Or Why You Should Never Forget Who You Are And Where You Came From
Book I in Illusion V. Reality: The Sheila Series
To the Memory of
"But really, I think a writer, if he's lucky, has got a pipeline that goes down into his subconscious where there's a little lexicographer setting type all the time." -- Stephen King
It was just going to be one of those days. I could already tell. When the shuttle to Mars is running late, you can guarantee everything else in the system is too. The native pilots take great pride in maintaining their almost-perfect on-time schedule. When their stellar sense of timing and dedication to duty fall through, you can almost bet the rest of the solar system is in a shambles so bad you may not as well even try to get a flight out until next planetfall.
I said screw it and decided to call a conference. Most of my buddies and I were finally out of high school (except for a few who either had managed to delay their graduation on the unaccountable pretext that they weren't seniors yet or had chosen to be born in places that didn't operate by the American scholastic calendar). It was time for a circling of the wagons, devastation of the Iranian pizza forests, and contribution once again to the price of Coca-Cola stock.
We had a couple of accounts especially set up to defray team expenses; these were primarily funded by investments in our favorite companies. Since IBM had backed us up on a number of occasions without messing up too badly, we maintained a few hundred thousand in their shares. And just to be obnoxious and keep favor with those members of our group who rabidly preferred the Macintosh operating system (even though it hadn't been invented yet), we also maintained an equivalent amount in Apple shares (ignoring jokes from the IBM nuts about Granny Smith greenbacks and Golden Delicious bullion bars).
And, since most of us (excluding a couple of cats and some genetically-engineered humans who simply couldn't handle it) preferred Coke products to anything else in the known galaxy and several clusters beyond, we realized it was simply good sense to invest in what most of us were spending large amounts of money on anyway. This also kept peace with our prize mad scientist type, Mr. Chip Van De Graff, who stoutly maintained that the CPU of any decent intergalactic communication system was made up of a triad of glass Coke bottles linked together in tandem array and that even attempting to link either IBM or Apple products to one of these while it was in operation would only serve to guarantee its immediate crash.
It was hard to explain this to Anson, our token IBM brat, whose sports car and conservative-sweater collection had been at least partially paid for by the IBM bounty on a couple of his father's prime patents. But the rest of us just bombarded him with apple cores or Coke cans when he got going, and so he learned to pipe down, at least around the cats. The cats would spray him, and it never came out of the sweaters.
Anson felt insulted if anything on his body cost less than $50 (including some of the underwear, although I was never supposed to look at the tags), so every time he pissed Andromeda off and she lifted her leg and returned the favor, he was out a good chunk of change, or, as I put it, a good sliver of plastic.
Since he made fun on a consistent basis of my penchant for acquiring everything I wore at the Asheville location of the Salvation Army boutiques or at the Great Sewing Machine store, I naturally used these opportunities to remind him of just exactly how much my gorgeous "Okay, Sheila, you got those in Paris, right?" new shoes cost and inform him that, should my favorite Persian cat, ethics consultant, and interstellar navigator decide to take out her wrath on them, I could just wipe them down with a little soap and the patent leather would look as good as new.
If by chance she had soaked them so badly that the smell would never come out, I teased him about the fact that there was another pair in my size on the rack in one of my favorite prowling places, and I could probably liberate them for the nominal sum of an additional $5.
He was a good man to take shopping, as long as he didn't have control of the checkbook. He would drag me into places just on the strength of what he saw in the store window, never mind how much it cost, how long it was likely to look like something more than yesterday's news, and what the cleaning instructions on it were.
Once he decided to surprise me with a new outfit that I'd paused over on the sidewalk in front of some local store while we were on our way to get lunch. I really didn't mean to offend him, but I couldn't help noticing just how many starving Armenian children World Vision could have fed for a week for what he paid for it. And even he had to admit that it would be worth nothing but the "mistake pile" after six months. I made him promise that if he ever spent that kind of money on clothes for me again, he would buy something that had been made in a recognized European fashion mecca, looked as good inside out as it did turned the normal way, and went with at least four things he'd seen me wear on a consistent basis.
And he swore up and down I was the best clothes-spotter in town, as long as I didn't start raving about the construction, fiber quality, and lack of wardrobe flexibility of the latest brand name that all of a sudden looked preppy enough for him to drape over his body. Not that I objected: Some of that stuff looked great. For three washings. And for $75, a pair of pants had better be made of titanium wool and stitched by industrial welder before I would lay out my hard-earned pennies.
We finally quit trying to buy each other clothes and settled for making rude comments in either the mall (his buying trips) or the flea market (mine). But when we walked into a room together, nobody in the world could deny that we had all eyes on us. And it wasn't because we looked awful, either.
