Seven Deadly Shadows – Courtney Alameda, Valynne E. Maetani

I am a girl surrounded by monsters and ghosts from an ancient world. Most days, they scare me less than people do. “Baka!” Ayako-senpai snaps, shoving me to the ground in the school’s courtyard. The contents of my messenger bag scatter across the asphalt. Some of my books fall open, their pages tearing and flapping in the wind: Chemistry. History. English. Colorful pens, pencils, and erasers flee from the girls who have trapped me. Do you really think I’m the idiot here, senpai? The baka? I’m supposed to respect the upperclassmen at my school, but Ayako-senpai treats me like trash. She no more deserves the honorific of -senpai than I do the insult of baka. While her parents have the money to buy her a spot here at Kyoto’s prestigious Kōgakkan High School, I had to earn my way. Of course, being a newer student at Kōgakkan makes me an outsider, a girl on the fringe. A target. When I try to rise, Ayako puts a foot on my back. The girls circle tighter.

Their shadows fall over me, surprisingly heavy in the hot sun. My cheeks burn. No matter how much shame I feel, no matter how violent their bullying may get, I will not cry. I. Will. Not. Cry. I clench my teeth and repeat these words like a mantra. From the ground, all I can see are the graceful stems of the girls’ legs and the whiteness of their socks, styled fashionably loose and scrunched over their shoes. Their pleated skirts make jagged lines above their knees.

“You understand this is for your own good, don’t you, Kira-chan?” Ayako says, removing her foot from my back and crouching down. She keeps her legs pressed together and clasps her hands in her lap. Her patella bones look like birds’ skulls, white and fragile. Of course you believe that, I think, wishing I could say the words aloud. But I know better than to talk back to an upperclassman—not only will Ayako make my life more hellish, but anyone I might complain to would tell me I was a fool for picking an argument with her. “We’re your big sisters, your senpai,” Ayako continues. “We want you to fit in . but that might be difficult for a girl who’s hardly more than a scholarship student. I’m surprised your parents can afford the tuition here.” The other girls snicker.

Ayako slides a finger under my chin and turns my face toward hers. Movement draws my gaze left, where a ghostly tentacle curls over her shoulder and slides its tip into her ear. My heartbeat picks up. The bracelet I wear around my left wrist grows warmer, the protective metal charms reacting to the demon’s presence. It’s an old heirloom my grandfather gave me, one that has been passed down through the Fujikawa family for generations. As a Shinto shrine maiden—a miko—cleansing evil is supposed to be part of my job. Few people can sense the yokai: the demons benevolent, malevolent, and everything in between. Yokai thrive on the energy created by extreme human emotions, which means it’s best to try to avoid or ignore them. Most days, similar tactics work with human bullies: Keep your head down. Don’t antagonize them.

Ignore their insults. They feed on your embarrassment and your shame. But evil is harder to deal with when it shows up wearing kneesocks and ombré extensions. I don’t know what sort of yokai infests Ayako, but it must be why her bullying has escalated to a physical attack. Ayako and her friends have been shunning me since the first day I stepped foot on Kōgakkon’s grounds. I’ve grown used to it, even if it makes me miserable. Physical abuse, however, is more than unusual—it’s almost unheard of, at least among female students. Another tentacle slithers out of Ayako’s mouth. I can’t be certain that she means anything she says or if the yokai speaks for her: “Kōgakkan prides itself on its excellent student body, and we don’t want anyone putting a mark on our sterling reputation. Especially not some priestess who works in a beat-up old shrine.

Did the priests have to take you in because no proper after-school program wanted you?” “I chose to work at my family’s shrine, Ayako,” I say, intentionally omitting the honorific. The girls around me suck air through their teeth. “That’s Ayako-senpai to you,” one of Ayako’s girls snaps, spitting on the ground. “Apologize!” I let the command hang in the air, unanswered. The wind whistles through the school’s courtyard, making the girls’ skirts swing like bells. Ayako doesn’t move. Neither do I. “Well?” another girl says. “Go on!” “No,” I say coldly. There are many ways to say no in Japanese without offense, but I’m done calling Ayako senpai.

“My family has tended the Fujikawa Shrine for almost a thousand years, and I am proud to be a miko there. All your family’s money couldn’t buy a legacy like mine.” There’s a beat, a moment of pure silence, before Ayako rises and kicks me, driving her shoe into my sternum. Pain clatters through my ribs. Choking, I collapse to the ground. The asphalt’s heat bakes my cheek and reeks of burned rubber. Pebbles bite into my flesh. I curl my knees into my chest to protect my stomach. I can’t think. My lungs feel like they’ve deflated, making it difficult to breathe.

