Chapter 2 – Normal Life

© Copyright 2012

Home and the Mall

At home Bethany unpacked her few belongings in her bedroom upstairs of their two-story house on the tree-shrouded Burbank hillside.  This included a few toiletries and her notebook computer and school books.  Then she wandered down to the first floor into the living room.  Her parents, step-father, and her father’s lady friend Miri were waiting for her.

So was Kendall.

“Hello, Ken Doll.”  She went over and hugged him.

“Hey, Sleepy.”

Beth groaned.  “How long before I outlive that?”

“Oh, years.”

They joined the four others on couches and easy chairs.

Her mother took the lead.

“We are so happy to have you back, dear.  But do you feel up to a return to normal life?”

“You saw all the test results.  I’m fine.  More than fine, in fact.  I had time to think a lot while in the hospital.  And I want to change some things.”

Her father Allan shifted in his seat next to Miri.  “Like what?”

“Oh, studying, first.  I’ve just been getting by at school.  I’m going to change that.  And, oh, I don’t know yet about other things.  Ask me again in a few months.”

“Very well.

“So.  About studying.  We’ve been in contact with all your teachers this semester.  And they’ve all agreed to give you a chance to make up for lost time.”

“Hah!  I’ll bet!  I’ll bet my math teacher wasn’t very encouraging.”

Her mother hesitated.  “True.  But he’ll come around.”

“I know he will.  I’ve been working hardest on my studies there.  More than all the others put together.  I’ve been further behind on math than anything.  But I’m pretty much caught up.”

“Really?” said Kendall.  “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  There’s no shame in repeating a class.”

“True.  But I started back at the beginning of the book and did everything over again, all the test exercises after each section.  Everything.  It made a lot more sense the second time around.  And, funny thing, I actually started to like it!”

Ken got a Don’t bullshit me look on his face but kept silent.

“I’m glad to hear that, dear.  Because tomorrow afternoon we have a conference with your teachers right after school.  And we want you there.”

“Sure.”

Her mother looked around at everyone else in the room.  When no one else showed they wanted to talk she stood up.

“I for one should get back to work.  Ken, you’re going to keep Bethany company the rest of the day?”

He nodded and stayed seated.  Beth stood.  All the others stood, said a few Goodbyes to Beth, accompanied with a hug, and left.  They had work to return to also.

She sat down.  “Going to be my bodyguard?”

“We didn’t want you to be alone here.  Just in case.”

“In case I had a relapse?  Don’t be silly.”

“You’re stuck with me.  Get over it.  Meanwhile, what do you want to do?  Get back to studying math, which you love, oh so much?”

She laughed.  Consulted her inner self.

“I want not to be cooped up.  Let’s go out.”

“OK.  Where to?”

She shrugged.  “The mall.  The beach.  Sky diving.  You pick.”

“The mall it is.  You need anything?”

“My pocketbook.  And a quick trip to the bathroom.  Meet you at the car?”

Minutes later she found him leaning against the hood of his silver midsize car, enjoying the cool sunny weather.  Mid-November in Southern California, the air had shed the late-summer heat and mild smog.  The trees were all green and there was a mild breeze which caused the shadows of the leaves of the nearest tree to cast a dancing pattern of light and shadow onto him and the car.

Inside and belted in he started the car as she slammed her car door and clicked shut her seat belt.  He pulled away from the curb and two blocks away turned left and south onto Olive Ave.

Here just below the low VerdugoMountains to the north the land sloped gently downward.  The four-lane street had nice houses on each side shrouded by tall old trees.  The street was straight for miles and it was a pleasant vista for the two or three miles till the land flattened.  The flatter land seemed to be tilted up for display and a greater panorama of buildings stretched further till the Hollywood Hills rose up, blue-grey with the distance.

Kendall said nothing as he drove, very focused on his driving as always.  It was a friendly silence and gave Beth the chance to look out the open window and to enjoy being free to go anywhere she wanted and the view and the pleasant breeze and the scents of the greenery.

Idly she identified one odor as that of an oak tree, and another a maple tree used just for decoration, and a lemon tree which might have been in someone’s back yard.  There were the occasional flower, roses of course (everyone loved roses), and….

And she jolted.  She’d never been able to ID so many scents, or even smell them!

The odors vanished.

She’d sat forward at the jolt.  Now she relaxed back into a near-slouch.

“Something?” said Kendall.  Just because he was focused on his driving didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of her.

“Oh, nothing.  Just a stray thought.  About cheerleading.  I won’t be able to do any.  I’ve got to focus on school work now that I’ve told everyone how important it is to me.”

“Too bad,” he said.

Then they were nearing the downtown Burbank area.  The Courthouse passed on one side and City Hall on the other.  Then he’d turned to go a few blocks and park in the mall’s big four-level parking lot.

Inside the mall they strolled, window shopping a bit.  Every once in while one would stop and look at an interesting item, different for each of them.  The fabulous wedding dresses in The Bride Shop had no appeal to him.  The subtly gleaming high-tech gadgets in the Elec Tech shop had no appeal to her.

He’d twitted her about drooling over dresses.  So she started mock-impatiently patting a foot after a minute of his own drooling.

When he turned his head toward her she gave a lady-like snort and assumed a nobly lifted nose.

“Boys and their toys!”

He grinned.

It was a southern California weekday early in the afternoon so more of the strollers and shoppers were older women and younger mothers.  Who dressed lightly and often skimpily.  Her brother took advantage and admired them, none too discreetly.  Kendall was such a guy sometimes!

Women returned the favor, though more discreetly.  He was tall, strong, young, good-looking.

They traveled the entire length of the mall on the top floor, then the entire cross hall, ending up in the food court.  School was beginning to let out, so teenagers began to swell the crowd, and swell themselves with food.

Bethany took a tray to the gourmet hamburger vendor and bought two big fat burgers with all the trimmings and two large containers of a juice drink.  She also added to it a plate of fat onion rings.

Kendall met her at a round table with a large pizza with lots of toppings and his own large container of soft drink.  As they sat down in the echoing central area he eyed her tray.

“Wow!  You got carried away after all that anemic hospital food.  Don’t make yourself sick, Sleepy.”

“I won’t.”  Then she began to eat hungrily.

The very first bite, with lots of mustard and pickles and meat, was overwhelmingly good.  Her jaws locked, for an instant painfully.  The pain vanished in a second instant and she began to eat.

She took her time, eating steadily but savoring all the flavors.

Her brother watched her, at first with amusement then with growing alarm.  He put a big hand over one of hers.

“You’ll make yourself sick!”

For an instant Maelgyreyt looked out her eyes and measured him for a coffin.  She growled at him.

“If you don’t want a stub you’ll take that hand back.”

His eyes widened and his hand clenched.  It should have been painful on her small hand, but wasn’t.

Then Beth grinned at him.

“Gotcha!”

He grinned back but kept an eye on her burger.  When she’d finished it she picked up the second, considered it, then re-wrapped the quarter-unwrapped bun

“I’d better save this for a midnight snack.  Stay here.  I’ve gotta go.”

She stood, taking her near-empty juice container with her.  Walking by a trash can she slurped it empty and discarded it.

Later they took the escalator down a floor and made a window-shopping sweep of it before heading home.

That night dinner was busier than usual, with her mother, step-father, her father’s friend Miri standing in for him as he was working late at the police station where he was Assistant Chief of Detectives, Kendall, Beth, and Lihua.  The two girls were allowed a champagne flute filled an inch with the bubbly drink and the four adults took full ones.  The toast was heart-felt and funny, showing a verbally witty side to Miri which Bethany had never seen.

Afterward she and Lee retired to Beth’s bedroom for chatting, gossip, and experiments with a new lipstick which Lee had bought.  Any awkwardness the two might have felt earlier was gone.

Her friend left at 10:00 since it was a school night.  Beth hit her school books for a couple of hours till midnight, when she and Ken shared the living room while she ate her second hamburger and he talked idly about recent jobs he and the security group had done.  It included a well-known celebrity couple while they attended a movie premiere.

Night Runner

At about 4:30Bethany woke.  The house was still.

Most of the upstairs windows were cracked to let in the cool November air.  That included Beth’s.  Her mother had asked her to leave her bedroom door open a crack so they could check on her if they needed to, so there was a faint breeze.  It felt as if the night breathed on her, carrying odors of the trees and bushes and flower gardens of the neighborhood.

Under that were fainter odors of made things, houses and streets, automobiles parked by curbs.  One of which started up three blocks down, faint in her ears but suddenly loud as if a few feet away.  Then the sound was normal again.

She opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling.  Its off-white was painted a faint green.  She turned her head and saw her cell-phone charging cradle was lit.  Normally not bright, it seemed bright now.

She thought about getting up to study or raid the kitchen.  But neither appealed to her.  She’d eaten her fill the night before.

Something else appealed, the outdoors.  The night was cool and quiet and she could run as she pleased without onlookers slowing her down.  Her legs almost ached with the need to run.

She eeled out of bed and out of the oversized tee shirt she wore as pajamas.  Sports shorts covered her panties, a sports bra her bosom, and a normal-sized tee shirt covered her bra.  She slipped her phone into one pocket of her shorts, and house keys, some coins, and a slim wallet with some cash and credit cards into another pocket.

She ghosted down the stairs, automatically noting that her mother and step-father and brother slept peacefully in their rooms.  Outside she re-locked the front door and walked leisurely down the walkway to the sidewalk and turned onto the uphill path.  She began to jog.  Several blocks away she began to run, swiftly but silently, only on her toes, heels never touching the pavement.

In a few minutes she’d covered the mile or so of tree-shrouded neighborhood.  She slowed at the last east-west cross-street before the gentle tilt of the land folded abruptly upward into the VerdugoMountains.  They were small compared to the mountains to the east and the west and much further north, but they covered several miles and rose more than a half mile above her.

Bethany crossed the street into a small park with lots of grass and a stand of trees shading several picnic tables.  A baseball field stood in one far corner.  She wandered over to it and passed onto the rough ground which began to rise into a fold of the mountains.  The grass and shrubs would be brown in daylight.  They’d been cut back here to provide a break for the frequent summer fires of Southern California.

A sudden thought stopped Beth.  She looked down.  Until then she’d not realized she’d left the house without shoes.  Her feet should be scraped and bleeding from the spiky dead vegetation she’d been walking over.  Yet she only felt a mild roughness underfoot.

She lifted first one foot then the other and peered at them.  There was just enough light from the stars in the nearly clear sky and from the faint glow of the clouds reflecting the lights of the city behind her.  She could see her feet were untouched.

Beth turned to stare out over Burbank.  At this height her neighborhood looked like a dark nubbly carpet.  Beyond it spread the golden lights of the valley with dark hills rising beyond and spreading east and west.

She only half saw it.  Part of her was wondering what she had turned into.

Something very strong and tough.  But what good was it to her, a teenaged girl?  What unseen problems went along with the “improvements”?

She had to eat more.  So far that was the only downside.  But she still remembered those comic books of Ken’s.  Superheroes had to hide their powers else jealous and fearful people would attack them.

Bethany took a deep breath.  It was no use looking forward to problems.  They’d show up soon enough.  Meanwhile she was going to enjoy her new powers as well as hide them.

She ran downhill onto the cool grass and leaped twenty or thirty feet.  Coming down she stumbled, caught herself, and flung herself into a series of somersaults and handsprings with twists in the air.  She ended up breathing only slightly more deeply than usual at the edge of the picnic area.

Her body was warm, however, quite warm.  And she was beginning to feel an edge of hunger.

Through the trees and across the street she went, went a block westward and turned down Olive Avenue.  A block beyond at a corner was a bus stop with a concrete seat.  She sat down to wait for an early morning bus.  And discovered a new power.

As she relaxed her metabolism slowed.  Time seemed to speed up.  The low clouds raced across the sky.  And eventually the eastern sky in front of her began to lighten.

She heard the bus from several blocks away before she saw it.  She sped up her body and the high-pitched whine of the bus motor became a lower bass sound.

Then it rounded a corner to her left.  She stood up and faced it, digging a few coins out of a pocket.

The bus wheezed to a stop before her.  She mounted the steps and dropped the right change into the change bucket.  Her smile was lost on the driver as the woman closed the door behind her and started the bus rolling again.

A few people got on and off as the bus moved.  The numbers picked up till it was half full.  It passed into the downtown, turned right at the bottom of the downtown area, passed the long outdoor area then the indoor mall.

Bethany got off before it turned south to go over the freeway.  In the next block was a Frank’s Family Restaurant where she ate a big breakfast of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with orange juice.  Then she went across the street to the Pancake House and had a second breakfast of pancakes and bacon with well-creamed coffee.

Another bus trip got her home just as her mother was fixing breakfast.

“Oh, there you are, dear.  I thought you were upstairs still sleeping.  Where were you?”  Her tall red-haired mother was already made-up and well coifed but still had on her night clothes covered by a robe.

“I took an early run.  It’s really nice out.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“Just toast and juice.  I’ll get it when you sit down.”

Her mother wouldn’t hear of a child of hers just released from the hospital fixing her own food.

Mid-morning her step-father and Kendall woke and came downstairs.  Beth was sprawled on a couch in the living room and studying.  She ignored them but her brother poked his head into the room.

“You want some breakfast?  The step is fixing.”

She put the book in which she’d been immersed face down on the carpet beside the couch and uncoiled herself to follow him into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Bethany.  Omelet?”

She nodded and sat at the small dining table in kitchen and watched Nicolas work.  Born and raised in France, his father was an American diplomatic official of some kind.  Nicolas had followed in that tradition and was now City Attorney here in Burbank.  He was dark of hair and had a wiry soccer-trained body.  His movements were quick and sure without apparent hurry.  It had taken Beth months to get used to him but lately they’d achieved an ease around each other.

He quickly delivered the omelet to her, bacon and tomatoes its chief ingredients but with several other vegetables and spices, one of several versions he used and to which he knew she was partial.  Atop it was a sprig of parsley.

In another rapid dance of movement he took a large bottle of lemonade from the refrigerator, lifted a brow to see if she approved, and set it and a glass before her.  Then he fixed an omelet for himself and joined Ken and Beth at the table.  Ken was already nearly done with his and was watching her.

So was Nicolas.  When she’d finished and was pouring herself another glass of lemonade he said, “What are your plans?”

“Study a lot.  Probably walk a bit in the neighborhood.  Have dinner with Lee at her house.  ‘Bout it.”

He turned his gaze onto Kendall, lifted an eyebrow.  Her brother answered the silent question.

“Stick around here for a while, take Beth to lunch, then go into work.  I’ll be back in time to drive her to Lee’s.”

Nicolas nodded and quickly finished his food.  Beth forestalled him when he stood by nipping his plate from in front of him and taking it and her plate to the sink.  She rinsed the two of them, then Ken’s as he brought it to her, and put the three dishes into the dishwasher.

Turning away from the washer to clear off the rest of the table she found her step-father still standing by the table.

“This is the first chance I’ve really had to say this.  I missed you.  The house was too quiet.”

A last bit of cool reserve within her about this intruder into her home dissolved.  Beth rushed forward and flung her arms about him.  Warmth grew in her chest and suddenly she was a spirit or ghost inside his body.

Its shape wasn’t human shaped but much more rambling.  It was like a huge echoing sports stadium, with a wide open interior which was not open to the sky, and many smaller closed rooms, some very small.  There were pipes and wires within through which flowed fluids and power and communication.

There was something wrong with it: an odor, or taste.  Something within her spirit reflexively gave a drum roll of orders: fix this, fix that, stop this, stop that, start this, start that.

And she was back in her own body, laughing at his surprise and tentative return hug.  She broke away and grinned up at his embarrassed face.

“I’m glad to be back.  And things will be better now.”

She meant his health would be better.  But he took it to have wider meaning.

“I’m glad.  Well, erh, time for work.  See you tonight.”

He hurried from the room and Bethany turned to clear away the rest of the table.  Kendall helped with some of it but mostly just stayed out of the way.

When the table was cleared and wiped clean and the counter top and other parts of the kitchen were set to order he leaned against the counter top looking at her.

“What?”  She glanced in a decorative mirror on a nearby wall half-hidden by an ivy-like plant.  “Is there something on my face?”

“Yeah.  A little bit more maturity.  You and Helen have been selfish little bitches about Nick.”

“Have not!”  But she knew they had been.

“He makes Mom happy.  And he’s been trying with you two.  But you won’t let him.”

“She’s been happy!”

He turned and walked out of the room.  She followed him into the living room.  He sprawled full length onto the couch and she sat in an easy chair cater-corner to it.

“She was unhappy for a long time.  Not so bad you’d notice it.  She covers up pretty good.  And not so bad to break up the family.”

He shifted position to a more upright position to get a better look at her.

