Memories are odd things. They get distorted over time. They get lost, they get blurred. Your mind will play tricks with them; it will pull parts out and add new bits until the truth is faded to the extent of being lost.
Lisa’s memory of that one particular day will quite possibly be different to mine; she may remember her reaction differently, and the things I said have probably been forgotten. Not for me, though. For me, that memory is as clear and as unblemished as a black line against bright white. I will never forget it.
We were playing in the park behind our houses. On most days it was packed, but on that Tuesday we were the only two there. Our school had gone on an excursion- I stayed behind because I had had a cold. Lisa stayed to keep me company. She was cute back then; a little white Kougra with short curly hair and a gap in her teeth. We lived next door to each other. We were best friends.
As I remember, that time I was Captain Thunder, and she was my loyal sidekick, Professor Rae. We were in the middle of trying to defeat the dastardly King Dee.
“Your end has come, King Dee,” I shouted at the crumpled Tuskaninny plushie on the ground, unaware of the shadow creeping up behind me. “Professor Rae, hand me the Lightning Gun, quick!”
That was the part where Lisa was supposed to come forward with a cardboard tube, and we would spend several minutes beating the plushie to a dusty, dirty pulp. It was fate that King Dee would escape to live another day, however; Lisa had seen the giant Moehog behind me.
“Heh, kids,” he said, and I turned around. “Cute. Hand over your money.”
He was called Bruiser. He’d made a name for himself by stealing lunch-money from first- and second-year students. There were horror stories of the broken ribs and broken noses and broken legs of those who didn’t pay. He was stronger than us, he was faster than us, and we were alone. We had no choice but to obligingly rummage through our pockets.
“I’ve nothing,” Lisa said, coming out with a pawful of chewing gum wrappers.
“Same,” I said. I had spent my allowance the day before buying King Dee.
Bruiser didn’t look happy, and took a step forward. “Oh, and what if I don’t believe you?”
Lisa jutted her lip out in a fierce glare. She had a bigger temper than I did, and bullies rarely fazed her. “Well, that’s just tough luck then, ain’t it?” she said.
Bruiser’s face flattened into a snarl and he shoved Lisa backwards. She fell to the ground, and started to cry.
I tried to jump at Bruiser to claw him. I must have looked ridiculous, a pint-sized brown Kougra fighting a Moehog eight times my size. He swiped me to one side easily, and I joined Lisa on the ground, visions of broken bones swimming through my head.
We were spared. A blurry shape shot out of the shadows and knocked Bruiser’s feet out from under him. I distinctly remember seeing the look of shock on his face as he crashed to the ground. A long, black tail then snapped out of nowhere and flicked him across his backside, making him yelp. “Get outta here,” a voice snarled, and Bruiser wasted no time in crawling to his feet and running for the nearest house.
Lisa laughed and scrambled to her feet. “Jeplin! Cousin Jeplin!”
I stared at the black Hissi as he smiled and ruffled Lisa’s hair. “You okay, kiddo?”
“Sure,” she smiled, giving him a bear-hug. The lanky Hissi offered me his hand, and pulled me to my feet. “What about you?”
“Fine,” I said, noting that I’d fallen on King Dee, and he was now somewhat squashed.
Lisa looked at me with shining eyes and said something that I’ll never forget. “Jeplin’s learning karate! Oh, Keptor, isn’t he just amazing?”
Here I am now, in a dark room, eyes closed, trying to concentrate. That memory keeps coming back to me. I sit, indian-style, on the ground, paws resting on my knees, for all the world looking as though I’m at peace with myself. I’m not.
...isn’t he just amazing...
Those words seem to have haunted me. Lisa is very reserved with her praise. To be thought of as ‘amazing’ by her would really be something.
I never felt talented enough to impress my parents. They were always hoping for something better from me- but Lisa wanted to be my friend, just the way I was. This is probably why I was so attracted to her, and why I wanted to impress her so much, and why I made up my mind, then and there, on that bizarre day, that I was going to learn karate too.
I went home, and I convinced my parents to let me train. My mother supposed I could, as long as I didn’t get my clothes dirty. My father grudgingly consented, too, as long as my grades didn’t slip. Fine with me. I’d train hard. I’d give up play-time. Whatever it took, this was my new goal, and I had high expectations for myself.
