Chapter 5:

"Girl of Steel"


Another day of playing hooky. I saunter out of the station, back out onto the sidewalk, the wind whipping at my jacket as I bask in the freedom. I light a cheap Chinese cigarette; smoke trails behind me. I head down avenues, pushing past convenience stores and restaurants and retailers. It’s all too mundane; I imagine banditos leering at me from the alleyways, desperados on the rooftops, kilted highlander regiments plotting to ambush me. I raise my finger guns and fire and fire and fire.

I stop for a moment. I accidentally fired at a person - the school’s lonesome foreigner simply known as Turner the American. Though he's my age, he walks like a man with one of those thousand yard stares gained from the recent fighting in the deserts of Iraq or mountains of northern Mexico or something, a man haunted and hunched over. It’s like he’s actually seen war, but war is where mettle is proven, not where men are broken. Hell, when I fired my finger gun at him, his eyes widened like he had actually been shot.

But he hasn’t, so he returns to his path of longing and trudges toward the nearest train station for school.

I put the incident behind me. I walk toward nowhere in particular, winding my way through the streets and alleyways. I know San-Machi like the back of my hand - the rhythmic clang of pistons in the cold fusion factories sound off deep within the darkness towards the core of Shikishima, while smoke is funneled out through long pipes and belched out over the Minami Port District, home to lurid tales of gun runners and drug smugglers. Long warehouses line the streets here while cranes haul crates off of freighters. Somebody, probably a bum, is playing the blues on a squeaky saxophone somewhere in the alleyway - and they say being a bum is a bad life!

I leave the wharfs of Minami and head up a winding road filled with apartment complexes. Closer to the sea, these apartments are quite unlike my own in the undercity - they get sunlight and the people here consist of happy families with normal problems. Take this for instance:

As I round a corner, I see a group of four kids my own age sprint down the street, high-rises and powerlines and sun rising behind them.

The executive council of the History Club - since I’m a member of the HRC (joining a club is mandatory in Shikishima, not that I ever plan on attending), I suppose they’re my arch-rivals - comes sprinting past. The first member, the stoic Yasuda “the Wrath” Junko, sprints past me with robotic, well-trained motions, her breathing steady and eyes focused. She’s a good ten seconds ahead of the rest of her club.

“We’re gonna be late!” President Miyata Miyuki exclaims, though she sounds more excited than alarmed by the situation. She bounds past me with her long legs.

Up next is a fat kid running with arms held out behind him, wheezing hard, spittle flying from his mouth, and I decide I’ve seen enough of these kids with their shenanigans and easy lifestyles. I’m about to turn and cut through a park when the last member of the History Club finally arrives. He’s huffing and puffing and sweating profusely. His dark hair and fish eyes give him away as Hayashi Hanzo, who, if I remember right, is a loser. He’s not doing himself any favors here as he looks at me, studying me, as if determining if I’m worth the effort of impressing.

Hanzo sees me, chuckles, and makes no extra effort to impress me. In fact, he looks at the power lines, as if finding them more interesting than me.

Well, screw him too.

I got another six hours to kill. I buy bread and toss bread at the ducks who still live in the murky man-made rivers that ooze through San-Machi. I buy more Chinese cigarettes from kobanis who don’t care and spend a good amount of time writing a message on each. I head back to Minami Port and search for the blues player, but he eludes my best efforts. I stand in a plaza at just the right angle to see the giant screen up in Ichi-Machi. I stand in a park at just the right elevation to see the waves of the Pacific Ocean lap at the docks and disappear into the fathoms below Shikishima.

Sooner or later, it ends up being time to do something. I actually got an appointment for today, but not until the schools let out in the afternoon. I stroll over to the San-Machi Southeastern Mall, where the first of the earliest students and salarymen are arriving to hit the restaurants, arcades, and pachinko parlors. One of the corridors in the mall drops me up a slope - a service parking lot now rarely used.

At the edge of the lot, a low brick wall lines the lot, separating it from a ten feet drop down into the mall below. Crates line the brick wall; delinquents from the Senko biker gang lounge around. I know them because Nii-chan and I used to run with them. He turned straight and joined the Hantei; I found the Senko too uncivilized. Violence is nothing without meaning behind it.

I see two girls and three boys, all of them I know unfortunately too well. The local leader, Hair-Trigger Haruki, crouches in a Slav squat, a commissar's cap adorning his pompadour, a long blade of grass hanging from his mouth. Gumball Toshiko with her red tail up in a ponytail leans against a rusted crate, eyeing me as I approach. The other members who aren’t worth remembering sense the rising tension and move their attention from their motorcycles to me.

“You showed up,” Gumball Toshiko says in mock disbelief. She removes her scarf and overcoat, looking to fight in just her white undershirt for the extra mobility. I keep my jacket on - I want to make things fair for her.

“You’re the one who challenged me,” I remind her with a grin. “As the toughest girl in San-Machi, how could I refuse?”

