We were seated in our usual positions, two on one bed, two on the other. Often all four of us would have to bunk into one hotel room; we had a certain pattern that we used. Anson and I would immediately grab the far bed in the room so that we could be ready to duck if we needed to. The cult wanted us, not Ulysses and Miriam. And the latter two had developed enough mimicry skills that they sounded like us having a mad, passionate time in bed until somebody managed to break the door down and Anson and I had made ourselves scarcer than Lamborghinis in the Judson High parking lot.
We were all stoking up on room service sandwiches. We'd had just about enough pizza for one day. Anson and I were sharing a club sandwich and Ulysses and Miriam were fighting over the remains of a cheeseburger plate. Somehow it had just miraculously managed to appear at our door with extra pickle and lettuce, just the way they liked it, and not too rare, otherwise we could all count on Andromeda making a dive for it if it was left alone for more than three seconds.
That damned cat, as Anson persistently referred to her, could find her way into any room on the planet, locked or unlocked. There didn't even have to be a reason. She sometimes broke into opal-level security vaults that were triggered to kill anybody who didn't dance a certain pattern on the mat before they punched the keycode in. She simply made up her own dance and dared them to say a word. If you were her, it worked.
Woe unto you if Andromeda developed a crush on you. She would haunt you night and day, and sometimes every other time on the clock as well. Ulysses had learned this to his regret at one point when Andromeda mistook him for one of her favorite celebrities and proceeded to tear great holes in his jeans just to have a souvenir. When she was on some of the laboratory LSD she liked to swipe from various government compounds, she wasn't too picky about looks, just so long as you were of the right bloodline.
According to her way of thinking, ancestry was all-important. If you had the right relatives, you knew how to behave correctly, whether you wore pinstripes or Wranglers. And since Ulysses had once gone by the same name as her pinup favorite, had roughly the same IQ, and chowed down on the same kind of pizza, to her way of looking at things, there wasn't much difference. Past, present, and future didn't matter to her. Cats can travel through time without thinking about it. She strongly believed that intellect and metabolism were the determining factors in one's personality, and if you had the favor of having the right relatives, you were one step ahead.
So one couldn't really blame her if she got a little confused between the two young men when she was half-blitzed on CIA-quality acid, dizzy from making a time jump, and horny to boot. Ulyssess had learned various protection mechanisms out of self-defense. He wasn't going to try to kill her. For one, nobody had yet succeeded, including Israeli Mossad crack cat-shooting teams. For another, he actually liked her when she wasn't stoned up the tail. For a third, she was the best known interstellar navigator in the galaxy, and she could be extremely useful indeed. So he put up with ethical lectures, squeals whenever anybody waved People magazine in her face, and the occasional leg-lifting over his jeans whenever he wasn't wearing Wranglers. She'd developed a secondary addiction and insisted.
So there we were, my preppy boyfriend trying to forcefeed me a slice of turkey he'd pulled out of the sandwich, me fighting him off, Miriam picking out the pickles and throwing them at Ulysses, and Ulysses not caring one bit just so long as she didn't touch the lettuce. Finally, after a couple of wrestling matches, some parts of which were deliberately ignored by the occupants of whichever bed that particular wrestling match wasn't taking place on, we all settled down, had a last round of Cokes, and got to work.
"Sheila, is that all the data you have?" Anson was in control this time. I'd been promising him for months he could whup up on half of Judson High and all of everybody else. This was his chance. I'd been playing it by my rules for months: Laugh at them and make a joke about it. Now it was time for his rules. Dead serious. Utterly dead.
"What do you mean, is that all the data I have?" I had to giggle. "I thought the word data was plural. Get your grammar straight, cutie. No wonder we didn't make you grammar anchor on the team last year."
"Sheila, are those all the data you have?" He was about to hit me. I loved it. I simply adored that look he got on his face whenever somebody had caught him in an error. He wanted to lash out but knew he had to keep calm in order to get them better later. One of his traits. He never, ever, ever forgot an incident. A noun ending in Latin, maybe, but never an incident.
"One more time, what do you mean, are those all the data I have?" I toned it down. "Anson, that stack of papers almost cost four lives. And I don't mean ours. We were very lucky indeed to get some of those hospital reports, never mind the kids' risking their lives to do the witness statements. They've been watching me like hawks, me and anybody who speaks to me for more than five minutes. They've been expecting something. They have no idea which direction it's going to come from." I caught my breath. "Sorry. I didn't mean it to sound like that. It's just that...."
He wrapped me in his arms. Oh yes. I never felt so safe as when I was with him, except when I was with him and he wanted to kill somebody on my behalf. It did not happen infrequently. It was right then that I started crying.
I had been holding in all the garbage I'd accumulated that year, all the insults, all the sneering looks, all the cute comments, all the nonverbal slights that had come my way. I couldn't even take the risk of venting in private without saying anything. They'd have spotted it. They were maintaining watches on my energy levels and would have spotted any drop in my tension. They were determined they were going to break me this year.
It had been like holding my breath for nine long months, ever since I'd been sure the rape was coming. I'd almost had to split off several new personalities just to handle every day of school so I could maintain that special blonde quality I'd developed to lead them into thinking I had absolutely nothing up my sleeve, or anywhere else either. It had worked. I was exhausted. I collapsed on the bed and sobbed.
All three of them gathered around me and threw themselves on me. Not group sex: A group hug. Although the way we did it, an uninitiated outsider might not be able to tell the difference. Total body contact. Total trust. Total physical vulnerability. People thought I despised being hugged. I didn't. I loved being hugged. It was just that I had the extreme misfortune of being so psychic I could read a person's intentions all the way down to the core of their soul. I didn't trust easily. As a result, I'd gotten a reputation for not being a huggy kid right from babyhood.
