter and talked to Master.
"I apologize for my loudmouth sisters," I told him.
I looked over at the musicians, who had started playing again, and nodded a greeting to them.
The drummer, the taxi company president whose nickname was "Pack," winked back at me.
"No, really, I'm okay. It's just a _toshiro_ performance after all. Just to be able to hear the applause is enough for me."
"'Toshiro'?" I asked.
"Ah, I guess people in Kasuga-kun's generation don't use that word anymore," Master said to Pack, filling his glass.
"Musicians a long time ago," Pack explained, "used to mix their words around when they spoke. Made them sound cool."
"Huh?" I didn't understand.
"Even though we could use the word 'shiroto (11),' we would say 'toshiro.' You know?"
I didn't, but nodded anyway.
"Makes people sound cool. Old guys like us want to talk cool, too."
Pack laughed, and his protruding stomach shook when he did so. He took a rolled-up hot towel and wiped his face with it.
Master, smirking, said, "The man who once asked which was better, to marry the daughter of a taxi company owner, or to go to New York and chase your dream of someday being part of the 'Village Vanguard' is here before us, wiping his face with a hand-towel."
Everyone at the counter laughed at this.
Sitting there, I was filled with a warm, happy feeling.
I was thinking about Madoka again. And Hikaru-chan, in New York.
Since this morning, Madoka had been unable to calm down. She insisted that something had happened to Hikaru-chan.
After their conversation that morning, she had called her parents in Seattle.
Her father was the musical director of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, and her mother was a first violinist. They were quite famous.
She asked her parents to try to find out whatever they could about Hikaru-chan.
But America, which is nothing if not huge, there was a three-hour time difference between Seattle on the west coast and New York in the east.
On top of that, Japan's night was America's day. Madoka couldn't find out what she wanted to know until the people in New York got out of bed.
Right after Madoka had gotten off the phone with her parents, she took the coffee I had poured for her, and told me what had happened.
"I'm sure that 'bye bye Star*' has some meaning... But that doesn't mean that anything has really happened to her, does it?" I said to Madoka then.
Madoka took the coffee I had poured for her in both hands, and shrunk down into the couch, as if cold.
She took a drink of the coffee, and looked at me.
"It's not just a feeling I have."
"Kyosuke, will bring the postcards hanging on the tree here for me?" Her voice trembled as she spoke.
The big Christmas tree was standing next to the piano. Hanging on the tree, alongside the lights and decorations, were several postcards.
They had all been sent from Hikaru-chan in New York.
I had heard that Hikaru sent postcards to Madoka occasionally. It started three years ago, I believe, a few months after Hikaru had moved to Hokkaido.
But she had never shown any of them to me. She had talked about the content, but she had never actually let me see any of them.
I knew the reason why.
The postcards were a sign of Madoka's friendship with Hikaru-chan.
They had almost lost their friendship because of me.
That was the reason why Madoka hadn't shown the postcards to me. They represented Hikaru-chan's private feelings. Showing them to me would be the same as betraying those feelings, or at least treading on them.
So Madoka had kept the postcards something that was just between her and Hikaru-chan.
I took the postcards off the tree one by one. Madoka came up from behind me, and said, "Oh, that's the one I wanted. The one with the picture of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center."
"This one, with the picture of the skating rink?"
It was a picture of a skating rink in front of an incredibly tall building. The rink was filled with skaters.
Next the rink was a giant Christmas tree that probably reached the third or fourth floor of the skyscraper.
"Every year at this time, they make the skating rink," Madoka said.
Now that you mention it, I had seen it in magazines before.
It was New York, a city known for its crime.
But somehow, I thought it would be great to spend Christmas in a peaceful, happy place like this.
I sunk into the couch next to Madoka and read the postcard.
The contents were silly, but it was alive with Hikaru-chan's happy personality.
She had gotten into a new computer network called "Fame." She had bought a used CD Walkman from another person on Fame.
She had finally decided on a name for her cat: JG. Can we guess where she got the inspiration for the name?
Finally, 'Happy Christmas.' At the bottom was the signature, "Star*"
"Star?" I asked.
"Yeah. You know, that's what 'Hikaru' means in English, too (12)."
"Ah, I see. 'Star.'"
"Hikaru has decided she likes the word."
"That's just like her. It has a nice ring to it, though."
