Once upon a time, a girl and her guardian left the safety of their home to make their way in the wide world.
“It’s a dump.”
“The term is fixer-upper.”
“No, the term is dump.” Camille looked up at Gabriel. “People will never eat here.” She spoke in Japanese; he spoke in English. It was how they’d conversed for years.
“They will once I get done with it,” he said with perfect confidence. He never seemed unsure of anything he did, why should this be any different?
They stood in front of a small stone building that was just a shade away from condemned. Weeds grew out of cracks in the parking lot. The windows were filthy. The signage out front had collapsed. In a tornado last year, they’d been told. The method of its demise didn’t signify much to Camille – the fact remained that it was useless. Gabriel somehow made it into a point in the building’s favor.
“A tornado went right in front of this place, and nothing but the sign fell down,” he said. “Solid as a rock. And I’d have replaced the sign anyway.”
“You need to replace the entire building,” Camille said. “It’s a church, Gabriel. You can’t just start selling croissants and coffee out of a church.”
“That’s why we’re remodeling it, kiddo,” Gabriel replied, smiling and squinting through the sun at the traffic going by. “See all those cars? This place is perfectly situated. There’s an entire business development park just a mile down the road. And the school’s right around the corner. You really have no idea how much Havenwood has grown in the last few years. And I don’t have to take this from a fifteen year old,” he chided.
“Young or old, discount sound advice at your own peril,” she said solemnly.
“Thank you, Fortune Cookie.”
Camille sighed and brushed her long, curly gold hair out of her face. The sun glinted off the large iron bracer that encircled most of her left forearm. This place was sweltering, even though it was already November. Weather in the southern United States was not kind. The humidity level nearly rendered the air a solid. She’d left her favorite hoodie in the car. Yes, they had a car, suddenly. He’d been her guardian for six years, and they’d never had a car. Just like she’d never been outside Tokyo, or gone to a real school. To her knowledge, Gabriel had never started a cafe either, despite claiming to know all about it. He was changing everything all at once. Tokyo to Alabama? Really?
“Why are we here?” she despairingly asked, for what felt like the millionth time today.
“To check for vandalism,” he said.
“You know what I mean.”
“Ask me later,” he said.
She folded her arms. “Is it later yet?”
“Nope,” he responded, good mood unfaltering. “Come on, let’s see how far the construction crew got on the inside.”
“You’re in a good mood,” she commented, sullenly.
“I love this city,” he said, crossing the lot to the building’s front door.
The ‘city,’ in Camille’s opinion, could barely be called such.
Gabriel had claimed Havenwood was fairly large but after their plane had landed they’d driven away from the comforting loom of overpasses and onto a winding two-lane road. The roads coming off the highway curved and snaked through patches of crops, freshly built subdivisions, and patches of crops being turned into subdivisions. There were trees everywhere. Though she saw some small mountains on the horizon, the stretch of highway the church/bakery was situated on was very flat, much more than Camille was accustomed to. She had never been around so many trees in such a concentrated area. And so tall and well-established, and creeping in all around…overhanging the road…she felt a little claustrophobic. The trees in Japan, back home in Tokyo, had been beautiful and spindly and strategically placed in gardens and parks, due to how precious a commodity space was. Trees were centerpieces – works of art. Here, it felt like the trees were the rightful owners of the land – an army that swarmed back in as soon as you cut it back.
Though the leaves were already starting to fall, yellows and reds still splotched the canopy like a canvas. Camille likened them to bruises. The colors reminded her of the trees’ losing battle against the coming winter – sad, but also brave, and therefore beautiful. Though with heat like this in November, she had a hard time imagining much of a true winter.
Camille missed the civilized feeling of buildings on all sides, the order and careful design of architecture. The comforting bustle of a tight-packed metropolis, that she felt an utter lack of now. Just one more factor to add to the list of things that made her feel alien.
The odd part was, for the first time in her life she didn’t look alien. Her parents had been Scottish; she had curly golden hair and green eyes – not exactly common in Japan, where she’d been born. She’d been an object of curiosity there, even though culturally she was about as Japanese as they came. Gabriel, on the other hand…
No one who met them ever asked if Gabriel was her father. It was too obvious that he wasn’t. He was barely thirty, for one thing, and looked even younger. Despite his unaccented English, he was clearly Japanese, if a little tall, with inquisitive slanting eyes and straight black hair that was just an inch too short for a ponytail. Though he looked the part, Gabriel made no secret of his dislike of Japan during the six years he’d been her guardian. He balked at the distance from the mainland, he was annoyed by the language (his Japanese was as problematic as her English), and he hated the food. “Everything in Japan tastes like a tidepool,” he often said. She never had gotten him to tell her where he had come from, but between his attitude and his language she was almost certain he was American. He certainly talked about this city enough.
