Monday, April 21, 2008

Chapter 13: Turn in the Barrel

Magician's Merger

by Xenophon Hendrix

Chapter 13

I was feeling somewhat better by Tuesday evening. When Mike and Terry showed up with their guitar and amp, whoever answered the door just sent them to the basement without shouting for me to come get them. Mike took one look at my face and said, "What does the other guy look like?"

"The same as always, although he might have a stiff neck."

"What happened?"

"Al decided that I needed some color added to my face."

"And why would he do that?"

"I'm guessing he was jealous."


"Kirsten Kennedy."

I could see the gears turning in Mike's head. Terry asked, "Isn't she the girl that Al is always going on about?"

"Yeah," replied Mike. "She's that stone fox who lives over by Jewel Staid Elementary." Mike seemingly knew the approximate location of residence of most of the attractive girls in grades six through nine within a four-square-mile area. "Arthur, are you getting it on with Kirsten Kennedy?"

"What? No! We're just holding hands and stuff."

They both had huge grins now. "Way to go!" Mike shook my hand and Terry gave me a couple of thumps on the back. "We all figured you would be the last of the bunch to get a girlfriend."

I couldn't help smiling along with them, but then I sobered. "It cost me Al's friendship."

"It sucks, but he wasn't doing anything about her."

After a few more words of wonder and congratulations, they set up the guitar, and we practiced for more than an hour with them passing the guitar back and forth as their fingers got sore. I taught them C major and A major, which I had started that morning. By the time we were finished, my own fingers were throbbing.

"When do you think we'll be able to play a song?" asked Terry.

"We should be able to start doing backing harmony for simple songs when we can smoothly change between three chords, so keep practicing several times per day."

Terry looked puzzled. "Any three chords?"

"No, they have to be the chords in the song. Lots of songs just use three chords, though," I replied.

"Dolt," said Mike. He was a connoisseur of insulting epithets.

"C'mon Mike," I said. "This is new stuff. Anyway, one of those books said that there are fifteen basic open chords that tons of popular songs use. I figured those are what we'd concentrate on for now."

"What's the difference between an open chord and a, what, closed chord?"

"They're called 'barre chords.' You have to lay your index finger across the strings to play them, and they are harder to do. I'm saving them for later."

Mike and Terry left. I was happy to see that they were maintaining their enthusiasm. Because I was ahead of schedule on my homework, I spent the rest of the evening reading while still practicing the guitar a few minutes every hour.

At the end of one of the practice pauses, Ursus thought, you read so much that you should enter the book report contest.


To impress Mrs. Kennedy, of course. Kirsten doesn't seem to be the kind of girl who automatically dislikes everything her parents like, so having her mother on your side is all to your benefit.

I'll think about it.

Another thing: we should create a protection spell for our body.


I used to be surrounded by layers of them. In fact, they're probably what saved my life. We're nowhere near ready to do anything as complicated as those, but we might be able to come up with something that turns grazing hits into misses and lessens the impact of hits, now that you're going around getting into fights.

I didn't start either of those.

No, you didn't, but you still seem to be collecting enemies. Let's get ready for bed, and I'll explain what we need to do.

Al had a group of admirer's around him Wednesday morning. Kirsten gave me a hug and said quietly, "Please don't get mad, but he's been bragging about how he kicked your ass. But I know what really happened: You chose to turn away rather than beat the crap out of him when you had him hurt." "Ass" and "crap" were the two harshest things I'd ever heard Kirsten say.

I knew my response was partially informed by my continuing merger with Ursus: "It's OK; his pride was badly injured when you turned him down. More, he was a friend for several years, and if thinking he defeated me helps him feel better, it's OK." Kirsten gave my hand a squeeze.

Another thought came to me. "Let me know if he starts bugging you."

"Why would he do that?"

"If he thinks he kicked my ass, he might also think that he's vanquished a rival for your affection."

Kirsten frowned. "If he thinks he can win me by beating on you, I'll kick his ass myself. I am not that kind of girl."

I looked at her.

"I take jujutsu lessons every Saturday morning, and I have been since I was eight," she said in answer to my unspoken question.

I didn't get called to the principal's office that morning, either, so it looked reasonably certain that there would be no ramifications from the school over the fight. Lunch was a drag, though. Al sat at the end of the table farthest away from me, and he was still bragging.

Carl Flagler was sitting about halfway between Al's location and Sean's and mine. He leaned toward me and said, fairly loudly, "I heard Al Gallo kicked your ass. Man, I wish I hadn't missed that fight." Flagler didn't like me much. The feeling was mutual. His real first name was "Carol," but the kids had made fun of his seemingly feminine name.

"No, no," I said. "He didn't kick my ass. He punched my head several times."

"You're a fucking faggot; you know that?"

"I'm sure that would come as a surprise to Kirsten Kennedy, Carol."

"Are you saying that you're fucking her?"

