|(<– return to page 3)|
How to Disappear
The ninja took her to a golf course, setting a snappy pace as a formality. Keeley flipped over the fence and dashed down the fairway, right behind him. They stopped on a pretty flat green. By the light of the moon, she could see the crisscross mowing and the candy-cane pin flag. It rippled in a subtle shadow breeze.
“The eye sees in three ways,” said the ninja, “motion, color, and silhouette. These are the three things it notices, in order. First, motion. Nothing is more immediate and attention-grabbing than movement. If you can appear inanimate and move when you aren’t under scrutiny, you’re on your way to invisibility. Second, color. In a still visual, the eye searches for broad inconsistencies; contrast is one of the broadest. Light and dark, warm and cool, yellow and anything else — except for yellow. This is why we wear black stuff, to utilize shadowisms. And then third, is, uh, silhouette. The brain catalogues shapes and derives meaning from them, but it also needs time to interpret recognizable shapes and unlock those associations. Still — you gotta take extra caution to disguise your silhouette while hiding.” The ninja tucked a twig under his armpit and turned sideways. “See? Instead of the recognizable human form, now I’m all tree-y.”
“Cute.” Keeley picked up the golf flag and propped it on her shoulder like a bazooka, then turned sideways. “Check it out,” she said. “I’m a horizon.”
“That eye-stuff, that’s just the science of it. Knowing the three sights, I can’t just say, ‘Now disappear!’ and then you do it. Disappearing for real takes something else.” The ninja threw up his twig and appeared on the other side of Keeley. “See, I was skeptical when you first came to me for ninja training. You were all like, ‘I wanna learn taisavuki-jutsu,’ and I was like, ‘Gosh, but you’re such a noisy cricket.’ You remember that?”
Keeley bent the mini-flagpole over her knee. “What about it?”
“I don’t disappear because somebody trained me,” he said. “I disappear because I’m disappearable. Also because I read a few books on the subject.” He whispered behind his hand, “At the bookstore, they keep the ninja tomes in the athletics section.”
“What do you mean, ‘disappearable?’”
The ninja shrugged. “All my life, people just kinda forgot I was there. The teacher would never call on me or collect my homework, or my parents would leave me at Pizza Street, or the soccer coach would never take me off the bench, or the lunch ladies would never put any food on my tray.”
“I don’t believe you. What would you eat?”
“Napkins, mostly. I was already a pretty wispy kid, and that made me even more unnoticeable.”
“Well, I noticed you,” Keeley said. “I sought you out.”
“I know, but that was for your training. For your revenge. You think anybody ever seeks me out to learn about balance? Forget it. One person, once, and just because he was a gymnast. Are you still going to seek me out after you’ve got what you wanted?”
Keeley looked at her wushu shoes. “I don’t think that far ahead.”
“It takes a certain personality to disappear, is what I’m saying. But you don’t have it. Look at you,” he said. “You’re an orange-aura’d fireball. You’re so loud, you don’t even hear half of what I say. You’re so loud, the universe is waking up and telling you to can it. You’re so loud…I’m jealous. I bet nobody ever forgets Keeley.”
“Sorry I have to ask this, but I can’t tell right now: are you or aren’t you pissed off at me?”
“I’m mad,” said the ninja. “I mean, I think you’re doing the morally wrong thing. I think you’re blackmailing my assistance. I think I’ve kinda created a monster by showing such an aggressively powerful person all this ninja stuff. But a lot of that’s my fault. I never should’ve trained you. I knew it was risky.”
“Then why’d you do it?” Keeley said.
“Um…because I thought the training could be like ninjanger management. I wanted you to learn to extinguish a little bit. And, you know, lose that desire to destroy another human being.”
“That’s the only reason you trained me?”
The ninja sighed. “Whatever you do to Tonka, there’s a good chance people will see you at that Homecoming Game. And those people are going to think the assailant was their neighborhood ninja. And since you know who I am, that puts me kind of at your mercy.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Probably hang up the hood for good. If I was able to disappear from my first life, I can disappear from ninja-life. I don’t see what other choice I have.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his sleeve. Behind the frames, Keeley saw lines around his eyes. In the moonlight, he looked kind of like pancake batter.
“This is the last thing I’m going to show you,” he said as he replaced his glasses. “So here’s your ultimate test, Crickeeley: I’ve hidden a tool here. It’s the most powerful weapon in any ninja’s arsenal. If you can find it, it will make you invisible. If you possess it, it’ll make you invincible. It’s a tool that you’ve gotta have if you’re gonna beat Tonka. So try to find it.”
