Ishiki

TK Anez

Chapter One

An In-Between Day

The spectre had my mother's body in its arms. Her limbs hung loosely, as if she were a rag doll. Lips parted halfway, she looked like she was about to say something.

"She is already dead, little one. She does not have anything to say anymore," said the spectre, reading my mind. It brushed my mother's hair with its long white fingers.

"Mom," I whispered.

"Come here, let me show you something."

Before I could answer, the spectre dropped my mother's body and grabbed mine in her place. Its fingernails dug into my shoulder. Blood pooled around the wounds.

The spectre led me away from my mother, its grip still tight. The air was dark and opaque, but the spectre was practically glowing. I felt mud beneath my feet, my shoes squealing with each step.

"We are here."

My mother's grave stood in front of us. The spectre let go of me and sat down, cross-legged, beside her tombstone.

"I've been here before," I said.

"I know this." The spectre bared its teeth at me.

A strong wind began to pick up, tousling my hair and whipping the edges of my jacket back and forth. The spectre sat still, unshaken. Its red eyes bored two holes into my chest.

I knelt down beside it, my heart pumping furiously. Without a word, it began to scratch at the ground beside my mother's grave. A cloud of dirt and grass swirled around me. I coughed and squeezed my eyes shut to keep it out. It felt toxic against my skin.

"Look," said the spectre, prying my eyes open with its fingers. Before us was another gravestone, flat against the earth. 'Joseph Roberts,' read the plaque. "It is your father."

"He's hardly my father," I said.

"He will be dead, too. Just like your mother." The spectre looked toward me, its mouth expressionless against its sallow face.

"What does it matter if you kill my father?" I stood up. Hatred for Joseph Roberts sent a stabbing pain through me. It gave me the courage to step away from the spectre.

"I will not put Joseph Roberts in this grave," said the spectre. "But you will."

* * *

I woke up with tears in my eyes and knew I had a dream about the spectre again. Next to me, Auntie Setona was still sleeping. It was just about five o'clock in the morning: only two hours left before school would start.

"What's the matter, Joey?" she mumbled. Internally, I kicked myself for waking her.

"Nothing's wrong. I just can't sleep."

"Another bad dream, huh?"

I squirmed a bit, wanting to crawl back under the sheets. I didn't want to tell Auntie Setona that I'd had another nightmare.

But she sat up in the bed, suddenly wide awake; "Honey, tell me about it." She peered into my eyes, and she must have seen the tears in them. "It was a really bad one, wasn't it?"

"I'm okay, Auntie. I'm gonna try to go back to sleep now, I'm sorry."

"It was about your mother, wasn't it…"

She had it all figured out. I closed my eyes and turned away from her, feeling more tears well up. I didn't want to ignore her, but I couldn't see any way I would be able to speak to her about my mother. We already spent too much time talking about what happened.

My mother died nine years ago, when I was four, in a car crash. Her accident was minor, not something that even made the local paper. And to be honest, it wouldn't have killed a different person. But my mother was a very frail and sickly woman; she was the type that took many risks with her health. She was the type that was bound to die young. This is what Auntie Setona told me. She had taken me in after my mother passed.

"It's okay, Joey," she said, tucking our blanket around my shoulders. "Just try and get some sleep before you have to get ready for school."

She gave me a kiss on one cheek. And then she gave me one on the other, "For your mom," that I wished she hadn't because my eyes were still stinging. I feigned sleep for her sake, counting the stitches along the sheets until the sun finally rose.

* * *

It was the last day of middle school, and I guess Auntie Setona expected me to be excited about it because she kept grinning all through breakfast. But the truth was that I wasn't excited about it at all. I dreaded leaving our apartment even more than usual.

"Jyaki, you better not get too excited about break coming up," Masato had said to me the day before. He had hated me since forever. "I'll make sure to beat you up enough to make up for the time I don't get to see you."

Masato had a scrunched up face that was too small for his body, and a voice that could carry across the entire school. When we were little, he used to steal my crayons and snip off parts of my hair with safety scissors. Nobody liked him then. But by the time we got into middle school, he found himself a circle of friends who thought it was funny to pick on me. For three years, I had cuts and bruises that never got a chance to heal.

