A Creeping Phobia of Giant Inflatable Snow Wizards
What am I doing here?
No, that wasn’t me waking up from a coma, or pondering the meaning of life. It was me regretting my life choices. Specifically, my choice to show up unannounced to this
party, at this
Let’s start with the house, which was more of a mansion than a house, with its rich brown iron-studded wooden door, its crisscrossed wooden beams set in white plaster walls, and its sharply peaked roof and gabled third-floor windows. It was probably supposed to look like it had been transported directly from Merrye Olde Englande—if houses in Merrye Olde Englande had ye olde swymming pooles in the backyard, a giant two-story blow-up of an old white guy on the front lawn, and a herd of SUVs and minivans in the driveway. I wondered who the guy was supposed to be: the spirit of winter? Father Time? Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings
“Friends call me Snow Miser—whatever I touch . . . turns to snow in my clutch! I’m too much!” the wizard sang from somewhere near his left armpit, and I almost jumped out of my skin.
But the forbidding oak-and-iron door and the giant singing snow wizard weren’t the only reasons I was hesitating on the front step. The other reason—the real reason—was much smaller. And scarier.
The real reason was the host of the party: Ryleigh Guo, the evil power behind the throne of her BFF, Kiki Weldon. I know it doesn’t make sense: I was a half-kami who’d escaped an army of ghost crab samurai, fought a seven-foot-tall scorpion to the death, and defeated Shuten-dōji, the most powerful demon in the world. Why would I be afraid of a couple of seventh-grade girls?
But anyone asking that question would be severely underestimating the power of seventh-grade girls to make you feel like garbage.
According to a now-famous list that Kiki had made back in September, she and Ryleigh were the two most popular seventh-grade girls at Oak Valley Middle School; according to the same list, I was the least popular. And while Kiki was the one who’d written
the list, rumor had it that it was actually Ryleigh’s idea. Not only that, but after my friend Danny and I got back from defeating Shuten-dōji on the Island of Mysteries in October, Danny had confessed to me that Ryleigh was the mastermind of a prank that had ended up with me getting fruit punch thrown in my face at the back-to-school dance.
And here I was, about to crash her party.
Ryleigh had been bragging for weeks about how cool it was going to be: the cookie-decorating table, the wrapping-paper Project Runway
contest, and (drumroll, please!) a “very special guest appearance” by Ryleigh’s mom’s cousin’s best friend’s husband’s nephew, Jin Takayama—hands down the cutest member of the hottest boy band of the year, Straight 2 Tha Topp. Or SttTop, if you were a true SttToppie.
Wait, what’s that—can you hear it? Oh, yes. It’s the combined voices of a million fangirls, boys, and everything-in-between-and-beyond shrieking, “OMG, JIN TAKAYAMA? AHHHH!!!
Was I one of them? No.
Okay, fine, yes. But I wasn’t here for Jin Takayama.
I was here for Danny.
Danny and I had been best friends who’d drifted apart over the years, and after our defeat of Shuten-dōji, I’d thought I finally had my old friend back. And I did, for a while. But then he’d started eating lunch with his bro-bot buddies every now and then—and I was not
going to eat with those monsters. And after Thanksgiving break, he’d sat with Ryleigh when she waved him over on the bus. And he’d done it again last Friday. And now he was at Ryleigh’s party and I needed to . . . to . . . well, I wasn’t sure what I needed to do, exactly. Something.
As I stood under the watchful eye of the winter wizard, chewing my lip and trying to ignore a growing anxiety stomachache, it began to dawn on me that crashing this extravagant, invitation-only birthday-slash-holiday bash attended by the most popular seventh graders at Oak Valley Middle School—without a plan of action—might have been a very bad decision on my part. Even if I had a good reason.
Danny and I had been planning all week to watch a movie together, but he’d shown up about an hour ago and said casually, “Hey, I know it’s kinda wack to do this last-minute, but I was thinking I’d go to Ryleigh’s party tonight.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “But—but you said—we planned—”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Really. But I was thinking . . . you and I hang out all the time. And this is, like, a special occasion, and—”
“You mean we used
to hang out all the time,” I corrected him. For a few weeks after our return from the Island of Mysteries, usually at dusk, when people were less likely to see us, we’d gone searching for local yōkai, practiced with our weapons (Danny with his magical bow and arrow, and me with Kusanagi, the powerful sword given to me by my grandfather, Susano’o, god of the sea and storms), played with magic origami bunnies, and even ridden a magic origami crane over the valley a couple of times. But all that had dropped off quite a lot lately.
“You say that like it’s my
fault,” Danny protested. “But I wanted to hunt for kappa in the creek last Thursday after school, remember? And you said no.”
said no. Just ’cause your parents were out of town doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, too.”
“Yeah, but you can’t blame me for that. That’s your mom.”
