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Here He Is At School
“See, check it out. Here I am at school, ninjaing it up.”
He was standing in her locker — a new locker she had only just opened for the first time — and blending in. His glasses floated like a Cheshire smile.
“Man, I really thought you were just some day laborer,” Keeley said. “I still do. I bet you’ve got a pizza delivery packed away somewhere under that suit. Like, slices wrapped around your limbs.”
He snickered behind his mask and said, “Wow. That was really funny. We don’t laugh much, ninjas, unless it’s part of a disguise, but that. I thought that was funny.”
“You can come out of my locker.”
“I’m in concealment, though.”
“It’s passing time. Nobody cares what’s going on between classes.”
“Maybe you’re right. Hey, did you see Tonka sparring this morning? Fierce, right?”
“You were there? I seriously hope you know what you’re talking about with this training. The Homecoming game is next Friday. I need to act quickly if I’m going to have any chance at stopping him.”
A kid rolled by in a wheelchair. “Hey, ninja,” he said as he went.
“Oh hey man!” He watched the kid go, then said to Keeley, “Such a nice guy.”
“Were you here for something? Or are you just hiding explosives in my locker.”
“What? No. No, no. I don’t use explosives; I create the illusion of explosion.” He handed her a flyer. “I think you should do this.”
Keeley opened and read the note right away. “Dash for Diabetes, blah blah blah . . . charity fun run? Are you serious?”
“Yeah! Haven’t you ever done one? It really is fun. Nobody’s competing or anything, so nobody loses.” His eyebrows scrunched down. “Except for diabetes. Diabetes loses.”
“I barely have enough fun for myself. I don’t have any to spare for charity,” Keeley said. “And what the heck is this about a registration fee? Fifteen dollars?!”
“It’s okay, I’m sponsoring you! Check inside your shoe.”
“But this isn’t even until Saturday!”
“Oh, whoa, we’re not training during the week.”
Keeley threw the flyer up in the air. It seesawed to the ground like a feather. “I just told you we’ve got, like eleven days until the big game! What am I supposed to do all week if I’m not training?”
“Your homework. Duh.”
“Hey! HEY YOU!” Coach Clark, a lesser daimyo, stomped from his biology classroom. “Hands in the air, and off with the mask!”
“I think I’d better go, actually,” the ninja said. “See ya!” He pfffed a smokebomb and an inoffensive gray cloud filled the hallway. Someone nearby yanked a fire alarm.
Everyone evacuated. They waited on the lawns a long time for the fire department to show up. Keeley sat in the grass and took off her shoe. It was empty. Then she took off her other shoe, and found a ten dollar bill and five ones beneath the insole. When the students were readmitted, Keeley broke the orderly lines to be one of the first back inside. Near her locker she found an origami crane, hanging perfectly still, from a piece of fishing line in the ceiling.
On Saturday morning, Keeley got up at 7:30 and went to the park. The place was filled with two or three hundred people, from fit pro-runners to ten-year-old showoffs to unfit regular people to a million moms with strollers (and a couple dads with strollers). So that meant a lot of stroller-sized people, as well. There were even some dogs. An old, old DJ — like a Casey Kasem type — was playing Cyndi Lauper-style stuff near the registry table. Keeley signed in with the charity organizers, hid her free t-shirt under a rock, and selected a blueberry bagel from the catering table. She was sitting on the sidewalk, lotus position, and spreading cream cheese with her finger when a stroller stopped in front of her.
Keeley looked up. The woman in front of her was wearing some weird shoes and a bright blue tracksuit. She had wiggy blonde hair that reached her shoulders and framed her face — and a black mask over her face with a dopey pair of glasses.
“Did you just put that disguise on over your ninja suit?” she asked him.
“Sure,” the ninja said. He tossed back the long hair. “That way, I can lose the disguise and not be naked.”
Keeley stood and looked into the stroller at the bundled blankies. “Is this your ninja baby?”
“This is your training partner!”
