Chapter 1:

Chapter 1: Yamato

Ninjutsu


His conscience occupied the space teetering between wake and slumber. Narrow wisps of air moved in and out of his pursed lips. Countless wax candles crowded the tight perimeter of the square chamber. Beyond the walls, the howling gusts of wind and the deafening murmur of whitecapped tides falling over each other clamored with equal might. Both sounds swelled distantly within the man’s ears, preserving his consciousness. At the same time, the floor’s swaying lulled him into a heavy, drowsy state.Bookmark here

His hair, like raven’s feathers spun into narrow threads, reached the matted floor behind his straight back. The warm, sparse radiance of the room shimmered off the surface of his translucent, pale skin. His calm energy pooled through his still body at a steady crawl, exuding youth, though at the same time, shallow wrinkles tugged at the taut corners of his frown.Bookmark here

The flames quivered, interrupting the calming, dim light and flashing darkness across the man’s expression. He heard a creak, deeper in pitch and closer than any note of ambiance that surrounded him. As if someone had taken an advancing step. A deliberate breath of silence passed before the wooden board groaned again; a weight being cautiously withdrawn. The man crinkled his nose. His frown deepened.Bookmark here

At a decidedly unhurried rate, he rose from the center of the floor and approached the exit to his room. He pulled each of the doors apart at a time to cast his gaze down the vast, unlit hallway. There, he spied nothing apart from rows of wooden pillars supporting the roof on either side. He peered over his shoulder to face the crowd of candles behind him, acting as the only source of light against the crushing darkness. Once he returned his sight toward the endless, amorphous depths, he ventured one foot ahead at a time.Bookmark here

With every intrepid step he took, the comforting light behind him grew dimmer in his peripherals. Icy, tangible blackness gathered around him, glad to take its place. When the candles’ embracing glow faded completely, the man distinguished the set of sliding doors ahead. They chattered within their frames as if just outside, the world was tearing itself apart. Arriving a foot away from their plain, oak surface, he paused. Bookmark here

His hands lifted calmly from his sides, each landing upon one of the doors, and with the same deliberate speed, he drew them apart. The noise crescendoed. Another flash of lightning arched across the churning, overcast expanse above. A deep boom spread through every inch of air. For a moment, its din triumphed over the wind and the waves. The man’s calm sight swept across the scene ahead once again. He spied two wooden masts: one closer to the center of the deck and one further toward the vessel’s bow. Both were homes of vast sail rigs, their panels of crimson cloth folded like an accordion to resemble swooping wings. The breeze screamed into them, pushing the boat further through the gale. Along the sleek, narrow hull, pieced together with sheets of lacquered wood, waves crested over the deck. That added to the rain pouring over the ship painted a layer of sleek wetness across every surface. The wood’s reflection held the image of the cloudy night sky, churning like the waves below. Apart from the lasting storm, the man distinguished nothing else. Nothing that indicated the sound he heard earlier. His nostrils flared as he gave a tired, relieved sigh. The barrage of noise dimmed once more when he snapped the doors shut. Bookmark here

As he turned to face his square chambers again, however, the candle’s warmth only reached him around a towering obtrusion in his path. The amorphous mass stood equally wide as it did tall. Its looming figure appeared to permeate the hall with darkness.Bookmark here

From the depths of the lofty figure, a hulking fist the size and weight of an anvil sprung out. The man instinctively raised his forearm just in time for the punch to land against that instead of his torso. Regardless, the strike’s meteoric impact carried his body into the doors behind him. He burst through them as if its frame contained nothing but paper.Bookmark here

After sailing weightlessly backward across the ship’s wooden deck, the man’s feet reunited with the ground. His heels continued to slide, frictionless across the rain-slick deck. As he arrived at a gradual halt, dozens of feet from the door, he peered through the smashed-open doorframe. A galvanized expression painted his face. Bookmark here

Lightning once again streaked across the night, casting a fleeting, white glare over the entire ship. For a brief moment, a gruesome figure came into view. His face was drawn with rigid, sharp lines. Countless scars wrought his bronze complexion. Hair the color of coal flowed past his elbows, dripping with oil. His sneer was lost amidst a bushy beard that reached past his powerful, square jaw. His body swelled with muscle, filling the loose folds of his tattered, pale blue attire.Bookmark here

