by Xenophon Hendrix
Sunday was the only day of the week that Dad was reasonably sure to take off work. Sunday morning, Mom always made a big brunch around 10:00, so Mary and I couldn't go collecting lost money until after that. I woke up around 8:00 and did some guitar reading and practicing until I was sure the bathroom queue was finished, then I seized the opportunity to take a longer than normal shower and to relieve the buildup of genital tension. Thank Bog, we didn't go to church.
Although I suppose we were all nominal Christians, Arthur had literally never set foot inside a church, at least as far back as he could remember. Religion just wasn't much of a concern for our family. Dad never said anything about it. Mom said more, but I had a suspicion that she endorsed several heresies--although I couldn't be sure, given my own limited knowledge.
I don't know, either, thought Ursus. In my travels of the multiverse, I've encountered some religions that resemble your recollections of Christianity, but I've never studied them deeply. I've always done my best to avoid divine entanglements.
I thought about that. What's the most common religion you've encountered?
That would be the many variations of the religion of the people that some archaeologists call the People of the Wolf. No one seems to know what they called themselves. You would probably call them pagans. The Greek myths that you've been studying most likely descended from their religion, at least in part. They had a Sky Father and an Earth Mother. A dog guarded their underworld. Their sun was a god; their moon a goddess (although some of their descendant religions switch that), and so on.
The Wolf People were great colonizers and settled in several nodes of the multiverse. In your English, I recognize some cognates from their language. That and the similarity in myths lead me to believe that they probably colonized this node as well.
If they colonized here, why did we forget about magic?
I don't know that you forgot much. The Wolf People seem to have been rather poor magicians.
Then how did they colonize so many nodes of the multiverse, as you call them?
Ah, I see your confusion. Magic and crossing between the nodes are two different skills. The first is done by magicians, and the second is done by--he paused to search my memory--"shamans" seems to be the closest word in English to what I mean. The Wolf People were poor magicians but unexcelled shamans. They and two other peoples, whom we call the People of the Dragon and the People of the Lion, colonized many of the cognate nodes to this one. I suspect that all three colonized this node.
That's cool, I thought, but I've learned that human life evolved here.
That's certainly possible. Human life has evolved many places.
How can that be? I thought evolution was all random and stuff.
No one knows, at least no one that I know knows. There is something in the multiverse that keeps many of the nodes similar to each other. There are many nodes like your own. They have a planet that is about three-quarters water and one-quarter land. There is a big moon in the sky. The people look like people. Sometimes the people have astonishingly similar customs, and even languages. Of course, some of the similarity is caused by migration between the nodes, but not all of it. It's one of the great mysteries of the multiverse.
Could it be God? I thought, with the Christian god in mind.
I don't know. I've met more limited gods in my life--and I try to avoid them--but I've never met an Almighty God who I was reasonably sure created everything.
We dropped the subject after that. Because I had shown interest in learning how to cook over the last couple of years, Mom let me help fix brunch along with her and Mary. I got to tend the back bacon. We also had potato pancakes, fried eggs, and toast.
When we were done eating, I gave Mary the job of keeping the rest of the kids out of the basement while I cast the search spell. It went quicker than last time. When I came up the stairs to collect Mary, she told Mom, "We had such good luck finding money yesterday that we thought we would try some more today."
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather go on a Sunday drive with the rest of us?" Mom and Dad liked Sunday drives. I found them tedious.
"We're sure." The folks figured that we were old enough to stay home alone, especially if we were both there to keep an eye on each other.
"Here, you better take a key with you."
Our collecting had only one incident of note. Mary pointed out Al riding by on his bike. Both of us waved and said hello to him, but he said, "Hi, Mary" and completely ignored me.
When we had reached the point where we didn't want to continue, Mary and I had found another five pounds and twelve cents. By the time we got home, everyone else had returned as well. I headed downstairs to do my homework and go over my vocabulary words for the spelling and definitions test on Monday. It took less than an hour to get it finished. We practiced guitar for about fifteen minutes, and then Ursus thought, let's take a look at your term paper stuff.
We reviewed the instructions and read over the example paper that I had been given. When that was finished, Ursus looked over my note cards and slowly put them in a coherent order. You pretty much have everything you need to write the paper here, he thought. You have notes on the birth, areas of responsibility, and character for every god in the Greek pantheon. We could write the outline, which you eventually need to do anyway, right now. Each god is a heading, and those birth, responsibility, and character items are subheadings A, B, and C.
So that is what we did. We still had about another fifteen minutes to practice some more before supper. After supper, there was more reading and guitar.
Monday morning, 22 November, I actually felt good about going to school. I still felt the place too closely resembled a prison, but my appreciation for my fellow inmates--or at least one inmate in particular--had markedly increased. "Hi, Kirsten," I said as we waited for the door to be unlocked.
She actually gave me a brief hug, and not just an arm hug, a full torso-to-torso squeeze. I had another jolt of fear and elation, but the elation outweighed the fear. Kirsten said, "My mom told me to invite you over for lunch tomorrow." Kirsten, living so close to the school, always went home for lunch.
