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It was a frigid morning, so cold that if you poked at the earth with an ice pick, it would probably crack neatly in half. Hell, I felt like doing the cracking myself.
Still, the cold weather was to be expected, since it was winter right now. It’d been rather warm during the cultural festival the previous month, but the second we hit December there was a radical drop in temperature, as if Mother Nature had just remembered what season it was, though as a result I was feeling like autumn hadn’t come to Japan this year. That stupid Siberian air mass could try taking a different route every once in a while. You don’t have to come our way every single year.
I walked along as I worried about whether the Earth’s revolution had gone out of whack or if Mother Nature was feeling under the weather.
A frivolous-looking fellow caught up to me and gave me a slap on the shoulder that was as light as hydrogen. It would have been too much of a hassle to stop walking, so I just turned to look at him.
I replied before turning back to glare at the steep hill stretched out before us. You’d think that our school would cut back on gym class when we have to climb this hill every single day, right? Our homeroom teacher, Okabe, and the other gym teachers should be more concerned about the students, who have to endure the treacherous commute on a daily basis. Especially when they drive to school.
“Why are you grumbling like an old man? Pick up the pace. This is good exercise. Doesn’t it warm up the body? Look at me. I’m not even wearing a sweater. The climb may suck during the summer, but it works out perfectly this time of year.”
His spunk was nice and all, but where did all that energy come from? Pass some on to me.
Taniguchi’s loose lips curled into a grin.
“Finals are over, yeah? Which means there’s nothing more to learn this year. Anyway, isn’t there a wonderful event coming up?”
All students had to suffer through finals equally. However, the scores on the graded answer sheets were anything but equal.
My mood soured as I recalled my mother fretting over whether she would need to get me a tutor. Next year I would be a second-year, and our class assignments would be determined by the colleges we applied to. Liberal arts or sciences? Public or private? What should I choose?
“Just worry about it later,” Taniguchi said with a laugh. “Shouldn’t your mind be on other matters right now? Do you know what today’s date is?”
“December seventeenth,” I said. “What’s so special about it?”
“What’s so special about it? You’ve forgotten about the joyous event coming up in a week?”
“Oh, I got it.” The answer popped into my mind. “The last day of school is coming up. Winter vacation’s certainly an event that’s worth anticipating.”
Taniguchi glared at me like a small animal encountering a bushfire.
“Hell no! Think carefully about what the date will be in one week. You’ll figure it out soon enough.”
I snorted and exhaled a cloud of white.
Oh yeah. December twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve.
Yeah, I knew all about the retail-industry conspiracy coming up next week. I would be the next-to-last person to ever forget about holiday events. Because the last person happens to sit right next to me in class. She was pretty disappointed about missing Halloween a month ago, so she definitely has something planned.
Actually, I already know what she’s planned.
This was the exact announcement made by Haruhi Suzumiya in the clubroom yesterday…
“Does anybody here have plans for Christmas Eve?”
Haruhi tossed her book bag aside after shutting the door behind her and glared at us with eyes that shone as brightly as the three stars of Orion’s belt.
You could hear an implicit “None of you could possibly have any plans. You people should understand that by now, right?” in her tone, so an affirmative answer would have brought a blizzard down on us.
At that moment I was playing a tactical role-playing game with Koizumi, Asahina was warming her hands by the electric heater in the maid uniform that had become her usual outfit, and Nagato was reading a new science-fiction hardcover without any hint of movement aside from her fingers and eyes.
Haruhi set a large handbag she had also been carrying down on the floor before stomping over to puff up her chest and look down on me.
“Kyon, you certainly don’t have any plans, right? I shouldn’t need to ask, but I might feel a little guilty if I didn’t, so I’m asking now.”
She had a smile on her face that reminded me of a Cheshire cat. I handed the dice I was about to throw to Koizumi, who looked at me with a knowing smile, and turned to face Haruhi.
“And what if I do have plans? Why don’t you answer that first?”
“Which means you don’t have any.”
Haruhi determined this arbitrarily as she nodded and turned away from me. Hey, hold it right there, I thought. I didn’t answer her question yet… Oh well. This wasn’t the first time I didn’t have any plans.
“What about you, Koizumi? Going on a date with your girlfriend?”
