Haruna and I were walking home from school, just the two of us like usual on the riverbank road, when the attack began.
“Itai!” cried Haruna, her hand flying to the back of her head where the stinging pebbles had hit her. When we turned around, we saw Yoko and her usual group of girl friends dusting off their hands and laughing at us. I immediately knew what this was about. Nearly a week ago, Yoko’s boyfriend Shoji had broken up with her because he had decided to become the newest member of Boys Hopelessly in Love with Haruna Kitano. Now, Yoko and Haruna glared at each other across the distance like two cowboys in a showdown, but of course we were all just Japanese high school girls standing around in our uniforms. Our matching pleated skirts flapped dramatically in the wind as Yoko walked up to Haruna.
“Stay away from Shoji,” Yoko said as she pushed Haruna in the shoulder, making her topple back into me.
“I could care less about your STUPID boyfriend,” Haruna yelled back.
Yoko and her friends ignored her and stalked off toward the main road. When we could no longer see them, Haruna ran her hands through her long, shimmering hair, making sure there was no stray pebble stuck in it.
The truth was I could understand Yoko’s envy. While the rest of us girls did our best with boxed hair dyes and drug-store makeup, Haruna was born with chestnut-colored hair and large, brilliant eyes that required no help from mascara or eyeliner to appear cat-like. She was also dark and mysterious and a little tragic, like Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas, my favorite American movie recently. I tried to get Haruna to see it too, but after ten minutes she switched it off, declaring it a silly kid’s movie. That was Haruna. She had opinions.
The next day at school, I waited for Haruna on the rooftop terrace of the science building—our secret hangout where we could be alone and eat lunch together. When she walked up, though she wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“Yoko stole them,” she said, showing me the dirty soles of her socks. “I can’t find them anywhere.”
I ran back to my locker and returned with my extra pair of sneakers. Haruna had been bullied before, but not like this. I could feel my eyes getting hot with tears as I watched her slide her feet into my sneakers.
“Maybe we should talk to a teacher. I’ll come with you,” I murmured.
Haruna didn’t respond. Instead, she looked up at the sky through the chain link fence that surrounded the terrace, leaving me to wonder what she was thinking. When we were little, I could understand her like she was a part of me. We met in the concrete sandbox that still stood in the corner of our apartment complex, now long forgotten and strewn with cat poop. Haruna lives alone with her mom in the tower right next to mine, and she used to come over whenever her mom had to work the night shift at the hospital. But as we grew older, Haruna, as one of our teachers described it, had become “disengaged.” I would often catch her drifting away from whatever was going on, a shade of longing in her eyes. I always yearned to know what she was looking for.
“I’m going to talk to the Helper Man,” Haruna said after a while. “So don’t worry.”
I walked up to the fence beside her. “The Helper Man? You mean . . .”
She nodded. My heart skipped a beat as I saw the serious look in her eyes.
The Helper Man was a legend at our school. He was a senior though everyone who had met him claimed he seemed so much older and smarter, maybe even smarter than our teachers. He was famous for helping kids with all kinds of problems. I had heard about a girl in our grade that got pregnant but no longer had to worry about it, and another guy who totaled his parents’ car while they were away one weekend but got it fixed like new before they came home. They had both gone to see the Helper Man. He was supposedly magical.
“But we don’t know who he is. How would we find him?” I asked.
“Oh, I know how to find him,” Haruna said like she was surprised I didn’t know.
Just then the bell rang, and we could see students rushing back to class below us.
“Meet me after school,” she said. “And we’ll go see him.”
Leaning against the row of shoe lockers, Haruna waited until the after school crowd had cleared before pointing out a girl to me.
“Her?” I asked, my voice betraying my disappointment.
“Aki Tsukino?” I asked again. “Why?”
She ignored me and began walking over to the girl. If Haruna was the prettiest at our school, then Aki Tsukino was the weirdest. I had never talked to her before, and I doubted anyone ever did. But Haruna wasn’t one to let reputations stop her. She preferred to find out about things on her own.
When we approached Aki, she was sitting right on the floor, kicking off her sneakers and lacing on a pair of black boots.
“Hey Aki,” Haruna said. “This is Natsuki, my friend I told you about.”
Aki’s enormous eyes peered out through her long, tangly hair. Even her skinny arms and legs seemed to grow out of the black mass that grew from her head. She reminded me of a spider.
“Did you talk to your brother for me? We’d like to see him today,” Haruna said. I looked at her in surprise. The Helper Man is Aki’s brother? Haruna confirmed this to me with a silent nod.