"Stupid Yankee," he spat, taking the usual dig at my ethnicity.

I wanted to shout at him that I was only half American, but it wouldn't have mattered to Masato. It wouldn't have mattered to anyone, really. One drop of white blood in my system was enough to turn them all away from me, even if the rest of it was purely Japanese like everyone else's.

That was why he had been tormenting me all this time: stealing my homework, tripping me down stairs, framing me for anything the teachers would punish me for. Maybe he could drain every bit of American out of me, and then he would like me better. I would like myself better, too.

But when I went to school, Masato wasn't anywhere. He wasn't waiting around at the front entrance for me like he usually did; he wasn't in any classes. I was more worried than I was relieved, especially since no one around me could stop giggling throughout the whole day.

"Masato's got something planned, Joey," whispered Emi, my tennis partner in gym class. I knew it.

"Really?"

"Yeah," she said. "I'm not sure what it is, but you should get out of here early. I don't know, maybe leave ten minutes before last period is over. That would probably be good."

"Oh. Well, thanks," I replied. I was surprised that she was telling me this. Painfully shy Emi. When was the last time we had a conversation that long?

But I trusted her. So I excused myself from class once the clock hit 2:50, and ran as fast as I could out of the building. I burst through the school doors and sprinted toward the playground to get off the grounds. But when I got there, I knew I had walked into the wrong place. Instead of laughing and playing, about fifteen students from my class were standing in a semicircle, whispering excitedly. Masato and his closest friends were standing in the very middle.

"What is this?" I demanded, but I already suspected what was coming.

"A surprise, Jyaki," Masato sneered, stepping forward. "We're all excited about it."

I made a move to run away, but the semicircle tightened into a full circle, blocking any means of escape. I turned to face Masato again, and a chill ran down my spine that I hoped he didn't notice. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm bored of pulling pranks on you," Masato said, his chubby lips forming a stupid smile. "Thought I should change things up a bit. You know, for high school."

This was exactly what I thought would happen eventually. So, when was he going to pull out a gun and shoot me? Or maybe he'll have a switchblade and cut my throat wide open. The anticipation of what was to come almost made me wish for death instead, just to get it over with.

Masato took another step forward. I'd never seen him so happy. It was like Christmas had come early for him or something.

"No, Jyaki," he said. "I'm going to fight you when you have your guard up. It'll be funny, 'cause you're still gonna lose."

"That's not so different from what you usually do," I said. I was looking at my feet, but I made my voice loud.

"That's not all," Masato insisted. "If I win, everyone gets a free-for-all. Same thing happens no matter what, actually. Either way, you're going down, Jyaki." He was now circling me with a look of smug satisfaction on his face.

It was then that my breathing started to quicken. I became so dizzy that the ring of classmates around me started to spin. I broke into a run, but before I could get anywhere an older boy shoved me back into the circle.

"C'mon, fight me, Jyaki," Masato said. I shook my head and prepared for the first blow, but it came too slowly to be real. Masato's fist came within inches of my stomach, and that's when I started to think: Wouldn't it be nice if the spectre from my nightmares were real? It would be able to get rid of them all.

* * *

Then I was back home, and it was sometime that evening. Back in the South Jukyuu Yukina Kido Welfare Houses. Apartment 5-C. Mine and Auntie Setona's bed. The usual smell of urine leaking through the door. Home. Sweet home.

"Oh my goodness, Joey, you're awake! Are you all right?" Auntie Setona was standing over me, her expression a mixture of relief and worry. "How are you feeling, honey?"

I sat up quickly to try and prove to her that I was alright. By the time she had gotten to the school, I had been all cut up and bloodied. We had to take the bus home, since I was hardly able to walk. Even now, pain shot through every muscle in my body. I winced at the feeling. Sleep had barely healed me.

"One of your teachers called me to get you. He said that he saw a bunch of students with you outside . . . Hurting you."

"It's fine. Not a big deal." I tried to soften my tone, but my words came out more harshly than I wanted them too. Damn. And ouch.

"Joey, of course it's a big deal! How did this happen?"

"It's really, really okay." Once more I tried to make my voice sound gentle. "You can just drop it. It's not like it's going to happen again any time soon. It's the end of the school year. So it doesn't matter anymore."

