Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Chapter 6: Long Weekend

Below the fold, with apologies to James Tiptree, Junior. In modern Buddhism, Pure Lands are not in the  eschatological future, but I think that wasn't the case in the 600s.

Chapter 6: The Long Weekend

“Have you ever noticed how many of these formulas have a ‘one half,’ and a ‘squared’ in them?” Jason asked. “Like, big ‘2’ on the bottom, little ‘2’ on top? It can’t be a coincidence.”

John just stared at Jason for a second. “What?” Jason asked. “Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I can’t be all interested in math and stuff.
“It’s because these formulas are first order integrations of other formulas. Calculus,” John answered. “What? Just because I’m the clone of an evil mastermind or something doesn’t mean that I can’t read ahead in our math texts and stuff!” John grinned as Jason crumpled up a piece of notepaper and threw it at him.  Then he picked up an insulated probe and picked at the tangled wires coming out of the VIPER blaster’s pulson generator. “What’s this little bead, here?”

John tapped the tablet to zoom in on the blueprint. “It’s a capacitor. Which is.... sort of like a battery, but instant.”

“So it soaks up all the power coming out of the generator for a while, then dumps it all into the ‘gun’ bit, zap, ‘Take that, heroes!’ Pew, pew?” Jason made a gun with his left hand as he spoke, waving it towards the door of the Technical Studies workshop, just as Mr. McNeely walked in. “Oops. Wrong gun. Meant to use the real one,” Jason whispered.

“Shh!” John replied. Mr. McNeely missed most days due to sickness and whatever, but he was always very excited about tutoring when he was around. Right now, he was practically runningg across the classroom towards the boy’s table. The girls looked up at him as he walked up to their table, but he went by without even pausing.

Maybe it was because they were so far ahead of the boys. Rafaella had the whole power module of the blaster taken apart already, and Emily and Amy were almost finished the worksheet on the blueprints. They were supposed to email them to Doctor Silverback Sunday night, and John and Jason were barely even started. John hoped that they wouldn’t have to do it all over the Columbus Day long weekend. Four days of glorious freedom, including the Professional Development Day on Friday, ruined by school work? It would be too much to bear! Mr. McNeely was just in time.

Mr. McNeely pulled up at their table. “I was at McDonald’s! You guys are too young for coffee, right? Maybe not? Bean wrong before. Anyway, I got a muffin for you, John. Just ten cents with my order! I hope you like carrot muffins.” He seemed pleased with himself as he handed over a pallid, orangey lump with a slight sheen of grease on its surface.

“What about Jason?” John asked.

“Oh, we’ve already got almost enough of the twins to make a third. The last thing we need around here is another Rugrat!” Mr. McNeely gave a little laugh, just to show what you’re supposed to do when someone makes a joke. He did that a lot, but John didn’t get the joke, and didn’t feel like laughing, anyway. Mr. McNeely wasn’t being fair.

Jason spoke up. “Do you see how the power equation for the generator has a ‘one-half’ and a ‘squared’ in it, Mr. McNeely? Just like the lift equation for the flight belt we did in September? Why is that?”

Mr. McNeely took on a thoughtful air and picked up the tablet. After a moment, he replied, “Well, the ‘one-half’ means that you’re supposed to divide the product by one half to get the power used by the gun.  The ‘squared’ means that you multiply the time of the pulse by itself to get the power.”

“We know that...” Jason began to reply, but Mr. McNeely interrupted. “It’s pretty basic algebra, Jason. You should really get Mr. Da Silva to explain it to you again in Math class. Oh! Look! It shows the time down there in the corner. I was supposed to deliver this paperwork to El Professore half an hour ago. I’d let you do it, but, well...” Mr. McNeely made air quotes with his hands when he said “El Professore,” then pulled a sheaf of papers out of his back pocket before bounding off towards the door. The bottom level of the secret passages had a door leading towards  the main building, which El Professore and Ms. Telantassar took to their offices, but only the faculty and Mr. McNeely knew the code for that round, metal door, as Mr. McNeely was always pointing out. John would be awfully surprised if the passage beyond didn’t lead to Principal Guzman’s office, and that of Ms. Grey, the senior languages teacher, but John thought that it was only polite to at least pretend not to have a clue.

