Chapter 3, 11: “Girl on Fire” Would Totally be a Copyright Violation
Finally, they were going horseback riding. And because the official Paradise Valley Camp van was stranded in town with a breakdown, they were taking a two-horse surrey up to the Hernandez Farm. Or, actually, they were taking three surreys.
“Dr. Cambridge isn’t big on the whole supervising thing, is she?” Rose asked, gesturing at the carriage ahead of them. Dr. Cambridge and Miss Jane were sitting with Cookie, leaving the girls to follow. Though, to be fair, they had the picnic lunch loaded with them. Which was a bit of a shame, because Charlotte was feeling a bit peckish. She glanced over at her shoulder and caught Ginger’s eye. “This is how you feel all the time, isn’t it?”
Ginger bobbed over, tail up, to show her undercarriage to Charlotte.
“I think you’ve been dissed,” Char-Char,” Dora said.
“Every day,” said Charlotte.
“You’d think that Miss Jane would have noticed that the ring leader of the crow infestation was your pet,” Rose observed.
“She probably just thinks we’re all Disney Princesses,” Dora answered.
“I know I was just singing a duet with a teapot this morning,” Charlotte answered.
“That is not a thing that happened. Not that they would have noticed. Dr. Cambridge isn’t exactly into this whole ‘adult supervision’ thing, is she?” Rose asked.
“She’d have to be an adult, first, wouldn’t she?” Dora asked.
Rose held her hand up to her mouth. “Shh, someone might hear us!” And gestured over her shoulder to the surrey behind, which had Brittany, Britt, Tiffany, Tiff, and Kendra. Ken was sick again. “They’re already calling Char-Char, the Crow.”
Charlotte did a quick Snake drill, punching the air, making Hong Kong wuxia movie-style sound effects. “That was an awesome movie. And Brandon Lee was so cute.”
Dora shook her head. “Sadness.”
Rose pulled a bit of bread out of her purse and gave it to Ginger, who took it eagerly in her beak and held held it to the sky as she swallowed it down. “Well, it figures. They’re all getting behind Brittany in the Peach Festival thing. Maybe our gang and their gang can have a climactic dance fight at the end. Dora, you can be Maria, because you’re too Hispanic to be in the competition.”
“Totally lame-ass,” Dora answered. “This thing is stacked. The only reason that Charlotte is in it and you’re not is that you’re blonde. Mr. Diavolo thinks you’d beat Brittany for sure.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Charlotte has that grace about her.”
Dora blew a disbelieving snort. “Must be sweet, coming from some nice, post-apocalyptic hellhole where everyone cares about stuff like ‘grace.’”
“We are a more advanced people, with designer Hazmat suits available in many complexion-flattering prints.” Rose squinted evenly at Ginger, who had just put out her left talon as though she was thinking about shifting shoulders to the girl with the bread. “Bare shoulders, girl. I don’t think so.”
“Aren’t you worried about going horseback riding in that frock?” Dora asked.
Rose shrugged. “I’m a speedster. Everything happens in slow motion for me. Even falling off a horse. And I like the colour.”
The Hernandez Farm was at the south end of the bench above the landing, where the lake took a bend and cut it off. From the houseyard, they could look south across the widest part of the lake, two hundred feet below, speckled with several barges, tugboats, some motorboats, and even a few sailboats. The landing gradually climbed as it went south, so to the north, they could see the sweep of fields and orchards all the way to the hill above Geithner’s Strike, ten miles to the south, with its mansions. Some horses were drawn up at the edge of the paddock, heavyset-looking mares that looked like they were accustomed to being fed by schoolchildren.
Charlotte couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment. This looked like it was going to be a bit tame. Then she noticed what looked like a two-year old, away down the field, standing under a spreading cottonwood next to a water trough. He had the rangy slenderness of a racehorse, in spite of being a huge animal, 17 hands, Charlotte guessed. She stared at him, until, as if sensing the scrutiny, he turned and trotted over to the far corner of the field, massive muscles bunching under his beautiful yellow hide.
“Nice conformance,” Charlotte said, her eyes following the young stallion into the corner.
“Thanks. I’ve been working out,” John the Ostler answered.
