Legend – Chapter 16
America looked up at the white-cloaked figure, surrounded by swirling gold-touched clouds, with hair of gold and eyes of sapphire, that held a glittering sword in his hand, shimmering bright against the night sky. He makes a lovely picture of a hero, America thought. It’s a danged shame that beauty exterior does not guarantee beauty interior. Though if it did, I suppose ugliness would guarantee evil, and that wouldn’t be fair to anyone.
To one side of that figure was a ring of golden fire . . . a ring that surrounded a nearby building, a mosque, and was closing in on it.
Virginia was vaguely, vaguely aware she was dreaming . . . or watching. But mostly she felt . . . almost like she was America.
“That’s enough, Righteous,” America said mildly. “I’ve told you before, it’s one thing to talk about putting the sinners to the sword, it’s entirely another to try to put that into practice.”
“If you truly were the representative of America,” Righteous responded, and his voice was as beautiful as his face, “you would be helping me. We were founded as a Christian nation –“
But that’s just wrong! Virginia thought. We weren’t. The founding fathers were very clear on that!
As she thought that, it seemed as though she was even more with America, and she opened her mouth, and America spoke. “I’m afraid that’s not even close to true, Righteous. Neither Christian nor Jewish nor Islamic nor any other religion upon the face of this world, not now, not ever.” She felt America’s sorrowful anger within her, and heard his thoughts . . . or were they her own? . . . echoed in his words. “You’re right fond of quoting the words of the Bible, and the Founding Fathers, when they suit your purpose, son, but ‘the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion’; John Adams, second of our Presidents. ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion â€“ our Constitution.'”
“Or prohibiting the exercise thereof!” Righteous snapped. “If you would quote, finish the quotation! My religion demands that the righteous triumph over the wicked, and if necessary that shall mean the fire and the sword!”
Victoria gritted her teeth in her dream. She’d run into people like Righteous â€“ some of them who hated her parents, or the two men who lived next door, for reasons that had to do with twisting the words in the Bible.
She felt America’s jaw set at the same time, and the tall, lanky hero took off his jacket, folding it with micrometric precision. “Your right to free exercise of your religion ends where the noses of everyone else begin, Righteous. Told that to Jihad, last time I kicked him back overseas, and I’m telling it to you. One last warning, son; shut down that ring of fire, or I’m going to have to shut you down.” He unsnapped his cufflinks, pocketed them, and began to roll up his sleeves. “For I defend the Country and the Constitution of these United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic . . . and you’re putting yourself in the domestic category right now.”
Righteous sneered. “The power of God is within me, and He is mightier than any nation! And the enemies of God shall be consumed in the fire!” The ring of fire contracted, pressing inward towards the walls of the mosque. Virginia was horrified to hear screams coming from inside.
“You were warned, son.”
America leapt upward, springing from the ground into the air high overhead, as Righteous brought up his sword to meet the charge â€“
Virginia sat up suddenly, panting. The echoes of the screams lingered in her ears, but at the same time the calm certainty of the hero comforted her. What . . . Oh.
She fumbled with the clock, managed to get it shut off. Got to get ready for school!
By the time she was on the bus, heading for Goff Middle School, she’d managed to firmly push the vision/dream to the back of her head. I know . . . there’s that connection, but I can’t think about it much. If I do, I might make a mistake.
But even with that effort, Virginia found that she was . . . noticing things more. Tones of voice, little pushes in the hallway, whispered (or sometimes not whispered) hurtful words in the hallway. Most of them weren’t directed at her, but they were still pulling, tugging at her. She tried to just focus past it, ignore the swirl of innocent hostility and pettiness the way she always did, but it was hard today.
At lunch she found herself almost unable to eat, because there she could see the patterns of hostility so clearly; the girls that clumped together, excluding others from their group, the boys who talked together and made fun of each other, some of them laughing only because otherwise no one would talk to them.
She saw Peter Boren, one of the boys from her class, standing with his lunch, looking, searching the room. He always stands like that, she realized. Looking, not for someone to sit with, but for a place where he won’t be bothered, or bothering anyone. Peter was a thin, gangly boy, sometimes loud and emphatic when he talked, always peering at the world through thick-lensed glasses with a mixture of uncertainty and arrogance that seemed to draw bullies to him.
She remembered Peter breaking into a conversation she was having, and how it annoyed her at first, until she understood that he thought he was helping, trying to give information he thought was important to her discussion. He did that in class, too, like today, and sometimes embarrassed other people by correcting them.
And so he was always alone, and never talked to anyone. Spent most of his time reading, if anyone let him.
She made a decision and stood, picked up her tray and went over to where Peter had finally sat down, at a table that was now mostly empty. “Hi, Peter.”
His head snapped up from the book he’d been reading, and his greeny-brown eyes were wary. I know that look . . . from the mirror, back when I was little. Worried about what’s going to happen next. “Um . . . hi . . . Virginia.”
“What’re you reading?”
He held up the cover just long enough for her to read the title. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.
Virginia blinked. She knew that book â€“ her father had it on his shelves, and he’d talked about it, but it was an old book. “Wow, I wouldn’t have expected you were reading Heinlein.” She hoped she pronounced the name of the author right.
His eyes widened, and a grin suddenly burst out on his face. It made his eyes look brighter. “You know this book?”
“Well . . . I haven’t read it yet, but I meant to. My dad has all of his stuff in his room.”
The grin dimmed slightly, but didn’t go away. “Oh. Well, it’s really good. My dad has that whole collection too. And Asimov. And a lot of other books â€“ you read a lot, though?” He suddenly looked panicked. “I mean, I shouldn’t . . . I didn’t mean it to sound surprised or anything, I just . . .”
