Chapter 4, 44, Racing Slow
Gosh, she hated this. Every muscle in Charlotte’s legs, every –did you have muscles in your brains, like, you flexed them and thought harder? Well, obviously not, Charlotte thought, but maybe some writer had made up some expression about how it worked like that—but. . .
In that moment of distraction, Charlotte’s legs had lengthened their pace again, and she’d made up another yard of ground. She had already almost lapped Assistant Director Nazfre, even though she was running as slowly as she could. Not twenty feet ahead of her, she could see Baqul Nazfre’s spare, middle-aged body in its black exercise tights and white sports bra against her electric blue skin. It would almost be a cool outfit except for the granny-sized tartan bloomers that she wore over the tights, so that you could see the waistband at the top and the weird, almost-lacy bottom of the tights, just above her knee. Taking that approach, obviously you’d want to finish it off with something flowing over the sports bra.
Obvious to everyone except an Assistant Vice Director of Community Outreach, that is.
The bloomers were big enough that they almost moved by themselves over Nazfre’s shuffling body, giving her running-that-was-slower-than-walking a look that was almost natural.
Charlotte wasn’t doing nearly so well. She was a tall, gawky girl to start with, with far too much time at the gym showing at the shoulders. Well, that was the style game. You worked with what you had, emphasised the legs, showed as much boob as you were comfy with. Her cousins, with their similar body type (except for the disgustingly petite Cousin Jennie) liked dangly earrings that traced the lines of their necks, but Charlotte couldn’t make her sullenly rebellious hair stay clear of the action. Instead she relied on her kung fu chops, gave it an over-tall version of the dancer’s bod. Needless to say, tripping over your own feet got in the way of that.
Which was why she kept speeding up, and everything she did to distract herself and get into the groove of pure action-without-thought just made it worse. Try to listen to “Red,” on her phone? Speed up. Text her friends? Speed up. Sing a sad song to herself? Speed up, and smear her eyeliner.
A measured tread –a boy’s tread, fell in beside her. Charlotte looked over. It was Bruce, in his Tatammy Universal Fatigues, hood down. Great. Now there were two of them. Charlotte looked even more like she was in a high school super team. But the irritation was submerged in a surprising happiness at the sight of Bruce McNeely.
“Hey, babe, nice outfit. Want to hang with me? Ordinarily, I’d be somewhere iller, but my Grandma just died, and I am FLUSHED with library cards.” Two people on an exercise machine on a little island of raised floor between the running track and the windows looked over as Bruce raised his voice for ‘FLUSHED.’
“Jean Ralphio is going to be your role-model now, Boy Wonder?”
“It’s the outfits,” Bruce explained. “I feel like an idiot. So, you know, YOLO?”
“You Only Live Once? Yeah, well, I got the news for you about looking like an idiot.”
“I’m embracing the lifestyle,” Bruce said. “It’s like bowling. If you can’t keep your ball out of the gutter, you’ll still do awesome if you can get people to call gutterballs ‘strikes.’”
Charlotte looked over at Bruce. “Well, that was certainly a metaphor involving bowling.”
Bruce snorted a laugh. “Any sign of trouble? I must have broken a million speed limits getting back here so fast.”
“Why not just let Rose and Brian back me up?”
“They wanted to search Nazfre’s office while it was closed for the weekend, and I volunteered. Between teleportation and super speed, they can be here pretty quick if there’s trouble, anyway.”
Charlotte shook her head. “One Pirate sighting. I’m still expecting them to show up soon, but until then, just focus on running slow.”
Charlotte shrugged upwards, at windows that overlooked the running track from a gallery that gave access to the racquetball courts. No-one was there, of course. Because invisibility.
Bruce was quiet for a moment. “I suppose that I could hope that they’re not sucking each other’s faces off under there, but that’s kind of like needing to tail someone. You can hope that it’s dark enough outside, but hope’s not going to do you very much if it just so happens to be noon.”
Now it was Charlotte’s turn to laugh, with that tiny part of her that wasn’t actually crazy jealous at her friend, Dora’s happiness. She happened to not want to think about that right now. Also, thinking about it had “gained” her another yard on Nazfre. Even without being able to see her, Charlotte just knew that a smug smile was spreading across the Assistant Vice Director’s face at the thought of teaching the religious-nut-slum-dimension girl another lesson.
Speaking of spiritual teachings, Charlotte was having a lot of trouble not hating Baqul Nazfre right now.
“This is hard for you, isn’t it Char-Char?” Bruce sounded sincere, but Charlotte still felt anger well up inside.
“What was your first clue?” Damn. Her pace had picked up again.
“You’re a race-horse, girl. You’re full of sweet energy and spirit and joy. Which does tend to come out in a bit of competitiveness, now and then. For example, if someone had told me last spring that you’d be an ass-kicking beauty pageant contestant before the summer was over, I would have laughed in their face. But then someone turned it into a competition, and, bam! You beat an arena full of blonde supermodels”
Charlotte felt her face burn while the corners of her mouth turned irresistibly up. “Thanks, Bruce. You’re smart for such a pretty face.” Oh. My. God. Why did she say that?
A long, long silence. At last, “You want to win, don’t you? Well, isn’t this like Tai Chi? I mean, doing things slow is a meditation practice, right?”
“I. . . “ But it was true. Her Auntie Ma liked to make fun of her Mah Jong friends who did Tai Chi in the park, and even more fun of the hipster dude who did it with his Klingon sword-thingie, but the fact that silly people did it didn’t make it wrong. Her mind –Unbidden, the Great Compassion Mantra sprang to her consciousness.
Charlotte began to chant: “Na mo ho. . .” Bruce hesitated, checked his phone, and began after her.