Gabriel opened the front doors to the building and Camille followed him inside. They propped the doors open to offer some small amount of ventilation – the central air conditioning hadn’t been repaired yet. Ongoing construction was everywhere. The front of the building still looked mostly like a small church sanctuary with pillars and stained glass, but the pews and things had been removed. Sawhorses and stacks of drywall were in their place for now, but eventually there would be tables and chairs, and rugs to cover the stone floor. It felt open and airy, having an extra story of ceiling for the light from the colored glass to play around in. The back of the building, on the first floor, would house the counter and actual bakery. On the second floor were their rooms. They had originally been built to accommodate the pastor, so they didn’t need much updating. Other than a total rehaul of the plumbing. And patched roofing. And the carpets torn up. Apparently there had actually been wood floors underneath two layers of hideous green carpet – but those had to be refinished. And there had been piles of old junk in the closets that had to be cleaned out. Yeah. Not much updating.
But downstairs in the sanctuary – uh, dining room – the construction of the counter seemed to be coming along pretty well. She guessed.
Gabriel was enthusiastic.
“Over here is the coffee and tea bar,” he was pointing out. “It’ll look better when the countertops come in. The display counter goes in here. That’ll have to wait until we’re ready to install the glass. It’ll be chock full of things you won’t eat.”
Camille made a face. “Everything you want to make is either covered in chocolate, covered in caramel, or made of pure sugar to begin with.”
“It’s a bakery, kiddo.”
“You can bake things without sugar, you know.”
“Like curry pies?” It was a curry-based meat filling in a flaky crust. “Or chuka-man?”
“Chinese pork buns? This is the deep south, Camille. No one will eat that here.”
“How do you know that?” she challenged. “And ‘deep south’?” she said the words in bizarrely accented English before switching back to Japanese. “What is that?”
“That’s where we are. It’s a region that covers several states in the southeastern United States. It means two things. Well, it means a lot of things, but here are the two I care about: one, this is where the best food in the world is made. This is the home of good, honest folk who understand that butter is good, bacon is better, and there is no point to tea if it’s not ninety-percent sugar. Two, nobody here knows what a curry pie is, and even if you convinced them to try it they’d only smile politely – because of good southern manners – tell you it’s good, and then never order it again.”
“I don’t know about that,” said a jovial woman’s voice from the front of the church. “Seems a little presumptuous to say we’re all so narrow-minded as that.”
Gabriel turned, and a smile lit his face. “Charlotte!”
‘Charlotte’ was a thirty-ish woman of middle height, middle attractiveness, and obscenely long red hair, tied back in a frizzy braid that swung past her waist. Her enthusiasm matched Gabriel’s.
She greeted him with a friendly hug. “I was wondering when you’d find your way back here!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t believe anyone would take over the old Episcopal church, but now I’m not so surprised.”
“I’m going to assume that’s a compliment,” he said.
“Mr. Katsura,” said another woman, crossing the threshold, “I would welcome you to Havenwood, but I am told that this is not your first residence here.” She didn’t sound very welcoming, in truth; she stepped through the construction gingerly, as if waiting for the building to collapse. She was a stark contrast to Charlotte – short, Japanese, and overdressed in a skirtsuit. Her straight, black hair was cut in a harsh line across her cheek, and her expression was pinched.
Gabriel smiled at her anyway and shook hands with her. “I have too many fond memories here,” he said. “Besides, Havenwood School has been after Camille for some time, hasn’t it? Which Umino sister are you?”
“You presume much,” she commented. Her accent was so slight she almost sounded like a native English speaker, but Camille could tell the difference. “I’m the principal of the school, something you should be mindful of.”
“Rin, then,” he said lightly. “Glad to finally meet you. You can imagine I’ve heard all kinds of things about your family. Didn’t your sister just win a Nobel prize for her work in genetics?”
“A widely known fact,” Rin Umino said sourly. “You are not unstoried yourself. This is neither the time nor place for histories, Mr. Katsura.”
“Please, call me Gabriel,” he said.
“Hmph.” She glanced at Camille. “I take it this is the girl?”
Camille bristled. “The girl?” she said in English.
“I hope her scholastics are up to the high standard our school expects,” Rin said, seeming not to hear her. “Have I been told correctly that she has never been to a real school?”