“Where’s ‘here?’ The golf course?”
“This particular green.”
Keeley scanned the lawn-sized circle. She’d gotten pretty good at moonlight eyesight, and she didn’t see anything right away. She went to the cup and dipped her hand inside. It was empty.
“Am I supposed to dig?” she asked.
The ninja stood with his arms crossed over his chest, watching. He didn’t answer. Keeley didn’t know if she had ever seen his arms crossed like that. Sometimes he clasped his hands behind his back, but that was it.
She sank her fingers into the green grass and tore up a strip. Then she knelt and punched into the earth, and soil flew out in a serpentine blast. When the dirt settled, Keeley had cut a deep trench into the green. Nothing was buried but grubworms and a sprinkler system.
She tore up a second strip of sod and punched into the earth beneath it. The dirt showered down in crumbs and clods, and nothing was buried. She tore another strip up, and another. She mangled the green. She punched so many linear craters into the ground that it started to look as if a meteor had sunk a hole-in-one. And when no secret weapon made itself evident, Keeley bent the pin flag back into shape and javelined it.
“Alright, it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing here!” Keeley hollered. The last two words echoed through the surrounding subdivision. “So what’s the deal? Where’s the mindscrew?”
“There is no spoon — I mean, tool. I mean, there is — abstractly. But that was a lie. The tool is deception. By far, the most effective disappearing act is making your opponent believe in the presence of that which isn’t present.”
“That’s your big ninja secret? You stupid jerk — I already knew that!”
“Sure I did! I don’t have the slightest idea about your real identity, and I don’t even care.”
“But you knew about my dinosaur backpack!”
“Dude, wake up and smell the kindergarten. Everyone had a dinosaur backpack.”
The ninja counted on his fingers, tabulating in tabi boots. “Doesn’t that mean that now you have nothing to use as blackmail? And I don’t have to let you go through with this anymore?”
“Pretty much,” Keeley said.
“Then I won’t let you go through with this anymore.”
“Yeah, right. What are you gonna do?”
“I’m gonna stop you,” he said. “All this time I thought I was preserving balance, but you were using my knowledge to skew things more and more. Not anymore.”
“Ugh, balance, balance, balance. You know what?”
“Shutup,” Keeley said, and, cutting him off. “I think you’re wrong about the universe. I think it doesn’t care what goes on, and you just use that to justify your passivityiveness. You’re all about preventative balance: ‘Can’t let this happen, oh no, can’t let that happen.’ But balance can be reactive, too. If somebody does something good, they should be rewarded. If someone does something bad, they need to be punished. Maybe if you’d gone out of your way to get noticed as a kid, someone would’ve stopped you from eating all those napkins. But as for me, I’m not counting on some moon raccoon to come down out of the sky and take care of any of that.”
“Revenge is a positive feedback mechanism,” the ninja protested. “Cyclical back-and-forth’s don’t have a safe outcome because both parties keep answering, and people get dragged in, and — while I hate to use the metaphor — it spreads like a freaking firenado.”
“Which is why I’m going to strike back definitively, then, and put this to bed once and for all. It’s not about revenge at this point. You wanted me to learn something? I learned something. I’ve learned to see your crummy karmic balance. Now you’re just throwing a hissyfit because we don’t see it with the same eyes.”
“I still can’t believe it. I really didn’t think it’d end up this way.”
“Well now I’ve deceived you, and I guess that means the training is complete. So…” She flexed her fist. “You gonna stop me, or what?”
The ninja juked right and Keeley brought her hammer down, but then he edged to the left and got inside her reach. He rooted a leg behind Keeley’s, said “Bwoop!” like a banana-peel sound effect, and toppled her to the dirt.
“What,” she said, “still afraid to hit me?”
The ninja shrugged and Keeley kicked him in the knee. His legs went out from under him and he fell face first, catching himself in a pushup — and Keeley stomped the top of his head. He threw his hands up and fell to his elbows as she scrambled to her feet. She hopped back a few steps, bouncing foot-to-foot, and cracked her neck while she waited for the ninja to stand.
“I know you’re trying to be chivalrous or something,” she told him as she bobbed around, “but trust me: you aren’t going to stop me without throwing a punch.”
The ninja stood still. “I don’t hit gi — ”
“Don’t play that card. Here.” She dropped her ready stance and walked confidently to the ninja. Then she grabbed his wrist, forced him to make a fist, and punched herself in the face with his arm.
