by Xenophon Hendrix
"That's what Mary told us." Mike said. "I thought she was shitting us."
"Well, you could think of it as me sitting there staring at a wooden disk, if it will make you feel better." I was slouched down so that my head rested on the back of the couch. I had trouble keeping my eyes open.
"OK, why were you doing that?"
"I was enchanting it."
"So you really believe in magic, then?" Terry asked.
I started humming a little tune about believing in magic that was popular when Arthur was younger. "Guys, I'm feeling really punchy right now. That spell casting stuff takes it out of me." I began humming again.
"Man," Mike said. "I never thought you'd believe in something so off the wall, Art."
"Have you seen anything that makes you think it really works?" Terry asked.
"Before I tell you guys any more, you have to promise not to tell anyone what you saw or heard this afternoon." It was worth a shot. Still, I didn't think they would be good at keeping the secret. They both enjoyed telling weird-Artie stories too much, and Terry liked to gossip. Nevertheless, I had to try.
They looked at each other. "You're not including Mary in that, right?" Terry asked. "We can still talk to each other?"
"Fine," Terry said.
"All right," Mike said.
I wanted nothing more than to drift off. "I'm sure magic is effective," I said. "If you want an example, it's one of the reasons I managed to beat those four guys in a fight."
"Did you, like, hex them or something?" Terry asked. Mike had a small smirk on his face.
"No, I put a protective spell on myself. It made their strikes miss more often than they would have otherwise and weaker when they did hit."
"Damn," Mike said. "You almost have me thinking that you're not putting us on about believing that shit."
"As long as you keep your mouths shut about this, I don't much care if you believe me or not," I said.
"Well, that's a fine attitude," Mike said in straight-laced voice.
I grinned, but I said, "I really need to get some sleep before dinner. We can discuss this some other time, if you want."
"We brought our new instruments over for you to give them a fine tuning," Terry said. "Could you do that before you crash? I think we got them pretty close using Mom's piano, but we wanted to double check."
Part of me wanted to tell them to shove them sideways, but another part of me wanted to check out their new stuff. "Yeah, get some kitchen chairs out of my new bedroom, and take them over to the chord organ. I'll be with you as soon as you set up."
I must have drifted off, because the next thing I remember is Mary giving me a shake. "They're ready, Artie."
Mary helped pull me up, and I lurched over to the empty seat near the organ. "Jeez," Mike said. "You look like you're about to fall down."
"Magic is energy intensive," I said.
"Will you show us something, sometime?" Terry asked.
"You already saw what it looks like, at least from the outside. It's not that flashy," I said. Ursus amended to me, It can be, but we haven't yet experimented with magic on this node enough to know what all it can do.
Mike handed me their new guitar. It looked good. It had a sunburst finish going from light yellow near the center of the single-cutaway body, through orange, to dark red near the edge, and reddish brown right on the edge and back. Unlike their brother's guitar, which had three single-coil pickups, this one had two twin-coil humbuckers, each with separate volume and tone controls.
I strummed it. "Nice sustain. What are the woods?"
"Solid mahogany body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard," Mike said.
"Those are good materials," I said. There were other good options, but from my reading and Ursus's experience, I knew that what they had were solid choices without being overly costly. Mrs. Prestor was a smart woman. I was sure she had done the research to get the most for her money.
I brought the tuning in as close to perfection as my ears and Ursus's skill could get, and then played a selection of chords and about a minute of the melody to "The Shepard's Lament" before handing it back. "Beautiful," I said. Their new guitar amp was small and mostly suited just for practice, but it didn't sound bad. "Do you have the whammy bar?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's in the case. I've learned that the one on Jeff's guitar messes up the tuning."
"'Tis the price of cool," I said. Terry passed me their bass. It, too, was a handsome instrument, but not as flashy as the guitar. It had a double-cutaway body painted reddish brown, lighter in the center and darkening toward the edge. A pickup was near the bridge and another by the neck, each with separate tone and volume controls.
I knew that the standard bass tuning was the same as the standard tuning for the four lowest strings on the guitar--E, A, D, G--but one octave lower. I fine-tuned the bass and finger picked it a little before giving it back. Unlike the guitar, the bass caused serious sympathetic vibrations around the basement. "That thing is really going to mess up your hands at first," I said. "I suggest only small doses of bass practice while they toughen up."
"What in hell was that?" Mom yelled down the stairs.
"That was Mike and Terry's new bass," I called back.
"Well, if you're going to be playing that thing around here, you're going to have to figure out some way to tame it."
"We'll work on it, Mrs. P.," called Terry. "Although I don't know how," he said much more quietly.
"Thanks for the help," Mike said. "Which guitar do you think is better, this new one, or Jeff's old one?"
"Both sound good and look well built. I couldn't say which one was better, overall. They do have somewhat different tones, though. Personally, I'd just use whichever one had the tone I was looking for on a particular song. I think you both should practice on each guitar, maybe alternate every day.
