By C. Rooney
The cement was cold beneath her, with only the thin cotton of her yukata between her skin and the station step. Humidity hung in the air, and during the day it made the city like an onsen. Stepping out from an air-conditioned building was like the first toe dipping into the steaming waters. The night was cooler, if only marginally so.
The next train wouldn’t come for an hour; the passengers from the previous had long since departed. It was a moment of solitude, but the tranquility was lost upon the lonely girl.
The girls from school hadn’t been at the station when she arrived. Questioning the station master only revealed that a large group of high school girls had met at the station, but all of them departed nearly twenty minutes earlier.
Once again, Nanami had been left behind. Once again uncertain if the reason was her chubby legs or moon-shaped face—or something even more beyond her control. Maybe the traditional summer dress would have made her fit in better, but the others hadn’t stayed to find out.
Nanami had been born in the same hospital as many of them, grown-up in the same town, but they always treated her differently. The looks, the whispers, the assumptions. All of which her mother told her to bear with dignity and never to feel ashamed. She was a child of love, and many in town should wish to be so lucky.
Still, looks and laughter were never easy to bear when they came from a group one stood forever on the edge of. Nanami longed for just one night to feel as if whom her father was did not define whom she could be.
Sniffling, her eyes stung with tears. Tears that her mother could never know she cried.
“If you don’t hurry, you’ll be late for the fireworks.”
Nanami let out a small squeak of surprise, as she hastily rose to her feet. At the top of the stairs stood a girl she had never seen before. The stranger wore a yukata in bright magenta, patterned with abstract blue flowers. Her face was painted with white make-up, and her hair had been bleached the yellow-blond that was forbidden in Nanami’s school.
She had heard of the girls in Tokyo who tanned their faces and wore white lipstick. They were called yamaba—the old mountain hags. But never had she heard of them painting their faces white like geisha. Maybe it was a new trend? Her sleepy little town was far enough away from Tokyo to make the capital seem like it belonged to another world.
The stranger waved a fan before her face, the round summer fan. A happy golden koi swam across the center.
“The fireworks,” she said. “You are going, aren’t you?”
Nanami looked at the ground. “I don’t know. I was supposed to meet someone—”
“Ho?” The other girl arched an eyebrow and looked around. “I’d say they didn’t wait for you.”
Nanami reddened, focusing intently on her sandals.
She looked up.
“Did it on purpose,” the other girl fanned herself, “I’ll bet.”
Nanami said nothing.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen anyone else around here?”
She shook her head. Aside from the station master, the platform and shops were all but deserted.
“I’m supposed to meet some friends of my own to watch the fireworks,” the girl with the fan said. “Ken was telling us about a special kind of firework they have here. It’s an unusual color.”
“It’s pink.” Nanami played with her obi, adjusting it. “Like a cherry blossom.”
“That’s the one. Is it famous?”
“They say it’s everyone’s favorite.”
“Those good for nothing friends of mine must have gone on ahead without me. So it’s just the two of us.”
Nanami looked behind her, but she and the girl were the only two who could form an "us."
“Come on, you can’t miss the last fireworks of the season.” The girl tucked the fan into the obi tied at her back. “And you certainly can’t watch them alone.”
Then, before Nanami could protest, the girl with the painted face padded down the steps and linked her arm through Nanami’s.
“By the way,” the girl said, “I’m Mariko. You can call me Mari.”
Nanami blinked, taken aback by the familiarity and almost over-friendliness. In all the years they had shared classes, none of the other girls at school had told her she could call them by the first name or a nickname.
“You have such pretty skin.” Mariko admired Nanami’s arm. “You’re lucky.”
Nanami flushed again. Beneath the white paint, Mariko’s face was probably as golden as any of the most popular girls at school. How could someone like that possibly think Nanami was the lucky one?
“Come.” Mariko urged her down the steps. “My brother described the place where he watched the fireworks with a friend last summer. I bet he went back there, so maybe we can still meet them.”
“Everyone meets in the city park,” Nanami told her.
