Everyone came drifting back holding hands and exchanging sneaky glances at each other. Subtle as a day-glo dildo.
“If you’re all quite done…” I said in a rather surly tone, adding under my breath, “you bunch of sluts.”
“And what have you been doing while we were gone?” asked Claire.
“Discussing tactics,” I said. “Like any good leader would.”
“Really?” said Jenny. “That’s what we were doing? I’ve heard of surprise attacks, but the enemy soldiers really won’t be expecting you to—”
“Shut up,” I ordered. “Let’s go.”
We set off. The girls congregated towards the back, huddled and walking in a meandering cloud of giggles. They whispered and pointed at the boys in a way I felt wasn’t entirely complimentary.
“So…” said Maurice, “this Jester, she’s a chick, then?”
“Yes,” I answered trying to ignore the snorting going on behind us. Women are supposed to mature faster than men. I suspect it may be on a bell curve.
“She knows what you can do, but she sent you anyway,” said Maurice. “Does that mean she can see what we’re up to?” He looked up at the sky as though there might be a giant eye looking down at us.
“I don’t know. She knew a lot about me, but I don’t think she’s watching us right now.” I looked around, suddenly feeling eyes on me. I couldn’t help it.
“Time travel,” said Dudley, also staring at the sky, although that was pretty normal for him. I waited for him to continue his thought, but apparently that was all he wanted to say on the matter.
We took a break after a couple of hours of walking. Strolling would be a more accurate term for it. Every time I impatiently sped up, I’d end up alone and have to wait for them to catch up. They were all so happy and complacent; it was infuriating. I sat down and calmed myself.
“When are you going to teach me how to read minds?” asked Claire.
Since I hadn’t made much progress on the whole ‘urgency’ concept I was trying to instil in them, I decided I might as well shift gear and get Claire HD-ready. If she was able to get to grips with her ability now, it would come in very useful. There were numerous questions I wanted to ask but would no doubt encounter great resistance when it came to collecting answers.
“Okay,” I said sitting down by the side of the track. “Let’s start with something simple. I’m going to think of a number and you guess what it is.”
“It’s not going to be sixty-nine, is it?” she said raising a single, disapproving eyebrow.
Her comment took me by surprise and it must have shown on my face.
“What? Was I right? I don’t think it’s much of an ability if all I can do is guess the blindingly obvious.”
“No, you aren’t right,” I said a little testily. “You just reminded me of something that happened last time we did this. Now clear your mind and ask me to think of a number.”
It took longer than I had anticipated for Claire to get the hang of what I was trying to get her to do. It was probably as much my fault as hers. In fact it was entirely my fault since I knew what she could do and she had no idea. My teaching method of getting irritated and shouting at her didn’t help, either.
“I am,” she insisted after my umpteenth demand she focus. “It’s not easy with you yelling at me.”
“I have to yell at you,” I lied. “Yelling is part of the process.”
“It’s annoying,” she insisted. “Is annoying part of the process, too?”
“Being able to put your emotions aside and focus when you’re distracted is. If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to use your ability when things go pear-shaped. Which will be most of the time. Now, try again.”
“Give me a second.”
“No, do it now.”
“I will, just—”
“Stop badgering me! Fuck! Sometimes I’m not even sure you’re human, you’re so.... Arghh!”
I took a deep breath and stood up, wondering why I even tried to help these people. “Obviously I’m human, Claire. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to badger you. Badgering is what separates us from the animals. Apart from badgers, obviously.”
I turned and walked away having made what I felt was an incontrovertible argument.
“What does that even mean?” Claire shouted at me.
There was a French guy who said, “Hell is other people,” and he was surrounded by French people so he would know. Instead of things being easier this time, they were harder. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
The truth is that problems come from expecting people to do things the way you want them to. You can change people, but it takes a lot of effort. It’s a lot simpler to change yourself.
Be calm, be patient, let them take the time they need to figure it out for themselves… is how I should have approached it.
“I’m going to kill myself, go back to the ocean and let all you fuckers drown,” I whined. I stomped off into the longer grass and then sat down seething.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“Try it on me,” said Jenny, sitting down in front of Claire.
She sighed and shifted her attention to Jenny. “Think of a number… one… two… three. A hundred and twenty-three?” Her voice went up at the end and turned into a laugh.
“Yes!” said Jenny. “She did it!”
Everyone got excited and started jumping up and down. I watched them through the long stalks, imagining running up behind them and kicking them as hard as I could right up the jacksie.
“Do me, do me,” said Maurice. Little did he know he was opening his mind to the Spanish Inquisition.
“Forty-two?” said Claire.
Maurice nodded eagerly. Claire attempted it with Dudley and Flossie and received excited nods when she said, “Five and fourteen?”
Finally, Claire turned towards where I was sitting. “I can do it. It’s amazing.”
“Good,” I stood up like this had all been part of my teaching method. “Let’s get moving, then.”
“Wait. Let me do you.” I don’t think she wanted to gloat or show off, I think she was offering to read my mind as a way to please me. To show me that my teaching has worked, that she was a good student.
“Fine,” I said.
“Think of a number…” Her brow furrowed in concentration. She frowned and then her shoulders sagged in disappointment. “Nothing. I can’t do it.”
I could have got mad or smug or belittled her failed attempt, but I didn’t. I wasn’t annoyed anymore, I was relieved.
“What are you smiling about?” said Claire suspiciously.
