Silvery Mellow Mist
Forecast 1 – Portable Cooling Device?
The sun was barely over the horizon, giving everything a shade of warm orange. The lingering white sheets of mist floating at some points, especially the mountainside and the river below, would eventually fade. Some residents of the town were long busy since dawn, especially for those who work at the harbor. It wouldn't be long for everyone to begin their day as well. Katsumoto Maki was no different from them.
Today, she was late. If she hadn't slept for an extra hour, she could have witnessed sunrise while having breakfast at the usual spot near the coast. The overall view from the place was breathtaking. Plus, the ambiance just by staying there was something she didn't found elsewhere. Going there was a new morning routine she decided on after exploring the port district last weekend. For now, she thought of another place to visit. A place she happened to found in one of her escapades. As she was done securing all of her things inside the basket of her bicycle, Maki was finally ready to leave.
Cycling in a pleasant morning like one today was certainly a wonderful, relaxing feeling. There would be instances that she would get excited and push on the pedals in a faster rate just to enjoy the cold breeze against her face, wind flapping her uniform and hair as she increased speed. Her snowflake hairpin proved its worth for keeping a part of her hair in its intended place. She didn't mind her hair as she could just fix it again later. Some of the loose strands finding their way on her dark blue eyes was a real bother though.
Reaching the halfway of the mountain path, she took a separate trail upwards. As the trail became steeper than she could manage, she got off her bicycle and continued by foot. Repeating the same mistake again would be embarrassing and painful. Two days of back pain after falling off her bicycle and colliding to a tree was no laughing matter. With that in mind, she still couldn't afford to leave her bicycle behind either...
Her gradual approach to her destination paid off. No damages incurred whatsoever. Good start so far!
She took a deep breath and looked around. She was certain that she was at the right place.
A single tombstone sat in the middle of a small clearing where sunlight hardly touched the ground. Dried leaves covered the forest floor and there was mist everywhere. It was like she stepped outside the world she used to know. Springtime's essence was nowhere to be seen. It was tranquil but eerie at the same time. After all, who would decide to put a tombstone in such high and isolated place? All she knew that she felt like going there again.
What bothered her were paper strips stuck all over the protruding stone. Not just ordinary paper, but blessed amulets. Paper charms she could see in shrines used for various purposes. Each of the trees along the pathway she passed through had one of the same amulets as well. The mist from the other day was too thick that she only noticed those details just now. The very sight of the tombstone made the hairs on her back stand. In fact, finding it for the first time prompted her to leave immediately.
But today was different. She was not going to turn her back like last time.
She propped her bicycle next to a boulder a few feet from the clearing's entrance. She picked up her breakfast from the bike's basket – three slices toasted bread, slices of apple, and scrambled eggs from a container, a small jar of apple jam, and iced tea in a plastic bottle – before sitting on top of the large rock. There was no need of using the checkered cloth she had with her when eating outdoors.
She shivered as she finished spreading jam on a slice of bread. She just wished she brought a jacket with her. As she took a bite of the bread, she happened to stare at the tombstone. She could only wonder if someone was actually buried in the grave. If so, what about the deceased person's relatives? It must had been a long time since their last visit because of the lack of noticeable maintenance around the grave. Then, why did they have to trouble themselves to bury their beloved there?
It must have been very lonely...
She thought of an idea as she finished the last piece of her second toast. Putting a piece of apple in her mouth, she covered her breakfast container then hopped off the boulder. The sound of dried leaves being crushed under her weight or simply moved about as she walked was disturbingly loud.
She knelt in front of the tombstone and started clearing the leaves that seemed to settle there for an eternity. The piled-up leaves were about several inches thick like how snow would carpet the ground during winter.
Her eyes widened as she touched something flat and solid. She further removed all the leaves so she could take a good look of the object – a white marble plate in contrast with the granite tombstone. She tried to read the characters on marble plate:
Here lies the child of deception and candidness, the daughter of illusions and fabrications.
Maki found herself biting her lower lip. Aside from the engraved writing and absence of paper charms on the plate, that was it. No other information was given and the more important ones she was hoping for like the person's name were seemed to be omitted. She figured that the tombstone itself might have more writings but backed off when she had to remove some of the paper charms. That would be disrespectful to the person resting there if it was done on purpose. Provoking someone dead would be nothing less of a terrible mistake.
