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Skin Deep chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Skin Deep II: The Dance
Chapter 12: One Dance Ends
While Another Begins
by Mark McDonald
©2002 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved

A moment can be expressed in many different ways. Strictly defined, one might see it as a period of time delineated by the start of an event and the end of an event linked by a common thread or emotion. Michelle had seen and felt many moments in her life, some better than others. There had been moments of great joy and moments of deep fear or sorrow. She was having one of the latter moments now. This one however, was turning out to be spectacularly bad.

She knelt on the floor of the MediHOV next to the gurney that carried the unconscious body of her husband. In all her life she tired to remember a moment worse than this one. None came to mind. Not the death of her sister. Not attending her father's funeral as a person that could not express the grief she truly felt without exposing herself and her trap. Not even losing her previous identity had been this bad. She felt as if she might be losing her soul. Even worse, she felt she was powerless to stop it from happening because the man she depended on to fix things like this was what needed fixing.

It was hard for her not to think of this in terms of good and bad. It was impossible for her not to search for a time worse than this. If she could find one moment that towered above this one for all its pain and suffering, if she could find just one where the result was positive, then she had justification to reason that Gary might survive this.

Michelle tried to move closer to her husband by slipping her knees under the gurney to get her body as close to Gary's as possible. The floor was tacky with Gary's blood. Michelle was dimly reminded of it each time she shifted her weight. It mattered little to her that she was kneeling in the gore. She was concentrating on her love and his need right now. She stroked his hair and talked soothing to him though he gave no indication that he could hear her. His eyes were swelling from the impact his face had taken on the floor of the police station when he fell. His nose was broken and lay askew from its formerly noble line. She had done her best to clean away the blood from his face without touching what she feared might be tender or injured spots on his face. She occasionally stopped speaking and tenderly kissed his cheek or forehead allowing a restrained tear to splash off the skin of his face.

She shifted her position again and felt the tackiness of the blood on her knees and legs. God there was so much of it. She wondered what kind of job they thought they had done in stopping the bleeding with all this leaking out of him. The thought made her tremble with fear. She wanted to ask, to let the NEOMed know that this couldn't be right, that there shouldn't be this much blood. Each time she was about to her mind would stop her. What if you do and they say, 'We know that. We can't stop the bleeding.' Or 'What do you expect with a hole big enough to put your fist through, jeeze!' It was enough to keep her silent. Whatever answer they gave her it would scare her and that wouldn't do Gary any good either. She decided to do what she could for him and just be here and let him know how much she loved him.

She stretched again to kiss his forehead and when she resumed her kneeling vigil she was surprised to find his eyes open. He seemed to be staring off far away and she assumed he was not cognizant of her presence next to him. She continued to coo to him and stroke his blood-splattered hair when she realized that he was now looking at her and trying to smile.


"Mumph," he growled. "God, you just don't know how painful being shot can be until you actually do it. I don't recommend it as a party trend."

She laughed a ropy spit laugh through the saliva that had thickened in her mouth as she knelt there and wept for her husband. "Oh God I thought you..." she trailed off not wanting to alarm him. She was uncertain how much he suspected about his condition.

He tried to lift his hand to touch her face and grimaced at the pain it must have caused. He did not call out or complain. Instead he continued to try until Michelle grasped his hand and eased it back down next to his side. Once there she continued to hold it. He seemed satisfied with this and did not struggle again to lift his arm.

"Are you alright?" he croaked. "You didn't get hurt, shot?"

"I'm fine, you're fine. The whole damned world is fine. Now please rest," she begged him.

"There's blood all over you!" he observed, concerned.

"You hit the floor and got a bloody nose," she admitted. Gary tried to laugh but instead coughed up foamy blood. Michelle wanted to run in horror at the fountain of red froth that erupted from her husband. She fought the urge instead, finding a sterile towel and wiping away the blood as the froth settled.

"Please, please... Gary. Rest... Be quiet and just rest." She could not control the tears now. She had never seen anything so horrible in her whole life. How was he living through this? It seemed that he would start bleeding from his fingernails soon; he was bleeding from everywhere else.

He was quiet for a bit, his eyes closed for a moment, but Michelle knew he was still conscious and alert, his breathing was that of a man concentrating on pain. Then his eyes were open again and there was a determination in them. A knowing if you will, that something was changing. The looked filled Michelle with dread. She didn't want the knowledge that Gary appeared to be ready to share with her and yet, she could not speak to stop him.

"I love you Michelle. I want to say that now. Do you understand?" Michelle was silent but nodded in short quick nods, a signature gesture at times of great stress. "I was..." Gary coughed and winced as pain shot through him like another bullet contorting his already disfigured face in to something nearly inhuman.

"Gary, don't try to talk. Just lie still, please!" His wife put her wonderfully soft hand on his forehead and eased him back down on the stained and blood wet pillow. He lay there for just a moment basking in the luxury of her touch for what he felt was surly the last time in his life not wanting the sensation to fade or stop.

At length he opened his eyes and continued. "I was so happy you came back to me. I thought I'd lost you."

Michelle cracked a tired but loving smile and said, "How could I stay away from one as loving as you? You are my whole world Sir. You and this family we have. So you have to lie still until we get to the hospital where they can get you all better." Gary looked away from her at that and Michelle wept bitter tears. She understood that Gary believed he would not survive the day. "Don't you dare think about leaving me Gary? Don't you dare!"

He looked back at her with a look of sympathy in his eyes. She wanted to slap him for that look. It said, I would stay if I could but the choice is not mine and has already been made. "I thought you were gone. Your sister told me there would be a sacrifice."

Now Michelle was shaking her head wildly to indicate the negative. "No. You didn't see her. She's dead Gary."

"Yes my love, just like you wrote in that lovely journal."

"No Gary, stop it, please," she pleaded. She bent her head to his forehead hoping he would be silent.

But Gary didn't stop, he plodded on unabated. "I didn't believe you. I questioned when you knew that your Dad had died. Do you remember that night?" Michelle nodded. "Erin likes me now. Who would have thought, huh? She thinks I've done a good job protecting you. Loving you. Have I done that Michelle?"


"No, let me finish." Michelle was silent. "She told me about a sacrifice. It was after you had... left. I was devastated. I knew I had lost you. After all my praying that I would not out live you. I could see you were not aging. I thought... hoped, hell prayed that I could have you all my life and go before you. Pretty selfish huh?"

Michelle shook her head no and gently ran one hand down the side of her husbands face.

"I was wrong, it was me. I was the sacrifice. And I'm glad Michelle. I can't live without you. I know how selfish this sounds. You put the family back together and now it's time for you to move on."

"What are you talking about? No! I won't do it. You can't listen to her Gary! She lies!"

"Michelle, I'm sorry," Gary breathed.

"For what my love?"

Gary didn't answer; he simply closed his eyes.

Michelle knelt there at his side in silent surprise for a moment. "Oh no." Michelle whispered as she ran her hand over his face To the NEOMed she seemed so lost. He would have held her if it had been appropriate. He ached at her display of pain. "Don't go, please Gary. Don't... don't go." Michelle quietly pleaded. She trembled over him. Her hands shook as she touched his face. "Please..." she looked up at the NEOMed, the tears formed deep pools at the bottom of her in the deepest green eyes the young technician had ever seen. "Please Sir, he..." she looked back down at the still body of her husband releasing the pools of tears. They splashed on Gary's battered and lifeless face where they ran off his cheeks. "He can't die, can you do something? Please."

The NEOMed offered a strangled cry and told her he was doing everything he could. The man checked Gary's vitals and told Michelle that he had just passed out. He tried to hide the fact that nearly the entire blood reservoir for Gary's blood type was lying on the floor under her. He failed to tell her that he didn't think Gary would make it to the hospital. He wanted only to calm her and it did. The half-truth had worked some because she thanked him hand placed her lovely head on his chest and rode the rest of the way to the hospital in silence listening to the shallow breathing of her husband as he slipped into a coma.

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When the MediHOV's doors open at the entrance of the emergency ward. The glare of lights for the VID cameras and the crowd of reporters that blocked the doors to get a shot of Rouston's first family in their moment of tragedy were unbelievable. Through the narrow doors the HOV Michelle could see no end to them. They were a threatening crowd. Each fought the other for a glimpse of the shattered body that was her husband. The frightened her with their ferocity and aggressiveness for images or a statement. She could hear her name being called over and over again.


"Mrs. Shipley, please?"

"Michelle, Michelle, Michelle!"

"Are you going to sue the police department for the murder of your husband?"

"How does it feel to be a widow Mrs. Shipley?"

"How are you..."

"What are you..."

"When are you..."

"Who are you..."

The worst part for her was that she could see a smile on each and every face in the crowd.

Michelle wanted to scream in fear and anger. The NEOMed and the driver prepared to move Gary from the MediHOV to the hospital emergency room pleading for the reporters to move but they only crowed in closer when the realized they might be able to get a clear shot of what they thought was the body of one of the state's wealthiest and most popular men. Michelle understood that these people had no interest if Gary lived or died. It was not good news. What sold news chips were the image of the dead bodies of the wealthy and the envied. Michelle's anger took hold of her and just as she was preparing to dive into the crowd of reports and thrash them, the crowd parted from the rear.

There was a shouting that was coming closer from behind the reporters and then the top of a head came into view. The top of the brown head boy marching through the crowd was that of Randall Benton. He was shouting and shoving cameramen and reporters, men and women alike to the left and right of the line he was walking forming a wake behind him as he passed. They flew from their feet and landed in awkward positions on the concrete patio of the emergency receiving deck.

"Out of the way!" he shouted. "Get the hell out of the way!" He shoved and bullied his way up to the rear doors of the MediHOV. His eyes went to the gurney Gary was now strapped onto and there was the sound of sucking wind as Randy gasped between his teeth when he saw Gary's condition. She saw a look of pain reflected in Randy's eyes that could only be shared by a member of one's family. A single tear fell from his eyes and then she saw him struggle to recompose himself and be strong. He looked up to her and, in spite of her pain, she smiled to him, "I didn't know you were so forceful Randy."

"Only for my family," he whispered. Michelle crouched and touched Randy's face tenderly with one hand. "How is he?" Randy asked. But Michelle didn't answer. She simply didn't know. It was best to say nothing at all. "You," he asked. "Are you OK?"

"No," she said. It was a selfish moment. But one she felt Randy would understand. He had become such a strength for this family and she needed just a moment of it. She felt he would not mind if she imposed a bit of self-pity on him for a moment. "But I didn't get shot," she admitted.

"Good. That's something at least."

"Hey buddy, give us a hand," the driver of the MediHOV was saying. Randy turned and out of the corner of his eye he could see the mass of reporters moving in again. He quickly turned to face them. In unison the two hundred or so people all visibly flinched back almost two feet with an audible gasp.

It wasn't far enough. "I said to get back!" Randy shouted at the crowd. He picked out the closest and biggest man he could find and landed a right cross on the jaw of the man. He collapsed to the ground like a felled tree. With him he took down two other reporters, one a woman that became pinned under the huge man's dead weight.

"OK Who wants some?" Randy cried and the crowd moved back two more feet. "Well?" he asked. No one responded. "Then get out of the way!" Most of the reporters fled to a safe distance clearing the way for the gurney to enter the building.

There behind the safety of the glass doors of the hospital, Michelle's girls were all waiting for their parents to arrive.

