Chapter 2: The Love Letter
The 19th day of the ninth month.
It was after school on the fifth day of class.
Only half the newspaper club was gathered in the office. Jenny, Seron, and Larry (who had been the one to sigh). The remaining three were at the drama club rehearsal in the gymnasium.
There was a fierce rainstorm raging outside.
The rain had begun in the afternoon, and had grown stronger and stronger until the droplets and fog obscured even buildings next door and the ground seemed to quake. The sky was dark, and the lights in the office were on.
Seron sat on the office sofa, doing what he would have done in the library if he weren’t here—reading through a new textbook he had ordered to prepare for class.
Larry was lying on the sofa opposite him.
Jenny sat pouting at her desk, polishing her large single-lens reflex camera and a spare lens.
“Say Jenny. Do we really have to push out a new issue this month? It doesn’t seem possible.” Larry asked, turning his head.
“What?! Then what do you suggest we do for the next month? This stinks. I finally got a club together, but what’s the point if they never show up? I don’t want to have to give two lessons on developing photos.” Jenny groaned.
“But they told you ahead of time. Since they’re probably busy tomorrow too, why don’t we try working on this month’s issue, just the three of us? You’ve been working at it alone for a while, so you can’t complain about getting two new helpers. C’mon, Jenfie.”
“Don’t call me that! I’ve said my goodbyes to my past!”
“All right, all right. Anyway, what exactly goes into making a newspaper? Just some articles and photos?”
“Yeah. But the photos have to clearly show what we’re trying to communicate, and the sentences have to be easy to read.”
“That’s easy to understand. So what about printing?”
“We can’t do it here, so we outsource it to a printing house. We can get it printed in a day once all the manuscripts and photos are in, since we only make about 30 copies.”
“Right. Then the hardest part will be to post all the newspapers without the teachers’ notice, guerilla-style.”
“Alone, yeah. But it won’t be hard as long as we have enough people. Which is why it’s such a bummer that people aren’t showing up. When will we ever get things done? …We’re finished for today. The rain’s not helping our case. Go home, people.”
Jenny waved them out. Seron quietly closed his book.
“All right.” Larry said, pulling himself up with his gut.
Jenny picked up the telephone and called her driver and bodyguard, Edward Kurtz. He was an affable man who had befriended the rest of the newspaper club during the newspaper club camp that summer.
“Looks like I’m bussing home today.” Larry said, gathering their teacups and taking them to the sink. He quickly washed the teapot and the cups, then wiped them down and put them on the rack. Then he washed the dishcloth and hung it up to dry.
The office was littered with valuables like cameras, binoculars, and Natalia’s guitar. Jenny, Seron, and Larry made sure to lock up and left with their bags and umbrellas.
“See you.” Jenny said cooly and left down the hall.
“Sheesh. I’d better get on going too, Seron. Must be nice living in the dorms on days like this.”
“I think so too. But it means you might never leave campus all term long.”
They had only taken a few steps forward when Larry suddenly stopped.
“Shoot! I gotta drop by my locker. Gotta grab my math textbook or I won’t be able to do my homework.”
“I’ll come with you. It’s a bit of a detour but I won’t get rained on if I go to the dorms through the buildings,” said Seron.
They turned around and went down the hall, in the opposite direction as the exit.
The rain was hammering down on the roof. They passed through another building and entered the main building.
At the center of the main building were the student lockers. Hundreds of them lined the walls in the long, empty area. It almost looked like a graveyard.
Larry and Seron went up to the one labeled ‘Larry Hepburn, 3rd year’.
Larry quickly pulled open the door and looked inside. He did not notice the envelope fluttering out the wide-open door.
Seron, however, did.
As soon as he found the textbook, Larry shut the locker and turned, kicking the envelope in the process. It flew about three meters down the dry hallway floor.
Seron jogged over and picked it up.
“What’s up, Seron? Dropped something?”
Seron showed Larry the envelope.
It was a perfectly plain, ordinary envelope sealed with glue. Written on it were the words ‘To Larry Hepburn’ in small letters.
