by Xenophon Hendrix
We are so going to be in trouble, thought Arthur.
Calm down, thought Ursus. It was a snowball fight. Even bureaucratically constipated minds can overreact only so much.
"Mr. Dean, sir," I said, "I cannot tell a lie. I have nothing to say that I believe you need to know."
I could see him repressing a smirk. "Let me rephrase. What do you know that I believe I need to know?"
"As you heard, a massive snowball fight took place during lunch."
"And what do you know about this snowball fight, Mr. Powyr?"
"I was there, Mr. Dean. I saw it all."
"I see. Did you, by any chance, participate in said snowball fight, Mr. Powyr?"
"Mr. Dean, sir, I cannot tell a lie. I have nothing to say that I believe you need to know."
He actually let a brief chuckle escape. "I believe you just told me everything I need to know. In any case, patrolling the playground after lunch is not part of my responsibilities. All right class, get ready to copy down the vocabulary words for the week after break."
Alas, I did not dodge the bullet. About fifteen minutes later, Carol returned and Sean MacDougle, Michelle Palermo, John Marcello, Chris Townshend, and I were summoned to the office. We got up out of our seats to the traditional calls of "busted" from some of the other students. Unfortunately, this time they were correct.
It looked as if the evil snow-fight perpetrators were being called in a few at a time, which I suppose kept people from missing too much class as they waited around for their meeting with the principal. The secretary sent Sean in first and told the rest of us to take a seat in the waiting area. Having both Ursus and Arthur in my head was an even more surreal experience than normal in this case. One was faintly amused, while the other was worried sick. I didn't know whether to chuckle or throw up. I tried to settle into calm neutrality.
"What do you guys think will happen?" John whispered.
"No talking," said the secretary, who was in late middle age and gave the impression that she was sick of children.
In a few minutes, Sean came out, but before he could say anything the secretary said a peremptory, "No talking." Sean just shrugged and left. John was next, and then Michelle. Finally, it was my turn.
I went in and waited in front of Mr. Gattison's desk. He had black hair with a bit of grey and wore glasses.
"I've been informed that you took part in the snowball fight during lunch period."
"Well, what do you have to say?"
"I have nothing to say, sir."
"Do you deny the allegation?"
"I neither deny it nor confirm it, sir."
"Are you being smart with me?"
"No, sir, certainly not."
"Then answer my question. Did you take part in the snowball fight?"
"According to the Student Code of Conduct, sir, I cannot be compelled to give testimony against myself." I wasn't sure if what I'd just said was correct--Arthur had only skimmed through the Code once--but between Ursus's experience and Arthur's brief read through, I figured it was a good bet.
Mr. Gattison glared at me. "Very well, sit." He pointed at the chair across from his desk. I sat. "I want you to telephone one of your parents." He pressed a button on the phone and handed the receiver to me. I began dialing. "Which parent are you calling?"
"My mother." Mom picked up. "Hi, Mom, this is Arthur. Nothing seriously is wrong," that earned me another glare, "but the principal, Mr. Gattison, wants to speak with you. Here he is." I gave him the phone.
He went through the snowball fight allegation. I heard Mom talking, but I couldn't make out what she said. "No he hasn't admitted to taking part; he has chosen to remain silent, as is his right." More Mom. "He is the first student I've had stand on that right in years." Mom. "Yes, I had his record pulled. He does appear to be a smart boy.
"In any case, we need to take snowball fighting seriously. Children might be hurt." Mom. "Yes, the school also might be sued." Mom. "I propose suspending Arthur's cafeteria privileges for the rest of the week." Mom. "Yes, you will be expected to come get him." Mom. "Yes, that is the same penalty the other students are receiving." Mom. "Very well, here he is."
He gave me the telephone back. "Yes," I said.
"I'll see you after school, smartass."
Mr. Gattison dismissed me. The nurse's office was right next door to the main office. On impulse, I stepped inside. The nurse was on duty. She had a pleasant face. "May I have two aspirins, please?"
"Why? Have a headache?"
"Muscle pain from snow shoveling."
"When did you last have aspirin?"
"About eight this morning."
"How old are you?"
"Eleven, twelve in February."
"I'll have to take your temperature." She shook the alcohol off the glass rod and stuck it in my face. After a minute or so, she glanced at it and gave me a couple pills. "There's a water fountain just outside the door."
After school, Kirsten wanted to hear about the big snowball fight she missed. I told her about it in graphic detail. When I emphasized how thoroughly I'd managed to pelt Carol, she laughed. "I can't eat at school the rest of the week, but I still should be able to eat lunch at your house tomorrow."
