by Xenophon Hendrix
Maybe we should go tell the playground lady what happened, I thought.
Let us consider this, thought Ursus. If we don't report the incident, there is a good chance that Don won't report it either. Not only was he the one who started it, he lost the fight decisively. Such a loss would doubtless affect his reputation as primary schoolyard menace, so he won't be eager to spread the news himself. Plus, there is that strange code of honor that keeps school-age boys from reporting to authority. However, if we call in the guards, the shit is definitely going to hit the fan, and we walked away unscathed, whereas Don is much the worse for wear. It could go badly for us.
I would probably get suspended, I thought. The school usually suspends both kids who get caught fighting, even if one plainly started it.
Ah, yes, thought Ursus, the collective guilt principle, beloved by tyrants and mediocre administrative minds. Don't worry about finding the people who actually caused the problem; just punish everyone involved. Not only will it serve as an instructive example for others, it makes sure the guilty don't go undeterred. The collateral casualties are a regrettable necessity.
We mused upon the problem for a minute, then Ursus thought: on the other hand, perhaps the cretin is hurt worse than I guessed. Odds are good that he will grow up to be a blight upon humanity, but I suppose he deserves a chance to rehabilitate himself. Perhaps we should go report the incident, just in case Don needs medical attention. Are you willing to pay the price of helping your fellow human being--term used loosely--Arthur?
Fortunately, I turned my head and saw Don slowly walking toward the grade-six door. He appeared to be in pain, but he was at least healthy enough to move under his own power. Saved!
Sean walked up beside me just before Mr. Dean opened the door to let everyone in. As we were hanging up our coats, Sean said in a low voice, "Al is still really pissed. He went over to Kirsten's house after school yesterday and told her how he felt. She told him that she didn't think about him that way, but they could still be friends."
Ouch. "Thanks for the update, man." We went into the classroom. When Kirsten came in, I said "hi" without Ursus prompting me. I spent the whole afternoon figuratively looking over my shoulder, waiting for the summons to the principal's office, but it never came.
Getting home on Friday always felt good, but it felt magnificent that day. No one had reported the fight, and I finally had some large chunks of free time to look forward to. I rode the last block on the way home at high speed. Mary shouted, "Arthur, wait for me. I have something I need to ask you."
I waited for Mary in the garage. When she rode up she asked, "Do you like Kirsten?"
I had thought that fact had already been established and presented for familial ridicule. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, Kirsten asked Vicki Norbery, who is in my class, to ask me. I told Vicki that I thought so, but that I would ask you to make sure."
Oh. "Yes, I like Kirsten." There, I said it out loud.
Mary smiled. "OK, I'll call Vicki later and tell her."
We went in the house and greeted Mom, and then I took my books downstairs and went back up to my room to change. Rich and Charlie had already done so and were headed out as I went in. Ursus thought, I take it that by the customs of your age group and subculture, Kirsten Kennedy just sent the message that she would be amenable to being more than just friends with you, at least tentatively.
I parsed what Ursus just said. I believe so, I thought back, but I'm new to this stuff, and I can't be 100% positive.
You should invite her to share a recreational activity.
I am 100% positive that both of our parents will say that we are too young to date.
Hmph. I've visited cultures wherein girls are married off at age thirteen or thereabouts.
That sounds awfully young.
Eh, probably. Most places do wait until an older age. Very young marriage is mostly done among noble classes for alliance and dynastic reasons. Still, your culture sends mixed messages. First, your school is forcing you to dance with the opposite sex, but then your parents are preventing you from actually doing anything together.
It's not so bad as that. At our age, though, they like to keep an eye on us. Knowing that Ursus would follow my thoughts, I thought about things that Kirsten and I would probably be allowed to do. We could do many activities with adult supervision present. We also probably could go somewhere like a shopping mall alone, or on a bike ride.
Just nowhere with a lot of privacy, concluded Ursus. I suppose that is standard procedure in many places.
That's the bottom line. I don't know that we could do much anyway. I'm pretty nearly broke. I opened the plastic box where I kept my money and counted out 39 centipounds. I couldn't buy a couple of ice-cream cones with that. I flopped onto my bed.
So, thought Ursus, our near term goals are practicing magic, keeping your grades up, and acquiring money and a guitar, all while maintaining and encouraging the interest of one Kirsten Kennedy.
That about sums it up, except I would include not being locked up as a nut, considering that three consciousnesses inhabit my brain.
We have your young age working for us there. If someone notices you acting a bit strangely, they will more than likely just assume it's you being a kid.
Ursus had a point. OK, how will we accomplish these goals?
Keeping your grades up is going to be easy with me helping. We'll mostly just be doing it to make your parents happy, because as my mind and Arthur's mind get more integrated, you will be finding yourself well educated already. Of course, as wizards and nerds, we never quit learning, and we'll want to be learning things about this node in particular. But that, unfortunately, has little to do with your current education.
Next, I have an idea that should allow us to simultaneously practice magic and get a small amount of money. It might raise enough to buy us a used guitar. We'll do some prep work tonight and the actual spell tomorrow. He thought about what he intended so that I could follow along.