“. . . . La da nu do la ye ye. . . “
Without thought, without reflection, the pace of her swinging feet seemed to slow in the air. After what seemed a moment, but had to be longer, she could see Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre’s narrow shoulders begin to recede ahead. The meditation washed over Charlotte, as the masculine steps of Bruce’s feet slowed to match hers. The world came to her in full awareness. The gentle breeze blown from the big fans in the corner carrying the scent of exercising bodies strained through gym clothes that had maybe not been washed as often as they should have been. The sour smell of bodies made quite the contrast with the electric, just-short-of-burning smell of electrical motors, the faint smell of oil from the exercise machines, the new-car-smell-gone-bad of the plastic upholstery of the benches and perches of the machines.
Actually, you could kind of see the point of doing this kind of thing in the park. Before that thought could interrupt her meditation practice, Charlotte thrust it down, let slow, mindful deliberation spread to her limbs, out to the world and in from it. Baqul Nazfre disappeared around the corner, and by the time she and Bruce had rounded it, the Assistant Vice Director was halfway down the straight stretch.
In their next lap, they lost sight of the library bureaucrat ahead. Well, that was why they had Dora and Twelve up there on overwatch. Or making out invisibly. Whichever, or, hopefully, both.
In their next lap, feather-light but still somehow heavy feet sounded behind them as the Assistant Vice-Director broke into a real run to catch up with them. As she pulled abreast, Nazfre snarled, “Well, you can halt this charade now.”
Charlotte finished her chant. She couldn’t really slow down to a walk, so she settled for speeding up to one. “You were right, Assistant Vice-Director. That was a very refreshing experience. Have you tried Tai Chi?”
“Whichever of the mindless superstitions your backward dimension wallows in that might be, be sure that I have not. Slow running is simply an optimal metabolic practice. You know, I have a mind to report you for violating the Library’s Toleration Standards, young lady.”
Charlotte tried to find something worth saying, couldn’t, settled for looking steadily back with big-souled, innocent, wide eyes. Even if the rules didn’t say that Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre could have her kicked out of the library for chanting the Great Compassion Mantra to herself, Charlotte had no doubt that Nazfre would be allowed to get away with it, anyway. All she could do was appeal to the Director’s better nature.
“Actually,” Bruce said, “Article 8, Part 5 of the Toleration Standards specifically state that chant and prayer are regulated as to their disruptive content by noise standards before content. And I happen to have a noisemeter app on my phone. I think that you’ll find that our chanting was well below the 70 decibel level specified for the roadhouse.”
“I seriously doubt that your little toy—“
“My little toy passes muster with the Babylon PD. Here. I’ve emailed a history, with calibration, to you and to the Standards Committee. Oh, and, here, I’ll email you a link to the Standards Committee. And text you one. And put one up on Twitter. You can follow me @Darknightdetectboy.”
Nazfre’s tiny fists curled in anger. “The Standards Committee will—“
“I’m sure they will,” Bruce answered.
“Now,” the Assistant Vice-Director said, “If you will excuse me, my day off is rapidly coming to an end, and I have a lot to do yet. So unless the two of you are stalking me or something, I need to go change.
Nazfre stalked off, quite an achievement on her pixie-sized frame.
Charlotte gaped at Bruce. He shrugged, put his hand lightly on her shoulder. A static charge from his hand sparked Charlotte. A funny kind of shock, sure, but, heck, she was fifteen, what did she know from shocks? Her shoulder moved towards Bruce’s hand on its own, like a horse to the touch of the grooming brush. His eyes looked into hers. “Trust me. I’ve had some experience dealing with that kind of person.”
“So have I!” Charlotte protested. “That’s how I know that that won’t work!”
“Of course it will work. For me.”
“Because you’re rich.”
Bruce stopped, let his hand fall. Charlotte could see thoughts running across his face. “And you were brought up poor. No trailer trash jokes, a trailer park girl for reals. I keep forgetting that Char Char, I really do, that because my Great-a-hundred-times-Grand-Dad bought a land patent from William Penn, people do what I say. And you? They search you for drugs and drag you into the station on suspicion of resisting arrest by not having any.”
“That’s me. Stand back, I got me some cousins to kiss!”
“Jenny, May or Amy? I need to know. For research. Hot research.”
Charlotte struck Bruce in his slab-like pecs, a light, rapid rap. A runner, swerving to go round them, broadcast ambivalence with a combined annoyed glance and reluctant smile. “Could be David, Henry or Jason.”
“They’re not included in my research proposal. Speaking of, I take it that Dora and Twelve are in charge of tailing Nazfre into the change room? Because, you know. . . ”
Charlotte mock shrugged. “As a matter of fact, I am visualising an invisibility cloak failing in the middle of a room full of naked middle-aged ladies and revealing two teenagers in the middle of a make-out session. So what would you do about it?”
Bruce shrugged right back. “Send Twelve. Like you’re doing. It’d be a totally inappropriate thing to do, and he’ll think of a million reasons not to.”
“Even with a troublemaker like Dora?” Charlotte didn’t quite use her sarcasm voice, but desperately she willed Bruce to see her friend like she did.
“Don’t underestimate Dora. She’s a pretty complicated kid, and not nearly as bad as she wants to be.”
Charlotte dimpled, conscious of the fact that her head –her, OMG, her lips—were somehow edging in and up towards Bruce’s, that he was leaning down like some old-timey Hollywood hottie. Her heart, suddenly, was making up for all the racing the rest of her hadn’t done today.
Good time for a sudden explosion of pulson fire to signal a superfight downstairs, the trailer park part of her brain that was never surprised when things went wrong, said.