The events which led Gilbert Taylor to travel to other worlds began the first day of summer vacation before his senior year in high school.
He awoke that Saturday with the scent of bacon wafting up from downstairs. He stretched his long frame luxuriously in his bed and twitched the sleeping mask off his face, needed for one of the rare times in which he could sleep late. He liked to leave his bedroom windows open to let fresh air through the screens.
Sure enough bright southern California light streamed in. He could hear somewhere in the distance a lawn mower and some dog barking.
Hunger pulled him out of bed. A few minutes in his bathroom and he was ready for the day. He pulled on jeans and a tee and socks and tennies and added his wallet and keys to his jeans. Then he sneaked downstairs.
Sneaking was part of his self-imposed agility exercises. A sudden growth spurt in the last several months had made him a stranger in his own body. He’d embarrassed himself too many times knocking over things which used to be far out of his reach. Or stumbled too many times when his longer legs went too long or fast.
He remembered too well Jeanie Smithson’s giggles that day when he’d tripped and nearly brought down an entire glass display case in the high school’s science lab. Luckily it was tethered firmly to the wall, as was most furniture in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.
Even now he felt his face grow hot. That was the day he’d vowed to retrain his body to its new ranginess.
He stopped short in the doorway to the kitchen. For the cook was not his near-gourmet cook father but his mother. His glamorous movie-star mother who was notorious for being able to burn water.
He looked despairingly at the kitchen table where his burly father lounged, a coffee cup at hand. Brandon Taylor looked back at him with a grin. He knew what his son was thinking.
“Oh, there you are, sweetie.” His dark-haired mother turned from the stove. “Do you want orange juice?”
“I’ll get it!” Gil said. He went hurriedly to the fridge. God forbid if she hadn’t yet ruined the bacon he wasn’t going to provide distraction from her task.
She turned back to the stove with a frown of concentration on her face, spatula clutched in one hand.
Gil nabbed the plastic orange juice bottle from the fridge and opened a kitchen cabinet to take out a glass, concentrating as hard as his mother to keep his movements smooth and within safe boundaries.
Safely seated at one end of the table and near his father he looked at that worthy. His grin was still in place.
Brandon Taylor said gently, “Time to put the bacon on the drainage dish, Dear.”
Élodie Laurent carefully ladled the several pieces of bacon onto the paper towel placed on a platter set ready to hand. Brandon rose to take it from the table next to the stove.
“Now the eggs into the skillet.” He waved at a bowl of several eggs broken and swirled to combine the yellows and whites. “Gently. Else you may spatter grease on yourself.”
He towered over his wife of middling height, eyes watchful but his muscular body apparently at ease.
Élodie twinkled at him, fully aware of his tension and enjoying herself immensely. She turned to her task and deftly managed to get the whipped egg batter into the skillet without mishap, ballet- and martial-arts-trained body moving with all the grace of her action-adventure starring roles.
Gil watched them as he sipped his juice. His father had been a big man in college football, a fullback with national prospects who’d forgone that possibility for arcane physics. Even now his every motion was precise and unhurried as the returned to the table and began to press the bacon drier with a paper towel.
Gil wondered if he would ever realize his own athletic potential. With two such physical specimens as examples surely he’d SOMEDAY be more than an over-tall klutz! It had worked for his older sister, now halfway through college and a budding modern dancer. But then she was their natural child while he was adopted.
Halfway through the aftermath of a disaster-less breakfast, while Brandon was washing dishes and Gil drying them, his mother rose from her hot chocolate and rushed to the living room. No doubt peering out a side window she called out, “They’re here!”
Gil only then remembered that a family was moving in to the house next door. And that he’d been dragooned by his parents into helping the neighbors move in.
He groaned and his father grinned at him. “Had other plans, did you?”
“Yeah. I planned to do nothing. Then lots more nothing. And then more nothing.”
“Well, buck up. El tells me they have a gorgeous daughter.”
As if that was going to do Gil any good. Beautiful women scared him to death. Or at least to silence.
A blue vintage Jaguar sedan was in the driveway of the house next door. Gil could see it from his bathroom window as he finished brushing his teeth. Even as he racked his toothbrush he could see three people getting out of it. Behind the car he also saw a big yellow moving van turn into the driveway.
He hurried downstairs to meet up with his mother and father as they waited at the front door for him. They were both dressed as casually as he was, his mother with only the tiniest amount of makeup. She was playing the friendly neighbor and trying to look ordinary.
Uselessly, Gil thought. She was a silk purse trying to look like a sow’s ear. He fervently hoped the neighbor woman would be quite pretty. Otherwise she’d be outshone and maybe resent it, he knew enough about women to know that.
“Hey, John. And Barbara.” His father advanced on the three people who came out their house’s front door to meet their neighbors. He shook their hands.
Thankfully Barbara Szarvas was pretty, if a bit sturdy. In fact, Gil thought she looked a bit like an elfin princess, with her slightly slanted eyes. John was a blond like his wife, a man of medium build, perhaps a bit portly. He was tall, though not as tall as Gil’s father, who stood several inches over six feet.
“And this must be Katalin,” Élodie said, pronouncing it kot-ah-leen. She stepped forward and shook hands with a slight girl of about Gil’s age with long dark curly hair and a skin which looked tan but seemed her natural skin color. She had come out of the house after her parents.
Thankfully she was a bit plain, though Gil thought she might look pretty if she wore makeup and dressed nicely. Instead she was wearing jeans and a tee like himself.
She smiled and shook hands with Gil’s mother. She seemed not at all intimidated by meeting a famous movie star. Maybe she didn’t recognize her.
“Hello, Mrs. Laurent. Are you between films?” Well, strike that. She knew who Gil’s mother was.
“It’s MS Laurent, Katalin. Or Élodie if you don’t mind.”
The girl smiled. And she became almost pretty when she did.
“Then I’ll call you that. And this must be Gilbert.”
The girl advanced to put a hand out to Gil. Cheeky, self-assured little thing. He kind of liked that.
“Everyone calls me Gil,” he said as he shook her hand, smiling, at ease. Thank God!
Introductions out of the way, the moving-in began. The hired movers did most of the heavy work, taking in boxes and other items which were marked with big black magic marker to the appropriate rooms. John Szarvas intervened with a few items, such as the home entertainment components and the computer equipment, of which there was quite a lot. He didn’t make a big deal out of over-riding the movers but simply assumed they’d defer to him. And they did, apparently without resentment.
