“Hey, Stripes! I need your help in here!” I closed my eyes as Jinta’s yell shattered the calm silence. Sitting back on my heels, I looked around the storage room that I was responsible for cleaning. The floor was covered in a thin layer of soapy water to soak through the “who knows how many years’ worth” of muck that had solidified there. Honestly, how long had it been since Urahara last cleaned this place? I shuddered at the reality that “never” was probably the most accurate answer.
“Stripes!” Jinta’s shrill voice could have pierced solid steel. I sighed heavily; so much for an afternoon of peace and quiet while I cleaned.
I stood up and threw the sponge I was using to scrub the floor back into the bucket. Using the towel hanging over my shoulder, I dried my hands and knees before I stepped out of the room and into the dark, back hallway of the Urahara Shop.
There was an open window at the end of the hall that would have let in a cool breeze if the air was moving. But for the past few days it had been nothing but boiling temperatures as the final heat wave of summer settled in on Karakura Town. I stopped and leaned back against the wall. Closing my eyes, I could smell the different spices and herbs that made up some of the weird products Kisuke Urahara sold in his shop. Tessai, the second in command, was whistling as he swept the front yard, and the cheerful tune made its way inside. Meanwhile, Urahara’s very own “salesman” voice dripped with honey as I heard him trying to convince a mother to let her bratty child buy some candy.
I smiled to myself, remembering my first impression of the shop a month before. It was a ratty old shack on a fenced in dirt lot; one of those “hole-in-the-wall” places that you only ever find by stumbling upon it by accident. Somehow, even though the flow of customers was slow and rare, the shop still managed to stay open.
I heard rustling coming from a storage room down the hall, and wondered what Jinta could be up to this time. My head throbbed painfully to remind me of how I had “helped” the little brat just a week ago. That stupid kid had called me into that same storage room and the second I stepped inside, a can of something flew through the air and crashed into my forehead.
After I had pinned him to the ground, Jinta flashed a big innocent smile and convinced me not to beat the living hell out of him, at least not then. Of course, when he began to repeatedly need my help over the next few days, I stopped holding back, even when he claimed it was my fault for not dodging his attacks quickly enough. I rarely landed a hit on him though, the kid was so fast.
The noise suddenly stopped and I immediately pressed my back against the wall, feeling the slightly cool wood against my bare arms and shivering despite the oppressive heat. This time I had a plan. I would edge my way quietly down the hallway to the door of the storage room and somehow take Jinta by surprise. I spotted a mop leaning against the wall opposite me and grabbed it for protection, just in case. I could never be sure what stunt Jinta was going to pull next.
When I finally reached the door, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. My muscles tensed and I flexed my fingers on the mop handle a few times, preparing myself for whatever attack was about to come. Three…two…one!
I threw the mop through the doorway of the storage room first, as a decoy, and immediately a storm of cans came flying back out. They exploded noisily as they hit the opposite wall with force and their contents went splattering everywhere. Specks of what I hoped were tomatoes hit my face, bare arms and legs, while some kind of gooey, green liquid slowly oozed its way down the wall. I watched for the last can and deftly snatched it out of the air. That particular reflex, I was not proud to say, had only been honed so well by constantly trying to protect myself from Jinta’s projectile attacks.
Stepping into the room, I saw my target frozen opposite me, a look of surprise on his face and a single can left in his hand. I was tossing the one I held into the air and then catching it again, a smug grin spreading across my face. Jinta swallowed hard and began to back away from me as I stepped towards him, matching his strides.
Stopping in the middle of the room, I narrowed my eyes and glared at the boy.
“Game over,” I said proudly. Jinta immediately dropped his can and turned on his heels towards the back wall. There was a large window about halfway up that was currently open and Jinta was sprinting towards it. “Oh, no you don’t,” I hissed, and shot after him. His small body was only halfway out the window when I grabbed his waist and tried pulling him back inside. He gripped either side of the window as I braced my feet against the wall and we both started an odd game of tug-o-war.
“Let…me…go!” Jinta shouted back at me.
“Not a chance, you little creep!” I gave one final pull and Jinta’s hands slipped off of the window. He fell back and both of us hit the ground. I grabbed for his wrists and we both tumbled over each other until I had him pinned to the floor. Panting, I smiled sweetly at him and he retaliated by sticking out his tongue.