He really is scared of making mistakes. Like I was.
“It’s okay. Yeah. Um, I read every day, actually. Books that I want to read, I mean, not just school stuff.”
To her surprise, the rest of lunchtime passed almost before she knew it, and she and Peter were still talking when they went outside for the brief recess. The weather was chilly but the sun was out, and she was looking forward to running around a bit.
She suddenly realized Peter had disappeared, and looked around. Oh, that was stupid. Of course, he stays away from the play area and tries to read.
She decided not to push him any farther. He did want to read his book, and I interrupted.
He was still reading on the bus. But two of the bullies she knew from her grade, Joseph Sayer and his friend Rob Maynerd, were watching him. She wondered if she should say something.
As she thought that, Joseph suddenly reached out and plucked the book from Peter’s hands.
“Give that back!”
She winced. She could see where that was going. If you start shouting and getting upset, they’re winning. A broad grin on his face, Joseph tossed the book over to Rob. Peter lunged, but Joseph blocked him. Rob threw it to someone else, and for a few moments the book was bounced from person to person, with laughter rising louder and Peter’s demands fading to a white-faced, furious tension.
That’s enough. As the book was tossed again, Virginia shot her hand out and caught it. Peter’s lips tightened â€“ and then his eyes widened as she stood up, walked over, and gave it back to him. He blinked, then said â€“ almost inaudible over the catcalls and laughs, “Thanks.”
She smiled, then glared at both Joseph and Rob. “Jerks.”
“What, has Peter Boring got a girlfriend?” Joseph reached out to grab the book back.
Virginia didn’t really think about what she did next; she just grabbed the big boy’s hand, twisted, and turned, and suddenly Joseph gave a grunt of pain and collapsed to one knee, his hand held up in an unnaturally contorted position. “Ow! Ow! Leggo!”
Virginia let go. How . . . did I do that?
But the bully was bounding up, hands clenching into fists, drawing back, “That hurt!“
Other people were shouting, and the bus driver was looking back, but Virginia saw Joseph’s fist coming. It seemed so slow. It was easy to sway to one side, catch his arm, and pull â€“
Joseph Sayer’s head smacked into the side of the seat and he sprawled into the aisle. Laughter rose, then cut off as the boy raised his head with blood trickling down the side.
The bus screeched to a halt. “What the hell’s going on here?”
The ride home was quiet. Virginia swallowed, tried to fight back the fear. They do care about me. They do. They’re not going to . . . send me away.
But a part of her was sure that this would get her sent away.
“All right, Virginia,” her father said finally, making her jump. “I heard their story. I’ve apologized, and you’re suspended for the next two days, and I’m going to be paying the emergency room bill for that boy having his head sewed up.”
“I’m sorry, daddy, I justâ€””
“Virginia, this isn’t about being sorry,” Malcolm cut her off. “I’m glad you’re sorry about hurting Joseph, but I want to know why. He wasn’t very forthcoming and the driver didn’t see much, and you admit you did throw him into the seat. But,” and her heart leapt as she saw a flash of a smile, “I saw you just about fit to burst in there, and yet you wouldnâ€™t say anything. We know you, Virginia, and I just don’t believe you’d do that to anyone without reason. So out with it.”
She hesitated, then realized she had to tell everything. Well, everything about that. So she did, everything from the time she got to school to the time the driver called 911.
By the end, her father was looking at her with a wry grin. “So you were being the knight in shining armor. Wonder how Peter feels about that?” he said, as he pulled into the driveway â€“ and then slammed on the brakes, as someone stepped into view at the walkway.
It was Peter Boren.
Malcolm got out of the car slowly. “Can I help you? Who are you, son?”
She scrambled out of the car. “Dad, that’s –“
Peter stood so straight it looked painful, and his expression was more than half terrified. “Sir, I’m Peter Elias Boren. And that whole thing that happened to Virginia was my fault, and I wanted to say I was sorry.”
He looked over at Virginia, and suddenly there was an embarrassed but very genuine smile. “And . . . thanks! You . . . um . . . you were amazing.”
Malcolm Jefferson laughed. “Peter Boren, eh? Well, Peter, she made the decisions. Sounded to me like she just didn’t like what she saw and stepped in.”
He flushed and looked down. “Yeah . . . but she wouldn’t have had to if it wasn’t . . .”
Her father looked around. “Hold on, Peter. I don’t see a car . . . how did you get here?”
Virginia was startled. By his tone, so was her father. “Where do you live?”
“Up on Highland Court,” Peter answered.
“Highland . . . you walked three miles here? Do your parents know youâ€””
“I go on walks by myself sometimes.” Peter smiled faintly. “But this is a little farther than I usually go.”
“I should think so!” Malcolm shook his head, then grinned again. “Well, Peter, I’ll allow you to take some blame, but I’ll give you full credit for a fine apology and the effort to make it. So let’s call it even.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir, I’m not in the Air Force anymore. Mr. Jefferson will do. Now you and Virginia come inside; we’ll get you a snack and I’ll phone your parents to let them know where you are.”
“It’s . . . okay?” Peter was looking at her more than her father, so Virginia smiled.
“I knew . . . well, I sort of knew . . . what I was getting into. And honestly, Daddy? Joseph deserved that. He’s done worse.”
“Miss Justice, are we? All right, come on, both of you.”
Virginia followed, and she felt â€“ for just a moment â€“ that someone else was also smiling at her. Or even . . . maybe . . . inside her.