The lightning’s radiance started to wane. Darkness once again crept over the atmosphere, inviting a wrought, menacing aura. Through the gathering blackness, the men’s gazes found each other’s. The brutish figure’s square shoulders began to shudder with thinly-suppressed rage. The man opposing him, however, gave a brisk, plain sigh.Bookmark here

“We could have conducted this talk inside where it’s more pleasant. No need to bring me out here, Izumo.” He stated, his volume barely surpassing the gale’s din. Bookmark here

“Spare me your small talk.” Izumo murmured. “You know why I’m here.”Bookmark here

“Enlighten me.”Bookmark here

Izumo thinned his eyes. He focused his fiery gaze into the man’s apathetic face as if trying to burn holes through it. “I didn’t want it to come to this. Both of us know what the right thing to do is, which is why I’m offering you one final chance, Nagato. Surrender your power to me or don’t. You realize which option will doom us all.”Bookmark here

A small look of reproach entered Nagato’s jaded expression, though his gaze remained sharp as knives. “If I were to hand my influence over to you, our people would stand less of a chance as we do now. We would be doomed already.” Bookmark here

From the pits of his lungs, Izumo unleashed a deep, deafening howl. He bounded forth, his gorilla-sized fist aimed squarely at Nagato’s unwavering face. With every approaching, booming footstep, the water enameling the ground lifted in his wake. Bookmark here

When his knuckles landed, the sheer force of the strike pushed back the falling rain, as if drawing an invisible shield of dryness above them. Lightning flashed above the clouds again, illuminating the grin spreading across Izumo’s scruffy face. Bookmark here

“It- it hit!”Bookmark here

However, as he raised his eyes, Izumo saw that his fist landed within Nagato’s open palm. Next, he caught view of his unamused frown. Izumo’s jaw fell open, shattering his haughty grin. Rain resumed falling over them. Darkness took hold of the air again. Bookmark here

“Impossible… my strongest punch, absorbed like it was nothing?”Bookmark here

His jaw clicked shut. He clenched his teeth tightly and emitted a low growl from the back of his throat. The veins running across his meaty neck bulged. Squashing down his surprise, Izumo took an advancing step. With his knuckles still pressed against Nagato’s abdomen, he pushed his arm forward, sending his foe’s body shooting across the room. Bookmark here

Nagato’s feet landed daintily against the surface of the mast behind him without producing a sound. There, he began to race along its surface toward the top, his body weaving around it like a coiling thread. Izumo charged ahead in pursuit, perpendicular along the rig as well. Bookmark here

As they reached the mast’s head, both departed from its surface with a towering leap to enter the air. Weightless, twenty meters above the ship, both Izumo’s boulder-sized fists reeled back. His infernal sight fixed on Nagato before him, occupying the adjacent airspace. He proceeded to unleash a string of rapid-fire hits. Masterfully, Nagato blocked every single punch with a careful sweep or parry, all with his left arm alone. Bookmark here

“Your jealousy has blinded you. If you could see the situation clearly, you would know that I was selected as leader because of my ability to keep us safe.” A note of reasoning entered Nagato’s voice.Bookmark here

“And if not for your hubris, you’d know that the only path to salvation is through sovereignty!”Bookmark here

The longer the two engaged in the airborne trade of attacks, a confused weight pulled on Izumo’s brows. Bookmark here

“Why is Nagato only using one arm? Is he mocking me?” He felt rage flare up hotter within him again until his eye fell upon his foe’s unused arm, hidden partially behind his back. It twisted into an unnatural angle, causing it to resemble a withering tree branch. Calmness washed over Izumo’s conscience. “I see. The punch I landed at the start of this fight dislocated his arm. Hence why he isn’t using it. In that case…” Bookmark here

Amidst his flurry of blows, Izumo swung up his leg, crashing into Nagato’s right arm. When it landed, his face tightened, masking an agonized look. And with his attention drawn away, Izumo succeeded in pulling back his fist and plowing it straight into Nagato’s jaw. Bookmark here

Like a fired bullet, Nagato shot back toward the deck where he tumbled through the smashed-open entrance to the boat. Upon rolling to an eventual halt, he raised himself to his feet, back leaned against a pillar behind him for extra support. With his good hand, Nagato swung his jaw back into place with a bony crunch. A quivering breath blew from his lips, fraught with restrained agony. Bookmark here

“He knew my right arm was injured. A dirty play, but nothing I’m unfamiliar with.” Bookmark here