“Why did you do that, Jason?” John hissed when the tutor had left. “He might have helped us!”

Jason replied, “He straight up called my sister ‘fat,’ dude. That’s my job!”

“Amy isn’t fat! And he... Wait. That’s exactly what he did.

“I know she isn’t. But it’s funny when I say it.” Jason sounded a little less sure of himself. “Dude, are you coming with us to the cottage for the long weekend?”

“That’s the fifth time you’ve asked me, Jas.”

“My sis wants to know,” Jason explained. John glanced over at the girl’s table across the room. Amy was looking daggers at her brother’s back. “You better check your bed for snakes tonight, Jas." It honestly didn’t sound like much fun to John. No cable; no power, in fact. There was no way that the batteries on their phones would last four days, and that meant no gaming, unless John brought along his crappy old DS. Did he even have enough paperbacks to make it four days? But all the Wongs were going, even May, and Rafaella, too. But if he wriggled out, maybe everyone else would.

At least he could change the subject. “Why cricket, Jas? We play baseball. The Japanese play baseball. The Chinese don’t play cricket. If it were baseball, we could even have two teams.”

“Why ask me, John? About—"

“Everyone says that this is your Dad’s idea. Don even said that he owes the Indians.”

Jason made a face. “Don said that?”

“He was distracted.” Don spent a lot of time in his own little world. Catch him right, and he’d tell you stuff. More than you ever wanted to hear, mostly, about things such as his church. But sometimes interesting stuff, too.

Jason was upset, now. “I can’t tell you anything more, John. Don shouldn’t have opened his big mouth. Why didn’t he tell you about his argument with the priest about whether you could drink grape juice in church?”

“He did, actually. Twice. He even gave me a pamphlet. You know, the kind where Bible quotes are in funny fonts.  So. Talking about sports is going to turn me into a supervillain, now? That’s going to make watching the rest of the baseball playoffs hard.” John was about to go on and make a joke (‘That’s two outs, bases loaded. Bwa-ha-ha! I just realised that I want to rule the world’), but Jason looked hurt. 

This was hard for him, John realised, and, suddenly, John lost any desire to push this further. “What’s so great about your cottage that makes up for it not having Internet or power?”

“You’ll understand once you’ve been there, John. It’s not just Amy that wants you there.” Over Jason’s head, John could see Amy get up out of her chair, pause for a second, and then sit back down. Forget the snake, Jason. Bomb.

“Okay. I’ll come, Jason. It’s only four days.” Four days that could have been glorious days of freedom, he reminded himself.

“Besides, Savannah can split into three copies. Well, nine copies, but three at full power.”

John actually followed that. “So we put two copies of Savannah on one team, two on the other, and we have two sides to play the Indian junior and senior teams. Let’s see Ravencroft field that many players!” As he said it, John looked down at the exploded blueprints on the tablet again. What was this symbol? An inductance? And what was the equation for an inductance? John looked it up, and stared at it for a long moment as a light went on in his head. “Jas, the equation is just a way of figuring out how much power comes through the inductor. That must be the connection to the generator!”

Jason was excited now. “And inductors convert AC to DC. Doesn’t the generator produce AC?”

“And the gun uses DC!” John replied. This calculus stuff was useful!

A strong, square finger reached down over his shoulder and tapped the tablet. Mr. Brown spoke in his thick, Pittsburgh accent. “I see you guys have figured it out. The equation for the power in the capacitor is an integration of the inductance. An integration is a sum over time. As I’m sure that Todd will explain as soon as he gets back. Or would, if it weren’t time for cleanup already. Okay, guys, good work today! Work's due by email by 9 Sunday night, or I’m dumping the lot of you into a chemical waste vat!”

All five kids rushed for the door, Jason doing the Jack Nicholson-Joker as he went. “Wait ‘till they get a load of me!” The passage beyond had a console that showed the rooms in the Old Schoolhouse with exits, so that they could pick an empty room to emerge into. It was not a perfect system. “I still can’t believe that there are cameras in the washrooms,” Emily said.

“At least they’re not in the stalls,” Amy answered. “And we have to protect our secret identities?”

Rafaella sounded bored. “Why? All the other kids have figured it out!”

