Katalin and Gilbert’s "Good nights" were noncommittal, almost formal.
That night Gilbert kept seeing the wrecked red car in his dreams. And remembering her neutral comment: "I don’t care" when he’d wondered if Aidan Anders had died in the crash.
Sunday morning he slept very late and came downstairs to a brunch his father heated up. His parents asked if he was sick, and he said No. They asked if something had upset him. He said No again.
Giving up they left him to himself.
He called a few of his almost-friends and they cruised a mall central to them all, ate a late lunch, and saw a movie. At home later he ate dinner with his family, pretending to have had a mildly good time at Duke Grainger’s game night. He retired early with an action-adventure detective story.
His night was less restless.
Monday his parents left for work and Gil rattled around the house. He read another book, this one a historical with lots of war and familial double-dealing. He watched a few episodes of a favorite comedy show he’d seen several times.
After an hour and a half he realized that he’d stood all through the several episodes. And he’d been mindlessly practicing some of the more stationary exercises he’d learned from Katalin.
Apparently he was not done with her after all.
At 3:00, the usual time, he rang the doorbell at the house next door. Katalin answered the door and led the way to the lawn at the back of the house. On the way he detoured into the bathroom and donned his martial-arts workout uniform.
During his hour she acted as if there was no coolness between them. He pretended the same.
Done she bade him sit. They took up glasses of chilled water.
"Talk," she said.
He told her about his reaction to her coldness toward Anders and about his dreams about the red car.
She nodded slightly throughout his speech. Then she answered him.
"I have some things to tell you. But only if you can keep the secret between me, you, and my parents."
"I promise. Unless it’s information about a danger to my family."
She got up and walked back and forth a few times in front of him and the lawn chairs.
"There are many universes, each as near to us as our hearts and further than the farthest galaxy."
"I know the theory. A lot of sci-fi is about parallel universes. There was even a TV show about them when I was a kid."
"Well, it’s true. And I can walk between them."
He stared at her. She didn’t sound crazy. But then what did a crazy person act like? He only had a few horror and detective movies to give him guidance.
She came and sat down, looking out over the back yard, the covered electric grill, the lawn chairs, the picnic table on its round slab of concrete.
"That was how I could sneak up on Anders and his side kicks. I stepped into the world next door. Later I came out and crouched behind a bush or a shack or in the creek bed until I was sure they couldn’t see me."
Gil thought back to the surprise of the experienced gamesters at Duke Grainger’s home at how well she had hidden.
"Can you show me?"
"Not here. I don’t want anyone to accidentally see me appear and re-appear. Besides, the walls between the worlds are stronger here. I might not even be able to do it. Unless I strained so hard I gave myself an aneurism."
"So can we go someplace where…the walls are weaker?"
"It’s harder in built-up places. Usually. But not always. Are there wild places we can drive to in just a half hour or so?"
"Sure. Dozens. Hundreds, even. Up in the foothills. Off biking and hiking trails."
"Very well. I’ll demonstrate. Tomorrow afternoon?"
"Maybe late in the morning. It will be cooler then."
Katalin took a deep breath and let it out.
"There’s more to tell. But let’s wait. Matters will be easier if we stick to routine."
He was silent for a few moments. Funny that he believed her instead of thinking she was nuts. Then he stood, saying "Wow. This is a lot to take in. I’ll be here at 10:00. OK?"
Katalin answered her door Tuesday dressed in jeans, boots, a tee-shirt, and a leather jacket over it. Gilbert had dressed in similar fashion except that his jacket was of tough blue-jean material. They were supposed to go into wild places, after all.
Each also had a back pack with three or four water bottles and some sandwiches. In addition she had a couple of apples and he had trail mix with dried peaches and nuts in it. Great minds thought alike, obviously.
He drove to the city of Altadena which was to the north of Pasadena where Gilbert’s physicist father taught at the California Institute of Science and Technology. Though he worked more than he taught, CalTech being a research institute.
