“What is this?” A short, dark-haired girl asked as she looked at her locker partner inquisitively. She removed the brightly painted piece of paper from the bottom of the locker.
“How should I know?” The blond-haired girl stood a good foot above the shorter girl. The blond shrugged and turned to leave, waving off the question as she walked away hurrying to class but the dark-haired girl stayed where she was, studying the piece of paper.
The sheet was decorated with pictures and beautiful calligraphy text. Both the images and the words moved as she watched in wonder. Her eyes never left the page as her heart raced and her interest peaked. A few of the diminishing number of students in the hall stopped to glance over her shoulder but quickly lost interest. She was left to herself to ponder this strange thing happening before her.
Her mind was moving a mile a minute when a flash caught her eye. Three girls ran from the gym and down the abandoned hall. The dark-haired girl exchanged glances with the runners.
“Hurry, Sakura! You don’t want to be marked late again,” one of the girls shouted in a desperate attempt to warn Sakura while running to her own class.
She nodded but continued to stare at the pictures. She couldn’t take her eyes off it—the pictures and words moved at an alarming rate, hypnotizing her.
“It’s like a story,” she whispered in a breathy voice as the words caught in the back of her throat. Excitement bubbled within her. She was about to record the images with the camera on her lime green cell phone when the final bell for class chimed. She jumped up and ran to her math class.
“Late again, Miss Pilletera? This is the second time this week.” The tall math teacher spoke in deep tones. The man’s back was ridged and his chest was puffed. His overwhelming forbearance intimidated many students. Sakura was one of those.
“It won’t happen again, Mr. Gavvy.”
“Be sure that it doesn’t,” he ordered. “I would hate to send a student to detention for such a minor offense.”
She quickly found her seat and took out her notebook. It was herculean task to ignore the phone, but she couldn’t afford to get distracted in Gavvy’s class.
Avoid looking at the images now and you can see it for hours after class, she reasoned. She tried to imagine what would happen in the story forming on the paper. The last time she’d looked, the images were moving fast. She only saw a few seconds but it was enough to catch a glimpse.
She saw a man in green—and decided to name him Robin because he reminded her of Robin Hood. Robin was about to charge at a moving purple spot. She imagined the purple blob turning into a monstrous dragon that the heroic Robin had to defeat to defend his village…but this dragon was not a normal, fire-breathing dragon. It was a riddle dragon and to defeat it, Robin had to solve a riddle.
She was trying to come up with an answer worthy of the dragon and save the town when her joyful reverie was interrupted by Mr. Gavvy’s deep voice.
“Sakura, I need to speak with you about the earlier homework assignment.”
Mr. Gavvy went into detail about yesterday’s homework. She shuffled her feet and tapped her fingers. She wanted to get out of the room as quickly as possible. Mr. Gavvy wouldn’t let her run if he knew that a demon had its eyes on them.
The demon knew how to wait. He’d been waiting for centuries. He knew all the waiting that came before was truly only practice for this moment.
He could destroy the girl now and take the papers but all demons knew things happened for a reason. He wouldn’t be able to show his face without learning the how and why of the story.
So, he sat and waited. She would lead him to what he needed.
Without a second thought, Sakura left the school and got on the bus.
Her neighbor, Rosa smiled at her when she moved to sit down on the seat next to her. They were the only eighth graders on the bus. “Ready for the weekend?” Rosa asked.
The girls talked about their plans and gossiped about their other neighbors until the bus stopped on their street. They were always the last to get on and the first to get off.
A dark-eyed woman with midnight black hair opened the door and hugged her daughter every afternoon. Sakura’s family was different. There was no mother in the doorway. The driveway was so empty the lack of substance opened a void in the pit of her stomach. Dad’s still at the office, she thought. “Let’s go see where Mom went off to.” Her thoughts became words.
Opening the door she walked into the kitchen. A pink post-it was taped to the refrigerator. She leaned forward to read it.
Her mother’s notes were always the same. “Had to get this or that…see you around six.” The woman was never around from three o’clock to six. Why did it always take three hours to get a prescription, or a few last minute dinner items?
Years ago she’d asked her mother that question—at the time she was old enough to realize most people didn’t need three hours to run simple errands. “I can walk the three blocks to the store faster than that,” she’d bragged.
“I try to optimize my time outside the house by running all my errands at once.”
“Why does the note just list one errand?”
“I don’t always know all the errands I’ll need to run so I just put down the first one. I don’t want to bore everyone with a long list plus…it just takes too much time to write it all down.” Her mother believed she’d provided a good answer for the child and quickly walked away.
The whole thing seemed secretive. Anyone could tell the statement was a lie. She said it as a second thought—like it was never really in her head or in her heart—like the truth was she wanted to avoid her daughter at all costs. Sakura didn’t let this bother her; she distracted herself by finding new things to do. If her hands were moving, her mind never dwelled on the sorrowful things that threatened to consume her. She was able to keep her mind off the bad things by keeping them on the flavor of the week or month.
But now—now she had something real. It constantly changed and moved so her interest in it could last forever. She ran to her room, locked the door and carefully took out the phone and the paper. The image was still moving and she didn’t want to miss one second of movement.
She quickly switched on her cell phone to record as much as possible. Not one moment of the paper’s movement would be lost now. The moving paper was like a giant puzzle that beckoned her to find a solution. She smiled to herself as she pressed the “play” button.
Her breath came in shallow gulps and gasps. She could never get enough air but the adrenaline flowing through her veins hid the fact from her exhausted body. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A map of strange words appeared in the background as words moved up the surface of the paper as if it was a TV.