“No. They think that we’re training to be PRIMUS or UNTIL agents. There’s a difference,” Amy insisted.

“Being?” The air pirate snapped.

“It protects our parents.” Amy paused. That’s not going to work on her, John heard her think to herself. Amy must be excited to leak through her shields like that, John thought, and wondered what it was about. “And don’t forget that there might be assassins after you, Rafe. Your uncle knows that you escaped across the dimensions!”

“Whatevs. Lots of dimensions. The biology lab is empty,” Rafaella pointed out. 

A moment later, a whole section of lab bench swung upwards, Bunsen burner stations and all, as the kids emerged into the real world again. It was time for languages, with Miss Grey. And don’t think that you’ve fooled me, either, Miss Grey, John thought to himself. “Oh boy, my least favourite class,” he muttered.

Amy poked him in the ribs. “You should talk to Ms. McNeely about that, Mr. Too-smart-for-your-pants.”

John was ready to argue. What was the point of all these languages? There was practically one for every country! “What’s wrong with my pants? They look nice on a telepath. They say, ‘here’s a guy who speaks five computer languages!’ If Visual Basic counts.”

“You know her new job with the State Archaeological Survey? That awesome job with, space science, geology, and archaeology? And you know what she’s doing right now? Brushing up on her high school French, that’s what!” Amy was the only one allowed out of the house after school on her own, to work in the garden behind the McNeely’s carriage house, and it was always ‘Tara’ this, and ‘little Damon’ that, and ‘Ms. McNeely says...’. But that was obviously just a story. “Why would an ex-astronaut need to know French?”

“Because on the one hand you have all of these satellite images and archaeological digs, but on the other, you have the early history of Pennsylvania, and a lot of that is in French. So if you want to integrate all the data that the oil and coal companies and whatnot have from satellite imagine with the archaeology and history, you need to be able to read French, too.”

Read French?” John protested. “It just keeps getting worse! ‘The hat of my table is on my aunt’s uncle.’ My breakfast smells of hand grenades!’”
“What?” Amy asked.

“Le drapeau de mon tante et sur mon oncle’s tableau,” Jason said. Emily looked back and winced. “First of all....”

By this time they were out of the Old School and crossing the campus towards the main building across the student’s parking lot. Liam and his friends were out shooting hoops. This must be an extra spare for them, John realised. This was trouble. Liam had a huge grudge on the Wongs. He was a big, hairy Junior on the football team, who was convinced, like half his friends, that he would make a good VIPER enforcer if he didn’t make an even better college team. Because he thought that he was tough, “If it isn’t the baby trainees. Ready to get your butts kicked by VIPER? Or is little baby Wongie-poo going to kung-fu his way out?”

Liam’s posse spread out around them. Oh, goodie, John thought. A scene. People still talked about the epic beat down Liam had taken from May last year when he finally pushed her too far, the kind where the master hardly moves, and the bully just falls down all around. Amy and Jason were nowhere near that good, and John was still a tyro in spite of five weeks of Mr. Wong’s training. John was going to have to stick up for Jason, especially since he was two inches taller. But they were both shorter and much skinnier than Liam, and Liam’s friends were even bigger. That didn’t matter to Jason. His main problem would be beating Liam without doing anything suspiciously super-strong.  John did not have that option on wingman duties. Mind-blasts and telekinesis weren’t legal even in Ultimate Fighting. One wedgie, with side order of humiliation to go, please.

Emily stepped between Jason and Liam. “You’re a jerk, Liam. Jason is two years younger than you. Go play with boys your own size.”

“Shouldn’t you super groupies be off sexing it up for Ajax? Or Sapphire?” Liam snarled, looking at Rafaella at the last. Oh, that tore it. Rafe’s hand was on the handle of her umbrella. No man called an air pirate a groupie, and Rafaella was about one remark of promoting Liam to “man,” at least for going stabby purposes. And swords on campus would be at least a gazillion steps too far. Where was a teacher when you needed one?

Then, in his head, John heard Amy. Rebecca! We need Principal Guzman in the back parking lot. Someone’s going to get hurt!

“Liam! Lads! Good to see that you’re ready to make good use of your spare period,” said a voice from the direction of the main building. It was Mr. Guzman. Liam was probably wondering where he came from, but John knew.  Rotated through the dimensions by a teen teleporter. Now that was using your powers!