I didn't relish the prospect of a whole half-hour of scrutiny from Kirsten's mother, but Ursus warned me that I didn't dare refuse. "I'll have to ask my mom, but I'm sure she'll say it's OK," I replied.
"OK, I'll pencil you in. Is grilled cheese and tomato soup good?"
"That's fine. I'll call tonight if Mom says I can't go."
As we were taking off our coats, Sean whispered to me, "Way to go, man." I noticed that Kirsten was wearing a jump suit, named after the coveralls that skydivers wore, which it resembled. The integral belt helped emphasize that Kirsten was developing a figure that was worth emphasizing.
I felt Ursus give an internal shudder. I was confused for a moment before I realized it was over the thought of people jumping from airplanes. There is no way, he thought, that I would ever want to jump from high objects when I can't fly.
There have been times when you could fly?
Sure. He started to recall some of them.
You've been a dragon? Cool!
Indeed I have, and indeed it is. It changes the personality, though. One becomes more arrogant and at least somewhat bloodthirsty.
Al didn't come in until we were already heading into our classroom. I didn't see Donbo that morning at all.
Kirsten and I played look-and-smile a bit, but the morning was uneventful. When Sean and I joined the after lunch kickball game, Al turned around and stalked off. I noticed Donbo walking around by himself. That was normal; not too many people had anything to do with him.
After lunch, we had the spelling and definition tests and scored them in class. We were also given our new vocabulary words for the week. I scored 100% on both tests. I also scored 100% when Mr. Dean called me up to his desk to take the make-up tests from the time that I had been out of school. That afternoon, we had an hour of art instruction, much like we received an hour of physical education on Thursday and an hour of music on Wednesday. All things considered, it was a normal day at school.
That changed when I went to unlock my bike. The tires were flat. "That really sucks, man," said Sean.
I inspected the tires for damage. There didn't appear to be any, so I hoped that someone had just let the air out of them. At about the time I was finished my examination, Mary showed up. "Mary, will you quick go ahead and tell Mom that I'm going to need to ride with her today. My tires are flat."
"I don't know. Go now, please. I'd hate to have to walk my bike all the way home."
She went, and Sean went with her. As I walked my bike toward Mom's van, my anger grew. By the time I got there, my mood was utterly black. I was angrier than the situation warranted, and I more-or-less knew it, but still couldn't help it.
Calm down Arthur, thought Ursus, it's not that serious.
Then why do you still feel like you want to kill someone and piss on his corpse?
I don't know.
Take a deep breath and let it out slowly, just like we do when we are starting to go into trance.
The breathing helped some, and by the time I got to the van, I could speak without biting someone in the throat. Mom, all my siblings, Sean, and Mrs. Rundgrin were all standing outside when I arrived. Mom asked, "What happened?"
"I don't know. I found it like this."
"Who might've done it?"
"I suppose there are a couple of prime suspects, but it really could be any jerk playing a prank."
"Who do you suspect?"
"I'll talk about it when we can be alone."
Mom looked at me and then gave me a short nod. She unlocked the back of the van and gave me a hand putting my bike behind the last seat. The drama over, Sean and Mary rode off, and Mrs. Rundgrin cleared out. Those of us left piled in. I sat in the back and simmered.
You know, thought Ursus, I might be able to come up with a spell to find out who did it.
When someone violated your property, he created a connection between himself and your bicycle. If I work quickly, before that connection fades away, I might be able to use it to lead me to the culprit.
I thought about it. Casting spells seems to be a lot of work.
So far on this node, the only way of working magic that I've discovered is time consuming, yes.
And it could be that someone just let the air out, which is a pain in the ass but otherwise harmless.
There appears to be a good chance of that, yes.
How about we try filling the tires? If they stay full, we'll write it off as a prank. If it turns out that they've had holes punched into them, we'll try your spell.
See, Arthur, your rationality is returning already. When you are in immediate danger, rage can be an ally, but otherwise it just gets in the way of thinking things through.
When we got home, Mom helped me get my bike out of the back. I fetched the bicycle pump from where it hung on the garage wall and inflated the tires. I decided to wait a while to see if they stayed full.
Once I went in the house, Mom led me into her room. "Does it look like your tires have been slashed?"
"They are full, for now at least. I'm going to wait for a while to see if they have slow leaks."
"All right, who do you think did it?"
"Both Al and Don Beauchamp have reasons to be mad at me."
"You know that Al liked Kirsten a lot. He has refused to have anything to do with me since Thursday."
"And this Don Beauchamp?"
"He tried to shake me down for a cent. He got a bit rough and tried to grab me. When he did that, I knocked him down and kicked him in the crotch."
Mom took a moment to process this information. She was not in the least a pacifist. In fact, she believed that some people were in need of a good ass kicking. "Did anyone see?"
"I'm pretty sure no."
"And why am I just finding out about this now?"
"I didn't feel compelled to share the information. You're the only person I've told."
"Hmmm. Who is he?"
"He's that big guy, biggest kid in the school by a lot. You can't miss him."
"Oh, him." She looked me up and down. "Good job, I guess. What are you going to do if he's looking for revenge?"
"What can I do? I either had to fight back or let him rob me."
