I don’t remember much of the drive over. I wanted to ask Haley a bunch of different things, but with Jaclyn in the car it didn’t feel right. It also seemed kind of nosy.
It took about thirty minutes to get to the studio. Normally it would have taken fifteen, but the after-school traffic slowed everything down. South High was practically in the suburbs. The Grand Lake Martial Arts Academy sat midway between downtown and the edge of the city. In the 1880’s it had been near the edge of Grand Lake. In the 1950’s, it had been Cannon’s Hardware before Cannon’s became an auto parts chain. The red neon “Cannon’s Hardware” sign still hung parallel to the building, stretching from the top of the second floor to the top of the first. It wasn’t lit.
A painted, plywood sign with the words “Grand Lake Martial Arts Academy” rested on the ledge above the first floor of the brown, brick building.
I drove the car down the alley between it and the vacant building next door. The sign said “Kay’s Sewing,” but it had been vacant as long as I’d been alive. The studio’s parking lot was little more than dirt during the summer. In the winter, it looked like flattened snow mixed with lines where tire tracks dug through to the soil.
I ended up parking behind the vacant building. Cars had filled both lots thanks to the kids’ karate lessons that ran on the first floor between four and six.
Jaclyn made it to the back door while Haley and I were still getting our duffel bags out of the car.
As we walked up to the door, I asked Haley, “Was Sean the guy Travis was talking about? The ex-boyfriend you scratched?”
“Yes,” she said.
I recognized her tone from the conversation that had turned into our first fight. A tip for those of you not in relationships: Even if your girlfriend and some shrews both make paralytic poisons, she probably doesn’t want to hear about it.
I wasn’t going to get much more out of her.
We went through the door and up the wooden stairs to the second story. From below we could hear childrens’ voices shouting. From above, we could hear the crack of wooden staves striking each other and occasionally the smack of a staff hitting a person.
When we got to the top of the stairs we found Cassie fighting Lee AKA Immortal. Vaughn sat on a bench at the side of the room. While Haley and Jaclyn went into the dressing room to change, I walked over to him.
“Hey, I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t coming. I just said I couldn’t train. I still want to watch. Oh, and hey, I drove. My parents let me borrow the car now that my arms have mostly healed. Maybe if I end up in traction they’ll give me back my bank account and my phone.”
“You can hope,” I said. “What’ll they do if you lose an eye?”
“Buy me a new car if I’m lucky,” Vaughn said.
Haley and Jaclyn came out of the dressing room wearing sweats. Lee didn’t go for martial arts uniforms.
“I better get dressed,” I said, and I left.
When I got out of the dressing room, I found him giving a talk I’d heard in different forms over the last few years.
“… I’m not here to make you better people. This isn’t a spiritual journey. I’m here to teach you how to fight. If you manage to get more out of it than that, good for you.”
He caught my eye as I stepped out the door.
“Nick, good to see you. Let’s start.”
Describing Lee was a problem. His appearance changed. At the studio, I saw him as a twenty-something Asian man. Grandpa had been introduced to Lee during World War II, told that his name was Günther, and years later still saw him as white and blond.
I’d seen him as Günther once or twice when he’d been reminiscing with Grandpa about the war. When I’d seen him playing music, his looks fit the age and ethnicity of the group. I’d always suspected it wasn’t a shapeshifting thing as much as an illusion that took place in the viewers’ minds.
I spent some of class helping him teach the others, some of it working on my own stuff, or sparring with Cassie. Lee taught a mixture of styles so I practiced kicks, punches and aikido style throws.
Cassie and I finished a little earlier and found ourselves talking to Vaughn while Lee taught Jaclyn and Haley new ways to fall.
Cassie pulled a towel out of her duffel bag and wiped sweat off her face. “You got here nearly half an hour after us. What happened?”
“I don’t know. I ended up waiting for Haley and Jaclyn for a while, and then traffic was bad. I got stuck behind a school bus a couple different times.”
“I didn’t even know Jaclyn was coming,” Vaughn said, “so I was imagining you and Haley had stopped to make out.”
Talking through her laughter, I said, “No, but we did run into Sean Drucker. He was at South with Julie from our school, her cousin, and a couple of his friends. It’s like almost all the people I’d least like to see got together and had a convention or something.”
“You know why they know each other?” Vaughn asked.
“No idea,” I said.
“Almost the same reason we know each other except kind of the exact opposite.”
I didn’t like where this was going.
“Exact opposite?” Cassie asked, dropping the towel on the bench.
“Their grandparents worked for my grandfather.”