We began walking toward the van with Sean. "Maybe you can eat lunch at my house for every day this week and save your mother the trouble of picking you up. I'd have to check with my mom, but I'm pretty sure she'd be fine with it."
"Given recent history, are you sure you want your mother to know that I'm a snowball-flinging desperado?"
"I don't think she'll be too upset about you being the instigator of a snowball fight."
"I wouldn't emphasize the instigator part."
"Leadership qualities are supposed to be a good thing, right?" she said.
"I'll rely on your judgment," I said.
"I'll tell you tomorrow if Mom says it's OK."
"My mom was pissed off," Sean said.
"Mine sounded more amused than anything," I said.
Kirsten gave me a quick hug when we parted at Mom's van. Because I sat in the back corner, Mom didn't try to ask me anything. She just shook her head. When we got home, Mike and Terry were just leaving their house. "Do either of you want to walk to the mall with Mary and me?"
"Nah," said Mike, "I think I'll go to Danny's."
"I'll go to the mall," said Terry.
"Arthur, I want to talk to you," Mom called.
"We'll see you in a few, Terry. Or would you rather step inside?"
"I'm all right. I don't want to get overheated in my winter clothes."
I went in. Mom asked me about the great snowball battle, and I answered her fully. Of course, all the kids listened. When I was finished, she said, "You knew you weren't supposed to throw snowballs."
"Yes I did. I'm so sorry. Next time Carol comes at me, I'll give him another sound thrashing instead."
That made her think. "Get out of here, smartass."
"Mary and I were going to walk to the mall with Terry."
"You can have a ride after supper."
"The crowd will be worse then."
"I really don't want you walking home after dark from that far away."
"Can you have Dad pick us up right before supper, then?"
"That'll work. Be at the main entrance at 5:40 sharp. Don't keep your father waiting; he puts in a long day."
I changed my clothes and stuffed my money into my pockets. All the coins made my trousers hang somewhat strangely, but I didn't much care. As Mom had recently pointed out, I was the opposite of a fashionable clotheshorse. Mary and I set out with Terry.
Infinity Mall, located on the southeast corner of Cord and French, was about a mile away from our house. It wasn't large for a shopping mall, but it was handy and kid friendly. My friends and I visited it every once in a while. The walk started out painfully, but as I got moving, my muscles lost a lot of their stiffness.
"Do you know what you want to get Kirsten?" asked Mary.
"Not really. I was hoping you could help."
"Well, what does she like?"
"Music, reading, drawing, teasing me, Small People--"
"The comic strip?"
"Yeah, it's even the topic of her term paper."
"You two do have a lot in common." I had several Small People collections on my bookshelves.
"She's not at all shy, and she likes to dance, though."
"If she were as shy as you are, you two probably wouldn't have got together, and most girls like dancing."
I gave a theatrical shudder. "I can't imagine why."
"You're just graceful as a gimpy rhino with the blind staggers," Terry said.
"What, do you like dancing?"
"It's OK. I imagine I'd like it a lot if I could do it with Kirsten."
"There is that."
"What kinds of books does she like?" Mary asked.
"I've never seen her bookshelf, but from things we've talked about, I think she likes fantasy and historical fiction, especially"--I deepened my voice--"daring tales of the Empire spreading enlightenment to the world."
"Patriotic, is she?" Terry asked.
"Yeah, she loves the Empire, and Novi Orbis."
"She's not one of the 'rah, rah, rah, we're number one' types, is she?"
"I'm pretty sure she's more complex than that. I think it's more an appreciation for what the pax Anglia has done for the world."
The mall was crowded, and we didn't have a lot of time. Fortunately, we passed a jewelry store, and I immediately saw what I wanted to get Kirsten. It was a necklace with a little heart outline in gold with a few diamond chips. It cost five pounds. A total cliché, to be sure, but sometimes things are clichéd for good reasons. Mary asked, "Isn't that a pretty serious gift?"
"I think she's really special," I said.
I went in and bought it. When I came out, Mary asked, "Are you buying Christmas gifts for anyone else this year?" This was the first year we had money of our own.
"I thought about it, why?"
"If you are, we could go in together for the family."
We hit the toy store. As Mary and I Christmas shopped, Terry looked at the board games, which he liked playing. Rich and Charlie were easy. They liked O'Connor's Commandos action figures. Because I was occasionally dragooned into playing with them, I had a good idea what equipment they already had. Susan was almost as easy. Mary picked out some doll outfits for her.
