Chapter 3, 42: Shark!
It was a very typical, hot August –well, really, Space August, since Charlotte needed a calculator to figure out what day it was on Earth, so “late August” had to do – afternoon in Long Lake. Even in the shade of the municipal stable above Lakeside Park, she could feel the heat. The birds were not singing, except for a few langorous larks, hidden deep away in the shadows of the forest between the park and the former picker’s campsite. Charlotte could smell sweet grass from the field, and the sound of the industrial-sized sprinklers was everywhere.
The arc of one of the turning sprinklers carried the spray of water past the stable. Charlotte felt a needle of water against the back of her neck. Tellus pricked up his ears, as if thinking naughty thoughts. Charlotte fixed him in the eyes. “Look, there’s shade here, and water, and straw. And I’ve got oat crunch. Which you will only see if you’re still here when I get back after the talent competition.”
Tellus turned his eyes from the field visible through the slats of the wall of the stable to Charlotte. So did Dora. “I’m not sure you should be bargaining with El Diablo Caballo.”
Rose turned from where she was still taking the saddle of her rental horse. “Yeah, we’re probably going to come back and find that he’s levelled the entire building and is ready for his oats, now.”
“Besides,” Dora added. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep, Char-Char.”
It was Charlotte’s turn to give the eye, throwing a question at Dora with a gaze.
“Because we’ll be partying, you ninny. When you win, and get crowned Miss Peach Festival Queen of Long Lake County!”
Charlotte shrugged, uncomfortable. “I’m not going to win. Brittany has it locked up.”
“Oh?” Rose asked. “So why do you think that Mr. Diavolo threw his little tantrum the other day and turned off the suppression field on his yacht?”
“Is that what you really think happened, Rose?”
“Dollars to doughnuts. Even the crappy doughnuts they have here. Honestly, no pizza, no good doughnuts. Someone could make a fortune selling franchises around here.”
“Starbucks!” Dora added.
“Don’t get me started on the coffee around here.”
“Oh, Rose,” Charlotte said, “Don’t tell me you miss burned coffee. You’re like a human chocolate-covered espresso bean. Which I could kill for right now. Just sayin’.”
Dora backed away theatrically. “Maybe you shouldn’t brandish a +5 Holy Avenger like Uma Thurman when you say that.”
Charlotte stared at her friend, adopting her ‘Awaiting explanation of obscure pop culture reference” pose. It was almost like Tiger stance, only with more Wikipedia. Which they didn’t have on this backwards planet, either.
“In dark, post-apocalyptic future, all coffee is decaf, and no-one remembers that Uma Thurman played a bad-ass kung fu avenger chasing the eponymous villain of Kill Bill.”
Dora threw up her hands and looked to the sky. Or the roof of the stable. Whichever. “How long have you been waiting to work that word into the conversation, Rose?”
“It was that or repeat ‘Bill’ twice in one sentence. You know, if you got one of those Word-a-Day calendars, Dora—“
“I could sound even more like a dork than I just did referencing Dungeons and Dragons rules again?”
Charlotte held the Pearl Harmony Sword up, focussing her mind on the perlescent light in the blade, keeping it at just the point where it filled out the metal without obviously making the sword shine. “It’s not a Holy Avenger. Just my Aunt’s old sword. And, before that, one of the Seven Against Gorgashtar.”
“Speaking of, do you believe that?”
Rose answered Dora’s question. “When the world first rose against the Kal-Turak, the paladin Venghest killed him with the sword Auralia. The victors buried the King of Ivory with the sword still plunged through his chest, but that did not prevent him from rising centuries later as the sere lich Takofanes and conquering the world all over again. When the Seven Against Gorgashtar rode out to escort the champions of the Free Peoples to the final battle, the champions carried four swords: Auralia, and the Swords of Men, Dwarves and Elves. Takofanes wasn’t heard from for seventy thousand years, and no-one has see the four swords in all of that time. I guess it makes at least a little sense that they were hidden away off-Earth by the Faithful Houses amongst the Drindrish.”
“That’s a whole lot of high-falutin’ language, right there,” Dora said.
“Tolkienism ruins prose. Ask what you can do to prevent its spread. This message brought to you by the Post-Internet Naturalistic Diction Authority.”
“The who now?” Charlotte asked her smartypants friend.
“Clearly this pre-Collapse world isn’t ready for topoi-inspired japery. Is it ready for this?” Rose put her hand in her saddlebag and pulled, gently, on its contents. Shimmering white spilled out, picked out with an embroidery of seed pearls –cheap, plastic fake pearls, unfortunately. Mock-pearls. Pearlish.
Charlotte gasped. Even though she’d approved the design, the reality was something else. “It’s beautiful, Rose.”