"Kyosuke, that's the problem."
I took the coffee cup from her and drank some.
Madoka took the pack of Salems that had been discarded on the table, taking notice of me out of the corner of her eyes. Her expression seemed to say, Why should I care what others think of me? as she took a cigarette out and lit it.
I don't smoke. So Madoka usually refrains from smoking in front of me.
Madoka blew out some smoke, then brushed her hair back, as if to avoid getting smoke in her hair. The smell of the cigarette mixed with Madoka's scent. It was kind of sexy.
Madoka started to talk about the postcards she had gotten recently.
About the "Star*" signature.
About Hikaru-chan being happy that everyone at the school had started using her new nickname.
About how important the Fame network was for people trying to get acting roles in New York.
But because America is the country where dreams and danger go hand in hand, Hikaru wouldn't use "Star*" as her handle name...
"I see," I said. "And now, on that Inter-, er, what was that again?"
"Yeah, she used 'Star*' on the Internet. So you were communicating with various people on the Internet, too, and in English."
A smile appeared on Madoka's face. "You're really amazing, Kyosuke."
"You don't know anything about computers, do you?"
"Well," I said, embarrassed.
"I wasn't talking to different people on the Internet. But I did check the Fame BBS quite often."
"You know, just to see what Hikaru was doing."
I laughed, but it was a worried kind of laugh.
Madoka tapped the end of her cigarette against the edge of the ash tray, dropping the burning ash into it.
Her long, slender fingers; her fingernails, grown just short enough so that they wouldn't get in her way when she played the piano: from time to time, I would become aware of Madoka like this. I felt as if I were just noticing how beautiful she was now that she'd become a woman.
At the same time, I felt like a child. A silly little boy.
"You said Hikaru was getting ready to go to Mexico," I said.
"Yes. She was asking around for a cheap ticket there."
"Oh, you mean things like that are posted on a computer bulletin board," I said.
"That's right. She used her handle name of 'Hikaru,' though. Someone who checked that asked if 'Hikaru' was a man or a woman's name. She posted that in Japanese it meant 'queen.' And she signed that message with the handle 'Hikaru,' too."
"Go on," I said.
"But the next message..."
I finished her sentence for her. "...was signed 'Bye bye, Star*.'"
Madoka fell silent. I felt I understood a little bit why she was so worried about Hikaru-chan.
"So basically, you're saying that she had used the name 'Hikaru' in all of her messages in the past, but in the last message, she signed the name of 'Star*.' Is that right?"
Madoka nodded and put out her Salem.
I put a hand on her shoulder, and pulled her towards me on the couch. We were silent for a while.
We were both probably thinking along the same lines.
It was possible that Hikaru had gone to Mexico, and typed 'bye bye' on the Fame BBS. She might have been so excited about going, that she accidentally signed the message 'Star*' by mistake.
But on the other hand, any number of bad things might have happened to her if you started thinking about it.
"She was in New York," Madoka said. "She knew the good points of American life as well as the bad. She wouldn't have used her real name, I'm sure of it (12). Unless there was some reason."
I nodded but was silent.
"Are you tired or anything?" She looked at me, smiling. This was one of those smiles she had been showing me so much recently.
To be honest, thinking about Hikaru-chan had been making me feel rather tired. I was worried about her.
After returning from Bosnia, I'd been getting this way, suddenly tired, with no energy whatsoever.
It was possible that this was a result of the shock I received from seeing the horrors of the battlefield there.
I don't want to be a wimp, but I can't be full of energy all the time. I want you to understand, Madoka Ayukawa.
I smiled wryly at Madoka, and, as if to escape her kind eyes, drank the coffee at the bottom of the cup.
But the dark brown liquid had been sitting too long.
"Wow, this is cold!" I said, but I drained the cup anyway.
"Hey, Kasuga! Hello, Kasuga?"
At Komatsu's voice, I returned to the present, back in ABCB.
Komatsu, obviously having a lot of fun, laughed and call me over.
"Don't make so much noise!" I said to him.
I didn't want him to bother Master or Pack any more with his yelling, so I went over to sit with them.
"Oh, you've finally come to sit with us," Komatsu said. "Sit down. Today is a special day."
"Every day is a special day with you," I said.
"What's wrong, oniichan?" Manami said. "You're always looking down in the dumps."