“Hey!” The ninja ripped his hand away and Keeley threw a punch to his gut. But he caught it in both hands, pulled her to the ground, and put her into an arm bar.
“Pfft,” she said, “you think that huuuurrrttts?! Let go! Leggo! No fair! You never showed me any submissionisms!”
“I don’t know — ” the ninja said, between grunts, “ — if I should — just — strain your muscle so you can’t, like, attack him. I don’t wanna break your arm, but I could if you’re not careful — and it’d be all your fault for resisting wrong — and — ”
Keeley roared and lifted the ninja off the ground with her arm, then smashed him flat. Her free fist swung over like a snapping mousetrap and crushed the ninja’s chest. He coughed and let her go. As she tried to get up, he tripped her again. They lay on their backs and kicked at each other like two overturned turtles, or two kids fighting over sofa-space. Real tabi-boot-on-wushu-shoe action. Until Keeley’s foot slipped between the ninja’s legs and got him where it counted. He immediately gave up the kicking and cringed into a ball, rolling onto his side.
“I’m out of here,” Keeley said, “and you’re not gonna follow me.” She stood and went to a nearby sand trap, then knelt and punched into it. There was a thundersome clap, as if she’d punched a pocket of air out of existence, and then the surrounding atmosphere filled the gap. The sand lifted and brewed into a swirling, small-scale sandstorm over the golf green. The ninja took one hand from his groin and shielded his eyes. After half a minute, the sandstorm died out. Keeley was gone.
The ninja groaned as he sat upright. The green was annihilated: a chocolaty mix of sand and soil, beveled twelve inches into the ground, ringed with carpet-like strips of sod. In the distance, the pin flag was speared sideways into a tree trunk.
“I still don’t understand why,” the ninja said to himself.
Keeley’s answer came riding the wind, loud and thick, less like a stowaway and more like a tugboat. “I’m his sister,” she said. “I mean, come on. You could’ve guessed that from the beginning.”
“I was thinking it,” the ninja said to the air around him, “but I didn’t wanna say it in case it was wrong. If it’s really true, though — you’ll give him one more chance.”
The air was very still in reply. If he shut his eyes, the ninja could hear the stony moon, grinding round its orbit.
The night of the big game, Keeley rode into the stadium parking lot atop a dry party bus, lying flat and clinging to the emergency exit hatch. She kept slipping around because the fabric of her shinobi suit was so slick. Rather than park, the bus drove straight to the gate and dumped its cargo, a load of pampered seniors clothed in purple-n-gold. As they headed inside, Keeley dropped down on the other side of the bus and peered beneath its undercarriage. There were a couple of PTA volunteers flanking the entrance, taking tickets.
But the plan didn’t involve going in that way. At the end of the parking lot, watching the stadium enviously through unlit windows, sat the gymnasium. Keeley scurried between cars like a raccoon, avoiding arc-sodium lights like a vampire, and broke the gym’s lock like so many similes will break a sentence — with sheer weight.
The door creaked and clanged. Keeley slid in, took a breath, and gave her eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness. The basketball goals were drawn up to the ceiling like sleeping bats. High windows overhead showed stadium lights and then an effulgence of fizzy fireworks. A thousand voices cheered. It had to be a home-team-touchdown cheer. Keeley was already running out of time.
A different door creaked in the building, echoing into the gymnasium. She heard big dumb footsteps and flattened herself against the dark wall. A distant light came on in a tiny locker room. There was a sigh, a plasticky clunk, and the trickle of a waterbottle being filled.
Keeley edged her way along the darkened gym to the locker room door, ajar, then knelt and leaned in from down low.
There were lockers. There were drums of untapped turf dye. And there was Willie the Wildcat, sitting on a bench, gulping water and chilling in the gust of a box fan. His head was off. Protruding from the neck was Pamela Todd. Keeley was just getting ready to say, “Hi, Pamela Todd,” and maybe put her lights out, when she realized that the ninja was sitting beside her.
“I haven’t spotted her yet,” the ninja said. “Have you?”
“No, but then again it’s really hard to see in here. It’s like doing a spacewalk. I do know one thing for sure, though,” Pamela Todd said, “and that is that she’s not inside my suit.”
“Well, I’d like to keep reconnoitering,” said the ninja, “but I don’t know if we’ll get another chance to switch.”