The gurney with Gary's limp body was quickly removed from the MediHOV and trundled past the children. They gasped and looked on in horror as the man with the disfigured face was wheeled down the hall and out of site. Each of the girls were visibly shaken, none had known how serious this had truly been. All Beth had heard while on her sister's HOVVID as Erin came home was that their father had been injured and was on the way to the hospital. Erin turned and walked to the wall carrying Shelly from the grisly scene.

They all turned back to the HOV when they heard Michelle say in a weak voice, "Hello girls."

She stood there soaked in blood from the waist down. If it had been one hundred and forty years earlier one might have been struck that this woman look like a re-enactment of a warm November Dallas afternoon in 1963. Erin gasped in horror believing that there was no way her mother could not be hurt covered with all that blood the way she was. "Mom?"

Michelle could see the concern and fear in each of their eyes, "I'm OK. I'm fine." She rushed after the gurney as the NEOMeds hurriedly pushed it inside the building and down the hall. She raced up behind the gurney ignoring the feeling of the blood drying on her legs "Please... How is he?" Michelle asked one of them. He didn't answer, apparently busy with some other function. She turned to the man that had been in the ambulance with her, the one that had cared for her husband during the trip from the police station. "Please Sir, can you tell me how he's doing."

"He's alive," was all he said.

"That's it? He's alive? I have to know how he is. Please help me," she begged.

The NEOMed from the ambulance mumbled something in medical jargon to his contemporary on the other side of the gurney. The other man nodded in return and whisked the body on the gurney through a set of double doors that were marked with a sign above them that read, "Authorized Personnel Only!"

The two watched as the doors hissed and swung shut, forced closed by mechanical pumps that insured a smooth transition from closed to open and vice versa. With the doors closed the NEOMed turned to Michelle who was starting to cry again.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry I can't tell you more. I wish I could, and if I knew more I would tell you what it was. The fact of the matter is that we simply don't see wounds like this much anymore. To be honest with you, I've never even seen a gunshot wound before." Michelle's eyes were filling more and more with terror with each word.

"Are you telling me you can't fix his wound?" she whispered.

"I didn't say that. What I'm saying is that... I'm going to have to call in a surgeon; it may take some time to track one down."

The NEOMeds of the day were glorified nurses with back ground and training in minor to median surgery. Introduced to compensate for the ever-shrinking pool of qualified MDs, their role over the last seventy years or so had been huge on the medical industry. Hospitals seeking to become profitable now staffed eight percent or more of their surgical staff as NEOMeds reducing costs to MDs by better than half. The benefit was far greater than simply monetary. Many of these interim surgeons were seeking medical doctorates. This position could reduce the amount of school a student had to attend by two thirds, offering an attractive middle-income salary and practical hospital experience eliminating the need for internship. The downside was during cases of extreme trauma when an experienced surgeon was needed. Quite often surgeons were kept on retainer much as a lawyer might be, called in only when professionally needed. Only the wealthiest of hospitals actually had two or more on staff at any given time.

"I have money. I have lots of money, millions... it's all yours. I'll sign anything. Please, don't let him die."

The NEOMed took Michelle by the shoulders, "Ma'am, believe me. If we can save him we will. I promise you I'll personally make sure that everything that can be done well be done. But I have to get back there with him. Right now, I'm the keeper of this injury's history, OK?"

Michelle sniffled and nodded her agreement. The man dashed off. Michelle, left alone in the middle of the emergency waiting area hung her head, pressed her fists to her eyes and wept. Behind her, her children stood not sure what to do. There was only shock and confusion, pain and anger gone was the hope the morning had brought.

Beth couldn't help but feel she had failed. A disjointed phrase played over and over and over in her head and she could not shake it. The King is dead. Long live the Queen. Beth tried to be strong but the last two weeks had seen an emotional stress of her physical change build and build as new feelings fought with old identities and the science of biology changed internally what had been there before. It had been assumed there was a purpose for all of this madness from which the boy William had been condemned to live. But it was impossible to see if one still existed and if it did, just what it might be. Her father was dying.

She looked up at Erin, a vantage point she was rapidly getting used to the longer she remained her mother's daughter, she looked to see if Erin had heard the same dreadful portent from the man that had brought her father in as she had. Erin's eyes were glassy and distant and full of fear. It was this look above all others she had not expected to see on her sister's face. Erin had always been strong and fearless. At times, as her brother, Beth had mistaken it for masculinity. Erin was tough and wild, as demonstrated by the way she dressed and the dangerous people with whom she kept company. Nothing scared Erin, nothing until now. This seemed to be a barometer of the gravity and depth of the seriousness of the situation.

Beth began to weep.

Erin, watching her mother and knowing that Beth was now losing control also began to allow emotion to show through the cracks of her armour. "Erin?" asked Shelly. The small girl reached out with both hands and cupped her cheeks. "Erin?" she said with a face marked by deep concern for her sister, "Don't cry Erin. Daddy is fine." The girl was so touched by the young girl's concern for her sister that the floodgates poured open for the first time in years and Erin's true emotion escaped from behind the emotional wall that she had placed there to keep it all in.

At the sound of Shelly's voice Michelle remembered she was not alone. The girls had been there when she got off the MediHOV. She turned and there they were. All but Shelly were clearly upset. Guilt sank a rusty blade into her heart. She wiped her eyes and walked slowly to her children.

"How is he Mother?" asked Erin. It was the most compassion and pain she had seen from her daughter in years.

"I don't really know baby. He's hurt pretty bad," Michelle answered.

"Where... where..." Beth started, but she couldn't complete the question.

"In the chest honey. He shot him in the chest." Michelle once again started to cry with the memory of it. "That son of a bitch shot him." She cried miserably into her hands. The children gathered around her put their arms around her until she calmed down some.

Randy appeared with a nurse at his side. "Mrs. Shipley?"

"Yes?" she lifted her head to acknowledge the inquiry. Randy smiled. "I thought you might feel better if you could get out of those clothes and cleaned up a bit. Joann here says there is a shower you can use.

"Yes, it's on this floor, we can get you some hospital Jonnies to wear until someone can get some clothes for you."

"I'll do that," Beth said. Randy had other ideas however. "No, you need to be here with your Mom and Dad. Give me your passcard, I'll bring back everything you'll need Mrs. Shipley."

Michelle offered Randy a weak smile. "Has anyone told you how wonderful you are recently?"

Randy turned to Beth who was still very upset but calming down some, "As a matter of fact, yes. Someone told me that just this morning." Randy took Beth's passcard from her and Beth allowed the palm of her hand touch and gently glide down the side of Randy's face. The shadow of a rough beard was beginning to sprout there, a sign that the day was going to be long. Randy smiled without looking at anyone but Beth and said quietly, "I'll be right back. Help get your Mom cleaned up."

He turned to run to his HOV but was stopped when Beth caught his hand and drew him back to her. She mouthed the words, "Thank you," and then kissed him lightly on the mouth. Randy smiled a sad but grateful smile. Given the situation it was hard to enjoy any emotion they shared for one another. He turned as was gone. She watched until he dashed out the door and the automatic doors had closed behind him.

Joann the nurse Randall had introduced to Michelle was gently guiding her by the arm toward a door against the south wall. "Come with me honey. We'll get you all cleaned up." Beth started to go with them following Randy's instructions to help but Michelle waived her off. "Stay here, watch after your sisters I'll be right back don't worry about me."

Shelly was getting heavy in Erin's arms. She may have been a small four year old but she was still a four year old and it didn't take long for her weight and gravity to take a toll on one's arms. Shelly ran off to the Kiddy Korner, a section of the room where toys, play houses and other children's activities were located.

"I hope she doesn't remember much of about this," Erin said as her baby sister ran off to play.

The two watched as she talked with two other children roughly her age in unheard tones but her face suggested the negotiation of the rules of play for the three of them. When the negotiation period was over and all were satisfied and understood the rules the three shrieked and giggled with great humor as she played, dashing in and out of a large Polyteck playhouse with her new friends.

"She knows more than you believe. Kids always do," Beth said. "How can she not? She saw Mom. I'm surprised she's not screaming and scared to death."

"I think she is. She was trembling in my arms. I think she just needs to do something familiar like to make her believe that her world isn't crashing in on itself," Erin paused. "She's really not much different than the rest of us is she?"

"No, I suppose not." Beth agreed.

Erin and Beth regarded each other for a moment, each wiping tears from their face. Then something happened. A strange peace settled over them. Unbeknownst to the other, each girl felt as if they had been reunited with a long lost sibling. The two had of course known each other all their remembered lives. As far back as their memories went they had each other in focus. But not like this, not for obvious reasons. And yet, here they were as familiar as two sisters could ever be. Each understood the great love one had for the other in this time of family crisis. Yet, each was unaware the other was feeling the warmth of it their love in return. The two fell into each other's arms and cried silent tears for their loss, pain and for the uncertain future a head. As they broke their embrace several minutes later both Erin and Beth moved with methodical slowness to the seats turned and sat down in unison.

"So," Erin said with a sigh, "when are you going to tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Beth rubbed her hands together and blushed. "To start with it looks like your brother had a fatal accident while skiing in Germany."

Erin looked shocked. In truth, she never dreamed that her parents would not be able to reverse what had happened to William. The statement, while revealing was not clear, not in Erin's mind where her ideas had always focused on William's return to the family fold. "What's that supposed to mean William?"

It was the first time she'd been called her real name in days. Might be the last time too. Don't get used to it. Beth looked around too see if anyone was listening. "It means, dear cousin, I'm stuck. I got a trump hand and William cashed out. Mom is upset right now and doesn't even know she almost gave me away. I'm Beth, Erin. I'm going to be Beth for a long time to come." She reached out and took her sister's hand. "It's OK. Better this way than the alternative."

"You're not making any sense. What alternative?"

"Trust me, there are some things Erin that..."

"Yeah, I've heard that before. Remember the conversation outside your bedroom door, the night I mistook you for a trespasser?"

"That was a bad night." Beth admitted and giggled at the memory.

"You know something, I meant to ask you... Why were you only half dressed?" Erin scrutinized her sister's face with a serious look.

"Um... don't laugh at me, OK?"

Erin lightened up and agreed with a nod of her head.

"Uh. I tried to pee standing up."

"No!" Erin said surprised.

Beth nodded with closed eyes and raised eyebrows. She shrugged and said, "I wasn't used to the equipment."

"And now?" Erin asked.

"I don't know." Beth admitted. "I didn't grow up with this stuff. I mean. My body works pretty much the way it always did. I have legs, arms, a head, a butt. I'm used to the way it feels for the most part. I'm sure there are things I don't know about yet."

"Like having your period. That's always fun."

"Ew, Erin! Why did you have to bring that up?" Beth asked disgusted.

"You can't tell me you haven't thought about it?" Beth shook her head. "Ok... maybe later. I'm here if you need me. I'll do my best to explain things, as I understand them. And I have some reference chips you can use, stuff from Sex Ed."

Beth looked at her sister for the first time with genuine gratitude. "Thanks Erin. That will be better than talking to Mom about this stuff. I thought about pregnancy for the first time the other day."

"You and Randy..." Erin asked pumping her eyebrows up and down in a knowing manner.

Beth blushed. "No. We haven't. Oh God this is embarrassing."

"Good because if your plumbing is intact, then you can get pregnant. That's not something you want to do until..." The talk evolved into what Beth would remember as her first "girl talk" conversation with Erin, the first of many. It was a welcome distraction from the business of the day. A pleasant moment before the roof caved in again, to borrow a worn out phrase. This time when the roof came down however, Gary was directly underneath it.