As she continued cleaning the grave, she found a single paper charm. It had the same pattern like the rest she had seen around but only larger. Upon closer inspection, it was emitting cold vapor. The paper itself was cold to the touch too.
Fascinated with the paper charm, she brought it closer to her face. That was the time she heard a voice. A whisper her ears couldn't make out. With a startled gasp, she quickly stood up and glanced around. It dawned on her that she was probably not alone.
But she didn't care for what might happen next. It was to be expected when she intruded there in the first place. It was no surprise too if the voice came from the spirit of the person who was peacefully resting there until that moment. Ignoring the voice, she instead focused on her next task.
She fetched her breakfast set from the boulder and returned to the grave. She set the last piece of toast, two apple slices and scrambled eggs on the marble plate's surface after covering it with two pieces of tissue. Then, she filled her plastic cup with iced tea and placed it next to the bread.
Maki stared at the tombstone for a moment before closing her eyes. "This is the least I could do if you will be kind to share this place with me."
She stood up and stretched her arms. "Also, I wish I knew your name so I can address you properly."
She brought her cell phone out and looked at its screen. She still had plenty of time left before school starts but her return trip might take a good chunk of her time as well. She returned the phone to her skirt's pocket and started to pack her things. After a wave of her hand, she started to walk towards her bicycle.
"I'll be going now."
Climbing down the slope was surely troublesome but she managed just fine without slipping or getting her clothes stained. She rode on her bicycle when the ground was safe enough to balance herself, enjoying a short downhill course to the paved road below.
She shifted course to the shortest route available to her school. She started working on the pedals again, but in a much normal pace this time. She couldn't afford to get tired or have sweat dripping all over her face before the first period of the day starts. She reached the school gates twenty minutes before the warning bell could go off. A large number of students entered the school gate, either on foot or bicycles like her. Her second middle school year began a month ago. Everything seemed new at first but the feeling didn't last long after a week. It probably helped that the city, especially the port area, was familiar to her way back in her elementary school years.
She went to the bicycle shed and noticed how crowded it was. Accessing the school with a bicycle of your own seemed to be the norm here. She didn't have to worry though. She would just simply walk past them and park her own in the farthest set of old rusted racks under a cherry tree.
"Maki-chan, good morning!"
Judging with the voice's vividness and bubbly tone to it, she already knew the person without the need of glancing back.
She gave her classmate a small nod to acknowledge the greeting. "Morning, Megumi."
"We have badminton for P.E. later, right?"
Another nod then followed with a sigh. The moment Maki was done, she slung her schoolbag on her left shoulder and started to walk through the shed. Her classmate followed until they were walking side by side.
Megumi stretched her arms upwards. "I'm kinda excited for it. I'll go all out then eat good lunch my father made. How about you?"
"The usual, as always."
Maki stopped to look at her. "You didn't come here with your bicycle?"
Megumi turned around and pointed at a silver bicycle in the midst of numerous others. "I was about to enter the building when I saw you."
"You didn't have to."
"You're being a stranger again. No wonder you find making friends with others hard."
"It's not like I'm planning to befriend everyone."
"For starters, why don't you fix your hair in the restroom?"
Maki twirled a lock of hair on her forehead. "As much as I want to, I can't blame the wind for doing this every morning."
Megumi opened her bag and brought out a small square mirror. She shoved it to Maki's face with a grin. "See?"
Maki lowered her head and stared at her reflection. Her pale gray hair became fluffier than usual but she didn't mind it too much. She also noticed some of the strands of her hair were out of place. "...It's not that bad, I guess."
"You can't let the wind do the hairstyling for you, Maki-chan. How about I fix your hair for you?"
Maki stared at her classmate's black hair tied in a set of three tiny buns on one side of her head and a generous braided ponytail on the other. "No, thanks."
"You don't trust me, do you?" Megumi chewed on her lower lip. "Alright, let's go."
They entered the building, swapped their shoes with the indoor slippers in the lockers, and went to the ladies room near the stairway so Maki could return her hair's usual state. All she did though was a rather quick combing to straighten the sides and back of her hair. Megumi was not satisfied as she tried to wrestle over the comb, complaining that she didn't see any difference. With a nimble step backwards, Maki returned the comb to her bag and rushed outside.
