By Reid M. Haynes
The Main Characters
Ricochet McKnight: A sixteen-year-old Chicago kickboxer whose real name is Richard McKnight. Ricochet climbs the ranks of the teen kickboxing circuits, and also dabbles in bad creative writing.
Keisha Branford: The younger sister of Ricochet's best friend, Nathan. Smart and energetic, she plays the electric violin, and is in love with Ricochet.
Camille St. Claire: Ricochet's beautiful, deadpan ex-girlfriend. Though cool-headed, Camille also likes to unwind to 1980s hard rock.
Nathan Branford: Ricochet's best friend, and an amateur chef. He is a particular person, and enjoys bundt cake and Japanese cuisine.
Mary Chen: A Chinese-American high school student, and Keisha's best friend. Mary is obsessed with made-for-tv dramas, and nervous around boys.
Jarrod Small: A high school football player who despises Ricochet. Easily irritated, he tries to dominate his more eccentric peers with his formidable size.
Nora Queens: Ricochet's trainer, and owner of the Bloody Queen boxing gym. Tough as nails, and a reliable mentor inside and outside the ring.
The whirling chakrum of death tore through the air as if it were human flesh. It made its way towards the boy in a wide arc, reaching its target before he could even react. The dreaded razor blade imbedded itself in the victim's hand with white-hot fury. "AAAUGH!!" The boy let out a bloodcurdling scream, drawing his hand back in excruciating pain.
Ricochet's face slackened with disappointment. "C'mon, man," he chided his friend, slouching a bit. "It's just a frisbee."
"I can't help it!" Nathan shot back, nursing the small red line on his brown palm where the frisbee had 'injured' him. "The stupid thing digs into my beautiful cooking hands!"
Ricochet rolled his eyes. "Wimp!"
The two teens, Ricochet and Nathan, had been playing frisbee for about an hour at Chicago's own North Avenue Beach, packed with beach-goers today as every day. At least, Ricochet was playing; Nathan's tendency to duck away from the frisbee like it was a hornet made it so Ricochet had to carry him for most of the game. It was true that it was a bit windy, and thus harder to predict the frisbee's trajectory. Still, Ricochet thought he would have better luck playing with one of the fanfiction nerds from his Creative Writing class.
With a haphazard swing of his arm, Nathan flung the frisbee, which careened sharply to the left of the other boy. Ricochet hightailed after it, his eyes following the spinning disk like a right cross in one of his sparring matches. To gain a little height, the blond teen stepped onto a folding chair and leapt up from it, the chair collapsing with the movement. "Alley oop!" Ricochet cried as he deftly plucked the frisbee from the air and landed without a hitch, as could be expected from the #2 athlete at the Bloody Queen kickboxing gym.
Nathan whistled at the acrobatics. "A little fancy for frisbee, Ricochet," he commented, though he couldn't keep the piqued look off his face. "This extra juice from your training with Coach Queens?"
"Got a rematch with ol' Akello Eastender in about a month," Ricochet answered, grinning as he brought back the frisbee for another throw. "This time, he's gonna hafta stand up to my A-game!"
The frisbee sailed through the air again, with Nathan trying (and failing) to catch it. "You're pretty cocky," he responded as he huffed after the frisbee, which had landed far to the right towards the mock-ocean liner that was the beach house. "Guess the creative writing for Mr. Matthew's class is getting better too."
Ricochet gave him a thumbs-down. "Nah, I still suck!" The cheery grin was was still plastered on his face.
Nathan's face screwed up in a grimace. "You are crazy today," he groused, flinging the frisbee back at Ricochet. "Why doncha cool it and get some of my Cheesecake Chill tonight? The folks have been asking about you, and if you can handle Keisha being there, I just might let you try a piece."
Ricochet's eyes flickered with uncertainty, and he barely managed to catch the frisbee when it sailed towards him. Nathan's eyebrows raised at the hesitation, but when he peered closer to examine it, his friend was back to normal. "Nah, I gotta hit the bags again," Ricochet responded with a smile. "My Comet Hook needs a little more sparkle to catch Eastender."
Nathan's eyes widened. "Comet Hook now?" He then settled into a shrug. "And they call me a workaholic."
Ricochet picked up his satchel, which was lying next to somebody's beach umbrella, and pulled out a pair of half-glasses. Putting them on, he started off towards his car parked up the beach. "I'll let you work on your own skills for a while," he called out, tossing the frisbee one last time. "Right now, I need to catch up on my footwork!"
"Whatever, Ricochet." Nathan had already turned back to the shoreline, waving him off with a harrumph. "See ya."
"Remember to watch the downdraft!" Ricochet called out as he opened the car door and climbed inside.
"What?" The frisbee hit Nathan on the side of the head. "Ow!"
Ricochet sighed as he fingered the Powerade in the cup holder, drizzling with condensation as his face drizzled with sweat. The open windows of his Volkswagen New Beetle were letting in a sharp wind, but he still felt hot under the collar as he took a swig of his sports drink, resting one hand on the wheel. The cute little car putted down the road between the well-made, if somewhat identical looking houses, which all featured crisp manicured lawns and a collection of gnomes and plastic flamingos. Ricochet thought back to the segment of A Wrinkle in Time he read for Creative Writing class, and wondered if these serene, domestic surroundings were an invitation to Hell.
The next lawn flamingo he passed was blood red, and seemed to be glaring at him. He sighed in defeat at this ominous sign.
Ricochet was not driving towards the Bloody Queen gym to bone up on his training. Rather, he had taken a right on Madison Street, and was headed straight for the upper-class suburbs and school systems. Even though his parents lived close by, he rarely hung around in this part of town, preferring the rowdy environment of the gym instead. However, a change in his life over the past two weeks gave him reason enough to drop by...and reason enough to keep his excursions under his hat.
Arriving at St. Herman's Academy for Gifted Girls, he decided to just roll into the parking lot like he belonged there. Crossing his heart for luck, Ricochet opened the car door and strode towards the main building and the wail of the school bell. A crowd of high school girls wearing the St. Herman uniform flowed past him, a river of grey vests and blue skirts. They giggled and blushed at the handsome newcomer, and Ricochet couldn't resist flexing a bicep for their benefit.
