Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap
Five ordinary girls discover magical powers in this new series of interconnected short stories from Isabel Yap
When Alex, Ria, Aiko, Natalie and Selena met at summer camp, they never expected the goddess would ask for their help, enlisting them as soldiers to protect the world from the forces of darkness. Gifting them each with a different object of power–a bracelet, a ring, a watch, earrings, a necklace–the goddess’s grace grants the friends the weapons to fight, the ability to heal, and the magic to strike back against the Grey.
Now, over a decade later, the five best friends are still fighting. But the burden of secrecy, the inevitability of pain, and the magnitude of their responsibility to keep saving the world has left them questioning their goddess.
How much longer can they keep saving the world? Can their friendship survive if one of them leaves their fold? And can they keep it together just long enough to get through Selena’s wedding?
Fist With A Kiss
“We Earned These Scars”
INT. A DARK ROOM
The camera is out of focus. It sweeps over an empty room, then shifts to reveal a GIRL—around 20, Asian, with straight hair. She stands still, not smiling. The camera moves closer to her face, and the video sharpens. Her gaze makes you swallow. She raises her hand to the screen, and forms a fist. There are starburst scars across her knuckles.
If you’re watching this, then we’re fighting the same battle.
That late autumn evening, I was first to arrive at our favorite Asian fusion place in St. Mark’s. I put my name down, then waited outside with a smoke, skimming through cameras on Amazon. I was being cruel to myself, because my rent was swallowing my measly income, and I had yet to make a dent in my mountain of student debt. Plus I was still occasionally daydreaming about a Film MFA—yet more torture. Maybe if I got that shooting assistant gig, this would be more reasonable. That, or random inheritance, or swindling some unfortunate rich dude.
“Yo!” Alex and Natalie walked over together.
“Hey, hey.” I tapped my phone off and grinned at them, though I knew raised eyebrows were a no-no, knowing smiles were a no-no, and questions were off-limits. Alex might laugh and change the subject, but Natalie would just stare me down, and she wasn’t one to lose staring matches. Their friendship mattered so much to us that none of us wanted to be overt about them getting back together, but I couldn’t help hoping it would work out somehow. I wasn’t one to hope for many things, which sort of highlighted how much their happiness meant to me. Not that they weren’t happy now, or as happy as any of us could be, anyway.
“Any idea what this is for?” Natalie asked. “I’m totally happy to see you guys on a random Tuesday, but we were all just together last weekend.”
“You make it sound like you don’t have any more time for us,” Ria said, crashing into Natalie from behind with a hug. “Though I have to say, I’m pretty curious myself.”
I dropped my cigarette and stubbed it out, shrugging.
“Sorry!” Selena appeared, slightly out of breath. I assumed it was from scrambling to get here from the Upper East Side. “Thanks all for showing up!”
“Of course, darling,” Ria said.
Selena ushered us in. We got our usual shared starter of Minced Pork on Cabbage Leaves, and I got a tofu stir fry and a glass of Tsingtao. We were halfway through our meal when Selena paused, cleared her throat, and said: “So, you all know Rob and I have been pretty serious.”
We nodded, while noodle-slurping and rice-shoveling.
“And we’ve dated for just over a year now… ”
“Yes, Sel, and the fact that he hasn’t been scared away by all of us yet is a miracle,” Natalie said. She was also chasing around a renegade cashew on her plate, and only half-attending.
“Well, last week was our… anniversary… and… ” Sel looked down at her lap.
“What?” Alex asked. I tilted my head.
“Oh my god,” Ria said. “OH MY GOD.” A lady at a nearby table swiveled her head at us, so Ria thankfully took it down a notch and hissed, “Robert proposed to you?! Oh my god! Selena!” There was a pause in which Ria’s eyes nearly popped out of her face, Alex’s mouth formed a curious little o, and my heartbeat sped up. Then Ria finally said, “That’s so great! I mean it’s kinda soon, but like wow! Congratulations!”
“Yeah,” Natalie said, nodding. I saw Alex’s eyes flicker over to her and then she started nodding too.
I swallowed the rice I’d mashed to a pulp and said, “Congratulations.”
Selena’s eyes were shiny. Her smile wobbled at the edges. She put her hand up to her mouth and broke into sobs, and we all reached out just to touch her, because Selena crying was not okay. She turned and buried her face into Natalie’s shoulder.
Something about this didn’t seem right. I couldn’t figure out why my heart was twisting. I couldn’t tell if it was that Selena’s happiness seemed so tenuous, and I didn’t trust Rob not to fuck things up. Or was it that we all knew having more loved ones was a fucking liability? Plus I had this bizarre kneejerk reaction of the goddess finding out about one of us getting married and losing her shit—like I was a kid afraid of what my mom would say if I told her I had a boyfriend. We’d each had our share of unchaste romances (Ria excluded, by choice); but twenty-five in this day and age was pretty young to be getting married, wasn’t it? Then again Selena’s family was old school Catholic.
Maybe it was just my own pessimism, that because we’d been touched with this power, and we’d cut through millions of greystones and seen enough gore to last a lifetime—we were destined to be alone, and no amount of 92% profile matches or well-orchestrated dates could change that.
It was all those things and none of them, so I kept my hand on Selena’s arm and quipped about tears not being a great seasoning for yellow curry.
