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Shiro held a pen to his chin as he thought about what to do next.
“Aren’t you done yet?” questioned his best friend, Keiko as she spooned a bite of potato salad into her mouth. “How much longer?” She asked with her mouth full of food.
Shiro tuned his friend out and scribbled something in his notebook. He placed his pen back under his chin and waited for another idea to come. When it did, he wrote it down, erased it, then wrote something else. He repeated this process until he was satisfied.
After a while, the playground grew quiet. The clouds began to roll in, hiding the brightness that had them squinting their eyes moments ago.
Shiro shut his notebook and ran his fingers down the cover. To the naked eye, it was a normal, blue, one hundred-page, spiral-bound notebook with doodles on the front and back cover. But to him, it was a world of heroes, monsters, and magic.
A world he made from nothing.
“Are you finished?” Keiko inched closer to him. “Can I read it now?” She questioned, leaning in and ignoring all sense of personal space. Her hair grazed the side of his face. It smelled like freshly baked bread. Shiro’s stomach growled.
Keiko eyed him with a curious expression and let out a loud cackle. She fell back and held her hand over her mouth, hiding the gap from the tooth she’d lost the day before.
She lifted Shiro's lunchbox off the ground beside him. The same one she brought him filled with delicious food day after day. She opened it and handed it to him, along with a pair of chopsticks.
Shiro took the offering with a grin and handed her the notebook, cradling it as if to not disturb the world of characters inside.
He took a bite of breaded chicken, his eyes closing on their own. The breading had long gone soft, but the flavor was like nothing he'd tasted in any restaurant here in Japan.
Keiko moved here from Spain when she was a baby. She sometimes made Japanese-inspired food for him as best she could. But it was obvious that these were not traditional flavors. He had no complaints about it. He enjoyed anything she made for him. Keiko was an amazing cook.
He inhaled his lunch and wiped his lips. He opened his mouth to compliment her, but stopped himself from saying a word.
He gave a playful smirk at the little girl’s posture.
Keiko gripped the sides of his notebook. Her nose was right up against the pages. Her eyes glided up and down and back again. Her reddish-brown hair was tossed around in all directions by the wind.
Shiro didn't dare break her concentration. There was nothing more terrifying than an annoyed Keiko.
Instead, he looked up at the fall sky and watched the golden leaves move without rhyme or reason. They reminded him a lot of Keiko. Hues of reddish-gold, dancing wildly under the slightest of winds.
“Wow!” said Keiko. Interrupting his thoughts. “You’re so talented, Shiro.” She said, handing him his notebook in exchange for his empty lunchbox.
Shiro smiled, admiring his work. “I want everyone to read my stories one day.” He traced his name on the cover of his newest creation, admiring the illustration Keiko had drawn for him.
“You know…” Keiko began.
Shiro looked up at the girl who was on her feet now, looking out at the trees on the other side of their school’s playground.
“They’re opening a new high school soon.”
Keiko took a paper out of her pocket and laid it on Shiro’s lap. “It’s supposed to be a special academy for all kinds of creative students.”
Shiro inspected the flyer. The school’s logo was printed in bold, white letters, ‘Bura Bura Academy’ it read.
“Shiro!” Keiko said, leaning over him. “Let’s go to that school together, okay?”
Keiko held out her hand. “Promise me.”
Shiro looked down at the flyer and reached out to shake his friend’s hand and seal the promise. He moved his arm around, searching for hers, but found nothing. When he looked up...she was gone.
He jumped to his feet, realizing the park was empty. He slipped his notebook into his backpack and took a jogging start toward the school doors.
The other children must have already gone back inside. Shiro reached the entrance and pulled the heavy doors open, fighting a draft. “Geez, you could’ve waited for me, Keiko.” He huffed.
He held his arm up to his face to protect his glasses from the fog that attacked him, obstructing his eyesight. Leaves that had once been trapped in the hallway blew past him, escaping the cold atmosphere. Shiro pulled a cloth from his pocket and cleared the humidity from his lenses. He adjusted the thick, burgundy frames on his face.
