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The dream didn't last long though. Immediately after my attempt to pursue this mysterious woman, a loud sound interrupted my vain efforts. My heart skipped a beat and, in under a nanosecond, the oneiric landscape was replaced with a view of the popcorn ceiling in my bedroom, beige and stained with blotches of water from many rainy days.
Once I recovered from my momentary shock and the reality of the beautiful world I had seen being a figment of my imagination had fully sunk in, my state of mind turned from confusion to disappointment as I stared up at the ceiling, holding a white pillow close to my plump, round body. Before I had time to wipe the sleep from my eyes and smack away my morning breath with my tongue, my attention was grabbed by my phone, screaming from its charging station with its obnoxious ringtone, a tune I used to genuinely enjoy up until I set it as my alarm.
Rolling myself free from a straitjacket of bedsheets, I sat up to shut off the intrusive noise and check for any missed calls or texts I may have gotten while I was asleep. I could see from the time that it was 8 am, meaning that, all told, I had gotten about five hours of sleep last night. From the time I finished my homework up until about three in the morning, I had stayed up planning, coordinating and cooking for a special outing with my boyfriend Kenichi and best friend Tomomi ─ a picnic by the duck pond at a nearby college campus. The two of them were the only people I could really consider my pals, and we hardly saw each other regularly since we all attended different schools, so I tried to make plans with them whenever I was available. It had been almost a month since we last hung out, and I wanted to make our most recent get-together as special as I could.
In my mind's eye, it wasn't hard for me to imagine Kenichi giving me a sideways glance and Tomomi telling me it was okay to shoot for another time so I could go back home and get some rest if they were to find out how little sleep I got... again. If it did happen, it definitely wouldn't be the first time and, knowing me, it probably wouldn't be the last either. Oh well. There was no law that said I had to tell them how much I did ─ or in this case, didn't ─ sleep the night before.
As I walked out of my room to start getting ready to leave, I found myself looking around for any sign of my mother. The quietness of the house should have tipped me off that she decided to spend her Sunday off work sleeping in and, sure enough, as I passed by her room on my way to the bathroom, her door was locked and I could hear that her television was on.
Megumi Seiun was a woman of high standards; in fact, they were so high she didn't even try to meet them herself, but somehow expected everyone else to conform to her ideals. Not among the least of which was none other than yours truly, her teenage daughter Yumemi. Here was someone who, despite not having any social life outside of work that I knew of, only noticed me unless I made a mistake and preferred to talk down to me like an untrained dog instead of actually telling me what I did wrong so I could learn how to do better, making me feel like an idiot. Any other time, conversations I would try to start with her were ignored and questions I would ask were left unanswered because, as she'd put it, she doesn't answer stupid questions. Seeing her outside of her room was a rare occurrence, and I never knew what to expect when I saw her leave for anything other than grabbing food and coming back or needing to use the bathroom. I never met my dad or anyone on his side and mom moved eight hundred miles from her relatives after she got her associate's degree, making her the only family I had; even then, I hardly considered her to be family, but rather some wandering phantom haunting my house in Saitama.
I wasn't planning on trying to engage her today. If she didn't stop me to remind of something I inevitably must have screwed up, I intended to just get ready and go without stopping in-between. But today, something happened.
This day spent with Tomomi and Kenichi was something planned entirely last minute. Telling my mom that I was going out for the day never crossed my mind, for semi-obvious reasons. And there was more than enough food that I made last night for the picnic (something I planned intentionally so we'd have leftovers for the days after and today's breakfast). I don't think she would sue me if I told her that there would be food left over for her when she decided to come out from her room. To be honest, it wasn't something I wanted to take time out of my schedule to do, but the alternative was no more appealing.
I paused in the middle of the hall and knocked gently on her door. "Hey, mom," I called. "I'm heading out to meet Ken and Tomomi and I don't know when I'll be back. There's extra sandwiches and stuff in the fridge that you can have for breakfast if you want." I waited in futile desire for any acknowledgement that she had heard me, but the only answer I received from the other side were muffled voices coming from the main characters of a daytime soap opera. "Okay, I'm gonna start getting ready now and, uh... yeah, later."
That wasn't too painful.
To the college from my house was only fifteen minutes by bus, twenty if the lights were against us. We had agreed to meet there and go for a walk after we had finished eating (I think Kenichi had made some vague indication about bringing a loaf of bread to feed the ducks). Sitting in an empty area at the back of the bus, I gripped the wicker handle of the basket perched across my stocking-clad knees. After making all the food for today, I was too wired to go straight to bed, so I decided to spend the time finishing a country lolita coordination I had began sewing over winter break, only to forget about it once school started back up and I had to repair my glitchy old sewing machine. Making my own clothes was something I took great pride in, and I was looking forward to seeing Tomomi and Kenichi's reactions when they first laid eyes on my new teal-and-white sunflower dress.