I was signed up as a student at the nearby academy. We lived in a town known as Koumari, situated near the centre of Shenkuu, and courses to choose from were plentiful. By the end of the first few weeks, I was completely sick of martial arts. Every day I practiced the same kicks, the same blocks, the same patterns. I became the best in my class of amateurs, but I was thoroughly over it.
And then, one afternoon, Lisa mentioned how exciting it was to have a friend who knew karate. I redoubled my efforts.
Over the next few years I rose through the ranks at a lightning speed. All of my spare time was devoted to the art of self-defence. I moved on to harder, more complicated moves, ones that required more precision. I practiced them constantly. I mastered them.
Despite my promise to my father, my school grades were slipping. I no longer had time to study. As soon as I was old enough, I left school and got a job as an assistant in the martial arts academy. Lisa continued on with her studies, and also got a part-time job as a waitress. We had less time to spend together, but she still managed to come over to the academy, and watch me teach younger pets simple moves.
I surpassed all of my classmates. I surpassed Jeplin. And yet, Lisa no longer seemed to care about how cool martial arts made me look. She was past the age of being impressed by it. This frustrated me, and it made me try harder. I entered myself into competitions. Sometimes she came and watched as my opponents crumbled before me. Sometimes she was too busy.
She was still my best friend; I just didn’t know if I was still hers.
I squeeze my eyes closed even more fiercely, taking deep breaths. It’s harder to keep my composure now. Someone knocks on the door and calls through the wood. “Five minutes, Keptor!”
I am fully prepared. There is nothing I need to do. I indulge myself by letting my mind slide back into the past.
By the time I was seventeen, most of the effort being put into our friendship was by Lisa. She had been cute as a child, but she was gorgeous now. Her hair was longer, her eyes were darker, and she had the cutest smile; a shy, mischievous one which crinkled her face and made you want to grin back stupidly.
She’d left her job as a waitress and had become a hairdresser. She loved it, and was good at it, too. She liked to tease me about my messy, short hair, and offered to give it a stylish trim. I told her that would be great, but I never quite had the time for it.
I, also, had moved on, and was now one of the lead instructors at the academy. I had my black belt. I had respect. I knew what I was doing, and I was good at it. Sometimes I even managed to fool myself into thinking that I liked it.
Outside of martial arts, I had nothing. My parents had been nagging me about leaving school, and when it began to disrupt my training I decided enough was enough, and left home. There were several properties for sale that I could afford; one was on the same street as where I had lived, just a minute’s walk from Lisa’s house. The other was directly behind the academy. Although she tried not to show it, I believe Lisa was disappointed in me when I chose the latter.
Training was a chore. I disliked it, but I persisted, simply because there was no other area I was good in. Over a decade of my short life had been spent constantly immersed in karate; I had no hobbies, I had spent no time developing other talents, and Lisa was the only person from my school who persisted in staying my friend.
She would offer to meet me for coffee, I would hesitate, she would wheedle and beg until I relented, and then I would leave her sitting at the coffee shop, swinging her feet, waiting for me, for twenty minutes, and hour, even two hours, while I finished training at the academy.
I’d arrive late. She’d give me a tongue-lashing. I’d apologise- work has been hectic, there was this one child who couldn’t quite get the back-kick, I was asked to stay late to help pack up- and she would give me one of her patented ‘I’m seeing right through your excuses, buddy’ looks, and then we’d let it drop and order our coffee.
I don’t know why she didn’t give up on me. Perhaps she saw through my tough façade and realized I was just like everyone else, trying to get through life as best I could. Maybe she also saw how pleased I looked when she said something nice about me. I can’t deny it; her opinion was incredibly valuable to me. Martial arts was the only thing I thought I could do to impress her. It didn’t matter that she hated it almost as much as I did; it was the only thing I could do.
A knock on the door again. My eyes snap open. I am supposed to be focussing my mind, honing my thoughts in on my goal, relaxing and preparing. All I’ve done is work myself into a shaking, self-loathing wreck.