And in this town, very few people had gone untouched by the cult. If they weren't involved directly, they were either afraid for their lives or determined not to get wrapped up in things. Even if they didn't consciously know what was going on, they had still made a choice. In order not to know, they'd had to. One made choices about what one let into one's life on a moment-to-moment basis. If one cared about others, one wound up knowing information that one would not necessarily have if one did not care. Caring was important to me.
After a few minutes and a few soaked items of clothing, I managed to quit sobbing and just whimper a little bit. They eased off. I sat there and gasped for a few minutes, and then went on. "Like I said, sorry, Anson. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just been a heck of a long year."
"It's okay." He was smiling again. This was good. I wrapped my arms around him for another one-on-one hug. This lasted for another several minutes, during which no clothing got soaked, but a lot of love got exchanged in both directions. Oh man, I had missed this. I'd almost had to give up body contact altogether this year. The first time I'd kissed him after the rape, the cult had been all over me the next Saturday night.
"How can you kiss somebody you don't even love?" "I thought you said you loved me when we fucked the other day. You did it in front of over 100 people (wrong count); how can you go back on your word and kiss him?" All lies; total lies. That was part of cult standard trickery to make you believe you'd heard things you hadn't heard. And if I hadn't had written testimony about exactly what had been said and done that afternoon in back of the Media Center at Judson High, I might have slipped. I might have started believing their lies. And that was the one thing I didn't need to do.
The bond between me and Anson was what kept me going. They wanted to shut that down. They hadn't succeeded, but not because they hadn't tried. With our shields down, they could pick up any energy exchange whatsoever, any physical contact with anybody I cared about, any words spoken that contained particular meaning beyond the ordinary. As a result, I had not even spoken Anson's real name since the rape plans had gotten loose. They wre going to take his name and turn it into a mockery. Hell, no. I proceeded to develop several nicknames for him that I promptly turned into group coinage, just so I could use them in privacy without speaking his name. It might be years before I could do it again, but at least his name still belonged to him. That was worth it all.
We hugged for a mighty long time. Miriam and Ulysses promptly found something else to do for a while. When we finally disengaged, it was with a catch of breath. We hadn't been that close for a long time. It was hard to cut it off at all, but we knew we'd be okay for a while and there was business to take care of.
"To answer the question you meant to ask, loverboy, that's it. You've got everything there. No more downloadables." I had learned quite a bit of computer language in my time hanging out with Anson. It wasn't that he was any more interested in computers than he was in anything else. It was his background. His father did quite a bit of work in the area and had been of inestimable value to us in certain instances. He just naturally inhaled information out of the environment. He might not have any formal computer education beyond what his high school had provided, but he'd gone toe-to-toe with Ph.D. software developers and supercomputer programmers and won. Embarrassingly. As I said, a good man and not one I wanted to lose. And he was just so cute into the bargain.
I'd noticed that cuteness when I'd met him first, at my freshman-year Junior Classical League convention. There was that face, that body, sure, and not too bad, either one of them, but those eyes were something else. Even across the room there was that presence radiating from them, as though this were someone who just might do something unexpected, and this wasn't even the kind of person who you thought might actually do something like that. As though there were several different characters inside him.
I was used to that phenomenon, having been a multiple personality from birth onward, but this was something unusual. He acted like he meant it, like he deliberately kept that part of himself inside so nobody would see it until he chose to do something about it. I only maintained the multiplicity as a survival trait. Abusive parents, intensive government involvement, and being dragged into chronic ongoing Satanic ritual abuse from childhood tended to make one want to hang onto all the survival traits they could find. Anson was another story. There was nothing going on in his life; he just liked hiding things from people and surprising them with them.
I tested him once and told him he was very near to being a classical multiple personality. He told me he'd tried to be that way. He'd thought it was so interesting after he'd read Sybil that he'd deliberately attempted to create personalities inside himself to see what would happen. It almost succeeded; he was too intrinsically centered for the effort to pay off long-term. He was fascinated with me because I was trying so hard to be one person after all the abuse I'd been through, and he was trying so hard to be four or five different people in one body just to find out what it was like.
The very notion gave me the creeps. After you've lived your entire life behind your back, so to speak, you want to work very, very hard to reunite yourself as a whole personality. After I lectured him a couple of times on how he should consider himself lucky to be in the condition he was in and he lectured me a couple of times on the same topic, we just gave it up and called it a draw. We did that in a lot of different areas.
Take, for instance, the figure skating deal. Anson was astonished when I told him I'd been skating since birth and had had world-class coaching from the time I was three. It made for better combat people. That, along with several other things I'd been trained to do as a "lab baby" in the fifties and sixties, amazed him. He didn't know people could be raised like that and trained for just one thing. He honestly believed it was normal to be normal.
He'd only started skating when he was 10. He was already being told he had a chance at making the Winter Games in Sarajevo. But he refused to leave home for the advanced training he needed. He told me it wasn't worth it to ruin the rest of his life. I heartily agreed.
So, naturally, when Anson had offered me a substitute family and healthy living conditions, I'd almost literally jumped at the chance. Especially since his parents were willing to finance some decent figure-skating training for me. I'd had the intensive work when I was a child, but I really needed some support now as I was trying to get back in shape to skate seriously. I'd lost a lot of my combat reflexes through trying to act like other kids, and I wanted to see if I could bring them back before it was too late.