“I’m so glad you guys are s-supportive of it,” she said. “I don’t know why I was so terrified of telling you.”
“Because you love us, and you know we’ll rip anyone who doesn’t deserve you into shreds,” Alex said. She was right. Maybe that was it. Because we all loved Selena, and she loved us back, and that sort of love in itself was terrifying, when you realized how easily we could all lose each other. It had taken me ages to admit this to myself. It was always harder than it needed to be.
Kyoto, the summer before senior year. I sat in Auntie Hiromi’s living room, melting in front of the electric fan, eating slices of watermelon. I spat the seeds into a sauce dish, wishing I had shaved my head after all—but mom told me it would be too much for my relatives, and was that really the impression I wanted to give them, after all these years? I didn’t want another fight with mom so close to leaving, so I kept quiet. I’d tried my best to pin my bob back from my face, but strands of it kept coming loose and sticking to my forehead.
What am I doing here?
I knew the answer. The real one, beyond “my relatives wanted to see me” and “it’s good to connect with one’s cultural roots.” It was so that I’d have something to fill my college essays with. Finding myself, traveling alone (or as close to alone as a high-schooler could get), learning about the rest of the world—this trip was a way to make sitting on my ass eating watermelon sound like the biggest revelation of my life.
I don’t believe in revelations anymore—but no, that wasn’t true. It’s just that I no longer trusted life not to be batshit insane. I think I’d earned that privilege, three years into this magical girl business. At least since arriving over the weekend I hadn’t needed to fight, not once. Sometimes weeks went by without any threats—but I was also harboring a suspicion that maybe, just like in the Hollywood movies, only America ever got attacked. It did seem to be prime stomping ground for aliens and supervillains and Godzilla. Maybe the forces of darkness we were fighting fit that bill, too. Maybe, despite all of the anime saying otherwise—man, I was starting to sound like Ria—Japan was safe.
Which was important, because it seemed like I had lost my powers. In my last battle, I hadn’t been able to transform. At all. I still had no idea why. I was trying not to think about it, but I was actually scared out of mind.
I stretched and rolled onto my side. The oppressive heat was just an excuse for lethargy. In truth, it was the college applications weighing on me, despite my best efforts to ignore them. It was all anyone talked about, all through junior year. At home mom avoided bringing it up too often, but I knew it was on her mind. I never gave her an opening. It was another decision that was evidently not mine to make, and it hurt.
The drive to the airport had been fraught with tension, but she didn’t say anything about colleges, and simply wished me a good summer. I promised her I’d try and speak only Japanese.
That was turning out easy. I was actually more fluent than I expected. The toughest thing so far was that Auntie Hiromi didn’t have WiFi, and I was too embarrassed to ask if I could borrow their PC, since it was in the master’s bedroom. I hadn’t heard from any of the other girls in days—it was the longest I’d gone without hearing from any of them, since that day we came together in the forest. Had it really been three summers ago, now, that we’d met? Actually met, not in that someone-I-vaguely-know-from-school kinda way, but they hey-we’re-almost-dying-together way, where bonds were forged in blood and magical weaponry?
Ugh. Getting caught up in that again. We were friends. I knew that. They’d become my high school group, despite my initial plans to be group-less. They mattered to me. A lot.
So why did it hurt me to admit that? Why did calling them my best friends freak me out? Why should it freak me out? I got scared whenever I thought about it too deeply, but it was starting to reach a point where holding it at arms’ length might hurt even more.
The scariest thing about losing my powers was that I didn’t know what had caused it. Was it permanent? Temporary? Had I done something to piss the goddess off? The day that battle happened had been ordinary, as far as I could remember. I’d gone to Dairy Queen with Nat and Ria for some Wednesday afternoon, let’s-not-talk-about-college-apps Blizzards. Alex was at the Kumon center where she tutored twice a week, and Sel was doing student council things. At Dairy Queen I’d looked at their laughing and smiling faces and felt the cold dread of not wanting to lose them, maybe a little more strongly than usual.
That was starting to become the norm for me, though.
Four greystones materialized by the trash bins just as we reached the parking lot across the street. Light and dark meshed around us as the barrier formed. Three were hulking ones with four arms, with the sort of weird rock abs that meant they’d be combat types—a bit slower, but with incredible power. The other was a kind I’d never seen before—it had long bladed fingers, and a singular, purple eyeball at the center of its head.
“Four? Ugh!” Ria held up her hand and started singing, and Natalie joined in, her blades already materializing. I clutched my necklace and mouthed the words, waiting for blue light to engulf me—but it didn’t. I sang louder. A greystone ran for me and punched me with one of its rocklike fists. I hit the pavement.
“Aiko!” Natalie cut off two of the greystone’s four limbs, and as it reeled away, greystone-juice spewing from its stumps, she held her sword over me, daring it to come back. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t—I can’t—”
“Guys, I could use a little help!” Ria shouted.
“Hide,” Natalie told me, then stabbed the flailing greystone, before teleporting to where Ria was fending off two by herself. I ran for cover in my human form, but what the fuck did that mean, I was always in my fucking human form, only now I couldn’t be superpowered and that was terrifying. I hid behind someone’s car, trying to summon the goddess grace. Singing to myself, why wasn’t anything happening, why couldn’t I—the car behind me flipped over. I raised my arms to shield my face, screaming. Before the greystone could squash me, Ria appeared and hacked it in half. The rage on her face was electrifying.