“You can read all of them, but you can’t read me. That’s actually perfect.” My smile turned into a grin. “Fucking perfect.” I slapped her on the back. “Good work, Professor X.”
I set off with spring in my step. I didn’t know why she couldn’t penetrate my thoughts this time around but it was definitely to my benefit. The last thing I needed was having her know what was going on in my head. Most of the time I’d rather not know, myself.
“You’re fucking weird, you know that?” Claire called after me.
I ignored her and kept walking, not bothering to check if they were following me. No doubt they would need a second to confer and confirm that I was indeed weird, but that was okay. I felt like I had won an important victory. Like Ash giving Pikachu the thrashing he so richly deserved. I know that’s not how Pokemon is supposed to work, but that yellow bastard needs to be put in his place. Over a decade and he still hasn’t evolved, the lazy little shit.
The shack appeared in the distance about an hour later. We were getting there quite a bit later than the previous two times so there was a good chance things would be different. The children might not be there, new people might have turned up, Loran might have emerged from the basement early… I would have to be wary of the unexpected.
That was another thing about looping back. If you assumed things would be a certain way, you could end up more unprepared than someone experiencing it for the first time.
We had collected various bits of wood to use as weapons and I had explained very thoroughly the dangers from all members of the family whose home we were about to invade.
I tried to emphasise how being cold and ruthless up front would prevent anyone—including them—from getting hurt. They seemed to accept this rationale for being a little brutal, although, if Claire had been able to read my mind she would have realised my motives weren’t quite so pure.
I knocked on the door and waited. It was opened by the older boy. I hit him in the stomach with the end of my stripped down branch, knocking the wind out of him. He doubled over and I pushed him at his shocked mother.
We rushed into the kitchen and quickly surrounded the three occupants. A quick search revealed there was no one else there.
“What do you want?” snapped Terry, her eyes fearful but her tongue as sharp as ever. She clung onto her whimpering youngest.
I grabbed the kid’s jacket and peeled it off him despite his protests, but he was more concerned with staying attached to his mother than losing his collection of knives and let me get it off him.
The others stood around trying their best to look tough as I had instructed, slapping their sticks against their palms, but they looked more like a band of slightly lost morris dancers, only not so menacing.
“Just stay calm Terry. We aren’t going to hurt you.”
“How do you know my name? Who are you people?”
“We’re friends of your husband.” This was the direction I had decided to take. I didn’t want to reveal the time travelling, and using magic as an explanation would make me seem weird and alien.
Terry didn’t seem convinced. “What kind of friends? He’s never mentioned folk like you.”
“No,” I said “he wouldn’t have. I knew him from before. A long time ago.” Which was kind of true. I kicked the rug off the trapdoor. “Dudley, open that. Maurice, you and Claire move the stove. It’s heavy but—”
“What are you doing. The stove doesn’t move.” Terry looked at me like I was nuts.
“I think she’s right,” said Maurice as he leaned against the corner of the stone stove. “It’s pretty solid.”
“Try harder. Help him,” I said to Claire.
Dudley and Flossie had managed to get the trapdoor open. Claire and Maurice pushed and pulled at the stove without moving it one millimetre. Jenny went over to assist them. Followed by Dudley and Flossie.
They squeezed together, barely able to get their hands on the stove. Terry watched with her jaws tightened and her eyes full of displeasure.
“Try lifting it,” I suggested.
“You can try all you want, the stove’s not—” Terry’s eyes widened in surprise as one corner of the stove rose into the air.
“Looks like there was a catch,” said Maurice. Between him and Dudley, they were able to pick the stove up and move it out of the way to reveal a hole. Flossie nipped in and grabbed the bag. She dragged it, clanking, to the kitchen table
Dudley helped her empty it out. Everyone leaned in to see what would come out, including Terry.
Weapons, armour, sundry equipment—all the things Loran had shown me last time. I already knew which were rusted beyond useless and which we needed.
Claire coughed and pointed her eyes at the older boy. He was eyeing one of the swords. It wouldn’t do him much good, the hilt was loose and the blade would fall off if he tried to pick it up, but it’s the thought that counts. Claire’s ability was already showing dividends.
“Don’t,” I said to him. “If you force me to get rough, you’ll regret it. I don’t enjoy removing limbs, and even less sealing the stump with fire to prevent it being reattached. Jerala might have turned you down, but other girls will want you in time. But not if you aren’t a complete man.”
His lips flapped wordlessly for a second or two. “How do you know—”
“I know a lot of things and you’d do well to wait until we leave and then be grateful that we’re gone.” I turned back to Terry. “Your husband won’t rise until the morning, is there any way to get him up quicker?”
She looked confused and shook her head. The problem with acting like you know everything is it makes it seem strange when you need to ask questions. Still, I would rather let her think I was odd than overlook something obvious.
“I don’t know what you want from him but he’s a good man. A true believer. His past is just that.” She wasn’t very convincing.
“No, Terry, it isn’t. The past is always there, waiting for us.” I knew that better than anyone. “I’m going to go down and see if I can speed things up. There’s some meat in the cabinet, there. Heat it up.”
Terry looked at me, flabbergasted.
“Don’t worry, Uncle Stan won’t have died in vain.” I climbed down into the basement with a smile. It was fun screwing with people. Then I screamed like a little girl as something brushed across my face. Damn it, I’d forgotten about that spider. So much for playing it cool.