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September 12, 2013

I Hraet You (91)

Beat 91: All Hail Puppeteers (and also Makeovers)

“A date?” JP shouted.  “You want to go out on a date?”

Lloyd nodded and resumed his business.  “Well, of course.  At the moment I’m hard-pressed to think of any other way to interact with Miss O’Leary.  Not to mention that she was the one that propositioned me; it would be outright callous of me to…”  He lifted his head and stared at JP with wide eyes.  “Oh!  So this is what they call a date!  My, I’m starting to get a bit excited!”

“Lloyd, are you KIDDING ME?  Don’t go out on a date with someone that almost killed you!”

Lloyd tilted his head back down.  “It was an act of near-homicide bred of misguided adoration.  Nothing more.  Or if you prefer, a misappropriation of effort.  But as I explained to you, I’ve managed to sort out a number of Miss O’Leary’s issues.  And beyond that, my adventures with her don’t end just because she’s reached four stars; I made her a promise, and I intend to make good on it, being her comrade for as long as I’m able.  So what follows next is a matter of…of…”  He furrowed his brow.  “I can’t quite seem to figure out how this mechanism is supposed to work.”

JP covered his face.  “Over and under, Lloyd.  Over and under, then you make two loops and --”

“Ah, so that’s the key!  Yes, that makes perfect sense!”  Lloyd nodded rapidly, and finished tying his shoes.  “There we are!  Fully threaded and ready for a day of true merriment!”

“Have I ever mentioned how much of a disappointment you are?  Because I get the feeling that I don’t say that as much as I should.”

“Ah, it’s been a while since I’ve worn tennis shoes.  You tend to forget certain practices after such long periods of non-use,” said Lloyd, almost gleefully ignoring JP’s words.   He stood up and patted his body down, pleased with his new ensemble.  Not long ago, he looked as if he had a court date; now he looked about ready to head to a concert.  For once he’d taken to wearing a T-shirt -- a pink shirt with white sleeves, and crested with no shortage of wide-eyed puppets.  A checkered pattern trimmed the seams of his gray shorts, and a chain extended from one of his belt loops to his right pocket.  His pink-skinned shoes looked almost brand new, but thankfully they fit with more than enough room to spare.  Of course, he could say the same about the wristband he’d donned -- pink and emblazoned with white hearts, complimenting the finger bands he’d strapped onto random fingers.

“Well, little brother?  How do I look?”

JP scowled at Lloyd, though he kept is focus on the shirt.  “You’re going to go on a date wearing a Fuzzmeisters shirt?  What are you, five?”

“The Fuzzmeisters are not to be underestimated -- nor is the righteous splendor of public broadcasting.  Why, their songs are a delight to children and adults alike!  To be free to display their merchandise is the greatest liberty a man may know!” 

“Don’t ever let anyone outside of this room hear you say that.”  JP shook his head.  “So where’s this Sheila girl now?  Her mom kicked her out of the house, didn’t she?”

“True enough.  But given that there’s a hole in her bedroom wall, sneaking back into her room to get dressed and ready for our tryst should be more than possible…albeit a trick that could only work a few times, if my guess about their highly-audible squabbles is correct.”  He stroked his chin.  “I can only hope that she and her mother manage to come to a peaceable conclusion soon enough.  Though now that I think about it, I may need to begin approaching the madam as well; I may have helped one, but I’d prefer to help both once I’m able.”

“Don’t you think you’re missing the important thing here?  Like those gang members that are popping up around town?  The same ones that tried to break your legs?  And that’s ignoring all the other threads that are just hanging around.  Figuring out what Gaston and his cronies are up to is a lot more important than you going out on a date.”

“But given my typical mindset, am I really the sort of person you want around when trying to use logic?”

JP started to speak, but turned aside a half-second later.  “Guess you’ve got me there.”  He shrugged and shook his head, and looked back up at Lloyd.  “All right, here’s what’s going to happen.  We’re going to postpone our group discussion for a while.  Not forever -- just a little while.  There’s some serious intel we -- all five of us -- need to go over, and we’ll need your input every now and then.  And you’ll need to hear the plan I’ve started putting in motion.”