The Howard family was quite willing to help me, especially since I could work with Anson using a lot of the coaching techniques that the Brookhaven and Chicago docs had used on me, methods that could bring people to their full potential very quickly and help them exceed what was normally considered their regular genetic abilities. This made them even happier. They could ensure an appropriate skating partner for Anson and get truly first-class training for him, all for the cost of having a "practice daughter-in-law" in the house for a few days a week, as Dr. Howard put it once.
I only spent a couple of days a week down there, plus most weekends. My parents really couldn't have cared less where I was, as long as I wasn't publicly embarrassing them. And the school was only too happy to have me out of their hair. I'd taken off on extended jaunts before and had come back to find my grades raised just for having made the effort. Truthtellers who can outthink the teachers are not popular people to have around.
Yes indeed, Judson High had its resident Cassandra and Soviet-style dissident off the stage, Mom and Dad didn't have to worry about where I'd been the previous night, and I was having a blast in Winston-Salem, acquiring a few real friends, picking up some decent figure-skating coaching, and even sitting in on some classes at Anson's high school. I couldn't believe it when some of his teachers actually volunteered to run extra tutoring sessions for me in the afternoons and on weekends because of the time I was missing at Judson. And I was learning a hell of a lot more at D.C. Johnson High than I would have twiddling my thumbs and pretending not to have a brain at Judson. Despite their learned reputation in Latin, it was tough not to be able to use my brains for anything besides keeping my skull from collapsing in on itself.
Ah, normality, sweet normality. Reruns of The Addams Family were okay on television, but living the role on a regular basis got tiring. And I was astonished at how normal a life Anson had, being raised by a sweet family, being given enough to eat of the right foods when he wanted it, and being allowed to get the training and education he needed to realize his full potential. My family pretended they'd never been told by the lab doctors that I could be allowed to integrate into a normal schedule. They insisted on waking me up at odd hours, holding meat back from me when I specifically asked for it because of my unusual metabolism, and sticking needles into my back when I wasn't looking just to see how I'd react. No wonder I never felt at home there.
And I'd been altered in appearance to look like them, so nobody believed me when I said I'd honestly been conceived in a Petri dish and shipped down from the Long Island labs in an effort to find out how artificially-bred children created to be a superior race could adapt to normal life. Nor did anybody believe me when I told them about some of the more mundane kinds of abuse I underwent. Not even the docs at the lab raped me that often, and they'd only done it to brace me for combat conditions. These people were just sick.
Even after I almost literally killed my entire family one day because they made a paper bag explode behind me and I reacted as though it were a full-scale North Vietnamese-style airborne attack, they still kept up the cruelty. I really didn't want to kill them: I kept explaining that. But I apparently didn't understand their ways. I was supposed to laugh along with them. It was all my fault for not going along. "Oh, it's a joke." "We were just playing." "We love you, kid." Nope. Forget it. Scratch that notion. They were the most sadistic family I'd ever had the displeasure of meeting, and I just happened to live in the same house with them.
And they thought it was funny that I was the only sane one in the house. As often as they'd tried to have me hospitalized for not being as weird as they were, and as many times as the psychiatrists had tossed me right back out after a cursory examination, you'd have thought they would have more sense than to tell the entire community I was the crazy one in the house and they were just trying to deal with me the best they could. Uh uh. I had documentation on those people that would have landed every single last one of them in the state loony bin for a lengthy run if I'd ever had the chance to prove it. But no. If you were the child, you couldn't be right. After the third shrink they took me to told me that, I gave up and dealt.
Normal. After sixteen years of testing, training, teasing, and tormenting, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven whenever I pulled into the driveway of the Howard's house. I was welcomed when I walked in the door, even if they were doing something else at the moment. I wasn't bugged when I was in the bathroom. I was asked if I wanted seconds of my favorite foods. They bothered to fix my favorite foods at all. I had actually found a place where I was cared about. I was fussed over. I was treated like as much of a normal human being as I could be, given the circumstances. In short, I was loved. Heaven on earth, even if the air did smell a little like tobacco on days when the wind was high.
The problem was when people up in Asheville found out I'd been sneaking around them for almost a year, hanging out with the specific boy Ms. Minkoff, my Latin teacher, had told me to stay away from after we'd had a rather public and tumultuous meeting at one of the JCL conventions. It didn't matter that I was now half of a bona-fide Olympic-contender pair team. It didn't even matter that I could bring home what I'd learned at D.C. Johnson and make little old Judson High look even better than I would have anyway. They felt lied to. They felt deceived. In a word, they felt inferior.
And it didn't help that Anson and I, along with our buddies Ulysses and Miriam, recruited from the excellent Latin program at Research Triangle High, a few hours further down I-40 in Durham, had also put together a certamen (the Junior Classical League version of college bowl) team that had come out of nowhere at the national convention that summer, taken the place by storm, and come up only one question short of making the national finals, where we'd been a heavy favorite to sweep the other teams flat off the stage.
That one question short was courtesy of Her Royal Tubbiness, who had deliberately held back a needed textbook from us so we couldn't find an answer we felt we were going to need. We'd run all around the state, checking out college libraries, trying to special-order the thing, going through every used-book search service in the country. Somehow that book had just vanished off the face of the earth. We only got hold of the damned thing five minutes before the round we had all seen that particular question coming up in. Sometimes being psychic just made things worse. We were all having nightmares about missing that question. We had to have exact wording on the answer to make sure we could get past the judges. We were all frustrated as hell. And Her Minkiness knew it.