Maybe three hours was all it took. Then Brandon suggested they all get freshened up and eat at his house, a welcome-to-the-neighborhood lunch. The Szarvas’s made a token protest, but Élodie over-rode them.
So it was that at a bit before noon all six sat down at the Taylor-Laurent table for a large lunch. In honor of the guests (French of Hungarian ancestry) it was most mostly Hungarian cuisine, cooked by Brandon. But the wines were Californian.
Élodie apologized for the last but the neighbors insisted it was quite all right. They would have their host and hostess over for dinner “as soon as we’re settled in” and that they could have Hungarian wines then. And taste how they measured up to the American.
Conversation while dining and in the relaxed half-hour afterward in the living room went well. Barbara Szarvas was a molecular biologist who’d be teaching at UC Montebello about a dozen miles away. Gil’s physicist father Brandon did physics at CalTech about the same distance in the opposite direction. They had plenty of academic oddities to chuckle over.
John Szarvas did some kind of software development, mostly at home, a lot of it involving 3D computer graphics. Élodie understood some of that, since in her action-adventure movies a lot of it was done with CGI.
And Gil and Katalin were both into athletics, he basketball and she soccer.
Barbara said, “She’s also into martial arts. What are they, dear?”
“Sword fighting and hand-to-hand. I was terribly klutzy as a child and one of my uncles thought the training would help. And I got interested after a while.”
At a lull a bit later John said, “Well, back to the fray. We appreciate your help, but we don’t want to take up your afternoon.”
He stood, as did everyone else. Élodie said, “Nonsense. Brandon and I are looking forward to it. But why don’t we let Gil show Katalin around for the rest of the afternoon?”
The two teens looked at each other. She said, “I’d like that. If Gil doesn’t have plans.”
Gil grinned at her. “Are you kidding? It’s vacation. All I have planned is lots of nothing!”
“Then let me get freshened up and I’ll meet you out front.”
“At the garage would be better.”
A quick tooth-brushing and a change out of his holey old tennies was all the freshening up Gil had to do. He was in a hurry to get to the family garage and clean out his truck before Katalin saw it. He was running a rag over a dusty spot when she came into the building.
He looked up. The only change in her he could see was a stick on her back held in place by a strap slung from neck to opposite armpit. He ignored this eccentricity in his eagerness to show off his truck.
“Wow! Nice,” she said.
Gil thought so. He and his dad had almost completely rebuilt the old mini-pickup, except for some specialist work. Then they’d had a body shop fix all the dings and repaint it. Gil had spent days re-doing the wax with several coats of a special wax that was supposed to be hardy as well as good-looking. The mini-pickup gleamed a deep black. He hadn’t had the chassis lowered but his truck looked as if it was crouched and ready to spring anyway.
She did his baby proper homage, walking completely around it, trailing a hand over the paint. Then she asked for him to pop the engine compartment.
Everything inside was black except for a few metal parts which gleamed of chrome.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s away!”
She snickered. “Let’s away?”
He slammed the hood, ran around to the passenger-side door, opened it ceremoniously, and made a grand gesture for her to enter. She ran to get inside. He lent a hand to help her step up onto the running board. She unslung the stick and propped it between her seat and the car door where it lay at an angle beside her leg. She did it so smoothly that the motion was obviously long and well-practiced.
Gil hurried around in front and swung into the driver’s side, adjusted his seat and shoulder belt, and put the key in the ignition. He didn’t turn it. Instead he half-turned to her.
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to say that since I heard it a movie when I was just a little kid.”
“Well, then,” she said and abruptly pointed back over her shoulder behind them toward the street. “Let’s away!”
The engine purred to life and he carefully backed out of the garage, triggered the remote to close the garage door, and backed into the street, being extra careful to ensure no one or no vehicle was near. It wouldn’t do to have an accident at the very beginning of his showing her around town!
It was only a few blocks to the exit of the gated community where he had to trigger the gate to get out. On the four-lane street beyond he sped up. He relaxed once they were smoothly in the flow. Not that two or three other cars was much of a flow.
“What’s with the stick?” Gilbert said.
“Oh, you noticed it? Most everyone ignores it. I once fantasized that it had a ‘Don’t look at me!’ spell on it. Of course, it’s really because they’re too polite to make a silly girl feel bad about lugging it everywhere.”
“Unlike a certain new acquaintance!”
She grinned. “Yes, unlike him.
“It’s a family tradition. I’m supposed to be a princess and I must carry this magical weapon with me everywhere I go. The story has it that long ago the princess got angry with having a squad of soldiers follow her around. She held her breath until the king and queen had a wizard craft it to protect her.”
“So John and Barbara are royals?”
“No, they’re my foster parents. I think of them as my real parents. I haven’t seen my biological parents for so long that they are strangers to me.”
“Isn’t that tough?”
“No. I’ve been with John and Barbara since I was very little. To me they ARE my real parents.
“Ah, would you please not tell anyone about me being a princess? People would tease me about it.”
“Sure. It’ll be our secret.”
“Thank you, Gilbert. You honor me with your friendship.”
She sounded very solemn and grown up when she said it. He glanced at her. She was looking at him with a serious expression.
He looked back at the street. He swallowed and his eyes threatened to sting at the easy declaration of friendship.
Why had he not made a single close friend in all his three years of high school? Oh, he had sort-of friends. He even hung out with them at their homes and went to the mall or such some time. But none of them were very close.
To lighten the mood he said grandly, “Then I am your loyal liege, Your Highness!”
“Oh, please no. That would mean you spent time with me not because you wanted to but because it was your duty.”
He glanced at her. She was serious.
“OK. So I’ll be your sidekick. You be Sword and I’ll be Shield.”
There was smile in her voice. “Another saying from a movie?”
“You see right through me!”
Strangely, though, the words had come to him from some completely mysterious process.
“I love our little town,” Gil said several minutes later. “It’s a state historical site and gets a small but steady bunch of tourists all year around, but especially in summer. I like to pretend we’re a century or two back.”
Alta Vista San Onofrio, he told her as he drove up and then down the main street (all of ten blocks long), was originally a monastery which later had added a convent. Both were long gone but the two buildings remained, outwardly antique but much changed beneath the surface, with modern plumbing, power, and a fiber optic backbone.
