Chapter 3, 2: The Horses
She let her foot hang, just past the wall, where they could see it. Hanging, halfway between the bottom riser and the floor, just after she’d given the last step the biggest thump she could, it said, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Hey, you boys,’ it hopefully added, ‘Girl coming down the stair. Stop any of that boy stuff you don’t want me to see.’ Hopefully was the word, though, because boys were just so oblivious.
Because that was the way that boys were, if Charlotte Wong knew anything about it. Which she did, and she didn’t. On the one hand, boys were a baffling, infuriating mystery. You never knew what a smooth hottie like Jameel was really thinking. On the other hand, Charlotte had grown up in the same bedroom with her brother, in one scuzzy trailer after another. Chris, she knew. Except, on the other hand, then he decided to make time with a snooty bitch of a Kumi Konoye. Charlotte forgave her brother, because he was a lunkhead, but, on the other hand, she wondered if she really knew the one boy that she ought to understand.
What am I up to, now? Three “other hands”? That’s four hands! I am a four hand girl, Charlotte thought. She let a giggle go, though only in her head, and, in the moment before her foot touched the floor, had time for one more other hand. Was she just jealous? No, she decided, again, even if Rose wasn’t so sure. Charlotte didn’t need a boyfriend, and Kumi really was stuck up, and Charlotte hated the way that Kumi was all serious when Chris talked religion.
Besides, it wasn’t like Chris was down here. If there was one thing she’d learned growing up, it was her brother’s step. Chris had left, early this morning. For all his attempts to be cool, her brother was a morning person. Lame! And so was his girlfriend. Double lame! They were probably off somewhere sucking face Or having breakfast. Her brother practically had a feedbag strapped on every waking hour right now. And here was Charlotte, up almost as early. Triple lame! Well, at least there was someone up down on the boy’s floor of the bunkhouse at the Lodge. Presumably, he was quadruple lame.
Charlotte pivoted off her foot, feeling her weight shift under her like a mistress of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, swinging the pearl-coloured golf umbrella that she carried with her everywhere as a counterbalance. ‘She who has mastery of an art shows it in every movement.’ She was in the room. And there was Quadruple Lame in the flesh: Bruce McNeely. He was standing in front of Old Smokey, the legendarily recalcitrant wood stove that squatted in the middle of the bottom floor lounge.
Old Smokey, of course, was flaming away steadily, giving off just the right amount of heat. Bruce looked at Charlotte, and Charlotte looked at Bruce. “McNeelys were good at everything,” they said. Even at stoking a wood stove. For some reason, being good at everything bugged Bruce.
“Where’s the rest of the guys?” Charlotte asked.
“Chris and Kumi headed out for breakfast half-an-hour ago, and your cousins are having a reunion up on the mountain. Jason just headed out a minute ago, and John is tagging along because, you know.”
Charlotte did a hair flick nod, her curly hair, which she was currently wearing asymmetric, sweeping low over her right shoulder, brushed lightly over her tiny pet crow, Ginger, who was perched on her shoulder. John Roy was her cousin Jason’s best bud, and her cousin Amy’s boyfriend. She followed up the nod with just a second of disappointed moue, because that meant that cousin May was going to be gone, too. May was Charlotte’s favourite cousin, fun and dynamic with great style, even if Charlotte couldn’t wear her colours. Although she was growing into May’s boots, which was the one good thing about having big and clunky feet.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce asked. “Also, nice hat.”
Charlotte squinted at Bruce for a second. Was that a real compliment, or was he being sarcastic? Charlotte was a little self-conscious about her night cap, which was like the ones that her cousins wore, to stay warm in the cold nights here at the Lodge. She’d picked the design herself, but, somehow, it seemed more like imitation than the real her. The pyjamas, on the other hand. She’d picked those out pretty carefully, and really like the way the tan worked with her Eurasian half-way-to-white skin tone. Though maybe she could bronze her way into May’s signature greys? No. It probably didn’t work that way. “Thanks. I was hoping May would be here today.”
“Sorry. She went to the reunion, too. There’s just me left. Say. . .” Once again, Bruce left that weird gap in his voice, going all dramatic like some junior Captain Kirk or something. “Can I work out with you after breakfast? There’s some Eight Spirit moves that I think I can nail. Not the esoteric stuff, I mean. Like where you punch through walls and run on water and jump over buildings. I know you aren’t allowed to teach me that.”
Charlotte thought about that for a second. “It’s not that I’m not allowed to, although I’m not. I actually can’t. It’s hard to explain. After breakfast, okay?” Bruce’s face broke out in a beam at that, and Charlotte could totally see it. One thing about living with Auntie Ma. Her aunt did awesome breakfasts, all ready-when-you-are, no matter how early you got up.
Bruce opened the door for Charlotte, so Charlotte was first off the porch and onto the summer grass. The bunkhouse threw its pyramidal shadow over the lawn between it and the main house of the Lodge, and the grass sparkled with dew. In spite of it being July 1st (Canada Day!), there was still a chill in the air, up in this little valley, not too far from State College, Pennsylvania. Charlotte heard a soft nickering to one side, and Ginger cawed in her ear.