She hurried to match her strides to Mariko’s longer ones. How was the other girl walking so fast in the restricting yukata?
They passed the stores with their metal shutters pulled down over the storefronts. A convenience store’s bright lights spilled out into the street, washing out the stars overhead. Mariko stopped beside it, looking down each of their three options. Right, left, or straight ahead?
“This way,” she said, pulling them to the left.
“Ma—Mari, the park is down that street,” Nanami said, gesturing to the bilingual blue sign, pointing in the opposite direction.
“They wouldn’t be there. Too many people. Kuro doesn’t like crowds.”
They passed a bar, and the host outside watched them as they continued down the street. He was the older brother of one of the girls at school, which meant that his sister would make sure all the other girls knew Nanami had been seen being drug down the street away from the fireworks. And that it had been by a strange girl with a painted face.
“He said they looked down on the town,” Mariko said, stopping in the middle of the street. “It was better, he said. No crowds and no neck pains from staring upwards.”
Nanami searched her memory for such a place. “There’s a little hill with a shrine on the road that leads to the next town.”
Nanami bit her lip and looked away. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to it.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter so long as it’s not one of Oh-Inari’s. Do you know how to get there?”
“I—I think so.”
“Quickly, then,” Mariko pushed her forward. “Lead the way.”
The shrine was atop a hill. A steep hill with a little winding path that had been beaten into the grass from years of travel. As they followed it, Nanami could hear voices coming from above them.
“Someone is up there,” she said, looking around the darkened shrine. “Are—is it all right? Won’t they get in trouble if someone else comes?”
Mariko waved her hand. “Those two idiots would just ask them to join in.”
Nanami looked at the ground. “I’m sorry I got lost, Mari-san.”
“Don’t worry. We’re not lost anymore.”
They reached the crest of the hill. Nanami looked at the rope tied around the trunk of the massive tree that towered above her. Was this all there was to the shrine? Of course, because it was just known the tree was sacred. No one had to say anything further. The people of the town could tell what belonged to the spirit world, as easily as they could tell what didn’t belong in their community.
Mariko briefly bent her head before the tree, her lips mouthing silent words. Nanami put her hands together like she would in church and waited for Mariko to finish.
When the other girl stepped back, Nanami raised her head.
Mariko put a finger to her lips and gestured toward the other side of the tree where the voices were coming from. She made exaggerated stepping motions.
Oh, she wanted to sneak up on her friends, Nanami realized. She nodded and Mariko grinned, flashing her teeth. They were very white.
With Mariko in lead, the two girls crept around the trunk of the massive tree. On the other side, Nanami could barely make out two figures in the darkness. The lights of town lay spread out below them, like a blanket of stars. But both the stars and the town were too far away to offer much illumination. A dim glow backlight the figures, making her wonder if they had a torch with them.
“Yahhh!” Mariko cried, jumping out with her hands curled into claws.
The figure leaning against the tree looked at the one lounging on the ground beside him. Then they both burst out laughing.
“You’re late,” said the one seated against the tree.
“And you’re idiots!” Mariko crossed her arms. “You didn’t wait for me. You’re horrible.”
“You’re blocking the view,” said the one lounging on the ground.
Nanami blinked. He had a Kansai accent, but the one against the tree had the same Tokyo accent that Mariko spoke with.
“Buu, Kuro.” Mariko stuck out her tongue. “That’s no way to greet your kind, beautiful friend that you abandoned at the train station.”
“Ken.” Kuro turned to the one seated by the tree. “She’s already picking a fight.”
The boy against the tree ignored them both and leaned forward, looking past Mariko to where Nanami still stood half-hidden by the shadows.
“Do we have a guest?” he asked, slipping into formal language. The words sounded strange, old-fashioned.
“Oh, you’re still hiding back there,” Mariko laughed and pulled Nanami out in front of the tree.
“Didn’t think that was your type,” Kuro whistled. “Or did you bring your dear friend Kuro a present to apologize for being late?”
Nanami looked from Kuro to Mariko, her face reddening.