He drove all around the two buildings in his truck, showing her the entrance to city hall and the court house and the main public library. Then he drove north up the street which was to the east of Main and then south down the one to the west, pointing out various landmarks. This included the big independent bookstore and the supermarket.
“They say the bookstore is in trouble and will close, but they’ve been saying that forever. It still does great business. At least from my viewpoint. I go there every two or three weekends.”
“You read a lot?”
“Oh, yeah. History, for one thing. Also sci-fi. I like some detective stories, but I’m not a big fan of it.”
“What about movies?”
“I’m a guy, so you know I like action adventure movies! But this last year I took French. I already knew quite a bit because my mother is French. I got hooked on French movies.”
“Oo, Parlez–vous français?”
“Oui, mademoiselle.” He continued in French: “Then this can be our secret language.”
In English Katalin said, “I need to practice my English. What about this. You speak French to me, I’ll speak English to you.”
He answered her in French: “Agreed. Now let me show you the park. But first, do you want something to drink?”
“It is a bit hot. Sure.”
They went through the drive-through part of a fast-food restaurant and ended up in the park at one end of Main street. It covered several acres, had two picnic areas with permanent tables and seats, a baseball court, several tennis courts, and a half-court basketball court. There was also a rectangular jogging track of clay all around the park.
The park was fairly busy but they found a few benches near a kid’s playground where some families were watching little kids play. The sun was now slanting down toward evening but they still had plenty of time before dinner.
As they stretched their legs out in front of them and sipped their drinks he said, “I’ve been talking a lot about myself. Now it’s your turn.”
“Thanks. I will. But later, OK? I’m the new one here and want to know about my new home. And you’re part of it.
“So, what’s it like to have a famous movie star for a parent?”
“I get asked that a lot. I have three answers, short, medium, and long. And variations depending on who asks. Hmm. Let’s see what fits you.”
He glanced at her, thought a moment.
“Most of the time she’s just Mom. Scolds me when I need it, praises me when I earn it, told me bedtime stories when I was a kid.
“Now that was special. She did all the voices, she’s really good at it. Can make a phone book sound fascinating. I think that’s a lot of why I like to read so much.
“She bakes a big batch of cookies every time there’s a school PTA meeting or whatever. And goes to a lot of local events. She’s pretty popular because of things like that. When the paparazzi hang out trying to get shots of her out and about the people here can get very unfriendly. We’re a small town anyway, and they think of her as one of their own.
“She’s like anyone who has a job, except that most of the time she has to get up really early for movie shoots, comes home late and exhausted. She hates to go on long shoots far away, but luckily Dad is good company. He’s always shared care for me and Elaine–“
“Elaine is my sister. She’s halfway through university now at Stanford.
“Sometimes when Mom goes to events like the Oscars or the Globes–Ah, the Golden Globes?–or to premieres she takes all of us. That’s one of the bennies of having Mom as a Mom, Elaine and I long ago got over being awed of celebrities. And sometimes we’ll watch her at work. It’s really fascinating how much goes on behind the camera. Though a lot of it is sitting around waiting for crew getting things ready for the next shot.”
He snickered. She looked at him questioningly.
“Sometimes one of the actors or the crew is a joker. If the director is tolerant enough practical jokes get played. But some directors are really intense and frown on stuff like that.”
He finished his drink and leaned over and tossed the empty container into the nearby trash can. Or tried to. It hit the side and bounced off. He got up with a disgusted look to pick it up and correct his mistake.
Katalin was trying to stifle a giggle as he strode back to the bench. He scowled fiercely at her, which only made her break into a real giggle. He sat down and crossed his arms and pretended to be mightily offended.
He surrendered to a grin. “I’m such a klutz. I used to be OK at athletics but in the last few months I put on a growth spurt and it’s ruined my coordination.”
“I tell you what. Why don’t you train with me? It worked for me. I was awful. And I really need a sparring partner.”
He looked at her thinking about it. He HAD planned some kind of training program.
“But I’m so much bigger than you.”
She grinned. “Your real worry should be me beating you at everything and hurting your male ego. I’m REALLY good.”
“My ego can stand some beating, thank you very much. So, what did you have in mind?”
“I think we should try you out with all of my disciplines and see which you like. We’ll pick one and start slow. My teachers always told me you must master the basics really well before getting into advanced stuff.”
“Show me some stuff.”
Katalin glanced all around, stood up, and began walking away. “Let’s go to some place more private.”
Passing by the trash can she did a backward over-the-shoulder shot of her empty drink container. It plunked down in the exact center of the plastic bag in the can.
She giggled and trotted away from him. He ran to catch up with her.
“Just establishing my authority as a teacher,” she said with a mock serious look.
At the far corner of the grassy area containing the sandy kid’s playground were several tall pine trees which gave a pleasant shade. She turned to face him.
“My disciplines were imported from Japan, mostly. But they were adapted quite a bit. One of them I call kendo, the sword way, even though it’s pretty non-regulation. Here is one of the canned exercises called katas. It simulates counter-attacking four attackers, one on each side of me. Move maybe ten feet away.”
He did so and turned to face her.
She stood still, her gaze toward the playground behind him but to one side. As he watched she seemed to become someone else, not in physical appearance but in some way he could not define. Someone older and–a chill went up the outsides of his legs and arms and he felt all the tiny hairs on them stand on end–much, much deadlier.
So suddenly he did not catch the moment she was moving. The stick was off the strap over her shoulder and in her hands. Somehow it had become two sticks, each as long as a sword.
She whirled in place to face an imaginary enemy behind her, bent forward, and stabbed a sword straight in front of her far forward. One man fell, pierced through the heart and dead before he was prone. Gil almost saw it.
Then she’d spun back to her first position and skated forward, one foot always ahead, one behind, feet never more than an inch above the grass, very fast. Her arms flashed out to the sides. Two more men fell dead.
She grinned at the imaginary fourth man several feet in front of her and whipped the two swords up and then down as if flinging blood from the blades. Then she was again perfectly still.
“Wow,” Gilbert said. She turned toward him, the Katalin he knew once again. She did something to the two swords and they were one stick again. A deft motion and it was again attached to the strap over her should, only six inches visible behind and to one side of her head.
She said, her tone light, “Usually by now the fourth man is running away. Or attacking very fast if he’s foolish or very good.”
“How did you make the stick two sticks?”
