Chapter 3, 37: Calm. For A While
“Look,” Rose said. “I made a wallet!” She dropped another leather wallet on the pile in front of her. They were getting better. “I can give it to my Dad. As soon as I have one.” She looked meaningfully at Dora, who was still playing with her leather blank.
“Not all unicorn ponies, Dads,” Dora answered. She scowled at the square of leather in front of her, as though trying to figure out where a random punch might turn it into a wallet.
“So not buying it. Your Dad is awesome. Even for a principal.”
Charlotte didn’t have to do more than cock an eye at Ms. Teacher’s Pet for Rose to blush.
Dora pushed back from the work table, the legs of her chair squeaking loudly against the rough, wooden planks of the Paradise Valley Camp’s workshop floor. In the abominable heat of mid-day, her white tee was growing a sweat stain where she had had it pressed up against the edge of the thick, plywood-topped work bench.
Eww, Charlotte thought.
From her new position, Dora leaned in to put her bare elbows on the table. A friendship bracelet rolled back midway down her left arm as she lifted the leather blank in her hand. “I am the boss, I am the boss of you.” The leather blank did a swooping, side to side dance. “Dora! You are grounded because you stayed out too late after school with Rose and Charlotte.” She used her ‘teacher voice.’ “Remember that, Rose?”
“Yeah. You cried and ran up to your room, and then you texted us an hour to later to tell us that you were out and live-tweeting Community. Shorter your Dad: He’s a big softie.”
“But he had to ground me before he could let me out early. And all because we were hanging out in the schoolyard making snow angels!”
“He’s worried about you. Remember? Someone was stalking us from the undergrowth behind the school. The school that’s right next to the Advanced Studies Institute.”
“Mad Science for a Better Tomorrow.” Charlotte didn’t even look up as she pushed her etching blade along her blank. How did they make the weird, twisty animal designs of her bracelet?
“Pssh,” Rose said. “Someone. That was just your boyfriend. Being ultra-creepy, I would add.”
Rose shrugged. “He couldn’t help it. He’s a Morlock. And he’s getting better. And it could have been anyone. Supervillains, you know?”
“Or space elves,” Charlotte said.
“You still pissed at us, Char-Char?” Rose asked. “I mean, it’s a good theory, but it’s just a theory. We can’t just go out and arrest Mrs. Ferguson because she broke out of Sovereign’s mind control. We broke out of Sovereign’s mind control, and we’re just kids.”
“Super-kids,” Charlotte protested. “Think about it. Someone is running around planting those infected thingamajigs. It’s got to be one of the settlers, because there’s no-one else. Being a space-elf is genetic. Brian is a space-elf. He’s probably the most space-elfiest space elf, because he’s all, like, ‘Only you can save the Matrix,’ or whatever. So it figures that his Mom is the original space-elf. The one who is planting all the thingies.”
“Actually,” Rose began, “Neo doesn’t save the Matrix. He . . .uhm wait. Did he?”
Dora pulled herself back up to the table and put her blank back down. The legs of the chair squealed again. “I can’t believe you don’t know.”
“I tried to watch the third movie,” Rose said. “It was all fight-y and dark, and in the dark, post-apocalyptic future, the only movies are Lifetime specials. Unfortunately, it also sucked butt too much to finish. So, uhm, did he?”
“Search me,” Dora answered. “Char-Char, you’re Canadian. The Queen puts you in jail for not watching Keanu Reeves movies, right? What happened in the end of the Matrix movies?”
Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m a rebel, a misfit, a loner. Like Wolverine, only not in so many comics. Also, half-Canadian.”
“The serious point,” Rose continued, “Is that we still don’t know why Sovereign and his followers need Brian so badly.”
“Yes we do,” Dora answered, rolling her eyes. “The Terraformers were an elven tribe, right? Brian’s obviously elvish enough so that he can open the Gate or draw the Sword out of the Stone or throw the Ring down the volcano, or whatever big old goofy thing Sovereign and the gang can’t do. But considering they’re hanging out here on the Planet From the 1950s with a wrecked spaceship, I’d say that Brian’s supposed to press the ON button on a Terraformer spaceship.”
Charlotte was about to say something, but then she looked up. Rose caught her glance and made a prune face. Charlotte thought better of it.
“Why, I just realised that Doctor Cambridge is the nicest person on this planet!” Dora said, suddenly.
Darn, Charlotte thought. And I was hoping for a ‘She’s just behind me, isn’t she,’ moment.
