Chapter 6: The Man Looking This Way
Morning. The 8th day of the seventh month of the year 3305.
It was the second day of the practice camp. The sky was a clear blue, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
Seron Maxwell and Larry Hepburn sat in the dormitory cafeteria.
Like the previous day, they were in their school sweats. And like the previous day, they sat at a table far from the drama club.
On Seron’s tray was a plate of bacon, eggs, boiled vegetables, and toast. On Larry’s tray was the other breakfast menu—a plate of boiled vegetable salad with steamed chicken, along with a heaping helping of cereal and milk.
As usual, Larry prayed for the war dead.
“Thanks for waiting. Let’s eat.” He said.
“Of course. It’s only proper to do justice to the moniker ‘the most important meal of the day’.” Came an answer.
“…I wasn’t talking to you.” Larry said, looking at the long-haired boy sitting next to Seron.
Nicholas Browning wore a shirt embroidered with his family name. His long hair was tied up in a ponytail, and like the previous day it was impossible to tell that he was a boy from appearances alone.
Nick and Seron were sitting side-by-side with the same menu before them.
Seron seemed to have no intention of joining the exchange. He took bites out of his toast with blueberry jam. The toast crunched loudly.
“I’ll also be staying at the dormitories from today on. In a single room, unfortunately.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to eat breakfast at school today too.”
“I might as well get an early start to dormitory life, don’t you agree? It’s better to get started sooner than later.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to eat with us. Go sit with the drama club.”
“I simply thought it seemed fatally lonely over in this corner of the cafeteria.”
“Thanks for your concern. I suggest you get your eyes checked. Get well soon.”
“I was simply making a joke. To be honest, I’m showered with so many questions when I sit with the drama club that I almost find it annoying. I do appreciate all the attention, still.”
“Just like Seron, huh.”
“I suppose so. But not a few of the girls seem to have their eyes on you as well, Larry.”
“It’s too early in the morning to be making fun of people, y’know.”
“No, no. I’m simply trying to say that you should be more aware of your own charms.”
“…Don’t tell me you actually prefer guys to girls.”
“Not at all. And even if I did, you wouldn’t be my type.”
“Are you trying to pick a fight?”
“Nonsense. I’m not really one for fistfights.”
“Even if I liked guys, I’d still turn you down.”
“Ah, then we’re in agreement. A good Roxchean phrase to use might be ‘birds of a feather flock together’.”
“I’m a soldier, not a poet.”
“Yes, I know about that. Everyone’s heard of the Hepburn family.”
“Thanks. I don’t know a thing about your family.”
“My parents are both professors at Confederation Capital University. My father is a professor of linguistics, and my mother a professor of economics. I also have two sisters—twins—who are four years older than me. They are currently attending a women’s university.”
“By ‘I don’t know a thing about your family’, I meant, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t really care’. Did I mess up my Roxchean? Ask your father for me sometime.”
“I will. Shall I give you an invitation to our house sometime?”
“How did you get to that conclusion?”
“Then perhaps just for Seron. I suppose I’ll have to instruct the maid to prepare only one extra cup of tea.”
“What, so Seron’s already going?”
“Considering the flow of the conversation, I assume so.”
“Please tell me what language you’re speaking in, Nicholas.”
“‘Nick’ will do, Larry. We’re friends, after all.”
“Friends, eh? That’ll be 100 sit-ups and 200 push-ups every day, Nick. Think you’re up for it?”
“I’ll be perfectly content to sit back and watch.”
“Don’t be shy. Come over to my place sometime and I’ll give you the training session of your life. For your information, my brother—the ultimate musclehead—is set to come home pretty soon.”
Larry and Nick’s banter went on for some time.
“Larry. Nick. You’d better finish eating if you don’t want to be late for practice.” Seron said, having finished two pieces of toast.
“Oh, shoot! Ms. Krantz is pretty scary when she gets mad.”
“She certainly is. Let’s hurry.”
Larry and Nicholas quickly finished their food.
The drama club and the three helpers had just put away their trays and were heading off to the gymnasium when they received the news.
“SC Arthur!” One of the girls cried, running into the cafeteria.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” Arthur asked, going over to her.
“Ms. Krantz can’t make it to practice today!”
The drama club members were in shock. Seron, Larry, and Nick listened along as the girl explained the situation.
