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Keeley sat on her knees in the sandbox, as instructed. “What’s with all the playgrounds?” she asked. “Isn’t it time you took me to a hidden monastery, or a subterranean sewer base, or at least the gym?”
“So, your training is to punch this sand,” said the ninja.
“The idea is fist plus grit. See, they get tougher and tougher.” The ninja bumped his fists together. “It’s called conditioning.”
“I’m playing in a sandbox. I might as well call it shampoo.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s kind of stupid. I never really stuck with it for very long in my own training. But you — you have to do it. It’s really important, actually. Like the most important thing I can have you do. I only realized the other day.”
“So I just…?” Keeley made a fist and inspected it. “I just swing this thing?”
“It’s kind of, more, underarm turned up — uh huh — with your fist at the hip; and then you twist your body and extend through the whole shoulder. Like, you know.” He did a halfhearted, slow motion demonstration. His fist was barely closed.
“I don’t want to do it like that.”
“Oh. Are you sure? I’d kind of recommend it. Because, see, you get your whole body back there…”
“That’s not how I throw a punch. You ought to know, Mr. No-Crust Knuckle-Sandwich. This is how.” She threw a Keeley-punch that made a plump piff in the sandbox, like a high-caliber bullet hitting a desert.
“Huh. I mean, if that’s what you want to do. Just make sure your knuckles are getting, like, mealier. You want obduracy. You want to leave the crusts on the sandwich.”
“When do I stop?”
“Yeah…I didn’t say anything about stopping, I don’t think. Did I? If I did, I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”
“I just sit here and punch the sandbox? Where’re you going?”
“Well, you have to admit, it’s kind of boring.” The ninja shrugged. “Would you want to watch me punch sand all afternoon?”
“That’s your job. You’re my trainer.”
“But I have a lot of other jobs to worry about, too.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Like…I dunno. Clan meeting?”
“What if I just cheat again like the other day, or walk off?”
“I’m pretty sure you won’t, since you want to learn this stuff.”
He high-jumped the fence and dashed out into the street before Keeley had a chance to respond. A squat sedan cruised by, blocking her sight of him for a split second, and then he was gone.
“Alright.” She kissed her phalanges. “Let’s get conditioned.”
Keeley punched the sand. She did it with her teeth clenched. She did it with her muscles relaxed. She did it with a full swing. She did it from an inch away. She did it under cloud cover and she did it with the sun on her back. She did it past rush hour. She did it while the cows came home. She did it with the smell of Backyard Burgers in the air.
Keeley punched the sand. She hit it into dusk and beneath streetlights. She hit it kneeling, after her legs had fallen asleep. She hit it from a lotus position. She hit it on all fours, or threes, since one was punching. She hit it by the light of Tsukuyomi. She hit it while the cats came out. She hit it through the evening news. She hit it while the ninja watched from the rooftop. She hit it ‘til her knuckles turned raw.
Keeley punched the sand. She struck it while the businesses closed. She struck it with some backbone. She struck it with some elbow grease. She struck it like a dinosaur. She struck it like she meant it, and she struck it like she didn’t. She struck it with her left hand once or twice. She struck it as the roads emptied. She struck it ‘til her knuckles bled. She struck it until tiny, irritant granules got under her skin.
Keeley punched the sand. Keeley punched the sand. Keeley punched the sand.
The ninja brought her some water at midnight which she poured over her fingers before she took a drink. And after that, at home in bed, Keeley dreamed of punching the sandman.
The next day the ninja took her beyond the housing developments, where they first met, to a white gravel road. The ninja bumblingly told her about time and balance, and that she was supposed to punch the sand for three years before moving up. But both of them knew she had no time, and the world had no balance.
So Keeley punched the gravel. She did it soft, hard, fast. She did it without mercy, so the chalk stuck to her knuckles. She did it slow. She did it with such concentration that the stones were undisturbed. She did it through the morning, gray as a gorilla’s back. She did it through school, in-class, because she filled a coinpurse with gravel and hid it in her pocket.