Nagato’s eyes were spontaneously pulled toward the entrance ahead, guided by an invisible string. There, he watched Izumo racing through the doorway into the corridor as well, erasing the distance between them with a single leap. His brandished fist rocketed toward the center of Nagato’s head. His pulse exploding in his ears, energy sweeping through his body once again, Nagato sprung away.Bookmark here

Izumo’s punch tore through the pillar behind Nagato’s skull, shattering its wood like glass as he darted desperately toward another nearby column. His feet landed against its polished surface. Unrelentingly, Izumo darted to that column next, his fist aimed once more at Nagato’s injured arm. Again, Nagato sprung away. After every second, Nagato landed against another pillar lining the corridor, only to have it demolished a second later by Izumo’s chaotic swings, forcing him to bounce to another. A steady tempo of explosive crashes swelled through the depths of the chamber. Bookmark here

“He’s ruthless…” Nagato’s conscience swam. “He’s relying on pure strength and brutality to secure a victory. Not to mention my strength is waning due to the pain in my arm. And if one of his punches manages to reach there, there’s no knowing the sort of damage it could inflict. There is no question. I must act.” Bookmark here

Nagato paused as he landed against one of the pillars. His eyes saw into those of his foe, rapidly closing in. As Izumo’s fist tore through the wood, however, Nagato didn’t spring away. Instead, he watched as shards of varnished wood scattered across his vision, Nagato’s body nowhere in sight. Bookmark here

“Wh-what?” Izumo obtained a panicked look. He pulled back his fist and swept his gaze across the interior of the hallway. “He vanished...” His teeth clenched further together until his gums practically flashed white. His eyebrows knit over his flaming gaze. Bookmark here

“Hiding!?” Izumo howled into the indifferent reaches of the chamber. “How typical. You think your running and hiding is a match for me? We’re a breed unlike anyone else, Nagato. That’s why we should hide from no one. There’s no reason to. Not when we have power over the entire world. All bow before the mighty. And so shall you.” Izumo’s only answer came in the form of his echoing voice, prompting him to continue. “You think just because your tricks and deception lie at the heart of Ninjutsu, it makes you worthy to lead? I disagree. Hundreds of others disagreed until you decided to silence them. No longer shall my people bend to your ways. Might makes right and I shall make it so.” Bookmark here

A soft slithering noise caught Izumo’s ear. He spun his head to the side and watched as the doors to Nagato’s chambers at the end of the hall slid open. From them, Nagato exited at a casual stroll. Izumo blinked his eyes, puzzled more than anything else. Bookmark here

“My apologies for pausing this conflict. I needed to heal my arm.” Nagato uttered plainly. Izumo saw the arm in question. Acupuncture needles protruded from his bare shoulder, their hair-like width barely visible in the candlelight spilling from the room behind him. “It shall be close to better by now. I apologize again but I see no shame in running from a fight as long as you eventually rise to the occasion and finish it. Now, shall we resume?”Bookmark here

Izumo’s bewilderment was supplanted with quivering rage. The look he flaunted moments ago resumed. “Why you...” Bookmark here

With the same bull-like charge, Izumo zeroed in on Nagato. His arm wound back, priming another punch. Bookmark here

The acupuncture needles protruding from Nagato’s skin leapt free like the quills of a porcupine. They landed against every surrounding wall with many piercing Izumo’s face. Although his roar jumped in pitch, becoming an agonized shriek, he continued his approach. And when he entered Nagato’s range, he unleashed his blind swing. Bookmark here

The hit landed square against Nagato’s cheek with the noise of a gunshot. The impact caused the surrounding candles to flutter. Rather than his enemy shooting back as he was expecting, Izumo instead felt a ripple race through the fibers of his extended arm. The wave spread to the rest of his body, quaking his entire being. Nagato’s face, hidden halfway behind the rock-sized fist, met Izumo’s washed look of terror with one of pure indifference. Bookmark here

“He didn’t even flinch! Let alone block!” Izumo’s hanging-open jaw quaked. “He didn’t need to. Not when his face alone absorbed the whole impact! But... how?” Bookmark here

That was when Izumo saw it: the vivid, scarlet glow painted across Nagato’s irises, like a halo of blood surrounding his pupils. Once he noticed that hue, Izumo began to feel the endless power wafting off his opponent, like licks of pure flame. Bookmark here