“Apparently her mother fell down the stairs early in the morning and hurt herself badly. She broke her leg. Ms. Krantz had to go straight over, and she just called Mr. Murdoch at the faculty office.”
“Where’s Ms. Krantz’s hometown again?”
“I think it was Lajimdt City.”
“That’s about 100 kilometers from the Capital District.” Arthur remarked.
“Yes. Ms. Krantz says she’ll be gone until the evening, so she’s going to cancel practice today. She says she’s very sorry about this.”
“I see… Well, there’s not much we can do at this point. I heard Ms. Krantz’s father passed away a long time ago, so there’s probably no one else who can look after her mother.”
“What do we do, Arthur?” Sophia asked, concerned.
“We can’t practice without Ms. Krantz. We’ll have to take the day off today. We can go ahead and continue building set pieces in the clubroom. The orchestra and the chorus club are probably here already, so we should explain the situation and have them do independent practice or take a break.” Arthur instructed without missing a beat.
“I see. That sounds good.” Sophia nodded. Then she asked several drama club members to convey the message to the other clubs.
The messengers quickly left the cafeteria.
“What about us?” Larry asked Arthur.
“You and Seron—and Nick too—can take the day off. Sorry this happened on such short notice. Enjoy some free time. We’ll assemble tomorrow morning at the gymnasium.”
“Didn’t think we’d have so much time on our hands.”
Larry and Seron remained in the cafeteria.
The drama club members had all gone. The cafeteria ladies were not there either, as they were taking a break before preparing lunch.
The cafeteria was quiet and deserted, save for Larry and Seron—
“Let’s chat and pass the time together.”
—and the smiling Nick. There was a teapot and cups of tea on the table between them.
Larry picked up his cup and pointed at Nick, who sat beside Seron.
“Why didn’t you go with the drama club?”
“Because I am not a member.” Nick replied immediately.
“Hm.” Larry frowned and chugged his tea.
“I don’t mind just sitting in my room to read.” Said Seron. “But that might be pretty boring for you two, huh? Do you want to go watch a film together? We can eat out for lunch and go shopping. I’d like to drop by the bookstore.”
Larry and Nick grinned.
“That’s a wonderful idea.”
“You’re coming too? Sure, whatever.”
“Then we’ll leave once we finish tea.” Seron nodded.
At that moment—
“Ah! I knew it! You’re here!”
A powerful female voice resounded through the cafeteria.
Seron looked up. So did Larry. But Nick spoke first.
“And who might this be? Could you introduce us?”
Stepping into the cafeteria was Natalia Steinbeck. Unlike the previous day, she was in comfortable blue pants and a white long-sleeved shirt.
Natalia walked between the aisles and came right up to the boys.
“Good morning, Nat.”
Seron and Larry greeted her.
“Hey, you two. —C’mon, say hi.” Natalia said, stepping aside.
“Er… Good morning.”
There stood Strauski Megmica.
“Private Hepburn, some clean cups and a pot of warm tea, on the double! Don’t make the ladies wait.”
Larry stood, unable to put up resistance against Natalia’s military-style commands.
Natalia took Larry’s seat and sat Meg down next to her. Meg was in sweats today, just like the boys. Her family name was embroidered over the breast.
No one sat across from Meg. It was a strange formation to be sitting in, but Meg did not object.
Seron took a deep breath. He looked at Meg and—
“Good morning. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Nicholas Browning, a third-year student. Please call me ‘Nick’. I came in yesterday afternoon to help out with the drama club.” Nick said elegantly. Seron quietly exhaled.
“For a second there, I thought you were Larry’s girlfriend. The name’s Natalia Steinbeck. Third-year. Just call me ‘Nat’.”
“My name is Strauski Megmica. I am a person from Sou Be-Il. I am also a third-year student. It is a pleasure to meet you.” Meg said, a little tense.
“Oh right, I’m from the orchestra club. We’re supposed to provide music for the performance. Meg here’s from the chorus club, also here to help.”
“I see. We’ll be counting on your support, Nat. Megmica.”
Seron looked up at Larry. But he did nothing more.
“Here, Lia. Sorry to keep you waiting, Megmica.” Larry said, bringing back a pot of tea and holding out cups for the girls, making a point of being nicer to Meg than Natalia.
“Talk about discrimination. Thanks.”
“Thank you very much, Larry. I will enjoy this tea.”