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The shower room was antiseptically clean. The nurse offered Michelle soap, shampoo, clean towels, washcloths and an orange hospital Johnny to use until her fresh clothes arrived.

"Anything I forgot?" asked Joann.

Michelle touched the woman's arm and shook her head touched at the kindness the nurse offered. Joann left giving Michelle her privacy. Michelle undressed; stripping off the blood soaked red suit she had borrowed from her predecessor's wardrobe and dropped them in the trash. These were someone else's clothes. A disturbing notion; they had been purchased by someone that had looked exactly as she did, with exactly the same body. She undid the blouse and threw it away too. The blood had stained through to her panties and bra. Blotches of it were all over the front and rear of her panties and the bottom of the cups of her bra were lightly stained. She stripped.

She stood and as she had shortly after what she had always referred to as 'her accident' she was surprised to see Michelle staring back at her. Hi, remember me? She had been glad to kill Mike, she had too much to lose to allow him back now but now she was afraid of the wager she had laid down. Forever! How long is forever now?

She had gambled that the time remaining for her and Gary would be thirty or forty years minimum, maybe many more. It didn't matter to her if Gary got old and she didn't and she had also gambled that it would not matter to Gary either. But she had no idea that the time remaining would be only a ten-minute embrace that would have to last her, how long? Her metabolism was not allowing her to age as most people do. What did that mean now? Would she have to wait until she was what a hundred years old, two hundred? Please God, just a little longer, give me a few years to get used to the idea of living that long without him. Don't take him now. I love him. I don't want to have to live without him.

She looked at herself in the mirror. I told you I was here to stay a long time ago. Just you and me kid. Michelle wailed in pain and anger as she reared back and hurled the container of soap at the mirror. The mirror exploded in a shower of glass and Michelle, nude slipped to her knees and grieved for her husband whom she felt certain would be dead by the time she was through with her shower.

The nurse that had brought Michelle to the shower and a co-worker ran in and with glass crunching beneath their feet were shouting, "What was that?" -- "What was that noise." They saw Michelle crouched on the floor limp and weeping and they understood or thought they did. One helped Michelle up and into the shower while the other vacuumed up the shards of broken glass off the floor. The one nurse that was helping Michelle into the shower was speaking to her, telling her to let it all out. "Go ahead and cry honey. You'll feel better." And surprisingly she did. She began to numb and eventually just stared at the showerhead not crying, unmoving, only letting the warm water wash over her. Thinking about how it will be without him. Bracing herself for the loneliness.

Every once in a while she would shudder with the fear of a thought or sadness but in time the nurse left to see if she couldn't get a doctor to prescribe a sedative for this poor woman. The other left as well to get an orderly to make sure all the glass was up before Mrs. Shipley had to get out of the shower.

Michelle was standing there in a trance when she heard Erin's voice. "My sweet baby sister. I understand what you are going through."

Michelle's eyes fluttered open and she looked through the frosted glass of the shower to see a vague figure standing there. "How could you understand?" Michelle replied weakly.

"Do you think that when I passed I didn't feel the pain of loss?" Erin asked her sister.

"I've discovered I don't care Erin. Do you know how much I loved you in life? Do you? Then you did this to me. You changed me in a way that I could never go home. Left me there to fend for myself without the first lesson on how to do this. Alone!" she screeched.

"Not alone. I left you in the hands of the one man that could help you become who you have become." Erin said calmly.

"Yes, you did. And in case you hadn't noticed I fell in love with him. I have three children by him. Now you do this! You take him from me; first by sending me back to being someone I don't even know any more. What was that Erin a cruel joke? Did you want to refresh my memory on why I hated being a woman for that first year of my life, huh?"

"Now Gary is in there fighting for his life. Shot in the chest for God sake." The recollection of why she was here sent her into a new cascade of tears. "God damn you Erin. God damn you."

"This will be hard to understand Michelle, but this was done all for you."

"Thank you very fucking much! OK, Let me just say that right now before we go on because I don't know what I would have done all these years without your help." Michelle went back to crying. She tucked herself into the corner of the shower stall, covered her face and wept while the warm water fell in sheets off her back.

Outside the shower door the slender shadow paced back and forth waiting for a lull in the tears. "I need you to listen to me Michelle, it's important that you not miss what is going on here. There is not much time.

"Thanks to you!" Michelle screamed.

There was pained sigh from the other side of the shower and Michelle felt the heat of the flame of victory in her heart. Almost instantly she was ashamed it had grown there.

Erin said sounding weary, "The future is not determined. You have more to do. Do not miss your opportunity to act. It will be too late soon."

The words didn't nothing but kill the guilt she had felt just seconds ago. "You're not done yet? Have you come to orphan my children too? You've tried that already Erin, but I tricked you! I found a way back to my family." Michelle paused then said harshly, "I want you to leave me. Do what you have come to do but I don't want to know about it in advance."

"Oh Michelle, I wish you could see the bigger picture. I've not come here to hurt you or your family but to free you from..."

"Shut up! Just shut up!" she slammed her hands against the sides of her head covering her ears. "I'm so tired of playing your fucking games. Who in the hell do you think you are? You destroyed Mom by leading to being changed into a woman. That damn near drove me insane, but I adjusted. I had a family, and I was fucking happy! But we can't have that now can we? What about my son? What's up with you? Do you hate men or something? You've changed me and now my son into women without ever asking us once how we might have felt about it." There was a long pause and then Michelle sighed. "Just kill me and be gone."

"I will go. But I can't go until I tell you this. This is the moment that was foretold to you and to Gary. Do not miss it. The pieces are in place. There will be no... "

"You mean for Gary to sacrifice himself for his family? He's done that already. Now go!" Michelle screamed.

"You will not get a second chance. Don't wait too long. The last piece is even now waiting for you to use. Be aware of the time. This is all for you." The figure on the other side of the glass was gone and suddenly Michelle was very afraid she had been too hasty in banishing this particular ghost.

"Wait! Erin... I'm sorry." But there was no answer. She plunked her head against the stark white tile of the shower stall and felt sorry for herself. The pieces were in place? What the hell did she mean by that? Michelle realized it might have been a way out of this mess and in her selfishness she had chased away that hope.

"Think, think! What could she have been talking about?" She bumped her head on the tile trying to jog her memory. "Don't wait too long... Wait for what?"

"Mrs. Shipley?" a voice echoed off the tiles, someone had come in while she'd been talking to herself.

Michelle said, "I'm sorry, just thinking out loud."

"It's OK, if anyone is entitled you are." Said the sympathetic voice on the other side of the shower door. "Your little friend arrived with a bag of things for you. I'll just leave it here. I'm locking the door on the way out to give you some privacy. It unlocks from the inside just turn it to the left when you're ready."

"I hope you know how grateful I am for all your help." She sounded weak and beaten but happy to have so many caring people around.

"Go now, get dressed. Your kids are waiting for you." The nurse said dismissing the thanks. She heard the door close and the lock slide home.

Michelle examined the contents of the bag. Inside were three pairs of jeans, a pair of dress pants, three comfortable T-shirts a blouse two bras, panties, perfume, deodorant, her make up kit her tooth brush, tooth paste and hair bands. It was packed for a long stay. God bless you Randy.

Michelle dressed, afterward replacing the toiletries back into the overnight bag and zipped it up. She pulled back her hair and twisted one of the hair bands around it making a ponytail. Feeling decidedly better, she grabbed the bag, unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall. To her left the hall opened up to the waiting room of the emergency lounge. Her family had moved into this room and she could see Shelly playing a game of catch with Randy, Shelly's teddy bear being used as a ball. Shelly would squeal with delight when she would catch the bear making Randy laugh deep and hearty. She was so grateful that he was here, for what he had done so far to help out.

On a bench of connected seats where her other girls, they seemed to be huddled together out of self-defense. Kit had joined them along with Frank's wife Amanda. Shelly was playing tickle with Uncle Kit, shrieking and giggling with great joy as she tried to tickle the man everyone saw as her favorite playmate.

No one saw her as she walked up behind them and placed the bag on the seat next to Erin. "So what's the word?" Michelle asked not sure she really wanted to hear the answer to that question. Surprised at her reappearance; they all turned to face her.

"He's in surgery right now. They won't know anything until he's out." Erin said

Kit picked up Shelly and kissed her on the cheek, "I'm going to go see your Mama now little one." He set her back down on the floor. Shelly smiled and said "Kay." She ran back off to the Kid's Korner as Kit watched and the then stood and came around the long line of connect seat and took Michelle in his arm and hugged her. "How did all this happen?" he asked. Amanda had also come around with Kit. She had her hand on Kit's arm and Michelle reached out and placed hers over the back of Amanda's and smiled.

"Callahan finally snapped." Michelle said. Kit and Frank knew of Callahan's hatred and contempt of Gary. Each of the three of them had always understood they also bore an equal responsibility for that hatred. Kit's face was miserable; Amanda's was full of pity. Michelle turned to Amanda and asked. "Frank? Is he OK?"

"Oh Michelle. He'll be fine. He's shaken. You know how much Frank just loves Gary. Sometimes I think they're actually brothers. He'll be fine. It's Gary we're all worried about. Frank's on the way however, he was in Maryland buying for the stores when we heard the news."

Michelle nodded. Amanda was a sweet woman with a tender heart. She would have done anything for anyone if asked. She was as much a part of the family as anyone standing here with one great exception. She knew nothing of the incident that had created Michelle Donavan in the first place.

"How are you?" Kit asked.

"You know me..." she said. It was an answer designed to avoid the issue.

"Yes, I do. That's why I need to know. How are you? How are you really?" He reached up and took Michelle's face in his strong hands and looked gently into her eyes. "Tell me."

"Hey!" Amanda said looking around as if she had some how simply missed his presence. "Where's William?"

Michelle had forgotten all about a cover story. She had forgotten that the family was now very much in the public eye again, and that William was not going to be coming home. There were going to be lots of those questions from now on and she was going to have to answer them convincingly until Gary was better. If he gets better you mean...

The pain and stress of the last few days came crashing down on Michelle. Her face, beautiful and ordinarily full of life began to shift and wrinkle. Her eyes pinched and she suffused with color. She tried to think of something to say, someway to let Kit know that William was all right. Why not, he was part of their little group, one of the remaining four of the original six left standing. What came out however was her what she had conditioned herself to say at the police station.

"He's gone." It was a harsh reality in the face of her current pain. It was a marker of failure to her family and her husband. It burned her heart with its firebrand of shame.

"Gone? Gone where love? If you need I'll go and..." Kit was offering to go and fetch her son for her.

She placed her fingers to his lips and he fell silent with a confused look on his face. Amanda too seemed confused. "He's dead Kit."

The reaction from both Kit and Amanda was harsh and immediate. Each one was talking at the same time staying different things.

"What?" Kit cried in surprise.

"No!" No Amanda breathed.

Michelle nodded; she could say nothing. The very fact that she knew that William stood feet behind her didn't make the lie any easier. She had to keep it going. The peril of losing her son as contraband was still very real and very great. Kit could be trusted but no one really knew if Amanda could handle the idea and to this point no one had been willing to test the idea. Once that particular genie was out of the bottle, there was no real way to get her back inside.

Michelle was loosing her grip on her emotions. She croaked, "Skiing accident in Germany." She then broke apart in his arms. She fell onto his shoulder sobbing and shuddering. Kit wrapped her up in his arms and did his best to shelter her from any further pain.