"That's right," added Kurumi. "Did you hear about Hatta-kun? He's a world traveller!"
"Yeah, he's an international man now."
"What happened to Hatta?" I asked.
"You remember," Hatta said. "My manga is going to be run in 'Weekly Shonen Jumbo.'"
That was the #1 weekly comic in Japan. Hatta had managed to make use of his interest in sex by drawing an adult manga which had become quite popular.
"Ah, you mean that ero-manga you draw, right?" I said.
Komatsu laughed out loud at this, blowing the bourbon and water out of his mouth.
"Oniichan, you shouldn't say 'ero-manga' like that. It's rude."
"Yeah, it's more like a 'love comedy.' The title is '_I'll let you do anything you want_.'" Kurumi placed special emphasis on the word 'anything.' "It's really funny," she added.
"Okay, okay. So what's the big deal?"
"Well," Hatta said, "in America, there's something called the 'Comic Market,' sort of a manga festival, but I've been invited to attend! And what with me, so new to the publishing world and all!"
"Wow," I said.
Then: "Irasshai." It was Master, greeting a customer who had just walked into the bar.
The man had a good build, and seemed somewhat intelligent. He looked like a gentleman. He greeted Master and sat down next to me.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
"It's the editor of Shonen Jumbo!" Komatsu said frantically. Both he and Hatta leaped up instantly. "We...we didn't know you'd be here tonight!"
They spoke as politely as they could to him. The artist of a sex manga has to take a back seat to his editor.
Then Kurumi spoke up. "Huh? But a moment ago you complained that Hatta's editor wasn't going to show up because Hatta was a newcomer to the company."
"That's right," Manami said.
"Now listen up, you two," Komatsu said, hushing the girls. "You're getting to eat all this for free tonight, so don't give us any lip."
Just then, Master called my name. He was behind the counter, holding a cordless telephone in his hand.
It was the phone called I had been waiting for.
On the other end of the connection, Madoka's voice was full of stress, as it had been that afternoon.
"We managed to contact Hikaru's friend, a girl named Shuri Anzai."
"Yes. She goes to the same dance school as Hikaru. My father asked someone he knew in New York to help him."
"I see. And he found this Shuri girl?"
"Yes. According to this girl, Hikaru must have gone to Mexico."
I started to say, "I knew it," then stopped myself.
"She said she went to Hikaru's apartment last night, which would have been this morning, Japan time. About 11:00 pm. But Hikaru was gone. Shuri had a spare key and let herself into the apartment."
"A spare key?"
"Yes. She and Hikaru had copies of each other's house keys. If one of them went to the other's house when they weren't there, it would be too dangerous to wait outside alone, right?"
"Ah. So what happened after Shuri went inside?"
"Everything was in order. And the big shoulder bag that Shuri had lent to Hikaru wasn't there."
"Hmm," I said. "So I guess Hikaru-chan went to Mexico after all."
"I'm not so sure..."
On stage, Pack was beginning another number. It was hard to hear. "What? I couldn't make out what you were saying," I said.
"Nevermind," she said. "Kyosuke, I'm going to Seattle."
"Do you want to come along?"
I was really having trouble hearing Madoka's words now.
Shouting, I asked her if she didn't want to come to ABCB, but she said something like, she had to pack her things for Seattle.
I asked her if I should go to her house, but she had given up on the conversation, unable to hear, and hung up.
Just then, something occurred to me...
She couldn't have meant that she was actually going to Seattle the following day, could she?
Even though she knew that I had to work my part-time job that day, she left for Narita airport, leaving this message on my answering machine:
"I'm sorry, leaving without seeing you like this. I'll be okay by myself, and I'll call you from Seattle. It looks like we'll have to spend Christmas apart this year. I'm sorry."
She had said 'I'll be okay,' but her voice didn't give that impression at all.
Madoka must have gotten hold of some information about Hikaru-chan.
And, not wanting to make me worry, she had gone off alone. I was sure of it...
Hikaru opened her eyes to the sound of a steam whistle.
But she didn't see anything. She was in total darkness.
Somewhere out beyond the darkness, the steam whistle sounded again.
The Hudson River...? Hikaru thought to herself, but shook her head right away. The Hudson River wasn't ten minutes away from her house. To think that she would be kidnapped and taken to someplace so close to her home was being overly optimistic.
