Chapter 2, 2: Treed
Not that much later that night, Chris, Charlotte, and Mr. and Mrs. Wong were standing in the middle of the third floor bedroom. There was a bed just off centre to one side of the enormous room, opposite the wardrobe, with a stand next to it, almost blocking off a desk against the wall with a glossy, impossibly thin TV and a tiny typewriter in front of it. Chris stared at the bed. It was the most wonderful thing in the world. After four days of doing everything but sleeping on the brutal Greyhound benches, all he wanted right now was a real bed.
Mrs. Wong spoke. “This is where we’re going to put Charlotte and Eve, when she gets here tomorrow.” She said it flatly, as though it wasn’t her favourite idea in the world.
“No.” Said Charlotte.
“What’s the matter, Charlotte?” Mrs. Wong asked.
“I want to be with my brother,” Charlotte answered, her tone rising.
“Honey, you’re fourteen. He’s sixteen. You need your own bedrooms.” Mrs. Wong pointed out.
“We shared a bedroom back home,” Charlotte answered.
Chris interrupted. “That was a trailer, Char. There’s room for us to have separate bedrooms here.”
“No there isn’t. I have to share with Eve. I want to share with you!”
“You haven’t even met Eve yet!” On second thought, Chris realised, that probably wasn’t the way to head off the kind of screaming fight that always broke out between Charlotte and Mom. Mom, who was dead. The thought made him sick to his stomach.
Miraculously, Mr. Wong interrupted, his voice somehow pitching from its usual rich, deep tones to something smooth and quiet, so that you didn’t even notice his Chinese accent. “We can put a cot at the other end of the room tonight. I’ll put some twine across the room and hang a sheet off it, and tomorrow, I’ll put up a plywood partition. It can’t be solid, but we can put an arch down on the window side and put up your tapestry up in it, dear.”
Mrs. Wong smiled. “That’ll work.” And then her smile broadened. “And I’ll finally get to discover the corner the twins tried to hide and show May and Amy how to fix it.”
Mr. Wong looked at his wife. “I hate to sound like my daughter, but if I can just direct your attention to my phone, dear, you’ll see that it’s Twenty-First-Century-O’Clock.”
Chris looked from adult to adult, baffled, and Charlotte asked, “Are you a time traveller, too, Mrs. Wong?”
Mrs. Wong shook her head. “No, I got here from the seventh century the hard way, by living thirteen centuries.”
Chris’ expression must have shown his surprise. “And it was no picnic, either. Twelve centuries in a cold, bare monastery, and another one fighting for a man who wanted to bring the seventh century back. Which was-”
Her husband put her hand on her shoulder. “Dear? The kids don’t want to hear about the bad old days.”
Mrs. Wong put her hand to her head. “No, they don’t. And I won’t win any arguments about bedrooms telling stories about families sharing yurts and nuns sleeping eight to a room. Also, I thought that we were going to get a Christmas tree tomorrow.”
Now it was Mr. Wong’s turn to shake his head. “With everything that’s going on, I just forgot. Which is no excuse.”
Mrs. Wong turned into her husband and nput her hand gently up against his massive chest, and he quieted, bending down for a quick kiss. Then she turned to Chris and Charlotte. “I want Chris on the door side, so he gets the bed tonight. And soon, because you’re both exhausted. I’ll send the twins up with the foamie, some bedding, and Mr. Wong will have that clothesline rigged up in a few minutes. Won’t you, Henry?”
Mr. Wong nodded, and they left the room together. Chris fell back on the bed, while Charlotte sat cross-legged like a grade schooler on the rug in front. “What do you think, sis?”
“That witch wants to cut my hair!”
“Who, Mrs. Wong? When did she say that?”
“When she was pointing out haircuts in that iPad thing!”
“That’s not what she said.”
Charlotte held his gaze for a long moment, trying to work her face into an angry scowl, until finally it decided to cry, instead. “I want my Dad! And ….Mom.”