Anson actually almost (I know this: I am telepathic) asked me to take him on a secondhand store cruise along Lexington Avenue one time after a professional fashion editor wanted to know my source for a sweater-skirt outfit that hadn't cost me but $2.75 plus tax from a church store where he'd sworn he was truly, this time, honest to God, going to catch his death of polyester poisoning and leisure-suit toxemia.
And she'd happened to have on an almost exact duplicate of a gorgeous Fifties cardigan I'd rescued from a basement place on the North Side of Chicago and polished up with some resewing of sequins and repainting of beads. Mine looked better. I'd paid fifteen bucks. He'd been there. He overheard her talking to a friend later about how much she'd paid for hers. Almost as much as it had cost him to have his fuel pump replaced one time. And mine was the authentic item. Hers had been a swipe, a copy, a "yeah, I know enough to try to look like this but I don't have enough brains to dig out the real thing" imitation.
As I said, I am telepathic. This almost broke his Ralph Lauren fixation. But not quite. I love Anson. We are different. He loves me. He swears I'm the strangest woman he's ever met. We stick together. Nobody who knows us messes with either one of us. Period.
People were already pulling into the Pizza Hut parking lot as I swung in. Although why certain group members had seen fit to bring other friends with them, I had no clue. And no use probing: The tariff for psychic activity was high in Buncombe County and had been all year. Oh well. At least Anson and his buddies had made it. Good thing. Right then I wasn't sure how much of a boyfriend I had. Above all else, he loved being in on all information I had, and I had had no choice but hold certain things back from him for a total of about nine months. It was either that or watch him crumple in despair, and I wasn't having that. I could only hope he loved me enough to understand when I finally told him. And if he didn't, at least I had done the right thing. I could only roll the dice.
God, he looked good. That outfit looked like it had just come off the rack. And that might be as close as I ever got to it again. I had to tell him soon, probably today. Anson ran deep. It was either meet his standards or meet the pavement. Sometimes literally. I braced myself.
He flung an arm around me. "Hi, blondie. Nice hairdo."
"Why, thank you, Carolina brat. Great outfit. New for the occasion?" When he knew I knew he'd had that shirt on when we started dating. He threatened to dump the Coke he was carrying on my head; I flicked out an ankle to send him and that pristine getup flying into the parking lot. Business as usual. And then the unexpected. "How's your kangaroo collection coming?" Tie me kangaroo down sport, preferably with that belt you've got on. One of our old lines back when things were easier. And that smile that meant, "I've got the sheila they call divine." I'd gotten that name at one of the Aussie tracking stations, the one that was also used for fast liftoffs to lunar orbit. He hadn't forgotten.
I snapped back at him, "Probably about as well as that car of yours is." Let him figure out the references to bouncing, cuddling in small spaces like kangaroo babies did, and the exact reason I'd gotten the "divine" part of my name. Ah. Reaction time about 3.5 seconds. The only place it showed was in his eyes. Not a man I wanted to lose.
"I swear that's all you guys do, is fight." Good old Miriam, covering for us.
"It's what we enjoy most." Anson, take the cue. This isn't Pizza Hut. It's Madison Square Garden. The Final Four. It's the Carolina-Duke game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, enemy territory, an arena packed with crazed Dukies ready to heckle, yell, and throw pizza boxes at the slightest provocation. Full network coverage. And no timeouts. Look in the windows. Our little parley has attracted attention. More of them than of us. The only way we walk out of this one is by the love we have for each other. And no psionic cheating to make sure we get our lines right. I could already feel the monitoring grids in there, as thick as Patton Avenue traffic on a Saturday night. Live performance. No outtakes. And it won't be merely judges with numbers for this pair skate. They may not let us out, dear. I knew more about that building than they apparently thought. Oh well. We both wanted that one chance to show this town. Roll'em.
The door flew open. It was Lily Newbery, the acknowledged second-best dresser at Judson High. "Oh hi, y'all. How are y'all doing?" Your magnolia routine is wilting, dear. "When you have a second, Sheil, I do want to ask you about that opal ring."
"What else is there to ask, Lil? You've got the photos. You know the rules. I don't have to disclose anything; you don't have to disclose anything. Materials, workmanship, and clothing labels. That's what we agreed." Her Royal Halstonness was apparently still seething over the results of a little fashion contest we'd had. American vs. British, royal style, bragging rights to the winner. I'd knocked her cold. And she still couldn't verify the provenance of a couple of pieces I'd thrown at her. If there was a chance she could rescue her honor and that of half of Biltmore Forest by proving those pieces to be of non-UK origin, she'd keep going. Heavens knew how much the Newberys had spent on this already. And their neighbors. Doctors' wives hate being humiliated by engineers' daughters.