“What the hell?” she yelled. I winced. I knew she wasn’t mad at me, and anyone would be losing their mind in that situation, but I didn’t know what to do. Where was the goddess? What kind of sick joke was she playing?
“I can’t trans—” I started to say, as a shadow passed over her—“BEHIND YOU!”—but I was too late. The greystone’s long, bladed fingers had already pierced through her chest.
The night we received our powers, Ria made up lie after lie. In the end, the counselor merely said: “Okay.”
That should’ve been the cue that things were going to be like this from now on, but we didn’t think it then—everything was still shiny-new and insane. We’d showered, gone to sleep barely speaking. I remember asking Alex if I could borrow some toothpaste, and we blinked at each other in wonder, at how odd ordinary life had become. I don’t remember anyone saying goodnight in our cabin. When I slept, I dreamt of dark shapes threaded with violent bursts of color.
The next morning, before breakfast, we convened. Ria crossed her arms and said, “All right. We can’t keep ignoring it. That was—I mean—in the forest, we. That,” and it was almost funny, how we couldn’t find the words. Funny, except I was still wearing my necklace, and my leg had several crisscross scratches. Less than twenty-four hours ago they’d been ugly, gaping wounds.
“There was a monster and we killed it,” Natalie said.
“A monster,” Selena repeated.
We let that statement settle. We seemed remarkably calm. (The panic would come later, in random bursts. I would consider smashing my necklace, to see if that would destroy things, sometimes half-hoping it would kill me. I’d fill up my bathtub and scrub myself raw, imagining greystone innards all over me. I’d sob over their cries filling my head, over and over.)
“There was that—forest —lady. Woman.” Alex was looking at her feet like they held a secret code of some kind. She wiggled her toes. “She asked me if I wanted to save the world.”
“She didn’t ask if we wanted it,” Ria said. “She asked for our help. She asked will you help me?”
“But that’s what I don’t get, like—the world’s not—it isn’t under attack,” Selena said. “Is it? What are they? Terrorists? Aliens? I mean what happened can’t be real. The swamp, and the black portal, that was all just—”
“But you’re still wearing that watch, Sel,” Natalie pointed out. Selena closed her mouth. Fear darkened her face. She and Natalie frowned at each other, and I thought it was nice, how close they were to each other, how they really knew at each other. It seemed valuable, at a time like this. It was in that moment that I realized I had somehow memorized all their names.
“It became a hammer, right? Or an axe or something.” Ria’s tone was bright and urgent. She almost seemed excited, despite what she was describing.
Selena nodded slowly.
“And mine was a chainsaw,” Ria said. “You had, like, a whip or something—” she pointed at Alex, then at Nalaie—“And you had freaking twin swords!”
“We need more answers,” Natalie said. Her hand drifted up to one ear, clutched the stud there. “We don’t know anything.”
“Or maybe we’re all still asleep and when we wake up we’re going to find this was just a super weird dream! Like! I’m super tired. That wouldn’t be so crazy?” Alex had a point. I was still groggy. And everything inside me felt conspicuously broken.
“What do you think, Aiko?” Maybe because I hadn’t said anything, Ria was now pouncing on me. The room’s attention shifted towards me.
“I’m not doing it,” I said. They stared. “Whether it was real or not, whether the world is under attack or not. I don’t know how to fight. I don’t want to be part of this.” I grabbed the towel hanging on the edge of my bunk. “I need another shower. I feel like there’s still dirt in my hair.”
“But didn’t you say yes, yesterday?” Ria asked, as I walked to the door.
I shrugged and tugged the door open—or at least that was the idea. But it had been jammed shut. The door handle and the walls of our cabin were covered in a pearly, otherworldly glow. “Shit,” I said.
I turned. She was there, in the middle of our cabin: barefoot and beautiful, radiating light, not letting me leave, never letting me go.
EXT. MANHATTAN AT NIGHT
A TEENAGE GIRL runs down the street. Her hair is in a ponytail, and she’s wearing a hoodie and leggings. She runs like she’s running for her life.
Here’s what she told us: this isn’t a dream. I’m sorry girls, that you have to be part of it, but I can’t win without you. I knew then, that it would be inescapable, but I didn’t trust it. What do you do when your only choice is to be noble and fight?
INT. A SHADY ALLEYWAY
The girl turns a corner and stops running, bends down, hands on her knees. She pants, catching her breath. There’s a single, flickering lamp in the alleyway.
I don’t know. You do it?
A GREYSTONE melts out of the darkness in the background. It’s a six-foot-tall humanoid monster with a flat empty space instead of a face. The girl doesn’t notice it yet.
So we fight. We fight because they want to drain the world of light, of power. They want to take the magic we’ve been given, and they want to destroy us.
The Greystone moves slowly towards the girl. She finally lifts her head and sees it, and the anger on her face is striking. She straightens up. Her hands curl into fists.
As for her? She wants to protect us. She wants to save the world. But she can’t do it alone.
The Greystone swoops towards the girl, and slams her against the wall so hard that part of it crumbles. She struggles against it, mouthing words. Light surrounds her, beaming from all directions, until she can no longer be seen.
Luckily, we’re not alone. This matters. Because when things are going to shit, that’s the only thing that keeps us going.