“Fair enough.  I’ll be certain to attend the meeting once it’s --”

“Hold on.”  JP shot a finger at Lloyd.  “Just because you won’t be around doesn’t mean that you get to play hooky.  This date of yours?  It’s a recon mission now.  Your job is to find out everything you can about how your powers work on somebody -- the effects, the consequences, the benefits.  You’re our ace in the hole here, but only if we know the ins and outs of your ‘audition room’.  So use this as a chance to figure out something useful.  And once you do -- if you do -- bring her back here.  Chances are that I’ll have to give her a real interrogation before this day is over.”

“Ever the taskmaster, little brother.  I don’t think I can make any promises right now, but…”  Lloyd folded his arms.  “There is one bit of information that I think we should start considering now.”

“What is it?”

“This whole situation smacks of the surreal.  In her current state, Miss O’Leary’s body is being occupied by two minds -- but in a sense, that was always the case, with my actions only making that relationship more overt.  Can an imaginary friend truly become a split personality in its own right?”

“I wouldn’t know.  So you want me to look into that?”

Lloyd shook his head.  “What I’m more concerned about is what sort of outside influences could have created such a circumstance.  It would be easy enough -- reasonable, even -- to believe that it was the result of familial and societal pressures, but…I’m not convinced.”

“So you’re saying someone else was responsible?”  JP nodded slowly.  “Considering who we’re dealing with here, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch.”

Lloyd’s eyes shifted to the left.  JP had every reason to think that, considering who they were dealing with.  And more recently, a new suspect had made her grand debut.  And yet…

“Something on your mind?”

“There is.  JP, indulge me for a moment -- what if the trigger for the events facing this town aren’t the fault of someone, but something?  An impetus -- a stimulus of sorts that we’ve been overlooking?”  He held out a hand.  “The timeframe for Miss O’Leary’s transformation -- physical and mental -- is too perfect to be mere coincidence.  For her to change so much merely after coming to Porbeagle…it leads me to believe that something is amiss.”

“So in other words, it’s not just Gaston that’s the problem -- it’s the town itself?”

“It’s a possibility, isn’t it?”

JP sighed heavily.  “To be honest, a part of me was thinking the same thing.  Gaston and the Vipers are here for a reason; there has to be something here that they can’t get anywhere else.  If we can figure that out, we might be able to get a leg-up on him.”  He grimaced.  “Though I’ve got a pretty strong hunch that we’re not going to like the answer.”

“That’s usually how these things tend to go, isn’t it?”  Lloyd reached into his pocket and grabbed a sheet of paper, and handed it to JP.  “This will get you in contact with the second-smartest person I know.  If you ask for his aid, I’m certain that Arjuna will lend it…though you may have to strong-arm him into compliance at some point.”  He tugged on his chain and pulled out a pocket watch.  “And you’ll likely have to wait until after school before you can have a conversation with him.”

JP crammed the paper into his jacket pocket, but kept his eyes locked on Lloyd.  “Why do you have a pocket watch?”

“Eh? Isn’t that what one wears when it comes to pants-mounted chains?”

JP glared at him with the fury of a roid-raging wolverine.  “When’s your date?”

“It’s -- oh, I should be leaving right about now.  I wouldn’t be much of a gentleman if I didn’t arrive at least an hour early, yes?”  With a big grin, Lloyd trotted past JP and started on his way.  “See you around, little brother!  I’m off to see what exactly this ‘date’ entails!”

“Lloyd, wait.”

“What is it?”

JP stared coolly at his brother.  “Don’t forget.  You’re our ace in the hole.  If we lose you, we lose period.  So watch yourself out there.”

“Right, then.”

“And one more thing.  This Arjuna guy -- you said he’s the second-smartest person you know, right?  So who’s the first?”

Lloyd’s grin stretched even wider.  “You, obviously.”  And with a skip in his step -- along with a few impromptu jigs -- he headed toward his destiny.

“I’m the smartest person he knows, huh?” JP asked himself.  He laughed softly and smiled.  “Well, that much is obvious…but it is nice to hear out loud.”  Of course, that smile didn’t last long; Lloyd’s compliment quickly gave way to Lloyd’s concerns, and fears that JP had already considered several times.

“So the town itself could be a trigger, huh?”  His brow tightened.  “Guess that explains one thing.”