"I always feel funny," he said as he drove, "saying Dad WORKS there. His working is mostly sitting and thinking. Often he doesn’t even do it in his office. He lounges on benches under a tree, or takes long lunch hours in the caf. Sometimes he goes to a folk-rock club in downtown Old Pasadena.
"But it’s work, sure enough, despite the strange spots he does it in. He’s won the Lavalle Prize twice and they don’t give that to lazy bones."
"I sort of get that, because it’s not that different from what Mom does. Though most of her work is in a laboratory."
On their way they passed the huge Santa Anita Race Track.
"I’ve never been there," Gil said. "Nor my parents. I’ve always thought it strange that people would be so fascinated by horses and especially by gambling."
"I agree about the gambling. But I understand a little of the interest in horses."
"Don’t all girls like horses?"
"Maybe. But with me it was more because I was taught to ride almost before I started school. They wouldn’t let me ride earlier because I’d get bow legs from it."
Soon they were in northern Altadena. Beyond the residential trees around them they could see the San Gabriel Mountain Range rising up. On the highest areas was year-round snow.
"Pretty," he said. "But up-close I bet it’s pretty bare. Scary to think some people actually hike up there and sleep overnight."
A sign directed them to the park. As they drove the four-lane residential street narrowed to two lanes.
"I can feel the walls weakening," said Katalin.
"What does it feel like?"
"Imagine passing through a beaded curtain. Or a spider web. Invisible ones. Maybe a slight breeze that caresses the skin."
He tried her suggestion. And darned if he didn’t feel something. Then another something. Then another.
"Wow! It must be my imagination. But I felt it three times."
Somehow he felt her going still beside him. He glanced at her, then back at the street before them. She was staring at him.
He couldn’t spare more attention to her. For a turn was coming up, then another. This brought them to a long rectangular concrete parking area with parking slots marked with faded white paint. Not that the guidance was needed. There were only a dozen vehicles, most parked near the picnic edge of the lot. The lone exceptions were a big motor home and a sedan near an edge of the lot where trees would shade them from the sun in the afternoons.
Gilbert copied the owners of the motor home and sedan but about fifty yards away. Getting out he peered up at the branches above them. He didn’t THINK they were going to drop anything waxy onto Black Beauty. And he didn’t see any birds who might similarly attack his truck.
They shrugged on their packs and walked toward the picnic area. Near it was a small building which housed a ladies’ and a gentlemen’s restroom and a small administrative office. They took advantage of the restrooms and the water fountain. Then they veered away from the picnic area onto a packed-earth path into the trees beyond the building.
The path meandered and after a time she stopped. Listened.
"Do you hear anybody?" she said.
Gilbert listened carefully. "No."
"OK. Here goes." She vanished as if she’d never been.
Gil stared. He had believed her. But seeing it happen was a shock.
A moment later she appeared. This time she was a few feet to one side.
"I was tempted to walk behind you and surprise you. But my better self got the best of me."
"Thank God. Even this has me shocky. I must sit down." And he did, right there on the packed earth, and put his head between his legs.
She stepped forward to a few feet away, fumbled her pack around to her side, dipped a hand into it, and pulled out a bottled water. Uncapping it, she handed it to him. He took a sip, then a deeper drink.
"Thanks." He handed it back. "That helped."
After a minute while she stood over him he began to feel better, until his full strength returned. He stood up.
"Do it again," he said.
Katalin disappeared, a mischievous look on her face. Guessing what she was going to do he turned around. Sure enough she popped into existence where his back had been.
"Aww," she said. "You guessed."
He grinned at her. "Well, you telegraphed it."
"Yeah. Now let’s both do it. Hold my hand."
He took her hand. And the world shifted around him like a slide show picture change without a transition. The land was shaped the same. The cloudless blue sky was the same. But there was no path and the trees were thicker.
"We’re really in another world," he said.