I can’t focus enough to push myself up from the ground. “Ayako!” someone gasps. “You said you weren’t going to hurt her!” “Shut up,” Ayako says, grabbing me by my hair. My breath hisses through my gritted teeth. “Let me go—” A shout rises from the other side of the yard. Ayako straightens, and her pack of girls turns toward the sound. Their legs tense. Someone’s coming our way. “Go,” Ayako snaps at the other girls. They stampede around me, fleeing and hiding their faces.

Relief and embarrassment wash through me in equal amounts. I push up to a sitting position, wincing and rubbing my chest. My heart sinks when I see my younger sister, Ami, and one of the school’s office secretaries hurrying toward me. I’ve already lost enough dignity today. My little sister’s pity is the last thing I want or need. “Kira!” Ami’s voice bounces across the courtyard, bright and high as a ball. I don’t want my sister to see me this way—my skirt is hiked up, exposing the tops of my thighs. Blood bubbles from the scrapes on my knees. My books and things are scattered around the empty courtyard, papers and assignments rolling in the breeze. Ayako’s shoe left a large, dirty skid mark on the front of my white dress shirt.

Ami’s pigtails bob as she runs toward me. I rise, squeezing a pebble out from under my skin and dropping it to the ground. It patters on the asphalt. “Kira! Are you okay? Did she kick you?” my sister asks, almost crashing into me. She balls her fists in my blazer to keep her balance. She looks like she’s about to cry. I put my hand on Ami’s head, refusing to make eye contact with her. “I’m fine, it was . a misunderstanding.” My voice strangles on the last few syllables.

I take a steadying breath. If I didn’t cry in front of Ayako, I’m certainly not crying in front of my six-year-old sister. “What happened, Fujikawa-san?” Miss Oba asks, calling me by my surname. “Are you all right?” No, I’m not “all right.” I wish people would stop asking that question—if someone needs to ask it, the answer is almost always no. I’m bruised down to the quiet, dark places of my soul. I tug my skirt into place and beat the dust off the pleats, succeeding only in smearing blood across the fabric. I curse mentally, knowing it will stain. But I’d rather have blood on my skirt than evil slithering across my skin. “Who were those girls?” Miss Oba asks.

“They don’t attend Kōgakkan, do they? Surely our students have more decorum than that.” You saw their uniforms. “I didn’t see their faces. They knocked me down and wouldn’t let me up.” Miss Oba purses her lips. I’ve never been a good liar, but neither is Miss Oba. She knows those girls were Kōgakkan students. I know who they were. It’s easier for us both not to admit it and avoid the messy details. Neither of us wants Ayako making the consequences worse for us on Monday morning.

Besides, I can’t tell Miss Oba about the yokai. Adults don’t handle the inexplicable very well. Even my own parents refuse to believe that Grandfather and I can see and interact with yokai. Despite my mother’s upbringing at the Fujikawa Shrine, the yokai exist only in the realms of pop culture and manga to her. And while Shinto is the cultural backbone of Japanese life, many people don’t identify as religious. Not in the strictest sense, at least. Miss Oba helps me gather my things off the ground. “Would you like to make a report?” she asks. I shake my head, trying to shove my books into a bag too ripped to carry them. “I’m already late for work.

I’ll get some bandages at my family’s shrine, it’s not far.” “But Fujikawa-san—” “I’m fine, thank you. Have a good day, Oba-san,” I say with a short bow. With that, I usher my sister away from the courtyard before Miss Oba decides to ask any more questions. Ami and I are fifteen paces away when Miss Oba calls out, “Fujikawa-san, wait!” I pick the last rock out of my palm and pretend not to hear her. Two Fujikawa Shrine Kyoto, Japan On our way to the shrine, my sister asks me enough of her own questions, tugging on my skirt to get my attention. I keep my head up and walk fast, clutching my tattered book bag to my chest, ignoring strangers’ curious gazes. Despite the late November chill, sweat dampens my clothes, making them stick to the small of my back. “Don’t you need some bandages?” Ami asks. “You’re hurt!” Bandages can’t fix me, I wish to say but don’t.

I’m too distracted by the number of yokai monsters on the street today, and I need to focus to keep us safe. Not all yokai are evil, but many love mischief for mischief’s sake. They’ve adapted to living in modern Japan by concealing their true natures in human-looking glamours, concealing their hides, horns, and claws under expensive business suits, construction workers’ clothing, or even grandmotherly flowered prints. Ami waves to one of our “neighbors,” Mrs. Nakamura, not realizing she’s waving to a hone-onna, or “bone woman.” Ami can’t see the yokai’s skeleton face, and always insists on greeting the neighbors on our route as we head home. Some people, like Grandfather and me, are born with the ability to see through yokai glamours. Others can be trained. Once upon a time, Grandfather tried to teach my mother to spot the yokai. Mother was his heir, his eldest daughter, the pride of his life.

