Keegan breathed in oppressively warm air as he shoved his physical science book into his already weighty backpack, slammed his locker shut, and joined the flow of kids heading toward their next class. As Keegan was jostled through the crowds, he saw girls lingering at their lockers, applying lipstick, their eyes flickering into the rowdy boys passing by, searching. Guys were swaggering past the bays of lockers, pushing one another and laughing. Keegan could smell the perfume and sweat. A football flew through the air right at Keegan. He reached up to catch it, but an 8th grade guy who looked like he’d hit puberty at age seven leaped in front of him and snagged it, knocking Keegan into his locker.
“Hey, watch it!” he protested, but the guy was already barreling away. The excitement was palpable as the students made their way to their last class of the day. Fifty more minutes and they’d be out for the summer. Keegan couldn’t wait. He looped his backpack over his shoulder and thought how good it would feel to not haul that bag of books around anymore. His phone in his pocket vibrated and he looked at it as he navigated through locker bay and started crossing the field to the science building. Alejandro’s face grimaced at him from the phone and he saw the text, “meet me at the corner.” He texted back, “kk” and shoved the phone back in his pocket.
Alejandro was a pretty cool kid. The only one that Keegan had programmed into his phone, anyway. He couldn’t believe he’d actually finished all of 7th grade in this school. Usually, his family ended up moving somewhere mid-way through. They’d moved to Glendale, in Los Angeles County, last summer, right before school started. Just a month or so ago, he and Alejandro finally started really hanging out. They were both in Tae Kwon Do, and they both played Battlefront on the PS4. Keegan tried not to get his hopes up for hanging out though. He figured they’d probably just have to move again. They’d lived in three different suburbs of LA in the last three years. Before that, they were up north, in some tiny town called Mount Vernon. Before, that, although didn’t remember it very well, they were someplace outside of Denver. Mom’s job moved them around a bunch, and Dad’s job took him on a lot of trips. He was always being sent to research some climate thing or geologic phenomenon somewhere. So Keegan just tried to go with the flow. But one thing was consistent. School. And that he didn’t like it.
“Mr. Samuels,” said a deep voice next to him, “I trust you will make good choices during your summer vacation.” Keegan turned to his principal, Mr. Williams, a towering figure in a three piece suit, even though it was a hundred degrees out.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“I hope so. I’d like the eighth grade to go a bit more smoothly for you.”
“Yes, sir,” said Keegan uncomfortably. “Me too.” He swung open the door to the science building and headed down the hall to class. He was looking forward to summer for other reasons too, reasons like he was tired of being sent to detention and his mother worrying he was going to be suspended. He couldn’t be suspended during summer vacation, anyway.
He took his usual seat next to the window, so he could watch the sun shining down on the fountain in the courtyard. Usually, the water would glisten and sparkle in the sunshine, but with the drought, the school had stopped running water through the fountain months ago. Now it sat there emanating heat and most kids couldn’t even sit on the concrete benches without burning their backsides. He wondered when he’d be able to go camping. Camping with his family was one of his favorite things about summertime. They’d drive up north, into the cooler hills and camp out for days in tents and sleeping bags. They’d always been camping, no matter where they lived. Up in the Cascades or in the Rocky Mountains. He and Jordan, his six year old brother, would share a tent, which was fine except for Jordan’s snoring. Most of the night, though, long after everyone had gone to sleep, Keegan sat out by the fire. He was always in charge of making the fire, which he was pretty good at. Even in the wind, and once when it had been raining, his parents had given up on getting a fire going, but Keegan took over and soon there was a roaring fire for Jordan and him to roast marshmallows. Keegan liked to stay up late, long past his the rest of his family had gone to sleep, just watching the flames flickering into the evening.
“Do you think she’s going to finally hand back those tests today?” said a voice next to him. He turned to see Brody sticking little circles of reinforcement around the holes in the pages of his binder and smoothing them into place. Brody was one of those guys that kept every single piece of paper in place. When a note went home from school that had to be signed and returned, it was always back the next day. Every test was filed in that notebook by subject. With excellent scores, of course.
“She’s been pretty consistently not turning anything back since she’s been here,” replied Keegan, pulling out his own notebook with papers hanging sloppily over the edges and the top cover practically ripped off. He glanced up at Mrs. Newton, who was writing the day’s reading assignment on the white board, her long red nails clicking on it occasionally. Mrs. Newton was an imposing figure. She was the tallest woman Keegan had ever met. Her hair was, as it had been every day for the last two months, pulled back from her face and knotted into a tight bun. Keegan thought she looked bald. Brody said her hair was pulled so tightly it was pulling her eyes in two different directions. It did kind of look like that since her eyes, a startling green color, were wide set in her face. Although she had grey hair like an old lady, and was strict like an old lady, her skin was smooth and without wrinkles. Brody said it was because her hair was pulled back so tight.