Jinta was not a very large boy, only reaching about four feet in height, but his small and skinny build never fooled me. He was the bane of my existence from the moment I began working at the shop.
Not a day went by that I had gone home without a bump or bruise from Jinta’s “training”, as he liked to call it. To me, it seemed more like his own personal kind of torture. I had been the target for cans, books, mops, brooms, and any other object Jinta could find around the shop to attack me with. He told me I looked too soft and vulnerable and that I needed to ‘man up’, which apparently could only be achieved by giving me daily concussions with soup cans.
“Is everything okay in here?” a soft voice asked from the doorway. Jinta and I both looked up to see a young girl with black pigtails and a pink skirt watching apprehensively as we wrestled on the floor.
“Ururu,” Jinta yelled from beneath me, “where were you when I needed back up? Some help you are!” I reached into the nearest storage box and pulled out a few packing peanuts, shoving them in Jinta’s mouth to shut him up. Grinning with victory, I stood up.
“Yeah, we’re good. Thanks, Ururu,” I assured her, brushing myself off. She looked from me back to Jinta, who was currently spitting out pieces of Styrofoam and mumbling under his breath. From the floor, he aimed a kick at my shins which I dodged by taking a small step to the right. Jinta’s foot instead made contact with the shelf, and a whole box full of the Styrofoam peanuts tumbled down on him. Laughing, I stepped over the mess to stand in the doorway.
“Mr. Kisuke’s looking for you, Sayuri,” Ururu told me softly as I leaned against the doorframe watching Jinta try to battle his way out of the ocean of peanuts that now covered him. For a moment, my own name did not even register in my mind; I was so used to Jinta’s nickname for me. Thanks to the boy’s wonderful gift of pointing out the blatantly obvious, he had begun to call me Stripes after the giant scars that ran the length of my body.
They weren’t exactly scars per say. The doctors believed they were more burn-like since the skin was not raised, but smooth like the rest of my body. They also had not seemed to have been cause by cuts of any kind, but some kind of interaction between my skin and a chemical. Wrapping around me almost as if I had been coiled in some kind of burning ropes, they circled my arms, legs, and torso. A shade darker than the rest of my skin, they gave the impression that I covered in stripes.
Absentmindedly, I ran my hands over my bare arms. The scars always felt a few degrees warmer than the rest of my body, which was weird. The stranger part still was that, even though it had been only a year since I had gotten them, I couldn’t remember how I managed to procure such impressive wounds. All I could remember was coming home from school one day, arguing with my mother, and then it all goes black. I woke up a few days later in a room at Karakura Hospital, covered in bandages and with a splitting headache.
The doctors had told me that my house had caught on fire and exploded because of a gas leak. But for some reason, in the back of my mind, I knew that was a lie; that something else had occurred. I was visited by various doctors and insurance officials, but I gave them all the same answer: I could not remember anything that had happened. Before each of them left they would touch my hand lightly and give me that “pity face” you only saw in hospitals, as if they knew something tragic that I didn’t.
That was when I realized my mother was missing. She had been there when I came home from school, but where was she now? I had heard the insurance officials saying that nothing had survived the explosion but, when I asked about her, the looks on their faces were enough for me to fully understand my situation. Nothing at all had survived, except me.
Suddenly, I felt an arm snake its way around my neck and someone rapping on my head.
“Earth to Stripes,” Jinta was yelling in my ear as he clung to my back, “Anyone home in there?” Clenching my fists I fought hard not to deck the little brat right then and there. He knocked harder, and I grabbed his hand.
“Yes, I heard you!” I shouted back at him. He jumped off me and ran down the hallway laughing maniacally. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the frame.
“Are you feeling alright, Sayuri?” Ururu asked. “You seem kind of distant lately.” I stared down at her, amazed, as always, at how blunt she was. Ururu would never beat around the bush.
From my first day of work, and first day of becoming Jinta’s new crash test dummy, Ururu and I had developed a special friendship. Together, we made up a united front against the evil redheaded child and were usually able to subdue him. At the same time, Ururu had also taken on the role of my protector, always looking out for me and making sure I was doing okay. She was a sweet girl despite her expression of perpetual sadness.
I took her small hand in mine and was comforted by its warmth.
“Yeah, I’m okay, I promise.” But, it’s almost been a year, a voice reminded me in the back of my mind. Almost a year since everything got flipped upside down. I chewed on my lip nervously as we walked down the hall towards the front of the store.
