Now, must sleep. Evening shifts this week doesn't mean that I have to like them.
Chris wiped his eyes fiercely as he was carried out of the old churchyard by a tidal wave of cousins and friends towards the trucks parked at the side of what had barely still been a small town main street in 1975, and past them down over the crest of the hill to the marina. Past the Golden Dynasty restaurant, the pavement was cracked and potholed, reminding Chris of the alley behind the Denny’s. It was hard to believe that his uncle and aunt had to drive down that road from Cherry Grove to their offices in Oroville. Their trucks looked far too nice and new. Behind the hill, at least the west side of Osoyoos Lake hadn’t changed, although new subdivisions on the far bank had crept up the mountains here and there. over the curve of the hill that led down to East Oroville.
So much had changed, and so little. By now he was just a little more ready to see people suddenly turned old. It didn’t hurt that he hadn’t seen his aunt and uncle for six years. Or 43. Whatever. Chris knuckled his eyes again, cursing himself. Boys didn’t cry! He looked up. His Uncle Jason was handing over keys to Henry and Brad, with comments about insurance and explosions that Chris didn’t really understand, except to gather that superheroic shenanigans were not unknown in these parts. Then, Chris and Charlotte were face to face with Uncle Jason and Aunt Sandra. Chris wondered how well his sister even remembered them. Charlotte hadn’t even seen them since she was seven. Maybe it was best that way, that she didn’t know that the Dawsons had been avoiding them.
Except, looking sideways at his sister’s fiercely set face, Chris knew that wasn’t the case at all. Apparently oblivious, Uncle Jason reached out to take them both in a directing hug that headed them gently back into the churchyard. “Christopher, Charlotte. You’ve both grown so much! Here, I’m sure your cousins can be patient for a—“
His uncle’s voice faltered. He was leading them well to the side and around the church, to the neat line of Dawson family plots sheltered by the outstretched wings of the age-blackened stone angel that marked Elizabeth Dawson’s grave. The last time Chris had been here, there had been a fence of black iron around the plot. It was gone now. And, he thought, knowing what he was about to see, there had been one gravestone fewer. After 40 years, Chris realised, his eye, at least, ought not be able to pick out a newer stone amongst the old. Except that for some reason his eyes fixed on winter-withered vines of morning glory that crept up one stone at the edge.
“Love in vain,” Charlotte whispered. Chris looked at his sister, but she didn’t explain.
His uncle’s arm gently drew him towards the stone, until Chris could make out the name and legend engraved on it. “Mary Solace Wong, 1941—1975. Mary of the Sorrows is home at last.”
“Everyone from around the Lake and up as far as Rock Creek came to welcome your mother home,” his uncle said, his voice rough.
“But we weren’t there,” Charlotte said, tugging at something in her knapsack with furious strength. “We weren’t here ever.” Flower stems emerged in her hands, but the flowers or whatever caught on the lip of the bag, and Chris felt some complex mix of guilts at not having one of his own and not somehow preventing the pricking that was letting Charlotte’s red blood run down her hand from the flower stems she was holding far too hard. He reached over to help, but Aunt Sandra got there first.
“No, you weren’t. Your uncle came to us from Hong Kong in ’69. He had so much to learn from your grandfather, and we had to hide him from your father meanwhile. And when your Cousin Jenny came with her time machine and her plan to have her parents adopt you up in 2011…. Your mother thought that it was for the best.”
Charlotte let go of the flowers and held her injured hand in her good one as Aunt Sandra took the bag and gently disengaged the bouquet of red and white roses that had been hiding within. Her eyes swept from her aunt to her uncle to her brother. “Hiding Uncle Henry? Is that the best you can do? You were ashamed of Mom!”
Uncle Jason replied. “Oh, Char-Char, you know better than that. We wouldn’t have been there for the first seven years of your life if that were the issue. Your grandfather made us promise that no-one outside Cherry Grove could know where your uncle was until he was ready to fight your father.”
Chris finally found his voice. “But didn’t the Hobgoblin know? I mean, he brought Uncle Henry to Philadelphia and promoted him to membership in the Liberty Legion in 1974, right?”