“If only that were the case.”
Koizumi rolled the dice against his palm as he sighed dramatically. A little over the top there, I thought. You’re obviously faking it.
“For better or worse, my schedule around Christmas is completely open. I was agonizing over how I might spend Christmas by my lonesome.”
His smiling, handsome face was screaming “liar,” as far as I was concerned. However, Haruhi instantly believed him.
“There’s nothing for you to worry about. You happen to be in luck.”
Haruhi proceeded to set a course for the maid girl.
“Mikuru, how about you? Did someone invite you to accompany him late into the night and watch the moment when rain turns to snow? By the way, if you actually run into someone who can still spew that crap with a straight face, you’re free to whack him good and hard.”
Asahina, staring at Haruhi with her large wide-open eyes, was quivering in response to the abrupt interrogation.
“Well, n-not really. Nothing at the moment… Um, late into the night…? Ah, what about your tea…?”
“Make mine scalding hot. The herb tea from the other day was pretty good.”
Asahina immediately responded to Haruhi’s order.
“Y-yes! Right away.”
Is making tea really that much fun? Asahina’s face was shining as she set the pot on the portable gas stove.
Haruhi nodded with a satisfied look before speaking to the last person in the room, Nagato.
Yuki responded curtly without looking up from her book.
That ended the blunt conversation that reminded me of birds chirping. Haruhi turned back to me with a haughty smile on her face. I stared at Nagato’s pale face as she kept on reading her book as though she had nothing to do with the transpiring events. You know you don’t have to answer her right away. You could at least pretend to try to remember your schedule for a moment or two.
Haruhi raised one hand.
“And there you have it. The SOS Brigade Christmas Party has been unanimously approved. Any objections or protests can be directed to me in writing after the party’s over. I’m willing to give them a look-over.”
In other words, nobody would be allowed to back out on their commitment, or business as usual. Though I have to admit that she’d made progress over the past six months, since she’d actually asked if anybody had any plans, even if she hadn’t intended to take them into consideration. It’d be even better if she asked for our opinions on top of that.
Haruhi, looking satisfied that everything was going according to her plan, reached into the handbag she had dropped on the floor.
“And so, since it’s the Christmas season and all, we have a lot of preparations to make, right? So with that in mind, I brought some special items. The proper way to start off one of these events is by creating a holiday atmosphere.”
And out came snow spray, gold and silver tinsel, Christmas crackers, a miniature tree, a stuffed reindeer costume, white cotton, Christmas lights, a wreath, a red-and-green curtain, a tapestry depicting the Alps, a windup snowman, fat candles and a candle stand, a huge stocking that a preschooler could have fit inside, Christmas song CDs…
Haruhi smiled like a nice girl passing out candy to the neighborhood kids as she placed the Christmas paraphernalia on the table.
“We’re going to spruce up this dreary room. The beginner’s method of enjoying Christmas actively and positively starts from the appearance. Didn’t you do this when you were a kid?”
When I was a kid? Hell, my sister’s room will be Christmas City soon enough. My mom will probably order me to help out again this year. And I should mention that my sister, an eleven-year-old in the fifth grade, still believes in Santa Claus. She still hasn’t seen through our parents’ clever disguise, the one I saw through early in my life. Knowing my sister’s enthusiasm for the holidays, Haruhi chastised me.
“You should learn from your sister’s pure heart. You have to have faith to be able to dream. Otherwise, you’ll lose what was once within reach. You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket. You can dream all you want about someone giving you the winning ticket for a million dollars, but it’s never going to happen!”
Haruhi showed off her ability to yell happily as she pulled out a Santa hat and put it on her head.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You should follow the customs of the place you’re in. Christmas has its own set of rules. You won’t find many people who would feel upset about having their birthday celebrated. I’m sure that Mr. Christ would be happy to see us having fun!”
I wasn’t foolish enough to mention the theories about how we couldn’t be sure what year Christ was born, let alone the day. Besides, if I were to tell Haruhi that there were different theoretical dates for the birth of Christ, Haruhi’s response would be “Then they can all be Christmas,” and she’d force the world to haul out the tree multiple times every year. It’s a little late to start arguing about when the AD era began. The solar calendar and the ancient Babylonian calendar were arbitrarily created to suit human needs. The celestial bodies revolving silently around the vast universe certainly won’t show any sign of caring before they expire. Yeah, the universe sure has it easy.