“Probably not,” said Pamela Todd, “but that’s okay. I’ve done about all the riling up that one mascoteer can do. Just be careful out there. They’re touchy-feely tonight. Lotta kids who want to pet you. Lotta middle schoolers who want to throw stuff at you.”
“I’m used to that,” said the ninja. “There’s this really annoying clan of middle school ninjas I have to deal with.”
Keeley, resisting the urge to throw something at him, slinked out of the doorway and waited.
“Do you know anything about their relationship?” she heard the ninja ask after a few moments.
“Aren’t they adopted? I think we’re all adopted, at some level, and nobody will mention it. Kind of like how all humanity can trace its evolutionary roots to the same place.”
“Who told you that?”
“The Out of Alaska Hypothesis? It’s kind of my own work. See, I study physical anthropology in the caves behind my house…”
Keeley stopped listening right there, up until she heard the door open and the tidal crowd-sounds from without. She glanced into the locker room then. A fully-suited Willie the Wildcat was exiting. The door clacked shut behind him.
“So that’s how it’s gonna be,” she said. “Everybun versus Keeley.” She went to the large canister of turf dye and examined the spray nozzle. “Suppose I’ll just have to dye myself.”
Keeley, clinging to the underside of the home team’s bench, fell to the ground — face-up — during the storm of retreating cleats. Her ninja suit and face were painted turf-green.
She had to lie low and flat as possible. She felt the vibrations of the drumline cadence. She imagined herself stretched taut, geometric over the rim of a resonant chamber, rattling. But as long as she dodged their steps, she could be thinner than fresh origami.
She steadied her breathing to a minimal level. She planted her fingers and heels in the turf. And she analyzed the positioning of the color guard in her peripheral vision. Then she began to inch. Inch, inch, inch. Inch-by-itchy-inch.
She felt the divot of every footstep from the first half. She counted and cataloged blades of grass beneath her. She was one-with-the-universing, and as she inched onto the field she felt herself filling some hole in existence, tipping some cosmic balance in favor of the favorable.
But she was in the middle of the halftime show. The Golden Regiment marching band sprayed up from the sideline like fountain jets. The illustrious band geeks lined up and knotted, then swirled and exploded. From the stands, it was like watching the band recreate the Big Bang. For Keeley, it was like being a piece of grass while somebody mowed the lawn.
Not one of the marchers looked at their feet. Under cover of the chaos, she abandoned her inches. She rolled and slid and scrambled with nirvanic precision, always avoiding their shifts in formation. All that dodging worked her into a sweat, and there was a moment near the end where a sousaphonist nearly crushed her head in. She wormed out of the way and after a grand, frozen finale, the band made their way off-field.
With a kickoff to the Wildcats, the second half began.
Keeley lay in the middle of the field, unnoticed, between two stampeding special teams. She adjusted to the minutest changes in air pressure, using her senses down to 0.00004 of an inch. And the bodies clashed over her, cleated feet on every side. Their sweat sprinkled her, still unseen. The returner went down. The line of scrimmage was set. And the crowd began to chant.
Ton-ka! Ton-ka! Ton-ka! Ton-ka!
Tonka took the field, jogging in slo-mo. He was garbed in grass-stained battle armor, amped and awake in the moment. He waved to his adoring fans and subjects-to-be, winked at his girlfriend from afar with the eye of a falcon, and called his cadre into a huddle.
They formed a hasty ring around Keeley, hands on each other’s backs. She could see all of their faces through slit eyes, but still she lay — stretched like a starfish — hidden in plain sight. Their words sounded alien, unintelligible. A series of numbers and colors and nonsensyllabistics.
Then the huddle broke. Their legendary guards and tackles mounted the line of scrimmage. The center bent over, ready to snap like a twig. And Tonka put up his hands, ready to summon the pigskin to his divine grip.
But before he could shout, between his legs: Keeley psst-ed like a snake.
The whites of her eyes stuck out at him from the turf and they locked gazes for a confused, anticipatory second. She mouthed the word vacuum, her mouth appearing like a golf cup on the green, and she knuckled her grassy green fist. Then —
A whistle blew. Keeley drove her fist forward with atom-smashing vitriol and found herself punching Willie the Wildcat in the gut as the mascot dove, bodyguard style, in front of Tonka. The mascot’s stomach crumpled. His jersey caught fire and burned off. Instead of completing the motion of his dive, the force of her punch flung him backwards as if from a cannon. Tonka ducked as the mascot tore through the air, spinning, and split the distant uprights. He landed with a whamck in the end zone and the crowd cringed in unison. His head was split down the middle, as if Willie the Wildcat had been brutally murdered in a horror movie. He didn’t move.
