Chirp-UP! Chirp-UP! Chirp-UP! The alarm clock was large, electric, eye-watering yellow, and shaped like a cute little chick. It was almost as relentlessly cheery as the high-pitched noise it was making. Chirp-UP! Eventually, a hand fumbled out of the covers and flailed around, seizing the bird and squeezing hard before another alarm could sound.
Undaunted, the plastic beak gaped wide. Chirp-UP! "Al'right, all right," Aya mumbled into her pillow. She shoved the clock away and rolled over, kicking at the bedclothes. "Don't see why I have to get up..." Then she saw the neatly pressed uniform hanging from its hook on the wall, and bounced upright. "School! I can't be late on my first day!"
Aya flew out of bed, pausing to pat her clock affectionately. "Thanks, Chickie!" She focused on the important business of putting on her skirt and socks just so, fussily adjusting the length of both to what had been 'cool' back at her old school. Behind her a small white spirit popped its head out through the side of her alarm. It blinked slowly before pulling free to circle the night table in restless loops, the thick, fleshy petals crowning its head cycling through tired looking shades of blue and gray.
Now that its job was done, the clock's beak gaped again, silent, as the display reset. It flashed 00:00 behind her as Aya snatched up her bookbag and bounced through the doorway. "MOOOOOOOTHER! Is breakfast ready? I need my lunch! I'm gonna be late for SCHOOOOOOOOOOL!"
"Aya-chan? You're up?" Her mother sounded startled. "The power went out last night, all the clocks...it's such a mess." She paused to shove her glasses up with rice-sticky fingers. A single grain stuck to the side of her nose. "I only just started your lunch. I was going to get you up soon." Harried, she prodded at the onigiri she was making, and made a disgusted face as it crumbled. "This rice is all wrong."
Aya rolled her eyes and pulled open the fridge. "You yelled at the rice cooker again, didn't you? Poor thing. It's probably all stressed out," she mumbled through a mouthful of leftover omelet. "And you know Chickie would never let me oversleep the first day of school!" Her mother made a sharp, exasperated sound and slammed her hands down on the counter. Aya flinched, staring down at her shoes.
"I do wish you would get over this phase, Aya! Talking about things like that, it just isn't healthy." She started over with another handful of rice, squeezing too hard. "Your alarm clock is not a person, and it scarcely matters if I yell at the rice cooker, it's nothing but a pile of metal and circuits!" Reflexively, Aya reached out to pat the much-maligned appliance, and her mother sighed.
"Darling, please. Just try not to act so weird at this school. I worry about you." Her voice was still prickly and irritated, but when Aya looked up again, her mother's eyes were anxious. "It's not healthy, you talking to things all the time. And look at you! Your hair, I swear you've worn it the same way since you were six...you need to grow up, Aya."
Aya reached up to fidget nervously with one ponytail, but sucked in a deep breath and smiled cheerfully. Sometimes her mom calmed down when she acted like she cared about fitting in. "I like my hair, mother. No one else wears theirs like this anymore, and having your own special hairstyle is cool." That got an approving smile, and Aya relaxed. Then she opened her mouth again. "Besides, I just want to be recognizable."
"Just who exactly will be recognizing you?" her mother demanded, sounding alarmed. "I didn't think you knew anyone here!" Aya stopped breathing for a second. What her mother was carefully not saying was that Aya wasn't supposed to know anyone here. That this little town was full of strangers who didn't know Aya, who wouldn't remember the week she had run around everywhere looking for a huge patchwork-coloured spirit panda, insisting that the blank screen photographs on her phone had been taken in a different world. Her hand slid into her pocket, curling tightly around that phone, the cool, slick plastic reassuring and familiar.
"I know me!" she said stoutly, pulling her shoulders back. "Everything else will be strange, so I want to recognize myself." The old-fashioned clock in the main room chimed the hour, and Aya seized her chance. "Mother, I'm going to be late! Here, just dump the, um, onigiri in the bento and I'll add the rest of this omelet." Her mother looked scandalized, and Aya laughed. "I promise I won't let anyone see my lunch! You can make me a super cute one for tomorrow, and I'll show it off."
It was pretty obvious that her mother didn't think this was a good plan at all, but Aya went into high gear and had everything in her bag before there was time to object. She escaped as fast as she could, letting the front door bang shut behind her. It was all the temper Aya dared let herself show, since it was entirely possible she'd find herself walked to school if she wasn't careful. She still had her phone clutched in her fist, and as she ran down the steps motley petals marked with blotches of pink, yellow, green and brown poked through her fingers, followed by the head of another sleepy spirit. It pulled free and rolled out of her pocket, trailing along behind.
A few blocks down the street Aya started to skip, swinging her bag and humming. Thanks to Chickie, there was plenty of time before school would start. Most mornings she'd be happy to chase her dreams as long as she could, but for a new school Aya wanted a little extra luck more than the extra sleep. She skidded to a stop in front of a small stand of bamboo. It looked like it had escaped from the neighboring yard, breaking through the fence to turn this isolated street corner into a miniature jungle of wild green. She'd noticed it when mother was showing her how to get to her new school, and it had been the first thing to make her smile. It was a perfect spot to pray for luck.
Aya stomped her feet to knock the dirt off her shoes and bowed carefully, twice, trying not to let her bag swing into the leaves. She clapped her hands sharply, forcing the little white spirit circling around her to dive out of the way. It darted up towards her head as she clapped again, gliding right into her face when Aya stepped forward. She sneezed, and it fell out the other side, catching at her ponytail, the pink and green blotches on its head petals swirling around to swallow up the brown and orange patches.
It let go and drifted forward, prowling through the stalks as Aya crouched to gather a handful of small stones. The leaves rustled around it as it worked its way deeper into the shadows, and parted to reveal patches of red and yellow as something larger rolled over, blinking itself awake. The soft click of stone on stone cut through the silence. "I think . . . maybe no one will notice me. That could be good, if no one notices me."
Her voice roused the spirit completely. The bamboo swayed as it sat up, putting its round white face even with the girl's bowed head. "But maybe I'm not the only one." One last stone clicked into place. "It would maybe be better if someone else knew." Aya clapped sharply, and the mouth in front of her gaped wide. "You know best. Please help me out!"
She sat back on her heels and watched the bamboo with wide eyes. The stalks were swaying wildly as the white spirit slid down them. It had gone up when the other spirit woke, and now it came back down, gathering as many leaves as it could handle along the way. It flew through the air and shoved the entire clump into the hungry maw, and green eyes blinked twice, contemplating the small spirit that hovered before it, display colors shifting to stark yellow and orange. A single leaf drifted free, and Aya's hand reached between them as she snatched at it.
She pulled out her phone as she stood, flipping it open with care for the worn hinges' sake. "Thanks for the ofuda," Aya whispered, handling the leaf carefully as she tucked it inside. Moving slowly, petals more brown and yellow than pink, the little spirit floated over to perch on the phone as Aya snapped it closed. It tugged on the stem until the leaf slipped free. The other spirit started to chew, chomping away at the bamboo as it rocked back and forth. Slowly, it faded back into the shadows.
Phone still clutched in her fist, Aya took off, running now to avoid being late. Unnoticed, the leaf twisted in an eddy of breeze and drifted down to lie on the sidewalk. The white spirit bounced along, riding on her hand, face turned to watch behind her as she left the corner further and further behind.