The light of early dawn bled through my eyelids too brightly to ignore, and I rolled out of bed with a jawcracking yawn. As I stretched, aches I wasn't aware I had made themselves known. I winced. My right side really hurt.
My heart sank as I remembered why. Barefoot, I padded out of my room and down the narrow hallway to the bathroom.
Yeah, I remembered. Mother again. Tears running down her cheeks, the tears that broke my heart to see as she shrieked at the top of her lungs. I cried, too, struggling to free myself from the claws that bit my skin. Jien heard me screaming and pried her away from me.
Just another night in the Sha household.
I pushed the door to the bathroom open lightly. It creaked, and I cringed. If I woke Mother up, she'd kill me. Not that she needed the excuse. I slipped inside and shut the door behind me.
The bathroom looked like shit. Cracks zigzagged through the plaster walls, the bathtub was a sickly yellow, and several spiders had made their homes in the dirt-encrusted corners of the room. The floor tiles were sticky. Pale pink light drifted through the dirty glazed window.
Maybe I'd clean the place today. Jien was working today,and Mother was, well, indisposed. I knew that volunteering to tidy things up wouldn't make a damn bit of difference to her, but I kept trying, hoping. Yeah, dumb. I know.
I reached out and turned the sink's cold water knob. Clear, sparkling water dripped out of the rusty faucet. I splashed the icy water on my face, trying not to meet my own gaze in the mirror.
Mother was right when she called me ugly. Me with my crimson eyes and hair, marked as the dirty, half-breed, forbidden child I was. Me and my stupid face that pained my mother every time she had to look at me. Maybe I looked too much like my dad. Hell if I knew. He wasn't around, and it wasn't like Mother was talking.
I grabbed my towel, a former dishrag, and scrubbed my face dry. My long hair got in my eyes, and I scowled. I wanted to cut the whole mess off completely, shave my head bald, but Jien was apalled by the idea.
"Your hair is beautiful," Jien had told me firmly.
"Mother doesn't think so." I'd been glum that night.
"Mother can't look past what you are to see who you are. Shave that gorgeous hair of yours off and I'll dump you in a Gojyo-sized bucket of plaster, you hear me?" Then he had to go and noogie me and I faked like I was gonna bite him and he made me laugh. My brother was a real good guy.
I hung my towel on its little wooden bar. Maybe I'd go help him at work today or something. He said I was awfully strong for a kid my age, swore I'd grow into that strength some day. Me, I wasn't so sure.
I was startled when I walked into the kitchen to see the back of Mother's faded nightgown hunched over the stove. "Good morning, Mother," I said hopefully, sitting at the kitchen table. Had she really gotten up to make breakfast for me? I didn't understand her. Sometimes, rarely, she'd do things like this, make me a meal or buy me a new shirt and I'd raise my eyes to her face only to flinch away at her face when she looked at me...
She didn't answer, and I wilted into my seat. A few awkward moments passed before she slapped some mushy scrambled eggs and charred toast at me. This was definitely an improvement over being shouted at to die, though, and the silence was the best it had been between us in months.
"Where's Jien?" she growled suddenly, her back to me again as she washed last night's dirty dishes.
I twitched with surprise. "He's working in the village, Mother."
She grunted. Our silence stretched between us like a strained rubber band. I looked down at my plate. The sunlight turned the mushy goop into something molten. For a moment I had a flash of bright gold eyes, fierce and laughing... I blinked and the vision was gone.
"The bathroom needs cleaning," Mother rasped, startling me again.
"I'll clean it," I volunteered as soon as I realized that she was talking to me and not the air. She did that sometimes.
Another pause. "The parlor is a mess."
From last night. I swallowed. "I'll clean it, Mother --"
Stillness fell over her body like a blanket, and she turned, and she smiled at me.
Not with love. No. This smile was just for me, this trembling smile on the knife-edge of sanity. I felt like a cloak had been thrown over my head and drawn tight, too tight for me to breathe. I was acutely aware that Jien wasn't here.
"I'm sorry," I cried. My voice sounded sharp and high in the air. She stepped towards me, her arms wet to the elbows with dishwater and soap, and I pushed my chair back, heart beating so hard it shook my entire body. It was too early for this. I was tired and I hurt all over and I was trying so hard to be good --
"Sorry?" The word sounded torn from her throat and her lips twitched, smile flickering madly. Her lips split open in a scream: "You're sorry?"
I tried to speak but choked. Instead I shot out of my chair and looked around wildly. I couldn't run, that would just make her angrier and when she caught me like she always did she'd go for my neck again and gods above, I should just let her. This time I should just...