“Mom’s dead, Char.”
“We don’t know that!”
“Yes, Char, we do. We were right there when the doctor put the needle in her IV.”
“For pain!” She protested, sobbing.
“That’s what the doctor said. It’s not what he meant! Char, we watched Mom shrink away for months…”
“And Dad! Where’s Dad?”
“Where is Dad, like, ever? We haven’t seen him in a year!”
“But now that Mom’s dead, he has to take care of us!”
“That’s crazy. You know Dad. He-“ Chris choked on the words that he was going to say. That he would never say, the thing that Mr. Vezina said once, when he was drunk, that their father didn’t really care about either of them, or about anyone but himself. Chris had avoided Mr. Vezina for a month after that, until Master Lee made him go check Mr. Vezina’s trailer that time after the big overtime payout at the mill. All that avoidance hadn’t made it any less true. Now that Gramma and Mom were dead, no-one cared about them. No-one.
Charlotte stopped crying. “I know what, Chris?”
“Just –never mind.”
Which was when Jason came bursting through the door. Straightened up, Jason was tall for a fifteen-year-old, six feet, with the lanky build and oversized feet of someone who was going to grow even taller. He had the same slightly curly hair as his father. His complexion was on the light and pale side for Chinese, more like his mother’s than his father’s, and he had a faint trace of his mother’s nose, too, pointing down towards a sharp and well-defined chin. He was wearing a blue track suit door, and he was stumbling dramatically, driven forward by a hard push of a rolled up green foamie by a boy at the back, the wild-haired white kid from the kitchen.
“Where do you want this, guys?” Jason asked. The white boy had already pulled his end of the foamie over towards the far side of the room. Behind him, the younger girl from the kitchen came in, brushing by the foamie to take a double arm load of blankets, sheets, and pillows towards the other side of the room, where she dropped them on a chair before turning to face Chris. Now that he could see them besides each other, it was obvious what Mrs. Wong meant by “twins.” She had the same hair, the same complexion, and the same face, only in a more girly way. She was shorter than her brother, but still tall for a girl, 5’8”, Chris guessed, with the white boy halfway between them, hard as it was to tell with the way that his auburn hair stood up in a peak above his forehead.
Charlotte got up. “Far end of the room is good,” she said, as she walked over to help John and Jason, or, rather, stand above them as they rolled out the foamie and flipped it curled side down. Then the girl pulled sheets and blankets off the pile and began handing them to the boys, ordering them to pull, shake, fit, and fold this way and that with a familiar, businesslike tone. Chris was soon reminded that the white boy was John and that his cousin was Amy.
The bed was taking shape when Mr. Wong came into the room with a power drill and a bundle of stuff. “Amy, you could be a little more polite to the boys. It’s even possible that they could make a bed by themselves.”
“Have you seen Jason’s room, Dad?” Then she blushed. Chris guessed that she had just stopped herself from talking about John’s bedroom.
Chris thought he detected a smile slipping across Mr. Wong’s face for just a second before it settled into a stern expression. “Point. And of course you haven’t seen John’s new room.”
“Well, you know, we do go down and visit Mr. Stone in the Liberty Legion Hall. And Rafaella and Jameel live down there, too, now, and Rosa gets lonely with no-one to talk to but the AI and the Internet.”
There it was again, that slight smile on Mr. Wong’s face. He was teasing his daughter, and she didn’t get it!
Mr. Wong laid the drill on a chair and sorted out the bundle. Chris was surprised and disappointed to see that there was no power cord in with the sheets and twine. All he wanted was to sleep, and the job couldn’t even start until someone went to get the cord.
Instead, Mr. Wong just picked up the drill, put a screw in an adjustable chuck, and drove it straight into the wall with a quiet whine. Apparently, 2012 had cordless power drills. Chris was impressed. Their cars still looked weird, though.