Only the Greystone is visible for a minute. Then a giant blast of light erupts from its back. It falls backwards to the ground. The girl is standing against the wall, holding up her right arm, which is now encased in a cannon. Her shoulders rise and fall with every breath. She is wearing a magical girl uniform.
Sometimes I forgot that it wasn’t just the fighting. It was also dollar milkshakes after class, Math review, lying on the rugs in each other’s bedrooms talking about school or the latest movie. The struggle between light and dark—killing the greystones,the random goddess visits—these were such a big part of who we were together. But there was also the friendship, every day. The girls were my constant.
And that was one of my battles, even if I never told them. How much I didn’t want them to matter to me. How hard I worked to keep that wall up, even if it had crumbled the minute we received my charms. How frustrated I was that my habit of pushing people away didn’t seem to work with them. I didn’t want to need them—and I didn’t want them to need me. It was a burden, and I’m not sure I ever forgave the goddess for giving that to me.
That moment, when she kept me from leaving the room, was the moment when I felt my fate had been sealed. She told us the story, in as much detail as our brains could accept, despite the fact that everything sounded like the pilot of a janky fall television show for teens. About the great battle between dimensions, and the nature of the Grey—the overseer of evil, the Big Bad we were fighting. How he created the greystones out of the terror contained in the hearts of every living thing, and how these dangerous creatures were difficult to destroy, and how they would seek to drain our magic from us—which they could do if we lost. If we died.
In turn, whenever we defeated one, we would capture some of the Grey’s power. Holding their glass hearts would send this power to her—as Ria did in that first battle. And eventually, enough of her power would be gathered that she could assemble the Cannon of Light and banish the Grey—“Forever?” we asked. “For a time,” she said, not missing a beat. Our charms would lead us into battles as needed, she promised. And if we were smart, if we stayed by each other, if we gave each fight our all—we would make it through. Her magic would protect us. It was more of a hope than a promise, but it was the best she could give.
“What do we get in return, then?”
“You can keep others safe,” she said, holding my gaze. “And you get each other.”
I’d been to Kyoto a few times before, but never without mom and Akari. All together, we could justify staying at an inn; by myself, and with Auntie Hiromi’s older children away in Tokyo, there was no reason not to just crash with my relatives. It wasn’t that I thought I should stay by myself somewhere—I just wasn’t local enough to understand anyone’s habits. I fumbled money or manners at the worst times, and the sense of failure at belonging was heightened only because I expected myself to do better. But I felt like an impostor trying to connect with my—my parents’—culture this way. I wasn’t sure I could ever know it.
I threw the watermelon rinds and seeds and rinsed out my plate, and decided to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine. A hike beneath the bright red torii would hopefully lift my spirits a little. On the way, I kicked along a pebble with my sneakers, flip-flopping between feeling hollow and angry.
In that last battle—Ria getting stabbed in the chest —I had to hide behind the rubble, shivering—I was the dead weight, the burden —but why? How did that happen?
Am I done fighting?
Am I supposed to be happy about this?
At the shrine’s gate, I squinted at the guardian fox statue like it might tell me something. It didn’t. Its red bib and blank eyes were almost accusatory. Fifteen minutes into my hike, I already regretted my failure to bring any water. Hopefully I’d encounter a vending machine soon enough. I wiped my face and squinted through my sweat. Above and behind me was bright red wood: arch after arch, black ink dried on the sides. There was no wind, but the air had cooled a little. With a jolt of fear, I wondered if that meant the goddess was near me. She had a habit of popping out of nowhere—and when she did, the air always got considerably colder. What if she was sucking out my power, having deemed me unworthy, not enough of a team player? Didn’t I want this? A normal life, and no more pain, no more anxiety?
You’re not here to think about magical girl stuff, Aiko. College. Think of college. What are you going to do about your application essays?
Fuck the application.
I swatted at a mosquito that had latched onto my arm. My knees were beginning to feel leaden, but I could see a break up ahead. Oddly enough, I hadn’t encountered anyone on the way —either heading back down, or moving ahead past me. I took a deep breath and decided to get to the rest point faster—maybe there would be drinks!—and dashed up the stairs, realizing a second too late that something was behind me.
As I turned my head, it clamped down fangs on my shoulder.
Pain. Pain so bad I couldn’t think. I gasped, kept going, reached the top of the steps and turned, trying to get it off my back, though its teeth were still sinking into my flesh and maybe I could body slam it backwards into the ground? Hard enough to hurt it? By myself I wasn’t strong enough—but before I could try it hopped off me—it was some springy frog type—and roared. Cringing, I knelt, and pressed a hand to my shoulder. Blood soaked through my collar. It hadn’t shattered any bones, at least.
Shit. I’d have to try transforming. I clutched the chain of my necklace and sang. The greystone licked its lips as nothing happened. No light, no magic. It sprang for me, so like an idiot I struck out with my first. When my knuckles hit its torso my hand erupted in pain, blood soaking the creature’s apparently serrated skin and holy shit that hurt, it was now diving for me this is how you go and I hadn’t even graduated high school or finished a short film, I had hoped for more from this goddamned life before this is how you—
“YAH!” someone shouted—
Greystone juice sprayed over me, and the monster broke apart. I saw its glass heart sparkle and then dissolve in the palm of my… savior?! I blinked, completely dazed. Bright light glinted off the magical girl’s naginata—and it was a magical girl, it had to be, though she wasn’t anyone I knew. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and the aura surrounding her was a deep crimson. Like all the torii behind us. The pinpoint focus in her eyes made me swallow. She closed her fist, the glass heart’s light shining through her knuckles before fading. She changed her stance, lowered her weapon, and turned her head, surveying the area. The magical barrier that had surrounded us—I hadn’t even noticed—vanished.