Tessai, still whistling, was just coming in from sweeping out in the yard, his hulking frame filling most of the doorway. Looking around, I could only see the red of Jinta’s hair peeking out from behind a shelf where he liked to sit and read his comics. I was going to ask where Urahara went, when the man suddenly popped up right in front of me. He had been so quiet that his sudden movement was all it took to send me flying back into the wall.
“Hey there Sa-yu-ri,” he said, accentuating every syllable of my name annoyingly. I glared at him, rubbing the back of my head where it had just collided with the wall.
“What do you want?” I demanded, annoyed. Just when my headaches from yesterday were starting to go away….
“I need you to scurry on over into town and pick up some goodies,” he said, a bogusly sweet smile stretching across his stubbled face. He waved a shopping list in my face as if to make it more enticing. Rolling my eyes I snatched the list out of his hand.
“I’m a teenager, not a puppy, Urahara,” I snapped, scanning the paper. “And you can scratch the ‘super-happy-candy-man’ act, too. It’s just us.” As if some spell had been broken, Urahara’s face came unglued and he massaged his cheeks, pushing out his lower lip a bit.
“Sometimes it just gets stuck like that after dealing with customers all day,” he whined. Tessai chuckled softly as he stepped past Ururu and I into the hallway.
“Oh yeah,” I teased, “The tons and tons of customers that grace these hallowed halls every day. I actually had to beat some of them back with a stick earlier.” Urahara stuck his lip out further and plopped himself down on the floor in his normal spot. Crossing his arms, he pulled his striped hat down over his eyes. I shook my head and smiled.
Urahara’s frequent juvenile behavior had been one of his qualities that made me so willing to work in his shop. He never watched me work over my shoulder, and he was always very informal, as if I was just another part of his dysfunctional family along with Jinta, Ururu, and Tessai. It was nice, not having to stress out about a job. But, maybe I feel that way because my boss spends most of his time snoozing anyway, I grinned to myself.
Walking over to the door, I slipped on my shoes and shoved the list down into my pocket. Ururu followed and handed me the cash Urahara had given her.
“Come on Jinta! Let’s go,” I shouted, putting the money in my pocket also.
As Ururu and I started out of the store, Urahara spoke quietly from under his hat. “Just be careful out there, and stay together. There’s been some weird stuff going on lately.” I waved off his warning as Jinta ran to catch up with us. Looking up at the sky, I shielded my eyes against the blazing sun. It was such a beautiful day, were the cryptic messages really necessary? Besides, it was just a trip into town for some groceries. What could go wrong?
“I said I was sorry,” I giggled, taking in Jinta’s soaking wet body. He glared at me as he wrung the hem of his shirt out onto the sidewalk. As he let it go, the fabric clung to his body, making him look as if he had just stepped out of a swimming pool. He wiped his wet, red bangs off his face, slicking his hair back. “It was just a little water,” I told the boy with a sheepish grin.
Jinta’s face contorted in a mixture of rage and evil cunning. “Just a little water?” he asked, a note of danger in his voice. “Then let’s see how you like it!” I took a step back from him, afraid he was about to attack at me. But instead, he nearly bent over and began to shake his head vigorously, like a dog, spraying me with water.
“Hey, knock it off!” I shouted at him, throwing my hands up to cover my face. Jinta laughed and threw his head back. His red spikes were dry again and stuck out at all angles just like usual. My hair however, was now slightly damp, as was my shirt. But I didn’t mind; the sun was hot and any source of coolness was welcome in my book.
“We should keep going,” Ururu said quietly for the fourth time since we had left the shop. Ururu was always the leader on outings like this, seeing as she was probably the most mature out of the three of us even though I was the oldest. She always led the way while Jinta and I would poke and scratch at each other like unruly children in the backseat of a car. And Ururu knew well not to interfere with some of these arguments seeing as they usually turned physical. But, I was not in the mood for fighting Jinta again today so, after getting him wet, I left him alone.
As we fell into step right behind Ururu, I sighed and crossed my arms behind my head. Although the temperature was high, the weather was still nice and I was glad to be getting some fresh air after inhaling cleaning products all morning. We passed a giant puddle and I grinned to myself, thinking back to what had caused Jinta’s sogginess.