Aki rose to her feet. “I did. But he skipped school today. He does it all the time.”
“Oh.” Haruna frowned. “Then can we meet him at your house?”
Her suggestion made me uneasy. We had never gone to any of our schoolmate’s house before, let alone the lair of the Helper Man and his strange, loner sister. But Haruna kept her determined eyes on Aki until she finally shrugged and said, “Sure. If you want.”
“Great,” Haruna said, beaming.
As the two of us followed Aki away from school, I noticed that she walked with a slight hunchback, like a small, terrified creature booted out of its burrow. She also carried a backpack riddled with hand-drawn pictures of white foxes, all bushy-tailed and saucer-eyed. Every now and then, she looked back over her shoulder to make sure we were still following her.
When Aki finally stopped in front of a shrine near our school, Haruna and I exchanged a puzzled look. But she went in without hesitation so we followed after her. We made our way under the tall vermilion gate and up a set of stone stairs. Just as the grey tiled roof of the worship hall appeared in front of us, Aki turned away from the path. She headed for the far corner of the shrine grounds, where a two-story house stood under the shadow of a huge gingko tree.
“This is it,” she said.
Once inside, Aki quickly headed up the stairs, leaving us in her living room. The chilly air around Japanese shrines always scared me, so I could hardly imagine living next to one. At least Aki’s house seemed pretty ordinary inside: carpeted floors, a TV, an ugly upholstered couch.
Aki came back down and motioned us to go upstairs.
“He can see you now,” she instructed.
It was so dark on the stairway I could hardly see Haruna walking ahead of me, but as my eyes adjusted I saw a figure standing at the end of the hall, watching us as we made our way up.
The Helper Man’s hair was tied in a low ponytail. I had never seen a boy with hair that long at school and was pretty sure it wasn’t allowed. Dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, he was tall and lanky, with a complexion that reminded me of the moon on a cold, winter night. His eyes looked as if someone had swept them on with a calligraphy brush. As Haruna walked over to him, he cocked his head a little to the side, the way boys do when they like what they see.
“Domo,” he said. “I’m Rui.”
“I’m Haruna. And this is my best friend Natsuki.”
He glanced at me and smiled. I fidgeted with my skirt in response.
“What grade are you two in?” he asked.
“We’re freshmen,” Haruna replied.
“And how can I help you ladies?”
“We need something taken care of at school,” Haruna replied.
“Both of you?”
Haruna looked back at me then shook her head. “Just me.”
“No. Some dumb girls picking on me.”
Rui nodded and held the door to his room open behind him. “Then you come in. Alone. We’ll talk.”
A smoky fragrance wafted in from his dark room. It was probably just incense, but I didn’t like it. I could feel Haruna hesitating, too. Rui snickered.
“What’s wrong? Scared?”
Haruna met his gaze and defiantly straightened her back. As she started to go in, I suddenly felt like I was losing her into the gaping darkness ahead.
“Haruna…” I whispered. “Maybe you shouldn’t…”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
When I tried to go in after her, Rui blocked my way with his long arm as if he had read my mind.
“Don’t worry, Natsuki. We won’t be long.”
With that, he closed the door.
I stood outside for a few minutes, not knowing what to do, then reluctantly headed down the hall. As I reached downstairs, Aki stuck her head out from her room and waved.
“In here,” she called.
The four walls of Aki’s room were painted pitch black. Glittery paper stars and half moons swayed from the ceiling. She had more books and manga and DVDs than anyone I knew. A part of the shelves were lined with dolls and figurines, which curiously remained in their boxes. In the event of a large earthquake, Aki would probably be smashed under the weight of all her favorite things.
Aki had taken off her school uniform and was now wearing a long, gauzy dress bursting with purple and navy flowers. I had to stare because she looked so different—kind of cool, I guess.
“I know. He doesn’t look anything like me, right?” she said, catching me looking at her.
“Rui,” she said, pointing up. “We’re only half siblings, you know. My dad had Rui with some other woman before he married my mom and had me. Very controversial for a priest.”
As I sat down on the floor across from her, she pointed at my backpack. “You like Tim Burton?”
“Tim Burton,” she said again and touched the keychain attached to my bag. “That’s Jack right? From The Nightmare Before Christmas. Tim Burton is the director.”
“Oh, right,” I said, embarrassed that I didn’t know.
“I used to be a real Burton nut. Also Edward Gorey, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe. Dark, foreign stuff, you know?” she said, wiggling her eyebrows. I nodded as if I did.
“But these days I’m obsessed with foxes.”