“It fell out of your locker.”
“Out of my locker?” Larry repeated quizzically and accepted the envelope.
His name was indeed written on it.
“I didn’t notice. Thanks, Seron. I’d have just left it on the floor if you weren’t here.”
“Whoever sent this must have stuck it in your door. But they didn’t write their name.”
As if on cue, Larry made to open the envelope, but Seron stopped him.
“No, Larry. Don’t open it until you get home. Tuck it in your math textbook and read it in your room.”
It was a reversal of the situation in the cafeteria the other day. This time, Seron was the one advising the confused Larry.
“Maybe it’s a personal letter.”
“Huh. Okay. Sure.”
Larry tucked the envelope into his math textbook and put the textbook in his bag.
* * *
The next day.
It was the 20th day of the ninth month, after school on the sixth day of the term.
The rain had let up completely. A beautiful blue sky spread over the Capital District.
“Nice weather today.”
Once afternoon classes were finished, Seron walked past the stone-paved pathway in the central gardens and headed for the club office with the occasional sunward glance. He had arrived first yet again, and was just about to take out his key.
“Seron! Seron! Seron! Seron! This is bad!”
Larry interrupted him, calling his name as he ran down the hall. That he was sprinting was unusual enough, but there was something even more desperate in his eyes.
Seron turned, his eyes narrowing.
Finally, Larry came to a stop next to him. Seron slowly took out his key and unlocked the office.
“What’s wrong, Larry? Is the planet gonna explode if I unlock the door?” He asked, thinking back to Jenny’s joke from the summer.
“No, just open up the door quick! We’ll talk inside.”
They stepped inside. Naturally, no one was in. Larry quickly gestured Seron to the sofa. They sat face-to-face.
“Perfect timing, buddy. We need to talk—before the others get here!”
“Sure. But there’s no rush. Jenny’s classroom’s really far away, and the others are busy.”
“Yeah, but still.”
Larry paused then, and looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. And he lowered his voice.
“About the letter from yesterday…”
The serious look on Larry’s face said it all. Seron also lowered his voice.
“So it really was a love letter.”
“I knew you’d understand, buddy! Seriously, a love letter? For me?”
“You make it sound like a bad thing.”
“No, but this is me I’m talking about! The musclehead who hasn’t received a single confession in the past two and a half years at this school! I checked over and over again to see if this was a case of mistaken identity. I even went to the faculty office to check if there were any other Larry Hepburns in the school!” Larry raved. He seemed half-ecstatic and half-flabbergasted. “You gotta help me, Seron. I really don’t wanna let the others know—especially not Lia. She’ll never let me live it down!” Larry pleaded, looking up at the ceiling and closing his eyes.
“What’s this about now?”
“About the love letter I got—” Larry replied reflexively, before realizing his mistake.
The question had come, not from Seron, but the door.
And the question was not in Seron’s voice, but—
“Now this sounds interesting. I want details.”
—the tall girl walking in through the doors. Her eyes glinted.
Larry realized that he had just made the biggest mistake of his life. He went as pale as a sheet.
“Yes, I’m Natalia. Now about this love letter…must be the end times if you managed to get one in your locker.”
Natalia, on the other hand, was brimming with amusement.
“What is this conversation? Will Larry learn to write a love letter from Seron?”
“A love letter, you say? I suppose I haven’t misheard the word ‘blood-letter’?”
“President’s orders: I want details now. Looks like my teacher picked the perfect day to end class early.”
Nick, Meg, and Jenny followed Natalia inside, one after another. Before Larry knew it, the entire newspaper club was assembled.
“Wh-why is everyone here today?” He stammered.
“Cause we’re club members and this is our office.” Natalia replied.
* * *
The newspaper club took their seats on the sofas. Cups of tea were set before them.
“Time to spill your guts, Larry Hepburn,” said Jenny. All eyes fell on Larry, who sat at the end of one of the sofas.
