Summary: Kerri takes a break from school to go shopping. And has a big decision to make.
Previous Chapters: Click the Hero In My Life tag.
Somehow, I got through the rest of my mid-terms. The study group didn’t meet again, but Marianne and I bounced questions and answers off of each other every afternoon and evening. She also made sure that we took a one-hour break besides supper. Actually, supper wasn’t much of a break. Sophie wasn’t the only person bringing textbooks to the table in those two-and-a-half weeks.
And the food changed, too. The breakfast muffins tasted… well… healthy, I guess. Less like cake and more like cardboard. There had always been healthy options—in a place like this, there practically had to be. But now, cookies and sweet buns disappeared, leaving only yogurt, whole-grain cold cereals, hot porridge, eggs, and lots of fruit. It was the same with lunch: plenty of fish, lean meats, and chicken, as well as a brown-rice-and-garbanzo-bean casserole for the vegetarians that worked as a side for the rest of us. It was good enough that I had it on its own a couple of days. Loads of veggies. But dessert was a choice of fresh fruit or dried fruit compote. Oh, and punch bowls filled with walnuts and sunflower seeds.
“Brain food,” Marianne grinned one morning.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Always eat high-protein before an exam. It boosts your thinking. And avoid white flour and refined sugar. It does the opposite.”
I’d heard fish was supposed to be brain food. The other stuff was news to me. “I thought a sugar rush gave you more energy,” I said.
Marianne shrugged. “Maybe it does, but that doesn’t mean you think any better.” She sighed. “All this time I was so happy that our cafeteria food didn’t taste like cafeteria food… and then they go and throw these at us.” She pointed mournfully at her muffin. She’d broken a bit off the top and bitten into it first thing. Forty minutes later, she’d had soygurt, muesli, more soygurt, and whole wheat toast with a thin layer of walnut butter. The muffin with its broken crown had been moved to her napkin, as if she didn’t want it associating with the rest of her breakfast. I didn’t blame her.
“Are you sure it’s safe to have it that close to your plate?” I whispered in mock-horror. “I mean, what if it… touched?”
She gave me an annoyed look. “I am so looking forward to going to Wikwemikong over Christmas. My aunt makes this gingerbread that…” She sighed. “Let’s just say that after having some, it’ll be a while before school desserts taste good again.”
I blinked. “Wikwemikong?” I repeated, hoping I was saying it right. “Where’s that?”
“Close,” Marianne said. “It’s over on Manitoulin Island. My cousin Jerry’s going to pick me up here and we’ll drive back.” She smiled. “Mom’s coming in, too. Aunt Betty said it’s a perfect reason to have us all together for Christmas, what with me practically there already.” She smiled faintly. “Actually, it’s about a three-hour drive, because you have to go all the way up to Sudbury and then west to Espanola to get on the road to the nearest bridge. If they could build another one at Killarney, I could probably be there in no time. But,” she added brightly, “it’d be about five hours back to the Soo and I haven’t seen Aunt Betty and the rest of the family at Wiky in ages.”
“That’s rough,” I said sympathetically.
“We Skype and email,” Marianne said quickly. “Some. But it’s not the same.” She sighed. “Maybe they’ll make it up to Batchewana for the pow-wow this summer. Or I’ll be back for theirs. Anyway,” she put a smile in her voice, “you ready?”
I closed my biology book with a sigh. “I almost wish this was the final, not the mid-term,” I muttered.
“Bet I know why.”
I nodded and grinned. “No more Macomber!” we said in unison.
I tried not to think about what would come after the academic mid-terms. We’d started the semester with fitness assessments and we were going to end it the same way. There was no real way to prepare for most of it. My hapkido class booked a gym for a couple of hours on the weekends during mid-terms and we reviewed what we’d learned in class, which is a nice way of saying we attacked each other with gusto and probably relieved some of the stress we were feeling. I knew I was in a better mood later on when Marianne and I sat down to study.
I kept up with my kettlebells and even went on a run or two with Marianne, but that didn’t go as well. She had a track mid-term coming up and she wasn’t holding back anymore. And she was faster than I was and knew how to pace herself so she didn’t go all-out at the beginning. I’d never learned, so I got out of breath pretty quickly.