“It’s a trick. Did you really see two sticks? Or just imagine you did? I was moving very fast.”
Gil said nothing. He HAD seen two sticks, he really had. But he didn’t want to argue.
He shrugged and said, “I think we should save, ahh, kendo for later.”
“OK. Here’s karate, or what I call karate. This is another canned exercise, called a kata in Japan.”
This time the exercise was a little more elaborate. It involved the kind of kicking and striking Gil had seen in martial arts movies, but no cinematic jumps or acrobatics. Katalin stayed low to the grass in a pattern that took an L-shaped path over the grass.
By the time she’d finished she had an audience, mostly kids of both sexes plus a couple of twenty-something men. More were trailing them.
“Miss, that was fantastic. Are you in one of Élodie’s movies?” This was from a good-looking late-teen. Gilbert remembered him as graduating maybe a year ago.
“Oh, no. I was just showing my sparring partner here an exercise.”
The guy (Bruce something) looked at Gil with a neutral look that Gil could interpret as disgust or annoyance. He himself was feeling both, with a little touch of jealousy. He stepped up beside Katalin and extended his hand. Bruce looked surprised and shook it.
“Bruce, isn’t it? Maybe you remember me from high school. Élodie Laurent is my mother.”
Maybe attack wasn’t the best defense. But standing back and letting guys hit on his girl was definitely a bad defense.
“Oh, yeah. How’s she doing?”
Katalin cut in. “Thanks, Bruce. But we’ve got to go. We’re expected at home.”
She smiled and waved at the people further away, took Gil’s hand, and led him away. As soon as they turned a corner he released it.
If Katalin felt any discomfort at the situation they’d just left she didn’t show it. Instead she said, “Sorry. I should have realized that here in America people are more open to approaching strangers.”
“No need to apologize. So what’s on for tonight and tomorrow?”
He beeped his truck doors unlocked and handed her into the vehicle. He peeked at the stick that she propped beside her seat. It looked just like any straight polished stick. There was with no sign of a split down the middle.
“Lots of settling in. But just before dinner tomorrow we could continue what we just started. I haven’t shown you the third discipline. It’s a version of aikido, which is supposed to be a better Judo. It’s a so-called soft martial art. But don’t let the term fool you. It can be very practical.”
“OK. You can count on me.”
“What about you?”
“Tonight we’re supposed to go to a party put on by some producer. Mom’s going to go all glamorous and network. Emphasis on the ‘work’ according to her. All those glamorous events you see in blogs and on TV? Lots of people yakking about projects and trying to get support for them.”
“Can’t you and your dad stay home?”
“HE has fun. Gets to play to play distinguished physicist and flirt with show-biz wives. He looks pretty good in a suit. I hope someday I will too.” He made a face.
“But I’ll just mope around the edges and avoid people who want to get to Mom through me.”
He was quiet for a moment as he triggered the entry code to their gated community. Inside he said more as he drove the last few blocks.
“It’s the smaller events that are really fun. If you don’t call attention to yourself they forget you’re there and don’t try to talk down so the kiddie won’t feel left out. Some movie people are really smart and funny and really thoughtful.”
“Well, maybe this one will be fun after all.”
He drove into his home’s garage and triggered the garage door closed.
The producer’s huge home on the hills above Hollywood looked like a castle. There were spotlights on each corner of the mansion sending roving bars of light into the air. They were angled outward so they wouldn’t blind the pilots of the several air cars which often showed up at such events. The cars were still super-expensive and required helicopter driver’s licenses, so few were driven by owners. Most of them were limos.
His mother could afford an air car, of course, but only hired a limo if she really needed the speed and convenience of air travel. She let Brandon drive the German luxury car though she loved to drive normally. Tonight she wanted to keep hairdo from harm. And her dress which was something very silvery and slinky.
They were greeted inside by the usual hugs and kisses. Gilbert drew some attention, too, and was relieved when the producer’s wife told him there was a “youngster’s rec room.” He air kissed his Mom and smiled at his Dad and wended his way through the crowd, fielding occasional calls with waves and nods. On the way he saw the usual famous and powerful whom he’d long ago come to treat as just ordinary people. Because that’s what they were, he’d discovered.
Happily the recreation room was large and contained a couple dozen teenagers, most of them younger than himself. The only ones near his age were two. One was a rising young movie star, very handsome and seemingly self-assured (though Gil thought he detected an edge of uncertainty). The other was a very pretty blond girl who had become very famous and rich when very young. Stephanie Allison was lording it over a clot of younger girls who seemed to be fans.
He skirted the various groups of people standing and sitting in the several easy chairs and couches. He gave Stephanie’s an especially wide detour. He looked into the computer game room but didn’t go in. All the places were taken. Anyway, he didn’t feel interested that night.
He got a soft drink and a plate of munchies and took it to an open sliding glass door out onto a balcony. It was quite cool out there at the very top of the Hollywood Hills. There was a bit of a breeze, too, so he appreciated the sports coat he wore. The sights of Hollywood and L.A. below were spectacular. Lights shone and twinkled in the clear night air.
Some time later he heard someone approach him from behind. He paid them no obvious attention. Maybe they’d leave him alone.
No such luck. Stephanie joined him. She had a drink in one hand. He was pretty sure it was alcoholic.
“Hello, Gilbert. Catching the night air, I see.”
He tried to ignore her. It didn’t work.
“You look nice,” she said, standing very close and looking up at him.
“So do you, Stephanie.” He had half-turned toward her. And she did indeed look terrific, blond hair in a glorious curly tumble down one shoulder, her body encased in a light blue gown with a deep décolleté. He could see the tops of her breasts welling out of the dress. The cloth was sheer enough that he could also see that her nipples were hardened in the chill night air.
Normally he’d be fighting both an erection and sweaty bilious shyness. But strangely not tonight.
Instead he saw a lonely girl with a deep unhappiness. A sudden surge of pity swept over him.
“Steph, you are going get pneumonia. Here.”
He slipped off his jacket and draped it around her. She looked at him with startlement but accepted it. He slipped an arm around her and pulled her into a one-armed hug. She sighed and leaned into him.
They stood that way for some time.
“You don’t like me, do you, Gil?”
He looked down at her upturned face. The classic beauty and her full lips were kissably close. But his normal response was absent. Strange. But welcome. Normally he’d be reduced to stuttering or silence.