Mr. Wong tied a piece of twine off to the screw with one hand, twisting and pulling. Chris was impressed again. “This isn’t much of a job,” the older man said. “There’s armour plasteel behind the wood, and you can’t drill that stuff, at least not with regular tools. But the laminate’s strong enough to hold the screw and the sheets for a couple of days, as long as no-one hangs on it or anything. Are you free Sunday, John? I’m going to do up a permanent partition, and Jason and I would love your help.”
Chris wasn’t much of a Woman’s Libber himself, but he could see that Mrs. Wong wasn’t the only adult around this house who tended to get the boys to do boy chores, and the girls to do girl chores. “Can I help?” He asked.
Mr. Wong turned back to him, a delighted smile on his face. “Of course, Chris!” I’ve got your number, Mr. W., Chris thought to himself. He’d have to remember this trick.
Chris read John for one of those smart kids who was a bit oblivious about other people, so he wasn’t surprised that John started out tentative. “I don’t-“ Chris was surprised that the tone turned so quickly. He glanced at John’s girlfriend, but there was no sign of a prompt. “Of course I am,” John finished.
“Excellent,” Mr. Wong said, before drilling the screw in on the far side and tying off the twine. He twanged it to check the taughtness, and made a face. “It’ll do,” as Chris got up to shake out a sheet to drape over it. Somehow, it just didn’t unfold the way they did when the girl –Amy, her name was Amy—did it. But he got it done, and, in a moment, all five kids were stretching and smoothing out the three sheets it took to cross the room. The makeshift barrier sagged in the middle, and Mr. Wong ended up tying it off to the ceiling with a third screw, but in a very short length of time it was, mercifully, done. Mr. Wong left, and the permanent commotion that was the three fifteen-year-olds rolled out the door right after, John and Jason wrestling and Amy, walking behind, kicking after both of them. Chris tried to remember if he’d ever been that young, and then smiled to himself. That was the way that Mr. Vezina used to talk. He quickly changed into the pajamas that Mrs. Wong had left him, a weirdly stiff “flannel” shirt and softer pants that tucked into built-in-slippers, like Dennis the Menace wore in the comics.
Charlotte had been over on the other side of the partition. When the others left, she folded it back on the side with the big gable window and slipped back into her brother’s half of the room. He looked at her. “What do you think, sis?”
“You got the big window.”
“The witch is afraid I’m going to run away.”
Chris panicked inside, and tried not to show it. “Are you?” No, that wasn’t what he wanted to say. “Please don’t.”
“It wouldn’t stop me if I wanted to, but I won’t. Dad’s coming, I dreamed it on the bus.”
There was sudden, shocking motion at the window, and Chris caught his breath. A tiny little crow strutted into the room, cocked its head at Charlotte, and cawed as quietly as a crow ever could, and then ducked under the sheets. Chris hadn’t even realised that the gable window was open, just as he hadn’t realised to this very moment just how tired he really was. “I’m going to go to bed, now, sis,” he said, and it didn’t even strike him as a strange thing to do just after a crow walks right into your bedroom.
Charlotte just looked at him, said, “Good night, Chris,” and ducked under the sheets after the crow.
Chris slept deep and dreamlessly, in darkness as glossy as a crow feather, until even the late sun of December broke into the room, along with the sound of kids squabbling from the yard below and Charlotte very softly snoring.
He got up, the soft pads of the slippers warm against the bare wood of the bedroom floor after he walked off the edge of the big Persian carpet that the bed sat on. He went to the door. The bathroom was just outside, and he needed it, but before he went, he twitched the partition sheet away from the wall and peaked through at Charlotte. She was lying on the foamie, her body splayed and her face staring up at the ceiling. It couldn’t be a comfortable way to sleep, but it allowed the strange crow from last night to stand over her. It cocked an eye at Chris, then returned to Charlotte’s face, where it was gently preening her bangs, pulling the curly tangles of four days of riding the bus into order. It was weird, but hardly the weirdest thing that had happened to them in the last week, so Chris let the sheet fall and stepped out into the hall.