Flippant flirtation was forgotten as he waited by a cherry tree for one student in particular to arrive, biding away his nervousness with a little shadowboxing (despite the looks he got from some of the schoolgirls). He didn't have to wait long, as a pretty black girl with twin ponytails came out of the building after a few seconds, followed by a smaller girl of Chinese descent. The ponytailed girl's full-moon face shone as she caught sight of the tall boy, leaning against the tree like some biker stud from a 50s drive-in movie. "Ricochet, you're here!" she cried, breaking out into a sprint that ended with a skid of her loafers and a kiss on Ricochet's cheek.
The boy couldn't keep the toothy grin off his face, despite the circumstances. "What's up, Keisha?" Ricochet greeted her with a chuckle, as the girl looped herself around his arm.
"I skipped study hall so I could make our date," she told him, thrusting her face in front of his. "I'm really psyched!"
"You cool with that?" Ricochet commented, flicking his blond locks casually as he peered sideways at her. "Might mess up that A average of yours."
"I don't need as much study as you, dummy," she chimed, bopping him on the nose. "You better work on your own stuff first! Hey, you still got that story for me to look at?"
"Hoo, it's more like a novella now!" The teen talent made a twirling motion with his finger. "I added a whole lot of shameless padding, and a two page author's note for the ultimate in Tell-Don't-Show action!"
She laughed, and Ricochet laughed along with her. Ever since he first knew her, Keisha had always managed to raise his spirits, and now that he was dating her, life was surprisingly cool for the most part. She was the genius super girl of St. Herman's, and always a supporter of his ideas, even when they sucked.
Also, she was Nathan's younger sister. This was the hitch in the plan.
Before Ricochet had time to further contemplate that end of the bargain, she skipped over to the friend that had followed her. "Hey, Ricochet, this is my friend Mary Chen," Keisha bubbled, beaming as she rested her hands on the other girl's shoulders. "She comes to my dance class, and we have History together."
Mary, practically hiding under her brown mop-top and thick glasses, seemed content at first to mumble quietly and stare at the ground. Then, she quickly raised her head and accosted the teen fighter with panic-stricken eyes. "Are you going to pull Keisha into a cesspool of sex and violence, Mister Ricochet?" she blurted out, her small body seeming to shake with the weight of her words.
"What, no!" Ricochet took a step back, putting a little distance between them. "We just started going out two weeks ago!"
"Oh, don't worry, Mary!" Keisha laughed off her friend's concerns. "I've known him for years. He's like an old family friend, just with really big muscles."
"B-but older boys are dangerous, Keisha!" Mary exclaimed, flailing her arms like whips. "They start off nice, but then trick you into a lusty scheme! I saw it on Evil, Horrible Male: A Lifetime Channel Original Movie!"
"Um, Mary...?" Keisha scratched the back of her head, chuckling nervously.
"C'mon!" Ricochet interjected testily, thrusting his thumb towards his grimacing mug. "How can you not trust this face?" He gave her a forced, Donkey Kong smile.
"Mmmmmm..." Mary bit her lip and looked back down, clearly not convinced.
"Well, just watch us for a sec!" Keisha changed the subject with a laugh and a wave of her hand. "Mary and I are gonna show you our new dance. We're trying to do the Fly Girls' routine from In Living Color."
Ricochet kept track of Keisha as she moved behind him, but was subsequently surprised to find she had pulled a fold-out chair for him, as if from thin air. "Okay, you sit right there, and we'll be over here!" she instructed, smiling like a cheery airline stewardess. "Here's some pre-show refreshments." She handed him a Whatchamacallit bar and some Twizzlers from her backpack.
Ricochet cocked his eyebrow at Keisha, now as suspicious as Mary. But he shrugged, took the snacks from her hand, and chomped down on the chocolate bar in preparation for the show.
Keisha darted out in front of the school steps, with Mary following after a quick moment of hesitation. The two of them started tapping their feet to an imaginary metronome, with Keisha mouthing a fresh, hip-hop beat. "Alright, here we go!" she sang as they launched into their routine.
With Keisha's beat urging them on, the girls fell into a series of quick steps and spins as Ricochet watched in awe, a Twizzler hanging from his lip. He had known for a long time that Keisha was pretty talented, but the deft purpose in her movements seemed unreal for a high school student. Mary was quite adept as well, keeping up with Keisha with a grace that seemed foreign to the rest of her. They finished up in a dynamic pose, like Greek statues adorning a fountain.
Keisha stood back up, and put a mock-microphone to her mouth. "Ladies and gentlemen, Keenan Ivory Wayans," she announced, her face shockingly serious.
Then, both Keisha and Mary dissolved into a fit of giggles, with Keisha's melodic laugh contrasting with Mary's high-pitched snorts. Ricochet cracked up at this point as well, clapping his hands in support of the show. Then, he was joined by a group of St. Herman schoolgirls, who had materialized behind him sometime during the dance. They offered a show of hands, cheering on the double dynamo.
"Yeh, girl!" one of Keisha's friends called out from the back. "You rock!"
"Show us your moves, Mary!" a blonde girl cried, cupping her hands over her mouth.
Keisha grinned. "You guys can catch us again at the dance this Saturday," she said, walking over to Ricochet and throwing an arm around his shoulder. "For now, I'm hangin' out with Ricochet!"
Ricochet couldn't help but grin at the attention, as he tossed a thumbs up at the crowd. "Well, they say Ricochet McKnight's a one-blow knockout for a woman's heart," he quipped, scuffing Keisha's hair affectionately.
"Wow, that guy's cool," a cheerleader-type breathed out, staring in awe of the teen scream.
"I bet he's good enough for Keisha!" another girl commented, nudging her friend beside her.
Mary blinked. "Evil, Horrible Male was based on real-life events," she murmured.