“Not true. At least if you mean DISLIKE you. You’re just another one of…of Mom’s crowd.”
“Shallow. Success obsessed.”
He gave her a little shake, looked around, saw a trio of long lawn chairs angled toward the view. He guided the two of them to one and managed to lie down in it and still keep his arm around her. He put his other arm around her because the chair was only wide enough for one person.
“Mom isn’t like that. I judge everyone by her, I suppose. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt.”
They were silent for a time. Then he felt a little hand creep into his lap.
He almost jumped as it grasped his crotch. But it would be like startling a deer which came close.
“You’re not hard. Are you gay?”
He laughed. The hand withdrew. He felt her gather herself to stand. He tightened his grip. He might be klutzy but he was also very strong. For a moment he thought she might make a scene. But she relaxed.
“No. And before you ask, No, I don’t have someone else.”
“You think I’m a slut.”
“No. Again, quit judging me by other people!”
There was silence for a time. He broke it.
“Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time in the shower thinking of you. And doing something about it. If that makes you feel better.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
Gil drew and let out a deep breath. How could he answer when he didn’t know what the answer was? But she was serious in her question.
“Absolutely nothing, Steph. I guess I just don’t want to be another statistic. Just another guy crazy about you who you broke up with.”
“Hmm.” She was silent for a time, then spoke again.
“Maybe it’s because you’re super-smart. Like your dad.”
“Well, Mom is super-smart, too. You know, she attended the Sorbonne until they discovered her? She speaks a dozen languages. I like to think I take after her too.”
“Maybe I should date someone like you. Or maybe you.”
Was this happening to him?
He made a joke of it. “It sounds like Stephanie Allison is asking me for a date!”
“Would that be so bad?”
“No. But can you see the headlines? ‘Super-hot starlet dates super-hero actress’s son. Super heartbreak ahead?'”
She giggled. Then he felt her hand again. It was moving…into her purse? Then into his coat pocket.
“There’s my card. Call me. I might actually go out on a date with you. If you plead very nicely.”
“There’ll be no pleading, young lady.”
“Hah! ‘You haven’t felt my full power, Ashley!'”
It was a line from one of her movies.
“Now let me up, you big oaf.”
He let her stand. She dropped his jacket onto him and left. At the door she looked back. Her smile was mysterious.
And NOW he had an erection!
In the car back home his mother apologized to Gilbert for “dragging him along” to the event. Her dress and hair not a worry now, she was driving with her usual verve and precision.
“Actually I had a good time. I talked with Stephanie Allison and Duke Germain. He’s not a bad guy once you get to know him. I think I might even hang out with him and Stephanie.”
“Are they dating?”
“Don’t think so. Maybe they did once. But now they’re just friends. Or maybe colleagues. Didn’t they do a movie together once?”
“I vaguely recollect something like that. But be careful around that girl, Gilbert. She’s trouble.”
“Oh, don’t I know it! Don’t worry, Mom. I’m not as smart as you two. But I’m no dummy. I won’t let my hormones get the best of me.”
His father turned and grinned at him. “Don’t count on it. Brains didn’t do me a bit of good when I met trouble in the person of your mother.”
That worthy said astringently, “If I didn’t need both hands on the steering wheel, you’d get SUCH a smack.”
Lying in bed Gilbert got another erection when he remembered how the session with Stephanie had ended. He took care of that quickly and cleaned up in his bathroom. Afterward he lay thinking about the girl–no way he could think about her as a grown woman. Could they actually have any kind of relationship?
Katalin must have seen him coming across the front lawn her family and his shared with only a nominal hedge for a boundary. She met him at the door before he could ring the bell. She was dressed in black loose pants with an equally loose long-sleeved white jacket over it. Her feet were bare. She stood out of the way and he entered. Then she led him through the living room and into a hallway toward the back of the house.
“How was the party last night?” she said.
“Tell you out back.”
They passed by the kitchen where Barbara Szarvas was doing something at the kitchen table with her husband. The blond woman smiled at Gil.
“Hi, Ms. Szarvas. Mr. Szarvas.”
“Barbara and John, please, Gilbert,” the woman said.
John said nothing but smiled at Gil.
As they exited into the back yard he saw that she’d prepared for the lesson. There was a table with a carafe of water and two glasses. On one of the several lawn chairs lay a set of clothes which appeared to match her outfit, which must be an aikido uniform. (Called a gi he suddenly remembered.)
“If you’ll change into the clothing we’ll begin. If you still want to do it, I mean.”
“Let’s give it a try. It might be fun.”
She grinned. “And it might not. Don’t worry. You can quit any time.”
Gilbert took the clothing back inside the house and into the small bathroom just off the hall into the house. He changed there and left his clothing folded there on the toilet water tank. He also left his socks and shoes because she’d been bare-footed.
The prickly green grass felt funny on his bare feet. It was also cooler than one might expect. He walked carefully, looking for any pebbles or whatever which might hurt his feet.
She was standing in the grass a dozen feet from the lawn chairs. The sun slanted down through the several small trees to the west, putting them partially in the shade.
He stopped a couple of feet away from her.
“Are we supposed to bow or something?”
“No. We’re just going to talk and practice a few things.
“The first thing to know about aikido and the other martial arts is that they’re not just physical disciplines. They are emotional disciplines also.
“Think of someone who wants to fight you but they lose their temper and come at you crazy mad. That can give them an edge in energy and not feeling pain but it can also make them careless. Or someone who wants to fight but not very much. Their technique may be terrific because they’re very calm and focused on that, but they’ll quit the first time they’re hurt.
“What you want is a balance between the two extremes of complete determination and calmness. I can’t teach you that but keep it in mind. In time I suspect you’ll teach it to yourself.
“I can help better with mental discipline. Let’s start there. Just stand there and focus on one thing. Like a tree behind me.”
She was silent, watching him but with a detached air.
He focused on a tree, a decorative lemon tree. Noted how it was shaped, the color of its leaves, the yellow lemons.
“Now look at a specific branch or leaf. Focus on it a minute or so.”
He picked a lemon fruit instead, noticed how it hung askew, was a bit smaller than the rest.
“Now go to the opposite extreme. Avoid focusing on anything. See what’s to the sides of that tree without focusing on it. The table and chairs. Me. The sky. The grass. The edge of the house which you can see.
“Don’t just look. Listen. See how many sounds you can hear.”
