"I'm. . . five foot eight?"
"Yup," cheered Tsumugi Tsukahara, my classmate. "You grew another three centimetres! It's amazing!"
I descended from the stadiometer. Tsumugi tilted her head to the side, her long, undulating blue hair draping her cheeks and shoulders. Clad in her gym uniform—a white long-sleeved t-shirt and blue sweatpants identical to mine—she jotted the dreaded number onto a clipboard before lowering it by her side.
"Five foot eight," I said, it remaining an incessant echo at the back of my mind.
"Shiina? Is something wrong? You're holding up the line."
I knew that much. The antsy footsteps of the other first year girls weren't easy to ignore. And truthfully, I had no reason to be so stupefied. If anything, I should be grateful Tsumugi was volunteering with the physical examinations today.
Could you blame me, though? I grew three centimetres! An inch! In the time span of six months, give or take.
Physical examinations were held annually across Japan to remain updated on the health of the students. Hoshizaki Private Academy was rather peculiar having theirs take place twice. Meaning, I was able to live in blissful ignorance about my height for half a year now.
Only to find out. . .
Furling my fingers into fists, I hurled back onto the stadiometer. I reclined against the pole.
"Measure me again."
Tsumugi gaped. "But—"
"Just once more." I pressed my eyelids shut and clasped my hands together in prayer. "There's no way I grew three centimetres. Yeah. It's a dream. A horrible, crummy, terrible dream. . ."
My pleas must've sounded like indecipherable gibberish. Nevertheless, with my vision consumed by darkness, palms rubbing fervently against one another, having my sanity questioned was inconsequential.
Following substantial hesitation, Tsumugi relented. The horizontal headpiece flattened strands of my hair, allowing my short bangs to cling to my forehead. Newfound goosebumps darted across my arms. I kept my eyelids pressed as tightly as I could, praying frenziedly as if it were New Year's Day and I'd taken a trip to the shrine with my family.
"Oh my gosh!"
My heart performed a leap in my chest.
Eyelashes fluttering, my neck snapped in her direction so fast it cracked. Hand shielding her mouth, Tsumugi stared open-mouthed at the numbers sprawled on the pole atop of my head.
"I'm sorry," she sputtered, guilt smearing her tone. "I read it wrong!"
The knot in my stomach loosened, grew undone. Relief consumed me, spreading to my extremities.
I hopped off of the stadiometer. A smile tugged on my lips. I knew I hadn't grown that much! "So? How much shorter am I?"
"Oh, you ain't any shorter."
Tsumugi was yanked to the side.
Kiharu Shino'oka's brown hair was tied in its trademark ponytail. The widespread freckles scattered across her nose resembled constellations in the night sky, working as a distraction from her million-watt grin.
"See." She hoisted Tsumugi's left arm, primarily the clipboard she'd recorded my new height onto, then gestured to the pole itself. "Five foot nine on the dot."
Kiharu boisterously laughed. The nearby first year girls gasped. Hasty whispers sprung between them.
"Ya' really are a legend, Beanstalk Shiina," Kiharu jeered, chin high in the air. "You've grown four centimetres within six months of the school year. Are you sure you're human?"
I had to be mishearing this. "No," I said, snagging the fabric of her shoulder. "It has to be a mistake!"
"There ain't no mistake." Kiharu's Kansai dialect amplified her condescending snickers. "You're a giant!"
"Tsumugi's the shortest in the class. With you being so damn tall, her poor eyes couldn't discern the higher numbers on the scale. As a Health Committee rep, I take full responsibility. I'll step in so this doesn't happen again."
"Shiina. . . I'm sorry," Tsumugi mumbled.
Her watery-eyes proved her sincerity. Regardless, to me, her apology was nothing but sardonic.
A whole inch and a half.
"Outta the way, giraffe." Kiharu hip-checked me. "Tsumugi and I got another seventy girls to compare your bogus height to and this line ain't getting shorter."
Anger surged to my fingers. "Who're you calling a giraffe?"
"Shiina, don't mind it." Tsumugi shepherded me from the line. "Take pride in being tall. It's amazing."
I was supposed to enjoy being called a giraffe?
She guided me to the opposite end of the gymnasium. Seeing as I wasn't in adequate shape to respond to her fruitless words of comfort, she cleared her throat and raced to rejoin Kiharu who'd commenced measuring another first-year.
