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Authors: Tiffiny Hall

White Ninja

BOOK: White Ninja
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White Ninja
Tiffiny Hall

Dedication

Dedicated to my little bro, Lleyton

Epigraph

AS A NINJA,
MY BODY IS A WEAPON,
MY MOVEMENTS ARE MAGICAL,
MY FOCUS IS LETHAL.
I AM THE INVISIBLE WARRIOR.

From the ancient ninja's Tiger Scrolls

‘What's your egg say today, Roxy Ran?' Heroshi circles the playground bench where I sit. I know that his other friends will arrive soon and everything will happen again like yesterday.

I grip my lunchbox tight and squeeze my eyes shut, praying that the contents of my lunchbox are different today. But no such luck.

He grabs my hard-boiled egg and reads aloud the words written on it: ‘Reach for the stars.' His voice, barbed wire, snarls into my hair. I brush my hair off my shoulders, then return my grip to my lunchbox. Even though my nails turn blue, I do not let go. I concentrate on breathing and will myself to disappear, to evaporate like steam on glass.

Shadow. Be a shadow
, I tell myself, closing my eyes with the strain of making a wish. I feel myself break into a sweat. Shadows don't sweat. The disappointment turns my tongue to leather.

Heroshi cuts my lunchbox out of my hands with a turning knife-hand chop and it falls like a brick at my feet. His movement is swift and trained. Although he is only average boy height, his thick legs pose a powerful presence with each string of muscle wound to its maximum from years seated in martial arts stances; his legs look like they could snap lunchboxes, school bags, doors and necks. A year older than the rest of us in Year Seven, his martial arts skill is unmatched at school. Not only is he captain of the school martial arts team, he is also national champion. His school locker is shelved with trophies and medals that blind passers-by when he leaves the door open, which he does often. On Mondays and Wednesdays, when he has training, he wears his black belt under his oversized school jumper; you can just make out the embroidered tips hanging near his knees. Everyone calls him ‘Hero' for short.

‘Your mum should have written “fatherless”,' he growls, hair like black onyx casting shadows across his stony eyes. ‘Or maybe “father-
loser
”, like you.'

The words slice me like a knife, as always. I've never met my father. Mum won't answer my questions, and there are no photos of him, no sense of him at all, around our apartment. The words are a log in my heart.

Hero's two friends arrive: Christian, known as Krew, and Bruce. Krew is tall and thick, driving his body like a
monster truck, zit-skinned with ice-blond hair shagged over his eyes and hands like baseball gloves. Despite his gargantuan head, his eyes are the size of pins and they prick his pillowed face with a ghostly glare. Bruce, in contrast, is short and fast with thick brown curly hair barbed close to his brow. Crab-like, he is always poised with knees bent, scuttle-ready to pounce.

Something burns behind their eyes. Something stronger than hatred of the misfit; something stale … bruised … rotting. I thought this year would be different. But first term of Year Seven and I'm already bully roadkill. They all laugh, moving around me like sharks.

Hero is holding another of my hard-boiled eggs in his hand and showing its bald head to the sun. My mother's handwriting shines:
Fortitude
. I don't know what that means. She has signed the egg with a kiss; a kiss of social death.

‘Nup, sorry, I was wrong,' Hero says, examining the egg more closely. ‘It says your mum's boyfriend is an unemployed hobo!' He laughs, and his black hair is jagged shards of night. My pulse whips high. Red anger blisters my face.

Art's not unemployed, he's an artist, I want to say, but I cannot speak. Art has lived with us since I was five. He's not a martial artist like Mum, just an artist. My mother, a great shadow warrior, can slice the wings
off a mosquito with a ninja star, but Art can paint rain on a road and make it look like another world. He's like a father to my sixteen-year-old sister, Elecktra, and me.

Mum's Japanese. Her dark almond eyes stand out against her fair complexion and blonde hair, like brown rocks against a glowing sunset. She's dyed her black hair blonde ever since I can remember. She says she gets to be a different person with blonde hair. When I asked if I could dye my hair blonde too, because I liked the idea of being a brand-new person, she said, ‘You're Roxy with black hair like velvet, and it's beautiful.'

I wish I had blonde hair like Elecktra. My dark hair clogs the sink, whereas her golden hair slips through the plugholes like fine gold threads.