“I’m not pushing a stroller.”
“But look.” The ninja lifted the covers. The stroller was filled with loose barbell weights, some the size of saucers and some the size of plates. He seemed really impressed with his own idea. “You push these babies through this run and you’ll have stamina kablammina.”
“I don’t care how much Schwarzen you’ve eggered in. Everybody’s going to think I’m a mom or something. And look at all these moms. Moms don’t run with strollers.”
“Hey, don’t talk bad about moms. I’ve got a mom.”
“You sure?” Keeley raised an eyebrow at the ninja. “According to neighborhood legend, the doctor just pulled you out of the shadows beneath the delivery table.”
“No, my mom used to push me around in this thing.” He revved the stroller’s handle like the handlebars of a motorcycle, growling. “I used to hide in there, during walks, and she would see it empty and think I’d been abducted or something. I was a little brat.”
“I can’t believe you want me to push around your old stroller. How long is a 5K, anyway?”
“It’s about five kilometers.”
“I know that. But what does that even mean?”
“Five thousand meters.” The ninja made a face. “About 3.10685 miles,” he said, “or one two-billionth of a lightyear.”
“Oh.” Keeley frowned at her bagel. “Crap.”
When everyone herded to the starting line, Keeley tried to get a spot near the front. But the organizers made all strollers go to the back. She fell in with a bunch of people who were at least five years older than her, mostly, and didn’t make conversation. Someone told them some facts about diabetes, which she couldn’t hear from the back. Then they shot a fake gun, or just a fake bullet, and the fun run began.
Keeley took off running, shoving the stroller in front of her. But this far back, everyone was a walker. She tried to pass them, but it was slow going. They formed tight-knit walking walls that she couldn’t get through, and each pass was like cresting a wave. So she took this opportunity to push with one hand and bagel with the other. Eventually, she finished her breakfast and reached the null space between walkers and runners, populated by those weirdoes who do both. She started speeding behind the stroller.
She was sweating after two minutes, and tired after three. But then the ninja was beside her, skating along like the path was ice. She glanced down at his old tabi boots.
“Do those have wheels on the bottom?” she puffed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the ninja said. He twirled around and started skating backwards beside her. “How do you feel?”
“Mommyish.” She rubbed her forehead and her hand came away dripping.
“Well, hang in there.” He looked ahead down the path. “Only two-point-sevenish miles to go. I’m gonna be watching, okay? You can walk all you want — I’d even recommend it so you don’t get hurt — but don’t drop out. Also, don’t throw any of these weights out. I’ve got to give those back.”
“Gurghhh.” Keeley popped a burst of speed and dashed in front of the ninja, but he caught right back up. “You know I don’t plan on chasing Tonka down,” she said. “All I wanted you to show me is how to conceal myself, and — gah — strike from the shadows.”
“Yeah, but all I want you to tell me is what Tonka did that deserves your revenge. And the longer you take to answer, the more skeptical I’m gonna be.” He skated around her in a circle, then hopped into a garbage barrel like a rodeo clown.
“Stupid ninja master jerk,” Keeley said beneath her failing breath. “I’ll show you a…ugh. Stop talking. Running. Eeewp.”
The sun came up as the race went on. Seventy degrees became eighty. Sweat poured from every pore, painting Keeley’s shirt a darker shade. She ground the stroller along as if she were plowing a field with a deadline. The tiny wheels kept skittering to one side or trying to jump off the bike trail. In the carriage, her iron babies cooed and clacked together.
After the longest twenty minutes of her life, she came around to the starting line again. It was finally over. One of the organizers stood there in a Dash for Diabetes t-shirt, clapping for everyone as they crossed. He made a V-for-Victory with his fingers and yelled to Keeley, “Halfway there! You can do it! Keep going! One more time around!”
“No! Freaking — rrrr. Noooo. Whyyy did I wear wushu shooooes.”