The older girls had heard what was transpiring and both moved off together, weeping just a bit. The wept for all of it, their father, their mother the pain that each knew they had brought to such loving people the fear of possibly losing one of them and most of all the uncertainty of the future. The huddled together and to everyone, they seemed like a family gripped in the throes of incredible loss. Which of course, they were. No on questioned Michelle. Her son was dead, her husband was fighting for his life on an operating table and she had been the subject of an intensive police search for two days. No, no one would question her. Those that loved her wanted only to comfort her.

Three hours later after she was done explaining to her friends the alibi she had been spoon feed, after she had repeated the story for Frank when he arrived and after they had all hugged and cried and hugged and cried she felt the time had come to send everyone home. Yes, she assured them, she would call the minute they heard anything.

Kit didn't want to leave her there to fend for herself. Randy; however stepped up with Beth by his side, "Don't worry Mr. Garrison I'm here. If they need anything I'll zip off and do it for them." He was still reluctant to leave.

"The reporters are still out there Michelle. Are you sure you don't want me to stay, just to run interference?"

Michelle smiled. "You'd be surprised at how convincing Randy can be," she said. "Go home Kit. I'll call you in the morning."

"You'll try to get some sleep?" he asked.

"No Kit. I won't sleep until I know he's going to be OK," Michelle said. Kit nodded his understanding, smiled a slight smile of embarrassment and kissed Michelle's hand.

"Yes... of course." He shook Randy's hand and said. "Make sure you take care of them," and winked. Randy nodded and Kit slipped out the door into the sea of reporters and now fans of Tidewater that had gathered outside the door.

Michelle exhaled and slipped around to sit down next to Beth. "What have you told your sister so far?" she asked in subdued tones as she sat down.

Erin turned around to face the two. "She told me that the attempt to undo what Carry did was a wash. The best this guy could pull off was a switch. You guys really have to bury William? I mean, I know he's really not gone but," She turned to Beth. "What about your friends?" Erin turned back her mother, "What about Shelly? She adored William, we have to kill him off? Why can't we just make it seem like he's missing? It would be just as easy to explain if he suddenly showed up again. Assuming we ever find a way to undo this." Erin said holding up Beth's hand.

"Erin, I may have more reason to stay now. Most of what's been recorded is done. I'm pretty sure that undoing it would really level suspicion at us. There were too many different people working on this from too many sides to safely put a game plan together." Beth glanced behind her at the sounds of Randy and Shelly playing together and she became inwardly excited. It was something Beth, in spite of the tragic events of the day, could not completely control. Nor could she hide it either. Erin saw her eyes glaze over just a bit and the smile touch the corners of her mouth when Beth looked at Randy.

When Beth turned back to her sister, Erin was careful not to tease with a smile or a look. Things were hard enough. Beth's was a complicated issue and Randy had been not only an ace but also a gentleman. Beth could do so much worse in this world.

"We can't say anymore about this. Shelly doesn't know and can't, not for a while," Michelle said to the both of them in a serious tone. "As for what has to be done next, I'll take care of that."

"Mom?" Erin said.

"Yes hon."

"I'm sorry about all the trouble I've been... well, over the last few, what, eight years?" She said and hung her head.

"It's all right."

"No Mom, I wasted all that time being a spoiled brat, being envious of you." She sighed and exasperated sigh, "I wasted so much time."

Michelle leaned forward and took her daughter's hand. "If this is a concern to you then don't waste anymore time lamenting over it, move on and learn to live. I'll always be there with you Erin, but we have to move on now."

Erin nodded ashamed and her Mother squeezed her hand to let her know that everything was OK.

Over the course of the next eight hours surgeons managed to stabilize Gary's condition.

In 2021, firearms had been outlawed for use by all except the military. For Michelle, it was easy to see why from the condition of Gary's wound. The entry point was only the diameter of a finger. It was where the bullet had exited that was the concern. The bullet ripped through is pectoral muscle where it began to mushroom, the head doubling in size. It then struck a rib splintering the bone and flattening out the bullet. Gary's right lung was in the way so the bulled removed most of the top of the lung where it connected to the bronchial tube. The flattened piece of lead then careened into his shoulder blade vaporizing it and punching it out of his back through a hole that seemed impossibly large.

Without advanced technology, there would be no way for surgeons to fully repair the damage. For the most part, beyond a few advancements that were approved by the government for public use, most of the truly beneficial technology was considered contraband and illegal for use. If Gary survived it would be a miracle. The doctors all agreed that he would never use his right arm again and there was a good chance that if infection took hold, they might have to remove the arm after all their troubles to save a useless appendage.

As Gary underwent surgery, Michelle and her family, joined by Randall chatted off and on, reminisced about Gary and all the good times they had shared as a family taking great care not to refer to Beth as William. They talked about the time they had to call a rescue team out when Gary, clowning around as he had a tendency to do, got his hand stuck in a poly-jar of olives. The Michelle and the kids had thought it a riot when Gary had tried to pull the jar off, thinking at first it was a joke. But when he spoiled his shirt with olive juice after the jar had slipped out of his hands he became frustrated.

Michelle had pleaded with him to stop. She was close to peeing in her pants she was laughing so hard. "God Gary... Stop fooling around." She stopped to let out a bray of laughter that was so harsh it sounded like a donkey braying. "You're... You're making a mess. The floor is covered with olive juice."

With that Gary slipped with a surprised "Whoop!" and vanished behind the counter in the kitchen and landed with thud.

Michelle and their two children were silent, surprised at the sudden turn of events. Then from the floor behind the counter came. "Damn it!" and all three started laughing hysterically again. When Gary got up from the floor, his back was drenched, soaking in olive juice. The jar was still there, stuck to his hand. He looked at the three of them with a scowl and Michelle and Erin tried to put on a serious face but William's laughter broke the poker faces of the other two and the exploded with renewed laughter.

"A little help here." Gary pleaded with his family.

They pulled and tugged on the jar, olives bouncing around inside making hollow thumping noises, with no luck. Gary smashed it on the counters in the kitchen but the plastic based material would not shatter or break. At one point he even forgot it was stuck his hand and tried to scratch an itch on his forehead, Boink "OK, that's it... someone call Fire Rescue I don't care what they say... I have to get this damn thing off."

"But honey..." Michelle started, "I really like this new look. Can't you keep it on just for the night?"

"That's not funny Michelle. These olives are getting mushy."

The jar had come off when FR came and cut it off. Everyone got a huge laugh out of it, everyone except Gary. It wasn't until later that Michelle caught him chuckling to himself. When she asked him what it was about he explained he was trying to see in his mind what they must have seen when he had slipped in that juice on the floor. He had to admit, he would have laughed if the shoe had been on the other foot.

When the stories became less light hearted they stopped telling them.

Each of the women took turns pacing the floor. Each time a doctor appeared they anxiously followed him or her with expectant eyes until they either found someone else in the waiting room or pass out of sight completely.

Occasionally, Beth or Erin would drift off to sleep for a few minutes at a time. Randall borrowed blankets and covered the sleeping girls with a blanket, then would run off to get coffee for Michelle. At one point when all three of her daughters were asleep she pulled Randall of to the side and thanked him for all he was doing for her family.

"You may already understand this, but I'm going to say it anyway. Thank you Randy."

Randall seemed genuinely confused. "For what Mrs. Shipley?"

"First of all you need to drop the Mrs. Shipley stuff and start calling me by my name."

"Yes ma'am."

"No. Not 'Yes ma'am', OK? Michelle, right?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Ohhhhhh. You are stubborn aren't you?" Michelle declared.

"Yes ma'am,." Randall said with a toothy grin.

"OK then have it your way. What I wanted you to know was that I want to thank you for all you and Beth did for all of us."

"Yes ma'am. I understand. It was my pleasure to be there to help."

Michelle smiled, "You know, Gary was my best friend. He had been since I was very young." She paused. "We met in school, second grade," she said with a thoughtful look on her face. Then she said something surprising. "I was going to lose him. Bet you didn't know that."

"I assumed as much, from what Beth and I read in your journal," Randy admitted.

"I'm glad and Beth read that, for more reason than for the clues that helped bring me back. It's a relief to be found out," she said with obvious relief. She reached out and touched his arm tenderly and then resumed her story.

"Yes, Gary and I were becoming distant. I was well on my way to becoming a star and Gary was well on his way to the fringe." Michelle sighed. "It was a sad time. Even then, even for us as teenagers it was sad. Guys aren't supposed to be emotional and I was perhaps the most emotionless bastard on Earth or the Luna one, two, three or four. But I didn't want to see Gary and I fall out of touch, but seemed helpless to stop it. I didn't that to happen." She repeated. "But what I did want was out of this town and away from all the bad memories. But I never saw this happening. I certainly never wanted to fall in love with Gary to prevent it from happening." She laughed. "Or have him fall in love with me for that matter."

"I'm confused," said Randy, "I thought I read..."

"You did. And I was stubborn, pig headed. What you read was true, but what I didn't know at the time or at least couldn't define was before you fall in love with some one, you should be friends first. I mean really good friends, best friends; you know?" She turned to Randy to get confirmation on this issue. Randy smiled and satisfied, Michelle continued. "I mean it's far more exciting to be in love with someone you really like. Someone you get along with and enjoy doing things with." Michelle cocked her head thinking, "Is that weird?" Randy just smiled.

"Randy, life can be very interesting when you spend it with that one, do you understand?" Michelle asked distractedly. Randy took the hand of the Mother of his best friend and squeezed tenderly. A passer-by might have thought the two a couple. They appeared to so close in age. Michelle allowed a tear to escape the corner of her eye, one in a parade of tears thus far.

Michelle wiped the tear away angrily. Randy could only guess about what she was angry about, but Randy thought he understood. She was so much in love with Mr. Shipley and now she was facing the prospect of losing him, just like before, and well before she was ready to do so. Then her face softened and she turned to Randy and said, "She loves you."

"Me?" he said as if he didn't know what she was talking about but his head swam with the idea that someone so heavenly could feel that way about him.

Michelle smiled. "Oh, you know it. You know how she feels. The way she clings to you says it all. I wish I had had the courage to face my feelings the way she seems to be doing."

"I'll be good to her," Randy promised.

"If you can hold on to her, I know you will."

"What do you mean, if I can hold on to her?" he asked puzzled.

"It's not over for her. She hasn't begun to face what it's like to lose your identity. To become not just someone with a different name but someone with a completely different body. One that doesn't work the same as the one she was born with. There have been a lot of distractions for her to keep her attention focused on other things. And Randy," she paused until was looking right into her deep green eyes. "You have been so wonderful to us. I would never have believed that a boy as young as you could be thrown in to this mess and keep his head the way you have. I will never forget what you have done for us."

"My pleasure, but honestly, there were five boys about my age twenty years ago that did no more or less than I did. You underrate boys my age," Randy said.

Michelle giggled, "Yes, I sometimes forget that I was only eighteen when all this started. I felt so much older." She shook her head as if to clear it. "What was I saying?" she asked Randy.

"Beth, she hasn't begun to..."

"Oh yes," she said and touched his knee gently. "You'll have to be patient with her. I don't know if she'll have problems reckoning her state or not, but if she does she'll need your patience and understanding more than you can begin to know." She paused again but this time for emphasis. "It may cost you your relationship with her. If you love her, you'll let her go if she thinks that what she truly needs. If it's not, she'll come back."

"I don't know if I can do that Mrs. Shipley."

"I know, I know," was all she said.

"So what do I do about the way I feel about Beth?"

"If you are asking me to help make her understand what happened to her, make her stay with you? I can't do that Randy. That's her choice. It's her heart. I'll tell you this though, Tell her how you feel, don't make her guess and you'll stand a lot better chance of walking away with her heart than you would if you hid yours from her."

