“All children, except one, grow up.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
“Hmm…?” Toshiro Hitsugaya shook his head, clearing his wandering thoughts. He looked toward the teacher and smiled impishly. “Pardon me?”
“Ah, welcome back!” The class laughed noisily and Toshiro sank further into his seat. The tip of his ears were burning brightly, matching the stain across his cheeks. The teacher clicked her tongue and held her hands on her wide hips. “I expect more from you, Toshiro. Please, keep up with the rest of the class.”
“Yes, Miss…” Toshiro’s words trailed off. Truth be told, he couldn’t even remember the shrew’s name. A week before, he had tested out of sixth grade. Now he found himself in a new classroom, in a new school, sitting with the seniors.
“The new kid is such a fag.” Toshiro looked up, his turquoise eyes meeting the whispering boy’s. The older boy smirked, cutting his eyes at Toshiro pointedly. “Should’ve just stayed in kindergarten with the rest of the babies.”
Toshiro nodded, an innocent smile spreading his lips. He leaned over in the desk, his voice no more than a whisper, “Blow me, asshole.”
The boy’s smug smirk fell from his face. He glared at Toshiro and lifted his hand, gesturing over his throat threateningly. Toshiro smiled wider and raised his thin arm, giving a dismissive wave.
The bell rang and the students slid out from their desks. They hurried, ignoring the teacher’s insistence that she dismissed them, rather than the bell. Toshiro hung back, slowly fumbling with the straps of his messenger bag. His stomach growled painfully and he clutched the bag to his body, attempting to stifle the noise.
“Hurry up, it’s my lunchtime too.”
Toshiro nodded and turned, heading for the door. He paused at the door, something strange catching his attention in his peripheral vision. He looked out the window at the grey, cloudy sky. It was a dark day, drizzly and cold. He watched a black bird land on a branch of the tree and sighed. It must have been his imagination.
He walked quickly through the crowded hall, his head down and his body pressed against the wall. Several people bumped into him without even noticing, others oohed and awed like he was a toddler on display. He pushed open the heavy front door to the school and joined the other students spilling onto the lawn.
Some stood around, talking and laughing happily. Others were obviously in a tremendous hurry, raising their voices and demanding a clear passageway in a nagging way. Toshiro exhaled, sitting down on the metal bench and pulling his knees up to his chest. Hundreds of people all around him and he was still all alone.
Toshiro pulled the sandwich baggy from his messenger bag and inspected the rather squished sandwich with disdain. He made it for himself that morning, with stale bread, one slice of odorous ham and a pickle spear. His stomach growled again and he swallowed his pride, ripping the sandwiches into pieces before popping it into his mouth.
He finished with time to spare so he pulled his book out from his bag. He inhaled the scent of the worn, printed paper happily. Did anything smell better than a book? He flipped to his bookmark, tucking it behind the last page for safekeeping. The little bit of light peeking out from behind the heavy clouds disappeared and he looked up to discover one of his classmates standing in front of him.
“Can I help you?” Toshiro asked, his thick white lashes fluttering slowly.
“How old are you?” the girl asked, waving the cellphone in her hand as she spoke. “You are, like, so tiny.”
“I’m 35.” Toshiro answered dryly.
“Really?!?” The girl’s eyes widened in shock and she took a step back. “No way.”
“No, not really.” Toshiro closed his book slowly, looking up at the girl impatiently. “I’m 12.”
“Ohhhhhhhh…” she said with a nod. “We were wondering why you were so small.” She smiled kindly and stuck her hand in her back pocket. “So you’re, like, really, really smart.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Toshiro said with a noncommittal shrug.
“Why do you have a Chinese name? You don’t look Chinese, like at all.”
“My Ma’s family was from Japan.” Toshiro answered quietly. The bell rang.
“Rebecca, come on…”
“I’ve gotta go.” The girl, he now knew as Rebecca, said with a playful frown. “We should totally talk again. See ya in Home Ec.”
“Sure.” Toshiro said and then sank deeper onto the bench with a sigh. Why did it take so much effort to converse with another human being?
A pop quiz, tedious study hall, and forty-five minutes of sweaty dodgeball later, Toshiro was walking home from school. He didn’t have too far to walk, but he walked past rows and rows of restaurants. The smell of freshly baked bread was enough to make his mouth salivate. He eyed the fresh fruit stands hungrily, his fingers twitching as he forced them to behave. He wouldn’t steal. He just wouldn’t.
The shopkeepers watched him curiously, perhaps keeping an eye on their wares. He thought about smiling, but often times smiling would incriminate him further, or even worse, they might try to talk to him. So he bowed his head, stiffening his shoulders and trudged onward down the sidewalk.
Toshiro was pushed into the narrow alley between two sections of the strip center. He was dragged upward, his back pressed painfully into the rough concrete of the building. He slid down the wall roughly as the shirt pulled over his head. Toshiro stood there shirtless, his large eyes wide with fright.