As for Kirsten Kennedy, I'll help you with your shyness, but as you know, I have serious inhibitions and misgivings about what this body is feeling for what I consider to be a little girl. Now, I remember being eleven, and I remember at the time thinking that eleven-year-old girls were mighty fine. What you are feeling is good and natural, but it disturbs me. My compromise solution is that I'll help you be at your best around her, but I'm also going to try not to use my experience to help you get into that little girl's pants.
What? I'm not trying to get into her pants!
You sure about that?
Well. I've thought about it, but I wouldn't seriously try to do it.
So you say now. One's mind, though, can get a bit fogged in the clinches.
I haven't even yet touched a girl in a romantic way. What makes you think I'm anywhere near going so far?
I don't know that you are. I'm just trying to draw some lines. I don't want us messing up someone's life.
I don't want to do that, either, especially someone I like.
Good. Now, since there is a good chance that we will soon be acquiring a guitar, I want to read a book on how to play one.
I thought you said that you should be able to figure it out from all your experience with stringed instruments.
That's true, but a book would be a big shortcut, and I want to learn more about this place's musical notation.
Well, we could try the library, if Mom will let me go. I thought about the location of the library so that Ursus would know where it was. It was about a mile-and-a-half away by actual travel distance. The only time I had been inside was when I had to look for books for the term paper I had been working on. I got a library card then.
My parents weren't library users. If they wanted a book, they bought it, but they didn't read that many books. They read lots of periodicals and perhaps a half-dozen nonfiction books per year, each. Dad also read the occasional novel, mostly westerns. Mom didn't read fiction at all. Both of them considered the science fiction and fantasy that I liked (among lots of other books) to be "silly nonsense." To their credit, they had never tried to stop me from reading anything that I'd wanted. Although the library didn't call it that, the card they had signed off on for me was basically an everything-but-pornography card.
"Hey, Mom, mind if I go over to the library?" Susan was "helping" her in the kitchen.
"I don't know if I want you going that far by yourself, and it's only about an hour-and-a-half until supper."
At age eleven, my personal travel boundaries without adult supervision weren't centered on our house but on what roads I would have to cross. The main roads of southeast Michigana around the Detroit area, both north-south roads and east-west roads, were primarily laid out one mile apart in a grid. There were exceptions, but that was the framework. Our house was located fairly close to two intersecting main roads--Cord Road, running east-west, and Wool Road, running north-south. Within the square mile bordered by Wool to the east, Cord to the south, French Road to the west, and Tercet Road to the north, I was generally allowed to wander without supervision.
When first leaving the house, I was expected to tell Mom where I was going and whom I was with, but if subsequent events caused me to travel within the square mile indicated above, I didn't have to go back home and tell her my new location. However, any travel outside of that square mile, no matter how close the destination was to our house, required special dispensation.
"I don't plan on being gone for long," I said. "I'll just get a book or two and then leave."
"Why don't you see if Mary wants to go with you?" That was probably the best deal I was going to get in the current negotiations.
I knocked on Mary and Susan's door. "Come in," Mary said.
I stuck my head in. Mary was actually looking at her homework on a Friday. She was a worse mutant than I was. "Do you want to go to the library with me?"
I saw the gears turning in her head for a few moments; my including her in things was still new. "All right."
As we were heading into the garage to get out our bikes, Mom said, "Be careful crossing the street."
"Yes, Mother, we will be. I know that at least I, for one, am not yet ready to die."
"Smartass." Well, yes, but I wouldn't want to disappoint her.
There were many reasonable routes to get to the library from our house. I chose the one that happened to pass by Kirsten Kennedy's house. Hey, it only took us a couple of blocks out of our way. Lo and behold, Kirsten was outside. Say hello, prompted Ursus.
"Hi, Art. Hi, Mary." I found myself applying the brakes and turning into her drive. Mary followed. "Where are you two off to?"
"No, just getting some books to read."
"Oh. I like reading, too."
Ask her if she wants to come along.
"Would you like to come with us?" I actually felt a bit sick to my stomach. Ursus assured me: she's just a person, a nice one. Calm down.
"I'll have to ask my mom. I'll be right back."
Her mother came out with her. Kirsten said, "Mom, this is Arthur Powyr and his sister Mary. Arthur, Mary, this is my mom."
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Kennedy." She offered us her hand, so we shook. I judged that Mrs. Kennedy was probably older than my parents. Whereas Kirsten had auburn hair, her mother's was flame colored, slightly fading, as the hair of redheads tends to do as they get older.
"It's nice to meet the two of you, also. You are in Mr. Dean's class with Kirsten, aren't you, Arthur?"
"Yes, ma'am." I wasn't normally one to go around "sir-ing" and "ma'am-ing," but Mrs. Kennedy had enough of a patrician air about her that it seemed appropriate. And perhaps I wanted to impress her.
"What do you think of Mr. Dean?"
"He gives a lot of homework, but he is a good teacher, and I'm getting used to the homework."