Staring wistfully out the window, the unfinished story of my dream slowly crept back into my memories. The feelings it imprinted on me were warm and happy, and I gradually realized that this was not the first time I ever responded to a dream so peacefully. I leaned back against the plastic seat of the bus and closed my eyes, trying to remember any other time I had a dream similar to the one I dreamt last night. Nothing as detailed as the world I visited in my sleep came back to mind. All I could recall were simply impressions ─ no sights or smells or the sensation of the wind or dew breezing across me and sprinkling my imaginary feet ─ impressions I had been exposed to in my subconscious at least two or three times prior. It seemed that, although last night was my first visual dream of this kind, the dream was a recurring one. One that I remembered more vividly each time I dreamt it. More than anything, I was surprised that I was able to remember last night's dream so vividly when I had gotten only five hours of sleep.
Immediately after the bus pulled up to its stop, I hopped off onto the sidewalk and jogged around the building, easily identifiable with a bust sculpture of the college's original founder parallel to the front entrance. The route to the park was preceded by a winding path through some outdoor equipment intended for physical therapy, peppered with park benches and trees. Slowing my pace to a steady trot, I looked up at the silver birch trees before me, reminded again of the abstract dream trees. I could see their curly branches as they reached for the stars, clothed with bright blue leaves tucked in with a blanket of shadows, leaking with rays of moonlight. In my moment of recollection, I tripped over a rock and flopped ungracefully over a bench and, once I recovered, I promptly resigned myself to keep my eyes on what was in front of me rather than above.
Winding the final curve in the dirt pathway, Tomomi and Kenichi had finally appeared in my realm of vision, distinguished by their natural blonde hair that contrasted like salt and pepper with my fluffy black mane, something that, up until around my last birthday, I had acknowledged with some resentment. I could see Kenichi sitting on the wooden bench, pulling his letterman jacket tighter around his form to fend off a nippy breeze.  Kenichi’s outfit choices were always a guessing game for me and Tomomi; as he either dressed like a homeless drug addict or an MVP recipient with equal squalor.  There was no in-between.
Standing up beside him was Tomomi in denim capris and an orange tunic pullover, tiptoeing as gently as she could toward a small party of ducks without being seen. Seeing her phone in her hand, I could tell she was trying to take a reference picture for her next woodcarving project, and that she had chosen the members of the duck family to be the trapped specimens she would set free from a block of mahogany.
I placed my thumb and index finger in my mouth and whistled to grab the two's attention. Once their gazes broke and they turned toward me, I waved the picnic basket over my head, wiggling my eyebrows knowingly. Even before they could fully stand up, I ran toward them giggling and embraced them both in a group hug, gingerly stroking Tomomi's head with my right hand and giving Kenichi a kiss on the cheek.
"Hey there, stranger," Ken greeted, fiddling with my teal bow headband.
"Long time no see, wife," Tomomi freed herself from my hug and held onto the picnic basket that had slipped its way onto her wrist. "Thinks going well at home?”
"Oh, going good, going good." This was my default phrase. "What about you guys? Anything new happen since last time?"
Tomomi tightly shut her eyes and folded her arms. It took her a few moments before she finally answered in her naturally butch voice, "Nothing, really. Everything has been pretty calm lately. I mean, my dad got promoted recently, but that's about it." According to Tomomi logic, life updates were only worth sharing if they were really earth-shattering or major; and as such, any casual stories, such as a funny experience she may have had at the convenience store or the movie she saw the other day, were left forever untold.
Almost instantly, a circle of ducks and small water birds seem to materialize around us.  Sensing the food we possessed, they began to close in and multiply, as the ducks huffed and wagged their tails like fetch-happy puppies while more of the water birds comically encroached from the distant green.  I tried to step away from them slowly, but they had already tightly circled around my ankles.  Turning to Kenichi and Tomomi, I asked, “Do you guys want to eat somewhere else?”  Their expressions made it clear that it wasn’t what they had in mind, and Ken cleared his throat to speak.  "One of my soccer friends from a few years ago got married last week."
Tomomi and I chorused with cries of congratulation as Kenichi fished out a cell phone from a low pocket in his baggy cargo pants. "It was all the way in Okinawa Island so I couldn't go, but my friend and his family took a lot of pictures and put them on this website they made for the wedding." Ken's move to pull up the site ended before it began when he realized he didn't want to pay 99 yen every thirty minutes just to use the campus' Wi-Fi, leading him to awkwardly slide the phone back in its respective pocket. "Were you guys waiting long?" I asked.
