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Keeley had finally tracked the neighborhood ninja to a small grove beyond the subdivisions. It was a summery dusk, and the space between the trees was lit with firefly lanterns as shadow cloaked the land. The grass crunched beneath her wushu shoes. In one hand, she clenched a collar — black, with a silver bell. She gave it a jingle.
A voice came on the resurgent wind. “Hi,” it said, small and embarrassed.
Keeley coolly scanned her field of vision, to no avail. She looked up — down — over her shoulder. “Master Ninja,” she called, “Keeper of Nothing and Employer of the Shadowhand: I have bested one of your disciples and demand that you train me.” Her voice echoed around the clearing. She shucked the collar to the brittle grass.
The wind shepherded another reply. “Is there a, uh, a tag? On that collar?”
Keeley glanced down, careful not to break her stern, dual-fisted posture. “Yeah, it looks like there’s a nametag.”
“What’s it say?”
“It says ‘Boo.’”
“Yeah…that’s not one of mine.”
“Are you serious?”
“I was told that if I caught one of the elusive black cats that mirrors the master’s abilities and brought its collar as proof, I would have earned the right to training.”
“I don’t have any shadowcats named Boo, though. I’m sorry. There’s a Boots. Did you find her?”
“No. I found Boo, and I chased Boo, because I thought Boo was one of your feral disciples.”
“I think he belongs to Mrs. Weyrauch, over on Gaslight Avenue.”
Keeley jammed the collar into her pocket. “Well that sucks. Can I at least demand an audience or something?”
“Sure, I guess so. I mean, you’ve got my attention, so…”
Keeley aligned her chakras and said, “I demand that you train me in the art of concealment.”
“Oh,” said the wind. “I dunno about that. See, by taking the wrong collar, you kinda threw off the balance of the universe. Ninjutsu is all about the balance.”
“Balance is exactly what I seek. I want to wage a campaign of unmitigated revenge.”
“Uh…I dunno if I can help you there. I’m really just kind of good at, like, hiding and stuff. Striking from the shadows, if I have to strike. I mean, I’d rather not strike. At all.”
“No. The art of concealment is exactly what I need,” Keeley said. “For my foe is samurai.”
The wind ceased. Keeley heard a single leaf fall behind her and felt a dull presence, masked. She tumbled forward and flashed around and there, rubbing the back of his head, stood the master ninja. He was shrouded in black and carried no visible weapons. In his mask was a thin eyeslit over which he wore a pair of thick eyeglasses.
“You totally knew I was behind you just then, didn’t you?” he said.
“My gut informed me.”
“Guts are great. Did you know — it’s weird — that human skin can feel pressure as soft as 0.00004 of an inch? Or something like that?”
“I believe it,” Keeley said, and she did, though it sounded bogus.
“So, wow. Samurai. Really?” he asked. “Like, throw-yourself-on-a-sword?”
“Like, full-on bushido code.”
“Wow. Who is it?”
She eyed him up and down. “Don’t you know?”
“Yeah, maybe. I think so. I could be testing your honesty, too, maybe.”
“You can’t talk to me about honesty. You’re a ninja.”
“Or I’ve at least made you think that I’m a ninja.”
Keeley squinted at him. Part of her was impressed, but it hid behind her skeptical eyelid. “His name is Tonka,” she said.
“The school quarterback?” the ninja blurted.
“Shutup, I’m trying to tell you.” Keeley cleared her throat. “It’s said that once, like, a million moons ago, a Great Quarterback went to war with a rival clan for the State Championship. Few today know what happened on that fateful field of battle — least of all the referees — but the Quarterback and his Wildcats returned stinking of defeat. It wasn’t long before the Great Quarterback succumbed to the temptation of the ricebrew, and the next eve, he rode into the school’s Homecoming dance with his brothers-in-arms, a small cadre of jocks galloping on Ford Mustangs. Together they gave gifts of draconian, misdirected vengeance by the light of Tsukuyomi.”
“Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto the moon god, who slew the goddess of food?”
“Tsukuyomi the Japanese steakhouse. It was a popular dinner destination for dances.”
The ninja lowered his gaze. “…I see.”
“To the Cheerleaders, Toneless Sirens, the Once-Great Quarterback gave heartbreak and chlamydia. To the Abandoned Children of the New Wave, he gave quaking gender insecurity. To the Twelve Great Nerds he gave atomic wedgies and hung them from the stars by their waistlines. He set fire to the amateurish fields of the Agricultural Club and pissed on their potatoes.
“The Homecoming King stepped up to stop this madness. With the full authority of the shogunate, he ordered the Quarterback and his Varsity Squad to cease this dishonor. But the Quarterback was an oni with an iron club. He overthrew the King. And when the Homecoming Queen stepped in, boldly — I mean, it didn’t go super well.”
“They got married after graduation, right?” the ninja said.
“Yeah,” Keeley said. “The Quarterback cast a spell of subjugation or some arcane ridiculousness. Or so she said.”
“Wow, that’s heavy. Way stronger than the ninja school of magic.”
“And the fallen quarterback repented, and became, like, a youth minister or something, eventually, and they got all married and stuff, and then divorced way later or kind of recently, but not all of that before they had a baybay.”
“A baby. He was born a blending of his father’s temerity and his mother’s timorousness.”
“Is it okay if I go look those words up? I’ve got a dictionary up that tree.”
“Basically, he had mommy’s kind heart and daddy’s martial prowess. And that baby was Gold-Fisted Tonka, the Wildcats’ present qoob.”
“I need to look that up, too, when you’re done.”
“Today Tonka is the top-ranking warrior of his daimyo, Coach Cutler. The fields are dead and yellow. The Varsity Squad is fresh and fiery. They are amassing an army once again. They aim to conquer the State Champions for their Homecoming Game and consolidate power here, in the west. The son of the Once-Great Quarterback is set to follow in his father’s footsteps, restoring glory to that blighted family; yet he is poised higher than ever for his fall, as a heron standing one-legged.”
“Sheesh. Sounds exciting. But, one thing is, how come you want revenge on Tonka? What’d he do? Because that story you told didn’t really, you know, tell me any of that.”
“What, you don’t know?”
“Oh, nah. I never claimed to know everything. I mean, I try to keep tabs on the neighborhood goings on, but . . . Who told you I knew everything?”
“Do you know who I am?” she asked. She figured she kept a low-enough profile, and, unlike other people, she didn’t have any stories of the time she caught the neighborhood ninja monitoring her through a periscope or circling her house in a hang-glider.
“Pretty much, I think. You know like in old kung fu movies where they call people grasshopper? Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a cricket. I heard you coming from, like, two miles out. You make a lot of noise.”
“My name is Keeley. I make noise because I am untrained and unafraid.”
“Okay,” said the ninja, raising a tō-like finger. “Right there, you kind of skipped my first question and answered my second one.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You did, though.”
“Not on purpose.”
The ninja lowered his finger and rubbed his windpipe as if he had just been choked. “So,” he said, “are you gonna answer my first question, or…?”
“What was the question?” Keeley said.
“Why do you want revenge on Tonka?”
Keeley looked up at the stars, the moon. “Because Tonkaaa…Tonka lies.”
“That’s it, huh?” said the ninja. “That’s all the explanation I’m gonna get?”
“Well, do you wanna tell me more about yourself?” the ninja asked. “I mean, I’m not persuaded to help you get revenge yet.”
“I used to be a girl scout, growing up. I can hold my breath forever.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
“Go on any trips this summer?”
“Nope. All you need to know right now is that I have watched Tonka extensively, and the only path for my revenge lies in taisavuki-jutsu.”