And almost ran into the big Huskie dog, as it stood up to greet the older girl as she came out of the bathroom. It whirled, then thrust its nose into Chris’s crotch, which he had been kind of expecting. He put his hand gingerly to its ears, as he’d known more than a few trailer park dogs that weren’t quite right, but it let him scratch it without a qualm.
The girl’s hair had that half-finished look that women’s hair got before they really started fussing it, and she was wearing jogging togs that matched her Dad’s from last night, so Chris figured that she was on her way out the door, but she took the time to watch Chris pet her dog for a moment, then stuck out her hand to take his free one. “Well, this is getting to be a habit. I’m May, which I’m sure you don’t remember from last night, this attention junkie is The Captain, and you’re Chris.”
Chris smiled. “Hey, at least I knew the last answer!”
May smiled back. “That’s okay for a start. Just don’t tell the D.L. you only got one out of three on a quiz.”
“D.L.?” Chris asked.
“’Dragon Lady.’ Mom.”
“Wow. You know, when I heard that I was going to be living with my uncle, I was afraid it was going to be wall-to-wall stereotype. Do I have to do violin lessons, too?”
May gently punched him in the shoulder. “No. But you do have to do kung fu.”
“That’s one stereotype I’m fine with. I’ve got a long list of people who need beating up.” As Chris said it, he realised that, really, he didn’t. He’d left all those people 37 years behind. And that it was the wrong attitude for learning kung fu. “I mean, that I want to learn the art of peace and tranquility, and sometimes they need a little help. Behind-kicking help.”
May smiled again. “No Internet in 1975, right?”
Chris looked back blankly. Once he started asking questions, he’d be here forever, and he was hungry as well as needing the bathroom. “Is it safe to go downstairs?”
“What do you mean?” Asked May.
“The kids are down there. Is it going to be like sticking your hand in a saw?”
“I see you’re getting the hang of the Rugrats,” May answered.
“That’s Amy, Jason, and John?”
May began counting off on her hands. “And Emily Neilsen, and Rafaella. You met them last night. Some would include Dora Guzman, but I wouldn’t because she’s a year younger.”
Chris looked back levelly. “That’s a lot of names to not remember even without nicknames.”
May laughed. “I know, right? High school! It’s like this huge social maze. Don’t worry, we’re used to noobs around here.” The Captain began doing a weird, back of the throat whine.
“Oops. Dad must be ready. Get dressed and go on downstairs and don’t worry about the Rugrats. Amy made breakfast for them hours ago, and they’ll be out the door any second.”
“Amy made breakfast for them?” It didn’t really sound like Amy, as far as Chris’s instant impression went.
“She made breakfast for John, and the rest of them stood around going ‘rhubarb, rhubarb.’”
“Hunh?” Chris asked.
“It’s what movie extras say,” Charlotte said, coming up behind Chris. “Good Morning, Chris. How long have John and Amy been together?”
“A month,” May said, an exaggerated, disgusted look on her face. “Still all lovie-dovie.”
“Good Morning, Sis,” Chris said. “Are they really going out?” Chris asked. “I thought you were going to get a Christmas tree today?” Or maybe not, Chris thought to himself. Chris was assuming that his uncle’s family was like Gram’s, and that they would go out in the woods to get their own tree, but he really had no idea whether you could even do that in Philadelphia. Maybe there was a law against it, or something.
May’s face brightened. “Is that today? Oh my God. I’ve got to call Jamie and Rebecca!” She pulled a black, shiny wallet out of her sweatpants just like the one the cabbie had flourished the night before. It was a phone, Chris finally realised. God, he was dumb. He also bet to himself that May was at least as annoying when she was with her friends as Jason and Amy were when they were with theirs. On the bright side, when May went downstairs to make her phone call, he finally managed to slip into the bathroom.
