by Mark McDonald
©2001 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved
I remembered thinking, "That was too damn close!"
"I had been reckless and selfish. I still didn't realize just how selfish my attempt to repair the controller had been until I started telling this, for want of a better phrase, tale. I could have wound up in a dozen different states, none of them positive. Luckily, I was now on a HOV on my way home -- still a female, but going home.
I was broke too. I remembered once I had gotten on the HOV that I had handed that wormy little horn dog the last of money, my cash chip. After I sat down and the shaking subsided some, I remembered to check but I knew that I had left it there. No amount of wondering or scheming would ever get it back. It was probably the best payday he had ever had and I suspected it was the true reason why he hadn't chased me out in to the street.
The loss of three thousand dollars can have a profound effect on most, but it was especially crushing for me. It had distanced me from everything I sought, new identification, a departure from Gary's home, escape from "The Plan" and a chance at escaping this fate. It was going to take some seriously earth-shattering events to bring me around, and that's exactly what happened in the next three months. I got off the HOV as close to home as this carrier came to my block. Walking home I considered my options, both of them.
I could throw this stupid box away or I could keep it.
I decided to keep it. Boy I felt better already.
As I made my way home I realized that time seemed to have gotten away from me. The sun was going down behind me and it was getting colder. My skirt was trying to blow up around my head and my feet hurt.
What the hell had I been thinking dressing this way, if not for the cold then for the strangers? Had I been asking for what I got? Every once in a while I would look up from my deliberations to see where I was or what street I was passing. Once, as I did this I saw a picture of the band, my band, Tidewater, on a post outside a music store. I stopped to read it.
| The band known as Tidewater would like to invite all who wish
to attend to a memorial service for our friend Michael Vello,
the beloved lead singer of our band who entertained this community
for the last two years with his extraordinary talents. Friends,
Mike's family and we would wish very much that you join us as
we say goodbye to our friend and mentor. It is with heavy hearts
that we concede the loss of our friend. It is for this reason
that we wish your presence to help celebrate his life and influence
on us. The service will be three blocks from the College Knights
Club where Mike learned to give us what made us all happy.
October 3rd, 2082
Christ Episcopal Church
I was being eulogized. They were burying me. I was dead.
I snatched the bill off the post and rushed home, panicked. If I let them put me in a box, even if ceremonially, then Mike would never be able to come back. How could I ever explain where I'd been? I didn't stop to think that I had already been gone six plus months. That alone would be quite a feat to explain, had I simply returned. A quote from Sam Clemens struck me, "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
I had to stop it. I couldn't allow... It was at that point I realized that Gary had to have known about this and he had said nothing.
I ran as fast as I could in the pumps I was wearing -- not very -- and wondered whose idea it was for women to wear elevated heels? Don't you guys know just how hard it is for us to run in these damn things when we have to? High heels and hose. You think they look so good? You wear them.
I charged the apartment building, flying past the doorman and up the stairs. "Evening Miss..." he called after me. I hit the door but it was locked. Gary was not home yet. I wanted to know why he hadn't told me.
"Where have you been?" I heard from behind me. I turned on him with a fury that I would regret.
"How long!" I demanded.
"Huh?" he raised his hands defensively as he back peddled away from me.
"I said how long?" tossing the page in his face.
He looked at the paper and muttered, "Shit!"
I waited for an answer.
"Can we go inside?" he asked.
Anger warred with my need to know. Finally I stepped aside to let him pass. "That's not too much to ask I suppose."
Inside he took off his coat and hung it up. He poured himself a glass of wine and started to explain.
"How long you asked -- about three weeks." He sipped his wine and waited.
"And what? What are you asking me?"
"Did you intend on telling me?"
"No," he said flatly. "To what end? Would you go? Would you really go and upset yourself like that? Your folks will be there. Can you deal with that without going insane? Do you think I want that for you?"
"Ah..." was all I could come up with.
"I know you don't want to be here. I'm going to keep doing the best I can to make things right. I promised to do that and I want to do that, but that means I'll make a few decisions on my own. I can't stop you if you want to go to this thing, but I don't think it will be healthy and whether you want to believe it or not, I had your best interest at heart."
I slunk down into a chair. That was it then. I could do nothing and neither could or would Gary.
"You had to have known this was going to happen," he pointed out.
"I did and it's the main reason I wanted to leave town in the first place. Do you remember that conversation?" I asked glumly.
He knelt before me. "I wish I could make this better or easier for you. I know you're unhappy. I'm sorry that I can't seem to do better." I reached out and touched the top of his head, stroking his hair. How I wanted him to hold me, but I had let things get to a point where I dared not yield to my feelings. This is best I kept telling myself. Yeah? Then why does it feel so damn wrong?
"If you want to attend this service then I'll go with you. I'll do what ever I can do to make it easier for you, but I still think it's a bad idea."
I said nothing. Instead, I got up and went to my bedroom leaving Gary where he was at the foot of the chair I had sulked in.
I won't go in to the details of my thoughts except to say they were self-pitying and pathetic. I grieved as if I had been Mike's friend instead of realizing that I had been Mike.
