Amaya stared longingly out the window at the fluffy white flakes that were coating the streets with a powdered-sugar glaze. The light of the moon shone brightly against the tiny snowflake crystals, illuminating the night sky with a silver hue. She'd give anything to play in it, but her mother's words were absolute: no playing outside in the dark.
Still, that would not stop her from at least wanting to. She let out an audible sigh and puffed her little cheek out, leaning it against the cool glass. "I wish it were tomorrow," she whined. "Then I could go outside and play."
A lower feminine voice chuckled behind her. She looked over her shoulder to see her mother sitting on a suede brown armchair with a woolen blanket draped over her knees. "Now, now, Amaya. You're getting your face marks all over the windows. You'll get to play outside with your sister soon enough."
Amaya huffed stubbornly, glaring at her younger sister meters away from her from the corner of her eye. "I don't wanna play with Mamaya!" she protested. She stamped her little foot on the carpeted floor beneath her. "She always ruins my snowman and then cries when she gets too cold!"
The younger girl looked up from her box of crayons and piles of coloring books on the floor to stare at her older sister. "I do not! Mommy!" she wailed, tears in her eyes.
Their mother smiled down at both of them and sighed, shaking her head from side to side the way all mothers did from time to time. "Both of you stop it. You're sisters. You're supposed to look out for each other. Amaya, your little sister looks up to you a lot. Be the big sister she needs you to be, okay? For Mommy."
Amaya looked down at her younger sister, a smaller, frailer duplicate of herself with dark brown eyes instead of her mis-matched brown and blue. The little girl was staring up at her with crystal-like beads in the corners of her eyes. Amaya groaned and looked away stubbornly. She hated it when Mamaya cried. "Fine."
A much deeper voice laughed from the armchair across from her mother. A burly man with dark brown hair and a thick moustache was lounging there, basking in the heat of the roaring fireplace before them. It was a presence Amaya was wary of; her father rarely decided to make an appearance in familial situations.
Part of Amaya was afraid of her father's looming image. She wasn't sure what it was he did, but he was almost always in the basement. Her mother told her that it was where her father did all of his work, and to never go down there because some of the things there could be dangerous. Sometimes Amaya lay awake in bed at night, wondering what horrible things could be in her basement. The thoughts made her shiver and cower under her blankets. Even the maid wasn't allowed down there.
Whatever it was that he did, a lot of people liked him for it. Her mother always said that it was because of her father that they got to live in a big house on a pretty street with lots of things that the kids at her school didn't have. She even got to go to better schools than some of the other kids on her street. Amaya hardly ever even had to clean her room because a maid did all of that for her!
"Mommy, can I stay up until Amaya has to go to bed?" Mamaya asked, looking up at her mother.
She shook her head. "No, dear. You need to get your proper rest or else you won't be able to wake up on time for Christmas tomorrow. Don't you want Santa to bring you all the things you asked him for?" she said.
Mamaya made a devastated face. "Yes . . ."
She smiled. "Then you need to be fast asleep so that he can come. Gather your coloring and I'll take you to bed, okay?
Mamaya slowly collected her crayons and books and obediently followed as her mother stood from her chair and draped her blanket over the back. She looked to the armchair opposite her. "I'll be back after I've tucked in Mamaya," she announced. The man nodded and watched his wife and daughter turn the corner down the hall.
Amaya stood silently at the window. She wasn't sure what to do; she'd never been alone with her father before. She turned and began staring out the window again, fidgeting nervously. She hoped her mother would return quickly.
She jumped. "Y-y-yes?" she stammered. Her little heart pounded in her chest. Was she in trouble? Had she done something wrong? Sometimes her mother used her name in a certain tone when she was about to get scolded. Was he about to do the same?
"Do you like this house and this life that you live?" the man asked.
Amaya stared at her father's old face. His hair was slightly greying but against the glow of the fire, she could hardly tell. He simply looked tired. "Um, yes Daddy. How come?"