Megumi had a determined look on her face as if she took it as a challenge. "Come back here! You're not done yet!" she shouted.
Maki didn't expect things to escalate in such short time when she began climbing the stairs. She only knew that she needed to get to their room as quickly as possible. She had to keep her hair safe! "I like my hair better now! It doesn't need any fixing!"
"Really?" Megumi grinned. "I'm sure you'll like it. Why won't you try me doing it for you?"
"Stubborn. Just like my hair," Maki replied before sprinting upwards.
"You know I am!"
The rather short chase ended in front of their classroom on the third floor. Out of breath, Megumi wiped off the sweat on her forehead. "Did we really have to go that far?" she asked between gasps.
"...You asked for it."
Maki felt lucky that no one called out to them when she hurried through the second floor corridor. She didn't have to worry about the other students as they were already in their rooms but Megumi running just out of arm's reach behind her was the exception. After catching her own breath, she slid the door open and entered the room.
A few of her classmates chatting next to the door greeted the pair with confused looks. Maki gave them a firm nod and immediately sat at the front row, next to the window to save herself from questions. She brought out the things she would need for the following subjects and all that was left of her to do was wait until the first period starts. Essentially, she had to cool down too.
Curious, she looked over to Megumi who settled at the farthest row, second column seat.
Megumi puffed her cheeks and crossed her arms, returning Maki's stare with a somehow unconvincing glare. "What's wrong? I'll have you know that I won't be fixing your hair anymore."
"You did your homework, right?"
Slamming the table in front of her, Megumi shouted, "You don't have to remind me!"
"Good to hear."
The warning bell rang and classes soon started.
Lessons went by like the morning sea breeze. Maki would copy everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard. When she was done, she would idly draw anything that comes to her mind just to keep boredom at bay. Of course, when something in the discussion caught her attention, it wouldn't be surprising for her to listen to the speaker word by word. Same goes for everyone, after all.
The only thing distracting her in class was the paper strip inside her pocket, but not for the reason that it was giving her discomfort. Hours passed by and it remained its constant cool temperature that seemed to affect her whole body. She felt like she was in an air-conditioned room which was even more noticeable whenever she moved a limb. It was so pleasant that when coupled with the occasional breeze entering the window, she was close to falling to sleep several times since second period.
Then it was finally gym class – a timely opportunity to wake herself up.
The class spent the first half of the period learning the basics for playing badminton. Footwork and posture, proper handling of the racket, and a few more essential techniques. As soon as the instructor concluded the lesson with a short demonstration, the students were grouped in pairs to practice. In less than a minute, everyone already had their partners and went to find an empty space for them to play. As for both Maki and Megumi, they picked a spot in the field next to the gymnasium. The sky was almost devoid of clouds and the strong sunlight directly hitting them as they played was quite unfavorable.
The school bell rang once again after the pair finished the third set of their game. After changing back to their uniforms, Maki and Megumi went to the classroom and brought out their respective packed lunches. Since a single table wouldn't be enough to accommodate them both, Maki borrowed the table behind her seat and placed it next to her own. That way, she could still eat her lunch beside the window.
"No, really. You could've beat me if you tried harder," Megumi said as she flexed her right arm. "You're faster than me!"
Maki shrugged. "I was never trying to win anyway."
"Maybe I should tease you more so you'll play seriously next time."
"And now that I remembered, you barely broke a sweat during our game!"
"And why are you looking at me like I did something horrible?"
"We're playing under the sun! How can you even do that?" Megumi grabbed an empty plastic bottle inside her schoolbag. "I'm sure I can fill this with my sweat over the whole period! Is there some kind of trick to do that?"
"Trick? There's no such thing!"
"Then tell me!"
Maki opted to keep quiet until she finished setting her lunch on the table. She looked at Megumi who was waiting for her response. "I do have a portable air conditioner with me, so..."
Megumi blinked her eyes before she burst into laughter, earning the attention of their remaining classmates in the room. "I didn't know you have that side of yours, Maki-chan!"
"Yep, that was totally unexpected. You surprised me there!"
Maki sighed as she tried her best to ignore the stares of her classmates. "Are you done laughing?"
Resting her body against the chair, Megumi opened her lunchbox and her eyes shimmered as she stared at its contents. Maki took a peek as well. "Wow. This is great! How about yours, Maki-chan?"