Sure enough, the question showed up as number 16 of a 20-round game; sure enough, none of us was fast enough on the buzzer to catch it because we hadn't had the preparation time; and sure enough, we'd lost. But the entire convention knew we'd been gypped, and worst of all, by a teacher from our own state. It was funny how quick Minxy got shunned from polite society in the sponsors' lounges. We got our own back, however. After the certamen competition was finished, we challenged the winning teams to an unofficial game, whipped their butts quite convincingly in front of "God, everybody, and nine Olympic judges, as I liked to put it, and came down from the stage in our trademark all-hands-together, fists-in-the-air, we-are-one group walk.
Fat Ellen was upset, to say the very least. She had to sit there through the whole game and watch every other delegation sponsor in the country glare at her for putting kids from her state in such a lousy position. Above all else, Ellie Baby despised looking bad in front of others, never mind what she'd done to bring it on herself. It was always someone else's fault. Right at that moment, I was the easiest target for her venom. She and that "darling little boy, " Josiah Hepburn, the official cutest thing at Judson High, and her unofficial boy pal, had the nerve to sit there in the seats and plot revenge right during our big game. We naturally made fun of them the whole time and managed to win the game handily.
Now why, if she had the best-looking thing in Buncombe County according to all opinions (except mine: He wasn't even the best-looking thing in our class, but then I was obviously not a reliable source on such matters), she should want a certified nerd, clunker, and fancy-ass popinjay like Anson for herself, was a matter of debate. I just figured she was developing some taste. But, goddammit, he was mine, and no teacher had any business trying to steal a student's boyfriend by cuddling up to him in a hallway before the certamen competition got started and asking him if he wanted to take a look at that book on a personal basis.
I just shrugged it off as typical Buncombe County behavior. Anson got mad. Elsie the Moo-Moo didn't like that. She almost had us thrown out of the competition. Delegation sponsors from several high-level certamen-playing states, along with a gaggle of senior convention officials, had to practically sedate her and tie her to a chair to keep her from sending us home from Nationals altogether. And then we'd had the nerve to whip the butts of the best teams in the country, some more than once, and walk up the aisle to the North Carolina delegation seats chanting, "We're number one! We're number one! We're number one!"
Josiah was staring rather pointedly at me as we passed their seats. I just flipped him one of my famous foot-birds and walked past. Everyone at Judson High knew that when I kicked a foot in their direction and deliberately didn't connect, it was a "fuck you." No use irritating the administration any more than necessary with gratuitous finger signs. I was there on a tenuous enough basis as it was.
There was absolutely, positively, unquestionably no mention of Judson High, which had been the dominant delegation in the state of North Carolina for years and years. No mention of Dingbat Donna's name at all. No acknowledgement of her massive contribution to our otherwise impossible feats. I thought I was doing pretty doggone well to keep Anson from punching her out, Ulysses from holding her arms down for him, and Miriam from recording the event in parodies of her favorite pop-song lyrics, but that apparently wasn't enough for the Royal Couple. Josiah and Ellen had been deprived of their proper due. The time had come for them to fight back.
And Anson and I were elected to take the bullet. Me by being the one physically attacked, him by being the one who was massively embarrassed. Just the way Their Royal Darlingnesses figured they'd been. After all, everybody knew looking good at JCL conventions was life itself to Ellie, and making sure she did was all that mattered to Joey. So why shouldn't they pay us back in our own coin?
I wondered if they'd even had any idea Anson and I had sneaked off to Tennessee after convention the previous year to get married. We never acknowledged it, even to Ulysses and Miriam. But boy, was it talked about. I still remembered some of the comments we got from other teams in the competition: "Y'all over there on the other end of the North Carolina team act like you're married." "So, when's the baby due?" "Don't y'all ever even say the same thing two seconds apart? What is it with this stereo routine?" We couldn't admit it, but the bond was showing. Sorry we look so happy, guys. Sorry we practically think as one person now. Sorry we always know what the other one is going to say, because it's the same thing we're thinking ourselves. Sorry we actually have a good marriage.
And it didn't help that Ulysses and Miriam had gotten into the act. On one particularly annoying occasion, they'd answered our opponents' comments with, "Yeah, we know. They won't admit anything, but we sort of think that necklace of hers is supposed to be a ring. We don't ask them any questions, they don't tell us any lies. That's how we do things in North Carolina." And then we'd launched into a chant of, "And that's how we whipped your butts. NEXT!" We figured we'd deal with The Troublesome Twosome later. Maybe in the next century, after we could tell them. We couldn't risk anything. If those who were trying to break us apart knew we were married, it'd be even worse. If they thought we weren't, they wouldn't be as worried. We liked the guessing game just the way it was. And maybe we could teach some people about having a decent relationship into the bargain. Marriage didn't always have to be arguing, throwing things, and screaming.
I dragged my mind back to the job at hand. Anson had spent nine long, wearisome months supporting me in my way of handling things. I needed to pull my brain together and support him in his. Fair was fair. He cuddled me in an arm, smiled, and went on. I lay with my head in his lap, soaking up the vibes. "Okay. So what we have here is an unmistakable case of assault motivated by a large number of people who may or may not be of age. Unless you have birthdates for these people, Sheila?"
"John Cassidy." He was daring me.
"Just over the line. Stupid." He cleared his throat. "Shawna MacLeod."
"Clear. Besides, I like her. Somebody probably made her be there. Let's go on. David Wolfe."
"A birthday present. Traditional Satanic style. I wonder if he appreciated it."
"I made sure he didn't. He has to be in full view to enjoy something."
"Good. You think on your feet."