She looked over. Bao, Bai and Bo, the three mares that her aunt and uncle were keeping on the back pasture were lined up along the fence, two pregnant with foals, to be born in August and September, very late for a foal. And, standing in the middle, was the proud Papa, the enormous, earth-yellow Lion Stallion. Charlotte dug into the bulging pockets of her pyjamas, which she had stuffed with four apples before coming down the stairs.
“Magic horse want some carrots?” Bruce said.
“Apples,” Charlotte corrected, as she pulled a small Gala out.
Ginger cawed. “Don’t worry, you’ll get yours, too, greedy guts,” Charlotte said, without even looking down at her bird.
“Where’d you get those?” Bruce asked her.
“There’s a bowl of them upstairs.”
“Funny. There’s a bowl in the boy’s bunk room, too. Your aunt really is an evil mastermind.”
“Because she makes sure we can feed the horses? Evil. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“Retired evil mastermind,” Bruce corrected himself.
“Look, just because she was working for a guy who was Lo Panning it up all over the place didn’t make her evil.”
“I’m not evil, I just work for them?”
“Someone’s gotta be on Team Facebook.”
“Are you still on your Google+ kick?”
Charlotte shrugged. The lesser social media site wasn’t going anywhere, probably would never go anywhere, but she still liked it better than Facebook. Maybe because it was the underdog? Besides, who liked Facebook, any more, anyway? Even if they were on it? She held her hand with the apple in it under the first mare’s mouth. Bo, the non-pregnant mare, next to the left, tried to snake its head in and grab the fruit, but Charlotte firmly pushed its nose away. “You’ll get yours in a minute.”
For a second, she felt the tickling of the mare’s soft lips on her bare palm, and then the mare’s teeth, carefully nuzzling around the apple, and it was gone. A big, slobbering crush showed where it was, as Charlotte stepped back and fished another apple out of her pocket. “Do you want to feed one?” She asked.
“Nah. I can’t get used to feeling their teeth,” Bruce answered. Charlotte couldn’t help thinking that that sounded a little wimpy, as she fed the second mare.
The Lion Stallion waited, surprisingly patient, until Charlotte was ready to feed him, then bobbed his surprisingly big head from its place, even more surprisingly far off the ground, to take the apple.
“That’s one big horse,” Bruce said.
“He’s an old time war horse, and a blood-sweating stallion. What do you expect?”
“Have you seen your Cousin May jump on to him?” Bruce asked.
“You mean like this?” Charlotte stepped forward, flexed, took her weight on her bent right leg, and vaulted up, completing the extension and drawing her leg back before her vault took her above the Lion Stallion, so that she settled, not astride, but lightly, on her bent right leg. Before the Lion Stallion reacted, she let her foot slip lightly down his sleek, muscular side, and was sitting astride. With barely a touch of her hand to the stallion’s neck and gentle pressure from her knees, the Lion Stallion wheeled right, both front heels off the ground in a classic “airs above ground” move, and came down trotting, lightly, through the pasture parallel to the fence, towards the main house.
“I’m on a horse!” Charlotte looked over. Bruce had vaulted onto Bo, and was keeping up to one side. Because he was good at riding horses, of course. Charlotte couldn’t help wanting to show off, so she slipped over the side of the Lion Stallion, holding on to its neck, and let her feet gently bounce off the short-cropped pasture grass, and then up over the stallion’s back in the backswing. “That’s how a Tangut takes a wife!” Charlotte said, gleefully. She hoped that she hadn’t stepped on any horse manure with her pyjama footies.
“I had no idea you were in the market,” Bruce said. “I’m going to have to warn Sav.” Savannah2 was one of the triplet forms of one of the girls in her brother’s class. She had come out last winter, and was dating Rebecca Hirsch. Who was Miriam Crudup’s daughter, on account of being Mrs. Crudup’s wife’s clone. It was complicated.
“Shyeah, no.” Charlotte answered, feeling herself blush a bit. Why had she said that, exactly? “Oops. We’re here already.”
And, with the flex of her thigh muscles, she lifted up off the Lion Stallion’s bony back and onto the top rail of the fence.
Ginger cawed, and Charlotte took a second, balancing above the wide back verandah of the main house, with the delicious smells of sausage and bacon and French toast in her nose, to feed her bird a big cracker from her pocket.
Then, as Ginger took the cracker in her beak, Charlotte felt a firm nudge from behind. The Lion Stallion had planted his big forehead in the middle of her back and shoved. It wasn’t enough to break the balance of a mistress of the Eight Spirit Dragon style, but Charlotte let herself go, anyway, flipping once as she fell to the floor of the verandah, and landing so softly that she didn’t even disturb the dishes set out on the table under the basement window.