Sitting there, pinned to the bench, a sensation starts in my gut, a foaming fire that flushes into my veins, expands my muscles, scalds my insides and the soles of my feet. I move my hands from my lunchbox to the bench and clench it tight to anchor the fire in my gut. I can't let it reach my fists. Heat pulsates from the palms of my hands and burns into the wood. Two deep breaths and the feeling subsides to a wild grumbling.

Hero winds back his arm. I turn my head. A crash, the egg lies smashed across my knuckles, the word destroyed. The broken shells are on my hand: pieces of nude glass, shattered. The bell blares and Hero and the others split.

‘Are you okay, Roxy?' My only friend, Cinnamon, comes rushing over, her red hair out of control today.

‘I
am
such a loser,' I say.

She picks up my hand and wipes away the powdery yolk. ‘Maybe you should ask your mum to stop giving you hard-boiled eggs,' she says. ‘Maybe she could write on your sandwiches?'

‘Won't make a difference. He'd throw anything at me. And Mum is so sweet with her “inspirational eggs”.'

‘Why's he hate you so much?' Cinnamon asks.

I stare at my lap, as if the answer might be woven into the yarn of my school uniform. I have no idea.

Where I've gripped the wooden slat of the bench, the wood has burned. I've been feeling this fire inside me ever since I turned thirteen, and it's become more frequent these past few weeks. I have to push it down because I fear that if I let it rise, I won't be able to control it. When I asked my sister, Elecktra, about the fire feeling, she said I'm probably going through an early midteen crisis.

Cinnamon's wild hair torches out from the edges of her face, the smouldering strands snapping with light as her freckles join across the bridge of her nose in the gauze-bright sun. I pack up my lunchbox and follow Cinnamon's flaming halo of hair to maths. I love Year Seven maths. There's no emotion in numbers,
everything is reduced to circles and sticks and all of it fits in with each other. No anomalies. Unlike me and Cinnamon, total anomalies to every high school rule. We've known each other since Year Three, but didn't really become friends until high school, brought together by the shared shame of being the only Year Sevens not to make it through Gate One.

I don't know who started the Gate Divide, but it's existed since our school, Hindley Hall, opened. The school is in a huge mansion, a heritage building, that used to be a hospital. All the hospital rooms are now classrooms and music halls, and surrounding the mansion are clusters of modern single-storey classrooms with covered walkways between them. The walkways are paved in bricks with kids' names etched into them — like an honour board on the ground.

The main entrance to the school is through two large iron gates. Gate One, on the right, is for the cool, popular kids — those who can make skinny jeans look tough, anyone who knows how to tweet, anyone belonging to a clique or gang, athletic kids, or anyone with friends or allies in older years. Gate Two is for social misfits, weirdos and nerds. Geek chic skipped our school — we don't have anyone with a hidden talent for film-making or singing, just freaks who love medieval history or get overly passionate about the breed of their
dog. Technically, I fit into the last Gate One category, because I have a sister in Year Ten. But Elecktra pretends we're not related.

I was pushed through Gate Two on my first day of Year Three because Mickela Grant (one of the popular girls) offered me a Redskin and I didn't know what it was. I tried to make it up to her by offering her half of my lentil rice wrap and some Hulk juice, but she called me a hippy and the damage was done. It didn't help that I was wearing a scrunchie in my hair.

Cinnamon is Gate Two because she's a little overweight, has porcelain skin covered in freckles and the most amazing red curly hair that looks like an afro wig. She makes no attempt to flatten her hair down or hide it, despite my sister's constant threats to ambush her with a hair straightener. And no one really likes sitting behind Cinnamon in class because they can't see the whiteboard.

Elecktra made Gate One on her first day at school because she wore boxer shorts under her school dress and that had never been done before. As anyone will tell you, she's also drop-dead gorgeous. She has luscious long blonde hair, dark brown eyes, long legs and the facial structure of a rosebud: small, glowing, compact and completely symmetrical. She walks out in front of traffic all the time because she's used to cars stopping
for her. Elecktra never talks to me at school, and walks the last three blocks to the gates alone so we never arrive together. I'm not sure anyone even knows we're sisters, besides Cinnamon. It's fine by me. I'm determined to make Gate One someday on my own merit. I don't need the most beautiful girl in school, a ‘fashionista', with her perfect complexion or pointless Facebook posts, to make me someone. I can do that on my own. Just gotta figure out how.