“Might makes right, you say?” Nagato whispered. His dislocated arm snapped back into place with a casual roll of his shoulder. Wave after wave of terror shot through Izumo like lightning as he watched Nagato raise his hand toward the center of his head and curl his index into his palm. “Then I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your philosophy."Bookmark here

Nagato’s finger landed against the center of Izumo’s brow. With that simple flick, his eyes rolled to the back of his skull. As though the strings keeping his body aloft had been snipped, he crumpled to the ground in a pile by Nagato’s feet. An earth-shattering thud ran throughout the walls.Bookmark here

Nagato released his sighing breath. The vermillion glow faded from his vision. He fixed his default, solemn gaze over Izumo’s unconscious body at his feet without an ounce of triumph entering his expression.Bookmark here

“What’s going on?” A deep, bellowing voice called. Nagato lifted his gaze to watch a tall, wide-framed man emerge from the surrounding depths to burst onto the scene. His eyes, sitting beneath a pair of bushy, low-set brows, widened on the fallen behemoth underneath Nagato. “Is- is this Izumo?” He murmured, sinking to one knee beside him.Bookmark here

“Indeed, Tanba.” Answered Nagato. “Unknown to me, Izumo stowed himself aboard this vessel and hid until making an attempt on my life tonight.”Bookmark here

“How on earth did you defeat him? Izumo is one of the greatest warriors to emerge from both Iga and Kōga. His speed and power are said to be unmatched.” Tanba muttered.Bookmark here

“With ‘speed and power’ alone comes impulse and impatience. Any on-par or even sub-par opponent can read him easily knowing that.”Bookmark here

“This only creates more problems. What are we supposed to do now? We cannot turn back and deliver him to Japan where he belongs. We’d be killed for sure if we did that.” Tanba held his square chin between his fingers.Bookmark here

“We also cannot risk bringing him to whatever new land we discover. Otherwise we run the risk of history repeating itself.” Nagato frowned.Bookmark here

“The council may want him executed.” Tanba suggested.Bookmark here

“That is a possibility. But would the fortuneteller abide?”Bookmark here

Tanba gave a frustrated grunt. “Good point…” Bookmark here

“Until the fortuneteller determines a new path, we shall keep him sedated and wait to strike new land. In the meantime, let us focus on our common goal. Is the ship still westbound?”Bookmark here

“It is.” Replied Tanba. He paused to scoff incredulously. “But I doubt there’s any land to find out here...” Bookmark here