She walked up to me, concern on her face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m… ” I was still bleeding and lightheaded, but everything was so surreal that I somehow managed to keep talking. “I’m okay.” I stood, swayed, kept standing. My head felt like it was being split apart. I was distracted by her outfit. It was weird to see our battle attire on someone I didn’t already know. (Also, were our skirts really that short?!) So this meant —this meant there were other magical girls. All over. Fighting like we were. Magical girls were a thing—I mean, that’s how I thought of us because of Ria and pop culture, but this just proved that it was true?
Light siphoned off her outfit, and she was wearing normal clothes again, which turned out to be a miko’s uniform. She inspected my shoulder and my fist rapidly, then pulled a handkerchief from her canvas bag. “Here, put some pressure on it.”
She touched my arm. I suddenly heard the goddess’s voice—a line from her song, echoing through me. The girl froze and frowned.
Her eyes found my necklace, and she exhaled.
“We’re the same, then?”
She didn’t need to clarify. I nodded. It was the battle uniform, the blaze of light, and the weapon—her transformation charm. I didn’t know if it was the bow in her hair, or those cookie-shaped earrings (probably not, the goddess wasn’t that cutesy), or the string bracelet on her wrist. She had thrashed a greystone in two clean strokes, right before my eyes. Clearly she belonged to the powers of light, like myself. She too was the goddess’s soldier.
“You are—having trouble transforming?”
I nodded again. She looked sad, then determined, pressing her hand to the wound on my shoulder. I inhaled sharply as her grace flowed through me, and suddenly it felt like my own magic was working again—the throbbing pain in my hand, the deep bite on my shoulder—both of these immediately hurt much less. A soft red glow danced over my injuries, dulling the pain, the broken skin starting to heal. Meanwhile she’d removed some bandages from her bag and was winding them over my busted knuckles. I let her do this, trying to gather my thoughts. Her touch was so gentle. I felt awkward.
“How did you… ”
“It’s not easy,” she said, smiling, “To pass energy from one to another. But if you keep your mind absolutely clear, and concentrate, you can do it. Not too often, mind you. That would be drawing from her powers too much.” She finished wrapping my knuckles. “My name is Minori. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Aiko,” I said. “Um, thanks. For saving me.”
She looked up at the rest of the steps I had to climb, then back at the shrine entrance behind us. She cleared her throat. “Do you like tea?”
By the time we reached the entrance to the shrine, my shoulder wasn’t bleeding anymore, and my knuckle didn’t hurt at all. I kept the bandage over it anyway, though I worried about how to get the blood off my shirt without Auntie Hiromi noticing. Minori kept pace with me, still on high alert—I could tell from the way she looked behind us, every few minutes.
One thing was bothering me—when Minori healed me, I’d felt the magic still within me. So it seemed fair to say that I hadn’t lost it. But why, then, could I not summon it?
And did Minori know more about the battle between dimensions, than I did? Did she know more about the goddess?
“It’s not far from here,” Minori said, as we walked out of the shrine entrance. “Are you still all right?”
“Yes,” I said. My piercing headache was starting to clear. I wondered if maybe she’d teach me how to heal. That of course depended on being able to use my powers again, though. And despite everything, I still wasn’t sure I wanted that—even if it meant I’d probably be dead otherwise.
The teashop was a small structure I’d passed several times before, though I didn’t realize what it was. The door was so low, we had to duck through it. An old lady said “Welcome!” as we entered. She blinked in mild interest at the blood on my shirt, but didn’t say anything. “I’ll bring out some sweets and tea,” she said, and disappeared. Minori and I found a corner table.
“So you’re… ” I couldn’t say it without feeling ridiculous.
“A warrior of the light. Yes.” She clasped her hands together. “Same as you. You’re… are you from here?”
“I’m from America,” I said. “Though I have some family here. Sorry, my Japanese isn’t very fluent.”
“No, it’s really good, actually.”
I grinned in spite of the situation. “You know, my friends and I—we call ourselves magical girls. It’s—our leader is a really big anime fan, so it kind of stuck.”
She laughed. “Magical girls? That works too. Yes, it’s sort of like that.”
I paused. “I never expected to meet anyone else like us. And certainly not while abroad.” What did that even mean, though? Others who were bleeding, burning, biting like me? Minori had looked like some of those things in the battle, but she was also calm. She exuded a grace I could never imagine possessing. I looped my necklace around my finger. “I thought, maybe, I don’t know, maybe it was just in America.”
“That’s silly. It’s not like the darkness is only there.”
Despite my awe, I bristled. “It’s not like we were ever given enough information.” Now that things were calmer, I was supposed to be bursting with questions, but instead I was tired. I just wanted to crawl under a mosquito net and sleep forever. “She just came one day and gave us our powers and made us fight.”
“Made you? She doesn’t control us. But she asks much of us, yes.”
“She asks much of us,” I repeated. “That’s… that’s one way of phrasing it.”
“Excuse me,” the owner said, materializing with a tray. She dispensed two cups, a pot of tea, and wagashi on a square plate. “Enjoy.”
