“I am a regular girl,” I whispered. It felt silly, speaking aloud in an empty bathroom in an empty house.
“A regular human girl,” I revised, meeting my own eyes in the mirror. I certainly looked human. That was all most people cared about. I hoped it was enough; everything depended on today, depended on my ability to pass myself off as human. And where would I end up if I failed? There was no way to know for sure. It didn’t really matter–if I failed, Klea would be angry, and there was no safe place for that. In the mirror I saw my bottom lip begin to quiver and I closed my teeth on it, the sharp sting stilling the tremor.
My eyes still looked too wide–afraid. Would a kid notice something like that? Surely not . . . Besides, I had plenty of reasons to be afraid. New country, new home, new school.
It was time.
I grabbed my pre-packed lunch from the fridge and dropped it into my backpack, pausing in the front room to touch the delicate petals of a white egret orchid that stood on a short table by my front door. It was one of the few things I’d brought with me from Japan, carrying it on my lap like an organic security blanket. The delicate-looking blossom was firm and smelled sweet, even though its short blooming season was past.
Green thumb, I joked to myself, giving the orchid one last pat before walking through the doorway.
I pulled the door shut behind me and locked it. A useless gesture; not only did I live in the smallest house on the block, there was nothing of worth inside. At least nothing that would be useful to a human thief. They wouldn’t be interested in my plants, and even the small television Klea let me have would hardly be worth the trouble.
No, the most valuable thing in the house left with me.
But it wasn’t the time to think about that.
It was time to be human.
I threw a leg over my bike and pedaled, enjoying the cool air on my face. I was glad Klea had decided not to escort me to my first day of school. We’d toured the building together with the counselor last week, but yesterday Klea had driven away and left me alone at the house with assurances that I could handle the first day on my own.
And I would.
My confidence wavered when Del Norte High School came into view. It felt strange to be intimidated by the tiny place–this school was downright miniscule compared to the ones I attended in Tokyo and Osaka. It was probably even smaller than theyouchien I’d attended in Hokkaido as a three-year-old
But in Japan things seemed different. It was easy to blend in. Not only were there more students, but matching uniforms made it hard to stand out. My light eyes sometimes got me noticed, but a few other students had them too. I looked different here–so I felt different. Foreign.
Which, technically, I was. But today I needed to show them I was like them. Highlight similarities, not differences. Klea had pounded the phrase into my head.
After locking up my bike, I followed the current of students to the front doors, ducking in behind a tall guy, trailing in his wake until he veered off to his locker. Then I had to jostle my way though the crowd to the counselor’s office.
The door was open. Inside Mr. Robison was speaking very slowly to a Japanese boy about my age, maybe a little younger. A rather frazzled-looking woman–from his host family, I assumed–sat beside him, looking as helpless as Mr. Robison. After spending all morning preparing to blend in with the Americans, I was a little surprised to see someone else from Japan, so I stood silently in the doorway for a few seconds before Mr. Robison looked up and saw me.
“Oh good! I’m so glad you’re here,” Mr. Robison said, rising from his desk. He came over and gestured to the boy who had turned to look at us.
He looked about as lost as I felt.
“This is Jun,” Mr. Robison said. “He’s from Japan, like you. Kyoto,” he added, pausing expectantly.
“There are nearly two million people in Kyoto,” I said, trying not to sound annoyed. I should have just held my tongue. People would overlook a lot from a foreign exchange student but it was too soon to be testing the limits of that.
But if Mr. Robison noticed my rudeness, he shrugged it off. “He’s not quite as far along in his English studies as–” awkward pause as he met the host-mother’s eyes– “we had hoped,” he finally finished. “Are you able to . . . assist me?”
What was wrong with using the word translate? But I simply put on the half-smile I had practiced in the mirror and nodded. “Of course.” I turned to Jun. “Hajime mashite,” I said softly, inclining my head in a half-bow.
Jun’s eyes brightened at the sound of his native tongue and he smiled with relief. It wasn’t something I could really relate to; I’d spoken English and Japanese interchangeably since birth. But I still felt sorry for him. Being here was hard enough without a language barrier.
Jun and I exchanged a few pleasantries before I turned back to Mr. Robison. “What were you trying to tell him?”
I spent the next few minutes not only translating but repeating the English words for him so he could begin to recognize them. I didn’t notice the sound of steps approaching behind me until I felt the unmistakable tingle that told me someone else was in the room. Mid-sentence I turned to look at the figure standing in the doorway.
My tongue seemed to dry in my mouth as my eyes traveled the length of him, from his wiry limbs and slim frame up his sculpted shoulders to his smooth, open face. His cheekbones were high and chiseled and his mouth was full and cocked into a half-grin so fitting and natural I knew he’d never had to practice it in front of a mirror. His hair was short and black, gelled into a tousled, casual look, but it was his eyes that made my breath catch in my throat–eyes that seemed to see through me–into me–for an instant before his gaze flitted about the room, taking everything in.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I felt like I couldn’t look away–almost as if my gaze was held to him by magic. I was suddenly glad he hadn’t looked at me very long–I wasn’t sure I could even speak if he talked to me. I tried unsuccessfully to swallow and finally remembered that I was holding my breath. I let it out slowly, trying not to make a sound.
Finally he looked at me again. His eyes analyzed me for an instant before warming and turning friendly. Ignoring Mr. Robison, he thrust his hand toward me, and I wondered if he was offering it to me, feeling the same pull that I was.
Luckily I managed to gather my wits quickly enough to realize that he just wanted to shake–a traditional American greeting. Stupid, I chided myself.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Tam.”
His voice, a rich baritone, sent shivers through my whole body. And something else. It took me a moment to put my finger on it. Realization dawned a moment later and I had to force my teeth to not chatter. This was not in the plan.
Hoping I wasn’t shaking too noticeably, I took his hand, feeling something like a spark jump between us as the soft, cool skin of his palm pressed against mine. I smiled up at him.
“Dozo yoroshiku. I’m Yuki.”