"I wish you had trusted me enough to tell me right away, but I suppose I'm glad you didn't let him push you around."
And that was the end of that. Just before I went out her door, I remembered about the lunch invitation. "Oh, yeah, Mrs. Kennedy invited me to have lunch with Kirsten tomorrow."
"Do you want to?"
"I'll feel awkward, but I suppose I'd better."
"OK, fine." Damn indecipherable voice! "Do you want me to call her?"
"No, I'll call Kirsten in a little while."
I put my books downstairs, practiced the guitar for fifteen minutes, changed my clothes, and then called Kirsten's house. "Hello, Mrs. Kennedy, this is Arthur Powyr."
"Kirsten told me about your lunch invitation, and I asked my Mom. She said I could go."
"I'll be looking forward to having you. Is your mother there right now?"
"May I speak with her, please?"
Damn it! "Yes, here she is."
Mom, took the phone and said, "Uh huh" and "Mm hmm" a couple of times. Then she said, "He seems quite taken with her, too." After another pause for listening she said, "Well, he can be crabby as hell, but he's mostly harmless and stays out of trouble."
I couldn't take it anymore. I grabbed my coat and fled to the garage. The tires still seemed OK. I was about to climb on and go to Danny's--Mom could figure out where I was--when Ursus told me: Don't go.
Why not? I hate it when she talks about me like that.
Be that as it may, Kirsten might want to speak with you when your mothers are finished.
I suppose I had better stick around, then. I did a slow count to 100 and then went back inside. I heard Mom say, "Artie has been unusually happy the last few days, now that I think about it."
I flopped down on the family room couch and pulled a pillow over my head. I would not listen. In less than a minute, a giggling Susan had crawled on top of my back, Harvey on my feet, and Sylph on the pillow on my head. I felt Aubrey lick my elbow. "I am just a mattress."
That made Susan giggle some more. We all remained lying there for a minute when I heard Rich yell, "Dog pile!" and felt two more weights climb on me while Harvey's claws dug into my leg and Sylph's into my arm. OK that was enough. Unfortunately, I had to be careful not to hurt Susan. "OK, everyone, get off!"
"No! We are holding you for ransom," yelled Charlie.
"You guys be quiet in there," yelled Mom.
"The cats are clawing me," yelled I.
"I have to let you go, Helen, it sounds like someone is being killed. No, no, it's not an emergency; it happens around here all the time. It was nice meet you, too. Bye now."
Mom came and dug me out, but not before the cats had scratched me pretty good. I headed in to the bathroom to wash my wounds and see if any needed bandaging. I guessed I wasn't going to be talking to Kirsten.
Three bandages later, I came out. I felt curiously numb. "Are you all right?" asked Mom.
"I had to use a few bandages, but nothing was bleeding that fast."
"Let me see." I showed her. "You sound strange."
"I guess I've just been having a lot happen these last few days. I'll be over at Danny's until suppertime."
"Are your tires good?"
"They seem OK. If they deflate, I can always fill them at Dan's for long enough to get home."
I let Ursus control the bike. We didn't have an inner dialog, but I could feel his concern. I got off and rang Danny's bell.
He answered. "We're downstairs shooting pool." His family had a rec room in the basement, too, but it wasn't as finished as ours. He led the way. "We've been playing challenge the winner, but we can play teams after this."
Mike, Terry, and Danny's little sister, Jenny, greeted me. "Hi, everyone." Danny and Terry were playing pool. Jenny was using Danny's pachinko machine. Mike was paging through a girlie mag that probably belonged to Tommy, Danny's oldest brother, who was in grade twelve.
"How's the guitar going?" asked Mike, not looking up, when I sat down beside him on the foam-rubber-covered box that served as a couch.
"I think I'm making good progress."
"Cool. I dug out Jeff's guitar last night. It and the amp both still work. Do you know how to tune yet?"
"I managed to get mine sounding good."
"Could you get Jeff's in tune for me?"
"Yeah, bring it over tonight. Bring the amp, too. I'd love to hear it."
"Excellent (which Mike always pronounced ek-skellent). Are you OK? You sound weird."
"I'm OK. I just think I might be freaking out."
"Ah, nothing serious then." He handed me a magazine from the stack beside him.
Eh, what the hell? I took it and found the centerfold. December of 1972 had been a good month. "I think we need to do something cool."
"What do you have in mind?" asked Danny.
"You play the harmonica. Mike, how serious are you about learning the guitar?"
"It would completely kick ass."
"Are you willing to put in the work?"
What are you doing? asked Ursus.
With you in my head, it's getting hard for me to find things in common with my friends. I don't want to live my life without friends.
"I'd be willing to give it a shot," replied Mike.
"Would you be willing to meet regularly and learn with me?"
"I'll give it a try."
"Ek-skellent," I said, mimicking him. "As soon as we learn something, the three of us need to jam."
"What about me?" asked Terry.
"Do you want to learn a musical instrument?" I asked.
"It sounds like we could use a bass player," said Danny.
"Have I ever thanked you guys for being my friends?" I asked. They weren't always particularly good friends, but they were mine.