I wake with a gasp, remembering. My skull oozes sweat. Today is the worst day of term — casual clothes day. I sit up, panting with panic. I look around my room for something to tidy, something to distract myself. I start with the bed, folding the sheet with a knife-hand flick of the wrist, kicking the pillow to fluff it up and punching it to the head of the bed, then finally tucking the corners with a turning low block into a wrist lock so they look like hotel bed corners — just as Mum taught me. This is the way I make my bed every morning and it takes me exactly sixteen seconds. I begin to breathe more easily.

I search the room for something else to organise, but my shoes are in two neat rows next to the door, the paperclips on my desk are stacked in miniature towers and I re-ordered my books last night — by colour.

I switch on the desk lamp, leap to my desk and study it for a moment in the cone of light. I lift the right side and nudge it to the left. Straight. I open the right drawer
and see the pencils loosely placed. I begin to order them in a line, grouping by colour and length. Then I duck to the floor and place my nose to the carpet. In the early powdery light, dust will sparkle; calling for a quick vac. Nothing has moved in or out of place since last night. I sigh. My room is always spotless, hospital clean and military tidy.

I'm not ready to face casual clothes day. Elecktra always insists on dressing me. Last term I rode my bike to school wearing one of Elecktra's outfits and I was so bullied I had to lie to Mum and say I ran into a parked car and fell off my bike. I had a cut on my cheek and bruises up my legs. I never told Elecktra that the reason my bike was smashed was because Hero kicked it in.

Year Seven has been my worst year yet. Hindley Hall covers Years One to Twelve, but it recently expanded and there was a big influx in my year. Everyone found a clique, except me and Cinnamon. The aerobics girls are too shiny and I don't do pigtails; the girls who spend all lunchtime reading magazines are too boring; the science and maths nerds think I'm too dumb; and I don't have the confidence to hang out with the theatre girls. When I speak to them, I never know if they're replying to me or in the middle of an improv scene.

I make my way down the spiralling black iron staircase that joins our bedrooms to the rest of our
apartment. We live in a huge open-plan warehouse apartment that's painted bright yellow on the outside and has a picket fence enclosing a jungle of pot plants still in their plastic containers that Mum swears she'll plant one day, but she travels too often for work to get around to it. She's not a very good Stay-at-home Girlfriend. Art does most of the washing, ironing, cooking.

Inside, the warehouse has polished floorboards that always feel warm from the sun blazing in through three vast skylights. The kitchen, at one end of the apartment, is stainless steel with a monumental wooden table made out of old boat planking. The wood has been sanded, but you can still see the grain and flecks of colour showing what the boats used to be: turquoise cruisers, pink dinghies, sapphire yachts. I can sit for hours smoothing my hand across the grooves; it's as if I can feel the waves within them. Around the table sit eight iron stools, each seat painted with the face of an ancient Egyptian. Art believes furniture isn't just about the look, it's about lifestyle, and, according to him, the face stools say we're très chic. Elecktra and I think they're silly. I feel dumb sitting on some stranger's head, and I hate it that Elecktra always takes the stool with the woman wearing the crown, like she's some queen herself.

Sprawling out from the kitchen is the living room, with a green rug that looks like grass and shelves of books.
There's an antique cabinet where Mum keeps photo albums labelled with the years since Elecktra was born in 1996. Art's paintings coat the walls and reflect onto the floorboards, so it feels like you slide across his landscapes whenever you wear socks. If Art likes a painting, he'll leave it on the wall for a few weeks, even months. When he's over it, he paints the wall white and starts again.

Art is a very successful artist and has an exhibition every year. People even come from overseas to buy his paintings. After an exhibition, he always buys us presents. Last year he bought me a silver statue of a cat leaping off a pillar to a star. I love it because of my nickname, Cat, which comes from the birthmark in the shape of a cat on the right sole of my foot. Its tail curls around my heel, its face spreads across the ball of my foot, and its claws reach between my toes. It looks as though the cat is leaping across the arch of my foot. Elecktra always teases me about my ‘cat tatt', as she calls it, saying it's why I'm such a ‘softie'. Sometimes the fire feeling in my gut makes the cat turn red.