Later, relieved and dressed, Chris went down to the kitchen. It was reasonably calm, because the Rugrats were out on the enclosed porch, watching some incomprehensible, eerily lifelike cartoon on an enormous, flat set against the end of the porch and visible through the kitchen window. Mrs. Wong was in the kitchen, and the smell of frying pancakes filled the room. “Do please sit down, Chris,” she said, half turning to bring her attention to his face for a second before returning to the stove. There’s chai and milk tea in carafes on the table,” Mrs. Wong continued, flipping pancakes onto one of the plates piled on the stove. Then she opened the door of an appliance sitting on a shelf above the stove and began serving sausages and bacon onto the plate with the pancakes. Chris thought that the little box with the door might be a microwave, but in that case Mrs. Wong had two in her kitchen. His uncle really was rich.
He sat down, and the plate appeared in front of him. There was a pitcher full of dark syrup in front of his place. Chris slowly poured a little onto one corner of his pancake and tasted it. It was Gramma’s Saskatoon berry syrup!
He looked up. “Where did you get this syrup?”
“I made it,” Mrs. Wong said. “From your grandmother’s recipe, before you ask. My husband loves it.”
“Not very…” Having begun the thought, Chris struggled to find the word to finish it properly.
“Chinese?’ Mrs. Wong said. “This is the second time I’ve had this conversation in four months, and I’ll say the same thing I said to John. Chinese is as Chinese does. Even notwithstanding the fact that none of us around here are all Chinese, being Chinese, or, for that matter, not-being Chinese, are meant to go exactly as far as a person needs them to go at the moment. There is no past, no future, only now.”
“Eat your breakfast, Christopher. Oh, good morning, Charlotte!”
Breakfast done, Chris wandered outside onto the porch with a mug of chai. He’d tried the milk tea, just to be polite, but it turned out to be more like buttered tea, and it was definitely an acquired taste. Was that right? What adults said when they were describing something bad enough to be a horror movie, anyway.
The cartoon was another matter entirely. Chris had been watching long enough to figure out why it was so incomprehensible. It had to be some kind of videogame, like Pong, and it was intensely fascinating. He stood at the edge of the Rugrats, feeling a little jealous of their friendship. If they weren’t Grade 9s, he would probably have been desperate to fit in.
As it was, he just wanted to get a grip on the game, or so he told himself. Only ‘special’ kids hung out with gangs that were younger than them, and it took a lot of fighting to make kids stop calling you a name once they started. Not that Chris had minded beating the ‘chink’ word out of some of the kids at the trailer park. At least, not until Master Lee had started teaching him to meditate. Chris pursed his lips. What he needed was his own gang. Maybe there were some other half-Chinese kids at Tatammy, the high school that May and her friends and the Rugrats attended.
After a moment, Chris felt a breeze on his face, at the same time that he noticed a low, whining sound. A moment later, Mr. Wong came through the middle gate in the back fence, followed by May, Jamie, and a third girl who, Chris decided, must be Rebecca. “Are you guys ready?” He asked. Chris didn’t answer, as he wasn’t sure that he was invited. A few of the Rugrats muttered something, but Rafaella, whose complexion had mysteriously turned white and normal overnight, turned and said, “Yes, we’re all ready. And if you turn off the fuse or something, you can probably even get us away from Left For Dead.”
“Thanks, Rafe,” Mr. Wong said. And did exactly that, to the howled protests of the rest of the Rugrats.
Mr. Wong ignored them, ,striding up the walk and onto the porch. As he walked by Chris, he turned and said, “What are you waiting for? The ride’s in the alley!”
Ride? Chris went down the walk and through the gate. Apparently, it was an invisible ride. Wait, he thought to himself. Actually, with this family, it could be an invisible ride, like Wonder Woman’s plane or something. Chris laughed to himself at the thought, but still walked out into the alley carefully, pushing toes ahead on a stiff gait that kept his shins back, like he was moving in darkness.