Nagato obtained a sudden look of seriousness. “All we can do is hope. The future of our people and the perseverance of Ninjutsu all depend on it.” Bookmark here

~~~Bookmark here

February 22Bookmark here

Present DayBookmark here

She screamed.Bookmark here

Her voice sprung from her lungs as the top of her sneakers scraped against the uppermost step leading down into the subway station. As the bustling business sector of Los Angeles moved about its day, traversing the stairs as per usual, the girl’s center of gravity took an involuntary lurch forward. From there, both of her feet lost contact with the ground, thus initiating her long, tumbling descent.Bookmark here

Luckily, that mortifying yelp alerted enough people to clear the way as she began to topple down the steps like a tangled slinky. However, one man in a pinstripe suit didn’t share that same fortune. As he caught sight of her approaching, it was already much too late.Bookmark here

Crashing into him with all her downward momentum, the man was helplessly caught in the inertia of her fall, joining the girl in her plummet. The two rolled like boulders down a mountain until their bruised and bludgeoned bodies reached the foot of the steps.Bookmark here

An air of silence followed the bombastic thump as they both landed at the bottom. A moment passed, and then the man in the suit let out an agonized moan. Bookmark here

“Oh my gosh!” The girl cried, springing to her feet and clasping her hands over her mouth. “I am so sorry!” She looked at the tiled floor where the poor man’s belongings lay scattered. “Here, let me help you with your things!”Bookmark here

As he got to his feet, cracking out his sore limbs, she took to the floor, sweeping up the man’s black briefcase, her own brown messenger bag, and an incriminating bouquet of yellow flowers. She stuffed the case and flowers into his hands and for good measure, quickly straightened out his ensemble, repositioning his round spectacles and tightening his necktie. After that, she licked both of her palms and reached out, ready to mash the stranger’s tussled hair flat. Bookmark here

“Enough! Don’t touch me!” The man snapped, swatting the girl’s hand away. His eyes fell upon the flowers nervously. Air escaped his nostrils. “Look, kid, I’m not supposed to be here. Ten bucks and you didn’t see me. Deal?”Bookmark here

“Nah, it’s ok! I’m in a bit of a hurry!” The girl refusingly held out her hands. Bookmark here

“No, no, I insist.” With that, his hand slipped into the pocket of his coat to retrieve his wallet. At the same time, the girl retreated a subtle inch. A nervous scowl secretly tugged on one corner of her mouth. Bookmark here

The man rummaged through his pockets for a while, his brow lowering after each second. “Hey, wait a second, where’s my wal-” He paused, raised his eyes, and stared straight ahead where the girl no longer stood in front of him. Instead, he watched as she plodded away through the sea of heads crowding the station, her hands stuffed down her pockets and her hood raised over her head. Bookmark here

“Stop!” He shouted, dropping both his briefcase and flowers. His eyes bulged from his skull. “Stop that thief!”Bookmark here

The girl’s subtle, brisk stroll evolved into a sprint. She slipped in and out between the numerous pedestrians crowding her path, as behind her, the man gave chase. When she peered back to check on him, she watched him push over and run into several other people just to inch forward at all. Bookmark here

“This guy’s tough.” She thought. “Instead of needing to sneak past people, he’s just knocking them over! This could be tricky. I dunno if I can keep going at this rate if he’s gonna gain on me like this.” Bookmark here

She veered left, turning to follow the foot traffic toward one of the subway platforms. After leaping over the bar guard, she arrived just as the train pulled in and opened its doors. The thief burrowed her way through the barrier of bodies and grabbed a seat inside.Bookmark here

Just when she prepared to release a relieved sigh, in stumbled the man. His face glowed red and his heavy breath sounded loudly. He swung his head from side to side, scanning the train for the assailant. Inconspicuously, the girl moseyed out of her seat and down to the contiguous subway car.Bookmark here

“Hey!” He shrieked, pointing his trembling finger right at the thief. “Stop that girl! She stole my wallet!”Bookmark here

Before he could run up and nab her, she threw open the door leading to the next subway car, slithered inside, and slammed it shut. The girl then swiped the umbrella from a passenger sleeping next to her and lodged it underneath the handle. After approaching the door, the man attempted to force it open. The umbrella wedged underneath rattled as it held firm against his strength. He at last retreated his hand. A grunting, fiery breath blew from his nostrils. Bookmark here

The girl felt the ground lurch forward as the wheels beneath the train spun to life. Beyond the window, she watched the scene outside begin to pass them by. Bookmark here

For the whole duration of the ride, the man practically glued himself to the door. His sweat-slicked palms adhered to the window. His angry breath fogged up the glass. On the opposite side of the door within the other car, the girl deliberately evaded his lingering gaze as long as she humanly could. Pretending not to notice him, she absently studied the ceiling. Despite her innocent expression, guilty beads of sweat formed across the back of her neck. The minutes dragged on painfully. Bookmark here

As the shrill noise of the brakes underneath reached the inside of the car, she made a break toward the exit. The man darted toward the exit of his respective car. Sweat pouring down his face, he burst onto the platform. There, he passed his wild gaze up and down the sea of heads. Amidst the crowds filing on and off the train, he failed to find the shaggy, black bobbed hair, deep skin, or dark, mischievous eyes of the pickpocket. Bookmark here

A hiss permeated the air to his left. He glanced to the side, watching the doors of the subway slide shut. And who else did he find peering back at him through the window but the girl herself. A smug grin stretched across her face. Anger, like bouts of magma, washed through the man. Bookmark here

“She- she pretended to run to the exit so she could lure me out! That cheeky little…” Bookmark here

His face slammed against the window where she flaunted her leer. The train started to chug forward. As she watched her prey run to keep up with her, the girl feigned a tired yawn and eyed her wrist. Bookmark here

“My, my, would you look at the time?” He heard her speak through the window. “I’d love to keep up our little jog, but I got places to be. Thanks for dinner, amigo! Adios!” She aimed the face of the golden watch donned over her wrist through the window. Bookmark here

As the train hit speeds too fast for the man to keep up with, he fell to his knees in exhaustion. His desperate gaze continued to follow the subway until it passed into the tunnel ahead, vanishing from sight. The man reached up with both hands and gathered tight handfuls of his hair. Bookmark here

“Oh, come on!” He bawled. “Not my Rolex too!”Bookmark here

Facing the window still, watching the lights inside the tunnel zip by like stars against the night sky, the girl sighed, reclaiming some of her tired breath. She then began down the aisle of the uncaring car toward an open seat at the opposite end. Toward the center, however, she spied another man. A crisp business suit hugged his form. In one hand, he held the ceiling-mounted rail to steady himself. With the other, he carried a paper cup of coffee. His matte eyes sat half-open, swimming with drowsiness. She sharpened her gaze on the man for a split second before altering her course. Bookmark here

The girl’s elbow nudged into his hand as she passed him, tilting his coffee toward his chest. Black, steamy liquid poured from the cup, immediately drenching his silk blazer. The man began to hiss from his gritted teeth in pain while the girl cupped her face with her hands in surprise. Bookmark here

“Oh my gosh! I am so sorry!” In her voice, echoing with apology, she attempted to mask her snicker. She accepted the coffee from the man while helping him out of his soaking blazer, not before sneaking her hand into his chest-mounted pocket and pulling out his snakeskin wallet. “Let me help you with that…” Bookmark here

