by Xenophon Hendrix
Wednesday morning--was it not great to be alive? Arthur was happy. He was having regular contact with his friends, learning guitar, and his girlfriend had decided that she was going to keep him no matter what her father said. The homework problem was under control, so he was happier with school. The bullies and ruffians were at bay, at least for the time being. Most importantly, regular magic use was ameliorating his depression, and his self-confidence was growing.
I was happy. I had survived my physical assassination, discovered one way to access manna on this node, and I had strong hopes that I could develop another. I enjoyed regular meals, a warm place to sleep, and was sharing a healthy body. I had every expectation that I was going to slowly regain my wizardly abilities and power.
On the downside, I had lost access to a lifetime of accumulated tools and augmentations, and I missed my familiar spirit badly. For centuries, she had been a friend that I could count on without reservation and had entrusted with my life more than once, and I hoped that she had survived whatever it was that had destroyed by body. But all things considered, life was good.
The clock said it was about twenty minutes before Arthur's mother usually rousted us to get ready for school. Let's get this body up and do some exercise, fellow brain mates.
I said, "Good morning, Mom," as I passed her on the way to the basement.
"Good morning. Aren't we chipper this morning?"
"I don't know about you, but I certainly am."
"Are you sure you're not on drugs."
"I swear on all that's holy in all the multiverse."
I did about fifteen minutes of calisthenics and then claimed the big bathroom just before Arthur's mother woke the rest of the kids. Hot water in the morning was wonderful. Breakfast was wonderful. The newspaper was wonderful. (I found three of Arthur's vocabulary words.) I had to restrain myself lest I burst into song. Oh, what the hell? "There's nothing better in the morning/Than a red-haired girl adorning/The longing space between your arms…"
The weather was bad, but that was to be expected given the time of year. The bike ride into school was uneventful. Riding a bike was wonderful, far better than those speeding deathtraps of which the people of this society seemed so insanely fond.
I said goodbye to Mary, and then Sean and I moseyed over to the grade-six door. Kirsten was waiting there for Arthur. When she came over for her morning hug, I discreetly withdrew, and Arthur took primary control. They certainly made a cute couple.
"Good morning, Artie. You rode your bike. Have you been released?" We hugged each other.
"Good morning." I loosed my hold on her, but I didn't quite let her go. We hadn't kissed on the lips since the time in her garage, and I felt a nearly overpowering urge. I leaned in, and she didn't draw back, so I kissed her--nothing extreme, just a couple of seconds. She smiled at me.
"They finally let me out," I said. I told the brief story. "I wish you could have been at my house yesterday."
"I wish I could have been there, too, but why in particular?"
"Mike, Terry, and I actually managed to play a song as a group."
"It feels great, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, like you're creating something bigger than yourself."
I heard a hawking noise and looked just in time to see Carol Flagler land a goober near my feet. My preferred method of dealing with him would have been to ignore him as a primeval slime mold beneath my notice, but I had learned the hard way that he took such behavior to be a sign of weakness. "Keep you excrescences to yourself," I said.
"What are you going to do about it if I don't?"
"Man, I think I've discovered a form of mammalian life that is completely incapable of learning." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sean move to where he could watch my back.
"You sound like a fucking pussy."
"You sound like a braying ass, but I'm trying to make allowances for your mental deficiencies."
He gave me a medium-hard push. I didn't try to block or avoid it, because I knew the ritual. "C'mon, Powyr, right now."
"Listen, Faggler, I know you don't have an academic record to protect, but I'm not going to get suspended over you."
"Where and when, then?"
"You going to bring more friends along? Maybe five or six this time?"
"Just me and you."
"Chicken-shit faggot pussy." He gave me another push.
"What part of getting your ass kicked didn't sink in?"
"You never kicked my ass. You fought like a pussy and took me by surprise." So that was how he was rationalizing this.
"Yeah, right. I took four guys by surprise."
"You fought like a sissy faggot and got lucky."
"Listen good, Carol, I'm not going to meet you anywhere at any time. If you attack me again, I'm going to put you in the emergency room again--at the very least. If you come after me with your catamite buddies again, I'm going to get my friends to help, and they are a hell of a lot meaner than yours." I didn't think he knew what catamite meant; maybe he would look it up later.