His uncle looked at him, his mouth set in an unmistakeable I’ve-said-too-much-line. “There are things you don’t know, Chris. Enough. Chris, Charlotte, we’re family. You don’t have to forget, or forgive, or do anything you don’t want to do. Just remember that we love you, and that we won’t be here in Cherry Grove forever. People come and go. Only family is forever.”
“Forever, or even that much longer. Frankly, even in summer the Valley is getting too cold for my bones in the morning,” Aunt Sandra said. “I’m really looking forward to selling my practice and living in the Palm Springs house year round. Now you kids hurry along before your cousins explode or something.”
“Yes, go. But please do stop in at the Grove on your way back to town.” Chris briefly wondered how his uncle was going to get back to the house at Cherry Grove, but obviously there was a plan, so he supposed that he didn’t need to worry.
The drive up to The Benches was a lot more comfortable with two vehicles, and Brad and Henry drove much faster than Uncle Henry. Soon, they had passed through the gate and over the ringing cattle catcher and were climbing the precarious road that Chris had watched his grandfather bulldoze out of the side of hill so that they could bring store-bought hay up to the winter pastures instead of mowing the gully grass by hand every summer.
Finally they climbed over the last, bone-jarring rise and onto the First Bench, five acres of almost-flat land, utterly unexpected in this up-and-down landscape, running slightly down towards the valley floor below until it reached the hidden spring, screened by a line of trees at the far end. Snow blanketed the flat, muffling the sound of anything but a gentle wind in the trees. The cousins dismounted one-by-one, forming up into hand-holding couples, or chasing each other for a good old-fashioned facewashing, depending on temperament. In this peaceful, private place, even Emily dared to take Rafaella’s hand.
Chris was third from last out, before Rose and Charlotte. Charlotte’s mood had lifted, but Rose looked sad and bewildered. (Dora, of course, was chasing the Rugrats, one arm wrapped around John, the other pulling Jason’s jacket down off his shoulders, while she shrieked, “Watch, watch,” at her sister.)
Charlotte turned to her friend. “If you’re serious about someone, you’re supposed to bring them to The Benches and see how they like it. It’s a family tradition.”
Rose’s voice was small. “That’s alright for you. I’m never going to have a boyfriend.”
“There’s probably some boy mooning for you right now.” Chris listened carefully to the hint of hesitation in his sister’s voice. Oh, that was a triangle, that was. They both wanted Jameel. Chris wondered if Rose realised. Probably. She was smart, that girl.
“There’s not. There never will be. And that’s not the point. There’s a place for you in this world. There isn’t for me.”
“That’s not true,” Chris said, surprising himself. “There’s a place for you. You have to stand somewhere. That’s what Gramps Jason and Grams Mary made here at the Benches. A place for Wongs to stand. You can make yourself a place, and find a stance. Set your feet, or life will sweep you away.”
Charlotte continued. “Rose, you’re as cute as you let yourself be, and as centred a girl as I’ve ever met. If you want to stand on The Benches, our family is happy to have you. When you’re ready, and you will be ready, bring your boyfriend up here. But wait ‘till it’s summer, Auntie Ma says.”
At that moment, a crow burst from the trees at the upper edge of the bench, too fast for Christ to see whether it was fat, much less old. His nose filled with the sharp smell of horse even before a massive yellow stallion broke into the open, followed by a tiny herd of two Riding Club-style ponies.
“What is the Lion Stallion doing here? And why is he wearing saddlebags again?” Jason asked.
Brad answered in a sing song that was presumably meant to sound as though he were reciting, “What I did for my Christmas Vacation: Chauffeur a cranky spirit horse across country through holiday traffic.”
“Oh, come on, Brad,” Henry said. “It was hilarious when Richard Pryor did it.”
“Did I see you having hilarious times, Hank?”
“Maybe a little hilarity.”
“Quietly. While you were sleeping. That motel with the Magic Fingers Bed that you had to try.”
“You like Magic Fingers beds, Brad?” Jenny asked, her voice studiedly curious.
“I can take them or leave them. They’re funnier than driving a horse trailer across Montana. Vroom!Splutz! Crack! That’s the sound of a domestic pickup entering the Speed Zone as it passes you on the shoulder. Followed by the sound of the slush and gravel wake hitting midway up the windshield.”