Someone caught him by the neck from behind. Instinctively, Chris whirled to break the grip and counterstrike, but his punch was caught.
That had never happened to him since he’d started to learn the Eight Spirit Fist. Not even Master Lee could block it. But May Wong could. She looked at him and shook her head. “You could take someone’s head off like that, Chris. Good thing it was me trying to stop you from walking into a Star-Racer, and not, say, Jamie here.”
The older Neilsen girl gave him a cold stare. She was wearing a blue jean jacket and pants combo, and a blue backpack that had slipped down over her arm during the action. It sagged like there was something heavy inside, and her right hand, crossed over the straps, was poked into the flap of the pack. Rebecca stood behind them, a hand on each of the other girls’ shoulders. The air was electric. Did they expect him to throw down? He wasn’t going to hit a girl!
Only, he almost had. And hard, too. His Dad could punch through tank armour with the Eight Sprit Fist.
Then May laughed. “It’s going to be so great to have a sparring partner who isn’t Dad! Here, cuz, let me show you our sweet ride for today.” And, with that, right in front of him in the alleyway in the overcast light of noon, a door in nothing opened. It really, seriously, was an invisible plane.
On the inside, however, it was just another bus. Since the seats were all still up for grabs, Chris headed to the back of the five three-by-two rows, and grabbed a window seat. The three girls took the wide bench at the right front, so after sitting down and fastening his seat belt, as he’d learned to do early so no-one threw a fuss later about not trusting their driving, Chris pitched his voice up to ask, “Are we invisible, too? Or can you see us from outside?”
Rebecca turned back. “It wouldn’t be much of a cloaking device if people could see us. No, we really are invisible to the eye. Not radar, though. The Mechanic wanted to be able to pick people up without compromising their secret identities.”
“Which mechanic?” Chris asked.
“The Mechanic,” Rebecca corrected. “He’s the leader of the Liberty League, the big Philadelphia superteam, and he’s the guy that loaned Mr. Wong this plane for the day.”
“Oh,” said Chris. “What if Doctor Destroyer attacks?”
“It’s a spare,” Rebecca answered. “For when the Destroyer blows the regular one up.”
“So… Doctor D. is that tough?” It was a silly question, really. Doctor Destroyer’s army had attacked California that summer, which was, Chris reminded himself again, the summer of 37 years ago. It was hard to believe that the same supervillain had been active all that time, and he could just imagine how powerful the guy must be by now.
“Yes,” said Rebecca. Then the Rugrats began to file into the Star-Racer, followed by Charlotte, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Wong, who took the pilot and co-pilot’s seat at the front, like this incredible machine was a station wagon for superheroes.
Takeoff nearly left Chris’s breakfast behind, but somehow he held it back. The Star-Racer was fast. And it had a TV screen for the passengers so that they could watch Saturday morning cartoons: Futurama, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park. Saturday morning cartoons sure had changed since 1975! By the time South Park was over, they’re reached their destination. In spite of the weather below, Chris could see that they’d crossed the continent in less than two hours! With Osoyoos Lake visible to the north until they sank behind a ridge, he even knew where they were going. Of course he did.
Since they had been sitting in the back, Chris and Charlotte were the last out onto the thin snow that covered the First Bench. The Captain was already darting across the wide pasture, barking at two horses as they came down the trail that led up the hillside to the Second Bench of their great-grandfather’s old homestead, where the family graveyard, where Chris and Charlotte’s grandfather, great grandfather, their wives, and his aunt were buried. And Mr. Wong’s, too, Chris had to remind himself. He was their first cousin, after all.
A shiny modern truck, almost like a Blazer or a Landrover, sat on a pullout on the slope side of the road that went up one side of the First Bench, where Gramma had always parked when she used to bring Chris and Charlotte up here. Mr. Wong began to walk over to it, and a flutter caught Chris’ eye, and he looked over as Charlotte took the little crow out of her jacket pocket and set it on her shoulder.