“It was easier for me to see, I suppose.  Being away on a tour of duty I got some emotional distance from things.  When I came back the first time I could see it.

“When I came back the last time she was going out with Nick.  And the difference was obvious.  She smiled more, was more, uhm, energetic.  And sometimes she sings or hums around the house.”

“She’s always done that.”  Or maybe not.

Beth reviewed her memories of her mother but couldn’t decide if what her brother said was true.  What WAS true that she seemed happy now.  She went to work eagerly.  Whereas she used to just do it dutifully.  That memory at least Beth could dredge up.

“OK, Smarty.  So MAYBE Nick has made her happy.  Satisfied?”

Her brother just lay there, a little smile on his face.

She knew that I know something you don’t look.  She was so not going to play his game.

She thrust her legs out and crossed them at her ankles.  Her gaze wandered about the room.  She hummed quietly to herself.

“OK!  WHAT?!”

“You and Helen have been bitches about Dad, too.”

“He walked out on us.”

“’Did she jump or was she pushed?’”

It was from an old black-and-white movie.

“So you’re saying Mom kicked him out?”

“I’m not saying either way.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to know.  But I know he’s happier, too.  And he and Mom are closer than they ever were when they were in the same house.  They’re just in love with someone else.”

So loving and being in love—OK, having sex—weren’t the same thing?

Bethany let that question slide for a later time.  Considered Kendall’s main point.  Let it slide too.

“OK.  MAYBE you’re right.  But what’s the chance that happens twice in the same day?

“But I’ll be easier on Dad from now on.  OK?  Satisfied?”

He put on a superior look, just to make her mad.

“I ought to beat you up,” she said to him.  “Ass.”

Beating him up sounded like a good idea all of a sudden.

“Hey!  You and Mike promised to teach me karate.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”  She jumped up, assumed a movie kung-fu stance, began jumping up and down, and punching an imaginary foe.

“We promised to teach you aikido.  Defense, not offense.”

“I like the idea of offense.  Especially when someone is as offensive as you.  Come on.  To the gym.  Or are you scared of a widdle girl?”

Ken rolled easily to his feet.  “Let’s go out back.  Falling on grass is easier.”

The Arts of War

The back yard was a little wider than the house and square.  High hedges separated it from the neighbors.  An old stand of a several squat oaks shaded a big chunk of it in the afternoon.  Three red-and-white-striped beach umbrellas over three round tables with built-in bench seats stood at the edge of the stand.  They also provided shade.

This still left a generous swath of open grass kept green by sprinklers in the night.  Kendall led Bethany there and turned to her.

She quit making fake kung-fu gestures and set her face to match his calm.

“Are you going to take this seriously?” he said.  “I’m not going to waste my time if not.”

She nodded, schooling her inner self to match the outer.

“There’s a very old Chinese book called the Arts of War.  It’s slim, has some flowery language and old-time Chinese cultural references.  But its main points are as true today as they were way back when.

“What’s the purpose of war?  Large or as small as two people facing each other like this?”

Suddenly memories of Maelgyreyt rose up and she seemed to see her brother as a young warrior needing training.  Like looking through a telescope the wrong way he seemed smaller and she larger.

“The purpose of war is to get something.  It can be material, as gold or farmland.  It can be immaterial, as respect or a secret or a trade agreement.  The purpose of war is not war, but peace.”

He looked at her for a long moment.

“Where did that come from?”

Erh, yeah, where indeed?  That he’d believe?

“A history book.  Some old-time general.”  Maelgyreyt.

He nodded.  “See how you do with this one: What’s the best way to win a battle?”

“Not to fight one.”  The wrong-way telescope feeling was gone.  The answer seemed obvious.  And so seemed the next sentences.  She ticked them off on the fingers of one hand.

“You can go around an army, avoiding battle.  Make them think you’re too big and fierce and well-equipped to fight.  Bribe the commanders.  And maybe some other ways.”

“Yeah.  And if you have to fight there are several ways to win against someone stronger.  Want to try answering that?”

Maybe she should not be too much of a wise ass.  “No.”

He nodded.  “You can be smarter, faster, sneakier, better trained.  And better equipped, like bringing a gun to a knife fight, as the saying goes.”

“I want to learn how to shoot a gun.”

“You have a brain like a flea.  No.”

Mael would have loved guns.  They didn’t exist when she’d fought the Mongols.  And Bethany thought she herself might enjoy learning how to shoot.  She’d bring the subject up again at a better time.

“OK.  So when do I get the chance to beat on you?”

“Almost there.  Be patient.”

“I don’t see what this war stuff has to do with two people fighting.”

“Two people is just two armies with one soldier apiece.”

“OK.”  When you’re getting what you want don’t argue about trifles.  Another one of her Smart Girls’ Proverbs for Getting Your Way.

Besides the Maelgyreyt side of her was agreeing with him.

“Now, what’s behind you?”

“Nothing.   Grass.”

“You sure?  Nothing to trip you up if you have to back up quick?  No bad guy about to pounce?”

Beth glanced behind her, a quick glance in case he tried something.

“No.”

“Good.  But you shouldn’t have to look.  Always know what’s going on around you.  One of the fundamentals of the Arts of War: intelligence.  We call it situational assessment.

“So don’t be texting or listening to ear phones when you are out and about.”

She grinned.  “So I’m prepared if terrorists attack everybody out in the mall.”

“Don’t joke about it.  Such things DO happen.  I kind of like having a baby sister.  I wouldn’t want to go to your funeral. I had a taste of that just three weeks ago.”

That sobered Bethany.  She hadn’t really thought much about what her family and friends had gone through when they heard she was dead, then in a coma.

Shame scalded her insides.  She was so self-centered.

Her nose tingled and her eyes teared up.  She might cry.  She hated crying!

Then suddenly the symptoms were gone.  Like magic.

Bethany blinked, said “OK.  I’m serious now.”

His skeptical look told her she had to do better.

“I am.  I know bad things can happen.  Like at that school last year where those two boys shot a bunch of kids and a teacher.”

“OK.  So when you’re at school, for instance, pay attention to your friends, but watch everyone else.  Look for threats, but look for everything else also.

“Now.  Some of that technique stuff you’re so impatient to get.  Stand normally and watch what I’m going to do in slow motion.”

He took a step near her and very slowly lifted his right hand, fisted, and slowly swung it at her face.  Then he froze and held his pose a moment before returning to his original position.

“Now I’m going to repeat this but follow through.  When I do, step to your left.  Notice what happens.”

She did what he said.  This time his fist passed well off to her right side and he took another step forward so that he was to her side.

Then he froze and said, “He’s just wasted energy and done nothing.  Worse, he’s wasted time, and in a fight that can get you killed.  Worst, he’s put himself in a bad position.  You could hit him, stab him, trip him.  Or this—“

He returned to his position and had her do to him what he’d just done to her, having her freeze as he’d done after he’d taken the second step.  Then, in slow motion, he swung his right arm to and curled his hand around her arm just past her elbow but did not immediately grasp her arm.

Instead he slid his cupped hand down her lower arm and when it hit her wrist grasped it.  He slowly pulled on the arm and Bethany found herself taking another step to keep from falling.

“Notice that I didn’t try to stop your motion.  I added to it.  If I’d pulled really hard you’d find yourself running several steps to catch your balance.  And in those seconds I could do all sorts of things.  Shoot you in the back.  Shoot a friend of yours.”

He went on for several minutes on how to use someone’s motion and strength against them.  Then for almost an hour they practiced several of them.  Most of them involved tripping the opponent or in capturing an arm in a painful position.

Finally he called the lesson done and they went back into the house for some water.  They drank it in the living room, he on the couch again and she in the easy chair.

 “You can see why Mike and I wanted to teach you aikido instead of karate.  Because you’re small your nerves are shorter and your reflexes faster than those who are larger.  There’s also something called the square-cube law.  It’s why fleas can jump many times their height and elephants can’t jump at all.  Reflexes and body control are your strengths.  Bigger guys are weaker in those areas.  Using your strengths against your opponents’ weaknesses is straight out of the Arts of War.”

There was no one in the world she trusted more than her big brother.  A dozen years distant in age, he’d nevertheless never disregarded her or talked down to her.  He’d been protective but not overly protective the way her parents were.

Maybe she could tell him about her dreams which weren’t dreams but memories.  A little bit about them.  Not the really weird stuff.

She spoke slowly, thinking out exactly what details to share and what not to.