“Aw, we were just horsing around, sir,” Liam answered back, as the Principal came up with a fast, guy-in-charge walk. That was what Mr. McNeely was trying to do!

“Excellent! Energy to burn off in some windsprints,” Mr.Guzman said, as though oblivious to the near-fight that he had just broken up. “Unless you’re planning to make the NFL on charm. In which case, you’re doing it wrong. “

He was kinder to John and the other frosh. Why wouldn’t he be? Emily was his niece. “You kids better hurry. You’re going to be late for Languages.” John had never been so grateful to get to Ms. Grey’s class. Her language class, anyway, because Esoteric Arts was actually pretty cool.

School over, the buildings emptied in seconds, it seemed. Who wanted to hang around school on the first day of a four day long weekend? The kids got out quickly, because May was chauffeur today,  due to Mrs. Wong taking the Lexus up to the Alleghenies in the morning. May’s last-minute list of pre-trip errands had grown almost as long as tomorrow’s trip. That left her with precious little time with her friends, and she let everyone know it with smoke signals. Specifically, the black cloud that hung over her head as she drove the kids back to the Yurt.

“Jenny would be keeping it sweet right now,” Jason chirped from the passenger’s seat. (Trust a speedster to call shotgun first!)

“I’m not stupid Jenny,” May answered. Rebecca’ll be sitting you guys ‘till I get back with Dad. Think you can get your homework done by 6? I’ll let her know.” Everyone groaned. That was exactly the kind of crap you expected from Rebecca, who was always a hard ass when she babysat. Finally, May smiled.

And, no, they couldn’t get all of their homework done in two hours, not even with Rebecca practically sitting on them down in the rec room. Not that John had any illusions about the way that the Wongs ran things. If they finished their homework on the first day of the long weekend, there would be more homework. Why couldn’t video games be homework? They were a lot more relevant than stupid Spanish or French! On the other hand, Mr.Wong being in charge of dinner meant pizza, so balance was restored to the universe in some small way. With green pepper, olives, onions, and extra cheese.

Usually, the best thing about pizza for dinner was that there were no dishes, so that the kids could eat down in the rec room, and be done and free by 7:30. That seemed more obviously important tonight than ever. John was going to be away from Minecraft for four whole days, and he hadn’t even finished half of his spaceship yet. Unfortunately, in spite of it being a whole day until they left for the mountains (well, night, anyway), Mr. Wong sent them up to pack after dinner.

“What should I bring, Jas?” John asked, as he sat in Jason’s room five minutes after they were sent upstairs to pack. The side pockets of his new grip seemed perfect for comic trades. He could put his paperbacks in one, two books deep, and the travel toilet pack of shampoo and toothpaste underneath the trades. Room for three meant that he could take one of his Captain Comet collections. One meant choosing between Guardians of the Galaxy and Agents of Atlas. He pushed harder. Why was it so squishy down at the bottom of the pocket?

“Uhm, warm clothes, camp clothes, summer clothes? Days are warm, nights are cold. Definitely take those pyjamas Mom made us buy.”

“The ones with the feet?” John was amazed. “I thought those were for if we ever wanted to open our own museum.”

“Yeah. Them. And slippers to wear over the feet.”

“That’s crazy, Jas.”

“No. Look, I’ll come up to your room and help you pack. Why is there green goop on the bottom of your comic?”

Finally, they had everything packed and by the door, with Mr. Wong hounding them all the way, and it was just barely possible to squeeze in a little Minecraft before bed, although instead of finishing his spaceship, he ended up showing Amy how to make a three-tier cake. If he dreamed, John didn’t remember them. He’d forgotten more important things, after all.

Mr. Wong didn’t like eating breakfast before he was on the road, but that worked for John, especially because breakfast was at the Home Diner just outside Harrisburg, and it was awesome, with fifty menu options, and bacon in forty of them. The Wong kids recommended their favourites off the top. Even May lightened up long enough to recommend the waffles with strawberries. They came with bacon, although May saved most of hers for The Captain. Despite all of the advice, John went his own way, with Number 33 off the menu: potato pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon. This the Wong kids took with deep and silent significance. John thought about demanding an explanation, but knew he wouldn’t get one. It was enough to leave him feeling a little picked on. Rafaella ordered kippers with the mixed grill. Fried herring with pig kidney seemed a lot more likely to turn you into a supervillain than some latkes! 

