Chapter 3, 15: On It Like Red On Red Stuff.
It turned out that tomato juice wasn’t terrible for getting skunk smell off you, after all. Well, okay, Charlotte hd to admit, it was terrible for that, strictly speaking. The thing is that Charlotte wasn’t surprised about that. It was like all the things that were supposed to get rid of hiccups or get gum out of your hair. Totally useless things that people made up to torture you. And by “people,” Charlotte thought, she meant the sort that looked down at you because you lived in a trailer court and took you out of class because reasons and made you sit in the nurse’s office while they did their stupid torture stuff and finally ended up just cutting the gum out of your hair. And then everyone made fun of you and your brother couldn’t even beat them up, because they were girls.
Not that Charlotte was carrying a grudge about anything that happened in Grade 5, no sir, she thought. What she did think was that she was totally jealous of Ken. Because tomato juice didn’t work to take out skunk smell, Ken got to lie on a float on the middle of the lake all day for three days, reading a huge pile of books and slowly turning mahogany under the beautiful Long Lake sun. Meanwhile, Charlotte and her friends had to pupt up with the complete torturer of hanging around with Ken;’s friends. For long days on end, it was arts and crafts, which was at least okay, and “stupid outdoor lessons like archery and Introduction to Canoe,” which wasn’t. Because how could anyone be as clumsy or as useless as Brittany and Britt and Tiffany, Tiff and Kendra all were? It took all the fun out of to spend all your time not showing them up, because it wasn’t nice to make people feel back about themselves, her uncle always said. Not that they appreciated theh restraint. They even tried to dunk Charlotte a couple times, even if they were too lame to pull it off. Though when they did get Dora accidentally-on-purpose, Charlotte was very tempted at one point to just stand up in the canoe and kick them in the head, just to show that she could do it. But secret identities and all of that, so she couldn’t. Stupid camp.
Good thing, she thought, that by the Friday of their second week at Paradise Valley camp, they had finally done enough horse riding lessons that Kieran and John finally let her ride Tellus.
Clouds were piling in from the west as she put her foot into the stirrup, like a regular rider, and swung her leg over the big stallion. They weren’t enough to actually hold off the sunshine, but it felt as though they were weighing down on the Valley, bringing an unexpected humidity to the air that wrung you out and made you limp with sweat. Tellus’s flanks gleamed, and his mane was wet when she put her hand in it, feeling beads of water on her hand.
“Well, at least the weather’s going to settle him down a bit,” Charlotte said, waving at Tellus’s head. The stallion turned around to eye Charlotte, and, once again, she noticed the white blaze on his head. “I can’t get over how much he looks like my aunt’s horse,” Charlotte said.
“It happens with horses.” Kieran shrugged. “Heck, all the horses on this planet are from Earth. Maybe they are related.”
Kieran didn’t know the story of her aunt’s immortal blood-sweating horse from beyond the west. Charlotte decided not to tell him. She hadn’t quite forgiven him for yelling at her. Besides, they were always on her about “need to know.” They wouldn’t even tell her how they were so sure that Professor Paradigm and his pet sabre tooths couldn’t get at Mr. Suzuki’s laptop as long as it was in the Colonial Building vaults.
“Wait. Don’t you know Tellus’s bloodline?” Charlotte asked.
“Nah. He was born on the range, and his dam must have died during the winter. Anyway, he showed up in the spring roundup without her.”
“So he’s an orphan?” Charlotte asked. Like me, she thought, but she didn’t say, because that whole “poor little me” thing was so tiresome. And even if Charlotte did it all the time, just like everyone else, she at least tried not to. That was the best thing about Scout, when you got down to it. He tried not to talk about himself.
“Yes,” Kieran answered. “He’s an orphan. Surprising he’s so healthy. Even a yearling needs his Mom.”
And that made Charlotte sad. “You’re just like me, Tellus.” See, Charlotte thought. It was hard to keep that stuff bottled up. And she really, really missed her Mom. Charlotte slapped the reins and squeezed gently with her knees. Time to get this going.
But instead of breaking into a walk, Tellus hit the grass in a flat gallop. Oh, come on, Charlotte thought. I could just reign you in, but if you think that I’m a scared little girl who can’t handle a little gallop across the paddock, you’re a lot dumber than you seem.
But Tellus wasn’t dumb. He was, it seemed, crazy, because he headed right for the edge of the paddock, where a fene a good six feet high, with a ditch beyond, walled off the farm from the road. And at the other edge of the narrow gravel road, the irrigated emerald green of the farmland ended like a ruled line had been drawn across the country, and the sere brown of the high range began.
Charlotte had time to notice all of that because she was a fast noticer. Meanwhile, she hauled back on the reins to try to stop Tellus. But, having been given his head, the yellow horse was not going to give it up. Without even breaking gait, he headed straight for the fence. Charlotte let go of the reins, instinctively bracing for impact.
Only a pace away, she felt Tellus flex his entire body beneath her legs, his mighty muscles propelling him into a jump. This is crazy, Charlotte thought. You can’t jump that.