“Why, thank you, Dora,” Doctor Cambridge said. She was still wearing her broad-brimmed, beige sun hat, with over-sized sun goggles and a taupe, gauzy scarf like thing tied over her bikini top, obscuring her cleavage. A khaki, below-knee level skort completed the ensemble-that-colour-forgot. “How are you guys doing with the craft project?”
Charlotte reached out and took the top walled from Rose’s pile. “Finished just now, Doctor Cambridge!”
Dora scowled, as she grabbed the next one down, which had noticeably more ragged stitching.
Rose’s hands blurred, and another wallet appeared in her hands. It was lustrous black and folded sharp as a knife at the bottom. “And I’ve done mine!” For just a second, so fast that only Charlotte’s reflexes could catch it, Rose stuck out her tongue at her.
“Excellent work, Rose,” Doctor Cambridge said. “I am sure it will be better than anything the other girls finished.”
Because, Charlotte thought, this is totally a competition. And I screwed the pooch.
“Now, Char-Char. You will be glad to know that the camp bus has decided to work today, and we’ll be taking it into town for the contest tonight. Do you suppose that you can get along with Brittany for an entire trip?”
It wasn’t the question so much as the way that Doctor Cambridge put it that upset Charlotte. Also, lameo-counsellor-o had called her Char-Char again. “Why am I the issue here?”
“Because you can be a very temperamental young lady, Charlotte. And I know that inside that bratty exterior there lurks a master of Kung Fu who can control herself if she wants to do so badly enough.”
You are so wrong about me, Charlotte thought. Why can’t you see that? But all she said was, “If Brittany can control herself, I can control myself.”
“That’s all that we can ask for, Char-Char,” Doctor Cambridge said, using the teacherly ‘we,’ where it signified the dumb kind of grown-up.
And there she went with ‘Char-Char’ again. Charlotte looked levelly at her summer guardian. “But gagging Brittany would work better. Just saying.”
Unfortunately, Brittany wasn’t gagged. When Charlotte dropped from the wharf neatly onto the thwarts of the boat at the dock, Brittany greeted her in her most sincere tone. “I’ve heard that Asian hair is adapted to Siberia, but I’ve never seen the heat do that to it before.” She, of course, was impeccable in a desert rose waist-level jacket over a white tank top with a floral-pattern, gauzy mini. Her blonde hair was draped, long and perfect, over her shoulders. She held out a brush.
Ignoring the offer, Charlotte pulled her own brush out of her tan bag. She was wearing a yellow bias-cut jacket over a white-and-black polka dot dress-skirt, the same length as Brittany’s but without the hint of cleavage. She pulled her brush through her hair a few times before realising that it was fine. She’d been worried. Truth to tell, heat was not the ally of her naturally wavy hair.
“There,” Doctor Cambridge said as she climbed heavily down the ladder, pausing to feel the bottom of the boat with her clogged feet for so long that Charlotte felt like screaming at her. “I knew you two wold be able to get along if you just tried. Charlotte, Brittany is just trying to be nice. Would it have killed you to use her brush? It’s a very nice brush, Brittany. I like the colour.”
“Why, thank you, Doctor Cambridge,” Brittany answered, with that sweet-and-brassy tone that only a blonde could pull off. Or a crazy chick, Charlotte thought, trying to only scowl on the inside.
“I’m so excited about tonight, Charlotte? Aren’t you?” Brittany’s tone made the first sentence sound like a question, and the second one sound like an accusation. Okay, Charlotte thought, I’ll bite.
“No, I am not excited. Having a bikini contest at a teen beauty pageant isn’t very classy.”
Doctor Cambridge looked into the middle distance and said, innocently,. “Didn’t you grow up in a trailer park, Char-Char?”
For the rest of the trip, and at a sit-down dinner at Chez Louie’s with the other contestants and their parents, Brittany and Doctor Cambridge chattered away while Charlotte stewed. Was it that poor girls went into bikini contests, while rich girls went into beauty pageants? Was it a double standard? Agent John watched Charlotte with concern on his face, but didn’t say anything.
At last, the dinner ended, and the crowd made its way out of the dining room. There was still an hour to go to the contest, and people went this way and that, girls chattering with their parents and their coaches. Mr. Diavolo made a beeline for Brittany and Doctor Cambridge, and within minutes the still-hot evening air rolled with his patter, broken only by Brittany’s giggling and occasional answers.
Charlotte walked, deliberately slowly, one foot in front of the other, through the grassy field next to the school, making slow progress towards the back door that led into the change rooms, letting the curve of her path take her away from the other contestants.
Finally, Charlotte looked up. John had been walking, quietly, just beside and behind her for the entire time. Just as she knew he was, because, you know, kung fu. “I’m not sure I want to do this, anymore, Agent.”