She took her hand from his. "Yeah. I could leave you here if I wanted to be mean."
Fear struck through him. Seeing his expression she grabbed his hand so tightly it was almost painful.
"I would never do that. I swear! I swear it to my Shield. Only my death could make me leave you behind."
She looked so upset that he patted her arm with his free hand. "I believe you."
Then he frowned. "I felt something. Like a… I don’t know. I wonder if I could do what you did?"
"That’s very unlikely. But just to be sure take my hand. Now I’m going to jump. You close your eyes and try to feel what’s happening."
He took her advice. And for a moment he saw in a very vague way the world around him. And another world superimposed over it. This one had a path.
When he opened his eyes he saw that there was a path. They were back in his home world.
Asked, he described his sensations. Katalin got very excited.
"It still doesn’t mean you can world walk. But you have to be able to see the other worlds before you can go to them.
"Let’s do it again. Close your eyes and try to see the two worlds better."
They crossed over. She let him think about what he was seeing. Then she warned him and they crossed back.
"I see a seat up ahead. Let’s sit there and talk about this. Don’t let go of me. I don’t want you to accidentally cross over and maybe get lost."
"You could always follow me."
"Maybe not. But we’ll get to that."
Before they sat they went through the awkward process of taking off their jackets while holding hands, first one pair then the other. When they sat she had them loop an arm through the other’s. That way they still were touching but a bit more comfortable.
Asked about his experience he said, "I could see the two worlds better this time. Plus a third. But the images were kind of funny."
He described the "funniness." One of the foreign worlds had a slightly red tinge and the other had a slightly blue tinge. She began nodding.
"You’re not seeing with your eyes. And what you’re seeing is how much energy objects have."
"Infrared? Heat energy?"
"Some kind of energy, I don’t know what. I think of the red world as having less of something, and the blue one more. But other kinds too. If there were power lines above us they’d be a bit brighter than if we were just looking at them with eyes. A microwave when it goes on glows if you’re looking for it. And so on."
Then they sat eyes closed and practiced seeing the three worlds. It took a half hour or so but he could eventually reliably see all three and do so with his eyes open.
"Now let’s see if you can travel. Hold my hand and stand up."
Next: "Close your eyes. See all of the images? Good. Now, the world we’re in looks a bit brighter right? Good. Now try to, sort of, FOCUS on one of the other worlds. And let the image of this world fade."
He did so. And "walked."
Katalin grabbed him with both hands and began jumping up and down. Her motion was awkward so he instinctively clamped his arms tightly around her.
She stopped jumping. She was staring up at him.
He stared down, inches away. His gaze fixed on her lips. An urge came to kiss them.
He jerked his gaze away and stared over her shoulder.
"Wow," he said. "Imagine that. Me a world walker."
"And probably a good one to learn so quickly. Now let’s practice. You have to be able to do this without thinking, in any situation. And to keep from doing it unless you want to. World walking in your sleep could be dangerous."
"Dangerous how?" Though some ideas were beginning to come to mind.
"Suppose you go from your top-floor bedroom or a hotel room to a world where you come out in the open air."
So for about the next half-hour they practiced. Then she wanted to talk about rules. They sat on the bench near them, took out sandwiches and water, and began eating.
"There are two kinds of rules. Practical. And social. The practical are mostly common sense. Don’t jump from a high place to a world where you’d fall. Don’t try to jump into something solid; that’s not dangerous normally, it just wouldn’t work. But it’s dangerous if you’re trying to get away from something like fire or a dangerous animal and fail."
She went on through several rules. He listened carefully, asking questions when he wasn’t very sure of the rule and why it applied. This was his life and limbs he was discussing.
She’d finished her food when she’d finished the practical rules.
"Now the social ones. Some are about protecting the world-traveling secret. Our laws are pretty strict on that. The penalties are severe, mostly life imprisonment or death.