“It’s funny about the Arts of War.  I’d never heard of the ideas you mentioned.  But when you talked about them, it was like an echo.  I’ve been having some weird dreams.  Weird because they seem more like memories.  And in some of them I’m this general from way back when the Mongols were invading Eastern Europe.  And she knows all about the Arts of War.  Though she doesn’t think of them under those names.  Just as elementary rules about strategy and tactics.”

“A woman general back in the Dark Ages?”

“Yeah, that’s weird, right?  Not a man.  But the dreams got me interested in history.  I always hated it because it’s just dates and places and facts.  But I got to thinking about the people who made history.

“So I began to look for women generals and leaders.  I found several.  And I found one who might be her.”

“Maybe you read about her or heard about her long ago and only just now it came out.”

“Could be.  But the dreams are so detailed and vivid.  Not like most dreams.  I now know what a battlefield looks like with dead people all cut up and practically washing green countryside in blood.”

He had sat up a bit and was looking at her with concern.

“Maybe you should talk to somebody about these dreams.”

“I’m doing that right now.  I don’t need anybody else.”

“But I’m not an expert on… on….”

“On craziness?”

She leaned forward and looked hard at him.  “I’m not going to a head doctor, Kendall.  These dreams are not screwing me up.  I know they’re just dreams—or memories.  They’re not giving me nightmares or effecting me any other way.

“Except I’m learning a little more about what life is really like.  And it’s making me more grownup.  Or making me TRY to be more grownup.

“Didn’t you have bad experiences over there?  That made you better, as bad as they were?”

“Yes.  But I still have flashbacks and wake up sweating.  Not so much anymore.  And less every day.  But when I got out I DID see someone and they helped me.”

She sat back.  “I don’t think it’s the same for me.  It’s like I already lived through the getting-over-horrible-stuff and adjusted.  Or maybe it’s because the experiences were in dreams and not right in front of me.”

She looked hard at him again.  “Don’t you tell on me.  I trust you more than even Mom and Dad.  I’d hate to have to change my mind about that.”

He sat up all the way and swung his feet over to set them onto the floor.

“I won’t.  Unless these dreams start to screw you up.  And then I will tell.  I’d rather lose your trust than lose you.”

She jumped up and came over to him.  Even her standing and him sitting they were almost eye to eye.  She held out her hand palm out.  He slapped it, an old bargain-sealing ritual.

“Now let’s eat,” she said.  “I’m hungry!”

Lunch was at a gourmet hamburger place in the middle of the outdoor mall part of Burbank’s half-mile long mall area.  She ordered two fat juicy burgers and spread them with condiments.  She came back to the table with a small salad and a large fountain drink.  Kendall did the same, looking at her food with raised eyebrows when he sat down.

“A little ambitious there, aren’t you?”

“No.”  She took a sip of her drink and a big bite of one burger.  Her jaws locked and she almost fainted at how wonderful all the half-dozen tastes were.

“Don’t make yourself sick.”

“I won’t.  Besides, like yesterday one burger is going to be a midnight snack.”

He laughed.  “Some snack!”  Then for a time both were silent as they tended to their food.

“So,” Ken said.  “Did you do your situational assessment?”

“Behind on my right,” Beth said, a bit smugly, “is a crowd of guys celebrating something.  But the only danger is they’ll stumble over me on the way to the bathroom.

“On my left are some teens from school.  A little young; I don’t recognize them.  And there’s a family with real young kids.  The one I’d worry about is the one older guy at one table by himself, hunched over and kind of brooding.  Maybe a serial killer choosing his next victim.  Or nursing a hangover!

“Not that I’d recognize a hangover,” she said over-virtuously.  “That’s something YOU’D recognize.”

Parent-teacher Talk

At 4:00 Bethany and her parents met with her teachers in a small conference room in BurbankHigh School.  They arrived early and were escorted to the nice but spare room by a secretary who asked them if they wanted something to drink.  All four adults said No, sort-of parent Miri holding up a bottled water as answer.

The parents were a bit on edge.  Beth was not.  She’d been able to turn emotions on and off since her accident.  She was sure this wasn’t always a good practice, but it was useful now.

Then the assistant principal came in, followed by Beth’s five teachers.  Her Advanced Dance and Pep Squad teacher were the same person, Rosita Quiroga, medium height and lithe and with dark chestnut hair which looked deep auburn in the sun and black inside.  It was out of her usual pony tail and framed her face with its dramatic dark eyebrows and eyes.  She hurried to Beth and opened her arms.  Beth stood and her teacher hugged her carefully.

“I was so happy to hear you are well.  Are you well?”  She stepped back and held Beth by both shoulders at arms length while she searched her face.

Bethany laughed.  “Yes.  I was doing handstands yesterday.  Nothing hurt.”

Her surgeon mother frowned at her daughter.  “You said nothing about this.  You must be careful.”

Beth sat down and said, “I was.  I warmed up with some stretching exercises and I did forward bends and then back bends.  Very slowly and cautiously.  I worked up to the handstands.”

This was a lie.  Beth had KNOWN in a deep sure way that she was in superb condition.  But even so she felt a twinge about lying to her mother.

Her Honors English teach Trevor Burnett shook her hand and welcomed her back to school.  He was a tall thin Englishman with grey hair, very erect.  He was very strict in his grading, on both little things and big things.  But he was also lavish with his praise when you deserved it.  He was very popular and his students worked hard to deserve his regard.

Her Biology teacher Eleanor Hildegarde had sent an email to Beth and her parents saying she couldn’t make the meeting.  She welcomed her back to school and said she would be happy to let Beth back in class if she passed a test that showed Bethany had indeed caught up on all her reading.

World History was short stout Rupert LaRosa.  He shook hands all around and sat down.  He seemed preoccupied and not quite here, understandable since his wife had just had a baby.  Beth could tell from lots of tiny symptoms that he was not getting enough sleep and he was worried about something.

Last of the teacher parade was math teacher Emile Hirsch.  He was muscular and quite handsome in a blond surfer way and very tough in his grading and brusque in his manner.  Bethany sometimes thought he was trying to make up for being so very good looking.

Dr. Durand, the assistant principal, was a tall thin black woman with a distant but friendly manner.  She’d gone immediately to the head of the table with only nods to Bethany and her parents.  She now called the meeting to order and everyone standing sat, Beth and her parents on one side of the table and the teachers on the other side.

The assistant principal said, “Bethany, we are so glad you’ve come out of the accident so well.  Dr. Corcoran, I presume you’ve been monitoring Bethany’s recovery.  We’ll want a signed form from you and your husband saying she is indeed fit to return to school—if in fact she is.”

Beth’s mother said, “We’ll be happy to give you that form.” She looked at her ex-husband and he nodded.  She then looked at the teachers across the table from her.

“To summarize, Bethany is physiologically sound but still needs to regain muscle mass and do some mild physical therapy to take care of that and to improve her coordination.  But mild daily effort is certainly well within her abilities.”

She placed a hand over Bethany’s nearest hand where it lay on the table and smiled at her daughter.  Her father, on her opposite side, did the same.  Beth turned her hands over and squeezed her parents’ hands, darting each of them a smile.

“Good,” said Dr. Durand.  “Now, we are here to discuss Bethany’s return to school and how we need to handle that.  Let’s go down the table and get your thoughts.  Rosita?”

Beth’s Dance and Pep Squad teacher was just to Durand’s left hand.  She said, “I’ll need to coordinate with Beth’s therapist, but I believe she can attend classes and do the academic exercises.  Naturally we’re going to be very gradual in introducing her to the physical exercises the class does.”

She turned to look to her left at Burnett.

“As far as I’m concerned Bethany has already rejoined her class.  She and I have been in communication about her reading and I’ve had her write a long essay on one subject.  She came through with her usual flying colors, I must say.”

He looked across the table at Bethany and they exchanged smiles.

History teacher LaRosa sat up from a slump.  “Just need to give her a test.  If she passes she’s back.  Don’t think there’ll be a problem there.  She’s already submitted an impressive paper electronically on women generals and war leaders in Europe and the Far East.”

“Good,” said Durand.  “I should add to that Eleanor—”  She looked at the parents.  “Her Biology teacher has said she’ll also want to give Bethany a test, a lab test, but if she passes she should be ready to resume normal classes Monday.

“Emile?”

He looked back at Durand.

“I hate to be the only nay-sayer, and naturally each teacher can make their own decision about their own courses, but for mine I don’t see how Miss Rossiter can get back up to speed on Geometry.  It’s a difficult subject for many subjects, and I’m sorry to say that includes Miss Rossiter.”