“Here, I’ll show you,” she said, grinning like she was letting me in on some secret. She jumped on her bed and grabbed the curtains over her window and pulled them open.
“Look,” she said. “See the statues?”
Aki’s bedroom looked out into the main hall of the shrine, built of rich, ancient wood. It was getting dark out, and the stone lanterns around the hall had been lit already, giving the place an eerie purple glow. And on either side of the hall’s entrance stood a pair of stone foxes, both of them sitting neatly with their tails raised.
“Oh,” I said. “They’re like the foxes on your backpack.”
“That’s right! You noticed!” she said, flashing the sharp tips of her front teeth as she smiled. “The god that protects this shrine is called the Inari. And legend has it that Inari’s messengers are foxes. My grandpa said he once saw one when he was our age. He said it had a white, glowing tail. Can you believe it?”
Seeing a live fox in suburban Tokyo sounded crazy to me, but I kept my mouth shut.
“He said the fox was so beautiful he thought he was looking at a young girl,” she continued. “Foxes can do that you know. They are a good omen, but they also shape shift into women and trick people, especially men. They’re magic.”
I looked at the twin statues again. In the glow of the lanterns they did look almost real, like they could jump off their perch at any moment. Their narrow faces and almond eyes reminded me a little bit of Haruna, and I began to wonder what she and Rui were doing upstairs.
“They also say your brother’s magic,” I said. “Think he’ll help Haruna?”
When Aki looked back at me, I could see the light in her eyes had gone out. I tried again: “He can help right?”
“Rui can take away more than he gives back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Just be careful.”
I wanted to ask her more, but with a final long look outside, she reached up and closed the curtains.
The day after we met Rui, Haruna ripped open one of the envelopes of money her dad sent her every year. But when we went to give the money to Aki so she could pass it on to Rui, she told us he had asked for another offering instead: “He wants a piece of your hair. He needs it for the spell to work.”
I was sure Haruna would roll her eyes at this. When I told her about Aki’s fox obsession, she had snorted. So I was surprised when during lunch break she produced a pair of scissors and asked me to cut her hair. We tied both ends of the strand with black rubber bands, and as a finishing touch she tied a tiny lavender ribbon around it. When we handed it to Aki, she jammed it into her backpack without a word.
A few days later, Haruna and I found Rui waiting for her by the school gates. As soon as they saw each other, they banded together like two magnets and joined the stream of students heading for school. Rui’s magic took effect very quickly. When Rui and Haruna walked down the halls together, their combined beauty was like an impenetrable force. A couple of times in the hallway, I swear I saw Yoko and her friends run the other way when they saw the two approaching.
But all magic came with a price. Haruna soon started sending me messages that she couldn’t make it to lunch or walk home together. She adopted Rui’s habit of skipping school, though she insisted that they were working together. I tried to tell myself this was only temporary, but being in school without her was awful. I felt both invisible and exposed at the same time, as if Haruna had cut me loose into the vast, open sea.
I looked up and saw Aki’s smiling face at lunch. Without Haruna, I had to resort to eating by myself in the cafeteria. This was the first time Aki spoke to me in school.
“I thought you’d like these,” she said and placed a few DVDs in front of me.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t want them.
“How’s Haruna?” she asked.
I looked up at her, annoyed. “She’s with your brother.”
Aki started to reply, then stopped. I followed her gaze and saw Haruna walking over to us. I stared at her in shock.
“Hey. What’s going on?” Haruna sat down next to me. She started picking at my bento box and fished out a strawberry.
“Where were you?” I cried. “You haven’t returned my calls or texts for days.”
“I’ve been busy with Rui,” she replied with her mouth full. Then she smiled and bent her fingers like claws and pretended to scratch me. “We’ve been putting evil spells on Yoko.”
“So everything’s okay?” I asked.
There was something different about her. She seemed happier. Prettier. I didn’t know what to say. Then, Haruna noticed the DVDs on the table.
“Hey, isn’t this that director you like?” she asked. “Where’d you get these?”
“Tim Burton,” Aki responded. “They’re mine.”
I felt my cheeks flush.
“Oh yeah?” Haruna said, grinning at the two of us. “ I knew you two would get along.”
Haruna’s phone started to buzz. She got up.
“Wait. Do you want to walk home together?” I asked.
“Sorry, can’t today,” she said without taking her eyes off her phone. “Maybe another time?”
Before I could say anything else, Haruna walked away. Aki turned to me.
“I’m free today. Want to watch these together at your house?”
I suddenly noticed everyone around me, huddled together eating and talking and laughing. And here I was with Aki in some forgotten corner of the cafeteria, together for life. I pushed back the DVDs toward her.