"So don’t jump where you can be seen. Or people can guess you’ve jumped. For sure don’t tell anyone about your ability."
"You told me."
"Our bond is something special. Sword and Shield are closer than family."
"I don’t get how we could be that. I said the words without thinking, not knowing what they meant. How could that be?"
"I don’t know. Maybe you were from a world-walking family before you were adopted. Anyway, let’s continue."
The social rules were more numerous than the practical ones. They included not introducing advanced technology into less advanced worlds.
"Not only is that about protecting the secret. It’s also practical. You could be accused of witchcraft and killed. Maybe after being tortured."
He shuddered. There were still parts of the world like Africa and the Middle East where accused witches were executed in some horrible way.
He listened carefully. These might be the most important lessons he ever learned.
By the time she’d finished the afternoon was half over. Several times they’d had to change the subject or say nothing while other visitors to the park walked by.
"I’ll go over this again in the days ahead. This is very important."
"You don’t have to tell me that! I’m half-scared out of my wits. And–" He grinned. "–also pretty damned psyched!"
She grinned back. "Me too. I thought I’d be all alone when we came here."
The next several days Gilbert and Katalin spent much time together. He continued his aikido training with her, now good enough to spend a big chunk of her two hours of practice sparring with her. He also did a little karate and kendo, but the aikido was the most practical, she said, so they focused on that.
The two traveled to various wilderness areas and practiced world walking. Then they began to practice in built-up areas, always ones where there were no people to see them vanish and appear, such as an abandoned factory.
"How many do you see now?" said Katalin. They were standing in an old warehouse which was destined for destruction and renovation. His truck was parked a half-mile away in a new parking structure in a new shopping mall where he hoped it was safe from roving kids and others who might vandalize it.
Gilbert no longer needed to close his eyes to the real world around him to "see" the alternate world-lines nearby. He just defocused his eyes so the world turned blurry. The weirdly-lit alternate worlds became clearer. He counted them. This meant that he "focused" on each of the alter-worlds in turn, allowing the others to blur.
"Six," he said. That meant three to each "side" of his current world-line (whatever sides meant in the dimension of travel in alter reality). To label the sides they’d hit upon red and a number, blue and a number.
"You’ve gotten really good at seeing. Now let’s travel red-2." This meant to the second world-line in the red direction.
An instant’s thought and the two of them were in a wooded area. The world-lines to the red direction were less built up.
"OK, now let’s go to blue-3." This meant three lines in the opposite, blue, direction. This passed their own line by one world-line.
"Wait. We’re blocked on that line." Gil walked a dozen feet to one side. She followed him.
"Now," he said. And they were in another world-line.
They looked around warily. The lines to blue were more built up. And the new one had people nearby, something both of them had "seen" but also had seen that the people were quite distant.
"Back home," she said. And they were.
They practiced for another half hour, then Katalin said, "I think that’s enough for today. I’m getting tired and I need a snack. I skimped on lunch."
Gilbert nodded and they began to walk the winding path around debris back toward his truck. He was a bit tired too. "Walking" across world-lines wasn’t as tiring as physically walking but it did use some energy.
More important was the need to stay mentally alert to keep from ending up in some world to which you did’nt want to go. Possibly a dangerous one. Or one where you could not "see" your way back home.
They were quiet as they walked, alert to their surroundings, for the area was not the safest-seeming place.
The parking garage was in one corner of a brand-new super-shopping area and had seemed fairly secure to Gil when they parked there. Now it seemed less so. He felt great relief when they found his truck, and found it safe.
They decided on raiding the kitchen at her home rather than stopping at a restaurant or fast-food place. As they ate their sandwiches her father came in.
"Hi, kids. How was the practice session?" Her parents knew she was a world-walker and that Gil was an apprentice.
"Fine. Gil can now see and travel to three lines away."
"Impressive. Have you talked to him about registering?"
"No. Now seems like a good time. You want to sit with us?"