But he could. With only a slight knock of his rear hooves against the top rai of the fence, Tellus cleared the obstacle and landed clear on the other side of the ditch.
Charlotte wasn’t so lucky. Even Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu won’t keep you on the back of a horse that’s stretched just about vertically once you’ve let go of the reins. She felt herself falling free, headed for the gravel of the pavement with a dozen speeds in a dozen directions at once.
The road itself beneath her, Charlotte was glad to see, was reasonably smooth, with the gravel packed into the dirt. Unfortunately, there was plenty of gravel scattered on top. And she felt like she he had time to see every bit of it. It looked very pointy. Once again, she could taste the feeling of a broken nose ahead of it happening. And, once again, this stupid horse was going to ruin her outfit. And this time, it would be a matter of bloodstains on her good hjeans. Somewhere above her, Ginger cawed. Thanks, Charlotte thought, but a bit late.
Fortunately, what Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu will do is let you handle a fall like that. Charlotte flipped in the air, and, because she;’d cleared TEllus to the left, she was able to snag the reins with her right handas she came down. And that was how Charlotte ended up dragging along the roadway on her knees, feeling every sharp pain as she tore over the gravel, the reins firmly wrapped in her right hand. Ignoring the pain, Charlotte reached over and put her left hand further up the reins, and using her full strength, she pulled herself to her feet. The sweet relief of her knees was somewhat balanced by the fact that the gravel bumped hard enough on her sneakers to feel them through the canvas,. So she hauled on the reins some more.
At last, Tellus stopped. Charlotte, carefully, disentangled her right hand from the reins before they pulled her fingers completely off, and wagged them at the giant stallion. “Oh, no, you don’t.”
“Road surfing? Is that what the cool kids are doing in Phillie now?” She heard John say behind her.
Charlotte turned around. “A-yep.” She could imagine Scout saying it like that in her head.
“Kieran probably forgot to mention that you probably wanted to shorten the reins to start with.”
“Probably,” Charlotte conceded.
“So. Should we take you into town and get your scrapes looked at?”
Charlotte looked down. Her jeans weren’t just stained. They were shredded. Her knees were better than she expected, though. No short skirts or bathing suits for a while, though. Good thing she was a fast healer. “Yes,” she said again.
“Though knowing this of the world,” Kieran drawled, “they’d probably end up painting you with iodine and sending you back out. There were just too many kids around to get fussy about a bit of road rash.”
Charlotte shrugged. She hated iodine, but the school nurse back home had really liked putting it on poor kids., She wasn’t going to complain, because she knew that the real reason was that the nurse didn’t want the troublemakers to come back.
Once they’d cleared it with a distracted Dr. Cambridge, and Charlotte had eased herself into the CBI car, they started out for town. “We should probably just take you straight to the meet-and-greet at Diavolo’s place,” John said as they turned onto the Lake Highway.
“I can’t wear the dress and stockings with my legs like this,” Charlotte protested.
“No worries,” John answered. We’re saving that outfit for the contest. We need to check another box first.”
“Which is?” Charlotte asked.
“The one where you show off the best dress that Hernandez’s Hardware has to offer, silly. Raoul isn’t in this for the fun of watching beauty queens play piano.”
“I can’t play piano,” Charlotte pointed out.
“Neither can the girls who choose it for their talent.”
“Okay then,” Charlotte answered, trying to imagine a girl whose best hope at the talent contest was to pretend to play piano. Actually, that sounded a lot like what she’d seen of Brittany. Assuming that putting on makeup wasn’t an allowed talent. “But,” she added, “What kind of dresses can you get at a hardware store?”
It was a question that began to be answered an hour later, when Charlotte got out of the car at the door of a little frontier hardware store. To which someone had added a warehouse. Which they then decided had benb such a good idea that they put another store in front of the warehouse. Which they had tehn decided was such an awesome plan that they did it again in the next open lot over. Which, since it was separated from the original mess by two houses, they joined to it by building another warehouse-like thingie that had two houses embedded in it. Which was perfect, because apparently they had so many busts of Elvis and pink flamingo lawn ornaments inside that they needed to put them outside, on what used to be the front lawns of the old houses.
Luckily, somewhere along the line, the “architect” behind the building realised that he’d really need a flat, straight, long surface on which to mount a sign that read, “Hernandez Hardware Is Like No Place Nowhere!” And it was lucky, Charlotte thought, because they would have put that sign up even if they had to fold it into quarters and wrap it around the building like a beauty queen’s sash.
Since the original door to Hernandez’s Hardware seemed to be the way that you got into the store, Charlotte gingerly eased her stinging, iodine-painted legs in its direction. Only to find that you didn’t ease your way into Hernandez Hardware, because its door was only half the size that it needed to be, and there were a dozen other people who wanted to use it just exactly when you wanted to use it. Charlotte tried three excuse mes on people before putting her elbows into the crush. “Sorry,” she said, to a particularly hungover looking Elvis statue, because at least he wasn’t jostling, and then she was in.
Rose and Dora were waiting for her just inside the entrance, in the one space that wasn’t taken up by Elvis statues. Because there had to be room for room lamps made in the shape of Calvin peeing, instead. Charlotte shook her head. Only half the houses in town even had electricity so far.