Have I really been kidnapped?
But why me?
Hikaru vividly remembered the strangers forcing their way into her room. But judging from what they said, which she couldn't understand entirely, they were not anyone she knew.
She had no idea why such a thing would happen to her.
Her hands were tied with some kind of rope. The lower half of her body was in a sleeping bag. At the very least, it seemed that the culprits did not want her to freeze to death in the cold New York winter.
Just then, a horn sounded loudly.
Then the sound stopped, only to be followed by the sound of a car's tires, screeching away. Then, headlights, turned towards the dark space where she was, showing the outline of a window pane.
Hikaru realized that she was being held inside some kind of warehouse. And near a river large enough for ships to use.
But a moment later she darkness returned. Along with it, the heavy silence.
With the smell of the anesthesia still in her nose, Hikaru was pulled once again into the world of sleep.
Far away, the sound of John Lennon's "Happy Christmas."
It was probably coming from the shopping center that lay on the other side of the nearby hill. The town was completely wrapped up in its Christmas celebration.
It was near the top of the long, long stairs, where I had met Madoka Ayukawa for the first time. I was at the playground, sitting on the swing.
Madoka left for Seattle yesterday. Today was Christmas Eve.
Let's go to church together, she had said to me earlier. She had been looking forward to it for so long. But now...she had left Tokyo, almost as if she was running away from me.
I knew the reason.
Kasuga Kyosuke. You were never able to get over the shock of Bosnia. You eventually got so absorbed with it that you could think of nothing else.
And so... Madoka Ayukawa is...
The Christmas Eve you were both looking forward to is here, but she had to go away.
There was still no word from Madoka.
I called the Ayukawa house in Seattle, but Madoka was out with her parents at the time.
Morning in Japan is evening over there. According to the maid who answered the phone, Madoka had been invited to a party given by friends of her parents.
Then I called Madoka's older sister.
I had met her sister, who is eight years older than Madoka, several times while in high school. She was quite a different person from Madoka, somehow more like the daughter of a wealthy family than Madoka.
Madoka, more individual, got along well with her sister. So I was sure that Madoka would have passed on any important information to her.
"Ah, Kasuga-kun, yes," Madoka's sister said in her usual friendly voice.
Yes, she knew that Madoka had come to Seattle. Her husband had picked Madoka up from the airport.
A little too excitedly, I asked if Madoka had not been acting strangely at this time.
But Madoka's sister just laughed, and said, "Come on, do you think that something has happened to Hikaru-chan, too?"
I got embarrassed. "Huh? No, I, well...Madoka just thought, that...I mean, Madoka-san thought...well, she was rather worried."
"Yes, she was. But I told her she was worrying too much."
"Seriously. I don't know anything about the Internet, but how on Earth could any of us be expected to know what happened on the other side of the ocean, in one tiny apartment in New York?"
She went on, saying that Hikaru-chan would be okay, I've known her since she was a little girl, that sort of thing.
I thought to myself that I could see that Madoka's older sister had been raised quite differently from Madoka, basking in the love of her parents, and marrying an elite salary-man.
Thinking this way, I almost failed to hear what Madoka's sister was saying.
"Am I right? I told her that even if there was some special alarm clock that Hikaru-chan loved left in her apartment, it didn't mean anything."
"Huh? An alarm clock?" I said.
"Yes. It was something Hikaru-chan's friend had said. Now what was her name again?"
"Shuri? Was it Shuri Anzai?"
"Yes, that's right. When Madoka talked to this Shuri person, the matter of the alarm clock came up. That night, the night that Madoka thinks that something happened to Hikaru-chan, Shuri-san went to her room at about 11 pm."
I had heard this from Madoka.
"Then Madoka asked what time she went to the apartment one more time, just to be sure. Shuri-san said, 'I'm sure of the time. I looked at my watch, and also at the alarm clock in the room, and both said 11:00 pm.'"
"Madoka apparently started worrying when she heard about the alarm clock."
"Why would that be?" I asked.
"The alarm clock had been something that Madoka had given Hikaru-chan."
"It was really old. A tea cup with a teddy bear inside it. When Hikaru passed her high school entrance exams, Madoka asked her what she wanted as an entering-school present, and Hikaru-chan said Madoka's alarm clock. That's so like her, don't you think?"