Shiro looked around the dark room. He felt a sudden chill up his spine as he took a reluctant step forward. He couldn’t see far in front of him. He kept his hands on his chest, gripping the straps of his backpack. He was afraid if he stretched his arm in front of him, it would disappear in the darkness.
Where am I? His eyes searched the fog, as dark figures moved past him. The shadowy silhouettes towered over him. He took a step forward, then another, pausing to look around with each move. Sweat dripped down his back. He was too afraid to turn back now. The figures didn’t seem to notice him, moving in slow motion toward an unknown destination.
The double doors behind him blew open, inviting a gust of wind that blew fall leaves down the hall and over his shoulders.
“Shiro…” he heard a familiar voice whisper in his ear.
“Keiko?” he looked around but saw nothing.
He took another step forward.
“Shi..ro..” He heard her voice again, fading in the distance.
Shiro squinted at the darkness in front of him. Slowly moving forward. His steps grew heavy, as if he were walking through a muddy field. He inched closer to the whispers of his name. It became clearer as he moved forward.
“Shiro…” she whimpered.
That’s when he saw them. One of the shadowy figures, holding the little girl's hand. Her hair blew in a wind too far for him to feel. She turned to look at him, tears falling from her big brown eyes.
“Promise,” she cried, as the figure led her further into the fog.
Shiro dropped his bag, scattering its contents on the floor. His precious notebook, the world he created. His world was lost to the muddy ground. He readied himself; positioning his body like a professional athlete.
He ran toward his best friend and the figure that was taking her away. He’d snatch her hand from this…thing, and run straight to his house. His dad would protect them. He would know what to do.
At least, that was his intention.
Before he could lift his foot off the ground, he felt a hand on his shoulder. One of the shadow people got ahold of him.
He swatted the hand away only to have his wrist caught in a thick, black sludge. "W-what is this?!" Shiro cried, pulling his arm in every direction, trying to break free.
Another hand grabbed his leg. Then another clamped over his mouth. He felt his body sink into the darkness. Another hand came at him, then another, and another, until dozens of them began pulling him down. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t breathe.
He could only stretch his one free arm out, as the mud people dragged him into the sludge that was the ground. He watched as Keiko slipped into the fog, whispering words he could no longer hear.
He felt everything and nothing all at once in the heavy sludge that enveloped him. He was terrified. He was broken. He was alone. But most of all, he was angry.
“Why didn't you wait for me, Keiko?” Shiro felt his body grow numb. "Now we are both going to die." His eyes grew heavy. “It’s…all your...fault.” He felt himself fading.
With no strength left to fight, he let himself slip further into the darkness.
“It’s a promise!” A surge of golden leaves circled around his sinking body. Glowing golden petals. Unaffected by the suffocating sludge that surrounded them.
“I promise.” He mouthed against his will, slipping into a deep slumber.
X X X
When he opened his eyes again, Shiro was laying in his own bed.
“Shiro,” Akio stood by the door. “You’ll be late for school if you don’t hurry.” Shiro’s little brother headed toward the kitchen without waiting for a reply.
He closed his eyes and opened them again, moistening his dry, tired eyes. But it was no use. His eyelids felt like sandpaper.
He sat up in his bed, holding his head. It was throbbing. He felt a wave of nausea. He rubbed his forehead as if it would scrape away the pain.
Lucky me, he thought. It's the first day of my third year and I feel terrible. But…
“…it’s been a while since I last had that dream.” He looked down at his right hand. He could still feel Keiko’s tiny hand in his, like the day they made that promise. He wiped his hands on his sheets, as if that would rub the memory away.
Shiro rubbed his face and put his glasses on to stop the blurry room from making his nausea any worse. He reached over and grabbed the clock. His eyes widened when he saw the time.
A message from the author:
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