Still Gabriel smiled. “From the numerous letters I’ve received in the last two years, I was under the impression that Havenwood would accept Camille at any time, under any circumstances.”
“With stronger leadership comes more stringent guidelines,” Rin said. “Tarrant Smith was a good principal, in his own way, but Havenwood has outgrown him.”
Gabriel’s gaze crossed over Rin to Charlotte, who was looking resolutely at the wall. “I see. Well, yes, it’s true Camille has never been in a classroom setting, but I’m sure her education will hold up even to Umino standards.”
Rin frowned at him, as if disappointed by his unshaken calm. “For expediency’s sake she may begin attending school on Monday – on a probationary status.”
Camille had been having trouble with some of the larger English words they’d been using by now, and probationary had her completely stumped.
“She hasn’t even set foot through the doors and she’s already on probation?” Gabriel laughed. “She hasn’t done anything.”
“Exactly,” Rin said coldly. “Our students must all prove themselves in some way. Average children belong elsewhere.”
Gabriel looked thoughtful, glancing at Charlotte again. “It’s your school,” he shrugged.
“I’m glad we are of compatible views,” said Rin. “I was made to expect otherwise.”
Gabriel put a hand on Camille’s shoulder. “The important thing here is Camille’s education.”
That’s when she heard something outside – a metallic rattle, followed by a low hiss. Her eyes narrowed. The others wouldn’t be able to hear it, but she knew exactly what that was. She walked wordlessly out the front doors. Rin murmured, “How rude,” but Camille had no interest in that woman. She’d been the one coming into their space, bringing challenges. Like this idiot.
She turned the corner around the building’s exterior and came face to face with a tall boy, not much older than herself, holding a can of spray paint. He took in her frown and returned a toothy grin.
“Oh, was someone here? My bad,” he said, all insincerity. He must have seen the cars in the parking lot. He probably even heard the voices inside. Camille could hear them talking even now – Gabriel was trying to smooth things over with Rin.
Camille looked at the shape he’d been drawing on the grey brick wall – some kind of face with sharp teeth. She looked back at him. Dark spiked hair, piercings all over his face. A scar that ran from his nose across one cheek. She knew this type. Guys just like him were all over Tokyo.
She pointed away, toward the street and the other buildings beyond. He must have come from there. “Get out,” she stated in English.
He snorted, unimpressed. “I’m not finished,” he sneered. He shook the can again.
Camille lashed out, sending the can flying. “I said, get out,” she snapped, louder.
His eyes sparked at the challenge. “What are you going to do about it, Goldilocks?” He stepped closer, using his height to intimidate. “You foreign kids come into our town, acting all big and bad, but in the end you run away crying for mommy and – ”
Camille shoved him and he stumbled back, but he was grinning.
“Camille!” Gabriel said. “That’s enough.”
Her pulse was racing. She could feel her veins in her left arm restricted by the iron bracer. No one talked about her parents like that and got away with it.
She looked back. The adults had come around the front of the building. Gabriel took in the scene quickly. Rin regarded Camille with disapproval. Charlotte was aghast.
“Warren Hyde!” Charlotte exclaimed. “How could you?”
He shrugged. “The place has been abandoned for years. I thought it still was.”
Liar! “There are cars out front and construction everywhere,” Camille told Gabriel heatedly in Japanese. He merely put his hand on her shoulder, his universal signal for her to calm down.
“Even if that were true,” Charlotte told the boy, “we still don’t go around putting graffiti on things!”
“We do not,” Rin agreed. “Nor do we fight other students in public.” Her eyes shifted to Camille. “You have not even crossed our threshold, Ms. Teague, and you are already engaging in violence. Yes, I would say probationary status is well warranted. Come, Mr. Hyde, I am removing you from the premises. Mr. Katsura, I expect we will continue this conversation later.”
“I expect so,” Gabriel said evenly.
With a parting smirk to Camille, the boy followed Rin to her car.
Charlotte sighed after they’d left. “I’m so sorry. He’s impossible sometimes.”
“When did Rin Umino take over?” Gabriel asked her, his gaze following her car pulling out of the lot.
“Over the summer,” she said. “I know she seems harsh, but so far this has been the smoothest school year we’ve ever had.”
“And she’s brought with her some projects you’re very excited about.”
Charlotte colored slightly. “Huh?”
“You’ve got chalk on your sleeves and your shirt’s inside out. You’ve turned into an absent-minded professor.”
“I’m a high school chemistry teacher, not a professor,” she chided. “She expanded my budget, if that’s what you mean by projects. I’ve been able to put together much better experiments for the kids this year.” She smiled at Camille. “You’re lucky, I’ve got some really cool things planned. If we don’t set something on fire before Christmas, I’ll be shocked.”