"What? No! Nothing like that." It had honestly never occurred to me that someone might try to spin my statement that way. I was just thinking about the now-common knowledge that Kirsten and I were a budding item.

"Then shut your asshole, faggot." I decided to shut up; we were attracting attention.

The afternoon passed without incident until Kirsten pulled me aside on our way out of class. "Are you telling people that we've been having sex?"

I was surprised for a second, but then I remembered lunch. "No. No way." I then explained my altercation with Carol in full detail.

Kirsten looked relieved, and then she said something under her breath. I wasn't sure, but I thought it was, "That asshole." She spoke louder: "Would you like to come over to my house?"

"Right now?"

"Yes, if that's OK."

"I'd have to ask my mother."

"You can use our phone."

"Actually, Mom drives my two younger brother's back and forth. She parks her van on the way to your house. We can just go ask her." So we went over to the bike rack to get my bike and tell Sean and Mary the plan.

Well, thought Ursus, I guess the protection spell can wait until tomorrow. After all, this is Kirsten. I walked my bike, and we got to the van before it left.

"Mom, this is Kirsten Kennedy."

"Nice to finally meet you Kirsten. I've been hearing a lot about you lately."

Not from me, I thought. "Kirsten invited me over to her house. Can I go?"

Mom looked me up and down. Please, please, I thought, don't say anything about needing to change into my play clothes. "It's all right with me. Are you sure it's all right with your mother, Kirsten?"

"It's fine. I already checked."

"Are you positive you really want this big oaf around? He has a tendency to get in the way and jam things up."

Kirsten smiled. "He's been tolerable so far."

"All right then. Arthur, be good." I cringed internally when she said that. Then she noticed my schoolwork. "Would you like me to take your books home with me?"

I handed her the sack. "Thank you." After we started walking away, I said to Kirsten, "You can put your books on top of my bike seat."

"No, thank you, it's not that far. Your mother seems to have a sense of humor."

"She does. It tends to be rough, but it's certainly present."

"My mom mentioned that she seemed 'spirited' when they talked on the phone."

"I suppose that's accurate, too."

Mrs. Kennedy, of course, needed to make her own inspection of my face. "What are we going to do with you, Arthur?"

"Maybe a helmet," I said, "one with a faceguard."

"I don't think I'd like that," said Kirsten. "I wouldn't be able to see your face."

"Perhaps transparent plastic," said her mother.

"We'd have to make sure it isn't brittle," said Kirsten. "I'd hate to have it break and put out an eye, or scar his face."

"Oh, no, that would be tragic."

"Even a transparent faceguard, though, would prevent me from kissing him." I felt my face heating.

"Darling daughter, are you already thinking so far ahead?"

"Are you sure that 'ahead' is the right word to use?"

Mrs. Kennedy put her hands on her hips. "Well! Have you been kissing him?"

"No, I haven't, but sometimes it's so tempting. Like right now, for instance."

"Indeed. You weren't exaggerating when you told me how cute he is when he blushes."

They both totally lost it then. I felt horribly embarrassed, but a small part of my brain noted the fact that Mrs. Kennedy hadn't thrown me out of the house when her daughter talked about kissing me. Perhaps she deemed me within hailing distance of being worthy of her daughter.

After a minute, they took mercy on me. Kirsten gave me a half hug and then guided me toward the family room. As we passed through the kitchen, she put her books on the counter. She then steered me to the couch, sat beside me, and immediately sought out my hand. She held feet, too. My mood started to improve immediately. "I'm sorry," she said. She still had a big smile on her face, but if I wasn't mistaken, it was an affectionate smile.

You're not wrong, commented Ursus.

Mrs. Kennedy arrived with glasses of milk and cut up apples. Kirsten then told her a sanitized version of my lunchtime exchange with Carol and the resulting nasty rumor.

"This Carl sounds like an unpleasant person."

"We've never really got along," I said.

"Why did he see the need to drag my daughter through the mud?"

"I can't answer that."

"Perhaps I should talk to the principal about him."

"No, Mom, don't do that. The other kids take it badly when parents get involved."

"I don't want to see you hurt."

"I won't be. Arthur never said any such thing about me. I'll tell the girls who mention it to me, and I'm sure Art will tell the boys."

"I immediately corrected him at the lunch table," I said.

We talked about the social deficiencies of boys near puberty for a little while, and then Mrs. Kennedy retreated to the kitchen to give Kirsten and me a little nominal privacy. It wasn't actual privacy, because it was easy for her to look over at us, but at least she couldn't hear every word we said.

We talked about this and that--our favorite books, what kind of music we liked. When the topic turned to music, I convinced Kirsten to play a song on the piano in the living room. The time passed quickly, and when her father came home, I noticed that it was turning dusky outside. "I need to get going. I'm not supposed to ride my bike in the dark, and you folks will be eating supper soon."

I stood up. "Thank you for having me in, Mrs. Kennedy. Thank you for inviting me, Kirsten."