"Oh, take it as a challenge, Lily baby." Now did Lily realize Anson was faking the flirt? Let's hope so. Rules had stated no safety pins. She'd had one in her hem anyway. I'd stuck one in my bra just to laugh at her. Punk style was one of my trademarks, and I wasn't about to welsh on half the designers in London because of some silly stipulation designed to cut me out of half my wardrobe. Anson lived for details. His might be the cut of his khakis and mine might be the specific Day-Glo color I'd spraypainted the graffiti on my shoes with, but they were important. Details were why we'd kicked the shit out of the state Latin test together the previous year. Details were why we'd stayed up nights reading Catullus and Vergil to each other over the phone. Details were why we loved each other.
Anson's hand slid over mine. He squeezed it tightly. I allowed myself a peek. His eyes were focused on me. Lily was still squealing about gemologists' reports and international phone bills when we arrived at our seats. Anson in front of me in the booth: The corner seat in the room, the power seat. All eyes on him. My back was to the room: They had to rely on my words. Miriam and Ulysses buttressed us by taking up the rest of the booth. Boys on the room-facing side; us toward the windows. Anson and Ulysses projected better visually; we girls did better with our voices. And I wanted to be between Anson and the rest of the room if trouble got going. This wasn't his town. This wasn't his fight. I'd go down first. Even if it meant a shot in the back.
We made very loud noises about arguing over pizza toppings, throwing napkins at each other, and kicking each other under the table. All standard stuff; all part of the legend. Give them the show they expected to see. And wait for an opening.
It came. We were babbling about this and that and wasn't the heat ridiculous for the mountains in June and how come Ulysses still had that stupid Princeton T-shirt on when he'd had it even before he graduated from high school, when someone asked me how I could deal with what happened. Someone from another table. Someone trying to start something. I was about to toss some oblique reply at them when Anson leaned over, took my hand, and announced, "What are you talking about? Nothing happened."
The room stopped dead. Everyone looked at us. From somewhere above us, I heard a projected voice say, "Oh my God, no. There's no way. Why should we bother?" and then cutting off. The monitor grids fell to nothingness.
I felt my throat easing up for the first time in nearly a year. Quickly Ulysses started the chant. Miriam picked it up. I chimed in third, and Anson, looking slightly surprised, closed out the circle. Three times around the table, a polyphonic chant in no known human language. A wall of energy built up around the four of us, a wall of safety and privacy. No longer could the cult scryers pick up our words, even some of our thoughts, and broadcast them to all and sundry. I could see, even from my vantage point, several people shaking transmitters, rapping them on tables, or just plain cussing at them. Our lives were our own again. Out of the corner of an eye I saw energy darts bounce off our shielding, unable to penetrate and re-establish the hookup.
We all desperately checked for leaks. Any tricks, any errors, could cost lives. We had to be sure. Finally I very quietly said, in a voice I knew was in scrying range, "You know Ellen Minkoff still hasn't gotten rid of those warts on her elbow." Nothing. Not even a twinge. We were apparently completely cut off from cult HQ. We all tested the solidity of the shields to our satisfaction, then looked at each other and let out a whoop that would have shattered any equipment in range. We were free.
I grasped Anson's hands in mine and said, very clearly and very definitely, "I love you and I always will. I pray I haven't lost you. I love you and I need you. Whatever I have done to you, please forgive me."
"I forgive you."
"Good. I have some things to say. Are you seated and grounded?"
He winced. "Yes."
"On October 8, I was raped by 13 guys in back of Judson High in front of about 100 people."
"I couldn't tell you. I knew it was coming. They were wearing down our shielding. I couldn't get hold of you: You were out of town."
"Damn." He pounded the table. "And you couldn't tell me later. You were barely reciting name, IQ, and food preference. I figured something was wrong, but..." and his eyes filled momentarily. They cleared. He tightened his grip on my hand. "Who did it? How many bodies do I have to wade through?"
I handed him a file folder. "Full documentation. Have fun."
His fist clenched white as he flipped one-handed through the papers. "Path reports, witness statements, pictures....this is 13 counts of felony rape and one count of aiding and abetting." And Anson knew the rape laws in this state. It was part of a hobby of his.
"Oh yes. God bless Carolina blue." I had very good friends in the Chapel Hill hierarchy. "How did those boys get in at all?"
"Talent. Years of practice. And loads of begging."
"Whoo hoo. How many frats are barring them?"
"Ain't it fun?"
"And this town loses how many Moreheads over the next few years?"
"The body count has already begun. As you can imagine."
"And those are families that needed the scholarship help. Badly." He looked up at me. "Girlfriend of mine, you play rough."
"No. They do. This was Chapel Hill's decision. I just sat there."
"Wow." He adjusted his glasses.
"Uh huh. How does it feel to be the John Motley Morehead Foundation's prize catch for the decade?"