*

It felt as if Lloyd hadn’t seen Triangle Square in a year -- but somehow, seeing the sights made it feel as if he’d never left.  He sat on a bench across from the statue of Wilfred S. Triangle, watching carelessly as townsfolk trotted to the shops surrounding it.  Every now and then, his eyes would shift to the right, and follow the roads down the hills and slopes; in the distance, he and any other Square shopper could spot the town’s shore -- and with it, the rubble of High Tide Park.  And every now and then, his eyes would shift left -- up the roads and up the inclines to a procession of larger buildings.

The town hall is that way, Lloyd thought.  JP did say something about there being multiple threads worth pursuing.  I certainly hope he had the park in mind when he said that.  And even if he didn’t, it’s certainly a priority of mine once all’s said and done.  Perhaps the mayor can shed a bit of light on why the park is supposed to be demolished?  Come to think of it, how would I even go about approaching him?  I doubt it would be as simple as asking for an appointment.  And I doubt my social standing is high enough to allow some manner of summit…I wonder if there’s a way to get his attention? 

“L-Lloyd?”

Lloyd followed the stutters and sniffles to their source.  Sure enough, a young lady had approached him, just as a salty wind tossed a few of her orange locks about.  If not for that wind, she would have had a perfectly-straightened coiffure, but that was hardly a consequence; she still looked plenty clean, with an air of both stylishness and innocence.  Maybe it was because of her green sweater vest, tugged over a white dress shirt but letting shirttails poke out from underneath.  Maybe it was because of her pleated dress, a deep shade of black only accented by gray stockings and knee-high boots.   Maybe it was because of the fluttering ribbon that bound her hair, or perhaps the red-framed glasses that sat atop her face (and before clouds of freckles).  But whatever the case, Lloyd could take it all in…with more than a little confusion, of course.

“Miss O’Leary?  Is that you?” he asked, pressing a hand to his chest.  His eyes drifted down from her face.  “Miss O’Leary!  It really is you!  Why, I hardly recognized you!  You look…you look…”

“Clean?”

“…I was going to say ‘ready for a trip to school, but I suppose that works as well.”  Lloyd’s eyes slid back upward.  Indeed, something did seem different about Sheila.  The duck-laden bandages she’d plastered across her face had vanished.  Her eyebrows looked less like a pair of fat caterpillars and more like an artist’s brush strokes.  Her outline remained the same, but her face had taken on a bit more color -- an almost-perpetual rosiness to her cheeks, he guessed.  Of course, the key difference was that she’d changed her glasses -- and as a result, he had a clear view of her eyes.  He still hadn’t shaken the image of her torture-happy self from his mind, but looking at her now eased the sting; her eyes now looked significantly more natural, and brighter.  Rounder, and wider -- like a child in the midst of learning about Santa for the first time. 

Lloyd held up a hand.  “If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly was the impetus for the change in style?  Surely it wasn’t just for the sake of impressing me, was it?”

“I…I-I dunno.  Maybe?  I mean, th-this is my first date and all, so…you know, I wanted to look good for once.”

“In all fairness, you always looked…”  Lloyd peered over Sheila’s shoulder.  “Miss O’Leary?  Did you cut your hair?  It looks shorter somehow -- though I suppose that might just be because I’m not used to you without your braids yet.”

Sheila tugged her hair forward.  She still had plenty to spare, but it still didn’t look like quite as much as before.  She stroked her smoothened locks, letting the wind toss the red ribbon about; she’d tied it low into her hair, leaving the rest looking like a small bonfire.  “A-actually…we kind of had a bit of a fight.”

“Did you say…’we’?”

Sheila nodded -- and then her ear wiggled.  “If you had just let ME style our hair the way I wanted, we wouldn’t have had to cut so much!  But nooooooooo, you had to squirm and whine, and almost ended up giving us an afro!  Afros aren’t even remotely sexy!”

“Sp-speak for yourself, Deirdre!  I think afros are…well, they’re really charming!  Sometimes!  When they're clean, at least.”  Sheila dropped her hair and turned to her right, as if staring down an invisible mugger.  “And besides, you’re the one that went crazy with the scissors!”

Deirdre turned the body to the left.  “Well, excuse me for trying to make us look good for once.  Seriously, girl, mirrors exist for a reason.  Use them once in a while, all right?  ‘Cause if you don’t, I sure as hell will.”

Lloyd scratched his crown and smiled nervously.  This is going to be an arduous trial.

TO BE HEARTINUED…

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