by Xenophon Hendrix
Friday morning I got up somewhat early, restrung my guitar, and gave it a rough tuning. Thursday night I had worked a little past my bedtime to get the carvings almost finished. They still weren't sanded quite enough to meet my standards. I'd have to give them another hit before doing the charging ritual.
The roads were finally clear enough to render riding our bikes non-idiotic, but we were planning on bringing Kirsten back with us in the van after school, so Mom drove Mary, Sean, and I again. I wasn't sure how to handle giving Kirsten her gift. Now that we were allowed to see each other again outside of school, I no longer had to give it to her there. In case she brought a gift for me, though, I carefully put Kirsten's present away in my backpack so that the wrapping wouldn't tear. I had taken to carrying the pack even when I wasn't riding my bike to school. It was much handier than carrying my school stuff loose.
After Kirsten and I shared our greeting hug and kiss, the morning rapidly got less pleasant. As we waited for the door to be unlocked, Carol was telling whoever would listen how I had run from him in the mall. I'd learned that I couldn't give him an inch. "I like the mall, Carol. If I had let you force me to kick your ass again, they would have banned me from the premises." I said it loud enough that much of the surrounding crowd could hear.
"Any time, Powyr."
"You're just not getting it. I don't get any jollies out of hurting people, not even you. If you attack me, I'll defend myself as necessary. Otherwise, if you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone."
"My mother thinks you're an asshole and your mother's a bitch," he said.
"My mother thinks you're a shithead and your mother's an imbecile."
He got in my face. I said, "Are you really looking for this kind of trouble just before winter break?"
"Take it back."
"If I took it back, it would only be to shove it up your ass."
I guess that was too much, because he swung at me. I deflected the punch with my left arm, stepped inside even closer, and hooked my right elbow into the side of his head. The fight was over after that.
Unfortunately, it wasn't because my elbow to the head had ended it. I hadn't had that much on it. Instead, Kirsten had taken control of Carol's deflected arm. She now had it twisted behind his back in what amounted to a standing hammerlock.
Whereas it reflects well on Kirsten's character that she so quickly came to your assistance, Ursus thought, I perceive that having a girl defend you probably makes you look bad among your age group.
Yeah, likely. "Carol," I said loudly, "how many times do I have to tell you that Kirsten can kick your ass?" People laughed at that. Perhaps the situation was salvaged.
Through the big windows, I saw Miss Gorse going down the hallway toward the door. "Teacher!" I said. At my warning, Kirsten released Carol with a little push. He whirled to face us. "Teacher!" I warned again. It sunk in that time, and he turned toward the door as it was being unlocked. He glared at me while we were hanging up our coats, but he didn't say anything more.
As we were walking inside the classroom, Ursus thought, That one isn't going to give up until we fight him again.
With our protection spell in force, I'd feel really bad about agreeing to meet him somewhere.
Indeed, it hardly makes for a fair duel, but I've always disdained the dueling culture. Unless I'm at war, I fight only when I have to defend myself. Along with his statement came memories about dueling.
Novi Orbis and the English Empire haven't had a real dueling culture in around a hundred years.
I think that's to their credit. Mind you, having the option to duel has the societal advantage of inducing people to be polite. As a disadvantage, though, it tends to degrade into being a way for young hotheads to prove their manhood.
Before class, Mr. Dean gave my term paper back. I had scored one hundred percent, and he had written, "Excellent job!" Considering that I now had an ancient scholar in my head who was increasingly influencing my thoughts and actions, I didn't take as much pride in the accomplishment as I might have. It was much like a professional athlete defeating children.
"What did you get," Kirsten asked.
"One hundred percent. How did you do?"
"I received ninety-nine," said Debbie Taylor. She got up and posted another book report. "I've caught up, Arthur."
At least I could still have some fun with that competition. With Ursus in residence, the amount I had been reading was actually less than usual. "You better keep it up over break, Taylor. I'm going to have some time to read." I smiled when I said it.
"As you say, 'May the best bookworm win.'"
"Nerds," Sean muttered.
I decided to give Kirsten her Christmas present at lunch. "Why are you taking your books with you?" Kirsten asked once class was dismissed and we got up from our desks.
"I have something in my pack."
"What is it?"
"You'll see when we get to your house."
Once we were inside and our winter gear was off, I took my pack over to one of the counter stools and opened it up. "I got you a Christmas present," I said as I handed it to Kirsten.
"Thank you!" She had a big smile.
"Are you going to make her wait until Christmas to open it?" Mrs. Kennedy asked.
