An updated and revised version of this chapter is included in a collection available for purchase on Amazon: Of Leaves and Water: A mini collection
It was a simple ad. Handwritten on a sheet of paper taped to the door were the words, ‘Help wanted: Delivery driver. Apply inside.’ Even more enticing was the scene behind the ad: the sparkling clean floors, the neatly organized trays of pastries, the uniformed girls at the register.
But Shinya was rooted to the ground, unable to bring herself to open the door to the pastry shop. How could she, with her wild hair streaked with blonde and tints of other colors just barely caught in a ponytail, and her baggy, mismatched clothes edged with dirt. Maybe if she still had the Vipers’ jacket, she’d have more courage to step inside. But then again, if she hadn’t been disowned, she wouldn’t be standing here.
One of the uniformed girls started to make her way towards the door and Shinya took that as her cue to leave. She turned and shoved her hands in her pocket, her left arm stinging where the cloth rubbed against the raw skin. Before, she would have proudly shown off the tattoos on that arm. Now, all she had to show was an angry crossed out heritage.
She stopped in front of the udon shop and counted out the few coins she’d found in her pockets. ‘Should be enough for one bowl.’ But just as Shinya had that thought, other worries came to her mind – dinner, tomorrow’s meals. She frowned. ‘Well, maybe I can stop over at Kazu’s -‘
Shinya shook her head violently. ‘No. I can’t go to any of them. Not anymore.’
She pushed past the curtain at the entrance of the udon shop. There were a handful of customers inside but their conversation hushed immediately when they caught sight of her. Shinya gritted her teeth at their reaction, shoving down the hurt of their stares. She deliberately turned away from them and moved towards one of the seats on the complete opposite side of the shop.
Just as she sat down, a large man came out from the kitchen and Shinya’s hackles rose. She knew the look in his eyes, the tension in his stance. He wasn’t here to take her order.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” he said. There was no apology in his voice.
She felt irritation pull at her. “Look. I’m not here to cause trouble. I just want a bowl of udon.”
“We don’t serve your kind.”
Shinya sucked in a tight breath, feeling the words hit deep in her gut. “I’m not one of them anymore,” she said, ashamed at the desperation in her voice.
His face contorted into a sneer. “You’ll always be scum.”
In the old days, she would have taken her chair and smashed it into his face. She had done it plenty of times before.
But that was before.
The man flinched as Shinya stood up. He was expecting her to attack him, Shinya realized. She glanced from him to the customers in the corner and saw the same fear in their eyes. ‘I guess this is what they call karma,’ she thought, leaving the store with an ache in her chest.
She walked aimlessly, her thoughts a jumbled mess of emotions, chief among them worry about tomorrow. She had never had to think about the future before. The Vipers had been all she had needed for the past three years. They had lived moment to moment, going wherever they wanted, taking whatever they liked. Glorious, they used to say.
But then they started hurting people. After a couple months, Shinya had stopped throwing up after every assignment, but last week’s blossom festival had pushed her over the edge.
“It’ll put us on the map,” Akira had said, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight the night prior when she had laid out the plan. Shinya’s squad would take down the main stall, which would cue everyone else to wreak havoc upon the festival.
But Shinya hadn’t expected children. The main stall had been full of them and their laughter as they had played games and won candy. A young girl had caught sight of Shinya in the shadows and had held out her small hand, a piece of candy in her palm.
Shinya remembered seeing the signal to start the attack. She’d bent down to share the piece of candy instead.
Her shin banged into something and she barely caught her balance. ‘A tea shop?’ she wondered, reading the sign she’d tripped over. She peered up into the shop but the man’s sneer from earlier flashed in her mind. Shoulders slumped, she turned to continue walking.
“Excuse me, could you help me?”
‘Me?’ Shinya paused midstep and looked around, but there was no one else that the voice could be addressing.
“Um, could you please hurry? This is really heavy.”
The strain in the voice had Shinya jogging up the steps and she found a woman struggling under a large box that she could barely get her arms around, much less lift. Shinya hurried around the long counter and grabbed the box. She felt several twinges across her body, but Shinya ignored them, grunting as she lifted the box above her head. She spotted an empty space on the shelf and shoved the box into the opening.
The woman let out a sigh of relief and shook out her arms. “Thank you! I was afraid I was going to drop that.”
Shinya shrugged. Things like this was probably the only thing she was good for now.
“Let me treat you to some tea. After all, you were my hero just now.”
Shinya winced at the word, but went around to the chairs on the other side of the counter anyway. As she sat, her hands shifted from the counter, to her pockets, to her lap, to finally crossed over her chest, eyes shifting the whole time.
“My name is Miyo. What’s yours?”
“Shinya,” she said, the shape of the name still odd on her tongue. She hadn’t answered to her birth name for more than three years now. That realization made her slouch in her chair but she forced herself to look around the store to keep her thoughts occupied.
It was a small space, a stall more than anything else, old but well-kept. But it was the calmness that felt foreign to Shinya, especially with the gentle fragrance of tea and Miyo’s graceful movements from behind the counter. She glanced down at her mismatched clothes and frowned, feeling that nagging feeling return. ‘You don’t belong here,’ it whispered.
