Ninjaboy is not Japanese. Ninjaboy is not even Korean. Ninjaboy is white. His mother is white. His father is white. Perhaps somewhere far up the line, as his mother claims, there is noble Cherokee blood, but it doesn’t show in Ninjaboy. Ninjaboy is pasty white, the color of Wonderbread, which is one of the few things he allows himself to eat. You can never be too careful when you have enemies like Ninjaboy’s. His main enemy is Brad. Brad is also his best friend.
Brad likes Ninjaboy, even though he is a freak. Brad likes that he can hang out with Ninjaboy and play with his game systems and watch his satellite TV and get treated to dinner. He likes that he can be Ninjaboy’s friend and still beat him up when he feels like it. Brad always feels a little bit like beating someone up, but the feeling gets stronger when his mom makes him clean his room, or takes away his cigarettes.
Brad is not always a good friend, but Ninjaboy does not mind. They say that one must keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer. This makes it much easier to stab them with a shuriken.
Ninjaboy has many Japanese weapons. He has more weapons than most ninjas. They are all replicas, but many of them are very sharp. Ninjaboy got them by asking his mom for them. Ninjaboy’s mom buys Ninjaboy lots of things, if he asks for them. The one thing she bought him that he did not ask for was a truck. She thought that all boys wanted their own car. It was a strange gift because Ninjaboy had only just gotten his learner’s permit at the time. The truck does not work very well, and it gets very bad gas mileage. Ninjaboy doesn’t want it. It is not that he is intimidated by driving; it is simply that it is much easier to get somewhere fast if he uses his super ninja running skills.
Ninjaboy running is quite a sight. He never uses his ninja skills where anyone can see him, but he practices the form on the basketball court. He runs with his head forward like a flying arrow, his arms thrust out and back behind him like a demon’s wings. That is how Ninjaboy thinks about it. When Brad watches Ninjaboy run, he thinks that Ninjaboy looks like a hairy goose having a seizure.
Ninjaboy, like a good ninja, has black hair. His hair is always greasy because he never uses shampoo. Floral-scented hair is a good way to get caught when you are sneaking around in the darkness. He lets his hair grow to shoulder-length and then cuts it all short and starts over. He does not care about personal appearance, it is unimportant when stalking a victim.
Ninjaboy never reveals that he is in fact a real ninja, not just a ninja wannabe like all his classmates think. To them, he is the quiet kid who wears black t-shirts and cargo pants, who might snap one day and mow everyone down in a hail of gunfire. Ninjaboy would never snap like that. That would be undisciplined. If he wanted to kill his classmates, he would sneak in through their bedroom windows and slit their throats while they were sleeping.
His classmates like to make fun of him for thinking he is a ninja, Brad most of all. Brad knows that Ninjaboy is a real ninja, but siding with the others is part of his evil plan to undermine Ninjaboy’s control and force him to unleash his powers.
On an afternoon at the end of September they are riding back from a field trip to a Civil War battlefield, the class awaking from the stupor of the 1860s with a sound that makes Ninjaboy think of a mass of red-winged blackbirds. These are the only birds he can identify aside from turkey vultures. Ninjaboy is sitting next to Brad, who always takes the window seat because that’s the kind of jerk he is. Brad points out the fingerprinted glass. Ninjaboy looks. They are just entering the limits of his hometown in the rattling yellow bus. The rolling fields, beef-colored cow herds perched in the folds of hills, are fading away. The trees now are crowded and packed into corners around buildings. There are motels, chain restaurants, an old grocery store with two letters out on the backlit sign, so that it reads at night ATS, and during the day, HARTS. There are many things for Ninjaboy to see.
But Brad is indicating one particular thing, as the bus slows to round a difficult curve that bends the road up. Ninjaboy looks and sees a tall wrought iron observation tower, at least sixty feet high. It is a narrow four-sided structure with a flat top and Ninjaboy can see right through the latticework of the outside and into the ladder at its center. This ladder leads straight up, like the ladder on a child’s tree house, to the open air viewing platform at the top. There are no tourists braving the ascent today. It is rare to ever see anyone on the tower, although admission is free.
The entire edifice sits in the middle of a square of shops all selling more or less the same things: T-shirts, hats, knickknacks and bric-a-brac, twenty varieties of fudge of which only five are edible, and bags of stones, dyed to look natural and glazed to look smooth. The tourists shovel down the China-made local treasures with a ladle.
The tower, the tourist shops with their wares, none of these things are new to Ninjaboy or Brad. They pass this spot every time the bus comes in or out of town. Ninjaboy looks to Brad, certain that his motive in pointing to the tower is sinister.