The warehouse narrows at the back to a corridor where the bathroom is located, under the spiral staircase that takes you upstairs to the bedrooms, all in a line down the corridor: Elecktra's, mine, then Art and Mum's. Each bedroom has a window that opens out over our next-door neighbour's house. Ms Winters
lives in a brick two-storey home with a driveway and a clothesline in the backyard. The kind of house, Art says, that could turn out to be a prison if you let it clog up your creative tap.

‘Breakfast is ready,' Mum calls from the kitchen.

I walk over to the boat table, which has been spread with warm supple pumpernickel toast, fresh organic eggs, fruit salad and two bowls of fluffy quinoa. It tastes like porridge but is a cousin of spinach, Mum says; and spinach is what she calls ‘warrior food'. The cooking pans have already been washed and dried. Mum stands with a moss-green tea towel over her arm and a dagger in her hand. The blade traps the sunlight through the window above the sink and sends lasers of light into our eyes.

Art is already at the table. When I sit down, he ruffles my hair with a gentle hand. Mum begins to chop an apple at lightning speed. Most people would use a paring knife, but she prefers to cook with her ninja knives. She holds the dagger up to her mouth to inspect her teeth, then follows the blade with her eyes.

‘I miss my knife-throwing days,' she sighs.

‘So you've told us.' Art smiles and tucks into his quinoa.

Mum slices and dices the apple and throws the pieces into the blender on the other side of the kitchen. Every single piece makes it into the jug.

Art is already halfway through his fruit salad. ‘Did you know concentration burns just as many calories as physical exercise?' he asks. I shake my head. ‘That's why surgeons snack on jelly babies.' I look at him sideways.

Mum starts on the celery with a short sword, her fingers blurring like helicopter blades. With one swift movement she flicks the rings of celery off her chopping board and they fly, green bullets, through the air and land in the blending jug.

‘Cat, can you please pass me a capsicum?' she asks.

I lean over a white ceramic bowl shaped like a piece of coral and select the brightest green capsicum. Only green fruit and vegetables are allowed in our morning juice — what Mum and Art call ‘Hulk juice' because it makes you strong and it's green. Celery, capsicum, apple, broccoli and a dash of mint. I stand up to pass the capsicum to her, but she lifts her hand and stops me. I raise my elbow, pull the capsicum back to my ear, then spear it towards her. She watches it approach, then stops it with a palm hand strike. The pips explode and the flesh splits into stars. The pips fall to the chopping board, but the precision of her strike sends the green stars flying towards the blender.

My mother is ninja. She says she's only a retired ninja now, but weird deliveries still come to our house, we always get bailed up by Customs on family holidays
and, like I said, she still spends a lot of time travelling overseas for ‘business'. Mum's brought me and Elecktra up on a warrior diet and trained us in basic self-defence, but she's never taught us the secret ninja arts.

‘Why haven't you trained me in ninja?' I ask, again.

Mum throws her sword into the chopping board and it pings upright.

‘You don't want that life,' she says. ‘Everything you love, you end up having to destroy. You can't always —'

I finish the sentence I've heard a million times before. ‘Protect.'

‘Hulk juice,' Art says, finishing the last of his fruit salad, ‘is what has kept me going all these years.'

‘Great for speed, strength and reflexes,' Mum says.

‘Pass,' I say. I really don't like Hulk juice.

Art whips his head towards me. ‘What's gotten into you? You used to love Hulk juice; now you sing your As. Paarse. Whaaaatevaaaar. Raaandom. She's watching too much TV! All those reality TV shows are affecting her speech,' he says, raking a hand through his hair.

I scrunch up my face. ‘Whatever.'

He turns to my mother. ‘Akita, I thought the “whatevers” were meant to start when she turned sixteen, like the older one.'

Mum smiles knowingly and takes Art's dirty bowl from him. He looks at her and she reaches across to
touch the pink in his hair. They're obviously in love, I wish they'd just get married.

Art's been Mum's boyfriend since I was five. No other kid at school has a mum with an artist boyfriend. Art grew up in a cubbyhouse out in the bush, with parents who did yoga and worshipped the sun. They never married, so I doubt Art'll ever ask Mum, despite Elecktra's prompting.