“…My seat?” Asked Larry. Natalia did not miss a beat.
“Go across. This side belongs to the girls. Or were you one of us, Larry? Short hair’s not bad on you.”
Larry walked all the way around the long table and to the other side.
He considered switching seats with Seron to give him a seat across from Meg, but that would stand out too much. So he did not.
Larry sat next to Seron—in other words, across from Meg.
Natalia held out his cup to him.
“Thanks. You heard about Ms. Krantz, right?” Larry said, receiving the cup. Natalia nodded.
“Yeah. Right after I got to school. Someone suggested doing independent practice today, but we decided to take the day off. Everyone left their instruments and went off shopping. Must’ve wanted a break.”
“The chorus club is resting today as well. My senior-classmen have gone home. I was just trying to phone call my driver, when I met Natalia on the campus.”
“So I brought her over. Thought you guys’d be pretty bored too.”
‘Good going, Lia!’ Larry thought, but he did not say so. He smiled instead.
Seron internally heaped Natalia with every word of praise he could possibly think of. But he did not let it show at all.
“We certainly were. Seron just suggested that we should watch a film, have lunch, and go shopping.” Said Nick.
“Sounds good. Haven’t seen any films recently.” Natalia nodded, but Meg shrank.
“Er… I did not bring very much money with me today. I am well with watching a film, but I think eating lunch is too expensive for me…”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Natalia and Larry spoke up in unison. They turned their gazes to Seron simultaneously.
This time, they even said the same thing.
Seron’s eyes widened. Then,
“Y-yeah! Yes. It’s my treat today.”
“Oh my goodness! But… that would make me feel very sorry!” Meg said quickly.
Natalia grabbed her by the shoulders. The cup in her hands shook.
“No worries. It’s Seron’s treat. Seron’s rich—this isn’t gonna make a dent in his wallet.”
“But I… erm…” Meg hesitated.
“Hey.” Larry quickly elbowed Seron, urging him to speak up.
“…Er… I…” Seron began, working up his courage.
“IS ANYONE HERE?!” Someone suddenly cried.
“Hey! You guys are here! Good!”
This time, the boys looked up and the girls turned.
“Guys! I’m heading over there! Take a look at this!”
The loud newcomer was the tiny girl with red hair.
Jenny Jones, the president and only member of the newspaper club. Today, she was in a pair of jeans and a green long-sleeved shirt.
In her hands was a large envelope.
“Ah, you haven’t met her yet, Lia.”
“Of course. This here is Jenny Jones, the president of the newspaper club.”
“Oh. The tabloid club.”
“Will you tell me why you call their club a tabloid club, Natalia?”
“Have you ever heard of the school newspaper that publishes only lies?”
“Yes, I heard about the lying newspapers from a senior-classman. The newspaper club puts them on the wall in guerilla-style without receiving permissions. Did Jenny make them?”
The conversation went on until Jenny finally reached their table.
Eventually, Jenny slammed the envelope on the table hard enough for the cups to wobble.
“Look at this, you guys!”
“Hey! Careful!” Larry said, putting the cups away.
“Shut up and take a close look!” Jenny said gravely.
“At least give us some time for introductions. This here’s Natalia from the orchestra club and Megmica from the chorus club. Megmica’s from Sou Be-Il.”
“Hi. Natalia Steinbeck.”
“Hello. I am Strauski Megmica.”
“Jenny Jones. Pleasure.” Jenny nodded briefly. “Now, look!” She opened the envelope. Inside were several black-and-white photographs printed on large photo paper.
Jenny rotated the picture vertically.
“It’s the old building.” Seron said, recognizing the subject of the picture. Larry nodded.
“Yeah. The one they use as a storehouse.”
“That’s right! The old building on the edge of campus!” Said Jenny.
The photos included full views and closeups of the 300-year-old building. All the details were clear because the pictures were in perfect focus.
“What about these photos did you want us to see?” Asked Nick.
“It’s pretty good. Good job, Jenny.” Natalia grinned. Meg silently stared at the photos, fascinated.
“Right here! Take a good look!”
Jenny poked in between Seron and Nick, pointing at a closeup of the building’s foundation.
This particular photo showed the building wall and the dirt beneath it, and three latticed windows built at regular intervals along the wall.
Jenny’s slender finger was pointed at the center window.