“Thank you,” we murmured. I took the tea in my hands, the cup warming my palms.
“How old are you, Minori-san?”
“Twenty-two.” She took a sip.
“And you’re still fighting. You don’t ask why?”
Her face was solemn when she set down her cup. “It is impossible, not to wonder. Especially when things are very difficult. But I continue to fight, because in truth, it doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. It feels more like—what I need to do.” And she’d destroyed that greystone so easily—without injury, without breaking a sweet. That made sense.
I wanted to be like that.
But I also never wanted to be like that. Since we received our powers, I’d wanted to back out, or at least have the choice. Accepting it would mean sealing my fate. If I kept resisting, then at least I’d never say I surrendered—that I didn’t try to get my life back in order. The hardest part was being the only one. Ria’s conviction was so hot it was scalding. Selena and Alex seemed to take their new responsibilities in stride. And Natalie—sometimes I felt like the unasked-for powers got to her too, but battle came so beautifully and easily to her, and she was so good at it. She was meant to do this. She was born for it, even if she never asked to be that way.
“You have comrades, then?”
Nakama. The word sounded even more daunting in Japanese. She smiled at the way my mouth twisted. She continued: “That’s the nice thing about the goddess. She never lets you fight alone.”
You can keep others safe. And you get each other.
My fingers tightened around my cup, heart hardening. “I think I’d prefer to be alone.”
I wonder why we don’t get armor, Alex asked once.
If it doesn’t hurt it’s not worth it, Ria had joked in reply.
I remembered the blood bursting out of Ria’s mouth as she stood before me, the greystone’s blade fingers poking out of her chest. How tears streamed down her eyes as the blades slid out, one by one, and she dropped to her knees. How I scrambled to catch her as she fell forward, and how warm her blood was, soaking through my clothes as I held her against me. How I screamed for Natalie and she came, even as Ria shivered in my grasp —“I’ll be fine,” she whispered, “I’m fine.”
Why did we keep saying that to each other?
It didn’t matter that we healed. It didn’t matter that we were saving people. I didn’t want them to get hurt, I wanted this all to stop.
“I don’t want them to die for me,” I said. “I don’t like watching them get hurt. Every time. And now I can’t even help them anymore, because for some reason I’ve lost my powers.” My eyes burned with tears, though whether they were from anger or sadness, I couldn’t tell.
Minori’s expression was serious. “Eat,” she said. “You’ll feel better.”
I cut into my wagashi with the little wooden pick, and jammed a piece into my mouth. The red bean paste was delicious, but I could hardly taste it.
“You haven’t lost your powers, Aiko,” Minori said. “You’re just not letting them out anymore.”
Since we met, I’d been jealous of the girls. Jealous of how easily they juggled the magical girl stuff. Jealous of how each other’s friendship came so easily. It had always been difficult, but college anxiety just made it worse. Sure, it had been floating around ever since freshman year—since even middle school, if I was to be honest—but it was junior year when things started to get extra stressful, extra competitive.
So of course I got pissed when mom sighed as I took my camera for a spin.
“What? What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean. Sometimes I just wonder how things would’ve been different if you’d stuck with violin, or maybe even track, instead.”
“What’s wrong with photography?”
Akari sensed the mood and vanished into our room. Smart of her.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” mom said, turning to wiper imaginary dust off the counter. “Go ahead, Aiko. It’s only Saturday anyway.”
The SATs were three weeks away. I’d spent most of the past weekends reviewing. I was burnt out, but I really, really didn’t want another fight—in my own home, too—so I said: “Look, I’m not going to do it, okay? I’m not applying for Film. There’s no way I’m actually doing that—you know this. I’m applying to Bio everywhere.” Just like you wanted, I didn’t add. I could go after a minor, maybe, or if I got a good enough scholarship I might be able to scrape together enough to do an MFA after—if I still really wanted it, if the job market had slightly better odds.
“Don’t raise your voice at me, Aiko,” mom said. She was tired too, but I was too upset on my own behalf to care. Why did it always have to end up like this? “I just have to wonder. Your friends, and you, you all hang out so much together, but how do they… Ria’s taking all AP classes, and Alex is so good at math. And Natalie has danced professionally, right?”
“She was a former gymnast. And yeah, she dances, now.”
“Right,” mom said. The wrinkles surrounding her eyes were especially prominent, paired with her frown. “There’s really nothing wrong with photography, I just wish you’d… submit your photos somewhere. Or at least volunteer to do things with it.”
Win an award or something. Get them published in National Geographic or at least Vogue. Whatever you can do—your friends are probably going to good colleges, and then they’ll move on to good careers. I don’t want you to be the only one who fails.
I knew all of that. But it wasn’t why I did photography. And I didn’t want to make that my reason. I’d already given up so many other things for other people.
So I just said, “Yeah, I’ll try and look for a contest or something.” It was submissive rather than combative, and the best I could manage. I’d never really gotten along with my mother. Akari and I had a “hey have you seen my jacket” type of relationship, which was fine, although when I saw Selena and Gayle, or Ria and Bryan, I wondered what it was like to actually be close to your sibling. To have some more support from home.
And I knew college was stressing everyone out. I knew it wasn’t just me. Everyone got competitive: Ria was snappier than usual, Selena had been sucked into a student council black hole. Sometimes it did feel like I was the only one with free time. (Or maybe Alex did too—she was probably at home finishing her newest RPG—but she was nearly guaranteed to get a perfect score in SAT Math, so.)