“No,” I said, rising to my feet. “Just leave me alone.”
I quickly packed up my things and left her.
I wanted to apologize to Aki all day, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. After school, I headed for the back alley that Haruna and I always took on our way to the riverbank. But as I turned a corner into the alley, I saw Rui. He was with Yoko. I walked in just as he pulled something shiny from his jacket and raised it in front of her petrified face.
“What are you doing?” I heard myself saying. They both turned to me at once. Then Yoko, seeing an escape, ran away.
“Oh man,” Rui said as he watched her go. Then he turned to me, slipping his pocketknife back in his jacket. “Yoko’s been spreading rumors about Haruna again, so I wanted to have a little chat.”
When I didn’t respond, he leaned in his face close to mine and smiled.
“Isn’t that what you and Haruna wanted from me? The Helper Man?”
His words felt like a thousand little needles, prickling me all over. His eyes dared me to say something, but fear and regret had stolen my voice. Satisfied by my silence, he walked away and pulled up a silver bike behind him. As he peddled away, whistling to himself, I saw Haruna’s hair with the lavender ribbon swinging from the chain in his back pocket.
I had walked halfway to the riverbank in a daze when I finally took my phone out and started texting Haruna. When she didn’t respond to any of my calls, I began to retrace my steps. Soon, I was running. I ran all the way back to school, past it, and headed for the shrine.
Aki’s bewildered face met me at her front door.
“Is Haruna here? Is she with Rui? I need to talk to her.”
She didn’t need to reply. I looked past her and saw Haruna’s, no, my sneakers in the doorway. It was the pair I had lent her. I pushed my way inside.
I could hear Aki behind me but I was already flying up the stairs. I headed straight for Rui’s room and banged on his door.
When he opened the door, I scanned the room and saw narrow columns of smoke rising from two sources: the cigarette in Rui’s hand, and another cigarette in an ashtray by his bed. I found Haruna sitting on his bed, wearing a short dress I had never seen. She raised her head as she saw me by the door.
“Rui had a knife,” I blurted. “He was…”
I could feel Rui’s eyes on me as I struggled for words.
“She saw me with Yoko,” he said. He exhaled a long stream of smoke.
Haruna looked at him, then at me. She slid down from his bed and walked over to my side.
“He’s just making sure Yoko won’t mess with me again.”
“You knew?” I asked. I stared right into her face, but I could hardly recognize her.
“What? ” she asked. “Did you really think we were casting spells and curses on her?”
Haruna and Rui were looking at me like I was four. There was nothing more to say. I felt Haruna’s hand on my shoulder as she gently pushed me out the door.
“Grow up, Natsuki.”
When I left the house, I found myself walking toward the back of the shrine. The gravel path, crunching beneath my feet, soon led out to a bamboo grove. It was getting dark out, but I pressed on. My embarrassment and pain, hot and simmering like an engine, propelled my legs faster and faster. I didn’t stop until I heard Aki running up the path behind me, calling my name.
“I’m sorry Natsuki,” she said, breathing hard as she caught up with me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I should have told you earlier,” she replied. “Helping people is just a way for Rui to make money. He’s a phony, you know. I warned Haruna but she didn’t care. Rui likes her.”
“Everyone likes Haruna.”
“I should have stopped them.”
I stared at Aki’s face, the sweat forming on her forehead and her brows twisted with worry. “You couldn’t have stopped it,” I said, and I knew it was true. “They found each other.”
We fell silent, not knowing what else to say. I looked down and noticed that Aki was wearing her black boot on her right foot and my sneaker on the other. I started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” she asked. I pointed at her shoes.
“Oh. I ran out of the house after you.”
I would never have imagined that I would end up here with Aki. But I was glad she was with me now. Her presence and words seemed to soothe me, like magic.
“I’m sorry he took your friend,” she said.
“It’s not your fault,” I replied.
Then, a strong wind blew in, as if the grove had taken a sudden, deep breath of air. The tall bamboo trees swayed and shook all around us, forcing us to close our eyes against the rising dust. When the silence returned again, we heard a tiny, rustling sound behind us. Aki and I both looked back at the path that led deeper into the grove, and that’s when we saw it: a flash of long, slender tail—white and glowing like a flame—dart behind a shrub.
“Was that . . . ?” I asked. Aki, her eyes bulging, only nodded. We stood transfixed, watching the shrub rustle faintly. We looked at each other again, and I found myself mirroring the smile that soon spread across Aki’s face.
“Come on!” I whispered. We began to run up the path together, weaving through the trees in the last light before nightfall.