Making threats where others can hear is not good legal strategy, observed Ursus.
Do you have a better idea?
Given the young age of this simpleton, and your social circumstances, I suppose not.
"Dickwad." Carol went to push me again, but this time I was waiting for it. I brushed his right arm aside with my left, but I actually hit his left with a sword hand to the inside. Delivered with a man's strength, an edge-of-hand blow to the forearm can crack the bone. I didn't yet have a man's strength, but Carol hugged his arm and bent over it as he took a couple steps away.
"Wow, is he ever an idiot," said Kirsten, who had been standing beside me during the entire confrontation. Pam had come over to stand beside her.
"I'm not looking for trouble with the guy, but I've found that turning the other cheek to him just gets it slapped, and he invites his cronies along to urinate on me for good measure."
She gave my arm a hug, and in less than a minute Miss Gorse opened the door.
Carol didn't even look my way at lunch. During after-lunch recess, I checked on my new bike, and I remained where I could keep watch on the rack. I didn't want anyone to damage my bicycle as a way to get back at me. I thought, maybe I need some junk wheels to ride to school.
You need to get some more money before you can do that, thought Ursus, and on a not unrelated note, what are you planning to get Kirsten for Christmas?
Oh, man, I might have forgotten!
I bet she has a wrapped present for you on the last day of class before break.
Damn, it wouldn't surprise me. I have to get some more money.
There's always our money finding spell, and lots of places you and Mary haven't checked yet. We can even sigilize and re-do it to make it more powerful.
Yeah, this weekend, for sure.
When we got home from school, Mom announced to Mary and me, "Your father and I are doing some Christmas shopping after supper. You two are going to be watching the three youngest tonight."
"OK," said Mary, in her usual agreeable way. I just nodded.
Mom turned to me. "You still have a few hours to amend your Christmas letter."
The Arthur part of my brain was feeling much better, so I took the opportunity. I listed several books that I wanted to read and then at the end, in a what-the-hell moment, added "The room in the basement."
I headed downstairs. If I was going to have to baby sit, I needed to get my homework done now. First, though, fifteen minutes of guitar. I had just started when I heard, "Arthur, you little shit, get your ass up here."
"What's this horse shit about the room in the basement?"
"With the amount of homework I have to do and guitar practice, I'm already spending most of my time down there, and the room upstairs is mighty crowded with three in it."
"I think it's illegal to let a child sleep in the basement."
"Who's going to know? And Danny's brother Tommy does it."
She paused for a few moments. "I don't know if it's a good idea. Dad and I are going to have to talk about it."
The conversation actually had gone better than I had expected, so I dropped the subject to lock in my gains. The seed had been sown, at least. "OK."
I changed my clothes and went back downstairs, where I steadily did homework, with guitar breaks, until suppertime. I would have liked to go help out with the pedal car, but my imposed schedule interfered. At least I could do some of the next day's homework, too.
Mom asked Mary and me to take care of the after supper cleanup, and she and Dad left. Mike and Terry came over for guitar practice about ten minutes after we were finished. We herded all three kids downstairs, where Rich and Charlie immediately began a game of pool. Susan sat on Mary's lap by the chord organ and pressed random keys and buttons.
"Where are your parents?" asked Terry.
"What did you ask for?"
"Clothes, books, some guitar paraphernalia." I didn't mention the room in the basement, in case my scheme fell through.
"That's not very much."
"Why, what did you ask for?"
"Another electric guitar and a bass."
"That's a lot."
"Yeah, but Mom and Dad have been impressed with how much Mike and I have been practicing, and they are especially impressed with how well we've been sharing Jeff's guitar without fighting."
"That must be a nearly unprecedented event," Mary said.
"Pretty much," Mike said. "We said we'd share the guitar and bass, too."
"We've even been doing our homework," Terry said.
"Horrors, no!" I said.
"See, you guys just needed sufficient motivation," Mary said.
"How would you like to motivate me, Mary?" Terry said. He actually batted his eyelashes at her. Terry was a born flirt. He'd been behaving that way since before he was old enough to go to school. Most older females thought it was cute.
