My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Chapter Eight

Jen had set up a large cork bulletin board on one wall of the room at the end of her first year. On it were tacked a number of things: photos, drawings, notes, random pieces of homework assignments and tests with grades marked in red pen (ranging from A’s to complete failures), and a large piece of paper with the number 127 written in the corner, in blue ink in scrawling cursive.

Next to giant Paper 127 was another, slightly smaller paper numbered 193. On it announced a waiting message from Dr. Bern.

“Oh…” Jen said, waking up and yawning with rancid breath. “Yikes. That curry last night. I’m going to need to hold off on the midnight snacks.”

Zoë rolled over in her bed, unwilling to sit up. Jen leaped out of her own, ignoring the ladder entirely, and made a few flying circuits around the room until she bumped her head on the ceiling. Then she landed.

She yanked open the curtains. “I’ll make breakfast, then,” she said cheerfully.

Zoë rolled over again so she wasn’t facing the light. Jen opened the curtains on the other side of the room so that this wouldn’t work, but Zoë just pulled her bedspread over her head. Jen crossed her arms, then flew up and tore the bedspread away from Zoë’s face.

“Rise and shine, kiddo. What are you, a Darkness Anoki?”

“What’s gotten into you today?” Zoë muttered.

“Dunno.” Jen landed, went into the kitchen, and searched through the cabinets, pulling out five different boxes of cereal.

“Auuuggghhhhhheeeeeiiiiyyyyyyyaaaaaahhhkh,” Zoë said, making her thoughts known to the world.

“That’s right,” Jen said, sprinkling a little of each cereal into the bowls and adding a Twinkie. “Now come down the ladder before I make you come down the other way.”

“Aaaaaarrrrrrrrggggggghhaaahhaaaaggggggrrrroooeeegg,” Zoë responded, rolling over a third time and nearly falling off her bunk. She levered herself into a sort of diagonally upright position, realized that she was about to go down a third and rather unconventional way, and scooted toward the middle of the bed.

“I have sugar,” Jen said, cajolingly.

“Meh.” This was just barely enough reason for Zoë to start climbing down the ladder when coupled with the promise—or maybe threat—of being flown down otherwise, especially with an open window around. She jumped down the last few rungs, stumbled upon hitting the floor, and just managed to keep from falling on her nose.

“This is what I call ‘Twinkie Cereal Salad,’” Jen announced proudly. For someone who added unpronounceable spices to a cheese sandwich and made a wicked curry, there were times when Zoë was reminded that Jen was indeed a teenager: just old enough to drive, but maybe shouldn’t be.

Zoë looked into her bowl. Inside was a blob of Lucky Charms, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, chocolate Chex, cocoa Clodhoppers, yogurt flavored Cheerios, and a soggy Twinkie. Zoë was becoming more and more convinced that some of the small explosions that came from the kitchen sometimes weren’t always intentional, since this particular mass appeared to be melted. She ate it anyway, but the milk at the bottom was turning a rather suspicious green color.

In the bathroom, in between Jen’s acne cream and an unopened package of hairbands (which seemed to be everywhere), Zoë found her toothbrush. She was very glad that it existed at the moment.

“You’ve got something in your inbox,” Jen pointed out. Zoë started fingering the cracks between her teeth, wondering if a cereal shard was still stuck. “No,” Jen said. “I mean your inbox. On your messaging paper.”

“Oh,” Zoë said absently. “Gotcha.”

“S’from Dr. Bern,” Jen said. “Probably something about your schedule. I’ll negotiate for you. If you take French instead of Spanish, I can tutor you. Just don’t try to cheat with a spell.”

Zoë shrugged. She didn’t really care about languages much. Her mind was mainly on trying to get her magic to work right, and French didn’t sound very magical.

“You did know that the magic students have to get some measure of normal education, right?” Jen asked. “It’s less heavy work than a normal student would have, since the teacher writes down all the notes for you. But since you don’t have to write the notes, you have to pay really close attention, because you don’t get to use them on tests.”

Zoë didn’t care. It sounded boring, like normal school had been. After all, she was supposed to be a magician, wasn’t she? She wasn’t supposed to be a linguist or a mathematician.

Jen knew that Zoë was thinking this, but knew that it would crush Zoë’s spirits to know that a lot of spells did involve things like math, and geography, and spells never worked if you mispronounced the words.

Jen didn’t have problems with that. There were some students who liked the really long and complicated spells that gave no other benefit than extra room to mess up. There were contests to see who could manage to pull one of the longer spells off. As far as Jen was concerned, ten syllables worked just as well as seventy, and rhyming wasn’t needed, since it only helped you remember things. If you only used three words, you didn’t need help remembering, and your pen didn’t run out of ink on a test. Jen’s hero, a Star Anoki called Amanda (who’d run a few escapades that nobody thought anyone would manage to survive, especially since most people thought she was just an Earth Anoki), had a favorite spell: “Physician, heal thyself,” which would work on anything from a cat scratch to pneumonia.

Zoë stared at the green milk for a while and decided that she would regret it later if she tried to drink it. She dumped it in the sink.

