Chapter 2, 39: Decorating Committee
Chris’s lower back was beginning to crick. He’d been lying on his stomach on his bed, skimming rapidly through That was Then, This is Now waiting for it to get good. His back was telling him that it wasn’t going to happen.
Or maybe that he’d been doing it for too long. He rolled over, holding the book against the ceiling light. He’d really liked The Outsiders, which they’d read in English class over the last two weeks, but Tyrell had just snorted and muttered that that was because he could hardly wait to get older and feel ways about stuff. This book just seemed like more of the same. And there was something about the characters that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, like they were almost girls, or something.
Tyrell had a point, even if the point was a stupid line from a stupid TV show. Why was he wasting his time on teenager novels, anyway? Chris put the novel down and picked up his grandfather’s copy of the Lunyu again. Where was he again? Oh, yes: “To be loved, one must first love.” Or, at least, that was how his grandfather translated the line, his rendering blocked neatly in English in the tiny margins of the ancient book. That was why.
“Knock knock, can we come in?” His cousin May said as she slid into the room, her socks skidding across the bare, polished wood of the floor so quickly that it looked like she was going down on her butt, one hand still on the knob, for a moment.
But being a master of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, she didn’t. Behind her, Jamie Neilsen and Rebecca Hirsch caterpillared back into the hall. “Oooh,” May announced. “You’re going to get that hair gunk on your pillow.”
Chris didn’t even lift his head. “You should talk.”
May put her hand through her pageboy bob. “I agree, our hairstyle is awesome. But doesn’t it worry you that I’m, well, a girl?” Her long, crow’s feather earrings danced above black tweed-weave button-up cashmere sweater as she grinned at Chris.
“Aren’t those earrings Amy’s?” Chris asked.
May looked guilty for a moment. “We share.”
From his perch on the railing outside the bedroom window, Old Crow looked back over his shoulder and cawed, as though he were listening to the conversation. Which he probably was. Crows knew from sharing.
“So are you going to lie there all afternoon?” Jamie asked.
“Yep.” Chris said.
“And your sister?”
“She’s. . .” She’s heartbroken that Jameel is going to the Valentine’s Day Dance with Eve, Chris thought, but he wasn’t sure who he could talk about that with.
Jamie waited on the comment just long enough to make Chris feel that, somehow, she was in on the secret and understood everything. He had no idea how she did it. “Love hurts, you know? That’s why we’re here.”
“Why?” Chris asked.
“To take your minds off it!”
“And recruit some bodies for the Decorating Committee,” Rebecca pointed out.
“We are going to need a few more hands to get the hall ready for tonight,” Jamie conceded.
May looked at her tall, blonde friend. “Good thing my cousins aren’t doing anything, then!”
“Awesome! We have a plan! Let’s go draft them!”
“I’m confused,” Rebecca suggested. “Isn’t that what we’re already doing?”
“Time warp!” Said Jamie and May together.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Rebecca added. “And trust a Crudup-Hirsch to know time travel!”
“Hey, guys. What’s up?” Charlotte had come through the door at the end of the room. Ginger was in her hair, a lock twisted around her little beak, and Charlotte’s eyes were puffy, but her cousin and her friends ignored that.
“Wanna go to Lystrum early and help us set up the hall?” Jamie asked.
“I guess. Are you coming, Chris?”
Chris grunted, “No.”
“Oh, come on,” Charlotte said. “It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t want to go,” Chris said. “I don’t have a date.”
“I hear Savannah1 is looking,” May suggested.
“You don’t need a date to go to the dance!” His sister said. “Besides, how will you get a date if you don’t?”
“I don’t want a date, I want—“
“Yeah, yeah, we know. But how are you going to make her jealous if you don’t take someone to the Valentine’s Day Dance?” His sister asked.
“Hunh.” Chris hadn’t thought about that. “Would that work?”
“Can’t hurt,” May said. “Now come on. We’ve got the Fleetwood double parked outside.”
“The Cadillac?” Charlotte asked. “I thought it was a Fairlane.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “That’s a Ford, Char-Char.” His sister knew a lot, but she didn’t know much about cars! “If I get to ride in a 1955 Cadillac, I’m in.” He bounced off the bed, scooping his leather jacket from where he’d thrown it on the ground as he rose to his feet, not forgetting the Blue Tranquility, carefully hung from on the wall above his bed. Hey, you never knew.