“You’re sprinting,” Marianne pointed out. “You can’t keep that up over long distances. Conserve your speed, take it slower, and you’ve got the energy to stay the course.”
I glared at her. “Easy for you to say.”
Marianne held up her hands. “Hey. Sprinting has its place. If there’s a bomb going off in fifteen seconds, you get out fast with every bit of speed you’ve got. Well, unless you’re Sharon, I mean. Cuz you’ll probably be up at Attawapiskat on James Bay when you stop, unless you can’t slam your brakes on and you wind up in the water…” I didn’t want to smile, but I couldn’t quite stop myself. She grinned. “But sometimes, you need to cover more ground. And for that, you learn to hold back so you don’t get out of breath so easy and you can go farther instead of faster. And at the end, you still have a bit left in you for a last burst of speed.” She nodded, still smiling. “Of course, it takes training.”
I groaned. “What doesn’t?”
“Not much.” She touched my shoulder. “I want to do another circuit of the grounds.”
I shook my head. “Have fun. I’m going to have to do chin-ups tomorrow. I’m doing some more kettlebell reps.”
I managed ten pull-ups the next day. I also shaved ten seconds off my September obstacle course time and added nearly a meter to my long jump. I didn’t remember how I’d done at the other stations the first time around. All I knew was that I seemed to be doing way better overall, even with the stuff we’d never worked on this term—like the obstacle course and the hurdles. Mostly it was less stressful and more fun than it had been the first time. Except when Sharon and I were at the same station.
I wasn’t mad at her anymore, not really. I think I was ready to make up and be friends. But I didn’t want to be the first one to apologize. I mean, I hadn’t done anything wrong. She was the one who’d seen me and Reggie horsing around and jumped to conclusions. And I had a feeling I knew why, too. Because the hero always got the guy. Or girl, depending. The hero got the ticker-tape parade and the key to the city and the kids running up to ask for autographs and photos. And me, I was just supposed to be thrilled to be rescued, I guess. But… I had a guy. I mean, I wasn’t sure if I wanted him, but I sort of thought maybe I did. And Sharon? Well, I believed her when she said she wasn’t interested in Reggie, but I sort of thought that she might be interested in having a boyfriend. Especially since I seemed to have found someone before she had. But that didn’t have to be my problem. Why couldn’t she just be happy for me? More to the point, why couldn’t she have seen me with a guy and not immediately assumed that the only reason he’d want to be around me would be to bug me? That was what really stung. It was like she’d been surprised to find out that someone like Reggie would be interested in someone like me. Someone who wasn’t a Track One.
I shook my head like I was trying to shake the thought out of it. If we were back in Roehampton, I don’t think I ever would have thought of anything like that. But if we were back in Roehampton, we’d still be hanging out together all the time, just the two of us. Here, I found myself spending more time with Marianne and she had Tina—who never let me forget that I was a Track Two. Someone who had to be looked after and rescued and protected. Someone who dragged everyone else down. Someone…
“Palmer?” I blinked and realized that Tremain was trying to get my attention. “Your turn.”
I nodded guiltily. Then I moved into place for my vault and pretended I didn’t see Sharon looking at me sympathetically. Or maybe she just thought I was pitiful. Well, I’d show her! It had been about a month since we’d done this in class, but it wasn’t rocket science once you knew what you were doing. I exploded into a sprint from my starting position, ran up the springboard and jumped, clearing the vault with centimeters to spare. I came down in a handstand on the landing mat and let gravity do the rest. Then I lay there for a moment, looking up at the ceiling. I’d done it. It hadn’t been a complicated vault; I had no doubt that any one of the girls Marianne worked out with could have done as well, if not better. But I’d done it.
“Not bad,” Tremain said, smiling. “You need to lie there another minute?”
I wanted to, I’ll admit. But there were still a couple of people waiting. I shook my head and tried to pull myself up. Tremain grabbed my hand and helped. “Off you go, then,” she nodded. “Robles!”
As I jogged back to the others, I found myself thinking that maybe Sharon had really been smiling because she’d been caught daydreaming before, too, and had only been trying to let me know that she understood. When I tried to catch her eye, though, she was deep in conversation with Monica Cole, a girl I’d met in the infirmary during that training exercise. Sharon didn’t stop talking with her until it was time to move on—to different stations this time.