"No. I’m in the middle of a knotty problem. See you later."
Gilbert raised his eyebrows at Katalin as her father walked out. She looked a bit uncomfortable.
"Here’s the situation. World-walkers from my world, the one I was born in, have to register with the government. The government my father is king of."
That government, she’d explained, was like Britain in that the royal family was largely ceremonial, though the family did have more power than in this world-line. It covered the same area as France did and a good deal more around that area. It was similar in some ways to the European Union here but with more of amonarchical form of government. They’d talked about him visiting her home, both in France where she grew up and her birth home. But so far that had only been talk.
"You are from an alternate world, to our way of thinking. So you have no legal responsibilities in my world. But–" she looked uncomfortable. "–it’s a bit dangerous not to register. If they discover you they may want to forcibly register you. Or worse."
This was beginning to sound like a nightmare. To his mind the U. S. was a pretty good society to live in despite it’s many flaws and social fissures. He was not automatically suspicious or afraid of governments. But all too many other governments were not good places to live in, and some were pretty bad. He had only her word that her country was one of the good ones. And good or not there were sometimes bad people in even humane organizations.
She leaned forward. "There are advantages to being registered. This automatically suggests you are willing to abide by our laws, even though legally you don’t have to. Laws designed to protect the world-walking secret and ordinary people who can’t world walk. And if you get lost in the world-lines, or in trouble, our walker protectors will find you and help you."
Gilbert finished his sandwich and drank more of his soft-drink. His growing body was not about to let good food go to waste. But he was no longer appreciating the tastes.
"So," he said, thinking it through. "What do I do to get registered?"
She relaxed a bit. "Travel to France. Your mother would appreciate that, you visiting her home country before she became an actress. Remember, she already mentioned something about that when we all had that first lunch together the day we moved in?
"Then we’d go to my world and register. And you could explore it a bit with me. It’s been years since I’ve been back; that was when I was a kid. I’d like that. And to show it off. It would just take a day. Two at the most."
Gil still felt unhappy. What the Hell was he getting into? But he seemed to have no choice.
"OK. So what exactly are we talking about?"
She said that her dad would come along as an adult presence but her mom had to stay home to work. They (she and her family) would pay all his expenses.
"Uh, no way. Mom and Dad would not go along with that. And it’s not like they can’t afford it. It would also seem peculiar."
She nodded and went on. She was becoming very enthusiastic. He thought he understood. She’d been taken away from her world-line to this one when she was only five and had not spent much time back there since then. This would be an adventure for her.
And maybe it would be fun for him, too. So he discussed the matter with the Szarvas’s and made a plan.
That night at dinner Gil told his parents that in six weeks Barbara Szarvas was to attend a biochemistry conference for four days in Berne, Switzerland. This was right across the eastern border of France, which gave her husband and Katalin a chance to revisit their former home in France for those four days. That way John could finish up some business it would be easier to do face-to-face. They’d be happy to take Gil with them, which would let him get a chance to experience a little bit of the country.
His mother was not enthusiastic because she wanted to be the one to introduce him to her home country. However, her husband said this was an opportunity too good to pass up and she finally agreed to the plan.
The next day Gil and Katalin had lunch in Montebello, the city where Barbara Szarvas worked. The University of California at Montebello was atop a large hill or small mountain a dozen miles to the south of their homes, on the opposite (south) side of a major east-west freeway. Folded around the western side of the hill halfway up was the huge Montebello Town Square. There was a long mall and several stand-alone shops and restaurants. Plenty of free parking surrounded it.
Gilbert parked under a large shade tree near a western entrance to the Mall and they walked inside. This was near the center of the Mall and they passed through a food court. They entered the spine hallway and turned left. A little way northward they turned left again to enter an Italian restaurant. They managed to get a seat near the exterior picture windows. From there they could overlook the tree-shrouded suburbs to the west. A bright blue sky let them see the distant spires of downtown Los Angeles.