"Ew. I think I might hurl," said Mary, who wasn't older.
Mike ignored them and said, "Mom plays the piano and organ herself, and she's always been willing to invest in our musical education, but she hasn't been willing to throw money away if we didn't practice."
With Mike's statement, I had a bolt of inspiration. "Do you think your mom would be willing to work out a deal with Mary? Maybe an hour or two of chores for an hour of piano instruction?"
"I don't know; Mary would have to ask."
"I don't have anything to practice on," Mary said.
"Maybe you can work out a deal with Mrs. Prestor for that, too. She has a piano and an organ right there in her living room."
"I don't want to be a pest," Mary said.
"It doesn't hurt to ask. Think about it." With that, we got down to a solid hour of practice. As we had noted before, just sleeping on it made us somewhat better on whatever we'd been working on the day before. After everyone had a chance to play both the harmony and the melody a couple times, I added in another chord for the rhythm guitar part, the F.
Open F is actually a fairly tough chord, because it's only partly open. The two highest strings need a partial bar. Having three chords to switch between, one of them tough, significantly added to the challenge, but everyone hung in without getting too upset.
When Mike and Terry left to do homework, Rich asked us, "Want to play a game?"
"What?" I didn't actually want to play anything, but I couldn't hole up in the basement and also perform my kid watching duty.
"How about Cutthroat Capitalism?" So we went upstairs and played the board game at the kitchen table. Mary helped Susan make her moves until the little one began to doze off, and then she put her to bed. Mom and Dad arrived shortly after nine and banished Charlie as well. I was already eliminated from the game.
"You have until 9:30," Mom told Rich.
I headed for the basement. It was too late to start anything with magic. Should I begin the final copy of my term paper, or should I read this fine book on Norse mythology? The book won, and I read until bedtime.
Thursday was mostly a replay of Wednesday, minus the drama. Carol had gone back to glaring at me, but his buddy Pat didn't seem interested in me at lunch. Maybe one of them had some smarts. Donald didn't do anything out of the ordinary, either, but he was still on crutches.
Al simply ignored my existence. I supposed that was an improvement over him walking away in disgust. Sean had been dividing his time between the two of us. That week Sean also started hanging out with Chris Townshend, a quiet little guy who shared Sean's interest in woodworking. Chris always went around with a benign half-smile on his face, as if the world was providing him with private amusement that the rest of us were missing.
I had talked to him before. He liked woodworking and his motorcycle, and his ambition in life was to be a rough carpenter. Sean, really, had more in common with Chris than he had with me.
Kirsten, of course, made the day brighter every time I saw her, and we now had a brief kiss added to our morning greeting and our end-of-school-day goodbye. I tried not to press her about the situation with her father. Ursus assured me that if both she and her mother were in favor of me, it was just a matter of time before her father gave in. Our society, he observed, simply wasn't one in which the man of the house was king.
I did an hour of homework after school and then designed the money-finding sigil. It still featured a crude self-portrait, but now it was going to be the head of a human figure, the body of which was the sigil.
Mom and Dad went shopping again. Practice was good. Instead of Cutthroat Capitalism we played Imperial Ambitions after. I had the opposition finished off by 8:55. In my free hour before bed, I drew the sigil out neatly in pencil.
Friday started with a cold rain, and Mom drove us in. "Pretty soon, you aren't going to be able to ride your bikes."
"We might be able to manage it when the roads are clear," I said from the back corner.
"That can take days after every snow. They don't plow the side streets around here, you know. They just dump some salt and say to hell with it." She had a point.
The rain had stopped sometime in the morning. It being Friday, I headed for Danny's after school rather than do homework. Before I left, Mary said, "You know, I think I'm going to go see Kirsten." I found this announcement somewhat surprising, and from the look on her face, so did Mom. Mary and Kirsten had got along well the times they were together, though, and I didn't see how a friendship between the two of them could hurt me, so I said, "You probably should call before you ride all the way over there."
Mom said, "I don't know if I like you going that far by yourself."
"You let Art go that far on his own last year." That was not an argument I needed to hear, so I split.