I had a week before my hapkido final and I spent the first couple of days just catching my breath. I read Vanity Fair. I bundled up really well and went off-campus to get my hair cut in the village. While I was there, I did a little shopping, too.
I found a pendant on a sterling silver chain with a stone I’d never seen before. It wasn’t flashy; it was kind of understated, blue, but with something grey and metallic, too. It didn’t looked washed-out or faded, but it wasn’t sparkly either. Even so, I kept coming back to it.
“Labradorite,” the clerk interrupted my thoughts. I jumped. “Sorry,” he continued. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just saying that the piece you’re interested in? It’s labradorite. From Newfoundland. Did you want to try it on?”
I did, but… “Uh… How much?” No point falling in love with something I couldn’t afford.
“I could let you have it for thirty-five,” he said. “It’s supposed to be forty, but we’re marking down everything in this case next week. I could let you have the sale price today.”
I started to nod when something else caught my eye. “How about that one?”
He took it out of the case. “This?” He grinned. “This one’s practically local. It’s amazonite from the mine at Magnetawan.” He laid the milky green stone on the glass counter. It was rectangular, with copper wire wrapped around it and it hung on a black cord. “Twenty-five?”
I nodded. Marianne would love it.
“Oh, is the string all right or would you like to look at some copper chains, too?”
I had other gifts to buy and the cord looked fine. “No thanks,” I smiled. “I’ll take it as-is.”
“Sure thing.” He slid the necklace into a small pouch that looked like a quilted envelope that sealed with a snap at the point. He then put the pouch in a cardboard box. “Gift-wrap?”
I nodded. “Yes, please.” All the while though, I was debating something with myself. The labradorite was still on the counter. And it was still… holding me. Last year, I would have snapped it up in a hurry. But now? I took another breath. “And this one too, please,” I pointed to the labradorite. “Also gift-wrapped.” I wasn’t yet sure who it was for, but I’d figure it out at some point.
There weren’t a lot of touristy things in the village, but I found a mug for my mother and a pen for my dad. Each had the school crest on it. “Is it safe?” I asked the checkout clerk. “I mean, my parents don’t know everything about the school, but other people might.”
The clerk smiled. “It’s good you’re cautious,” she approved, “but there’s no real reason to worry. Chances are, your parents haven’t kept your whereabouts a secret. The only people who know what the academy is really for aren’t about to inform them. Either they’re associated with the school in some way, or they’re the ones you’re here to learn to protect yourself from. Either way, telling your parents the truth is likely to end with people asking them a lot of uncomfortable questions.” She shrugged. “If you’d rather pick something else…?”
I thought about the people I saw walking down the street in Roehampton who wore Harvard sweatshirts and UBC baseball caps—even if those clothes were as close as they were ever going to get to those schools. Marnie and Vivian, whose parents had ordered them McGill knapsacks back in grade six, or Keith, with his Andover Prep jacket. I smiled and shook my head. “No, these’ll be great. Thanks.”
Two more gifts down. At least three to go.
When I made it back to the dorm a couple of hours later, I was tired, but I felt good. Too much time hitting the books and the gym must have been stressing me more than I’d realized. It had been great to just get out and do… normal things for a day. Christmas shopping. Window shopping. Haircut. I’d even gotten myself a matching hat, scarf, and mitts set that had made me feel warmer just looking at it. It was a little more expensive than the same thing probably would have cost me in Roehampton, but I’d bought gifts for everyone else today. I thought I deserved something, too.
Yes, it had been good to get a break from school stuff. Now I had to worry about the hapkido mid-term. Natalie had told us that it wasn’t precisely mid-term. More of an assessment plus an essay. There were three levels for Hapkido II next semester. Hapkido 201 meant that I’d be taking things slower, still trying to nail the basics. Still a white belt. Hapkido 211 meant I’d advance to koo gup. I’d still have my white belt, but there’d be a yellow stripe on it. And hopefully, I’d advance to pal gup and get my yellow belt at the end of the year.
“You’d be going from grade ten to grade nine,” Natalie had told us. “In hapkido, you work your way up to first gup and then move on to first dan.”