Randy considered that for a minute and then nodded as if a seed had taken root and he was satisfied that the plant looked healthy. "Thanks Michelle."

Michelle raised her eyebrows and smiled. Randall smiled back and the two hugged each other.

As the two broke their embrace Michelle looked him in the eye and with grave concern asked, "You do know that you can't tell Erin or anyone else about what you saw. It would be very hard on my children."

"What I saw? I saw you get off a flight from Germany with a box in your hand when we picked up from the Spaceport in Baltimore. Why should anyone have questions about that? As for what Erin knows about William, that's family business and she already knows that. What I know is what I saw and I've already told you what that was." She kissed him on the forehead and he walked away smiling pleasantly to himself. Nothing else was ever said by either of them about that conversation or what Randall had seen in the lab that day.

Early the morning following Gary's shooting, time being smudged into a deep blur by that point the family was awakened from a light doze by a doctor from surgery. She introduced herself as Meredith Cole and asked if the family could follow her to a private room for a consultation.

Rubbing her eyes, Michelle slowly realized that Gary must be out of surgery. At first her excitement was overwhelming and she was eager to know how he was doing, but the memory of his injury and the doubt on the NEOMed's face plunged an icy dagger of fear into her heart. "How is my husband?" Michelle asked.

"Please Mrs. Shipley, if you all please follow me I'll be happy to brief you..."

The dagger twisted in her chest and she felt she couldn't breath. Her fear had now come true, he was gone, she could feel that he was gone by the way this Doctor looked at her with pity and sorrow. She hated the woman for her pity. "He died! He's dead isn't he?"

"Mom!" Erin said surprised and rushed to her Mother. "Please, let's just go to the room and..."

"No. If my husband is dead then I have the right to know before they shuffle me off to some secluded room."

The Doctor went to Michelle and took her by the hand and underneath the arm. Michelle looked frightened and miserable. Her eyes were squinted as if expecting a blow to the head from some unseen assailant. Doctor Cole leaned in and gently told Michelle, "Your husband is alive and in the recovery room." Michelle's legs gave out and she began to breathe in great gasps. The Doctor was had wisely foreseen this and supported her slumped body. Randall too rushed to her side to help support her. Michelle wept tears of thankfulness, as did Erin and Beth as they allow themselves to be lead to a conference room.

The door closed behind the last of them and Doctor Cole asked them all to have a seat. All sat except Michelle. Doctor Cole noted this but did not let it interrupt her briefing. She had a seat in a vacant chair and addressed the family.

"Hi, as I said I'm Doctor Cole. I assume that you are his daughters and his son?"

Randall spoke up. "I'm just a friend of the family. If you'd like me to leave..." But before he could finish Beth reached up and took his hand.

"You stay. You're as much a part of this family as any of us." Randall nodded and stood quiet.

"Fine then," said Doctor Cole. She looked up at Michelle, "Your husband was suffered a pretty severe wound to his chest." Michelle nodded. "I have to be honest here, we were not optimistic when he arrived." Michelle tried to suppress tears by looking up at the ceiling and swallowing. At length, she looked back at Meredith and the Doctor continued. "Let me tell you what's happened and then we'll talk about his chances. It may put things into perspective for you. First there was severe damage to his right lung. So much so that we were forced to remove it." The collective gasp from the family was heart breaking. "Let me finish before you pass judgment on his chances. I actually think they are much better than you might imagine. But... You need to know what's happened, what you'll be seeing in the next few minutes when I take you back to see him and what you can expect."

Doctor Cole took a deep breath as the rest nodded in agreement with what she had said. "I'm afraid that your husband is going to lose the use of his right arm," she said to Michelle. "And the question of amputation is not dead yet. I can't give you false hope. He's in grave condition. He's lost a lot of blood and his body has been through a huge shock. There is always the risk of hospital-borne bacteria or viruses."

"Please stop. You make it sound like he has no chance at all," cried Michelle.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to and I know that the odds seem overwhelming. But having said that, I have every intention of doing my best at preventing anything I can from harming him any further. You have my promise on that. If he can escape any more surgery and starts to heal properly, there's no reason he can't make a reasonable recovery."

Michelle let out a hesitant laugh, "You're not serious!"

"Oh yes I am. In fact almost every patient runs the risk of some infection from clean room bacteria. But it's not as common as you might think. If we can save that arm, I think he'll be home in about three weeks."

Relief washed over Michelle's face. She wiped viciously at her tears trying to dry them and pull her self together. Michelle hitched in breath in shuddering fits of relief. "Can I see him now?"

"Yes you can all see him. One at a time though, but yes, if you like you can see him now. He's still hooked up to an oxygen machine and a glycerine drip and a few monitors. He's not conscious and the bandages will show the impression from the surgery. Be prepared for that. It's not pretty. But if you're ready then follow me and I'll take you to him."

  _         _         _         _ 
(_)   _7  (_)   _7  (_)   _7  (_)
  +   (_)   +   (_)   +   (_)   + 

The old man watched as the boy that had been with Leese leave the house he knew to be the Shipley home. It's Michelle; remember that! Your Leese is waiting for you. Not much longer to wait now. Not much longer. The boy carried a small overnight bag with him. The man watched as the boy got in to the HOV and sped away, presumably back to the hospital where that poor Mr. Shipley was by now in surgery or dead.

Michaels had only just finished with the last of the three Transparencies when the news was released that Mrs. Shipley had come in to the station with evidence of her husband's innocence. That during the release process there had been an accident and Mr. Shipley had been accidentally wounded. Michaels didn't believe it however. He knew now what the SKIN's were for and why he had been instructed to make them. At least he knew why one had been made. He prayed he would be in time for Michelle to use one to save her dear husband. His heart broke for all of them. What was worse for Michaels was that he blamed himself for all of it.

He waited before getting out of the Cadillac and attempting to enter the Shipley's set of flats. On the stark white vinyl seat next to him was a sealed poly-box.

Soon Leese! I'm coming soon.

He got out of the car and removed the box from its spot on the seat. He walked to the door of the building and inserted a card into the security slot. Most locks worked on fingerprint technology but pass cards could be used for as a temporary pass through for guests that would be included in the permanent database of residents to a home or building. Ziven Rocov, true inventor of SKIN technology, attached a small interface to the card. The interface was attached to a small box. Ziven pressed a few keys on the box and it came to life for a second or two. When it had died down, the door popped open just slightly, he pushed the door open and stepped through.

He looked at the stairs and wished he had not disengaged the SKIN he had lived in for the last 70 years of his life. He had been old when he had donned it then. His body was quickly fading now and he feared he might die on the stairs delivering the package. He must not. Someone would find the box and his salvation would be lost. He began climbing the stairs.

The girl... Erin had promised him he would be with his Leese again, and with his darling Beth. He must not waver. He plodded up the stairs. His 145-year-old body was losing its strength quickly now. He should not have disengaged his SKIN. But the girl had said.

He stopped on a riser about half way up the stairs out of breath, "Never mind that now you old fool, get going before someone comes home and finds you here." He said in a thick Russian accent. But he knew that no one was going to find him here. He had seen the news on the VID. That nice man that only wanted help for his family was dying. Things could have been so different. He could have helped and the man's family would be in tact. But he had lost his temper that some other man had his wife.

Not your wife! She is not your wife.

He felt for the man named Gary Shipley. He had seen the look in his eyes when he hid the SKIN's active matrix. He knew it had been a mistake the minute he saw that lost look in his face. It reminded him of the look he had seen in the mirror years after Leese's death.

He would have made things right then and there if he could have. He tried to explain that he had been wrong but the child was hysterical and that poor man the woman had become had begun the complex process of dying with her SKIN in a dormant matrix. Mr. Shipley had lost his temper, he had become frightened and cowardly like the dog he felt himself to be. Nothing he did stopped the wheels from turning wildly out of control. And by the time they had found him Mr. Shipley had been arrested.

Now he was dying, and Ziven knew it was his fault. This could be his redemption. He had to hope they found it in time. The girl had told him she would, he could only hope she was right.

Ziven laboured up the stairs, box under his arm as his body began to fail. His kidneys had stopped functioning minutes after the active matrix of the SKIN had been disengaged, poisoning his blood. His blood cells were struggling to carry oxygen to the already failing systems of his body. Minerals and impurities were building up in the muscle tissue. The synapses of his brain were firing fewer and fewer signals to vital organs. He wheezed for breath and by the time he made the landing he was dead dog-tired.

He took special care to locate a place that would attract the attention of a resident hopefully Michelle, and not seem to out of place to anyone else as to inspire investigation. He found such a place next to an end table near the couch to his left as he entered the home. He slid the box next to the table's dust skirt that puddled up on the floor around the base of the table. Ziven set the box on the skirt partially in plain view. It looked as if it had been deliberately put out of the way by the residents of the home, out of the way until the person it was addressed to could get around to opening it. Satisfied that someone would see this box on the way out of the home, left quietly and piloted his beloved Cadillac back to the garage of his home/laboratory for the last time in his long and eventful life.

He arrived at the building that was his home and workplace when not at the plant. He walked the short distance from the garage to the kitchen where he ate his lonely dinner each night. And there was Stephen. He smiled and then saw the look in Stephen's face and knew something was wrong.

Stephen York had been a Special Agent for six years. He was one of eight that had graduated and gone, with no other training into the elite special services division for the Shop. Stephen York was an assassin.

His parents thought he was working as a policeman for the Treasury Department. They did not know that Stephen was responsible for the deaths of over six hundred people including two hundred and sixteen grade school children and the wife and child of a celebrated former Canadian leader and proponent for the normalization of diplomatic ties with the Federal States of America. Stephen was the most deadly government assassin since a well known Presidential operative back in the early 1970's.

Two years ago he was part of the caseload of officers assigned to watch Terrence Michaels and make sure he played as he was supposed to with his employers. It was a cushy assignment with very good pay given to York as a reward for seven extraordinary years of service for his country. There was only one catch. He could never kill Michaels. Michaels was most important to the SKIN's program. If such a thing were to ever happen, even accidentally, Special Agent York would find himself in an administrative position in the Federal Penitentiary installation on the moon Europa orbiting Jupiter.

Stephen understood. He was a bodyguard. That would not be a problem he had assured his superiors. He was good at everything he did. His superiors assured Stephen that they knew that and that's why he had been picked for this assignment. It was with this mission in mind that Stephen drew his FTazor when an old man seemingly wandered into the laboratory facility from the street while he, Stephen had been investigating to see why Terrence had not been answering his VID.

"How are you Stephen?" Ziven said, familiar with seeing Stephen in the lab unexpectedly nearly every day.

"How the hell do you know my name old man? And what the fuck are you doing here?"

"I don't..." then he remembered. He's seeing me, the real me. "Let me explain." Ziven was starting to back up.

"You don't know it gramps... but you just got yourself into a whole heap of trouble."

"Stephen. It's me, Terrence."

"Kiss my ass Terrence. That won't work but either way, you and he are going to share similar fates."

"Wait. You don't understand. You're making a mistake. The GAST storage is off line. That's how I was able to use my original body."

"Whatever Grandpa."

"Stephen, if I don't bring it back on line, thousands of agents will be trapped in their SKINS, permanently."

Stephen grew tired of what he thought were lies quickly. He withdrew an FTazor and pointed it at Ziven. This one looked different than his standard issue. Then he knew what the difference was. There was a small high-level step-up transformer on the power-cell of the Tazor. Ziven grinned, it was time to go. And it appeared he was going to have a traveling companion.