After another trip around, Keeley could barely stand. She was in the thrall of a bodily phenomenon, something experienced runners and new mothers call catatonic locomotion. She pushed the stroller over the finish line then threw the stroller sideways to the ground. A few people behind her gasped. One of the 25 lb. weights rolled out like a penny and wiggled to a stop. The ninja waited atop a hay bale.
“Well, Keeley,” he said, and Keeley — glaring — hobbled past him. “Hey, wait; you did it. The 5K’s over. Keeley? It’s over! Where are you going?”
But Keeley kept jogging down the bike trail, barely lifting her feet from the ground. She wouldn’t stop until she’d gone around twice more, running her own 10K — or as the ninja would tell her, 6.2137 miles.
Keeley chucked a shuriken at the frozen custard place’s sign. It snipped through the air and thunked, high overhead, into the giant plastic ice cream cone.
“Do you have a second ninja-star?” she asked the ninja.
“They’re like potato chips,” he said and handed her another. “So, how do you feel?”
They sat on the custard place’s patio, at a table with a beach umbrella. The barbell-loaded stroller sat nearby. Overhead, the sun was nearing its noonday point, and cats’ eyes everywhere were fully dilating.
“How do I feel?” Keeley’s two scoops came in a paper bowl. She held it to her forehead like a psychic trying to read its contents. Inside, the rocky road melted into a tarry choco-swirlyirl, threaded through with mallow marrow and chunken nut debris. “Baking. I feel like I am baking.”
“I’m really impressed,” said the ninja. “I didn’t think you had that kind of determination yet.” He had a butterscotch malt in a polystyrene cup. He put the straw to the mouth-region of his mask and Keeley could see shadows being slurped up; but if there was a mouth-slit in the fabric, she couldn’t see it. “I mean, do you feel at all…embiggened?” the ninja asked. “Or enlightened? I don’t wanna sound too hippy-dippy.”
“I feel swollen and lightheaded, so yeah. I think I feel both of those things.”
“What did you learn?”
“Ummm . . . let me, just, think about it. Over the weekend. And I will tell you when I don’t have a simultaneous brainfreeze and brainbake.”
The ninja slid his straw up and down in the cup. The lid made a squooting sound where they grated together. “Would, uh, would now be a bad time for you to tell me more about you and Tonka?”
“Oh, fudge.” She lowered her ice cream and finally ate some. “Mmmm, fudge.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin. “I told you about us playing together.”
“But you said something changed.”
“Tonka started playing mitey-mite football when we were eight. But I couldn’t.”
“Because girls can’t play football.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Keeley gave him that familiar death stare and the ninja retreated to his malt.
“Tonka and I kept hanging out. You wanna know how he got so good?” She waited for the ninja to nod. “It was me. We ran and planned plays. We took turns tackling. He threw me about a million passes, and a lot of them sucked. But even our other games made him a better quarterback.”
The ninja fanned his face. He looked awfully warm in that black bodysuit.
“We got a little older, and everybody started riding bikes around more, and soon — all the guys from Tonka’s team started coming over to play in the backyard.”
“Right. Tonka’s backyard.” Keeley squinted at the ninja. “What?”
“What?” The ninja started. “What did I do?”
“Nothing. I remember the first day I went to play with all the boys. Tonka and I did stuff all the time, and we had a better mental connection than anybody else.”
“Chemistry,” said the ninja, knowingly.
“No. Not chemistry. More like matching frequency. When I walked in on their game, they looked at me like my face had fallen off. And Tonka stepped forward to say, ‘It’s okay, guys. She can be the kicker.’”
The ninja raised a hand, meekly. “I, uh, I dunno much about football. Is there something bad about being the kicker?”
“There’s something bad about being relegated. I knew how to tackle; I knew how to catch; there’s a good chance I was the fastest person in that backyard. But in all our practicing, I had never once kicked the ball. Yet that was the first thing Tonka said, and it made sense to the boys.”
“Because you weren’t on their mitey-mite team?”
“Because I was a girl. Also, what you said.”
“How did it go?”