Hapkido 221 was more intense and would mean more classes. If I got into that one, I’d taking two gup in the same semester, koo gup until the end of March, pal gup until the end of the year. But I’d get to chil gup and earn a green stripe on my yellow belt.
It wasn’t going to happen, of course. I’d probably get into 211 easily enough; I knew I was doing well. But 221 sounded like it was more for kids planning on going Hero stream next year.
And maybe I didn’t know yet whether I wanted to be in Civilian or Support, but I did know that I wasn’t hero material.
Meanwhile… I had to focus on the assessment. We’d booked a gym for practice again tomorrow and I needed all the practice I could get!
I thought I did all right on the physical portion of the assessment. It was hard to know about the essay, because I hadn’t had to write one for Natalie before. It’s always tough to know how a teacher marks ahead of time. It’s worse when the first time you hand something in is for a major test. The topic was ‘What I hope to gain through the study of Hapkido’. I had to think about it. I mean, I was in Hapkido because my academic advisor asked me a bunch of weird questions and told me that it would be a good fit for me. But all that told me was that Ms Agrawal thought I’d do well in it. And yes, she was probably right, though I guess I wouldn’t know for sure until I saw my grade. But what did I want?
Funny. She hadn’t really asked me that. Or maybe she had, but she hadn’t really paid much attention to my answer. It was like, “Do you know what you want? No? Okay, I’ll tell you.” And maybe she’d been right. I was enjoying Hapkido and I was doing well with it. But really, it was one more person deciding things for me, one more person telling me what to do, one more thing I didn’t get to decide for myself.
Ever since I was eleven years old, I wrote, I have been targeted by costumed villains. I am tired of sitting and waiting for a hero to save me. Through the study of Hapkido, I hope to develop the necessary skills so that I can save myself…
Once I got started, I couldn’t type fast enough. It only had to be a two-page essay and we had an hour to finish it. I had three pages done in forty-five minutes. I spent the last fifteen going back over it and deciding what to cut. Natalie had warned us that she didn’t want to spend time marking ‘novels’. I hoped she wouldn’t be too upset that my final draft still had two lines on page three, but I just couldn’t figure out what else to delete. Besides, it wasn’t like she was going to flunk anyone for writing an essay that was a little too long.
Reggie burst into laughter when he pulled the plush killer whale in out of the gift bag. “What is this?” he demanded. “A fish in Wolves’ clothing?”
I giggled. The Wolves were Sudbury’s OHL hockey team. I wasn’t sure whether this was official team merchandise, but one of the stores had a whole bunch of stuffed animals in different OHL uniforms. “No!” I shot back. “It’s another porpoise to defeat.”
“Killer whales aren’t porpoises,” Reggie grinned. “They’re orcas.”
He didn’t know it yet, but he’d just walked into my trap. “I looked it up, Einstein,” I grinned back. “Dolphins aren’t porpoises either!”
Reggie stopped laughing. “Wait, what?” he asked me. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged. “Dolphins have longer beaks and their teeth are cone-shaped. Porpoise teeth are more like spades.”
He whistled. “Learn something new every day,” he grinned. “Got anything else?”
“I don’t remember much more,” I admitted. “Just that they’re also called mereswine.”
Reggie blinked. Then he started laughing again. “Mereswine? Like mermaids, only half-fish, half-pig? Do those people in charge of making Muppet movies know? Because I’m pretty sure ‘The Little Mereswine’ with Miss Piggy would be a hit!”
I laughed with him. “I knew you’d get a kick out of it. So,” I became serious for a minute, “you really like it? You’re not just saying that?”
Reggie grinned. “I love it. Oh, um…” He reached into his pocket. “I… got you something too.”
I looked at the little box. “Uh… I hope that’s not an engagement ring,” I said. “I think I’m a little young.”
“Open it,” he answered, smiling nervously.
I did. There was a silver necklace with an enamel charm hanging from it. I pulled it free of the backing. “Oh wow,” I breathed.
“I know you’re taking hapkido, not kung fu, but this was as close as I could get. Hey, maybe the franchise’ll spin off with Hapkido Hawk or Judo Jaguar.”
I polished the Kung Fu Panda charm on my coat. “Let’s go indoors,” I suggested. “It’s too cold out for me to take off my scarf so I can put it on.”