I let out a long, frustrated breath; he had a point. It was all those kids going missing. Mom was sure the culprit was an evil demon sent by Izanami the Destroyer to drag me down to Yomi, the land of the dead, to join her as her spirit daughter. And despite exactly zero of those disappearances having occurred anywhere near us—the last one had been two thousand miles away—she had forbidden me from leaving the house without her. And lately, even some regular human parents had been doing the same with their kids.
“But here’s the thing—my mom’s not here! She had to go somewhere, and Niko’s staying with me. We don’t have to watch a movie. I could—I could fold a flying crane, and the three of us could go for a ride!”
Mom had left that very afternoon, in fact. Before she left, she’d summoned Niko—the hundred-year-old magical fox spirit who had pulled me into the kami-verse in the first place—to be my babysitter. She’d given us very clear instructions and nothing else: “Do not leave the house until I come back. Niko, do not let Momo leave the house.”
“Where are you going?” I’d asked. She never went anywhere.
“Nowhere. It’s, er, just a quick errand. Nothing important.” She cleared her throat and tucked her hair behind her ear— a dead giveaway that she was lying.
I decided to ask Niko to check his magic mirror later— the one that allows the viewer to see the activities of anyone they choose—but Mom must have read my mind, because she snatched it up and tucked it in her sleeve.
“Mom, seriously, what’s going—”
She silenced me with a stern look and a kiss. “I’ll be back before you know it. Stay inside until I return. I love you,” she said, and—poof!
—she was gone.
I was always low-key worried about Mom disappearing. Dad’s death three years ago had turned her into an empty shell, and those three years had been the loneliest in my life. I’d felt so sad and lost without Dad, but I couldn’t lean on Mom for comfort because she just . . . wasn’t there. Since my adventures in the kami-verse, it was like her spirit had returned and she’d gone back to being the mother I’d missed so much: present, caring, and worried about my safety—maybe even too worried. So why would she just pick up and leave, after all that fuss she’d made about protecting me from whatever demons might be trying to deliver me to Izanami? Had she stopped caring about my safety? Was she
in danger? Was she about to disappear for good?
“Oh, she cares, you big baby,” Niko had huffed. “She summoned me to stay with you, didn’t she? I bet she’ll be back before bedtime.”
Now I was glad I’d been left with Niko, because Niko was much easier to sway than Mom was. If Mom really
hadn’t wanted me to go out, she shouldn’t have left me here with him.
I looked hopefully at Danny—he liked Niko. “So what do you think? Wanna go on a crane ride?” When Danny still looked unconvinced, I added irritably, “What’s so special about that stupid party, anyway?”
He looked over his shoulder at his parents, who were waiting in the car in the driveway, then kicked the doormat with his toe. “I mean, it’s gonna be huge—with a special celebrity guest and everything. And I was invited.
“Well, I wasn’t
Danny’s face fell. Then, after a moment of hesitation, he said slowly, “You could come with me, if you want. You wanna come?”
Ugh. Please. “I don’t want your pity,” I snarled.
“What?” Danny looked confused. “That’s just . . .”
“It’s so obvious! You’re only inviting me because you know I’ll say no,” I accused him. “You don’t really want me to go.”
“ ’Cause I’m not cool enough for you,” I said bitterly. “Or maybe it’s because you want to flirt with Ryleigh.”
“What are you even talking about?” Danny spluttered.
“Oh, come on. You know.” Lately, all anyone could talk about at school was how Ryleigh had a huge crush on Danny and how Kiki had told Jenny to tell Brad to tell Danny that he should kiss Ryleigh under the mistletoe tonight. It made me want to barf. Which is a mean thing to say—but also, it really did make me feel sick. If Danny and Ryleigh started being (ugh) boyfriend-girlfriend, where did that leave me?
But it felt weird to say all that out loud. So when Danny insisted again that he didn’t know what I was talking about (Yeah, right
), I said, “You know what? It doesn’t matter. Go. Go have a great
time at your cool
party with your cool
Danny gaped at me. “Seriously? Come on, Momo,” he said. “Why are you being like this?”
“Just go!” I said.
When he didn’t move, I shouted, “I said, go!”
This time, he drew himself up and said, “Okay, fine! I will.”
“Okay, fine! Go, then!”
“Fine! I’m going!”
Danny turned and stomped back to the car, and I slammed the door, hard. My heart pounded and I squeezed my eyes shut to keep the tears from coming. I thought I’d banished the nightmare vision that Shuten-dōji had shown me on the Island of Mysteries about Danny abandoning me for his old friends—but here it was, happening in real life. What if I’d just slammed the door not only on him, but on our entire friendship? Inside me, my rage monster—my connection to Susano’o—raised its hackles and argued back. You didn’t do anything wrong! It’s Danny’s fault for having terrible friends. Shuten-dōji was right—he’s a jerk. We should never have trusted him.
Copyright © 2024 by Misa Sugiura. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.