Part II: The Greater Sacrifice
Kim had felt a moment of uncertainty when the mists rose around her. She felt briefly as if she were falling through the air. She could see and hear nothing, and the only thing that felt solid was the hairy hand of the Mystical Monkey. She kept a firm grip on him, and as suddenly as the mists had risen, they parted and vanished.
But the dojo was gone. Light and color meshed and reformed around her into a gaudy pantheon of red, green and yellow. The smell of ancient wood and burning incense was replaced with a cooking smell that was all too familiar. She was inside Bueno Nacho, standing in front of Ned, who was holding a job application.
'I remember....' Kim said, looking around. 'This was when Ron and I got jobs at Bueno Nacho.' She put her hand out, trying to touch the shoulder of her younger self. Her hand passed through like vapor. 'What is this?' she said.
'Duh.' said the Mystical Monkey. 'This your memory, red. We seeing what happen in the past.'
And Kim gasped with sudden happiness, for standing right next to her was Ron. Younger looking, staring around with a bored expression, but the same Ron she'd been aching to see for so long since his disappearance. But as she reached out to take his hand, she passed through him as well.
'Memory red...' said the Mystical Monkey. 'What I just say? They can't see or hear or feel us.'
'But why am I seeing this?' she said.
'Donno.' said the Mystical Monkey. 'We find out together, I think.'
And Kim heard Ned talking. 'When can you start?' he said.
'Born ready, sir!' Kim heard herself answering eagerly, and she knew what she was thinking, because she remembered it plainly. Her mind was occupied with the timetable of how many days and hours she would have to work so she could buy a fashionable green jacket and then quit.
'And you?' said Ned, turning to Ron.
'Me what?' Ron said, and looked surprised.
'Isn't this your application, Mr... ah, Stoppable?' said Ned, holding up another sheet of paper.
'What?! I didn't...' and he turned helplessly to Kim. 'You didn't!' he wailed.
'It'll be more fun if we both work here!' Kim saw herself answer, and fearing that wouldn't be enough, she pulled out the big guns.
'Oh, no! No! No, not the puppy-dog pout!'
And so they had taken on the jobs. And Kim saw time pass swiftly, seeing the glaring humiliation in her eyes as she served Bonnie, who ordered Kim with sneering delight. But she'd wanted the jacket so badly, she even put up with Bonnie, knowing that it would all be worth it once Bonnie saw her wearing the jacket.
But none of that prepared her for what happened next. Learning that she just wasn't very good in the kitchen. She'd expected food preparation to come to her as easily as cheerleading, or Kung-Fu. And Kim watched herself as Ned shook his head at her efforts, demoting her to 'cheese duty'.
And she watched as Ned, dazzled by Ron's culinary style, promoted him to burrito folding. And Ron, in typical Ron-ness, had let it go to his head.
'Hello?' Kim saw herself saying to Ron. 'Kim to Ron! You didn't even want this job!'
'I didn't know what I wanted, Kim!' Ron said with an impassioned gleam in his eyes. 'I was lost, adrift in the wilderness. But that was then. Now I belong. I belong to Bueno Nacho! Yo amo este lugar!'
And Kim watched as she saw herself learning that Ron had been promoted to Assistant Manager, and the subsequent argument they'd had when she was getting ready to rush after Dr. Drakken and his plan to take over Wisconsin.
'Ron, an evil wacko is in the Dairy State with a giant laser drill! I'm going. And I was hoping you'd come with.'
There was a hurt look in Ron's face as he answered. 'To be your sidekick? That's what this is all about, isn't it? You just can't stand that I'm better than you at something!'
'You wouldn't even have this stupid job if I didn't fill out your application!' she shot back.
'Kim, we could argue all day, but it's not gonna get this floor mopped.' He said uncomfortably, probably not wanting to admit Kim had a point.
'Mop it yourself, boss! And find a new nacho-drone! I quit!'
Ron stared after her. 'Yeah?' he said, 'Well, find a new sidekick!' And as Kim watched herself storming out of Bueno Nacho, Ron turned to Ned angrily. 'What are you looking at? I want that floor to sparkle!'
'Ah, the young.' said the Mystical Monkey, shaking his head and taking another Naco out of his bag. 'They say that youth is wasted on them. So impatient...'
Kim felt a little annoyed. 'Both of us harshed out back then.' she said. 'It was a major minus for me to sign him on without telling him, but then he went all Little League on me at the same time...'
The Mystical Monkey shrugged. 'Maybe there something here you not seeing, red.' he said quietly. 'I not sure who made the bigger sacrifice...'