“Yeah, I was inspired by your Aunt’s wedding dress.” Rose paused for a moment. “Sad now. Anyway, I’ve never made a dress frock before, but you asked for a Kung Fu Princess dream, and I figured, well…”
“Perfect, just perfect,” Dora said.
“See, the sash emphasises your waist. Up here? The cup sleeves show off. Just a little scoop at the throat, not enough to show anything. But.. Down here? Slits to your knees, bare calves underneath. If you stand still, you’re sexy as a nun. Make your moves, and suddenly you’re flashing hot biceps, tight calves, just a bit of a view down the dress.... ”
“Sexy nun? Eww.” Dora added emphasis by screwing up her face.
“No, no, I— You know what? Totally sexy nun. It’s the paladin thing. You can look but not touch.”
“And only below the knees.”
“Hey! They’ve seen me in a bikini already!”
An hour later, when Charlotte had her competition face on and the sheer, white gown on, she had to agree with Rose. The gown was beautiful, halfway between a wedding dress and a workout outfit. With a bit of concentration, she could get the Pearl Harmony’s light level to the point where it flashed off the pearls without even noticing that the blade was glowing with her eyes. In the limited space of her dressing trailer, she made slow, Tai Chi style moves with her sword. She would have to ramp up the speed a bit on stage, though.
In theory, the event was supposed to begin at 7:30, and that was curtain call. Charlotte looked at her watch to check the time at 7:20. And then again at 7:23, 7:24, 7:24:51, 7:24:58, 7:25:15, and 7:25: 40. It was like she could see time slowing down as she watched the scroll on her phone. Finally, accepting that she would not make it to 7:30 alive, Charlotte sheathed her sword and cross the back parking lot to the reserved entrance to the high school gym. Once again, there were high canvas walls around the area so that the contestant’s outfits would be secret until they came out on stage. That meant that she couldn’t see her friends, but it gave her some weird comfort knowing that Rosa was watching via her spy satellite.
In the back, the contestants were mostly in their outfits. Two girls were wearing tutus (guess what their talents are!) and the rest were carrying musical instruments. Except for Brittany. There was no sign of Brittany.
The moments crept by. In spite of being there, ready to take her turn, Charlotte’s stomach would not unclench. In fact, she felt like she was getting more nervous. 7:30 came and went while she talked desultorily with Tammy, the girl beside her about the art of playing the recorder. Charlotte had to laugh when Tammy threatened to do “Stairway to Heaven,” before agreeing that it wasn’t likely to fly with the judges.
As of 7:32, the music hadn’t started, and there was still no sign of Brittany. At 7:35, five minutes late, and just about the moment when Charlotte decided that she really did have an ulcer, the music started. Still no Brittany. The girls lined up, with a space between Joany and Kim for Brittany. The girls wavered as the curtain began to open, Kim in her tutu and Joanie, awkwardly holding her cello under her arm where it threatened to get tangled up in the teal sash of her recycled gown. Charlotte hated teal, because it was her brother’s boyfriend’s favourite colour, but she felt for Joanie.
And, then, just before the first girl was ready to go onto the stage, Brittany burst in the backdoor of the stage.
In an honest-to-God cheerleader’s outfit, complete with spangly pink bikini-bra top and frilly skort-skirt barely down over her hips. The white socks that came up to pink poms that were miniatures of the ones in her hands were probably the biggest bit of fabric in the whole outfit. “Hi, everybody! Sorry I’m late.”
She walked up to Charlotte, and Charlotte noticed that her pink sneakers were actually wedge heels. Well, everyone noticed that, actually. How could you not, with the way that she was walking. “Is that your Mom’s wedding dress, Char-Char?” Without another word, Brittany put her hands out and grabbed the Pearl Harmony. When Charlotte tensed to resist, Brittany added, “Could I please see?”
Charlotte let go of the sword, but Brittany somehow contrived to fall back, dropping the blade. Through her connection with the sword, Charlotte felt the ancient magic of the blade resist some simple but fell effect.
“Oops!” Brittany said.
Charlotte knelt down to pick up the Pearl Harmony, and, when she touched it, looked up just far enough to meet Brittany’s eyes, letting a feigned look of regret cross her face.
“Did I break it, Char-Char? Oh, I’m so sorry. Say! I have an idea! You were so good with the recorder that one time we did music at camp, and I’m sure that Tammy will lend you hers when she’s done.”
Charlotte glanced at Tammy, who nodded, visibly reluctant but not willing to let Charlotte down. Then she looked down again at her sword. “Oh, silly me, my mistake. It’s fine!” she stood up, letting an expression of relief cross her mouth, but not her eyes, as she looked at Brittany.
‘Anger’ does not even begin to describe the expression that crossed Brittany’s face in the instant before the cute blonde in the barely-there costume recovered herself. Charlotte felt a bit bad about bating Brittany that way, but she wasn’t the one who tried to hex her rival’s talent demonstration, after all.