“Terribly. The game ended when I blasted the ball one whole block over, and it rolled into a storm drain because this was before they put those metal covers on all of them.”
“I love those, though. They help keep safe our waterways and my shadowcats.”
“And that was just the beginning. Tonka was less and less willing to hang out with a girl because of his stupid friends, and pretty soon I was less and less willing to even try because he was a stupid jerk. I hadn’t bothered to make any other friends at school, and all the girls I was supposed to hang out with thought I was a freak.”
“You didn’t try to make friends?”
“They called me ‘Smellsey.’”
The ninja rocked back in his chair, balancing on two legs but without touching the table for stability. “Why would they call you Smellsey, though? It’s not like your name is Kelsey.”
Keeley quickly filled her mouth with runny ice cream.
“Wait a minute…” the ninja said.
“Who are you?”
Keeley swallowed. “Who am I? Who are you? I don’t know the first thing about Mr. The Neighborhood Ninja, yet I’m telling him all these secrets about my past.”
“These don’t sound very much like secrets. And you’re doing it because you need me to get your lousy revenge. Which I still think is a bad idea, by the way.”
“Oh, you think my whole vendettic journey is a bad idea?”
“Yeah, I do. And I’ve only tried to tell you, like, fourteen times.”
“Well if you still think it’s such a bad idea then why don’t you ever say so?”
“I’m saying so right now!”
“Yeah, but you weren’t!”
“Maybe because I wasn’t going to say anything right now because I wanted to be polite!”
“You wanted to be polite? What, was that one of the nine halls of ninja mastery you mentioned? Polititu — ?”
“You made that joke last week. And ‘polititude’ isn’t even a word!”
“Everything isn’t a word! Word schmörd!”
“Fine!” said the ninja.
“Alright!” said Keeley.
They watched the cars go by. Vvvvmmm. The ninja squirked at the bottom of his malt.
“Oh, freaking freak,” Keeley said.
“I left my free t-shirt under a rock in the park.”
A gust of wind blew away her napkin.
At lunch on Monday, Keeley took her time selecting food. She was mostly trailing Tonka, noting all of the things he put on his tray: iceberg salad; chicken strips; honey mustard; frozen peanut butter cup; sports drink. Two napkins. One spork.
When she wound up at the cash registers, she realized she hadn’t bothered to put anything on her own tray. She snatched a cellophane six-pack of chocolate-frosted mini-donuts and paid for them with quarters.
Out in the cafeteria, Tonka sat with some other football players at a full table. Keeley looked for an empty table, but the closest she could find still held one person: Pamela Todd, eccentric mascoteer.
“Hey Pamela Todd,” Keeley said as she stood beside the table. “Do you want to give me that seat?”
Pamela Todd looked around the table. There were seven empty seats surrounding her.
“Why do you want this one?” she asked Keeley.
“I need to sit with my back to a corner. That’s like the first lesson of situational awareness: control over your vantage point.”
“Oh! Right.” Pamela slid over one seat. “Far be it from me to put you at a disadvantage point.”
Keeley remained standing, staring at her, until Pamela Todd slid over one more seat.
They sat in silence for a while. Pamela Todd watched her food and Keeley craned her neck to eyeball Tonka. Eventually, a pack of cheerleaders came to talk with the quarterback’s table and blocked Keeley’s view. She grunted and punched her mini-donuts, smashing half the roll. Pamela Todd couldn’t help but notice.
“You like that guy?” she asked.
“What?” Keeley said, sounding as if she’d been personally insulted.
“Tonka,” said Pamela Todd, pointing with her spork. Keeley pushed her hand down.
“Don’t point at him. Sheesh. You trying to give me away?”
“Sorry,” said Pamela Todd. She set her spork in the strawberry milk, like a quill into a bottle of ink. “He’s, like, the most popular guy in school.”
“I know that.”
“I thought maybe you didn’t know that. You are new, right? Where’re you from? Please say Alaska.”
