Paper Gods 0.5


Amanda Sun



Taira stumbled in the sand, only for a moment, but it was long enough for the shadow to reach him. It uncurled a smoky finger that scraped along the side of his ankle. He yelled out and pushed himself off the sand with his hands, the sharp grains sticking to his palms as he staggered along the shore. The wooden geta sandal fell from his foot and the shadows swirled around it, parting on either side in ashen waves before they engulfed it with the dull glimmer of oil.

His body wasn’t so young anymore—he struggled with each step, heaving breath into his burning lungs. The whispers of the shadows moaned in his ears, sweeping across his thoughts like they were coming from inside his own head.

How do you run from yourself?

But he kept running, imprints of a single footprint lapped by the tide, the raised geta on his other foot carving deep lines into the sand. Half nobleman, half monster, scrambling to the only place he might be safe. And even then, there was no guarantee.

He couldn’t give up.

The arch rose in front of him as he neared, the bright orange of it dulled by the oncoming twilight. Two large urns placed on either side of the Torii smoked with sour incense and thin, waxy candles. They seemed so far away. Too far.

The voices rose in awkward discord. “Taira no Kiyomori,” they breathed, each syllable a separate voice.

He didn’t dare look back. The shadow’s breath was on him; he could feel it searing the nape of his neck.

He stumbled toward the Torii. The tide lapped in to shore, washing only knee-deep against the base of the orange gateway. It towered above him, the huge Shinto entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. He’d gone through this doorway before, but not on foot. How beautiful the imperial ships had looked as they sailed through the Torii at full tide, how colorful as they approached the shrine flooding with the sounds of kagura dancing. But not now. Now it was stark, the white salt spray of the ocean peeling away the pale orange paint on the shrine’s walkways. Taira splashed through the surf alone, forgotten, toward the barnacle-encrusted legs of the gate.

If this didn’t work, he was dead.

He might be dead anyway. The ink had soaked too deep beneath the surface of his life. He was drowning —what’s a last gasp of air to one already lost to the angry waves?

Everything, he thought. It’s everything.

A shadow ensnared his lone sandal and he fell forward to a mouthful of sand. Another inky swirl tugged on his ankle. He kicked them back as he dragged himself through the gate. The shadows smashed against the Torii like a dark tide, all of them trying to enter at once, jamming the space between the legs of the gate like storm clouds, the darkness stretching to the huge orange beam laid across the top.

Taira coughed and sputtered as he kicked the shadows off his feet, watching as they struggled to enter the shrine. But they couldn’t. It was forbidden, just as he’d hoped. Golden light flashed like lightning across the shadows’ surface as they tried to break through the sacred barrier. They moaned and shrieked, denied their victim.

Taira breathed heavily, watching, the sand sharp against his palms.

“So,” said a woman’s gentle voice, and Taira leapt upright. “You have run from yourself.”

She wore a beautiful kimono of pure gold, embroidered with threads of silver. A red obi was tightly wound around her waist, and her slender hands rested upon the back of a heavy brass mirror as big as a shield.

“You know you cannot fight,” she said.

“I know.”

“It is what it means to be one of us,” she said. “You must bear the marks.”

“Help me,” he said, falling to his knees before her. The returning tide soaked into his hakama skirt, logging the fabric with heavy salt water.

“There is no help for you,” she said. “There is no escape. There is only death.”

And she turned the mirror in her hands, the bottom of it grinding in the sand as she twisted it to reveal the reflective glass.

Taira looked into it, but he didn’t see his reflection.

He saw me.

Chapter One


It rained all of August, but the day of the funeral was so bright and sunny that my family struggled to mourn. They waved their programs back and forth, pulling at the necks of their tight dresses and their choking black neckties as the sweat poured down. Black was the worst possible choice on a record-breaking day like this. Mom had always hated black, and I felt like the heat was her way of having the last word.

At least I knew what she’d want. I wore red.

It was strange watching our living room fill up with mourners—strange and horrifying. It didn’t feel like our space anymore, Mom and me, but like a moving picture of a place I’d once known. I hadn’t been back in the house until two days ago, and then only to pluck the red dress from my closet. I’d been staying with Mom’s friend Linda, not because I couldn’t fend for myself at sixteen, but because she worried the silence of the empty house would be too much to bear.

She wasn’t wrong. The only way I’d found to survive was to numb myself to the loss, the icy cold sting of it freezing my heart until the reality of her death was merely something disorienting, something I couldn’t really fathom.

Mom couldn’t be gone. That wasn’t something that could even happen to me. She had been totally fine before I’d found her that morning. I’d even poured myself a bowl of cereal, thinking she was just sleeping in late.

I knew that wasn’t like her, but it’s not like you expect people to die. You somehow think they won’t, that life will just carry on the way it is now. You get too comfortable.

And then life shatters, and you pull the shards around yourself so you can pretend it’s all fine.

As much as the quiet of the house had creeped me out, seeing the living room full of people was somehow worse. Watching half strangers grind their sweaty bodies into the fabric of our cushions, sipping punch on the good couch where Mom never allowed food—it was like I was a ghost, like the house had somehow shifted into a new future where I didn’t belong.

If I couldn’t stay here, then thank god I was going back to Canada with Nan. My own space wasn’t comfortable anymore. I was a stranger to myself.

“Cocktail weenie?” came a loud voice and I looked up. I’d been huddled in the corner by the stairs, but I guess with my red dress I still stuck out.

“Aunt Diane,” I said. She was the only other burst of color in the room, wearing a black dress covered in purple flowers and a too-dark purple lipstick to match.

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