She slammed the table out of her way with one hard, muscular arm. The terrible crashing noise, the way the birds suddenly fell quiet, frightened tears out of me. I ignored my whimpers and stumbled backwards until the wall pressed cold against my back. Her shadow engulfed me as she moved closer.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the scrambled eggs, a mess of gold with shards of the plate stuck in it.
"You can never be sorry enough," she choked out. She began to cry. She still had a pan in her hand, I suddenly realized. The pan dripped with soap.
"Please..." But my voice was a whisper and I cried because I was afraid and because my mother was crying and it was all my fault. She swung at me with the pan and I threw my arms up over my head before I knew what I was doing. She grabbed my hair as I tried to move away from another strike and beat me, weeping, as I went limp and stupid with the pain.
"Today was the day your father brought you here," she sobbed, hiccupping. The pan slid out of her grip and clattered to the floor. She released me roughly, her face ravaged and trembling as she stared at me. "He brought you here without any shame, the bastard, he told me to take care of you, take care, the baby's new, he said, and he was crying because his human bitch had died. And you looked up at me with your wretched crimson eyes and I hated you, you ugly filthy child, I hate you!" Her voice cracked as it spiraled into a shriek. "I wish you were dead! Why won't you die!"
I vaguely registered blood as I cradled my arm. The room was spinning in and out of reality, the edges of my vision going black. Abruptly she took hold of my chin and jerked it up with damp hands, her claws pressing painfully into my skin. The blackness receded as I stared straight into the eyes of the only person I could call mother, and the hate in those eyes was too much for me to bear. I dropped my gaze as she spat, "Today's the day you were born, Gojyo. You're eleven years old." She laughed harshly as the tears glittered on her face. "Happy birthday, you son of a bitch."
She let go of my face as though it burned her. "Clean up this mess," she snarled. She backhanded me until I managed to nod and then she left the room, lurching as if drunk. Maybe she was.
"I would have cleaned it anyway," I told the empty air. I blinked and drew breath. With breath came pain that sent me to my knees, and I started crying again, helplessly, as the room spun silent and gold around me. I didn't know what to do anymore. I couldn't do this anymore. I couldn't stand it, I couldn't take it, I, I...
I loved my mother. So I wiped the tears from my eyes and got to work.
I left the house as soon as I finished cleaning the kitchen and headed towards the village. I liked hanging around the village because Mother wasn't there and Jien usually was. I always felt like the townfolk were staring at me, but Jien scoffed when I said so and told me I was just imagining it. Evidently, though I'd never seen one, there were some redheaded humans. His friend Raiden made a face and said the color was more orange than red, and Jien gave him a dirty look. I asked about red eyes, and the dirty look turned to me.
Jien worked as muscle for a local timber business, but I couldn't remember which. I stopped in the middle of the village square, embarassed as I realized I honestly didn't know where he was. And people were looking at me, some even stopping to stare, which made me want to crawl into a hole. People always had to stare at my stupid red hair and my stupid red eyes. Belatedly I recalled that I was also beaten bloody, which didn't make me feel any less self-conscious. I started walking again. What the hell else was I supposed to do?
As I walked, cradling my arm and trying not to show how much it hurt, I glanced at the people around me. Little human kids with big bright eyes bounced up and down besides their parents and begged for candy and toys. Couples walked hand in hand, gazing gooey-eyed at each other. A teenage girl tugged on her white dog's leash, laughing. The love that held them together was the love I didn't deserve to even witness, and I felt empty and hungry even though the last thing I wanted was breakfast. I felt like crying again.
I wanted Jien. I kept my head down as I walked, blind with pain and yearning. I just wanted someone to take care of me, to look at me as if I was worth something, to see me and not a taboo or a betrayal. I scanned the villagers anxiously: nothing, so I kept walking, tears stinging my eyes.
When a warm hand grasped me by the shoulder and a hearty voice greeted, "Gojyo-babe!" I damn near went into cardiac arrest. I whirled around, my good fist halfway to the intruder's face, before I recognized him. "Seiya?"
Jien's friend tossed shaggy blue bangs out of his eyes and grinned. His fangs sparkled in the sunlight. "The one and only, kid. Whatcha doin' in the village?" His grin faded as he looked me over. "Damn, the fuck happened to you?"
"Nothing. Where's Jien?"
Seiya shrugged. "Hangin' with Tonda and Raiden back at the clearing we're working today."
My face fell. I didn't want to walk anymore, but I reckoned there wasn't really a choice. "You guys are on break?"
"Can you take me to him?" My voice was small, and I wanted to kick myself.
Seiya looked at me intensely. I shifted from foot to foot under his shrewd brown stare. "Yeah, sure, kid. My pleasure."