The downpour of rain beating against the roof drew Hitori out of her room for the first time in days. Her feet moved almost mechanically, independent of their master as they padded softly and slowly, bare against the tatami floor. Instinct was drawing her out of the office building as her mother's advice whispered in her head: The roof in this spot can leak a bit. When it rains, we want to make sure it doesn't drip down into the slots. The cool, rough stone against her bare feet woke her up a little bit more as the rain dismantled her ceremonial knot into a wet nest of hair. Each step up toward the entrance of the hall of worship seemed more difficult and more pointless, but she prodded on, chose the correct key from the ring in her hand, and unlocked the offeratory box. She then took fistfuls of the money at a time and collected it into her large sleeves.
For a moment, she simply sat herself under the awning, looking out into the rain. It had beat the petals off the cherry trees so that they made widespread wet rugs at the bases of the trees. The paper lanterns and garlands were torn and strewn all over the grounds. The stone pyre had become an overflowing well, and some of the burnt plaques and ash streamed out onto the stone path.
Hitori leaned, about to lie down, when the sight of movement caused her to straighten like a rod again. Someone had just come out of the hearth building and was running toward her. It was a young man perhaps five years older than herself with the tips of his short hair bleached, shrugging a backpack more securely onto his shoulder.
"Do you have a Lost and Found?" he asked urgently.
She shook her head.
"I think I dropped something when I was here before. Can I look inside here?"
Hitori nodded and waved him through. He entered the hall of worship, and she could hear him shuffling frantically around the room. A pillow struck her back, so she half-turned her head.
"Sorry," he said. "Just looking through this pile."
After a few minutes of searching more thoroughly than such an empty room required, he finally came back out and stood beside her, his hands covering his face while he exhaled deep frustration into them.
"Too late now, anyway," he said. "I don't suppose you've seen a passport laying around, have you?"
She shook her head.
"It's gonna take weeks for me to get a new one, sh…" He clamped his mouth shut to stop the swear. "Sorry. Thanks for your, uh…" He looked down at her for what really seemed like the first time in their interaction. "Are you okay?"
Hitori nodded as she pushed herself back up onto her feet, unable to match his height by a head. "I was…" She pointed vaguely forward. "I was just on my way back to the office."
A deeper shadow cast over her as the boy suddenly opened an umbrella over her head. "I'll walk you back, then," he said. "You're really soaked."
Once she made peace with the fact that this meant she'd have to start walking again, she put one foot in front of the other, and the boy followed, keeping his umbrella poised over her head. When she opened the office door, he shifted the umbrella over his own head.
"While you're here," he said, "might as well get my fortune told." He dug some coins out of his pocket, jangling them in his hand to separate and count them. "Yeah, I think that's just enough."
Hitori sighed but took her place at the amulet window nonetheless. She only then realized she'd never closed it, and saw that quite a few of the containers holding omomori were filled with water. She nonchalantly emptied the water out over the front side of the counter, then brought each container inside to set on the dry countertop. She then took the canister and weakly rattled the sticks within it. When the boy received it, he didn't rattle it at all, but simply popped out of the sticks into his hand and showed it to her. "Number 8."
Hitori took the paper slip out of the drawer and handed it to him.
He read aloud: "A great blessing for things to come. That's encouraging." He smiled, but Hitori was staring blandly into the background behind him.
She seemed to realize he stopped talking and finally snapped to attention. "Thank you for visiting the shrine. Have a good day." Her mired mind fought to remember something, then she added, "Good luck finding your passport."
"Thanks." He nodded, bowed in parting, then headed for the gate.
Once he was out of sight, Hitori remembered that one of her sleeves was full of money. She emptied it all into the cash box then closed and locked the amulet window. As she pulled the shutter closed, a strip of paper fluttered toward her. The boy had left his fortune on the counter. With no trash bucket nearby, she just put the paper back into is place in the drawer. She stood for a moment, just blankly staring, until she finally made up her mind to go back to her room and lie down in bed, pulling the blankets up over her wet clothes.
A few days more passed. The only thing to coerce Hitori out of her room this time was the pang of nausea she felt in the pit of her stomach. She got up, walked down to the kitchen, and started a pot of miso soup. While it heated, she took off her dry-again clothes and put on her bathrobe. It was one that her mother had bought for her birthday a couple years prior, made of super-soft, fluffy yellow material with a fuzzy-yarn pink elephant embroidered on the right-hand pocket. Then she slipped her feet into the matching warm slippers. She paused as she relished how comfortable she felt, then undid the ceremonial knot in her hair and made plans to take a bath after she ate.