“Kuro, behave yourself,” the unnamed elder brother said, unfolding his legs and getting to his feet.
“Good evening,” he bowed politely.
“Don’t be so formal, Ken,” Mariko sighed, rolling her eyes. “She helped me find this place because you two idiots wouldn’t wait for me.”
“You took too long,” Kuro shrugged.
“Good evening,” Nanami flushed as she returned the bow.
“Would you like to join us?” Ken asked.
Mariko crossed her arms. “No apology?”
Ken sighed. “I apologize for not waiting, Mari. Obviously, you’re right and I’m a horrible creature.”
“Yes,” Mariko stuck out her tongue. “And you’re weird, too.”
Nanami looked at the three individuals before her, being an only child, she had no experience with the friendly (and not so friendly) teasing that sometimes occurred between siblings. Or friends that were close as siblings.
“You’re making our guest uncomfortable, Mari,” Ken said, his tone soft but reproachful.
“And you’re still blocking my view,” Kuro added.
Nanami giggled, despite herself. Covering her mouth, with a hand she looked up to see Mariko and Ken exchange a brief smile.
“Sit down already,” Kuro frowned, “I’m not kidding, y’know.”
Mariko reluctantly sat by him.
“And your pretty friend can sit on my other side,” he grinned, patting the ground.
“I think she’d better sit by me,” Mariko shot him a dirty look. “You’d probably grab her.”
Ken unrolled a small blanket and spread it the base of the tree. “We wouldn’t want the young ladies to get their summer robes dirty.”
Kuro went to sit on it.
“Not you,” Mariko pulled out her fan and flicked it at him. “Your older brother said young ladies. You’re not a lady.”
He rolled his eyes and sat by the blanket. Pleased, Mariko took her place next to him.
“You can sit here,” she told Nanami, patting the blanket. “If my stupid, lecherous friend tries anything, I’ll just slap him.”
“I’m not lecherous,” Kuro said.
He sulked on the other side of Mariko as Nanami sat. Ken chose a spot on the other side of her, looking as if he didn’t mind the hard ground.
Nanami cast a look sideways at him. In the dim lighting his skin seemed no darker than hers. It was strange, as Kuro was even darker than Mariko. The light flickered, shifting, making Nanami think of candles and old-fashioned lanterns. Maybe someone keep the shrine area lit at night.
Ken turned and met her eyes. His were a soft golden-brown color, much lighter than Mariko’s.
“I hope Mari didn’t steal you away from your friends,” he said.
Nanami felt her cheeks grow hot and looked down at her clasped hands resting in her lap.
“No,” she said. “I was late, too, and they had already gone ahead.”
“They left her,” Mariko said, leaning forward while fanning herself. “Left her all alone. Isn’t that horrible?”
“We left you because you’re annoying,” Kuro yawned. “Your friend isn’t.”
“They left her on purpose. They played a prank on her.”
Ken frowned. “Do you think that’s true, Nanami-san?”
“I think so.” Nanami blinked her eyes quickly, as they began to prickle with the threat of tears again.
“It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve played a prank on me.”
“Why would they do that? You seem like a kind girl.”
Was he joking? Nanami looked over at him. No, his eyes were serious—his expression only concerned. It was the way her mother and father would look at her when she told them everything was fine at school.
“It’s this,” Nanami touched her hair. “It’s because of my last name and where my father came from.”
Mariko and Kuro were silent on the other side of her. The same awkward silence that would fall over the classroom when she walked in.
“I had hoped things like that no longer mattered in this day and age,” Ken said, gently. “But some people cling to old prejudices. Especially those who remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Nanami nodded. Her mother had said as much.
“But that doesn’t excuse their behaviour.” He smiled. “You don’t have to worry about that tonight. You’re among friends.”
Nanami looked down at his hand, placed near hers on the blanket. His skin was barely darker than hers. Could he—was he—like her?
The first explosion of light erupted in the sky. Green sparks rained down, followed by the terrific bang.