Maki removed the lid of her lunchbox. "Beef cutlet topped with mushroom sauce. Too bad it's already cold."
"Yeah. One disadvantage of bringing our own lunch." Megumi picked up her chopsticks, breaking it in half with an audible snap. "I wonder if there's a way to keep the heat of our food until lunchtime. That would be great, don't you think?"
"Something like a vacuum lunchbox?"
"Is it even practical?"
"Don't ask me." Maki poured iced tea on a cup and drank all of its contents. She refilled the cup and placed it with the bottle next to her lunchbox. "Do you have any plans after school?"
"I'll drop by the convenience store before heading home. How about you?"
"I don't know yet. Maybe I'll do a little shopping on my own too." Maki shoved a hand to her skirt pocket and brought out the paper charm from early morning. "For now, can you look at this for a bit?"
Megumi perked up, seeing the strip of paper. "Some kind of charm? Or maybe a talisman? What is it for?"
"As if I know. That's why I'm asking you."
"But I've never seen one like that before. The pattern's design is weird though. Usually, calligraphy's written on it."
"And you call yourself a priestess?"
Megumi brought a palm down on her table, nearly spilling Maki's iced tea. "I'm still a priestess trainee! They're different!"
"Sounds the same to me."
"W-Well, that's true." Megumi glanced to the side. Then, she looked back at the paper. "Anything else about that charm?"
"The paper's releasing mist when I found it but it doesn't seem to do that anymore."
"Mist? Where did you find that anyway?"
"In a random grave somewhere on the mountainside. The road leading to the old lighthouse near the cliff."
Frowning, Megumi pointed her chopsticks at Maki. "Do you have any idea what risks you took just by doing that? Did you peel that off from something?"
"I didn't," Maki replied with a slightly raised voice. "I picked it up on the ground. I'm sure it fell off on its own."
"And why are you keeping it until now?"
"Because it's a portable air conditioner. It'll be nice to have in hot afternoons."
"Nice try, Maki-chan." Megumi snatched the paper from Maki's hand. "In any case, let me do the keeping for you. I might check it during my free time."
"Do all paper charms have strange gimmicks like that one?"
"When enchanted for a specific purpose like this one, it can." Megumi placed her chopsticks on top of her lunchbox and held the paper charm with both hands. "You're right. Now I know why you didn't throw this charm in the first place."
"I'll leave it to you then."
Megumi gave a long sigh as she kept the paper in her pocket. She was about to slump on the table, only to recoil in the last second when she saw her lunch food. Unfortunately, what she did was to throw herself backwards instead. The edge of the table caught her knees, stopping her from falling further, at the same time, upsetting everything on both tables. Maki quickly stood up and grabbed her hand before anything worse could happen.
"T-That was close! Thanks," Megumi said, smiling as she finally balanced her seat against the floor.
Maki stared at her classmate's lunch. It was not that hard to imagine Megumi covered with barbecue sauce and bits of vegetables while her lunchbox rested on her face. She dismissed the silly picture in her mind and asked, "What are you doing?"
"Well, this reminded me how busy I am at the shrine lately. I haven't even touched my computer for a week!"
Picked up her chopsticks now lying on the table, Megumi fished out a single shrimp mixed in with the vegetables. She placed it inside her mouth with a dejected look on her face. "Bear with me, Maki-chan..."
"Can't you just tell them you don't want to be the next shrine priestess? You're still a trainee."
"Because I can't. They said that it would be a waste if I didn't accept that responsibility. When the last priestess passed away, the townsfolk searched for a suitable replacement until the end of summer last year. Then, that was the time a caretaker of the shrine found me while I was at the shopping district."
"Going by that logic, anyone can be a priestess. Even me."
"That's rude! I had to pass certain tests before things came this way."
Maki nodded and put another spoonful of rice and meat in her mouth. "I've been thinking. What made the previous priestess special?"
"There are rumors that she was so powerful that she could defeat demons and malicious entities with just a wave of a hand. Some say she could even tap the powers of some deity when she's in a pinch. I also heard that she could predict the weather for the next few days!"
"Sounds like it's just you stretching it too far."
"You don't believe me, do you?"
Maki prodded a piece of the beef cutlet with her fork. "But she's still young. There must be something else..."
