This story is my affectionate homage to Sukeban Deka and magical girl stories. It took some time to write to properly capture the perspective of someone who is a social outcast by choice, who is in tension between being perceived as a delinquent and whose actual reasons for not fitting in are distinctly different and inexplicable.
It’s not my most serious story.
School is a grim place, its cold corridors hiding injustices and corruption. It needs cleansing, it needs to have its nasty secrets laid bare for a just world to see. And in the absence of a hero, a secret detective with a shining crest, it has me. I am Shiranui Ise, and I have powers that even I do not understand.
It was annoyingly hard to put a decent flourish on 分かりませんwithout the trailing N looking wrong, or the act of pulling the pen back causing an unsightly spray of ink across the page. It was such a good speech, too, one that deserved to be written with a brush in thick, vital strokes.
A name appeared on the signup sheet for the calligraphy club that day. Like classrooms had a tendency to do when Shiranui Ise walked in, the club-room fell silent when the newest member entered. Unspoken questions flickered across their faces. Which teacher has sent her here to improve her? How quickly can we get rid of her?
Every school has its problem students, its slouching figures who when they drag themselves to class cast a pall on the whole affair. In some cases the staff do their best to remove such elements from the public eye, lest they set an awkward precedent of disobedience among the more impressionable pupils. The best schools, those with a reputation to maintain, have many dodges to deny ever having problems, while the second-rate ones simply apply force.
Calligraphy had not been something Ise had ever really given thought to studying, but a brush felt natural in her hand and scything ink across the page to turn letters into expressions of inner torment was incredibly entertaining, at least for now. From the way the club committee stared, it was clear they were either expecting greatness or failure, but were being met with simple followed instructions. The exercises had started simply, and it had not taken long for her to understand the basics. What people often failed to understand was that Shiranui Ise was by no means stupid – simply unwilling to, as the euphemistic reports passed between staff members put it, apply herself. Find a project she liked and she would work at it.
The club session ended, the time of quiet practice done and the committee beginning their rounds of platitudes for the members’ efforts. The president, spectacled and lanky Amane from class 3, fixed Ise’s paper in her teacher-like stare, and breathed in derisively.
“It’s not bad.” That was the part she clearly found easy, because there was a long pause. “See you next week.”
It was late autumn, turning into the early grey days of winter, and by the time clubs were over the sky was dark and the streets outside Hanajima Girls’ Academy were oppressively flooded with orange light from the street lamps.
“Amane?” The locker-room was almost empty, dimly lit as the school was being closed for the night.
Just at the sound of Ise’s voice the tall girl hurried herself, shoving books into a neat brown satchel .
“I know you don’t like me Amane but I need to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk to a… a girl like you. I will see you at the calligraphy club next week, Ise.”
With that, Ise was alone. Packing her things casually, she took a small tape-player from the locker and put her headphones on to make the walk home more enjoyable. The house would most likely be empty, her dinner most likely need preparing and her homework situation had reached a point where something would have to be done. Given the choice between that or taking a long walk to be free with her thoughts, staying out seemed appealing. Too many dramas of the sort her parents called tawdry, too many lurid novels and comic strips of the isolated heroine and the dramatic loner and the rough boy with a heard of gold had given her an innate love of the theatrical, and so as she walked she took some pleasure in standing dramatically on overpasses or footbridges, looking over what the bouffante-haired singers she idolised called the sleepless city and the lonely highway of purple dreams. It would not take much longer saving to be able to buy the very elegant leather trousers she had seen in the department store by the bus stop, which was something to look forward to.
“Haven’t you somewhere to be? It’s dangerous to be leaning over the railing like that.” A traffic policeman on his way back to the station had spotted her mid-reverie. “No money for a bus?”
“It’s not that, sir. I just had a headache, I was getting some fresh air.”
“You be careful then. Don’t want to be picking you up off the railway in the morning. Been too much of that recently. Kids playing and things going wrong, you know the stuff, doesn’t make the front pages but it’s people like me have to inform the families.” He carried on walking and Ise took the hint, heading back down from the bridge towards the route home. It was hardly the most glamorous part of town. From the bridge you walked past a couple of small supermarkets and newsagents, a tobacconist and then a bar that by now was lit bright pink to illuminate the pictures of dancing-girls in its window, and which attracted a clientele of only the loneliest and most salacious.
Something was on her mind. The policeman had said there had been too many people falling from the footbridge.
One of the supermarkets was still open, and she tried to straighten her appearance up so as not to invite the inevitable fear she was causing trouble.
“Do you have any old newspapers?” Deaths might not make the front page but they would have been mentioned for sure.
“We send anything more than a few days old back for pulping, try the library.”
“Do you know anything about any recent accidents on the bridge?”
“You a cop? What’s your interest in this?”
“It’s nothing.” She left, now even more convinced that something was not right. A vague sense of unease, however, was not enough even for someone with determination and power to get anything done. Without knowing how many people, and who, had died, without knowing when this had happened and what had happened, all she had was the casual chat of a policeman naturally saddened by the loss of life. If anyone had died it was not anyone from Hanajima, because the whole school would have known.
Her apartment was, as she had expected, dark and empty. Not exactly hungry, she set down her books at the dining-table and made fitful efforts at problems she could have done easily had she wanted to. If they had been less boring she would have been more inclined to do so. Homework done to a standard that someone might possibly consider adequate, she began rifling through cabinets and drawers to find something with which she could practice calligraphy, the bug having quite bitten her. With a roll of typewriter paper, a paintbrush and some watercolour paints she made a game effort to write her dramatic speech, and hung it up to dry above her futon. Repeating the last part – I have powers that even I do not understand – she decided to go out again. This time, she stuffed her satchel with bits and pieces purchased from the occult shop nestled in a warren of backstreets, sold at inflated prices because the owner believed them to not work.
She did not understand why, but they did for her.
The bridge was completely deserted by now, the late trains rattling by so infrequently the chances of meeting someone on their way home from working late were almost zero. The perfect place for Shiranui Ise to become…
She needed a good name for this.
In the meantime, there was the simple matter of preparing a ritual she had read about in a small leather-bound diary that had been hidden at the bottom of a box of assorted crystals. Taking a ragged wand in her hand, she traced a shape onto the pavement and waited.
Two girls, hazy and indistinct, joined her on the bridge. Talked, argued, fought. One fell. The other turned and ran, and as she did Ise burst out laughing. The flat-footed stride in overly sensible shoes, the skirt well below the knee with razor-starched pleats, the hazy outline of round-lensed glasses.
Kazuhara Amane had, apparently, killed a girl from Sakura Girls’ High School on this railway bridge. Hanajima really was hiding injustice and corruption, which was not something Ise had really expected when she had been grandstanding with a paintbrush.
The satchel she carried had a few other things in it. A pair of gloves, a domino mask bought from a fancy-dress shop, and a penknife. By day, she was Shiranui Ise, the girl everyone assumed was a no-good delinquent. By night, she was…
She really needed a good name for this if the whole crime-fighting magical girl thing was going to take off. She could just take one from something she liked, but her soul hadn’t sunk that low.