"So I'm thinkin' I'll have the protagonist turn into a villain halfway through the story," Ricochet shared as he drove Keisha and him between the small stores that lined the road. "Then, my story'll switch over to this minor character, who's gonna nail the new big bad and stuff."
"But won't your readers still like the hero guy more?" the girl inquired, putting a finger to her cheek.
"Nah, he's a loser!" Ricochet flashed her a big smile, probably looking away from the road longer than he should have. "I've got it so everybody'll be sick of him the moment I do the switch-around!"
"Whoa, you're pretty ambitious," Keisha gasped, leaning back in her seat.
Ricochet and Keisha were taking a ride through some of the downtown teen hotspots, coasting about before arriving at a malt shop Keisha had suggested. The Beetle's pug-like body made for easy parallel parking, and Ricochet managed to squeeze into a space three cars down from the entrance. Deciding upon the gentlemanly approach, he got out of the car and opened the door for Keisha, who smiled from ear to ear as she stepped out onto the street. The young couple held hands as they strode up to the doors of the shop, packed full of teens, some of whom they knew from school.
He felt a little conspicuous just waltzing in with the new girlfriend, but Ricochet was overall more confident than when he was driving to St. Herman's. There was hell to pay with Nathan later on, but right now, he could forget all that with Keisha's dimpled smile brightening his life. Squeezing her hand firmly, Ricochet walked with Keisha and pushed open the doors to the malt shop, a refreshing rush of air conditioning hitting the both of them. Ricochet smiled at the ebullient Keisha, currently fixing up her ponytails as they blew with the blast of air, and walked inside.
That's when his heart dropped straight into his stomach. Across the shop, no more than five meters from where they stood, was a tall girl with glasses and long, blond hair manning the counter. Even with the goofy malt shop hat, there was no mistaking her listless eyes and bored demeanor. She was Camille St. Claire, rock 'n' roll enthusiast, critic of bad fiction, and ex-girlfriend extraordinaire.
He had stopped so rigidly that Keisha was actually jerked back when she tried to walk forward while holding Ricochet's hand. "Whooaa!" she yelped, stumbling a bit before impacting against his chest roughly. "What's up?"
"Crap!" Ricochet spat, shriveling up as if trying to hide inside his clothes. "I forgot Cammy works here."
"Your ex-girlfriend?" Keisha pointed towards Camille, who hadn't seemed to have noticed them yet. "I thought you said you guys were over with?"
"Let's scram, Keisha," he whispered in her ear, slinking back to the door and trying to drag the girl along with him. "This is gonna be a nightmare."
"What?" Keisha fought his attempts to get her out the door. "But this is our first date! Going in together's no big deal, right?"
"It's just getting a bit public now." Ricochet bared his teeth in a nervous smile. "Like 'people I know are gonna blab to Nathan' type of public."
"Ricocheeeeet..." she growled, tugging his jacket and giving him a fierce glare.
"Yah!" Ricochet lurched away from the girl's formally sweet looking face, now turned sinister. She's as tough as Cammy! "Alright, but we're gettin' a double chocolate shake," he relented, willing himself to face the counter and Camille. "I'm gonna need somethin' heavy after this."
"That's cool." Keisha was all smiles again, lessened her grip on him as they both got into line.
Camille had cocked an eyebrow when she first caught sight of her jilted lover and his new friend. But when Ricochet and Keisha were ready to make their order, her expression was as unreadable as ever. "Ricochet, it's been a while," she greeted him, taking out the headphones that she somehow managed to have in her ears even while working. "You usually come in here every Tuesday for the double decker special."
"You dumped me two weeks ago," Ricochet muttered, almost under his breath. "It's been a little tough, Cammy."
"Yeah, I know." Camille had the good grace to look chagrined, her eyes drifting away. She then focused on the girl next to him. "I guess you're on a play-date to heal your wounds?"
"I'm his girlfriend!" Keisha snapped, clutching onto Ricochet like a trophy.
"Oh." Camille's small eyes widened, her porcelain face losing its slack look. "That didn't take long, Ricochet." She took a closer look at Keisha. "Aren't you Nathan's kid sister?" she asked, putting her hand to her chin. "He's gonna be pretty ticked to hear about this."
"We kinda haven't figured that part out yet," Ricochet hissed through his teeth, smoothing his hand over the counter hard enough to leave a white streak.
"A little bit rough for you guys, huh?" She seemed to be thinking this over, putting her pen to her mouth. "But I guess Nathan shouldn't talk, with what he's doing now."
"Nathan?" Here, Ricochet lost the flow of conversation entirely, grimacing in confusion. "What's the heck's that mean?"
"Can you just give us a double chocolate shake, please?" Keisha finally said, her voice like tempered steel.
The older girl seemed to get the hint, and turned away to shout new orders to the cook. Grabbing Ricochet's hand as if to claim her property, Keisha stalked towards an empty booth, pulling the young kickboxer along like a suitcase. As they finally made their way into the seats, Ricochet took a glance at Keisha, who now seemed drained by her prior outburst. Her granite-like facade was melting into uncertainly, and she was looking down at her lap while brushing her skirt repeatedly.
Sitting in silence for a moment or two, Ricochet and Keisha were soon given their shake by the waitress, who fortunately was not Camille St. Claire. Although they had intended to share the shake, Keisha immediately snatched it, jabbed a straw in it, and started sucking away like a bloodthirsty mosquito. Her round face was squeezing up like a raisin, and Ricochet almost laughed in spite of himself. "You alright, Keisha?" he asked, covering the smile with his hand.
"Oh, I'm fine!" Keisha insisted, trying to reprise her old vigor. "I'm 100% pumped up!" But soon, she went back after the shake, taking a long slurp that was probably going to give her an ice cream headache if she kept it up. Suddenly, Keisha sputtered like a sprinkler, globs of milk shake flying across the table as she coughed dramatically. Ricochet was on call to help, but the girl quickly got it under control, taking a few gasping breaths as she looked at the other patrons in embarrassment.
Ricochet's smile waned. It was the phrases "kid sister" and "play-date" that had Keisha all flustered, he knew. Somehow, she felt small and insecure when confronted by the likes of Camille, as if being patronized. But doesn't she know she's great? he groused, watching her struggle to wipe the milk shake blots off her school vest. Man, this really sucks.