He looked at her, and suddenly she felt like running away. The adrenaline pumped in her veins. "Would you fight to keep it this way? Would you protect your mother and sister and everyone else if you could?" he asked.
Amaya frowned. She took a tiny step back. She was almost sure that he was going to come at her like one of those scary men in the detective shows her mother watched. "Um, I don't understand. I'm scared," she admitted.
The man smiled, and for a moment her fears were at ease. "That's okay. You'll understand one day. You don't need to be scared," he said gently. At that moment, she believed him. She felt her churning stomach relax a little and her heart began to slow.
And then it happened.
She heard an ear-piercing sound like an enormous piece of glass shattering against the floor, followed by her mother's sharp scream. Then before she knew it, a high-pitched blaring sound erupted from the ceilings: the fire alarm.
Amaya screamed. She collapsed onto the floor on her knees, head in her hands as she cried. She was terrified. Had her father done something? What was going on? Was her mother okay? Was her sister okay? Would she be okay?
She looked up and noticed that her father had moved. He was running toward her and kneeling to the floor in front of her. He put his hands on her tiny shoulders and shook her insistently. "Amaya, get up! We need to find your mother and sister and get out of here."
She nodded. She had no choice: she had to trust her father. Together, they ran down the hall, Amaya checking over her shoulder every so often to make sure no one was following them from behind. Her father called out but no one answered. All around them, a low rumbling roared in their ears and the ground beneath their feet shook.
She looked up. That had been her sister's voice. Her heart fluttered. "Mamaya! Where are you?!"
"Help me, Amaya! I'm scared!"
Amaya tugged her father's hand toward her as she ran ahead down the hall. She peered into the first door to her right. She couldn't see much. With the rumbling and the ground shaking, most of the lights had gone out. "Mamaya?"
She saw a shadow. It was small enough to be her sister. She squinted her eyes to try to get a better look, but all she really saw was the outline of a small figure. "Mamaya, are you in there?" she asked, voice shaking. Part of her wondered, what if it wasn't Mamaya? "There's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such thing as ghosts, there's no such thing as-"
The shadow moved again, and Amaya noticed it was getting bigger. She stepped away from the door and whined loudly. It was too big to be her sister now. She was backed up against the wall and slumped down to the floor, but aside from that she was too paralysed to move. She covered her face with her hands and screamed. "Mommy!"
A hand touched her shoulder. "Amaya!"
She jumped so far and screamed so loud, she almost hurt herself. The hand had been Mamaya's. She looked from her sister, to the doorway into the room she'd been peering in and grabbed her younger sister's hand. "We need to get out of here! Where's Mommy?"
Mamaya shook her head. "I don't know! Where's Daddy?"
Amaya looked around her. He'd been there a few moments ago, hadn't he? "I don't know," she replied. "Let's go. Maybe they're outside waiting for us!"
Amaya took her sister's hand and turned to run for the front door. She was about to start running when suddenly something wrapped around her ankle and pulled, hard. She lost her momentum and was swiftly met with the rising ground as she slammed into it. She groaned and looked behind her.
She screamed. She wasn't sure what she was looking at, but it was the scariest thing her six-year-old eyes had ever seen. It had blue, scaly skin like a snake and lizard-like legs with sharp talons. Its eyes were dark, thin slits, its mouth a jagged maw of razor-sharp teeth. It had its long tail-like torso wrapped around her ankle and was beginning to move in for the kill.
"Amaya!" her little sister screamed out. "No!"
Amaya's heart pounded. Her skin crawled. Tears streaked down her ashen face.
Would you protect your mother and sister and everyone else if you could?
Her father's words echoed through her mind. She looked up at her little sister's terrified face. Tears were streaming down her face, probably just like her. She was screaming and crying and wailing, terrified of the sight she saw but too paralysed to escape it. Amaya's mind was made up. She had to protect her sister. She looked back at the monster moving in toward her, pulled back her free leg and kicked out hard. Her foot connected with a scaly face, sending the creature slightly aback. Amaya took the opportunity to scramble to her feet, grab her sister's hand and begin running down the hall.