Toshiki grins and the usual smacking sound of a gum bubble echoes the lot. “Showing up alone though. There’s five of us and one of you. We could string you up right now, toss you down to the mall, and let the world know that Mizutami Sumiko is human, too.”

“Never claimed to be anything but. And besides, everyone here knows I’d still win that fight. Isn’t that right?”

I direct my gaze at the extras, who quickly agree and shift their attention back to the motorcycles. To their credit, both Haruki and Toshiko stand their ground.

“Good luck, fellas,” Haruki says with a grin as he opens a can of Laotian soda, enjoying his front-row seat to the fight of the century. Toshiki spits out her gum and puts up her dukes. I raise my own fists; the breeze blows a brown plastic shopping back between us. Everything quiets down.

She’s taller than me, wider than me, thicker than me, but none of that matters against me.

Haruki snaps his fingers and Toshiko begins her attack.

I’m smiling as she winds up a fist that would’ve taken my head clean off, but I sidestep it. She turns right and swings a haymaker, but I’m backpedaling now. I’m bobbing and weaving, because footwork is very important, the way every part of the body works in tandem, keeping your breathing steady, because the punches are flying and she’s screaming and the extras are cheering while Haruki sips from his soda and the bum with the saxophone is playing somewhere down below, the jazz rising like wind.

I stop the backpedaling and land a solid blow to her stomach; Toshiko grunts and ignores the pain and tries to blow my jaw off. More movement, sneakers against pavement, and I find myself laughing, because I'm well and truly alive now. That makes Toshiko angry and throw an off-balanced punch; I raise an arm and block it, the physical contact sending a shuddering, pleasant feeling through my whole body. I deliver a jab to the windpipe and then an uppercut to the bottom of her jaw.

Toshiki stumbles back and regains her balance by snapping her head down, right into the path of my fist. Her nose cracks so she slides away to create some distance between us. She wipes away the blood; crimson stains the pavement; it’s honestly quite beautiful.

Haruki’s frowning now. Toshiko cracks her neck and lumbers toward me. We circle each other like sharks or tigers or perhaps even boxers. I’m right where I want to be.

You see - I can’t lose. I won’t allow it. I will never give in, never admit defeat. I believe in one thing only - the power of human will. Some people tell me I just don’t know when to give up.

Toshiko goes high, like she always does, so I lean down and swipe out her legs. As she tumbles, I spin and deliver a roundhouse kick across her jaw. She goes flying, rolling across the asphalt, arriving right at the shoes of a dumbstruck Haruki. There are circles spinning in her eyes; she’s done fighting.

The extras cough awkwardly and decide their motorcycles need a good shining. Hair-Trigger Haruki stands and steps over Toshiko with his hands in his pockets. When he removes them, he flicks open a switchblade.

“What, you think you’re too good for the Senko?” he barks at me, waving the switchblade with a theatrical flair.

I shrug. “I do. I heard you guys are sellouts, trading away your home turf to join up with the Hiroi-kai.”

Haruki frowns. “The Hiroi-kai are planning big things. You always complained about us not having a purpose, and now that the Senko has one, you call us sellouts?”

“Senko had chivalry. They wouldn’t fight an unarmed woman with a switchblade.”

Haruki smirks. “Times are changing-”

A man in a long leather coat stops him. I’m not sure how he got here, or when he arrived, but even I can acknowledge his imposing presence. He’s early-twenties, maybe, with black hair curling wildly down to his shoulders, light stubble on his chin. There’s a black greatcoat draped across his shoulders; he’s neglected to put his arms into the sleeves.

“My apologies, Sumiko,” the man says. “That’s not how members of my Hiroi-kai fight. At least, not without my permission.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Your Hiroi-kai?”

He tightens his grip around Haruki’s arm. “You can call me Ren. The Hiroi-kai’s mine. I built it from the ground up. A union of the city’s gangs and delinquents.”

Ren tosses Haruki’s arm away. The delinquent grimaces in pain and stumbles off to help Toshiko to her feet.

“You should join us,” Ren offers in a carefree tone. “A woman of your talents would find plenty of opportunities.”

Something in the way he speaks amuses me. “What kind of opportunities?”

“Whatever you so desire.” He raises a hand. “Money, power, you name it.”

I stretch my arms and yawn, the rush of adrenaline now fading from me. “Eh, I’ll sleep on it. There’s only one thing I want and this offer doesn’t include it.”

Ren doesn’t look too perturbed. “We’ll meet again, Sumiko.”

I place my arms behind my head and depart the old lot. I descend into the mall, continuing to fade away, until I return to the spot that offers a view of the ocean. Out at sea, the waves move gently. I can’t help but sigh.

I suppose the issue is that I haven’t met my match yet. I’ve been waiting for years, but nobody has managed to kill me. It’s tough when you’re ready to die but it just ain’t happening.

The temporary pleasure from the fight disappears and I return to my usual detached, slightly amused self, the skin-encapsulated ego that has readied itself for the end, the body which, in its beautiful prime, will die a beautiful death. But death’s not coming, so I watch the waves lap at the distant shore and wonder what it’s like on the other side of the water. 

Steward McOy