"You make it sound like this has happened before, Joey." Some of the sweetness had left her tone and was replaced with suspicion. I wanted to lay back down and pull the covers over my head so her accusations couldn't get to me.

"Joey. . ." she repeated.

I didn't know what to tell her. Because if I told her about how Masato had been treating me, she would make me talk about it more. She would probably go to the school board or — much worse — Masato's parents. She wouldn't understand how much more of a target that would put on my back; she wouldn't want to hear my protests.

"Well, it's just that there's this other boy — one of my classmates. He's kind of got it out for me. Since forever. And he just . . . He just does this to me, sometimes." I figured that my mother wouldn't have approved of me lying to Auntie Setona, and that's why I told her the truth. Besides, I betrayed myself with what I had said before. It's not like it's going to happen again any time soon.

Auntie Setona frowned, looking slightly away from me. I couldn't tell if she was ashamed or angry or just thought I was pathetic.

"I'm sorry you didn't tell me about this before," she said, and I felt my heart wrench with guilt for disappointing her. "But, listen. It's going to be all right now. I have a surprise for you tonight. You'll see."

She grinned at me just like she did that morning, but I didn't even attempt to smile back at her because I knew it would hurt too much.

* * *

It was around eight o'clock or so when our telephone rang. Auntie Setona picked it up, spoke for a few seconds, and told me to head downstairs to let our dinner guests into the building. They were the surprise she had told me about. I had showered, put on my formal clothes, and Auntie Setona covered up my bruises with her make-up.

I couldn't manage to get myself excited about the visit, and when I made it to the entrance of our building, I felt even worse about it. I found a family of three at the landing: mother, father, and a daughter who seemed to be about the same age as me. The mother held a shimmering purse in her hand. Draped around her shoulders was a fur coat. Her husband wore shiny grey suit with a police badge pinned at his chest. I didn't know why the family dressed so lavishly, just to visit a welfare housing apartment.

When he noticed me, the father did a double-take. "You're Mariko Jyaki's son, aren't you?" I nodded, and he beamed at me. His reaction gave me a peculiar feeling.

"Yes, sir," I responded in my most polite tone. "My name is Joey Jyaki. Auntie Setona said I should come and bring you up to our apartment."

"Why yes, of course she did." He bowed his head to me, "Pardon my manners; let me introduce myself. I am Toru Himura. This is my wife, Keiko —" he motioned to the woman beside him, and then to the girl in between them "— and our daughter, Himeko."

I nodded. "Well, why don't you come in? Auntie Setona is just finishing up dinner."

"Why, thank you, son," said Mr. Himura, smiling at me. I didn't smile back. I didn't like the way he called me 'son.'

Leading the Himura family through our building's front doors, I crinkled my nose at the stench of fast food and marijuana that plagued the lobby. For a moment, I almost felt bad for them that they had to be here. But when I took a glance at Himeko's velvet dress, my guilt left me in an instant. At least they had a better home to go back to.

"Mommy, why can't we just take the elevator? I don't wanna walk up these stairs," whined Himeko as we reached the stairwell. "The elevator is right here. We wouldn't even have to wait for it!"

Of course, Himeko was right. The elevator had just reached the ground floor, and with a soft beeping sound its doors opened as if it were there especially for us. But I knew better than to take the elevator. I certainly would never take a wealthy family on it. I shuddered at the idea of what would happen if another Yukina Kido resident got on it with us.

"Himeko," said a stern Keiko Himura. "Joey is suggesting that we take the stairs. I think we should listen to him since this is his home, okay?" Her daughter promptly stopped complaining. "What floor do you and Setona live on, Joey?"

"We live on the fifth floor."

"See, Himeko, it's not that bad of a walk," she said, smiling, and then whispered in a voice meant only for her daughter: "Don't worry, Hime', we'll be sure to take a cab on the way back. I don't trust this neighborhood once the sun goes down."

I scowled.

Our apartment opened up to our kitchen, so when I let the Himura family in, they were greeted by Auntie Setona working over the stove, scouring pots and pans. Her face was unusually flushed, and she seemed out of breath.

"Toru! Keiko!" she exclaimed when she noticed us. "How are you? It's so good to see you."