May took the saddlebag off the Lion Stallion and looked inside. Then she reached in and pulled a single piece of paper out of it and read, “’You’re about to be ambushed by V’han’s Second Chancers responding to an emergency. It will happen as soon as you leave the family property. Please use tactics.’ Signed, ‘Captain Chronos.’”
May had barely finished talking when a distant explosion rolled down the hillside, like the sound of a particularly mighty backfire on the Crowsnest Highway up Anarchist Summit, only a few miles east. Dr. Wong spoke, his ordinarily soft voice hardening with authority. “We’re going with three teams, here. My original decision would have been that dual citizens would respond to the emergency in Canada. That’s Henry, Brad, Jenny, and Chris. You’ll be enough to deal with V’han’s forces there. Next, she’ll use time travel to put in a second team to ambush the responders us on the way. May, Jamie, Rebecca, Nita and I will hit them, with the Rugrats covering us from stealth. Rose, Charlotte, Dora, you lay low. Time machines can’t enter The Benches unless they’re driven by a Wong.
“I don’t think so,” Dora said, dreamily, as her body lit up with a rippling white gold fire. “The Maid of Gold is coming.”
David swore. “Dora, you know your parents don’t like you trying to control something so powerful at your age.”
“Control? That’s funny. The needfire must.”
“Nita! Transport?” Henry asked.
Shouting to be heard over his brother, Dr. Wong waved his phone in his hand. “This is what V’han’s D-Troopers look like. Bear in mind that they teleport. They’ll have supers with them, but there’s a lot of Battalioneers, so expect the unexpected.”
Nita gestured Chris and Henry over. “Hank, can’t fool me. You’re going to be riding your mother’s horse. I’ve got a flight harness for Chris. You’ll figure it out pretty quick. Oh, and Hon? Merry Christmas.” Nita picked two black bags out of the back of the Land Rover, handing one to Henry Wong as he mounted the Lion Stallion in a vault, the other to Chris. Chris reached inside and pulled out a tangly harness of belts and straps with gadgets on it here and there that he strapped over his Tatammy fatigues in hardly more time than it took to change into them in the first place.
Two throttles slapped into Chris’s hands as soon as he snapped the final buckle. A twist here and a pull here, and he was aloft, though it took all his Eight Spirit mastery to keep himself stable and pointed in the right direction. By the time he was finished sorting all of that out, he was already eight feet off the ground, looking down at his sister. “Listen to Dr. Wong, okay, Sis?”
“This is completely unfair! Why does Dora get to fight?”
“Because she’s channelling Spooky the Ghost from beyond space and time? And you’re still learning the inner secrets of Eight Spirit Kung Fu?”
“Like you’re some kind of Ascended Master!”
“Above head height, anyway,” Chris said, doing a loop, not sure until he came out the other side that he would be able to do it. Then Brad and Jenny lifted off in a flash of green light, wearing matched uniforms of deep evergreen and brown. The colours, Chris realised, of The Benches. Chris supposed that it was time to follow them, wondering when, exactly, they’d become Canadian citizens. Time travel, he supposed. That was usually the answer. Below them, the Lion Stallion flowed across the broken terrain of the hillside with unreal speed. Henry, dressed in a mustard yellow costume inspired by a kung fu uniform, was almost the same colour as the horse, but Nita’s Christmas gift, a high-tech compound bow, was cool and black across his back.
Chris was looking down when the Lion Stallion cleared the fence line, so he saw the motely bunch of supers rising from the ground, followed by D-Troopers decked out with flight discs and D-harnesses. Their ambush, in turn, scattered as Jamie, Rebecca and May appeared in their midst. It looked like the three of them practiced that move frequently, and with Dr. Wong, Nita Guzman and the Maid in the air, there was no escape there, either.
Whatever. That fight was in other hands. Chris was needed on Anarchist Summit. He could already see the switchbacks, supposedly cut by Chinese workers for the old Dewdney Trail. A UPS truck was stopped in front of a crater blown in the road –by the explosion, Chris supposed. It was surrounded by attackers, but, unlike the ambushers at The Benches, they were wearing what looked like space suits.
Weird, Chris thought, as he aimed a solid kick at the bubble helmet of the first one in reach, swinging his whole body into the follow through to scoop up the two guys next to him between his calves and slam their heads together. It was less impressive than he hoped. Helmets were, on second thought, probably good for stopping head injuries and stuff. That was what they said, anyway.