Of course, I didn’t get a chance to savor this moment of boyhood fascination with the mystery of the cosmos because Haruhi was wandering around the clubroom like a hyper and helpful panda as she placed various Christmas items around the room, set a Santa hat on the head of Nagato, who was buried in her book, and shook the can of snow spray to write the words MERRY XMAS! on the window.
Not that I care, but it’s going to look backward from the outside.
In the meantime Mikuru Asahina, with teacup-laden tray in hand, had tottered over like a nutcracker doll.
“Suzumiya, here’s your tea.”
The sight of the smiling maid Asahina was as fine as always. A fresh balm for my soul every time I see her. It would appear that Asahina, the unfortunate victim whenever Haruhi came up with an idea, showed no concern about the Christmas party. Can’t deny that a party with the whole brigade sounds much more enjoyable than passing out flyers in a bunny-girl outfit or wearing a sexually demeaning costume in a movie.
But was that really the case here?
Haruhi cheerfully took the cup and remained standing as she gulped down the herb tea. Asahina watched her with an angelic smile.
It took Haruhi only half a minute to down the scalding liquid and redouble her smile.
I had a bad feeling about this. She only smiles like that when she’s thinking about something dubious. I’ve spent a decent amount of time with her, so I can notice these things now.
“It was delicious, Mikuru. As a token of my gratitude, I have an early present for you.”
“What? Do you really mean it?”
The lovely maid blinked.
“Truer words have never been spoken. True as the moon revolving around the Earth revolving around the sun. You don’t have to believe Galileo. Just believe me.”
And Haruhi reached back into her bag.
I felt someone staring at me and turned to meet Koizumi’s eyes as he smiled wryly and shrugged. I would have preferred to ask what that was supposed to mean, but I more or less knew what he was saying. We haven’t spent the past six months as part of Haruhi’s crew for nothing. It’d be pretty wrong if we couldn’t figure out what was going on.
At least, that’s what I think.
The problem was that there wasn’t any person or medicine in this world capable of suppressing Haruhi’s ideas. I’ll personally present anyone who invents such an item with a Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
With a childish cry, Haruhi pulled out the last of her Christmas items from the bag.
Asahina reflexively took a step back as Haruhi spoke with the bearing of an old magician passing her beloved staff to her pupil.
“It’s Santa, Santa! Isn’t it perfect? This time of year, you have to emphasize the season by dressing appropriately. C’mere, I’ll help you get changed.”
The object in Haruhi’s hands as she advanced on the retreating Asahina was, in fact, nothing other than a Santa Claus outfit.
And so Koizumi and I were chased out of the clubroom to fantasize about Haruhi changing Asahina inside.
“Huh?” “Eek!” “Wah!” Her soft shrieks only served as an unneeded boost to my imagination as they gave me the illusion that I could see through the door. Yeah, I think I’m starting to lose it.
After immersing myself in the fantasy for a while…
“I do feel sorry for Asahina.”
Koizumi began talking, probably because he was bored. The guy with more than his fair share of looks and bearing leaned against the wall in the hallway with his arms crossed.
“I personally feel very relieved that Suzumiya is having fun. Since it pains me greatly to see her irritated.”
“Because that weird space pops up when she’s irritated?”
Koizumi used his ring finger to brush his hair aside.
“Yes, that would also be a reason. My comrades and I are most fearful of closed space and <Celestials>. Getting rid of them may have looked like an easy task, but it’s actually rather difficult to perform. Fortunately, they’ve been appearing less frequently since spring.”
“Which means they still show up sometimes?”
“Indeed. They still appear on occasion. Recently they’ve been limited to appearing between midnight and dawn. Probably the time frame when Suzumiya is asleep. I would assume that she unconsciously creates closed space when she has nightmares.”
“She makes trouble for everybody, whether she’s asleep or awake.”
“By no means!”
A surprisingly sharp retort from Koizumi. I have to admit that I was a little surprised. Koizumi smiled thinly as he directed a penetrating look my way.