Startled, Charlotte focussed on her surroundings again. John and Kieran were standing next to the surrey. They looked a lot more relaxed than the last time Charlotte had seen them. John was in a red tank top and tight blue jeans, while Kieran was wearing a white Tee and long, baggy khaki shorts that came below his knee. They were both wearing leather boots with slightly blocky safety stylings, and Charlotte noticed that Kieran was wearing a stud in his left ear. Was that some kind of gayness signal, like it was supposed to be back in the Seventies? Recovering from her shock at not noticing them before, Charlotte asked, “What are you guys doing here?”
“Officially? There’s not that much work down at the stable, so we’ve got a sideline horsebreaking. The herds are increasing so fast around here that there’s a lot of work.”
“Unofficially, a sabretooth somehow got into a paddock and took a heifer last night.” Kieran added.
“And someone saw someone standing on a fence just before it happened,” John continued.
“I told you that the Paradigm Pirates were in town,” Charlotte said, feeling a rush of satisfaction.
John looked at Charlotte coolly. “Are any of the Paradigm Pirates weird, elfin people with greenish skins?”
“Uhm, no,” Charlotte had to admit.
“Then we’ll continue to assume that the Pirates are cooling their jets on a tropical island paradise, guarded by Malvan technology.”
“The Malvans are the decadent, highly advanced people who used to rule the entire galaxy, hundreds of thousands of years ago, and now only leave Malva to make trouble for everybody else. The Mandaarians are the somewhat less-advanced telepathic people who wander the galaxy doing sciency goodness, like Star Trek width weird, spiky hair and maybe not ripping their shirts as much.”
“So Malvan tech trumps Mandaarian? Interesting, because Mr. Diavolo is . . . “
“Malvan,” Charlotte interrupted. “How did you figure that out?”
“I asked him how he made all his money, and he told me. Subtle, he’s not. Otherwise, he would have just gone up about a dozen places on my little list.”
“I have a list. . . “ Kieran warbled. “I am so loving this summer so far. Show tunes and free time and even a beauty contest!”
“Yeah, about that,” John said. “Heard you were in it. Want some pointers?”
“Mr. Diavolo said he would coach me,” Charlotte began, uncertainly.
John waved his hand, dismissively. “He wants you to lose. I’m going to make you awesome.”
Kieran made an explosion gesture with his hands. “Flame on!”
John blushed. “Yeah, strangely, that’s not a side of me that I get to indulge a lot with the CBI.”
Charlotte thought about that for a moment. She really didn’t want to hurt Mr. Diavolo’s feelings. For all his weird, annoying, and even hostile behaviour, she couldn’t help seeing something nice deep inside. Certainly a lot nicer than your average gladiator-fight-watching Malvan. On the other hand, just because there seemed to be a nice guy deep in the heart of all of his bluster didn’t mean that she had to pass up an opportunity to hang out with a cool guy like John. “So, uhm, okay,” was the way that she put it.
“Fabulous,” John said. “Now we just have to put a story together for you. A narrative to sell to the judges that works with an incredible dress. And stuff like that.”
Charlotte looked at John, suspiciously. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“Because I’m totally ripping off The Hunger Games? Geez, you think I’ve spending my time thinking up strategies for winning beauty pageants?”
“Uhm, maybe? Is The Hunger Games trilogy popular here on Landing?”
“With the kids,” John said. “And Twilight. I doubt the judges have read them, though.”
“Kid’s books,” Kieran snorted. “He tried to make me read those Harry Porter books, too.”
“Potter,” Charlotte corrected, feeling offended. She’d read all six last winter and couldn’t believe that Kieran was ignoring them.
John shrugged. “We’re a backwards people around here. Now let’s see about horses. You like the big guy, over there?”
Just when you thought that the day couldn’t get any better! Charlotte nodded her head like she was trying to shake it off, and Ginger squawked, mournfully. “Do I!”
“I don’t know, do you!”