~~~Bookmark here

“Atlantic/Hubbard.” An automated voice whispered from the speakers overhead, coupled with the not as pleasant screech of the brakes underneath. The girl felt her weight bow forward as the bus reached its clumsy halt. Once all movement ceased, she rose from her fabric chair. She paused to dust off the seat of her pants and sling her bag over her shoulder before strolling down the empty aisles toward the front. Her sneakers smacked against the adhesive floor of the bus. Bookmark here

As soon as her foot emerged from the doors, the humid air wrapped around her like a heavy fleece blanket. She paused on the corner to breathe in the temperature. Her eyes passed over her surroundings. Streetlamps cast their revealing, pale glare against the wide boulevard, lined with rows of palm trees and a plethora of adobe-style buildings, none exceeding three stories. Bookmark here

Across the street from where the bus had left her, an LED-lit sign added its glare to the streetlights and store signs, uniting to weaken the night’s darkness. “McBurger’s” she read as she approached the establishment. Bookmark here

Pushing open the door and stepping within, the girl breathed in the scent of pure starch and listened to the deep fryers bubbling away. The line at the counter consisted only of a yellow plastic mop bucket. Bookmark here

“Good evening, Ren.” Sighed the unenthusiastic cashier.Bookmark here

“Hi, Hank. How the hell are ya?” Ren met his lukewarm greeting with a cheerful beam. She bounced toward the register and slid the water bucket out of her way with her foot.Bookmark here

“I assume you’ll be enjoying the usual tonight: Triple McHam, a large soda, and an order of nuggets.” Hank recited. Bookmark here

“All that but give me those apple dippers instead of the nuggets. Trying to watch my figure.” Ren patted her hands against her hips. Bookmark here

The buttons lining the register clacked indifferently beneath his finger. “You know, if you were really watching your figure, you wouldn’t be mega-sizing everything. You might not even be half as broke.”Bookmark here

“Hey, now, I didn’t say I want that order mega-sized.” Ren knit her brow, offense ringing throughout her voice.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry. Would you like that order planet-sized?”Bookmark here

Ren cleared her throat into her closed fist and awkwardly sunk her eyes to the floor. “Yes…” She muttered under her breath.Bookmark here

“Seven ninety-nine.” Bookmark here

Ren pulled out a five-dollar bill, folded it twice over, leaned across the counter, and slipped it in the boy’s shirt pocket.Bookmark here

“How about now?” She winked.Bookmark here

“Two ninety-nine.” His voice resonated with the opposite of amusement. Bookmark here

“C’mon, Henry, gimme a break! That guy’s Rolex was fake, my stomach feels like it’s eating itself, and if I don’t pay off Missy Martinez by the end of this week-”Bookmark here

“Alright, look,” He hissed, cutting Ren’s pleas silent. Hank leaned forward, drawing his cratery face nearer to hers. “You’ve made a name for yourself out there. People are calling you the Incognito Bandito. How do I know? Because all of their stories involve the same half-Latina half-Japanese teenage girl wearing the same dark hoodie with the same black bangs ruffing them up and robbing them blind.” Hank’s eyes glanced up at the glass bubble mounted on the ceiling encasing the surveillance camera. “I’m already on probation here, so if my manager finds out I’m serving you, I’ll be fired before you can say ‘old family recipe.’ Now, I can give you a water cup and pretend I don’t see you fill it up with soda if you agree to get the hell out of this place and stay the hell out. Deal?”Bookmark here