The older boy looked down at the shirt in his hand and tossed it back to Toshiro with a scowl. “Put your shirt back on, that’s nasty…”
“Fuck you. You’re the one who fucking did it.” Toshiro spat angrily. He dropped his messenger bag to the ground, pulling his shirt over his head quickly. “What do you want anyway?”
The boy shrugged, twisting his lips and making an irritated sound. “I don’t like you.”
“Okay,” Toshiro said unimpressed. He shook his head and retrieved his bag from the ground. “And?”
“I don’t like how ya walk around like you know everything… like you’s better than everyone.” The boy knocked Toshiro’s bag from his hands. “You’re just a stupid little bitch.”
Toshiro leaned over, reaching for his bag, when the boy’s foot connected with his chest. Toshiro stumbled backward, falling onto the damp, hard ground. The force knocked the wind from him and for several frightening seconds he couldn’t breathe. He clutched at his chest, his hands gripping his shirt tightly. He gulped for air, his eyes tearing up subconsciously.
“Hey, what the heck do you think you’re doing?!?” Toshiro looked up at a dark skinned shopkeeper. He was a middle-aged man, with fuzzy patches of black hair. He looked from Toshiro to the older boy angrily, his fist shaking. “You there!” The shopkeeper pointed at the other boy. “You go home or I’ll call the cops! You should be ashamed! Little punk!” The boy walked past Toshiro, his mouth twitching at the corners. The shopkeeper raised his foot, as if he was going to kick the older boy himself, and clapped his hands noisily. “Get! Get!”
“Are you alright?” the man asked brushing his hands on his apron in disgust. He straightened his nametag, it read Krishan, and he offered Toshiro a smile. “Would you like me to call your parents, young man?”
“No, no.” Toshiro shook his head adamantly. “No thank you. I’ll be on my way now.”
“Do you have far to walk?” The shopkeeper looked Toshiro up and down and then peered around the damp, dirty alley nervously.
“I’ll be fine,” Toshiro insisted, dusting his messenger bag off before slinging it over his narrow shoulder. “I live just around the corner.”
“Go straight home,” The shopkeeper instructed, pressing a plump apple into Toshiro’s palm. Toshiro looked down at the ruby red Royal Delicious in his hand and his mouth watered. “You must be more careful, young man. Go home and be good.”
Thank you! You’ve saved me! And, this apple, it’s beautiful, thank you… Toshiro couldn’t form the words swelling in his chest so he simply nodded, clutching the apple tightly. He walked past the man, ignoring the concern in his deep, large brown eyes. “Yeah.”
Toshiro walked home slowly, the pain in his chest and ribs nearly unbearable. He knew there would be a large, purple bruise, undoubtedly in the shape of some guy’s stupid fucking foot. Toshiro pushed the apple down his pants as he approached the door of apartment 24D, exhaling heavily before turning the key in the lock.
“Yeah, Ma?” Toshiro called back, throwing his school bag down on the peeling linoleum entryway.
“Five more minutes, Toshi, baby…”
Toshiro growled, ripping the door back open. He slammed the door shut behind him and squatted, resting his back against the apartment. He picked at the faded, chipping paint of the stair railing and scowled. The neighbor’s door, less than ten yards away, opened, smoke billowing out behind the woman who stood in the frame of the door.
She smiled, petting her peroxide blonde hair absently. “You just have the bluest eyes…” Toshiro didn’t respond, instead he focused more intently on peeling the old paint from the rusted metal. The woman shook her head, clicking her tongue. “Your Mama still workin’?” She took Toshiro’s silence as confirmation and shook her head, a knowing smile splaying her lips. “Ya know, you’re getting to be a big boy… Your Mama can’t have you wait outside forever… You gotta learn the ways of this world sooner or laters.”
The door to 24D opened and a man, nearly fifty and rather overweight, stepped outside. He looked down at Toshiro, his faded blue eyes meeting the young boy’s brilliant blue. He smiled, exposing two rows of discolored and missing teeth. Toshiro shuddered and the man chuckled, walking around Toshiro and down the stairs. At the bottom of the landing he turned around, looking up where Toshiro was still crouched. He paused and then directed his attention to Toshiro’s mother standing in the doorway. “Next time, I’ll pay triple for him.”
Toshiro’s hands wrapped around the metal bars and he squeezed. He squeezed as hard as if his hands were around that man’s neck. His eyes narrowed and he tried to formulate words. But instead his mother spoke for him, her tired, scratchy voice unusually firm. “My boy doesn’t do bad things. My boy’s really smart.” She stepped around Toshiro quickly, running toward the stairs like she intended to hurl herself over the railing to attack the man. “My boy’s going to college!”
Toshiro released the bars and stood up, his small hand wrapping around his mother’s. He pulled her gently, leading the scantily clad woman back toward their apartment. The neighbor shook her head pityingly, as if she herself had room to judge anyone. She bit down on her lip and brushed her fingertips against his mother’s thin arm reassuringly, “Life sucks, girl. He gotta find out sooner or laters, Yuuki.”