The vision rippled and dissolved, and Kim saw a flashing blur of scenes pass before her. She saw herself and Ron, best friends in middle school, both awkward, but neither above or below the other in their minds.
But as time passed, she became more confident, more stylish and beautiful. She became more popular, more accepted by the other students. While Ron followed after her, seeming just as awkward as before.
She studied Kung Fu. She became a cheerleader. She became more popular than ever, and everyone seemed to expect great things from her.
While Ron continued following in her wake. And no one seemed to expect much from him. Indeed many, Mr. Barkin's voice somehow louder than the others, said that he had no remarkable skills at all.
And while they didn't say it to him directly, somehow he seemed to pick up on it. Low expectations. A plotted course of mediocrity. All the while Kim seemed to be rising higher and higher, while he got smaller - not by shrinking, but by staying the same. And he seemed to stop trying to excel, simply because no one expected him to.
Then totally by accident, simply because Kim had wanted Ron along for the ride, he'd found something he was good at. A boss who encouraged him to the point where he actually overtook him, and he found himself in a position of authority and trust. He was doing something he enjoyed, and doing it well. And for the first time in his life, a sense of genuine accomplishment. And a gleam of hope that maybe, just maybe, he could do more than be just a shadow behind Kim's rising star...
Then a call from Wade, a plea for him to help Kim as she battled Drakken in his lair at the cheese wheel. And Ned smiling as Ron was forced to stand at a crossroads between two paths. 'Well, well, well. Looks like you've got a choice to make, Stoppable! What's more important? Your sacred duty as assistant manager - or your role as goofy sidekick?'
And Kim saw the pained realization dawning in his face. 'Well, that's no choice at all.' he said, and Kim could feel his disappointment like a solid aura around him. 'I guess it's time to say... buenos noches, Bueno Nacho!'
And Kim knew what had happened next. Ron had come to her aid. And even though he'd been captured again, they still managed to save the day. And when they returned home, they sat at Bueno Nacho, and he handed her a box containing a stylish green jacket which represented the last of his money from the job he'd given up....
The vision faded into a billowing of gray mist, and Kim stood beside the Mystical Monkey in the midst of a silent void. 'I... I never realized that job meant so much to him.' she said. She thought about later in Senior year, when she'd gotten another job herself - a job that she blew off more often than not. She'd simply done it as a hint to Ron that he should get a job, so he could afford to take her on more 'grown up' dates and ditch his coupon book. She remembered his numerous tries and failures throughout the many shops at the mall. When all the time, he'd walked away from a job he was really good at - again, for her sake.
'Mmm.' said the Mystical Monkey, nodding. 'One man's trash, another man's treasure.' he said. 'That very nice of him. Very giving.'
Kim felt guilty. Her own objections to him staying at Bueno Nacho now seemed not only pathetic, but selfish. They'd forgiven each other while tied up in Drakken's lair, but somehow after seeing it again, it felt rushed and perfunctory. 'You're entitled to excel.' she remembered saying. But even so, he had stayed at her side. He had never returned to Bueno Nacho to get his job back, and she had never motivated him to try.
But before she could dwell on it any longer, the mists around them seemed to be parting again. 'Oooh, here come another one.' said the Mystical Monkey. There was a musty, plastic smell that combined books with floor cleaner. The bright sunlight of day was now dark.
Kim glanced around. It looked like the Middleton High school hallway. The lights were low, and she heard music coming from the direction of the gym. The Mystical Monkey stood beside her. 'Why are we here?' she said.
'Beats me, red.' shrugged the Mystical Monkey. 'This your spiritual journey - I just here for the Nacos.'
Kim peered in through the doorway to the gym. Soft lights from a disco ball in the ceiling swirled around on the floor and she saw the shadowed figures of people dancing to a slow, romantic song.
'This is the Spirit Week dance.' she said. 'I was here with...' and she gasped as she saw a younger version of herself, dancing with Josh Mankey. She looked strange in her own eyes - not quite as mature. And it looked even stranger, seeing herself from the outside, especially when she was with someone besides Ron.
'I seeing more about this now.' said the Mystical Monkey, as if he were learning things himself. 'You were freaking over this dance, big time. Almost didn't go. But someone help you get through all that...'
'Ron.' said Kim softly, and was suddenly struck by a deep regret that it wasn't Ron in her arms on the dance floor.
'So where he at?' said the Mystical Monkey, looking around. 'He fought by your side that day - he help a lot. Why he not here?'