“You probably don’t have any idea about what Suzumiya was like before high school. We began observing her three years before she came to North High, and we never once imagined that she would learn to laugh on a daily basis. Everything changed after she met you—or, to be more exact, after the two of you returned from closed space together. Suzumiya’s mental state has stabilized to an extent that cannot be compared to how she was in middle school.”
I stared back at Koizumi in silence, since I had a feeling I would lose if I looked away.
“Suzumiya is clearly changing. And for the better. We wish to maintain the status quo here. Wouldn’t you agree? She now considers the SOS Brigade to be an irreplaceable assembly. You are here. Asahina is here. Nagato is also necessary. I daresay I might also be included. We are united as one.”
According to your people, sure.
“Yes. However, this is by no means a bad thing. Do you wish to see Suzumiya set <Celestials> loose every few hours? This may not be for me to say, but that would be in very bad taste.”
I have no interest in seeing that. I never will. I can guarantee it.
Koizumi’s expression suddenly changed as his usual ambiguous smile returned.
“I’m relieved to hear that. Speaking of change, Suzumiya isn’t the only one who’s changed. We all have. You and I, along with Asahina and probably Nagato as well. Any person would have to adjust their mentality after spending time with Suzumiya.”
I looked away, but not because he had hit the nail on the head. I hadn’t realized that I’d changed, so I wasn’t particularly upset about his statement. But I was surprised that he had also noticed Nagato’s gradual transformation. The sham of a baseball game, a Tanabata festival that spanned three years, the cave cricket extermination, the murder show on a remote island, a looping summer vacation…. As we went through activity after activity, Nagato’s reserved manner and gestures certainly showed signs of change, while minute, from her behavior during our chance encounter in the literary club room when this all began. I wasn’t just hallucinating. My eyes are at least as sharp as a homemade telescope. In retrospect, she was already acting odd when we were on the remote island. Also when we went to the public pool and Bon Dance. Even more so when she was pretending to be a magician during the film shoot and taking on the computer society in that computer game. But…
That’s a good thing. Haruhi aside, I’d consider this revelation to be far more momentous.
“Organizing a Christmas party would be a small price to pay,” said Koizumi, with a smile on his face, “for the sake of keeping our world stable. And if it turns out to be an enjoyable experience, I won’t have a single complaint.”
I was starting to feel a little ticked off about how I couldn’t contradict him.
“It’s okay now!”
The clubroom door suddenly flew open, and since I had been leaning against said door, which swung inward, I naturally ended up flat on my back.
That voice didn’t belong to Haruhi or me. It was Asahina. And it came from directly above me. And since I was sprawled on the floor, I had no choice but to look up at the ceiling, only I saw something else instead.
“Hey, Kyon! No peeping!”
That was Haruhi yelling.
That was probably Asahina panicking as she hopped backward. I swear to the gods that I saw nothing but leg.
“Are you going to lie there forever!? Get up!”
Haruhi grabbed my collar as I finally stood up.
“You’re such a perv, Kyon! Come back in 200,005,600 years if you want to sneak a peek at Mikuru’s underwear! I bet you did that on purpose. You did it on purpose, right?”
It was your fault for opening the door before you even finished warning us. This was an accident. It was an accident, Asahina, I was about to say, when something caught my eye. Anybody want to ask what that something was?
What else but Asahina standing there with scarlet cheeks.
Red clothing lined in white, topped off by a red hat with a white pom-pom… was all Asahina had on as she gripped her short skirt with both hands and gazed at me with eyes that were teared up from embarrassment.
She made for an utterly perfect Santa without a single flaw. The true identity of this Mikuru Asahina must be that of the granddaughter who’s taken over the family business from a senile old Santa Claus.
I’m willing to bet that eight out of ten people would believe that story. My little sister would certainly fall for it.
Koizumi offered his impression.
“Forgive my use of a cliché, as I couldn’t come up with anything better. Yes, it’s very becoming. Yes, indeed.”
Haruhi draped her arm around Asahina’s shoulder and rubbed her cheek against the flabbergasted Santa girl.
“You’re so cute! Mikuru, you should be more confident in yourself. From now until the Christmas party, you’ll be the SOS Brigade’s very own Santa Claus. You’re qualified to hold that position!”