Ren puffed up her cheeks and exhaled sadly. “Deal. I will always miss the teriyaki nugget sauce, though.”Bookmark here

“You ordered apples, remember?”Bookmark here

“Damn, I forgot about that. Fantástico.”Bookmark here

“Here you go.” Hank said, placing the brown, paper bag of grub on the counter, already suspiciously assembled. “Now promise me you’ll never take another step near this establishment. Alright?”Bookmark here

Ren gave a thumbs up and a confirming click of the tongue. After standing on her tiptoes to reach the bag, she approached the drink machine toward the corner of the restaurant. Bookmark here

She exited, bag of food in tow, rejoining the dim night outside. A tragic sigh blew from her nostrils. Taking slow, plodding steps, she began along the perimeter of the McBurger’s, approaching its rear. Bookmark here

“I promised Hank I wouldn’t come here anymore.” She thought to herself. “Guess that’s too bad. For him.” Bookmark here

When she arrived the back of the store where the sign’s flashing light failed to reach, Ren placed the hem of her paper grocery bag in-between her teeth. With her hands free, she began to climb to the top of the McBurger’s rooftop one grimy, metal ladder rung after another. Once she reached the last step, her leg swung over the ledge to help hoist the rest of her body up.Bookmark here

“Home sweet home.”Bookmark here

Awaiting her that night, like all other nights before, she saw her makeshift abode. A few empty ketchup crates nailed together to construct walls. Warbly sheets of metal lay atop the haphazard structure to form a roof. Ren peered at the shelter, ushering a smile onto her face. Bookmark here

“Might not look like much, but it’s all I need: a corner to sleep, another corner to eat, a leaky broken pipe that’s a great source of water if I don’t feel like using the gym’s shower, it even has a window! As a matter of fact, it’s over seventy percent window.” Bookmark here

Ren sat against her “dining room” wall and ripped open the bag containing her supper, all while overlooking the greasy streets below. As she unwrapped her sandwich, Ren noticed the for-lease sign on the small, street-level, two-story building across the boulevard no longer there. The only reason why she’d noticed the sign in the first place was because of the building. It was unlike the oppressive, multi-story brick complexes neighboring it on either side. Instead, it was a simple, humble wooden structure, completely lacking in graffiti or broken windows, painted an obnoxious shade of yellow.Bookmark here

As Ren peered at the building, she noticed that not only was the sign in the wide display windows absent, but a moving truck was parked a couple spaces away. The back hatch was open and there were hints of movement coming from within. Ren munched on her sour apple slices, plastered in rubbery caramel, and watched with intent. Bookmark here

Emerging from the back of the truck came a woman carrying two large cardboard boxes with a white, paper sign resting on top. A pink tee-shirt and denim skirt wrapped around her awkward proportions. Her hair resembled a tangled mess of noodles on top of her head. The heavy load the woman carried comically juxtaposed her lanky figure. Bookmark here

“For as long as I can remember, East LA’s been my home, but I’ve never seen anyone pass through here quite like her. It’s like that misfit woman and that misfit building are made for each other.” Ren thought, sipping on her soda. Bookmark here

The woman placed her boxes right next to the front door, held her hips in her hands, cracked her back loudly, and picked up the paper sign off the tops of the crates. She slapped the sign on the storefront window before unlocking the oak door and entering. The words on the poster were far away, forcing Ren to squint in order to see them. Using her prior experience of scrutinizing street signs, store names, and nutrition facts on food wrappers, she was able to read: “Coming soon: Juniper’s Antique Boutique.” Bookmark here

Ren’s straw started to make noise, indicating her drink was empty. She peered at the cup, rattled it around to listen for any drink still left at the bottom before shrugging and tossing it aside. Bookmark here

