In The Fox-Witch's Wake, Pt2: Wolf Among Sheep

tagnone

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Chapter 5: Her Truth, Buried

The school bell rings its last chime for the day. Mr. Oguchi swivels on his seat towards Honoka, waiting for it to end before he speaks.

"Sarada Honoka. Do you know why I've called you here?"

He brings up a clipboard with a list of attendance checkboxes. One row in particular remains blank: Hers.

"Aside from noting your attendance has dropped a bit… Where I'm concerned in particular you've been avoiding your PE classes, not changing into your sports uniform, not attending swim classes… May I have an explanation why?" He gives her a singular unflinching gaze.

"I… I just haven't been feeling too well."

"Is that your answer?" Honoka breathes sharply, blinks hard, and nods.

Mr. Oguchi stares at her without any change in expression. "You've been doing this for weeks, Miss Sarada, and neither have you supplied a sick note from the infirmary or a doctor. If you receive a failing grade in this subject, you may easily be held back a year." His eyes shift left and right, watching the egress of each teacher packing up to leave the room. Honoka can only bring herself to tilt her head down in shame.

"I'm sorry…"

"That is the official reason I summoned you here, and the official record of what I have told you." With the last other teacher leaving he eases up and leans on his seat, his voice greatly toning down. "…Now, for what is unofficial and off-the-records: …Have you been abused?"

"No, no!" Honoka recoils, her body language betraying her lie. Terrified of repercussions, what choice did she have but to say what she said?

"Don't lie! It doesn't take a detective to piece everything together!" Mr. Oguchi pulls out a piece of paper bearing his crudely-scrawled notes, reading it as loud and clear.

"Started the year as a very energetic and vibrant youth! The prodigious rising star of the kendo club, mere weeks after joining! Suddenly, becoming lethargic; quiet, reclusive, wearing your sweater and/or jacket in the middle of summer! It doesn't take much to realize something is wrong, especially when one takes into account this: Your one-sided crusade against the most influential bully gang of the school, which you've suddenly stopped with this change in your personality."

Mr. Oguchi leans back and sighs, noting Honoka's shivering and inching towards the staffroom door.

"Forgive the outburst. I wanted to do this interview with your homeroom teacher initially, but…" Mr. Oguchi sighs and gets off his seat, sliding a hand beneath his shirt to pull it up. Honoka's eyes bulge and she recoils; an acquired instinct thanks to Saeko's lackeys.

"Look at me, Miss Sarada. Look at my back."

Honoka opens an eye in surprise, and slowly lowers her arms from shielding herself. Mr. Oguchi had raised his shirt to his neck, exposing a modestly maintained middle-aged male body. But most prominent were the faded scars that arced across his shoulderblades, bearing someone else's name.

"It took forty-seven lit cigarettes to burn this on my back, when I was your age." He quickly slips his shirt back on and turns to face Honoka, genuine sorrow in his eyes.

"I may not have gone through exactly what you might be experiencing, but I know the pain you're going through. I know it all too well. And I must tell you: One must never suffer in silence. I crawled out of that dark pit, but it took help. Let me help you." Mr. Oguchi bowed his head in sincerity.

Was this a light out of the tunnel? Dare she hope?

"O…okay…"

Mr. Oguchi nodded once more. "We shall begin with the police. We'll get you tested for… abuse, at a clinic. I'll find you somewhere else to stay in away from family, if necessary…"

Yet all the while, Honoka knew that this noble endeavour was destined for failure. Every taunt, every insult of how Saeko dangled unsurmountable power over her…

Oh Kamis, please… Please let my heart fall still and for me to die where I stand…

"Hm hm hm, hm hm hm~" Misaki crossed her arms and lay down on her school desk, swinging her feet back and forth. She gets up, stretching her arms in protest.

"Oooooooh, I'm so bored already! Why does it have to be the start of school? Why can't it be the end of school instead?!"

Honoka and Mizuka alternate disturbed glances between the nonchalant Misaki and each other. Just one day later from being a screaming wreck, everything's gone back to being peachy and ordinary to Misaki. Begging hysterically to be rescued as she was captured and surrounded by those mysterious outsiders… To this.

"Psst, Honoka. Do you want to… try talking to her?"

"Oooh! Mizuka-chan, Honoka-chan! What were you both talking about? Ne-ne, do you want to go for parfaits later? I could go for a melon-with-honey combo-"

"Mmmm!? Mmm-mmeh-muh-" Honoka stammers with a queasy smile, "Mi…Misaki… Do you remember anything about… yesterday?"

"Uhhhh, ettoooooooo…" Misaki scrunches her face. "What a weird question, Honoka-chan! We had school, Mizuka-chan snuck in the latest issue of "Pop sensation" to drool at A-Star boys during lunch time… I almost got you to do the Ultraman pose-" Misaki giggles and Honoka looks away in embarrassment.

"Oh! And you nearly forgot your homework! Good thing I reminded you, huh?" Misaki proudly slapped her hands on her hips and beamed widely.

"Ahahaha, thanks…" Honoka turned to Mizuka. "She seems to remember school just fine!"

Mizuka hissed back. "Ask her about after-school!" Honoka shot Mizuka an indignant look over why she couldn't ask Misaki herself, but relents.

"What are you both talking about?" Misaki tilts her head. "Aaah! Is it about the vans around town?!"

Honoka's heart jumped in her ribcage. "M-Misaki! So you remember what they did to you?!"

"U-uuuuu…" Honoka doubles back as Misaki's face scrunches into a crybaby look.

"…I didn't make itttttt!" She throws herself onto Honoka, hugging and rocking Honoka back and forth with her head swinging along. "I didn't make the idol test after all!"