Keeley punched the gravel. She hit it after school, lovingly, as it had been on her mind all day. She hit it timelessly, so there was no flow. She hit it explosively, so pieces scattered. She hit it in the face. She hit it with her backhand. She hit it like it was deserving of punishment. She hit it like a four-letter word. She hit it like a drum solo.
Keeley punched the gravel. She struck it with forced brutality. She struck it as cars approached on the road. She struck it as they honked at her, leaning down on their horns. She struck it as they flashed their brights. She struck it as they drove around, through the grass, and cursed out the window. She struck it with their aggravation, redirected through herself. She struck it zenfully. She struck it purple. She struck it until her knuckles looked like holey socks. She struck it so hard, its quarry felt it.
Keeley punched the gravel. Keeley punched the gravel. Keeley punched the gravel.
And when the ninja tore her away from it and turned her towards home, she ground her fists together the whole way. In her kitchen, quietly, she tried to soothe her hands in a tray of ice cubes. But they, too, were gravelish, and she ground them vengefully beneath her well-honed fists.
The next day the ninja sent a doctor’s note to the school on her behalf. He guided her to the grove where they had met. The winds still swept that choked lawn, but there was no longer a taste for mystery. No thirst for knowledge. No yearning for achievement. Perhaps, momentarily, not even a demand for revenge. In this grove, for Keeley’s second visit, there was only her training and the trees. She found the most badass, barky trunk around.
Keeley punched the tree. She did it with her lip tucked and bit through the flesh. She did it with her tongue out like Air Michael Jordan. She did it with the blast-heat of the drought. She did it head-on. She did it in a sneak-attack. She did it open-palmed, just once, to try it on. She did it with a history of gravel and of sand. She did it un-band-aided and it ripped open her scabs.
Keeley punched the tree. She hit it not with malice, but with balance. She hit it with an understanding about diligence, ignorance, grievance, seasons. She hit it with her bruises. She hit it with a memory, wrapped around her fingers, of being young and terrified and suicidally frustrated at her impuissance. She hit it where roots ran deep and slurped at the earth.
Keeley punched the tree. She struck it with ample amplitude. She struck it with a death sentence and struck it with her death wish. She struck it blind. She struck it deaf. She struck it incontinent. She struck it barkless, leafless, limbless, sapless. She struck it so strong that the planet shook. She struck it so savagely that the wind turned around and went the other way, whistling nervously to itself.
She struck it psychically, a mindfist striking the universe, and she struck existence so hard that she knocked it all off balance, and the stars slid in a new direction. Then the world got all slanty and Keeley looked down at her body. She watched herself wind up and punch over and over, then noticed her ghostly wushu shoes. She was floating about eight feet off the ground and could’ve kicked her physical self in the head, maybe.
She spun her immaterial head in a full circle, just to see if she could, and found herself face-to-face with a raccoon. The raccoon was floating in mid-air, too, only her tiny bandit-hands clutched the stabilization bar of a raccoon-sized hang glider. Wind rippled the wing of the glider, but it hovered without moving too much. Kind of like bobbing on a spectral sea.
“Guess what,” the raccoon said.
“I just punched out my last brain cell,” Keeley said. “I’m a ghost, and you’re the Big D.”
“Nope and newp. You just went astral, that’s all.”
“Astral projection? You mean I’m an astralite?”
“Actually, I kind of brought you here, but not really. Tell the ninja, though. He’ll be super jealous.”
“Holy crap that’s awesome.” Keeley glanced at her body again. Her fist left blood-skids on the bark. “Uh oh — you aren’t, like, the guardian spirit of this tree, are you?”
“In a roundabout way, you might say I am.” The raccoon raised a hand to scratch at her nose. “Believe it or not, I’m the concretized concept of Justice.”
“No kidding? You mean right now, I’m communing with cosmic Justicism?”
“Holy craaap, he’ll be so jealous.”
The raccoon shrugged. “It’s part of life,” she said.
“Are you here to help with my training?”
“I’m here to tell you that there are right things and there are wrong things. But the rules are really recommendations, and the Universe usually isn’t very forceful about them. The important part is that people — like you, the ninja, and the samurai guy — what’s his name?”