"Nah, no worries," Kenichi reassured me, scratching the back of his neck. "I don't think we got here more than five minutes before you did." Both he and Tomomi eyed the picnic basket longingly, which was our cue to collectively sit down, start eating and enjoy the day.  The birds followed us hungrily.  
Tomomi's parents had been getting mail for a neighbor who was out of town, and had donuts to share which the neighbor gave them as a token of thanks when he had returned. I had a feeling that the cookies I baked would go uneaten in favor of Tomomi's offering, which turned out to be correct. My other wares however; fruit sandwiches and Indian curry with rice and mayo, we're a big hit, and the crumbs that fell were swooped up covetously by the birds, who still waited impatiently for us to throw our food their way.
"It's epic!" Tomomi answered with garbled words full of grub when I asked how she and Kenichi liked the food. Kenichi's response was a thumbs-up as he sipped from a thermos the pomegranate iced tea I had brewed the night before. I couldn't stop grinning.  “See Yumemi, this is why you’re my wife.  Ken, think you can reach another sandwich with those long arms of yours?”  The basket containing them was five feet away.”
“Oh, you’re hi-la-ri-ous, haw haw haw,” Kenichi drawled with forced laughter.  “So funny I forgot to laugh.”  Tomomi was Ken’s first, and apparently she teased him for having long arms since before they were official.  "How long did it take to make all this, Yuyu?" He asked, eyes were drawn to his lap as he tried to fish out the completely submerged spoon he had dropped in his curry bowl.
"Oh, I don't know..." I rubbed my chin as I thought back to last night. "Two, three, maybe four hours. Something like that."
"Four hours?" Tomomi echoed in shock. "You must have been up since, like, 5 am!" Ken's eyes were wide and full of uncertainty.
"No, not that long..." I quickly tried to backpedal from my previous answer, hoping I wouldn't give away how long I stayed up. "I got up at eight, so I slept okay."
"Uh-huh," Kenichi sighed plainly, giving me the eye. After a second-long silence, he continued, "So basically, you stayed up again, right?"
Oops. So much for leaving them in the dark. Kenichi's yellow brows were arched like tents, and he eased closer to where I sat. "Right?"
I tried to ease off the pressure with an innocent smile, as if somehow that would prevent my friends from getting on me about not sleeping. But even as I did, my face began to tingle with a nervous sweat. Kenichi and Tomomi's faces weren't upset or judgmental, but rather, concerned. Even so, from the moment Ken placed his hands around my shoulders, I knew they weren't going to let me off easy. They never did, and they sure didn't have any reason to stop now. "Guys, it's no big deal."
"Look, Yuyu..." Kenichi began, staring intently into my eyes. "I know we can't control what you do on your own time, but please, hear me out. On a regular basis you hardly get any sleep at all, which is not good for you."
"Ken's right, Yumemi," Tomomi continue from the other side of me. "It’s okay with us if you need to reschedule so you can go home and take a little nap or something.  Your health comes first."  See? What did I tell you?
"I am healthy," I answered defensively as I squirmed out of Kenichi's grasp to grab a slice of honey wheat bread and feed the ducks. Okay, so maybe I had the physique of a marshmallow, which was probably the reason why Tomomi and Ken were always cautioning me about taking care of myself. But I was a healthy marshmallow. "All I wanted was to make this a special day."
"You can do that without ignoring your own needs, you know," Ken answered gently. "Just the fact that you're here already makes it special, so don't feel like you need to kill yourself making an elaborate meal and keeping yourself up at night, okay?"
"Yeah, and we're —”  Tomomi stopped to push away a duck that had jumped on her lap.  “We’re thinking about you as much as you're thinking about us," she contributed to the well-worn discussion. "So if we know you're doing all this for us but burning yourself out, we won't be able to enjoy our outing." I know she meant it in a nice way, but this didn't make her words sting any less.
I sighed with mock frustration and hugged Kenichi's hard, muscular arm. "Okay guys, o-kay. I won't stay up late again. I promise." I laid my head on Ken's shoulder, glad that the topic had been nipped in the bud before it gained momentum.  The others remain silent for an unusually long time and I looked their way to determine what the cause of this silence may have been, only to find a sour look on Ken’s face.  “I don’t like how that goose is looking at me.”