Kuro took the opportunity to grab Mariko by the waist just as the sound went off, causing her to shriek and jump forward.
Startled by the cry, Nanami turned. Mariko had fallen forward, unable to get to her feet in the restricting yukata. Her blond hair that Nanami had marveled at lay on the ground before her.
Black locks disheveled, Mariko sprang to her feet. “Kuro, you bastard!”
She swung, nails raking the air, but Kuro leaned back.
“I thought you'd realize,” he grinned, “I would just have to grab you instead.”
Another firework exploded, this one cast a blood red glow on the scene.
But Nanami didn’t turn to watch it fall back down to the earth—she didn’t even hear the boom that accompanied its descent. Her gaze was locked on the tip of the russet-colored foxtail that Mariko’s yukata had ridden up over.
Face going white as Mariko’s makeup, Nanami put her hands to her mouth.
“You’re foxes,” she gasped.
Mariko looked over her shoulder, saw her tail and turned bright red.
“Look what you’ve done!” She tried to pull her yukata back down. “You always ruin everything, you idiot.”
“It’s not my fault you can’t control yourself,” Kuro shrugged.
More fireworks, purple and gold, green and blue. Red and orange. Each color flashed over the group, but all revealed the same scene.
Nanami backed away on her knees, unable to trust herself to stand.
Foxes! She should have known. It was too much to hope that a normal person would invite someone like her to watch fireworks. The tears she’d promised herself not to cry began to spill down her cheeks.
“It’s not fair,” she heard Mariko say in between the next explosions. The green and purple lights of the fireworks glinted off the tears in the fox girl’s eyes. “I just wanted one night where it didn’t matter what we were. Just one night, Kuro, and you ruined it.”
“You’re so melodramatic,” Kuro shrugged again. “Let her go, Mari. Obviously she’s too scared to stay. That's just how her people are.”
But Mariko’s words struck Nanami deeply. Her very thoughts echoed by this fox girl—could it be possible that foxes could feel the same way people did sometimes?
“If you are going to leave,” Ken’s voice said, softly from behind her, “promise us you will at least walk carefully. The path is dark, and if you slip, we’re the only ones who will hear you fall.”
Nanami turned. He was sitting against the tree, his voice calm, making no attempt to stop her from getting to her feet and running as fast and as far away as she could. In the branches above his head, small golden balls of light floated. Foxfire. It was the leaves fluttering in the slight breeze that caused the flickering Nanami had assumed to be coming from lanterns.
“Your mother wanted this to be a happy night,” he said, eyes on her. “She worries about you, Nanami. She prays often to the White Lady to keep you safe and guide you to some small bit of happiness.”
Nanami’s mouth dropped open behind her hands. “How do you know my name?”
How did he know of her mother? Or her mother’s prayers to the goddess of mercy and compassion?
“A friend told me.” He touched the tree behind him. “About a girl named Nanami who didn’t watch any fireworks last summer because no one would ask her to sit with them.”
A blue firework exploded behind her. The tree, the ground, and the foxfire picked up its hue. Mariko, Kuro, and Ken became darker or lighter shades in the flash.
“Tonight we’ll all be the same colors,” Ken told her. “You should see it. The whole town painted red or green, orange or blue, purple or gold.”
Nanami glanced at Mariko. The fox girl was staring straight ahead, but each flash of color illuminated the tear trains down her painted cheeks. She shook whether the sound of the explosion filled the air or not.
Nanami realized she couldn't argue with Ken's reasoning, anymore than she could have argued with the bangs that kept shaking the air. The four of them were the same. Each outsiders—not by choice but by circumstance. If she avoided the three foxes like the girls at school avoided her, then it made her just as cruel.
“Tonight,” she cleared her throat, and steadied her voice, “tonight it doesn’t matter.”
Mariko turned, gratitude naked on her face. Kuro shrugged, but the pleased look in Ken’s eyes more than made up for it.
As Nanami sat beside Mariko, another firework exploded, showering sparks like the sakura tree showered blossoms, and for a few brief seconds everyone was a famous shade of pink.