Here is another short story for those who enjoyed the last one. Happy reading!
When I was thirteen, I saw what I thought was a shooting star. I was supposed to be sleeping, but for some reason, on that night, I was wide awake. I sat on the hardwood floor, gazing out of the big window next to my bed, squinting to see the stars above the buildings. When that mysterious light sailed through the sky, I quickly pressed my hands together, bowed my head, and wished my wish with all my might.
I wanted to go home, and to be with people who were like me. I wanted to belong.
Even now, so many years later, I can remember the aching of my heart. I had long noticed that I seemed different from everyone around me. I slept less and ate more than any of the other people in the house I lived in. My hair and eyes were both the strangest shade of red. Even more disturbing, I craved a drink of hot sauce the way thirsty people craved water.
I am told by the people who raised me that the oddly-shaped, pale pink stone hanging around my neck choker-style arrived with me on their doorstep, gripped tightly in my pudgy baby fingers. Whenever anyone tried to take it from me, I would open my mouth and release a howl worthy of wolf pack status. By the time I was about two years of age, my “mother” Eileen gave up and tied the stone and strap contraption around my neck. As I grew, the strap seemed to grow with me; I never took it off. Ever. It was made of some not-quite-nylon leather-like material, and its origins were are foreign as me. When I finished making my wish that night, the stone glowed for the first time in my mostly uneventful life.
I remember being so shocked that I screamed. Eileen burst through the door to my room carrying the wooden baseball bat she kept by her side, wielding it as if she was the next batter up.
“Shiki! Shiki, what’s wrong?” she yelled. My “father” Jason stumbled in behind her, and their two children, twin girls named Kai and Mai, were at his heels. Everyone was disheveled, with wild hair and wrinkled clothing. I was touched by their concern, but I did not believe that there was anything they could do.
Wordlessly, I pointed at the glowing object around my neck.
“SWEET!” the twins exclaimed.
“THE HELL?!” was Jason’s contribution.
“It’s almost time,” was what Eileen whispered so softly that for years afterward, I thought that I’d heard her wrong. We watched in awed silence as the light flickered once and then faded away.
“Aww, that’s it?” Kai (or was it Mai? I could never tell them apart) asked dejectedly. “Shoot, I thought it was something good.”
“What happened, Shiki?” Eileen turned towards me, concern etched into her gentle face.
“It just lit up.” I brushed a hand full of loose red curls away from my face. “I was looking outside, and I saw a shooting star-” I broke off as my parents exchanged a look. “What?” I looked first at Jason, and then at Eileen
Jason broke the silence first. “Nothing. You’re unharmed, correct?” When I nodded, he said, “Okay, so there’s nothing left to see here. Move along, people.”
“DAD!” the twins cried in protest. They wore matching frowns on their identical faces as their father placed his large hands on their shoulders and ushered them out of my room. Eileen hung back, watching the rest of the family retreat. Once they were gone, she crossed the small space to where I was sitting, and crouched down beside me.
“Shiki. Look at me.” I looked up into her eyes, and I saw pain there. She gathered me into her arms, and hugged me tightly. “My darling Akai Shiki,” she whispered into my hair.
“Hmm?” I mumbled.
She pulled away from me and stood up swiftly. “Nothing. It’s nothing. Get some sleep, okay? you have school tomorrow.” She departed, closing the door behind her, leaving me bewildered and confused.
And just like that, I was, once again, alone.
My life failed to improve much after that night. If anything, it managed to get even more complicated. As I finished my middle school education, teasing from the other kids began to plague me. They yanked my braids, and made fun of my eyes. They made gagging noises and faked stomachaches whenever I displayed the contents of my lunch bag. I constantly found scribblings in made up languages on my desk, on my locker, on my textbooks. I cried a lot. I thought I was strange and unworthy of friends.
Once high school began, I begged to attend a school on the other side of the city, where no one would know me. I managed to convince Eileen to allow me to make some changes to my appearance. I dyed my hair a very normal dark brown, and started to wear brown colored contacts. I continued to indulge in my four-bottle-a-day hot sauce habit, but I disguised them as spicy tomato juice and claimed that I needed the nutrients.. In this way, I passed mostly unnoticed. There were no more stares, or taunts. There were also no close friends. I was unable to allow anyone to get close to me, for I was afraid of what would happen if they found out my secrets.
And then I met Judah.
It was the spring of my final year of high school. Finally, according to the documents filed with the court, I had reached eighteen years of age. Legally, I could do everything except buy a drink. That was fine with me; I’d tried alcohol before, and it did nothing other than to make me cry. I did not understand the allure, but then, I am different.