"And off them." I rarely saw Anson turn bright red. It was one of my biggest treats. "Any more?"
"Not right now. We get the idea. Even under extreme pressure, your abilities are running at full blast."
"Anton, honey, I was engineered to function best on the edge. I was designed for high-octane combat duties, not a piddly little Southern high school. I was getting bored." Anson and I had found numerous literary pet names for each other. One set of these we'd pulled out of West Side Story. Since The Minx had on several occasions declared that it didn't make any difference if you spelled the author of the Aeneid as Vergil or Virgil, one of our prime rules had been, "One letter off doesn't make a difference." Therefore, when Tony and Maria, the two lovers, address each other in their native cultural language, Spanish, and Maria refers to him as Anton, we decided that counted.
And since "sheila" simply meant "girl" in Australian English and "maria" had just about the same connotation in Spanish, we figured they were the same thing. Minkoff had stupidly declared in class one day that all languages that were derived from Latin were similar to each other. Tell that to an Aussie trying to communicate with a Cuban. We'd seen men of the two different nationalities almost kill each other over a verbal slur that one had accidentally made and the other had not properly apologized for misunderstanding. And both had been speaking English at the time. But rules were rules, and once Minnie the Moocher had spoken, she never went back on herself unless someone of higher status confronted her, in which case she promptly claimed she'd never made the wrong statement in the first place. We had documented this several times.
And then there was one of the phrases in Spanish that they had spoken to each other:
Well, to the eye of someone who only knew the basics of Latin or Spanish, as well as several other Romance languages, that translated as "I adore you." But Anson had put in a hard year's work on Latin vocabulary and its derivatives in English. That meant being as familiar with the base components of a word as with the word as a whole. I'd grown up speaking Latin as a native language in the labs as part of an experimental protocol. We were in love. We were very hormonal. We played absolute bloody havoc with those lines. In front of teachers and advanced students. Without batting an eyelash.
"Well, I'm sure you'll find something to do this summer."
"Anson, honey, I can do anything I want."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. And balance the budget at the same time."
"I'm working on it. Even I can't do everything all at once."
"Oh?" Anson merely lifted an eyebrow. I kicked him.
"All right, guys. Let's get a plan of action down here." Miriam had a shopping agenda. She believed in up-to-the-minute fashion. And she'd talked Ulysses into shepherding her on a mall-cruising excursion. He was a jeans and T-shirts man himself, but he gladly tolerated her peregrinations through the malls. And she'd been itching to check out the local stores. She swore we always had something different up here.
"Oh. Sorry. Thought it was obvious." Anson scratched his head. He never could understand why nobody else could see what was quite apparent to him. "We're going to wait until they get out of Asheville and beat the living shit out of them. Sheila's right: There's no point here. This place is a reality warp." He'd verified the fact with instruments. He'd had a ball doing it. "And once we do that, then we can start asking some serious questions. Like why this was allowed to happen. But I want blood on Chapel Hill carpet first." Uh oh. That meant Reynard Mauldin, the one who'd blindsided me first. He was going to be staying a few floors down from Anson in Granville Towers, the luxury dorms in Chapel Hill. He was so sure his parents could get him what he wanted that he hadn't even shown up at the Pizza Hut scene. He knew someone would get hurt. And he would probably also be the last to get the word. Perfect, Anson. So was I.
"But we can go ahead with some contingency planning now." He looked at me. "Got Minerva hooked up?" Minerva was our pet computer. She traveled everywhere we did. Plug her into a wall socket and you could hack into the Joint Chiefs of Staff command modules in 4.3 minutes. And she folded down to briefcase size. Decent little lady. She did even better when she had a phone line.
"Of course, sir." We called each other by our proper titles when we were in working mode. Mine was "bitch." It had been used so often by defeated technicians and other combat people that I came to accept it as my due. I even walked a little straighter.
"All right. Are we into the UNC main system?"
"Are you sure that's where you want to be?"
"Got any better ideas?" He leaned toward the computer.
"Yup. Given the spread of colleges these gentlemen have already sent acceptances to, I suggest this..." and typed.
"Bitch. Goddamn motherfucking bitch. Have I ever told you I hate you, you three-peso whore?"
"Yup. Even more sincerely." I handed the keyboard over to him.
Ulysses caught a glance at the screen and let out a low whistle. "Just don't point that thing up north, if you don't mind. I've got a live to live at Princeton." Miriam just turned her head away from the monitor.
"Dear, I'm glad you love me. Now how do you work this thing?" He groped a little.
"Pretend you're playing Donkey Kong Jr." He had it in a second. He looked back at me.
"Oprah Robert Reynolds. Josiah Edwin Hepburn. Gerald DeFrancois Smith. Cameron Edgar Bronson Jr. Vincent Marion Donaldson. William Arthur Morgan. Edward Alvin Pulitzer. Reynard Fox Mauldin. Bernard White. Elbert Norris Bryant III. DeFries Slobodovic. Jointner Earles Whiner. And lastly, Orville Brown Stein. Need anything else?"
"Let me play with this for a sec." He noodled around various screens and levels. "Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my. Oh my oh my oh my oh my baby my. No, boys, computers do not like you, do they? Sheila, have I ever said I love you?
"Many times. None more sincerely. Now come on. Miriam wants to hit Lerner's."
So there we were, hanging out at the mall and being silly like ordinary kids, eating ice cream from Baskin-Robbins and arguing about the flavor, pushing each other in the aisles at B. Dalton, and flipping through the sheet music at Dunham's. Miriam was snapping her gum like a trained professional, Ulysses was taking an appropriately indecisive length of time to decide what he wanted, I had my finger in my hair and was flipping it around with a flair and precision that would have passed muster in the highest reaches of the San Fernando Valley, and Anson was announcing his opinions to one and all. They wanted ordinary, they could flip those monitors on and watch us now.