Tomomi and I turned our gazes to what had caught his attention; a massive white Chinese goose, with mud-stained down and a tumorous yellow growth on the bridge of its beak.  As if self-conscious of the sudden attention it received, the goose began to buffet its wings and honk noisily.  “Oh, gross,”  I whispered.  Kenichi’s face turned white, and he propped his feet up with the rest of his body on the bench.  Tomomi seemed to be trying not to laugh.
The goose’s honking quickly became a raspy hiss, and its wing-flapping became more vigorous.  Without warning it jumped up and flew in Ken’s direction, causing him to scream and back into the edge of the bench.  By reflex, I pushed a nearby bagged loaf of butter bread toward him, which he in turn grasped by the flap and smashed against the side of the goose’s face with all the strength his muscle-bound arm would allow.  Aimlessly, the goose fell to the ground, shuddered its head in disorientation and absconded into the bushes, while the throng of ducks quacked with a chorus of excitement.
“Kenichi!”  Tomomi roared indignantly, her face a mask of stunned disapproval.  “What is the matter with you?  It was just a goose!”
Ken shrugged and held up his hands defensively.  “He was gonna hit me!  That bread was all I had!”
“It could have gotten hurt!”
“I could have gotten hurt!  You could see it in his eyes; that goose aimed to misbehave!”  He pointed at his own eyes with his middle and index fingers extended from a clenched fist.  I had nothing to offer to the debate at the time because I was laughing too hard.  “Besides, he’s just fine.”
Tomomi said nothing, but cast a judgmental look at Ken and continued to eat her curry – that is, until another smaller and equally vicious goose appeared, this time with Tomomi as the outlet for its hostility.  She slammed her curry down on the bench, jumped up and ran away, with the goose noisily clamoring behind her.  “Bet you wish you had a roll of bread right now, didn’t you!”  Kenichi shouted triumphantly.  Weaving through areas of the park around and behind us, a red-faced and scowling Tomomi took the bag from his lap in one swift motion and began throwing whole slices at the goose.  Finally, she tripped over and landed on a rock, and I took over in trying to shoo the fowl away while she tried to collect herself and find her glasses, using loud shouts and blunts strikes from my palms to scare it off.  In spite of my best efforts, the only animals effected by this strategy were the others birds and squirrels.  
“Oh God, it’s gonna get me! What do I do?”
“Stand firm, Tomomi! Stand firm!”  I managed to pick up the goose and tried to carry it to another area of the park; but instead in began to peck and scratch my face with its dirty webbed feet, and I pushed it away from me quickly.  Tomomi, eager to recant her previous concerns about hurting another living thing, began throwing small rocks at the goose to ward it away.
During this time, Kenichi had repackaged all our food in my basket and ran away to greener pastures; unbeknownst to Tomomi and myself until we saw his outline on the other side of the large pond.  With a vengeful goose after us, we ran to catch up with him, eventually shaking the bird and leaving us sprinting unpursued.  Gasping and aching, the two of us joined him on a wide log stool to catch our breaths.  Tomomi leaned parallel to the grass against my body, and I could feel her heart pounding through her chest against my legs.  “I’m not hungry any more, Yuyu.”
I nodded and tried to regulate my breathing to a speaking level.  “I’m not hungry any more either.”
The rest of our day was spent observing nature and casual people-watching.  As we tore off pieces of bread and threw in the water for the fish and turtles, our day’s first conversation came back to my mind.  I mentally flirted with the idea of telling them the truth, unbelievable it may seem. The lack of sleep I got really was no big deal since six hours was enough to completely refresh me. It wasn't that I was choosing to stay up by working my tail off in the kitchen and sewing room, but because I genuinely had nothing better to do before my bedtime rolled around. On the one hand, I didn't think they would believe me if I told them, but on the other hand, if my mom nonchalantly accepted this little-known fact about my biology, they probably would too. At least they didn't know that I spent the night sewing my new outfit.
In less than an hour, the food and bread was gone. Meanwhile, I used my basket as a temporary container for our empty wrappers, bags, boxes and plastic containers until we could find a trash can. As morning turned to noon, the sky became clearer and bluer, the grass greener and the clouds whiter and more diverse in their shapes, making it a beautifully perfect day to stroll in silence around the park and commune with nature. Even this far into the day, I couldn't help but compare reality's lush scenery to the ethereal landscapes of my dream. The only noises the three of us could hear were the birds honking and the gushing fountain affixed in the center of the pond, but even such peripheral sounds were deafeningly loud compared to the quiet stillness of my mind's world. Even at night when the fountain would light up with a multitude of colored lights, it still paled in comparison to the galaxies I had seen while I was sleeping. That I had seen with that distant woman.
Who was she?
What was she running toward, or even who?
Was she running away from something or someone?
And why did I try so hard to catch up with her?