"And now, I must sleep," I said. I got up and headed straight for the couch.
I heard Terry ask, "Are we going to practice tomorrow?" but I don't think I answered.
I don't remember anything between then and when Mary shook me awake for Christmas dinner. "Dinner's ready, Artie."
"Just hold the pillow over my face until I quit moving."
"Come now." Mary took my arm, tugged me up, and herded me upstairs. I ducked into the bathroom for a couple of minutes.
I still felt sleepy. When Mom saw me enter the kitchen, she asked in a scolding tone of voice, "Were you asleep all afternoon?"
"Yeah, I didn't sleep much last night."
"He was dead to the world when we were down there playing pool," Rich said.
Mom shook her head. "You're going to mess up your sleep schedule."
"I have no excuse, ma'am," I said.
"Smartass," Mom said.
"Agnes, Agnes," Aunt Kate said in a rueful tone.
Mom thumbed her nose at her and then grinned. She said to me, "I hope you aren't going to go around like a tranquilized sloth all evening."
"Mrs. Kennedy invited us all over for dessert later. I told her that there were seven of us, plus two more for company, and convinced her that the three of them should come here instead."
I was mostly glad that Mom and Mrs. Kennedy seemed to be hitting it off so well, and Arthur was happy to see Kirsten, but I really wanted to get more sleep. "Oh. You and Mrs. Kennedy must be becoming friends."
"Is there any reason we shouldn't be?"
"Not that I know of. You just don't seem that much alike."
"Helen says I'm 'refreshing.'"
"I suppose that's one way to put it," said Aunt Kate.
Dinner was a big turkey, baked ham, squash, sweet potato, maize, stuffing, wild-rice casserole, deviled eggs, poppy-seed rolls, mixed vegetables, and whipped potatoes. Aunt Kate had helped Mom prepare it. They were both good cooks, so we all ate too much.
The Kennedys were scheduled to arrive at 7:30, so I slipped away right after we were finished eating to get a bit more sleep. Part of me felt bad about that, but there was a demon after me, and I had to be rested enough to do what I had to do.
The next thing I knew, Mary was shaking me awake again. "Kirsten's here."
"Wake up, sleeping beauty," Kirsten said. She bent down and gave me a kiss. It was a hell of a lot better than an alarm clock.
"Merry Christmas," I said as I got up. Arthur took over primary control, as he usually did when Kirsten was around.
The two girls helped me put the afghan over the back of the couch neatly. When I sat back down, Kirsten sat beside me. I put an arm around her, and she immediately snuggled right in. We had held hands a lot, but we hadn't got quite so cuddly before. As Mary sat down at the far end of the couch, she said, "I'm sorry, but both Mom and Mrs. Kennedy forbade me to leave you two alone. I can go over to the far corner and practice the organ, though, if you want."
"That's OK," said Kirsten. "Tell me what you got for Christmas." So Mary told her while I mostly listened. Then Kirsten told Mary. I zoned out. "What do you think, Artie?" Kirsten asked.
I immediately replayed their last few lines of conversation in my head. They were talking about her outfit. Kirsten was wearing some of her Christmas gifts. "Stand up and spin around," I said. She gave me a skeptical look, but complied. I noticed she was wearing the little heart I had given her. She had on a snug, dark-gold sweater and a pleated burgundy skirt that fell to just above her knees.
"Spin around again, this time faster."
She smirked. "You're just trying to get my skirt to fly up."
"Well, yeah. You look terrific," I said.
"Thank you." Kirsten sat back down. "What did you get for Christmas?" I told her and fetched the calculator for her to look at.
"Come up for some dessert," Mom yelled down the stairs.
I went upstairs and exchanged greetings with Kirsten's parents. The Kennedys had brought a selection of fruitcake slices, frosted Christmas cookies, and a lemon pie. Mom had made a butterscotch pie, a chocolate pie (Andy's favorite), and an apple pie (Dad's favorite), plus she had put out some of her own fruitcake and Aunt Kate's shortbread cookies. Life is good, thought Ursus.
Aunt Kate lifted me a piece of butterscotch pie, and I snagged a few pieces of fruitcake. "Try one of the Christmas cookies," said Kirsten. She had a small slice of lemon pie and a small slice of chocolate pie.
All the chairs around the table were taken, but that was OK, because it left the family-room couch open for us. Kirsten and I snuggled together. "Lemon pie is my favorite," she said, "but the chocolate looked really good."
"You eat your pie like Mary," I said.
"If there's more than one kind available, she can never decide." Mary was sitting in one of the armchairs, and I saw that she has slivers of lemon, chocolate, and butterscotch.
"What can I say?" Mary said. "Variety is good."
"Try a piece of my mom's lemon," Kirsten said as she offered it to me on her fork.
I took the bite. "It's good," I said after I swallowed. "Try a piece of my mom's butterscotch." I fed it to her. She gave me a bite of chocolate pie after that, and I popped a piece of fruitcake in her mouth.