Gabriel sighed, looking at the new graffiti. “Why do I get the feeling you’re the only one who’s happy we’re here?”
“Rin’s just a very careful person,” she said generously. “And Hyde…that’s nothing personal. He seems to think he has to test every new student.”
Her smile stiffened. “What about him?”
“Ahh,” Gabriel said, apparently seeing some sort of answer in her reaction. “Still that bad?”
“Don’t give up on him, okay?” Charlotte said. “One of these days he’ll come around.”
“You say that…”
“It would help if you’d stop provoking him,” she admonished.
He smiled. “I like to think of it as teaching him to lighten up.”
“Pigs will fly before John Tailor learns to lighten up,” Charlotte said dryly.
“Maybe I should be the one telling you not to give up,” he said.
She laughed. “That’s just being realistic,” she said. “Well, I should get back. Looks like I’ll be seeing you in class tomorrow, Camille.”
“She’s excited,” Gabriel lied.
Charlotte laughed. “I bet I can teach her to be. See you.”
Camille and Gabriel went back into the stuffy half-finished cafe. He pored over lists and schematics on the unpainted counter. She leaned against a pillar, wishing for a chair.
“I don’t want to go to school with these people,” Camille said, glad to be back to speaking Japanese like a normal person.
“Oh, they’re not all that bad,” said Gabriel. “Charlotte’s lovely. Didn’t you hear? She’ll let you set things on fire in chemistry.”
“I don’t like that Umino woman,” she grumbled.
“And she doesn’t like you,” he agreed cheerfully. “Though to be fair, most of that is my fault. There’s always going to be someone out there who’s bent on ruining you – best to get used to that now. Speaking of…tell me the rules again.”
Camille sighed. If she had a nickel for every time he’d made her repeat the stupid rules. “Stay out of bars. Stay out of fancy restaurants. Stay out of forests. And never – ”
“ – smoke anything.”
“Ever. If you see a man in an expensive suit?” he prompted.
“Don’t look him in the eyes and find you immediately.”
“If you see a man with green hair?”
“Pretend I don’t see him and find you immediately.”
“If you see a woman dressed all in leather?”
“Run like hell.”
“That’s my girl.”
“These are really weird rules, Gabriel.”
“These are weird times we live in, kiddo. I tell you these things for your own safety. Now you can either go unpack, or listen to me serenade you with inventory lists.”
Camille made a face.
Upstairs, Camille looked around her new living space and took stock of what Gabriel had signed them up for. Her room was small and cramped, but that was actually comforting. There was one window, cracked open a few inches to circulate the breeze, facing the forest. She didn’t have a bed, just a futon mattress on the floor, but she preferred that too. The rest of the space was taken up by a large whitewashed dresser/vanity leftover from the previous owners, complete with a chair and a large gilded mirror in desperate need of polishing, facing the door. Camille leaned closer to inspect the frame. Who knew what kind of metal the frame was actually made of, underneath all that patina? Her hand reached out to touch the metal.
In the mirror, she saw a shadow slide behind her. She jerked, and spun around, but nothing was there. Her right arm cradled her left with its iron bracer as she tried to slow her breathing. It had to be nothing, she told herself. It’s just some old cloudy glass. Downstairs, Gabriel turned on some music.
Camille moved back to the mirror. Oval shaped, it rested on the long side to stretch across either side of the dresser. Still, it was huge – the entire piece of furniture was taller than her own five foot one. She ran a hand over the mirror’s frame, thumb tracing the time-dulled pattern. There was a chance that there was something floral shaped under all that patina. She peered closer at the discolored glass. Two things ran through Camille’s head at once – Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Phantom of the Opera. The juxtaposition did not calm her.
“Down, girl,” she barely heard behind her. The shadow in the mirror flitted.
Camille spun again, eyes wide, clutching the bracer. She was alone in the room.
She must have made a noise, because Gabriel poked his head around the doorframe. “Alright in here? Everything to your liking?” His voice was pleasant, but his expression was guarded. He stepped inside, glancing casually around the room.
“I think my room is haunted,” Camille said lowly, feeling foolish even as she said it.
He looked at her briefly as he moved to the window, but she gathered nothing from his expression. “I doubt that…” he said lightly, closing the window all the way. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. And if there were ghosts, they wouldn’t be out in the daylight.”
Then why had he closed the window? “You said this was the safest place, but I have to ask,” said Camille. “Did something follow us, or was it already here?”
“Ask me later,” was all he said.