“Aren’t you going to read your message?” Jen asked. Zoë didn’t reply, but she did walk up to the paper.

“How do I control it?” she asked.

“It’s a verbal command,” Jen said.

“Open the message from Dr. Bern,” Zoë tried, and the ink faded off of the paper except for the number in the corner, which was written in handwriting that had that characteristic trained look that you get after hours of practice in handwriting class. Just as Zoë was about to ask if she broke it, a message appeared. Zoë read it, told the paper to close the message, and went back into the kitchen.

“It said we need to show up at the informal office,” Zoë said, confused. “Aren’t all offices formal? How do you know which is informal?” She was convinced that she was looking for a room with words like “Yo” and “Where you at?” painted on the walls.

Jen laughed. “Informals are magic students,” she explained. “They don’t want you to show up at the office that’s designed for the non-magical college kids and say, ‘Hi, I’m here to schedule my magic classes. What times are the potion classes available?’”

“Oh,” Zoë said, still only half awake and feeling very dumb.

“Relax,” Jen said. “You don’t need to worry about it. You’ll know when you’re around formals, partially because they don’t carry staffs around the building or have sheaths where a rod or a wand would go, but mostly because they’ll bend down to your height and ask what you’re doing here all by yourself. That’s when you pretend to be excited and declare that you have a message for a girl named Jen, and when you pretend to listen to their directions to this dorm. You’ll find that they actually don’t know how to get here, most of the time, and need me to guide them through the hallways if they don’t want to get lost.”

“How does that work?” Zoë was starting to admire Jen’s unusual talent for lying, but wondered if it really was admirable.

“Well, if a magic wielder gets lost around here, they can access a holographic map. They’re everywhere on the walls, but you need to use a spell to see them. Just any spell will do, but most people prefer to use the one that makes a daisy or something pop up outside somewhere, because no one’ll notice.”

This didn’t help Zoë, who knew how to do only a few things with rocks and was still afraid she’d kill herself if she tried anything else. None of the spells that were supposed to be wielder type/element-universal would work for her. She wanted to say this to Jen, but remembered how excited she’d gotten once she heard that Zoë was in a Star magic class, and didn’t want to disappoint her.

Jen tipped some of her milk into her mouth, but stopped and threw the rest out. She opened the refrigerator and glared at its contents before pulling out the giant green pomelo. She put it on a cutting board and sliced it in half. Zoë peered over Jen’s shoulder. Most of the fruit’s size was in its skin, which was three inches thick and felt marshmallowy. Zoë didn’t like grapefruit very much, but she liked the pomelo, which was sweeter than most grapefruit she’d tasted, even if the taste was a little warped by the remnants of toothpaste.

“I have quite a few classes today,” Jen said, “but I can usually do a schedule really quickly. It’s been a while since I did a fourth-grade one, though.”

It didn’t matter. Jen was more adept at manipulating schedules than the teachers were. By the end of about an hour and a half, she and Zoë had a perfectly balanced schedule, with easy classes like Art scattered evenly so that there wasn’t as much of a dump in homework in certain terms. Zoë found herself sick of the entire system already, and she’d been at the school all of a day and a half.

“Well, kiddo, I’ve got places to go and classes to attend,” Jen said. “Don’t fall into a parallel dimension while I’m gone, and if you do, fall into one that resembles the Bahamas, okay?” She walked off.

“They definitely like to talk about their parallel dimensions, don’t they?” Zoë muttered to herself. She wondered what to do. She had this time to herself, and she probably wouldn’t get another chance like this. Up until now, she hadn’t been without supervision from Jen, Mike, or Daniel for more than a few minutes at a time. Now she had the whole afternoon to herself, with the promise that nobody would bug her. It was likely that word had spread if Wyrnen had only one student before and suddenly had gotten another, and her description was probably on everyone’s Avoid: Dangerous list. This was a highly logical assumption, especially from a nine-year-old. In fact, it was so logical that technically, because she was in a school environment, it shouldn’t have been true. But it was, in fact, very accurate.

So what was she going to do with her freedom? It was raining hard outside, so she wasn’t about to run around in the school’s back yard. If she’d had a swimsuit, she might have gone swimming, but she didn’t and could barely doggy-paddle anyway. And, she reminded herself, she didn’t even know where the pool was. In fact, she didn’t know where a lot of things were, including her classes, so she took her copy of her just-made schedule, which had been agreed to by all parties or whatever jargon the secretary had said, out of her pocket. She decided that she’d spend the day exploring the school, even if it wasn’t as fun as going swimming or even playing in the rain.

For a magic school, Zoë thought that the actual layout of the building was relatively normal. The turns, loops, out-of-order door numbers, and odd five-way intersections in hallways didn’t seem to faze her at all. All for the better, because she probably couldn’t—or wouldn’t—use the maps on the walls.

