by Xenophon Hendrix
I froze for a long moment, and then accepted the can. What in hell do you think you're doing? Ursus asked.
This is clearly a dare, I thought back at him. I took a small sip but held the beer to my mouth long enough to make it look like I was taking more. I thought it tasted like rectum. I passed the can to Terry.
To the extent that I had access to his memories, Ursus appeared to be a teetotaler. I thought to him, I've always had trouble fitting in, and with you in my head, it's going to be even harder. I'm either going to have to work at not being so remote, or just acknowledge that I'm going to become a hermit.
I noticed that the other three guys were staring at me in shock. "Shit," said Mike. "I never thought you'd drink any."
"Heh," said Danny. "He's been hanging around with us too much."
"Yep, you guys are corrupting me."
Terry took a couple of swallows and handed the can back to Danny, who finished it. He said, "We better get back downstairs." The topic of discussion as we descended was my uncharacteristic behavior, but we all shut up as we went back outside.
Mary was still listening to Jenny, but when the boys all sat down on the porch furniture, the girls joined us. Everyone else began shooting the breeze about the things kids that age talk about. Mike was saying how much he would love to have a motorcycle when I turned my attention inward. You surprised me, I said to Ursus.
How's that? As soon as he asked, he actually started to get the answer, but I thought it out word for word anyway. It seemed to help me keep my thoughts straight.
You being a thousand-year-old-plus man and not drinking alcohol.
Well, the water was good where I grew up, so I didn't have to drink.
The answer confused me for a second, but the explanation immediately started coming to mind. Ursus continued: In some places, the water is contaminated with germs or evil spirits, but alcohol helps kill or drive them off, so even children drink. Furthermore, fermentation works as a preservative. People don't always have good ways to keep food from spoiling, so they dry it, salt it, or ferment it. I grew up in a place with good water, and we preserved food with magic, so as a kid, I never got a taste for alcohol.
I was flooded by memories of the home of Ursus's youth. I thought to him, Yeah, well, the kids around here have good water, but most adults still drink.
People like feeling good, and will consume intoxicants to do so. Still, I don't like losing control, and before my recent assassination, I was a powerful wizard, so it was unusually dangerous for me. Too, I had some drunken uncles. More memories came to mind. Their experiences made me wary.
"Yo, Artie, you awake?" Terry asked.
"You were totally zoned out."
"Oh. You want something?"
"Mike asked you, who do you think would win in a fight between Russ and Greg?" Russ was Danny's next older brother, and Greg lived around the other corner at the end of our street. He didn't hang out much with the younger kids, but he was usually friendly, and we all thought he was cool.
Ursus's knowledge about fighting filled my consciousness. Soldiery wasn't his thing, but he had received training by experts and had picked up some practical experience, usually involuntarily, along the way. "Are you talking survival fighting or sport fighting?" I asked.
"No rules, all out."
"Russ is a year older and a little bigger. Both are in great shape. In an all out fight, though, the winner is usually the guy who first gets in a totally ruthless attack."
They all considered my opinion for a moment, but then Terry asked, "But who do you think would win?"
"Didn't Greg beat the crap out of a high school student when he was in grade eight or something?"
"That's what I heard," said Mike.
"If it's true, that tells me he's pretty tough."
"Russ has been practicing some moves, too," said Danny. "He knows his shit."
"Like I said, it probably would come down to who got really dirty first."
"That's a total wimp out," Mike said.
I turned a palm up. "What can I say?"
"What if they weren't trying to kill each other?" Terry asked. "I don't mean like boxing, but maybe a fight like a couple of friends might get in?"
"In that case, Russ would have the advantage," I answered.
"I still think Greg would win," opined Mike.
"Who do you think would come out on top, a karate guy or a boxer?" Terry asked.
The discussion of who could kick whose ass continued for a while. Mary braided Jenny's long hair, and the two mostly ignored us. After about an hour was up, I got up to head for my bike. "I'd like to hang around, but I really have a lot of work to do."
"You should take care of your homework the way we do," Mike said.
"You guys just ignore it when you don't feel like doing it."
"My parents might get upset at that."
"What are they going to do, beat the crap out of you?"
"I don't know if they would go that far, but my mom could sure make my life unpleasant."
"Just tell her the work is too hard," said Danny.
"My parents already know that I can get straight As; they wouldn't believe me."
"See, that was your first mistake."
"You're probably right," I said as I climbed on my bike.
"I better go, too," Mary said. "Mom might want some help with supper, and I have my own work to do."
When we were about half way home, Mary said, "Are you sure you should be hanging out with those guys, Artie?"
I suppressed the urge to say something sarcastic and instead said, "You know they are pretty normal for guys around our age."
"I know they don't do things or talk about things any worse than a lot of people, but you are always so much better behaved than they are."
"Am I?" We drove our bicycles into the garage but didn't get off them.
"Yeah. You always do your homework. You don't lie or steal things or swear. Or at least you've never been caught. Your friends, though, can be awfully foul mouthed, and I don't trust Danny at all."
"I've been thinking a lot since I woke up Monday," I said. "You're right that I've usually followed the rules and stayed within the parents' boundaries, but have I really been a good person?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, what do I do when you talk to me when I'm reading or studying?"
"You usually yell at me, or at least say, 'What?' in an angry voice."
"And what do I do when the parents tell me to do something?"
"You do it, but you move slowly, grumble to yourself, and scowl a lot."
"Do either you or Mom or Dad deserve that kind of treatment?"
"I've never thought we did," she said in a soft voice.
I looked at her face. She wasn't crying, but I could see tears piling up on top of her eyelids. I got off my bike and moved my head close to hers. "Now," I said quietly, "would you rather have a brother who said 'fuck' or 'shit' once in a while but actually tried to get along, or would you rather have one who followed the rules but went around all the time like an angry porcupine?"