"Thank you for getting them, Joey," she added as a side note to me.

"No problem," I muttered in response.

"I'm so sorry to invite you to such a modest home. I'm sure you're used to much better."

"Oh, hush, Setona," replied Mrs. Himura, taking my Auntie into a hug. "You have a lovely home. Thank you for inviting us."

"Well, you're very welcome. It's been such a long time." She turned to the little girl, who was clutching her mother's arm. "You must be Himeko! My goodness, you've grown so much. You probably don't even remember me, you were just a little baby when I last saw you. Just one or two years old, you know. You've grown into such a beautiful young lady."

Himeko blushed and tugged at the hem of her dress. Her mother nudged her, and only then she replied, "Thank you, Ms. Kiyoko."

"No, no, none of that Ms. Kiyoko stuff. Just call me Setona, alright?" she said, and she grinned at the girl. "You all can have a seat —" she pointed to our small plastic table positioned beside the stoves "— I'll be finished with dinner in just a moment."

We all knelt down at the table. It was so small that Himeko and I had to cram together on one side of it, while each of the adults got a side of their own. Himeko's hair smelled like roses, and though I knew it should be a welcome change from the usual smell of the apartment, it made me gag.

"It's fantastic to meet you finally, Joey," started Mr. Himura. "With a mother like Mariko Jyaki, I'm sure you've grown up to be an outstanding boy."

"Well, my mother died nine years ago," I replied. I couldn't figure out why he had brought up my mother yet again, but I had the feeling the stench of alcohol on his breath had something to do with it.

"I know," Mrs. Himura said. "I was so sorry to hear about that. Your mother was a dear friend to us. We went to school with her. And with Setona, too. I'm sure she's told you about it by now."

She hadn't.

"How's your father then, Joey? I haven't seen him since the wedding," asked Mr. Himura. I tried my best not to cringe too visibly. This was not a question that I liked to answer.

"My father." I spat the words as if they were a curse, something I wanted to leave my lips immediately. That man had always been out of the picture. He left my mom before I was born. "I don't speak to him."

My hands instinctively balled up into tight fists. My fingernails dug into my palms. I was worried that if anyone at the table said another word about my father, I would lose control.

"I'm sorry to hear that, son," he said. "I can't imagine how anyone could leave such a wonderful woman as your mother. But to tell you the truth, he did seem a little odd when I met him. Joseph Roberts, was it?"

"Yes," I growled. My hands, still fists, were shaking. "The reason he must have seemed 'a little odd' to you was because he was a filthy white American."

"Joey, calm down," said Auntie Setona. I relaxed my fists, but couldn't calm down at all — I was still fuming. Mr. Himura gave a soft chuckle, but was quickly silenced by a stern look from his wife.

After what seemed like forever, I mumbled, "Sorry," breaking the awkward silence. "I didn't mean it."

The adults laughed and ate and reminisced. They drank cup after cup of sake until the whole room smelled of it. Himeko and I sat next to each other in silence until: "So, Joey. Um . . . So, are you going to Ketsumu Academy next year, too? Mom and Dad told me that you might be."

"Ketsumu Academy?" I repeated. "I don't think so. I've never even heard of it."

"Oh, really?"

Auntie Setona turned to me. "Joey, do you know why I invited Toru and Keiko to dinner tonight? We have a surprise for you."

I looked back into her eyes, unsure what to expect.

"Ketsumu Academy is a private high school. It's where I met Toru and Keiko. Your mother went there, too," Auntie Setona explained. "You have to have top grades to get in, and since you've been doing so well in school, I decided to send your transcript in."

"What?" I stammered, feeling my eyes widen.

"You get to start at the beginning of next term. You'll get to move to the Nivaré province and take classes much more advanced than the classes here. And Himeko is going there, too. We all went there. Are you excited, Joey? Your mother would be so proud."

I stared at the three of them. They were all beaming at me, their eyes brimming with excitement and anticipation.

"So, what do you have to say, son?" asked Mr. Himura.

"I . . . Well, thank you. Thank you so much," I stammered. "I . . . I just don't really know what to say."

"You're welcome, honey." Auntie Setona looked unnaturally flushed again.

"But, Auntie," I started, making my voice low. "If Ketsumu Academy is a private high school, how can we afford it?"