"Good night you old fuck. I'll send Terrence on his way as soon as he gets back. Keep your eye out for him."

There was an electric crack as fire leapt out of the electrodes and jumped to Ziven. Ziven went rigid and then fell over, his body cooked solidly into place, a charbroiled statue of an old man. The smell was atrocious and it made Stephen gag. Then without any warning thick two-inch Plexiglas panes fell down covering the windows and doors sealing them.

Confused, Stephen went to the door leading out to the garage and pushed on the panel that separated him from the outside. It was solid and sturdy. "Shit!" He reached for his hand VID and tried to turn it on but the power unit seemed to be shorted out. Upstairs there was a loud pop, and then the smell of smoke. He ran for the door to the stairs but in the hall on the lower floor the stairs were unusable. He raced to his left and into the lab where Michelle had been turned to Mike and then back to Michelle again. The 'Black Board' was on fire. The whole room was ablaze.

Stephen ran to window after window searching for a way out. He tried not to panic but the smoke and heat were building and he was going to start dying here in just a second if he couldn't get the fire windows open.

He searched for something to pry the window open and found a chair. Grabbing the chair he smashed it against the two-inch thick window. It had no effect. The flames would be smothered before long; he knew that. The fire would eat all the oxygen from the building but the smoke wouldn't dissipate for hours, he be dead long before then from smoke inhalation.

"Help!" he screamed at the window. He pounded on the thick Plexiglas surface. He could imagine the sound being dampened by its thickness. "God Damn it! Someone help me!" He spun on his heal searching the room that was rapidly filling with smoke searching for something that would spark an idea. "Jesus!" he cried in frustration pulling at his hair. He crouched low to the floor to avoid the smoke. "Help!" he screamed at no one.

In one last ditch effort he rose. Squared his shoulder to the door and ran with all his might at the shield. When he hit it, he felt his shoulder dislodge and crumpled to the floor writhing in pain, his shoulder sticking out behind him at a distorted angle.

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Ziven became conscious of the light in the room all at once. It had a darkened quality to it, almost shadowed as if the day had become suddenly overcast. Then the smell came to him, it was smoke. He had been right, the building ordinarily shielded the 'Black Board' for excessive electric stimulation. As with any thinking being, too much stimulation can result in an overload of sorts and that's exactly what the FTazor had caused here. With the overload the board, already unstable by nature, had exploded in flame.

He stopped and considered for a moment that if the 'Black Board' had caught fire that must mean... He looked down at his feet and there was the roasted body of an old man he only barely recognized as his own.

He began to become furious with Stephen. The son of a bitch had done it. Stephen had killed him. Before his anger could run away with him a voice out of the smoke caused him to pause and tremble.

There he was scratching and clawing at the fire windows. Good, he thought, let him perish! But pity filled his heart. Ziven, even forced to live as the man known as Terrence Michaels, was not a hateful man. He now did not wish this upon this man. He would go and try to open the fire windows.

Before he could make his way to the window's override control a voice from behind him called his name. "Ziven?" It asked softly.

He stopped, rigid and afraid to turn in the direction the voice came from. When he did, a form in the smoke began to move forward toward him. It took shape slowly. To Ziven however, he knew the shape and the form it would take when it finally materialized from the thickening smoke. There stood his beautiful wife. She was just as he had first met her, young with a look of innocence in her eyes that made her appear venerable but willing to try almost anything. "Leese?" It's just a dream, like so many you've had in the past, don't believe it. Just then a hand appeared at the side of his face and caressed his cheek. Gently the hand turned his head into the hand and tenderly kissed it's palm. His wife smiled that same soft warm smile he had remembered for so many lost years, the mirror image of the woman Mike Vello had become.

"I'm here my love." He felt his legs might not be strong enough to support his body. At the same time he felt he could float to heaven from her touch. "It's over now, our waiting is over." He suddenly understood why Erin asked that he turn off the active matrix to the SKIN. If he hadn't Stephen would not have been able to kill him and the girl could not have made good on her promise.

She kissed him gently on the mouth and he pulled his beloved to him. There was no smell of smoke, no acrid taste of the poisons that are released when man made things burn. Only the sweet perfume he remembered from the last time he had kissed her goodbye.

"Daddy!" He opened his eyes and turned to see his daughter racing out of the smoke with open arms to greet him. He opened his arms and she raced into them. "I missed you Daddy!"

"As I missed you, so terribly much," Ziven confessed. "You are both real. How long did I dream of this? She was right. I had doubt... but what did I have to lose. My soul? I had sold that many years ago. But now..." He was crying desperate tears of a man that that had found something needful that he had lost through an act of stupidity and might never recover. His tears were that of a man that had found out that the news of the death of his child had been a horrible mistake. He cradled his wife lovingly in his arms and kissed her. "I have you back! I shall not lose you again. Either one of you." Elicia shook her head no... he would not lose them again.

"It's time we move along Ziven." It was Erin. She was with them and he was very happy to see her.

"Thank you my little friend. Thank you for..." But Erin held up a hand and stopped him.

"We must leave now Ziven. It's going to get bad for him. I don't think you want to watch," said Erin.

"We can't help him?" asked Ziven.

"No, it's now his time to die, and this is how he must do it. There is a price to be paid for everything. This is the cost of his sins."

As they moved Ziven tried to introduce his wife and child to Erin. "Yes, we've met," Erin said. "Remember?"

"You have? Of course you have..." Ziven said as they moved off into the smoke and vanished.

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Michelle had not slept more than an hour at a time in more than seventy-two. She had not eaten since the shooting. Erin and Beth were now terribly worried about her. A body can only take so much abuse, even an engineered body. Michelle's green eyes were looked glazed and clouded over. The sockets had taken on a distinctly raccoon appearance with dark circles forming deep along the boarder of her eyes. She was often incoherent when she spoke and seemed lost and confused.

Both girls had tried to insist that she go home and get a bit of rest but she had steadfastly refused, "I won't leave him. He needs and wants me here, and here I'll stay. It's where I belong." Once she faltered and added, "I abandoned him once, Kit made me do it... I didn't want to. I thought I lost him then but I didn't. I won't do that again. You only get lucky like that once."

At one point Michelle woke from one of her catnaps to find Doctor Cole taking her pulse. After these brief moments of sleep she was usually alert for a few hours. She was surprised to see she was the focus of an examination. "I believe you've confused me with the patient." She smiled at Doctor Cole.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

"It's OK. I should be awake anyway, in case he needs me."

"No, actually you should be asleep," the Doctor said sternly.

Michelle was surprised at the Doctor's attitude. "I'm sorry?"

"You heard me. You're exhausted..."

"I'm just a little tired," Michelle insisted.

"What about the canary in your handbag?" asked good Doctor.

Confused, Michelle said, "I don't understand. What do you mean?"

"You were at the nurses station last night insisting that someone had taken the canary from your handbag and fed it to, and I quote, 'The fat bastard down the hall'."

Michelle blushed a wild and vivid colour of red. "Oh my God... I didn't."

"Good thing it was very late at night and normal visiting was over. Hallucination is a classic symptom of sleep depravation. You need rest Mrs. Shipley."

"I'm so embarrassed. I guess I haven't been getting as much sleep as I should. I'll lay down in the waiting room tonight and get some sleep on the couch."

"It's more than just that." Doctor Cole crouched down in front of the chair that Michelle was sitting in. "Michelle, can I call you Michelle?" Michelle nodded. "Michelle, you haven't eaten since you came in here. You only shower and then come back here and sit. At some point you're going to put so much stress on your body that you'll collapse. Waking you if you're needed will not be an option at that point. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"


"I can order you out of the hospital if I have to," Doctor Cole assured her.


Doctor Cole raised her eyebrows.

"You can't just make me go home," Michelle insisted.

"No, you're right, I can't." She turned and retrieved something off the table. Michelle surmised that she had brought it in with her. "I can't make you eat anything either."

"Look, I'm just not hungry."

"I know. You've been through a terrible shock," said the Doctor who suddenly grabbed her arm and applied a vaccine-pump to her upper arm and squeezed the trigger. "But I can make you get some sleep."

Michelle jerked her arm away but too late, she had been injected. "What the hell was that?"

"A mild sedative. Not enough to knock you out but enough to make it very hard to resist sleep," said Doctor Cole securing the vaccine-pump.

"Wh... Why would you do that to me?" Michelle asked sounding on the edge if hysteria. She worked the spot on her where the injection had gone in as if trying to work the serum out of her skin before it took affect.

"Your daughters and I are worried about you. That's why. So..." she said taking a deep breath, "I agreed to risk professional ethics and prescribe something for sleep."

"I can't go to sleep!" Michelle cried. "You have to give me something to counteract this stuff."

"Can't do that. That would be a violation of hospital policy. I prescribed something based on immediate need. You'll sleep for about ten hours or so, depending on how much sleep your body truly needs that is. When your done sleeping your daughter's will bring you back to the hospital."

"Back? I'm not leaving!" Michelle exploded. She could feel the sedative starting to work on her. She shook her head too clear the fog but it didn't work.

Erin and Beth moved in and took their mother under the arms and supported her. Michelle looked around confused. Mild sedative? Feels like she tranquilized me with rhino dope. "Please don't do this to me," she begged her girls.

"It's done Mother," Erin said asserting her authority, "You need sleep. You need food. We're taking you home and we'll bring you back as soon as you start taking care of yourself."

Beth looked in her mother's groggy eyes. "No one's trying to keep you from being with him. We're just trying to keep you alive too."

"If you only understooth the irony of thath statement you would laugh your selth silly, Beth." Michelle slurred as the sedative took hold of her.

Erin looked at Beth and said, "We have to get her to the HOV before we can't carry her. In her extreme state of exhaustion she's liable to just pass out anytime."

Michelle gave in. She was in no condition to fight, but she was not above pleading. "OK OK, you... you got me. I'll sleep. But leth me do it here! On that couth or in a chair."

"You're going home where we can get some decent food into you when you wake up."

"Michelle," Doctor Cole started. "If there is a change, we'll send a HOV for you. I promise that."

Michelle only blinked at Doctor. She had so much to say and no energy to say it. She allowed her self to be lead away. As they passed through the door she looked back and called out to her best friend. "I'm sorry Gary. Please... Pleaseth forgive me."

At home, Beth and Erin helped their mother upstairs and to bed. They removed her outer garments and eased her between the covers. Michelle was asleep before they left the room.

The two stood in the master bedroom looking down at their mother. She seemed so frail and innocent. Her youthful looks a constant in their lives and now it lent an air of vulnerability to her they had not before taken into account. Erin was the first to speak.

"Things are going badly now, aren't they?"

"Yeah, I'd say they're pretty bad right now. So yes, I guess that's a fair statement," Beth answered. Her voice was small and fragile sounding.

"No, that's not what I mean. There is more to this than you're telling me. More than Mom wants me to know. I won't violate your confidence to her. It's like Dad said, some times it's best to not know everything."

All her sister could do was nod agreement. She couldn't look at Erin, and Erin did look at Beth as she spoke. They both watched their mother as she slept an uneasy sleep alone in the bed she had shared with their father all their lives.

"Promise me one thing please," Erin asked.

Beth looked up and took her sister's hand. "I'll try. I can do that."

"If you know something about how this is going to all turn out, please tell me if it's going to be all be OK." Erin sounded pitiful. It broke Beth's heart to hear her once strong sister reduced to pleading for reassurance.