“Are we going up to see the graves, today?” Jason asked. Chris heard gasps from Charlotte and May. Charlotte wouldn’t admit it, but she would be worried that they would find Dad’s grave. Chris had no idea what had May upset. He would have bet that nothing could disturb May. She seemed too self-confident. He was obviously wrong.
Mr. Wong answered. “Well, we can’t land the Star-Racer up there, it’s quite a hike on foot, so I’d say ‘no.’ We’ll wait ‘till April. Now let’s find ourselves a tree.”
“Too bad,” Jason said. “What’s Canadian for ‘wetback?”
“Seriously?” John asked. “We can just walk up that road and be in Canada? Like, no border post or anything?”
“Yes,” answered Jason.
“That’s so cool,” John said.
Amy said, a little harshly, “We’re not doing it today. Give it a rest, guys.”
It didn’t take long for them to find a pretty little pine tree and stuff it into the back of the Star-Racer, after which Mr. Wong announced that it was time for lunch. Chris wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but they moved down to the truck with the others. It turned out to actually be a 2012 Land Rover. Ten kids didn’t really fit into the back two benches of the truck, but with a little squeezing and sitting on laps, they managed it.
When they passed the turnoff to Cherry Grove, Chris let out his breath. They weren’t going to go see Mom’s brother. Gramma had always been careful to make sure that Mom and her brother, Doctor Dawson, didn’t run into each other, but that wasn’t what had Chris frightened by the idea of meeting him again. There he’d be, 64 years old, all of a sudden. What would that even be like? It was scary enough just to think that he was riding in Doctor Dawson’s truck!
You would think, Chris thought to himself, that the old Golden Dynasty Restaurant would be just as frightening. His grandfather’s old restaurant was a lot older than Jason Dawson, after all. It hadn’t even changed that much since Chris had last seen it in the summer of ….1973. There it was, in the tiny half-block downtown of Genesee, Washington, not too far off the ’97, the same old, inviting, building, give or take a coat of paint or two. Chris hurried inside, packed into the midst of his cousins.
Until they opened the door and he came face to face with Miss Bryce. Who was, just as he knew she would be, at the reservation stand and almost forty years older than the last time he saw her, half greeting them, half bawling them out.
“Jason, leave your sister alone! Amy! Is this your new beau? John? Is that right, John? Such a handsome boy. May, I love your new do! Do you like The Captain? I thought you would. Rafaella, I’ve heard so much about you! Emily, she’s perfect for you! Have you told your Dad? Charlotte! What do you think of Amy’s hair? Would that work for you? Chris, you’re going to swallow a fly like that! Think you’re the first time traveller through these doors? Honestly. You’re not even the first today! Jamie, any progress with the Crudup boy? Well, he’ll come round. Don’t look at me like that, Rebecca, your brother’s no fool. Now come here. I’d hug you, but I’d just get in trouble.”
At the back of the pack, Mr. and Mrs. Wong walked into the restaurant, and Miss Bryce made a shooing motion. “Okay, kids, usual table, scram. I’ve got to save Henry from this here inscrutable Oriental mastermind. Oh, Charlotte, could you please put your bird in your pocket?”
Chris started to head for the usual table, checked himself on second thought, as he had no idea which one the cousins liked, and then ended up at the usual big table by the corner window that looked into the narrow garden between the walls and the cedar trees that had grown big enough to entirely block off the sight and sound of the gas station where the mobile homes up from California would come and gas up if for some reason they hadn’t done it at Oroville and could be bothered to turn off the highway before the border. There must be one over there right now, because two tables down, there was a group of young people with a look that just screamed “tourist,” not that Chris had any idea how to pick out a tourist in 2012, when people had phones in their cameras. Or was that cameras in their phones?