A much bigger thump announced that Bruce had vaulted the fence behind her.
“Hey! Wait for us!” Rose Eley and Dora Guzman were walking across the lawn from the bunkhouse. Dora was a nut-brown maid, in blue pyjamas with gold highlights, and Rose was a blonde, an English Rose, in pink., with a high collar.
“I think there’ll be enough for us all,” Bruce said.
Charlotte looked under a warming pan. “Hong Kong style!” Her uncle loved Hong Kong-style French toast, but he wasn’t allowed to eat them anymore. So he took some weird pleasure in making sure that everyone else ate them instead.
“My jeans, my cool new skinny jeans!” Dora answered.
“What’s the problem?” Rose asked. “Just do a little more exercise today.”
“Easy for you to say,” Dora muttered. And it was true. When trouble went down, Rose switched into speedster mode and went through sweets like iTunes went through memory. Dora channelled the Maid of Gold and threw around energy bolts drawn from the other side of space and time. You don’t burn many calories doing that.
Well, her loss, Charlotte thought, as she slid French toast onto her plate, added some sausages –yumm, sweet and salty—and put them down so that she could drizzle condensed milk and maple syrup over them.
Then she poured herself some unsweetened chai. Charlotte wasn’t up to savoury chai the way that her aunt made it, rich with salt and butter, but the rule around the Wong household was that kids didn’t drink coffee, whatever they bought for themselves at the mall, and this meal was too sweet for orange juice, in Charlotte’s opinion, although Bruce was pouring himself a small glass.
Funny. The McNeelys were so rich that they broke into the top hundred American families some years, but they were raised not to “waste” orange juice. “It’s expensive,” Bruce had explained once. Which it was. Back in the day when it came up from Florida on trains.
The first serving of French toast had practically vanished from their plates when Uncle Henry came out onto the verandah, a huge, steaming cup in one hand. He wrapped its sharply with a pencil, and everyone looked at him. “I am now announcing the activity schedule for the first day of vacation at the Lodge: Loafing. Then pizza for dinner. That is all.”
“What? We were promised horseback riding!” Rose said.
“Also, horseback riding. For the keeners,” Uncle Henry added.
“I am not a keener,” Rose protested. Keenly. “Besides. I’m good for loafing. I wanted to reread Mansfield Park, anyway.”
Dora threw an orange in her friend’s direction. Rose swept it out of the air with an invisible motion. “You are so totally not going to read that dumb book today!”
Then, in the stillness of the morning, an explosion rocked the house. Boom. Very close. “I guess not,” Uncle Henry said, drily.
A gold shimmer broke over the breakfast table. Dora was in the air. “It came from the road,” she said, sounding relieved. As she should be, Charlotte thought. Her sister, Juanita, was up the mountain in the back, hanging out with her boyfriend, cousin Henry, at the junior Wong reunion. And since they were all doing the major league superhero thing over in San Francisco, you expected big explosions and big trouble to follow them.
Point was, if the explosion came from the road, it probably didn’t have to do with the cousins. Hopefully, it would never involve them. “Come on, Tatammy!” Charlotte yelled.
“Technically, we’re not Tatammy High students yet,” Rose pointed out. “And we’re definitely not old enough for active superheroing.”
Charlotte looked at her uncle. He shrugged. “There’s oodles of backup around, and no sign of serious trouble, Char Char. You guys have a look, but don’t tackle anything Delta or above.”
“Do you guys know a Gamma from a Delta?” Dora asked from above. “’Cuz I don’t.”
Charlotte shrugged, but Rose answered. “I’ve memorised the DOSPA superpowers threat list. Haven’t you?”
“Keener,” Charlotte muttered, as she activated her quick change ring and put on her Tatammy black-and-white superhero fatigues, complete with face mask, and pulled the Pearl Harmony Sword out of its umbrella sheath to buckle it to her side. “Hey, can I ride the Lion Stallion into battle?”
“Do you think that you can control him?” Her uncle asked.
Feeling uncertain, Charlotte answered, “I’m not sure.”
“Then I think that he’d feel more comfortable hanging back on his own. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be in it the moment you guys get in over your head, and Rosa is under the mountain today, so she’ll be in the air momentarily.”
As they ran out around the house and headed towards the rural road that went by the front of the Lodge, Charlotte heard Bruce mutter, “You’d think we were a bunch of babies.” Charlotte agreed. It was getting pretty old, being supervised through every super fight.
Although the prospect of fighting evil alongside an immortal spirit horse and a sentient starship was kind of cool. Heck, if things got out of hand, she might be fighting beside her uncle.
Although again, he was 65 and still a little overweight. Come to think of it, they’d probably be better off with her brother and Kumi, if they ever surfaced from Makeout Central.
Charlotte vaulted the fence and landed on the road. At the corner, an SUV was burning merrily, and, in front of it, there was a skirmish line of figures, disguised by some kind of weird, sight-bending effect.
That’s all they needed, Charlotte thought. A school thing.