Beth could say nothing. She simply held her sister's hand.

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The sun was shinning down warm on Michelle's face. In the air were a thousand sounds, the rustle of the leaves of the daises that seemed to grow everywhere, the buzz of bees that flew from flower to flower in search of nectar for the hive, the soft gentle breeze on the water of the near by lake making small ripples that would lap gently on the muddy shore line. Occasionally, a fish would slap the surface or a bird would twitter in a tree some where off in the distance.

She sat on a large rock, a boulder really, her brightly coloured yellow and orange sundress spread out on the rock covering her thighs. She felt pretty. She had spent the last two years as a woman she had long since stopped thinking of herself just female Her own daughter was almost one and today, at last she felt she understood what it was she'd been feeling all this time. Today she could truly say she understood the difference between what she had felt as a man and what she felt today as the person she had become. She smiled every so slightly at the idea as she smoothed out her dress on the rock, spreading it out so that it formed the shape of a bell with her legs sticking out of the center. Today she didn't care if there was no road back. She was in love and she was, in turn, loved herself, a new experience for her, at least on a personal level.

On the ground before her Gary was spreading a blanket on the ground where they could sit and enjoy the day and each other. Not far away was a picnic basket full of food they would probably never eat. Two bottles of chilled wine, Chablis, in a cooler next to that would probably not survive the day. Behind her a rowboat, part of the reason Gary had chosen this place. Perfectly old fashion and romantic, Michelle was thrilled.

She closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. "Michelle? Would you like a glass of wine?" Gary asked from somewhere behind her.

"Mmmmmm, Yes. That would be wonderful. Thank you." She felt dreamy. She understood the concept fully. If someone didn't tie her to this rock soon she would float away on the clouds. A thought occurred to her, Guys don't feel things like this. They may think they do but it's not this intense.

She was on the cusp of a revolutionary discovery when the air cooled and the quality of the daylight changed. A cloud passing by that's all, she thought. Then there was a hand on her shoulder.

"Your wine, little sister." Her eyes flew open and she spun around to see Erin standing there.

"No!" but she reached out and took the glass as she had that perfect summer afternoon, but instead of the clear golden Chablis the liquid was deep red. She brought it to her face to smell it and there was a coppery acrid smell to the glass. It was filled with blood. She threw the glass to the ground. It didn't shatter, but only drained of its contents.

Michelle searched for Gary but he was not there. The blanket he laid out was old and tattered. The picnic basket had fallen apart and the contents had rotted and lay strewn on the ground. "What's happening?" But there was no one there to answer her question. Erin was gone and the dream was not ending. She began to tremble. She wanted to flee to run away but she was held spellbound by what happened next.

The skies over her darkened even more and great lightening exploded from above making her flinch from the sound and light. The water on the lake pitched and splashed as if churned by some fierce tropical storm. But in the distance, the day was as tranquil as it had been for her just moments before. There, in the sunlight was a family of four, a man and his wife and a daughter and son. The all played happily together and enjoyed the day.

There was another enormous flash of light and the scene changed. Now the family was still there but there were five. A baby had been added and while three played the mother tended the baby, hold the baby's hands and encouraging him or her to walk, cuddling and loving the child. At times the boy or his obviously older sister would come and lie in the grass and play with child. Mom and Dad would sit and talk or kiss or hold hand or play with the child. All was in tune with the harmony of the cosmos.

The lightening again and now all were older, all except the woman, the wife. Two of the children had children of their own and the man who Michelle could see loved his grand kids seemed to feel uncomfortable. The wife would come to his side to comfort him but soon he would gently and tactfully pull away from her leaving his young wife looking hurt and dismayed. In time she gave up and resolved her self to spending time with her grandchildren. But they didn't know her as their grandmother. She couldn't here this but she knew it as sure as she knew her own name.

Another flash. The children were all much older now and one, the oldest daughter had grand children. They seemed to be having some sort of a family reunion. Neither of the original parents were there. An uneasy sense of relief flooded Michelle's heart. She knew what was going on here. She had been watching the road that could have been, that still might be. But as long as she could think that she would not outlive her children then... It was during this thought that she caught movement behind a tree not far away from this family reunion.

Her hand flew to her mouth with the realization that it was her, Michelle, hiding behind the tree, watching her family, not daring to get close enough for them to see her.


"Yes Michelle!" She whirled around to see Erin standing there. "You'll want to see this."

"No, No I don't. Make it stop."

Erin sighed. "You've become such a wimp Michelle. Stand up and be a team player." Erin forcibly turned Michelle back to the scene and Michelle watched in horror as William looked around, spotted the still youthful Michelle behind the tree and made his way over to her. The other Michelle had tried to run but seeing she would have been spotted felt trapped and was soon caught by her now much older son.

Michelle marvelled at how much he looked like Gary. He took her hand and the other Michelle tried to pull away but he had her tight in his grip. She finally gave up and fell in to his arms sobbing. He spoke words to her that she could not hear from this distance and the other Michelle nodded.

The two were surprised when Erin's granddaughter ambushed them. Michelle turned to hide her face but William turned her to face the little girl, introduced the two, Michelle doubted that William had told the little girl who she really was, a friend perhaps. Michelle watched as her twin giggled through tears with delight at being this close to her blood. But then Erin was calling and William called over that they were playing hide and seek, they would be back in just a sec.

Then he was taking to his mother again and Michelle knew he was saying goodbye. The other Michelle bent and kissed the little girl and the girl gave Michelle a huge hug and ran off to join the family. William hugged his mother, kissed her on the cheek and turned and walked away.

The other Michelle rubbed at the spot on her cheek where her son had kissed her. She broke out in silent sobs turned and ran away.

The lightening flashed once more and there was Beth. Michelle blinked in confusion. What was Beth doing in her dream? "Don't wait too long Mom," Beth said. "Don't wait!"


Something's wrong here.

"Mom, wake up."

"Mmmmmm..." groaned Michelle groggily.

"Mom! You have to wake up." Michelle's eyes fluttered open. Just another dream.

"Thank God. Come on mom, we have to go," Beth said. Her face showed a myriad of emotions all at once

Confusion flooded her, "Don't wait for what Beth?" the phrase seemed familiar, almost like she had been told this once before but she couldn't remember. And now it seemed desperately important that she did remember.

Michelle sat up and realized she was in her own bed at home. "Oh God. Something's happened hasn't it," she said looking at Beth.

Beth said nothing at first and then pointed to the foot of the bed. "I got some clothes out for you. Hurry Mom."

"Tell me," Michelle demanded.

"On the..."

"Please Beth. Tell me now."

Beth lowered her head and said, "He's got an infection. A bad one."

"How long?"

"Mom," she turned to her mother. "We only just now found out. I came and woke you up right away. But Erin says it's bad."

"What did Doctor Cole say?" Michelle asked pulling on the sweat pants her Beth had laid out for her. She could tell Beth didn't want to answer. "Honey, Please tell me." But instead Beth burst into tears, Michelle knew what the answer to her question was. Gary was dying. You're not just a team player now. You're the team leader. Remember to act like it.

Michelle held Beth and whispered to her. "This is not your fault. You know that don't you? This is not your fault."

"We have to go Mom." Beth said wiping her eyes. Michelle nodded. They raced down the hall and Beth said, I'll pull the HOV around and meet you down stairs. Beth took off and got the HOV while Michelle looked for her purse. She hadn't been coherent when she arrived it could be anywhere. She was just about to forget the whole idea when she spotted the purses strap laying on a box stuffed under an end table next to the couch. She yanked the purse off the box and started for the door when a small piece of paper fluttering to the floor caught her attention, she shoved it aside but it stuck to her shoe. She bent to collect it, swearing a little as she did, and saw writing on it. It said simply, "Please forgive me."

She turned, reluctant to waste any time but unable to resist the call to see what was in the box. She pulled the box out and flipped open the rigid top. Inside was a hand written piece of paper. She unfolded it and scanned it quickly, her eyes widening as she did. Michelle shoved the paper into her bag and reached into the box and removed one poly-bagged item. She shoved that as well into her bag and raced for the door.

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The hospital room where Gary lay was chaos. Erin was parked outside in a chair alone and looking terrified. When she said Michelle and Beth she her face lit up with the relief akin to the kind that must be felt by marooned sailors when a ship is spotted on the horizon and they realize that it's headed their way. Rescue is imminent and no longer just a dream.

Erin had taken Shelly to the hospital during her shift so Michelle wouldn't be awakened by the child's playful behaviour if she woke up before her Mother. The young girl had been seated beside her older sister when she jumped off the chair and ran to her mother. Michelle scooped her up in her arms smiling. "Hi muffin."

"Hi Mommy," she said with a bright smile. Then her look turned grave and she said. "Daddy's sick."

"Yes, that's what Beth told me."

"Is Beth going to stay with us forever?"

Beth cast her eyes down to the floor. Michelle said, "You know, I have a feeling that Beth will probably want to go home some time soon. You would want to go home if you were away for a ng time wouldn't you?"

"I like Beth." The child turned to Beth who was clinging to her mother. "Please stay with us, you could be my sister and I guess you could be Erin's sister too."

Beth leaned in and kissed the girl on the cheek. "Thanks, I'll think about it. How's that?"

Shelly looked as if she were deep in thought and consideration and then cheerfully said, "OK." and giggled.

Michelle turned to Erin. "How is he?"

Erin shook her head, "Not good Mom. This thing even surprised the Doctors. We were afraid you weren't going to make it."

Don't wait too long!

"Can you go to Bet, Shelly?" Michelle asked and her daughter nodded cheerfully. Beth took the child and sat adding only on statement.

"I would like to come in before..." she tried to finish but fell silent. Michelle nodded her understanding and disappeared inside the busy room.

"Mrs. Shipley, if I can take just a second of..."

"How is he?" Michelle asked. Emotionally she seemed much stronger than when Doctor Cole had seen her before.

"Well, as I was about to explain. We're doing everything we can to get him to respond to antibiotics. But these hospital-borne bacteria...

"I don't want to be rude Doctor, but I know where you're going and I don't blame you or your team. I just need to know how he is."

"He will not live through the night."

Michelle nodded seemingly already knowing the outcome. There were no displays of emotion or tantrums. She sat in the chair where her vigil had started looked on her husband's body and sighed. The reality of this new situation was more than she was ready for. She was shaken to the very foundation of what she knew as life. If Doctor Cole were right, Gary would not regain consciousness even to say goodbye. If this was the end then she had to get rid of medical staff to do what she had to do. No one could see what she felt was now her only hope.

"Can I get you something Mrs. Shipley?"

Michelle looked up, smiled but said nothing and went back to looking on her husbands face. At length she asked. "Without further treatment how long will he live?"

Doctor Cole and the assisting physicians looked at each other surprised but Doctor Cole answered the question. "This is just a guess, but I would say that his body would give out in about five hours or so."

"Could you all please leave then. My family and I would like to have a little time with him before the end."

"Mrs. Shipley... this is not a wise request. There is still hope..."

"Hope? You said yourself, he won't live through the night," Michelle said flatly.

"Mrs. Shipley... I encourage you to reconsider..."

"Please send the girls in when you leave." She was done. She had said all she had to say. The staff looked at each other and then began to collect the articles of machinery and chemicals they had brought with them. They stabilized Gary as much as possible before leaving and left.

The three girls came in slowly, unbelieving bewildered looks on their faces. Michelle smiled a weak smile as they came in. Erin asked, "Is that it? They all left?"

"They can't do anything else for him,." she confirmed.