"His reputation is that he is the best teacher in the school. That's why I wanted Kirsten in his class, although I have heard some complaints about the homework," she said as she looked meaningfully at Kirsten. She turned to Mary. "What grade are you in, Mary."
"Grade five. I'm not sure I want Mr. Dean next year, though." Mary grinned.
"That will be between you and your parents, I'm sure. Well, I won't keep you any longer. Be home in time for supper, Kirsten." Mrs. Kennedy went back inside, and Kirsten fetched her bicycle, a violet ten-speed. I felt rather short riding with the girls on their full-sized bikes.
The library was located right on Tercet Road, and the traffic was heavy enough to drown out any conversation, so we just rode along on the sidewalk. I understood that in some communities it was illegal, but the Packard police encouraged kids to stay off the main roads and ride their bikes on the sidewalks instead. That was fine with both Ursus and me. He still thought automobiles were a work of insanity.
As we were chaining up our bikes at the library, Kirsten asked, "Are you guys here for anything in particular?"
"I want a book on playing the guitar," I said.
"Oh, I love music. Have you been studying the guitar long?"
"I'm about to start, if I can get my hands on a guitar."
"My mom started teaching me piano when I was five, and I've been studying flute with the school band. Were you there when I brought my saxophone in to show the class?"
"I started private lessons for that last summer. Do you play anything, Mary?"
"No, but I would love to take piano lessons."
"There is a music store that gives lessons not far from where you guys live. It's in that strip mall near the corner of Cord and Wool. That's where I go for saxophone and the occasional extra flute lesson."
"I'll have to tell my parents about that. Artie, I didn't know you were still interested in playing the guitar. I thought you gave up on that idea."
"I tried to, but my big nap has left me reconsidering a lot of things."
No one said anything for a few moments, then Kirsten asked, "How are you feeling, now?"
"I'm feeling better all the time." I pulled open the door to go inside and held if for the girls without Ursus telling me to do so. Mom had managed to instill some manners in me. I did admire Kirsten's bottom once she passed. Mary saw me watching but just grinned at me.
After we were in, we split up. I had learned how to use a card catalog in school, so I didn't have any trouble finding the guitar section. Ursus thought the card catalog was quaint and pictured a device that one simply had to ask for pages of information to appear. It was definitely cool.
We browsed through the books, and Ursus selected two that looked good to him. After that, I went over to see what Kirsten was looking for. She was paging through a how-to-draw book. I whispered, "Do you draw along with all the other stuff you do?"
"Just a little."
"I have a friend who draws a lot."
"What's his name?"
"Danny Lukowski. He lives on Twine Drive."
"I don't know him."
"Red hair, husky, kind of a disreputable character?"
She shook her head to indicate that my description didn't ring a bell.
"Anyway, he's really good. I have a pastel drawing of a polar bear he did for me hanging on my bedroom door. If you ever come over to my house, I'll show it to you."
She looked at me for a second and said, "Did you just invite me into your bedroom?"
My face felt as if it were on fire. I heard Ursus laughing maniacally in my brain. Oho, you've got a flirt on your hands. "I didn't mean it like that."
"I know, but you're cute when you blush."
I wisely kept my mouth shut, and we went to collect Mary, who had found a couple of novels in the young-adult section. We checked out our books and headed back outside. Mary offered to carry our books in her bike's spring rack. "Thank you," I said as I handed mine over. Kirsten did the same.
We stopped for a little while at Kirsten's when we rode back with her. Her dad pulled in while we were chatting, and we went through another round of introductions. He was a tall, distinguished looking man who I guessed was a bit older than Kirsten's mother. "Are you the Arthur who was asleep for over a week?"
"Yes, sir." He gave off the same patrician vibe as Kirsten's mom. "The doctors told me they found it baffling. Chicken pox isn't supposed to do anything like that."
"I certainly never heard of such a thing. When Kirsten caught them as a toddler, she just squalled a lot. We had to fasten mittens on her to keep her from scratching."
"I couldn't resist scratching a little, but then I fell unconscious and they mostly healed up while I was out. Mary, my brothers, and my other sister all got them about the same time as I did. I'm glad I was asleep."
"Oh, your poor parents."
"Mom and Dad are pretty tough," Mary said, "but I think we almost broke them that week."
"It's getting close to our supper time," I said, "so we need to get going. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Kennedy."
"Thank you both for inviting me along to the library," said Kirsten.
"You are very welcome. Such pleasant company always is." Wow. Ursus's influence must have supplied that line. If Kirsten's smile was any indication, though, it was a good thing to say.
After we had pedaled for a little while, Mary said, "She's nice."
"She seems to like you."
"I hope so."
"Are you going to tell Mom that we took Kirsten to the library with us?"
"She'll probably just tease me more if I do."
"Yes, but if you are going to be spending time with Kirsten, Mom is going to have to know about it."
Mary had a point. "You can tell Mom about it when I'm not there."
After about a minute passed I said, "I'm going to try an experiment tomorrow morning. It will take several hours. Would you like to help?"