Mrs. Newton had been their substitute teacher in physical science since Mr. Robinson had left several months ago. Keegan had really liked Mr. Robinson, and that was saying something, since Keegan rarely liked his teachers. Mr. Robinson had taught a section on volcanoes that Keegan had really gotten into. He’d done some research online on Mount St. Helens, and when he’d let Mr. Robinson know he’d been doing extra work, Mr. Robinson brought him in a book about the Mount St. Helens explosion. He’d learned all about the massive explosion that sent smoke and debris rolling down the mountain, after the top of the whole mountain had blown off. It was his first “A” grade on a report. But Mr. Robinson had some kind of family emergency and had left and then they got Mrs. Newton.
“Hey, can I borrow a pencil?” he asked Brody, who was texting on his phone, which was sitting on his open science book. He slid one over to Keegan without speaking. Since he got his first girlfriend, Brody was frequently texting. Since she was also hyper-organized and really good in school, they were probably planning their summer studying sessions. He looked back to Mrs. Newton, who had sat back in her desk and was observing the group with disdain. It was most likely his imagination, but it felt as though she particularly didn’t like Keegan. Granted, he didn’t have the best reputation with teachers around school, but in science class, he’d been really good. But sometimes, Keegan would look up reading about atmospheric pressure, and she’d be staring at him. A couple of times, he could have sworn something flickered in those green eyes, and Keegan suddenly felt cold, like someone opened a window and let in a cold wind. Blowing right at him.
“Give it back!” whispered Brody hotly. Keegan looked over to see Dakkota turned away from Brody holding his phone out in front of him and reviewing it. Brody was turning bright red.
“Let’s see,” said Dakkota with a grin on his face, “what’s so interesting on here?” Keegan looked up at Mrs. Newton but she was busy across the room with her back to them. Dakkota was a big, burly kid with a flat face. Like maybe he was dropped on it when he was a baby. Which would explain his really dull wit as well. Everywhere Keegan went to school, there were always kids like Dakkota. Bullies.Dakkota glanced around to see that some others were watching. “Let me just take a look here,” he grinned. Brody made a grab for the phone, knocking his notebook on the floor, but it was well out of reach. Dakkota held it up and read, “I’m really trying to get a 4.0 this term, but I’ve been so distracted by someone.” Dakkota burst out laughing. “With three smiley faces! She really has the hots for you, buddy!” Dakkota said loudly, smacking Brody on the back. A couple of Dakkota’s friends chortled.
“Give it back!” pleaded Brody desperately. “Come on!”
Like a light bulb was slowly coming to life in Dakkota’s dull eyes, a dull inspiration shown on his face. He smiled widely. “Brody, buddy! This chick is hot for you! You’ve got to text her back, like right now! Let me help you with that!”
“No!” shouted Brody, while Dakkota’s friends laughed loudly.
“What should I say to that hot little piece?” asked Dakkota as he held the phone up. He started to text.
“Stop it!” said Keegan loudly and he found he was standing up. He felt the familiar heat surging through him.
“Shut up,” replied Dakkota, indifferently. He started texting again, “Meet you in back of the –“
He didn’t complete his sentence, however, as Keegan shoved him in the back, hard. Dakkota dropped the phone to the ground and stood to face Keegan. He towered over him. Keegan looked up into Dakkota’s face and he felt hot anger coursing through him, and his fist shot out, hitting Dakkota hard in the stomach. He doubled over, but he was up again, quick, and his fist slammed into Keegan’s face. Keegan felt himself toppling backward over his desk and then he hit the floor. Everyone had circled around and he heard the kids yelling. He looked up and saw Dakkota’s friends were holding him back. The crowd of students parted as Mrs. Newton leaned over him. “Come with me,” she hissed.
Keegan hauled himself up and followed Mrs. Newton, one hand on his eye, grabbing his backpack with his other hand. He saw Dakkota following Mr. Johnson, the chemistry teacher toward his room, and as he left the room, he saw Brody clutching his phone to him. He nodded at Keegan as he left. He shambled behind the crisp click of Mrs. Newton’s heels as they headed to Mr. Williams’ office. Again.
They left the science building and walked quickly down the long sidewalk to the Administration building. Keegan felt a little better to be outside. He took a deep breath. His eye was starting to ache.