Chris hit the narrow paved shoulder in a three point, the flight harness throttles gracefully retracting just before palm hit pavement. It was hard to believe that he’d just been flying. Or that these two guys were so freaking slow to pull out their sidearms. “Yeah, don’t go to any trouble on my account,” Chris muttered as took one man’s arm and snap-rolled him, while kicking the half-drawn pistol in the gap between hand and holster. It went off with a bright, bluish flash, and set the man’s suit on fire. He dropped and rolled, desperately beating at his pant leg.
Funny. It didn’t look that serious. Not all of the combatants were that easy to take out, though. The ground was being lit in alternate strobes of green and white as Brad and Jenny matched energy projection powers with someone upstairs, and Chris ducked, instinctively, just in time to miss out on a massive blow from a tall woman, also in a spacesuit. She pulled her hands back for some kind of handclap brick trick , but before she could deliver it, the Lion Stallion reared behind her and delivered a solid blow to the helmet.
Chris had no time to watch, because the last unengaged spacesuit guy had drawn a freaking naginata. “Seriously, man?” Chris asked, drawing his . It could be worse, he thought. If he’d been in the Twenty-First Century more than three weeks, he’d be completely sick of the otaku crap. He drew his tonfas and let the Empress of a Billion Dimension’s ninja fanboy take a few swings to size him up. He wasn’t bad, but not nearly fast or strong enough to play with the big boys, so Chris caught the head of the Japanese halberd in the crooks of his tonfa and broke the handle with a qi-assisted twist. Two robots fell around him as this took place, black arrows crackling with electricity sticking out of them. This was turning into a massacre, Chris thought.
And then Chris found himself being washed downstream in a raging torrent. He had a moment to realise just how cold it was before he tore his shoulder against a rock. This could be serious, he thought, as he instinctively twisted the throttles that had stuck themselves in his hand, and pulled free of the water just before it hit a real rapid. His trailing foot actually went off the shelf, still dragging through the spume, and for a moment he dangled, looking down into the white-foamed pool far below, the spray from water hitting the cliff behind somehow even colder now that most of him was in the cold mountain air of some place that definitely wasn’t the Okanagan valley.
Another dude with offensive dimension-shifting powers, Chris thought. Well, at least for the little otaku’s sake it was good to know that he wasn’t trying to make his way in the Empress’ legions his karate skills. So, apparently, Chris was told, most practitioners couldn’t close the manifold on their gates completely, which meant that there was a gate back home somewhere near. Chris began looking around, and, after a moment, found it.
The fight was over by the time he popped back through. There were bodies (and robots) strewn all over the place. A guy in a brown UPS parka stood by the side of the road talking to Henry and the rest of the team. He was holding a translucent plastic bag with a weird glyph on it in his hands. “This is it,” he said.
“What is it?” Chris asked. “Catch me up.”
“Where were you, kid?” The UPS guy asked.
“A hazard dimension. The guy with the naginata has dimensional gate powers.”
“Oh. Well, that makes sense. Anyway, the Furious Fist here was asking what was taking the ambushers so long, and I was explaining that they wanted me to pack all the parcels I picked up in Osoyoos in these bags. Me. While those assholes stood around and watched. Got their’s though. So you the Fist’s kid or something?”
“Nephew,” Chris said. “And that’s not—“
“How old do I look?” Henry asked.
“Sorry, dude. Son, right?”
“Yeah. I'm the Avenging Son.”
"Kid got a name yet?"
"Don't think so."
"Well, no pressure, Hate to think what kinda codename I woulda picked when I was sixteen. You guys gonna join me for a beer? Because I do believe I just clocked out for the day."
"Sorry, man. We have lunch plans."
Chris interrupted impatiently. “What happened to these guys?” He waved his hand at the still figures in the silvery spacesuits.
Henry frowned. “They took poison.”
“Like, crazy Eastern assassin cultist poison taking?”
“Yes.” Brad said. “It’s horrible. We can see it through the flesh--“
“It’s like swallowing lava,” Jenny finished.
“So not V’han’s style,” Henry said. “Everyone in the ambush who broke a suit seal just committed suicide right here. And why just these guys? Why not the ones in the other ambush?”
Jenny held out her phone. “This is the glyph on the bag, right? It means ‘Bio-Hazard.’”