The photo Ayumi Maeda took rests on her kitchen table. It shows a hostile young woman, approximately seventeen, crouching in a Cat Street alley behind one of Harajuku’s countless, infamous shops. Her school uniform is extensively modified with violent slogans.
Maeda savors a cigarette on the back porch of her apartment. She watches the teenagers walk to school whenever there’s time before work.
“I wonder if they worry about the same things we did at that age,” she muses.
Maeda sits down at the table, brings the ashtray to her mouth and spits the finished cigarette in it. She waves her hand. “See? No nicotine stains. That’s how we did it back then.”
During her last year of school, Maeda belonged to an all-female gang. “We pushed around smaller girls, mostly,” Maeda explains. “Drank, smoked in the park. A few members had boyfriends, but Kumashiro didn’t encourage that.”
The name of Maeda’s gang leader lingers in the air. Miles away, a school bell chimes. Maeda’s head tilts back as she relishes the distant sound.
“It happened about six months after we formed the gang,” Maeda recalls. “A couple of boys in our class heard about us acting tough. I don’t remember why they singled me out.”
Maeda pauses to retrieve another cigarette, drawing it from the pack with her teeth. “When I told Kumashiro what they did, she immediately declared war on the boys, like anybody else would in her position.” Maeda lights her cigarette and meanders back to the porch. “But then she said that wasn’t enough. I thought, we all thought she was suggesting killing them.”
A breeze wafts smoke back into the apartment. Maeda quickly sends her cigarette over the railing and shuts the glass door. “Lots of wind today. Maybe a storm,” she observes, returning to the kitchen table. “One night, maybe a week later, Kumashiro laid out her plan. We assumed she was joking, it wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would take seriously.
“Kumashiro swore she’d travel back in time to before I was raped and stop those boys. Never explained how she would accomplish this, of course. Just kept repeating it was her duty to face them, prevent them from doing anything to me.”
Maeda picks up the photo and shakes her head at it. “Kichako Kumashiro,” she whispers. “Disappeared the next day. There was a big search for her, the police suspected she ran away or was kidnapped into slavery overseas. It wasn’t uncommon.” Maeda slides the photo aside, near the table’s edge.
“I was appointed leader when Kumashiro never came back. Right away we tracked down the boys who raped me, figured they also had something to do with Kumashiro’s disappearance. We beat them up pretty bad. Too bad, maybe. They were hospitalized.
“After that our gang drifted apart. I wasn’t as strong as Kumashiro, it was impossible for someone like me to keep everyone together. Most of us graduated, a couple even made it to the university level.” Maeda smiles at this memory, acknowledging a short row of certificates framed on her wall.
Maeda rises. Her apartment shows no trace of her former life; the paraphernalia from that period is locked in a wooden box on Maeda’s lowest bookshelf. She pulls this box out and opens it, briefly revealing her own school uniform folded neatly within. Heavily embroidered bluebell petals drift through the navy pleats. The photo of Kumashiro is placed inside and the box carefully closed.
“My first year with the company, all us secretaries got together for drinks after work,” Maeda continues, shaking out her last cigarette as she walks to the porch. “One secretary brought a book of old Japanese poems she snuck from her boss’s office. Collecting them was his hobby, I guess.”
Leaves from an unseen tree blow across Maeda’s view of the darkening sky. She comes back to the kitchen table, unlit cigarette dangling off her lips. “Everybody took turns reading it out loud. We were all drunk by that point, laughing at the poetry as if nothing could be funnier.”
Maeda looks once more at the approaching storm. She shrugs. “Wah-ee-toh-beh-roo. That was the author of the poem I read. It frightened me so much I almost fell on the floor.
“The other secretaries simply figured I was too drunk to speak. One of them took the book from my shaking hands. ‘Waito Beru’, she giggled. Another secretary who loved to show off her English perked up. ‘White Bear, that’s what it says. I can’t imagine why the author went to so much trouble when they could’ve just written Kumashiro’”.
A bare drizzle of rain joins the sound of the wind. “But my English was just as good,” Maeda insists. ”I knew what the name meant. It had to be a coincidence. Kumashiro isn‘t a very rare family name, not at all.”
Lights overhead flicker, then brighten. “And yet, it’s funny to think about. If you believe Kichako Kumashiro tried to go back in time only a few days, and wound up centuries in the past. Don’t time travel stories on TV and in movies always end up going wrong?” The rain intensifies and Maeda replaces her cigarette in the crumpled pack. “But I haven’t even shown you the poem.”
Maeda pulls a slender book from her shelf, next to the box stored with teenage memories. “I decided to buy my own copy. It’s supposedly rare, cost me a month’s pay.” She remains standing while she recites the poem.
“Dear, drooping bluebell
Whose blossoms I vowed to save
It was still a seed.”
“Like I said,” Maeda closes the book softly as she sits. “It’s probably just a coincidence. The poem could be about anything, really. Except bluebells aren’t native to Japan. They didn’t grow here until hundreds of years after this was written.”
Wind and rain fill the silence that follows. Maeda strokes the book’s cover with a single finger whose tip has evaded its owner’s care, and become stained with nicotine.
BIO: Samuel Barnhart writes short stories and bakes cookies, although the former is far more satisfying than the latter. He hopes his high school Japanese teachers don’t catch him writing about time-traveling teenage delinquents and wonder where they went wrong.