The hot bath grew cold, but she remained inside it. She thought once or twice she heard the shrine bell ring and the accompanying claps, but she made no move to check. When finally she began to shiver from the cold bath water, she got out and put her robe and slippers back on. Then she lifted her comb and looked at her long hair. She winced and instead put down the comb and looked in the cabinet for the pair of scissors her mother always used to trim her bangs. The scissors hovered for awhile as she contemplated cutting at the nape, at the chin, maybe just grabbing a ponytail in her fist and hacking through? In the end, she put down the scissors and wrapped her hair in a towel turban, the most effortless solution she had at hand.
Running her hands over the soft material of her robe, the corner of her mouth curled slightly up in satisfaction. Today was a good day. Now, back to bed.
The morning sun was too bright, too intrusive for Hitori to stay comfortably in bed the following morning. As she sat up, the towel unraveled from her hair, which was now dry, but waved and kinked in odd places. She glanced at her watch sitting on the nightstand to get an idea of the time, and saw beside it the small slip of paper that had the boy's Number 8 fortune written on it. Her brow furrowed as she fought to remember how it got there, because the first thought she retrieved was of her putting it back into the fortune drawer.
For the first time since the festival, she looked at her calendar. What date was it? She couldn't figure it out, but then remembered that her watch had the date on it. It had been nine days since the festival.
Her slippered feet padded out into the sunlight. The air was cooler on this day, and she hugged the robe more tightly around her as she slowly pivoted her head, taking in the site of her neglected shrine grounds. The mound of ashes had dissolved and spread on the rainy day, leaving behind what looked like a mere shadow around the pyre. The leftover bits of burnt amulets would have to be swept up into the dumpster. She wasn't going to trouble herself with lighting the pyre again to get them down to proper cinders like the rest. That one pillow would need mending. The cherry blossom petals needed to be raked up.
Her feet turned back toward the office building again when a clamor echoed across the pathway. Hitori strolled over to the hall of worship and peeked inside the open door - it was that boy from before, the one who lost his passport. He was laying with his head peering out from under the tablecloth of the offering table. His hand rubbed over the back of his head as he winced and whispered, "That's like the third time!"
The numbness that had taken over Hitori cracked as she shouted, "What are you doing in here?!"
The boy started, smacking his chin on the floor. "Aw, f...fugue!" He scrambled out from under the table. "Hey, you remember me, right, Yaiba?"
Hitori crossed to the table and flipped up the tablecloth - there was the ripped pillow from the hall of worship and a spare tablecloth underneath, a makeshift bed. "How long have you been sleeping here?" she demanded.
He bowed deeply, "Look, I'm sorry, Akiyama-kun, I'm sorry, I could have asked! See, I missed my flight back to America, my apartment is still leased to someone else, and I didn't have money for a motel."
"What about a shelter?"
"All full! I tried, believe me!"
"Well, you can't stay here!"
"I can help out! Look, I'm gonna get a job so I can get a new passport, and as soon as the new passport is processed, I'm outta here. I can give you a cut of what I earn at my job, or I can help out around here while you're at school, I can make it worth your while." His distressed turned sharply to confusion as he realized something. "Wait, why aren't you at school right now? You're, what, sixteen? Shouldn't you be in school now?"
Hitori was silent a moment, only just remembering that her birthday was a month ago. Seeing the boy again, she regained her stony resolve. "I'm seventeen. And I don't need school because I have a job already. And it's none of your business anyway!"
Uneasy silence fell for a brief moment. Yaiba regathered his voice, more steady-toned. "Can I please stay, Akiyama-kun? I promise I will contribute however you need me to."
Hitori's eyes went wide with fire. "Akiyama-SAMA. And NO!" She shook so hard, that her hair wrap loosened and the towel began to fall. I was only then that she remembered she was just wearing a bathrobe and slippers. She squeaked a gasp and immediately ran toward the office, locking the door behind her. She heard footsteps rushing over the stone as Yaiba followed, standing on the other side of the door.
"How about this, I'll go buy us some takeout, you get yourself settled, and we can talk about how to arrange this."
"No! Just leave!"
"I can report you." His tone was quiet but shockingly severe. "I think the Association would agree that a girl your age shouldn't be running this shrine when there are university grads looking for placement."
Hitori swallowed hard. How did he know about these things? Did he research them specifically to blackmail his way into staying at the shrine? Where he was a nuisance before, now, she was a little afraid. She tried to summon courage into her voice, but it wavered. "Have you ever thought that maybe a girl my age should think twice about the safety risk of keeping a stranger where she lives?"
His voice softened. "We'll talk about all of that. I promise, I just need somewhere to stay until I can go back to college in America. I don't want to hurt you or rob you, I just want to help."
Yaiba heard the sound of footsteps then the shuffle of paper. Looking down, he saw money being passed beneath the door. He burst a grin as he took the slips of paper and counted them out. "So what do you want to eat?"
"Don't care," was the barely audible response.
"I'll be right back."
Hitori heard his footsteps fade out. She opened the door a crack to see if he was truly gone. "We'll see," she whispered.