Megumi gasped. "You know her?"
"I saw her a lot when visiting the local shrine with my family. Did she die in some sort of illness?"
"To be honest, I don't know too."
Maki shrugged. "I somehow expected that answer."
"You seemed curious about her all of a sudden. What is it for?"
"It's just as you said. I'm curious."
Megumi gave her a glance as she punched a straw to her pack of orange juice. She took a few sips of the juice. "Really now?"
"Anyways, you'll most likely fail if you're not even interested in doing your priestess duties."
"That's why I've gotten this far in my training. I actually like it."
Maki raised an eyebrow. "In other words, you got used to it?"
"Well, long and boring ceremonies are not my thing. Everything else seems okay to me. I'm actually decent at doing house chores and I'm not picky when it comes to food. I have other reasons for accepting their offer..."
"Can you give one?"
"It allows me to do something other people can't." Megumi tapped her cheek, eyes closed and lips pursed. "Something extraordinary, I mean. Like how heroines in anime get amazing abilities..."
"I get your point, but you also have to think that you were chosen because you have the potential. Not everyone can have something that you already have from the start."
Megumi looked down and nodded. "You're right."
"Just use that opportunity as it should be. Then you're set."
"Thanks, Maki-chan. I'll keep that in mind."
"Don't thank me. I only gave my opinion about it."
"How about you? Do you have any plans in the long run?"
Maki stopped eating for a moment, thinking of an answer. "Finish this year without failing marks?"
"I mean, plans for yourself!" Megumi said. "Do you have a hobby you want to work on? Maybe attending a club you find interesting?"
Maki opened her mouth to speak but no clear words came out of it. She tried once more but she couldn't find the proper words to say, much less a compelling response. She shifted in her seat then turned her head to the window, taking in the view outside. "I'll just try to find a part-time job and save up. I can't think of something else that would be worth my time."
"We're still in junior high, Maki-chan! You should enjoy yours like everybody else!"
Confused, Maki casted her gaze back to her lunchbox. "Easier said than done..."
Megumi leaned herself forward, smiling. "I'm sure you'll come up with something. Just take it at your own pace. Rushing things rarely works."
"Taking things at your own pace. That doesn't sound right coming from you..."
"As payment for your cruel and certainly false statement, you'll give me a quarter of your cutlet!"
Homeroom was finished and school for the day was finally over.
Together, they went to a convenience store near an intersection a few blocks away from school. They chained their bicycles on a steel rack before heading inside. The two separated without another word to tend their respective businesses after getting hold of a shopping basket. In no time, Maki filled her basket with all the things she needed, mostly ingredients for dinner later and meals for the following days. She threw in a pack of candles with her too, just in case. She noticed that Megumi was already at the counter who mostly bought snacks and a few raw ingredients of her own.
With their shopping done, they exited the store and fetched their bicycles waiting for them outside.
"So, where are you going next?" Megumi asked as she rode on her bicycle. "If you want, I can go with you."
Maki put the plastic bag inside her bike's basket. "I'll just visit someone. I won't stay long anyways."
"Who could that be? A friend of yours? Maybe a special someone you haven't told me yet?"
Maki replied with a stare. A blank one.
Megumi giggled as she waved a hand. "Okay, okay. I'll see you tomorrow. Don't just wander anywhere you like."
"Same to you."
Megumi zoomed to the corner and disappeared after turning left. Maki got on her bike and grabbed the handlebars. It was time for her to go as well.
She began her own trip back to the mountainside area. A relaxing one. It felt like she was just starting her day again with the same destination in mind, the cool breeze and the shade of orange that enveloped everything around her.
Reaching the place where the trail from before was, she made a stop when she noticed that the mist was a bit thicker than early morning. The mist formed a natural barricade on her path as if to prevent her timely entry. It fascinated her. She had never seen something like it before...
She felt cold again. She could feel it spreading to every part of her body. Something from her skirt's pocket was causing it. Her hand shook as she slowly pulled out what she was not expecting to have that moment – the same paper charm Megumi took earlier. She was sure that Megumi didn't return the item at any point in the afternoon.
Was it a prank made by her friend? Perhaps Megumi sneaked from behind and returned it to her pocket without her knowing! Sounds very unlikely but possible! If that were the case, she would've noticed it beforehand!