"Tell me more about your life in France," said Gil as they received the drinks they’d ordered, iced tea. The mid-June sun was pretty hot and both of them were dry. He wished they had a pitcher of the drink.
Katalin continued the chat they’d had on the way here.
As she did so Gil watched her. She was the same girl he’d met a few weeks ago, not that different in appearance. Still more slender than his usual taste in women, a bit plain in the face. But now he saw her as a woman. He looked at her lips, wondered how they’d feel. How her flat tits would look and taste. His prick stiffened a bit.
He tore his mind away from all that and focused more on her words. Life in France was interesting, so much like his own in L.A. but with surprising little twists. Such as kids that were expected to drink wine at an early age, not swilling it but just as one more drink. Here in the states even parents who allowed that were thought awful and could be put in jail in some states.
"I look forward to touring France someday. There’s so much still to see. Mostly the little things, like the village I grew up in. I still miss it."
Gilbert nodded. "I think my mother feels the same way. She’s always wanted to show me France."
"And you’ll get to see my world. Even though it’ll be only a day or two."
She grinned. Then the food came and they were silent for a time.
"So, what are your plans for the rest of the summer?" Gil said.
"Same as usual. Study in the morning. Practice in the afternoon. Fun the rest of the time."
"What are you studying? You only mentioned it once in passing."
"Princess duties, you might say. History of my country, government, the ruling families, etiquette. Stuff like that. And I’m boning up on the subjects I’ll be taking in your high school in the Fall."
"I can maybe help a bit on that last."
"It’s your summer vacation. As I understand it, it’s to refresh yourself so you’ll be rested up for the next year."
"An hour or two with you every morning? Piece of cake. Consider it payback for the aikido lessons you’re giving me."
"Deal." She stuck out a little hand and he engulfed it one of his. They shook.
They finished their meal, took their time with dessert. They made plans to see some of the various movies which came out every summer.
He said, "Right after lunch in the middle of the week is a good time. We’d have the theaters pretty much to ourselves."
"Evenings if it’s something our parents want to see."
"Let’s see what’s coming up in the next couple of months before school starts up again." He pulled out his slate and searched the InterWeb for a list. They began to discuss the movies, occasionally bringing up more info on his slate on the more interesting-sounding titles.
They were still discussing after they’d paid and returned to his truck. She took over custody of his slate while he drove them home, looking up movies. By the time they were home they had a fairly complete list.
Then in the living room of her home they investigated TV shows they’d missed from the year just finished. She’d seen almost none of them, having been in France. He suggested several which were fun but would indirectly also give her some idea of current American social customs.
John wandered in for a break from computers, nibbling a snack. The conversation turned general.
The next two weeks roughly followed the pattern the two teens had discussed. With a couple of minor exceptions.
That Saturday both families went out together for dinner. The Friday after all six went to a movie premiere of a friend of Élodie. Katalin got to dress up in one of her expensive dresses, a long flowing purple silk fabric gown which came down to mid-ankle. It had a slit up to mid-thigh which showed her natural-tan legs. With long glossy brown curls and subtly expert make up she actually looked glamorous.
Then one evening Gilbert got an email containing an interesting invitation. It was from Duke Germain. Gil printed it out then hurried next door to show to Katalin.
She was in the kitchen with her mother doing something involving flour up to their elbows.
"Hello, dear," said Barbara. "What’s that you’re waving about?"
"My friend Duke, you remember him from the games party, Kat. He sent us an invite to his latest wrap party."
"What kind?" said Katalin.
"It’s a party they give when a movie finishes shooting all their scenes. They can be very simple, just beer and pizza at the end of the day. I’ve heard of one where they rented a hotel for an entire weekend and had blowout entertainment.