The club office felt like a court of law, or a questioning room. Seron gave his friend a sympathetic sidelong glance.
“This is personal,” Larry protested.
“But you asked Seron for help. What’s wrong with a few more sets of ears?” Natalia shot him down. “Don’t worry about it. We’re all grown-ups here. We’re not gonna tell anyone. It’ll be a club secret.”
Larry looked around. Natalia seemed to be enjoying herself, and Meg was beaming. Jenny listened intently with eyes glinting, and Nick was smiling elegantly.
“Darn it…fine.” Larry finally relented. “Someone left this letter in my locker yesterday.”
He took out the letter from his bag, but did not hand it to anyone. He seemed to be ready to take it away the moment anyone made a move.
Natalia noted Larry’s name on the envelope and asked a grave question.
“You can be honest with us, Larry. How many razorblades did you find inside?”
“What the heck, Lia! None!”
“The only thing that’s funny is your head, Lia.”
Seron, who had been approached first by Larry, spoke up.
“What did the letter say? You don’t have to tell us all the details.”
“Right. So it’s from this girl in second year—”
“Easy there, Lia. Just shut up for a sec. It says…well… ‘I saw you in the hallway on the first day of fall term and fell in love at first sight. Please go out with me’. But she says she’s never dated anyone before, so she’s not comfortable with meeting alone outside campus. So she wants to eat lunch together, and meet up after school and…g-get to know each other…and talk…and stuff like that!”
Larry cut off, unable to hide his embarrassment. And he put the letter back in his bag, too embarrassed to bring it up again.
“How lovely,” Nick commented, as though it were someone else’s business. Meg agreed.
“That girl, she had worked so hard to write that letter to you. She has squeezed her courage like a dishrag! It is very proud!”
“And how are you supposed to respond?” Jenny asked matter-of-factly, “it’s in the letter, right?”
“Huh? Er, yeah. How’d you know?”
“How would anyone not know? So? Spill it.”
“She wants to get the answer in person, so she asked me to come to the tree on the grounds behind the school after class on the first day after the weekend…”
The others’ eyes lit up. “Yeah, I know,” Larry said.
“The tree behind the school, with its perfect confession success rate. Perhaps you will be the star of its second legend. Or perhaps your receiving the letter means the confession has already taken place. What do you think, Larry?” Nick asked, making a point of looking out the window. Larry’s response was immediate.
“That’s why I was trying to ask Seron for advice.”
“Oh my goodness. Why to Seron?” Meg asked naively. Everyone froze, unable to respond. Silence filled the office.
Knowing the conversation would go nowhere unless someone answered, Jenny spoke up.
“Because Seron’s so popular with girls. He’s got plenty of experience turning them down.”
“Oh my goodness! How amazing.”
Seron froze yet again. He fell into deep thought. He thought. And he thought some more.
“Anyway! Somebody—I don’t care who—please answer me. What should I do?” Larry asked.
“Go meet her.”
“I think that you should meet with her.”
“You should meet her.”
Natalia, Meg, and Nick replied, one after another.
“That sounds like the best course of action,” said Jenny, “meet the girl and talk to her. Everything else comes later.”
“Yeah. You’re right… But you think she’s serious?” Larry wondered, “I’ve never gotten a love letter before in my life. I mean, it’d be nice to be popular with girls like Seron—er, like other people. But…”
“You think this might be a prank?”
“Don’t glare at me, Jenny. I’m just saying it might be. For example, someone might be waiting in the distance to take photos of me sauntering up there with this big doofy grin on my face—”
Larry stopped, his face taking on the look of a funeral-goer.
“I’m praying so hard that the newspaper club isn’t trying to prank me. You’re not, are you?”
“Sounds like it’d be a blast, but unfortunately, no.” Natalia replied.
“A blast?! Unfortunately?!”
“We have practice after school on the first day back. No time to peep on anybody. Today too. We have to head to the drama club pretty soon.”
“Setting that possibility aside,” said Seron, “who was the sender? Someone you know?”