The rest of the night Toshiro had to listen to his mother’s sobs. At first he sat in the living room, on one of the two pieces of furniture they owned, a stained and smelly secondhand couch, and tried to comfort her. He assured her that he would study, that he would graduate early and apply for every college grant and scholarship and loan. He promised her he would never drink or do drugs or have sex. He would say anything she asked of him. He told her countless times of how far he had already come, but it was useless.
His mother was ill. He understood this and he tried to love her anyway. She would fluctuate on a wild scale, one moment needy and vulnerable and the other violent and psychotic. She would berate him for stealing her youth. She would slap him, claw him, and demand to know why she was in such a place. After beating him she would collapse, sobbing and moaning and begging him to stay with her always. Toshiro didn’t know his father, and he wasn’t sure if his mother did either. It was just a mutual agreement they held, Toshiro was never to ask. Toshiro didn’t blame his father for splitting, he was only mad the bastard managed to get out.
He eventually gave up, crawling exhaustedly to the single room they shared. He sat on the twin bed, listening to her pounding the floor and screaming at the top of her lungs. The noise was unbearable, but no one would call the cops, they didn’t do that here. A little after one, she grew quiet and it was safe to assume she had fallen asleep.
Toshiro pulled the apple from his pants and walked quietly to the restroom. He twisted the rusted knob and water shot out from the faucet in sporadic bursts. He rinsed the apple and rubbed it against his shirt to dry it. He sank down onto the cold tile and pushed the door closed. Thank you, Krishan, Toshiro bit into the Royal Delicious. Apples, by nature and in Toshiro’s humble opinion, are not the best of fruit. Sure, people may call apples juicy, but compared to most fruit, apples are rather dry. However, as Toshiro ate, it seemed like this was the most spectacularly tasting apple in the world. The skin was easy to chew, the flesh was soft and juicy, and the core was small.
Once finished, Toshiro wrapped the core in toilet paper, hurriedly burying it in the bottom of the waste bin. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stood up, reaching for his toothbrush and toothpaste. He inspected his teeth carefully; he couldn’t afford the dentist, so he took extra care of them.
“You have school in the morning.” His mother said suddenly, her voice raspy and raw. “Get to sleep.”
Toshiro nodded and stepped around his mother, she grabbed his arm, her nails pinching his skin painfully. He looked from her hand to her face, trying to maintain a passive expression. “If you can’t get good grades, you can’t get a good job… If you can’t get a good job, you can work with me…You’ll be a grownup soon, Toshi, just like me…”
Toshiro wrenched his arm from his mother’s grasp. His large eyes narrowed, he looked at her, her stringy dark hair, small dark eyes, pale skin. He was nothing like her. Did they even fucking belong together? “Ma, I’m not going to end up like you.”
She nodded and turned around, leaning over the sink and retching. Toshiro shook his head and grabbed a blanket off of the bed. He wrapped it around himself and stormed off to the narrow kitchen. He sat down, resting his head against the refrigerator and tucking his feet beneath the oven. He closed his eyes, and even though he thought he was too angry to sleep, he fell asleep right away.
He opened his eyes. It was another fucking day. Another stupid, horrible, fucking day. He blinked slowly, exhaustion settling deep into his bones. He was groggy and couldn’t see anything in the darkness. He didn’t want to wake up. He blinked again, his eyes fluttering open slowly. His vision cleared and he nearly screamed as he stared up into a pair of startling blue eyes.
“What the fuck!?!” Toshiro sat up, pulling the blanket under his chin in misguided self-defense.
“Nuh uh uh…” the young man wagged his finger, his blue eyes closed to mere slits. He smiled, his lips pressed together tightly. “Children shouldn’t use such naughty words.”
Toshiro’s stomach dropped and he stared at the young man straddling him. He was older than Toshiro, maybe, but it was hard to say an age. He had pale skin and silver hair that seemed to take on a purple tint. He kept his eyes closed, that creepy smile plastered on his handsome face. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The young man wriggled on top of Toshiro excitedly. He looked down, his hands pressing against the fridge door. “The name’s Gin.”
“Why are you in my apartment, Gin?” Toshiro asked, his eyes creeping toward the counter where the knives sat in their block. Gin’s eyes followed Toshiro’s gaze and he frowned exaggeratedly when he saw the knives.
“Ah, tha’s not nice, Toshiro.” Gin sat back, his heavy body pressing down on Toshiro’s legs uncomfortably. “I thought ya could use a friend, ya know, that’s why I’m here.”
“I need you to get out of my house now.” Toshiro spat, pushing his palms against Gin and dumping him onto the floor.
Gin rolled to his knees and stood. When Toshiro saw all of the strange boy he was suddenly terrified. Gin was at the very beginning of puberty, a day between the first kiss and the plague of facial acne. He was handsome, but he dressed in a peculiar manner. He was clad only in fur, his chest bare except for a necklace of teeth and the colorful body paint that adorned almost his entire body. On top of his silvery hair was a wolf’s head that draped down his shoulders toward his back.