The basic classes she didn’t have trouble finding; Math and Science were right next to each other, not necessarily because they were related subjects, but because, when Zoë peered in the little windows built into the doors, the Science teacher was a Fire Anoki and the Math teacher wore a Water pin. It was obvious that this was a major concern—that is, Fire mages burning down the building—since it extended even to Science class. Then again, he probably didn’t use a Bunsen burner any more than she used an eye wash. In fact, many of her classes were near each other. But she had trouble finding Wyrnen’s room.

“Now, where is it?” Zoë muttered, getting frustrated after an hour of searching solely for the Star magic room. “I hope you don’t have to say a spell to get in, or I’ll be in deep trouble.”

She was near her dorm now, about to give up and ask Jen for directions later, when she noticed a door she hadn’t inspected. It had no window, but the inside was apparently lit. She remembered suddenly that there were no broom closets in this area of Pyrite—they were all in a separate dimension, apparently with the linens, the refrigerator, and the teachers’ lounges, since she hadn’t seen any of those around, either.

She risked a few glances down the hallways nearby. Nobody was there; most people had classes right now, in the middle of a Wednesday, and lots of the teachers were actively teaching. She checked one more time and made a general scan for nearby security cameras before trying the door. It was unlocked. She opened it just a crack and slipped in soundlessly.

For a few minutes, she wondered if she had actually found her way into a parallel dimension. The door closed behind her with a click, and she whirled around to stare at it. It was still there, but would it open to the same place?

Cautiously, she opened the door again and stuck her head out, the empty halls of Pyrite University seeming to look back. She regarded them carefully, wondering for a few seconds if there was a spell on the floor tiles or something that would tell Professor Wyrnen things that were going on. Her suspicions didn’t matter, now, though; she’d already gone in, so she might as well complete the exploration.

Closing the door carefully, making sure it didn’t creak or make a lot of noise, she looked beneath her feet. There was wet grass here, and the air was clean but somehow damp, the way you get after a heavy rain. There were trees here, and large bushy plants, and impatiens competing with each other to see who could grow the biggest and roundest, and hog the most sunlight. Creeping Charlie took over much of the large garden’s lawn, but in some places, the grass had managed to strangle it out. Many of the trees were covered in vining plants, like mistletoe and dahlias, but a few had poison ivy creeping up the branches. It was dying, though, and even with the unmowed grass and rotting boards on the other side of the door, it was clear that the place was taken care of.

Zoë started to hum a tune, out of habit, but remembered Jen’s warning again. She explored. The garden was big, and it was open to the air outside. The rain had clearly stopped, but wind still rustled the wet leaves of the trees and blew petals off the impatiens. Directly behind Zoë, though, was a large sunflower. She knew that it hadn’t been there before, else she would have bumped into it. In the seeds, like in clouds, she saw a face. It winked, reminding her of the poster on the Star magic table (which had clearly not been created by Wyrnen), and reminding her of why she was there.

But it was hard to focus on finding her classroom now, with the sunlight on the garden and the leaves just turning yellow, red, or brown, when Zoë was still trying to convince herself that the place existed.

What just happened? Zoë thought in amazement. She twirled, wishing she had skirts on, and started to sing. After all, it wasn’t humming, right?

The twirling turned to leaping, the leaping turned to dancing, the dancing took a leap, and she was flying. It was as absentminded and unquestioned as a dream’s flight, and she did hit the soggy ground a few times but got back up just as smoothly without noticing. Soon she didn’t hit the ground at all unless she wanted to, to confirm that it was still there.

Her song was one she’d never heard before, and she made it up as she went along, letting it complement whatever way she moved. The dance went smoothly, and when she was too exhausted and exhilarated to continue, she landed in a tree. Then Zoë realized what she’d been doing, that she’d been doing it for over an hour, and that her clothes were muddy and soggy from landing in dirt every two minutes for half an hour. She also knew that she hadn’t found Wyrnen’s class. What she didn’t know was that in about five minutes, the classes were going to be let out.

She also didn’t know, until a few seconds later, that the tree she’d managed to land in was one of the ones with poison ivy. It didn’t reach her, but she couldn’t climb down. She had to jump.

Zoë sang—or maybe screamed—another note, on instinct, as she jumped, but landed neatly on her feet. She brushed herself off as best she could, shedding a little bit of mud, and looked around.

There were two doors in here, she realized. One had a sunflower next to it—that must have been the one she went into. She didn’t know where the other one went, so she opened it slightly and stuck her head out. It was becoming her routine.

The first thing she saw was the door. The first thing she took notice of was the doorknob. It looked older than the others. The door itself had a brass knocker on it, which most doors didn’t have. It was untouched, but the door itself had considerable wear on the right side—though there was a little on the left—at about the same height, from where students knocked with their fist and ignored the implication that they should be proper and use the knocker. Above the door, on the doorframe, was written, “STAR MAGIC,” in all capital letters.

“Well, I’ve found that, then,” she whispered to herself. “Better get back and change before Jen comes back.” She closed the door and ran back across the room, being careful not to run into the sunflower, and rushed through the first door and back into her dormitory just as the bell rang.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 9th, 2011 at 7:19 pm and is filed under Zoe. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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