Brad is only a little taller than Ninjaboy, stretched out from his boots to his plaid fedora in a spindly line of pink flesh. He is not as white as Ninjaboy. His hair is the color of dead ragweed, a dried blonde. He flicks the poking strands away from his eyes with two fingers before he speaks. His fat pulpy lips, which have always reminded Ninjaboy of a frowning frog, gape open, ready to flick out a scorning tongue at Ninjaboy. Ninjaboy begins a breathing exercise that he learned from a Wikipedia page on meditation, and prepares to control his ninja powers no matter what Brad says.
“A real ninja would be able to jump off that tower and fly, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Ninjaboy does not say that the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were not ninjas but actors on wires. He does not try to explain that although ninjas can walk through the air like that, it is only for sneaking onto rooftops, never for entertainment.
Ninjaboy just breathes.
“You should prove you’re a ninja by flying from that tower.” This is a very direct challenge, even for Brad, and for a moment Ninjaboy loses his breathing count and a centimeter of skin by his left eye spasms once. The others lean in, a mass of bodies in hoodies and Converses. Watching Ninjaboy’s passive face for a hint of discomfort is one of their favorite games. They are silent, like a crowd of turkey vultures watching a deer take that first step before the headlights.
“I guess since you aren’t saying anything,” Brad says, enjoying the eyes of his classmates on him, “you’re admitting that you’re not a ninja. If you’re just a loser who’s going to live with his mom till he’s thirty, don’t say anything.”
Ninjaboy just breathes. Brad begins to laugh, a screeching asphyxiated sound. A few of the others laugh, but the rest look at Ninjaboy. They pity him; he can see it in the little frowns at the corners of their lips. They think he needs their pity. He pities them for thinking that. Eventually they slide back into their own seats and Brad asks Ninjaboy if they’re going to go see the new Transformers movie tomorrow. Ninjaboy has already seen it twice, but he will go see it again with Brad because that is what friends do, even if they are nemeses. In the darkness he could slip poison into Brad’s Coke, but he will not. He just likes to know that he could.
After school Ninjaboy is picked up by his mom in her minivan. Ninjaboy is her only child. She bought the minivan not for children but for work. It is full of Labrador hair and plastic containers full of leather and clay. The hair is so thick in the carpeting of the car that it mushrooms up in clouds every time someone moves at all. The dog, Lucky, has not ridden in the car for several weeks. He is thirteen and does not go many places, but his thirteen years’ worth of hair travels everywhere in the minivan. Where there is no hair, the seats are packed with his mother’s art supplies, clay and leather and beads and feathers.
The Baltimore Catechism made her a hippy. Her own sense of how good it is to have money and how bad it is not to have money made her an astute businessperson. She has reconciled these two realities by becoming a commercial artist. She sells leather bracelets, leather roses, clay jewelry, anything she can make with animal hide or dirt. Her main source of income is Renaissance Festivals and the occasional Powwow. Ninjaboy misses the first month of school every year because his mother takes him to a Renaissance Festival in Minnesota.
Ninjaboy doesn’t mind this. You can’t learn the secret ways of the ninja in Geometry class anyway. His mother thinks he is learning business skills on their road trips, but he spends hours gleaning information on ninjas from mangas and anime.
Ninjaboy lets his mother think that she is the only person who can take care of him. He does not let her know that, as a powerful ninja, he could easily live on his own and take care of himself. He has not told her that he is going to a secret ninja training school in Japan in two years, instead of the local university. She has already redecorated the basement as his study room. His mother likes taking care of him a lot, and he lets her because respect for elders is a very integral part of the ninja code of honor.
Ninjaboy’s mother fixes him macaroni and cheese when they get home that day of the field trip. The house is much like the car, although it has wood floors not carpet, so the fur settles in drifts. The kitchen is clearest of hair for hygienic purposes, and meals often take place there. Ninjaboy sits on one side of the blue and green Formica table with his macaroni while his mother braids pink leather bracelets across from him.
Ninjaboy looks up from his bowl and at his mother. She is shorter than Ninjaboy now, but she will always be wider. She is wearing a t-shirt with a wolf howling at the moon. Many of her t-shirts have wolves on them, because they are connected to her Cherokee heritage. Her pancake-shaped face, the little features lost in plains of flesh, is very similar to Ninjaboy’s. When she smiles the oceans of flesh are pushed up towards her glasses and lift them a little off her nose. The glasses are pressed against her face now as she frowns at the hot pink leather strips before her.