A cacophony of sniggers and insults bombarded me from every direction. Pointed head turns and conspicuous whispers followed suit. Everyone in the otherwise silent gymnasium had overheard my outburst.
I swallowed the lump lodged in my throat, rebuking the tears threatening to flood my eyelids.
Ignore them. They weren't worth straining my voice.
Fortunately for me, the other fitness tests ended in the blink of an eye. Sit-ups, push-ups, squats. My entire body ached by the time I changed out of my gym wear and into my sweltering school uniform.
Trudging through the bleak halls of the school, the heaviness of my long, lanky limbs didn't alleviate. But that made sense since I was a giraffe, right?
"Apparently she grew taller."
"Beanstalk Shiina strikes again."
"What's her height now?"
"Six-one or something."
"Are you sure it isn't six-five?"
"It's five foot nine!" I shouted at the twisted faces of my peers.
It jolted those loitering in the first-year hallway a fair amount. Some gaped, stupefied, while the guffaws of three boy reclined against the door to our classroom emulated screeching apes.
"Oh, don't take it to heart, Kisaragi," one said. "Instead tell us about the magical beans you use to sprout so tall."
"I don't use magical beans!"
"Now, now. It's not healthy being in denial," said the second. "How's the view from up there? Are the birds bothering you too much?"
Those in our vicinity burst out laughing.
My cheeks blazed.
They were jerks.
All of them.
Every single one of them.
It'd been common knowledge from the moment I enrolled last spring and was dubbed "Beanstalk Shiina" by the rest of my first year peers. Staff members latched onto the malicious nickname too and referred to me by it at every given opportunity.
So what if I was taller than the typical teenage girl in Japan? And the typical boy? They didn't have to be this nasty about it!
"So hilarious," I fumed—doing my all not to crack, especially with dozens of wicked snickers buzzing in my ears. "That all you got?"
"You should be asking your legs that question." Surrounded by his cheekily grinning friends, the last boy disdainfully cocked his head. "Do everyone in Japan a favour and shrink back to normal height. It's terrifying how complacent you are growing like a frickin' giant."
They howled again with thundering intensity.
Gritted teeth and heinous glower in place—my heart shattering like fragile glass in my chest—I bulldozed them on my way inside the classroom.
It wasn't like I asked to be this tall. My dad and his stupid genes made me this way.
Dammit. I strolled on into that physical examination convinced I'd remained the same height. Maybe even shrunk a millimetre or two. Yet I was left with the notice that I grew—once again—by a whopping four centimetres?
I was sixteen for crying out loud! Puberty should've long played its part. And I stopped drinking milk. Shouldn't my height have stagnated, then? Did God have something against me?
Resisting the urge to grind my teeth to dust, I rummaged through my bag for my water bottle. Due to my deep-seated anger, I yanked it out with inane force, resulting in it slipping from my fingers. It soared through the air.
A spiteful "ow!" ensued.
Part of me knew what was coming. I'd have done myself a huge favour by avoiding to acknowledge his presence altogether. Busy myself. Pretend another student had whacked him as a result of their clumsy endeavours.
Yet, like the idiot I was, I peered up anyway.
Toru Igarashi slammed the bottle onto the wood of my desk. His untidy, mid-length orange hair rested in a short ponytail on his right shoulder, chaotic bangs draping his twitching eyebrows. The fact that his winter uniform was a size too large for his small-statured body was the least of his concern. His almond-shaped green eyes drilled into mine.
"Are you trying to knock me out, Kisaragi?"
"Don't flatter yourself, midget. It was an accident."
His jaw clenched. He cradled the spot. "It's going to leave a bruise."
"I'm so happy to hear that."
I was wearing his patience thin.
"You have a lot of spunk for somebody who's the talk of the school. How tall are you again?"
Leave it to him to straightaway poke fun at my sensitive spot.
Gnawing on my lower lip, I muffled out what he wanted. "Five foot. . . nine."
"Who're you calling gross?" I'd bolted to my feet, towering over him in a flash. "Have you seen how short you are?"
An unusually smug smirk peeled back his lips.
"Listen and be amazed, moron. As of today, I'm officially five foot three!"
My glare fell as soon as it manifested.
Did this idiot say five foot three?
With a smile?
"Did you shrink?" I honestly had to ask.