The pedal car now had its rear axle installed. It was looking impressive. The cranks, sprockets, chains, and shifters were hooked up. The passenger side had fake handlebars to hang on to and mount crap on. When I arrived, Danny was finishing up sewing the mesh onto the passenger seat. Mike and Terry were installing the driver's seat. Not only did it clamp onto the support for the bottom bracket, it had a bar coming down from the center of the backrest to hold up the back.
Because my legs were about the same length as Danny's, they had me sit down so they could get the adjustment right. "Some chain guards wouldn't be remiss," I said.
"We'll make those when we make the fairing," Danny said.
"What's a fairing?"
"It's another name for the body. I didn't know the word, either, until Mr. Wertson told me." Mr. Wertson was one of the junior-high shop teachers. Danny actually liked him.
Danny finished the passenger seat, and it was installed forthwith. The pedal car was now drivable. Unfortunately, Danny didn't yet have the long cables for the rear brakes, so it only had the front one. There was no way in hell, of course, that such a minor defect was going to stop anyone. We would have driven the thing if it had no brakes at all. Danny steered, and he and Mike took the first ride around the block. Terry followed on his bike and beat them home slightly.
Danny and Terry were next. Mike minded Jenny, and I followed on my bike. The pedal car moved pretty well on the straight portions of road and on gentle curves, but the bike was a little faster. The bike could beat it handily, though, at taking sharp corners at speed.
When we got back to the garage, Danny said, "Damn it," I thought this thing would go faster."
"With all the framing," I said, "it has a least four bikes' worth of materials in it, but only two pedalers."
"Maybe it'll go faster with the fairing. Mr. Wertson said it would, despite the extra weight."
"What are you going to make it out of?"
"This stuff." He got up and took me over to where several four by eight sheets of plastic were standing against the garage wall. It looked like corrugated cardboard.
"This stuff is so cool," I said.
"Yeah, this is something new my mom saw at work." She was a secretary for a large office-supply company. "When I told her about wanting to build a body for the pedal car, she thought of it and got me some with her employee discount."
He headed back to the suped-up tricycle. "Hop in, Art."
Are you sure this is a good idea, thought Ursus.
We headed out. Neither Mike nor Terry bothered to pace us. Instead of going around the block this time, Danny took a right on Bradley. Once we were around the hump at the intersection of Topiary, it was a straight shot all the way to Normal. We went all out. Each rider had ten speeds, and by the time we neared the end, I was in the highest.
Danny wasn't just going to blow by the stop sign, was he? I started to downshift. Danny clamped down on the brake, and the pedal car made a beautiful fishtail. It was too bad Ursus was screaming our head off.
"Yes!" I yelled, hoping to save some face.
Damn it, thought Ursus. We're lucky that young maniac didn't roll this monstrosity. I think it went up on two wheels.
Danny was laughing his ass off. "I'm going to love this thing." We were almost facing the other way. Danny finished the turn, and we headed back at a somewhat more sedate pace.
Jenny got the next ride, even though she couldn't reach the pedals. "Keep your feet out of the chain, Danny warned her.
We all spent the rest of the time until dark taking turns being driver and shotgun rider. Mary came by just before then and got the last ride. When she got back, I asked, "Did you and Kirsten hang out?"
"Yeah, we had a good talk. I talked to her mother, too." I restrained myself from asking, but Mary volunteered the information. "Her mother likes you, and while she would have preferred Kirsten to be older before she became interested in boys, she thinks you're better than most, given that Kirsten is interested."
I appreciated the vote of confidence. We were still there when Mrs. Lukowski arrived home. We all greeted her. "Do you have that damn thing going yet?" She gestured at the pedal car.
"Yep, I'll give you a ride." So in spite of it being dark, Mrs. Lukowski climbed into the passenger seat and Danny took her for a spin.
She was laughing when they got back. "I don't want you riding this thing in the dark, unless you give it lights."
"I'll put them on the to-do list," Danny said.
Mary and I had to get going. Before we left, I said to Danny, "Why don't you come to rehearsal this evening? Mike, Terry, Mary, and I actually have a real song we've been working on."
"They told me about it. Sounds fun. I'll see if I can make it."
Mary and I stayed on the sidewalk on the way home. "That pedal car is the coolest thing," said Mary.
Hmph, thought Ursus.