But it turned out that potato pancakes turned out to be a lot less tasty than John imagined them to be. He ended up finishing most of Amy’s double order of hash browns instead. “Sometimes,” Amy said as they were leaving, “I almost get tired of being right.” Then she and Jason wrestled all the way back to the Mazda.

They turned off the Turnpike near  State College, taking a smaller, winding road up into the mountains, although, once again, the Wong kids had definite opinions about what mountains looked like, and didn’t think that the Alleghenies qualified. From that road they turned onto another, and then another. And then, just after 10, almost four hours after they had left West Philadelphia, they rolled over a ridge and down into “the hollow.” As soon as the road flattened out, they came to a gate between white rail fences, and turned down an unpaved driveway half-a-block long, fronted by more white rail fences, closing off paddocks with grass and trees in autumn colours.

Finally, the driveway turned around in a big circle in front of a two-storey stone house with a bright blue door off a deep porch. It was an old house, the kind with three chimneys.

Instead of taking them into the house, Amy, Jason and May led Rafaella and John around the side, on a stepping stone path, across a grassy yard with apple and other fruit trees, through another gate, to a pine grove, with a massive, two-storied wood cabin, painted green with bright blue trim. It had a strange roof that leaned in from all four sides instead of two, and a little balcony right on top around a stove pipe. The strange architecture made it seem deep and mysterious, and in spite of the bright morning sun, it was cool in the grove, and cooler inside. John’s skin prickled with the fresh cold and the smell of pine trees filled everything in the big main floor room.

May put her bags on the first of the long tables that crossed the main room. The Captain flopped down  underneath, sprawling out facing a big wood stove right in the middle as though he were running, belly towards it. May began stuffing wood and paper into the stove. “Can’t get Old Sparky going fast enough,” she said, as Jason grabbed a heavy-looking metal kettle off the top of the stove and carried it up a half flight of stairs to the bathrooms on the landing at the back to fill it. The fire caught almost before Jason returned, and then he showed John the boy’s bunk room. “Boys on the main floor, girls upstairs.”

John looked up the stairs, turning with deep-polished pine mystery towards the upper floor. Suddenly, the fact that that was girl’s country made it the most wonderful architectural mystery in the world. What was it like up there? “Why can’t we be upstairs?”

“I dunno. Mom’s rule.
May looked over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs. “Don’t worry. Mom’ll explain. Better start listening before she makes you a special project, too, Jason. Like Henry.” Jason snorted.

The boy’s bedroom went the entire length of the side of the house, with a fireplace in the middle. Two beds were made up at one end, near a blue-painted door leading right out into the grove, a full step below the level of the soil. And how they were made up! “Is that fur on top?” John asked.

“Yeah. There’s a wolf pelt coverlet on top above the quilts and coverlets,” Jason answered. “It’s more symbolic and stuff than warm. On account of Mom’s Dad’s family being descended from the Blue Wolf of Heaven.”

“That doesn’t sound like one of those facts that are actually true."

“It doesn’t have to be true, because it’s poetry. That’s what Mom says. Do I ever question your ....Oh.”

Before the silence could get long and awkward, John jumped in again. “That’s a lot of covers on this bed.”

“It gets helluva cold here at night in October. But under the covers, it’s awesome. Just remember to get your bed warmer with the rest of us.”

And with that, they put their bags on the bed and went out into the grove. It was only a few feet wide here, and then there was another white railed fence. Four horses stood at it. They nickered the moment the door open, and the white one stretched her head across the fence, flat and low, and shook it until its ears wiggled. Then the middle one roared. There was no other word for it. John looked at it. It was far bigger than the other horses, tan so light that it was almost yellow, with a white blaze on its face. The reason for the roar became obvious in a second, as May, Rafaella, and Amy came around the corner of the cabin.

 May hurled herself twenty feet through the air to perch on the fence and scratch the big yellow horse’s neck. “Have you done your thing, big boy?”