After hours of soul searching I made a decision and stood at Gary's bedroom door, afraid to speak until he noticed I was standing there. He had been lying in bed reading, partially nude. When at last he noticed me he seemed embarrassed, quickly covering up. I was a bit surprised by it but in retrospect, I suppose I would have done the same thing.
"I've decided I want to go."
He only nodded. God bless him, he didn't argue having given me his opinion earlier and knowing I needed no more elaboration. I understood his concerns and he knew it. I was struck by the awesome respect he had for my desires.
"I'll drive you."
"You don't have to go," I assured him.
"Yes I do. It would look funny if the girl I live with showed up at my best friend's funeral and I didn't."
"Right," I agreed. "Goodnight Gary."
"Goodnight." He rolled over and resumed reading.
I slept late that morning, remaining in bed until nearly 4:00 PM. I couldn't bring myself to face the day. On March fourth I had been reborn and on October third of that same year I was being laid to rest. Finally, I showered and dressed in a black outfit, skirt and blouse. Gary was clanking around in the kitchen so I knew he was waiting for me to make an appearance and it was about 5:30 when I finally made an appearance.
"You look very nice Michelle."
"Thanks. So do you." And he did. "I don't think I've ever seen you in a suit before."
"Thank you. Want a drink? I think we have a little time." He looked at his watch to confirm it.
"Yeah. Something strong please."
He poured straight vodka in a small glass and handed it to me.
"Gary, can I ask you something?" I downed the vodka before he could answer.
"Do you hate me?"
"What kind of question is that?" he asked, but there was no emotion in it.
"What kind of answer is that?"
"OK then, no. I don't hate you."
I shoved my glass back at him and he refilled it.
"I told you it couldn't be the same."
"I'm sorry." I felt awful. We were both living a nightmare and it made matters worse for me that Gary had chosen to live it with me.
"Shush. It's OK. No more on that now, OK?"
"I owe you a lot."
"No more." He gently reminded.
"OK," I agreed, nodding in agreement, but my heart ached so. There were things I wanted to say. I wanted to explain that if I gave in then I really would be dead. If I resolved myself to living the life of this girl, then I could never come back and I still wanted to come back. I wanted to make him understand that. I wanted it to be OK with him.
"I guess we should go," was all I could come up with to say.
He came around from behind the kitchen bar and put his hand into the small of my back. For a moment I could almost think that we were going out to enjoy the evening together. I slowed my step at his touch, wanting it to linger, but the moment was short lived. He withdrew his hand to open the door and allowed me to pass into the hall.
The church was packed. I couldn't believe that this many people had come because of me. There had to have been over 5,000 people. They couldn't all get into the church. It took us nearly forty minutes to find a place to park and the spot we found was three blocks from the church itself. It was a cold walk and the wind was fierce. At times I felt like it would simply carry us away.
When we got closer, there were groups of people milling around here and there talking about the band, talking about me. It was surreal to hear these people talk about me as if I wasn't there any longer, but how could they have known? The groups of people got larger within their groups and the number of their groups grew thicker until as we approached the church we couldn't seem to get any closer for all the people.
Gary had taken my arm in his as we were walking close together now more for warmth than for any reason if intimacy. It made it easy to talk to him without others overhearing what I said though and I was grateful for that.
"This is not all for me is it?"
What do you think?" he whispered back.
"Gary, look at all these people." I declared in stunned bewilderment.
He looked at me and I must have been smiling at the thought because he said, "You need to at least act upset here. This guy was an icon, not to mention a friend of mine."
I looked at him in confusion but he never looked back at me. An icon? Me?
I had three or four good, really good friends when I had been Mike. I knew two others as acquaintances and of course there were the members of my band. If I had been this loved it was news to me.
"Gary." I heard the voice before I could react, still I tried to pull away and run. Gary held my arm firm holding me where I was. Soon I stopped struggling and turned to face my mother.
"Hi Rose," he said. "I'm so sorry."
He was suddenly in her arms hugging her, a place I had wanted to be for years. How is it that Gary slipped in there so easily.
"Robert and I have missed you. How have you been?" She was different somehow. She seemed -- I don't know -- humble.
"I've been good. Working with my Dad now." Behind my Mother my father was approaching. He looked pale and haggard very unhealthy. When he joined the group, he smiled a wane smile.
"Gary." He extended his hand.
Gary took it and shook it firmly. "Robert."
"Thanks for coming. Who's the young lady?" my Dad asked.
"I'm sorry. This is Michelle."
"A new love interest?" my Dad asked. I extended my hand. Taking my father's hand, I shook it once gently and then let go as he said, "Pleased to meet you."
I searched for something to say. "I... I'm sorry about all this." It was a confession, as much of one as I could bring myself to spit out at the time anyway. My Dad took it as a condolence for his lost son from a girl that hadn't known his boy but was being polite.
"She's so pretty Gary." It was my Mom. "You two serious?" It was polite talk. Talk designed to avoid the main subject and I was glad for it. I wanted out of there. Gary had been right. This had also been a mistake.
"Rose, I want to..." Gary started, but then broke up. His face fell apart and he collapsed into my Mother's arms.
"I'm sorry Rose. God forgive, I'm sorry."
My Mom broke down, then my Dad and the three of them were hugging and crying. It happened before I could react. There I was, feeling very much the outsider, just as one might when attending such a function having never met the principals involved. I was empty. They had loved me after all, but somehow I had missed it. I had tuned my back on that love and I had missed it.
The members of the band were milling around on the steps of the church and my first impulse was to hide so they wouldn't recognize me. Then, reality set in and I was able to get over the idea that someone would see who I really was.
"Come into the church and sit with us Gary, you and your girlfriend." She smiled at me. "You won't get in otherwise. You are as much a member of our family as Erin and Mike are... were... Oh Gary," she shrieked and was crying again.
I couldn't stand it any longer. This was not Gary's fault, it was not some "Plan." I had fucked up and now I had cost my parents their last child. If I didn't get out of there soon I was going to go insane. I waited until the emotional moment had passed and pulled Gary aside. "I can't do this Gary. You were right. I'm sorry. I know it's wrong, but I have to leave. Please take me out of here." I clutched at the lapels of his coat. "Don't make me do this, please."
"OK. I'll get us out of this. Don't worry."
"Thank you. Oh, thank you Gary."
"Wait here. OK?"
"Yeah, OK. Thank you."
Gary when over to my folks, chatted briefly and then excused himself. He came back to me and put his arm around my waist. "Let's go."
"What did you say?"
"Told them that I just couldn't do this. That I couldn't say goodbye."
I allowed myself to be held. I relished it. "I'm sorry, Gary. I didn't mean to put you through that. I didn't expect all this. I don't know what I expected, but my parents... I didn't think they cared. I have been wrong about so much. Nothing is what I've thought it was."
"Ssshhhhh, it's OK."
"No Gary. It's not OK. My folks cared about me and I never knew it. Is that my fault? I think it is." We were still passing the people that were hoping to get in to the church. "Look at all these people I never knew." I shook my head.
"You're kidding right? You didn't know how much these people loved you?"
"No Gary, I didn't. This is a mystery to me."
I was walking fast trying to get away and we had gotten further than I could have hoped. In a few more steps we were in the parking lot where the HOV was parked.
"Home, please. I just want to go home." He took me there. By the time we arrived I was badly depressed.
I was up for a long time after we got back. Gary tried to console me and I suppose he understood to some small degree. After some time he gave up, leaving the door open for me to seek him out if I wanted. The temptation was there. I wanted to go back to the way things had been. I was still in love with Gary, but that was part of this body, not me, not Mike. I didn't want to get caught up in the idea that Mike was truly gone, even if they had buried him today. Giving in to my feelings about Gary would mean just that.
In the morning my attitude began to make a dramatic turn around.
When I woke Gary was gone. He had left for work. He had left a note for me but I didn't see it until later in the day, after it was too late.
What I did see was a newspaper on the dining room table. The headline froze me.
| In perhaps one of the strangest coincidences in recent memory,
a disaster on the scale of the "Coconut Grove" fire of the nineteen
fifties was averted last night. Patrons of the College Knight's
Club were attending the memorial service for the lead singer of
the band Tidewater, who made headlines after vanishing just before
a recording session six months ago and then for the phenomenal
hit "On A Mountain Top" that was released days after his reported
On a night where as many as six hundred college and local kids would have otherwise packed the small tavern to hear and dance to the music of this rising star, they were instead in a service for the remembrance of his life and talent. Two minutes and twelve seconds into the service the roof of the tavern collapsed. Fire and rescue workers say that because of heavy air conditioners and heaters on the roof, it's doubtful that anyone inside would have survived if the bar had been open for business and the band, Tidewater, still intact.
As it is, the tables and chairs were the only casualties last night, but one question remains. Was Mike Vello's vanishing such a coincidence after all. Had it happened one day before or one day after, the place may have had a hundred or more people drinking and dancing there instead of in church at his memorial. Had he not disappeared at all, as many as five hundred could have died, including all the members of the band.
It's my contention that this community owes Mr. Vello not only a fond farewell and thanks for the music he left us with but a debt of gratitude for the lives that were spared because of the tribute to that talent and music.
Is that true? Is that what Erin was taking about when she said he would not survive?
I knew the answer. It was yes. This was not some sinister cosmic conspiracy. It was simply meant to spare life. The fact that I hadn't seen it or understood mattered little in the scheme of things. But I hadn't make any conscious choices here. I hadn't decided to stay like this. I was not given any way back. So why play on my emotions this way and try to make me feel I had options here? The option I knew about was with some dusty old man that wanted sex from me in return for a chance to get back to being Mike.
I was stunned and shocked. How many would have been killed, me, the band, hundreds of others only there to listen or dance? Instead we were all still alive. Was it worth it? My part in this was over and I had been left cold. I was finished but I was still stuck with the vehicle that had been used to save all those lives.
I grappled with that idea. There was no question that I was glad that all those people had survived. It was an uneasy idea that I would have to live with, the knowledge that because of me many might have died. I also agreed that to get a chance to reverse that judgment was more valuable than the life of one man or woman, but the idea that could there have been a better way wouldn't leave me. What was to be gained this way, by leaving me in this shell for the rest of my life? Didn't I do what had to be done? Why not let me go now?
I didn't get to struggle with the idea for long. Gary had started working on the idleness that seemed to be adding to my general malaise. He had confronted his parents on hiring me on at one of the Red Fish restaurants.
This presented a huge problem, as the Red Fish was a legal business, required under law to account for all its personnel and revenue. All businesses have "illegals" working for them. The vast majority of them come from other countries; many of these come from the United Mexican Republic, although many also break through the so-called "Artic Wall" from the Soviet Canadian District to our north. Almost all of these refugees are living legally here, so obtaining proof of registration, even getting inserted in the database was possible -- difficult, even on a good day, but doable.
Gary had told me about all of this and I had given my permission to explore the possibilities but only for the reason of giving me some more ideas. I was not ready for the knock at the door or the visitor that brought it.
I really wasn't expecting anyone at that time of the day. When I answered the door it was Karen and I guess the surprise showed on my face.
"Mrs. Shipley! Hello. Won't you please come in?"
"Hello Dear," he started. "I'm sorry for dropping by unannounced but I wanted bring you the news myself. You've been hired at the restaurant as hostess. We couldn't be happier to have you with the rest of the family. Congratulations!" She smiled and opened her arms to hug me.
Hire? What the hell was this about?
I didn't know what to say. I knew Karen could be pushy. In fact, I suspected that this apartment and the job, although a good thing for Gary, had been mostly proposed by Karen's over zealous attempts to rescue her son and take advantage of a bad situation to do it. Not that I blamed her. Had it been my kids I suppose I might have done the same. So I did what I could do and improvise with. I bluffed.
"Mrs. Shipley, I don't want to seem ungrateful but... well as you already know, I'm not exactly legal." I blushed. I could feel the blood suffuse in my face. It was truly embarrassing to have to say. At least I didn't have to act.
"You are now dear!" she declared and smiled. She pulled a small chip card and a card reader out of the top pocket of her coat like a magician doing a particularly lousy magic trick and handed it to me. I took it tentatively. I really didn't want it. It meant that I was in the government database now. I was traceable. I could no longer just drop out of sight. My hand shook as I slid the card in to the reader. I wanted to cry. The train just kept a movin'. It was going so fast now it looked like I would never be able to jump off.
My photo popped up in the display.
March 4, 2062
March 4th. Shit, my real date of birth. Michelle's date of appearance. A tear slipped from my eye. I was sad because now I was really stuck here. If I vanished, these nice people would have to answer for it.
"Honey? Are you OK?" Her hand was on my shoulder.
"Hum?" I was embarrassed to so emotional with her and I quickly wiped my eyes. "Me? Sure. Just choked up, that's all. Thank you, but you shouldn't have gone to the risk and expense. You'll have to let me pay you back for this."
"Gary told us about how your Mother died when you were eight. It's a hard world out there for a young girl with no home."
"Ah... yeah. Look, I don't want to talk about that if it's OK."
"You mustn't feel you can't talk to me about anything. I want to be your friend Michelle. You'll make a wonder hostess. So pretty people won't come for the food any more. Gary will be quite jealous." She smile a sly smile like that should mean something to me.
"I don't know what to say," I choked.
"Say 'thank you' dear." She looked so confused.
I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a second then she said.
"It's a lot all at once. I understand that you'll want to think about it, but the job is yours if you want it. Frank and I are grateful to you. This is just our way of tell you so. Gary was headed for trouble. We know that. You turned him around. Frank still doesn't know how you did it, but we do don't we?"
I started to respond, "I'm not sure how much I had to do with Gary's turn around..." but she interrupted me.
"And that brings me to my point! You couldn't know if Gary had been in need of a turn around. You haven't known him long enough. Gary's bout with responsibility came coincidentally right after he met you." She stopped there to assess my reaction.
I'm not sure what my external reaction was but my internal reaction was that I wanted to faint. She knew something! That was certain. How much she knew still needed to be determined, but she was no dummy.
"Gary has mentioned some of his past to me. I just made some assumptions," I told her.
"If that's the case, then you and Gary have a truly special relationship, because these are things I'm not sure Gary has even admitted to himself."
I was a bit annoyed by the remark. Apparently, I knew Gary better than his own Mother, so it wasn't a real surprise why he had been headed in the direction he had been. My face must have clouded over a bit in anger because she continued.
"Please don't get me wrong. I love my son very much and I have come to like you very much. If I hadn't, you would never have gotten the job, let alone our confidence. We did this willingly, because we believe you were a good risk. We trust you."
"But you're not telling us the whole story are you?" She paused and rubbed her hands on her pant legs before continuing. "Well... of course you're not. We both know that. And I would never confront Gary on this because I believe it would drive him away again and I don't want that or to hurt him or you."
She waited again. This time I don't think she wanted me to say anything at all but I could no longer sit there and say nothing.
"If you think I'm hiding something from you then why don't we start there and I'll try to clear things up for you, put your mind at ease." I had no idea how I would answer her questions but I was on the defensive now. There was no turning back.
"OK. Let's talk about what you know about the disappearance of his best friend, Mike Vello." She stopped again and again I'm sure it was to gage my reaction.
"OK!" I said. "It seemed to be very hard on him," I lied. I was doing this a lot these days.
"You know, I didn't get that feeling," she countered.
She just kept blundering along, closer and closer to the truth. "Gary loved Mike like a brother. We didn't see much of him at the house though. I think it was because they loved just trying to get into trouble together. You know how boys are, don't you?" She looked at me but didn't smile. "Mike was usually very busy with his little rock and roll band, but Mike was a good boy and I was glad for his influence in Gary's life." This time she did smile as she reminisced about me.
"But that awful weekend when he disappeared... all the interviews with the police and the weeks of not knowing and still no one knows what happened to him. Well, it's all very sad. I feel worse for his parents. Did you know that they also lost a daughter a few years ago?"
Oh God, please don't let me start crying now. Why is she doing this?
"Yes. Gary mentioned that." I wanted to keep my statement as brief as I could. She had tripped me up once already. I didn't want that happening again.
"Of course. Well, you know what bothers me most about all of that?"
"No I don't."
Not once did Gary get upset about the loss, not in front of us, his Dad or I. It was almost as if he knew right where Mike was. That he was all right and might even be coming back one day. The police even had questions about that. I didn't see Gary shed a single tear about losing his best friend."
"But then you and he had met that same weekend and I'm sure that helped with the rough spots. And I didn't see Gary every night either. I guess he had his bad moments here, at home, with you, but I thought he would have shared some of that with us, you know? So maybe I'm making more of all this than I should. I do hope they find that awful man that was seen in Mike's dorm room."
"Karen, is there a point to all this? Is there something you need to know?"
She considered my question for a minute. Then turned and headed for the door.
"I went to the liberty of purchasing a dress for you to wear when you report to work next week -- in case you take the job that is. I'll bring it over later and you can try it on. See if it fits, you know," she said without turning around.
"Thank you, Karen. I'm sure it will be just fine," I said. I felt funny. She expected me to say something, come clean, but I couldn't. I just couldn't!
Then she said, "I spoke to your Dad, Mike. He's ill, you should tell him what's happened to you. Talk to him, before it's too late."
"I know that!" I was upset now and was starting to raise my voice. "But what the hell would you have me say Karen? Hi Dad! It's me. Oh, I guess I've changed a litt-" I froze.
I remember the empty hollow feeling I got, like everything inside me ran out the tips of my toes. "Oh Shit!" I said and glared at her and ran off to my bedroom and slammed the door behind me.
After some time there was a small knock on the door. I didn't answer.
"Go away!" I shouted.
"I can't do that now. Let me in please."
"We will have to talk eventually dear, we might as well do that now, don't you think?"
"We don't ever have to talk about this and we won't get the chance if I leave, which is what I should have done to start with. Now go away!"
Good. I got up and opened my closet door. I got a small bag from the top shelf and started stuffing it with underwear and clothing.
"Arrrgggh! Are you still here Karen? I thought I told you to go?"
"What are you doing in there?" she sounded concerned suddenly, not quite so cocky. That gave me a small measure of satisfaction.
"Not that you need to worry about it, but I'm packing. I told you I don't have to talk about anything."
"Now don't be silly. No one's asking you to leave," she said, sounding concerned.
"You want to protect your son. I understand that, but things are getting more and more out of hand. If I have to play this hand I've been dealt then I'm going to have to do it some place where this kind of thing isn't going to happen."
I slammed the last of my clothing in my bag and zipped it closed. I stood at the dresser, my hands planted on the top of my canvas bag, my head lowered. My hair hung down hiding my head. I couldn't believe it. I had lost another life -- even before it got a chance to get going. I just knew that this shit was never going to end. A single tear splashed off my hand. I was going to miss Gary, even if it hadn't worked out between us. It made me feel bad for him and I felt sick for myself. All I could do was hope this wouldn't drive him back in to a life of indifference.
I opened the door and Karen was still there, looking as though at any minute she might start ringing her hands. I shoved past her with a quick, "Excuse me, please!"
"Wait, Mike. Please wait!"
"Please don't call me Mike anymore. I can't go by that name anymore." I pulled my blouse out over my tits in an exaggerated fashion, allowed the stretchy fabric to snap back in to place and then gave her the best curtsy I could manage. "Now if you'll please excuse me, I have to go."
She raced around me and blocked the door with her body trying to prevent my leaving.
"What are you doing Karen?"
"I can't let you leave like this Mike... whoever you are? What the hell would I tell Gary?"
"You're so big on absolute truth, try that. Tell him how you just couldn't run the risk that the person you claim is responsible for his miraculous turnaround might be here only to take advantage him."
"That's not what this is ab-" Karen started and I cut her off.
"Try that for starters and see how well it works for him. Tell him that you didn't have enough faith in his judgment so you thought you'd do a little cleaning up behind his back." I glared at her. She suddenly couldn't look me in the eyes.
"You know something Karen? For a person that doesn't want to hurt your son, you have a funny way of following through on it. If you knew it was me, how the hell did you come up with the idea that I would ever hurt him?"
She said nothing. She just blocked the door.
"It's over now, Karen . Get out of the way."
She didn't move.
"RIGHT NOW!" I shouted.
"Please don't! I'm sorry, but please don't leave. He loves you. He'd never forgive me if he thought I had something to do with this. I just had to know. I had to know if it was you and why." she pleaded in small voice.
I was crying again. "Sometimes Karen, it pays to think about these things before you act on your impulses. I'm leaving, so get the hell out of my way."
"You're going to have to call the cops Mike -- and if you do, then it could get messy. I'm not sure you want that."
"Is that a threat? I've been through an awful lot in the last five months. Your threats don't mean a whole hell of a lot to me right now, not when you consider the future I'm facing." I set my bag down with large sigh. "I could just leave after Gary gets here. He won't let you do anything that might hurt me. You know that, don't you? So I have my secret weapons as well, but I don't want to pit Gary against you Karen. So I guess we'll talk. If I do that, will you let me go before Gary gets here?" I looked at her, defeated.
"I won't make you any promises like that Mike, but I'll listen and let you know at the end."
I sat on the couch and waited for the questions, but none came, so I started without prompting.
"I guess you're wondering how this happened."
"No, I assume you're using one of those so called skins. Those are illegal Mike, but I guess you know that don't you."
"Last March a guy that I stupidly thought was a friend talked me into trying on one of these things with a few other guys from school. It was supposed to have been a prank -- an adventure," I began, being careful to leave Gary out of the picture.
She sat and listened, nodding in all the right places and looking concerned where I guess she felt she thought she should. Then I broke the ending on her. For the time being I didn't bother to tell her the part about the sex and how I got trapped. I figured that in the grand scheme of things the details were irrelevant. Only the final outcome was what really mattered.
"So when the guys deactivated theirs and mine didn't come off and... well... you know the rest."
She sat in shocked silence. "Are you going to say something?"
"You're stuck? You can't get that thing off? Ever? Oh Mike, how awful this must be for you. Are you sure you can't get rid of it? There have to be places that have the technology to help you. Frank and I have money. We'll help."
"It more complicated than that Karen. It's not a thing. The device rearranged my molecules. I'm not wearing the device as you might think. I've actually become female. And it's damaged now. It can never be deactivated at least I'm not convinced that it can be. I thought I'd found a guy that could do it -- but I think he lied to get something else from me -- so this is what I am now, like it or not. So I have to start to like it or I'll go crazy."
"So you and Gary aren't really..." she asked without finishing.
I didn't answer her. I didn't know the answer to that anymore. I had been. I had wanted to be again, but we were both different then. Now it was just me that was different.
"You said damaged. What happened? Maybe it can be fixed. Have you considered that?"
"It can't. Trust..."
"How do you know?"
"I just know Karen. I..."
"I lost my virginity in this thing, OK? I shouldn't have been a virgin, but when the skin rearranged my genetic structure the system didn't know that as a man I had had sex before. So it gave me a hymen. I tore it having sex that weekend and... well, that, as they say, was that."
"You had sex, with one of those friends of yours?" She looked a bit repulsed by it. "Now why would you have done that? You had to have known about the risks. Just the risk of pregnancy would have..."
"Karen, I didn't grow up this way. I wasn't using my head. I got caught up in a whirlwind of emotions and feelings I wasn't ready for and it... just happened."
"Oh my God, It was the man in the news paper wasn't it? The man the police are looking for is one of..." A blank look came over her face.
"That was Gary," she whispered. "Jesus. It was Gary that talked you into this thing. He did this. It's his fault!"
"How did we think we could get away with hiding this thing?" I said shaking my head. "Don't blame him. I don't. I seduced him. I fell in love with him -- after I put this on mind you. I guess I still do. But..."
"It's hard watching as everyone gets on with their life. My life was finally going in the right direction. I was going to be successful; you've heard the song on the radio. I was good, really good! And I lost it all and Gary has his..." I lost it, collapsing on her shoulder and crying.
"There, there, you poor girl. I'm so sorry." She patted the back of my head as she spoke.
"He did everything for me, kept me safe, fed me, clothed me. He even almost died to make sure I had a chance to get out of this. He was the greatest comfort I could have possibly imagined. He showed me qualities in himself that I wish I possessed. Before we all tried to make the switch back to our old selves, I would have gladly have stayed like this voluntarily just to be with him if he had stayed that way with me too."
"He left me here!" I cried. "Oh God, I know how unfair that sounds. He was wanted by the police as that other person, but still he changed back and I couldn't. I feel like I got left behind." So many tears in the last five months and they weren't over yet. Most had been from confusion. Some, the worst of them, from loss, the loss I was to feel from losing my friend, my lover, my life. But this was unexpected.
"He's my son again and that makes you mad, doesn't it?"
I nodded and wept.
"It's OK. Anyone would feel that way. Especially if they were the only one that didn't get back to where they had been. I'm sure Gary knows this too."
But I shook my head, "no." I didn't get that impression.
"Yes, dear. I just think he doesn't know how to approach the issue. You're mad at him for something he can't control, so I believe he's waiting, hoping for you to get over being mad and realize that he still feels the same as he did when he was protecting you. I know this because he's still protecting you. You just have to let him do what you say he's so good at. Don't you see?"
"Well, that's just fine in practice, but if you don't remember, I was just leaving." I reminded her.
"You're not really going to go though with that are you?" she asked. "If you feel as strongly about Gary as I thing you still do, then you have to know that if you leave it would kill him. You don't want to hurt him like that. I know you don't."
"But if you found out about me, how long will it be before others do? I can't keep dodging this thing. I have to bury myself. I'm not going to jail for grand theft skin. I'm not! I've been punished enough."
She seemed to consider things for a bit and then said, "Do you know how I figured it out? It bothered me since our first conversation, do you remember that one."
I did remember it and I nodded that I indeed remembered talking to her on the vid that first Saturday afternoon I had spent as Michelle.
"It took me some time but I remembered that it was Mike's apartment I saw in the background behind you. That wasn't until sometime after you had been declared missing. By then I didn't know what to do. So I finally decided to come and talk to you. I really thought I'd discover you had done this to yourself voluntarily. I fully expected to hear you tell me you were gay, that you loved Gary and that's why you did this. Stupid, huh?"
I broke out into a gale of laughter through the tears.
Then she asked, "You're not gay now are you? I mean, you don't still like women?"
"No Karen. The people that designed this person designed her to be a heterosexual female. I can't like women even if I want to. I'm attracted to men. I'm all woman."
"How must that be for you." It wasn't a question. It was a reflection based on what she knew from her own life. "I've had only this one body and I've never thought of owning another. I've always been quite content to be female, but you were raised as a boy only to live out your life as a woman. How are you managing that?"
"You'd be surprised how quickly you get accustomed to it. Gary once told me that we are the sum total of what our bodies tell us we are. I found that he was more correct than I could possibly have imaged. I don't recommend it, but he was right. All I had to do was settle down and except it."
"Mom?" we heard Gary's voice behind us.
"Oh, hi honey. How are you?" Karen asked a bit surprised. Neither of us had heard Gary come in.
"What's up Mom?" There was an edge to Gary's voice. He was in protective mode. I hadn't heard that sound in quite a while.
Is that because you haven't been listening? I wondered.
"I was just telling Michelle that she got the job. Your Dad has decided that we needed her pretty face to greet the customers and draw in new business. She's going to work at your site."
I could hear that Gary was excited, I couldn't see his face, I had turned around because I'd been crying and I didn't want him to see my eyes. "That's great! Hey, that's just great! Did you hear that, Michelle, we're going to be working together!"
"Yes," I said without looking at him. "I'm very excited." I tried to sound up beat but my nose was clogged from crying and I sounded stopped up.
"What's wrong here? Mom, what the hell is going on here?"
I turned around to face him. I put on the best smile I could and looked straight at him. "Just some girl talk, that's all, really. I'm just happy that I'm going to be a team player for a change, that's all. Your Mom even bought me a dress to wear. And look, I'm legal! "I showed him the ID card and reader. "Isn't that wonderful baby?"
"Baby?" he said raising his eyebrows.
Karen reached out and squeezed my arm. I don't know what Gary thought, but I know it was gratitude on Karen's part. With that, she got up and made for the door. As she did, she bent down and picked up the bag I had packed. I had for gotten all about it and Gary had not yet seen it.
"Thanks for the loan of the bag, Michelle. I promise to get this back to you in a couple of days," she said smiling.
"Oh... ah... yeah. You bet. The least I could do considering the job and all. I promise you won't be sorry," I said and kissed her cheek.
She whispered to me, "I know that. You think about what I said about yon man there, will you? And don't do anything rash. I'll get your clothes back to you tomorrow, OK?" Gary looked at his us with great curiosity but never asked what had been said, even later. With that she slipped out of the door and was gone.
Gary closed the door behind her and when he turned around I was standing directly in front of him, my face dressed in a sly smile.
"Baby?" he asked again and my smile broadened. "You called me 'baby." Are you feeling OK?"
The rush of emotions I felt was like a dam being broken open. I had wanted him so badly now for so long and all I had had to do was just show him, but I had done just the opposite. I had been a bitch.
"I think I'm finally feeling just right and it's about damn time too, don't you think?" I stood on my toes and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Well, don't you?" I said and kissed him again. "You're not even going to answer me are you?" and another small kiss.
"If I do, are you going to stop kissing me?" he asked. He sounded genuinely confused.
"Do you want me to?" I asked and kissed him again.
He shook his head "no."
"Good, cause I had no intention of stopping. So are you going to answer my question?" This time he nodded his head "yes."
"'Yes' it's about time I started feeling right or 'yes' you're going to answer my question?" Again he nodded and this time he kissed me. For the first time since that wonderful afternoon in his parent's house I wanted Gary to hold me. I took his arms and placed them, one at a time around my waist and slipped my own around his and pressed my body close to his.
"You know," he said, "This is what got us in trouble in the first place."
"Coward!" I said
"What? Me, a coward?"
"You know what your problem is Shipley, you never take any risks," I said and snuggled in closer to him. I could feel a stirring in his pants against my belly. "Ooooh, Mr. Shipley. What ever is that growing down there in your pants sir?" I said and smiled up at him.
"What's up with you Michelle? Why the sudden change?" he asked me. "I'm suddenly very confused. What did you and Mom talk about today?"
"I thought I told you that already. Girl stuff."
"Girl stuff, huh? My goodness, so much has changed in a single afternoon. You've never just chatted girl stuff before. Not with the waitresses at the restaurant, not with Mom. I've never seen it before," he noted suspiciously. "I don't think you know what girl stuff is."
"Of course I do . I'm a girl aren't I!"
"Did you talk about me?" he asked.
"You sir, are not a girl. Or hadn't you noticed that? Besides, I thought you wanted things back the way they were." I didn't want to reveal too much about my conversation with his Mom.
"Well yeah, you know I do. I thought you didn't though. Things had gotten so bad in fact that I thought that if the job at the restaurant came through, I believed you would have turned it down and moved out."
"Look Gary, I'm sorry for the way things have been. I never stopped caring about you. I want you to know that. I... I guess I stopped caring about me. I felt abandoned. I don't expect you to understand that, I didn't understand it myself until recently. I just felt that all of you had moved on with your lives and I got stuck with the booby prize, no pun intended. I felt alone Gary. Not because you made me feel that way, but because I didn't let you in." I laid my head on his chest and listened as his heart beat inside.
"I just realized that you are still trying to save me. You never gave up trying and I finally saw it for what it is. I can see you love me. I want you to know that I still love you as much -- no more -- than that afternoon before all the shit began to unravel."
"Will you wait for me here? I have a surprise for you."
I didn't wait for his answer. I just rushed off to the bedroom. I quickly undressed and put something a little less comfortable on. Added a bit of perfume, brushed my hair and went back out in to the living room.
When I came back out he was opening a bottle of wine. "I think that you should really move in to the master bed room Gary. It's much to big for me."
He looked up to respond to a situation that he thought was a dead issue. I thought his jaw was going to unhinge when he saw me. I couldn't help but laugh.
"Oh... don't do that... you know how much I love that outfit." I did, in fact, know. I was wearing the tight white shorts and red sweater I had worn the night I became Michelle forever. I had added a pair of tight shiny hose and some black high heel shoes just for the effect.
"Gary, I do believe that you're about to burst Suh." I mustered in my best southern accent and pointed at his pants. He blushed and I said. "It's really more than a poor southun girl can take Suh. You know that we are such delicate creatures. I feel I might faint."
Right on queue, he raced to my side and braced me as I started to fall backwards with the back of my hand pressed to my forehead in a mock fainting gesture.
I looked up at him has he held me. "I once told you that the girl that snags you is going to be the luckiest woman out there. Do you remember that? Well, I'm taking you off the market. I can't have some other girl out there having all the luck. I think I deserve some." Then I kissed him again and added shyly, "If you'll still have me that is."
At that he bent and kissed me hard. "You wear this every night and we'll talk about it." He swept me up in his arms and carried me back to his bedroom. He called in sick that night and fortunately for him, his Mom took the call instead of his Dad. I could vaguely hear her on the other end say. "Yes dear, you looked a little pale when you came home today. I'll tell your Dad, you... rest up."
Gary had the next day off already and we spent two nights and one full day alone in bed sharing wine, cheese, bread and each other. The pretending was over.
I had worked at the restaurant for about three weeks when I saw the flyer for the tryouts. Tidewater was going to try it without me. It hurt. As selfish as it sounded, I didn't want them to go on without me.
So on a day when I should have started my period, I took off from work and took advantage of the fact that my cramps had not yet started to go down and watch the auditions.
I dressed in a tight short leather skirt and black knit top, sheer hose and those same black heels I mentioned before. I hired a HOV to take me to the College Knights' and sat in a corner listening as each entry played played.
I wanted to hear if any of them sounded like I had. I didn't think anything would come of it, but as the auditions proceeded there were a few that could possibly have substituted for me and I realized that I felt good about it. By the end of the session they had their replacement. I went home understanding that so much had changed in my life but so little of me had really changed that I felt ashamed of myself for all the things I put you, Gary, through.
So after everything, after spending the last $3,000 I had from my tuition money to find someone that could decode that stupid box and very nearly ruining my life forever, after I had taken a job at the Red Fish and been taken in by a family that really loves me, after I had finally found the peace and love that anyone would have killed to have and yes, after I had rejected that love, practically spit in its face -- after all that, you refused to go away.
I hope that doesn't change anything between us. Especially now, because your Christmas gift isn't this silly book or the story I just got done telling you. You know that one already. Hell you were there. No Gary, the Christmas gift I wanted to give you is in that other box under the tree, well one of them anyway. The other, I'll tell you about after you open the box.
Go on, open it!