"According to Madoka, this alarm clock was really important to Hikaru-chan, and she took it everywhere she went, even when staying with the girls from her club in high school. I remember she even brought it over to our house when sleeping over, keeping it right in her bag."
Just then , I felt as if I were looking at the sea, out at the distant horizon, and a wave suddenly appeared and started moving towards me. I felt oddly cold.
Out of the receiver, the bouncy, bright voice of Madoka's sister continued:
"But the clock is so old now. It's not the type of design a twenty-year-old girl would carry around with her. Hello? Kasuga-kun?"
"Ah, yes, I'm here."
"Madoka said that if Hikaru-chan had gone to Mexico, she would have taken the alarm clock with her." Madoka's sister laughed. "Oh, she's such a silly girl. I think she might be working too hard at that songwriting of hers. Well, it'll be okay. She'll get a chance to see Papa and Mama and say whatever she wants to say to them for a while."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Not to change the subject," she said, "but what will you be doing tonight, with Madoka gone? It is Christmas Eve. Why don't you come over here to our house?"
I lied that I had to work tonight, and put down the phone.
I knew I had seen the alarm clock of a teddy bear sitting in a tea cup somewhere before.
Remember...try to remember, Kyosuke!
I felt disgusted with myself for holding onto the memories of the shock of Bosnia. I had been stupid in the first place, deciding to travel to a battlefield like that, without considering my actions.
I had been selfish and conceited.
I had been bored at the University. So one day I had said to myself, "You've got to do something, Kyosuke!" and I took up photography.
This was, of course, all because my father was a photographer himself.
I just followed his example; I already knew how to handle a camera, of course.
And then, by chance, I managed to win the university photography contest, and suddenly I was in heaven. Next, it was time for me to pretend to be a journalist, so it was off to Bosnia.
There I saw...more misery than you could ever comprehend. Human beings, turned to "bloody _daruma_ (13)." I was unable to do anything for them, except cling to my camera and work the shutter.
Then, before I knew what had happened, the film I had brought with me ran out; I found myself under the protection of the UN peacekeeping forces.
I had gone to Bosnia to see the reality, but since returning to Japan, I had felt that I had been unable to face that reality.
That's right, Kyosuke Kasuga.
You haven't even found the courage to develop the film you brought back from Bosnia, have you?
And now the person you love is shaking with fear, and you can't even be next to her to comfort her, can you?
Kyosuke Kasuga...remember when you saw that alarm clock!
Try to see the reality right in front of your eyes.
As if I had been pushed by some unseen power behind me, I jumped up from the swing. I ran back to my house, and into the bathroom which served as our darkroom.
It was time to stop screwing around.
Thinking won't do anything. What can I do for Madoka, now?
There is just one thing.
And that is...to not run away anymore.
I took several rolls of film that had been left under the sink, and prepared to develop them.
And that was when I remembered about the teddy bear alarm clock.
I had seen it in Hikaru-chan's hotel room when she returned to Japan, six months ago.
Well, strictly speaking, the person who saw the alarm clock was the "me" who came from three years in the past. At the time, I had spent a dangerous night with Hikaru-chan.
Nothing really happened between us, but... we came very close.
The next morning, I left the hotel room while Hikaru-chan was taking a shower, and that was when I saw the teddy bear alarm clock.
To see that alarm clock in a hotel room of a nice "city hotel" like that somehow stuck out in my memory.
I said to myself, what is an old thing like this doing here?
But it never occurred to me that she had brought it with her all the way from New York.
One by one, the pictures appeared in the developing fluid.
In one picture, a person staring right into my camera... I couldn't bear the gaze, but I forced myself to look. And at that time, I knew that Madoka had been right, that something had happened to Hikaru-chan.
Basically, that if Hikaru-chan really had gone to Mexico of her own free will, she would have been sure to take Madoka's teddy bear alarm clock with her.
Developing the film took all night.
When it was finished, I called Seattle.
My capricious, whimsical angel's voice, on the other end of the connection, full of pain: "Kyosuke..."
I told her I would borrow money from Hatta and go there as soon as I could.
Madoka Ayukawa's voice returned to normal. "Catch a plane today, even if you have to use your ESP powers. I haven't tried on the light blue half-coat yet."
If I took a flight tonight, I would still be in time for Christmas in America.