“Is that what you’re going to wear?” His cousin asked.
Chris looked down. White tee, blue jeans, leather jacket, socks who cared, because he’d be wearing his motorcycle boots over them. It looked fine to him. “Yeah.”
“It’s a dance, not a pool hall.”
“Whatever. Look, I’m not going to suddenly turn into a Club Monaco guy. Why aren’t you bugging Charlotte?”
“Because I’m ready?” Charlotte said, holding up her arms, backpack in one hand and the Pearl Harmony, held by its scabbard, in the other, so that Chris could see that she was wearing her fuzzy red onesies from the cabin, finished off with a crocheted lavender scarf around her neck.
Chris looked at his sister in amazement. “You’re going in your pyjamas?”
“No, silly. I’ve got my frock and shoes packed already! Now what are you wearing?”
“Oh, Chris will be fine,” Jamie said, unexpectedly. “He’s got a look going.”
“Thank you,” Chris said, relieved. He hadn’t wanted to say that he was dressed like Fonzie. He was, but it sounded lame to admit it.
“Yeah. And we’re practically twins,” Rebecca pointed out. “Haircut, jacket, jeans….”
“Your jacket is nothing like Chris’s,” Charlotte pointed out.
“Yeah,” Rebecca conceded. “I got it in Babylon last summer.”
“Ooh,” Charlotte said, “Babylon. The City of Man and Art. Can we stop there on the way to Lythrum?”
Rebecca shook her head. Well, she’d be the one to know the twisting routes through the dimensions.
“Can we just go?” May said, exasperated. Startled, Chris and Charlotte moved toward the door. Chris noticed glints of blue and pearlescent light starting up from the blades as they got nearer, almost intertwining, like light shouldn’t do. He wondered if they would have to draw their blades tonight. It was only a dance!
And that was how the five of them ended up cramming into Mrs. Hirsch’s time-and-dimension-travelling pink 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood under the bare branches of the trees that marched down the avenue outside the Yurt. It was cold out in just a leather jacket. “After you,” he said, gesturing Charlotte into the car. Even inside, the cold came off the rear windows so intensely that Chris regretted not bringing his winter jacket until the titanic V-8 of the Cadillac somehow managed to fill the cabin with heat, unlike any other 50s car Chris had ever driven in.
“You don’t have to protect me, you know,” Charlotte said, looking at her brother as the Cadillac started down the block.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“You’ve put me in the middle seat. I can’t get out on the road if there’s a fight.”
“At least, not ‘till I’m out,” Chris conceded.
“Or me,” May said from the driver’s side seat.
“Won’t you be running the gun turret if we run into trouble?” Charlotte asked, pointing at the folded frame of the Fleetwood’s pop-up turret and the long barrel of its minigun, almost flush with the roof.
“Probably,” May said. “My bow is really hard to shoot from inside the car, and we’ve already got two swords if we need to have a foot team. Hey. You want to learn how to work the turret, Char-Char?”
“Sure!” His sister said, brightly.
Chris cleared his throat.
“What, both of you? Okay, soon as we clear town.”
“Which will be?”
“Gate’s not far,” Rebecca said. “We’ll be there in a second, as long as the mini-van behind us doesn’t ram us first.
Chris looked behind him. The mini-van behind them was being pretty aggressive, and it was a familiar mini-van, too. The Drama Club. Chris recognised Mario at the wheel, and Snowflake in the passenger’s side seat, his seat belt making deep canyons through his big, puffy jacket, which he apparently even wore in the car. Mario’s eyes narrowed noticeably as he recognised Chris through the Fleetwood’s rear window, and he gave Chris a subtle finger. He didn’t even take his hands off the wheel, and Chris might not have noticed if Mario had not smirked as he did so.
Whatever. There wasn’t much that Chris could do about it. He turned back to the front, just in time to see the subtle nimbus that indicated a door to the roads through the dimensions. That was all the warning he had before the world outside suddenly turned dark and wet and close.
“Damn!” Rebecca said.