Ninjaboy looks at his mother but inside he is thinking. He is thinking about what Brad said about the tower. Normally he does not think about any of the stupid things Brad says, but normally Brad does not challenge him so directly.
“Mom,” Ninjaboy says. His mother looks up from her work, her hip-length gray braid flopping off her shoulder.
“I’m very busy today. I’ll take you to Gamestop later.”
“I don’t need to go to Gamestop, mom. I went two days ago and the next Halo doesn’t come out till next Wednesday. I want to ask you a question,” Ninjaboy says.
“You know that I’m actually really a ninja, right?” As his mother she should know that she has created a supreme stealth assassin. She can dispel the thoughts of Brad, and the tower.
She puts down the half-braided bracelet and looks at him, her glasses settling into her nose as she frowns.
“Honey, you’re almost an adult now. I’ve always encouraged you to be what you want because you know how grandma and grandpa never let me be what I wanted, but it might be time to start thinking about what you really want to be. Maybe you should become a game programmer. If you became a game programmer, you could set up your office in the basement and live here. You wouldn’t have to pay rent.”
Ninjaboy does not respond to this suggestion. He thinks for a moment that he could leap across the table and strangle his mother with her braid, showing her what he thinks of being a game programmer, but that would be disrespectful. He picks up his microwave-safe plate of macaroni and cheese and goes to scrape it into the trashcan. Ninjaboy’s mother watches him with her mouth twisted into a wrinkled upside-down U, but she does not say anything. When he has finished dumping his macaroni, he puts the plate in the paint-spattered kitchen sink and goes to his room, which is up the stairs and at the end of the windowless hall. He is careful to latch the door. He has learned not to trust his mother with an unlocked door. Boys need space. Particularly when they are ninjas.
Ninjaboy sits down on his black bedspread and begins his meditation breathing. He hopes that by breathing he can clear his mind of the thoughts of Brad and the tower, and the memory of what his mother just said. Or rather, what she did not just say. She did not say “You are a ninja.”
Ninjaboy looks at the room, staying in the “now” as the Wikipedia page instructed.
His eyes drift to his bureau. It is particularly wide and tall but only the two top drawers are filled with clothes. The remaining three drawers contain his weapons. He keeps his shuriken, throwing stars, knives and darts in several plastic Pokemon deck cases, one type of Pokemon for each type of shuriken. His katana he keeps sheathed and wrapped up in a bleach-stained towel in the bottom drawer, next to his swordstick, which is useless now because Brad broke the cane that concealed the blade. He slammed it against the vinyl siding of the house while attempting a spinning, over-the-head “Viking” strike, as he called it.
Brad flashes into Ninjaboy’s freshly cleared mind like blood across a paper screen. He sees Brad again, Brad pointing to the tower, Brad leaning forward in the bus with the others behind him like an acne-masked army. His classmates believe Brad, not Ninjaboy. He has heard their whispers in the classrooms, on the bus rides;
“I just kinda worry about him, ya know? He’s just so quiet all the time, like he’s not really there. Like, what if we come back for a reunion and he’s still here in thirty years, what if he’s one of those guys that’s trapped?”
“It’s not like he does pot or meth or anything. If he gets stuck here it’ll be because his mom’s keeping him in a birdcage, or he’s locked up in an insane asylum.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Well, he could always cut his way out of the straitjacket with his ninja powers.” This was usually accompanied by waggling fingers and a dramatic voice.
He has thought of all the terrible things he could do to them, when they say things like that, but he always restrains himself. He has never even used his ninja powers on Brad, although there have been times when he has sorely wanted to. With Brad in his thoughts again, Ninjaboy forces himself to pay attention to the “now”.
His eyes pass from the bureau. There is a poster hanging next to his window, a reproduction of an old painting from Feudal Japan. It shows a figure shrouded in black, crouched low on a curling rooftop against the light of the moon. The archetypal, quintessential ninja. The poster is everything Ninjaboy aspires to. Ninjaboy has never crept along rooftops by moonlight.
He looks out the window. The pine trees outside, lit by the afternoon sun, drop away quickly into a ravine behind the house. Ninjaboy goes down there sometimes. It is a good place to practice his super ninja powers, although he only practices the form, even down there where no one can see him.
He has never used his super ninja powers really. He’s never needed to; he just needs to know that he could use them, if he wanted.
Something whispers at the back of Ninjaboy’s thoughts and he quickly turns his eyes to a new distraction. They land on his bookshelf. Dog-eared back issues of Shonen Jump are piled on one shelf. Part of the pile has shifted and several flopping magazines have slid into a heap on the floor. Above this, the colorful spines of mangas fill three shelves. They are all mangas about ninjas, or they at least have ninjas in them. Many of them have notes in the margins in Ninjaboy’s strange, half-capitalized, half-lowercase handwriting.
