by Xenophon Hendrix
After supper, I was downstairs working on homework when Mary yelled down, "Mike and Terry are here." I went up to collect them and led them to the basement. Mike was carrying a guitar case, and Terry had an amplifier that looked to be about knee high. Mary came with us. Puff, who seemed to like Mike a lot, followed him downstairs and proceeded to rub against his legs.
We pulled chairs over to the chord organ. Mike handed me "his" guitar, and Ursus began tuning it unplugged while Mike and Terry fussed with the amplifier. "Don't turn it up very loud," I said. "We don't want my parents to ban us immediately."
Once he was finished, Ursus turned the volume control all the way down on the guitar and said, "Let's hear how it sounds plugged in." Mike gave Ursus the cord. After it was connected, he turned the guitar up to a respectable, but not obnoxious, volume and checked the tuning. He made a couple of fine adjustments, and I played the three chords I had started with on Saturday and then the C major chord that I had added to my repertoire that morning. I gave the guitar back to Mike.
Ursus picked up mine and fine-tuned it, but then he purposefully put the high e string out of tune slightly. He plucked both the low E and the high e so that they sounded together. "Do you hear how lousy they sound, that beating noise?" Ursus brought the high e back into tune and sounded both strings again. "Those notes are both Es, but two octaves apart."
Mike tried it on his guitar. "How do you know this stuff?" he asked.
"I've been reading these books," I replied while pointing at them. "Plus, you know, there's this voice in my head."
What! What are you doing?
It's all right. They're used to me saying weird things.
Terry picked the books up and began leafing through them. "You mean like a conscience?"
"I bribe mine to shut up," said Mike.
Ah, hiding things in plain sight. Good work.
Ursus fretted the low E on the fifth fret and then plucked the string beside it. "These are both As." He continued his tuning lesson for a time. Mike was starting to look a bit frustrated, so I said, "Let's try a few chords." I demonstrated the open E, Em, and Am.
Mike began working on them. "Your fingers have to come down straighter," I said. "You only want to touch the strings you are fretting."
We worked on the chords until Mike was able to get them to sound cleanly. "Yeah, now you're getting it. The idea is to practice them until you can fret them without having to position each finger separately. I've been advised, though, not to practice too much all at once for the first week or so, or you're liable to hurt your fingers bad enough that you can't practice at all the next day."
"You seem to have picked up a lot really quickly. How much have you been practicing?"
"Five to fifteen minutes at a time, several times per day. That's better than one long session, especially at first."
We did chords some more until I saw Mike wince. "Fingers getting sore?"
"They toughen up fast. Why don't you let Terry have a shot?"
"He might contaminate it," Mike said, but he handed the electric guitar to Terry, and we went over the three chords until he was able to sound them cleanly, too.
"If you guys practice them a few minutes before going to bed, and then a few minutes in the morning, and then a few minutes after you get home from school, that would be great."
"Maybe Mom and Dad will get us lessons," said Terry to Mike.
"I don't know; Mom was really pissed off when we dumped the clarinet and cornet last year."
"Guitars are cooler."
"I want to play the piano," said Mary.
Mike counted on his fingers and said, "Piano is fourth coolest."
We talked about guitars and music for a while. I eventually said, "I need to finish up my homework, guys."
They took the hint, and I showed them out. On his way through the door, Mike said, "Thanks for all the help, Artie. I always knew you were smart."
On my way back downstairs I thought, thanks Ursus.
You're welcome. I agree with you about keeping friends, and I don't want to mess up your life. I just wanted to survive.
All things considered, I replied, I like having you in my head just fine. I'm already a better person because you're around.
We worked on homework until bedtime as we tried to make a major dent in my vocabulary words, but we made sure we took a break and practiced the guitar ten or fifteen minutes out of every hour, though.
That night as I lay in bed, just before we began our relaxation ritual, I thought, Ursus, do you miss your friends?
Yes. I suppose my best friend was my familiar spirit, and I miss her a lot. I hope she wasn't hurt when my body was killed.
What's a familiar spirit?
A magician's familiar is an incorporeal spirit that assists him and generally watches his back. Traditionally, they possess the body of an animal. Mine inhabited a large dog. Ursus was showing me relevant memories as he "spoke."
"What was her name?"
It sounded very close to "Emily" in English. You weren't married or anything?
Not at the time.
Tuesday started normally enough. I found several of my vocabulary words as I read the newspaper. My bike tires were still good in the morning, so I decided to ride in.