She smiled sadly but didn't reply. I left her sitting on her bike and went inside. "Mom," I called, "Mary and me are home. Mary's in the garage, and I'm going downstairs to do homework."
Mom yelled her acknowledgement as I was on my way down. I saw that Rich and Charlie were shooting pool. Pool was one of the few games that Dad liked, and he taught all of his kids how to play just as soon as they were tall enough. Charlie used a small cue that I think was originally intended for tables that had to be put close to a wall or other obstacle. "I'm going to be studying down here, guys."
"You don't own the basement," said Rich.
He defies you because you yell at him, Ursus thought.
I suppressed my prickly reaction and said in a normal tone of voice, "That's true. It belongs to Mom and Dad. It's also true, though, that I still have a lot of make-up work to do. If I have to take it to our room, you guys are probably going to have to stay out until bedtime. Your choice where I do it."
That actually made him pause and think. "Can we finish our game?"
"Yeah, but then you have to clear out."
Before supper and after, I worked on copying notes, homework, and make-up work. Whenever the juvenile part of me found itself getting frustrated over doing schoolwork rather than something it wanted to do, Ursus calmed me down. Sometime after supper he thought, You know, one of the reasons you spend so much time on homework is that you get all worked up and fritter away half your time fighting yourself.
I knew he was right. I said aloud, softly, "I've even been an asshole to myself." All at once, I started to bawl. I got up and ran into the storage room, where I huddled in a corner and cried until I was cried out. It took a while. By the time I was finished, tears and snot were all over my face, shirt, and hands.
I felt completely calm, almost peaceful. From now on I'm going to do better, I thought to the various consciousnesses in my head.
Yes, we are going to do better, Ursus thought.
I never knew I was so bad, Arthur thought.
Young people make the mistakes of young people. You would only be bad if you never grew out of it, thought Ursus. Now we are.
Arthur didn't mentally articulate anything, but we all felt his acquiescence.
When I opened the door, Mary was sitting on the old couch. She looked upset. "I didn't know if I should knock," she said. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
I was embarrassed to be seen in such a state, but I said, "You just did. I'm having an emotional time, is all. Did the folks hear me?"
"I don't think so."
"Don't tell them, OK?"
She thought before answering. "OK."
I crept upstairs and slipped into the small bathroom without anyone else seeing me. After I cleaned myself up and went back to the basement, Mary wasn't there.
I managed to stay even tempered the rest of the evening and got a lot accomplished, including two weeks worth of vocabulary words. The definitions in the new dictionary were half as long as in my old one, and the print was easier to read, so I got twice the copying done in less time than one week's used to take me. I still hated having to find the words and cut them out of a periodical, but Ursus pointed out, It both forces the students to see the words used in context and makes them read something, or at least skim. Mr. Dean was a cagey beast.
Besides, Ursus thought, I want to start reading the newspaper every morning anyway. I need to learn about this new universe I'm living in, and no offense intended, Arthur, I want to know more than the memories of a young guy can tell me. From now on as we read, we will come across the week's vocabulary words and underline them with a red pencil to cut out later, after everyone is done with the paper.
I couldn't disagree with his plan.
With a small amount of encouragement from Ursus, I decided to have fun with the words-in-a-sentence exercise. For example, for pistil I came up with: "In the foggy pre-dawn darkness, the delicate pistil was lonely for her bee." Farther down the list I wrote: "The disgruntled stamen worried why he was not good enough for the fickle pistil." I briefly was concerned that Mr. Dean might think I was being a smartass, but Ursus assured me, Good teachers like it when students get into their assignments, and I'm pretty sure that Mr. Dean is a good teacher, despite our disagreements with some of his methods.
My absolutely latest bedtime was 10:00 pm. At 9:30 Ursus said aloud, "We're almost caught up with everything, and tomorrow we'll have it done. Now, I'd really like some music." There was a radio and an old record player in the room I shared with my brothers, but it was past their bedtime. I thought for a few seconds and recalled that there was an even older record player in the storage room, but the only records handy was a stack of some old ones belonging to my parents. I had never bothered to listen to them.
Let's get it, thought Ursus, so I dug the phonograph out and set it up at one end of the table. Ursus thought the method of sound storage--wiggles in a plastic medium--was crude, and he was disappointed in the fidelity, but he still enjoyed most of the music, and his experience allowed me to see the merit in it.
We had time to listen to about ten songs. One of my parents had a taste for novelty tunes--Mom, I guessed--so I heard a song about a jumping bean and another one about the dietary habits of livestock, as well as a few dance songs, a crooner or two, and a country ballad.
The music must have triggered Ursus's memories, because the rest of my mind suddenly realized that the Ursus part knew how to play several different stringed instruments. Arthur knew what a guitar, banjo, and ukulele looked like. Plus he knew the names lute, mandolin, bouzouki, and sitar, but he didn't know one from the other. Ursus, of course, could mentally picture everything he could play, and he knew the instruments' names in several different languages, but he didn't know if they had English-language equivalents or a precise physical match on this node of the multiverse.
Nevertheless, he thought, I've played instruments in that musical family that have had anywhere from four strings to twelve. I can strum and pick with my fingers or a plectrum, play melody, harmony, and improvise. The exact pitches will be different on the instruments on this node, but the general principles are the same. For simple tunes, I should be able to play them on any instrument of the type, after experimenting a little.
Would we be able to do it with this body? Arthur asked. I mean, I'm pretty sure I can't yet do everything you used to be able to do.
It probably will take a while to make the connection from our fingers to our brain, but with practice, we should make fast progress.
I was so excited I couldn't sit still. I thought, I want to play the guitar.