Kim shrugged her shoulders. 'He... he never came to the dance.' she said. 'I didn't... I don't... know where he was.'
There was a sudden thumping noise behind them, and the Mystical Monkey whirled, going into a kung-fu pose. 'Aaaaa!' he screeched. 'You got rats here? Rats with hammers?'
Kim stared at the door of a closet. She remembered hiding in there because she was so worried about Josh and the dance that she couldn't bring herself to face him. She walked slowly to the door.
'Hello?' Ron's voice came through the door, sounding slightly muffled. 'Hellooooooo? Anyone out there? Helloooooooooooo? Aw c'mon, the music's not that loud!'
Kim gasped, and she remembered. After Ron had encouraged her, she'd stepped into the hall and asked Josh out. And he'd accepted, instantly changing her nervousness and fear to relief and happiness. Josh had said he was coming to pick her up. Then Ron had blared out from the closet, using that stupid megaphone, saying he needed a ride too. As she passed by with Josh at her side, she kicked the door shut on him. She assumed he had simply left the closet on his own afterwards - after all, who would design a door that locks from the outside? And later that evening, she had been so elated about being at the dance with Josh, and showing up Bonnie, she had completely forgotten about Ron.
She reached for the doorknob, trying to open it, but her hand passed through it like vapor. 'Oh.. Ron...' she said, putting her hand to her chin, 'You spent the whole dance in here?'
She passed through the door and saw Ron, lying on a makeshift table he had made by stacking boxes of custodial supplies. He was staring at the ceiling, listening to the distant sound of the dance music. He sighed heavily.
'Oh man!' said the Mystical Monkey, coming through the door to stand beside Kim. 'You leave him in here? That really harsh, red! What he ever do to you?'
'I didn't leave him in here!' said Kim, protesting. 'I just... forgot him... in... here...' she ended, feeling foolish.
Then suddenly she was standing in cheerleader practice, when Ron flounced into the gym talking through that megaphone, declaring how his social calendar was free for any of them. Kim saw herself, her face flaming red with embarrassment as Ron was shot down again and again.
Then they were back in the dark closet and Kim was looking down at Ron as he kicked his feet against the side of his bed of boxes. 'Oooooh.' said the Mystical Monkey. 'You think he a geek, make you look like geek in front of the cool people. Well, I guess that as good a reason as any.' he said, shaking his head. 'Still - he put himself on the line for you - he help you go out with the guy you wanted. This seem like a pretty lousy way to pay him back, red. Did you even try to set him up with someone so he could enjoy the dance too?'
Kim said nothing. She sank down onto a box herself, staring at him, a feeling of deepest shame coursing through her. Ron had been clumsy and tactless about a lot of stuff that day. But in the end, he was the one who had gotten her together with Mankey. She remembered how happy she had felt that night, like everything had gone her way. She hadn't even noticed that Ron wasn't there.
There was a sound of footsteps outside the door, and Ron sat upright, twisting at the knob and calling out. 'Hey! Hey!' he said. 'Door need open here! Hello??'
A shadowed form paused in front of the small frosted pane of glass near the top of the door. 'Stoppable?' Kim felt a chill. It was Matt and Cliff. Two of the less memorable guys on the football team, but jocks nonetheless, who had never had anything good to say about Ron until he started winning games for them in his Senior year. 'What are you doing in there?' came Matt's voice, sounding amused, and a malicious edge already creeping into it.
Ron answered with his usual cheerful, unflappable voice. 'Ah, just chillin.' he said. 'But I feel totally chilled out now, so if you'll just put one hand on the doorknob and give it a quarter turn....' he said expectantly.
Matt's voice came laughing back, with Cliff chuckling in the background. 'You don't sound too chill to me, Stoppable.' he said. 'Catch you later.' Then he and Cliff strode back into the gym. Kim had passed through the door and was shouting.
'Not cool, guys! Not cool...!!!'
The Mystical Monkey poked his head through the wall. 'They can't hear you red.' he said, his eyes looking sad. 'They just shadows from the past.'
Shadows or not, Kim wanted to slug them both. She heard Cliff talking to Matt, their voices already fading. 'Wish I knew who locked him in there.' he said. 'Wouldn't have thought of it myself - good one!'
Kim stumped back to the Mystical Monkey. 'I remember them at the dance that night.' she said. 'I thought they looked a little too smug about something.' she re-entered the closet and Ron was sitting back down on the boxes with a sigh.
'Oh man, this tanks.' he said.
'Oh... Ron...' she said, feeling a tear running down her cheek.