“No. You know what? What the heck. I’ve come this far, so I might as well tell you the rest. Every heard of a second-year named Stella Whitfield?”
“Don’t think I’ve ever done a story on her.”
“I do not know this girl.”
“Me neither. She’s not in the orchestra, at least.”
“Nor the drama club. Quite the mysterious star we have on our hands.”
The others shook their heads.
“What do you mean that she is a star?” Asked Meg. Nick gave her a smile.
“‘Stella’ means ‘star’ in an ancient language.”
“Oh my goodness! It is very romantic! I learned something very good now!” Meg screamed, her dark eyes sparkling like stars.
‘I knew that too! I should have said so! I bet that’s what Seron’s thinking right now,’ Larry thought, but did not say.
“It is a cool thing to have a star as a name. There is a star name called ‘Cana’ in Bezelese. There are many Bezelese words to mean ‘star’, but the only name word is ‘Cana’!”
The others were impressed. Natalia nodded.
“So Sou Be-Il isn’t that different after all.”
“I’ve heard the name ‘Whitfield’ before,” said Seron, “I wonder where?”
Nick was the first to reply.
“Of course, Seron. The name is on your left wrist.”
All eyes fell on Seron’s left wrist.
A black leather strap and a thin silver case with a simple face and three ticking hands. It was a luxury wristwatch Seron’s mother had bought him when he first started secondary school. It was his favorite—and only—wristwatch.
As of the year 3305, quartz clocks existed but were still the size of refrigerators.
Wristwatches were traditionally mechanical and composed of many tiny cogs connected to a spiral spring. They were also very expensive. A regular watch cost about as much as a motorcycle, and the higher-end models could cost as much as a car.
Even at the 4th Capital Secondary School—with its wealthy student body—only about a third of the boys wore a watch on a daily basis. The proportion was even smaller among the girls. Larry and Nick had worn their watches to the newspaper club camp, but not to school that day.
Seron, the only one in the office with a wristwatch, scrutinized his watch and discovered the words ‘Whitfield-Farkas’ in a neat, tiny font at the bottom of the face. The second hand ticked and tocked over the words.
“I see now,” said Seron.
“It’s just like you to never notice even when it was on your wrist the whole time,” Larry chuckled, “Whitfield is really famous in the industry, you know.”
“Didn’t know that.”
“I did not know that either.”
Natalia and Meg chimed in.
“Then allow me to give you a brief explanation on Whitfield, the famed watchmaker,” Nick said without missing a beat, “Whitfield is based in the Republic of Farkas. Its products are highly precise and sturdy to boot, earning them the title ‘most practical wristwatches in Roxche’. Whitfield was founded about 60 years ago, which puts it behind the 200-year veterans of the Roxche clockmaking industry, but Whitfield is notable for its stable management. The company has been in the family for generations. The founder’s sons almost split the company in two at one point, however. A prime example of a family feud.”
“Figures you’d know that stuff, Nick.”
“And I would not be incorrect in assuming you did as well, Larry?”
“Uh-huh. But you can explain. I’m not as good as you.”
“Then allow me to continue. The family feud is quite irrelevant, so I will skip the matter. Whitfield is famous for their ‘Whitfield Watchmaking Academy’, where future watchmakers are trained in the craft. The academy is infamously strict and graduation rates are low, but all graduates are automatically guaranteed a position at Whitfield. Employment is notoriously difficult, so most hopefuls begin by training at the academy. Another point of entry would be the annual Whitfield Competition, which awards the most promising new watchmaker of the year. Entrants are judged on the merits of their submitted models, regardless of age. Winners are guaranteed a position at Whitfield, no matter who they may be. An employee at a rival company, or to exaggerate, even a 10-year old could find employment so long as they were sufficiently talented. It is a method of employment for those confident in their own skills. I believe the results of this year’s competition will be announced soon. That is all I have to say.”
The others nodded, impressed. Larry chimed in.
“I’ve been kinda wanting a Whitfield watch myself, for training. Most watches wouldn’t last a training session, with how much my arms end up in mud and bump into things.”