For just a second, as the park's walkway took us across the street from a congested plaza, I wanted to betray my personal distaste for telling other people about my dreams and share the wonderful world and its mysteries I had seen. But then...
"Hey, guys!" Kenichi blurted, pointing to one of the plaza buildings. "The mall's right by here! You wanna go?"
"Um..." murmured Tomomi. "...sure Ken, why not?"
"Oh yeah, then I can throw our trash away!" And just like that, as more important matters came to mind, the dream was forgotten as I trailed behind Kenichi and Tomomi racing to the plaza.
There was nothing about our mall that set it apart from any other, except maybe for the humongous popcorn bar at the movie theater and a clothing store with the world's slipperiest tile floors, but among Kahoshi City's shopping centers, it remained in the lead as a popular recreational area, especially with me and Tomomi. After Ken was finally able to show us the pictures from his friend's Tolkien-themed beachside wedding, she and I began our common ritual for every mall visit.
"Hey, Yuyu," Stopping fifteen minutes in our trek, Tomomi called my attention with two stackable plushies, one in each hand. Each one was about the size of an orange and represented the likeness of a notable cartoon character. "These have been pretty popular ever since they came out a couple years ago."
I peered closer at the round little toys Tomomi held, then picked one up to examine it further. Kenichi was laughing at us from behind, but I paid little attention to him as I gazed at the doll's embroidered dot eyes, stroked its circular felt body and squeezed at its soft belly to feel small bean pellets inside. It certainly did justice to the anthropomorphic least weasel character I had often seen advertising amusement park rides and fast food kid's meals on TV commercials, all the while simplifying him to a cute, accessible medium. "Plushies don't go out of style, do they?" I asked, wiggling the character's soft nose with my fingertip.
Tomomi shook her head and spoke with excitement. "There's been fads for them forever broski, and I don't think it's gonna die out any time soon. Just think, whole franchises have started out with merchandise that struck a chord with the masses."
I could almost feel my eyes glittering with excitement at the prospect and I snapped a picture of the plushie on my phone for future reference, before fiddling with the price tag attached to its ear. "Actually wait, I think I kinda want to buy this. It doesn't cost much, and it is pretty cute." If patenting stuffed animals was going to be my claim to fame, I wanted to use this as an example to study from.
"Oh, I got it from over there," Tomomi took my hand and walked me to the toy store she pointed at, while I fished for my wallet with my empty hand. "You know, from personal experience, I can tell you carving wood is hard work, and I imagine sewing plushies being just as hard. Maybe you should start with what you know and start a clothing line. I know how much you love sewing lolita cosplay."
“I remember all the band-aids you had to wear on your fingers when you first started,” mused Kenichi.
"It's not cosplay," I corrected, "and that's a good idea, especially since it's something I can start working on now. I would need your help on the business side of things since you're better with money than I am."
Tomomi nodded as we approached the cash register. "Hey, I'd be happy to help! Just think, with your sewing skills and eye for fashion, we could really make a lot of money! This could be the start of something awesome! Which reminds me, did you learn anything about setting up online shops?"
"No, not yet," I confessed reluctantly. I had meant to get on the ball looking for the best ways to distribute goods online, but I either forgot or didn't have the motivation to throw myself into such territory just yet. Beside us, Kenichi playfully rolled his eyes and sighed. "You two and your get-rich-quick schemes."
Tomomi flipped her straight, waist-length hair in response. "Hey, what's wrong with a couple of schemes? Every entrepreneur has to start somewhere, you know." She leaned toward him, smacking him firmly on the shoulder. "Just think, when we're rich and famous and our names become trademarks, you'll wish you had collaborated with us instead of laughing your way to the weight room."
Ken chuckled and swung her hair like a jump rope while I paid for the toy. "Well, you future trademarks have fun," he called from over his shoulder as he turned toward the exit. "I'm going to pop into the fitness store for now. Don't let me slow you down."
"The gym rat's going to the sewers to train?" I joked, hugging onto his back like a baby koala on our way out. This got another laugh even out of him, and with a parting kiss on my forehead, he headed off into the world of bulky exercise equipment, leaving me and Tomomi to continue our quest on finding what items sold best and if it was possible to get a piece of that pie. Although, on this particular day, I wasn't nearly as focused as I could have been, but I tried not to let it show.