“Right. People are the ones who make and maintain balance. You are just one part of a complicated — eh, a mildly complicated drama, unfolding in the blink of a cosmic eye. Nothing you do will stop the globe from spinning.”
“Okay.” Keeley patted the pockets of her astral pants. “I don’t know if I need to write this down, or . . .”
“Let me ask you a question. I know how evasive you can be, but I’m no pushover. I want an answer. So you tell me — why do you want revenge on Tizzonka?”
“Because he deserves it.”
“Why does he deserve it?”
“Because…because I’m in a jail, and he’s the warden.”
The raccoon floated there, thinking about that for a minute. Her tail slinked on the astral wind.
“Let me ask you a set of questions,” the raccoon said. Her whiskers twiddled. “What’s your least favorite food?”
“Really? I love peas.”
“I dunno, I just said something.”
“That works,” said the raccoon. “What about fears? What scares you more than anything?”
“Tarantula fur. I don’t care about their size, or their legs, or their teeth. But that freaking fur. No offense.”
“None taken,” said the raccoon. “And who is your best friend?”
“Oh, come on. Really?…I dunno. Just put the ninja down, I guess. For now.”
“Okay then: if you could have your revenge on Tizzonka, but first you had to eat your body weight in peas, would you do it?”
“Yes,” Keeley said.
“Look at that. You didn’t even have to think about it.”
“Okay: if you could have your revenge, but you had to bathe in tarantula fur. Would you do it?”
“Fuuuuuuuudge no. I mean — yeah, eventually. Of course. It would just be not easy.”
“Very not easy. That’s the idea.”
Keeley shuddered, turning her astral self staticky.
“And if you could have your revenge,” said the raccoon, “but it meant the betrayal of your best friend?”
Keeley stared straight ahead.
“That’s a question,” said the raccoon.
“Oh,” said Keeley.
“…the question is would you do it.”
“Right,” said Keeley.
The raccoon waited patiently. Then she got impatient. “So would you?”
The raccoon sucked air between her teeth.
“Wait,” Keeley said, “Waitwaitwaitwait. Are you here to tell me that revenge is wrong?”
The raccoon smiled with its little fangs. “Now, Keeley: I don’t think I need to tell you that. Do I?”
“You…don’t need to tell me that?”
“You’re a smart girl. Right? I think you understand why I’m here.”
Keeley squinted hard. “I don’t think that I…huhm. I would expect you to be just like the ninja, and to tell me that revenge is wrong, and since I’m a responsible human I should strive to create balance in the Universe, and yadda else. But…is that what you’re saying?”
The raccoon winked.
“Oh, my gosh,” Keeley said. Her expression wiped clean. “For the first time in my life, I totally understand.”
The raccoon smiled. “Okay! Then I won’t keep you.” The raccoon glided away, leaving a zebra-trail in its wake. And Keeley vacuum-zipped back into her body.
She looked around, stomped the ground to make sure she wasn’t floating. Her feet were planted, but she was buoyed by retribution. She whispered to herself, “The Universe Raccoon just gave me her blessing.”
What had she been doing again? That’s right — punching.
So Keeley punched the tree. Keeley punched the tree. Keeley punched the tree.
Ready Ready READY READY READY
She found the ninja training in the Smotts’ backyard, surrounded by stray shadowcats, listening to Nujabes on a shiny ghettoblaster. He was kicking a tetherball back and forth, dodging it every few swings with a preternatural speed.
“Oh, yeah, they’re out of town on vacation,” he said about the homeowners. “I just wanted to, you know, keep the swings from getting rusty. Or, you know, maybe I’m their lost son who went away to college and disappeared or something.”
“I’m finished punching stuff,” Keeley said.
“I heard! That thing about how if a tree falls in the woods, and no one hears it? Totally not true.” The ninja smiled. “Hey,” he said, “I have something for you. I mean, it’s nothing big. But you can have it, if you want it. It’s in the battery hatch of the boombox.”