“I’m here ta help…” Gin insisted, his voice, perhaps, the most unsettling thing of all. His voice was syrupy, fluid. He had a thick accent and his words seemed to bounce off his tongue when he spoke them.
“I don’t need help…” Toshiro said, shaking his head and climbing to his feet. He raised his hands peaceably and offered a nervous smile. “Why don’t you just go on… back to wherever you came from…”
“How old’re ya, Toshiro?” Gin asked, propping himself on the kitchen counter.
“Wait… how do you know my name?” Toshiro narrowed his eyes, pulling the blanket even more tightly around himself.
“’Cause ya need my help.” Gin said simply. “Now quick… tell me, how old are ya?”
“I’m 12.” Toshiro answered.
“Good, good, I’m not too late.” Gin replied happily, clapping his hands together softly.
“Too late for what?” Toshiro asked, furrowing his thin, grey brows.
“Too late to save ya, silly,” Gin opened one eye, if only so he could wink playfully at Toshiro.
Gin’s hand dove into a hidden pocket. His fur clothing moved and twisted as his hand desperately searched for some misplaced object. He smiled widely and shook his head, “It’s always the last place ya think ta look…”
“Well, yeah,” Toshiro muttered. “You stop looking when you find it, so…”
“Oh, be quiet.” Gin chastised playfully, bringing a shiny, silver fife to his lips. He began to play and suddenly Toshiro felt dizzy. He shook his head to clear it and then he staggered, leaning against the kitchen counter for support.
Gin continued his shrill, eerie song, the strange pipe music filling the apartment. The music was hypnotic and Toshiro struggled to stay awake. He collapsed moments later, Gin’s long, thin arm catching him before he hit the ground.
When Toshiro woke he was outside, the breeze ruffling his white hair. He looked up at the blue sky, the stars snuggling into a blanket of pink and orange. He tilted his head to the side, his turquoise eyes wide with shock as he realized he was being carried in Gin’s arms.
“Put me down.” Toshiro ordered, his voice firm and commanding. “Right this instant.”
“Oh, I don’t think ya’d like that much, Toshiro…” Gin drawled, smiling. He nodded in gesture at the land far beneath their feet. Spirited Away, Toshiro thought in a panic, recalling all of those insane stories his mother had told him.
Toshiro yelled himself hoarse. He didn’t mean to, really, but he could have no other reaction to such a preposterous situation. He looked at Gin, this strange, albeit familiar, boy who could walk in the sky, and he swallowed a lump in his throat. “I’m hallucinating.” Toshiro nodded, accepting this new truth. “I’ve been drugged… and I’m hallucinating…I’ll probably wake up with a missing kidney… and….”
“Stop.” Gin snapped, his smile faltering and his eyes opening to expose two brilliant slivers of blue. “Leave that disgusting world behind. You don’t need adult problems, you’re just a kid. Adults are cruel. Adults are boring, pathetic, selfish, old, fat, ugly, wrinkled, humorless, morbid, scared, greedy.” Gin locked eyes with Toshiro. “Becoming an adult is a fate worse than death.”
Gin’s foxlike smile returned and he patted Toshiro on top of his head. “Tha’s a good boy.” Gin looked at Toshiro out of the corner of his eye. He stared for a long time before speaking again, “Ya know, you’re kinda cute.”
They began to descend, Gin’s body moving with ease, as if he were only skipping across a field. His bare feet touched the ground and he yawned, looking up at the clear morning sky. “Well, we’ve arrived.”
“Arrived where?” Toshiro asked as Gin lowered him to the ground. He spun in a small circle, looking through the dense forest nervously. He was grateful that Gin had brought along his blanket. He used it as a shield as he stood with this stranger in a strange land.
“This is home.” Gin replied, straightening up and crowing into his curved hand. The sound was like a trumpet and soon more voices joined in, a chorus of children mimicking animal noises.
Children began to drop from the trees, dozens of them circling Toshiro with apprehension. Gin smiled, waving his hand dismissively. “Take it easy, boys, you’ll scare the little rabbit.”
“He looks like a child,” one of the boys, nearly teenaged, whispered. His gray eyes were narrowed suspiciously and he inhaled the air deeply. “But he smells like a man.” He approached slowly, bent at the waist as if he were more accustomed to walking on all fours. His shaggy black hair was a mess of feathers and there were three deep gouges scarring his face from his eye all the way down his right cheek, but he was still handsome.
The others muttered in agreement, banging their hands together noisily. Gin shook his head and sighed, “Oh, dear.” He turned to Toshiro and lifted his hand in a questioning gesture. “Should we go ‘head ‘n’ do tha cleansing ceremony then? Will that make ya feel better, boys?”
“Yes.” The scarred boy said. “We should do it now, before he infects one of us.”
“Alright.” Gin said with a grin. “The people have spoken and your King agrees.”
