Chapter 3, 23: My Talent Is
Charlotte did her best to be discrete as she lifted her foot and put her finger through the strap of her right pump one more time. It honestly seemed as though she could get used to these stupid shoes. Eventually. They were good looking after all, and just too slightly the wrong colour. But even if she could, wouldn’t that just ruin John’s plan?
She felt someone’s eyes on her. It was Brittany, of course. Charlotte locked gaze with the blonde, who was wearing a high neck, red, cheongsam-type dress that had Charlotte simmering already. Brittany rolled her eyes. “Nice shoes,” she whispered, in a piercing voice. The other girls looked at Brittany, and back at Charlotte. A flash of rage passed red over Charlotte’s eyes. The worst part was that Brittany was wearing weird, leather lace-up high heels that made it look like her feet had been tied up. They looked good, but in a weirdly inappropriate way, and Charlotte was busting to take Brittany down. Not exactly teen queen material.
But, oh, no, Miss Asian Congeniality didn’t go down that road. That wasn’t who Charlotte was being today. Damn. So, instead, Charlotte giggled and said, “Oh, thank you.” I totally missed your point, Charlotte added in her head, because I was doing math homework the day they taught sarcasm at school. Now my aunt will make me take sarcasm lessons every night after school for a whole year until I’m better at sarcasm then any White girl, and they’ll have to have quotas at Sarcasm school so that you can get in.
“Psst. Miss Wong.” Damn. Mr. Hernandez was Emceeing, and she’d missed her curtain call. That was what they called it, right? Curtain call? That was the other thing. Besides the stupid shoes, she was about to go out and meet her public for the first time. It was still a month to the actual competition, but tonight the audience, and the other judges, would see Charlotte for the first time.
Charlotte began walking towards the curtain. She could feel the other girls’s eyes on her. She was the only non-blonde in the group, although she was pretty sure that Samoan blondes got their colour from a bottle. Not that it didn’t look okay on Mooka, Charlotte had to admit. They probably figured that Charlotte was out of her element. Well, that was John’s plan.
Charlotte slipped around the curtain, ineptly held up by a middle schooler and stepped out onto the Geithner’s Strike High School stage. There were over a hundred people in the audience, it looked like. Come on, Charlotte wanted to scream. Don’t you have anything better to do? Flashbulbs began to go off. They had those old fashioned cameras, with the big hoods over the bulb, presumably because you could make them in a shop down in Landing Town.
Mr. Diavolo was sitting at the first chair on the catwalk, chair back to front, his legs splayed and his arms crossed over the back of the chair. He was wearing a red suit with huge white polka dots over a burgundy shirt, with a half-pulled out yellow pocket square. The only thing that saved it from being completely over the top was at least he was clean-shaven and short-haired tonight.
Charlotte paused, and Mr. Diavolo put up his hand, almost negligently. Ke$ha blasted from the speakers. “Turn it up, DJ? Turn it up right now.” Charlotte was ashamed to realise that she liked the song. She could feel her cheeks blazing as she took her first step onto the catwalk. The catwalk, she thought. This isn’t me! I don’t belong!
Beside Mr. Diavolo, Roach took a picture. The flash was distracting, and Charlotte’s left pump caught on a tiny irregularity in the strip planks laid edge to edge that made up the floor of the makeshift catwalk. Her knee flexed, and Charlotte was caught, in full view of the audience, making an ugly, half-formed recovery. She could hear the gasp of the man in the front row next to Mr. Diavolo. Charlotte didn’t recognise him. She could tell that he thought that Charlotte was about to fall right on top of him.
Instead, as Charlotte paused, getting her balance under her, standing there in her yellow, just-above-the-knee dress, her curly hair in a strict updo, grey nylon stockings going down into her white pumps, she locked eyes with, of course, the red-headed boy who was cheating (probably) on Brittany. His eyes went wide. And he wasn’t the only guy in the room who was staring.
Charlotte could feel a blush going up her cheeks. Everyone was staring. Of course they were. That was the point of the catwalk. But they were staring, and seeing, the role that John had sketched for them. Charlotte had done it. In their eyes, she was the pretty, Chinese ingénue, innocent and unworldly, and accidentally dropped into a dress that filled their eyes and their hearts with desire. John’s plan was working.
I’m not like this, Charlotte wanted to yell at them. I know kung fu! But how stupid would that sound, like every little boy who ever got beat up in the playground. That was how her brother used to start, before he grew into his full Wong height and stopped being pushed around by anyone. And she knew how it ended, with sneers and taunts, until her brother proved himself with his fists, and got sent to the principal’s office because of it. Charlotte wasn’t even sure how she could get from the catwalk to the principal’s office.
