Fox & Wolf

Chapter 5

Center of Attention

Ami Tokudaiji broke out in a cold sweat.

She still hadn’t shaken the strange sensation—the aura of apprehension, the hair rising on the back of her neck—when the curious transfer student walked into the classroom with Senda Sensei.

It wasn’t the new girl’s appearance. Well, it wasn’t only her appearance. As foreign as she appeared, she wasn’t a foreigner. Her name was one-hundred percent Japanese, as were her features. Lots of girls dyed their hair blonde, but not at this school. It was against the rules.

Besides, blonde hair did not look like that. Her flowing mane, tied into a long, loose ponytail, cascaded down her back like a drift of freshly fallen snow.

Ami thought the girl was albino at first. Her amber eyes and the daub of black around her widow’s peak and at the corners of her eyebrows said otherwise. No, the source of Ami’s anxiety was the color of her own hair.

Redhead.

She’d heard the accursed word clear as day and cursed the clarity of her hearing. She wracked her brains trying to remember when and where their paths might have crossed. She’d been religiously dying her hair since junior high and hadn’t even lived in Osaka before then.

Unless her roots were showing. A fresh wave of apprehension washed over her. Her classmates, let alone her teachers, would never let that slide. Redhead must be some sort of slang. Yes, that made sense.

No, that didn’t make sense at all.

Ami hunched over her desk and tried to shrink into invisibility.

There were three class periods before lunch. Every teacher gave Yuki Yamakawa a fresh new welcome. How could they not? She was a single white go stone at the edge of a field of black, readying to sweep the board at any moment.

Ami tasted an emotion akin to envy, even resentment, at Yuki’s calm repose. No transfer student should act so confident her first day of school, and certainly not after giving Ami such a scare.

The biology teacher, Mizutani Sensei, came to class on time for once, eager to see this live specimen for himself. Noting the color of Yuki’s eyes and her widow’s peak, he said aloud what Ami had already concluded: “I take it you’re not albino.”

Yuki agreed, prompting Mizutani Sensei to explain that the melanocytes in her hair roots weren’t producing eumelanin, the pigment that made hair black.

“The presence of pheomelanin, on the other hand, is responsible for red hair, which, while rare, does manifest itself among native Japanese.”

Nobody looked at Ami. She sighed in relief. This cloud turned out to have a silver lining. As long as Yuki Yamakawa was around, everybody was bound to ignore her.

A sufficient air of normality had returned by noon that Ami could tune out the rest of the world the way she usually did.

The rattle of students pushing their desks together reminded her of the time. An old-fashioned school like Sumiyoshi Prep didn’t have a cafeteria. Students brought their lunchboxes or bought lunch from the catering trucks that served the local schools.

Ami retrieved her bento lunchbox and spread out the furoshiki wrapping like a tablecloth.

A moment later, only the next row of desks kept her from reflexively pushing her chair halfway across the room. The gust of wind whooshed around her, not a physical breeze but the closeness of that uncanny vibe.

Yuki Yamakawa bounded over to her. She pulled up a chair, planted her lunchbox on Ami’s desk, and said in a loud whisper, her bright grin revealing a sharp pair of canines, “Hey. You and me. Pretty weird, huh?”

Weird? Weird? It took all of Ami’s self-control not to scream back at her: What are you talking to me for?

Oblivious to the panicked state of the cornered creature in front of her, Yuki said in the same surreptitious tone, “I mean, not only the same school, the same class even. What are the odds, huh?”

Ami started sweating again. Indeed, what were the odds? So they did know each other from before. Impossible. No way would she ever forget meeting somebody like Yuki Yamakawa.

Yuki’s was apparently a rhetorical question, followed by one that wasn’t. “So who’s the best teacher here?” The white-haired girl slathered a salmon onigiri rice ball with enough wasabi to make Ami’s eyes water. “A school like this, they probably expect you to do your homework, huh? Any clubs worth joining? Not that I’m into the club scene—”

She was raising the onigiri to her mouth when a call came from the doorway. “Yamakawa-san! The vice-principal wants to see you in the teachers’ office.”

“Should have seen that coming,” she grumbled. She stuffed the rice ball into her mouth and closed her bento box. See you later, the wink in her eyes said, and she bounded out of the room.

Ami put her hand on her chest and sagged in her chair like a rag doll. She drew a deep breath. Saved. And suddenly straightened. After a careful look around, she exited the room and hurried down the hall to the lavatory.

Nobody was at the sinks. She leaned toward the mirror and examined the part in her hair. Another long sigh. Nothing incriminating was showing. Nor should it be. Her mother sent her to the most discreet hairdresser in Osaka. The equally circumspect Fujita-san handled any touchups between visits.

Ami shook her head. That still left unanswered the question of—

The door to the lavatory opened. She hastily turned on the faucets of the sink in front of her and stuck her hands into the cool stream.

“Yo, Tokudaiji.”

All her tensions returned. Here was the true sum of her fears, Keiko Namiya and Tama Takahashi. They planted themselves on either side of her. “Interesting new friend you have there,” Keiko said sweetly, admiring her reflection in the mirror. Keiko always played the good cop in these situations.

Ami stared at her hands. “I’ve never met her before in my life.” That was the truth. “She must have mistaken me for somebody else.”

“Why’d she call you a redhead?” pressed the less delicate Tama, who sat in the second row from the windows in their homeroom and would have overheard Yuki’s remark.

“I have no idea,” Ami stated with equal firmness. That was a lie. “Like I said—”

They weren’t interested in what she had to say. Whatever Keiko Namiya and Tama Takahashi weren’t interested in might as well be invisible.

“What a freak,” said Keiko.

“Yeah, where does she get off acting like that her first day here? Bitch needs to learn herself some manners.”

Ami winced, hearing her own ugly thoughts spoken aloud. She turned off the faucets, got out her handkerchief, and walked away drying her hands. Keiko and Tama were still complaining when the lavatory door closed behind her.

For now, the devil they didn’t know was a far more pressing concern than their incessant need to remind Ami that her aristocratic name was only cause for contempt.

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