Ninjaboy has learned many things from careful study of these fictional works. He has never met another ninja to teach him; he has had to teach himself everything he knows.
The whisper comes again, and Ninjaboy gets up and crosses to his bureau. He opens the bottom drawer and reverently pulls out the katana. It is curved and smooth, the round hilt fitting into his right hand and the circular guard resting against the top of his curled forefinger. He wraps his left hand around the sheath and draws the blade free with a hiss. He loves the hiss of the metal coming free. They have to write it in, in the mangas, and that is not the same as the sound. It is like a little song that the blade composes with the sheath, a stealthy song of moonlight and curling rooftops. It sends a shiver down Ninjaboy’s spine.
He brings the blade close to his face, eyes following the sheer edge. It is not as sharp as it could be, but it is sharp enough. He could cut Brad’s head off with this, show his nemesis that he is a real ninja. That would stop Brad from challenging Ninjaboy to fly from towers.
His eyes alight on a small word near the hilt, stamped into the hand guard. He has never noticed it before because the hand guard is black and so are the faintly raised letters. He reads them.
“Replica” the letters say.
It is not a real ninja sword. It is fake, and so the song it makes is fake. It’s not really the hiss of moonlight and curling rooftops, but of a factory somewhere in Japan pumping out tourist treasures.
His sword is not real.
The whispering catches up to him and suddenly it is there, in his head in full volume.
Is he a real ninja?
Ninjaboy drops the sword back into the drawer, still loose from its sheath. The gleam on the blade is not the light of Feudal Japan’s moon anymore. It is the glint of fluorescent bulbs on stainless steel bread knives. Ninjaboy closes the drawer with a loud thump, like a body hitting the ground.
Is he a real ninja?
Ninjaboy can’t stand it. The thought of not being a ninja, of not being Ninjaboy, makes his insides boil and freeze and boil again. He can’t be normal. It would be too much for him to bear. He has to find a way to prove that he is a ninja.
He sits cross-legged once more and clears his thoughts. It is harder this time, because every time he clears his mind the whisper is there. His mother comes and knocks on the door, calls his name, waits for a few minutes, and leaves. Ninjaboy can hear her walking down the hall. He cannot hear her walking down the stairs as he once could. He strains his ears but he cannot hear the creak of steps, the thud of her soft-soled moccasins on wood. His crisis of faith is destabilizing his ninja powers. If they exist.
Ninjaboy’s mind is invaded on all sides by the whisper of doubt. It comes in Brad’s voice, and it whispers his words. You look like an idiot and How the hell can you be a ninja? And lastly and resoundingly, you’re admitting that you’re not a ninja. And then that challenge came. What had sparked Brad to say those words? The words were at the heart of the whispering. “A real ninja would be able to jump—”
With a snap like a neck breaking his head is clear again. The challenge is the root of his doubt, so taking it on is the cure. The tower rises up in his mind, and he looks at the poster of the ninja on his wall. He sees himself, shrouded in black and masked with soft cloth so that only the glint of his eyes is visible, creeping up the ladder. He knows what he must do.
Ninjaboy sneaks from his room and takes the keys to the minivan as soon as it is properly dark. His mother is in bed, with Lucky shedding Labrador hairs on her quilt. They are both asleep and snoring. All the lights in the house are off and Ninjaboy is a shadow, slipping out the front door with the bright jingling keys muffled in his hand.
He pushes the minivan out into the road, because his mother has always been a light sleeper. She fears catastrophe to herself, to the house, and most particularly to Ninjaboy. Until he was eight years old she made him sleep in her room, for fear that he might suffocate in his sleep.
Ninjaboy does not push the van as far as he would have with his ninja strength, which he is no longer certain he has. He starts the engine just past the long gravel driveway, where the light of the headlights will be hidden by the trees around the house. He drives slowly not because he is intimidated by driving, but because he likes to maintain stealth. He is very stealthy all the way to town. Several cars line up behind him and then pass him because he is so stealthy.
The highway winds into the town, which is almost silent because everyone is either asleep or smoking pot and watching late night talk shows. The town is an amalgam of styles. Around Main Street it is leafy and full of the kind of shops that are highly attractive to retirees. The edges of the town are devoted to the necessary blights. The chain restaurants, the gas stations, the liquor stores are tiny points of light surrounding Ninjaboy on his journey towards the tower.