“This place is incredible,” Dora said, when Charlotte came up to them.
“I agree,” Charlotte said, putting her finger in her mouth and pretending to throw up.
“Brittany, is that you?” Dora asked.
“Oh, they have a lot of tacky stuff, but wait till you see the woman’s wear floor!”
“So why do they put the tacky stuff up front?” Charlotte asked.
“Consumer advisory?” Charlotte answered.
“Knock it off, mean girls,” John said, coming up behind them. “Mr. Hernandez is a judge at the contest. And his new place out at the mall will have one of those perfume floors where everyone shoots you with free samples when you walk in the door, just like a real department store on Earth.”
“There’s a mall in this town?” Dora asked. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
“Nah,” Rose answered, “It’s just a hole in the ground a block off the Lake Highway halfway up to the dock.”
“Right now,” John answered. “It’ll come together pretty quick once they finish paving and levelling the Forty Mile Road. Right now, what we’ve got is Hernandez’s Hardware.”
Which, as it turns out, wasn’t so bad at all. Okay, a lot of the clothes mostly looked like someone had tried to copy stuff out of old issues of Us. By people who were a little unclear on the concept of “scissors.” On the other hand, when they just let their old-fashioned freak flag fly, the results weren’t half bad. Totally out-of-sync not bad, it had to be admitted, but Charlotte was only a year out of the part of the 1970s where Happy Days was the best thing on TV, so she was probably readier to go for something that looked like it came out of the 50s –a long dress, complete with a crinoline, that came in a green that was just barely not wring for her complexion.
“You know,” Charlotte said as they lined up at the till station, “I wouldn’t be buying this if I didn’t want to send Mr. Hernandez some business.”
“Speak for yourself,” Dora said. She had at least five hot pink sweaters draped over her arm from the seasonal clearance rack.
“Sweaters? In this heat?” Rose asked. “I think the prices made you crazy,.”
“Tight sweaters,” Dora answered.
“Very tight sweaters,” Rose answered., “Will your Dad even let you wear them to school?”
“He better. Do you know how expensive real wool this nice is back on Earth these days?”
“No. No I do not, because I have certainly never been shopping before. In fact, I am kept in a cave and fed a wagon of manure every day to keep my coat shiny.”
“Is that what the Morlocks do with your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend! I’m not even sure that he’s a boy!”
“Shhh,” Charlotte said. They were at the front of the line, and surprisingly qucickly. Or maybe not soo surprising, because there was a fully staffed till station right in the middle of the floor, with three girls were working manual cash registers that dinged with every buy, and another girl was wrapping packages up into boxes lined with crepe paper, and there was even a manager in a suit doing, whatever, “managing,” Charlotte guessed. Charlotte put the dress and the crinoline and a couple of blouses that she thought would go with it on the counter, and also a replacement pair of jeans, and two more pairs just because, and also the nice sandals she saw, which she could totally kick off and fight barefoot if she needed.
At least she hadn’t ended up buying two ball gowns, like Rose had. Though to be fair, Rose figured that she ould alter them to look like they actually belonged in the 21st Century, and Charlotte wasn’t ssure that she was up to that.
Some of Dora’s load spilled over the counter, and the service clerk had to pick it back up. In the end, when it was all packed away in old-fashioned paper shopping bags, it was a surprisingly large amount of stuff. John could barely fit it all into the trunk of the car. “Does your spaceship have a weight limit?” He asked.
Dora shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out.”
That night, as Charlotte went up the illuminated walk from the driveway of the Diavolo Mansion, she got a chance to feel just exactly how cumbersome her outfit was. She’d chosen it off a mannequin so that Mr. Hernandez was more likely to recognise her, and it really didn’t feel like her at all. By the time she walked into the front room of the mansion, with its enormous winding staircase and double door leading into a ballroom, she was thinking about ways of tearing it off if it came to a fight tonight. On the other hand, it made her feel girly, and she wondered for a moment if Scout might be there in his secret identity. It didn’t’ seem like his scene.
In fact, it wasn’t much of a guy scene at all. There was one guy at a table just inside the doors handing out name badges, but he looked like he was beingn paid to be there. Other than that, it was all girls, all wearing dresses at least as ridiculous and old-fashioned as hers.
Except. A chill went down her back, and Charlotte instinctively reached for the sword that she wasn’t wearing, because there was a limit, and you just didn’t wear an umbrella slung over your back into a party. So, instead, she carefully put her hands down to her side and turned around to meet the creepy, creepy gaze falling on her backside.
It was a young guy, a redhead with quarterback looks, that she didn’t know from a hole in the ground. So why did he look so familiar, she thought for a moment, until her nose caught just the faintest scent of skunk in the air. It was the guy from the woods the other night, Charlotte realised. Brittany’s boyfriend. Except that realising that didn’t make the creepy feeling go away. Deep in her mind, Charlotte could head the caw of a crow, and she wondered if, had she the Pearl Harmony Sword in her hands right now, the blade would have a black line, or the pommel gem a red glow.