“What?” Jamie asked.
“We were supposed to pick up a Norton & Piper convoy here, but it’s been delayed by the weather. We’re on our own. And perfect weather for an ambush, too.”
“At least we’re going slow enough to pop the turret no problem,” May pointed out.
“There’s that,” Rebecca conceded. “Okay, up you go.” The Fleetwood’s ball turret bloomed above them, and May stood up, bracing her back against the steering bar and taking the gun handles in both hands. She turned the turret slowly around. “Radar is picking up vehicles ahead and behind, all going slow and cautious. Battlecomp says no threats.”
Jamie was turned around in her seat, leaning into the back with one of her enormous Desert Eagle pistols poised in her right hand. “And Battlecomp’s like, the second best computerised babysitter ever.”
“Second?” Charlotte asked.
“Battlecomp’s new,” May said, looking down. Chris noticed that she had earphones on, just like Tank Girl. “Rosa programmed it for us after last October. That’s why it’s second best. After Rosa. Battlecomp won’t help us in a high magic dimension like Lythrum, but it should be good on the road. Now get up here.”
Chris didn’t like the look of the road. He’d driven in weather like this, and he knew what Rebecca was going through, but somehow it didn’t seem real when you weren’t at the wheel. And in the meantime, he got to play with one of the coolest machines he’d ever been in control of, the gun turret of the Cadillac Fleetwood, with its tactical computer. He was just getting the hang of it when he felt the slightly wrong vibe of a dimensional passage, and they were through to Lythrum.
It was, well, it was whatever time it was in the Evening Land, with a flaming red moon low on the horizon, and multi-coloured, far-too large stars and racing moons overhead in a sky that slowly faded from blue at the horizon to black directly overhead. Noon, probably, Chris figured. This was not a familiar part of Lythrum. The venue for tonight was a garden hall on a royal estate on a completely different continent from the one they’d visited last time. It was hard to remember, Chris thought, that a dimension could be as big as Earth’s whole universe, or even larger.
“Oh, Sweet Jeebus,” Rebecca muttered.
“What?” Jamie asked.
“Look behind us.”
Chris craned his neck to look behind. Rolling behind them down the black road that seemed to drink up the light so that you had to operate on a bit of faith that it was even there, came the Drama Club’s green minivan.
“Damn!” May said.
“That’s what I said,” Rebecca replied, as the mini-van came to a halt and the driver’s side door opened. “It must have got caught in the nimbus!”
Chris opened the door and got out, just as Mario got out of the mini-van. The tall, shaven-headed Drama Club teacher got out of the sliding door and closed it behind him, with a muffled word to the other people in the back. For just a second, Chris imagined that he saw the lash of long, black hair as someone moved her head. Longong made him catch his breath as he imagined it close in his face.
“We followed you through that storm or whatever. Where the fuck are we?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rebecca said. “Hello, Mr. Burcato. Looks like you got mixed up in traffic.”
“Yes, that’s what it looks like,” said Mr. Burcato, his dry voice suggesting a bit of doubt, or perhaps sarcasm.
Another person came up behind, a short Black with the air of Lythrum on him. “Ah, an unexpected visitor. I am Horatio. take it that you are the adult chaperone, sir?”
Mr. Burcato nodded. “Well, in a moment we will get someone to guide you back to West Philadelphia. In the meantime, if you will board your vehicle again, I will guide you somewhere a little . . . .safer.”
Mr. Burcato nodded again. “I am very grateful for your assistance, Mr. Horatio.” Turning back to the mini-van, he leaned in the passenger’s side window and told Snowflake to move into the back seat so that Horatio could sit there instead. Mario and Mr. Burcato got back into the minivan, followed by Horatio. Slowly, the minivan backed up to the juncture of the road that they had arrived on with another one, paved in ochre bricks that lead around the garden hall. Still backing up, it turned around the edge of the hall, disappearing behind the buttress-like tower of carved brown stone, washed in a beam of red light, that held up the right corner of the garden hall.
“That was a little strange,” Charlotte said, coming up to stand beside her brother.
“I’ll say,” Chris answered. “Look. Your sword is glowing again.”
“So is yours, bro. So is yours.”