One day we were all at the Gourmet Garage Café and when Mum went to the bathroom, Elecktra wrote on the specials blackboard
Akita! Will you marry me?
When Mum returned to the table, she squealed and hugged Art. Everyone in the café clapped until Art pointed to Elecktra, then looked at Mum with sad eyes and shook his head. Mum, in true unemotional ninja style, pretended it never happened, but it was still pretty embarrassing for everyone.

‘Where is Elecktra?' Mum asks.

‘Upstairs, grooming.' Art raises his blond brows to the skylights. ‘Casual clothes day is the highlight of her year.'

Mum laughs.

I can only manage a corner of my toast spread with globs of tahini and smashed avocado. The mention of casual clothes day makes me feel sick. A little glass of Hulk juice appears next to my plate. Not helping.

Mum's hand is firm on my shoulder. ‘Roxy Ran. One glass. That's all I ask.'

I pinch my nose with my thumb and forefinger, take a breath and slam the liquid down my throat.

‘So,' Mum says, ‘casual clothes day.' She takes the empty glass. ‘Excited?'

‘You should change that red T-shirt to yellow and honour your solar plexus,' Art offers. ‘Yellow is the colour associated with your gut, which is where you hold anxiety. You'll have a much better day.'

Mum touches her stomach and sighs. ‘That's right,' she says.

Art reaches a hand towards a yellow capsicum in the white bowl. ‘We underestimate the power of colour.'

‘Don't see it myself,' I say.

 

‘Lecky, don't you think this is a bit much?' I say, flicking my eye patch up as my sister and I walk to school. I totally regret allowing Elecktra to ‘style' my outfit. She selects a few kids each year from a Facebook lottery and for the past two years I've been unlucky. I flip the patch down again; at least with this I'll only see half the school population laughing at me.

Elecktra has her phone in one hand and is scrolling through comments on her Facebook wall. ‘Post-apocalyptic future pirate chic is so right now. Trust me,' she says without looking up from her phone. ‘I know
fashion. This is just what casual clothes day needs — a bit of risk.'

The sky is bruised; it can't make up its mind to be blue or yellow. I feel those bruised colours inside me today; the colour of nausea, nervousness, ridicule. Art was right: my solar plexus feels grazed with anxiety.

‘I admit the cape last year was a mistake,' Elecktra says.

I shudder. I've never been so mocked as I was wearing that stupid multicoloured sequined cape. ‘I ended up on the worst-dressed list,' I say.

Elecktra huffs. ‘Casual clothes day is serious business; it's the difference between thirty and 600 friends on Facebook, you understand?'

‘Okay, okay, keep your tank top on,' I tell her.

Elecktra is wearing military-style, high-heeled boots, pink over-the-knee socks, an oversized T-shirt that says
I hate boys
in blue sequins and a cropped leather jacket. She carries a clutch purse instead of a school bag. On anyone else this outfit would look like a costume, but with her tall, lean frame she looks like a runway model. Her long blonde hair is messy, as if she's just woken up, although it took a whole morning of a combination of straightening wand, dry shampoo, curlers and blow dryer to achieve the relaxed look, and she's polished her cheeks with pink eye shadow to give them more
of a glimmer than a blush. Casual clothes day is the highlight of Elecktra's social calendar. She's been posting potential outfits for weeks. The military boots and pink over-the-knee socks won with fifty Likes.

‘I think my outfit is me,' she says grandly, as if addressing an audience.

‘Who else would it be?' I ask with a flat look.

She ignores me and continues to address the fans in her imagination. ‘In touch with who I am. Tough but feminine, military but boho, on trend but sophisticated.'

We'll be at school soon and I'm not ready to face it. I can't shake this festering feeling in my gut. Maybe it's the Hulk juice. I feel a heaviness descending down my forehead, an electric garage door closing.

Elecktra turns to me suddenly. ‘Remember to tell the school gazette who you're wearing,' she says. ‘Let's practise.'

‘Do we have to?' I say, trying to swallow my nerves. ‘I hate fashion.'

‘Fashion is every day,' she snaps. ‘Who are you wearing?'

‘It's not the red carpet, Lecky.'

‘Might as well be.' She stops walking and handbrakes my step with her arm.

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