From the wings, the contestants could see each other’s performances, which is how Charlotte learned that Dolores was pretty good with the acoustic guitar, that Harre could dance a pretty good hula, and that Joanie was so hapless with a cello that anyone who was watching her in a shadow play would assume that it was ‘Girl Desperately Holds off Cobra,’ not ‘Girl Tries to Break Glass, Succeeds.’
After the last bars of what might have been either “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Row Row Row Your Boat,” or Bach’s 5th Concerto in D died away, and Joanie fled, crying, backstage, Brittany stepped onto the stage after her.
Frankly, Charlotte wasn’t really feeling like competing just right now, but the fierce grin on Brittany’s face reminded Charlotte of the savage, snarling grin of a sabretooth cat for a moment until it was smoothed, again, into the happy smile of a real cheerleader. Two boys jumped out of the audience as Brittany centred herself on the stage.
Oh, great, Charlotte thought. She’s brought bases. And, sure enough, she had. Brittany put her pompoms, did a fist bump, and the music started. Charlotte didn’t recognise it, but had to admit that it was catchy. “Don’t tell my heart/my achy breaky heart,” sang some bearable if generically Nashville dude, as Brittany’s bases lifted her by the hip.
It was actually the most athletic that Charlotte had seen Brittany. It takes more skill than people realise to stand on your base’s hands, braced only arms that barely come up to your thighs, and still do at least the arm movements that signal your intention to dance-interpret your heart’s failure to understand the emotional consequences of breaking up with your girlfriend. Or truck. Or dog, like in the joke about country music, Charlotte thought, as she stood and watched and seethed, because the point of this display wasn’t that Brittany actually had a talent.
It was that she had boobs and legs. The applause at the end suggested that this was not lost on at least the guys watching, who probably, Charlotte thought, remembering what Bruce had said when he was invited, were probably not having much fun.
In fact, Bruce was the only guy in the audience who wasn’t cheering when Brittany hopped down and blew kisses with both pompomed hands. On the bright side, Charlotte could feel the tension draining away from her stomach. On the not-so-bright side, it was being replaced by anger, and it was all that Charlotte could do to keep from screaming at Brittany.
When it came Charlotte’s turn to go out onto the floor, she still hadn’t managed to put on a smile. At least she wasn’t scowling.
This one time, at last, Charlotte had managed to get her choice of music. “Love Before Time,” from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was still cliché, of course, but Charlotte felt that she had some right to the song. The movie was very vaguely based on the early life of her Auntie Ma, after all, give or take a thousand years and three dynasties.
Sword drawn, moves slow, Charlotte thought, as the unaccompanied cello began. She began moving her feet along with the music as the rest of the instruments came in. As Coco Lee began to sing, she did her first spin, then finally broke into a twirling jump in time with the chorus. Then, faster and bolder as the music picked up. By the time Coco hit her first high note, it was everything Charlotte could do not to add a somersault into the routine. Not dignified, Char-Char, she thought to herself, sternly. Just go technical enough to let them know that you can do it.
So she settled for a mid-air 720, legs extended ninety degrees from her body, Pearl Harmony Sword flashing, not in the klieg lights as it seemed, but with its own effulgence that showered down the strands of silly, plastic pearls in her dress that suddenly didn’t seem silly at all. With her left hand she moved the sheath in counterpoint to the naked blade in her right
Charlotte landed the spin on her right foot, suppressing a little irritation at the part of her that thought that she really needed to prove herself left foot leading at some point. Now was not time! As the music died away, Charlotte bowed deeply to the audience, drawing the blade of the Pearl Harmony across her face like a veil opening, before dropping to a knee and slamming it home.
A pause. A long pause. Bruce, Charlotte noticed, was ready to clap. The rest of the audience? It took them a moment to realise that the music was over, and then they began to cheer, too. Very, very loudly. From the side, Charlotte could hear her fellow contestants cheering, too. She wanted to look over at them, but she also knew why she was feeling that impulse. Whatever Brittany was feeling right now, it was just not right to gloat.
And so Charlotte just waited, and waited as the cheering went on, until Mr. Diavolo could take it no more.
She could tell that he couldn’t take it from the way he jumped up in his seat, yelled, “I can’t take it any more!” and threw out his arms.
Pieces of shining armour appeared out of nowhere to sheath Mr. Diavolo from head to toe, only his handsome face showing under a transparent faceplate. With a snap of his arms, the music system began playing “Thriller,” and the same motion propelled him through the air to land on the stage.
A sword of golden light, a little darker and more malevolent than Dora’s needfire, sprang from the shining silver metal of Mr. Diavolo’s gauntlet.
Oh oh, Charlotte thought. Maybe I should have thought this through.