"Are you sure about that?" asked Mom. "Those bikes apparently don't get watched."
"It's been getting me some needed exercise, it makes me more alert when class starts, it's not exactly a new bike, and Mary's is even older."
The school day started by following its new pattern. Kirsten greeted me warmly. Al avoided me. The event of the morning was Mr. Dean announcing that for science we had finished the unit on plants--exam tomorrow--and would be starting a unit on animals, the grand finale of which would be the dissection of a frog.
Well, that just thrills me all to shit, I thought.
I don't have anything against frogs.
It's for educational purposes.
You've been hanging around with sixth-graders for a few days. How many of them do you think will learn anything from a frog's innards?
You never know. Some people learn best from hands-on experience.
Plus, it's gross.
I can't argue with that.
Kirsten and I walked hand-in-hand over to her house for lunch. I was nervous, but not horribly so. Her mother seemed nice enough. My big fear was that she would decide that she needed to keep Kirsten away from me.
"Do you know why my mom invited you for lunch?"
"I assume because she wants to grill me."
Kirsten smiled, and my heart sped up even more. "Yep, that's pretty much right. I'm an only child, and my parents are protective. Don't worry, though. If she grills you, she still won't eat you."
I made sure I held the door for Kirsten when we went in. Mrs. Kennedy said, "Hello, Arthur, you can hang your coat on the rack and have a seat at the counter."
Kirsten and I climbed up on stools at the bar section of the counter. Mrs. Kennedy put a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup in front of us. "Would you like a glass of milk, Arthur?"
Ursus told me to wait before eating, in case the Kennedy's did a religious ritual over their food, but Kirsten took a bite of her sandwich, so I did, too. Kirsten hooked her left ankle around my right. What would one call that? Holding feet?
"How's the guitar coming?" Mrs. Kennedy asked me.
"It seems to be going well. I've been working on four chords, so far, plus a little picking."
"Are you taking lessons?"
"Not yet. For now, I'm seeing what I can do on my own, and I have a couple of books from the library."
"Learning a musical instrument from books is the hard way to go, but Kirsten tells me you like to read."
"Yes, I read all the time."
"Are you taking part in the book report contest? Kirsten was tied for second place in the first quarter's."
Ah, the book report contest. We were required to write a two-page book report each quarter, but interested students could write additional, shorter, reports and post them along a wall in the classroom, one row per student. First prize was lunch with Mr. Dean at his favorite hamburger place. Debbie Taylor had won the first one.
"I'm pretty sure I read more than Debbie, but I didn't write any reports. The prize was lunch with Mr. Dean."
"Surely he's not that bad."
"I've been slowly changing my opinion about him, but during the first part of the year, I could barely stand him."
"All the homework?"
"That, yes, a bit, but outlining the social studies book and copying definitions was so boring I could hardly take it. I'm becoming more resigned to it, lately."
And so it went. Mrs. Kennedy was nice about it and listened politely to my answers, but she asked a lot of questions. Ursus clued me in. Her physically maturing, beautiful young daughter--the light of her and her husband's lives--is suddenly showing intense interest in a boy from school and is not making any attempt to hide the fact. Of course she is worried and wants to know what kind of person I am. I didn't take offense. At least she was talking to me directly.
As we walked back to school, Kirsten said, "I'm sorry about that. Mom usually doesn't come on so strong."
"It's all right. She's trying to protect you, and I don't blame her a bit." That earned me another smile and a hand squeeze.
We were holding hands and chatting by a wall while we waited for the door to be unlocked. I heard a person shout, "I can't take it anymore."
Someone slammed into me and shoved me against the wall hard enough to smack my head. It was Al. He had his head down in my chest like a bull while he swung his fists blindly. Able to see or not, he landed four blows on my head before I reacted. A couple of people started screaming, "Fight! Fight!"
I was an introvert. So was Ursus. We focused more of our attention internally rather than externally, and the entirety of my external focus had been directed on Kirsten. In other words, Al had taken me completely by surprise, and I was going to get severely pummeled if I didn't do something quickly.
Ursus assumed body control. My position left me poor leverage and little room to accelerate a strike, but Al's position left the back of his neck vulnerable. Ursus formed "sword hand" with our left--palm and fingers rigid, thumb strait up--and struck the back of Al's neck with the side of my hand between the wrist and the base knuckle of my little finger, thus concentrating the force into a much smaller attack area than a fist.