"Duke’s are big too. But simple. This time he’s having it in his ranch up in the San Fernando hills. It’ll be an all-day cook-out. Everyone brings food and drinks. Nothing stronger than wine or beer. He’s real strict about that; he had an older brother who was an alcoholic and addict. They set aside areas for kids to play. Everyone who worked on the film is invited. And their family and friends, even the grips and sparks.
"And you’re included in the invitation. Want to go?"
Katalin glanced at her mother, who nodded. It was pretty pro forma to ask, since Gil and she went to all sorts of places together. But that was Kat. Attentive to etiquette always.
"Sure. Sounds like fun. How long does it last? What should I wear."
Gil glanced at the invitation printout.
"Just wear comfortable clothing for a summer day. Maybe take a sweater in case it gets too cool later. Time? It goes from 10:00 am to midnight. What do you say to 3:00 to 9:00? We can come home early if it gets boring."
She said it sounded good and so the date was made.
That Saturday afternoon when Gilbert left his house he found Katalin waiting on the curb in her glossy white luxury car. They’d been alternating car-truck car-truck and it was her turn to drive them.
He settled into the soft butter-yellow leather seat and fastened the shoulder-and-lap belt.
"Nice," he said, looking at her outfit: black mid-thigh shorts and black armless blouse with small green and orange leaf patterns on it. He was a bit less decoratively dressed: soft new blue jeans and a sky-blue tee with a triangular recycle logo on the front.
"Thanks. You too."
The auto started up with the silence of a superbattery powered engine. A muted hum began, a sound effect only, necessary just to warn people nearby that the engine was running. The hum became louder as she glanced in her mirrors and pulled away from the curb. A GPS screen lit on the dashboard and a purple line drew itself on the colored map on the screen.
Soon they were on the freeway heading west. Gilbert had refrained from speaking much until then. Katalin found the California road signs and conventions unobvious and he didn’t want to distract her. Conversation became general, mostly back and forth as they continued a favorite pastime: comparing their earliest childhood years.
The trip ended mid-San FernandoValley. She had to get off the freeway, cross under the freeway, and drive south up into the Topanga Hills. Just at the edge of the state park Duke’s small sylvan estate stretched over several acres of pasture land which once had been a horse ranch.
She parked to one side of the sprawling ranch-style mansion where Duke had had built a large tent-covered parking lot. Signs on sticks directed them around the side of the big house. A white-railed fence enclosed a pasture dotted with several stands of trees and several temporary pavilions under which various foods and drinks were available. Three of them had outdoor grills where several kinds of meat and faux veggie-meat were being cooked.
Behind the house was a large fenced-in swimming pool overlooked by a life-guard in an orange bra and shorts. Several dozen children splashed and shrieked in it.
"This is quite elaborate," said Katalin.
"He can afford it. And he likes to entertain, between movies, that is. When he’s working this place is closed except for a skeleton staff."
The entrance to the pasture was an open gate large enough to let in a vehicle such as a truck-drawn horse trailer. Over the gate was an arched framework with a sign saying BAR-X RANCH. A man dressed as a stereotypical ranch hand sat in a lawn chair shaded by a big beach umbrella eyed them as they passed through but did not question them.
"Security, I see," murmured Katalin.
"Yes. He has a few over-enthusiastic fans desperate to meet him."
As they walked deeper into the pasture toward an especially large pavilion she eyed the surrounding waist-high fence.
"Easily penetrated. Those fences could be climbed over with little trouble. At least, to the untutored eye. I’d bet there are security cams hidden in the trees and elsewhere."
They headed for the biggest pavilion, an open-air tent. Its top was covered by a "roof" of alternating red/white panels. They saw Duke Grainger seated in a lawn chair near one side. He was holding court to a motley crowd in similar chairs facing him and standing around with snacks and drinks in their hands.
Gilbert and Katalin edged into the circle closer to Duke. He saw them and stood up and waved them over. First Gil and then Katalin approached and shook his hand.
"Glad you two could make it! Have you had anything yet?"
"No. Just got here. You seem to be doing OK."