I don’t know what happened, only that their story didn’t end happily. Now Mother visits the shrine only on major holidays. She and Grandfather hardly speak. I’m Grandfather’s backup heir, preparing to carry the legacy that my parents and elder brother, Ichigo, try so hard to ignore. In their minds, there’s no fortune to be made in working at a shrine. My mother might have been raised in one, but neither she nor my father is religious. At least not anymore. And my brother, Ichigo, has no interest in becoming a priest. “Kira?” Ami asks, tugging on my skirt again. We pass a café’s big windows.

Inside, a young woman looks up from a magazine, sees my bloodspattered clothing and wrecked knees, and smiles. Ghostly whiskers ripple across her cheeks. “Kira.” My bracelet burns almost as hot as summer sunlight. Everywhere I look, I see yokai. What’s going on? I wonder. I never see this many of them on the street— “Kira!” my sister shrieks, startling our neighbors on the street. Their eyes narrow, blaming me, the elder sister, rather than the squawking child five paces back. Their thoughts are plain from their faces: Kira should be able to control that child, she is the elder sibling. Somehow, I’ve managed to disappoint even the neighbors and bystanders today.

I whirl around to face Ami, digging my fingernails into my palms. “What?” “We passed the shrine, dummy.” She pulls her lower eyelid down with one finger, sticks out her tongue, then turns on her heel to run down the sidewalk. I look up, realizing the Fujikawa Shrine’s vermilion torii gate lies half a block behind us. I’d been so lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t even noticed passing it by. Ami sprints past the main gate, nearly colliding with a shrine visitor. She always forgets to walk under the left side of the torii gate, which is proper, and has barreled into our patrons more than once. With a sigh, I hurry after her. “Don’t take too long on your homework,” I call out. “I don’t want to be late getting home again!” Ami waves me off and continues up the shrine’s steps.

One of the shrine’s priests stands at the bottom of the stone staircase, saying goodbye to a couple of elderly patrons. I hurry by with a short bow, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of our regulars. There are tourists on the steps, too, taking selfies with the stone lion guardians. They laugh too loudly, twisting their faces up in ugly grimaces, mocking the statues. Foreigners don’t always respect our shrines the way they should, ignorant of what these spaces mean. Step by step, the shrine comes into view. The Fujikawa Shrine is nearly a thousand years old, set like a gem into one of Kyoto’s lush mountainsides. The main hall stands at the heart of the shrine. The resident kami spirits are enshrined inside the honden, or main shrine, behind the hall. While there are hundreds of thousands of kami—the spirits that animate the landscape around us, or the ancestors who graced this earth before us—chief among them all is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and the most venerated kami in all Shinto.

The shrine’s offering and assembly halls stand to the left and right of the main hall, respectively; the three buildings form a large public courtyard area, one that hides the more private places in the shrine from view. The moment I slip past the shrine’s gate, I breathe easier. The air cools my face, smelling verdant. Green. Alive. I pause at the purification font to cleanse my hands and mouth, then hurry past a large courtyard pond and racks of wooden ema plaques. The plaques bear our patrons’ good wishes to the kami. At the shrine office counter, Usagi uses both hands to present a protective charm to a patron. If she’s out front, it means the private office area might be empty. Good.

Priests pass me by, occupied with their own tasks or with preparations for the upcoming autumn festivals. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s in a hurry. Nobody notices me. Which is great, because I’m not in the mood to explain the state of my school uniform. To my relief, I find myself alone in the office. Stowing my books and busted backpack in a cubby, I grab my miko’s uniform from a set of drawers, careful not to smear my blood on my white kimono. I go into the bathroom, close the door, and bang my forehead on it thrice. Baka. Fool. Apologize, Kira.

I tell myself that they’re wrong, that they’re liars. I’m no fool. Still, their words stick to the insides of my ribs, like I’ve swallowed something rancid. Those girls can pretend they’re defending Kōgakkon’s “reputation,” but in reality, they’re cowards looking for an easy target. I just hate that their target is me. Hanging my school jacket on a hook, I locate the first-aid kit under the sink. My hands shake with frustration as I pop the box’s clasps. No, with fury, because there’s nothing I can do to stop Ayako and her friends. Her father owns one of the largest J-pop record labels in the country, and were I to embarrass his daughter, I’d bring contempt down upon my family and the shrine. I fight to open an antiseptic wipe, cursing when the paper tears but the plastic stretches.

I shouldn’t feel like such a failure: I get excellent grades, am polite to my teachers and classmates, and try not to stand out too much. My father runs a successful precision electronics company in Kyoto, and while his work may not be glamorous, it’s profitable. Plus, it’s an honor to work with my grandfather at the Fujikawa Shrine.

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