We were assiduously giggling over that same fact when Anson looked over my shoulder and proclaimed, "That summoning worked, ladies and gentlemen." For in was walking William Morgan with his apparent new girlfriend, Elsa Grant, the fastest typist in Judson High. Behind them trailed the little Morgan twins. Apparently William had been forced to be polite enough to take his little brothers out for the day. They were fighting as usual: "I want this!" "No, I want that!" "Billy, can we have them both?" "I want some lunch." "Elsa, who'd you go out with before Billy?"
I looked around. "Oh, hi, Elsie. How ya doin'?"
"Fine. Y'all checking out the new music? I always wondered where you got your advance information." We had the distinctly bad habit of being able to sing any song three days before it came on the radio.
Ulysses paused from slapping Miriam. "Well, actually, no. This is the oldies section for us." We giggled. "But then I guess anything would be. We were at the party and heard it all."
"Oh." Elsa paused. Joshua and Timmy were still going at it. They were attracting attention. "So where's this party? Y'all haven't even told us. I mean, how do you get in?"
"Yeah. We were nice enough to invite y'all to ours. The least you could do is let us in on this great party you keep talking about." William hated being left out of anything.
"We've told you how to get there at least three times. You weren't listening." And they'd given us three different sets of directions to their party. We still showed up at the right place.
"Unhh. Y'all give such complicated directions. I mean, how are we supposed to follow directions in Latin, Greek, and Cherokee?" Same way we were supposed to follow directions in West Asheville grot slang, Sunset Mountain snotspeak and Hillcrest jive. We tossed all three sets out and went to City Hall to check on the property records. Not only did we show up on time, we brought along the two hottest exchange students Judson High had ever seen.
One was a drop-dead gorgeous blond public-school Brit who spoke in such utter glass-carriage Received Pronunciation that none of the mesmerized girls could understand what he was saying. The other looked like a Penthouse pinup and spoke Brookhavenese like a native. You could understand her if you'd spent years and years working with the genetics experiments at the University of Chicago and Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island, where they bred the specially-trained combat psychics used for the most rigorous defense work.
And when she started doing an imitation of one alien race she'd met in the course of some special diplomatic duties, her accent and inflection were perfect. Her syntax and semiotics were dead on. She was hilarious. And...we were the only ones laughing. Par for the course around that place. The Morgans couldn't help throwing boring parties. We said to hell with it and went home and goofed around to Billy Joel records. At least there we didn't have to deal with the Morgan twins being their own sweet selves.
Such was life. Those people never could control their children. Oh well. William and Elsa were still there, doing their best Anson and Sheila routines. Willy was leaning over my shoulder, looking for information. Elsa had folded her arms across her chest and looked right at me. She was obviously trying to intimidate me. Some people just never got the clue. Ulysses and Miriam were still continuing their trademark elbow-punching, reaching across each other to get to pieces of sheet music, and calling each other by Disney names. My cue.
"Y'all are so rude! Stop that!" I didn't have a chance to get any further in the line I was quoting, because they'd already quieted down and were poring over an Elton John book. Elsa gave me a strange look. So did Willy. They exited rather quickly after that.
*"Wow. You never cease to amaze me." Anson was staring at me. So were Miriam and Ulysses. "How in hell did you do that?"
"I simply used the ultimate blonde bimbo reference in this town. Y'all shut up. It worked for me." And with that I could see Elsa starting to run. William was right behind her. The kids were way out in front. Good riddance. Back to business.
"So. Where shall we have dinner?"
"I don't know. How about McDonald's?"
"Sounds great to me."
Anson pulled me aside. "Please. I have to know. I'd been trying to get rid of them all day. They were at Pizza Hut, they were at the music store, and I was afraid they'd follow us to McDonald's too. That's too much portal work for one day. Now cough up, girl."
I simply smiled at him. "I just used my secret formula for winning any big competition. Drop the neck, hike the leg, land a couple of doubles and let your opponent make the mistakes. The Katarina Witt rule. I'm hungry. Let's go." We all took off.*
Once we were seated on a mall bench with our sandwiches (quarter-pounder super value meal for me, two fish sandwiches and a Sprite for Anson, a chef salad for Miriam and an Arch Deluxe for Ulysses), they clustered around. "Okay, sport, how'd you do it? Those four have been dogging us since this morning." Ulysses had almost fainted when our little friends ran off.
"Yeah. That was better than finding Christian Lacroix on half-off sale at Ivey's." That was Miriam.
"Just tell us." Anson was adamant.
"Okay. Lesson #5498 in combat tactics. Did you notice how William was staring over my shoulder? That's because he can't conceive of your being able to memorize that many lines. He figured I must have some kind of cue cards or something. Even though this was just an ordinary conversation for us, it still contained enough phrases with double meanings and references to things and people he didn't know so that he wouldn't be able to hang with it off the cuff. He doesn't have that kind of background."
"And Elsa doesn't have tits enough for him to understand the notion of looking over a girl's shoulder for any other reason besides cheating like that. The way we do that, it's not a flirtation move, but part of our body language as an established couple. They haven't been together long enough to have built up a physical vocabulary like that between them, and my guess is they won't stay together that long, either. Neither one of them has that kind of staying power yet. William also can't grasp the concept that we might actually have more class than to try a cheap stunt like that."