Shinya knew it was right. The words echoed within the hollowness inside her. She had to get out of here. Still, she waited until Miyo’s back was turned before silently easing herself off of the high stool.
“Why are you so eager to leave?”
Shinya grabbed onto the counter before she lost her balance. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll cause trouble?” she asked Miyo’s back once she’d regained her wits and footing.
Miyo gave Shinya a look from over her shoulder. “Is that what you want to do?”
Such a simple question. If only she’d had the courage to ask herself that before this had all started. “No,” she said, her voice rasping with remorse and shame. “Not anymore.”
Miyo held Shinya’s gaze for a long moment, and it was as if she could see all the things Shinya had done and now regretted. It left Shinya shivering, even after Miyo had turned away to continue her preparations.
Shinya shook her head warily. “You don’t want your shop to be known as a hangout for gang members.”
“You aren’t anymore, right?” Noting Shinya’s bewildered look, Miyo nodded towards Shinya’s arm. Her sleeve had ridden up, exposing the crossed tattoos. “Isn’t that what those mean?”
Shinya pulled the sleeve down roughly. “It means I was disowned,” she said, remembering the emotionless way Akira had given the order the night of the blossom festival. All she remembered afterward was pain and anger, and her own fear.
But even then, nothing had been worse than the morning after. She had woken up covered in pink petals, many of them red from her own blood. Her jacket had been taken from her, and she was cold on the pre-dawn ground. Her entire body ached. But it was realizing that she was alone that hurt even more.
“Why were you disowned?” Miyo asked.
‘Why indeed,’ Shinya thought darkly. Why, after having pledged her life to them, shared every coin, every crumb, every shirt with them, her friends, her sisters, her family.
Who had ignored her when she had questioned the increasing use of violence, who had mocked her when she had hesitated in the selling of illegal goods, who had beat her and left her for dead when all she had asked for was understanding and forgiveness.
“I didn’t want to hurt people anymore,” Shinya said. Her voice was tight and her eyes bright at the edges. “But no one believes me. They think people like me can never change.” She shook her head and gave a bitter smile. “Maybe I was an idiot to even try.”
Miyo let the quiet settle before speaking. “You know what I am, right?”
Shinya glanced up at her, then down at the water magically appearing within the pot. “A Siren?” she guessed.
Miyo nodded. “Half.” She moved slowly, careful to keep her words steady. “During my Tea Master’s pilgrimage, there was a master who refused to test me.”
Shinya frowned. Her school lessons were hazy but something prodded at her memory. “But don’t you need to be tested in order to become a master?”
The smile that Miyo gave was without mirth. “Yes. But Master Genji didn’t think a filthy water slug deserved to become a tea master.”
Shinya hissed, feeling her own anger rise. But then curiosity took hold. After all, Miyo had the Master’s Set on the top shelf. “What did you do?”
Miyo shrugged. “I waited. I visited him every day for five months. But then Typhoon Zan came.”
“That was a bad one,” Shinya said. It had happened shortly after she had joined the Vipers. “It hit the Floating Islands really hard.”
“We were in the north quadrant of the Floating Islands,” Miyo said wryly. “The first couple days afterward were okay. But then the city stopped giving updates on the water supply and rumors started that it had gotten contaminated. That’s when people started panicking.”
Miyo leaned back against the shelves, her eyes growing distant. “I tried to give as much water as I could, to anyone who asked. But then these officials from the city came. They were telling everyone that if they got water from me, they needed to get treated.”
Shinya frowned. “Treated for what?”
“That’s what Master Genji asked.”
“Master Genji?” Shinya shook her head. “He was actually defending you?”
A faint touch of awe was in Miyo’s voice. “Yes, he chased the officials away. And when the people started questioning him, he said something I’ll never forget.
“He said, when it comes to trusting people, sometimes you can’t rely on the word of others. You have to judge for yourself. But the only way this is possible is if you yourself look with an open heart.”
Steam covered Miyo’s face for a moment as she poured the tea into two cups. “What I’ve learned is that you can’t control others,” she said into the warm quiet. “We can only control and change our own selves. If we’re diligent, others will recognize it. It’ll be hard, and it’ll take time, and it’ll take a lot of trust that others can change, just like you.”
Shinya let the warm steam from the tea wash over her. Her arm throbbed under her sleeve, but she knew that it would heal. It would just take time, like everything else. A part of her felt more settled knowing what to expect, but at the same time she felt tired, knowing how hard it was going to be.
Underneath the weight of her thoughts, Shinya brought her head up to meet Miyo’s kind smile.
“It’s okay to feel sorry for yourself every now and then. But your tea’s getting cold.”
Shinya glanced down at the tea then back up at Miyo. A sound bubbled up from her chest and she realized belatedly that it was a laugh.
Miyo was right. There would be plenty of time to wallow. Later. “Could you tell me about your pilgrimage?” she asked as she took up the tea cup.
Her arm still throbbed and the heaviness in her chest was still there, but as she sipped the hot tea and let Miyo’s voice seep into her, Shinya knew that everything would be all right.