He did so. There was dog barking somewhere far away. Some kids a little closer, yelling and chasing each other, he guessed. A car passed by, seemed to park a block away. He heard the car door slam, no, two car doors.
“OK. Now pay attention to your body. Say, your feet. How the grass feels. How your breath is going in and out, your insides and if you feel hungry or not. The wind on your skin, feel it, very faint?”
After maybe a minute of that she continued. “All of this is part of developing what’s called ‘situational awareness.’ You might practice it whenever you enter a room. Even rooms you enter every day. Just sweep your gaze over the room, pay attention for a moment to the sounds and scents in it.
“Now, how are you doing so far? We can quit if this is boring.”
“No, actually, I’m getting a lot out of this. You’re a good teacher. Have you done this before?”
“No. But I’ve thought about how I might teach all this if ever called upon to do it.”
“We’re going to work on physical disciplines now. So stand there, close your eyes, and shift your weight slowly from one foot to the other and stay that way for a minute or two. Focus on how the bottom of your supporting foot feels.”
She paused for a few seconds and Gilbert followed her directions.
“Now focus on how your ankle feels.”
“Now the knee. Focus, focus.”
He did that too.
“Good. Finally, focus on your hip and how it feels.”
After a moment she said, “OK, now quickly shift your weight back and forth several times. That’s right. Good. Good. That keeps your blood flowing well.
“Now lets do the same thing with the other foot.”
They did that, then the other foot again but faster. They did this several times.
“Bored yet?” she said.
“Let’s get some water.”
They moved to the table and Katalin poured two glasses of water. Then she sat in the nearest lawn chair and Gilbert copied her.
“Now, sip the water slowly and tell me how it tastes.”
Gil looked at the glass, then did as she asked, closing his eyes as he did so.
“That’s interesting. This isn’t purified water, is it?”
“No, it’s something called Mountain Spring Water. It’s supposed to be very healthy and ‘natural.’ I don’t know if it really is. But the main point is to educate your senses.”
She was looking at him in a considering way. He wondered just what she was judging. He determined not to be found wanting.
He met her gaze, thinking about what he’d learned about her. Her gaze took on a slightly humorous air. Maybe appreciating that the judging had become a two-way street?
Still he gazed. She was not really plain. She was kind of pretty, he thought. And she seemed much older than 17 years.
He closed his eyes, took another slow drink of his water. There WAS a slightly earthy taste. And yet maybe a hint of some vegetation. Had the water–if it really had come from some mountain spring–passed through a bed into which plant leaves drooped? Then it wouldn’t be PURE spring water, would it? It would be something contaminated by vegetation.
He shrugged the thought aside and said, “Now what?”
She stood and he did too. Leaving his glass with hers on the table he followed her to their original positions.
“Now we’re going to practice skating. That’s what I call it, anyway. Put one foot in front of the other. Put your weight equally on both feet. Now put most of your weight on your back foot and slide your front foot forward, an inch or two above the ground.”
She then led him through moving the back foot forward, then the front, then the back, and so on, advancing forward for a dozen feet.
Then she led him through reversing direction, “skating” backward. Then she led him to skate to the sides.
After several minutes of this she said, “Skating isn’t the only way to move. It’s useless in rocky terrain, for instance. But it’s good physical discipline. Which you’ve said you need.”
She grinned. “Of course, you could take up ballet. That would fix that klutziness problem!”
He grinned back. “Erh, no, thanks.”
“OK, you ready for more? Something a little more directly useful?”
“Hey, you don’t have to keep asking me if I am OK with this. So far you’re doing a great job. I’ll tell you if I get bored or decide this isn’t for me.”
“Fine. But you’re my only friend in this country. I don’t want to lose you.
“Now, move very slowly and step forward to punch me.”
Gil shuffled forward, trying out his new way of moving, and threw a slow-motion punch at her belly with his right hand.
Moving just as slowly Katalin skated to his right and swung her right forearm up in an arc, spinning it around her elbow, which hardly moved. Her forearm brushed his arm aside.
“Notice that I moved away from your center. That does two things. It gets me away from you. And when I brush your arm aside your arm moves in the same direction it would naturally go, toward your inside. That takes less of my energy than if I tried to force your arm in the other direction.”
She then led him to avoid punches against right-handed and left-handed attacks, with him skating to the left and right.
“Notice another fact. When someone punches you they naturally expect to hit you. And they move their body forward to do that. When they miss they take a step or two forward to recover their balance. That moves them beside you or even behind you. That lays them open to attack.”
Then they switched roles, him being the attacker and she the defender. When he struck at her he found his forearm being captured and pulled. This moved him much further than when she just swept his arm aside.
“See how this uses your attacker’s momentum and strength against him? That’s a BIG part of aikido. It’s why it’s extra popular with women and the old and young.
“It’s also why small groups of soldiers can defeat a larger enemy. By pitting their strengths such as mobility and deception against the weaknesses of the enemy.
“Now, that’s enough for today. I’ve thrown a lot at you. We need to let it settle in. You may also want to practice some of the techniques I’ve shown you. Next time we’ll review them and I’ll show you more.”
“When’s ‘next time’?”
“Day after tomorrow? You ought to have a day for the lessons to sink in.”
“Well, see you then.”
“You’re staying out here?”
“Yeah. I still have an hour of practice to do. You know the way out.”
As Gilbert changed his clothes he wondered if she was mad at him. He’d expected her to show him out.
Passing by the kitchen Barbara Szarvas called to him. He entered that room. Her husband was not around. She was at the counter top near the stove fixing food.
“How was your practice session?”
“Fine. We’re going to have another on Tuesday.”
“Good. I’m glad Katalin has a friend in this new country. Now, we’d like you to stay for supper. If you’d like that. And your parents don’t mind.”
“I’d like that, too. But I wonder if Katalin is mad at me. She stayed out to practice some more and said I know the way out.”
Barbara laughed. “Oh, my dear, if Katalin is ever mad at you there will be no doubts! No, it’s just her way. She’s very focused on matters, very serious about her training.”
Gilbert sat at one of the chairs at the kitchen table, said “What is she training for?”
The blond woman turned toward him and leaned on the counter, drying her hands on her apron.
“What has she told you about herself?”
“That she’s a princess, but she made a joke of it. Asked me never to mention it. That you two were her foster parents, but that she thought of you as her REAL parents.”