She gave him a curious look, but went and opened up the stereo with her toe. The music stopped as she did, and instead of batteries a mess of black fabric unfurled across the lawn.
“Holy crap.” Keeley knelt and ran her fingers through it. She picked up what turned out to be a sleeve, with a little thumbhole at the end. “Is this my shinobi suit?”
“You bet! I mean, mos def. I didn’t get you any tabi boots because you seem to like the wushu shoes, but…You get this really cool title, though. Ready for it?”
“What’s my title?”
“Check this out: you’re the first kunoichi I’ve ever known.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, uh, incredibly super cool. Basically. There’s translational minutiae, but, cool.”
Keeley went to the space between the Smotts’ shed and fence and changed outfits. She tried to do it really quickly, as part of the ninja mystique, but it still took her a minute or two.
“I’m really stoked for you,” the ninja said. “I never got that far with my conditioning. I quit after about two months worth of sand stuff. Even today, I kind of hit like a gir — like a grrreat big baby. Sorry.”
Keeley stepped out into the open. She looked like a stagehand (or a kurogo).
“You look awesome,” the ninja said. “So what’s next for the kunoichi?”
“Well, I guess I’m not quite done with the punchpunch. Still got one person left.”
“What?” The ninja seemed confused. “You mean you still want to punch Tonka’s lights out?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s the whole point of us hanging out. Don’t tell me you forgot.”
“No, I didn’t forget. I — jeez. This isn’t — ” The ninja put his face in his hands. “Okay. Wow. You’re supposed to feel at peace now.”
“What’s peace? Don’t you feel more balanced? Like the universe makes more sense? Like you’ve seen the world on a cosmic scale, perfectly level, and that severe injustices or accompanying vendettas would knock it out of equilibrium? Don’t you feel…equilibriated?”
“Dude, that stuff’s all nonsense. Get this: the cosmic spirit of Justice came and spoke with me, and she said so. She also said, and this was the main message: ‘Yo, Keeley, I got your back.’”
“She’s a raccoon on a hang glider. She gassed me out of my body and we had a really good conversation. You came up.”
“My hang glider was parked near there. What would you say are the chances that you had a dehydration hallucination and saw a raccoon playing with my hang glider?”
“Thanks for the tip, Dr. Ninja, but I’m pretty sure I can recognize an authentic OOBE.”
“An ooby? Okay; what did the raccoon say?”
“I already told you,” said Keeley. “She was like…‘Go get him, dude!’”
“Are you sure that’s what she said? Exact words?”
“I mean, essentially. We had this long conversation about…something. I don’t know. I was, honestly, really distracted by the fact that she was a raccoon. But at the end, when it came down to Tonka, we talked about revenge and I thought she was gonna be all lame like you and say, ‘No, don’t do it.’ But then she winked.”
“Yeah,” said Keeley, “she winked. And she was saying, basically, ‘You have my endorsement.’”
“Is it possible,” said the ninja, breathing slowly, “that you’re misinterpreting this wink? Because it’s a wink. The meaning of those can be pretty, you know, debatable…”
“Look, I’m still trying to get over the fact that raccoons can wink.”
“I mean, how do you know that isn’t like a biological thing they just do? Like a spasm, or a twitch? Can you remember the exact context of the wink?”
“Look, I don’t think this kind of demideity would allow herself to be misinterpreted.” She crossed her arms at the ninja. “In fact, the raccoon and I think you’re the one who’s starting to sound ridiculous.”
“And you’re using this wink as the ultimate justification of your revenge.”
“Besides what Tonka did, yeah.”
“I don’t believe it. This is not what’s supposed to happen at all. You’re supposed to undergo a deep philosophical change. You’re supposed to reform. You’re supposed to see the issues in a wiser light and abandon your blood-spilling pursuit. It’s, it’s like the bumper sticker: Coexist. What about self-satisfaction? What about karmic wibbledy-wobble? What about peacelove?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man.”
The ninja put a fist over his mouth. He looked like he might throw up. “Does your hand at least hurt? Because that was part of the plan, too. I said to myself, ‘Gee, maybe if she messes up her hand, she won’t want to punch anybody.’”