My question obliterated whatever remained of his pride.
"I grew one centimetre, dumbass!"
An unintentional snicker left my mouth. "Whoa. Sorry. Guess I couldn't tell since you were all the way down there."
His nostrils flared. "What was that, you totem pole!"
"Who are you calling a totem pole, you ant!"
"You. . . ! All that matters is that I'm still growing! I'll catch up to your height in no time."
"Does your mom tell you that while pouring you three glasses of milk every day?"
"Why yes, she does, actually—" He stomped his foot, insurmountable rage rolling off of him. "What's it to you how many glasses of milk I drink a day?"
I returned an equally malicious scowl—a look neither of us were willing to relent anytime soon.
Not that this was anything new.
While my classmates taunted me from the sidelines—about my height and titan ancestry—Igarashi riled me up of his own accord. We'd been at each other's throats since the first day we met six months ago. If my schoolmates were insensitive, Igarashi was on a whole other level of rude. He never sugarcoated making fun of me, so much so that I'd learnt to never sugarcoat making fun of him. Considering there was only one of him as opposed to forty tactless classmates, arguing back was a lot easier.
He had no right to talk. For a guy, he was shorter (or as short) as most of the girls in the class. And yet he had such a big, fat, ill-mannered mouth!
The girly cry interrupted our staredown.
We swivelled in the direction of the source. A petite girl with short pink hair skipped through the classroom's doors, an orange lunchbox in hand.
"Oh, Keiko. You finished helping Mrs. Nibutani already?"
"Yep! So let's eat together!"
Per usual, Keiko Koshiba was glowing—radiating all lady pheromones I lacked in every respect. Porcelain skin. Big round eyes. An adorable smile. Not to mention she stood at a tinier height than Igarashi, one befitting of the average and ultimately adding to her cutesy demeanour.
"Ugh," she spat, her face contorting in as much disgust as Igarashi's had previously, "it's the pole."
"Who are you calling a pole?" I balled my fists.
"Toru," she sang anyway. Coiling strands of her hair around her finger, she batted her thick eyelashes. "I made you lunch again today. Let's go eat on the rooftop, away from disgustingly tall poles."
I was going to smack her.
She was insanely disrespectful! An angel to everyone—especially Igarashi whom she ogled with constant heart-eyes. Considering the two grew up together, their ability to get on my absolute nerves was mutual. That being said, she was in the next class over. She shouldn't be here. Enlighten me why I had the displeasure of running into her cocky self every day at noon, then?
"Did someone leave your cage open or something? Why are you still here?"
I leapt at her—nails outstretched and ready to rip her throat to smithereens. Igarashi grasped me by the arm to stop me. Not that he did a superb job at hiding his snickers.
I struck him upside the head. Hard.
"Ow!" he hissed, clasping the spot. "I can sue you for that!"
"Only if you live to tell the tale!"
"Grow like the freak you are somewhere else!"
"How about you try learning from example instead of shrinking every time I look away from you?"
"What was that?"
"You heard me!"
"Don't yell at my Toru."
Ice drenched me from head to toe. Proven by the deathlike pallor of Igarashi's face, the chilling voice had gotten to him, too.
Keiko no longer smiled. Eyes creepily wide, shoulder-length hair casting shadows from the nose up.
My jaw chattered.
"Do I make myself clear?" she said, ominously flat.
I bobbed my head up and down in rapid succession.
Then, as if her murderous vibes hadn't been dished out, she looped her arm through Igarashi's.
"Yay! Let's go, Toru! I want to find a good spot!"
She whisked him off and out the door at that. Despite never shutting up for the half year I knew him, Igarashi didn't utter a single word of rebuttal.
Gripping my arms to quiet their shaking, I whipped my head left and right. Her detestable personality aside, she was petrifying when it came to Igarashi. Maybe I stepped out of line for smacking him, but my rage had built up after all these months of constant ridicule.
What did she see in that midget, anyway? His personality was rotten to the core.
I toppled into my seat.
Here I was without the slightest chance at romance. My 'Beanstalk Shiina' nickname had become my undoing.
"Seriously, Kisaragi," a girl called out this time, "what kind of magical beans do you use to sprout so tall?"
"None!" I slapped my face into my desk, whimpering at the blistering pain that followed.
I was never going to grow another inch.