“The art of avoidance? Yeah, okay, I know that one. But, I mean, without knowing more about the whole situation, it’s kinda hard to say whether or not I should, you know? I would hate to make the universe imba. That’s, imbalanced. And the whole thing with apprehending the wrong cat — ”
“Listen, dude. To make a demand, I don’t have to jump through zany hoops or explain my zany self. I need merely speak it. And I demand you train me, because I demand revenge on Gold-Fisted Tonka.” Keeley made an outward-facing fist. “I refuse to let his Wildcats ride to victory. And my reasons are as valid as they are my own. So let’s play poisons or something.”
“Okay, wait. Com-pro-mise. Let’s do it like this: I show you something, and you tell me more. And then I show you something else, and then you tell me more. And then so on, et cetera, ad infinitum.”
“That…might actually work,” Keeley said. “Are you going to show me something right now?”
“Yeah, why not?” The ninja shifted his weight to one foot. “So your first task is to answer this question.”
“Is the answer ‘a ninja?’”
He held up his index finger to the swirling night then pointed at her. “Yes. Do you want to hear what the question was?”
“No. What’s my second task?”
“Um…you’re gonna need a good night’s sleep. Meet me at the elementary school tomorrow, if you want, and I guess we can get down to it.” He cracked his knuckles as quietly as dissolving pop rocks.
“But tomorrow’s the last day of summer! Look, I’m rested.” She jogged in place and did a karate chop. “Why can’t we do it now?”
“It’s getting late. I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe.” The ninja hooted like a baby and hopped behind a tree. Keeley ran after him, and outside the grove, she saw him — a trick of perspective? — dashing over a hill, one hundred feet ahead of her. He waved back with a thick book. It might have been a dictionary.
Down to It
“Okay, this one’s a classic.”
It was the middle of the next day, at the elementary school playground. School started up again tomorrow, but for now the place was empty save the occasional helmeted kid on a bike and training wheels.
Keeley hung upside-down from the monkey bars, knees pointing at the sky. The neighborhood ninja set down a plastic bucket of water with a slosh. He wedged an identical empty bucket above her, between two of the bars. Then he handed her a small ceramic bowl.
“So what you do is,” he said, pointing along the way, “you reach down with the dish and scoop some water, and then you let it out in this upper bucket.”
“How many times?”
“Just one bucket is probably enough.”
Keeley rolled her neck and tried to scoop some water from the bucket. She came up short.
“I can’t reach your stupid bucket.”
“Oops.” The ninja picked it up and kicked some mulch into a mound, then set the bucket on top of its booster seat.
“Now try,” he said, and she did, and could reach. She scooped some water and did a dangling stomach crunch. The backs of her knees pounded. At the top, she found that most of the water had spilled from her cup. She poured a spittling amount into the empty bucket.
“See, that’s kind of the hard part. You have to keep really steady or else you lose it all.”
“I don’t think this is good for a person,” Keeley said as she hung like a bat. “My shoulders are trembling and I can’t feel my arms.”
“You know what else isn’t good for a person: revenge. That’s not gonna dissolve any arterial plaque.”
She made a determined face and scooped more water.
“You’re doing really good. Keep it up.” The ninja glanced at his wrist, where a watch would have been. “I’ve gotta go do something. Did you know you can tell the time of day by observing the dilation of a cat’s pupil? Wider equals further from noon.”
“Why not — just look — at the sun?” Keeley said between motions.
“I dunno. Because sometimes, when you’re hiding, you might be indoors or under a porch or something, and all you can see is the cat’s eyes.”
“But a good ninja — wouldn’t be seen — by the cat.”
“That’s true, I guess. I’ll see you later. I’ll be back when you finish the bucket thing.” He darted up the swirly slide into the playhouse. She never saw him emerge, but she knew it was empty.
She thought the water thing was freaking stupid. But she’d seen kung fu movies before. The master always tested the student first, to see how studenty they were, and that’s what this must’ve been. Totally. So she squeezed out trip after trip between the low bucket and the high bucket.