The problem with slaying the forces of evil as a high schooler? You didn’t get to put saving the world in your extracurricular activities; you didn’t get to include it in your college essays. You couldn’t tell your mom about narrowly avoiding a snapped neck, and you had to deal with her asking why your jeans were always crusted with dirt. You only get to be a hero to the people who know, which isn’t very many, and on the hard days you start to wonder how much is too little, while your scars pile up in places others can’t see.
Minori asked me if I had someplace to be after tea. I said no.
“That’s good,” she said. “Let’s see if we can’t get your powers back.”
There was a field not too far from the teahouse. We were silent walking to it, but I had a foreboding sense that I knew where this was going. I looked at my bandaged hand. It was my cannon hand, my weapon hand. It had been weeks since I’d fired with it. (Once, Ria had said in admiration: that’s the closest anyone will probably ever get to a real-life Hadouken.)
“What’s your usual weapon?” Minori asked.
“An arm blaster.”
“Like Megaman?” She smiled. It occurred to me that she and Alex would probably get along. “Projectiles are nice. They equalize things. All right, let’s get that arm blaster back out of you.”
She touched the bracelet on her wrist and sang. With the exception of that first meeting with the goddess, I’d never heard someone sing that song when I wasn’t in a battle myself. The song was high and lilting, the words almost like birdcalls. The naginata that Minori drew forth was huge, but missing its bladed tip. She held it towards me. “Sing.”
I did. Nothing happened.
She raised her weapon over her head, shouted “YAH!” and struck. I lifted my arms to shield myself. She stopped just short of my forehead. “You don’t want it,” she said.
“I do,” I answered, but my head was full of panic and anger and college and not wanting those girls as my burden, no, no.
“Next time, I’ll hit,” she said. “Even if this is wood, it’ll hurt.” She glared at me. “You need to clear your mind, Aiko.” She backed up, readied her stance.
This time I moved away, drew my arm out, like I normally would when preparing to fire. It wouldn’t come out anyway. I aimed, but the words didn’t leave my throat, blue light never shot out of my fist. Minori struck my shin; there was a loud crack when her weapon collided with my leg.
“If this had a blade, you’d have lost your foot by now,” she said. “Stop worrying about everything. Be here.”
I gazed at her. I wondered if I’d one day have that same look in her eyes, of precision and clarity. That same acceptance, just a step away from emptiness.
Did I want that?
Her image shimmered, and I was look at the goddess. Mournful, lovely, overwhelmingly in control of me. “If they lose you, they lose,” she said. “Aiko, you can’t abandon them now. Sing my song again. Fight.”
“Are you?” She did not smile.
I paused. And maybe it was this all along: “I don’t want to let you in. I never wanted to let you in.” I didn’t want her to be what drove me. I didn’t want to be her little puppet in this exhausting battle between light and dark. But now I was in it too deep, and there were people I really fucking cared about who had two feet in. I was a goner.
“Don’t let me in,” she said. “But at least let the other girls in. Your comrades. They give you strength, too. You must realize that.” Minori was back again, this time slamming the naginata into my shoulder. I gasped. Damn, that hurt.
“I’m not kidding around, Aiko-san. Are you sure you’re not just trying to die?”
The day before I left for Japan, Alex had emailed us a short update, ending with Miss you all * u *. Her message had me grinning, even if I was embarrassed to admit that. I never sent back Miss you too.
That was it. I’d been fighting a losing battle, trying to keep them from being my friends, trying not to care. I’d been denying it for years, and it had finally caught up to me. I wasn’t going to save myself doing this alone; I needed them.
“See you after the break,” Ria said, hugging me tightly the last time we met, before my flight. “Don’t worry about anything, okay? Just get some rest. Take care of yourself.” She’d healed fine after the battle, of course, but I still felt guilty. I still remembered her blood splattering onto me; how powerless I felt. I think this showed on my face, because she quickly added, “And don’t forget my Arashi CD, okay?”
She did want me back. They all did. They needed me, too.
And I’d always, always, needed them.
“I think I’m being too soft,” Minori said. “I think you’re not taking this seriously enough.” She spun the naginata in her hands, and suddenly it was tipped with a blade, a beautiful crimson ribbon wrapped down its length. “This is your battle too.”
I took a deep breath. I emptied my brain, save one thought: I’ll do it for them. For those smiles, on those faces. I’d take it: one cut after another.
If this was the only way to keep them safe, I’d let them in.
“Ready. YAH!” Minori advanced.
I held my necklace, sang, and the words came unstuck. A blast of blue washed over me so quickly, I already had my hand up, the cannon meeting the metal of her blade high above my head. I jumped back and aimed, squinting, at her chest, adrenaline driving through me. I was breathing hard.
She put her weapon down and bowed. “Welcome back.”
I stood still. “I’m back.”
Tears stung my eyes. Shit. I lifted my hand and fired, once, at the sky. It was back. My magic, my energy, my power was back. Her grace. I had it again.
Minori came up to me and held my normal hand. She squeezed it tightly. In some ways, that was more intimate than a hug.
“Thank you,” I said. I sniffed. “Do you know where I can buy an Arashi CD?”