"Likewise, Elsa understands nothing but manipulation. When I fold my arms over my chest, as I do rather often, she assumes I'm trying to browbeat someone into doing something for me, but generally when I'm doing that, I'm just standing up for myself, or else I'm just trying to catch someone's attention. Subtle point, but unfortunately Miss Elsie doesn't reach that far."
"And speaking of imitations, did you notice how awful the twins were being? Neither William nor Elsa even tried to control them. They didn't learn how at home. Their parents let them get away with murder or else try to intimidate them to make them do what they want."
I paused for a breath. "Now y'all, Ulysses and Miriam, are known as the children of this couple. You generally do what we apparently want. We know we're not controlling you in any way. The two of you do exactly what you want. It's part of the core philosophy of this group. You don't make a fuss in public because you're more easygoing than we are, and every one of us tries to give everyone else what they consider important. So you guys don't have to yell very often to make your point."
"Rarely, at least."
"Okay, Ulysses, rarely. You get the idea. What's more, you never do it where they can see it. That's not y'all's style. So when they see you not causing us any trouble, and doing what apparently makes us very happy, they figure we must have some kind of big-time mental control over you guys. This town doesn't understand anything else."
Anson was leaning back on the bench with his feet stuck out and his arms folded. He was in business mode: Listen and absorb. "Got it. What's the point here?" One of my lover's favorite lines was, "Forget the chase, cut to the crash."
I reclaimed the mike. "The point, dear, is when they saw the two of them goofing around, they thought they were serious. They still don't believe you guys did Disney voiceovers in a past life. Then you grabbed the Elton John songbook and started flipping through it. But I'd already -- I am getting to the point, Anson -- started in with my rendition of Vivian O'Hare's fake, 'Y'all are so rude! Stop that! Edwin, quit it!' line. The very picture of an ineffectual woman. You know when you hear those words, somebody's getting ready to get tossed in the pool, and that somebody probably spent hours on her hair. Nobody listens to her."
"But y'all calmed down before I even got to her signature clincher line. I bet they're sitting shaking in front of Lillie Rubin right now. What kind of power haven't we been using, when all I have to do is quote the most useless line of all for making somebody do something and you guys do it before I get to the end of the quotation? They don't understand comic timing, graciousness to others, or even simple courtesy. It looked like a pure power maneuver to them. They've never seen anything else. How can they, when nobody in this town can simply stand up for themselves, but has to yank someone else into doing it their way?"
"And of course you remember that awful party they dragged us to. The only reason I even bothered telling y'all about it was so that one or two of our friends who aren't as familiar with Asheville ways as we are could get some exposure to local culture." No need to mention names; we all knew who I was talking about. "The whole time they were prattling about not being invited to the party, I was thinking about how the whole bunch of them almost got nuked into tiny Day-Glo shards. I'm sorry I couldn't control my laughter, but it was just so funny for them to be begging to be invited to the party, when you have to be able to handle yourself in a diplomatic situation to even be considered for the guest list. They basically messed with the two worst people they could have picked on that afternoon."
"Our Long Island buddy -- Anson, wipe the drool off your chin -- was ready to turn some high-powered weapons on the house foundations, teleport us all out before they went off, and leave them to their own devices. That was the quick way. And, as you know, with what Mrs. Morgan does for a living, a social insult of the type our skinny little Limey there directed at her as he walked out is professional suicide of the most undeniable kind. And the full effects won't even hit her for the next 20 years. She's smart enough to have some idea of how badly she screwed up, but all she can do now is wait for the bomb to go off. I think she'd rather have made her husband rebuild that 'mansion' from the foundations up. Oh well. You makes your choices and you takes your chances." I bit into my cheeseburger.
"All because they were so damned sure they'd know any variety of English that could be described as standard, even though we tried to warn them that standards could vary among populations...." Ulysses was almost falling off the bench laughing, and with his long legs, that was a sight indeed. "And those are two populations of people who thrive on attention. Royalty always does. They wanted to see our version of real royalty; we trotted it out." He was nearly doubled over.
Miriam was more sympathetic. "I thought she was going to start crying there," referring to our Northern friend. "When she realized she wasn't getting any response from the crowd, after she'd gone to all that effort to put on a Jay-Leno-level impression of a race they'd probably never meet in their lives, and after she'd even made some of her best tofu lasagna for the occasion and they wouldn't even touch it? Not even Mrs. Morgan? My God, don't these people have any manners?" My thought exactly. "I think they deserved to be nuked. Anson, why'd you talk her out of it? That house is a blight on the landscape anyway."
"I was trying to be conciliatory and not cause any trouble. Rule #275 of the Sheila Devine Handbook on Surviving in Asheville. Get along if you possibly can; save the tactical warheads for emergencies. That wasn't an emergency as long as we could get her off the top of the mountain without doing any more than shooting out a few gas tanks along the way. They deserved it after what they did to Bessie that day." Anson was still grieving over the loss of his prized Spyder. After his brake cables were found mysteriously unhooked one day in the Judson High parking lot and his fuel pump had gone out on him 30 miles later, his father had taken it back from him for his own use around Winston and given him the new Lamborghini he'd just bought.
That thing was built so solidly it took a specially-trained mechanic to even make a dent in the works. And we knew exactly where every Lamborghini-qualified mechanic in a three-state area was. There weren't any within a 100-mile radius of Asheville.