Barbara pressed one hand to her chest, blinked a couple of times. Suppressing tears?
“Oh, my.” She swallowed. “We’ve always felt she was our own. We love her as if she is. And she’s affectionate. But she’s never told us.”
After a moment she said, “Yes, Katalin is a princess. The heir to the throne after her older brother. Her responsibilities are very real. And she takes them very seriously. That was the reason why we came to this country, so she could see a modern world and get a modern education.”
“Hmm. Well, I like her. I’ll see what I can do to help her get settled in here.”
He got up. “Thanks for telling me what the situation is. And I’ll check with my parents to see if dinner here is OK. I’m sure it will be.”
It was. It also freed up his parents to go out to visit an old friend who was passing through rather than have her come over for dinner.
An hour and a half later Gil rang the doorbell of his neighbor’s house. He’d taken a shower and shaved, something he’d not done that morning. He was dressed in tennies and jeans, but they were clean and without holes. He’d also worn a short-sleeved blue shirt with a light grey jacket over it. It was his idea of a compromise between formal and informal. He could lose the jacket if matters went the informal direction.
He’d made a good choice. John Szarvas answered the door in a similar outfit.
“Hey, Gilbert. Come on in.”
“Thanks, Mr. Szarvas.”
“Let’s go on back to the dining room. Barbara is just about ready for us.”
The dining room was spacious but not huge. It was lit by a chandelier with faux candles and discreet track lighting. In the center of the room was a table which would seat ten and had as many chairs around it. John showed him to a chair just to the right hand of the head of the table and seated himself at the head as Gil was settling in to his chair.
Gil looked around the room. There were some kinds of photos on all the walls and a couple of glass cases with dishes set on end in little presentation cradles of wood or plastic.
“I see you’ve done a lot of work in just two days.”
“Oh, yes. We still have lots to do in the less public parts of the house, but Barbara insisted that we be ready to receive visitors soon. I’ll probably have various clients visit fairly soon, so I went along with it.”
“Just what do you do, sir?”
“John, please, Gilbert.”
“If it’s OK with you, sir, I feel more comfortable with Mr. Szarvas.”
“Very well. American culture is still a bit strange to us. We hadn’t realized you might appreciate more formality.”
“Talk to my mother sometime about the transition she had from France. It’s the little details which sometimes are harder to get right.”
John Szarvas was nodding understanding. “I write software for clients. ‘Have computer, will program’ is my informal motto. It’s usually highly mathematical additions to larger programs. A lot of it has to do with simplifying or compressing very complex sets of data. This is useful in all sorts of applications, including computer graphics and business networks.”
“I understand, sort of. Of course my Dad would understand the math part.”
“He would indeed. In fact, he invented an entirely new field of math which I make full use of.”
At that they were interrupted by the arrival of Barbara Szarvas and Katalin Szarvas. They were bearing dishes on trays, Barbara’s vegetables, Katalin’s several kinds of bread.
They were both dressed comfortably but nicely in sleeveless one-piece frocks which straddled the formal and informal. Ms. Szarvas wore blue which went well with her bright hair and pale coloring, Katalin a deep red which complemented her darker skin and tumble of long black hair.
Gilbert was not surprised the older woman looked as spectacular as she did when dressed well and made up. But Katalin was a revelation. Her plain face, NOT made up apparently, seemed elegantly beautiful. The dress, though not tight, caressed her slender figure and rendered it totally feminine.
“John, would you bring the fish in? And Katalin, the drinks?” the woman said.
Gilbert stood. “What can I do?”
Barbara smiled at him. “Nothing at all, except be our guest. Our very first one, may I add.”
John smiled at Gil from the doorway to the kitchen and let Katalin pass him back into the kitchen. “WE’D feel more comfortable doing it that way, Gil.”
Gil sat, smiling back at John in appreciation of how his own phrase had been turned back on him.
Barbara meanwhile was arranging platters on the table. Then she turned and directed the two returning family members to arrange their burdens. Finally she sat opposite Gil as her husband re-took the head of the table. That left Katalin to her left hand diagonally across from Gil.
Gil looked at her. “You look especially nice.”
A smile flickered and disappeared. “Thank you, Shield. So do you.”
“You’re welcome, Sword.”
The two Szarvas adults froze, then looked at each other. It was so brief Gil could almost have imagined it. But he had not.
The adults unfolded their napkins and put them on their laps, as did Katalin. Gilbert followed suit but paused to see if they said Grace. John spoke to him.
“We have a little ceremony, Gil. You don’t have to participate, of course, except to remain silent.”
Barbara folded her hands on the table edge and spoke in a conversational manner as if to invisible friends. “Spirits above, spirits below, spirits inside, spirits outside, if you be friends, be welcome in our company.”
“Be welcome,” the other two said in unison and unclasped their hands.
John said, “One of our traditions, derived from a superstition that invisible ghosts walk everywhere, some of them ancestors and old friends who have passed on and not yet taken the final journey to wherever we go when we die.”
“Dig in,” said Barbara and everyone did.
For a few minutes there was silence as everyone filled their plates and glasses. They began to eat.
A couple of minutes later Barbara said, “How did you feel about the practice session, Gil?”
“I liked it. I plan to keep on with it if Katalin will put up with me.”
Katalin swallowed a drink of something. “He’s a very apt pupil. I think he will be extraordinary if he keeps at it as he did today.” Her tone was very matter-of-fact, not as of she was being polite but perfectly objective.
“She’s a terrific teacher. I was a little surprised,” he said.
Katalin made a face at him.
“I understand you are a molecular biologist, Ms. Szarvas, and will be teaching at UC Montebello. Just what is that?”
She swallowed a mouthful of fish. “We’ve long known that biochemistry underlies all biological activity. But digging out the details and relating the microscopic and the macroscopic is a complex and difficult process. A researcher at UCM has come up with some very advanced ways to look down at the lowest levels of detail. I’m eager to follow in his footsteps.”
“That. Plus some theory. Exciting stuff to me. Boring to everyone else. Except that there’s a possibility–a very bare possibility–that we’ll come up with some radically effective medical treatments.”
“When do you start?”
“Tomorrow morning. Oh, and that reminds me. Katalin would like to run some errands tomorrow if you’re available for chauffeur duty. You’ll get lunch out of it.”
“A teenager turning down free food, especially a giraffe like me? Not very likely!”