“Then the Whitfield waterproof model is the one for you, Larry. A sturdy, accurate and automatic model that can ‘withstand any battlefield impact’, or so the advertisement says. Why not purchase one?”
“As if it were that easy. It’s a sweet watch, but I could buy a motorbike with that much money.”
“Ah, so you’ve checked.”
“Yeah, you got me. I once flipped through every Whitfield catalogue I could find cause I wanted one so much.”
“And you gave in?”
“How could I not?”
“Hey!” Natalia cut in, “that’s enough guy talk. You’re getting off-topic here. Are you actually girls? What’s next, going to the bathroom together?”
All eyes were on Natalia. She brought the conversation back on track.
“So this ‘Stella’ is probably a daughter of the Whitfield family. Makes sense. The school’s at the edge of the capital and Farkas is just west of us. You just hit paydirt, Larry!”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Lia.”
“What is the paydirt? Is is a very good soil?”
“You don’t need to know this stuff, Megmica.”
“It means that Larry has come across great fortune. The potential to marry into a very rich family. I’m quite jealous of you, Larry. I wish the two of you happiness.”
“Hey, that last part was uncalled for. Especially with that grin!”
“Heh heh…so the first headliner of the term’s gonna be a romance. I’m gonna give it everything I have.”
“Oh no you don’t, Jenny!”
Larry was exhausting himself. Seron spoke up.
“You’re going to have to meet her.”
“Yeah, I guess I should. I’m not exactly articulate, though.” Larry sighed, and sipped from his usual flower-print teacup.
“Are you gonna go out with her?” Asked Jenny. Larry put down his cup and put his hand on his head.
“I dunno. I mean, I always thought it’d be cool to be popular, but I have no idea what dating someone is supposed to be like. You’re supposed to go out with someone you like, but I don’t even know if I’ll like her or not.”
“Perhaps you will know once you meet her. And if she happens to be your type, you could start off there,” Nick suggested.
“Yeah, but what if it’s the opposite? If she’s not my type? Do I just tell her that and turn her down? Is that all?”
“That’s all,” Jenny responded, “and if she’s really not your type, tell it to her straight. There’s nothing more cruel than going out with someone you don’t even like.”
Jenny was looking very serious. Larry fell into thought.
“All right. I’ll do that. Thanks for all your advice, guys,” he finally said with a smile.
“Oh, now a love will begin in front of my eyes,” Meg said, beaming, “my heart is beating very fast! It is a great thing to love and confess someone! I hope that everyone will confess very much from now on!”
Seron silently looked into the distance.
* * *
The 23rd day of the ninth month.
It was the ninth day of the new term, with two days off in between. The sky was clear and the wind was calm.
The student cafeteria at the 4th Capital Secondary School took up a large area inside the main building, along with a tiled area in the central gardens.
On clear days, table and chairs were placed on the tiles outside. Students who enjoyed the outdoors or disliked crowded areas tended to frequent the garden.
Students who brought their own lunches could use the cafeteria as well, but not many of them did because it was easier for them to simply eat in their classrooms.
Seron was sitting alone at a table for two in the gardens. He had just started on his lunch when Larry called out to him.
Larry was carrying his tray, as energetic as ever. He set it down and sat across from Seron.
“Hey Larry. You look nervous,” Seron said immediately. Larry blinked.
“Oh. Is it written on my face? Am I shaking?”
Seron pointed at Larry’s tray. He had ordered the same thing as Seron; a single serving of fish soup and pasta with salad.
“You’re only eating half your usual.”
“Hah hah hah! Yeah. I’m definitely nervous.”
Larry prayed before his meal. Then he and Seron dug in at the same time.
“Well,” Larry said between bites, “I’m still not convinced this isn’t a nasty prank. If it is, I can just give the prankster a nasty arm twist, but if it’s for real…”
“…You know, I’m really curious to see what kind of girl would say she likes me. Wonder what she’s like. I can’t wait for class to end.”