"That was pretty lame, huh?" he mentioned to Keisha, adding his straw to the shake.
"Yeah," she mumbled, her eyes drifting back towards the counter at Camile. "I guess I was kinda uncool just then. Sorry, Ricochet."
In a burst of boldness, the teen reached across the table and tilted Keisha's chin so that he could meet her eyes. "Yo, I'm gonna play a song on the jukebox," he said, giving her his best Ricochet McKnight smile. "You want the Jets or somethin'?"
Keisha reddened at the handsome young fighter's attention, but soon smiled back. "I'll take Jason Mraz," she told him, her voice lifting a bit. "I went to his concert when he did Chicago."
He nodded, then left Keisha to check the jukebox in the corner of the malt shop. He browsed through the selection with a finger before finding C-3 and The Dynamo of Volition, quickly popping in a quarter and entering the combination. This should get her out of her funk, he decided, leaving the jukebox behind and striding back to the table.
Before he got there, however, he found their booth had been joined by an unexpected guest. Keisha was currently being slobbered over by an auburn-haired musclehead wearing a letter jacket from Ricochet's own P. S. 114. The customary letter was actually missing; in its place was a large "Japanese Anime Sucks" patch, bearing a small doodle that was on par with racial caricatures from old World War II propaganda. This could only mean Jarrod, resident nerd thrasher and public menace of 10th Grade.
Reoccurring baddie, the young kickboxer mused to himself, as he moved closer to catch Jarrod's conversation with Keisha. As it turned out, it wasn't much of a conversation; mostly it was just Jarrod leaning into the girl's space and shooting off a variety of pick-up lines. "I'm just sayin' you should pay more attention to the up-and-comers around here," he mewed in a sort of Lothario tone. "Might get ya a few favors, if you know what I mean!"
Keisha did her best to handle herself, rubbing the back of her head. "Uh, I kinda have a boyfriend." She leaned away and wrinkled her nose, probably from the stench of hair gel.
Jarrod paid her reluctance no mind, and shrugged a brawny arm around her to continue the flirtation. "C'mon, babe, don't miss out." The jock was now patting her shoulder like a dog. "They told me my probation for beating up that anime nerd is being removed in two weeks, so I can get you into the games for free, as long as you pay $8.00."
Keisha looked at his hand as it were a large, hairy spider. "I think you gotta work on your manners first."
Normally, Ricochet would've waited a little longer to see how the whole thing turned out. Since it was Keisha, though, he decided to just cut to the chase and spare her the discomfort. "Hey, it's alright to look at the cute girl," Ricochet said, leaning his elbow on the booth. "Just back up a little, huh?"
"Wha...?" Jarrod tore his eyes away from Keisha, and lurched around for an eyeful of Ricochet's boisterous persona. "You again, McKnight?" he grunted, raising up to his full height in a show of intimidation. "I thought I told you not to shove your nose in my business!"
"Ah, you didn't actually tell me that!" the wiry teen rebuked, paying no mind to how Jarrod towered over him. "You just implied it! Besides you've kinda grossed her out, and that's my girl, y'know."
The hulking jock took a step forward, and Ricochet eased away with a loose smile. "Let's see if she likes you when I drop the number of teeth in your mouth from 18 to 6," he growled, making a fist with his throwing arm.
Ricochet blinked. "Aren't there 32 teeth in the mouth?"
The jock swung hard at Ricochet, aiming to make the misconception about molars a reality. Ricochet effortlessly turned aside the punch, locking Jarrod's arm in place. Jarrod looked down at his missed attack, and then caught the spark in Ricochet's eye, like a single match in a hardwood forest. The smile hadn't changed, but somehow Ricochet's demeanor had subtly darkened.
Across the malt shop, behind the counter, Camille slumped her cheek in her palm. "Here we go," she muttered, turning up the volume on her iPod.
"Comet Hook!!" Ricochet roared, arcing forward with a pinpoint punch that brought the stars of the galaxy to his opponent's eyes. Jarrod was sent flying across the tiled floor, landing in a rumpled heap below Camille's counter. Camille glanced down at the fallen combatant for a moment, then quickly motioned for the customers to form a line around him, continuing business as usual. The other patrons stared transfixed at Ricochet, then clapped at the defeat of the malt shop's worst patron.
Ricochet sweated for a second, wondering if he shouldn't have busted out the new technique for a malt shop scuffle. But then he caught Keisha, whose mouth was upturned in that open smile of hers. She seemed to sparkle with energy as she clapped along with the crowd, like she was watching one of her favorite break-dancers from an old 1980s music video. Soaking in the adulation, Ricochet played to the crowd and Keisha by dusting off his hands
Sauntering back over to the booth, he rested his hand flat on the table next to Keisha's elbow. "Pretty cool, huh?" Ricochet grinned and gave her the thumbs-up. "A scene of morally questionable violence worthy of Rocky V!"
"Nah," Keisha shook her head, still smiling. "It's just 'cause you said you were my boyfriend."
"Oh, right..." The boy blinked for a moment, and scratched his head absently. 'Guess THAT would get her out of her funk...
Keisha's good mood persisted after she left the malt shop with Ricochet to check out her favorite downtown music store. From her description, the store was an oddity that dealt in vinyl albums and 8-track tapes in lieu of mp3 players. Keisha's house had an old turntable from the 80s, which she used to blast out an array of cheesy one-hit wonders over and over. Ricochet of course knew all this from listening to Nathan's complaints over the years, but until now, he had never actually talked to her about it.
"I like the clean stuff the best," she went on, her arm back in place around Ricochet's. "The Jets have the beat to keep you goin'! Like Crush on You, or the Chip 'n' Dale theme."
"Nah, Survivor's where it's at," Ricochet rejoined with a smile, pumping his fist. "Nothing's better at pumping you up for a fight than good ol' American Heartbeat. It's even better than their Rocky stuff."