The conversation turned very general after that. Toward the end Barbara said, “Would you like dessert? And are you allowed to drink wine?”
“Again: growing teenager! And, yes to the wine. But only a half-glass, please.”
John stood and said, “Let me show you my computer setup while the women clear the table.”
Gil stood, hesitated, torn between the invitation and his usual duty to help clean up, then decided to follow his host’s lead.
The computer room was the size of a large bedroom, and perhaps had been. The equipment was amazing.
The focus was a long curving table which took up a corner of the room and extended halfway along each of the two walls to each side of the corner. Three large flat screens were in the center, and a huge flat screen hung above and a bit behind them. Several squat black boxes like half-size refrigerators were positioned about the room.
There were two ergonomic chairs at the focus of the inner curve of the table. Several more stood along one wall.
“Wow! This is like the console of a starship.”
“Funny you should mention that. Here. Let’s sit.”
They took the two chairs and rolled them forward so that the table’s surface was above their laps. John waved his hands in the air above the table between two whip-like wands which stood a couple of feet to each side of his hands.
The lights dimmed by about half and the four screens came to life. Various displays covered the three small screens and an image of the planet Saturn swam in space in the large screen.
“This is a simulation of a sci-fi movie scene in which a starship goes into an invisible stargate somewhere near Saturn.”
The image of Saturn expanded but moved off to the side. Up ahead a swirl of light came into existence. It expanded quickly and then opened up into a tunnel of turbulent clouds of various colors. They seemed to rush into it and the clouds passed behind them at a faster and faster rate. Then the space ahead became abruptly clear. Except for an image of two suns, one blue and one red, the large red one with a spiral of red peeling away from the sun and vanishing into the smaller bright blue star.
“That’s all I’ve done so far. This week I’ll be doing more.”
“Who is this for?”
“A movie company. All I can tell you. And please don’t talk about it, OK? I really shouldn’t have shown it to you except that it’s so neat and I’m so proud of it.”
The older man made a few passes between the wands and the screens returned to blank and the lights to normal.
Gilbert extended his hand to John to shake. “I swear I will talk to no one. Not even my parents.”
John looked at him a moment, then solemnly shook his hand. Then he stood.
“Better get back to the women. Or we will be in deep trouble!”
Events had moved into the living room. It was as “visitor ready” as the dining room. A comfortable couch in deep brown was near one wall. Those seated would normally be able to look to their left out the windows to the front, but the Venetian blinds were closed. On each end of the couch were tables with lit lamps, the shades glowing a mild yellow. Matching easy chairs bookended this arrangement, turned inward to make a U-shaped conversation nook. Against the wall opposite the couch was a large home entertainment center. A low table carried several items of food and drink.
This included a bottle of champagne with frost on its sides. John Szarvas sat on the couch and opened the champagne bottle with only a discreet pop. Katalin was settling into the easy chair opposite Gilbert so he took the matching easy chair opposite her, waiting to sit until Barbara Szarvas sat beside her husband.
John presented Gil with a champagne glass half-filled, poured a similar second glass, which Barbara Szarvas handed to Katalin. Then the adults took up full glasses and raised them. The teens imitated them.
Barbara said, “To friends absent and present!”
They drank to that and Barbara motioned toward the goodies on the table. Everyone busied themselves loading decorative paper plates with their chosen desserts or, in the case of John, flaky breads similar to croissants but square. Gil had a scoop of vanilla ice cream to offset his two deep dark chocolate fudge squares with embedded nuts.
When he was spooning up a last bit of the ice cream (more cream than ice now) Barbara asked if anyone wanted more ice cream. Receiving a negative she placed the top on the container and asked Katalin to replace it in the freezer. The teen stood up and left to do so, returning moments later.
Barbara refreshed a cup of creamed coffee and said, “I’m sure you get asked this all the time, Gil. So don’t answer if it’s annoying. But what’s it like to have a celebrity for a mother?”
“I don’t mind.” He thought a minute. He had several answers, but none of them were canned. They were just choices of what to focus on.
“It’s better to ask about two celebrities. Dad is as famous as Mom in his own way. But it’s never impacted me much. I realized later that part of it was that they both worked to make it that way.
“But also you have to realize that most of the time life for them is as ordinary as for other people. They both go to work, have a family life like birthdays and such, go to sleep and eat in and out. Mom makes an effort to fit in to our community, which is kind of small-town despite being in the midst of a big city. She goes to PTA meetings–as does Dad–and bakes cookies for bake sales. Once a month if she’s not on location she reads for little kids at the bookstore.
“She’s really terrific at it, as you might expect, and likes it as much as she likes her movie roles. She gets a lot of credit for that and so when paparazzi come snooping around a lot of people go out of their way to make it tough on them.”
He sipped his coffee and thought. They let him.
“I’m not sure if her effort to fit in is a deliberate policy or not. Maybe. As I’ve told Katalin she’s super-smart. But mostly I think it’s because she wants it that way. She grew up in a small French town and I suppose she’s still sort of a country girl at heart.”
Barbara said, “You’ve obviously thought about this a lot.”
“Yes, well, when you live with this stuff you tend to do that.”
John said, “Not necessarily. A lot of people wouldn’t. What about that cliché of being over-shadowed by over-achieving parents?”
“Never even thought about it. They’re them. I’m me. I don’t care about fame. And I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet. Who knows what I’ll be? Maybe the first starship commander, I don’t know. If–” He grinned. “–we get starships in my time.”
He noticed from the digital display on the entertainment console that it was a little after 9:00. He said, “I probably ought to get on home. I don’t want to be missing when my folks get home.”
The Szarvas family stood and he followed suit. Barbara spoke as they all escorted him to the front door.
“Normally we’d be happy to have you till 10:00 or later. But we’re all a bit tired from all the moving.”
They waved as he walked out onto the sidewalk toward the street. He waved back.
At home he brushed his teeth and changed into his night-time clothes. Then he watched a favorite old movie in the living room. It was about a small British squadron of ships who patrolled the Mediterranean sea in the 1800s and fought the Barbary pirates who preyed on British and other shipping there.
He drifted off to sleep during one ship-to-ship boarding scene where the hero rescued a kidnapped princess. She clung to him in fear.
He chuckled at that, imagining Katalin’s reaction in a similar situation. Any pirate who thought to capture or keep THAT princess would be in deep shit very soon.