“Enough of that for now. Time to focus on what’s really important:” She shifted her gaze back toward her meal and ran her tongue across her chops. “My appetite.” Bookmark here

~~~Bookmark here

The sun returned to its full strength that following morning. Ren kept her eyes at half-width against its glare as she approached the glass doors of the convenience store. Before she entered, they slid apart to make way for one exiting customer. Ren’s eyes shot from the cup of coffee in his hands down to examine his sneakers’ hanging laces.Bookmark here

“Your shoe’s untied.” She uttered to the man as he walked past her. He paused immediately to drop his gaze. In that instant, Ren slipped her hand secretly into his back pocket. Bookmark here

“Bingo…” She thought, smiling down at his stolen wallet held secretly near to her chest, continuing toward the store. Bookmark here

When she entered, she started on a path straight toward the register. She grabbed a family-sized bag of chips off a shelf along her path before entering the queue behind one teenage boy, his age appearing to be the same as hers. Ren peered around his shoulder to watch him set a breakfast burrito down in front of the clerk. He then retrieved a card from his wallet and tapped it against the reader. There was a soft, confirming beep. Without a word, the clerk nodded the boy away. Ren’s astonished eyes followed him as he exited the store, breakfast burrito in hand and the card he used to pay pinched between the cracks of his fingers. Across its plastic surface, she spotted no numbers, nor text. Just the simple depiction of a pink, heart-shaped coat of arms. Bookmark here

“That’s weird. That didn’t look like a credit card.” Bookmark here

Pushing her curiosity aside, Ren crossed the remaining distance toward the counter. She placed her bag against its surface which the clerk quickly scanned. Bookmark here

“Four ninety-nine.” Bookmark here

Ren opened the wallet, held it above the counter, turned it over, and spilled exactly three pennies onto the surface. They rained with small, pathetic clacks. She and the clerk met eyes for the first time. Ren chuckled shyly. Bookmark here

“It’s buy one get one free, right? Can we forget about that first part?”Bookmark here

“I can’t spot you for this one.” The clerk puckered her mouth to the side and shook her head disapprovingly. Bookmark here

“But that last guy, he didn’t have to fork over a dime!” She cried accusingly. Bookmark here

“Oh, so you have a M.E.S.H. Card I can swipe?” Bookmark here

“A M.E.S.H. Card?” Ren pondered aloud. Bookmark here

“Yeah, a Meal Exchange Services for High school card. Every incoming freshman is eligible for one now.” She eyed Ren’s grungy, thrown-together appearance up and down. “You go to school, right?” Bookmark here

“Yeah, of course I do.” Bookmark here

“Really?” The clerk’s tone obtained a skeptical edge. “Then where are your books?” Bookmark here

“I…” Ren’s gaze drifted off to the side contemplatively. “I left them at home. I’ll be right back…” Bookmark here

With that, she hastily scooped the pennies off the counter and into her awaiting palm. As she strolled briskly out of the store, bursting onto the sidewalk outside, Ren immediately pinched the bottom of her chin in thought. Her gaze studied the floor as if her answers were written across the concrete sidewalk. Bookmark here

“M.E.S.H. Cards, huh? That almost seems too good to be true.” She brainstormed. “No matter how much cash I swipe, it’ll always run out, but if I could just get my hands on some of those cards, I’d be living on easy street! I’d just need to pop in and get food whenever I please! But how…?” She remembered the clerk’s gaze, sizzling with accusation. “She saw right through me. Without books, I’ll never pass as a high schooler.” Bookmark here

Ren ceased her urgent stride when from the corner of her eye, she spied something. Lifting her gaze, she scoped out the scene ahead. Bookmark here

The same sidewalk Ren once remembered as crowded with towering cardboard boxes was clear. All had moved inside the glass doors of the dandelion-colored shop. The moving truck was gone as well. The large, familiar sign reading “Juniper’s Antique Boutique” lay vertically against the vast windows. Through which, Ren found colossal stacks of books proudly on display. Bookmark here

“Books! Jackpot!” A suspicious grin came to Ren’s face. She slowly drew her black hood over her head and crept toward the shop. Bookmark here

When she cautiously pushed open the front door, a small brass bell hanging over it chimed lightly. Instantly, she was greeted with the smell of musk, sawdust, and old book pages. Bookmark here

“Are you the person I hired to help me unpack?” The woman, whom Ren assumed was named Juniper based off the sign, shouted from the back, though she herself remained unseen. Ren opened her mouth to answer, but instead, Juniper continued. “Great! You can start with the books. I took care of the heavy-hitters already.” Bookmark here

Ren looked down at the nearest open box to find it filled to the brim with tan-colored pages and thick hardcovers. The aroma of ink and paper wafted toward her. Her fingers twitching with anticipation, Ren pulled up her bandana and reached for the stockpile of novels.Bookmark here

Ninjutsu


LWhit
Author:
Bookmarked
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