“Is it because you find it degrading to women? Because I am not smart enough to argue that one. We’d better go see the organisers and tell them that you’re pulling out.”
“No, I, uhm, maybe. I’m so scared right now!”
“You are pretty tense, Char-Char. Have you been fighting with your friends?”
“How did you know?”
“Because you’re tense. Charlotte, you are a competitor. “
“Brittany isn’t tense.” Charlotte was quiet for a moment, so that they could hear Brittany’s high laugh, as sweet as everything else about her, Charlotte thought in disgust.
“Let me tell you something about myself, Charlotte,” Agent John began. “Obviously, up here in the boonies I try to stay professional. But when I’m down in Landing Town, I love parading down Beach Street in tight shorts and a tank. CBI work keeps you cut, and I say to myself, if you’ve got it, flaunt it “
Charlotte looked at Agent John. This was a side of him that she’d never even suspected.
“I bet that if you asked Brittany, she’d say exactly the same thing.” Charlotte nodded.
“And that,” Agent John continued, “Is because she’s an exhibitionist.” He paused for a moment, so that Charlotte would know that he was About To Say Something Wise. “and you are not. You are a competitor, driven to prove yourself. Kung Fu, fashion, horse riding, you just can’t stop trying to do better.”
“Wongs try too hard,” Charlotte answered. In spite of herself, her mouth lifted.
“Yes, that can be a problem. But here’s the thing, Charlotte. It’s Brittany who has the problem.”
“But she’s so cute!”
“Because she is naturally attractive and, er, let’s say, outgoing.”
“She’s crazy, is what you mean.” John raised an eyebrow at her, and Charlotte shrugged.
Agent John held his eyebrow. “Meaning?”
“Mom always said that there was a kind of waitress who got the big tips, until she just stopped coming into work one day. Probably because she stole the float or punched the manager or got drunk. That was the crazy kind, she said. People see crazy, she said, and they think ‘cute.’ Especially men.”
“Yeah, well,” John began. “I can’t comment on you breeders, you know? Never been one, but I’ve seen crazy girls get action, and I can tell you from experience that you don’t have to be hetero to get taken, because there are plenty of crazy guys. But you know what? Let’s put the ‘c’ word aside for a moment and focus on the difference between an exhibitionist and a competitor. Brittany’s going to be flaunting what she’s got. She’s going to be cocky, even lazy. That’s what happens to people who build themselves up on their strengths.”
“Like Sovereign,” Charlotte said, suddenly.
“He thinks he’s so smart. Because he is smart. He’ll never admit it to himself when he gets outsmarted!”
“That’s an, um, interesting theory.”
Charlotte gave a dismissive shrug. “’S not a theory. You know that my cousin is dating a clone of Sovereign, right?”
“That’d be May and John, right?”
“Close. Amy and John. So, yeah. John had some brushes with a . . . villain last fall.” For some reason, Charlotte found that she couldn’t admit that the villain had actually been her Dad.
“Two times,” Charlotte continued, “John was fooled, or almost fooled into a dangerous mistake by thinking that he’d figured out the other guy’s plan. First time, it was just a mistake. Second time, though, it was because the master villain was . . . crafty.” Again she hesitated, not wanting to admit that the word that John had used was ‘bully.’ Or that she had yelled at John and run out of the room. Because her Dad wasn’t. . . Wasn’t, right?
Agent John waited, patiently, while Charlotte found the words. “Anyway, both times, Amy saved his ass.”
“Yeah,” Agent John said, “I’ve seen this plot before. The guy is so smart, but it turns out that the girlfriend washing the dishes in the background is even smarter, but hides it because being smart Is a guy thing. And we’re arguing about whether a bikini contest is bad for women?” But he smiled, in a way that suggested that he wanted Charlotte to go on talking and thinking.
“No, that’s not it,” Charlotte said, suddenly confident enough to contradict the CBI agent. “John is smart. That’s his shtick. Smarter than Bruce, maybe even smarter than Rose. But he gets. . .uhm, he uses it as his protection. It’s like, I don’t have to do this or that, like, be polite or something, because I’m smart. And once you get used to using being smart as your excuse for doing what you please, you can’t ever admit that you’ve been outsmarted.”
“That’s a good point about Sovereign, Charlotte. We’d better hurry up if we want to pull out of the contest, though.”
“Brittany uses being the prettiest as an excuse not to try in case she fails. We Wongs, we may not be any less screwed up, but that’s the one thing we try not to do. We don’t want to settle for being happy with what we’ve got. We try harder. That’s why, sometimes, we try too hard.”
“And you’re going to try to win this contest?”
“Try hard, prove myself, and beat Brittany.”