“We’re ready for you, Keptor,” the voice calls, and I stand up, taking a shuddering breath. My paws are trembling, but not from anxiety. It’s from fear about unalterable mistakes. It’s too late to search for meaning now. I push open the door and follow the Mynci assistant down a corridor. The walk will take a few minutes, and as I let my eyes stare blankly at the assistant’s bobbing, swaying tail and my mind, desperate for comfort, dips for a final time into my past.
I was at the point of surpassing my mentor. All of my training and hard work was starting to pay off- I had been promoted again to a partner at the academy, and was in charge of managing the training schedule for the students. As I had done with myself, I worked them tirelessly.
Lisa was hanging out with a new group of friends. I vaguely recognised one or two of them from our old school, but that was it. I was shocked when I met them; Lisa and I had always shared the same friends. We used to know the same people, moved in the same circles. I felt jealous that she would make new best friends and not tell me for almost two months.
I suppose it wasn’t entirely her fault. We were hardly talking at all by that point.
I felt hurt, and so, to appease myself, I entered into the international martial arts tournament. If I was chosen as the national champion, I would be taken on a tour around the globe, competing against all of the masters, fighting to win the coveted trophy for Shenkuu. Lisa smiled and wished me luck when I told her, but she didn’t seem very excited about it.
I was already spending all of my available time practicing and perfecting my skills, so I didn’t see any point in stepping up my training in preparation. I had reached a sort of emotional dead-zone. I had gotten into martial arts to impress Lisa, and all I had achieved was to drive her away. I had fought and worked hard and done my best, but it only seemed to make it worse. But now I was too far down that particular road to turn back.
This knowledge made the turmoil in my mind freeze. I was now calm, calculating, steady. I couldn’t go back; therefore I would go on.
I ploughed through my opponents. There is no point in recounting them; I scarcely remember their faces anymore, let alone their names. Finally, it was just me against the last contender. Lisa hesitated when I asked her to come and watch the match, but I gave her such a pleading look that she relented and took the day off work, something which I wouldn’t have done for her.
I knew that I was going to win. The match was decided as soon as I looked into my Ruki opponent’s eyes and saw the fear and doubt. Sure, I wasn’t doing so great in the doubt compartment myself, but I was determined. I won in less than four minutes.
Lisa met me outside the arena later. “You were amazing,” she beamed, and her phrase from all of those years ago came back to haunt me again. ‘...isn’t he just amazing...’
I grinned with pleasure. “Hey, thanks.”
“How about we get some ice cream and catch up a bit?”
I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I let my smile disappear into my neutral face. “Sorry. I need to leave for the tour immediately.”
Lisa wasn’t smiling now, either. “You have to go right this minute?”
“Well, the boat leaves in a couple of hours, but I’d like to be ready early.”
I looked at Lisa and felt awful. She was giving me a shrewd, disappointed look as she stepped away. “I see.”
Eager to make peace, I said, “I’d love it if you would come and watch some of my competitions. Just talk to my agent; he’ll get you a ticket.”
Lisa looked at me, disdain covering her face, and mimicked my voice. “I’d love to, but I don’t think I have the time.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I snapped.
“What do you think it means?” Lisa was trying hard to stop her anger from boiling over. “You never have time for me. Never. And I’m sick of it.”
“What do you want me to do?” I yelled, attracting looks from the people around us. “I’ve done everything for you. You wanted me to learn karate, didn’t you? Well, I have, and I’m sorry if it’s not good enough for you.”
Lisa curled her paws into fists, baring her teeth at me. “You were always good enough for me. I don’t care about your stupid martial arts. I care about you, and even if you never did another round-kick in your whole entire life, you’d still be good enough for me. But, apparently, I’m not good enough for you.”
Memories are odd things; sometimes when parts become too painful your mind cuts them out. We argued for ages, but I remember very little of it except an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and betrayal. I can now only remember her last verbal barb, which she spat at me before running into the crowd. I’d said something stupid about her not being a loyal friend, and she glared daggers at me.
“Yeah, well maybe I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
I was too angry to care. “Fine!”
And then she was gone.
And now, here I stand, behind a closed curtain. The Mynci assistant is babbling instructions to me, but I don’t listen. I’ve done this before. I know the rules.