"I thought about it. My mom is firmly in the no-opening-until-Christmas camp, but I want to be there when Kirsten sees it. So go ahead."
Kirsten tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Her eyes got big, and I suddenly had an armful of happy girl. After she hugged me, she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me. She kept kissing me. Until then, all of our kisses had lasted a few seconds, at most. Kirsten didn't slip me her tongue or anything like that, but she didn't seem eager to stop any time soon. Finally, Mrs. Kennedy loudly cleared her throat, and we broke our clinch.
"I'm going to be watching you, boy," Mrs. Kennedy said to me. She smiled when she said it, but I had no doubt that she meant it.
Ursus replied to her. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Help me put it on," Kirsten said. She gave me the necklace and turned around as she lifted her collar-length auburn hair out of the way. I passed the necklace around front and then fastened it behind her neck. "I have to go look at it in the mirror," she said. Her mother went with her.
That was a big hit, I thought.
You do realize that you've pretty much just declared your love for her, right?
In fact, I hadn't entirely thought through the full implications of giving her a gold heart. Of course, as soon as I realized that, Ursus realized that I'd just realized that, etc. I thought, Well, she's certainly a lovable girl, and special.
She is. Try not to break her heart.
Kirsten and her mother came back. Kirsten was carrying a wrapped gift. "I was going to bring this with me when I went to your house after school, but I might as well give this to you now." She passed it to me.
It was fairly heavy. When I unwrapped it, I saw it was a large book, 250 Songs for the Guitar. Like the book I had from the library, it had both tablature and standard notation. I put it down and gave her a hug. "Thank you."
The exchange of gifts over, Mrs. Kennedy dished out lunch--homemade chili and cornbread. "This is good. It's a lot like my mom's," I said.
"It's your mom's recipe," Mrs. Kennedy said. "She said it's one of your favorites."
"It is. Thank you for going to so much trouble."
"You're welcome, but it wasn't any more trouble than normal."
"It's better than your old recipe," said Kirsten.
"I'm tempted to say something sarcastic," Mrs. Kenney said, "but I agree with you."
When we got back to class, Kirsten showed her necklace to Pam and some of the other girls. They gave me looks I couldn't interpret. I think the looks mean that they now consider you a higher form of life than they once did, thought Ursus, but don't quote me on that.
When the school day was over, Mr. Dean wished us all a good break. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Dean," a lot of us said. I was actually starting to kind of like him. Kirsten, Sean, and I met Mary part way. While Mary and Sean went to the van, I gave Mom a wave and walked to Kirsten's with her.
I stood inside the door while Kirsten made her preparations. She soon came out carrying both her flute and saxophone cases and a collapsible music stand. I took the saxophone. "Be good," her mother told her as we left. As I had waited for Kirsten, Mom had driven over and pulled the van into the Kennedy's drive. Kirsten and I climbed into the back seat with Mary. Kirsten sat in the middle.
"I am so glad to be away from that place for a while," I said.
"I don't mind school, but I can really use the break," Kirsten said.
"The place is too prison like for my taste."
"Two weeks of freedom," Mary said. "Too bad it's winter."
"I like the winter," said Kirsten, "except it gets dark so early."
"You don't mind the cold?"
"Cold means skiing and ice skating."
"Artie absolutely refuses to ice skate," Mary said.
"So he's told me. Do you skate?"
"Yeah, it's fun. There's a low spot in the vacant lot by our house that collects water. Once someone shovels it off, it makes a good ice rink."
"I can use the one at school." There was a dirt ice rink that the city flooded every winter at the southeast corner of Jewel Staid Elementary's yard.
"That one's bigger than what we have, but it isn't as handy."
"You can come over to my house with your skates during break, if you want."
"That would be fun. Just tell me when."
"I'll double check with my mom, but any time other than Christmas day or the New Year weekend should be good."
Once we were inside and had our winter stuff off, Kirsten went up to Mom and showed her the heart necklace, "Did Artie tell you what he got me for Christmas?"
Mom looked at me. "No, he didn't, but his sister mentioned to me what he'd bought."
"Mary, Terry, and I were shopping together when I saw that."
"Did you help him pick it out, Mary?" Kirsten asked.
"No, that was entirely Artie's idea."
We headed downstairs, and everyone but Mom decided they needed to go with us, even Susan.
I fetched my guitar, and Mary, Kirsten, and I dragged chairs over to the chord organ. Once we were there, Kirsten began looking at the band picture. "That's a Dan Lukowski original," I said.
"There's Art, Danny, Mike, Terry, and Mary," Kirsten said. "Is that me?"