But eventually Keeley’s face was red and there was a line in her forehead like a crazy straw. She was sweating. She had to poop. And the lower bucket was still three-fourths full. She reached down one more time and — spasming — lost the scooper. It dropped into the water with a splash.
She uncinched her legs, stood upright again on wobbly knees. As the blood seeped from Keeley’s head, she got an idea. She climbed the monkey bars and switched the buckets, lugging the full one up to the top and leaving the empty one on the ground. Boo-yah. Easy. Who could tell the difference?
She wanted to feel her clotted legs drain. She wanted to stick them straight out into the sky. So she went and swung while she waited for the ninja to come back and say, “Good job.”
“Wow. Good job on the water thing. I kind of thought you would lose a lot more water, honestly. You must have a really steely balance. Steely Keeley.”
Keeley leapt from the swing like a slingshot pellet. As she landed, her wushu shoes left skidmarks in the mulch. “I didn’t do it,” she said proudly. “I thought it was stupid.”
“You didn’t do it?”
“I switched the buckets.”
“You switched — ! But, I was trying to show you something about perseverance. And dedication. And…and stick-to-it-iveness.”
“I know, and that’s bushido bullcrap. I’m not going to defeat a samurai if I’m thinking like a samurai. Instead, I taught myself about deception.”
“Oh, okay. I get it. Wow.” The ninja laughed. “Maybe you should be the master ninja.”
“Your false modesty doesn’t deceive me, dude. I know you’ve got lots more clandestine ninja stuff to show me.” Keeley stood under the monkey bars and high-kicked the bucket, which twirled end over end and splashed water everywhere. “Or at least you’d better.”
“Hey, I never claimed to know everything,” the ninja said.
“Well, what do you know?” she asked him.
“Whoa; there it is again. Like a skipping record.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. But I guess there are nine halls of mastery in ninjutsu.” The ninja counted off on his fingers. “Four of them are combat ones, but that stuff’s not really applicable. That stuff’s for, like, middle school ninja. But those combat ones are halls of training in unarmed, bladed, wooden, and flexible weapons.”
“Yeah, you know, kusarigama and…I mean, like chains. Whips. A scarf.”
“Sure. Scarves are great impromptu items, when it’s scarf season.”
Keeley scratched her throat.
“And beside the combat stuff, you’ve got a hall for espionage, and one for disguise, and one for escape. Man, what else? Mysticism. That’s one.” He counted what he had named off on eight fingers. “I’m missing one. It’s a dumb one. Let’s just say it’s survival. Survival would be like, setting traps and identifying poisonous berries and starting fires and stuff.”
“Do you ever need that stuff?”
“Sometimes. I like eating the berries. Hey, I remember what the ninth hall is! It’s not that dumb, actually. Forget survival. The real one is specialized combat training.”
“How is that any different from the other four halls of combat?”
“Specialized combat training is dodges, parries, counter-attacks, combo-breakers. Et cet.”
“Like backflips? You can do a backflip?”
“Sure. I can do a double. But you see how many different halls of mastery there are.”
“Yeah. I think we’re going to have to slow down,” Keeley said. “I’m starting school tomorrow. Senior year and all that.”
“Oh, totally. Yeah. Slowing down seems like a great idea.”
“I mean, just a bit.”
“Right. Yeah, we can slow down a bit. That’s no problem. Why rush? True mastery takes, like, ten thousand hours of practice, whether it’s making riceballs or becoming a ninja or memorizing a poem.” The ninja clasped his hands behind his back, like someone at peace or waiting to win an award.
“How come you don’t go to school?” Keeley asked, arms crossed.
“What makes you think I don’t go to school?”
She frowned. “What, you do? You act like you just sleep all day, or deliver pizzas or something, and ninja it up every night.”
“Sorry. All I meant was, what makes you think you know where a shinobi’s been?”
“What does that mean? Glasses-wearer?”
“Shinobi? ‘One who sneaks in.’”
“Oh, dude — that’s so perfect.”