“Why do you want me to be from Alaska?”
“I’m a Pisces,” said Pamela Todd. Keeley kept her pokerface up. Pamela Todd added, “So people from Alaska are good luck.”
“Good. I’m totally from Alaska.”
Pamela Todd smiled and raised high her skim milk. “Cheers.”
Keeley toasted back with her mini-donut roll.
“So,” Keeley said, unwrapping her lunch, “let’s talk about how much I like Tonka. How much I want to crush him. Crush on him.”
“Is this…” Pamela Todd tugged at her earlobe. “Is this girl-talk? I’ve never girl-talked before.”
“Give it your best shot. I wanna know about Tonka. Spill.”
“You look like him, kind of.” Pamela Todd pretended to rearrange Keeley’s face. “Maybe thirty percent. You’d have beautiful baby boys and chunky baby girls.”
“Not interested in the future. You practice with the football team, right?”
“I suppose we operate in the same vicinity.”
“Do you think he’s a good guy?” Keeley asked.
“Tonka! Tonka! He’s this town’s George Clooney.”
“Like Tom Hanks, with all of the talent and good humor and social activism, only sexier.”
“He and me — i.e., Tonka and I — we talk about movies at each practice.” Pamela Todd made a viewfinder with her fingers and spoke through it. “He likes Arnold Schwarzenegger but I like Sylvester Stallone, and we like to play the game where we transpose one into the other’s movies and hilarity ensues. Like, Demolition Man. People call me spacey, but they call him down-to-earth. So together, it’s like troposphere. Last year…” She told a long story about how great Tonka was, how nice and everything, to her personally and to about a million other people. Keeley didn’t listen.
“Do you ever, like, overhear the football conversations?” Keeley said. “In your mascot suit? Detect any exploitable weaknesses in their formations?”
“You don’t hear very much in there,” the mascoteer said. “It’s kind of like doing a spacewalk. Your head is encased in a visibility-killing dome. The sun burns immoderately hot. Sound doesn’t really travel, except your own breathing. And sweating. And then you have to do a cartwheel.”
“That sounds…kinda strenuous, actually. Do you ever just wanna get away from it all?”
“Not really. I go the distance. It’s like . . . you can take the mascoteer out of Willie the Wildcat, but you can’t take Willie the Wildcat out of the mascoteer.” Pamela Todd licked her hand and then rubbed it over her face, a classic feline grooming gesture. “But if you’re saying you want to take the suit for a spin some time — ”
“That’s exactly 100% what I’m saying, yep. Good idea. You’d let me?”
“If you promise to . . . take me to Alaska someday!” Pamela Todd gripped the table as if she were at risk of floating away.
“Done.” Keeley leaned back as Pamela Todd danced in her seat. “Also, if you want to creep on the neighborhood ninja, I could give you some pointers on finding him.”
“Really? You know him?”
“I’m training with him. He’s, like, showing me secrets and stuff, and I’m giving him someone to talk to besides his cats. It’s not gonna last, though. But you guys…you guys might make a really weird couple.”
“That’s incredible. You think so? What’s he like?”
“He’s a butterscotch-malt-drinking dork. But I mean, I can’t tell you too much here. You’ve gotta be careful what you say about him. You never know when he’s hiding under the table, if you know what I mean.”
Someone snickered beneath the table.
“Oh, come on,” Keeley said. “Seriously?”
She scraped back her chair and stuck her head below the table. The ninja sat in the middle, trying to hold in his laughter.
“Oh my God,” said Pamela Todd, who had also dipped under the table. “It’s you.”
“Hi.” The ninja reached out and they shook hands. “Hi,” he said again.
“Call me Pam. Or Podd.”
“Hi, Pam-Podd. I’m, uh…” The ninja rubbed the back of his head. “This is embarrassing, I know, but I’m a mondo fan of your work.”
“You’re a fan of my work?”
“Okay,” said Keeley. She stood and picked up her lunch tray. “That’s enough of that.”
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