Derek had never seemed to really notice me before, even though we were in physical science class together. Of course, there was probably a lot about middle school to which Derek hadn’t paid much attention, since he was supposed to have been a couple grades ahead of the rest of us. But everybody knew him. He was the school badass.
The only kid in 8th grade with his license, he was busted the first day he drove to school for having a katana in his back seat. Derek claimed he didn’t mean to bring the sword to school: that he had just forgotten to take it out. This, of course, suggested that in the place where some might casually toss an ice scraper or road atlas, he normally kept a goddamn ninja sword.
I have to admit, Derek did exude a certain action star coolness, even down to the Jean Claude Van Damme hair. This was before people called that sort of haircut a mullet. Back then, we just called it “awesome.” But he was also kind of full of shit. After he returned from suspension, I overheard him telling some younger kids about the sword incident, his western North Carolina drawl undisguised by his attempt to sound like some sort of Zen master.
“The only weapon that can defeat the blade…” he paused for effect, “is the mind.” By way of illustration, he pointed to his head. “Only the mind. My sensei once told me that.”
I’m pretty sure he made all that up, assuming that by “sensei,” he meant the hapless, part-time coach at the YMCA who just wanted us to call him “Ken.”
I thought ninja movies were cool and all, though I had no real interest in doing martial arts as, y’know, a thing. So, I wasn’t thrilled that my stepdad had signed me up for a beginner karate class to force me to get some exercise. While most of the older guys like Derek were doing spinning jump-kicks or breaking boards at the advanced levels, I was fighting seven and eight year-olds. It was embarrassing. I mean, there was a kid in there who still peed himself sometimes. To avoid the humiliation of people from my school seeing me in the lobby, I would usually rush into the Y at the last minute and change into my karate stuff in the bathroom. I was still always the first one to show up for class, so Ken would send me down the hall to round up everyone else.
The snack bar’s lone Ms. Pac Man machine had finally crapped out, and I’m not sure how the fighting game Mortal Kombat ended up as the replacement. I’m guessing that Mrs. Meacham, the Y’s prim and uptight operations director, never got a demonstration of gameplay. At least not one that included any of the various fatality moves. These were the parts where a voice would intone, “Finish him!” and you blew up your defeated opponent’s skull with lightning, or ripped off their head, a dangling spine dripping blood beneath it as you held it aloft by the hair. It was shockingly and thrillingly violent for the time, and whenever I went to retrieve the karate students, they were always clustered around the machine, either awaiting a turn, standing transfixed by the carnage, or both.
One night, we came back to class as Ken was unfolding the old gymnastics mats, and the kids I’d pried away from Mortal Kombat bumped into me like a procession of clumsy ducklings when I stopped abruptly in the doorway. It wasn’t because of the smell, the air sour with the sweaty odors of yesterday escaping the folds of the mats. I was used to that. It was because of the guy helping Ken.
“This is Derek,” Ken chirpily announced after everyone filed in. “He just turned sixteen, so he’s going to start helping out as a junior instructor!” Derek’s eyes flickered in vague recognition as he sized me up. The idea of ninja-like invisibility instantly became very appealing, and I wished we had already learned that.
As best I could tell at first, the main duty of a junior instructor was to show off. While the rest of us stretched on the mats, Derek warmed up on the concrete floor, doing one-armed pushups on his knuckles, handstands on his fingertips, and a pretty impressive split that inspired a chunky twelve year-old named Brian to theatrically groan and grab his own balls. But I found out soon that the junior instructor also served as the bad cop to Ken’s Officer Friendly when we paired off for sparring.
Years of PE class combined with terrible hand-eye coordination meant that I had been hit in the face while participating in nearly every popular sport you can name. Even jogging. The upside of this is that I learned I wasn’t prone to nosebleeds. Unfortunately, Derek figured this out, too. Class rules prohibited punches to the face, but Derek could skirt these as much as he liked when Ken wasn’t paying attention since he didn’t have to worry about blood stopping the fight.
My nose throbbed worse with each outburst of frustration. “Ow! Thit, Nerek! Wat na ell?!”
“Language, Andrew!” Ken would call back over his shoulder. Brian would giggle. Derek would resume.
I guess it only made sense, really, that he wouldn’t limit his newfound authority to the Y. One day in science class, I apologetically stammered my way through a C-minus report on Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity. After class, Derek pulled me aside.
“Listen,” he told me, putting his hand behind my neck and drawing me uncomfortably close. “Don’t you ever let me hear you talking down about yourself like that again. You hear me, Andrew?” He poked a finger at my chest. “You need to be confident, you hear? Just like in karate! Give it your all!”