As we had left the yard at the shop, Jinta and I were already having an argument about which way we should take to get to the market. Jinta suggested, like always, that we play rock-paper-scissors to decide whose idea was better. Somehow, even with Ururu’s help that devil child still managed to win. And so, we were walking straight through town rather than taking a detour through the park as I had suggested.
On the way, we had passed numerous giant puddles created from the amount of sprinklers that had been turned on that weekend. Jinta kept stepping on the backs of my sneakers causing them to slip off my feet and finally, I had enough. I saw another puddle coming up and rejoiced at how perfectly my revenge was set up for me. As we passed it, I turned and jumped right into the middle of the water with as much force as I could. Ururu was far enough ahead that she only got sprinkled a little bit, but Jinta who was directly behind me, got drenched. In my mind, we were now even.
I smiled as I remembered Jinta’s face after he got completely soaked. Tilting my face to the sun, I closed my eyes as we walked and watched the colors swirl beneath my eye lids. At first, there were blues and purples, and they curled around each other like wisps of smoke. But soon, that smoke began to grow lighter until it had transformed into flames of red and orange. I was surprised by how real the fire looked. I could almost hear it crackling and feel its heat on my skin when – Crash!
“Ow.” Rolling over onto my back I opened my eyes. Ururu and Jinta were leaning over me, their faces mere inches from mine; Ururu looking forlorn as always, and Jinta amused. I pushed myself up into a sitting position and brushed the dirt off my skinned knees.
“Nice job, freak,” Jinta said with a laugh. I glared up at him from the ground. Getting up was apparently enough to convince Ururu that I was alright, so she continued walking down the street with Jinta right behind her. I looked around for whatever I had tripped over and found that I had upset a small glass vase with a few flowers inside it that was set right on the corner. I knelt down and placed it right side up again.
There was a flash of pink from around the side of the wall. “Hello?” I called. Leaning forward, I tried to see who was there. A small girl, maybe about Jinta’s age, was watching me from around the corner. She had a striped pink shirt on and a skirt, and her light brown hair was tied up in two pigtails. She seemed pretty cute, but her skin startled me. It was so pale she almost seemed transparent, as if I could look right through her.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “Were these yours?” I looked down at the flowers I held in my hand and her large eyes followed my gaze. Slowly looking up at me again, she nodded. There was a frightened look on the girl’s face and I felt terrible; I must have scared her when I fell flat on my face.
Looking at the vase again, I realized that when I knocked it over all the water had spilled out. “I’m sorry,” I told her again. I’m so stupid. She had probably brought it for a relative or friend who had died nearby and I just ruined the whole thing.
“Hey, Stripes! Who you talkin’ to?” Jinta yelled. Looking over, I saw him and Ururu walking back towards me after realizing that I wasn’t following them. Standing up, I made sure I didn’t knock over the vase again.
“This little girl right-” I turned back towards the corner to show them, but she was gone. “-here,” I finished lamely. I walked around the wall where she had been standing just a second ago, but I could not find her anywhere. Looking back at Ururu and Jinta I could see they were as confused as I was. “There was a little girl,” I told them, “Honestly. She was right here only two seconds ago.”
Ururu and Jinta gazed at me with careful eyes. Jinta peered around the corner as well, but the little girl was long gone.
“Maybe you hit your head when you fell,” Jinta laughed, stepping past me and heading back down the street. Or, maybe it was all those soup cans to the head you little sadist, I thought sending mental daggers at the boy. Ururu gave the vase one last look before she turned and followed him. I knelt down and rearranged the flowers a bit, wondering where that girl could have gone so quickly.
I knew she was no longer there, but I still whispered. “I’ll bring some more water tomorrow. I promise.” I stood up and ran to catch up with Ururu and Jinta. As I stepped out onto the main street I felt a release, as if there had been a slight pressure on my chest preventing me from breathing regularly. I had not even been aware of it before, but now I really noticed it as it completely stopped.
“Huh, that was weird,” I said aloud. Shielding my eyes, I looked up at the sky. “This heat is really starting to get to me.”
“Stripes, come on! Let’s go!” Jinta called, clearly annoyed, from further down the street. I took a deep breath, testing out my lungs; they seemed fine. Maybe I had hit my head, or maybe I was dehydrated. As I ran to catch up with the kids, I began to get a bad feeling that maybe Urahara had been right to warn us before we left.