The two of them walked together in silence, the excitement of the last day of school squashed by Dakkota’s gang. They walked by the Shop-n-Kart where he sometimes stopped for an ice cream sandwich. As they passed the dry cleaners, a woman holding several dresses in plastic bags opened the door and the heat from inside bore down on them. They grasped hands at the intersection where Alejandro went on toward his house and Keegan headed toward the Dojo.
He’d been taking Tae Kwon Do since they moved here. Twice a week, he’d walk along Hogan Street from the school, wait at the busy intersection until he crossed the street and head down Kerslake St. He peered in the window of the Subway Sandwich shop, the scent of the baking bread made him hungry. The Dojo was just at the end of the block, next to the city bus stop.
As he headed toward the doors of the Dojo, he noticed an old woman waiting at the bus stop eyeing him. She wore a gaping flowered muumuu dress over her ample figure. Her face was a canvass of wrinkles, but her eyes were steely and sharp. As he pushed open the doors, he glanced back to see her staring directly at him. He paused. She thumped her hand over her heart twice and held it up, palm facing him, and smiled. Strange old lady. He let the doors close behind him.
The familiar smell of sweat and sweet incense hung in the air. Master Sulan was running through forms. He quietly entered the gym and removed his shoes, his feet relishing the soft familiar soft give of the mats. Keegan allowed himself to watch for a moment. Master Sulan hadn’t noticed him and was intent on her movements and concentrating deeply. She swung her leg in a roundhouse kick with perfect precision, then leapt up, landing a knife hand strike with complete grace. Complete power. Her movements were like a dance. So unlike his own awkward strikes and kicks. His own poor balance and missed landings.
He’d begun lessons after a long talk with Dad. They’d been camping, one of Keegan’s favorite things to do. While Keegan sat mesmerized by the flames, Dad talked about the need for self-defense.
“Because I’m so scrawny?” asked Keegan.
“You’re not scrawny,” said Dad. “You just haven’t filled out yet. It’s a good idea to have some self-defense moves. We live in the city, you’re going to a new school, you just never know what you might have to face sometime.”
“Is this because of Mom’s work?” asked Keegan. Sometimes Mom worked with some pretty serious sickos. She didn’t talk to Keegan about it, of course. Keegan just picked up the information just by listening. He knew Mom’s work didn’t exactly bring her into contact with the best people humanity had to offer. Which was why she needed to spend so much time away from home. She needed to be in the city sometimes to investigate the bad guys. That’s what she told him anyway.
“It’s just the reality,” said Dad. “And the truth is, your mom and I want you as prepared as you can be, if you ever need to be.”
So, he’d started with Master Sulan. He took private lessons and was making okay progress, although not as fast as he hoped. Mom asked for updates on lessons at least once a week, sometimes when they talked over Skype. Telling your mom about your crappy day digitally wasn’t as good as in person, when she could make you some hot chocolate or wrap her arms around you for a hug. It was better than nothing though. When Dad had to travel for work, to study some climate pattern or weird weather change, then Mom came home. So he and Jordan spent time with both parents, but lately, not at the same time.
He changed into his gi and began his stretching exercises. The Dojo was quiet except for Master Sulan’s sharp breaths as she ran through her forms. A line of ancient Japanese swords hung from the walls. Keegan imagined holding one his hand. You had to be a brown belt before Master Sulan would even consider letting you touch a sword. “You receive your weapon when you have mastered your skill,” she always said. “The weapon does not make the skill, the skill makes the weapon.”
They started the lesson as they always did, with the three principles. Master Sulan stood in front of him, her posture erect. She was a tall and formidable form. Thin and flexible, with a deceptive strength. Keegan had seen her break bricks. She was serious and had no time for small talk. “Recite the principles,” she stated. “What is the first principle?”
Keegan stood with his hands at the side of his orange belt. He’d moved up two belts in seven months, but felt like he’d been at a standstill lately. Like everything else in his life. “Empathy, Sensei,” he replied formally.
“And what does this mean?”
“Understanding how the other feels,” he replied automatically. He’d been answering the same questions twice a week for seven months. He didn’t even think about it anymore.
“And the second principle.”
“Integrity, Sensei. It means doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
“Yes, and the third principle.”
“Indomitable spirit, Sensei.”
“Never giving up.” He prepared to begin his exercises.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Um,” he began. He scrunched his bare toes on the mat. “I mean you keep going even when you don’t feel like it. If you, uh, feel like giving up or something, then you don’t.”
“Yes.” Master Sulan continued facing him. She seemed deadly serious today. The slight crease between her eyes deepened. “So, if you are afraid, what do you do?”
“I keep going.”
“And if you are sad, depressed or discouraged what do you do?”
“I make myself keep going. Get through it.”
“And if you are hurt,” she pressed.
Keegan didn’t understand where this was coming from today, but he didn’t like it.
“I keep going. I make myself keep going.”
“Keegan,” Master Sulan said in a slightly softened voice. “We are all tested in all these principles at some time or another. When your time comes, I want you to remember and be prepared.”
“Yes, Master Sulan,” Keegan replied.
Keegan began to run the perimeter of the gym, shaking his hands to try rid them of the familiar hot prickling sensation. He tried to rid himself of the feeling that maybe he wasn’t just running laps. Maybe should be running away from something.