The tower rises from a patch of grass in the center of a rolling-hill-shaped parking lot. It looks almost like a deer blind to Ninjaboy now. It is much taller than a deer blind, rising a fatal sixty feet, but he wonders if something is up there, watching through a lens with cross hairs. He is not sure of the kind of hunter that would need a view like the one from the observation platform. From up there in the dark, the crosshairs could drift over the highway, a faded Pizza Hut, and a few Quicky-Marts. The shops around the tower are dark and abandoned, empty of any living thing that might be prey.
Ninjaboy imagines from below that he is the hunter. He cannot see the observation platform, the dark makes it invisible and ominous, but he thinks of being up there. During the day there would be many cars, perhaps that yellow school bus would pass. A hunter with good aim could hit one of the tires and send the school bus skidding off that sharp curve the road takes.
But it is not daytime. The faint glow of night clings to the iron of the tower very differently than sunlight did. Ninjaboy remembers the tower as being squat and rather dirty looking, but the glow of moonlight, the startling flash of a yellow headlight that is there and gone, and the orange tone of a streetlamp across the highway, wrap around the legs of the tower and the latticework. They make the metal clean, almost as if it is not a diluted alloy but the elemental essence of iron, purified, made smooth and unencumbered by falsities.
Ninjaboy sees all this from below. He cannot seem to get his feet to take him close enough to touch the tower, to climb the ladder.
He sits in the grass at the foot of the tower and considers it rising above him. Ninjaboy wonders if maybe it would not be so bad to be a programmer. He wonders if maybe it would be okay to keep living with his mother.
Ninjaboy thinks about what it would be like to be normal.
Ninjaboy thinks about Brad. He thinks about Brad laughing at him and punching him and borrowing his games and breaking his Xbox and splitting his cane sword against the side of Ninjaboy’s own house.
Ninjaboy thinks of how his nemesis will gloat. Brad’s evil plan was always to undermine Ninjaboy, and with one gesture to the tower it seems he has succeeded. When Brad learns that Ninjaboy is not a ninja anymore, but just a normal boy, he will laugh and say he knew it all along.
Ninjaboy looks up at the tower. He gets up from the grass and walks to it. He puts his hands on the first rung. It is smooth and he imagines that the rung is Brad’s bone, and that he is snapping it by climbing upwards. As he climbs he imagines that each rung is one of Brad’s bones. This is easy to imagine because he spent a month learning the names of almost every bone in the body. He has reached the tiny finger bones when he reaches the top. He pulls himself through the hole at the top of the ladder and stands on the observation platform. The platform is worn and strangely ridged underfoot, warped by many feet standing on it, and from here he can see all the lights of the city below him. He imagines that he is seeking out every one of his classmates’ houses. He imagines that when he has left the platform he will leap from rooftop to rooftop and sneak in through each of their windows and rearrange their furniture, paint the walls red, do something even wilder and more shocking, something that will prove to them he is a super ninja, and they are just normal.
The railing surrounding the observation tower comes up to Ninjaboy’s chest, but after the ladder it is very easy to climb over the rail. He maneuvers himself so that he faces outward, his sneakers pressed against the bottom rail his arms looped around the top one. He looks out over the city and then considers the fall below him.
The grass is a patch of different-shaded black. The parking lot is nothing but an ocean of shadow, charted here and there in lines of white. The shops are squat and square. He can see, from up here, the roofs that are hidden by the facades. Behind the curlicues and pastel colored paint there are flat spaces of concrete, full of AC units and ductwork.
He can see past the shops, and out to the highway. He can see the cars, two forward peering eyes highlighting the road ahead, riding waves of darkness. He can see beyond even that, to the rolling mass of tree-covered hills, hiding houses, hiding shops, hiding an entire city. He knows that secret, the trick of hiding something complex behind a veil of things that are simple.
Ninjaboy is no longer worried about the outcome of his next action. He was never really worried to begin with, or so he tells himself now as he stands at the edge. He is certain that he will live and die a ninja. He feels whole.
He is Ninjaboy.
He unwraps his left arm. He sticks his left foot into space. He releases his right arm and right foot at the same time. The crickets and frogs that fill the night air are suddenly deafened by a cry. Whether it is a cry of victory or of terror is impossible to determine.
There is silence.
“Ninjaboy” is much more straightforward in its narrative, but acquires its force through a beautifully-modulated distance from the character (referred to only as “Ninjaboy”). This narrator walks the line between irony and compassion. His/Her voice is stylistically distinctive, flatly insisting on repetitions of words and phrases which produce a dry, faintly mocking tone – but which also allow him/her to gradually draw a portrait of a boy for whom we feel tremendous sympathy.
—M.T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge