It was late December, and Marian was planning to spend the holidays at her sister's. It would be the first Christmas she had spent away from Robert since their wedding, and the thought of him and their two boys still was enough to make Marian depressed. She had therefore decided to accept her sister's invitation, despite some uncertainty about being away from the facilities and people at the Center. Still, she couldn't spend the rest of her life in those narrow circles, no matter how familiar and comfortable.
Marian had the van loaded with gifts and enough luggage for the stay, and had made the long drive safely. Unfortunately, Sue's family had moved since Marian's last visit, and naturally she couldn't find the new house. Todd, Sue's husband, still worked at the same warehouse outside of town, so Marian drove there. Marian parked the van near the main entrance and clambered out, ignoring the stares and whistles her appearance generated. Eastern Kentucky was quite a bit rougher than what she was used to, but the difference was a matter of degree rather than kind.
"Whooee!" one wit called. "I shore would like to ride her!"
"Careful, Millard, she'll hear you!"
The steps up onto the loading dock were a bit of a problem for something with four legs, but Marian managed them without too much trouble, her breath billowing out in huge white clouds from the effort. She walked through the open door into the warehouse, then paused while her eyes adjusted. By that time, Todd had spotted her and was hurrying over.
"Marian!" he called, waving as he approached. "Couldn't you find the house?"
"I'm afraid not," she admitted, pulling her jacket tighter around her as she grinned in embarrassment.
Todd Whitaker was a solid, stolid sort of person, one of those people who are rarely bothered by anything. He simply ignored Marian's altered state, treating her just as he always had. They talked for a few minutes, Todd mentioning the seasonal problems he was experiencing as part of managing the warehouse, and Marian making polite noises. With the formalities out of the way Todd drew her a map. With this in hand, Marian said goodbye and left.
She found that someone had parked a pickup behind her van, blocking it completely. Marian felt a flash of rage, and for a moment was tempted to simply flip the truck onto it's side. She forced herself to calm down, then looked around. She spotted an empty parking space nearby, and smiled. She didn't know if the driver had deliberately blocked her, or was merely thoughtless, but either way he would be surprised when he came back out.
Marian moved to the rear of the pickup, grabbed the bumper, and lifted. She pretended not to notice the reactions of the men who had earlier made the catcalls, but secretly was quite pleased at their gaping expressions. Walking the truck like an oversized wheelbarrow, Marian maneuvered it into the empty space. After dusting her hands off, she got into her van and drove away.
The house was right where Todd had said it would be. It was larger than their previous one, and somewhat older, with a big back yard full of large trees. Beyond that, the hill on which the property sat merged into a small mountain. As Marian climbed from the van, her niece and nephew came screaming out of the house, jackets forgotten as they raced to her.
"Aunt Marian! Aunt Marian!" they cried, leaping into her arms. Marian's own children had rejected their mother completely, but Randy and Kathy, not having seen her transformation and subsequent panic, seemed to feel that having and aunt who was a centaur was a great treat.
As Marian walked up to the door, a child under each arm, her sister stepped out onto the front porch.
"Hi, Sue!" Marian called. "I seem to have been attacked by two strange, tiny humanoids."
"I'm glad you made it," Sue replied, smiling. "Todd called after you left and told me to watch for you."
Marian set the kids down on the porch, only to have them immediately clamor for rides.
"Now, what did I tell you about not bothering Aunt Marian while she's here for her visit?" scolded Sue. The kids gave vent to a chorus of protesting groans.
"We'll go out for a walk later," Marian promised. "Right now, I have some gossiping to do with your mother."
The two sisters talked for a while; then they went on the walk as Marian had promised. Both kids rode on her back, the younger Kathy in front, held in place by her big brother. Sue took Marian on a guided tour of the subdivision. Marian was surprised at how little attention she seemed to be getting from the neighbors. Randy and Kathy both protested when Sue declared it time to return home for lunch.
They finished their meal, and were sitting in front of the television when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it!" yelled Randy. His mother hurried after him.
She returned a few moments later with Randy in tow, and behind him the county Sheriff.
"Miss Holst?" said the Sheriff, looking rather apologetic with his hat in his hand. "I'm Sheriff Tanner. We've got a problem that I think you might be able to help us with."
"What sort of problem?" Marian had no idea what was going on, unless the driver of the pickup had complained.
"Well, its Bear," explained the Sheriff, obscurely. "Bear Simpson, that is. The past few months, he's been acting more anti-social than ever. Two nights ago, he went over to Bunger's Bar and tore the place to pieces. I mean he leveled the building. People who saw him said he was incredibly strong. We think he might be one of your folks."
"You mean he's Gifted?" said Marian, suddenly understanding. "Well, if you need help arresting him, or something, I can call the Center for Gifted Research and have them send a team over."
"Will it take long?" asked the Sheriff. "Folks are gettin' a bit antsy about him bein' loose. He never was too friendly, and if he's as strong as they say, he could do some real damage."
"I'll call right now and see," Marian promised, rising.
She called the Center's 800 number, and told Pinky what the trouble was. After a few more minutes of conversation, Marian nodded, said goodbye and hung up.
"We're in luck; they've got a team there and will send it right over."
"How long will it take them to get here?"
"If Sue will let me use her back yard," said Marian, "about three minutes."
She received permission and went out back, leaving the Sheriff wondering whether she was having a joke at his expense. Marian had been taught how to target the Garden Express, but this was the first time she had actually used the procedure in the field. She drew the circle, said the words, made the gestures, then waited. Seconds later, three people appeared, along with a bag containing their "Gift Busting" equipment.
"Hey, babe," said Adamant, grinning, "how's it shaking?"
"Hello, Marian," said Sturdy, after a brief glare at Adamant.
The third man was Paul Lee, whom Marian had met only twice, briefly, before. He was a tall, broad shouldered, handsome man with unusually large hands. He was roughly as strong as Marian, tough enough to consider handguns about as dangerous as hornets, and very fast. The expression of his Gift seemed relatively minor, compared to people like Sturdy and Kara, but Marian had heard claims that he was the most formidable hand-to-hand combatant on Earth. He was also a skilled shapeshifter.
Marian briefed them on the situation, then led them inside to meet the Sheriff.
Tanner's eyes bugged out when he saw Marian return with three strangers in tow. Sue was also rather surprised. Randy and Kathy, naturally, took the newcomers in stride.
"Hey, I know you!" yelled Randy, pointing. "You're Sturdy! And you're Adamant!"
Marian made introductions, then lay down beside the coffee table everyone else was sitting around. Randy and Kathy sat on her back, while the Sheriff and the trio from the Center made their assault plans.
"We'll have to pick up Ted and Joe Simpson, Bear's cousins, on the way," the Sheriff told them, as the strategy session drew to a close. "We pass their place goin' to Bear's, and if we leave them loose they'll warn him we're coming."
"Okay, that only leaves one question," said Paul, in his pleasant baritone. "How are we going to get everyone there?"
"We can take Marian's van, if she'll let us," Sturdy suggested.
"Can I drive?" asked Adamant, in his little-boy voice.
"NO!" said Marian and Sturdy together.
The Simpson's house was on top of a small rise beside the road. The Sheriff told Marian to just drive up to it.
"They won't know its me in this van until I get out," he told her. "By then, it'll be too late for them to hide. I'll bring them in the van and we'll go on to Bear's."
Things went just as he had planned. Hearing the van, the brothers came out to see who their company was. They started when they saw the Sheriff, but reluctantly held their ground. Tanner talked with them for a few moments, then guided them back to the vehicle. When Tanner made them enter the van, they stared at its contents, especially Marian.
"Never mind her," snapped Tanner. "Which way do we go to get to Bear's?"
Following directions from the Sheriff and the two cousins, Marian carefully drove her van along a series of steep, narrow and increasingly decrepit roads. She was beginning to worry that they would to have to leave the vehicle and continue on foot, when Ted suddenly announced that they were there.
The cabin was actually a run-down, one room shack, its walls and roof covered with tar paper. There was no place to park by the cabin; instead, there was a turnoff which ended a dozen yards away, in a small clearing covered with overgrown gravel. A trickle of smoke drifted from the pipe chimney, scenting the cold air with the smell of burning wood. Marian wondered how anyone could live like this, especially as bad as the weather had been this winter. She stopped the van, and they piled out. There was no sign of life from the building.
"Might as well get this over with," muttered Sturdy, starting off, with Adamant and Paul right behind him.
Sheriff Tanner had already deputized the trio, and had been persuaded, reluctantly, to stay with the van. It was safer all around this way, but that didn't keep him from feeling that he was letting others do his job.
Marian glanced warily at Ted and Joe as Adamant, Paul and Sturdy crunched through the fallen leaves on their way to the cabin. She half expected the brothers to give some warning to their cousin, but they remained silent. Marian turned her attention back to the ramshackle building as the trio knocked, then entered. After a few moments, she heard voices. As usual, Adamant's high, annoying tenor came through clearly, but she also heard two base voices, Sturdy and someone else, presumably Bear.
Suddenly, there was a yell, and Sturdy went flying through the roof, vanishing into the tops of the trees.
"Thar went the big 'un," observed Ted.
Next came Adamant, crashing through the wall and plowing through a considerable amount of brush and small trees before a large pine brought him to a halt.
"Thar went the lit'l'un," announced Joe.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a third, unfamiliar figure flew through the only window, taking the frame and part of the wall with him.
"Hey," said Ted, blinking in surprise, "thet were Bear!"
Paul stepped through the newest opening and advanced on the big, hairy man, who rose to meet him. Bear swung a quart-sized right fist at Paul's head, but Paul dodged away nimbly, punching Bear's nose in response. Bear roared and swung a left roundhouse. Paul ducked, then started an uppercut from somewhere in the vicinity of his knees.
The punch caught Bear on the point of his bearded chin and lifted him off his feet, depositing him twelve feet away. The big man lay still for a moment, then pushed himself upright, shaking his head.
Paul, apparently deciding that drastic measures were called for, stepped quickly over to the wood pile and selected a log four feet long by six inches thick. As Bear struggled to rise, Paul moved forward and swung his massive club like a bat, catching Bear across the forehead. Marian winced at the sound the seasoned wood made on impact. Bear slammed flat on his back and lay still. Paul wasn't even breathing hard.
"That was the most incredible thing I've ever seen or heard tell of!" exclaimed Sheriff Tanner.
"Now you know why we call him Stagger," said Adamant, walking back toward them. Marian noticed that he was using one hand to hold his shorts up.
A crashing from the woods announced Sturdy's return. He slowed as he saw everyone just standing around.
"He caught me by surprise," Sturdy muttered, looking embarrassed.
"Don't worry about it," said Paul, mildly, "could happen to anyone."
From some people that might have sounded condescending, but Paul obviously meant it.
Sturdy went to Bear and placed a charm on his forehead.
"That will keep him asleep until you remove it," he told Tanner.
"Now what do we do with him?" asked the Sheriff. "He'll just bust out of my jail when he wakes up, and his folks will holler bloody murder if I keep that thing on him."
"Can't you transfer dangerous prisoners to a State jail?" asked Sturdy.
"Well, the Lexington Contingent's headquarters has been officially designated a State Holding Facility..."
"Yeah, we can put this luggnut in one of the special cells there," Adamant added, grinning as he cracked his knuckles. "You just give us a call when you want him for the trial. We'll even send a guard along to make sure he behaves."
The trip back to town was uneventful and silent. Sturdy had fastened the sleep inducing charm securely around Bear's head, and then tied him with steel cable just in case. They would use the locus Marian had made in Sue's back yard to send Adamant, Paul, Sturdy and Bear to the Center, and from there they would take him to Lexington. Marian parked the van in front of her sister's house, and watched, along with the Sheriff, Sue and the two kids, as the four vanished.
"Now maybe I can get on with my vacation," sighed Marian.
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith,
who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author for
permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.