“Hey! Hey! What’s going on?!?” Toshiro protested as he was hoisted into the air. Countless boys carried him above their heads, bouncing him from one person to the next with little disregard for his safety or comfort. He clenched his eyes shut tightly.
With a heart pounding jerk, Toshiro was thrown down on the ground. But instead of the pain he expected, he was simply thrown back up. He opened his eyes as he began to bounce, realizing that he had been thrown onto a trampoline-like system of steps. He righted himself with little effort and began to hop from one section to the next. He descended quickly, the strange, wild boys following after him noisily.
“Leave me alone.” Toshiro snapped as he reached the ground. He scowled as two boys hooked arms with him, swinging him back and forth like a small child. “Hey… what’re you doing?”
The boys smiled mischievously at one another. They stood on the shore of an incredible lake. The water was crystal clear, with the most beautiful tint of blue. It would take hours to walk around a lake of that size and Toshiro noted that there were narrow stepping stones in two rows down the center. The lake was enticing, but something about it was unsettling.
He couldn’t explain it, but he felt as if the water was dangerous. He cringed and closed his eyes. The boys nodded wordlessly and jumped, one boy on one row and the other on another, Toshiro swinging between them helplessly.
“Hey! Wait!” Toshiro growled, digging his nails into the arms that held him. He really didn’t want to be thrown into the lake and he was going to make it as hard as possible on them. The boys, however, seemed content with jumping from stone to stone, swinging Toshiro back and forth between them.
The boys released him once they were back on solid ground and Toshiro stood, balling his fists. “You guys are ass-”
“’Stronauts.” One of the boys interrupted with a smirk. “Astronauts walking on the moon…”
Toshiro looked at the boy in disbelief, his thin brow arching drastically. “What is your disfunction?”
“Nothing.” The boy said with a laugh, shrugging as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m free. I never have to grow up.”
“Everyone has to gro-” And then Toshiro was pulled in another direction, deeper into the forest.
Toshiro looked up just as he was struck with a small, blue water balloon. The balloon exploded sending sweet, Kool-Aid flavored water everywhere. There was a barrage of balloons, his snowy white hair staining with pink, purple and blue coloring. A basket of balloons was lowered to the ground in front of him. Without hesitation, he grabbed two handfuls of ammunition, holding it in the crease of his arm.
He began to retaliate, his second balloon hitting the scarred boy directly in the nose. The boy made a face, and for a second he thought he might hit him. But the boy laughed, shaking his sopping wet hair like a dog. He grabbed another balloon from the boy next to him and ran forward, breaking the balloon over Toshiro’s head.
Toshiro laughed as the cold, delicious water streamed down his face and neck. He tensed his shoulders and scrunched his face. And then the boys erupted into cheers. They lifted Toshiro up into the air once more, holding him on their shoulders. They shouted nonsense, marching up and down the worn path. It was all a hallucination, a dream, but it felt so good. It felt so good to have friends, if only for a brief moment.
Gin, smiling brightly, stood at the end of the path, leaning against an enormous tree. He gestured Toshiro forward and looked down at him, his hand on his chin as if in deep thought. Toshiro had the strangest sense of déjà vu. He cleared his throat and looked away from the taller boy. Gin nodded twice and folded his arms. “Burn the bad clothes.”
Toshiro cried out in protest as he was forcibly stripped naked. Toshiro was embarrassed, his tan skin stained with rouge, but the boys didn’t give it a second thought. Gin tossed Toshiro a white and grey fur loincloth and, even though he laughed, he helped Toshiro put it on properly.
The boys grew quiet and Toshiro looked around unsurely. Gin pulled colored powder out of one of his pouches and smiled, pulling a knife free from his belt with his other hand. The scarred boy grabbed Toshiro’s hand, flipping it palm up. Gin smiled, slicing the blade across his skin without warning. The scarred boy turned his hand back over and squeezed, letting the blood drip into the colored powder in Gin’s hand.
The powder formed a paste quickly and Gin began to fingerpaint markings onto Toshiro’s body. He started with the chest, the powder, originally orange, was now blue. Toshiro watched as Gin’s pale, thin hand glided across his brown skin. Gin looked up and for a moment the foxlike smile was gone, instead Gin had the most peculiar look, as if he were a predator and Toshiro was the captured prey. Gin drew down Toshiro’s arms and legs, finishing with a blue and white tilak on his forehead.
The boys cheered and clapped and resumed their startling animal calls, watching Toshiro very expectantly. Gin and the scarred boy shared a look and Gin took Toshiro’s hand into his. He turned Toshiro’s hand over and over examining every crease with interest. “Shuuhei,” Gin spoke to the scarred boy quietly. “What’s the record so far?”
“Two minutes, Gin.” The scarred boy, apparently named Shuuhei, answered. Toshiro looked at Shuuhei with confusion.
“Record for what?” Toshiro asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Gin replied dismissively. “It’s just that… well…”
“The cleansing ceremony is painful.” Shuuhei answered with a knowing frown. “It removes the poison from the dirty world.” Shuuhei scratched his messy hair. “The longest anyone has made it before getting sick is two minutes.”