While taking notes on jewelry decorated with precious minerals and boxes of expensive gourmet chocolates, I kept my eyes peeled for a perfect birthday gift for Tomomi. October 5th was only two weeks away, and I wanted to buy something extra-special for my best friend's Sweet 16, all the while trying to play it casual so she wouldn't catch on. Since Tomomi was my shadow in every store we went to and Kenichi wasn't around for me to ask him to distract her, trying to find good present material without it being obvious seemed to be nearly impossible, especially since no stores caught my eye as being relevant to her. By the time we made it to my favorite store for bath products thirty minutes later, I had the feeling that, short of being rude by asking her to go somewhere else so I could look, the chances of both finding a gift and making sure she wasn't around to see it during this shopping trip became slimmer and slimmer.
As I waited in line at the checkout with a paper bag full of bath bombs and scented candles, Tomomi tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey Yumemi, I need to go to the bathroom but I'll be right back. Could you stay around here so I can find you easily, if you don't mind?"
"Oh! Sure, I don't mind at all." Yes! This was the break I was waiting for!
“Cool.  Stay safe, sister from another mister.”  
“Don’t tell me what to do!”  I bickered back.  This was an ongoing inside joke between us.
“Fine, don’t stay safe!  See if Tomomi cares!” Laughing, she posed dramatically, dabbed, and hastily retreated.  Immediately after she broke free from the line, I began looking around for any shops that stood out to me as "Tomomi-friendly". I knew she liked shoes, jazz music and working with wood, so I figured in the mall I could at least get a two out of three. So far we hadn't passed any music or shoe stores, and I craned my neck over the people behind me, ignoring the stares I got as I looked for any nearby store.
"Next in line!"
I whipped my head back to the front of the line. Only one cash register was staffed and there were two people standing in front of me, each with at least twice the amount of products as I had to buy. The time almost seemed to grind to a stop and run backwards as I waited impatiently. Seconds became hours, minutes became years, and Tomomi would most likely be out of the bathroom any minute. Fidgeting until it was my turn, I must have looked like I needed to go to the bathroom myself while I continued searching for stores. Standing on my toes to see past a far-off display case, a pastel-colored sign advertised a BOGO special for a knicknack store I had passed many times before but never actually stepped foot in. Could this have potential?
Four eternities passed until it was finally my turn to pay and, without even checking my receipt, I dashed out the doorless entrance and made a beeline to the unfamiliar store. A tall thin girl with blue dyed, pink streaked wavy hair and a squiggly V-shaped tattoo on her left cheek was restocking motivational cardboard plaques at a display table by the storefront. Upon seeing me as I walked in, she greeted me with a cheery, wide smile and bounced over to where I stood. "Well, he-llo there, darling! How can I help you?"
I paused, taken aback by the young woman's stamina. It took me a while to decipher what she was saying, processing the salad of words spoken with such shrillness and speed, combined with her unusual accent. "Um, do you have─"
"Come on darling, step right in! No need to dilly-dally!" At this point, the girl took my by the wrists and led me inside, hopping and spinning around in circles. She stopped and placed an arm around my shoulder just when I was worried she would crash into and break something. "Tell me what it is you're looking for, darling, and I'll help you find it!"
"A-actually, I'm looking for a birthday gift for a fr─"
"Birthday?" The girl squealed, as if I had spoken the word in a different language altogether. "Let's see, birthday, birthday, birth-day, umm..." She gazed upwards, trying what seemed to be jarring loose a forgotten piece of information. From where I stood I noticed that, on the section of the V tattoo closest to her eye, the squiggly parts I had seen were actually a curly band of ivy emerging from two leaves. She wore a strong-scented perfume, which smelled like after-rain air combined with burning embers. "We have cards for birthdays... are you looking for a card?" Honestly, buying Tomomi a card didn't occur to me in my quest to find her a present, but it definitely wouldn't be inappropriate. Without waiting for a response, the girl pushed me toward a spinning rack of quaintly designed cards for all occasions, then took her place behind the counter. "If you need anything, let me know!"
I broke away from her gaze, but even as I compared cards of ultrafeminine ambiance and farting bulldogs, I could feel her staring at me with her three yard-wide smile, and at that moment I found myself wishing that this expedition in the store for cutesy-poo odds and ends which name I couldn't remember would be over and done with sooner rather than later. Lifting up my head to put one card away and find another one, I noticed two displays hidden in the shadows near the back of the store. I squinted my eyes to get a better look, shuffling closer without straying too far from the rack. Could it be? It was! A pair of shelves stocked with CDs! There had to be at least some jazz for sale, and then I would have a present for Tomomi.
Once I began walking toward the shelf, a piece of lace on my dress's hem caught onto a metal spoke of the rack, holding me in place. I turned around to free myself without ripping the hem when, off in the distance, I saw Tomomi quickly striding the floor. She was definitely trying to look for me, and I witnessed her trying to worm her way through the congested store where I got my bath items. Sighing and staring mournfully at the card in my hand, I knew this was all I could manage, and I headed toward the perky girl with unusual hair to pay. I held out my credit card and stared back at the store across from where I was at, waiting for the girl to take it as I looked for any sign of Tomomi.