Auntie Setona seemed to frown for a moment, but the expression left as quickly as it came; "I knew you were going to ask that, honey. Only thirteen years old and already so mature —" of course I'm concerned about the money when we hardly have any "— but you don't have to worry. Toru and Keiko got you financial aid."

"Really?" I felt like I was finally allowed to be excited about it.

"Yes, honey. Really. Ketsumu usually doesn't give financial aid, but Toru and Keiko work on the school board. They made sure you would be able to get in."

"So I get to go to a whole new school?" My heart was beating faster than before, and a comfortable heat rose in my cheeks. The sense of grogginess I had before was gone now, and my bruises felt like something I would be able to shed like a second skin. My eyes were darting in a thousand directions — to my Auntie, to Toru, Keiko, Himeko — watching for one of them to answer.

"Yes, a whole new school," Auntie Setona said, smiling. "No more public school. You don't have to see anyone from school who you, um, had a problem with."

"And I get to leave Jukyuu City?" I asked, shouting now. I shot up from the table, and Auntie Setona stood up with me. "I get to leave Jukyuu City! I'm leaving! Thank you, thank you!"

I grabbed Auntie Setona's forearms and danced around the kitchen with her. The Himuras were laughing; Auntie Setona still looked like she was going to cry. My heart felt light, as if it were about to fly out of my chest. I was possessed by an energy I had never felt before. I was happy. So happy. Effortlessly happy.

"Joey! Joey, calm down," Auntie Setona said. I let go of her, and she sank back to the floor in a coughing fit. I hardly noticed this. I continued to spin and dance around the apartment, singing and shouting and pumping my fists in the air.

"Joey, you're going to wake up the neighbors at this rate," she teased, still grinning and still crying and still coughing.

I sat down next to her, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "We'll go shopping for your school things tomorrow, how's that?" said Auntie Setona, and I nodded eagerly, thanking her once again.

"Son, I think you'll fit right in at Ketsumu," said Mr. Himura. And this time I didn't feel so disgusted by him calling me 'son.' "You'll do splendidly, just like your mother. You're the spitting image of her, you know."

I thanked him.

"It's going to be a fresh start for you," Auntie Setona said. "Your mother would be so, so proud."

* * *

Auntie Setona woke me up early the next morning, and told me to get dressed and ready. The night before seemed like just a dream. But when she took me on a bus to the wealthy part of Jukyuu City, it all came rushing back to me.

We walked from the bus stop to one of Jukyuu's largest, most famous department stores; "Well, this is it," she said, as a pretty young woman in a pink uniform smiled and welcomed us in.

The store was breathtaking. I had never been anywhere like it. The walls were painted gold, and brilliant chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The floor was an endless sea of counters with glass shelves, filled with jewelry and handbags whose designer labels shone like diamonds. Looking up, I could see floors full of lively customers. It made me smile to realize that I was one of them.

Auntie Setona slipped a few bills into the palm of my hand; "You take that to the seventh floor to get your school uniform. This should be enough money to cover it. You just tell them that you're going to be starting at Ketsumu Academy next term, and they'll fit you for it. Come meet me on the fourth floor afterwards. I want to pick you up a winter coat. You know, it gets pretty cold up there in the Nivaré. It hardly ever stops snowing."

It wasn't until Auntie Setona left the elevator for the fourth floor that I began to feel nervous. The thought of talking to a saleswomen made me uneasy. I was scared that they would deny me service, because they wouldn't be able to believe that a half-American boy with holes in his sneakers could possibly be able to make it into Ketsumu Academy.

There was a soft beeping sound, and there I was on the seventh floor. I was greeted by a woman in the same pink suit as the one who welcomed us at the front door.

"Hi! Welcome to the seventh floor: Uniforms," she said in a practiced tone. A toothy smile was plastered onto her face as if someone had stapled it that way.

"Um . . . I'm here to get a uniform. I'm going to Ketsumu Academy next term." I hated how meek I sounded.

"Okay, what year are you going to be?" she asked.

"Oh. It'll be my first year."

"Okay, follow me, then," the woman said, leading me to a back room. "There are a couple other Ketsumu newcomers here, too, so you can meet some of your new classmates."