Bethany through their linked hands could feel the anger growing in her mother and father, her father hot and her mother cold and all the more effective when the woman expressed it.

But Beth was no longer just a 16-year-old girl.  She was a girl with something extra, something old and mature and very very dangerous.  Maelgyreyt and all her Arts of War were part of her now.

Beth squeezed her parents’ hands hard to break their focus on Emile Hirsch.  Then she spoke, words precisely targeted to his weaknesses personal and political.

“Mr. Hirsch is absolutely right.  I have been having trouble with Geometry.  And it’s all been my own fault.  It’s not that I’m stupid, or even stupid about math.  It’s that I’ve been—honest—lazy.  I’ve not given math a chance.”

She leaned forward and sat up straighter.  Resolution lent her words impact, and some long ago Irish bard ancestor lent her skill.

“But coming so close to dying makes you think.  About what wonderful things about life you’d miss if you had died.”

She squeezed her parents’ hands again and sent an esoteric message to their bodies through her hands, emotions of love and gratitude.  Then she leaned forward and reached far to both sides to grasp the hands of her step-father and of her father’s girlfriend Miri and repeated the secret message.

Then she sat back, though still very upright, and put her hands in her lap.  She looked at Hirsch very directly, not pleadingly but firmly.

“I’ve also had a lot of time to think about what I should change about my life and about myself.  And getting serious about my schoolwork, especially where I’ve sloughed off, is one of them.  I reviewed all of my textbooks, and especially Geometry.  There I started all over again from the beginning and worked all the examples.  And a funny thing happened.”

She let wonder enter her voice, just a touch of it, not a lot.  She didn’t want what she said to seem fake, for it wasn’t.

“I found math is beautiful.  It’s like, like…  Like clockwork, all gleaming precise gears meshing and turning.  I got so interested I finished all the reading for this semester and began on the next.

“So give me a test like all the other teachers are going to do.  I will ace it.  See if I don’t!”

The math teacher had been watching her stone-faced, though it hid his skepticism not at all to her new sensitivity to tiny body cues.  Slowly his face had revealed surprise, then interest.  Now it broke into a smile, very small but very definite.

And sharply attractive.  Bethany felt her nipples become sensitive and her “pearl” (as a bad romance novel had termed it) tingle.

Oh, no!  She was not going to become another sad statistic, teenaged girl seduced by an attractive older man!  She clamped down on her physique with the esoteric powers she’d gained by dying.

“OK,” said Hirsch, looking up and down the table at his colleagues and his boss.  “How can I resist such an eloquent plea?”

He looked back at Bethany, sternness returning.  “I’ll take you up on your offer.”  My challenge, you mean, she thought.  You damned well know you’ve been dared to fight.

Or maybe not.  She’d have to be careful about letting Mael’s interpretation of events win out over her own.  A shapechanger who lived in an era full of war wouldn’t have the same way of looking at the world as someone in a mostly peaceful country.

“Very well,” said Dr. Durand.  “How best can we schedule Beth’s various tests and return to school.  Remember that Thursday and Friday are part of the long Thanksgiving weekend.”

The meeting went on for another half hour from there, with a good deal of everyone consulting their schedules.  Durand finally decided that Monday of next week was the proper time for Bethany to begin classes again.

Party!

That night Bethany was driven by Kendall to Lihua’s home for dinner with her and her family.

As they got in his car and fastened their shoulder/seat belts she said, “I’ve GOT to get a car.  How much does one cost?”

“More than Mom and Dad can swing, what with the settlement they made on the house and things in the divorce.  And all the money they’re spending on Helen’s school.”  Helen was going to a prestigious private medical school in San Diego. She was planning a medical career like her mother but in a different field than surgery.

“I wouldn’t need a new one.  Maybe an old one, as long as it was in good shape.”

“Maybe.  Why don’t you bring it up during Thanksgiving dinner?  They’ll be all mellowed out on food and drink and having you come back from the dead.”

“Hmm.  What about a motorcycle?  And oldie but goody.”

“Are you kidding?  They’d never go for something that dangerous?  Not after your near miss.”

Beth brooded about matters on the way to Lee’s house.  Maybe she should buy a good racer’s bike.  One that could gear up really high.  Her almost-super muscles were getting stronger every day and she bet she could get up almost to highway speeds with the right machine.

  There was even a club for bike racing at school.  She should visit some of the members and get the scoop on bikes.  Maybe someone would be graduating from school or something and want to sell one cheap.

At that point they arrived at Lee’s house.  It was close to Beth’s but further up the hill in the more expensive area where her neighborhood’s gentle upslope turned sharply upward toward the VerdugoMountain peaks.

It was four stories arranged in a stair-step architecture so that the top of each story was a long balcony on which people could sit or stand and look south down the hill out over Burbank.

As they walked up the winding walkway from the street where Kendall had parked she kept glancing down at the view below.  It was spectacular just a bit after sunset, with the world all clothed in velvet cooling air and illuminated by the glowing remnants of the sunset.

Ken rang the doorbell.  She heard it chime deep within the house.

Still gazing downhill Beth said, “Funny I never thought about it.  But her folks must be really rich to own this home.”

Ken snickered.  “You don’t know?  Boy, to be a kid again and so innocent of everything outside your own little circle!”

“What—”  But then the door opened and Lihua ran out and threw her arms around Beth.

“I’m so happy you’re here!  Come in!  Come in!”

“OK, I’m leaving now,” her brother said and began to turn away.

“Oh, no, you don’t!  You’re coming in for dinner too!”

Lee released Beth and latched onto Ken’s nearest wrist and began to pull.  She was almost as small as Beth and he was easily twice her size but her determination was strong.  Two hands grasped his wrist and her white tennis shoes were snug against the nubbly green concrete surface of the walkway.  She was leaning away from him at more than a 45-degree angle.

Laughing, her moose of a brother let himself be pulled inside the house.  Beth came in after, closing the door behind her, trapping him.

Just inside a tall lovely Anglo woman, Lee’s mother Tanya, was smiling at him.  She was wearing a red-and-gold silk robe or sari which fit her well though not tightly.

“Hello, Kendall.  Please, we must insist that you stay for dinner.  We haven’t seen you in way too long.”

“Well…”

The woman was practically exuding sexual desire.  At least to Bethany’s almost-super senses.

Suddenly she was embarrassed at seeing so deeply into people.  But she had no time to steep in her feelings, for Tanya had turned and enveloped Beth in scented softness.

She stepped back and said, “Welcome!  Welcome, Bethany, thrice welcome!”

Anyone else saying something so corny would have made Beth want to laugh.  But from this woman it sounded exactly, casually, sincerely right.

Lee’s mother had been a famous movie star, immensely rich, mostly from roles where she played some sexy woman.

Beth could understand why she been successful.  The sexiness was very real and needed little acting ability to be convincing.  But she was also a good actress to be able to deliver lines like the one she’d just done so effectively.

Or maybe she was so effective because she was utterly sincere when she said them.  Beth’s super-senses could detect no hint of falseness to the words.

“Thank you, Tanya.  I feel welcome.”  Lee’s mother insisted she be called by her first name.

“Come on in and say Hello to Jonathan,” she said and pulled Beth after her.

Trailing behind Tanya, with Lee bouncing along behind her, Beth glanced back at her brother.  And snickered to herself when she saw that his gaze was following the woman’s nicely rounded bottom.  She hugged the knowledge to herself for when she could best use it to tease him.

They traveled up a half-stair of a half-dozen steps and through a short hall which opened into a big kitchen.  In it a sturdy Chinese man clad in a suit minus the suit coat was discussing something with two chefs.  Tanya left the three younger people and went to join her husband, Jonathan Wang.

Actual chefs wearing chef hats, she saw.  And began to have a nasty suspicion.

Bethany turned an accusing gaze on her friend Lee.  She looked back with wide-eyed ultra-innocence.

“What are you getting me into?”  Beth tried to add enormous menace to her voice but Lee merely turned demure.

“I just invited a few people over.  Naomi and Brigitte are joining us.”

Ken came up and lightly cuffed his sister’s shoulder.  “So, mobilizing your full fireteam, are you?”

Ken liked to liken Beth and her three closest female friends to a fireteam, a term the Marines used for its smallest fighting unit.

“Right!  And Jerry.  We couldn’t leave him out!”

“Oh, right.  Couldn’t leave out the pouf.”

Kendall actually approved of Gerard but he wasn’t always as diplomatic as he could be.  He did it to annoy his sister, she just knew he did.