“Then make sure you go see her.”
“I know. Jenny once said love is a battle, right?”
“Yeah. When we took SC Sophia’s request.”
“Then I gotta get out there and give it my all. It’s in the family motto—‘Knights of Hepburn ne’er shall turn’!”
“Yeah. Good luck, Larry.”
“Thanks. By the way, not being able to turn isn’t the same thing as not being allowed to run away.”
“The motto sounds cooler without the explanation.”
“I don’t mind. Looking cool isn’t really my thing.”
* * *
Larry Hepburn was walking in the grounds behind the school, face set and eyes determined.
He could see students heading home in the distance. The grounds behind the school were not popular with the students, and was therefore silent.
Larry finally arrived at the tree. He took a look around, and when he saw no one was there, leaned against the trunk to avoid the sunlight.
And he waited for a girl who might never arrive.
First he checked to see if anyone had set a trap for him. With his eyesight he could even see the newspaper club office, but no one was clinging to the window with binoculars over their eyes.
In the gymnasium in the distance, the orchestra club began to play.
“Lia’s not gonna get in the way, at least…” Larry muttered to himself, and waited.
Time passed. It had been long enough for a hot cup of tea to go cold. Larry pushed away from the trunk so he could take a seat.
“Er…I’m sorry I’m late.”
A soft voice.
Larry turned quickly. All he saw was the tree trunk.
For a moment he had thought the tree was talking to him, but he leaned over and saw a girl standing behind it.
She stood with her back to the sun. The girl was clad in uniform, and was petite. She was only a little taller than Jenny Jones, with short black hair and light brown eyes.
Her face was inscrutable like a doll. It was hard to tell if she was happy or sad or nervous. She had pretty features but didn’t stand out, which was a perfect fit for her quiet bearing.
Larry said nothing, but smiled. His cheeks went pink.
The girl also said nothing. Her mask-like face simply looked at Larry’s.
Ten seconds passed, and then some.
“Hm…?” Larry Hepburn mumbled. He furrowed his brow and his eyes narrowed.
“Is something the matter?”
The girl seemed nervous. Larry shook his head.
“Oh! Sorry! Just zoning out for a bit. Talking to myself. So, er…are you Stella Whitfield?”
“Yes. Please call me Stella, SC Hepburn.”
Though she was standing right in front of him, it was almost impossible to hear her voice. Her tone was muted and the blanks between her words were almost audible.
“I read your letter,” Larry said, and paused.
Stella did not say a word. She simply waited for Larry with a blank expression.
“Er…about the stuff you wrote. Did you really mean it?”
A moment later, Larry frowned. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’
“Yes,” Stella said briefly.
“I…I see! That’s good to hear! Yeah.”
“Sorry, I was just a little surprised.”
“Er…right. So. Well…”
Stella was so reticent that Larry had to think hard about how he should continue the conversation before he finally settled on a typical question.
“Have we met before?”
“Yes. After summer break, outside the dormitory cafeteria…”
“Hm? Ah! I remember!” Larry cried, loud enough to startle anyone.
But Stella did not even blink. She stood as still as the tree next to them.
“You were with the girl who asked Seron out!”
Stella moved her chin up and down by about three centimeters. In other words, she nodded almost imperceptibly.
“When I saw you…I thought you were really attractive.”
“I-I see… Thanks. …You said you only wanted to meet at school, right?”
“Yes. I’ve never…dated before. I’m not comfortable with being alone…outside of campus,” Stella replied firmly. Larry gave her the best smile he could muster.
“It’s cool that you can honestly stick to your guns like that! It’s really brave of you! I wish somebody I knew could be more like you!”
“W-wait, I was just saying that to myself. Anyway, I like you, Stella!”
“Then let’s hang out whenever we have time! You only want to meet on campus, right?”
“Yes…thank you so much.”
Larry looked at Stella, then at the newspaper club office.
There was no one at the window.
Looking into Stella’s blank face, Larry nodded.
“Pleasure to meet you!”