“Sick?” Toshiro asked, looking down at his painted body in concern. “How sick?”
“Vomiting, diarrhea, fever…” Gin replied with a shrug. “All the icky stuff no one wants.”
“Don’t worry though,” the red haired boy called out. “It’s the only time you’ll ever get sick here!”
“No sickness.” Gin agreed with a beaming smile. “Jus’ tha way I like it.”
The noise grew to a deafening roar and when two minutes had passed without incident the boys were nearly uncontainable. Toshiro scratched at his arm self-consciously, tugging the short, tiny loincloth further down his thighs. Gin climbed onto the lowest branch of the tree, climbing upward quickly and wordlessly, disappearing into the forest canopy.
“Are you feeling okay?” Shuuhei asked, pressing the back of his hand to Toshiro’s forehead.
“Yeah.” Toshiro said, looking down at his body as if he expected it to explode. “Physically, I feel fine.”
Gin reappeared, dropping from a tree branch as if it were second nature. He wore his usual, foxlike expression and he held a wolf skin up in presentation. The crowd grew quiet and the silence was nearly earsplitting. Gin stepped forward, extending a wolf skin to Toshiro with a grandiose gesture. “I think this belongs to you…”
“Is he the one? Is it him?” One of the boys yelled impatiently, his vibrant red hair spilling into his eyes.
“What do you mean?” Toshiro asked, his hand held unnaturally between his body and the wolf skin.
“Only a Pan can wear tha honorable Wolfskin.” Gin said, lifting his finger up to point at the wolf skin adorning his silver hair.
“What’s a Pan?” Toshiro asked.
“What’s Pan?” Gin repeated excitedly, his blue eyes burning vividly. The crowd of boys murmured hungrily. “Pan is God of the Wild! Shepard to flocks!”
Toshiro lowered his hand, his eyes searching first Gin’s face and then the other boys’ faces. “My name is Toshiro Hitsugaya… I’m not… I’m…”
“Take it,” Gin instructed. “You’ll only know if ya try.”
“And what if I’m not a Pan?” Toshiro asked unsurely.
“Ya can b’come onenuvmah lost boys…” Gin said simply. “Ya can have the world in yer hand, a prince until the end…”
The end. It was an intimidating sentiment and something about it made Toshiro’s stomach twist into nervous knots. Slowly, Toshiro raised his hand, his fingertips nearly brushing the edge of the wolf skin. He inhaled nervously and closed his eyes.
Toshiro held the wolf skin in his hands. He looked down at the fur, his hands smoothing down the thick hair. He had always thought fur was gross. I’m sorry, little guy, Toshiro apologized to the wolf, now long gone.
Gin clapped his hands and stepped closer, his body nearly pressing against Toshiro’s. The warmth radiated off of him and Toshiro, scantily clad and frightened, craved it. He looked up into Gin’s handsome face and shook his head. “What does it mean?”
“Put it on.” Gin instructed, spinning Toshiro around. He helped Toshiro into the wolf skin hood and then took a step back. He looked around at the group of older boys and smiled, a bit of sadness creeping into his voice, “The new Pan.”
The older boys became sober. They kneeled solemnly, their heads bent in respect. And the younger ones followed suit awkwardly. Toshiro looked around anxiously shaking his head. “I’m not… I don’t understand…”
Gin cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “Prepare the feast!”
The boys jumped to attention, immediately heading off in a hundred different directions. Toshiro barely managed to catch Gin’s arm before he took off to the trees. He pulled Gin’s arm, leading him to a quiet spot near the large tree. He couldn’t let go of Gin’s arm. He couldn’t control his body. “No.”
“No what?” Gin asked, patting Toshiro’s purple, blue and pink stained hair. “Aren’t ya hungry?”
“What does being a Pan mean?” Toshiro hissed, his hand still locked around Gin’s wrist.
“It means bein’ tha King of tha World.” Gin explained with a smile.
“Who are you?” Toshiro demanded.
“Gin.” Gin replied with a playful shrug, his head bouncing from side to side as he spoke.
“And who is Gin? Who is Pan? You’re a Pan too, right?” Toshiro asked, growing desperate for any explanation that would make sense.
“I’m Gin,” Gin repeated aggravatingly. “You’re Pan. I’m Pan. We share tha Pan…” Gin’s smile faltered for a moment. “Until my end.”
“What end?” Toshiro grew frustrated, his hands wringing Gin’s arm.
“You’ll see soon ‘nough…” Gin answered cryptically, peeling Toshiro’s fingers off of his arm. “But from one Pan to ‘nother,” Gin leaned down, his blue eyes boring into Toshiro’s. “You’ll wish today was a lot longer.”
Toshiro had never seen so much food.
Toshiro had never seen so much food outside of a grocery store.