Wait. What?

"M…Misaki-san? Idol test?"

"Yeah!" Misaki stops rocking Honoka, now puffing her cheeks out. "They came over to my house and interviewed us about pop idols and stuff, but I didn't make the cut!" She puffs her cheeks out, harrumphing out loud. "Well I'll show them! I can still make it, even without their help-"

"Misaki." Mizuka's voice drops to a dead-serious tone. "You don't remember screaming on the floor, pinned down by strangers in black who were chasing us three? That we had to abandon you?"

"Eeeeeeeeeh?! Mizuka-chan, what are you imagining?! So scary!"

"On the way back home you wanted us to check the vans, remember? You begged us to detour to one of those strange vans."

"No…? What are you talking about? We just went straight home."

Honoka and Mizuka stare at each other in confusion. Honoka and Mizuka grab each other by the shoulders, dragging each other towards the corner of the classroom and away from the ears of a confused Misaki and fellow conversing classmates.

"What was that they did to her and Usui-kun's gramps?"

Honoka made frantic gestures above her head. "A-a weird black box was put on their heads, and those weird people started by asking whether anyone believed in Mishio-san or not! Remember? 'DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE FOX-WITCH OF TAKACHIHO'?"

Mizuka nodded vigorously. "Yes, yes! And then that thing they told Usui-kun's grandfather after the box was taken off-"

"'THERE WAS NO FOX.'"

"That… that can only mean…"

"Honoka-chan, Mizuka-chan, why are you both acting so weird?" Misaki got off her desk and skipped towards the duo.

"Misaki… Do you remember Mishio? Mishio-No-Sae?"

"Mishio?" Misaki stared at her friends for what could have been an uncomfortable eternity.

"…Who's that?"

"K-kitsune! Four tails, brown hair, grouchy face, eats everything we give her, collects trash, gave everyone in class chickenpox so you could be the prettiest?"

"Eeeh?! Honoka-chan, what kind of thing are you describing? A Yōkai? They don't exist, silly!" Misaki freezes. "Wait, wait…"

A blank gaze crosses over her eyes, as if she struggled to think of something.

"…Honoka-chan, Mizuka chan, have you been going on adventures without me?! I swear, I'll cry if you make me miss out!!!"

Honoka and Mizuka stare blankly towards each other. Mizuka hits on an idea.

"Misaki. Your phone. Now." Mizuka's extended hand impatiently waggles for an object to be put on it.

"Eh-eh?" Taken aback, Misaki fishes her phone out nevertheless. "Mizuka-chan, what do you mean by this?"

Mizuka and Honoka feverishly scroll through Misaki's phone's contents… Then stop, staring blankly at each other once more.

"…My phone! Honoka, your old flip-phone, too! I know I sent you some of those as well!" They both yank out their phones and feverishly scroll through their photo galleries. Pictures, memories that they took together with Mishio captured into visible stills:

  • A picture of the three girls performing V-gestures with all their hands; Mizuka confidently, Misaki girlishly, Honoka reservedly… And an unamused Mishio jamming her own V-fingers up her nostrils.
  • Another where they raised their hands above their heads to mimic fox ears, with Mishio at the back doing her absolute impression of being thoroughly offended.
  • And another where Misaki was smiling towards the camera and lowering food into Mishio's cardboard box, with a blurred kitsune rearing forth as if she's about to bite off the hand approaching her.
  • Another of an outraged Mishio leaping out of her cardboard box towards a startled Honoka, who was cleaning up the scavenged rubbish that begun to gather about the kitsune's makeshift residence.
  • One more where Mishio had entered her forwards-facing box in her human form, crouched human posterior and tails alike comically sticking out of the box's opening.

They're gone.

All of them.

All of these photos have vanished from all of their phones, as if they were never taken to begin with.

Mizuka puts down her phone, rubbing her tired eyes. "I… I don't understand…"

"Surely there were other people talking about her?"

"That's it!" Mizuka perks back up, firing up her phone's browser. "Quick, the internet! The local town forum! Everyone was complaining about Mishio-san, there has to be something about-"

Entertainment | "BEHAVE! TROUBLESOME FOX GIRL LALA" live comedy sitcom viral campaign debuts to positive reception across town!

"Lala?"

Mizuka cuts off Honoka. "No, it's not right, it can't be. Next page… Next page… We have to go at least two months back! There were complaints of Mishio everywhere back then, we were even passing links around to laugh at!"

Nothing. Not even a trace of the boilerplate remark of "Thread removed. Reason: Incorrect information". All past complaints of the Fox Witch of Takachiho had been erased without explanation nor trace, as if they had never existed.

It was as if Mishio had never existed.

"No way… I don't…" Mizuka trembles, leaning against the wall and sliding down to the floor. She presses a hand and her phone onto her head in mental fatigue. "…I don't understand. Honoka-san, were we the crazy ones all along? Did we suffer some sort of group delusion-"

"No! Don't you dare say that! Mishio-san was real! After all, she saved me from-from…"

Mizuka shot Honoka a weary glance. "Is there something you're not telling us, Honoka?"

"No… It's nothing…"

"You haven't been your usual self for far too long. We're your friends, you can be honest with us over whatever happened to you."

"I swear it's nothing!"

"Honoka, Mizuka…" Misaki steps in, "Please don't fight."

The class door slides open, and the homeroom teacher steps in. Every student ceases their chatter, rushing back to their desks with lifted chairs in tow and bowing to the teacher.

"Good morning, everybody! I'll be taking attendance."

"Don't forget: Parfaits later!" Misaki skips back to her desk, turning back to her friends, "…It's on me!"


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