"Whoopsie!" Picking up the card to scan it, it fumbled out from the girl's fingers and fell behind the counter. "Let's see, where did I drop that thing?" She mumbled, picking at her head and crouching down to look. Now I was getting anxious. Soon Tomomi would realize I wasn't in the store she was looking through, and if things didn't speed up, the surprise would risk being spoiled. It was unusual for me to shop at a place that mostly sold stationary and small gift bag-sized tchotchkes, and my friends knew it. The fact that I was there would raise the question if I was either trying something new for once or chose to shop there with someone else in mind.
"Here it is, darling!" Almost shouting, the girl snapped me out of my thoughts to hand me back my card. "Would you like a bag?"
"It's fine, no worries. And I don't need a bag," I answered patiently, taking both the credit and birthday card out of her hands at warp speed, putting the one back in my wallet and hiding the other in the bottom of my bag from the bath store as I walked out, barely overhearing the weird cashier girl thank me for my patronage. When I was halfway between both stores, Tomomi had just walked out to see me face-to-face. "There you are," she cried, "I was looking all over for you! Ken texted me just now, and he said he's ready to go when we are." It didn't seem like she noticed where I had been all this time.
"I'm pretty much done here too," I replied. Apparently my cellular must not have been up to game, because I was just now alerted by the text from Ken Tomomi had described. "You?"
Tomomi looked at her watch. "Yeah, it's already almost four. I haven't even started my homework, so I better get going before it's too late." She looked up from the clock on her wrist and gave me a hug. "It was fun hanging out today with you all. The food was great, and I had a good time."
I returned her hug. "Thanks, I had fun too," We linked arms as we walked side-by-side find Ken. "Hook me up next time you're free, okay?" I asked, and Tomomi nodded her consent.
Well, at least I got a card for her.
All was dark that night in Kahoshi City Mall, several hours after stores were closed, doors were locked, and customers and employees alike all were home for the day.  Except for one.
The fact that the true owner of the gift shop was absent for reasons far more complex than sick time off was a secret known by just two; the owner and the one who preyed on her secret fears, pressuring her to prefer anything other than showing up for her parttime that day. Filling her shoes proved to be more complex than the sapphire-haired girl had anticipated, especially when results had at first been less than ideal. But persistence paid off.
An eerie white glow from the computer screen was the only source of light in the entire building as the girl clicked buttons and twirled one of her corkscrew pigtails around her finger. Before her was all the information she gleaned from her customer's credit card she breached after "accidentally" dropping it right next to a scanning device hidden carefully behind the counter.
No one had to tell her how important it was to take care of that girl. No one had to tell her how relevant she was to her mission. To the whole team's mission. In just one person was a well of resources, ripe for exploiting and unknown to many. Probably unknown to that girl herself.
"But not to me."
Her eyes scanned the screen over what she had written one last time, seeking anything that stood out and would give away her façade prematurely. Nothing did. Shutting her eyes, her hand hovered over the "send" key. "My queen..." she sighed, "...everything I do is in your favor." And her finger slammed the key.
Of course. I had to get an alert on my phone right when my hands were covered with soapy dishwater. My mom had already eaten by the time I got home from the mall and, just like most days, I hadn't seen her at all today.  She was already in bed by now, leaving me in the kitchen past midnight by myself.  Unwashed dishes from quite a few moons ago had piled up in the sink with nobody to get around to washing them until now, once I finished fixing myself a simple dinner.  How could two people fill up a sink so quickly?
After rinsing the lathered-up coffee mug in my hands and somehow managing to squeeze it in the overflowing drying rack, I wiped off my hands on the towel hanging from the fridge door handle. It was already 2 am; why on Earth would I be getting messages at this time?
I could see from the popup on my lock screen that it was an email I just got, but I didn't actually read it by the time I had entered my PIN. The screen automatically took me to my inbox, showing me a newsletter from the mall I was just at hours ago. That was weird. I never got emails from them.
Even before the flyer completely loaded, I was getting excited. The subject line beckoned readers with a storewide 75% off midnight flash sale, perking up my proverbial ears. Tomomi's birthday gift was the first thing that came to mind, and considering that one store was already having a buy one, get one free event...