Toshiro had never seen so much delicious, ripe, fresh food. He sat down at the enormous table, in the chair next to Gin’s. He sat across from a desolate blonde boy with blue eyes. Toshiro forced a smile and the corner of the boy’s mouth twitched upward. On the other side of Gin’s chair sat Shuuhei.
Gin approached the table and tapped his fork against his metal plate, bringing everyone to attention.
“Gods are super great,
oh yes, Gods are really good,
I hope to the Gods nobody’s poisoned this food.”
“Amen!” The boys yelled in reply. And without further ado, the children began to tear into the plates of food.
“A-men…” Toshiro muttered unsurely. He grabbed a slice of watermelon, sniffing the fruit suspiciously. “Has poisoning been a problem?”
“Of course not…” Gin waved his hand dismissively. “Well, not on purpose…”
Toshiro’s eyes widened in surprise and the sad-looking blonde boy leaned forward, “It took us a while to figure out yew berries are poisonous.”
“It was an instant death…” Gin added, as if that made everything better.
“Where are the adults?” Toshiro asked before biting into the watermelon. His eyes watered as he chewed the moist melon. He spit out the seed, letting the juice dribble down his chin. For a moment, he was blissful, in near ecstasy from the delicious fruit.
“Adults are not allowed here. Ever.” Shuuhei replied sharply.
“I-zu-ru,” Gin drawled playfully, tapping the sad, blonde boy on the arm. “Can ya pass me the persimmons?”
The blonde boy, Izuru, plopped the bowl, well within Gin’s reach, in front of Gin wordlessly. He turned to Toshiro and tossed the hair out of his eye, “There is a colony…” Izuru continued to struggle with the hair in his eyes. “On the south side of the island.” He used his fingers to hold his bangs to the side with a sigh. “They are dying out from the sickness.”
“Let’s not talk ‘bout such heavy things,” Gin instructed with a smile. “It’s bad for digestion…”
“You’ll know everything soon enough,” Shuuhei offered with sad smile. “You’re Pan after all.”
“About that…” Toshiro began uneasily. “There’s been some mistake…”
“There’s been no mistake.” Gin hissed, almost sharply. He looked up at Toshiro and wiped the thick, red sauce from his lips. His blue eyes sparked and he grinned from ear to ear. “I’ve been lookin’ for ya for 12 years now, Pan. I wouldn’t make a mistake…”
Toshiro’s appetite waned and he felt as if he could cry. He looked around the table searching for the thing he wished to eat most. He reached forward and grabbed a boiled egg. He shook the salted water off the egg and began to eat. He wasn’t even sure why he picked an egg, perhaps because it was something his mother would have served.
The meal began to wind down and despite the tremendous amount of food from the start, it seemed nearly all of it had been consumed. Gin stood and everyone grew quiet once more. He pressed his hand to his tummy in contentment and grinned. “What a delicious meal… Lil’uns, bedtime… no ifs, ands, or buts… Older boys, we hunt.”
Toshiro was swept along with the older crowd. The children armed themselves with bows and axes and swords. Toshiro declined but was eventually forced to take an axe. He pushed it into the leather belt at his waist and hoped his flimsy loincloth would hold up to the task. “What are we hunting?” Toshiro asked several boys, one after the other. “We just ate…”
The boys walked, it felt like hours, and then Gin signaled for them to stop. In the distance, on the beach, was a little village. The village was surrounded by a large, intimidating fence. A sentinel stood on a small platform, torchlight illuminating his face with flickering orange light. He wasn’t old, maybe his thirties, but the parts of his face that weren’t hidden by a beard were terribly scarred.
Gin began to signal with his hands and the boys spread out, their weapons drawn. Toshiro raised his hand unsurely, trying to attract Gin’s attention. Shuuhei turned, eyeing Toshiro up and down thoughtfully. “What?” he mouthed silently.
“What the hell is going on?” Toshiro hissed under his breath.
“A glorious death.” Izuru whispered, stalking past Toshiro.
“They’re infected.” Shuuhei mouthed back, rolling his eyes irritably.
“With what?!?” Toshiro hissed.
“They’re adults…” Shuuhei said aloud, shrugging. “They’re bad.”
“Not all adults are bad… Shuuhei… Hey… Shuuhei, come back!”
Gin gave the signal and the boys erupted from their hiding places. They squawked and roared, brandishing their weapons. The sentinel cried out, his hand ripping the warning bell from side to side noisily. Men poured out of the village, their swords and axes clashing against the children’s.
Toshiro stood frozen in place. He watched as the children cut and slashed. There was blood everywhere. The adults were entirely on the defensive, pleading with the children to stop. When it looked as if the children might actually win, they suddenly collapsed. Each and every boy, excluding the two Pans, was on the ground, gripping their stomachs in agony.
Toshiro took a step forward and then another and then he was running. He dropped to his knees beside Shuuhei, shaking the boy nervously. “Shuuhei, what’s wrong? What’s going on?” Shuuhei groaned, his eyes rolling to the back of his head. “Oh shit!”
“I think he’s having a seizure!” Toshiro yelled to Gin.