Back to the explanation. I was feeling a little peaked. "And if you noticed, I had my leg swung so high flipping birds at them that I could've practically grabbed my ankle behind my head. They're used to it, but not that dramatically. And because they're used to one of us echoing what all of us think, it was quite obvious that all of us were making fun of them, even if you did put your hand on my leg to try to get me to calm down a little. They just thought you were feeling me up, practicing a skating maneuver, or something. They're so used to us behaving any way we want in public that they don't pick up on the subtle cues that tell us what's going on. I knew by the way you were looking at me just over the rims of your glasses that you were a little upset with me. They thought you were trying to get something. Even after analyzing every bit of information they have on us, they still don't understand half of what we're doing. And of course, the effect was reinforced because of how hard I was thinking about what we'd done to them at that damned party last week. Everybody knows that one of our major rules is if you think about doing something, it's as good as doing it. And Elsa knew that I was laughing at her. We were friends long enough before she rebelled and went with the 'popular crowd' in their red robes and Saturday-night shebangs that she can read me somewhat. Unfortunately, she never worked hard enough at learning to read minds so that she has any idea of what's really going on in my head. Hard as I tried to teach her, she always thought the important point was what I was doing. She never quite caught on that it starts in the head and proceeds outward. Oh well. She was easily replaced. That was long before you guys' time." I buried myself in my sandwich for a minute. Elsa Grant had been one of my best friends. I'd actually had her reading some decent science fiction and learning the basics of interstellar transportation physics, and she'd been busy educaitng me on the fine points of high-budget mall dressing before she got lured away by the promise of popularity, easy grades, and being useful in a completely different way. That one still hurt. She was one of the few girls in the class who had a decent brain. And there she was, speed-typing up her airheaded little class reports with those nimble fingers of hers when she could've been one of the top computer hackers in the galaxy by tenth grade. Oh well. It was her choice. It was my tears. The die was cast. No going back. I'd seen her hurt too many other people since then One more down the hatch. And it might as well have been the gravity-path hatch at JPL in Pasadena for all the good retrieval efforts would do at this point. Once down that sucker, even a $10 billion research ship was written off without looking back. Some places you just didn't bother going for any reason at all. I had other friends. But there had only been one Elsa.
Had been. I looked up at my buddies. They were still there. They were waiting. And they were looking at me with caring in their eyes. Anson knew most of my Elsa stories. Ulysses and Miriam had heard enough to have an idea. No one had to say a word. I finished my burger and drew a breath or two before I went on. The past was gone. The future was sitting with me in front of Things Remembered. Elsa could have her fake hubby and her high-priced delinquent kids. The universe had spoken. Our paths were split.
"So there you have it. I dropped my neckline for William so he could see we were operating totally without notecards; pulled my little leg-kick and thought about how badly we, shall I say, rained on their little parade last week; landed a couple of doubles in the person of not only William and Elsa but also, more to the point for their educational benefit, the Morgan brats; and let Elsie and Willie make all the wrong assumptions. Within five seconds the Morgan gang was clear of Dunham's, we could get the music we really wanted to get, and we were free to enjoy lunch in peace."
"Invoke the law I made sure Katarina knew dead cold when we were working on combat tactics at the party, and the universe had to cave in on our side. It works every time. Even when gravity-fed maser engines go out." And gravity engines were the most indestructible things in space. Three or four lucky-as-hell galactic systems that had the raw materials to build the things in production quantities stayed decades behind on orders. You jsut didn't die in gravity-engine ships. Period. Not even close.
"Wow." Confronted with new ways of looking at things, Anson sometimes had to take a moment simply to appreciate the full effect. "Asheville rules."
"Right. The West-Of-Old-Fort roundball playbook, which assumes neither flat courts nor ability to read."
"Ouch." He buried his head in his hands.
"Yup. Nowhere near ACC level." One of Anson's favorite pastimes was watching Atlantic Coast Conference college basketball, the official obsession of the great state of North Carolina.
"You do know, dear, what they turned the letters ACC into?" He grimaced at me. The memory was obviously painful.
"You do remember, love, that we did it first? And they still don't know what we were saying? All that conference-title gobbledygook still has them flummoxed. They picked up the ACC part when they thought you were trying to get back at me for going with Ulysses."
"Which you never were."
"Right. They may call me 'Turtle' but at least I'm steady. I don't dump guys like jackrabbits."
"Now dear, let's not get mad." Anson had a strict rule against showing a lot of emotion in public. He believed in handling things directly. To his way of thinking, what was the point of unnecessary display of feelings when you could just channel the energy into appropriate action?
"Good idea. Let's get furious."
He hesitated. "You know, more of your cutting little comments and I'll have to go hit somebody."
"Lover mine, save it for your files. They're yours in Chapel Hill. You just look cute and stand by me. That's revenge enough." I reached over and kissed him. He'd had a hard day. I told him so.
Miriam promptly launched into a blues version of "A Hard Day's Night" with a special dedication to "The Sunset Mountain Boys" that about had us all on the floor laughing. After a while we just started swapping verses and working our way down the descants.
Ulysses was ready to put a baseball cap out for donations, so many people were stopping to listen. But I made a crack about not taking Visas or Passports, either one, wound up with the cap on my face, and kept on singing. Finally we all collapsed into laughter, dove into a public-style group hug, and dumped our stuff in the trash.
Friends. Gotta have'em. Gotta love'em. Even if they are difficult to take home to Mom.
We were family anyway.
The text in between the two asterisks is marked because it is going to be used in all 77 books of the Sheila series, verbatim. The first asterisk can be found at, "'Wow. You never cease to amaze me.'" and the second at "We all took off." I will find a way to work this into all 77 books of this series, verbatim, unaltered, or I will quit calling myself an author. I will do it.
Copyright information can be found here. Know the rules.