Charlotte vaulted right over the side of the surrey, landing her sharp—pointed, silver-tipped burgundy, patterned cowboy boots squarely in the beaten dirt of the Hernandez Farm house drive, the umbrella that concealed the Pearl Harmony raised above her in her left hand for balance. In the air above her, Ginger exploded into flight, stroking her strong, black wings so powerfully that Charlotte felt the breeze in her tightly-coiled hair.
Then, pulling her sword into her hip to hold both fists akimbo, she glared at John and Kieran. “Very funny.” She paused. “What’s his name?”
“Tellus,” Kieran answered. “It’s Greek for ‘Earth.’ We were going to go with ‘Terra,’ buy it’s a bit of a girly name.”
“And he doesn’t seem like a girl to us,” John explained.
“Exactly. He’s hung like a. . .”
“Kieran!” John said, with a hushing motion.
The two men set out down a road that ran beside the pasture where Tellus was grazing. Charlotte followed. John tapped the top rail of the fence to get Tellus’s attention, and then held out an apple in his left hand. Tellus eyed them warily, for a moment, and then trotted over. When he reached out over the fence to take the apple, Kieran caught a bridle that was wrapped into the young stallion’s glorious mane. Holding it firmly, he quickly climbed the fence and seated himself on Tellus’s back. An over the shoulder glare from the stallion let everyone know just what he thought of that idea.
“Come on,” John said, climbing the fence after his partner.
So Charlotte jumped to the top of the fence, doing a Batman crouch at the top, just like Cousin May did before she straddled the Lion Stallion, who, come to think of it, looked a lot like Tellus. Then she flexed, and came down on the grass, far enough away from the Lion Stallion not to spook him, although in fact he didn’t even bat an ear. Either very smart, or very dumb, Charlotte thought.
And in the next moment, Tellus showed which, as he abruptly shied, sending Kieran flying over his right shoulder. Without even seeming to break stride, Tellus opened up his gait to the left, making for open pasture. Were it not for Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon reflexes, he would have made it, too. Instead, she rushed forward and grabbed the bridle. Tellus turned to face her, and Charlotte slipped to Tellus’s left, like she’d seen her uncle do when he was training horses.
Fortunately, Tellus decided not to rear and kick, but simply held his position as John came up and clipped on a lunge line in place of the bridle, holding it out to Charlotte. “Okay, Charlotte, you know how this is done?”
Charlotte nodded, a little uncertain. She did know how it was done, from watching her uncle and her grandfather, and even helping them. But she’d only been 8 at the time. It seemed like forever.
Soon, she had Tellus doing a riderless circuiting clockwise around her on the lunge line. This was important, she knew. You had to show the horse who was boss. It amazed her that her Auntie Ma had ever been able to do this with the Lion Stallion, and looking at Tellus’s powerful conformance, she wondered if she would ever be able to do the same to this animal.
As if sensing her doubts, Tellus suddenly pivoted out of the circuit, even stronger and faster on his left than on his right. Incredibly, he moved even more quickly than Charlotte could react, and she was pitched face first towards the grass, right into a road apple.
Charlotte rolled up out of her breakfall, meeting the stallion’s glare. Instinctively, her hand went to the pommel of the Pearl Harmony, where it was strapped over her shoulder, although her instincts also noted that Ginger, roosting comfortably in he cottonwood, was silent.
Ginger, as usual, was being sensible. After a long moment, Tellus caught the lunge line under his left hoof and gave a long pull with his head, neck muscles tensing, until the buckle snapped with a crystal-clear ping that resonated in the hot, summer air. A silver fragment soared through the air, and Tellus wheeled disdainfully, headed for the far corner of the pasture. Dreadfully, Charlotte felt a growing wetness in her shoulder. This could not possibly have gone worse.
“Looks like you need a little more practice, girl,” Kieran said, sounding a bit cross.
John said nothing, and Charlotte felt hot tears starting in her eyes. Okay, this could get worse.
Then, unexpectedly, he put his hand over her shoulder, ignoring the smear on her bright blue, new denim shirt. “To be fair, that’s quite the horse. I wish we could find his dam and sire, and breed some more like him. And all’s for the best, because Charlotte needs to get changed, and I have an idea.”