"Yep, Danny, apparently, wants to draft you into our band, such as it is. It's a pretty good likeness, given that he drew you from memory."
"I guess. I see he's dressed me in a miniskirt."
"The guy has good taste." That earned me a playful slap on the shoulder.
I used the chord organ to do the fine-tuning on my guitar that I hadn't time for in the morning. As I did that, Kirsten set up her music stand and got her flute ready. I then let Mary have the chair by the organ and carried the kick-drum over by my chair. "We've been practicing 'Up in the Air' lately, let's try that first." I opened the songbook to the right page and put it on Kirsten's stand. "Why don't you do the melody, Kirsten, and Mary and I'll do the harmony."
So we played it. I also kept up a simple ONE-two-three rhythm on the drum. Then we played it again, but this time Kirsten did some jazzy variations. Mary said, "Why don't you two try singing it? You sounded really good when we were caroling."
The Arthur part of my brain was still afraid of singing, but the Ursus part thought, Don't be chicken. So Kirsten and I sang the melody instead of her playing the flute. A clapping came from the top of the stairs. Once Rich, Charlie, and Susan heard that, they joined in. "Thank you," Kirsten said.
Mom came down. "Do it again."
"Only if Mary joins us," I said.
"C'mon, Mary, you sang with us when we were caroling," Kirsten said.
"All right," she sounded nervous, but she joined in. I thought we sounded pretty good. So, apparently, did everyone else. We got another round of applause.
"Let's try something else," I said.
Kirsten flipped through the songbook. "How about 'Bob Dobson'?" the old folk standard. Mom soon went back upstairs to finish supper. The rest of the afternoon sped by. Mary even played a couple of the songs she had been practicing on the chord organ. I was surprised when Dad called us to come eat.
Mike and Terry came over after supper. "Why hello, Kirsten," Terry said. "You look lovely, as always."
"What a nice surprise. Arthur didn't inform us that you'd be here."
"I didn't want to give you two time to plan," I said.
"Plan what?" Mike asked.
"Bog only knows what your warped imaginations might produce."
"We're no more warped than you are."
"Remember last winter when the two of you polished the ice on the corner with brooms in hopes it would cause cars to spin out?"
"I rest my case."
"What's warped about that?"
We played "The Shepherd's Lament" for Kirsten. "I've never heard that before. Where did you guys find it?"
"Art says he got it from a voice inside his head," said Terry.
Kirsten looked at me. "You're weird, you know."
"Everyone keeps telling me that."
It wasn't too long after that when Danny came thumping down the stairs. "Look what I managed to get hold of." He was carrying a hi-hat cymbal. "Oh, hi Kirsten. You add class to this place."
"Thank you. Your picture is nice, but I'm not sure I approve of the way you have me dressed."
"What? Oh, yeah, artistic license."
"Cool," said Mike as he took the hi-hat. Terry slid him the kick drum, and he passed Terry their guitar.
"Do I want to know how you got that?" I asked Dan.
"I traded the conduit I didn't use on the pedal car for a walnut plank. I know a guy who makes his own rifle stocks, and I traded him the walnut for a single-shot twenty-two. Then I traded the twenty-two and a bike for the hi-hat and this drumstick." Danny slid the drumstick out from behind his belt and gave it to Mike.
"Amazing," Kirsten said.
"He is," I said.
We worked on music until about 8:30 pm. At one point, Danny and Kirsten got into a harmonica vs. saxophone duel while the rest of us tried to keep up. When everyone started to clear out, Dad drove Kirsten home. I went along and saw her to her door. She gave me a hug and quick kiss. "Thank you for having me over for supper. I had a great time."
"So did I. Do you want to do something tomorrow?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"I have no idea."
"I have jujutsu practice in the morning. Give me a call after lunch if you want."
When Dad and I got back home, Ursus thought, If we can achieve trance quickly, we might be able to get the charging ritual done before eleven. At any rate, we should have time to charge at least one of the glyphs.
I was learning, I put my pajamas and robe on before we started. I placed the guitar up on blocks on the basement table but didn't unstring it; I wasn't going to be cutting on it this time. I finished sanding the two stars, and then did the usual preparations.
The ritual went much like the one for my amulet, except this time I concentrated the visualizations on drawing manna into me. As usual, I felt both tired and buzzed when I was finished. My watch said it was 11:10 pm, but I had to try one more thing. I softly played "Up in the Air" while humming the melody. I didn't have enough strength left to sing. Nevertheless, not only was the manna close enough to touch, I touched it and drew it in. Victory.