"Yeah. Pretty much. Thanks to most of these people. They make me look good. And you two?"
They assured him they were also doing fine. He said he’d like to chat, but right now "Jason" (whoever that was) was telling a truly incredible lie that he wanted to hear out.
"I’ll catch up with you later. Go add those drink bottles to the others and snag some food."
The two wandered off, sightseeing. They got no food because it was too early, but did get iced drinks to help them survive the sunny early-July day.
They passed by a group of kids playing tag or something similar around one of the trees, most around ten years old. One of them, a smallish girl, was crying because she’d fallen and scraped a knee. Katalin immediately hurried to her and soothed her tears by examining the knee. The skin had not been scraped but was reddened.
The princess turned to Gilbert.
"This will take a little while. Why don’t you go watch that half-court basketball game? I’ll join you there."
"Sure. See you later."
In any case it was quite a bit later. He got invited into the next game by an acquaintance and lost track of time.
Duke Grainger collared Gil after a game when he was in one of the outdoor restrooms. He was swabbing his sweaty arm-pits with wet paper towels and drying them with dry paper towels.
"Hey, guy. You’re getting pretty good at b’ball. I was impressed."
"Thanks, Duke. You having fun at your own party, or are the responsibilities too much for you?"
"Having fun. I have hired staff to handle most of it. I’ve used them before. They’re a good crew."
Gilbert threw the last paper towel into a receptacle and left the trailer-house-sized restroom on wheels. Duke followed him.
"Say, Gil. Are you and Katalin, you know, a couple?"
Gil stopped. "No. Why?"
Duke looked embarrassed. "Then would you mind if I asked her out?"
Whoa! This was a surprise.
"Ah, Duke, you know she’s 17? You’re, what, 26?"
"I’m 25." He was actually shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Gilbert’s first reaction was, to his surprise, a surge of jealousy. He wanted to say, No, Leave her alone.
But he and Katalin WEREN’T dating. And he did not want to think what her reaction would be if she found he had forbidden someone to ask her out. If he tried to curtail her choices.
He said, "Ah. Hmm. Well. Sure, go ahead. But you hurt her and I’ll have to try to kick your ass."
"Thanks, Gil!" Duke punched him lightly on a bicep. "And if I did hurt her, I’d have to let you do more than try."
The man turned away from Gil and hurried away.
Gilbert stood there for long moments. His stomach felt as if it were sinking.
He looked around, located Katalin. She was with some teens a few years younger than the two of them. They were engaged in some kind of game. She seemed to be refereeing. Duke had gone to stand on the sidelines and watch.
Katalin did not notice Duke. Instead she seemed to feel Gil’s gaze upon her. She turned and looked for Gilbert. Seeing him, she smiled and turned back to the game.
Gil felt lonely. But he was her Shield. If Duke made her happier– Well, then, her Shield would not stand in the way of that.
He found the tennis court and found a partner. Soon he was desperately busy trying not to get badly defeated by a short red-headed 15-year-old girl who played an expert and ferocious game.
At dinner time, announced by someone ringing a cowbell, Katalin sought him out. They ate together, sharing their experiences while apart. Gil did not mention Duke’s question for him.
On the way home Katalin said, once they were in smoothly flowing freeway traffic, "Duke asked me out. How do you feel about that?"
His words came out of a throat strained uncomfortably. He tried for a thoughtful air.
"Interesting. Hmm. Well… Two things come to mind. One: he’s 25. But two: I’ve known Duke for half my life. He’s one of the few guys I know whom I respect and like.
"Tell you what, if you would like someone’s opinion who will give you an honest answer and a smart one I’d say my mother."
"Very well. I’ll do that."
The traffic was a bit heavy at this time of night. But it was moving smoothly. Katalin released the steering wheel with the hand nearest Gilbert. She fumbled for his hand and squeezed it for long moments. Then she re-grasped the wheel and they moved through the night toward home.