“Well, Keegan” said Mrs. Newton in a low voice, “here we are again.” Keegan didn’t reply. “I wonder if I will actually miss this little ritual we have,” she went on. Keegan looked up at the back of the tight bun in her hair. “You do something stupid and we have a little stroll down this way.” Keegan wondered whether he’d been hit harder than usual. She seemed to be talking kind of funny, saying words really slow. She stopped suddenly, almost causing Keegan to crash into her. She turned and faced him. He looked up into her wide, green eyes, as she bent down slightly to look at him directly. Keegan started to feel a little cold and wondered if a cloud had just passed over. “You know,” she said slowly, and he watched a little flicker in her eyes, “I think we might see one another again.” Keegan started to shiver; he couldn’t understand why he was so cold all of the sudden. “Soon,” whispered Mrs. Newton and she stared at him with hard eyes. His teeth started chattering and he felt weak.
“Really, Mr. Samuels?” came the tired voice of his principal who had just opened the door to the administrative office. Mrs. Newton stepped back and looked away.
“Fighting,” she stated crisply. “Dakkota Rule has been taken to cool off as well, but Keegan attacked first.”
Mr. Williams sighed. “Come on then, Keegan. In you go.”
Keegan was happy to go in. He wondered what was the matter with him. Dakkota must have really nailed him a good one. He slumped into the seat in Mr. Williams’ office. Mr. Williams regarded him. “Better get him an icepack,” he said to his secretary.
At 3:10, he met Alejandro and Brody at the corner. He was feeling better. Just the usual pain as his eye puffed up, and he knew it would be black and blue by tomorrow. “Dude!” exclaimed Alejandro. “What happened?”
Brody broke in. “Dakkota hammered him, man. Hey,” he said to Keegan, “thanks for helping me out.”
As they walked together, Keegan held the ice pack to his face. “No big deal,” he replied.
“Yep,” announced Alejandro, “just another day and another butt whooping in the life of Keegan Samuels.”
“Yeah, my mom’s going to love this,” muttered Keegan. It seemed like he could already feel her getting upset.
“Hey, but guys, its summer!” exclaimed Alejandro. Brody and Keegan cheered as they headed down the sidewalk to the dojo. It was Wednesday, so they had their regular lesson in taekwondo. If he kept at it all summer, Keegan thought he could test for his red belt. Alejandro was a green belt too, but Brody had just started and was a yellow belt.
“Maybe Master Drew can give you some moves to give Dakkota the beat down next year,” suggested Brody.
Keegan shoved the ice pack into his pocket of his backpack and shoved his dark, sweaty hair out of his eyes. He somehow didn’t think Master Drew was going to want to show him moves. He was more likely going to sigh the same tired sigh that Mr. Williams had.
The boys burst into the dojo and the familiar smell of sweat in the gym cheered Keegan a little. They changed into their uniforms and started practicing their defensive moves and forms until Master Drew snapped, “Line up!” They ran with the other students to stand in a line in front him. Master Drew was an intimidating figure. He wasn’t tall, in fact, he was short like Keegan’s father, but he had presence. He stood straight and proud all the times. He had a deep scar across his cheek, which Keegan liked to imagine was obtained in a great battle, but he’d never dared to ask him. He looked at the students, his eyes lingering on Keegan’s puffy eye.
As always, they started with the school principles. Master Drew watched them carefully, as they recited them. Courtesy, Integrity, Performance, Indomitable Spirit. Master Drew stood straight, his hands behind his back. “Brody,” he said, “What is courtesy?”
Brody, who was still a little nervous in Master Drew’s presence, responded hesitantly. “Being polite, sir?”
Master Drew nodded curtly. “Alejandro what does it mean to have integrity?”
“Doing the right thing, sir,”
“Yes,” said Master Drew. “Doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
Master Drew looked directly at Keegan. “Keegan.”
“Yes, sir,” he said looking Master Drew in the eyes.
“What does it mean to have an indomitable spirit?”
“It means to never give up, sir.”
“Yes. So Keegan, when you’re tired, what do you do?
“Keep going, sir.”
“When you’re frustrated, what do you do?”
“Keep going, sir.” This was usually a very quick ritual. He wasn’t sure why Master Drew was going on about this today.
“When you’re scared, what do you do?”
“Keep trying, sir?” he said. He saw Alejandro look over at him, seeming a little confused as well.
Master Drew looked closely at Keegan. He had a deep wrinkle between his eyes that deepened when he was angry or serious. It was deep now. He spoke quietly. “There will be times in our lives, in your life, when you will be called on to have an indomitable spirit. It will be the only thing that keeps you alive. And losing self-control” he said pointedly, “will not help the situation.” Master Drew looked at him for a moment, while he tried to figure out what he was supposed to say to this. Master Drew stood suddenly. “In all of our lives, we will need each of these four principles. And maybe sooner than we think.” Now, let’s start with running around the perimeter of the gym. Begin!” Keegan began running, but the thoughts of camping and his enthusiasm for summertime was gone, and instead, he felt like he was running not because he was exercising, but because maybe something was behind him. Maybe he needed to run away.