The girls gathered around the bed, Michelle stayed in her. After an hour of adjusting sheets, his hair and generally attempting to do things that felt were making him comfortable, they eventually settled in to wait. None of them wanted to admit what was happening. No one wanted to be the first to actually say goodbye. But in time Michelle began to fidget. The timing was crucial and she was running out of it. No one could know what she was about to attempt. She didn't even know if it was right. If it would be what Gary would want. It was a selfish act.

Michelle brought out and unfolded the piece of paper she found in the poly-box in the living room. It offered her hope where there was currently none. But it was a dangerous move. These things had been nothing but trouble for her family.

Trouble? Is that what you're calling your life?

She shook her head against the game her brain was playing. No one could say for sure how her life would have been had she not followed the crowd to the warehouse that night and been changed from a man to woman permanently in just a few seconds.

But now someone was showing her what her life would be like if she didn't make this choice. Hesitant as she was the fear of living out what she saw gave her enough motivation to at least think about doing the unspeakable. It gave her pause to consider using a SKIN on Gary to save his life.

He will never forgive you. You know that don't you?

And immediately on the heels of that thought was...

He'll have eternity to find it in his heart to try.

And that, she mused, was the crux of the fear was it not? Spending, what... one hundred, five hundred, hell, five thousand years alone without him? How long really? Could she bear that and remain sane. She was content with this life only because of Gary and the children he had given her. Without him she would most certainly have gone wildly insane at this point. It would have gotten worse when he grew old and died and she remained trapped and forever young.

Her eyes fell to the note that had been penned on the paper. It read...

My Dearest Leese,

Please forgive me. I know this is not the name you go by but it is all I know you by, you will have to humour this old fool. How I miss your touch, your warm and beautiful smile. It is for this reason I offer you this gift.

I saw the unfortunate events that I have brought upon your house on this evening's News VID. Before you react let me start by saying that yes, these are what you perceive them to be. Before you make a judgment, let me explain that these are called 'transparencies'. They leave the genetic structure of the person inside intact. They also have the ability to heal devastating illness and wounds. I believe your Mr. Shipley will be in need of one of these. I would like to caution you that these are programmed just as yours is. They cannot be fully removed. For those in transparencies there is no risk for 'Transformation Regression' which in all probability would have killed you because of the amount of time you have now been Leese. There is no other existence for you now.

I offer these gifts to you to atone for my sins against your family, and as a bargain to once again be in your loving arms. I understand how your Mr. Shipley must feel for you and it is for this third reason that I do this. The remaining two 'Transparencies' are for your other children when they are old enough to decide for themselves if they want immortality.

All my love,



"Children." Michelle whispered. All three turned away from the bed where Gary lay still and seemingly lifeless except for the subtle sound of slightly laboured breathing. "I need some time with your father. I want to say... what I have to say to him in private."

Erin scooped up Shelly and started to leave the room but Beth hung back. "What was that letter you were reading." Michelle raised her eyebrows as if to say 'What letter.' "I saw you reading it."

"Just a letter from a friend. Please now, let me be alone with your father." Michelle said and kissed Beth on the forehead. Outside the room Michelle could hear Erin chatting with someone. It was the business of the activity that was a blessing. It was a distraction from the imminent. There would be time enough to grieve in just a short few hours. If this didn't work there was no need to go that country until one absolutely must.

Beth stopped at the door. She turned and took one last long look at the pale figure on the bed that she knew as her father. She would not be able to grieve for him publicly the way the rest of her family would. She was going to have to learn to be strong now. Beth turned and walked out of the room and joined Randy, Erin and Shelly in the waiting room.

Michelle turned to her own granite pillar that had somehow been brought down. She knelt beside the bed and whispered to him.

"What do I do Gary?" she put her forehead against the metal guard on the side of the bed and waited for an answer she knew would never come.

"I stayed for you. Maybe not willingly at first but I stayed." She paused. "Gary please... Don't leave me. I can do a short time without you... but not forever." She pulled the SKIN from her purse and clutched at it.

"What if I do this and you hate me? Would you hate me Gary? I couldn't live with that either. Oh God give me a sign, something here. I love him so much. Why did you do this to us?"

But there was nothing. She thought and struggled with herself and finally chose.

She pulled the poly-pack off the SKIN and slowly worked off Gary's bedclothes. He was conveniently nude beneath. She worked on the SKIN, praying that if this worked Gary would not grow resentful and wind up hating her for this. She mumbled as she worked. "Please forgive me Gary. Please... Please forgive me." When she reached the monitoring lines and IV tubes that were attached to his arms she hesitated for only a second. Realizing she was rapidly running out of time she decided to ignore the lines. He was dying if she didn't hurry it wasn't going to much matter what was there.

She finally pulled the milky white fabric over Gary's face and for one horror struck moment she felt she was looking into the face of a man in burial shroud. Gary's features were barely discernible beneath the fabric.

"See you soon my love." She kissed him through the fabric and put the shiny metal buttons together behind his neck.

Michelle's only personal experience with a SKIN was the one she had remained locked in until the 'Good Doctor' had deactivated the matrix of hers. Her experience had been traumatic and painful. But then her SKIN had reconfigured her gender. She had no idea what to expect with this SKIN that presumably would emulate the same sex as the wearer. For one terrifying moment she wondered what she would do if there had been a mistake and she had just put a female SKIN on Gary as well. But with a brief ruffle, as if a warm breeze had blown over the fabric, it melded into Gary's flesh and was gone. It had adhered and bonded to only the organic matter that was part of Gary's body. She breathed a sigh of relief and then all hell broke loose.

Michelle was startled by the long, loud and monotonous sound of the heart monitor as it went flat-line. She stared blinking at it knowing full well what it meant but unable to move or do anything about it. Other monitors hooked up to follow his status started to follow suite. One by one EEG and other systems showed the patient going off line.

The medical team that had been here working on Gary when Michelle had arrived rushed in with their crash cart and team of life trauma experts.

Doctor Cole took the confused Michelle Shipley by the shoulders and gently but firmly moved her aside and asked. "Please, Mrs. Shipley. You'll have to wait outside."

"No, wait, please tell me what's happening," Michelle asked but hoped somehow that if she asked, the diagnosis would somehow miraculously change.

"Please Mrs. Shipley. No more talk. Outside."

She was escorted out by an orderly and the door was closed. Guilt filled her. Was this her fault? Had she precipitated this condition or at least aggravated it? She fretted and feared as she watched the doctors and nurses work.

Finally after what seemed to be forever Michelle watched as Doctor Cole looked at the digital clock inset in the bedpost and call the time of death.

Up to now she had been as calm as one could expect a person to be. Now however, it was over. She was alone, without her love. Her children would grow up, grow old, die and leave her as well. She was trapped in this body and walking through time with no one. It was no longer the gender but the fact that she understood she would never age. She would be twenty for the rest of her life, and that the rest of her life was eternity. She was petrified with the terror of it. He can't be gone, not like that. Not without saying goodbye. No Nooooooooo! the thought translated into a single long drawn out cry.

"Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!" she charged the door screaming. Two orderlies caught her before she got to the bed.

"Let me go! Letmego!" she thrashed and shouted and tried to free herself from their grasp. She slapped at the faces of the orderlies but the deflected her blows as they would flies at a picnic. The children had gathered at the door were stunned to see Michelle acting so wildly. None of them were completely aware exactly what had happened.


"Mrs. Shipley. Please..."


"He's gone," the Doctor stated.

"No, you shut up!" she said turning on Doctor Cole.

"Gaaaaaarrrrrryyyyy! Oh God! No... Please. Letmego!" She turned and pleaded with Doctor Cole. "You don't understand. He's not supposed to be dead." There was an audible gasp from behind her and one of the girls started crying. "It wasn't too late... I couldn't have been too late! Gary! Wake up for Christ's sake!"

At last she did break free and she lurched to the bed. She ripped the sheet off the body of her husband but he was still. She touched his face but his skin had started to cool. She recoiled as if she had touched something inhuman. "Gary," she whispered taking his face in her hands once more, "Please my love, open your eyes. Don't leave me out here all alone." She kissed his face repeatedly. "Gary! Wake up," she demanded. "This is not funny anymore. Gary Alan Shipley that's enough."

She cried a desperate cry and brought one fist down on his chest. The body convulsed from the shock of the impact but there was no movement. "Gary! Wake up!" she screamed at him her nose nearly touching his.

The orderlies were back, their hands on her shoulders pulling her away. "It's time to let us take him Mrs. Shipley."

She looked at the doctor clearly confused. "Where?" she asked disjointed. No one answered. No one wanted to say 'the morgue' out loud. It was just too soon for that.

"Mommy?" cried a teary voice. It was Shelly. She went to her daughter and took her from Erin who had been holding her. "Don't cry Mommy." Michelle held her daughter tight. She then pulled away and saw her own face in her young daughters. The likeness was unmistakable. She touched the delicate little face with her fingers outlining her features. She smiled a teary smile at Shelly and Shelly collapsed into her arms. Her other two daughters closed ranks around their mother and all four women wept at their loss.

"Mom?" Beth asked. "What now?" Michelle did her level best to retrieve the dignity she had lost during her tantrum. She sighed a heavy sigh with enormous guilt and grief building within her. She didn't want it coming out here. Not again. So she said the only thing she could think of to say.

"We go home." There were things to do, people to notify a service to plan. She would at least send him out with a ceremony that would leave no doubt in anyone's mind just how much she loved him. She would start by tearing down that ridiculous statue of Mike Vello on the campus grounds and erecting one with Gary's likeness on it.

Beth handed Michelle a tissue. She dabbed her eyes she said, "We've done enough damage here. Let's go home." She could almost hear Gary saying, 'That's my girl.' Michelle turned to the doctors and orderlies, "I... I'm sorry," she croaked, "I'm..." She shook her head embarrassed. The staff said nothing. They all looked sympathetic and nodded and in the end all she could do was gather her daughters around her and didn't look back. It's what Gary would have said he would have wanted. It would have been a lie but he would have said that. So I'll do it because I love you so. Goodbye my love, and thank you for everything. The emotion of the moment was seemed more than she would be able to take. Her heart broke into a billion pieces as she walked away. She never imagined it would all be over so soon and she was certain that she would not live through it, but as each minute passed she would think. I'm still here. I'm still OK. That's what her life had been reduced to, living second by second. She would have to see what an entire minute brought. She remembered another time when she had to count the minutes, convinced she would go insane, trapped in a woman's body as she had been. She wished she had known then there was worse, much worse.

The group turned the corner and walked out of the building to the HOV. Everything that had to be signed had been signed before Gary's surgery.

Back in Gary's room nurses prepared the body for removal. Gary's corps was placed on a gurney and wheeled out to the elevator. One hand slipped out from under the sheet and was delicately placed back under on his chest under the sheet. There was a great deal of respect for this man who had taken this bullet and great care was taken out that respect.

The nurse pulled the sheet down as the elevator arrived. Before she could move the gurney into the box Gary's hand once more slipped from beneath the sheets. This happened three more times before his body was finally placed in a refrigeration unit in the morgue.

The door to the small cold space closed with a solid and final thud. Inside the dark Gary's body began to chill to a temperature that would prevent decomposition until the autopsy. The family that Gary had loved so prepared for life without him. Outside the hospital Randy lifted the family's HOV slowly and with out deliberation into the air. There was no hurry; none of them really wanted to go home. Inside the morgue it was silent, silent, silent.

Skin Deep chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Skin Deep II foreward chapter 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
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