It was enough to stun Al and cause him to reel to his right, a movement I aided with a shove. I noticed that it looked like Kirsten had been in the process of grabbing onto Al, but she had let him go when I pushed.
Ursus was setting up to launch a series of follow up blows when I seized control back from him. (I had no idea how our body or brain decided which consciousness was in charge at any given time.) Arthur was frantically shouting internally: No! No! No! Don't hurt Al!
Instead of moving in on Al, I grabbed Kirsten's hand and pushed through the crowd toward the door. As luck would have it, Miss Gorse unlocked the door at about the same time as we arrived in front of it. When she pushed the door open, she took a look at my face and asked, "Have you been fighting?"
I hated telling lies, seriously hated it. Sometimes, though, significantly greater evil is caused by the truth than would be caused by a lie. If I got suspended because Al attacked me, it would be a huge injustice, and I didn't care what the school's guidelines for standard operating procedure said. "No. I tripped and stumbled into the corner of the building."
"Your lip is bleeding."
"I'll take care of him," said Kirsten, and she pulled me into Mr. Dean's classroom. Miss Gorse followed us in, and Mr. Dean got up from behind his desk to see what was going on. Of course, the students were still excitedly talking about the fight, and the teachers weren't deaf. Kirsten dragged me over to the classroom sink. She looked upset, but she didn't hesitate. She got some paper towel from the dispenser, wet half of it and washed off the blood. Then she handed me the dry bunch and told me to hold it against my lip.
"Is there something you should tell me, Mr. Powyr?"
"I was just being my normal klutzy self, Mr. Dean."
"I see." It was starting to dawn on the rest of the kids in the class that they should shut up. "If you change your mind, come see me." Miss Gorse didn't look like she approved of the way Mr. Dean was handling the situation, but she gave her head a small shake and left. Mr. Dean said, "Art, Kirsten, you better hang up your coats. Class is about to start."
The rest of the school day was anticlimactic after the post-lunch disaster. At the end of the day, Mr. Dean said, "Mr. Powyr, please see me after class for a minute. The rest of you are dismissed." I walked up to his desk and waited for him to speak.
"Just between the two of us, Arthur, will you tell me what really happened this afternoon?"
"Between the two of us, Mr. Dean, I really have no comment. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry that you don't trust me."
"If you ask me sometime not during school hours and off school grounds, and it's just you and me rather than teacher and student, I'll tell you everything you want to know." I realized the old Arthur would never have uttered that sentence; he would have just mumbled something.
Mr. Dean looked at me. "I guess that's fair enough."
Mary and Sean were waiting for me at the bike rack. Sean was excitedly explaining the fight. At least my bike hadn't been tampered with. Mary examined my face for a minute. "Do you think we should go over to the van and show Mom?"
"I'd rather just wait until we get home." Once home, I managed to slip into the bathroom before Mom saw me. I looked at my face. I had a fat lip and a partial black eye. Time to face the music.
As soon as I walked into the kitchen, Mom asked, "What happened to you?"
"Al attacked me after lunch. I think he was in a jealous fit over Kirsten."
Mom guided me to the window and looked me over. "I guess you'll live. Should I be expecting a call from the school? Are you going to get suspended?"
"So far, no one has said anything about suspension, and I've been refusing to talk about it. I don't think Al has said anything, either, or I would've been called to the principal's office before the day was over."
"Thank God for small favors. What does Al look like?"
"He looks unmarked."
I was heading for the basement stairs with my books when Mom said, "Wait a minute. You took down that huge Beauchamp kid, but Al gives you a beating?"
"He took me by surprise."
On my way down, I heard Mary say, "What about Beauchamp?" Oops.
I put down my books and practiced guitar for fifteen minutes before I went back up to change my clothes. Mom was talking on the phone with someone. "Yes, he's fine, just some surface wounds. I'll tell him you were concerned about him."
I headed for my room. Rich and Charlie were there with questions of their own. I was getting tired of this. A person who used to be my friend had attacked me, and I felt shitty about it. Losing the friend felt far worse than a couple of punches to the head. "Al hit me a few times, guys, end of story."
Rich started to say, "But--"
"I'm not going to talk about it."
As I passed back through the kitchen, Mom said, "That was Mrs. Kennedy. Kirsten told her about your fight, and that Al started it. She wanted to make sure you were OK."
"That was nice of her. I'll be doing my homework." I had originally intended to go to Danny's, but now I just wanted to be alone, the voices in my head an unavoidable exception.