Unlike the Camp, the local CBI Office had a working car. It was another of the tiny little Model T-like putt-puts that they build on Landing, but it was a car, and they were headed into town. John and Kieran had taken an apartment above the hardware store. It was big and sparsely furnished, but it had a shower.
The apartment was empty when Charlotte finished her shower. Not sure of what to do next, she put on the dressing gown left out for her, and plunked herself in an easy chair. There was a local gossip magazine, ‘We,’ on the reading table. She picked it up. It looked like it had been produced on a MacIntosh and copied on a Xerox machine. The main article was about the winner of the Kristen Stewart-lookalike contest in Landing City being seen with a boy. I guess, Charlotte thought, you took what you could get.
There was a polite knock on the door, and John walked in. He was carrying parcels heaped in his arms, all neatly tied up. “So what’s your idea?” Charlotte asked.
“You’ll see,” John said. “I figured out what your first dress should be, by the way.” He held out the parcels. “You need something to wear while the dry cleaner finishes off your camp clothes, anyway.”
Charlotte didn’t like the sound of that ‘finishing off,’ but presumably the dry cleaner knew what he was doing. She took the parcels, and went into the bathroom. They turned out to hold a bright yellow knee-level dress, grey nylon stockings, and electric open-toed high-heeled clogs. Charlotte squinted at the shoes, dubious about the colour, but she could see how they might work. She put them on, and, after another, long and distrustful squint at the still steamy bathroom mirrors, put her hair up. It just seemed to work better.
Then she headed back for the living room, only to run into another problem. Her gait was subtly wrong, forcing her to compensate, step by step, to keep herself centred and balanced. As she stepped into the living room, she over-corrected, to make it more obvious to John, not wanting to directly criticise his choice. But he just waved her forward. Over-correcting, just a bit off-kilter, Charlotte made a circuit of the easy chair.
Finally, John crowed so loudly that Ginger pecked the window from her perch, overlooking traffic. “Perfect!”
“Perfect what? Is one of these heels shorter than the other?” Charlotte asked.
“Of course!” John answered.
“That’s your story.”
“When I saw you with Tellus, I got your story.”
“Uhm, I hate to sound like a broken record,” Charlotte said, before realising that hardly anyone under thirty would recognise the analogy. Except for people from Landing, she thought then, so it was all good.
“Look at you. Perfect, sophisticated little dress and stockings, absolutely perfect for you, by the way. Girlish hair styling that focusses us on how young you are. Then, the shoes. Just a little more girlish than the hair, a subtly wrong choice. And when you move in them, not quite clumsy, not quite assured, either, like you’re not sure what you’re doing. You’re a colt, Charlotte.”
“Are you saying that I’m immature?” Charlotte sniffed, a little offended, in spite of herself.
But John swept his hand through the air. “Of course not. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had to take sandpaper to the left heel of those shoes. That’s the impression we’re going for. That’s Charlotte as she enters the contest. And, at the end, we’re going to see sophisticated, poised, adult Charlotte, and the judges will look at you, and think, ‘we did that.’ When they crown you Peach Harvest Festival Queen, they’ll be crowning themselves, and people love doing that.”
“That’s quite the scenario,” Charlotte answered.
“Strategy. We call it a strategy. I’m sorry, it’s the best I could do. ‘Girl on Fire’ was taken.”
Charlotte glared at John for a long moment, realising that she was probably feeling like Tellus might have felt when he was made to do circles on the lunge line. Then, they were interrupted by a loud honk from the street. Charlotte and John rushed to the window.
Kieran was standing at the open door of their CBI runabout, carelessly parked wrong direction into traffic. As soon as he saw John, he yelled, “We’ve got a situation!”
“Do we ever!” Rose said from behind Charlotte, almost making her jump out of her skin. “Hey, nice dress. I really like what it does for your skin. Stockings, too.”
Charlotte looked around. “So the situation isn’t a fashion catastrophe?”
“Well, don’t know about the shoes. But no. A deputy just radioed. An entire pride of sabretooths just overran a ranch above the ferry. And when the hands turned out to shoot them, some supers attacked them. I ran down to collect you. Dora will pick us up down behind the gazebo in Lakefront Park.”
Charlotte held out her quick-change ring. At least she knew what she’d be wearing next.