Her mouth burst into a dimpled smile. "Nathan hates that song," Keisha giggled. "You played it at least ten times when you guys were working on that Geography report last year."
At the mention of Nathan, Ricochet's face fell into a frown. "Yeah...right." he mumbled, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. He felt weird with Keisha yet again, the presence of his best friend and bad frisbee partner catching up with him.
Keisha knew him too well though, and he couldn't hide his reluctance. "Are you ever gonna tell Nathan about us?" she asked, her jovial tone replaced with a persistent one.
"I'm...just lookin' for the right time," he argued as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Like after he's won the Pillsbury Bake-Off or somethin'."
She gave him a dull look. "I've been waiting for two weeks, you know," Keisha pressed, her voice growing a bit strained. "I thought you were gonna tell him three days ago, when you came over last."
"Next time, alright?" he said, dodging her eyes once more. "I just gotta train for it, that's all."
"But you didn't even want to come over tonight!" Keisha protested, releasing his arm and turning to glare at him. "Ricochet!"
"Ah, it's just hard, Keisha!" he admitted finally, willing himself to meet her gaze. "Nathan and me have been best buds for three years going. I don't want it to get all crazy."
"Can't we just talk to him?" the girl argued, spreading her arms wide. "I've known you as long as he has, so he's gotta listen to us."
"But you were just his sister when we all met!" Ricochet cried, no longer caring about the scene they were making in the middle of town. "It's different, Keisha!"
"No!" Keisha accosted Ricochet with angry, black eyes. "I thought you liked me too! I don't wanna be your secret girlfriend, or some dumb brat you feel sorry for! You don't wanna be seen with me?"
"Nobody's saying that!" he retorted, feeling his own ire rise in response to her stubbornness. "Don't get your aglets in a bunch!"
The next comeback that came to him died when he saw Keisha was near tears. She was looking down towards the sidewalk, and biting hard on her lip. "Hey, chill Keisha," he said softly, putting his hands on her shoulders. "I'm dating you because you're great, and that's it."
"Ricochet..." she whispered, a few stray drops trickling down her cheeks.
"It's just...goin' kinda fast, that's all," he clarified, his face softening to show some of his own nervousness. "Like takin' on a challenger after just one week of training."
"I know." Keisha wiped her tears in frustration, and stared into his eyes. "I'm scared too. I don't want him to get all stupid, like he does sometimes. I just...I really want it to work out for you and me."
Ricochet and Keisha stood motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, the crowd drifting around them like they were bronze sculptures signifying romance. "Can't we just take it easy, Keisha?" the boy asked her, stroking her cheek. "None of this 'world crisis' stuff?"
"Not really, Ricochet." She shook her head, causing her ponytails to flop back and forth. "'Cause I'm gonna ask you to the Sadie Hawkins dance this Saturday. Dances are kinda a crisis for us at St. Herman's." She smiled slightly at the irony.
For Keisha's sake, Ricochet fought to keep the tension off his face. "You want me to pick you up or somethin'?" he ventured, though he was already resigned to going with her.
"Yeah." She nodded. "It's not my first dance, but it's the first one with you. I want it to be traditional." A slight blush tinted her cheeks. "I sorta have it built up in my head. I guess that's kinda dumb...but can you be there for me?"
Ricochet scanned Keisha's face, trying to fish out any second thoughts that might come up later. But despite her embarrassment, her jaw was set, and her eyes just as determined as ever. She conjured up a smile, struggling to be strong for him. She didn't need to convince him though; Keisha's sense of self was the first thing he admired about her, and even now, it was something he could never say no to.
The heavy bag shook on its steel chain as Ricochet slammed one punch after another into it. The young fighter was working up a slippery sweat, and his eyes looked beyond the bag into the mire of his memories. He saw his problems with Keisha, Nathan, Camille and the rest lining up in front of him like a boxing circuit full of new opponents. With arms pumping like pistons, he kept his problems at bay with a pattern of steady blows, throwing out the odd kick here and there to mix things up.
Ricochet had entered the Bloody Queen gym at an odd time in the afternoon; most of the other kickboxers had gone back home for dinner with their families. His trainer Nora Queens was here, keeping a squinty eye on his progress while fingering the stopwatch in her hand. Usually, her crushing criticism was in high demand by the other fighters, but now there was time to give Ricochet her full attention. Her lined face and taut mouth were drifting around his peripheral vision, reminding him of another problem he would have to face; his kickboxing nemesis, Akello Eastender, who had trounced him handily in their first fight.
"Time!" Nora called out, with Ricochet shooting off one last punch after the exercise was over. Pocketing the stopwatch, the stout woman walked over to him, ready to give out the grades. "Good power blows, but your head's in the clouds." she told him, looming over him like a Norse battle god. "If this were a fight, you'd be dusted in two rounds."
"Sorry, Boss," he sighed, pulling off his gloves with a few rough tugs. "Kinda got some crap on the brain."
"McKnight, if this is gonna turn into one of your freak out sessions..." A warning growl rumbled deep within the woman's throat; clearly, she was remembering the time she had to kick him out of the gym for throwing a tantrum.
"I'm fine, I'm fine!" Ricochet waved his hands as if warding off evil spirits. "Just need to work out all that extra tension!"
Nora raised an eyebrow at the boy's craggy, unsteady smile, then rolled her eyes and motioned for Ricochet to follow her. Moving to the center of the grimy gym, she grabbed some jump rope resting on a chair and tossed it to her protégé. She snapped her fingers to get him moving, and Ricochet sighed, uncoiling the rope and hopping to an imaginary beat. Soon, the only sounds in the gym were the dry slapping of the rope and the boy's halting breaths, as he tried to keep going for seven minutes and complete the training session.
He broke the monotony of the exercise with a summary of the day's events. "I'm kinda dating my best friend's sister," Ricochet gasped in-between breaths. "I haven't told Nathan a single thing yet, and I don't think I can wait much longer."
Nora raised her eyes with mild interest. "Thought you were seeing that blonde waif with the headphones," she mentioned. "I kind of liked her."