Gin stood silently, watching the scene unfold before him. The villagers had unexpectedly lowered their weapons, looking from Gin to Toshiro to the convulsing boys with unreadable expressions on their faces.
“What is happening to them?” Toshiro demanded, turning Shuuhei’s face to the side.
“They can’t stay children forever.” Gin said with a sad smile. He shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest. “Everyone grows up after a while…”
“The villagers…” Toshiro looked up at the men in surprise. “They’re from… they…”
“My time is ending, Pan.” Gin said, suddenly standing behind Toshiro. He kneeled on the ground, his larger frame towering over Toshiro’s. “The next thousand years belongs to you.”
Toshiro looked up, swallowing heavily. “What’s happening… your face… it’s… changing…” With realization, Toshiro looked down at Shuuhei, brushing his hand over the young man’s face. The surviving children, now adults, began to stir, the villagers helping them to their feet. “I don’t understand anything.”
“You’ll remember.” Gin whispered, brushing his hand across Toshiro’s cheek gently. “It’s in here.” Gin pointed to his head. “And in here.” Gin pointed to his heart. “For safekeeping…”
“May I give ya a kiss?” Gin asked slowly. “Before I have ta go?”
“I don’t know…” Toshiro answered truthfully.
“Well, ya can hit me if ya want, afterward.” Gin whispered, pressing his lips against Toshiro’s soft, youthful cheek. The kiss was sweet and innocent, and Toshiro was embarrassed to admit he had wanted more. Gin sank down onto his knees, his lean body expanding exponentially. He smiled, his handsome, adult face rapidly aging. He began to shrink, wither, and die. “It’s your turn…”
Gin’s body crumbled, his body turning to sand. Toshiro stood up in shock, covering his mouth with his hand. He looked around at the men on the beach and took a frightful step backward. Panic filled his heart and he thought he might scream. And then he remembered.
Toshiro stood on the chair, his white hair a wild mess. His turquoise eyes shifted back and forth expectantly, checking that every single boy’s attention belonged to him. The children, no more than seven or eight at the oldest, sat with their mouths hanging open. “There once were two kings. They were both great kings with vast lands. Always competitive, they searched high and low for the perfect bride, and together they captured two fey of the forest. They wedded the fey and had a son each.”
“Ewww… girls are nasty…”
“Ahem,” Toshiro warned. “Do you want to hear the story?”
“Yes...” the boys groaned apologetically.
“The boys were very different. Like the sun and the moon. One was bright and warm and the other was thoughtful and cool. But they were best friends, inseparable.” Toshiro crossed his arms. “They would sneak out of their castles and run off together into the woods. They ignored their studies so they could hunt and play and fish and dance all day long.”
“Time passed and the boys remained close. And then one day, the eldest boy was meant to be married.” Toshiro explained slowly. “He didn’t love her, he didn’t even know her. But it was for the good of the kingdom. The prince didn’t intend to marry anyone, he claimed, except for the other prince, and it made the King very angry. He banned his son from meeting with the other prince anymore.”
“And then what happened?” The little boy with vibrant red hair asked, his beady brown eyes opened wide.
“The two princes went behind the kings’ back.” Toshiro continued. “Their fathers, both very powerful, were furious. They hated their sons’ frivolous, playful, mischievous natures… They couldn’t accept that fey blood coursed so strongly through their veins.” Toshiro jumped from the chair and began to pace back and forth, his hands moving as he spoke. “They prayed to the King of the Gods. And the King of the Gods cursed the two princes… that they may never grow old together…” Toshiro grew quiet and he lifted his tanned hand to his chin. “The curse was strong, and their bond was so great, that the princes were unable to even speak to one another. The curse seemed inescapable, so the eldest prince married the princess and on the wedding night the youngest prince threw himself into the sea. When the prince found out he hurled himself in as well. ”
The children sat in complete silence, their fingers fidgeting anxiously.
“The fey mothers appealed to the King of the Gods to no avail. But the Mother Goddess took pity on them… granting their sons eternal life as Gods.”
“But they could never meet again!” A little boy with kinky black hair whined. “That’s no fair.”
“The Mother Goddess was kind.” Toshiro said soberly, clearing his throat as he spoke. “She granted them one day.” Toshiro was quiet until the children settled back down. “One day together, every one thousand years.”
“I wish this story had a happy ending…”
Toshiro kneeled next to the orange haired boy and patted him on the head. The boy looked up sadly, his large, brown eyes filled with tears that threatened to fall. Toshiro laughed and stood up, shaking his head. “It’s just a story.” Toshiro reasoned. “A legend.” Toshiro nodded thoughtfully. “And I kinda think they did get a happy ending, they got to spend one last day together.”
“Toshiro…” the little boy with kinky, black hair called out. “A day isn’t very long though…”
“One day isn’t enough,” Toshiro agreed. “But one day every one thousand years for forever… that’s not as bad.” Toshiro answered, turning and looking at the boy sternly. “And you need to call me Pan.”