She flicked her arm out and fisted his nearest shoulder, being careful not to use her extraordinary strength, something she was quickly learning to do and make automatic.

“Ow!” he said, pretending hurt and rubbing his shoulder.

“Kendall!  Good to see you again.”

Jonathan Wang had left his four-way discussion with his wife and the two chefs.  He held a hand out.

“Jon.  Likewise.”  Ken shook the hand, perfectly at ease with the head of one of the largest movie studios in the world.  Part of that was just Ken, who seemed to like everybody and had known Jonathan for almost half his life.  Part of it was that he and Miguel and their two colleagues routinely body-guarded celebrities of all kinds, especially those in the entertainment industry.  Any awe he had of the famous and powerful had long since been smoothed away.

“And here is Bethany!  We’re so happy to see you again, dear!”

He enveloped her in a hug.  She relaxed into it happily.  Ever since elementary school when she and Lee had met she’d always been made welcome by Lee’s father.  Many a time he’d bandaged one of her knees and gravely listened to her earnest explanation of some childish enthusiasm or concern.

Centuries-old Maelgyreyt recognized the diplomacy of someone who was practically a head of state.  Bethany’s super-senses saw the many tiny details that showed his warmth was genuine.

One of her hands touched one of his.  A million sub-microscopic probes analyzed his health, detected several minor problems, and automatically sent commands to his body to fix them.  All in a fraction of a second.

He released her and gathered everyone’s attention.  “Let’s eat, shall we?”

With that he and his wife ushered their guests and his daughter through a doorway and out onto a patio which overlooked Burbank and the San Fernando Valley to the south. There Tanya directed them to seats at an oval table set with places for seven.  Beth was seated at the pride of place with the best view of the winking glittering panorama which presented itself.  The sky was almost black with lingering purple and ruby sky to the west.

“Let’s not wait for late-comers, shall we?” said the magnate, picking up a folded menu which must have been printed out less than an hour before on glossy stock.

Everyone else obediently imitated him.

After a few minutes each of them began to set the menus down and speak up to place their orders to a microphone hidden in a bouquet placed in the middle of the table.  As all here had done dozens or hundreds of times before.

For the first time in a long time Bethany considered the extravagance of all this luxury, and how oblivious to it she had been or become over the years.  What a self-absorbed little girl she had been.  Who only a few weeks before she’d died had congratulated herself on how mature she’d become!

Two black and white clad waiters had begun to deliver food when Beth’s supersensitive ears hear automobiles coming up the driveway below them.  She kept silent.  Minutes later she and the others heard car doors slamming.

Lee made to rise and go meet the arrivals but her father said, “Let Donald handle it, dear.”  Lee settled but couldn’t keep herself from looking toward the door out onto the balcony.  Short minutes later Beth heard a tiny voice speaking into Jonathan’s earbug announcing the arrival of three expected guests.

Shortly Naomi and Brigitte came hurrying through the doorway, closely followed by Gerard.  The next few minutes were a flurry of greetings and hugs and hints of tears.

Soon tall thin black Naomi, almost-as-tall Swedish Brigitte, and increasingly muscular Gerard were sitting down where Tanya directed them.  From long experience they perused menus and ordered food and drink.

Conversation quickly began to swirl around the table, Tanya drawing people out and Jonathan occasionally adding a question to the mix.  The food and drink arrived in two waves for the early- and late-comers.  Conversation lapsed a bit while everyone ate with good appetite, Beth a salmon plate with a sauce she loved, especially since her extra-normal palate served up to her all sorts of subtle tastes she never could have noticed before she died and came back to life.

Then there was dessert and more conversation, every person there coaxed (if necessary, and it rarely was!) to talk a bit about what had been happening to them most recently.  Even host Jonathan served up a bit of industry gossip, to be topped by his wife with a bit of slightly salacious gossip which Bethany guessed had been carefully sanitized for the younger audience.

Two hours passed and Bethany began to hear more automobiles approaching.  She got a sinking feeling in her belly.

She began casting accusing looks at her four Bestys.  Which most definitely included Gerard.  That damned POUF would not have been left out of the conspiracy!

No one else there had her hearing but Kendall had 16 years of practice interpreting Bethany’s moods.

“What is it?” he said to her.  Everyone else ceased talking.

Beth rapidly shuffled through lies, turned to him.

“I’ve just been wondering what these four are planning for an encore.  First it was three extras for dinner.  But that doesn’t seem like enough for these schemers.”

She spoke to Lee.  “Who else did you invite?”

The small Chinese girl attempted innocence but quickly settled on nonchalance.

“Just the cheer squad….

“And the football team….

“And the basketball team….

“And a few others.”

Jonathan Wang had been slowly turning from affable to stone faced.

“Do you mean to tell me that you did this behind Bethany’s back?”

“Well…  She never would have agreed to it.”  Lee wilted, looked to Naomi, Brigitte, and Gerald.  They were equally abashed.

Jonathan glanced at his wife.  She gave a slight head-shake indicating ignorance.

Jonathan’s gaze turned inward for a few moments, then toward Bethany.

“I’m sorry, Bethany.  Tanya and I thought you knew a party was being planned in your honor.  You don’t have to attend it, of course.  We can’t cancel at this late date, but we can say you’re sick or something and you and Kendall can leave.  We can even take you and Ken out a back way.”

Bethany three weeks ago might have taken him up on the offer.  But Bethany plus Maelgyreyt was a different matter.  They would have no trouble navigating the social ocean awaiting them.

“No.  Thank you.  I’ll be fine.”

Kendall nodded but he was looking a bit—nervous?  Oh, of course.  Handsome and charming, he had no trouble meeting women of his own age or older.  But teenaged girls tended to flock around him in worshipful throngs.

She grinned suddenly.  Oh, this would give her and Helen YEARS of teasing!

“In fact,” she said quite cheerfully.  “I’m looking forward to it!”

By the time Beth arrived at the top floor of the house a couple dozen people were already there, clustered together in the large expanse of greenery at the back of the house.  This was the near edge of a large expanse punctuated by a tennis court and pool.  The area was flat, having been cut out of the hillside to the north, and surrounded by high chain link fences to the east and west.  A high hedge backed the area before it climbed abruptly uphill.

Bethany, applying her new situational assessment skills, guessed that there were more hidden defenses to intruders hoping to steal from the Wangs.

More guests were being escorted up the outside stairway from the house’s external parking lot.  The Wang’s did a good deal of partying, a lot of it attended by many leading lights in the entertainment industry.

She and Lihua had watched the arrivals of those celebrities many times from Lee’s bedroom window.  It felt a little funny being the guest of honor at such a get together.

Perhaps predictably the first arrivals were most of the cheer squad.  They flocked around her and she was engulfed in a big group hug.  There was a good deal of squealing and jumping up and down.  She forgot her sort-of grownup state as an inheritor of Maelgyreyt’s memories and did a bit of that herself.

 Then much of the football team and basketball team arrived, though not many more than those of the cheer squad.  There was a lot of overlap and some of the boys couldn’t make it or had no interest in doing so.

For the first half hour Tanya and Jonathan played hostess and host, enough to get the point across that there were adults around.  Then they retired and the party picked up energy.  There was already a dance going on at the tennis court to the music of an amateur DJ from school.  The music was turned up. Regularly a few more people showed up.

There were plenty of snacks on a long buffet table and every once in a while one of several servitors hired for the occasion replenished it.  Some one had snuck in alcohol and they spiked one of the two punch bowls.  But they were discreet about it and Beth could tell they hadn’t been able to get anything harder than wine into the party.  Still, the party got a touch more energetic and a few couples took advantage of some of the less well-lit corners to flirt and make out.

And some of the athletes began throwing a football around.

“Look at those idiots!” said Lee.  “If they’re not careful they’re going to break something!”

Beth had had the same thought herself.  And as she watched she noticed that the would-be quarterbacks were making longer throws, and more toward one side of the back of the house.  If this kept up…

Then what she’d projected could happen began to seem as if it would happen.  This next throw after the one coming up would be the dangerous one.

She began to jog, then run, then run very fast.  Then as the ball arced down toward the catcher she leaped, caught the ball, tucked, rolled into a complete somersault, straightened, and came down feet first to run a few steps to slow herself down.

Only to be almost tackled.  She heard someone pounding up behind her and, as the air of a moving body touched her, dodged to the side.  Through the space she’d vacated hurdled a body: the boy whose catch she’d blocked.

She watched as he plowed into the grass, lay stunned a moment, then sat up.  It was Steve, the blond senior she and Gerard had crushed on for a time.