To confirm her piling doubts, Maki brought out her cell phone. She had to know immediately.
She dialed her classmate's number, and placed the phone next to her ear. The moment the receiver picked up the call, she could hear vehicles in the background. "Megumi," she whispered.
"What's wrong? Did you forget something important to say?"
"You still have the paper charm with you?"
"What paper charm?"
Maki scowled as held her phone tighter. "No jokes for now, Megumi. Just tell me if you still have it."
"Ah, that charm? Lemme check." There was a short pause before Megumi replied, "That's weird, I'm very positive I put it in my pocket when I got it. Should I check my bag too?"
"There's no need doing that. Thanks anyways."
"What's the matter, Maki-chan?" Megumi asked again. Her voice this time was more of concern. "Are you okay?"
Maki bit her lip. "I'm... fine. It's nothing."
"You're not home yet? Be careful out there, okay?"
"How about you? Still on the road?"
"Well, doing priestess duties. Someone recognized me while I passed in front of an outdoor café and he wanted help with a spirit-related case."
"Ah, good luck with that."
"Thanks. I'm actually nervous right now! I'm not sure if I could pull this off. What if I mess up? How about-"
Maki sighed. "Focus."
"Right. Sorry! I'll call you again later!"
With a press of a button, she ended the call and kept her phone.
Maki stared at the amulet once more and felt that its temperature dropped for several degrees since she brought it out. Then, something incomprehensible struck her system. Her vision blurred for random intervals and her whole body felt heavy. She massaged her forehead with her free hand while she fought the sensation with sheer willpower. Aside from her body acting up, the mist blocking the pathway started to stir, separating in half in a matter of seconds.
Maki shook her head and squinted at the trail. She was not hallucinating. Wind couldn't do such thing either. More suspicious when not a single whiff passed in her direction since her arrival.
She couldn't make a gamble this time. Not in her current state and what she just witnessed. She had to call it a day...
Returning the paper charm to her pocket, she steered to the opposite direction without looking back. She sped through the road and reached the residential area of the port before the skies completely darken. Her house was a bit far from the busier streets but she had a great view over the neighborhood from there. The only problem concern was the uphill road she had to take when going back home. Granted, she found it convenient when it was the other way around.
Making a sharp turn towards the entrance of her home, she entered the yard before pulling the breaks. She set her bicycle next to the wall and brought out a key from her bag's pocket. Maki walked towards the front door and inserted the key into its knob. The door creaked as she pushed it open. "...I'm home."
Naturally, the reply would be cold silence and she would just enter inside. She had lived there alone since she moved in. Her uncle would check on her every now and then but she had the whole house by herself. That would also mean that she had to do everything herself.
Somehow, the heavy feeling from earlier disappeared as she made her way to the living room. She was more than glad it did. She couldn't let herself get sick. Still, something was off...
She turned on the lights in the living room and set her school bag on the sofa. Checking the time of her phone, she had to start making dinner before plunging herself in a warm bath. She went towards the kitchen and set her groceries on the table with a thud. Her own rhythmic footsteps against the wooden floor as she went to and fro the refrigerator and pantry was a sound she got easily accustomed to. The delicate silence of her home reminded her of the clearing where the single grave was.
Maki shivered. Not again...
She could feel it. She couldn't possibly ignore it. Someone was following her from behind. It was a subtle, cold presence stronger than the paper charm in her pocket.
A ghost? But there was no mistaking it. She couldn't think of other explanation why the space behind her began to get chilly. But she wasn't completely sure yet! Frowning, she turned her back without second thoughts.
Did someone placed a mirror behind her back? For a moment, she thought that she was looking at own image. Despite of the similarities, she was looking at a completely different person who just happened to look like her! The girl had an overall pale appearance but with the same rounded face, short gray hair and blue eyes Maki had. Her hairpin's design was a yellow tulip instead of a snowflake and height-wise, she was a bit shorter by a few inches.
Maki's eyes widened, her heart raced and her body trembled, not because she could see through the girl in front of her. The girl, in fact, was familiar to her. Too familiar. Maki hadn't seen her face for a long time and she already accepted the fact that she wouldn't be seeing that girl again for the rest of her life.
And it happened just like that without the slightest warning...
The ghostly girl leaned towards her and beamed. "Good evening, big sister! How was today's school?"