I was doing a good job of blending in when my cover was almost blown. As I walked the halls that afternoon, heading towards my last class of the day, the stone around my neck began to flicker. I inhaled sharply, and slapped my hands over it. Unfortunately, those hands had been holding my books. The pile crashed to the floor, scattering my notes and papers in every direction. I fell to my knees, trying to figure out how to hide this glowing object and retrieve my supplies at the same time. A pair of legs appeared in front of me as the light grew so bright that it leaked through my fingers. The legs belonged to a boy – no, a man – I discovered, as he leaned down to peer in my face. His perfect hazel eyes were clouded with concern.
“Are you alright?” he asked. I started to answer, but my words died in my throat as my eyes were drawn to something shining beneath his shirt sleeve. He followed my gaze to his wrist, and blushed. Hurriedly, he gathered my fallen books, and tucked them under his arm. As he stood, he used his free hand to yank me to my feet. He ran down the hallway, knocking into people and dragging me behind him. I tried in vain to conceal the light emanating from my stone.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Stop! What are you doing? Who are you?” I demanded.
“Not here,” he hissed through clenched teeth. I clamped my lips shut, deciding to trust him for the time being, although I had many, many questions.
The bell signaling the start of class rang as we ran around a corner and up a flight of stairs. The halls emptied pretty quickly. Very soon, ours were the only footsteps. I began to panic, worrying about being suspended, or forced into detention so close to graduation. I started to struggle against his iron grip, causing him to stumble. His feet tangled with mine, and we were both sent tumbling to the floor.
“OW!” I yelled.
“Quiet!” he hissed again. He leaped to his feet with a speed I had never seen, and sped to the very last door in the corridor. Looking in all directions furtively, he was apparently satisfied that we were alone. Jogging back to me, he scooped me into his arms and, returning to the empty classroom, depositing me on a desk.
“What is your problem?” I forgot that I was hiding a glowing secret, and swung my fists at his head. His eyes widened as he took in the glow. “Damn!” My hands flew back toward my neck, but he stopped them from reaching. He shrugged his backpack off his shoulder and onto the floor. Still staring at me, he pushed up the sleeve of his shirt. There, around his wrist, was a stone identical to mine.
And it was glowing bright red, the same as mine.
I was so shocked that I forgot I was angry. I reached for my purse, in need of an emergency hot sauce hit, but then remembered that my purse was in my locker; I was separated from my stash. My vision swam with need. I closed my eyes, telling myself to take deep breaths and that this would pass. I was so involved in calming myself that I did not notice the sounds – or smells – around me.
“Here. Take mine.” I cracked one eye open, and discovered the boy was holding out a bottle of Louisiana Red towards me. The top was off, and a straw had been inserted. I lifted my gaze to him and got the second, or perhaps the third shock of the day.
His eyes were red, like mine.
He blinked rapidly, as if he was unused to being in the light. I noticed that he was twirling a small screw top, contact lens case with the fingers of his left hand. I decided that his hazel eyes came with the help of a good optician, as did my plain brown ones. His hair was cut very close to his scalp, and his eyebrows were a dark, reddish brown color.
I was staring at him so hard that I did not realize he had spoken. “What?”
“I said, my name is Judah. You?”
“Shiki.” I slurped some sauce and immediately felt calmer. I offered him the bottle back, and he took it, sipping from the same straw while watching me. I shivered, even though I was not cold. I was in a state of disbelief. Was this real? Was I dreaming?
“We’re not dreaming, are we?” His question echoed my thoughts.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I hope not,” I added shyly. He smiled, and we took comfort in our shared weirdness. He arranged his long limbs at a desk next to the one I was sitting so ungracefully on.
Leaning towards me, he lifted his wrist and pointed to the stone. “How much do you know about this?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “Only what my parents have told me, that it arrived with me, and I refused to let it go.”
“Can you read it?”
“You’ve never looked at it?”
“Well, it is around my neck, and it’s not like I can take it off. What do you mean, ‘read it’? There’s something on it?”
Judah sighed, and shook his head. “So they haven’t told you.”
“Never mind. Let’s just get out of here.”
We never made it to class that afternoon. After gathering our things from our respective lockers, Judah and I moved the party outdoors to a park halfway between the school and my house. We shared space underneath a blossoming apple tree, with him laying down, using his backpack as a pillow, and me sitting next to him, using my books as a chair. We exchanged our tales of adversity, each of us trying to out do the other with our suffering.
“I’m telling, I got poked in the eye!” he exclaimed.