Beth giggled then sobered.  “Steve, are you OK?”

He shook his head, focused on her.  “What were you thinking, doing that?  You could have been hurt.”

“What were YOU thinking, tackling me?  Anyway, I’m keeping the ball until you dummies behave yourselves.  The very next throw was going to take out a window or something.”

“I wasn’t going to actually tackle you.  Just grab the ball back.”

Then Kendall arrived, slowing from a run to a walk and to standing over Steve.

“After all my sister went through you still tried to tackle her?  I should…”  He halted, glaring down at the blond boy.  His breathing was heavy, and Beth and Steve had no doubt it was from anger and not from exertion.  Ken’s clenched fists told the two he was barely keeping himself from grabbing Steve and breaking him like a stick.

The sitting boy literally paled.  He began to stammer an apology.

Kendall turned away abruptly, gathered Bethany to him with a glance, and walked stiff-legged quickly back toward the house, his sister almost running to keep up with him.

Bethany gave Steve an apologetic glance, tossed him the ball, and ran to catch up with her brother.

Power Play

She woke out of a memory-not-a-dream, raised her head to glance at her bedside clock.  The dim green glow announced that it was about 4:00.  She closed her eyes, laid her head back down, and reviewed the memory before it could fade.

She’d again been the giant manta-ray-like creature floating high in the skies of a gas-giant planet like ringed Saturn.  Only instead of harvesting that planet’s version of aerial plankton to eat, she (or it) had been harvesting lightning with which to make things.

But she’d woken before she could make something, so Bethany didn’t know what those things were.  Darn!

She sighed, got up, dressed in jeans, sports bra, and tee-shirt.  She remembered to put on tennis shoes rather than go bare-foot the way she had the last time she’d gone running at night.

She slipped phone, keys, and a slender wallet into her jeans, ghosted down the stairs and out the front door, locking it quietly behind her.  Then she walked down the sidewalk till she was far enough away from home that the sounds of her running would not be audible to Kendall and her parents.

Running faster than a gazelle she was at the Burbank town center in just a few minutes.  She slowed to a jog at that brightly lit area and turned west on Glenoaks.  A few blocks further something caught her attention.

As she approached a building she’d seen and ignored a hundred times before she felt a tingle in her chest.  It was like a fizzy drink filling her chest, or a near-silent buzzer pressed to her skin but from the inside.

She slowed to a walk and really looked at the building.  It was two stories, windowless, and dark grey metal.  Closer still she saw a sign on its side: BURBANK WATER & POWER Electrical Distribution Station 4.

So it was really a wall around unsightly equipment, not a building at all.

As she stood there the memory of her time as a floater came back to her.  A skill she’d had in the dream/memory also came back to her.

Without thought her arms rose to point at the building and her hands turned toward something inside the wall, like leaves turning toward the sun.  She gave a command.

Every light on the street dimmed.  Inside the building an alarm began to sound, very faint but audible to her supersensitive hearing.

Startled, she gave another command.  The lights around her began to brighten until they were at their normal level.

She was conspicuous if anyone chose to look her way.  She let her arms fall to a natural position at her sides.  Natural except that her hands continued to point at the power source from which she must be pulling power.

Beth glanced around her, trying to be natural about it, not furtive.  There was no one around at near 4:30 on a Wednesday morning.

No, wait.  Several blocks to her right a red light turned green.  Two or three sets of car lights began to move her way.

She gave a third command.  The power flow shut off.  She could feel it somehow.

She turned west again and began to walk.  Two cars passed her, then a block further behind them another.  The tail lights of the vehicles receded.

Inside her there remained the power she’d sucked out of the electrical system supplying this part of Burbank.  No, not inside her.  In some pool of power an infinite distance away from her, and yet as near as her heart.

Beth turned left at the large department store as she’d done dozens of times before and left again at the next street a block south.  At the nearby Franks’s diner she ordered a large breakfast and took her tray to a table near a window onto the street.  Only a few couples and singles shared the dining area.  None of them paid her any attention.

She consumed her meal without tasting any of her food or drink, gazing out the window as if looking at the slight traffic as it passed back and forth under the bright yellow street lights.  But she was really looking at the pool of power she’d collected.

Though “look” was not really accurate.  She was “seeing” the pool with something other than eyes.  Some sense she’d always had but never known she had until she experienced it in her alien dream.  Her esoteric sense viewed the power pool as an iridescent bubble, a shifting rainbow surface overlaying a fog or cloud illuminated from within by a white light.

She thought back to her memory when she had been about to do something with the power she had collected.  What could one do with power?

You could move things likes cars and elevators.  Make light, heat, cold….  No, not cold.  That was created by fans.  They cooled by moving fan blades to push heat from warm bodies such as heaters or people’s bodies.  Air conditioners moved some fluid around inside the AC to transfer heat out of something such as a room or refrigerator.

She lifted her glass and realized it was empty.  So was her plate.  She wiped her lips with the napkin on the tray and stood up to put her scraps in the garbage bin by the door.  She could still eat more, so she walked across the street and a block eastward toward the indoor mall.  At the corner there she entered the Pancake House and bought another breakfast.  One  she didn’t taste as she sat at a table looking out the window.

Bethany finished her meal while puzzling over how one used power to create light.  There were hot lights like incandescent bulbs and cooler lights like neon lights and cool lights like liquid crystal and emergency chemical lights which came in tubes.  She didn’t know how the cool lights worked, but if she heated up something enough it would glow—or burn if it was flammable.

Done with her second breakfast, she got up and left, leaving a nice tip but not big enough to be memorable.  It might not be a good idea to become known as a wanderer at odd times.  Real superheroes should be inconspicuous.

Maybe she should start thinking about how to disguise herself.  Start with a wig?  Wear glasses?  Not sun glasses, at least not at night.  THAT would be more conspicuous than plain glasses.

Besides, it looked dorky, like someone desperate to be cool.

Though, come to think of it, why not look like a dork?  It would set her apart from her normal self.

The sky up ahead was beginning to lighten and morning breezes to pick up.  Dawn would come soon.  Time to head home.

Beth came to a covered bus stop and seated herself.  The sign above it showed that it served one of the busses which went by her house though two blocks over.

A few cars passed going both east and west.  Traffic was picking up.

One of the vehicles was a large rental truck.  It whipped up a bit of a breeze and sent a scrap of newspaper whirling up toward her face.

Reflexively she dipped one hand into her power pool and snapped the other up, arm straight out before her and pointing her finger at the scrap.  She gave a command.

A thin bright blue shaft of light blinked between her hand and the scrap.  And it puffed into smoke which was instantly whiffed away by the breeze.

Holy shit!

Bethany dropped her hands back to her sides and sat limp in her concrete seat.

This was serious.  Suppose that had been someone!

Up till now all her experiments had been upon herself and had been abilities that her subconscious well knew how to apply and apply safely.  Coming, she supposed, from the memories she was channeling from previous lives, or from her ancestors’ lives.

Though how she’d been aliens or had aliens as ancestors—that was completely mysterious.

She dipped into the pool of power with one hand, and it was not a physical hand this time, for the other two still lay limply at her sides.  The amount had not been noticeably lessened.  She’d automatically used just enough energy to zap the scrap into smoke and that hadn’t been much.

Beth looked up and down the street.  There.  Another scrap, maybe from the same piece of newspaper.  She glanced around and behind her.  No one watching her.

She tapped the energy with one (mental) hand and pointed other (real) hand at the scrap, focusing her gaze on it, and commanded it to float upward.

Nothing.  So she didn’t have disembodied hands.  That would have been useful.  You didn’t often want to vaporize the things around you.  But pushing and pulling and lifting them, that was different.

Maybe if she made a lifting and not a pointing motion with her hand?  Nope, that didn’t work either.

She waited as several autos and another van passed her by.  Then again she pointed and this time desired the scrap to go away.  Again came the blue streak, so brief an eye-blink at the wrong moment and she’d have missed it.

She glanced all around again.  Still no one watching.

But she did see a small white plastic bag further away and across the street. She tried just focusing visually on it and zapping it.  Nothing happened.  She tried several times, and finally gave up and pointed her finger at the target while wanting it to go away.

That worked.

There was nothing else around she wanted to destroy.  She’d have to take some things to some remote place some other time and experiment with zapping them.  She needed to know what she could do and how to do it.

Just in case there was an invasion from outer space.  She could be one of the brave defenders!

Yeah.  Right.