Amy came up behind. She was holding a plastic bag with something that looked like chunks of green-grey stuff in it, and some apples. “Would you like to feed a horse, John?”

“Okay,” he said, and took one of the apples. “Which one?” But the gigantic yellow was already pushing its head towards him. John gingerly held the apple out in his open hand, and it took the apple, its lips and hot breath ticklish against his palm.
Surprisingly, he didn’t get his fingers bitten off.

“I think the Lion Stallion likes you, John-Boy,” said May.

Amy got up on the bottom rung of the fence and leaned way over to stroke the side of the white as she said, conversationally, “Are you going to have a baby, Snowflake?” Then she turned to May and asked, “Is she?”

May answered. “We did leave it awfully late, but you have to if you want fresh milk in the spring. The Lion Stallion never fails. It’s a question of whether the girls cooperated.” Then May vaulted onto the Lion Stallion’s back, and the gigantic horse reared up and around and lit off across the wide back pasture. The Captain wiggled under the fence and took after them, while Jason vaulted the fence with less grace than May but much more power. “Race! Race!” He yelled as he accelerated. “Yuck. Horse patties!”

“Show offs.” Said Amy. “So. You guys up for some horseback riding lessons?”

Rafaella, it turned out, of course, was a natural. Inside of half an hour, Mrs. Wong had her off by herself, practicing with her sword on hanging rings and dummies. John, meanwhile, was not. On the other hand, there wasn’t much to be afraid of riding a horse when you could fly, or, like Amy, reverse gravity. So they horsed around, as Mr. McNeely would have put it.

 The Lion Stallion, the Captain, and Jason, meanwhile, tore around the paddock like they had a season’s worth of energy to use up.

It was very nice to break for steak sandwiches for lunch. They were served on a sun-warmed picnic table, with fried onions and mushrooms in the sandwiches, and sweet, new apples, fried in a crunchy batter and served with fruit syrup for desert. When they were done, Mrs. Wong set two sandwiches aside for Mr. Wong, later, and brought out her chai pot. As she filled big, picnicky-looking plastic mugs for them, John mischievously asked, “Why are the boys on the main floor, Mrs. Wong?”

“Have you ever heard how the old Spartans used to train their sons, John? They were encouraged to go out and steal from neighbouring farms. The only shame was getting caught. One boy once stole a hen and put it under his shirt. It was such a nice hen that when he was caught by the watch, he let it scratch his guts out without making a sound.”

John shrugged. Of course he had. He read comics. Even Frank Miller comics, in spite of the awful stuff he was doing with Batman these days. “I don’t understand.”

Mrs. Wong took a long sip of her chai. “Pay more careful attention, John. That was one of those times where an adult answers your question. If you read between the lines.”

“We’re supposed to sneak out and steal chickens?”

“Only pretty hens. Look through the window, there, John. See that hanging on the far wall? Henry painted that for me. My husband, that is.”

It was one of those Chinese paintings, with a nature scene in black ink and long rows of characters up and down the sides. “It’s beautiful,” he said.

“Eh. It’s a bit of a pastiche, although the calligraphy is beautiful. The monks did a good job with my Henry, given how little time they had with him, but it’s hard to work in a style that’s a thousand years old. He wanted to win my heart in my mother’s fashion; but he didn’t need to, because he had it forever, my father’s way. By carrying me away with him, struggling and screaming all the way.”

John didn’t believe it for a second. This was one of those stories that grown-ups told. “Ma’am. That doesn’t sound like you, and it sure doesn’t sound like Mr. Wong,” John said.

“Nevertheless. It’s true. He came for me in Yin Wu’s palace in his cursed valley, with two oath brothers with him, almost as handsome,but a little shorter,and they brought me away, tied up and gagged. Perhaps I could have fought a little harder, but I never gave him any encouragement.”

May snorted.

“Maybe I flirted with him when we fought.”

“Mother!” May put her mug down.

“And maybe I sent him a few signals here and there.”

“Oh, that’s it!”

“He told his friends that it was so that they could interrogate me. But they weren’t fooled for a second, and neither was I.”
“At least that part’s true,” May conceded. “At least, that’s what El Professore says. I’ve never had a chance to ask Revolutionary III.”