The parents were going to be hard. Finally, we just decided something. Dad liked looking at the birds that came to the feeder, so we got him a bird identification book with color photographs. Mom liked knitting and crocheting, and pretty much did it on automatic pilot whenever she watched television, so we got her a bag of yarn. Mary pointed out that we had to be sure the dye lots matched for any given color.
We were almost out of time. As we passed the hobby shop on the way to the main door, I said, "I want to go in here for a minute."
"You can't take long," Mary said.
I went up to an employee that wasn't already working with a customer and showed him my amulet. "Do you have a tiny eyehook that will fit this without cracking it."
"We should, over here." He led me to a rack that had small bins of miniature hardware. The small eyehooks were two for a centipound, so I had to buy two.
Terry wanted to check out the amulet. "Did you make this?"
"Cool. Are you going to paint anything other than the carved places?"
"I haven't decided yet. Maybe I should buy a bottle of model paint." I picked out a small bottle of blue.
We made it outside on time, and Dad picked us up in less than a minute. "Doing some Christmas shopping, eh?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Everyone was telling me I needed to get something for Kirsten."
"Girls are expensive."
"I don't think I'm expensive," said Mary.
"It's better than being cheap," said Terry, who was riding shotgun. Mary gave him a slap on the back of the head.
When we got out of the car at home, Mary said, "I'll run interference, you bring everything to the basement and hide it for now."
So that's what we did. On my way downstairs, Mom called, "Supper's ready."
"I'll be right there." I stashed everything in the back of the walk-in closet that made up one side of the basement non-office.
When I took my seat and scooped out some meatballs in gravy, Mom said, "Guess who called while you were out?"
"Mrs. Kennedy. It appears you'll be eating lunch at Kirsten's house for the rest of the week. The little turd falls in a barrel of shit and comes out smelling like a rose." She then told the snowball-fight incident from her point of view. Of course, I next had to tell it from mine.
"Got yourself caught breaking the rules, eh?" Dad said. He was laughing.
"Technically, but I broke a small rule so that I didn't have to break a bigger one."
"Sure you did."
I was about to respond when Ursus thought, Drop it. He's just yanking your chain. So I dropped it, and the dinner conversation soon moved on to other things.
After supper, while I was waiting for Terry and Mike to show up, I zipped through my arithmetic homework. Daily arithmetic was the only thing that was going to be due until after winter break. Soon, Mary led the brothers downstairs.
"You know what this dumb ass just did?" Mike said as he gestured at Terry.
"What did he do?" Mary asked.
"He hit our amplifier with a snowball."
"I wasn't aiming at the amplifier. I was aiming at you."
"That's all right, then," I said. We all practiced for about an hour. I noticed that the manna seemed even closer. So close, but still not quite gatherable.
The nearness is most likely the work of the amulet, thought Ursus.
Once everyone had cleared out, I was just starting to set up for a little scrying when Mary returned with a bunch of wrapping paper. I was assistant while she wrapped all the presents we had bought, including Kirsten's. I reminded myself that I still needed to get Mary a present.
Finally, I returned to setting up for the ritual. Mary asked, "Can I practice on the organ once you go into trance?"
"Sure, just give me a half-hour or so, first." Before I started any magic work, I turned the small eyehook into the amulet so that it would hang with the points of the stars pointing up. I threaded a woven cotton cord through the eyehook, tied it around my neck, and hung the amulet under my shirt.
Achieving trance became a little easier every time I did it. I cast and purified the circle and then sat staring at my pan of blood-enhanced water while deepening the trance and feeding the water manna. I believed the amulet was helping, both with the quantity of manna I could draw and my control of it.
My first vision formed: my family, except for Mary, upstairs watching television. As a vision, it was boring, but because I managed to accomplish the feat at all, I became excited enough that I felt Ursus take control and calm us down.
I studied the properties of the vision. It was dreamlike. Unlike sight, where the parts of the scene one isn't focusing upon are still there, the parts I wasn't focusing upon disappeared in a haze.
After an indeterminate amount of time, I grew bored with watching our family room. I tried opening myself to the wider world. Something interesting. Something interesting. Something interesting. I made those two words a mental mantra while I gazed into the water.
Another vision formed. Someone was wearing what looked like a black ceremonial robe, like something a college professor might wear, or maybe a priest. I concentrated on bringing him into focus. Then I screamed, and my concentration shattered.