“My knuckles feel tectonic. They feel…Pompeiinous.” She rubbed her ragged knuckles like a treasured heirloom. “It’s a famous volcano. And the word ‘heinous.’”
“I’m familiar with it, okay?” The ninja kicked the tetherball so hard that it flew off its pole and hit the side of the house.
“Whoa. Calm down, buddy.”
“We’re finished. I’m not training you anymore. I can’t.”
“Hey, hang on.”
“Nope,” said the ninja. “We’re done. I was making you a certificate, but it’s not finished yet, but it’s not like you need it. Call yourself a master if you want. I don’t care. Whatever.”
“No,” said Keeley. “Wait up. You still haven’t taught me a single freaking thing about concealment.”
“Yeah?” said the ninja. “What could I possibly teach you? You’ve done nothing but conceal this entire time. You still haven’t told me the full story between you and Tonka. I mean, you don’t devote your whole afterschool life to revenge over a couple of backyard football games from however many years ago. Friendships end. Life goes on.”
“I’ve done nothing but conceal? Look at you, Mr. I’m-Gonna-Try-to-Brainwash-You-Away-from-Revenge-with-My-Training.”
“Stop calling me Mr. Dr. Everything!”
“Stop not-training me!” Keeley said.
“Or else what?”
“Or else I tell the neighborhood who you are.”
“Oh, yeah right.” The ninja waved his hands all around. “You don’t have the faintest idea — ”
“You had a dinosaur backpack in kindergarten.”
The ninja froze. He looked over his shoulder at the ghost of his old backpack. He asked, slowly, “What kind of dinosaur?”
“I don’t know dinotypes! The one with the things.” She used her fingers to imitate ambiguous something’s. “I could draw it, if I had to.”
“You really do know,” the ninja said. “You’d really rat me out.”
“No more ninjas jumping on the bed.”
The ninja squatted, then fell back onto his butt in the grass. He sighed. “You know, there’s this old Japanese saying. It, uh, it goes…hang on: saru mo ki kara ochiru. Even monkeys fall from trees.”
“I agree. Even Tonka, for all his bushidoic prowess, is vulnerable.”
“I’m trying to warn you, actually. I’m saying, like, you think you’re swinging through the branches with aplomb, and all that jazz…but you could still get clumsy or a branch could break or something. Maybe another monkey could come along and push your monkey out of the trees. I mean, that’s happening to me right now. Metaphorically.”
“But,” Keeley said, “with a clever scheme and careful training, the monkey greatly decreases her tree-fally-outy chances to raccoon-like levels of arboreticism.”
“Oh, you think you know schemes? Check this out: there was this one ninja I read about. He hid up in the rafters of a castle for three days, dead silent. He even had to pee on himself. Silently. Could you do that?”
“Okay, that’s not quite how my scheme works.”
“There was this other one ninja I read about. What he did was, he snuck into a compound and hid beneath an outhouse and waited three days for this kingy guy to come use it. All while other guys used the bathroom first. And when the guy finally came to use the restroom, after three days of waiting, the ninja got him. Could you do that?”
“What, did he attack the guy’s butt?”
“I dunno. No one knows. It was a ninja strike. The ninja just got him.”
“That’s two potty stories in a row.”
“I feel like we could have done pretty well together,” said the ninja, his tone swiveling. “See, we’re peers now. I’m really quick and pretty good at hiding and that stuff, and you’re the hardest-headed cricket that anybody’s ever stepped on. We could have covered each other’s weaknesses.”
“Well, you could show me a lot more about disguises and mysticism and all that.”
“Yeah, that stuff’s fun. But really easy, too. You’re really going to do it? Still? You think this’s the right thing to do?”
“Doesn’t matter. The way I see it, it’s the only thing to do. And the only thing you can do is teach me what I want to learn. Or else.”
The ninja cracked a smokebomb in the yard beside him, but then just sat there and let the cloud wash over him. “I really wanna disappear right now.”
“Go ahead. I’ll take notes.”
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