I feel like I’ve lost everything. If I win this match, I will officially be the world champion in karate. The arena beyond is packed with screaming, hysterical fans. I’m famous. Everyone knows my name. They sell action figures of me, for goodness’ sake! And yet, inside, I’m nothing.
“Ready?” the assistant asks.
“No,” I mumble, but he doesn’t hear.
“Alright, get out there and show them what you’ve got!” He steps back and I wait silently. In losing Lisa, I lost everything. The only friends I have now are shallow and frustrating. I have no direction in life. I would give anything for a chance to turn back time.
If I lose this match, I will be in eternal disgrace. If I win... what then? Next year there will be a new champion, and I’ll be forgotten. The fans will move on. The money will dwindle. I’ll probably end up starting a martial arts school. I wonder vaguely if this is what happened to my old mentor. Quite possibly.
The curtain drifts to the side and I step into the light. The roar of the crowds is deafening, and I sweep the stands with my eyes. Many of them are waving yellow and red banners, the colour of Shenkuu. Others are waving green and brown, the colours of Mystery Island, the champion of which I’m up against.
He’s a lanky Nimmo with a keen eye. He looks challenging. I take a deep breath and prepare for the start of the match.
And then something filters through the noise. A voice, a pitch which I haven’t heard for what feels like an eternity. “Keptor!”
I drop my fists from in front of my chest, taking away my protection, and scan the crowd frantically.
The bell signalling the start of the match rings, but I don’t hear it, because I’ve seen her. Standing in the front row, leaning over the barrier, looking at me intensely. Lisa. I can’t believe it. After everything I’ve done, she’s come back.
A goofy grin appears on my face for a split second, and then I’m knocked to the ground by a well-placed kick to my jaw from the Mystery Island challenger. The crowd gasps appreciatively. It hurts, but I’ve learnt to control pain, and I roll to my feet before my opponent can do any more damage. I look back at Lisa. She’s yelling something, and I try to make out the words.
Too late, I hear the whistle of the Nimmo’s foot, as it again connects with my jaw, followed quickly by another kick to my stomach. It hurts a lot more this time, but again I get to my feet and look back at Lisa. She seems to be on the verge of tears now, and I glance at the Nimmo. He’s circling me warily, waiting for the world-famous fighter to make his move.
I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to turn away from the distraught white Kougra in the sidelines and focus on the match, but another part of me wants to give up now. I never enjoyed this. I don’t want it. I just wanted to impress Lisa.
The Nimmo’s foot connects with my jaw for a third time, and I crumple to the ground, lights flashing in front of my eyes. The crowd gasps again, then there’s a merciful second of silence, and Lisa’s words are suddenly clear.
“Keptor!” she screams, her voice distraught. “Don’t let him hurt you! Get up, Keptor! Fight!”
The last word penetrates the fog in my mind, and I haul myself to my feet. The Nimmo lashes out again, but this time I’m too fast for him. The hours of practicing the same motions over and over again pays off, and before my mind can think, my reflexes have taken over my body. My fist shoots out at the same time as my foot swings down and across. There’s a blur, and then and my opponent is on the ground, unconscious.
The crowd goes insane. I don’t care. My blurring eyes are focussed on one small white Kougra who is struggling over the divider and into the ring. I stumble towards her, and just as I start to collapse she reaches me and pulls me into a bear hug, letting the both of us tumble to the floor together.
I smile weakly at her. “Lisa.”
“Keptor, you’re such an idiot.” Carefully, she trances a paw over my jaw, which is starting to swell. “We need to get you to the doctor.”
I pull her paw away. “Lisa, about last time we talked-”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.” She gives me one of her impish smiles and I melt. “I shouldn’t have tried to take this away from you. If this is what you want to do, go for it. Don’t let me stop you.”
I’ve made up my mind. “No. It’s over. From now on, no more karate. No more pretending to be a ninja. I’m going home, and I’m going to apologise to a lot of people. My parents, for one. My mentor, for another. But first,” I can’t believe how cheesy I sound at this point, but I don’t care, “I want to apologise to you.”
Lisa takes my paws in hers and squeezes them, giving me a warm smile. “Apology accepted, but there’s really no need. I already think you’re amazing.”