I knew my mom wouldn't object to my excursion if she was sleeping, and it was just going to be a hit-and-run.  I had a clear goal in mind, something I could accomplish much quicker now that I was alone. Abandoning the pile of unwashed dishes in the sink and tiptoeing to the front door, I turned off the lights and snuck out as quietly as I could. Rounding the corner by the porch, I grabbed my dusty old ten-speed bike and launched off down the street ─ the bus wasn't fast enough!
It was a cool day the previous morning, making it an even colder night, and I immediately regretted not bringing a coat.  The energy I burned as I kicked the pedals was my only way of warming up, made moot by the wind slapping my body.  I kept my eyes on the road, too preoccupied to observe the scenery or lights, and before too long I reached my stop.  It was a surprise to see no one else in the mall, even though the lights were all on and I could hear the echos of muzak from outside.  I assumed there were more people in the stores than there were in the walkways, and I pushed my bike behind a solitude of shrubs, greeted by automatic sliding doors.  Running down the aisles, I tried to retrace my steps in pursuit of the unfamiliar store, becoming more and more suspicious as it was made clear that I may have very well been the only customer in the entire mall.
"Augh!" The abrupt crashing sound caught me off guard as lights collectively shut off around me.  My palms instinctively clamped around my ears and I found myself hunched over trembling, heart pounding.  Slowly, I brought myself standing straight, looking frantically for a way out. It was clear there was nothing for me here, and I didn't want to be left alone in the dark, away from home. The faint reflections of streetlights from outside the building poured on the floor, and I sprinted toward the front entrance, but locked doors thwarted me in my escape. Permeating the air behind was a smell.  The smell of rain and burning embers.
"Welcome back, darling."
I turned to the familiar voice behind me, but no one was there. Protruding out of the darkness was a complex figure, a shadow with no owner. Without looking away, I tried again and again to pry open the doors, to no avail. I noticed a switch lock by the door's edge, and even that was frozen still. Not even punching the door's glass window would shatter it open. Where was that girl? Maybe she had keys.
Slowly, silently, the shadow slid toward me, and the person creating it was still nowhere in sight. I tried to scoot away, but it was already pressed tightly against the doors. The long rectangular head of the shadow came closer and closer until, to my shock, it began to rise up, from top to bottom, adopting a three-dimensional quality until standing tall, staring at me with its black face. A dark hand dug into the figure's forehead, unzipping the shadow and casting it aside, revealing none other than the blue-haired girl with the unique tattoo on her face.
Her oblong head turned out to be a tall hat decorated with thick vertical stripes, and her hair was styled in impossibly curly twin tails. She wore a deep purple nehru jacket, decorated with fringed white shoulder pieces, and her knee-length boots and leather hotpants were connected by a garter strap over fishnet stockings. She looked less like she was running a mall shop and more like a ringleader for some nameless circus. Finally, the silence between us was broken.
"So nice of you to come back, Yumemi," the girl mused, pulling tight her white gloves. She carried herself with the enthusiasm as she did before, only with an additional layer of eerie calm. "You showed up faster than I expected. Good for you."
"I-I..." What was going on here? Why was the creepy cashier lady the only other one here? How did she know my name? And that trick with her shadow... "Wh-who are you?"
"Let's save the introductions for afterward. I don't have all night." She cracked her knuckles and stretched her arms behind her head. Suddenly, in one swift motion, she snapped her wrist by her side, and a long riding crop pulled out of her sleeve. "I can tell you have special... shall we say... talents that have never been used. How lonely is that?" The girl's fingertips sprung the riding crop's tongue back and forth. "And so, I traveled long and far on behalf of all to use what you have for our own machinations." Her eyes swept shut. "It's the will of our creator."
I tried to take deep breaths and steady my trembling voice. Finally, trying not to let my fear show, I answered truthfully, "I don't understand what you're saying." Swallowing hard, I added, "What are you talking about?"
The mysterious girl opened her eyes and looked at me solemnly. "Of course," she replied. "I knew you'd say that." Then, bringing down her right arm, her crop snapped at the air below. "Alpha!" She cried in a loud voice, and glittering smoke swirled into being by her side, forming the shape of a large tiger, made of black fire and shining like the stars. I screamed and ducked away as the creature lunged toward me, then shoved the lanky girl aside as I tore down the mall.
The ground beneath me shook as the crop snapped again, and the snarls of the flaming beast grew closer and louder in its pursuit.
"Bring back that girl's power!" came the command from behind. And she didn't need to say anything more.
Arrow left                           
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Getting into the meatier parts of the book now! I didn't mean for this to end up being so long, but I wanted to end the chapter at a good place without it being too short
And the fr e sh a voca do constellation makes her debut   I began to realize just how much I loved her when I started writing this chapter
Thanks for reading!
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