“Seriously. This kid didn’t believe my eyes were red. He thought I was wearing some freaky contacts or something.”
“So you just let him stick his finger in your eye,” I said skeptically. “And what if he’d poked it out?”
“I held it open for him, and let him rub his finger across. When he realized it wasn’t a contact, he went screaming down the street, yelling that I was demon.” We shared a laugh, and he passed the bottle of sauce back to me. “Your turn.”
I furrowed my brow in concentration. There were so many incidents in my life to choose from. My silence must have worried him, because he interrupted my thoughts with a sharp, “Shiki!”
“Huh?” The sound of his voice snapped me back to the present. He sat up, and reached for me. His warm hand touched my face, and I realized that I had been crying.
I pulled back in apology. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I didn’t realize that this affected you so much. Talking about it, I mean. We can stop.”
“NO!” The force of my refusal stunned us both. Judah twitched nervously, and looked away, refusing to meet my eyes. He dropped his hand into his lap along with his gaze. I tried again. “I mean, I want to talk to you about it. We obviously have some sort of connection, right?” I said, pointing to our glowing stones. “We should talk, compare notes, that sort of thing.”
“Maybe I should get you home,” Judah said. He sounded wounded, and I had no idea what to say to make it better.
The truth was, I was hurt. And angry. And annoyed. As happy as I was to find someone who shared my pain and sense of longing, thinking of the past resurrected painful memories. I’d spent most of my life being the stranger, the weirdo, the odd one. Now, at last, it seemed that I had finally found a kindred soul, and all I could do was think about how miserable I was.
I covered my face with my hands and said to him, “I’m pathetic.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yeah, I kind of am.”
“No,” he said, grabbing my hands, “you’re not. I like you, and not just because we’re alike.”
“You don’t even know me,” I said hotly.
“Well, we can change that. I can get to know to you.”
I regarded him with suspicion. “You mean, you want to be my friend?”
“I’m going home.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Really.” He hesitated, and then said, “You need to get them to tell you.”
“You know, that’s the second time you’ve said something like that. Tell me what?”
Judah licked his lips nervously, and said, “Obviously you’ve noticed that there’s something different about you, right?”
“No shit, Sherlock. What’s your point?”
“You have no idea how different. First, you and I are not from this world, or any known world.”
“Heh?” I am not sure what I expected to hear, but this was unsettling. To hear out loud by someone who had the same characteristics as me that I was an outsider felt unpleasant.
“Second, the people that raised us know more than they’re ever told us. I cornered my mom about five years ago, after my dad died. There was this light in the sky, and this thing on my arm started glowing.”
“No way! You saw the shooting star, too?” I asked excitedly.
“I’m pretty sure it was not a shooting star. At least, not the kind we think. I think it was some sort of communication-satellite-device-thing. Anyway, my dad had died maybe a week before. I was having trouble sleeping because I’d found some papers of his that talked about me. They called me ‘Akai Judah’, and talked about my ‘progress’ in ‘assimilation practices.’”
I sat there, stunned at his words, fighting to understand, to accept, to believe. My ears perked up at one word. “Akai…..”
“So you do know.”
“My mom, Eileen, called me that the night of that star. She saw my stone glow, and she whispered ‘Akai Shiki’ when she hugged me.” I suddenly reached for his hands, clasping them close to my heart. “What does that mean?”
“As far as I can tell, it means red in Japanese.”
“Red Shiki,” I hissed.
A look of concern clouded Judah’s eyes. “Hey, Shiki… Maybe I should take you home now. You look a bit… peaked.”
I laughed. “Home? Where’s that? You’ve just told me that everything I’ve ever been told is a lie, and that no one knows where my real home is.”
“Let’s go.” He stood, and helped me to my feet. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he also stooped to retrieve my books. Handing me my purse, he placed his arm around my shoulders and steered me towards the road. I gave him directions to my neighborhood through a fog.
It was a long walk back to the place where I was raised. Judah walked silently beside me, glancing my way every so often. When we arrived at my street, I was not the slightest bit tired, though my head was still spinning. I forced my eyes to focus, and readied myself to return to the role of dutiful daughter. I squared my shoulders, and faced Judah, planning to thank him.
He was looking past me, towards my house. I followed his gaze, and saw a strange car in our driveway.
“Company?” I wondered.
“It’s my mom,” Judah whispered. We shared a look, and simultaneously broke into a jog, racing towards those people who called themselves our guardians. As we ran, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. That gave me a warm feeling, because it meant that no matter what happened, he would be at my side when it did.
My wish had finally come true. I was right where I belonged.