I tried the cookie. Kirsten asked, "How do you like it?"
"I made them."
"Oh. That makes it even better."
She smiled at me. "This is really nice," Kirsten said. "My family seldom has much company during holidays, and when we do, it's never so many people."
"My dad's parents are in New Cornwall, and my mom's are in California. Dad has a brother in New Yorkshire, and Mom has a sister in Trimountaine. It can be difficult for anyone to get together."
The evening passed pleasantly. The kids all had too many sweets. The adults had a few drinks. There was a lot of talking and laughing. Rich lobbied to play a game. "Only if I don't have to move," I said. We decided on Effusion, a word game that required minimal fiddling with equipment and no fixed seating. Those who were interested in playing gathered in the family room. Kirsten and I got in some good cuddle time.
The next thing I knew, I heard Mr. Kennedy say, "Time to go home, Kirsten." I opened up my eyes.
Mrs. Kennedy said, "Those three look so cute, falling asleep like that." She was holding a camera. I suspected that we had been recorded for posterity. Kirsten was leaning against me. She turned to face her parents and blinked several times. Her glasses were askew. Susan was still asleep with her head in Kirsten's lap. Aunt Kate scooped Susan up and carried her toward the bedrooms. Kirsten fixed her specs.
"Are we going to have band practice tomorrow?" she asked.
I thought for a moment. Finding the home of the demon-summoning magician was priority one, and I didn't know how long it was going to take. But if the demon didn't kill me within the next few days, the band was an outstanding way to keep the Arthur part of me close to his friends. I looked at Mrs. Kennedy, "Would it be all right if we practiced after supper for an hour or two?"
"I suppose," she replied. "Mr. Kennedy or I will bring Kirsten over."
Along with my parents, I saw them to the door. Kirsten and I shared a hug and kiss before they left. It was a little after ten o'clock. "I don't know how you're going to sleep tonight," Mom said when she saw me checking the time.
"I won't have any trouble."
With all the people crossing them, the protective circles would be nearly destroyed. I needed to redo them, and I wasn't going to play around with going back and forth to use my guitar. I went downstairs and got it. When Mom saw me putting on my winter gear, she asked, "What the hell are you doing now?"
"I'm going to go sing a song under the stars. I'll be back inside in a few minutes."
"That sounds like a damn idiotic thing to do."
"I don't know. It might be inspiring."
"I know. Where do you suppose I get it?" I went out. I realized that chances were I'd be watched out the windows, so I kept the knife concealed and my movements minimal as I redid the circles.
When I went back inside, Mom asked, "Did the stars enjoy your performance?"
"Well, they twinkled at me." I got ready for bed and went downstairs. I set the execrable alarm for one o'clock and racked out.
It went off as scheduled. I knocked it over on my first attempt at shutting it off, but on my second attempt I held it with one hand so that it couldn't escape while I silenced it with the other.
Something wasn't right. I reached out with my senses for magic, and they recoiled. It felt revolting. The demon was out there. I could feel him near my outermost protective circle. Don't get rattled, thought Ursus.
I don't want my family hurt, thought Arthur.
I took my protective amulet in hand. Do you think he'll attack? I asked.
I hope he does, Ursus replied. A single circle drove him off last time. If he tries to go through a double, it might put him out of commission all day tomorrow.
Ursus took control of our body. I pulled on a pair of slippers and went into my bedroom. I took my guitar and played until my three consciousnesses had all the manna we could hold. Ursus visualized a mighty taunt: a pie in the face, a slip on a banana peel, a withering glare, a raspberry, a thumbed nose, a stuck out tongue, a contemptuous sniff, an extended middle finger, a fart in one's general direction. We released it at the demon.
My magic sense could feel its fury, but the demon didn't attack. Well, it was worth a try, thought Ursus, but we can't expend any more energy on him. Let's get to work.
What? thought Arthur. We're just going to ignore him?
I'm open to suggestions, thought Ursus.
No one had any, so we began our preparations for the next day. We needed something more portable than a pie pan full of water. I took a new pencil and carved a shallow notch around its center. I then carved two stylized eyes, just arcs between the legs of sideways "Vs," near each end. I tied a piece of the braided string around the notch, and then carefully balanced the toothpick with the goat hair within a knot at the other end of the string.
After setting up for a spell and casting and purifying a ceremonial circle, I gathered more manna, anointed the eye glyphs and the string with blood drops, and began visualizing the spell as I deepened my trance. I pictured the scene with the goat until it was as clear in my mind as I could make it, and then I pictured the toothpick pointing at it.
I fed the spell manna steadily. My trance deepened. My concentration focused until I perceived nothing but the spell. Then I knew I was finished.
Before releasing manna, I tested the new pointing device. It indicated a reasonable direction, given the rough triangulation I had already done, so I broke the circle. Instead of dismissing the powers, I again asked them to strengthen the protective circles outside.
I headed for the couch and went back to sleep. Tomorrow, I would track down the servant of the demon.