“Huh? What do you—”
“EEEEK!” Meg screamed before Larry could finish.
Seron and Natalia looked up, startled by Meg.
Meg had her hands cupped over her mouth. She was trembling and pale.
“Something funny in the photo?”
Larry squinted at the picture for a better look. Seron, Natalia, and Nick followed suit.
They noticed simultaneously.
In the photo, between the iron bars, was a face.
The face was nearly one with the darkness.
But the large eyes made it clear that the shape was indeed a human face.
The whites of the eyes were clear, and the pupils were as dark as the depths of the sea. Upon closer examination the contours of the face were vaguely visible.
It was impossible to tell what kind of expression the face was making. It seemed to be a man, but that was not completely clear.
“What the heck! There’s somebody down there! D-don’t look!” Larry cried. Seron nodded.
“This… is creepy.”
“Certainly.” Nick agreed. Natalia grabbed Meg’s trembling shoulders.
“Man, that gave me a scare. Almost got the chills.” Then she added, as casually as ever, “Not bad, Jenny.”
“Huh? Oh. I see.”
Larry, Seron, and Nick quickly regained their senses.
“Yeah. It’s pretty good.” Said Seron.
“It certainly is. I was terrified for a moment there.” Nick nodded.
“You just pasted a picture of a face on the background and took a picture of it again, right?” Larry asked.
Meg leaned forward nervously, blinking as she examined the photo again.
“So this photograph is a false photo? I was very surprised.” She met the eyes of the man behind the bars. “Oh… but he is still very scary.” She admitted.
“W-wait!” Jenny cried.
Seron and Larry had to lean away from her because she yelled in their ears.
“Don’t just come to conclusions like that! What the heck, guys?”
“Look. You gave us a scare. Isn’t that good enough? Put that on your newspapers.”
“You don’t understand!” Jenny continued. “This isn’t a manipulation!”
“Now, now. It’s a very skilled piece of work. That’s enough—you gave me a fright as well.” Nick smiled.
“Don’t be stupid! I took this picture yesterday afternoon, after I got kicked out of the gymnasium! I developed it in the evening and printed it early this morning! It’s freshly printed! See? It’s still moist! I didn't have time to alter it!” Jenny appealed.
Nick’s smile faded.
He scrutinized the photograph again. He examined it carefully. Then he looked at Jenny next to him.
“Are you certain…?”
There was a moment of silence.
Followed by five screams resounding through the cafeteria.
“W-wait a sec!” Larry cried, getting up. His chair fell loudly to the floor.
Nick was casting hesitant glances at the photo, and Natalia’s arms were wrapped around Meg, whose teeth were chattering. Seron gave them a concerned look before turning to Jenny.
“What?” Jenny demanded.
“What do you mean, ‘what’? Who is this person?” Asked Larry.
“How am I supposed to know?! I only noticed him after I printed the photo this morning! I nearly had a heart attack!”
“Th-this is a person!”
“And this is the storehouse. There shouldn’t be anyone here. The basement isn’t even in use!”
“I know that!”
“What about the other pictures? Is he in any of them?”
“It’s just this one! I went over all the film from this session with a magnifying glass, but this is the only one!”
Larry and Jenny’s exchange went on loudly for some time. Suddenly, Seron’s calm voice interrupted them.
“Can I ask you something, Jenny?”
“Yeah, pretty boy?”
“It’s Seron. Larry and I saw several men in blue work wear by that building yesterday morning. Maybe this was one of them?”
Larry picked up his fallen chair and took a seat with a nod.
“Yeah! This has got to be Hartnett. Mr. Murdoch introduced us to this sharp-eyed guy. He’s supposed to be blocking off the latticed windows.”
“Then do you suppose his team was inside?” Asked Nick.
“Who else could it be, right? The only people who have the keys are the teachers and the people working on the building. It makes sense for the crew to be in the basement for work. This mystery is solved! It was pretty scary, I’ll give you that.” Larry declared. But—
“Not possible.” Jenny said firmly.
“Why not?” Larry demanded.
All eyes were on her. Jenny answered the question.
“I walked all the way around the building to take pictures, but there was no one around and the front and back doors were locked tight. So unless those people went inside to work and someone locked the doors on them from outside…”
Larry became silent.
“Then who could this be?” Seron wondered.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to ask! Does anybody know who this is?” Jenny said, looking around.
No one had an answer.