"You would, Boss!" Ricochet cried, tossing a wounded look at Nora. "You both hate the stories I try and write!"
She ignored the statement, her eyes instead drifting to the rafters of the dingy building. "The whole best friend betrayal, huh?" Nora continued, and her student soured at the truth in her judgment. "Gotta say, you're probably in deep crap, kid. Why do you want to mess with things all of sudden?"
"Dunno, really." His gaze turned distant again as he replayed the past two weeks in his mind. "She was kinda a twerp when I first met her, but she kept getting smarter 'n' cooler, and she helps me out when everyone else leaves me out to dry. Other than Nathan scraping me when he finds out, it's turned out to be a real good time."
"Not a good basis for a girlfriend if you're just looking for a groupie," she pointed out, a notion Nathan had also brought up about the excitable Keisha. "Are you even serious about her?"
Ricochet reflected on Keisha specifically, her round, brown face and wide, smiling mouth vibrant in his mind's eye. He thought about her irrepressible spark, how easy it was to make her laugh, just by being himself. Even after knowing her for so long, he was still learning how much fun it was just hanging out, and he could probably talk to her for hours. It wasn't something he could just toss away as a one-time pick-me-up, not at all.
"I really like her," he answered, his words soft but full of conviction. "She's awesomely cute, and really sharp."
"Then you better get a handle on this, and soon," Nora told him, her eyes hardening like mortar. "Screw this up, McKnight, and someone's gonna have your balls."
Ricochet peeked at his trainer through his sweat-drenched bangs, but Nora was already going over to the Pepsi machine. "Therapy time's over, kid," she called over her shoulder, waving him off. "You're up to around four minutes. Add three more on top of that, and then we'll move to the next exercise."
Ricochet watched her jingle in her jeans pocket for quarters, then turned back toward the training equipment in the corner of the gym. The speed bag and the hand weights seemed impatient for him to get done with the jump rope, promising another hard workout for his wiry muscles. Somehow, Nora's nonchalant response to his problems actually put him at ease. Maybe life really was just one long training exercise, with a few big bouts to keep things interesting.
He smiled, and kept up the pace with the jump rope.
With the weekend fast approaching, Ricochet was spending Friday with Keisha in front of the Branford residence's small TV, having finally consented to entering the lair of Lord Nathan. The family room was devoted to the NES, an artifact that belonged to the younger of Keisha and Nathan's two uncles, so the two teens had fired it up for a quick round before Nathan got home. The colors and sounds of the game felt seizure-inducing to Ricochet, even though he was used to the muddy lights and heckling shouts of the boxing ring. His eyes darted about the characters on the screen, trying to keep track of where his guy was, who was shooting him right now, etc..
"Crap!" Ricochet swore, the Game Over message flashing him like a tacky neon sign. "I can't do anything without gettin' nailed!"
Keisha just laughed. "You suck, Ricochet!" she giggled, leaning her head in her hand and smiling. "Can'tcha at least get your guy to the midway point?"
Ricochet seethed, feeling his comments from the frisbee game earlier that week come back to haunt him. Touché, Nathan.
The girl reached for the controller. "Here, watch me, okay?" Keisha said, and Ricochet relinquished the controller with a sense of relief, content to just sit and watch her start up the game again. Her tongue drifted out of her mouth as her fingers mashed the buttons at a lightning clip. She seemed to be muttering silently to herself; whether it was gameplay tips or encouragement for the onscreen hero, Ricochet couldn't tell.
After only a few minutes, it was clear Keisha was a far better gamer than Ricochet. Her eyes were like a pipeline connecting computer data to human ingenuity, and she effortlessly moved her player character through a gauntlet of enemies. "Gotta get super powered before the boss," she muttered, as Ricochet watched her dodge pixelated bullets by a hair's breadth. Soon, he was witness to her ultimate victory, as Keisha threw up a fist and a yell of triumph. "Yeah!"
Ricochet grinned at her glee, for once not mortified at having been shown up. "Pretty big gamer cred for an A+ brainiac," he teased, chucking her chin with his fist. "You sure you don't miss out on violin practice for this stuff?"
"I just play on weekends, ya know." Keisha gave him a 'duh' look, though still smiling. "And it's the electric violin."
"Electric?" Ricochet leaned over to grab her shoulder, shaking her with one hand. "Hah, you're juiced up on electrons! See, you're jolting!"
"W-w-whaaa!!" Keisha's voice was wavering like a TV with a broken antennae.
"It's a mad science project!" he declared, tickling her under the ribs. "Technology corrupts our generation yet again!"
"Hee hee hee!" Keisha shied away from his dancing fingers. She pushed him away, a hard shove that left Ricochet sprawled out on the rug. Keisha started to tickle back, and even as a top-notch teen kickboxer, he still winced from the intruding sensation. Soon, both of them had collapsed into laughter, lying like a laundry heap in the middle of the floor.
A moment later, Ricochet raised his head to look at the girl above him, and smiled. Keisha was wearing a pink T-shirt emblazoned with 1980s hot rods, and a pair of faded jeans. Her ponytails hung down like draperies, and her eyes framed his reflection in the splendor of black pearl. His mind racked itself trying to figure out what to say, but it was another ditz moment for him, so he just scooped her face in one hand and leaned in.
"A little close to my sis, huh Ricochet?"
Moments before Ricochet and Keisha's lips met, a cold baritone chilled their hearts like the sound of an ax sharpening. The two looked up to find a familiar black teen standing in the doorway to the kitchen, tapping a gunky mixing spoon on his hip. Nathan Branford's eyebrows were furrowed with wrath barely contained, his messy apron somehow making him look like a butcher. He was observing Ricochet's close proximity with his sister...and didn't like it one bit.
"Nathan...!" Keisha gasped, her face flushing red. "You got here early?" She looked down at her spot near Ricochet, and quickly scrambled to her feet.
"I stopped by to mix up the new bundt recipe." the tall boy told her, cradling the mixing spoon like a bludgeon. "Just in time, too."