Back to School

Later that day as promised Bethany was given makeup tests. The teachers were nice enough to grade them that afternoon and evening, despite Thanksgiving being the next day and (she imagined) the teachers busy preparing for it.  Each phoned or emailed her in the evening and told her that she’d passed their test.  Her math teacher even congratulated her on her success, but added that he hoped her exemplary progress would continue.

Annoying man!

Thanksgiving was the usual busy three days with her village-sized family followed by a loafing day.  Beth spent a lot of that time with her “fireteam” at the mall and at two different Thanksgiving parties.

Monday she returned to school.  Each teacher gave her at least a perfunctory Welcome back.  By the end of the school week she was back in the groove.  But this time she was studying to the best of her abilities.

She wasn’t sure, but she thought her superhuman side was stretching those abilities.

Tuesday she ran across Steve in the hallway as she was on her way to lunch.  She stopped him.

“Steve!  I’ve been wanting to see you and apologize for my brother.”

He looked down at her.  His manner was cool but she saw signs of embarrassment.

“Oh, it’s OK.  Actually I don’t blame him.  I like that he stood up for you.”

“OK.  Well, you know my so-called death really shook him up.  And all my family.”

“I get that.  Well, thanks for saying something.  See you around.”

“Sure.  See you.”

She hurried to get to the cafeteria.  She was meeting her “fireteam” there.

Moments after entering Naomi came up behind her.

“Girl!  You can move.  I’ve been trying to catch up to you.”

Beth looked up at tall black girl.  “You should have said something.”

“With all the noise this herd was making?  I’d have had to yell.”

At that they went their separate ways to join up a bit later at the outdoor patio in the middle of the school buildings.  As usual Lihua had been ahead of the rest, her classroom being closest to the caf.  She had snared a round plastic table with an umbrella to protect their ultra-blond friend Brigitte from the sun.

Just as Beth and Naomi sat down across from Lee that last came up and joined them.  They set about arranging their food while Lee filled them in on a piece of gossip.  She was their “intel troop” as Kendall called her because she had an endless fascination with other people’s lives.

Brigitte as usual was picking at a salad.  She eyed Beth’s very full plate and the pace at which she was eating.

“Do you have a tape worm or something?  You ate like this all Thanksgiving.  I thought it was just you getting into the Thanksgiving mood.”

“It’s because I lost so much weight while I was in a coma.  I’ve got to build it back.  Doctor’s orders.”

They didn’t know just how much she’d eaten over the weekend.  Their schedules not coming together all the time, she’d been able to conceal that.

Boy.  She was getting lots of practice lying and hiding her superhuman nature.  They never mentioned that in the comics Kendall had convinced her to read.

“Say,” Naomi said.  “I have something to tell you.  I saw Beth and Steve in the hall.  They were getting awfully cozy.”

Lee squealed.  “I knew it!  He asked about you yesterday when we were crossing paths.  I’ll bet he’s been secretly in love with you and has realized how close he came to losing you.  So now he’s overcoming his shyness and going to ask you out.”

The three other girls all looked at her.  And then almost in unison sighed and shook their heads.  Lee was always “discovering” secret love lives.

But three days later Steve asked Bethany out.

Saturday at noon Bethany had her first date with Steve, lunch at the mall food center.  He was funny, friendly, and asked her a lot of questions about herself.  He even listened and was obviously interested in her answers, not just pretending to be.

“Do you know how rare that is?” said Brigitte when the four girls and Gerard got together at Naomi’s house late that Saturday afternoon.  Her parent’s were old rich and had a house which was even more extravagant than Lihua’s, though their mini-mansion was more old-California traditional with lots of fake-adobe walls and red-tile roofs.  But like Lee’s home it nestled into the first uplift of Burbank into the VerdugoMountains.

They were sitting around the outdoor pool, not the heated indoor pool.  It had been a rare cloudy day for Southern California, but the grey sky was now broken up into individual clouds.  This supplied them with spectacular orange, red, and purple clouds which piled high in the west and south.  They also had a good view out over Burbank and the eastern edge of the San Fernando valley.  Thousands of lights were beginning to twinkle like land-locked stars.

“Amen to that, home girl,” said Naomi.  A jock obsessed with basketball and a ferocious player of it, her tall sleekly muscled body and elegant Nefertiti face made her very popular with boys.  Her obsession with basketball and lack of obsession with boys also drew them like flies.

Lee shifted in her lawn chair and pulled her bikini back into position.  “I think they talk so much about themselves because of the peacock reflex.”

Gerard leaned over to pick up his glass of fruit juice from a nearby table as he said, “The what?”

“The male peacock is an extravagant example of a pattern found in many bird species.  It’s the male which has the most gorgeous plumage.  He also struts and opens his tail wide to show it off to attract the females.”

All four girls turned their heads toward Gerard at that.  He was wearing baggy flaming red swim shorts with large leaf-like orange patterns on it.  A tight purple and green sleeveless tee molded itself to his body.  His muscles were sharply sculpted, a development beginning two years ago.

“What?” he said.  “I just like bright colors.”

“Gay colors, I believe the term is,” said Brigitte, adopting the somewhat-pedantic tone Lee did when she began expounding on some intellectual topic.

Solemnly he lifted his arms and struck a sitting bodybuilder pose, turning his head, lifting his chin, and assuming a noble expression.

All four girls in a long practiced routine sighed in unison and said, “Like a Greek god!”

And all five cracked up.

© Copyright 2012

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7 Responses to Chapter 2 – Normal Life

  1. Javahead says:

    I’m wondering now – is this the same world line as the other Shape Changer books? Too little information yet to see (or I missed the subtle hints).

    So far, except for one scene in _Shapechanger’s Progress_ we haven’t seen two shapechangers interacting one-on-one. And that was a brief and hostile confrontation. But at least three of your protagonists are more-or-less contemporaries, with no obvious causes for violent conflict. If this *is* a common world line, it’s possible – even likely – that they should meet, especially since all three are associated with aspects of the entertainment industry.

  2. Laer Carroll says:

    Right. I’ve already planned Bethany to meet Mary McCarthy and her husband Roberto Rodriguez (The Immortal Warrior, a work in progress). Don’t know exactly when or how, but about the halfway point.

    So far, with Chapter 3 nearly done, it looks as if the book will be about 100,000 words. Or about the same size or a little smaller than Shapechanger’s Birth.

    A little heads up. After the sequel to Shapechanger’s Progress (Shapechanger’s Destiny) Mary casts loose from Ireland and travels all sorts of places. She ends up in Hollywood in the early 1900s and becomes a movie star.

    By Bethany’s time she’s reinvented herself two or three times. (Immortals have to do that!) She’s now reclaimed her birth name and is a famous doctor. She meets Beth’s mother (a surgeon) and thus Beth – and not by accident.

    Sorry, that’s all the details I can give now. For one thing, they are still being worked out! For another, we’d get into spoiler country if I haven’t already.

  3. Javahead says:

    Bit of a spoiler, maybe – but very welcome.

    I had been wondering when Mary and Roberto would meet again, and whether it would be friendly or a fatal conflict. It also appears that this is the same world line as the Sea Monster and Super Olympian stories – Mary and Ireland tie them all together. Though I notice you carefully avoided any mention of the other two ladies and their doings.

  4. Laer Carroll says:

    There are six billion people in the 1980s – 1990s period in which the most recent stories take place. Plus shapechangers keep their true nature secret.

    On the other hand, there’s a (rather suspect) notion that everyone is connected to everyone else through at most six degrees of separation. So it’s inevitable that some of them meet eventually. Especially when you consider they are immortal!

    And especially when you include the wild card of Ana Prince, billionaire, who first appears in The Super Olympian. She’s something much stranger than a shapechanger.

  5. Javahead says:

    I’d already made that connection to your “Confederation Tales” world: _Catching Ultrawoman_ for certain, though I was unsure of the exact connections with “Anna Prince” there with “Helanya” or “Gwyneth” in the other stories.

    Are you planning on any _Conferation Tales_ novels or a more extensive set of stories?

  6. Laer Carroll says:

    The ConFed Tales are planned but on hold till I finish this YA book and Mary McCarthy book 3, Shapechanger’s Destiny. Which will have a duel between Mary in a gasoline-powered biplane and a steam-powered dirigible, I should add. Then I send out a billion queries to agents looking for representation.

    Then I MAY develop ConFed Tales, which will have a space opera off-Earth slant. But I also have three other series in various stages of planning. Can’t predict what will happen then.

  7. Pingback: Second chapter of The Once-Dead Girl now available | Shapechanger Tales

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