“Too many men on the field!” one of the refs yelled. Keeley leapt up and the whistle blew again. “Too many men! Too many men!”
“Your own sister,” the green ninja said.
Keeley lunged at Tonka fist-first. He tossed the football up and caught her by the wrist with both hands, trying to assert some control. But then her left fist came around, aimed for his head. He reared back and her knuckles nicked his facemask, ripping it clean off. When she lunged again, he used the force to swing her — aikidoic — over his shoulder and onto the ground.
Two of the refs closed in on her, whistling and motioning her off the field. She leapt up and pulled the whistles from their mouths, then crushed them in her bare hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Tonka asked her, but he was brushed aside by his offensive line.
“Let us handle this,” said the left tackle. He lowered his head and bull-rushed Keeley. She made a fist and drove it into the top of his helmet, penetrating the super-hard plastic and pressing knuckle-grooves into his skull. He fell flat.
“Stop!” commanded Tonka, but his order went unheeded by all. Two more linemen, the offensive guards, tried to Bash Bro Keeley from either side. But she front-flipped out of the way, landing right in front of Tonka. The guards collided and collapsed.
“I’m here to mete out punishment,” she told him. “You should’ve helped me. We could’ve fought him off together. He didn’t have to control our moms or our lives, but he did — and we let him. And the day that I stood up to him, you should’ve been there with me.”
“You didn’t live with him,” Tonka said. “You didn’t have to deal with him every day.”
“You don’t even know what I had to deal with every day.” She held up her fist. “I punched sand for eight hours, and then gravel for twelve, and then a tree for, like, sixteen — and that was easy compared to everything else. I messed up my hand really bad and that was the easiest part.”
“So you’re here to wreck me? Is that it?”
“Basically,” Keeley said.
“You are definitely his daughter.”
She popped Tonka in the jaw, right there through his missing facemask. His cheeks shuddered seismic, then his helmet poinked off and his knees buckled. The force of her fist traveled up his jawbone and made bone dust of his inner ear. Tonka’s sense of balance was destroyed. He fell to a spinning world.
That’s when both teams sprung. The heavy defensive side of the Wildcats left the bench and imploded onto Keeley. The other team shrugged and leapt on top of them. Everybody meshed together in a dogjam of a logpile, with Keeley and Tonka on the very bottom. They were sandwiched in such a way that one could only inhale when the other exhaled.
“You were going to win tonight,” Keeley said, and each breath was a contest. “He’s here — watching — and you were going to follow — in his footsteps — unquestioningly. You would restore — his glory. Someday — you’re gonna thank me.”
Gaps formed in the shell of the dogpile. Stadium lights found their way through an elbow crook here, an underthigh there. Someone pulled someone else off, and someone else pulled someone up, and soon the teams were born again. As Tonka had the room to move, he patted the ground like a baby. He swept his arms around him in frantic circles, as if uncovering something buried. He pulled up great gouts of turf.
But there was no one there. No extra person on the field. No fist-headed snake with eyeball markings and a predilection for shattering groins. There was only the too-real memory of a voice that stung like poisoned barbs and a splintering, mandibular ache as Tonka lost consciousness.
At the far end of the field, an EMT carefully pulled off Willie the Wildcat’s head. The suit, inside, was empty.
There was a senior student who didn’t show up for her classes, whose contact numbers had been disconnected, who had snuck in, bent the universe to her orientation, and snuck out.
There was another senior student who quit the team and took an extended medical leave, who installed a penitent’s set of braces on his teeth, who started a garden filled with bonsai trees, happy koi, and zenny swirls. He had ceased to study war and — being pruned himself — chose to make himself a scholar of growth.
And in a grove beyond the suburbs, to this day, there is a studentless master who trains and trains and trains; who sits on a felled tree and listens each night for crickets, blundering loudly and fearlessly through the woods, so that he might learn something more. He argues with her in his mind. He is punching sand again, daily. He tries to start conversations with every raccoon he comes across. He has it in his mind that one day, the kunoichi will return. He has it in his mind that we are circular beings, and every quest ends where it first began. So he waits for hers to end. He waits at the end of her circle for her homecoming, to re-welcome her, to host the inevitable confrontation. Because, except for, maybe, yeah.
JIMMY GRIST is a writer and cartoonist and other stuff. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His stories have appeared in a few other places, and he keeps a running list at jimmygrist.net if you’re interested.