It's do or die, McKnight! With his opportunity to come clean zooming towards him like a bare-knuckled surprise, Ricochet decided to go with the direct approach. "Uh yeah, kinda dating Keisha now," he tried, wincing like a guilty house cat. "Sorry 'bout this."
Well, at least it's the truth. The boy slapped himself mentally. Some wizard of words you are! I'm never gonna write a good story like this!
Nathan was bearing down on Ricochet and Keisha with a head full of steam, and quickly crossed the room so he could put himself between the two of them. "Ricochet, what the hell are you doing?" he almost roared, now holding his spoon backhanded as if it were another, much sharper kitchen implement. "What did you drag my sister into?"
"I'm really sorry, man." Ricochet's brain was functioning again, enough to make him feel terrible about the whole thing. "I was gonna tell you today. It just kinda happened between us."
"Uh uh!" Nathan brushed off the apology with an angry wave. "You don't get to act innocent, not the way you snuck around. You knew what the score was between us, that you don't just go off and do something like this. I don't want you mackin' on my sister!"
"It's not like that!" Keisha broke in, stepping into Nathan's view as if to protect Ricochet. "I wanted this! More than anything!"
"You keep quiet, Keisha!" he snapped, looking down at her like she was a caged hamster.
"Hey!" she retorted, putting her hands on her hips.
"C'mon, let her talk," Ricochet said, a little bit of frustration bubbling up unbidden. "We both trust her, don't we?"
"What do you know about trust?!" Nathan exploded, his muscles tightening as if he were being forcibly restrained. "We were bros, and you throw me into the frypan! I'm the guy who has to take care of my sister, Ricochet! How can you do this to me?"
Ricochet lowered his head, having no answer to this.
The family room was silent for a moment, with the three teens languishing in a murky soup of guilt, frustration, and anger. After about twenty seconds, a teen girl with blonde hair peeked out from inside the kitchen. "Hey Nathan, your cake's gonna burn if you don't get back here," she said, motioning to the oven. "You guys having a fight or something?"
Ricochet looked over at the girl, a little bugged by the interruption. Suddenly, he did a double take, as he saw the kitchen light refract through the girl's glasses. "...Cammy?" he blurted out, his lip raising to show a bit of gum. "What are you doin' here?"
"Ricochet?" Camille raised her eyebrows in seeming innocence. "You don't know?" Her headphones flopped out of her ears and dangled a foot below the carpet, swinging like pendulums.
"Uh, Camille, not now!" Nathan tried to shoo her off, waving his hand frantically at her.
Ricochet bounced between ten emotions in five seconds. His eyes flashed with realization. "Wait a sec..."
"Yeah, we decided to kill time by working on his bundt cake," she explained, dialing down her voice to the usual Camille monotone. "Didn't Nathan tell you? We're been going out since a week ago."
The fighter's jaw opened wide enough to engulf an entire boxing glove. "What?!"
"Huh?!" Keisha followed suit, and turned to regard Nathan with an incredulous stare. "How come I don't know about this?"
"I know, it's weird." Camille looked at the ceiling, possibly to avoid making eye contact with anyone. "I just broke up with my boyfriend, but I keep getting drawn to the obsessive/compulsive types. Anyway, this is really messed up, especially since Keisha didn't know yet. So yeah...sorry."
Slowly and deliberately, Ricochet turned to Nathan. "What...the heck?" he demanded of his friend, a tic appearing in the corner of his eye.
Nathan's anger had completely vanished from his features. In its place was something resembling a carnival clown making a funny face. "You guys were already broken up," he attempted, his frame stiff as a board. "I thought I'd wait to tell you until you were over Camille."
"What about me?" Keisha spread her arms wide as if trying to engulf the world.
"It's actually only been five days since we started dating." Nathan peered at Camille, who looked back at him through her oval frames. "You know I hate talking about my personal stuff with you, girl."
The boy boxer was shaking with some unknown emotion. Nathan, Camille, and Keisha goggled at him as if he were going crazy, with Nathan actually taking a step to avoid the backlash. After a few seconds, it was clear that Ricochet was laughing, as if witness to the best sketch comic in the world. His hand was spidered across his face, and he looked like he was about to break out into tears of mirth.
"You guys are too much!" he crowed, still snorting through his nose. Ricochet shook his head, and pushed his glasses back in place, which were in danger of falling off. "I needed that."
Bending down to pick his hat up from off the floor, he flipped it back on his head and shrugged on his jacket. "No sweat, man," he said, his jovial manner now tinted with a subtle shadow. "I can see you think I'm the only one who has to answer to anyone. Also, that you don't trust me around Keisha, even though I've been your best friend for years and I'd never, ever hurt her."
With an easygoing stride, he made his way to the front door. As he turned the knob, he threw one last glance at his girlfriend. "Keisha, you can see me anytime you want," he told her with a smile. "Just work things out with your bro first." And then he was gone, disappearing into the brisk night, probably to grab a quick Powerade to soothe his spirits.
At the point Ricochet left, Keisha had finally snapped. "You big jerk!" she screamed at Nathan, storming over to kick him repeatedly in the shin. "You're ruining everything for me!"
"Owww!!" Nathan howled, pulling his leg back from his sister's furious attack. "Cut it out, Keisha!"
"I've liked him for years, and now I'm finally old enough to be with him!" The girl was aflame with fury; every tendon was taut. "Ricochet finally realized I'm not just a kid, but you don't!"
The raging Keisha stomped away from Nathan, then turned her head to place both Camille and her brother within her savage sights. "I don't care what you do with Miss Monotone over there," she told him, regarding Camille with a twitch of her eye. "But I'm a teenager too, so you stay out of my life and mind your own business!"
With that, Keisha tore out of the room in a fury, dashing upstairs. Nathan and Camille watched her go, the anger in the room giving way to a deep, pervasive shame. Nathan in particular seemed shaken up, his face frozen in shock as he stared into empty space. Camille stalled for a moment at the door, then slowed moved towards Nathan, extended a hand out to him.