As the words flashed on the paper, she read about the Emperor who could lose even though he had nothing. No sword, no honor, or even a group of followers. The people had abandoned him when he humiliated himself by losing the saber and hand. Usually, the saber is any ruler’s greatest, most coveted possession. This Emperor wasn’t so different from other rulers. The saber had been passed down to him from generations past. Oil paintings adorned the walls and each painting held not only a past emperor but also a jeweled saber—the same saber this young emperor had lost. Servants whispered he was too young and naive to sit on the throne as ruler.
The young ruler did all he could to stop these rumors of course. He started by killing the man who spread them, the distinguished captain of the guard.
The image accompanied this section was so realistic and violent she had to close her eyes. All the pictures were drawn in a hieroglyphic style but they were realistic in a way that was hard to explain.
It was like those cartoons of people with purple faces drinking blood. It was obvious the people in the images were not real but it was still too gross and it sickened her. She was slightly nauseous but curiosity drove her to see more. She cautiously cracked open her eyes.
New images appeared but they continued to tell the story of the fictional emperor who had lost his prized saber. The young, implosive ruler turned into a good and just emperor. The land prospered, as everything else the emperor touched. He was truly blessed and his blessing transferred to the land he ruled. The empire’s treasury grew as treaties were signed and warriors were brought home. The commoners rejoiced as the emperor’s luck rubbed off on everyone who was near him. They quickly forgot the ordeal with the saber and the violent mistakes the emperor had made in his youth. Unfortunately, the emperor’s luck was about to run out.
The Empress had recently announced she was with child and all the kingdoms in the empire were still rejoicing the good fortune. They feasted even as the Empress labored, believing the prophecy the wise woman read from the stones would be true and the emperor would soon have a son as an heir for the land. No one could have guessed what would happen next. The Empress died giving birth to the child and the little boy was too weak to eat. The baby boy didn’t live a day. The emperor found himself alone and angry once more.
She had to stop at this point because her eyes filled with tears. She paused the cell phone video and unpacked her school bag. She placed her things on her desk. She usually tried to read ahead in her textbooks over the weekend but she wasn’t able to open a book before a noise came from outside. She jumped when she heard a car door slam. Her mother was home. It must be six.
Sakura met her mother in the kitchen. The door squeaked open as her mother, Ann walked into the room. As usual, her arms were full of overflowing grocery bags. The bags fell over as Ann set them on the counter. Sakura moved to pick them up and her mother actually noticed she was there.
“How was school, Sakura?”
“It was okay,” she said. “I got a new project.”
“A real project or one of your fake ones?”
Sakura blushed with embarrassment. “None of them are fake,” she mumbled.
“Speak up, Sakura!”
“It’s not a school project yet.” Ann looked at Sakura suspiciously. “I’m going to use it for my video assignment in Communications class,” Sakura explained further but her mother was preoccupied.
“Oh, what a good idea! You should try to use all your projects in your school work. It’ll be easier for you to get into college. That way, you won’t have to do so many extra assignments.”
Sakura nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her mother just didn’t understand. Shouldn’t she wait a few years before talking about college? She was only fourteen after all! She hated these forced conversations and had to stop herself from breathing a sigh of relief when her father walked in.
“How was work, dear?” Ann asked her husband.
“What a day!” Brad started. “Osmann sent me seven emails in one hour because he needed help with pricing. He should have been done with that project weeks ago!”
Brad was the head of a large financing firm. His company handled the finances and savings of dozens of other companies. The companies paid Brad a lot of money to save them even more money. Sakura knew her father tried to make it sound more complicated, but money for money was basically what his company boiled down to. She zoned out as her father continued to explain how three of his employees couldn’t write a simple excel presentation for a prospective client.
“Sakura, help me finish making dinner,” Ann said.
“What are we making?”
“Lasagna. It’s your father’s favorite and he’s had a hard day.”
Sakura and her mother moved to the stove to make the rich pasta. She boiled water and chopped up cheese while Ann prepared the meat and added spices to sauce.
Ann hummed while she worked because she hated silence. Sakura used the time to think. She had a faraway look in her eyes that could only be matched in severity to her mother’s look of concentration.
The lasagna was made in what seemed like seconds to Sakura. Still, Brad breathed a sighed “finally” when Ann announced dinner was ready. He always wanted things to be done on a moment’s notice.
Sakura found the habit annoying but her mother chastised her. “At least your father channels what would otherwise be an annoyance to make him a great businessman.”
She sighed defeat when her mother said this. She was right, the habit did give him an edge but that didn’t make it any less annoying when he was at home.
Both parents were successful but it was as though they were disconnected from the rest of the world. Sakura doubted either one of her parents could say the name of the current president or even Sakura’s school. Brad could list the current balances of his clients’ accounts and Ann could list the shipping methods available on her site.
Her parents could have wonderful memories when they wanted to but they were so busy remembering the things they needed to know for work, they never stopped to think about remembering the things that mattered to Sakura.
She tried to push these thoughts away as she and her parents ate. Maybe I’m the one messing things up, she thought. Maybe things would be better if I acted like they were better. I need to stop expecting the worst in people. Especially my parents.
Memories came unbidden of a time when she was five. They had gone to the beach that year. It was just the three of them and she had loved the trip for one reason, they were hers and hers alone. They didn’t go into work or check their emails. She could tell they liked it too. They smiled constantly and actually laughed every now and then—which they never did at home.
Too painful to remember, she tried to push the memories away. This was one of the reasons she always had a project going. She needed a distraction.
The thought of discovering something new to envelope her mind wholeheartedly brought her comfort. So, she thought of that now. She thought of her new project waiting in her room.