Oh, wait, she knew, actually. By doing something bad. And, for the first time, Charlotte thought about what must be going through Eve’s mind when she dressed up in that fur bikini of hers. Are you trying to escape, Eve? Charlotte thought. Considering that it turned out that Eve was being manipulated by her evil Dad, you had to think that Eve maybe had a right to try to escape, somehow. And that was a weird thought. Like a warning bell, Charlotte heard a crow’s call in her head.
Thanks for the spiritual guidance, Charlotte thought, being allowed to be sarcastic in her head, at least, as she finished the walk. I’m sure that I will learn to be compassionate and harmonious and understanding of everyone, no matter how much of a bitch they are, real soon now.
At the far end of the catwalk, Charlotte couldn’t resist a peak over her shoulder. Every eye in the room was on her, because, of course, she realised, everyone was expecting Shy Asian Princess to do that. Expressionless, Charlotte turned back to the stairs at the end of the catwalk, carefully and slowly descended them, and walked into the cloakroom at the end, which had been turned into a waiting area. Because there was still some mixing to do with the judges.
Riding through the night on Charlie, a docile and amiable mare, Charlotte felt as though one weight was off her, and a heavier one was on. The night smelled of sage, and a boat was waiting for her down on the docks, but Charlotte had taken the high road that wandered up to the crest of the hill and skirted around it to come in on the dock from the south around the Long Lake Bend. It was miles out of her way, but she knew she could get away with sleeping in in the morning, and it really was a beautiful night, and half of her was hoping that Scout would show up to ride with her, crazy and stalkerish as the idea was.
This high, the road went through unfenced pasture of open woods that stretched down into the draw to her right and up to the crest of the hill above Geithner’s Strike on her left. At this late hour on a Saturday night, there was no-one on the road, which, to be fair, didn’t exactly go much of anywhere yet, except pasture. The muted sound of someone playing surf guitar at a bush party came curling up the hill to wrestle with the recorded sound of Michael Buble cresting the hill from one of the mansions that hugged the ridge line. Probably Mr. Diavolo’s, because that was the kind of cheesy music that they played at Mr. Diavolo’s parties. As long as it was cheesy, it was Mr. Diavolo’s style.
Her wristcomm chimed. Charlotte looked at it. “gOk?” Charlotte puzzled that one out. “Went Okay,” she texted back, because it didn’t take long if you trusted Autocorrect more than Rose did.
“CHAP?” From Dora, of course. No, Charlotte thought. That’s not what Chinese American Princesses were about.
Her fingers flew. “So not.” God damn it, her people had fought for the right to be just as vapid, fashion forward, and bitchy as the next ethnic group. Her cousins had. Well, mainly May. Okay, and sometimes Jenny. Charlotte blushed. Was there a stupider thing to be fighting for? But stereotypes were stereotypes.
A jingle in the darkness, of reins clinking. Charlotte reined in her own mount. Someone was trying to ride quietly. Well, if you’ve got a mission, I’ve got a mission. Or, Charlotte had to admit, she was curious. Well, I have a superhero costume. That’s like a license to be nosy.
Reassured, Charlotte reined in her mare and nudged it in the direction of the jingle. As if sensing her needs, the mare stepped quietly down the gravel road. The jingle was off and below, closer to the slope of the draw. Someone was trying not to be seen. Charlotte reached down and adjusted the Pearl Harmony in her belt. “Sit.” She texted to her list.
“Fight?” Came back. Dora.
“Shadow.” She answered. No fight, just following someone.
“Got yr 5.” Rose, using the cardinal direction for your backside, in hexes.
Her mare stepped on a fescue bloom. The air turned flowery, so strong that Charlotte was amazed that everyone in Long Lake couldn’t smell it, even though that was silly. The jingle continued, regular now, as though the rider she was following was losing her patience. Now, why did Charlotte think that it was a girl? Something about the pauses as the horse went along. Oh, well, she’d learned to trust her Eight Spirit Dragon instincts.
Then the jingle began to drop away. What was going on, Charlotte wondered. She urged her mare forward, careful of the edge of the draw. The side of the hill was steep here, but her quarry had gone down it, somehow. IN the darkness, Charlotte couldn’t see the lip of a trail, but she knew it must be here. She noticed that Charlie was shying away from the slope. It did seem frighteningly deep and steep in the darkness, Charlotte had to admit.
Then, from nowhere, a hand covered her right wrist. The Pearl Harmony flashed instantly, left hand or no. No-one snuck up on Charlotte Wong.
“Whoa, Nelly.” The boy at her side ended that with a whistle. It was Scout. “You don’t want to ride into the draw.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Charlotte whispered.
“Fair enough. Trail’s just ahead. But I think yer gonna be seen.”
And that was fair enough, too. Charlotte stopped Charlie and dismounted to stand beside Scout. “What are you doing here?” She whispered.
“Followin’ that redhead again. He’s all suspicious-like.”