I should probably mention that Derek hadn’t bothered to even attempt the assignment, but still, I nodded as he made further points regarding self-esteem, which he then punctuated by knocking me off my feet with a leg-sweep. Later that week, a lengthy discourse on the power of positive thinking would end with me pinned to the floor, bound with duct-tape, and left in the gym class showers. Derek’s bullying continued to take on a strangely paternalistic cast, and he couched every suckerpunch, kick in the ass, and bodycheck into the lockers as a character-building extension of karate class, a continuing exercise in pummeling self-improvement.
This went on for weeks until one evening at the Y. Brian had gotten his karate gi muddy while riding his uncle’s four-wheeler, so he showed up for class straining the seams of a cousin’s ill-fitting, beige sweatsuit instead. This was against our dress-code, not to mention gave what was probably a fairly accurate and somewhat distracting impression of how he looked naked, so Ken made him sit out to run the stopwatch. The rest of us faced off, swapping sparring partners every three minutes.
Toward the end of class, Mrs. Meacham came to the door to tell Ken that it was looking like rain and that he’d left the top down on his Le Baron. Outside the window, distant flashes lit up the horizon, and Ken excused himself, leaving Derek in charge as we switched opponents.
“I’ll call time on this next round,” Derek told Brian. But he was looking right at me.
I’ll spare you a detailed accounting of the next few moments. It was all a blur even back then, so I couldn’t give you the literal blow-by-blow replay if I wanted. To say that most of the blows landed on me sums it up pretty well. The punches I did manage to throw in between Derek’s numerous fusillades were so slow that he not only easily blocked most of them, but in some cases snagged my fist and held on while kicking me repeatedly and shouting, “Believe in yourself!” I was only able to break away by wrenching my skinny hands out of my sparring gloves which, before long, left me windmilling my bare, bony fists around in frustration and mindless panic. At some point, Derek put me in a full-nelson to get my hissy-fit under control.
He was saying something in my ear about fulfilling my potential when I shoved both thumbs as hard as I could into his eyes.
He clapped his gloves over his face and fell to his knees, still howling in pain. As soon as I realized what I’d done, I felt terrible, but also relieved that his face didn’t appear to be squirting anything. Acclimated to horrific violence by Mortal Kombat, I had assumed that people’s eyes would, I don’t know, pop like cheap condoms packed with Jell-o or something.
I looked down at Derek and, then, at the other students. This was a new position to find myself in, one of momentary superiority, and the confusion must have been written on my face. After what seemed like forever, a skinny nine year-old named Travis offered a suggestion.
I waited while he took out his mouthpiece.
Several kids nearby nodded in agreement. “Finish him,” a girl said.
The others drew closer. “Finish him,” they echoed, in chilling unison. “Finish him.” That one kid started to pee his pants.
This is the auditory phantom that still keeps me up at night: the memory of thirteen trebly voices egging me on to homicide: a children’s choir of murder droning some sort of twisted, inverted, Bizarro take on “It’s a Small World After All.”
I looked to Brian. As the only other person in the class north of age ten, I thought he might have had a suggestion. He did not. Despite the fact that Derek had told him not to bother timing this round, Brian still stared at the stopwatch, either out of motor-memory or in abdication of any moral responsibility whatsoever.
I felt a tug at the wrist of my gi. A shy, pig-tailed six year-old named Mandy looked up at me, her already large eyes freakishly magnified by the prescription lenses of her sports goggles. I leaned in closer to hear her whisper.
“Finish him.” Her eyes narrowed to slits.
Obviously, I should have sent someone to find Ken. I mean, yes, of course I know this now. Had it not been for all the blows to the head, I certainly would have known it then. But the voices. The whispered commands. The rumbling thunder as the storm rolled in. It all seemed so clear at the time. Derek’s hair hung down from the back of his sparring headgear like a miniature, silken cape. I grabbed a handful and pulled as hard as I could.
His head ripped right off, just like in the game.
No, I’m kidding. Of course it didn’t. But I did end up with a fistful of detached mullet, the shocking realization of which had only barely registered before Derek’s fist connected once again with my face, a lucky punch thrown in blind agony and screaming rage. I stumbled backward several steps, tripped over one of the mats, and fell on my ass. Derek, still half-blind, ventured another uncertain punch in an attempt to find where I’d gone.
Wide-eyed, Mandy turned to him.
“Finish him!” she ordered.
“Finish him,” Travis repeated.
“Finish him,” the other students chanted.
Clearly, I’d misread the room. The kids hadn’t been on my side. They just wanted to see blood. So far, they’d gotten none, apart from the rosy suggestion of it bubbling up at Derek’s hairline, like a silhouette of grease on the bottom of a box of donuts.
“Finish him,” Mandy said again, taking Derek’s hand. They shuffled forward, Mandy looking at me coldly with her giant fish eyes, Derek regaining focus. Outside the window, the sky flickered again. Brian looked up from the stopwatch, but I could see him mouthing the seconds as he counted them off in his head, timing the storm’s approach. The other students moved in closer, a collective half-breath held in expectation.
Everyone waited for thunder.
Illustration by Clint Hardin.