When they finally made it to their front lawn, police and fire fighters were already there. They were barking orders at each other and running into the building. Amaya was relieved. They were saved. They got out alive!
That was the last thing she remembered of that night.
When she had come to, Amaya was in a hospital bed. Her sister was in the bed next to hers in the same clothes she'd been in before she passed out, sleeping soundly. She looked around her. She was in a small room with not much to look at. There was a whiteboard on the wall across from her that said a doctor's name on it. Next to her was a small night stand with a tiny lamp on it. It was on and the curtains were drawn, so Amaya guessed it was night time. Her parent were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were using the bathroom or talking to a doctor.
She opened her mouth to speak, but it was dry and pasty. She needed something to drink. She pushed herself up onto her elbows and reached for the red cup on her night stand with a long bent straw sticking out, sucking from it greedily.
"I see you're awake, dear. Are you able to tell me your name?"
She looked up from her cup. A short, old woman with short grey hair was speaking to her. "Amaya," she croaked, voice still a little weak.
The woman nodded. "That's what your sister said," she said, gesturing toward the younger girl still passed out in the other bed. "Can you tell me your last name? Your sister wasn't sure how to spell it. I need it for my paperwork."
"N-i-k-i-n-i," Amaya replied. She'd practised that many times with her mother and teachers. "Where are my mom and dad?"
The woman gave her a small smile. "Your doctor is going to be in here soon. She'll explain everything to you, okay?" Without even waiting for her response, the old woman bowed politely and left the room, shutting it behind her.
Amaya sat up and propped her pillows against the plastic headboard of her bed. She leaned back on them and settled in, staring up at the ceiling. She just wanted to go home with her parents and forget that this had happened. Where were her mother and father? Why weren't they here to tell her that everything was okay? She sighed.
The doorknob twisted with a click and the door opened as a young, tall woman with blonde hair and blue eyes walked into the room, a clipboard in one hand and the other deep in the pocket of her long white coat. She stood at the foot of Amaya's bed and smiled. "Good evening, Miss Nikini. I'm the doctor who's been taking care of you these last few days. My name is Matsumiya."
Amaya frowned. "Few days?"
The young woman nodded. "Yes. It's been three days since your accident back at your house. Do you remember the accident?" she asked gently.
Amaya felt tears well up in her eyes, but she pushed them back down. She nodded silently, wiping furiously at her eyes. She didn't want to think about it, or the scary monster that she would probably always see every time she shut her eyes. She just wanted to move on.
The woman walked up to the side of her bed and perched herself on the edge of it, right next to Amaya's legs. "You're safe now," she said, smiling. "Whatever happened in that house will never happen to you again." She looked toward the other bed where Mamaya was sleeping and grinned down at Amaya again. "I heard you were very brave. You saved your sister. She wasn't even hurt."
Amaya flashed a tiny smile. She was glad her sister was okay, but now she wanted to know about her parents. "Where are my mommy and daddy?" she asked, voice small.
Matsumiya gave her a sad smile. "I'm sorry, Amaya. Your mother and father . . . They never made it out of the house."
Visions of the scaly blue creature capturing her mother and father and eating them limb from limb danced through Amaya's mind. A flood of terror raced through her. "You mean . . ." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "They got caught?"
Matsumiya looked as if she wanted to ask questions, but she didn't. Instead she let out a soft sigh. "I'm sorry, Amaya. Your parents are gone. They're not coming back. I know this must be very hard for you. Me and all the other doctors here are going to make sure that you and your sister are okay. Do you have any aunts or uncles whose names you remember?"
Amaya shook her head. Her parents were not close with their family. Holiday get-togethers were always fancy dinner parties for their friends and friends of their friends. She didn't even know if she had any cousins.
Matsumiya frowned and thought for a moment. "Any close family friends?" she asked.
Amaya thought. There was one name she remembered, but she was unsure of how close her parents were to them. All she knew was that they'd come to every function her parents had held, and they seemed to always be talking to them. Plus, they had a son, and Amaya played with him from time to time. She nodded. "Sh-Shirogane."
The young woman nodded. "Shirogane? Okay. Maybe they can help you out. For now, you rest. Let me or a nurse know if you need anything, okay?"
She nodded, tears in her eyes.
The doctor patted her leg gently and stood. She stayed there for a moment, not saying anything, then she turned and walked around the bed, opened the door to the hallway and left. She shut it behind her, leaving Amaya alone with her thoughts and her tears.
The next few days were blurry at best for Amaya. Her six-year-old mind could hardly understand the questions she was being asked or the medicine she was being given. All she knew was that she was scared. Terrified. She woke every night to her own screaming and thrashing. Doctors gave her things to relax but they rarely worked. Only did she start to relax when Mamaya climbed into her bed next to her and curled up against her side.
Soon she began to relax. The nightmares never ceased, but she learned to deal with them. She woke with tears in her eyes and a scream ready to escape her lips, but she was almost always able to swallow it down. It had been almost two weeks since the accident at her house. Doctor Matsumiya was beginning to tell her that things were looking up: Mr Shirogane and his wife had agreed to allow her to stay with him until they found a family member who would be willing to take them in.
Part of Amaya rejoiced at the thought that she would be leaving the confines of the hospital and its medical prison. Another part clung to the safety it promised.
But, sure enough, a few days later a family of three with blonde hair and blue eyes and welcoming smiles entered Amaya's hospital room. Mr Shirogane was quiet for the most part, but he stayed supportive. Mrs Shirogane immediately took the leading role. As she walked in, her eyes immediately swept over Amaya and her sister's sleeping figure at her side. She sat on the edge of the bed the same way that Doctor Matsumiya liked to and leaned in toward Amaya, making her swallow the nervous lump in her throat.
The woman smiled. "Oh dear, you look exhausted. That won't do. How would you like to have a nice warm bath, hmm? I've bought you and your sister lots of nice clothes, so you never have to wear these hospital clothes again. And I bet you're tired of the yucky hospital food, aren't you?"
Amaya nodded. She wasn't sure what else to say. She had gotten so used to only nodding or shaking her head for the last few days in response to her doctor's questions. Could she even open her mouth and talk like she used to? All she knew was that a bath and real food sounded like the greatest gift she could have ever received. She remembered a time when she hated taking baths. She would never think like that again.
Mrs Shirogane looked up at her husband. "Dear, why don't you go on and sign the release papers so we can get these girls home? Ryou," she said, finally addressing the young boy standing near the door, "come here and help Amaya gather her things."
Amaya watched as the boy nodded and began walking toward her bed. He went to the night stand and began collecting the things he saw there: a notebook of things a doctor had written about Amaya's medicine, a bracelet Amaya had been wearing on the night of the accident and a small, unopened cup of Jello. He looked down at it and held it out to Amaya. "The Jello is the best part," he said.
Amaya shook her head.
Ryou frowned, his crystalline blue eyes looking at her quizzically. "You need to eat to be strong. That's what my mom says."
She shook her head again. She opened her mouth, but before she could make a sound, Ryou was pushing the Jello into her hands. She pushed it back into his hands. " . . . can't," she croaked.
"How come?" he asked.
Tears welled up in her eyes. She thought back to the day where she ate strawberry-flavoured pudding and had to be rushed to the hospital. Her mother had told her to never eat anything with strawberries in it, and to be very careful. Mamaya hadn't been born yet, but Amaya remembered ever since. Her mother was gone now, but she would still keep her promise. "I'm allergic to strawberries," she said, tears streaming down her face.
Ryou looked up at his mother with a panicked look. "Did I do something bad?!" he cried.
Mrs Shirogane shook her head and wrapped her arms around Amaya as her little body shook. "No, honey. She's just grieving."