“What if I do go to school?” the ninja said. “Maybe my disguise is a normal guy, sitting behind you in fourth hour. Or maybe I lurk in the ventilation ducts and hear all lectures at once, absorbing. Maybe I’m the principal. Hey, ooh, maybe — maybe I’m Gold-Fisted Tonka. What would you do then?”
“What would I do then?” Her knuckles clenched. They were sharp and pointy, all of them, not at all like the teeth of an herbivore.
The ninja was taken unawares. The universe’s balance first tipped at his nose. There was a split second where he could smell her hand, the smell of rain before thunder, and then the symmetry was smashed. Her fist jammed his nostrils shut and put dents in his maxilla. The saliva in his mouth was knocked down his throat and his bottom front teeth jiggled like jinglebells.
It had been many months since the ninja was taken unawares. It was kind of, well, exciting, to be honest. It jarred his glasses out of place.
The follow-through pushed him backwards. He adjusted his trajectory and turned the fall into a flip. From a handstand, he pinned Keeley’s wrist between his ankles and, with a twist of his torso, threw her out of close-quarters. She took an unwilling dive into the woodchips.
“Ow,” he said, standing straight and rubbing his mask. “I’m not Tonka, though. Can’t you tell from my build? That guy’s like five times my size.”
“Black is a slimming color!” she said from the ground, enraged but calming.
“That was a really good punch,” he said. He worked his jaw over and over, “Man.” He maybe had a nosebleed — nothing gushing, but contained, high up in the bridge, that would result in some black ninja boogers later that night. “Is that what you’re going to hit Tonka with?”
“I’m going to hit Tonka with everything I’ve got.” She brushed the chips from her front.
“But why? I’ve given you some training. You said now you’d give me more info.”
“Yeah, but that training sucked.”
The ninja’s face broke behind his glasses.
“I mean,” Keeley said, “it didn’t suck. It just — wasn’t what I expected. I…sorry. Hm.”
The ninja swept a hand in front of his face and the hurt expression disappeared. “You said Tonka lies.”
“All the time.”
“Like, give me an example. I feel like you’ve got something particular in mind.”
Keeley sat in the mulch, and the ninja crouched across from her. He had a chunky woodchip jammed between the split-toe of his tabi boot. She grabbed her feet and yanked them into a lotus position.
“Tonka and I grew up on the same cul-de-sac.”
“Really? Aw, man, I would have been just a little ninja back then. So you guys know each other?”
“‘Roots so deep, Alex Haley couldn’t script this.’”
“Hey, is that Edo G? That’s Edo G! You do like music!”
Keeley pfft’d. “We were the only kids our age, and we used to play together. I was a boy scout, and he was a girl scout.”
“You mean –”
“Yeah, whatever. We always competed. We used to compare merit badges, but I gave up after he earned Nuclear Science.”
“Is that a joke?”
“Hey, screw you. It’s a hard subject to wrap your head around.”
The ninja shrunk back, fearing another punch. “No, I meant: you giving up. Kinda farfetched.”
“Oh. Well sure. I give up all the time.” She threw a handful of mulch at the buckets beneath the monkey bars.
“Oh,” said the ninja. “Duh. Why did I say that?”
“Playing together was always competitive,” Keeley went on. “It was good-natured, sure. But, like, there was a pink dogwood in the center of the cul-de. We kept climbing higher and higher to beat each other’s records, and when we both got to the top it became about who could do it fastest. We used to race around the neighborhood on whatever we could: trikes, bikes, roller skates. He had a wagon and I had a skateboard, so we would take turns in those and time each other and end up fighting about the timekeeping. We used to wrestle, and the loser was the person with the most grass stains. Dog poop counted for double. And when the ice cream truck came around, we would buy the biggest superhero face we could and try to eat it first. Then, we’d chew the gumball eyes and blow huge bubbles while we swordfought with the popsicle sticks.”
“You got a point if you popped the other person’s bubble.”
“So that’s what this is all about? Tonka’s blown this big old varsity bubble, and you’re still trying to pop it?”