As we turned toward the library, Reggie wrapped an arm around my shoulders. It felt… good.
There was an email from Natalie in my inbox for me the next morning asking me to stop by after breakfast. I looked at it and felt my heart start pounding. When a teacher wanted to talk to you privately, it usually wasn’t a good thing. When I mentioned it to Marianne after she got back from her morning run, though, she didn’t seem concerned.
“My jeet kun do teacher scheduled something yesterday and my track teacher wants to see me after lunch. It’s probably about your placement for next term.” She shrugged. “I think it’s all the optional gym and combat classes. Maybe fitness too, but I haven’t heard anything on that front.”
I was still worried. “What if I bombed on the essay?” I asked. “It was such a stupid topic.”
Marianne smiled. “Even if you did, how many marks was it worth?”
“Out of a hundred,” she reminded me. “I wouldn’t worry. But if you want to skip breakfast and go now…” She took me by the arm and led me into our kitchen. “You can grab a couple of my pop tarts to tide you over if the dining hall’s closed when you get back.”
I shook my head. With the amount of exercise I’d been getting all semester, I knew that I could probably eat them and not worry about putting on weight. But somehow, it felt wrong to eat a breakfast that involved frosting and jam. “No,” I sighed. “I think this condemned soul needs a hearty last meal.”
“Suit yourself,” Marianne nodded. “Just give me a chance to shower and change and we’ll go down together.”
Natalie’s office was on the second floor of the gym, off of the catwalk that circled the perimeter above the main floor of Gymnasium C. It had pastel-blue cinderblock walls and black metal furniture. She had a couple of diplomas on the wall and a picture of herself in costume shaking hands with a muscular woman. Both were wearing dobok with black belts. She had a reproduction of a painting I recognized from the Group of Seven book my parents had given me hanging on the wall facing her desk.
“Carmichael,” she smiled as I turned away from it to sit down.
“I know,” I smiled back. “Lone Lake, right?”
“I didn’t realize you were into Canadian art,” she beamed.
I wasn’t, but I nodded anyway.
“Thanks for coming by, Kerri,” she said, still smiling but sounding more businesslike. “I suppose it could have waited until next term, but since I’ve finished the grading, I don’t know if it’s right to keep you in suspense.”
Her smile hadn’t faded, but neither had my nervousness. Still no clue how tough a marker she was, remember? Somehow, I managed to meet her eyes. “Okay?” I hesitated. “Ma’am?”
She shook her head disapprovingly. “I thought I’d broken you of that habit by now,” she scolded, not really sounding cross. “My name is ‘Natalie’. Sabumnim, if you must, though we are outside the classroom now.”
I nodded. “Yes, Sabumnim,” I said, studying my fingers.
“At ease. I’m preparing the rosters for next semester and I’d like to know where to place you.”
What? I jerked my head up again. “Ma’am? Uh… Sabumnim?”
“Well,” Natalie said, “based on your scores, you’re qualified to take either the 211 or the 221. If it’s the latter, you might think twice before taking on a second martial art or weapon class, though that’s something you can decide at your advising appointment, in January.”
I wasn’t sure I believed what I was hearing. “221?” I managed.
Natalie nodded. “It’s a dangerous world out there, Kerri. Just because you aren’t in a costume doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to proper self-defence training. From what I’ve seen so far, I believe you can handle the accelerated program. And, while you don’t need to declare your stream until the beginning of May, this way, you’ll be on a solid footing whatever you decide.”
She was right. And it wasn’t like being at a less-intense level would mean that I’d be dealing with less-dangerous criminals back in Roehampton. She opened her desk drawer and pulled out a lumpy manila envelope with my name scrawled across it in blue ink. “Kerri?”
I took a deep breath. “If I find 221 too much, can I switch to 211?”
Natalie smiled. “Provided your 9:30 slot is vacant on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to keep that option open, be sure to ask your advisor to place you in an afternoon fitness class.”
“So, 221 then?”
I nodded again and managed a shaky smile.
Natalie beamed. “Excellent.” She pushed the envelope toward me. “Make sure you wear this with your dobok next semester.”
I took the envelope, opened it, and pulled out a folded white sash with a bright yellow stripe on it.
Natalie’s grin grew bigger. “Welcome to koo gup.”