"It was nice having you," said Mrs. Kennedy

"It was nice to see you again, Mr. Kennedy."

"Likewise, Arthur."

Kirsten led me to the door and gave me a medium-long hug. Bog, did she ever feel good.

I set out. Kirsten's street didn't lead directly into the street I required to get home, Bradley Drive. I needed to take a short ride down a perpendicular street, Normal Road. As I was headed down Normal, I saw three kids coming toward me. One of them yelled out, "Faggot!" It was Carol's voice, so like the upstanding citizen I was, I gave them a good look at my middle finger before I turned down Bradley.

I had really thought that was the end of it, an unfriendly exchange of insults, but nothing serious. Not even Ursus's survival instincts flared up. I continued down Bradley at my normal pace for perhaps thirty seconds, when I heard someone yell behind me, "There he is!" I looked over my shoulder to see the three boys, and they were already moving at high speed.

Oh shit! I shifted into high gear and stood on the pedals as I pumped. Raw fear made me accelerate as fast as I ever had, but I could still hear their voices coming closer as they shouted encouragement to each other and mockery at me. I was starting to get a stitch in my side.

I went up on the sidewalk to cut off the jog in the road where Topiary met Bradley, and then made the turn onto Twine at a definitely unsafe speed. I almost wiped out.

They were right behind me. Please be out Danny! Please be out! I forced myself to push a little harder, and I decided I was going to look for help at Danny's house no matter what. I'd run inside without knocking if I had to. My pursuers would catch me if I tried to make it all the way home.

The slow curve in the road finally revealed Danny's house. His mother's station wagon was there. Danny, Mike and Terry were talking in the driveway. The Prestors were probably getting ready to head home. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I didn't try to yell for help; I didn't have the breath.

Making the sharp turn into the drive was out of the question. Instead, I made a shallow turn across the bottom of the drive, and headed into Danny's next-door neighbor's front lawn to help kill my speed as I braked. Nevertheless, my sudden arrival made my three friends look up. They quickly took in what was happening and moved to get between my pursuers and me.

Because of my sudden stop, Carol and his buddies actually overshot Danny's drive and continued down the street before turning around and heading back. Carol had made an impressive sweeping donut when he turned. They were all breathing hard, but not as hard as I was. "Chicken-shit faggot!"

I didn't try to answer but concentrated on regaining some wind. I still might need it in a couple of seconds. Danny made a big show of counting, pointing a finger at Carol and his buddies in turn. "One, two, three." He looked at me. "One. It looks to me like three against one. Tell me again who the chicken-shit faggots are."

"He flipped us off." I recognized one of Carol's friends, Pat somethingorother from Miss Gorse's class. I couldn't place the third.

"You seem to be the kind of asshole who should get flipped off regularly, but Art isn't the kind of guy who gives people the finger for no reason, so tell us what you did to deserve it."

No one replied.

"What's wrong? You have your tongues up your fuck-boys' asses?"

"Fuck you," said Flagler.

Danny's voice turned colder. "Get the fuck out of here, or you'll be digging your teeth out of your asshole." I knew he wasn't bluffing. Danny would run if he thought that was the best course, or compromise, but once he decided to take a stand, he wouldn't back down, and he had the same philosophy of fighting as Ursus: dirty as possible. Carol and his buddies either left now, or it was going to get bloody. I saw Mike's hand go into his coat pocket, the one where he kept the brass knuckles Danny had made for him. Apparently, Mike had concluded the same thing I had.

Ursus was sending me simple messages: steady, stay alert. I got ready for action. Did I feel shame at fighting four against three? Hell no. Not only was I receiving Ursus's influence, I'd always had a ruthless streak when it came to people who wanted to hurt me. Perhaps it was genetic. Nevertheless, I'd prefer it not come to that.

Carol looked at me. "Another time, fuckwad." He motioned to his friends with his head. "Let's go." They rode off.

I was still breathing hard. "Thanks guys. Danny, do you think we can do something about getting me a faster bike?" Danny was constantly scavenging parts and buying, rehabilitating, selling, and trading bicycles.

"No problem."

"All right," said Mike. "Tell us what the hell is going on."

So I had to tell the story, starting at lunch. Danny also wanted to hear about Kirsten, but I had to beg off. "Can't say anything now, I'm going to be late if I don't get going." Mike and Terry rode with me as they excitedly talked about the standoff.

As I put my bike away, I said to Ursus, what is going on? Why is everyone wanting to hurt me all of a sudden?

This is going to have to take some thought. You don't seem to be looking for trouble or doing that much wrong, but I've perhaps forgotten what it's like to be a kid. Or maybe it's just your turn in the barrel.

The visual image that accompanied that last expression embarrassed me. Ursus continued: nevertheless, you seem to have acquired at least three, and perhaps five, enemies in eight days. We're going to have to start work on the protection spell tonight.

Yes, sir. And I wasn't being sarcastic.

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