“No. That’s not it at all. We may’ve grown up like that, but things didn’t stay that way.”
“What happened then?”
Keeley stood and brushed herself off. “Then I got my next dose of ninja training.”
“Aw, come on. You shouldn’t keep stringing me along. It’s not very polite.”
“Was that one of the nine halls of mastery you mentioned? Polititude?”
“I could just go ask Tonka what the story is. I bet he’d tell me.”
“Yeah, maybe he would. Or maybe he’d lie. And either way, then I would disappear and you would retreat into your little grove again, maybe play all day with your cats and try to catch Mrs. Weyrauch undressing.”
“Hey, you think this is all I do? I do lots of stuff. I got lots going on.”
Keeley made a fist and pretended to punch him in slow-mo. “Just admit that you haven’t had this much fun all summer.”
“I can’t do that. You need me a lot more than I need you. That punch, just as an example: that punch was maybe dynamite, but it wasn’t TNT. You might give Tonka a teeny tiny bruise with something like that, if you hit his armor in the right place.”
“Please. That was just my jab. I need your training to get into close range, undetected. I don’t see how Ms. and Mr. Bucket’re supposed to help me do that. Once I can sneak up on Tonka, you leave the rest to me.”
“But I still want to raise the question, Keeley: should you be doing this?”
“I’m not doing anything. Shouldn’t you be teaching me something?”
“No, really. Should you be seeking revenge? It sounds like you and Tonka were good friends growing up.”
“We were best friends growing up.”
“Then what makes you think this is okay? Like, cosmically?”
“‘If rhymes is hot, then the beats’ll come,’” Keeley said.
“I mean it. From everything I know about the situation, which could be more, this doesn’t seem right.”
“Look: didn’t I give you information you didn’t have, just now?”
The ninja nodded.
“Then we’re even. I kept my word. And I’ll tell you more after you show me more.”
“I’ve gotta think about things, though,” the ninja said. He was quiet, serious. “Maybe tomorrow, I can show you something else. We might take a different tack.”
Keeley glared scornfully at her knuckles. “Fine. Whatever. But you’d better show me something killer.”
Tonka on the Field
Early morning. Cherry blossom sky. Two-a-day practices. Tonka hosed himself off beneath a water bottle. Hair the color of wet sand. He took good care of the family armor, but in the thick of things, his pads were scuffed and stained.
They had wargamed since sunup. Today, the first day of school, was Keeley’s first excuse to observe. Coach Cutler smacked the quarterback’s butt as Tonka jogged onto the field with two fingers in the air. He spoke briefly to the offensive line, his most devout. Then he put in his mouthguard and fell into position. The receivers took their places, moving like one man in a mirror. The defenders exchanged glances, fidgety. Then, at a barked command, the ball was hiked.
Tonka caught the snap and a precise pocket formed around him. Bodies collided, but his soldiers stood like stone against the onslaught. His receivers dashed along their routes, swift and devious as tengu birdfolk. One of them was missing a defender. This extra man rushed the line. He plowed through Tonka’s barricade and charged the samurai himself. Keeley waited for the throw.
But Tonka met the blitzer — stiff-armed him from a standstill. The butt of Tonka’s palm fired like a cannon and knocked the attacker on his back. Then, as if he was waiting all that time on the slowpoke receiver, Tonka launched an efficient spiral into the end zone.
There was the Gold-Fisted moniker, in two dynamic senses. From start to finish, the skirmish had barely been an instant. Tonka was unstrapping his helmet and returning to the sideline before the throw was even caught, half a field away.
Keeley watched through the chain-link fence. The Wildcats were fantastic. The team had yet to play its first game, but already they were the stuff of legend. The foes they faced would be crushed; the glory they sought would be theirs. The great tragedy was that she could not allow it. Her backpack was stuffed with empty folders, blank notebooks, and unsharpened pencils. Her heart was stuffed with fury, embitterment, and, worst of all, respect.
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