She held the door open for me as I entered the back room. "Ms. Hanae! I've got another first year student from Ketsumu," she called to an elderly woman. The woman was taking measurements of two other students.

"Thank you," said the seamstress. "I'll take care of him in a moment."

The uniformed woman promptly turned and left the room. "You can have a seat right there, young man. I'll get to you as soon as I'm done with Ken'ichi here."

Ms. Hanae motioned to a couple of wooden chairs set against the wall. I took a seat next to a tall girl with long, bleached blonde hair. Her face was made up with bright powder and shiny lip gloss. She looked like the sort of girl that any boy was supposed to be attracted to, but I felt nothing when I looked at her. The girl scooted toward me, and tugged at the skirt of her short dress.

"Hey there," she said, extending her hand to me. A multitude of sparkling bracelets slid down her wrist. "I'm Ayame Higashide. So you're going to Ketsumu, huh?"

"Yeah, I am," I responded. I felt her eyes graze over me — from my dingy shoes to my oversized t-shirt — and her disapproval was obvious. I thought she might even start snickering at me for it. "My name is Joey Jyaki. It's, um, nice to meet you."

"Mhm," was Ayame's quick response. I sunk back into my chair, feeling especially awkward and out of place again.

The seamstress finished up with the boy that she was measuring, and gestured for me to come over to her. Whipping out a measuring tape hidden inside her sleeve, she began to measure me all over with a speed that I wouldn't have expected from a woman her age.

"Okay, okay," Ms. Hanae started. "You three sit tight, now. I'll be right back with your uniforms." And with that, she disappeared into another room.

The boy who was being fitted when I first entered the room turned to me. "Ketsumu?" he asked. His face was pasty, and his expression was bored. It was clear that he didn't care to make a good first impression. I didn't like his conceited accent and I didn't like how he asked if I was a Ketsumu student, since I obviously was.

"Yeah. First year," I said.

"So am I. The name's Ken'ichi Kuwabara. Hey, Ayame. Why don't you introduce yourself, too!"

"I already did, Ken," Ayame said, giving him a look.

Ken'ichi was speaking to me again. "What's your name?" he asked

"Joey Jyaki." I practically spat the name at him.

"Joey, huh?" started Ken'ichi. "Sounds like an American name. Don't tell me you're half. God, I knew you looked strange when you first walked in."

I glared at him.

"I knew it," he repeated, looking triumphant. His nose crinkled. "Well, Ayame and I are both Japanese. I didn't think Ketsumu took anyone who wasn't."

I was about to start screaming at Ken'ichi, or at least I wanted to, when Ms. Hanae returned to the room with three sets of uniforms; "Here you go, kids."

Quickly, I grabbed my uniform from her, before Ken'ichi or Ayame could, and hurried out of the fitting room to make my way toward the elevator. I punched the 'four' button over and over again until the doors shut. I wanted to make sure that neither of the other two would make it in with me.

I met Auntie Setona only a short distance from the fourth floor's elevator landing. "Here, I picked you up a couple of things. I hope you like them," she said, handing me a large plastic shopping bag.

"Thanks," I replied. Though I was excited to have new clothes, I took the bag only half-heartedly from her.

"Looks like you got your new uniform. Oh," she said when she saw my expression. "Did you have a hard time getting fitted?"

I shrugged. "I guess I'm just not that easy to fit."

"No, no, that's not it, is it? What happened?" Her tone was especially motherly, and it made me feel younger than I actually was. She frowned when I explained to her what had happened in the fitting room.

She scoffed. "Kids are so cruel," she said. "Well, you'll run into people like that wherever you go. Kids will care a lot about race until they finally grow up. And there will definitely be some snobs at Ketsumu, but I wouldn't take them seriously. For every stuck-up brat, there will be at least two others who will love you for who you are. And you're a good person, so you're going to be fine at school."

"Yeah, you really think so?" I was scared. I wanted Auntie Setona to really mean it. But I couldn't bring myself to actually believe what she was saying.

"Yes, of course. I know so," she said. "You're going to go to school and meet people who will wind up being your best friends for the rest of your life, just like your mother and I did. And maybe you'll even find a nice girl there. And when you do, you had better take her straight home so I can meet her."