Halfway to Nathan, Camille stopped mid-step and took a sniff of the air. The blonde beauty looked behind her, catching a telltale streamer of smoke flowing from the kitchen. Both Camille and Nathan realized the danger at about the same time. "Nathan, the cake!" she called to him, her voice as sharp as a dagger.
Nathan's chef instincts were not to be denied. Jolting into action immediately, he made a mad dash toward the kitchen, tearing open the door to the oven. Camille quickly followed, arriving just in time to see Nathan pull out a charred husk that better resembled a burning tire than a confectionery treat. "My beautiful bundt!" he wailed, looking at the ruined dessert as if he had lost another one of his best friends.
Saturday evening arrived, and Ricochet found himself in his humble abode, staring at the ceiling. The workshop was a mess, cluttered with boxing equipment, failed fiction drafts, and various copies of Rocky V in different formats: VHS, DVD, and Laserdisc. Ricochet was lying on a cot at the end of the room, with a thin sheet lathered over his body haphazardly. He fiddled with a loose nut from a broken speed bag, the weight of the world securing him to the mattress and lulling him to the safety of Dreamland.
It's pretty much my fault, though, he decided, flicking the nut into a pile of sports magazines. I could've settled it all on Day 1. Boss was right on as usual.
He sighed, glancing over to a photo of Nathan and himself. Their arms were around each other, showing off the goofy, overblown grins suitable to teen prodigies such as them. Guess I won't be calling up Nathan for a Rocky marathon tonight. Ricochet grabbed the bulbous pillow beside him, propping his head up on it. Might as well turn in early.
As Ricochet prepared to settle in, a rapid knock came from the door, shaking him up a bit. The boy blinked a few times, then got up and headed towards the knock, throwing on a jacket out of habit, When he opened the door, he found Keisha before him, wearing a flower-adorned dress with puffed sleeves and a full skirt. Her face had a little makeup, and her hair seemed to shimmer in the early evening sunlight.
"Keisha...?" he babbled, wondering if he was dreaming.
"Did you forget?" The girl's chipper voice broke through the fog that had accumulated in Ricochet's head. "You're supposed to take me to the dance tonight."
"Huh?" The boy stared at Keisha like she had grown a second head. "You still wanna go through with that?"
"Yeah." The smile seemed to glow from her face.
Ricochet shook his head free of the mothballs that seemed to be residing inside his skull. "What about Nathan?" he asked. "He can't be cool with this, can't he?"
"I talked it over with Mom and Dad," she explained. "They're okay with everything, though Dad wants to pound in a few ground rules when he sees you next. My family likes you, Ricochet, even if Nathan doesn't right now. I don't care what he thinks, anyway."
"We're headin' out right now?" he asked, glancing back inside his workshop. "I forgot to clean my suit. I didn't think I'd actually be usin' it."
"Just throw on a dress shirt," she offered. "It's fine." Her lighthearted expression melted into a true fondness. "It's not as traditional as I wanted it, but we can make do, right?"
Ricochet regarded her ensemble for the dance, noting how nice she looked in the dreamlike dusk. Her hair and skirt were flowing in the breeze; she had transformed into a fairy princess from the stories he read for Creative Writing. He smiled, thinking about how lucky he was to have a girl like this crazy for him, "Let's go, Keisha," he told her, and they clasped hands like a knight and his lady love.
Inside the Branford household, Nathan was currently seated at the kitchen table, picking at his botched bundt from yesterday. As it turned out, only the outside was severely burnt, leaving a squishy, but marginally edible substance inside its blackened shell. Determined to have his cake and eat it too, he pulled out a plate and settled down for dessert, shoving glob after glob into his mouth like a stiff, animatronic robot. He would get something out of that terrible day, at least.
Some light footfalls drew his attention, and Nathan turned to watch his girlfriend step into the kitchen. Camille was staring at him with a mixture of pity and empathy, her opal face now flush with emotion. She glanced towards Nathan's creation, somehow hiding her disgust for the ugly thing that could barely pass for a cake at all. "Room for two?" she quipped, keeping her expression soft and gentle.
Nathan said nothing, but pushed out a chair for her with his foot. Camille slid into the seat, helping herself to a wad of cake-like substance. They ate in silence, trying their best to enjoy the motley meal against all odds. The silence was moody, but somewhat comforting as well; a first toast to a new relationship, and maybe a chance at fixing some old ones.
"Are we dicks?" Camille wondered outloud, poking at the cake with her fork.
Nathan looked down, his face flickering with all his inner frustration. Camille didn't bother asking further, but continued to eat Nathan's cake, trying to gather up some of the icing he had slopped onto it earlier.
The basketball gym at St. Herman's was packed with a variety of students going from 8th Grade to 12th, all dolled up for the Sadie Hawkins dance. Most of the girls were from rich families, and their dresses were elaborate and colorful, if not ostentatious sometimes. The DJ was currently doing a slow dance, giving the girls and their dates a chance to recoup after a series of rousing rock numbers. This was actually Ricochet and Keisha's first time on the floor; although they were both hyper at heart, they didn't mind sitting out the more hectic dances this particular evening.
The couple rocked back and forth in the middle of the decorated gym, swaying more than dancing. The other students seemed to surround them like flower petals, flitting about the floor as if blown by a gentle wind. Ricochet ignored them, keeping all his attention on his partner. Though she was the only one wearing a home sewn outfit, Keisha was radiant in her dress, and that was enough for him.
Ricochet looked down below her brow to catch her troubled expression. Keisha's eyes were downcast, her lips downturned and sad. It only made sense, he knew. He had given her a very hard week with his awkwardness, and now she had a brother she couldn't bring herself to speak to.
He was about to ask her if she wanted to leave when Keisha suddenly seized his sides, pressing herself against his chest. Her lithe body in his arms felt more steady, more secure, and thus ended all debate for him. So he held her, cuddling her head as he looked up at the windows high above the dance floor. Even within the confines of the gym, the Chicago lights could still be seen, flickering with the comings and goings of two million people.
The denizens of the city would struggle, scrape, and fight, even well into the Chicago night. But upon a gentle dawn, they would rise again for more challenges, and another opportunity to make things right.