I never told the girls about Minori. Something about our encounter felt like it should remain private, between us. Or perhaps it was the goddess working her magic again—too many unanswered questions, not at the right time. I learned to be okay with it.
Minori and I met several more times during that summer, sometimes to spar, but mostly just to talk about our experiences. She’d been a shrine maiden for eight years now, and a magical girl for six. She’d finished a degree in English Literature but didn’t really like conversing in English. (“I took it because I really like Little Women,” she said.)
I asked her about the healing, and she told me how to channel energy, let it flow from one person to another—but it didn’t really make sense to me. “Maybe with practice. With time,” she said. “Besides, it’s more important to learn how to fight without getting injured.”
“Because that’s our way of life now, right?” We were seated outside a soft ice shop, down the winding street from Kiyomizu-dera. I still had to push back sometimes with this dialogue. Challenge her, and the being who made us both what we were—the goddess. I couldn’t have the answers, but I could at least keep asking.
She smiled, serenely. “I do think we’ll be able to defeat the darkness one day. We’ve collected many hearts. And I, too, am glad to know there are others in the world, fighting my battle.” She contemplated her soft ice cone. “I don’t know when. But it’s something to hold onto, right? In the meantime, we fight.”
In the meantime, we fight.
I got through that summer. I finally asked to use the PC, and I sent all the girls an email with some photos attached: the fox from the Fushimi Inari shrine. Kinkakuji Pavilion. Me and Auntie Hiromi eating unagi bento. I was thanked for my updates. And at the end of the three weeks, I went home, and realized it was home. They were home.
I also started writing a script for the story I hoped to one day tell: our story. Our battle. Maybe I’d never get to film it or make it a reality – but at least I had it, at least I knew it to be true.
Two weeks into our senior year I had my first greystone battle since the one in Kyoto. When they jumped out, Alex shielded me, because she’d heard about last time. Selena had already pounded one slugbeast into paste before I burned a hole through the aerial type that had almost raked the top of her head.
“You’re back!” Natalie said, catching me in a hug as I clutched the glass heart to my chest.
“Yeah,” I said. “I am.”
I only got upset about Selena’s announcement after dinner, on my way home. Why would she do that to Rob? Why would she do that to herself? Risk his safety, her happiness? It was ridiculous. Dating, fine, sure. But getting married? Saying forever to someone? No. She wasn’t in a position to do that.
I arrived home in a blaze of self-righteous fury. I was going to tell Selena how bad this was, and I was going to ask her to think about what the hell she was doing. I had just flicked on the dingy light and kicked off my boots when my phone rang. It was Selena. I stared at my screen, wondering if the goddess was pulling strings again. I swiped.
“Aiko! You got a sec?”
“Yeah. I was actually just thinking of calling you.”
“Oh yeah? Okay, well, this’ll be quick. I was being a huge derp at the restaurant because I was so damn nervous, and I forgot to say the most important thing. Or well, the second most important thing. Will you be my bridesmaid?”
“I want all of you,” she went on quickly. “To be my bridesmaids. I mean. I know it’s not really your thing, the dresses and stuff. It’s not really what I would’ve—wanted, I guess, but you know how my family’s kind of traditional, and so is Rob’s apparently. I wanted something quiet but when his mom heard things got out of hand, so… if I’m going to have a wedding, you all should be part of it. And. Hopefully it will be fun for everyone.” I imagined her pushing her cheek out with her tongue, trying not to say the wrong thing. And here it came, now: “It would mean a lot to me, if you said yes.”
A memory: of Selena embracing me, while we stood in the infirmary where Ria was getting a blood transfusion. How she touched my face—I hated people doing that usually, but just then I didn’t care. She said: Aiko, it’s not your fault.
Just like that, the fight left me. I’d gone soft long ago. Soft like fucking tofu.
“Of course, jeez. Did you even really need to ask?”
She laughed. She said I love you before hanging up, because saying that was easy for Selena. Meaning it was easy too. Rob was a lucky bastard to have her.
If I couldn’t talk her out of happiness, then I would do everything I could to defend her happiness instead. I’d get her to that goddamned wedding day. I’d make sure she could smile, without any worries, any cuts or bruises, and be the most beautiful bride ever.
EXT. A DAIRY QUEEN—AN AFTERNOON SUMMER
Five girls are seated in a table outside. They’re laughing. There’s a Blizzard on the floor, and one girl is shoving another girl towards the door of the shop.
I know you’re out there, even if I don’t know who you are. I know you’re wondering: does it get better? Do the nightmares ever go away? Does the pain?
INT. A FOREST
Two girls are waving at the camera. One of them gathers a pile of leaves off the floor and unleashes the whole armload over the other girl.
The truth? It never steps being hard. It can’t. But it does get better. And I know for a fact it’s worse to lose it, to forget the song.
INT. A TEENAGE GIRL’S BEDROOM
Two girls are seated on the carpet, playing an intense game of Street Fighter on the PlayStation. One girl is painting her nails. Another is on the bed reading. The last girl has her phone up and is recording everyone, a barely perceptible smile on her face.
I’m only telling this story because you’re my comrade. I’m only telling you this story because I trust you.
EXT. A CAMPFIRE ON A BEACH
Fire blazes in a pit. The five girls are seated around one girl cradling a guitar. They appear to be singing.
I want you to know: you’re not alone. It might not seem like it, but we need you. Because if we lose you. We lose.
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