Chris shooed in about halfway down the booth. Since it wasn’t nearly big enough, the teenaged waitress and two boys came out of the kitchen and pushed up another table to add to the end. That done, she began putting tea cups out and filling them. Chris looked at her. She was Chinese, which was pretty unusual in the Golden Dynasty, which usually had difficulties getting an actual Chinese cook, never mind waitresses. Or, wait, no, not Chinese. There was something different about her face, and maybe even her eyes, not that he could tell behind those heavy glasses, which tamped down her stringy hair so that her ears showed through. Though he shouldn’t be so critical. She filled out her polyester cheongsam well, and seemed nice for a… Japanese! That was it, Japanese!
She noticed that he was staring at her, and promptly spilled the teacup at him. Miss Bryce appeared behind her. “I’ll take care of this table, Kumi. Sorry about the new girl, folks. Some people are born wait staff, and some take a little training.” Chris cocked his head. ‘Wait staff?’ Was that like ‘chairperson?’ There were things about 2012 that Chris didn’t like. For example, the tourists, who were now bugging Kumi for Pabst Blue Ribbon and complaining about the music. Chris suppressed a brief impulse to go over and talk to them about it.
By the time the rice arrived, the tourists had won their battle over the music, and a weird song with monkey noises at the beginning was playing. May said, “Fallout Boy? Seriously?”
Jamie answered, “No. It’s ironic. Ironically.”
“Hilarious,” said Rebecca, as Charlotte slipped by on her way to the bathroom, following the female tourist, a young woman wearing glasses like a NASA engineer, a jacket over a white shirt buttoned up to the neck in that painfully awkward way that some people make a buttoned up shirt look, and an even more painful ring-thingie pierced through her lip. The future was weird, sometimes.
Chris was piling beef and broccoli on his plate when he heard, just faintly, a crow caw. Where was Charlotte? Was she actually running away? This would be the place to do it, only a few hundred miles from Hope. Hell, Chris had hitchhiked the distance a few times.
No point in getting Charlotte in trouble, though, so Chris got up, made his excuses, and headed to the back of the Dynasty, to the familiar old washrooms, and continued through the back door. If Charlotte was doing it like Chris used to do it, she was trying to pick up a ride at the gas station.
But she wasn’t. The tourist girl from inside had Charlotte pinned, one arm around his sister’s throat, the other holding Charlotte’s hands behind her back. “You let go of my sister!” Chris yelled.
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” the tourist answered, not moving, except to shake Charlotte as she tried to struggle. Chris reached inside himself to find his Buddha-centre and struck with the Eight Spirit Fist, and this time it landed agreeably hard. The tourist rolled down the little back porch of the restaurant, hitting the pavement in the middle of a few smoke-break butts that Miss Bryce hadn’t cleaned up yet.
And then two men were standing behind Chris, holding his arms, very firmly. Where had they come from? He struggled, but couldn’t get free, while Charlotte just stood there at the edge of the porch. “Run, Sis!”
“Run, Lolitta, Run!” The men behind him sounded weirdly in synch. “Don’t walk!” Instead, Charlotte looked back at her brother, formed her hands into what he recognised as dim mak forms, the black magic of kung fu, and punched out at the men holding him. Like the tourist girl, they went down, and Chris grabbed his sister’s hand, jumping down on to the back pavement.
They must have not been too badly hurt, though, because they jumped down right after the kids, surrounding them again. Chris could see that they were reaching for guns in their pockets. Where could he go? Chris looked up at the old sycamore tree between the Dynasty and the churchyard, and summoned his ki, leaping high into familiar old branches not changed by a mere 37 years.
“Good plan, bro,” Charlotte whispered. “We’re treed.”
Chris looked at his sister. “Who is teaching you dim mak?”
Charlotte didn’t answer.
Below, the tourist girl looked up, and her face wavered and changed. A black goatee appeared on her face, like alternate universe Spock in the Star Trek mirror episode. “I only do evil ironically,” she said, as she lifted some kind of gun to aim it up into the branches.