“Hunh,” Charlotte said, ready to concede the point.
“Where?” Charlotte asked.
“There’s a farm down in the north end of the draw, lookin’ down on the Lake. He lives there.”
“Going home is suspicious now?” Charlotte asked.
“It is when he’s goin’ to see his girlfriend at the dock. Funny detour, dontcha think?”
“So?” Charlotte asked.
“You with me, Kung Fu Girl?”
“We go on foot, stake the place out. See if there’s any visitors, change of plans. If not, we come back to the horses, catch up at the dock.”
Charlotte nodded. Well, prayers were answered tonight, and she’d hardly had to stalk him at all! Quickly, she dressed in her uniform fatigues, using the excuse of darkness to leave her cowl off.
Scout led the way through the brush. His rifle was over his shoulder in a leather scabbard, hitched up out of the way just like the way Charlotte was wearing the Pearl Harmony Sword. Privately, Charlotte suspected that they’d find Ken at the farm, but it wasn’t to be. By the time they got there, it was just a quiet little house of squared off logs, with a candle in the door and a little stable from which a little rustling and nickering betrayed the fact that one horse had just been fed and bedded down.
“I don’t get it,” Scout said, as they surveyed the scene through his low light binoculars. “Care to try waiting them out?” An explosion of wings through the darkness indicated Ginger’s arrival. The bird settled on Charlotte’s shoulder. The pale golden ends of a McKenzie’s fry bobbed disconcertingly in the corner of Charlotte’s eyes for a moment. Then it was gone. Where did that bird keep getting them? Charlotte wondered. Charlotte hunkered down into the fragrant grass beside Scout.
“Stakeout w S,” Charlotte texted her friends.
“ABT,” Dora texted. About to. . .
“OI,” Charlotte sent back. Operator indisposed. Then, hastily, “OJ.” Only joking.
“EZ,” Dora sent back. Easy.
“G.” Charlotte replied. Giggles.
“OJ,” from Dora.
“UFN,” Charlotte finished. Until further notice.
“Textin’ your friends?” Scout asked. “They’re probably worried about you.”
“Should I be?” Charlotte asked.
Scout shrugged and pulled out a harmonica out of his pocket, and played a quick note with a sure hand. It sounded familiar, even before he pulled it away and sang, “She’s the sweetest rose of colour/ This cowboy ever knew. . .”
“Don’t you start,” Charlotte said. The Yellow Rose of Texas.
“What?” Scout asked. “It’s true. Ain’t met but one Clementine, and you’re way prettier than she is. ‘Course, that Clementine’s a mynah bird. But she’s a pretty bird.”
Ginger let out one of her held in caws that almost turned into a squawk. “So are you, Ginger,” Scout finished. “Want some of my lunch?” Scout held up a corner of a corn tortilla, and Ginger bent eagerly to take it.
There was a bang from down in the homestead. Scout picked up his low light glasses and examined the scene, then passed them on to Charlotte. The door of the cabin stood open, with the red head standing clear under the night sky. There was no light in the cabin. The redhead looked in and made a defiant gesture before saying something, intensely but too low for even Charlotte’s Eight Spirit hearing. He turned on his heels, then sprinted across the yard to the stable.
A moment later, the redhead came out again, mounted on a spirited-looking stallion, almost a match for Tellus. He was riding bareback, without even reins, but he looked as confident as a dressage contestant. Charlotte whistled. That was one helluva a horseman. Except there was something wrong there, and Charlotte was reminded of her first intuition. For a boy, that redhead sure rode like woman.
“Damn,” Scout muttered. “I think we’re made.”
“What?” Charlotte asked, surprised. “How do you know?”
“I . . .never mind. We need to get back to the horses.”
“Oh, Jeez,” Rose said. “You know you’re dealing with superheroes here, don’t you, Country Bear?”
“That was pretty quick,” Charlotte said. “Even for you.”
“Eh. I was out for a constitutional.”
“You weren’t snooping, were you?” Charlotte muttered.
“Rose is too nice for that,” Dora said, dropping out of the sky. “Now me, on the other hand.”
“That’s a lot of backup you got there, Kung Fu Girl.”
“Well, if there’s going to be trouble,” Charlotte began, “I want my BFFs with me.”
But, of course, it didn’t come to trouble, and they ended up having to go back to get the horses while the mad clopping of the redhead’s horse sounded in the distance. Rose followed him, eventually, of course, but he just rode down to the payphone on the highway, down over the ridge, and called someone.
It was a heck of an anticlimax, and as Charlotte stood on Dora’s muted but still golden force plate, holding her mare’s head and petting it in such a way that the mare couldn’t see that it was flying over the night tie Long Lake country, she regretted only one thing: that she hadn’t heard the rest of Yellow Rose of Texas. Scout had a pretty good singing voice when he tried.