“My father always said that no girl was ever abducted that didn’t want to be. At least, by a boy worth having her. Finding the courage to go after a girl that he wants is a big step for a boy. And knowing that there’s a boy who wants you enough to come for you is what makes a girl a woman. I was thirteen hundred years a girl, until my Henry came for me, so that I could make him a man on a Hudson’s Bay blanket laid on the bunch grass in the pastures of his fathers.”

“Gross!” Said Jason.

“But you had a boyfriend, before, Mom.” Amy pointed out. “That Ang Lee movie was based on the story from the Book of Tang!”

“Give or take a novelisation, three dynasties, and a new ending,” Mrs. Wong said. “He let me chase him. Later, when he came for me, he gave me a choice, even though he knew that I would make the wrong one. A better man, a better first act. Or better second, for that matter.” Mrs. Wong stared at May, as some unreadable thought ran across her daughter’s face, fast as the Lion Stallion in the wind.

“And that’s why the boys are on the bottom floor. I’m not getting any younger, and-"

“’I would rather have a grandchild in my arms for an hour than live to see the Maitreya’s Pure Land!’” Amy and May finished their mother’s sentence for her.

Many hours later, after riding and swimming and picnic dinner and games of Heart on the big table in the main house after the Sun went down and it got darker outside than John had ever imagined that it could be dark, as they sat around Old Sparky in darkness lit by Coleman lanterns, and waited for the warming pans to heat up their beds, he followed Amy as far as the washrooms on the landing to ask her what had gone on between her mother and her sister at lunch.“Maybe May will tell us,” Amy said. But I kinda doubt it, because it probably happened this summer, which means that I couldn’t tell you, even if  I knew.”

“That’s it. I’m going to turn supervillain just out of frustration!”

“Wait ‘till after I’ve shown off my nightcap, dude.”

“Your nightcap?”

“It’s a hat.”


“Hats are awesome.”


Minutes later, Amy, May,and Rafaella were showing off their nightcaps, which turned out to be heavy, stretching, flannel toque-like things with pom-poms and, in Amy and May’s cases, animals on them. May’s hat was a wolf, Amy’s was a monkey. Amy also had something in a plastic bag.

“Where’s your hat, Amy?” Jason asked.

Amy held out the plastic bag. A raccoon face picked out on flannel showed through the bag. A faint skunk smell wafted from it.

“Still?” Jason asked.

“I tried to wash it in the bathroom sink, but I can’t get the stink out.”

John asked, “couldn’t your Mom just put it through the wash?”

“There would be questions.” Amy replied darkly.

“About the frat boys who held all those loud parties at the place across the hollow in the spring.” Jason said.

“Until they were skunked out.” Amy said.

“By a skunk that was actually sitting in their fridge, drinking beer when the really annoying boy opened it.” Jason said.

“In a masterpiece of timing.” Said Amy.

“That wasn’t quite as well timed as I planned. Sorry, sis.” Jason said.

May adjusted her nightcap. “You know, the one thing about this is that now that I work in a supermarket, I’ve seen too many crazy people wearing hats.”

Rafaella spoke up. “What do you mean, May?”

“Well, like, there’s these crazy people who always wear the same hat when they’re shopping. And they wear them wrong. Like, the lady always wears a thin blue toque, but she never pulls it all the way down over her hair, so it just perches up there. And there’s another lady, younger, who always wears a thick white one, and she always pulls it down so that you can hardly see her eyes. It’s like it’s some kind of signal; ‘I’m crazy. Stay away from me.’”

Amy said, “And that’s the great thing about older sisters. Always ready to suggest that you’re crazy and should grow old alone.”

May looked embarrassed now. “Oh! I guess that is what I said. I’m sorry, Amy. It’s not what I meant, though. Besides. Our caps are way more stylin’. Even if you are wearing Jen’s.”

“I miss my sis.” Amy said, sadly.

“I never thought I’d miss stupid Jenny. And she gets to be with Henry any time she wants now!”

And then May winked at the kids, and they all went to bed. Stupid mysteries.

Between the cold, fresh air and the comfy covers, John slept as well as he ever remembered. Except for a moment, in the middle of the night, when he was almost sure that he was awakened by wolves howling in the mountains. 

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