"Wow." He grinned at me. "You have to marry me now. My resume is so gilt-edged it's not funny."
"You mean light-blue-edged." I had to poke fun at him. "It was the shoes. Had to be. Too totally preppy. You're a fashion icon. They need you."
"And I need you. Worse than ever. Anyone who can face down a 1200-member student body all by herself 24 hours later -- "
"Okay, eighteen. Walk into calculus class as if nothing had happened, file her nails, and rag the teacher...woman, you're really something. I need you to make me look good. If this is what you can do in The Asheville Zone, the small-town prototype of hell, then what can you do in the real world?"
"I hope, kick the shit out of them before it gets started. They had too much energy on their side. All I could do was laugh."
"So I see. So I see....they were imitating me? Trying to make you think it was me doing the rape?"
"When all else fails, go for the cheap shot. Force alcohol on me, confuse me, go for the subconscious."
He dropped the papers. "Pocket protectors? Three of them had on pocket protectors?"
"You're an IBM kid, very preppy, very organized....this town does not understand style."
"Pocket protectors?" Miriam had to stifle a giggle. Ulysses had his eyes glued to the jukebox. "Pocket protectors?" It was all he could say.
"Yes. Trust me."
"They die. I have a certified allergy to plastic or artificial fiber anywhere near my body. The Ralph Lauren salesman says so himself." Ulysses was fighting to keep his face straight. "They were putting on an Anson Howard act and they were wearing..." There was nothing more he could say. We were all collapsed on the table. Laughter reigned for at least five minutes.
"Honey, all you can do with this town sometimes is laugh." I passed some more documents to him. "What do you think of these?"
He gasped. "Huh? Chapel Hill police? University admin..." He fell silent. "Oh my God. I knew Chapel Hill was a Morehead fiefdom, but...." He looked at me. "Now I know you had something to do with this."
"Nada. Not a thing."
Ulysses grabbed the papers. "Let me see that." He riffled through them. "Ho-ly shit."
"In other words..." Anson had to take a gulp of Coke.
"In other words, boyfriend mine, we won't say so, but you can rest assured we won't touch this boy. The Asheville police wouldn't intervene, so Chapel Hill feels like they shouldn't either. Ta dah, da dah, da day. Loverboy, you'd have to string them up by their necks in the Dean Dome before they'd even look up from their paperwork." People were starting to move toward the door.
"Good riddance to bad energy." Anson leaned back. "Looks like I've got a couple of things to take care of next year." That old light was back in his eyes. He waved. "Ta ta, ladies. Go spread rumors. Make my job easier. And get Ellen Minkoff in to a dermatologist for those warts. She still hasn't gotten those things taken care of? That's a crying shame." More people were leaving. I decided to up the ante while we still had an audience.
I flipped my keys to him. "Do as you see fit. I've played with them all year. It's your turn. I've pounded them by Asheville rules. Have at them under Chapel Hill rules."
He blanched. "But..."
"I said, do as you see fit."
He carefully unhooked the keys to my Chunns Cove redoubt, the one that everybody was just positive had anything from the Holy Grail to nuclear warheads in it, the one three search teams had failed to find. "You're sure."
"I trust you. They were attacking you. They were attacking the Morehead Foundation. They were attacking the University of North Carolina. You read that stuff. Jealousy, spite, the knowledge that I had to travel halfway across the state to find a love life. You don't realize what you stand for. When you openly claimed me, they couldn't put me down as Nutty Sheila any longer. You're old money. You're brains. The real kind. You're class. And you made a beeline for me. They have witnesses."
"That -- "
"Uh huh. He's been warned. If they could make some of that stuff retroactive, they would. Disgrace to the Foundation and all that."
"I'll never speak to him again."
"I don't." I stroked his hand. "This town hates quality. I'm quality. While they could put me down, they did. But when you put that $3000 necklace on me, they had to face it. It's been Hell Week ever since. And I've been insulting them right back. You see Lily Newbery. She's almost in a coma."
"If I could take it back, I would. But I won't. You're mine. By the way, you've got the necklace?"
"Right here. Pinned in my bra since the attack. The last place they'll look. I think Opie Reynolds was going to pull it off, but he chickened out. That's when I knew I had them."
"Oh thank God. I'd have died...."
"And I'd have already killed. That's the symbol of our relationship. No way does the cult get hold of that for some damned ritual. No way." The place was almost empty. "By the way, cutie, happy June." I tossed him a last sheaf of papers.
"Class schedules, room assignments, account numbers...these don't even exist yet. You're dynamite."
I smiled. "No. Just divine. At least that's what the Aussies say. More pizza?" And I waved our people over. Time to munch. Let Anson plot revenge. I wanted to laugh.
I wasn't done yet. This town was just too funny.