Asahina released a pitiful squeal. Still, Haruhi was actually right for once. Nobody would argue that point, I thought, as I turned to look at Nagato. The petite, short-haired, reticent girl was still reading in silence.
With a Santa hat on her head.
After that, Haruhi had us all line up so she could address us.
“Okay? This time of year, you can’t go running after a Santa when you spot one in the middle of town. They’re all fakes. The real one only appears at specific locations. Mikuru, you should be especially careful. Don’t accept any gifts from strange Santas or agree to anything they ask.”
You shouldn’t be saying that after you forced Asahina to become a fake Santa.
Don’t tell me that someone her age still believes, the way my little sister does, in an old man who volunteers internationally. I suppose it’s possible, when she still wishes on falling stars, but I had my doubts. After all, Saint Asahina was blessing us with her presence in the clubroom. Here we had a fake that transcended the original. What’s wrong with that? Ask for any more and complaints will come flying in from Scandinavia.
I considered where you might find a shady source of capital for a lazy old man who worked only once a year.
“So, Kyon. We’re going to have a full-blown Christmas party and all, but since I just came up with the idea so late, we can only celebrate the birthday of Christ this year. Next year we’ll have to hold birthday parties for Buddha and Muhammad as well, or it wouldn’t be fair.”
Why don’t you celebrate the birthdays of the founders of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism while you’re at it? They can only laugh bitterly from their perch above the clouds as a bunch of nonbelievers celebrate their birthdays. And since Haruhi will celebrate anything if it gives her an excuse to go crazy, it evens out in the end. Please limit any potential divine judgment to Haruhi. I barely have anything to do with this farce.
As I tried to figure out which god I should direct my plea to, Haruhi sat down in the brigade chief’s seat.
“What would you like? A hot pot? Sukiyaki? No crab. I can’t stand that stuff. I get all worked up when I have to pry the meat from the shell. Why aren’t crab shells edible? I’m tempted to say that there was a mistake in the evolutionary process.”
That’s exactly why they have shells. They didn’t go through natural selection on the bottom of the ocean for you to eat them.
Koizumi raised his hand before speaking.
“We’ll need to place a reservation then. The Christmas season is fast approaching, so we must hurry before all the restaurants are booked full.”
I really don’t want to go to any place he recommends. We’d be taking the risk of some bizarre restaurant owner character showing up in the middle of dinner to set off another messed-up murder comedy, which actually happened the last time Koizumi suggested an outing together.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” Koizumi said.
Haruhi shook her head with a smile. Maybe she was thinking the same thing I was. But she continued.
“We’ll hold it here. We already have everything necessary. Just need food. Right, we should bring a rice cooker. And no alcohol allowed. I swore to never drink again.”
I can think of some better things for you to swear off, but I believe you just said something that needs to be addressed first.
“Hold it here?” I asked as I looked around the clubroom.
Sure, the room was equipped with a pot and a portable gas stove. And we even had a fridge enshrined. The above items had been brought in by Haruhi from God knows where when the SOS Brigade was first formed. Don’t tell me that she’d been preparing for this event. In any case, the stove has proven useful when Asahina’s making her special tea, though I have to wonder if we’re even allowed to cook on school grounds, especially when we’re in the ancient clubhouse. The answer would obviously be no. Fire is banned in the building.
Haruhi paid no heed as she smiled like a grade-schooler who had no certification but cooked like a pro.
“It’s more fun to do these things in secret. If any student council members or teachers barge in, I’ll treat them to some of my fabulous hot pot. They’ll be so overwhelmed by the magnificent taste that they’ll tearfully accept the SOS Brigade! That’s how it’ll go down. To the letter. It’s perfect!”
Haruhi is ordinarily loath to engage in any activity that requires effort, but once she’s set her mind to doing something, she’ll do an extraordinary job of it. Her cooking is probably as good as she says. But a hot pot? When was that decided? From our conversation, her only concern was that we skip the crab. So she pretended to ask for our opinions while deciding everything herself—well, nothing new about that. No point in worrying about it…
Excerpted from The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya by Tanigawa, Nagaru Copyright © 2010 by Tanigawa, Nagaru. Excerpted by permission.
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